Hell or High Water (2016)

2017 #19
David Mackenzie | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Hell or High Water

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
4 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing.





The line between right and wrong, legal and illegal, is blurred once again by the writer of Sicario in this tale of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) committing a series of bank robberies for reasons beyond greed, and the two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) hunting them down.

I don’t think it would be unkind to describe Hell or High Water as a genre picture: it’s a crime thriller about bank robbers and the police out to catch them, with its setting and tone also bringing something of the Western — or, rather, neo-Western. (It bugs me a little when people refer to films not set in the Old West as “Westerns”, because that seems an inherent part of the genre to me. Naturally, the term “neo-Western” has already been coined, and I feel it’s one we should start using more widely.) There is something more to it than that though, which might explain its slightly incongruous presence among 2017’s Best Picture nominees. In part it’s a social drama, the characters’ motivations based in very topical concerns, including their plan that represents a form of revenge against the banks who have it coming.

Pair of crooks

In another part it’s a character drama. Indeed, the acting is the best part. Jeff Bridges subsumes himself in the character, an old lawman on the verge of retirement, but still sharp and capable, who won’t know what to do with himself once he’s put out to pasture — this is his last great hurrah. He got all the plaudits because he’s Jeff Bridges, but it doesn’t feel massively outside his wheelhouse. Conversely, Chris Pine is practically a revelation. Best known for leading blockbusters, here he convinces as a father who’s finally trying to do the right thing for the future of his kids, whether that thing is legal or not. When these two finally come face to face, it’s nail-biting. That’s to do no disservice to Ben Foster, as Pine’s wildcard brother, who perhaps has less honourable intentions; or Gil Birmingham as a fellow Ranger, who Bridges spends most of the film mercilessly teasing, though it turns out conceals an underlying affection for his friend.

Credit is also definitely due to director David Mackenzie, who certainly has an eye for a shot and a way with constructing an action sequence, for which credit must also be due to editor Jake Roberts. Similarly to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who evokes a dusty West Texas with its own kind of sandblasted desolate beauty.

Pair of cops

Hell or High Water is a very good film, a neo-Western crime thriller genre movie that is exceptionally well directed, shot, and performed. Yet somehow it feels out of place among the Best Picture nominees — like, it’s not that good. Of course, Oscar has a long history of nominating films that aren’t good enough, and Hell or High Water is better than most of them. So while I don’t feel I can stretch to giving it five stars, I certainly recommend it highly.

4 out of 5

Hell or High Water is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

Advertisements

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

2017 #57
Antoine Fuqua | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Magnificent Seven

Despite sharing a title and setting, this second Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is almost as different from The Magnificent Seven (1960 version) as that was from the original. Maybe that’s over-egging the point, but The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is certainly not just a straight-up do-over of the popular Western classic.

The broad sweep of the plot is the same: a small town is being terrorised by a local big-man and his gang, so they hire a septet of down-on-their-luck warriors to defend them. Here, said town has been relocated to America (from Mexico in the ‘original’), and the characterisations of the seven gunslingers have been struck afresh rather than recreated, albeit with some near-unavoidable similarities to the previous seven.

What you want to see in the film affects whether these changes are sizeable or not. As I said, the basic shape of the plot remains untouched, with the defenders recruited one by one, training up the townsfolk, and then engaging in a lengthy climactic battle when the bad guys return to town. So at a story level it works as well as this tale ever has, with the same pros and cons for its characters: with so many principals some get shortchanged on screen time, but they’re a mostly likeable bunch. In the lead roles, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke are decent modern stand-ins for Yul Brynner, Steve Martin, and Robert Vaughn (respectively, more or less), though of course that varies depending on your personal like or otherwise for the actors in question.

The magnificent action

Looking to the combat, the film is again similar but modernised. The action scenes are slick, well choreographed and littered with dead bodies and big explosions, rather than the slightly off-the-cuff style of older action films. Framing it as a few-against-many last-stand skirmish, the film constructs the finale as a battle with strategies and tactics, ebb and flow, rather than an everybody-run-at-everybody-else free-for-all. That seems to be the way movies are going with their depiction of large-scale conflict, and I think that’s a good thing.

