STAGECOACH (1939) revisited

August 21, 2016

stagecoach Imagine you are 25 year old Orson Welles, and you are obsessed with creating cinematic history with your next film. You have spent hour after hour studying the best and most creative works of the finest filmmakers from all over the world. You come across a particular John Ford western, and are so inspired by its technical precision that you watch it at least three dozen times while working on your masterpiece … Citizen Kane (1941). Such is the influence of Ford’s Stagecoach. It may or may not be the greatest western film of all-time (a matter of preference), but it’s inarguably the most influential.

More than 75 years later, it’s difficult to imagine a time when John Ford and John Wayne were not joined at the swaggering hip making movies together. By 1939, Ford had won an Oscar for The Informer (1935) but had not directed a western in more than a decade, while John Wayne’s career to this point consisted of bit parts and B movies. The “firsts” here include: John Ford’s first movie with John Wayne, the first movie filmed in Monument Valley, Ford’s first talkie-western, and the first starring role in a major motion picture for John Wayne

It’s difficult to think of a more iconic star-making screen introduction than that first shot of John Wayne twirling and cocking the rifle as the camera zooms in on his face (see photo below). It should be noted that The Duke (as he was often referred) was 32 years old in the film and is wearing his own cowboy hat – one he would wear in many movies over the years (until it finally was in such bad shape, it was placed in a glass display case at Mr. Wayne’s home).

The film hit while the industry was still experiencing some of the pains of leaving the “silent” world behind and taking advantage of “talkies”. Additionally, the technology of color film was just beginning to be used more frequently, but many studios and directors were clinging to the traditional black and white look. As a genre, westerns had never been able to make that step into the mainstream … that is, until Ford and Wayne came stampeding to the forefront with Stagecoach.

Dudley Nichols (Oscar winning screenwriter for Ford’s The Informer) adapted the original story from Ernest Haycox (a prolific writer who helped elevate westerns from dime story pulp to respectability and box office profitability) into a screenplay that examines the early attempts at transitioning the “wild west” into a more civilized society. Social commentary abounds as several characters from disparate background are crammed into a confined space (the titular stagecoach) for an extended period of time. Some viewers may complain about the use of clichés, but in fairness, what we have come to label as cliché, was anything but at the time.

Adding their own special touch to the wide range of characters were some of the finest actors of the era. Claire Trevor was the best known star in the cast at the time, and she plays Dallas, the good-hearted woman whose past/profession causes her to be treated as an outcast by most in the group. Ms. Trevor would go on to accept the unofficial title of Film Noir Queen, win a Best Supporting Oscar for Key Largo (1948), and have the School of Arts at UC-Irvine named for her. Donald Meek plays the meek (yes his name often fit his character) travelling salesman ironically named Peacock. Contrary to what one would guess given his diminutive physical stature, Mr. Meek fought in the Spanish-American War. John Carradine is perfectly cast as Hatfield, the elegant gambler carrying a secret. Mr. Carradine is the father of the acting Carradine brothers (including David and Keith), and enjoyed a 65 year career with more than 350 projects. Drunken Doc Boone is played by Thomas Mitchell, who many will recognize as memory-challenged Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. He also appeared in such top shelf films as Gone with the Wind, High Noon and Lost Horizon. Louise Platt plays Lucy Mallory, the pregnant wife who is on a mission to reunite with her soldier husband. The villainous banker is played with gusto by Berton Churchill, and the only thing he’s missing is a twirly mustache. Mr. Churchill was a co-founder of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1933. Law Enforcement is represented by Marshal Wilcox, played by George Bancroft, and the stagecoach is driven by the great Andy Devine (as Buck). Mr. Devine manages to create a bit of comedy relief by the use of his trademark high-pitched raspy voice, as well as his underrated physical acting movements. Other notables making an appearance are Tom Tyler (once known as the strongest man in America) whose initial shaky transition from silent film to talkies is readily apparent in his few scenes; Woody Strode (one of the saloon patrons) who is known best for his fight scene in Spartacus; and Tim Holt who brings the charging Calvary to the rescue, and is best known as one of the prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Of course, it’s John Ford and John Wayne who draw most of the attention when this film is discussed. Born Marion Morrison, The Duke played football at USC before turning his full attention to acting. Here he plays bad-guy-with-a-heart Ringo Kid, and gets to show a pretty full spectrum of machismo, humanity, dignity and sensitivity. His extraordinary physical screen presence led him to the top of the film world with roles in some of the most popular films over the next 4 decades, capped by a Best Actor Oscar for True Grit (1969). John Ford, who was 45 years old at the time of Stagecoach, won 4 Best Director Oscars (plus two special Oscars for his WWII documentaries): The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green was my Valley (1942), and The Quiet Man (1952).

Two others deserve special mention. Stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt (a World Champion rodeo cowboy) was seemingly involved in just about every risky stunt in Hollywood during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Stagecoach provided the opportunity for what may be his best and most daring stunt – leaping onto the moving stagecoach and its 6 horse team and then sliding down under the carriage and out the back … all at breakneck speed! It’s fascinating to watch, and in this age of computerized special effects, it demands a level of awe and respect. While this film provided the first on screen glimpse of Monument Valley, it was Cinematographer Bert Glennon who figured out the best ways to take advantage of this breathtaking setting. Mr. Glennon was nominated for 3 Oscars (including Stagecoach), and was a frequent collaborator with both John Ford and Cecil B DeMille. The second half of his career was devoted mostly to TV series, rather than movies.

Stagecoach received 7 Oscar nominations including wins for Thomas Mitchell as Best Supporting Actor and Best Music (score) for Richard Hagerman, W Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. The other nominees were for Best Picture, Best Director (Ford), Best Cinematographer, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. While it might seem implausible that such a ground-breaking film could only win two Oscars, it’s a reminder why 1939 is considered by many to be the best ever year for movies. Check out this list of other releases that same year: Gone with the Wind; Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr Chips; Ninotchka; The Wizard of Oz; Of Mice and Men; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Young Mr Lincoln.

Despite being the first movie to feature the “dead man’s hand” – a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights (the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was gunned down), this film continues to live on in cinematic lore. Often included in the discussion of the best westerns of all-time – along with High Noon, Shane, Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Searchers – it was a joyful experience to finally get to see this one on the big screen in a theatre setting (thanks to Dallas Film Society and Chris Vognar). It’s clear how this film elevated the western genre, and it certainly deserved recognition by the National Film Registry in 1995.

stagecoach2

 


KAMAPI! FOR THE LOVE OF SAKE (2016, doc)

August 21, 2016

kampai Greetings again from the darkness. No matter your country of origin, drinking in a social setting inspires a unifying call for the group. We Americans proudly bellow “Cheers”. In Spanish, it’s “Salud”, while the Germans say “Prost” and the French “Santé”. You might have guessed from the title of this documentary … the Japanese say “Kampai!” as they toast their cohorts and raise a glass of Sake, also known as Japanese rice wine.

Filmmaker Mirai Konishi promises a look at the fascinating and somewhat mysterious world of brewing sake. His approach is to gain insight from three different individuals who hail from quite disparate backgrounds and are now fully immersed in all things Sake. John Gauntner is a U.S. born writer/educator/researcher whose publications are world renowned as the best available on the subject. Philip Harper is a British gent who is Oxford educated and the first non-Japanese master Sake brewer (Toji). He spends roughly 60% of a year in a dark, dank environment perfecting his own label of the drink. Kosuke Kuji runs an inherited century old Japanese Sake brewery that has been in his family for multiple generations.

We are informed that Sake is the national beverage of Japan and has been around for many centuries, creating historical and cultural significance. Unfortunately, the film offers little historical perspective, so we don’t learn how and why Sake became so ingrained in the fabric of Japan. Instead we focus mostly on the three fellows noted above and how their passions and commitment to Sake helped drive not just their own interests, but that of the industry. One other segment offers a glimpse inside the North Carolina based brewery looking to capitalize on the growing Sake trend. Unfortunately, per numerous reports, Blue Kudza went out of business shortly after this segment was filmed.

