Hang_Em_High_PosterJed Cooper is a former lawman. After buying some cattle, he finds himself at the mercy of a posse. Believing he killed the owner and stole the cattle, they hang him. He is found before he suffocates by a lawman who brings him to see the Judge.  After being found innocent, the Judge convinces him to return to being a lawman.

Between jobs the judge sends him on, Jed tries to find and arrest the men who hung him, a prominent Rancher known as Captain Wilson and his employees.

Hang Em High kind of broke out of the standard Eastwood mold.  Jed is not really a mystery man.  He is a guy who is trying to quietly live his own life unencumbered by others.  But he is an innocent guy who gets pulled into a terrible situation.  It is interesting to see that many of the men who participate in the hanging are nit hateful mob types.  Instead, several really want to make sure he might not be guilty.  And one even turns himself in upon learning that Jed was found innocent.

This is also a bit unique as, Jed is trying to bring these guys in alive, so it is not a straight out revenge tale.  And at one point, he argues for mercy of one of the men who helped hang him.  The notion that Jed is an upstanding lawman is important to this tale. His love interest is a local woman with a horrible past seeking Justice…her story reflects his, in that they are both forced to confront the question of “what if they don’t get justice”.

The film has a great cast supporting Eastwood.  Pat Hingle is the no nonsense judge who finds being the final arbiter of Justice both a bit intoxicating and more than a bit of a burden. Bruce Dern is one of the more straight up bad guys in the film…and hey, it is a solid early Dern performance.

Hang ‘Em High makes for a good transition from the old school western to the modern one.


Battle_Beyond_the_Stars_PosterA peaceful planet called Akira is visited by the conqueror Sador.  He promises to return with an armada that will overrun the planet if they do not willingly submit to them.  A young man named Shad goes on a mission to get weapons and warriors to fight off Sador and his forces.

He assembles six unique individuals, including a vengeance seeking lizard man, a young scientist, a clone race, a haunted assassin, a beautiful warrior seeking glory, and a fun loving earth man. They all return to help the citizens of the planet.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, this Roger Corman film is a perfect example of Corman’s formula. Star Wars was a hit and had a sequel on it’s way.  Corman wanted a Star Wars style film.  He commission a script from John Sayles (who also wrote Corman’s Piranha).  They opted to take the story from Seven Samurai and set it in space, just as the Magnificent Seven moved it to the old American West.

And the movie is not shy about this.  The planet is named Akira, after Seven Samurai director Akira Kurosawa.  The advertising for the film included phrases like “Seven Magnificent Warriors”. Robert Vaughn even plays a character much like his dark Lee, from the Magnificent Seven.

This film, while being a knockoff meant to cash in onStar Wars hype, actually stands pretty well on it’s own.  A lot of this goes back to the strong cast.  George Peppard is a more laid back Han Solo type as the space faring earth man Cowboy.  The alien race the Nestors are an alien race of clones who are psychically linked.  This allows for a lot of intended humor, such as when they are offered a hotdog and while only one of them eats it, all the Nestor’s can taste is, and one observes, “There is no dog in this”.  After they recite the ingredients of a hot dog (determined by taste), Peppered cheerfully responds, “That’s what we call meat on Earth.”

Sybil Danning’s Saint Exmin the Valkerie is from a race that live only to fight in wars.  And wear swimming suits (what, you think a Roger Corman film is not going to feature at least one buxom woman in a tiny outfit?!).  Initially, Shad is annoyed and tries to chase her off, but she hangs on, proving herself in battle and winning Shad’s respect.

The film features work by James Cameron (as art director) and the designs go from very serious, such as Sador’s rather impressive ship to somewhat tongue in cheek.  Shad’s ship has a smart talking female voiced AI.  And the ship has breasts.  I am not joking.


Seriously, Cameron…

And James Horner’s musical score is downright great.  Battle Beyond the Stars is entertaining and downright fun as low budget Sci-Fi goes.

Seven_Samurai_PosterBeing set in sixteenth century Japan, some might question including this film in my series on westerns.  But having run through the Magnificent Seven films, not looking at the film that inspired them, that created one of the most memorable western motifs seemed downright criminal.

A small mountain village is being raided by bandits and after they leave, the town sends out a party to find help.

They find Kambei, an older Ronin and watch him save a baby from a thief. While he is not initially interested in helping them, he relents and assembles six more Samurai to both teach the villagers and help them defend the village.

