Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ****

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‘I eat serpent seven times a week’ says Gelt (Robert Vaughn), in one of a number of quotable lines from Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars. There’s a certain logic to Corman’s thinking here; if Star Wars knocked off Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, then why not rip of Seven Samurai? Sure, The Magnificent Seven already Westernised that classic text, but why not lean into it and have characters like Cowboy (George Peppard) and to take things further, get Robert Vaughn back and have him say the same dialogue he did in John Sturges’s film? John Sayles was the screenwriter charged with sorting out the conceptual issues, and presumably his writing process involved being locked in a room with the script for Magnificent Seven, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and a massive lump of cheese, because cheesy action is what results. Henry Thomas is Shad, a young farmer dispatched to put together a group of mercenaries to defend his home planet against despot Sador (John Saxon). The team he puts together include various oddities like a lizard man, bald twins and a Valkyrie, played by the voluptuous Sybil Danning in costumes which make Caroline Munro in Starcrash look positively demure. With a James Horner score and James Cameron on effects, Battle Beyond The Stars has quite a pedigree, and the talent bring their A-game to this B movie. Jimmy T Murakami directs, so what do we talk about when we talk about Battle Beyond The Stars? Spaceship interiors seeming made of plasticine, planets made of candy-floss; it’s a strange universe to explore in low-budget cinema, but there’s a degree of knowing wit in the dialogue that makes Battle Beyond the Stars a guilty pleasure.

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The Outsider 2019 ****

Despite the best efforts of Quentin Tarantino and Westworld, the Western hasn’t quite been revived as a genre, but there seems to be a strain of tough, adult fare developing from Bone Tomahawk onwards. Director Timothy Woodward Jr seems to be a fan of the form, with a Bill Hickok biopic amongst his many recent credits, and The Outsider is a more than decent entry in the Western stakes, shot at the old Paramount Ranch.  John Foo plays Jing Phang, a railroad-worker who not surprisingly struggles to find social equality in the Old West. When the increasingly unhinged James Walker (Kaiwi Lyman), son of lawman Marshall Walker (singer Trace Adkins ) takes an unpleasant shine to Phang’s wife, Phang is unable to prevent her from falling into his clutches , and revenge ensues. The Outsider’s plotline makes it sound like an eye-for-an-eye Charles Bronson movie, but Sean Ryan’s script is considerably more complex and thoughtful than might be expected, and follows a number of factions in the town while Phang is on the run. If the climax doubles down on melodrama in a frustratingly conventional way, The Outsider scores points as a well-mounted, traditional Western that should please anyone looking for a fix of old-school moral justice.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-outsider/id1460596870

Slow West 2015 ***

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John Maclean’s debut film is an offbeat Western which features the star of his BAFTA-winning short, Pitch Black Heist, Michael Fassbender. Kodi-Smidt-McPhee plays a young Scotsman befriended by Fassbinder’s gruff stranger who a cross -ountry trek to find a lost sweetheart. Ben Mendelsohn makes a suitable adversary, but Slow West never conforms to genre expectations, feeling more like a road movie with horses, and with sudden, shocking violence in the vein of Dead Man. The sight of a washing line hung between the men’s horses as they ride sets a whimsical tone that’s laced with dark humour. Slow West has echoes of The Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit; a semi-mythical West, unexpected in its simplicity, deadly in outlook.

The Salvation 2014 ***

134f5-salvatation-poster-2-copy-copyIf you only see one Western featuring Eric Cantona, Douglas Henshaw, Mads Mikklelsen, and Eva Green as a murderous mute, The Salvation is likely to be the answer to your prayers. Mikklelsen plays a man who revenges his family’s killer, only to find himself alone in his battle against a larger, better equipped villain.  Kristain Levring’s western has a welcome dash of Leone, but has its own violent, remorseless energy, with Green magnetic as always amid plenty of quirky, offbeat incident.

The Long Riders 1980 ***

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The stunning images of a bang-robbing gang on horseback smashing through the plate-glass windows of an Old West Street is just one of the visual high-points of Walter Hill’s overlooked Western. Co-written with Bill Bryden amongst others, The Long Riders de-mythologizes The Jesse James gang, and cleverly uses acting clans to depict the brothers. Three Carradines (David, Keith and Robert), two Quaids (Dennis and Randy), two Guests (Christopher and Nicholas) and two Keaches (James and Stacey) are the gangs, with the latter two as James and Frank James, who become outlaws as an act of revenge. It’s a shame Beau and Jess Bridges weren’t able to schedule The Long Riders in, but Western fans should make an effort; Hill’s dark, brooding epic is a classic slice of revisionism.

Dead Man 1995 ***

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Writer/director Jim Jarmusch coaxed a memorable performance from Johnny Depp in this oddball black and white Western from 1995, With Depp as accountant William Blake, who goes on the run after killing a man in 1800’s North America. Clad in a fur-coat, and spouting poetry by the real William Blake, Depp encounters a series of strange characters, with Robert Mitchum, Alfred Molina, Michael Wincott, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Iggy Pop and professional maniac Crispin Glover dotted along the way. With moments of extreme violence amongst the lyricism, Jarmusch’s film is a rare view of the Old West as an amoral hell-hole.

Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ***

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George Lucas acknowledged the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress on Star Wars, and producer Roger Corman’s keen eye for exploitation led to the rapid development of Battle Beyond The Stars, which repositions Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in outer space. Seven Samurai had already been updated as The Magnificent Seven, and Corman and Jimmy T Murakami have fun transposing the familiar Western elements, with George Peddard’s Space Cowboy and Robert Vaughn’s black-clad Gelt lifted directly from the Old West Playbook. The Waltons’ Richard Thomas plays the farmboy who becomes a hero alongside such memorable characters as Sybil Danning’s Valkyrie St Exmin. John Saxon contributes a strong villain as Sador, and the whole thing is directed at such a clip that it’s no wonder that James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd fell in love while working on it.