Slow West (2015)

2015 #199
John Maclean | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.66:1 | UK & New Zealand / English & French | 15 / R

The Coens and Wes Anderson are common reference points in reviews of this slightly quirky Western, which sees Michael Fassbender’s experienced outlaw-type help wet-behind-the-ears Scotsman Kodi Smit-McPhee track the girl he loves, who emigrated for mysterious reasons, also known by the bounty hunters on their trail.

The aforementioned comparisons aren’t wildly inaccurate, but are perhaps reductive. Writer-director Maclean has his own variation on that voice, bringing an occasional comically askew perspective to underscore tense confrontations and well-crafted shootouts. Vibrant photography by DP Robbie Ryan and a pleasantly brisk running time further the enjoyment.

A promising calling card and distinctive treat.

4 out of 5

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #7

They’ve saved the best trip for last…
But this time they may
have gone too far.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 118 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th May 1990 (USA)
UK Release: 11th July 1990
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Michael J. Fox (Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, The American President)
Christopher Lloyd (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead)
Mary Steenburgen (Parenthood, Step Brothers)
Thomas F. Wilson (Back to the Future, Born to Be Wild)
Lea Thompson (SpaceCamp, Some Kind of Wonderful)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her, The Polar Express)

Screenwriter
Bob Gale (Used Cars, Back to the Future)

The Story
With Doc stuck in 1885, Marty McFly must travel back to save him before he’s killed by Biff Tannen’s ancestor, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen. With the DeLorean damaged during his arrival in the past, they also have to come up with a plan to get back to their correct time…

Our Heroes
Marty McFly finally grows as a human being as he learns some stuff this time, while Michael J. Fox also gets to ham it up a little as his Irish ancestor, Seamus. Christopher Lloyd, meanwhile, is still the one and only Doc.

Our Villain
It’s Thomas F. Wilson again, this time as Biff’s trigger-happy Wild West ancestor, Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen. Who also gets covered in excrement.

Best Supporting Character
Mary Steenburgen is one of the few wholly original characters in either sequel, the love of Doc’s life, Clara Clayton. She’s also a confident, competent, and capable female character — a character type that’s only now ceasing to be a rarity in effects-y blockbusters, 25 years after this was made.

Memorable Quote
“Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.” — Doc

Memorable Scene
Marty and Doc hijack a train in the hope of using it to get the DeLorean up to the required 88mph. As the looted locomotive heads towards a mighty fall off an unfinished bridge, it turns out Clara is on board too. Tension! Action! Excitement! What more do you want from a climax?

Truly Special Effect
With the DeLorean destroyed, the film ends with a reveal of Doc’s new time machine, and it’s awesome.

Making of
There are tonnes of lines, jokes, characters, locations, and even background details referenced back and forth across the whole trilogy, but only one actual scene appears in all three: the moment Marty travels from 1955 to 1985. It’s the climax to the first film, then appears at the end of Part II, and consequently is in the ‘recap’ at the start of Part III.

Previously on…
Part III indeed: this picks up exactly where the second film left off, and they were shot back-to-back. It’s fundamentally standalone other than that, mind.

Next time…
As mentioned on the first film, Back to the Future has continued in an animated series, theme park ride, video game, and a comic book that started last year. Plus Doc Brown turned up in A Million Ways to Die in the West, so… there’s that…

Awards
2 Saturn Awards (Supporting Actor (Thomas F. Wilson), Music)
4 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Director, Supporting Actress (Mary Steenburgen), Costumes)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
Back To The Future Part II teed off a lot of critics by not being a remake of the first film, and for daring to be a) complicated, b) very fast and c) heartless. Part III, which is slightly less fleet of foot, restores heart interest of the first film and has a satisfying complete storyline.” — Kim Newman, Empire

Score: 74%

What the Public Say
“One of the clearest indications of an excellent series is an ending is so satisfying you can’t even be mad the adventure is over. Part III delivers a happy ending so well-rounded […] there is no yearning for more story. I remember feeling quite content after seeing that movie for the first time; actually more like thrilled that the trilogy ended on such a great note.” — Avril Brown, Comics Waiting Room

Verdict

The consensus used to be that Part III was unquestionably the weakest part of the trilogy, a slightly bizarre Old West-set addendum to the first two. These days, I feel like an increasing number of people say it’s definitely better than Part II. Personally, I’ve always had a particular fondness for it. I’m not entirely sure why. Much like the second film, it can’t attain the perfection of the first movie, but it can be the next best thing — a fun and funny adventure with these great characters. And even as I say “they’re not as good as the first one”, I don’t wholly believe it: to me, Back to the Future never has and never will be just one film, or one film and its two sequels — it’s a trilogy; a three-parter. (So there.)

#8 will be… an alliterative origin.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

2015 #177
Gore Verbinski | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hated by Americans and loved (well, ok, “liked”) by everyone else (well, ok, “by lots, but by no means all, of people who reside outside America”), Disney’s attempt to pull a Pirates of the Caribbean on Western adventure IP The Lone Ranger is by no means as successful as the first instalment in their piratical franchise, but is at least the equal of its sequels — and, in some cases, their better.

The convoluted plot sees us arrive with John Reid (Armie Hammer) in the frontier town where he grew up, where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is now sheriff. Construction of the railroad is running by the town, spearheaded by Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who letches after Dan’s wife (Ruth Wilson); but work is plagued by a band of outlaws led by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Receiving information on his whereabouts, Dan rounds up a posse and heads out to tackle him, with John insisting on tagging along. Unfortunately it’s an ambush and they’re all slaughtered (oh dear)… except John just about survives, and is found and nursed back to life by a Native American, Tonto (Johnny Depp). He has his own grievances, and together they set out on a mission of revenge.

And if you’re wondering where Helena Bonham Carter is in all that: despite her prominence on many of the posters, her role is really just a cameo. That’s marketing, folks.

I know some people complain about simplistic stories that are used to just string action sequences together, and that’s a perfectly valid thing to get annoyed about, but The Lone Ranger swings to the other extreme and uses an over-complicated story to string together its action sequences. All it actually needs is a little streamlining, because the film is allowed to swing off into too many sideplots. This makes the middle of the film a slog, and you feel every minute of its excessive two-and-a-half-hour running time.

That slog is made worthwhile by what comes before and after said middle: a pair of train-based action sequences that are each truly fantastic. The second, in particular, is arguably amongst the grandest climaxes ever put on screen (providing you don’t feel it’s tipped too far into being overblown, of course). It’s inventively choreographed, fluidly shot, and perfectly scored with just an extended barnstorming version of the Lone Ranger’s theme music (aka the William Tell Overture). It’s an adrenaline-pumping action sequence that single-handedly justifies the entire film’s existence, if you’re into that kind of thing.

With multiple trains, horses, actors, guns, stunts, and copious CGI to tie it together, that sequence must’ve cost a bomb. Notoriously, the whole film was deemed too expensive and Disney insisted the budget be slashed, resulting in delays… and it still cost a fortune. That, quite apart from the negative critical response in the US, is a big part of why it flopped at the box office — a recurring problem for Disney at the minute. To be frank, I’m not convinced anyone made a truly concerted effort to stem the overspend. When a gaggle of CG rabbits hopped on screen, all I could think was, “who allowed this?!” You’ve got a massively over-budgeted film that the studio want cut back, and one reason for that is CG bunnies that have almost no bearing on anything whatsoever! The amount of time and effort that must’ve gone into creating those fairly-realistic rabbits for such a short amount of screen time… it cost millions, surely. Millions that could’ve been saved with a simple snip during the writing stage if only someone had said, “well, those bunnies don’t add anything and they’ll be bloody expensive, so let’s lose them.”

So criticism is not unfounded, but the film doesn’t deserve the level of vitriolic scorn poured on it by the US press and, consequently, public. Discussing this, the “critical response” section on the film’s Wikipedia page is interesting, and this part pretty much nails it:

Mark Hughes of Forbes, analyzing what he felt was a “flop-hungry” press desiring to “control the narrative and render the outcome they insisted was unavoidable” for a highly expensive movie with much-publicized production troubles, found the film “about a hundred times better than you think it is … [a] well-written, well-acted, superbly directed adventure story.”

I’m not quite as effusive as Hughes, but The Lone Ranger is worth the time of anyone who enjoys an action-adventure blockbuster. It’s a three-star adventure-comedy bookended by a pair of five-star railroad action sequences, which make the trudge through the film’s middle hour-or-so feel worthwhile. There was a better movie to be made here — one that was half-an-hour shorter, more focused, and probably several tens of millions of dollars cheaper to make — but that doesn’t mean the one we got is meritless.

4 out of 5

High Noon (1952)

2015 #50
Fred Zinnemann | 81 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U / PG

On the day marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries his young bride Amy (Grace Kelly), hands in his badge and plans to leave town, word reaches Hadleyville that a criminal he arrested, Frank Miller (presumably Will read DK2 and arrested him for crimes against literature), will arrive on the noon train, bent on revenge. Afraid that Miller and his cronies will terrorise the town and/or hunt down the newlyweds wherever they go, Will elects to stay and face the gang. But will any of the townspeople stand alongside him to defend their home?

Well, you probably know the answer to that — it’s one of the film’s more (in)famous facets. If you somehow don’t know and want to remain spoiler free, look away now, because the answer is: no. No one will stand with Will. Interpreted by the American left as an analogy for people being afraid to stand up to McCarthy’s HUAC witch-hunt, some on the right were less impressed: John Wayne and Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo as a direct riposte. Both are regarded as classic Westerns, so in that respect there’s no ‘winner’ there. Besides, High Noon was eventually embraced by the right as well, turning it around to see it as a celebration of one man’s dedication to his duty.

Some would contend it’s impossible to engage with High Noon and ignore that political allegory; others, like Mike at Films on the Box in his eloquent take on the film, would say it’s more than good enough to stand apart from such concerns. I have sympathy with both sides: the parallels are surely there, but it’s also a fine Western thriller in its own right. You certainly don’t need to know about the contemporaneous events it was reflecting to enjoy it. As to whether that subtext is a beneficial added dimension or a needless distraction, that’s down to personal preference.

There’s plenty else going on to keep a viewer engaged, anyway. It’s not an action-packed Western, the style many people at the time were accustomed to: according to Wikipedia, it faced criticism for its shortage of “chases, fights, and picture-postcard scenery”. In its place there’s the slow-burn tension of the clock ticking towards midday and the inevitable confrontation, as well as the moral and emotional dilemmas of the townsfolk, who’ve been happy to rely on Will’s marshalling ability for so long but refuse to help when he needs them.

There are personal relationships to contend with too: Amy is a Quaker and so a pacifist, and just wants to leave rather than face a violent confrontation; Will’s deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), refuses to help because Will refuses to recommend him for promotion; and then there’s hotel owner Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), who’s currently Harvey’s lover, but used to be Will’s, and before that was Miller’s. She’s planning to flee town too because, well, wouldn’t you?

To top it all off, the film takes place in near-as-damn-it real time. Regular readers will know this is a plus for me, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom. In a narrative such as this, however, it only adds to the tension: you know it isn’t going to jump from 11:30 to the titular time, for instance — you’re going to live every one of those minutes with the characters; that’s exactly how much, or little, time Will has left to get ready.

Then it all culminates in a strong extended action sequence. Surely anyone feeling deprived of such thrills was satiated at that point? Maybe the now-more-familiar structure of building to a single big sequence at the end was less accepted back in 1952.

And the attitudes of 1952 do continue to surround the film. The activities of HUAC had a serious, enduring impact on Hollywood (you only have to see the footage of Elia Kazan receiving his honorary Oscar in 1999, and the varying reactions it provoked from the audience, to appreciate that), so it’s no surprise that a film that engages with those events, however allegorically, can’t wholly shrug off such an association. For those who aren’t interested in those affairs, however, it still has a tense story and powerful character drama. Either way you look at it, High Noon is a rich, well-made, rewarding picture.

5 out of 5

High Noon is on Film4 this afternoon at 2:55pm.

North West Frontier (1959)

aka Flame Over India / Empress of India

2015 #126
J. Lee Thompson | 125 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | U

British Army Captain Scott (Kenneth More) is charged with getting an Indian child prince and his American governess (Lauren Bacall) to safety as rebels attempt to murder him. With the palace under siege, their only hope is a barely-ready rust-bucket train engine, a single passenger carriage, and a long journey through enemy territory joined by a motley group of diplomats and hangers-on who’ve bargained their way on to this last train.

