Category Archives: Western

Circle Q raunch: A Million Ways to Die in the West **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  7, 2014)

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Wild and woolly:  Seth MacFarlane in A Million Ways to Die in the West

In his new comedy, director-writer-producer-star Seth MacFarlane seems bound and determined to prove that not only are there (as its title suggests), A Million Ways to Die in the West, but that there are also at least a million ways to tell a dick joke. Not that there isn’t an appropriate time and a place to tell dick jokes; speaking as someone who used to get paid to tell dick jokes to hostile drunks, I won’t cast the first stone. And as a believer in the credo that “nothing is sacred” in comedy, I’d be the first to defend MacFarlane’s right to sacrifice good taste for the sake of a quick yuk. That being said, you should be forewarned: This is a film with something to offend everybody.

Setting his story in 1882 Arizona, MacFarlane casts himself as a neurotic sheep farmer named Albert, who is having relationship problems. After suffering the public humiliation of watching her man worm his way out of a gunfight with a rival rancher, Albert’s beloved Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has no choice but to break up with him (after all, “this is the American West in 1882”, as Albert reminds the audience throughout the film). So while Louise sets off to “work on herself”, Albert shares his romantic woes with his sympathetic friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a dim-witted cobbler, and his fiancée Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a hooker who is “saving herself” for marriage (“After all, we’re devout Christians,” Ruth tells her frustrated beau).

It wouldn’t be a self-respecting Western parody if a Bad Guy Wearing Black didn’t show up right about now. Enter evil sidewinder Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) and his gang. We know he’s a bad hombre, because he shoots a doddering prospector on “2”, after announcing that the draw will be on the count of “3” for dibs on the poor old feller’s gold (which he was going to steal anyway). Leatherwood’s beautiful wife Anna (Charlize Theron), while also a member of the gang, hints to be of a more compassionate nature, first showing obvious disgust at what has just happened and then rescuing the prospector’s dog before her trigger-happy husband plugs it too. Yes, Theron is an Outlaw with a Heart of Gold, expressly cast to become Albert’s new love interest (MacFarlane may stoop to any level of adolescent silliness to get laughs…but he’s not stupid).

While the film is far from a genre classic (especially when compared to its obvious touchstone, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles) MacFarlane’s strategy of “let’s keep throwing gags against the wall and see how many  stick” hits the mark just enough times to keep it entertaining  (you’ll laugh, but you’ll hate yourself in the morning). Like the aforementioned Brooks film, MacFarlane assigns his characters anachronistic dialog and attitudes to imbibe it with detached irony.

This is how he “gets away” with some of the more P.C.-challenged gags, like a shooting gallery game called “Runaway Slave” (“Oh, that doesn’t seem right,” Albert says with a grimace…before taking aim). Or Anna’s tale of being forced into marriage with her husband at age 9 (“It’s OK. I didn’t want to be one of those 15 year-old spinsters.”). MacFarlane isn’t below pilfering from Harold and Kumar’s playbook, with a hilarious peyote trip sequence. He even borrows that franchise’s secret weapon, Neil Patrick Harris (stealing every scene as Albert’s romantic rival). As far as Western parodies go? I’ve seen worse. And there’s something inherently funny about sheep. Baa.

Blu-ray reissue: Red River ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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Red River– Criterion Collection Blu-ray (box set)

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift couldn’t have been more disparate in their respective approaches to acting, but it is precisely this “oil and water” dynamic that makes the relationship between their characters so compelling in Howard Hawks’ classic western.

Wayne is perfect as a hard ass cattle rancher at loggerheads with his adopted son (Clift), who he feels is too “soft” and high-minded to be worthy of his legacy. It all comes to a head during a grueling, “make it or break it” cattle drive from Texas to Missouri, which turns into a sort of epic, land-locked version of Mutiny on the Bounty.

Outstanding direction, a smart script (by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee) and fabulous supporting performances from Walter Brennan, Coleen Gray and John Ireland (Ireland and Clift share a scene fraught with a surprising degree of homo-eroticism, especially considering that this was 1948).

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition features the rarely seen original theatrical release (Hawks’ preferred cut). Oddly enough, it turns out that the version we’ve seen on home video and cable all these years was the preview version (also included), which runs several minutes longer due to sporadic inter-titles, which are replaced by Walter Brennan’s narration in the theatrical cut. Image quality is superb.

