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The Long Riders (1980)
Possibly THE most underrated western of all time...
Back in the glory days of 1980, Michael Bay was just a fifteen year old lad with a love of movies who would soon begin his enrolment at Wesleyan University. Bryan Singer too was a mere child, probably admiring films like The Long Riders with his buddy Ethan Hawke. It would take a further six years for John Mc Tiernan to carve his name in the Hollywood ladder and John Woo was still finding his directorial roots in Southern China. The man to watch when it came to extremely stylised action was one Walter Hill, the creator of such awesome gun-totting avalanches as Extreme Prejudice, The Warriors and Johnny Handsome. Long since categorised as the' director for choosing style over content, Hill started out his career as a screenwriter. He penned The Getaway for Sam Peckinpah, who was obviously his idol, and in almost all of his movies he adds visual flourishes that are unsubtly reminiscent of Peckinpah's accomplishments. (Check out Extreme Prejudice where Hill almost out Peckinpahs Peckinpah!) Like all of cinema's greatest achievers, Hill had an unbridled love for the western. Over the length of his career, he would return to the genre again and again, giving us offerings that ranged from the large-scale excess of Geronimo: an American legend, to the smaller, but just as historically accurate Wild Bill.
By far the best of his Western work, The Long Riders tells the tale of the James/Younger legacy, a slice of history that has been adapted for the silver screen on countless occasions. Perhaps the film's strongest and most alluring attribute is the fact that the cast contains real life acting siblings in the shape of the Carradines, the Keaches, the Guests and the Quaids as the band of outlaws. It's also one of the finest and most attractively crafted movies of its kind, equally as beautiful as Heaven's Gate and as tirelessly entertaining as Tombstone.
I doubt that fans of the genre will need any introduction to the exploits of Jesse James, so I won't bother to list a plot synopsis. But reportedly, this is one of the more accurate descriptions of the adventures of the infamous anti-establishment crusader. Frankly, if outings like Frank and Jesse and the dismal American Outlaws are anything to go by, it's also one of the best of the colossal bunch.
The thespian brothers hold up their ends with finesse, and without taking anything away from the Keaches who don't fail to entertain from start to finish, one can only wonder how the film could have turned out if Jeff and Beau Bridges would have been available to accept the leads. David Carradine gives a scene stealing performance, making the most of his relationship' with an incredibly sexy Pamela Reed as Belle Shirley. Props are certainly due to Randy Quaid for not over cooking his threats against the singer in the bar scene at the beginning, he comfortably makes those few short lines the best of the whole damn movie. It's a shame that James Keach could never make his star shine brighter on the Hollywood A-list. Even so, he still has one or two great performances to look back on with enough pride to show that he was once a force to be reckoned with on the tinsel-town ladder.
Being as this is a Walter Hill joint, all the flashy trademarks are rooted firmly in place, including the use of his ever-dependable cast alumni such as James Remar. Surprisingly enough, for a director that's famed for his love of stylised violence, there are very few gunfights throughout the runtime, which somehow makes them even more powerful when they do finally occur. The Northfield Minnesota ambush is perhaps one of the greatest shoot-outs of western history, utilising a great use of sound to make each bullet hit home with a stark sense of realism that's almost nightmare inducing. Co-ordinator Craig Baxley should take a bow for his constant but never over-excessive use of jaw dropping stunts. Bodies literally fly through the air with an exquisite force that manages to bring home the impact of a gunshot with adeptness. Long Riders also boats more than its share of accurately realised set locations. But unlike Michael Cimino, Hill never over indulges or looses the plot to period preciseness, so the sheen is never overpowering or unwelcome.
