NEWS: Trailer for AMC’s upcoming series Hell on Wheels

AMC has released a trailer for its upcoming Western series based in the Reconstruction-era South, Hell On Wheels.

The series, which was picked up for a 10-episode run in December, will follow the quest of former Confederate soldier and slave owner Cullen Bohannan (played by Anson Mount) to avenge the rape and murder of his wife by Union soldiers. It will recreate the construction of the Union Pacific transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, and attempt a Deadwood-like portrayal of the violent bacchanal that was the travelling collection of saloons, gambling houses and brothels known as ‘Hell on Wheels’, where the railroad workers spent their money and free time. The series promises to explore the gaping wounds of a nation coming out of a civil war, and the volatile post-emancipation Reconstruction era.

It looks good. AMC has built an outstanding reputation for quality serialised drama with Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead (all of which you should watch if you haven’t already), and can be presumed a safe pair of hands for this potentially epic story. The trailer certainly suggests they’ve got the production design down, with both the authenticity and grim and gritty style modern we’ve come to expect from modern Westerns.

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1&isUI=1

The series is currently shooting with an expected North American air date late this year. For  antipodean peons like myself, I suggest picking the show up on DVD. No, I have not heard of this BitTorrent of which you speak.

NEWS: Tarantino to direct spaghetti Western

Tarantino in Sukijaki Western Django

Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill director Quentin Tarantino’s next film will be a Western, in news that should delight all lovers of the genre.

Tarantino will both write and direct the film, which will be titled Django Unchained. Like the Tarantino-produced Japanese spaghetti Western homage Western Sukiyaki Django, Django Unchained is expected to be partly based on the 1966 Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero.

The infamously violent Western starred Nero as the eponymous Django, a drifter who dragged a coffin everywhere with a machine gun inside. Nero has said he will be in the film himself, but whether he will reprise the role or simply appear as a minor character is unclear.

News of Tarantino’s film was first leaked with the working title ‘A Southern’, but the front page of the finished script was leaked last week, marked as completed on April 26.  Plot details are scarce, but Christoph Waltz, whose powerhouse performance as SS Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds shot him to stardom, has reportedly been cast as a German bounty hunter who teams with an escaped slave to rescue the slave’s former wife from a Southern plantation.

More solid production information from Deadline says the film is casting quickly and will shoot before the end of the year.

Tarantino is well-known for his love for disregarded and underappreciated genres, and particularly for the post-Leone Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s. Although it’s never wise to get too excited about a project from such scant details, in this case some enthusiasm could be excused.

Hat tip AV Club, HitFix and Deadline.


NEWS: Ryan Gosling in talks to play Lone Ranger

Ryan Gosling - in talks for The Lone Ranger

Ryan Gosling, of Blue Valentine and The Notebook fame, is reportedly in negotiations to take the role of the Lone Ranger in the upcoming adaptation by Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp.

Verbinski and Depp have both already made it clear that Depp’s Tonto, not the Lone Ranger, will be the lead role, with Verbinski describing his plans as “‘Don Quixote’ from Sancho Panza’s point of view.” Depp, who is part Cherokee, says he sees the role as a way to ‘salute’ all the Native Americans who have been poorly portrayed in cinema.

The Lone Ranger first found life as a radio serial, running from 1933 to 1954, before going on to appear in film serials, on television, and in comics and novels. The notoriously clean-cut franchise features the Lone Ranger, his ever-present Apache companion Tonto, and his horse Silver. The Lone Ranger is a masked vigilante, who battles evil but never ethnic minorities, and always shoots to disarm.

The film has been described as taking a comedic take on the franchise, possibly invoking the slapstick action-adventure feel of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Depp has flirted with the Western before, with 2003’s Robert Rodriguez film Once Upon A Time in Mexico, and of course this year’s Rango.

At this stage, it’s hard to picture what sort of shape the finished project will take. The sometimes excessively self-aware tone of Depp projects is not something I relish the idea of seeing on-screen, nor can I claim to have enjoyed any Verbinski-Depp collaboration. I am willing to be surprised by a quality Lone Ranger, but I would be surprised.

Lone Ranger is planned for a 2014 release.

UPDATE – 08 June 2011: Ryan Gosling is now confirmed not to be available for Lone Ranger, which has been moved forward for a North American release on 21 December, 2012.

REVIEW: Paint Your Wagon (1969) – Joshua Logan, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood

Eastwood and Marvin, Paint Your Wagon

Eastwood and Marvin, Paint Your Wagon

Ben Rumson: “I have read the Bible, Mrs. Fenty.”

Mrs. Fenty: “Didn’t that discourage you from drinking?”

