My five favourite modern Westerns

Yes, there are loads of bona-fide classic Westerns out there, with the bulk being from the ’50s and ’60s. That said, there new ones being made all the time. It’s a genre that continues to fascinate us as moviegoers.

And with these new stories, filmmakers are finding new ways to tell them and present them, and make them relevant for a modern audience. Here are some that I like to come back to whenever I can.

Open Range (2003)

Cattle herders Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall run into Michael Gambon’s despicable rancher. He takes a dislike to them coming to town with their cattle and the whole films builds to an almighty showdown. It’s a thoughtful, considered type of story though, with solid performances across the board.

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

Christian Bale and Russell Crowe were both on fine form in this story, one where Bale, an ex-rifleman, becomes the reluctant minder of Crowe’s notories outlaw. His mission: to get him onto the prison train to Yuma, all the while being pursued by his gang who are trying to free him.

The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

With cinematography from the great Roger Deakins and masterful performances from both Casey Affleck as Ford and Brad Pitt as James, this is both a critically acclaimed film and one overlooked by the general public. It’s worth your time, though.

Tombstone (1993)

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, and a cast that also included Bill Paxton and Sam Elliott as good guys and Powers Boothe, Stephen Lang and Michael Biehn as the bad guys, what’s not to love? There’s even a scene where two characters insult each other in Latin.

Django Unchained (2012)

Originally, Tarantino wanted Will Smith in the lead role, however Jamie Foxx smashes it. It’s also heightened by a powerhouse performance from DiCaprio. Not that you would expect anything less.

Mindhunter: season one review

This show, about how the FBI came to profile and understand serial killers, has been on David Fincher’s radar for quite some time in various guises and, such is the way these days, has languished a bit in development hell until Netflix picked it up. Which is actually the perfect place for it. 

Now for anyone thinking that, with Fincher attached, this would be the TV version of Seven, will be mistaken. It’s not that glamorous. There’s no car chases or big dramatic moments, particularly. There’s also no gory murder scenes. In actual fact its focus is elsewhere and it’s a slow burn, methodical and almost introspective character study of what makes psychopaths tick. And, as a result, it’s fascinating. Think of all the one on one scenes in Silence of the Lambs where Clarice is trying to understand Lecter and he’s toying with her and you’re halfway there. 

Mindhunter starts with young FBI guy, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a hostage negotiator who moves from field work to teach guys coming through the academy about the techniques he’s learned. The FBI’s director then partners him with a guy from the behavioural science division, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany); who’s out on the road teaching beat cops round the country about the psychology of criminals and why local law enforcement needs to think differently. And they slowly bond, in a mismatched odd couple kind of way.

Now for you and me, it may seem obvious that, for some criminals, you have to get inside their head in order to understand – and therefore catch – them, but back then it was a new concept. Particularly for serial killers, who could go for years undetected. Seemingly normal guys (and it is mostly guys) living life like anyone else, yet under the surface they’ve constructed another type of persona, one that satisfies their desire to kill without remorse.

It’s this dichotomy that fascinates Ford, who actively tries to interview some of the most notorious killers in America at the time in an effort to understand and profile them. He almost admires and reveres them.

Tench, reluctantly, goes along with Ford’s schemes, but it’s clear he has contempt for these killers and what they’ve done and thinks there’s a lot less to learn from them than Ford. Yet something in him is drawn to them as well, although he’s more wary than Ford about what real insight can be gained.

And these interviews (taken from real life exchanges with real convicts) are what form some of this show’s best scenes. Moreover, real killers are used as characters in the show for authenticity: guys like Ed Kemper, Jerry Brudos and Richard Speck. And whilst they’re all different personalities and have killed for a variety of reasons, there are things the FBI learns from each of them in their efforts to form a methodology from which to assess and profile would-be future killers. 

This is something the show touches on in one scene, where Holden uses what he’s learnt to prevent a crime. He’s then reprimanded, because, as his director says, you cannot punish someone for something they haven’t yet done. 

But he’s onto something. We know he is. Each time Ford gets resistance from those he reports to he knows he should trust his instinct and keep going. Yet he, too, becomes more detached the more he comes to understand – and possibly even empathise with – these guys. Is Ford a borderline sociopath? Is it a job requirement in order to get close to these men and gain their confidence? It’s evident that this show deals in a lot of grey areas, and you’ll find yourself thinking about its themes for days after.

And Groff plays him so compellingly, with a kind of wholesome, precocious innocence, yet he’s also incredibly driven, single-minded, considered, focused and strategic. And he’s in close to every scene throughout the season. Who knew a guy best known for musicals and Frozen could be such a good fit for this type of character? 

My perhaps only niggle is that this first season doesn’t feel like it has an obvious overall arc. I mean, it does build to a climax of sorts, but it’s not a show that’s overly dramatic, so it sort of feels counter-intuitive to have a grandstanding finale. That said, it’s nice to see a narrative thread running through overall, if you can have one.

Next season is rumoured to feature Charles Manson, so I’d get up to speed now if you’ve not yet seen season one. It comes highly recommended as a bit of a surprise hit. 

Jamestown: season one review

In 1610, Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. At first, men only. Then a few years later women came, by way of being purchased as wives. In the same way one might buy tobacco at the time.

Which is a decent idea for a TV show, if you think about it. It’s cinematic, there’s lots of vast landscapes and ideas to explore and adventures to be had. And, weirdly, it feels fresh. Especially if you come at it from a feminist perspective.

Which you’d hope that Bill Gallagher, the guy behind this show, did do. Because, among other things, he’s had a hand in Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Candleford and The Paradise. So he can do period drama and he can do compelling characters.

Plus, he’d heard about this slice of history and thought it would make an interesting canvas upon which to showcase his skills. No matter that Terence Malick had already had a crack at it, with the film The New World in 2005. Gallagher must have figured that, with Sky Atlantic backing him, he could tell a compelling story on the small screen on a juicy budget.

After all, he had worked on Downton Abbey. And everyone loves that.

Sadly, he hasn’t replicated his past successes. At least not to the same extent. Which is baffling, because all the component parts were there for a winner. It’s a period we haven’t much seen before, it’s got Native Americans, the untapped wilderness of Virginia, hunting for gold, politicking, fights for power, lusting, and a sexy cast.

And I say sexy because that’s how Sky marketed it. Sexy, but more importantly, feminist with it. Because the advertising had my partner and I thinking it’d be a show about women fighting their corner and controlling their destiny; in a time when they were literally sold as property and shipped off to a new world.

However, after a promising first episode, our enthusiasm quickly petered out as the show failed to live up to its hype.

Because the real problem is, that NOTHING MUCH REALLY HAPPENS. Ok, there are a lot of characters to introduce but we never really stick with any of them long enough to get that invested. And each episode seems to jump between them with no clear focus as to who our main protagonist is and what the thrust of the overall story is supposed to be.

Ultimately, screenwriting should only do one of two things: reveal character or drive the story forward.

And Gallagher doesn’t do much of either. You could argue that maybe two farmers, the Sharrow brothers, are the key focus. Silas (Stuart Martin) the quiet hero, just looking for a peaceful life with his new – but questionably acquired – wife Alice (Sophie Rundle). And Henry (Max Beesley), the intense and violent older brother, laser focused on finding gold that’ll shift the balance of power in the town in his favour.

The problem is I’m reaching for these two as the clear protagonist and antagonist of the show. Both Henry and Silas’s storylines meander along and neither character has that much agency. Silas, in particular, just reacts to things, rather than driving his story forward.

It probably also won’t escape your notice that I’m talking about two male characters when I had hoped this show would be feminist. Which is another gripe, as Gallagher sets up a host of promising female characters, then seems to only give them limited screentime when they should probably be the focus throughout.

