The Power of the Dog is an old fashioned western with a new fashioned twist. After her previous nomination with The Piano, Jane Campion became the second consecutive woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards. Although I’m certain that’s a big reason for its acclaim, The Power of the Dog is an engaging character study. It was nominated for 12 Oscars, but only won 1 for Best Director. The last movie to do that was The Graduate back in 1967. The last movie to win 1 while losing 11 was Becket back in 1964. Though The Power of the Dog seemed like a shoo-in to win Best Picture, CODA was the true underdog.
Ironically it became a competition between Netflix and Apple TV+. The scenic western production value earned it several technical nominations for Best Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, and Sound. Every single award was lost to Dune. The original 1967 book by Thomas Savage works surprisingly well in the 2020’s. It’s actually another gay cowboy movie nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Although it’s a bit more subtle with metaphors and symbolism. Campion’s style can be seen through character relationships, male nudity, and there’s even a piano. The entire cast deserved their respective nominations.
It’s an unexpectedly good ensemble that includes Doctor Strange, Nightcrawler, Mary Jane Watson, and her husband. Thomasin McKenzie is the only New Zealand native in the cast. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a surly rancher with a convincing southern drawl. Phil belittles his brother George and his eventual wife Rose. Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are a convincing married couple since they are one in real life. Although they were nominated in the same year, neither of them won. Dunst plays Rose as a miserable alcoholic who takes abuse from her brother in-law. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays her unmanly son Peter who gets roped up in Phil’s world. Though it seems like an attraction, Peter is more devious than he lets on. The Power of the Dog is slow, but powerful.
Peter rides with Phil
Unforgiven is the Western to end all Westerns. As of 1992, Unforgiven is the last of only three Westerns to win Best Picture. And it was only 2 years after the previous winner Dances with Wolves. While not the greatest Western ever made, Unforgiven does stand out with Oscar winning Film Editing and beautifully shot cinematography. Director, producer, and actor Clint Eastwood intended Unforgiven to be a tribute to filmmakers like Sergio Leone or Don Siegel. Eastwood claimed it would be his final Western, but he’s too synonymous with the genre. Unforgiven is actually a Revisionist Western that deconstructs the often glamorized Old West.
Eastwood won 2 Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, but not Best Actor. He was only nominated for playing old retired gunslinger William Munny. Eastwood teams up with Morgan Freeman for the first, but not the last time. Freeman plays Munny’s equally old gunslinger partner Ned Logan. Although they were feared in their time, Munny is a rusty pig farming father who gave up killing for his deceased wife and Logan lives a quiet life with his Native American wife. They’re driven to kill again when prostitutes put a $1,000 bounty on the men who cut up one of their girls. It’s a very simple plot, but Unforgiven is a deep and often depressing examination of trauma that’s far from black & white. Frances Fisher and Anna Thomson both play hookers with hearts of gold.
Newcomer Jaimz Woolvett joins the aging gunslingers as the eager young Schofield Kid who quickly realizes killing isn’t as noble as he thinks it is. Richard Harris is memorable as potential bounty collector English Bob. Saul Rubinek plays his biographer who (like the audience) discovers how exaggerated the life of a cowboy truly is. The biggest scene stealer ended up being Gene Hackman as the sadistic and unpredictable Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett. A role that won Hackman his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Though they deal with severe rainstorms and gun fights, Unforgiven subverts expectations by making the outlaws easy to kill and leading to an inevitable path of self-destruction. Unforgiven is unforgivably harsh with a great unforgiving sense of realism.
Will rides with Ned
Blazing Saddles has been called the funniest movie of all time. I’m not sure I agree, but I did get a few yucks out of it. Mel Brooks comedies can be hit or miss for me. My parents highly recommended The Producers and Young Frankenstein, but Blazing Saddles was a different story. As a western satire/parody, Blazing Saddles was meant to be offensive. There’s very liberal use of the “N” word, jokes about assault, a 1 minute farting scene, and whatever else they could get away with. I’m no fan of PC censorship, but even I have to question some of their choices. Though Blazing Saddles is still funny even when it’s controversial.
The movie centers around a black sheriff hired by a corrupt general attorney to drive civilians out of their town in order to make room for a railroad. The role was meant for Richard Pryor, but he remained a writer and let the lesser known Cleavon Little play Bart instead. His smoothness fits the character a little better. Frequent collaborator Gene Wilder is equally hilarious as Bart’s drunken quick draw friend Jim aka the “Waco Kid.” Mel Brooks makes one of several cameos as the dimwitted governor and an Indian chief.
The oddly named villain Hedley Lamarr is perfect with Harvey Korman in the role. He jokes about having an Oscar nominated performance, but Blazing Saddles was nominated for 3 Academy Awards. Best Film Editing, Original Song, and Supporting Actress for Madeline Kahn’s portrayal of seductress Lili Von Shtupp. Actors like Slim Pickens help with the cowboy aesthetic since actors like John Wayne said no. Blazing Saddles has a lot of purposeful anachronisms, but I do wonder if they go too far in the end? Blazing Saddles took a lot of risks and mostly ended up on top.
Sheriff Bart laughs with Jim
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid changed the way we saw cowboys in Hollywood. Although I hadn’t seen the movie until now, I’m fine with reviewing it on my birthday. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid quickly became one of my favorite westerns. 1969 was a big year for all sorts of cowboy movies. Including True Grit, The Wild Bunch, and the eventual Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy. Though Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did win more awards. Aside from a nomination for Best Picture, Best Director George Roy Hill, and Best Sound, the movie won Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song. I’ll bet you didn’t know “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” originated from a western.
Cinematography was deserved since the movie utilizes sepia tone in some scenes. Although based on the real life outlaws, the story is still mostly fictionalized. While not as intense as the other westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid does subvert the genre for the New Hollywood movement. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are undeniable anti-heroes who rob trains and banks, but end up being very likable thanks to the pitch perfect pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Butch is the leader and Sundance is quick on the draw. Newman and Redford play off each other very well. There’s a definite sense of humor when the duo reunite with their posse the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.
Their funniest scene involves the duo jumping off a cliff in order to evade capture. Butch and Sundance actually do the unthinkable by fleeing to Bolivia. They’re joined by Sundance’s mysterious lover Etta Place. This would be Katharine Ross’ second most famous role after The Graduate. Her most iconic scene involves her riding a bicycle with Butch as the award winning song plays. Etta helps out when the duo is forced to rob banks using Spanish. When they try to go straight, Strother Martin has a role as the man who hires them. You may also recognize a young Cloris Leachman as a harlot and Sam Elliot in one of his first westerns. When things go south, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid go out in a blaze of glory. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made cowboys cool again.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre may be the finest depiction of greed ever put to film. This kind of story has been retold and parodied so many times, but nothing can top the original. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on the 1927 B. Traven novel of the same name. Director John Huston hit the ground running with The Maltese Falcon, but it’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that became his magnum opus. It’s another technically perfect movie with a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
With the expectation of Best Picture (which went to Hamlet), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre swept the Academy Awards. Huston won twice for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and his own father won Best Supporting Actor. It’s truly baffling that Humphrey Bogart wasn’t nominated, since this is easily one of his all time best performances. Bogart plays one of three prospectors searching for gold in Mexico. The down on his luck Dobbs grows increasingly paranoid and wants all the gold for himself. Even if he has to betray and/or kill his comrades to keep it.
Tim Holt plays the much more neutral Curtin who tries to keep his friend on the straight and narrow. Walter Huston won for playing Howard. Howard is a classic cheerful prospector with the most knowledge about gold mining. He popularized the term “fool’s gold.” Dobbs is a definite villain by the end, but there’s an even bigger threat in Mexico. Gold Hat and his bandits are constantly on their tail. You may know them for the often misquoted line “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” The movie ends with a harsh, but justified lesson that greed will make a man go insane. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is pure gold.
