Movie Review – The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain
Directed by Jacques Audiard

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Eli and Charlie Sisters are hitmen that work for the wealthy Commodore. Their most recent assignment is to catch up with Hermann Warm, a prospector headed west in search of gold. Eli isn’t sure why they are going after this seemingly innocuous man, but Charlie assures him that this is in their best interest. Detective John Morris has been hired as an advance man to tail Warm and leave word of his progress at stops along the way for the Brothers to pick up. As the Sisters brothers make their way across the rugged landscape, they encounter natural obstacles and growing interpersonal strife. Eli believes they can leave this life one day while Charlie seems resigned to be a killer forever.

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Movie Review – The Ballad of Lefty Brown

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The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017)
Written & Directed by Jared Moshe

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Lefty Brown is a simple-minded ranchhand whose glory days are far behind him. He’s about to bid farewell to his longtime friend, Ed Johnson who has been elected senator of Montana. However, tragedy strikes and Ed will never make it to D.C. Old friends Tom Harrah and Governor Jame Bierce arrive to comfort Ed’s widow while his affairs are put in order. Lefty takes off to hunt down the killers and is joined by Tom who is trying to bring the old man back home. Instead, they pick up a young kid enamored with the mythology of the West, and whom quickly learns the stories he has heard are not as fantastic and pretty as he thinks. A conspiracy is uncovered behind Ed’s murder that connects to his election as a senator and leaves Lefty as a suspect fighting to redeem his name and avenge his friend.

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Movie Review – Slow West

Slow West (2015)
Written & Directed by John Maclean

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Young Jay Cavendish has traveled from Scotland to America in pursuit of his one true love Rose Ross. Rose and her father fled their home after a crime was committed. Jay crosses paths with Silas Selleck, a bounty hunter who appears to take a fondness to the naive and earnest younger man. They begin a trek across the West to find Rose and encounter other travelers along the way. Following them are a band of fellow bounty hunters who want to catch Jay for their purposes. The journey is a quiet one with short bursts of violence, like a strange dream.

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Movie Review – Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Written & Directed by S. Craig Zahler

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A strange drifter finds his way into the small town of Bright Hope. He arrival is followed by the murder of a stable boy and the abduction of two citizens. All that is left behind is an arrow with a head made from bone. A local native explains this belongs to a tribe of men who are not “Indians” but from some other breed of man. Sheriff Hunt takes off with a trio of men, each with their own reason to follow the trail, to rescue their fellow townspeople. They encounter the hazards of the wilderness along the way not knowing that an ancient horror awaits them in the Valley of the Starving Man.

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Book Review – The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western

The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan (1974)

Since college, I have developed a greater appreciation of the Western genre in film and literature. In particular, I enjoy the modern deconstructions of the genre (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Once Upon a Time in America, Blood Meridian, etc.). I had never felt inclined to pick up anything by Richard Brautigan, having foolishly discounted him as a post-hippie literary author. While the novel is strongly post-modern and experimental, its also a pretty straightforward Western. Because there’s that rich layer underneath of deconstruction it makes the main story that much more interesting.

The plot is very light and concerns two guns for hire, Cameron and Greer, who are enthralled by a mysterious Native American girl, Magic Child whom leads them back to her family home in the Great Plains. There, they meet Mrs. Hawkline, the owner of the house and some strange blurring of identity occurs between Magic Child and Hawkline. The two gunmen are also told they are being hired to kill an unseen monster that lives in the ice caves that run underneath the house. All the while, Brautigan refers to a presence that moves through the house unseen.

The story is a fantasy that is concerned with the idea of doubles. There are characters that act as doubles and conversations routinely repeat, with characters entranced and unaware. The result is that our protagonists feel as though they are not progressing through the story. The expedition into the ice caves is constantly on the precipice of happening, but there is always a coincidental distraction that pulls them away. The result is an intentional frustration in the reader that ultimately pays off with the unconventional epilogue. This is not a novel for a casual reader, but for someone who wants an intellectual challenge.

Film Review – True Grit (2010)



True Grit (2010, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

I’ve never seen the original True Grit, mainly because I am not such a big fan of John Wayne. I’ve only seen two films of his (The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). I totally get Wayne as an icon, but as an actor he seemed a little weak. So I entered the remake of True Grit with no expectations and found it to be a great western and adventure story, with enough subtext to keep me thinking for a long time. Despite advertisements, this is Hailee Steinfeld’s film. The other actors are there to support her and she does a magnificent job keeping up with the likes of Bridges and Damon.

Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) is the 14 year old daughter of a man shot in cold blood by Tom Cheney (Brolin), a dim witted scoundrel. Mattie travels to the location of her father’s body under the pretense of preparing it to be sent back home, but is actually out to find a hired gun to help her track down and murder Cheney. She happens upon the grizzled federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), a man who shoots first and asks questions later. After some convincing, he agrees to take Mattie into Choctaw territory where Cheney ran off to. Before they can depart, Texas ranger Le Boeuf (Damon) who is looking for Cheney in relation to his murder of a Texas state senator. The trio bickers and bonds as they draw closer to their prey, which in the end will test each of their resolves.

The Coens are employing their strongest tactics in this film: dialogue and character. The language of the characters is so precise and specific, and this is how they have created countless memorable and iconic characters. True Grit is a showcase for the complex figure of Mattie Ross, whom could easily become a “girl power” anachronism. Instead, through well placed pieces of dialogue, we learn about Mattie’s role in her home and the extra responsibility she has been strapped with. She is both courageous and vulnerable in a way many female characters in film rarely are. Beyond Mattie, the central and side characters all have unspoken histories that we catch glimpses of. As she and Rooster travel the wilderness they encounter characters who may have a line or two (or none at all) and are fully realized figures in this world. The Coens succeed in producing another film chock full of those things that cause the brains of film geeks like myself to salivate.

Hypothetical Film Festival #1 – Evolution of the Western

From time to time, I come up with ideas for film festivals. The themes can be as varied as a focus on a single director or genre and even antecedent film festivals, which feature films that inform about a certain director’s aesthetic. The parameter I set for myself with these festivals is that they can contain up to only 7 films.

This particular film festival programming was inspired by watching a Mad Max marathon on AMC and realizing that the plots were all archetypal western plots. The Road Warrior in particular felt like a post-apocalyptic Shane or one of Eastwood’s Man With No Name films. Without further ado, the list:

1) Shane (1953)
Directed by George Stevens
Starring Alan Ladd, Jack Palance

This film contains the most recurring Western plot of a mysterious stranger arriving to come to the aid of citizens being terrorized. Not much to add, other than the 1960s Batman series featured a cowboy villain named Shane that was a directed reference to this film.

2) The Searchers (1956)
Directed by John Ford
Starring John Wayne, Natalie Wood

Not Ford or Wayne’s first Western but arguably their greatest. The film has all the wonderful scenery of Monument Valley on display but also present Wayne in an atypical light. While, he is the hero of the picture, Wayne’s character is also a staunch racist and ends up alienated from his family because of this.

3) Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda

Leone was a student of the American Western, John Ford’s work in particular. To make this “ultimate” western, Leone and co-writer Dario Argento watched dozens and dozens of Westerns. They were able to film on location in Monument Valley as well and Leone’s awe is apparent in the film. Not to be stuck making a dull, predictable film it was decided to cast Henry Fonda as the villain. This was such a controversial move that when the film was aired on American television the introduction of Fonda’s Frank killing a child was edited out.

4)Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan

The rise of the anti-hero archetype in the 1970s brought about Westerns with much bleaker protagonists than previously seen. These were men who traditionally had been the black hats in bygone eras. In the same way that Bonnie & Clyde turned the murderous gangsters into heroic figures so did Peckinpah with this portrayal of Billy the Kid. The film is also notable for having a soundtrack written and performed by Bob Dylan, a true sign of the change in this genre.

5) The Road Warrior (1981)

Directed by George Miller
Starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence

While at first glance, this film appears to be a punk-aesthetic sci-fi pic it is in actuality a remix of the Shane plot. The mysterious stranger (Gibson) shows up just in time to help a struggling group of survivors combat the maniacal barbarians outside their gates. In this reinvention, the Shane figure is a mercenary, only out for his own self-interest. He is broken eventually, in particular by the admiration of a feral child. A very refreshing take on a worn out plot.

6) Unforgiven (1990)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman

This film is the tombstone (no pun intended) of the traditional Western. Eastwood was trained by the best when it came to the genre, Sergio Leone. As a result, he respects the tropes but also makes sure to emphasize that this film marks an ending of sorts. The protagonist, William Munny (Eastwood) is an old, broken gunslinger who is now living with the psychological fallout of his past exploits. The film also incorporates the anti-hero device with the villain being a corrupt sheriff (Hackman) allowing his men to terrorize his town’s populace. A bleak conclusion is apparent from the beginning and Eastwood delivers what some critics have referred to as “the eulogy of the Western”.

7) The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hilcoat
Starring Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson

Around the same time the West was being explored in the United States, Australia was undergoing a similar period of lawlessness and expansion. In this film, Charlie Burns (Pearce) is made a deal by the local law (Winstone) to bring in his older, more sociopathic brother (Huston) in exchange for the life of his younger brother. Hilcoat, who just recently opened The Road, presents a Western tone poem. The film moves between harsh brutality and transcendental contemplative nature. The terrain of Australia is given a deeply mystic atmosphere by the aboriginal influence and haunting score by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay).