The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury): well balanced between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy

Robert Sparr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury)” (1967)

In this episode, the two US government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) meet the diabolical master-mind magician Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono) who is seeking a toy bird that his assistant Gerda Scharr (Michele Carey) has stolen from him. Gordon has already stashed the bird in a locked safe after finding it abandoned in a building that Gerda had recently fled. Both West and Gordon are puzzled as to why Manzeppi and Gerda want the bird so desperately that they’re prepared to kill for it. West and Gordon subject the toy to various tests and find the name of the toy shop where it was made. West visits there with the toy where he watches an early form of motion picture in a box and is again introduced to Manzeppi who makes a grand entrance down from the ceiling on a crescent-shaped prop. After a fight and a chase, Manzeppi traps West in a bird-cage.

Buono over-acts magnificently as the dastardly devilish Manzeppi, particularly in the scene where he explains that inside the toy bird he seeks is the famed Philosopher’s Stone which also has the Midas touch on nearby objects when exposed to the full moon. Everyone else plays second fiddle to him though Martin’s Gordon almost steals the show in disguise as a Jewish travelling salesman. Minor characters can be quite eccentric and include a deadly Mexican dancer and an equally threatening Japanese fellow with an awfully long and vicious scythe. After a daring rescue and many fights, West and Gordon pursue Gerda who has taken the bird, only to discover that she has exposed herself and the Stone in the bird to the light of the full moon with a dire effect on her that recalls the famous murder scene in the James Bond film “Goldfinger”.

This episode treads an excellent balance between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy: it’s true that Manzeppi has too many far-out magic tricks up his sleeve that can’t be explained by science or logic to be completely credible but Buono carries off the character’s flamboyance and psychopathic villainy without a care in the world. Viewers can clearly see the actor was enjoying himself immensely in the role.  The sets for the toy shop with its labyrinth of dark passages and dead-end tunnels, and collection of sinister toys make for a magnificent backdrop for the action which ranges from all-out action-thriller Western to comedy to fantasy. There is an air of lushness and decadence to the entire episode: all the actors wear bright and lavishly decorated clothes, even for fighting – and that’s just the men alone! The coda to the story suits it well as West and Gordon voice a hope that one day Gerda could be restored to human form but the toy bird ends up in the ownership of someone who is completely unaware of the bird’s power.

Perhaps the silliest part of the whole episode is that something as mystical and dangerously powerful as the Philosopher’s Stone could be housed in a toy chicken of all things … no wonder in an early scene Martin is struggling not to laugh as Gordon and West face down a couple of villains.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand): insubstantial plot wastes a good cast and some good ideas

Michael Caffey, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand)” (1967)

In this episode, government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) travel to the Oregon Territory to stop an insurrection fomented by outlaw Sean O’Reilly in Canada. Going their separate ways at first, West goes to Fort Savage to meet a Major Jason – and discovers the fort’s been taken over by O’Reilly (Pernell Roberts), aided by a comely lass Sheila O’Shaughnessy (Lana Wood, the younger sister of Natalie Wood). Despite O’Reilly’s best efforts to kill West, the agent escapes and continues on. Likewise Gordon meets a few colourful characters and despatches them to join up with West.

The episode is very slow to reach its centrepiece which comes about halfway through when West steals a Conestoga wagon, kidnaps Sheila from O’Reilly by making her comatose first and then high-tailing all the way from Oregon back to Fort Savage. This part of the film becomes a running gag: West and Gordon keep losing the wagon for some reason and Sheila keeps reviving only to be made comatose again … and again. The climax is an all-out catfight in which West faces down O’Reilly and a horde of henchmen; West however saves the day with a stack of dynamite which he throws one by one, eerily simulating a 20th century bombing raid. Eventually he has to get his hands dirty going mano a mano with O’Reilly and, well … no prizes for guessing who goes tumbling over a cliff.

I thought this would be a half-decent episode but it’s turned out to be a lot of fluff: the story is too insubstantial to sustain nearly 60 minutes of viewing-time. That’s a pity as some fine guest actors, notably Roberts and the horse playing West’s mount, appear: Roberts himself dominates the cast whenever the camera focuses on him. Conrad plays his usual all-American hero self who extricates himself from an apparently cast-iron deadly fate that Houdini himself would have gasped at, and Martin rises to the occasion of impersonating a French-Canadian diplomat and an ornery coonsman out of the backwoods. The story could have been beefed up a lot more by depicting the relationship between O’Reilly and Sheila as more complex than it is: Sheila the idealistic and starry-eyed proto-socialist following the more cynical O’Reilly who pretends to fight for the cause of the common man but who’s prepared to throw the girl to the wolves and take the money and run when it suits. The budding romance between West and Sheila is unconvincing: viewers know that in the next episode there’ll be another femme fatale waiting for him.

Although some ingenious fighting weapons are at hand for both West and Ward, the episode as a whole features few futuristic ideas and concepts. Aerial bombing as a form of warfare is the main futuristic technological idea here and a world in which ideologies favouring either the wealthy or the poor are at loggerheads is prefigured also. Historical accuracy was apparently a bit sloppy: in an early scene, a van passes through the forest in the far distant background.

Like many tongue-in-cheek TV drama series of its time, episodes of “The Wild, Wild West” usually feature so-called tag ends which comment on or parody the action that’s just concluded: in this respect, this series’ tag ends seem a lot less cute and more humorous than the ones for “The Avengers” (Season 5) which would have been screening in the same year.

The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse): clever and intelligent combination of horror and science fiction

Marvin Chomsky, “The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse)” (1968)

I don’t recall this series from my childhood yet when I heard the theme music in this episode’s opening credits, it seemed very familiar so I assume that it did feature on Australian TV in the late 1960s. Various distinguished gentlemen are disappearing in a hotel in a town and US agents James West (Robert Conrad) and his partner Artemus Ward (Ross Martin) set out to investigate the strange incidents. In the course of his work, West meets a young woman Lavinia Sedgewick (Sharon Acker) who invites him to dinner at the Sedgwick family mansion where he discovers the building is under a mysterious curse that may be linked to the murders and disappearances at the hotel due to its emblem: three knives embedded in a heart.