North West Frontier has been on BBC Two a couple of times in the last year or two (seven times in the last four years, to be precise), and on one of those showings I caught a few seconds and thought it looked fabulously shot — I confess, that’s the only reason I’d got hold of a copy. I’m so glad I did though, because it’s excellent stuff — a rollicking, action-packed, old-fashioned (in the good sense) adventure, full of peril, derring-do, chases and shoot-outs. In between all that there’s some great character stuff too. Judging from online reaction, some viewers seem to find these bits boring longueurs, but I thought they helped manage the pace and added to the whole feel.

In particular, it’s during those segments where you get to see that every cast member is excellent. More is surprisingly dashing as the heroic leader of this ragtag bunch on their ramshackle locomotive. Bacall is as feisty as you’d expect as the strong-willed, outspoken governess, creating an easy and perhaps-surprisingly plausible chemistry with More. For the rest of the cast, Herbert Lom seems to be channelling a little Peter Lorre as a critical Dutch journalist, Wilfrid Hyde-White is the perfect older English gent, I.S. Johar is fun as the train’s Indian driver, Ursula Jeans is redoubtable as the English lady forced to escape on the train by her governor husband, and Eugene Deckers is an arms dealer, who consequently no one likes but who remains unashamed of his trade. Through this prism there’s some discussion of the merits or otherwise of the British Empire and Indian independence, which some will judge to be extolling old-fashioned values, and others will take as little more than a (probably unnecessary) hat-tip in the direction of real politics.

And as for the reason I watched, success: it’s beautifully shot, in widescreen Eastmancolor by Geoffrey Unsworth, showing off stunning scenery lensed in India and Spain (with studio sequences shot at Pinewood, naturally). It may not be famed as a big-budget epic, but there’s nonetheless an impressively grand scale, with wide-open scenery, some extravagant locales, and hundreds of extras to fill out a few sweeping battle charges. They also come into play in one of the film’s most striking sequences, set at the scene of a horrid massacre, where a spread of blood-soaked bodies surely stretch the film’s U certificate. I’ve seen this part of the film described as unnecessarily dallied upon, but I think director J. Lee Thompson is more conveying the atrocity of such a tragic event.

In the US, the film was retitled Flame Over India (and Bacall was given top billing, as opposed to More in the UK), while in Australia it was named Empress of India, after the central train. That’s the best title, in my opinion. Flame Over India is pretty meaningless (Bacall didn’t like it either) and North West Frontier is a bit generic and bland, but Empress of India indicates the country and has meaning… though as it’s not about an Empress you could argue it’s misleading and sounds too romantic.

North West Frontier, on the other hand, sounds like a Western — which was perhaps the intention: the film’s structure and story style is fundamentally a fit for that genre, albeit British-made and geographically relocated. The storyline immediately brings to mind John Ford’s Stagecoach: a gaggle of mismatched strangers are thrown together as they cross hostile territory, interspersing conversations and arguments with adventurous survival challenges. In a review I otherwise pretty thoroughly disagree with, Glenn Erickson at DVD Talk makes the same comparison and offers this insightful point: “It may be a blatant reworking of Stagecoach as the original story was co-written by John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s husband Will Price. The final screenplay [by Robin Estridge] was adapted from a script by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the writer of eleven Ford films.” Sounds pretty likely, doesn’t it?

North West Frontier is a film I would certainly have overlooked were it not for some whim of fate. Thank goodness for coincidence and chance, then, because it’s a cracking adventure; one made, I think, with pure entertainment in mind. I rather loved it.

5 out of 5

North West Frontier placed 15th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of The Lauren Bacall Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Forty Guns (1957)

2015 #61
Samuel Fuller | 76 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

Forty GunsWestern with Barbara Stanwyck as a powerful landowner, and commander of the titular posse, whose bullying brother, Brockie, is consequently allowed to run riot over the town. Enter lawman Griff (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers, whose moves to bring Brockie in line kickstart a chain of ruinous events.

Writer-director Samuel Fuller tells his brilliantly constructed tale in brisk and never dull fashion, finding time to sketch interesting characters and, alongside cinematographer Joseph Biroc and editor Gene Fowler Jr., craft much memorable imagery.

(For a more insightful and informative analysis, be sure to read this at Films on the Box.)

4 out of 5

Forty Guns is released on Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema tomorrow.

Mad Max 2 (1981)

aka The Road Warrior

2015 #42
George Miller | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 18 / R

Mad Max 2Roaming the outback of a gasoline-desperate post-apocalyptic Australia, “Mad” Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) comes across a commune-like oil refinery, whose inhabitants are under siege by a brutally violent gang. Max strikes a bargain: he’ll help them escape with their oil, in exchange for a tank full for himself.

I’m not going to be the first to point out that, in terms of its plot, Mad Max 2 is essentially a Western: a drifter comes across a small community under siege and agrees to defend them purely out of self interest. Of course, the whole “post-apocalyptic wasteland battle for car fuel” isn’t such a traditional genre element. But let’s not get into a debate about whether a film has to be set in the Old West to be considered a Western (though my verdict is it does — flip it around: no one calls The Magnificent Seven a samurai movie because it took its plot from Seven Samurai, do they?) Anyway, the advantage of transplanting the storyline to a new time and place is it makes it feel moderately fresh. There’s an unpredictability to who people will side with and when, which, to be honest, is considerably less unpredictable when you spot the genre parallels.

With such a staple story, the film’s real delights are to be found elsewhere. The design work is first rate, whether that’s the scary bondage-themed gang or the array of vehicles that populate both sides of the conflict. The location allows for some grand scenery — I suppose the oil refinery set is quite modest, really, but place it in the middle of nowhere with cars swarming around it like insects and it looks epic. Without meaning to spoil anything, its ultimate fate is definitely momentous.

Mad to the boneThe most memorable part, however, is the climax. They escape the oil refinery, Max driving the tanker — fitted out with weaponry and defences — and the gang give chase. An almighty action sequence follows, a speeding battle through the outback. It feels wrong to just call it “an action sequence”, like that’s selling it short. You get the sense that this is why the movie exists; that co-writer/director George Miller’s goal with the entire rest of the film has been to get us to this point. It’s not just “the climax”, it’s “the third act”, and it’s stunning — the choreography of it, the editing, the stunts, as dozens of vehicles chase each other, people run around on top of them, jump between them… I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say it must be one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to film. One of the reasons Fury Road looks so good is the trailers seem to suggest it’s this sequence turned into an entire movie, and I’d have no problem with that (maybe that’s just the trailer highlighting the action; either way, even critics love the result).

Mad Max 2 cherry-picks some of the best aspects of Westerns and post-apocalyptic movies, combines them with tightly-constructed, heart-pumping action scenes, and produces a sci-fi-action-Western of the highest, most entertaining calibre. After the first Mad Max, I sort of wondered why the franchise was so beloved. The sequel is the answer.

5 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Mad Max 2 placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

2015 #52
Seth MacFarlane | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Navajo | 15 / R

A Million Ways to Die in the WestThe second feature from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, after the justly popular Ted, A Million Ways to Die in the West is a disappointing mixed bag, half pretty-decent character- and situation-based comedy, half cringingly infantile toilet-humour tomfoolery.

MacFarlane stars as Wild West sheep farmer Albert, whose love of his life (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the owner of the town’s moustache shop (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert accidentally befriends new-in-town Anna (Charlize Theron) who, unbeknownst to him, is the girlfriend of the West’s most notorious outlaw (Liam Neeson) and is only laying low in his small town for a couple of weeks. A plot of love triangles and gunfighting ensues, littered with the aforementioned extremes of comedy.

One of the film’s problem is that said story is definitely too long in the telling — it feels like its reaching the end about halfway through, then it just keeps going… and going… The bigger problem, however, is the depths plumbed by its ‘humour’.

If you stick with it, there are some genuinely funny, clever bits. There are even some genuinely funny, not-clever-but-amusing bits. Unfortunately, there’s a shedload of puerile gags that just demean the whole thing, and it doesn’t help that some of the worst are early on, setting up poor expectations. They’re so bad I’m embarrassed to have seen them, so I’m certainly not repeating any examples — though one, involving Harris, the result of laxatives, Challenge acceptedand two other men’s hats, briefly has a funny bit in the middle when he tries to acquire the second hat. The film also uses swearing as a comedic crutch too often. I’m not one of those people who’s only tolerant of swearing if they feel each and every use is absolutely justifiable, and I don’t object to it as just part of dialogue, but too often the film leans on someone saying “oh shit” (or whatever) as if that’s a serviceable punchline.

For movie and pop culture fans, there’s entertainment to be had from some fun cameos and allusions, many of them literally “blink and you’ll miss it” (watch out, for instance, for a Family Guy cast member’s name, and a catchphrase callback the writers inserted accidentally). One cameo in particular has been criticised by some for just being the guy turning up, but… honestly, that would be fine if you didn’t know about it in advance. If you spend the film waiting for him to turn up, the joke (such as it is) is already ruined — the gag is just him being there when you don’t expect it; so if you do expect it, there’s no gag. That’s the problem with a Surprise Cameo at any point after opening night. Would it be better if there was a joke beyond just the Surprise Cameo aspect? Well, yes. Does it work as just a Surprise Cameo? If you don’t know it’s there — if it is indeed a surprise — then, well, yes.

Death by bottle?The movie’s best running gag is its titular one. At first it just seems like the concept is going to be limited to Albert sitting in a saloon and listing ways to die, which isn’t funny; but then it keeps cropping back up, sometimes unexpectedly, which really works. The whole fair thing — a running gag within a running gag — is particularly effective. If the film had traded more on this, less on farting and other bodily functions, it would’ve been much improved.

Indeed, the following comment from iCheckMovies summarises my opinion perfectly:

A peculiar mixture of high and low brow comedy which makes it ultimately a bit uncomfortable. However there’s a sweet romance story hidden in there and a fun western (with some very clever gags) if you can get past its more crude side. Feels very much like it would have been quite a fun PG or 12 rated film if they had cut out the more unpleasant side.

That last sentence, in particular, is right on the money. The film’s good bits are genuinely likeable; if not a classic (as the Radio Times weirdly reckons), then a perfectly enjoyable comedy. The frequent doses of crude and toilet ‘humour’ drag the overall likability down massively, however. I think a PG-13 cut would be forced to be a superior movie. Black sheepI dread to think what the 19-minutes-longer unrated version is like.*

I’d like to be able to recommend A Million Ways to Die in the West. The bits I liked, I really enjoyed. The bits I hated, however, I really despised. The best I can say is that your mileage may vary — is it worth suffering the lows to have the highs?

3 out of 5

A Million Ways to Die in the West debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4pm and 8pm.

* Though it does at least bother to explain why there’s suddenly a reference to Albert’s mother being dead late in the film — it screams “we deleted a scene!” in the theatrical version. ^

The Searchers (1956)

2014 #24
John Ford | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U

The SearchersWesterns don’t come more renowned than this Ford-Wayne collaboration about the years-long hunt for a girl kidnapped by Native Americans.

Alongside the usual Western thrills, peerlessly executed, it touches on themes of obsession and racism in a way deserving of more comment than this. Wayne plays an ‘upstanding’ man with dubious morals; an anti-hero for sure, almost villain at times. Works for me, tallying with my view of him more than a white-hatted paragon would.

Epic in scope without a patience-trying running time, and artistically shot without being tryingly artsy, The Searchers is old-style blockbuster filmmaking of the highest order.

5 out of 5

The Searchers was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Rango: Extended Cut (2011)

2012 #10
Gore Verbinski | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG

RangoThere seem to be an increasing number of live-action directors sticking their oar into animated films; and not just lending their ideas and name, as Tim Burton did with Nightmare Before Christmas, but properly directing them. Robert Zemeckis’ mo-cap obsession has given us that Christmas one, that other Christmas one, and Beowulf; Tim Burton supervised the stop-motion himself in Corpse Bride; then there’s Zack Snyder (Legend of the Guardians*), Steven Spielberg (Tintin), Peter Jackson (Tintin 2), and, here, first-three-Pirates helmer Gore Verbinski.

Perhaps this is because the increasing prevalence of CGI in big-budget movies (which all of these directors have also been responsible for) means the transition to 100% animation is easier — indeed, as I’ve said before, Avatar is classed as live-action but is basically a motion-captured animated film with a few live-action bits. This theory has added weight when you look behind the scenes at Rango: rather than teaming up with an established animation producer like Pixar or Dreamworks, Verbinski assembled his own team of pre-production creatives, wrote and designed the entire film independently for 16 months, then took it to ILM — who had never done an animated movie before — to do the heavy lifting. (The story of how the film was made is pretty much as interesting as the film itself, with Verbinski and ILM bringing their live-action-honed methods and sensibilities to bear on the production of a fully computer animated (not mo-capped) film. I heartily recommend the two documentaries on the Blu-ray. If you’re interested but don’t have the BD, you could do worse than read this article.)

Mmm, texturesIndeed, perhaps the most striking thing about Rango is ILM’s hallmark, the extraordinary realism. Though some of the characters are rendered cartoonishly (just look at Rango’s face) and all are of course anthropomorphised, the textures and lighting are as true-to-life as any of their work in live-action movies. They consciously went for a photographic look, as if it had been shot with real cameras, including consultation with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, and it paid off because the whole thing looks incredible. I know I only just recommended it in the last paragraph, but the making-ofs are really great for an insight into why the film looks and feels so different to most current computer-animated films. The sequences of them recording performance reference are incredible — they essentially shot some scenes in full, with the entire cast, in costume, with full props, some sets, blocking, marks, camera angles, improvisation… (The only thing lacking on the Blu-ray is a Sin City-style full-length version of the movie using that footage.) Even though it’s not mo-capped (Depp refers to their performance-reference recordings as “emotion capture”), they used a mo-cap studio with virtual sets so Verbinski could find angles and so on — all the tools he’d have on a live-action set.

Is it cheating to make an animated film this way? Some people object to motion-capture; is this as bad, or worse? Some will say so; personally, I don’t care — it’s the final product that matters, not how you got there. Though how you got there can make for a damn fine story. (Watch the making-ofs.)

PosseBack to the film itself. I know it’s less interesting, and it is far too slow at the start, but when it eventually gets underway it becomes very entertaining. Somewhere in the middle there’s a five-minute wagon/bat chase that’s a properly exciting action sequence, excellently realised. It was so good I watched it again immediately afterwards. It’s got a clever use of Wagner too, as well as some regular Hans Zimmer action scoring. Zimmer’s score throughout is top quality, referencing Morricone and all the other staples of Westerns.

There’s the quite dark, twisted, alternative designs for characters and locations — not too much (it’s still kid-friendly), but it’s different to what Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks are doing (after early attempts at realism, they seem to be really amping up the cartoonishness now). The cast are great, though there’s much fun to be had spotting voices: some are obvious (Depp, Ray Winstone), others not so much (Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina; Bill Nighy!). There’s a good John Huston impression by Ned Beatty, and Timothy Olyphant’s Clint is so spot on I checked it wasn’t actually him.

For the cinephile viewer, Rango plays as one big homage. The obvious is its deployment of all the cliches and tropes of a Western, including a relatively subtle nod to The Man With No Name (the lead character identifies himself as Rango, but his real name? We never learn). I’ve seen some commentators berate it for this, but it’s clearly paying tribute to the genre, not being a shameful attempt at it. He who controls the waterThe plot, however, is clearly borrowed from Chinatown, but it plays out differently and there’s a clear acknowledgement of the similarities in its portrayal of the Mayor. Again, it’s homage, not rip-off. It does enough under it’s own steam on both fronts to avoid accusations of plagiarism, in my opinion.

On the down side, some of the ‘humour’ is a bit too mucky for my taste. The number of toilet-related gags goes way beyond necessary, and it’s slightly depressing that at least as many are aimed at adults as children. This is where a lot of the extended cut’s four-and-a-half-minutes comes in, incidentally, as this comparison shows. In their opinion, while the extended version’s jokes are still PG-level, they may have been cut to make sure it was absolutely family-friendly. (If you have access to the Blu-ray and want to see the added material without trying to spot it in the film itself, try the deleted scenes section — pretty sure that’s just the stuff from the extended cut.) Aside from muck, there’s an extended ending, though I’m not sure what I think of it. There’s a bit about a final sunset shot which is quite good, but I like the theatrical ending’s mirroring of the opening with the mariachi birds. All things considered, the coda was probably a wise excision in cinemas.

Mariachi BirdsWith its detailed references to other films and real-world visual aesthetic, Rango may be more likely to find appreciation among grown-ups than the children who are the typical target for English-language feature animation. Then again, there’s that immature humour I mentioned. A ‘family’ film indeed. Either way, it’s an entertaining addition to — and alternative from — American animation’s usual offerings.

4 out of 5

* which has nothing to do with Rise of the Guardians, even though that crazed mash-up looks like a Snyder film. ^