March 29, 2008

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Tommy Lee Jones became one of the most well known actors of modern American cinema after achieving worldwide fame during the 90s with highly successful movies like "The Fugitive", "The Client" and "Men in Black". Having built a good reputation as a solid actor, in 1995 he decided to try himself as a director in a modest movie made for television named "The Good Old Boys", and while the film received good reviews and even was nominated to several awards, Jones decided to put his career as a director on standby, and keep focusing on his work as an actor. However, in 2005 Jones returned to the director's seat with "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", a film written by Guillermo Arriaga, the acclaimed writer of "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams". Using the theme of life in a border town as a background for their story, Jones and Arriaga create an amazing modern western about friendship, loyalty, and redemption.

The movie starts with the discovery of the dead body of Mexican cowboy Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) half buried in the desert near a Texan border town. Without any real clue of who killed him, the Police decides to leave the case unsolved, as since Estrada was an illegal immigrant, they assume that he was involved in criminal acts. The only one unwilling to believe that explanation is Melquiades' best friend and coworker, Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), who decides to discover who killed Melquiades, as he considered him his only friend. After discovering that the man who killed Melquiades is actually a member of the border patrol named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), Pete kidnaps him and starts the long trip to the small town of Jimenez, Coahuila, where he promised to take Estrada's body as it's the place where he wanted to be buried.

Writer Guillermo Arriaga builds up his quixotic tale of loyalty and redemption as a mix of road movie and modern Western that explores the nature of human relations (both real and ideal) as the two main characters travel from Texas to Mexico. As usual in Arriaga's works, flashbacks are used to flesh out the characters and their relationships; however, this time their use becomes secondary to the actual journey itself and the personal growth the characters experience there. This doesn't mean that the characters are simpler this time, on the contrary, they are completely developed and feel very real, very human. While the story inevitably does touch the subject of the political relationships between the U.S. and Mexico, surprisingly it never loses its focus and remains dedicated to his characters and their journey towards Jimenez.

The film's biggest surprise comes from director Tommy Lee Jones, who in this his first theatrical feature has truly surpassed all the expectations. Without many pretensions, Jones makes a raw and very realistic portrait of the alienation of the Texan border town, while telling the story of a man whose only friend has been killed and nobody seems to care about it. A native of Texas himself, Jones truly captures the life at a border town (from both sides of the border), although he lets the magical realism style of Arriaga's story to flourish without problem. With the superb cinematography of Chris Menges, and the excellent score from Marco Beltrami, Jones creates a haunting and beautiful portrait of the adventure of this two men. Considering the high quality of this film and his previous directorial effort, it's surprising that Jones doesn't direct more often.

The cast is simply excellent, making Arriaga's characters alive with a huge dose of humanity and dedication. Tommy Lee Jones once again shows off his talent, proving that he still has the magic to bring compelling characters to life. It is really he who makes the character of Pete Perkins more than what it's on script, as his natural presence and body language do more to the character than his spoken words. However, while Jones indeed shines through the film, the real revelation is Barry Pepper, who as Mike Norton gives definitely the best performance of the movie. Forced to travel with Perkins, Norton is the character who experiences the greater revelations as they look for the place to bury Melquiades for the third and final time. It is truly an unforgettable performance that shows the young actor as a truly talented thespian.

I think that what makes "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" work is the fact that Jones seemed to realize not only the potential of the script, but also his own limitations as a director, and decided to play by them without aspiring to nothing more than to create a good movie. It is this apparently simple approach what fits the story perfectly and makes this modern western a compelling quest for redemption in the purest style of Sam Peckinpah. Spiced up with some black comedy, the film unfolds in a slow but nice way, carefully setting up the stage for the journey's deep revelations. My only complain is that while this is definitely one of Arriaga's best (and more straightforward) works, his now trademark use of flashbacks, albeit limited, is still a bit confusing (not in a good way like in say, "21 Grams", but in an unnecessarily stylish way) and initially breaks the pace of the movie.

It may sound adventurous to say it, but I think that "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is without a doubt one of the best movies of 2005 (despite its 2006 release), and a terrific cinematic experience that reminds us that the Western genre is not dead. While purists may find the contemporary setting a turn off, this is a Western at heart, exploring the theme of friendship in a melancholic, moving way that makes a parallel to the complex relations between the two countries and their people. Quirky, deep and strangely very spiritual, this tale of friendship, justice and redemption is a must-see not only for fans of the Western, but to movie fans in general. Hopefully, the success of this film will prompt Jones to direct films more often, as this is one truly remarkable "debut".


