Archive for the Western Category

The Rover

Posted in Crime, Drama, Science Fiction, Western with tags on June 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Rover photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn post-apocalyptic Australia, a drifter (Guy Pearce) hunts down the three 3 thieves that stole his car. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. The Rover is set “ten years after the collapse.”  At least that’s what the title card tells us. It’s all the information we’re given in the sketchy history of an apparent global economic meltdown in the near future. The end credits inform us that our protagonist is Eric, though I don’t recall anyone ever uttering his name. Eric rarely speaks. Instead he effects his way through the story employing pseudo-macho grumbles and growls designed to intimidate all who stand in the way of the aforementioned car. Eric spends most of the 102 minutes tracking this criminal trio, played by Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo. We really don’t see much of them except for in the very beginning and at the very end. In time, Eric is joined in his dreary quest by the mentally challenged brother of McNairy’s character. Played by a mumbling Robert Pattinson, the Twilight star becomes sort of a sidekick. Pattinson is good. Sadly the movie is not.

The Rover has a particular disregard for human life. Director David Michôd’s follow up to his brilliant Animal Kingdom is simplistic and dull where that 2010 crime thriller was layered and complex. The Rover is unrelentingly bleak, depressing, savage. I could go on. Any number of various adjectives don’t do justice to this grim tale about life. This post apocalyptic western has been compared to Mad Max. No way. That film was a tightly edited action packed classic compared to this downbeat, depressing, lethargic mood piece. Occasionally the audience is visually assaulted. The lawless world of The Rover is punctuated by some of the most unpredictable bursts of violence I have ever experienced. I’m talking bloody shots of people at point blank range right in the face.

Director David Michôd has a latent contempt for his audience.  There is no story, only the violent pursuit of one man’s bloodthirsty fixation on his stolen car. His search is occasionally disrupted by gunshots that are disproportionately loud to anything else happening on screen. The camera does not turn away from these bursts of noise but rather it lingers on the atrocities with a disgusting gaze. Why this stupid car is so important to Eric is a question that will nag at you for the duration of the entire movie. To be fair, we are finally given an answer for enduring this slog through a nihilistic wasteland. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t justify everything we had to endure. The show isn’t a complete waste.  At one point, Robert Pattinson’s character finds himself alone in the car singing along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” It’s a bright, shining moment of energy that is completely out of step with the rest of this dull flick. And for that reason it’s the best scene in the entire picture.

06-24-14

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Posted in Comedy, Western with tags on June 3, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Million Ways to Die in the West photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgTaste is debatable, but comedy is the most subjective of genres. I have always maintained this and will continue to do so. Don’t believe me?  Millions of fans flocked to see Grown Ups 2 in 2013 much to the chagrin of the cognoscenti. Meanwhile in that every same year, audiences largely ignored critical darling The Way, Way Back, a far superior comedy in my opinion. Show me a person who doesn’t giggle once watching Office Space and I’ll show you someone who thinks it’s the funniest classic of the last 15 years. Unlike adventure, drama, romance or even horror, a good farce isn’t as reliant on quality. It simply needs to make you laugh. Sometimes a witty observation is all it takes, other times it’s a complex visual gag. Humor is in the mind of the beholder.  A Million Ways to Die in the West is a movie that made me chuckle. Quite a lot in fact.

Arizona in 1882 is a land meant for the rough and tumble macho cowboys of the Old West. Enter Albert Stark, a cowardly man who herds sheep. Writer/director/star Seth MacFarlane is a fish out of water very much in same spirit as Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948) or Don Knotts in its remake The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968). Right from the start we can see that Albert would rather tell jokes to get out of a tough situation than face a shootout with an outlaw. He makes crude gestures using the shadow of his opponent. It’s hysterical on one level because it’s a juvenile prank, but it’s also amusing because the shadow puppets are so unbelievably elaborate, no one could possibly do them. The layers is what makes the gag powerful and understanding that adds to its brilliance. Sadly some of the bits fail.

The pacing is already really slow and this picture feels overlong by about 30 minutes. It’s easy to see where cuts could’ve been made. Even the most sophisticated of us will laugh at scatological humor in the right context. Unfortunately, Seth MacFarlane too often wanders down that path. Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) is the mustachioed businessman who stole his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried).  It’s nice to see him get his comeuppance, but that doesn’t include what happens after Foy is slipped a laxative in his beer. Likewise the repetitive hammering of the same schtick doesn’t increase its punch, only time to the excessive length of the movie. Case in point. The town prostitute (Sarah Silverman) will sleep with anyone at the drop of a hat for money, yet is saving herself for marriage by abstaining with her boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi). She is a good Christian woman for goodness sake! The joke is slightly amusing once, but not over and over throughout the entire film.

