RetroReview: Shane (1953)

Westerns eh? Bit old, past it. It’s all been done before. There’s no modern take that will better the classics that have already been made. On the strength of this, they might be right.

As part of my continuing education into ‘films I probably should have seen by now, but haven’t’, I’ve been picking things off Lovefilm (Profile here) over the last year or so to fill in some of the classics. Finally, I’ve got around to this. And its good. Its very good.

In short form, with as few spoilers as possible, the story goes like this. White hat Shane (Alan Ladd) turns up at a remote farmstead in the middle of nowhere and is immediately drawn into the problems of the family that live there, as a ranch owner is trying to drive them off even though they have a legal claim to the land (although in my mind, this claim is always a bit ambiguous). Up until now its always just been a bit of roughing up, scaring off farmhands, just trying to make things difficult for people. But in the bleak mountainous landscapes, you know it is going to escalate.

Shane decides to stay on as a new farm hand, and is quickly added to the family as he is hard working, honest and friendly. The young boy in the family, Joey, quickly takes a liking to him, looking up to him as a gunslinging hero type. He clearly has a ‘mysterious past’, and refuses to carry his gun belt. First time into town on an errand, he is accosted by the local boys who are working for the ranch owner (including a familiar bit of dialogue;  Shane: ‘You talking to me?’ Cowboy: ‘Well I can’t see anyone else standing there, so I guess I must be talking to you’ ; borrowed by Taxi Driver, in case you’re wondering…), they throw a drink over him and insult him, but he doesn’t respond, just walks out again.

A pacifist hero in a 1950s western? Nearly. One of the other farmsteads has their crops destroyed by the local boys and is about to pack up and leave, but they decide to band together to make life easier on themselves. This introduces us to a few other players. Firstly, the owner of the farm Shane works for, Joe, the Swede (yes, a swedish cowboy, giving this film a great air of authenticity), a few other guys and ‘Stonewall’, so named for his confederate past, and remorselessly teased about this fact (much to his chagrin). Shane is in the group initially, but word has spread of his ‘yeller’ streak after the incident at the bar and he is left out of the conversation.

Anyway, banding together, they ride into town to get supplies. This puts out the local boys, who can’t rough anyone up in such a big group. Until Shane goes into the bar, and this time, decides to fight. So starts a good 10 minute brawl, with blood out of wounds and punches to the face, chair hits that look genuinely painful (?!) and a good streetfighting approach. A nice fight, that feels a lot more natural than many of these in other westerns from the period.

Anyway, after this, the ranch owner decides to get in a hired gun. Enter, stage right, Jack Palance, here credited as Henry Jack Palance, but you’d recognise that gaunt face anywhere. Anyway, using him as a threat, they manage to scare the farmsteaders again, apart from Stonewall, who has been standing up to them all film and you know whats coming. In a beautifully shot scene, he is provoked by Wilson (Jack Palance’s character) into drawing his gun, thereby justifying his own murder. Its 3 days ride to the nearest sheriff and the isolation is palpable. The Swede witnesses it and the local proxy for the Sheriff, the bar owner asks him if Wilson was using self defence. The Swede can only answer ‘Yes’. This whole scene shows how powerless the farmsteaders are. Following a moving funeral scene, we are approaching the finale. Shane has demonstrated whilst teaching the boy that he is ridiculously good on the quickdraw. Also, Joe’s wife at the farm has started to show an interest in Shane (pretty shocking for 1950s also!). Joe has decided to take down the ranch owner once and for all. Meanwhile, Shane, who has been torn about helping, even though throughout the film he could have done at any point, get changed, back into his gunslinger’s clothes and puts his belt on. After Joe hints to his wife that she would be looked after (and we can only assume he means by Shane), we can see he expects to die and lose his family to Shane. Shane doesn’t want that to happen, so he fights Joe. Another convincing fist fight occurs, ending when Shane pistol-whips him to unconsciousness. Shane rides to town, followed by the boy. The gunfight itself is very low key, a few words then Shane (obviously) outdraws Palance, and shoots the ranch owner. The boy shouts a warning, but a rifleman upstairs just clips him (maybe? you don’t really see) as Shane shoots.

A great little ending scene follows with Shane telling the boy he has to go now, he can’t go back to the farm, and to tell his mom that ‘there are no guns left in the valley now’. Shane rides off, slightly slumped (He may be dieing or even dead by the end).

So, an anti-war/violence western? You certainly get that feeling. The final shootout is very low-key, and you are left with the feeling it would be better for Shane if he hadn’t put his gunbelt back on. He was clearly trying to stop, but this film falls into the category of the the gunfighter who cannot stop and is resigned to his fate.

Wonderful cinematography and shot selection really show you how isolated this area is, how alone everyone is. The town, unlike most westerns, is really three shacks in a row, there are no roads anywhere, and everything feels very authentic and real. The camerawork itself is a lot less stagey than you would expect as well, particularly a very good tracking shot for stonewall’s last ride into town. Some fantastic skies too, using thunderstorms and clouds as much has the blue skies you would expect from a western. Everything seems cold, damp and hard work, not the cheery, sunny environment you’d be used to from watching westerns from this era.

There’s not a clear good guy/bad guy dynamic either. Apart from Palance’s character (who is portrayed as basically as psychopath), even the ranch owner comes across as somewhat reasonable (albeit manipulative), and even has one very good speech where you almost agree with his argument about owning the land. One of his ranchhands turns towards the end and warns Shane about the plan to kill Joe,  and all of this makes everything seem a bit more grey than usual in these things. Shane is not clearly the hero, although he is saving the life of his friend at the end, and you can’t quite shake the feeling that killing the old man who owned the ranch is somewhat harsh. Not clear cut at all, which is why its so interesting to watch.

