No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster

Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a movie I had heard a lot about over the years, and I have watched numerous documentaries about its making to where it felt like I had seen it even though I had not. It wouldn’t be until the year 2000, just after I graduated from college, when I sat down to watch it on my new 27-inch JVC television set. I just started my subscription with Netflix, and this was one of the first movies I rented from it.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” came out in 1974, so I went into it thinking there was no way it could be as horrifying now as it was when first released. I sat down in front of my TV prepared to eat my dinner, a Cedarline Mediterranean Stuffed Focaccia, while watching this horror classic. One of the first images, however, was of a pair of rotting corpses draped over a gravestone in a cemetery, and I decided it would be better to turn off the TV and finish my dinner before continuing. Once I was done and tossed my plate into the dishwasher, I turned the set back on and continued watching, believing it would be a piece of cake to sit through this lauded horror classic.

It has now been over 40 years since the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was unleashed on the world, but when I watched it on DVD, I had no idea it would prove to be one of the most unnerving and brutal motion pictures I ever sat through. I figured no movie going experience would ever be more intense than “Requiem for a Dream” was when I saw it in Hollywood with a sold-out audience, but then I watched Hooper’s horrifying masterpiece. After it was over, I wondered to myself if I could have possibly endured this film had I first watched it on the silver screen.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” opens with a crawl, narrated by John Larroquette, stating it is based on a true story, but it turns out this was not the case. However, certain plot elements were inspired by serial killer Ed Gein whose acts of violence came to inform many other movies including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” We are introduced to a group of two siblings and three of their friends as they travel out to Texas to visit the grave of their grandparents. As you can imagine, what they discover far surpasses any imagined fears anyone could have endured when they were young.

I knew I was in trouble when this group of kids picked up a hitchhiker (played by Edwin Neal). This guy looked like he hadn’t showered in weeks as his face and hair seemed much slimier than anyone else’s on planet Earth. Seeing him cut himself and one of the kids had my hair standing on end, and this was just the beginning. The horror this movie had to offer was just starting, and the intensity would only increase exponentially from there.

By the time everyone got to the house, I was already sweating. I hadn’t seen the movie, but I already knew what was coming. People don’t just die a horrible death in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” they die a realistic one. When Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) smashes one guy on the head with a hammer, the guy falls down and convulses horribly. Watching this sequence, I felt this is the way a person would react if bashed in the head with the hammer, and it showed me this would not be your average horror movie in the slightest.

What’s especially surprising about this film is it’s not as bloody or gory as you might expect. I figured there would be an ocean of blood on display, but instead it’s what I didn’t see which really messed with my head. We see Leatherface impale the beautiful Pam (Teri McMinn) on a meat hook, but we never see the hook go into her body. The expression you see on Pam’s face ends up feeling all the more unbearably real as a result because you can’t help but wonder how the hook went in and of how long she could hope to last before all her blood drained out.

In some ways, the powerful effect “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” gives off was something of an accident. When making this movie, Hooper was aiming for a PG-rating and even talked with members of the MPAA to find out how he could earn such a rating for a horror film like this one. A lot of the advice het got was to not show any body penetration or the chainsaw slicing into human flesh, and of course, he needed to limit the amount of blood shown. But instead of getting the PG-rating, Hooper saw his film get an X as these guides he was given proved to have the opposite effect. The fact it managed to get an R seems astonishing even by today’s standards. Still, this seems as welcome an accident as the shark not working on the set of “Jaws” was.

This could have been nothing more than a mere horror flick of the exploitation kind, but there really is a lot of artistry on display throughout. The acting all around is never weak, cinematographer Daniel Pearl gives everything a dirty look which will make you want to take a shower quickly after this movie’s conclusion, and the sound design makes you feel like you are in a real-life slaughterhouse. Hooper may have had a simple mission in mind while making this horror classic, but it turned into something far scarier than he ever intended.

Leatherface remains one of the scariest villains any horror movie could ever hope to have, and it’s a real shame this was the only time Gunnar Hansen played this iconic character as he brought a lot of thought and an instinctual energy to the role. Seeing him wander around in that human flesh-made mask of his, I started to fear what Leatherface looked like without the mask.

But while I want to give credit to all the other actors, I have to single out Marilyn Burns who plays Sally Hardesty. While she has an easy time during the movie’s first half, the last half has her screaming endlessly to where you want to see her get a Purple Heart instead of an Academy Award for her work. She screams and screams and screams to where I wondered just how tortured she felt throughout shooting. The closeup of her eyes while she is a guest at the most devilish of family dinners had me staring at the screen in utter horror. Even though I knew exactly how this movie would end, I was still gripped as I became desperate for Sally to escape any and every which way she could.

The movie’s last half is a frenzy to where I wondered how I could have survived this had I first watched it on the silver screen. Watching it on my television set with the volume turned down was hard enough as I wanted Sally’s hellish experience to end sooner rather than later, but her torture dragged on longer to where I refused to believe “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a mere 84 minutes long. When the screen finally went to black, it felt like such a welcome relief as I wondered just how much more I could have sat through had Hooper extended things out to two hours.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has long since earned its place alongside the greatest horror movies ever made, and the fact it hasn’t lost any of its power to unnerve and horrify the bravest of film buffs speaks to a power most filmmakers hope to have in their lifetime. The only other horror movies which equal this one’s power to terrify decades after their release are John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” Some horror movies play better on the big screen than on television, but this one proves to be every bit as effective on both.

I still have yet to watch any of the sequels as I feel like I am still recovering from this cinematic experience over 10 years later. I did watch the Platinum Dunes remake, but the only thing about it which truly unnerved me was when Leatherface took off Eric Balfour’s face and made it into a mask for himself. As I write this review, the prequel “Leatherface” is about to released in theatres everywhere. Filmmakers can only hope to equal Hooper’s film, but it hasn’t stopped them from trying.

* * * * out of * * * *

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Platoon’

Platoon movie poster

I think its use of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber is one of the reasons I stayed away from watching “Platoon” for the longest time. It still is one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard, although it would later be eclipsed by the even more emotionally devastating “Symphony No. 3” (subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by Henryk Górecki which Peter Weir used to powerful effect in “Fearless.” Plus, the way the violence in “Platoon” was described to me by friends at school, like when a soldier gets his arms blown off by a bomb, filled my mind with horrible images which had no business infecting my mind at such a young age.

It took buying the 25th anniversary edition of “Platoon” on Blu-ray for me to finally sit down and watch it. I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, and here I am buying it at Costco for $11.99 By then, I had seen many Oliver Stone movies like “Born On the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” and “Natural Born Killers,” so I was long overdue to give this Best Picture winner a look.

Before “Platoon,” I had seen “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” which viewed the Vietnam War from different perspectives. The one thing they had in common was they were directed by filmmakers who had never served in Vietnam. Stone, however, had served there, so “Platoon” is largely autobiographical for him. As a result, this is probably the first truly realistic depiction of the Vietnam War anyone could have ever hoped to see in a movie.

