THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

September 25, 2016

mag-7 Greetings again from the darkness. In this era of endless remakes, sequels and superheroes, I strive to keep an open mind when it comes to mainstream movies. All I ask is that the classics be left alone. Most will agree that there is no need for a new version of The Godfather, Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind; however, disputes arise in the gray areas. An old guy like me may cringe at the thought of updating this western, though it’s easy enough to understand how Hollywood studio types view it as an opportunity to sell tickets to a younger audience. In art vs. commerce, making money usually prevails.

The 1960 original, directed by John Sturges was itself a remake/reimagining of one of the greatest films ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Both are must-see’s for any movie lover. Given the technical advancements in filmmaking over the past 50-60 years, it only makes sense that director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, Training Day) would go bigger, faster, louder. What he can’t do is match the cool factor of Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, or of course, Toshiro Mifune.

Mr. Fuqua does bring a more racially diverse cast with Denzel Washington taking the lead as Chisolm, the dignified man-on-a-couple-of-missions. Chris Pratt basically buckles a holster onto his Jurassic World character and becomes Faraday, the wise-cracking sharp-shooter, who is as likely to cheat in a card game as lay his life on the line for a good cause. The “seven” are rounded out with Ethan Hawke as war hero Goodnight Robicheaux, Vincent D’Onofrio as bear-sized man Jack Horne, Byung-hun Lee as knife specialist Billy Rocks, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, and Martin Sensmeier as native-American outcast Red Harvest. You might think the only thing missing from this culturally diverse group is a woman, but Haley Bennett (and her distractingly terrible hair dye) plays a key role as a recently widowed town person intent on revenge against the heartless robber-baron Bogue, played by a sneering Peter Sarsgaard.

Co-writers Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) and Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) devote so much screen time to Denzel and Pratt that we never much get a feel for what makes the other characters tick. What’s not missing is the thundering hooves of galloping horses, steely-eyed glares, and gunfire … lots and lots of gunfire. This is where today’s sound technology really adds a welcome element – the cocking of a rifle, the leather of the holster, and of course, the near-deafening chorus from the Gatling gun all benefit from Sony 4k sound.

Fuqua’s stylistic approach may have more in common with Silverado (1985) than the 1960 Sturges film, but it’s important to note that this was legendary composer James Horner’s final score before he passed away. While we hear Horner’s unique take, we can’t miss the influence of the iconic original score by Elmer Bernstein. So while Pratt’s “So far, so good” joke may be a Steve McQueen re-tread, your appreciation of this latest probably correlates to your appreciation of the 1960 version.

watch the trailer:

 


STAGECOACH (1939) revisited

August 21, 2016

stagecoach Imagine you are 25 year old Orson Welles, and you are obsessed with creating cinematic history with your next film. You have spent hour after hour studying the best and most creative works of the finest filmmakers from all over the world. You come across a particular John Ford western, and are so inspired by its technical precision that you watch it at least three dozen times while working on your masterpiece … Citizen Kane (1941). Such is the influence of Ford’s Stagecoach. It may or may not be the greatest western film of all-time (a matter of preference), but it’s inarguably the most influential.

More than 75 years later, it’s difficult to imagine a time when John Ford and John Wayne were not joined at the swaggering hip making movies together. By 1939, Ford had won an Oscar for The Informer (1935) but had not directed a western in more than a decade, while John Wayne’s career to this point consisted of bit parts and B movies. The “firsts” here include: John Ford’s first movie with John Wayne, the first movie filmed in Monument Valley, Ford’s first talkie-western, and the first starring role in a major motion picture for John Wayne

It’s difficult to think of a more iconic star-making screen introduction than that first shot of John Wayne twirling and cocking the rifle as the camera zooms in on his face (see photo below). It should be noted that The Duke (as he was often referred) was 32 years old in the film and is wearing his own cowboy hat – one he would wear in many movies over the years (until it finally was in such bad shape, it was placed in a glass display case at Mr. Wayne’s home).

The film hit while the industry was still experiencing some of the pains of leaving the “silent” world behind and taking advantage of “talkies”. Additionally, the technology of color film was just beginning to be used more frequently, but many studios and directors were clinging to the traditional black and white look. As a genre, westerns had never been able to make that step into the mainstream … that is, until Ford and Wayne came stampeding to the forefront with Stagecoach.

