SADDLE SONGS: Concrete Cowboy composer Kevin Matley talks the Idris Elba-starring Western

By Jedd Jong

Photo credit: Jeff Marsh

When one thinks of Westerns, open, dusty plains and the late 19th Century American frontier usually come to mind. Concrete Cowboy is a Western of a different stripe: as its title suggests, its setting is a contemporary urban environment.

Idris Elba stars as Harp, a cowboy who is part of the Fletcher Street Riding Club in a Northern Philadelphia town. Caleb McLaughlin, best known as Lucas on Stranger Things, plays Harp’s estranged son Cole. After he gets kicked out of school for fighting, Cole is sent to live with Harp, and the troubled young man is gradually inducted into the unique urban cowboy way of life.

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Idris Elba as Harp and Caleb McLaughlin as Cole. Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri and is directed by Philadelphia-based filmmaker Ricky Staub. Staub was inspired to research the Fletcher Street Riding Club, a nonprofit city horsemanship organisation, when he looked out his office window and saw a horse and buggy rolling down the street. The movie shines a light on the little-known subculture of modern-day Black cowboys scattered across America, and real-life members of the Fletcher Street Riding Club appear in the movie. The film also stars Jharrel Jerome, Lorraine Toussaint and Clifford “Method Man” Smith.

Elba is also a co-producer on the film, alongside Lee Daniels, creator of the TV series Empire and director of films including Precious, The Butler, and The United States vs Billie Holliday.

Photo credit: Amber Zbitnoff

The film’s soundtrack, which The Hollywood Reporter calls “a soulful score with subtle Western accents,” is composed by Kevin Matley, whose credits include the documentaries Kifaru and Mudbloods and the short films Still Here and The Cage. Matley’s work can be heard in commercials for brands including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Coca Cola, Ferrari and Adidas.

Speaking exclusively to F***, Matley shared about capturing the sound of the Fletcher Street Riding Club, creating a Western score while avoiding the cliches associated with the genre, his childhood interest in film music, what it was like collaborating with director Staub, and what he’s working on next. 

F*** MAGAZINE: Hi, Kevin, thank you so much for speaking to us, please tell us about how you came to be involved in this film. 
 
KEVIN MATLEY: I came to work on the film because the director and I go way back, we’ve worked on a handful of projects together, [including] a short film that did fairly decent in the festival circuit. And he sent me the script and I loved the concept; I fell in love with the story. Ricky Staub is the director and he co-wrote it with Dan Walser, one of the producers of the film. 
 
How would you describe your working relationship with Ricky Staub and how different was it going from a short to a feature; as I understand, this is his first feature?
 
Yeah, it’s funny, it was actually just kind of like an extended version. I mean we really connected right off the bat, when we started working together. He has a very keen sense of what he likes and doesn’t like, and I have gotten to know over the years of working with him pretty quickly what he doesn’t like, which is really, really helpful. And so, my process is I would write these little vignettes and pieces and send it to him, and then we slowly kind of work back and forth until it was something that we both really liked. That was pretty much the whole trajectory of the score, [it] was just a lot of back and forth, a lot of conversation.

You’ve worked on several documentaries. What are the differences in composing for narrative features versus a documentary?
 
I’m not sure if I have too much of a difference in my approach. Obviously, each film has a different musical genre, a different sort of world or creating different tones and temperatures, but I think that my goal is always to enhance and express the sort of unspoken emotion of the characters and let their dialogue tell the viewer what they’re thinking, and I tell them what they’re feeling. And so, real or fake, fiction, nonfiction, comedy, action, drama I think my approach is always the same: how do I tell the story of the film through music?

Photo credit: Oguz Uygur

Growing up, what made you interested in becoming a film composer?
 
It’s funny, I got into it really before you could just Google and find out names of composers. I was pretty young, so I started arranging some music with my brother’s guitars when I was pretty young, and sort of fell in love with the idea of creating music that way. And then, I started to notice music in film around the same age. I would actually pay less attention to the narrative, and more attention to how the music was affecting the characters and how it was affecting me. And I just really love the idea of how music and narrative together could create something so powerful.
 
So you were already interacting with movies as a composer might.
 
Yeah, long before I knew how to write music [laughs].
 
One of the things that Concrete Cowboy is about is how it’s important as a young person to have a community around you; oftentimes a community made up of people who have similar hobbies and interests to you. Was that something that you had with other composers or musicians growing up?
 
That’s a really good question. Really nothing, I mean, composers are kind of a mixed bag of people. I have my little hobbies and interests and composers that I know are interested in many different things. I think for me personally, as a music writer and just kind of an obsessive personality, I have to have things that sort of distract me from that so I can step away. I really love playing golf, I love photography, I love American football. And so, I think all of us composers are kind of similar in that, where we have to have things that can take our mind off of making music, so I think that’s probably a good similarity between all of us. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Ivannah-Mercedes as Esha, Lorraine Toussaint as Nessi, Idris Elba as Harp, Caleb McLaughlin as Cole, Jamil “Mil” Prattis as Paris and Cliff “Method Man” Smith as Leroy. Cr: Jessica Kourkounis / Netflix © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is set in a very interesting subculture that not a lot of people know about. How did you sonically capture the world of the Fletcher Street Riding Club?  
 
Great question. I really wanted to have a score that not only spoke to the emotion of the characters and what they were feeling, but also one that created the same world that Ricky was creating aesthetically. Ricky’s style is very visceral and very surreal and also very gritty, and so I wanted music that matched that. I wanted kind of a lush ambient sound with organic human[ity], just raw emotion on top of it. And to me, I think that that is that world, there’s so much passion with those people and what they’re doing with helping kids to get off the streets. And it’s just an amazing, amazing culture. 

Photo credit: Jeff Marsh

When we think of a Western a particular sound and style of music comes to mind and Concrete Cowboy is not a conventional Western. How did you play with that expectation in the music that you composed for this film? 
 
Yeah, also a great question. We kind of went through a few different styles before we landed on what was actually working. What we didn’t want to have was a traditional Spaghetti Western sound – I kind of toyed with that a little bit and it ‘cheesifies’ things.  
 
You didn’t want it to get too pastiche.  
 
