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As children, I'm sure we have all participated in a game of "Cowboys and Indians". Who can resist the urge to play the heroes of the frontier versus the savage Indians? Then again, it never crossed our young minds that we were ignoring the plight of Native Americans and bigotry that existed during the Old West. Enter The Searchers, directed by the legendary John Ford and starring the great John Wayne, a movie that explores the accepted racism during the days of the Old West.
Returning to meet his brother's family three years after the Civil War, ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) eventually suffers the loss of his entire bloodline after a Comanche attack on his brother's home, leaving two surviving family members: His young niece Debbie, who was kidnapped by the Comanche, and his adopted nephew Martin Pawly, a young man who is part Cherokee and hated by Ethan for his racial composition. The attack starts off Ethan and Martin's five year long search for young Debbie and the Warchief Scar, the Comanche responsible for the death of his family and holds Debbie as his wife. What is interesting about how this journey plays out is the utter disdain Ethan has towards Native Americans and those who associate with them. To Ethan, a white woman with a Comanche is better off dead since white women loses their purity for even spending time with a Comanche in his eyes. As he uses and berates his adopted nephew just to meet his objectives, he will even go as far as mutilating the corpse of fallen Comanche warriors, just so that their spirit may never find peace. This is not the conventional Western hero, folks. Ethan is an unapologetic racist, and will use his hatred to even kill his own family members if it comes to that point. Martin Pawly, who accompanies Ethan in his search, proves to be Ethan's conscience throughout the movie. Despite being part Cherokee, Martin tries to confront and gain the respect of Ethan, pointing out the flaws of Ethan's actions. Martin makes it known that Americans are capable of brutality when he finds a defenseless Native American village in shambles. When Ethan is confronted with Debbie being the wife of the Comanche Warchief Scar, Martin quickly throws himself to protect Debbie from Ethan's wrath. "She's alive and she'll stay alive!" Martin yells out as he stares down Ethan's gun, ready to return fire if the situation escalated. While he starts off as a very innocent character, Martin is forced to evolve and grow; dealing with the injustices of a man he craves respect from.
The shots in The Searchers show off the vast, beautiful, and varied environments of Texas, as well as show the progression of time by way of the constant changes in the seasons. The music, which could have been a sore spot in this movie, never really got in the way as I thought it would. I would actually argue that the music found here sometimes fits very, very well, including the final theme. The acting here is top notch, especially from John Wayne. His facial expressions, physical acting, and even his delivery makes him very convincing as a man who is possessed by the demons of hatred. If there was a sore spot or two in this movie, it would be the forced comedic moments and the poor action sequences. This is a movie dealing with a very controversial subject. While it is understandable for the movie to lighten up the mood, the attempts ultimately feel out of place, taking the movie's direction off course. As for the action sequences, every shootout felt like one side were moving targets as John Wayne shot them down, even against an overwhelming force. Granted, Ethan may be one of the fiercest bastards in the Old West, but he shouldn't be able to take on an incoming army with just one or two other guys armed with six shooters.
All in all, this is a great film that is quite shocking considering the era it came from. It is interesting to see the views of racism during that time, and it is even more interesting when the director shows how accepted and vile that racism was. The closing credits made it clear that while the outside world may accept hatred, it has no place in a loving home. Ethan came to realize this after finding what he was searching, knowing that he no longer has a place in the home of a loving family ever again.
I have a confession to make: I HATE WESTERNS. Actually, that is a bit misleading to say. I once held a contempt for westerns as a kid due to how boring I thought they were. With TV and movies containing giant robots, monsters, and aliens as a child, why would I want to see a bunch of scruffy, dirty looking men waiting forever and a day to shoot each other? My opinions have changed on the genre as I got older, and after spending over seven hours watching The Dollars Trilogy shows how misplaced my opinions on the genre were.