Although Long Riders may not hold the masterpiece status of such often-touted westerns as The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven or even Dances with Wolves, it's still a five star movie. It's superbly acted, impressively casted, flawlessly directed and it boasts some of the greatest music that you're likely to find this side of an opera. Many people often consider Tombstone to be the all time great popcorn western.' Well, I can only presume that's because they haven't actually seen this long forgotten classic slice of storytelling. If you're a fan of the Wild West and you've let this slip you by, then you need to be asking yourself why
Heaven's Gate (1980)
Cimino's epic is a tough movie to judge...
After the critical and financial success of Oscar darling The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino had Hollywood, the majority of the media and more importantly, United Artists' executives at his feet. Given the budget of his choice, he decided to follow up his masterpiece with a script that he had been hoping to produce since his humble beginnings as a Clint Eastwood protégé. Having already brought his inimitably masterful vision to the (then) fresh debate of the Vietnam War, the director chose to adapt yet another periodic American conflict: the infamous battle of Johnson County. As I'm sure you're well aware, the result was perhaps the most monumental flop of cinema history, which immediately relieved the young auteur of his promising career as a master filmmaker and sunk an entire studio without a trace. This inevitably changed Hollywood forever. Gone were the days of the ambitious auteur and the daring studio executives with something to prove, and eventually the eighties opened up an extreme user friendly environment where budgets would be handed out with extreme caution and prejudice to those with artistic tendencies.
Looking back over a quarter of a century later, it's surprising how well The Deer Hunter has retained its composure. It remains a touching portrayal of human companionship, emotion and loyalty that's packed with brash political overtones that raise questions even today. The merits of his magnum opus and my love of the Western genre led me to finally view Heaven's Gate and see for myself if it was in fact the turkey that its grim reputation has allowed it to be remembered as. The gratification of viewing a gun totting cowboy movie from the virtuoso imagination of The Deer Hunter's creator was indeed an allurement in itself. I strongly hoped that Cimino had suffered only because after the bloated excess of such over-budgeted over-abundances as Apocalypse Now, the media had decided to target him for career annihilation as they have with countless others in the past.
On return to Casper Wyoming, Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) learns from his drunken friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt) that the association have written up a death list to rid the county of what they see as thieving and money-hungry immigrants. His hooker with a heart of gold sweetheart Ella (Isabelle Huppert) is on the list, which forces him to beg that she leaves the state to head West with him away from the animosity. However Ella is also involved in a relationship with a hired gun, Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), who has accepted the task of assassinating those that the association has targeted at the price of $50 dollars a head. Although the coupling is initially professional, emotions become confused when Nate proposes that Ella marries him. As the rivalry between the rich and poor worsens, the immigrant community realize that to survive they have to adopt the policies of their aggressors, which results in a bloody battle for survival and independence.
Upon viewing Heaven's Gate, one of the immediate things that you notice is how damn beautiful the movie actually is. Vilmos Zsigmond's lush cinematography is a sight to behold and frame by frame the runtime looks like a collection of stunning and realistically gritty portraits strung together artistically for audience appreciation. Cimino manages to handle scenes with a huge abundance of activity like the master craftsman that he truly is. Although many sequences, like the sprawling dance at the beginning or the bizarre roller skating 'disco' are predominantly pointless, his dedication, flare for authenticity and overall guidance remain highly textured and visually astounding throughout. Averill's locomotive arrival is (arguably) unintentionally reminiscent of Jill's mesmerising landing from C'era una volta il West. The streets bustle with activity as passers by go about their everyday business, and the director does well to control an amazing number of accurately costumed extras, without taking the emphasis away from the plot's focal points. It's interesting to see a pre-CGI outing that has such strong and realistic art direction and set locations that weren't simply created over a blue or green screen. In fact, Heaven's Gate puts Lord of the Rings and Troy to shame with its stark realism and dedication to historical accuracy.
