Archive for the Western Category

Django Unchained * * * *

Posted in Action, Western with tags on January 18, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Quentin Tarantino.
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Walter Goggins, James Remar, James Russo, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, Don Stroud, M. C. Gainey, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, Michael Bowen, Robert Carradine, Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, James Parks, Michael Parks, John Jarratt, Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero.

Few director’s can claim such enthusiasm upon the release of their new film but Quentin Tarantino is certainly one of them. There’s always a real buzz and anticipation to see what provocative and sensationalist material he’ll be serving up. So, back he comes and once again he has revenge on his mind. This time it’s not with Samurai’s or Nazi’s but with six-shooter gunslinging as he heads West (or south, as the case may be) to pay homage to the films of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. This being the most renowned, creative (or plagiaristic) auteur behind the camera, though, he just can’t help himself, and infuses it with all sorts of influences. And the results? The results are highly impressive and thoroughly enjoyable.

In the American South, two years before the civil war, former dentist now bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) free’s a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who will be able to help him track down three outlaws known as ‘the Brittle brothers’. As their relationship develops, Schultz learns of Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is now the property of ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and they both hatch a plan to free her.

Depictions of slavery have been commonplace throughout the history of cinema. The television show of Alex Haley’s “Roots” in 1977 was one of the first to have a major impact on audiences and Steven Spielberg gave a harrowing introduction of it in his 1997 film “Amistad“. Despite some distressing early scenes in that film, though, Spielberg decided to focus more on the legal issues involved and it progressed into a courtroom drama. Here, Tarantino chooses differently and doesn’t pull any punches. He depicts the brutality these people faced with daring and damning conviction. As always, controversy has followed. It uses racially aggressive language throughout but although Tarantino isn’t known for his entire commitment to historical events, his attention to detail here is fitting and even though it’s been criticised from others (mainly Spike Lee who refuses to even watch it) it has, in Tarantino’s words, created a “dialogue” amongst people about the seriousness of this dark chapter of American history. If one positive is to be taken from this film, it’s that. These heinous events should be addressed and it would seem that Quentin is the only one willing to do it. Personally, I applaud him.
Like most (if not all) of Tarantino’s films, when the actors are verbalising the work of his quill the results become an oratory dance with dialogue. On the surface, this doesn’t have as many quotable lines as his previous works but where Tarantino has improved, is in keeping a scene running with endless wordplay and skilfully teasing a tentative audience. There are memorable and quotable lines here, for sure, but his maturity now lies in drawing out the almost unbearable tension between his characters. His past movies have always contained riveting dialogues but “Inglorious Basterds” was proof that he’d taken it further and could craft masterful scenes of suspense. This is no different, and it’s helped immeasurably by the actors involved; Foxx delivers some solid work as the titular character but has little to do in the earlier part of the film and, if truth be told, he gets overshadowed by three sublime supporting performances (who incidentally had their roles written specifically for them); Waltz is, simply, superb and a similar breed to his character Hans Landa from “Inglorious Basterds“. He’s just as loquacious but, only this time, more endearing; DiCaprio acts up a storm with a rare villainous role who is prone to fits of sadistic and uncontrollable rage and Jackson is perfectly fitting as his dedicated servant who is a conniving and twisted individual. It’s in these superb actors that most of the enjoyment is found in Tarantino’s latest. Although the subject matter is dark and the violence vividly displayed, the story’s not without humour and one particularly satirical scene involving the Ku Klux Klan and their inability to see through their makeshift hoods is absolutely hilarious. It also looks magnificent with cinematographer Robert Richardson capturing the vast and desolate landscapes to perfection.
Even though they are slight, the film is not without faults. Over-length is an issue with some scenes that could have been trimmed without compromising the overall impact and, at times, there was too much reliance on convenience in some plot developments. Still, when it’s the ingenuity of Tarantino at the helm, these minuscule misjudgements can be overlooked as the journey itself is so enjoyable.

A parody of Spaghetti-Western, with humour, violence and blaxploitation. If anyone can make this work, Tarantino can. And that he does. This is another impressive addition to his canon and even though the “D” may be silent, his artistic voice is, most certainly, not.

Mark Walker

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The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford * * * * 1/2

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Western with tags on August 30, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Andrew Dominik.
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Parks, Ted Levine, Alison Elliott, James Carville, Tom Aldredge, Pat Healy, Nick Cave.
Narrator: Hugh Ross.

In 2000, director Andrew Dominik exploded onto the scene with low-budget but powerful biographical film “Chopper” about Australian criminal Mark Brandon Read. It not only heralded the arrival of actor Eric Bana but also a new an uncompromising director. For his second feature he tackled another biographical feature about one of the wild west’s most notorious gunslingers and this time, Dominik took his uncompromising nature even further.

Retelling of the last months in the life of the legendary outlaw Jesse James and how his reputation was faltering. His gang had disbanded – either dead or in prison and Jesse was beginning to suffer increasing paranoia. After carrying out a train robbery he heads for Kentucky, only to reappear in Missouri for a bank robbery. Two brothers; Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) are part of his new gang but Robert has a dangerous and obsessive idolisation of Jesse and one that would finally be the outlaws undoing.

Few film’s ever get away with having a title as long as this one and even fewer get away with the manner in which this film is made. That’s testament to the skill of Andrew Dominik and the backing of Brad Pitt who refused to yield to Hollywood studios when they wanted to tinker with Dominik’s vision. Right from the opening, brutal, train robbery, this film’s style is apparent. It’s sense of realism is what commands your attention; it goes on to depict stark expansive landscapes, explosive bullet wounds and guns that don’t shoot straight but the actual gunslinging is kept to a minimum, while it focuses on the characters themselves. The pace of the film is deliberate, adding to the ethereal feel throughout and one that reminded me of the approach that director Terrence Malick would use. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is also a thing of absolute beauty. The entirety of every single frame of this picture is stunningly captured with meticulous attention to detail and Dominik’s direction is near flawless. He lingers long on shots and subtle facial expressions and captures the uneasiness in the characters and their situations. By using this methodical style, he manages to get under the skin of his two leading characters and allows both Pitt and especially Affleck the room to deliver sensational performances. Pitt is entirely commanding and charismatic, adding just enough of a glimmer of danger without losing the audience’s sympathy and Affleck is on top, creepy and unsettling, form. The chemistry between the two hints at all sorts of possibilities – including homoerotic tension. These two share an uneasy relationship and between them, there are contemporary issues at play; the nature of celebrity and hero worship and the difference between ‘the man and the myth‘. Even over 100 years ago they had this but although Dominik delivers this insight, he never fully explores it, leaving it all just a bit too ambiguous. I’m not looking for a film to spell everything out for me. On the contrary but for a film that languishes on detail and mood, it could have taken a little time to further explore these themes and the characters’ motivations. There’s a sense of bewilderment as to why James would even tolerate having Ford around when he, seemingly, knew that something wasn’t quite right about him. He was aware that sooner or later he would meet his impending fate but it’s unclear why he’d open himself up to it. Another area that lacks any attention, is the females in these men’s lives. They are fleetingly visited but are ultimately insignificant and the likes of Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschannel are reduced to mere cameos. I can only assume that these issues could maybe make more sense in Dominik’s original 4 hour cut – that played at the Venice film festival before a widespread release reduced the film to it’s 2hour 40mins duration. That being said, this is still an aesthetically successful endeavour that, although not fully deserving of the masterpiece status that many consider it to be, it’s not far off it.

A contemplative and demanding film that requires the utmost patience. It’s highly ambitious, artistic and regularly poetic. Quite simply, it’s beautifully done and I found lots to admire but it meanders and like the title itself, it’s just a tad too long winded.

Mark Walker

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No Country For Old Men * * * * *

Posted in Crime, thriller, Western with tags on May 17, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen.
Screenplay: Ethan & Joel Coen.
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Stephen Root, Rodger Boyce, Ana Reeder, Beth Grant, Gene Jones.

Ever since their dark debut “Blood Simple” in 1984, Joel & Ethan Coen have commanded an audience’s attention. They followed that up with the wacky and kinetic comedy “Raising Arizona” in 1987, proving early on, that they were comfortable in any genre. That hasn’t changed over the years but what it does do, is leave you with feelings of anticipation whenever they deliver another film. You just never know what light or dark delights they are going to deliver. This film is the darkest delight they have delivered so far.

While hunting in the Texas desert, a young mid-west cowboy (Josh Brolin) comes across a botched drug deal and decides to snatch a satchel of cash. Unknowingly, there are bigger things at work here and his foolish decision attracts the attention of a relentless hitman (Javier Bardem) who has been sent to recover the money. As bodies begin to pile in their wake, a local Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) has the duty of hunting them down.

To foreshorten the opening lines of this film and give an insight from the disillusioned protagonist Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, we are told “… the crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”” Sheriff Bell is at a loss to explain human behaviour and the evil actions of people that he has pursued throughout his career in law enforcement. He is the weary heart and soul of this movie and a character that Tommy Lee Jones can do in his sleep. He serves as one part of three characters whose lives explosively intersect. The others include; Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) a foolish young man who doesn’t quite grasp the enormity of his actions, which in turn, attract the attention of very disturbed and dangerous killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) – who makes decisions on the flip of a coin and wields a hydrolic cattle gun as a weapon. Cleverly, the Coens have them sharing very little (if any) screen time and Jones’ Sherrif always two steps behind the aftermath of destructive events.
As always, the Coens are at the top of their game and have a good grasp on this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. They capture his recurrent themes; isolation, the passing of time and changing epoch’s. In “The Road” McCarthy explored a post-apocalyptic change. In this, it’s the end of the western way of life and despite life-experienced characters, a lack of understanding in the reasons for it’s happening. Throughout their films they have delivered consistent moments of suspense. Here though, the Coens outdo themselves with regular scenes of unbearable tension (done without the use of music). The actors are all up to the task and despite Lee Jones and the Oscar winning Bardem receiving most of the plaudits, Brolin also delivers an absolutely solid, low-key performance. No Coen brothers review would be complete without mentioning the sublime talents of their regular cinematographer Roger Deakins. Yet again, his stark and beautiful camerawork compliments the barren landscapes that these characters roam. As always, his and the Coens’ vision complete one another. One of the brothers’ finest films and thoroughly deserving of its best picture and director(s) Oscar awards.

If you’re aware of the Coen brothers’ canon (and most filmgoers are) then combine “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” and this is what you get… only better. A very gripping and powerful neo-western.

Mark Walker

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The Quick And The Dead * * * 1/2

Posted in Action, Western with tags on January 29, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Sam Raimi.
Screenplay: Simon Moore.
Starring: Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lance Henriksen, Gary Sinise, Keith David, Kevin Conway, Fay Masterson, Tobin Bell, Pat Hingle, Roberts Blossom, Mark Boone Junior, Scott Spiegel, Mick Garris, Bruce Campbell, Woody Strode.

There’s no doubting director Sam Raimi when it comes to his playful nature. He managed to inject hilarity into horror in “The Evil Dead” series and does so again with the western. Not taking his material too seriously at all, here he delivers a cartoon take on the duelling western gunslingers.

The town of ‘Redemption’ holds an annual gunslinging contest (a strict local custom in which pistol-packers young and old, local and not, shoot to the death). Riding silently, moodily and mysteriously into town is, Ellen (Sharon Stone). A woman who keeps her motivation quiet, working her way into the contest with a score to settle against the town owner Herod (Gene Hackman).

Although this borrows heavily from the great Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood cowsers, it’s playful use of the camera and refusal to take itself seriously gives it a fresh feel all it’s own. Raimi’s use of camera angles and slow motion shots are sublime and what really make the film. The camera is just as much a character as the eccentric bunch on screen. The focus being on the nervous eye-contact and elaborate ticking of clocks, in keeping with true spaghetti western style. It’s a very stylish parody on the western showdown scenario helped by a who’s who cast of ecclectic character actors, not to mention a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe at the beginning of their careers.

It’s completely ludicrous but it’s ludicrous nature and style is exactly what makes it fun.

Mark Walker

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The Book Of Eli * * * 1/2

Posted in Action, Western with tags on January 28, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Directors: Allen & Albert Hughes.
Screenplay: Gary Whitta.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour, Tom Waits.

Having already been dealt a dollop of the post-apocalyptic with “The Road”, we are dealt another, in the same year, with this latest offering from “Menace II Society” and “From Hell” directors Allen & Albert Hughes.

An atomic war has ravaged America leaving it a harsh and barren land. Wandering through this land is Eli (Denzel Washington), guarding his most precious possession – a book. Carnegie (Gary Oldman), boss of a small town, wants the book, which he thinks will give him power. When Eli escapes from town with Carnegie’s adopted daughter Solara (Mila Kunis), Carnegie and his gang set out in pursuit, in the knowledge that the book is in fact, the only one remaining of the King James Bible, that brings protection and guidance to whoever possesses it.

Religious undertones – or overtones for that matter, as they are hardly subtle – don’t sit well throughout this modern, ethereal western. It unashamedly preaches Christianity from the heavens but if you can see beyond the religious mumbo-jumbo, the film has a lot going for it. The cinematography by Don Burgess is simply stunning in capturing the burnt-out and desolate apocalyptic landscape. Some of the images – although bleak – are beautifully captured and a photographer would be pleased to have them in their portfolio. The direction by the Hughes Brothers is slow paced, which adds to the loneliness of Eli, but when it kicks up a gear the action scenes are undeniably impressive and they handle it very well. In particular, the camerawork during the house shootout scene is magnificent, weaving in and out of the action, giving you a full immersive experience. Fine performances from a fine cast also, but both Washington and Oldman seem somewhat subdued this time round. They’ve done similiar roles in the past to much more effect but then I suppose it’s difficult for an actor to convey any real emotion when they’re wearing sunglasses for almost the entirety of the film. Great use of music also, adding to the overall supernal feel. However, with all the effort and talent involved in this, it’s the story that’s left lacking. There are numerous inconsistencies and the “Bible shall set you free” message, leaves a bad taste.

Essentially it’s “Mad Max” on “The Road” with a little “Children of Men” thrown in. Plenty to enjoy, but at times, I had the feeling that I should have been wearing my Sunday best, during the sermon.

Mark Walker

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Lonesome Dove * * * * *

Posted in Drama, Western with tags on January 17, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Simon Wincer.
Screenplay: Larry McMurtry.
Starring: Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Frederic Forrest, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, D.B. Sweeney, Chris Cooper, Glenne Headly, Barry Corbin, William Sanderson, Timothy Scott, Nina Siemaszko, Steve Buscemi.

Based on the pulitzer-prize winning novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry this four part T.V. mini series (amounting to approx 6 hours running time) is one of the best westerns ever made.

Two retired and aging Texas Rangers, Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones) & Augustus “Gus” McCrae (Robert Duvall) have settled down in life in the mundane and unremarkable town of Lonesome Dove, Texas. After an unexpected visit and some fruitful information from their old colleague Jake Spoon (Robert Urich) they decide to take one last kick of their spurs and go on an arduous 3000 mile cattle drive across the plains to Montana, where they face new and old adversities.

An absolutely epic western in every sense of the word and done in the grandest of scales. Director Simon Wincer had a pretty poor career before and after this but will always be remembered for assembling this cast of exceptional actors playing prodigious well written characters. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones are perfect in their roles with fine support all around. Frederic Forest is a particular standout as the native and very dangerous “Blue Duck”, who has some old scores to settle with the former lawmen. The man behind it all though is writer Larry McMurtry. His books are the perfect material to adapt and if you like this then it’s worth checking his earlier novels with Gus and Woodrow in “Dead Man’s Walk” and “Commanche Moon”.

Vast, masterful and quite possibly the consummate western.

Mark Walker

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True Grit * * * * 1/2

Posted in Drama, Western with tags on January 12, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Directors: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Screenplay: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Paul Rae, Elizabeth Marvel.

Charles Portis’ novel “True Grit” was given the big screen treatment in 1969 with none other than ridiculously overrated actor John Wayne in the lead role. He unbelievably garnered himself an Academy Award for his (and our) trouble but with the Coen brothers and Jeff Bridges, we get an altogether more fulfilling and faithful adaptation this time around.

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) is a hired hand who kills a farmer and flees. The daughter of that farmer is an indomitable 14 year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). She hires tough, one-eyed US Marshal and heavy-drinking reprobate Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to bring him in. Joined by Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), the odd posse head into Indian territory on their manhunt.

The Coen brothers’ attention to detail is second to none and some would even say that a western is perfectly suited to their talents. They certainly take great delight in the period with their wonderful eye for detail and exagerrated jangling of spurs. As well as the usual Coens array of colourful characters, the main performances are uniformly excellent. Young Steinfeld is impressively confident amongst an experienced cast; Damon amuses with good comic relief; Barry Pepper is disgustingly bad to the core; Brolin (all be it brief) is dangerously dim-witted and Bridges chews up the screen more than he does his tobacco. His ‘Rooster Cogburn’ is like a cross between his previous laid-back stoner ‘The Dude’ from “The Big Lebowski” and his cantankerous drunk ‘Bad Blake’ from “Crazy Heart“. As much as it was highly unlikely, I would have loved to have seen Bridges make it two Oscars in a row to become only the third actor to do so after Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks. After all, John Wayne got one and he’s not in the same league as Bridges. Sadly though, it wasn’t to be and the same goes for Roger Deakins who missed out on an award for his gorgeous cinematography. He consistantly plays a massive role in bringing the Coens’ visions to life and here he outdoes himself. An award for the man is long overdue.

A magnificent, beautifully crafted and gritty depiction of the wild-west that’s the best of it’s kind since…well, since the contemporary neo-western “No Country For Old Men” also by the mighty Coens with very sharp dialogue and a catalogue of great performances.

Mark Walker

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