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]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “American Sniper” 1.17.15

Let’s face it Clint Eastwood hasn’t directed a great film in a decade. His last really good film was his 2004 masterpiece – “Million Dollar Baby” which was an absolutely stunning achievement garnering Academy Award nominations in almost every category, including a well deserving Best Actress win for Hilary Swank. This is an especially important thing to highlight because Eastwood’s creative output (a film every other, sometimes twice a year) has been at an all time high during these past 10 years. His back to back War films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) both were failures, both from a cinematic stand point and in terms of box office revenue, and little to next to nobody I know saw either one of them. Then came maybe his best yet still underwhelming year in 2008 with the release of both “Changeling” and “Gran Torino”. Both semi worthwhile efforts despite having their fair share of flaws. 2009 brought us his first collaboration with Matt Damon, the sports drama “Invictus”, an Eastwood effort that I skipped as it didn’t pique my interest in the slightest, that and I’m not particularly a fan of films that cast Damon in the lead role. 2010’s “Hereafter” I too skipped as it was a poorly reviewed film that featured another collaboration between Eastwood and Damon once again in the lead role. The year after he released the J. Edgar Hoover biopic “J. Edgar” (2011) featuring a stand out Leonardo DiCaprio performance in what was an otherwise long, tedious, and boring film. Enter 2014 and Eastwood planned to release another 2 films – the first based on a book about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons called “Jersey Boys” which featured no well-known actors and got mediocre to below average reviews, and basically flew under the radar of just about everyone I know (most people I talk to didn’t even know it was an Eastwood film). This being his latest film, which looked like it had some serious promise after revealing one of the better looking and well constructed trailers I had seen all year. That and the “surprise” Oscar nominations this past Thursday morning recognizing it for both Best Picture and star Bradley Cooper in the Best Actor categories quickly catapulted it from a “I’ll probably see that movie once it comes out in the theater” to a “how quickly can I get to the theater to see it” status. I then bought my advance tickets the night of the announcements, expecting the crowds to look like something similar to that of the newest “Hunger Games” release. All of that aside, I can’t say I had the highest of expectations for it, as it looked like it had the workings to either be a great film, or yet another Eastwood disappointment.

The film introduces us its real life based on a true story character Chris Kyle. A Texas man who spends most of his time at the bull races trying his best to make a living as a cowboy. His then current relationship quickly dissolving and he begins feeling unfulfilled as to where his life is heading. Like most people, he doesn’t seem content on just “being”, and strives to look for something more out of life and for himself (a lesson he is taught at an early age by his father in a flashback dinner scene with both him and his younger brother). Chris decides at a rather late age of thirty to enter the Navy, and in a montage showing him and other recruits going through basic training, it seems like he is tailor-made to be suited for his new calling as he is everything the military represents – he’s a man of high moral value that stands for loyalty, discipline, and dedication to the cause. Not to mention he’s an expert marksman. During one weekend he meets a young woman (played by the increasingly impressive Sienna Miller, who played another high-profile role this past year in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” as Mark Ruffalo’s wife). They seem like a perfect fit and soon after decide to get married (in one of the first of many great scenes that I thought clearly exemplified a soldier’s loyalty to their cause over that of their own family – a major theme and focus of the story). Chris and his new wife quickly get accustomed to their newly married, domesticated lifestyle, only to have Chris get deployed for his first of four tours. The film then quickly transports us to the Middle East, where we see Chris as a Navy Seal sniper picking away at militants in combat. The camera looking up the barrel of his gun and square into his eyes as he picks off his targets right and left. Chris becomes an almost martyr-like hero to his peers as he continues to save life after life with his expert skills as a sniper. But at what cost will all of this have on Chris’s psyche and even more importantly, will it have on his increasingly distant wife and children, who seem to be deeply affected by Chris’ absence as he goes back and forth between tours in the Middle East and being back stateside with his family.

This is a landmark achievement between director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper and it turned out to being something much more than I had expected which was a pleasant surprise. There are many things I’d like to point out about this film that I liked, but I’ll try to keep it to just the essentials. First off, it’s an incredible character study with Cooper in his career best performance to date. I thought he was great in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and good in “American Hustle” (2013) (but didn’t think he deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination). But this film puts him on a new platform as an actor. His restrained, subdued, yet expressive performance is nothing short of amazing. He also put on about 40 pounds of muscle (which looked to be about double that) to play the role, and is almost unrecognizable as his normal baby face appearance is transformed into someone much more tough and rugged. Which is a true testament to Cooper as an actor as you can tell he must have totally immersed himself into the role. Unlike Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”, despite the transformative physical appearance, there is an undeniable sense of serious acting chops underlying his performance from within. The second thing I wanted to point out is that it feels nothing like a standard Clint Eastwood film, who tends to follow a lot of stereotypical Hollywood movie tropes with his usual lyrical narrative approach to storytelling. There is very little here that resembles that. Though a couple of minor criticisms I had of the piece is that some of the scenes at home felt melodramatic and laid the sentiment on a bit too thick. That and I thought they downplayed the relationship between Chris and his younger brother. Outside of that though I thought it was an incredibly confidently directed and assuredly shot piece of filmmaking, and is both compelling and captivating from start to finish. Which is remarkable given that Eastwood is in his later years and we may only get another film or two out of him until he retires from moviemaking all together. The scenes of Chris during his tours of duty are visceral, gripping, taut, and utterly intense. One could only imagine the difficulty of this shoot as the “sniper scenes” were filmed brilliantly giving the viewer fly on the wall access to the proceedings. Lastly, and what surprised me most, was how it defied my expectations, particularly when it came to how Chris’ heroism is portrayed. I thought at the hands of Eastwood it could have had some serious potential to fall into flag waving American propaganda territory. Had it of been depicted in this way which I honestly thought it might I would have most likely liked it a lot less than I did. But there was nothing even remotely glorifying the Navy Seals and/or military, as many of them including Chris, are faced with difficult ethical and moral decisions in scenes both inside and outside of war that I thought were presented rather deftly by Eastwood and the rest of his writing team. The last thing I thought to be rather profound, that in a fully packed sold out theater, not one person clapped when the house lights came on and the credits rolled. Every person piled out and exited the theater one by one like zombies and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I think they like me, were so moved by the experience of what they had just seen, that they had a hard time coming up with much of anything to say. Which is why you’ll always hear me encouraging people to see movies at the theater or cinema, as it truly is one of the few last remaining communions we have. A place where a group of people can have a collectively shared, present moment experience. And this was another perfect example of that. Ladies and gentleman, even at the tender ripe young age of 84, Clint Eastwood is back.

[B+]