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

Review: ‘Begin Again’ 11.5.14

Ireland born director John Carney hit the scene in the mid-aughts with his breakthrough film “Once” (2006). A movie that at the time of its release captivated and moved audiences with its depiction of 2 Dublin lover/musicians that was both equal parts sweet, touching, and moving. It garnered a Best Original Song Oscar the following year, and it’s 2 leads went on to become successful internationally well-known touring musicians. A feat that doesn’t really happen but every so often in that its 2 lead central characters went on to become something bigger than their screen selves could have ever possibly imagined in their wildest dreams. It’s really stuff that miracles are made of, especially considering that it was an independent film made on a small budget. Enter 2013 after a 6 year hiatus and Carney is back once again, but instead of giving us another story about more street musicians living in Europe he takes what at first glimpse appeared, at least to me, to be a familiar formula from his previous film except for that fact that this time taking place in America using mostly a bigger cast of American friendly and familiar faces, and takes another stab at the feel good music drama formula.

“Begin Again” opens with introducing us to our first of our 2 main leads – a down on his luck, poor excuse for a father, barely holding on music producer played by the always superb Mark Ruffalo (who in thinking about is right up there with my slew of favorite actors). He is an alcoholic and as the story slowly stars to unfold, we begin to see how his old days of success and increased drinking has had on his music producing partner (played by Mos Def), his daughter (“True Grit”‘s young and obviously very talented Hailee Steinfeld), and ex-wife (the always puts a smile on my face Catherine Keener). Both his personal, family, and professional life seem to be in serious jeopardy. That is until he meets a recently split from her famous musician boyfriend (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) and also vulnerable, down on her luck musician/muse character Keira Knightley. After some convincing her that he is her meal ticket to stardom. Knightley seems to equally need Ruffalo’s character as does her he in order for them to try and start both their lives over again.

I found myself really enjoying this film despite its somewhat predictable elements that we more or less have come to expect from a genre piece of its kind. The performances are all well written and acted, particularly that of Ruffalo’s character which I found to be an almost pseudo character study. He once again shines here as he did with his brave turn as an AIDS activist earlier this year in HBO’s “The Normal Heart”. Ruffalo always seems to somehow take a decent script and character and make it better because of his proficiency as an actor. The supporting turns by Mos Def, Catherine Keener, and Hailee Stenfield feel authentic and well cast. Also, Keira Knightley, who I can’t say I’m particularly fond of as an actress in a lead role does a pretty effective and convincing job here. And the 2 leads present a pretty believable on-screen duo. What felt slightly off to me here to go back to the predictability factor that I touched on earlier, was the clichéd storyline that propels us into an idea that the two leads come up with in hopes to achieve success. It felt slightly preposterous but because of my engagement in the story and having a keen sense of the genre of which it falls into, I found myself willing to suspend its plausibility factor. Lastly, and what I found to be the strongest element of the film, was Carney’s obvious knack of understanding the spellbinding power that music has on us all as human beings. The way in which music drives all of the characters portrayed, particularly of Knightley and the rag-tag group of street performers she’s set up with, has a certain energy and sense of inspiration that I thought was a strong point in a movie that is essentially an exploration of the power of music and how it can be a universally loved art form that has the potential to bring us joy in our lives when sometimes we can feel void of true feelings and inspire us to feel joyous, celebratory, and give us the power to feel like nothing else bad in the world actually exists. I thought at the core it captured that component quite well. Which is another credit to Carney and the way in which he seemingly understands this “universality of music” concept and applies it to his script and characters. Despite a couple of minor flaws I found this to be a mostly entertaining musical thrill ride. One that I can see both music lovers and aficionado’s alike enjoying as well as those looking for just a feel good musically themed drama with a fair amount of heart, spirit, and inspiration at the core of its story.

[B]