The 100-Week Roundup III

In this selection of films I watched back at the end of May / start of June 2018…

  • The Wild Bunch (1969)
  • The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage (1996)
  • The Warriors (1979)
  • Power Rangers (2017)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)


    The Wild Bunch
    (1969)

    2018 #115
    Sam Peckinpah | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Wild Bunch

    After a gang of ageing crooks’ “one last job” goes sideways, they agree to rob a munitions train for a Mexican general, even as they’re hunted by a militia reluctantly headed by their leader’s former partner.

    The Wild Bunch is, of course, a Western, but it’s set in 1913 — not a time we particularly associate with “the Old West”. Well, change doesn’t happen overnight. And it certainly takes that “end of an era” thing to heart as a tale of old men, whose way of life is fading away. It’s also a ‘late Western’ in terms of when it was produced: this isn’t an old-fashioned “white hats vs black hats” kinda adventure, but one full of ultra-violence with a downbeat ending. The opening sequence gets pretty bloody, and then the climax is an absolute orgy of violence. It’s still almost shocking today, so you can see how it was controversial back in 1969.

    It’s not just the presence of violence and blood that’s remarkable, though, but how it’s presented, both in terms of filmmaking and morals. To the former, the speed of the cutting was groundbreaking at the time: reportedly it contains more cuts than any other Technicolor film, with 3,643 cuts in the original print. If that’s true, it gives it an average shot length of about 2.4 seconds. For comparison, the average in the ’60s was around 6 or 7 seconds, while even Moulin Rouge, a movie made decades later that was still notorious for its fast cutting, has an average shot length of 2.01 seconds. It’s not just speed that makes the editing so noteworthy, but its effectiveness, making juxtapositions and using shots to both tell the story and create the impression of being in the thick of it.

    Bad boys

    As for the morals, the film was all about showing these violent men as unheroic and unglamorous, setting out to “demystify the Western and the genre’s heroic and cavalier characters” (to quote IMDb). That piece goes on to say that screenwriters Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green “felt that this project required a realistic look at the characters of the Old West, whose actions on screen had rarely matched the violent and dastardly reality of the men on which they were based… Both Green and Peckinpah felt it was important to not only show that the film’s protagonists were violent men, but that they achieved their violence in unheroic and horrific ways, such as using people as human shields and killing unarmed bystanders during robberies.”

    Of course, antiheroes are ten-a-penny nowadays, so the idea that “men who commit violence are bad” doesn’t play as revolutionary anymore. Indeed, The Wild Bunch can be enjoyed as an action movie — there’s the opening and closing set pieces I’ve already mentioned, plus an excellent train robbery and ensuing chase in the middle too, and a couple of other bits. That said, the film has more on its mind than just adrenaline-generating thrills, and so (based on comments I’ve read elsewhere online) if you are watching just for action it can feel like a bit of a slog. While I wouldn’t be that critical, I did find it a bit slow at times. The original distributors must’ve felt the same, as the film was cut by ten minutes for its US release. (The version widely available today is the original 145-minute director’s cut. I watched a PAL copy, hence the 4% shorter running time.)

    4 out of 5

    The Wild Bunch was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    The Wild Bunch:
    An Album in Montage

    (1996)

    2018 #115a
    Paul Seydor | 33 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | 15

    Behind the scenes of The Wild Bunch

    This film came to exist because someone found 72 minutes of silent black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage shot during the filming of The Wild Bunch. No one knows why it was filmed — this was a long time before the era of EPKs and DVD special features. And, indeed, if it had been discovered just a couple of years later then a DVD special feature is exactly what it would’ve become; but, being just ahead of that, it ended up as a short film — an Oscar-nominated one at that, going up for the Best Documentary Short prize in 1997. Naturally, it has since found its rightful home as a special feature on DVD and Blu-ray releases of its subject matter.

    The silent film footage is accompanied by voice over of first-hand accounts from the people involved, either taken from recorded interviews (people like screenwriter Walon Green and actors Edmond O’Brien and Ernest Borgnine represent themselves) or actors reading out comments (Ed Harris is the voice of Sam Peckinpah, for example). From this we get not only making-of trivia and tales, but also discussion of the filmmakers’ intent and the film’s meaning. More material along the lines of the latter would’ve interested me.

    As it is, An Album in Montage feels very much at home in its current situation as a DVD extra. Fans of the film will certainly get something out of it, but I don’t think it’s insightful enough to stand independently. It’s by no means a bad little featurette, but it’s not worth seeking out outside of the context of the film itself.

    3 out of 5

    The Warriors
    (1979)

    2018 #123
    Walter Hill | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Warriors

    In the near future, a charismatic leader summons the street gangs of New York City in a bid to take it over. When he is killed, The Warriors are falsely blamed and now must fight their way home while every other gang is hunting them down.IMDb

    And that’s all you need to know, because The Warriors’ plot is really simple and straightforward, but that’s part of why it works. It doesn’t need dressing up; it’s got an almost an elegant directness, and it thrives off that. The action sequences feel unchoreographed, with a bruising realism in spite of their sometimes elaborate setups (duelling baseball bats!), and yet they carry an energy and impact that is wholly in keeping with something carefully designed and constructed. The characters are simply drawn, revealed through their actions rather than telegraphed Character Moments or heartfelt speeches. Similarly, the kind-of-romance between the Warriors’ leader and the girl they run into on the streets is so well handled — okay, there are some scenes where they almost talk about it directly, but mostly it’s just moments or lines that indicate a world of feeling. The way this character stuff is sketched in — subtly, sometimes in the background — is quite masterful, actually.

    Such skill extends throughout the film’s technical side. For all the film’s ’70s grit, there’s some beautiful stuff in the editing and shot choices, especially at the end on the beach. It’s not just beauty in an attractive sense, but meaningful, effective imagery, in a way that impresses without being slick or pretty. The music choices are bang-on too. The film intercuts to a radio station that functions like some kind of Greek chorus, linking the action and helping to create a heightened atmosphere — one that’s there in the whole film, incidentally, with its colourful gangs and detached police presence — without ever shattering the down-to-earth, gritty, almost-real feel the whole thing has.

    Gang wars

    I loved The Warriors, and I think that last point is a big part of why: it sits at an almost inexplicable point where it feels incredibly grounded, gritty and realistic, but at the same time a heightened fantasy kind of world. Here I’m trying to describe why I adored the film bu breaking it down into these constituent parts, but there’s something more to it than that — a kind of magic where it just… works.

    All of that said, it seems I was lucky to catch the original version (via Now TV / Sky Cinema), rather than the so-called Director’s Cut that seems to be the only version available on Blu-ray. Looking at the changes, they don’t seem particularly in keeping with the tone of the movie, smacking of decades-later revisionism. Apparently there’s also a TV version that includes 12 minutes of additional scenes, none of which are included on the film’s disc releases. I wish Paramount would license this out to someone like Arrow to do it properly…

    5 out of 5

    The Warriors placed 11th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Power Rangers
    (2017)

    2018 #126
    Dean Israelite | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Canada & New Zealand / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    Power Rangers

    High school outcasts stumble upon an old alien ship, where they acquire superpowers and are dubbed the Power Rangers. Learning that an old enemy of the previous generation has returned to exact vengeance, the group must harness their powers and use them to work together and save the world.IMDb

    Far from the cheesy TV series of old, this Power Rangers reboot clearly wants to be a somewhat gritty, largely realistic, socially conscious take on the concept. But it’s like it was written by people behind the original, because it’s still full of clunky dialogue, earnest characters (with a thin veneer of outsider ‘cool’), and nods to serious issues without having the time or interest to actually engage with them. Like, one of the kids is the sole carer for his sick mother, or another is on the autistic spectrum, but, beyond spending a line or two to tell us these things, those issues have no bearing on the plot or the characterisation. Plus, it can’t overcome some of the fundamental cheesiness of the original. And when it tries to give in to it, like by playing the Power Rangers theme the first time the giant “dinocars” run into action, it’s too late for such shenanigans and the tones clash horrendously. It wants to escape the tackiness of the original series, but simple can’t.

    And somehow it gets worse as it goes on. The early character stuff is derivative but alright. Then you begin to realise how shallow it is. You’re waiting for the super-suits to show up and the action to start. Then you have to wait some more while it works through plot beats so stale it can’t even be bothered to play them out fully. Then, when the suits finally arrive and the action starts, turns out it’s the worst part of the movie. Almost entirely CGI, under-choreographed, a mess of nothingness with little correlation from shot to shot, no sense of rhythm or construction. When their dinocars all merge into one giant dinocar, the villain screams “how?!”, and you will feel the same.

    Bryan Cranston (yes, Bryan Cranston is in this) tries to inject some character into his role, but it’s too underwritten and his screen time too slight to let him do much with his supposed arc. Elizabeth Banks, meanwhile, is barely in it and has no arc whatsoever, but she chews scenery like a pro. She seems to be aware it’s all stupid and over the top and plays it appropriately.

    2 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    (2017)

    2018 #127
    Martin McDonagh | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    a darkly comic drama from Academy Award nominee Martin McDonagh. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.IMDb

    As well as being as deathly serious and sometimes horrifying as the subject matter deserves, Three Billboards is also as funny as you’d expect from the writer-director of In Bruges. Not to the extent — the subject matter is far too serious for it to be an outright comedy like that — but in subplots and interludes it’s hilarious.

    It’s got a helluva cast, and all of the performances are excellent. Frances McDormand is so fucking good that she even manages to make talking to a badly CGI’d deer incredibly emotional. Apparently some people had a massive problem with the film’s treatment of Sam Rockwell’s character, I think because he was a bad guy who got redeemed. But, really, imagine thinking people who once did bad things can never turn themselves around and be better people. What a pessimistic way to view the world. And yet I guess that’s what today’s “cancel culture” is all about.

    Two outta three ain't bad

    It’s nicely shot by DP Ben Davis (except for that deer), while Carter Burwell’s Western-esque score has some really cool bits. It really emphasises the film’s formal overtures at being a revenge Western, even if the way it goes down in the end doesn’t necessarily support such a reading.

    There was a huge backlash to the film at some point; bring it up online and you’re likely to come across people who assume everyone hates it… but it’s got 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and is still ranked the 150th best film of all time on IMDb, so I think we know where the majority stand. I’m happy to stand with them.

    5 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri placed 14th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

  • Vehicular Review Roundup

    Get in Vehicle 19 to go for a Drive with The Driver in today’s roundup, featuring:

  • The Driver (1978)
  • Drive (2011)
  • Vehicle 19 (2013)


    The Driver
    (1978)

    2017 #101
    Walter Hill | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / PG

    The Driver

    Walter Hill’s stripped-back neo-noir car chase thriller stars Ryan O’Neal as The Driver, a getaway man for hire and the best at what he does. Out to get him is Bruce Dern as The Detective, who’ll go to any lengths to catch him — including illegal ones. Almost cornered, the Driver enlists the help of The Player (Isabelle Adjani) to thwart the Detective.

    The film’s influence on the likes of Baby Driver and Drive is clear (Nicolas Winding Refn claims not to have seen it before making his film, but it must’ve been seen by someone somewhere down the line, whether that’s original novelist James Sallis or screenwriter Hossein Amini, because the DNA is right there). Both those later efforts burnished and perfected the formula in different ways, but the original has a gritty, low-rent charm of its own. The archetypal characters and straightforward noir plot are delightful almost because of their simplicity, while the few action scenes are handled with the panache, not of a slick blockbuster, but of a filmmaker who knows how to create something effective even within his limitations.

    The Driver maybe doesn’t transcend those to the level of being a classic, but, for fans of the genres it crosses, it’s deservingly a cult favourite.

    4 out of 5

    Drive
    (2011)

    2017 #106
    Nicolas Winding Refn | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Drive

    Iconoclastic Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn had made noteworthy films before Drive, but it felt like this was where he really hit home. It stars Ryan Gosling as a mechanic and part-time movie stunt driver who also moonlights as a getaway man, but when he tries to help out his attractive neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her husband (Oscar Isaac) he gets embroiled in a crime with deadly consequences.

    It’s a noir storyline with a familiar shape, but as with many of the best examples of that not-quite-a-genre it’s the stylish filmmaking that elevates the material. Refn was influenced by the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone to take a very American genre and give it a European influence, and the result is a movie that’s as much about its mood and feel as it is the intricacies of plot or character. Despite the title and theme it’s not even a car chase movie, really, though the handful of well-created driving sequences do pack a greater punch thanks to their scarcity.

    5 out of 5

    Drive was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project.

    Vehicle 19
    (2013)

    2017 #151
    Mukunda Michael Dewil | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

    Vehicle 19

    One of the last films Paul Walker completed before his untimely death, Vehicle 19 sees the Fast & Furious star doing what he will always be remembered for: driving a car, sometimes fast. Here he’s Michael Woods, a recent parolee who arrives in Johannesburg intending to reunite with his partner. Unfortunately he picks up the wrong rental car and finds himself the subject of a manhunt, because in the car is evidence relating to a political conspiracy. Unfortunately for the bad guys who want said evidence, Michael is, like, an honourable chap — and also a criminal, so he totally knows how to drive a car like he’s escaping a crime. The main conceit is: the whole film’s shot from within the car.

    Yep, that’s why I watched it. I wish I hadn’t. Vehicle 19 is a deeply stupid movie. Like, Michael’s phone is all-important — it’s the only way he can contact other people; later, it contains vital evidence — but when he notices the battery is low he does nothing about it, despite having a charger in his bag, until the battery literally runs out mid-call. And that’s just one of innumerable nonsensical contrivances throughout the film.

    It lacks pace, and therefore lacks tension. Michael just pootles around the city from the very start. Apparently everywhere is reachable within 20 minutes, or Michael — who’s never been to this city before — thinks it is. Whenever he asks for directions, everywhere he’s going is either just a block away or down the road, third right. At one point the police say they just received a call to 911. From what I can tell, the emergency number in South Africa is not 911. And I could probably go on — the film is absolutely littered with things that just don’t quite hang together.

    Fast and/or furious

    It can’t satisfy as a dumb action flick either. I presume it was a low-budget production with ambitions beyond its scale in the chase scenes. Understandably, the trailer foregrounds these to help sell the movie. Unfortunately for the film, it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch: the clips in the trailer are near-as-dammit the entirety of the film’s action. These sequences are few, far between, short, and, even then, poorly staged. The problem isn’t that they’re all limited to only being seen from within the car (the opening sequence of The Driver does exactly that to marvellous effect, for example), it’s that they lack both adrenaline and plausibility. For example, at one point Michael manages to make the chasing car flip over, but I watched that bit three times to try to decipher it and I still have absolutely no idea how he’s supposed to have done it. Oh, and then the car explodes. And Michael and his passenger seem to react like “oh, that’s that then” and just drive on.

    They’ve got the right idea, though: if you’re thinking of watching Vehicle 19, no, just drive on. Or just put Drive on — it’s a totally different movie, but at least it’s a good one.

    1 out of 5

    Vehicle 19 featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

  • Bullet to the Head (2012)

    2015 #70
    Walter Hill | 88 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Bullet to the HeadI had absolutely zero intention of ever watching this Sylvester Stallone vehicle (which is not to be confused with John Woo’s Bullet in the Head, of course), but then I saw a trailer on a Blu-ray and it looked like it might be funny and passable dumb-action fun. My respect to whoever edited that trailer, because neither of those elements are significant features of the full film.

    Adapted from a French graphic novel (no, really — it’s called Du plomb dans la tête), the story casts Stallone as a hitman whose partner is killed by order of their employer, which is what brings him into contact with cop Kwon (the Fast & Furiouses’s Sung Kang), whose former partner was also killed by the same chap. (Actually, he was killed by Stallone; and they weren’t partners any more because the guy went corrupt, or something. My point is, the partners parallel is an angle that gets pithily highlighted in marketing and reviews, but is barely touched in the film itself.) Reluctantly teaming up, they set out to find out who’s behind it all.

    At times, you get the impression that director Walter Hill (who also performed uncredited re-writes) wants this to be a noir tale: there’s a hardboiled voiceover, a story mired in corrupt officials, twists about who to trust, and so on. But these elements are only fleeting (including that voiceover), never building a consistency where you could plausibly claim it as any kind of neo-noir. Instead, it’s more of a buddy movie in the ’80s mould. There are multiple scenes of Stallone and his new chum just driving around chatting, often in a gently racist way, all of which is clearly striving for that amusing, loveable, buddy movie vibe. It doesn’t reach it — it’s not funny, or likeable, and it just feels like a shoehorned aside from the plot.

    AxefightSaid plot all comes down to a final fight, Stallone vs Jason Momoa (of Game of Thrones and the Conan reboot), who’s technically the henchman but serves as the primary antagonist. In the film’s closest move to originality, they duel with fire axes. It’s a fairly worthwhile dose of combat, if you enjoy that kind of thing, but even then isn’t worth watching the whole film for.

    It comes to something when your production logos gimmick is the most interesting thing about your movie, but Hill has even bluntly stated in an interview that “we’re not breaking new ground. We’re trying to be entertaining within a format that’s familiar.” Talk about setting your sights low! And, indeed, low is all they achieved.

    2 out of 5

    Bullet to the Head is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm.