Red Rock West (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Nicolas Cage) has driven all the way from Texas to Wyoming because a friend (Craig Reay) has promised that there is a construction job waiting for him. If there is anything we learn about Michael in under five minutes, it is his seemingly unwavering honesty. First, while filling out a job application, a mere formality, he mentions his bad leg. This inevitably costs him the job. Second, when there is no one minding the desk at a gas station, leaving the cash register wide open, although he is very short on cash, he does not purloin the money like a petty criminal.
However, when Wayne (J.T. Walsh), a pub owner, has mistaken Michael for “Lyle from Dallas” and mentions a vague contract job, our protagonist goes along for a ride. After all, how dangerous can a pub owner be? He is informed that his assignment involves killing Wayne’s wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), because she has been unfaithful. Suddenly, Michael is involved—whether he wants to be or not.
Written by John Dahl and Rick Dahl, “Red Rock West” begins like a wild wire, its damaged end emitting blinding and fatal sparks at irregular intervals. It embraces a certain level of excitement in terms of how one lie can make a man’s life tortuously complicated. Cage’s character is an apotheosis of a man constantly pushed toward the edge. When he is not struggling for money, he is fighting for his life. His weary voice serves as a great contrast to his brisk responses when dangerous situations face him.
I admired the film’s stylish simplicity. It works as a western noir in that the screenplay uses the environment, from the sun-soaked desert roads, old men wearing tough leather boots, to dilapidated abandoned buildings, as a backdrop for double- and triple-crosses. Because so many things are happening at the same time, at times I was blinded by some of the characters’ true motivations. I guess, in a way, I wanted to trust some of them so I could figure out the true villain, or villains, in the story.
Without a doubt, the real Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper) is not the one to root for. He works for no one but himself. If he detects the scent of money, he follows its trail like a detection dog. While Fake Lyle expresses his emotions inward, Real Lyle embodies the opposite. Neither are invincible. Hero or villain, both are capable of being hurt, knocked down, and knocked out.
When the two scuffle, the lack of a resounding score is noticeable. Instead, the ominous beats present throughout the rest of the picture blanket the fight. I found it to be eerily effective because not only does it not glorify violence, it gives the audience the impression that things can go very wrong at any second. That bad leg is just too much of a liability.
“Red Rock West,” directed by John Dahl, knows how to build suspense without losing track of what makes each character tick. Rarely do I encounter a protagonist where I would constantly wish for him to do the wrong thing so he can finally have a chance to extricate himself from several complicated situations. The fact that he does not, unless absolutely necessary, makes us wish harder that he will have a happy ending.
Mad Dog Morgan (1976)
★ / ★★★★
In the 1850s, Daniel Morgan (Dennis Hopper), an Irishman, goes to Australia to find gold and get rich. However, his quest for fortune is thwarted and he ends up poor and desperate. After committing one robbery where no one is hurt, he is caught and sent to jail for twelve years. Released in six years due to good behavior, he promises to himself that he will exact revenge on those who wronged him.
Based on a novel by Margaret Carnegie, “Mad Dog Morgan,” directed by Philippe Mora, might have been an interesting story of how a person can be broken and changed for the worse after being institutionalized if it had not been so sloppily written, shot, and edited.
We see him get branded with the letter “M” by his fellow prisoners and perform hard labor in the forest and desert, but the images fail to move beyond superficiality. While his collective negative experience pushes his mind to break, which might later explain the schism between his humanistic and animalistic behaviors, at what point during his sentence does Morgan change from a man to a beast? To get a complete sense of this, we need to have spent more time with him in that environment and understand how he might have attempted to adapt, in conscious ways and subconsciously.
After his early release, Morgan steals horses and is shot. He is rescued by an Aborigine named Billy (David Gulpilil) from an almost certain death. Later, there are plenty of irksome montages, which consist of about half the movie, where the duo is shown stealing from the rich, giving to the poor, and burning simple business establishments.
Instead of achieving a flow and giving us a chance to get to know more about Morgan and Billy as a team–a foreigner and a native, respectively–and their complex motivations, it is like watching a series of comic strips that consists of a one-note bad joke: Morgan and Billy are shown stealing, hollering, and being out of control then officials end up red with rage. The latter’s frustration grows to the point where they actually hire bounty hunters to get Morgan, dead or alive. And yet when a bounty hunter manages to come face-to-face with Morgan, there is no build-up of tension. A gun is fired and then it is over.
I think it is the filmmakers’ intention to tell a story of an antihero amidst the backdrop of a country that is on the verge of critical change. While it is partially successful in delivering the necessary violence and chaos, Morgan remains a mysterious figure. It is a missed opportunity because if anyone can deliver insanity and sympathy simultaneously, it is Hopper. If the screenplay, accompanied by a focused direction, had been sharper about circumstances that lead to psychological and behavioral changes, Hooper might have had a chance to highlight trends in his character’s madness.
Throughout the film, officials hope to obtain Morgan’s skull, assuming he is alive when captured, so they can compare it to an animal’s. They hypothesize that the two should share many similarities. And since Morgan defies the law, as an animal is seemingly unable to abide by rules, he can and should be treated as less evolved. While the hypothesis sounds ridiculous given what we know now, I found it interesting. Still, a few good ideas are not enough to save a largely inconsistent work.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), a cattle rancher who owns 695,000 acres of land in Texas, visits Maryland to buy a horse named War Winds from Dr. Lynnton (Paul Fix). Bick gets more than he bargains for when he meets opinionated, funny, fiery Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), the seller’s eldest daughter. Before Bick returns to Texas, he and Leslie get married. This does not sit well with Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), because she feels threatened of the prospect that another woman will take control of the mansion and introduce change.
“Giant,” written by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, is a sprawling epic that elegantly tells the story of a Texan family spanning about thirty years. It argues that those who remain obdurate in the comfortable confines of traditionalism have no place in the constantly evolving modern American society.
This is reflected in several ways. The racism by Texans toward Mexicans is a constant struggle between husband and wife, the Benedicts’ children (Dennis Hopper, Fran Bennett, Carroll Baker) rebelling against their parents’ wishes from career path to who they are allowed to date or marry, and “old” money, like the Benedicts, versus “new” money, like Jett Rink (James Dean), Bick’s former aide in the ranch. As we journey through the years, the layers of complexity pile on top of one another, sometimes piercing through and unfortunate decisions of the past pave a way for years of ill-will and resentment.
The Benedict household is not always happy but it is strong. We see Leslie and Bick engage in ugly confrontations about who has power over whom. Bick claims that he is in charge, that no one, even his wife, a mere woman, is allowed to control him. Although he is smart and strong, he is rather short-sighted, accustomed to the values passed down from father to son. He fails to realize that their many arguments are not about control but about mutual respect not only between sexes and as people but also between husband and wife, who are supposed to be partners in life.
The schism between man and woman is brilliantly shown in one of the scenes where Leslie wants to listen to her husband and fellow businessmen discuss work and politics. The men want her to fetch coffee as a signal for her to go away for the subject is not considered “appropriate” for her. The women in the room understand the hint and get up willingly, but Leslie will not have any of it. She argues that she is educated and has her own opinion so she should be allowed to partake in the discussion. Given the time of the film’s release, such a scene is progressive. Though traces of such attitudes toward women still remain, most of us can only imagine how much discussion and outrage it must have incited.
The movie’s title is especially appropriate given its more than three-hour running time and scope of ambition. But, more importantly, the word “giant” means something big and powerful, a leader. Bick towers over his wife physically: when he speaks to her, he literally has to look down on her. He is a leader of the “old” days. However, Leslie towers over her husband in small but meaningful ways like showing kindness and sympathy toward people who help them to tend their land and cattle. She is a leader of modern times. “Giant,” based on the novel by Edna Ferber and directed by George Stevens, has a surfeit of symbolism among images and human relationships. It is a soap opera but with cunning intelligence and the things at stake have gravity.
River’s Edge (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
John (Daniel Roebuck), an unambitious high school student, has recently killed his girlfriend for no reason. He does not feel bad about it. In fact, he decides to go to school the next day to brag about the murder to his friends. Matt (Keanu Reeves) feels sick to his stomach after seeing the corpse. He considers calling the police. Layne (Crispin Glover), on the other hand, is determined to find John a hiding place as he tries to figure out how to get the police off his trail.
Written by Neal Jimenez and directed by Tim Hunter, “River’s Edge” is a careful examination, without evaluation, of youth’s apathy. Experiencing the story is like observing an aggressive disease as we follow the teenagers, including some adults, make one terrible and heartbreaking decision after another. We question their humanity as well as what we think we might have done had we been the ones walking in their shoes.
Take Maggie (Roxana Zal) and Clarissa (Ione Skye) as they attempt to call the cops to inform them about their friend’s naked corpse by the riverside. Their good intentions drive them to walk to a pay phone, but neither wants the responsibility of talking to the police. One of them claims she does not know the number while the other claims she does not know what to say to the authorities. Neither ends up making the call. How difficult is it to give an anonymous tip? All they had to do was dial 9-1-1, say what they saw, provide a location, and hang up. These can be accomplished in under ten seconds.
There are several subplots that encircle the murder and most function as distractions. Oddly enough, they work because none of the teenagers wants to face the grim reality of a life that existed the day before. Someone they talked to, laughed with, teased, shared secrets with. They would rather hang out at the arcade, get high, and entertain gossip around school.
But there is one subplot that generates high tension. Tim (Joshua John Miller), Matt’s twelve-year-old brother, is extremely angry for being hit by his brother. He goes on a mission to find Feck (Dennis Hopper), a man with a bad leg whose sole companionship is a blow-up doll, because he has a gun. Tim wishes to shoot Matt as retribution for having been hit. The brothers come from a dysfunctional home. Their mother is prone to histrionics; she wants to control her children but isn’t willing to put the energy to parent effectively. Meanwhile, their stepfather has the bravado to suggest to his wife that beatings will set the children straight.
Although nearly everyone is a mess, the material makes no judgment through repercussions. It is up to us to try to make sense of the decisions. As the picture unfolds, we realize the sadness of everyone’s situation even though we may not agree with their actions. Perhaps they just don’t know any better. Sometimes that’s the way life is, the way people are–flawed, afraid, looking out for their self-interests over others’.
The writing and direction’s partnership is crucial. If had been weaker than the other, the characters and the circumstances that plague them would likely have been less thought-provoking. Or worse, the material could have been a hammy Lifetime movie. The fact is, the places and people shown here do exist. It is a reminder that one does not need to live in an urban area to observe insidious moral decay.
★★★ / ★★★★
Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) was hired to coach an Indiana high school basketball team. He used to coach college basketball for twelve years, but he spent the last ten years in the Navy. The small town’s residents seriously questioned Norman’s qualifications and strange methods of training. After all, what could a man who spent his last decade on water impart when it came to basketball? Based on a true story of underdogs, “Hoosiers,” written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, made a sport I thought was uninteresting into an exciting, touching, and inspiring film that also touched upon what it meant to give and receive a second chance. Immediately did I admire Hackman’s character because of his determination to turn a team with raw potential into a force that worked as a single unit. Despite the town’s constant interference accompanied by unwarranted threats, he didn’t question himself and his methods. There was something about his confidence that I found comforting. The way Norman eventually earned his team’s respect felt natural because communication and wanting to change were established as a two-way street. There was no one rousing speech that changed everything the next day. Dennis Hopper as the assistant coach named Shooter was equally strong and compelling. In fact, I believed Hopper delivered two performances. The first was an alcoholic who lived in isolation and the other was a father who desperately wanted to make his son, a member of the basketball team, to be proud of him. We weren’t always certain whether Shooter would be able to defeat his alcoholism. Unlike the game which consisted of rules, statistics and a certain level of predictability, alcoholism was indeed another breed. It was a disease and the person inflicted could be fine one day and a complete wreck the next. The picture was successful in generating tension because its backbone in terms of the drama behind the basketball games was consistently in focus. When the big games arrived, it felt like there was more at stake, that winning would mean something more than a trophy and a title. It meant pride for the townsfolk who didn’t quite reach their dreams but nonetheless loved their town unconditionally. It meant a boost of morale for the players who worked tirelessly to improve their game. It also meant unity between newcomers and a town who didn’t like the idea of change. I only wished the romantic connection between Norman and Myra (Barbara Hershey), a fellow teacher, was either further explored or taken out completely. In a film with already so much heart, it didn’t need to feature a romantic interest in order to get us to care more than we already did. “Hoosiers” is often cited as one of the best sports drama depicted on film and with excellent reasons. Given that I’m not a big fan of basketball, I found my eyes transfixed on the ball and the scoreboard.
True Romance (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, “True Romance” opened with Clarence (Christian Slater) talking about a hypothetical situation in which if he were to make love with another man, it would be with his idol Elvis Presley. From the first scene, we learned that Clarence was a modern guy who was a romantic at heart and in constant search of the one he could fall deeply in love with. When he met Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in a movie theater and the two discussed the picture they just saw in a diner, the two forged a strong connection which eventually led to Clarence killing Alabama’s pimp (Gary Oldman) and accidentally stealing drugs from the mob. Like most movies written by Tarantino, I loved how this film was character-driven and dialogue-heavy but it still kept a forward momentum. Each scene in which two characters were placed in a room and talked about the most seemingly random topics were most revealing, most amusing and most engaging. We were given the chance to understand their motivations, histories, limitations and how they saw their lives compared to how they hoped to live their lives. Despite the characters acting tough on the outside, each of them had a fascinating story to tell. Aside from the opening scene, some higlights include Christopher Walken’s, as a mob boss, interrogration of Dennis Hopper, as Clarence’s ex-cop father with whom he had not seen for years; Arquette and James Gandolfini’s brutal battle to the death in a motel room; and when Arquette reluctantly admitted to Slater that she was a call girl. While the picture had its share of violence, I admired that it did not glorify it. The focus was consistently on the story, how the couple tried to get away from the police and the mob despite the fact that they probably knew that there would not be a way out of their increasingly desperate situation. Nevertheless, since the two really believed in their love for one another, they decided to move forward and there was certain lyricism and poetry even though chaos was happening all around them. “True Romance” wore its love for the movies on its sleeve by excelling at its genre while at the same time breaking from it. Even small roles had a big contribution to the big picture such as Val Kilmer as the ghost of Elvis and Brad Pitt as a stoner. Watching “True Rlomance” was pure joy because I experienced a spectrum of emotion and it made me want to have a dangerous (but chic) adventure of my own.