Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rare Westerns on Netflix Instant Watch Capsule Reviews, vol.17

The Peacemaker (1956)

A reverend and former gunslinger (James Mitchell) is assigned to Pembroke, a rough and tumble town. He quickly bumps into Viggo, the local tough, who warns him that he is in fact a lawnmower looking for reverend grass (I’m paraphrasing). The reverend and his new church become vital to cooling disputes between the railroad, the ranchers, and the farmers. The reverend is simply a good guy that would rather rely on speeches than bullets to create peace, which is fine in theory, but pretty boring. It’s also somewhat impractical, considering the scene where he tells a character that violence is not the answer, and the guy immediately punches him in the face. All told, a pretty direct answer to his question.

Very good B & W transfer, and never released on home video.


Santa Fe Passage (1955)



John Payne, with his assistant Slim Pickens, is a scout that helps wagon trains traverse hostile Indian land. However, he unwisely bribes some Indians with guns, and they use those guns to shoot up a wagon train despite promising not to shoot white people (I guess they couldn’t help themselves). Among the victims is a young boy that wheezes his way through his final moments. Disgraced, Payne aims to redeem himself and manages to get another job as a scout for some gun runners trying to get to Santa Fe, despite his employers knowing about what happened. The most skeptical person in the group is a tough half-breed cowgirl (Faith Domergue) who eventually warns up to him. Another typical “wagon train in hostile Indian lands” plot benefits from the dynamic between Payne and Domergue.

Decent color transfer suffers from digital noise and blocking, and is also cropped from 1.66:1 (no biggie). Never released on home video.


The Lone Gun 1954



George Montgomery is a reluctant marshal (not to be confused with The Reluctant Astronaut, which is a Don Knotts movie) who tries to clean up a town held in fear by the Moran gang (headed by Neville Brand). Dorothy Malone and her brother own a farm but are deep in debt, so her brother joins the gang as they go cattle rustling. The brother wants to go clean but can’t get a bank loan, so he decides to bet his farm (literally "bet the farm") against Neville in a game of poker to try and settle his debt and ends up winning. However, scumbag Neville (he usually plays these kinds of characters in westerns it seems) just shoot him and frames Montgomery’s sly professional poker player friend Fairweather. This sets up an interesting scenario where characters are pitted against each other and loyalties are tested, as Montgomery tries to sort through the facts to see that justice is properly served. Straight forward and no frills, but the script is engaging, and the Fairweather character (Frank Faylen) is charismatic and interesting.

Very good transfer, although the colors are a bit faded and there is an odd diffuse quality to the print (which may have been intentional). It looks to have been filmed in a 2 strip teal-leaning color process (maybe Trucolor). Never released on home video.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1951) - death is the truest sign of bravery




On the eve of battle, union soldier Henry is so scared that he is on the verge of tears. He feels “alone in space”, removed from the other soldiers and envious of what he perceives to be their resolute strength. However, he hears an ominous warning on the cusp of battle drifting in from the lake, warning him of the “little red badge”; "don’t get one pinned on you”, the voice intones. It’s as if the earth sees the horrors of war unadorned, where as men can trick themselves into placing such grave importance on a token. In a war where victory is not immediately attainable or obvious to the soldiers, they latch on to a goal that is tangible. In this case, a “red badge” is a war injury, and it signifies to others that the holder has faced the violence of war head on. Conversely, failure to carry the badge likely means that one is a coward who has avoided battle. After all, if you are a soldier marching side by side with other soldiers through many a battle, it follows that you are going to be shot at some point. This proves too much for Henry to bear, so he quickly flees to the woods when the fighting starts, wandering lost in shame as the gunfire and smoke waft over the trees.




After the battle, the soldiers march in unison, previously a scattered collection of souls. They march in victory, seemingly celebrating their bullet wounds more than the victory of battle. One soldier sings “Glory Glory Hallelujah” forcefully, and the score follows suit, but the melody becomes a slow lament that dies to a crawl. Jim becomes overcome with horror as he feels death imminent, so he breaks away from the path and lies down in a nearby field to die. Henry sees this askew parade of heroes and becomes envious of their “red badges”. Luckily for him, he is soon hit in the head with the butt of a gun during a tussle. He finally has his badge, and can convincingly fall in line instead of continuing to wander as a coward. He hobbles back to the regiment and claims that he was shot in the head, and is quickly accepted back, as “he had performed his mistakes in the dark.”


Henry finally musters up a deep reserve of courage, but ironically only after he has already earned his badge (and a false one at that). He has a second chance to prove his worth, heroically leading a charge, even saving the union flag from the hands of a fallen soldier to keep it waving out in front of the regiment. He also ends up grabbing the rebel flag from the dying hands of an opposing soldier, a sad emblem confirming victory. Maybe it has dawned on Henry that the only thing separating him from the dying rebel soldier are the differing patterns on the tattered flags they carry. Henry soon confesses his cowardice, his false “red badge”, and a weight is lifted off of his shoulders; the burden of courage. He learns that many of the other soldiers also fled in fear at the moment of truth just as he did. He realizes that he was wrong when he thought himself the only coward in the regiment. Like Henry, the other soldiers were merely human.

