Posts Tagged ‘western’

Summer has come to an end, and there are few more reliable signs of that than the disappearance of the really big studio films, in favour of a somewhat more mixed slate of releases: unashamed genre movies, smaller comedies, unnecessary remakes, and the odd serious quality film which has somehow snuck past security.

Definitely falling into the latter category is David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, a brooding, thoughtful thriller which oozes a very particular kind of Americana. The director’s name didn’t ring a bell and I was rather surprised to learn he’s actually Scottish – he was responsible for the slightly bonkers apocalyptic romance Perfect Sense – but I suppose it only goes to show you never can tell.


The film is set in Texas in the present day. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, a pair of brothers who embark on a spree of bank robberies in order to finance a get-extremely-rich-moderately-quickly scheme. Pine is taciturn and thoughtful, worried about his estranged family – Foster is a not-too-bright headcase with a short fuse. Luckily Tanner has form in the bank robbery department and things initially go according to plan, more or less.

Then the law gets on their trail, in the form of Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Bridges is crusty and close to retirement, Birmingham is long-suffering. Bridges soon figures out there’s more than meets the eye to the brothers’ activities, but will he be able to get one step ahead of them and put a stop to their scheme?

The most obvious thing that Hell or High Water has going for it is a very strong set of lead performances. For quite a few years now it has been generally accepted that Jeff Bridges has become one of the best and most reliable character actors working today, and his performance here does nothing to cast doubt over that. Initially it looks a bit like a collection of quirks and tics, but as the story progresses Bridges manages to make it very clear that much of this is a front his character affects, masking a very sharp and dedicated cop. Ben Foster isn’t a particularly well-known actor, but he has done some big movies – he was one of the X-Men for about ten minutes, not to mention starring in The Mechanic and Warcraft. He comes across as a fairly serious actor, though, and this film suits his talents better. You would have thought the weak link might be Chris Pine – there were, last time I checked, billions of people in the world who are not William Shatner, but Pine is the only one for whom this is a professional impediment. He’s never made much of an impression on me in the past, but here he is very good – there’s a two-hander between him and Bridges in which he holds his own very comfortably.

The film is, as you may have gathered, something of a western-inflected heist movie, with perhaps a bit of a resemblance to No Country for Old Men. Nearly everyone wears cowboy hats, some people even ride horses; many of the characters routinely carry heavy-duty firearms. Texas seems lost in the past – or not quite up to date with the present day, certainly.

This seems to me to be more than just background colour, for it’s quite clear that there is more going on here than a simple crime story: the script obviously has things to say about the state of the American economic system. The Howards are targeting one particular banking corporation, simply because they feel it ruthlessly exploited their late mother, and their ultimate motivation is to provide security for Toby’s sons. Pine even gets a speech about how poverty is like an inherited disease, one that can destroy lives. The subtext is woven through the film consistently, and if I had a criticism of it, it would be that it almost becomes text – the various characters are always driving past vistas of industrial decay, prominently featuring billboards with slogans about Debt Relief and so on.

This probably makes the film sound slightly heavier and more worthy than is actually the case, for there is some humour along the way (most of it courtesy of Bridges’ character and his somewhat unreconstructed attitudes), and some extremely well-mounted action, too. Mackenzie stages a very tense bank-robbery-goes-wrong sequence, which concludes in (perhaps) unintentionally comic fashion as it turns out practically the entire town is packing heat and seeking to stop the robbers’ escape. But the film doesn’t shy away from the consequences of violence, either.

If there’s a sense in which the film’s deeper concerns gradually overwhelm its identity as a straightforward thriller – it opts for a ending steeped in ominous ambiguity rather than conventional closure – this doesn’t stop it from being a highly accomplished and intelligent script, brought to the screen with skill and energy. Well worth catching.

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It must be that time of year again, for there seems to be a conspiracy at work to make me feel stupid and/or lacking in true gravitas. It’s becoming very nearly an annual thing, as I say, and always just as awards season is kicking off in earnest: the great and the good announce their lists of contenders and nominees for the big prizes, I duly go along to check out some of the most lauded films, and emerge, bemused, a couple of hours later, honestly not entirely sure quite what the fuss is about.

This is, admittedly, a slightly negative note upon which to start a review, but then it seems somewhat in keeping with the general tone of Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is one of most thorough-goingly bleak and uncompromising films I’ve seen in a long while.


You want to hear about the story? Well, frankly, it strikes me as a rather secondary element of the film, but here we go: in 1823, a party of trappers in a remote North American wilderness find themselves under relentless attack by a war party of the local Ree Native American tribe. A handful of the men manage to escape the slaughter, due in no small part to the expertise of their guide and scout, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man well-versed in the ways of the locals (he even has a half-native son to prove it).

However, as the group struggles back to their base, disaster strikes when Glass is attacked and savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, leaving him close to death. The leader of the group, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), refuses to leave Glass to die alone, and eventually agrees to pay a few of the men to stay with him and do what’s necessary. Taking him up on this offer is the slightly unhinged Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy at his Tom Hardiest), who, with respect to the whole stay with Glass – wait till he dies – bury him plan, is quite prepared to skip the middle step…

But Fitzgerald has reckoned without Glass’ almost inhuman will to survive, and the guide crawls out of his grave and slowly begins to recuperate, intent on getting his revenge on Fitzgerald. But there are many miles of frozen wilderness, filled with hostile Ree, between Glass and his objective, and Fitzgerald is not a man to take lightly…

Well, it sounds like the stuff of a fairly traditional action-adventure story, with a lot of western trappings, and I suppose to some extent it is: there are lots of shootings, stabbings, and various fights during the film’s very considerable running time. But it never really feels like an actual action-adventure, and probably even less like a western. It’s just a bit too relentlessly bleak and horrible for that.

I was browsing around the blog last night, seeing what I’d written about other problematic Oscar nominees in the past, and I came across what I said about 12 Years a Slave. Many of the things I said then definitely rang a bell with what was going through my mind about The Revenant – ‘a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery’, ‘a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish’, and ‘almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value’.
Well, I should make it very clear that I don’t think The Revenant is a bad film; by any objective standard, this is a film made with enormous skill and thoughtfulness. There are very few moments of it which are not strikingly beautiful to look at, and – while not as tricksy as the single-take shenanigans of Birdman – Inarritu engages in some bravura camerawork at key moments in the story.

But at the same time I can’t help wondering if there is less going on here than meets the eye. On one level, this is a simple story about a man who simply refuses to die until he’s carried out his self-appointed mission, and what such a man is capable of (I wasn’t surprised to see that DiCaprio has said this is one of the toughest films he’s ever done, nor that he had five stunt doubles – I imagine the first four died mid-shoot). But on another level… well, that’s the thing, if there is another level I don’t really see what it is. It’s just buried a bit too deeply.

It doesn’t really help that much of the peripheral plot feels a bit murky, too – the fact that a lot of the dialogue, Tom Hardy’s in particular, is delivered in such a thick accent as to be utterly unintelligible, is probably responsible for some of this. But there are subplots whose connection to the main story seem either unarticulated or entirely arbitrary – a party of Ree wander through the film, searching for a kidnapped young woman. They play a key role in the resolution of the climax but I’ve no idea why things play out in the way they do, based on what I saw in the rest of the film.

Another relevant line from the 12 Years piece is ‘this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point’, and this time around it’s the treatment of native Americans that the film has something to say about. It is, as you would expect, a very revisionist western (to the extent it’s a western at all), and while the Ree may carry out atrocities against the European characters, it’s made very clear that they are ultimately victims rather than aggressors.

As I said, this is a serious film, and a well-made and good-looking one. I’m not completely sure if the performances are actually as good as all that, but I suppose the willingness of the performers to suffer for their art, not to mention their services to the growing of luxuriant beards, demand some sort of recognition. And I know the Academy likes serious films, and historical films (especially ones about American history). But 12 Oscar nominations? Really? That’s more than The Godfather, West Side Story, or Lawrence of Arabia, and The Revenant isn’t in the same league as any of them.

I think it’s probably just a case of momentum, that this film is the work of a bunch of people whom the Academy, on some subliminal level, is aware it really likes and feels like it should be nominating on a regular basis – Inarritu, obviously, following his success last year, and also DiCaprio – who’s almost become one of those people whose lack of an Oscar colours how they are perceived. Maybe even Tom Hardy has also joined this club, he’s certainly done good enough work in plenty of high-profile films recently.

The Academy is ultimately a political body with its own little quirks and fixations and I think it’s this that explains why The Revenant has done quite so well in terms of racking up the gong nominations this year. I will say again that it’s not a bad film, though neither will it suffuse you with joy and good humour: it is very heavy going. On the whole, much easier to admire than to actually like or enjoy.

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There are, as they say, two kinds of people in this world: those who can think of a witty and original gag for the opening line of a review of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the rest of us. But hey ho. The conclusion to Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (working title apparently River of Dollars, though I also like Garth Ennis’ quasi-suggestion of A Coffinful of Dollars) made its first appearance in 1966, when Clint Eastwood was just on the threshhold of proper major stardom, a state which he has managed to maintain without too much effort for the nearly fifty years since the film came out. There’s nothing like getting off to a good start, is there, and it is somewhat ironic that Eastwood himself was deeply reluctant to do yet another spaghetti western (and indeed refused to take part in further Leone projects like Once upon a Time in the West). Critics were initially fairly sniffy about the film, but its reputation as one of the greatest westerns ever made has grown down the years, which is no doubt why it is still receiving swanky restorations and revivals nearly five decades on.

gbuThe plot of Leone’s epic tale is somewhat convoluted, unfolds at a fairly languid pace, and is not entirely essential to the success of the venture. As the American civil war rages in the background, the film follows three drifters as they go about their business: Blondie (Eastwood), Angel-Eyes (Lee van Cleef), and Tuco (Eli Wallach). Blondie and Tuco initially have a deal where Blondie repeatedly turns Tuco in for the bounty on his head, gets the money, and then rescues him from the hangman so they can both do a runner, but this not entirely surprisingly turns sour and leaves Tuco questing for a brutal revenge. Angel-Eyes, meanwhile, has business of his own, trying to track down a huge treasure which has gone missing in the fog of war.

Their paths cross when Blondie and Tuco meet the only man who knows the location of the gold, shortly before he dies. Both of them end up knowing half of the treasure’s location, which makes them potentially very rich men, provided they can put their mutual antipathy on hold long enough to track it down. However, this also puts them squarely in Angel-Eyes’ sights, and he is even less noted for his sweet and reasonable nature than they are…

Time and its own influence have probably robbed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of much of its impact: Eastwood may have been ambivalent about his association with Leone, but it’s a connection which fundamentally informs his own work in the western genre. Seriously bright people such as Rich Hall scorn Leone’s westerns as empty jokes, and in a way it’s easy to see why: if you look at the classic American western, it is all about the classic values of the country. The west is a place for principled and heroic self-realisation, a place of freedom and potential. The west in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, on the other hand, is a desolate wasteland where the only certainty is violent death, and moral alignments are just labels on empty bottles.

This film works on some level as a very black comedy, and one of the main ironies is in the title. Blondie may be tagged on-screen as good, Angel-Eyes as bad, and Tuco as ugly, but realistically there is very little to choose between them: they all three share a high degree of moral flexibility and a staggeringly lethal level of skill at gunfighting, and they are all only really motivated by the desire for money. Everything else is really just a grace note in their characterisation – Blondie occasionally expresses a little compassion for the men caught up in the war, and Angel-Eyes seems to rather enjoy killing and torturing people, but there really isn’t much to choose between them. They are both detached, rather emblematic figures, in any case: compared to them, Tuco may come across as a sort of oafish, demented rodent, but he is still by far the most humanised of the trio. We learn much more of his background and character, mainly because he probably talks more than the other two put together. If he is ugly, it is because of his very humanity and frailty compared to the others.

This could be taken for evidence of the cynicism of Leone’s film, which seems to be dismissive of conventional morality – this is a story about three very greedy, very violent men, after all. The civil war is presented stripped of any moral context, any sense of it being a struggle between good and evil: it is just pointless, bloody chaos through which the leads move – they treat it more as an inconvenience than anything else. But it seems to me that this is not a wholly cynical film: there are repeated scenes where the camera tracks along great numbers of wounded men from the war, usually accompanied by some of the most soaring and emotive sections of Ennio Morricone’s famous score. The film may scorn morality, but it is not entirely without compassion: even Eastwood’s character comments on the pointless waste of life he observes in the war. In the end I would say the film is profoundly cynical rather than totally amoral.

Leone’s conception of the film is distinctive – especially by 1960s standards, when John Wayne was still making westerns – and it is matched by his realisation of it. There is a curious convention at work where anything not actually on the screen is totally invisible to any of the characters (Blondie and Tuco saunter along at one point, completely oblivious – it would seem – to the vast military encampment just to their left, until the camera pans onto it, anyway) and the rest of the film shares this non-naturalistic sensibility. Much of the time people are either tiny specks off in the distance, or enormous sweaty faces overfilling the entire screen, and Leone seems very comfortable just telling a story with images and music rather than dialogue. He is, of course, more than ably assisted by Ennio Morricone, whose legendary operatic score is central to the success of the movie. It’s true that at times the music sounds like full-scale war has broken out between Hank Marvin and a mariachi band, but this is still an incredible score – many people who’ve never even seen the movie will know the central theme within a few seconds of hearing the first note.

Pictures and music come together to extraordinary effect in the film’s set pieces, mainly towards the end of the story. The climactic three-way gunfight largely consists of extreme close-ups of people’s hands and eyes not really doing very much, while Morricone’s music goes berserk over the top of it, but even better – if you ask me – is a sequence a little earlier in which Tuco searches a graveyard for the treasure. As his excitement builds, so does the music, and as the music builds so the cutting of the picture and the movement of the camera both accelerate, to an almost frenzied level. Conventional storytelling it isn’t, but it is still hugely impressive film-making.

You could probably have a go at The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for its violence, its cynicism, and its near-total lack of female characters, but I think this is all to some extent a matter of taste. For me, it isn’t really a contender for the title of best film ever made, or even the best western, but it is still the product of a singular and coherent vision, as well as more than satisfying the requirements of its genre. While you’re watching it, you’re always aware you’re watching a piece of art, but you’re also being thoroughly entertained – and that’s what I call a good time.


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Topping up my rental list a while back, I decided to add the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men – not because I’m a particular fan of the Coens, though I’ve never found one of their movies less than diverting, but because this one seemed to have a bit of a reputation about it. (Due to my international jetsetting lifestyle, I missed it on its initial release and indeed for quite a long time kept getting it mixed up with There Will Be Blood, which came out at about the same time.) It also appears to be the film that launched Javier Bardem’s career in Anglophone cinema – and with my ticket for Skyfall already bought, he’s an actor currently on my radar.

The thing with the Coens is that you never know quite what you’re going to get – they’ve done comedies, thrillers, and westerns of all stripes and tones, although a certain offness of beat is usually to be expected. This movie, however, is written and played rather straighter than most of their output, presumably due to its greater fidelity to Cormac McCarthy’s source novel (when asked about the process of adaptation, the Coens revealed that one of them held the book open while the other typed the contents into the script).

Josh Brolin plays Llewellyn Moss, a laconic retired welder living in the southern USA in 1980. By chance he stumbles upon the aftermath of an unsuccessful drug deal: one of the distinguishing features of the drug business is that failed deals tend to involve more spent ammunition and corpses than other areas of industry. Moss discovers a bag with $2 million in it and, perhaps understandably, decides he would quite like to keep it.

However, the owner of the money would also quite like it back and to this end dispatches laconic psychopathic weirdo Anton Chigurh (Bardem, in a deeply unflattering hairstyle somewhat reminiscent of Sonny Bono) to get it back. Chigurh’s chosen implements include a pneumatic bolt-gun and a shotgun with a silencer on it (no, I didn’t know you could do that either); as someone observes, he is not well blessed with a sense of humour, and the sort of hitch-hiker who gives the pursuit a bad name.

Aware of what’s going on is mild-mannered and laconic sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – but Moss is intent on handling matters himself, placing himself in severe peril as Chigurh, another laconic bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) and some peeved Mexican drug-dealers close in on him…

On one level this is unrepentantly a genre movie, though it’s a little unclear quite what the genre in question is. The Coens cheerfully mash together tropes of both the classic western and the contemporary crime thriller, and the results are virtually seamless. The result is a tough, one might almost say macho movie, bloodily violent in places, and mostly populated by hard, laconic men, used to lives of violence. (That said, Kelly Macdonald is rather good – and, to my eyes, almost unrecognisable – as Moss’ wife.) This is a great-looking film with its own rather spartan style: there are long stretches with virtually no dialogue, and the only music in it is diegetic (hey, look at it this way: I’ve given you the opportunity to either feel a sense of smug kinship or learn a new word).

For the majority of its running time this is a taut, engrossing movie, well-directed, with very strong performances from everyone involved. And then… well, I would hate to spoil the ending, even though I found it more baffling than satisfying. There’s – well, it’s not quite a plot twist, but it’s an event that would cause most writing coaches to faint with horror if you were to suggest it. And following this, the remainder of the film becomes much less obviously a thriller or a western, but more a thoughtful and rather oblique meditation on… I’m really not sure. Fate. Responsibility. The nature of justice. The thriller plotline seems to get forgotten about, and so, for that matter, does a conventional ending.

I have to say I was disappointed by the way this film wrapped up, largely because I’d been so impressed with it in its earlier stages: the shift in tone and focus is just a bit too sudden and jarring. I suppose by making what looks like a genre movie you’re putting yourself in thrall to genre conventions, and having done so it’s very difficult to extricate yourself with a great deal of elegance, or indeed in a satisfying way.

Then again, it may be that it’s this very peculiar denouement which is responsible for the tremendous critical acclaim No Country For Old Men received: certainly it’s one of the most garlanded movies of recent years. Certainly, it’s beautifully written, filmed, directed and performed – Bardem is brilliant as a genuinely creepy psycho, and I don’t recall Harrelson ever being better, either – and if I was watching it for the first time on TV and the set blew up around the 90 minute mark I would be incensed, certain I was missing the end of a classic movie. As it is, I don’t know; maybe I will have to watch it again and try to assimilate that final half hour or so properly. I hesitate to call this movie deeply flawed, because that ending is obviously intended to mean something: I just have no idea what it is.

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Let us take a moment, prior to turning our attention to A Town Called Mercy, and consider the succession. Not in terms of who it may be that finds himself filling the shoes of young Master Smith when he opts to move on, but who will be running the show after he goes. You may think this is presumptuous and untimely, but I remember it was as early as the summer of 2007 that people were asking the Moff if he would take the reins (this was ‘asking if he would’ in the sense of ‘demanding that he’).

Moffat was unquestionably the show’s big gun throughout the Rusty years, the writer whose work was anticipated more keenly than any other. He was always the logical candidate to succeed Davies as showrunner, given his experience, popularity and ability. Thinking about the show these days, one has to ask who occupies a similarly prestigious position amongst the regular writing team? Neil Gaiman is beloved and critically acclaimed, but he’s not going to commit himself to running a TV show in Wales. Gareth Roberts and Mark Gatiss have experience of TV production, but Roberts lacks the profile and Gatiss, much as I love his work elsewhere – and in Doctor Who of other media – has only written one inarguably great episode, and that was in 2005. Chris Chibnall similarly seems to me to be really just a journeyman contributor.

I suppose there exists the remote possibility of the BBC bringing in an external candidate for this extremely plum job, but my money’s on them promoting from within, and it seems to me that the pre-eminent figure is none other than Toby Whithouse. Think about it: this man created and was showrunner for Being Human, a consistently popular BBC fantasy series, in addition to contributing four scripts to Doctor Who itself. Now, I don’t care much for Vampires of Venice: to me it feels a bit like a Tennant script that they found down the back of the filing cabinet and hastily rewrote for Smith. But The God Complex was one of the best two or three episodes of last season, School Reunion ultimately gave us SJA – in addition to being a very accomplished outing in its own right, and A Town Called Mercy

Yes, we’ve finally arrived at the topical part. A Town Called Mercy is certainly my favourite episode of the year so far, but this is bearing in mind that a) Asylum of the Daleks DID NOT MAKE SENSE and b) Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was much more about wacky ideas and visuals than any kind of coherent plot. Compared to these two, Mercy looks like an episode of I, Claudius or The Singing Detective: there is a proper plot, and serious characterisation. Oh, the relief.

‘I’d speak up but I’m feeling a little horse’, etc.

That said, while it may not look like an episode of Star Trek, it could be rewritten as one without a great deal of difficulty – I say this possibly because I seem to recall a number of Trek episodes with a similar thrust, but also because this story put the core moral dilemma so absolutely front and centre in its storytelling. Knowing as much as I do about the way the modern show is put together, I suspect the brief given to the writer likely focussed on the words ‘western’ and ‘cyborg gunslinger’ much more than ‘moral dilemma’ – although I believe the Doctor’s little off-the-deep-end moment was also a feature. This was interesting, and the kind of thing I was actually expecting to see last season when Moffat was promising us the sight of an angry Doctor.

But then again there was never much doubt as to how the story was going to play out, broadly speaking: I wonder if it isn’t better for the show not to base episodes around this kind of moral dilemma, given they’re always going to resolve in basically predictable ways. You just know the Doctor isn’t going to actually execute someone, in the same way it soon became clear that Jex had a moment of redemptive self-sacrifice waiting somewhere down the line for him.

This was an issue I had with The God Complex as well – both scripts were strong, with interesting set-ups and solid characters, but they both seemed to me to be a little lacking in surprise and joy: there was none of the peripheral craziness and sense of excitement about the sheer possibilities of the format that I so relish in really good Doctor Who. Whithouse writes good individual jokes, but his recent scripts have all been rather solemn, if not sombre. (I’m attempting to put into words something subtle and tonal I’m not completely sure about myself, so it’s very likely I‘ve stopped making sense.)

In any case, a bit of solemnity and seriousness is exactly what this series has been needing: Whithouse also, possibly notably, completely ignores the current meta-narrative clutter surrounding the series (the Doctor is supposedly dead – how is this supposed to work, given he’s a time traveller? – and his companions don’t technically accompany him any more). It’d probably be overstating things to say that A Town Called Mercy shows that you don’t need any of this stuff in a good episode, but the fact remains that this was what this was. Whether the series has got its act together now, or if this was just a brief high point, remains to be seen.

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When a cluster of films with a similar theme all come out at the same time, is it always the best one that makes the most money? Is it the best one that’s best remembered? Here, I suppose, we’re into the problem of defining words like ‘cluster’ and ‘best’ and, perhaps, even ‘similar’. I thought that there were startling parallels between District 9 and Avatar, but no-one else seemed to pick up on them. In that case I would very definitely argue that the better film made less money and less of an impact. Earlier in his career, though, James Cameron was part of a wave of low-budget SF movies set in California with a vaguely punk-ish sensibility and a fascination with time travel, the end of the world, and automatic weaponry – and here surely the best film won on all counts, simply because you’re much more likely to have heard of The Terminator than Trancers, Cherry 2000 or Night of the Comet.

This is threatening to turn into Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but a few years after Terminator, Cameron’s one-time wife Kathryn Bigelow contributed to another notable wave of films – vampire horror movies, usually with teenaged or youthful protagonists. I’m not sure that The Hunger quite counts as kicking this off, but anyway: Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Vamp, and Once Bitten all came out in the space of couple of years. And so, in 1987, did Bigelow’s Near Dark. This is a film which hasn’t enjoyed quite the same profile as some of its peers, but it seems to me to have been much more influential.

Adrian Pasdar does a good job of channelling the spirit of a young Elvis as he plays Caleb, a young Oklahoman farm boy. Caleb is a typical, red-blooded guy and of an evening likes nothing better than to head into town in search of attractive feminine company. Unfortunately this very red-bloodedness draws the attention of Mae (Jenny Wright), who is… oh, well, there’s no point being coy about this: she’s a vampire. However, Caleb forms a connection with Mae that makes her reluctant to rip him open and guzzle his blood, and she leaves him with just a playful little bite on the throat. This is enough to leave Caleb with serious problems when it comes to walking home the following morning. Just prior to his actually bursting into flames, he is abducted by the rest of Mae’s ‘family’, who lack her wholesome good looks and sweet nature. Their initial reaction is to try to kill Caleb, until they realise he is one of them. At this point they are prepared to let him join the family – but in order to truly belong, he has to learn to kill…

There are various problems with the story of Near Dark: there are holes in the plot (does Mae not realise biting Caleb will turn him?), which is reliant on at least one massive coincidence, and various elements are simply unsatisfactory – the ‘cure’ for vampirism that’s concocted near the end is a bit mundane and unconvincing, while the fact that the female lead is responsible for numerous savage murders over a period of years (for which she never shows much remorse nor receives any kind of punishment) is never really addressed head-on. And this last does matter, because Near Dark is framed partly as a mythic clash of good and evil – or, perhaps, innocence and sin. On the other hand, it’s because the movie does this so well that one’s prepared to overlook the problems with the plot.

For a film which is famously a western-horror fusion, there’s a strangely fairytale-ish quality to a lot of Near Dark – the characters are archetypes, the settings classic. The film looks beautiful, thanks to Bigelow’s compositions and Adam Greenberg’s cinematography. I’m not sure whether the striking synth score by Tangerine Dream really suits the subject matter of the film, but it’s one of the most memorable elements. The film looks and sounds impressively distinctive – which is probably quite important, given that it is mainly about putting new interpretations on very well-known ideas and themes.

From the opening dustbowl scenes onwards, the film’s setting in a decaying south-western USA can’t help but recall The Grapes of Wrath, and it’s not that difficult to see the itinerant vampire family as the monstrous equivalent of the Joad family from that book – both are migrants, both bound together by powerful ties of blood and loyalty. Both are, to some extent, aliens in the modern world. But perhaps one shouldn’t go too far down this path, as while the Joads are painfully sympathetic creations, Near Dark‘s vampires are not. They are, in fact, properly scary like few other screen undead. Given Bigelow’s connections with James Cameron (who is in the movie), it’s not much of a surprise that several members of the Cameron Repertory Company turn up to play the monsters. Lance Henriksen plays the head of the family, Bill Paxton is his berserk rockabilly sidekick, and Jenette Goldstein is the closest thing the pack has to a maternal figure. All of them made an impression in Aliens as members of the marine platoon – but all of them are even more memorable here. (There’s a story that the three of them pitched Bigelow a prequel to this movie focussing on their characters – sadly, she passed.)

What lifts Near Dark above the level of films like Fright Night and The Lost Boys is the way in which it jettisons most of the chintzy trappings of older vampire stories in favour of its own, stripped-down mythology. There are no coffins, no crucifixes, no stakes or garlic – and indeed the word ‘vampire’ is never used at any point in the film. Instead the movie finds a way to incorporate the creatures into a dusty, fading western landscape where they don’t feel remotely incongruous. And perhaps the reason why Near Dark‘s vampires are genuinely frightening when so many others feel like joke-shop monsters arises from this. In many other films, vampires are just vampires, and supposedly frightening solely for this reason. The classic archetype of the aristocratic foreign vampire, which is so often the default setting for this kind of character, only became so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness because this figure at one time symbolised a set of genuine fears and concerns for the audience of vampire stories. It’s putting a fantastical costume on a real source of unease. Nowadays, we have different worries, and just trotting out the archetype unthinkingly only presents us with an empty costume to be scared of.

Near Dark works so well as a vampire movie in that it does find a way to use the myth of the vampire to comment on a genuine contemporary source of fear – that of rootless, criminal migrants, potentially committing terrible crimes and then vanishing in the night. It’s important to say that this needn’t be a valid or logical fear – and indeed, if this reading of the film is correct, it must be said that Near Dark‘s view of drifters is surely about as rational as the Daily Mail‘s view of immigrants – but the fear itself has to be genuine for the film to work. And it does.

Even so, the vampire lifestyle almost begins to look alluring at one point in the film – but then the plot takes an unexpected turn and we’re in for a final act which is probably the weakest part of the film. There are various odd and unlikely developments in the cause of a vaguely unconvincing happy ending. The rest of the film is intelligent and well-made enough to more than compensate, and there are some brilliant set-pieces – the family’s visit to a bar, resulting in the gory slaughter of nearly everyone within, and a shootout with the local cops where the real danger is not the bullets but the sunlight the bulletholes allow into the hiding place. This last bit was shamelessly nicked by From Dusk Till Dawn (a movie which got everything nearly wrong which Near Dark gets right), but this film has surely been hugely influential despite its lack of commercial success. Needless to say, a remake is apparently in the works – but I was more surprised to hear of an attempted remake from 2008, which was never completed. Notably strange things about this were the reappearance of key cast members in different roles (Paxton in Henriksen’s part, Goldstein in Wright’s – how the hell was that going to work?) and the fact that it was abandoned on the grounds that it was ‘too similar to Twilight‘. I can’t imagine any version of Near Dark being remotely similar to Twilight, to be honest, but there you go. For the time being the original movie stands, reputation unblemished by dodgy sequels or unnecessary remakes: the best fusion of classic Americana and supernatural horror I can think of.

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It has become axiomatic that SF movies purporting to depict the future usually end up saying more about the time in which they were made – the fears and preoccupations that were prevalent at the time. To be honest, many of these don’t seem to have changed much down the decade: every generation seems worried about machinery going out of control, the threat of disaster and invasion, the dehumanising effect of technology – but every now and then you do come across something a bit more left-field. Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld is fuelled by a healthy dollop of techno-fear, but something which really marks it out as the product of its time is the presumption that, even in the future, the myth of the old west would still loom large in the American popular psyche.

Nearly forty years on, and the release of a major western is a newsworthy event – they’re just not made any more, at least not in anything like the quantities they once were. Westerns have been largely supplanted, ironically enough, by SF and fantasy. If you were to make a movie about popular fantasies these days, it would probably have to be called something like Tolkienworld, Zombieworld, or (even more ironically) Futureworld.

This does not stop Westworld being a classic movie, however. Set in the near future, the main characters are square-jawed alpha-male John Blane (James Brolin, looking uncannily like Christian Bale from some angles) and his rather less self-assured friend Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin). To help Martin get over a traumatic divorce, Blane is taking him to Delos, the world’s most advanced theme park. The three zones of the park recreate different historical periods in exacting detail, where the guests can live out their every fantasy.

Blane and Martin are visiting Westworld, the old west zone. Here there are robot horses to ride, robot townsfolk to interact with, robot prostitutes to – ah, you get the gist – and robot bad guys to gun down. Rather wonderfully, chief amongst these is a robot modelled after Yul Brynner’s character from The Magnificent Seven, who is therefore played (brilliantly) by Brynner himself, surely one of the most deft and inspired post-modern touches in mainstream cinema. However, while the two men enjoy their holiday, concerns are mounting behind the scenes at the park. For no apparent reason, the massively complex systems are slowly going out of the control of the technicians, and it’s only a matter of time before the fantasies the guests have paid for are being played out in deadly earnest…

Westworld is really a film in two parts. The first hour or so sets up the scenario and lays the foundations for the climax, and to be honest in the past I always found this section to be a little slow and lacking in focus. That said, watching it again, I can appreciate what a good job it does in establishing the characters of the two leads, and how many genuinely eerie moments it contains (for instance, Martin is disporting himself with a robotic prostitute, and – without him noticing – her eyes snap open to reveal a dead, metallic stare, even in the throes of simulated passion). It also says some interesting things, for those prepared to look for them – about how new technology is almost always initially employed to satisfy the most basic human desires (just cruise around the internet for a while and you’ll see what I mean), and about the unpleasant side of human nature generally: everyone at Delos is there to have their ‘dream holiday’, which for most of them seems to involve acts of violence, murder, and no-strings sex, all perpetrated upon the helpless park robots.

The techies at Delos can’t figure out why the breakdown rate at the park is inexorably increasing, but the film implies that the machines have acquired some form of unintended sentience and are gradually rebelling against their lot. This is slightly different from the usual ‘evil machines go on the offensive’ plot familiar from films like The Forbin Project or Demon Seed: it’s still a cautionary tale, but here the warning is not that technology itself is wrong, but the way in which we sometimes take it for granted. (It’s interesting to compare Westworld with its close relation Jurassic Park – another, rather similar Crichton story – in which the anti-technological message seems a bit more simplistic to me.)  Given the way most of the guests behave, one is almost inclined to start cheering the much-abused robots on as things go out of control in earnest in the final section of the film.

However, Richard Benjamin does such a good job of making Martin a likable, three-dimensional human being that you keep rooting for him to the end. There’s a moment when it suddenly dawns on him that the park has become ‘real’ and Brynner’s Gunslinger not only wants to kill him but is fully capable of doing it, and he carries it off without saying a word, just using his face and eyes.

From this point we’re into the climax of the film, which is a very different kind of animal, as Martin is relentlessly pursued by the Gunslinger around the park. This part was clearly a massive influence on the making of the original Terminator, but in some ways surpasses that film, partly due to its sheer simplicity, but also due to the quality of Yul Brynner’s performance. Brynner’s hardly in the film for the first hour or so, but he’s the making of the rest of it. Playing a killer robot double of yourself is not, you would have thought, the most engaging or demanding role, but Brynner appears to have completely invested himself in the part. SF cinema of the 70s and 80s is stuffed with people playing androids, robots, and other synthetic people, but few of them come anywhere close to Brynner in Westworld. Somehow he manages to drain all the humanity out of his performance, giving every movement and word a dulled, automatic quality. As a simple act of mime it’s remarkable: there’s a sequence near the end in which, accompanied by an unforgettably harsh and repetitive music cue, the camera follows Brynner as he stalks after Benjamin’s character – and it is like looking at a machine, Brynner’s movements are so mechanically precise and unvarying themselves.

And yet, even after all this, Brynner is still able to invest the Gunslinger with pathos as it tries to complete its objective even after being damaged. It’s a bit unexpected when this happens, given what has come before, but again Brynner is able to sell it. The film walks a fine line between keeping the audience sympathetic to Martin, and making them think the humans are getting what they deserve, but does so with notable success.

Westworld impresses me much more now than it did when I first saw it as a teenager. Back then I was rather dismissive of everything but the final chase, but looking at it again now I can see that this is a film with as many ideas and as much to say for itself as many other more intellectually celebrated SF movies. Good direction and terrific lead performances don’t hurt either. As usual with well-remembered old movies, we are threatened with a remake: but, again as usual, I really can’t see there being any point. This is a classic in the true sense of the word.

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…which is to say that the Wild one meets its Final cousin in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens – a self-consciously silly title which the film, for some reason, does its best to belie.  Nevertheless, this is what it sounds like: a mash-up of the venerable old Western genre with its upstart (and some would say illegitimate) offspring, the sci-fi action movie. (More on this later.)

