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Non-Review Review: News of the World

News of the World is a gentle and sweet modern western, albeit more than a little disjointed.

Adapted from Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same name, News of the World is essentially an update on the classic western template exemplified by The Searchers. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a veteran of the Civil War who makes his living travelling through the Southern United States, reading the news to assembled crowds. On one journey, Kidd comes across a carriage that has been destroyed. Its driver has been killed, and its sole occupant – a young girl – abandoned.

“Jo, hanna! Time to go!”

Kidd determines that the young girl is named Johanna. She was taken from her parents when she was very young and raised by the Kiowa tribe. She was recently recovered, and the army is attempting to send her back to her last surviving relatives. Of course, with her escort killed and the Union forces scattered trying to manage Reconstruction, Kidd finds himself tasked with caring for the young woman and ferrying her across the nation to reunite her with her mother’s extended family.

There’s a surprising and endearing warmth to News of the World, which largely comes from casting Tom Hanks in the lead role. In some ways, this feels like the movie’s most telling update to that classic western formula, replacing John Wayne’s true grit with Tom Hanks’ hanksian decency. News of the World is perhaps a little too episodic and too uneven for its own good, occasionally feeling like a more mainstream counterpart to something like The Sisters Brothers, but it works largely thanks to the central performances of Tom Hanks and his co-star Helena Zengel.

Horsing around.

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“There’s Nobody Here to See Us”: The Untamed Frontier in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Goodfellas. This week, we’re looking at Casino. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1995 gangster classic.

When Casino was released, it experienced something of a minor backlash.

Part of this backlash was motivated by the film’s perceived similarities to Goodfellas – Scorsese had made another soundtrack-heavy period-piece mob movie starring both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, adapted from the work of Nicholas Pileggi. To a certain extent, this was fair. There were legitimate concerns that Scorsese was simply repeating himself, and that any comparisons to Goodfellas did not flatter Casino.

These problems were compounded by content. At time of release, Casino was Scorsese’s longest movie, clocking in at just shy of three hours. That is a lot of mobster movie, particularly if that movie felt in anyway derivative of the appreciably shorter Goodfellas. There were also rumblings of the movie’s brutality and violence, which was seen as being particularly excessive and graphic. These complaints circulated even before Casino hit cinemas. Peter Travers summarised the mood, “Even before Casino opened, the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.”

However, time has been kind to Casino. Although the film undoubtedly still exists in the shadow of Goodfellas, it has come to be recognised as one of the great crime films and to merit some appreciation on its own terms. Casino is a fascinating piece of work. It is bold and ambitious, epic and sweeping. However, what is most striking about Casino is not how it compares to Goodfellas, but how it contrasts. The differences are instructive.

Casino is often categorised as a mob movie, and it is definitely that. It is a story about gangsters and organised crime. However, it is also a western. It is perhaps the closest that Scorsese has come to making a traditional western in his entire cinematography. More than that, while Goodfellas is anchored in the character of Henry Hill, Casino lacks a similar hook. Both Sam and Nicky are much more oblique characters than Henry; Sam is less proactive, and Nicky is much more brutal. They are harder to invest in, tougher to root for.

However, this allows Casino to take a much wider view of this world and the people that inhabit it. Casino is arguably a religious parable, a story about mankind’s destruction of paradise and the inevitable exile that followed. In that sense, Casino feels like more of a bridge between Goodfellas and Scorsese’s more overtly religious-tinged parables like Bringing Out the Dead or Silence than it initially seemed. This is a story about heaven on earth, and the fallen sinful human beings who turn that heaven into a nightmarish hell.

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195. The Third Man (#177)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Neasa Hardiman, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Holly Martins arrives in Vienna to visit his old friend Harry Lime. However, Holly quickly discovers that all is not what it seems. Harry apparently died in a freak traffic accident shortly before Harry arrived. As British officers start asking pointed questions about the dead man, Holly becomes increasingly anxious that something has gone very wrong.

At time of recording, it was ranked 177th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” and the Frontier as a Prison…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. This week, we’re trying something a little outside the usual remit of the column, with a huge thanks to editor Nick Calandra for encouraging it.

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale remains one of the most harrowing and uncomfortable films that I ever seen. It’s brutal and horrifying, but in a way that is very deliberate and very pointed. Kent is effectively playing off the tropes and conventions of the western, but playing with the way in which these stories are told. Kent imagines the frontier not as the embodiment of freedom or potential, but instead as a prison in which all of its characters are trapped.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

It’s very lucid,” notes a supporting character of the eponymous text.