***


The film was cut to ribbons before its release, shorn of 20 odd minutes, which supposedly included the death of “The Tattered Man” (Royal Dano). The gaps are bridged with voiceover, appropriately utilizing the haunting and poetic words of Stephen Crane, but inappropriately voiced. It awkwardly bridges deleted footage and also pedantically reinforces what we can easily see onscreen. Huston develops visual metaphors for the fear and alienation of Henry, taking an interior monologue and making it cinematic. Henry (Audie Murphy) is often filmed in close up facing the camera, with the other characters in deep focus behind him. He is facing away from the others in shame, trying to hide, but, unbeknownst to him, the camera is capturing the emotion of his face. The geography between the two battling units is blurred and chaotic, and the soldiers are often filmed as separate people littering a landscape rather than as a structured unit. When the battle is over, the camera focuses in on the faces of men from both sides as they get to know each other; faces instead of battalions. The film doesn’t document a group of men functioning as a war machine, or the good guys versus the bad guys, but individual human beings thrust into an insane world where a bullet wound is considered the pinnacle of achievement.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rare Westerns on Netflix Instant Watch Capsule Reviews, vol.16

Dakota Incident (1956)


Courtesy of
LinkNorthbreed1

Another “stagecoach ambushed by Indians” tale that begins with our hero being doublecrossed by his two partners and seeking revenge. When the movie finally gets around to the evil Indian plot, our hero is joined by Linda Darnell and others, including great character actor Ward Bond in a thankless role as a pious liberal senator who repeatedly sermonizes that Indians are human beings and that violence doesn’t solve anything. Of course, he is scoffed at at every turn and is proved a fool in the end, as the movie does indeed make every Indian out to be a total scumbag. If you can get over this character and the portrayal of native Americans, this is a decent B stagecoach ambush flick, with a surprising (for 1956) scene where a victim is found in a pool of his own blood.

Very good color transfer, and previously available on VHS.


Taggart (1964)

Tom Young’s parents are ruthlessly murdered by a rancher and his son, and Tom kills the son in a duel. The father, wounded and on his death bed, hires Dan Duryea (doing his smiling slimebag act very well) and his two compadres to take out Tom. Dan’s cohorts are quickly killed by Tom, and he chases Tom to a mission in Apache country. While there, Tom Young (his usual wooden self) tries to help out a prospector with a gold claim, who has to deal with Apaches trying to steal the gold. He also has a hot redhead daughter, which certainly helps. Oh yeah, the prospector is married to a double-crossing Mexican named Consuela, who hits on both Dan and Tom at different points. The results are an interesting back and forth between all of these characters and their various motivations, instead of the obvious revenge path the movie could have taken. Very nicely photographed, with stylish splashes of color and an interesting script. A very nice surprise. David Carradine’s first role.

Never released on home video in the U.S., although it was released on DVD in France. However, the transfer suffers from bad interlacing, probably due to a terrible frame rate conversion from a PAL master (maybe the same master used for the French DVD). Basically, everything looks jagged and weird during movement. Other than that, the transfer is excellent and colorful. All together, it’s certainly watchable. Young and Duryea also starred in He Rides Tall (1964), another rare western also on instant watch.


Gun Street (1961)

A bank robber and killer escapes six years after the sheriff tried to see to it that he was hung. The killer terrorizes the town (including his ex-wife) while the sheriff tries to find him and finally bring him to justice. Sort of an anti-High Noon, in the sense that it takes a vaguely similar setup, but completely lacks suspense (and interest) despite a surefire premise to do so. Resultingly, the movie feels like a guy waiting around for someone to show up, and feels endless as a result, despite running a shade over an hour.

Great black and white transfer, and never released on home video.

Friday, January 13, 2012

FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) - ironically the definitive camping movie



You should already be familiar with the movie, so I'm not going to post the trailer. Instead, here's the Angry Video Game Nerd's take on the Friday the 13th NES game, which I of course own, because I am a loser.

If Halloween is the story of an evil force infiltrating the suburbs, Friday the 13th substitutes a town setting for a rural one. The film is correspondingly raw and rustic, while maintaining the stripped down structure of John Carpenter’s earlier film. There is something primal about being in the woods and suddenly feeling as if a stranger is stalking you from afar.

The sleek steadicam point of view shots in Halloween, stealthily intruding in on the space of the characters, is replaced here by a hand held point-of-view camera that is vague in its approach. It doesn’t stalk with efficiency, but rather, wanders and lurks, its location and purpose not clearly defined. This lends itself more to an atmosphere of menace, rather than being strictly suspenseful.

The other big difference between the two films are the scores. Where as Halloween has a very effective, stark keyboard score, Harry Manfredini’s score here reworks Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score, adding his own creepy, avant garde sounds. While the “kill, kill” vocal sounds are far more well known, the other sounds (keyboard bits, screeching violins and cellos, etc.) are effective and distinctive. The stalking sequences rely heavily on the Psycho score blueprint, but the rest is tantamount in creating the atmosphere of an unforgivingly brutal, natural landscape, where death may only be a moment away. I would rank it as one of the most effective scores in film history, in terms of what it add to the film. Without it, much of the film would be lifeless, reduced to young people standing around talking with the occasional cutaway to a shot of trees.

The later sequels attempted to be more dependent on suspense than atmosphere (I did say "attempted"). The body counts also increased, as well as the novelty factor (not to mention the trash factor). Of course, Jason’s mother is the killer here, and Jason starts up in part 2 (minus a twist-ending detour in part 5). I’m not going to go through and talk about every film in the series, listing everyone that Jason hacks into schmuck fillet, as it would get redundant and boring real quick. I’ll just add that I only consider the first eight made at Paramount to be the real series, and view it as a single twelve hour epic, sort of a longer version of Shoah with a much smaller body count.



*

My parents took me to see Cronenberg’s The Fly at a drive-in when I was six years old. While I’m currently a big Cronenberg fan, back then I became quickly bored with the initial drama and characterization, having expected to see a film with a fly monster running around ripping people’s limbs off. I told my mom I was going to the official drive-in playground, but looped around to check out what I really wanted to see all along: Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. After all, I had to see where this saga was headed, having already seen parts 1-4 through the magic of illegal cable. I just stood next to a car speaker, and soon I was watching Jason decapitate three people with one machete swipe. I was royally stoked. Later, Alice Cooper would close out the show with the song “Man Behind the Mask”, a synth laden tribute to the big fella. This song would also show up on the Constrictor album, along with:

A. a song about Jason Voorhees
B. a song about someone attempting to bang schoolgirls
C. a song about some mongoloid loser (not Jason, but some other asshole)
D. a song about evolution
E. a song about banging whores (presumably no longer in school)
F. a love ballad where Coop proclaims that a girl has “grabbed his heart by the throat”

Yes, the man is a fucking genius. Oh yeah, his guitar player on the album (Kane Roberts) played a machine gun guitar. Fucking genius.



Anyway, I was in the ideal situation to enjoy these films. I believed that the victims were three-dimensional human beings, didn’t notice that the scripts were borderline retarded, and didn’t think to deconstruct them in terms of forms and clich├ęs and genres. These were real people I could identify with (at least in a visceral sense), in settings I could identify with, having frequently gone camping as a child. I joined them in their feeble attempt to escape a brutal, unstoppable force, whilst being enveloped by the unforgiving maw of nature.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I SAW THE DEVIL (2010) - violence blurs the line between good and evil



The interesting thing about "Itchy and Scratchy" is that it operates as both a satire of mindless violence aimed towards children, as well as a truly righteous example of mindless violence aimed towards children. Real children may not get it on both levels, but I’m a big kid that understands subtext. While this may seem contradictory or hypocritical, there is an important distinction to be had. If I were to make the argument that Tom and Jerry is immoral, I would point out that the cartoon is aimed at children and presented as innocuous and socially acceptable. However, "Itchy and Scratchy" pushes the violence into absurdly grotesque heights, to where there is no longer the indirect assumption that what is being represented is socially acceptable. A young boy might try to copy Tom and Jerry by hitting his brother in the crotch with a ball pean hammer, but he is not likely to poke out his brother’s eyes and replace them with cherry bombs (that would be pretty funny if he did though). You could make a similar argument about horror films. Vile ideas are best distributed to the masses as indirectly acceptable virtues held by characters they sympathize with and hold in high regard (most sitcoms might be good examples). However, (some) horror films push the envelope by presenting violence as thoroughly unappealing, and certainly not as virtuous ideas that your mother would find peachy keen.



At its heart, I Saw the Devil is sort of "Itchy and Scratchy" aimed at the horror movie crowd, where the absurd cartoonish violence is replaced with absolute brutality. Where as Itchy the mouse repeatedly murders Scratchy the cat for no discernible reason except that he’s a sadistic ass clown, I Saw the Devil attempts to reverse this dynamic. A serial killer (Choi Min-Sik from Oldboy, who’s pretty amazing here) murders a beautiful young girl who’s fiancee happens to be a secret service agent. He promises to get revenge, vigilante style, armed with a seemingly justifiable motive.

Our agent hero determines the identity of the killer fairly early on in the film (maybe 30 or 40 minutes into a movie 140 minutes long), and so begins a series of Itchy and Scratchy encounters, where our hero beats the shit out of the killer (torturing him if need be, including some achilles tendon violence that is damn hard to watch), but lets him go so he can catch him again and repeat the process. After all, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun for Itchy if he just killed Scratchy once. I know cats are supposed to have nine lives, but I think if you blow a cat’s head off with a bazooka at point blank range, that should be good enough.



A major problem with this odd approach to justice is that the killer keeps on brutally murdering women in between getting his ass handed to him. The hero’s dead girlfriend seemed like a really sweet girl, and hardly like someone who would’ve wanted the spiral of grotesque violence to carry on in her name. With the moral justification quickly lost, these violent encounters between the two men builds as some sort of sadomasochistic relationship. The killer would probably prefer this kind of brutal interaction, coupled with the freedom to murder women as he pleases, to simply being stuck in a cell somewhere. So, it’s not like our hero is one of those vigilantes that seek justice that the “system” can’t or won’t provide.

While we’re supposed to sympathise with the hero as he combats a slimy serial killer, I can’t help but lose sympathy for a hero that seems truly selfish, letting women die and defying justice just to repeatedly experience a kind of violent catharsis. Not very heroic if you ask me. I guess the lesson here is that violence is really bad, whether you’re a woman hating piece-of-shit serial killer or a hero using violence to punish the wicked. Of course, I'm referring to real violence. Fake violence can be pretty rad, except when it drags out to 2 1/2 hours. However, it's perfect for bite sized children's programming, as long as these kids realize that what they are laughing at is truly horrifying in the real world.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Rare Westerns on Netflix Instant Watch Capsule Reviews, vol.15

Two-Gun Lady (1955)


Peggie Castle plays an Annie Oakley style sharpshooter who comes to perform in a town, but is also looking for the men that killed her father many years prior. She teams up with a marshal who happens to be looking for the same men, and they find out that a local farming family was responsible. An interesting proto-feminist western that doesn’t shy away from its B-movie roots. The most interesting character is probably the farmer’s daughter, who is an innocent living among evil men out to destroy a feminist figure (the father says of his daughter: “she better be a good cook, cause she ain’t good for anything else”). She also looks up to Peggy as a feminist pop icon who, ironically, wants to murder most of her family, although it appears that the daughter would welcome it so she can finally be freed from this hateful patriarch. The daughter even defends Peggy as the fastest gun in the west to some boys that think girls can’t shoot. However, if you think feminism is actually a FBI conspiracy, please ignore most of this paragraph. Marie Windsor also plays a significant role.

Very good black and white transfer, and never released on home video.


Hellfire (1949)

Wild Bill Elliot plays a no good atheist who cheats at cards, which apparently was the worst offense one could commit in the old west. Correspondingly, the cheated tries to shoot Bill, but a bible thumping preacher that Bill previously scoffed at jumps in front of the bullet. On his death bed, the preacher asks him to read the bible and build a church in his name to repay him, in that order. Bill jumps aboard the Jesus bus and agrees to try to build this church, but finding funding proves difficult, until he happens upon uber-tough outlaw Marie Windsor, who happens to have a price on her head. Marie and Bill are entertaining in this Republic B-western that also doubles as a Christ-sploitation movie that was possibly created as a recruitment piece. Strange and campy in its bible-thumping, and amusingly slanted against non-believers (at one point an atheist character starts shooting at someone just for reading the bible).

Decent trucolor transfer (which is that two-strip teal tinted color process), but the sound is pretty poor (although you can make out the dialogue over the white noise if you turn it up a bit). Previously available on VHS.


Gun Fever (1958)

Mark Stevens wrote, directed, and stars in this one as Luke Ram (if you’re gonna give yourself a hero name, that’s the one you wanna pick), who seeks revenge against a scenery chewing white man who led a sioux attack on a stagecoach, killing his parents. Luke teams up with another dude who ends up being the villian’s son, and they are led through Sioux country by a hot native American chick, searching for their man. Standard revenge tale is cheap and bloated in the middle (it takes a long time to get to the actual quest for revenge), and lacks an interesting relationship between villian and son, but is enlivened by a few campy moments and the diametrically opposed performances of the lead baddie and the adorably sweet Sioux girl. Also, this is no doubt the windiest western ever made (only maybe Twister was windier in all of filmdom), as most every outdoor scene is supplemented by two gigantic wind machines cranking off screen. This adds some interesting atmosphere, although if I lived in a western town that resided permanantly within the eye of a tornado, I wouldn’t ever leave the house, even for revenge (or for anything really). But I guess that’s why Luke Ram is a man’s man and I'm not (insert forced Ram Jam reference here).

Excellent black and white transfer, and never released on home video.