Charlie Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, and it’s interesting watching him here as this was long before his days on “Two and a Half Men.” Taylor serves as the narrator and most relatable character as, like him, we are coming into this war fresh-faced, naïve and innocent. The first scene where Taylor comes off a plane with a bunch of newbies is an omen of what is to come. Seeing body bags filled with fallen soldiers and crossing paths with those men who have seen the war up close quickly gives you a good idea of what Taylor will probably end up looking like at the movie’s end.

Sheen is perfectly cast as he makes Taylor go from being a newbie to an experienced combat veteran in little time. It’s a shame Sheen has since pissed away a good portion of his talent to where he’s pretty much playing a version of himself as some drunken womanizer, be it on a television show or a movie. His work here is a strong reminder of how good he can be as he is utterly believable in a role no one would cast him in today.

Seeing Taylor struggle on through the Vietnamese jungle after the opening scene is a quick indication of how unprepared he is for combat. Like many wars Americans have fought, it was on the soil of another country they were completely unfamiliar with. We see how this puts them at an immediate disadvantage as they look completely exhausted and depleted even at the start of the day.

When it comes to Vietnam, Taylor makes it clear he is a unique case as he tells everyone he dropped out of college to volunteer and serve in the war. This makes him seem like part of a generation raised to believe fighting in a war is both noble and infinitely patriotic, something to be proud of. Taylor also feels that not only poor kids should be sent to fight instead of the rich, but he soon learns the truths about war, one of which is given to him by King (Keith David) who tells him something which resonates strongly even today: “You got to be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody know, the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”

The other two performances worth noting are given by Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes. Both figure prominently in Taylor’s tour of duty, and even he says these two were fighting for his soul. Dafoe is mesmerizing as the idealistic soldier who sees America’s involvement in Vietnam ending badly. The Christ-like pose he gets in, whether its holding a machine gun over his shoulders or as he runs from the Vietnamese soldiers, is no mistake. Elias ends up dying for the sins of his fellow soldiers while doing his best to protect them.

Berenger’s performance as Barnes ranks among his best ever. He succeeds in getting inside the head of someone who has been shot at so many times to where they are forever psychologically altered. Having seen death up close, Barnes acts as if he has surpassed it. In some ways, Berenger doesn’t need those makeup scars to show you how many firefights his character has been in as watching him walk through the jungle, completely unaffected by explosions going off around him as if he were Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” is more than enough proof of this.

Stone makes you feel the blood, sweat, tears and exhaustion these soldiers experience, and it’s all so vivid to where we come out of “Platoon” feeling like war veterans ourselves. It leaves all those other movies which make war seem like fun to utter shame. Coming from a filmmaker who has seen this particular war up close, we cannot deny the authenticity he puts on display.

“Platoon” also captures how quickly people can lose their moral bearings in the face of war. The scene in the village is by far the movie’s most unnerving moment as we watch Taylor and the other soldiers get overcome by their boiling anger and hatred. What’s so horrifying is that while you would like to believe you would have acted differently than they did, there’s no way you can be sure if you haven’t been in combat. The line between soldier and killer gets seriously blurred here, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Before filming began, the cast was treated to an intensive military training course under the tutelage of former Marine Captain Dale Dye who also served in Vietnam. They were made to dig foxholes and subjected to forced marches and nighttime ambushes which utilized explosions. This succeeded in breaking them down, and you can see and feel the weariness in them throughout. It more than adds to the sheer realism we see here.

There’s no victory to be found in “Platoon,” only death and destruction on both sides of the conflict. The movie gets at the truth of war which Danny DeVito talked about in “The War of the Roses” when he said, “There is no winning! There’s only degrees of losing!”

The violence and death portrayed may not seem quite as visceral as it did when the movie first came out. There have been many other war movies since like “Saving Private Ryan” which featured scenes of such brutal violence that no other filmmaker could possibly match. Plus, we all know about the Vietnam War in general and big a mistake it was for America for many years now. Still, “Platoon” is nothing less than powerful as its vision of the craziness and insanity of war is impossible to shake once you have seen it.

The Vietnam War may be a thing of the past, but the lessons we learned from it still need to be taught over and over again. America keeps fighting wars which, whether necessary or not, continually overstay their welcome and leave a lot of people feeling angry and betrayed. Oliver Stone certainly understands that, and he makes “Platoon” into a movie which shows the damage of war and why we can’t just let the past be the past.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Cujo’

Cujo movie poster

It took Cinematic Void putting together a Stephen King film festival at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to finally give me a reason to check out the cinematic adaptation of “Cujo.” It was a movie I have heard a lot about, and I remember the book’s original artwork with those growling teeth which indicated this particular dog was looking for more than puppy chow and snausages. Moreover, the word Cujo has long since been burned into my consciousness, and it seems to exists as a description of a dog that has gone mad and cannot be mistaken for man’s best friend. In “Fletch,” it made perfect sense when Chevy Chase said “Cujo” as he wandered through a seemingly abandoned house in Utah. Considering that he was attacked by a Doberman Pinscher earlier, his fear of being attacked again was completely understandable.

“Cujo” was released in 1983 during a decade when adaptations of King’s work were plentiful and varied in quality. While some were exceptional (“Stand by Me,” “The Shining,” and “The Dead Zone”), others like “Maximum Overdrive” just didn’t work. “Cujo,” however, proves to be an above average adaptation of King’s work as well as one of the more unusual. While many of his books deal with the supernatural, this one deals more with the horrors of real life instead of just monsters.

I’m sure you all the story to “Cujo” by now. In case you don’t, it involves a beautiful St. Bernard who, at the movie’s start, chases a rabbit through the woods. In the process, he gets his head stuck in a cave filled with bats, one of which bites him on the nose. From there, he goes from being a lovable household pet to an infinitely vicious one as he attacks any and every human being in sight.

From the outside, “Cujo” seems to have a very straightforward plot which indicates to the viewer it will be one of those animal attack movies we have seen time and time again. But what really surprised me most is how its story focuses more on the human element to where I realized the dog was a supporting character more than anything else.

You have Vic and Donna Trenton (Daniel Hugh Kelly and Dee Wallace), a married couple and the proud parents of a highly imaginative boy named Tad (Danny Pintauro). But while they seem to be leading the perfect life in Castle Rock, Maine, there are cracks beneath the surface which will inevitably rise to the surface. Vic is increasingly concerned with economic security, something which is even more understandable these days. Donna is engaged in an affair with Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone), her ex-boyfriend from high school, as she is terrified of being trapped in small town life for the rest of her life. And Tad, he is still at that age where it’s far too easy to believe there are monsters hiding in the closet just waiting to jump out at him. Seeing Tad race to his bed after turning off the light and hiding under the covers brings back a lot of memories as those monsters were far more real to us as kids than they had any right to be.

Taking the fears of each character into account, it serves as a reminder of how brilliant King is at examining not just horrors of the supernatural, but also the ones we are forced to experience in the real world. This makes “Cujo” especially effective as the life obstacles these characters are forced to deal with feel almost as scary as the thought of the dog tearing their flesh apart.

“Cujo” was directed by Lewis Teague who also helmed the anthology film “Cat’s Eye” as well as the cult classic “Alligator” and “The Jewel of the Nile.” Teague was lucky he got to make “Cujo” back in the 80’s, a decade where filmmakers had the opportunity to build up to a furious climax instead of being forced to rush straight to one. These days, studio executives would have begged, if not ordered, him to rush right into the sequences where the dog attacks the hapless humans and to increase the blood and gore this film is expected to offer. Instead, Teague got to take his precious time introducing us to characters who are not mere stereotypes and whose struggles will soon pale in comparison to the attack they don’t see coming.

This movie’s major set piece comes when Donna and Tad become trapped in a Ford Pinto as Cujo thrashes away at it, trying to get inside. From there, “Cujo” becomes a major exercise in sheer intensity as we watch Donna do what she can to save herself and her son before the dog makes chop suey out of them. But if the dog doesn’t get to them, the sweltering summer heat may do them in instead. Suffice to say, they cannot stay in the car forever.

It’s interesting King chose a St. Bernard as the type of dog instead of another like a Doberman Pinscher. Of course, casting a Doberman might have seemed like typecasting as they have always been the villains of dogs. St. Bernard dogs seem more like comic relief, and this was made clear back in the 1990’s with those “Beethoven” movies starring Charles Grodin. Therefore, choosing a St. Bernard as a dog is an inspired choice as it shows how easily a dog, any dog, can turn deadly after being bitten by a bat. When we first see Cujo, he is a beautifully groomed dog you just want to hug. But he soon becomes a dog in desperate need of a shower as he looks disgustingly slimy and has what looks like an abundance of snot sliding off his face. Eventually he becomes an evil force to be reckoned with, and it’s easy to understand how no one could have prepared for him.

But while this dog looks to be the main star of “Cujo,” he is not. The real star is instead Dee Wallace who, just as she did in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” gives us a mother who cannot be mistaken for the average movie mother. I love talking about when actors inhabit roles more than play them, and it is certainly the case with Wallace here as she gives a performance best described as emotionally blistering. She makes us feel Donna Trenton’s frantic struggles as well as her mental and physical exhaustion in dealing with a crumbling marriage, an affair, her son and, of course, the dog. Also, she makes us feel every single bead of sweat coming off of her body as she and Tad are trapped not just in the car, but in the sweltering summer heat as well.

There also moments where Donna loses her patience with Tad, and this makes Wallace’s performance feel all the more real. Just as “Cujo” was being released, some associated with its production were keen to cut a scene where Donna snaps at her son as she grows tired of his crying out for daddy. This, however, would have been mistake as all parents lose their patience with their children. Seriously, just as my mom. I’m sure she has tons of stories she would love to share with you.

While I’m at it, let’s not leave out Danny Pintauro whose performance as Tad feels unbearably real at times. Seeing him weep and panic when the dog tries to get at him and his mother makes an already intense motion picture even more intense.

Teague and his collaborators which include composer Charles Bernstein, director of photography Jan De Bont, and editor Neil Travis clearly had more on their mind than giving us the average horror film with “Cujo.” While there is a conventional feel to much of what we see here, the filmmakers were more invested in the human element than the animal one. Lord only knows how this movie would look if it were made today, and I’m stunned it has not been remade yet. As this cinematic adaptation shows, horror movies can’t thrive unless we are emotionally invested in the characters to where they are not just stock or filler. This film may not be a masterpiece, but it proved to be far more effective than I ever could have expected it to be.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Creepshow 2’

Creepshow 2 movie poster

Creepshow” proved to be a great deal of ghoulish fun, and it’s a film which had me begging for a sequel. There are many other short horror stories worthy of a cinematic adaptation regardless of whether or not they are written by Stephen King. Plus, at the time, it seemed to be a given George Romero would have had easier luck in securing financing for this than for a sequel to “Day of the Dead.” And with the same gothic-looking title, what could possibly go wrong? Even if it’s not one of the greatest horror movies ever, we can still enjoy this sequel for what it is, right?

Well, perhaps you can, but for me, “Creepshow 2” is a serious disappointment. Sure, the three stories contained in it are based on the works of King, and Romero did write the screenplay, but this sequel suffers right from the get go. It falters due to a budget much lower than a horror film deserves, a cast of actors who emote more than act, a weak music score, and animation which just reeks of cheapness.

The movie’s prologue has a young blonde boy named Billy (Domenick John) peddling fast on his bike as he chases a delivery truck into town to deliver the latest edition of Creepshow magazine. The back of the truck opens up to reveal The Creep played by Tom Savini, but voiced by Joe Silver. The makeup on this devilish character is less than convincing, and he is nothing compared to the ghostly apparition from the first movie. Even worse, he is made to crack jokey one-liners which will have you groaning more than laughing. Clearly, this character is “Creepshow 2’s” answer to the Crypt Keeper from “Tales from The Crypt,” or perhaps even John Carpenter’s Coroner from “Body Bags,” but it would have been to this sequel’s benefit had it not featured a wisecracking character as this kind had already started to wear out its welcome back in 1987.

One other thing, if you are going to have Savini playing a ghoulish character, do you really have to put makeup all over him? The infamous makeup artist and actor has a wonderfully devilish look about him, and the mask he wears just takes away from him.

“Creepshow 2’s” first story, “Old Chief Wood’nhead,” is its weakest by far. George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour play Ray and Martha Spruce, an elderly couple who run a general store in Dead River, a town which, as we can tell from its first appearance, is finally living up to its name. One day they are visited by a Native American elder named Benjamin Whitemoon (Frank Salsedo) who gives the Spruces turquoise jewelry, his tribe’s sacred treasures, to look after. Unfortunately, not long after Benjamin leaves, a group of thugs arrive at the store, killing the Spruces and making off with the jewelry. Oh yeah, the Spruces also have an Indian statute standing prominently outside of their store named Old Chief Wood’nhead, and it doesn’t take long for us to see he will avenge the Spruces as you don’t mess with Indian spirits, ever.

Directing “Creepshow 2” is Michael Gornick who served as Director of Photography on its predecessor. As this first story demonstrates, he doesn’t quite have Romero’s panache or wicked sense of humor as he can’t balance out the horrific aspects with the comedic ones, and everything feels off balance as a result. Also, he shows far too much of Old Chief Wood’nhead coming to life which was a mistake. Gornick starts off by giving us glimpses of this character, played by Dan Kamin, to where we can tell the Chief is more than just another statute. But as the Chief goes on a mission of bloody justice, the character becomes cartoonish to where his bloody revenge isn’t the least bit fulfilling.

For what it’s worth, Holt McCallany, who plays Sam, the leader of the thug gang, does have beautiful hair here, and seeing him show it off as he sees it as his ticket for making it in Hollywood makes him all the more drolly hilarious. Still, MCCallany has nothing on Melissa Leo as her hair was infinitely beautiful from one episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” to the next.

The second story, “The Raft,” is a bit of an improvement. Based on one of King’s scariest short stories from “Skeleton Crew,” it features our college kids who drive out to a predictably isolated lake, located a good 50 miles away from their school, for a swim. The lake’s only real notable feature, at first anyway, is a wooden raft in the middle of it. This raft, however, is soon upstaged by what looks like a slimy oil slick which begins to make its way over to the kids once they get in the water, and they soon find themselves stranded on the raft as the slick surrounds them.

“The Raft” has a lot of cinematic possibilities, and seeing these kids getting consumed by the oil slick provides “Creepshow 2” with some of its most horrifying moments. But in the end, it is undone as Gornick isn’t able to generate enough of a claustrophobic terror this story demands. Plus, the performances of Paul Satterfield, Jeremy Green, Daniel Beer and Page Hannah are weak as they are forced to emote more than act, and this just takes away from the situation and terror their characters are trapped in. Granted, this is not a movie which demands Oscar worthy performances, but it does need good acting to help bring you fully into such a terrifying story.

I do have to give the actors some credit though as they don’t have to do any acting when they first get in the water as it does appear to be very cold. Beer even said he almost died from hypothermia while filming “The Raft,” and keeping this in mind while watching this segment makes it even more unnerving. But despite a bravura conclusion, I came out of “The Raft” feeling like it could have been much better than it was. Perhaps this is partly due to having read King’s short story beforehand, and what he came up with couldn’t possibly be matched here.

The final story, “The Hitchhiker,” proved to be my favorite as it featured Lois Chiles, the Bond woman Dr. Holly Goodhead from “Moonraker,” in a strong performance as businesswoman Annie Lansing. The story begins with Annie leaving a hotel after having an adulterous fling with a gigolo, and she begins thinking of ways to explain to her husband why she is arriving home so late. But as she fumbles around with a lit cigarette while driving her expensive Mercedes down a lonely highway, she accidentally hits a hitchhiker played by Tom Wright. Did Annie kill him? She isn’t sure, and with oncoming headlights heading in her direction, she isn’t keen to wait around. From there, she goes from wondering how to cover up her affair to finding ways to justify leaving the scene of an accident, and then the hitchhiker reappears…

This story reminded me of the “Creepshow” segment entitled “They’re Creeping Up on You!” which starred E.G. Marshall as Upson Pratt, a ruthless businessman whose fear of bugs comes to haunt him big time. Like that segment, “The Hitchhiker” plays with your mind as you ponder if what you saw actually happened, or if it was all in the mind of the main character instead. On first glance, the story doesn’t make much sense as Annie keeps coming across this man she accidentally ran over for no real reason, but, in retrospect, perhaps the hitchhiker represents Annie’s conscience torturing her for hitting a pedestrian and failing to take responsibility for her actions.

This final segment for me reminds me of why I liked the first “Creepshow” so much; it’s a wickedly gleeful mix of horror and black comedy as Annie tries to kill off a hitchhiker who won’t stay ahead. In the process, she also lays waste to her precious Mercedes as her priorities shift from protecting her most valuable possession, a car, to defending herself from a crime which becomes something even worse. It is so over the top to where I was infinitely eager to see where the story would end up, and had the rest of “Creepshow 2” been like this, it would have been so much better. Chiles gets to show more life here than she got to in “Moonraker,” and she steals this sequel easily thanks to her unrestrained turn.

Horror movies in general tend to be made on low budgets, and this was certainly the case with “Creepshow” as Romero only had $8 million to work with. Gornick, however, had a budget half the size of that on “Creepshow 2” ($3.5 million to be exact), and he is unable to stretch it out the way Romero did. I’m always fascinated with what filmmakers are able to pull off creatively with little money, but this sequel shows that sometimes a low budget can be too low to work with. This has the appearance of a motion picture where the filmmakers were forced to cut corners at every turn due to limited funds, and it makes me feel sorry for Gornick as I’m sure he could have accomplished more if the budget allowed him to. While Warner Brothers distributed the first movie, the sequel was instead released by New World Pictures, a small independent production company which inched closer and closer to bankrupt around the time “Creepshow 2” came out.

I also didn’t care for the film score by Les Reed and Rick Wakeman as their themes came across as unbearably generic. Both are very talented musicians, but their music here just made me pine for John Harrison’s music from “Creepshow” as well as “Day of the Dead.” Back in the 1980’s, Harrison came up with some wonderfully creepy cues, but Reed and Wakeman have no such luck here.

“Creepshow 2” does have its inspired moments, but I came of it feeling like it could have been so much better. Instead of enjoying what I saw, I spent more time analyzing things which could have been easily improved. I do, however, have to applaud the filmmakers for including the following quote from Colliers Magazine in the end credits:

“Juvenile delinquency is the product of pent up frustrations, stored-up resentments and bottled-up fears. It is not the product of cartoons and captions. But the comics are a handy, obvious, uncomplicated scapegoat. If the adults who crusade against them would only get as steamed up over such basic causes of delinquency as parental ignorance, indifference, and cruelty, they might discover that comic books are no more a menace than Treasure Island or Jack the Giant Killer.”

This quote was from the year 1949, and yet all these years later many still seek scapegoats, be it comic books or Marilyn Manson, instead of dealing with things in a more rational manner. I loved that the filmmakers included this quote, but I would have loved it even more if they had opened the movie with it.

* * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: La La Land

La La Land movie poster

I cannot believe how ridiculously long it took me to watch this movie which won Best Picture for about three or four minutes at this year’s Oscars. “La La Land” is Damien Chazelle’s eagerly awaited follow-up to “Whiplash,” my favorite movie of 2014. Due to not being invited to any press screenings for it, working to pay my bills, buying Christmas presents for my family and working to pay them off as well, taking care of the rent and my overall sanity, I could never make the time to see it. They say life happens when you’re busy making plans, but I’m too busy to even make any kind of plan.

Well, I finally had the opportunity to check out “La La Land” and it is, in a word, superb. From its opening sequence all the way to the end titles, it is a wonderful homage to the movie musicals of the past, and it serves as a dedication to all the dreamers out there who dare to make their passions their livelihood and are willing to make fools of themselves in the process. Just like Akira Kurosawa once said, “In order to survive in an insane world, you have to be crazy.”

The movie starts off on a typical sunny Los Angeles day on the LA freeway of your choice with cars at a complete standstill. It could be the 110, the 105 or the 405 we are watching, but it doesn’t matter because they all turn into used car lots once rush hour hits. Next thing you know, everyone is bursting into the song “Another Day of Sun,” and it’s Chazelle’s way of showing you how exhilarating “La La Land” will be to watch. It starts off with an infectious energy, and it never loses it once the song is over.

We are introduced to Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who auditions constantly, shares an apartment with several female roommates, and works as a barista at a café located on a studio lot. She does the best she can at auditions, but some of them last only a few seconds before she is thanked for her time and escorted to the door. Soon afterward, we meet Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz musician who yearns to see this art form live on instead of being ruined by current forms which manipulate into something very artificial. Eventually, we know these two will hook up.

