Tag Archives: Western

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

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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. 

Slow West: A Review by Nate Hill

  
Slow West clocks in briskly under 90 minutes, which is usually unheard of for a western. You can stamp out any thoughts of it being rushed or too slight of a flick though, because it’s exactly what it needs to be every step of the way. It’s a beautifully scored, tightly plotted and boldly characterized (the key ingredient in the genre, if you ask me) mix that saunters along like a mule of the plains, before kicking up the dust for a bloody, atmospheric finale that leaves you stunned and breathing hard. Westerns are often ambitious, lofty affairs and can get quite moody and too densely packed for their own good. Not this baby. It breezes by like a summer wind, with just enough violence, character development and aching catharsis to billow out its chipper narrative during the brief stay we are treated to. Kodi Smit McPhee plays a young Scottish lad who is a tad out of his depths in the American west, searching for a girl (Caren Pistorius) who had to flee the country with her father (The Hound himself, Rory McCann). McPhee is naive to the dangers of this new territory, and nearly finds himself at the receiving end of a bullet before being saved by a roaming outlaw (Michael Fassbender) who takes him under his wing with much gruff and huff along the way. Reluctance is doled out along with sympathy on Fassbender’s part as he shields the boy from a dangerous bounty hunter and former employer of his, played by a wonderfully greasy Ben Mendelsohn, perpetually shrouded in acrid cigar smoke and snuggled up in one epic and fabulous fur pelt. These three wayward misfits gravitate towards the obligatory final shoot out, which takes place in the girl’s hideaway house on the picturesque pretty plains. Impressive is an understatement for this sequence: yellow grass sways, a hailstorm of bullets punctuate the horizon and the mournful tones of Jed Kurzel’s lonely score, grim fates are earned in a gorgeous set piece that resembles something like Wes Anderson making an Oater. Everything before and winds up to this sequence, and the payoff is superb. If I’ve made it sound dark or off putting, think again. It’s all crafted with the utmost light and poetic buoyancy, a lilting sadness to the violence that hits home but never batters you. The performances echo this as well, Fassbender a world weary, affable and altogether dangerous man, Mendelsohn slithering about with a dry silver tongue and an itchy trigger finger, and a fish out of water McPhee stuck in between. The visual palette is quite something to see, accented by the music perfectly. I’m beyond anxious to see what first time director John Maclean comes up with for us for his next ride, for he’s knocked it out of the ranch with this one. Ho for the West. 

Barry Sonnenfield’s Wild Wild West: A Review by Nate Hill

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I don’t get the hate for Barry Sonnenfield’s Wild Wild West. I just don’t.  It’s like I saw a completely different film than the entire rest of the continent. To my knowledge, there’s me and a couple other friends I know who love and cherish it, and the rest of the world has seemingly cast it out into the cold, inexplicably bashing it no end. Wtf. It’s a rollicking good time, full of a brilliant blend of situational and slapstick humour, lively characters from a great group of performers, incredible production design, and a dash of swash and buckle. It may not have much in common with the 1960’s era tv show its based on, but kudos to it for breaking new ground. Will Smith plays Marshall Jim West, a cocky (there’s literally a small window of freeze frame where you can see his ebony schlock in full glory. And don’t even ask me how I know that), ballsy (ok sorry I’ll stop) secret service cowboy badass who is working a case against some nasty villains who want to use president Ulysses S. Grant for diabolical ends. He’s led to old foe General ‘Bloodbath’ McGrath (Ted Levine in a show stopping, wickedly devious southern psycho role) a confederate lowlife who will hopefully lead him to whoever is kidnapping the nation’s best and brightest scientists for some Bond villain-ish scheme. West is joined by kooky inventor Artemis Gordon (a classy Kevin Kline) and the two embark on a shoot em up quest to thwart the evil plan of Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a dastardly mega villain with plans for America that don’t involve presidents or laws or anything sane. The film is endlessly inventive, wildly funny and parades forth a reel of set pieces, each more amazing than the last until we realize we’re actually watching a fifty foot tall steam punk mechanical spider stomp all over the Utah desert (there’s a priceless story involving that and the film’s odd duck of a producer Jon Peters, which you can watch Kevin Smith regale an audience with over on YouTube). West and Gordon are joined by sultry Rita (Salma Hayek) a Femme Fatale with a hidden agenda who tags along under the guise of damsel in distress. It’s just plain fun and I still don’t get how anyone could dislike it. Witty barbs, raunchy double entendres and sarcastic banter permeate the wonderful script. Nifty gadgets, detailed costumes and clanking machinery speckle the epic production  design. An atmosphere of playful fun oversees all of it from beginning to end. Smith and Kline make a dysfunctional buddy duo for the ages, squabbling right up until the last frame. Branagh hams it up so far over the top as the bad guy that he nearly implodes on himself. Levine is deliciously creepy and crusty. Watch for other gem performances from Bai Ling, M. Emmett Walsh, Debra Christofferson, Sofia Eng, Rodney A. Grant and Musetta Vander. If you’ve seen it and already love it, good for you let’s go have a beer. If you’ve seen it and hate it, you’re a silly bum (to put it mildly). If you haven’t seen it, do so, form your own opinion and fall into one of the above two categories. It’s a classic for me.