Dudley Nichols (Oscar winning screenwriter for Ford’s The Informer) adapted the original story from Ernest Haycox (a prolific writer who helped elevate westerns from dime story pulp to respectability and box office profitability) into a screenplay that examines the early attempts at transitioning the “wild west” into a more civilized society. Social commentary abounds as several characters from disparate background are crammed into a confined space (the titular stagecoach) for an extended period of time. Some viewers may complain about the use of clichés, but in fairness, what we have come to label as cliché, was anything but at the time.

Adding their own special touch to the wide range of characters were some of the finest actors of the era. Claire Trevor was the best known star in the cast at the time, and she plays Dallas, the good-hearted woman whose past/profession causes her to be treated as an outcast by most in the group. Ms. Trevor would go on to accept the unofficial title of Film Noir Queen, win a Best Supporting Oscar for Key Largo (1948), and have the School of Arts at UC-Irvine named for her. Donald Meek plays the meek (yes his name often fit his character) travelling salesman ironically named Peacock. Contrary to what one would guess given his diminutive physical stature, Mr. Meek fought in the Spanish-American War. John Carradine is perfectly cast as Hatfield, the elegant gambler carrying a secret. Mr. Carradine is the father of the acting Carradine brothers (including David and Keith), and enjoyed a 65 year career with more than 350 projects. Drunken Doc Boone is played by Thomas Mitchell, who many will recognize as memory-challenged Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. He also appeared in such top shelf films as Gone with the Wind, High Noon and Lost Horizon. Louise Platt plays Lucy Mallory, the pregnant wife who is on a mission to reunite with her soldier husband. The villainous banker is played with gusto by Berton Churchill, and the only thing he’s missing is a twirly mustache. Mr. Churchill was a co-founder of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1933. Law Enforcement is represented by Marshal Wilcox, played by George Bancroft, and the stagecoach is driven by the great Andy Devine (as Buck). Mr. Devine manages to create a bit of comedy relief by the use of his trademark high-pitched raspy voice, as well as his underrated physical acting movements. Other notables making an appearance are Tom Tyler (once known as the strongest man in America) whose initial shaky transition from silent film to talkies is readily apparent in his few scenes; Woody Strode (one of the saloon patrons) who is known best for his fight scene in Spartacus; and Tim Holt who brings the charging Calvary to the rescue, and is best known as one of the prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Of course, it’s John Ford and John Wayne who draw most of the attention when this film is discussed. Born Marion Morrison, The Duke played football at USC before turning his full attention to acting. Here he plays bad-guy-with-a-heart Ringo Kid, and gets to show a pretty full spectrum of machismo, humanity, dignity and sensitivity. His extraordinary physical screen presence led him to the top of the film world with roles in some of the most popular films over the next 4 decades, capped by a Best Actor Oscar for True Grit (1969). John Ford, who was 45 years old at the time of Stagecoach, won 4 Best Director Oscars (plus two special Oscars for his WWII documentaries): The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green was my Valley (1942), and The Quiet Man (1952).

Two others deserve special mention. Stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt (a World Champion rodeo cowboy) was seemingly involved in just about every risky stunt in Hollywood during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Stagecoach provided the opportunity for what may be his best and most daring stunt – leaping onto the moving stagecoach and its 6 horse team and then sliding down under the carriage and out the back … all at breakneck speed! It’s fascinating to watch, and in this age of computerized special effects, it demands a level of awe and respect. While this film provided the first on screen glimpse of Monument Valley, it was Cinematographer Bert Glennon who figured out the best ways to take advantage of this breathtaking setting. Mr. Glennon was nominated for 3 Oscars (including Stagecoach), and was a frequent collaborator with both John Ford and Cecil B DeMille. The second half of his career was devoted mostly to TV series, rather than movies.

