Classic Movie Review: Shane (1953)


TitleShane
Release Date: April 23, 1953
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review: I was under the mistaken impression that this movie was a Western about a boy and his dog, like Old Yeller. In fact, Shane (Alan Ladd) is a human, a drifter who arrives on the homestead of Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur) Starrett and takes up work as their hired hand. The Starrett’s young son Joey grows attached to Shane looking up to him with hero worship.

All is not well in the valley though. The Starrets and other homesteaders are routinely harassed by cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men who want to keep the range free of farmers.  Shane, who is suspected to have a past as a gunfighter, must chose between fighting Ryker’s gang and his newfound domestic bliss. Things come to a head when Ryker brings a gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), to do his dirty work.

On the surface, this movie appears to be aiming for a wholesome, All-American Western, but it has a lot of subtlety and nuance.  Shane never speaks of his past but we learn something of his character through his mannerisms.  There’s a definite attraction between Shane and Marian that is also never spoken aloud.  And the movie comes down against violence and guns, with only the child Joey buying into the myth of the Old West. When a saloon brawl occurs mid-film and a gunfight at his conclusion they pack a wallop because of all the tension building to these outpourings of violence.

This is a scenic film, with the jagged peaks of the Teton Range in the background of almost every outdoors scene. Having visited Grand Tetons National Park in the past year, it was fun to see it used as a film set. I also liked the scene set at a funeral which not only was a rare moment of grief in a Western, but the camera wanders around to children and animals on the edge of the crowd for a very naturalistic moment. I also appreciate that the 52-year-old Jean Arthur can look like a mother of a 9-year-old in her thirties. This is a big change from Sunset Boulevard a few years earlier, which depicted 49-year-old Gloria Swanson as impossibly aged.

Shane is an honest and nuanced film that does justice to the traditions of the Western genre without fall for its tropes and needless violence. It also would be great if it was retold in The Mandalorian.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: The Mandalorian (2020)


Title: The Mandalorian
Release Date: 2020
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner: Jon Favreau
Episodes: 8
Production Company:  Lucasfilm | Golem Productions
Summary/Review:

WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS HERE! DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THIS SEASON AND WANT TO BE SURPRISED.

The Mandalorian returns with Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) on a quest to reunite The Child (a.k.a. Baby Yoda) with the Jedi, assuming he can even find Jedi in the galaxy. Familiar faces from season 1 return to support The Mandalorian on his quest, including Peli Motto (Amy Sedaris), Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Greef Karga (Carl Weathers), and Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr).  But this season is also about tying in The Mandalorian with wider Star Wars lore, featuring the live action debut of the characters Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff) and Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), as well as the return of Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), now teamed with Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen).  The biggest character reveal, though, is reserved for the final moments of the season finale.

Each episode is still largely self-contained with the Manadalorian typically involved in carrying out a favor for someone in return for information that will help him on the quest.  Tantalizing details of the larger story trickle out but also there are some huge revelations through the season.  For example, we learn that “Baby Yoda” is actually named Grogu, and that he was a youngling who survived the Jedi Purge.

Pedro Pascal continues to provide some wonderful, nuanced acting in the lead role. His character learns a lot about his people and his beliefs this season and makes some dramatic choices out of his love for Grogu. The rest of the cast also remains uniformly brilliant, and I particularly like Bill Burr bringing a bit of morally ambiguous wisdom to his Space Boston character. The Mandalorian is a great mix of action, drama, mystery, and humor and remains the only show my whole family eagerly watches together.

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Classic Movie Review: Unforgiven (1992)


Title: Unforgiven
Release Date: August 7, 1992
Director: Clint Eastwood
Production Company: Malpaso Productions
Summary/Review:

This is a grim movie. I remember when it came out in the early 90s, it was hailed as the return of the Western. But thematically, Unforgiven is out to undercut every trope of the Western, especially ideas of heroism and honor among gunslingers or small-town sheriffs.

Clint Eastwood stars as Will Munny, a notorious gunslinger who settled down after marrying. When we meet him at the beginning of the movie he is widower with two young children on a pig farm, 11 years removed from his days of drunkeness and violence. The naïve (and nearsighted) Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) tracks down Will to recruit him to collect a bounty from prostitutes in a brothel against two cowboys who cut up the face of one of the women. Initially reluctant to return to the sinful life, Will changes his mind because he realizes his farm is failing and he needs the money for his children. He recruits his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to join in as well.

Meanwhile, the sadistic sheriff of Big Whisky, Wyoming, “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the man who let the two cowboys go without punishment, is determined to prevent gunslingers from disturbing the peace in his town. This is displayed most viscerally in an extended sequence when Little Bill captures and then brutally beats the hired gun English Bob (played brilliantly by Richard Harris). Things are set up for severe bloodshed and tragedy.

This movie has a big problem with its depiction of women. Will’s wife is repeatedly discussed as an angel with magical powers of repentance but as she’s dead she never speaks for herself. Ned’s Native American wife is seen, staring scornfully at Will, but she never speaks either. Delilah (Anna Thomson), the prostitute who is the victim of the face-cutting that initiates all the other violence, seems to not want the other woman to raise a bounty on her behalf and willing to accept a horse as an apology from the cowboys, but she isn’t able to speak for herself in these situations.

