If anyone’s reading, there is a short-term Situation over here… fewer movies are being watched, and fewer words written about them. Gonna burn through the backlog with some half-assed posts!

Katy says this is considered Jimmy Stewart’s worst movie, which seems farfetched – A Tale of Africa, anyone? Sure it’s no Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it’s fine. Stewart is scooping salt after dropping off supplies when local drunken bully Dave (Alex Nicol of Bloody Mama and The Screaming Skull) comes by and steals/destroys all his stuff. Stewart gets revenge, of a sort, by hanging out with Dave’s dad’s love-interest/nemesis Aline MacMahon (The Flame and the Arrow) and refusing to leave town, not letting on that he’s tracking some rifles stolen from his late brother. So Jimmy gets tangled up in all the townfolk’s affairs until he figures out who’s trading rifles to the sinister Indians (it’s Dave, of course), almost getting himself killed a bunch of times in the process.

Dusty, enraged Stewart with defeated Dave:

The town is supposedly dominated by a very large ranch plus Aline’s smaller one, though we never see workers at either place except when they ride out in groups to start fights. The rancho grande is run by ailing Donald Crisp (Ulysses Grant in Birth of a Nation forty years earlier) who wishes his son wasn’t such a fuckup, and foreman Arthur Kennedy (who we just saw in The Lusty Men), who’s in on the rifle scheme with Dave. Combo of the gun deal, the vengeful Stewart, and Crisp’s failed power plays all lead to downfall and death, though somehow Crisp is given a happyish ending, engaged to Aline, while Stewart has to ride off but tells his own love interest (Cathy O’Donnell, girlfriend of handless Harold in The Best Years of Our Lives) to look him up if she ever rides east.

Crisp and Kennedy:

Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West) plays a would-be assassin:

Robert Mitchum is a washed-up rodeo legend who runs into Wes (Arthur Kennedy of Rancho Notorious, traitor of Bend of the River) and Susan Hayward (Canyon Passage). Wes gets the idea to make quick money by getting Mitchum to train him for the rodeo life, soon becomes a conceited gambler going out with hot chicks and abandoning Susan at home, and Mitchum gets a complex about it, goes back out to prove himself and gets thrashed to death by a bull.

“I got a special callin’ for handling horses like some folks get the call to be a preacher.” Just a couple days later, we saw The Rider, which had the unfortunate side effect of making this movie seem somewhat phony by comparison. It’s overall fine though, if not up to the very high standards of Ray’s next few pictures. Arthur Hunnicutt (The Big Sky) is a highlight as a cripped ex-bullrider with a teenage daughter named Rusty… never seen the bad girl who tries to steal Wes (Eleanor Todd) or the bitter widow (Lorna Thayer) before.

Right before True/False I watched a few knotty films that I’m having trouble writing about. This was the most alluring of the bunch, and though The Challenge played last year’s fest, and The Disaster Artist is a feature about real people making a feature, and Wormwood is a semi-doc with reenactment footage about the impossibility of knowing real truth, somehow Western is the one that I feel best exemplifies the spirit of the month. It’s a fiction film with non-actors, delicately balancing a mix of tones and ideas, usually beautiful and unaccountably tense though there’s not much action (reminded me of La Ciénaga in that regard).

Meinhard is a quiet mustache guy on a German work crew on a job in Bulgaria. His compatriots spend their downtime drinking and harassing the locals, while M. spends time alone, finds a horse and rides it into town, and over the next few weeks drifts ever closer to the locals, particularly horse owner and local business bigwig Adrian. Negotiations and conflict over the treatment of local women, shipments of stone, use of water, and the horse, most of which come down to German foreman Vincent on one side, and Adrian’s group on the other with M. floating between.

But much of the movie is quiet and peaceful, a highlight being the easygoing conversations Meinhard has in town with people who don’t know each others’ languages:
“I lost a brother.”
“You’re saying something sad.”

Meinhard:

Adrian:

Also a reference by the Germans to being back in the country after 70 years – that would be Bulgaria’s alliance with the nazis… a scene of tough guys around a campfire remarking on the softness of one’s hair… and already the second movie I’ve seen this year with Bulgarian folk dancing. Played Cannes UCR with the Cantet, the Kurosawa, the Amalric, the Rasoulof.

Andrew Chan in Cinema Scope called it “a subtle variation on the western’s themes of individuality, community, and male aggression, using these timeless tropes to frame the cultural fissures in modern-day Europe.” Grisebach, from the interview:

I was happy when I found this premise of German construction workers living in a foreign country, because I felt that then I had something more ambivalent. I am always afraid when something is too direct — I don’t trust it anymore. For me it’s not easy to say that something is like this or like that. I was really interested in how xenophobia exists between the lines, how it isn’t so direct, and how this contrasts with the official ways of telling history in Germany.

Badass bounty hunter Henry Fonda (same year as 12 Angry Men) rolls into town and meets the unqualified local sheriff Anthony Perkins (three years pre-Psycho) who wants to do the right thing and arrest local bad guy Neville Brand (lead of Riot in Cell Block 11) even though it’ll probably get him killed. Meanwhile, Fonda is renting a room from a woman (Betsy Palmer, the killer in Friday the 13th) who has been exiled from town because of her half-breed son (Michel Ray, who would become an Olympic skiier and a beer billionaire). And Lee Van Cleef and his brother are going around murdering people. Fonda, an ex-lawman, says repeatedly that he’s done being a lawman, nuh-uh, never again, so we just know he’ll become acting sheriff and take care of things.

The writers lost the oscar to Designing Woman, but this was a very good Mann western to file with all the others.

Henry Fonda, Mrs. Voorhees and the young owner of Heineken:

Thanks to a well-placed mirror, we can see the bar fight and Perkins’ reaction:

I missed the evening show of Manchester by the Sea because I misremembered the start time and got caught up watching Black Mirror episodes. But I still wanted to get bummed out watching a long Casey Affleck movie, so fortunately I had The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford handy. I don’t remember Casey from the Oceans trilogy or Interstellar, so this served as a reintroduction before Manchester, and both turned out to be stunner movies with great lead performances. If anyone is working on a Timothy Carey biopic, I nominate Casey as lead.

I’ve seen this story before, in Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James, in which The Coward Robert Ford shoots his hero/boss Jesse in the back, then lives the rest of his short life as a famous outlaw-killer, reenacting his crime onstage. This movie fleshes out the gang much more, showing a Robert as a starstruck, excitable kid, the runt of the Fords, and Jesse as paranoid and dangerous.

After one last train robbery, the gang lays low. Jesse has a family with wife Mary-Louise Parker, lives in a forest house near Kansas City under a fake name, never got caught. Ol’ Frank James (Sam Shepard) and Charley (Sam Rockwell) make the weasely, weak-sounding Robert feel bad about his Jesse James hero-worship, but Jesse recruits Robert when the rest of his gang starts falling away and he gets nervous that someone will sell him out for reward money, visits old friend Garret Dillahunt and kills him. Meanwhile, Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner are none too bright, compete for the attention of a teen girl, eventually have a huge falling out and Bob kills Renner and calls the cops on Schneider. Late appearance by James Carville as the governor, Nick Cave as a troubadour and Zooey “She” Deschanel.

Casey and Carville have a psychic battle:

Dominik and DP Roger Deakins don’t overdo the stylistic quirks, allowing the story and actors to do their thing against gorgeous landscapes, but the movie’s got its share of flair – shots with edges blurred like old-timey photographs, an occasional omniscient narrator.

Casey of the Clouds:

A. Cook:

On one side it mythologizes the transitionary period of American history via the fable-building narration and dreamy photography, and on the other it slowly and methodically demystifies the characters that populate it and the falsehood of celebrity. It is this contradiction that is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film and mirrors the inner-conflict of Robert Ford and his complex relationship with Jesse James.

The back half of our New Year’s Eve classic movie double-feature. It doesn’t have the naughty thrills of Baby Face, but it’s a good western in beautifully-restored technicolor.

Our lead cowboy Logan (Dana Andrews, star of Night of the Demon, had postwar rage issues in The Best Years of Our Lives) is aggressively growing his pack mule business, gets chastely paired up with British Caroline (Patricia Roc). His banker buddy George (Brian Donlevy, Dr. Quatermass and the great McGinty) has a fine mustache but also has gambling problems, is stealing from the bags of gold dust in his vault to pay his debts, and after he eventually gets killed, Logan is free to steal his girl Lucy (Susan Hayward, Veronica Lake’s love rival in I Married a Witch), who is more Logan’s adventurous type.

Bragg (foreground) and Logan:

George and Lucy:

In between, a bunch of serious stuff happens. A young couple marries, gets a cabin built by the townspeople, then gets slaughtered by indians who attack after large-faced baddie Bragg (Nebraskan Ward Bond of Johnny Guitar and Rio Bravo) probably rapes/kills an indian woman. Logan’s friend Hoagy Carmichael (famous singer/songwriter, also of To Have and Have Not) and decent-enough local dude Lloyd Bridges testify against George, who is freed from jail by Logan only to be gunned down off camera. Logan’s business burns to the ground, and even Andy “Friar Tuck” Devine is killed. Of course there’s a chase/fight at the end, and Bragg is left for the indians. Them were hard times, but that’s a fine supporting cast. Rose Hobart was in there somewhere too, but I’m not sure where.

Lloyd and Hoagy:

Devine and Caroline:

TCM:

Under the familiar trappings of cabin raisings, poker games, saloon brawls and frontier combat is a remarkably dense drama where the tensions between individual enterprise and communal good are often strained and the line between hero and villain is not a matter of black and white, but shades of gray.

“What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?”

Memorial screening for Gene Wilder. I haven’t seen this in over 20 years, and probably that was a cropped, edited-for-TV version. It’s kind of a half-assed movie with plenty of stupid scenes, but also quite hilarious and wonderful at times.

Cleavon Little (Vanishing Point) dupes thug Mongo with a candygram:

Brooks probably carefully positioned the pen for this shot:

One complaint: Madeline Kahn’s Marlene Dietrich impression is so awful that I looked up how she managed to get cast in Young Frankenstein afterward, but it turns out she was oscar-nominated for this. Except for Picnic at Hanging Rock and I guess Shampoo, it was an extremely masculine year at the movies, so perhaps there weren’t enough entries.

Ends as a backlot romp with Dom DeLuise, of course:

Opens with violence and chatty criminals and I’m suspicious because Tarantino-influenced movies are never good. But hey, there’s Sid Haig, and the dialogue is really quite good, so I sat back and enjoyed.

Blackhat baddies:

Sid is killed straight away, then his fellow cannibal-graveyard-defiler David Arquette (also of cannibal western Ravenous) is taken from the nearby town along with the doctor (Lili Simmons, star of TV’s Banshee, which is somehow not X-Men-related) and young Deputy Nick. So a four-man team heads out to track and rescue them from evil. It’s a variation on a John Ford-type story, with a few modern twists (woman doctor, cave-dwelling troglodytes distinct from the more reasonable natives).

D. Ehrlich:

It adds up to approximately nothing, and never seems to make the most of its accomplishments (the business of dealing with the bad guys is more than a little shrugged off), but 4 men — the right 4 men — shuffling through the frontier in search of god knows what… works for me.

3 of the right 4 men:

The four men: Sheriff Kurt Russell (this makes a nice Hateful Eight companion), the doctor’s injured but determined husband Patrick Wilson, pro Indian-killer Matthew “Racer X” Fox, and the primary reason to keep watching, Assistant Deputy Richard Jenkins as Stumpy. They don’t seem especially optimistic about their chances, and this is justified when they reach the caves – Fox is killed but takes down a handful of cannibals with him, and the others are imprisoned, where they witness this movie’s big gory reason to exist: Deputy Nick being split clear in half by the titular tomahawk. Fortunately they’ve left Wilson behind, and he mounts a last-minute rescue.

M. D’Angelo:

Zahler does reasonably well by the genre visually, given his budget, but flavorful Old West dialogue (“You been squirtin’ lemon juice in my eye since I came in here” — this in response to Kurt Russell’s priceless delivery of the line “You’re pretty angry for a guy named Buddy”) and amusing riffs on stock characters are the main attraction here.

The movie that blew up my twitter the most in December, from “bear rape” to “movie pussies”. And it won the golden globe over Carol, Mad Max, Room and Spotlight. But it’s by Iñárritu, who I haven’t trusted since the putrid 21 Grams, and I was ambivalent to his oscar-winning Birdman. So surely the question on everyone’s mind is: did I enjoy The Revenant? Yes!

This one’s not done as a fake single-take – and who told me it was? – but rather shot with a grotesque wide-angle lens by the great Emmanuel Lubezki and edited by Soderbergh’s man Stephen Mirrione. I guess Leo DiCaprio is the gone-native white dude with a half-breed son and the two of them are well-paid to guide and protect a crew of trappers under siege by a group of natives looking for a kidnapped girl, rival French trappers (who kidnapped the girl), snow, bears, and worst of all, their own greedy compatriots. After Leo is half-destroyed by a bear, trapper Tom Hardy murders Leo’s son and abandons Leo to the elements, returning to camp to collect his reward for valiantly trying to help (Tom’s word against nobody’s). But Leo survives a million horrible things, makes it to camp and gets Captain Domhnall Gleeson (having a good year with Ex Machina and Brooklyn) to go after the villainous Hardy.

So yeah, I was convinced by the film, went along with the ride, edge of my seat like a disgusting, frozen, bloodied Panic Room, and didn’t even feel bad about it afterwards. Some folks weren’t as persuaded.

J. Christley:

That The Revenant is egregiously overlong is almost beside the point; audiences will manage their expectations in that regard. What pushes the film, at long last, into the icy river, is its very design, as a monument to slick, mercenary grandeur.

He makes a good point about The Big Sky being a more efficient film, but did The Big Sky have characters named Trapper Hatchet In Back and Dave Stomach Wound?