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.

Best films of 2013: Haiku reviews

Following my first stab last year at reviewing my favourite films of the year in Haiku form, I decided to give it another go. Remember, these little Japanese poems are three lines made up of five syllables, then seven, then five.sandra-bullocks-gravity-interview

Gravity
Explosion in space
Debris flying everywhere
The will to survive

Captain Philips
Somali hijack
Capture Captain in lifeboat
Tense tale on high seas

Rush
Two F1 driversworlds-end-new-trailer
Battle it out for title
A wild, thrilling ride

The World’s End
Pubs, pints and old friends
Scrapping with weird blue aliens
Marmalade sandwich

The Place Beyond The Pines
Stunt rider has kid
Teams up with guy to rob banksdjango and candie
Fathers, sons, life, death

Cloud Atlas
Past, present, future
Kind act that ripples through time
A grand, epic tale

Django Unchained
Bounty hunter finds
slave, recruits him then hunts down
plantation ownerJosh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games Catching Fire, a review

Zero Dark Thirty
Hunt for Bin Laden
Led by obsessive lady
Finds him then kills him

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Victor of games
Girl on fire made to play nice
Starts revolution

So there we go. My attempt at Japanese poetry for this year, or at least until the mood takes me again. Hope you enjoy them. See if you can come up with your own for your favourite films of the year, it’s quite fun.

Top ten films of 2013… er, and some others

Looking back, it’s not been a bad year for cinema. Perhaps not vintage, but we’ve had some crackers over the last twelve months. Here are my whittled down favourites, followed by a list of those I’m sure I’d like a lot but have yet to see. So… two lists, in a weird way.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek Anton YelchinIt’s cumberbitches versus pine nuts in JJ Abrams’ second outing as director on this franchise. Fine job he did too, upping the ante for Kirk and co in a most satisfying way; with a new twist on Kahn, something that arguably angered die-hard trekkies, but kept the Enterprise on course for the rest of us.

Captain Phillips
captain-phillips01Director Paul Greengrass played to his strengths in this smart and highly tense retelling of a real life tale of Somali pirates capturing a cargo ship on the high seas. And Tom Hanks gives one of the performances of the year, and indeed perhaps his career.

Rush
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl in Ron Howard's RushEpic return to form for director Ron Howard in this thrilling look at the rivalry between two F1 legends: James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), the latter giving a phenomenal performance as a man fighting to retain his title following a horrific injury.

The World’s End
worlds-end-new-trailerPegg, Frost and Wright conclude the cornetto trilogy with their most ambitious tale yet; featuring pubs, pints, blue aliens and a sexy marmalade sandwich. A satisfying conclusion for the trio and it’ll be interesting to see what they do next.

Cloud Atlas
cloud-atlas-somniDavid Mitchell’s book is unfilmable… or was until the pair behind The Matrix – the Wachowski siblings – got their hands on it. What resulted was a breathtaking set of intertwining stories and storytelling and imagination at its finest.

Django Unchained
django shadesThe first Tarantino tale to be told in a linear fashion (i.e. no chapter element) tackled some big themes and finally showed everyone his take on a western – and what a take it was too. Epic, explosive and totally Tarantino.

The Place Beyond The Pines
130412CutdownPines_7474218Derek Cianfrance and Ryan Gosling are a bit of a match made in heaven. First Blue Valentine and now this; a series of three stories examining how the actions of fathers affect their sons. It’s a poignant and tender sort of tale, with strong performances from Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and a young Dane DeHaan.

Zero Dark Thirty
zerodarkthirtyReleased almost a year ago in January 2013 for us UK types; but still worthy of inclusion as it’s a tense affair, capturing Bin Laden and all that – one which, following the award laden The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow handled like a master at work.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaugAnother year, another trip to Middle Earth eh? Well, in this case, that’s largely a good thing, as Peter Jackson’s trilogy gets into full swing in this second outing with Bilbo, dwarves, Bard the Bowman and an almighty dragon sporting a fierce temper.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Hunger-games-catching-fire-lawrence_katnissThe difficult second album – or, in this case, the bleaker second album. Following the success of the first film the pressure was on this one to deliver. And it did, with a darker, more adult tone and another fine performance from Jennifer Lawrence.

