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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A Trip To The Movies – “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” 2.28.15

I’ll just flat-out start by saying this was probably the most highly original, inventive, and exciting film I’ve seen to have come along in a while. In fact, had it of come out last year, it wouldn’t most likely have, it would have, landed a coveted spot on my “best films of the year-end” list. What’s so interesting about this film is that it kind of came out of nowhere. In fact, I don’t even remember how I heard about it. Since I really don’t read any film news/review anymore that’s not where I took notice of it. I do however somewhat regularly look at cumulative scores and saw that this one was graded rather highly. Then I saw the name of the title and it piqued my interest. And merely based on that and that alone, plus seeing a tagline that it was “the first Iranian Vampire Western”, I thought to myself well at the very least this sounds interesting. What I “didn’t” know while watching it is that it’s an American film. Even though all of the characters in the film are Iranian actors who speak in the Persian language and it’s written and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour who has lived in America for practically her whole life. Which is ironic because the film feels totally foreign, and different from just about any other American film I’ve seen, bringing us into a poor desolate land known as “Bad City” which feels like a world far, far, away when in actuality it was shot right here in the States in Bakersfield, California.

The film opens with an old man, Hossein, a heroin addict who seems to be at the end of his rope in terms of his addiction. The only saving grace in his life is the assistance of his son, Arash, who is at his father’s beckoning call because like most sons (at least that I know) does just about anything to save his father. Anyways, Hossein owes quite a bit of money to the local town drug dealer, Saeed (whose look seems to be taken straight from Ninja of the rave/rap African group Die Antwoord). Saeed takes one of Hossein’s prize possessions much to the chagrin of Arash. Saeed seems to be the focus of the story, at least for about the first quarter of the film, along with his hooker, junkie, drug partner Atti. But one night Saeed happens to stumble across a young woman, called simply “The Girl”, that follows him to his apartment, which in that point in the story it shifts gears completely and this “girl” or young woman of whom I speak of becomes the central focus of the story. What’s even more notable is that said woman is a vampire, who goes around town wreaking havoc but does so with a conscience. She seems to only prey on the weak, sick, and degenerate members of society. It is by this chance encounter between the town drug dealer Saeed and the girl whom Arash crosses paths with, which involves the major subplot of the story, one that mirrors the one from “Let The Right One In” (2008) and the American version “Let Me In” (2010). But don’t be fooled, besides the reference, it’s undeniably unique enough (not to mention they’re adults and not children) to separate itself from those films. It is through their relationship that the rest of the story unfolds, and all of the characters previously mentioned are reintroduced back into (or out of, depending on how you want to look at it) the story.

As you can probably already tell by my comments at the beginning of my review I absolutely loved just about every aspect of this film. There is just so much I want to talk about that I feel like I would be doing it a great injustice to leave any of them out. But for the sake of not writing a novel, I will try to keep it to just the key elements of the film in which I really liked. First off was its stunning black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always thought a film is better when shot in black-and-white. As it takes the viewer away from the color palette and allows the images to speak for themselves. In this film this approach works brilliantly as it’s maybe the best looking black-and-white film since as far back as I can remember. This format also gives this chilling, noirish tale a look of authenticity that works perfectly given the content of the story. It’s also about as stylishly shot from a design angle and has a look and sometimes feel of an old Jim Jarmusch film (especially in the hipster department). The cool, sleek, and cold feel and tone matches the images on-screen magnificently. Another thing I think is important to point out, is that for a movie with this much style (Quentin Tarantino came to mind for me at times) it’s also loaded with substance. The central story and the many shifts in character arcs make it completely and utterly compelling from start to finish. There’s also a great “meta-ness” to the whole affair. While it certainly is a horror film at heart it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, comedy, drama, and romance. All genres that are balanced quite well considering how dense of a film it winds up being. The last thing I think that’s important to point out is that there is scene after scene of sheer beauty that seem like they have the potential to be iconic movie history (an example would be the dancing scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” (1995) – but imagine not just one but several scenes like that). Which had me looking up the screen with a shit eating grin for practically the entire film, so engaged by the style, story, and characters that I had to pass up a bathroom break in fear that I was going to miss whatever was next. This is hands down the most unique, stylish, and fresh take that breathes new life into what is otherwise a tired genre, that being the vampire film. It’s only two months into the year and this one has already secured a spot on my top 10 list of 2015.

[A-]

Review: “Calvary” 12.6.14

Writer/director brothers John Michael McDonagh and Martin McDonagh may be 2 of the best filmmakers out right now on the current scene. Unlike The Coen Brothers and more like Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony but catered more towards the intellectually minded moviegoer, they both make their own films as they seem to each have their own unique approach and take on cinema. I was first introduced to the pair by way of brother Martin’s brilliant and often unspoken of “In Bruges” (2008). A film about 2 hitmen, played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Ferrall (in what I still consider to be the latter’s best performance to date), as they hide out in a small Belgian town called Bruges. Then came the writer/director of this film, John Michael, and his bravura debut film “The Guard” (2011). A crime film about a dirty cop, once again played by Brendan Gleeson, and the detective brought in (Don Cheadle) to help him infiltrate a drug smuggling operation in a small Ireland town. I still consider “The Guard” to be one of the better crime comedies of the past decade that had a knock out, razor-sharp script that proved John Michael had an undeniably gifted knack for writing as well as directing. Then the year following, we got another fresh and exciting new film from his brother Martin in the form of “Seven Psychopaths”. Martin’s second film about hitmen boasted an incredible cast by the likes of Colin Ferrall, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, and Michael Pitt. All 3 of the aforementioned films earned Honorable Mentions spots on my “best of” lists from those years. Enter 2014 and we now have the second film by brother John Michael, fresh off of “The Guard”. One that once again starred Brendan Gleeson, who as mentioned above, has starred in 3 out of the 4 of the brothers’ films to date. I’ve always considered Gleeson to be one of the more gifted actors currently working in film who seems to almost always impress me both in and outside of the studio system. That and he’s earned himself 3 Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor for 2 of the films mentioned above, ironically enough 2 films by different brothers, both of which I already mentioned, those being both Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” (2008) and John Michael’s “The Guard” (2011). Because I thought so highly of all 3 of the films by this writer/director/brother team, who mostly work independently outside of one another, and are a great example of my approach to movie watching ethos, I decided to put this one high up on my list when it came out. Having missed it during its theatrical run, I drew up quite a bit of anticipation of seeing it once it became available on DVD.

The film grabs our attention right off the bat with a man who while in confession conveys a dark secret to the church’s priest Father James (played by Gleeson). A confession that possesses certain ramifications to both Gleeson and one of the other fathers. This sets the wheels in motion automatically straight from the get go as Gleeson then goes on a mission to find out information from other members of the Irish community in which he lives in. Along the way he encounters a multitude of different townspeople. None of whom seem to have respect for the honorable priest, who seems to be ridiculed and mocked in just about every said encounter. Gleeson’s Father James is a troubled, wounded man, who seems torn by his profession. As he is both a servant of the Lord and an a man of principles outside of the faith, who seems to just want to know the truth, regardless of whatever evilness he’s willing to come across while trying to find it. Throughout the story we are introduced to several characters – his suicidal daughter (played by “Eden Lake’s Kelly Reilly), town mistress, writer friend (M. Emmet Walsh), doctor, nemesis (the wonderful, scene stealing Chris O’Dowd from the hit TV show “The IT Crowd”), criminally minded mechanic (played by Jim Jarmusch regular Issach De Bankole), and rather very wealthy but stubborn financial backer of the church. Not one of them seems to have one iota of respect and/or care in the world for Father James and he only finds opposition from his many parishioners who seem to be doubting both their own faith in themselves as well as the Father’s in his own personal quest to seek the truth. A journey of self-discovery that finds him testing his faith in spirituality and religion, both inside and out.

This was a remarkable film from almost every cinematic standpoint. First is yet another brilliantly gifted performance by Brendan Gleeson, who seems tailor-made for this type of material, an actor who seems to be a muse for writer/director John Michael and his brother Martin. In one of his more finer performances to date. He is enigmatic here as he carries weight of this complex and emotionally resonant material on his back. He is the meat and bones of the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he earns his third of fourth Golden Globe nomination working for this unquestionably talented writing/directing team of brothers. The second thing that should be pointed out is the assured and flawless script and direction by John Michael McDonagh. It’s a landmark achievement from both a writing and directing standpoint. Since the film relies heavily on its script, as did McDonagh’s last directorial effort “The Guard” did. He utilizes his trademark dark comedy and humor to reveal a story that winds up being much deeper than I possibly could have ever imagined going into it. The scenes between both Father James’ Gleeson and his daughter (Reilly) are particularly strong, poignant, touching, and heartfelt. McDonagh makes sure not to waste a single frame here as it features some gorgeous cinematography of both the Ireland coast and countryside. The Mise-en-scene (the setup of images within each shot) on display here is nothing short of dazzling. The lighting radiates across the screen and both it and the film’s framing are impeccably shot. It also boasts a very well put together soundtrack, one in which its music of classic oldies, more traditional Irish folk music, and melancholic piano and string sounds is perfectly aligned with the material. Last, but certainly not least, it does an incredible job at exploring such difficult themes such as questioning faith, morality, the evil that men do, and prejudices about the priesthood. All done with a sense of authenticity and grace that is so rarely done of movie of this kind (an exception being 2008’s Academy Award nominated “Doubt”). While admittedly I thought the first third of the film dragged a bit, I soon came to realize that it was done so in a way only to effectively set up the story and characters. This wound up being a refreshing take on one man’s morals, principles, religion, and faith, that totally won me over and in my opinion is so far is right on par with both the writer/director brothers’ best work to date. Along with a spellbinding performance by Brendan Gleeson. This one is sure to make my list of Honorable Mentions at this year’s end, and just might wind up vying for a spot on my top 10. A sharply written, brilliantly directed, and well acted film. “Calvary” is a phenomenal film that just happens to fall somewhere just slightly below the slew of this year’s best.

[strong 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