Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Top Western movies

I gathered my thoughts and wondered what might be the best Western movies in my opinion, at the present moment. I've seen more than 250 and viewed the better ones several times.

The list contains films I've "Facebook-ranked" with four or five stars. The order is not very thought-out, especially when going further than Top 10. But in any case I would perhaps build the list differently at different times.

Edit 4.8.2016: I added a couple of pictures and tightened the text a bit. The list stays the same though.

Once Upon a Time in the West

.1968 Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)

I'd like to present something less typical as the "best western ever", but I can't avoid it. It is such a great summary of the genre, and works on so many levels.

.1968 The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)

I'm not going to let Leone entirely dominate the top 3. The Great Silence is bound with intriguing visuals and the fantastic Morricone score. Corbucci shows an almost supernatural wintry West, even harder than the normal west, where a normal western character does not survive long.

.1966 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone)

The Western "small story" opens up into a war movie, the three protagonists worming their way within the chaos around them. Ultimately, it does not have all the depth of Once Upon...

.1971 Duck, you Sucker! (Sergio Leone)

This is not often rated very highly, supposedly Leone even distanced himself from the product. What is now available is a sort of reconstruction. I consider the themes in it to be very moving, and I usually like James Coburn better than Clint Eastwood.

Duck, you sucker!
.1952 High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)

High Noon is able to combine psychological and social "political" themes without making them too underlined. Tends to get better in multiple viewings, almost as if the ultimate outcome - the one we keep waiting for - didn't matter all that much.

.1970 The White Sun of the Desert (Vladimir Motyl)

Perhaps not strictly a western, but clearly plays with Western themes within a war setting, albeit in smaller way than, say, the Good, Bad and the Ugly. The tempo, tones, compositions, editing and generally everything shown on-screen are so delicately put that it doesn't even much matter if the plot is fairly simple. I almost expect Corto Maltese to show up.
Some villains from The White Sun of the Desert.

.1969 The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah) 

An all-around classic film.

.1982 Barbarosa (Fred Schepisi)

One of the first post-1960s movies that tried to positively re-affirm the Western hero myth, yet still remain revisionist.
Willie Nelson and Gary Busey in Barbarosa.
.1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman) 

This is probably the peak of "revisionism" in Western movies. The scenery and the Leonard Cohen soundtrack remain haunting.

.1962 The Man who shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)

I'm always astonished how this film manages to provide a very grand scenario and at the same time a small, but interesting, Western story. The only John Wayne film here.

.1966 Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima)

One of the "political" spaghettis made by Sollima. Face to Face may be better as a more serious work, but for once I feel the humour, music and extravagant characters are spot on and do not detract from the broader themes.

.1967 Face to Face (Sergio Sollima)

The more serious of the Sollima Westerns, the plot and the "moral" delivered are both interesting yet boiled in a good spaghetti styling.

.1959 Day of the Outlaw (Andre de Toth)

Another winter movie and a true original. A really gripping scenario that just gets tighter all the time. The winter environment is well integrated with the plot.

.1954 Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray)

Yeah it's a bit theatrical but somehow even that functions to serve the expressiveness and psycho-dynamics between the characters. It's a rare time women get the spotlight in a Western without everything becoming a silly affair.

Johnny Guitar
.1965 For a few Dollars More (Sergio Leone)

This one I would have previously ranked higher, but recent viewing revealed there are many spaghettis I prefer to this one. Some of the best Lee van Cleef material here, though.

.1976 Keoma (Enzo Castellari)

The last really significant spaghetti western, Keoma is pretty ingenious work, especially due to the music-image synergies and editing. On occasions I can't help feeling it's more of a "best of the guilty pleasure movies" than a truly, truly great movie.

.1971 Lawman (Michael Winner)

This film plays well with the elements of classic western yet turns them around. The revisionism is not for revisionism's sake, but helps deliver the moral problem for the viewer's consideration. Rarely, if ever, have the motivations of "small time henchmen" bad guys been fleshed out so well.

1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah)

This is a more uneven film than the Wild Bunch but I've found it emotionally satisfying. The focus is clearly on Pat Garrett here, which James Coburn delivers as the more interesting character.

Some good sound-visuals combinations with the Dylan soundtrack (that "knocking on heaven's door"...), but Dylan's presence in the film is perhaps less successful.

.1990 Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner)

I thought it predictable at times, but then again things that sort of needed to happen, happened. I suppose for a certain generation it's almost impossible not to know something about the film even if you've not seen it.

.1960 The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges)

Initially I did not think much of this, it seemed to have all the hallmarks of what I consider a boring western, but it has grown on me.

.1987 A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines (Alla Surikova)

A Soviet "Western", but not bogged down with the kind of politics one might expect. It's not often that stunts, acrobatics and technical hijinks manage to support a Western film well, but here it happens.

.1952 Viva Zapata! (Elia Kazan)

Maybe not a Western either, and perhaps a bit suspect politically even, but the story arc works well for me and leads to a great ending. Hilariously Marlon Brando cuddles some puppy dogs.

.1951 Westward the Women (William Wellman)

Many Wellman Westerns would deserve to be mentioned (The Ox-Bow Incident, The Yellow Sky, Track of the Cat) but this has a more grand scenario, with appropriate humor and seriousness mixed in good proportion.

Edit: Recently I have watched the three and a half hour version of Heaven's Gate (1980, Michael Cimino) and the zapata-western Tepepa (1969, Giulio Petroni). Both might easily be included, but of course the list reflects the situation by the end of 2014...

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Merry Xmas PETSCII

It's been some time since I've tried to do PETSCII graphics. It took a surprisingly long time, a few re-starts and a night's sleep to do, even when the aim was to do a simple thing.

The entry listed at csdb, in case you want to download an PRG file for the C64/VICE.

The PETSCII editor itself:

Monday, 15 December 2014

Lego car drawing

In this picture, I tried to recreate an early 1980s Lego Technic steering mechanism, bit like in the 854 Go-Kart. It's drawn and painted from "memory". It's not too hard to remember, because while drawing the blocks pretty much begin to suggest each other.

Some mistakes/thoughts:

-The cog would not fit where it is now, the steering mechanism box is too low.
-The back part of the car frame is not held together (though I did leave it vague deliberately).
-There's too few Lego knobs on the right side angular bar :)
-The steering wheel frame is probably a bit too front to make that angle possible (though it's hard to judge)
-The steering mechanism overall is unnecessarily wide (Compared to Lego model 854)

Above, one of the earlier sketches, just before starting the top image. (A few unrelated sketches have become overlayed here.)

Below is the second take. I took a different angle that would show the part relations more clearly. The perspective came out a bit wonky, but as an illustration it's a bit clearer. In places the mistakes could even be fixed, but I don't want to do too much overpainting. As an image, I feel the red one turned out better.

This version, I think owes even more to the old 854 Go-Kart.

Addendum: I made the car from available parts, also changing some things as I went along. The proportions of the steering mechanism are a bit off in the above image, although it is not very obvious. The steering wheel frame was far too tall, and the car was too long to be well-proportioned. (But this is more a matter of taste)

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Western Games

Here's a six cylinder-ful of western games from the 8-bit era (Spectrum and C64 games). I tried to look past the usual action shooters and check out more complex gameplay. This bunch would make neat premises for new games with only modest changes and additions.

West Bank (ZX Spectrum)

Ok, I'll start with a bit of a shooter anyway, but it is an unusual one. As far as I know, this is a direct copy of the arcade game Bank Panic. There are 12 doors to your bank, and three of them are visible at a time. The doors open quickly, with customers approaching. Or a bank robber! The villains are shot simply by pressing the key that corresponds with the door, which I find more fun than if I had to aim at them. Shooting the bad guys before they shoot you gets you forward, whereas shooting an innocent person will set you back.

At the Weird West Bank.
There's honest looking folk, something that looks like a bar singer, thieves with covered faces and so on. The friendly folk bring their bags of money, whereas the nasty folk bring their guns. And it's not always easy to see which way they turn out to be. Often, a tiny "clown" type of character with about 7 hats, appears. Shades of some of the more surreal Spaghetti westerns here, I suppose... Shooting all of the hats reveals either a bomb or a bag of money. A nerve-wracking procedure!

