The Wednesday Western ~ 17th Feb 2021

It’s been a while since we did one, but the new Tom Hanks movie is billed as such, and we watched this on Netflix at the weekend. News of The World (2020) directed by Paul Greengrass and based on a novel by Paulette Giles, is set in 1870, during the reparation years following the Civil War. The plot is actually quite simple and straightforward. Hanks plays Jefferson Kyle Kidd  a former Captain in the Confederate Army, who now travels from town to town reading the local and global new to people in church halls or saloons and they pay 10 cents to come and hear him. On one of his travels he comes across an upturned wagon and a hanged black soldier and then in the bushes finds a young white girl (Helena Zengel) who is wearing Native Indian clothes and can’t speak a word of English. Her name turns out to be Johanna, and she was captured by the Kiowa when she was very young after her family were killed, and now she has lost her Kiowa family. Kidd takes her to a Union station to see about getting her back to an aunt and uncle from her previous life but they can’t help. Kidd decides he has to take her himself. It’s a 400 mile trek so that’s a bit of a PIA for him, but he can work the towns along the way.

So basically we have here a Western road movie, and the focus is on the relationship between Kidd and Johanna. Hanks embodies the weariness of Kidd, his eyesight is failing and he has been away from his wife for a long time, but he is stoic and stable and kind. Zengel has been rightly lauded for her performance in the movie. Johanna is sad, sulky, feisty, scared, smart, vulnerable and good hearted, and Zengel shows it all in her expressions and in her eyes. Both Zengel and Hanks build their respective characters slowly up to a great relationship. Initially their inability to communicate makes that a difficulty, but bit by bit they get there. It’s not a slow film though, Greengrass balances out the relationship building with the action at a steady pace. There’s plenty of stuff to sort out along the journey. Kidd and Johanna have to work together to overcome several instances, and there are shoot outs, criminals, racist militia and the destruction of their transport all conspiring to prevent them reaching the relatives farm. Even then all is not necessarily well.

We really enjoyed this movie. Having done documentaries and movies on the civil war recently, we got more out of it as we knew about the dreadful times of the reparation, and there are some scenes at the beginning of the movie that touch upon the resentment that still endured between the Union and Confederate peoples. Filmed in New Mexico, the landscapes and scenery are stunning, miles of beautiful landscapes and Greengrass uses it well. The supporting cast all do a great job, but this is a Hanks and Zengler movie, the old and the new, and a combination well worth watching.

Fraggle Rating. Top Notch.

The Wednesday Western -18/11/2020

We start out looking down our body at our boot encased feet. We are in an army medical tent, and two surgeons in bloodied white coveralls are looking at our leg. One pulls off our right boot and flings it into a pile of discarded footwear. He says your foot at least isn’t infected, the other tells him it still needs to be amputated. They decide to go for a coffee break first. You look at a tray of scary looking surgical instruments and make a decision. You manage to retrieve your boot and pull it on whilst clamping down on a piece of wood so they don’t hear you scream as you do it.

And so begins the epic tale of Lieutenant John Dunbar, who gets on his horse and rides the length of the front between the Union and the Confedarate stand off, hoping to get shot rather than lose his leg but instead inspiring the Union troops to a victory and becoming the hero of the day.

Kevin Costner made his directoral debut Dances With Wolves in 1990 and it can still stir the heart with it’s visual and emotional scale. Of course Phil has the 4hr long extended special edition and we watched it over 2 nights.

Does anyone, I wonder, not know the story of how Dunbar takes over an unmanned fort at the very edge of the American Frontier, befriends Two Socks, a wolf, and eventually, after initial hostility, becomes friends with the local tribe of Sioux. He falls in love with Stands with a Fist, a white woman who has lived with them since childhood, adopted by Kicking Bird the tribe’s medicine man, with whom he develops a deep rapport. If you do know the story you’ll remember how he participates in the hunt of migrating buffalo, and helps protect the village from a Pawnee attack. How he learns the Sioux Lacota language with the aid of Stands With A Fist, and becomes friends with a young boy, Smiles A Lot. SWAF’s first husband was killed prior to Dunbar showing up, and her husband’s best friend Wind In His Hair is hostile initially and wants nothing to do with Dunbar, but even he is won over by Dunbar as time goes on. The Sioux have watched him playing chase with Two Socks and given him the name Dances With Wolves, and so he becomes part of the tribe and is allowed to marry SWAF.

And you might remember the awfulness of what happens to Dunbar when he returns to his fort to retrieve his journal before moving on with his tribe to their winter grounds. How the Union soldiers who have turned up at the Fort kill his horse, bullet by bullet, how they tie him up and treat him cruelly, as a deserter, gone native, and take pot shots at Two Socks until he too is killed. You might weep a bit at those scenes. And then, how happy you are when the Sioux come to free him and the Union soldiers get their just desserts. You are on a roller coaster now though because Dunbar knows the Army will send more soldiers to find him, and want revenge on the Sioux for the killing of the men and he must leave with SWAF to go their own way, so as to protect the tribe. Oh and everyone in the tribe is so sad, exchanging presents with Dunbar they can hardly speak, but their eyes do and it is too hard not to feel their pain. And you might just feel more tears erupt as Wind In His Hair sits on his horse on the cliffs above the pass that Dunbar and his wife travel on their journey away, and keeps shouting for Dunbar to remember that he is his friend, will always be his friend.

 An epilogue states that 13 years later, the last remnants of the free Sioux were subjugated to the American government, ending the conquest of the Western Frontier states and the livelihoods of the tribes on the plains.

Costner put his heart and soul into this movie which took him 10 years to get into production and won him 7 academy awards, the first Western film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1931’s Cimmaron, and his movie registered for preservation in the  United States National Film Registry. He was probably more proud to be made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation for the film’s popularity and lasting impact on the image of Native Americans. He garnered an excellent cast, Mary McDonnell luminous as Stands with A Fist, Graham Green a First Nations Canadian actor as Kicking Bird embuing his character with nobility and humanity. Rodney A Grant, a native American actor who grew up in the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska and whose grandparents raised him after his parents abandoned him at 6 months old. He played the aptly named character Wind In His Hair, as he had the most glorious head of long shiny black hair, and brought both ferocity and humility to his part. Floyd Red Crow Westerman a Dakota Sioux musician, actor and political activist brought gravitas to the part of Chief Ten Bears whilst Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse gave a sweet performance as Smiles A lot, a young lad on the cusp of becoming a man.

The cinematography by Dean Semlar, is breathtaking, South Dakota a land of endless plains and huge skies perfect for the story. Basil Poledouros was originally commissioned to write the soundtrack but left to do some other movie and John Barry was brought in to replace him. He delivers a sweeping, romantic score, sometimes uplifting, sometimes haunting, and everything between, echoing the wide spaces of the landscape, and the emotional clout of the story. In the process earned himself the 1991 Academy Award for best original score in a movie.

There are detractors, accusations of it being a ‘white saviour’ movie, criticisms of the lacota language used wrongly in places, or mispronunciations, the real history of the Forts, Sioux and Pawnee’s subverted for the movie, but you won’t find any moaning about it here. It’s a fictional movie and doesn’t pretend, or even need to pretend to be anything else. Costner shows us how things could have been, should have been, and that maybe integration would have been better than invasion and subjugation, but no-one ever learns that lesson, do they?

Fraggle Rating: Beyond Bloody Brilliant.

Wednesday Western~ 21/10/2020

Phil’s Thursday night movie was loaned to him by a work colleague who thought he might like it. Hell and High Water (2016). Billed as a neo-western heist movie (doncha just love sub-categories) and directed by David MacKenzie it stars Chris Pine, Benn Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham.

It’s not such an old movie so I’ll try and avoid too many spoilers. The plot regards 2 brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard. Their mother recently died and the bank is going to foreclose on the ranch she owned in a weeks time. Toby (Pine) is divorced, and Tanner (Foster) is an ex-con with a wild streak, and the pair make plans to do small bank robberies across the week, in order to pay off the debt, and keep the Ranch in the family, and are quite successful in spite of Tanner being a bit of a loose cannon, much to Toby’s annoyance.

Two Texas rangers Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Birmingham) are on the case to catch them. Marcus is very near retirement age and after investigating the robberies already committed, soon works out where and when the brothers will be next, and he and Parker go off to await the next robbery.

That’s it for spoilers. The movie was written by Taylor Sheridan an actor/writer/director and Hell and High Water is the second of his trilogy of “the modern-day American Frontier” with Sicario being his first, and Wind River being the last. He also wrote the follow up to Sicario but not as part of this trilogy. Hell and High Water was nominated for lots of awards at the OScars, Globes, BAFTA etc and had good reviews from critics.

Well deserved I think. The beauty of this movie is in how the relationships between the two brothers, and between the two rangers are portrayed. We can’t fault the acting here, Bridges at his best, a grumpy sardonic old guy who continuously teases his partner with non- PC Indian insults but is smart as a whip. Gil Birmingham gives as good as he gets. Pine and Foster have got brothers just right, sometimes at odds, and exasperated with each other, but with blood thicker than water. A joy to watch these four guys take a brilliant script and bring it to life. It’s not a comedy but we did laugh a lot during it.

The cinematography by Giles Nuttgens was stunning, using East New Mexico as a stand in for Texas, and having the wide open plains and forgotten backwater towns and people as the subtle backdrop to this story. Little touches like in a Gas station scene there’s a cowboy on a horse, young idiots playing crap music in a limegreen musclecar, and the brothers in a crappy saloon car. Modern-day American Frontier indeed.

Critics were impressed :- Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times sums it up very well. “In ways large and small, Hell or High Water is a movie so beautiful and harsh and elegiac and knowing, the moment it was over was the moment I wanted to see it again”.

Fraggle Rating : Bloody Brilliant.

Wednesday Western 9/09/2020

Not a movie today, but a TV series and equally as good. We recently watched Godless (2017) a one off series on Netflix consisting of 7 brilliant episodes and no second series, so a nice one to just enjoy with a beginning a middle and an end.

The plot: (No spoilers as this one is too new 🙂 )

We are in New Mexico in the 1880’s and the notorious outlaw Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels in great form) has a gang of ne’er do wells, who rob trains and other places and are not above shooting anyone who gets in their way. One of the members of the gang is a handsome chap called Roy Goode (Jack O’Connel) who has been like a son to Jeff. But Roy is sick of being a bad’un, betrays Frank and goes on the run, ending up at the ranch of Alice Fletcher ( Michelle Dockery), a beautiful hardass widow who lives on the outskirts of the town of La Belle with her son and mother-in-law, both Native Americans . La Belle is mostly inhabited by the widows of mining men who were all killed when the mine collapsed.

Frank is determined to catch Roy at all costs and happy to kill anyone who stands in his way. The widows end up banding together to protect Roy.

That’s it for spoilers, it’s too good to go in knowing the rest of the plot. The cast for this series are just great. Apart from Daniels, Sam Waterstone takes the part of Marshall John Cook, hunting Frank and with Scoot McNairy playing the Sherrif of La Belle, Bill McNue, who is losing his eyesight and is scorned by the ladies of La Belle for his drunken behaviour. Merritt Weaver is just brilliant as Mary Agnes, the Sherrif’s sister, a feisty woman who is great with a gun and dresses in her dead husbands clothing.

It was so refreshing to see a Western with a lot of great major roles for strong lady characters, and Scott Frank who both wrote and directed it did a class job.

It got a lot of positive reviews and rightly so, with The Washington Post and Vanity Fair putting it in their top 10 best-of-the-year lists.

Cinematographically speaking Steven Meizler was in charge, and filmed it in New Mexico, perfect Western country.

We enjoyed this so were hoping there would be a second series, but Scott Frank says he has no other story to follow on, and in retrospect that’s a good thing, always leave them wanting more.

Highly recommended with a rating of Bloody Brilliant.

Here’s a taster