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Saturday, 19 May 2018

American Essentials Film Festival - Barrie Pattison ponders a cull from Sundance and the fate of the Western via THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN (Jared Moshé)

You can spot the moment when the great western’s cycle came to a halt - not with a movie or after the failure of one but curiously in the middle of two films in 1961. First was at the end of the action that opens John Sturges’ Sergeants Three and then when they recalled Anthony Mann’s location unit which had already shot the land rush for his Cimarron.

The Europeans moved into the drive-ins. Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah were still to come, but the steady flow of superior western entertainments halted. People did keep on making a few more. The results were uneven. Uli Edel’s 2002 made-for-TV King of Texas/Boss Lear with Patrick Stewart as a cowboy King Lear was less involving than the Buck Jones 1936 B-movie version, Sunset of Power fielding a pre-Ming the Merciless Charles Middleton in the character. 

After 2003, Kevin Costner’s Open Range and Ron Howard’s The Missing closed out the multiplex branch of the form. The cowboys shifted into ancillary markets and stayed there. Think Tombstone or Lonesome Dove.

But there were an exceptional few mixed in there. Craig Baxley came good with the 1995 The Avenging Angel set among the frontier Mormons with Charlton Heston as Brigham Young. "When you have twenty-seven wives and fifty-six children, one of them is bound to turn out dumb and pig ugly as you" a character is told. The Simon Wincer and Tom Selleck team, which had already done Quigley Down Under, made their own Monte Walsh (2003). It can hold its own with the Lee Marvin version. The ending, when our hero rides back into town and the mother points him out, “Look a real cowboy!”, is resonant. 

Even the Euro western hangs in there with Mateo Gil directing Sam Shepard in the France/Spain/USA/Bolivia 2011 Blackthorn.

As recently as 2015, Craig Zahler established himself fielding Kurt Russell in the Apocalypto-violent The Bone Tomahawk, so hope springs eternal.

Which brings us to Jared Moshé’s The Ballad of Lefty Brown surfacing in Palace Cinemas American Essentials event here. This is a film that I wanted to like right from its opening “Shot on Kodak film” title. It is a western which, one more time, busily incorporates the moments we revere. But it can’t match exhilarating action set pieces or the sweeping panoramas that used to drive the cycle.  As with Blackthorn,the grubby realist look and the anti-romantic plot line are a bit of a downer.

Bill Pullman, The Ballad of Left Brown
Lawman newly become Montana Senator Peter Fonda (almost unrecognisable) is sorting out a shooting in the saloon after finding the victim’s wound is in his back. Wizened, scatter gun wielding sidekick Bill Pullman (likewise) goes in the back door (think the Dmytryk Warlock from 1959), even having a scene of burning the money like his Alvarez Kelly (1966). The shooter gets the drop on Bill but Peter sorts him out and hangs him, kicking a stump from under his feet. Overtones of The Virginian which Pullman filmed handsomely in 2000.

Back at the ranch, Fonda’s frontier wife, the ever admirable Kathy Baker, is appalled at the idea of leaving their home in charge of the sidekick of forty years Pullman. She’s convinced there will be nothing to come back to after their time in State Capital. This is new.

Horse thieves make off with some of the stock and Fonda and Pullman hit their trail only to be picked off from a distance by the fugitive light haired marksman. Injured Pullman makes it back with the body and is reviled by Baker. She welcomes their old friend, now the Governor, and his Marshall who sets out with Pullman to take down the dastards. Along the way they pick up young Diego Josef on foot, his twin side arms prominent under his duster coat in his first appearance.

The kid is taken down in the first exchange of fire when he charges in unhesitating but Pullman manages to bail up the killer who has captured the dude in city clothes, who turns out to be bringing pay off money. Things are not what they seem. The Marshall takes to the bottle and Pullman finds a rope waiting for him back home.

Bill Pullman, The Ballad of Lefty Brown
However, guile wins out and soon Pullman is digging up Fonda’s long gun and kicking out the chair under the feet of the master villain, the only one to have a vision for the territory (like the John Farrow California). The rail roads are the bad hats again (think Jesse Jamesor Butch Cassidy). Bringing help to the wounded boy becomes the priority, like The English Patient (the derivations are getting more diverse now) and Pullman ends like Mifune in Kurosawa’sThe Hidden Fortress (1958)kicking up dust on the distant track that cuts across the mountain diagonally.

Well it’s nice to be back in the saddle again but a bit depressing to feel that the best is behind us.

Also in the American Essentials event was Lynn Shelton’s Outside In which by way of contrast is the kind of film we are told we should like - a socially aware account of an exactly located contemporary society featuring intense, studied performances. 

Co-writer Jay Duplass comes out of the slammer after twenty years. He’s been released as a result of the efforts of his old high school teacher Edie Falco. She’s the only one he can relate to. Will they or won’t they? Further complications with Falco’s teenage daughter Kaitlyn Dever whose scenes are particularly engaging. Her breakup revenge on the stacked chairs is the film’s best touch, though Duplass handling the aggro husband is nice too. Playing it all in small town Granite Falls, Washington gives it a reality that the writing can’t quite match. 

The event’s opening night movie, Sophia Brooks' The Boy Downstairs, fields David Mamet’s daughter Zozia as a Bridal Wear sales girl who moves into a Brooklyn apartment only to find the guy she split from is in the downstairs flat. New squeeze Sarah Ramos appearing in the doorway when Zozia shows up one more time and saying “Really!” is a highlight. There’s a lot of make-up, break up and self-searching before we get to an agreeable ending. 

The piece is determinedly New York set but it’s disturbingly free of locating imagery - no distant Brooklyn Bridge here. Couldn’t they have had a yellow cab drive through the shot just once? The undifferentiated flash backs are on the confusing side too.

I get the impression that these films are an indicator of the eight hundred entries Sundance gets every year. Three is a novelty. I don’t think I could handle a fortnight of them. 

Why do all the bearded young men in them look the same?

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