Seen Recently: The Train Robbers (1973), Dark City (1998), Easy A (2010), His Girl Friday (1940), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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The Train Robbers
directed by Burt Kennedy

Somehow I missed this totally entertaining film, despite my love for John Wayne, Ann-Margret (and Ben Johnson)! An absolutely gorgeous LOOKING film (it was cinematographer William H. Clothier’s final film), it stars John Wayne as a hired gunslinger, Ben Johnson as his right-hand man, and Ann-Margret as the widow who hires them. The opening sequence is masterful, with Ben Johnson standing by train tracks in the middle of a desert area, staring off into the distance. He’s in a “town”, but the town consists of a barn and a hotel, and a water tower. Rickety structures standing up in the middle of the desert, isolated. The film starts with a series of shots of empty rocking chairs rocking in the wind, shutters rattling against darkened windows, emptiness, desolation. It’s a very moody picture, filled with sandstorms, lightning strikes, pitch-black darkness, and fiery sunsets. Landscape and weather are used intuitively. Ann-Margret shows up and decides that she will ride with the men to find the buried gold out there in the desert. John Wayne had already lost a lung at this point, but he is still big, strapping, strong, and you can see he is doing many of his own stunts. Incredible. The dynamic between him and the much younger Ann-Margret is terrific. You can see that he is drawn to her (because, hell, she’s Ann-Margret), but, as he barks at her when she gets sentimental towards him later on, “I’ve got saddles older’n you.” But it’s a joy to watch the two of them work together. Ricardo Montelbaun plays a mysterious cigar-smoking character in pinstripes who appears to be tracking them on their journey for unknown reasons. The supporting cast, Ben Johnson and the other gunslingers, are all wonderful, with great scenes showing each character. There is a magnificent set – clearly not on a studio lot but legit out in the Mexico desert – of train tracks overrun by sand, and, half-buried in rolling sand dunes, a rusting train. This was built for the film, and it is a masterpiece of a set – like something from out of a dream, a train stranded in the sand. During the final shootout, John Wayne, realizing that they need to operate in darkness, reaches up with his rifle and smashes out the lantern above him. It’s just one example of many of how important gesture is, and how powerful he was onscreen, physically. He held nothing back. AND. I hadn’t seen the film before and TOTALLY did not see the final twist coming. I won’t give it away in case someone out there hasn’t seen it. But my jaw dropped. It’s like The Sting, where you realize that the film itself has “stung” the audience (that FBI office wasn’t real). The “sting” in The Train Robbers makes you re-think the entire film. I loved that it went that way.

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Dark City
directed by Alex Proyas

I saw this when it first came out and am very grateful I saw it on the big screen. It’s a magnificent vision, an imaginary world, an imagined city built from different eras and time periods, from snatches of dreams and memories, crowded with different styles and remnants of past eras. Automats and Art Deco lobbies. It’s a marvel of production design. And yet unlike so many films where you can say the same thing, this one is also filled with a sense of psychological menace, mystery, and pain, which puts it in line with some of the great noirs. It has a noir sensibility, and some of the scenes look like they could have been lifted right out of Edward Hopper (dark streets, lit-up lonely Automat windows, one or two people at the tables). Rufus Sewell wakes up in a bathtub in the second-grimmest bathroom in cinema history (the first being the one in Trainspotting), and he has blood on his forehead, and he is filled with panic. He doesn’t know what has happened. He puts on clothes, goes out into his hallway, to see two men in fedoras coming down the hall to get him. Why, he has no idea. From that moment on he is on the run through the dark city. The city is an odd one. Everyone falls asleep, spontaneously, for about 5 minutes at midnight every night. Cars stop on the roads. People slump in doorways. Why? Clearly influenced by Metropolis, there is a city beneath the real city, an underground world inhabited by bald identical drones, complete with gigantic death’s-head. Some of the shots are direct steals from Metropolis and have the same sense of grinding industrialization of the human potential, very disturbing. Jennifer Connelly plays a luscious and troubled nightclub singer, and Kiefer Sutherland plays a mad scientist, basically, roped into helping the underground metropolis control the aboveground one. Rufus Sewell is fighting for his life, he is accused of murder, but he didn’t do it, or at least he has no memory of doing it. He has no memory of being married to the nightclub singer. He is being chased by these horrifying black-trench-coated creatures who fly through the air over the sleeping streets of the metropolis. There’s an Angel Heart aspect to this as well: because as he gets closer to understanding what has happened, there is no relief in his deeper knowledge. It just gets more and more terrifying. Alex Proyas wrote and directed, so this is his vision. It’s a beautiful film, stark and disturbing.

