Tag Archives: Western

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West

There isn’t much I can say about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West that the mythical, larger than life masterpiece couldn’t say for itself, especially on its magnificent, crystal clear Blu Ray transfer that blows the dust out of the cracks and showcases it’s sunny cinematography in full remixed glory. From the coming of the railroad to a fledgling empire, the corrupt businessmen employing hard bitten thugs to do their nefarious bidding (a prophetic motif if there ever was one), the searing forbidden romance between the archetypal ex-working girl and the silent, lethally dangerous drifter, the dusters adorning gunfighter that sway in a lilting prairie breeze, the trod of hooves, the thunder of impending gunfire preceded by the eerie calm of the showdown before, this is the western to end all westerns, the textbook example, the crown jewel of the genre and the one wheat-stalk saga that I just can’t get enough of. Leone basically patented an entire sub-genre between this and the Man With No Name trilogy, it’s a now timeless flavour that rippled down throughout the generations and changed the face of the western forever. The film itself is perfectly balanced symphonic storytelling, in every aspect of the medium. Charles Bronson’s mysterious loner Harmonica blusters into town, opaque and uttering few words save for the melancholic strains of his instrument brought to wailing life by composer Ennio Morricone. Henry Fonda’s elegant, magnetic and unbelievably evil mercenary Frank hovers over everything like a black cloud of portent. Claudia Cardinele’s drop dead gorgeous Jill violently carves out her own path of survival, lust and grief amidst the unforgiving frontier. Jason Robard’s half injun outlaw Cheyanne tries hard not to wear an obvious heart of gold on his sleeve while seeking retribution for a diabolical frame-job. These mythical, monolithic individuals invite shades of grey into what we’ve become accustomed to in Western archetypes too, which is another hallmark of Leone. Gone are the stalwart sheriffs, stoic heroic leading men and obvious moustache twirling of clearly delineated villains. Bronson is rough, callous and never straight up chivalrous, Fonda is reptilian but oh so charming, the kind blue eyes barely suggesting what evil leers beneath, and Robards for his part turns an outright scoundrel into something of a teddy bear during his arc. It’s in the little, drawn out interactions and moments that we learn what we need to know about these characters, and Leone lets their performances, Morricone’s iconic score and the lingering space between action tell the story, so that by the time the monumental showdown rolls in, we know what we need to know about these wild, complex personalities and can get swept up in the revelatory spectacle of it. One for the ages.

-Nate Hill

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Scott Cooper’s Hostiles

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is beautifully shot, competently staged, well produced, acted and scored, but there’s a certain depth, development and complexity lacking, and I lay the blame on script, which seems a little south of the polished stage, with one foot still rooted in the blueprint phase. It’s a shame because the actors are game to give the film all they’ve got, but the script handed to them just isn’t on par with their efforts. Christian Bale is implosive as ever in one of his best performances as Blocker, a decorated civil war vet who has spent a great portion of his career heavily involved in the war and genocide against Native American tribes, and as such has become a hard, mean and brittle tempered creature. It’s fascinating to observe how someone like him, who does have a decent soul deep down, can be turned so backwards and hateful in circumstances like that, another theme the film doesn’t quite follow through with. Blocker is tasked with one last mission before semi-early retirement: Escort legendary Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, excellent as ever) and his kin from Arizona back to his home in Montana to live out his remaining years. Blocker bristles at the thought, but when his salty superior officer (Stephen Lang) threatens his pension, he begrudgingly saddles up. The film then showcases their journey, several hardships and skirmishes they find themselves in, all to fertilize the eventual bond and understanding formed between the two groups and their decision to work as a unit, and even respect each other. Here’s the problem: the script isn’t deep or thoughtful enough to make any of these arcs believable. The Native characters are painfully underdeveloped, particularly Yellow Hawk’s son and his wife, played by Adam Beach and Qorianka Kilcher, two actors more than capable of handing in great work when the material comes their way. The one thing that does work and is probably the best quality that film has is a character played by Rosamund Pike, a frontier farmer whose entire family is slaughtered by vicious Comanches in the film’s arresting opening scene. She joins Bale’s company, and Pike plays her with harrowing sadness, terrifying vengeful poise and gives one of the most realistic, un-cinematic portraits of grief I’ve ever seen. Come awards season next year, she should be a front runner. The film almost doesn’t deserve her sterling subplot, but it does it’s best, and reaches some heights here and there. Bale’s company is played by a reliable troupe including upright Jesse Plemons, melancholic Rory Cochrane and grizzled Peter Mullan. Also appearing is western veteran Scott Wilson in a brutal last minute cameo, always nice to see him still in the game. There’s an unbalanced focus between the soldiers and the natives, who I wanted to learn more about but were left as mainly tagalong bystanders with scant dialogue. When Bale’s arc reaches it’s final stages, I felt slightly cheated by everything that came before: I didn’t quite believe that what he’d been through was enough to sway over two decades of hate and prejudice, and once again the fault lies with script. A little more care, preparation and editing could have turned this from a good film into one for the ages.

-Nate Hill

Walter Hill’s The Long Riders

◦ I’m pretty sure that Walter Hill’s The Long Riders does something that no film had done before or after, least to that extent: pull off the biggest sibling stunt casting session in history. Based on the rowdy, violent exploits of the James Younger gang in the old west, Hill casts real life brothers as the troupe, a choice which could have been south of silly in any old director’s hands, but works like gold here. James and Stacy Keach play Frank and Jesse James, David Robert and Keith Carradine are the Younger clan, while Randy and a very mean, very young Dennis Quaid fill the boots of the Millers. It’s fairly brilliant, well organized and pays off nicely, especially if you’re a fan of any of these guys, which I am and then some. Now, the film. Most westerns about these hotshot outlaws take a quippy, cavalier standpoint and go for sterling silver charm. Not Hill, a notorious trend shirker and trailblazer whose tactics in casting, music, editing and tone have never followed the Hollywood grain. The film is downbeat, somber and mostly a series of vignettes that topple against each other like dominoes. The gang shuffles from robbery to holdup almost reluctantly, like it’s written in the stars and they have no choice but to commit crimes. They clash royally with the ruthless Pinkerton agency, who cause more than a few casualties on their side. The shootouts here are no sanitized 50’s Lone Ranger fluff, they’re brutal, bloody and amped up to extreme violence, which is always to be expected from Hill. The life of an outlaw is not glamorized here either, a choice rarely, if ever made in the western department. These are hard men resigned to their rough lives, not fast talking hot-doggin prince charmings like insufferable Young Guns type crap. There’s scattershot subplot about the brother’s lives, but mostly the focus is rooted in their exploits and run ins with the law. David Carradine’s Cole Younger has a cool knife fight sequence up against half breed injun Sam Starr (Hill favourite James Remar) over the favour of pretty hooker Pamela Reed. The actors are all gritty and grizzled, from James Keach’s long-faced, Moody Jesse James to Dennis Quaid’s volatile psychopath Ed Miller. Hill’s go to music guru Ry Cooder provides another achingly gorgeous score with echoes of his composition on Southern Comfort a few years later, a melancholic tune stripped bare of any action sequence swells or orchestral hoo-hah. Pretty damn underrated as far as big screen westerns go, with a tone and look that seems somehow far more genuine than many others in the genre.

-Nate Hill

Paint Your Wagon

I’ve never understood the cloud of negativity surrounding Paint Your Wagon, a terminally eccentric, raucously bawdy musical western epic in which old school tough guys Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood get to sing, or at least do their best. Sure it’s a giant unwieldy spectacle, not all of the songs make a three point landing and it runs on far too long, but it’s such an interesting piece from many perspectives, it doesn’t deserve even half the shade thrown on it by critics over the years. I like it specifically because of how odd and random it is at times, how it meanders and lingers across the gold rush frontier town it takes place in, following the paths of it’s strange characters diligently. Marvin is the life of the party as Ben Rumson, a booze soaked, misanthropic prospector idling his way through the west in a haze of hangovers and hijinks. Eastwood is Pardner, a soft spoken stoic type whose life is saved by Ben, and the two strike a bond that’s eventually tested by Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), the beauty who loves them both. The trio makes the best of life in a rough n’ tumble settlement called No Name City, a feverish shantytown on the precipice of nowhere, populated by scoundrels, miscreants and hooligans. And that’s pretty much it, the story punctuated by a whole gallery of songs, some brilliant and others excruciating. The best is a haunting, melancholy melody by Marvin called ‘Wandering Star’, which is so good it could be listened to on repeat. ‘They Call The Wind Mariah’ is a gorgeous tune belted out by a young looking Harve Presnell as Rotten Luck Willie, a slick kingpin who basically runs the township. ‘There’s a Coach Comin In’ rouses spirits, and the titular theme is well staged too. Unfortunately all of the songs sung solely by Eastwood are a slog through the mud, as he bleats like a goat and gets saddled with the most boring tracks like ‘I Talk To The Trees’, the sappy ‘Elisa’ and ‘Gold Fever’, a musical sleeping pill. Whenever Marvin is around it’s a banger of a party, he goes the extra mile to keep the energy levels unbridled, while Eastwood is a little sleepier. There’s no way the film deserves the dodgy reputation it’s been slapped with though, a lot of it is fun as all hell, the big budget is spent well on fantastic production design, epic sets and big names who earn their keep, Marvin in particular.

-Nate Hill

20,000 Leagues of Cinema and Literature: An Interview with C. Courtney Joyner by Kent Hill

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C. Courtney Joyner is a successful writer/director/novelist. He was a zombie in a Romero movie, he hangs out with L.Q. Jones and Tim Thomerson, he was once roommates with Renny Harlin and made the breakfasts while Harlin got the girls. It makes me think of Steve Coogan’s line from Ruby Sparks, “how do I go back in time and be him.”

Truth is we are the same in many instances. We’re just on different sides of the globe and one of us is in the big leagues while the other is at the scratch and sniff end of the business. But we both love movies and fantastic adventures. We both wrote to the filmmakers we loved long before the director became celebrity. We both longed for more info from behind the scenes – long before such material was in abundance.

He grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of a doctor and a reporter. He came of age in the glory days of monster movies and adventure fiction. Then he headed west and after college it wasn’t long before his writing caught the attention of producers and thus a career was spawned.

Spending those early years working with Charles Band and his company, Empire, Joyner was prolific, and soon the writer became a director. All the while he was working on a dream project, a work we all have in us, that he was fighting to bring into the light.

It was a love of Jules Verne and the “what if” type scenario that gave birth to the early version of the story that would become his current masterwork Nemo Rising; a long-awaited sequel, if you will, to 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.

His story would go through several incarnations before finally reaching the form into which it has now solidified. Swirling around him were big blockbuster versions which never quite surfaced. Names like Fincher and Singer and stars like Will Smith were linked to these big dollar deals.

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Unfortunately even Joyner’s long-form TV version came close, but didn’t get handed a cigar. So at a friend’s insistence he wrote the book and his publisher, in spite of the property being linked at that time to a screen version that fell apart, agreed to still put the book out.

Thus Joyner’s Nemo has risen and at last we can, for now, revel in it’s existence. I believe it is only a matter of time before it shall acquire enough interest – and the new major playing field – the field of series television may yet be the staging ground for Courtney’s long-suffering tribute to the genius of Verne and the thrilling enigma of a character known as Captain Nemo.

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Long have I waited to chat with him and it was well worth the wait. So, here now I present my interview with the man that director Richard Lester (The Three Musketeers, Robin and Marion, Superman II)  once mistook for a girl that was eagerly interested in film.

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . C. Courtney Joyner.

 

Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley

Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley is a dark, grimly paced Euro-western that could have been a great one if only the script was as tight and polished as it’s musical and stylistic elements. Shot in the Italian mountains, it looks absolutely alluring in every single frame, blessed with a stoic tough-guy performance from Sam Riley as a mysterious stranger bent on revenge and a soundtrack full of odd, against-the-grain yet distinct choices. It looks, sounds and feels evocative, but the story that should go alongside and string it all together is just too loosely woven, and as such, interest is lost. Riley’s stranger is not really welcome in the alpine town, especially by the Brenners, a local crime family that rule the roost. It’s a harsh winter, and pretty soon bodies start piling up, victims of an unseen assailant the townspeople just assume is the Stranger. There’s a backstory to the whole thing, some great atrocity committed by these folk decades earlier, and while all the information was presented, in both exposition and flashback, it just didn’t have the emotional payoff or clear-cut grandiosity that a western like this should, especially one as dramatic in every other area. The dubbing over of the German actors doesn’t help one bit either, a choice which I will never, ever support. Subtitles all the way, man. Anyways, Riley is as awesome as ever, it’s really sad that he doesn’t make more films, he’s got a dark star quality that immediately classes up any film he shows up in. The cinematography is top shelf, with a stunning backdrop of mountains all round, detailed period-appropriate production design and costume work. Music is a strong point, with a neat opening credit rendition of Nina Simone’s Sinner Man, and there’s a climactic gunfight that leaps off the screen in bold strokes. It’s just a little less than it should be in areas where the stakes needed to be way higher and draw us into the story, so that when the operatic violence comes, it has heft beyond just looking cool and leaving us nothing to invest our care in. Good stuff, if incomplete.

-Nate Hill

Shanghai Noon: A Review by Nate Hill 

I forgot how much goddamn fun Shanghai Noon is. It’s pretty much the quintessential east meets west buddy flick (sorry Rush Hour, love you too bbz), and upon rewatching it I realized that it’s every bit as awesome, and more so, than I remember as a kid. You take Jackie Chan, a stoic, robotic Chinese fighting machine with the sense of humour god gave a sock, and pair him with Owen Wilson, a wishy washy surfer dude of a cowboy who can’t take one second out of the day to stop talking or cracking jokes, and you’ve got gold. Of course, they need a film to run about in that’s just as solid as they’re team up, and that’s just what we get. This is a bawdy, unapologetic roll in the hay, a genre bender that tosses the American western, the buddy cop flick and the Kung Fu picture into a big cauldron, fires a few bullets in and gives it a big old stir. It’s ridiculously fun for its entire duration, an achievement which the sequel just couldn’t keep up with. Chan is Chon Wang (say it fast), a Chinese imperial guard on the trail of runaway Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu), who has runoff to America.  No sooner does he set foot on Yankee soil, he’s bumped into peace pipe smoking Natives, and clashed with a band of train robbers led by Roy O Bannon (Owen Wilson), a fast talking soldier of fortune who doesn’t seem to have much skill besides yapping his way out of a situation. The two are thrown into a mad dash across then west, Chon looking for the princess, and Roy after the missing gold from the train. It’s what movies were made to be, a pure rush of gunfighting and chop socky, kick ass action sequences, all given the boost of Chan’s insane talents. He’s like a rabid squirrel monkey, and Wilson a drunk sloth, constantly mismatched yet always coming out on top, like the best comic duos always do. They’re faced with taking dpwn a few baddies, including Walton Goggins as the dumbest outlaw this side of the Rockies, and a terrifying Xander Berkeley as a corrupt, homicidal marshal.  The core of it rests on Chan and Wilson to entertain us though, and even in the down time between action, their energy is infectious, especially in a manic drinking game that just can’t be described in writing. Like I said, the sequel, Shanghai Knights, just doesn’t capture he magic quite like this one does, and seems to fall flat. You can’t go wrong with this original outing though, and it just gets better with age.