Tag: western

Movie Review: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Seen: On dvd on our big screen/projector set-up, from Miles’ collection.

I can’t remember the last time I watched a western, so Tommy Lee Jones’ theatrical directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was a nice change of pace. Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a Texas cattle rancher who is crushed when his employee and close friend Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) is found dead in the desert. Local law enforcement doesn’t do much to investigate, but Pete is led to believe a border patrolman shot him down. He finds the culprit and forces him along on a journey to bury his friend in his small hometown in rural Mexico.

With a nonlinear mode of storytelling and an easygoing pace, Three Burials is an intelligent, beautifully-shot film but requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer. Several characters are downright despicable, and even the supposed “good” guys have questionable tactics and motives. I enjoyed Jones in the lead role, he seems weighed down by this unbearable sense of disappointment with the world, and goes a little nuts trying to make at least one thing right. Barry Pepper’s border guard is a disgusting asshole with little room for retribution but you know the film’s going to try it anyway, and even the kind and hardworking Melquiades is in doubt as questions about his past come to light. The women are a bit flaky, but I did like Melissa Leo as the gruff waitress Rachel. January Jones does her sad, pretty housewife thing and that’s nice, I guess, though so cliche. At least it passes the Bechdel Test!

This is a harsh film. The terrain, the people, the story: everything is gritty and mean, which fits in well with its western genre trappings. In many ways it is a blunt commentary on America’s approach to Latin American immigrants and the multi-layered issues those living near either side of the border face. It is also a grudging look at basic human understanding (and lack thereof) when set against deep-rooted selfishness and prejudice. The script is fairly strong (penned by frequent Iñárritu-collaborator Guillermo Arriaga) but the pace is so meandering that I wish parts had been cut down or shortened. I know that’s not the kind of movie Jones was trying to make but for my own tastes it lost me at some parts.

Still a solid film, though.


Pair This Movie With: Oh I guess any of those journeys for revenge-type westerns. True Grit, The Searchers, The Proposition, etc.

Movie Review: Rango (2011)

Seen: On blu-ray on our big screen/projector set-up, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

The realization that I had only seen two new animated releases in 2011- and that one of them was Cars 2– made me super depressed. Everyone kept going on about how fun and movie-fan-friendly Rango was so that seemed the best place to start. A lonely, sheltered pet chameleon finds himself thrust into a harsh desert environ, where he puts his self-taught theatrical talents to use by creating a tough-talking lone gunman-type called “Rango”. He becomes sheriff of Dirt, a drought-stricken town with corrupt leaders, and takes it upon himself to find their stolen water and save the day, etc, with the help of some goofy desert animals.

Combining elements of classic westerns and animal-centric family films, Rango feels like something of an anomaly within its kid-friendly genre. It’s just… I’m not sure this movie is even for kids? Not really little ones anyway. I feel like a lot of the story and references would be over a child’s head, though I guess the goofy-looking anthropomorphic animals might be enough to keep them entertained. Regardless, it’s a pretty good movie. The script is clever and interesting, though a bit too drawn-out, the characters are varied, and the visual design and animation are solid. A few of the more action-y scenes are especially well done, like the early shot of Rango falling out of the car onto the highway. Very exciting!

With a Hunter Thompson-esque lilt (who gets a cameo), Johnny Depp imbues the character of Rango with a wacky edge, slipping easily into screenwriter John Logan’s quick-witted dialogue. Isla Fisher does a good over-the-top Western-y accent, and Ned Beatty basically plays Toy Story 3‘s Lotso only with more turtle. There are a ton of famous people in the supporting voice cast but I’ll admit most of them were unrecognizable to me, which I guess is actually impressive acting-wise. Although I caught Timothy Olyphant, oh yes I did.

I’ll be honest here dudes, I liked this movie but don’t really have that much to say about it. The main drawbacks were the at-times scattered narrative, some inconsistency in design, and too many characters. Otherwise, good times!


Pair This Movie With: The overall aesthetic and feeling reminded me of A Bug’s Life, which also involves imposters protecting a tiny-animal community, plus movie references since it’s all Seven Samurai-y.

Movie Review: Bandidas (2006)

Seen: On dvd on my laptop, rented from netflix.

I came across the poster for Bandidas when I was researching international movie poster designs (as I do), and thought it looked fantastic from the French poster alone. Sexy Salma Hayek teams up with equally sexy Penelope Cruz to rob some banks in Old-timey Mexico? I mean, my god. The details of the plot (if you needed more information for some reason) are as follows: Evil American assholes led by Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam) are taking over land in Mexico so that railroads can be built, leaving a trail of bodies and dispossessed Mexican farmers in their wake. Fast-shootin’, passionate peasant girl Maria (Cruz) teams up with sophisticated, European-educated Sara (Salma Hayek) to take revenge with the help of an experienced criminal (Sam Shepard) and a nerdy forensic scientist (Steve Zahn).