Yeah, we didn’t want it to be cliche or kind of kitschy so we ended up trying to focus more on these people as human beings, and just aesthetic and visuals, and create that world and not think about “What are we trying to force here with this being a cowboy world?”
 
I listened to the score and I love the melancholic dignity in the horns.

Oh, thank you!

You’re welcome. I feel like that reflects how the Fletcher Street Riders are like the last of their kind, there’s kind of a twilight, because their way of life is being threatened by gentrification. Could you tell us about how you arrived at that?

I love that you said that; that’s really, really cool. 
 
Thank you!
 
It’s funny, a lot of the [score is] kind of focused on solo instruments. I feel like there’s a vulnerability to that that I was really after. There’s just something about trumpet in particular that to me is just so soulful, it’s almost like a voice, and I really wanted something like that, that I could use throughout the film. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Idris Elba as Harp and Caleb McLaughlin as Cole Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is a film about a father-son relationship, and it’s also about the bonds that humans form with animals. How did you express these themes in the music?
 
I think I was focused mostly on the father-son relationship. I really wanted the melodies to have, like what you said, sort of a melancholy feel to them. Cole comes from essentially a broken family and I think that there’s a lot of vulnerability to him, he’s sort of drawn into these two worlds: a life of crime, and then this other life that is giving him hope. To me, I just wanted melodies and instrumentation that reflected that.
 
The movie had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2020. Was the music recorded under lockdown conditions and if so how did you navigate that logistically?
 
It was actually all recorded before lockdown. It’s funny, we, we recorded the score in January of 2020, in Seattle, Washington, and I did a handful of more sessions and at that point, we had been hearing what was going on in China, then when we went down to Burbank to finish the post, the news was starting to break out and I think a handful of cases broke out in Washington around that time. When I flew home, the film was completely wrapped and that’s when everything sort of broke out. 

Photo credit: Oguz Uygur

Have you been working on other film projects during lockdown?
 
I haven’t been working on film projects, but I’ve just been focusing on a lot of family time, and then writing some personal records. 
 
What kinds of films do you hope to work on in the future, are there any specific genres or styles that you’d like to work in?
 
Well I will tell you one that I am going to work on it’s, it’s a documentary [called Between the Rains] about these two Kenyan tribes that have been at war for the last couple of decades, and it follows a young boy from one of the tribes, basically being raised as a warrior, and he’s just not a warrior, and it deals with global warming and the water runs out and they’re fighting over that. And it’s just a really powerful documentary and it’s with a buddy of mine, [producer] Andrew [Harrison Brown] who’s just shot it, and he and I worked together on a previous documentary called Kifaru. And so I love telling these stories. I love Kenyans; I got to meet some of the guys from the last film and I got to work with some Kenyan singers on the score and it’s a blast. I love documentaries, it’s a wonderful genre. 
 
It strikes me as something where there is perhaps more of an emphasis on authenticity or audiences might be more aware if something rings false to them, and then there’s extra work to do in research, in trying to make sure that you are being authentic in the sound you’re creating. 
 
Mm hmm, yeah, absolutely. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Caleb McLaughlin as Cole and Jharrel Jerome as Smush. Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Finally, what do you hope audiences take away after watching Concrete Cowboy? 
 
If anything, people can see that these people are real people. It’s not just in Philadelphia, it’s around the country, and they’re doing good, and because of gentrification and a lot of different reasons, some of these tables are getting shut down, and it’s really sad. So if anybody is moved to take action and support or raise awareness, then I think that would be awesome. 

Concrete Cowboy begins streaming on Netflix April 2.

Hostiles movie review

For inSing

HOSTILES

Director : Scott Cooper
Cast : Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Q’orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet
Genre : Adventure/Drama/Western
Run Time : 2h 14m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : NC-16

Over years and years of westerns, it’s been ingrained in popular culture that ‘Cowboys = good, Indians = bad’. While there have been several films in the past that have attempted to redress this balance, there have been far from enough, and Native American history is often misinterpreted, glossed over or otherwise done a disservice in Hollywood movies. Hostiles is writer-director Scott Cooper’s take on this.

It is 1892, and Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), who is about to retire from the military, receives his final mission, by order of President Harrison. Blocker is to escort the elderly Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his homeland of Bear Valley, Montana. Also in the party are Yellow Hawk’s son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk’s wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) and the couple’s son. Many of Blocker’s men had died at Yellow Hawk’s hands, hence Blocker’s resistance in aiding Chief in any way.

Along the way, Blocker and his men encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a widow whose family was brutally murdered by Comanche warriors. Rosalie joins Blocker and company, but the road to Montana will not be a smooth one. Along the way, they must brave attacks from warring tribes, fend off avaricious fur trappers, and escort treacherous prisoner Philip Wills (Ben Foster) north. Blocker must try to forgive, or at least tolerate, a man whom he has spent much of his life hating, as each learns to see the other’s point of view.

Hostiles is based on an unproduced manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, which Cooper has adapted for the screen. This is a downbeat, uncompromisingly brutal film. Given the subject matter, it should be a degree of grave, but Hostiles just wears the audience down, never providing even the briefest moment of levity. One gets the impression that the film functions more as a political statement than as a story. Its heart is in the right place, but there is still considerable nuance left unmined, the result being occasionally clumsy.

The characters are fleshed out reasonably well and are given dialogue that is never painfully on-the-nose. They are all weighed down by something or another, and while there are moments that approach poignancy, Hostiles often feels more like a slog than an involving, powerful drama.

Christian Bale has repeatedly proven over his career that he’s a dab hand at playing the tortured hero. Blocker is someone whose hatred of Native Americans is deep-seated and intertwined with painful events from his past. We see that despite how Blocker has hardened his heart, he is still capable of great empathy and compassion, which he directs towards Rosalie. This is an expectedly intense performance from a famously intense actor, but the character’s arc is all too predictable.

Pike’s portrayal of a woman who has barely survived an unthinkable trauma and is now at her breaking point is heart-rending and wince-inducing in the right ways. It can be argued that Rosalie has the most compelling personal arc in the film, and it’s a role that Pike bites into. However, we know it won’t be long before the film suggests (at the very least) a romance between Rosalie and Blocker, with this relationship becoming the film’s emotional centre.

