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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DT Moviehouse Review: The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here)and decide if each one was worth the money. Today, I review the Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

Directed by Andrew Adamson

Screenplay by Andrew Adamson, Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely

Tagline: The beloved masterpiece comes to life.

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What It’s About:

In the midst of the German bombardment of London during World War 2, four children are sent to the country to live with their eccentric uncle. During a game of hide and seek they pass through an enchanted wardrobe into the magic land of Narnia where they become embroiled in a war between its good creatures, led by the lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) and the White Witch Jadis (Tilda Swinton) and her dark army.

Why I Bought It:

I was not introduced to fantasy by C.S. Lewis, but probably by Rankin and Bass’ Hobbit cartoon and Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of The Rings, which in turn led me to the original Tolkien novels, Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and most importantly, Dungeons and Dragons, the roleplaying game that supercharged my imagination early on. I spent untold hours in the basement of a friend’s house rolling dice and eating junk food while the older players passed the Captain Morgan and we took on hordes of monsters and each other in bleary-eyed sessions morning and night. I couldn’t get enough of fantasy.

I had read the entire Narnia series by the time this movie came out, so it was a given I was going to see it, but I remembered Lewis as being a bit bland, and so I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did. I saw it with my best friend, a guy who I’d once watched turn his human thief into a fire breathing, flying minotaur trapped for all eternity inside a diamond (a magic Deck of Many Things, a few lucky Wish pulls and a complete inability to quit while he was ahead had culminated in this) and when the final battle sequence began with its dizzying array of Monster Manual denizens, we’d both turned to each other, looking past our wives in nerd-gasmic, bug-eyed appreciation, both of us I think, in that moment, really WANTING to be in Narnia.

e4cc9d4c53b1bf5a2b7edd1ef8bce7e4Following a cast of child actors can be pretty hit or miss. You can be blessed with Harry Potter or The Goonies, or damned to the ninth circle of Mary-Kate and Ashley Skywalker. The kids assembled to portray the Pevensie kids are winsome and earnest, and don’t come across as the type with a celebrity and money obsessed parent breathing down their necks, shoving them into the closet with St. Sebastian when they don’t hit their marks (or whatever showbiz parents do).

45b3874fbebeb72ddac3c01c986d7764Young Lucy (Georgie Hensley) is a standout, plucky and yet sensitive, with a great gosh-golly-wow face. I’d just had my first daughter when I saw this and she won me over pretty quick. I can’t even hear that Alanis Morrisette song that plays during the credits without picturing her now. The scene where she is betrayed by Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) is a particularly good display of her talent. Her bewilderment at the fawn’s lie (which, under the director’s hand, has an almost unseemly, exploitative feel, like a prelude to molestation in some darker Todd Solondz movie) comes across well.

Likewise Edmund (Skander Keynes) is sufficiently shifty, but doesn’t play his seduction by the White Witch so that we can’t forgive him later. Peter (William Moseley) is as heroic as you want him to be, and Anna Popplewell as the much-maligned Susan….I wish she had gotten the chance to play the character to the end of her involvement in the series, because I think from this (and Prince Caspian, the sequel) she had the chops to make it interesting.

Jadisedmundcastle1Tilda Swinton is as ever icy and ethereal as the White Queen Jadis, alluring and cruel as first crushes often are, which gets you in Edmund’s shoes pretty well. “I know she’s evil, but dang, I really want her to be good, so I’ll give it a go. Besides, Turkish Delights! So she must like me.” Jadis’ dwarf henchman Ginarrbrikk is played by Kiran Shah, who was the kid who let the monkey poison the dates in Raiders of The Lost Ark. Liam Neeson’s voice rivals James Earl Jones’ as the sound of ultimate paternal love in the form of Aslan the lion. Other recognizable voices include Michael Madsen as the Witch’s rough right-hand wolf who sounds like he’s ready to chew your ear off at any minute, and Ray Winstone as the salty, blue collar Mr. Beaver. James Cosmo has a memorable cameo as the most kick ass Santa Claus ever.

The CG animals are only a little difficult to accept, and even then, only initially. When blended with live action, its practically perfect, particularly as on display in the epic final battle sequence. For the most part the FX are great, and surprisingly bright and four color, eschewing the typical rule of using shadow to obscure the seams.  Narnia is a sumptuous land, with bright, beautiful scenery and luxuriant textures, as any storybook land should seem.

Narnia has a reputation as a Christian fantasy series. I guess there is some element of that on display in the character of Aslan, whose arc may be a bit mystifying if you don’t take his origins into account. Yet I wouldn’t say it pushes an agenda. I don’t feel proselytized to watching it. It’s just a pretty straightforward good vs. evil story.

chronicles-of-narnia-the-lion-the-witch-and-the-wardrobe-the-20051019035129270-000What I really love about this movie is it feels like an 80’s throwback. In the 80’s we had fantasy movies like Dragonslayer, Ladyhawke, Legend, and Excalibur, movies that were never embarrassed of what they were. Even Jackson’s much-lauded Lord Of The Rings movies are peppered with anachronistic winks at the audience (that awful, awful Dwarf tossing joke). Narnia has a bunch of kids from our world in a fantasy realm, and they they aren’t cracking wise and giving us Poochie MST3K commentary. They’re in it, and it’s as real as can be. I like that the kids don’t take a rear echelon Pokemon role in any of the action. They’re in the thick of the fight at all times. It makes their ultimate enthronement more deserved, more satisfying, and their sudden departure back to their own lives (as if they’d never left) more poignant.

Best Dialogue/Line:

The one that gets me is right before the final battle.

Peter has been thrust into the role of commander of this vast army, and he sits atop a unicorn in shining armor with a magic sword, possibly every boy’s dream, and certainly mine. But he has this moment where he looks to his centaur second in command (played wonderfully by Patrick Kake) and asks, as a kid in a bit over his head might;

“Are you with me?”

And the centaur has this great look on his face, a sort of bewilderment at the question. Aslan, for all intents and purposes his god, has chosen this kid to lead them, so there’s not a doubt in his mind. He sort of shakes his head and furrows his brow in an ‘of course’ manner.

“To the death,” he says.

Best Scene:

maxresdefaultWell I keep talking up that final battle, don’t I? It’s every storybook fantasy battle you’ve ever dreamed of, with the ‘bad’ critters on one side (Minotaurs, werewolves, goat-men, bumbling giants, etc) and the ‘goodies’ on the other. There’s a fantastic shot where Peter in his shining armor, gallops on a freakin’ unicorn at the vanguard of this contingent of centaur cavalry. The centaurs lower their lances and a group of racing cheetahs pull ahead of the army, while on the opposite side, a group of white tigers rush to meet them. There’s a pullback to the whole battlefield and the music (which I must mention is really cool during this sequence, very 80’s Vangelis sound) cuts out to a pre-clash heartbeat. Then these great cats just bash into each other ahead of their respective hoses, and go tumbling. It’s not a bloody battle, but the violence is there, and dramatic. Jadis petrifies enemy combatants, even turning a diving hippogriff to stone in passing so that it crashes into the ground in fragments.

Would I Buy It Again? Yes. And this reminds me to revisit the others.

Next In The Queue:

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