The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (2018)

p15899689_v_v8_aaThree strangers, riding a coach to damnation. A grizzled prospector, mining for gold. A sad young woman, traveling to Oregon. An incompetent bandit, avoiding hanging once, only to be executed elsewhere. A disabled man, forced to read Shakespeare for money. A singing cowboy, laughing as he guns down his foes. What do these people have in common? Nothing, apart from the fact that they populate The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, a new Netflix anthology film, and the latest flick from the Coen Brothers. Is it a rip-roaring good time? Well… Continue reading

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Damsel (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game. Continue reading

What Is A Western?

The Western: once it was king of American cinema. Now it has receded to the back of the popular conscience, only to be brought to the forefront by the occasional remake or parody. But as much as we might ridicule the Western, most of us have very little knowledge of what it actually is. Images of stets an hats, railroads, and the American southwest in the second half of the 19th century might come to mind when you hear the name, but, the truth is, none of those are pre-requisites for a Western. Many films that are widely accepted as Westerns, such as No Country For Old Men, Hell Or high Water, and Logan, take place in modern times. Many famous Western films, such as A Fistful Of Dollars and The Proposition, were shot in other countries, by non-American directors. Hell, some of the most famous Westerns of all time, like The Magnificent Seven, are either influenced by, or directly adapted from, samurai movies. So as much as we might think of the Western as an outdated, easy-to-define, all-American genre, it really isn’t. 

Which begs the question; what makes a Western a Western? If the setting and time period have nothing to do with it, what about a story makes it recognizable as a Western? To understand this, I looked at several Western films, from different time periods and countries, including Tombstone, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, No Country For Old Men, The Dark Valley, and The Proposition. And what I realized after watching them is that true Westerns are violent tales of people trying to make order out of harsh, lawless landscapes. The harshness and lawlessness of the settings are key. They help provide a visual reference for what the characters are fighting against, and demonstrate the story’s central themes. You couldn’t have a western take place in a suburb, or a big city. Those areas are too docile, too tame. Yes, cities might have crime and violence, but there it is organized. It is part of a larger entity. You could, however, have a Western take place in the 19th century Australian Outback (The Proposition), the modern-day border with Mexico (Sicario, No Country For Old Men), or even the Austrian Alps (The Dark Valley), since those environments are harsh and wild.

See, with Westerns, the land itself is a character. It is a thing that can’t be tamed, and that drives the conflict. The characters are almost always outsiders; be they homesteaders, or lone gunman entering new areas. As such, nearly all Westerns involve characters trying to tame their surroundings, or the people in them. Butch Casidy and The Wild Bunch are about changing societies trying to tame groups of free-spirited outlaws. The Magnificent Seven, Tombstone and Shane are about heroes fighting against powerful men who, in their quest to tame the landscape, have become tyrants. No Country For Old Men and The Proposition follow grizzled, disillusioned lawmen who are determined to bring order to their surroundings, but slowly realizing that they can’t. Even films which don’t directly address changing times, like The Dark Valley, True Grit, and The Searchers, involve characters whose lives have been thrown out of order, trying to return things to the way they were. A man’s niece, kidnapped by Natives. A girl’s father, shot in the back. These are people who have seen their lives thrown into chaos, and they mean to re-establish the order that was lost.

Notice how I keep saying order and chaos, and not good and evil. That’s because Westerns don’t often focus on fights between good and evil. Very often, the conflict is between people who are bad, and people who are worse. The protagonists in Westerns are always deeply flawed. They’re murderers, rapists, bigots; sometimes all of those at once. And even when they’re not those things, like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, William Munny in Unforgiven, or Wolverine in Logan, they’re still deeply unpleasant people. They drink. They swear. They lash out at others. They’re broken people, just trying to get by in their harsh, unfair environments.

The conflict between order and chaos is also a key part of the mythology of the Western. See, the Western was born out of the United State’s expansion across the North American continent, particularly the concept of Manifest Destiny,, or the idea that the US was not only destined to encompass the entire continent, but that doing so was righteous and justified. Whites had to settle the West, the philosophy asserted, because the land was wild, and lawless, and only good, God-fearing people could make it stable. Westerns grew out of this false notion, and that is very evident in early films, particularly those of Johns Ford and Wayne, where the “wild” and “savage” Natives are shown as the villains, and the day is only saved when hunky White men come in and kill them all. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s when we started getting “revisionist” Westerns, like The Outlaw Josey Wales, which questioned the righteousness of big money and the military. And it wasn’t until even later, with films like Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, that we started to make films that showed how horribly treated Native Americans and Women were in that context.

And yet, even after all that alteration, even after a thousand artists tried to put a more revisionist, progressive spin on the genre, Westerns continued to tell violent stories of people trying to make order out of chaos. Dances With Wolves is all about a young man going to see the Frontier, “before it’s gone,” because he knows American society is relentless in its desire to “civilize” the West. Unforgiven is, essentially, about two men’s vastly different approaches to justice; one, Little Bill, thinks that justice can only be maintained through order and the prohibiting of fire arms, the other, William Munny, thinks that justice can only be brought about through bloody revenge. One is order, and one is chaos. Both are trying to make sense of a lawless land, just in drastically different ways. What does this prove? That Westerns can be defined, and that they are defined by their devotion to bloody tales of making order out of disorderly places.

Rango (2011)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

When his terrarium is dropped in the mojave desert, pet chameleon and wannabe actor Rango is left stranded. Upon the advice of a wise Armadillo named Roadkill, Rango makes his way to the Old-West town of Dirt, where, through his quick wit and “superior acting method,” he is able to convince them that he is a tough, gunslinging drifter. This impresses the town’s Mayor so much that he appoints Rango the new sheriff. This delights the latter, and, for a time, he lives in the lap of luxury, feeding off the adulation of the townsfolk. But then, as it always does, reality sinks in. Dirt’s water supply is running low, and, one night, Rango unintentionally helps some thieves steal the reserves. So now, if the town is to survive, he must stop talking the talk, and start walking the walk. Can he, though? Is he up to the task? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Rango is a frenetic, imaginative, and immensely entertaining movie. Not only is the animation amazing–with the tiniest details, like the dust particles floating in a ray of light, looking thoroughly realistic–but the story is creative and original as well. Yes, it borrows heavily from other, older Westerns, particularly the films of Sergio Leone, but it ends up doing something that is wholly its own. And unlike a lot of other animated kids movies, it’s not afraid to make smart, literary references, like to the works of Hunter S Thompson, and, perhaps more impressively, to get weird. And I don’t mean weird in the mild, animals are talking, sense. I mean, peyote-induced, cactus turning into rattlesnake tails, acid-trip weird. If you go into this thinking it’s another Pixar or Disney-style film, you’ll be in for a shock. Because this picture has got some odd, oftentimes unexplained stuff in it. In one scene, for instance, the characters are walking through a cave, and the wall their standing next to opens, revealing itself to be a giant eye. They never explain where it came from, what kind of animal its supposed to be a part of, and it never gets brought up again. And there’s a lot of stuff in this movie like that.

WHich, in a way, is the film’s biggest flaw. I say “in a way” because it doesn’t really bother me. This movie’s quick pace, distinct look, and odd, oftentimes macabre humor are just trademarks of the director, Gore Verbinski’s, style. In case you’ve never heard of him, he directed the first, and best, Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, and the American remake of The Ring. He likes telling odd, off-kilter stories, usually with heavy doses of gruesome black humor. And when I say gruesome, I mean gruesome. Many of the jokes in Rango involve dismemberment, or bodily mutilation. An armadillo sliced in half by a car. A gila monster’s face, burned to a crisp. No, it’s not gory. This is still a kid’s movie. But the humor is a bit more edgy, and certainly more physical, than in your average pixar film. And, like I said before, a lot of the references in this film are ones that young children won’t get. So if you’re thinking of watching an innocent, talking-critter flick with your five year old, maybe pick something else. ‘Cuz you’ll probably end up liking this movie more than him or her.

But even that, at the end of the day, is a compliment, and a deserved one. Because Rango is a smart, creative, immensely-watchable movie. I love it, and would highly recommend you all see it. Rent it when you’ve got the chance.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The name, And Views Are My Game.

Once upon a time, the Western was king of American cinema. Films like The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy And the Sundance Kid, and A Fist Full Of Dollars thrilled audiences with their epic scope, riveting action, and tough as nails protagonists. An entire generation of American movie-goers grew up with bar brawls, gun fights and stage coach robberies as their primary means of escape. But, as time went on, the Western began to fall out of fashion. Perhaps it was due to an increase in the cost of production. Perhaps it was born out of people’s changing sensibilities. Whatever the case, the Western became a thing of the past, and, for years, very few filmmakers dared touch it. There were exceptions, of course, like in the 90s, when Westerns like Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves became huge hits, even winning Best Picture at the Oscars. But these films were as much deconstructions of the Western genre as they were examples of it. It wasn’t until more recently with films like True Grit and Django Unchained that directors tried to make traditional, true-blue westerns again. This year’s remake of The Magnificent Seven is another attempt to shoot some life back into the long-dormant Western genre. And, having just seen the film myself, I can tell you, they just might be able to with this picture.

A remake of the 1960s Western, which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of a small town being oppressed by a group of bandits. Fed up with their squalid living conditions, the townsfolk hire a group of gunslingers, led by Denzel Washington, to liberate them. As the seven train and interact with the local community, they grow closer, not just to each other, but with the people they’re defending. In the end, they must stand against the full force of the bandits and their army, and hopefully drive them off for good. This is a story that’s been told a million times before, even in kids movies–seriously, A Bug’s Life is a remake of Seven Samurai–but that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining, or well-done,and this version of The Magnificent Seven is both.

You’ve got an all-star cast giving their A-game, and some very impressive production values in this film. Not only that, the movie moves very quickly. There are no wasted scenes in this picture, and when the time comes for big, Western-style action,it’s handled very well. There are two absolutely awesome gunfights, one towards the middle, and one at the climax, that took my breath away. They were intense. They were engaging. Everything was clear. Nothing was shaky. If nothing else, this movie is entertaining. And, as i said, the performances given by the seven lead actors–Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-Hun, Manuel-Garcia Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeir–are very good. Their chemistry is real, and their dynamic is engaging. If you just want to go to the movies, and have a good time, this is the film for you. It’s entertaining, undemanding, and unoffensive.

That being said, I did have problems with the movie. For starters, the villain is very weak. He’s your typical evil businessman who simply wants to get rich and oppress people. There’s never a scene where he’s given some humanity, or where he’s allowed to do anything besides act evil. Which is fine. He works for the film, and for the Western genre, which isn’t famed for it’s groundbreaking character development. But, still, all my writing professors tell me that the best villains are the ones that you can kind of get behind–the Joker in The Dark Knight comes to mind when I hear this–and I honestly couldn’t ever get behind The Magnificent Seven’s big bad. To tell you the truth, nothing about him really stood out, besides the actor portraying him’s extremely slimy performance. On top of this, you don’t really get to know any of the heroes that well either. As I sated earlier, this film is very fast-paced, which, again, for the vibe the director was going for–fun, mindless action–works just fine. But when you compare it to the original Seven Samurai, which is almost four hours long, and which spends at least an hour and a half of screen time to developing the various villagers and samurai’s relationships and backstories, this version comes off as kind of hollow. There’s one scene in Seven Samurai where the samurai and a villager, Rikichi, go to ambush the bandits’ camp. They set the camp on fire, but, at the last moment, see Rikichi’s wife, whom it was hinted at earlier in the story was taken away. She looks utterly broken at having been used as the bandits’ sexual plaything, and when she locks eyes with her husband, she is so ashamed that she jumps into the fire, rather than face him again. There’s no dialogue in this scene, but it’s extremely powerful. It still haunts me to this day. There wasn’t anything like that in this version of The Magnificent Seven. Which, like I said, is fine. This film’s tone is considerably more light-hearted and fun, and the movie itself is a lot more action-heavy. Still, it didn’t move me in anyway, and I honestly don’t think I’ll remember it for years and years.

But, all in all, the 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven is well-acted, competently-crafted, and very entertaining. So, I would recommend you all watch it. It’s a 7.5 out of 10. Give it a look.

Firefly

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

I know I’m probably going to catch hell for saying this but, having just sat down and watched every episode of Firefly, I can kind of understand why the show got canceled. This is not to suggest that I think it’s a bad series. I just think it had several things working against it. But, before I go any further, I feel like I need to explain some things to you all.

For those of you who don’t know, Firefly is a science fiction TV series created by Joss Whedon. It ran for one, fourteen-episode season back in 2002, before getting cancelled. Despite its relatively brief run on the air, Firefly gained a massive cult following, and to this day, is considered by many to be one of the greatest TV series ever made. In terms of plot, well, that’s kind of hard to explain. Basically, it’s a Western set in space. In the year 2517, human beings have colonized multiple planets beyond this solar system, and some are really rich and technology-filled, and some aren’t. And when I say they aren’t technology-filled, I mean people on them are still using horse-drawn carriages, steam locomotives, and old colt revolvers. Anyway, because of all the inequity, there was this war between rebels from the poor, Outer Rim planets, and the big evil Alliance, which the rebels lost. One of the men who fought for the rebels is Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who now works as a gun-slinger, mercenary, smuggler hybrid with a small crew on his ship, Serenity. If all that’s hard to remember, just think of him as a Confederate Civil War vet with a chip on his shoulder, trying to get by working as a bounty hunter. But, yeah, in the show, Malcolm and his crew get jobs, go on adventures, and usually get into trouble with Alliance officials. And, well, that’s basically it. Oh yeah, and they occasionally run into this zombie Alien things whose origins never really get explained. I watched the series, and here’s what I have to say about it.

It’s wildly imaginative, and I really appreciate that. As good as television is nowadays, most shows stick to basic premises–murder mystery, big city sitcom, political and/or espionage thriller, etc. I can’t think of many other series with as expansive universes as this one. Yeah, there are the Stargate and Star Trek series, but those are well-established properties with decades of continuity and countless reinterpretations to build off of, so its easy to be creative with them. With this show, they literally had to start from scratch, create a whole new universe with rules, and then try to present that universe and those rules to us in a manner that didn’t feel forced. So, again, from a creativity standpoint, I applaud Whedon and his team. And as far as simple filmmaking is concerned, I don’t have any real problems. The show is well-shot, the actors do fine jobs, and the stories for each episode are certainly entertaining. But, as I said before, I can still understand why this series got cancelled.

For starters, when you watch the show, you can tell that it was expensive to make. All the CGI they had to use, the sets they had to build, and the locations they had to go to to shoot, seemed like they cost a pretty penny. And, take it from me, no investor is going to continue to fork over that much cash unless they’ve got some guarantee that all that money is going to come back to them. From what I’ve heard, Firefly didn’t have that many viewers at the time of its initial release, and wasn’t making that much money, so I can see why the investors over at Fox decided to pull the plug. Secondly, as much as I praise this series for its creativity and originality, there are points where both of those things get in the way of good storytelling. Literally every single episode begins with a voice over explaining the premise I gave you above, including the date, the setting, and the civil war. And unlike other series that do that–such as Avatar: The Last Airbender–where the explanation serves as the intro, Firefly has a musical intro ON TOP OF all the information they dump on you. That means you have to wait a good five to six minutes before the actual plot of each episode begins. And finally, as with a lot of sci-fi movies and shows, Whedon felt the need to develop his own brand of futuristic slang. There are points in episodes where characters are talking, and then, out of the blue, they’ll say a random series of syllables that clearly mean something to them, but that don’t mean a damn thing to the rest of us. I hate it when writers do that–come up with weird vernacular and overly complicated names for simple things. You know what I’m talking about–calling kids “younglings” in the Star Wars movies, robot spiders “grievers” in The Maze Runner, and werewolves “lycans” in the Underworld films. There’s no need for this. Just call things what they are–kids, robots, werewolves. Avatar: The Last Airbender had a comparably complex premise, world and plot to Firefly, but didn’t get canceled after one season. Why? Because it didn’t spend unnecessarily long amounts of time explaining things, it didn’t bog down the dialogue with silly slang and odd terminology, and it didn’t let the mythology it was creating get in the way of good storytelling.

So, like I said before, I don’t think Firefly is a bad series, but I do think that it is one that could have been better. That’s why I’ve decided to give it a 6.8 out of 10. It’s not a show that I would want to watch again, but, if you decide to, and enjoy it, more power to you!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and a Bloody Good New Year to you all!