West is the action-man of the heroic duo while Ward does the brain work, dons the weird disguises and uses his ventriloquist ability to save his skin. Through West’s leg-work which brings him in contact with Lavinia’s grandfather and his spooky physician Dr Maitland (Jay Robinson) and Ward’s own investigation, disguised as a French diplomat staying at the hotel, which puts his life in danger a couple of times, the agents discover a horrible secret: the Sedgewicks suffer from a genetic disease that causes rapid ageing and Dr Maitland is seeking to cure the disease permanently by using the kidnapped men as guinea pigs to test a special serum he has developed. The problem is that while the serum works on animals and stops or slows down the ageing process, it has the opposite effect on humans and when West sees the kidnapped gentlemen in a cell, he is horrified to see they have all been rapidly aged.

This is a clever episode that mixes elements of horror (a haunted house with secret passages and a prison below, an apparently innocent woman harbouring a terrible secret, a bed that impales people dead, a housemaid who seems surly and who might be an ally – or the villain’s assistant) and science fiction (a mad scientist searching for the elixir that gives immortality) in a Western genre and a common TV narrative format: strange things happen to innocent people, two agents are summoned to snoop around and find out what’s going on, one of the agents is captured which leads the other to the villain’s lair, the entire business culminates in and is settled by some punch-ups, the crooks are rounded up and sent to jail and all loose ends are tied satisfactorily. The motivations of the various major characters are explained throughout the episode, the science seems quite plausible (one must remember the action takes place in the nineteenth century when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was barely understood, let alone all the sciences that the theory as midwife enabled later) and the horrors that Dr Maitland’s nostrum causes are dramatic enough without appearing overdone and campy.

The acting is excellent, Robinson as the creepy and deranged physician and Acker as the desperate Lavinia probably the most outstanding. One notes that a couple of black actors play hotel clerks; this is credible from a historical viewpoint, black men often having been employed as cowboys, farmers, clerks and workers in the American West, but would come as a surprise to most people raised on old Hollywood Westerns where black people hardly ever featured. The music used is a mixture of the conventional orchestra-based soundtrack music of the period and some analog synthesiser tone melodies. The episode does rely on some cheap effects such as repeating thunder noises when a storm rages during the night. Set design and interior details, including those of objects used, look typical of the style and period of the 1870s.

“The Night of the Sedgewick Curse” shows that you can combine far-out science fiction and horror ideas in a plot-line that doesn’t need to be campy or feature wacky characters. The episode’s coda in which Ward attempts to feed West a healthy vegan lunch to prolong his life is comic without being cartoony, the actors playing their dialogue and actions straight. Characters show some sympathy and concern for others, even those others like Lavinia who turns out to be a femme fatale and who suffers tragically.

 

The Proposition: film essay and character study of British imperialism and colonialism, and the brutalisation that results

John Hillcoat, “The Proposition” (2005)

A gritty and visually stunning film essay on the combined effect of nineteenth-century British imperialism and Victorian mores, colonialism and a harsh, unforgiving environment on the individuals residing within, “The Proposition” is singer / writer Nick Cave’s meditation on the Western movie genre in an Australian colonial context.

Police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), recently assigned from England to take charge of a lonely desert town somewhere in the Queensland colony, has just captured two brothers of a rebellious Irish family the Burns after a crazed shoot-out that leaves nearly everyone either dead or deranged. Knowing that both brothers have an older brother on the lam wanted for heinous crimes of rape and murder, and desiring to civilise his little patch of Australian territory with his wife Martha (Emily Watson), Stanley presents one brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) with a stark choice: go after big brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and kill him within 9 days before Christmas Day or the police will hang baby brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), a bit of a simpleton, on that day. Charlie accepts the proposition and goes out to apprehend Arthur but not before he nearly loses his life and is saved by Arthur and his gang: an unexpected twist that severely tests Charlie’s loyalty to both his brothers, his moral principles and his desire and determination to lead a life free from the history of past British-versus-Irish conflict and violence and how this has brutalised his family through the generations.

While Charlie hunts Arthur, Stanley has problems of his own to contend with: he tries to use reason to get rid of a greater evil (Arthur) and give Charlie and Mikey a chance of redeeming themselves but opposition from his own police troopers, police superintendent Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), his own wife Martha (Emily Watson) – who demands justice for her dead friends killed by the Burns brothers – and the townspeople force him to flog Mikey. Interestingly the flogging turns the townspeople against Stanley, causes Watson to faint and encourages insubordination among Stanley’s troopers.

In the meantime police sergeant Lawrence and his men, sent out by Stanley to find some Aborigines who have killed a white man, slaughter a group of natives and in turn are killed by Arthur and his side-kick Samuel, but not before Lawrence tells Arthur of Stanley’s proposition to Charlie. The Burns gang later breaks Mikey out of jail but, weakened by the flogging, the boy dies and Arthur swears vengeance on the Stanleys.

The actual plot with its proposition centre-piece and the unforeseen karmic consequences that result is an interesting intellectual exercise on paper and for those who understand Nick Cave’s inner universe; for the general public, it’s perhaps a little abstract and doesn’t generate much excitement. There’s a conventional climax of violence but the true climax is quiet and shattering as Charlie and Arthur share one last moment of family togetherness – in the sense that members of a family mafia can experience it – before Charlie faces existential emptiness in a vast and bleak though beautiful landscape that reflects his pain and his past bad luck, born of history, back at him. The movie is best appreciated as a character study bringing together the British imperial project and its presumptuous attitude to tame and subjugate a land and its people, the effect of that project on its subject peoples, and the effect of isolation and coping with a harsh desert environment on that project and the people as well.

