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Tag Archive: High Noon


Bone Tomahawk

Review by C.J. Bunce

Writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 film release Bone Tomahawk starts as a classic Western about life on the frontier–living at home, visiting the local saloon, working in the local Sheriff’s office.  It quickly becomes a genre-bending damsel in distress/ “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” picture and much more.  Several other genre elements are woven together to create a solid, serious drama that is equal parts suspense thriller and gritty, meaty Western that rises above most efforts to make a classic Western in the past 45 years, if you forgive it for one scene that dips into gruesome, in-your-face horror.  Put Bone Tomahawk up there with Silverado.  It’s a far better Western than even the much celebrated Unforgiven.

Bone Tomahawk follows four men as they pursue the mysterious captors of a local frontier doctor–a woman (played by Lili Simmons)–and the criminal she was operating on (played by David Arquette) and the on-hand sheriff’s deputy (played by Evan Jonigkeit).  It’s a simple story, yet it couldn’t be more unique in its execution.  In possibly Kurt Russell’s finest bit of reserved, serious acting ever on film, he plays Sheriff Hunt.  Made of the same mettle as Gary Cooper in High Noon and John Wayne in The Searchers, he is relentless in his pursuit.  Patrick Wilson is equally relentless as the husband of the missing doctor.  His leg has been wounded from a fall and so he must forge ahead limping along throughout the film as he sleuths out what is really going on.  Think of him as a mix of Gary Cooper in Sergeant York and Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window Lost’s Matthew Fox is the slick but honorable, impeccably dressed gentleman barfly, who once had a thing for the doctor, and volunteers to help find her.  The posse is rounded out by the now crotchety character actor from film and TV, Richard Jenkins.  He’s droll and provides a different flavor of humor along the way.

Bone Tomahawk movie poster

Zahler isn’t afraid to let the movie flow at its own pace, and allow the viewer to soak up the scenery, the Western tropes, the camaraderie of the team as they eat and sleep and take their horses forward through the long desert way.  It’s an 1890s Assault on Precinct 13, only like High Plains Drifter the nature of the mystery is hidden from us for so long that the anticipation warrants calling this out as a top-notch suspense thriller.  Who stole the townsfolk and are they still alive?  And what is that strange music we hear in the wind before bodies start falling?  Like The Ghost and the Darkness, you want to run away from what is out there waiting for you–this feels like a ghost story, maybe even every frontier family’s personal nightmare come to life.

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Django Unchained - Still A

By C.J. Bunce

How does a Western get nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 2013? As recently as two years ago the remake of True Grit was nominated for Best Picture and nine other nominations—but did not net a single win.  But would it have been nominated if it hadn’t been directed by the quirky directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen?  Five years earlier Brokeback Mountain, a film with a Western—or at least a cowboy– theme was also nominated for Best Picture, winning three of eight nominations.  It took director Ang Lee and a completely non-Western plot for that to happen.  Then you have to go back to Unforgiven in 1992, which actually won Best Picture and four of nine of its nominations, to find the last major, critically acclaimed Western.

What made Unforgiven win?  Certainly by supplying one of the two most popular Western actors of all time as the film’s lead helped, even if it was one of his more bland performances, with Clint Eastwood also serving as director. (Yes, John Wayne still remains the #1 most popular Western actor ever).  But more importantly, like the few notable Westerns since, it had a very non-standard plot for a Western.  With its gunfighter-turns-farmer-turns-gunfighter-one-last-time story, it was basically a dark sequel to John Wayne’s Angel and the Badman.  You could keep going—back to Dances with Wolves in 1990, an example of the “epic Western” which seemed to reward the director and acting efforts of rising star Kevin Costner more than the movie as a Western genre masterpiece.  Or back to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid in 1969, probably the last classic era Western to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, winning five awards, including a key win for the script by William Goldman.  Then go back to the also-quirky Cat Ballou in 1965 starring Jane Fonda—the rare Western notable for featuring a female lead.

Going back even further gets you into the classic era of Westerns, and throws you into the strange era of “epic Westerns” getting recognized by the Academy.  These were movies that in hindsight are really not as well done as many smaller pictures of the period, but their huge all-star casts and expensive sets made the films hard to ignore, such as How the West Was Won, The Alamo, and Giant.  Surprisingly you have to look back to the adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s Hondo starring John Wayne in 1953 to get back to the era of the “hero Western” as recipient of an Academy nod, a film up there with Shane and High Noon as successful and admired Westerns receiving acclaim by the Academy.

Schultz and Django

But if you put aside the classic Western and look at what has been selected by the Academy since the 1960s it makes a lot of sense that Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained is not only a Best Picture nominee this year, but a real contender for the win.  Set in the South two years before the Civil War, the film follows a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) whose past owners lead him to meet up with German-born, dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Schultz’s next target is the wanted-dead-or-alive Brittle brothers, and only Django can help him literally recognize his bounty.  Schultz serves as mentor in survival and pursuit skills for Django who is squarely focused on rescuing long-lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  The search ultimately leads to a more complicated than necessary scheme to buy Broomhilda from infamous plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), if only his loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) will not stand in the way.

So what is the formula for a successful Western in the 21st century and why should Django Unchained make the cut?

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While we wait for the opening night of Cowboys and Aliens on July 29, two days ago we walked through the top western movies to get psyched for Jon Favreau’s big budget clash of Old West and classic sci-fi story.  Today we run down the best alien movies Hollywood has created.  We’re not thinking so much about aliens in their native environment, or Star Wars and Star Trek films would top the list, but unexpected human encounters with otherworldly, friendly and not-so-friendly brethren. 

1.  THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951).  It should be no surprise that a movie from the director of West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (and the editor of Citizen Kane and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) makes the top spot of this list.  Robert Wise’s classic story would fit solidly alongside the best Twilight Zone episodes.  And story is the point–no modern glitz and special effects necessary.  Michael Rennie appears to be just a man.  But he is not.  He is Klaatu, a visitor who has come to observe us in his flying saucer with the giant robot Gort.  How would we react to an alien visitor?  The first look at ourselves revealed paranoia and fear–it is the original self-reflection story that would later inspire V and Alien Nation.

2.  PREDATOR (1987).  He’s a hunter.  A collector.  And he’s on vacation.  That doesn’t sound like a high calibre story description.  Substitute the alien visitor and Predator is a western not unlike High Noon.  Our creature is a visitor with a secret past like any of a number of Clint Eastwood gunslingers.  And he is just as cool, a hunter that would stand firm alongside Boba Fett, Bossk, Dengar and Zuckus.  His make-up is unreal–truly alien to us–and he looks like a Nausicaan–that race that shoved a pool cue though Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Let’s see, who has an unusual skull that would look good on his trophy mantle?  How about that melon on Arnold Schwarzenegger?  There’s a cool vibe throughout the film and a great cast–and what other genre film features two future state governors?  And one of those gauntlets looks like Daniel Craig’s from the Cowboys and Aliens trailers.

3.  CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977).  But for Star Wars this picture would have gone off the charts the year it was released.  Because of multiple Star Wars viewings by me in 1977 and 1978 (I saw it ten times with my brother and sister instead of going to see anything else), I didn’t get to see this movie until years later when it was released on video.  But once I saw it, I realized how grand in scope it was.  Mix all the episodes of Leonard Nimoy’s old TV series In Search Of… and you’ll end up here.  A ship in the middle of the desert, a 1940s squadron appears out of nowhere, and we keep seeing this shape, painting it, making models of it.  Near the place where the Sundance Kid grew up is a destination for sci-fi fans now, at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.  And those five musical tones.  And an alien kidnapping scene, revealing nothing about the aliens, toys that seem to come alive, shocking and scary.  Invaders or friends?  Richard Dreyfuss’s second best movie.  One of Spielberg’s best.

4.  E.T.,THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982).  Not only did Close Encounters and The Day the Earth Stood Still teach us that aliens can be our friends, with E.T. a lot of us would never think to put up a fight when the invasion arrives.  Ugly but lovable, E.T. was funny, thrilling, and made us all cheer.  Ignore the recent edited, updated version–the original was just fine, thank you very much.  A classic pop culture film that gave us several catch phrases: “Home,”  “I’ll be right here,” “Be good,” “Phone home.”  And I am still addicted to Reese’s Pieces.  Another great Spielberg picture in his long list of blockbusters.