Clearly working hard to establish the right tone of quintessentially American ruggedness, Favreau has cast a British actor best known for playing someone posh in the lead role. Daniel Craig plays a tough, rootin’-tootin’ kinda guy who wakes up in the desert, bereft of his memory but possessing a jazzy wristband, a photo of a woman and a funny-looking wound. Making his way to the nearest town he learns he is in fact feared outlaw Lonergan.

Lonergan is on the hit list of ruthless cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who pretty much owns the town, and whose son is a public nuisance there. The sheriff slings Lonergan in the town jail, ready to be shipped off to the federal marshal with Dolarhyde’s son.

A showdown threatens when Dolarhyde and his men ride in, demanding both prisoners be handed over to them, but things are disrupted by the arrival of – and it’s not quite as abrupt and bizarre as it sounds on paper – alien ships, also intent on making a nuisance of themselves. The mash-up threatens to become a literal one as the aliens start behaving like cowboys and the cowboys start acting like aliens. The aliens start physically lassoing the townsfolk and dragging them off while Lonergan discovers a death ray about his person and rapidly learns how to use it.

When the dust settles the aliens have been driven off, but not without having taking numerous local worthies with them. Quite properly, Dolarhyde decides to raise a posse and go in pursuit (his son being amongst the abductees), recruiting Lonergan to his cause, along with the local preacher (Clancy Brown), the barkeep (Sam Rockwell), and various others – including one of those tediously enigmatic young women (on this occasion, Olivia Wilde) who you just know will be reporting for exposition duty somewhere in the second act.

Well, to some extent this is a combination of excerpts from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches with a selection from its little-read Western counterpart, but as genre fusions go it’s a curiously unsuccessful affair. This seems odd, as there is a long and fairly distinguished history of splicing Western DNA into SF stories: Westworld itself, the Tatooine section of the first Star Wars, Outland, Battle Beyond the Stars, and more recently Firefly have all partaken of Western themes and imagery (let’s not mention Wild Wild West). Having said that, none of these films have what you’d honestly describe as an American west setting, which to me suggests that what true Westerns are really about is nothing to do with deserts and six-shooters and hats, but personal freedom and morality, and the clash of different values.

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t about anything like that, really. It works hard to establish an authentically nasty and grimy Western atmosphere – the films it reminded me of most were Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both great movies even if the latter isn’t a very typical Western – but the characters are all very thin and anonymous, the cast resembling people on a Wild West dress-up holiday. The only person who effortlessly convinces is Harrison Ford, who’s an impressively nasty piece of work to begin with, that familiar old growly whisper modulated into a vicious rasp. But as soon as the aliens show up he turns into a bit of a cut-out and really doesn’t get the material that such an icon really deserves.

For this kind of film to work, both the donor genres really need to have a strong identity of their own. You would think this wouldn’t be a problem with the case of the Western and the SF film, but as I’ve already mentioned the Cowboy element is wholly superficial, and the Alien element… well, it’s not really a proper SF movie, but an effects-driven summer blockbuster, a style of film which is fundamentally superficial anyway.

(The Aliens here, by the way, are an anonymous bunch, their glistening appendages and deceptively-weathered technology marking them out as close cousins of the ones in Independence Day and Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. Why have they come to Earth and started behaving so badly? I will refrain from giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that when the expositing eventually occurs, Ford’s character responds by snarling ‘That’s just ridiculous!’ and I was with him all the way.)

So what we end up with is a fairly empty-headed FX blockbuster with some strange tonal and pacing problems: the film-makers seem desperately keen to show this is a Proper Western on some level, resulting in long sequences where everyone’s a bit dour and homespun and not much happens, involving aliens or not. It’s not visually very surprising, nor is the plot particularly involving. It’s all a bit dull, if I’m honest, without much humour or indeed a sense of fun about itself. Occasionally there’s a briefly arresting moment (the one inevitably springing to mind is when Olivia Wilde walks naked out of a bonfire, but that may just be me) but on the whole there’s nothing here you won’t have seen before.

And I suppose on some level you could argue that all this really is, is an attempt to mash a genre up with itself: many people having argued that – in cinematic terms – the rise of the sci-fi blockbuster in the late seventies coincided rather neatly with the demise of the western as a going concern, with the resulting conclusion being that one simply transformed into the other. I’m not completely sold on that, to be perfectly honest, but beyond it simply being a coincidence I’m not quite sure how to explain it.

Anyway. Cowboys & Aliens probably sounded like a great idea for a movie, and there may indeed be a good film to made around the theme of extraterrestrials in the old west. But this isn’t it: the story and characters are too thin for it to engage as a drama, and it just isn’t fun enough to work solely as a blockbuster (needless to say, Favreau’s Iron Man did both). Given the talent involved this is really a disappointment, and one of the weaker movies of the summer.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 25th 2004:

[Originally following a review of Touching the Void.]

From one film with a cold mountain in it, to another which is a bit like Cold Mountain. You can tell a lot about a film from the audience it attracts – Touching The Void had a lot of rough-hewn, imposing types in waxy jackets in the theatre, clearly people more used to abseiling down the Cairngorms than checking out Affleck’s latest. And the audience for Kevin Costner’s Open Range had a lot of older people in it, people who I suspect only normally go to the multiplex on senior citizen’s afternoon (free tea and biscuits).

The only reason I can think for Open Range‘s appeal to the elder generation is simply that it’s a Western – The Genre That Refuses To Die. It’s a fairly old-fashioned Western, too, a bit of a throwback to the genre’s pre-Kurosawa-and-Leone heyday, when the films were about more than just cynicism and death.

This is the story of Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charlie (Costner himself), two itinerant cowboys who wander those rolling prairies driving their livestock wherever they choose, assisted by a couple of sidekicks who you just know are in for a rough time. And so it proves, as a chance sortie into the nearest town lands one of the sidekicks in jail and draws our heroes to the attention of evil Oirish cattle-baron Baxter (Michael Gambon, who’s actually not in the film very much at all). It’s soon obvious that Baxter wants to put Boss and Charlie permanently out of business – but being the kind of men they are, he’s going to have a fight on his hands…

This is a very Kevin Costner kind of film in all sorts of ways. For one thing, the Western is a genre he’s returned to over and over again thoughout his career, and for another – well, put it this way, I’m prepared to bet that no-one’s ever come out of a Costner-directed movie and said ‘You know, that was pretty good, but it was too short’. Open Range has an extremely thin story to sustain a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie, especially considering there’s very little action, but Costner pulls it off rather impressively.