What makes the character study effective is both the acting and the ambiguity of the characters themselves and what they represent: Hillcoat assembled an international cast of fine actors, some of whom inevitably are under-utilised. Pearce and Winstone are the stand-outs as protagonist and antagonist who agree to a Faustian deal that will tear them apart physically and psychologically. Pearce plays his character straight and only hints at the internal anguish Charlie is suffering: perhaps he was not the best actor to play this role and Wenham, playing a minor character, might have done a better job. Winstone is the much better actor in his role: representing Enlightenment reason in a limited and flawed way, believing perhaps that people are not born bad but can be encouraged to rise from badness to goodness, he attempts to give Charlie and Mikey a chance in a way that he hopes will advance his career as well as redeem the two; but local prejudice and resentment against him and his wife as naive English snobs, his own self-serving ambitions as a leader and his wife’s own inability to come to terms with her nature and upbringing conspire against him. I probably make Stanley sound too good: he is tender to Martha and tries to protect her but one has to ask why he brought Martha out to Australia in the first place.

John Hurt as bounty hunter Jellon Lamb intent on killing the Burns brothers has a very small role but fills it to the full with deranged malice; Emily Watson plays Martha Stanley intelligently and with substance: the character though represents an aspect of English civility trying to bring order and refinement to an alien environment but doomed to fail because it doesn’t understand its own roots of violence and repression, let alone the unforgiving demands of a new country and the skills required to survive there; so in effect Watson’s effort amounts to very little. The Aboriginal characters are portrayed with some sympathy given that the script is focussed on the white characters; it is interesting that the Burns brothers, murderous renegades thought they are, treat their Aboriginal friend humanely and even use white people’s distrust of black people to their advantage to break Mikey out of jail. The most interesting character is Arthur, a poet and philosopher as well as murderous psychopath, thanks to Huston’s steady and under-played performance: one sees that in another land, another century, Arthur could have been an intelligent, sensitive and capable leader of men. In a brutal country which understands only the language of invasion, violence, subjugation and discrimination based on class, ethnicity and race, Arthur becomes the freest of all men, obeying 0nly his own morality and musing on his place within the Australian landscape and the universe, and in that he is the most dangerous.

The Australian landscape is a significant character in the film and gives it a distinctive ambience and flavour: it is a harsh and unyielding landscape yet a beautiful one that invites people like Arthur to contemplate its mystery and beauty and their relationship to its treasures. In a way perhaps the true protagonist and antagonist in this film are – ahem, Nick Cave couldn’t resist a little joke here! – Arthur and Martha: one understands true beauty, the other is in thrall to an artificial beauty and refinement. They might have made a nice couple but they carry too much cultural baggage and their meeting in the film is very, very brief.

 

 

Aerograd: great visuals of wilderness and flying planes in Soviet war propaganda film

Alexander Dovzhenko, “Aerograd” (1935)

It’s a well-made film with stunning shots of wilderness and planes flying in the sky but where would a Dovzhenko film be without the requisite pro-Soviet propaganda? “Aerograd” leads the way in staking the Stalinist government’s claim to ownership of the Far East territories, those areas from the border with Manchuria running up through Sakhalin island to the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and Chukotski peninsulas (the latter separated from Alaska by the Bering strait). The film constantly emphasises the frontier nature of the country in these areas: the forests of huge trees and mossy undergrowth stretch for miles, the rivers are wild and the seas vast, and the ice also stretches on and on over the horizon forever. Pity in a way that “Aerograd” had to be shot in black-and-white as colour film could have focussed on the majesty and richness of the forests and on the cold blue and wild white of the rivers, seas and ice floes.

Unfortunately the version of the film I saw on Youtube.com didn’t have English subtitles so much of the plot went way over my head. The plot is not very clear and has several parallel strands to it though there are definite lead characters (the sharpshooter, a pilot and a Rasputin-like Old Believer demagogue) and a head Japanese villain. There is an airfield being built in a remote part of the Soviet Far East near where a colony of Old Believers (Russian Orthodox Christians whose ancestors rejected the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 1600’s and who were persecuted and forced to flee to remote parts as a result) has lived for a long time. The Old Believers don’t support the Communist government and this stand brings them into conflict with recent Russian settlers building the airfield. In the meantime a few Japanese spies have snuck into the area and see the spat going on so they try to stir up the Old Believers into rejecting Soviet authority and the airfield. One local Russian man is friendly with a spy but is caught and condemned to be executed as a traitor; the man’s friend who appears to be a sharpshooter is given the task of executing him.

The film clearly urges support for the Stalinist government by showing the Old Believers as naive, superstitious and backward in their ways, the Japanese as sinister and duplicitous swordsmen, and other Russians as progressive and rational. One scene in which the Old Believers are at worship portrays them as a bit fanatical. Dovzhenko strives not to appear racist: the handsome pilot, one of the heroes, has a young Asian wife; and a young Siberian hunter declares his support for the Russians. The sharpshooter who must execute his friend seems upset but knows he must carry out his duty.

For Western viewers, the best parts of “Aerograd” are the silent scenes at the beginning and near the end of the film: at the start there are several minutes during which the sharpshooter pursues two Japanese spies through the forests, and near the end a huge flotilla of planes from all over the Soviet Union fly to the Aerograd airfield to help defend the area from Japanese invasion. The forests dwarf the humans running through them; even the undergrowth threatens to swallow them up. During the film’s climax when Aerograd is in danger, planes in strict formation roar through the sky and each succeeding shot, spliced in-between with title cards showing the planes’ cities and regions of origin,  includes more planes until the skies are thundering with their presence and authority.  The music during this part is rousing and dramatic. A very stirring highlight indeed.

Acting varies from natural to over-acting, even histrionic in one scene where the fiery-eyed Rasputin guy fires up a crowd so much that women start sobbing and collapsing.

As it is, “Aerograd” looks very good and if it had English and other language subtitles I would recommend it to history and film students for its value as a propaganda piece urging support for Stalin and collective action, and resistance to Japan. If “Aerograd” were considered for a remake for general viewing, it would probably be in the form of a “Western” as plot, location and character elements ripe for that genre already exist: wild frontier territory near Manchuria; a sharpshooter and a hero pilot who find in each other a natural ally; an isolated community whose political loyalties are vague and have to be prodded in the “right” direction; enemies sent from another country with territorial ambitions; and an aerial version of the US Sixth Cavalry to come to the rescue.

Exiled: gangster movie about honour, loyalty and brotherhood celebrates life in the face of a chaotic and indifferent universe

Johnnie To, “Exiled” aka “Fong Juk” (2006)

Set in Macau territory just before its return by Portugal to China in 1998, this gangster film is a well-constructed and stylised work drawing on film noir and Westerns in its investigation of honour, loyalty, brotherhood and self-sacrifice. Gangster Wo (Nick Cheung), in exile for trying to kill Boss Fay (Simon Yam), has just settled in Macau with his wife (Josie Ho) and newborn child. On hearing that Wo has returned from overseas, Fay orders Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Suet Lam) to kill him but their efforts are thwarted by Wo’s pals Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung). After a brief fight in Wo’s new house, the four men reconcile with Wo: it turns out all five of them were childhood friends who grew up together and became hitmen together.

Hiding from Boss Fay who is furious that Wo is still alive, the five men take on an assignment to kill Fay’s rival Boss Keung but this fails spectacularly in two highly choregraphed series of bullet blasts. Wo is severely injured in both attacks and his friends rush him back home where he dies. Wo’s pals then flee and by happy accident pull off a gold heist at Buddha Mountain – a job they had rejected earlier in favour of killing Keung – and the foursome look set to retire from a life of criminality permanently. Unfortunately in the meantime Wo’s widow has embarked on her own form of vengeance against her husband’s friends by establishing contact with the brothel owner who gave them the assignment to kill Keung. Fay and Keung immediately take her and her child hostage and threaten to kill them both if Blaze, Fat, Tai and Cat don’t return. The quartet don’t even think twice that they’ve been set up – they know they must save Wo’s widow and son.

The film’s style is very artistic with carefully staged sets and action: even the neighbourhood where Wo lives is very picturesque though depopulated in the manner of a ghost-town in Western movies where everyone hides beneath the windows in saloons, saddlery shops and stables though here they’d be hiding behind doors of tea shops, video rental places and consumer electronics retailers. Unusual camera angles including bird’s-eye points of view and slanted viewpoints where people have to look down or look up are a feature as are also camera shots that emphasise shadows and drawn curtains in night-time scenes of suspense. Viewers are continually aware of the environment Blaze and his gangster pals move in, whether it is the lavish hotel with its internal balconies, the grim desert they flee to in a stolen car after Wo’s death or the semi-tropical greenery at Buddha Mountain where the men hijack the van carrying the gold bars. Of course the shoot-outs are carefully choreographed, often in slow-motion as if to mimic the highly theatrical sword-fights of Chinese historical dramas, but the artwork isn’t done to excess and the gunfights are over in a matter of minutes and look fairly realistic, at least until people get up and viewers realise the professional hitmen are either incompetent shots or deliberately avoided hitting certain folks like, you know, the main characters. The preceding stand-offs may be done to excess jokingly, with several camera shots of hands sliding soundlessly into holsters to pull out guns, particularly in the restaurant and underground clinic scenes.

The overall effect of To’s direction and the film’s theatrical style is to create a self-contained universe where self-interest and greed rule, and gangland networks are riven by shifts in loyalty and rivalry, and to survive in and make sense of such a world where anything and everything can happen, and luck determines whether one lives or dies, men must make and stick to their own code of ethics that emphasises blood-brother friendships and loyalties even though this can be used against them (as happens in “Exiled”) and may lead to their own downfall and death. Constant and unexpected plot twists stress the random and capricious nature of the universe in which people must find and give meaning to their rat-race lives; the whole film becomes a series of sketches with each sketch having consequences that set up the next sketch. Coin flips drive the point home rather too obviously; this viewer had the impression that the coin-flip results simply legitimise what the gangsters have decided to do anyway. A running gag with two cops emphasises the ineffectiveness and corruption of police in this world and the heist scene where Blaze and Co co-opt a guard shows how casually ordinary people can slip into a life of crime when the wider world is so suspicious and indifferent to the individual that a person can be judged a criminal just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One would expect with the emphasis on plot that characters will be cardboard stereotypes and the acting correspondingly bare-bones minimal and efficient. Even the clothes worn conform to gangster-movie stereotypes with Blaze wearing the obligatory sunshades and tan-coloured trenchcoat and his mates in black leather. With most of the cast the minimal acting is the case but Wong stands out as the world-weary and cynical tough-nut Blaze despite doing and saying very little that’s out of the ordinary for his character. Ho as Wo’s wife is the other main acting highlight – she has a silent scene to herself which is heartbreaking in its anger, sorrow and sense of wasted life – and her personal pursuit of Blaze and Co, while not well defined, is a subplot that parallels the quartet’s quest for justice for Wo. Like the men, the women in the “Exiled” universe must make their own way and secure their niche in life in whatever way they can, often by prostitution or by becoming gangsters’ molls: either way won’t necessarily provide long-term security and comfort but it’s often the best the women can do.

The musical soundtrack is a mix of urban blues, Spanish-style acoustic guitar melodies and plaintive harmonica tunes that link “Exiled” to its Italian spaghetti Western inspirations. Other sounds in the film such as the thud of dropped bullets are beefed up in volume to sustain suspense and tension; they may also be a referential joke on To’s part that recalls previous Hong Kong gunfight action flicks.

For all its references, influences and cardboard cut-out people inhabiting a familiar noir world of bureaucratic and police corruption and complacency, mafia communities that make huge demands on one’s loyalty but give little in return and individuals who try to come to grips with the chaos that abounds in this world, “Exiled” never feels like a stale stitch-up job and is actually very absorbing. Perhaps it’s because in spite of their circumstances, Blaze and his fellow gangsters live life to the full in the knowledge that the next five minutes may be their last. The reckless way in which they live their lives and throw caution to the winds doesn’t guarantee a long life expectancy but they do it with enthusiasm and child-like enjoyment. The film finds room for slapstick comedy that serves to defuse tension and which makes pertinent social comments about police conduct and definitions of masculinity. Perhaps surprisingly for a gangster movie filled with violence and bloody deaths, “Exiled” is a celebration of life.

True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): revenge film plays straight and narrow with problematic heroine

Joel and Ethan Coen, “True Grit” (2010)

Adapted from the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis, “True Grit” can be read as both a revenge film, in which a girl seeks justice for the murder of her father, and a coming-of-age film where the girl’s quest for her father’s murderer has certain life-long consequences. It’s a likeable film with lovely prairie and snow country scenery which pays homage to the Western genre with a solid story driven more by its flavoured and eccentric dialogue and the quirks of its main characters than by action, but it appears small in its scope and ambition. Perhaps the Coens, in trying to be true to the novel in spirit if not in its details, and perhaps wishing also to respect the 1968 movie version that starred John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby in the main roles, opt for a straight and conservative interpretation of the novel with some humour and much attention to the characters’ mode of speech and their dialogue. This prevents any examination of the central character Mattie Ross’s motive for pursuing her father’s killer Tom Chaney and why she desires Old Testament “eye for an eye” justice for him.

It seems unbelievable that a 14 year old girl should take it upon herself to hire a US marshal and go after her father’s killer, even in the days of the so-called “Wild, Wild West” but this is the central conceit of the novel and the two movies based on it. Perhaps the decision to make more of the Rooster Cogburn character and less of the teenage girl in the 1969 movie was a better one: at least the story would have been more credible with Wayne garnering most attention as Cogburn and Darby as the girl trusting in his judgement and skills. The 2010 film now revolves completely around Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the aggrieved youngster, who doggedly raises the money needed to hire the old alcoholic and vicious US marshal Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and makes sure he sticks to the “contract” they supposedly agreed on, to the extent that she buys a horse and follows him very closely into Choctaw Indian country where Chaney (Josh Brolin) is hiding out with an outlaw gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), is also on Chaney’s trail but for different reasons. LaBoeuf and Ross clash and quarrel early on as a result: Ross simply won’t allow Chaney to be punished for killing another man, she wants him punished for killing her father. Why that should be so isn’t explained or pursued in the film; is a farmer in Arkansas any more important or special than a Texas senator? This simply speaks for an unpleasant and unimaginative character in a teenage girl, and the fact that Cogburn and LaBoeuf allow Ross to accompany them, rather than tell her to jump into the nearest snake-pit and let them sort out Chaney their own way, is a strange quirk that turns out to be one of many in the plot. Perhaps the novel in its own way is a comic undermining of assumptions in traditional Western literature and films, in which women and children knew their place (and that place was strictly in the men’s shadows), and the Coens, in following the novel closely, failed to capitalise much on the novel’s subversions.

The threesome travel both separately and together in tracking Chaney and there are some comic episodes, such as a cornbread-shooting competition between Cogburn and LaBoeuf to see who is a better shot, and oddball characters such as the boarding-house madame who snores loudly and hogs all the blankets, and a lone rider (Ed Corbin) wearing a bear’s head, followed by a horse carrying a corpse. The tension builds steadily and satisfactorily to Ross’s encounter with Chaney in a stream, at which point the drama, spiced with a little comedy from a minor character in Ned Pepper’s gang, kicks into efficient, no-nonsense action. This culminates in Cogburn’s challenge to the whole gang, at once serious and yet hilariously ridiculous: Cogburn riding full-tilt at the foursome with reins in his mouth and firing two guns, and managing to shoot all four of them, killing three, without suffering any injuries – hell, even his hat doesn’t blow off. The true climax comes soon after with Ross and Chaney again facing off against each other and this time, Ross gets her justice at last but with the recoil from the rifle (funny, Cogburn didn’t have that problem with the two firearms) throwing her into the, uh … nearest snake-pit.

Although the film is very neat and compact in its telling, its close attention to the quest of Ross, Cogburn and LaBoeuf allows for no examination of Ross’s character and motivations, or indeed of why Ross, as a mature woman 25 years afterwards, revisits this particular episode of her teenage years and why she holds it in such high regard to the extent that she has Cogburn’s remains interred in her family cemetery. What does she remember of Cogburn and LaBoeuf’s personalities? Does she remember them for being the first people to treat her as an adult and an equal? Is she grateful to Cogburn and LaBoeuf for getting her out of the snake-pit? If she had managed to catch up with Cogburn just before he died, what would they have talked about of that adventure? Why does she even want to see him again? Unfortunately the voice-over narrative, delivered by Elizabeth Marvel, doesn’t reveal anything of Ross’s reasons for wanting to see Cogburn again and the actress herself, playing the mature Ross, portrays her as an unpleasant and priggish spinster stereotype. It’s perhaps just as well that Cogburn dies before seeing her again as no doubt she probably would have demanded that he compensate her for killing her mount Little Blackie when it collapsed all those years ago.

The film’s thrust treats the relationship between Ross and Cogburn as strictly business-like and allows nothing deeper to develop between them: Ross as the substitute for the child Cogburn lost when his wife left him, and Cogburn as the father Ross lost. An opportunity is lost to make something more out of these two characters which might justify the tenderness Cogburn displays towards Ross when she is bitten by the rattlesnake. The Ross character remains one-dimensional while Cogburn, as portrayed by Jeff Bridges, emerges a complex character, one obviously liking his alcohol and not averse to bending the truth when it suits, yet brave, loyal and respectful of Ross’s precocity and stubbornness.

“True Grit” might have been a much better film if the Coens had deviated from the novel’s epilogue and portrayed the mature Ross as a changed and mellow character reflecting on how much her desire for vengeance and the adventure changed her life for better and for worse, and how life can dish out the worst tragedy at the moment of greatest triumph, demonstrating perhaps the pitiless nature of an uncaring universe; and if a father-daughter relationship had been allowed to develop between Cogburn and Ross so that both become better people at the end. Ross would come to appreciate that great qualities can exist even in the most “sinful” of men and Cogburn would find the family he had lost all hope of ever having. “True Grit” could have been as much a coming-of-age story about both Ross and Cogburn as a purely revenge quest for Ross and a test of reputation for Cogburn.

No Country for Old Men: all the right stuff and still not a great movie

Joel Cohen, “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Is it possible for a movie to have all the “right stuff” – you know, good acting performances, great cinematography that emphasises the desolate mood of the Texan semi-desert landscapes, a tight screenplay, a plot with a steady pace that ratchets the tension up to a tremendous, heart-breaking climax – and still stop short of greatness? In the case of Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the answer is actually “Yes”.  The problem relates to the themes and ideas the film focusses on, in particular the nature of the universe where the film is set: a universe where randomness and unpredictability rule. Good and bad people alike have things done to them for no reason other than that there is a vicious cosmic joker at work, and having good moral principles or ethics is the same as having bad ones or none at all.  It becomes difficult for characters in this world, especially a fragmented one with little sense of community, where hyper-individualism and extreme self-reliance are valued, to understand and learn to deal with the problem of evil if it strikes swiftly and unexpectedly with no logic to it at all. A kind of complacency can result with people becoming resigned to the continuing and increasing level of evil and violence in their lives.

Unemployed welder and former Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is hunting game when he stumbles upon the aftermath of a shoot-out of a drug deal gone wrong, and he finds a suitcase of money. He takes the money (it happens to be bugged) and leaves the scene; later, feeling guilty that he didn’t help a survivor at that scene, he returns there with aid but is caught by various drug gang members and barely escapes with his life but must abandon his ute. Knowing that the drug gang will have checked the ute for ID papers so they can go after him, Moss bundles his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) off to safety with her mother and himself goes on the run from one motel to the next. Meanwhile two gang leaders hire a professional killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to get the money back; Chigurh clinches his side of the deal by killing the leaders. The next day, Bell finds the gang leaders’ bodies and identifies Moss’s ute; he contacts Carla Jean later to offer police protection.

The rest of the film involves Chigurh hounding Moss and leaving mayhem in his wake while Bell becomes ever more perplexed at the level and intensity of the violence Chigurh commits. The tension steadily grows as Chigurh gets ever so close to Moss yet remains ever so far away and Moss comes close to danger but escapes in the nick of time by sheer luck (Chigurh picks the wrong room at one motel, Moss finds the electronic bug in the suitcase just in time in another motel). Ultimately both men fail in their objectives as they move in  a capricious world that’s indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants; a world where people must make sense of their circumstances and create their own rules of morality on the hop simply to survive. Innocent people die and even Chigurh himself, the bringer of death, is felled by a random act of very trite and unintended violence – a commonplace car accident! – that he can’t deal with on his own and which makes his future, even his survival, uncertain. If one assumes that he’s managed to get the money but not Moss – and there are clues in the film that that’s what happened – then the gang that the money “belongs to” will certainly be on his trail.

The grim justice of Chigurh’s fate would be more blackly comic if the Coens had identified the people who caused the accident and kept them alive. Chigurh would be faced with this dilemma: follow his inner logic and kill the persons responsible when he gets the chance; or acknowledge the fortuitous nature of the situation and let the people go. This would be the film’s climax and its best moment: Chigurh in a position to exercise free will by breaking out of old habits and ways of thinking.  If he follows the advice that he gave to a shopowner early in the film – the one where the guy followed a rule all his life and the rule put him into a rut so should he still follow that rule? – he might redeem himself in a small way. In spite of living in an uncaring and even malevolent universe, as long as people can exercise free will, they have the potential to be more than what life, experience and knowledge have made them so far, and can create some order in the universe. If Chigurh could do this, an irony comes into play: he finally becomes a human being, no longer the Grim Reaper’s right-hand man or an angel of death. The universe itself doesn’t change – it stays an amoral place – but one inhabitant makes his own peace with it.

One character likely to appeal to viewers is Carla Jean who, though the ultimate victim through no fault of her own, shows some inner steel. In refusing to stoop to Chigurh’s level by arguing that he has free will and more control over his decisions and fate than he knows (“… the coin don’t have no say …”), she seals her own fate but in a way that diminishes Chigurh. She shows him a way out of his implacable code of “honour” but he fails to seize it.

The other appealing character is Sheriff Bell, invested with warmth and feeling by Jones, who laments at what he believes is the passing of a more civilised world where the good guys and the bad guys alike abided by an unspoken etiquette and a code of honour. I should think a world like that would be a closeted world of bribery, manipulation and corruption if everyone understands the same language and knows one another well, perhaps too well, and it might not be less violent than the one portrayed in the film. Faced with a series of crimes his training, knowledge and experience haven’t prepared him for, Bell feels overwhelmed by their senseless and cruel nature and eventually retires from the police force, admitting defeat. There’s a parallel with Chigurh here: Chigurh sticks to a rigid code of self-reliance and not owing anyone anything, and Bell believes in a different code that implies a certain insularity and insider knowledge. Both men remain diminished as characters by not being able to open up to other possibilities in their world.

The practical viewer might inquire why Bell doesn’t call for police back-up from other parts of Texas or contact the United States Marshals Service for assistance to pursue Chigurh and understand his type of criminality. Even in the period the film is set in (1980), when the FBI hadn’t yet developed methods of serial killer profiling and predicting serial killer behaviour, violent crime of that nature was not common but did occur often enough in the US that law enforcement agencies were devoting resources to studying it so help was available then. It’s significant that the male characters in the film don’t ask for or seek help when they should and this refusal together with extreme self-reliance ends up being the undoing of some characters. In a society like this, it’s possible for people like Chigurh and the people he works for to cut a swathe of destruction without meeting much resistance while those left to pick up the pieces scratch their heads and wonder.

The Coens obviously enjoy creating a world of grim black humour where characters, good, bad and evil ones alike, flail about trying to make sense of everything that happens and to control people and events around them – only for it all to rebound and leave them forlorn, isolated, angry, violent – or stone-cold dead. Unfortunately the Coens’ perspective is likely to leave a lot of viewers, expecting to see Chigurh and Moss confront each other and one of them winning, dumbfounded and feeling cheated. Parts of the narrative are deliberately left opaque at critical points which will infuriate some viewers even more.

Here is a movie that boasts great craftsmanship and good performances but which falls short of saying something unique and significant that would make it a great film. What’s unique about saying that individuals can’t overcome evil when it is vague, lacks sense, logic or intelligence and strikes randomly and without warning, and leaving the message at that? This is a message of hopelessness, one that makes people fearful and likely to hand power over to institutions (government, mercenaries perhaps) that might abuse it. We may not be able to understand evil or combat and defeat it fully but there’s a difference between throwing our hands up in despair and perhaps giving our power over to others, and recognising and resisting evil in ourselves as individuals and as members of groups.

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol : powerful Western-style film about an obsessive pursuit

Lu Chuan, “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol” (2004)
 
Not often that you come across a film bearing a strong conservation message combined with a package of stunning mountain and desert scenery, a sub-text about honour and camaraderie despite political differences and some limited commentary on social and economic conditions in a particular region. In the space of 90 mintes, Lu Chuan’s “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol” weaves all these and other concerns into a structure that appears as part-documentary / part-news item / part-drama set on the high Tibetan plateau in western China. While the film’s thrust is a plea to audiences to help save and preserve populations of the Tibetan antelope and stop the illegal trade in their skins, there are other issues touched on in the film that deserve equal importance.
 
News reporter Gayu (Zhang Lei) arrives in a small Tibetan frontier town to investigate the murder of a patrol-man by antelope poachers and find out more about the patrol itself. He meets the head of the patrol Ritai (Du Buojie) and his right-hand man Liu Dong (Qi Liang) who agree to take him on a typical patrol to search for the poachers. The journey of several patrol-men into the mountains and over the high plains is arduous. Gayu comes to realise that Ritai’s relentless pursuit of the poachers, all of them well-known to the patrol, is dangerous due in part to the severe and unpredictable weather and the general physical conditions. It’s also futile for the patrol: the lack of proper and regular government funding means that the patrol quickly runs short on supplies so Ritai sends Liu Dong back into town (hundreds of kilometres away) for more food and fuel, and has to leave two other patrol-men behind when a patrol-car runs out of petrol. The group left to pursue the poachers is seriously under-manned. Liu Dong also has to sell some antelope pelts to raise cash for medicine for the injured patrol-men who go back to town with him and to buy supplies, and thus the patrol itself is implicated in the illegal trade. The search ends in disaster for the entire patrol: the two patrol-men minding the car grow weak and hungry and eventually perish in a severe snow-storm; Liu Dong gets the supplies but ends up dying in dry quicksand when his van is bogged down on the way back; and Ritai is shot dead by the poachers’ leader when eventually he catches up with the whole group and finds himself out-numbered and out-gunned. Only Gayu survives to make his own way back to civilisation with Ritai’s body.
 
Though Ritai’s pursuit of the poachers is ultimately suicidal, the viewer realises from the men’s encounters that both the hunters and hunted know each other too well and an unspoken code of honour exists between the two groups. The patrol-men seem to enjoy the thrill of the chase and the adventures they have together and the poachers get a kick out of being wanted men and leading the patrol on a wild goose chase. The poachers even know that their pursuers are often short on money and offer them the chance to become poachers themselves and never want for money for the rest of their lives. The honour system breaks down due to the overall poverty of the region that forces Ritai to abandon his prisoners to the mercy of nature and which is also partly why the poachers continue their illegal work in spite of being captured, fined or punished repeatedly.
 
Apart from Du Buojie and Qi Liang, all the actors who appear are native Tibetan amateurs and some of their dialogue may well be improvised. Du portrays Ritai as a hard-bitten anti-hero type who pushes and tests himself and his men against nature as well as try to protect it. The physical environment of the Tibetan plateau emerges as a significant “character” as well as a magnificent and stunning backdrop: the harsh and capricious weather and the treacherous roads and geology direct much of the simple plot and are the cause of several characters’ deaths. The film crew also suffered hardships and illnesses and the production manager from Columbia Pictures, one of the film’s sponsors, died in a car accident on location. Significant too is the use of Tibetan music, both the droning music of the monasteries during the sky-burial scenes of two patrol-men and the rustic folk music, to give the film a distinctive melancholy atmosphere and a sense of isolation and loneliness.
 
The use of the Tibetan equivalent of what we might call Country and Western music brings up the question of how closely the film resembles Western genre films. Several conventions of the Western genre are present: among other things, the pursuit of bad guys by the good guys which takes them through a remote and harsh environment that becomes a significant antagonist to the good guys and tests their physical and moral being; moreover, the pursuit takes on obsessive overtones for Ritai, far beyond the pleasure of the chase or the chance for adventure; and the film calls into question whether an abstract ideal or simply doing what the law requires can be worth sacrificing the lives of good, brave men like Liu Dong. The good guys and the bad guys are evenly matched in weaponry and arguments for their respective causes, and the film may attain a power from the ambiguous moral positions of the heroes and villains who find they actually have much in common. Often the women in such films have very minor roles as girlfriends or wives pleading with their menfolk to stay home (and stay alive) and this is the case with “Kekexili …”, in which Liu Dong’s scenes with his prostitute girlfriend provide the film’s most heart-wrenching moments before he leaves her to start back on his tragically fatal journey.
 
For all the power of the imagery, the themes and the plot, I find the “happy” ending, done entirely in subtitles, rather too pat for my liking. The film does say the Tibetan antelope was granted protection from illegal poaching by the establishment of a national reserve and a fully funded, professional patrol replacing the volunteer patrol. There is nothing said about whether the volunteers were invited to join the professional patrol or if the professional patrol is staffed by both Tibetans and Chinese. This makes me wonder whether the problem Ritai mentions to Gayu about the patrol’s funding is actually one of forgetfulness and neglect on the government’s part, and not one of the government deliberately ignoring the patrol because it happens to be a local Tibetan initiative born out of love and respect for nature. All too often in many parts of the world, conservation measures to preserve endangered animal and plant species or to protect the natural environment founder because the local community is not consulted or is not allowed to have an active role in the conservation project.
 
 

The Good, the Bad, the Weird: escapist and fun spoof homage to Sergio Leone spaghetti / paella Westerns

Kim Jiwoon, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” (2010)

An affectionate homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti / paella Westerns of the 1960’s, this Korean riff on horse operas is set in Manchuria in the 1930’s when that region had been taken over by Japan forcibly from an unstable China for its mineral wealth. The Korean peninsula had already been chafing under Japanese rule for nearly three decades so many individual Koreans, Japanese and Chinese alike were escaping to Manchuria, Japan’s Wild West, to make their fortunes. A steam train whooshing along a new rail line in that territory is carrying many such hopefuls and one passenger in particular is a Japanese official with a Russian map in his possession. His journey would be relaxing and uneventful were it not for a lone bandit, one Yoon Taegu (Song Kangho), who insists on taking the map for himself. While Taegu is shaking down the official (I’ll refer to the main characters by their personal names, not their surnames for obvious reasons), a group of ruffians led by debonair hitman Park Changyi (Lee Byunghun) arrives and derails the train; Changyi is also after the map on behalf of someone. While Changyi and his men rampage through the train carriages, a bounty hunter, Park Dowon (Jung Woosung), arrives on the scene searching for Changyi. In the ensuing bullet-zinging match, Taegu manages to get away on foot and scoots across the desert to where his pal Mangil is waiting on a motorbike. The two comrades race away from the train, observed by a second bunch of rogues led by Byungchun (Yoon Jemoon) on a distant hill.

This is but the prelude to an extended series of chases in which Changyi and Byungchun pursue Taegu for the map which Taegu believes will lead him to hidden Chinese treasures located somewhere deep in the interior Manchurian badlands. Along the way we have punch-ups and shoot-outs in a bar, an old lady’s home and through the alley-ways of a dusty town (over which Dowon, hanging onto a pulley with one hand and brandishing a gun in the other, swings above buildings and scaffolding Tarzan-style and picks off Changyi’s men in an inspired episode) and divers other locales. Everything culminates in a race across the desert, Taegu on the motorbike hightailing it for the mountains where the treasure is buried, with Changyi and Byunchun and their men in hot pursuit on horseback, eagerly followed by units of the Japanese Imperial Army. Dowon also turns up on his trusty steed, working his way through the soldiers and decimating them; being the good guy, of course he can take on hundreds of disposable soldiers and bandits and kill them all while remaining unscathed. Eventually Taegu, Changyi and Dowon converge on the place that corresponds to the spot marked “X” on the Russian map and find themselves in a three-way Mexican stand-off. Changyi reveals a secret and we viewers realise Changyi’s been pursuing Taegu for a personal reason as well; the dynamic between Dowon and Taegu, hitherto allies of convenience, changes drastically. This means more hot lead gets wasted – and who of the three also gets wasted? And does any of them actually find the treasure that’s thought to be buried in the ground?

The film is brisk and fast-paced with hardly any let-up: no sooner does one episode of bullet-fuelled mayhem end than another episode of frantic violence begins or has its roots. Short scenes of exposition link the action episodes and provide just enough information about the three main characters so we know something of their motives and why they’re chasing each other and the treasure. Clean-cut, plain-looking bounty hunter Dowon just wants to bring Changyi to justice and Changyi is an all-out psychotic villain with a certain Johnny Depp / Captain Jack Sparrow flamboyance in his hair-cut, make-up, clothes and ear jewellery. Most complex of the three is Taegu, the stocky and mostly clownish bandit who gets out of scrapes in the most comic of ways – though Western viewers will find his treatment of two antagonists in an out-of-town brothel a literal pain in the arse – and generally presents as a lovable if not too bright or morally upright chap until near the end when Changyi drops his clanger about a notorious bandit called Finger Chopper. Song who is already familiar to Western audiences in South Korean arthouse flicks “The Host” and “Thirst” does a sterling job giving substance and humanity to an otherwise stock cardboard comic character so that by the end you really can believe Taegu was once a hard-boiled criminal. The two Parks (the good one and the bad one) are rather more stereotyped, the good guy Dowon in particular not much more than a do-gooder, efficient robot with not much screen-time to show he may have motives other than the bounty money to want to chase down Changyi.

Some breath-taking desert and mountain landscapes feature in the film and the frontier towns with their wooden scaffolding, sturdy if slightly ramshackle buildings and surprisingly clean streets and alleys have an air of expectant excitement as though gunfights are a daily occurrence with regular set times, durations and body counts. Unusual filming techniques such as rotating the camera to get a panoramic view or following a character very closely through the train or the street add to the fast pace and give an edge to the already deranged plot and the crazy people populating it. The music deserves an honourable mention: true, it’s not a patch on Ennio Morricone’s score for the Sergio Leone flick whose title inspired this Korean film’s title but its mix of steel-tinged guitar melody, acid psychedelic synth tones and stern ghostly chanting is original and off-beat and suits the daft and goofy spirit of the film.

The film is very over-the-top and there are in-jokes, spoofs of horse opera genre conventions and sly digs at Korean, Japanese and Chinese nationality stereotypes that will go completely over a lot of people’s heads due to the frantic pace. I’m not sure that many people will be able to remember what they’ve seen after the film finishes as there is so much happening in a 2-hour span. There is a sketchy message about nursing past hurts, knowing when to let go, allowing bygones to be bygones and giving people the chance to make a new beginning for themselves. With regard to this message, director Kim had done an alternative ending for Korean audiences in which two characters survive the three-way gunfight but then one starts chasing the other in a never-ending futile cat-and-mouse game. Even the treasure itself turns out to be something other than what Taegu and everybody else had imagined so the whole chase itself, escapist and fun though it’s been, has been in vain.