For example we have Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), betrothed to Samuel of the Virginia Company, and in a position as a Lady of standing in the town. Immediately we mark her out as the most Machiavellian character; plotting and scheming and twisting the town’s men round her little finger. Which is great to see. (Almost Cersei-esque a la Game of Thrones.) But too often she drifts for entire episodes, hovering in the background when she should be dictating proceedings. Which is, frustratingly, down to the show’s writers rather than Battrick’s performance.

Then there’s Alice (Sophie Rundle), betrothed to Henry but suffers a sexually violent act (another one on modern TV, how original) at his hands before they wed. He goes off in search of gold and she weds his brother Silas (with whom she’s conveniently fallen in love almost straight away). And whilst she has the potential as a character to bring righteous retribution in Henry’s direction, she seems to be largely stuck in ‘wet blanket’ mode, relying on Silas to protect her, which is a shame.

There’s also Verity (Niamh Walsh), married to the town drunk. She’s the fiestiest character and seems to get the best lines in terms of defending herself and her fellow females against the town’s boorish men. But she also waxes and wanes frustratingly, never progressing or shaking things up. 

And that’s pretty much how the whole season goes. Teasing you with the glimmers of interesting storylines and complex characters, then shying away from fully realising any of them. 
Maybe it’s the fault of shows like Game of Thrones, which just set the bar too high. But I don’t buy that. I think that this show is trying to play the long game and let things unfold over many seasons. But you just can’t do that these days. With so much good TV out there you need to be grabbing the viewer straight from the off, and keep them hooked EVERY SINGLE EPISODE. 

Sadly, this show doesn’t. So, if I was marking it, I’d say 5, maybe 6 out of 10. And I’d be very surprised if it got a second season. Which is a shame, but it would be its own fault.

Concrete jungle where accents are made of…

On my recent return from a flying visit to New York I found myself thinking about the accent. London is littered with accents but there’s something inherently ‘London’ about them all. I think the same applies to New York, whether it’s Brooklyn or Queens or Manhattan there’s differences to be picked out, but a commonality runs through them all.

As such, for us out-of-towners we think it’s all pretty much the same… A New York accent. And so, with films where an actor is putting on a New York accent we’re left thinking, is that good? Is it believable? Do they sound like a native?

What is a native in cities like New York and London anyway? These places were built on immigration and boast a melting pot of accents and cultures. Still – go with me on this – there’s an common accent to be picked out.

Here’s my pick of two actresses that have given it a darn good go in recent times.

Margot RobbieThe Wolf of Wall Street
Margot-robbie-wolf-of-wall-street-736x432

An Aussie with a scant filmography to her name (her stint in TV show Pan Am rather than Neighbours probably got her this gig) yet steps up not only with a convincing accent, but a commanding performance opposite DiCaprio.


Scarlett Johansson
Don Jon
joseph-gordon-levitt-scarlett-johansson-don-jon

Born in New York you hope she’d do a good job (she was quoted as saying she knew women like this growing up). She still had to ‘put on’ a certain accent though, and happily delivered, going toe-to-toe with Gordon-Levitt’s Jon in this fizzy tale.

Homeland season 2: First episode review

carrie mathison

nazirWith anticipation I settled down the other night to watch the first episode of season 2 of Homeland. From the first episode of its original season I was an instant fan.

To be honest I was sold on the concept before I even saw the show. It’s clear why, in today’s cut-throat world of US TV where shows get axed before they’ve even had a chance to get going, Homeland got the nod for a second outing, due to its intelligent plot, great cast, strong script, and the fantastic reception it received.

In fact, to go off subject for a second…
The amount of shows in recent times that seem to get built up immensely with a vast marketing campaign – so I subsequently watch and become invested in them – then get canned after one or two seasons is really beginning to annoy me. Some recent examples below:

  • Terra Nova – massive hype around this and it gets cancelled after one series. Poor ratings and expensive production to blame. A shame, as there were some interesting characters developing. Maybe we’ve just seen it all before with Jurassic Park, Avatar etc. I did like one of the lead actors though, Jason O’Mara – reminded me of a young Mel Gibson.
  • The Event – another show that didn’t last long, despite the hype. Perhaps it trod too closely to 24. Or with the constant jumps back and forth in time, it was trying to be Lost. Screenrant summed up its flaws well.
  • Falling Skies – initially I’d heard a rumour it had been axed, but a third series has been confirmed. I’m pleased. It’s got some good characters and the story moves along at a decent rate to keep you engaged. Plus it’s got Moon Bloodgood – an actress who, if you took away the consonants, her name would be ‘oooooo’. Sorry!

I think shows like Lost changed the scope for what could be accomplished on TV. It raised the stakes and delivered a level of complexity that was perhaps new to audiences. That said, I think it’s also responsible for a lot of shows not getting a chance to play out. Like many others, I enjoyed the first two or three seasons. It then started to get weird, confusing and infuriating, with story strands, characters and teasing suggestions that were never followed up. I stuck with it to the bitter end, only to be greatly disappointed and relatively underwhelmed. I think, as a result, audiences don’t have the patience now. Or maybe they just demand more from their TV shows post-Lost. At least I do!

Anyway, mini rant over. Back to Homeland.
A large part of the success of this show is because it doesn’t pull any punches, it’s gritty and uncompromising – the back story told in flashbacks that fleshes out Brody’s character (the excellent Damien Lewis) is well told, suspenseful, and intriguing.

brodyTV has moved on from 24 and Jack Bauer beating up anyone and everyone in sight. In much the same way that Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond moved on from slick, glossy CGI explosions to give us the raw, visceral and conflicted Daniel Craig.

Homeland shares more with shows like The Wire. Intelligent, complex yet not convoluted, but – most importantly – doesn’t paint a gung-ho, kick-ass picture of America, its politics and foreign policy.

In terms of casting, I was impressed. I’ve been a fan of Damien Lewis since Band of Brothers, which I could endlessly re-watch. For me, Claire Danes (as character Carrie Mathison) was the biggest surprise. I had this memory of her as a relatively unmemorable actress – at least in Romeo & Juliet and Terminator 3 – and she was a revelation, becoming progressively more unhinged as the story revealed itself. Damien Lewis played Brody perfectly. The slightest twitch of his eyes or change in mannerisms kept you constantly second-guessing his intentions.

So, finally, on to season 2, episode 1!
In terms of plot, Carrie, out of hospital having had treatment for bipolar disorder, is tentatively trying to rebuild her life. Brody is moving up the political ladder, from Congressman to possible Vice President. Brody then gets pulled back into Nazir’s world to once again do his bidding. Similarly, Carrie gets pulled back in by the CIA to make contact with one of her old sources that has information on an attack on America.

Brody’s life remains complex. His wife discovers – through their daughter – that Brody is a Muslim and reacts, shall we say, in an unsympathetic way. There is also an interesting relationship that’s begun to develop between Brody and his daughter (Dana) in the latter half of the first season, which has continued. Dana arguably talked him down from blowing himself up at the end of the first season and could be influential in his future decision making, particularly in terms of how Nazir sways him. We’ll have to wait and see.

carrie mathisonCarrie continued where she left off in the first season, unhinged, erratic, but still driven by her job. There is a scene near the end of the first episode of this new season, where she is being chased by an armed man, disarms him and makes her escape, with a wild, manic glint in her eye. She remains an incredibly interesting character – and the one most able to foil any terrorist plot, despite her mental state.

So, there are many reasons to be upbeat about this new season. It hasn’t toned down – or more worryingly overdone anything. Many shows feel the need to make everything bigger and better the next time around. More of the same is in order, as there’s still lots of story to tell. It’s a refreshing show to watch and follow, I’m excited. If you haven’t got involved, get season 1 on DVD, catch up then join us all on season 2. If Homeland is good enough for Barack Obama, then it’s good enough for the rest of us!