A cursory description of the process – gathering ingredients, preparation, fermenting, tasting, etc is interesting enough, and the personal stories add enough heft that we don’t realize the missing historical perspective until the movie ends. We are left anticipating a Sake tasting party, yet no more educated on the true significance of the chilled, warmed or room temperature beverage (it can be served all three ways) being hoisted as the patrons exclaim “Kampai!” and the screen fades to black.

 

 


HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

August 16, 2016

hell or high water Greetings again from the darkness. A good guy doing bad things for a good reason. A bad guy doing bad things for a good reason. A good guy whose make-up doesn’t allow for bad things by anyone for any reason. Director David MacKenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) serve up a quasi-western featuring a crusty old Texas Ranger doggedly pursuing two bank robbing brothers. If not for the numerous destroy-the-flow screaming political statements, this could have been a near instant classic – just a tick below No Country for Old Men.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Details eek out slowly about each … most importantly that Toby is a divorced dad and Tanner is an ex-con. Toby has meticulously planned out their bank robbery spree. The goal is to save his family ranch so his boys can escape the “disease” of poverty. Tanner is along to support his brother … and probably because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.

Soon enough, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the trail of the boys, and his highly developed instincts and gut feelings annoy his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) almost as much as Marcus’ incessant and insensitive racial teases – a reminder of the days when buddies would verbally jab each other without the risk of class action lawsuits.

The performances are all excellent. Pine is the quiet guy resigned to a life without happiness, but refusing to give up on his boys. Foster is the wide-eyed trouble-maker who long ago realized he would always be one careless moment from the end. Bridges literally becomes the Ranger being forced into retirement (age) but intent on remaining somewhat relevant. Additional support work is also quite colorful in a west Texas kind of way. The wonderful Dale Dickey gets an early sequence with the boys, the great Buck Taylor is always a pleasant presence, Margaret Bowman adds yet another memorable character to her resume as the T-Bone waitress, and Katy Mixon (“Eastbound and Down”) gets to stand up for the little people.

West Texas is a character unto itself with massive poverty, oil pumps on the horizon, dusty streets, rickety fences, and gun-toting citizens everywhere. Each of these elements is beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemingway), as are the actual bank robberies and the quiet moments between brothers and Rangers partners. To cap it off, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis add a nice score and even better soundtrack … the best of which is an opening song from Townes Van Zandt .

Mixed in with the impending gloom are some terrifically witty exchanges and some downright funny moments. Exceptional acting, a spot on setting, wonderful photography, and superb music are only slightly offset by the previously mentioned obnoxious and too obvious shots taken at big banks and oil companies. Sometimes a good story can be just that … and not a political statement.

watch the trailer

 

 

 


THE LOST ARCADE (2016, doc)

August 13, 2016

lost arcade Greetings again from the darkness. Webster’s definition of “arcade” is how director Kurt Vincent chooses to start his documentary. While video arcade is the most widely used version, it was the alternative description of the word “passageway” that caught my eye.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, video arcades were seemingly everywhere … peaking in 1981 with 24,000 locations throughout the United States, with the largest venues being in Times Square. Rather than take on the collapse/transformation of an industry, Mr. Vincent instead focuses on one particular NYC arcade – Chinatown Fair. The video footage shot inside the arcade prior to its closure offers up an intimate look at the atmosphere; a racially diverse group of youngsters bonding and socializing within an ecosystem that the outside world didn’t understand (or care much about).

Placing your “next” quarter in line on the cabinet may have guaranteed you an upcoming time at the controls, but this can be viewed as the Land of Misfits with the gamers flocking to groups of their kind. These were the folks who didn’t fit in with the more physically active groups at rec centers and on playgrounds, but instead thrived on the late night gatherings amidst the electronics beeps and flashing lights.

