Category Archives: Western

Never Grow Old (2019) Movie Review By Justin Aylward

 

Never Grow Old Review

Director: Ivan Kavanagh
Writer: Ivan Kavanagh
Stars: Emile Hirsch, John Cusack, Déborah François

The Western has become the forgotten genre of recent years in the world of movies. Relegated to small theatres or released amid a flurry of higher profile pictures on streaming sites, one would think that cowboys and Indians have gone extinct. But despite the lack of major studio interest, there are still directors out there who are willing and able to mount that old horse and ride out to the horizon with a tale of their own.

Ireland’s Ivan Kavanagh (Tin Can Man, The Canal) has written and directed a new picture, Never Grow Old, starring John Cusack, Emile Hirsch, and Deborah Francois. The film takes place in the pre-war nascent town of Farlow, on the California Trail. In Farlow there is enough fog for Jack The Ripper to disappear in and sufficient mud for a weeklong music festival.

Amid the elements, is a town of fervid religiosity and pious sermonising where the locals gather in the Presbyterian church. The preacher (Danny Webb) reminds his congregation that Farlow can be a shining example of American exceptionalism. They have rid themselves of Indians and now a new diktat will see the town free of drinking, gambling and prostitution. This is the real American Dream.

Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) is an immigrant undertaker from Ireland. He lives with his wife, Audrey (Deborah Francois) and their two children. Times are easy for no one in the west and things are no different for Patrick and his family. Audrey wants the family to continue travelling the coast to ensure a more prosperous life for the family.

Just when it looks like there isn’t enough graves to dig, Dutch Albert (John Cusack) rides into town in search of an old friend and bank robber. Soon enough, Tate is recruited as a friend by Dutch. ‘You kill two friends, you can make another one.’ Albert says. Cusack, with his greasy black hair and persistently soggy features brings enough quiet danger to the role. He could easily be a sort of dark avenger from the great beyond. He can see fear in people’s eyes, no less his new friend, Tate. With his two dingbat buddies, Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck) a full-on cowboy minus a tongue, and Sicily (Camille Pistone) a Mediterranean menace, Dutch takes over the town. He reopens the saloon, and the drinks begin flowing again.

A battle between right and wrong quickly ensues between Dutch and the town, the problem being neither one is exactly right. Dutch brings about havoc with a loose trigger finger and a sharp aim, while the sheriff and the preacher are less militaristic in their posturing, but insidiousness lies not far beneath their rhetoric.

At the heart of the film is a quagmire of competing forces. Cowardice and Strength. Morality and greed. Peace and chaos. Wealth and poverty. Patrick Tate is a weak, cowardly man. He gives up on his religion in order to fit in, wilfully facilitates Dutch in his unlawful pursuits, and refuses to speak up in the face of injustice and murder. Is this the true foundational history of America? What does it take for a man to overcome his shadow and speak the truth?

Director, Kavanagh, lays out these questions and allows the viewer to decide on the fact of the matter. The film, however, is quite slight, except for scenes of barbarity which are cruel in their slowness. There is nothing particularly surprising and the pace is dulled in the second act. You can almost feel the cracks that split the movie apart toward the finale. Kavanagh compensates for this by going back to the common stylistic tropes of the genre which barely conceal the cracks.
What works about the film is the commitment to the material.

Never Grow Old is nothing new but it is a solid entry into the genre, reminiscent of such Westerns as The Hunting Party and The Unforgiven. John Cusack, who doesn’t normally bring the sinister to the screen, gives a performance of deep subtlety, bringing Dutch Albert to life with slow and ominous speech patterns and delivery. Also, the film was shot entirely in the west of Ireland, which makes a somewhat murkier depiction of the American midlands than you might expect. But the hazardous elements and desolate landscape help to create that atmosphere of dread and isolation.

Never Grow Old is a Western that uses the typical tropes of the genre well enough and with unflinching devotion for a worthy viewing experience.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) Movie Review By Stephen McLaughlin 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review,

Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen 
Stars: Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, Clancy Brown, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Brendan Gleeson

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is six individual tales of life and violence in the Old West, following a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a traveling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train, and a perverse pair of bounty hunters. None of these short tales are connected in anyway and there is no Tarantinoesque intertwining themes here. 

