Thursday, March 31, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Mar. 18-31

3:10 to Yuma (2007) ****
Director: James Mangold
Writers: Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, Elmore Leonard (short story)
Starring: Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Ben Foster, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Alan Tudyk, Peter Fonda, Kevin Durand, Gretchen Mol

This is the 3rd or 4th time I’ve seen the recent remake of “3:10 to Yuma”, this time taking it in with the man who developed my love of westerns, my father. I had read much about the movie since I first saw it in theaters. I had read about the homosexual overtones to the relationship between Ben Foster’s Charlie Prince character and Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade. I certainly can’t dispute them, however, to some degree I just want a good western to be a good western.

So my father turns to me after Charlie Prince’s first appearance and says, “Now, he’s gay, right?”  Not really wanting to go into that with my dad, I said, “Well, that’s one way his character can be interpreted.” As the movie churned on, I couldn’t get Charlie Prince’s role in the movie out of my head. Certainly, he could be gay. He loves Ben Wade. But is it because he’s gay, or is their relationship more like the way a mangy cur might love a person with the fortitude to pick it up off the street? It’s probably for both reasons.

Prince’s role in the gang is a little more complex than his simply being in love with Wade. He’s a leader to the men as well, even when Wade is around. While he takes control of the gang after Wade’s capture, he also takes care of Wade before he’s captured. He’s like the mother of the family to Wade’s strict father figure. When the situation calls for it, he executes dad’s rule. He also cautions the father about over stepping his bounds. There’s a sense when Wade invites a whore to join him in Mexico, it’s to avoid having to deal with the coddling Prince. That’ll let him know the marriage is over.

Anyway, while it’s interesting to look at the function of characters when they’re used in an untraditional way, it can be distracting in a western that is so good on so many other levels. However, it speaks to the strength of this western, which eschews the two dimensional characterizations that led to the once popular cinema genre’s demise.

Read my original review here.

You Only Live Twice (1967) ***
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Writer: Roald Dahl
Starring: Sean Connery, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, Tetsurô Tanba, Teru Shimada, Karin Dor, Donald Pleasence, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, Charles Gray

Watching the older Bond films is always a precarious balance between nostalgic admiration and cringe inducing filmmaking practices that have since gone out of date. In “You Only Live Twice” the notion that any white person, let alone Sean Connery, might actually pass for Asian is absurd. Also the little compact helicopter sequence might’ve seemed impressive at the time, but is a silly contrivance today.

What works in this fairly minor Bond film are the signature aspects of the series. Bond’s womanizing, the striking villain’s lair set by production designer Ken Adams, and Bond’s blasé approach to his job as an international spy and assassin make this rather typical Bond tale as enjoyable as any in the pantheon of the Bond legacy. This particular Bond is significant in that it marks the first time ever in the series that Bond’s arch nemesis Blofeld’s face is seen. The casting of Donald Pleasence in the iconic role is a good choice and the striking scar across his right eye makes his visual impact stronger than his actual role in the story.

Interesting fact: Actor Charles Gray, who played Bond’s first contact, Henderson, in this film, would later be cast as Blofeld in Connery’s eventual return to the series four years later in “Diamonds Are Forever”. His drastically different appearance from Pleasance and the next film’s Blofeld, Telly Savalis, is explained in the opening sequence of “Diamonds” where Bond appears to finally defeat his nemesis.

Vernon, Florida (1981) ***½
Director: Errol Morris   
Starring: Albert Bitterling, Roscoe Collins, George Harris, Joe Payne, Howard Pettis

Errol Morris’s second film takes its queue from his first. The basic idea is to film a bunch of eccentric thinkers to prattle on about their “deepest” thoughts and see what ridiculous things they say. The great thing about Morris’s approach is that he never judges his subjects. Judgment is left up to the audience. These are people being earnest and honest. They don’t necessarily hear what is coming out of their mouths. The guy talking about brains is priceless. The turkey hunter speaks so sincerely about the “sport” of turkey hunting, listening to the turkeys and not seeing them. I wonder if Morris filmed more of the actual hunting or captured a turkey or two on film and chose not to show them to make his subject seem a little more absurd, but I don’t think so.

A Hell of a Note (1977) ***½
Director/Writer: Eagle Pennell
Starring: Lou Perryman, Sonny Davis

Ever since I watched Eagle Pennell’s “The Whole Shootin’ Match” a couple of weeks ago, the cinematic language of his movie has haunted me. His images and characters are so raw and direct; I just had to return to his work. “A Hell of a Note” is the short film that preceded “Shootin’ Match”. Its story isn’t as deep as the latter film, but it proves Pennell is a dedicated storyteller, rather than just a documentarian.

