Category Archives: Western

Review: Django Unchained

Say one thing for Quentin Tarantino, say he does revenge like no one else. Django Unchained is a masterpiece, a bloody epic Western unlike any other. Filled with wonderful characters, equally wonderful performances, and one of the bloodiest gun fights in cinema history. This is a film unlikely to disappoint.

Django (Jamie Fox) is a slave freed by Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter who requires Django’s services to track down an outlaw group of brothers. On the journey Shultz learns of Django’s German speaking wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who had been purchased by a ruthless Mississippi plantation owner, Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio). Shultz agrees to help Django free his wife.

There is nothing special in this story, and as usual in a Tarantino movie, it’s all in the telling. You’ll find drama, comedy, romance, and action wrapped up in the old school Western genre but still oozing a modern sense of “cool”. Watching Fox strut on horse back to an African-American Hip-Hop beat could just be one of the coolest moments in any film for a long time. Django Unchained does have wide appeal, but it’s definitively a movie buffs kind of movie.

This is Director Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the spaghetti western, complete with all the cheesy camera tricks and low quality musical recordings. It lacks some of the unconventional story-telling of his previous films, but it oozes his class and it continues his tradition of some of the best characters on-screen. This is a film where characters in extended conversations can be as engaging as the extraordinarily bloody gunfights. At a wopping 165 minutes, the film never once has you looking at your watch remaining riveting from start to finish.

Waltz, Fox, and DiCaprio are all at their best, and while Waltz is the one being recognised with awards I see no reason why the other two should not have been either. They all own their characters right down to their idiosyncrasies and character flaws. Tarantino certainly knows how to get the bets out of his cast, a talent I wish he could pass onto other Directors.

Django Unchained was officially a 2012 production despite its release in 2013, for that reason I’m naming it my film of 2012. My head might tell me that Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director will go somewhere else, but my heart hopes it comes to this movie.

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Review: Cowboys & Aliens

When I first heard of Cowboys & Aliens I have to admit I was a tad excited, I have a soft spot for uniquely far-fetched entertainment. Daniel Craig & Harrison Ford as Cowboys? Oh yeah! Olivia Wilde? Awesome. Aliens? Hot Damn! However it’s important to approach any film with an open mind, no expectations, let the story unfold before you and enjoy it. Unfortunately I’d seen this film before, it’s just another standard Hollywood Western albeit with Aliens. That’s right, it’s a serious movie.

A cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the wilderness, shoeless, hatless, weaponless, nameless, and with a strange metal bracelet attached to his arm. It’s a clever start, intriguing, and Craig is perfect as the brooding hero in search of his name and purpose. He comes across a small town where the promise of mining riches failed to come true and where the local sherif put his face to a wanted poster. He’s fingered as an outlaw named Jake Lonergan who stole from the town’s wealthiest citizen Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). But before anything can happen the town is attacked by Aliens and much of the townsfolk are kidnapped.

It’s here that Jake’s bracelet comes to life, it’s actually a futuristic weapon, and it allows him to shoot down one of the UFO’s. He’s then roped into helping Ella Swanson (Olivia Wilde) and the remaining townspeople lead by Dolarhyde to track down their friends and family. It’s a good start, there’s mystery, things to discover and learn, and the beginnings of some decent characters and conflicts. Unfortunately, that’s it, I really felt like the movie never moved past this beginning no matter what developed.

If you’re going to call a movie Cowboys & Aliens and advertise it as a fun action movie you really need to deliver on your promise. Perhaps I am victim of good advertising, but on reflection there really isn’t an excuse for the miscalculation here. I know the truth of it, they just want to motivate people to part with their cash, but making money isn’t as simple as that and audiences usually punish deception. It’s not entirely lost as there is plenty here to enjoy, it’s just there is a list of faults longer than Harrison Ford’s career.

I can’t really write about the great acting, it’s merely competent. I can’t write about the great script, it’s just a regurgitation of previous Westerns with Aliens replacing the traditional enemy. I can’t write about the wonderful screenplay, although it’s the films strongest component it’s doesn’t match the awe the film should impose. I suspect the likes of Ford, Craig, and Wilde know what’s going on because they merely go through the motions, it’s only the ever impressive Sam Rockwell as the Doc who brings any life to the story.

Director Jon Favreau is no stranger to the lighter side of action films directing the very successful Ironman, but perhaps he merely lucked on a good script and Robert Downey Junior because the flair of the film is noticeably missing here. He’s certainly competent as a Director, but he’s really missed the mark with the tone of this production.

In the end, this is a wait for DVD kind of film. It’s more about scares than humour and while you receive the promised showdown between the Cowboys and Aliens, it’s really nothing worth noting. There are things to enjoy here true, but I doubt you couldn’t get more enjoyment from another film.

