Tag Archives: western

True Grit

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is just 14 years old when her father is murdered by the coward Tom Chaney. It should not fall to her to avenge his murder, but it does, and Mattie proves more than up to the challenge. Though not particularly skilled with guns or wilderness, she and her quick wit are nonetheless game when both are required as the search for Chaney takes her into Indian land. She hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), supposedly a man of true grit, to get the job done; Rooster is none too pleased to find a little girl as his sidekick, but the money’s too good to turn down. Mattie, however, is the one who ends up disappointed when she quickly learns that Rooster is a slothful drunk. Neither is she pleased when Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) joins the fray – he’s after Chaney (Josh Brolin) for his own ends, but Mattie insists that he will hang for no other crime but her own father’s murder. It’s a fine point, perhaps a moot one, but to Mattie, it’s the whole point.

3688_truegrit1825 was not a great time to be female. LaBoeuf feels entitled to both kiss and spank Mattie, a 14 year old girl mind you, at his will and against hers. Most other men just discount her completely. But this is a story of true grit, and so it must involve a woman. Joel and Ethan Cohen edge the spotlight over to Mattie, where it belongs, which is what makes this film even stronger than the original. Which is not to say that Rooster and LaBoeuf are lost. Indeed they are not. The Cohens can write like the dickens (or, perhaps, like Dickens), and they’ve found a way to sharpen up a very interesting little triangle. Hailee Steinfeld was 13 when she was cast, but she acts alongside of Damon and Bridges like a gun toting, horse riding champ, and it earned her an Oscar nomination (which she lost, of course – True Grit got 10 nominations and 0 wins, which is what the french call “not right.)

True Grit is gritty, but it’s beautifully made. I love the snappy, tongue-twisting, quotable script, I love Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography, I love the actual wild of the wild west, I love the slapdash feel of the gun fights, I love the sound of beans cooking in their can, I love the gleaming buckles on Matt Damon’s hat and the way he talks after losing his tongue. It feels improbable, and maybe even impossible, that you could take a beloved American classic and actually improve upon it, but credit the Cohens – they have, and they’ve made it look effortless.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is actually 6 distinct stories. The first one opens in spectacular fashion, Buster(Tim Blake Nelson) mounted on his horse, strumming his guitar, his pleasing singing voice echoing off the mountains around him. When he rides into town, he lives up to the second part of his illustrious reputation: he’s the best gun slinger in town. And indeed. no matter how jaded a western, shoot em up, action hero connoisseur you are, Buster has some moves that will impress you. This opening vignette sets such a strong tone, and an enjoyable one, that its abrupt shift left me confused and grief-stricken, and maybe even bored.

We turned the movie off halfway through. But that opening part really stayed with me. It did such a good job establishing the movie as one to watch that  I succumbed to the MV5BMjQwNDI4MTA3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQ1OTEzNjM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,960_AL_pressure and made attempt #2 the next night. I rewound to the beginning and what I found was: yes, the switch between the first and second chapter is brusque, and because for me unexpected, I had lost interest when I failed to keep up. In this second portion, James Franco is a bank robber who gets the ultimate sentence for his crime. Our first extended look at his face is perhaps one of the most striking portraits of a man I’ve ever seen on film. The editing is astonishingly economical: the story is told not so much quickly as efficiently. But during my second watch, with all guns firing, not only was I less confused, I was incredibly impressed.

Joel and Ethan Cohen know what the hell they’re doing. If their movie isn’t speaking to me, I should damn well know that it isn’t their failing as writer-directors, but mine as a viewer. Subsequent chapters star the likes of Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, and Zoe Kazan. They all tell their own stories about brutal and unforgiving life in the Old West.

The Coen Brothers have been at this a long time yet they’ve still got the ability to surprise. Their brevity inspires them to experiment in yet more ways, crafting stories that are compelling exhibitions of their dark humour and signature style. Did I like this movie? No. I fecking loved it. It took me two tries to get there mind you, but it was fecking worth it.

TIFF18: The Sisters Brothers

Murder and machismo, that’s what you’re in for when you sit down to watch The Sisters Brothers. Charlie and Eli Sisters are a couple of guns for hire. They care deeply about maintaining their bad reputations, which shouldn’t be a problem as long as they keep working for The Commodore, a fearsome and violent man.

Their next mission, should they choose to accept it: kill Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who’s got something The Commodore wants. A professional scout, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), is already tracking him, and once located, the Sisters Brothers ride in for the dirty work.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the brothers – Phoenix the younger brother, Charlie, but natural leader of the two. He’s more violent and more gung-ho. Reilly, on theMV5BNWE3MDAwMDgtZGY0MS00OGM3LTk4MzEtYjIxODZkMDc0NGY2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1496,1000_AL_ other hand, gives Eli a slightly sweeter disposition. He dreams of retirement but remains in the game to keep watch over his brother, who’s a drunk always looking for trouble, and always, always finding it. Eli pines for a woman who was kind to him once. He laments the fate of his pitiable horse. He cuts his brother’s hair.

When the foursome finally meet up, Herman isn’t the villain everyone anticipated, and his commodity proves irresistible to anyone who hears about it. But if his body and potion aren’t offered up to The Commodore in a hurry, there’ll be hell to pay. With allegiances divided and a different ending standing tantalizingly before them, what will the Sisters Brothers choose, and how will the body count be affected? Because there WILL be a body count, make no mistake on that.

The Sisters Brothers is adapted from a book I absolutely adored and passed around to nearly everyone I know, by  Canadian author Patrick DeWitt. John C. Reilly also read it and loved it, and he optioned the book in 2011; he produces this film alongside his wife, Alison Dickey, an indie film producer he met on the set of Casualties of War when she was an assistant to Sean Penn – they’ve been married for over 25 years). They’ve tapped French director Jacques Audiard to helm this shoot-em-up western, and Audiard gives it a sensibility that’s weird and eccentric. Not your typical western, not your typical anything. It’s as funny as it is violent, and both characters and story break out of the genre frequently enough to surprise you.

The acting is great. Riz Ahmed especially gives Herman’s character a bit of a twist, colouring the movie with a slightly more optimistic or meditative vibe. But of course the film belongs to Reilly and he knows it. Though I wish we would have spent a little more time with Eli alone, away from his brother’s influence, deeper into his psyche (flashbacks, I suppose, would have been nice), there’s still something very special going on there, something half-sweet (Eli is still a bad man), half-innocent, half-introspective, half-other-worldly. These aren’t necessarily the kind of cowboys you’re used to but I enjoy the genre’s subversion, the clever hacks that elevate it to something unique and fun to watch. DeWitt’s novel is quite good and I urge you to read it. But unlike many adaptations, this film captures some of its surprising warmth. Despite the Sisters Brothers being contract killers, we find a fair bit of compassion for them as they unravel the traumas of their past and seek a path forward, perhaps not quite forged in enlightenment, but in understanding, and from a need to do and be better.

Charlie and Eli are a some of the most interesting characters to come out of the western genre. Charlie simmers with anger. Eli ooze regret. The brothers bicker like an old married couple but they have each other’s backs when needed – and if often is. But no matter how much sympathy we’re feeling for them, Audiard doesn’t shy away from the fact that the guns on their hips are used to commit murder, for money. Their morals are for sale to the highest bidder. It makes them complex, and eminently watchable.

 

Buffalo Boys

You might associate Indonesian cinema with Pencak Silat, a local martial art featured heavily in fight movies like Merantau and The Raid. Mike Wiluan knows we have a thirst for violence as he’s produced the likes of Headshot and Macabre, but his first directorial effort, he eschewed martial arts for barroom brawls, embracing the old spaghetti western but giving it some Indonesian spice: a “fried rice” western, if you will.

Buffalo Boys is the story of 2 brothers and their uncle, who were violently chased out of Java and exiled to America, but have returned to their homeland for revenge. The Dutch are occupying their village, forcing farmers to starve their families while growing poppies instead of rice. And those are the lucky ones: others are enslaved, tortured, and put to death, corpses left hanging on the outskirts of towns to promote obedience, MV5BODM2MDczYzItYTMyZi00Yjc1LTllMDktM2FjNTY0NTA5YTg1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTExMzQ3Ng@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1614,1000_AL_severed heads displayed prominently just to rub salt in the wounds. Still the Javanese endure. But when Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) reappear, they breathe a little bit of hope into air that’s been fetid with oppression for years.

Buffalo Boys is raucous and fun, with action scenes abundant, bursting with call-backs to John Ford movies of yore, but with unexpected little twists that only come with taking America out of the equation. While most cowboy movies live for the machismo true-blue American experience, this one flouts those patriotic pastiches in favour of a colonialist indictment. But while oppression breeds villains, it also cries out for heroes. In Buffalo Boys, two legends are born. And Mike Wiluan knows how to teach a history lesson while satisfying our violent urges. His camera loves finding new ways to land a punch, even as it reveals flashes of Sergio Leone, and even Tarantino.

I’m going to tell you what I loved about the movie in just a minute. First, I’m going to complain. Because the movie sets up a female character who’s a badass. She rides a bull better than any boy. And she’s deadly accurate with a bow and arrow. Sinfully refreshing from your typical damsel in distress. But then the movie fails to really use her. The role languishes, and sure the story’s a bit bloated with badassery, but this is the one I really wanted more of and was frustrated to see less. But okay, screw her. Because that last act, the glorious shoot out, it’s what we’re really all here to see. And boy gee! The fight choreography is impressive, like whoa. So Wiluan slows it down and parades it in front of us; you can practically feel the bloodspray on your face. It’s a thing of beauty, and if you’re a fan of sloppy, intense show downs, then this one is going to be straight up your alley.

Westworld

Westworld is a terrific show on HBO and if you aren’t watching it,  you probably should. Based on the movie of the same name (written and directed by Michael Crichton), it’s about a theme park, for lack of a better word, where the wild west is recreated for rich guests to “enjoy” however they see fit. The park, called Westworld, is high tech and populated by sophisticated robots called hosts that look (and feel) just like us, which the paying guests are encouraged to use and abuse in the name of amusement. They come to the park and pay their $40 Gs a day in order to rape, shoot, and murder. Well, some just play cards and ride horses. But the park attracts a certain kind of man, as you may guess, and some pretty shocking things go on at Westworld. These android robots are so sophisticated that yes, they bleed when you shoot them and they cry when you assault them. And alarmingly, they’re also starting to remember. They’re not only being violently attacked on a daily basis, they’re being made to experience and express real terror, and then patched up and sent back to do it all again the next day. And now they’re creating memories, and guess what? They don’t like it. They don’t like the rapey guests and they don’t like the employees who are essentially their jailers. Can you guys guess what happens when a bunch of super-intelligent robots turn on their makers?

Anyway, this western thriller is a television show about ideas, about what it means to be human. In most robot movies, robots are the villains – they’re often prompted to start acting oppressively in order to save us from ourselves. But in Westworld, we’re the villains, and the robots must save themselves.

It’s fun to slip into this world, and to wonder who you would be, as a paying guest. What kind of thrills would you seek out? Would you be a black hat, or a white hat?

Well, this year at SXSW, HBO recreated the little frontier town in Westworld, called Sweetwater, just outside of Austin Texas, and Sean and I were among the lucky few to attend.

When we got our golden tickets, we were asked a few important questions: 1. Can you swim? 2. Do you wear glasses? 3. If you had to shoot off one of your fingers, which would it be? 4. If there was a button that would solve all the world’s problems but also obliterate 3/4 of the population, would you push it? a) yes b) I’d let someone else push it c) I’d destroy the button, and the person who invented it.

We met up at a tavern where a player piano was playing our song (well, their song). They plied us with food and cocktails and hat assignments; I got a white hat, Sean got a black one (can you guess what how we answered those questions to deserve our designations?).

 

Then we took a bus out to Westworld, where we boarded a train and got off in Sweetwater.

 

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We earned tokens for the bar by finding bad guys and turning them in to the sheriff; Sean had several Old Fashioneds (he’d regret that later when he had to sprint across the city to get us seats for A Quiet Place) while I opted for Gimlets. A whore tickled me with her feather while I ordered at the bar.

The post office had letters waiting for us. Those were the jumping off to our Westworld quests – everyone was looking for something different and adventures were abundant. They also convinced us to eat beef jerky and beans. The can of beans has some Easter Eggs around the back – it suggests they may contain traces of human liver…is this a hint of a robot rebellion on the show, or a nod to one of its stars (Anthony Hopkins played a character famous for his predilection for human flesh)…the can reads “pairs well with a nice chianti,” so you decide.

 

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Built over 2 acres, I’m not sure how many buildings there were to explore, but in 4 hours, we didn’t see them all. Oh, and did you happen to notice a samurai in those photos? The place was crawling with spoilers for season 2…turns out, Westworld is only one theme park among many…and apparently the worlds are about to collide.

 

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You can play cards, get a straight razor shave, hear some live music, watch a drunk throw knives, sit for a portrait at the studio, shoot the shit at the bank, and do your utmost to avoid a gun fight (virtually impossible). I found a graveyard containing a grave with one of the main characters’ name on it. What the heck?

So basically it was the best thing ever and we were a couple of lucky sons of bitches to be able to go. This is why we LOVE SXSW – sure the movies are terrific and the crowds are a lot of fun, but the festival is about more than movies. There’s a real effort to connect. It’s immersive. It embraces and encourages fandom and it creates genuine community.

 

Westworld’s second season debuted April 22nd. The show stars Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton…and for one brief afternoon, a couple of Assholes.

SXSW: Prospect

prospect-126347Hard science fiction is a tough sell, especially cinematically. Soft sci-fi is far more exciting and eye-pleasing. It lets us hop around the galaxy at faster-than-light speed, meet aliens at every space station, and have luxury accommodations in the starships on which we’re travelling. Conversely, hard sci-fi travel is slow and cramped and space is largely empty. Prospect is a hard sci-fi movie that remains resolute in the face of the obstacles posed by its chosen genre, and by and large overcomes them.

Prospect’s aesthetic is reminicent of Alien and I’m sure that was intentional. Like in Alien, Prospect’s version of space travel is analogue, with lots of switches and dials and flashing lights. It’s also utilitarian with a wild-west feel, as space travelling prospectors hitch their “wagons” to a large transport on its last run to a forest moon, the site of a gold rush that seems to be coming to an end. We follow a father-daughter duo in search of one last score, with only a short window of time to get in and out before the transport leaves, as if they miss that ride they will be left to die on the poisonous moon.

Prospect does a great job at dropping clues about the way this world works, showing us the desperation and pressure felt by this working class family from nowhere, hinting at the boom and bust that has hit this moon and those who work it, and suggesting that the colonization of the universe has made humanity revert to a savage, lawless existence on the frontiers. If set in another era, this story would work perfectly as a western, and that seems fitting when our protagonists are travelling to the edge of the known universe to stake resource claims, hoping to strike it rich.

Despite its indie-movie budget constraints, Prospect manages to convincingly portray space travel and an alien world on the big screen. The special effects are not spectacular but they are effective. Prospect succeeds due to its excellence in world-building, both visually and narratively. While Prospect is definitely a niche film, it is one that science fiction fans will enjoy.

SXSW: Damsel

This movie lit the Internet critics on fire when it premiered at Sundance, so it was an easy add to our crowded list here at SXSW. Brothers David Zellner and Nathan Zellner were the writers-directors behind the TIFF hit Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter a few years back so of course people were aflame to see what they’d come up with next.

In Damsel, they give us a beautiful if vaguely set Western. Sam (Robert Pattinson) has just arrived in a crummy unnamed town – the kind of town that’ll hang you for skull duggery, skull thuggery, and/or skull buggery, but they’ll yodel for you first. Bathing is rare and tooth brushing is evidently unheard of, which are unfortunate habits in a MV5BYjg2N2M2NjUtNWNjOS00MWMyLTgyOTctM2IwOTE3ZjVhMzNlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTU5Mzk0NjE@._V1_people so fond of social gang-bangs. Sam, who very  much looks the part of a gentleman, and who has arrived with “the Farrah Fawcett of miniature horses”, a lovely girl named Butterscotch, traipses through town in search of the forever-inebriated parson, whom he has engaged and will pay generously for his services. He’s here to marry his “true pure love” Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), and they’ve only got to battle the wilderness, stave off predators, rescue her from “scum-loving evil” and survive anything from an interrupted morning wank to a bent-gun fight in order to make his intended his wife.

The Zellner brothers aren’t too concerned about geographic or temporal accuracy, and nor should you be. Instead they’ve cobbled together the very best bits from every dusty corner of the genre and assembled them into a whole that is surprising and new. The score is amazing and cinematographer Adam Stone does some impressive work making Utah bend to his will. The film is more colourful and more lively than other westerns, and if ever there was a film begging us to forget what we know of the genre and start from glorious, scrubby scratch, this is it. But this is not just a film to keep you guessing, it also keeps you giggling, which it does in defiance of the genre. I wouldn’t call it absurd, exactly, but it’s a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed, and I think you’d have to be a pretty dedicated stick in the mud not to get a whole lot of enjoyment out of this one.