Midweek Review: 2 New-To-DVD Releases – “The Salvation” + “Girlhood” and One Trip To The Movies – “Wild Tales” (6/1-6/3)

First up was the Mads Mikkelsen (TV’s “Hannibal”) western drama “The Salvation”, which was officially released Tuesday on both DVD and VOD. What can I say, like the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn I will see just about any and everything this Danish actor stars in. I also happen to like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played the film’s villain and outlay enemy to Mikkelsen’s film protagonist. It’s about as simple as simple set ups go. Mikkelsen’s Danish wife and child meet him in America only to quickly be murdered in a thrilling stagecoach scene and Mikkelsen is left behind. Mikkelsen than goes into bad ass, revenge mode, and swears vengeance on the men who killed them. He does but winds up in one of those small, little frontier towns and learns that one of the men he’s killed is the brother of one of the most notorious and corrupt outlaws in the town (Morgan). A somewhat predictable story follows that (you guessed it) has Mikkelsen escaping and teaming up with some of the local townspeople who aren’t too keen on Morgan’s character and for the rest of the film we get a relatively standard, yet enjoyable, Spaghetti Western, with a fair amount of action but all contained within something I felt like I had seen before. Mikkelsen is enigmatic as usual, as is Morgan as he pulls off just the right blend of menace and ruthlessness. I’m going to recommend this for fans of the Western genre and of the actors involved. However, that being said, it breathes no new life into a genre of which I recently talked about in my “Slow West” review that seems to be reinventing itself in original and innovative ways particularly as of late. I can confidently say you won’t find much of that here. But for the most part, it’s a good time. [B-]

Bande de filles Movie Poster

Next up was a highly anticipated film from the young French female director Celine Sciamma, who wowed audiences with her sophomore effort “Tomboy” just a few years back in 2011. A movie which I held in such high regard that it wound up on my Honorable Mentions list at the end of that same year. “Girlhood” is an extension of “Tomboy” in that it depicts an adolescent girl, seemingly going nowhere and who is on the verge of dropping out of school. She teams up with a rival street gang, where she finds community, moral support, and a new-found sense of confidence. Things that seem to be lacking at home and she seems to find exactly what she’s looking for. But like ., “Tomboy”, this is a deeply probing (and quite moving) look at adolescence. Drawing to mind another film I saw the same year as “Tomboy” – Dee Rees’ “Pariah”, a coming-of-age story, like this one, except in that it focused on a young teenager struggling with “coming out” and showing the world who she really is. “Girlhood” seems to focus more on finding one’s own true identity and being faithful to who you are and not who you think others may think they might want you to be. Sciamma seems to have a perfect and uncanny understanding for these coming-of-age stories of adolescence (sorry Richard Linklater, this is no knock on you) and manages to do it with such a sense authenticity that it’s hard not to get wrapped up and emotionally invested in her characters. This is one of the sleeper house hits of the year, and it’s too bad (well, not for myself, but for others I know who try to stray away from subtitled films…which as an added disclaimer, for those of you that do, you’re missing out on 90% of the world’s best films) that it’s a foreign film in the French language. Because it’s a deeply raw, moving story, about teenage adolescence, that is remarkably well done and should be seen by everyone. This should make my list of Honorable Mentions at this year’s end. [B+]

Last up, was “Wild Tales”, a film I ventured out to the theater to see, as for one it got astronomically good reviews, but even more importantly, it garnered a nomination for Best Foreign Language film (Argentina) at this past year’s Oscars. That and it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (and word has it earned itself a full ten minute standing ovation following). Other than this I knew little to next to nothing about it other than I heard it was supposed to be completely and utterly batshit crazy. The story itself contains six short films, almost like one of those anthology movies you see that have been being released in droves these past  few years. Except with one major difference – this film has got more hilariously depraved and deranged moments in its 2 hour running time than almost any other film I’ve seen like it (similarities could be drawn between it and 2013’s “Cheap Thrills). Except unlike that film, everything seems to take place coincidentally and by a mere matter of chance (think Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers” (2012) as a reference point and there’s quite a fair bit of dark humor/black comedy and satire, that takes on an almost screwball “oh my god you’ve got to be kidding me” element to the proceedings that had both myself and my fellow moviegoers laughing hysterically at various moments throughout the film. Just at the mere absurdity of it all. My one critique of the it as is usually with most “anthology” films are that some are segments that are better than others. The first starts off real strong, as the second and third, but I felt like it lost a bit of steam in its fourth and fifth segments, only to finish strong in its final act. Though despite this one somewhat moderate criticism of the film I still had a hell of a time with it. As it’s a funny, daring, original, and undeniably deranged piece of cinema that wound up being well deserving of its Best Foreign Language film nomination. [strong B]

