List: Comedy Westerns

Posted on May 28, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Movies and westerns were made for each other.  Hollywood came along not long after the era of westward expansion and access to the stunning landscapes of Monument Valley and endless vistas of desert and sagebrush was nearby.  The earliest commercial films were cowboy stories and by the time Hollywood hit its stride in the 1930’s-50’s the western was the perfect metaphor for the American experience.  Most were action films and dramas, but there were a few comedies, like this week’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”  Some of the best include:

Cat Ballou  Jane Fonda stars as a young woman determined to get revenge for the murder of her father (John Marley, the horse head in the bed guy from “The Godfather”).

A Big Hand for the Little Lady  This neglected gem has an all-star cast and one of the greatest plot twists ever, in the story of a devoted wife and mother (Joanne Woodward) who takes over for her ailing husband (Henry Fonda) in a high-stakes poker game.

The Paleface and Son of Paleface star Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, and Jane Russell in a pair of western spoofs, with the Oscar-winning song “Buttons and Bows.”

 

Ruggles of Red Gap Charles Laughton plays a very proper gentleman’s gentleman who teachers the rough westerners a few things about their own heritage.  It was remade with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball as “Fancy Pants.”

Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks’ classic is one of the funniest films ever made, funnier every time you watch it.  My favorite part is Madeline Kahn as the dance hall girl.

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Comedy For Your Netflix Queue Lists Western

The Lone Ranger

Posted on July 7, 2013 at 11:32 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scenes in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive action-style violence, some graphic, many deaths and injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie but some insensitivity to racial differences
Date Released to Theaters: July 4, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B008JFUOC2

lone rangerFor more than a century the movies have been telling us the story of America through westerns, and each decade gets the version it deserves.  We have seen films range from the optimistic, heroic, and racially insensitive movies of the 40’s (“Destry Rides Again,” “My Darling Clementine”) to the more politically metaphoric movies of the cold war era (“High Noon,” “The Ox-Bow Incident”) to the subversive 60’s (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Cat Ballou”), to the bleakness of spaghetti westerns and the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven.”

And now, 110  years after Edwin S. Porter’s “Great Train Robbery” (considered the first movie western), we get an update on the radio show-turned television series-turned forgettable 1981 movie version starring model-almost-turned-actor Klinton Spilsbury and Michael Horse, “The Lone Ranger.”  And it is indeed a reflection on the era of Citizens United and squestration.  It is the very essence of soulless corporate excess and celebrity self-regard.

The folks behind “Pirates of the Caribbean” have reunited for a reboot of “The Lone Ranger,” but this is more like the overstuffed sequels than the fresh and charming original.  Everything is out of balance in this bloated two and a half-hour endurance challenge.  The worst part is that pared down to lose 40 minutes or so of filler, this could be a nice little action movie.  It has the key ingredients: a story and characters that have stood the test of time, inventive and absorbing action sequences, and talented performers.  Unfortunately, it is hard to find any of that in the midst of all of the bombast and overkill and tooooo many cooks.

It is now well known that Depp became a superstar with his performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates” movies, a performance of such quirk and weirdness that it completely freaked out the suits.  So of course now, with him as producer, they let him do whatever he wanted for the character of Tonto, including spending the entire movie with his face completely painted and wearing a dead crow on his head, inspired by a picture he saw.  This is when the suits should have stepped in.  Instead they were enablers, allowing the quirks to become distracting and unpleasant.  That is especially true in a completely unnecessary framing story set in 1933, with Depp in old man make-up appearing in an old west display, telling a little kid dressed as the Lone Ranger his story.

Armie Hammer does his best in a thankless role.  His John Reid is part James Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (bookish lawyer who wants to bring Lockeian notions of a civil society to the west), part doofus.  He isn’t as smart as Tonto or the villains, which is fine, but he isn’t as smart as his horse, either.  He isn’t as smart as the blanket under his saddle, except when he is, or when he is called upon to do crazy stunts like racing the snow-white “spirit horse” across the top of a racing train, shooting his gun as he goes.  He is a fine actor with a strong screen presence and he is clearly game.  He deserves better.

The many, many references to other movies seem like crutches, not tributes.  The many, many anachronisms are sloppy and show contempt for the audience, not meta-commentary.  People in 1869 did not say “Let’s do this.”  They did not eat hot dogs in buns with ketchup.  The “Star Spangled Banner” did not become the national anthem until 1931. There was no such thing as “health code violations” in a bar — or a house of prostitution.  And the all-purpose conspiracy that has the military, a hostile takeover, and an outlaw feels desperate and generic.  Any commentary on today’s economic and political woes is purely coincidental.

The real commentary on the failures of capitalism is in spending $250 million of the Disney shareholders’ money on this uninspired vanity project.

