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]

Review: ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ 8.26.14

Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch has had a very varied career. He has gone through different transformations and styles since becoming one of the first real American independent filmmakers on the scene back in the early eighties. Leading up to this film, I did what I do with a lot of other directors in that if I’m a big enough fan of a film or 2 of theirs, I will go back and do a complete retrospective of their entire ouevre in anticipation for it. Having really only seen ‘Dead Man’ (mediocre) and ‘Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai’ (great) I was pretty much a Jarmusch novice. So I started out with the film that put him on the map – 1984’s ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ and went in ascending order watching every film he put out along the way up to 2011’s ‘The Limits of Control’. One thing I realized throughout this process is that I have a very deep respect and admiration for Jarmusch. But as I mentioned, my opinion of his films are rather varied. This one fell into the varied group, in that I can’t say it really did much of anything for me. Much like Wes Anderson, I feel like after he made a few of his earlier films, he developed a certain style that he continued to rehash and infuse into all his films following. Although I did enjoy ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, I did come to the realization that not much has really changed. That’s sort of how I feel about Jarmusch. Ever since his films shifted, both stylistically and in content, around the time he released “Dead Man’, I feel like I’ve liked his films less and less with each release (‘Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai’ being an exception). He has developed a certain style that is unique and very particular to him. The characters he writes are always hip, cool, sleek, and stylish. That and cinematically his films have always been a feast for the eyes. But here, as more aligned with his most recent efforts, it’s yet another exercise in style over substance. I get that he was trying to do his own take on the vampire genre. Which for the most part was pretty inventive. What lost me was the story. It meandered and little to next to nothing happened except for a few characters that come in and out of this tale of 2 aging vampires, played well mind you, but it’s Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, so when are they ever not good? While we do get to meet some interesting characters in the form of Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, and Jeffrey Wright. I felt like the film was too full of itself and Jarmusch just used it as yet another vehicle for his psuedo-intellectual hipsters (only this time they’re vampires!), while also displaying his penchant for music and how he very specifically incorporates it into each of his films (one of the few aspects I thought was well done), and finally, his ability to put his own spin on a different genre all were on display here. But besides his usual trademark stuff, other than that, I felt like the film was void of any true feeling or development of the story. If you want see see a vampire take on ‘Sid and Nancy’, and watch aging vampires sit around, play and listen to music, and do not much of anything other than get their fill. Well, maybe this one’s for you. I just can’t say I would personally recommend it. Except to maybe the diehard Jarmusch fans. In which case, I’m sure they will rise to his defense at any cost and disagree with me.

Grade: C