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

The Searchers poster

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.

The Searchers doorway

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’

Rio Bravo movie poster

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.