Stagecoach received 7 Oscar nominations including wins for Thomas Mitchell as Best Supporting Actor and Best Music (score) for Richard Hagerman, W Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. The other nominees were for Best Picture, Best Director (Ford), Best Cinematographer, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. While it might seem implausible that such a ground-breaking film could only win two Oscars, it’s a reminder why 1939 is considered by many to be the best ever year for movies. Check out this list of other releases that same year: Gone with the Wind; Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr Chips; Ninotchka; The Wizard of Oz; Of Mice and Men; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Young Mr Lincoln.

Despite being the first movie to feature the “dead man’s hand” – a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights (the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was gunned down), this film continues to live on in cinematic lore. Often included in the discussion of the best westerns of all-time – along with High Noon, Shane, Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Searchers – it was a joyful experience to finally get to see this one on the big screen in a theatre setting (thanks to Dallas Film Society and Chris Vognar). It’s clear how this film elevated the western genre, and it certainly deserved recognition by the National Film Registry in 1995.

stagecoach2

 


THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

December 27, 2015

hateful 8 Greetings again from the darkness. If one is to believe Quentin Tarantino, the leaked script scandal nearly turned this into a novel, rather than what it clearly needed to be … a Quentin Tarantino movie (his 8th).  It could even be considered a companion piece to Django Unchained (though this takes place in snowy Wyoming, as opposed to the balmy Deep South). It’s set soon after the Civil War and there still exists a palpable uneasiness between Confederate and Union types, creating a constantly teetering milieu between violence and progress.

Tarantino’s obsession with classic film led him to utilize the same Ultra Panavision 70 lenses used for Ben-Hur (1959), which required the retrofitting of 50 theaters across the country for the “road show”. This presentation includes an opening musical Overture, a midpoint Intermission, approximately 6 minutes of footage that highlight this rarely used format … stunning snow-filled vistas and wide shots of the frontier, and zero previews for upcoming releases.  When the film opens nationwide, the digital version will be straight-forward (though still nearly 3 hours in run time). The “road show” features are bonuses for us film geeks, and will have no impact on whether one enjoys the film or not.

Rather than follow in John Ford’s majestic Western footsteps, QT has the vast majority of the story take place within a one-room set called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Thanks to a record blizzard, the general store/saloon turns into a human snake pit filled with nefarious types who are quick with a quip and a trigger. The diabolical assemblage is made up of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, featuring world class whiskers), a bounty hunter who is handcuffed to his latest prize Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter (Union) Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson); British fancy boy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who says he’s the hangman for Red Rock; the self-professed new Sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins); General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate officer; quiet cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), whom Minnie left tending the store in her absence.

Now as you might expect, some of the above descriptions may be true, while others could be considered “conveniences”. What you also might expect is a steady rain of Tarantino dialogue delivered by the perfectly chosen cast. Each of these players grasps the cadence required to make this work … they have the rhythm of a stage play – a new direction that Tarantino has hinted at. And have no fear, over-the-top violence fills the second half of the story as the confined space and contradictory missions begin to clash.

No more need be said about the characters or the story. Russell, Jackson, Goggins and Ms. Leigh are especially effective at enlivening their scenes, and they are joined by supporting actors such as Dave Parks (son of the great Michael Parks), Gene Jones (who didn’t wish to call the coin flip in No Country for Old Men), Dana Gourrier (as Minnie), QT favorite Zoe Bell (as Six-horse Judy), and even Channing Tatum.

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone delivers his first western score in about 40 years, which is important since he’s the man behind the iconic music of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. On the topic of music, Morricone’s score is complimented by only a smattering of other songs (including a Roy Orbison gem and a solo from Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is unusual in the Tarantino canon. Three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson re-teams with Tarantino and seems to have a blast with the challenges presented by the one-room set … he plays with focus and depth to create some fantastic shots. It should also be noted that the Sound is spectacular – everything from gunshots, to swirling wind, to boots and spurs, to galloping stage coach horses, and even the pouring out of coffee.

