I'd like to spank the Academy

Archive for the ‘Western’ Category

Django Unchained (2012)

django unchainedDirected by Quentin Tarantino

 When I first decided to watch all of the best picture-nominated movies, I wasn’t planning on blogging about them. I wasn’t watching them in any order at all; I would just watch what I felt like or had access to. Since Django Unchained streams on Netflix, it was easy to get, so I watched it probably about a year ago. I hated it. I’m not a big fan of violence, but Quentin Tarantino obviously is. (Yes, this is the first Tarantino film I’ve seen.) I can understand why some people would find the movie funny, but it’s not my kind of humor. I was so glad that I had watched it and could check it off my list. But then I realized that if I were going to write a fair review of a movie, I would have had to have seen it recently. So I reluctantly watched it again this week. I still don’t like it, but I can admit that there elements of the film that are excellent.

So what’s the story? German bounty hunter King Schultz needs the help of the slave Django to find three men he’s hunting. Django turns out to be remarkably good at killing white men for money, so Schultz teaches Django all the skills he will need to be a bounty hunter himself. When he has learned enough, Django and Schultz go to the plantation Candyland to rescue Django’s wife from the clutches of the evil Calvin Candie.

The Good: I have never said this of any movie, and I will probably never say it again, but the cinematography was fun. I didn’t realize fun cinematography was even a possibility until I saw Django Unchained. I can’t exactly put my finger on what makes it fun, but the camera angles are jaunty and the cinematographer uses stereotypical camera work in unconventional ways. Even if I didn’t particularly care for what was being filmed, it was filmed creatively.

Christoph Waltz gave an excellent performance as King Schultz, who was a deeply ethical con artist and bounty hunter who only used his skills to rid the world of evil people. He’s an interesting character, and Waltz portrayed him wonderfully. Leonardo DiCaprio, who is not always my favorite, does do a very good job at playing King Shultz’s opposite: a completely villainous wealthy man who cares only about himself and his property. There’s no subtlety here; he’s just completely bad. DiCaprio does it well. I didn’t even recognize Samuel L. Jackson in his role as Stephen, an obsequious slave who is as proud of Candyland as Calvin Candie himself. He did a good job.

Django Unchained kind of reminds me of The Princess Bride (1987), not in the plot or the acting or the subject matter, but  the way that it makes fun of a genre while being a movie of that genre itself. I attribute that to the screenplay. Even though it’s not my style of humor, I did laugh at the scene with the men in hoods. There was witty banter and good dialogue throughout. It was a good screenplay, even if it wasn’t my style.

The Bad: I initially liked Jamie Foxx in the role of Django, but as the movie goes on, the role gets cockier, but Jamie Foxx doesn’t. He’s a little bit too quiet for the role, I think.

At the very beginning of the movie, words appear on the screen: “1858: Two years before the Civil War”. This bothered me soooo much. The American Civil War started in 1861, not 1860. There must be a reason that Tarantino decided to put that wrong information up, but I don’t know what it is. I also don’t know why Django’s wife is named Broomhilda, when the actual name is Brunhilda (or Brunhilde, if you want to be even more German about it). I can’t handle when people get little details wrong. Again, I’m sure Tarantino did that on purpose, but I was just annoyed.

The Ugly: I hate violence, especially when it’s violence for violence’s sake. Django Unchained has tons of over-the-top graphically bloody violence. Sometimes it’s even played for laughs. It never made me laugh, and the sprays of blood and guts everywhere were overdone. I know, I know, that’s a Quentin Tarantino thing, but it’s not my thing, and I don’t think it’s necessary.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actor in a supporting role (Christoph Waltz); best writing, original screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best achievement in cinematography; best achievement in sound editing.

High Noon (1952)

high noonDirected by Fred Zinneman

I love westerns. It’s probably because I watched so many of them growing up that now they make me feel like a little kid again. Whatever the reason, I’m always glad when they show up on the list of best picture nominees. However, High Noon isn’t exactly a western. It’s a thriller that just happens to take place in the Old West. It’s about relationships and small towns and above all, people. I’ve seen it before, but it’s always exciting to watch.

So what’s the story? Will Kane has just married his Quaker sweetheart and given up his marshal’s badge when he gets a telegram that Frank Miller, a murderer that he arrested, has been let out of prison. He’s set to arrive on the noon train and hell-bent on getting revenge on the man who sent him to prison. Miller’s old gang is already waiting for him at the platform. Realizing that a true man faces his problems, Will refuses to run, but can he get the help he needs from the townspeople he’s protected in the past?

The Good: High Noon happens in real time. It’s about 10:40 when Marshal Kane gets his telegram, and an hour and twenty minutes later in real life, the train comes in. This adds to the tension in a way that very few things could have. I’m not sure if High Noon was the first movie to use this tactic, but it’s very effective.

The editing is fantastic. I love really good editing, but sometimes I feel like good editing can be hard to spot. Every once in a while, though, I’m blown away by it. That’s what happened in High Noon. After all the tension has built up and the train is finally coming into town, there are shots of all the different groups waiting for the train to stop. The editing makes that part of the movie so stressful. It’s awesome.

Once again, the acting is superb (can a movie be nominated for best picture without having at least some good acting?). Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a man committed to his path even though it may cost him the woman he loves. Grace Kelly plays his bride, Amy, who is understandably frightened at the prospect of losing her new husband. Bitter deputy marshal Harvey is played wonderfully by Lloyd Bridges. Even Henry Morgan (aka Colonel Potter in M*A*S*H) has a small role. But the standout actress in High Noon is Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez. She is ridiculously good in her rather complicated role.

Helen Ramirez is actually another wonderful thing about this movie. Minorities in westerns generally only have tiny roles, and they are usually horrifically stereotypical. However, while Helen is a scarlet woman, she is smart, strong, passionate, and fair. She isn’t scared of anything and she doesn’t take anything from anyone. I love her. She’s a great character.

The cinematography is great. It manages to highlight Will’s forced solitude and the attitudes of the people surrounding him. It does what good cinematography should do.

The Bad: There is nothing bad about High Noon. Everything about this movie is either on fabulous or horrifically bad. I suppose I could say that it’s not fun to watch Thomas Mitchell, one of my favorite character actors, not be awesome. That’s just how the story goes, though.

The Ugly: The title song is awful. I think I could have rationalized it as a 1950s cowboy song if it weren’t for the fact of these two lines:

He made a vow while in state prison
Vowed it would be my life or his’n.

I think it should be a crime against the arts (is that a thing? Can we make it one?) to use “his’n” as a rhyme for “prison”. Bad, bad, bad. Even then, I might have been able to make my peace with it if bits of the song (including that line) didn’t keep playing throughout the movie and reminding me of its existence. The musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin itself is very good, but this song… So bad.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (Gary Cooper); best film editing; best music, original song (“High Noon [Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’]”); best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay.

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach_movieposterDirected by John Ford

I grew up on westerns. I grew up on John Wayne westerns. And yet I had somehow never seen this movie. In some ways, that’s a good thing. I saw it for the first time when I was definitely old enough to appreciate it. But I think I would have liked it just fine when I was ten. I know I would have liked it when I went through my John Wayne phase and tried to watch all his movies when I was fourteen. So while I won’t be suing my dad for neglect because he didn’t show me this movie, I feel like I missed a lot of years when I could have been enjoying this movie. And that’s too bad, because this is a great movie. I liked it so much that I half wanted to start it over again from the beginning as soon as it was over.

So what’s the story? Despite the passengers knowing that Geronimo and his people are on the warpath, a stagecoach full of people begins its journey. Each stop brings more bad news and hardship, yet the oddly-assorted group of passengers presses on, determined to reach their final destination.

The Good: This is the first time in this batch of movies that I’ve been very impressed by the cinematography. Stagecoach is such a beautiful movie. John Ford knew how to compose a shot and how to use gorgeous scenery to its best advantage.

I’ve been rhapsodizing about acting a lot these past couple weeks, and I’m going to keep on doing it. This was yet another well-acted movie from 1939. Everyone was perfect. Claire Trevor especially stood out to me as the “dance hall girl” who is getting run out of town. I thought Trevor did a very good job of showcasing Dallas’s humanity and desire to be seen as a person. I have always liked John Wayne, but I liked seeing him so young in this movie. He had a different kind of energy as a young man than he did as an older one. Neither one is  better than the other; they’re just different. Thomas Mitchell as the doctor/town drunk was good, because Thomas Mitchell is always good, but when he stood up to Luke Plummer, he became superb. I’m also going to mention Andy Devine, mostly because Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) was my favorite Disney cartoon growing up, and it’s fun to hear Friar Tuck’s voice coming out of a real person’s mouth.

The Bad: I realize this movie was made in the 1930s, and I know that society’s mores have changed since then, but I live now, so I was a little bit unhappy with the portrayal of minorities, both the Native Americans and Hispanics. It’s definitely not the worst I’ve seen, and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie, but I did catch myself wondering if I should enjoy a movie so much when it put forth the opinion that the white men had every right to live on Indian land if they felt like it.

The Ugly: I can’t think of one ugly thing in this movie. That’s unusual for me. But Stagecoach is just an excellent movie.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a supporting role (Thomas Mitchell); best music, scoring.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best cinematography, black-and-white; best art direction; best film editing.