Movie Project #2: Stagecoach [1939]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Stagecoach [1939]

Stagecoach [1939]
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, Ben Hecht
Genre: Adventure/Western
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell
Running Time: 96 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I finally watched my first John Ford/John Wayne film, The Searchers, at the end of last year’s project. Rather than just stop there, I thought it would be a good idea to see another classic from them.
Accolades: Seven Oscar nominations (two wins — Best Music, Scoring and Thomas Mitchell for Best Supporting Actor), rated the ninth greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute, inclusion on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list

Well, I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.

Stagecoach is a film of many firsts. It is director John Ford’s first sound Western, his first collaboration (of over 20) with John Wayne, and his first Western shot using the gorgeous Monument Valley of the Southwest. The film is also widely considered to have single-handedly elevated the Western into respectability. Nearly 75 years later, Stagecoach still stands as one of the finest of the genre.

Although John Wayne is inarguably the biggest name on the bill, he is merely just one of many who are given equal footing here. The film tells the tale of nine strangers, all of varying backgrounds, who are riding in a stagecoach together through dangerous Apache-infested territory. There’s Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute who is driven out of her hometown by a catty group of ladies that dub themselves the “Law and Order League.” There’s Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), an alcoholic doctor who would be excellent at his job if he could just stay sober for a minute. There’s a pregnant woman, Lucy (Louise Platt), who is heading west to be with her injured soldier husband. Other travelers include a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), an embezzling banker (Berton Churchill), a Confederate gambler (John Carradine), a U.S. Marshal (George Bancroft) and the stage driver (Andy Devine). Then, of course, there is John Wayne.

Stagecoach [1939]

Wayne plays the role of The Ringo Kid, a fugitive who is picked up by the Marshal on charges of murder. Even though he is a criminal and escaped convict, we never get the impression that Ringo is a bad man. He never puts up a fight against the Marshal; instead, he seems more interested in making sure this stagecoach — namely, the women — make it to their destination safely. Wayne plays this character in a way that only he can, and he makes for a great hero in a carriage that badly needs one.

That isn’t to say the other characters are worthless. The prostitute Dallas (of whom Claire Trevor’s performance was actually given top billing) does well in the face of adversity, even as the others treat her as if she were a leper. The Marshal is a handy man with his gun, and even ol’ Doc Boone proves to be an asset, even if he is forced to down copious amounts of black coffee to sober up in a crucial time of need.

Stagecoach [1939]

In many ways, Stagecoach feels like a road movie, and it has a big payoff near the end. The Apaches — portrayed as nothing but savages, unfortunately — make their first appearance and begin chasing down the stagecoach. The ensuing action scene is nothing short of remarkable, even when viewed today. There are visual stunts that simply would not be attempted anymore, including one death-defying moment where an Apache is knocked off a horse directly in the path of the stagecoach and the other running stallions. By all accounts, the stuntman seemed to be okay, but holy hell that looked dangerous.

Stagecoach runs at a brisk 96 minutes, and there is never a dull moment to speak of. The film has excellent pacing; because of this, it could stand as an excellent introduction to the Western genre. John Ford, John Wayne, a memorable cast of characters and an outstanding action setpiece — what else is needed?

9/10

 
Bonus trivia: Orson Welles famously stated that he watched Stagecoach over 40 times while filming Citizen Kane.

Movie Review: Django Unchained [2012]

Django Unchained [2012]

Django Unchained [2012]
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Genre: Action/Drama/Western
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Running Time: 165 minutes

Django Unchained is an homage to many genres — the Spaghetti Western, Blaxploitation, revenge flicks — but at its core it is a Quentin Tarantino film. And no one makes movies like QT.

Set in 1858, three years before the Civil War, the film tells the story of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) — the “D” is silent. While being transported across the vast state of Texas with a group of other slaves, Django becomes a free man after they run into Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter. Schultz hires Django to aid him in finding and identifying the Brittle brothers, a trio of wanted fugitives. Their partnership works out rather well, and they end up working together throughout the winter, raking in good money by collecting bounties.

Django Unchained [2012]

We learn that Django had been sold away from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), shortly before meeting Dr. Schultz. After their successful season of bounty hunting, the two men discover that Broomhilda is now the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a very wealthy businessman known for his brutal “Candie Land” plantation. With a target now in sight, the unlikely duo head to Mississippi to bring her back alive.

If you are familiar with Tarantino at all, you will have a good idea of what to expect here. Violence is plentiful, the soundtrack is eclectic, and there are winks/homages to countless other films (even Franco Nero, the star of the 1966 film, Django, has a small role here). The man has no fear when it comes to directing, and he does things his own way. Want to include a bass-heavy Rick Ross song while Django walks across the screen? Sure, why the hell not? Some may question the use of modern rap during an 1850s film, but somehow it works surprisingly well. Tarantino’s soundtracks have always been favorites of mine, and Django Unchained does not disappoint in this regard.

Django Unchained [2012]

Of course, there has been a great amount of controversy with the film, most of which stems from its gratuitous usage of the “n-word” (most notably from Spike Lee, who refuses to even watch it). At times, it is uncomfortable watching all of these white actors rattling off racial slurs, but we must remember that this was what it was like during that time period. This isn’t a light subject matter, and quite frankly it would have been a mistake to stray away from this language.

It’s somewhat ironic that in a film named Django Unchained about a character named Django, that the actor portraying him has been receiving the fewest accolades. That’s unfortunate because Jamie Foxx really does a stellar job here. Django comes a long way during the film, and much of the character’s growth can be attributed to Foxx. Of course, it’s easy to be overshadowed when the rest of the cast is as good as it is. Christoph Waltz is the perfect complement to Django’s fiery character, and the two actors play off each other quite well.

Django Unchained [2012]

Leonardo DiCaprio is just as fantastic as the brutal, yet oddly charismatic, plantation owner. It is Samuel L. Jackson, however, who steals every scene he is in as Candie’s loyal head slave, Stephen. Jackson stated that he wanted to make Stephen the most hated black character in the history of cinema, and he makes a damn good case for that title. And, of course, because this is a Tarantino flick, there are a ridiculous amount of noteworthy cameos, with everyone from Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, James Parks, Jonah Hill and even QT himself making an appearance.

Even with its lengthy running time (nearly three hours!), Django Unchained never fails to entertain. Once again, Quentin Tarantino has proven to be a master at recreating history as only he can.

9/10

Movie Project #50: The Searchers [1956]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Searchers [1956]

The Searchers [1956]
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent (screenplay), Alan Le May (novel)
Genre: Western
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles
Running Time: 119 minutes

That’ll be the day.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I had never seen a John Wayne film (outside of the terrible propaganda movie, The Green Berets). How could I have missed out on one of America’s most popular figures? There isn’t a better place to start than with John Ford’s The Searchers, ranked the seventh greatest film of all time per this year’s BFI Sight & Sound poll.

The year is 1868. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) has returned home from the Civil War after a three year absence. He takes in residency with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family. Almost immediately upon arriving, cattle from a neighbor are stolen. Ethan and a small group of Texas Rangers head out to investigate, only to find that the theft was a diversion from the Comanche Indians meant to draw them away from their families. The men realize this too late, and they return to find the house in ruins. Ethan’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew are all dead, and his two nieces are missing. Now, with vengeance on his mind, Ethan heads out to find the Comanche tribe that he suspects has kidnapped the two girls.

The Searchers [1956]

Upon first glance, this appears to be a formulaic American Western. It’s a battle of cowboys against Indians, with both groups out for blood. However, there is another layer to The Searchers that I didn’t expect to find, and it comes from the character of Ethan Edwards.

Ethan is the very definition of an anti-hero. When he returns home at the beginning of the film, hints at his troubled past are subtly acknowledged. He didn’t arrive until three years after the war ended, he has a large amount of unmarked money on his person, and he refuses to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers. He is a clear loner, and his stubborn tendencies make appearances throughout the entire film. He is also a blatant racist with absolutely no shame toward his beliefs, and at one point he even laughs as a Native American woman is kicked down a hill. In short, he’s an asshole, but he is a damn interesting character.

The Searchers [1956]

For most of the film, Edwards is joined by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an adopted member of his brother’s family. This accompaniment isn’t by Ethan’s choice, as he has an obvious resentment for this character (calling him a “half breed” early on, which Pawley rebuts that he is 1/8 Cherokee). Their partnership is shaky, and the men do not like each other at all. But both have the same goal, and somehow it makes sense to work together.

The Searchers is a beautiful film, shot in vibrant Technicolor, and it makes strong use of its landscape (Monument Valley, Utah). It has been said that David Lean watched the film over and over again to generate ideas on how to use the desert in his brilliant Lawrence of Arabia. The VistaVision format really makes the colors pop, and this is easily one of the more visually stimulating American Westerns I have seen.

The more I think about The Searchers, the more I appreciate what it offers. I’m not ready to call it one of my favorites of the genre — some of the racism is really hard to stomach in this day and age — but it’s easy to understand how this has been so influential over the years.

8/10

 
And that wraps up this year’s movie project! Once again, this has been an enlightening journey. Stay tuned this week for a wrap-up of the entire project!

Movie Project #46: Dead Man [1995]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Dead Man [1995]

Dead Man [1995]
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Genre: Drama/Fantasy/Western
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, and Gabriel Byrne
Running Time: 121 minutes

“Do you know my poetry?”

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, shot entirely in black-and-white and labeled a “psychedelic Western” by the director himself, is unlike any film I have seen. What starts out as a familiar Western plotline — a foreigner arrives in an unwelcoming new town and gets in trouble — quickly flips itself on its head and turns into an absurd existential journey.

Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, who we quickly learn is a “dead man” even if he doesn’t know it yet. An accountant from Cleveland, Blake rides by train all the way out to the frontier town of Machine where he has been promised a lucrative new job. It’s clear upon arrival that Blake is woefully out of place. He shows up in a preposterous checkered suit, and he is nearly laughed out of the company building by the business manager (John Hurt). It turns out the job position has been filled, and even after appealing to the company’s truculent owner, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in his final film performance), Blake walks away empty-handed.

Dead Man [1995]

Things only get worse from there. Blake somehow manages to bed a woman, only to have her sulking ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne) show up afterward. In an act of self defense, William shoots the man, getting himself shot in the process. The bad news continues as it is revealed that this was the son of Dickinson, and the wealthy business owner hires a posse of hitmen to snuff out the accountant.

While on the run, Blake meets a large Native American guide, Nobody (Gary Farmer), who attempts to help him come to terms with his impending death. It is from this point forward where the film takes a surreal turn, as Nobody takes Blake on a journey of spiritual enlightenment. They meet some bizarre characters along the way (including an unforgettable group of mountain men played by Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris), and we are kept up to speed on the hitmen via seemingly random interludes. The film fades in and out of the paths of each side, much like Blake goes in and out of consciousness.

Dead Man [1995]

Quite frankly, there’s a lot to take in, and it can get difficult to piece it altogether. By all accounts, this seems to be a film in which multiple viewings are necessary to get the full effect. Critics were divided upon its release — Roger Ebert famously gave this 1 1/2 stars, while Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote an entire book on the subject — but it has built a cult following since then.

I can’t say I’m entirely on board with the film, but I loved the cast, led by Johnny Depp’s meek protrayal of William Blake. Gary Farmer makes for an intriguing spiritual guide, a more contemporary take when compared to the early Western time period. The supporting cast is nothing short of phenomenal, with memorable performances from the likes of Mitchum, Hurt, Iggy Pop, Thornton, Harris, Alfred Molina, and even Crispin Glover. Throw in Neil Young’s improvisational guitar score and you have all the makings of a bona fide cult hit.

My first impression of Dead Man is mixed, but there are enough ideas in place that make me believe I could enjoy it more on a second viewing. I may need to go on my own spiritual quest beforehand, however.

6/10

Movie Project #43: For a Few Dollars More [1965]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

For a Few Dollars More [1967]

For a Few Dollars More [1967]
Director: Sergio Leone
Genre: Western
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonté
Running Time: 132 minutes

I didn’t hear what the bet was.
Your life.

For a Few Dollars More is the second film in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy. I wrote about the first in the series, A Fistful of Dollars, earlier this year, and my initial plan was to watch both films back-to-back. This didn’t happen, but no matter — it was great to come back to the trilogy with a few months perspective.

For a Few Dollars More [1965]

Clint Eastwood once again stars as the “Man with No Name”, though he is referred to by others as Manco (meaning “one-handed/one-armed”). Manco is a bounty hunter who is pursuing El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté), a ruthless bastard who is also one of the most wanted fugitives in the west. After running into Colonel Douglas Mortimer (aka “The Man in Black” played by Lee Van Cleef), another bounty hunter who is chasing El Indio, the two men decide they have a better chance to take down the fugitive and his goons by working together. Their partnership is shaky at best, as evidenced by their introduction in which they shoot each other’s hats (an amusing and effective scene), but they have a mutual respect for each other.

While A Fistful of Dollars relied solely on Eastwood, For a Few Dollars More focuses on this unlikely partnership. Eastwood is at his best here, as the poncho-wearing, cigar-chomping Manco, but Van Cleef is just as good, if not better. It’s a lot of fun watching these two legends play off each other, each one slyly trying to one-up the other. Volonté makes a formidable villain, brilliantly playing a nasty shell of a man, one who we learn more about thanks to a couple of flashback scenes. By the end, you will undoubtedly want to see him get his comeuppance.

For a Few Dollars More [1965]

All of the familiar traits from Sergio Leone are on display here — wide, panoramic landscapes, extreme close-ups, and an unforgettable score from Ennio Morricone. On the flip side, the poor voice dubbing is again noticeable and even distracting at times. No matter how many films of this manner I have seen, the dubbing takes some time to get used to.

In many ways, For a Few Dollars More builds upon what its predecessor set out to do. Seeing “The Man with No Name” team up with another bounty hunter adds an intriguing element to Leone’s Spaghetti Western, and the sheer star power of Eastwood, Van Cleef and Volonté is a sight to behold. It’s undeniably a great film, but perhaps its strongest asset is that it set the groundwork for the biggest and best entry in the trilogy: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

8.5/10

 

Movie Project #27: A Fistful of Dollars [1964]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

A Fistful of Dollars [1964]

A Fistful of Dollars [1964]
Director: Sergio Leone
Genre: Western
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonté and Marianne Koch
Runtime: 99 minutes

Let’s get this out of the way first: A Fistful of Dollars is an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Yojimbo. The similarities are undeniable — essentially the swords are swapped for guns, and the setting is moved from Feudal Japan to the Old West. If you can get over that bit of information, you will find a badass western with Clint Eastwood at the top of his game.

A Fistful of Dollars jumpstarted the popularity of the Spaghetti Western genre, and it began the classic Dollars Trilogy (which also includes For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Eastwood is the lead in all three films, playing a character commonly known as “The Man With No Name”.

A Fistful of Dollars [1964]

In Fistful, he is also known as “Joe”, a gunfighter who enters a small border town and begins to play two feuding families against each other. On one side are the Rojo brothers led by the crazy Ramon (Gian Maria Volonté); the other, the Baxters, led by town sheriff John (Wolfgang Lukschy). Seeing their rivalry as a way to get rich, Joe sets up shop at the local saloon. The saloonkeeper, Silvanito (Jose Calvo), reaffirms his thoughts by remarking that everyone here either ends up very rich or very dead.

Watching Joe manipulate the two factions is a thing of beauty. Eastwood makes this character a total badass, a man who is in control of every situation, even in towns unknown to him. The lead character is now iconic — who can forget his poncho, the cigar chomping or constant squinting? The rest of the cast do well in their roles, but their audio is dubbed over since the actors were all speaking their lines in different languages. This disconnection is a bit jarring at first, but I was so entranced by the action on screen that it didn’t bother me as much as it might for others.

A Fistful of Dollars [1964]

A Fistful of Dollars could perhaps best be described as “bite size” Leone. The film has many of the same techniques that he would perfect in his later westerns (i.e. wide screen camera angles and extreme closeups), but it is significantly shorter than the three hour epics of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Thus, it would be much easier to take in one sitting.

Fistful holds up remarkably well today, and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is just as fantastic as ever. I had a lot of fun watching this film, and I will happily give this one a high recommendation.

9/10

Movie Project #6: The Wild Bunch [1969]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Wild Bunch [1969]

The Wild Bunch [1969]
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Genre: Western
Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan
Runtime: 145 minutes

The Wild Bunch starts with a bang and ends with a bang. Easily one of the most violent Westerns I have seen, the movie focuses on a group of aging outlaws during the final years of the Wild West. The leader of the bunch is Pike Bishop (Holden), a grizzled veteran that has established a code of honor within his unit. They aren’t exactly model citizens, but they maintain a level of camraderie even when disagreeing about certain issues.

The opening “bang” shows the group robbing a railroad office that is purported to contain a significant amount of silver. The robbery attempt goes wrong, however, when Deke Thornton (Ryan), a former partner of Pike, and his posse of bounty hunters show up. A massive gunfight ensues with dozens of innocent casualties. This massacre is something to behold, as gunfire is coming from every direction, and innocent bystanders are running for their lives. The action is given a frantic sense of urgence thanks to the quick editing and multiple camera angles used by director Sam Peckinpah. According to IMDB, the film in total contains 2,721 edits (roughly three seconds per shot). That’s impressive.

The Wild Bunch [1969]

Not everyone survives this battle, but Pike and the remaining members of the bunch (played by Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Jaime Sanchez) are able to escape the mayhem. They meet up with an old buddy, Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), and hit the road to Mexico. It is here that they get caught up in the ongoing Mexican Revolution and take a job to intercept a weapons shipment from the U.S. Army.

During all of this, we learn a bit about Pike’s backstory, the betrayal by Thornton, and we see the sense of camraderie formed by this group of men who are struggling to adapt to the changes around them. As such, there are moments of quietness that some could find tedious, but I felt they were helpful in terms of character development. Even though these guys were not ideal human beings, I empathized with them, even with their flawed “code.”

The Wild Bunch [1969]

The second “bang” is most impressive. The movie culminates with a violent bloodbath of a battle, one that even uses a huge machine gun (as pictured above). The carnage is appalling, as once again innocent men and women are caught in the middle of the violence, but it is impressive in terms of its visual impact. This is the stuff of legends, and it caps off the movie with a fitting and fiery end.

The Wild Bunch is the first Peckinpah movie I have seen, but it certainly won’t be the last. This is unlike any other Western I have come across so far, and its long runtime never feels like a burden. Quite frankly, this is another great Western in a decade that’s full of ‘em.

8/10

Video Game DLC Review: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare [Xbox 360, 2010]

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare [Xbox 360, 2010]

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3)
Genre: Third-person shooter
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Release Date: November 22, 2010

Whoever came up with the idea for Undead Nightmare deserves a pat on the back. Inserting zombies into the wild western world of Red Dead Redemption? That is a stroke of genius, my friends.

What makes Undead Nightmare so great is that it isn’t just a killer concept — this is premium downloadable content. For a mere $9.99, you get access to a lengthy single player campaign (approx. 10 hours to get 100% completion) as well as two new multiplayer modes. That’s more than some full-priced retail games offer! Expansion packs don’t get much better than this.

Reformed outlaw John Marston is once again the main protagonist, and this time he is out to find a cure for the terrifying new plague that is sweeping the land, all so he can get his wife and child back to normal. The entire Wild West is being overrun with zombies, with the undead rising from their graves all over the area.

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare [Xbox 360, 2010]

The plague hasn’t just infected humans. It has spread to animals, too, even in John’s preferred method of transportation: horses. I was horrified (yet also amused) when I whistled for a horse, only to have one arrive with half of its face missing. It must also be stated that you don’t know fear until you are attacked out of nowhere by a zombie bear.

Rockstar didn’t just include zombie animals, they also opted to entertain by introducing mythical creatures to the game. Now you can randomly come across chupacabras, sasquatches and unicorns. It’s pretty clear that the developers had a damn good time making this DLC.

As stated earlier, the single player campaign can last a good ten hours or so to finish completely. Aside from the main storyline that brings back some old favorite characters, there are also side quests and random encounters with loners out in the wilderness. Perhaps most fun are the objectives where you can clear out a whole town’s mess of zombies and let them live in peace, albeit most likely for just a few days. This brings a sense of heroism to John’s meandering adventure.

Fans of Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer will be pleased with Undead Nightmare’s two new modes: Land Grab and Undead Overrun. The former is a free roam feature in which you attempt to hold onto a piece of territory for a certain amount of time, all while fighting off any attackers. The latter mode is my personal favorite, as it is basically a Horde mode against increasingly difficult waves of zombies. Even with a good group of players, this mode can get pretty damn crazy. There were times when I was the last survivor and had to run for my life against a seemingly endless onslaught of zombies. It beats the hell out of Call of Duty’s Nazi Zombies feature, that’s for sure.

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare [Xbox 360, 2010]

While Undead Nightmare offers an impressive amount of content, it isn’t quite perfect. I ran into some weird glitches, including one particular annoying bug in which I had cleared out the zombies in a town except for one that remained somehow stuck in the walls of a building. I couldn’t get to the bastard, so I had to restart at the last checkpoint and save the town again. Not a huge deal, but an inconvenience nonetheless.

Glitches be damned, this is still a fantastic expansion for those looking to continue the wonderful Red Dead Redemption experience. It is a shame that more developers do not create such engrossing DLC as Undead Nightmare, as this really is one of the best that I have come across. Every now and then this expansion goes on sale for $5, but even at its $9.99 price it is more than worth purchasing.

9/10

Movie Project #41 and #42: Once Upon a Time in the West [1968] and The Thin Red Line [1998]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]
Once Upon a Time in the West [1968, Sergio Leone]
Starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale.

My experience with Sergio Leone is limited. Out of his filmography, I have only seen The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, which I should probably watch again at some point. Once Upon a Time in the West bares a number of striking similarities to that epic — particularly its extended running time, masterful soundtrack and extraordinary cinematography. The opening scene alone, which has very little dialogue, captivated me from the start. Not much happened during this sequence, yet I was absolutely intrigued. The stunning shots of the wild west combined with extreme closeups of the characters’ faces were truly a thing of beauty.

It was also a lot of fun to see Henry Fonda play the villain, which is something I hadn’t seen him do before. Charles Bronson was excellent as his harmonica-playing adversary, and it was a real treat watching Claudia Cardinale as the dame caught up in the whole mess. While there was certainly a lot that I loved about the film, I was still a little turned off by the sheer longevity of it all. Leone sure loved to milk every scene as long as possible, and his attention to detail is extraordinary. I felt a little burned out by the end of the movie, but it certainly left a lasting impression on me. 8.5/10

The Thin Red Line [1998]
The Thin Red Line [1998, Terrence Malick]
Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte.

Terrence Malick, seemingly a favorite director amongst movie bloggers, is someone I know I should become more familiar with. The Thin Red Line is the first film I have seen from him, and I figured this would be a great place to start, given my interest in World War II. The movie tells the story of a group of U.S. soldiers during the Battle of Mount Austen. We are introduced to a large ensemble cast of soldiers, including the likes of Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte and more. This is a really impressive group of guys, but the fact that so many were introduced made it considerably more difficult to get to know them. Outside of a few major characters, including a fantastic turn by Nolte, we learn little about most of these soldiers. In a way, however, this is just the way war is. Men are sent to perform their duties, and new faces are brought in to replace those who have fallen.

The Thin Red Line moves along at a very methodical pace, and I can see how this would deter some viewers. I didn’t mind this at all, as it gave us a chance to see Malick’s stunning shots of Guadalcanal, a beautiful island now interrupted with violent warfare. One thing that did bother me, at least somewhat, was an over-reliance on philosphophical voiceovers. I don’t have a problem with these in general, but they happened too often for my liking. Still, there’s no question that TTRL is a visually astonishing film that offers a completely different (and refreshing) take on WWII compared to 1998’s other big film, Saving Private Ryan. 8/10

Movie Project #22 and #23: Zodiac [2007] and Unforgiven [1992]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Zodiac [2007]
Zodiac [2007, Fincher]
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo

Zodiac is one of the only David Fincher films that I hadn’t seen, and I was particularly intrigued by its strong cast and dark subject matter. The movie revolves around the infamous Zodiac killer that terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s. While the cast is extensive, the story focuses mainly on those working to find the killer and reveal his identity. Three men in particular become obsessed with the story: Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a newspaper crime reporter who is trying to decrypt the letters that the killer is sending the San Francisco Chronicle. The paper’s political cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall), has better luck at this and becomes outright consumed with determining the Zodiac’s identity. Finally, there is Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who is officially assigned to the case. All three men reach incredible lows as the case gets the best of them. This is a story of obsession more than anything.

Zodiac is a rather exhausting film, clocking in at a whopping 157 minutes. There is certainly a lot of story to tell, and the character development is a major plus, but I still feel a good twenty minutes or so could have been removed. This issue aside, the film does a stunning job transporting viewers into the 1970s. Everything from the vintage clothing to the old muscle cars to Mark Ruffalo’s epic sideburns help encapsulate the era. Fincher’s directing, as expected, is wonderful, and the cast delivers strong performances overall. There’s a lot to like about Zodiac, but it didn’t blow me away like other Fincher films. 7.5/10

Unforgiven [1992, Eastwood]
Unforgiven [1992, Eastwood]
Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman

When it comes to Clint Eastwood, I still have a lot of catching up to do. I have missed out on a lot of his most well-regarded films over the years, and Unforgiven was perhaps my most glaring omission. This 1992 Best Picture winner really impressed me, and it is easily in the top three or five Western films I have ever seen. Eastwood stars as Will Munny, a reformed outlaw (and recent widow) who is persuaded to take on one last job to make money to support his two young children. He recruits his old partner-in-crime, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to help him out, and they form a reluctant trio with a tough-talking youngster (Jaimz Woolvett). Their journey brings them to the hard-living town of Big Whiskey, where a group of prostitutes have pooled together a reward for whoever kills the two men that sliced up the face of one of their workers. The town is run with an iron fist by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a mean son-of-a-bitch who has banned all weapons from those passing by.

Unforgiven is dark and violent, but it tells one hell of a story. The movie has a bit of a slow burn (which I loved, though it may grow tedious for others) before exploding into chaos and mayhem during the last twenty minutes. The drastic change near the end was so explosive that I still can’t stop thinking about it. Many of the characters seem like decent folk at first, but their evil ways start to seep through over time, clearly showing that no one ever really changes. The progression of Little Bill stands out most, as he seems to have decent motives for his town (no weapons, no crime), but his violent behavior makes him absolutely frightening. Eastwood, Hackman, and Freeman are all amazing here, and I also really enjoyed Richard Harris’s character of English Bob, a sniveling coward of a man. The cast, the set pieces, the story of revenge and change… I loved so much about Unforgiven. A great film, and one of my favorites so far in this project. 9/10