A boy tries to sell to Dobbs
Cimarron is the first western to win Best Picture. Surprisingly, it was the only western to win until Dances with Wolves won nearly 6 decades later. Westerns are such a big part of early Hollywood that I guess I figured there were more. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, Cimarron is based on a 1929 novel and is epic in scope. RKO risked the success of a big budget western in the midst of the Great Depression and it mostly paid off. Cimarron was nominated for every eligible Oscar including Best Director, Actor, Actress, and Cinematography.
I understand why it won Best Picture, Writing, and Art Direction, but it’s another product of its time. One of the young black servants is a definite stereotype and the Indians aren’t treated much better. The opening Oklahoma land rush is the most ambitious and impressive scene in the movie. Cimarron is all about the settlers who came to the unoccupied territory to purchase land. Don’t let the poster fool you, Yancey Cravat may be quick on the draw, but he’s no rugged cowboy action hero. He wears many white hats that include being a lawyer, newspaper editor, and even preacher.
Yancey drags his wife Sabra to Osage, but she’s the one who ends up carrying the movie in the end. Richard Dix was nominated too, but it’s Irene Dunne who goes from timid housewife to powerful business woman when her husband abandons her twice. Cimarron spans 40 years in Osage, Oklahoma. A lot of the movie reminded me of Giant, since the attention shifts to oil and an interracial marriage with an Indian woman. Just as much attention is given to the Carvat’s children and an unliked town prostitute. Objectively speaking, Cimarron captures early western creation rather well.
Yancey and Sabra in Osage
Serenity is the closure Firefly fans deserved. When it comes to shows that were cancelled too soon, Firefly is often #1. Despite strong critical reception, Fox stupidly ended the show 11 episodes into a 14 episode season. Firefly gained a devoted fanbase of “Browncoats” who managed to do the impossible. Giving a short lived TV series a second chance as a high production movie. Since I’m a big fan of Joss Whedon, watching Firefly was easy. The space western aesthetic was wholly unique, the action was high stakes, and the banter was laugh out loud hilarious. Everything you want in a Joss Whedon production. Since most of his work was on TV, Serenity was surprisingly Whedon’s feature directorial debut. Serenity has the “shiny” cinematic scale, but it’s just low budget enough to honor the show. The Firefly-class ship is fully explored in an impressive single take. Like the series, the losing Independants resist the unifying Alliance. A central government that united America with China.
The Serenity crew continue to smuggle, firefight, battle Reavers, and aim to misbehave. I’ve always liked that the verse isn’t made up of aliens, robots, or anything else super science fiction. Most of it is fairly realistic. The entire cast returns just as charming as they were 3 years ago. Nathan Fillion as rough-and-tumble Captain Mal Reynolds, Gina Torres as second-in-command warrior woman Zoe, Alan Tudyk as her lighthearted pilot husband Wash, Morena Baccarin as nurturing Companion Inara, Adam Baldwin as untrusting mercenary Jayne, Jewel Staite as adorkable mechanic Kaylee, Sean Maher as unwitting doctor Simon Tam, Summer Glau as his mentally disturbed sister River, and Ron Glass as Christian voice of reason Shepard Book. Inara and Shepard are the only characters not initially on the ship for understandable reasons.
The best thing about the movie is that it answers almost every question we would’ve had, had the show continued. What did the Alliance really do to River?, How did the Reavers come to be?, Will Simon & Kaylee ever hook up? The movie adds David Krumholtz as a hacker ally named Mr. Universe and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the ruthless Operative who seeks to rid the world of sin. Whedon’s usual religious commentary is always a little uncomfortable, but at least the movie retains his trademark quips. Along with his annoying tendency to kill off beloved characters. The first death is expected, but the second death is such a “gorram” slap in the face that it nearly ruined the movie for me (Qiáo sī·wéi dēng zhēnshi gè húndàn!). Fortunately the film won me over with River fighting like a total badass. Though it never should’ve been cancelled, Serenity does a more than serviceable job of keeping the show alive.