Surprisingly The Ballad of Buster Scruggs segment also headlines the film and begins light hearted, with comedic tone and a catchy sing song it the local saloon. Tim Blake Nelson plays the singing cowboy who likes to be known as “The San Saba Songbird” and breaks the forth wall every now and then to talk to the viewer. It’s abrupt finale will surprise you but also prepare you for an unexpected piece of storytelling throughout its duration. As the film moves forward it’s tone shifts and reaches some really dark places. Keeping this review as spoiler free is important for anyone experiencing the film for the first time. It’s the little shifts that take place in the storytelling that keep you captivated and wanting to know what is coming next.

In the second segment named “Near Algodones”, a cowboy played by James Franco attempts to rob a bank, but what looked like a simple robbery goes completely wrong and the cowboy wakes up in an awful predicament. For a Coen Brothers film this segment barely has much dialogue and relies on the story and the landscape. If I’ve to take anything from the shortest segment is how quickly things can go downhill for a character in the old west through bad choices.

I’d probably say that the Meal Ticket (The films third segment) is my joint favourite story. Liam Neeson plays an an Impresario who arrives in a town and advertises a show by “Harrison: ‘The Wingless Thrush’ – Celebrated Thespian, Orator, and Entertainer.” The performance is a one-man show by the Artist played by Harry Melling, an actor with no arms or legs. The Artist recites famous segments of Shakespeare and the first showing we see is well received but as the two travel from town to town the numbers are dwindling and Neeson’s character must rethink his strategy to survive. Again I’m not going to reveal any spoilers but what I will say is some of the decisions in this segment are brutal. What I got out of this story was how ruthless some people are to succeed in show business. Ironically, the Impresario also realises how lowbrow he can go to succeed.

All Gold Canyon is my favourite story and is essentially a one-man show by Tom Waits for the most part. It looks like the most invested segment of the film by the Coen Brothers with its stunning scenery and amazing score. Waits performance is excellent as a lone prospector working around the clock to unearth gold from the river. There is moments in this segment that although the prospector is “a ruthless gold digger” show the character has respect for his surroundings and the wildlife around. I nearly hated what I thought was the ending (steady now, no reveals) but thankfully there is a moment that redeems the situation and leaves you satisfied.

The Gal Who Got Rattled (The films fifth segment) is probably the one story that frustrated me the most in its ending. I get this is what the filmmakers where going for and there is a sense of a Romeo and Juliet ending to this one without the love of the  two characters in their predicament. Siblings Gilbert and Alice are on route to Oregon but when Gilbert dies of cholera his sister is left with nothing and a $400 debt to a character who runs their wagon named Matt. A kindly cowboy named Billy Knapp in charge if the train becomes friendly with Alice and asks her to Marry him which in turn assumes her debt. As the story develops the trail continue to travel across the landscape and somewhere down the line Alice has wandered off and Billy’s partner Mr. Arthur finds Alice and both are in a situation with Comanche. The Gal Who Got Rattled is the most personal story of the six. The characters are more connected in this segment than the others based on the situation and ruthlessness of the previous stories I understand that. There is a more loving human element to this story that ends in sadness.

The final instalment of the film is titles The Mortal Remains. The story is about Death and ironically no one dies (is that really a spoiler? I’m only telling you something that didn’t happen so not really) The Mortal Remains resembles Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” opening in its setting and dialogue heavy scenes. Appearing in the story is Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubenik, Brendan Gleeson and Jojo O’Neill. Although not my favourite segment The Mortal Remains reveals itself as an interesting tale and in places a surreal experience ending to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Overall an expected enthralling film by the Coen Brothers who utilise the Netflix platform to its maximum capabilities. The service attracts the best filmmakers and actors and the filmmakers have complete control over their work with very little studio interference. A win-win situation for all to be had. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs works for me and I enjoyed all the sections and the characters. What we are presented with is a film by the Coen Brothers who capture the essence of the old west beautifully with stunning visuals capturing the different seasons and settings perfectly, which made me think that each six short film could easily have been made into six feature films. Enjoyable and Highly Recommended.

Forsaken (2015) Movie Review By Darrin Gauthier

Forsaken Review

Director: Jon Cassar
Writers: Brad Mirman, Tari
Stars: Esther Purves-Smith, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland

Plot:  In 1872, an embittered gunslinger named John Henry Clayton attempts to make amends with his estranged father Reverend Samuel Clayton while their community is besieged by ruthless land-grabbers.
Running Time: 90 Minutes
IMDB Score: 6.3

Why I Watched It: I’m a sucker for Westerns and sadly not many get made anymore so I’ll jump at one that looks half decent and the cast doesn’t hurt either.

