The Hollywood Western blazes new trails

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When Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven won multiple Oscars in the space of two years in the early 90’s it looked the Western was making a comeback after many years in the cinematic wilderness. Indeed, Costner returned to the screen soon after in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp in 1994, while Kurt Russell played the same character in Tombstone (1993).

Unfortunately, the resurgence was short-lived. There were no major Western projects subsequently from either studios or big name film makers. Movie goers in the next 25 years have preferred to watch dinosaurs, aliens, wizards, elves, robots, pirates, vampires, spies and superheroes – both real and computer-generated for their big screen entertainment; anything other than cowboys, it seems. One of the reasons is the globalization of Hollywood; big studio productions today earn as much as 70-80% of their box office revenue from outside North America. Movies are a product and the product needs to appeal to international tastes; therefore making a period film rooted in a very specific geographical and cultural setting is not smart business sense.

So it has been a dry spell for those who are spellbound by the amber colors, wide vistas and gritty characters that define the essence of a Western. Sure, there have been a few here and there, most of which have been really good, such as Ang Lee’s Civil War epic Ride with the Devil (1999), Costner’s own return to the genre with Open Range (2003), Ed Harris’ entertaining Appaloosa (2008), Andrew Dominik’s little seen but much acclaimed The Assissanation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), the Coen Bros.’ remake of True Grit (2010), Jared Moshe’s Dead Man’s Burden (2012) and Quentin Tarention’s Django Unchained (2012) – although that last should probably be called a ‘South-western’…

And when big studios have entered the genre, they have ended up with big budget disasters like Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013).

But interestingly, in the past two years, there has been a spike in the number of Westerns produced. They are almost all small scale, independent productions but all have strong scripts and notable performances from well known actors. Some of these films are interesting hybrids, integrating other genres like horror, whodunnit or thriller or moving it into a modern day setting:

The Homesman (2014): This wonderful understated film directed by Tommy Lee Jones has him playing a dour ornery drifter (as only he can) who is employed by a devout settler (Hilary Swank) to transport 3 mentally ill women from their isolated farming community back to civilization. Swank’s acting received several awards but somehow got missed out by the Oscars. Look out for some other big names in small roles!

The Hateful Eight (2015): Tarentino stayed with the Western genre in this follow-up to Django Unchained. With more than half the movie set inside a log cabin in the midst of a winter storm, this one plays more like a locked-room mystery or whodunnit rather than a regular Western. Fantastic performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Walton Goggins.

Bone Tomahawk (2015): Directed by first-time director S. Craig Zahler, this film features Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson on the trail of cannibalistic natives living in a cave in the hills, who have kidnapped several people from their town. It’s a wonderful character piece (much like The Searchers), with a truly scary 3rd act and one of the most horrifying screen deaths you will see anywhere!

Slow West (2015): This one is also directed by debutant film maker, John Maclean. This buddy movie has Kodi Smit-McPhee playing a young man on a cross-country journey in search of the woman he loves with Michael Fassbender as the mysterious stranger who befriends the naive young boy and decides to help him on his quest.

In a Valley of Violence (2016): This film is produced by horror experts Blumhouse Productions and director Ti West. This is a typical revenge story of the mysterious stranger who gets into a fight with some bullies while passing through an isolated town, then goes back to take revenge on the men when they attack him and leave him for dead. The director throws in a few ‘horror’ beats for good measure (because he can!) and there are some fun comedic elements in the 3rd act dialogue. Ethan Hawke and good old John Travolta make this one worth watching.

Hell or High Water (2016): Coming fresh off 3 Golden Globe nominations, indie film maker David Mackenzie puts together a modern-day Western, with two bank-robber brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) on the run from experienced lawman Jeff Bridges. Like Travolta, Mr. Bridges has been doing this acting thing for so long that he can probably dial in a performance in his sleep. The first two-thirds of the film is genuinely engaging although I did feel that the film stumbled a bit as it reached a predictable shootout finale.

I don’t know if this is another blip on the radar and if we will go back to another barren stretch in the next few years. Hopefully all these new films have been profitable and studios discover that it makes good business sense to make good Westerns!


Rogue One – not just ‘A Star Wars Story’ but a bona fide prequel to the original

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Ridley Scott made headlines a few years ago by jumping back into the Alien franchise with Prometheus, giving franchise fans much hope after several misadventures by Fox studios in previous years. However in the months leading up to the release, Mr. Scott was reluctant to refer to the new film as a sequel or prequel. Instead, he stated that “while Alien was indeed the jumping-off point for this project, out of the creative process evolved a new, grand mythology and universe in which this original story takes place.” This created an expectation that the movie would be unconnected with the titular aliens and would just take place “in the same universe”. Eventually, Prometheus was nothing more than a prequel and I wondered if all that dissembling was just a marketing gimmick, or if it was to manage the expectations of fanboys because the film did not feature any of the actual alien creatures which were a staple of all the previous films.

Likewise, when Disney purchased Lucasfilm, they announced a new trilogy of Star Wars films to be released every 2 years and in the intervening years there would be “anthology films set in the same universe, but not part of the storyline of the existing series”. The first of these ‘standalone films’ is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and my thoughts after watching it this evening mirrors my reaction to Prometheus. This is a straight up prequel to the 1977 movie, with the last scene of the film literally leading to the first scene of Star Wars. So I’m guessing the reason the film makers were so coy about referring to this film as a prequel was to manage expectations that there would be no Skywalkers nor our two favourite droids nor any lightsaber duels in this film.

This says a lot about the pressures of making sequels/ prequels in this era of intense social media scrutiny by fickle fanboys (and film critics!) and the need to manage expectations of what they will or will not get to see in the film. Giving the audience ‘comfort food’ and getting that early positive buzz without any whines of disappointment from the first few screenings is so critical to launch these expensive movies onto a positive box office trajectory.

Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebellion came to be in possession of the detailed schematics of the Empire’s Death Star and indeed how such a formidable superweapon the size of a small moon ended up being vulnerable to Luke Skywalker’s tiny X-Wing fighter in Star Wars.

The movie essentially plays out like a World War II ensemble action film – think The Guns of Navarone or The Sea Wolves. And as with those 60’s and 70’s war movies, the ensemble is filled out by a wealth of acting talent. But what’s even more notable is ethnic diversity in this film – more than in any Star Wars film or perhaps any major blockbuster so far!

The lead character Jyn Erso is played by British Oscar nominee Felicity Jones; her partners in this caper include Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (played by popular Mexican actor Diego Luna), defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Pakistani-origin British actor Riz Ahmed), blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen), his mercenary friend Baze Malbus (award winning Chinese actor/ director/ screewriter Jian Weng) and a re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO with a wry sense of humour (voiced by beloved American character actor Alan Tudyk). Also featured in prominent roles are veteran African-American actor and Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (yes, the same character from the Star Wars Rebels animated series) and acclaimed Danish thesp Mads Mikkelsen as Jyn’s father Galen. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn graduates from a lifetime of supporting roles in indie films and generates massive screen presence as Director Orson Krennic, the ambitious and ruthless head of the Empire’s Death Star project.

Yup, there’s a lot of new names, but as we have been assured, this is a standalone film and no need to worry about remembering them for future sequels!

Standalone or prequel, Rogue One is filled with familiar beats and echoes from the original trilogy – words and phrases, human, alien and droid characters, spaceships, weaponry and other easter eggs – they’re all there for the hardcore Star Wars fan to recognize and enjoy. While this is welcome, what I found disappointing was the use of so many standard storytelling tropes and cliches throughout the movie. Jettisoning some of these would have brought an element of unpredictability to the movie in the same way that Game of Thrones has done over the years. This could have taken Rogue One from good to great. 

Among the parts that worked for me is the third act featuring the raid on the high security Imperial databank on planet Scarif. It is intense and beautifully choreographed; the action plays out like a three-ringed circus – in orbit above the planet, within the databank building and out on the seafront outside the building.

Michael Giacchino, who is one of Disney’s favourite composers (he won an Oscar for Up and was nominated for Ratatouille) seems to now have moved to the world of big budget action films, having recently composed for Jurassic World, Star Trek Beyond and Doctor Strange. I really liked his work for this film, very sparingly adapting parts of John Williams’ iconic original soundtrack and instead creating a predominantly martial score befitting a war film, but also keying in the emotional moments at the beginning and end of the film.

What a great commercial triumph for 41-year-old British director Gareth Edwards. His first effort in 2010 was the critically acclaimed indie scifi film Monsters, with all the visual effects created by Edwards in his bedroom using off-the-shelf software! He then graduated to the big league, directing the reboot of Godzilla in 2014 which successfully launched a new franchise for production company Legendary Pictures. And now here he is with a USD 200 million budget, successfully delivering a new entry to one of the most beloved film series of all time.

I don’t agree with the initial gushing reaction of some critics that this is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. But replicating the same ‘comfort food’ approach of last year’s The Force Awakens, it certainly looks like Disney and producer Kathleen Kennedy have made sure that their goose will keep laying golden eggs for some time to come.