Category: British Cinema

The Hi-Lo Country (UK-Germany-US 1998)

Billy Crudup (left) and Woody Harelson

This is one of the films I screened in 2006 as part of an Evening Class on ‘Looking Back Over Brokeback Mountain’. These were the notes from the screening.

The Hi-Lo Country has a fascinating production background that makes it an interesting case study as a ‘Twilight Western’. The film did not do very much business on its initial release and has never (to my knowledge) been released on DVD in the UK, so I haven’t had a chance to watch it again. My suspicion is that at the time of its release, Westerns were so out of favour that it was virtually ignored.

At the centre of the production of the film is the marriage between the well-known UK director of controversial social dramas, Stephen Frears, (still perhaps best known internationally for My Beautiful Laundrette (UK 1985), but perhaps in Hollywood for the success of Dangerous Liaisons (1988)) and some classic Western material. Frears might seem an odd choice of director for such a quintessentially American genre, but Westerns are so universally known that there have been several made by UK directors to put alongside the much better known Italian and German Westerns of the 1960s. Frears was also responsible for an earlier film produced by the Martin Scorsese-Barbara De Fina partnership with a distinctive ‘Hollywood genre’ feel. This was The Grifters (US 1990), a gritty ‘neo noir’ film based on a Jim Thompson novel and featuring powerful performances from John Cusack, Annette Bening and Angelica Huston. On the evidence of this film, Frears looked a strong bet.

The other partners in this enterprise were Working Title, the most successful UK production company of the last thirty years. In 1999 they were part of Polygram Filmed Entertainment which was attempting to become a major studio from a European base. Unfortunately, PFE was sold to Universal at around the time The Hi-Lo Country was released in the UK in July 1999. It probably got lost in the upheaval (being released at the same time as Working Title’s big summer film, Notting Hill). There was also some German tax money in The Hi-Lo Country and the German title of the film for TV release has a title which translates as “In the land of the last of the cowboys”.

As well as Frears, some of the other creative talents in the production were also British-based. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton had worked consistently with Frears since My Beautiful Laundrette and editor Masahiro Hirakubo is probably best known for his long working relationship with Danny Boyle (e.g. on Trainspotting (UK 1996)). What kind of image of the Western landscape and the feel and ‘tone’ of the Western milieu would they conjure up? The material they were working with could not be more ‘authentic’. Max Evans’ novel was a property that Sam Peckinpah had reportedly been attempting to put into production for several years before his death in 1984 and the script which was offered to Frears was written by Walon Green, whose earlier story, adapted by Green himself, with Peckinpah, became The Wild Bunch (US 1969).

It isn’t difficult to see what might have interested Peckinpah in the story. The two central characters are close male friends who return to cattle country after service in the Second World War. They would like to get back to traditional cowboy ranch work, but discover that the local ranchers are being bought out by a much bigger player, Jim Ed Love. Will they stand and fight – will we get the familiar generic narrative of one man who stays ‘traditional’ and one who flirts with modernity? Well, what do you think?

THE HI-LO COUNTRY, Patricia Arquette, 1998. ©Gramercy Pictures

There is violence of course, and country music and dances and rodeo imagery. This is a proper Western. But it is also a melodrama with a strong female character, played by Patricia Arquette, who is pursued in different ways by the two central characters. There is also a second female lead – an early Hollywood role for Penélope Cruz as Josepha, bringing the ‘over the border’ image of Mexico into play in a more subtle way, perhaps.

Penelope Cruz as Josepha

For many in the audience, the film stands or falls (given that most commentators praise the overall look and feel of the film) on the performances of Billy Crudup and Woody Harrelson. As Westerns became less popular and as iconic Western stars became too old for the leads, producers found it difficult to cast believable cowboy types in Western movies in the late 1990s. In Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger’s performance is remarkable in this respect – absolutely believable, as if he had appeared in dozens of Western movies (whereas Jake Gyllenhaal’s is more questionable).

Billy Crudup’s is the more restrained performance. He has an interesting face with ‘chiselled features’ transformed successfully for his appearance as a 17th century female impersonator in the British film Stage Beauty (UK 2004). If Crudup is an ‘actorly’ star, seeking out intriguing roles, Woody Harrelson is a more extravert star, seeking more explosive roles. For some his performance in The Hi-Lo Country is ‘over the top’. Certainly he does not portray a likeable character (he’s not like McQueen in Junior Bonner). We will have to decide if his performance helps to ‘de-romanticise’ a cowboy character, who in some of the other films we have looked at always seems to have a ‘good side’ to balance the stubborness and boorishness (perhaps with the exception of Paul Newman in Hud?).

If you wish to follow up the narrative questions in The Hi-Lo Country, another worthwhile Western that is currently available on DVD is Comes a Horseman (US 1978), directed by Alan J. Pakula, in which the two ranchers, under threat in Montana in the late 1940s, are played by Jane Fonda and James Caan (an ex-soldier). They are resisting the pressure of Jason Robards as the major landowner and the activities of oil prospectors.

Our discussion of The Hi-Lo Country will focus on whether it works as a Twilight Western and how it looks now in the light of the success of Brokeback Mountain. Do we think that Frears is able to deal with Western culture from his outsider perspective as successfully as that other outsider Ang Lee? It’s difficult now to think about the film without the success of Brokeback Mountain and the perhaps now raised expectation of interest in gender identity in the Western. Here are a couple of extracts from contemporary reviews:

While the story’s setup would have us expect a reflective elegy for a dying breed, the movie instead straddles turf that might be better described as ‘Western noir’. Sexual tension and deceit overtake the cowboys-on-the-increasingly-mechanised-range elements, and before you know it we’re cherchezing the femme.

(Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle, January 1999)

If the threads of the story ultimately slip from his grasp, in its best moments the movie feels like an epic hybrid of Red River and The Last Picture Show.

. . . Ms. Arquette certainly looks right for the role of the slatternly married siren who tells Pete that since meeting Big Boy for the first time in her life she isn’t bored. But for all the sultry glances she casts, Ms. Arquette fails to convey her character’s fiery animal magnetism. Even when she’s in Big Boy’s arms, Ms. Arquette’s Mona is more dumb cow than molten lava. And her absence of erotic energy leaves a blank space in the movie.

. . . For all its deficiencies and misplaced emphases, The Hi-Lo Country still offers plenty of action and color. The movie is drenched in austere Southwestern atmosphere. You feel the harshness of the land and feel how physically grueling, dangerous and at the mercy of the elements a cowboy’s life really is. The Hi-Lo Country is finally an elegy to a vanishing breed epitomised by Mr. Harrelson’s electrifying and scary wild man. He is a creature who is really and truly at home on the range.

(Stephen Holden, New York Times, December 1998)

A good deal of The Hi-Lo Country is taken up with Big Boy and Pete displaying a wide range of quintessentially masculine behavior, from brawling and drinking to letting hand-rolled cigarettes settle in the corners of their mouths and pulling up chairs for high-stakes poker games. Men are men in this movie, make no mistake about that.

. . . Though Harrelson and Crudup get the job done, it says something that in this most macho of films the two female leads make the biggest on-screen impression. Arquette as Mona feels completely authentic in a familiar role, and it’s Cruz’s Josepha who sums up the thrust of this self-involved drama in three well-chosen words: “Stupid, horny cowboys”.

(Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times)

These are representative of many other similar reviews.

Here’s a YouTube trailer comprising a scene where the boys first meet Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott):

Home (UK 2019)

Sarah Outen with her rowing boat

Home is an unusual film and difficult to categorise. It seems straightforward enough at first as a documentary record of one woman’s ‘adventure’ over four years (2011-2015) and covering 20,000 miles. Sarah Outen has one prime objective – to complete her long journey around the world using only her own muscle power. She must be the ‘engine’ that makes her travel possible by rowing boat, kayak or bicycle. She can’t accept any lifts and if her kit fails her she must swim or walk. It’s a dangerous and exciting personal trip into the unknown.

All of this seems clear enough but the film’s tagline hints at something else when it reads ‘An outward journey inward’. This suggests that Sarah has two ‘journeys of discovery’ – one concerned with the world she encounters each day, both the environment she moves through and the people she meets, and the other the things she learns about herself from those encounters.

Sarah’s double ‘journey’ also reminds us that a documentary has a narrative just like any fiction feature and this one most resembles the film genre of the road movie. Road movies traditionally set out to find new experiences in different places and to explore how the central character changes as a result of those experiences. The road movie is the archetypal American adventure and the idea of a story that is a ‘journey’ for the central character is also an American idea with Hollywood films often presenting a ‘quest’ which the hero must undertake to reach a final goal. We might ask: “What is Sarah’s goal?” Will she know when and if she achieves it?

But narratives don’t have to be ‘linear’ and they don’t have to strive for specific goals. Sometimes the story goes full circle and the characters arrive back where they started but still changed in some way. What is important is to note that ‘documentary records’ are inevitably ‘narrativised’ – made into stories that are accessible for audiences and offer the same pleasures as fiction narratives. How will this affect Sarah’s story?

Who has taken the photo in this remote region, another lonely traveller?

In the famous spoof Western movie Blazing Saddles, the hero rides around a giant rock in the desert and discovers an orchestra playing the exciting musical score accompanying his ride on screen. It’s a brilliant way of exposing the artifice of cinema and the ways in which audiences are prepared to suspend disbelief. As Sarah kayaks along a turbulent river or cycles across the desert, how often do we stop to wonder who is using the camera? Sometimes it is Sarah herself but her options are limited. We know there must be another camera operator and a support crew. Home does in fact refer to the support and logistics crew needed to bring the kayak (‘Nelson’) or the bicycle (‘Hercules’) to the right place when Sarah arrives in her rowing boat. Sometimes we even see the crew. None of this diminishes Sarah’s achievement or takes away from the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary experience. But it does refer to a particular filmmaking practice.

Home is edited by the Canadian director Jen Randall of Light Shed Pictures. Officially she is also co-writer and director of the film.  It is often said that the meaning in films is ‘created’ in the edit suite. Home is a 92 minute film created through careful selection of shots from hundreds of hours of footage shot by nine different camera operators. Jen Randall started work on the film only after Sarah had returned.

Home is now a film but Sarah’s journey was also a blog, followed by people all round the world. The film is now on release in the UK and also winning prizes at the specialist film festivals for ‘adventure films’ like Kendal Mountain Festival and Banff Mountain Film Competition. The film’s release has been organised mainly through independent cinemas and Sarah has often appeared in person at these screenings to conduct a Q&A. Screenings are listed on the website below and the next appears to be in Peebles in January 2020. When the screenings tour is completed the film will become available on VOD.

An emotional time, as Sarah waits for oceanic storms to subside

Home is extremely well put together and the narrative works. There are many surprising moments and several relationships of different kinds that Sarah experiences over the four years. This certainly isn’t 90 minutes of only staring at seas and rivers and mountain roads – though they do feature of course. Jen Randall has said that the key ‘Eureka moment’ for her searching through all the hours of footage was when she looked at the footage of the Pacific crossing. This gave her a sense of the ‘shape’ of the narrative. It is also the most emotional and dangerous part of the whole story.

Many people say that they have been inspired by Sarah’s story and these kinds of adventures are both popular with film and TV audiences and arguably necessary for our culture. The film includes romance, friendships and Sarah’s own personal battle with mental health issues. This is a film that should get you feeling for Sarah and thinking about what she has achieved.

You can find out a great deal more on these two websites

https://www.sarahoutenhome.com

http://www.lightshedpictures.com

LIFF 2019 #10: Calm with Horses (UK-Ireland 2019)

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Cosmo Jarvis and Barry Keoghan are brilliant as low-life gangsters

This is an impressive feature film debut from director Nick Roland and writer Joe Murtagh (based on a Colin Barrett story of the same name). It features a low level gang in the west of Ireland who blight the lives of all they touch, including themselves. It is the not-very-bright protagonist, Arm (brilliantly played by Cosmo Jarvis who was in Lady Macbeth, UK, 2016), with whom we are invited to sympathise with the most despite the violence he metes out at the beginning of the film. Just before this he voiceovers, a technique not used in the rest of the film, that we shouldn’t think that men of violence like to be violent. It is an unnecessary statement because it soon becomes clear that that’s what the film’s about; in addition, Jarvis’ ‘hard man’ stare clearly conceals a deep vulnerability.

Arm is an ex-boxer who leaves the ring after killing a man during a bout and is recruited by the nascent leader of the Dever family, superbly played by Barry Keoghan, as his enforcer. There’s something of an Iago about Keoghan’s character, whispering into Arm’s ear about how his ex-partner is trying to blackmail him for money for his autistic son. You can almost see the conflict boiling beneath Arm’s battered face as he struggles with his loyalties. In the way it is pronounced, the ‘Dever family’ sounds like the ‘Devil family’ and the moniker is not far wrong.

Cinematographyer Piers McGrail manages to drain the stunning landscapes of western Ireland of their grandeur, giving a suitably gritty look that is far from the tourist ‘Kerrygold’ imagery. Most of the people, too, who populate the film are miles away from the whimsical friendliness of the Emerald Isle. Instead we see desperate people in desperate circumstances. There is some hope, though, through the mother of Arm’s child, played by Niamh Algar, who is striving to do the best for her difficult son; and Anthony Welsh has a small role as a BAME student from the north of England researching the use of horses in therapy and he punctures the insularity of the narrative world. Maybe in the original story the horses are more central; here they are peripheral.

It’s an impressive film that, although offering a sort of redemption, avoids any sentimentality in its ending. I’m looking forward to this talented crews’ next offerings. It’s due for release in the UK next March.

LIFF 2019 #9: Ordinary Love (UK 2019)

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Facing the abyss

The quotidian, the everyday, has little purchase in narrative for most of us live it and many, when watching films, want to escape it. Thus narratives that are about love emphasise the extraordinary and ecstasy in romance; however, as is this film shows, everyday love can also be extraordinary. Theorists state that narratives require a disruption to the situation which the text will resolve at the climax and this is true, for the mainstream at least. In Ordinary Love, Joan and Tom’s retired routine is broken by the diagnosis of breast cancer and the film follows their relationship during the treatment. Cancer touches most people, as even people who are fortunate enough to avoid it are likely to know those who are unfortunate. So in this sense the disruption in this film’s narrative is eminently relatable to for all adults though the older you are the more likely you are to identify with the protagonists; their sixtysomethingness also makes it a film about heading toward the twilight of life.

Clearly this narrative is character based and the leads, Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson, are both superb; though extra plaudits to Manville for her bravery in displaying her aged body. Age is often treated with disgust, particularly by those who are younger; it is an Other that few desire but, as I used to point out to pupils who claimed they never want to get old, the alternative is worse. Neeson’s casting is potent as he’s best known these days for EuroCorp’s international thrillers, such as Taken series (2008-14, France-US-Spain), where he plays a male ego ideal who will solve problems with his ‘particular skillset’. In Ordinary Love he is ordinary and so emphasises the powerlessness partners can only feel in the face of such an illness.

Of course as a melodrama the film must use exaggeration for dramatic effect but it does so in a limited way. The use of emblems (symbols) is also restrained (a tropical fish and digging up a path amongst them) and such restraint is appropriate to the ordinariness of the narrative. It was written by Owen McCafferty, his first film, and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn who made the excellent Good Vibrations (UK-Ireland, 2012) which was set in Belfast. Ordinary Love, too, is set in Ireland though it could happen anywhere.

Another thing I liked about the film was the listing of extras: everyone of them and they fill the screen at the end credits. Credit to everyone on the film.