 

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Classic: High Noon

I don’t just want to review current releases here, I want to encourage a wider viewing of some of the films of cinema’s past that I would recommend anyone see. There is quite of few of them, some of them are landmarks in history, others are just good films in my humble opinion. For this frist “classic” review I’ve chosen one of my favourite Westerns from way back in 1952 – High Noon.

Western’s can come in all shapes and sizes (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_(genre)), but a typical Western usually follows a pretty generic script. The hero rides into town, usually the new Sherrif, and he’s charged with rescuing the town from a villain. There’s often a chase, a gunfight, always violence, a girl, and some beautiful scenery. The hero defeats the villain, saves the town, gets the girl, and almost always rides off into the sunset.

The savvy amongst you will notice that’s the plot of films like Die Hard, the Western conventions are very strong particularly in American cinema, even movies like Star Wars are not immune to them. A Western usually also features a strong and simple morality, that is something that has changed in modern cinema, but in the 50s it was definitely the case. Culture plays a big part in film, and Western’s play heavily on the hero complex, the need for someone of greater moral standing to come and save us. This is why High Noon is famous, because it challenges all the concepts that make a Western what it is.

It’s the bad guys who ride into town at the start of the film, our hero (who is the Sherrif) has already got the girl (recently married) and is about to retire and leave town to start a family. In this film the good guy wears black, the bad guy wheres white (literally) and towns folk are not embracing their hero, in fact you get the feeling they welcome the villain. High Noon very deliberately sets out to do the opposite of what you’d expect in a Western and what a piece of cinema it makes. It’s a critique of how we really are, how we really treat heroes, about which of us is really ready to risk their lives to stand up for what’s right.

Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, who is recently married to pacifist Quaker Amy (Grace Kelly), with plans to retire as Sherrif and leave town to become a shopkeeper elsewhere. However, he learns Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a criminal who Kane helped send to jail is about to arrive on the noon train. Miller was to be hanged but was let off on a technicality, and his arrival is ominous because he vowed to kill Kane during his trial. Miller’s gang has arrived in town and are awaiting Miller at the train station, and the townsfolk urge Kane to leave believing that will diffuse the situation.

Kane decides to stay fearing Miller will track him down anyway, but despite wide held respect for him no one is willing to help him. His deputy Harvey Pell (a young Lloyd Bridges) resigns because he wanted to be the man to take down Miller himself. His former lover Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado),  supports him, but there is little she can do to help and she’s selling up to get out of town. Kane’s new wife Amy threatens to leave on the noon train with or without him. The Judge who sentenced Miller is making a run for it, and urges Kane to do the same. The men in the Saloon are less than helpful, even appearing to despise Kane. Even the good folk of the town gathered in the Church who are quick to speak well of Kane prefer him to leave and even infer he is to blame for the coming violence.

In fact the only people willing to help Kane apart from Ramírez are an old one-eyed man and an immature teenager. Both brave, but both likely to die in any violence. The message couldn’t be stronger, even a young child play fighting runs up to the Marshall shouting “Bang, bang, you’re dead, Kane.” Kane is alone, without friends, abandoned, yet he stands like a rock, bound to his duty, to be the Sherrif and protect the town from the likes of Miller.

Upon it’s release audiences originally criticised the film for it’s lack of the previously mentioned chases, gunfights, violence, and scenery. John Wayne hated this film, he called it  “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life”. Howard Hawkes went as far as to make Rio Bravo as the counter to the film criticising High Noon saying “I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help”. Some of that reaction might be explained by knowing that while writing the film, the screenwriter Carl Foreman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as a former member of the communist party and was eventually blacklisted in Hollywood.

High Noon was made at a time when American was gripped with fear about communism, that there would be some kind of revolution which would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of Life. So when a film depicts an American Sherrif abandoned by his town,  you can see it might stir up some controversy for some.

A lot of people view the film as a metaphor for what happened with the HUAC, crucifying good people while the masses stood back and let it happen.In the years since it’s release many have to come to appreciate it for what it was. even staunch anti-communists such as Ronald Regan praise it, Eisenhower and Clinton are known to have shown the film many times in the White House.

When you watch the film (and I do hope you do) I urge you to pay attention to the how the Director Fred Zinnemann frames each shot. He keeps the gang of bad guys close together, tight, while in contrast the hero is often alone, cast in wider shots that emphasise his solitary circumstances. There is a fantastic montage right before the climax which holds up even amongst today’s technically superior films (see the montage here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOuvcMkaXUU&feature=related). It also has a classy introduction to the song “High Noon” written by Dimitri Tiomkin, lyrics by Ned Washington and sung by Tex Ritter (see the intro here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKLvKZ6nIiA).

It’s a much loved film, and I hope you get as much out of it as I have.

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Filed under Classic, Drama, Film Reviews, Western