Seth MacFarlane plays Albert Stark like a modern man from 2014 plopped down in the middle of the Old West.  Anachronistic humor abounds. This gives him ample opportunity to riff on the difficulty of living on the wild frontier. Seth MacFarlane extracts wit in things that we have always known, but rarely stopped to think about. The idiosyncrasies of the era are mined for jokes. Whether it be that nobody ever smiled in photographs or that medicine was so bad, going to the doctor could actually make you sicker.  Most of his targets are clever and unique.  At times it’s almost like a stand-up act.  He exploits simple but obscure truths out loud. That makes them effective. There are several cameos too and every single one of them is a riot. Just don’t watch the trailer because it will spoil the best one. MacFarlane has nice chemistry with Charlize Theron who plays Anna, the wife of a notorious outlaw. When she busts up at his shenanigans, you genuinely feel like she’s not just acting. She truly thinks he’s funny. I have to admit, I do too.

06-01-14

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Posted in Crime, Drama, Romance, Western with tags on September 8, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Ain't Them Bodies Saints photo starrating-3stars.jpgFor all its artistry, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is saddled with one of the worst movie titles in recent memory. Watching the film will not shed any light on what that cryptic title means. Apparently director David Lowery misheard the lyrics in an old folk song many years ago but liked the sound of the phrase anyway. They have absolutely no significance other than interesting sounding words to convey a time period. In many ways that’s appropriate because David Lowery’s meditation on a western is more concerned with milieu than meaning anyway.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are engaging. They play a couple kept apart after a getaway gone wrong from a botched robbery.  Bob agrees to take the fall for a violent act for which his wife Ruth is in fact responsible. This then is the emotional chronicle of outlaws whose exalted devotion is made more relevant than what they’ve actually done. Their romance is boiled down to its essence. We learn Ruth is pregnant with their daughter. Bob vows to reunite with his wife, prison sentence be damned. His undying dedication to her is a key theme. That Bob and Ruth love each other is obvious. There is a pure naturalism to their behavior. They express a lot with very few words. Conversation is secondary as the atmosphere is what’s important. Matching them is Ben Foster who plays the deputy who warms up to Ruth oblivious that it was she who indeed shot him. He’s memorable as a third wheel. Keith Carradine also gives a notable performance as their neighbor who has become sort of a father figure to Bob.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a stunningly beautiful picture with a score to match. The drama is set against the backdrop of 1970s Texas Hill Country. However there’s a timelessness that makes this saga feel as if it could’ve happened even further in the past. Their homestead takes on an ethereal beauty far beyond the modest farmhouse where they live in reality. The aura at once recalls depression era photographs of Dorethea Lange or Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”.  But it’s even more hewn from Terrence Malick’s Badlands and to a lesser extent Days of Heaven. David Lowery is unquestionably a director to watch, yet he’s fashioned a film that’s easy to admire but a hard one to truly enjoy. Lowery exploits the neo-western ethos in a way that luxuriates in ambience but at the expense of a strong narrative. If you champion appearances over depth, you‘ll find much to cherish here. The elegant lyricism will charm anyone more captivated by a mood than well-defined storytelling. Its melancholy tone will seduce style mongers into heaven.

Django Unchained

Posted in Action, Drama, Western with tags on December 28, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketDjango Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s full bodied and bloody take on the spaghetti western with a little 70’s era blaxploitation thrown in. Taking place in the pre-Civil War South, the plot concerns a freed slave who takes revenge on a plantation owner in order to rescue his wife. Our story begins with Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist. He’s now a bounty hunter seeking the Brittle brothers, dangerous outlaws with a price on their heads. Since Django is the only one who can identify the perpetrators, he buys Django, essentially freeing him, and the two set off to find them.