Buy "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005)

March 28, 2008

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, all well-known names that prove that the real history of the American West is filled with people who had lives as amazing as those characters that fiction has created. In fact, many times the adventures of those famous outlaws and marshals served as the basis for those fictional characters, blurring the line between fact and fiction and making them modern American myths. Wyatt Earp is another of those names, as the stories of his work as marshal of Tombstone, Arizona, transformed him into a legendary lawman. Naturally, cinema would perpetuate the legend as well, so many movies about Earp have been done through the years, two of them done in relatively recent times (1993's "Tombstone" and 1994's "Wyatt Earp"). Still, one of the most interesting versions of the story was "My Darling Clementine", done in 1946 with Henry Fonda as Earp and directed by the master of Westerns, John Ford.

"My Darling Clementine" begins with the four Earp brothers traveling with their cattle to California. While passing near the town of Tombstone, Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan Earp (Ward Bond) go to town while their younger brother James (Don Garner) takes care of their cattle. At Tombstone, Wyatt realizes that law has practically no power in town, so he decides to continue his travel to California and leave Tombstone as fast as possible. Unfortunately, while the elder Earp brothers are on town, James is killed and their cattle stolen. After this tragic event, Wyatt Earp decides to take the position of marshal in order to find the murderers of his brother and return peace to Tombstone. This new position takes Earp to meet Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), along whom he'll form an uneasy alliance, which will become dangerous when Earp meets Clementine (Cathy Downs), a recently arrived woman who shares a past with Holiday.

With a title inspired by the folk song "Oh My Darling, Clementine", the film was written by Samuel G. Engel, Sam Hellman and Winston Miller as a new adaptation of Stuart N. Lake's book "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal" (the previous one was 1939's "Frontier Marshal" by Alan Dwan), which was a highly fictionalized biography of Earp. With that in mind, one should not expect "My Darling Clementine" to be an accurate portrayal of the story, as it is more a tale that uses bits of Earp's life as the background to tell what could be said is a "legendary story". Earp becomes the archetype of the heroic lawman, forced into action by a tragedy that ignites in him the desire of bringing order to a rotten town. In the same sense, Doc Holliday is the gentleman turned outlaw, who may find in Earp a last chance to find redemption from his past sins. The drama that unfolds between the two men with the arrival of Clementine is another element that makes the plot akin to an epic tragedy.

Director John Ford follows this mythologization of Earp's life and the American West in general to continue his redefinition of the Western ("My Darling Clementine" was his return to the genre after the war, being his first Western since 1939's "Stagecoach") as his very own setting for legends. Using the breathtaking cinematography by Joseph MacDonald, Ford conceives a very emotional film, in which almost every shot is there to say something. Not being a dialog heavy film, Ford creates a film that speaks through its silence, somewhat mimicking the stoic, taciturn attitude Ford's Earp has towards life and justice. It is all done in a very poetic way that, like the script, chooses to print the legend over the facts (as Ford would explore later in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). An odd choice, as according to story, director John Ford met the real Wyatt Earp when the old marshal worked as a consultant for Westerns in the early days of Hollywood.

While it is definitely John Ford's hand what elevates this from standard Western action to poetic beauty, credit must also go to the cast, whom all around deliver excellent performances through the film. As Earp, Henry Fonda is remarkable, understanding perfectly that he is not playing the real Earp, but an icon of justice in a lawless town. Fonda's ability to express himself without words comes specially handy for a character that requires to tell more with actions than with words. As Holliday, Mature has a more vocal character, and he certainly makes the most of that as well. And while it's Earp's story, Holliday is really the center of the film (just like he is the center of the town). As Clementine Carter, Cathy Downs is effective, but nothing amazing, and she is easily overshadowed by Linda Darnell, who plays Doc's Mexican girlfriend, Chihuahua. As written above, the rest of the cast ranges from good to excellent, almost always hitting the right notes.

I guess the worst mistake (albeit understandable) one could make is to judge "My Darling Clementine" expecting it to be an accurate biography of Earp and Holliday. It is understandable, as Ford always claimed to have met Earp when he was young, but going from that perspective would make one miss the idea of the film as a legend, not as a fact. In more than one way, "My Darling Clemetine" deals more with the nature of heroism than with the details of Earp's life, as through the film there are a series of events in which the concepts of guilt, morality and specially justice are thrown around. And while a tad subtle, there's even a hint of that complex heroic morality that posterior Westerns would explore: Earp does what he does for the good of the townspeople, even if by doing so he alienates himself from them and feels an outsider from the town's regained happiness. I'd say that this is a film that says more than what it seems at first sight.

