I’m much too young to have grown up during the heyday of westerns. As a kid I didn’t like them. They were too old, too old-fashioned for me to take any interest in. When I’d complain about my uncle watching them, he’d laugh and say I really did like westerns I just didn’t know it. Star Wars, he’d explain, was really just a western in outer space, so maybe I should give John Wayne a try. I’d make a face and go play with my Han Solo figure.
It was Young Guns that turned me around. That 1988 film about Billy the Kid starred a who’s who list of young, hip Hollywood actors. They made westerns cool again. I loved it. It was funny and full of action and a bit of sadness and it had that whole brother-in-arms thing that kept me calling my dearest guy friends “pals” well into college.
I’ve watched lots of westerns since then (even a few John Wayne movies) but they never have really taken a hold of me like genres such as horror or Scandanavian police procedurals have. This seems to be universally true as westerns just don’t make the money they once did. Every couple of years, Hollywood will trot one out and if it's successful, we’ll get all kinds of new stories about how the western is back, and maybe a few more, lesser films will be made. Then, the genre will go back into the wood shed until the next time.
Over the decades, the western has gone from the more prosaic films of the past where good was good (and wore a white hat) and bad was bad (black hat for them) and nobody wore gray, to films that question the very notions of good versus evil. Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven took a long hard look at the many westerns that came before it (including quite a few of his own) and stood them on their head. The shoot-outs, bar fights, and ever so cleverly censored whoring that entertained so many theater goers of yesterday had very real consequences in real life and The Unforgiven shone a light right into the genre's black heart. Westerns haven’t been the same since.
David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water seems to very much fall into this new world of the neo-western where the old notions of good and evil are thrown out for something more modern, more gray. It stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two modern-day outlaws being trailed by Jeff Bridges, an aging lawman seeking justice.
The reviews have been terrific and maybe it's that I’ll be sitting around the dinner table with my uncle for Thanksgiving in a few days, but I really feel like watching a western. So I’m grabbing a turkey leg, turning off the football, and making Hell or High Water my Pick of the Week. [Read Chris Morgan's review.]
Also out this week that looks interesting:
Kubo and the Two Strings: This film from Laika studios featuring their usual mix of gorgeous-looking mix of stop-motion and CGI animation didn’t fare well at the box-office but critics seemed to dig it. The previews looked stunning.
Poldark: The Complete Season Two: According to my Twitter feed, this PBS series about a Redcoat returning from Cornwall after the American Revolution is well worth getting into.
One-Eyed Jacks (Criterion Collection): Marlon Brando (in the only film he ever directed) stars as a bank robber bent on revenge against his former partner in crime. It was originally set to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, but various disputes led the studio to giving it to Brando to helm in and star. The 4k restoration was supervised by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, and Criterion has brought in their usual set of amazing extras.
The Squid and the Whale (Criterion Collection): I was never quite as taken with this based-on-his-life Noah Baumbach movie as a lot of other critics were but there are some good performances and it's well worth watching.
I.T.: Pierce Brosnan stars in this thriller about a successful business man whose family is being stalked by his firm's nerdy I.T. guy. Its been described as a high tech update on the old Cape Fear story. It's got a 12% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes so maybe we’ll all be skipping this one.
Yoga Hosers: Speaking of films to skip, this comedy by Kevin Smith (and starring his own daughter, as well as Johnny Depp's kid) is about two teenaged yoga enthusiasts who team up to destroy an evil presence. Critics and fans alike have not been kind.
C.H.U.D.: Arrow Video brings another ridiculous '80s horror flick to high-definition glory. This one’s about some deformed vagrants living in the sewers of New York. Gotta love it.
War Dogs: This (very loosely) based-on-a-true-story stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller. It's about a couple of arms dealers who get a U.S. Army contract to supply munitions to the Afghan National Army. It was directed by Todd Phillips. who also helmed Road Trip, Old School, and the Hangover Trilogy so I’d expect more silly laughs than the outright satire this story deserves.