Movie of the Week: Deadwood – The Movie (2019)

Daniel Minahan directs Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant and Gerald McRaney in this late in the day continuation of the finest TV show ever made, revisiting the Wild West mining town a decade after its troubled formation.

Those who haven’t watched Deadwood “suck cock by choice”. So goes the parlance of David Milch’s Shakespearean revisionist Western. A show about a community forming in the face of violence and corruption as much as it was about whores and shootouts. The intricate poetic foul mouthed language, the gorgeously stitched, aged and muddy costumes, the thriving ensemble of note perfect performances have all been revived. Everyone looks a fair few bar fights older, yet the key joy for a fan is watching how swiftly Milch sets out the board. Not only within 15 minutes has the masterful screenwriter deftly reminded us where everyone was left by the cliffhanger of unexpected final episode but… cancellation and huge swathe of time be damned… he manoeuvres nearly all of the beloved pieces back into the same position of conflict with an elegant turn of his hand. Only the since passed Powers Boothe’s diabolical Cy Tolliver feels absent. To accomplish such a respawning point with so little clunky exposition or belief tugging falsity is a magic act of writing, a type written miracle. What plays out then is magisterial. Greed and wrath battle justice and order. The sophisticated characters fight their natures and history for the greater good. There’s gunplay, coarse threats, monologues to the gods and even Wu’s pigs get a feeding. Every actor is on top form, to single one out would be a crime. To say I love Deadwood is an understatement, and I realise this movie only works if you watch the 30 or so hours of televised perfection that preceded it. It is no Firefly > Serenity in that respect, Deadwood 2019 is not a feature continuation that exists on its own merits. But those 36 episodes are readily available. I started rewatching them again the day after I wolfed this reunion down. The entire and now complete narrative is an experience that grows and gives back on return visits, it is so dense and rich and full blooded. The finest piece of screen writing ever achieved now has a closing chapter. An two hour epilogue that works as well as There Will Be Blood’s milkshake coda or LaLa Land’s alternative reverie. Heaven… or, more appropriately, gold.


My Top 10 Revisionist Westerns


X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Simon Kinberg directs Sophie Turner, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult in this final X-Men film where Jean Grey goes off the rails when her powers go off the scale… again.

I’ve made clear in previous posts… I’m a fan of this franchise. I can forgive wobblier and weaker entries as enough goodwill has been built up throughout the past two decades. I personally feel Marvel, DC and Fox’s now defunct Mutant films have the same batting average in terms of enjoyment, if not hype and critical approval. Shame to see this brand go out on such a duff one. It wears its compromises on its sleeve… two of its more unique actors take pointed early baths, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto only joins in at the midway point, possibly only the lad who plays Nightcrawler seems happy to be there and giving his A-game. The reshot ending is bolted on at a noticeable but not inappropriate juncture of the final act… and actually is the action highlight. There’s another space set rescue that is passable… maybe fantastic in 4DX but standard on a regular screen. So two good set-pieces and an ensemble already powering down. It was never fated to be the classic final chapter of a saga. Why does it have to be so joyless? So miserable? Anyone’s guess, really. The director / producer / writer Kinberg has mistaken solemnity for depth, arguing for conflict. Leaving us on a whimper not a Logan.


My Top 10 James McAvoy Movies

Callan (1974)

Don Sharp directs Edward Woodward, Russell Hunter and Eric Porter in this big screen adaptation of the pilot episode of the downbeat British 60s spy show.

A reluctant assassin delays and further delays killing the gunrunner who works next door to him. That’s about it. Good London location work, rare bursts of action, Woodward is enjoyably capable. Russell Hunter’s miserable thief makes for a downtrodden sidekick… a self-loathing mixture of E.B. from Deadwood and Grandad in Only Fools and Horses. You don’t usually see such petty misery at the cinema, it almost exclusively exists at Wetherspoons and William Hills. But my good bloody God, this is 90% chaff! For fans of dubbed David Prowse only.


Scoop (2006)

Woody Allen directs Scarlett Johansson, himself and Hugh Jackman in this comedy where a gauche journalism student receives a tip from the afterlife that an upperclass Englishman is a serial killer… romance ensues.

