Monday, October 1, 2007

Who says the Western is Dead? Cause I'm here to tell you, they're wrong, it was just taking a break for a while. This past month saw the release of two hotly anticipated Westerns, one I've seen, the other I can't wait to see. This first is '3:10 to Yuma', the second is the long windedly titled 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' While I haven't seen the second one yet, my friend Jon has and he's written a review to accompany my review of 3:10.

3:10 to Yuma
I'll be the first to admit, I haven't always been a fan of Westerns. In fact other than 'Tombstone', I was never really a fan. But earlier this year I sat down to watch 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly' and 'The Magnificent Seven' and I was hooked. I also recently watched most of 'The Searchers' with a friend and realized it was a really great film. So it was with baited breath that I anticipated the release of '3:10 to Yuma' a remake of the 1957 film starring Glenn Ford. The film appealed to me for a number of reasons.
First, it stars one of the greatest actors around today, Christian Bale. Second, it was the first real Western I've been aware of since I fell for the genre. Add in Russel Crowe (a fine actor, even if he is a louse in real life), Alan Tudyk (A wonderful character actor), and Ben Foster (Another actor that I'm convinced is one of the best around) and you had the makings of a fine looking film.
Happily I can report I was not disappointed. 3:10 to Yuma is one of the best films I've seen all year. (And if you look in the column to the left you'll see that's quite a feat) Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) does a wonderful job bringing the feel of the old west to the big screen. The shots of various terrain, untouched by the modern world, are beautiful and it's in sharp contract to the violence that play out on screen.
The film opens on Dan Evans (Bale) a down on his luck farm hand, injured in the civil war, as his barn is burned down because he owes money on the land. His son clearly loathes him for his apparent weakness, and for not going after then men who have set the barn on fire. The next morning Dan and his sons head to town and on their way run into the ruthless outlaw, Ben Wade (Crowe) who's just robbed the Armored Stage Coast carrying the railroad's payroll. Wade allows Evans and his sons to go on their way, after taking their horses to make sure they can't follow him.
By the time Evans makes it to town Wade's men have left, but Wade is busy being 'entertained' by the local female, barkeep. Once it's obvious Wade is in town, the Sheriff and his men surround the hotel and as Evans distracts him, arrest Wade.
Now the movie heads into the meat of the film. Wade and his gang half stolen several hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Railroad and the railroad means to see him hang.
So the railroad offers to pay any man who will help transport Wade to Bisbee, Arizona to catch the 3:10 train to Yuma, where he will be tried and hung. (As a lawyer I must say it's funny that he'll be tried and hung, since that makes it seem like the trial is a mockery, but I digress) Evans needs the money so he quickly volunteers to go along.
Quickly Wade's gang realizes he's been captured and make it a point to try and free him. The scenes with the gang are amazing, thanks mostly to the aforementioned Foster, as Charlie Prince, Wade's somewhat psychotic right hand man, who will stop at nothing to get back his boss.
Evans, Wade, and the others who are transporting Wade make a stop back at Evans farm in order to trick Wade's gang into following a stage with another man in it. While waiting to leave from Evan's Wade makes advances on Evans wife, which seem to be somewhat excepted, as all of his family seems to have accepted that he's lame, not only because of his leg, but as a man. Evan's eldest son, William (Logan Lerman), takes a liking to Wade and sees him as more of a man than his father, and someone to look up to. Because of this William wants to accompany the men on their transportation, but Evans tell him no.
The group, consisting of McElroy, the only living guard of the robbed stagecoach, Tucker, the deputy, and Doc Potter (Tudyk), the town's veterinarian, takes off to Bisbee. Following close behind is William who leaves his home in the middle of the night in order to follow Wade. Quickly things go bad, as Wade throws McElroy over a cliff and turns the guns on the men forcing them to surrender, before William shows up to save the day.
It would be a shame to tell all of what happens over the course of their journey, but there are several fights and Evans and Wade slowly forge a bond.
The movie all builds until they get to Bisbee, and Evans must get Wade across town to the train station, without being killed by Wade's men who have infiltrated the town, and bought the sway of some of the townsfolk. Evan's is now alone except for his son, for several reasons, and realizes that he's the only one left who can do what's right. The mad dash from one end of town to the other is amazingly shot, and is one of the best action sequences I've seen in quite some time.
The movie really comes down to the love between a father and his son, and making sure to teach them to do the right thing, even if it's the hardest thing you have to do. The ending comes as a bit of a shock, and I would be lying if I said I immediately understood what was happening, but upon reflection it's a great ending.
All in all it's not only a great Western, but a magnificent film which receives my Highest Recommendation. Gosee it now, while it's still in theaters and can be seen the way it was meant to be.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
By Jonathan Grubbs

Some films pepper your mind with flying bullets, numbing action, and crudely drawn characters that have little more appeal than burnt grilled cheese. Some films, however, stay with you and chew on the cogs of your mind for a good while after the lights come up.

I've always hated Westerns. Strike that; hated is too harsh. I've been disinterested in Westerns until very recently. I've tried many of them, starting with classics to make sure I wouldn't be let down. I watched The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Unforgiven, and many of the Eastwood-Morricone laden spaghetti westerns, but none seemed to resonate with me. This always bothered me. How could something so quintessentially American and loved by boys since before the baby boom not appeal to me? My distaste for the Western world began to change with the arrival of Deadwood. Here was a western that showed you how truly hard and awful life in the Frontier years must have been. Dirty, angry, and vice-filled.

The Assassination Of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (TAOJJBTCRF), cut from the same mold but wholly its own beast, has now cemented me a lover of the new Western that focuses on character interaction more than gun slinging do-gooders with a score to settle. TAOJJBTCRF works so well partly because it is based in fact so the actors bring a sort of holy reverence to the source material of both real life events and the novel by Ron Hansen. In fact, whole swaths of the novel are used as narration for the film, and it works because of the sheer poetry of Hansen's prose. I was also amazed at how expertly director Andrew Dominik was able to draw extreme suspense in long take scenes that in any other film would seem tedious and overbearing. But Dominik lets the action happen as is, and the film is all the stronger for it. One of my favorite shots of the film is a long one-take sequence of a troubadour traipsing through a saloon singing a song about the cowardly act of killing Jesse James. At the end of the shot the camera rests on a tortured Robert Ford drinking at the bar while having to listen while his reputation is besmirched. It's gorgeously composed and shows the power of well-composed and well-timed shots in cinema. Watch also for an amazingly tense sequence involving gunplay in the confines of a small bedroom in a Missouri farm house that shows just how terrible six-guns are at close range.

The dramatic irony of the title is also what makes the film work so well. Because you know the end is coming for James, you pay close attention to the details in the disintegration of the James Gang, Robert Ford's strange sycophancy and Jesse James slow descent into paranoia. Everyone is cast brilliantly, but most especially Casey Affleck who proves his acting talent is the full course meal to his older brother's chunk of ham. While 3:10 to Yuma is the more commercial of the two Westerns out now, TAOJJBTCRF is by far the better experience for the power of film.

Throw in gorgeous natural light and squished lens cinematography by Roger Deakins, and a haunting score by Nick Cave, and you've got a wonderful film tinged with hints of Malick standing on its own as an elegy for and admonition of the outlaw life.


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