Review – High Ground (2020)
Director: Stephen Johnson
Starring: Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey, Jack Thompson, Sean Mununggurr, Caren Pistorius, Ryan Corr, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa
The last decade and a half has witnessed a pronounced shift in Indigenous screen narratives, moving away from traditionally hard-hitting social-realist dramas towards the embracing of genre. One of the most interesting aspects of this shift has been the embracing of the Western. Through films like Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country and Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road,this classical genre, traditionally the site of nation-building mythologising, has been co-opted to serve as a site of cultural reckoning, negotiating the unresolved traumas of Australia’s colonialist history. While High Ground director Stephen Johnson is not himself an indigenous man, he has had a long career working with Indigenous creatives, and his long awaited sophomore film, produced by former Yothu Yindi member Witiyana Marika and made in consultation with the local Indigenous clans, continues this genre subversion.Continue reading
Review – Sweet Country (2017)
Director: Warwick Thornton
Starring: Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Natassia Gorey Furber, Sam Neill, Ewan Leslie, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan, Gibson John, Matt Day
The western has long proven a source of fascination for Australian filmmakers. While seemingly the most American of genres, there are obvious elements of shared experience which attract Australian storytellers to the form. It is a genre of landscape, of wide open spaces, which Australia has in spades. It is also a genre of colonisation, of nation building at the expense of an existing indigenous population, a dark history that Australia and America share. Eight years after earning critical acclaim, and the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Camera d’Or, for his debut feature Samson & Delilah, Warwick Thornton has dipped his toe into the western with Sweet Country, bringing an indigenous perspective to the form. Continue reading
Review – The Revenant (2015)
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck
Upon receiving the Golden Globe for Best Director for The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu said, “Pain is temporary, but a film is forever.” It is a mantra that he has obviously willed himself to believe because the stories from set in Canada suggest this ambitious frontier epic will earn its place alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo as one of film history’s most arduous and challenging shoots. The film is an endurance test, for its crew, for its characters and even, in the best possible way, for its audience.
A revenge Western – though Iñárritu insists that it isn’t a Western – based in part on the 2002 novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant tells the incredible “true” survival story of frontiersman Hugh Glass. In 1823, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) leads a group of fur trappers through the Rocky Mountains on a quest for pelts. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is charged with navigating them safely through this dangerous territory Continue reading
Review – The Hateful Eight (2015)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen
At a time when the film industry has become almost uniformly digital, Quentin Tarantino remains a passionate supporter of the celluloid process. With his eighth film, The Hateful Eight, he has put his money (or rather, someone else’s money) where his mouth is and chosen to shoot the film in the long dormant Ultra Panavision 70mm format. The last film to be shot on this super wide screen format (2.76:1) was Khartoum in 1966. Yet while employing a film format which is associated with epic spectacle, with its minimal locations The Hateful Eight is probably Tarantino’s smallest scale film since Reservoir Dogs – though twice as long and with fifty five times the budget, indicative of the increasing excess of Tarantino’s work.
Bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking wanted murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to collect the $10,000 reward. While most bounty hunters prefer the ‘dead’ option in ‘dead or alive,’ when John “The Hangman” Ruth catches you, you hang. Continue reading
Six of the Best… Post-Classical Westerns
The Western is the great American cinematic form, a uniquely American genre. More than that, some have suggested that it stands alongside jazz as America’s great contribution to the arts. It is America’s equivalent of the Greek tragedy, where filmmakers replay and reimagine stories of America. The Western genre was at its height in Hollywood’s studio era, from the 1930s to the 1950s. Its conventional storylines and reusable sets and props made it one of the backbone genres of the mass production machine that was studio era Hollywood. Before World War II, at a time when the major studios were churning out approximately 500 films a year, B-grade Westerns accounted for 15% of all Hollywood production. As well as these quick and cheap B-movies the studio era gave us great Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), High Noon (1952), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and the greatest of them all, The Searchers (1956). But by the 1960s the classical Western was starting to grow tired, audiences were growing tired of it, and the genre went out of fashion in Hollywood for a while in the 1970s and 1980s. While the Western has never quite re-established itself as a prominent genre in post-classical Hollywood, there have been a number of notable and interesting films that have employed the Western form. Here are six of the best of them…
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a disarmingly likeable film, and possibly the greatest buddy movie ever. Butch and Sundance are part of the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, but are forced to go on the run after a botched train robbery. With an unshakeable posse on their tail, they head for South America to start afresh as Bolivian bandits. Butch and Sundance are the perfect pairing. Butch is a charismatic, smooth-talking, sharp-minded leader. Sundance is cool, quiet and deadly. Paul Newman and Robert Redford (who would again team up with Hill in 1973 for The Sting) give the film genuine star power, while William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay gives it its charm, humour and intelligence. The final freeze frame is one of the iconic shots in American film.
