Deadwood Season Two (HBO)
Written by David Milch, Jody Worth, Elizabeth Sarnoff, Ted Mann, Victoria Morrow, Steve Shill, Regina Corrado, Sarah Hess, and Bryan McDonald
Directed by Ed Bianchi, Steve Shill, Alan Taylor, Gregg Feinberg, Michael Almereyda, Tim Van Patten, and Dan Minahan
For those who like to think about the Old West as a time of genteel masculine honor, a show like Deadwood will disappoint you. This is not a cowboy show about the white hats taking down the black hats. David Milch had no interest in making a show that propped up myths of that sort. That doesn’t mean Deadwood is a dead-accurate show; it is still a piece of fiction. However, I suspect it may be one of the closest things we’ve ever had to detailing what life was like in the lawless places of America once upon a time. This is a visceral show that doesn’t shy away from the grotesque nature of a world where medicine was not commonplace and bodily fluids flowed as much in public as in private. The Old West was a filthy disgusting place. People who romanticize it wouldn’t be able to handle it if they were sent back there. Remembering what a shithole it was helps us understand why it is so vital that we move the needle forward on the human race.
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Deadwood Season One (HBO)
Written by David Milch, Malcolm MacRury, Jody Worth, Elizabeth Sarnoff, John Belluso, George Putnam, Bryan McDonald, Ricky Jay, and Ted Mann
Directed by Walter Hill, Davis Guggenheim, Alan Taylor, Ed Bianchi, Michael Engler, Dan Minihan, and Steve Shill
On one level, Deadwood operates as a white dude character actor showcase. I guarantee you will spend time proclaiming some variation of “It’s that guy from that thing.” I have always been a huge fan of character actors, which is why The Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson are some of my favorite filmmakers. They can find great actors with unique looks and give them fantastic scripts to perform. The exact same could be said of Deadwood, one of the early “children’ of the success of The Sopranos on HBO. Once that series made its big splash, the network invested a lot more money in developing unique dramas with some of the most substantial writing in the industry. David Milch honed his skills on Hill Street Blues & experienced a controversial hit with NYPD Blue. Deadwood would serve as a tribute to his love of the Western genre, populating the television series with actual figures from the historical Deadwood but infusing it all with an air of Shakespearean gravitas.
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Duck, You Sucker! or a Fistful of Dynamite (1971)
Written by Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone, Roberto de Leonardis, and Carlo Tritto
Directed by Sergio Leone
Leone’s time with the western came to an end with this picture. He couldn’t know, but it would be his penultimate film, causing his career to be framed through the lens of the genre forever. That’s not bad because Leone completely transformed western cinema beyond the borders of Italy. American filmmakers could no longer make westerns that sanitized the past in the ways they once did; that had to reflect the harsh survival that went on as America spread itself out across the continent. Duck, You Sucker! is not his greatest western, but it’s still not completely terrible. When watching the work of a director like Leone, it’s hard to critique the quality of any of his career. It’s at a level few people ever reach. What informed this movie was not Leone’s love of westerns but the rising up of left-wing revolutionary activism in Italy and a desire to highlight that the country as it stood was not going to survive unless things changed.
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Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Written by Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci
Directed by Sergio Leone
Sergio Leone was done with westerns. He’d said what he had to with the Dollars Trilogy and wanted to get onto his next film, an adaptation of the novel The Hoods, a film that would eventually be renamed Once Upon a Time in America. However, Paramount approached the director with an offer to direct a western for them as long as veteran actor Henry Fonda was attached. Fonda was Leone’s favorite actor, so he couldn’t pass up the chance to work with the performer. While the interiors were shot in Leone’s familiar Italian studios, and almost all of the exteriors were in Spain. But one fantastic sequence was a beautiful surprise. When one character arrives in the small town, they take a wagon ride through Monument Valley in Arizona, an iconic locale for western fans and such a wonderful sight in a Leone picture.
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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
Written by Age & Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Sergio Leone
Directed by Sergio Leone
So first things first, I didn’t know anything about this movie besides it being a western and the iconic central theme from Ennio Morricone. For years, my entire life, in fact, what I thought was The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (GBU) was actually For a Few Dollars More. That showdown in the final moments of More is what I thought happened in GBU. So this was a treat for me because it meant I honestly was going in blind to this movie, and whatever happened was going to be a completely fresh experience. I walked away solid in knowing that More is my favorite Leone picture, but this is a masterpiece as well, a perfect thematic culmination of everything the Dollars Trilogy set out to do.
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For A Few Dollars More (1964)
Written by Sergio Leone, Fulvio Morsella, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Sergio Donati
Directed by Sergio Leone
Setting the table is essential. You need to know who is important, what they want, and what drives them. Director Sergio Leone delivers a straightforward example in the three opening prologues of his Western masterpiece For A Few Dollars More. With each introduction, we meet one of the notable characters of the piece, and more importantly, we see them reveal their fundamental selves through action. By seeing what they do, particularly their view of justice, the audience can immediately understand who we are dealing with. Our anticipation to see them cross paths is primed. I wondered how one person would react when in direct conflict with another and how fascinating it would be to watch play out.
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A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Written by Sergio Leone, Adriano Bolzoni, Víctor Andrés Catena, Mark Lowell, Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas Gil, Fernando Di Leo, Duccio Tessari, and Tonino Valerii
Directed by Sergio Leone
The Western is an American storytelling genre predicated on the myths of Western Expansion and Manifest Destiny. Starting with dime story paperbacks and evolving into radio plays, comic books, films, and television, Westerns were even more prominent than Marvel movies at their peak. Their influence was so considerable that Westerns and gangster pictures became the exclusive representation of American cinema abroad. Italian director Sergio Leone grew up as the child of a film director and silent movie actress, so he was constantly exposed to moviemaking. Historical epics, nicknamed “swords and sandals,” were the popular genre films of the 1950s in Italy, but they fell out of favor as the decade closed out. So Leone decided to combine his love of samurai movies (particularly Akira Kurosawa’s work) and Westerns and make his own in the wilds of Spain. Nicknamed “Spaghetti Westerns” due to their Italian origins, this subgenre managed to reignite new interest. They challenged American directors’ rose-colored depictions of the West and presented the audience with a much darker, violent, and sexually threatening frontier.
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This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Written by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman
Directed by John Sturges
The frenzy of war often brings the greatest evil out of people. Humans have a penchant for looking for an Other to blame for their ills and the sins of the world. We don’t have to go too far back in our history to find an endless parade of atrocities and hate crimes perpetrated on these Others. The murders and savagery never quell the sense of discontent in the perpetrators, instead planting a ball of guilt in their stomach that festers & boils. How foolishly we target individuals rather than the systems in the place that create war and strife. Easier to kill an innocent person who doesn’t look like you or speaks a different language than work for solidarity to overcome the wrong we all feel. Bad Day at Black Rock is a modern folktale about justice being visited on people guilty of such crimes.
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The Power of The Dog (2021)
Written & Directed by Jane Campion
Jane Campion is a shameful blindspot in my personal film viewing. I’ve only previously seen her brilliant television mini-series Top of the Lake. My expectations for this one were on the positive to neutral side of things. I strongly dislike Benedict Cumberbatch in most things, and so his prominent presence in the marketing made me a tad wary. But I saw it popping up on so many best-of-the-year lists that I knew I should sit down and watch it. I had absolutely zero idea what the plot was and even who the other actors in the film were. That absence of knowledge benefited me greatly because this is one of the most deceptively chilling movies I’ve seen in a long time, a Western noir that completely floored me in its third act.
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Written & Directed by Peter Hyams
In 1981, you might think the juggernaut of Star Wars had crushed any desire by Hollywood to make intelligent, more adult science fiction. Yet here comes Outland, a film set on a mining colony with a complete absence of aliens or space battles. Instead, writer-director Peter Hyams translates a plot commonly found in Westerns and places in outer space. The result is seamless, showing how timeless and transcendent certain narratives are. Hyams admitted he wanted to make a Western only, but the success and boom of the science fiction genre caused him to rethink the setting of his idea. He reasoned that the types of stories being told in the 1970s and early 80s were the same you found in Western just repurposed. Thus we get Outland which is High Noon on the moon of Io.
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