Ben Rumson: “No, but it sure killed my appetite for readin’!”

Going from Dances With Wolves to Paint Your Wagon is skipping from the pinnacle of self-seriousness to the heights of libertarian farce. Part Western, part musical and part satire, Paint Your Wagon has gained a certain cultural notoriety as the Western with singing instead of shooting, notably spoofed by The Simpsons.

Paint Your Wagon is the story of a hastily formed mining partnership between the scruffy, drunken mountain man Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin), and newcomer Pardner (Eastwood, who is not named throughout the movie, in a wink to his iconic role as The Man With No Name). In the mountains of the California gold rush, Rumson rescues Pardner when he and his brother plunge down a mountainside, and they hit a goldstrike together at the brother’s burial. Soon, a mining encampment of 400 springs up, dubbed ‘No-Name City’.

When a Mormon and his two wives enter the all-male town, the affection-starved populace go into a frenzy, and it is soon resolved that the second of the two wives will be auctioned to the highest bidder. A falling-down-drunk Rumson stumbles into the auction in progress, doubles the going bid, and passes out cold, $800 poorer and a wife richer.

It soon becomes clear that an encampment with one woman is very different from an encampment with none, as Rumson’s new wife Elizabeth (Jean Seberg) becomes a major tourist attraction, and demands a permanent cabin rather than a tent. Meanwhile, a jealous Rumson, driven to madness by the hundreds of jealous eyes upon him at all times, persuades the townspeople to found a brothel, quickly turning No-Name City into a thriving boomtown.

Despite Paint Your Wagon’s refusal to take itself seriously, its beautiful scripting and permanent tongue-in-cheek hide a movie with something real to say about the Old West. It masterfully portrays its characters mix of libertarianism and misanthropy with winking affection, and shows how essential some moral flexibility and willingness to adapt is to life on a muddy and frigid frontier, while at the same time handily explaining the conflicting urge to civilise.

One recurrent criticism of Paint Your Wagon is that the central love triangle is under-realised, with Eastwood and Seberg’s relationship mainly established in a much-decried montage. In a way, though, that’s part of the point – the film simply takes the predictability and universality of human nature for granted, and lets the viewer do so, too.

In fact, for a movie dealing with such potentially grim themes, Paint Your Wagon is remarkably good-natured and fun. You know you’re in safe hands when the confrontation of two women by 400 lawless, horny men is handled with such aplomb. There’s a particularly sweet moment when the town’s blacksmith offers to pay $50 in gold dust for the chance to hold the Mormons’ baby. Other moments carry a vicious edge, like when a pastor rides into town howling about sin and damnation, before introducing a Native American girl who is tied to his saddle and looks no more than 12 as “my wife, Princess Hummingbird”.

The production and staging on Wagon is glorious, the repartee is sharp, and there’s some fantastic physical comedy on offer. However, many of the songs are forgettable, and it’s quite a time sink at 164 minutes – points which should take none of the shine off for anyone willing to give it a chance. For the patient, Paint Your Wagon is an underappreciated wonder, and a canonical addition to the Western genre no real fan should miss.

REVIEW: Dances With Wolves (1990) – Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell

Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be.”

 – Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, Dances With Wolves

Dances With Wolves

The epic revisionist Western that was Kevin Costner’s directing debut clocks in at a hefty 175 minutes, or three and a quarter hours. Or at least the sellout theatrical version does. The director’s cut doesn’t concern itself with such crass commercial pandering and pulls out all the stops, sauntering in at 236 minutes.

It’s become somewhat fashionable to criticise Dances With Wolves in the two decades since its release, and even to despise this. While we’ll get to the criticisms in a moment, they should not be allowed to totally eclipse the real achievements of this film.

Dances With Wolves opens on Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, a Union officer in the American Civil War, in a medical tent. WhenDunbar realises his foot is to be amputated, he instead takes a horse and rides out in front of the enemy stockade in a suicide attempt. When he miraculously survives, and unintentionally inspires a charge, breaking a stalemate and winning the battle.

Cited for bravery and offered his choice of posting,Dunbarelects to be posted to the western frontier, saying he would “like to see it before it’s gone.” Once there, he finds the fort to which he’s been posted deserted, but chooses to stay and man it alone while he waits for reinforcements.

As he waits, he slowly grows closer to the local Sioux Indians (more correctly known as Lakota tribesmen), eventually marrying one of their tribe, Stands-With-A-Fist (Mary McDonnell), an orphan of European settlers who was adopted by the tribe as a child, while developing an animus toward his own people as he witnesses the dark side of encroaching white settlement.

In terms of production, Dances With Wolves in many ways works in the finest traditions of the open plains Western. With its sprawling plot, a soaring orchestral score over glorious location shots from Dakota andWyoming, in many ways it’s reminiscent of the John Ford horse epics of which it is the polar opposite in politics and sentiment.

Its core love stories, between Dunbar and Stands-With-A-Fist, Dunbar and the Lakota, andDunbarand the frontier, are hauntingly affecting, as all are doomed by the steady onward flow of time, and the knowledge that all of them are doomed to pass into history.

In a sense, Dances With Wolves is the extreme end of an arc of moral development in the Western that began with the doubts and subtexts of The Searchers 34 years previously. For the first time in a mainstream film, a native American tribe were the heroes, and all of European settlement the villain. While most Western films had moved well away from tradition of using Indians as antagonists during the 1960s and ‘70s, they had (excepting 1970’s Little Big Man) simply avoided the issue of the American genocide, whereas Dances With Wolves grappled with it directly, as the tragic, brutal and aggravated erasure of entire peoples and their way of life.

But it is an extreme. The main reason it has been so criticised is that it sounded the bell on an entire decade of mawkish and worthy film-making, at the same time earning a great deal of ill-will by beating out Martin Scorcese’s brilliant and uncompromising gangster story Goodfellas.

There is some substance to the criticism. Just as the Indians of the 1950s were two-dimensional merciless murdering savages to be held off by the heroic United States Cavalry, Costner’s Sioux are a pure and spiritual tribe of beautiful, healthy and somehow spotlessly clean noble savage archetypes, while all the white characters other than the thoughtful and ethically anachronistic Lieutenant Dunbar are leering caricatures, greasy, violent and deliberately wasteful.

Not only are the Sioux treated as qualitatively superior to whites in every way, but so are the animals. Costner bonds with both the horse he rides throughout the film, who we are to believe is so faithful and intelligent that it thwarts multiple attempts at theft throughout the film, and a wild wolf Dunbar dubs Two Socks. Both are given fairer treatment and a deeper characterisation than any non-Costner European character throughout the film.

It’s a bit rich to feel too persecuted by this, of course. In more than a century of Westerns, Indians have been soulless villains in perhaps thousands of films and many other manifestations, so leaping to arms after seeing European characters treated the same way in just one would be incredibly hypocritical. More egregious, however, is how Costner circumvents the need to depict occasional villainy on the part of native Americans.

For this purpose, the Pawnee tribe becomes the all-purpose antagonist, murdering any innocent Europeans who need murdering, and attacking and slaughtering the Sioux to add drama and give Dunbar a chance to be their saviour. This is aggravated by the historical fact that the Pawnee were as much victims of Lakota aggression as the other way around.

Despite its flaws, Dances With Wolves is a triumph, and its claim to be the Best Picture of 1990 is an honest one. It marks an important point in the moral development of Western civilization, and should be viewed in that context. Indeed, so successful and significant was Dances With Wolves, it actually persuaded someone to finance and authorise Costner’s next film, the history-making bomb Waterworld.

REVIEW: Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Ang Lee, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal

Brokeback Mountain was Ang Lee’s second feature film after the smash international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lee’s

Brokeback Mountain theatrical release poster. Image property Paramount Studios.

action movie mastery was put him on the list of A-list directors, so a lot of studio executives must have been very disappointed when he played 2003’s Hulk for pathos rather than thrills, with the effect of creating the infamous emo-Hulk and barely breaking on domestic box office, even without including marketing costs.

Lee’s moody, lingering shots and penchant for thickly emotional scoring work much better in Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two cowboys and their doomed love. Brokeback was a sensation; combining character archetypes at the very centre of red-state identity and mythology with the already touchy issue of homosexuality meant it broke over the American national conversation like a tsunami, becoming an instant, ever-present punchline. It became the go-to move for every lazy hack comedian and launched a thousand think pieces in print and online, to the point that far more people were talking about it than ever saw it in a theatre.

As an actual film on the screen, Brokeback is an achievement. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, it tells the story ofEnnisDel Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two cowboys who take a job tending a sheep herd on the titular mountain inWyoming over the winter of 1963-4. After months of long, lonely nights, the two are sleeping in the same tent when Jack drunkenly makes advances on Ennis. Although Ennis resists at first, the two start a relationship.

Although they part ways at the end of winter and both marry and have children, they continue to meet in remote locations for vacations and weekends, with Jack always wanting to run away together, and Ennis always warning of the violence they could face if they were found out.

The genius of the film is that it makes no attempt to differentiate the love story at its heart as a gay love story. Gyllenhaal and Ledger play their characters completely straight, except for the part where they have sex with men. The love scenes between the two heterosexual actors are both compelling and natural, and both play their relationships with their respective wives (Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams) perfectly as substantial relationships nonetheless damaged by submerged truths. Ledger’s performance in particular is brilliant and compelling, despite much mockery of his character’s mumbling speech at the time. It’s the genius he showed in this role most of all that made him so keenly mourned by film lovers when he passed away in 2008.

Shot against the spectacular backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, Brokeback is not only a stunningly beautiful film, it is exceptional in performances, scripting and conception. Even its occasionally syrupy scoring is eagerly soaked up by the frigid open spaces against which it is set. It was widely awarded, winning three Oscars, although notoriously losing the 2005 Best Picture statue to the execrable Crash, a loss widely blamed on conservative academy voters who either refused to see Brokeback, or were willing to vote for anything else, although this still doesn’t explain how Crash won against the other three clearly superior nominees.

Many of the jokes made about the film indicated that Brokeback Mountain profoundly changed the way people saw Western tropes and archetypes. The solitary lifestyle and the exclusive company of men took on a new and sinister tone to those prone to seeing such things as sinister, making the film profoundly important as a revisionist Western. Perhaps its most significant legacy, however, is that at a time when the Bush administration was attempting to amend the US Constitution to ban gay marriage, Brokeback Mountain made a spectacular commercial success out of a gay love story.

REVIEW: Jonah Hex (2010) – Jimmy Hayward, Josh Brolin

Jonah Hex (2010). Image: Warner Bros.

Could Jonah Hex have been good or even great? It’s hard to know. Certainly Josh Brolin should be the perfect gritty gunfighting anti-hero. John Malkovich as a scenery-chewing archvillain should work. Megan Fox is… well, Megan Fox is very popular with horny teenagers. So what went wrong?

All of it. It all went wrong.

Explaining Jonah Hex is like explaining the deeds of a psychopath. No one loved it, someone did something unspeakable to it, and now it’s a monster.

That no one loved it is obvious. It’s just 72 minutes between opening and closing credits, as though it’s trying to slide apologetically by without notice. The script is incredibly half-hearted – although it’s nominally a Western, it seems to have absolutely no interest in the genre, alternatively tossing in superpowers, superweapons and terrorists to avoid the apparently unpleasant task of actually engaging with making a compelling Western. It genuinely seems like a half-hearted Tom Clancy adaptation was repurposed at the last moment when a comic book property became available.

As for the production design… well, Hollywood has been doing Western sets convincingly since there was a Hollywood, so for a film with Jonah Hex’s budget to make everything look like a theme park ride is almost impressive.

What’s been done to it isn’t pretty either. The comic book Jonah Hex is a pretty standard Man With No Name rip-off – in Volume 2, he is even drawn to look exactly like Dollars-era Clint Eastwood, with the hideous scar that is the character’s trademark fixing his face permanently into Eastwood’s wry grimace. In Jonah Hex, however, Hex gains the ability to resurrect and interrogate corpses, with a built-in torture mechanism to ensure their compliance, and with the convenient addendum that being dead gives them the ability to know everything about anyone they knew when they were alive. All of this is spelt out in the nightmarishly laboured expositional narration and dialogue that refuses to take a break even during the action set pieces.

The film refuses to accept the simple but effective laws of the anti-hero. Far from the misanthropic loner of the comics, the Hex of the film grunts and grimaces a good game, but in short order has acquired both a long-term relationship in the form of Fox, and a dog, in a sign that some horrible studio hack did not trust their audience enough to sympathise with a genuinely isolated protagonist. The entire film is shot like a trailer, with generic heavy metal and a sense of ponderous self-importance throughout.

Director Jimmy Hayward has even managed to dim Fox’s dubious charms as a leading lady by airbrushing and CGI-ing her into the uncanny valley until she looks like an escapee from the animated films he is more accustomed to working on.

This is a film that has had the same degree  creative passion put into it that a sausage maker might put into sausage no. 3,754,104.

In fact, there are only two good things to be said about Jonah Hex. One, it includes Jeffrey Dean Morgan as one of the corpses Hex tortures for information, which adds still another role to an improbably long list of deceased characters for the actor (in addition to Supernatural, Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy and The Watchmen, among others).

And two, it only made US$11 million on a budget of US$47 million, so there won’t be another.

In conclusion, I will borrow from 1995’s Billy Madison. This film is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever seen. At no point in its rambling, incoherent plot was it even close to anything that could be considered an enjoyable film. Everyone is now dumber for having allowed it to come to pass. I award it no points, and may God have mercy on its soul.