Parents should know that this film has intense and graphic violence for a PG-13.  A villain literally eats the heart of a man he has murdered and there is massive slaughter, with many characters injured and killed.  There are prostitutes, a cross-dresser, bathroom humor, some alcohol, and mild language.

Family discussion:  Why did Tonto feed the crow?  Why was trading so important to him?  Read the Lone Ranger’s creed and discuss how it applies to your life.

If you like this, try: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Silverado,” “Cat Ballou,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

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Action/Adventure Based on a television show Comedy Drama Movies Remake Western

Django Unchained

Posted on December 24, 2012 at 6:00 pm

How do you solve a problem like Tarantino?

The prodigiously talented writer/director is a master of style, sensation, and a uniquely muscular kind of cinematic storytelling that builds on a stunning ability to mash up high and low art in a singular and wildly entertaining combination shot through with pure cinematic testosterone and filled with saucy variations on dozens of other films.

But then there is the content of the films, which it seems that Tarantino looks at as just another tool for jacking up a movie’s adrenalin.  In “Pulp Fiction,” there was the shock of a literal shot of adrenalin to the heart of an overdosing character and the frisson of hired killers whose biggest concern about blowing someone’s head off is the challenge of getting the blood off the car upholstery.  The purest expression of Tarantino’s art is in the “Kill Bill” movies, where he wastes no time on plot, just the minimum nod to the simplest and most relatable of  motives — revenge.

In “Django Unchained,” as in his last film, Tarantino uses an actual historic atrocity almost as an afterthought or a placeholder.  Like The Bride’s revenge motive, the Holocaust and slavery — and endless uses of the n-word by both black and white characters — are used to justify massive carnage, and, apparently, for no other reason.  With “Kill Bill,” the less we knew about the specifics of the reason for the revenge, the better.  With “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” we are already aware of the horrors that give the characters license to wreak destruction (artfully).  But it is, ultimately, empty.  Put another way: sound and fury, check.  Signifying: nothing.

Foxx plays the title character.  As the movie begins, slave dealers are marching a group of slaves in leg irons and with the scars of whip marks along their backs, through the wilderness.  A cheerful man with an elegant, cultured manner pulls up in a cart with a big tooth mounted on a spring.  He is passing as a dentist.  He cordially offers to buy a slave but when the brutish, dull-witted men refuse, and the first massive slaughter of the story is underway, and all the other slaves set free.  The man is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar as a Nazi for Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”).  He is a bounty hunter who hunts down “wanted dead or alive” men and kills them to collect the reward.  In those pre-Google image search days, he needs Django to identify three brothers.  The information on the wanted posters is not enough for a positive identification.  He is opposed to slavery, so he makes a deal.  He will keep Django a slave only long enough to complete the job.

Django proves so adept at the bounty hunter business that Schultz offers to bring him on as a partner.  “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?” Django replies.  Django wants to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  When they tried to escape from their owner, they were separated and sold.  Schultz says that Django will not be able to do it alone, and promises to help him get her back.  Their travels take them through several different adventures and many nods and winks to other films (Franco Nero, the original Django, shows up in a brothel bar), including a completely hilarious scene with a bunch of proto-Klan types who can’t get the eyeholes right in their masks and some completely horrifying scenes with a slave torn apart by dogs and a seemingly endless “mandingo fight” to the death.  Broomhilda is now owned by a man named Candy (his plantation is called Candyland).  He is utterly corrupt and despicable, but even worse is his house slave (Samuel L. Jackson), because he betrays other slaves.

Tarantino gets top marks for style, as always.  The violence and historical reversals are possibly intended to be empowering (oddly, Broomhilda is surprisingly less powerful than the usual Tarantino female characters).  On the contrary, it is dispiritingly disrespectful to the people who suffered unspeakable atrocities.  And Tarantino’s increasing distance between style and substance grows less palatable with each film.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely brutal, graphic, bloody, and disturbing violence with many characters injured and killed, an extended fight to the death, whipping and torture, prostitutes, slaves, some nudity, and constant very strong language including many uses of the n-word.

Family discussion:  Why did Stephen tell Calvin his suspicions about Django?  How does this movie show the influences of spaghetti westerns, American westerns, and “Blazing Saddles?”  Any other inspirations?

If you like this, try: “Inglourious Basterds” and “Kill Bill”

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Action/Adventure Drama Epic/Historical Western

Cowboys & Aliens

Posted on July 28, 2011 at 6:28 pm

The last word I thought I’d be using about a movie called “Cowboys & Aliens” is “realistic,” but what I like best about this film is the way it uses the most speculative of fantasies for thoughtful exploration, not just six-guns vs. laser shooters.  Perhaps “respectful” is a more appropriate term.  Without any snarkiness or irony it shows us the way that frontiersmen a decade after the Civil War would rise to the challenge of an alien invasion the same way they battled nature and each other, making up in determination for what they lacked in knowledge and technology.

As co-star Brendan Wayne explained to me in an interview, we can’t make the kinds of iconic John Ford films his grandfather, John Wayne starred in because “you can’t really do cowboys and Indians without insulting history and culture.”  But a fight against aliens doesn’t require any nuance or sensitivity and that makes it possible to revisit the archetypes that continue to define us as a culture in a way that is both traditional and new.

As for plot, the title says it all.  A cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up with amnesia.  He does not know who he is, where he got the injury to his abdomen, or how a strange metal cuff became attached to his arm.  We learn at the same time he does that his fighting skills are excellent and he has no compunction about killing — or relieving his victim of his boots, guns, and horse.  And he has eyes the color of the clear sky over the Rockies.

“What do you know?” asks the preacher (Clancy Brown) who discovers the gunman has broken into his home  “English,” says the gunman.  He seems to know how to survive, or at least how to recognize danger and the vulnerability of those who intend to attack him.

The preacher lives in a town where the hot-headed and arrogant son of the local rancher accidentally shoots a deputy sheriff.  He and the gunman are jailed waiting for federal marshalls — or for the young man’s father.  One way or the other, they will leave the jail that night.

The father, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) arrives, determined to take his son home.  The marshalls arrive to take him to federal court.  And then the aliens arrive and even in this land where nothing is certain and no rules seem to apply, this is so far out of their experience they can only call the invaders “demons.”

This middle section is the most intriguing.  The cowboys can’t go to Google or watch old movies to figure out what to do.  They don’t have electricity or automatic weapons.  They have to figure out a way to fight their demons using only the same qualities and resources they bring to staking their claim on the land.

They know how to track their prey.  And Dolarhyde was a Colonel at Antietem.  That means he knows military tactics.  And what it means to lose his men.  The gunman’s memory begins to return and they get help from some unexpected sources in time for a final battle.  The film falls apart a bit here and the long list of writers and producers (including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) may have been a factor in a disappointing last act that shows evidence of compromise and lack of focus.   The aliens themselves also seem under-imagined and the reveal of their ultimate purpose caused some laughter in the theater.

Director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) likes to avoid CGI whenever possible, and he makes superb use of both the mechanical effects and the Western landscape.  The faces of Ford and Craig are a landscape of their own and both men provide heft and a sense of resolute determination that resonates with our deepest myths and reminds us why so many of them include cowboys.

(more…)

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Action/Adventure Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Science-Fiction Western

Rango

Posted on March 3, 2011 at 5:37 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, language, action, and smoking
Profanity: Some crude schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Western-style violence with shoot-outs, characters in peril, injured and killed with some graphic images, snake
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 4, 2011

“Rango” is a deliciously demented and slyly satiric take on westerns, which means it takes on America’s deepest myths about our identity. It is wild and strange and blessedly idiosyncratic, with a witty and heartfelt performance by Johnny Depp in the title role.

Don’t let the PG rating fool you. This is not a movie for kids. This is a movie for cool, sophisticated, highly discerning teenagers and adults. Children who see it will have the pleasure of decades of “Ah, that’s what that reference in Rango was about” moments as they expand their knowledge of classic film and American history and folklore. But older audiences will be able to appreciate the way the movie salutes, tweaks, and repurposes western traditions, with shout-outs to a cornucopia of films and icons, from Hunter Thompson to Clint Eastwood and joyously cracked dialogue about conflict, irony, power, heroes, and destiny. And a brave girl lizard named Beans (voice of Isla Fisher), a mayor who is a turtle in a wheelchair (voice of Ned Beatty), a scary snake (voice of Bill Nighy), and some mangy varmints who are actual mangy varmints. And an adorable bird mariachi band to comment on the story.

It begins with an actor, a literal and metaphoric chameleon in a literal and metaphoric glass cage, sealed off from the world, his only co-stars a plastic fish and a headless Barbie torso. He is so existentially changeable that he can hardly tell reality from performance and like his cinematic western forebear, he has no name.

When a highway accident tosses his lizard tank on to the desert highway, it shatters and our hero for the first time must find a destiny and an identity. A mythic armadillo directs him toward a town called Dirt so he can find water. Once there, he picks a name for himself: Rango. And soon he is made sheriff. But it takes a bit longer for him to understand what that really means and what it will take for him to protect the town.

It’s all about water. The town needs it. But “the immutable law of the desert is — control the water and you control everything.” Rango will have to become more than a chameleon — he will have to become a hero.

There is so much going on it will require a second and third viewing, each more enjoyable than the last. Just watch Rango’s attire adapt as he gets in touch with his inner hero. There are hundreds of clever details and imaginative flourishes to make this film worthy of being put into the same category as the films to which it so charmingly pays tribute.

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Animation Comedy Fantasy Movies Talking animals Western
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