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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 – “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” 2.28.15

I’ll just flat-out start by saying this was probably the most highly original, inventive, and exciting film I’ve seen to have come along in a while. In fact, had it of come out last year, it wouldn’t most likely have, it would have, landed a coveted spot on my “best films of the year-end” list. What’s so interesting about this film is that it kind of came out of nowhere. In fact, I don’t even remember how I heard about it. Since I really don’t read any film news/review anymore that’s not where I took notice of it. I do however somewhat regularly look at cumulative scores and saw that this one was graded rather highly. Then I saw the name of the title and it piqued my interest. And merely based on that and that alone, plus seeing a tagline that it was “the first Iranian Vampire Western”, I thought to myself well at the very least this sounds interesting. What I “didn’t” know while watching it is that it’s an American film. Even though all of the characters in the film are Iranian actors who speak in the Persian language and it’s written and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour who has lived in America for practically her whole life. Which is ironic because the film feels totally foreign, and different from just about any other American film I’ve seen, bringing us into a poor desolate land known as “Bad City” which feels like a world far, far, away when in actuality it was shot right here in the States in Bakersfield, California.

The film opens with an old man, Hossein, a heroin addict who seems to be at the end of his rope in terms of his addiction. The only saving grace in his life is the assistance of his son, Arash, who is at his father’s beckoning call because like most sons (at least that I know) does just about anything to save his father. Anyways, Hossein owes quite a bit of money to the local town drug dealer, Saeed (whose look seems to be taken straight from Ninja of the rave/rap African group Die Antwoord). Saeed takes one of Hossein’s prize possessions much to the chagrin of Arash. Saeed seems to be the focus of the story, at least for about the first quarter of the film, along with his hooker, junkie, drug partner Atti. But one night Saeed happens to stumble across a young woman, called simply “The Girl”, that follows him to his apartment, which in that point in the story it shifts gears completely and this “girl” or young woman of whom I speak of becomes the central focus of the story. What’s even more notable is that said woman is a vampire, who goes around town wreaking havoc but does so with a conscience. She seems to only prey on the weak, sick, and degenerate members of society. It is by this chance encounter between the town drug dealer Saeed and the girl whom Arash crosses paths with, which involves the major subplot of the story, one that mirrors the one from “Let The Right One In” (2008) and the American version “Let Me In” (2010). But don’t be fooled, besides the reference, it’s undeniably unique enough (not to mention they’re adults and not children) to separate itself from those films. It is through their relationship that the rest of the story unfolds, and all of the characters previously mentioned are reintroduced back into (or out of, depending on how you want to look at it) the story.

As you can probably already tell by my comments at the beginning of my review I absolutely loved just about every aspect of this film. There is just so much I want to talk about that I feel like I would be doing it a great injustice to leave any of them out. But for the sake of not writing a novel, I will try to keep it to just the key elements of the film in which I really liked. First off was its stunning black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always thought a film is better when shot in black-and-white. As it takes the viewer away from the color palette and allows the images to speak for themselves. In this film this approach works brilliantly as it’s maybe the best looking black-and-white film since as far back as I can remember. This format also gives this chilling, noirish tale a look of authenticity that works perfectly given the content of the story. It’s also about as stylishly shot from a design angle and has a look and sometimes feel of an old Jim Jarmusch film (especially in the hipster department). The cool, sleek, and cold feel and tone matches the images on-screen magnificently. Another thing I think is important to point out, is that for a movie with this much style (Quentin Tarantino came to mind for me at times) it’s also loaded with substance. The central story and the many shifts in character arcs make it completely and utterly compelling from start to finish. There’s also a great “meta-ness” to the whole affair. While it certainly is a horror film at heart it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, comedy, drama, and romance. All genres that are balanced quite well considering how dense of a film it winds up being. The last thing I think that’s important to point out is that there is scene after scene of sheer beauty that seem like they have the potential to be iconic movie history (an example would be the dancing scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” (1995) – but imagine not just one but several scenes like that). Which had me looking up the screen with a shit eating grin for practically the entire film, so engaged by the style, story, and characters that I had to pass up a bathroom break in fear that I was going to miss whatever was next. This is hands down the most unique, stylish, and fresh take that breathes new life into what is otherwise a tired genre, that being the vampire film. It’s only two months into the year and this one has already secured a spot on my top 10 list of 2015.

[A-]