Thursday, September 29, 2016


While this movie might seem like a standard western in the sense that it has cowboys and outlaws it is as far removed from the standard as possible while still fitting into the genre. Depending on your outlook the movie can be seen as several things. For those who find sexual tension in situations it can be their film. Others will view it as the western it advertises itself to be. And yet some will see it as an allegorical tale of the Communist scare in films at the time. The truth is it fits neatly into all of these categories.

The story revolves around two women in a town on the verge of growing in the Wild West. Vienna (Joan Crawford) is the headstrong owner of the local saloon/gambling hall. She sees the future that is coming in the form of a railroad making its way to the town and is preparing for it. Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) wants the town to remain the cattle land that it was. These two strong female characters are at odds with one another and it eventually boils over.

Add to the mix is the fact that Emma is in love with the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a tough guy wannabe who has taken an interest in Vienna. Emma’s jealousy is as much a motivation for her hatred of all things Vienna as the possibility of the town growing. Her sexual repression in the form of the Kid’s refusal of her affection becomes a motivating factor as the film progresses.

Into the mix enter Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden). Supposedly hired to be an entertainer for the saloon the reality is that he and Vienna have a past. Guitar is in actuality a famed gunslinger who was in prison while Vienna was making her stand in this town. Their relationship is one that blows hot and cold throughout this film. Whether or not they will end up together isn’t seen until the end of the film.

As tempers flare and battle lines are drawn accusations run rampant. When Emma’s brother is killed and the stage held up she blames Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid and his gang. With the help of another landowner named McIvers (Ward Bond) they give Vienna, the Kid and his gang 24 hours to leave town against the protests of the local sheriff. But Vienna is innocent and determined to stand her ground.

The Kid and his gang, on the other hand, decide to take them up on their offer. With their silver mine played out, a mine none of the landowners believed existed, they decide to rob the bank (which is owned by Emma) and head out. Before the robbery Vienna is taking her money out of the bank before Emma can take it from her. When the townsfolk learn she was in the bank just before it was robbed they peg her as an accomplice. Emma fuels the flames and a crowd ready for a hanging goes off in search of not just the gang but Vienna as well.

Most film critics and those who love this film come at it from the angle that it was an indictment of the Communist scare at the time. Often labeled McCarthyism, McCarthy had nothing to do with the Communist investigations in Hollywood. Those were led by the House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC. It was through HUAC that the famed Hollywood ten came to be, ten film makers who were blacklisted in the business. It was HUAC that required names be provided in return for “protection”, a policy that led to a mob mentality in order to save your career if you worked in film.

That mob mentality in the face of innocence is what is portrayed in this film. While Vienna has done nothing wrong Emma incites the people of this town to hate her as much as she does. She encourages them to focus their ills on Vienna, stoking the flames until they are all ready to hang her without a shred of evidence.

My only problem was that this concept was laid on so thick it almost made any other plotline invisible at times. That may be that I’m watching this film for the first time after having been made aware of its background. The film offers this side of the issue in the most extreme of emotions that at times it feels like it makes no sense that people would be this caught up in things without any provocation. Coming at it after years of history that also revealed a number of the things HUAC and McCarthy claimed were indeed factual also makes the movie different than it would have played when it was initially released.

The acting ranges from very good to somewhat lame with lines delivered by various characters who are then either believable or feel false. The situation also does the same. Perhaps that is because the extreme hatred between the characters of Vienna and Emma begin with their first scene together rather than develop, as if we walked in on a film with the first reel missing. Once you get the idea of what is happening it evens out though.

The film was released two years after HIGH NOON, another western that took on the same topic in an allegorical fashion. That film was much more subtle and played better. This isn’t to fault this film, but this one seems more melodramatic than HIGH NOON. Perhaps that’s due to fact the lead character moves from male to female during a time when women were more prone to melodrama than men in Hollywood films.

