Appaloosa (2008) Ed Harris Changing the Western Gunfight

Screen shot from Appaloosa
Ed Harris is one of the best in terms of acting. His directorial skills, while not so visible, Appaloosa is only his second time in the chair, are also top notch as he proved in this 2008 slow but interesting western. Starring in, co-writing the script (based on the Robert B. Parker novel of the same name) and producing as well as directing shows just how much the star wanted this film made. Choosing Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves, Maleficent) as his DP shows how much he wanted his vision to look spot on.

In fact, the only real shame, or problem, with Harris’ film was the necessity of having to recast Allie. Diane Lane was the original choice and Zellweger was a last minute replacement. Certainly the Bridget Jones star was acceptable in the role, but, with Lane in the part, one imagines sheer perfection. (I will admit a certain prejudice here, I do like Renee Zellweger but, I adore Diane Lane.)

Taking almost a literal view of westerns, the two main protagonists resemble Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and not having read the Parker book which the film is based on, it is not known where this idea comes from. Regardless of where it originates, the allusion works. It should be pointed out that appearances are where these resemblances end. Both Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are very different from the real-life western icons they favor.

Virgil is a taciturn man who can only really focus on one task at a time. While trying to better himself, reading the works of Emerson and checking with West Point graduate Everett (played wonderfully by Viggo Mortensen) when the vocabulary proves too taxing, he kills when his potential prisoners resist arrest. Hitch, his educated former Army officer partner of 12 years, is also quick to shoot and backs Cole’s plays whatever they entail.

This tale deals with, on its surface, the story of a long partnership of “mobile lawmen.” The pair come to the town of Appaloosa to help the founding fathers take care of a local rancher who has been riding roughshod over the citizens and businesses of the growing city. Randall Bragg (played with snooty superiority by Brit actor Jeremy Irons) finally stumbles when he personally murders the city marshal and two deputies in cold blood in front of a bevy of witnesses.

While only one young man steps forward to testify, it is enough to guarantee a noose for Bragg’s neck and he is to be transported to a local prison where they will help him meet his maker. Things do not go as planned and the remainder of the film is about personal issues between the three men and the woman who tries to play with all of them.

Allie French is a woman who confesses to Virgil that, “I’m afraid of everything.” At his urging she reveals a list of things that terrify her. Near the top of the list is her fear that she attached to the wrong man. This leads to her tendency to sleep with any Alpha Male she comes across. As she is in a relationship with Cole, this is troublesome, although it seems that the marshal is pretty accepting of her tendency to sleep with “anything that isn’t gelded.”

The film is a great treat for western fans as it does look fantastic. The sets, the lighting, the props, the guns are authentic and used properly, and the costumes all appear pretty much spot on. What is interesting is the way that Cole has opted to film the gunfights.

Appaloosa choses Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales method of gunplay. There are no Spaghetti Western quick-draws where the protagonist whips out his six gun and fans the hammer back to quickly shoot down multiple adversaries before they clear leather. At the beginning of the film, just after being officially hired by the town leaders, Cole and Hitch take on four of Bragg’s men in a saloon.

When two of the toughs, who are urinating in the bar’s spittoons, brace the new marshal and reach for their guns, Virgil almost leisurely pulls his pistol, cocks and shoots each one with deadly results. Hitch takes care of one cowboy behind Cole with his 8-gauge shotgun and the fourth declines to become involved in this mini bloodbath.

Later in the film, two more gunfights erupt and in each, the participants enter the fray with guns already drawn. Revolvers held down at their sides, the men face one another and “make their move” when they believe that the advantage is theirs. The gunfights are fast, “That happened quick,” says a prone Hitch. “Everybody could shoot,” replies Cole who is laying flat on his back with a “busted knee.”

As the traveling marshal points out early in the film, and later Hitch does the same, gunmen who become lawmen do so because “they can.” In other words they have the ability to shoot straight and fast with no thought of their own safety. As illustrated in the film’s penultimate shootout, not all gunmen are created equal, even those considered excellent can be killed.

In the film’s romance Zellweger’s piano playing Mrs. French and Harris’ single-minded marshal make an odd couple. Their relationship is interesting as it is awkward. Just as awkward is Allie’s tinkling of the ivories. At all times more perfunctory than musical and full of mishit keys and notes, the playing matches the woman’s personality. Something about Allie just does not fit and pointing out her mangled playing of the piano highlights this perfectly.

Appaloosa proves yet again that Ed Harris sits well in the director’s chair, his previous film was Pollock (2000). The film is a good 3.5 out of 5 stars; mainly because of Zellweger and the slow pace of the film itself as well as the offbeat soundtrack. Harking back to Howard Hawks’ El Dorado and its ultra modern music, Appaloosa uses a similar musical theme and it does not fit. This could be a personal bugbear of this viewer but it needs to be put out there. Available on Amazon and iTunes to stream and on disc, fans of the genre need to check this one out if they have not already done so.

Castle Once Upon a Time in the West (Recap and Review)

Castle Once Upon a Time in the West (Recap and Review)

In the latest episode of Castle, Once Upon a Time in the West, the show delivers what it does best, that perfect blend of murder and light comedy. Certainly it is early days in the marriage of Kate and Rick, but thus far the two getting married has not changed the interaction of their relationship, apart from saying “I do.” Richard Castle, writer and new husband of Kate, is still a big kid at heart and the plot taking “Caskett” to an Old West themed Dude Ranch allowed the author to let his, not so, inner child out.

Django Unchained (2012): Long Spaghetti Western Love Letter

Poster of Django Unchained

I had to wait a long time to see this film, I was going to rent it on blu-ray and then I happened to see a non-blu-ray version for sale for a tenner and I grabbed it.

From the first frame of the film, it looked like a 1960’s opening for Sergio Leone-ish type spaghetti western, the colours were spot on and the rocks in the foreground could have been transplanted from those locations in Spain and Italy where the original features were made. The consistency of the film even looked the same, hard to describe, but it looked right.

Of course this wasn’t maintained throughout the film and there was no need. Once the music started up for the first scene after the “freeing” of Django, Tarantino told us with his initial score piece what was going to go on.

The first bit of music was a re-mix of the Two Mules for Sister Sara main theme. For those who haven’t seen the 1970 film, in a nutshell, it was an Italian spaghetti western film that wasn’t. The music was done by the master of off-beat magical themes and scores himself, Ennio Morricone. The film was directed by Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, the original man with no name ,played Hogan. The film itself was a sort of homage to the genre that gave Eastwood the huge boost he needed to start his career in the right direction, away from television.

poster

The very second I heard the “jackass” toot-tweet of the music and listened to the subtle changes to the original music, I knew that Tarantino was making his intentions clear about the film. The choice and the remix was telling us, “This is a spaghetti western that isn’t. It isn’t even really going to follow the formula too much as I am going to mix up Siegel and Leone and Django.”

And that is what he did.

I even detected bits from Blazing Saddles (and Quentin, if I’m wrong buddy, I’m obviously giving you too damned much credit) in the amusing scene about the eye holes and the head bags. There were a few other nods and winks but I’ll get off this particular train right now.

Anyone who has ever watched the amount of these pasta opuses that were so popular at the Drive-in’s of the time, can remember the sounds of the guns in the films. The other obvious clue that the director gave us was the complete and total lack of the spaghetti western gunshot.

Quentin’s Django Unchained gun fire merely sounded loud. Gone was the ever present whine of the shot bullet and the almost flat, but very loud, crack of the guns. But the important part of the Italian western was that whine. He was telling us again, that yes this is a long love letter to the genre, but I’m not going to copy it 100%.

The casting of the film was phenomenal and I’m not going to go into the discussion too much. (Well not at all actually) Enough reviews and writers and critics have gotten there before me and I’m not in a hurry to join the din. Just as I’m not going to address the use of the “N” word. (Allcaps because of the amount of fury and un-political correctness that has been mention too damned often by too damned many.)

I will say this, though. The same people who would rather “rewrite” real history, who want to believe that in those halcyon days of yesteryear that people would not have referred to folks of a different hue using this highly offensive word at all, let alone as much as they did in the film, are the ones who want to rewrite nursery rhymes so that they do not offend.

The reality of the times, sad and disgusting, but oh so real.
The reality of the times, sad and disgusting, but oh so real.

Why? because they don’t believe in showing the truth, what is worse, is that they don’t really want to think that we were that uncouth, uncivilised, and downright nasty, truth be told.

But that sentiment is not true gentle people, not true at all. The same people in our American shores who referred to other human beings as; who called our brothers and sisters of the human race that name and other equally foul and disturbing names did do just that.

Because that was the culture back then.

These are the same people who cheerfully murdered Native Americans (and yes, that took place before the Civil War as well) and stoutly declared that the only good indian was a dead indian.

But I am not playing any “ethnic” minority game here, setting up my ancestors against yours my friend. I only point out the obvious, our American ancestors did a lot of things back then that was called, “good.” Tarantino opted to show it how it was versus the new modern trend of “gilding the lily.” Not, as claimed by most if not all the denigrators, to shock.

(Again, Quentin, if I’m giving you too much credit, I’m sorry.)

My last word on the subject, I promise, if it bothers you that much, don’t watch it.

There, all done, I told you.

Back to the film.

I loved it. I didn’t care for the soundtrack all that much, but like I said at the start, Tarantino picked music to fit “his” homage not anyone else’s. The clue was in that first piece of music, the faux Ennio Morricone that plays us into the opening of Django’s first day of freedom in a town.

I’d have to give this a full 5 out of 5 stars for the effort that went into this and for the long love letter that Quentin wrote using the film. I’d also like to give it another half star for the presence of Franco Nero who, in keeping with the 1960’s touch of the time, had that obvious moment where the “old” Django met the “new” Django.

A new classic.

Scene from Django Unchained

Rango (2011): There’s a New Sheriff in Town.

My take on the new animated Western – Rango…Brilliant! Sorry about the weird colour thing going on here…poxy computer!
This review is over 2 years old, and on another computer. Enjoy!

Priest (2011): The Searchers for the Apocalypse

Unknown

I tried to watch Priest once before. At that time, I just couldn’t get into the film. For whatever reason, it just didn’t click. I honestly could not tell you why. Either my bio-rhythms were off or the fact that Carl Urban appeared to bite the “big-one” at the start of the film or a combination of the two, put me off the film.

When I saw a copy of Priest going for 3 pounds at the bargain DVD section at Tesco, I picked it up. I figured that for 3 quid, I’d give it another go. I’m actually glad I did. Because despite the film’s Korean graphic novel beginnings, it really turned out to be a western. And not just any western either, it was The Searchers revisited; sans Natalie Wood, Jeff Hunter and The Duke.

The Creators:

Directed by Scott Stewart  with a screenplay written by Cory Goodman and based on Min-Woo Hyung‘s graphic novel of the same name, Priest really is an almost perfect western movie. I know, I know; some purists out there are going to scream to high heaven about not being faithful to the “original” concept. Which seems to be the clarion call of all “fan’s” of work adapted from a “manga-type” source.

But, I don’t care. In case the folks in the cheap seats missed that, I’ll repeat; I don’t care. Because I’ve never read the original graphic novel and apart from seeing the cover of it in a comic store downtown, I would have never known of its existence if it were not for IMDb and Wikipedia.

The ever-beautiful and kick-ass Maggie Q.
The ever-beautiful and kick-ass Maggie Q.

The Plot:

It is a future version of a world torn apart by war. The church has become all-powerful and in this verse, vampires have existed since the dawn of time. These are not the suave and sophisticated vamps of literature and film. These vampires are animalistic and more of a “hive” insect with a queen who’s lays vampire “eggs.” A legion of Priests were created by the church to battle the vampires and in a long epic battle they were defeated and the remaining creatures were put in “reservations.” (Sound familiar?)

The Priests are disbanded and forgotten. Years later, in an outpost in the Wasted Lands, a farmer along with his wife and daughter are breaking their backs trying to make a living out of the desert soil. As they sit down to their evening meal, they are attacked by a horde of vampires and the daughter hides in the basement only to be discovered by something.

The Cast:

Paul Bettany
Karl Urban
Cam Gigandet
Maggie Q
Lily Collins

*Cast courtesy of IMDb.*

The Device:

Just like today, you cannot trust the guys in charge and refusing to give up is good.

The Twist:

Family is in the eye of the beholder.

The Story:

After a long protracted battle between vampires and men, the men win and put the surviving vampires in “reservations.” It turns out that they’ve been pretty damned busy down there and when an outbreak occurs the leaders of the church refuse to believe that there is a problem. One priest (Paul Bettany), whose family it was that got attacked by this upsurge of vamps, goes against the church and decides to rescue his niece Lucy (Lily Collins). He is aided by the local lawman, Sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet) and a fellow Priestess (Maggie Q).

Carl Urban as Black Hat all that's missing is the serape.
Karl Urban as Black Hat all that’s missing is the serape.

It turns out that the renegade vampires are being led by a former Priest, Black Hat (Karl Urban) who was lost to the vampires at the beginning of the film. He’s kidnapped Lucy to draw the Priest to him.

The Characters:

Paul Bettany as the Priest is all guttural angst and stoic grimness. He pretty much feels like Ethan in The Searchers but without the great lines that The Duke had in his film. Karl Urban as Black Hat is just, well, Karl Urban; there is not part that I’ve ever seen the man portray that doesn’t enthral me. Despite his tiny amount of screen time, when he is on-screen he blows everyone else away. Lily Collins, who was a relative newcomer when this film was made, did a brilliant job and even when she had snot running down her lower lip; still looked amazing.

As did Maggie Q as the kick-ass Priestess who helps Bettany track down all the bad vampires. Cam Gigandet’s sheriff was good at filling the Jeffrey Hunter role as the young guy who wants to make sure that girlfriend Lucy survives her reunion with her Uncle Priest.  And in the cameo department,  Brad Dourif was brilliant as the Snake Oil salesman who is touting the effectiveness of his “holy water.” And  Christopher Plummer  was great as the treacherous and “holier-than-thou” head of the church who banishes the Priest for even daring to presume that vampires have again become a threat.

The Verdict:

Despite the dismal reviews that this film garnered, I liked it. The second I made the  western connection, I was on-board and enjoying the show. The sets combined with the shooting locations and the CGI all made for a believable western-type apocalyptic arena for these “cowboys and indians” to do battle.

It’s pretty obvious that the creators of the film, loved western movies. The sets and the “frontier” towns would not have looked out-of-place in a Leone Spaghetti western. This combined with the epic scenery throughout the film made it look like The Searchers married to Once Upon a Time in the West.

A real 4 star out of 5 for me, just because of the loving “homage” to a great western that did not follow the original too closely and left things open for a sequel which, sadly, will probably not happen due to the poor performance at the box-office.

If you like/love westerns you’ll probably enjoy this film.

Bettany "searching" on the back of his "steed."
Bettany “searching” on the back of his “steed.”