Where the remake’s changes have most impact is if you want to consider the film politically. The town in need of defending has been switched from a Mexican village to an American outpost, a symbol of good honest hard-working folk trying to establish a life for themselves. The villains terrorising them have been switched from a Mexican criminal gang to a power-hungry businessman, with a group of heavies and the local sheriff in his pocket. The seven encompass a greater deal of racial diversity: a black leader, a Mexican fugitive, an Asian knife-thrower, a Native American archer… The other three are white guys, but that doesn’t negate the point. In our modern political climate — particularly in the US — there’s a lot of different stuff to unpack there.

The diverse seven

I’m not sure the issues in question really need spelling out, so I’m slightly more curious how much of it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, and how much an incidental side effect of changes they made just to differentiate the film from the 1960 version. Frankly, I don’t think the movie is interested in making any big political points — you can’t reasonably deny those readings are there, but it’s all subtext (whether intentional or, I think more probably, accidental) to be analysed by those who are interested. I think director Antoine Fuqua and co were more concerned with creating an entertaining action movie than a political tract, and I think they’ve achieved that.

Judged as such, The Magnificent Seven probably isn’t at the forefront of its form, but it’s mostly a rollicking good time. And, as if to cement what I was writing recently about my preferences generally erring towards modern cinema, I actually enjoyed it more than the 1960 one.

4 out of 5

The Magnificent Seven is available on Netflix UK from today.

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

2017 #20
Ti West | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

In a Valley of Violence

The spirit of the Spaghetti Western is alive and well in writer-director Ti West’s shoot ’em up; though where they once took inspiration from samurai movies, now Mr West has his sights set on modern-day gun-fu movies — specifically, here he retrofits John Wick into a familiar Old West narrative.

On his way to Mexico with just his horse and dog Abby for company, drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) passes through an almost-deserted town, where he ends up in a fight with wannabe-tough-guy Gilly (James Ransone). It turns out Gilly is the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), but he considers the matter settled and lets Paul move on, ordering his son to leave it be. A shamed Gilly has a different opinion, however, leading his gang of friends to assault Paul in the dead of night. But as is the way with halfwit villains, they leave our hero alive, ready for him to ride back into town and exact his vengeance.

If you come to movies looking for an original storyline, you’ll be disappointed here — as I say, it’s basically John Wick in the West (if you’ve seen that Keanu Reeves actioner, you’ll already know the outcome of Gilly’s revenge on Paul). The devil is in the details, however, and in that respect In a Valley of Violence is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the biggest mark in its favour is its sense of humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but Gilly’s gang are borderline incompetent in a way that’s increasingly laughable.

Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the West?

Travolta gets in on the act as a man who seems very much in control of his own little kingdom, but when things truly kick off he’s somewhat caught in the middle. Thankfully he’s not just the bullying villainous type, instead getting a nicely balanced reaction to events: he knows Gilly’s done wrong, but stands by him because he’s his son; but when Paul’s pushing comes to shoving… well, familial loyalty only gets you so far.

As Paul, Hawke finds some degree of complexity in the (anti-)hero, but this isn’t exactly a movie built for psychological complexity. Taissa Farmiga is positioned as the love interest, but thankfully isn’t entirely reduced to such a thankless role. As her sister, Karen Gillan reminds us that, while she may be best known for brightly-coloured sci-fi on screens both big and small, her roots are in comedy. But the biggest star is, of course, the dog. You can’t help getting attached, even when you know you’re watching John Wick of the West.

The dog's the star

The film offers many stylistic nods to remind us of its Spaghetti inspiration, like the starkly animated title sequence, or Jeff Grace’s Morricone-riffing score, which some criticise for its obviousness but I thought was fun. It even comes through in the film’s structure, with a slow-burn first half that reminded me of Leone’s attitude to action. Some complain of the pace there, or lack of it, but I rather liked that. It partly functions as a deliberate delaying of gratification: the main reason we’re here is for the bloody vengeance we know will eventually be coming, but West carefully sets the scene and gradually puts characters in place early on so that the second half can more fully concentrate on the violence. The wit is kept alive even then, with more than one of the deaths provoking at least some laughter.

The more I write about it, the more I wonder if this film is something of an acquired taste. It’s not out-and-out comical enough to be classed as a comedy, but action die-hards may feel the lighter elements undermine the violent thrills they seek. I thought it worked, but experience has taught me that I’m more accepting than most of such tonal mash-ups.

Cool cowboy

Despite the plot similarities, In a Valley of Violence isn’t going to challenge John Wick for ultra-choreographed action satisfaction, but it has many aspects to recommend it for those who like a chuckle alongside their bloodshed.

4 out of 5

In a Valley of Violence is released direct to DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on 6th March.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from today.

Serenity (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #82

They aim to misbehave.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 29th September 2005 (Australia)
US Release: 30th September 2005
UK Release: 7th October 2005
First Seen: cinema, 7th October 2005

Stars
Nathan Fillion (Waitress, Super)
Summer Glau (The Initiation of Sarah, Knights of Badassdom)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, 12 Years a Slave)

Director
Joss Whedon (Avengers Assemble, Much Ado About Nothing)

Screenwriter
Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Toy Story)

Based on
Firefly, a TV series created by Joss Whedon.

The Story
In the far future, a crew of renegades harbour a fugitive who knows a terrible secret about the totalitarian rulers. When a ruthless assassin comes for them, their only hope becomes to seek out the truth behind one of the regime’s darkest acts…

Our Heroes
The crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity. Led by Captain Mal Reynolds, they’re a gang of rogues and thieves, but are also honourable sorts (well, mostly) forced into that life by a harsh universe. They’ve recently taken onboard Dr Simon Tam and his mysterious sister, River, who has certain skills…

Our Villains
The Operative, an efficient and moral assassin sent by the Alliance, the universe’s ruling body, to retrieve River — at any cost. But if he’s the rock then there’s also a hard place: Reavers, bloodthirsty perverted cannibals who stalk the uncharted regions our heroes will need to venture into.

Best Supporting Character
Shepherd Book, a preacher and former member of Serenity’s crew, now living on the appropriately-named planet of Haven. Has some very insightful words of advice for Mal.

Memorable Quote
“I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.” — Shepherd Book

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Shiny” — as a synonym of “great”.

Quote Most Likely To Be Found on a T-Shirt
“I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar.” — Wash

Memorable Scene
After the history-lesson-within-a-dream-within-a-hologram-within-a-scene pre-titles, Whedon introduces us to the crew and their titular ship with a four-and-a-half-minute unbroken tracking shot. I do love a long single take, and this one excels by introducing us to all the main heroes, their personalities, their situations, their relationships — all at the same time — while also establishing the geography of the ship; and, by extension, the incredible set, which featured the entire interior of the ship built across just two sections (there’s an invisible cut in the middle of the shot to transition between sets).

Technical Wizardry
I created this category to highlight any elements of production that were especially striking — things like cinematography, editing, design, costumes… No offence to any of them (and considering the film was produced for a slight-for-a-sci-fi-blockbuster $40 million, they all do a super job), but the real star is Whedon’s screenplay. Packed to the gills with the literate, witty dialogue he’s famed for, it also manages to be emotionally affecting, make points about governments and their power, engage with themes of belief and the importance of freedom, and weave in a subtext that reflects the real-life story of Firefly’s death and rebirth — though Whedon claims that last one was an accident.

Letting the Side Down
The public. It didn’t gross enough; there weren’t any sequels. Damn you, mankind!

Making of
Talking of the impressive Serenity set (see: Memorable Scene), it was built in the same way for Firefly, but the blueprints were lost between Fox destroying the series’ sets and production on the movie beginning. When Nathan Fillion learnt this at a production meeting, he was able to supply the blueprints himself — he’d been so excited to be on the show, he’d taken photos of all the pre-production material he’d seen, including the set blueprints.

Previously on…
Serenity continues and, to an extent, concludes Joss Whedon’s criminally short-lived TV series Firefly. Mismarketed by US network Fox, the series wasn’t a success on original broadcast, leading to cancellation after just 11 episodes had aired. Thanks to word-of-mouth and availability on DVD, it has developed a massive following since.

Next time…
Despite the distinct and disappointing dearth of sequels, the Firefly/Serenity franchise has continued on, mostly in the form of various comic books, which have plugged gaps in continuity, revealed long-awaited character histories, and even continued the story after the movie.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Supporting Actress (Summer Glau))
1 Saturn nomination (Science Fiction Film)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“With its Hawksian attention to group dynamics and its skilful definition of character through action, this supremely entertaining hybrid-movie plays like Rio Bravo in space. The textured narrative is peopled by precisely delineated characters who employ a salty retro-future-speak, in which twenty-fifth century slang is morphed with frontier Western archaisms (‘take umbrage’, ‘confound these bungers’). The settings and tone are hyper-real, yet the human behaviour is grounded and credible, the moral conflicts complex and involving. Shiny, intelligent fun.” — Nick Funnell, Time Out London

Score: 82%

What the Public Say
“We get a decent story, providing lots of action, a huge amount of wit and plenty of suspense. It’s extremely entertaining. It’s well written too, with information smartly hidden beneath breezy dialogue, and looks very cinematic. (The camerawork is often expressive and classy.) Maybe what’s most impressive is the economy. Many scenes are doing double-duty, servicing plot and character, action and exposition, drama and comedy… There’s just a sharpness to everything, which means the film rattles along and is never boring.” — Ian Farrington

Verdict

Regular readers may have picked up that I don’t re-watch films much (I can’t identify at all with people who claim to have seen the same film dozens or hundreds of times). Despite that, I saw Serenity in the cinema four times, two of them back-to-back. Such is the genius of writer-director Joss Whedon, and the quality of the Firefly universe — it’s a situation where every element just clicked to make a perfect result. (Well, every element except the original TV network, anyway.) No doubt Serenity is best viewed as a capper to the fourteen-hour TV series — that extra investment in the characters and universe makes the film’s best bits sing — but it’s accessible to newcomers also, being so cleverly structured and packed with all the information you’d need.

It was named “Film of the Year” by the BBC’s Film programme; it topped an SFX poll for the best science-fiction film of all time; and its DVD is a permanent resident on the International Space Station to entertain the crews. Cào nǐ, Fox.

#83 will… get busy living or get busy dying.

The Salvation (2014)

2016 #141
Kristian Levring | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Denmark, UK & South Africa / English, Danish & Spanish | 15 / R

The SalvationThe spirit of the Spaghetti Western is kept alive in this Euro-minded South Africa-shot revenge Western.

Danish settler Mads Mikkelsen finally brings his wife and son out to America, only for tragedy to strike, which pits him and his brother against a gang who are extorting the nearby town.

Thematically thin, familiarly plotted, and with visuals that occasionally belie low-budget roots, The Salvation somehow succeeds through a combination of filmmaking skill, a whip-fast running time, and a quality cast (Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Pryce, Douglas Henshall, and, er, Eric Cantona) who elevate the material just by turning up.

4 out of 5

Westworld (1973)

2016 #155
Michael Crichton | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG

WestworldWhen writer-director Michael Crichton hit upon the notion of a theme park where the future-science star attractions broke free of their shackles and endangered the lives of the guests, it was so good it served him twice: he replaced the initial murderous AI-powered robot cowboys with rampaging genetically-engineered dinosaurs and sparked a multimedia franchise of enduring popularity. His first attempt hardly faded into obscurity, mind, bedding in as a minor sci-fi classic that HBO has now seen fit to reboot as a TV series, which premiered on Sunday in the US and debuts in the UK tonight. I think this new version may be most welcome, because Westworld has a great concept but, when it comes to the original film, that’s almost all it has.

Set in the near future, the film follows two friends (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) as they visit an amusement park where you can live for a time in thorough recreations of either ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or the old West. It’s an immersive experience where you’re kitted out with era-appropriate clothing, stay in authentic lodgings, and the staff really believe it all — because they’re robots who’ve been programmed to do so, distinguishable from humans only by their imperfect hands. The film follow the chums through this process and the fun they have pretending to be gunslingers, though one of the robots (Yul Brynner, done up as the spit of his character from The Magnificent Seven) seems repeatedly antagonistic towards them, and, behind-the-scenes, the repair staff are baffled by some robots’ out-of-character actions.

Westworld doesn’t even reach the 90-minute mark, but even then there isn’t quite enough story to fill the running time. There’s a big dose of wish fulfilment in seeing Benjamin and Brolin getting to just enjoy the park — wouldn’t it be cool if this was real? Wouldn’t you want to go there? Though the price tag would put most people off: it’s $1,000 a day, which, factoring in inflation from 1973, means a two-week stay would now cost a little Face off, mk.1under $76,000, or about £58,200. The potential threat of the robots malfunctioning is built up gradually here and there, in asides from what our ostensible heroes are up to, and isn’t explained. There are nods to the fact the human staff don’t actually know how the robots work, but why should that be? Some of them were apparently designed by other robots, but how did the designing robots come about? Rather than explore any of its science fiction themes, the film just uses the basic idea to have the robots go on a killing spree right at the climax. This is something Crichton definitely turned around for Jurassic Park, where how it was done is explained and debated… and then the creations go on a rampage. Best of both worlds, that.

So this is where there’s space for HBO’s new version. I haven’t read too much about it (avoiding spoilers ‘n’ that), but given the long-form needs of TV I’m presuming it’s going to dig into the science a bit more. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan has already demonstrated an interest in the whys and wherefores of artificial intelligence through his last TV series, Person of Interest (which I’ve discussed in several of my monthly TV overviews), so I’m presuming it’s going to take Crichton’s broad idea but then be a little bit Ex Machina: The Series as well. Sounds good to me. Maybe this will be a reboot that pays off, because while the original film does offer Crichton’s superb concept, plus a few straightforward action/suspense thrills, it’s too slight to really deliver on the inherent promise.

3 out of 5

The new Westworld starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

2016 #152
John Sturges | 123 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

The Magnificent SevenDescribed in the booklet accompanying the Ultimate Edition DVD release as “the last great American western before Sergio Leone reinvented the genre,” The Magnificent Seven doesn’t feel as dated as that might make it sound. Famously, it’s a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — a technique Leone would pilfer for his first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, which is a do-over of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Leone did his without permission, resulting in a lawsuit that was settled out of court, whereas Magnificent Seven was a fully-licensed re-do. As you’d expect, it therefore sticks fairly closely to the events of Seven Samurai, albeit getting through them an hour-and-a-half quicker.

Of course, it’s relocated — not to America, but to Mexico, where a farming village is being terrorised by a gang led by Eli Wallach. A couple of villagers head to the border to buy some guns to defend themselves, but end up recruiting Yul Brynner to put together a band of gunslingers to help. With no significant pay on offer, his slim pickings are pre-fame turns from Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn, plus Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz.

Steve McQueen respondsWith even less screen time to go round than in Kurosawa’s original, the cast only get to provide thumbnail sketches of their characters. However, bearing that in mind, only Vaughn really feels shortchanged on time, while McQueen manages to steal every scene he’s in, even when he was supposed to just be in the background — much to Brynner’s annoyance. One reason this works is because the seven represent more or less the same things thematically, in some respects functioning as one hero character with seven parts. They are all unsettled drifters, good at killing but not at settling down; they have nothing to do but win and so be damned to go find another cause, or die trying. This is taken from Kurosawa’s film too, of course, but it fits just as well in its new setting, and the main scene where the seven discuss it is a definite highpoint of the movie.

Most of the action is saved for the big climax, a good old fashioned free-for-all that (like the rest) doesn’t quite have the epic scope of Kurosawa’s movie, nor the stylised discipline and suspense that would be Leone’s enduring contribution to the genre. I’ve yet to see this year’s remake, nor read too much about it, but I understand it’s changed the plot and characters a fair bit, and I imagine this is one area it’s really applied a new emphasis. Much has changed in what we expect from action movies, which is not to criticise the ’60s film, but more to observe that what once might’ve satiated an action fan’s thirst may no longer fit the bill.

Magnificent badassesThat’s not something that bothered me, but where I did find it suffering was in comparison to Kurosawa. While it has obviously been rejigged for its new setting, it’s not just borrowed the basic concept of seven violence-skilled loners defending a needy village, but rather retained all the bones of the samurai original. As with most remakes, it falters by not doing the same thing quite as well, for one reason or another. Still, if it is a faded copy then at least it’s of one of the greatest films ever made, which leaves it a mighty fine Western in its own right.

4 out of 5

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #67

There were three men in her life.
One to take her…
one to love her…
and one to kill her.