MY ‘YET TO SEE’ FAVOURITES

  • Now You See Me – described as The Prestige for idiots by some critics and pure summer movie magic by others. Chances are it sits somewhere inbetween as a fun caper of a film.
  • Stoker – written by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller and directed by South Korean director Park chan-wook, this psychological thriller landed well with critics and looks an intriguing and mysterious tale.
  • Mud – Jeff Nichols is fast marking himself out as a director to watch, first Take Shelter and now this coming-of-age tale; continuing the career revival of one Matthew Mcconaughey.
  • Trance – seems, in his tea breaks when planning the Olympic ceremony, Danny Boyle knocked this film together; which goes to show how the rest of us really need to put in more effort. Whilst it’s more style over substance, it’s some style.
  • Gravity – making the number one film of many critics’ lists, this immersive and thrilling film by Alfonso Quaron showed that, if there’s a more compelling use of 3D we’re yet to see it.
  • Kill Your Darlings – the evolution of Daniel Radcliffe post-Potter continues, in this interesting look at the birth of the beat generation. As well as Radcliffe, up-and-comer Dane DeHaan reportedly put in another fine performance.
  • Robot & Frank – a quirky tale about a jewel thief, Frank (Frank Langella), who’s past his prime so his son buys him a domestic robot. His mood lifts when he realises he can use the robot to steal again.
  • The Bling Ring – spoilt LA brats rob celebrities in Sofia Coppola’s latest. A timely tale in today’s celebrity obsessed culture. Whilst the film got average reviews Emma Watson’s performance was praised by critics.
  • Blue is the Warmest Color – garnering a hugely positive response from critics, this film explored – over three hours no less – the relationship between two girls who fall in and out of love and everything in between.
  • Thor: The Dark World – Chris Hemsworth dusted off his red cape and hammer for another outing as the man from Asgard and, by all accounts, did a splendid job. Apparently, worldwide, this is the third-highest grossing film for Marvel studios.
  • Blue Jasmine – there really is no holding back Cate Blanchett at times, she’s easily one of the best actresses of our generation and really doesn’t get enough credit. Here she puts in arguably a career best performance in this film, which many have said marks a return to form for Woody Allen.
  • Philomena – a sweet and amusing tale of Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) 50-year search for her son Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Described as a profoundly affecting drama, this film was a hit with critics and audiences alike.
  • Kings of Summer – drawing comparisons with Son of Rambow (which I liked a lot), this film passed many people by, yet sounds like a wonderfully uplifting coming-of-age tale that should make your watch list, if you like this sort of thing.

Reading this back it’s rather shocking; there’s loads I’ve not seen. At least it gives me things to see over the next month or so. Still… the ones I did see were all a joy to experience. And some were a genuine surprise; as I went in with no expectations (often a good tactic).

What made your top ten of the year? And what’s still on your list to see?

On my mind… Leonardo DiCaprio

With The Great Gatsby just out and The Wolf of Wall Street on the way, it got me thinking about the career of the lead in both; one Leonardo DiCaprio.

kid quick deadTalk about an impressive CV. Since the early ’90s, he’s dazzled us with a wide range of performances across numerous genres. His filmography reads like a cinephiles ‘best films of the last 20 years’ collection.

And as such I’d like to respectfully nod to his performances that have not only stood out but also stood the test of time. Therefore let’s commence with the first in a series of ‘cinematic living legend’ posts, paying tribute to my favourite roles and performances from actors that just keep on getting better and better.

  • KidThe Quick and the Dead (1995)
    Young, cocky, but with undeniable screen presence in Sam Raimi’s western, little Leo comfortably held the screen alongside big names: Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe and Sharon Stone.
  • Jim CarrollThe Basketball Diaries (1995)
    His first performance that truly blew me away. When this came out I was 13 and loved basketball. Admittedly the gradual descent into drugs and sleeping rough on the streets was something to which I couldn’t as readily relate.
  • frankcatchmeifyoucanFrank Abagnale JrCatch Me If You Can (2002)
    With Gangs out quite soon after, this was an impressive year for Leo. This time going toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks with Spielberg at the helm. Bit of a dream partnership resulting in a fantastic performance and movie.
  • Amsterdam VallonGangs of New York (2002)
    Whilst DiCaprio’s star was flying high by this point, it was never going to be easy going up against a true heavyweight of cinema in Daniel Day Lewis. Nonetheless, his performance as Amsterdam was highly watchable.
  • Howard HughesThe Aviator (2004)
    A consummate and wholly engrossing performance at the top of his game. He got Hughes’s mannerisms and tics spot on. Watch this original footage of Hughes then compare it to Leo’s similar scene – a master at work.
  • Billy Costigan JrThe Departed (2006)
    This marked his third collaboration with Scorsese and – for the pair of them – their most profitable partnership to date. An impressively raw and aggressive performance befitting a cop mentally unravelling whilst undercover as a gangster.
  • blooddiamondDanny ArcherBlood Diamond (2006)
    Often overlooked, yet well received critically and commercially, Ed Zwick’s diamond smuggling war film not only showed DiCaprio in a more mature light with a commanding performance, but was an engaging action tale too.
  • Teddy DanielsShutter Island (2010)
    Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, this psycho-thriller saw Scorsese direct Leo again and come up trumps. I’ve heard this described as a B-movie with an A-list director and star. Unfair and unjust – it’s genuinely spooky and thrilling.
  • CobbInception (2010)
    Another bumper year following Shutter Island, helping DiCaprio tick another ‘greatest living director I’ve worked with’ off his list in Christopher Nolan. du-ac-000125_lgQuite a restrained, nuanced and tender performance, possibly a career best.
  • Calvin CandieDjango Unchained (2012)
    Sadistic, charming, brutal with a god complex – the first time Leo has really had the chance to play a villain and he lapped it up. Tarantino at the helm was no doubt a draw, but his performance, whilst unsettling, was truly mesmerising.

