Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Murder Ballad in the Outback: The Proposition

The Proposition (2005)

directed by John Hillcoat

screenplay by Nick Cave

music by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Hillcoat: “At that time, it was the last frontier. They basically just went further and further into the desert, into the most inhospitable terrain.”

Cave: “To me the major point was that it was so far out in the inhospitable countryside. So Captain Stanley and his wife can’t go anywhere, they just had to stay there. The answer to Stanley’s problems, really, is to quit his job and go somewhere where he and his wife should be. He’d probably have quite a nice life. And the same goes for the other characters as well.”

from a 2005 interview with director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave

Charley Burns (Guy Pearce)

I don't know much about Australian history, let alone that of its 19th-century frontier. I have seen Quigley Down Under - which I don't like that much - and that's about it. If that period was anything like it's portrayed in The Proposition, directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave, it was irredeemably harsh and miserable. The effort to bring civilization suffered at the hands of the rich and the violent. As the quote above states, the Queensland Outback, the movie's setting, was a place Europeans would have been better off avoiding. It is hot (in another interview, Hillcoat mentioned the desert temperature getting up around 130 degrees Fahrenheit), barren, and fly-infested. Whatever might be there, none of it seems worth the misery.

Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone)

Following a brief, deadly shootout that opens The Proposition, Charley Burns (Guy Pearce), and his simple-minded brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), are taken prisoner by Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley informs Charley, that on Christmas Day, only nine days away, Mikey will be hanged in the town of Clarence. If, however, Charley accepts a simple proposition (work that title!), both he and Mikey will be pardoned and set free. All Charley has to do is kill his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston). Arthur raped and killed the pregnant Eliza Hopkins. He is "an abomination" who needs to be stopped at all costs. The local Aborigines claim Arthur is a monster who turns into a great dog with sharp teeth.
Capt. Stanley: I wish to present you with a proposition. I know where Arthur Burns is. It is a godforsaken place. The blacks won't go there, nor the trackers. Not even my own men. I suppose, in time, the bounty hunters will get him. But I have other plans. I aim to bring him down. I aim to show that he is a man like any other. I aim to hurt him.

Charley accepts, leaving Mikey in the hands of the authorities. Viewing the burnt ruins of the Hopkins farm, he is clearly horrified when he discovers a bassinet, now never to be used. Arthur is assuredly the obscenity he's claimed to be. 

Arthur Burns (Danny Huston)

On the road to his brother's hideout in the hills, meets a pompous, racist named Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) in a tavern. Realizing Lamb is one of the bounty hunters Cpt. Stanley referred to, Charley knocks him out and heads off into the hills. There he is rescued from a band of Aborigines who attack him by Arthur and his gang. For a while, it seems, Arthur is more a philosopher than killer, but this is soon proven to be on an illusion.

Two Bob (Tom E. Lewis)

Meanwhile, back in Clarence, the townsfolk, led by the town's richest man, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), demand that whatever deal Stanley brokered, Mikey Burns must be punished. Even Stanley's demure wife, Martha (Emily Watson), insists he must suffer. Against the Captain's best efforts, the boy is dragged out to be flogged. Before the sentence can be finished (after suffering exactly thirty-nine lashes), everything just stops. The townspeople walk away in disgust, and even the flogger gives up. Martha swoons at the sight of Mikey's ravaged back. Later, the torture will prove fatal, setting the stage for the final showdown between the remaining Burns brothers and Captain Stanley.

Jellon Lamb (John Hurt)

The showdown occurs after much bloodshed and mayhem, all of which plays across the harsh Outback. Most of the movie is bathed in ochre and sepia as if the desert sand has filled every pore and bathed every molecule. The landscape is all sharp-edged and the violence seems to actually seep out of it.

The cast is quite good, especially Pearce and Huston. They both  Of special note is the presence of two of the best-known Aboriginal actors. Tom E. Lewis is good as the tough Two Bob, one of Arthur's henchmen. Lewis starred in Fred Schepisi's 1978, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. David Gulpilil, star of Walkabout and The Last Wave, plays Jacko, one of Stanley's deputies.

The greatest Westerns are moral tales set on the edge between civilization and the wilds. Good stands against evil, order against chaos, even if justice must be delivered with bullets and by a man who is too raw to live in society. Charley rode with Arthur, so we have to assume he has committed reprehensible acts. Still, from the start, he is repulsed by his brother's crimes. Even when it no longer matters to Mikey's fate, perhaps especially then, Charley does what's right.

The Proposition is one of the best Westerns to appear in the last two decades. It's a raw film in its acting, setting, look, and story. It also feels true to its time, not a harangue by someone upset the past doesn't conform to their ideals. It's a movie I know I'll return to in the years to come. 

Rating - A: Certain scenes in The Proposition make it a tough movie to watch, but none of them are gratuitous or frivolous. The violence isn't played for thrills like an 80's vintage Hollywood action movie. Their power comes from their sparing use and their utter cold-heartedness. There are no witty rejoinders, every shooting and every beating is brutal, they never feel less than real and painful. It's got the same basic elements of American Westerns - the conflicts between lawlessness and civilization, whites and natives, and a frontier setting. Like the best of them, it presents them brilliantly and with deep emotional resonance. The Proposition is proof that the West is not necessary to make a Western.  

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Lovecraft Covers

 The first time I saw H.P. Lovecraft's name was in an advertisement in Creepy Magazine for a series of books. I had no idea who he was or what he wrote, but the freakish looking covers by John Holmes were nuts. It would be several years before I read anything by him, but Holmes' covers stuck with me. I'd later end up picking up most of them along with almost any other Lovecraftian collection I could get my hands on. 

I'm on a bit of a Lovecraftian roll right now. I wrote about Lord Dunsany's At the Edge of the World for Tales from the Magician's Skull. That inspired me to pick up HPL's The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath for the first time in ages. Simultaneously, to celebrate my shared birthday with HPL, I'm revisiting the very first collection of his stories I ever read; The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror published by Scholastic Books of all people. This leads me right to another display of Lovecraftian covers, so here you go.

These first two are August Derleth's Lovecraftian anthology, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969), broken into two parts. Alongside several Lovecraft originals, there are terrific stories by Robert Block, Brian Lumley, and Frank Belknap Long. Finding these two books at an early age (12 or 13), set me off on a hunt for as many Mythos writers as I could possibly get my hands on. 

Even in the beginning, I was less than fond of August Derleth's efforts at Mythos tale-telling. Not as poor as Lin Carter's, but he never really had the feel for the stuff. His best ones are those that eschew New England and use his own Midwestern environs instead and those aren't here.

These are the original Arkham house omnibuses of Lovecraft's fiction. With the first three covers by Lee Brown Coye and the last by Gahan Wilson, these are a pulp reader's delight. My local library had the first three (which still impresses the heck out of me!) and were the ones I always wanted to own myself. That was not to be. 

These 1980s covers by Raymond Bayless are the ones I ended up with on my shelves. I bought all four on my first book run to Providence back in the mid-nineties. They're fine enough, but a little too meh for my tastes. They do have S.T. Joshi's introductions and, as much as he can be irritating at times, these are incredibly valuable and more than worth your time.

Tony Patrick's covers are not to my taste at all. They appear to have been released around 2001. While they're the current versions, with the slowing collapse of Arkham House, I wonder if there'll ever be another series.

And here it is, where it all began for me on the night of the Great Blackout in 1977. While it's got some lesser tales, it also has The Colour Out of Space and The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Friday, July 8, 2022

Michael Moorcock Covers From My Youth

My friends and I didn't read Robert E Howard, we didn't read Terry Brooks (other than that first Tolkien pastiche). A lot of us read Tolkien, but not everyone. Michael Moorcock, though, we all read. I think my friend Karl H. told me about Stormbringer first, before I picked up anything by Moorcock.I'm pretty sure he repeated the sword Stormbringer's line to the dead Elric. For him at fourteen or so, it was the epitome of wicked coolness. When I discovered the Lancer copies of The Dreaming City and The Sleeping Sorceress in my dad's vast attic book collection, I was hooked. Gilded battle barges, dragon attacks, demon patrons, and the unholy black sword in the hands of an albino wizard were like nothing else I'd read yet. My dad also had the DAW Dorian Hawkmoon books which were just as mindblowing in their own ways. He also had the first set of Corum books which were even better.

Over the next few years, I plowed through all the core Eternal Champion books. It was the same thing for most of my friends. I remember my buddy Alex R. getting all excited when he discovered (the first person among us) the Count Brass books. 

I'm going to discover how well Stormbringer holds up for a post-middle-age man, but I know it was perfect for a teenager. Elric is all aggrieved moodiness, rebelliousness, and hopelessly romantic - and Romantic. 

The book covers I'm showing below were all books I read multiple times before I finished high school. I've probably read the Corum books the most, finding their Celtic-inspired setting particularly appealing , but even with those, it's been some time since I've read them. The only Moorcock book I've read in recent years was The Eternal Champion. I reviewed it all the way back in 2014 at Black Gate and was left underwhelmed. Nonetheless, I have big hopes for Stormbringer. I'm only a little bit in, and already I feel fourteen again in the best possible way.




Thursday, May 26, 2022

New Blog - A Collection Reviewed



   For anyone not following me on Facebook, I've been posting a series of movie reviews since last Christmastime. You can see many of them (they'll all be there eventually) at A Collection Reviewed. My wife, the luminous Mrs. V., came up with the idea to watch and potentially cull our overly large DVD collection. We're always buying new movies and rarely sitting down to watch them. What if, she asked, we watched everything we own, 1) simply to watch it, and 2) decide whether we should actually keep it? I said it seemed like a great idea and we started at once.

   We keep our movies organized into several broad groups, breaking out musicals, Biblical, Hitchcock, espionage, horror, Hitchcock, Westerns, war and sci-fi from the larger "general" category. Trailing after the fiction, there's a small documentary section and a music section, which includes concerts and video collections. To keep from getting too bored by having to watch nothing but Westerns at some point, we decided to watch things in sequence; 5 general films, then 1 from each of the genres followed by a documentary and a music disc. We decided to skip horror until Halloween and kids films altogether. As long as we have young nieces and nephews, we're just going to hold onto all of them. 

   I set up the new blog, A Collection Review, because I got a lot more feedback on the Facebook posts than I anticipated. People I rarely speak with online crept out of the woodwork to debate certain movies and while some cult movies just brought out all sorts to voice their huzzahs! for them (I'm thinking of Big Trouble in Little China in particular). There have been several great conversations on some really interesting movies and I thought it would be cool to preserve them and bring them all together in a easier to use place than Facebook.

   In 1997, a friend came up with the idea for a competition over who could see the most movies in the theater. To the best of my recollection I came in third or fourth (of about seven or eight players) with 108 movies. When someone questioned one of the competitors about why'd we were doing this, he said explained we all watched movies like other guys watched sports. For me, WABC's 4:30 Movie, WOR's The Million Dollar Movie, and assorted late-night programs on all the networks were more important to me than any sports ball game ever.

   I grew up watching anything and everything with my parents. We didn't have a color-TV when I was little, so it didn't matter if a movie was in black and white. I pity today's kids who are constitutionally unable to watch anything not in color. I saw so many great and cheesy movies as a kid. I got scared by the Creature from the Black Lagoon and hunted along with Glenn Ford for The Green Glove. Even before I started reading history books, I had a basic sense of who fought WWII and why - all from movies like The Bridge at Remagen, Anzio, and To Hell and Back.

   I hope I can convey a little of my enthusiasm (or vitriol or boredom) with the movies I write about here. I also hope if you have anything to add or, more importantly, correct about my essays, you'll comment.