We meet Sam Palmer, the immigrant from Pakistan, who owned Chinatown Fair for decades. This father figure often hired his most loyal players to help run the place, and we hear the personal stories from a couple of these – one (Akuma Hokura) who was rescued from a life on the streets, and another (Henry Cen) who later opened his own competitive arcade in Brooklyn. It’s perfectly accurate to describe this as a social community, and maybe not a stretch to call it a society unto itself.

Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Frogger and Street Fighter are just some of the most popular arcade games that finally gave way to home gaming – beginning with the 1986 introduction of Nintendo home systems. This development made gaming much more convenient for the masses, but also destroyed the social community of the local arcades.

We meet the guy who tried to re-open Chinatown Fair as a knock-off of Dave & Busters with an emphasis on family entertainment. However, as someone in the film states, “nostalgia is not really all that profitable”. Mr. Vincent’s film is a time capsule look at what made arcades work, and it’s very interesting to learn that Chinatown Fair played a role in a DeNiro/Streep film, an Old Dirty Bastard music video, and even an episode of David Letterman’s show. Going back to the opening definition, it’s easy to see how a generation used the local arcade as a passageway to finding a social life and interacting with others … something that had previously been more challenging for them.


FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016)

August 12, 2016

Florence FJ Greetings again from the darkness. Stranger than fiction. No more fitting description can be provided for the true-to-life story of 1940’s New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. How else to describe this “opera singer” who performed at Carnegie Hall? Not so unusual you say? Well how about if I add the not-so-minor detail(s) that the lady, simply put, was an atrocious singer … couldn’t carry a note … was apparently tone deaf?

Meryl Streep gamely takes on the titular role, and despite her own finely honed singing voice, manages to spot-on mimic the off-key, yet enthusiastic wailing of FFJ. Beyond that, Ms. Streep captures the spirit and passion and ego that inspired her real life counterpart to pursue her lofty dreams. At her core, FFJ was a tortured soul who overcame syphilis (from her first husband) and the central nervous system challenges brought on by the mercury and arsenic treatments of the era. On the outside, she was a bubbly, eccentric personality who supported the arts and lived life to the fullest.

With inheritances from both her mother and father, Florence received full professional support (and emotional protection) from her common-law husband St Clair Bayfield – played superbly by the seldom seen these days Hugh Grant. Accompanying Florence on stage, and even composing music with her, was her piano player Cosme McMoon, in a scene-stealing performance from Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”). Also in the mix is Rebecca Ferguson as Bayfield’s mistress … did I mention how strange this story is? Other support work is provided by David Haig as FFJ’s singing coach, and Nina Arianda as … well … an interesting character.

Other than the cast, those responsible for this delightful cinematic experience are director Stephen Frears (Oscar nominated for The Queen and The Grifters), writer Nicholas Martin, and cinematographer Danny Cohen (Room, The King’s Speech). It’s a confounding movie … on the surface quite jovial and light-hearted, while also reaching emotional depths that touch on loyalty, greed, and self-delusion.

The recordings made by Florence are rare collectibles today, and the film does touch on her time as child prodigy who played piano at The White House during the Rutherford B Hayes administration. There are many life lessons here, including pursuing your dreams with a passion, and having the tenacity to overcome obstacles. There is an undeniable underlying sadness to the story, but rather than feel sorry for her, Florence provided the guiding light quote, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”

watch the trailer:

 


ANTHROPOID (2016)

August 12, 2016

Anthropoid Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been more than 70 years since the Second World War ended, and it’s still producing fascinating stories, books, and movies. Director Sean Ellis co-wrote the script with Anthony Frewin after tireless research into a secret mission of the Czech resistance known as Operation Anthropoid. The purpose was to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, third in command of The Reich behind only Hitler and Himmler.

Hitler invaded Poland the year after taking Czechoslovakia and put Heydrich in charge. In addition to being the main architect behind the Final Solution, Heydrich became known as “The Butcher of Prague” as thousands of citizens were slain under his reign of terror.