Kurosawa had apparently planned to make a film about a “day in the life of a Samurai” before research brought him to a story about Samurai helping farmers. And thank goodness for that.  Because Seven Samurai is a pleasure to watch.  It is humorous, exciting and touching.

Clocking in at three hours, we get to know the Samurai very well.  We see their friendships (both with themselves and the villagers) grow.  A beautifully shot film, Seven Samurai is a masterpiece that has and will continue to influence cinema.

Magnificant_Seven_2016While there had been a two season TV series in the late 90’s, the Seven Samurai inspired franchise had remained quiet. Certainly, plenty of films have used the “group of gunslingers or outlaws step up to help people in need.  It is one of the most popular western motifs.  But it took until 2016 for it to come back to life.

Set in 1879, Tycoon Bartholomew Bogue has overtaken the town of Rose Creek.  He owns the Sheriff and has had his men deputized. Forcing the people into labor, they are living in misery.  After he has some of the towns people killed to “lay down the law”, they seek the help of Sam Chisolm, a U.S. Marshall.  Chisolm starts recruiting people, starting with gambler Joshua Faraday, who is trying to get his horse back, but lacks funds. As they work their way back, they reach out to various individuals…a Mexican Outlaw named Vasquez, an old trapper named Jack Home.  He also brings in former Confederate officer named Goodnight Robicheaux and his partner Billy Rocks. Finally, they bring in exiled Comanche Warrior Red Harvest.

This film has a very conscious eye towards diversity.  Billy Rocks is a Korean immigrant skilled both with knives and guns.  Chisolm is a black man. And even the Confederate is explicitly portrayed as “not the racist kind”.  He clearly has a longstanding friendship with Chisolm and his relationship with Rocks is an equal partnership.

But this works in the favor of the film.  These characters all come from desperately different backgrounds, but come together to form a solid unit that trusts each other.  I found myself genuinely liking these characters.  Granted, a certain amount of this is due specifically to the cast.  Denzel Washington tends to bring a sense of authority to every role.  Chris Pratt of course has a likeable sweet boyishness that tends to run through his roles. Byung-Hun Lee is just kind of a dashing hero type.  You can always depend on D’Onofrio and Hawke to deliver terrific character performances.

And Peter Sarsgaard’s Bogue? He is a clear cut, unambiguous bad guy. He does not even see himself as the hero of his story.  He just believes in “might makes right”.  When we are introduced to him, he steps into a church and shows no sense of respect for the faith of the parishioners.

Overall, this film is quite exiting and smartly chose to create an entirely new set of “Seven”.  It is also a bit darker and grittier.  That is not to say it is not fun, it definitely has it’s moments of levity.  I feel like the addition of a revenge element for one of the Seven was unnecessary, and even kind of undermines the idea of the willingness of these guys to sacrifice themselves for the town.

But director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter and the Equalizer) delivers a pretty solid energetic modern western with the Magnificent Seven.

Magnificant_Seven_Ride_PosterYears after the original film, Chris Adams is a marshal. A friend seeks his help with a gang of bandits.  He refuses, but after both his wife and friend are killed in a robbery and attempted apprehension, he brings in a group of men to take out the bandits.

And Van Cleef is certainly a better choice of stand in for Brynner, even making a lot of sense as an older and wearier Adams.

But really, this feels like the last gasp at trying to make the franchise matter.  And it really does not work.  It is kind of a boring retread.

Simply put, this final sequel is not the enjoyable ride the original film was.

Guns_of_the_Magnificent_Seven_PosterRevolutionary Quintero has been captured by the Federale.  He gets $600 to Max to continue the cause.  Bandit and revolutionary Lobero wants him to use the money for guns and ammo, but instead he hires Chris Adams.  They put together a new Seven to free Quintero.

The film attempts to ground itself in a sense of social awareness (in part with characters like Bernie Casey’s ex-slave Cassie and the treatment of the peasants they encounter).  But the story is less than engaging.

Without Yul Brynner, this film feels like it could be any western.  I like George Kennedy, but Chris does not feel like Chris here.  The Guns of the Magnificent Seven is just not  the return fans needed.

Return_of_the_Magnificent_Seven_PosterChico settled down in the village that the Seven defended years before and now they face a new threat by Rancher Lorca.  He has kidnapped the town’s men to force them into labor.

The town seeks the help of Chris and Vin (Vin now played by Robert Fuller) who assemble a new crew to help the town.

I do not have a tremendous amount to say about this one.  I like Yul Brynner’s (the only holdover from the original) Chris, but Robert Fuller is not Steve McQueen. And making the setting the same village instead of making them a heroic force for a new group (an orphanage or something? I don’t know).

The most notable thing to me about this movie is that the screenplay is by the 70’s/80’s horror director Larry Cohen.  But this is a pretty lifeless script.

Magnificant_Seven_PosterBandit Calvera and his gang are terrorizing the people of a small Mexican town. After one raid, he promises to return to steal more from the people. The leaders of the village put together what they have to invest in weapons.

Chris Adams steps in suggesting hiring gunfighters.  While reluctant, after helping select the other gunfighters, Chris agrees to help defend the town.

The Magnificent Seven cleverly sets up it’s two main leads Chris  and Vin (Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen) as decent tough guys.  They discover the local coroner has an issue.  There is a body that needs transporting.  But the deceased is Native American and the white locals are refusing access to the cemetery. The two volunteer to take the hearse to the cemetery.  This seen is really full of charm and gets you pumped to follow these two. And they manage to succeed in their mission with only a couple of flesh wounds.  These men are not cold blooded killers.  They are willing to do as little harm as possible.

This is a stellar cast of tough guys, but not in some cheap sense.  They are mostly good and decent (Harry Luck is a bit mercenary, joining up because he believes there must be treasure if Chris is involved, but even he ends up willing t risk his life for the town). Eli Wallach, of course, makes for a great villain.

The music is energetic and fun, especially the heroic theme song.

The Magnificent Seven is a truly great and fun western.

Wild_Bunch_PosterPike Bishop and his gang are hoping to retire.  They plan a last big score, but are betrayed by ex-partner Deke Thorton.  The last remaining survivors of the gang make the run to Mexico.

Staying in the hometown of gang member Angel, they find the town ruled by the cruel and brutal General Mapache. Their planned heist goes wrong and they run afoul of Mapache.

The over arching theme of the Wild Bunch is the death of the time of Outlaws.  None of our characters are “heroes”.  Holden’s Pike is a man who has lived outside of the law, and has reached a point where he has grown tired of it.  But the reality is, the life of an outlaw is not one that allows you to exit gracefully.

The Wild Bunch is vicious and violent, but also an absolutely memorable western.  Holden turns in a great world weary performance.  He wants out, but getting out is not an easy road.

Visually, Peckinpah and his team built the film around rapid fire edits that combined normal and slow motion footage. This makes for a visually compelling technique.

Book_of_Life_posterLa Muerta rules over the joyful Land of the Remembered, while Xibalba rules over the Land of the Forgotten. He tries to convince La Muerta to change sides, but she is not interested.  He proposes a wager. Observing the rivalry of two young boys (Manolo and Joaquin) over their friend Maria, each god chooses a boy as the one who will marry Maria.

La Muerta disguises herself as an old woman who asks if Manolo might give her a piece of bread.  Instead he generously offers a full loaf. Xibalba tries the same thing, but Joaquin is not so giving. Maria is sent off by her father, returning years later.  Sensing Maria is favoring Manolo, Xibalba tricks Manolo into giving up his life.

In the afterlife, Manolo discovers he has been duped and seeks the help of La Muerta.

The design of this film is remarkably charming.  The framing device is that a museum tour guide is telling the story, and all the characters look like wooden puppets.

The Land of the Dead is a wonderfully bright and colorful world. The characters are full of charm. La Muerta is a kind and gentle, yet fearless goddess.  Xibalba on the other hand is both scheming and yet friendly (he is voiced by Ron Perlman, whose performance is just a lot of fun).  And while the story frames Manolo as a kind and generous artist and Joaquin as a cheerful braggart? Joaquin is not a villain.  The story is pitting the two against each other, and it obviously favors Manolo as the man for Maria. But Joaquin is seen as simply misguided and in need of a lesson. The film has sympathy for him.  And then there is Maria.  She is not interested in belonging to anyone and regularly challenges her two friends. And there is Chuy the pig who makes a sound like a goat.

The music of the Book of Life blends American Pop music with latin flavors to great effect.  But the highlight are the two original tunes I Love You To Much and the Apology Song.

The Book of Life is a charming fairy tale of love, loss and rebirth.