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]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “The Babadook” 12.27.14

As we enter the new year I’m going to be making some more changes to the site. Some feedback I’ve gotten is that my reviews have a tendency to be a little bit too on the lengthy side. So rather than give descriptive overviews of what I like about a director or actor I’m going to trim that section down to make it a bit more accessible for the reader. I will still continue to give a brief summary or synopsis of each film, hopefully without giving away any spoilers, but moving forward you will see more of an emphasis on the aspects I either liked or disliked about the film, with just a short explanation of why I decided to see a film, my thoughts on the director or actors previous efforts, what the “experience” was like for me, etc. And try to come up with something that reads like more of a somewhat traditional movie review than an essay.

The anticipation was high for Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s new horror film “The Babadook”. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than it fell into the horror genre, was garnering a lot of attention and gaining a great critical reception reflected by its high scores and good reviews, on top of the fact that the godfather of horror – director William Friedkin (1973’s “The Exorcist”) himself called it and I quote “the scariest movie I’ve ever seen”. Quite a dubious endorsement indeed by one that horror fans worldwide heard and took note similar to that of myself. So with that being said I made plans several weeks in advance to see it, at the smallest and most intimate theater here in town, in hopes that I would be paired up with a sold out audience (which turned out being the case) where it would be so quiet you could hear a pin drop (which didn’t happen to be the case). Though truly the only way to see a horror film such as this. But more to come on that further down.

The story starts off showing the turbulent relationship between a recently widowed mother Amelia (played by Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (played by Noah Wiseman). Samuel seems to be obsessed with ghosts and other supernatural things that he swears he can see but his mother begrudgingly cannot. Samuel has developed such an obsession that he has constant temper tantrums and acts out incessantly, which distances both he and his mother from the local townspeople, the school which Samuel attends, and Amelia’s family. As his excessive talking about evil spirits and ghouls turns most everybody away from the mother and son. One day though, Amelia receives a strange velvet red what appears to be children’s book titled “Mister Babadook”. At first it just seems cautionary, as there are several warning signs within it, similar to that of something out of Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” trilogy (1981, 1987, 1992) or Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” series (1987-present) where opening up the book is like opening up some kind of Pandora’s box. But then Amelia starts to see images that apparently her son has been seeing all the time, and starts to get convinced that maybe the two of them are experiencing some kind of similar supernatural spirit, one that has the ability to take over a person’s mind and body. The stakes get higher when Amelia receives a “second” “Mister Babadook” book. Except unlike the first book, this one contains a much more grisly tale that actually maps out the future of both the mother and child with very alarming predictions. It is at this point where a paradigm shift takes place in the film, and to continue to discuss it any further would require me to divulge important plot details.

My filmgoer partner and I had only one word to describe the film when the house lights came on and the credits rolled – “underwhelming”. We also both agreed that while disturbing and a bit unsettling at points, there was absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, that was even in the slightest bit remotely scary about this film. What we also agreed on is that if you set out to make a true modern-day horror classic it has to be at least scary to hold any sort of credibility. Almost the entire last row in the theater was laughing throughout most of it. Which I at first found annoying, but then I thought to myself “wait, the outrageousness of it all was actually pretty funny”. So that gave them reason to laugh. Sure it serves up some chills, particularly in the performances of its 2 leads which I thought was the best thing about it. Other than that I thought it wore its influences on its sleeves, paying equal homage to movies like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1981) which mirrored 2 of the relationships in that film. I also think it owed quite a fair amount to Takashi Shimizu’s “The Grudge” (2002 and 2004) in terms of its images and execution of the horror. It also can’t be discussed without discussing 2013’s far more scary and terrifying – James Wan’s “The Conjuring” containing within it a far superior better tale of demonic and supernatural possession. It also owed just as much to Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister” (2012) in terms of the creature department, Bernard Rose’s “Candyman” (1992) (replacing name chanting for silly knocks), and finally, another Sam Raimi film – 2009’s “Drag Me to Hell” which this film’s ending almost reflected exactly how that one did. But enough with the comparisons – I just really had a hard time getting into something that didn’t feel even remotely original. What I will say is is that writer/director Jennifer Kent does a pretty good job here in creating a creepy mood, tone, and atmosphere as I was slightly captivated by some of the shots and the use of lighting. However despite that I never thought its psychological tone ever really took off and brought me into the territory that only some of the best psychological horror films do. For your average Joe this would be a worthwhile rental when it comes out on DVD. For others I know who are pretty seasoned horror fans I’ll finish by saying this – “don’t believe the hype”.

[C+]

Looking Back On: ‘Dead Snow’ (2009) 10.15.14

As we enter the second half of October in the final 2 weeks leading up to Halloween, you’re going to start noticing some new changes to the site. One is a “Spotlight On” section featuring specific directors whom I admire and the other being a “Looking Back On” focusing on older films that I’ve seen and recently revisited. Many of which leading up to Halloween will be horror films. A genre that if done correctly is probably my favorite of them all. First up is the granddaddy of the horror-comedy genre. One that I’ve seen probably a dozen times and each viewing gets better and better than the last. Tommy Wirkola’s genius 2009 “Dead Snow”. I remember it vividly like it was yesterday when I first saw the trailer for it prior to it coming out and my initial reaction was wow. “Nazi zombies are awakened from the dead to prey on a group of unsuspecting vacationers”. I’ve seen just about everything but I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on something like that. I watched and rewatched the trailer over and over again. Then when it was time where I actually was able to finally sit down and see it, it was if all of my dreams for how I had hoped it would turn out had come true. This Norweigian delight has just about everything for fans of the genre. But in order to discuss it with any sort of fair amount of credibility. One has to mention the film that preceeded it and has had more influence on the genre than any other film of its kind. That being Edgar Wright’s brilliant and incredibly influential 2004 film “Shaun of the Dead”. What’s really in most film circles considered to be the granddaddy of the post-aught horror-comedy genre. I personally think “Dead Snow” takes the cake though. Because for someone like me it’s almost like a Master’s level piece within the genre if you look at it right.

The basic premise is a simple one. And just expands on the tagline I already mentioned above. A group of medical students on winter break decide to take a trip to the mountains to go skiing. Their seemingly normal vacation starts out fun enough – they go inner tubing, play Twister, and drink beer. A typical college break. That is until one night they meet a weary old traveler. He informs them that (get this) – During the Second World War, the grounds their cabin is on was a gateway for the German army. That and it’s where they stored all of their riches in gold coins (yep). The opposing enemy eventually invaded and a Colonel by the name of Herzog (an obvious nod to the German director Werner) and a group of followers escaped into the mountains. Cut to the present, next day, and the vacationers find a treasure chest (uh huh) of gold and silver. This is when the fun really starts.

What impresses me so much about this film is how Wirkola (only 30 years old at the time the film was released) seems to be in complete control of every aspect of the film. The difference between this and say “Shaun of the Dead”, a film I referenced earlier, is that this movie does everything that could possibly be done right from a cinematic stand point, on an incredibly small budget. Sure a lot of it looks cheap and fake yes, but that’s all part of the point. Wirkola knows it does, but he revels in mastering everything that he has control over, which is all of the aspects of the film – one of which I find to be one of the best location decisions I’ve seen in horror. Filming all the chaos and madness against a pure white snowy backdrop is highly effective and an absolutely perfect choice for setting. Second, the music plays a pivotal role in that we get everything from old classical style music “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” (which takes on new meaning) as well as Norwegian punk and metal music that’s infused into it. In many ways it can be looked at as a “punk rock horror film” as it totally goes all out balls to the wall and gives a big middle finger to everything that anyone could even conceivably think of as censorship. Nothing and I mean nothing about this film holds back even in the slightest. There’s a little something for any horror movie lovers delight: from decapitations, to chopped off limbs, eye gouging, brain splitting, intestine cliffhanging (oh yeah), the ripping off, biting off, and pulling off of skin, head smashing, self amputation, all with chainsaws, mowers, hammers, and shotguns. Literally every possible limb on the human body is torn to pieces at one point or another during this movie. It’s probably the goriest, bloodiest, and all out crazy horror-comedy film that I’ve seen next to maybe Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead 2” (1987) or Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive” (aka “Braindead”) (1992). This is a must see for fans of the genre. And one, in front of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil”, earns my coveted #1 slot of the best horror-comedy I’ve seen since the year 2000.

Grade: A-