Wild Bunch (ZX Spectrum)

Nothing to do with the Peckinpah film! Here the player takes the role of a western hero who has to fight the "wild bunch" gang. This simple multiple-choice adventure has a western simulation feel, with maps, several towns and various buildings to visit. Lots of stuff can be bought from the general store, and you can enter a saloon to play poker and so on and on.

A wild bunch of equipment, not that it makes that much difference.
One clever idea is that the members of the wild bunch gang are presented as Wanted posters with identifiable features. When you meet strange people, you are given a description and you need to decide whether they have to be challenged.

Left: One of the Wild Bunch. Right: Go west, young man...
It's quite apparent that the game is based on the numerous space trader type text games, and nothing wrong with that. It's not exactly "Elite in the West", though. It's far too intense for me to take notes about the townsfolk's appearance, but that's it what it takes if you want to win. Or you need to have a super-memory. Fighting, what I've seen of it, is too simplistic. The player pits his "energy" against the plethora of snakes and critters you meet each day you work your way through the never ending desert.

Gunfright (ZX Spectrum)

Ultimate's latter-day outing. They had run a bit out of steam at this stage and this game (alongside with Cyberun) received mixed reviews at the time. Portrayed in a scrolling isometric 3-D, pretty flat here to be honest, the game at first sight appears to be a full-blown western town simulation, with money, bullets, fares, telegram and whatnot.

-Where did you get that tin star, at the carnival fairground?
-As a matter of fact, I did.
Yet this is all mostly sheen, the designers have opted for a quite surreal interpretation of a western town, a haunting collection of bare-bone elements floating against a black background. Not that it's all a bad thing, but most of the game is about avoiding the townsfolk than fighting the rather sedately moving villain. Also, despite the facades, the buildings are just empty frames in a sparse maze. At least once you get the (hobby) horse you can zoom past and through everything and everybody. It all costs money, though.
It's a horror...
Scared townspeople point at the direction of the villain, which is a nice touch. After finding and "shooting" the villain in the main view, the perspective is switched to a first person target-game/quick-draw style showdown.

Six-Gun Shoot Out (Commodore 64)

A seemingly complex tactical level turn-based game that allows re-enactment of various historical and fictional gunfights from the old west. I say "seemingly", as most of the complexity arises from the clumsy and slow interface. The idea is pretty good, there's field-of-visibility checks and a variety of weapons and body postures that (probably) affect the gunplay outcome.

Left: There's a mouthwatering selection of scenarios in the game.
Right: Though your mouth dries up as you see the game's interpretation of the Magnificent Seven.
Yet on overall the gameplay seems woefully random. Also, the play fields are not that interesting. I'd like to see the idea re-done with a Laser Squad-style engine.

Law of the West (Commodore 64)

Clearly inspired by the film High Noon, the player takes the role of a sheriff who encounters various western town types while patrolling a town. Depending on the outcome of the discussions, the day might play out a bit differently, leading to duels with villains or preventing a bank robbery. If the player survives the day, it will be scored according to kills and hearts won etc.

The wonky-rubbery gun-draw needs to be seen to be believed...
I admit the visuals blew my mind when I saw them in the 1980s. Now I feel it could look a bit better even on the C64. Yeah, the backgrounds and the characters are quite good, but the sheriff on the left is a bit clumsy. Cute how the music changes according to the character you meet.

The game scheme is pretty compelling for the few first goes, but has little replay value after most of the avenues have been worked out.

Johnny Reb II (Commodore 64)

Whether a war game based on the Civil War is a western game, is one for the philosophers. Yet there's certainly overlap between western as a kind of action setting, a period piece, or a war scenario. I like to mention JR II because it plays pretty smoothly for such an old game. Also it works on a somewhat more detailed scale than most war games of the 1980s, so they player gets "inside" the action better. And that's perhaps what justifies the "western" monicker here.

Don't get bushwhacked by Jesse James!
So, okay, the gameplay is not very fluid for today, but I remember enjoying this game back in the day. Possibly because it was faster than the dreadfully slow SSI games.