Projected Reviews

Reviews, Articles, and other musings on cinema.

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Review: Swamp Water (1941)

By Trey Smith

Jean Renoir’s first American film “Swamp Water” may not be as masterful as some of his earlier work, such as “The Grand Illusion” or “The Rules of the Game”, but that is by no means damning praise. It is clear that Renoir did not have complete control of the film, he even said as much in his autobiography, and the film suffers slightly for it, feeling more like a typical by the numbers Hollywood production of the 40’s than the truly special pictures he produced in France. However, this is still Renoir and even with the restrictions placed on him by the Hollywood studio system his prowess at producing movies rich with humanity and impeccable technique still manage to shine through.

“Swamp Water” tells of a small community of Georgians who live on the outskirts of the Okefenokee Swamp. Right from the beginning the film hammers us with how dangerous the swamp is warning us of vicious gators, deadly cotton mouths, and how if they don’t get you the treacherous geography of the swamp surely will. There is even s foreboding skull perched atop a raggedy cross at the edge of the swamp warning all that they are treading into a domain where man is not welcome. The people around the swamp don’t traverse it if they can help it and anyone who dares to venture into its murky, uncharted waters surely must meet a grisly fate.

Most of the movie is hauntingly shot on location in the actual Okefenokee Swamp, which lends the story a gritty, gothic realism that permeates throughout its entirety. It’s often said that a movie’s locale can sometimes prove to be its own character and that is certainly the case here. “Swamp Water” is a tale of murder, betrayal, and loss of faith in mankind, all of which are murky subjects, making the swamp the perfect setting. Continuing along this thread the people who live around it are a naturally cautious and suspicious folk, and who can blame them, living on the edge of a natural hell full of murderous creatures and hidden quicksand pits is apt to make you wary of the dangers in life.

The plot itself is just as muddy as the swamp and centers around the supposed murder of a man in the past, which based on the testimony of a wimpy guitarist (John Carradine) and two rough and tough brothers (Ward Bond and Guinn Williams) turned out to be committed by one Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan). Keefer was sentenced to death by the other members of the community, including Thursday Ragan (Walter Huston). Keefer escapes, and though local rumors suggest he fled all the way to Savannah, he is actually hiding out in the Okefenokee, so that he can keep near his young daughter, Julie (Anne Baxter). Years after the murder Ragan’s son Ben (Dana Andrews) discovers Keefer while searching for his dog. Ben believes Keefer when he says he is innocent and the two form an unlikely partnership, with Keefer leading Ben through the tricky swamp so that he may trap and sell the furs of the swamp’s abundant animals and share the profits with Julie.

Though it never goes into great detail about the murder, it’s the painful sense of betrayal by those that he loved and lived with that Keefer has wallowed in since he was wrongly sentenced to death that is the true heart of the story. At one point Keefer sorrowfully tells Ben that his exile into the vastness of the swamp feels as if he is on another world, forced away from all he knew and lived for because of a crime he never committed. He clings to Ben as a sort of reminder of his old life, which is also why he is so distrustful of him at times.

Brennan’s performance as Keefer is worn down and dejected. It is great to see his talents receive top billing for once and he more than earns it here. It’s easy to believe his innocence through his performance, even though Renoir never shows us that he is. Even when he is threatening Ben upon their first meeting you can see it’s merely a beaten down survival tactic rather than actual malice. When people from his old life so easily cast him out, how can he trust one of them who has invaded his new world to keep what little he has left a secret? That Brennan manages to convey all of that through his performance is really something special to behold.

The performance is the embodiment of the humanity Renoir is known for exploring in his films. Even though his exile has left him mean and distrustful of humanity, Keefer still finds himself drawn to someone he believes can restore his faith in the goodness he hopes lies in it. Ben, it seems, is his last hope. Andrews isn’t quite up to the task of portraying this as Brennan, but he does a mostly admirable job. He is a good actor, but there are times in the film that his performance just falls completely flat, suggesting that he doesn’t quite grasp what he’s supposed to be conveying. On the other hand when he’s in his comfort zone as a rebellious country rouge he’s really enjoyable to watch.

The love story that develops between him and Julie really adds a touching layer to Renoir’s point. As Ben becomes more loyal to Keefer he grows closer to his daughter, who is a black sheep in the community because of her father’s supposed crime. The two brothers treat her like dirt, her caretakers don’t seem to care that much for her either, and Thursday Ragan finds her to be wholly unsuitable for Ben. Though he is first drawn to her out of a fit of childish rebellion, he comes to really love her, strengthening the idea that Ben really is the goodness in humanity that Keefer has been hoping to find.

There are subplots that don’t really lead anywhere meaningful, such as one involving Thursday Ragan and his young wife’s sneaking suitor, and at times things just happen for the sake of advancing the plot forward rather than flowing naturally, but it all works in a cobbled together sort of way. Renoir’s ability to choose exactly the right shots, capturing the mysterious and dangerously alluring atmosphere of the swamp and melding it so bewitchingly to the story manages to obscure the flaws from plain sight.

 The conclusion is a bit too neat and feels more like it was forced on by the studio than being the natural conclusion to the story but it works. It’s not without its darker edges and for the most part it feels earned, but you can’t help but believe that, with a couple of exceptions, everyone got off a bit too cleanly in a story that takes place among the muddy waters of the Okefenokee Swamp.

FINAL SCORE (OUT OF FIVE):

Filed under Swamp Water Jena Renoir Walter Brennan Dana Andrews Ward Bond Okefenokee Swamp Film reviews Walter Huston Classic film

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Review: Fort Apache (1948)

By Trey Smith

John Ford’s “Fort Apache” is representative of the man himself, it’s no wonder the auteur movement developed such a crush on him and his work. On the outside Ford was a tough son of a bitch who took no crap, but away from the public eye we know he was an intelligent, soft hearted man who believed in doing what was right down to his core.

On the outside “Fort Apache” appears to be another mid-century western romp with heroic American soldiers fighting off the vicious, savage Indians. Ford’s usual stock characters are all present and accounted for as the saviors of the frontier (including John Wayne, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, George O’Brien, and Hank Worden), however by the film’s end their heroics aren’t quiet as valiant as history and legend would have us believe.

Henry Fonda brilliantly plays Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, who along with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) arrives at Fort Apache to find it more like a settlement of cowboys playing army than a strict, by the book military outpost. He aims to change this much to the chagrin of Captain York, played by Wayne to perfection. Thursday represents the mindset of the 19th century US Army in the west:  glory in fighting off the clearly inferior savages using the order and superiority of civilization as the primary weapon. York represents the reality:  the Indians are a proud and wise people who feel as if they have as much of a right to be there as we do, so it’s in our best interest to work with them as best we can.

Their two differing ideologies are the spine of the film. York understands the Apache, knows that they have been treated unfairly by the corrupt government official Meacham (Grant Withers), who the Apache leaders believe is slowly killing their people. York is still a military man and always follows his orders, but he is not above questioning them when he feels they aren’t right. Thursday resents this; he doesn’t share York’s more sympathetic views of the Apache. They are subject to military law and must obey or be destroyed.

It must be made clear that Thursday isn’t a bad man; he loves his daughter and cares passionately for his men. He also sees that Meacham is a snake. However he does not let his personal morality cloud his military judgment. He is also ignorant of the Apache, as well as the Indians as a whole. He doesn’t respect them, doesn’t believe they worthy adversaries who will give him the glory he so yearns. His beliefs are representative of our campaign against the Frontier Indians after the Civil War:  misguided and born of ignorance.

York sees that Thursday’s way of doing things, while in accordance to standard military procedure, will lead to disaster and that he will be responsible for picking up the pieces. He tries to make Thursday understand they have to trust the Apache and treat them fairly, but Thursday will not listen, he will not budge from what he believes is right. This stubbornness affects his personal life as well when his daughter falls for a handsome young lieutenant, O’Rourke (John Agar), who is fresh out of West Point. He respects O’Rourke and his family, but because the young man’s father (Bond) is not an officer, he cannot allow his daughter to marry him, no matter how in love they are.

All of these various pieces are vital to the film’s climax and Ford’s point as a whole. Glory and love as part of legend, and glory and love as part of reality. The west builds its own legends, with those who have the power to write it obscuring the truth to better serve whichever side they are on, in this case York and the United States government and its people. Those who have experienced the reality behind the legend know what is right and while they may carry the weight of covering it up for the rest of their lives, they do their duty as best they can and adhere to what they hope is for the good of all. It’s a message that Ford would have denied to his last breath, as it would have exposed him as the great man and brilliant artist he truly was.

FINAL SCORE (OUT OF FIVE):

Filed under Fort Apache John Ford John Wayne Henry Fonda Ward Bond Film Review classic film western

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Mini Review: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

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By Trey Smith

Fantastic movie, the kind I live for. David Mamet’s dialog is astounding, it’s fast, often brutal, occasionally funny, but always meaningful. Every word uttered advances both characters and plot, it’s never just meaningless waffle that serves little purpose beyond sounding cool. There isn’t a single bad performance in the film, but the three that stood out most for me were Al Pacino, the forever underrated Ed Harris, and of course the legendary Jack Lemmon, whose turn as a washed up real estate salesman ranks up there with his work in The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, and particularly Save the Tiger. Alec Baldwin is also awesome in a cameo appearance at the start. James Foley’s direction is assured and never gets in the way of the big picture, which is exactly how it should be in movies like this where it’s all about the characters. Highly entertaining and a big recommendation. 

Filed under Glenngary Glen Ross Al Pacino Jack Lemmon Ed Harris Alec Baldwin Alan Arkin Kevin Spacey David Mamet James Foley

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Instant Stream Review: One, Two, Three (1961)

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By Trey Smith

In his film “One, Two, Three” director Billy Wilder sets the tone early with a joke, from that point on the movie is relentless in its supply of gags, one liners, pratfalls, and witticisms, one after the other, one, two, three, and the brilliant thing is that they are all hilarious. I’ve always loved fast dialog in comedies, especially when it’s done as well as it is here. Star James Cagney and the rest of the cast are more than up to, never stopping for a breath, never letting on that they are behaving in any other way other than completely normal. Their buffoonery is played with earnest, which maximizes the laughs.

Wilder is just as earnest in his treatment of the Americans and Soviets. One would understandably expect a film from the 60’s to have a pro-American slant, but Wilder is more than happy to play with the stereotypes of both. It’s not an anti-American picture, as they are certainly the more competent of the two, but he does send up American imperialism through Cagney’s obsession over expanding Coca-Cola into Mother Russia for personal gain. There is also a brilliant, act long gag at the end of the film that sends up American commercialism, with Cagney buying a young Soviet idealist hundreds of pairs of clothes items to make him appear to be a good capitalist dog. The Soviets are presented as over-confident bozos, always making slights at American ideals and products, claiming their clearly inferior alternatives are superior. Though it’s never mean spirited, it just has fun with the ridiculousness of their ideals. This culminates in a hilarious car chase toward the end of the film that I’d be doing a disservice to spoil.

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The aforementioned Soviet boy, Otto, played with wonderful exaggeration by Horst Bucholz, is the crux in Cagney’s scheme of advancing within the Coca-Cola Company. His boss (Howard St. John) is a red blooded, commie hatin’ American from Georgia who orders Cagney to take care of his wayward, stubborn daughter (Pamela Tiffin) who has a penchant for ending up with men he hates. She ends up with Otto which threatens to ruin Cagney’s chances of getting his posh new job unless he can put an end to it. It’s the perfect set up for a madcap comedy, one that allows the gags to flow freely while giving Wilder a chance to poke fun at Soviet and American hostilities.

And boy do the gags flow freely. There is hardly a chance to catch your breath, as soon as one ends another is starting, leaving you begging for a break to not only catch a breather, but to give you a chance to properly laugh at the unyielding hilarity unfolding before you. What is so wonderful is that not only are they funny as hell, but they all build on the story, advancing it both logically and with rising absurdity. It all culminates in a third act that is so fast and furious, so on point with every poke and jab at American and Soviet politics that it is simply awe inspiring to witness. By the time it was finished I was left in a state of bewilderment, as if I had just been picked up by a tornado, spun around, and then returned safely to the ground without ever fully understanding what just happened.

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The actors never lose their breath during all the madness; they never stop believing they are playing completely sane people. Cagney probably feels the sanest, but that’s just because he is that good at pulling off this brand of comedy. Even though he’s one of the more grounded characters in comparison to the over the top exaggerations others display, he’s just as zany and funny and it’s just a damned joy to watch him. He hits every comedic beat with perfection, says every line just right to get the maximum amount of punch from it, but he does it with such ease that there is an air of spontaneity about his performance that makes it feel like everything he does is a beautiful, side-splitting accident. Not to mention his playful references to past movies, they could have been eye roll inducing, but are instead clever and funny in his and Wilder’s capable hands.

The movie had me rolling until the final, ingenious joke and is easily one of the most brilliant comedies I’ve ever seen. It’s so jam packed with jokes and moves at such a rapid pace that I’m sure I could watch it many more times and still find new gags to laugh at, which for me, is the best praise that can be awarded to a comedy. It would have been easy for a movie so wrapped up in American and Soviet relations to fall into that rut so many films from the Cold War have fallen into, one that renders them dated and without much value beyond a technical and historical stand point. However,  “One, Two, Three” is timeless, Wilder had the foresight to make a film that poked fun of both sides, allowing it to now stand as a hilarious reminder to just how silly the tension between both super powers actually was. 

FINAL SCORE (OUT OF FIVE):

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Filed under One Two Three Billy Wilder James Cagney Comedy Film Review Review Film Movie Classic

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Instant Stream Review: Scarlet Street (1945)

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By Trey Smith

Edward G. Robinson is most remembered for the tough guy bravado he displayed in movies such as “Little Caesar” and “Key Largo.” His pug look and snappy voice is so associated with that image that cartoons and spoofs still base caricatures off his performances. Though these performances are certainly worth remembering, to limit his range to them would massively underrate him. Fritz Lang’s late noir “ Scarlet Street” is a stark example of this. Robinson’s character in the film couldn’t be more different than the roles he is known for, here he completely lacks confidence, he is old, ugly, and pathetic and he knows it. Watching him here you’d never think that he could play a gangster boss or even the doggedly determined claims man in “Double Indemnity.” Robinson loses himself in the role and what might have been another average foray into noir is made better through his performance and an unyieldingly brave ending.

In the opening scene, Lang doesn’t immediately reveal Robinson to us. He starts off by showing us a woman in a car, a stunning woman, the type of woman movie stars or even gangsters date. A man comes into a restaurant and informs a worker of the girl’s arrival. The worker steps into a birthday party loaded with jovial men in tuxes. Surely this woman belongs to Robinson’s character. But no, the worker tells an older man at the head of the table about the girl and leaves. The older man announces that he must go, but before he does he gives a birthday present to a man who has worked as a cashier under him for twenty five years. The gift is a watch, a very expensive watch that no one but a rich man could afford. This watch cements the recipient as a man beneath the giver, it is then that Lang reveals Robinson as the cashier. It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking, one that firmly establishes Robinson as our poor, failure of a protagonist, a man deserving of both respect and pity.

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Robinson takes over from here, painting this poor cashier, Chris Cross, as a very lonely man who is very aware of his lot in life. He wanted to be a great artist, but always lacked the confidence to work for it. So, he settled into a modest job that doesn’t pay very well and paints on Sundays out of enjoyment. He is married to the late wife of a respected cop, a cold woman who constantly berates him for not being the man her dead husband was, and is only able to find solace from her torment in his art. Robinson’s entire performance carries the weight of his troubles, every time he speaks he sounds like a man who has no confidence in himself. He carries himself in a way that says, this man isn’t noticed when he’s walking down the street, no one gives a damn about him. Even when Cross talks about his art, though he is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about it, he just doesn’t seem to believe it’s of any worth to anyone but himself. When he puts on a flowery apron in front of a co-worker to wash the dishes, we know for sure that this is a man who has been completely emasculated. 

When he saves a young woman, Kitty, (Joan Bennett) from a thuggish brute that is beating her, a heroic effort done without the heroics, he finds in her a feeling he lost long ago. It makes him want to be a man again, to feel something instead of the cold emptiness of a worthless existence. Unfortunately, this woman is actually dating the brute, Johnny Prince, (Dan Duryea) and after she mistakes Cross for a wealthy and successful artist they hatch a scheme to squeeze money out of him. Cross, suddenly feeling like he is worth something, can’t afford to tell her the truth at the risk of shedding his newly found and very brittle layer of confidence. It’s a set up that can only lead to tragedy and Lang lets it develop in the sleaziest, most disgusting way imaginable. The way Kitty and Prince manipulate Cross into stealing from his wife and employer to make her happy because he thinks she is in love with him is difficult to watch. 

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Though Kitty seems to carry a shred of guilt about taking advantage of Cross’ naïve kindness, she loves Johnny and he is unscrupulous in his appeals to push her into keeping up the ruse, usually by smacking her around. His abuse is unmistakably meant to be interpreted as the behavior of a pimp and his whore, he smacks her around and tells her that he loves her, all the while profiting from her fling with Cross. It’s interesting to see a film from the 40’s being so upfront with prostitution, but it fits in with the grime of the rest of the story and makes things a little murkier and a lot more uncomfortable. It’s also refreshing that it doesn’t handle it cheaply just for shocks, each hit means something and is given the weight it deserves.

The scheme launches the story into a series of increasingly contrived occurrences that dig all parties involved deeper and deeper into the hole and it is here that the movie falters. By the end of the second act the plot has become much too convoluted. A twist takes the plot places it doesn’t need to go just so that it will build up to the ending in a reasonable way.  It’s handled with enough assurance that it doesn’t make the brilliant ending lack a stomach churning punch, but it’s a shame that a picture that starts off so intriguingly thoughtful loses the plot of things for a moment just to make sure all the strings are neatly tied. Had a little more thought been put into it, the film as a whole would have been much more satisfying.

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This misstep is nearly forgivable, though, thanks to a conclusion that is brave for its time. Though the main characters are all varying degrees of immoral people, either proudly like Kitty and Prince, or through a misguided love affair like Cross, perhaps their fates aren’t quite the ones they deserve. They always say you reap what you sow, but the consequences each character harvests play out in a way that wasn’t very common in an era when even bleak film noirs had endings that made sure everyone got their just comeuppance. Lang doesn’t shy away from anything he’s presenting, he doesn’t try to dress it up as something else to make it not seem as harsh as it is. The cynical decisions Cross, Kitty, and Prince make throughout the story can’t go unpunished, whether through the law, bloodshed, or the inescapable judgment of the mind and heart. Nothing about the ending makes you feel good; it’s merciless in painting the consequences of such a cold, despicable scheme as an honest to god tragedy.

Robinson’s performance takes another surprising turn during the third act and he pulls it off just as brilliantly, making it develop naturally and yet shockingly. This movie is saved by his devotion and the bravery of Lang to give it the ending it deserves. In lesser hands, it could have easily turned into one of those forgotten films doomed to confinement in those five dollar noir sets you buy at Wal-Mart, but through his mastery of the genre its one that is worth being remembered with the greatest of them. It’s film noir in its purest form, imperfect and unashamedly seedy. The contrived twists that develop near the end aren’t enough to rob “ Scarlet Street” of its effectiveness in presenting the dark side of the world and how people can twist good intentions into murder and madness. It knows life isn’t black and white, on the surface it may appear to be, but deep down it’s a lot more complicated and often not very pretty.

FINAL SCORE (OUT OF FIVE):

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Filed under Scarlet Street Fritz Lang Edward G. Robinson Joan Bennett Dan Duryea Noir Film Review Film Movies

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Mini-Review: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

By Trey Smith

I love how simple this film is. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s arguably most famous film is intensely focused on the performances, drawing everything from them. The camera is never overly flashy and is usually used to magnify the acting rather than compete with it. There is no soundtrack, unless there is music playing within the scene, and it’s always used to stir something within the characters, whether it be intrigue, love, or prejudice. It’s through this simplicity that the film left such a profound effect on me. It moved the hell out of me.

Its performances are incredibly down to earth, the emotions they go through rise and fall, characters fall in love and get angry or sad, but it all feels very natural, giving them a lot more weight than if they were overwrought. The love story that develops between the two main characters Emmi, an elderly widowed German woman, and Ali, a strong 40 something Moroccan man, may seem unrealistic on the surface, but crucially the actors make it believable. The performances of Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem as the couple are really, really good. Both actors are equally good at conveying the happiness they find in each other and the frustrations brought about by a society that openly looks down on their unconventional relationship.

It’s also worth mentioning that I really had a good time watching the film, it’s not very long, is very well paced and often funny. It’s not always a happy story, and it certainly doesn’t shy away from the nastiness and cynicism found in human nature, but it does carry a bit of optimism that stuck with me the most. In short:  it’s a painfully truthful film.

Filed under Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Rainer Werner Fassbinder Brigitte Mira El Hedi ben Salem Film Movie Mini Review Review

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High Noon: Time, Blood, and the Communist Threat

By Trey Smith

Take a look at the nearest clock, preferably one that isn’t digital, and imagine if you had less than two hours to find a way to prevent your own murder. This is the predicament that Gary Cooper’s Will Kane faces in Fred Zinneman’s quintessential western, “High Noon.” Though such a plot sounds fairly ordinary for the genre, the execution itself is anything but. “High Noon” is a western that has something to say and it uses its hero’s deadly predicament to express its message in a compelling way.

The film opens with a gang of ruffians riding into town and causing a stir among the locals. Completely oblivious to the brewing trouble is the soon to be ex-marshal of the town, Kane, who is getting married to a beautiful Quaker, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). However, it turns out that the ruffians are quite aware of Marshal Kane and have come into town to wait for the noon train, which is carrying Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a murderer and outlaw who was put away by Kane years before. Miller and his gang have Kane’s blood on their mind and will stop at nothing to spill it on the dusty streets of the town. After leaving town to escape the impending shootout with his new bride, Kane returns, unable to run away from his problems. It’s now a waiting game, what will happen when Miller’s train arrives and who will stand up to him and his men with Kane?

Director Fred Zinnemann uses the time element of the story to great effect. The characters in the film, especially Kane, are constantly checking the various clocks and watches around town. This keeps time ever present throughout the story, making the ever approaching noon train feel like its bearing down on Kane, gaining more and more ground with the passing of each torturous second. The constant shots of the long, seemingly endless railroad track that stretches out into the desert increases the tension so that the viewer is never able to forget the doom that is barreling down it. This all culminates in an incredible sequence that takes place as the clock strikes noon. The music flares up to a dramatic height, the camera zooms in onto the chair that Miller was in when he was condemned to death and cried out for revenge; then after a moment of silence, we hear the cry of the train whistle in the distance.

More troubling is Kane’s inability to find help among the townsfolk, even those who call him their friend. They all have their reasons, ranging from being afraid of dying to not wanting to bring bloodshed back to a town that struggled so hard to get rid of it, and there are even some who think Kane deserves to die. Whatever their reasons, they all serve to isolate Kane and put him into the position of facing Miller’s vengeance alone. As for his wife, she claims to oppose his stand against the outlaws on religious grounds, but there is always the feeling that she really just doesn’t want to see him harmed so soon after they have been married.

To Kane, all of these excuses and pleas for him to escape rather than fight mean nothing. All that matters to him is that he must stand and face these men or forever be on the run from them, a prospect that he can’t imagine giving in to. Though he knows leaving will keep his wife from being a widow for the time being and may even prevent trouble from stirring up in the town, as a man he can’t run away from the problem that is rising up against him. However hopeless he feels, however badly he wants to just escape his seemingly predetermined fate, he just can’t do it. 

This stand that Kane chooses to take alone against the return of Miller, despite how hopeless it seems, represents the key theme of the film:  the importance of individualism. This is Kane’s problem and no matter what excuse others make to avoid sharing it, Kane knows deep down that he can never find any excuse to help him permanently escape from solving it, whether it results in his death or not. So, though no one will stand with him, and though he risks his new bride becoming a widow just hours after their wedding, he chooses to face it. The film argues that though it is human to seek help in the face of an almost insurmountable problem, in the end we must face it alone, even if it results in failure.

This is woven beautifully into the film’s other major theme, the one that it is usually most identified with:  the outright condemnation of the attacks on the men and women of the motion picture industry and other American citizens by the House Un-American Activities Committee with their cries of communist conspiracy. Friends turned against friends and people abandoned those who were brought before the committee and declared a communist, no matter how unfounded some of the accusations were. This film makes it clear who the real heroes of that dark period in American history were, those who chose to stand up and face the evil no matter what the end result was, which was usually being blacklisted and losing all work within the industry if one was unwilling to cooperate. “High Noon” champions the bravery of those who stood among the accused.

It’s the addressing of these two themes, brilliantly taking advantage of the tension rich plot that sets “High Noon” way above the standard western fair. It has something to say and is never afraid of saying it, even if it means taking the traditional idea of a western hero who never asks for help or feels defeated when he doesn’t get it and turning it on its head, which I’m sure ruffled quite a few feathers in Hollywood, especially on the conservative side (Howard Hawks’ response film, “Rio Bravo,” which stars John Wayne, is evidence it did). However, time has revealed to us the true heroes and villains amidst the communist witch hunt of the 1950′s and now this film stands as a cry out against the paranoia that was sweeping America, a plea to think like an individual and not like a panicked crowd too caught up in fear to think rationally. It also serves as a reminder to never again let such a horrible betrayal of our rights as Americans stain our cherished soil with the blood of its citizens. It is that aspect that has rendered it a timeless classic that will never lose its value to us as human beings capable of making the right choice, no matter how high the odds are stacked up against us and how alone we are while facing them.

Filed under High Noon Gary Cooper Fred Zinneman Film Movies Western Essay Projected Reviews Article Classic

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Aliens: So Much More than Bad Asses and Quotes

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By Trey Smith

Whenever I discuss James Cameron’s “Aliens” with someone the conversation almost always revolves around how “badass” of a movie it is. Whether it be the highly quotable dialogue, the kick ass space marines, the scary, yet cool creatures, or the intense action, it’s always the same.  Such praise is without a doubt true, but I’m always left disappointed that hardly anyone, even people who rate it as one of their all time favorites, ever seems interested in discussing what else the film offers. Hell, I even know a lot of people who don’t care for the movie all that much before the Colonial Marines show up about thirty or so minutes in. It’s a shame, because the film is a lot more meaningful than both its fans and detractors give it credit for. Because yes, while the film is about a group of extremely likable, battle hardened marines and a tough as nails heroine going up against a race of horrifying monsters, it’s also the story of how that heroine comes to grip with all that she has lost, how those cocky, seemingly invincible marines are defeated, and how close those revolting monsters really are to us.

You see, though the portion of the film that takes place before Hicks, Hudson, Drake, and the rest of the Colonial Space Marines climb out of their hypersleep chambers may be “the boring part,” it is absolutely vital to the film as a whole.  Though it also serves to bring those who haven’t seen the original film “Alien” in a while up to speed (or serve as a brief synopsis for those who haven’t seen it at all), it also sets up an aspect of Ripley’s character that is crucial to her development as the story progresses. This is why I believe the 1990 special edition is the only version of the film to watch, as it includes a previously deleted scene that has Carter Burke, who works for the profits first, people second Weyland-Yutani Corporation, inform Ripley of her daughter’s death. Ripley was lost in space for fifty seven years after the events of the original film, and though her hypersleep chamber kept her the same age, everyone she had left behind on Earth, including her eleven year old daughter, had passed away. The news devastates Ripley, adding to the still open wound of seeing her fellow crew members butchered by an indescribably terrifying monster.

These traumatic events have rendered Ripley a shell of her former self and as a result she suffers from intense nightmares, giving her little respite even in sleep. When she faces a tribunal charging her for the destruction of the Nostromo in the previous film, she finds that no one believes her story, the corporate stooges of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation have no interest in her suffering, only that she destroyed a priceless space ship. This denies her closure, denies her a chance to move on from what has happened. She’s stripped of her flight license and forced to take a menial, low paying job as punishment. The nightmares continue, her daughter is long dead, and it seems as though she’ll never be able to escape from the horror of the alien.

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When Burke and Gorman, a lieutenant of the Colonial Space Marines, offer her a chance to return to LV-426, the planet from which this horror originated, she is at first is too weak, too frightened to face her fears. However, in the end she knows it’s her only choice, as Cameron points out:

"I think some people missed the point. They think she goes because she’ll get her job back, but that’s not the case. There’s no amount of money that could do it. One of my biggest problems writing the film was coming up with a reason why she goes back. It had to be psychological. One of the things that interested me is that there are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam, who have been in intense combat situations, who re-enlisted to go back again. Because they had these psychological problems that they had to work out. It’s like an inner demon to be exorcised. That was a good metaphor for her character."

However, not only will the mission to save the missing colonists on LV-426 give Ripley a chance to find an end to the vicious psychological cycle forced upon her mind by her experience aboard the Nostromo, it will also present her with the opportunity to be the mother she was never able to be to her own daughter. When Ripley and marines find Newt, a traumatized little girl and sole survivor of the colonists, Ripley immediately becomes attached to and protective of her, becoming a surrogate mother to the orphaned child. As the film progresses this bond grows stronger and the desire to make sure this little girl escapes alive begins to override her logic and by extension her fear, ultimately leading to her salvation.  

Though she rebuffs the marine’s desire to go and save their fellow soldiers from the nightmarish reproduction cycle of the alien, stating matter-of-factly that they are probably already being cocooned and impregnated, when Newt is kidnapped by the creatures, she launches a rescue without hesitation. Mother instinct has kicked in for Ripley, Newt is now her daughter and she will stop at nothing and sacrifice everything, including her life and the lives of the surviving marines, to save her. She orders Bishop and Hicks to wait for her, even though the whole colony is about to be destroyed in a thermal nuclear explosion, and plunges into the depths of the alien hive to find her child.

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Once she finds Newt, she is confronted by the center of the alien threat:  the Alien Queen. This is the creature responsible for the monsters that have shredded her existence and left her mind fractured. This personification of the evil of the species is surrounded by hundreds of eggs, all containing more parasites ready to infest humans and gestate through their life-force into new xenomorphs. With Newt in hand, Ripley examines the queen and her off spring with the weight of all her trauma weighing her down. This is it, the moment to finally conquer her fear and escape the slimy grasp of the creatures. She starts by burning the eggs, forcing the queen to scream in horror at the destruction of her children, forcing her to experience the helplessness and fear that her kind has put Ripley through. Then, only after she knows the Queen has suffered, does Ripley turn her weapons on her, seemingly ending the beast’s life, and escape.

However, this scene carries more meaning than serving as the catharsis for Ripley’s pain, it also points out the similarities between us and the aliens. When Ripley first arrives, the Queen is more concerned about her eggs than anything else. When she sees that the presence of her drones threatens her children, she forces them to back off, apparently willing to let Ripley escape as long as her eggs are spared. When Ripley sets the eggs on fire, she screams in rage and pain, not because the fire is touching her, but because all of her off spring are being destroyed. She wants to kill Ripley, to get revenge for what she is doing to her beloved babies. In other words, a mother pushed into action because her children are in danger.

The queen rips from her egg spewing abdomen and viciously pursues Ripley and Newt. Even when Ripley and the others have escaped the planet and are safely back aboard the marine’s orbiting space ship the Queen emerges from the darkness, lusting for vengeance. The ensuing battle pits mother against mother, one seeking revenge, the other seeking to protect her child. Cameron states that he didn’t want this battle to be fought with guns or any other weapon; he wanted it to be hand to hand. A brutal, low down dirty brawl with more at stake than merely thrilling the audience,  if Ripley loses, the Queen will tear Newt apart, if Ripley wins she will escape justice for committing genocide against the xenomorph species. In the end, Ripley kills the Queen, because ultimately she is the one who has more to lose. She has to win, she has to destroy the alien once and for all, she has to survive, and she has to raise Newt. After she flushes the Queen into the emptiness of space, Newt clings to her and calls her mom. Ripley has finally managed to conquer her demons.

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Before I conclude, I want to touch back on the portion of the film that first introduces the Colonial Space Marines, which is where it becomes “less boring” for most people. There is a reason these scenes had to be as memorable as they are, and it isn’t to give nerds and frat boys lines to spout out over a bottle of beer. The marines had to be likable; they had to be cool and seemingly invincible. They are all ridiculously confident and macho, not intimidated in the slightest by Ripley’s tale. In fact, they refer to it as another “bug hunt,” which brings to mind a human squashing a helpless insect that has no chance of fighting back. Though quotable, their dialogue is down to earth, fitting for a company of career grunts, giving their characters realism and weight. We like them and we want them to win, and because of their unlimited bravado we are sure they can win.

Their introduction serves in making their first battle against the aliens carry more of an impact. The hellish encounter with the creatures is as intense as it is because of the endearing way in which they were built up before us. It’s literally hell to seen them torn down so easily. It’s unquestionably one of the most defeating action scenes I’ve ever witnessed, enhanced by the murky, dread laced atmosphere and the chaotic, guerrilla warfare like nature of the attack by the aliens. It is a fantastic pay off that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, we now understand that it’s going to take more than being a battle hardened solider to escape alive. This theme ties back around into Ripley’s story and helps us understand why it is her who is able to survive. They only have a will to survive, which isn’t enough because that’s what the aliens have too and they will fight for it just as ruthlessly. Ripley on the other hand not only has her own life to hold onto, but that of a child’s who she is becoming to see as her own. Because of the marine’s excellent introduction, we understand better what is at stake and makes the film a helluva lot more compelling.

Honestly, this is just scratching the surface of “Aliens.” Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd put an incredible amount of thought into this film, desiring not only to make it a worthy, relevant sequel, but to inject it with ideas and an emotional story, things that are all too often lacking from sci-fi action films of its kind.  So while yes, the film is very cool and loaded with enough quotable lines to make a nerd squeal in glee, next time you watch it try looking for more than that. This film is rewarding in so many ways and nearly all of them warrant serious examination and discussion. There is a reason this movie is so revered, because beyond all that cool stuff there is real weight and it makes you wonder how empty all of the bad ass posturing would feel if it wasn’t there.

Filed under Aliens James Cameron Ripley Sigourney Weaver Film Article Projected Reviews

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Home Video Review: Prometheus (2012)

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By Trey Smith

A lot of people are going to be disappointed by “Prometheus.” The film has been touted as a prequel to director Ridley Scott’s previous foray into sci-fi horror, “Alien”, since its conception, and even though Scott and writer Damon Lindelof have tried to distance the film by denying it is a direct prequel, the label is being encouraged by marketing and that is what people are expecting. The truth is that while the film does contain the DNA of the iconic xenomorph, it very much stands on its own and tackles ideas far grander. This is the creature climbing out of the primordial ooze compared to “Alien” and “Aliens” being us, creatures that evolved from it.  It’s not without its flaws, but in the end I can’t help but admire a film as thrilling and epic as this tackling the questions that surround our existence and our place in the universe. It’s even more admirable that it boldly refuses to provide answers for all of them.

Even though I want to distance “Prometheus” from “Alien”, forgive me for a moment while I hearken back to one of the strongest aspects of the latter: its characters. They felt refreshingly authentic and never talked like movie characters, instead of spouting college level philosophy, they bitched about things like getting paid or how to properly follow procedure. More importantly they all developed naturally, responding logically to each situation they encountered. These two aspects allowed us to genuinely care about them and feel frightened by the nightmare they stumbled across on LV 426. The characters in “Prometheus” are much more poorly realized, some of them failing to exist beyond genre stereotypes, while others react to what is going on around them in unnatural, unmotivated ways. For example, when two characters make an unsettling discovery they react with amusement when just moments before the prospect of such a discovery scared the hell out of them. As a result we can never properly care about most of them and when they start getting killed off they feel like nothing more than fodder akin to the horny teens Jason slays on the shores of Crystal Lake. It’s a frustrating failure on the part of the writers and one that holds the movie back from being truly great.

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The primary exceptions are, thankfully, also the two main characters, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an archeologist in search of answers to our creation, and David (Michael Fassbender), an android who is fascinated by Peter O’Toole’s performance in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Both of these characters anchor the film’s central viewpoints, basically what both a person who believes in God and an android who has no free will (but is aware of the concept and what it means) makes of what is happening. They both develop logically along these lines as the film progresses, which is refreshing in ways it probably shouldn’t be, as most of the characters they interact with are less human than the gooey creatures they encounter. Shaw starts off the film willing to do anything to find the answers to questions haunting her since childhood. Guided by her faith she clearly has a viewpoint that she wants to be true and is willing to descend into dangerous situations to prove it. David on the other hand knows his maker, he knows why he exists, and thus he tackles the questions that arise with a sort of childlike curiosity. He doesn’t really seem interested in the why, more in the way things are developing.

They are given the opportunity to search for their answers in the final weeks of the year 2093 on an expedition to the planet LV 224 aboard the starship Prometheus. Shaw and her lover, fellow archeologist Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovered what appeared to be an invitation in caves all around the world. An invitation from whom one of the characters ask. Well, an invitation placed here thousands of years a go by what appear to be aliens who may very well be our creators, or Engineers as they are called in the film. Shaw and Holloway have theorized that these aliens kick started our evolution early in Earth’s history and left behind an invitation for us to come and find them. Why? Answers, they hope. Answers to questions such as why they created us and is there a God?

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Those are big questions that have plagued mankind since the dawn of our existence. We have all sorts of answers in regards to the how, from various gods to evolution, but the why is a question that we may never answer, if there is an answer at all. Pure chance, maybe? Or maybe some god was bored and wanted to see what he/she/it could cook up. We don’t know and in “Prometheus” Scott and Lindelof don’t pretend to have those answers, either. There are suggestions, hints that give the audience more to think about rather than guiding them along a specific route. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves David asking Holloway why humans created him, to which Holloway responds, “Because we could.” David then reverses the question and asks Holloway how he would feel if he met his creators and that’s the answer they gave him. It’s a great scene and one that really gets down to the bone of what Scott is trying to say.

If it sounds like I’m describing something more along the lines of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” rather than a prequel to “Alien”, well, that’s because I am. This film has more in common both thematically and structurally to Scott’s other famous sci-fi epic, “Blade Runner.” There is action and horror, but they are used to sporadically punctuate the points Scott is trying to make rather than make up a bulk of the runtime. This is why I suspect so many will be disappointed, because they expect straight up sci-fi horror, not a bunch of scientists theorizing about God and evolution and stuff. I can’t blame them really; the trailers pretty much suggested that this film is exactly like “Alien”: smart, but focused more on scaring you than discussing the philosophy of our existence.

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However, that doesn’t mean the film isn’t thrilling. There are some genuinely scary moments sprinkled throughout all the talking, including a few gross out body horror moments that hearken back to John Hurt having a chestbuster rip through his sternum at the dinner table. Scott hasn’t forgotten the roots that he planted back in 1979, he just wanted to do something more than revisit an idea he has already played with. It’s as if he took those roots and bioengineered them to grow an entirely new plant as an off shoot to the original. And you know what? It’s better that way. The xenomorph is iconic, but let’s face it; the various horrible sequels and spin-offs have rendered it toothless. They are more thought of as cool monsters now rather than the stuff of nightmares. Again, don’t get me wrong, if you are a fan of the lore surrounding this universe you will notice that this builds upon it with respect and intelligence, much in the way “Aliens” built on the original, just don’t expect to see a face hugger.

I implore you to give this film a shot even if that puts you off. Don’t let marketing and hype fool you into missing something as thought provoking and genuinely epic as “Prometheus.” Like I said, this is an “Alien” film at its core; there are dark, dripping corridors, aliens that resemble sex organs hell bent on warping our bodies, and frightening takes on the idea of us not being alone. It’s just that it also chooses to be more and that’s why I enjoyed it so much, flaws and all. Scott is reminding us that you don’t have to sacrifice intelligence in a summer blockbuster, or even a horror movie, for that matter. In making “Prometheus” he chose not only to go back to his own roots, but to the very roots of science fiction.

FINAL SCORE (OUT OF FIVE):

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Filed under Prometheus Ridley Scott Review Home Video Alien Film Damon Lindelof

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Home Video Review: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

By Trey Smith

This is a very difficult film to write a review about. Not because I don’t know how I feel about it, which usually tends to be the case in these situations, but because I can’t tell you what is so great about it without spoiling it. And this is one of those films in which knowing anything more than the basic premise ruins the overall experience. In fact, it is absolutely vital that you see “The Cabin in the Woods” knowing as little as possible about what is going on, as writer/producer/Hollywood golden boy Joss Whedon and writer/director Drew Goddard have given horror fans a film worth getting excited about, a film worth experiencing.

The film introduces us to the standard kill fodder in five college students preparing to go on vacation to an isolated cabin in the deep, dark woods, cut off from both any hope of help and working technology. Couldn’t be more standard of a set up, right? Well, not really. The jock, played by “Thor” alumni Chris Hemsworth, isn’t really the big dumb, sex craved meathead you might be expecting. He’s a pretty smart sociology major who is pretty respectful toward his girlfriend (Anna Hutchison), who really doesn’t fit into the stereotype we expect her to fall into, either. Neither does the virgin, Dana (Kristen Connolly), or the egghead, Holden (Jesse Williams). In fact, the only of our five potential victims who fits a horror film cutout is the pothead, Marty (Fran Kanz), but even he feels like something more. I already feel like I’m telling you too much, letting you in too much on the secret. So let’s move on.

You see, “The Cabin in the Woods” is a horror film with a point. It’s made by filmmakers who have a very clear affection for the genre, but more importantly, they actually understand how the genre works. This is no fanboy drivel we’ve come to expect from the likes of Zack Snyder, it is pure genre work made by people who have a very strong knowledge of the inner workings of just what makes a horror film, well, a horror film. The reason this is so crucial is that without that knowledge the whole idea the story is built around would have fallen apart. The point Whedon and Goddard are trying to make would have crumbled under its own weight had it not been held up by the trappings of the genre.

I find it necessary to make it clear that when I say “trappings of the genre” I am, with great glee, not including the putrid torture porn movies spawned by the original “Saw” film. Those movies are a stain on the history of horror films and “The Cabin in the Woods” thankfully chooses to hearken back to a point before the genre sank into the cess pit of only being about disgusting, offensively “cool” ways of killing people. That isn’t horror, thank you very much. Whedon and Goddard agree, keeping the violence, while ditching the focus on it. Don’t get me wrong, this movie has its fair share of gore, but more along the lines of a good Jason Voorhees kill rather than one of those gimmicky Jigsaw traps. They are trying to move the genre back in the right direction by taking it back a few steps. Such a move is necessary when rectifying a mistake.

Unfortunately, the film does suffer from one flaw:  it isn’t very scary. While this is a shame, it isn’t as damaging to the overall quality as one might expect it to be. What’s actually really disappointing about this issue is that there are so many opportunities that the film could have actually been genuinely creepy, but instead the filmmakers seem keener on playing with the idea of a scene being scary, rather than it actually being scary. This problem runs throughout, it’s just never as frightening or intense as the films it’s trying to remind you of with all the winks and nods and nudges. For instance, there is a scene in which a character is standing in front of a window and we know in our hearts that this is an incredibly stupid idea. His obliviousness to this error makes it all the more hard for us to keep from shouting at him. However, instead of playing with this potential scare in a clever way, the filmmakers just cut to the monster walking up to the window. I get why they did it, it fits in with their overall goal, it just didn’t work for me. The other instances don’t fare any better.

That said, it’s still a ridiculously entertaining film all around. The situations the characters get into are fun to watch and deliciously gruesome (again, in the right way). This is helped by how believable the actors are at making you buy into this whole situation. It’s clear that they are in on the joke, but they play it up with such sincerity that it all works wonderfully at pulling you in. They are all very likable, which I’ve always felt is key when working in a genre that at its heart is about people getting killed or at least being threatened by that prospect. Even when they do start succumbing to the clichés of the genre, we want these characters to survive and when some of the ultimately don’t, there is a bit more weight to it than even I expected. This partially makes up for the film not being scary, at least for me.

All this comes together into making “The Cabin in the Woods” a refreshing genre entry that is much more than the sum of its parts. It actually leaves you with something other than a good thrilling time, especially if you’ve ever been subscriber to Fangoria magazine, know what the hell the Lament Configuration is, or are familiar with a guy named Ash. It’s not as scary as it should be, but in the end the film is so lovingly crafted and clever that the lack of scares doesn’t really put all that big of a dent in the overall experience. Just keep this in mind if you haven’t seen the film:  remaining ignorant of what the film is really about is vital to the experience. So if you’re a horror fan or you just really want to see the film, stop anyone who tries to spoil it for you at any cost. At any cost.

FINAL SCORE (OUT OF FIVE):

Filed under The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon Drew Goddard Review Home Video Horror Film