In addition to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969 saw the release of another film about the Hole in the Wall Gang, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and they could hardly have been more different. The Wild Bunch is a key film in the history of screen violence. Changes to American film censorship regulations in 1968, with a move from the all-encompassing Production Code to a ratings system, allowed for greater representations of violence on screen and Peckinpah took full advantage. The film is a masterpiece of excess and spectacle, with approximately 90,000 rounds of blanks fired in the production. The film’s final shootout is truly something to behold. But rather than spectacle for spectacle’s sake, violence penetrates this film at a thematic level. The Wild Bunch is a film about violence, about the passing on of violence from one generation to the next, as demonstrated through the evolving roll of children throughout the narrative.
Little Big Man is a comic Western saga which continued director Arthur Penn’s engagement with the strong counter-culture movement of the time. It tells the life story of 121 year old Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman. Having been captured by the Cheyenne as a child, Crabb spends his life jumping back and forth between living as a native American and as a frontiersman, and thus experiences both sides of a very transformative period in America’s history. Little Big Man provides a debunking of the classical Western myth, portraying the pacification of the West as an act of genocide. The Cheyenne people are shown to be a kind and peaceful people, and Penn’s dramatization of an attack on their camp by Custer’s Cavalry is an obvious commentary on the Vietnam War at a time before Hollywood films were ready to openly discuss the conflict.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the lowest point for the Western as a film genre, it was Clint Eastwood who almost single-handedly kept it alive. Unforgiven is both a love letter and farewell from actor-director Clint Eastwood to the genre that made him a star. Set in the 1880s, when the days of the frontier were fading and a new world was rising, William Munny is of the old world. A retired gunman and a widower with two children, he is coaxed to pick up his gun once more by his old friend Ned to go after a bounty put up by a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey. Rather than a Wild West romp, Unforgiven is a dark and melancholy film. Where once Eastwood played a part in romanticising the West, here he shows it for its grim reality. Beautifully shot in Alberta, Canada, and featuring a tremendous cast including Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman in an Oscar winning performance as sheriff Little Bill. Eastwood dedicated the film to directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The second feature film from Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic Western with an almost art-film sensibility. The film uses the story of the final chapter of the life of one of the American West’s most iconic characters to show us the active process of the mythologising of the West. The young Robert Ford has grown up on the tales of the legendary exploits of Jesse James, so when he has the opportunity to join the James gang for their last robbery he idolises James. Theirs is a strange relationship built on Ford’s intense devotion, which can really only end one way. While this slow-paced, contemplative film is probably a bit longer than it needs to be, it is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins and features some very interesting performances from Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt.
Adapted from Charles Portis’ novel, the story of True Grit has a beautiful simplicity to it which has been missing from the Western in recent decades. Despite this old-fashioned quality, the direction of the Coen brothers and the beautiful cinematography, again from Roger Deakins, gives the film a modern feel and aesthetic. Hailee Steinfeld’s debut performance as Mattie Ross, the young girl who sets out with a hired Marshall to catch her father’s murderer, is simply brilliant with the role being undoubtedly one of the great young female characters. When the story was previously brought to the screen in 1969, John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of the drunken US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, but rather than simply imitate Wayne’s performance, Jeff Bridges brings his own characterisation to the part.
It technically isn’t a movie so wasn’t included in the six but no conversation about the Western genre in recent years would be complete without…
Created by David Milch, for three 12 episode seasons HBO’s gritty series Deadwood was arguably the best show on television and the best single piece of work the Western genre had seen in decades. Set in the 1870s, the show followed the development of the town of Deadwood, annexed from the Dakota Territory, from a basic camp into a thriving, organised, but incredibly uncivilised and corrupt community. Marvellously written, the show’s dialogue was at the same time almost Shakespearean in its poetry and the most horrendously coarse thing you’ll ever hear. Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon and puppet-master over the citizens of Deadwood, was one of the great television characters of that decade. Tragically the show was cut short after three seasons, and while there was talk of two television movies being made to complete the story they never eventuated.
By Duncan McLean
Review – The Lone Ranger (2013)
Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fitchner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale
The Bruckheimer, Verbinski, Depp trio which brought you the Pirates of the Caribbean series is back and this time they are taking us to the Wild West with a remake of the classic serial The Lone Ranger.
