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Once Upon a Time in the West – Review

22 Jan

I’m not a huge fan of the Western genre, especially American made westerns of the 1950s and the early 1960s. There are a few exceptions, like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and some modern films, but westerns in the 1950s and 1960s don’t really hold my attention. But let’s talk about Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre that can only be described as the graphic novel western. These are a different story altogether, and hold my attention way more than their American counterparts. When one thinks of this genre, the first name that should come to mind is Sergio Leone, and today I want to take a look at his hyper-stylized 1969 film, Once Upon a Time in the West.

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The story of this film follows different characters each with different goals which all intersect throughout the film. A man nicknamed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives in the town of Flagstone looking for another man named Frank (Henry Fonda). Harmonica’s intentions are mysterious and his gunslinging is vicious. Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is a former prostitute from New Orleans who’s come to Flagstone to be with her husband, who she doesn’t know has just been murdered by Frank, along with the rest of his family. Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is a bandit who’s been framed for the murders of Jill’s husband and his family. He soon meets Jill and begins helping her, along with Harmonica, to save the land that is rightfully hers and get revenge on Frank and his employer.

I said earlier that Spaghetti Westerns are the graphic novel equivalents of the John Wayne/John Ford type of Western. Right from the get go, it’s clear that Once Upon a Time in the West is all about style, style, style. The beginning of this movie can objectively go down as one of the best beginnings in the history of film. The only soundtrack is the sounds of a train station as three hired guns wait for a train to arrive so they can finish off their target. How long does this last? A few minutes? No, it lasts about 15 minutes and not one of those minutes is boring. It’s an auditory sensation of hyper realism and gets you in the mood to go into this twisted old west. The cool doesn’t stop there, either.

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There’s a great story that Henry Fonda told about Sergio Leone that I just have to include in this review. Apparently, the main reason that Leone wanted Fonda to play the villain was because he was always casted as the good guy in movies, and Leone wanted people to lose it when Fonda’s character is first revealed murdering a family. Well that’s ridiculous, but it works great because Henry Fonda plays it cool and deadly as the hired gunman Frank. Still, the rest of the cast is awesome. Jason Robards has excellent chemistry with Italian actress, Claudia Cardinale who light up the screen whenever she’s onscreen. Also, Charles Bronson. Need I say more? Seeing Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson square up in duel is just fantastic.

I guess what I’m really trying to say about Once Upon a Time in the West is that it’s just so immersive. The colors that Leone uses combined with Ennio Morricone’s sweeping (as usual) score is just fantastic, and there were times where I really just wanted to listen to the music. The editing is also absolutely extraordinary. For example, there’s a great scene where Henry Fonda fires his gun, but the scene jump cuts to the underside of a train. It’s the kind of jarring juxtaposition that reminds me of the jump cut in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music, the cinematography, and the editing are some of the finest examples of immersive film making which makes what I’m about to say hopefully seem justified.

I’ve heard it from professors, critics, and movie buffs alike so I’m going to add myself to the long list of people who have said this. Despite being super cool and highly stylistic, Once Upon a Time in the West is honestly, and almost objectively, one of the greatest films ever made. Like Peckinpah did with The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone breathed some fresh air into a dying genre with this film. He made a name for himself with the Dollars Trilogy, and this film started a thematic trilogy all its own, but as a stand alone film, it succeeds as a revisionist western, an artistic achievement, and just a really cool movie.

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Magnolia – Review

28 Mar

As an aspiring screenwriter, seeing films with many different characters with their own complex stories is a bit of a wonder, especially when it’s done well. Seeing these multiple characters’ story lines intersect and affect one another is almost an overwhelming experience out of the seer difficulty of it. This type of story line are seen in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and David Cronenberg’s Crash, but the grandest example of this comes from Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic drama Magnolia. This is a beautiful, devastating, and often funny in a down to earth way that forces you to connect on some level to at least one or two characters.

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On a rainy day in the San Fernando Valley, the lives of seemingly unrelated people intertwine and connect in ways that may seem simple, but has the potential to be life changing. Producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying of cancer, and his wife Linda (Julianne Moore) can only cope with the death and her own moral insecurities through the use of prescription drugs. Earl’s nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) goes on an investigation to find Earl’s lost son Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a self-centered sexual guru who wants to stay far away from his family. Jim Kurring (John C. Riley) is a lonely police officer who finds hope Claudia (Melora Walters), the cocaine addicted daughter of Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), a game show host where Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) won thousands of dollars on as a child. These lives all collide over the course of a very long day with hopes of salvation.

Clocking in at over three hours long, it would be easy to lose interest in this movie if it wasn’t in the more than capable hands of Paul Thomas Anderson. There are a handful of directors working in film now that can handle the task of making a three hour film interesting for its entirety. I would love to see the screenplay to Magnolia and see how Anderson structured it, because this movie is huge and small at the same time. While you can call this movie epic, I don’t find that this is entirely appropriate because the stories are told on a microcosmic level. Magnolia is a very human film that deals with topics that can be deemed as “mystical” like love and death, but they are all dealt with on a very human level.

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I can’t rave about the writing without also raving about the performances by this stellar mega cast that may be one of the best in film history. Tom Cruise won the Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, and rightfully so. His character goes through the most visible change and the range that is needed for this character is huge, and he pulls it off very well. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a very understated and realistic performance which made me realize once again the great talent that the acting world has lost. My personal favorite performances in the movie are given by John C. Riley and William H. Macy, both who give borderline tragic performances and probably the most personable to the average human being.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies are really beautiful to look at, but it isn’t always easy to say why they are so beautiful. There Will Be Blood has a very open and occasionally dirty visual style and The Master plays with depth of field and distorts the viewer’s point of view. Magnolia, much like its themes, is beautiful on a much smaller level. There are some excellent scenes where instead of cutting up dialogue or traveling, Anderson decides to just keep the camera running which almost made me forget I was watching a movie at times.

Paul Thomas Anderson has created a wonderful piece of cinematic beauty with Magnolia. Everything about this movie is wonderfully executed from the pitch perfect, complex screenplay, unflashy directing, and incredible acting. While the climax of this movie creates some dissension amongst audiences, you can’t deny that this is a movie that makes you think about your own beliefs and your own ways of dealing with the big problems in your life. Problems that are actually very small in the grand scheme of things. Problems that don’t just affect you.