My love affair with movies began with Sergio Leone. Sure, I watched movies before I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in high school, but I was a changed man after I saw Leone rebuild the American western with an operatic scope. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach seemed like nothing short of Greek gods, titans battling for treasure in the land of mortals. Even their encounter with something as huge as the Civil War seems small when placed on the grand scale of their journey. I didn’t know it at the time, but that experience showed me a power movies can possess that the stuff I was consuming on a Friday night at the multiplex not only didn’t possess, but didn’t even bother striving for.
Somehow, Once Upon a Time in the West is an even more massive experience than The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It was Leone’s way of saying farewell to the genre, as he depicts the genre archetypes as being left behind by the changing times. Like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, it depicts the heroes and villains of the old west finding their kind becoming obsolete as the ever-expanding railroads alter and modernize the western landscape.
The opening scene of this movie is one of my favorite scenes in a movie, ever. Three gunmen, donning dusters (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock), show up at a train station, and in that Leone fashion, they wait. The sounds are a symphony of natural noises assembled by composer Ennio Morricone, and the face of the characters are as lived-in as the sets. After patiently biding their time, a train finally pulls in, and a mysterious man (the great Charles Bronson) appears, playing an ominous tune on a harmonica. A brief, ambiguous exchange occurs, guns are drawn, violence explodes, and the three duster-wearing outlaws are dead by the harmonica-players gun. And that, ladies and gents, is how you open a movie.
While Peckinpah’s approach to violence in the western was that of a bullet ballet, Leone’s approach fits the opera analogy well. His films enjoy the slow-burn build-up more so than the actual acts of violence themselves, which is always over as soon as it begins. This opening, along with the Mexican stand-off at the climax of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, are the best examples of Leone’s unique approach, which has been aped and homaged by countless filmmakers since.
Seeing Leone’s curtain call for the western comes to Blu-ray this week, so you can now see every nook and cranny on Charles Bronson’s face, or the deep, menacing blues of Henry Fonda’s eyes. The special features been ported over from Paramount’s excellent two disc DVD version of the film. I would gripe that there isn’t more, but you can’t mess with perfection. All I want from this release is that sweet hi-def transfer, which is enough incentive for me to upgrade. Leone’s films are so visually rich that they make up a portion of the handful of DVDs in my collection that I would happily trade up to Blu-ray for. I look forward to experiencing this one again.
I think I’ve lost count how many times Stanley Kubrick’s movies have gotten a re-release in a big ol’ box set. True, some of these titles, like Lolita and Barry Lyndon, are just now making it to Blu-ray, so I’m thrilled over that. However, it seems like whenever I cave and buy an expensive Kubrick box, Warner Bros. announces a sexier one, making me wonder why I even bother.
But I must say, as the picture above illustrates, this set looks mighty fine. It includes not only Lolita and Barry Lyndon, but also Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut.
Spartacus, which was partially directed by the great Anthony Mann, is one I can do without. It has great moments and performances, however the pacing and Dalton Trumbo’s on-the-nose commie-loving script makes it tough to sit through. Paths of Glory, which is available through Criterion, is the truly great collaboration between Kirk Douglas and Kubrick. Dr. Strangelove is one of the most relentlessly entertaining comedies out there. Critics often accuse Kubrick of being cold and calculating, but his films usually have a streak of dark humor running through them that doesn’t get acknowledged. I laugh my ass off every time I see Full Metal Jacket, Jack Nicholson is delightfully wacky in a horrible, scary way in The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange‘s devil-may-care attitude towards the old ultra-violence makes it just as funny as it is disturbing. Kubrick ended his career with Eyes Wide Shut, which was harmed by the real-life relationship between its wildly famous co-stars. It gained a great deal of critical scorn, but this was because it fell victim to hype. I saw Eyes Wide Shut long after its release and it creeped me out the way stuff like The Shining and the final act of 2001 did. Now that it’s been given some distance, it stands proudly with Kubrick’s other excellent films.
Other than new hi-def transfers, this box set doesn’t offer a ton of new stuff, apart from a book and a career profile on Malcolm McDowell. The documentary Kubrick: A Life in Pictures is included, as well as commentaries for each film, so there’s plenty to enjoy. If you haven’t dipped on Kubrick yet for your Blu-ray collection, now is the time to do it. If you have, you already know if you want this beast or not.
Other Noteworthy Releases
Rio Lobo: This late-period John Wayne/Howard Hawks western is getting a Blu-ray release this week.
Big Jake: Another John Wayne movie comes to Blu-ray, this one has The Duke co-starring with his son, Patrick Wayne.
Drive Angry: Nic Cage comes up from Hell brandishing a shotgun and driving a muscle car in 3D. It can’t be any worse than Ghost Rider.
Biutiful: The latest from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel), starring Javier Bardem as a unsavory man who tries to do good things in a corrupt world. I don’t really care for Iñárritu’s films, as I find him to overtly manipulative as a director, but his movies always have good things in them.
Legend: Geeky college girls everywhere can now witness their unicorn dreams in hi-def. Tim Curry’s epic makeup makes the movie enjoyable for the fellas as well. Includes both the theatrical version with the Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and the director’s cut with Jerry Goldsmith’s discarded score.
American Graffiti: George Lucas’ big breakthrough that kicked off the sixties nostalgia craze comes to Blu-ray.
Kaboom: Doom Generation director Gregg Araki makes his dreaded return. Araki has made some of the worst movies I have ever seen, but his recent film Mysterious Skin took me by surprise because of how good it was. But with Kaboom, it looks like Araki is back to his old ways, making movies with an adolescent, angst-ridden tone, featuring twenty-somethings screwing everything in the name of what I’m guessing is nihilism. No thanks.
Available on DVD
A Man Called Horse: Richard Harris stars is in this movie about an English aristocrat who is captured by the Sioux Indians, only to adopt their customs and become their leader. This here is one of the prototypes for movies like Dances With Wolves and that Jimmy Cameron sci-fi flick no one saw.
The Cat O’Nine Tails: An early giallo slasher by Dario Argento (who co-wrote Once Upon a Time in the West) coming to Blu-ray, personally I felt this one was nothing to write home about, and I say that as a fan of the man’s early work.
Available on Blu-ray. Previously available on DVD
True Blood – Season 3: The continued adventures of Sookie Stackhouse and her freaky friends. Vampires, shape-shifters and werewolves abound on the bayou.