While other films provide a better understanding of Earp's life and times, and a more accurate portrayal of the gunfight at O.K. Corral, few (or maybe none) of those would have the dreamlike beauty of "My Darling Clementine", as while those films focus on accuracy, Ford's movie is a movie of emotions and ideas, not of facts. Facts are secondary to the themes explored here, and work only as the setting of the tale. To demand accuracy from this film would be a mistake, as this is not what it provides. If anything, "My Darling Clementine" provides a myth, an icon, a legend. And paraphrasing Ford, this is the Western genre, where when the legend becomes fact, one has to print the legend.


Buy "My Darling Clementine" (1946)

March 24, 2008

Stagecoach (1939)

By 1939, John Ford was already a established director who had gone from making countless B-Movies of the Westen genre during the early decades of cinema, to direct very effective and successful A-Movies through the 30s. It was at this point in his career when, at the age of 45 years old, Ford returned to the genre of his earlier films with "Stagecoach", his first Western since his silent classic "3 Bad Men", and not only meant a revolution of his own style (that very same year he would also direct three other gems: "Drums Along the Mohawk", "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "The Grapes of Wrath"), it was also a turning point for the Western genre, as pretty much as he had done previously with "The Iron Horse" in 1924, Ford took the genre once again to the level of art, and proved once again that Westerns were more than silly shoot'em up stories of cowboys and Indians. With "Stagecoach" Ford not only introduced a new way to make Westerns, he also introduced the world to one of the most enduring icons of cinema: John Wayne.

"Stagecoach" is essentially the tale of a simple stagecoach trip across the dangerous lands where Geronimo and his Apache warriors are preparing for War against the U.S. Army. The travelers inside the stagecoach include a young woman (Louise Platt) hoping to reunite with his husband, who is a member of the Cavalry, a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), a moody banker (Berton Churchill), and four persons of "bad reputation": a gambler (John Carradine), a drunk doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a prostitute (Claire Trevor) and the infamous outlaw Ringo (John Wayne). Together with the driver (Andy Devine) and the Marshall (George Bancroft) watching over the stagecoach (and checking on Ringo), the odd group will find themselves not only worried about the apaches, but also about the clash of their personalities as well. During their dangerous trip, the group will face numerous problems, but the most important thing is that they'll face their own secrets, inner demons and prejudices.

While virtually a mix of road movie and Western, what makes the plot of the movie (written by Dudley Nichols) really interesting is the way he plays with the characters and their relationships. Adapted from Ernest Haycox's story "Stage to Lordsburg", the film plays heavily with the theme of morality and hypocrisy, as inside the stagecoach are characters of every "social class", but everyone has some kind of secret. It has been stated that Haycox based his story in another interesting study of morality and hypocrisy, the story "Boule De Suif" by Guy De Maupassant, translating the story to a Western setting and toning down the story's heavy handed use of the themes. Of course, "Stagecoach" still retains many of the elements of the typical Western of its time, but yet, it shows that like Ford, writer Dudley Nichols was decided to make "Stagecoach" something more than another Western by adding a considerable amount of character driven drama.

As written above, it is in this movie when finally the "Ford style for Westerns" is born, as he takes the genre to the level of art by his excellent use of cinematography (by Bert Glennon) to capture for the first time in his career, the amazing landscapes of Mountain Valley. However, this extraordinary use of wide shots is not the only remarkable feature of Ford's directing, together with Glennon he gives new and original uses for the camera with a great eye for the use of light and shadows. "Stagecoach" is a very atmospheric movie, as the story requires a great amount of tension between the characters and their environment and Glennon's expert cinematography plays a key role to achieve that effect. While books could be (and have been) written about Ford's visual style, it's worth to point out that specifically this film is very character driven, and Fords proves to be up to this challenge with great control and superb storytelling skill.

