The Movie Trailers Which Played Before ‘Django Unchained’ at New Beverly Cinema

DjangoUnchained_poster2

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally back in 2012.

I was lucky enough to check out Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema, the same movie theater he bought and kept from going out of business. It was being shown in 35mm instead of a digital print at other theaters because Tarantino is still a big fan of film, and the New Beverly is known for showing movies in 35mm because that’s exactly what the owners and patrons like best.

One of the real treats of seeing “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema is instead of getting coming attractions for 2013 movies, we instead get to watch movie trailers from the past. These ones were especially campy and represent the kind of movies Hollywood no longer makes, and I wondered if the trailers being shown before “Django Unchained” inspired this particular Tarantino film in some way. Many of the prints of movies and trailers shown at the New Beverly tend to come from Tarantino’s own personal collection, so even if they didn’t inspire this movie of his, then they must have been ones he loves watching over and over.

Let’s take a look.

The Arena 1974 movie poster

“The Arena”

This exploitation film from 1974, one which clearly was inspired by “Spartacus,” stars Pam Grier and Margaret Markov as female gladiators who have been enslaved in Rome and are forced to fight for their freedom. The trailer proved to be hilarious as the acting is over the top, and the narrator embellishes the more explicit elements of this movie by saying how the Romans “enslaved the most sensuous women to titillate the perverted pleasures of the Roman public” and how the main characters are “beautiful unchained women” whose bodies are “shaped into superb fighting equipment.” There’s also a bit of nudity and blood on display, the kinds of things you almost never see in a movie trailer today unless it is a red band trailer being shown for restricted audiences only.

Still, it’s great to see Grier here whom Tarantino cast in his movie “Jackie Brown,” and it is said she and Markov did all their own fights and stunts in “The Arena.” We should all known by now that Grier is as tough as the characters she has played in dozens of movies, and seeing her take on the Romans makes this one worth a look.

Boot Hill movie poster

“Boot Hill”

The trailer for this 1969 Italian Spaghetti Western runs four minutes long, much longer than the average movie trailer we see in theaters today. It stars Terence Hill as Cat Stevens, but the trailer’s narrator refers to him as “the man with no name.” It also stars football great Woody Strode as Thomas, a man who is quick with a gun and out for revenge over the death of his son. Together, these two help the inhabitants of a gold mining community which is being oppressed by a criminal organization.

This is another trailer which has a male narrator emphasizing the movie’s violence, and it’s fun to hear him say how “Boot Hill” is a town “where death comes quick,” “where death comes hard,” and where “death comes in two colors.” Seeing Hill and Strode walk into town all serious and without a smile on their faces brings to mind how Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz roll into town in “Django Unchained.”

“Boot Hill” was actually the last film in a trilogy of movies directed by Giuseppe Colizzi, and it was preceded by “God Forgives… I Don’t!” and “Aces High.”

Mandingo movie poster

“Mandingo”

This 1975 film was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kyle Onstott, and it stars James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Lillian Hayman, former boxer Ken Norton and pro-wrestler Earl Maynard. It takes place in the 1840’s where a plantation owner trains one of his slaves to be a bare-knuckle fighter, and there are some brutal scenes of bare-knuckle fighting to be found in “Django Unchained.” It makes me wonder if Tarantino based the character of Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) on the ones played by Mason or King in “Mandingo.”

The narrator of this trailer describes “Mandingo” as being “the first true motion picture epic of the Old South,” but it’s a little hard to believe this as certain scenes appear to be very overwrought. The audience couldn’t help but laugh at the actress who told her lover “don’t kiss me yet, unless it’s just a cousin kiss” because the kiss which followed seems to be anything but a cousin kiss.

The movie version of “Mandingo” received a severe bashing from film critics like Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and Richard Schickel, all of whom gave it their lowest rating. Tarantino, however, said it represents one of only two instances in the last few decades where “a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie” (the other being Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”).

Tick Tick Tick movie poster

“…tick…tick…tick…”

Ralph Nelson’s 1970 movie stars another football great, Jim Brown, as Jimmy Price, a black police officer who has just been elected sheriff of a racially divided town in the American South. The fact he beat out the former Sheriff, a white man named John Little (George Kennedy), does not sit well with some of the townspeople. As the movie’s title and the endless ticking in the trailer indicates, the racial tensions will continue to rise until they boil over into a possibly fatal conflict.

