Somewhere In The Mountains of Wyoming (Brokeback Mountain, 2005)


“I wish I could quit you.” Sure make all the jokes about that line yet in the context of Brokeback Mountain it cuts quickly and to the core. Jack yells it at Ennis, then instantly regrets ever saying such a thing in the next minute as Ennis breaks down. This occurs at the movie’s heart and almost towards the later part of the film, a scene that is brutal and heartbreaking. I regret ever joining the other idiots in 2005 who made jokes off that line. I plead ignorance however that’s little to no excuse.

Ang Lee by 2005 was an established director, and even after gifting us with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon he had more wonderful surprises up his sleeve. One of them was Brokeback Mountain, a film that reminds me of Delmer Daves’ westerns, those startling picturesque melodramas created in an era long gone by. Also I thought of films such as Black Narcissus, where the characters are unable to properly fulfill their own longings. Even though Jack and Ennis have a decades long relationship neither man due to society and their own separate lives can find happiness with each other.

That and each man goes along with societal expectations, well at least Jack does. Ennis fails to hide who he is from his wife, although the film never quite says if his kids picked up on him being in love with a man or not. Ennis has a temper that is on display multiple times, particularly during an awe inspiring fireworks scene that literally reflects the fireworks going on his own life.

Despite being focused on the two male leads the movie still has time for others, also concentrating on the women in the men’s lives. Alma grows to resent Ennis for not being around enough and uncovers his secret all too easily. Meanwhile Lureen either seems all to willing to ignore who Jack is or she focused too much on her own life. Either way she seems the clichéd dutiful wife focused primarily on her own business. I thought it was interesting how the movie only really showcases Ennis’ one daughter of the two, Alma Jr., although perhaps that’s due to only having so much screen time I suppose.

Jack on the other hand mostly keeps himself almost under wraps, only truly showing blatant emotion several times. The two men seem to be apart even when they’re together, and yet in a different time and place maybe things could have worked out. Perhaps that may have been the case, yet no one knows for sure. Life has an awfully funny way of working out, typically not in our favor.

Ang Lee has created a modern classic, one that still affects the viewer 16 years later. He adds to both the western and drama genres, and he reminds me of what I discover as a young man: Wyoming is so beautiful words cannot describe it at all. I can relate to Ennis’ struggle to find a meaningful relationship and connection with someone, and clearly the only person he ever landed with happened to be Jack. That’s something anyone straight, gay or otherwise can relate to easily.

Horrorfest 2015 Presents: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour)


There is an Iranian city named Bad City. It is not a great place to live and trouble abounds everywhere. In this wild west setting also lies a skateboarding vampire. If this appeals to you, well then this is your movie. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a magnificent and beautiful combination of different genres, all centered around horror and the western. Shot in glorious black and white, no less. This does have the feel of other dramatic films, and director Ana Lily Amirpour builds upon those influences to craft something unique.

The Girl (Sheila Vand) is a woman with no name. There are few insights into who she is or why she lives in a desolate place, yet we get a terrifying image of her nature early on. Arash (Arash Marandi) is the young man who falls under her spell, resulting a tender and dangerous romance-dangerous for him because of her predator nature. The scene with the two of them in her apartment is lyrical in a romantic sense: two lonely souls, bound together, which is how so many people connect in this world.

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As much as I love this film the last act does kind of borrow/steal from another modern classic, Let The Right One In. However I prefer this film (it’s long title also amused me as much as it was intriguing). I rather enjoy that it’s an Iranian that gives us an exceptional feminist driven horror film given the nation’s culture. I also note this due to online friends encouraging myself and others to watch more films directed by women. This movie is a fine move in that direction.

Horrorfest 2014 Presents: Dust Devil (1992, Richard Stanley)


Operating as equal parts The Hitcher (1986), vampire film and pure nightmare, Dust Devil is a fascinating exercise in style that also mediates upon feminism, urban legends and the past coming back to haunt the present. Richard Stanley sets the film in the obvious dusty setting of Namibia, a place that becomes a strong aspect of the film and turns the movie into a quasi-horror western. The western aspects are particularly strong concerning the Dust Devil, who operates as a mythical killer who feeds upon the life force of those he kills. This ritual is explained by the film’s narrator, Joe, the film’s narrator, in the movie’s eerie opening. The Dust Devil is played with utmost sinister quality by Robert John Burke, who menaces the film’s heroine, Wendy Robinson, played by Chelsea Field, who acts as the film’s survival girl. Although the movie at times features the Dust Devil actually sparing her or expressing a twisted love for Wendy, thus offering a slightly different take on the slasher villain/survival girl dynamic. One can argue that in all slasher movies the villain has a murderous obsession with the unlucky woman that has managed to not be murdered by him (or her, in certain cases). Also I love that this film has cult film and horror actor Zakes Moake as Sgt. Ben Mukurob, a South African police officer who is convinced that the Dust Devil is a supernatural being despite others not believing him.

Although the film presents some apartheid and racial politics unfortunately the film does not properly dive into that issue, choosing instead to be more of an ominous and heavily intense slasher film. This is too bad considering the cast involved and the fact that this movie came out in 1992, yet it still does not prevent me from enjoying the film and considering it to be an underrated cult gem from the early 1990s. Despite the decade’s lack of consistency when it comes to horror movies the 1990s still had some great films to offer, and Dust Devil is one of those. I also loved how towards the end the film references the Mad Max series, and that it does not journey into a cliched finale. I wonder how much Stanley borrowed from The Hitcher, although tales of creepy murders being picked up by unsuspecting victims is an old tale, and there are other films I have not seen that also deal with slightly similar concepts. Furthermore I actually would have liked this film to get a sequel, which is a rare thought considering how so many second films do not always live up to the original installments. I wanted to know more about the Dust Devil, and the last shot is curiously open ended.

PS: I found the so called director’s cut, as the film was originally gutted by the studio that released it. I believe that version is the one on Netflix that I watched.

Best of the West: Day VIII


Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

13. Dead Man (Jarmusch, 1995)

Curiously enough this is the first movie I ever saw from Jim Jarmusch, who struck me as a rather interesting filmmaker. This is defiantly not your typical western, especially since Jarmusch in clever fashion has Johnny Depp playing a man who goes from an accountant to a gunslinger and killer. That was something I did not expect to happen eventually in the film, particularly since this is a rather stark, lyrical, and almost poetic film. By the 1990s the genre was on its last limbs, so Jarmusch along with Clint Eastwood gave us two amazing films that at least breathed some fresh life into the western, even though nowadays we are lucky to get one a year.

Also I would like to thank Roger Ebert for bashing this movie, since his review was why I watched it in the first place. Either he did not get the film and thus was negative as a result, or he found the movie’s mystical implications wanting. Regardless, that doesn’t matter because I honestly have no idea what really the movie is supposed to be saying, and perhaps that is the point. Such puzzling attributes do not matter honestly when you are watching a film as captivating as this one, and I loved Neil Young’s simplistic and rough guitar infused score, which only highlights the oddity of this entire movie.

Extra points go to this film for featuring a Native American in its main cast, as Nobody acts as a taunter of Blake (“Stupid fucking white man,”) a quoter of the actual William Blake’s poetry, and the accountant Blake’s guide into another realm. This brings me to another point, which is that [SPOILER]I am willing to consider that when he gets shot the first time Blake actually dies, and therefore the rest of the movie is his last thoughts before he finally goes to the afterlife.[/SPOILER] Yet I wish to reject that theory because in a way it cheapens what occurs, plus I prefer to speculate that Blake is seeking enlightenment without even realizing that he is doing so.

Oh and this movie is one of the few westerns, if maybe the only western, on this list that has any kind of bleak/dark humor. The fact that Blake ends up forsaking his past life and embracing his mission as a bringer of death actually warrants an essay, and maybe I will finally view this film again on Instant Viewing. Jarmusch’s sharp ability to blind western standard cliches with his own mythical view of the west is remarkable, and I really wish he would have made one more western, although considering how he works that is probably unlikely.

Horrorfest 2013 Presents: Terror Train (1980, Roger Spottiswoode)


Made at the height of the slasher film craze Terror Train is an effective and semi creepy killer thriller. It features many of the genre’s famous cliches, and yet the setting is unique. While there have been mystery films with killings taking place on trains most slasher films are set in the woods or in deserted locations. The murderer may or may not be someone from a group of friend’s past as they gruesomely kill their victims.

Jamie Lee Curtis choose to make another horror film despite the risk of being type cast as a scream queen. She is the sympathetic final girl forced to deal with a terrible situation. Unfortunately for everyone the train is in the middle of nowhere, putting the slasher theme of people isolated and trapped in a lonely place with no way to get help. This only ups the tension further.

With some brutal kills and an entertaining finale Terror Train is one of the best of the 80s slasher films. From my experience a lot of the quality slasher films over the decades have been stand alone, films without sequels. I was amused that Ben Johnson starred in this movie after making so many westerns. That was a nice touch.

Best of the West: Day VII


 14. Major Dundee (Peckinpah, 1965)

One could argue that this is as much a war film as it is a western, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. However I consider this film to be a member of the genre, and I’m thankful that despite the studio’s efforts in the 1960s which resulted in the film being butchered that TCM showed the restored copy a couple years ago, which is also available on DVD and probably Blu Ray as well. Featuring an excellent cast ranging from Charlton Heston, Richard Harris to Peckinpah regulars Ben Johnson, James Corburn, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates, this movie fits in well with what else I’ve seen from Peckinpah (which isn’t much, sadly).

Namely the ideals of loyalty, honor, in addition to discipline here. Despite the fact that Heston’s Dundee is at times rash and foolish, he has courage and never wavers from his duty. Harris proves to be a fine rival and former friend, and their fight scene is one of the highlights of the film simply because its rugged, violent, and properly represents their harsh relationship by the film’s middle. The concept of a bunch of Confederates and Union soldiers fighting their own private war in Mexico against the Native Americans and the French can be mirrored in The Wild Bunch and even to a lesser extent in Ride The High Country. After all, both films conclude with people forced to not only fight the elements, but also wrestle with enemies that appear due to circumstances perhaps beyond their control, in a way.

Having revisited this film a second time last year, I also marveled at how magnificent this entire movie is. Peckinpah does not glorify war, even though he does present his characters as brave men with their backs against the wall in a unique situation. Considering that my last entry was also a western featuring the Civil War in some fashion, it should be somewhat unsurprising since that terrible conflict helped shape the west.

Best of the West: Day VI


15. The Outlaw Josey Wales  (Eastwood, 1976)

One of the notable things about Clint Eastwood was that in several of his westerns, he played a Confederate soldier. I have not seen the other movie featuring him as such, but this one I have viewed, and the movie’s opening moments make it clear why he ends up joining up with what turns out to be the losing side. Considering his libertarian views over the years, it wouldn’t surprise me if Eastwood is a strict defender of the idea of states rights, which was indeed one of the reasons why the South seceded from the Union in the first place. But this movie is really more about revenge, not a massive four year conflict that tore apart an entire country and was the worst in our nation’s history.

Although I will admit that even when focusing on such a narrow and simple motivating factor such as revenge, Eastwood never leaves the Civil War’s politics behind. Namely because the Northern soldiers responsible for his behavior are in hot pursuit, but also because Wales ends up forming his own nation, something that I find to be one of the movie’s most interesting and wonderful aspects. Joining up first with Lone Watie, played in magnificent and stoic fashion by Chief Dan George, and then later rescuing a party of settlers from certain death and in the case of one Laura Lee (Sondra Locke), something far worse, Wales begins to experience a rather obvious change in his character.

That arc is satisfying, as is the mystical style journey through the American Southwest. Wales encounters numerous characters, many who are standard cliches in the general but who also are so due to the fact that people like them populated the area before, during, and after the Civil War to begin with. One of my favorite scenes is Wales telling a bounty hunter after him that “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy,” shortly before being forced to shoot him. Namely due to the fact that its a great one-liner, sure, but also because it gives us insight into Wales’ character.

Aside from the rather badass and natural conclusion (the movie couldn’t have really ended any other way,) I love this western because it does what many do not: offer a realistic display of the American Indian. Chief Dan George doesn’t play a typical stereotype, and really his character perhaps inspired Nobody in the modern western “Dead Man.”

Note: Don’t read this if you haven’t seen Shane or The Outlaw Josey Wales

SPOILER:

Never mind that though, the movie manages to conclude with a finale that is bloody, violent, and has a finale scene that would be familiar to anyone who’s viewed a certain 1953 Alan Ladd western that doesn’t make the list, but is still quite good. Funny that not only does Eastwood best that movie’s finale, but that he also later remade “Shane” with his lesser 1985 western “Pale Rider.” The line “I reckon so. I guess we all died a little in that damn war. ” never rang so true.

The Best of the West: Day IV


17. For a Few Dollars More (1964, Leone)

What everyone forgets is that Leone really came into his own with his second western, displaying his ability to create characters that existed in a world of gray, who were overly violent and usually quite desperate. Its also the movie that features my favorite Lee Van Cleef role, Col. Mortimer, a man seeking revenge carefully while dealing with Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a fellow as equally good with a gun as Mortimer is, hunting the same group of outlaws that Mortimer wishes to defeat, not just for the reward but for something that happened in his past. The movie is careful never to reveal what transpired between Mortimer and El Indio, save for a handful of flashbacks and a watch that plays an ever so gentle melody, a tune that both men are very much familiar with. I think its interesting how unlike the other two movies in the Man WIth No Name trilogy, this one focuses on him the less-Mortimer is the central player here instead.

Unlike his first western, A Fistful of Dollars, which was practically a shot for shot remake of Yojimbo, Leone wisely created his own movie this time around, using much of the same actors from the first movie while adding in Cleef and Klaus Kinski as a hunchbacked psychotic who duels Mortimer, calling him “The Smoker.” A criticism of Leone’s work could be that at times nothing seems to happen, and yet during these moments either tension is built up, or people’s motivations become more clear. I recall reading something that Leone is a master of making scenes that stretches of greatness, even if they may not fit into the overall narrative or nothing really happens, per say. I can agree with that, even though I think that every shot of his movies has meaning and purpose, even if that purpose becomes unclear.

My only problem with this movie is that not much else can really be said about it. Like many westerns, the narrative and story isn’t particularly deep, and the characters are rather simplistic, although that’s not always a bad thing. Someone over on MovieJustice.com actually argued that the climatic gunfight in this movie was better than the more highly regarded one in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I’m not sure I can agree, although that argument has some merit-the showdown is much shorter, and far tightly paced. Alas, the Morricone score backing it up doesn’t hold a candle to “The Trio.”


Cowboys and Controversy

Django Unchained is QT finally doing that big epic western everyone thought he was capable of doing, the one that has become the most polarizing movie of 2012. Endless discussions have covered everything from whether or not he is trivializing slavery to the film’s stark and harsh violence. Unfortunately lost in all of this debate is the fact that QT has actually managed to equal Pulp Fiction after over 20 years of making movies (whoa it really has been that long). Naturally the issue of the movie being great or good is something only film critics and viewers have been interested in, which is too bad since after all the whole point of this movie is to be entertaining while also being smartly made.

QT succeeds at the type of film making that almost seems to be a lost art at times, especially with dumb blockbusters more the norm these days and audiences being segmented more and more by the studios. What Tarentino did was give into his passions, which are spaghetti westerns from the 1960s and 1970s, a period that was also the last golden age of the western genre overall. The fact that he gets talented performances from his cast is another side effect of his ability to write dialogue while also benefiting from his actors’ abilities to enact what he wants. I think at this point he as much a talented director as he is a screenwriter, and I love how he uses the camera to full effect in this movie.

Not to mention the typically fantastic soundtrack, as QT knows exactly what tracks to put in his movies. The use of color is particularly strong here, whether it be blood splattering on white cotton, or Django’s stand out costumes that he wears throughout the movie, particularly a blue suit that catches everyone’s attention as he rides through a southern plantation. I love that he features the gorgeous landscapes, something that Leone, Ford, and Peckinpah all did in their westerns, too. And of course he can’t help but use Morricone, the brilliant composer who was Leone’s partner in all of his western ventures.

Now am I going to take positions on the film’s politics? Eh, not really, which is a cop out I suppose. Look I’m a white Iowan who probably has very little business commenting on the type of discussion the film has stirred up, anyways. My ancestors didn’t own slaves (they were immigrants to this country) and Iowa hardly took part in the Civil War, for that matter. Nope, what I take great issue with is those who refuse to see the movie. Look I can understand if this was The Smurfs 5 or even Transformers (which I bashed, and then saw, and then still bashed heh)-however this is not those movies. This is a work from an Oscar nominated director who has given us many critically acclaimed works.

If you want to bash his films without coming across as trolling and or clamoring for attention, just see the movie. You will have ample material then, and people might take you more seriously. And don’t give me this “I read the script” baloney, because scripts change. There is this thing called “Re-Writes.” I understand there will be people upset at this film, and I don’t have a problem with that so long as they watched the film. Go ahead then and bash it all you want. I for one want to go see it again, not just for another great theater experience but also to clarify some issues I myself had with the film, not to mention solidifying my overall rating. “DJANGO!” indeed.


18. Dances With Wolves (1990, Costner)

Yes I am a huge Kevin Costner fan, and this is one of my favorites out of all his movies. Say what you will about this not deserving to win best picture, it is indeed a well made and engaging picture, one that does not drag at all or wander despite its immense running time. Never minds its admirable take on the American Indian, it exists also as one man’s journey from being lost to finding his own place, even if it is in a world different from him his. Costner’s army man willingly departs from being a white man and changes cultures because he recognizes his own people are lacking in not just body, but also in spirit and soul. Plus it features one hell of a soundtrack-John Barry’s work on this is quite strong, and the magnificent, soaring orchestra cords better state what the characters are thinking than words possibly could.

When it comes to westerns, the American Indian has been served up as a cannon fodder, and serve as reliable bad guys. Even though other westerns exist on this list that do just that, I acknowledge that they were created in a time and place where that was acceptable, even if they were wrong to do so. I view Costner’s effort in the context of trying to do the opposite, although I don’t think he necessarily romanticizes the Native Americans, either. He shows them committing both good and bad actions, although he does paint the white man as crude bastards privy to engaging in acts of senseless violence and having a severe lack of appreciation for nature and man’s place in the world.

Aside from those rather obvious sentiments, this movie sports some amazing set pieces, such as the suspenseful and exhilarating buffalo hunt, an enemy tribe’s attack on the Sioux camp, and the savage massacre of an entire army squad. What this movie sets forth is something different from some of the others on this list in that you have a deep character study but also an examination of an entire culture, now long gone but having left behind an unforgettable imprint upon the now settled American West.

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