After building a 10 years long career as a star of B-Movie westerns, John Wayne finally proved that he could be a real Hollywood star with his remarkable performance as Ringo Kid in this film. Granted, Wayne never had a big acting range, but this film shows what he could do when provided with a great script. Claire Trevor is simply awesome as Dallas, taking the classic "hooker with a heart of gold" archetype to perfection, making a very real and human character. John Carradine shows his talent in a role that, while not having many lines, says more with physical expression than with words. Ford really knew how to bring the best out of the seasoned character actor. However, the real jewel of this movie is the truly outstanding performance done by Thomas Mitchell as the friendly, yet unreliable Doc Boone. Mitchell creates a charming character that serves as the glue that holds the group together with his good humor and sharp wit. It is truly the work of a master.

One could say that "Stagecoach" is simply a film where everything is just the way it has to be for making a masterpiece; for starters Dudley Nichols' screenplay is certainly one of his best works, playing with his assortment of characters in very clever and original ways. Nichols takes Haycox's story to higher levels, and while nowadays the exploration of morality done in "Stagecoach" is kind of clichéd, it still feels fresh after all those years of imitations and homages. It's true that "Stagecoach" owes a lot to Ford's directing style, but Nichols too deserves the credit for its freshness and overall success; I would even say that along with Ford, Nichols reinvented Epic Westerns with this movie. Finally, Ford's terrific use of music to enhance this atmosphere and Yakima Canutt's brilliant stunts (after all Ford really knew how to make action sequences) complement this film and put it in a category few Westerns to that date had achieved.

While of course by today standards this film is considerably dated (and its plot is probably now predictable), John Ford's "Stagecoach" is still definitely one of the best Westerns of the 30s, and probably one of the best ever made. True, it still has many of the typical characteristics of 30s Westerns (almost a "shoot 'em up" in the third act), and I don't doubt that it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it's hard to deny that this is no B-Movie, this is truly the birth of the Western as an A-List film, and the beginning of the legends of Wayne and Ford, as the two Western icons would team up many times after this film to return to the mythic West. While Wayne would become the image of the American cowboy and later represent the classic Westerns as an obsolete, conservative genre, the movies he made with John Ford are a testament of what the genre could truly do during its classic years.


March 23, 2008

Unforgiven (1992)

Ford, Hawks, Leone, Peckinpah, all of them big names who have defined the Western genre in one way or another across the history of cinema, transforming what started as low-budget action films into an art itself where the American Old West served as setting for tales of mythical heroism, classic tragedies, and legendary adventures. Actor and Director Clint Eastwood is probably one of the most knowledgeable artists about the Western genre, as his acting career began as the legendary "Man With No Name" in the Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns of the 60s. As a director, he somewhat continued this legacy through movies like "High Plains Drifter" and "Pale Rider", but finally in 1992, Eastwood released what many consider his final ode to the Western, and his ultimate masterpiece of the genre: "Unforgiven", an epic saga that mercilessly deconstruct the Western myths and makes them human.

Clint Eastwood himself plays William Munny, a former gunslinger who is now living a peaceful life as a farmer with his two children. However, life is very difficult for Munny's family, as since the death of his wife the family has been facing financial problems. One day a young man calling himself "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett) appears looking for Munny. The Kid tells Munny about a bounty offered in the town of Big Whisky, and offers him the chance to join him as hired gun and split the reward between them. While Munny's days as a murderer are in the past, he decides to join him after thinking about the farm's problems, but not without calling his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to join them. However, Munny's past as a notorious thief and murderer will return to haunt him in this last mission, as the Kid shows a true and honest admiration for Munny's fame as a gunslinger, even when Munny himself considers his past as villainous.

While better known for his work in science fiction, David Webb Peoples' screenplay proves to be a very accurate description of life in the American west, particularly concerning the aspects of the uses and abuses of violence in that era. It is in fact the use of violence what comes as the main theme of the story, as Munny is escaping from his past's violence while the Kid is eagerly awaiting the next chance to prove his masculinity by the use of violence. The duality between man and myth is explored not only via the relationship between the Kid and Munny, but also in the shape of a character who writes novels about the wild west, and sees the figure of the gunslinger as an idolized modern hero. Peoples' screenplay is remarkably well written, as the many characters and their relationships are exhaustively explored, resulting in a character driven revisionism of the western, that in many ways criticizes the genre's origins as violent "Shoot 'em up" films.

Peoples' script is definitely the movie's backbone, but it is Eastwood's masterful direction what transforms this meditation of violence into a unique revision of the Western. With a gritty and realistic approach very in tone with the script, Eastwood portraits the Wild West without romanticism and leaving out the mythic aspects of the genre, taking the revisionism of the Western one step beyond. Using Peoples' script, Eastwood takes a critic view on the figure of the "hero" in Westerns, focusing on the image of the gunslinger and the use of violence to solve problems. Visually, Eastwood has crafted his most impressive movie since "Bird", with an extensive use of shadows and light in the excellent work of cinematography by Jack N. Green. Eastwood's style, originated by the influence of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and developed through many stages seems to finally have spawned its masterpiece in this film.