The Lone Ranger and his trusty sidekick Tonto date back to a radio serial from the early 1930s and have since appeared in novels, comics, television series and numerous films, both features and shorts. But the young demographic the film is targeted at are a couple of generations removed from those who grew up with the Lone Ranger, so the film really has a clean slate in introducing these much-loved characters to a new audience.
We are taken back to the beginning, with idealistic young lawyer John Reid is caught in an ambush by the horrible Butch Cavendish and his gang, having been deputised a Texas Ranger by his sheriff brother. While the rest of the posse is killed, Reid is brought back from death’s door by a peculiar Comanche named Tonto, who teaches him that sometimes in a corrupt society the only way to serve justice is to operate as an outlaw.
Our story teller is an elderly Tonto, recounting the story of the Lone Ranger – or as he knows him, Kemosabe – to a young boy. That we hear the story from Tonto’s point of view turns him from a sidekick into arguably the central character. This is a move obviously designed to make the most of Johnny Depp’s star presence, which sees him largely playing a variation of Jack Sparrow as an Indian. Tonto is also given his own back-story, which explains his kookiness without merely resting on unfortunate racial stereotypes that would not be as easily accepted now as they were in the 1930s and 1940s. That we first meet the elderly Tonto standing in a Wild West sideshow exhibition display entitled “The Noble Savage” suggests an awareness on the part of the writers of the problematic tradition that characters like Tonto have come out of.
The writers do a good job in staying true to the characters and elements that fans will expect, while making the required adjustments to give it a fresh and contemporary feel. They are also willing to acknowledge that some things just don’t quite work as well for a 2013 audience as it did for a 1933 audience. The picture finishes with a good laugh at the expense of the Lone Ranger’s catchphrase, “Hi ho, Silver! Away!”
While the Western has experienced somewhat of a return to relevance in recent years with films like True Grit and, of course, Django Unchained, The Lone Ranger represents something entirely different. This is a $250m studio blockbuster, making it far and away the most expensive Western ever made, and indicates a level of faith in the genre that hasn’t been present in major studio Hollywood since the 1950s. It is also a return to the matinee style, Wild West adventure, and is definitely the most fun that has been had with the Western for quite a while.
With the producer, director and star of the Pirates of the Caribbean series joining forces again, it is unsurprising that The Lone Ranger has a very similar feel to that incredibly successful franchise. You get that blockbuster-friendly blend of action, adventure and comedy. Every dollar of that estimated $250m budget has ended up on the screen. The Lone Ranger is a big movie with big action. It may not have been based on a ride like Pirates of the Caribbean was, but it still feels like one.
For much of its two-and-a-half hour run-time, The Lone Ranger feels uneven. Verbinski seems to struggle to find a balance between the light-heartedness that comes from a slightly bumbling hero with a quirky sidekick, and some moments that are surprisingly dark and disturbing. But the movie really hits its straps in the last 45 minutes, finishing on a high with an enormous action sequence featuring horses and trains and horses on trains. Add to that the iconic William Tell Overture, and you’ll have a hard time not smiling.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Review – Django Unchained (2012)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Dicaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington
I’m a big fan of the Western genre. After an extended period of time in which it really went out of fashion in recent years we are starting to see a real re-emergence of the Western with quality productions like Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010) and, of course, the brilliant HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006). However, it is probably not since the 1950s that there has been a Western which has been greeted with as much popular anticipation as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Django Unchained again sees Tarantino doing what he does best, genre pastiche: taking past styles and forms of cinema that he loves and giving them the Tarantino twist. The result is kind of a Blaxploitation Spaghetti Western and it is ridiculously entertaining. Our setting is the deep south of the USA, in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Our heroes are an unlikely duo, Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a onetime dentist now bounty hunter. The surprisingly conventional plot for a writer who made his name by tinkering with chronology and breaking his screenplays down into individual storylines and chapters, sees the two brought together when Schultz needs Django’s help to recognise a trio of wanted men. They stay together because Schultz feels compelled to help Django rescue his slave wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), from the horrible slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino has been very intentional in his promotional interviews for Django Unchained about labelling the film as a “Southern” rather than a Western, emphasising the difference in the core conflict at the heart of his movie. The Western genre has always been racially charged, but it is usually white men and Indians, or white men and Mexicans. In Django Unchained we are focused on the tension between white and black in the Deep South (which does allow the writer/director to continue his fetishistic relationship with the N-word). We’ve seen movies about slavery before, but not quite like this. Tarantino isn’t looking to make any overt political statements about the plight of the African-American. Rather he does what only he seems to be able to do, taking a seemingly taboo subject from one of the darker periods in modern history and using it as the basis for a ridiculously entertaining and quite funny film. It was the formula which worked so effectively with Inglourious Basterds in 2009. In that case it was Wold War II Europe providing the setting for a revenge tale about a small group of American Jewish soldiers taking vengeance on the Nazis on behalf of a downtrodden people. In Django Unchained Tarantino does for 19th century American slavery what he did for the Holocaust three years ago. Again we have a revenge tale, but this time our avenging angel is one man and the oppressed people are the black slaves.