The plot of Scoop is so random that it is hard to précis. The above description completely leaves out Allen’s magician character who acts as partner, father figure and comic foil to Johansson geeky naïf. Their scenes make up the meat of the film, and are the best. Both have a genial nervy energy together, Johansson particularly making a good fist of being the comedy lead. Aside from that this is quite a forgettable film… even when that ungainly story settles, you never get a sense Woody has planned out a satisfying ending to it. Jackman, usually a scene stealer in his lead roles, feels forgotten about and idle. Infamous for being filmed in London yet never released in the UK, it is a watchable little film. I particularly enjoyed revisiting the recognisable back streets of Paddington and Kensington.


Godzilla: King of the Monster (2019)

Mike Dougherty directs Millie Bobby Brown, Vera Farmiga and Charles Dance in this monster mash blockbuster where Godzilla protects humanity from a series of destructive titans.

You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen a firey Rodan pursue a stealth carrier into the multi-jaws of Monster Zero. Well I have and this was right up my alley. Massive scale, gorgeous creature design, epic carnage and kinetic set pieces. The human cast is busy, their dialogue blunt… there’s only space for reductive awe and guesswork exposition. Their linking scenes are exactly that… though Brown, Dance, Watanabe and especially Farmiga make a little of a lot. They’ve found themselves in a classy, visually rich evolution on the 90’s Roland Emmerich style blockbuster. The humour has been dialled back, the gargantuan trailer moments brought to the forefront. I need at least one of these releases out of a summer season. A film where you feel the weight of mountains crumbling, the contact burn of laser breath, the blinding light of a nuke going off. I want it big, nasty. I want the largest screen to be used, to barely contain the fantasy action. This hit every engorged, dumb cinematic receptor I have. Gave me the jolt of FX driven entertainment I need… and the inconsequential cast mirrored my amazement as the big canvas danger marvelled me. Ken Watanabe says “Let them fight”… I agree. This is the main meal after Gareth Edwards’ preceding amuse-bouche. Tuck the fuck in, leave your cynicism at the door.


The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Alfred Hitchcock directs Doris Day, James Stewart and Brenda de Banzie in this starrier colour remake of his London thriller where a couple’s child is kidnapped when they learn an esoteric piece of information about an assassination.

Hitch but slow cooked. This is so at ease and off duty that when it does occasionally reset back into suspense mode it almost comes as a shock. Day and Stewart work well off each other. There are some superb set pieces but at nearly any juncture you could easily pop the kettle on, come back from the loo and set out some biscuits on a saucer and find the cogs of the conspiracy have not moved a jot during your comfort break. Hitch regulars Edith Head’s stellar costumes and Bernard Herrmann’S big score keep things classy.


Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)

Ben Wheatley directs Neil Maskell, Charles Dance and Sam Riley in this extended family argument set over an awkward New Year’s Eve party.

Not the best Wheatley production. It apes Altman and Leigh and Festen but doesn’t have much in the way of deep things about the human condition to say. His more obvious genre works are where his talents lie but this is a watchable enough experiment.


Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Josephine Decker directs Helena Howard, Miranda July and Molly Parker in this pretentious arthouse mess where a young girl loses her identity when her physical theatre group exploit her strained relationships with her overbearing mother.

Maybe this is just for Madeline. It certainly wasn’t for me.


Rocketman (2019)

Dexter Fletcher directs Taron Egerton, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jamie Bell in this musical biopic of Elton John, the most flamboyant, coke fuelled shy person you’ve ever met.

This is a tough one. I’ve never been a massive fan of Elton John’s music (it is, to revive a period appropriate phrase, … bloody naff) nor his personality. Yet I do I like the main cast, especially Egerton who always has an unguarded loveableness in how he throws himself broadly into the unattractive areas of his lead roles. He can do chav, bumbling naive idiot or uneven screaming queen without losing his boyish charm. The visual direction is far braver than the similar Bohemian Rhapsody but both films bear the weight of their living subjects having too much creative power. This portrait of Elton is happier to show the warts but you really want even more tantrums and less “poor me”. The film is happy to admit Elton can be an utter shit but always under the oft-repeated excuse that he really just needed a cuddle and approval. Well, there are lots of people who have cold upbringings and rocky relationships who don’t end sitting on a pile of money, cocks and coke. So I shan’t be shedding a tear for the stroppy old superstar… Not if he is unwilling to show us just how bad he gets without the caveat of “I wasn’t the worst.” I’ve bought a ticket for rocket fuelled naughty behaviour, not a therapy session to MOR hits. Doesn’t even have the common decency to end on a big Live Aid showstopper.


Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino directs Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent and Brad Pitt in this WWII set mission movie where a Nazi colonel with a talent for detecting deception finds himself caught in a web of intrigue between a bushwacking Special Service Forces unit, a beautiful Jewish cinema owner and some of Germany’s biggest movie stars.

Basterds ends with the line “I think this might just be my masterpiece”. Brad Pitt has just carved a swastika into a Nazi scalp. So that after the war the Nazi cannot pretend he wasn’t who he was. And that’s what the film is about – people pretending to be what they aren’t. Jewish runaways are hiding in plain sight in Paris. Glamorous German film stars are double agents. Monotone milk farmers are hiding families in their cellar with poker faced calmness. Enlisted British film critics are hiding their plummy accent behind perfect Deutsch (even if the accent is a little funny). Decorated war heroes use charm and attentiveness to mask their cruel sexual appetites. And an American war killer, without two words of foreign to rub together, pretends to be an Italian stuntman at a cosmopolitan movie premiere. “GOR-LARRR-MIII!” Basterds is about being caught out not being who you are in a series of drawn out, loose yet tense interactions. QT achieves that goal. But it ain’t a masterpiece. Certainly not his.

What was sold to us as Tarantino and Brad Pitt do the Dirty Dozen has minimal war action. Like Reservoir Dogs was a heist film without the heist this is the war film without the war. And while I respect Dogs and appreciate its fine (game-changing) writing, it isn’t a favourite of mine… neither is this. This is a half dozen little Reservoir Dogs, in that each chapter resolves around one character figuring out who ‘the rat’ is amongst them? Kill Bill-style grand introductions, making every character an icon… followed by an elongated verbal spar where small talk, threat and misdirection is used to sift out the truth from unbalanced, trapped liars. Times five.

Most obvious of these is the La Louisiane Tavern sequence where bit players actually play that game of “Who Am I?”, only for key players to play the game for reals within the pouring of another round of drinks. Michael Fassbender is superb in this sequence as a man suavely losing his stronghold. It is considered a modern classic but I do wish Tarantino found an elegant way to parachute Christoph Waltz’ Nazi conniver Hans Landa into the mix. Instead we get essentially a different actor playing a similar character playing the same role. The smartest Nazi in the room, a man who convinces you that you have no chance against him and can idle in small talk until you submit the truth to him. The man with a permanent upper hand and cruel wit. To have two Swastika clad antagonists with the same traits knocking about the plot robs the film slightly… and betrays its ragged freewheeling nature.

All Tarantino films are indulgent. Scenes that hang out, shoot the breeze… that flow into each other with novelistic motion rather than a strict cinematic formula. Often this means we can explore a genre with an expansive, character rich fluidity. But with Basterds it just feels a little too…unconnected. A series of fantastic intro sequences but with no idea how to then get directly to its apocalyptic Hitler killing blow-out firesale. The middle hour has characters relay “the plan” to us at length four times with minor variations or revelations. You have the feeling once Quentin has all the pieces in play he doesn’t know what to do with them except shuffle them around the board randomly. He doesn’t want to get to his explosive gambit quite so soon. The Mike Myers & Churchill scene or the veterinary table scene hardly have the same unique, memorable quality as that opening passive aggressive interrogation on the diary farm or Shosanna’s war paint prep to David Bowie (a visual highlight for the talky director). They feel very much like wasteful filler.

Inglorious Basterd repeats itself, gets stuck in a rut… doesn’t deliver near enough Brad Pitt machine gunning the hun. That’s not to say it isn’t rich in character beats. Landa is a tremendous creation… when he arrives in a scene you smell danger for all else involved. Waltz skips gleefully through Tarantino’s writing like a child playing a winning round of hopscotch. A star is born. In a less showy role, Laurent impresses… she’s simmering with anger and revenge yet also proves good at comedy. Her expressive face doing that rarest of rare things, making a quieter creation standout in Quentin’s verbose world. And Brad Pitt, while wasted for much of running time, dazzles as Aldo Raine when given the spotlight. Part John Wayne, part Warren Oates… he’s such a broad, masculine, winning figure that you genuinely feel wobbled when suddenly the tables are turned on him in the final furlong. Inglorious Basterds is a great film, but for a filmmaker of QT’s lofty status to refer to it as his masterpiece just doesn’t past muster.