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 – Review: “Foxcatcher” 12.21.14

Director Bennett Miller has only done 3 films up to this point in his 16-year career. But any serious film-goer or movie connoisseur understands the impact this evidently very talented and gifted young filmmaker has had on the rest of the entire film landscape and community. He has an undeniably assured approach to craft and is an A rate storyteller. In many ways he reminds me of the Coen Brothers with their almost storybook-like approach in the way their stories are told. Though without the Coens’ smaller-indie leanings or sense of obscurity. Miller is maybe the most accessible independent filmmaker that works mostly out of the studio system. With the growing popularity of other directors to make films that seem hip or cool, seemingly fitting for our times, what separates Miller from this crop is that he has a classic Hollywood style in the way in which he tells his stories. The sole exception being his brilliant debut, a documentary shot in black + white about a young New York City tour guide by the name of Timothy “Speed” Levitch called “The Cruise” (1998). I first saw “The Cruise” after hearing from believe it or not of all people, Edward Norton, who listed it as one of his top 5 favorite films of all time. It was around this time that I saw Miller’s second film and first feature film – the Academy Award winning “Capote” (2004), which arguably featured one of if not the best acting performances of the last decade by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. One that would garner him both an Oscar nomination and win for his spellbinding performance. The film also got nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director (Miller), and Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener) categories. It was a landmark achievement for the then 37-year old Miller, and brought him praise and accolades from the entire film industry at large. Then came in what I still consider to be Miller’s finest work to date (prior to seeing this film) 2011’s “Moneyball”, which also happens to be one of my favorite movies about the game of baseball. Like “Capote” it too garnered several Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brad Pitt – in one of my still favorite roles of his second to only “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)), and Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill). Miller once again established himself as one of the most sought after directors in that within his only 2 feature films to date, he’s received more Academy Award nominations than any other director over the course of just 2 films. Which is an amazing achievement in and of itself. The difference between Miller and more traditional Hollywood Oscar bait directors is that Miller doesn’t seem to have a care in the world other than that of his own for the type of material in which he chooses to explore. Both “Moneyball” and “Capote” are films that inhabit another time and place, tackling themes that one could look at as still being prevalent today, but in worlds seemingly unfamiliar to the ones in which most of us exist in. And while some people felt like “Moneyball” was more of a “feel good film”. If you really read between the lines and underlying subtext there’s nothing cheery or happy about it. After waiting only 3 years between his last film and this, it almost felt like a treat in that we were being given another film from a director who seems to take considerable amounts of time (6 years if you average them out) off between them. Knowing my love for everything Miller has come out with up to this point (all 3 films of his have fallen in the “A” range for me) it was inevitable that I would be one of the first in line to see his next release, and I made a point of seeing it opening weekend.

Based on a true story the film first introduces to one its 2 main leads – a former Olympic gold wrestler named Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum. Mark seems to be in a bit of a slump, as he wants to train and continue his career in Wrestling. But he essentially has no way of supporting himself outside of living off of his about to run out of money that he earned several years earlier, all the while picking up small, humiliating jobs like talking to schools about what it means to be a former Olympic gold winner. He then by a matter of chance gets a phone call one day by John du Pont, played by the almost unrecognizable Steve Carell, complete with a prosthetic nose, teeth, and hidden under layers of makeup. Du Pont’s family is one of the wealthiest families in the country and have been for generations, and he has an enormous estate where he trains his Olympic Wrestling team that goes by “Team Foxcatcher”. Coach du Pont gives Mark the opportunity of a lifetime to come join his team, with full privileges to everything he could have possibly imagined in his wildest dreams. A guest house that would put any other guest house to shame, top class training facilities, and as much money as he could ever want. Mark has an older brother David (played by Mark Ruffalo), another former Olympic gold winner, who also happens to be Mark’s Wrestling coach. Not wanting to pass up a golden opportunity Mark takes up du Pont’s offer to join Team Foxcatcher. On the surface the offer seems too good to be true, but as Mark begins to train and win bouts he slowly starts to rebuild and regain the confidence he once had that went missing. Not to mention that through this process he starts to form a special bond with Coach du Pont and begins to look up to him as not only a mentor but a father figure. Though as the movie unravels we get to see that there’s a lot more than what meets the eye. And the mentor/peer dynamic starts to take a dramatic turn. As does the addition of David who also after some serious convincing, agrees to come work for Coach du Pont and join Team Foxcatcher so that he can train with his younger brother. Also like his brother he has an apparent drive to be the best again. And also like his brother he is convinced that only Team Foxcatcher can help bring him to the top. But at what expense and to what lengths will the brothers go under the increasingly suspicious and paranoid Coach du Pont?

This film wound up falling slightly below my expectations which admittedly were set pretty high. The first thing I think that needs pointing out are the very solid performances by the film’s two brothers – Tatum and Ruffalo, both of whom give career best performances. I will say this about the acting though, for all the Awards hype around Steve Carell being the second front-runner for Best Actor behind Michael Keaton in “Birdman”, I thought the other 2 actors outshined him. Carell’s character reminded me somewhat of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in Miller’s “Capote”. However whereas Hoffman really shined acting-wise underneath his mostly physical performance, Carell doesn’t quite achieve a fraction of the same level of acting with his performance. Don’t get me wrong it’s a very fine one indeed. But I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I felt like I wasn’t really watching all that much going on underneath the prosthetics, fake teeth, and makeup. As his performance came much more from the outside than in. A truly great performance, certainly an Award nominated one, should have you thinking that there’s no one else out there could have played the role other than that specific actor. And I didn’t really feel that way about Carell here. But that aside, both Ruffalo and Tatum (who I’m starting to gain a lot more respect for as an actor) really were the stand outs and both give knockout performances that one can really only sit back and admire at. The story itself has a lot to say about the abuses of wealth and power and how some people abuse them in selfish ways to try to gain what they want, when in actuality they’re so blinded they can’t see the impact that their ways have devastating effects on others around them. Both the relationships between the 2 brothers Mark (Tatum) and David (Ruffalo), as well as that between Mark and Coach du Pont, are very complex and well depicted. Miller also adds an almost “Capote”-like restrained approach to the proceedings. There’s a a certain stillness about it all and at times it felt clinical in the way it looked at and portrayed its subjects. Music is essentially non-existent until the drama heightens in its last act. Within this approach though Miller captures some beautiful establishing shots of the team training in different environments along with picturesque shots at both dusk and dawn around the du Pont estate. It’s a calculated, assured piece of directing that shines through in almost every frame and shot, and it becomes obvious why he took home the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Films Festival. The few criticisms I had of the piece is that it felt tediously slow at times, like you’re waiting for something to happen outside of the central storyline of depicting the downward spiral between mentor (Carell) and mentee (Tatum). While those scenes were good in terms of context in building and driving the story, I felt like they could have trimmed down that portion a bit and the end result would have still been just as effective. Also, and this might be the most important thing I have to say about it, was that it was incredibly sad. So much so at times that it made a lot of the film borderline uncomfortable to watch. At least it felt that way to me. It’s a feel and tone that permeates throughout the film, from beginning to end, and is chock full of scenes that are bleak, tragic, and excruciatingly painful to watch. Do I think it needed to be in order to tell the obviously tragic true story? Well, maybe it did if it was trying to stay true to the story of showing exactly how the events unfolded. I just personally had a hard time with how Greek tragedy-like sad it was. While we watch one character get so psychologically damaged that his mental state slowly declines until there isn’t a semblance left of himself. While also watching another one of the other character’s reveal his true identity of the utterly despicable and deplorable man that he is. So for those reasons, even despite the stellar acting from its 3 leads, it becomes a bit tedious and too dark at times. Which I often times really enjoy. But when the feeling and tone is so despairing from beginning to end, it makes it very difficult for me to recommend it to anybody outside of the looking to be unapologetically challenged and wanting go to that really dark place. But if it’s something that you can endure and sit through despite that, what you’ll find is a compelling and thought-provoking story, with at least 2 of the better performances I’ve seen this year, and a pretty solid 3rd one as well. It also includes a shocking climax that had myself and everyone else in the audience gasping in their seats, not quite knowing what to do or think once the end credits rolled.

[B]

 

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Fury’ 10.25.14

I’ve grown quite find of Brad Pitt as an actor in the last almost decade or so. So much so that I consider him to be one of the top 3 best working actors in the business. If you think about the list of directors and performances he’s put in over the past 8-10 years or so there’s really nothing you can do but just admire the guy.  Since 2006 he’s worked with Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu in “Babel” (a film he would go onto pick up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for), Andrew Dominik in 2007’s “The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (still one of my favorite Pitt performances), both the Coen Brothers and David Fincher in “Burn After Reading” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008, to Quentin Taratino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), to 2011’s 1-2 punch of both Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” (the latter of which would see him garnering his first Best Actor nomination), to working with Dominik again in 2012’s “Killing Them Softly”, to Marc Forster in last year’s highly entertaining and surprisingly very good “World War Z”. And finally topping it off the same year with a small but memorable role in Steve McQueen’s Best Picture Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave” (which he would also win his first ever Oscar for Producing). Pitt has gone on to reach such a status in my eyes that at this point in his career I will simply see a film solely based on the fact that he’s in it. And I can only say that about a very few actors.

David Ayer’s “Fury” follows a lot of the same movie tropes as a lot of American made War films. It involves a group of ragtag soldiers who are part of a tank unit led by Pitt. The group is deep in German territory at the height of the Second World War. Where at the point depicted in the film, the Germans are taking the upper hand. Pitt and this ragtag group of soldiers (including an always reliable Michael Pena and Shia LeBeouf, an actor who at least in my eyes, is gaining quite of credibility since his “Transformers” days). Their tank comes under fire and it’s on the brink of breaking down, only for Pitt and his company to escape and then meet up with whatever little reserves that are left where they wind up geographically in the heart of Nazi Germany. One of their men faces an untimely death, and they’re forced to take on a young, inexperienced, and afraid soldier named Norman (Logan Lerman), with little to no combat experience as his replacement. Essentially the rest of the film is shown through the eyes of him as Pitt, his company, and “Fury” (the name of their tank) as they try and take over one town to the next in a series of truly visceral and epic battle scenes. In fact, this movie contains some of the best scenes of war, particularly that of tank warfare, that I’ve seen since the all too often overlooked and underappreciated 2007 film “Lebanon”. A film about another group of soldiers confined to a tank with no way out other than to fight for their lives.

I found myself totally captivated by this film and thought the war scenes and depictions of battle to me were not only thrilling but top notch. It’s essentially a series of one battle after the next depicted in the utmost intense and and sense of realism. It really nails the horrors of war and while I’ve heard one of the criticisms of the piece is that it’s simply too violent, I didn’t find myself necessarily finding that to be the case. It’s violent because this was a violent period in history where the lives of many men were lost. My second accolade has to do with Pitt’s performance itself. It’s reminiscent of old classic Hollywood actors like a John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart. So much so that at times I thought of Bogart’s 1943 War film “Sahara”. Where even though you know he is being depicted as this pro-American, patriotic, and mentally and physically strong leader. If like with that film you are able to overlook the stereotypes of the characters (which were intentional then and intention here) behind it you’ll see yet another bravura Brad Pitt performance. He totally envelops himself in the character which I found to be not only completely convincing but effective as well. Sure some of the men in his unit, specifically that of Pena and the other Hispanic man feel like blatient stereotypes. However I was able to overlook this because of the incredibly captivating scenes of tank warfare that had both me and the entire almost sold out audience I saw it with highly entertained, challenged, and brought on a visceral action packed thrill ride. Complete with what I found to be a brilliant closing shot “Fury” is one of those big budget, at first seemingly run-of-the-mill crop of American War films that turns out to be something much greater than it should have been.

[B+]