Random Thoughts: Yes Kiefer Sutherland and Donald Sutherland have been in the same movie before but they’ve never played father and son and I guess this was the reason for the film, Kiefer got his old friend from 24 Jon Cassar to direct it and from what I heard Kiefer say in interviews the father and son had been looking for a film to do and settled on this Western, now Kiefer is no stranger to Westerns he did the Young Guns movies. I don’t get to review many current Westerns truly it’s a near dead genre, you get the odd ones and the ones we do get tend to be remakes, it’s too bad done well a Western is a s good as any genre and you can do anything inside a Western, drama, coming of age, and the cool thing about Westerns that on the surface it’s a simple genre but the best have all kinds of subtext and weight to them.

What I Liked: This is an old school Western no doubt about it but what I liked is that at it’s heart it’s a story about a man not only coming to terms with who he is and what he’s done but what it’s cost him and the main thing is trying to reconnect with his father.  I think what Forsaken does very well is that this isn’t a coming of age drama, it’s not about a man proving something to his father it’s a bout a man who’s older who’s realised he’s thrown away his family and he has a real desire to get it back as an adult.  Sure it helps that this is a real father and son it also helps both are very good actors and the film lets both of them shine, now forsaken is a cliched Western but the story of the father and son isn’t cause it doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go.  Kiefer plays a man who went off to war and it changed him to the point where he became a man who lived off killing and cause of that he never came back to his family or the women he loved.  The film is full of melodrama but it’s pretty good, seeing Donald and Kiefer go toe to toe is great and cause of the respect there’s give and take there isn’t a good guy and bad guy there both are right and both are wrong.  We get to see them fight and we also see that both are fleshed out and complicated characters.

The other hi-light for me is Michael Wincott, he’s a veteran Canadian character actor who in my mind is so underrated and underused here he gets a great character and he gets to shine. His character reminds me of the one Christoper George played in El Dorado, he’s a gunslinger, or a gun for hire if you will but he’s not evil, actually he’s one of the most likeable character in the movie.  Wincott is known for playing bad guys and once I saw him I’m like here we go again but he doesn’t he plays a man who will kill but only if he has to, he’s someone who has clearly come to terms with who he is and what he does.  He takes a stock character and twists him, he’s part of a gang trying to force people to sell their land, their homes, farms but he tries to reason with them and he has a really good speech telling a farmer the true meaning of land, that it won’t look after his family, it won’t protect them he could by other land, it goes badly but oddly not because of Wincott.  Wincott and Kiefer are very good together they only have a few scenes but it’s cool seeing these two deadly men who have respect for each other and an odd kinship.
The other clever thing is that we have a group of bad guys and of course Brian Cox is the big bad but Wincott stays away from playing the moustache twirling Western cliched character.  It was a fresh take and a good performance.  A little shout out to Demi Moore, she’s good here and again stays away from playing a cliche, her and Kiefer were in love he never came back, she’s married and remains with her husband but there’s still a connection between her and her lost love.

What I Didn’t Like: Now we get to the cliched part and there’s three things that are very cliched Brian Cox as the bad guy, first of all this is the stock rich evil guy forcing and killing people to give up their land and you add to the fact that this stock villain is played by Brian Cox, is there a thing to be a double cliche, he’s played this guy a ton before and it comes off as tired, he’s not bad but it would have helped to have gotten someone maybe against type.  Aaron Poole has the main gunman/thug gives a bad performance, he’s been good in other things but he comes off as over the top bad and like he’s close to growling, it doesn’t help he’s playing off Kiefer and Wincott who are underplaying so he seems more over the top, he’s in a different movie.
The last nitpick about cliches is the main story of the land barren taking land, they do nothing to twist this up, except Wincott’s character but so many of the scenes with Poole and Cox feel like they’ve been cut and paste from over Westerns.

Final Thoughts: I really liked it, I recommend it especially if you’re fans of the Sutherlands and Westerns, it’s a well acted and solid film.

Rating: 7/10

Slow West (2015) Movie Review by John Walsh

SLOW WEST

Director: John Maclean
Writer: John Maclean
Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn

John Maclean isn’t a directorial name I’ve ever heard of before, a fact which conjures up a degree of shame with him being a fellow Scotsman and all, and his zany, intriguing, 2015 feature film debut Slow West also managed to fall under my radar. It’s a rapidly quick paced, fairly short little film that belies it’s titular name. Excellently casted, featuring a predominantly European cast and perfectly crafted by the ex-musician come filmmaker. It’s a surprisingly good western on the surface that’s about a lovesick boy, but also attempts to convey the real struggle that native Americans faced at the hands of their colonial settlers.