Jaime Foxx is all seething rage with a perpetual scowl across his face as he matures from helpless slave to an avenging superhero. He’s the obvious star but the supporting cast is nothing less than perfection. The movie is stolen by a trio of actors that command attention in every scene they’re in. Christoph Waltz displays a gentle charm as the enlightened German bounty hunter that is both sympathetic and fearsome. Leonardo DiCaprio is the central villain, a hissable plantation owner named Calvin Candie. He’s guilty of a whole slew of offenses, not the least of which includes pitting slaves against each other for gladiator-like competitions to the death. But he spits his declarations with a smooth southern drawl that would just as likely offer his guests a Mint Julep. It’s a spellbinding performance, one that establishes a demented personality. Possibly even more unsettling is Samuel L Jackson as house slave Stephen, obediently loyal to Calvin’s desires but vile and ill-tempered to everyone else. It’s a villain that might trump DiCaprio’s hateful character for selling out his fellow man. He’s respectful to Calvin, but lords it over the rest of the house as an intense individual to be feared. It’s a portrayal of a slave unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Tarantino has an ear for conversation and his comedic instincts are razor sharp. The opening scene in which Dr. King Schultz buys Django from the Speck brothers is a brilliant start. Schultz’s educated manner when contrasted to the more unsophisticated personalities of the Specks makes for a rather lighthearted negotiation in the midst of tense circumstances. Later a scene in which proto-KKK members complain about the poorly cut eye-holes in their white masks is a model of hilarious writing. No wonder it tied at the St. Louis Film Critics Association for Best Scene of the year. And let’s not forget the assertions of Calvin Candie. Once Leonardo DiCaprio turns the tables on our heroes, he offers his misinformed thoughts regarding cranial anatomy. His frightening and pseudo-intellectual ideas are so shockingly bizarre, you are compelled to listen.

It’s Tarantino, so of course we’re going to get anachronistic style choices. But there are some seriously questionable music selections going on. It’s all over the place. Since Django Unchained is inspired in part by Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Italian Western Django, it makes perfect sense he would appropriate Luis Enrique Bacalov’s theme song over the opening credits. Even Jim Croce’s ‘I Got a Name’ has enough country western flair to sound germane to the time period, but rapper Rick Ross’ ‘100 Black Coffins’ is painfully out of place. It takes you completely out of the mid 1800’s and into 2012. Ditto the mashup of James Brown’s ‘The Payback’ and Tupac Shakur’s ‘Untouchable’ called ‘Unchained‘. It’s a rousing rap blast, but it doesn’t’ do the picture any favors.

Like Tarantino’s earlier revisionist history flick Inglourious Basterds was to Nazis, Django Unchained offers a generous helping of comeuppance to slaveholders and their kin. But this isn’t as inventive as that film. Don’t get me wrong. Django is good. It’s filled with great dialogue. And it’s acted to the hilt by the entire cast with Waltz, DiCaprio, and Jackson mesmerizing in their parts, any of which, are worthy of an Academy Award. But the nearly 3 hour running time really meanders. One might argue that this revenge fantasy doesn’t really get started until well past the halfway point where the real purpose of rescuing Django’s wife Broomhilda becomes the goal. Then the whole production climaxes in the most mundane way possible: a shootout. As Django delivers restitution to each baddie, their bodies shot through with holes, blood literally gushing out like fountains. It’s supposed to be visceral. Lighten up, right? It’s a cartoon! But it’s pretty disturbing too and I don’t care how desensitized to violence you are, if you aren’t at least a little disgusted, you might see a doctor for sociopathic tendencies. But even more problematic, it feels like a cheat – a simplistic shortcut in lieu of a more creative ending that would match the subversiveness of everything that lead up to that moment. Make no mistake, Django Unchained is really entertaining. It just could’ve been so much more.

Lawless

Posted in Crime, Drama, Western with tags on August 31, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketLawless, as its generic title implies, plays out like a direct-to-video crime drama. Ok I won’t mince words. Lawless is a stupefying bore. You’d think any movie concerning gangsters in 1931 would be nothing but nonstop excitement but you’d be wrong in this case. This story is about as distinctive as slice of Wonder Bread. Oops scratch that, Wonder Bread actually has some nutrients you can use.

Forrest, Howard and Jack are the Bondurant Brothers. They’re bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia and their family is the stuff of local folklore. Eldest brother Forrest has survived the Spanish Flu that took his parents. It’s believed that he can’t die. Indeed Forrest must be part feline because he clearly has 9 lives. He survives a violent throat slashing, being shot multiple times and falling into a frozen lake. It’s pretty ridiculous. Anyway the brothers run a successful moonshine business that ultimately attracts the attention of crooked lawman Charlie Rakes. He demands a cut of their illegal racket. They tell him to get lost and so begins a back and forth game of one-upmanship throughout the rest of the film. In between the occasional bursts of violence we get lots of static shots of landscapes.