In the end the movie is entertaining and a piece of Hollywood history. For myself I was pleased as could be to have my first opportunity to see this film in a format and presentation that was high quality. Olive Films has released this movie as part of their Signature Series. This means that it will be the best quality print available and include several extras that will be worth watching. The extras on this release include an introduction to the film by Martin Scorsese, an audio commentary track with historian Geoff Andrew, Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar a featurette with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein, Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?: Questioning the Canon a featurette with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich, Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures a featurette with archivist Marc Wanamaker, a critical appreciation of Nicholas Ray with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich, My Friend, the American Friend a featurette with a Nicholas Ray biographical piece with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich and Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western an original essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. This release also offers the film in 4k resolution so you are getting the highest quality reproduction of the film ever released on disc to date.

As a historical piece this film is finally getting the recognition it deserves. For film loves it is a joy to see classic films like this get the release they deserve. For me it was entertaining, interesting and a joy to watch. Fans of Crawford, westerns and film history will want to add this version of the film to their collection.

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Believe it or not it’s been 41 years since JAWS was released to theaters. That movie has become a classic, as thrilling a ride today as it was all those years ago. Since then a few movies about sharks have come and gone, most of them low budget films or the occasional sharks in a tornado. Now along comes a movie that tries to take the fear of sharks to a new intensity. Does THE SHALLOWS work?

Blake Lively plays Nancy, a young woman trying to find herself after the recent death of her mother. She’s left behind her father and younger sister as well as her medical schooling. Vacationing in Mexico and trying to locate a beach her mother told her of, a beautiful shore that offers tremendous surfing. Her friend having ditched her for partying in their hotel, Nancy is taken by a guide to the beach and left to discover its beauty.

She suits up, grabs her surfboard and heads out into the water. Once on the waves she meets two guys also there for the surfing, one with a GoPro camera mounted on a helmet. They strike up a cordial camaraderie on the waves and enjoy the great surfing there. Nancy goes in for a while and then heads back out while the other two head to shore.

Once back on the waves Nancy sees something in the distance. She paddles her board over to it to discover it’s a whales that’s been partially eaten by a predator with a large bite. Realizing she might be in danger she tries to head for shore only to be sideswiped and bitten by the huge shark responsible for the dead whale. Gathering her wits and climbing up on the whale, she watches as her broken board drifts away. She calls to the two fellow surfers about the leave the shallows to no avail.

With a lacerated leg she waits until the timing is right and swims to a nearby rock formation only to cut her foot on the jagged coral at its base. The coral and the tide moving out were things she was warned of. Now, with leg and foot bleeding, she must use every resource she has to survive. Her first effort is to stop the bleeding from her leg, a rather gruesome sight for some.

On the small outcropping barely 8 feet wide, she makes a friend of sorts in a seagull with a broken wing. As the pair struggle to survive, 200 yards from shore, Nancy will find out if she has the determination that made her mother a survivor in life and a woman who faced death with courage. Various events happen during her time on the outcropping including the attempted rescue by her two new friends, an attempted rescue by a drunk and her eventual decision to swim to a life buoy nearby in hopes of finding something she can use to survive.

So let’s talk about the shake first. Most of us recall the mechanical shark we grew up watching in the movie JAWS. It was terrifying at the time but subsequent viewings have made it seem not quite what it seemed that first time around. With the effects capabilities we now have today a CGI shark not only looks real but is far more capable of feats and actions that the mechanical one couldn’t accomplish. Does it work? I would say yes. When viewed from above looking straight down it is an enormous beast of a great white shark. The attack moments will put you on seats edge. So yes, it works.

Lively does a great job without someone to toss lines back and forth to. Her acting skills are used to display what this character does in order to survive as opposed to just looking pretty. The combination of pain from wounds and determination not to die alone on a small rock make her performance one that stands out and yet will no doubt never be nominated for anything. Perhaps it’s not Oscar material but it’s better than some I’ve seen win.

What really makes this movie work is that it is an old movie. By that I mean that it is made like movies used to be made. The story slowly unfolds. The desperation seen by Nancy isn’t something that lingers only on the immediate situation but plays out over the 80 some minutes of the film. It’s never rushed, the movie never presses forward at breakneck speed in order to placate MTV generation film goers with fast and furious images. Instead it takes the time to tell a story.

THE SHALLOWS is a movie I could see watching again. It entertained from start to finish. It kept you guessing what would happen next. In today’s world there is no guarantee that the star will survive. Another shark film, OPEN WATER showed that. And perhaps this one does too. I won’t spoil that for you. You’ll have to watch to find out if all of Nancy’s attempts to make it through this have a happy ending or not. Don’t worry, it will be worth the watch.

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There is indeed something magical about the animated films of the Walt Disney Studios. From their very first outing with SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES it was apparent. People talk about capturing lightning in a bottle but it was Disney who captured lightning in an inkwell. And while the studio now focuses almost solely on computer animation it was the hand drawn craftsmen of the past that were able to create an art form that remains stunning to this day.

It seems only natural that the Disney Studios, a group that was almost always ahead of the curve, would eventually change over to computer animation. While this is great on a technological level it is sad on another, the loss of an art form. Still, they’ve left behind so many movies to enjoy that it will never be completely lost. And this week the film that first combined the two styles is released in a 25th anniversary package, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

Taken from the classic children’s story the plot is fairly simple. The film begins with the tale of a young prince cursed for his selfishness by an enchantress and turned into a beast until he can find true love. It revolves around a young girl whose father is an inventor. A carefree young woman, Belle loves to read and is considered odd by most people in her small town. At the same time she catches the eye of Gaston, the good looking and conceited hunter in town.

Belle’s father heads off to show his new invention nearby but on the way home loses his way and his horse and wagon. Chased by wolves he takes refuge at a nearby castle, invited in by the magical items in the house led by Lumiere, a candlestick, and Cogsworth, a clock. But the master of the house, the Beast, does not take kindly to strangers and throws him in his dungeon.

When the horse returns home Belle jumps aboard and has it take her to her father. Begging the Beast to allow her father to leave, she agrees to remain in his place forever. Thus begins a courtship between the two that begins in the worst way possible with the Beast, having spent his years alone, not knowing how to react to this young woman. As he learns how to behave, with the help of the magical items in the castle, he also learns to love Belle.

Back home Gaston, humiliated when Belle turned down his proposal, plots to force Belle into marrying him. He gets his chance to blackmail her when she returns home after leaving the Beast behind to rescue her father who was hoping to rescue her. While the townspeople think her father was loony and creating the Beast in his mind, Belle proves the Beast exist. This incurs the wrath of Gaston who leads the townspeople in an effort to destroy the Beast. Can love survive and bloom in this story?

The movie works on so many levels. The best of these is the fact that it takes a story many grew up with, a children’s tale of love and devotion, and stick to it rather than surround it with politically correct concepts. Many of today’s films seem intent of making message pictures rather than entertaining ones. In doing so something is lost. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was one of the last films from Disney that didn’t attempt to do so and because of that I find it to be one of the last of their great animated films. It is story for the sake of story rather than an attempt to influence.

It also works as one of the great animated pieces in recent times, even if it is 25 years old. Can it really be that old? As I said earlier the movie was a combination of the classic hand drawn style of animation and computer generated animation. The ballroom scene heavily used the new animation style and because of it Disney Studios invested more into the new technology. When you watch something like FROZEN or ZOOTOPIA today it’s because of this movie.

The creativity on display here is enormous. The use of various items in the Beast’s castle as characters may not have been done here for the first time but it is some of the most entertaining. Everything from an armoire to a chipped teacup named Chip is brought to life and believably so. Images of brooms and mops from Disney’s FANTASIA come to mind in certain scenes and that’s a good thing.

Lastly there is the music here. With music by Alan Menken and words by Howard Ashman each and every song in the film is one that will find its way into your head and remain there for some time. “Belle” and “Gaston” capture the essence of each of the characters, helping round out who they are. “Be Our Guest” captures the fun seen in many of the classic Disney animated films. And the title track is a tremendous love song that remains popular to this day. That this film was the first to be adapted for the stage only makes sense.

The extras found in this package are the standard fare these days with nothing really standing out but it is the movie itself that makes this one worth adding to your collection. In addition to the blu-ray of the film a standard DVD version and digital version are included making it well worth the price. This is not a movie that will collect dust but rather one that can be enjoyed on occasion and definitely will be pulled out when the kids stop by. A treasure that is a must have for all.

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