Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” is a “Dallas” for the 21st century


Hosted by imgur.com

There’s no doubt that actor turned screenwriter and director, Taylor Sheridan has become one of the most exciting new voices in American cinema in the past 2-3 years, albeit in a very specific niche that he seems to have carved out for himself.

For about 20 years, Sheridan had been a journeyman actor appearing in small parts on American TV shows, punctuated by recurring roles in Veronica Mars (2005-07) and Sons of Anarchy (2008-10). Then suddenly, in his 40s, he decided to find a different form of creative expression and switched to writing.

He wrote the screenplay for the Mexican drug-cartel thriller Sicario, a big hit at Cannes and a sleeper hit at the box office in the Fall of 2015 for acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve. The following year, his brothers-on-the-run story Hell or High Water was directed by David Mackenzie and garnered four Oscar nominations including Best Original Screenplay for Sheridan. One year later, he directed his own script for the murder-investigation thriller Wind River, effectively his directorial debut (although officially he is credited as director for a student film he helped a friend make in 2011). And now in 2018, his screenplay for the sequel to Sicario, called Day of the Soldado, has just hit the big screen filmed by Italian director Stefano Sollima.

All four films are set in contemporary times but have the sparse and lonely feel of the early frontier Western films of John Ford. Wind River also deals with an aspect of American history that most people don’t want to dwell on, the emasculation and slow neglect of Native Americans. In January last year, I wrote about how the traditional Western genre has seen a bit of resurgence in recent years and I included Hell or High Water in that post as an example of a modern Western. It’s clear now that Mr. Sheridan has started to stake out a sub-genre that can be called the modern or neo-Western as his personal playground. His latest project, a TV series called Yellowstone that has just launched on the small Paramount network, further strengthens his credentials in this field.

Think of Yellowstone as a modern-day Dallas, the story of the super-wealthy but dysfunctional Ewing family that created so many ‘water-cooler moments’ in the late 70’s and early 80’s with its weekly servings of feuding, family politics and back-stabbing. Sheridan has taken a similar premise and placed it in a sprawling ranch in Montana, run with an iron hand by family patriarch John Dutton. The character is played appropriately by Kevin Costner, who has made his own name in the past as a ‘Western revivalist’ filmmaker and now makes his first proper foray into TV. As the world changes around him, John Dutton ruthlessly fights to maintain the status quo, to protect his power and everything that he has built up over the decades on his Yellowstone ranch. As the largest landowner in Montana, he is in constant conflict with Native American activists who live on the adjacent reservation, ambitious land developers who want a piece of his land and politicians who just want whatever works for them.

Dutton has four grown-up children; Lee (Dave Annable) is the simple-living oldest son, who has chosen to work on the ranch with his father; Beth (British actress Kelly Reilly) is a cut-throat, ambitious (and slightly psychotic) banker, who is as ruthless as her father; Jamie (Wes Bentley) is a corporate lawyer who steps in whenever the ranch requires his legal skills to fight off external threats; Kayce (Luke Grimes) is the youngest sibling, an ex-Navy SEAL who has married a Native American girl and moved with her into the reservation, thereby putting himself in potential conflict with his father. Also, in the mix is Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), the loyal ranch foreman who does all the dirty work for John Dutton. For those familiar with Dallas, it’s easy to pigeonhole the Dutton family into the standard personality types.

On the Native American Brocken Rock Reservation, there are a couple of familiar faces who acted in Sheridan’s Wind River – Kelsey Asbille plays Monica, who is married to Kayce Dutton, and Gil Birmingham plays the Chief of the reservation, Thomas Rainwater, a man who wants to establish his own power equation in this region.

When compared with Sheridan’s big screen work, which has featured interesting characters and unusual situations, Yellowstone does not live up to the same standards. From what I’ve seen in the first two episodes, it comes across as a standard big budget soap opera with stereotypical characters and a predictable over-arching plot. While I can watch Wind River and Sicario again and again (and I have), Yellowstone will fall, I think, into the ‘watch-enjoy-and-forget’ category of TV shows. Nevertheless, with charismatic and heavyweight actors on board, I know I will be hooked on to this show for mindless entertainment, while I will continue to turn to Sheridan’s big screen work for the really stimulating stuff.

Advertisements

Godless: Steven Soderbergh’s Western mini-series is both epic and intimate


Hosted by imgur.com

In the past 5-7 years, scripted shows like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, True Detective, Narcos, Downton Abbey and The Crown as well as mini-series like John Adams, The Night Manager and The Night Of have all brought richly detailed, large scale, cinema-quality entertainment to TV.

Netflix and HBO in particular have been very successful at attracting the best of Hollywood talent to write, produce, direct and star in these drama and fantasy epics that have pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible and acceptable on TV, in terms of graphic violence and sex as well as production values.

One of those big names who turned his attention to scripted TV is Steven Soderbergh. From 2014 onwards, the Oscar-winning director has executive produced half a dozen TV projects, including the award-winning 2013 TV movie Behind the Candelabra (about the later years of entertainer Liberace) and the 2-season show The Knick.

This week I finished watching his latest TV project, the 7-episode mini-series Godless, a Western set in the 1880s, starring Jack O’Connell, Michelle Dockery and Jeff Daniels. After being indifferent to Westerns for many years (I didn’t really get all the fuss about Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, because I didn’t understand the genre that they were deconstructing), I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 2008 and fell in love with the genre. I embarked on a journey of ‘self-education’, ended up watching most of the classic westerns and now keep an active eye out for new entries into the genre (there haven’t been that many).

Godless is the story of Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell from Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) and Frank Griffin (comedian turned character actor Jeff Daniels); Roy was adopted into Frank’s group of outlaws as an orphaned boy and has now grown into a young man who doesn’t vibe with the group’s modus operandi of robbing and raping. Frank is by turns cruel and caring, a learned, enigmatic man with a magnetic personality who wears a preacher’s collar while committing the most violent of crimes. He is a father figure to Roy and the rest of this 30-member ‘family’ of violent and psychotic men.

At the other end of the spectrum is La Belle, an isolated mining town populated almost entirely by women. An accident in their silver mine two years earlier wiped out the entire male population of the town, with the exception of the undertaker, the bartender, sheriff Bill McNue and his young deputy Whitey Winn. The women have slowly learned to make do on their own, but in addition to their emotional distress, they are now in dire straits financially as the mine is unused and no longer bringing income to the town. Sheriff McNue’s sister Mary Agnes is one of a group of women who decides to take charge of the town’s destiny.

Living on a ranch close by is the beautiful widow Alice Fletcher (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery), along with her teenage son and mother-in-law. Also a few miles from La Belle, is Blackdom, a poor farming community of African American Civil War veterans, who have settled there with their families.

All these lives are violently thrown together when Roy Goode decides he has had enough of Frank Griffith’s life of crime and parts ways with him. Frank considers this a betrayal, even more so considering that Roy intercepts the gang’s latest robbery and takes off with the loot! Roy is now on the run from Frank and his men, gets injured in a shootout with them and eventually arrives at Alice Fletcher’s ranch seeking shelter.

The basic framework of the story is derivative. To begin with, there is a significant parallel with Shane – Roy Goode becomes a father figure to Alice Fletcher’s son while recuperating at the ranch. And the story of how a town holds out against attacking outlaws has been told in various classics including High Noon, Rio Bravo and Gunfight at the OK Corral. However, the freshness in Godless comes from having a large part of the story set in a town without men; this creates a unique dynamic, particularly for a Western.

The show is directed by Scott Frank, who made his name as a screenwriter on movies as diverse as the Spielberg sci-fi classic Minority Report, Barry Sonnenfeld’s black comedy Get Shorty, Steven Soderbergh’s crime-comedy Out of Sight (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and the X-Men franchise spinoffs The Wolverine and Logan. There is a dark sensibility running through all his work and that is given full rein in this show; in fact, the title Godless is a reference to a statement made by Frank Griffith that there cannot possibly be a God in this land of cruelty, sorrow and despair.

I loved that the show took its time in exploring the backstories and personalities of the key characters, weaving its way through flashbacks and subplots. Some reviewers found that these diversions slowed down the pace too much, but I really enjoyed seeing all these slices of frontier life and it helped me invest emotionally in the fate of the various characters, including even Frank Griffin (such a fine performance by Jeff Daniels, who surely has come a long way since acting opposite Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber!).

The production values, cinematography and visual effects are all top notch – movie quality – as we have now come to expect from a Netflix production. Also, de rigueur for these top tier shows now, is the striking combination of graphics and theme music that comprise the opening title sequence. Totaling 7 ½ hours of viewing, this is perfect for a weekend binge watch!

The Hollywood Western blazes new trails


Hosted by imgur.com

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!

QT’s The Hateful Eight: Not perfect but fun for fans and creditable for its ambition


The opening credits for The Hateful Eight inform the viewer that this is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film; a bit of self-aggrandizement, I thought. But then, he is after all one of the great ‘young’ (born after 1960) American auteurs, along with Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. OK, so maybe not Kevin Smith anymore, as he’s spent the last few years just being a fanboy without actually doing anything critically acclaimed.

The Hateful Eight is technically a Western, set in Wyoming in the late 1800s, some years after the Civil War. But it is also a locked-room mystery, like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And although it was shot on 65mm film with Panavision anamorphic lenses to give an ultra-widescreen cinematic experience, it could just as easily have been made into a small play…in fact, Tarantino conducted a public live reading of an earlier draft of the script at a theater in LA.

When you think about a QT film, it’s ultimately all about the ensemble of characters, about their interaction and dialogue. About the “art of the protracted scene”, as one film critic puts it. And blood. Lots of it.

There are 4 actors that really stood out for me in this movie.

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Daisy Domergue is easily the most hateful of the eight people stranded in an isolated cabin in the midst of a blizzard. In fact, she could be right up there with the most hated female screen characters of all time along with Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Baby Jane (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?).

Kurt Russell started his career playing squeaky clean teenagers in Disney movies and TV shows (check out The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes from 1969). For me, his most memorable performances have come after the 1980s playing rough-hewn, morally ambiguous characters in Westerns and quasi-westerns like Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Tombstone, Stargate and more recently in QT’s own Death Proof. His bounty hunter John Ruth (aka “The Hangman”) in The Hateful Eight falls into the same mould.

Samuel L. Jackson has the most screen time in the film. I think back to the first time I saw him, as the chain-smoking chief engineer who “can’t get Jurassic Park back online!”. He was so earnest, serious and straightforward (I hadn’t seen his earlier Spike Lee films yet at that point). He then hit the big time in QT’s Pulp Fiction and since then, has become well-known for his angry, outspoken, over-the-top characters (except for the forgettable Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels). He continues in the same vein here as an ex-Army Major turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, a man who has spent a lifetime facing racist hatred and has plenty of hatred to give back.

Tim Roth’s plays Englishman Oswald Mobray. His almost-fruity mincing accent reminded me of Christoph Waltz’s over-cultivated manner in Inglourious Basterds. I would’ve enjoyed having more screen time from him.

Hosted by imgur.com

The music is composed by 87-year-old legend Ennio Morricone who has partnered with QT for many of his other films as well. In fact, he has a Golden Globe nomination for this film and I would love to see him get an Oscar nom as well for this minimalist composition that almost feels like a horror movie score at times.

I loved many little touches in the film, all of which have been carefully planned and are not there by chance:

  • The credits appear during a single shot of the carriage approaching through the snow, with a wooden Jesus in the foreground.
  • Out of the six horses pulling the carriage, the front right horse is white.
  • While the characters are talking inside the carriage, you can hear the constant yelling of the driver whipping the horses through the snow.
  • The passing scenery seen through the carriage window looks ‘flat’, like it’s been projected on a screen (as it would have been in a cheap 1970s film, which all QT films are homages to).
  • The inside of Minnie’s Haberdashery appears too large in comparison with its appearance from the outside.
  • There’s a jelly bean (yes, they’ve been around since the 1860s) fallen in the gap between the floorboards near the coffee pot; the significance becomes clear later.
  • Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s characters while eating their stew behave like a long-married couple, which is hilarious considering their actual relationship in the movie
  • Bob plays Silent Night on the piano while Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) describes what he did to General Smither’s (Bruce Dern) son; the simple and pious tune makes what Major Warren is saying even more horrifying.
  • The many, many times the front door of the cabin has to be hammered shut.

In the end, all the people who deserve a comeuppance get their comeuppance. Since this movie is called The Hateful Eight, you can kinda guess how the movie ends! Here’s a clue: there’s lots of blood. I’ve discovered through trial-and-error, that I can handle gunshot wound blood better than knife/ sword wound blood. Hence my discomfort watching Kill Bill Vols. I and II.

After the movie ended, a cliché paraphrased into my mind: “QT could film paint drying and I would watch it”. I’m pretty sure he would be able to infuse something interesting into such a mundane event.

This is not going to rank as my favorite QT film (that continues to be Basterds). But full credit to the man for attempting something different and challenging. His attention to detail – both dialogue and sets – is astonishing. Metacritic gives it a score of 69, well below Django Unchained (81), Grindhouse (77), Kill Bill Vol. II (83), Reservoir Dogs (78) and Pulp Fiction (the highest at 94). I believe that as the years go by, the film will rise in the estimation of critics and film historians.