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]

Advertisements

A Trip (Back) To The Movies – Review: “Aliens” (1986) 3.28.15

People ask me all the time what my favorite horror film ever is. I tell them “the answer is easy, Alien“. Then they’ll ask me what my favorite Science Fiction film is of all time is and I’ll provide them with the same answer. When people ask me what my favorite action movie of all time is my answer has always been the same – Aliens. Then people will often times ask me what my second favorite Science Fiction film of all time is and again, my answer to them is always the same – Aliens. I hold the first two Alien films in the same kind of regard that most people hold Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part 1” (1972) and “The Godfather Part 2” (1974) in. What’s so great about the first two “Alien” films is their ability to combine different genres and craft them so perfectly in the way that they do. The first “Alien” (1979), directed by Ridley Scott, and the second, “Aliens”, directed by James Cameron, couldn’t be more different from one another. So that’s why much like the first two “Godfather” films, you’ll find that you meet people who are almost split down the middle or completely divided as to which one they like better. Because they’re both really just so goddamn good. What the first film did so well and why it was and still is so revolutionary for its time is was because it took what was otherwise a cheap genre of the time – the “scary monsters in space” one, and gave it new life adding in exquisite cinematography, a high budget production value, and a mood, feel, and tone that was both downright nerve-wracking and completely terrifying. Director Ridley Scott produced genuine thrills and made incredibly tense dramatic use of the film’s claustrophobic corridors. The first “Alien” also had both an originally unique and brilliant set and art direction along with Oscar-winning visual effects, with one of the most creatively designed looking creatures in genre film created by the late, great H.R. Giger. It also gave birth to star Sigourney Weaver, making her in almost international icon and feminist leader overnight. About a year ago I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to see the original “Alien” on the big screen for the first time, and I have to admit my experience with it that particular night, seeing it among a sea of movie buffs and fans like myself was really something hard to express in words. It was as if I was seeing it for the first time in the way that it was always supposed to be seen, in a packed, dark theater that was so quiet you couldn’t hear a pin drop. A perfect (and really the only) way to see a film in my opinion. My experience that night was so great and left such a lasting impression, that I vowed to myself that I would jump at the opportunity to see the second one under a similar setting if I was ever given the chance to.

Well lucky for me there’s a local theater up the street from where I live that specializes in showing A+ quality prints of older films. To give people like myself and others a chance to see some of their favorite films that they were maybe too young to see or in a lot of cases, weren’t even born yet a chance to see some of their favorite pictures on the big screen for the very first time. And boy do people come out of the woodwork and pile into the theater in droves when these events take place. I’ll put it this way, I was taken aback when I showed up a full half hour before showtime, to a theater that seats almost 1500, and found a line around the block of people waiting to get tickets. Luckily I had got there in enough time, because by 20 minutes before the movie started, I looked around and saw that the theater looked completely sold out. Mind you for a movie that was released in 1986 almost 30 years ago. After a bit of discussion with a fellow film aficionado like myself about the reason why we were there, which was essentially the same, to see one of our all time favorite films on the big screen, the house lights went down and the movie started which was met by quite a bit of applause by its 1500 person capacity theater.

James Cameron’s sequel, which also happens to be arguably one of cinema’s greatest ones, picks up where the first one lets off and finds Lt. Ellen Ripley (Weaver) being recovered in the space craft pod that she put herself in at the end of the first. It’s 57 years later, and Ripley is unfrozen by a military-like group of explorers. This so-called team, led by a great supporting cast of Michael Biehn (who the audience applauded for when his name came up in the opening credits), a young scene stealing Bill Paxton, the iconic Lance Henrikson (who plays the team’s only android – like Michael Fassbender in the prequel “Prometheus” (2013)), and the slimy, lecherous Paul Rieser, who plays the sort of corporate leader in charge whose agenda may be much different from that of the others. An agenda which includes Ripley being sent back to the former colony from the first one with a rag-tag group of soldiers to see what happened to the planet and investigate to see if it still contains any of its former inhabitants. If Ridley Scott’s first entry was more of a haunted house space frightener, James Cameron’s sequel is much more visceral, relentless, and furiously intense. More akin to an action packed thrill ride in which we get to see a lot more of the creatures that come in at about the half hour mark and stay for the entire rest of the film in one suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining scene after the next as the team is confronted with each of the many creatures. Culminating in one of the most exhilarating climax’s and ending sequences in maybe any movie I can think of as Lt. Ripley fights off the mother of the species. As the movie ended and the credits rolled it sounded like every single person in the entire audience was clapping. Which to me is one of the best reasons to see such a beloved film such as this one on the big screen. As you can feel like you’re transported to another place and time almost 30 years ago where one can only imagine the audience might have had this very same reaction. A reaction of almost everyone leaving totally satisfied with a buzz in the air that at least in the humble opinion of this writer, is very hard to find outside of one of our last remaining experiences that can be collectively shared by a group of people in real time. And to me this film is one of the all time greats and yet another fine example of the everlasting power of cinema.

[A]

Review: “Frank” 11.30.14

This film had been on my radar for quite a while as it had gotten a very strong reception while on the festival circuit this past year. That and almost everything I read for each of the festivals in which it was shown highlighted the fact that Michael Fassbender gives yet another strong performance in a series of Oscar worthy performances like the ones he put in in all three Steve McQueen films – those being 2008’s “Hunger” (how he wasn’t nominated for this was a major oversight on behalf of the Academy), 2011’s “Shame” (where he landed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor), and last year’s “12 Years A Slave” (2013). A film in which he would pick up his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I also thought he’s done some incredibly strong work in “Eden Lake” (2008), “Fish Tank” (2009), “A Dangerous Method” (2011), and “Prometheus” (2012). He almost always seems to pick good roles and is one of the most sought after young actors currently in Hollywood. I also liked the director, Ireland born director Lenny Abrahamson’s, previous film – “What Richard Did” (2012). A film which focused on a Irish teenager who is completely devastated when his once promising life gets thrown upside down. It’s an incredibly sad film which also happens to be a very good character study of a young man’s emotional disintegration following a tragic accident. Within it he showed a certain knack for feeling and emotion that is hard to truly capture in a lot of films from this genre. So given these two aforementioned reasons and the fact that it was also very favorably reviewed. I made it a point to seek it out as soon as it became available.

The story first introduces us to Jon, played by Brendan Glesson’s son, Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring musician type who seems to dislike his mundane computer job. That is until one day when he comes across a band manager, played by Scoot McNairy, who employs him last-minute to fill in for one of his band’s gigs. While at the gig he meets his soon to be band members, two of which include both Clare, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the titular character, Frank, played by Michael Fassbender himself. Frank seems to be some sort of enigmatic and incredibly gifted human being as we see him spout poetry like he’s channeling Jim Morrison of The Doors. Except one could make the assessment early on that Frank is far from your average, or “normal” human being. Frank hides under a blown up head that he wears like a mask, which according to McNairy’s band manager – “he never takes off”. None of the other band members have ever seen the man behind the mask, nor do they seem to care, as they seem to recognize his true genius. Gleeson’s character Jon seems to realize this to and is quick to say yes when they give him the offer to come onboard and join their band full-time. They then travel to the countryside to record a long gestating album. But because Frank is such a perfectionist they wind up over staying and go completely broke and wind up totally out of money. That’s when Jon steps in and offers to save them and the album, while also coming up what he sees as his own ingenious idea of capturing the process or making of the album. And soon after they become well-known across the country, and are asked to come play the prestigious South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. It is here where the story really starts to develop, and both Jon, Frank, and the rest of the band members try to take full opportunity of their first shot at fame.

“Frank” is one incredibly bizarre, subversive, weird, and quirky film even by art house and independent film standards, and plays out like some absurdist tragic-comedy. Though along with that it’s tender, touching, heartfelt, and undeniably human. The first third is like something straight out of a Wes Anderson or Richard Ayoade film. It is strange and whimsical and contains some very well choreographed shots and segments. As we the viewer are transported directly into Frank’s highly unsual world through the eyes of its main character Jon. Some of the musical segments here are downright hilarious, and seem to want to take a satiric stab at what constitutes itself as being indie music these days. It’s while during the recording and capturing of the recording of the album that some of “Frank’s” more funny, clever, and delightful moments take place. Then comes their “calling” by way of the South by Southwest music festival, and the movie takes a dramatic shift in terms of story. Which I can’t say I was really all that big of a fan of. The way in which Austin is portrayed is like something out of Portlandia – where everyone’s a hipster and are drawn out to be slightly cliché. As is with a lot of the indie music scene these days. I thought the whole Austin part of the film, while I understood it in terms of context, was also the weakest and most contrived part about it. Then comes it’s mostly compelling and thought-provoking part of the film, which in my opinion should have come a lot earlier. Even in a 90 minute film. It is here that we learn about the man behind the mask and his mental illness, and this is when the film shines through somewhat, if just for the mere brilliant turn from Michael Fassbender, who in both inside and out of Frank, shows a certain range and depth that only an actor of his caliber could possibly pull off. I would recommend the film solely for Fassbender’s performance alone, as the rest of it is filled with either moments of grandeur, or moments that seemed to ber lifted straight out of other films I’ve seen like it (cough cough “Lars and the Real Girl”). Recommended for fans of Fassbender and for something completely outside of the box. Everyone else might find this movie to be much too strange and bizarre, even for fans of films that are a more acquired taste.