Another theme of this movie is aging and the weight of the past. I find it interesting that Eastwood, Hackman, and Harris were all around 60 years old when the movie was made and all got their start in ultraviolent New Hollywood movies of the 60s & 70s. Freeman is a bit younger and didn’t gain widespread fame until the 80s. Ned seems more instantly likeable (because he’s Morgan Freeman) but also the one who doesn’t seem weighed down by his past.

This is well-made, beautifully-filmed movie with an excellent script as well. The acting is top notch, especially Hackman and Harris as well as Saul Rubinek as W. W. Beauchamp, a toady-esque writer who attaches himself first to English Bob and then to Little Bill as he fabricates heroic tales of the Old West. The movie naturally spirals into a whirlpool of violence and vengeance, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)


Title: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Release Date: September 24, 1969
Director: George Roy Hill
Production Company: Campanile Productions | Newman-Foreman Company
Summary/Review:

Loosely inspired by real life events, the film tells the story of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), who rob trains and banks in Wyoming in the 1890s. After hitting the Union Pacific one two many times, the railroad head puts together a posse of the best law officers and trackers to catch them. After a LONG pursuit, Butch and Sundance decide to flee to Bolivia with the teacher and Sundance’s lover Etta Place (Katharine Ross). There they fall back into their criminal ways and become known as Los Bandidos Yanquis before meeting their ultimate fate.

The movie is a mix of classic Westerns with gorgeous scenery, great cinematography, and lots of action and stunts. It mixes in a bit of New Hollywood brashness with two handsome and super cool male leads who exchange quips and barbs, and some anachronistic musical numbers. It subtly deconstructs the mythology of the Old West, setting the story at a time when the frontier was closing and the first Western movies were appearing on screens. They have to leave the country to find a place wild enough to operate. The movie has a lot of humor and charm, and a lot of quotable lines and I can see how it became such a popular movie.

On the downside, it doesn’t give Katharine Ross much to do. There are some hints of attraction between Butch and Etta – especially in the famous bicycle sequence, but it never emerges into a love triangle (thankfully, because that would’ve been boring). If anything, she seems to be the third wheel in Butch and Sundance’s bromance. And when she leaves it’s a fairly unceremonious departure.

This is a fairly enjoyable movie and one I might watch again, but I definitely wouldn’t rank it among the best of all time.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: The Mandalorian (2019)


Title: The Mandalorian
Release Date: 2019
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner: Jon Favreau
Episodes: 8
Production Company:  Lucasfilm | Golem Productions
Summary/Review:

The Mandalorian is the flagship original TV series for the Disney+ streaming service, and the first live-action TV series to take place in the Star Wars universe. Set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is a bounty hunter and member of a sect who ritually make armor from Beskar steel and never remove their masks in the presence of others.

The Mandalorian derives it’s style from classic Western and samurai films.  I actually watched High Noon and Seven Samurai during this season, and was struck by the visual homages and even the similarity in music.  In this era of heavily serialized tv drama, The Mandalorian is refreshingly old-fashioned in it’s episodic nature, especially mid-season.  It reminds me of adventure tv series from the 70s and 80s, perhaps something produced by Glen A. Larson, or as I more facetiously noted, Here’s Boomer.

The Mandalorian was marketed as your basic show about an armored antihero kicking butt, basically aimed at the people who found The Last Jedi‘s questioning of the moral underpinning of the Star Wars story to be offensive. That was true for most of the first episode until it was revealed that the show is really about The Child, or as America’s sweetheart is more popularly known, “Baby Yoda.” The tiny, green puppet so thoroughly steals every seen they appear it in that I’ve taken to calling this The Baby Yoda Show.

Of course, let not undersell Pascal, who does a terrific job of acting while wearing a mask and saying very little.  The show is also full of a remarkable slate of guest actors including Carl Weathers, Werner Herzog (who I still can’t believe is in this show), Nick Nolte, Taika Waititi, Gina Carano, Amy Sedaris, Jake Cannavale, Bill Burr (who proves there is a Boston long ago and far away), Natalia Tena, Richard Ayoade, and Giancarlo Espisito.  With some regret, I have to admit that this is by leaps and bounds better than any other new Star Wars content released this year.  I look forward to Baby Yoda and his armored sidekick returning for another season.

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Classic Movie Review: High Noon (1952)


Title: High Noon
Release Date: July 24, 1952
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Production Company: Stanley Kramer Productions
Summary/Review:

High Noon features a spectacular opening with Tex Ritter’s haunting rendition of the title song playing over the credits followed by scenes of a trio of bad lads riding into town to the shock of the townspeople.  It’s a collection of iconic Western tropes, and yet, as we shall see, this movie is unconventional for the genre. At the same time the outlaws arrive, Hadleyville’s Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is marrying Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly, in her first major role) and then turning in his badge as they plan to move to another town and run a store.

Before they can begin their honeymoon, Will is informed that a notoriously violent criminal he’d captured, Frank Miller (Ian Macdonald), has been released from prison and will be arriving on the noon train, intent on revenge. Will returns for his badge and prepares to protect the town from Miller and his cohort. His efforts to raise up a posse are filmed in real time, with frequent glimpses of clocks to remind the audience of the time left.

Will finds it difficult to get any support.  Amy, a Quaker pacifist, wants no part of the gun battle and prepares to leave him on the same train that Miller is arriving on.  The Deputy Marshall, Harvey Pell (a very young Lloyd Bridges), still sore about not being promoted to replace Will, turns in his badge.  The shopkeeper Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado) – Will’s former lover and Harvey’s current lover – also makes plans to leave town.  The men at the saloon liked it better when Miller was running things and refuse to help, while the men at the church think they’ll be safe if Will just leaves town. Ultimately, Will is left to defend the town alone and this is depicted with a legendary overhead shot of the empty streets as Miller and his men arrive.

As noted earlier, this is not your typical Western.  The gunfight at the conclusion of the film feels obligatory. The rest of the movie has exposed the dark side of human nature in the townspeople that makes one question whether they’re even worth defending.  Then there is a fantastic twist of who does come to Will’s aid in his moment of need.

The movie was created in part as a metaphor for the blacklist in Hollywood of actors and filmmakers accused of Communist sympathies. I don’t think that’s readily apparent 70 years later just from watching the film, but it made the movie controversial at the time.  It’s a powerful character study and feature terrific acting across the board.  Gary Cooper in particular stands out.  Cooper was only 50 years old when the movie was made but he looks much older due to the deeply-etched lines in his face and general weariness. (An aside: it’s been a long time since I’ve watched Pride of the Yankees but I learned he was 41 when it filmed, which is 4 years older than Lou Gehrig at the time of his death).

High Noon is a gripping drama and a genre-redefining Western that I’m glad I had the time to watch it.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Stagecoach (1939)


Title: Stagecoach
Release Date: March 3, 1939
Director: John Ford
Production Company: Walter Wanger Productions
Summary/Review:

I’ve seen John Wayne in films like The Quiet Man and The Longest Day, but I somehow have never watched one of his Western movies all the way through.  This is especially surprising considering that my late stepfather always seemed to have a John Wayne movie on the tv whenever I visited.

Stagecoach creates drama from the simple premise of putting a group of strangers together in a precarious situation and letting their characters drive the story.  The threat they face is the risk of an Apache attack on their stagecoach as it travels between towns in the Arizona territory.  Like most Westerns, the Apache are depicted as violent savages, with no mention that the Apache have been wronged by settlers claiming their land and the US Army waging war on them.  Of course, the white settlers of 1880 would have little to no sympathy for the Apache so it is accurate in that sense to depict them that way in 1939.

Outside the problematic depiction of the Apache, the film is a tense drama with 9 individuals aboard a stagecoach (2 on top, 7 within), contrasting the cramped interiors with the wide open spaces of the scenic Monument Valley as the backdrop.  The characters include:

  • Buck (Andy Devine), the stage driver – a comic relief character who is a bit overplayed.
  • Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), a law enforcement official who guards the stagecoach with a shotgun.
  • Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute driven out of town by a “Law and Order League.”  Trevor was the top-billed actor in this film and Dallas has one of the most well-developed character arcs.
  • Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), an alcoholic doctor also forced out by the “Law and Order League.”
  • Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a whiskey salesman that everyone refers to as a pastor, perhaps because he’s the moral center of this film.
  • Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant woman determined to join up with her husband who is in the Cavalry.
  • Hatfield (John Carradine), a Confederate veteran and gambler who joins the stage because he (rather patriarchally) thinks that Mrs. Mallory needs protection.
  • Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a banker who is embezzling money.  His character serves the role of complaining a lot, and in a large cast is the I think could’ve been removed without harming the story.
  • Henry, the “Ringo Kid” (John Wayne), an escapee from prison intent on tracking down the men who killed his father and brother.  He’s found stranded in the desert early on the journey, and Curley arrests him, although Henry is not held in chains and ends up becoming a leader/protector of the group.

Along they way there is conflict among the group over the Civil War, and whether or not they should journey into Apache territory without Cavalry protection, and even matters of class.  Mrs. Mallory is repeatedly afforded treatment as a “lady” while the same is denied to Dallas, and only the Ringo Kid speaks up about the inequality.  They also face crises ranging from Mrs. Mallory going into labor to needing to float the stagecoach across a river.

When they finally arrive at their destination in Lordsburg, New Mexico, Ringo seeks out his rivals, the Plummers.  In these Hays Code days, the inevitable 1-against-3 duel is only hinted at rather than shown on screen. What I found fascinating about these final scenes is the staging of Lordsburg, with dozens of extras milling about on darkened, dusty streets.  The whole scene is unsettling and claustrophobic compared with the open deserts of the stagecoach scenes.  With reservations noted, this is a compelling Western drama, and if the tropes seem overly familiar, its worth remember that Stagecoach was the origin of many ideas imitated in the ensuing decades of Western film-making.

Rating: ****