A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Slow West” 5.24.15

The American Western has taken on many different shapes since the days of old. The “spaghetti Western” that was made infamous by director’s like Sergio Leone in his “Dollars Trilogy” – “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For A Few More Dollars” (1965), and “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” (1966) starring the “man with no name” played by Clint Eastwood. Simply don’t seem to exist anymore. Sure Quentin Tarantino did his best Leone “impression” a few years back with “Django Unchained” (2012). But that was more or less (like many of Tarantino’s films – a throwback or homage piece that paid a nod to the Westerns of old. It was somewhat of a dying genre throughout the latter half of the 20th century. One of the rare exceptions to the case being the Clint Eastwood directed “Unforgiven” (1992). Which is arguably one of the best Westerns of all time. But sprinkled throughout the nineties we saw dud after dud like Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” (1995 – a film that did and still gets more credit than it deserves as the only good thing about it was the Neil Young score), then another film that same year by another prominent director Sam Raimi’s redo of “The Quick and The Dead” (1995 – also somewhat of a disaster) and only a year later came Walter Hill’s “Last Man Standing” (1996). All three films, at least in my opinion, that were disposable and shouldn’t have ever been made to begin with. Then, about 10 years later, came somewhat of a resurgence within the genre, in John Hillcoat’s “The Proposition” (2005) that combined classic Western elements while also seeming inspired by and incorporating elements of the independent film movement of the nineties, and breathed new life into the genre. Two years later another film came out the genre, which again like “The Proposition” combined elements of 1990’s indie film but one that contained more “art house” components. A film that still stands as not only my favorite Western, but maybe my favorite film of the 2000’s, Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007). Which in the opinion of this writer, is almost a “prefect” film, and an incredibly strong contribution to what we know as Western. Since then, there really hasn’t been much but a few slightly above average films (2007’s “3:10 to Yuma” remake, 2008’s “Appaloosa”). But other than those two, the Coen’s remake of “True Grit” (2010) and “Django Unchained” (2012), I can’t really think of anything else that really stands out.

“Slow West” is another post-modern take on the classic Western genre. Boasting a rather impressive cast of Michael Fassbender (pretty much anything this guy’s in you can guarantee is going to be worthwhile –  2013’s “The Counselor” excluding), young and up coming Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (best known for his breakthrough roles as the young boy in John Hillcoat’s “The Road” (2009) as well as the central character in Matt Reeves’ remake of the Swedish vampire classic “Let Me In” (2010)), and lastly, an actor I’ve been hyping quite a fair amount of on this site as of late that anybody whose been paying attention would know, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, who I recently labeled “the best character actor currently working in the film business”.

The set up is a rather simple one. In 1870’s America, a young man by the name of Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has traveled overseas far and wide to find the love of his life, Rose, who he was once acquainted with many years back and has made it his mission to find her and get her to marry him. However, this is the rough, late 1800’s middle America, where Natives run amok as do bounty hunters. Not necessarily a place for a young man traveling alone. He soon comes across and befriends a freelance bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender) who takes the young man under his wing and for hundred dollars, agrees to bring Jay to be reunited with his once love Rose. Silas has his own motivations and agenda for doing so, and even though he is one of the best at what he does, he also just separated himself from a ruthless gang of bounty hunters led by the notorious Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). As their journey continues the two men and the rival gang meet, mostly of the same reasons which I won’t divulge, but that ends in a climax that will have you taken aback in your seat by how everything before it winds up building to the film’s grand finale.

This was a strong addition to the Western genre that was unique enough on its own to recommend. I thought the film’s marketing campaign of comparing it to Jarmusch, the Coens, and even Wes Anderson was way off the mark. In fact I would say it shared some with Hillcoat’s “The Proposition” but that was about it. It’s a slow-moving story even at a running time just under 90 minutes. But it’s stylishly shot and well acted (by all 3 of its main leads, though with Mendelsohn in a minor part who doesn’t really enter the film until about its 2/3 of the way through). First time writer/director John Maclean seems like a natural for this type of genre and films the rugged sand dune territory of the midwest with a deft hand. I found myself marveling more at the film’s excellent use of location and framing during the first half, which admittedly I found a bit slow content-wise. As both Jay and Silas’ journey is somewhat of a slow-moving one (hence the title). But like another film that was released last year, Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July”, once the story picks up and the violence starts erupting it really starts to reel in the viewer. Many, and I mean many lives are lost along the two’s journey to find Rose. Culminating in one of the most exciting climax’s in contemporary Western film since the end shoot out scene in “Young Guns” (1988). This is a film, like “The Proposition” and “The Assassination of Jesse James” that presents us with something new and original and a nicely welcomed addition to the genre. That being said, the film felt a bit slight, and is really solely powered by its rather incredible ending. So while the build up and ending climax was highly worth the wait, I thought the wait didn’t necessarily need to be stretched out as long as it was.

[B]

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TV Series Review – “Bloodline” (Season 1) 5.9.15

I can count on one hand how many TV series that I’ve actually taken the time to watch more than just a few episodes of. Maybe because I just never bought in to the whole “binge watching” phenomena that seems to go hand in hand with watching them. In thinking back, the only 4 TV series that I’ve actually watched in their entirety are “Twin Peaks” (1990-1991 = still my favorite series of all time), “Freaks and Geeks” (1999-2000), “The Sopranos” (1999-2007), and “The Wire” (2002-2008). Beyond that I’ve tried to invest both time and effort into watching “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013) and last year’s “The Knick”. Both shows which for some unknown apparent reason I just couldn’t get into and hung the towel with after maybe half a season or so. I pretty much always skip over anything about TV shows or series that I see printed online or in some cases, are advertised for on TV.

Except for in the case of this little TV series that came along which I heard was being heralded as the best Netflix original series since “House of Cards” which I knew more about by reputation than anything itself as it’s yet another series that didn’t really interest me in the slightest. What caught my attention about this particular series was not only that it came highly recommended by two of my co-workers (which always makes for stimulating water cooler talk come Monday morning), but by its incredible cast consisting of 6-time Oscar nominee Sissy Spacek (you know the bar is being set and high for cable TV when they can enlist an actress of this caliber), Oscar nominee Sam Shepard, Emmy award winner Kyle Chandler (for 2006’s “Friday Night Lights”), Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn (who I’ve recently declared as being the best character actor currently in the business), Linda Cardellini (ironically who starred in one of the series mentioned above = 1999’s “Freaks and Geeks”), and Oscar nominee Chloe Sevigny. At the time I was and am still awestruck of how a TV series could have possibly assembled such an amazing cast. Which was one of if not the main reason of how and why I got lured into it.

Netflix’s “Bloodline” originally aired back on March, 20th of this year, with all 13 episodes of its first season being available at once. The show itself is a family drama/thriller that revolves around a one Rayburn family. A wealthy upper crust family who own a very successful Inn down in the Florida Keys. The Rayburn’s consist of the patriarchal father Robert (played by Sam Shepard) and mother (Sissy Spacek), along with their four children; the eldest Danny (in what’s sure to be an Emmy nomination later this year by the mightily impressive Ben Mendelsohn), the second son John (Kyle Chandler, who should also garner a nomination for his strong work here), Norbert Leo Butz as the youngest son (an actor of great talent who I was previously unfamiliar with up to this point), and the youngest sibling, the sister, played by Linda Cardelliini. In typical family noir fashion everything looks good from the surface but nothing is as it seems. The show starts out by introducing us to the eldest brother Danny (Mendelsohn) who really acts as its central figure. Danny is the black sheep of the family, the one that got away, who happens to also have a bad drug habit but who comes back into the lives of his family when a celebration takes place in honor of their name in the season pilot. The events that transpire from this point forward examine the interpersonal dynamics of the family, as secrets and scars are revealed when layer upon layer of their family history unfolds and we are shown the inner depth and darkness of what happens to people when they try and leave the past behind but the past isn’t quite through with them yet.

This is a gritty, dark, and deeply probing psychological family drama that explores the inner depths of what lies underneath a family’s surface when their past resurfaces and the great lengths they try and take to cover them up after decades of secrets, deception, and lies. It works on just about every technical level from its stunning cinematography of the Florida Keys in both it’s sunshine paradise and murky swamps (nicely done metaphorically), to within its ability to grasp the viewer and engage them into its intricately woven plot, to its masterful writing, and what winds up surprisingly equaling the sum of its parts in the acting department (hard to do when you have this much talent on display). As already mentioned both Chandler and Mendelsohn give spectacular performances, particularly that of the latter, whose character seems drawn from something similar to that of the diabolical Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” (1991). The inner workings and pathos that Mendelsohn brings to his role is further proof that he’s one of the greatest character actors working in the business. I couldn’t think of any other actor who could bring this much depth to a part. Which I’ve always said is the greatest testament to an actor’s performance, when you can’t possibly imagine any other actor pulling it off as well as they do. It’s also consistently rewarding as no episode seems to go wasted and every one that proceeds the last plunges deeper and deeper and darker into the inner lives of the Rayburn family. Culminating in a great last couple of episodes where everything is brought to the forefront and a devastating and tragic event occurs which was both disturbing and shocking and left me foaming at the mouth for another season (which is already slated for 2016). As far as TV series’ go, this is one of the better shows I’ve seen, which even despite my admittedly limited palette, I can confidently say that anyone who chooses to take the time and invest themselves in it will be both highly rewarded and left salivating for more.

[A-]