…tick…tick…tick…” has long since become a cult classic for its cutting-edge portrayal of racial tensions and its tense narrative, and of all the trailers shown before “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema, this was the one the audience laughed at the least, if at all. It looks like it still holds up to this day regardless of the passing of time, and the way the white characters treat Jimmy doesn’t seem much different from the way Django is treated in “Django Unchained.” It’s especially cool to see Brown as a Sheriff because he has always had the appearance of someone who can clean up a town single-handedly.

Take a Hard Ride movie poster

“Take a Hard Ride”

This Western from 1975 also stars Jim Brown as Pike, a rugged trail boss and former criminal who promises Bob Morgan (Dana Andrews) he will successfully transport $86,000 across the border to a ranch in Sonora, Mexico. Pike is forced to team up with a dishonest gambler named Tyree (Fred Williamson) for this mission, and they are soon being pursued by the ruthless bounty hunter Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef) and the corrupt sheriff Kane (Barry Sullivan).

The trailer for “Take a Hard Ride” made it look like a movie I really want to check out. Like “Django Unchained,” it is a mix up of the Blaxploitation and western genres and features one of the best casts a movie like this could ever hope to have. Brown and Williamson have always proven to be ultimate bad asses in whatever movies they appear in, and I love how the trailer’s narrator describes Cleef’s character as being “as sly as a rattlesnake and twice as deadly.” It was also great watching the scene where the cowboys and their horses crash down a hill because now I know where the filmmakers of “Young Guns II” got the idea for a similar scene.

After watching all these trailers and “Django Unchained,” it becomes clearer to see where Tarantino took his cues from as a writer and director. It also shows how brilliant he is at taking all the elements and turning them into a movie which is uniquely his own and not just an uninspired homage that pales in comparison to the films it inspired. “Django Unchained” proved to be a lot of fun, and the trailers which preceded it are for movies which look to be just as entertaining.

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Jamie Foxx on Saddling Up For ‘Django Unchained’

Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2013.

It was a role originally meant for Will Smith, but after watching “Django Unchained” it will be hard to think of any actor who could have played Django better than Jamie Foxx. The Oscar-winning actor came from the world of comedy where he has done hilarious work, but he continues to impress us with one terrific dramatic performance after another in films like “Collateral,” “Ali” and “Any Given Sunday.” The role of Django is one of the biggest and most challenging Foxx has taken on, and he convincingly takes this character from being a helpless slave to becoming a slick bounty hunter in splendid fashion.

When it comes to working with Quentin Tarantino, he’s always ready to show his actors movies they can base their characters on. Foxx was no exception to this, and Tarantino got him to watch Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western “Django,” a movie which serves as one of “Django Unchained’s” biggest inspirations. It starred Franco Nero as a coffin-dragging gunslinger who comes into town and gets caught up in a feud between the KKK and a bunch of Mexican bandits. While talking with Rebecca Murray of About.com, Foxx explained what impact watching “Django” had on him as well working with Nero who has a cameo in “Django Unchained.”

“I was like, wow, it was amazing. And then to actually have the original Django in the movie. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him but he was the biggest star on the set,” Foxx told Murray. “For him to give his blessing, and I think it really follows true to it and I think that’s what’s going to be the pleasant surprise to people, that it’s a Western and that it stays along the lines of a Western that happens to be in the backdrop of slavery. Slavery almost becomes secondary at a certain point because at the beginning it’s traditional, slave. Then once he becomes this bounty hunter, that’s the backdrop. Now it’s about revenge and about getting this girl, so he stayed true to that and that’s cinematic.”

While at the “Django Unchained” press conference, Foxx made it clear he was ever so eager to work with Tarantino on it. He had no qualms about playing a slave, and what attracted him to the role was Django’s uprising. Movies have always been an outlet for the artists who make them and the audiences that watch them, and Foxx explained what makes this one particularly cathartic.

“When you see movies about slavery…we never get a chance to see the slave actually fight back, actually do for himself, and in this movie there are a lot of firsts,” Foxx said.

