Movie Reviews

Guest Post: Keith Cambre on “The Cowboys”

13 March 2012
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Today MontanaWriter is featuring a movie review from film aficionado Keith Cambre. 

John Wayne played in 152 films, and I am keeping a life list of as many of his works as I can see.  At present, I have screened about three dozen of his films with over 100 to go!  Recently, I viewed one of The Duke’s later works, The Cowboys, for the first time.  This film debuted in 1972, and I am wondering how I let 40 years pass before seeing such a gem.

John Wayne plays Wil Andersen, a successful Montana rancher who must drive his sizeable herd to market, 400 miles away in Belle Fourche.  When Andersen’s hired hands desert him en masse to pan for gold, he is forced to employ 11 boys to accompany him on the drive.  During this Old West Road Trip, the boys are transformed under the mature tutelage of The Duke’s character, who is a font of paternal energy, strength, and wisdom.

There is a second source of father energy on the drive:  Roscoe Lee Browne plays the erudite African-American mess cook, Jebediah Nightlinger, who works in tandem with Andersen to balance the trials of the boys and to shelter their innocence when necessary.  Like Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the inclusion of Mr. Nightlinger in the story speaks of an America where disparate parts come together for the good of all.  E pluribus unum.  The drive also includes Cimarron, an illegitimate Hispanic youth, and Charlie Schwartz, who on meeting Andersen, cheerfully introduces himself as Jewish.  Indeed, all races and backgrounds are welcome on the drive.  All that matters is a focus on working together, looking out for each other, and getting the job done.

Of course, there are bad guys on this cattle drive, set to steal the herd.  Bruce Dern plays a deliciously nasty character, whose sin of bullying the boys trumps his sin of rustling the cattle.  The rustlers’ evil eventually spills over to killing Andersen.  The Cowboys is rare in the annals of John Wayne films in that The Duke’s character dies about 30 minutes before the ending, and it is further rare in that he is shot from behind.  Falling in a cruciform manner, similar to Clint Eastwood’s character at the conclusion of Gran Torino, Andersen admonishes Mr. Nightlinger to get the boys home safely, and just before dying, he tells the boys that he is proud of them.  Coming from The Duke, there can be no greater benediction.

The film concludes with the boys “finishing the job” by retaking the herd from the rustlers and ultimately dispatching the bad guys, one by one.  While some may criticize the film’s depiction of the boys as killers, Bruce Dern’s character and his cohort certainly had it coming.  At the end, the cowboys ride the herd into Belle Fourche, completing the task set upon them.  They return to Montana, not as boys, but as men.

In addition to a great story and fine acting, the cinematography of The Cowboys is sweeping and rich.  Musical elements complement the visual perfectly as John Williams’ score evokes the spaciousness and grandeur of Aaron Copland.  John Wayne supposedly commented that his performance in The Cowboys was his favorite of the 152 films in which he worked.  While he is better remembered for his roles in The Searchers and True Grit, The Cowboys is nevertheless a must-see for any fan of The Duke.  I recommend!


A Few Memorable Quotes

Wil (John Wayne):  “We’re burning daylight!”

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Mr. Nightlinger (Browne): to feminine entrepreneurs encountered on the cattle drive:  “Well, I have the maturity, and the inclination and the wherewithal, but unfortunately, I don’t have the time.”



Movie Review: “Helvetica: A Documentary Film” by Gary Hustwit

6 March 2012

Recently I read that this is the “Golden Age” of the documentary. Whoever wrote this must have had the documentary Helvetica by Gary Hustwit in mind… or at least they should have.

Helvetica is a surprisingly compelling film that explores the world of graphic design and typography through an examination of what has become in 50 short years the most ubiquitous of all type-faces in the world, Helvetica. Through wonderful interviews with people as varied as the son of one of the men who first helped to design Helvetica in 1957 to “famous” graphic designers and typographic artists who first used and championed it, Hustwit explores the very nature of how graphic design and typography work to shape and change culture and us.

I first became aware of graphic design and typefaces in the mid 1980s when I began working as an editor at an old-fashioned publishing house that still ran one hot-lead press and a number of big German-made, 4-color presses. I remember learning the language and concepts of Linotype and leading and serifs and sans serifs… learning to think  for the first time ever of the way the medium of typeface can visually convey meanings that enhance or detract from “actual” meanings of a word.

Watching Helvetica brought all of that back to me, words and concepts I have not thought of for years. And while that experience certainly helped enrich the film for me, I do not think that my experience or familiarity was necessary in anyway to my enjoyment of film.

Helvetica is enjoyable because Hustwit found people to interview who are so passionate about the subject of typography and design. Passionate people are interesting by defintion. When passionate people are also articulate they are fascinating. Helvetica is fascinating, compelling, and worth watching precisely for this reason.

For more information on the documentary Helvetica visit the official site by clicking here.

A Few Memorable Quotes

Rick Poynor: Type is saying things to us all the time. Typefaces express a mood, an atmosphere. They give words a certain coloring.

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Michael Bierut: Everywhere you look you see typefaces. But there’s one you probably see more than any other one, and that’s Helvetica. You know, there it is, and it seems to come from no where. You know, it seems like air? It seems like gravity?

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Jonathan Hoefler: And it’s hard to evaluate it. It’s like being asked what you think about off-white paint. It’s just… it’s just there. And it’s hard to get your head around, it’s that big.

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Erik Spiekermann: Most people who use Helvetica, use it because it’s ubiquitous. It’s like going to McDonald’s instead of thinking about food. Because it’s there, it’s on every street corner, so let’s eat crap because it’s on the corner.