This he manages to do by concentrating on character and mood, with rather enjoyable results. Admittedly the only beneficiaries of this are Boss, Charlie, and Sue (Annette Bening), a townswoman they befriend – Gambon and his lackeys remain cardboard cutouts – but the two men at least are in every scene, making it a worthwhile concentration. The film treats them rather equivocally – they’re not above pistol-whipping, back-shooting and glassing anyone who gets in their way, but on the other hand when their dog gets shot they are both nearly reduced to tears (an unintended moment of bathos). To be honest, they’re both examples of the kind of idealised rugged individualist that NRA members across the midwest have posters of pinned to their fallout-shelter walls, and as such should be at least alarming and at worst openly offensive to anyone else. But Duvall and Costner are both quietly charismatic performers and raise the characters well beyond the level of stereotype.

It’s clear that Costner laments the loss of the Western as a mainstay of Hollywood cinema, and Open Range does its best to remind the audience of what it’s missing – the broad canvas, the elegantly simple morality, the iconography and the imagery. The film looks beautiful, but unfortunately it’s such an archetypal story that it comes across as rather old-fashioned. There’s a Josey Wales-ish subplot about Charlie trying to come to terms with his past as a killer, and the bizarre accent of one of the cattlehands may be a stab at historical realism (either that or a homage to Horst Bucholz’s German-accented Mexican in The Magnificent Seven) but apart from that this could have been made in 1954. The action is quite well staged and not nastily graphic, but like everything else it does drag on a little bit longer than it needs to.

In the end how much you’ll like Open Range probably depends on how much you like old-school pre-Eastwood Westerns. It’s a film about manhood, and friendship, and sticking to your principles and doing the right thing by those around you. It should be incredibly hokey and embarrassing, and it is a bit, but performances, direction, and cinematography combine to make it very satisfyingly reminiscent of the cinema of a less cynical age. I liked it a lot.

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As regular visitors may have begun to inkle, I have been rambling on about films on t’internet now for nearly ten years. Ten years! And of course, in this time I have cast my eye upon a wide range of films, good, bad, and ugly, right across the mainstream and beyond. If nothing else, as a result, I feel qualified to say that never has a genre fallen out of favour so completely and surprisingly as the western.

Other staples of the previous decade that seemed to have gone terminally out of fashion, such as the musical and the historical epic, have enjoyed something of a revival in the last decade, but the western’s thunder and essence appears to have gone for good, its mythic status and moral certainties absorbed by other types of film. This is not to say that people have actually stopped making westerns, or pseudo-westerns, entirely: they haven’t. (I could name a string of movies from the last twenty years that comfortably fit the description, but that would be showing off.) But when someone makes what looks like a classic western and possesses genuine quality, it’s always treated as some kind of throwback to a bygone era.

Latest to get this attention (and the critical acclaim which often follows) is Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit, based on Charles Portis’s novel and the 1969 adaptation which starred John Wayne. (The Coen version is the only one I am familiar with, alas.) Set in the late 1870s, this is the story of Matty Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl whose father is murdered by an intinerant ne’er-do-well (Josh Brolin). With the authorities apparently indifferent, she retains the somewhat-eccentric US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her bring her father’s killer to justice. Also on his trail is the self-regarding Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) and together the trio set off into the lawless Indian Nation in pursuit of their quarry.

The first thing I have to say about True Grit is that it does seem like an oddity, a film which exists in a niche of its own rather than as part of any great tradition. The setting and the plot contain many staples of the genre – wide open spaces, sudden bursts of violence, themes of justice, revenge, and the loss of innocence – but at no time does it seem to be trying to say anything about what it means to be American today. It’s absolutely a period piece, set in and concerned with a particular time in the past. This is driven home by the rather florid dialogue given to everyone involved – fine old words like nincompoop and braggadocio get wheeled out for their first high-profile appearances in years.

Having said that, this is still a very good film – although not, I would say, in quite the same league as some of the others it’s in competition with for the season’s major gongs. It looks superb, and the contrast between the civilised regions where the film opens and closes, and the wilderness where the meat of it is set, is firmly drawn. The script is similarly solid, and manages to incorporate some subtle pieces of Coen weirdness without dragging the entire film off-course.

But on the whole I think I will remember it best for the performances of the three leads (Brolin has very little screen-time). As one would expect, Jeff Bridges is immaculate, and doesn’t appear to be channelling Wayne too much. Reports of his performance being unintelligible have been somewhat exaggerated, too. Damon is very decent as well, in a slightly less showy (and certainly secondary) role. But the main plaudits must go to Hailee Steinfeld, who gives an astonishingly self-possessed and mature performance, basically as the main character of the movie.

Film historians of the future will, I predict, be baffled as to why Steinfeld’s only been nominated as Best Supporting Actress by AMPAS, when she effectively carries the film. A somewhat craven decision based on which category she’s most likely to win, I suspect. Well, the main gong no doubt has Natalie Portman’s name on it, I suppose, but it’s still doing Steinfeld an enormous disservice to suggest this isn’t her movie: it is. Hollywood will be beating a path to her door now, and – like all great discoveries of recent years – you can expect her to pop up in a brain-deficient action movie requiring her to use ten percent of her talent very soon.

I’m not entirely sure that fans of old-style westerns will find True Grit completely satisfying as an example of the genre – it’s a little too measured and restrained for that, lacking the sheer emotional charge that the best westerns can generate – whether that emotion is exhilaration, foreboding, or one of many others. But on its own terms, and as a piece of historical drama, it’s virtually flawless.

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