Like the most romantic of couples, Mia and Sebastian do not get off to the best start as she gives him the finger after he honks his car horn for an insidiously long time (I hate it when people do that) at her when she keeps him waiting on the freeway. Even after Mia walks into a jazz bar upon hearing Sebastian play an impassioned improvisational riff while being forced to play classic Christmas songs, he is quick to brush her off as he heads for the door. But the two eventually consummate their budding romance after a screening of “Rebel Without a Cause,” and from there we watch as their romance goes through exhilarating heights and emotionally draining lows.

Watching “La La Land” reminded me of how singing can be the most emotionally challenging art of all as it forces you to be open in a way we typically are not in everyday life. You can be a brilliant singer, but all the technique you bring to it won’t mean a thing if you don’t bring any real feeling to the song. When it comes to many movie musicals, they can feel emotionally manipulative or overly sentimental to where you find yourself cringing like you did when Darth Vader yelled out “nooooo” in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” But every single moment in “La La Land” feels earned as the cast makes it all feel truly genuine, and I never came out of this movie feeling like I was played like a piano. Everything in this movie felt earned, and I was enamored by everything I witnessed.

Also, Chazelle gets everything about Los Angeles down perfectly. Whether it’s the standstill traffic on the freeways, the street signs we never pay attention to until it’s too late, the incredible view of the city from the Hollywood Hills, the Griffith Observatory, the single screen movie theaters or even those auditions where an assistant just has to walk into the room while you are doing your thing for the casting directors, he gets at all the things a struggling artist is forced to endure while fighting against stiff odds. This is not the kind of musical which takes place in some fantastical world, but instead in a reality we all know and understand.

Of course, to many, Los Angeles is still a fantastical place, and it certainly shows here thanks to the beautiful cinematography of Linus Sandgren. “La La Land” almost looks like something from the 1950’s with Sandgren’s use of many beautiful colors, and we get caught up in the magic this crazy city has to offer after all these years. I have lived in Los Angeles for a number of years now, and I can tell you honestly that it is not as glamorous as it is often portrayed in the media. Still, it is a place for creative minds to come up with something extraordinary, and this movie reminded me of this.

Emma Stone is simply sublime as the aspiring Mia as she captures all the heartache, joy and persistence any actor has experienced in pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream. Her face is luminous and can say so much without her having to say single a word at times, and she makes you feel Mia’s every emotion as she suffers every triumph and career setback. But her biggest show-stopping moment comes when she sings the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” in which the camera stays on her for several minutes. It’s an incredibly captivating moment and makes me see why she could have won an Oscar over Isabelle Huppert who was nominated for “Elle.”

As for Ryan Gosling, he still remains a sexy son of a bitch whom the ladies swoon over every single minute of every single day, and I guess I just have to live with that. But seriously, he perfectly embodies the dreamer who is forced to compromise his passion for the sake of survival, and he communicates the aching confusion Sebastian feels as he desperately tries to rationalize his choices as a means of convincing himself that he is not selling out. Whether you think Sebastian is selling out or not, Gosling makes you sympathize with him as we come to wonder what we have done to convince ourselves of the actions we take in life.

Yes, I think “La La Land” more than lived up to the hype, and it establishes Damien Chazelle as one of the most promising film directors working today. It could have easily been a silly trifle of a musical, but Chazelle’s heart and soul shine through every frame as he pays tributes to all those who dared to dream and constantly risked failure at every turn. Like the best movies, it stays with you long after it has ended, and it takes you on a wondrous journey I feel I haven’t been on in a very, very long time.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Empire of the Sun

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Empire of the Sun” is one of the few Steven Spielberg movies which has eluded my watching it for far too long. I remember when it was released back in 1987, and my brother and I watched a documentary on its making. What we saw did not make it look like the typical Spielberg crowd-pleasing movie people had come to expect from him back then. It also dealt with a young boy who is separated from his parents, and separation anxiety was a HUGE thing for me back in the 80’s. But with it now at its 30th anniversary of its release, and having the opportunity to see it on the big screen at New Beverly Cinema in 35mm, the time had come to give what is largely considered to be one of Spielberg’s more underrated films a look.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, “Empire of the Sun” takes us back to the days of World War II where we meet Jamie Graham (Christian Bale in his film debut), a young schoolboy who lives a privileged life with a wealthy family out in the Shanghai International Settlement where he sings in the school choir, rides his bicycle everywhere and anywhere, and has a love of airplanes which knows no bounds. A key shot for me comes early on when we see Jamie taking some food out of an overstocked refrigerator which is filled with goodies as it shows how easy things come to this young lad to where he can boss the Japanese maid around like his parents do.

Of course, this all changes when the Japanese invade the settlement following their bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Jamie and his family are forced to flee their home and escape with their lives. In the process, Jamie gets separated from his mom after he picks up his metal toy airplane which he dropped on the ground, and he is forced to fend for himself as he is swept into a conflict far beyond anything he could have imagined.

When it comes to “Empire of the Sun,” it was no surprise to learn David Lean was originally going to direct this adaptation as Spielberg certainly made it look like a Lean movie with scenes filled with crowds of people struggling to survive in life during wartime. Spielberg ended up putting together scenes which must have made Lean proud as it brings to mind the epic shots the director pulled off in his masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” Today, most of those shots would have been accomplished with the use of CGI effects, but “Empire of the Sun” was made back in a time where they weren’t so readily available.

Watching this movie reminded me of how brilliant Spielberg is at taking us back to a day and age many of us were not alive to see, and he does it so vividly to where we can never doubt his authenticity to the period. Spielberg has visited the era of World War II time and time again to amazing effect whether it’s the Indiana Jones movies or “Saving Private Ryan,” and he never seems to miss a detail in the process.

And then there’s Christian Bale who made his film debut in “Empire of the Sun,” and he brings to this role the same kind of intensity he would later bring to his work in movies like “American Psycho” and “The Fighter” among others. I could never take my eyes off of him as he takes Jamie from being a privileged young man to one who struggles for even the smallest reward like a Hershey chocolate bar. Was there another young actor who could have pulled off such a brave and emotionally honest performance as Bale does here? I think not.

Another great performance to be found here is from John Malkovich who plays Basie, an American ship steward stranded in Shanghai who befriends Jamie in his most desperately hungry state. Basie looks to be the Han Solo kind of character who befriends a young innocent who has yet to learn how cruel the world can be, but he turns out to be more of a manipulator than a hero in the making. Malkovich makes Basie into a fascinating study of someone who seeks to benefit themselves more than anyone else, and he constantly leaves you wondering if his character can rediscover whatever humanity he has left.

In addition, there are fine performances from Miranda Richardson as a neighbor of Jamie’s, Nigel Havers as a doctor who desperately tries to teach Jamie about humility, Joe Pantoliano has some choice moments as a companion of Basie’s, and Burt Kwouk, best known as Cato from the “Pink Panther” series, shows up in a small role which he is almost unrecognizable in. Heck, even Ben Stiller shows up here as an American soldier. Seeing him at first is a bit disorienting as he has since become a big comedy star to where he now seems out of place here, but I’ll chalk that up to one of the disadvantages of watching this movie at a later date.

Looking back, I feel “Empire of the Sun” was Spielberg’s first real foray into darker material which would soon pave the way for films like “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich.” While it feels like he was taking baby steps here, as those aforementioned films proved to be much darker than this one, it was a giant cinematic leap for him to tackle something like this back in the 80’s.

Still, part of me wonders if he played a little too nice with the source material. Being that this was an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel, the same writer whose controversial books “Crash” and “High-Rise” were adapted into deliriously dark motion pictures by David Cronenberg and Ben Wheatley, I can’t imagine “Empire of the Sun” was any easier of a book to read. Ballard wrote some pretty dark stuff, and it makes me wonder just how dark his novel “Empire of the Sun” was compared to Spielberg’s film.

All the same, “Empire of the Sun” is an amazing achievement to watch today as he managed to pull off many epic scenes long before the use of CGI effects. Part of me wishes I had watched it when I was younger as it would have had a more powerful effect on me emotionally, but better late than never with a film like this. Along with cinematographer Allen Daviau, composer John Williams, writer Tom Stoppard and editor Michael Kahn, Spielberg created a World War II epic which stands out among the most memorable of them all, and it deserves more attention than it received upon its release thirty years ago.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Poltergeist’

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I got the Blu-ray of “Poltergeist” around the time Circuit City was closing all their stores forever. I had seen bits and pieces of the movie before, but I had never watched it all the way through until a couple of years ago. What finally spurred me to watch it was having watched “Poltergeist III” on cable, and that sequel was a true abomination. I figured what came before that needless sequel had to be so much better. Getting past all the trivia surrounding “Poltergeist” and its so-called “curse,” it remains remarkably frightening for a PG-rated movie.

Actually, it’s quite fitting I watched “Poltergeist” during the period of the wildly successful “Paranormal Activity” movies since they all focus on the strange and bizarre happenings around suburban households. These days it seems like the “found footage” genre is the only way to make a horror movie set in the suburbs seem all the more frightening. But “Poltergeist” showed if you get the details just right, then you can find yourself relating to characters and their surroundings completely and without any question.

“Poltergeist” was directed by Tobe Hooper, but Steven Spielberg’s name is all over the movie as he came up with the story, co-wrote the screenplay and served as one of its producers. It’s hard to escape the influence he had over this production as, like “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” it takes place in the suburbs of America where many of us grew up.

We drop in at the home of the Freeling family which is located in the nice, clean California town of Cuesta Verde, and it’s the kind of neighborhood where the houses don’t look all that different from one another. The cars are parked out front because they aren’t parked in the garage for some odd reason, and the kids are riding their bikes all over the neighborhood.

Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful realtor and his wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams), is a stay at home mom caring for their children Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne. One night, Carol Anne goes downstairs and sits in front of the television which is showing nothing but static. It’s an especially frightening image on the Blu-ray release as the flickering creates an eerie strobe light effect as if the house’s inhabitants are in the process of being brainwashed. Carol Anne begins talking to the television as if she’s having a conversation with someone invisible to everybody else. We can’t even hear what that someone is saying to her, but we believe Carol Anne is communicating with another and our imagination runs amuck at who that might be.

Following this, strange things begin to happen around the Freeling household like chairs moving by themselves and the furniture being rearranged in a heartbeat. One night while sitting in front of the television, a hand reaches out and pushes Carol Anne away which is followed by a force of energy penetrating the walls. Her parents wake up to see their daughter telling them, “They’re here…”

What makes “Poltergeist” so effective is how the filmmakers play on those childhood fears we all had. Whether it’s that creepy looking tree outside the bedroom window or the clown puppet which you fear will come alive and attack you in the night, we can all relate to what goes on here except, of course, for being sucked into another dimension. I remember always asking my mom to put my AT-AT toy, the Imperial walker from “The Empire Strikes Back”, on its side so it wouldn’t crawl over to me while I slept. I also kept having these dreams where this green school desk I had would end up rushing at my bed to attack me. Now imagine if these things happened in real life, and you will get a sense of what “Poltergeist” is all about.

There’s nothing too unique about the characters who live in Cuesta Verde, and this makes them all the more relatable. Seeing the kids’ room with those “Star Wars” posters and bed covers bring back a lot of memories. When these supernatural occurrences start happening and get increasingly worse, we can easily see it happening in our own homes. Then again, this might make our own households far more exciting than they usually are as living in the suburbs can be too low key for some.

“Poltergeist” is also perfectly cast with actors who inhabit their suburban characters with what seems like relative ease. Nelson and Williams still seem like the typical American parents we all know. Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne and Oliver Robins are perfectly natural as their children, and they appear very comfortable in front of a camera. You also have Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, a parapsychologist, and she gives this movie a strong dramatic weight.

There is also something to be said for Zelda Rubinstein’s performance as spiritual medium Tangina Barrons. While her high-pitched voiced might seem a little annoying, she makes her strange dialogue sound very believable as Tangina becomes the family’s last hope to save Carol Anne. It’s no wonder her presence in “Poltergeist” is so unforgettable, and not just for her immortal line, “This house is clean.”

Movies like “Poltergeist” usually have filmmakers getting too caught up in perfecting the special effects at the expense of everything else, but Hooper manages to balance everything out to create one of the most terrifying haunted house movies ever. As much as Spielberg’s name is all over this movie, I have to believe Hooper is the one who made this movie as scary as it is. While it may not be as unnerving as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (and very few movies are), he really packs in a lot of scares for a PG-rated movie.

You could also say that “Poltergeist” is a serious dig at the cutthroat world of real estate as Steven makes the horrifying discovery of how certain sacred things which were not moved from their original location. People will do anything for the perfect property when there’s a ton of money involved, and if they can cut corners to make house building go faster they will. Heck, this almost sounds like a supernatural version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

I can’t help but wonder if home insurance even covers supernatural occurrences like this. Would the Freeling’s insurance carrier find an excuse to deny them any financial compensation? Could you imagine the looks on their faces if their agent denied their claim for negligence as if it’s their fault for not reporting this to the authorities sooner? If I were on the receiving end of that, I would be pissed!

It says a lot about an 80’s movie like “Poltergeist” that it still holds up so well all these years later. Its portrayal of suburban America doesn’t look much different from what we see today. I guess the only real difference, aside from cell phones and iPads, are the number of bank foreclosures going on, and you certainly don’t see this happening here. While it may have been ruined a bit by sequels (and this movie really didn’t need any), it still is worth re-discovering and would make an interesting double feature with “Paranormal Activity.”

One other thing; is it just me or does that white spidery creature who blocks Williams from her children’s bedroom have the voice of MGM’s roaring lion?

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Citizenfour

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Citizenfour” is a documentary I should have taken the time watch when it first came out in theaters back in 2014. For one reason or another, I just never got the chance to check it out and life got busier for me as it always does. As a result, my view on Edward Snowden, its chief subject, has remained neutral as I never knew what to make of him when the news of his revelations about the National Security Administration’s (NSA) illegal wiretapping were brought to the public. But with Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” now playing in theaters, the time had come to check out “Citizenfour” as it likely provides audiences with the most objective and unbiased view we could ever hope to have about this particular whistleblower.

Technically, “Citizenfour” is a documentary, but it also works as a nail-biting thriller as we watch Snowden and others doing interviews in secret, but we always wonder why the phone keeps ringing and why the fire alarm keeps going off. Is everyone in the hotel room under surveillance? Are there CIA or NSA agents ready to storm it? Might there be a government assassin prepared to take everyone out from a building across the way? In the movie “Strange Days,” Tom Sizemore told Ralph Fiennes the issue isn’t whether you’re paranoid, the issue is whether you’re paranoid enough. These days, that piece of dialogue is an amazing understatement.

This documentary was directed by Laura Poitras who knows all about being under intense government surveillance. She declares “Citizenfour” to be the final part of her post-9/11 trilogy which includes “My Country, My Country” about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and “The Oath” which focused on Guantanamo and the “war on terror.” Since 2006, she has been placed on a secret watch list by the U.S. government and was constantly interrogated by border agents every time she traveled internationally. It got to where she had no choice but to move to Berlin in an effort to protect her footage from being confiscated. Suffice to say, “Citizenfour” is a documentary which would never have seen the light of day were these secret interviews conducted in America.

The title refers to the name Snowden used when he attempted to make contact with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Eventually, the three meet in a Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden tells them, as well as The Guardian’s intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, all he knows about the U.S. government’s illegal wiretapping activities, and it is frightening to see just how far it goes.

What’s fascinating about “Citizenfour” is how calm and collected Snowden appears here as he divulges information which will eventually render him a traitor to many and a hero to others. It’s almost like a ticking time bomb as we are viewing his very last hours of anonymity as he will soon be revealed to the world as a whistleblower, and many will manipulate his image any way they can. But in this day and age, when everyone is so hooked on their cell phones and Facebook, aren’t we a little too quick to give up certain parts of our privacy? We have always felt something or somebody keeping an eye on us to where we accept the fact we are being watched, but we reveal more about ourselves now than we ever did in the past.

Poitras deserves a lot of credit for keeping a firm hand on the subject matter here as she gives “Citizenfour” a dark and ominous tone as we know how much Snowden’s revelations will rock the world. She is also aided by the use of Nine Inch Nails’ instrumental music from the “Ghosts” album which provides an electronic hum which keeps getting louder and louder as the truth is revealed and identities will be forever burned in our conscious minds.

By the time “Citizenfour” ends, the cat has been let out of the bag and Snowden finds himself living in Russia along with his girlfriend. The fact Poitras was able to get him back into the documentary before the end credits started rolling feels remarkable in hindsight. At this point, only he and Greenwald can communicate certain bits of information through pieces of paper which they later rip up. The battle to restore privacy has only just begun, and it will be a long time before it will be resolved. Whether it will be resolved fully is another story.

Poitras makes us see the reach of the U.S. government both through her own struggles and former NSA intelligence official William Binney whose own whistleblowing efforts had people bursting through his door with guns. President Barack Obama is shown in footage saying Snowden should have gone through legal channels and share his information legally, but when you take into account how other government whistleblowers have been treated, even he can’t guarantee Snowden can be brought in safely.

What is particularly frightening about “Citizenfour” is how the different parts of government are constantly watching one another to where it feels like trust in one another can seem like a rare commodity. It all brings us back to the “Watchmen” question, who watches the watchers? Everybody is watching each other, and in many ways it doesn’t matter who the President is because the NSA appears to run by their own rules and no government oversight can easily stop them in their tracks.

Opinions on Snowden still differ as some see him as a hero and others as a traitor. “Citizenfour,” however, shows him to be a selfless man eager to right the wrongs made by people who have betrayed the public’s trust. The fact that Poitras was able to get this documentary made let alone released is astounding, and it should be required viewing for all Americans. At the very least, she, Snowden and Greenwald deserve credit for bringing this wiretapping issue to light as there needs to be more discussion about it. We are still feeling the aftereffects of these revelations, and the dominoes keep on falling. While it helps to have all kinds of information to combat those who threaten our livelihood, you eventually have to wonder if it is worth the price.

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: The Searchers

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Continuing my education in the westerns of John Wayne, for those of you who read my review of “Rio Bravo,” we come to an even greater one called “The Searchers.” It is a beautifully filmed movie directed by the great John Ford, and it stars John Wayne in what may very well have been his greatest onscreen performance ever as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War soldier coming home to a tenuous welcome. When his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family are massacred by Comanche Indians, he sets off on a mission of both revenge and rescue as he discovers one of his nieces may still be alive. Along with him on this journey are the Texas Rangers led by the Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and a step-nephew named Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) whom Ethan wants nothing to do with.

Like I said, this is a beautifully filmed western by Ford, and it is the first of his films I have watched. I can see why it is one of Steven Spielberg’s all-time favorite films, and I wonder if Ford’s other films are as beautifully shot as this one was. We get to see wide shots of barren fields which are soon covered by snowfall. Ford makes the passing of time seem all the more evident as we go from one season to another, and we feel the years passing these characters by as they refuse to give up on their quest. It gets to where we are as desperate as them to find those innocent souls who were kidnapped.

Wayne said of all the roles he played, he considered Ethan Edwards to be his best. As a result, he later named a son of his Ethan in a respectful homage to this film. Wayne is simply amazing here as a Confederate soldier who does not feel the need to swear an oath to Texas since his work as a soldier is far more important. Ethan is not an entirely likable person, and neither Wayne nor Ford hide the fact that he is pretty racist. But you cannot help but stay with Ethan on this journey because there’s little doubt he is justified in his pursuits.

Wayne has many amazing moments in “The Searchers,” and the strongest ones are when he doesn’t say a word. He may appear tough and resolute one moment, but in the next shot his eyes betray the worry and hurt that tear away at Ethan’s soul. Ethan’s life was torn apart when his young after the Comanche Indians attacked his family, and it has filled him with an unapologetically raw hatred towards them. There’s a powerful moment where we see Wayne coming in from someplace he was searching, and he looks like he is about to collapse in horror. We find out later why he was acting the way he did, but what he shows without saying anything leaves a lasting impression that you cannot get out of your head.

The main relationship Wayne’s character has throughout “The Searchers” is with Marty, and he is played by Jeffrey Hunter who is best remembered as Captain Christopher Pike from the original pilot of “Star Trek.” Marty sticks with Ethan despite Ethan’s cold dismissal of him throughout due to his biracial heritage, but Ethan needs Marty to keep him in check. Ethan’s racism is so deeply rooted to where it could force him to take actions he may spend the rest of his life regretting. Marty soon comes to understand why Ethan would rather see a family member dead than have them be defiled by a Comanche.

