The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah), the director’s cut

The Wild Bunch opens with a methodically executed heist slash shootout sequence. Director Peckinpah quickly introduces cast members, partially due to the dramatic plotting, mostly due to Lou Lombardo’s fantastic editing. All juxtaposed with some kids watching ants kill scorpions. The Wild Bunch opens with one heck of a declarative statement. Peckinpah wants to look at violence and how people treat violence as entertainment.

Unfortunately, he also wants to do a Western about men getting old and being men and bonding even though they don’t like each other because they’re men after all and men stick together. Just look at “villain” Robert Ryan, who is pursuing his old gang–led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine–and is now stuck with a bunch of low-life bounty hunters. Real men aren’t low-life bounty hunters with bad teeth. Edmond O’Brien, the eldest of the “Wild Bunch,” has bad teeth but he’s not a low-life bounty hunter. He goofs off in the steam bath just like Holden and Borgnine.

After the opening, which is simultaneously exhilarating and horrific, The Wild Bunch does a more traditional first act. There’s setup with Ryan hunting down the gang, there’s setup with the backstory between Ryan and Holden, there’s a full introduction of the supporting cast. Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are brothers and dissenting voices in the gang. Jaime Sánchez is the other guy, who’s apparently been there longer than Johnson and Oates, but not as long as Borgnine. It doesn’t really matter because the characters aren’t deep. They’ll occasionally get deep characterizations from the actors, but the script’s pretty thin. In the script they’re just old, mopey, angry, drunk, tired, horny, or some combination thereof.

For Johnson and Oates, it doesn’t matter. They’re around to be flashy so Holden can dwell on all his mistakes. For Holden and Borgnine, it does matter. Borgnine has almost nothing whatsoever to do except back up Holden, so it’d be nice for there to be a reason more than Borgnine admires Holden. And if not a reason, at least something melodramatic. Something melodramatic would show Peckinpah and co-writer Walon Green carried a little.

Instead, no. It’s undeveloped. Just like almost everything else in The Wild Bunch, except Sánchez’s backstory. Out of nowhere, the film goes from being Ryan hunting Holden and company to Holden and company hanging out in Sánchez’s home village in Mexico and becomes darn likable. Oates goes from ominous and dangerous to affable in about three minutes once they get to the village. Cute even. But Peckinpah doesn’t want the audience to like the characters for too long–at least not without reservations or comprise–so they’re always doing something awful.

There’s some good acting in The Wild Bunch. Holden’s a strong lead and he has a handful of phenomenal little moments. They don’t add up to anything, but they’re real good. And Peckinpah’s on for them too, which is nice. Borgnine’s fine. He really is just support for Holden. Sánchez is fine too; Peckinpah was apparently intentional about making him frequently pout. Oates is wild and crazy and it’s okay. It’s an enjoyable performance, but the character is still exceptionally unlikable. Johnson does a lot with a thin part.

Edmond O’Brien is amazing. He chews scenery, drools or spits it out with his chaw, but always with restraint. Whoever thought of dubbing his laughter over shots should’ve had a different thought, however. After some a lot of imaginative stylization in the first third, the film cools down until the grand finale. And that grand finale just shows the same techniques applied to different content; Peckinpah foreshadows pretty much everything in the spectacular open.

As far as the bad guys, Ryan’s okay. Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones are initially amusing as his most vocal moronic sidekicks. They soon get tiring, once it’s clear there’s no more material for them. Ryan gets it worst in that department, however. He’ll be going along fine and then get some trite, waxing nostalgic monologue. It makes for a long movie.

Jerry Fielding’s music is on the low side of mediocre. It’s kind of all right at times, but Peckinpah and Fielding go for a traditional Western score and it doesn’t bring anything to the film. And then there are the times Fielding does action thrill music, which do not work at all. In fact, they’re unpleasant. You’re sitting around waiting for something to happen and then there’s some action and Fielding kneecaps it.

I know Wild Bunch is a sparse, moody look at the male psyche, violence, and the myth of the Old West, but it should better at doing that thing. Peckinpah neglects his actors; not an insignificant problem since there’s only three or four intricate action sequences. There are a couple more elaborate ones, which have spectacle but not much else. But Peckinpah’s ignoring them when there’s nothing else going on except the characters walking, talking, riding.

Despite some dynamic filmmaking from Peckinpah, ably edited by Lombardo, Wild Bunch just doesn’t add up. There’s not enough for the actors, neither in the script nor in Peckinpah’s directorial attention.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by Walon Green and Peckinpah, based on a story by Green and Roy N. Sickner; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Lou Lombardo; music by Jerry Fielding; produced by Phil Feldman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Edmond O’Brien (Freddie Sykes), Jaime Sánchez (Angel), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Emilio Fernández (Mapache), Strother Martin (Coffer), L.Q. Jones (T.C), and Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 2ND ANNUAL GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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The Bastard (1978, Lee H. Katzin)

Somewhere in the second half of The Bastard, the mini-series starts to wear you down and you just give in. The first half is set in 1772 Europe, first in France, then in England. Andrew Stevens is a French boy with a secret. His mom might just be Patricia Neal, inn keeper, but Stevens is actually heir to a great British title. He’s just a bastard for now. Soon, he’ll be a duke.

In other words, the first half of The Bastard is a bunch of weak accents (for the most part) and Southern California standing in for the French countryside, British estates, French estates, the British countryside, and London itself. Oddly, The Bastard isn’t a grandly budget mini-series. It’s got nice sets and some creative location shooting, but it’s far from opulent. Director Katzin probably wouldn’t know what to do with the extra money anyway.

It feels, especially in the first half, very much like a TV show you don’t really want to watch. Until about an hour into the movie, Stevens is just around to whine, get seduced, seduce, patronize, and get henpecked by Neal. Neal doesn’t even try a French accent. Stevens goes for it and fails, but for a second he gets some credit for the enthusiasm. Then the accent starts to slip and the credit goes away.

When they get to England, they meet Eleanor Parker and Mark Neely. Parker does a British accent, Neely doesn’t, which is good because Neely’s bad enough without a weak accent. Parker’s a nice cameo; Bastard has some good small parts. But if you’re around too long, The Bastard gets you. The script eventually gets Neal, who’s got a weak character in the first place, but Katzin’s direction, Guerdon Trueblood’s teleplay… Neal never gets a good moment.

Anyway. They go to London, they meet Donald Pleasence (who’s cute) and Tom Bosley. Bosley’s all in as Benjamin Franklin, down to the air baths–his enthusiasm, no one else’s, can defeat The Bastard. Shame he’s only got four scenes in three hours. Then they go to the colonies for the second half.

Oh, right, Stevens sleeps with Olivia Hussey too. She’s his half-brother’s fiancée who likes French boys. Stevens is supposed to be seventeen or eighteen at the start of The Bastard. He was twenty-three. He looks about twenty-eight with the tan. His young lothario thing is a weird script addition given it looks like a soap opera whenever Katzin does a seduction scene. Except maybe the first one.

Second half has William Shatner as Paul Revere. And it features a William Shatner enthusiastic horse backing riding sequence. It’s kind of awesome. Shatner’s not bad either. He’s extremely likable, which gets him over some of the bumps in the script. And he’s also not in it too much.

Ditto Buddy Ebsen as Stevens’s American mentor. Or Noah Beery Jr. Even Peter Bonerz leaves a good impression.

Strangely, William Daniels is a complete flop and he’s got a lot fewer scenes than anyone else.

The second half also brings Kim Cattrall as an actual love interest for Stevens. She doesn’t get seduced until they’ve had something like five scenes together, while the previous conquests fell at one and two, respectively. Cattrall’s kind of likable. She’s not good so much as she’s trying harder than anyone else. There are so many historical figures, the script is entirely caricature, Katzin’s not interested in the performances, seeing someone occasionally try. It helps.

But then The Bastard gets Cattrall too.

Stevens gets okay for a while, when it’s all the American Revolution flashcards. He doesn’t get good, but he gets okay. And then the script throws him a real curveball and the development–in Stevens’s performance, him, the script, probably not Katzin, come on–drags him under. It also drags The Bastard under, which is appropriate, since Stevens is the Bastard.

You know, Johnny Carson’s right. Sometimes, you do just like being able to say bastard.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lee H. Katzin; teleplay by Guerdon Trueblood, based on the novel by John Jakes; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by Michael Murphy and Robert F. Shugrue; music by John Addison; produced by Joe Byrne; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Andrew Stevens (Phillipe Charboneau), Kim Cattrall (Anne Ware), Patricia Neal (Marie Charboneau), Olivia Hussey (Alicia), Buddy Ebsen (Benjamin Edes), Donald Pleasence (Solomon Sholto), William Shatner (Paul Revere), Harry Morgan (Capt. Caleb), Eleanor Parker (Lady Amberly), Mark Neely (Roger Amberly), John de Lancie (Lt. Stark), Ike Eisenmann (Gil, The Marquis de LaFayette), Peter Bonerz (Girard), James Gregory (Will Campbell), Carole Tru Foster (Daisy O’Brien), Charles Haid (George Lumden), Noah Beery Jr. (Dan O’Brien), Herbert Jefferson Jr. (Lucas), Barry Sullivan (Abraham Ware), Lorne Greene (Bishop Francis), Cameron Mitchell (Capt. Plummer), William Daniels (Samuel Adams), Keenan Wynn (Johnny Malcolm), Russell Johnson (Col. James Barrett), and Tom Bosley (Benjamin Franklin).


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Shin Godzilla (2016, Higuchi Shinji and Anno Hideaki)

Shin Godzilla is the story of hard-working bureaucrats responding successfully to a national crisis. When the giant monsters invade, you can’t do better than the able public servants of Shin Godzilla.

And for most of the film, directors Higuchi and Anno pull it off. The first act of the film, with the introduction of the unlikely new Godzilla, races–Anno edits with Sato Atsuki and they don’t slow down until it’s time for a full stop. There’s a lot of humor to Shin Godzilla, but it’s entirely for the viewer. The characters don’t get a break or a laugh or even regular smiling. They stoically battle the apocalypse, whether it’s a giant monster or the U.S. government externally unwanted pressure on Japan.

Shin Godzilla avoids politics. Way too much. But it does have this steady mistrust of the United States. It’s too bad too, because the U.S. shows up in the second act with all sorts of Godzilla info and those information dumps are a mess. On one hand, Anno doesn’t want to take the kaiju thing too seriously. He knows he’s got disbelief suspended by this time, so why not rush through some really silly origin stuff. There’s a portents to Shin Godzilla, which the directors pull off (thanks to the actors, thanks to the editing), but Anno doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. After the almost goofy first act–which transitions masterfully into the second act through montage–it seems like Shin is going to be something special.

Except it never gets there. For two hours, the movie keeps promising something more in a few minutes, delivering an almost perfect moment here and there, but always dragging it out. The second act is lead Hasegawa Hiroki dragging the cast of hundreds through the clumsy introduction of new ideas, new mutations, new characters.

Shin Godzilla has a hundred speaking parts. Maybe. It has a lot. It’s this rapid fire political thriller thing, only instead of a nuclear war, they’re fighting this giant monster. Every once in a while, there’s a “Godzilla moment” with the giant monster and the film seems to be moving more towards something to do with Godzilla symbolically. Even self-referentially. Anno and Higuchi use some classic Godzilla music, but they don’t do much else referential. The locations, sure, but it’s supposed to be scary. Godzilla’s supposed to be dangerous.

And Godzilla does do some serious damage, which the film completely ignores in terms of human casualties. There’s maybe one tragic scene, early on, when it seems like Shin Godzilla still might go somewhere else–into the cellphone footage, into the lives of the displaced–but then it doesn’t.

Instead, the film introduces Ishihara Satomi. Ishihara is the half-Japanese, half-white American daughter of a U.S. senator who’s on her way up the ladder in Washington. She’s also a bit of a party girl, because she’s rich. Ishihara does okay with some of the part. She’s bad at the English deliveries, which immediately kills the cinema verite the directors try to keep going. She’s got too much character for the movie and nothing to do with it. If Ishihara were better, the character not be such a drag. But Ishihara’s just fine, not phenomenal. Again, she gets no help from the directors. Maybe one of them told her to play flirty with Hasegawa and the other said not to play flirty with him.

As for Hasegawa, he’s a great lead. His character is a young, bright, impetuous staffer who just wants to do good. He wants to be Justin Trudeau. Ishihara wants to be Hillary. Except to change political analogies, Ishihara’s character is more the Mandy Hampton part.

Everyone else is great because they aren’t in it too much. If the performance is broad, the actor is gone pretty soon. By the time they’re back, they’re now a familiar face and they’re welcome. It perpetuates. It’s a very well made film. Until the third act, at least. The sludge second act seems like it’s building, through monotony maybe, but definitely intensifying. Because it’s so well-made. Then it collapses and Shin Godzilla just gets heavier and heavier.

Anno, in the script, tries to keep it light. He tries to play up the characters as familiar to the audience, but the film’s lost its teeth. If you’re going to deus ex machina, put it in the right spot and don’t try to drag it out two weeks in the present action. Because the directors break Shin Godzilla. For a better part of its runtime, it could’ve gone somewhere. But Anno and Higuchi don’t want to take it anywhere.

Except as a politician positivity message.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Higuchi Shinji and Anno Hideaki; written by Anno; director of photography, Yamada Kosuke; edited by Anno and Sato Atsuki; music by Sagisu Shiro; produced by Satô Yoshihiro, Shibusawa Masaya, Ueda Taichi, and Wadakura Kazutoshi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Hasegawa Hiroki (Yaguchi), Takenouchi Yutaka (Akasaka), Ishihara Satomi (Kayoko Ann Patterson), Ôsugi Ren (Prime Minister Okochi), Emoto Akira (Azuma), Kôra Kengo (Shimura, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary), Ichikawa Mikako (Ogashira, Deputy Director of Nature Conservation Bureau), Kunimura Jun (Zaizen, Integrated Chief of Staff), Pierre Taki (Saigo, Combat Leader), Shimada Kyûsaku (Katayama, Minister of Foreign Affairs), and Mitsuishi Ken (Kozuka, Governor of Tokyo).


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13th (2016, Ava DuVernay)

The first half of 13th is didactic–well, except when the film makes fun of interviewee Grover Norquist. There are three or four capital C Conservatives interviewees; Norquist and Gingrich are present because they’re such trolls they think they’re convincing. Gingrich is during his Black Lives Matter phase (the documentary is pre–2016 election, but still very 2016, which I need to talk about), but Norquist is just a chump. Everyone knows it and the film embraces it, maybe the only time 13th lets you have the hint of a smile.

Getting it out of the way, the other Conservative interviewees are just unknown chumps. Or worms. The sad part of reality is director DuVernay isn’t hunting down worms or chumps for these interviews (except Norquist and Gingrich, though, again, Gingrich seems to be present with a different, pre-Trump agenda); they’re just the right guys to be interviewed. Evil organizations out to ruin the United States are actually staffed with the Conservative geek out of a late nineties teen movie.

Norquist being more in line with what happens with a John Hughes bro grows up.

Anyway. I think I have that fervor out.

The first half of 13th is extremely didactic. DuVernay is guiding the film through a certain number of interviewees, through a certain bit of history. She’s also making an argument–the 13th amendment to the Constitution has been used through white supremacy to fuck up the lives of people of color, specifically Black people. And, you know, she’s right. She wins that argument the second Angela Davis comes back as an interviewee after being shown in historical footage. DuVernay doesn’t introduce Davis as a former firebrand, she’s a professor. Even if you know Angela Davis, she goes from being this beauteously interviewed academic to someone who outsmarted some significant bad guys of history in this raw historical footage.

DuVernay does a lot with historical footage, whether it’s from the teens, fifties, sixties, eighties, nineties. It’s one of 13th’s few sticking points. The footage isn’t up-converted correctly. Or it is and DuVernay is obscuring history and making memory this permeable thing, but I think it’s just not up-converted well enough.

So that first half is didactic. It’s a history lesson. It’s a thesis statement, it’s a persuasive essay. DuVernay covers 149 years of history, with more and more focus on the last fifty years as the film progresses. It has a natural narrative flow and then it stops in 2012. And DuVernay tells the audience to now apply that history to what’s going on right now. Starting with Trayvon Martin, continuing into Black Lives Matter, finishing with Trump.

Now, 13th is pre-election, another of its sticking points. Certain aspects of it feel a tad ephemeral. That first half is a lot of historical fact. Learning history, even critically thinking about that history as it affects modernity, it’s ephemeral. Film viewing is an ephemeral act. But since DuVernay’s already proved the thesis, before getting to the present day, what’s 13th doing now? It’s no longer a persuasive documentary or a didactic one. It doesn’t have a narrative. Or, is DuVernay’s narrative distance such the narrative is the viewer’s.

13th is an excellent documentary for the first ninety percent. I even enjoyed the camera manipulation in the interview after a certain point. 13th’s very accessible; DuVernay is looking at the impossibly grim, but she keeps it accessible. With profile interview shots for emphasis. It’s fine.

But then in the last ten minutes or so, DuVernay brings 13th into reality. Immediate, clear, HD reality. Everything comes together. Not just all the subjects, but the visual style of the infographics. DuVernay’s the first person I’ve ever seen the use infographics so starkly. It’s almost a rejection of the effect.

Fine photography from Hans Charles and Kira Kelly. Editor, co-producer, and co-writer Spencer Averick is best at the writing and producing. Even if the cuts to profile weren’t his idea, they’re inappropriately jarring. There’s no nuance to the cuts–good guys and bad get the same cutting. It’s off-putting. Editing is very important.

Nicely, DuVernay doesn’t use that device much in the second half so it’s win-win. She does quite a bit with the documentary medium to get the film right. 13th is outstanding.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ava DuVernay; written by DuVernay and Spencer Averick; directors of photography, Hans Charles and Kira Kelly; edited by Averick; music by Jason Moran; produced by DuVernay, Averick, and Howard Barish; released by Netflix.


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