While Studi lends a quiet, stern authority to the Yellow Hawk role, the film does not give him equal power to Blocker in deciding the direction of the narrative. The Comanche are depicted as villains, with the Cheyenne as the film’s heroes. The film ostensibly wants to undo the old dichotomy of heroic cowboys and villainous Indians, but still needs ‘savages’ for audiences to root against. Kilcher spends most of the film silent and with her head bowed, and the film would have benefitted from giving the Native American characters more agency in the narrative.

The supporting roles are all inhabited with sufficient authenticity, but as with many films of this type, Hostiles struggles to make Blocker’s men seem distinct. Rory Cochrane conveys a distant hauntedness, Blocker shares a sincere, tearful moment with his right-hand man Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), and Ben Foster gets to play quite the scoundrel, but the motley crew isn’t sufficiently memorable.

Even as it unfolds against sweeping landscapes and features actors giving the material their best, Hostiles feels considerably longer than its 135 minutes. While it’s clear that the film is made with noble intentions, its still encumbered by certain trappings of the Western genre, and doesn’t the deliver the depth which it promises.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

OPEN THE FLOODGATES: James Marsden regales F*** with tales from Westworld

For F*** Magazine

OPEN THE FLOODGATES
James Marsden regales F*** with tales from Westworld
By Jedd Jong 30/11/16

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HBO’s sci-fi drama series Westworld has riveted viewers across the globe. Sure, the violence and sexuality we’ve come to expect from the premium cable channel has raised some eyebrows. However, the show’s heady existential questions, gut-punch twists and commentary on how humanity coexists with technology have provoked much thought. The show, based on the Michael Crichton film of the same name, expands on and updates the ideas explored in the 1973 movie.

James Marsden, who was in Singapore to promote the show’s 90-minute-long season finale, spoke to F*** and other journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel. The actor is known for his role as Cyclops in the X-Men franchise, as Prince Edward in Enchanted and Jack Lime in Anchorman 2. In Westworld, Marsden plays gunslinger Teddy Flood, who yearns for a quiet life with Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) the farmer’s daughter, but whose programming says otherwise. Teddy and Dolores are two of many ‘hosts’ who populate the titular amusement park. Human guests shed their inhibitions as they immerse themselves in a vivid recreation of the American Old West, indulging their darkest inclinations without real-world consequences.

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The series’ characters can be divided into “upstairs”, those who live in or visit the park, and “downstairs”, those involved in running it. “Upstairs” characters include Ed Harris as the enigmatic Man in Black, Jimmi Simpson as reluctant visitor William, Ben Barnes as William’s hedonistic friend Logan and Thandie Newton as Madame Maeve Millay. “Downstairs” is populated by Anthony Hopkins as the park’s creator Dr. Robert Ford, Jeffrey Wright as programming head Bernard Lowe, Sidse Babett Knudsen as Quality Assurance head Theresa Cullen, Tessa Thompson as Westworld board member Charlotte Hale and Luke Hemsworth as director of security Stubbs.

Westworld boasts an all-star creative team too, with screenwriters Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan and Lisa Joy serving as showrunners. Nolan created Person of Interest and his big screen credits include Interstellar and The Dark Knight, both of which he collaborated on with brother Christopher. Joy has written for Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice. J.J. Abrams, current poster child for mainstream geek culture, is an executive producer.

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Marsden remained tight-lipped about whether Teddy will figure in the show’s second season or not, but offered this tantalising hint: “he won’t be target practice forever, let’s just say that.”

This marked Marsden’s first visit to Singapore, which he described as “a vibrant city with a great vibe”. He shared about his experiences acting opposite Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, what it’s like getting naked for the show, the training he undertook to play a cowboy and how much he really knows about where the series is headed.

The following interview contains mild spoilers for the first 9 episodes of Westworld Season 1.

Let’s say that one of your fellow cast-members actually is a robot. Who’s the first one you’d suspect?

That’s a funny question! I don’t know how to answer that without making the person seem dull! I’ll put a positive spin on it. I would say there are some actors who have to stay in character in-between takes, they have to do that method approach, then there are some actors when the cameras roll, they know their lines, they do it perfectly, and every take is brilliant. They do it with perfection, precision, and then when we cut they tell stories. That’s Anthony Hopkins, probably. Because he is so gifted at what he does and so perfect, such a fine-tuned instrument, I would say in that regard he would probably be the one I would think is…a robot. Hopefully, that’s in a positive way. Make sure you put that in there too, I don’t want Anthony Hopkins to see [the headline] “James Thinks Anthony is a Robot!”

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What was it like being naked in front of Anthony Hopkins?

I find the best thing with Westworld is to dive in and go for it. If you have any apprehension or if you hesitate, it’s not as fun. Evan, Thandie, Rodrigo, all of us, we all at one point or another end up nude on the table talking to people. It’s just part of the beast. It’s part of the character that you’re playing. I don’t know, I guess you learn not to be too shy in this business.

Did you reference any sci-fi films in preparing to play Teddy?

Ex Machina had just come out…the year we did the pilot. I just thought it was a perfect movie; that was my favourite film of that year. I thought it was just classic science fiction. Cerebral, thought-provoking, a good commentary of where we’re going with A.I. and just brilliantly acted and directed. That was just interesting to watch, Alicia Vikander.

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We were definitely doing our own thing with Westworld, and Jonah and Lisa had their own thing, their own specific way they wanted to approach playing these characters. Their main direction was “you’re human. Play this as you would a human. If there’s moments where I need you to show you’re a robot, I’ll let you know. If there’s a moment where I want you to register a shift in an idea or a trajectory, I’ll ask for it, and you give me that.” So he’s masterfully coming in and adjusting us here and there. For the most part, you approach these characters as if they were real. They should be indistinguishable from humans.

What are Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy like as showrunners and writers?

Some of the most supportive people I’ve ever worked with. With a show like this, you really need to dive in and take a leap of faith. I think that goes for any project as an actor, it’s all about having trust, and that’s not always something that you feel with a director or a showrunner. You sometimes can question if you have different opinions on how the scene should unfold, and maybe sometimes disagree, but with Jonah and Lisa, we were always in agreement. We would always follow suit, and we knew they had a very specific vision. I just wanted to, every day, give them that.

They’re also some of the most gregarious and wonderfully warm people to work for as well. They’re terrific, and they want this to be as smart, multi-layered and deep as it can be. Sometimes, when you’re making something really special or intricate and complicated, it‘s not easy. That, to me, is the mark of a good show or a good film, or a painting, whatever it is. It’s never going to be easy. I always worry when it’s too easy, if there are no hiccups or bumps along the way, I always get concerned.

They wanted to get it perfect. If you’ve seen the show up until now, you’ll realise that this is a very complicated show. It’s not a show that you can be on your phone texting and chatting with your friends while you’re watching it. You need to pay attention, but when you do, the rewards of that are so big. Audiences are savvy now. They’re smart, and they know how films are made. Jonah wanted to give them something really unique, and I love to be in his field of gravity. I love the way he thinks, I love the way Lisa thinks as well, they want it to be a great show and they take care of their actors, they’re very generous that way. Couldn’t ask to work for better people.

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How much did you know of the trajectory of the story, and how much were you kept in the dark?

We only knew what was happening when we got the script, before we started shooting the script. What I mean by that is when we were doing episode #1 or #2, I had no idea what #3 or #4 was, I had no idea where it was going. Jonah and Lisa would answer your questions, but they would always remain very vague – not that they were trying to keep information from us. They only wanted us to focus on what was necessary at the time. To that end, we would sometimes get the script three days before shooting. Each time you got that script, it was like Christmas. “What happens? I’m confused! Where is this going? Who’s Wyatt? What does this mean, what’s the history?” He would say a little bit about what that is, but never something so concrete that would give us all the answers.

To Evan’s credit, she was one of the ones that put the pieces together earliest on. She was saying in Episode #3 or #4, “I’ve got it figured out.” I was like “no, you don’t have anything figured out! They want you to think that you’ve got everything figure out, they want you to zig so they can zag,” but to her credit, she got a lot of it right. She had this appetite to figure it all out, and I did not. I wanted to know what I needed to know for the scenes I was doing at the time. It speaks to all of our enthusiasm for the show. We’re fans of the show as well, and there are plenty of scenes that we’re not in, and we go “oh my god, I’m enjoying this thing that I’m a part of, but there are a lot of scenes that I get to enjoy.”

There’s a lot of enthusiasm out there and people theorising what it all means. “Who’s a host and who’s a human?”  I think the most rewarding way to watch the show is not try to figure out all the mysteries, and let the show give them to you in its own, organic time. It’s the feeling when you’re a kid and you sneak downstairs before Christmas day to peel the wrapping paper back and see what the present is. On Christmas day, it’s not as special. At least that’s my analogy for it. Patience, let the show tell you when it happens, then you get to experience the journey the showrunners want you to experience.

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In the show, Teddy dreams of a simple life with Dolores. What is the ideal “simple life” for you?

I think probably similar to what Teddy’s is, which is a simple, peaceful life of goodness. I want to be a good man, I want to make good decisions and bring peace to whoever’s in my world. I think Teddy and I are similar in that way. I love what I do, I love having these opportunities, to be in a special show like this. These don’t come along very often. To be able to continue that, to be looked on as a valuable player in the big picture of it all, that’s important to me. To be a good father. I have no idea if that’s down Teddy’s timeline or not (laughs). That’s genuinely the truth, I have no idea. I’ve learned to not speak in absolutes about the show, too. I think there’s a genuine purity and goodness to him and to Dolores, I think much more than some of the humans in the show. They’re guileless, they’re pure, and I admire that.

What are the challenges in playing Teddy just a little differently each time he’s rebooted?

That’s fun. It was fun to jump from different modes. Evan said it’s an “acting Olympics”. There are great things to grab hold of as a creative artist, to be able to switch between all of those modes. It’s like you’re playing three-four different characters at once, so that’s really exciting. I’m always questioning “is this working, is the audience registering this shift?” Like when [Ford] uploads the Wyatt storyline, my face changed. That was a specific moment that Jonah wanted to get right. In that moment, when [Ford] uploads that story, in Teddy’s consciousness, he has lived with all that knowledge his whole life.

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The things that are sometimes difficult for me to wrap my head around are that everything that happened to Teddy in his timeline, he doesn’t remember everything. It’s happening for the very first time. The Man in Black, he could’ve killed me 50 times and each time it happens, it’s Teddy’s first time experiencing that. The Man in Black may remember that, but for Teddy it’s the first time. That’s part of what’s really sad about their existence, is they’re stuck in this box, they keep repeating these loops; they suffer. They may not remember the suffering, but they’re starting to with these ‘reveries’ that were installed in them from the pilot on. These reveries are surfacing a little faster, some faster than others.

With Thandie’s character and Evan’s character, their evolutions are happening a lot quicker which I think probably speaks to women vs. men in general [laughs]. I have a daughter and I have a son, and my daughter is always a little ahead of the game, and my son, it took him a little longer to grasp some of these concepts.

He’s going to read this one day.

Yeah, I probably won’t change my mind about that [laughs].

Did you consciously make each death scene different from the last?

I let Jonah be my guide on that. Look – there’s nothing that happens in this show that’s by accident, that’s what I’ve learned. Everything is there meticulously planned and with great precision. There’s a scene where I get shot, in the second episode. I’m talking to Thandie in the bar, and I just sprawl out over the floor. It doesn’t look anything like how I died when I got shot by the Man in Black. There are certain other times when Jonah comes in and he says “I want you to mimic this, something which you did before, and it’s important that you do it here.” I may not know what he’s thinking, what his grand picture is, I just nod my head and go “yeah, I can do that”. [Laughs]

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How did you prepare for the action sequences, what’s your gym regimen like?

It’s amazing when you know you have to be naked opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, that gets you in the gym pretty quick [laughs]. I spent some time getting in shape, as much as I could’ve in the time that I had. Beyond that, I spend all my downtime with a gunsmith, learning how to properly shoot and twirl. It’s not always just pulling the gun and firing at somebody, sometimes you’re riding a horse at full speed and you’re firing two guns, sometimes you have a knife. I wanted to get as good as all that as possible and plus, it was just fun.

Riding a horse, I spent a lot of time practising, getting comfortable on a horse. I grew up riding horses in Oklahoma, I was self-taught, but this was learning “here’s what a lope is, here’s what a canter is, here’s what a gallop is, here’s where your feet should be.” You’re learning all these tricks. All that was fun. There wasn’t anything difficult, I guess.

