Thursday, January 31, 2019

"The Big Country" (1958)

Everything in this movie is big.  The scenery, the characters' egos and ideas and desires -- even the names of the stars.  And the filmmakers don't let you forget it, either.  They crammed the movie with sweeping vistas, outsized sets, and characters caught up in larger-than-life struggles.  If you like Hollywood Epics with a capital E, this is the movie for you!

Wealthy sea captain Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) leaves his sailing ships and heads for Texas to meet the family of the girl he fell in love with back East, Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker).  Her father, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), welcomes Jim McKay with an enormous party, during which everyone from miles around shakes Jim's hand and reminds him that Texas is a Big Country.  He dares to tell one of them that yes, he has seen something just as big before: the ocean!  They don't believe him.  Nothing could be bigger than Texas.

Patricia is headstrong, spoiled, and bossy.  Somehow, remarkably, she's acquired the friendship of a sensible, clear-sighted, and intelligent woman named Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons).  Maybe it's because they're just about the only unattached young women in the area, or maybe Patricia likes that Julie gives her good advice and doesn't defy her bossing.  Much.

Jim McKay soon learns that Major Terrill has an arch-enemy, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives).  The Hannasseys and the Terrills have been feuding for a long time now.  Why?  Mostly because they're the two biggest landowners in the area, and because the heads of both families are ornery and mean.

The only reason the area has had any semblance of peace is that there's only one good water source, the Big Muddy.  And neither Terrill nor Hannassey controls the Big Muddy.

Julie Maragon does.  For decades, she (like her father before her) has allowed both the Hannasseys and the Terrills to water their stock in the river on the condition that they keep the peace.  The first to break that uneasy truce will lose all rights to use the vital water.  This puts a lot of pressure on Julie from both sides, but she bears up under it with grace and conviction.  She's going to keep the peace in this land if it kills her.

Now, Major Terrill and Patricia decide that, because Julie is Patricia's best friend, Julie can be convinced to give Patricia her land and all the water rights as a wedding present when Patricia marries Jim McKay.

However, Rufus Hannassey's oldest boy, Buck (Chuck Connors) has decided that Julie fancies him.  Buck is a crude, cowardly bully, so used to getting his own way that he thinks he can get Julie to marry him just by telling her she wants to.

As you might imagine, Julie Maragon is very tired of being pulled and pushed back and forth by these people.  She'd like nothing better than to find someone to sell her land to, someone that she could trust to continue the agreement that the Hannasseeys and Terrills have to play nice in order to use the water.

And then she finds someone who's willing and able to take on that task:  Jim McKay.

The funny thing is, everyone else in the movie is utterly certain that Jim is an inept tenderfoot who's scared to do anything manly.  They've marked him as a timid greenhorn who couldn't stand up to a medium-strong wind.  That's especially true of Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Major Terrill's sort-of-adopted-son who runs his ranch for him.  He tries to trick Jim into riding a bronc, but Jim won't do it, so he decides Jim's a coward.  He and everyone else in the film think if a man won't show off what he can do, then he can't do it.

Everyone except Julie Maragon.  She sees Jim McKay for what he is -- so comfortable in his own skin, so confident in his own abilities that he has no need to parade them before others.  So Julie sells Jim her ranch, and they get the transaction all properly deeded and recorded.  Just in time, too, because Buck has convinced Rufus that Julie's willing to marry him.

So the Hannasseys kidnap Julie and tell her she can't go free until she's either signed over her land or married Buck.  By this time, Buck doesn't much care about the water anymore, he just wants Julie, any way he can get her.  And he almost does get her, though happily he's too dumb to be quiet about it, and his attempt on Julie's virtue comes to nothing.

Julie's kidnapping is all the excuse Major Terrill needs to go riding out to the Hannassey homestead, looking for blood.

Meanwhile, Jim has seen Patricia for what she really is: selfish.  He's broken with her for good.  Now he offers to ride into the Hannasseey camp alone to see if he can rescue Julie without bloodshed.

Also, he wants to find out if she might regard him as highly as he does her, though he doesn't mention that as one of his reasons.

The two sides engage in a mighty battle, and you'll be happy to know that murderous, would-be-rapist Buck Hannassey gets what he deserves.

Now, why do I dig this movie so much?  Partly it's the cast, as I really like Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston.  They've all been among my favorites since I was a teen.

But a lot of it is because this is a fish-out-of-water story where the ocean fish, Jim McKay, doesn't just survive perfectly well in the waterless world of Texas, he thrives.  And not by conforming to the local customs.  He goes about things his own way, he solves problems without being asked, and he generally behaves beautifully to everyone involved.  He's a hero in every way, and I love that he ends up with a woman he can respect.  A woman who appreciates him for who he is, not for how he makes her look.  And a woman who's not afraid to work hard and wait a long time to make her dreams come true.

EDIT: I forgot to mention the music!  Jerome Moross's score for The Big Country is one of my absolute favorite soundtracks of all time.  It's magnificent.  I wrote vast chunks of my book Cloaked and its short sequel "Blizzard at Three Bears Lake" while listening to it.  You can hear it here on YouTube in its entirety, or just the (brilliant) main title theme here, also on YouTube.

Is this movie family-friendly?  Well, there's quite a lot of violence, but '50s-Hollywood violence, so lots of punching and kicking and shooting, but nothing more gory than a little red paint for blood.  Drinking and smoking occurs.  There's a little very mild bad language.  There are two instances of a man forcing a kiss on a woman, plus quite a few scenes of people kissing and enjoying it.  I mentioned that there's a rape attempt, though kids will probably see it as just a sneaky attack of violence, as all rapey intentions are implied.  Fine for kids 10+, especially if they watch a lot of old westerns and understand that the violence is just pretend.

This has been my contribuition to the 90 Years of Jean Simmons Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Wonderful World of Cinema.  Visit either of those blogs for the complete list of the blogathon entries!

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Robots in Film Blogathon is Here!

Greetings, fellow humans!  The Robots in Film Blogathon will now commence!

Leave me a link to your entry in the comments here and I'll update the list periodically all weekend!  You can also find them over here in Quiggy's similar post.

"I, Robot" (2004)

When I say that Will Smith is the best part of this movie, I don't mean that the rest of the movie is bad.  It's just that Smith is so doggone watchable and likable, he can't help being the best thing on the screen.  But I also dig this movie because it is smart and twisty, and especially because it has a reveal at the beginning of the third act that shifts everything in the best possible way.

It's the year 2035.  Robots are everywhere, serving humans.  Homicide detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) hates robots.  Fears robots.  Suspects robots of being up to no good basically all the time.  He won't let his grandmother (Adrian L. Ricard) get one to help her around the house.  He goes out of his way to be mean and ornery to robots, calling them slurs like "canner."  He gets in trouble with his boss for antagonizing and falsely suspecting robots of crimes.  But he refuses to trust robots, no matter how safe they're supposed to be.

This movie is probably the main reason that, when my husband wanted to get a robot vacuum, I insisted we get the least-sentient robot vacuum there is.  It can't turn on by itself, it can't recharge by itself, and it can't detect messes by itself.  I don't need any spooky sentient robots in my house, thanks.

Because, of course, Spooner is going to turn out to be right.  The robots are going to be too powerful, too pervasive.  There's going to be big trouble between robots and humans.

It all starts when Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) falls to his death inside the headquarters of U.S. Robotics.  His successor, Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), insists it must have been suicide.  He pushes to have the police investigation wrapped up quickly.  But Detective Spooner is suspicious.  He insists on poking around the facility, so Robertson assigns robot-psychology expert Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) to show him around.

Together, they find a robot hiding in Dr. Lanning's office.  A robot that looks like all the rest of the latest generation of robots, called NS5s.  But this robot is different.  It has a name, it has dreams, and it's voiced by Alan Tudyk, who a decade later would also voice another of my favorite robots, K-2SO from Rogue One (2016).

This robot, dubbed Sonny by Dr. Lanning, bothers Detective Spooner deeply.  It was hiding at the scene, it then jumped out a window to elude capture when discovered, and it behaves emotionally.  So you'd think that the robot-hating detective would be thrilled when everyone agrees with Robertson that the robot must have killed Dr. Lanning and thus must be destroyed.

Except Spooner is convinced that there's something even more sinister than killer robots at work here.  He suspects Robertson of having used Sonny to kill Dr. Lanning so Robertson can take over US Robotics.  Spooner himself endures multiple robot attacks during the course of his investigation, but because the rest of the homicide bureau see him as paranoid about robots, his attacks are dismissed as simply ordinary events blown out of proportion by Spooner himself.

And then.  And then it gets REALLY GOOD because you finally find out the reason that Spooner hates robots.  And I refuse to spoil this part because it's the other main thing (besides Will Smith's natural charm) that makes me love this film.  I'll only say that it's a bit of a paradigm shift, with things you kind of assumed about Spooner twisting in a new direction that clarifies him for the viewers.

The villain turns out to be not who anyone suspected, and of course, Spooner and Calvin save the day, with some help from a new friend.

I, Robot is very, very loosely inspired by the Isaac Asimov short story collection of the same name.  It does involve robots, the Three Laws of robotics, and a character name or two.  That's about it.  I reviewed the book a couple years ago if you're interested in the source material.

Is this movie family friendly?  Not precisely.  It has a LOT of bad language.  A LOT, and of various flavors.  (If you watch it with the closed-captioning on, you'll find out it even has the F word once, but I totally never heard it when watching without captions).  It has some far-away, side-view nudity of Will Smith in the shower.  You also see Susan Calvin in the shower, but it's all steamed up, so you only see her bare shoulders.  There's nothing sexual in either of those scenes, and aside from a few mild bits of innuendo in dialog, there's no sexual content at all -- no kissing, no romance between Spooner and Calvin, nothing like that.  There's a lot of robot vs. human violence.  Dr. Lanning's dead body is shown with blood all around the head.  One character has memories of a child drowning, which could be disturbing.  If you watch this with something like ClearPlay to filter out the language, it could be pretty family friendly, though.

This has been my entry into the Robots in Film blogathon that Quiggy and I are hosting this weekend!  Check out the main posts on my blog or on Quiggy's to get links to all the other amazing robot-related reviews.