The story follows a couple of friends trying to escape the mundane life of working for a living by drinking for a life. It stars Lou Perryman and Sonny Davis, the same cohorts as “Shootin’ Match”, as its central figures, who find that a life of escape can end with little fulfillment. Perryman’s pleas to his friend in the film’s final moments tell of the futility that follows all of us if we let it. 

Pennell did not make many movies. Many of them are difficult to come by, but they are well worth the search. I intend to seek them all out.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind  (1977) ****
Director/Writer: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, François Truffaut

I miss the days when Steven Spielberg wrote scripts too. His “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” must’ve saved him thousands in psychiatrist bills. I mean what better way to write off your childhood trauma of a broken family by writing a movie where dad leaves his family because he’s been called to be a guest on an alien spacecraft. You can hardly blame him for being irresponsible and acting like a madman and generally making a mess of his life and those of his wife and family if that’s the reason why, can you?

On top of that Spielberg gets to throw in all of his childhood fantasies and obsessions into the mix. There’s his obsession with World War II airplanes, his fantasies of aliens, a globetrotting problem solver who doesn’t even speak English and also made some of Spielberg’s favorite films that also worked out childhood issues, music plays an important role, and Spielberg really got a chance to develop his unique use of light and shadows. Did you notice how Truffaut actually looks a lot like Spielberg? It’s no surprise that he’s also the facilitator of all the action that takes place in the movie.

A few years ago I watched the Special Edition with a friend and one of his teenage kids. His boy told me that “Close Encounters” was the oldest movie he’d ever seen. How sad for him and me.


Hunter Furnish said...

Interesting thoughts, really enjoyed reading them! I'm a younger moviegoer, so 3:10 to Yuma, while not my first western, is probably one of less than ten (which I know I should fix). I'm not the biggest fan of the genre, but 3:10 still kept my attention and entertained me, be that because it was true to form or more modern Hollywood. Christian Bale always rocks no matter his weight, so that definitely helped. It's interesting, though, because when I watched it when it first released on DVD I didn't know about all of the underlying ways to read things. Might have to revisit. Maybe throw in some Ford films for good measure.

I'm with you on the Encounters remarks. As for Bond, I'm a fan but I haven't seen all of them and I'm working on changing that. Out of curiosity, what are the top Bond films for you?

t-rocc said...

Vernon! oh man me and a small group of folks spent a while riffing on nothing but that film...

"rolled 'im over"

hahaha turkey hunting ftw

great stuff man - dig the Bond writeup too, you're dead-on. while not an important Bond film in any way a very enjoyable Bond film in almost every way you want one to be

Andrew D. Wells said...

Hunter -- I've seen every Bond film more than once. I own them all. Although I'm a huge classic bond fan, I can't deny the strength of the current run that Daniel Craig is having revamping the series. Unfortunately, the rebooting with "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace" has involved dumping many of the Bond signatures, but the strength of the filmmaking has made up for it. Plus, Craig has suggested that the next episode will reintroduce some of the more fun elements that we might remember from classic Bond. As for the other Bond incarnations, "From Russia With Love" is my favorite Connery, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is one of the best classic Bonds as George Lazenby's only entry as the hero spy (on a side note, Lazenby's tweets are some of the best in Twitterland), "Live and Let Die" is one of the most exuberant Bonds even though I'd probably claim "For Your Eyes Only" as the best of the Moore Bonds, the two Daltons can be skipped, and "Tomorrow Never Dies" was the best Brosnan effort despite a weak villain.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Also Hunter--If you want a good layered western, there's no better than Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven". "Pale Rider" is a pretty good one when it comes to multiple layers as well. If you just want a great classic shoot 'em up, go no further than "Silverado". For much more challenging fare there's the Australian western "The Proposition" or the great westerns of Sam Peckinpah "The Wild Bunch" and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid". Those more challenging ones won't give you anything you expect in a western. Then there are the great Sergio Leone westerns "A Fistful of Dollars", "A Few Dollars More", "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", "Once Upon a Time in the West", and my personal favorite (although pretty challenging) "Duck, You Sucker!, aka A Fistful of Dynamite". As for more classic fare some greats include "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", "Stagecoach", "Shane", "The Searchers", and perhaps the greatest western ever made "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". Oh, and there's another Australian western that is rarely mentioned in these collections of greats but has always been dear to my heart since I saw it as a little boy, "The Man From Snowy River". You won't find any gunfights in that family friendly one, but its a great western-style romance.

Hunter Furnish said...

I'm also a big fan of Daniel Craig, in most regards as an actor, though I've also seen a share of Connery and Brosnan. Thanks for the suggestions, though! I'll definitely work on catching up. Love the blog!