Review – Westworld Season 1

A futuristic Western-themed amusement park allows high paying guests to live out their wildest fantasies without real world consequences.
Westworld is a theme park with a difference – it enables rich holidaymakers to experience whatever fantasies they possess through artificial consciousness. The park is maintained by robotic ‘hosts’, who aid the fulfilment of the guests desires. However, the many advances in technology that have taken place since the park opened have meant the hosts have become increasingly lifelike over the years. Now, they’ve reached a point where they are growing more and more self-aware and have a stronger grasp on reality, that reality being that they are simply there to carry out a function. After this long, it would appear that the hosts have had enough, and the ultimate rebellion starts to get underway.
I know Westworld was on TV ages ago, but it is only now that I have managed to get round to seeing it. I have to be honest, for the first couple of episodes, I didn’t really know what was going on, but I’m glad I persevered because it built up to a very good finale that ha some very excited for the next season. Maybe I was at a disadvantage because I have never seen the original Westworld film? Who knows… I did eventually end up really enjoying the series, which is all that really matters I think.

A number of things caught my attention when it came to the previews for the show, and one of those things was the cast. Westworld boasts quite a line up. Anthony Hopkins plays Robert Ford, one of the co-founders of the park. I initially loved his character – the fact that Hopkins stuck with his native Welsh accent for the role really worked for me, however he turned out to be a right piece of work in the end, and something about that just didn’t quite sit right. It didn’t have the impact I would have liked it to.

My favourite character had to be Thandie Newton’s brothel madam Maeve. She really reminded me of a character similar to her in Ripper Street, and she was great to watch as she cottoned onto what had been going on for years and years inside the park. I also liked watching the transitions she and the other host actors underwent when the people in charge of the park were running diagnostics and carrying out other technological tasks. The smallest changes made a huge difference in these scenes and it was very easy to differentiate between their personalities and analytical selves.

As I’ve said, to start off I didn’t really have much clue as to what exactly was going on with the storyline, but by the time it got to the third or fourth episode I was fully on board. I think this is partly due to you watching the drama unfold as would be the case from the hosts’ perspectives. It is a non-linear narrative, and the story goes backwards and forwards a lot. Each episode tends to go back to the beginning with a different character, and each time it does this it brings up both old and new details. It kind of felt like what I’d imagine was what the hosts were experiencing as they woke up at the beginning of each storyline. Maybe that’s a bit out there, I don’t really know – that’s just the way I tried and succeeded in making sense of it all.

So, would I recommend Westworld? The answer is yes I would. After having not seen the original film, I didn’t really know what to expect, so I suppose I went into the series with fresh eyes compared to a couple of other people who I had spoken to who had seen the film and perhaps hadn’t quite been convinced by this version of things. It does take a couple of episodes to warm-up, and for that reason Westworld certainly isn’t for everyone. Those of you with patience, however, will hopefully find it to be a rewarding watch with a real Wild West vibe, which was absolutely the case for me! 

Review – The Long Riders (my Genre Grandeur entry)

The tale of the Jesse James gang members, their numerous exploits and their individual fates.
The Long Riders is a sympathetic portrayal of the story of the James-Younger gang that undertook a number of legendary bank robberies as way of revenge. The group, headed up by none other than Jesse James (James Keach), had their share of excitement during their time together, and went down in a blaze of glory when some plucky townspeople call time on their raids.

I’ve always been a fan of westerns – I kind of have to be given that my dad is too. I think it’s fair to say that for an 18-year-old girl, I’ve seen quite a few new and old, traditional and contemporary westerns and have enjoyed most of them. When this month’s Genre Grandeur came up, I thought it was right up my street. I had initially thought about watching something with John Wayne or Robert Mitchum in, but decided to venture a little further out in the end. The Long Riders was a decent western, but not one of my favourites, and here’s why.

The cast of this film is quite an ensemble. You have the two Keach brothers, both Quaids and three of the Carradine clan – more than fitting for a film about a gang that is made up of brothers wouldn’t you say? This benefitted the performances so much as there was a lot of real family ties that already existed. The bonds portrayed on screen just felt so genuine, and I think this made the telling of the story so much more enjoyable to watch.

There was plenty of action in this film, especially in the last half an hour or so. While I am a fan of both slow burners and fast paced movies, I perhaps edge slightly further towards the more high-octane westerns. It was really fun to watch when all the shots were being fired, and it let you see the Jesse James gang in all their glory. One of my favourite scenes in the film was when the men were trapped in a cabin by the Pinkertons chasing them, and they had to break their way through the panelling in the back and take a back route to escape. For me, it’s scenes like that that encapsulate the old west – big shoot-outs and the heroes escaping by the skin of their teeth.

I do have one big issue with the film, however, and while it may seem like a minor detail, it was a big issue for me. Some of the transitions from scene to scene were a bit rushed. the biggest example I can give you of this is at the end of the film when Jesse meets his maker. The big moment happens, and then straightaway the shot cut to the scene of Frank James, played by Stacy Keach, handing himself over to the authorities. This took away so much of the impact of what was one of the biggest blows the film dealt in my opinion, and I really wish that more time had been spent of making the change more meaningful.

All in all, as much as I enjoyed The Long Riders, it didn’t make enough of an impression on me to be amongst my favourite westerns. There were some rip-roaring shoot-outs and I loved the family dynamic that was made so wonderful by the fact that the cast consisted of so many brothers. What damaged the film so much in my eyes was some of the dodgy transitions between scenes. It really impacted some of the biggest moments in the film for me, which is why I cannot place it amongst the ranks of El Dorado or The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Nonetheless, it was worth seeing, and was an hour and a half of my time well spent.

Review – Hell Or High Water

A divorced father and his loose cannon older brother resort to desperate measures in a bid to save the family ranch in West Texas.

Following the death of their mother, unemployed oil and gas worker Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) begin to rob banks so as not to lose her ranch to the Texas Midland Bank. Meanwhile, ageing Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is nearing retirement, but is intent on seeing out the case with his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Together, they try to figure out the well-intentioned bank robbers’ next moves, resulting in an intense showdown.

One of my most anticipated films from what is now last year was Hell Or High Water. The trailer had taken my fancy a while before it had been released in cinemas, but as it was I never made the trip. Well, I finally got to see the film the other day, and I have to say it was well worth the wait. It didn’t quite turn out to be what I had expected, although what that was I’m not quite sure even now after watching the film. What I do know, however, is that I was very impressed by what I saw.

As good as I thought Chris Pine was here, I’m going to refrain from talking about him for the simple reason that people will only read so many words before jumping ship, so I would rather focus on the two ‘supporting’ actors in this review. Ben Foster was excellent as Tanner Howard. He gave an enthralling performance as the ex-con who you kind of felt was going robbing the banks with his brother to make up for all the time he spent in prison, unable to help care for their mother. So many people are talking about awards for this film, and who will get those awards. I am not overly familiar with Foster’s work, but would personally love to see him gain all the recognition he deserves for the stellar work he put in here.

Jeff Bridges was that other ‘supporting’ actor who is the other contender for those prestigious awards I would think. It was another very strong performance in a film that really did consist of some masterful acting. He portrayed Texas Ranger who had seen it all and was now facing the prospect of retirement and not looking forward to it – a character not too dissimilar to that of Tommy Lee Jone’s Ed Tom Bell in No Country For Old Men, another contemporary western that I would highly recommend. Again, it was a display of terrific acting that fully deserves every award it is nominated for should the powers that be decide Bridges was the supporting actor here.

This film is one that you savour as you watch it. It is a wonderful, brooding slow-burner of a film, and this allows you fully take in every part of what is put in front of you. The dialogue and the way it was delivered by the people it was given to was a wondrous thing. The landscapes captured by the cinematographers were breath-taking. There isn’t really a part of this film I could fault, if I’m completely honest with you, and I think that really says all anyone needs to know, because if there’s something for me to complain about, I don’t tend to be backwards in coming forwards about it, do I?

Overall, Hell or High Water is a beautifully made contemporary western that sits proudly amongst many of the westerns that have been made of late. It is easily one of the better ones that are leading the resurgence in the genre, and if this is how filmmakers mean to go on, they have my full support. This would be a great film particularly for people around my age, who perhaps have avoided westerns for being a dated style of film. The contemporary sub-genre is one that hold a lot of promise in my opinion, and is an excellent gateway to the other, more classically formulated films, as this film proves very well.

Review – Appaloosa

Two lawmen hired to police a small town and protect it from a dictatorial rancher find their jobs complicated by the arrival of a young woman.

The local politicians of Appaloosa hire friends and partners Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to protect the town. During their first assignment, the two come face to face with the posse of powerful rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who was the man to make the call to have the previous marshal and his deputies killed. The arrival of piano player Allison French (Renee Zellweger) complicates matters further as she grows close to Virgil and the two make the decision to move in together. When one employee of Bragg’s offers to testify against his boss, Virgil and Everett get ready to bring down the tyrant. However, an ambitious escape plan sees Bragg escape and Allison abducted. This leaves the two partners to figure things out together – can they overcome their recent differences to do so?

The 2005 western, Appaloosa, is not a film I was overly impressed by. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t awful, in fact, it was quite watchable, but there was nothing about it that had that ‘wow’ factor for me. Put it this way, it’s taken me two weeks to get round to writing this review.

Despite my general findings with the film, I have to say that one particular performance was very befitting of the piece. Ed Harris completely embodied everyone’s idea of the town’s grizzled marshal. I do believe that there were points in this film when Harris could easily have been placed amongst the likes of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. He just nailed the mannerisms and characteristics of any man who could have been found during the period in which Appaloosa is set.

As much as I usually like him, Viggo Mortensen didn’t blow me away with his performance. I just didn’t really feel like he was on the same level as his character, Everett. A big feature of Mortensen’s performance was trying to hide his jealousy, and I personally think that the man could have done quite a bit more with the character. The actual performance just felt a bit muted.

The storyline was a rather conventional one where westerns are concerned, and I think that’s partly why I felt so indifferent to it. However, Appaloosa was also gifted with the finest quality raw materials – a somewhat all-star cast, and a director who clearly understands the genre. Unfortunately, these aspects didn’t seem to gel well enough together with that conventional storyline to elevate it to greater heights. It’s slightly frustrating to watch, but it’s also quite difficult to review! 

On the whole, I don’t really know what it is I want to say about Appaloosa. In all honesty, I think this has been one of the hardest films I’ve reviewed since I started blogging, not because it was awful, but just because I found it to be quite plain in the sense that it didn’t give me an awful lot to work with when it came to writing about it. It was adequate, how about that?

Review – Slow West

A young Scottish man travels across America in the hope of finding the woman he loves, whilst also attracting the attention of an outlaw along the way.

16 year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is intent on journeying across America at the end of the 19th century as he searches for the woman he loves but lost a time ago. Along the way, Jay gains the company of Silas (Michael Fassbender), mysterious traveller with an agenda of his own, and the unlikely pair are soon pursued by an outlaw and former associate of Silas’, Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).

Last year saw the release of Slow West – a film that I believe could prove very important in the apparent rebirth of the western genre. It is also a film that I massively enjoyed for a multitude of reasons, and thought it only fair that I shared those with you.

Firstly, there are the performances. It’s funny because the roles played by both lead actors are quite minimalist; there’s not an awful lot to them but quite a lot is gotten across throughout the course of the film. Smit-

McPhee’s role is quite sweet in essence as he not only travels across America, but along the pathway to manhood as well. The relative newcomer’s acting was never to win any awards, but did what it had to do in showing the boy toughening up as he embarked on his manly mission. What I found to be the biggest thing to hinder his performance was the ‘Scottish’ accent he put on, but in the grand scheme of things in a film where very little is actually said, the dodgy accent doesn’t really cause to big of an issue.

Now, it seems to be something I’m starting to say quite often, but Michael Fassbender is yet another actor who is quickly becoming a favourite of mine, yet who perhaps isn’t very widely acknowledged for his capabilities. As Silas, he again proves why more people should know his name. In another minimalist performance, perhaps more so than Smit-McPhee’s, Fassbender’s character mystifies with what he tells us, but does so even more with what he doesn’t say. The art of his characterisation of Silas lies amongst subtleties, which when added altogether, make for an absolutely tremendous character.

The locations for Slow West are stunning. Shot in New Zealand, the film is moved along nicely with breathtaking shots of the landscape, which seem to tell a story all by themselves. The beauty within the cinematography also makes the outcome of the film all the more cruel, which just further accentuates the twisted undertones of dark humour that are laced throughout the entirety of the film.

Overall, if there is a film that should be responsible for the regeneration of the western genre, nobody should be too disappointed if Slow West was to take that title. It has the ingredients of a classic, but blend themes together with aspects of modern cinema and the results are wonderful. It may start off slow-moving, but by the time it reaches the end-sequence massacre, that is, poetic to say the least, you’ll be wondering where the past hour and a half went. 

Review – Tombstone

A famous lawman’s plans to retire anonymously to Tombstone, Arizona, are disrupted by the kinds of outlaws he was renowned for putting away.

When Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), his brothers and their wives move to Tombstone, they intend on putting his life as a gunslinger behind them. There he meets long-time friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), who has managed to upset a few of the locals by cheating in some cards games. However, a group of men known as The Cowboys also reside there, and they believe themselves to be above the law. In order to control the volatile situation in the town, Wyatt is asked to step up as Marshall, but after coming to the town wanting to escape that life he refuses the offer, causing brother Virgil (Sam Elliott) to take the job despite this going against Wyatt’s wishes. This essentially all culminates in a mass confrontation between them and The Cowboys, with some very bloody consequences.

Following my feature on the resurgence of the western genre, I watched Tombstone – not one of the classics, but not a brand new film either. I quite enjoyed it, but thought it could have possibly done with being ten minutes or so shorter.

Kurt Russell’s turn as the famous lawman was very good. Something about the man’s appearance makes him perfect for the type of character he took on as Wyatt Earp. I have no idea what the man himself looked like, but I just get the feeling that Russell embodied him before even opening his mouth. When he did start talking, however, every ounce of his heroism radiated across the screen he really communicated very well an element of humility – the man had had his glory years and now just wanted to retire peacefully. Like every hero, he never went looking for trouble in Tombstone, more likely it found him.

Then we had Val Kilmer as loveable rogue and Wyatt’s long-time pal Doc Holliday. When the film first introduced him to us, I half expected him to be the reason Wyatt would have to do what he had to, but as it was, he was one of the good guys, sort of. His character for me was like the fourth Earp brother. He had Wyatt’s back more than his actual brothers at times and the bond the two men, Kilmer and Russell, shared on screen was something quite special, I thought.

The story of Tombstone is supposedly based on real events. Now, I know nothing about this period of time, so I’m going to fail miserably at being a historical facts checker for the film. What I do know, however, is that I did like the story, but felt that it would have been better had about ten or fifteen minutes been trimmed off of it, as it was with about that long left of the film when I began clock watching a bit.

On the whole, I found Tombstone to be quite an enjoyable film and would recommend it to anyone who considers themselves to be a fan of westerns. It certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but makes for a couple of hours fairly well spent.

Thursday Thoughts – Are westerns making a comeback?

Now, dear reader chums, you’ve put up with me for over a year now, so I think maybe it’s time I came up with something else for you to sink your teeth into other than my reviews and occasional Top Tens. The idea I had was Film & TV Curiosities, and the general gist is that maybe once a month or so I put to you guys something that has crossed my mind regarding just about anything on the box. Have a read of issue no. 1, which starts with a question that I strongly believe to be worth mulling over, and let us know what you think 🙂
Something occurred to me the other day when the best bitch sent me a link for the teaser trailer of the reboot/remake of The Magnificent Seven which is to be released later on this year. During the past year alone, there have been four westerns released that have all been very well received, and it would seem that there are a handful more planned for release throughout the course of 2016-2017 – not too bad for a genre that was deemed to be down and out a few years back. 

There is no doubt that it is a genre that has dwindled in success and popularity in recent times. IMDB’s Top 100 Most Popular Westerns date back all the way to 1939 – somehow I don’t think that. If we were to do the same search for dramas or thrillers we’d quite achieve a 76 year backlog. This could be down to a multitude of reasons, but the fact cannot be ignored that as the dates pass the millennium, westerns get fewer and farther between.

However, in the last five or six years, the production of westerns have slowly but surely been on the rise, despite films such as The Lone Ranger causing critics to declare that the genre had died a death. In 2010, the Coen brothers released a reboot of True Grit which I hugely enjoyed, and how could anyone possibly forget the way Quentin Tarantino marked twenty years of directing with the smash Django Unchained in 2012. During the previous twelve months there has been Slow West, The Salvation, Bone Tomahawk and, of course, Tarantino’s latest release, The Hateful Eight. It would seem that the critics were wrong, and that a resurgence is taking place.

I’d put this down to two films that I have just mentioned, and as much as I enjoyed it, True Grit isn’t one of them – I love the work of the Coen brothers, but I don’t think their work is as widely recognised as that of Tarantino amongst younger audiences who had a very positive response to the stylised masterpiece that was Django Unchained. It had tremendous performances and was a marvellous bit of fun that reminded us all of just how wonderful a good western can be. Above all though, it was original. Yes, it took inspiration from 1966’s Django, but it breathed new life into what many would dismiss as a tired genre.

The other film for me would be last year’s Slow West. It was director John Maclean’s first film for cinema release and I think it’s fair to say it was a success. Throughout the whole piece there was the constant threat of violence, culminating beautifully in a full-on end sequence, and there was an undertone of very dark, but very funny humour that I think went down well with all who have seen it. The film was Coen-esque and breath-takingly shot – a real treat for whoever takes the time to see it.

So there you have it, and with the handful of westerns billed for release over the next twelve months, it is really just time to answer the question of whether westerns have earned themselves a well-deserves rebirth. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the resurrection of the genre, so tell me, what do you think?