7 posts categorized "Western"

June 21, 2019

THE OUTSIDER

The OutsiderScreenwriter Sean Ryan cobbles together every Western movie trope he can come up with to create a cliché riddled movie that collapses under the weight of its impure intentions. You won’t find any character development here because every portrayal is as one-dimensional as they come.

“Witness the dark side of the American Dream” is this film’s tagline that pretends such a thing were necessary in the face of a crumbling country that succumbs to mass shootings on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s time to go heavier on sex and romance rather than on American Cinema’s knee-jerk tendency toward gun violence — something to consider.

The cynicism inherent in a movie constructed solely of piecemeal elements of mindless violence is obvious. “The Outsider” is far from the revisionist Spaghetti Western that it imagines itself to be. Here is a movie so derivative that you can set your watch by its roulette approach to satisfying imagined demands of the genre. This isn’t storytelling so much as it is a mishmash of violent sequences stuck together without so much as a second thought given to thematic cohesion. All for the love of revenge, the undying motivation of all Western ideology.  

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Country music singer-turned-actor Trace Adkins is no Kris Kristofferson (see “Heaven’s Gate”). Relying on his gravelly baritone voice, pokerfaced acting style, and a deadpan delivery that would make Clint Eastwood break into laughter, Adkins plays small-town sheriff Marshal Walker. Conflicts surface between Walker and his dumb-as-a-stump son James (Kaiwi Lyman) after James rapes and accidentally kills the wife of Jing Phang (John Foo), an immigrant railroad worker with some martial arts skills up his sleeve. Every roundhouse kick feels like it comes from the sensibilities of a ‘70s television show. Yawn.

John Foo

Poor lighting and a production design that puts your feet to sleep, underscore a film whose hollow religiosity and misdirected sentimentality sit in your stomach like a slow-working poison. “The Outsider” could be taught in film classes as an example of what not to do as a screenwriter. Exploitation is one thing (see “Machete” for an example of a good one), but you have to know the rules of the game. Director Timothy Woodward Jr. and his screenwriter just want a paycheck. Theirs is not a product worth paying to see.

Not Rated. 86 mins. (C-)

One Star

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November 19, 2018

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

Ballad_of_buster_scruggsThe Coen Brothers’ latest movie is a hoot. Its simple format is an anthology of six stories of the Old West, two of which (“The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “All Gold Canyon”) are based on stories by Stewart Edward White and Jack London, respectively.

The tone of the engrossing narratives goes from slapstick musical to black comedy to social satire to tragedy. and to elegiac poetry. Legend has it that the Coens wrote the stories 25 years ago, and stuck them in a drawer for a later date. If the Coen Brothers have been reliably hit or miss over all these past two decades (“The Ladykillers” and “Hail, Caesar!” are undeniable stinkers whereas “No Country For Old Men” and “True Grit” are fantastic gems), “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a delightful cinematic buffet with something for everyone.

Hands turn the lush pages of the kind of book that kids in the ‘60s would have pulled down from their parents’ shelves to stare blankly at the beautiful color plates that introduce each chapter. No byline is present under the book’s interior title page, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” And Other Tales of the American Frontier.” The narrative formality is punctured if you read quickly enough to absorb the humor on the dedication page (to Gaylord Gilpin) for telling these campfire stories that won the trouser-staining esteem of his listeners.

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Coen Brothers regular Tim Blake Nelson all but steals the movie right off the bat as the title character, a guitar-playing crooner who also happens to be the fastest gun in the West. Is there anything Tim Blake Nelson can’t do” Old Buster is a show-off with a pistol. He is one smooth customer and a snappy dresser. Suited up in his all white cowboy outfit and white hat, Buster is the cleanest cowboy or gunfighter you’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil the tale, but dirt does have a way of finding its level with blood.

“Near Algodones” is the second story. “Pan-shot!” cried the old man” is the text that sits beneath the color plate of an old coot running in front of a frontier bank with a shotgun in his long-johns with a bunch of metal cooking pans strapped to his body. Trying to figure out the meaning of each chapter-opening caption becomes a game the audience can’t help but play. James Franco dials up his best Clint Eastwood squint.

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“Meal Ticket” is the third installment in the movie, and for my money the weakest of the bunch. Nonetheless, Liam Neeson gives a damn good portrayal of a traveling impresario who earns a living putting on shows with an armless and legless actor (impeccably played by the great Harry Melling — of “Harry Potter” fame). Melling’s character recites great speeches and soliloquies that capture the hearts and imaginations of hardscrabble frontier folk who give up coins for a night’s worth of entertainment.

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“All Gold Canyon” savors the unpopulated landscape of a gorgeous valley where a gentle creek might just hold untold wealth for a grizzled white-haired prospector played by Tom Waits. It took me a while to realize that it was the legendary singer/songwriter in the role. This little yarn has it all. Wild animals, a dream of glory, and a couple of jaw-dropping surprises.

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“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most complex of the film’s stories. Alice Longabaugh (wonderfully played by Zoe Kazan) is girl on a wagon train headed for Oregon who finds tragedy, romance, and violence along the way. It doesn’t get more bittersweet than this.

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The movie wraps up with “The Mortal Remains,” a stagecoach ride to end all stagecoach rides. Five passengers (played by Jonjo O’Neill, Brendan Gleeson Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, and Chelcie Ross) trade verbal, and a few physical, jabs on their way to a place where all crimes are paid. You’ll want to watch the whole movie twice just to catch all of the clues in this brilliantly crafted tale of would-be redemption.

Rated R. 132 mins. (A)

Five Stars

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July 07, 2013

THE LONE RANGER

Western Allegory Pop
How the West Was One

The Lone RangerPerhaps more important than what Gore Verbinski’s gleefully postmodern Western isn’t, is what it is. Written by two screenwriters from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, along with Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”), this deconstructionist movie plays freely with several layers of historic social and political subtexts surrounding the U.S. government's decimation of Native Americans — a tall politico-cultural order for a Hollywood summer “tentpole” product.

Audiences expecting a standard-issue bloated Hollywood comic-book action movie favoring style over substance will be sorely disappointed. Which isn’t to say that “The Lone Ranger” doesn’t offer its share of rapid-fire chase sequences or gritty brutality; it does, and these sequences matter in direct relation to the form and substance of the narrative. Still, nuanced degrees of allegory make this movie sing like an endangered golden-cheeked warbler for an audience tuned in to its upper reaches of narrative harmonic pitch. Bent notes of side-glanced historic political examination invite the audience to contemplate an anti-imperialistic dialectic delivered with tongue-in-cheek humor and a cool regard for supernatural aspects of Indian culture. Though necessarily rooted in the ‘30s era radio program and the ‘50s era television series, this Lone Ranger is far removed from its original template.

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One look at Johnny Depp’s Kirby Sattler “I Am Crow” painting-inspired rendering of a painted-face Comanche Indian mystic tells you everything you need to know about Tonto’s depth of backstory. This is one heavy cat.

Flashes of surrealistic visions hang like suspended grace note trails of freshly performed peyote rituals, permeating the hot noonday air of Utah’s iconic Monument Valley, where Westerns of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s were filmed — e.g., John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956). The effect is as haunting as the most forceful cinematic political satires – reference Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” or Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” as examples.

Although it’s called “The Lone Ranger,” Johnny Depp’s Native American Tonto is the story’s clear protagonist. Like the “Green Hornet” television show, where Bruce Lee’s Kato was the ultimate non-white champion, Tonto leads the story, his story.

We catch up with the elderly Tonto in 1933 during the Depression. The deeply wrinkled Native American “works” in a San Francisco circus sideshow where he stands mannequin-still in an Old West diorama — ironically entitled “The Noble Savage.” The label speaks volumes. Tonto has been turned into a literal “wooden Indian” by a society created by the greedy robber barons that stole his people’s land after using every trick in the book — and of course mass murder. The aged roughrider has been patiently waiting for just the right young boy to come along to indoctrinate into his personal story as a freedom fighter against a colonialist system that killed off more Native Americans than Jews systematically killed by Hitler.

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A quaint narrative-framing device transports us back to Colby, Texas circa 1869. While the Civil War was raging far away in the East, a different kind of war was being fought in the West. Manifest destiny has a brand: “Unification of the country will come by iron rail,” a smarmy local politician named Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) tells a crowd of onlookers. Laying down miles of railroad tracks to transport freshly mined silver is all that anyone in a position of power around these parts cares about — well nearly everyone.

Arnie Hammer’s Ivy League attorney John Reid is an adult Boy Scout looking to follow in his sheriff brother Dan’s footsteps. The milquetoast John Reid exhibits none of the rough-hewn traits of your standard Western hero. He isn’t stoic like a John Wayne or a Clint Eastwood. In fact, he has a tendency to whine. He isn’t particularly brave, and his lack of loyalty to the Indian that saves his life is less than impressive — to say the least. He doesn’t like guns because he’s a pacifist. Nonetheless, his ethics aren’t as responsible as he pretends. It doesn’t take Reid long to forget he owes his life to Tonto. He attempts to abandon Tonto — buried up to his head — before realizing that he still requires Tonto’s assistance. The scene is important because it shows how the “well-meaning” white man is still merely an exploiter of more honest culture.

Villain-of-the-day Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) rides in a boxcar shackled to Tonto on their way to an execution masquerading as a trial. Butch has plenty of outlaw underlings looking to rescue their cruel hare-lipped leader. Between Butch and Latham Cole, Tonto and the Lone Ranger have plenty of reason to get up in the morning.

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In Jim Jarmusch’s great 1995 post-modern Western “Dead Man” Johnny Depp plays a straight-arrow accountant named William Blake escorted by a graceful American Indian named “Nobody” in order to assist with Blake’s voyage to the spirit world — i.e., death. In “The Lone Ranger,” Depp has transmogrified into a “spirit-walker” sage who guides a white man on a transcendent journey toward an outlaw existence. “Nature is [indeed] out of balance.” It is Tonto’s revenge-driven mission to put some weight back on his people’s side of the scales. That he does so with more wit, humanity, physical grace, and presence of mind than anyone else in the story is to be expected.

With its imminent failure at the box office “The Lone Ranger” might be the movie that redefines the Hollywood business model. “A man can’t choose his brother. His brother chooses him.”

Rated PG-13. 149 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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