The story is split into two distinct parts … the buildup and the aftermath. It’s late 1941 when we see Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) parachute into the territory outside of Prague and make their way to the city only to discover their contact has been killed. Over the next few months, the two soldiers spend time planning, observing and blending in, while living with their host family – the Moravecs. They become attached to two local ladies (Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislorova), first as cover for the mission, and then in a more personal manner as tension builds and the mission gets closer.

Many of the original, historic and actual locations are used which adds an element of realism to a story that’s already plenty real and emotional. The second half of the story is what happens after the assassination. Seven of the original parachutists go into hiding in the basement of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral. The manhunt is brutal and extensive, and once the hideout is discovered, a seemingly unending parade of German soldiers and ever-increasing weaponry are unleashed. It’s a beautifully filmed, but gut-wrenching scene … think of the last stand at The Alamo.

An extended shootout (6 hours in real time) may not seem like a fun day at the movies, but this story goes to the bravery and desperation of those who refused to give in to the relentless savagery of the Germans. In addition to Ms. Le Bon and Ms. Geislorova, Czech screen vet Alena Mihulova is another standout here. The pacing of the story telling is a bit off at times, but director Ellis brings historical accuracy to a fascinating story in ways that movies such as Valkyrie and Inglourious Basterds didn’t even attempt. As courageous as those in the resistance were, the aftermath and reprisals do beg the question … was it worth the price? Not an easy question to answer even in hindsight.

watch the trailer:

 


EQUITY (2016)

August 11, 2016

equity Greetings again from the darkness. A film made by women in a male-dominated profession about women in a (different) male-dominated profession becomes the first female-centric Wall Street movie. Director Meera Menon (Farah Goes Bang) and writers Amy Fox, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner have a lot to say … maybe even more than they intended.

Anna Gunn (“Breaking Bad”) delivers a strong lead performance as Naomi Bishop, a hard-driving and successful investment banker – a self-described “banker chick”. She’s coming off a failed client IPO – her biggest career failure. Naomi basically torments and disrespects her first assistant Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), and she regularly sleeps with a co-worker and hedge fund manager Michael Connor (James Purefoy) for the benefits only. In other words, Naomi is much like the men we have seen in these roles over the years.

While pursuing her next IPO with a hotshot d-bag tech entrepreneur (Samuel Roukin as Ed) who claims to have a revolutionary impenetrable cyberware, Naomi is unwittingly (although it could be argued that she SHOULD have known) being played by multiple parties. One of these is a Justice Department investigator (Alysia Reiner as Samantha) who is trying to use their old college connection as a way to gather intel on Naomi’s firm and Michael Connor. Adding complexity and turmoil are Craig Bierko as an egotistical investor who pressures Michael for insider info, Sophie von Hasselberg (Marin) who is a disgruntled programmer for Ed’s company, and Tracie Thoms as Samantha’s partner and co-parent of their kids.

Fractured relationships abound as all characters are driven by something other than the relationships. We are told “money is not a dirty word”, but it sure seems like motivation for these folks is centered on power, ambition, and yes … money. The social issues and moral dilemmas come across as less important than the challenge of competing (rather than collaborating). Seamless backstabbing is a valued skill in this world, and always present are greed, desperation and paranoia. This is post-2008 Wall Street, but it looks pretty darned familiar.

Previous films have taken us inside this world. Wall Street (1987), Margin Call (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Big Short (2015) each provided some lesson on this corrupt-to-the-core industry and helped us understand the dual meaning of the title, but this is the first to show us the women who fight the same fights. If there is a disappointment here, it’s the apparent conclusion that putting women in the same high-stakes game as men means they will compete in much the same way, rather than finding a better, more graceful way. Gordon Gekko may not have been right when he said “greed is good”, but it seems pretty clear that greed is prevalent. It’s a lesson we evidently must be reminded of on a regular basis … and whatever you do, make sure to count the chocolate chips before giving that cookie to Naomi!

 watch the trailer:

 

 


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