Original Title: C’era una volta il West

Country: Italy, USA, Spain & Mexico
Language: English and/or Italian
Runtime: 166 minutes (international) | 145 minutes (US theatrical) | 175 minutes (Italy)
BBFC: A (cut, 1969) | 15 (1989) | 12 (2011)
MPAA: PG (1969) | PG-13 (2003)

Original Release: 21st December 1968 (Italy)
UK Release: 14th August 1969
First Seen: DVD, c.2003

Stars
Claudia Cardinale (, Fitzcarraldo)
Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine, 12 Angry Men)
Jason Robards (Hour of the Gun, Tora! Tora! Tora!)
Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish)

Director
Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in America)

Screenwriters
Sergio Donati (Face to Face, A Fistful of Dynamite)
Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dynamite)

Story by
Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria)
Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, The Last Emperor)
Sergio Leone (The Last Days of Pompeii, For a Few Dollars More)

The Story
The mysterious Harmonica arrives in the town of Flagstone, out for revenge against Frank. Frank, working for a railroad baron, is busy murdering Brett McBain for his land and blaming the crime on the bandit Cheyenne. Cheyenne teams up with Harmonica to help McBain’s newly-arrived widow, and therefore owner of his land, Jill. Jill finds herself caught in the crossfire between the three men pursuing their own interests…

Our Heroes
Jill McBain, a former prostitute who’s still subject to the will and whims of men. Harmonica, a formidable gunslinger known only by the instrument he plays. Even Cheyenne, a bandit leader, is a good buy when they’re all arranged against…

Our Villain
Frank, the meanest sonuvabitch in the West. What did he do to Harmonica in the past? What will he do to Jill to get his way? Nothing good…

Best Supporting Character
Crippled railroad tycoon Morton only wants to intimidate the McBains to relinquish their land, which I guess makes him a nice guy when compared to his murderous handyman, Frank, who he clearly can’t control.

Memorable Quote
Harmonica: “Did you bring a horse for me?”
Snaky: “Well, looks like we’re… looks like we’re shy one horse.”
Harmonica: “You brought two too many.”

Memorable Scene
In one of the most iconic opening sequences in cinema history, three gunmen arrive at a train station and… wait for a train. For ten minutes. Ten real-time minutes, accompanied only by sounds like a squeaky windmill, a dripping water tower, and distant bird cries. Then the train arrives… and then the train leaves… and then a harmonica plays. And the action… threatens to start. Ah, Leone.

Memorable Music
It’s a Sergio Leone film, of course there’s an Ennio Morricone score — and it’s one of his best. It was composed before shooting began so Leone could play it on set, so it fits like a glove. The best bits include the striking leitmotifs: a haunting one for Jill, with wordless vocals by Edda Dell’Orso, and a dramatic one for Harmonica, threatening guitar combined with a melody played on a… well, you know.

Technical Wizardry
The entire picture looks fantastic thanks to the work of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. It displays all the framing and composition Leone is famous for, but also evokes an oppressive hot, sweaty feeling, and the light and texture of the image have pure cinematic quality. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Letting the Side Down
Leone’s original plan was for the three gunmen in the opening scene to be cameos for the stars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach — but Eastwood (who’d already turned down the role of Harmonica) was unavailable. Shame.

Next time…
Considered by some to be the first part of a thematic “Once Upon a Time” trilogy, which continues with A Fistful of Dynamite (released in some regions as Once Upon a Time… the Revolution) and Once Upon a Time in America.

What the Critics Said
“The world of a Leone Western is just as enchanted as it was in the films the director saw as a child, but the values have become confused. Heroes as well as villains are apt to be motivated by greed and revenge, and the environments in which they operate are desolate and godless, though very beautiful. The Leone Westerns are twice removed from reality, being based on myths that were originally conceived in Hollywood studios in the nineteen-thirties. […] Once Upon the Time in the West thus is a movie either for the undiscriminating patron or for the buff. If you fall somewhere in between those categories, you had better stay home” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times (Just so we’re clear, I think this is a terrible review.)

Score: 98%

What the Public Say
“The clue’s in the title: Once Upon a Time in the West is a fairy story, a mythologised version of the American West, peopled with immediately recognisable archetypes. It’s also a commentary on the Western genre itself, and a celebration in the form of a kind of “greatest hits”, full of references to other films and filmmakers: John Ford, George Stevens, Anthony Mann, Shane, The Searchers, High Noon, and so on. […] So the game isn’t originality, but Everything More Iconic Than Everyone Else. Westerns – even great Westerns – would follow, directed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Eastwood himself, but [this] still feels like the genre’s final word.” — Owen Williams

Verdict

America didn’t ‘get’ Once Upon a Time in the West when it first came out (hence the retrospectively laughable reviews, like the one above). The French did, though: it played for literally years in Paris cinemas, even inspiring fashion trends (the long duster coats). I confess, my initial reaction was a little more akin to the Americans’ — OUaTitW can be quite a slow film, and the plot is deceptively obscured until quite late on. But it certainly rewards repeat viewings, because it’s a film of rich content and, perhaps even more importantly, supreme style and technical achievement. The French were right (but don’t tell them that).

#68 will be… completed while you shop.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #59

Justice leaves its mark.

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 138 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 17th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th December 1998
First Seen: TV, 31st August 2002 (probably)

Stars
Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Puss in Boots)
Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Remains of the Day)
Catherine Zeta-Jones (Entrapment, Chicago)

Director
Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Legend of Zorro)

Screenwriters
John Eskow (Pink Cadillac, Air America)
Ted Elliott (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Story by
Ted Elliott (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Lone Ranger)
Terry Rossio (The Legend of Zorro, National Treasure: Book of Secrets)
Randall Jahnson (The Doors, Sunset Strip)

Based on
The character of Zorro, created by Johnston McCulley.

The Story
After his brother is murdered, Alejandro Murrieta seeks revenge by becoming the protégé of Don Diego de la Vega — the man who used to be Zorro. Alejandro’s nemesis is Captain Love, righthand man to Don Rafael Montero, who 20 years ago killed de la Vega’s wife and stole his daughter — so de la Vega wants some revenge of his own.

Our Hero
A headstrong street thief, Alejandro Murrieta would surely get himself killed were it not for the intervention of Don Diego de la Vega and the training he provides — and his own charm, of course.

Our Villain
Don Rafael Montero plans to purchase California from General Santa Anna using gold secretly mined from the General’s own land. When Zorro’s actions threaten to expose the plan, he decides to destroy the mine and kill its slave workers. As if murdering de la Vega’s wife and stealing his child didn’t make him evil enough.

Best Supporting Character
Anthony Hopkins still seems an unlikely choice for the ageing former Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega, but his performance is perfectly calibrated nonetheless: wise and teasing of his young charge in equal measure. Hopkins also has the remarkable ability to absolutely own every line — reading the quotes page on IMDb, it’s impossible not to hear his voice.

Memorable Quote
“There is a saying, a very old saying: when the pupil is ready the master will appear.” — Don Diego de la Vega

Memorable Scene
Escaping from the villains, Zorro finds refuge in a nearby church, where he hides in the confessional. In comes Elena, wanting to confess her infatuation with the masked bandit. Hilarity ensues.

Technical Wizardry
The key to most good swashbucklers is the sword-fighting, and The Mask of Zorro is up to scratch. Banderas was trained by Bob Anderson, a legendary sword master — he also worked on Highlander, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and many more. Not least, he coached Errol Flynn of all people — and Anderson reckoned Banderas was the best swordsman he’d worked with since Flynn.

Making of
Producer Steven Spielberg originally considered directing, but was eventually busy with Saving Private Ryan. Apparently Tom Cruise would’ve been his Zorro. Spielberg’s contributions included putting Catherine Zeta-Jones forward to be cast, and suggesting the epilogue scene (with Alejandro and Elena’s baby) because the original stopping point (Old Zorro dying in his daughter’s arms) was too depressing. At one time Robert Rodriguez was also set to direct — he cast Banderas, and wanted Salma Hayek in the Zeta-Jones role — but he clashed with the studio over budget and, apparently, his concept of the film as violent and R-rated.

Previously on…
The Mask of Zorro was a new, standalone Zorro adventure, but the character has a long screen history — over 40 film appearances, according to Wikipedia, including five serials, plus a dozen TV series and multiple radio dramas. The first was 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, starring the original swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks. Better known nowadays is the 1940 remake starring Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone (which nearly made it on to this list).

Next time…
Seven years later, sequel The Legend of Zorro sees Zorro attempt to thwart a threat to California’s pending statehood, this time with his kid in tow. It wasn’t that good. Naturally, there’s talk of a reboot.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Costume Design)
3 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Costumes)

What the Critics Said
“a pointed riposte to those who say they don’t make ’em like that anymore. The return of the legendary swordsman is well served by a grandly mounted production in the classical style [which] favors dashing adventure, dramatic and political intrigue, well-motivated characters and romance between mightily attractive leads over fashionable cynicism, cheap gags, over-stressed contemporary relevance and sensation for sensation’s sake. […] Achieving the right tone for the picture was crucial, as it easily could have tilted either in the direction of old-fashioned stodginess or, more likely in this day and age, of inappropriately high-tech thrills and gratuitous violence. Clearly, everyone concerned, beginning with scripters John Eskow, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and GoldenEye director Martin Campbell, was at pains to endow the story with sufficient dramatic and emotional credibility, and to go beyond glibness in its humor.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety

Score: 83%

What the Public Say
“as this is a Steven Spielberg production, what The Mask of Zorro is really about is the art of filmmaking, and it shows what some imaginative people (director Martin Campbell among them) can do with a movie camera. There are some old-fashioned stunts and physical comedy that are carried off just about perfectly here. And usually, these shoot-the-works movies peter out just before the end credits, but this one has the most satisfying adventure-movie wrap-up I’ve seen in a long time.” — Movie Movie Blog Blog

Verdict

A couple of years after he revitalised the Bond franchise with GoldenEye, director Martin Campbell does the same for a whole subgenre — the swashbuckler — in this fun revival of the masked Californian vigilante. Mixing slickly choreographed action with doses of humour, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously but doesn’t tip over into farce either (traits definitely shared with the aforementioned Bond revival). The result is thoroughly entertaining, and an example of ’90s blockbuster filmmaking at its finest.

#60 will… take the red pill.

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

2016 #76
John Carpenter | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

There are a good number of well-regarded John Carpenter films I’ve not seen that I could spend my time on, but I chose to expend it on this critically-mauled sci-fi-horror-Western from the first year of the current millennium. But sometimes watching poorly-regarded films pays off, because while Ghosts of Mars is no classic, it is actually pretty entertaining.

Set in a future where Mars has been almost completely terraformed, a group of police officers are dispatched to a remote mining outpost to escort a dangerous prisoner. On arrival they find the town mysteriously deserted, but soon discover the inhabitants have been possessed and basically turned into Reavers (…wait, did Joss Whedon just rip off Ghosts of Mars?!) Holed up in the jail, police and criminals must join forces to fend off their attackers. Yes, it’s basically Assault on Space Precinct 13.

It’s not just the plot that recalls older films: although the film was released in 2001, the quality of the acting, photography, sets, and effects are all like something made 15 years earlier. (In these technical aspects it reminded me a lot of Total Recall, and not just because it’s set on Mars.) It’s almost hard to equate it with other films made around the same time, and maybe that’s part of why it was so poorly received on release: it felt dated. Watched with 15 years distance, however, it’s an Old Film, so it’s as easy to mentally lump it in with stuff made 30 years ago as with stuff made 15 years ago. That doesn’t magically wipe out its other faults, but it does make me think about the level of forgiveness people are willing to apply to films based on extra-filmic knowledge of when they were made, etc. If people thought this had been made in the ’80s, would they view it as kindly as they do some ’80s genre-classics that are just as bad and/or dated?

I mean, I’m not saying it stands up to something like The Thing, which by comparison is a classy movie (bet no one in 1982 ever thought The Thing would get called “classy”!), but I don’t think it’s any less accomplished (at least in technical categories) than, say, Big Trouble in Little China. However, it’s swapped out some of the kooky fun of that film for a sci-fi-horror milieu, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t wash as well — it doesn’t have the comicalness to let the weaker aspects slide.

Conversely, if you made it today it would probably be seen as a throwback/homage and everyone would do backflips over it. They’d have a similar reaction to its diverse cast: a female lead hero, a black co-lead who’s also the cast’s biggest name (at the time), a lesbian commanding officer… If they could manage that in a studio picture 15 years ago, why does it seem to be such a big problem nowadays?

Anyway, it’s not “good”, but it is cheesily fun — and I reckon if it had been made 15 years earlier, exactly as it is, it would have a lot more fans.

3 out of 5