In this selection of films I watched back at the end of May / start of June 2018…
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R
After a gang of ageing crooks’ “one last job” goes sideways, they agree to rob a munitions train for a Mexican general, even as they’re hunted by a militia reluctantly headed by their leader’s former partner.
The Wild Bunch is, of course, a Western, but it’s set in 1913 — not a time we particularly associate with “the Old West”. Well, change doesn’t happen overnight. And it certainly takes that “end of an era” thing to heart as a tale of old men, whose way of life is fading away. It’s also a ‘late Western’ in terms of when it was produced: this isn’t an old-fashioned “white hats vs black hats” kinda adventure, but one full of ultra-violence with a downbeat ending. The opening sequence gets pretty bloody, and then the climax is an absolute orgy of violence. It’s still almost shocking today, so you can see how it was controversial back in 1969.
It’s not just the presence of violence and blood that’s remarkable, though, but how it’s presented, both in terms of filmmaking and morals. To the former, the speed of the cutting was groundbreaking at the time: reportedly it contains more cuts than any other Technicolor film, with 3,643 cuts in the original print. If that’s true, it gives it an average shot length of about 2.4 seconds. For comparison, the average in the ’60s was around 6 or 7 seconds, while even Moulin Rouge, a movie made decades later that was still notorious for its fast cutting, has an average shot length of 2.01 seconds. It’s not just speed that makes the editing so noteworthy, but its effectiveness, making juxtapositions and using shots to both tell the story and create the impression of being in the thick of it.
As for the morals, the film was all about showing these violent men as unheroic and unglamorous, setting out to “demystify the Western and the genre’s heroic and cavalier characters” (to quote IMDb). That piece goes on to say that screenwriters Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green “felt that this project required a realistic look at the characters of the Old West, whose actions on screen had rarely matched the violent and dastardly reality of the men on which they were based… Both Green and Peckinpah felt it was important to not only show that the film’s protagonists were violent men, but that they achieved their violence in unheroic and horrific ways, such as using people as human shields and killing unarmed bystanders during robberies.”
Of course, antiheroes are ten-a-penny nowadays, so the idea that “men who commit violence are bad” doesn’t play as revolutionary anymore. Indeed, The Wild Bunch can be enjoyed as an action movie — there’s the opening and closing set pieces I’ve already mentioned, plus an excellent train robbery and ensuing chase in the middle too, and a couple of other bits. That said, the film has more on its mind than just adrenaline-generating thrills, and so (based on comments I’ve read elsewhere online) if you are watching just for action it can feel like a bit of a slog. While I wouldn’t be that critical, I did find it a bit slow at times. The original distributors must’ve felt the same, as the film was cut by ten minutes for its US release. (The version widely available today is the original 145-minute director’s cut. I watched a PAL copy, hence the 4% shorter running time.)
The Wild Bunch was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.
The Wild Bunch:
An Album in Montage
Paul Seydor | 33 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | 15
This film came to exist because someone found 72 minutes of silent black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage shot during the filming of The Wild Bunch. No one knows why it was filmed — this was a long time before the era of EPKs and DVD special features. And, indeed, if it had been discovered just a couple of years later then a DVD special feature is exactly what it would’ve become; but, being just ahead of that, it ended up as a short film — an Oscar-nominated one at that, going up for the Best Documentary Short prize in 1997. Naturally, it has since found its rightful home as a special feature on DVD and Blu-ray releases of its subject matter.
The silent film footage is accompanied by voice over of first-hand accounts from the people involved, either taken from recorded interviews (people like screenwriter Walon Green and actors Edmond O’Brien and Ernest Borgnine represent themselves) or actors reading out comments (Ed Harris is the voice of Sam Peckinpah, for example). From this we get not only making-of trivia and tales, but also discussion of the filmmakers’ intent and the film’s meaning. More material along the lines of the latter would’ve interested me.
As it is, An Album in Montage feels very much at home in its current situation as a DVD extra. Fans of the film will certainly get something out of it, but I don’t think it’s insightful enough to stand independently. It’s by no means a bad little featurette, but it’s not worth seeking out outside of the context of the film itself.
Walter Hill | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R
“In the near future, a charismatic leader summons the street gangs of New York City in a bid to take it over. When he is killed, The Warriors are falsely blamed and now must fight their way home while every other gang is hunting them down.” — IMDb
And that’s all you need to know, because The Warriors’ plot is really simple and straightforward, but that’s part of why it works. It doesn’t need dressing up; it’s got an almost an elegant directness, and it thrives off that. The action sequences feel unchoreographed, with a bruising realism in spite of their sometimes elaborate setups (duelling baseball bats!), and yet they carry an energy and impact that is wholly in keeping with something carefully designed and constructed. The characters are simply drawn, revealed through their actions rather than telegraphed Character Moments or heartfelt speeches. Similarly, the kind-of-romance between the Warriors’ leader and the girl they run into on the streets is so well handled — okay, there are some scenes where they almost talk about it directly, but mostly it’s just moments or lines that indicate a world of feeling. The way this character stuff is sketched in — subtly, sometimes in the background — is quite masterful, actually.
Such skill extends throughout the film’s technical side. For all the film’s ’70s grit, there’s some beautiful stuff in the editing and shot choices, especially at the end on the beach. It’s not just beauty in an attractive sense, but meaningful, effective imagery, in a way that impresses without being slick or pretty. The music choices are bang-on too. The film intercuts to a radio station that functions like some kind of Greek chorus, linking the action and helping to create a heightened atmosphere — one that’s there in the whole film, incidentally, with its colourful gangs and detached police presence — without ever shattering the down-to-earth, gritty, almost-real feel the whole thing has.
I loved The Warriors, and I think that last point is a big part of why: it sits at an almost inexplicable point where it feels incredibly grounded, gritty and realistic, but at the same time a heightened fantasy kind of world. Here I’m trying to describe why I adored the film bu breaking it down into these constituent parts, but there’s something more to it than that — a kind of magic where it just… works.
All of that said, it seems I was lucky to catch the original version (via Now TV / Sky Cinema), rather than the so-called Director’s Cut that seems to be the only version available on Blu-ray. Looking at the changes, they don’t seem particularly in keeping with the tone of the movie, smacking of decades-later revisionism. Apparently there’s also a TV version that includes 12 minutes of additional scenes, none of which are included on the film’s disc releases. I wish Paramount would license this out to someone like Arrow to do it properly…
The Warriors placed 11th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.
Dean Israelite | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Canada & New Zealand / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13
“High school outcasts stumble upon an old alien ship, where they acquire superpowers and are dubbed the Power Rangers. Learning that an old enemy of the previous generation has returned to exact vengeance, the group must harness their powers and use them to work together and save the world.” — IMDb
Far from the cheesy TV series of old, this Power Rangers reboot clearly wants to be a somewhat gritty, largely realistic, socially conscious take on the concept. But it’s like it was written by people behind the original, because it’s still full of clunky dialogue, earnest characters (with a thin veneer of outsider ‘cool’), and nods to serious issues without having the time or interest to actually engage with them. Like, one of the kids is the sole carer for his sick mother, or another is on the autistic spectrum, but, beyond spending a line or two to tell us these things, those issues have no bearing on the plot or the characterisation. Plus, it can’t overcome some of the fundamental cheesiness of the original. And when it tries to give in to it, like by playing the Power Rangers theme the first time the giant “dinocars” run into action, it’s too late for such shenanigans and the tones clash horrendously. It wants to escape the tackiness of the original series, but simple can’t.
And somehow it gets worse as it goes on. The early character stuff is derivative but alright. Then you begin to realise how shallow it is. You’re waiting for the super-suits to show up and the action to start. Then you have to wait some more while it works through plot beats so stale it can’t even be bothered to play them out fully. Then, when the suits finally arrive and the action starts, turns out it’s the worst part of the movie. Almost entirely CGI, under-choreographed, a mess of nothingness with little correlation from shot to shot, no sense of rhythm or construction. When their dinocars all merge into one giant dinocar, the villain screams “how?!”, and you will feel the same.
Bryan Cranston (yes, Bryan Cranston is in this) tries to inject some character into his role, but it’s too underwritten and his screen time too slight to let him do much with his supposed arc. Elizabeth Banks, meanwhile, is barely in it and has no arc whatsoever, but she chews scenery like a pro. She seems to be aware it’s all stupid and over the top and plays it appropriately.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R
“a darkly comic drama from Academy Award nominee Martin McDonagh. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.” — IMDb
As well as being as deathly serious and sometimes horrifying as the subject matter deserves, Three Billboards is also as funny as you’d expect from the writer-director of In Bruges. Not to the extent — the subject matter is far too serious for it to be an outright comedy like that — but in subplots and interludes it’s hilarious.
It’s got a helluva cast, and all of the performances are excellent. Frances McDormand is so fucking good that she even manages to make talking to a badly CGI’d deer incredibly emotional. Apparently some people had a massive problem with the film’s treatment of Sam Rockwell’s character, I think because he was a bad guy who got redeemed. But, really, imagine thinking people who once did bad things can never turn themselves around and be better people. What a pessimistic way to view the world. And yet I guess that’s what today’s “cancel culture” is all about.
It’s nicely shot by DP Ben Davis (except for that deer), while Carter Burwell’s Western-esque score has some really cool bits. It really emphasises the film’s formal overtures at being a revenge Western, even if the way it goes down in the end doesn’t necessarily support such a reading.
There was a huge backlash to the film at some point; bring it up online and you’re likely to come across people who assume everyone hates it… but it’s got 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and is still ranked the 150th best film of all time on IMDb, so I think we know where the majority stand. I’m happy to stand with them.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri placed 14th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.