For those who didn't know, The Dollars Trilogy is a trilogy of Italian Spaghetti Westerns directed by the late Sergio Leone, and starring Clint Eastwood in his breakthrough role as The Man with no Name. The first movie of The Dollars Trilogy is A Fistful of Dollars, which introduces The Man with No Name as he enters the town of San Miguel, where two major gangs, the Rojos Brothers and the Baxter Gang, feud. Seeing opportunity in this feud, he uses his gun slinging ability to convince both sides to secretly recruit him as he tries to destroy both gangs and acquire stolen money from the Rojos Brothers. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Leone weaves a story without a plot, focusing on how The Man with No Name ultimately rids of both gangs by a slew of loosely tied events. While thin in regards to its story, the movie is just a wonder to behold by way of acting, music, and action. The camerawork here is second to none, with tense shots perfectly taken during shootouts, cutting at the right moments and focusing on the carnage The Man with no Name leaves behind. One effective example of the expert use of camera involves the final showdown between No Name and the last surviving Rojos brother. No Name wins the duel, and the camera is now in the remaining Rojos' point of view as he stammers and struggles to regain his balance. Ennio Morricone's music simply cannot be ignored in this movie, as his music always kicks in at the right time and delivers on the mood tenfold. Eastwood's portrayal of The Man with No Name easily defines the anti-hero archetype as he plays a man who seems to be out for himself, but is willing to put his life on the line for something more than just money. Examples include the rescue of a Rojos mistress being kept away from her real family, and arriving into town to save his newfound innkeeper friend from being killed by the Rojos gang.
The trilogy continues with A Few Dollars More, where No Name meets another bounty hunter by the name of Mortimer, played by Lee Van Cleef, as they both hunt down a vicious killer and gang leader by the name of El Indio, played by Gian Maria Volente. Unlike A Fistful of Dollars, the morality line is better defined here as El Indio is a man not deserving of any sympathy. He kills his victims after the chimes of his mysterious pocket watch stop playing. However, El Indio is frequently tormented by the memories of a young woman he raped who later kills herself, resulting in the use of drugs to drown out those memories. With the inspiration of Yojimbo out of the way, Sergio Leone was able to branch out and expand on the violent world he create. Here, even if the bad guys are obviously bad, the supposed good guys can be just as, if not more so, destructive. What I found interesting here is not so much the action, which is still outstanding, but the subtle hints of emotion in every major character. No Name swiftly comes to the aid of Mortimer in a moment of near death towards the end of the movie despite the rivalry between the two. Mortimer, normally a calm and collected bounty hunter, bursts out in a moment of anger, yelling out to El Indio, "This is Colonel Mortimer! Douglas Mortimer! Does the name mean anything to you?!", clearly connecting the two to a past event. El Indio, despite his crimes, is somehow haunted by the memories of the woman he raped. Why, as a man who has killed so many, is he so tortured by this one memory? With Indio's mysterious pocket being revealed as the dead woman's pocket watch, more questions arise. Leone never answers the questions, however, which works in the movie's benefit, making El Indio a very well rounded and interesting villain. The tradition of memorable scenes doesn't let up with A Few Dollars More, one of them being No Name collecting dozens of dead bandits he killed and stacking them into a cart as he estimates how much they are worth in total, which had me laughing long past the ending.
The series reaches its finale with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, arguably the most influential Western of all time. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is actually the prequel of the series, going as far as showing where The Man with No Name got his trademark poncho and revealing his real name, which is Blondie. By far the most plot driven movie of the series, The Man with No Name (Blondie, also known as "The Good") and a bandit by the name of Tuco (Known as "The Ugly"), played by Eli Wallach, search for gold hidden away in a cemetery that only Tuco knows the name of, but needs Blondie since only he knows the name of the grave that holds the gold. In their way are the horrors of the Civil War, and a Union mercenary by the name of Angel Eyes (Known as "The Bad"), played by Lee Van Cleef, who also wants the gold for himself. Surprisingly, Sergio Leone took the time to develop one of the characters, Tuco. As the comic relief of the movie with a one tracked mind, he has a moment in the film where he meets with his brother, a Catholic Friar helping the victims of the war. The clear contrast between both brothers is pretty shocking, and the conversation between the two about how they have chosen their paths was very well done. As for the other two characters, Angel Eyes and Blondie, they remain mysterious yet interesting. Angel Eyes is quite the formidable enemy, picking and choosing who he kills and how he goes about gathering his information on the gold's location. Blondie is still pretty much the Blondie he always was in the series, though his sympathy towards the victims of war, and to a lesser extent Tuco, keeps him from being bland and predictable. One memorable scene involves a dying young soldier in his final moments of life. Blondie takes off his trench coat to cover the young man, and offering him his cigar as he slowly dies. Once their bizarre adventure leads them to the cemetery and the grave the gold resides in, both Blondie and Tuco meets up with Angel Eyes, who is ready and eager to kill them both for the gold. However, they all decided to "earn" the gold via a three way standoff, which has got to be the longest and most tense standoff in cinema history. This was the highlight of the movie and it is Sergio at his series' best, with constant cuts to each character who nervously awaits the final draw which lasted for 5 minutes straight! What made this scene what it was were the facial expressions of each character, particularly Angel Eyes and Blondie. As Blondie remains cool and collected, so did Angel Eyes, until time passed by. He soon became uncomfortable and scared as he looked at Blondie's cool demeanor, probably thinking that Tuco and Blondie would team on him. The progression of this thought turning into something that can be seen without the need for dialog reinforces the belief that The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is among the best movies ever made, and with good reason.
I started this review stating that I hated westerns. Movies like The Dollars Trilogy are good examples why I'm so wrong. I love these films and I plan to buy the trilogy for myself when I get the chance. Sergio Leone once was a name I was not familiar with, but now I am tempted to look up more of his movies. It's a damn shame he could not be with us for much longer, since Appaloosa seems to be the only recent western being released lately, and I would just love it if Leone can show how everybody how westerns should be done.
I'm sure you have met that guy or girl; The Know-It-All, the person who thinks he/she can formulate a plan and have it go well, only to have it collapse in their hands. This characteristic is the basis of the Coen Brothers' new movie, Burn After Reading, a satire of spy movies involving people who think they are intelligent enough to carry through with a plan, only to have it fall apart. The movie opens up with Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who held a high position in the CIA, being laid off from that position due to his drinking problem. While not being fired from the CIA, Cox angrily retires to focus on writing a memoir of his experiences in the Agency, much to the dismay of his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton). What Osbourne does not know is that Katie is cheating on Osbourne with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) who is not only a womanizer despite being married, but is insanely paranoid and obsessed with what he is working on in his basement. What the story ultimately comes down to is a CD filled with inserts of Osbourne's memoirs and CIA information, which is in the hands of two fitness instructors, Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand), who blackmails Osbourne for money so Linda can get cosmetic surgery. Confused yet? I wish I could say it gets clearer as we go, but I would be lying. In fact, it only gets more complicated from there.
In a lesser movie, the story would have been reduced to either hard drama or hard comedy. The Coen Brothers did a fantastic job here by trying to find the balance between the two while focusing on what this movie's greatest strength: Its characters. Granted, the characters are morons. However, what they do is based on their own actions, not the direction of the Coen Brothers, who allows the characters to follow their path of idiocy through its end. This gives the characters an extra natural layer of depth, with further layers added by a wonderfully hilarious A-list cast. Malkovich's Osbourne Cox is so explosively angry, you wonder when the final straw that breaks the camel's back will appear. Chad, played by Pitt, is so off the wall and erratic that you know there is no possible way he can succeed in blackmailing and extortion. He tries his best, however, just so he can help out his friend and co-worker, Linda, who is going through a midlife crisis, thinking that the only way she can get a man is by going to online dating websites and getting lipo for her ass. McDormand not only plays this role realistically, but hilariously due to the self-centered mindset. George Clooney's role as Harry is a fine example of a person slipping further into dementia as the narrative unfolds, even if his "project" is not a clear indication of it. While people may see it as a lesser role, Chad and Linda's boss, Ted (Richard Jenkins), does well representing the regular Joe who knows better, tries to set a good example, but ultimately slips just to remain on the good graces of Linda, who is oblivious to Ted's attraction to her. It is this cast, their interaction onscreen, and their ability to bring their characters to life that manages to carry what could have been an uneven story. There is quite a bit going on in this relatively short movie (Around 90 minutes), and thankfully the Coen Brothers were able to exercise their mastery without fail.
As the clock winds down, characters die, some find themselves in inescapable situations, while others simply leap over the railing of sanity. How any of these characters can do what they did and make sense of it is beyond anybody watching. I guess that is the point. While not as depressing as the Coen Brother's last film, No Country for Old Men, it does deliver a similar message; How can people be so foolish? Why is it that whenever people have "bright ideas" that falls apart, they continue to push and hope for the best when the reality of it is anything but peachy?
Midway through the movie, we are greeted by a CIA top honcho played by J.K. Simmons who asks one of his agents to report back to him when the whole mess makes sense. Once we are at the twilight of the final Act, Simmons swiftly stops the story and attempts to summarize the whole ordeal. "Well, what did we learn?" says Simmons, confused and bewildered. The agent, just as confused as Simmons, states that maybe it should not happen again. We would like to hope that people should stop getting into strange and senseless situations, but you know and can tell from both characters onscreen that its not going to happen. However, it does give the Coen Brothers plenty of material to work with for whatever they have up their sleeves down the road. I, for one, cannot wait.
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