Category Archives: Movies/Television

Horror and Suspense Films

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listed in alphabetical order by name of film

Scary Because It's Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

Scary Because It’s Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

#NoSpoilers It's October, and that means it's time for scary movies. When I was young, vampires and ghosts and werewolves usually did the trick. As ...
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To Make Cynics of Us All: Devil, the Horror Film

To Make Cynics of Us All: Devil, the Horror Film

#NoSpoilers There is a long history of stories about humans being influenced or tempted to commit evil by some outside being rather than by their ...
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The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself: The Devil's Backbone, the Film

The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself: The Devil’s Backbone, the Film

What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to ...
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If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

#NoSpoilers Crime films, frequently inspired by crime fiction, concentrates on criminals, their crimes, and (sometimes) on the detection of those crimes. The famed Noir films ...
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The First Award-Winning Horror Film: The Exorcist

The First Award-Winning Horror Film: The Exorcist

#NoSpoilers Though the word "horror" was not used to describe a film genre until the 1930s, films including supernatural or frightening elements, usually adapted from ...
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Setting the World On Fire: The Girl With All the Gifts, the Film

Setting the World On Fire: The Girl With All the Gifts, the Film

#NoSpoilers Pandora, whose name means either "all-gifted" or "all-giving," was ostensibly the first human female created by the Greek gods. Each of the gods helps ...
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Killing Others To Survive: Identity, the Film

Killing Others To Survive: Identity, the Film

#NoSpoilers The 2003 psychological horror film Identity is not a direct adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1939 mystery novel And Then There Were None, though the plot of Identity is ...
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The Demons Within Us: The Innocents, the Film

The Demons Within Us: The Innocents, the Film

#NoSpoilers I first read The Turn of the Screw when I was ten years old after I learned it was about ghosts, and much of ...
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Coming-of-Age with a Vampire: Let Me In, the Film

Coming-of-Age with a Vampire: Let Me In, the Film

#NoSpoilers The concept of vampires or vampire-like beings — undead who return from the grave and exist by stealing the "life essence" (flesh or blood) ...
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The Plague That Cast the World Into Darkness: Open Grave, the Film

The Plague That Cast the World Into Darkness: Open Grave, the Film

#NoSpoilers I'm going to be honest with you: I don't think much of post-apocalyptic dramas that include zombies. I mean, who's going to root for ...
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When Children Scare You to Death: Orphan, the Film

When Children Scare You to Death: Orphan, the Film

#NoSpoilers This story has been recycled a few times: parents who are longing for another child and also to do good in the world -- ...
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Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

#NoSpoilers Of all the horror films I have ever watched or blogged about, The Orphanage (2007) -- written by Sergio G. Sánchez, directed by  JA Bayona, and ...
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The World of the Dead and the World of the Living: The Others, the Film

The World of the Dead and the World of the Living: The Others, the Film

#NoSpoilers Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this film, which some say was inspired by Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw, isn't ...
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Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

#NoSpoilers Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer ...
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Suspense via Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven, the 2012 Film

Suspense via Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven, the 2012 Film

No Spoilers I'm not sure why the 2012 film The Raven doesn't have at least 9 out of 10 stars on popular reviewing sites because ...
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The World Breaks Everyone: Horror Film Classic Rosemary's Baby

The World Breaks Everyone: Horror Film Classic Rosemary’s Baby

#NoSpoilers The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong in the broken places. Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms It all seems so ordinary ...
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Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

No Spoilers You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in ...
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You Are Now Entering the Cruel World: Texas Killing Fields, the Film

You Are Now Entering the Cruel World: Texas Killing Fields, the Film

No Spoilers You are now entering the cruel world bridge sign near The Killing Fields Since the 1970s, at least 30 young women and girls ...
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Hansel & Gretel With A Video Camera: The Visit, 2015 Film

Hansel & Gretel With A Video Camera: The Visit, 2015 Film

No Spoilers (okay, there's a couple, but they're not about plot) When I first saw the description for the 2015 film The Visit, written, directed, and produced ...
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Filed under #31DaysOfHalloween, Actors, Classic Films, Films, Films/Movies, Halloween, Horror, Horror Films, Movies/Films, Movies/Television, No Spoilers Review, Psychological Horror, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Science Fiction, Serial Killers, Suspense

Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

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Review of  The Handmaid’s Tale season 1
by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative novel about a woman who was kidnapped and forced into reproductive slavery after the U.S. government was overthrown by a group of religious extremists called the Sons of Jacob. Last year, I was thrilled when I found out that it was going to be turned into a TV series.

Today I’m going to tell you what season one of The Handmaid’s Tale was like and what I thought of it without giving away any spoilers for it. Let’s begin with the introductions of the main characters and a brief summary of the plot.

O.T. Fagbnele as Luke, Jordana Blake as Hannah, and Elisabeth Moss as Offred (Photo: George Kraychyk © HULU)

June was the protagonist. Before the United States government was overthrown, she was married to a man named Luke. They were one of the dwindling number of families who had been able to successfully have a healthy child. They named their little girl Hannah.

Unfortunately, this family’s happiness was short-lived. Fertility rates dropped so much in the place formerly known as the United States that it became rare for any pregnancy to lead to a healthy, viable baby. The Sons of Jacob, an extremist movement whose political platform was based on harsh, literal interpretations of certain passages from the Bible, believed that this widespread infertility was a curse from God.

When they gained power and formed Gilead, they passed punitive laws aimed to strictly control marriage, fertility, gender roles, and how people were allowed to live in an attempt to win God’s favour again.

Elizabeth Moss as Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale © Hulu

As you might have already imagined, fertile women were highly sought after in this new society. June and her family was no exception to this rule. June was prized because she’d proven herself fertile, and Hannah was prized because there were far more families hoping to adopt than there were children of any age or race who could be placed for adoption.

After being captured by the authorities, June was torn away from her family and assigned to be a Handmaid for the wealthy and powerful. That is, her only duty in life now was to bear children for couples who couldn’t have their own.

Rather than keeping her own name, June was renamed at every posting. Offred — or “of Fred” — became her new identity after she was sent to live with Fred Waterford, a top-ranking Commander of the new government.

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu ©

His wife, Serena Joy, was a wildly unpredictable mistress whose sole desire in life was to be a mother. Her jealousy of June’s fertility is only matched by her hatred of this arrangement.

Offred had a limited amount of time to conceive a baby with Fred. If she failed to become pregnant, she would be sent to a work camp to die a slow, agonizing death. While she waited to see if the monthly sexual assaults from Fred will result in a baby, she also quietly worked to find out what happened to her husband and daughter.

Are they still alive? Will she ever be able to see them again? Even saying their names was forbidden, but this didn’t stop Offred from fantasizing about what it would be like to be her family again.

Roughly translated, nolite te bastardes carborundorum is supposed to mean “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It was a phrase she found scratched into the wood of one of the pieces of furniture in her room at the Waterford’s home. While Offred waited to see what would happen to her next, she had to figure out how to avoid being ground down to dust in the process.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1st edition)

Analysis

As someone who has been a huge fan of the book for nearly 20 years, I was quite happy with how this story was translated to the small screen.

Gilead was a violent and dangerous place to live for anyone who stepped out of line, and the screenwriters weren’t at all afraid to show exactly what happened to people who broke the strict rules there. While I can’t go into any details about that part of the plot without giving away spoilers for everything after the first episode, I will say that this portion of the storytelling was exquisite.

There is a massive difference between maintaining the appearance of a virtuous society and actually constructing it in a way that benefits the very people it was originally meant to help.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the stark difference between the outward appearance of someone’s life and the quiet reality of it behind closed doors. While most of the villains were at least outwardly pious, what happened when they thought no one was watching them was much more complex than following or breaking specific rules.

One of the other things I loved about this season is how it handled the character development. No one in this world was completely evil or good, including people who really did seem like they could be boxed in by these labels when I first saw them.

There were times when the good characters made decisions that I detested. In other scenes, characters who had been violent or cruel showed moments of mercy.

This is not to say that a single act of kindness can wipe away even the worst crime or that good people should be forever judged by their worst mistakes in life. All of these characters are a mixture of faults and virtues just like real people are, and that has permanently endeared them to me.

The science fiction in this universe has a very light touch. If this is not a genre you typically watch, know that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t like most other scifi shows. Other than the mysterious origins of the infertility plague, everything that happened in this show could really happen in our world. Indeed, much of it already has happened at various times and in many different places.

By the end of the season finale a question lingered in the air. Would we let something like this happen to us if we began to see the signs of a real-life Gilead beginning to form?

Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is tentatively scheduled to be released in April of 2018. Until then, I hope you will mull over this question and come up with your own answers to it as you enjoy season one.

The Handmaid’s Tale won several Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss, as Offred), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd, as Aunt Lydia), Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series (Alexis Bledel, as Emily), Best Directing for a Drama Series (Reed Dowd), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Elisabeth Moss at 69th Emmy Awards, Photo by Kevin Winter, Getty Images ©

The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Hulu (free one-month trial subscription, $11.99 with no commercials, $5.99 with limited commercials), Amazon ($1.99 SD, $2.99 HD per episode, or $14.99-19.99 for season), and, for similar purchase prices, on YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and GooglePlay.

Lydia Schoch is a science fiction author and longtime fan of Margaret Atwood’s stories. Lydia blogs at Lydia Schoch, tweets at @TorontoLydia, and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Related Posts
on The Handmaid’s Tale
by Lydia Schoch
#Spoilers

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Introducing Offred’s World

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Gender Treachery

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Faithful

The Handmaid’s Tale:
A Woman’s Place

The Handmaid’s Tale:
The Other Side

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Jezebels

The Handmaid’s Tale:
The Bridge

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Night

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Filed under Actors, Authors, Books, Drama, Guest Posts, MiniSeries/Limited MiniSeries, Movies/Television, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Science Fiction, Television, Television Series

When You Can’t Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain: HBO’s The Wizard of Lies

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Even those of us who aren’t even remotely rich have no doubt heard of Bernie Madoff, perpetrator of one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history, causing investors to lose almost $65 billion. Named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian swindler and con artist operating in the US in the 1920’s, Ponzi schemes always collapse, if only because there are no actual investments made with the monies deposited: earlier investors are paid “dividends” with the cash that newer investors deposit, although most of the monies usually go to the fraudster who sets up the plan. The Wizard of Lies, HBO’s film based on the book of the same name by Diana B. Henriques, who plays herself interviewing inmate-Madoff in the film, concentrates more on the fall of the Madoff Empire rather than on explaining exactly how Madoff managed to dupe so many wealthy investors. The Wizard of Lies is a complex examination of a sociopath who, considering the fact that he’s in prison himself for 150 years, doesn’t believe he’s done anything too terribly dreadful to anyone else, especially not to his family members. De Niro’s performance as Madoff is understated and dazzling, and that alone makes the film worth watching.

Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies, © HBO

Robert De Niro, departing from his usual mob and gangster roles, plays sociopath Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies. De Niro’s performance is understated and controlled to the point of disturbed-rattlesnake brilliant. De Niro only raises his voice a few times in the entire film — and even then, he’s not actually yelling — yet he manages to terrify. His gaze alone is a match for Medusa’s.

De Niro as Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

De Niro’s Madoff is so eerie, you wonder how anyone could have fallen for the investment scheme in the first place, but, of course, viewers see this version of the story already knowing about Madoff’s lies and treachery. The family dinner scene, which includes Madoff’s granddaughter, is De Niro at his menacing best: it reminded me of De Niro with a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life. Shivery-scary, my dears.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Madoff’s wife Ruth, who, unfortunately, seems rather dim-witted in this version of the story. As a woman who’s supported herself since the age of 14, I realize that I may be judging Ruth Madoff by standards which did not apply to her, but still I wonder how anyone could live in a Manhattan penthouse apartment, get $400 highlights “on demand” from an elite hairdresser, and not know that the “bottomless” income which supports her über-wealthy lifestyle was illegitimate. The Wizard of Lies portrays Ruth as absent-mindedly “innocent.” Whining and perpetually confused, Ruth is rarely seen without a glass of wine in her hand.

Despite the almost cardboard-portrayal of Ruth Madoff herself, Pfeiffer’s acting is classy and powerful. As understated as De Niro, Pfeiffer plays Ruth with a skill that reminds you why Pfeiffer is one of the greatest actors alive, especially in the scene with Ruth, alone, complaining about the Bonnie and Clyde comparisons to her and Bernie, and in the scene where she calmly explains to Bernie that she’s going to commit suicide.

Darrow as Andrew, De Niro as Madoff, Nivola as Mark, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

Madoff’s sons, Mark (Allesandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), ostensibly work on “another floor” in their father’s business, and so “know nothing at all” about the actual investments, the faux trades, and the impossibility of investments’ never having any losses. Mark and Andrew live in multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartments, like Bernie, and have vacation houses, also like Bernie, but the siblings protest their innocence all the while complaining about and raging against the public’s perception of them as co-conspirators in their father’s fraud. Though it’s difficult to believe that Mark and Andrew could have been as innocent as the film depicts them, the actors do a credible job portraying the Madoff boys’ disillusion with their father and their subsequent anguish.

Hank Azaria, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

In one of his best roles, Hank Azaria plays Madoff employee and co-conspirator Frank Dipascali, the only person in the entire company who admits — in the film, at least — to having known about the faux trades and the investment scam. Dipascali manages the books in an office that resembles a corner behind the furnace in somebody’s basement. Azaria’s Dipascali is crude and vulgar, but he apparently knows how to use a computer efficiently enough to have Madoff’s complete and absolute trust. The Wizard of Lies portrays Dipascali as the only other person even remotely culpable in Madoff’s horrific scam, and Dipascali makes about as many apologies as does Bernie, which is to say, none at all.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff, and Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

The Wizard of Lies is fascinating and scary, intense and sad. Does that mean I feel sympathy for Bernie Madoff? No. Do I feel sorry for Ruth, Mark, and Andrew Madoff, all of whom claim to never have known anything was suspicious about Madoff’s vast financial empire? No. I don’t believe they were as innocent as they claim, and the film didn’t change my opinion of them.

It’s a tribute to the HBO film, however, that I watched it fully expecting to be bored and confused by multitudinous, labyrinthine financial explanations. Instead, I was totally engaged by the film, which is compelling if only due to the principals’ extraordinary and powerful performances.

The Wizard of Lies is available for viewing free to HBO subscribers and through Amazon (with a 7-day HBO trial membership).

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Pierce Brosnan & AMC’s THE SON Shine Hot & Bright

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Cast of AMC’s The Son, L-R, Zahn McClarnon as Comanche leader Toshaway, Elizabeth Frances as Prairie Flower, Jacob Lofland as Young Eli, Pierce Brosnan as Elder Eli McCullough, Henry Garrett as Eli’s youngest son Pete, Sydney Lucas as granddaughter Jeannie, Jess Weixler as Pete’s wife Sally, and David Wilson Barnes as Eli’s eldest son Phineas © AMC

AMC’s newest series The Son is a “creation myth of America” set in the American West in two different time periods, 1849 and 1915, telling the story of Texas family patriarch Eli McCullough. Based on the Pulitzer Prize finalist and bestselling novel of the same name by Philipp Meyer, who is also an executive producer of the show, The Son explores America’s violent heritage by examining Texas’ deadly involvement with indigenous peoples and its Mexican neighbors. Though Variety claims The Son is “yet another show centered around a morally grey white man with a dark past,” and though the premiere was a bit slow, AMC solved this initial pacing problem by showing the first two episodes in the same night. By the third episode, the series picks up steam and becomes quite an intriguing story.

Pierce Brosnan as the Elder Eli McCullough, and Jacob Lofland as the Young Eli in AMC’s The Son  © AMC

Eli McCullough, kidnapped by the Comanche as a young man, is the patriarch of the family in the series. Played by Pierce Brosnan in one of his best roles, he is a cattleman who, for some unknown reason, is determined to discover oil on his land. Is he losing money at the ranching business? Is he bored with cattle? Is he not rich enough? Is he in so much debt that he must lose the entire ranch if he doesn’t diversify? We don’t find that out, but for the first several episodes, the search for oil is a minor part of the story.

Pierce Brosnan as the Elder Eli McCullough on The Son  © AMC

Despite some complaints about Brosnan’s native Irish accent poking through the show’s Texas drawl, and despite Hollywood Reporter’s description of his character as “Pathetic White Boy [Eli’s Comanche name]… grown into a powerful and notoriously vicious landowner whose new Comanche nickname would probably be Growls With a Beard,” Brosnan’s Eli McCullough is the most interesting character in The Son.

Jacob Lofland as Young Eli, The Son  © AMC

As a young man in 1849, Eli (Jacob Lofland, one of the shining stars of the series) was kidnapped by the Comanche, led by Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon, a serious competitor with Brosnan, in both talent and physical attractiveness).

Zahn McClarnon as Comanche leader Toshaway, The Son  © AMC

Tormented by the males of the tribe as well as by the lovely Prairie Flower (Elizabeth Frances),

Elizabeth Frances as Comanche Prairie Flower, The Son  © AMC

Eli often doubts his ability to survive captivity. The longer he is with the tribe, however, the more he begins to behave like the other young men, and the more he is accepted as part of their group. Eventually, Toshaway may even come to regard Eli as his son.

Pierce Brosnan as Eli McCullough, The Son  © AMC

The scenes of Eli in the past are interwoven are interwoven with those of Eli as a grown man, in 1915. Living on his ranch with his sons Phineas (David Wilson Barnes)

David Wilson Barnes as eldest son Phineas, The Son  © AMC

and Pete (Henry Garrett),

Henry Garrett as youngest son Pete, The Son  © AMC

his daughter-in-law (Pete’s wife) Sally (Jess Weixler),

Jess Weixler as daughter-in-law Sally, The Son  © AMC

and his grandchildren — Charles, Jonas, and Jeannie (Sydney Lucas, who shines in her scenes with Brosnan, with whom she has obvious chemistry) —

Sydney Lucas as granddaughter Jeannie, The Son  © AMC

Eli is at odds with his sons. They want to sell part of the ranch to get the family out of debt, but Eli fears that dividing the ranch will ultimately lead to its complete loss. How the family got into such serious debt in the first place has never been made clear, but perhaps that isn’t as important as it seems it should be.

Carlos Bardem as neighbor Pedro García, The Son  © AMC

The McCulloughs’ nearest neighbors are the Garcías, led by patriarch Pedro (Carlos Bardem) and his feisty daughter Maria (Paola Nuñez), who seems inordinately attracted to the already married Pete McCullough.

Paola Nuñez as Pedro’s daughter Maria, The Son  © AMC

The Garcías have a large family, but the most important members seem to be these two. The García patriarch has some nefarious associations with Mexican bandits who are causing havoc with the white Texas settlers. War seems to be on the horizon.

Comanches in The Son  © AMC

Though the Native Americans and the Mexicans often seem stereotyped, the storyline is still mostly strong. Admittedly, there are some flaws in the story itself: Eli has two sons, for example, but the eldest, Phineas, largely disappears after the initial episodes; the Garcías have a large family, but no one gets near the attention (or screen time) that Pedro and his eldest daughter Maria have.

The worst problem with the series so far is its major production flaw: the music is often so loud that the dialogue is literally inaudible.

Still, The Son is worth watching, and, as the LA Times review notes, it’s engrossing, if only for the strong performances of Brosnan (Eli as a man), Lofland (Eli as a youth), and McClarnon (Toshaway). The strongest and most interesting female characters are Frances (Prairie Flower) and Lucas (granddaughter Jeannie). Also, the chemistry between Brosnan and Sydney Lucas (Jeannie) is delightful.

The Son is rated MA for its violence, which is frequent though not excessively graphic, and it airs Saturdays at 9:00 pm ET. The first two episodes, Son of Texas and The Plum Tree are available for viewing without login on AMC, and all episodes are free for AMC subscribers.

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Filed under Actors, Historical Drama, Movies/Television, No Spoilers Review, Official Trailers, The Son, Violence, Westerns

We All Have It Coming: Top 5 Westerns

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Unforgiven

When you hear the term “Western” for a film or mini-series, you might think lone cowboys riding the line, cattle treks, a lawman protecting his town, or even the classic rags-to-riches story of a cattleman trying to build an empire then pass it on to his family. But there are many sub-genres of “Western” films that are more interesting and exciting than the predictable cowboy movie.

Most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are usually considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing the iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. Sometimes called “Spaghetti Westerns” and sometimes classified as “Action & Adventure,” all these films still resonate with elements that make the Western iconic in Hollywood, and imitated worldwide.

My top five Western films and mini-series are sometimes set in the American West; often they are not. But their characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, lest you think I’m some kind of HEA-girl, but even if they don’t end happily, they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously — either in the film itself or in their lives before the events in the story take place.

And, yes, Deadwood — the series — is one of my favorite Westerns of all times, and can read about it in detail in No One Gets Out Alive, but it’s a series, and I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere. This group of five westerns originally appeared in a post about my top 10 Westerns, but I shortened that post to update it, including trailers and availability, and dividing it into two posts so that people might have a chance to explore the films without feeling overwhelmed. The original films #10-6 are now in I’m Your Huckleberry: 5 More Top Westerns. Here are my top Westerns.

The Wild Bunch
(1969)

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Sam Pekinpah’s epic 1969 Western The Wild Bunch deals with an aging gang of gunfighters, on the Texas-Mexico border, trying to cope with the “modern” world (of 1913), in which they have become obsolete. The Wild Bunch has a stellar cast, including William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Ernest Borgnine, all giving outstanding performances.

Controversial because of its graphic violence and its morally dubious characters, the film has nevertheless secured its place among top Westerns, and is considered “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute. It was also nominated for many awards, winning several.

Its famous portrayal of obsolete icons attempting to survive, by any means possible, reflects all aspects of any culture that gets overtaken by progress and technology. Since many settlers in this country went West to escape the culture and “laws” of the East, The Wild Bunch is a brilliantly ironic commentary on when the West itself became overrun by “civilization.”

The Wild Bunch is available to rent for $3.99 from Amazon, and YouTube.


Lonesome Dove
(1989)

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Based on the best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove is not a film but a mini-series, and when it came out in 1989, it was considered an incredibly ambitious project. It garnered praise, high viewership, and was credited with “reviving” the mini-series genre.

Filled with big-name stars like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Ricky Schroeder, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, Chris Cooper, Barry Corbin, Frederick Forrest, and Robert Urich, the story covers partners’ Gus (Duvall) and Call (Jones) cattle-drive from the virtually deserted Texas town of Lonesome Dove to an “Eden-like” Montana (where none of them has been), encountering many hardships and disasters along the way.

A coming-of-age story involving the younger characters, which contains the Archetypes of the Journey as well as the “Wise Old Man” passing on his knowledge to the worthy younger hero(es), this Western classic also has what few others have: strong female characters.

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Though the roles of Clara (Huston) and Lorie (Lane) are subordinate to those of most of the minor male characters, they’re still essential to the storyline. Their characters force the males to become more than cowboys, and add depth and richness to this powerful exploration of the American West and its familiar themes in Westerns.

Lonesome Dove is available for purchase from Amazon (4 part mini-series, $2.99 each episode or $9.99  for all 4 episodes) and for streaming with Hulu. Free for Starz subscribers. (Note: This trailer is for the 20th anniversary of the award-winning series.)


Son of the Morning Star
(1991)

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Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Evan S. Connell, this is one of the best treatments (book & two-part mini-series) of the morally ambiguous George Armstrong Custer (Gary Cole) during the Plains Indian Wars, ending with the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Unique because it tells the story from two perspectives, that of the whites and of the Native Americans, it is narrated by Custer’s wife Libbie (Rosanna Arquette) as well as by Kate Bighead (voice of Buffy Saint-Marie), the mini-series also stars Rodney Grant as Crazy Horse, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Sitting Bull.

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Closely following the original book in one of the most balanced portrayals of the Indian Wars, the Fetterman Massacre, and the Battle of Little Big Horn, where Custer’s defeat increased the US government’s determination to eliminate all Indians who were not “imprisoned” on reservations, Son of the Morning Star — despite its title’s allusion to Lucifer and his rebellion against God — is an excellent example of Hollywood’s ability to honestly evaluate and portray its subjugation of America’s native peoples, its confiscation of their lands, and their justified outrage and retaliation.

(Apologies: There is no official trailer for Son of the Morning Star and, alas, it does not seem to be available for online viewing. The only copies for purchase at Amazon are VHS and one non-region-1, i.e., non-US, Spanish DVD.)


Duck, You Sucker
(1971)

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Directed by Sergio Leone, this is one of those Westerns that doesn’t have cowboys, horses, or cattle. And it takes place in Mexico during its Revolution rather than in the American West. But there are lots of guns, explosions, and battles; a bang-up score by Ennio Morricone, and stellar performances by James Coburn, as the outlaw Irish Revolutionary Seán (John) Mallory trying to “get it right” in Mexico, and by Rod Steiger as Mexican thief and father to a large family Juan Miranda, who doesn’t want anything to do with the Revolution because he just wants to fulfill his life’s dream of robbing the biggest bank he’s ever heard of: the Mesa Verde National Bank.

Despite the film’s constantly being edited (too politically sensitive, too violent, too much profanity), despite its being marketed variously as a comedy or a satire of westerns (it’s neither), despite its rather strange title, which is apparently a bad translation of the Italian Giù la Testa, and despite the film’s subsequent release under various titles such as A Fistful of Dynamite (Irish John is an explosives expert, and the alternate title is an allusion to Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars), and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution (since it is considered the second film of Leone’s trilogy which contains Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America), this film — the last Western Leone directed — is one of his best.

Bear in mind that I’m saying that as a huge Clint Eastwood fan, one who grew up more familiar with Clint and Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” than with some of the Hollywood classic Westerns.

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What makes Duck, You Sucker one of the best  is the chemistry between Coburn and Steiger who, as “John and Juan” form a bond that forces each of their characters to change. The experienced intellectual John begins to see the human element in any revolution while the cynical and amoral Juan, who initially cannot be trusted by anyone, stops thinking of himself and his own selfish gain, learning to care about his family as individuals (he doesn’t even know how many sons he has in the beginning of the film),  his friend John, and his country.

Despite its setting, Leone claimed he never intended the film to be political, and despite its setting, Leone succeeded, due in large part to the chemistry between its stars. Coburn and Steiger make you believe in their evolving friendship and commitment to each other, not just as voluntary/involuntary revolutionaries, respectively, but as people. No longer physical or emotional loners, they become genuinely attached to each other.

The film’s original reception was lukewarm, but it has gained popularity in recent years. Justifiably so, since its excellent treatment of the themes of the individual vs. society, loyalty to personal codes of conduct and honor, private justice, wandering protagonists, and conquering the Wilderness are all prominent in the Western genre.

Duck, You Sucker is available from for $2.99  Amazon and for $3.99 (under the title A Fistful of Dynamite) from iTunes.


Unforgiven
(1992)

images-9One of the darkest Westerns ever made, dealing frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and how, when glamorized, violence makes “myths” and “legends” out of trigger-happy drunkards and bullies, Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, as “retired gunfighter” William Munny, takes the prize for the best Western.

In Unforgiven, the simplistic myths of the Old West are revealed for the complex combination of lies, exaggeration, and terrible truths that they are. Archetypes abound, but in stunning new ways. The “Kid” (Jamz Woolvett) who wants to attain fame by killing some “cowboys who cut up some whore,” recruits master gunfighter William Munny (Eastwood) “who’s killed women and children” and who repeatedly claims that he “ain’t like that no more” to help him track down the “bad guys.” Munny brings along his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) who, though surprised by the request, thinks the reward money might come in handy keeping his farm solvent.

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Nothing goes as expected, because this is a Western that shows the truth about the Old West. In the town of Big Whiskey, the trio meets iron-fisted Sherriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman, in an Oscar-winning performance), who has already beaten, humiliated, and banished one hired gunman, English Bob (Richard Harris, in a minor but memorable role) who came to claim the reward money for getting vengeance for the “cut-up whore.”

Honest about violence, humorous and satirical at times, Unforgiven displays the best that the Western can offer: it is a tribute to the genre even as it illuminates its flaws, a loving and respectful homage that never loses sight of the danger of a life without rules, as well as the moral vacuity of  a life ruled by killing others, sometimes for reward money, sometimes for dubious fame, sometimes for no reason at all. Or, as Eastwood’s Munny states, “not for any reason I could remember once I sobered up.”

Unforgivenis available from Amazon and YouTube, and for purchase only ($14.99) in iTunes. Free for subscribers of Sundance Channel.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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