Deadwood meets Torchwood: Cowboys and Aliens **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2011)

Ah, summer. The high season of high concept films, pitched to the Hollywood higher-ups by people who are really, really, high. Hey now! Consider Cowboys and Aliens, the newest film from Iron Man director Jon “Vegas, baby, Vegas” Favreau. The title is the pitch. “Cowboys. Aliens. Daniel Craig. Harrison Ford.” And, BAM! Green-lighted. Done deal. It’s almost eloquent, in its masterful conceptual brevity.

In actuality, there have been precedents (mashing up the Old West with science-fiction).

The Valley of Gwangi is one film that springs to mind-a guilty pleasure from 1969 that featured cowpokes wranglin’ a purple stop-motion T. Rex (Barney with teeth!) for a Mexican circus. Gene Autry’s Phantom Empire movie serial dates all the way back to the 1930s, which has the Singing Cowboy mixing it up with robots and denizens hailing from the underground city of ‘Murania’ (Queen Tika!). Back to the Future, Part III would fit in that theme park. Westworld and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension sort of count.

The film opens, appropriately enough, with a Mystery. Actually, it opens kind of like Hangover 3. A rangy 1870s gunslinger (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the Arizona desert with a cauterized wound, an empty holster, a non-removable, anachronistic hi-tech device affixed to his wrist…and amnesia. An absence of empty tequila bottles in the immediate vicinity would appear to indicate that there could be an interesting story behind all this.

He isn’t given much time to ponder, as he (Jake, we’ll call him) is soon set upon by some gamey ruffians with human scalps hanging from their saddles. Sizing up his wound and assuming his bracelet is a kind of shackle, the boys figure Jake might be worth reward money (not only do these fellers spout authentic Western gibberish, but they ain’t none too bright). Imagine their surprise when he instinctively springs into action and expertly takes ‘em all out, Jason Bourne style. So we (and Jake) have discovered one thing-he’s a badass.

Cut to the requisite “Man with No Name rides into dusty cow town” Leone homage scene (you thought they’d forgotten?). Meet our crusty yet benign saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell). Say “hey” to our crusty yet benign town sheriff (Keith Carradine…again). And I want to give a special shout out for the preacher man who ain’t afeared to handle a shootin’ iron (Clancy Brown, with his huge Lurch head). And no 1870s cow town would be complete without its resident posse of drunken asshole bullies, a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ and recklessly shootin’ up the place, led by the spoiled, arrogant son (Paul Dano) of the local cattle baron (Harrison Ford) who “owns” the town.

Daddy’s little angel makes a scene terrorizing the good townsfolk until Jake decides to take him down a notch. The situation escalates to a point where the sheriff has no choice but to arrest them both. Junior petulantly warns all that his Daddy will be very cross-and he’ll make ‘em all pay. Daddy does eventually ride in, and the whole powder keg is set to explode, when everyone gets sidetracked by an alien invasion (just in time, too-because the attack occurs as they are on the verge of runnin’ plumb out of wild West film clichés).

Despite the fact that I just saw the movie last night, I’ve already forgotten a lot of it. But I don’t think it really matters. I do remember lots of explosions and gooey strands of alien viscera hanging off the cacti like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Oh, and there’s something about a magic ring, and the end of the world (no, not really, I’m just checking to see if you’re still paying attention to this ridiculous film review).

If you really must pry (“I must! I must!”), I’ll say that what does ensue is basically a remake of The Searchers, with Harrison Ford’s character standing in for John Wayne, and alien abductors substituting for the Native American kidnappers in John Ford’s film. And there is the lovely Olivia Wilde, who plays the one person who could help Jake “remember” how he got into that bizarre state in the first place.

Is it worth seeing? That depends. If you’re a sci-fi “purist” you probably want to steer clear (too many potential tirade-inducing logic holes in the narrative). If you demand coherent story lines in your movies…you might not want to bother either (the film has six credited writers-‘nuff said). But if you’re in a popcorn mood, and ready for big, dumb, loud fun, with lots of action, serviceable special effects and a few decent chuckles-then you may want to take a peek (even if you don’t remember any of it the next day). Cowboys. Aliens. Daniel Craig. Harrison Ford…what more do you want?

