Archive for November, 2013

by Jaime Grijalba.

Do any of you know who or what Red Ryder is? From what I gather he is some kind of hero of the 40’s, linked exclusively to the western genre through a multiple amount of platforms in which he was the hero and had adventures. It begun as a comic strip that started in 1938, and later was adapted for radio with radio plays and other programs of that kind. In 1940 the first Red Ryder “film” was released, it was a 12 episode movie serial produced by Republic, and since 1944 there were more than 35 films with the Red Ryder character having different movies, at times even having six films released a year between 1944 and 1947. The movies are usually around the hour mark, most of them don’t even surpass the 60-minute mark, something akin to what you could nowadays call a TV-series, except filmed and made even cheaper and released onto theaters, and with no actual follow up between the episodes, this is much more akin to what a ‘modular’ TV series is, something like CSI or any other procedural, where the link between the episodes is minimal, and just a few characters are repeated from time to time. But, in the end, what most people recognice Red Ryder nowadays is thanks to the Christmas classic ‘A Christmas Story’ (1983), where the protagonist wanted a “Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time”… of course Red Ryder surpassed the media entertainment and managed to have guns named after him, what a strange franchise it is.

Well, after all that, let me say that I’m so sorry that I missed the last two weeks, it was really hard to make these posts, find the time, specially due to personal issues. The Western Countdown is almost over and this feature, then, doesn’t have much time left. So, dare I ask? Do you want this to continue in any way? Maybe one week, two weeks? Or you just had your western fill for this year? Please, go ahead, go crazy in the comments, please. It helps. As always, this feature has its own rating, self explanatory in the image below, with the noose being the lowest ranking (for those movies that are so obscure that if they dissapeared, it wouldn’t matter, because they were pure trash) and the man with no name being the highest ranking for those rare diamonds in the rough that I hope I can find one of these days.

WesternIcons (more…)


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wild 1

By Dean Treadway

For years, I had not seen Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in full. I had caught bits of it on TV, or maybe at the drive-in, where my mom and dad had carried me along to check it out. I’m sure my dad liked it–most dads adore The Wild Bunch–but my mom, who’d had quite enough of seeing dead bodies returning from Vietnam on TV, felt sickened by violence in movies at the time (both Bonnie and Clyde, with its bullet-riddled climax, and M.A.S.H., with its comedic treatment of medical gore, had similarly made her ill; since, of course, she’s been inured to on-screen messiness). For my own part, I found the movie dull, even as a pretty with-it kid; somehow, Peckinpah had not gotten his hooks in me (I now see that The Wild Bunch is a movie that works least best on the young, and also I always knew that, on TV, it was being shown pan-and-scan, and that’s just a outright no-no with what any movie geek can see is a beautifully widescreen presentation).

It wasn’t until its 1995 restoration and re-release, when I was approaching my 30s, that I finally did my duty and caught The Wild Bunch on the big screen at a four-wall theater, as it was meant to be seen. Afterwards, I could’ve kicked myself twice, three times even for not previously grasping what a powerhouse masterpiece it was, for Peckinpah’s film finally bowled me over as it did almost everyone who saw it in the late 60s/early 70s (it’s certainly a movie that should be seen at least once at a theater; if you haven’t experienced it as such, you’re partially abandoning its strength). From its very first scene–that staccato credits sequence portraying the titular bunch trotting past a group of joyful kids cackling as thousands of fire ants overtake two deadly but hapless scorpions (a mirror of the film’s famous conclusion)–The Wild Bunch aims to encapsulate the brutality of criminally-minded men and, simultaneously, their deeply-held longing to regain some modicum of innocence, honor and compassion. In its dichotomies, Peckinpah’s picture is like no other. It set a template for a few decades worth of film output behind it.  (more…)

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 © 2013 by James Clark

     Having just come away from von Trier’s Dogville (2003), in its installation of austerity so dark that the viewer is required to visit its laboratory-like showroom many times before coming to its Plutonian joys, I’ve approached Jia Zhangke’s latest film as a hit of almost astronomical sensuousness, in the service of that same elusive buoyancy. Imagine my consternation, then, in looking over some commentary about that recent release, to find such a consensus that this film has seen fit to confine its remarkable energies and insights to, like Dogville’s weepy Vera, enjoying a good and bitter cry about the many casualties of free enterprise in China today.