Django, Tarantino, Waltz and fantastic Foxx

From a failed heist gangster movie and female assassin revenge tale, through to an alternative take on the death of Hitler and Spaghetti Western tackling racism in the deep south – Quentin Tarantino has never failed to defy expectation.

Indeed, he’s spoken in the past about how he wants to maintain a consistently high standard for his directorial filmography: Something largely achieved thus far, perhaps excluding Death Proof,  which whilst not that bad, clearly wasn’t vintage Tarantino. django foxx waltz wantedThat said, from Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds through to this latest offering, you can see progression in his work; particularly his love of Spaghetti Western and its cinematic heroes and villains.

There’s plenty of scenes in Django Unchained that put me in mind of both Basterds and Kill Bill. The sort of tense, dialogue-heavy exchange between two characters that builds and builds to an epic – often explosive – climax. You see this in Django on more than one occasion; like a Writer-Director who’s flexing his muscles and grandstanding, but pulling it off with flair and panache.

Say what you like about Tarantino, but there’s hardly any Directors working today that’d go anywhere near this sort of material. That’s not to say much of it is historically that accurate, but with his trademark lashings of ultra-violence and wonderfully realised characters, it does make darn good cinema; putting it worlds away from bland Hollywood rehashes and remakes.

django shadesDjango. The d is silent

In terms of plot, Django kicks off with Christopher Waltz’s bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz, seeking out a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx) to help identify his next set of targets, the Brittle brothers.

Schultz abhors slavery and agrees to set him free once he helps complete the job. Turns out, Django is a natural at bounty hunting and Schultz urges him to partner up over the winter, to which he agrees.

During this time Schultz learns Django has a wife called Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he plans to find and free once winter is over. Once Schultz hears this tale he agrees to help free Broomhilda from sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). As you’d expect, their plan doesn’t go as hoped and culminates in typical Tarantino fashion.

I like the way you die, boy

Originally there were a few actors rumoured for the part of Django, but I’m glad it went to Foxx. He really stole the show, bringing an effortless cool swagger and ruthlessness to the character. His tough, uncompromisingdjango and candie demeanour put me in mind of his performance in Collateral, particularly the scenes where he had to impersonate Tom Cruise’s hitman, which he did with great skill and poise.

Waltz, as the eloquent, unfailingly-polite bounty hunter, was on top form. Playing almost a continuation of his character from Basterds – but with more of a moral compass, even for a bounty hunter – he lit up the screen, every scene laying the groundwork for his encounter with DiCaprio’s violently sadistic Calvin Candie.

Which brings us to DiCaprio. Whilst aspects of characters he’s played in the past have been morally questionable, this is his first out-and-out pure bad guy. A Tarantino-scripted bad guy no less, which clearly gave him something to sink his teeth into, which he did with malevolent glee and aplomb: Revelling in scenes where he bounces off Waltz’s more moral Schultz.

django stephen samuel l jacksonFinally, honourable mention should go to the most dishonourable and despicable character, Samuel L Jackson’s ‘house n*gger’ Stephen. A black man who despises blacks more than most whites in the film do – viciously clinging to his position of power and authority in the Candie household.

Stephen is easily the most contemptible character Jackson has played in his career, something he does with astonishing conviction – subverting his natural charisma to make Stephen quite unpalatable to watch, but captivating nonetheless.

Hey, little troublemaker

It’s no big revelation that a Tarantino Western has been coming for a while. He’s peppered all his films with key scenes that nod to the genre: From the mexican stand-off in Reservoir Dogs and most of Kill Bill Vol 2, through to the powerful opening scene in Inglourious Basterds.

In terms of where this sits in his filmography, I’d say it’s on par with Kill Bill (I and II combined) but just edges Basterds – so one of his best, albeit suffering from a slightly long running time. If you’re even a passing fan of Westerns or Tarantino films, you won’t want to miss it.

[Interesting links]
Tarantino’s Top 20 Spaghetti Westerns
The Quentin Tarantino archives
Faster, Quentin! Thrill! Thrill! – Roger Ebert’s journal

kill bill 2 carradine thurman