Westworld

Westworld movie poster

 

The late Michael Crichton is primarily known as a bestselling novelist, but somewhat less so as a screenwriter, feature film director, and television producer (he was one of the co-creators of the blockbuster series E.R.). Characteristic novels Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain are built upon fascinating speculative science with thrilling story potential, spoiled by wafer-thin characters and simplistic plots. His 1973 thriller Westworld suffers from the same syndrome. Despite its high-minded origins in speculative science, the movie is simple in structure and theme. It’s not unusual for science fiction films to be overtly based on Western tropes (the best example that comes to mind is Outland), but Westworld is a hybrid with equal parts of each. The second half is basically an extended chase sequence, punctuated by a few classic horror movie tropes.

Yul Brynner in WestworldThere’s a face off in the corner

Westworld posits a future in which robotics and artificial intelligence have advanced enough to enable a new market for entertainment and leisure. The futuristic vacation resort Delos is a forerunner to Jurassic Park: an experience adventure for the affluent, powered by untested advanced technology. Imagine Disney World-like animatronics taken to the next level: semiautonomous robots roam an immersive environment to serve as interactive servants, sex toys, and target practice.

Crichton skips over the entire issue of how these machines achieve consciousness, making the common movie fallacy that robots = artificial intelligence. If they are basically animatronic machines, how did they evolve an instinct for self-preservation? If these droids are not feeling actual rebellion and murderous vindictiveness, is it a virus or malfunction? On a more practical level, there appears to be a plot hole in how all robots but The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) appear to completely vanish after murdering the Delos’ staff and visitors.

Richard Benjamin and James Brolin in WestworldJames Brolin & Richard Benjamin take the vacation of the future, today

Brynner’s may wear the same costume as in The Magnificent Seven (read The Dork Report review), but The Gunslinger’s true analog is closer to Jaws and Moby Dick. He pops up again and again, seemingly unkillable, possessed of an unexpressed, inexplicable motivation to hunt one single man. He fixates on tourist John Blane (James Brolin) and remorselessly pursues him to the death, not unlike the implacable demons that haunt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian. Brynner isn’t given much in the way of dialog or character, but you can see he worked very hard on his physical performance. His bearing, posture, gait, and gaze are all unsettling. Far from a cartoonish robot figure, The Gunslinger is really inhuman, weird, and creepy.

Westworld, like Jurassic Park, seems to be a vague cautionary tale against toying with advanced science. The famously science-minded Crichton (an M.D.) is not simply demonizing science itself, but rather its arrogant misuse. If the first mistake is to build machines more complex than the human mind can understand, the second is to bet our lives upon them.

Delos is a fantasy world where people can kill or fuck anything they want. In other words, a recipe for disaster. Later science fiction stories like Tron, The Matrix, and Caprica (read The Dork Report review) would typically stage similar morality plays in virtual reality. But I don’t get the sense that Westworld is criticizing the indulgence of humanity’s worst tendencies. Is it instead focusing on the mistreatment of semi-sentient beings as slaves? When the park is in working condition, the robots are prostituted and murdered over and over for humans’ entertainment. After they become conscious, we see one “female” robot reject a human’s sexual advances, while another is cruelly chained up in a dungeon. Neither seems to be expressing much in the way of grief or resentment. Instead, we are perhaps meant to see them as innocents that are simply seeking a little dignity.

Stray observations:

  • The sequel movie Futureworld (1976) and TV series Beyond Westworld (1980) are not available on DVD or online at this time of writing.
  • Young James Brolin looks so much at times like Christian Bale does today that it’s almost creepy.
  • Even Delos’ animals are robotic, perhaps alluding to the moral tests regarding the treatment of animals (robotic or real) in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Even more on the nose, Blane finds a robot snake in the desert, foreshadowing the ones we see for sale in Blade Runner.

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The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven

 

John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven is Hollywood’s answer to Akira Kurosawa’s hugely popular Seven Samurai (read The Dork Report review). It suffers in comparison, especially if, like this Dork Reporter, one watches them in succession. The remake is quaint, chaste, and dated in ways the fairly frank original isn’t. To put it another way, Seven Samurai is a period piece of its 16th Century setting, while The Magnificent Seven is a period piece both of its 19th Century setting and its 1960 production.

A remake was inevitable considering the dizzying circle of influence. Kurosawa was a fan of the Hollywood western and especially of director John Ford, all of which directly informed Seven Samurai. Hollywood’s transposition of the story to the American West for The Magnificent Seven was fairly straightforward. Its great success led to three motion picture sequels, a television series, and is to be remade again in 2009.

The original eponymous seven samurai were actually ronin, masterless mercenaries akin to the Western outlaw: morally ambivalent drifters, killers with a personal code of honor. The Western genre is usually about outlaws, for the simple reason that they’re more dramatically interesting than regular plain folk. In both versions of 3:10 to Yuma (1957 and 2007), for example, the villain Ben Wade (Glen Ford and Russell Crowe) is a far more appealing and seductive character than the good guy Dan Evans (Can Heflin and Christian Bale). An exception to the rule is the classic High Noon, in which Gary Cooper plays an honest lawman who prevails under extreme duress. The biggest clue the magnificent seven are not classic good guys: Yul Brynner appropriately sports his trademark black hat. Upping the badass quotient and testosterone levels are no less than Steve McQueen (here getting to drive a real mustang on screen), Charles Bronson, and the very lanky James Coburn.

The Magnificent SevenThe meeting of the Badass Society is adjourned

The basic scenario is similar: seven American gunslingers accept a pittance in order to defend a Mexican village besieged by bandits. But the many alterations beyond this all reflect some very “Hollywood” thinking. In the original, it is enough for the samurai that there be an injustice they are capable of addressing. But in a Hollywood film, there must be individual motivations, which interestingly have the side effect of rendering some characters less heroic. Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) is convinced Chris (Brynner) has an ulterior motive, such as pilfering a non-existent gold mine. The dandy bounty hunter Lee (Robert Vaughn) is also along for selfish reasons; he’s on the lam for an unspecified transgression, and needs to disappear for a while.

The original Seven Samurai is actually technically comprised of only five actual samurai and two pretenders. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a peasant posing as a samurai, and Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is an earnestly romantic young boy seeking samurai training and adventure. Perhaps to economize the story, The Magnificent Seven combines these two characters into Chico (Horst Buchholz), a former farmer that worships the outlaws and attaches himself to them in order to become one.

So that leaves Chris, Bernardo (Bronson), and Vin (McQueen). In this remake’s best sleight-of-hand, we’re in the dark as to their motivations until near the very end. None of them are young men, and what drives them turns out to be the fantasy of settling down into an agricultural lifestyle. The gruff Bernardo befriends a batch of scrappy kids, becoming a kind of protective older brother if not a father figure. Chris and Vin seal their friendship with the mutual confession that they both hanker for a simpler life (a sort of admission very difficult for two very macho men).

The Magnificent SevenGo ahead and make our day

But many poor changes outweigh these aforementioned interesting ones. Being a product of Hollywood, it’s actually less violent, profane, and sexy than the original Japanese film. The Mexican villagers are wise and saintly, compared to the more realistically flawed farmers in Seven Samurai. The threat of sexual violence is whitewashed away; the bandits are not interested in the Mexican women. We see too much of the villains, and the chief bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) is practically a featured character.

But just as I was beginning to dismiss the remake as inferior to the original in every way, and of historical interest only, the movie darkens and becomes interesting again. The Mexican villagers, like their ancient Japanese counterparts, do reveal a dark side after all. Despite their initial success in beating back the bandits with the outlaws’ help, they have a crisis of faith and betray the outlaws in order to return to the comfort zone of their parasitic relationship with the bandits.

In the old west, an outlaw may very well find a home in a frontier town where no one knows his past deeds (a core theme of the HBO series Deadwood and the situation in which Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven opens). But in ancient feudal Japan’s caste system, a ronin could never take a step down and live among farmers. This also proves to be the case in The Magnificent Seven: Chris and Vin mosey on out of town and Chico stays behind, rejecting his pretensions to being a rebel outlaw, and reverting to his destined life as a farmer.


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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

Had I seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford earlier, I might have included it among my Most Disappointing Films of 2007. Certainly not because it’s “bad,” for could I make a better movie myself? Could I make a movie at all? And who appointed me a critic, anyway? But this blog is about my personal reactions to movies, so here goes. Assassination was praised to the high heavens by publications including Dork Report favorite Sight & Sound, so I had expected it to be one of the year’s gems. And indeed, the acting is excellent and the cinematography breathtaking. But I would describe the movie as “novelistic,” not necessarily a good thing with cinema, as opposed to, you know, novels.

Assassination no doubt inherited its notably slow pace (not a problem for me) from its source material, the novel by Ron Hansen. I haven’t read it, but I suspect my own chief complaint likewise derives from the book: the omniscient narration. I’m not one that thinks voiceover narration is a screenwriter’s crutch to be avoided at all costs, but there are two extremes in which it can be misused: to redundantly explicate the action seen on screen or to impart information better shown that told. The Assassination of Jesse James does both. I wish I had made a note of an example or two, but there are numerous instances of narration that could simply have been cut for not adding anything to what we’re watching onscreen at the moment. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the most significant events of the story, Ford’s ultimate disillusionment with James and decision to betray him to the law, happens offscreen and is offhandedly recounted by the narrator. Ford approaching the authorities to become a criminal informant would have made for a dramatic scene.

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordThrough amber fields of grain

Although the pairing is not quite fair, I am I huge fan of the HBO series Deadwood and couldn’t help but compare the two in my head. Please set aside for a moment the only roughly related settings (Deadwood is set in 1870s South Dakota, and Assassination in 1882 Missouri) and bear with me for a moment. Most obviously, actor Garret Dillahunt appears in both. Dillahunt may have been typecast as a 19th Century sort, but his characters could not be more different. The Francis Wolcott of Deadwood is an educated, urbane, and yet dangerously perverted early Master of the Universe, a far cry from the suicidally ignorant Ed Miller in Assassination. But where the two diverge, and Deadwood certainly prevails, is the dialogue. David Milch’s scripting is the kind of astonishingly profane poetry that might result when characters with Victorian educations find themselves living in the ass-end of the world. I found myself spoiled by my memories of the prematurely-cancelled Deadwood, and wished Assassination had a little more of its poetry.

But enough griping – time for the praise! Roger Deakin’s cinematography is delicious, full of warm oranges and deep unbroken fields of black. A notable visual effect used to open new chapters in the story is a narrow field of focus with a blurry halo, suggesting old daguerrotypes (similar to what I’ve seen recently in The Illusionist). Dork Report guest critic Snarkbait christened the effect “Ye Old Timey Filter No. 4,” but according to an interview with Deakins in American Cinematographer, the filter is his own invention and appropriately called the Deakinizer.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordThe James Gang in happier days

There is fine acting all around, and two fun cameos from James Carville and Nick Cave (who cowrote the film’s music). Casey Affleck rounds out an excellent year in his career after Gone Baby Gone with a great performance as Robert Ford, obviously not billed above Brad Pitt but arguably the main character. Sam Rockwell (as Charley Ford) is especially great near the end of the film, as his simple-minded character tragically breaks down. Pitt makes a charming and earthy, yet plainly sociopathic Jesse James. James’ curse is that he’s always the smartest man in the room, but one need only witness the particularly unhinged laugh Pitt gives him to see how lunatic and criminal the man actually is.

I lied, one more complaint: Mary-Louise Parker & Zooey Deschanel, both fine, name actors, appear in miniature roles with minimal dialogue. Perhaps their characters were similarly minor in the original novel, but they seem underserved in the film. Perhaps the female presence in the actual lives of these historical figures was not significant, but to return to Deadwood for a moment, Deadwood repeatedly proved it is not historical revisionism to include women in a modern-day portrait of a bygone era.


Official movie site: jessejamesmovie.warnerbros.com

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Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles movie poster

 

Unfortunately, Blazing Saddles is not nearly as funny as I remember from my childhood. I recall the infamous bean-induced fart sequnce being a veritable symphony of bad taste; alas, the real thing is just a minute or so long at most. But it turns wonderfully crazy near the end, finally becoming funny as the cast crashes postmodern-style into another movie set and an actor shouts “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks!”

Gene Wilder proves his range by gives the polar opposite performance than in Young Frankenstein and The Producers. Stoned mellow, he graciously supports star Cleavon Little. Still, Wilder gets to wrap up the picture by kicking up his heels (still munching the popcorn from their movie date) and confessing his longing to ride off into the sunset with Sheriff Bart.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada movie poster

 

Three Burials joins Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as one of my few highly-rated westerns. Like Dead Man, its tone meanders from the darkly comic to the melodramatic, and is at times almost unwatchably gruesome. Which does nothing to explain why I liked it, I know.

Special mention to Barry Pepper for taking what must be one of the most thankless roles in movie history: his character is a onanistic racist brute, beaten, dragged by a horse, forced at gunpoint to disinter a corpse, bitten by a rattlesnake, and not the least of which, spends a good part of the movie with his pants down (come to think of it, so does Dwight Yoakam).