Watching “The Searchers” today might seem odd because the movie at times threatens to be as racist as Wayne’s character. It was made back in the days of cowboys and indians, but the main villains here are only one tribe of indians as well as double-crossing white men who should have known better. Not every Indian in this movie is presented as a bad guy. In fact, one of the best moments comes when Marty finds he has inadvertently married an Indian woman when he thought he was just buying a sweater. When we later see the fate of that Indian woman, we learn more about why Indians end up attacking each other over territory.

The movie is filled with incredible vistas Ford captures in all their glory, and I’m convinced that viewing it today is as exciting as when it first came out. I wonder if any other filmmaker today can accomplish what Ford did. We see characters grow from the start all the way to the finish, and Ethan comes to see he has gained a lot of respect for Marty to where he is prepared to give everything he has to him should he be killed. They never really become friends, but they rely on each other more than they would ever admit out loud. There is a lot of heart in this movie behind all that bravado which never covers up the fierce insecurity of its characters.

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The final shot of Wayne standing in the doorway while the sun and wind bear down on him is one of the greatest moments in cinematic history, and it stays with you long after the movie is over. It says everything you need to know about Ethan as he is a man destined to walk this earth alone, but who will always be doing his job as a soldier till the day he drops dead.

I’m not sure what else I can say about “The Searchers” that has not already been said. I have absolutely no doubt that this is one of the greatest westerns ever made, and it is clearly one of the defining movies of Wayne’s career. Although some may find the Ethan’s racist attitudes too much to bear, there is still so much to enjoy and be enthralled by. I was never in a hurry to see “The Searchers,” but I’m really glad I finally did.

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Rio Bravo’

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I have a confession to make; for years I had never seen a John Wayne western before. I was certainly aware of who he was and of how he is seen as an American hero to many. There is an airport in Orange County named after him, and it houses an enormous statue of him in his western gear that towers over all those taking a flight out of there. Wayne is as conservative as an actor can get in Hollywood, and there are certain people I know personally who don’t want to watch his movies because of that. But come one, we’re here to watch a movie, not debate politics! If I can sit through a Chuck Norris movie, there’s no reason why I can’t see a John Wayne movie.

Rio Bravo” was directed by Howard Hawks and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest westerns ever made. It was made by Hawks and Wayne as a “right wing response” to “High Noon” in which Gary Cooper played a sheriff who urged the townspeople to join him in defending the town they live in. In “Rio Bravo” Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a man who has no time at for amateurs and will deal only with professionals who know what they are doing. That should give you a good idea of how pissed off Wayne was at Cooper.

The plot revolves around Chance guarding a prisoner named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) who murdered another man at a bar for no good reason. Working with Chance are an old cripple named Stumpy (Walter Brennan) who is always complaining about something, the town drunk Dude (Dean Martin) who spends the movie sobering up, and the new kid in town Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) who is quick on the draw. They are waiting for the marshal to arrive to take Burdette away, but his brother Nathan (John Russell) will not rest until he is freed. Nothing beats brotherly love when you want to keep your sibling from being someone’s best friend, in a manner of speaking, behind bars.

“Rio Bravo” is essentially a big buildup to a final a violent confrontation between the Sheriff and Nathan where bullets fly in all directions. We see these characters going about their normal lives and the Sheriff starting up a subtle romance with the new woman in town, Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Most action movies today would demand filmmakers cut out the character developments and simply go right to the action. It is rare to see a movie like “Rio Bravo” made today as filmmaking gets more faster paced to where we keep losing the art of subtlety.

I see why Wayne was such an incredibly strong presence in movies. He handles the dialogue well, but his best moments come when he doesn’t say a word. There is a moment where he glares at someone he doesn’t recognize as friendly, and he keeps staring at him until the nameless man walks away. Like Chance, Wayne had a face with a lot of history written all over it, and few others could pull off a scene like that so effectively.

You could tell that, like his characters, Wayne had been through a lot in life, and this added immeasurably to the “don’t mess with me” attitude he exhibited onscreen. He was never some pretty boy actor trying to get the ladies, but a seemingly down to earth guy doing his part to serve and protect others.

The other actor who impressed me here was Dean Martin who played Dude, the once famous gunslinger who has spent way too much time drinking to ease a broken heart. Maybe it’s because I have this view of Martin being a member of the Rat Pack to where I thought it completely overshadowed him as an actor. I figured he was more of a star than an actor, but his performance here proved me wrong. Martin takes his character from what seems like an eternally drunk state to a world of sobriety he struggles to keep up with. It’s a battle he can never fully win, but he tries to stay on the right track and Martin makes you root for him throughout.

I can also see why Ricky Nelson was cast here. A big rock star at the time, he was probably cast to help this movie appeal more to women who were crazy about him at the time. Nelson may never have been a truly great actor, but he is very good here as the new kid out to help the Sheriff in times of trouble. Nelson plays it cool here, maybe too cool at times, but you believe he is quick on the trigger.

But the big scene stealer here is Walter Brennan who plays Stumpy. All Stumpy can do is guard the jail with his shotgun and from behind closed doors, and he can be seriously trigger happy if you don’t let him know you’re right outside those jail doors. Every other line he said throughout the movie had the audience I saw it with at New Beverly Cinema in hysterics. The moment where he does that quick impression of Chance had me laughing my ass off.

This is also the first movie I have ever seen directed by Howard Hawks. He shoots with an economy of style and doesn’t overburden “Rio Bravo” with too much style and overlong shots a lot of show-off directors tend to employ. His focus here is on the characters and how they interact with one another. This makes the action more exciting as we come to care about these characters to where we don’t want them to get hurt.

Director John Carpenter pointed out how one of Hawks’ strongest attributes as a filmmaker is his inclusion of strong women. The example of that in Rio Bravo is in the form of Angie Dickinson’s character of Feathers who proves to be the only person in the entire movie who can tame Chance. You never doubt Feathers to be an independent woman who can get by on her own terms. She’s tough, and yet Dickinson manages to bring some vulnerability to Feathers where she doesn’t always appear trustworthy.

The scenes Dickinson has with Wayne are strong, and she succeeds in bringing out his vulnerabilities to the point where he can’t help but appear a little goofy. This is all despite the fact that Wayne was 51 and Dickinson was 26 when they made this movie. It turns out Wayne was very nervous about the love scenes in regards to the age difference. Then again, I don’t think I would have noticed their age difference unless someone pointed it out to me.

“Rio Bravo” is filled with many memorable moments not easily forgotten. The moment where Dude takes out a shooter in a bar is a brilliant one you never see coming. The shootouts are still exciting as hell, especially when good use is made of a flower pot being hurled through a window.

One of my favorite moments comes when the men come in harmony together as they sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” It reminded me of one of my favorite moments from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” when Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” I love those moments in films when people find a way to come together despite whatever differences keep them apart.

I found “Rio Bravo” to be an excellent western, and it’s no surprise to me that it is one of the most influential westerns ever made. It certainly holds a strong place in the cinematic history of westerns, and it endures to this very day. Of course, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom will probably end up remaking it after they have pillaged all the horror franchises they can. That’ll be the day!

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.