All of the above results in a stunning movie experience with the anticipated QT humor, violence, and anti-racism sentiment (though the N-word usage is once again tough to take) … yet somehow the final product doesn’t equal the individual moments of genius. It comes across as a blend of Agatha Christie, (Tarantino’s own) Reservoir Dogs, and John Carpenter’s The Thing minus the cohesiveness required for a great movie. So enjoy the characters, the technical achievements, and the terrific dialogue, but know that it’s unlikely to be one of those that cause you to stop down while surfing cable channels in a couple years.

watch the trailer:

 


BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

October 25, 2015

bone tamahawk Greetings again from the darkness. In an effort to be helpful to potential viewers, it’s customary to provide a synopsis that allows for a quick determination on whether this “type” of movie will hold appeal. The problem is that this debut from writer/director (and novelist) S. Craig Zahler can be encapsulated with a simple: four local men from a small, dusty old West town head out on a rescue mission to face a tribe of cannibal cave-dwellers. Unfortunately, that analysis doesn’t cover the originality and genre-twisting of this Western-Horror film featuring crisp and funny dialogue, plus some of the most extreme brutality ever witnessed on screen.

A very deep and talented cast milks the script for every possible chuckle, moan, shock of pain, and queasy squirm. Kurt Russell stars as Franklin Hunt, the sheriff of the ironically named town Bright Hope. Though a long-time fan of Mr. Russell, I’ve often been critical of his career-limiting role choices, and here he proves yet again that he has always been capable of taking on a challenging lead and delivering a nuanced performance. He is joined in the rescue posse by his “back-up deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the abducted woman’s injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), and a nattily attired gunman (Matthew Fox).

The opening sequence featuring outlaws Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (horror vet Sid Haig doing his best Slim Pickins imitation) sets the stage for the brutal violence to come in the third act, as well as the film’s crackling dialogue that’s clearly influenced by The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Elmore Leonard. There are also brief but memorable supporting roles from Kathryn Morris (as the Sheriff’s wife), Michael Pare’ (as a self-centered stable owner), James Tolkan (as an uninspired piano player), and Fred Melamed (as the barkeeper). Lili Simmons (“Banshee”) has a key role as the abducted Samantha O’Dwyer.

An odd blending of John Ford’s The Searchers and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, a substantial portion of the (long) run-time is dedicated to the slow trail ride/walk of the four men as they track the “troglodyte” tribe in hopes of rescuing the captured folks. The focus on these four men: the duty-bound Sheriff, the overly loyal deputy, the emotionally-driven husband, and the vengeful gunslinger, is an old West character study dressed up with some fancy oration. In fact, the excessively-perfect English sits in stark contrast to the other-worldly tribal wailings of the cave-dwellers who seem to have no real language at all.

It’s an unusual film that defies a simple synopsis, and certainly won’t appeal to all movie goers. A viewer must enjoy the prolonged journey and the interaction between the distinctive personality types (Jenkins is a particular standout in a Walter Brennan-type role), and also have an affinity (or at least a constitution) for gruesome brutality. The film is only receiving a very limited theatrical release, but should find an audience via VOD.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIFF 2015 – Day 10

April 24, 2015

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 10 – Sunday April 19

The festival comes to an end on a high note, and once again, I recommend DIFF for any movie lover who wants to overdose on independent films and documentaries without fighting the crowds of Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, etc.  It’s a very well run festival and, with 160 films on the schedule., likely holds multiple films for you – regardless of your movie tastes.  My final three movies of this year’s festival:

LOVE & MERCY (2015)

love and mercy Greetings again from the darkness. Beach Boys fans may struggle a bit with this one since the light-hearted, airy feel to the “Fun, Fun, Fun” music of the band is mostly absent. Instead, director Bill Pohlad pulls back the curtain on the emotional and mental struggles of visionary songwriter Brian Wilson … the band’s creative force.

In an unusual artistic approach, Paul Dano plays Brian from the 1960’s period that resulted in the revolutionary Pet Sounds album and the ongoing battle with his domineering father; while John Cusack plays Brian from the late 1980’s – his most creatively bankrupt period and the subsequent debilitating influence of quackster psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The two periods are blended together as we (and Brian) bounce back and forth between the struggle of a budding musical genius working to release the sounds in his head, and a middle aged man so heavily medicated that speaking, eating and even getting out of bed are such overwhelming obstacles that music rarely registers. It’s during the latter period that Brian is truly at the mercy of Dr. Eugene Landy. Giamatti sports a floppy wig and proceeds to rage at Brian while trying to charm Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), Brian’s new romantic interest. Knowing this disgusting period was part of Brian’s life only adds to the anger and frustration we feel … not just as fans, but as human beings.

