Tag Archives: western

SXSW: The Ballad of Lefty Brown

the-ballad-of-lefty-brown-F71455The Ballad of Lefty Brown starts from an interesting place. Writer/director Jared Moshe was curious about the bumbling sidekick in John Wayne movies, the guy who functioned as comic relief. That archetypal character could not do anything right, so why did someone like John Wayne choose to have a bumbling guy like that as the one watching his back?

Lefty Brown is one such bumbler. Played by Bill Pullman, we join Lefty late in life, near the end of a lifetime of sidekicking for a Montana rancher who has just been elected to the U.S. Senate.  Lefty would be at a loss anyway due to his mainkick, but things are made much, much worse when the rancher is ambushed and murdered by a cattle rustler that he and Lefty were tracking.

Pullman is very believable as Lefty, a sad-sack who believes he contributed to, or at least could have done something to prevent, the death of his idol and only friend. Other characters, including many familiar faces, come and go but serve mainly to advance the story. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know them as much as I would have liked, but this is Lefty’s story for once so it would be cruel to complain that he got too much screen time!

The landscape is beautifully shot, and the cinematography really emphasizes Lefty’s isolation. He’s literally in the middle of nowhere for most of this movie, and even when he’s accompanied by others that feeling of isolation remains.

Because of the rancher’s death, Lefty has to assume the leadership role, and as we spend time with Lefty we get to learn why the rancher was willing to place so much trust in Lefty. It’s an enjoyable journey even though, paradoxically, the movie plays out like a typical western because the rancher’s death makes Lefty the lead with a sidekick of his own. But I like to think that the rancher knew all along what our stand-in hero Lefty was truly made of.

If, like me, you’re intrigued by the concept and are in Austin TX this week then you have one more chance to see The Ballad of Lefty Brown at SXSW, on March 15 at 2 p.m.

 

 

 

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The Magnificent Seven

magnificent-seven-2016-castThis is a western where the good guys wear black. Where you cheer for the outlaws, where a woman shoots better than most of the men, and where a black man can be the unquestioned leader of the posse. It is a more multicultural west than we are used to seeing, and it feels natural, like this is how it always should have been.

And why not? If you have Denzel Washington in your western, then he should be in charge.  He’s the lead. He takes command here and it’s clear right from the start that what Denzel says goes. haley-bennett-magnificent-seven-2016All the outlaws he recruits fall into line and work with him and for him, to save a little town that a gold baron has taken
by force.

Chris Pratt is the first to sign up and it’s great to have him along for the ride. His brand of comedy is welcome and he also manages a convincing quick draw.

The other five join up quickly thereafter, from Ethan Hawke’s shellshocked southern sniper, to Byung-hun Lee’s soft-spoken knife expert, to Vincent D’Onofrio’s nigh-unstoppable hick
who’s been in the sun too long.  Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s Mexican outlaw and Martin Sensmeyer’s kick-ass Comanche warrior sing up as well. I would have liked to see more opportunities for the last two to contribute, as the movie was at its strongest when the entire crew was riffing off one another while preparing for the final showdown against Peter Saarsgard’s gold baron and hundreds of his henchmen. That’s an indication of the strength of the cast, from top to bottom.1461168127-the-magnificent-seven-trailer

We seem to be in the middle of a western revival over the last few years, illustrated by the fact this was not my first western this month. The Magnificent Seven is not an instant classic like Hell or High Water, but Antoine Fuqua delivers an enjoyable popcorn movie that earnestly serves up a high noon showdown. Feeling like a throwback already, catch it as a matinee for extra authenticity.

Naturally, the Magnificent Seven gets a score of seven rootin’ tootin’ gunslingers out of ten.

 

 

Hell or High Water

This movie is more high-noon western than high-octane thriller, but there is indeed a heist at its heart.

Two brothers, Toby, tall and handsome (Chris Pine), and Tanner, short and surly (Ben hell-or-high-water-chris-pine-ben-fosterFoster), have little in common except for the rough past they come from, which they are both desperate to escape. Toby has spent the last few years caring for their mother while the family ranch slips away. Tanner has spent the past year since he’s been released from jail tempting the fates to put him back. Now they’re working together to save the family ranch from default – and will do so by robbing a bunch of Texas Midland bank branches, and paying the bank back with its own stolen money.

The only catch: sheriff Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is close to retirement but not keen to go, and this one last case is not going to be the blemish on his career. He chases the brothers all over Texas until he pinpoints the next branch they’re about to hit, and lies in wait.

Hell Or High Water is superbly acted. You can’t even say with certainty which of the three leads steals the film, but they’re all making the right choices, the quiet choices that make for the most interesting of character studies. That said, the secondary characters – and hell, even the one-liners – are all praise-worthy here. And I am obliged, once again, to worship at the altar of Jeff Bridges, chronically underrated but truly one of the wonders of the world.

The pace helps set this movie apart. It’s not fast or furious: it blows by at about the speed of a tumbleweed in a gentle breeze, which means you have time to get to know everyone, 97178_044and in getting to know them, maybe you actually care. There is a certain sympathy accrued for both the cops and the robbers. It’s the kind of movie that made the car ride home extra engaging, as we figured where they all stood on the Bad Guy Scale. Toby, for example, is robbing the bank that robbed him. He’s doing it to give his kids a future. But he’s using a gun, which means people could get hurt. So is he good, bad, or somewhere in between? 49% good? 51% good? 75% relatable? 100% justified?

One thing’s for sure: the blackest hat of all is reserved for the banks. The Big Short was last year’s testament to the American Dream’s foreclosure, and although my hat’s off to Adam McKay for making a narrative film out of a nonfiction book (and I don’t mean a biography – this baby was characterless, plotless, and read more like a textbook, by which I mean full of facts and figures, but not remotely dry or boring), it never really resonated with me. Hell or High Water puts a name and a face to poverty, and calls it a disease. An epidemic, even. Director David Mackenzie has accomplished something significant here, dragging the good old Western into the 21st century, a time of economic anxiety, where the little towns look even more derelict and neglected than they did in the wild, wild west. There’s an ache to this film cultivated by fantastic dialogue and scenic shots, handily catapulting itself into my top 5 of 2016.

Outlaws and Angels

You know how it was in the olden days, walking to the bonnet store with your bestie, discussing the state of things on the ole homestead, the latest style in aprons, panning for gold, and the benefit of small pricks. As you do. And then suddenly your bestie gets her face shot off. It happens.

1.jpgThe olde West. There are good guys, and there are bad guys: you can barely tell the difference between them. They all wear black hats.

The really bad dude (Chad Michael Murray) has a scar. Luckily. For identification purposes. The slightly less bad guy chasing him (Luke Wilson), a bounty hunter, does not.

The really bad dude and his gang o’ miscreants decides to hole up and hide with a frontier family – a Christian ma and pop, and their two smart-ass, sassy-tongued daughters, the saucier of whom is played by Francesca Eastwood in her feature debut (that’s right: cowboy Clint’s daughter). The outlaws get more than they bargained for because little Flo (Francesca) is like a snake in your boot. A sexy snake who seduces her captors. And she’s well-florence_gun2-670x264versed in giving her daddy “rubdowns” as is the frontier way.

Director JT Mollner creates a spaghetti western send-up that abandons the sprawling land for a single interior locale. It’s not exactly wholesome though. Okay, it’s not remotely wholesome. While her daddy Clint may be used to exploring violence in westners, Francesca is busy exploring an often ignored side: sex. A very salty side indeed. This film has definitely shown me lots of outlaws, but I’m wondering if there are any angels at all. Mollner’s assessment is murkier than gravy although his long pauses and overuse of close-ups will make you think he’s making an awfully serious point. Personally, I think the blood pretty much sums it up. Bloodshed makes for excellent punctuation.

 

 

Jane Got A Gun

Despite what you may think a glaringly obvious move, there is nary an Aerosmith tune in this whole dang movie. Sure it’s a western set in the 1800s, but that wouldn’t have stopped Baz Luhrmann, I’ll tell you that much, pard’ner.

When Jane’s husband comes home all shot up with bad guys on his tail, she’s got no choice but to hustle up the services of the nearest hired gun…who just happens to be her ex-lover.

maxresdefaultI’ve never been in an old-timey gun fight (knock wood!) but I imagine the only thing worse than being laid up in bed full of bullet holes, gangrene mere moments away, is to watch your wife fall into the sexy arms of her much-handsomer ex-boyfriend as he protects the both of you and you’re too weak to even protest. How embarrassing!

Although I’d say it’s way more embarrassing to have made such a generic film with absolutely no personality despite passable performances by Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton (full disclosure: Ewan McGregor is purportedly also in this film but I totally failed to notice him…if the story checks out, you may remember that these three appeared together in the Star Wars prequels, so they do have a history of making bad choices).

It’s not exactly a surprise that this film failed to make a saloon-worthy splash, it was syphilitic with trouble since day one. Actually, since the day before day one, which is when the original director, Lynne Ramsay, walked off the project after a 3-day stand-off with untitledproducers who refused to give her final cut. Cinematographer Darius Khondji followed in solidarity, as did Jude Law. Bradley Cooper was brought on to replace him, with Gavin O’Connor in the director’s seat, totally unprepared. Michael Fassbender had already left over clashes with Ramsey so when Cooper left, Joel Edgerton was shuffled over from bad guy to good and Ewan McGregor took up the baddie role. It’s kind of a miracle this movie got made at all, and maybe they should have just left well enough alone.

Not that it’s despicable, it’s just not very entertaining. It looks really good in spots but it’s got the plot of every western you’ve ever seen, interspersed with confusing flash-backs. And I must say: huge missed opportunity. This could have been a table-turning, gun-slinging feminist western but instead Portman dispassionately pinballs from one man to the next and is very much a damsel in distress and that made me one disinterested dame.

 

Slow West

Slow West tells the story of a young Scot named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee doing his best Jay Baruchel impression) travelling across Colorado in search of his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius).  Almost immediately, Jay is saved from bandits by Silas (Michael Fassbender) and from then on, it’s a western version of The Odd Couple, except writer/director John Maclean replaces much of the comedy with despair.  The wild west depicted in Slow West (which incidentally is New Zealand standing in for the midwestern plains) is the saddest, loneliest place imaginable.  Still, in spite of its melancholy, Slow West manages to be a very enjoyable movie, and even a surprisingly funny one at times.

Going into Slow West, I had one expectation: that the title would have some deep meaning to be revealed during the course of the movie.  I was let down in that regard but that was really the only disappointment I had coming out – I still don’t understand the title and feel like there’s something there to get.

Anyway, as far as the movie itself, Fassbender and Smit-McPhee make a very goo
d pair, and that’s fortunate because we spend a lot of time with them as they make their way to Rose.  Fassbender gives us a convincing tough guy with a heart of gold silver tin.  Smit-McPhee is well cast as the naive, good-hearted foreigner.  Ben Mendelsohn, who really impressed me in Mississippi Grind, makes a quick appearance as a scummy outlaw and looks the part.  And yes, everything in this paragraph reads like a back-handed compliment, but it’s coming from a good place, I swear.

Slow West climaxes in a shootout.  I don’t
think I have to tag that as a spoiler,  do I?  You knew it was going to happen.  The way the shootout plays out, though, is well done and is much different than I expected.   It even includes a few surreal moments that worked really well (especially one involving a jar of salt).

Overall, Slow West is a solid, though sad, tale from the wild west.  Much like the story told by an old gang member, it entertained me throughout its 85 minute run time with its unusual mix of sadness and death with a hint of offbeat comedy.  It’s definitely worth tracking down, and I give it a score of eight wanted posters out of ten.