These creations should be perfect. In [Ford’s] eyes, they’re perfect. Physically, they don’t’ all look like Adonises, but Teddy’s a character who’s programmed to be very good at what he does. He can be lethal if he needs to be, and he’s always been lightning fast with a gun. So, me as James Marsden had to learn how to be lightning fast with a gun. When he’s got his shirt off, he’s a park attraction, so he should probably look good with his shirt off [laughs]. That was my training, learning how to be a real cowboy and learning how to look decent naked.

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Ed Harris seems like the kind of actor who would impart great wisdom. What was it like shooting most of your scenes with him?

I grew up in Oklahoma, and Ed is from there as well. He was born there and raised in New Jersey I think, he has a lot of family there in Oklahoma still, so we chatted a lot about that. I was never trying to get them to talk about certain specifics about their history as an actor, I like to be observant. I like to watch them work. Ed and Anthony were the two that I always had my eyes on, just because I figured there’s so much you can learn from those two.

My favourite scene was when we were at the bar together and the Man in Black meets Ford for the first the time, and I’m there, almost dead and listening to them sort of spar with each other. Two acting legends going toe to toe. Everyone has their own method to getting where they need to be. Both actors love what they do, and you can see why they care. Neither one of them were ever phoning it in; they would constantly leave every scene thinking “what could I have done better?” It’s interesting, it’s classic actor neuroses to feel like “what could I have done better?” Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, I’ve never seen them doubt themselves, but it just made me feel better as an actor.

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If you were a guest in Westworld, what would you like to do?

I still don’t have a great answer for that, but where my mind always goes is “I want to go with all the people I think I know in real life, my friends, my family, and see how they behave.” Like “I thought I knew you, but you’re sick. We can’t be friends anymore.” [Laughs].

It can be upsetting to me nowadays, how realistic video games can be sometimes, how violent they can be, and this is essentially a video game. Westworld is a fully immersive virtual reality, it’s reality. You’re there with the other characters in the video game. You can actually pull the trigger, you can actually go into a brothel and misbehave, and maybe that’s okay because it’s a robot. You’re acting on all these impulses that you wouldn’t act on in the real world, and that reveals who you really are. It says a lot about where we’re going as a culture.

I don’t know – I think the show is about what it means to be human, the human condition. The beginning of consciousness. We associate being alive with being conscious, without that consciousness, we’re not really alive. You realise that there’s a necessary grief that was programmed into some of the characters to make them feel more alive. It’s an interesting study on what it is to be human and also where we’re going with artificial intelligence.

James Marsden with Cyclops action figure wearing cowboy hat

Westworld’s season 1 finale The Bicameral Mind premieres 5 December 2016, Monday, at 10 am on HBO. Marathon encores of the episodes to date will air on 24 December Saturday and 25 December Sunday. The entire first season of Westworld is also available on HBO On Demand and StarHub Go.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

For F*** Magazine

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

Director : Antoine Fuqua
Cast : Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer
Genre : Action/Western
Run Time : 2 hrs 13 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

the-magnificent-seven-posterDirector Antoine Fuqua is heeding the Village People’s sage advice: “go west”. In this western, the townspeople of Rose Creek are threatened by the avaricious land robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), who plans on intimidating them into giving up their settlement. Emma Cullen (Bennett), whose husband Matthew (Bomer) was killed by Bogue, desperately engages the services of bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) to take on Bogue. Chisolm assembles a team of men to take on Bogue and his army. They include gambler Joshua Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke), tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Chisolm and his team have to get the Rose Creek residents into fighting shape so they can defend their home from Bogue’s forces.

A remake of 1960’s John Sturges-directed The Magnificent Seven has been in the works for a while, with Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner attached at one point. The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai. Working from a screenplay by True Detective creator Nick Pizzolatto and The Equalizer scribe Richard Wenk, Fuqua strives to create a film that’s true to the spirit of its revered forebears, while also having enough vim and verve to attract todays audiences. The ethnically-diverse cast might seem like a politically correct update, but Fuqua maintains that the reality of the old west was “more modern than the movies have been”, with black cowboys, Asian railroad workers and Native Americans all around. With ethnic minorities still not getting the representation in Hollywood productions that they desire, this is a nice step forward.

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While it is significantly faster in pace than the 1960 film, there are times when this Magnificent Seven drags its hoofs. At 133 minutes, it’s longer than it strictly needs to be. There is the feeling that the film never quite hits its stride, even by the time the protracted climactic battle takes place. That said, it’s still sufficiently entertaining, thanks to the dynamics of the appropriately stellar cast. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography has an old-fashioned sweep to it, the Rose Creek set is reasonably authentic and the action scenes are thankfully light on the shaky-cam. The fight choreography can get pretty elaborate, with lots of trick shots and fancy knife-flinging on show.

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For a film that celebrates old-school machismo, there isn’t too much obnoxious posturing to be found. Washington’s subdued authority makes him the ideal team leader, and he does have a similar quality to Yul Brynner in the 1960 version. He cuts a striking figure astride a horse, and projects manliness without resorting to chest-thumping bravado.

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One can tell that Pratt is having the greatest time here, stepping into the Steve McQueen role. He turns the roguish charm up to 11 and is absolutely irresistible as the wily card sharp, in no small part because he’s enjoying himself that much. There are snarky quips aplenty, and Pratt makes them work without coming off as annoyingly glib. Hawke’s Goodnight probably has the most depth out of all the characters. He’s the tormented veteran stricken with PTSD, and Hawke ably conveys that Goodnight is attempting to conceal his trauma beneath a cool veneer. There is some emotional resonance to the buddy pairing of Goodnight and Billy, who are established as being inseparable. While Lee, being the cool cat he is, fits right in with the others, the character still feels like the designated Asian martial arts guy on the team.

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Both Garcia-Rulfo and Sensmeier don’t have a lot to do, but if this were a boyband, Sensmeier definitely would be ‘the cute one’. D’Onofrio is delightful as Horne, who’s pretty much Chewbacca if he were a human being. He may be able to kill with his bare hands, but he’s still reasonably endearing. Bennett’s character is given a satisfying amount of agency, and is neither extreme of wailing damsel in distress or gun-slinging, rooting-tooting Annie Oakley type.