What sets this biopic apart is actually the performance of Dano and the peek inside the process of Brian’s genius. Watching Brian work the musicians and mold the music on the fly is breath-taking, even though we see the challenges of his early mental issues.  It’s a joy to see a tribute to the studio session players known as “The Wrecking Crew” … themselves the subject of a recent stellar documentary. It’s during this period that the Wilson brothers’ father (played by Bill Camp) constantly derides Brian and his “new” music.  There is also some insight into the Brian vs Mike Love battles – Brian exploring his creative music, while Mike just wants to keep cashing in with their expected “fun” style.

Some may find the two-headed approach to be distracting, but it drives home the point of what a different man he was in comparing the mid-1960’s to the late 1980’s. Mostly, I found the 1960’s portion to be an insight into what we hear from so many geniuses, regardless of their specialty. Brian says it’s like “Someone is inside me. Not me.” His struggles are non-relatable to others – even his brothers, and especially his dad. What is mostly a look at the darkness behind the “sunny” music, does come with real life redemption courtesy of Melinda’s strength … and witnessed in the video shown over the closing credits.

MANGLEHORN (2015)

manglehorn Greetings again from the darkness. For those of us who grew up with 1970’s cinema, it’s been painful to watch Al Pacino’s career over the last two decades … with only a couple of exceptions. We have longed for the actor who became Michael Corleone, and cringed with each outing that seemed to parody his Oscar winning performance in A Scent of a Woman (1983). Along comes the latest from director David Gordon Green and with it a reappearance of that actor so worshipped by John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever.

A.J. Manglehorn is an elderly locksmith who lives each day under his self-designed cloud of despair. His droopy eyes, droopy shoulders and droopy social skills are eclipsed only by his love for Fanny the cat, and his daily letters to Clara – the long lost love of his life. The only other signs of life in Mr. Manglehorn are displayed when he is telling a customer that it’s time to wash their car, when he is hanging out with his granddaughter, or when he is exchanging Friday flirtations with bank teller Dawn (a sparkling Holly Hunter).

Director David Gordon Green is best known for comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008), The Sitter (2011), and TV’s “Eastbound & Down”, and while this one (filmed in Austin, Texas) has some awkward and offbeat comedic moments, it would have to be categorized as a drama. Symbolism is everywhere as Manglehorn keeps his emotions “locked” away from his snooty yuppie son (Chris Messina) and retreats into his imaginary relationship with Clara, rather than embracing Dawn’s brave come-on.

There are a couple of extraordinary scenes … Pacino and Messina talking around, rather than about, their relationship and the type of men they are; and the excruciatingly awkward and heart-breaking first date between Pacino and Hunter. The forlorn Manglehorn remains behind the locked door and allows the shadow of his dream girl to cast a pall, despite having a real life dream girl sitting across the table.

Pacino recaptures his mastery of the close-up. Such emotion from so little apparent movement is the work of a once great master who proves he still has it. Some may be put off by the lack of big action, but these are people living life and trying to make the best of it. There is a line from the movie, “When you choose this life, there is no one”. It’s a line that tells us so much about Manglehorn’s daily approach. Whether he finds the right key matters to us for one reason … Pacino makes us care.

SLOW WEST (2015)

slow west Greetings again from the darkness. Every now and then a movie catches us off guard as the tone shifts during the story progression. The first feature film from writer/director John Maclean is an example of this, and even more impressive in the manner that it delivers contradicting and overlapping tones through much of its run time. Balancing life and death tension with laugh out loud comedic elements requires a deft touch, and Maclean proves his mettle.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In) stars as Jay Cavendish a young Irish man traveling westward across the old west Colorado frontier to find his true love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay’s babyface, naïve approach and trusting nature make his survival dubious at best … at least until he hires a grizzled gunslinger named Silas (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and protector.  There is vital information about Rose known to all but Jay, which leads us to not be so trusting of Silas’ motives in sticking with the young man.

The trail provides the expected hardships and a reluctant bond between the two opposites. Some of the tension is created by crossing paths with a couple of bounty hunters … one a long range dead-eye who sports a priest collar, and the other a nasty sort played by the always dangerous Ben Mendelsohn who leads the gang Silas once rode with.

Jay’s mission to find Rose is quite a romantic quest, but the effective use of flashbacks and dreams tells us more of the story, and in particular, why Rose and her dad (Rory McCann) are on the run. So as this tension builds, the startling and abrupt use of off-the-wall humor takes us viewers out of our comfort zone and into the unusual place of utter surprise at the back and forth between violence, romantic notions and laughter.

Fassbender and Smit-McPhee are both excellent in their roles, and relative newcomer Pistorius oozes with potential. Jed Kurzel’s (The Babadook) music effectively adds to both the drama and comedy, and the script is smart and funny – a rare combination these days. It’s likely that viewers will feel guilty for some of the laughs, but that just adds to the ingenuity of Mr. Maclean. Even the body count tally forces one additional guilty laugh from us before leaving the theatre. Very well done.

 

 


THE SALVATION (2014)

March 8, 2015

salvation Greetings again from the darkness. It is initially a bit disorienting to settle in to watch a Western shot in South Africa by Danish filmmakers with a story based in 19th century America. However, any doubts are quickly forgotten thanks to terrific writing, powerful acting, and creative camera work set to a distinctive soundtrack.

Blood, dirt, politics, true loss and crackling gun play accompany what is, at its core, a story of vengeance … and of course, good vs evil. We open in 1871 America, seven years after Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) left Denmark after fighting in the war. Today is the day that Jon’s wife (singer Nanna Oland Fabricius) and son (Toke Lars Bjarke) arrive, and the separation has been tough on all. The reunion is destroyed in the most awful manner imaginable thanks to a couple of drunken ex-cons sharing the stagecoach. Of course, salvation and vengeance would not be required if there were no turning point, and Jon’s natural reaction is what sparks the real fireworks in the story.

One of the bad guys on the wagon is the brother of powerful local gangster Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). We quickly learn he is not a rational man and cares little for anything other than making money and gaining revenge on his brother’s killer. Delarue stands for all the bullies of any era, while Jon and his brother Pete represent the huddled masses incited to action only through gross injustice. There are many details and elements that set this above the traditional western, and one of those is the presence of Madelaine (Eva Green) who was married to Delarue’s murdered brother, and was previously disfigured and muted by Native Americans.

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities and influences of John Ford, Sergio Leone and the classic High Noon (cowardly townspeople, morals corrupted under duress). Director Kristian Levring even superimposes the very familiar vistas of Monument Valley into some shots, and it’s done so well that our eyes simply accept the landscape. Mr. Levring also presents us a uniquely lit stagecoach in the moonlight scene that was beautiful to look at, despite the violent nature of what was happening. Composer Kasper Winding (brother to director Nicolas Winding Refn) adds a distinctive guitar that recalls the haunting effects of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in America … a very effective complement.

The lead actors are superb and well cast – though Jeffrey Dean Morgan goes 180 degrees against type as the evil-to-the-bone Delarue. Eva Green speaks volumes with her fiery eyes, and Mikael Persbrandt (who was so great in In A Better World) adds to the quiet-wild feel of the film. The bulk of the action falls to Mads Mikkelsen, who thanks to Casino Royale, The Hunt, and TV’s “Hannibal” has become one of the finest actors working today. His facial tics and emotional depth convey much with few words, and his character’s expert marksmanship with a Remington rifle is a welcome shift from the spraying automatic weaponry too common in film these days.

The politics of taking advantage of the unaware weak runs throughout the films, especially with the methodical “land grab” occurring so that the rich can capitalize on the “sticky oil” spoiling the water wells. You may not be a fan of Westerns, but there is much going on in this excellent script – and the visuals combined with expert acting should allow you to appreciate what expert filmmaking this is (especially given the low budget).

watch the trailer:

 


THE HOMESMAN (2014)

December 1, 2014

homesman Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).

Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.

Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.

The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.

Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.

The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.

watch the trailer: