Blindspotting: Ride The High Country and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid

BlindspotPatGarrettAndBillyTheKid1

 

The Wild Bunch is not my favourite Sam Peckinpah film. There, I’ve said it. Even worse, though, is that I don’t particularly like it. The stylized violence in the opening and closing battles is everything I expected and more, but it’s all the stuff in between (if memory serves that is) that was thoroughly disappointing. The “characters” and their attempts at manly bonding felt forced and hurt the whole experience of the movie for me. Granted, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it and I owe it a rewatch, but I found that two other views of the Old West by Peckinpah – Ride The High Country and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid – provided much stronger and more interesting characters while still splashing the blood around a bit. But they did it in very different ways…

BlindspotPatGarrettAndBillyTheKid2
BlindspotRideTheHighCountry1
BlindspotRideTheHighCountry2

Ride The High Country is, for the most part, a classic Western. Told mainly via interactions between its male characters, its straightforward story reveals its themes of good, evil and redemption fairly early on and builds on them. Steve Judd (Joel McRae) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are two former partners who reconnect in their later years to help bring back a deposit of gold to the bank. With the Gold Rush winding down, many questionable characters are trying to get a final crack at a stake and the bank doesn’t believe their gold will be safe without some protection. What Judd doesn’t know is that his old friend Gil and his young impetuous associate (named Heck) plan to keep the gold for themselves – whether Judd wants them to or not. Along the way up to the mining town, they stop for a rest at a ranch run by a strict religious man and his daughter Elsa (an impossibly young Mariette Hartley). She’s looking for a way out of the restrictive setting of the ranch she’s never been allowed to leave, so she tags along with the men when they leave the next day. She’s decided to go to the mining town to marry her fiancee who works there with his brothers. Somewhat predictably, all doesn’t go as planned…Elsa’s fiancee and his progressively creepier brothers see her presence as being useful for only so many purposes – mostly sex and cooking – and to be shared by all. On the way to the mining town, Heck and Elsa flirt a bit and Heck makes a pass at her. She rebuffs him, but he insists and she needs Judd to pull him off. Judd knocks Heck to the ground and is followed by Gil giving him the same treatment. Though it shows the goodness in these two old timers (both saving the poor “defenseless” woman), it creates an awkward follow-up scene when Elsa actually apologizes to Heck (I guess for not allowing him to fully take advantage of her) and he seems to be sulking. It is quite jarring from a modern day perspective to see Elsa do this, but it almost makes sense given the obvious hierarchy of man over woman in this early part of the 20th century and her desperation to keep moving away from her father’s ranch. It also establishes firmly where Heck’s morality is based and how he can only crawl up from there.

Would you like to know more…?

Blindspotting: The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin and Five Deadly Venoms

Blindspot36thChamberOfShaolin2

 

You may notice a distinct difference in the quality of the screen caps contained within this post. 36th Chamber Of Shaolin has a proper widescreen aspect ratio and clear image (straight from the Dragon Dynasty DVD) while Five Deadly Venoms has a poorly cropped 4:3 image that was obviously recorded years ago off TV to well-worn VHS (and then transferred to YouTube where I found it). Was I desperate to catch that second film and willing to watch anything I could source? No. It was actually a bit of a design point.

BlindspotFiveDeadlyVenoms2

Several months ago when I first mentioned this pairing of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu films for my Blindspot, it was suggested to me that I should swing on down to Chinatown and get my viewing copies there. After all, crappy, English-dubbed copies are how most people get introduced to Kung Fu in the first place. Though I completely saw the merit in the idea, I was against it for two reasons…First and foremost, I really can’t handle cropped films and bad dubbing – hell, even Fellini films dubbed afterwards back into their own language (as Fellini intended) drive me a bit crazy since things like intonation never quite match up quite properly when dubbed. I’ve been a stickler for proper aspect ratios since realizing what they were (somewhere during the mid-point of the VHS years) and mostly seethe if I come across a film on TV or DVD in a bastardized form. Secondly, I already had that copy of 36th Chamber on DVD sitting at home on my stack of unwatched films. But the idea of watching at least one of the films in the format in which I would’ve seen my first taste of Kung Fu was still somewhat appealing. My knowledge of Kung Fu is not extensive (loads of Jackie Chan, the more serious Come Drink With Me, the much less serious Mad Monkey Kung Fu and all sorts of clips and scenes from Sunday afternoons long ago), but when I think of it, I do indeed think of desaturated videotape stock, people being cut out of the frame and halting English dubbed in an attempt to match with the characters’ mouths. Oh, and enough whooshing and whacking sounds to make a foley artist break into a sweat.

Would you like to know more…?

Blind Spot: Full Metal Jacket

r3-Full-Metal-Jacket

Going into this film, I’d heard that it breaks cleanly into two parts, and that most people vastly prefer the first part. Coming out of it, the first statement is self-evident, but I ended up liking both parts quite a lot. The first part is set at Marine boot camp, with a hard-nosed drill sergeant putting a group of raw recruits through the wringer. The second part is set in Vietnam, following Joker, one of the more accomplished recruits, now a correspondent for a military newspaper.

I can see why people like the first half more – it’s tightly focused and basically flawless. As a microcosm of the boot camp world and how it either makes or breaks you, it’s self-contained, intense, and brilliant. On its own, it would work just as well as an extended short film. Vincent D’Onofrio (who I didn’t even recognize) goes from adorable to terrifying, and I believed every second of it.

The second half is much more sprawling, but that’s what war is. Boot camp is controlled, tight, and regimented. It’s supposed to prepare you for war, but war, especially a war like Vietnam, is unpredictable. There’s no way to prepare for the situations the men find themselves in once they get there, and that’s the point. The first half makes you think the drill sergeant is putting them through hell. But he’s not. War is hell.

There are lots of other things I could say about the film – most of the music seems incongruous and yet is utterly fitting, which I love. There are a ton of great shots, from the tracking shot leading the sergeant around the barracks in the beginning to the silhouettes against a blood-red sky in Vietnam. I didn’t expect to like this movie all that much, let alone enjoy the experience of watching it, but I did. A lot. I should’ve known to trust Kubrick.

My Souvenir: There are so many I could take from this. The sergeant’s opening monologue, Pyle’s success (albeit short-lived) with the Joker’s encouragement, the look in Pyle’s eyes in the bathroom, the intensity of the whole sniper showdown, etc. But I think I’ll take a thematic moment. After the sniper goes down, Joker’s face is half lit, half in shadow – his face showing that duality that he previously indicated somewhat facetiously with the “Born to Kill” slogan and the peace sign button. The whole movie kind of comes together at that moment, purely through visuals and symbolic means. That’s what filmmaking is all about.

Blindspotting: West Side Story and 42nd Street

BlindSpot-WestSideStory6

.

One of the reasons why you may not often hear as much about plot or character when discussing musicals is that they tend to use age old stories at their core. More often than not it’s all about those tunes and performances, so those familiar tales are used to provide a familiar landscape from which to launch the song and dance routines. As I sat down to catch up with a couple of classic musicals with well-worn structures – a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet set in the big city and a backstage look at the lead up to a performance’s premiere with a big break for a young ingenue – I wondered if either of these tales could be given new life via more than just their music and production numbers…While each brought moments of wonderful creativity and sparkling entertainment (in different amounts), the stories were, for the most part, still born.

BlindSpot-42ndStreet2
BlindSpot-WestSideStory2

That’s not enough to dismiss either film though. In particular, West Side Story is a monument to production design and choreography. Just about every shot in the film is packed with colour from mixed pastels to bright primaries to everything in between in just the right combinations. As a series of stills it would make for an incredible photography exhibit. Of course, much of the secret to the film is its motion in the form of Jerome Robbins’ choreography (he’s also credited here as a co-director along with the master of many genres Robert Wise). It feels novel and exciting even 50 years down the road. It’s sharp and quick and powerful – in short, it’s incredibly physical. It’s an expression of the character’s youthful energy and their inability to find a place to put it, and so it ends up working perfectly during the confrontation and fight scenes where the dancing is essentially the fighting itself. If not every tune fully landed with me, the vast majority did and mostly kept me with the 2 and a half hour runtime. Mostly.

Would you like to know more…?

Blindspotting in 2014

BlindSpot-AshesAndDiamonds

.
Let’s review…This whole idea behind the Blind Spot series (kicked off 2 years ago by top notch Toronto blogger/writer dudes James McNally and Ryan McNeil) is solely meant to poke and prod slackards like myself into finally getting around to those films that we not only feel are classics we should see, but ones we really want to see. Whether the titles are standard “Canon” fodder or some goofy grindhouse flick that you found for a dollar and have had sitting at home for 5 years, the point is to nudge us to watch something that has obviously caught our eye, but keeps getting passed over. Indeed, life is too short to watch something dull/crappy simply to “get through it” and check it off a list, but we’re talking about movies that sparked some kind of interest at some point and now vie for your attention with a vast array of other possibilities. The vast majority of the 44 blindspots I’ve seen and written about over the last 2 years (pairing movies for each post) have been well worth the wait and typically confounded expectations that had been in place for years. Even the ones that didn’t do much for me at least gave me something to consider.

So here is my initial cut at the pairings I’m looking at for 2014 (with me reserving the right to scrap them and alter my choices based on nothing more than a whim). What about you? Any particular film or films you’ve been meaning to see, but keep avoiding?

 

Breaking The Waves (1996)
Shanghai Express (1932)

One of the pairings I didn’t get around to last year, so let’s give it another shot. Almost 65 years separate these two stories of women and their sacrifices – it just takes one of them exactly twice as long as the other to tell its version.

Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
Ashes And Diamonds (1958)

The other pairing I didn’t do last year was Best Years Of Our Lives and From Here To Eternity (I decided to swap them out for a couple of Westerns). On reconsidering their inclusion again this year, I still wanted to get to Best Years, but this time out I thought I would match it up with another post-war story. I’m expecting the view from Poland to be in sharp contrast to the one from the U.S. though.

BlindSpot-WestSideStory

West Side Story (1961)
42nd Street (1933)

Busby Berkeley’s flights of imagination seem to be a good match for the colour and choreography of West Side.

Would you like to know more…?

Blindspotting: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and The Grapes Of Wrath

BlindspotMrSmithGoesToWashington2.jpg

.
My last Blind Spot of 2013 (before picking my 2014 ones) – dedicated to the gents of MAMO.
 

As pre-WWII statements of America, Mr Smith Goes To Washington and The Grapes Of Wrath both warn against allowing the powerful elite control over the little common man – a call to arms often heard on the cinematic landscape and relevant to today’s political and economic climate as well. But even though they were filmed within a year of each other (1939 & 1940 respectively), they reach much different conclusions about the country via very different storytelling methods. Their biggest commonality might actually be that each film was a showcase for a blooming star – a 31 year-old Jimmy Stewart looking perfectly young and naive as a hick junior senator in Mr. Smith and Henry Fonda, still with boyish good looks at 35 and piercing eyes that illuminate the black and white landscapes of Grapes, bringing some more mature depth to the strength of Tom Joad. They had each been in the business for about 5 years, had each recently come off star-making lead roles for the first time (Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life and Fonda in Young Mister Lincoln) and then never really looked back. They became Hollywood staples now destined for big things, gorgeous starlet co-stars and future best-of lists.

BlindspotMrSmithGoesToWashington1.jpg
BlindspotMrSmithGoesToWashington3.jpg
BlindspotGrapesOfWrath6.jpg
BlindspotGrapesOfWrath4.jpg

Looking at these films for the first time almost 3/4 of a century later, only one film stands out for me with a story that equals its message – John Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath. A big reason is Fonda’s focused take on Joad, but it may be mostly to do with the film’s staged approach to releasing its message about the rights of workers. It’s not that it’s always subtle mind you, but the plight of these migrant farm workers builds throughout the story and allows you to feel more than just sympathy for these poor homeless people. Particularly since Tom becomes someone you can respect and even attempt to emulate as he learns different ways of disarming volatile situations. The junior senator Jefferson Smith, on the other hand, starts out naive as the day is long and – though his intentions are good and “wholesome” – seems to flail against whatever he can’t immediately break through. Early on after his move to Washington, the press make fun of his hick background and Smith reacts by going around and punching every writer in the face (including an old man getting into a car). This transition from friendly aw-shucks yokel to rage-filled vengeance seeker doesn’t really endear him to you, so when he gets frustrated that his lone idea and cause is threatened due to a bill allowing the creation of a dam (on the property earmarked for his boys camp project), you can’t help feel that the day long filibuster that results is mostly a temper tantrum. He ends up on the right path fighting corruption and greed, but he stumbles into it and needs help to navigate the terrain.

Would you like to know more…?

Blindspotting: Phantom Of The Opera and Creature From The Black Lagoon

BlindSpotCreatureFromTheBlackLagoon5

.
Yes, this would have made more sense in October. Conspiring forces and all that…
 

It’s odd to think that two vastly different films with 30 years between them could both be lumped together under the same generic genre banner. But that’s what happens when you start classifying anything old as “classic” – like, for example, the 1924 silent feature The Phantom Of The Opera and the mid-50s monster flick Creature From The Black Lagoon both being labelled as Classic Horror. The fact that the technical tools available to the filmmakers were worlds apart and their aims were very different don’t seem to matter. If it wasn’t for alphabetical order, you’d find them side by side on a video store shelf.

BlindSpotCreatureFromTheBlackLagoon8
BlindSpotPhantomOfTheOpera10

Of course, both films are even further removed from modern day fare. Some might claim they suffer for that, but it really does depend what you want from a horror film. Do either of these films shock or scare you? Likely not in an immediate, jump out of your seat kind of way (though the iconic reveal of the Phantom’s face can still unsettle), but that’s not necessarily the only thing horror can do to you. There’s something chilling about the idea of unseen monsters living in a foreign environment right under your feet which could – at a moment’s notice and through no fault of your own – rise up and destroy your life. As well, both films provide haunting images of their monsters in close-up that can leave rather disconcerting feelings within you (put the dead-looking eyes of the Creature alongside the contorted, deformed face of the Phantom and your sleep may be interrupted tonight). The jump scares are few and far between, but good horror leaves an impression, not just a brief quickening of the heartbeat due to the crash of sound and image. So the two films do have a good deal in common I guess.

Would you like to know more…?

Blindspotting: Lost Weekend and Deliverance

BlindSpotLostWeekend5

.
When I chose Lost Weekend and Deliverance as a Blindspot pair, I did it with a vague idea of a common theme of men overcoming major obstacles. As it turns out, the biggest obstacle each central character faces and needs to overcome is staring right back at him in the mirror. That’s not to say there aren’t a few other hindrances in their way throughout each story (addiction and hallucinations in the first, raging water and crazy backwoods hunters in the other), but each man has to come to the realization that he has worth, courage and the ability to “dig deep”. For some, it takes desperate and dire circumstances to finally get the message across.

BlindSpotDeliverance3
BlindSpotLostWeekend3

In Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend, Ray Milland plays Don Birnam – a miserable alcoholic who (even though he has managed 10 days sobriety) continues to be his own worst enemy. We actually meet one of his bottles of rye (hanging out the window in one of the few hiding spots his family haven’t found yet) before we meet him. As the camera moves into the apartment, we learn that Don is preparing to go to the country with his brother for a weekend away from all temptation. However, Don has every intention of bringing along some of his favourite refreshment if he can just divert his brother’s attention for a few minutes. If he plans to get some writing done, he needs to be creative and he believes that alcohol allows his mind to “toss the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar”. But that’s the thing about someone in Don’s condition – they can rationalize just about anything and lie as easy as most of us breathe. And not just to his brother or girlfriend (Jane Wyman with the loveliest set of cheekbones you ever did see), but mostly to himself. He may become far more loquacious when liquored up (or “tight” as they used to say in the old days), but he hasn’t made a lick of progress on his novel. “Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m confident, supremely confident” he says as he riffs on other supremely artistic people and he may very well feel that way, but Don is far too scared of failure to truly commit to his writing. Hence the booze and the roadblock that is himself.

Would you like to know more…?

Blindspotting: A Star Is Born and Cabaret

BlindSpotCabaret1

.
I‘ve likely said a lot of obvious things in my time, but I expect ranking high on that list would be saying something like “Geez, that Judy Garland can sing, eh?”. But I wonder how obvious that is these days? Sure, everyone knows that Judy’s version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard Of Oz is a classic piece of American music and that she’s been in countless musicals, but I wonder – particularly with a great deal of words being spilled over the darker aspects of her life – how many people really know that she can SING. And I mean soul-bearing, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raising, pure unadulterated song emanating from her voice. I can think of no better evidence of this than her version of “The Man Who Got Away” from A Star Is Born – it raised every goosebump on my skin as I listened to a woman attempting to purge all variety of demons from inside her.

BlindSpotAStarIsBorn2
BlindSpotCabaret2

It wasn’t just the emotion pouring out that was impressive, it was also a deep command of her voice that she used to shift on a dime, retain her pitch and control power. Oddly enough, traits that she seemed to share with her own offspring Liza. In Cabaret, Liza Minelli’s songs are all worked into the film as part of her night job working in the local cabaret club (both films manage to make all the songs – at least the vocal parts anyway – diegetic) and essentially comment on the progress of the story at each point. Though it’s a fantastic idea to provide some context for each song, they easily stand alone as single performances because of director Bob Fosse’s creative choreography and Liza’s natural ability (and I would guess instinct) to grab the spotlight. There is more artifice in Cabaret‘s musical numbers due to them being confined to the stage, but there is no question about Minelli’s vocal chops. Like her famous mother, Minelli has slowly become known primarily as a persona, but let’s be clear – she could sing with the best of them.

Would you like to know more…?