Despite the fact it is a genre movie and a revenge fantasy of sorts, “Django Unchained” does deal with America’s dark history of slavery. Tarantino never sugar coats it for mass audience consumption, but then again, why should anyone? It’s an ugly part of the past we’d like to ignore, but it needs to be acknowledged so we can learn from it in the hopes of never repeating it again. As a result, the movie has been greeted with controversy over its subject matter and the frequent use of the n-word with many people (and not just Spike Lee) complaining loudly about it. But Foxx, in an interview with Keith Staskiewicz of Entertainment Weekly, said he is not surprised at the strong response “Django Unchained” has been getting and doesn’t think anyone else should be either.

“You know it’s going to be controversial!” Foxx told Staskiewicz. “That’s what’s been blowing my mind, people saying, did you know this was going to be controversial? It’s like, come on man! Did you read the script? Why would Quentin Tarantino do anything that wasn’t controversial? What movie of his have you seen where you went, oh, this is a Hallmark Movie and rated G? That’s not what you sign up for. You don’t sign up for that.”

Still, Foxx admitted it was a tough movie to make considering part of it was shot at the Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana. It was at this same plantation where slaves were made to work, and they suffered and toiled under brutal conditions. Being there must have been deeply unsettling for everyone involved in the movie’s making, and it certainly had a strong impact on Foxx which he wasn’t about to ignore.

“It’s tough shooting when you’re in plantation row and that’s where your ancestors were persecuted and killed, and we were respectful of that,” Foxx told Staskiewicz.

Regardless of the controversy, “Django Unchained” proved to be one of the most entertaining movies of 2012 thanks to Tarantino’s clever screenplay and direction, and also because of the sensational performances from the cast. Jamie Foxx can add Django to his roster of great screen roles in a career which still has many more to be revealed. Foxx also made a very good point about the film’s subject matter to Adam Edelman of the New York Daily News which people really need to think about.

“Every two, three years there is a movie about the Holocaust because they want you to remember and they want you to be reminded of what it was,” Foxx said. “When was the last time you seen a movie about slavery?”

 

SOURCES:

Rebecca Murray, “Interview with Jamie Foxx from ‘Django Unchained,'” About.com

Matt Donato, “Interview With The Cast Of Django Unchained,” We Got This Covered

Keith Staskiewicz, “‘Django Unchained’: Jamie Foxx on portraying slavery and filming on an actual plantation,” Entertainment Weekly, December 14, 2012.

Adam Edelman, “‘Django Unchained’ star Jamie Foxx: ‘Every single thing in my life is built around race,'” New York Daily News, December 14, 2012.

‘The Wind’ is a Menacing Horror Western Which Gets Under Your Skin

The Wind movie poster

Weather can be a formidable character in movies, especially those in the horror genre. We have “The Fog” (John Carpenter’s original, not the dreadful remake), “The Mist” (talk about an infinitely devastating climax), “The Wave” which proved to be the best disaster flick I have seen in a long time, and there’s even “The Day After Tomorrow” which dealt with climate change although in a highly unrealistic way.

Now we have “The Wind,” a horror western which takes us back to the untamed Western frontier of the 1800’s. The wind here has a supernatural force inhabiting it almost in the same way those ghosts inhabited “The Fog,” and you are left wondering how anyone can rise above such a common weather element especially when it is always around. In the process, we are sucked right into a horror movie which fearlessly turns a number of tropes on its head especially when it comes to female characters.

Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) is forced to fend for herself in the lonely wilderness when her husband, Isaac Macklin (Ashley Zukerman), is forced to leave her and travel into the nearest town with their friend Gideon Harper (Dylan McTee) for reasons which will quickly become clear. From there, she is stuck in the loneliest of places and in a house which looks like something out of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” The old west Lizzy resides in is not the least bit glamourous, but we quickly realize she is resilient and strong even after she is chased back into her house by a pair of ravenous coyotes.

The wind of the movie’s title first presents itself as a natural element, but it quickly becomes very ominous as it has hands reaching out at its victims who have little hope of escape. But after a while, one begins to wonder if Lizzy is really being attacked by a supernatural force, or if she is instead descending deeper and deeper into madness. Either way, you are in for an unsettling ride which won’t let you go.