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The biggest difference between this and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is the primary antagonist. While the predecessor had a Mexican bandit played by Eli Wallach, Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue seems like a deliberate invoking of present-day Wall Street wolves. It’s not a subtle turn by any means and the character’s intimidation factor comes from the fact that he has an army at his disposal, not because he’s actually all that scary. Sarsgaard is an apt choice to play a snivelling, weaselly one-percenter, though we would’ve appreciated it if he could also throw down with the heroes.

This film features the final work of composer James Horner, who died in a plane crash two years ago. He had composed the score as a surprise for Fuqua; Simon Franglen wrote the additional music. It’s not a patch on the iconic Elmer Bernstein music from the 1960 version, but it gets the job done. While most film music connoisseurs have grown tired of Horner’s repeated use of the four note ‘danger motif’, which is very present in this score, we have to say we’ll miss hearing it.

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The Magnificent Seven is not the breathlessly entertaining romp we hoped it would be, but it isn’t a shameless desecration of the classics on which it is based either. Its political allegories and inclusive casting justify its existence somewhat, and it manages to be nigh-riotously funny and pretty darn intense at the right moments.

Summary: It’s ungainly at times, but an extremely fun cast make The Magnificent Seven ’16 a decently entertaining diversion, even if it won’t be viewed as a classic.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jane Got a Gun

For F*** Magazine

JANE GOT A GUN

Director : Gavin O’Connor
Cast : Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Noah Emmerich, Boyd Holbrook, Alex Manette, Todd Stashwick, James Burnett, Sam Quinn
Genre : Action/Drama/Western
Run Time : 98 mins
Opens : 18 February 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

In Marvel’s ongoing Thor comics series, Jane Foster is the current wielder of Mjolnir. In this western, Jane Hammond (Portman) wields more conventional weapons. It is 1871 in New Mexico territory and Jane lives with her husband Bill “Ham” Hammond (Emmerich) and their daughter Kate. When Ham rides home seriously wounded after a gun battle with the Bishop Boys gang, Jane has no choice but to turn to her ex-fiancée Dan Frost (Edgerton) for protection. John Bishop (McGregor), a notorious outlaw from Jane’s past, has returned to torment her. Dan is still broken after losing Jane to another man, but he resolves to help Jane protect her family and her home as the Bishop Boys come a-knocking.



            Jane Got a Gun was plagued by numerous production problems, and it will be remembered more for its behind-the-scenes tumult than on its own merit as a film. The original screenplay by Brian Duffield was a hot property, landing on the Black List of best-liked screenplays in Hollywood back in 2011. Natalie Portman was attached to star and produce, with Lynne Ramsay of We Need to Talk About Kevin fame directing. Severe disagreements led to Ramsay dropping out on the first day of principal photography, with a bitter legal battle ensuing. Warrior director Gavin O’Connor was roped in to replace her, but the film’s troubles were just beginning. Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were all attached at different points and Edgerton ended up switching roles from the villain John Bishop to the ex-fiancée Dan Frost. The release date was shifted back multiple times, with distributor Relativity Media dropping the film and The Weinstein Company later acquiring it.

            For all the drama involved in getting the film made, one would expect it to, at the very least, be bad in an interesting way. No such luck. Jane Got a Gun is soporific and dreary, sorely lacking in a key element of any revenge story: passion. It looks, feels and sounds like a western, but there’s so little energy and momentum behind it. The title suggests a fun genre piece with a feminist twist, perhaps something akin to Kill Bill in the American frontier. Some of the expected ingredients are there, including a tragic back-story and a score to settle with an old enemy, but it’s so plodding and self-serious that getting invested in Jane’s tale is quite the task. It’s sometimes a pretty movie to look at, but most of the time it’s visually dull: the picture is sepia-tinted, then the flashbacks appear to have another layer of sepia tinting on top of that and this stylistic touch ends up creating even more distance between the audience and the story.

            Portman may be playing the titular protagonist and has championed the film through the myriad obstacles it faced in getting made, but Jane Hammond will not go down as one of the great ass-kicking female characters in cinema history. There’s some emotional impact to Jane’s tortured past, but her supposed transformation into a gun-toting damsel no longer in distress is underwhelming. The love triangle between Jane, Ham and Dan bogs the movie down in melodramatics instead of creating any fireworks and nothing unconventional comes of the dynamics between the three characters. The villain in a revenge western should get to chew a good deal of scenery, but McGregor has too little screen time and too little material to work with, unable to create a particularly intimidating or striking villain. With Padmé, Obi-Wan and Owen Lars in the same movie, it’s a mini Attack of the Clones reunion.



            Jane Got a Gun has a round or two in the chamber: the climactic standoff brims with tension and the sombre atmosphere is sometimes effective. It is morbidly fascinating to read about how a straight-forward western got mired in so many production troubles and it is admirable that last-minute replacement director O’Connor was able to salvage it all. However, in the aftermath of this hullabaloo, all Jane Got a Gun has to show for it is mediocrity.

Summary: Dour and slow, Jane Got a Gun fails to make good on its promise of a fun genre piece starring a dynamic female lead.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

The Hateful Eight

For F*** Magazine

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Director : Quentin Tarantino
Cast : Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum
Genre : Western/Thriller
Run Time : 167 mins
Opens : 21 January 2016
Rating : R21

Hang on to them reins, boys and girls, because Quentin Tarantino’s wrangled up his eighth motion picture and is coming at you guns a-blazin’, all shot in glorious 65mm. It is some time after the Civil War in wintry Wyoming and bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) hitches a ride on a stagecoach occupied by fellow bounty hunter John “Hangman” Ruth (Russell) and his captive, Daisy Domergue (Leigh). Ruth is delivering Domergue to the town of Red Rock, and the trio comes across Chris Mannix (Goggins), apparently the new sheriff of Red Rock. The four arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge, which is being looked after by Bob the Mexican (Bichir) in Minnie’s absence. They meet the other lodgers: English hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), ranch hand Joe Gage (Madsen) and former Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Dern). Trapped in the middle of a fierce blizzard, this motley crew aren’t going to sit all quiet-like and wait for the storm to blow over, with mysteries unravelling, tensions mounting and lots of blood being spilled.