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Michael C. Place: For me Helvetica is just this beautiful, timeless thing. And certain things shouldn’t be messed with, you know?

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Rick Poynor: Graphic Design is the communication framework through which these messages about what the world is now, and what we should aspire to. It’s the way they reach us. The designer has an enormous responsibility. Those are the people, you know, putting their wires into our heads

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Richard Poynor: Type is saying things to us all the time. Typefaces express a mood, an atmosphere. They give words a certain coloring.

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Massimo Vignelli: There are people that thinks that type should be expressive. They have a different point of view from mine.

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Massimo Vignelli: You can say, “I love you,” in Helvetica. And you can say it with Helvetica Extra Light if you want to be really fancy. Or you can say it with the Extra Bold if it’s really intensive and passionate, you know, and it might work.

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Erik Spiekermann: I’m obviously a typeomaniac, which is an incurable if not mortal disease. I can’t explain it. I just love, I just like looking at type. I just get a total kick out of it: they are my friends. Other people look at bottles of wine or whatever, or, you know, girls’ bottoms. I get kicks out of looking at type. It’s a little worrying, I admit, but it’s a very nerdish thing to do.


Movie Review: The Way

28 February 2012

On the recommendation of my good friend Keith, my wife and I watched The Way this weekend. It was, quite simply, the best film I have seen in some time.

The Way is the story of a father (Martin Sheen) who is estranged from his only son (Emilo Estevez). When his son dies right after beginning “The Way of St. James” (El Camino de Santiago), Sheen’s character, a doctor from California, goes to France to bring back his son’s body. While there he decides to finish what his son had only just started when he died… to honor him and to reconnect with him.

The pilgrimage journey as literary device is, of course, as old as Chaucer. Estevez who wrote and directed the The Way understands well the concept of pilgrimage as external and internal at the same time. Character is revealed, examined, and changed… the physical journey and the spiritual journey become one. The characters are changed by the pilgrimage but so are we who watch their journey.

Along El Camino de Santiago, Sheen meets other pilgrims as broken and lost as he is. Each one trying to find something… to recover the best parts of themselves. Sheen’s character begins the pilgrimage alone but soon finds himself a part of a small community: an edgy woman from Canada recovering from an abusive relationship and living with the guilt of having terminated a pregnancy; a travel writer from Ireland struggling with writer’s block; and an overweight Dutchman trying to save his marriage. Along the way they all learn the difference between “the life we live and the life we choose.”

According to Wikipedia, El Camino de Santiago has existed for over a thousand years. It was once, with Rome and Jerusalem, one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. It has in recent decades seen a significant resurgance. Christians and non-Christians by the thousands now walk or bike the pilgrimage each year, which can take 2 to 4 weeks to complete. The route from France through the Pyrenees is a World Heritage Site.

The DVD of The Way came out on February 21st. For a trailer, or more information, click here.


A Few Memorable Quotes

Daniel (Emilio Estevez): You don’t choose a life Dad. You live one.


Tom (Martin Sheen): Daniel was a lot like you. Smart, confident, stubborn… pissed me off a lot.




Movie Review: The Sons of Katie Elder

8 February 2012
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Duke is the best actor in Hollywood. ~ John Ford

John Wayne back from Cancer

There are better John Wayne movies, but none that I like better or have seen as often as The Sons of Katie Elder. It is the definitive John Wayne movie… and hence the definitive western. It is everything a western… especially a John Wayne western… should be: iconic.

Based very loosely on a William H. Wright book called Life of the MarlowsThe Sons of Katie Elder is the story of four brothers who return to their Texas hometown for their mother’s funeral. After her funeral, they discover that their father had been murdered sometime before on the very night that he had supposedly lost the family ranch playing cards to a big businessman named Hastings. Since losing the ranch and her husband, their mother, Katie Elder, had been living penniless. John Elder (Wayne) who is a famous gunfighter, and his three brothers, set about to setting things right and to make sure that the youngest brother amounts to something.

Filmed in 1965, and co-starring among others Dean Martin and a very young Dennis Hopper, The Sons of Katie Elder was the first movie that the Duke made after having cancer surgery to remove one lung and two ribs. Cancer delayed the filming, but once filming began, he insisted on doing his own stunts to prove that he had indeed, “licked the Big C.”

The Sons of Katie Elder is John Wayne at his iconic best. From the very first glimpse we get of him on top of a rocky hill looking down on his mother’s funeral from afar to avoid causing trouble, to the final scene of Duke walking through a small parlor and past his mother’s rocking chair, we are reminded of how truly “big” Wayne was… and how small all actors and landscapes seem when he is on the screen.

Wayne inhabits each scene – inhabits every movie he is in – like a force of nature. Only Eastwood comes close to that kind of screen presence. But even he would have been dwarfed by the presence of Wayne.

This iconic-presence is on full display in The Sons of Katie Elder. I suspect that that is one of the main reasons that it has become my favorite of all his films. It is not in any sense of the word a great film… but it is a great western. It is exactly what a western should be. At its core, it is a celebration of the Duke and the western… for they are synonymous. It is this celebration that allows us ignore all the many imperfections of the story and the movie. For in the end, all that matters is that John Wayne is on the screen… bigger than life.


A Few Memorable Quotes

Bud Elder (Michael Anderson, Jr.): I’m going with you. I can draw pretty fast. We can be famous — like the Dalton Brothers!
John Elder (John Wayne): They’re famous — but they’re just a little bit dead. They were hung!


John Elder (John Wayne): All we want to do is make you end up rich and respectable. You fight us every step of the way.

Bud Elder (Michael Anderson, Jr.): I don’t want to be rich and respectable. I want to be just like the rest of you.