The first thing I should single out is Caitlin Gerard’s performance. Right from the start, she holds our attention as she makes Lizzy into a formidable character who doesn’t necessarily need a man to see her through dangers of any kind. Furthermore, she has many scenes in which she doesn’t utter a word of dialogue and has to get things across with her face and body. It’s a lot to ask of an actor to communicate with just their face as they could easily fall into the trap of emoting to where they overdo it and turn in a performance which is inescapably laughable. Gerard, however, never falls into this trap as she almost succeeds in turning this movie into a one-woman show. Throughout, she succeeds in conveying so much while saying so little, and she completely sucked me into Lizzy’s horrifying predicament which could have easily done in a weaker character.

Co-starring alongside Gerard is Julia Goldani Telles who plays Emma Harper, Isaac’s pregnant wife who befriends Lizzy. Emma is pleasant at first, but she soon complains of how something is out to get her, and she becomes possessed by a force which does everything except turn her head 360 degrees. Telles also could have fallen into the same trap, but she makes Emma’s possession fierce and believable to where her transition from sane to insane is all the more terrifying.

From a distance, “The Wind” looks like a movie which will employ the usual variety of horror tropes such as the last woman standing, heroic and moronic male characters and a murderous villain looking for a long-running franchise which will eventually see a reboot. However, this horror western feels unique to many of its ilk, and it is great to see such strong female characters inhabiting it. Honestly, it feels like it has been a long time since I have seen a horror movie with female characters like these as they easily dominate the male characters without any doubt.

Director Emma Tammi makes her narrative feature debut here after having made several documentaries including “Fair Chase.” It is a very assured debut as she balances out all the cinematic elements in equal fashion. In addition to getting excellent performances from the cast, there is also beautiful cinematography from Lyn Moncrief and a terrific film score composed by Ben Lovett which sounds like something out of my childhood nightmares. The fact Tammi had only 30 days to film “The Wind” makes her work here all the more impressive.

If “The Wind” does run into any problems, it is in regards to its non-linear story which gives the movie a lot of power, but also generates some confusion. The screenplay by Teresa Sutherland is strong, but the more it shifts from one place in time to another, the more I lost track of where the characters were in the story. Granted, a lot of my confusion was rectified before the movie’s climax, but being thrown off like that did take away from my viewing experience.

I also have to say that the ending was a bit of a letdown. As much as I enjoy ambiguous conclusions, this was one I wanted spelled out for me. I usually hate it when filmmakers try to spell things out for audiences, but this time it would have helped as “The Wind” felt somewhat incomplete when the screen went to black.

Regardless, I very much taken in by “The Wind” and found it to be a highly unnerving horror film. It’s coming in under the radar and is easily being smothered by bigger movies, but I hope fans of the genre will give it a look. In the meantime, I will be waiting for the next weather disaster movie, “The Smog.” That one will be worth it just to hear its characters have the following exchange:

“You don’t understand! The smog is here and it’s trying to kill us!”

“Ahh, I see you are new to Los Angeles…”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Caitlin Gerard and Emma Tammi on ‘The Wind’

There’s a movie coming out this weekend which is coming in under the radar which is worth your time. Once you have gotten through “Shazam” and the “Pet Sematary” remake, be sure to check out “The Wind,” a horror western which turns many of the clichés of scary movies on their heads. It also features some of the strongest female characters you could hope to see in a horror film in this day and age, and they are not your typical last girls or scream queens.

We are introduced to Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard), a plains-woman living in the untamed western frontier of the 1800’s who is forced to fend for herself when her husband, Isaac (Ashley Zukerman), leaves her alone to the needs of a close friend. From there, we watch Lizzy dealing with the elements which include a pair of fierce coyotes and a sheep that won’t stay dead. But when the wind of the movie’s title comes around, she is driven to near madness as forces beyond her control mess with her head, and she is forced to hold on to what is left of her sanity to live another day above ground.

I had the great opportunity to talk with “The Wind’s” director Emma Tammi and actress Caitlin Gerard recently. Tammi is known for her documentaries “Election Day” and “Fair Chase,” and “The Wind” marks her directorial debut of a narrative feature. Gerard portrayed Imogen Rainier in “Insidious: The Last Key,” and she is known for her work on the television series “When We Rise” and “American Crime.”

I want to thank Gerard and Tammi for taking the time to talk with me about “The Wind,” and I would also like to thank Rama Tampubolon of Rama’s Screen for being my cameraman on this interview. His help and tripod were very much appreciated.

Please check out the interview above, and be sure to check out “The Wind” when it arrives in theaters and VOD on April 5, 2019.

The Wind movie poster

Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles poster version 2

Blazing Saddles” is one of Mel Brooks’ funniest comedies and one which invites repeat viewings as there are always jokes still waiting to be discovered. It acts as a satire of the western genre as well as the racism which was obscured by Hollywood’s creation of myths regarding the American West. But as funny as it is, it also offers the viewer a moving story about a black sheriff who manages to win over a town on the verge of being taken over by murderers and thieves. It also gleefully breaks the rules to where places and people are added that were never really part of the American West in the first place.

The wonderful Harvey Korman plays Hedley Lamarr, the State Attorney General who wants to get his hands on the town of Rock Ridge where the land is worth millions. His attempts to frighten the people out of their town includes getting cowboys to ride in and shoot their guns, creating a havoc which makes everyone living there fearful and anxious. But when that doesn’t work, Lamarr comes up with what he believes is an ingenious idea; he hires a black man to become the new Sheriff of Rock Ridge with the belief his “mere presence” will scare everyone out of there. Of course, things do not go as planned.

Looking back at “Blazing Saddles” all these years later, it still stands up mainly because Brooks is not out to make the actors simply go for the joke. Instead they play many scenes straight instead of trying to be funny, and this makes the humor work even more than it already does. With a satire like this, it helps to have characters you care about regardless of how ridiculous their actions may be. Most movie satires and spoofs these days keep forgetting this as they are more persistent in selling the joke to the audience instead of giving the story any real substance.

The late Cleavon Little portrays Bart who becomes the Sheriff and immediately meets resistance to his presence because of the color of his skin. Regardless of how infinitely intelligent and cool he is compared to the idiotic residents of Rock Ridge, he has to work real hard to win them over. Little has so many inspired moments in the movie like when he sings a Cole Porter song instead of the “Camptown Races” which the racist cowboys assume blacks sing all the time.

Many may accuse “Blazing Saddles” of playing up black stereotypes in order to get easy laughs, but they completely miss the point. Brooks and his team of writers, which included Richard Pryor, turn those stereotypes upside down and expose them for the falsehoods they have always been. Seeing the residents of Rock Ridge overzealous reactions to Bart’s behavior, such as him saying “excuse me while I whip this out” when he takes out his written speech, are indicative of their overt racism more than anything else. Seeing them act so stupidly out of fear and sheer ignorance gives the movie some of its most side-splitting moments.

Another memorable performance comes from the great Gene Wilder who plays Jim, a.k.a. The Waco Kid, the fastest gun in the world. While Wilder is best remembered at times for playing neurotic characters, he is as cool as can be in this film. Seeing him play it so cool in moments where his precision with a pistol is stupidly questioned by others who don’t know him is so much fun to take in. His character is a riff on the one Dean Martin played in “Rio Bravo,” and Wilder is such a blast to watch throughout.

“Blazing Saddles” also provided the late Madeline Khan with one of her most famous roles, the German singer Lili von Shtupp whose name is inexplicably censored on the movie’s television version. She is endlessly brilliant in her rendition of the song “I’m Tired,” and it makes for one of the most unforgettable comic performances ever captured on film.

There are many unforgettably hysterical scenes throughout “Blazing Saddles” which stand up to repeat viewings. The campfire scene is as obscene as it is gut-bustlingly hilarious, and you may find yourself laughing harder than you ever have before. Brooks himself plays a couple of parts like the severely lacking in intelligence Gov. William J. Le Petomane and an Indian Chief who, for some bizarre reason, speaks Yiddish. Other actors like the great Slim Pickens and Burton Gilliam have us gasping with laughter just by looking at the befuddled expressions on their faces.

Along with a great music score by John Morris and beautiful cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc, “Blazing Saddles” has more than earned its place on the list of greatest comedies ever made. There is tremendous delight in watching Brooks throw caution and logic to the wind as he throws in the unexpected like Count Basie and his orchestra performing in the desert while Bart rides by, or having Nazis sign up for Lamar’s final battle at Rock Ridge. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or because you just want the laughs to keep on coming (and they do). With a comedy like this, you can never be sure what will happen next!

By the way, be sure to watch “Blazing Saddles” in the widescreen version. Brooks shot the movie in Panavision scope, and it has never ever translated well to the realm of pan-and-scan.

Blazing Saddles poster version 1

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * * out of * * * *

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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.

The Duel

The Duel poster

The Duel” is one of those movies that wants to generate tension you can feel simmering below the surface, but it doesn’t come to life until it is much too late. It’s a shame because it features a pair of mesmerizing performances that are offset by a weak one, and its last half really does keep you on the edge of your seat. Everything leading up to that, however, is undone by a dullness that infects the whole proceedings.

The movie starts off in the year 1866 as young David Kingston watches his father get killed in a knife duel by Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), and then it moves to 20 years later with David (now played by Liam Hemsworth) a man and serving as a Texas Ranger. David gets assigned to investigate a series of murders and disappearances that have taken place in an Old West frontier town named Helena, and he reluctantly brings along his wife Marisol (Alice Braga) who doesn’t want to wait for him to return home. It is there that he becomes reacquainted with Abraham who is the town’s preacher and manages to keep the people there in a fearful grip. You should have a pretty good idea of where the story will go from this description.

The setup of the story is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” which had Leonardo DiCaprio avenging his father’s death at the hands of Daniel Day Lewis, and “The Duel” looks to travel that same path. The problem is that director Kieran Darcy-Smith and screenwriter Matt Cook are not entirely sure how to reach the expected climax with David and Abraham fighting to the death. There are also many questions the movie raises and never answers in a satisfying way, and it really should not have taken long for Abraham to realize who David really is. As a result, the movie never comes to life until we get past the halfway point.

The best thing about “The Duel” is Woody Harrelson who, at this point in his career, can play just about any character he wants to whether it’s in a comedy or a drama. Right from the start, he is a menacing presence as he stares down into everybody’s soul and manages to put the town under a hypnotic spell. Harrelson has played his share of bad dudes before in movies like “Natural Born Killers,” “Out of the Furnace” and “Rampart,” and Abraham Brant is another he can add to his ever-growing resume. Harrelson may have made his Hollywood breakthrough playing a dim-witted bartender on “Cheers,” but watching him in “The Duel” makes that seem like such a distant memory.

Another strong performance comes from Alice Braga as Marisol, David’s wife who falls under Abraham’s spell to where you really want to kick David for leaving her alone so much. Braga is riveting as she takes Marisol from a strong-willed woman to one who is under the grip of something she is desperate to get control over. This is not some stock female character that can be found in your typical western movie, and Braga makes that very clear throughout.

But then there’s Liam Hemsworth who is simply miscast as David Kingston. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a Texas Ranger, but that he shows no real acting range in the role. In many ways he gives an emotionless performance, and it would have been better if another actor equal to Harrelson were cast in his place. Hemsworth just doesn’t bring much to the part, and the movie suffers considerably as a result.

For what it’s worth, Darcy-Smith does a very good job of transporting the audience back to the 1880’s as everything we see feels authentic to the era. He also jacks up the tension considerably in the last half as David and Abraham try to outsmart one another in the barren fields outside of town, and there’s a taut scene where the two face off in the town’s bar. It’s a very effective moment as the anticipation of guns going off becomes unbearably strong, and we can’t be sure of who is going to walk out of there alive.

Indeed, there are many things to like about “The Duel” from its production values to its performances, so it is frustrating to say that it really disappoints. The filmmakers may have wanted to emulate the great and gritty westerns of the past like “The Wild Bunch” or any starring John Wayne, but it can’t hold a candle to them. They are many who say that the western is dead, but no genre ever really dies. But after watching “The Duel,” it does feel like it needs a lot of reenergizing.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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