The cast is what attracted me to this saga. Ironically it’s the incredible assemblage of talent that makes this drama so frustrating. They aren’t given anything exciting to do. I kept waiting for something riveting to happen. Tom Hardy portrays the oldest (and much larger) brother to Shia LaBeouf’s character. Hardy mumbles and croaks his way through this picture, but he has a presence. Shia is the runt of the family. I guess it’s commendable that he’s attempting to stretch his historical acting muscles as one of the Bondurant brothers, but he’s out of his depth here. They don‘t seem remotely like siblings. Hardy has more charisma in his upper lip that Shia has in his whole body. Guy Pearce stridently overacts as the corrupt special agent. He’s fascinating, so a welcome addition. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are fine in underwritten roles as “the girlfriends.“ At least Jessica Chastain looks ravishing amongst all these grimy outlaws. Gary Oldman pops up in a brief cameo as sympathetic criminal Floyd Banner. And then poof he’s gone.

The script attempts to depict these brothers as visionaries. It’s based on a 2008 book called The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. The production values are gorgeous. It gives the film the look of quality. And the soundtrack is dominated by folksy bluegrass songs the way movies set in the 60s flood the soundtrack with #1 hits of that era. The author was glorifying his grandfather and great-uncles. It’s obvious he wants them to appear as mythic heroes in a Prohibition-era fantasy. But Nick Cave’s screenplay (Yes that Nick Cave, of the Bad Seeds) turns them into rather dull outlaw clichés of the day. Forrest’s girlfriend Maggie rebukes Forrest at one point and says “Ain’t that just like you, to believe your own damn legend.” She sees right through them and so do we. They’re simply a bunch of guys making moonshine during a time when such activities was against the law. This is thoroughly conventional material. I struggled to see why their story deserved a film. These people aren’t legendary. Yes, the period is fertile ground for stories. The script should’ve been a slam dunk in entertainment, but it falters on two counts. Not only does it fail to make these criminals admirable, it can’t even make them seem interesting. Lawless is aimless.

Cowboys & Aliens

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller, Western with tags on January 13, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Cowboys & Aliens is a discordant, headache inducing mess. It’s unclear whether the filmmakers meant this to be a silly, light hearted adventure or a serious sci-fi adaptation. A case could be made for either. Harrison Ford plays Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde whose successful cattle business provides the small town of Absolution with its main source of income. He growls every line in a performance that is rooted firmly in camp. His gravel voice makes Clint Eastwood’s in Gran Torino look downright mellifluous by comparison. Dolarhyde and his son Percy act as though they are above the law and they initially emerge as the chief antagonists. Daniel Craig is Jake Lonergan, the apparent hero, but deeply humorless with nary a smile. He has amnesia right from the opening scene. He appears to be a fugitive from the law based on the shackle cuffed to his wrist. But he stands up for righteousness when he opposes Dolarhyde’s son who terrorizes the town. The first third of the film feels like a classic western of good vs. evil. It’s the best part. Although the setup is clichéd, at least it does a satisfactory job of laying the groundwork for the possibility of something exciting to come.

Unfortunately the story takes a turn for the worse. Technologically advanced flying objects appear overhead and abduct many of the townsfolk. This being a western set in 1873, the anachronism could have had a significant impact. Apparently this development was not meant to be a shock since the very title gives this revelation away. Even the trailer highlighted this spectacle. Without the element of surprise, the movie lacks excitement. Even the citizens seem rather unperturbed. Lots of blasts and explosions are presented in a blazing cacophony of CGI. The intruders are overly complicated monsters that scream “check out these creature designs!” to the Academy. The visual flourishes are plentiful, but the narrative is dull. Sadly Ford and Craig never fully connect and the promised sparks between the meeting of Indiana Jones with James Bond fail to ignite. We’re also introduced to a mysterious woman who joins the group and a Native American man who is Dolarhyde’s second-in-command. They have back-stories, but they seemed perfunctory. Where the aliens come from and their purpose, have routine explanations as well.

Overall the picture fails to captivate. Jon Favreau is a talented director. A string of his productions: ElfZathura and Iron Man, were all superior successes under his guidance. Oh yeah, some guy named Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers here as well. The fact that seven (!) writers are credited with the disorganized screenplay supports the old adage “too many cooks“. A simplified, more singular vision would have been preferable. The best special effects extravaganzas are able to work in an engaging objective that makes the endeavor interesting, irregardless of eye catching embellishments. Here, the CGI is the story. It’s telling that when key people die in the end, it causes no emotional reaction. It’s just business as usual and off to the next adventure. <Yawn>

Rango

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Western with tags on March 10, 2011 by Mark Hobin

A chameleon finds himself in Dirt, a tiny Old West town plagued by bandits, and pretends to be a swashbuckling hero in order to protect it.  Extraordinary amalgamation of film references is an absolute celebration of classic Hollywood westerns.  All of this appropriating might have felt like unoriginality, but it doesn’t come off that way here.  This is not about trendy pop culture references, but an intelligent blending of movie history.  Any avid moviegoer will be in cinematic nirvana with this creative mashup.  In one scene, Rango’s phony overconfidence recalls Don Knotts in The Shakiest Gun in the West and the homage is the funniest thing I’ve seen in quite a while.   Even the Rango theme song by Los Lobos is a catchy little ditty that recalls the theme to the 60s television series Rawhide.

The picture is a cinephile’s dream come true, but I think what pushes Rango to the next level is the subversiveness of it all.  This cartoon is atypically irreverent.  I wouldn‘t recommend the story to anyone under the age of 7.  Most of it will sail right over their heads and I suspect many adults won’t “get it” either.  The script alternates between jokes only a knowledgeable film buff would get and those no child could possibly understand.  At one point Rango tries to convince people that he and a snake are brothers, explaining, “Mama had an active social life.” Oh and make no mistake, these desert animals are ugly.  Not a cuddly cutie in the entire motley bunch.  One of the members of Rango’s posse is a bird that has an arrow struck through his eye.  But they’re beautifully animated, and the supporting cast has real character depth.  My favorite was “Spoons” a grey bearded mouse.  Tough and grizzled like an old prospector, he’s hilariously expressive.  It’s the kind of creative story that demands repeated viewings.  Just see it for the many lines of laughably quotable dialogue.   I won’t spoil them here.  OK, maybe just one: “If this were heaven, kid, we’d all be eating pop tarts with Kim Novak”.

True Grit

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Western with tags on December 31, 2010 by Mark Hobin

Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of the 1969 classic starring John Wayne about revenge. Straightforward and unpretentious, this is the Coen brothers most traditional film yet. That’s both a good and a bad thing . Rooted firmly in classic storytelling conventions, its old fashioned sentiment is comforting. However it isn’t particularly memorable or as innovative as their best efforts. The ending is even anticlimactic after all the buildup we’ve witnessed beforehand. Conventional western’s highlight is the feature debut of actress Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the girl out to avenge her father’s death. She perfectly captures the tough, precocious, no nonsense teen, speaking her lines with perfect diction and clarity. She is self assured and precise and she makes the movie. John Wayne may have been the attention grabber in the original, but she is without question the centerpiece here.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Western with tags on May 25, 2010 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketShallow adventure about a thief, a hitman, and a bounty hunter all vying to find a treasure map.  Starting with that title, this ho-hum Korean western is clearly upfront about being inspired by the Sergio Leone classic.  The concept is unique, I mean a Spaghetti Western from South Korea, set in 1930s Manchuria, is pretty unconventional at least.  Unfortunately the execution is mostly uninspired.  Bright colorful cinematography highlights  lots and lots of graphic shoot-outs and chases.  At first it’s kind of fun, but the strictly by the numbers story grows tiresome after 127 minutes.  Fans of the genre may enjoy this Eastern take on a Western classic.  All others should simply rent the superior original.

The Magnificent Seven

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Western with tags on March 15, 2010 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketPhotobucketGripping epic western of mercenaries hired for protection by a Mexican village terrorized by a gang of outlaws.  Despite being “merely” a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and borrowing themes from the westerns of John Ford, this action film remains one of the most riveting of all time. Director John Sturges has a remarkable rapport with his actors.  Indeed he would successfully reteam with Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson 3 years later in The Great Escape.  Creative casting also includes Yul Brynner off his success in The King and I and Jewish actor Eli Wallach as Mexican bandit Calvera.  This brilliant ensemble cast highlight a perfectly realized tale of good vs. evil.

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