Blu-ray reissue: Once Upon a Time in the West ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2011)

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Once Upon a Time in the West – Paramount Blu-ray

Although it is chockablock with classic “western” tropes, director Sergio Leone somehow manages to honor, parody, and transcend the genre all at once with this 1968 masterpiece. This is a textbook example of pure cinema, distilled to a crystalline perfection of mood, atmosphere and narrative.

At its heart, it’s a simple revenge tale, involving a headstrong widow (Claudia Cardinale) and an enigmatic “harmonica man” (Charles Bronson) who both have a bone to pick with a sociopathic gun for hire (Henry Fonda, cast against type as one of the most execrable villains in screen history). But there are bigger doings afoot-like building a railroad and winning the (mythic) American West. Also on board: Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Keenan Wynn.

Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped develop the story, and it wouldn’t be classic Leone without a rousing soundtrack by his longtime musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone (be advised you won’t be able to get the “Harmonica Man Theme” out of your head).

It goes without saying that the film is breathtaking in HD. Paramount’s Blu-ray includes both the theatrical and fully restored versions, and carries over all extras from the previous DVD edition.

DVD Reissue: Day of the Outlaw ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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The Day of the Outlaw – MGM DVD

When this film was originally released in 1959, the posters screamed “Out of the blizzard came the most feared killers who ever took over a town!” A tough, gritty and stark film noir, cleverly disguised as a western. Directed by the late Andre de Toth (House of Wax), who had a propensity for creating  atmospheric B-films that belied their low budgets (like the 1954 noir Crime Wave).

Robert Ryan plays a hard-ass cattle rancher who is at odds with one of the neighboring farmers. Complicating things further is the fact that he has the hots for his rival’s wife, who is played by sexy Tina Louise. Just when you think this is going to turn into another illustration as to why the Farmer and the Cowman cain’t be fray-ends, the story heads into proto-Tarantino territory when some very nasty outlaws ride into town, led by Burl Ives. Ives is not so holly-jolly in this role; he convincingly plays a truly vile bastard. The nastiness that ensues, set in an unforgiving wintry Wyoming landscape, may have influenced the offbeat 1968 spaghetti western, The Great Silence. The DVD has no frills, but sports a good transfer.

Borderline cinema: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2006)

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The spirit of Sam Peckinpah lives on (sans slo-mo) in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. First-time director Tommy Lee Jones casts himself as a contemporary Texas cowboy named Pete who befriends a Mexican “vaquero” (the namesake of the movie’s title).

Estrada is an illegal looking for steady work and a brighter future here in the land o’plenty. Jones utilizes flashbacks to illustrate the growing kinship between the two compadres, who bond in the usual “cowboy way”- drinkin’ and whorin’, sleeping under the stars, and reaching a general consensus that A Cowboy’s Life Is The Life For Me (as a great man once sang.) In the key vignette, Estrada confides that, if “something” should ever happen to him, he wishes to be buried in his home town. In half-drunken sentiment, Pete vows to see it through if the unthinkable happens. Guess what happens next?

When Estrada is mysteriously killed, Pete becomes incensed by the indifference of the local authorities, who seem reluctant to investigate. When he learns through the grapevine that his friend was the victim of negligent homicide, thanks to a bone-headed border patrol officer (Barry Pepper), he goes ballistic. He abducts the officer, forces him to dig up the hastily buried Estrada, and informs him that the three amigos are taking a little horseback trip to Mexico (and it ain’t gonna be anything like Weekend at Bernie’s).

Much unpleasantness ensues as the story evolves into a “man on a mission to fulfill an oath” tale…on the surface. Despite the simplistic setup, astute viewers will begin to realize that there is a deeper, mythic subtext; this is one of those films that can sneak up on you.

Although my initial reaction was more visceral than philosophical (I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable, it started to feel overlong, and I was repulsed by some of the  graphic scenes) I eventually realized that I had been taken on an Orphic journey;  suddenly it all made sense. The film offers hope that, despite the cynicism that abounds in this world, there is something to be said for holding true to friendship, loyalty and a deep sense of honor.