Review: Once Upon A Time In The West

They don’t shoot horses, do they?

An intentionally slow moving, deliberately paced epic “western opera”, Sergio Leone’s now classic Once Upon A Time In The West wasn’t exactly a huge hit back during its 1969 North American release. The film, which was edited for some content (since restored) was probably still somewhat lengthy for audiences of the era and the film’s somewhat glacial pace will be a bit much for some new and impatient viewers.

Interestingly enough, the film is a sweeping and meticulous love letter to the western genre, featuring major and minor visual and aural tips of the hat to many previous westerns. It’s also Leone doing remarkable work with his camera using carefully crafted sets and locations in Spain and some prime locations in Monument Valley to grand effect. There’s also spring loaded tension throughout, such as the brilliant opening sequence where three duster-clad gunmen wait impatiently for a late train to arrive just so they can kill a man (Charles Bronson). Leone uses some humor here to break that tension, having a common fly and dripping water torment two of the men as they wait.

No, he doesn’t do requests…

The would-be assassins fail, save for wounding their target and the film cuts to a man named Brett McBain and his young son hunting birds before taking their catch back home to a ranch named Sweetwater, where the entire McBain family is in turn brutally dispatched by a man named Frank (Henry Fonda!), Then we move to Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arriving via train to the town of Flagstone, where no one is there to meet her (thank to Frank and his men). After the buggy she’s hired to take her to her new home makes an unscheduled stop, we then meet Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an outlaw who’s just escaped from jail and ends up at that spot where he meets his gang. Cheyenne meets a recuperating Bronson, who he dubs “Harmonica” upon seeing and hearing him play while wondering if he can shoot as well. Harmonica initially thinks Cheyenne sent his three of his men to kill him earlier because of the dusters they wear, but he’s soon convinced otherwise. Jill eventually makes it to her new home where we see the bodies of the family laid out and a small group of neighbors waiting to give her the sad news. Before the funeral, evidence of Cheyenne’s involvement in the murders is revealed, but Frank is actually responsible.

The next time he rode a train, he made sure no one would shoot him.

It turns out Frank is working for a very wealthy man named Morton, who’s got a disability and travels in a specially customized train. Morton admonishes Frank for killing the family instead of scaring them off, to which Frank coldly replies: “People are only scared when they’re dying”(ouch). Morton wants Sweetwater for its proximity to the railroad and its water source, both of which will add to his wealth, but he doesn’t realize Frank also has his own plans for the property. Meanwhile, Jill is the sole owner of Sweetwater now that her family has been killed and yes, Frank has plans for her as well. Both Cheyenne and Harmonica figure out what Frank is up to, but both men have their own plans for dealing with him and fate also drops into the picture. The theme of water plays so heavily here that I thought of Chinatown for a moment once the overall story was finally revealed. This is a film that takes its sweet time to fully display its plot, using Bronson’s character as the near-silent observer/detective and his reason for being a bit vengeance minded is finally revealed after a trio of initially hazy flashback sequences are spread throughout the film that eventually tell a tragic tale.

John Ford was here…

There’s a lot more, but we’ll talk instead about how Leone’s superb attention to detail in everything from the sets to costumes to his work with composer Ennio Morricone that make this a film worth watching. The scope of the film is constantly amazing down the finest details to the dozens of extras in full costume for a single scenes. Jill’s arrival in Flagstone goes from crowd shot to crane shot to show of the dusty non-splendor of the growing railroad town and as expected, Leone gets in some truly outstanding closeup shots. Morricone has a theme for each of the four main characters and there’s a few uses of sound design in lieu of score, like how the film opens using a mix of insects, a constantly squeaky windmill and other amplified bits. The film stretches scenes and can be deliberately confusing in spots, but that’s Leone wanting viewers to figure out things out as Harmonica does.

Oh don’t you know, that’s the sound of the men working on the train gang?

In other words, take the time to watch this and you’ll be surprised at how well this film works not only as western, but also as a homage to other past westerns. Hey, if you sat through a three hour Batman film, this will be a cakewalk, right? Cheyenne says make a fresh pot of coffee and have it handy (you’ll get the reference from watching the film). by the way, this post is part of The Foreign Western Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Pop on by and take a peek at the other submissions for other genre faves!

-GW

Random Film of the Week: Shin Godzilla

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They’re going to have a meeting about having a meeting, most likely.

