It’s that time again, when I turn to you for your thoughts on movies, television shows, documentaries, cartoons, etc. I’m especially interested in those with some connection to the Western U.S. and/or the issues we regularly cover here at the Land Desk. So a classic Western would fit, as would a brand new film from another genre altogether such as Oppenheimer.
I’ll kick it off with a few things I’ve watched in the past few months.
The other night, I tried to watch The Curse, in which Emma Stone plays a do-gooder liberal white woman who is looking to “ethically” gentrify none other than Española, New Mexico, and to televise it on one of those home improvement channels. I say I tried to watch it because the streaming platform went on the fritz about halfway through the first episode, which was promising (and filmed in the real Española), yet cringey as all get out. Have any of y’all seen it? And if so, is it worth subscribing to the platform to watch the rest?
I saw Oppenheimer, as well, and am eager to hear your thoughts on it. I would have liked it to go into the science a bit more (as well as into the impacts of the Trinity test and the uranium milling and mining that supplied the fissionable material for the bombs). But then, it was
I watched both seasons of Dark Winds, based on Tony Hillerman’s novels — but don’t watch it if you expect the show to hew to the text; it doesn’t. I enjoyed the second season far more than the first, which was a bit hokey and insensitive for my tastes. I will admit that it bugs me that most of the backdrop is near Abiquiu, not the Navajo Nation, but at least it’s filmed in New Mexico and not at some California studio. I’m looking forward to season 3.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline, an action thriller that also delves into the question of how far one must/should go to stop the petro-corporations from destroying the planet and its inhabitants, is worth a watch, for sure. I won’t say more, since I plan to eventually write an essay about the film and monkey-wrenching in general. It seems that most viewers that panned the movie did so because of the message rather than the film-making or acting (one called it Marxist propaganda).
And finally, I rewatched Thelma and Louise a while back, in part because so much of it was filmed in places I’m enamored with. It’s a great movie, with delightful backdrops. Watch it and see if you can identify the filming locations.
Now it’s your turn!
On Netflix: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
by the Coen Brothers. Haunting…
I watched Wind River several months ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. I know there may be problems with appropriation and likely the story would be better told by others, but I give it up to Taylor Sheridan for bringing me to a point of mama grief (which hasn’t left me) for the young women up there and the families/communities who love them. And he is a master of making the landscape a character as central as the people in it. The beauty of the filming and locations only made the story more gut wrenching.
I saw "How to Blow up a Pipeline" at Denver Film Festival in November 2022 - I loved it! I thought it was a generational update on the 60s-70s radicals - these activists had very different origins and attitudes - some were all-in while others seemed to be just looking for excitement. As a group they weren't cohesive, yet in the end their project gelled.
I also saw at Denver Film Festival, in 2021, the badly-made documentary "The Taking" (a European's fascination with the American West, esp Monument Valley) - in my review I call it "The Talking" of which there's altogether too much, and scold the filmmaker for disregarding the basics of journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How? I thought the doc would be most instructive as a bad example for novice filmmakers: randomly stringing together material does not create a story, or even good information.
I visited Los Alamos last summer, and bought a couple of books that shed more light on the landscape, and its impacts, focusing on women who came there & knit together a community. I recommend Eleanor Jette's "Inside Box 1663" and Jennet Conant's "109 Palace Ave" - we see many of the same personages and events of the Manhattan Project, but with a wider perspective - showing the impacts of the rapidly-growing town on the water, earth, local residents, and infrastructure. Jette in particular talks about the very limited water supply; Conant shows how the gatekeeper, Dorothy McKibbin, managed housing, supplies, and security passes from her small outpost in Santa Fe, maintaining the secrecy not only of the project's purpose, but of the numbers of people living & working up there. Without these dynamic women who stepped up with organization, resourcefulness, and grit, the project could not have succeeded.
Frybread Face and Me!!! What a charming movie - filmed on the Navajo reservation. Directed and written by Billy Luther, who also did Miss Navajo in 2007- which is also worth seeing.
For Longmire fans, you might enjoy "Joe Pickett" on Paramount. The protagonist is a state game warden in rural Wyoming. Not quite up to Longmire, but not a terrible effort to portray the complexities of rural life in the West. Several seasons.
I haven’t been the biggest fan of Scorsese through the years but Killers of the Flower Moon was fascinating and disturbing and it was so interesting I had to watch it twice. It was Scorsese doing his usual thing but somehow very differently. I think the controversy is unfortunate; I think perhaps we have become a little too worried about who owns stories and should be glad the hard ones are now getting told. Scorsese is one of the foremost directors of all time and so anything he touches will be influential and impressive, and the fact that he did it elevates issues of racism and our buried history of genocide. I was provided with a new way of considering oppression that I hadn’t considered much before and I imagine this film has opened many eyes. It’s also made me think a lot about how “major motion pictures” have such an outsized influence on social awareness and change, and have a real impact on what the public thinks. Think of The China Syndrome and nuclear power, or Philadelphia and AIDS. Killers of the Flower Moon might be the first time that many Americans are informed that our attacks on Indigenous peoples weren’t just a couple of battles on the prairie but persisted through the decades and pervaded every aspect of their lives and our society. Scorsese made a big statement and I think it’s important.
Haven’t watched Thelma and Louise in a while but the best part of the film was shot in my nabe! Never get tired of seeing Paradox and Unaweep in that movie.
Oppenheimer: Loved the acting and visual/sound effects but felt it was sprawling, mess of a movie. It tried to tackle too much--if they wanted to cover so much ground, it should have been an 8 hour mini-series. Also, for me the bar for such dramatic adaptations of the Manhattan Project era is Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. Frayn covers more ground in a one-room play; it's a masterpiece. If you aren't familiar, the BBC did a radio play version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Simon Russel Beale that's a not-terrible adaption. There's also a film version with Daniel Craig but I've never seen it. Check it out and let me know what you think!
I had never watched Mad Men and since I’m recovering from shoulder surgery decided to get into something with multiple seasons. While it’s not specific to the West it is a fascinating trip back to the days of gas guzzling Lincoln’s and Cadillacs, no class action tobacco law suits and pre birth pill, Title 9, ERA roles of women and men. Also how everything from lipstick to Madison Square Garden was a commodity and fair game for marketing across expanding platforms from print to television. When you watch it it’s easy to see how our attitudes about land and resources were shaped and also how they have evolved into longer term conservation and away from short-term profitability. There’s still huge shifts to be made but sometimes looking back you can appreciate how far we’ve come.
Milagro Beanfield War delivers authentic characters, serious issues and humor from the land-grant region of Northern New Mexico.
Not much to say. Surprised to know Espanola is featured in a film at all. Have good and no so good memories of ending my USFS career there. Living and working there ca. 1997 was interestingly valuable in preparing me for what I would face in my next move/job w/the NMI Museum in Saipan.
Skinwalkers was a watchable PBS series awhile back. Low budget in a good way. I enjoyed it a lot, although it certainly wasn’t a museum piece. Haven’t watched Dark Winds yet but have a feeling Skinwalkers might be better. What we need are Native American producers and directors.
Oh, and I have to admit I liked Longmire a lot, being a fool for westerns, even when New Mexico is used as a stand in for Montana. Hostiles and Godless are also enjoyably shot in New Mexico (the state’s film industry perks are paying off).
Betting on the damaged minds of LA LA Land to create anything worthy is like betting that aliens will publicly land on Earth this year. I wish, but...
That said, I highly recommend the old TV special Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and TV show All Creatures Great and Small.
From YouTube check out Soft White Underbelly, The Green Room with Paul Provenza and Pinkbike's Friday Fails.
For ambient background streaming I like woldcams.tv or the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
One of my faves is the new True Grit. Coens and The Dude! Great dialogue as always.
Northern Exposure back from extended streaming hibernation! First season a bit hokey but subsequent seasons are classic.
Not necessarily western oriented but 1st season of True Detective is amazing. Thats on MAX tho.
Third Frontier is good with Andes as backdrop. Kind of a dude movie.
Rewatched Never Cry Wolf. Its on Tubi i think. I love that movie. Love the pilot Rosie. Reminded me of my dad.
Highly recommend The Bear on hulu. Not western tho! Just foody oriented.
Thats it for now. Big storm coming gonna nail the San Juans apparently. Wish i was up there.
Dark Winds. My criticisms are like yours- doesn't quite conform to Hillerman. I appreciated, like you, that it was actually filmed in the SW.
Additionally that there are alot of real Native Americans acting in it rather than the faux ones we used to see.
Best commercial I've watched is the Navajo grandma welcoming her grandchildren in from the snow. That one rings authentic for people, house and the wintry landscape. I should know I spent a some of my youth in such a family with such in-laws.
I highly recommend the fifth season of Fargo. I hadn't watched the prior seasons, and you don't need to either since each season's setting and characters are fresh. I heard NPR's TV critic recommend starting with this fifth season, and I'm glad I did. It's dark, hilarious, and has a connection to the issues you explore here because of the character of the sheriff played by Jon Hamm, a wife-abusing Christian Nationalist rancher who believes he rules the land, not the state or fed officials. I wish they'd make another season with these characters!
Netflix, or what?