With a knack for never taking itself too seriously and a host of ridiculous plot devices, Bandidas manages to be reasonably entertaining but never quite rises to its potentially kickass premise. I wanted capable ladies doing awesome things, and at times I got that, but at other times I got catfights and kissing competitions and caricaturistic vanity. It’s a goofy enough movie that I learned early on not to expect too much progressive thinking, but I still felt there were some missed opportunities here. Primarily the introduction of Steve Zahn as a love interest frustrated me- I like him and his character is adorable, but the whole subplot of Maria and Sara passive-aggressively competing over him is just stupid. I found their relationship more interesting when they were fighting about their respective differences in background and personality, there was no need to bring a romantic angle into things. Then again that is a mistake so many films make, so at least they are treading familiar ground.

The costumes are awesome, the ladies are scintillating, the vistas are lovely and most of the jokes are pretty funny, so I’d say Bandidas does what it sets out to do. It’s all pretty simplistic, with your classic evil-for-no-particular-reason villain, bickering lady friends, uptight white dude sidekick (you know he’s a nerd because of his glasses), and good peasants vs bad rich guys. The lead actresses are downright delightful in their roles, with Cruz’s naive Maria offering adorable miscalculations and Hayek’s Sara getting in some hilariously haughty commentary. I know it’s not actually a very good movie, but I couldn’t help but be entertained by how silly it often is. And honestly, I will always be interested in a western that features ladies in masculine outfits. Pants, cowboy hats, and holsters all around! Bang bang bang!


Pair This Movie With: Mmmm I’m going to suggest sticking this with an even wackier western, something like Sukiyaki Western Django or Tears of the Black Tiger. Or if you want more ladies kicking ass in the Old West, there’s Johnny Guitar.

Movie Review: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Seen: On VHS on my tv, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

Hard-edged bar owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) finds herself on the verge of being run out of town when she is implicated in a stagecoach robbery and murder. Her nemesis Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who owns most of the town, is worried that when the new railroad runs through the area Vienna and her partners will profit. Vienna is reunited with old flame Johnny (Sterling Hayden) after five years, and he helps her defend herself against the easily-incited townspeople led by a jealous woman hungry for a lynching.

When Jake recommended Johnny Guitar as “Just this crazy gender-bending Western by a bisexual director”, I thought… Huh. Let’s get on that. Looking into it more I discovered it’s not on DVD in the US, but has been passionately endorsed by many critics and fans, including Martin Scorsese, who sponsored a special VHS release of it. It is frequently described as strange and unconventional and hard to explain, so I was expecting something truly out-there. These expectations may be why I was a little bit underwhelmed. It’s a cool movie, no doubt about it, but I didn’t find it as crazy or weird as some had hyped it, and I kept waiting for something wild to happen. To me it felt like a fairly typical western whose central character was ahead of her time. Then again I’m no expert on westerns.

Crawford is excellent as the tough-as-nails Vienna. She’s got hard eyes, a strong shooting arm, and a good head for business, making her an anomaly as a woman in this community. Plus she is rockin’ those pants. At times she even appears a bit villainous, but when set against the half-crazed Emma, her motivations and actions are completely justified. The actresses clashed in real life as well (then again, who didn’t clash with Crawford, jeez), and their animosity shows marvelously onscreen. Both women play bold, impassioned characters, and their performances reach glorious levels of camp that culminate in a fantastic climactic scene.

Oh, Sterling Hayden’s there too. Honestly most of the men in this movie are pretty forgettable, except Ernest Borgnine, who plays a temperamental gangmember who only looks out for himself. Really though, it’s all about the ladies.

I liked the mix of western shootouts, small-town politics, and love triangle romance, though the three elements don’t always blend perfectly and I never really got a handle on the pacing. Some scenes are tense and explosive while others are suddenly low-key and dragged-out. Not a huge complaint, though. The cinematography is gorgeous, with eye-popping oversaturation and lovely settings. I loved the costumes, which included extremely colorful (to the point of gaudy) outfits for Joan and her pals and in contrast a grim collection of black funeral garb for the village posse. Nice musical score, too.

To sum up: Johnny Guitar is an interesting, exciting western with a killer lady character at the head, and that’s so awesome. But my expectations of something more out-there made me slightly disappointed.


Pair This Movie With: For another great western featuring a strong lady, there’s True Grit. I was also reminded of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode “Gunslinger“, featuring a Roger Corman-directed western with a vengeful lady sheriff. Yeah you heard me correctly, a LADY who’s a SHERIFF! Or maybe it was marshall. Whatever, either way it’s CRAZY!

Side note: I feel like if I really tried I could recommend an MST3K episode for most movies I review. But I probably won’t do that.

"I Have a Good Lawyer" Double Feature: True Grit (1969) and True Grit (2010)

So somebody (me) got to see a screening of the Coen brothers’ new film True Grit. Despite waiting in the cold for half an hour it was pretty cool. A few days prior I had watched the original True Grit for the first time, and was really impressed by it. I haven’t read the source novel, but it must be pretty rad since as I understand it both films are fairly true adaptations. The most important part is they both feature a completely awesome, totally ballsy, determined, and capable young lady. The unfortunate part is they are almost the same movie.

When a drunken employee kills her father, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) sets out to avenge his death. She hires gruff alcoholic federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) to track down the culprit- who goes by Tom Chaney. Cocky Texas ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who’s been tracking Chaney for another murder, joins up with them and the trio goes after a notorious robber whom he’s involved with. Mattie must continually fight to be respected and treated as an equal, eventually proving herself more than useful in the chase.

Yeah, so good for John Wayne, he got his Oscar, and he wears an awesome eyepatch, and he’s funny and gruff and gritty all over the place. And, ok, so Glen Campbell got to sing the theme song and wear spurs, and be a middling actor. But really, this movie is so completely all about Kim Fucking Darby as Mattie Fucking Ross, who quickly became one of my new favorite characters ever on film. My adoration began early, spotting Darby’s adorable pixie cut and set jaw, and exponentially increased with each new cool thing she did. She’s sharp and witty, well-spoken and good with numbers, always speaks her mind, can ride a horse and shoot a gun, and just generally gets shit done. However, she remains a realistic character with frequent reminders of her youth in her stubbornness, fear, and childish interests. She’s just great all around, really. It was so unexpected to see a character like that in a John Wayne western in 1969, I admit I had underestimated the filmmakers.

The plot is typical western revenge territory, setting itself apart primarily through memorable and interesting characters and their well-developed relationships, along with some cool twists and gorgeous vistas. The film does fall prey to a few expected “60’s western” setbacks in its slow pacing at the beginning and somewhat garish color palette, but overall True Grit is just fantastic. It’s even got a young Dennis Hopper for like five minutes! Wowee!


Ok so the plot of the remake is essentially exactly the same, there’s even a lot of the same dialogue (I assume they both lifted right out of the book). This time Mattie is played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Rooster is Jeff Bridges with an eyepatch on the other eye, La Boeuf is Matt Damon, and Tom Chaney is a rather skinny Josh Brolin. The main story difference is La Boeuf splits up from the search for a little while, and there are a few kooky characters added in true Coen form, but that’s about it. Also there’s a much more kick-ass climax, involving a character being shot and then falling off a cliff. Rad.

So I’m sort of torn about this movie. It’s really, really good, no doubt about it, with a great cast, tongue-in-cheek dark humor, and gorgeous cinematography with great use of browns and blues. However, overall it’s very close to the original film and really doesn’t improve upon much. Hailee Steinfeld is great as Mattie, especially considering her age (13) and inexperience. She’s a bit more grounded in her performance, but also less lively than Darby. Bridges is great, as is his want, but his over-thick accent made him too comical at times and a little hard to understand. Damon is very good as La Boeuf, but the role is diminished so it doesn’t stand out much. I didn’t love Brolin as Chaney, finding his speech affectation unsettling and confusing, but I did enjoy the brief appearance from Barry Pepper.

While I dug a few of the changes (mostly that climactic death thing I mentioned), I think a few other things were done better in the original. For example, I didn’t feel the relationship between Rooster and Mattie is as well-developed in the new one; I just didn’t feel it as much. In the end, it all balances out, and so I really don’t think there needs to be two versions of True Grit. I’m glad this new one will introduce more audiences to the story, and I’m so glad a talented new actress like Steinfeld has the opportunity to work with big actors and receive such exposure, but it just feels weird that two of these things exist. The Coens needed to make it more Coensy so it would stand out more, I guess. I know if I hadn’t recently seen the first one I wouldn’t be so caught up in it, but I can’t help looking at it that way.


PS Oh also on the off-hand chance that the couple who sat behind me at the Harvard screening reads this: you people are awful. Especially the guy. Stop talking so much and over-reacting to every single thing and yelling at the screen. You suck. Have you never been to a movie before? Is this new to you? Learn basic etiquette before you leave the house, please.

My original poster design for this film is for sale.