Thursday, August 11, 2011

No. 80: The Wild Bunch

For most of this month, stepping outside felt like walking into a full-blast microwave oven. The place to be in August? Not Kansas. So why then, on the one day - I mean literally, the one day - it's not over 100 degrees, would I choose to stay inside? Call it a classic case of writer's guilt. Pretty sure I just made that up, but it's true - after all, it's been almost a month since my last post. Worst of all, I genuinely liked today's film: AFI #80, The Wild Bunch.

I have to say, my parents tried their very best to make me think the worst of this film, but I was pleasantly surprised. The Wild Bunch is like the love child of a cheesy Spaghetti Western and a small-scale John Ford film – and that's a pretty good combo. It was directed by the flawed-but-sometimes-brilliant Sam Peckinpah, and stars an A-list cast, including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmund O'Brien, and Robert Ryan.

After a bank robbery goes wrong, Pike Bishop (Holden) and his gang of aging outlaws head to Mexico. They’re being chased by Bishop's former partner, Deke Thornton (Ryan), and his band of vigilante bounty hunters. The outlaws get mixed up in the Mexican Revolution, and accept a job from Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a self-appointed bandido: to steal weapons from a U.S. army train. The job goes as planned, but when one of Bishop's men embezzles a crate of guns, he's captured by Mapache's army and tortured. The outlaws leave the man, but eventually loyalty and honor force them to return for a rescue. This leads to a long and bloody shootout where – spoiler! – nearly everyone dies. One lone surviving outlaw goes off to join the war, but everyone else: goners.

I must say, whoever cast this movie did a fantastic job. William Holden and Robert Ryan only share a few scenes, but their chemistry and tension connect them like brothers. The supporting cast also gives great performances: Ernest Borgnine, Edmund O'Brien, and the other actors bring bursts of personality and energy to stereotypical Western parts. This film is notable for director Peckinpah's use of strong gore and violence (well, strong for the 60's.) This could have easily gone wrong, but the splattering blood adds another graphic layer to an already beautiful film. Add in music reminiscent of a modern Hans Zimmer score crossed with jangling Ennio Morricone, plus vivid-but-not-cheeseball cinematography, and you've got a winner.

Negatives? I didn't have many problems with this film, but there were a few wrong notes.

1) Ernest Borgnine is not the guy with whom you want to have a sensitive-man-to-man talk. Borgnine and Holden are great together when gunning down a town – but not in sleeping bags sharing their feelings. It's just awkward.

2) For the most part, I liked the art direction. But, after a while - no matter how beautiful that cactus might be - the endless, multi-angle, artsy scenery shots are a bit much.

So, if you like:

* A white-haired Edmund O'Brien, channeling Walter Huston in Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
* William Holden (because really, who doesn’t love William Holden.)
* Lengthy and gratuitously bloody gunfights
* A completely whistle-friendly, finger-tapping soundtrack
* Endings where everybody dies

...then you'll love The Wild Bunch.

Next up: AFI # 79, The Deer Hunter (1978). It’s directed by Michael Cimino and stars Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken. I’ve heard that this one's grim and a weeper - so break out your hankies, and stick around to read about it!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

No. 81: Modern Times

Silent films: I think it's fair to say they're an acquired taste. One of the first movies I ever saw was my mom's scratchy VHS tape of Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush." I didn't care that it was silent; my eyes were glued to the screen as I watched him skip around in his Little Tramp suit, dancing with potatoes in his hands. Ever since then, I've had a weakness for silent films. There's just something special about the ability to communicate a movie's story without ever speaking a word.

I love The Gold Rush - but my preferred Chaplin movie is actually Modern Times (1936) - AFI film #81. What makes Modern Times even more impressive is the year it was made; 1936. I have to say, Charlie Chaplin was pretty gutsy to release a silent film in the middle of the 1930's. Today's flick also stars Paulette Goddard - at the time, Chaplin's scandalous, live-in girlfriend.

Chaplin plays an incompetent (but hilarious!) factory worker, who often finds himself in jail or unemployed due to various mishaps involving - among other things - Communists, cocaine, and jailbreaks. He meets the orphaned, runaway "Gamine" (Goddard) and together, they struggle against a hard, industrialized society, trying to make a better life. They don't quite succeed, but eventually they do escape - and in the movie's last, warily hopeful scene, Chaplin takes the Gamine's arm like a gentleman, and carrying hobo's bindle sticks, they walk out of the city into the early dawn light.

One reason some silent movies feel boring: by today’s standards, the acting seems so campy. That’s not the case with Modern Times. Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp is over-the-top, but that’s why his movies are fun. Would Chaplin still be as revered today if he hadn’t created this larger-then-life persona, dancing like a marionette with a cane and bowler hat? I don’t think so. I love the Little Tramp character in all his films, but especially in Modern Times.

There are so many good things about this film. The comedy is definitely slapstick but it’s hilarious and cleverly staged, as well as pretty risqué for the 1930’s, with sexual innuendo, a cocaine gag, and other sly jokes. Chaplin and Goddard give simply wonderful performances, perfectly balancing joy and sadness. Add in memorable scenes like Chaplin singing his famous “nonsense song” in a mix of French and Italian - which was also notable for being the first time he spoke on film - and you’ve got one great film.

So, if you like...

* Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. If you don’t, I don’t even know what to say.
* An engaging mix of slapstick gags and tender (non-verbal!) moments between Chaplin and Goddard.
* Cool set design, including gigantic, super-stylized factory machines.
* The catchiest French-Italian nonsense song ever. Hands down. I’m whistling it right now.
* A truly hilarious take on a serious topic: the employment and financial issues faced by Americans during the Great Depression.

..then you’ll love Modern Times.

Next up: a not-so-comedic film - Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Western epic and AFI #80, The Wild Bunch. It features great actors like William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, so I’m excited. Stick around and read about it!