All Stand Together Part 2 (Return of the Seven,1966)

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.

All Stand Together pt 1 (The Magnificent Seven, 1960)

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.

Uncontrollable (The Wild Bunch, 1969)

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.

The Length of Love (The Book of Life, 2014)

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.

To Not Be Forgotten (Coco, 2017)

CoC0_PosterMiguel comes from a family that has erased music…and their great, great grandfather… fro the collective memories. But Miguel loves music.  He wants to sing like his idol, the late Ernesto De La Cruz. On the Day of the Dead, Miguel decides to take to heart De La Cruz’s motto of seizing your moment by performing a song at the talent show that evening.

When his grandmother discovers him with his guitar, she smashes it, angering Miguel. He discovers that his unknown great great grandfather is actually De La Cruz and so, after being unable to obtain a guitar from other musicians,  he tries to borrow the guitar from his great great grandfather’s crypt. Suddenly, he finds himself invisible to all around him…until he runs into skeletal beings…who seem to recognize him.  Miguel finds his relatives who have died have come to visit the land of the living for the celebration of the Day of the Dead.

He is brought back to the Land of the Dead, where his family works to get him back to the land of the living.  His Great Great Grandmother Mamá Imelda was held back by by their being no picture of her set out for the Day of the Dead.  When they find out that this is the fault of Miguel, she gifts him the blessing to return…but with the condition that he never seek to play music again. Miguel cannot help himself and ends up back in the Land of the Dead. But instead of accepting his Mamá Imelda’s blessing again, he refuses and seeks to find his Great Great Grandfather De La Cruz, certain he will give him the blessing he so needs, without condition. A con artist named Hector offers to help Miguel get to him in exchange for bringing his picture back to the land of the living and setting it out for the Day of the Dead.  But they are racing against time.  His family is trying to find him both in the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Living, and if he does not get back before sunrise? Miguel will be stuck in the Land of the Dead forever.

One might gripe that there is little about this story that is new.  Many, many times we have seen the story of the young kid or character who is out of step with their family or society in general. Pixar and animated kid movies have capitalized on this notion of the kid (or kid at heart) who has a dream and it really falls on the family (or society) to learn how wrong they were.  And there are elements of that here. His family reasons for erasing the existence of his Great Great Grandfather are understandable.  He walked away from the family…from his wife and daughter…never to be seen again.

But Coco has a much greater lesson for both Miguel and his family. Miguel must learn how important his family truly is to him.  Both Hector and Mamá Imelda express a disdain for musicians, and yet harbor beautiful talent.  We find both have been hurt by the musician’s life.

The infusion of music to the film is an infusion of emotion and life (I honestly cannot picture another artistic love for Miguel that would feel quite as powerful here). The songs connect us to Miguel, Mamá Imelda, Hector and De La Cruz.

Visually, the Land of the Dead is so celebratory and vibrant, it pulls you in, and the character designs allow for the quick adjustment to the fact that Hector is surrounded by decorative skeletons that are fun to watch.

Coco is a wonderfully beautiful fest for the eyes that is full of heart.

Loveless Fascination (Annihilation, 2018)

annihilation_posterLena is a professor who has been trying to come to terms with her husband Kane’s disappearance a year back.  He went on a mission for the Army and seemed to disappear completely.  As she tries to move on, one evening he just walks into the room. Kane is tight lipped, even absent minded.  Suddenly, he starts to vomit blood.  On the way to the hospital, the ambulance is accosted by government agents.

Lena learns where her husband has been, a strange part of an American swamp that is encircled by a strange barrier.  To try and get answers as to what is wrong with Kane, Lena volunteers to join four other scientists into what they call “The Shimmer”. They realize it may be one way, as other than Kane, no other group has returned.

What they find within the shimmer is evolution on overdrive.  Biological life is being melded into new lifeforms. The four scientists begin to question their sanity and even their physical forms.

Annihilation is a patient and quiet film.  It plays out and reveals itself in a deliberately calm fashion.  This is not a sci-fi spectacle.  Instead it is a world of frightening beauty. The film is full of haunted, eerie visuals.  At one point, they discover shrubbery that has grown to look like people. It is both creep and remarkably beautiful.

Much of the film rests on Natalie Portman’s shoulders, and luckily, she is in sync with the film’s tone. She has a quiet intensity throughout the film. Jennifer Jason Leigh offers us an uncertain leader.  Dr. Ventriss appears to have ulterior motives, but the audience gets no more real access than Lena.

Tessa Thompson plays scientist Josie in a role so uncommon for Thompson so far, that it took me awhile to realize it was Tessa Thompson.  Josie is quiet and mousey, but has a tremendous intellect. This allows her to start to understand the Shimmer in a way the other women cannot.  Gina Rodriguez is the well meaning conflict for the women within the film. Oscar Isaac’s role is small, but his performance as Kane is unnerving.

The film is visually stunning, every frame of the Shimmer full of horrific beauty. Alex Garland (director of Ex Machina) is proving himself a force to be reckoned with in thoughtful science fiction film.

The Haunting Past (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962)

Man_Who_Shot_Liberty_Valance_PosterSenator Ransom Stoddard and his wife have come back to their home town to pay respects to his late friend Tom Doniphon. Some wonder why a famous senator is attending the funeral of a man who seems not to really be of any note.

A persistent reporter convinces the reluctant senator to give him an interview.  Stoddard made his name by killing the notorious Liberty Valance years earlier. But there is a dark secret hidden away and Stoddard is ready to put it on the record.

Buoyed by strong performances from Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, the Man Who shot Liberty Valance explores living a life on the foundation of a lie.  Stewart’s Stoddard carries guilt over the circumstances involving Tom and Valance.

Valance is a pretty straight forward thug who wants to amass power, the film makes no real effort to get the audience on his side.  You see Stoddard’s actions as fairly heroic, but information he learns later eats away at him as the years go by.

This is a terrific film and a classic of the genre. I say this as one who has never been a huge fan of John Wayne.  Admittedly, some of that is annoyance with narratives about “where have the real men gone”. But I appreciate Wayne in this film.  Tom is a sympathetic character, who finds Stoddard, in some ways, really interfered with his life.

On a Pale Horse (Pale Rider, 1985)

Pale_Rider_PosterAn itinerant Preacher rides into a mining town facing pressure from a greedy mining company.  He ends up helping the town stand up to the owner of the mining company and his thugs.

The simple story is a throwback to earlier Eastwood westerns, with Clint’s character having no name other than “Preacher”.  I suspect Pale Rider has had the greatest influence on the perception of Eastwood’s western history.  He is almost supernatural in his fighting and shooting (and Eastwood has suggested that the Preacher is literally a ghost).

It feels like the film is transitioning away from heroic glorification of violence, but not entirely.  The bad guys are bad and never all that sympathetic.

Pale Rider draws from the Classic Shane very heavily in it’s story that you cannot help but compare the two…some have claimed the film is a remake, but Pale Rider gives no such credit to Shane.  I suspect more that Eastwood wanted to explore those themes.  And the key plot points are, at this point, such a trope of westerns that it is possible they did not even realize how close they were following Shane.

Pale Rider is, overall, a pretty strong Eastwood film, even though it brings little knew to westerns or even Eastwood westerns.

The movie had a beautiful poster too.

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