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Reel Life: On Film Versus Light

Comedy, Drama, Events, Recommended, The State of Cinema, Western No Comments »

Buck Turgidson Dr. Strangelove

By Ray Pride

John Boorman called one of his published diaries “Money Into Light,” a splendid title for the still-to-be-written story of the machinations that led to the abrupt demise of the century-plus of celluloid filmmaking and exhibition to the digital domain of movies today. Investments were made, money was saved, one art form was replaced by another.

A couple of notable events in Chicago in June highlight how rare and special the once-standard format has become. First up, there’s a new 35mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb” (1964), which Kubrick himself had supervised in a frame-by-frame re-creation in the 1990s to replace a lost or misplaced negative. That kind of “asset protection” was something the owners of film libraries didn’t think about until the last couple of decades, and traditionally, the negatives of movies got beaten up badly. Even “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” required restorations in 2008.

A second is the June 23 premiere at the Music Box of a 35mm restoration by the Northwest Chicago Film Society of a long-unseen hillbilly Western swing musical, “Corn’s-A-Poppin’,” written by Robert Altman. And, recently, the Music Box presented Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeous black-and-white drama “Ida,” in 35mm. When “Ida” was press-screened a few weeks back, the projectionist looked it up:  this shimmering anachronism was the screening room’s first paid exhibition of film in 389 days: the digital handover had been a done deal for over a year. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tai Chi 0

Action, Comedy, Recommended, Western, World Cinema No Comments »


The producers of “Kung Fu Hustle” put no small amount of cash behind Stephen Fung’s manic Qing Dynasty martial-arts send-up, “Tai Chi 0,”  (Tai Chi Zero) which, with its comic-book strokes and steampunk intimations amounts to a rousing, loud time that suits the largest screen possible. While the central character is Yang Luchan, who invented Tai Chi, “Tai Chi 0″ is also about unsettled rivalries, unrelenting action scenes and, well, the arrival of the railroad.  Along with the Western touches, the anything-for-an-eyeball kick visual palette—animation, silent movies, punching the fourth wall—suggests an Eastern sensibility to match “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Let The Bullets Fly

Action, Comedy, Recommended, Western, World Cinema No Comments »


Chow Yun-Fat stars in “Let The Bullets Fly,” (Rang zidan fei), a winning, mischievous 1920s-set Chinese action-comedy screwball western that became that country’s highest-grossing film ever in 2010. (The boom in theater construction in China doesn’t hurt record-breaking returns for local films.) Actor-director Jiang Wen (“Devils on the Doorstep,” 2000) co-stars with Chow as one of two crooks who descend on Goose Town, a tiny town in the wilds of China. Provincial politics provide some of the ample banter and complicated plot twists. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cowboys & Aliens

Reviews, Western No Comments »

It’s my fault for going in hoping for “The Proposition”-meets-“Starship Troopers.” Instead, generic title begets generic results in the tepid “Cowboys & Aliens,” brisk professionalism of a middling order. Jon Favreau’s first film since the congenially scatty “Iron Man 2,” from a script credited to Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof; Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby; and Steve Oedekerk, demonstrates that craft takes you only so far. (The ampersand in screen credits indicates writers who worked together as teams; the ampersand in “Cowboys & Aliens” is more mysterious.) The opening scene of spirited splatter from our supposed hero, an alien or Starman or Man With No Name or amnesiac (Daniel Craig) is promising. Craig plays terse and rugged well enough, but the sly twinkle of his best acting is absent (“Fateless,” “The Mother,” “Enduring Love,” “Love is the Devil”). Almost like a so-so movie by co-producer Ron Howard, “Cowboys & Aliens” is turgid without messy bits to keep it interesting, slick without the sleekness of high style. (Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has done better work in “Black Swan,” “Iron Man” and “Josie and the Pussycats.”) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Meek’s Cutoff

Christmas, Drama, Recommended, Reviews, Stoner, Western No Comments »


Rugged yet austere, the pioneer drama of “Meek’s Cutoff” is rich with rarefied satisfactions. Some audiences will get little from its apparent minimalism; others will find quiet, deep satisfactions. Like her earlier “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” (also written by fiction writer Jon Raymond), Kelly Reichardt honors the impulses shown in even her earliest films like “River of Grass” (1994). Simplicity, framed, slowed, kept to a mysterious and somehow ominous tempo. A Sundance 2010 debut, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a Western both otherworldly and somehow ordinary-seeming, set on the Oregon trail in 1845. Things could go wrong, couldn’t they? Something about the landscape, food, water. The female characters’ faces are kempt, restrained by bonnets, the fashion of the time. There’s a tempo of faces, including the remarkable Michelle Williams, emerging from confinement. The film moves less like a dream or nightmare than a trance: a slowed hallucination. The instructions of a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) are not translated; the settlers don’t know the language, so we don’t either. “Meek’s Cutoff” is an original, and brave simplicity combined with a reverential sense of mystery holds ample reward. The loving, lovely cinematography is by Christopher Blauvelt, shooting in clear-eyed style in the classic, square frame of the “Academy” ratio of 1:33.  Jeff Grace’s wonderful score is better heard than described. With Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson. 104m. (Ray Pride)

“Meek’s Cutoff” opens Friday at the Music Box. A trailer is below.

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Go Western: Fill those seats at “True Grit,” you S.O.B.

The State of Cinema, Western No Comments »

John Wayne

By Martin Northway

Western movies were once as common as today’s Bourne-type thrillers and as ubiquitous on television as modern reality programming. In my youth they were part of my generation’s universe of discourse.

If you’re younger than I, and there’s a good chance you are, we had it better. This is not simple nostalgia speaking. You missed something, and with each new Western film that comes along—and they are few and far between—I hope for your sake this will be the one that revives the genre.

Back in the day, when my friends and I argued about who was cooler, Steve McQueen or James Dean, even though Dean made only three movies before his untimely death, one was a modern Western.

And McQueen, well, McQueen—whose film career likely interrupted a delinquent youth’s arc toward a life of crime—was a principal in one of the most influential Western movies of all time, “The Magnificent Seven.” Was it a great film, in the way “The Searchers” is great? Hardly. Nor was it a very realistic depiction of the old West. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sweetgrass

Documentary, Recommended, Western No Comments »


Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s austere “Sweetgrass” follows a team of modern-day Montana cowboys as they shepherd their flock 200 miles into the Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture. Patient, tactile and rapturously beautiful, you can almost smell the chlorophyll, the air, the manure, the lamb rejected at birth by its mother. The film is so cannily descriptive, it’s difficult to describe without falling into forced epiphany or staccato poetry. So the temptation to note parallel filmmaking: Castaing-Taylor’s gorgeous cinematography suggests Terrence Malick, while the long takes of staring, chewing, shearing, the undulation of flocks, suggests the patient Hungarians, Béla Tarr and Miklós Janscó. The unblinking gaze suggests Nikolaus Geyrhalter (“Our Daily Bread,” 2005) and his way of observing agricultural process. There is an allusion in title and form to one predecessor: in 1925, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack made “Grass,” a documentary about Persian sheepherders. “Sweetgrass” is observational, after the Frederick Wiseman school of direct cinema, but mostly it is a feat of attaining sensation, on a ranch that has since been sold.  Sound matters: wind, the jounce of bells, the crisp crunch of chewing, chewing, chewing the cowboys’ spirited profanity. It’s dreamy. It’s also over. “Sweetgrass” was shot in 2001-2003, and this would turn out to be the last drive.  The filmmakers are married Harvard anthropologists: you wouldn’t expect this movie at all, let alone that it is such a superbly edited feat of contemplation.  105m.  (Ray Pride)

“Sweetgrass” opens Friday at the Music Box.

Review: Jonah Hex

Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Western No Comments »

Junky cinematography and CGI make this DC Comics-born crap hard to watch, as if it were badly inked on low-end pulp. Nor does the leaden and rusty metal score by Mastodon and Marco Beltrami do much for the ears. But it’s over in seventy-two minutes, if you skip eight minutes of blurred end credits. The title character (Josh Brolin, “No Country For Old Men”) is a Confederate Army vet who once “disobeyed a direct order” to torch a Union hospital. This prompted his sociopathic commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), to torch Hex’s Indian wife and their son, forcing Hex to watch and then branding “Q. T.” on his cheek. All this makes Hex mad as hell. He takes up bounty-hunting so he can get back at bad guys in general. Turns out one in particular did not expire in a later fire–flames are frequent in “Jonah Hex”–and Turnbull is dead-set on terrorizing the country and toppling the government. Find Hex before the 4th of July, when the shit is scheduled to go down. “The President thinks you’re special, even magic,” a White House aide tells Hex. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Action, Recommended, Western, World Cinema No Comments »


“The Good, The Bad, The Weird” revolves around a treasure map, and while it’s not “National Treasure,” it’s a modest little bit of an international treasure, a mashup from all across many maps. South Korea has been a goldmine of strange, aberrant and delightful movies since the 1990s, with a wealth of gangsters tales, and other genre-benders that range from the Rohmer-meets-Woody Allen comedies of failed romance by Hong Sang-Soo, to the acutely political thrillers of Bong Jun-hoo, like “Memories of Murder” and “The Host,” which combine Hollywood-level visual intelligence with knockabout wit and class consciousness. You could list half-a-dozen other contemporary Korean directors worth searching out, but it’s gratifying when any of their movies see the light of a movie-house screen, especially one as good, and indeed, weird, as this variation on Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.” Kim Jee-Woon’s stir-fried Western, his sixth feature, is an ultra-ambitious horse opera, the country’s most expensive film to date, shot in China’s Gobi Desert with a reported budget of $17 million. An epic set in 1930s Mongolia as the Korean peninsula is in Japanese hands, it’s as adept at action, especially in its train-set sequences and kung fu setpieces, as it is at assertively goofball humor. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sleepwalking

Drama, Recommended, Reviews, Western No Comments »

Zac Stanford and William Maher, screenwriter and director of “The Chumscrubber,” get strong performances in this wintry western tale of an unfit mother, her 11-year-old daughter, her foul-tempered father and her beat-down brother. Charlize Theron, who played a single working mother in “In the Valley of Elah,” plays the messed-up Joleen (as well as produced). Her latest boyfriend got busted for weed, so she crashes with her younger brother James (Nick Stahl). Read the rest of this entry »