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: ‘Cold in July’ 9.13.14

I’ve grown quite fond of director Jim Mickle over the past couple of years. Really only having very recently seen both his 2006 debut – “Mulberry Street” and last year’s “We Are What We Are” (a surprisingly better remake of the 2010 Spanish film of the same name). Though admittedly I was a little disappointed with his 2010 film – “Stake Land” it still had its moments. That and I knew we were being introduced to a new kind of genre director. Perhaps a new horror director but with something very different to say. His films up to this had focused on a decaying city being overrun by toxic rats, a vampire hunter, and a family of cannibals. Though there have been several genre pictures of this kind. Mickle seems to have more of his own vision and puts a personal stamp on everything he does. Like with many great directors, you would almost know it’s a Jim Mickle film even if you didn’t know so going in and had seen any of his prior work. He is an auteur. But rather than be pigeonholed to one specific genre, Mickle here steps outside of his comfort zone to delve into an entirely different genre. A sort of genre hybrid. One that contains elements of film noir, crime, suspense, and thriller tropes.

We are first introduced to Richard (Michael C. Hall from Showtime’s “Dexter”). Richard is a quiet, reserved family man. Who at the very beginning of the film has to make a rather difficult choice in order to defend his family. Someone winds up dead. And this someone’s father, a man who goes by the name of Russel (played ruthlessly by the great Sam Shephard) wants revenge on the family of the man who killed his son. Richard’s paranoia increases over his own family’s safety after several run in’s with Russel, and after one specific incident, they are put into a kind of pseudo-Witness Protection program. The first act was more or less standard fare. But then things really start to pick up. Richard witnesses an act of police corruption, believes his family was set up and used as bait, and tells Russel that he doesn’t think it was his son who he killed and that it was all part of a cover up involving both the police and local Texas mafia. Then about halfway in we meet a man by the name of Jim Duke (played by the legendary Don Johnson), an outside detective from Houston, who comes in to work on the case. Things also seem particularly shady to him as well, and the 3 central characters then band up together to go and seek out the truth. By whatever means necessary.

Mickle does a great job here of tackling a new genre, one that acts out as an almost hybrid of sorts. It’s a gritty piece of pulp noir crime thriller. He does a great job of making sure the audience is constantly second guessing at the twists and turns that come up constantly at almost each and every corner of the film. His ability to wrack up the amount of tension and suspense that he does without letting go is nothing short of amazing. It also has a incredible original score, one that’s heavy on the synthesizer and sounds like something from early John Carpenter films like “Assault on Precinct 13” with hints of the excellent Cliff Martinez (“Drive”) scores of recent years. The pulsating, thunderous, driving beats of the score accentuate the story’s suspense and drama. Mickle’s 3 central actors – Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson all come with the goods here. All three performances are particularly strong and none stand out above the other. What I can say too without hopefully giving too much away, is that its climax that had me gasping. The violence is someone restrained up to this point, but when the the end comes Mickle really brings the guns. I thought the last 15 minutes, which had elements of a great Western showdown, and reminiscient of something out of a Sam Peckinpah film, were some of the most tense, well shot and choreographed segments I have seen of any film this year. This one already has earned a spot on my top 20 films of the year so far. If this type of material sounds like something that you might be interested in I can assure you you won’t be disappointed.

Grade: B+

Review: ‘Oculus’ 9.3.14

I have a really hard time with American horror films these days. Why? Because I love the genre so much. And I constantly feel like every stab I take at seeing a film, I’m let down again and again. This has become more apparent in recent years. There are some exceptions. I enjoyed Scott Derrickson’s 2012’s – “Sinister” Jim Mickle’s “We Are What We Are” (2013), and James Wan’s “The Conjuring” (2013). I also really liked Rob Zombie’s “The Lords of Salem” (2013), but that was geared more to the art house crowd and hardly anyone I know saw it. Lately, especially with American horror, all I feel like I see advertised is one horror crap fest after another. Or another film in the line of carbon copy franchises (I’m looking at you “Paranormal Activity”). That, or the countless retreads or remakes of older classic horror films (I recently heard, though I guess it’s old news, that there’s actually a “Rosemary’s Baby” TV show). What is this world coming to?

Though every now and then an American horror film will pop up that piques my interest. This being one of them. It had been on my radar as I had seen that it was well reviewed. That, and I’ve always had a sort of underlying interest in horror films that take a ordinary premise and make something extraordinary out of them. In the case of this film a “haunted mirror that shows you things you don’t want to see”. After Alexandre Aja’s catastrophically bad 2008’s “Mirrors”, which was similar in concept but done with disastrous results, I found myself intrigued when the premise came up again. “Hopefully they’ll get it right this time around” I thought to myself. Well, what we do have right here is we have a somewhat effective, creepy enough, psychological horror film that succeeded on some levels. And then not so much on others. The setup revolves around a mysterious mirror that was once owned by a family who purchased it as an antique when they move into their new home. The mirror then takes many shapes and forms as do the inhabitants of the house. Though in good ole’ horror ghost story fashion the kids rise up to the defense of their family. A number of years go by, and the kids; now grown ups, buy back the mirror in hopes of figuring out why some of the things that happened to them did, setting off a new series of events. Sounds tacky? Well, it is. But it also produces some geniunely scary moments. They just happen to come at you a little bit too far in between each other. That, and with what almost seems to be becoming a tradition in American horror these days, they try and pack a tad too much of a punch towards the end. That being said, it manages to retain a pretty creepy vibe throughout, and when the punches do come, they’re somewhat exciting. What I can say it’s certainly better than the average American horror film these days. But still, that’s not really saying much.

Grade: C+/B-