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Easy A
directed by Will Gluck

One of my favorite films in recent years. I have the wonderful Dennis Cozzalio to thank for writing about this film so beautifully, so persuasively, that I had to check it out for myself. Emma Stone, who, of course, has become a big movie star since then, makes a gigantic impression here. She is a loony comedic presence, her spirit is irrepressible, her sense of what is funny is spot-on. This isn’t some obedient young starlet saying funny lines that makes her seem like she is funny/witty/snarky. This is an actress who understands humor (watch how she drones in her party host’s ear: “How have you been, Mellllanie BosTICK …” Nobody told Emma Stone to make that choice. That is Emma Stone being HILARIOUS.) I also appreciate a film that comments on the degradation of young women in movies such as this one, where your value is automatically LOW, because you are a young woman. What about a movie about teenagers that acknowledges the undercurrents around sex, the pressures, the ambiguities, from the female side of things? I’ve seen enough coming-of-age movies about teen boys to last a lifetime. I mean, of course, if it’s good, it’s good. Make your damn movie. But how I appreciate a film that takes on the situation with a female protagonist. If we only see women/girls through the eyes of men, then we are in a sorry situation. Easy A is a self-conscious film, similar to Will Gluck’s next film, Friends with Benefits, which acknowledges, in scene after scene, how movie tropes and cliches inform how we actually behave. Roles are set in stone, you be the kooky female lead, I’ll be the goofball male lead, and we’ll meet-cute, and etc. and etc. Will Gluck seems interested in how movies and pop culture filters down, how it gets inside of us. A lot of films are self-consciously self-referential and they are annoying and soulless. Easy A is almost a manifesto. It is a rhetorical device. It makes its points. Emma Stone plays a smart girl, a goofy girl, who, in order to get her bossy best friend off her back, tells her that she slept with a guy at a local community college over the weekend. This is a lie. There is no guy from the community college. She is still a virgin. She doesn’t even seem to care about being popular, or being “in” with the in crowd. Her lie comes out of being sick of her friend badgering her about what she did over the weekend (when all she did was sing in the shower and talk to her dog). So the lie gets spread. Suddenly, Olive finds herself branded the school tramp. They happen to be reading The Scarlet Letter in English class, and Olive, furious at how easily the lie spread, AND how disrespectfully she is treated just because people think she has lost her virginity, goes a bit insane, and starts dressing up in tight corsets and black leggings. She sews a scarlet “A” on the bosom of every corset. Her teacher (played beautifully by Thomas Haden Church) is disturbed, and wonders what might be going on with her. “I am glad to see you are taking your reading to heart, but …” Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play her laidback parents, and they realize something is going on with their daughter but they are not sure how to handle it since she’s never had any problems before. Lisa Kudrow is awesome in her small part. It’s a tragic performance, in the middle of a comedy. Amanda Bynes, bless her heart, is very funny as the judgmental fundie who takes on Olive as her own special Jesus-freak cause. I love the script, I love the sentiments behind the script, and I love Emma Stone’s wacky confident performance. Here is something new, here is something other actresses can’t do, here is a truly comedic personality asserting herself in a world that wants her to just be pretty and hang on some guy’s arm.

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His Girl Friday
directed by Howard Hawks

I watched it twice last week for a piece I was working on. One of my favorite films of all time. And it is that rare thing: a film that gets better with each viewing. I still don’t know where to look, at times: should I focus on Cary Grant, or should I just track Rosalind Russell? More often than not, Howard Hawks puts them both in the frame at the same time, a dazzling effect because what you know you are seeing, then, is two actors playing a scene like gangbusters. He rarely edits or cross-cuts, there are very few closeups. The takes are LONG. Scenes play out. You can’t believe that these people speak as quickly as they do and you don’t lose one word. A masterpiece.

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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
directed by John Ford

A love letter to the United States cavalry, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a fascinating look at what is ultimately a failure of a mission, to escort two ladies to a stage coach through dangerous territory where war is heating up. The various Indian Nations have bonded together into a coalition to drive the white man out. Filmed in Monument Valley, the scenery is devastatingly gorgeous and moody. John Wayne plays Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, who is 6 days away from retirement. He X’s off the days on a little calendar in his room. This is a film about growing old. It’s interesting to see John Wayne in that position, almost of submission and acceptance. He is so powerful a persona that it is difficult to think of him stepping aside from anything. There’s a painful scene between him and his commander where the commander basically tells him to let it go. Nathan has one day left in the service, and he has to let the other guys complete the mission, and make their mistakes, and perhaps pay for it with their lives: the two of them took their chances as young men, and now it’s time to let others test their own mettle. John Wayne is absolutely magnificent in that scene. Of course, he then has second thoughts about that whole “no country for old men” business, and has to go out and finish what he started, but in general this is still a film about old men stepping aside, about young men learning to grow up and take responsibility for themselves. There’s a killer scene where the cavalry troop gives John Wayne a silver watch on the occasion of his retirement. Wayne is taken aback, and then he is told that there is an engraving on the back of the watch. Wayne takes this in, preparing himself, subtly gearing himself up for the emotion (which, of course, must be hid and handled), then glances around a bit, before taking out his glasses. An eloquent gesture, as all of his gestures are. He needs his glasses, but he hesitates slightly before copping to needing them. Brilliant. He reads the inscription, and I find myself in tears, although Wayne himself does not shed a tear. Great movie stars can do that. The whole scene reminded me of George Washington with his glasses. Ben Johnson is fantastic here, again (like in The Train Robbers, 23, 24 years later) as John Wayne’s second-in-command. Some people have authority onscreen, others don’t. Ben Johnson does. Mildred Natwick is just marvelous in her small part. I can take or leave Joanne Dru. Nathan has a back story, a dead wife and dead children, (he visits their graves and talks to his wife, beautiful work from Wayne) and we don’t know what happened, not exactly, but in one scene he says to drunk-Irishman-pal Victor McLaglen, gesturing at the photographs on his desk, “I haven’t had a drink since that day.” With John Wayne, you never need things spelled out. He gives you everything, in the simplest way possible. How can you describe why he was so effective? He was a movie star. A great actor. Irreplaceable.

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26 Responses to Seen Recently: The Train Robbers (1973), Dark City (1998), Easy A (2010), His Girl Friday (1940), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

  1. Great observations about John Wayne, as usual. I love SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON and I recall really enjoying THE TRAIN ROBBERS, which, as you noted, is a stunning looking film with a wonderfully deep cast. Yes, the moment where Brittles puts on his glasses to read the engraved inscription – what a movie moment for all time.

    I, too, really dug EASY A. It really caught me off guard when I saw it, and I just sat there and thought, “Well, Emma Stone is going to be a big movie star.” She has that kind of unique energy I associate with the great female comedic leads of the 30s.

    • sheila says:

      Yeah – Emma Stone is just a loony pro-actively comedic presence. She understands humor and she is really really set free here.

      And yes, I was so impressed with the moody lonely grandeur of Train Robbers – really artfully filmed. That train in the sand is just gorgeous. An unforgettable image!

  2. The Train Robbers is slowly working its way up my Netflix queue. I am an unapologetic fan of Burt Kennedy’s westerns. Personal favorite, The Rounders, a contemporary (1965) western with Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda. He also did a nice neo-noir reuniting Ford with Rita Hayworth, The Money Trap.

  3. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Ben Johnson’s riding in Yellow Ribbon is worth the price of admission. I think it’s “real,” that is, he does it. Anyone who rides knows immediately what remarkable skill he possessed as a horseman. Perhaps that’s part of his projection of authority in all of his screen roles, whether he’s a heavy or a good guy. I love him in “The Get Away,” and in “One Eyed Jacks.”

    • sheila says:

      Yes! Thank you so much for your comments on his skills as a rider! The way he takes off on that horse, and the way he charges back … you just never doubt that what you are seeing is actually happening. And his energy with Wayne in the film … Wayne is so commanding, so powerful – and yet you totally believe that Ben Johnson’s character is indispensable to Wayne’s success. Everyone needs a powerful second, everyone needs someone they trust implicitly. He’s just so good!

      • He’s so good in RIO GRANDE and WAGON MASTER, too, riding and acting. There’s never a false note with Ben Johnson. He makes it all seem so effortless, too.

        • sheila says:

          Totally! I don’t know much about him – should do a little more research. In his own way, he has as much command as John Wayne – and that is no small feat!!

  4. Todd Restler says:

    Dark City is amazing, it was one of Ebert’s favorites as you probably know and one of the few (maybe 6 I think?) movies for which he did a DVD commentary track.

    I usually don’t like movies that so obviously mix genres, it usually feels forced or out of place (I HATED Pan’s Labyrinth) but this mix of sci-fi and noir works perfectly. The set design is stunning, the story ingenious, the acting excellent.

    (SPOILERS from here on) You would know better then me Sheila, but this seems to be a hard kind of movie to act in, one in which the characters not only don’t know what is going on, but indeed are having their very minds toyed with. The characters at times are in an almost dreamlike state, like they are mildly drugged up.

    I think the acting in this movie is a bit overwhelmed by the visuals, but in a good way. I guess I mean that the acting is unobtrusive, understated. Keifer’s mad scientist is the exception because he is the only one who seems to know what is going on. But I think the acting is crucial in grounding this story…..you feel like this is HAPPENING. Reminds me a bit of Tim Robbins acting in Jacob’s Ladder, one of my favorite movies and performances. And the shot near the end, which reveals the reality of the situation, is an amazing visual reveal of crucial information, one of the best I can think of, like a larger then life reveal of Andy’s Dufresne’s escape method from Shawshank prison in another great Tim Robbins movie.

    Great, somewhat overlooked movie.

    Enjoy your trip Sheila!

    • sheila says:

      Todd – I agree with you that the acting is sometimes overwhelmed. The “setting” is the real thing here, it seems to me – the mood, the weirdness – everyone there is fragments of everyone else, right? and even those who occupy a real space and time don’t know the full picture. It’s truly creepy. I liked it, too, because it has real questions about identity/memory … and the questions remain open-ended, even when the “reality” is revealed near the end. You know, big questions like “Who am I?” “Is what I perceive real?” Kind of like the android’s sense of anguish in Blade Runner (and in Philip Dick’s original story). You know: if I see something then by definition it is real. But what if it’s all constructed? I really really loved the philosophical slant of the film. The special effects did not overwhelm those philosophical questions – but supported them FULLY.

      I thought Keifer was pretty over-the-top, but it didn’t bother me. He seemed truly frightened for his life and consumed by guilt.

      And it’s interesting question, in terms of how to act such material. If it turns out that we are all made up of fragments of one another, a little bit here, a sense-memory there, then either we are trapped – or TOTALLY free – which is what that “let’s go over there to that pier” moment at the end said to me. They are free. There is still a sense of loss, because who they thought they were has been totally eradicated – but what the hell, now they know that they are totally in charge – even of such a simple question as “should we go over there to that pier, or …?”

      There’s this said weird sense of freedom in that final moment that I really liked.

      It was a film that made me think about my own life. You know? Like Blade Runner did. It’s really ABOUT something and manages to get its ideas across without being didactic. I found The Matrix to be pretty didactic. It had similar elements. Everything’s an illusion, choose your reality, all that. But I think Dark City delved way deeper into similar material.

      Loved it!

  5. Todd Restler says:

    Yes, Roger loved it, you should listen to his commentary track. It’s one of his great movies. Totally agree it’s a movie that really makes you think, it’s like philosophy lesson, but also works perfectly well as straight science fiction or straight noir. Truly original. Blade Runner is a good comparison, I think so is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Way more interesting then the Matrix for sure.

    • sheila says:

      Cool – I will remind myself to listen to his commentary track one of these days.

      And I just love Jennifer Connelly’s look in this time period, before she won an Oscar and seemed to blank herself out of existence somehow. She became generic-looking. But here she is so photogenic that your eyes almost hurt. Waking the Dead followed soon after – a film I absolutely love – she’s heartbreaking in it, and, at times, quite frightening – as the Catholic radical-leftie, she is totally believable. But I just love her LOOK, too, in this late 90s period of her career.

  6. Todd Restler says:

    Always liked her early stuff too, I mentioned her in Requiem for a Dream on your blog before, she had a something special. Not sure if her work lately is by her choice or a lack of good roles, but I’ve always been a fan.

    • sheila says:

      My theory is the Oscar brought too much attention. It made her shy. Even her Oscar speech seemed very cowed and almost apologetic. Some actresses shine brighter when they stay under the radar a bit.

  7. Todd Restler says:

    Interesting, I could buy that. She also got married to actor Paul Bettany after A Beautiful Mind, I’m not sure it impacted any choices, but I imagine a role like Requiem is harder if you are married with children. But yeah, she sure didn’t seem to embrace fame. I think there is still some interesting work for her in the future though.

    • sheila says:

      Definitely. Once there is less attention on her. She’s pretty fierce and dark. She is not a typical leading lady. Hollywood has no idea what to do with such creatures, although we exist out here in the world in spades!

  8. Fiddlin Bill says:

    I got to see the Train Robbers yesterday. I agree with you on Wayne’s presence, such as that detail with the lantern you mention. There is also an effort to portray the meaning of a “mentor” in Wayne’s role, which is interesting. The Montalban character is almost a surreal joke, however. There is no explanation for how he manages to appear at crucial moments, always dressed the same, with the same cigar. And the Ann Margaret character’s true identity is, again, simply pasted on. It’s like the Dylan song: “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Train Robbers borrows a lot of trappings from the Wild Bunch (such as the posse on a train), but almost none of the intensity, or the deeper focus, such as Peckinpah’s ability to show us both the Mexican cultural world, and the American outlaws intruding in it. Train Robbers also borrows a lot from The Professionals (1966, Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Claudia Cardinale), particularly in tossing a beauty into this mix of rough, dusty men on the trail. While I enjoyed The Train Robbers, it felt sort of pasted together compared to those two similar, earlier films. Maybe it was the budget, being a BatJac production, which I think was Wayne’s own company. Unlike Holden, Wayne doesn’t really reveal much–his story is told by his pals, and particularly Ben Johnson. After what Peckinpah had accomplished, it’s odd to return to what is in the end a pretty “oater.”

    • sheila says:

      I thought Ricardo Montelbaun’s mysterious presence was stylish, like the whole film was. His perfect pinstripe suits amongst the sand dunes … totally weird. I liked those images. And I liked the payoff.

      Found the whole thing entertaining. And of course derivative, as all Westerns are, of each other. Minor and slight, perhaps, but entertaining. That’s show biz!!

  9. Fiddlin Bill says:

    The oddness of Montalbaum is like the oddness that is sprinkled frequently in episodes of The Wild Wild West. And indeed Train Robbers can be seen as a kind of abstract western. Certainly the various sets are exactly that (as you and also Ebert commented). I admit I have a very big “thing” about The Wild Bunch, in my opinion one of the greatest movies of all time, whatever the genre. There is so much in Train Robbers that kind of refers to The Wild Bunch, but with nothing of the tension that Peckinpah builds in each “act” of his masterpiece. Anyways–I do appreciate you’re bring Train Robbers to my attention–it was certainly well spent time to watch it.

    • sheila says:

      I’m with you on The Wild Bunch!!

      The Train Robbers isn’t even in the same league – it’s fluff! But fun and good-looking fluff. :)

  10. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Your remark that Robbers is “good looking” is actually profound, because it attends to something very easily overlooked about film–it is a medium of moving “pictures.” Therefore, composition, lighting, all the things that go to make a successful “picture”, are really engaged. It’s almost a painful problem when one becomes particularly aware of this. After watching some Mizoguchi I have found the typical solution to filmic storytelling–namely head shot after head shot–shoddy and annoying. Robbers is frequently beautiful, and that’s a film value. But of course the perfect “solution” is both a gleaming surface, and something going on underneath. One of the greatest moments in the Wild Bunch is the long shot of Mapache directing his army at the railroad station, which shelling dropping in from the hills, and the culminating shot of the little orderly looking up at him and saluting. They took that out of some of the cuts of Wild Bunch, as it was available in the years after it’s initial release (when I saw it first). I almost began to wonder if I’d really seen that shot, but it returned when the director’s cut came out. It’s a little boy, at the end, who kills Holden.

    The Wild Bunch is about Vietnam. Vietnam is about America. But one might wonder, given the moment of Robbers, if that little comment about killing a baby that Duke makes as they ride back to Texas isn’t also a subtle nod to what was going on in the reality of 1973.

  11. Ken says:

    At the risk of playing Victor Frankenstein (that’s Frawnkensteen) with a year-old-post, I never could take The Matrix seriously. It struck me as kind of the ultimate teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. Everything you don’t like about the world is an illusion foisted by The Man to keep you down, man. You can become a wuxia master of wirework without all that sweaty practicing: just have it downloaded to your brain box. You can have guns, lots of guns, just for the asking, and all the bit players who get blown away as you — eyes flashing and hair floating — shoot your way into history, don’t really matter and live on in you as experience points anyway (Baader-Meinhof, call your office*).

    The Matrix reminds me of what Quentin Crisp, I think it was, said about movies. He was exaggerating to make a point, I think, but he said something the archetypal viewer of older movies was a middle-aged, middle class, middlebrow woman with a broken heart, and now it is a fifteen-year-old boy stalking down the street making buildings explode. I’m going from memory, so I may be wrong in some, most, or all details. :-)

    *Not an original phrase: I borrowed it from the novelist Trevanian.

    • sheila says:

      // Baader-Meinhof, call your office //

      hahahahahaha

      I don’t know that Quentin Crisp quote, but it’s great!!

      I’m in agreement with you about The Matrix. I did like some of the effects – the backbends to get out of the way of the bullets and such – but I didn’t see it as some deep philosophical statement. After all, I cut my teeth on Richard Bach who was babbling the exact same thing in the 70s – and I got over THAT pretty quick.

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