Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wild about Westerns

AP photo/Paramount Pictures
In this undated photo released by Paramount Pictures, Jeff Bridges, left, and Hailee Steinfeld are shown in a scene from "True Grit." 

The West is wild again thanks to the box office success of "True Grit."

Shot on location in New Mexico, it has been heralded by critics as "one of the most mainstream, crowd-pleasing films Joel and Ethan Coen have made." 

Audiences who loved "No Country for Old Men" would argue that it is typical of the Coen brothers’ work: A great story with spurts of violence, steeped in dry wit and one-liners.
Based on Charles Portis' novel of the same name and similar to the 1969 Western that earned John Wayne his only Academy Award for best actor, it is the story of Mattie Ross, a young 19th-century pioneer girl (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) who is determined to find her father's killer, a no-good loser named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, who also starred in “No Country”). Using her formidable wit and unwavering sense of right and wrong, Mattie manages to convince pretty much whomever she wants, to do whatever she wants. This includes the one-eyed bearish, whiskey-scented U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whose life experiences and reputation on the frontier make him a cowboy's Yoda, and the greenhorn Texas Ranger Damon LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has his own agenda with regard to Chaney.

As with many Westerns, audiences are embracing the story of “True Grit,” the vivid performances turned in by cast members (especially that of Steinfeld) and the picturesque vistas shown by Coen's cinematographer, Roger Deakins. At a time when everyone needs a pick-me-up it's a good dose of Americana.

In case one dose is not enough, here are a few more Westerns worth checking out:
* “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” (1962) starring John Wayne, James Stewart and Vera Miles. The story begins with a funeral and, scene by scene, the movie reveals the secret behind the man who shot the feared outlaw Liberty Valance.

* “Unforgiven,” (1992) stars Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman. For the future of his kids, an old-time outlaw takes on one last job.

* “The Cowboys,” (1972) starring John Wayne as rancher Wil Andersen, who, because of a shortage of cattle drivers due to the gold rush, begrudgingly hires a collection of young boys to help him drive his herd to the market and save his ranch from financial disaster. Under Andersen’s mentoring, the boys return as men and experienced ranch hands.

* “Dances with Wolves,” (1990) starring Kevin Costner, Marry McDonnell and Graham Green tells the story of Lt. John Dunbar who has been sent to an outpost in the wilderness of the Dakota Territory during the American Civil War. The assignment and the bond struck with the local Sioux tribe provide a lesson in human diversity and tolerance.

* “Little Big Man” (1970), starring Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, is a funny Western (not spaghetti western). Hoffman plays the role of Jack Crabb, a 121-year-old man living in a rest home, describing his incredible life experiences. 

* “Red Sun,” (1971) starring Charles Bronson and Alain Delon, is what you would call a spaghetti western. According to Most Wanted Western Movies.com, “Spaghetti western is a nickname for a sub-genre of Western films that emerged in the mid-1960s. What did they have to do with spaghetti? Most of these (films) were produced by Italian studios (and Sergio Leone) and were shot in Tabernas Desert of Almeria, Andalucia region of Spain (liken to America’s Southwest). So the term spaghetti western was coined.”
Other dishes in the sub-genre worth consuming: “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” and “Once Upon A Time in the West.”

* “3:10 to Yuma,” (2007) starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale and Ben Foster is based on the short story of the same name by Michigan author Elmore Leonard. It is about a small-town rancher who has agreed to stand watch over a captured outlaw, who’s awaiting a train to go to court in Yuma and the battle of wills that ensues between them.

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