However, brief flashes of genius cannot hide the film's only too numerous flaws. Kris Kristofferson gives a lifeless lead performance and even master actors to the class of Jeff Bridges and a bizarrely miss-cast Brad Douriff seem to struggle aimlessly to find a relevant plot point to chew upon. John Hurt adds swagger to a tissue paper thin persona, but overall his appearance is as redundantly pointless as his woefully miss-judged exit. A young and almost unrecognisably handsome Christopher Walken ends up carrying the majority of the film on his shoulders, and even a pre-famed Mickey Rourke pops up briefly only to die tragically moments later. The time dedicated to the uninteresting romance between the three leads severely jeopardised the entire motivation of the story, and one is left wondering whether the whole thing could have been cut down to perhaps 15% of the runtime instead of the long winded 75. The heavy handed editing is in fact the feature's biggest downfall. With Cimino in full control, his obsession with excess is no less than devastating, and five hours and twenty two minutes is not a movie by any length of chalk; it's a bloated mini-series.
All in all, Heaven's Gate is a tough title to judge. At times beautiful and compelling and in others pointless and lengthy, over the years it has gained as many fans as it has critics for its discrepancies in reviews and acclaim. The Deer Hunter may have had scenes that just acted as wallpaper without moving the plot anywhere, but it was saved by strong performances and a story that was much clearer, more coherent and easy to follow. Kris Kristofferson is no Robert Deniro and Isabelle Huppert isn't Meryl Streep either, which didn't make things any easier when Heaven's Gate finally showed up at box offices to strong anticipation. But in its favour, David Mansfield's score is unmissible and viewers will be rewarded by the over powering beauty of the cinematography. For serious cinema lovers, Heaven's Gate is worth a look, if only to see the film that sunk a studio the last of its kind. But if you're expecting a popcorn western in the vein of Tombstone, stay well away
Wyatt Earp (1994)
Kasdan manages to direct well without overcooking things. Costner's the problem here...
'They put you up there and then wait for you to fall.' Said Wyatt Earp's leading man around the time of the release of The Bodyguard. Brushing the irony to one side, no one knows how to fall quite like Kevin Costner. In the space of a mere decade, he went from Oscar winning director and star of the Academy's 1990 best picture, to Razzie regular and undisputed master of abysmal career moves. In my opinion, to call him a 'schizophrenic actor' with a resume that's filled with an AC/DC of alternate performances would be the most generous description of the once most bankable actor in Hollywood. On occasion you get the comfortably competent Costner, who serves up such awe-inspiring work as his classic portrayal of Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone's JFK. Then the rest of the time complacency sneaks in, and we're left with Kevin playing Kevin in flops like Dragonfly and Waterworld. If anyone was looking for an example of the middle ground between these two opposite cinematic identities, then Wyatt Earp is the place to find the evidence. Although there's nothing particularly heinous about his performance, he leaves the character begging for flamboyance; in fact, he's so damn dull, you could squint up your eyelids and swear it was Jason Patrick sporting a cunning disguise.
In playing such a one-dimensional characterisation, Costner comes close to ruining the lawman's legacy by portraying him as a selfish chauvinist with an extreme lack of respect for his friends and female acquaintances. Whether this is true of the real Wyatt Earp is beside the point. Legend dictates that he was the Marshall with a heart of gold; a hero that cleared up the town of Tombstone and saved innocent folk from the evil clutches of wrongful cowboys. That's the way Hollywood has always told it, and more's to the point, that's how it should always be told. I guess it didn't help matters that Kurt Russell had already robbed box offices with his much stronger and infinitely charismatic turn in George Cosmatos' account of the same story, which was released the previous year. Unfortunately for Lawrence Kasdan, comparing the two performances leaves Costner whimpering like a pony that's been nipped by a fragment from a miss-placed six-shooter. It's definitely Russell's turn that will live longer in the memories of fans of the genre.
That's not to say that Wyatt Earp is completely devoid of merit. In fact, aside from the on-off performance of the leading man, this is skin-scrapingly close to being a 'spot on' modern day western. It attempts - with a large amount of success - to separate itself from the glut of supposedly biographical accounts that usually start and finish circa the gunfight at the OK Corral, by offering the viewer a full-bore take on the entire life-story of the legendary lawman. As we traipse through his comfortable childhood, two marriages, a spell as an alcoholic horse-thief and his transformation into a top draw peacekeeper, we're treated to an astonishing cast of supporting players that shine an incandescent light on the overall proceedings. Gene Hackman, Tom Sizemore, Bill Pullman, Mike Madsen and a brilliant turn from Dennis Quaid round up an ensemble to die for, which gives the movie an instant guarantee of allurement. Granted, Lawrence Kasdan is no Howard Hawks; but he's a man with a classic vision of how the Wild West should be filmed, and for a movie that's shockingly overlong in running time (a Costner trademark), he manages to handle the pacing extremely well. Let's face it, if you're going to make a feature detailing the life of a man made famous by one single gunfight, then you'd better make sure you stage that gunfight perfectly. Kasdan does just; and the build up to the actual showdown is as tense as an amphetamine junkie diffusing a bomb on a timer pure class! The camera weaves around the four lawmen like a snake in a tunnel as they head down to the Corral for the stand-off. Tumbleweed blows through the location and costumed extras run for cover as the director comfortably ticks off all the clichés that define a classic western set-piece.
The only other flaw that prevents this from reaching classic status is the lack of any heavily-scrutinised script alterations. Characters just turn up and disappear randomly (eg Tom Sizemore?), and without following them up to a conclusion the screenplay looks somewhat uneven. But still, ignore these few problems and you're left with a stylishly directed, well researched and imminently watchable slice of Western history. Is it as good as Tombstone? Not quite, but then it offers a much deeper look into the legend's roots and influences. If you can handle Costner at his least expressive, then this might just be your weekend masterpiece. But otherwise, it's a damn fine movie despite its few short comings.
Next of Kin (1982)
Supreme suspense and stylish direction
Despite popular belief, Next of Kin isn't really a regular stalk and slash flick. There isn't much of a death count and Tony Williams doesn't waste time with constant self references to other genre pieces. However, the plot resolves around a psychotic intruder that's murdering the inmates of an old people's home, although the deaths are sporadic enough (we only see one) to keep the heroine believing that they're actually accidents.
The things that lift Next of Kin above its contempararies is the superb, noteworthy direction and great atmosphere. It's beautifully photographed, with some instantly exquisite camera movements that add a supreme energy and sense of professionalism that's rarely found in slasher movies from New Zealand or Australia. In fact, such a notable level of craftsmanship is rarely seen in any category addition. There are plenty of credible shots, the best being the woodland scenes in which we see the mysterious menace lurking in the distance amongst the trees, barely recognisable. It's fairly well acted - although not superbly -, and it works well to set up a creepy suspense fuelled environment. When the nut-job reveals himself, there's some brilliant chases and a few surprises.
Like I said, don't expect slasher cliches by the dozen, but if you keep your options open, you'll find Next of Kin to be fairly rewarding. Worth a look...
To All a Goodnight (1980)
Not as bad as popular belief
To all a Good Night has long since been touted as one of the worst of the genre pieces from the benchmark year in slasher shenanigans. But to be honest, it's really not that bad. Mark Shostrum's gore effects are great, and Jennifer Runyon makes a cute and approachable surviving girl. This is, of course, the first SLASHER movie to include a killer santa, which would be repeated in Santa Claws, Silent Night Deadly Night, Christmas Season Massacre etc. etc. Just for the sake of originality (!), Don't Open Till Christmas opted for a masked killer that killed people in Santa suits instead!
The only problems with To all a Good Night is that it's poorly lighted, a little off the wall and perhaps too under-produced. But it's certainly not the worst of its kind and is just about worth hunting out.
Exquisite Tenderness (1995)
Not a bad little thriller that lifts various elements from the slasher genre without actually becoming so easily recogniseable as one of those movies. James Remar is fairly good and the film plays fairly well. Just average really