Six Great Foreign Westerns You Might Have Missed

A while back I did one of those lists, 7 Gritty Westerns You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, shedding light on a fistful of down and dirty 70’s era western movies in the cinema verite style which I hadn’t heard a lot of hooplah about but really enjoyed.

I recently watched a spate of fantastic western movies from the other side of the world and have similarly been inspired to list them here. I know some western fans tend to denigrate the efforts of non-American filmmakers in the original American art form, but they’re definitely missing out.  These pictures prove that some of the most innovative and interesting horse operas being made to day are being imported to our shores, just as in the early days of the much lauded Italian spaghettis.

1. Brimstone – If ever there was an anti-Searchers, it has to be Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven’s sprawling, nihilistic epic about a crazed Reverend (Guy Pearce, in yet another great performance that by all rights should be a breakout part for him but like everything else he does, somehow isn’t given its due) relentlessly pursuing tongueless midwife Liz (Dakota Fanning) for reasons that only an attentive viewing of the slowly unraveling nonlinear tale as it unfolds make clear, and which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here.

files

Brimstone is a dark, demented masterpiece, almost a psychological horror movie, and the less you know about the plot going in the better I think it is. It demands patience, but definitely rewards the viewer with a tragic, operatic story in the best bloody, grand guginol style. The gradual reveal reminded me of Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West.

brimstone-venice-3

As I said, Pearce delivers an apocalyptic performance as the fanatic man of an increasingly mad and evil god. Emilia Jones gives a great turn, particularly for a young actress in such a stark, weighty part, and the cast is liberally peppered with vivid, memorable characters, including Kit ‘Jon Snow’ Harrington as a fugitive outlaw and Paul Anderson as a loathsome pimp.

2. Slow West -The joint British and New Zealand production of John Maclean’s Slow West presents one pie-eyed young Scot’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee, in a winsome, earnest performance) bildungsroman journey to reunite with his true love Rose (Caren Pistorius), who has fled the accidental killing of his own landowning father for the wilds of Canada. Jay, the kid, falls in with a cynical bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) secretly out to collect a bounty on her head.

slow-west-2015-006-back-shot-man-with-horse-enter-burnt-village

Slow West is a lyrical coming of age story peopled by unique characters and featuring some absolutely eye popping cinematography.  There’s a great illusory action sequence of Ben Mendelsohn’s outlaw gang popping up from an unbroken field of tall golden wheat like whack-a-moles to exchange gunfire and then seamlessly vanish again that had my eyes bugging. Little moments are focused and lingered upon; blood pooling beneath a dead clerk, a nail catching on a corpse’s trousers as it’s desperately dragged across a porch so that a door may be shut against the hail of gunfire outside, the progression of a bright caterpillar across a camoflagued Indian warrior’s painted face. It’s a beautiful movie, and an affecting portrayl of innocence and responsiblity lost and regained.

SlowWest_2a

3. The Salvation – Kristian Levring’s lavish Danish western begins with an explanation of the migration of veterans of the Second Schleswig War of 1864, an event that harkens to the westward flight of Confederate veterans to Texas following their parallel defeat at the hands of the Union, to the American frontier.

The-Salvation-2014-Mads-Mikkelsen

Mads Mikkelson’s Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), having eked out a stable living, have sent for Jon’s wife and ten year old son after a separation of seven years. Tragedy strikes on the stagecoach to the homestead when a pair of violent ex-convicts board and force Jon off. Jon walks through the night in the ruts of the stage, finally discovering his son murdered and then his wife brutalized and killed. In short order he kills the two perpetrators, but finds that one of them was the brother of powerful local gang boss Delarue (a really oily and odious Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who takes the nearby town hostage until the killer of his brother is turned over to him.

eva-green-mads-mikkelsen-jeffrey-dean-morgan-the-salvation

Sort of an alternate take on High Noon’s theme of the lonely good man against bad odds, I found the alternate viewpoint of Danish settlers really interesting and the action inventive and top notch.  There’s a particularly great bit involving a guy shooting through the ceiling of a hotel at a sniper on the roof and a can of kerosense that you’ll know when it comes.

Likewise, The Salvation’s look is really unique, eschewing the typical dull beige pallette of most modern westerns for a bright, brilliant sun baked hue of sandstone that really makes it stand out.

4. The Dark Valley – This bleak, moody German-Austrian revenge tale from Andreas Prochaska doesn’t take place in the American west at all, but I’m still including it here as it has all the trappings of the genre.

finsteretal_Kruzifix._webjpg

The mysterious stranger, photographer Greider (Sam Reilly), who rides into the remote mountain town hiding a secret only to systematically unleash a hell that turns out to be well deserved in the final reel reveal reminds me a lot of High Plains Drifter, and its snowbound gloom recalls Corbucci’s classic The Great Silence.

FT_Bild_19

The Dark Valley is a quiet, brooding movie, where the violence comes smashing down like an unexpected avalanche.

5. The Proposition – John Hillcoat’s  wild Australian western, written by Nick Cave, takes place in a bloodsoaked 1880’s outback.  Police Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone) offers captured bushranger outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce again) and his simple minded younger brother Mikey freedom in exchange for Charlie hunting down his murderous older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), a notorious killer feared even by the Aborigines, who call him The Dog Man.

Richard_Wilson_as_Mike_Burns_in_John_Hillcoats_The_Proposition.jpg

Sort of a western Heart of Darkness, we follow the progression of Charlie’s hunt for his near-mythic brother across a virtual hellscape, replete with black clusters of flies and savage, half-wild bounty killers (including a grizzled John Hurt) and bear cringing witness to his eventual, ultraviolent return when the particulars of the titular proposition go tragically, if not predictably awry.

960The Proposition is brutal and beautiful, a dark acid western in the truest traditions of the genre.

6. The Warrior’s Way – OK this one is a huge thematic departure from the rest of this list, but I can’t help it, I really enjoyed it. It’s essentially a frenetic HK-style action movie from South Korea and New Zealand, directed by Sngmoo Lee.

Sad Flutes (named for the sound of blood whistling from a severed neck) clan master assassin Yang ( Jang Dong-gun) destroys a rival clan at the orders of his superiors, but stays his hand from doing in an infant girl. In derelict of duty he flees to the western town of Lode, populated by ex-carnies, and there raises the girl, April, in anyonymity, befriending a dwarf (Tony Cox), the town drunk (Geoffrey Rush), and a local girl (Kate Bosworth), who seeks revenge against a murderous gang leader known as The Colonel (The Proposition’s Danny Huston again) for murdering her parents and brutalizing her.

When the Colonel and his army arrive to finish the job, Yang takes up his sword to defend the town. But the very act of arming himself draws the attention of his old clan master Saddest Flute (Ti Lung), and the Sad Flutes arrive to punish their own.

The-Warriors-Way-bad_against_bad

The Warrior’s Way is a slick, insane weird western actioner where legions of bandanna wearing, duster-clad, Maxim toting stormtroopers essentially butt heads with the Korean equivalent of faceless sword twirling ninjas, and I get absolutely giddy watching the CGI mayhem unfold. Blood fountains and rains (literally), and for some there will probably be as much eye rolling as head rolling. It portrays an at times hilariously over the top hyper reality of painted backdrops and never-could-be characters, Geof Darrow-esque mass super-violence in the mode of chanbara flicks and manga. Very imaginative, but admittedly not for everybody.

It sticks out like a sore thumb on this list, but if you can watch a scene like the one below and get a kick out of it, you’ll enjoy it (definitely NSFW):

Any one of these is worth a view, and in my opinon, a purchase.

DT Moviehouse Reviews: Casino Royale

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 300+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. A bit late to tie into the release of Spectre, here’s Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007, Casino Royale.

Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

Directed by Martin Campbell

Tagline: None

casino_royale_ver4

What It’s About:

casinoroyale_commentary1In the wake of earning the 00 prefix, MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) follows a twisting trail of a Ugandan terrorist organization’s millions back to criminal financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkselsen). After foiling Le Chiffre’s plan to double his money via the destruction of an international airline, Bond and Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) are tasked by M (Judi Dench) with going head to head with the desperate Le Chiffre in a high stakes game of Texas hold ‘em at the Casino Royale in Montenegro to keep the money out of the terrorists’ hands and force the financier to give up his shadowy criminal employers.

Why I Bought It:

The first James Bond movie I ever saw was Live And Let Die on broadcast television with my parents. While I was impressed by the alligators, Tee-Hee and the voodoo, the ‘kissy stuff’ was a big turn off, and I would roll my eyes as further installments aired over the years, dismissing James Bond as a romance series. In the 90’s I rediscovered Bond via GoldenEye, and was completely arrested by the character (enough to jump at the chance to write him – more on that in a later post). I never did get into Roger Moore much, but I went back and watched the rest of the series, and finally read the musty, water-damaged old Ian Fleming paperbacks from my dad’s college days, which totally outshone the series in my mind, and despite my excitement for the character, I detected the gradual split between the superior books and the films, probably right around You Only Live Twice, with a brief return to form in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and, in terms of feel anyway, parts of Timothy Dalton’s run. Brosnan’s subsequent outings departed from reality and left me a bit cold, so when Daniel Craig and this movie were announced, I didn’t rush out to see it.

The first time I did catch it was in the break room at my then job.

CASINO-FIGHTThe opening of Casino Royale brought the thunder. Shot in brutal, stark black and white, we’re treated to the ‘origin’ of Bond, or at least, the initial two kills which earn him his license to kill. This sequence was an epiphany for me. The savage bathroom fight is harsh and dirty. This is Ian Fleming’s scar-faced assassin, terrifying in one instant and magnetic in the next, as we cut to his confrontation with the rogue section chief. In contrast to the bleak, disheveled whiteness of the restroom, Bond emerges from blackness like a shot out of the Third Man, neat, cold, merciless as he cuts off his quarry’s advice with a suppressed bullet.

Casino_Royale1-e14016479285401.pngThen, like Dorothy stepping out of her house into Oz, the screen floods with brilliant colors and the opening strains of one of the fiercest Bond themes since Live And Let Die, the skin prickling You Know My Name by Chris Cornell. The lyrics are pure Bond. Are they a continuation of the section chief’s warning to the fledgling assassin, or are they a weathered, cold hearted Bond speaking dismissively to Le Chiffre or to his younger self?

Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you
The odds will betray you
And I will replace you
You can’t deny the prize; it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you
Are you willing to die?

The coldest blood runs through my veins
You know my name

blue-white-etc (1)I wrote a bit more extensively about the awesome opening title sequence here for Hasslein Books, so I won’t spend more time on it here.

This was new, this was brilliant. This wasn’t the erudite playboy delivering Schwarzeneggerian quips and lasering comic book bad guys with his wristwatch. This was Fleming’s Bond, stepped right out of the book from which this movie takes its name.

And yet, on that initial viewing, I went from riding high immediately to despair as Bond wound up chasing an African bomber through a construction site in a crazily over the top parkour sequence. I was wrong, this was still comic book stuff. I went through the rest of the flick half-lidded, guffawing at one point when, after a furious fight in a stairwell with two machete wielding Ugandans, Bond discovers the shaken Vesper sitting in the shower fully dressed, sits down next to her, and proceeds to suck her fingers. And Texas Hold ‘Em? Bond’s game is Baccarat. Texas Hold ‘Em is for hillbillies and Vegas rats in hoodies with sunglasses.

I didn’t go see Quantum of Solace (a real shame, because next to this, it’s my favorite Craig outing), and only went to Skyfall because a friend from out of town wanted to see the Cinerama Dome on Vine and chose Skyfall as the movie.

I enjoyed Skyfall, and it induced me to revisit Casino Royale.

If I could kick myself in the head, I would.

Casino Royale isn’t quite Ian Fleming’s Bond, but it’s pretty dang close. It follows most of the plot of the book, even if Craig’s Bond is given a bit of an out by M at the end, so he’s not quite the same cold hearted bastard he is at the end of the book, which, if I’m not mistaken, ends with the line “The bitch is dead.”

picture-of-sebastien-foucan-in-casino-royale-large-picture.jpgThe plot is taut, the action gripping. That parkour chase through the construction site I dismissed in my first viewing is absolutely killer, with Sebastian Foucan (and his freerunning doubles) moving with sublime kinetic grace as Bond pursues his character like a juggernaut, smashing through drywall and finally chasing him down to an embassy which he leaves in flames. The crash of the DBS V12 when Bond nearly runs over Vesper in the road is spectacularly shot, and the tense battle inside a sinking Venetian edifice is a great climax.

Casino_Royale_(120).pngGone are the campy sexploits of stiffly mugging Bond. This is the cold blooded international assassin, slipping a blade into a man at a museum exhibit in the midst of unsuspecting civilians, downing a whisky to quell the shakes after battling to the death in an empty stairwell, then cleaning his cuts and chaning his shirt in time for the next multimillion dollar hand down in the casino. The only gadget on display is a believable adrenaline shot and dashboard defibrillator, the closest thing to a joke in the wake of the action an exultant but exhausted grin as a terrorist mistakenly blows himself up instead of the world’s largest jet liner.

Daniel-Craig-as-James-Bond-in-Casino-RoyaleYet despite the superhuman feats Bond pulls off, this is not an untouchable superman. This Bond doesn’t shrug off bullets or car crashes. He nearly succumbs to poison, and after suffering grueling ‘advanced interrogation techniques’ at the eager, sadistic hands of Le Chiffre, he earns a hospital stay. Likewise, this Bond, we are to assume a young Bond early in his career, still feels enough for Vesper’s betrayal to cut out his heart in the end. We’re witnessing a crucible firing. The fat is cut away, and at the end, the man who blows out Mr. White’s knee and stands over him with a silenced submachinegun, truly is Bond, James Bond.

Casino_Royale_(99).pngThe supporting cast of Casino Royale is fabulous. Of course Judi Dench’s return to the role of M is welcome (if a bit puzzling in terms of series continuity, until you arrive at the conclusion that these should basically be viewed and enjoyed the same way as the Godzilla series, where the origin and basic tropes are the same and each subsequent installment unrelated, groups of miniseries within the overall series). Eva Green believably pulls off the arc of a seemingly inexperienced field agent who is also in league with the Devil the whole time, alternately vulnerable and necessarily cruel, tragically beautiful and regretful. This is the movie that introduced me to the great Mads Mikkelsen, whose bleeding-eyed Le Chiffre seems as cool as the other side of the pillow when he’s at the table playing with other people’s money, but is suitably sweaty and frantic when those people come to collect. His scenes with Bond around the table are terrific, and the cringe inducing torture sequence appropriately hard to watch. Jeffrey Wright’s been a favorite actor of mine since Ride With The Devil, and his turn as series mainstay CIA agent Felix Leiter is a welcome casting choice. I like him here and in Quantum of Solace, and have missed his return since. I especially like Giancarlo Giannini in the role of Rene Mathis, a likable, sophisticated mentor for Bond whose loyalty is called into question late in the game. Bond movies are known for their lovely actresses and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolutely stunning Caterina Murino as Solange, the satiny, neglected wife of one of Bond’s kills who pays the ultimate price for betraying her slimy husband’s doings.

casino-royale3.jpgAs for Daniel Craig himself, he’s the best Bond since Timothy Dalton, and captures the look and feel of the literary 007 possibly better than any of his predecessors. Sure he’s a sophisticate and a connoisseur of various fineries, but the drinks and the pills are holding him together, and beneath that veneer he’s the scary killer smashing through the dry wall to get at you. Those freakin’ eyes!

james-felix

Best Dialogue/Line:

The initial exchange between Vesper and Bond.

Vesper Lynd: All right… by the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever. Naturally you think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain, my guess is you didn’t come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means that you were at that school by the grace of someone else’s charity: hence that chip on your shoulder. And since you’re first thought about me ran to “orphan,” that’s what I’d say you are.

[he smiles but says nothing]

Vesper Lynd: Oh, you are? I like this poker thing. And that makes perfect sense! Since MI6 looks for maladjusted young men, who give little thought to sacrificing others in order to protect queen and country. You know… former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches.

[Glances at his wrist]

Vesper Lynd: Rolex?

James Bond: Omega.

Vesper Lynd: Beautiful. Now, having just met you, I wouldn’t go as far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard…

James Bond: No, of course not.

Vesper Lynd: But it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine. You think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits. So as charming as you are, Mr. Bond, I will be keeping my eye on our government’s money – and off your perfectly-formed arse.

James Bond: You noticed?

Vesper Lynd: Even accountants have imagination. How was your lamb?

James Bond: Skewered. One sympathizes.

Best Scene:

Casino_Royale_(9).pngHas to be that opener, one of the best of the series.

Dryden: How did he die?

Bond: Your contact? Not well.

Dryden: Made you feel it, did he? Well, you needn’t worry. The second is…

VWIP!

Bond: Yes. Considerably.

Would I Buy It Again: Yessir. Though I think I’d like to hunt down that European cut, which is a bit more brutal, I hear.

Next In The Queue: Chato’s Land