The young teacher has just read the introductory paragraph of a letter that outlaw Ned Kelly has prepared for his son, a way of sharing the truth of events with his heir. Kelly will subsequently bind the paper to himself, wrapping it to his midsection beneath plates of metal armour. That same teacher will later ruminate on the blood-stained documents, dismissing Kelly’s story as nothing more than “the ravings of a madman.” Perhaps both statements are true. Perhaps the letter is more true for the fact that it is incoherent and existential poetry.

True History of the Kelly Gang prefaces its title with a warning to the audience that “nothing you’re about to see is true.” The word “true” then serves as a bridge from that preamble into the movie itself, lingering on the screen long enough to be incorporated into the no-frills titlecard for True History of the Kelly Gang. Truth and fiction linger and intersect, contradictions rippling through the finished film. Watching True History of the Kelly Gang, one gets a sense of how these contradictory statements can each be accurate in their own way.

True History of the Kelly Gang is both a vivid waking dream and a complete narrative mess, simultaneously.

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Non-Review Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale arrives as Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook, and represents a slightly different sort of horror.

The Babadook was one of the best horror films of the decade, a creeping and unsettling look at a mother’s depression as she tried to work through her complicated feelings towards her own son. The Nightingale is something quite different, essentially a frontier western about a woman who sets out to avenge herself upon the British soldiers who inflicted a terrible suffering upon her and her family. As Clare tracks these men through the wilderness with an aboriginal guide named Billy, she finds herself confronted with the true nightmares of colonial Australia.

Eyes frontier.

The Nightingale belongs to a rich tradition of Australian westerns including modern classics like The Proposal, stories that play on the frontier myth and explore the country’s deeply troubled and unsettled history. Kent’s direction is tense and claustrophobic, refusing to ever let the audience look away from the horrors inflicted upon the continent by the European settlers who presumed to claim it as their own. The Nightingale is a bleak and cynical piece of film, one that is occasionally suffocating and dizzying in its portrayal of man’s capacity for inhumanity.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of The Nightingale is how – for all its unflinching brutality and refusal to offer trite sentimentality – the film advances an argument for intersectionalism. As Clare journeys deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness, she discovers that the suffering inflicted upon her and her family is just one expression of a more primal and insidious violence, and that perhaps she has more in common with Billy than she might originally think.

Not so hot to trot.

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Non-Review Review: Little Woods

Little Woods is a slow and somber film that never rushes, perhaps because it understands that its characters have no place to go.

There’s a strong central irony built into Little Woods, a story that unfolds against the north-western frontier of Washington State. Ollie lives on what is effectively the edge of the frontier, that great American wilderness. However, manifest destiny has not delivered. The frontier is not as vast as it might seem. Instead, Ollie finds herself trapped on the edges, pressed against the limits of the United States. Little Woods is a story about the boundaries on the extremes of the American Dream. It is no coincidence that Nia DaCosta’s theatrical debut opens and closes at the Canadian border; it is a story of character who are pressed and squeezed against the margins, at the end of everything that they know.

The circumstances Tessa-t her.

There is a compelling stillness to Little Woods, anchored in a fantastic central performance from Tessa Thompson. Little Woods works well in several different modes: as a character study, as a crime drama, as a frontier story. The film is suspenseful when it needs to be, capable of making the audience squirm when it wants them to. However, it is most effective in its relative stillness. Little Woods never feels sensationalist or absurd. It never feels exploitative or stylised. Instead, there is something very effectively grounded and mundane in the portrait that the film traces of those people trapped on the margins. There is something very matter-of-fact about the way in which Little Woods portrays the choices (or, more importantly, the lack of choices) afforded its characters.

Little Woods is an evocative, effective and atmospheric about characters living in a liminal space.

Sister act.

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Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a set of stories about the Old West, more a set of stories about the stories that are told about the Old West.

To be fair, the anthology film wears this premise on its sleeve. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by its nature an omnibus of short stories, drawing its audience’s attention to the format through the framing device of an anonymous hand leafing gently through an old hardcover book of short stories. Even within the individual stories, the Coen Brothers frequently nest smaller and more intricate narratives; whether stories shared at dinner, great works recited for an enchanted audience, or even just strangers in a stage coach making awkward conversation with one another.

The rifle man.

In the film’s final segment, The Mortal Remains, the self-described “distractor” Thigpen explains that he distracts his quarry through stories. “People can’t get enough of them,” he assures his audience. “Because people connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us… but not us.” In its own weird way, positioned at the tail end of the narrative, Thigpen seems to offer something of a thesis statement for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a story about stories. In particular, a story about certain types of stories.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is decidedly uneven, as anthology films tend to be. That said, the quality is high enough (and the stories disparate enough) that it’s easy to imagine that each story of the six might be someone‘s favourite. The Coen Brothers very cannily and very astutely ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny. However, they are connected by a series of recurring preoccupations about life of the frontier and man’s awkward relationship to both that wilderness and his fellow man.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not consistent enough to rank among the Coens’ best work. While the movie maintains a consistent perspective and philosophical vantage point across its two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, the individual stories vary so wildly in terms of aesthetic and rhythm that the film never quite coheres as well as it might. At the same time, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains enough delightful details in its smaller moments that linger, suggesting that the film might best be remembered as a collection of inspired moments rather than as a satisfying whole.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a ballad as a concept album.

Don’t leave him hanging.

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82. Yojimbo (#113)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guest Chris Lavery, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

A wandering masterless samurai arrives in a small town divided between two rival gangs. Cannily and skillfully manipulating these opposing forces, the samurai sets about ensuring that he might be the only winner in this bitter turf war.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 113th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Django Unchained and Tarantino Off the Chain….

Django Unchained is one of the most quietly influential movies of the twenty-first century.

It feels strange to acknowledge that fact, to say it out loud. On paper, it sounds absurd. Django Unchained is an R-rated western that deals with slavery in the manner of an exploitation film, released at Christmas. It is a movie that is downright abrasive, in terms of both tone and content. On the one hand, it is cheeky and provocative, playful and flippant; it is hyperstylised, from the Ennio Morricone score to the camera zooms to the bright flourishes of colour. It is also so violent and brutal that it is difficult to watch, even having seen the film before and knowing when the horrors are coming.

However, the film was a box office success. It earned over one hundred and sixty million dollars at the domestic box office, and more than two hundred and sixty million dollars at the foreign box office. More than that, it became a cultural touchstone. Jamie Foxx would reprise the role of Django in A Million Ways to Die in the West. The character would appear in a number of licensed comic book adaptations, including a crossover with Zorro published by Dynamite and Vertigo publishing.

The influence of Django Unchained is subtler than that. It is a film that shifted the conversation on the popular history of the United States. It did not do this alone, and it is hard to argue whether it was part of a broader cultural shift or simply a reaction to it. Nevertheless, Django Unchained coincided with a massive shift in how popular culture engaged with American history. Its impact is felt in the strangest of places, from the blending of horror movie conventions with a western aesthetic in films like The Revenant or Bone Tomahawk to the sounds of Kanye West playing over the opening scenes of Underground.

There had been movies about slavery before; indeed, Django Unchained was released roughly contemporaneously with both Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave. However, there had never been a movie about slavery like this. The western genre had been greatly diminished before Django Unchained was released, but it was profoundly changed in its wake. After Django Unchained, it seemed to become impossible to construct a western without reference to the atrocities upon which the west had been won.

Django Unchained argued that these horrors weren’t just one version of the story, but instead an essential part of the overall story of the frontier and the nation. Sofia Coppola’s refusal to confront slavery in The Beguiled became a minor controversy. Even Hostiles confronted the genocide of the Native Americans. There were westerns that avoided these controversies in the intervening years, but they became fewer and further between. Indeed, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is perhaps most notable for the ill-judged scene in which its only major African American character attempts to lynch the white lead.

Still, even approaching Django Unchained more than half a decade removed from its release, it remains a fascinating and compelling piece of cinema. It is a genuinely provocative piece of cinema, one designed to challenge and upset the audience. However, the true beauty of the film lies as much in its contours and finer details as it does in the broad strokes, in the little touches that enrich and enlighten the finished product. In particular, the sense that Tarantino understands the precarious nature of what he is attempting, despite the somewhat flippant attitude towards violence and bloodshed.

This sense of consideration and reflection is perhaps best explored in the character of King Schultz, who is positioned quite cannily as a deconstruction of the familiar white saviour trope.

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