As William Munny, Clint Eastwood is simply perfect in what at first sight looks like an extension of his earlier "Man with no name" persona. William Munny has a name, and a past he wants to escape from, and Eastwood captures this image of guilt and regret to the letter. One really gets the feeling that all the killings this cowboy has done are constantly haunting them. This is easily one of his best roles ever. Morgan Freeman is also very good as Ned Logan, although like Jaimz Woolvett (who plays The Schofield Kid), gets easily overshadowed by Gene Hackman's powerful performance as Little Bill Daggett. Hackman completely owns every scene he is in, showcasing his enormous talent in a very dramatic role that demands him to be unsympathetic without being exactly "evil". The legendary Richard Harris has a small appearance as another aging gunslinger, English Bob, in very memorable scenes where he demonstrates why he is considered one of the best actors of his generation.

After starting his career playing a mythical hero in Leone's "Dollars" trilogy, it is actually fitting that is Eastwood who explores the figure of hero in his many movies. Ever since his first directed western, Eastwood showed an interest in the duality of the hero in Westerns, as it is often someone who must do bad things for a relatively good cause. Taking a special interest in the archetype of hero portrayed in the classic 1953 Western, "Shane". Eastwood has explored this theme in many ways in the past: first as a truly mean antihero ("High Plains Drifter"), then as a man looking for redemption ("The Outlaw Josey Wales") and later as a true mythic hero ("Pale Rider"); all this culminates in "Unforgiven" as the ultimate demythologization of the concept, and his final ode to the Western genre. While the movie indeed feels a bit "preachy" at times, the story is devised in such a way that it never feels too heavy handed, as it unfolds nicely as a classic epic tale of the West.

Personally, I can't praise this movie enough, as it is easily one of the best Westerns done since Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch". Visually breathtaking, masterfully directed, and with a solid, complex storyline, I'd even say that this Western is required viewing not only for fans of the genre. Good Westerns (like all good movies) are more than just a set of conventions, they use their setting to state a point, and in this aspect "Unforgiven" doesn't disappoint, as its deconstruction of the hero archetype is simply flawless. While some consider it an "anti-Western", I think that with this movie, Eastwood's name can proudly stand along those of Ford, Hawks, Leone and Peckinpah as a master of the Western. "Unforgiven" is definitely Clint's masterpiece.


Buy "Unforgiven" (1992)

March 22, 2008

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The early 90s brought a revival of the Western film genre, with two remarkable movies achieving both critical and commercial success after their release. "Dances with Wolves" in 1990 and "Unforgiven" two years later returned the attention to a genre that seemed death after being almost in silence since the late 70s. However, the revival just didn't happen, and while there several good movies were done after them, the old American genre remained dormant for a few more years. Until the 21st century, in which the Western seems to be back with a vengeance, with more filmmakers returning to the mythic genre to keep the flame alight. From Australia came "The Proposition" in 2005, later Tommy Lee Jones gave the genre a contemporary spin in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", and in 2007 director James Mangold resurrects an old classic story in the remake of 1957's "3:10 to Yuma".

The film tells the story of Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a Civil War veteran struggling to survive with his wife and two sons as his ranch suffers from the severe drought of the time. Overwhelmed by debts, the threat of losing his ranch, and most importantly, the poor personal image he has in front of his family, Evans decides to be one of the escorts that'll take notorious criminal Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 to Yuma train for a reward of $200. But the journey to the train will be a difficult one for Evans, as not only there's the threat of being attacked by Wade's gang and also renegade Indians, Evans will have to face his inner demons as Wade represents for him everything that's opposite to him, and a battle of wills between the rancher and the outlaw will take place. To make things complicated, Evans' oldest son William (Logan Lerman) joins the group against his father's wishes.

With a screenplay by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, "3:10 to Yuma" has its basis on Halsted Welles' original screenplay, which was in turn based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. Like the original, this incarnation of "3:10 to Yuma" is at is core, a psychological drama in which two men battle each other mentally, confronting their ideas of morality, success, and basically, what is in the end what truly makes a man. There's a good amount of character development in the film, specially in what respects to Dan Evans, as it is his journey what will ultimately define for him the true nature of heroism, as he sees the mission as his chance to prove himself worthy for the first time. While mainly a character study, there's also a good deal of action in this movie, bringing back the thrilling suspense and sense of adventure of the Western genre, and despite some plot contrivances here and there, the script is pretty solid in this aspect.

