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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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My Coolest Story From Comic Con 2014

Sergio Out Take 3I’m a bit late in posting this, but I wanted to share the coolest thing I saw at San Diego Comic Con two weeks ago. I took no pictures (wish I had) so I guess you’re gonna have to take my word for it. But Sergio Aragones is a genuinely nice man, and I think he’ll bear this story out if you just ask him.

Whenever I go I invariably see celebrities, and my daughter and her friend always grill me about who I saw. This year crossing the street I could’ve reached out and slapped Chris ‘Captain America’ Evans on the shoulder (and got my arm broken by his entourage for it), I shared a train with Anthony Head, and spied Robert Carlyle on the corner with his little girl hanging on his arm.

But I haven’t braved the colossal lines of Hall H since they announced the title for Revenge Of The Sith, and I don’t really go to star watch anyway. It’s Comic Con. I go to buy comics and just generally gawk and mingle.

So I’m a big Sergio Aragones fan, a big Groo The Wanderer fan. I don’t think you can be a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan without liking Groo – or you shouldn’t. It’s wonderful social satire centering around a bumbling barbarian parody of Conan. One of the first comics I ever collected, and filled marging to margin with astounding art. For those that don’t know, Sergio Aragones is one of the best artists working today – a living legend. He’s an Eisner Award winning cartoonist who began his career doodling in the margins of Mad Magazine and he’s probably the fastest cartoonist alive. He’s….aw heck, just look at these samples.

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Mad #500-028-29The way Sergio fills a page is nothing short of extraordinary. A running joke in the pages of Groo was the exasperation of colorist Tom Luth who had to inject color into these staggeringly detailed crowd scenes….a task involved enough to drive anybody insane, but which Luth performed admirably on a monthly basis for a number of years. Sergio packs his splash pages with dynamic individuals and a myriad of hidden side jokes.  The only artist that comes close to what Sergio does, in my opinion, is Geoff Darrow.geoffReally, if I had the money to commission them both, and if they were willing, my dream is to have two pieces of art hanging side by side on my wall, one featuring Groo slicing his way through one of Geoff’s backgrounds, and the other of Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy fighting through an army of Sergio’s cartoon denizens.

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Anyway, all gushing aside, I always make it a point to stop by Sergio’s table when I’m at San Diego. It’s always a treat to see what he’s up to, and just listen to him, and once his wife baked a plate of awesome brownies for everybody.  This year I was in line to pick up a copy of his new Groo Vs. Conan comic (something I’ve anticipated for decades), and he was telling a story to the guy in front of me out of the pages of Sergio Aragones Funnies, his anthology series of illustrated autobiographical anecdotes (he has led a fascinating life). I had read somewhere his father had once been a line producer on movies in Mexico, but he was talking about his dad’s work on the movie Animas Trujano, which featured his (and my own) idol Toshiro Mifune as a Mexican revolutionary.

animas-trujanoMifune is one of the all-time great Japanese film actors, who solidified his place in history in movies like Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. He was the John Wayne to Akira Kurosawa’s John Ford, like DeNiro to Martin Scorcese, and if he’s been in a bad movie I’ve frankly never seen it. Apparently Animas Trujano, as absurd as his casting may sound, was no exception – Sergio said it was nominated for the Mexican Academy Award, and a little internet digging confirms this.  Sergio told us Mifune didn’t know a word of Spanish, but learned his lines phonetically, like Shih Kien in Enter The Dragon. As we were geeking out about this cool little inside story, Sergio pulled the topper, the thing that put this neat little moment over the edge for me. He reached into his thick, worn wallet, dug a bit, and produced one of those old Kodak photographs where the colors are mostly orange and a bit blown out and there’s a white border around the image – those kind you don’t see anymore and is basically only preserved in Instagram filters and crackling old photo albums.  In the picture are two sun reddened men with their arms over each other’s shoulders buddy style, smiling at the camera through their brushy black whiskers. From the peon costume of one of the men it looked almost like a behind the scenes still from a Sergio Leone movie, as if Gian Maria Volonte had taken a break in his Indio costume and taken a shot with a friend on the crew.

“Here’s a picture of my father on set with Mifune,” he said. “He really looked Mexican.”

Totally blown away. Knowing my tastes as readers of this blog may, it was like all the stars of my fandom aligned perfectly at once in some kind of Great Conjunction. I was standing at San Diego Comic Con, talking with one of my all-time favorite artists, looking at a candid, unpublished photo of one of my all-time favorite actors.

I felt weird asking to take a picture of him holding a personal photo of his dad, so I didn’t. But next time you’re at Sergio’s table, if you’re a Mifune fan, ask to see it.

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Published in: on August 4, 2014 at 10:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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