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Sometimes, a kick to the Shin works.

Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla is, for all intents and purposes, more of a grand live action anime because it translates much of its visual style and energy rather successfully from some of both of its creators’ previous well-known animated works. It’s also a sly poke at Japanese government bureaucracy where every decision has to go up a few ladders and lengthy meetings are constantly being held even as a horrific, mutating monster makes its radioactive presence known.

As a reboot of the classic franchise it works excellently in delivering a new and more terrifying Godzilla that mutates from a googly-eyed giant, arm-less gilled beast that flops and slides along because its body can’t hold it up, to a 400-foot tall nuclear blasting fiend that requires a lengthy cooldown after it uses its powers. This isn’t a Godzilla who’s a kid-friendly lizard who punches other monsters in the face and goofs around. Nope, the film takes it back to the more horror-laced 1954 original in terms of tone, laying on a modern plot where every decision made needs discussion and division heads and other leaders change into fancy jumpsuit ensembles just to look official while executive orders are issued.

(Thanks, Funimation!)

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(Not So) Random Film of the Week: The Omen (1977)

“Never work with children or animals.” – W.C. Fields

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Hell is other people, indeed…

Now, I’m quite sure Gregory Peck very likely wasn’t thinking of this well-aged quote while shooting The Omen, but I get a chuckle out of maybe thinking he was because he surely goes through all nine circles of Hollywood hell in dealing with his demon-bred son with the quirky birthmark (Harvey Spencer Stephens) and a couple of dogs that get to attack him (and his stunt double) with relish (or whatever it is dogs use as a condiment. Maybe… Chow Chow Picalilli?).

If his character had lived to be in the inevitable and somewhat silly (but still kind of scary) sequel, Damien: Omen II, I’m sure he would have also wanted to kill a few mockingbirds (a murder of crows, if you will) if one of them had ever decided to give him the old “good luck” airdrop plop, but (uh, spoiler alert?). he doesn’t live to see that happen (end spoiler). I’d make an Atticus F(l)nch joke here. but I don’t want to push my luck.

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“Isn’t he a little angel?” Uh, not really. You’ll see…

Then again, there’s an air of bleak inevitability in Richard Donner’s film that pervades every frame and it’s not hard to see from the opening titles onward that Jerry Goldsmith’s sole Oscar winning score (more on that later) was predicting some very bad things to come. I was too young to see this back in 1976, but I recall a schoolmate telling me his parents took their four kids to see it and they were all traumatized to some extent, but it was all they talked about for weeks.  As the family was pretty religious, my guess now is that was one surefire (heh) way of keeping them in church.

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Package Lander II: The (Not) Quickening

(Thanks, tarash oniani!)

So, in the middle of this more very urgent chaos taking place, I have 19 pounds of someone else’s medical supplies here. They’ve been here over a week and it’s FedEx’s fault for “just doing their job”. Hi, FedEx. Anyway, here’s the deal: someone ordered whatever is in this box and had it shipped here, but they seem to have mixed up their address with mine or the person who took the order scrambled the numbers or couldn’t read someone’s handwriting properly. I say this because just over two weeks back, I got two large boxes bundled together that for the same person.

After about 45 minutes to an hour spent going to the FedEx website which constantly sent me to an automated call line no matter what I tried, I held on for a live operator and explained the situation. The problem seemed to be solved when he said the box would be retrieved (which took a few days), but guess what?  It wasn’t.  A week or so later, another large box labeled medical supplies arrived and was left at the door before I even had the chance to open that door and explain to the driver this wasn’t the correct address. FedEk was called again, and almost 52 minutes of looping muzak later, someone said they would be picking up the box… and that was what, almost a week ago?

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That’s Entertainment?

stop the world

Where’s the brake pedal, please?

Yeah, I’m still here – just thinking about too much stuff as I guess we all are these days. Or most of us, as a few folks clearly aren’t much for sensible thought. There are a lot of half-written things here because it’s hard to concentrate on being entertaining when the planet is spinning in “Stop The World – I Want To Get Off” mode, whee.

(Thanks, RetroAlexander!)

Anyway, I’ll pop in here later in a more “reviewery” mode as I’ve actually been playing a load of stuff that’s been quite good, but I don’t want to give the total impression that I’m totally clueless to all this distress going on. The blinders were, in fact, never on here. I just keep my annoyance with many things in check with the insane hope that we figure out one day that we should maybe have a test for leaders like the ones they give sanitation workers or some other public employees or maybe even the those that choose to volunteer for medical research for a few spare dollars to live on.

Some music to lighten the mood (not by much, though):

(Thanks, IamPersonMan!)

-GW

(Not So) Random Film of the Week: No Blade of Grass

no blade of grassSo, I lost a coin toss with myself a few days ago and ended up watching a pretty dark film from the lower end of the bucket list. Reasons, I guess. I also guess I should put a trigger warning here, as this one’s something else.

Grim meets garish (plus tax where applicable) in Cornel Wilde’s 1970 apocalyptic survival shocker No Blade of Grass, which is very likely not a film you want to see if you’re holed up in quarantine for a spell. Then again, it’s a film that’s brutal to watch under any circumstances, with its kind of timely by today’s calendar plot and Wilde’s decision to linger on some scenes that are a bit too exploitative and counteract whatever strong ecological message he was trying to send.

Then again, the source material wasn’t exactly a pleasant story either. Still, Wilde (who co-wrote, directed, and produced the film) gets his powerful message across from the opening moments, using a sledgehammer of assorted mostly stock imagery of polluted water, air and land, plus what seems to be clips of a dying emaciated child to let you know business is meant in all that intensity of the opening moments. I think there was a nuclear explosion in there somewhere as well, but I might have been busy trying to find my jaw, which was under the sofa when it fell off and rolled under it. I need to vacuum more, it seems, as my chin was a bit dusty when I located it. Uh, so mind-blowing and downbeat opening, plus a reach for a finger pistol depressing tune (sung by Roger Whittaker!) as a main title? Check.

(Thanks, The Film Archives!)

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Frogs (Trick or Treat 1)

(Thanks, Burbanked!)

I rather liked science class as lot as a kid despite running into a few bumps in the road, literal warts and all. I recall almost no one wanting to dissect those pickled frogs that the teacher placed on each lab table one fine day, save for two guys in the back (why are the shady ones always in the back and equipped with sharp knives now?) who I guess either turned out later to be really good doctors or even better serial killers later on in life. That and there were a couple of too gleeful girls who obviously didn’t believe that kissing a very dead frog would generate a very dead prince or a live one, for that matter. They just wanted to gross out those that spied them doing it, Ewww.

The more amusing thing here was those girls otherwise hated the class except for this one time and a few other incidents where mayhem was a potential outcome. There was the one time they (about a year later), along with one of the two boys from the back ‘accidentally’ created ammonia gas in the lab that cleared the whole floor, eventually leading to school being dismissed for the day, whee. Uh, don’t try that trick at home, by the way. It’ll the be the perfect cure for everything that ails you with the very obnoxious little side effect of a bit of invisible but acrid smelling poisonous death (and neither a fine nor noble death at that).

(Thanks. Henridellik!)

Eventually, during the two days, I caved into the learning process and with a fellow equally skittish student (we were all paired up in the class – less dead frogs means a sharing moment for all), we took the plunge. Yes, I thought of all those company-farmed frogs taking a plunge one fine day for a final swim they didn’t know would have them a few hundred miles away dead, well-preserved and soon to be splayed out like ghastly centerfolds courtesy of class-provided scissors and scalpels. My partner in (non) crime was a girl who mentioned before we cut into the preserved formerly ribbiting animal that she had frog once for dinner and yes, it tasted like chicken.

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Random Film of the Week: The Sailor Who Fell With Grace From The Sea (1976)

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Just another day at the beach…

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This isn’t Altman’s Popeye, to say the least.

I first saw this film on network TV some decades ago and don’t remember much except that I later realized it was edited within an inch of its life, as when I saw it the next time in my teens on cable, the film had a load of stuff I missed plus stuff I understood better, but still missed because of the TV version’s heavy censoring. That said, I’m gathering that over that first network airing, the nudity was chopped out as much as possible and anything overtly sexual didn’t make the cut except for brief flashes. As for violence, I remember the infamous scene with the cat (more on that below) was also chopped down, but you still got the idea of how horrifying it was.

Anyway, flash forward to seeing the film again recently, and while The Sailor Who Fell With Grace From The Sea is both beautiful to look and quite haunting, it’s also going to be for some viewers (as I found out when I recommended it to some friends), a “pretty repellent film” when all is said and done. Two tastes that don’t taste great together for some, but at least the tagline on the poster is quite applicable. It’s got memorable performances, lovely cinematography, direction, and so forth and so on, so I can’t and won’t complain about any of that. I think the issue with some viewers is with the original Yukio Mishima story it was based on and the film not changing its tone into a more kinder one, although it shifts what some say are morally questionable characters and plot to a breezy, stunning English seaside setting instead of its original Yokohama location. But this wasn’t meant to be a film that bent itself to a particular set of generic movie rules.

(Thanks, MADWORLD1247!)

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Video Store Action Heroes: Streets of Fire (1984)

SOF_01

Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) and two of The Attackers, about to get attacked (and lose, badly).

Video Store Action Heroes - Banner 9 finalIt’s that time again, folks. You’re likely trapped inside like me for a spell, so I have your attention (at least for a few minutes before you try and sneak out). Say, look what the cat dragged in after a bit of a hiatus. This post is hopefully, virus-free and entertaining (or at the very least, one of those).

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When I first saw Walter Hill’s “Rock & Roll Fable” Streets of Fire way back in 1984, I can honestly say that I really didn’t like it much. Yet, there was a certain “je ne sais pas quoi” about it that made it quite magnetic. I went back at least four or five times to see it afterward probably in the hope it would get better with each viewing and even saw it a few more times on cable over the decades. Despite the ridiculously simple comic book style plot and one-note characters, the film’s super stylish looks combined with the genre and 1950’s/1980’s era blending made for a unique visual experience. Storytelling? Eh, there’s not so much to be thrilled over. Personally, I feel the film hasn’t aged well, original to modern cult following aside. But at least it gets straight to the action stuff if you just want that and well, you get your money’s worth if you go in totally blind expecting exactly what’s onscreen.

Plot-wise, it’s all this and no more, but I’m going to over-explain a tad here: During a concert in her hometown, singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is kidnapped by a biker gang and held hostage in another part of a fictional city.  A fan (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) calls in her tough guy ex-soldier brother Tom Cody (Michael Paré), who was previously romantically involved with Ellen, to go rescue her. He initially turns down the request, but (duh!), why else would he make the long trip back home? He ends up teaming up with Ellen’s new and wealthy jerk boyfriend/manager (Rick Moranis) and another ex-soldier he meets in a dive bar (Amy Madigan), and for a $10,000 fee, rescues Ellen, who thinks Tom only saved her for the money.

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Duck Tales! Ooo woo ooooo!!!

That mostly turns out to be false, and Tom later takes on the gang leader Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe, in too small of a role for a film’s main villain) in a fight with custom made sledgehammers where the outcome is more predictable than you’d think. While the end result is beautifully stylish and super easy to follow, for my tastes it’s too basic of a plot with no surprises or big twists. While the film packs in a lot of flash and neon-soaked noir-ishness, it ends up being up far too predictable despite that flashiness that it’s a bit disappointing.

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Not So Random Film Of The Week: Panic In Year Zero!

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Oh, I just LOVE that song! Oh, wait…

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It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I don’t feel fine!

I recall the first time I saw Ray Milland’s Panic In Year Zero! some decades back as a kid, I laughed at a few things from some of the histrionic acting and direction, the incredibly poor science on display (back then I was a science whiz), Frankie Avalon’s perfect coif (that pomade he was using was pretty much disaster proof) and every woman being a second class citizen and second fiddle to the men in the world it presents. I still laugh now, but it’s more of a dry cackle of late. The film’s less that rosy display of humanity comes off as only a fraction of where we are today with reality rolling up with a nice ice cold dose of “hold my (insert obviously named) beer, pal.”

Despite its flaws, it’s a really good “B”-grade film that’s quite dated on a few fronts, but the message hits home because hell, who wouldn’t want to get the heck out of town after major cities fall under multiple nuclear attacks? Well, if you’re a tightly knit family unit like the Baldwins, who happen to be on a camping vacation when all hell breaks loose, you get in your trusty sedan with that handy trailer attached and try to survive the trip into the mountains as chaos breaks out everywhere. Saying this film is a total blast is an understatement as well a a nice and corny joke (ha and ha).

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