Director James Mangold makes an efficient job in making the story come alive, and literally resurrects the genre's conventions, adapting them to the modern style of film-making. Mangold's remake of "3:10 to Yuma" is probably not the most original Wester ever made, but it successfully updates a classic without betraying its roots or making any concession. It is clear that Mangold knew that the strongest side of the screenplay was its characters, so he brings the best out of his two leads and puts the psychological battle between them in the spotlight. There are many moments where this interaction results in great scenes. Sadly, I can't say the same of his directing of action scenes, which seems kind of uninspired sometimes, and overdone at others, although several set pieces are of excellent quality. Still, Phedon Papamichael's cinematography and Marco Beltrami's awesome score help Mangold to recapture that epic feeling of classic Westerns of old.

When a movie works as a character study, the performances of the actors tend to make or break the film, and fortunately, "3:10 to Yuma" is a movie in which the acting doesn't disappoint. Bale and Crowe are outstanding as the two enemies, with Bale being the highlight as he makes an excellent job as the insecure rancher Evans. Evans is a complex character, and Bale completely owns his character and becomes very believable as a man who feels internally as broken as he is externally. As the charming, yet ruthless Ben Wade, Crowe is excellent, although it must be said that his role is considerably less complex than Bale's. Crowe delivers a very natural acting as a man who simply enjoys being the way he wants, without thinking too much about his fellow men. The rest of the cast is very good, specially Ben Foster as Wade's second in command, a role that could had been easily an unremarkable one but that gets transformed into gold by his excellent performance.

All in all "3:10 to Yuma" is a very solid Western film that brings back the best of what made the genre a great way to tell stories: it offers thrilling action and adventure, yet at the same time it showcases deeper emotional and intellectual themes. It's both a "shoot 'em up" and a psychological drama (with some traces of 1952 "High Noon") at the same time, and while not without its flaws, it definitely succeeds at both. As written above, I think that the action scenes are the downside of the film, as personally I found they lacked the power the movie has during the drama scenes and became just a showcase of special effects and clever set pieces (very well done, but kind of void). The screenplay also loses steam in those scenes, as often it requires more than the usual suspension of disbelief to fully accept what's going on. I guess that it could be said that Mangold's forte is on the drama scenes, not on the action ones.

"3:10 to Yuma" may not be of the level of the legendary Western classics of old, but it's certainly an excellent movie that seems to recapture the essence of the genre as its not only entertaining on an emotional level, but also on an intellectual one. Granted, it has its fair share of flaws that definitely bring down the movie a bit, but in all fairness, that's almost unnoticeable, as it's a very engaging tale. While not exactly a perfect film, it'll hopefully will help to put the genre on the spotlight again (this and Moll's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" are two very interesting 2007 Westerns that may do the trick). Only time will tell if the Western genre rides again. In the mean time, "3:10 to Yuma" is a very good choice to get started.


March 20, 2008

The Wild Bunch (1969)

After the bitter experience that was to make "Major Dundee" in 1965, director Sam Peckinpah spent years without working on any theatrical film (although he did made a small TV movie in 1966), disenchanted with the studio actions over the film he thought was going to be his masterpiece. Fortunately, the years in silence payed off when in 1969, Peckinpah returned to film-making with a vengeance in the form of a film that would change the face of the Western genre for ever: "The Wild Bunch". Peckinpah was not a stranger to the genre, as he had directed several Western TV series and also already had a classic in his resumé ("Ride the High Country", which in many ways predates the themes of "The Wild Bunch"); but it was with "The Wild Bunch" when he finally started a new stage for American Western movies, after the revolution that the Spaghetti Westerns meant in the mid part of the 60s.

Set in 1917, "The Wild Bunch" is the story of an aging gang of outlaws and their attempts to make a final big score before retiring. Led by Pike (William Holden) and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), the Bunch attempts to rob a bank in Texas where a vast amount of money is supposed to be kept. After the robbery becomes a savage massacre, only five members of the group manage to escape to Mexico: Pike, Dutch, the Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) and the Mexican Ángel (Jaime Sánchez). With their hopes broken after the failed robbery, Pike's gang decides to work for General Mapache (Emilio Fernández), a Mexican general who hires them to steal a shipment of U.S. military equipment in order to have the upper hand in the Mexican Revolution. Without nothing to lose, and knowing that they are being followed after the shootout in Texas, the Bunch prepares for a last ride.

Based on a story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner, the movie follows the themes that Peckinpah had already explored in his previous two films: aging outlaws facing change, the end of the Wild West, and most importantly, honor between friends. With a script written by Peckinpah and Green, the film is an epic story that, like Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West", deals with the arrival of civilization, the final taming of the West and the effects this had in the persons that made it what it was. However, unlike Leone's epic, "The Wild Bunch" gives special importance to the characters and the relationships between them. Not only every member of the Bunch is explored, but also the men pursuing them, and a lot of accurate background is given to the Mexican Revolution and their fighters. It's remarkable the way that the characters are written, in the sense that more than protagonists they become almost like living persons that one can easily sympathize with.

Peckinpah once again proves that this was his favorite genre by making one of the most beautiful Westerns ever made. With an excellent use of slow-motion and a cinematography that shows the influence of Italian films, Peckinpah creates an opera of violence that fits perfectly the epic tone of the story. His care for realism and obvious respect for the many cultures present in his film sets the tone for what in the future would be called "revisionist Westerns". As he did previously in "Ride the High Country", Peckinpah focuses on the themes of redemption and adaptation to change, and his use of the 20th Century's modern machinery to imply change is considered one of "The Wild Bunch"'s main icons. The influence of this film in modern action films has probably been covered many times in other reviews, so I'll only state the obvious: it's enormous.

The cast of the film is simply perfect, all giving a terrific performance and making the most of their characters. Story says that many big names were considered before William Holden, but honestly I can't see anyone delivering a better performance than him as Pike Bishop, the Bunch's leader. Ernest Borgnine as the complex Dutch Engstrom probably gave his best performance in this movie too, and makes an excellent counterpart to Holden's troubled character. Personally, I find Robert Ryan to be the highlight of the film, even when his character has very few screen time, he probably symbolizes the best what Peckinpah had in mind in this film. Finally, the performances by Oates, O'Brien, Johnson and Sánchez as the rest of the bunch are definitely excellent. Legendary directors Emilio Fernández and Chano Urueta appear in small roles, but both deliver unforgettable performances.

Many words have been written about the visual violence of this movie, some questioning Peckinpah's preference for graphic detail while others reinforce its influence in future films; but in my opinion, what makes "The Wild Bunch" a truly unique film (beyond its genre), is the high quality of the script it has. Many films have quotable phrases or unforgettable one-liners, but the brilliantly written dialogs of this movie have a power akin to the best works of literature, as often there is a deep meaning in every line and every scene. Like a poetic elegy to the Western. Peckinpah is very honest in his portrayal of the dying American West, and is not afraid of showing both the good and bad sides of the human soul. Like in spaghetti Westerns, there is not a defined "good" or "evil", but Peckinpah goes beyond the Italian films and completely demythologizes the concept of "heroes" and "villians", keeping his characters simply as "humans".

"The Wild Bunch" is certainly a movie that carries a grim, almost nihilistic mood at first sight, but deep inside it is more about melancholy, as few films capture the concepts of true friendship and loyalty like this movie does (Peckinpah would return to this themes in 1973's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid", but without the same magnificence, in my opinion). The Western genre is often misunderstood a simple stories of cowboys and Indians; but "The Wild Bunch" proves that there is more than that in the genre. With the possible exception of "Straw Dogs", Peckinpah never got the chance to make a movie the way he wanted after this classic, so "The Wild Bunch" proudly stands as the masterpiece of the rebel director.


Buy "The Wild Bunch" (1969)

March 16, 2008

Sabor a Sangre (1977)

One of the most famous figures of Mexican cinema was without a doubt Antonio Aguilar, a very popular singer of northern Mexican folk music (like Corridos) whom after debuting on the big screen in 1952, would become the star of many Westerns of the singing cowboy variety. Unfortunately, most of his movies wouldn't be of the the level of quality that had the ones starring other famous singing cowboys like Pedro Infante or Luis Aguilar (no relation), as Antonio's career started when the Golden Age of Mexican cinema was reaching its end and the industry was facing serious problems. Despite this, it could be said that Antonio Aguilar's movies kept the Mexican Western alive in the difficult decades of the 60s and 70s, as he adapted his singing cowboy style to the rawer grittier Westerns of those decades. However, this mix wasn't always smooth, as 1977's "Sabor a Sangre" proves.

In "Sabor a Sangre" (literally, "Flavor of Blood"), Antonio Aguilar plays Mauricio Rosales, whom along his good friend Chelelo (Eleazar García) are traveling towards another friend's ranch. During their trip, they find the dead bodies of a group of men, so they take them to the next town hoping to find some answers. At the town, they are informed that the dead men were a posse sent by police chief Rómulo (José Gálvez) to kill "El Tigre", a mysterious serial killer who has been hunting down the townspeople, viciously killing even women and children. Mauricio and Chelelo decide to stay in town to help the chief hunt El Tigre and put an end to the killings, but as they get involved, they discover that the horror brought by El Tigre is related to a secret incident part of the town's dark past. And to make things worse, the questions they begin to ask begin to win them enemies on their own side.

Written by Jorge Patiño (based on a story by the film's director, Mario Hernández), "Sabor a Sangre" is yet another variation of the classic Western storyline of a stranger (two strangers in this case) arriving to a town in order to help the townspeople to solve a problem. What makes the movie different from other Westerns is the way it depicts the killer's actions, as everything about him is kept completely secret for about two thirds of the story, making El Tigre akin to the serial killers in horror films (and the way Hernández shots the film enhances this aspect), with identity and motives hidden to both the characters and the audience. While the movie has a dark theme as the background (that gets darker as secrets are unveiled), it follows the conventions of typical Mexican musical Westerns, which means that many songs are included as well as a good dose of comic relief.

As written above, director Mario Hernández enhances the horror elements of the story by using a clever device to kept El Tigre a mystery: all his actions are shot from a first person point of view, similar to what John Carpenter would do the following year in his classic "Halloween". However, while Carpenter would use this for suspense, Hernández uses it for mystery, with the purpose of showing first hand the violence and brutality of this mysterious killer. Hernández uses a raw and very gritty style (cinematography by Agustín Lara Alvarado) which although probably the result of budgetary constrains, fits nicely the violent nature of the movie. While Hernández brings excellent performances from his cast, it's obvious that he can't handle the mix of musical and serious drama, as the film moves from one genre to another with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

As usual, Antonio Aguilar is very good in his performance as the smart Mauricio, whom is more prone to use his wits than his fists to win a battle. As expected, his singing is also excellent, although the movie made me think that he was a better actor than what his roles tended to demand him. As his carefree friend Chelelo, Eleazar García is effective, and together with Aguilar has some good comedy moments, although others not as effective. José Galvez has a very interesting role as the mysterious police officer, and he definitely makes the most of it, but the actor that really steals the show is Rubén Aguirre as the town's priest. Better known for his comedy roles (with Chespirito for example), Aguirre shows in this movie a great talent for drama as well. Flor Silvestre (Antonio's real life wife) has a small role but it's clear that she appears in the film only because of her singing.

"Sabor a Sangre" would be one of the best and most interesting mixes of horror and western done in Mexico if it wasn't for the fact that the inclusion of songs feel terribly forced and out of place. In fact, I would say that if the songs were changed for more character development, the movie would be perfect. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy singing cowboy films and Aguilar and Silvestre did have an enormous talent for singing, but the story of "Sabor a Sangre" is just too dark, violent and gritty for this kind of Western, as the musical segments (mostly Mexican folk ballads) do break the pace in a very awkward way despite the high quality of the singers. Still, when the movie moves away from the songs and focuses on the mystery, it does work nicely and even the comedy by Chelelo (and comedian "Chicote" in a brief role) fits nicely in a movie that seems taken from a pulp novel.

It's obvious that being an Aguilar vehicle, singing would be an intrinsic part of the movie, but for once I hoped the movie focused on the action and not in the songs, as behind its flaws, there is a good movie to see here. "Sabor a Sangre" may not be a very well remembered Western (not even in its country of origin), but it's actually one of Aguilar's most interesting movies (despite its obvious shortcomings). It's not exactly a great movie, but in it one can see how Mexican cinema was evolving during the hard years of the 70s, and how Aguilar's persona helped to take the Mexican Western through those days.


Buy "Sabor a Sangre" (1977) and other Mexican Horror films

In the picture, Antonio Aguilar and Marina Dorel preparing themselves to shoot a scene of "Sabor a Sangre" (1977). I couldn't find the original poster art.