5.  ALIENS (1986).  Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson had it right when he said, “Game over, man, game over!”  The polar opposite of the aliens-as-friends films, these exoskeletal aliens have nothing in common with humans.  As villains, there is nothing for us to sympathize with.  They will just exterminate us.  This was a wake-up call for everyone who wants to meet our galactic neighbors.  Stay home and draw your curtains instead.  It was destiny that someone would pit them against Predator years later and it was no contest that we’d cheer the Predator.   And I don’t care what anyone says about the first movie with these monsters, Alien–Aliens, the sequel, was tons better with less unnecessary gross-outs.  You’ve seen one stomach burst, you’ve seen them all.  Skip the sequels but check out Aliens vs Predator for even more fun.

6.  THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984).  When Robert Preston, the original salesman from River City in The Music Man, comes to your planet looking to sell you something, like being a Starfighter, you know you have a different kind of film.  Here we expand the alien movie archetype from either good  or bad–aliens are shades of gray, like people, some are good, some are evil.  Directed by Nick Castle, John Carpenter’s colleague, a simple, quiet movie that has a lot of heart and makes everyone wish they’d get Alex Rogan’s calling.  And Grig’s make-up was the greatest thing until Enemy Mine.   With a great ending for the bad guys, with an all-time classic exchange:  “We’re locked into the moon’s gravitational pull!  What do we do?”  Answer?  “We die.”  Back in the days of arcades, this movie rivaled Tron as to coolness factor.  “Greetings, Starfighter.  You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.”  Where can I sign up? 

7.  THEY LIVE (1988).  This is a John Carpenter classic reviewed in an earlier post and puts Carpenter’s storytelling up there with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  Here, the story goes that Earth has already been invaded and They have been living amongst us.  We could just ignore them.  After all they aren’t hurting anyone.  But once we see them they are sooo ugly.  And we were here first.  Some of us will play along to get the “good life”.  But for one guy trying to keep to himself, this is something he can’t ignore.  The truth must get out.  Roddy Piper is here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and he’s all out of bubblegum.  But no happily ever after will be had here.  They are here to stay.  On the one hand, some movie watchers and critics dismiss They Live as just another action flick.  But if  you pay attention, like with all Carpenter movies, you can see Carpenter’s masterwork is much more complex and dips into our own world’s politics and those who do, and those who don’t, sell-out.

8.  ALIEN NATION (1988).  Much more than just a morality play and allegory to our own prejudices, Alien Nation digs into the struggles all lifeforms surely must face in a multi-species environment.  What motivates us, how do we get along with others?  James Caan (The Godfather, Elf) and Mandy Patinkin (Princess Bride) were perfectly cast as human and Tenctonese cops.  The film’s themes prompted an immediate successful TV series starring Gary Graham and Eric Pierpont.  Beyond the deeper themes, it’s a great police story and an odd, but fun, buddy movie of the Odd Couple variety. 

9.  WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005).  I almost didn’t see this remake in the theater.  But Tom Cruise movies are exciting and enjoyable 95% of the time.  So I saw it and just re-watched it a few weeks ago.  Here we see the futility of combating an invasion of even slightly more technology and might than us.  The situation really is hopeless.  All one can do is run.  As in They Live, with War of the Worlds the aliens have been here for a long time, only here they parked their vehicles here and are just now coming back to rev ’em up.  This movie has great special effects, truly creepy unsympathetic villains, and a lot of dread.  You really feel the pain of the result of alien visitors who don’t want to be our friends.  Yet another Spielberg blockbuster.