            As can be expected with any new Tarantino project, there was a great deal of pomp and circumstance surrounding the development of The Hateful Eight. The script surfaced online in January 2014, inciting Tarantino’s rage and a degree of finger-pointing as to who exactly leaked the screenplay. Tarantino briefly considered scrapping the film entirely and publishing The Hateful Eight as a novel instead. A live reading was staged before the film eventually went into production. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone came on board to score his first Western in 34 years and provide the first original score for a Tarantino film, the soundtracks of which customarily comprise existing songs. Then, the film was released in an old-fashioned roadshow presentation projected in 70 mm format, this version containing an extra 20 minutes of footage compared to the regular theatrical release.

            After all of this build-up, The Hateful Eight emerges as a film that is Tarantino’s through and through, but is not one of the director’s stronger efforts. With all the accolades he has amassed and with the impact his films have made on the pop cultural landscape, it makes sense that Tarantino would be given carte blanche to create the film he wants to. This is a spectacularly self-indulgent piece, and while Tarantino has made self-indulgence work in his favour in previous films, The Hateful Eight will test audiences who aren’t already converts to his style. Near the beginning of the film, Ruth orders Warren to put aside his pistol “molasses-like”, which is exactly the pacing of the movie. The 167-minute-long theatrical cut is already a challenge to endure, let alone the 187-minute roadshow cut. The cast is peppered with actors who have worked with Tarantino before and the director’s penchant for bombastic monologues and excessive, gory violence is in full force here. He has always planted his flag at the intersection of artfulness and vulgarity, and that flag is definitely still standing.

            At its core, this is a mystery, with Tarantino citing the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None as a reference point. It seems like it would work better as a stage play, and Tarantino does indeed have intentions of writing and directing a Broadway adaptation of the film. There are twists, turns and reveals, but this is a more straight-forward story than it is presented as, with the feeling of a tense, intimate drama being bloated to epic proportions, stuffed with over-the-top posturing and drenched in mostly unnecessary blood. Our characters arrive at a locale, are stuck there and a whodunit unfolds. The sometimes ridiculous heights that this reaches detract from the overall impact and suspense.

There are ingeniously staged moments of ratcheting tension that are immediately undercut by fountains of arterial splatter. One can imagine Tarantino rubbing his hands with glee, setting special effects makeup artists Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger loose on set, armed with assorted viscera. When Tarantino was paying homage to genres like the gangster movie, Blaxploitation or the martial arts film in the past, bloody violence makes more sense than it does in association with westerns, even given revisionist works by the likes of Sam Peckinpah. The violence crosses past the point of being shocking into being pointlessly numbing.

            Watching the cast at play is fun and thankfully, there’s a great deal of that going on here. This is an ensemble piece, but Tarantino’s oft-collaborator Jackson takes the lead as Major Marquis Warren. We initially lean into rooting for Warren because, as the lone black character for the bulk of the film, Warren is the target of strong racial slurs, but his own volatility and detestable actions soon come to light, making him at once fascinating and repulsive. Russell’s more understated approach is the ideal counterpoint to Jackson’s style, and for the most part, it’s clear this is a cast who knows full well what they’re doing.

Leigh is remarkably believable as the scuzzy Domergue, bad teeth, black eye, stringy hair and all, perhaps the most authentic of the bunch in mannerisms and appearance. Jennifer Lawrence was reported under consideration to play Domergue. Dern has a quietly commanding presence and carries one of the film’s most powerful moments, a conversation between Warren and Smithers about the fate of Smithers’ son. Goggins is entertaining though often bothering on annoying as he enthusiastically bounces about the set. Madsen puts in the least effort, though perhaps there’s a charm in that stemming from the Reservoir Dogs connection. In addition to Mr. Blonde, Mr. Orange, a.k.a. Tim Roth, is also present.

            Tatum’s appearance, however brief, completely pulled this reviewer out of the film. The actor has stumbled awkwardly through many a dramatic role and the ruthless badass Tatum plays in The Hateful Eight doesn’t capitalise on any of his comedic strengths. Stunt performer and actress Zoë Bell, a Tarantino mainstay, also has a minor supporting role. Bell’s New Zealand accent is acknowledged, but that doesn’t make it any less out of place in the setting.

            For fans of Tarantino’s technique and style and those who have enjoyed dissecting his back-catalogue and devising theories about how the events of all his films are connected, The Hateful Eight will be a largely fulfilling experience. However, if the wanton violence and odes to specific pop culture ephemera in his previous movies were alienating, The Hateful Eight is all the more so. It is generally true that a director making a film for himself is better than a hired gun just cashing a check, but The Hateful Eight feels like it was made primarily for Tarantino’s own amusement, and that if the general audience happens to like it, it’s mostly because they’ve been conditioned by the director’s own oeuvre.



Summary: The Hateful Eight is packed with its director’s signature flair, but it often feels saturated and overwhelmingly self-indulgent, a cloud of “you’re supposed to like this because it’s Tarantino” hanging over it.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong
            

Bone Tomahawk

For F*** Magazine

BONE TOMAHAWK

Director : S. Craig Zahler
Cast : Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig
Genre : Horror/Western
Run Time : 133 mins
Opens : 10 December 2015
Rating : R21 (Violence)

Gun-slinging outlaws are far from the only terrors a small town sheriff needs to fend off in this horror western. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) of the frontier town Bright Hope leads a party in search of Samantha O’Dwyer (Simmons) and young Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Samantha and Nick have been kidnapped by savage troglodytes, cave-dwelling humanoid creatures who feed on people. The party comprises Arthur O’Dwyer (Wilson), Samantha’s husband who is nursing a broken leg, the dapper sharpshooter John Brooder (Fox) and elderly “back-up Deputy” Chicory (Jenkins). It turns out that bandits Purvis (Arquette) and Buddy (Haig) have incurred the wrath of the brutal troglodytes by desecrating their burial grounds. With one member of their group already wounded and two of them elderly men, it seems the odds are stacked against Sheriff Hunt and his gang.