If it is, indeed, all (rather than a touch) about the scandal (sinfulness) of recent Chinese capitalism, why does it provide so many locales of the scruffy and crane-salient fringes of cities undergoing a building boom, which remind us of the settings of Antonioni and Fellini films? Why does the plunge-from-a-building suicide, in its fourth and final segment, of a discouraged man, going from job-to-job, come into some kind of contact with the closing scene of Antonioni’s Il Grido (The Cry)? Antonioni, it goes without saying, was about neither politics nor moralism. Why, in that same concluding episode, do we see a re-enactment, by a young and not unperceptive woman, employed in what is generally covered by the hilarious euphemism, “adult entertainment,” of Alice’s fellatio with Mr. Eddy, in David Lynch’s, Lost Highway? Why is it, indeed, just as involved with the Balthazar motif as is von Trier’s Dogville? Despite what so many contend about Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (2013), it is a truly compelling work precisely because it is not primarily absorbed with Chinese history, but rather with world history. (more…)

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by Brandie Ashe

In 1939, John Ford made what was arguably the most important film of his career: Stagecoach. Now, that is not to say that Stagecoach is necessarily his “best” film; that, of course, is a matter of opinion (and majority opinion over the years has tended to hand that title to Ford’s searing 1956 Western The Searchers, or the 1940 drama The Grapes of Wrath, or the three films in his so-called “Cavalry Trilogy,” or any number of the other films on his expansive resume). But what makes this movie–Ford’s first Western in more than a decade, and his first with sound–such a remarkable standout in the director’s impressive filmography is how, at the time, it added a refreshing new depth to the increasingly stale concept of the Western. With Stagecoach, Ford expands upon and enhances general Western tropes to craft an intriguing character study that transcends the prototypical cowboy yarn. The end result is one of the landmark movies of the genre, a classic so intricately and thoughtfully composed that it would influence an entire generation of filmmakers, including, by his own account, a young Orson Welles.

It also helps that Stagecoach happens to be one hell of an entertaining movie.


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by James Clark 

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is so unmistakably about dimming lights that we have to take special care not to miss its profoundly difficult discoveries and associated cinematic audacity. Brought to life in the rural-worshipping hippie era, it would seem to be some kind of paean to helpless victims ambushed in their modest pursuit of happiness by ruthlessly greedy commercial concerns. A hired killer, newly arrived in a recently founded Washington State mining town, in 1901, to dispose of an obstacle to maximum profits—being even possessed of a black moustache by which to emphasize his villainy—introduces a few of the settlement’s stakeholders to the technique of using Chinese migrant workers to go to their deaths for the cause of efficiency. “Do you know what the fine is for killing a Chinaman? $50, maximum…”

    Such a gambit would lend itself to a conventional melodrama, the ethos of hippiedom being, alas, not significantly more innovative than that of their grandparents. To find our way to Altman’s best shot (and, for such a spotty career as his, this film definitely displays the A-game), it is, I think, best to start with a barely noticeable moment, namely, a bouncy pony running through a snowdrift on one of the village’s trails while a snowstorm is in progress. This blip of infectious fizz occurs simultaneously with the hit man and his gang stalking the protagonist/obstacle amongst the clapboard structures and along a series of rickety rope and wooden footbridges lacing amidst the muck, ice and snow. Though not actually frisky, the outnumbered nonconformist stages a surprisingly bracing counter-attack, killing all three of his savage adversaries, but in the course of which succumbing to bullet wounds and, lurching through deep snow banks, collapsing in a spray of snowflakes much like those the pony kicked up. As the subsequent and final scene plays out, we see the protagonist, McCabe, becoming increasingly covered by snow, until his configuration could be that of a snow-covered, dead pony. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Freezing temperatures have descended on the northeast, as families prepare for Turkey Day and and an extended late November weekend.  This is as always the most fruitful part of the year from a cultural standpoint, and some are planning their entertainment  itinerary for the coming weeks.  The staff at Wonders in the Dark would like to take this opportunity to wish all our American friends and readers a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving.

The western countdown has now wound down to the final placements, with Jim Clark’s superb review on McCabe and Mrs. Miller kicking off the Top 10.  The latest site genre countdown has just two weeks to go, with the #1 essay set to post on Friday, December 6.  As I mentioned  under a post of one of this past week’s reviews,  the comments have been significantly down in numbers from the prior musical and comedy countdowns, but page views remain impressive, and the quality of writing has equaled the level of any previous endeavor at the site. (more…)

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by Mike Norton

How does one begin to write about their favorite movie of all time? A better question might be why would anyone want to write about their favorite movie? Sam has basically given me free reign to write about whatever film I want and I do have some more films lined up that I could write about, but I can’t resist writing about Raging Bull, my favorite movie of all time, even if articulating just what I love about it would ruin my personal connection to it. Everyone has one a “favorite” movie, whether they admit it or not (at the very least, they have a handful of movies vying for the number one spot), and we’d be remiss if we denied the personal connection we have to our favorite films. For me, Raging Bull isn’t just another movie, as cliché as that sounds. Over the past two years since I first saw it, I’ve seen it nine times, and it continues to impact me and shape my life in ways that few other works of art have. Trying to judge it on an aesthetic level could obscure my personal connection to it, and vice versa; in this essay I will attempt to balance the two. Here goes nothing.