10.  DISTRICT 9 (2009).  A great film of political complexity.   A variant on Alien Nation, yet the same basic story.  An extraterrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth.  Their vessel runs out of resources and parks itself over South Africa.  It’s a blunt morality tale about the brutality of prejudice.  This one will strangely make you cheer against the humans.  Luckily for the visitors, they find a kindred spirit in a government agent who is accidentally exposed to their biotechnology.  You’ll find yourself asking:  What are your values?  How do you treat others who are different?  Where would you draw the line between life worthy of mutual respect and not?  Its documentary-style filming and non-American cast is refreshing and new.  And half the time you have to cringe at the protagonist’s actions.  Are we with him or not?

Honorable Mention: Starship Troopers (giant bugs destroy Rio de Janeiro, Johnny Rico is a classic western hero type), Enemy Mine (like Stagecoach, a human is stuck with an alien and even without a common language they come to realize how alike even different species can be and how valuable relationships can be formed by just trying to get along).

C.J. Bunce

Editor

borg.com

After a year of advertising, Cowboys and Aliens finally arrives in theaters June 29.  With a sci-fi western starring the coolest James Bond ever (Daniel Craig) and our favorite scoundrel/spice smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), our current favorite actress on-the-rise, Olivia Wilde (Quorra in Tron: Legacy, Thirteen in House M.D.), and the coolest director cranking out hits, Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf), this movie is going to really have to screw it up to not be the biggest blockbuster of the year–even competing against Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, another Harry Potter movie, another Pirates of the Caribbean movie, another Planet of the Apes movie, another X-Men movie and another Transformers movie.

And what do you look forward to the most?  The first big western in years?  Harrison Ford finally in a genre movie again?  Daniel Craig playing another cool as ice character?  That Boba Fett-style gauntlet blaster?  Favreau is on a roll with his recent films, and the trailer looks like it came out of a Philip K. Dick short story.  So while we’re waiting, eagerly, for Cowboys and Aliens to premiere, let’s run down a list of the all-time best westerns and alien movies.  We’ll start with the westerns and in two days we’ll look at the best alien movies.

1.  STAGECOACH (1939).  The best western director, John Ford, shooting in the best western location, Monument Valley, with the best western movie star, John Wayne.  A character study more than a standard shoot ’em up, the relationship of people trapped and how fear affects a small group dynamic and how each deals with an unseen threat just around the next turn.  Heroics and prejudice and good guys and bad guys.  Cowboys and Aliens is an obvious play on Cowboys and Indians, and this film follows a stagecoach ride under a threat of Geronimo and his posse–a real story of cowboys vs Indians in frontier America.  The source of the modern cool customer Han Solo-type, Wayne plays a tough but valiant Ringo Kid.

2.  FORT APACHE (1948).  Horse soldiers of the frontier, a mix of dying and dealing with command and authority, another John Ford and John Wayne partnership with a tough as nails Henry Fonda and the Ford/Wayne ensemble B-team of Victor McLaglen and Ward Bond.  Co-starring the no longer just a kid actor Shirley Temple.  This must have been what it was like to spend your years living out of a military fort.  Wayne grows in acting skill, develops his own persona and defines his swaggering hero with the confident and cocky Captain York.

3.  HIGH NOON (1952).  The rarity of a true hero in the face of real danger with no help from anyone.  Gary Cooper’s Marshal Kane must decide whether he is a runner or whether he must take a stand.  With Thomas Mitchel and a brilliant but frustrating Grace Kelly as the new Mrs. Kane.  Those who don’t like High Noon are usually frustrated with everyone but Cooper.  That’s because you’re supposed to be frustrated–sometimes people just don’t do the right thing until someone comes along and shows them the way.  Most of the film doesn’t make you feel good.  That’s why High Noon is not a garden variety western but a stand-out masterpiece.

4.  HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973).  Clint Eastwood directs himself in his best western role as the mysterious stranger.  I’m a big fan of genre bending and like Cowboys and Aliens bridges sci-fi and westerns, here we see a natural bridging of western meets ghost story.  Or does it?  Paint the town red?  Right on.  Seek a little revenge?  You bet.  Where Eastwood’s  other westerns seem to blur together, Drifter stands out as a film that seems to go a little crazy from the desert heat.

5.  THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962).  More John Ford directing John Wayne?  Yep, it’s because they were that good together.  And here we add on Jimmy Stewart as honest, frustrated but determined lawman turned senator, Ransom Stoddard.  Stewart’s Stoddard is a bit of High Noon’s Gary Cooper, but without the skill and edge.  Liberty is played by an oily, vile Lee Marvin in one of his best film roles.  And believe it or not, John Wayne again builds on his performance as the swaggering early Han Solo-type, including even a plotline pretty much stolen for the original Star Wars.  Whose steak did Liberty kick to the floor?  That was my steak, Valance.  Who shot Liberty Valance?  Watch and find out.

6.  MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946).  Yep, another John Ford directed masterpiece, again with Henry Fonda along with Ward Bond, but minus Wayne.  Walter Brennan is top-notch here playing the mouth flapper that made him famous.  The story is the most well known legend of the west:  the gunfight at the OK Corral.  Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, Victor Mature plays Doc Holliday.  Even if you know the story, Ford shows us how the streets of Tombstone were painted in blood more than a century ago.  Others have tried but no version of the story comes close to this classic.

7.  SHANE (1953).  Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur are perfect here, with real-life cowboy Ben Johnson along for the ride.  Neither a farmer nor rancher, Ladd’s Shane has his own code and his code is about being kind and reserved, despite his gunslinger past.  Like Wayne in Stagecoach, Cooper in High Noon, Stewart in Liberty Valance, and Eastwood in Drifter, Shane’s loner with the hidden past is sewn from the same cloth.  Not cool in a modern way, but in an example-setting way, Shane shows a young boy what kind of a man to grow up to be.  Like the triumph of the human spirit in several other great westerns, Shane is about looking out for the other guy.

8.  SILVERADO (1985).  My favorite western.  Lawrence Kasdan’s masterpiece that reintroduced the western genre and proved that you can make a western today every bit as good as decades ago.  The best ensemble western ever, yet it honestly pulls bits and pieces from all the other classics.  Kevin Kline’s Paden is an everyman just trying to get by, pulled into something he wants no part of.  Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner are brothers on their way to California who stop off on one last visit to their sister.  Too bad that the man who runs Silverado now is the son of the guy Glenn’s character went to jail for killing, and he just won’t let it go.  Enter Brian Dennehy as the sheriff and the Old West’s most perfect bartender named Stella, played by Linda Hunt. “Cobb can’t hurt me if he’s dead.”  With Danny Glover, Patricia Arquette and John Cleese.  Where’s the dog, Paden?

9.  THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960).  John Sturges directs an all-star cast in the best remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.  Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn and Charles Bronson are each skilled with their own special powers.  They must team up to complete a simple task–and selecting the team for the job is just plain fun.  Charles Coburn is solid as the expert in knife throwing.  A rollicking, exciting western.  Sturges’ line-up of heroes and familiar images of an up-and-coming western town is classic Old West.

10.  BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969).  Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross star in the other most famous story of the west.  Bank robbers and the best ever buddy movie.  The trio play off each other so naturally you really miss these people after the movie is over.  Great fun, with popular music of the day.  “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” as a pop song behind Newman and Ross’s bicycle ride reflects a carefree spirit that must have accompanied the actual risky band of gunslingers.  The film stands strong today and on multiple viewings Newman and Redford only seem to get better.

HONORABLE MENTION: RIO BRAVO (John Wayne in a low-key performance, with some classic gunfight scenes, including a slick dive and rifle throw and catch scene you’ll have to rewind and watch again and again), BEND IN THE RIVER (Jimmy Stewart and the best western scenery outside of Monument Valley), ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (John Wayne’s quiet anti-hero/hero and the innocent Gail Russell have chemistry and somehow manage to come off as made for each other).

MUSICAL WESTERNS YOU SHOULD NOT MISS:  OKLAHOMA! (“the farmer and the cowman can be friends”), PAINT YOUR WAGON (Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin singing a good musical under backdrop of the sudden growth of a western town)

Delve further into the genre and check out these other actors from classic westerns:  Gene Autry, Dale Evans, Glenn Ford, Gabby Hayes, Tom Mix, Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott, and the Sons of the Pioneers.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com

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