Five Fingers for Marseilles (2017)

Impression: This film felt like a South African mixture of old school Mad Max, a western and a kung fu flick. Not that there is any actual kung fu, but it just felt like a lot of plot lines were left not completely explained, which is how I always feel with kung fu movies. In a dusty small town a bunch of kids play war games amongst each other. When the white police shows up and uses unnecessary force, confrontation ensues, and one of the cops is killed. The kid who was the leader of the group, Tau,  is responsible and runs off, never to be seen in town again.  We next see him years later, buff, and a hardened criminal with a posse. He decides to return to his home town, a loner, where there are different political forces at play fighting for control, and the population is mostly scared. No one recognizes him and his childhood friends have all grown up to have prominent roles in the life of the town.  I feel like there must be a lot of political commentary, and the whole film is some kind of allegory for something going on in South Africa, but I just don’t know enough about it to quite figure out what it’s trying to say.  The friend’s roles all seem like caricatures: the fat kid becomes the Mayor, the girl runs the only bar in town, one  is in cahoots with the military, and one is dead, but his son is trying to avenge him. The dark force in all this is a hired band of thugs headed by a very creepy one-eyed Sepoko (ghost) who comes with his very own creepy theme music.  His role is overplayed in dramatic style. As is to be expected from the set up, it all ends in a very bloody and very long shoot out. The pacing sometimes felt like it dragged, the acting sometimes felt over the top, but one thing this film had going for it is unbelievably beautiful cinematography. And how often do you get to see an African western?
Facts: A South African winter western, centers on a guy who runs away as a kid and comes back to his dusty hometown years later, to find it run by bad guys.
Extra: I saw this film at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Impression: This is one of those movies set in a lot of snow and cold, and it makes you cold just to look at it. The coats are massive and the snow never stops falling.  At first the overlapping dialogue is jarring. It had been a while since I last saw a Robert Altman movie, so I forgot that this was a signature move. But after the first couple of minutes, you get used to it.  So many movies clearly edit each person’s speaking part, that we’ve been trained to expect cinema to be delivered that way. It becomes disorienting to hear sounds and words overlapping the way they would appear in reality, although if you’ve ever rewatched a home movie, it’s exactly like that.  Leonard Cohen provides the entire beautiful soundtrack, but it also feels like both a perfect match and at the same time incongruous with the setting.  The words match the action on screen, but Cohen’s voice and melody, seem so very urban and far away from a rough Northwestern town, where the action takes place.  I’ve seen this movie described as an anti-western. And after seeing it, I get it. Westerns are usually all about the hero and the glory, and this is all about the drudgery and the misery of living in this small town. Life seems unbearably rough: the cold, the dirt, the brutality. The story follows McCabe (Warren Beatty), who is not too bright and not too great a businessman who wants to start a whorehouse, and Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), an opium addicted madam who shows up to give him advice and create a more luxurious (although in this town, that just means less savage) experience than he had originally planned and in the process make him a lot more money. None of the characters are necessarily likeable, but they grow on you, and the situations and the setting help you make sense of their character and actions. This is one of those movies that has been on my list to see for many years, and I am glad I finally got around to it.

Facts:  A fast talker, but not so great a businessman and an opium addicted madam set up a whorehouse in a bleak Northwestern coal town sometime in the early 20th century.

Extras: A lot of interesting information about the movie in this article, including why “the ampersand is important! I edited the title accordingly.