The film opens with the attention very much on the aforementioned lovesick chap, 16 year old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) journeying on his lonesome and heading towards a Native American settlement that looks to be under attack by union soldiers. Even without uttering a word in the first five minutes you get an immediate sense that he’s way out of his depth in the alien ‘New World’ landscape of North America (actually New Zealand, but that’s another story). Skinny, with more than a hint of naivety, he’s got a certain ballsiness and continues making his way forward despite thick smoke obscuring his vision and ash falling. When he meets a group of soldiers using a fleeing man as target practice things turn rather pear shaped, with the leader paying no heed of the youngsters protestations at being British and meaning no harm. Step forward Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), an experienced outlaw with a hidden agenda to save the day.

He kills the soldier dead without a second thought and immediately advises the bewildered and rather flustered looking Jay that he’ll be in need of a guide in those parts. A role he’s only too happy to volunteer for at a price. The basic premise of the story thereafter is essentially the blooming relationship between the pair of them and their journey together in search for Rose (Caren Pistorius), the previously mentioned girl he’s infatuated with. There’s ups and downs, dark humour aplenty, no holds barred violence, an ill judged attempted escape from Jay which leaves him stranded in the middle of an expansive desert with an uncooked egg to his name and several hilarious scenes between both Jay and Silas. The best of which involves the drinking of absinthe after the arrival of one Silas’ old acquaintances Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a dodgy figure and leader of an outlaw group closely trailing our protagonists for much of the film.

I like the way Maclean fleshed out the backstory of Jay via a series of flashbacks set in the Scottish highlands the character calls home. It allowed the viewer to be given an insight into his motivations, whilst slowly introducing us to him, Rose and her dad John (Rory McCann). and also the reasons behind their decision to leave. It also allowed for a nice change in tone from the present day action which was absolutely relentless in its ferocity and pacing. It’s a quite short film at an hour and twenty odd minutes and they really utilised each and every second of those effectively. The growing bond and relationship between Silas and Jay was very nicely handled too. Both were able to help each other out with the latter showing Silas that there was hope and reasons for optimism even in the Willd West, meanwhile Silas did his best to imbue the younger gentlemen he was growing increasingly fond of with a dose of reality.

There’s some really good performances in this film, most notably from Smit-McPhee. The character of Jay was awkward and slightly eccentric, and Kodi was perfectly cast for it, filling that role with a confidence belying his relatively young age of 19. Michael Fassbender was also outstanding as the outlaw Silas, a cynical man with a plan who starts out as a cold fish and eventually mellows as the film progresses, developing an unlikely bromance with his younger companion. Mendelsohn’s part as Payne isn’t quite as big as the other two, but he lights up the handful of scenes he features in and that majestic fur coat of his almost deserves a mention of its own. Shoutouts to Pistorius as Rose, she steals the finale with an emotionally powerful performance and the main man Rory McCann as John. He doesn’t have an enormous role, but such is my love for his character in Game of Thrones, it would be sacrilege for me not to mention him and he does do a decent job in a relative cameo role.

The film doesn’t hold back in the violence stakes with plenty of murders occurring, never shirking away from showing blood. Having said that, it’s a rated 15 film and it’s not terribly violent by any means. Still, there is some striking moments in there. One scene in particular involving a desperate mother and father in a store with their young children waiting outside was particularly profound. The ending had a unique way of sequentially panning to every single person killed in the film, which to be honest, I thought was rather cool. Which brings me onto the cinematography. It’s was stunningly shot by Robbie Ryan. There was several beautiful moments, such as that scene I mentioned in the wide, expansive desert and even the sweeping vistas of the Ross’ prairie house at the end where just a delight on the eye.

I really, really enjoyed this film. I went in with zero knowledge of its existence and was pleasantly surprised at the quality. The ensemble performances were for the most part excellent and the story whilst rather simplistic at heart was still very well implemented and there was the obvious underlying thematic elements in regards to the Native American mistreatment. I can’t really think of any glaring negatives in there and would have no problems recommending it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Tombstone (1993) Movie Retro Review by John Walsh

TOMBSTONE

Directors: George P. Cosmatos, Kevin Jarre
Writer: Kevin Jarre
Stars: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott

Right, so I’ve admitted before that I’m a massive fan of the western genre, particularly the spaghetti western trilogy, and yet somehow I managed to miss Tombstone (1993). How the hell did that happen? That’s the burning question which has etched itself into my mind since I watched it a few days ago. This film literally (not literally) blew my mind with how good it actually is. It’s just phenomenally well written with an excellent cast of actors/actresses.

What I enjoyed the most about it, besides the memorable and infinitely quotable dialogue or the bursts of wild action, was in my mind at least the trio of arcs that ran synchronously throughout. First of all, you have Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), facing an existential crisis after hanging up his deputy sheriff badge and seeking out a new life in the silver rush town of Tombstone with his brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton). Secondly, you have the side arc involving Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), the dance with death he has with both tuberculosis, the Clanton led cowboys and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) in particular. And finally, the wider arc which inevitably pits the brothers and Holliday against the cowboys within Tombstone and further afield.

George P. Cosmatos and Kevin Jarre deserve immense credit for the ease in which this all occurs organically and simultaneously, with each arc being given its fair share of attention, development and ultimately brought to a satisfying conclusion. It was nice coming from watching Fury, a film I criticised for having an unmemorable story and poorly developed, 2D characters, to this. This was the complete antithesis of that and I was engrossed in this story and emotionally invested in the Earp brothers and Holliday from start to finish. Speaking of the story, I’ll try to summarise it in a way that doesn’t spoil anything for a person that might’ve not seen the film already, although I’m fully aware that having been released nearly 25 years ago, that’s sure to be a niche market indeed.

In short, this film is primarily about Wyatt Earp’s journey. It begins with his departure from a distinguished law enforcement career as a deputy sheriff and his attempt to find a more enjoyable and financially prosperous life with his brothers. Life is very rarely that simple however and with a disinterested, opium addicted wife and the town of Tombstone packed with low life outlaws, cowboys and a spineless sheriff, it’s not long before trouble begins to brew. Amongst this is the alluring figure of Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany), whose continued presence throughout and free-spirited ideology on life quickly leaves Wyatt spellbound. He finds himself torn between his old life, when his two brothers become marshals, resolving to help in dealing with the outlaws, and the preferable, potentially fresh start with Josephine.

That is what the film is supposed to be primarily about. Mr. Val Kilmer has something to say about that and some, however. What can I say about this mans performance in the film? Just wow. Firstly, I find it absolutely astonishing that he never one an oscar for this portrayal. A portrayal which most people familiar with the history of the real Doc Holliday seem to agree is the most faithful interpretation to date. From his characters memorable, often drunken, delivery of the dialogue (“I’m your huckleberry” is now in my mind forever more), imbued with an authentic southern drawl in all to his scarily, genuinely realistic portrayal of a man dying with tuberculosis. He provides laughs, action and steals the show from everyone else in the film. It’s easily one of the best acting performances I’ve seen in a long, long time.

That’s not to say the rest aren’t decent either, they damn well are. Indeed, there’s a quite few very good performances. Stephen Lang, Dana Delany, Bill Paxton, Sam Elliott and Powers Boothe, are all very good to excellent. Kurt Russell is fantastic as ever in his role as Wyatt. I seem to be reviewing a lot of his films recently, and believe me, it’s not coincidental. The guy is a tremendous actor and his resume of cracking films is ridiculous. Shoutouts to the cameos from Michael Rooker and Charlton Heston too.

From a visual perspective, this film has a real retro vibe to it and is just gorgeously shot. It could genuinely have been filmed in the 60s or 70s and not looked out of place. There’s so many stunning, scenic wide shots and cool little closeup cuts to the actors during stand-offs or moments of tension which was nicely done and really effective. The whole cinematography in general was just perfect, so take a bow William A. Fraker. It would be remiss of me not to mention the set and costume design which was on the money too. Musically, I loved the score in this film. Again, much like the visuals, it was like a classic western score and married well with everything happening in the film.

It’s not very often I watch a film and deem it something of a classic. This film is without a doubt in that category. It has all the components to propel it to that standard. The leading actors and overall ensemble performances are fantastic; it’s got some great dialogue; excellent bursts of action sandwiched between deeper, more reflective moments; the story is engaging, entertaining and it’s incredible both visually and musically. Also, it has subtle, little moments of brilliance, like for example, Doc’s clear analysis of Johnny Ringo’s draw speed during their first encounter and the way he then clearly uses that later to his advantage. I have an appreciation for small details of that ilk. Honestly, I can’t pick any faults with this film apart from it maybe embellishing the truth in its portrayal of certain events, but this isn’t really criticism as such, as it will always happen in films.

I would have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this film to anybody that hasn’t seen it. It deserves to be watched for Val Kilmer’s performance alone. Even if you aren’t a massive fan of the western genre, this film will still entertain you. It’s that good.