Raging Bull is about the life of Jake LaMotta, a famous boxer from the 1940s whose memoir of the same name became the basis for this film. Martin Scorsese directs, and Robert De Niro stars as LaMotta, famously gaining weight to portray LaMotta later in his life. It is in black and white, for practical reasons mostly, since the amount of blood would be, apparently, far too much to portray in color, but it also gives the film a raw, rugged feel. Joe Pesci plays Jake’s brother and manager, Joey, and Cathy Moriarty plays Jake’s second wife, Vickie. This was the first major acting role for both actors. (more…)

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By Stephen Mullen

Winchester 73 was the first collaboration between James Stewart and Anthony Mann, the beginning of an extremely successful partnership. The film itself is very innovative – it brought the influence of noir into the western, along with a complex narrative structure, complicated, morally ambiguous characters, classical influences, and psychological depth (and more than a hint of Freud). It may not have been the first western to do any of those things, but the sophistication and depth it brought to the combination helped define a new approach, anticipating revisionist westerns to come. It certainly anticipates Mann’s subsequent westerns, films with an expressionistic style that hovers between film noir and the kinds of family melodramas made by Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk, while never skimping on what you might call the conventional pleasures of the western. Mann takes full advantage of the trappings of the genre, telling his tales of psychological conflicts, bad families and tortured heroes through gunfights, chases, brawling, hats and guns and horses, Indians and card players, against a backdrop of magnificent landscapes. And all of it is integrated, the action sequences advance psychologically acute character arcs, the locations and sets shape the emotional trajectory of the films, creating films that reward infinite attention, without detracting from their effectiveness as entertainment. They are remarkable films. (more…)

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jesse 8

By Dean Treadway

The passage of time, and of eras, overwhelms the first frames as cinematographer Roger Deakins aims his camera into the ether, catching time-lapsed storm clouds speeding through the Missouri skies, with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ tick-tocky score sounding like mournful timepieces ringing out the end of one hour, and the beginning of another. We first see Brad Pitt’s Jesse James as a pensive, well-loved 34-year-old family man fervently contemplating his humanity and his concomitant mortality. The eloquent narration–some of the best ever written for a film–begins by illustrating Jesse’s foibles, normalcies, lies, physical flaws, and almost superhuman charisma. Actor/filmmaker Hugh Ross is the unseen narrator, who speaks in third-person as if he were dissecting this tale’s movements with scientific fervor; his serious, folksy voice is perhaps the most important in the movie, because it’s the authoritative voice of human history–the same history that will ensnare and mangle the lives of our two title characters. Writer/director Andrew Dominik, working from Ron Hansen’s novel, laboriously crafts the language of this narration, making it feel like it was cribbed from an 1882 St. Louis newspaper. Even the film’s title–The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford–reads like a bold headline over a story one might’ve consumed the day following Ford’s notorious bullet. This use of antiquated speech, inspired by Hansen’s work, is one of many tricks that Dominik deftly employs as a time-travel devise in this masterful period piece. Often, experiencing this picture’s sights and sounds feels like being hypnotized and transported directly into the heel of the 19th Century. (more…)

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by Ed Howard
Another filmmaker with a distinctly moral perspective in his films was Anthony Mann, the premier stylist of the American Western. The Naked Spur is the third entry in Mann’s run of Westerns starring James Stewart, probably the best run of Westerns ever to come out of Hollywood. Mann’s hard-edged look at the American frontier, and his unconventional conception of the Western “hero” — the quotes were often required for Mann’s leads — found their perfect realization in Stewart. In Mann’s films, he inevitably positioned Stewart’s character as a morally ambiguous, distanced figure acting out of self-interest rather than any moral imperative. Here, Stewart plays a former rancher who was betrayed by his girlfriend and lost his land. In order to get it back, he becomes a bounty hunter, tracking down a murderous local outlaw (Robert Ryan) in order to bring him in for a reward. Along the way, Stewart unwillingly takes on two partners, an amiable old gold-seeker (Millard Mitchell), and a corrupt ex-cavalryman (Ralph Meeker). When the trio manage to capture Ryan (and his companion, Janet Leigh), the outlaw begins playing them off each other, awakening instincts for greed, lust, and hatred in the three men. (more…)

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