Coupled with some very good acting (from actors who aren’t all matinée idols, only Alan Ladd as Shane really fits that model), particularly from the young boy, who plays a very natural 8-9 year old boy (unlike most modern child actors, who seem like creepily shrunk adults when they speak…) this film really shines. A few clunky scenes, but enough maturity and complex morals make this one of the best westerns ever made.
Shane [DVD] [1953]

9/10

EeeeeeeEEeeeee!!… The Apple tablet

The hype’s out there, people are excited, the announcement’s tomorrow. Will it be good?

Well, yes. Of course it will be. The day the iPhone came out, it was obvious to me that ‘that, but bigger‘ was going to sell like hotcakes. You look at netbooks, probably the biggest growing PC form (good ref here?). These are mostly used as internet browsers in my experience (and please point me at some numbers if I’m wrong!) and the one flaw in all netbooks is the trackpad. Which is fairly tricky to use and inaccurate. But as Apple have cracked touchscreen controls on a small screen, the larger screen (current sweepstake winning guess; 10.1″) would have near-perfect accuracy. I guess the keyboard would be worse, but much worse than most netbooks? Probably not. Besides, when do you type on the internet? Compared to clicks, at least, it’s a minority input. So yes, Apple will make lots more money. To go on top of their existing piles of money. Anyone who thinks otherwise is missing a few screws.

Will it offer anything over existing netbooks? That’s the question. Apple don’t like to release something without some sort of game-changing new feature. They have games blogs signed up all around for the product announcement tomorrow, so I guess thats a given. But it’s not a surprise after the massive success of the iPhone, in particular the games market on there. I fully expect to see more long-form games on the tablet though, with bigger publishers, more professional backing, and the (inevitable) bigger prices. What else? depending on hard drive size, media content will be pushed hard. There’s a good opportunity to create a good (if not great, as it is entirely screen-dependent) e-reading solution, and Apple have been signing up various publishers. I would expect to see magazine/newpaper subscriptions and books come to the platform, on top of the existing music, films and tv purchases. It should have plenty of power to deal with film decoding. That will make it expensive, but Apple aren’t one to skimp on features to keep the price low. Unless they are releasing it with some sort of built-in subscription model (much like the iPhone is subsidised, the tablet could be subsidised through magazine subscriptions), I would expect the tablet to be announced tomorrow at £699. Expensive? Yes, and I hope that Apple proves me wrong. But they have always been expensive at the launch of every other product. If they have found ways of reducing the cost, either through subscriptions or skimping on power, then it may fall cheaper, but they like to make some money on the hardware, and have never cared about making money in software, so I’ll stick with that. Lets see how wrong I am tomorrow! :-)

PS I’d expect the US price to be the same; $699…

Avatar – $2 Billion and counting

So, Avatar, where do we begin. This film has been reviewed by just about everyone in the world by now,  and has recently hit over $2 billion. $2 billion. $2 billion?! Is it really that good? As an affirmed sci-fi geek I felt the need to at least have a discussion around this film. At the end I’ll attach a score to the film. But I’m not really going to talk about specifics much. I presume you’ve seen it. At $2 billion, I kind of expect anyone reading an english blog will have seen it by now (Poor China).

Do I think it’s any good? Yes, for what its worth, James Cameron has taken years of incremental improvements in special effects and put it all on screen at once, creating something that is as close to seamless CGI as we’ve yet seen. Its not perfect, but it doesn’t break your sense of disbelief, which is key, and is why CGI has been 2nd place to practical effects for a long time now. Or at least until this year. Combine this with a very impressive implementation of 3D (and I am a big skeptic when it comes to 3D, I’ve never seen any that didn’t try to jab me in the eye at some point before now) and you do have a groundbreaking, game-changing film for Hollywood to look up to.

But (we all knew there was a but coming) for all the flash, for all amazing action/effects sequences, this is a film lacking a heart. Or at least lacking any sort of message that can be delivered subtly. Every single message is delivered to your face, like a small angry child showing that pickyture wot they drawn, jammed in front of your eyes so you cannot fail to miss it. Yes, it is a hollywood blockbuster, and I probably shouldn’t expect great depth or complexity, but sci-fi, out of nearly all genres has the scope for finely detailed critiques of the status quo,  complex ‘what if’ scenarios that make you consider what you have done or may do in the future. This simply tells you – machines are bad, corporations are bad, the military are bad, nature is good. Don’t be bad.  Bit simplistic, no? Coupled with average acting (although, if I was honest, the Na’vi are fantastic for being  CGI creations, but I’m not counting effects as acting yet..), some clunky lines in the script (especially the ‘baddies’ – who fall short of saying something along the lines of ‘I’m the bad guy, I must kill you!!!’, but not by much.) and perhaps a slightly overlong mid-section it lets the film down, which is a shame considering its one of the greatest worlds yet realised on screen, up there with the lord of the rings trilogy, and probably star wars for giving you a sense of place.

Ultimately though, James Cameron’s love of the planet shines through at the expense of the plot. It has its moments, and the tech is fantastic, but in the end this falls more into the manner of ‘The Abyss’ than ‘Aliens’ , nice tech, shame about the plot. My greatest fear will be the number of CGI-heavy, 3D worlds we will see on screen over the next couple of years. Few people will be able to realise them as well as Cameron has, and Hollywood gives me no confidence in being able to put together a coherent plot in a summer blockbuster (See Transformers 1/2). James Cameron has managed both, and that should be applauded.

7/10

Hello world!

First post, checking stuff out, winding up for some reviews. Oh yeah, winding up that magic riting part of my brain. Excitement.

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