While Jamie Foxx is the first name billed and plays the title character, the real star of this film is Christoph Waltz. Tarantino is a lover of dialogue. There are few directors working in mainstream cinema who happily allow scenes of dialogue to extend for as long as Tarantino does. As an actor, Waltz manages to combine eloquence and a calm elegance with a genuine sense of menace which makes him the perfect vehicle for the director’s wordy but sharp dialogue. Waltz was a revelation in Inglourious Basterds. As a relative unknown his performance as Col. Hans Landa gave us one of the best screen villains of the decade and won him an Academy Award. His work in Django Unchained is every bit as good, and really blurs the line between a supporting and leading character. He has received an Oscar nomination in the supporting category, but I feel like he is the lead character, or at least the co-lead, for the first three quarters of the film. Either way, it is a tremendous performance, about as endearing as you can imagine a bounty hunter to be, and makes me hope for further collaboration between the Waltz and Tarantino in the future.
There are two other supporting roles which are worthy of comment, both due to the fact that they see highly regarded actors venturing outside of their usual character scope. Firstly we have Leonardo DiCaprio playing the villain, Calvin Candie. DiCaprio has always been known for his intensity of performance, but that intensity has never really been applied to a villainous role before. Outside of the things Candie does and says, there is so much about his character which just pushes your buttons. Whether it is the touch of boyishness in his face which makes you think of him as a spoilt child, the semi-incestuous relationship with his sister, or his rather uncivilised interests in blood sports and phrenology, there is just something that manages to make you uneasy in his presence.
The other is Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson, and it is he who makes the greatest departure. In the same year that we saw him playing Nick Fury in The Avengers, Jackson delivers one of the performances of his career as Candie’s most trusted slave, Stephen. What makes the role so interesting, and challenging for us as viewers, is where Stephen sits in the racial divide that is at the centre of the film. Effectively Stephen is Candie’s chief of staff. He runs the house, is well dressed and treated by Candie with a level of respect not afforded to anyone else but his sister (there is a scene in which Candie and Stephen sit together drinking brandy which is indicative of their relationship). Stephen is a classic Uncle Tom figure, aligning himself with the white characters, seeing the other black characters as subservient and being an agent in their oppression. He believes in the status quo. Add to the fact that Jackson is playing an elderly man, weathered by many years of service, and it is quite an impressive achievement and has garnered some serious critical attention (if not the Oscar nomination he so openly hoped for).
Coming in at 165 minutes, while not excessive by current standards, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s longest film yet. Its main fault, which relates a bit to the runtime, is that at times it gets a little self-indulgent. Self-indulgence is always going to be a part of Tarantino’s cinema. So much of his style openly comes from his desire to engage with and replicate the things that he finds cool, in other words, indulging himself. So self-indulgence is not a problem in itself, but when it gets to the point of interfering with the flow of the picture it does become an issue. One scene in particular is representative of this. Towards the back end of the film there is a scene in which Tarantino makes a cameo appearance as one of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company employees charged with transporting Django and some other slaves to the mines. For mine it is the worst scene of the film, though I’m sure some will point to the dancing horse at the films finale. Ignoring the fact that Tarantino’s performances in front of the camera have never come close to his prowess behind the camera, it is not his appearance in itself which makes the scene excessively self-indulgent. It is the fact that he is playing an Australian. One of the other workers in the scene is played by Australian actor John Jarratt of Wolf Creek fame. The Australian accents are quite jarring, and really make the scene stick out in a way that it wouldn’t have if they were playing Americans. Tarantino is a great admirer of Australian exploitation cinema (you can see him espousing his love in the wonderful 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!) and it feels like the sole reason for the Australian characters, and much of the dialogue that flows from them, was that he wanted to have John Jarratt in his movie.
Django Unchained is the Western done Tarantino style, complete with a final bloody shootout to rival Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and despite moments of self-indulgence it has the all requisite laughs, violence, cameo appearances and intertextual references to see that his legions of devoted fans will not be disappointed.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
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