The crew of Serenity
The Book of Eli has a deeper purpose than I could’ve possibly imagined. I initially wrote it off as just another late 2000’s-early 2010’s post-apocalyptic movie. True, The Book of Eli is very similar on the surface. A war has ravaged the world and plunged it into a bleak dystopian future where crime runs rampant. Remaining humans wear sunglasses to protect them from the light. Denzel Washington walks through the wasteland as Eli. His mission is to carry a single very important book to a safe location. Important because most books were destroyed after the war.
The Book of Eli is seriously underappreciated. My mom stressed the importance of my brother and I seeing the movie. The action is the first major highlight as Eli quickly dispatches of several highwayman using only a machete. Subsequent brutal violence is just as fast-paced with satisfying take downs. Denzel is at his usual best and the rest of the cast is up to the task. Mila Kunis really convinced me that she can do action as her character Solara joins Eli on his mission.
Jennifer Beals is her blind mother and Gary Oldman is the despicable villain who runs a destitute town. Carnegie will cross any line in order to rule mankind with Eli’s book. SPOILER ALERT! After awhile you realize the sacred book is in fact The Bible. As a Christian, it’s so refreshing to see the importance of faith reinforced in an action movie no less. The Book of Eli feels so much like a modern passage with Eli representing a man given a difficult task by God. The second twist is far too shocking to give away. The Book of Eli needs to be seen to be appreciated.
Eli remains on his path
3:10 to Yuma (2007) is a remake done right. Especially for a classic 50’s western. The difference was a grittier R rated tone with more realistic depth added to characters. James Mangold has so much western influence in his movies, that I’d be surprised if he never directed one. His direction helps it stand out in an era with far less gun toting cowboy adventures. My initial interest came from my mom. Since she was a big fan of Russell Crowe and wanted to see how a remake would work out.
Although I had the chance to see it on its own, I’m glad I saw the original first. Brilliant non-American Hollywood hotheads Christian Bale and Russell Crowe play Dan Evans and Ben Wade respectively. They’re both perfect choices that play off each other well. Dan’s struggling drought stricken family life is shown in a bit more depth. With the addition of a leg he lost in the war and more of a role for his eldest son played by Logan Lerman. Wade may be a bad man, but he’s still a romantic who loves his momma.
Really it’s his much more ruthless posse lead by a rougher Charlie Prince played by Ben Foster who incites the most violence. 3:10 to Yuma is the destination for Wade and far more men see that he gets there. Most of whom die on the unforgiving trail. When they make it to the hotel, Dan’s son stands in for his wife and helps out a bit on the nail biting path to the train. It’s a much less happy ending, but one with an honorable character turn. 3:10 to Yuma uses its time just as effectively.
Dan Evans (left) escorts Ben Wade (right)
Remake of: 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
3:10 to Yuma brings us only the best from the old west. Appropriately beginning and ending with a folksy tune to set the mood. 3:10 to Yuma is a classic tale of a rancher and an outlaw. The rancher is Dan Evans played by Van Heflin. A struggling family man with a wife and two boys dealing with a devastating drought. The outlaw is Ben Wade played by Glen Ford. A charismatic criminal with a romantic streak who rides with his posse of outlaws.
Their paths cross when Wade shoots two stagecoach men and swipe Dan’s horses. When found out and arrested, Dan reluctantly agrees to transport Wade to the 3:10 to Yuma for a ranch saving price along with a small band of men. Dan and Wade are complete opposites at constant odds with one another, but they do form a bit of a mutual respect while hiding out in a hotel. Especially since Wade isn’t such a bad guy. Dan knows how to handle a gun, so he’s perfect to make the dangerous trip while avoiding Wade’s men.
Everything leads to the titular train and it’s worth the nail biting climax. I don’t watch westerns often, but I always appreciate a simple story like this. Understandable considering it was based on a short story from a pulp magazine. Although color was slowly taking over in the late 50’s, 3:10 to Yuma is more effective in black & white. With plenty of great dramatic shots of a smokey Arizona. 3:10 to Yuma uses its time wisely.
Dan Evans (left) moves Ben Wade (right) along