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: “The Congress” 11.30.14

This is yet another example of a film that caught my attention solely because of the fact that I loved Israeli-born writer/director Ari Folman’s previous effort – 2008’s Golden Globe Winner for Best Foreign Language Film “Waltz With Bashir”. I recently revisited “Waltz” for maybe about the half dozenth time or so and found it to be every bit as mesmerizing as I had remembered it from the 5 or so previous viewings of it that I had seen. Maybe even more so. Part of the reason why I revisit movies is because I feel like I look at them differently with each passing year. That and it’s always a wise choice to revisit a director’s previous work which allows someone like myself to drum up anticipation for their next film. This film in particular highlights this ethos exactly. As WWB is a brilliant film from a multitude of cinematic stand points. It brought an entirely new and fresh approach to the documentary format in that it was shot similarly to what Richard Linklater did with both “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006). It presented us with a series of interviews that the director films beforehand then has a team of animators draw over the already filmed material which gives them an almost surreal and dream-like quality. The major difference being that Forman utilized this same look but without the fictionalization of the 2 Linklater films. His was a real life account of a series of different people talking about their experiences of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Which not only gave it a sense of authenticity in terms of how it breathed new life in telling a somewhat familiar war-torn story. It gave me a newfound admiration for how animation could be used to tell a highly effective tale with a deeply emotional center. However, since then, a very seemingly long 6 years have past. And now Folman is back with his next feature that finds him, like many other foreign filmmakers, coming to the United States following an award-winning film of theirs. This plus it boasted a rather impressive cast in Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston, and Kodi-Smit McPhee in a film that like WWB, brings back this combination of animation with live action footage.

The film opens with a close up shot of Robin Wright’s character, and a close zoom out with an off-screen voice-over by her film agent played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel is debasing her about her career and the many ups and downs it has taken, more recently for the worse. He says that he has come to bring her one last opportunity to do something that might kickstart her career. A move that could give her the same fame and notoriety she received for films that she was in when she was younger. Films like “A Princess Bride” (1987) and “Forrest Gump” (1996). It is quickly brought to our attention that she is playing a fictionalized version of her real life self. Though everyone around her including her son (Smit-McPhee), head of “Marimount” Studios (Huston), and son’s doctor (Giamatti), play characters and not themselves. Wright is being told that in order to save her career, she needs to be copied, or “computerized”, so that she can maintain both her youth and success. She is very apprehensive to this as she seems to be a “technophobe” as her daughter puts it. She’s afraid that by becoming cloned or made into a chip she might lose her sense of self and identity. However, because of her growing older and in need of a career change, she decides to take the offer. She then heads to some sort of scientific division within the studio, where she undergoes said transformation. Then, at this point, we jump 30 years ahead to the year 2033. Where she is about to cross the border from real life to computer life. And after having done so, she’s transported to this world where a number of different events transpire. Most of which revolve around the studio and the societal framework known as “The Congress”. The film takes a huge shift at that point and delves into entirety new territory, as it goes on to explore themes of identity, existentialism, the self, and post-technology. Giving us an inventive glimpse into the future.

I’ll start by saying I felt very indifferent about this picture. There really was so much to like, yet at the same time a lot that I had quite a bit of hard time finding myself being able to get into. First off, as I mentioned above it boasts a pretty incredible cast. Robin Wright is perfectly cast here as the aging star who’s own real life career trajectory is important in terms of the story’s context. She’s also in just about every frame of the film, so almost all of it rests on her really pulling her weight. And she rises to the occasion here providing some very strong work. Also, the animation, which a little more than a third of the film consists of, is simply breathtaking. As was with WWB, Folman and his obviously very talented animation team provide a visual spectacle with animation that makes anything I’ve seen up to this point look outdated. It’s hallucinogenic and acid-soaked imagery is nothing short of dazzling to watch. There’s also a pretty deep emotional core to the film, as the Wright character goes on a journey of self discovery that forces her to tap into some pretty introspective places. That stuff aside, the film feels almost tedious throughout its entire duration. The shift in tones were off-putting. The first third drags and then just when it starts to get interesting, they totally shift focus in the story and we’re presented with this entirely new universe and character arch. That and the animation segment, which takes up about the second third to three-quarters of the film, is a head scratcher and utterly difficult to keep up with and follow at times. It feels overwrought and much too dense for even the hardest of genre fans. Which in the case of this film would be heady Science Fiction. It attempts to explore some really deep existential themes that at times just seemed like a tad bit too much. So for all the incredibly stunning imagery on display here, the film gets caught up in the too many themes in which it tries to explore. And even despite its great cast and voice over work by people like Jon Hamm and Tom Cruise, this is mostly a tiresome effort for director Ari Folman and a disappointing follow-up to “Waltz With Bashir”.

[C]

6 Days Until Halloween – 6 Of My Favorite Horror Films Of The Past 6 Years: #6: “Let Me In” (2010)

In what just may be the best horror remake in the never ending list of retreads, spin-offs, and sequels. Matt Reeves does something with his take on the Swedish version of the original by (almost) the same name “Let The Right One In”. He takes the source material, expands on it, and winds up making it better than the first. Where the original had an almost tepidly paced, art house feel to the whole proceeding. Which while although maybe made it beautiful to look at. I personally didn’t feel as if they really drived up the horror component in a way that they should have. Enter Matt Reeves straight off his impressive DIY debut “Cloverfield”. Which even though I can’t say I loved that film, I certainly appreciated the hell out of it. What impresses me most about the American remake in comparison to the original Swedish one is the way Reeves more or less stays true to the source material, while making it darker, scarier, and more terrifying. Which in turn ups the ante. But he’s able to do it in a way in which he still captures the alienation of youth, particularly that of the young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the love story that develops between both he and the young girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, perfectly cast here). But whereas that was the major focus of the original – here Reeves adds different elements like more of an emphasis on developing the character of the father (played by Richard Jenkins) which in retrospect I think the first one could have chosen to do which could have made it more effective, but chose not to. Second in Reeves’s version the violence is viceral and in your face, whereas in the original it was very subtle and heard but only off camera. Lastly, in what I hinted at above but I think is important to highlight again, is the sense of alienation of the McPhee character. The Reeves version really focuses on it and allows the viewer to really get a sense of how vulnerable the boy is and what leads him to seek solace in someone like Moretz. So even though I would almost equally recommend Tomas Alfredson original 2008 version. I can honestly say I would recommend this one even more. Which is saying a lot considering good, quality American horror films are so few and far between.

[B+]