            Bone Tomahawkis the directorial debut of multi-hyphenate S. Craig Zahler, a novelist, screenwriter, musician and cinematographer. Zahler’s noir western novels have garnered him considerable acclaim, and it is clear from Bone Tomahawk that he has an affinity for the genre. The film is an old-fashioned western that segues into graphic, gory horror and it’s quite clear that this is intended to become a cult classic, to be screened mostly at film festivals to discerning audiences. As such, its appeal is very limited and this is obviously intended for a niche market, at the risk of alienating anyone else. The film has been described as a “slow burn”, but one man’s slow burn is another man’s slog. Indeed, Bone Tomahawkmeanders and dawdles, with not very much happening until its final half hour. We get non-sequitur conversations about how one would read a book in the bath without getting the pages wet and the minutiae of flea circuses, which are intended to provide texture but come off as pointless instead.

            Thankfully, Zahler has wrangled an excellent cast and the characters embody familiar genre tropes without being one-note caricatures, which is difficult to do in a genre piece. Russell, as expected, seems perfectly at home in the setting and brings an authority to his sheriff role without overplaying the macho man aspect. He gets to kick ass, but the film wisely avoids indulging in cheeky references to Russell’s iconic past roles. For an actor of his iconic status, this is quite a small project to headline and Russell was drawn to the part as an early supporter of Zahler’s novels. We’ll next see Russell in a western again really soon, in the form of Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight.



            Wilson can sometimes be bland, but he fits the everyman O’Dwyer and while the character seems set up as a bit of a milksop, he comes into his own and has us rooting for him to rescue his wife and survive this ordeal. Jenkins is on hand to provide most of the comic relief as the doddering old Chicory, but he is careful not to play the part too broad. Fox rocks a beautifully-tailored turn-of-the-century suit as the dashing, boastful rogue, though there are times when he doesn’t convincingly seem like someone from that time period. The same goes for Simmons, who comes off as a little too modern for a frontierswoman. She gets to perform a somewhat gratuitous sex scene with Wilson but is ultimately little more than the stock damsel in distress whom the valiant men have to venture into the unknown to rescue. She’s a doctor, so that counts for something, we suppose.

            Bone Tomahawkis somewhat hampered by its limited budget, the town of Bright Hope obviously standing on a backlot that’s been used in countless westerns before. While the film presents us with well-drawn characters portrayed by some talented actors, it lacks a crucial forward momentum and the flabby midsection is almost entirely devoid of urgency. The ending in particular packs in grisly scenes designed for maximum stomach-turning effect, but more impatient viewers are wont to grow restless before then. The smaller production gives Zahler the freedom to try many things which big studios would’ve forbidden him from doing and the most positive thing that can be said about the enterprise is that well, it’s different.


Summary:Kurt Russell’s strong performance gives this hybrid western/slasher flick some weight and gore-hounds might be pleased with the gruesome third act, but Bone Tomahawkis ultimately too slow and too spare to be a truly riveting genre offering.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

A Million Ways to Die in the West

For F*** Magazine

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

Director : Seth MacFarlane
Cast : Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Liam Neeson
Genre : Comedy, Western
Opens : 12 June 2014
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Sexual References) / 116 mins
Directed by, starring and co-written by Seth MacFarlane, here’s the film that details why life in the American frontier was hard, no matter what your station. MacFarlane plays Albert, an unassuming sheep farmer in the town of Old Stump, Arizona whose girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) leaves him for Foy (Harris), a dashing, arrogant moustache tonic salesman. Anna (Theron), the wife of notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), arrives in Old Stump, hoping to lie low while her husband continues tearing up the region. She befriends and soon falls in love with Albert, the sheep farmer unaware that his new paramour is in fact married to the most dangerous man in the land.
            The marketing for this film includes an online flash game that is a funny, entertaining spoof of the classic educational video game The Oregon Trail. Alas, nothing in the film itself quite matches the creativity of that tie-in. A fair number of the jokes in A Million Ways to Die in the West land, but the film is overly reliant on lowbrow bodily-function gags and “shocking”, cartoony violence. The movie’s biggest laughs are provided by the surprise celebrity cameos and a joke involving an offensively-themed shooting gallery gets a satisfying payoff during the end credits. However, one of the best of these was completely spoiled in a TV spot, making this yet another example of a comedy where the laughs are run into the ground by the trailers.


            The film hinges on its main character, Albert the sheep-farmer, being likeable enough that audiences will want to root for him to survive all those million possible methods of death. Seth MacFarlane is not likeable. This is not a controversial statement. A Million Ways to Die in the West would have benefitted from a different lead actor but this being the vanity project it is, that was unlikely to happen. With Ted, he was able to hide behind a computer-generated stuffed toy but here, his shortcomings as a leading man are all too apparent. One adjective often used to describe the Family Guy creator is “smug”. “Smug” is pretty much on the opposite end of the spectrum from “hapless, sweet, unassuming and well-meaning”.


            MacFarlane has surrounded himself with an excellent supporting cast, but because he is positioned as the film’s focal point, their presence seems merely perfunctory. Charlize Theron makes for a fun, watchable Annie Oakley-type but as her on-screen husband, Liam Neeson gets the short shrift. While he has slightly more screen time than in Battleship, one can’t help but feel sorry for the actor who has redefined the term “badass” when he’s forced to bare, well, ass. Family Guy fans will be tickled by the casting, since one cutaway gag featured Liam Neeson struggling with his accent in a cowboy film (he retains his Northern Irish brogue here). Neil Patrick Harris relishes the chance to gnaw at the scenery and he certainly rocks that well-coiffed handlebar moustache, in addition to dancing to the Stephen Foster folk ditty “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache”. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman are amusing as Albert’s best friend Edward and Edward’s prostitute girlfriend Ruth respectively, if you don’t mind hearing Sarah Silverman graphically describe sex acts.


            A comedic Western in this day and age is a fairly ambitious prospect and something of a gear change from Ted, but MacFarlane fails to mine the opportunities presented by the premise, this outing proving yet again to be too self-indulgent. At 116 minutes long, this does meander and there’s the threat of tumbleweeds, but it would be too harsh to say A Million Ways to Die in the West is completely laugh-free. Co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, who also worked on Ted and Family Guy with MacFarlane, retain a somewhat mean-spirited sense of humour (the poster has a cactus resembling a hand flipping the viewer off) but once in a while do offer inspired gags. Just not quite often enough.
Summary: Doesn’t quite set our saddles ablaze.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong