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Tag Archive: historical drama


Review by C.J. Bunce

Eighty-five years ago today, April 1, 1934, two Texas highway patrolmen, 26-year-old Edward Wheeler and 22-year-old Holloway Murphy were on motorcycle patrol, checking on a car they thought may need assistance.  Instead, they were gunned down by Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.  It was Easter Sunday.  The two notorious criminals had repeatedly evaded the law, in part because they were sheltered in an era where the stupidity of the masses outweighed sense and a large segment of the populace viewed them as some kind of folk heroes.  Despite being captured by two former Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, that legendary hero status stuck somehow, thanks in part to Hollywood, and specifically the rather popular and also critically acclaimed movie Bonnie and Clyde starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.  That film portrayed a rollicking, at times humorous, ride, which in fact, shared little of substance about the criminals and their victims.  Hollywood is now doing an about-face with a new, edgy, thoughtful drama, which includes the murders of Wheeler and Murphy and others, in director John Lee Hancock‘s The Highwaymen, now on Netflix.

Hancock, who wrote screenplays for the Kevin Costner/Clint Eastwood film A Perfect World, the screenplay for Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and wrote and directed the 2004 version of The Alamo, offers up a reserved, measured tale not of the infamous criminals this time, but the two aging men, Hamer and Gault, who knew how to track and kill criminals.  That’s thanks to a script by John Fusco, who has experience writing historical accounts for the screen, as found in his Billy the Kid story Young Guns, the Babe Ruth biopic Babe, the 1890s horse rider tale Hidalgo, and his heavily researched series Marco Polo.  Despite the sometimes dry “historical drama” label, The Highwaymen is by no means devoid of compelling storytelling.  Plus, headlined by Kevin Costner, playing the elder more experienced former Ranger Frank Hamer, and Woody Harrelson as the slightly less experienced B.M. “Maney” Gault, the film showcases the chemistry between the duo.  In one key dramatic sequence the two lawmen come upon a temporary residence for the criminals, looking for clues among the closeted clothing in what could be the bedroom of any small town couple of the day.  But Harrelson may get the most satisfying scene, as he responds to being cornered by a group of Barrow supporters while in a public restroom.

The film is fueled by a compelling musical score by Thomas Newman (Spectre, Skyfall, Road to Perdition, The Shawshank Redemption, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Man With One Red Shoe), the kind of a soundtrack that will no doubt stand well as its own creative work.  His score sets the tempo of the picture while not overtaking it, as happened with Ennio Morricone’s Oscar-nominated score for Costner’s The Untouchables, a similar era film that will no doubt be compared to The HighwaymenNewman’s music is entirely different, a balance of post-Civil War, Western, and Depression-era motifs with guitar that echoes the former Rangers’ cowboy, horse-riding past.  Cinematographer John Schwartzman delivers the kind of bleak, spacious, 1930s America perhaps last scene in László Kovács’ film work on Peter Bogdanovich’s depression-era film Paper Moon.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

I am happy to have watched my first screening of Academy Award winning director Alfonso Cuarón‘s Roma following a mini-marathon of Francis Ford Coppola’s seemingly incomparable The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2.  Otherwise I might buy into the rather pervasive critical sentiment that the film suffers from “lack of story.”  Although Coppola’s films have an exciting action-heavy plot, they, like Roma, are about family, and not every family is part of the Mob.  If audiences look harder at Roma they may find a lot more.  Cuarón, this year with five Oscar nominations for his own puppetmastery: director, writer, producer (best film/foreign film), and cinematographer (the film leads all nominees with ten nominations in all), has created that rare piece of artistry that is a historical snapshot like Oscar nominees of decades past.  And it’s an incredible piece of black and white cinematography, artfully filmed as admirably as the Godfather movies.

The film follows Cleo, played by newcomer Oaxacan actress Yalitza Aparicio, a live-in housekeeper for a well-to-do, “middle class” family in the Colonia Roma area of Mexico City of the early 1970s.  She’s an employee of the family, yet both in the home and in town she encounters reactions from her community that tell us she has second class status–she may live in the neighborhood, but she’s not a member of the family.  The synopsis of the film is brief: Cleo is single, gets a boyfriend, gets pregnant, he rejects her, and the result is tragic.  This is all presented as realistically as possible, and viewers can’t help but empathize with her at every turn.  At the same time the family has its own crisis–the father/husband leaves the wife and kids to fend for themselves, and they need to move on.  Her plight constantly is upstaged by the family matters.

The drama comes from the subtlety, the gestures, the care she gives for the family’s children, the dismissal she gets from professionals even when they are attempting to treat her with respect (as with doctors in a number of hospital visits).  How many people have encountered Cleos in their lives?  How do you treat them and see them treated?  Cuarón based Cleo on his own housekeeper from his youth, recreating his home, his neighborhood, and the Mexico City of his youth.  It’s no doubt that the pacing of the film could hardly be slower, thanks to Cuarón’s trademark long, single takes, and this will be a turn-off for some, especially in an era of sound bytes and action movies.  Yet Cuarón is forcing the audience to slow down and give the film their full attention.  The truth, the soul of the film, can be found in the nuance.  Even the slow pass at giant barrister shelves takes on its own meaning, the jet planes overhead, the father’s too-large-for-the-garage Ford Galaxie.  Statements are everywhere from production designer Eugenio Caballero, using furniture from Cuarón’s home to replicate the director’s memories of the era.

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