[B-]

Review: ‘The Selfish Giant’ 9.28.14

 

I have to admit I’m a sucker for European dramas that focus on poor, working class youth. I’ve always felt like they’re so much better made than their American counterparts. Particularly films that come out of Britain. Ones like Samantha Morton’s “The Unloved” (2009), the wonderfully sublime 2009 film by Andrea Arnold – “Fish Tank” (still Michael Fassbender’s best performance to date if you ask me), and Peter Mullan’s 2010’s “NEDS” (Non Educated Deliquents). These are all bleak and gritty social dramas about adolescents on the fringes of society. Societies that are in decay. And ones that condition the children they bring up in them to become inadvertent by-products of the harsh environments in which they live in. This was another one that earned a slot at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and won the Label Europa Cinema award. An award I can’t say I’m all too familiar with. But as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, just the mere fact that a film was selected at Cannes, often times alone is reason enough for me to see it. I chose this film solely based on that notion and nothing to do with the director. Who, as I came to find out, goes by the name of Clio Barnard. Barnard has made quite a name for himself in the UK because of his award winning documentary that came out a few years back called “The Arbor” (2010). Which admittedly I haven’t seen.

The story revolves around two young boys named Arbor and Fenton (“Swifty”). Both live in very unstable households, especially Swifty, who lives in one of those households where more screaming is done than actual talking, along with there being one too many family members to share the space they inhabit. He’s also prone to temper tantrums and as a result of it is on medication. Both of his brothers are high school drop outs; one a drug addict, and by the way Swifty acts in school, he’s next in line. The focus then turns to that of Arbor, who’s personal and family life is equally as turmultuous. The two of them spend their spare time outside of their desparate school and home lives hanging out at the local “scrapping” yard where they trade in used scraps of metal and cable wire in exchange for money. This same scrap yard has its own culture that vulnerable young kids like Arbor and Swifty are drawn to. It’s an alpa male dominant one, with everyone trying to be “harder” than the next person. This at first seems alluring to the boys and they do what they have to do to fit in. The scrap yard’s perveyor, played by a ruthless and menacing character named Kitten that reminded me of somebody very similar to Peter Mullan’s in one of my favorite films of the past few years – “Tyrannosaur” (2010). Arbor takes a liking to Kitten in all of his alpa male dominance but it’s clear Kitten likes Swifty more, which is the start of the disintegration of the relationship of the two boys, and what the last third of the film really starts to explore.

I thought the film did a great job at depicting the working/blue collar class society. A society that’s decaying along with its people. People that are stricken with extreme poverty and have to do by whatever means necessary to survive. The scenes of watching the boys and their families are incredibly sad but immensely powerful. I also felt like it captured the mean-spiritedness and teenage angst of the poor youth culture rather well. Barnard also shoots the desolute, rural countryside; where it always happens to be both rainy and foggy beautifully. He has a certain knack for setting up establishing shots that are filled with some very striking imagery. The second high point for me was the scrap yard owner, Kitten, played by a British actor whom I’m unfamilar with but who really drives the beat at the heart of the story. He is almost a patriarch of the “scrap community”; a Don-like figure of sorts. Kitten is a bad, bad man. And the actor who plays him gives a hell of a bravura performance that’s both electrifying and terrifying in equal parts. I also thought the transition towards the last half of the film really started to show a more raw, humanistic treatment of the characters. It shows a sense of underlying tenderness as human vulnerability and compassion sets in which was absent from the first half, and comes across as both authentic and poetic. My only one very minor criticism of the piece is that it’s more of an examination or critique in its observation of its characters than it is plot driven. So some people may have a hard time with the patient pace that takes. But if you can keep yourself focused, you will find a beautifully heartfelt film about the nature of the human spirit and how people persevere even amongst the harshest of conditions. This is a strong and assured work. One that I highly recommend to those with an interest in calm yet challenging material. This will make my Honorable Mentions list at year’s end. That I can almost guarantee.

Grade: B+