Hold the Dark

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Macon Blair

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Apparently with his latest film Hold the Dark indie sensation Jeremy Saulnier has lost the audience somewhat. I can see why. In terms both physical and emotional his Alaska-set mystery may be his coldest movie yet. He plunges us into an ice bath, a world where most of us do not belong — a world defined by hostility and populated by unfriendly and grizzled folk who add little comfort to proceedings. Add to that the fact the story doesn’t offer much in the way of “action” or good, clean payoff and you’ve got the recipe for an uncompromisingly strange and bleak experience.

I loved it though. I think. No, I definitely did. In my mind this is the epitome of everything the native Virginian is about when it comes to style and substance. His fourth feature film is also an adaptation of a 2014 novel by William Giraldi, so is it perhaps possible criticisms over narrative convolution and vexing moral turpitude could be applied to the source material too? I haven’t read the book of course, so I couldn’t say. However there is a new reality I need to address: this is the first time Saulnier has gone the way of an adaptation; it’s entirely possible he’s lost something in translation or perhaps the novel itself is one of those “Well, you can’t really adapt it because (such and such excuse).”

Hold the Dark plays host to dueling narratives, one focused upon a writer and veteran wolf tracker named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) who’s summoned by a grieving mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough in a very strange turn), to the remote Alaskan village of Keelut to investigate the disappearance of her child — merely one of several thought to be the victims of hungry wolves. At this point she’ll settle with just having the body returned for to give it a proper burial. When he arrives in town however, things are not entirely what they seem and soon he finds himself in a fight for survival in a place where chaos reigns.

The second through-line adopts the perspective of Medora’s soldier hubby Vernon (a shit-your-britches scary Alexander Skarsgård), who, after being wounded in battle somewhere in the Middle East, returns to his frozen home town and to the grim news concerning his six-year-old son. After being picked up at the airport by his longtime friend and fellow father-in-mourning Cheeon (First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope) he goes to meet with local law enforcement, lead by the stoic and upstanding Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), and the coroner (Brian Martell), and . . . let’s just say the guy’s pretty hard to placate, even at this early stage. But then another development further twists the knife and carnage soon erupts in Keelut, threatening to tear apart the town and its inhabitants, some of whom hold an uncanny relationship with their icy environs, like the enigmatic Illanaq (played by Tantoo Cardinal, indigenous Canadian actress and Member of the Order of Canada).

Hold the Dark is as much a journey through grief and loss as it is a physical flirtation with the supernatural. The later movements in particular butt up against stuff that’s maybe not meant to be understood (what a cop-out line Tom). It’s a deliberately paced drama that becomes increasingly menacing — don’t let that midway-point daylight massacre fool you — and in which motives appear to be driven more by madness than rationale. That’s what really drew me in to the movie, the extremity of both environment and characters who, consistent with the Saulnier aesthetic, are desperate to do what it takes to survive. That element of desperation is elevated to an all-time high here, admittedly. The suffering is real, palpable. It’s certainly a film of extremes.

It’s also a total team effort. Saulnier gets plenty of help from the likes of Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who captures the spirit of the wild in stunning and often savage detail, the editing provided by Julia Bloch will make you feel every bone crunch and every bullet piercing through leathery skin. And I’m not sure where we would be without this smartly chosen, chillingly effective cast (kudos to Avy Kaufman). Jeffrey Wright acquits himself wonderfully in a quiet, almost meditative lead performance — I’ve never viewed the guy as leading man material but clearly I’m mistaken. And I really enjoyed James Badge Dale as a beacon of decency trying to shine in this inhospitable spit of land.

With Hold the Dark Saulnier has created a truly singular experience, a snow-swept, blood-soaked Neo-western that pits the unpredictability of human behavior against the indiscriminate brutality of Mother Nature. Who is the real villain? Is there such a thing out here? Days later and I’m still having that debate with myself and I love that about this movie.

Not quite the Drunk Tank

Recommendation: Hold the Dark is absolutely not a film that will gel with everyone — as I noted at the top of this review. It’s a heavy, maybe even depressing viewing experience that becomes almost about spiritual suffering. It customarily boasts excellent performances from a great cast. Screenwriter and frequent Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair has an ear for natural albeit harsh dialogue, while Saulnier has yet again proven himself an auteur in the making. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “When we’re killed, the past is killed. When kids are killed, that’s different. When kids are killed, the future dies. There’s no life without a future.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Joel Coen; Ethan Coen 

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

For a fleeting moment The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new Coen brothers film — a big shiny red apple waiting to be plucked from the ever-growing Netflix tree — was also available for more traditional consumption in theaters. But who wants to be a traditionalist when what is most conveniently available to you is a dingy theater chain down the road called Cinépolis — a place where the box office is no longer used, the employees couldn’t care less about making patrons feel welcomed, the quality of the projection is appalling and the seating choices you’re given are either Sticky Seat A or blown-out Chair B. I don’t know about overrated, but when one weekend outing to this crumbling facility costs you the same as if not more than a one month subscription, “tradition” is inarguably overpriced.

Netflix and the like will never replace the wow factor of the big screen, yet they are making life a little cushier, providing more viewers more direct access to more quality offerings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a prime example, a six-part western anthology soaked in the Coen aesthetic — it’s equal measures funny, strange and morbid, features spectacular landscape photography and it’s all pulled together by a wonderful cast, not to mention the filmmakers’ deep, abiding love for the genre. Their latest marks a return to ingenuity following 2016’s rather forgettable Hail, Caesar! and has garnered Oscar nominations in the Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design and Original Song categories, firmly placing Buster Scruggs among the better streaming options of the New Release variety.

The Coen brothers’ 18th collaboration provides a collection of independent stories ranging in tone from playful and romantic to macabre and downright weird — one chapter tickling your ribs before the next punches you in the gut. Speaking of tradition, the narrative style draws attention to what has consistently set the Coen brothers apart from the rest, their ability to merge the farcical with the fucked-up not only on display within each scene but as well highlighted by structural juxtaposition (right now I’m thinking of the contrast between “Near Algodones,” featuring James Franco as a bank robber who gets more than he bargained for when he comes up against Stephen Root’s bank teller, and “Meal Ticket,” with Liam Neeson playing a traveling entertainer willing to do anything for a better paying gig).

Like the Coens’ previous effort, Buster Scruggs is a lovingly crafted ode to a historically significant time in Hollywood — the era of the great western. Unlike Hail, Caesar!, however, here you’ll find a more harmonious balance of style and substance, the film literally bookended by the opening and closing of an old hardback, each segment segued by page-turning, complete with colored illustrations and a few sentences that clue you in to what is about to unfold.

Meanwhile the production design is brilliantly realized, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel adapting different color gradients and tints to coordinate with the predominate colors in any given vignette. Take for example the pastel yellows of the opening movement, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” featuring Tim Blake Nelson as a fast-talking, even faster gunslinging outlaw who has to his name one of the most creative kill shots of all time; the piney greens of “All Gold Canyon,” featuring singer Tom Waits as a lonely prospector; and the dusty browns of “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the film’s longest segment and arguably most emotive, with Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young maiden whose 1000-mile journey to Oregon is complicated when she meets a true gentleman along the way, a wagon train leader named Billy Knapp and played by Bill Heck.

Despite the lack of common characters and an array of different outcomes the arrangement is hardly random. The action contained within each chapter — some of which are more loquacious than action-driven, admittedly — address a motif of survivalism, or more accurately, the fatalistic way life and death often intersect on the unforgiving frontier. The final segment — “The Mortal Remains,” which finds five strangers en route to Fort Morgan, Colorado via stagecoach debating the “two types” of people who exist in the world  — wraps both the physical and the philosophical journey up on a decidedly weird note, addressing not just the mortality of man but his morality as well.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not be the best Coen brothers film — it’s not even their best western (that honor still belongs to No Country for Old Men with Bad Haircuts). Yet the overall experience is never less than intriguing and more often than not surprisingly hard to predict.

The best daggum chompers you ever did see on a cowboy

Recommendation: What’s most appealing about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the variety of experiences offered up. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for another 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It may not be among the Coens’ most original works but it may be one of my personal favorites, packing a hell of a lot of intrigue into two-and-a-half rather fleeting hours. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead, where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there. And we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used to be.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Month in Review: October ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

October is a tough month to survive if you aren’t as into horror as others are, and if you don’t necessarily make your blogging bread-and-butter out of talking about scary movies. As long time readers of this award-winning blog (I’m not bullshitting you — I got a Liebster Award, ya’ll!) are aware, I have slowly but surely been gaining an appreciation for the genre over these years, in part thanks to a number of great sources whose awareness of what’s actually out there has inspired me to do some digging myself. In the years since doing this, my definition of horror and what’s “scary” has evolved, and I really like that.

With that said, I don’t think I produced one single horror review this past month. It wasn’t like I planned this, or that I had no options (the resurrection of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in David Gordon Green’s Halloween: The Great Retcon, or can I interest you in a new Jeremy Saulnier picture in Hold the Dark?) Man, I really messed this thing up this month, didn’t I? I think the scariest thing that happened was the backlash following Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a movie about astronaut Neil Armstrong and his successful Moon landing. The number of ignorant comments I read regarding that movie was truly frightening. It’s one thing to not like the way the film was made — in fact that’s understandable — but it’s quite another to dismiss First Man as a work of fiction or the omission of the flag planting symbolic of “typically Hollywood revisionist history.”

With that off my chest, it’s time now to take a look back on what films I did review this month on Thomas J (plus two bonus blurbs on things I ran out of time on). Let’s do it!

Beer of the Month: 21st Amendment’s Back in Black IPA


New Posts

New Releases: A Star is Born (2018); First Man; mid90s


Another Double-Header 

Bad Times at the El Royale · October 12, 2018 · Directed by Drew Goddard · Boasting a talented and inspired ensemble cast and an atmosphere rich in foreboding, Drew Goddard’s Agatha Christie throwback mystery-thriller, set at the titular El Royale — a once-happenin’ travel destination set on the California/Nevada border now falling to the wayside — follows multiple perspectives as a group of guests become caught up in a fight for survival as slowly but surely each one’s true identity becomes revealed. A film packed with fun performances, including Jeff Bridges as Father Flynn, Jon Hamm as a “vacuum cleaner salesman” and Chris Hemsworth as a cult leader with a Thor-like physique (but far less in the way of David Koresh-like credibility), Bad Times‘ true gem lies in Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet. I flat-out loved that character. One of my favorites of the year, in fact. The central mystery keeps you engaged, even if you might sniff out who the survivors will be sooner than Goddard might have intended. (3.5/5)

The Sisters Brothers · October 19, 2018 · Directed by Jacques Audiard · A modern western that fails to draw you in in the way it really could have, the star-driven The Sisters Brothers is still worthy of your time. But with great star power comes great responsibility. With characters brought to life by the likes of John C. Reilly (as the elder Eli Sister), Joaquin Phoenix (as gin-soaked Charlie Sister), Jake Gyllenhaal (as John Morris) and Riz Ahmed (as gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm — what a freakin’ name!), it’s a frustration that the film never builds enough energy and intrigue around the obviously committed performances. The story emphasizes character over traditional western shoot-’em-up action. Over the course of two REALLY LONG hours, the ideological divide between its leads takes center stage, with one Sister wanting out while the other brother is resolutely all about this life. Survival is dealt with in a more grisly manner than what many might expect, particularly of a movie that also bills itself as a comedy. Aside from a compellingly subversive ending, I think my biggest takeaway from The Sisters Brothers is that there is no substitute for good, honest, hard labor when it comes to looking for gold during the height of the Gold Rush. Chemistry has never seemed so . . . gross. (3/5) 


ANYWAY. How was your Halloween? 

The Magnificent Seven

the-magnificent-seven-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Wenk; Nic Pizzolatto

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Try as they might, Antoine Fuqua continues falling well short of the benchmark set by his 2001 smash hit Training Day and Chris Pratt can’t quite make this the Guardians of the Galaxy of the ole wild west. Despite bear-dressing-like-people jokes he is merely one silly pawn in a story that doesn’t deserve them. Not even the all-star roster can lift this generic western crime thriller from the dust of its superiors. The title is The Magnificent Seven, but for me that really just refers to the number of scenes that are actually worth remembering in Fuqua’s new shoot-’em-up.

Here’s all I really remember:

Magnificent Scene #1: The ‘badass’ that is Bartholomew. Billed as a drama, the film opens promisingly with robber baron Bartholemew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) besieging the sleepy mining town of Rose Creek circa some month in the late 1800s. The film’s dramatic thread for the most part sags like a dilapidated tent between two strong points, and the dramatic opening is one of those strong points. Tension is palpable as Sarsgaard’s cold, lifeless eyes survey the room. Haley Bennett‘s Emma Cullen becomes widowed by his murderous spree (or, to be brutally honest but more accurate, her husband’s foolish actions that do nothing but further incense Bartholomew), an act that supposedly establishes the film’s emotional foundation.

Magnificent Scene #2: The Actual Badass that is Denzel. Introducing Denzel Washington is something that needs to be done sooner rather than later and his swaggering cowboy/”dually sworn peacekeeper”/bounty hunter Sam Chisolm walks in at just the right moment (i.e immediately). A fairly typical stand-off inside Rose Creek’s saloon ensues. Everyone in the scene puts on their best ‘Not To Be Fucked With’ face. Rah-rah. Guns. Liquor. Seconds later Chisolm walks out of an empty saloon leaving everyone but a semi-impressed, semi-drunk loner for dead. That loner is none other than Peter Quill Josh Faraday. Chisolm is soon approached and persuaded by a desperate Emma Cullen to gather together some men to take a stand against Bogue and his men to avenge the death of her beloved Matthew and reclaim the town.

Magnificent Scene #3: The Avengers this ain’t . . . but this is still fun. Movies in the vein of Fuqua’s adaptation, those that spend more of their bloated running time assembling rather than focusing on the ensemble itself, are really more about that journey of coming-togetherness than they are about the destination. It’s too bad The Magnificent Seven really only offers one or two strong first impressions. One is a shared introduction between Byung-hun Lee’s knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks — a name that somewhat confusingly belies the actor’s South Korean heritage — and Ethan Hawke’s sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, with whom Chisolm shares some history. Billy and Goodnight come as a packaged item, apparently; one never goes anywhere without the other and they are swiftly drafted into the ranks without complaint.

Magnificent Scene #4: There’s always at least one crazy. Vincent D’Onofrio also qualifies as one of those memorable introductions. He plays a vaguely mentally unstable (or perhaps he’s just a simpleton) tracker named Jack Horne, a physically imposing presence who clearly hasn’t had much human contact in a long time. His soft, nervous line delivery initially gave the impression the actor wasn’t comfortable in the role and/or that he was about to deliver a career-low performance but the character really ended up growing on me. Of course it would have been nice if he had more to do but when there are seven actors competing on screen I suppose sacrifices must be made, especially when one of them is Denzel Washington.

Magnificent Scene #5: Preparations not reparations. Heeding the warnings of Chisolm and his band of misfits, Emma and her fellow townsfolk prepare for the return of Bogue and what is likely to be many more nasty men on horseback in an obligatory, if not genuinely fun, fix-it-up montage. Rose Creek becomes retrofitted with all kinds of booby traps and hideouts that are sure to give the enemy fits and a mixture of excitement and dread for the bloodbath that is to come starts to build in earnest. Granted, the end results are all but a foregone conclusion: some will survive the ordeal and others will not. We know almost for a certainty that the Magnificent Seven will be reduced in number after this fight. And we also know that ultimately this last battle is just another good excuse for directors who like to blow stuff up, to go ahead and blow a quaint little set right the fuck up.

Magnificent Scene #6: Say hello to my little friend! For all of the film’s lackadaisical pacing and story development from essentially the 20th minute onward, The Magnificent Seven seems to wake back up again at the very end with a rousing gunfight that will demand every rebel’s sharpest wit and shot. It even comes close to earning our empathy as numerous dead bodies hit the ground à la Fuqua’s goofy assault on the White House. The editing becomes frenetic but remains effective and while Fuqua shies away from excessive blood-splattering the violence is still pretty confronting as a gatling gun makes its way into the mix. Ultimately this is the same kind of joy I get out of watching Macauley Culkin outwit the nitwits in Home Alone every Christmas.

Magnificent Scene #7: The end credits. A movie that runs about 30 minutes too long and that fails to make any real emotional connection is finally over. (Though not for a lack of trying: Fuqua awkwardly asks us to pity the lone woman in the group because she has lost her husband — she’s not there because of her individual strengths and in fact many of the rebels can’t or refuse to take her seriously; likewise Hawk’s last-minute cowardly act feels cheap and fails to make us care deeper about him.) I enjoyed the famous faces in by-now-familiar roles and their natural gravitas cleaned up some of the script’s blotches but there is only so much goodwill I can show towards something that feels so well-trodden, so ordinary, so un-magnificent.

the-magnificent-seven

Recommendation: A superb cast barely manages to keep The Magnificent Seven from being a totally and utterly forgettable and disposable movie. The people who you expect to shine, shine — those on the roster you don’t recognize as much don’t turn up as much. Simple as that. Some delicious scenery to chew on, though, and the soundtrack is hilariously overcooked. So all in all, I don’t really know what to make of this movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “What we lost in the fire we found in the ashes.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.esquire.com 

Hell or High Water

'Hell or High Water' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: David Mackenzie

The day after you’ve watched something is probably not the time to proclaim that thing an instant classic. It would be wise to allow the infatuation phase to run its course before declaring your undying love for your partner. Unfortunately for me, I trade in hyperbole and sensationalist journalism so I have a very hard time calming down when I see something as enjoyable and well-crafted as David Mackenzie’s hybrid post-modern western/heist thriller.

Contrasted against a fairly weak summer slate of cinematic offerings, perhaps Hell or High Water is destined for a spot on the top shelf it might not have earned in another year but there’s no denying this is a film crafted with care and precision and featuring some of the year’s most enjoyable (read: believable) performances in a leading trio featuring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges as surly West Texans caught in a fascinating, morally complex game of cat-and-mouse (okay, cops-and-robbers if you want to be more accurate).

Two brothers — the divorced Toby (Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Foster) — set into motion a master plan to save their family’s farm from foreclosure by relieving a string of Texas Midland Bank branches of large sums of cash. These are the very banks that have been slowly but surely milking the Howard clan dry for decades. Despite their efficiency and a knack for finding new getaway vehicles, they soon find themselves on Marcus Hamilton (Bridges)’s radar, a local ranger on the verge of a long-overdue retirement. He’s hungry for one last chase and strings along for the ride his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

All goes according to plan until the brothers Howard hit a bank in Post, where the locals aren’t so submissive, despite Tanner’s best efforts to terrorize. (An unsettling yet frequently amusing psychopathy renders his criminal history entirely unsurprising. In this world there aren’t good cops/bad cops, there are good robbers/bad robbers and Tanner is decidedly more the latter.) Unprepared for resistance, they find themselves scrambling to escape a bloody scene that turns a once-righteous deed into an unintended murdering spree. All the while the rangers remain only a half-step behind, distracted only by the fact Marcus is fated for a rocking chair and greener pastures come the end of the week. The two narratives, compelling in their own right, eventually coalesce into a spectacular, oft unpredictable showdown that eschews traditional heroics and villainous archetypes. Think No Country For Old Men meets Robin Hood.

In a film filled with stellar acting turns, Pine’s quasi-transformative, ski-mask-wearing thief might just outshine the rest as his bedraggled countenance bears the brunt of the film’s moral quandary. Toby’s obligations to family — a financially struggling ex-wife and two teen boys — trump any obligation to abide by the law of this crumbling wasteland, a place where old granny’s fixin’ to blow ya off the front porch with her 12-gauge just for trespassin’. (That particular scene doesn’t happen but you can imagine it happening.) A place where the hustle and bustle of cities like New York and L.A. may as well be happening on another planet. Captain Kirk Pine finds much room for personal growth in a script that believes in full-bodied characters and thoughtful story development. His devotion to his sons may justify a few smooth robberies, but does it justify the violence later on? How far should a person go to protect the ones they love?

Hell or High Water isn’t simply a case of an amateur robbery gone awry, although there is very much an element of bumbled professionalism at play. Think of these guys more as skilled amateurs, dabbling in the art of robbing from the corrupt and redistributing to those who are destitute. What inspires their actions is very much an indictment of corporate America and how that unstoppable locomotive frequently flattens any poor sod who happens to be standing on the tracks (i.e. anyone who has been unfortunate enough to put their trust in banks who consistently loan money, their money, to others who can’t possibly afford to repay the debt). Indeed, if you wish to dig deeper into these scenes juxtaposed against a rugged, wildly unpredictable American west, you’ll find hints of Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes as well. The pain. The outrage. Tension’s palpable, manifested especially in Toby’s final confrontation with a ranger who thinks he has him figured out.

Hell or High Water is impeccably performed, a reality reinforced by the brilliance of Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, one that allows the entire cast to put their best cowboy boot forward. Even bit-parts such as a stubborn waitress who refuses to hand over her $200 tip as evidence because she has a roof to keep over her and her daughter’s heads and an elderly local who ain’t threatened by “thugs” become precious commodities. Bridges doesn’t really need the pampering but he’s par excellence. Amidst a rather bleak mise-en-scène, Sheridan finds ways to wring out a kind of naturalistic, borderline farcical sense of humor that assures levity while never distracting from the more shocking drama that awaits in a climactic stand-off. A bickering repartee between two sheriffs drives the entertainment value sky-high, while Foster runs away with his role and in all the best ways.

You might describe the portrait as stereotypical of the image non-locals have already painted in their mind of a place they perceive to be backwards and lawless. This place is hostile and the people tough, resilient and pretty stand-offish. But the film isn’t  so reductive as to parody life in these parts. It focuses upon real people living out real lives in the only way they know how, desperate to make something work in a nation described in the Pledge of Allegiance as undivided, with liberty and justice for all. The ever-captivating mystery invites us to form our own opinions of these people and communities. And suffice it to say, and while difficult at times, it’s best to reserve judgment until the very end.

My judgment is thus: Hell or High Water is one of the most enjoyable, entertaining and satisfying films 2016 has to offer. By turns nostalgic for a bygone period in cinema — that of the classic John Wayne shoot-em-up — and hungry to forge new frontiers with a riveting story that, while not categorically unpredictable, explores boundaries few films bother exploring anymore. It’s a grand adventure, something that will undoubtedly offer up something new to discover upon repeat viewings. This is how you make movies, folks.

Jeff Bridges in 'Hell or High Water'

Recommendation: Hell or High Water, an uncommonly (and unexpectedly) solid bit of modern western action, refuses to stoop to the lowest common denominator of reducing drama to bloody gunfights and cheesy quips. It’s a heist film executed almost to perfection. Fans of the cast are sure to love it, particularly Pine who continues to show he has more talent than just fulfilling an iconic leadership role on the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is undoubtedly his best work yet, slurry southern drawl and all. And I hate to keep making Star Trek comparisons, but on an entertainment scale, Pine’s misadventures here are far worthier of your time. This goes beyond where many modern westerns have gone before. Two Roger Ebert thumbs up.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: ” . . . go f**k yourself.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Decades Blogathon – The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

 

Don’t forget to check out Michael’s stunning piece on The Outlaw Josey Wales, featured over on Three Rows Back! Thanks everyone!

three rows back

Featured Image -- 58371976 2It’s day four of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and the awesome Tom from Digital Shortbread. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I will run a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post); and this typically first class review of Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales is written by Michael’s It Rains… You Get Wet.

Senator: “The war’s over. Our side won the war. Now we must busy ourselves winning the peace. And Fletcher, there’s an old saying: To the victors belong the spoils.”
Fletcher: “There’s another old saying, Senator: Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”

Words like “unexpected”, or at the very least, “unanticipated” could well have described actor Clint Eastwood’s sixth effort as a film director. Though the ‘western’ was what…

View original post 1,637 more words

Jane Got a Gun

'Jane Got a Gun' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Brian Duffield; Anthony Tambakis; Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Call it a troubled production but don’t call it a complete misfire. Though it may be a few shoot-outs short of a memorable western, Jane Got a Gun still gots a job to do and it does it rather well all things considered.

It’s a film that has seen a revolving door of cast and crew come and go, with Warrior director Gavin O’Connor squeaking in at the last second after the original helmer dropped out on day one of shooting. Joel Edgerton was supposed to be playing a villainous role but Ewan McGregor got it instead, filling in for Brad Cooper who was filling in for Jude Law . . . who was filling in for Michael Fassbender. Cinematographers were also replaced.

Some part of my appreciation for this movie‘s inextricably linked to my sympathy toward Natalie Portman here. Playing a game of musical chairs with the actors you’re potentially going to share a screen with can’t be much fun. Indeed if you look close enough in a few scenes you can almost feel if not confusion, then the frustration that the actress is clearly experiencing out of character. And if it’s not Portman being underwhelming then surely it’s the script; its heart wasn’t really in this either.

At film’s open we’re staring down the barrel of a fairly standard revenge western. Jane is a strong and capable frontierswoman who finds herself nursing her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) back to health after he returns home one afternoon bloodied and riddled with bullets. Bill warns her that the notorious Bishop brothers are coming after them, prompting Jane to take their young daughter to a faraway homestead to which she promises to return once this situation has been ‘handled.’ (It’s not quite Clint Eastwood promising/threatening justice/revenge, but Portman’s confidence doesn’t go unnoticed.)

McGregor is almost unrecognizable as the bloodthirsty John Bishop. He too is a product of a watered-down script, a cartoonish villain as if by design. McGregor is smarmy and he has his moments but this is more Kenneth Branagh as Arliss Loveless  than a man we should really take seriously. Boyd Holbrook plays younger brother Vic. He’s kind of just there. With such a cultivated physical appearance, I was sort of surprised to see what a bunch of lame-o’s Bishop’s entourage really was.

Joel Edgerton digs his hands into the dirt sportingly as Jane’s ex-husband Dan Frost, a gunslinger who enlisted in the Civil War and left it only to find his wife had moved on. Now she seeks him out for extra protection from the incoming attack(s) and, although bitterness isn’t very becoming, it somehow suits Edgerton and he all but confirms the technique will never disappear. That’d be okay if it’s used more subtly than it is in this movie. Dan’s easier to pull for when he inevitably returns to the frame because . . . well, when Edgerton plays a good guy, how can you not root for him?

So Portman isn’t the only one fighting an uphill battle, saddled with an underdeveloped character as well as an unambitious screenplay. The trio of Portman, Edgerton and McGregor fair the best and each of them succeed in overcoming the dryness aridness of the writing. As Jane, Portman is one of the year’s first strong female leads and her intensity in the final scenes certainly sets an impressive benchmark.

It’s her persistent toughness and intermittent vulnerability that gets us through a deliberately (bordering on tediously) paced two acts before bullets truly start flying in the much-anticipated, chillingly shot climax. (Interestingly, the most consistent aspect of the production is undoubtedly Mandy Walker’s warm, vibrant photography.) By and large the film is beautiful to look at and on a visual level it succeeds in evoking the classics. Jane Got a Gun does show signs of a lot of wear and tear, the story isn’t as focused as it ought to be and many edits are questionable but even given all of its faults this one’s difficult not to like. Not pity, but actually like.

Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton in 'Jane Got a Gun'

Recommendation: The film won’t really ‘wow’ anyone, yet there’s enough here to more than recommend a watching at home (it’s heading out of theaters so quickly the wait won’t be long) with popcorn and your caffeinated beverage of choice. Portman, Edgerton and McGregor are great reasons to see this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “My life’s worth isn’t your concern. Hasn’t been for years.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.actucine.com 

The Revenant

The Revenant movie poster

Release: Friday, January 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu; Mark L. Smith

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu

There are some things in The Revenant that you can’t un-see. Like the bloody confrontation between the Arikara tribe and Captain Andrew Henry’s men in the very first scene. Or a human body torn apart by monstrous bear claws. These moments transcend shock value, they go beyond the call of dramatic duty, depicted so authentically so as to become genuinely upsetting.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Oscar-friendly Birdman doesn’t get any less haggard as it plods onward, but the bloodletting slows just enough for us to catch our breath and get our feet back under us. Through a protracted adventure across harsh winterscapes, one that favors physical over verbal communication, Iñárritu’s epic vision confirms those who tough out the opening half hour will be well-equipped to handle everything Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass must go through in the ensuing two-plus hours.

Acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Alfonso Cuarón’s right-hand man, drops us into the early 1800s. It’s man against nature; us against the sprawling, unforgiving territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Even from a distance and in comfy theater chairs, feeling cold and exposed is an inevitability. Lubezki’s fiercely uncompromising artistry — a refusal to use anything but the natural light a pale sun and dusty, white-washed landscapes provide — ensures that of all the things we are going to feel, safe won’t be one of them. This is his movie as much as it is the director’s (and Leo’s). Iñárritu directs a script he co-wrote with Mark L. Smith, one that tells of a remarkable true story of survival and human courage.

The premise is simple, one of those one-line blurbs that could present a problem to those who weren’t enthralled by the chase in Mad Max: Fury Road; this is an all-out crawl against the odds as Glass hunts down the man responsible for killing his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) after Glass is mauled by a bear and left for dead by Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and his men. The Revenant isn’t interested in making things complicated because society at this stage isn’t exactly what you’d call civilized. People get by on raw bison liver and don the skin of bears they’ve just killed for protection from the elements.

Yet, there is a reward for enduring, not just in terms of its occasionally stomach-turning imagery. The bulk of the narrative pivots around Glass’ interactions with the great outdoors, the pace often slowing to a literal crawl but not once does it become lethargic. Of course, come the end we still hope the wait has been worthwhile — will we get that ultimate showdown between good and evil? How will justice be meted out? As much as we want to shield our eyes from the next confrontation, the trifecta of superior directing, acting and photography simply doesn’t allow it.

In a film like this, the protagonist is only as good as the villain he must face. While nature is in itself a force to be reckoned with, The Revenant has been gifted Tom Hardy, who plays John Fitzgerald, a thoroughly despicable fur trapper whose ideological differences with Glass’ headstrong explorer type drive the narrative forward. The tension between them can at times be unbearable, the look in Hardy’s eyes frightening and proof that Charles Bronson was merely practice for the big leagues. But the hostility of Native American tribes might well take the cake in terms of driving home the tragedy of what America once was.

So, what of Leo then? And why have I put off discussing him for so long? It should come as no surprise that some of the film’s best-kept secrets — many thankfully avoid ruination by not featuring in the overplayed trailers — hinge on what Leo does and does not do with his body. Imagining a role where an actor must do more to convey the physicality of early American life is nigh on impossible. As he inches his way from one life-threatening obstacle to the next, his Quaalude-induced spasms in The Wolf of Wall Street become a far crawl from true greatness. But Leo’s not just another decomposing body in a picture filled with death and decay.

Glass is a fiercely protective father. His paternal instinct is his trump card, a tenderness and passion for rearing his child the right way offering balance to a character with great potential to come across all too heroic and mythological. Whatever distances we try to put between ourselves and the brutes we face here, there’s no denying little has changed about the fact parents are willing to do anything to protect  their children from the indiscriminate terribleness of the world. DiCaprio is nothing less than incredible here. (I won’t say Oscar-winning lest I jinx the whole damn thing.)

It’s well-known The Revenant was a very difficult movie to make, though not for financial reasons. The cast and crew suffered brutal conditions. The shoot was described as “hellish.” If the actors look like they’re very uncomfortable in their respective scenes, that’s probably because they are. Many of the original staff didn’t see the project to its end. Shot on location in the Canadian Rockies and in Argentina, the film pulses with a vitality that’s impossible to stage. Natural beauty brilliantly disguises the film’s black heart. Every time I had to shield my eyes — I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but yeah, I did — I then reminded myself what a thing of beauty it was that I was witnessing.

things start getting hectic in 'The Revenant'

Recommendation: This film is not for the squeamish. Raw power, visceral imagery and blunt honesty combine with legendary performances to create a film that will be impossible to forget, much less imitate. I haven’t seen the Mexican auteur’s full filmography yet, but I have this nagging feeling he might have just hit a career high with this stripped-back and naturalistic production. A must-see for fans of DiCaprio. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 156 mins.

Quoted: “You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it, Glass? . . . ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ gon’ bring your boy back.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino isn’t softening in his old(er) age. The Hateful Eight might be one of his most vicious pieces yet, an ode to the frankness of life on the frontier as filtered through the perspectives of some of the meanest, nastiest sumbitches this side of the Continental Divide.

It’s a testament to the power of Tarantino’s snappy, whip-smart dialogue that a film that takes place essentially in two rooms — a traveling stagecoach and a remote Wyoming outpost known as Minnie’s Haberdashery — passes by almost in the blink of an eye. Or in this case, with the speed of a bullet to the groin. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. After all this movie runs the length of a basketball game — commercial breaks included — and it’s even longer if you experience it in the fancy-pants 70mm Ultra Panavision format, which comes complete with a little intermission.

First things first. There are quite a few things that The Hateful Eight is not. It’s not Tarantino’s most sprawlingly ambitious, nor is it his most poignant social commentary. It’s not family or date-friendly (but you knew that already), and it makes no concessions for those who were put off by the writer-director’s liberal usage of a certain racial slur in Django Unchained. As the time passes by in awkwardly disproportionate chapters it becomes a less sophisticated thing to watch. It’s not action-packed, and the writing isn’t quite as disciplined as it’s been in the past.

What it is, besides being a brilliant spin on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — a classic whodunit wherein a group of strangers are invited to a remote estate and become suspicious of one another when they start getting picked off one by one — is the eighth reminder that filmmakers like Tarantino are all too rare. It’s a chatty chamber piece, and although it takes place almost exclusively in between the walls of a would-be cozy log cabin there’s no shortage of excitement . . . or bloodletting. Similar to Christie’s imaginative mystery thriller, viewers are complicit in the discovery process. Patiently we wait for the yarn of half-truths and three-quarter lies to fully unravel, to find out who these people really are and what their intentions are.

We’re introduced to Samuel L. Jackson’s Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Marquis Warren, who flags down a passing stagecoach and asks for a ride to a shelter as a blizzard moves in. The horse-drawn carriage is transporting John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), himself a bounty hunter, who is handcuffed to the fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re headed for a town called Red Rock. Don’t let the mustache fool you: dude’s a roughneck — surly and prone to violence. After some banter back and forth he allows Warren to come aboard. Soon enough they’re stopped once more by another man caught out in the cold. This is Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, who advertises himself as the new sheriff of Red Rock. He’s also trying to make his way back there.

The wagon pulls up to the Haberdashery and instead of being greeted by its proprietor, they’re met by Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) who tells them Minnie has taken off for a few days. Inside awaits another three men John wasn’t expecting. There’s the polite Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, channeling perhaps a little too much Christoph Waltz‘s Dr. King Schultz). It turns out he’s the hangman of Red Rock . . . by all accounts Domergue’s grim reaper. But at least he seems nice. By the fireplace sits the cranky General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), responsible for murdering many a black Union soldier in the war. You could say he doesn’t take too kindly to Warren’s presence. And in the back corner sits lone cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who is apparently waiting for the weather to clear so he can visit his mother on the outskirts of Red Rock.

The destination of Red Rock isn’t the common denominator these people share, per se, though I’m loathe to reveal specifics about what that really is. Let’s just say it’s something a little more personal.

Tarantino keeps mostly to this space in order to draw out the best (or is that the worst?) of these eight nefarious characters creatures. It’s determined they’ll be sharing the space for a few days since the weather is so bad. Soon enough the room becomes a bubbling cauldron of tension and distrust, John Ruth instigating much of it. His severe skepticism of everyone around him leads him to take precautionary measures. Domergue remains chained to his wrist. “Sheriff” Mannix constantly shifts loyalties. Warren is hostile and a notorious liar. Bob remains suspiciously quiet, and so too does the hangman. Ditto that for Joe Gage, while Domergue continues to suffer from her captor’s physical and verbal abuse.

For a film exceeding two-and-a-half hours and rarely taking advantage of its gorgeous natural environs outside, pacing isn’t much of an issue. Instead, more technical things stand out, and rather obviously. For a ragtag group of frontiersmen, these are some very eloquently spoken people. Call it a nitpick, but I prefer to call it an inevitability after paying such intense attention to what people are saying while also trying to figure out why such a wider, higher-resolution film was utilized here. Call it cabin fever. Something about the occasional verbal tirades, the overexploited art of romanticizing language, feels affected this time, almost as though Aaron Sorkin had gotten his hands on the script. (Shucks, now I sound like I don’t like Aaron Sorkin.)

But, I digress. It’s a new Tarantino offering and it’s more fun than it probably should be.

It’s also a film that almost never was. We’ve all heard the story: Tarantino vowed to scrap the project after a draft of the script was leaked late in 2014. He then considered turning it into a novel. Thankfully a live table read of the script convinced him to stick to his guns (e-hem) and commit to turning it into his next movie. Overly familiar creative flares notwithstanding, he’s once again acquitted himself the way any fan would want. The Hateful Eight is delightfully cynical, downright ugly at times and predictable in the best way possible.

Recommendation: Fans have another three hours of QT to pour over. The Hateful Eight doesn’t stack up to his weightier social commentaries and these characters are very, very difficult to like. They’re actually not likable at all but that’s one compelling angle to consider as you navigate your way through a labyrinthian web of relationships that grows ever more volatile as time ticks away. This is no pleasant winter retreat to the cabin in the woods. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 167 mins. (+20 min intermission if you see the 70 mm version)

Quoted: “When you get to hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you . . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Unforgiven (1992)

Thursdays come around pretty quickly, do they not? It seems only yesterday I was babbling on excessively about Chinatown and now, here we are, forging new frontiers yet again in October. This month is shaping up to be one of the most eclectic groups of films I’ve yet had on this blog, which is kind of cool (or I hope it is, maybe it’s really not. People are probably disappointed that I’ve gone the non-horror route this month. . .). Life is full of grim realities, as is evidenced in 

Today’s food for thought: Unforgiven.

Enforcing that pesky ‘no-guns’ ordinance since: Friday, August 7, 1992

[Netflix]

So I blindly stumbled into 1992’s Best Picture winner, not realizing it had picked up any awards, let alone taken home top honors and garnered several others including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. I’m glad I watched it without this knowledge. I didn’t have my viewing experience tainted by the lofty expectations brought on by Best Picture winners. I did, however, have a sneaking suspicion it was a sure-fire winner for Best Cinematography, for the film’s romanticism for the old west is impossible to ignore. Alas, that was only one of its nine nominations.

Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in this harsh, uncompromising vision of life on the frontier, specifically 1880s Wyoming. His last Western, Unforgiven tells the bleak story about a farmer with a dark history who gets roped into collecting one more bounty after a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey are shaken up by some thugs who get off lightly thanks to the local sheriff. Rather than making the cowboys pay with their own blood for disfiguring one of the girls, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, earning his second Oscar) decides they will find a suitable number of horses to give to the brothel owner, a total of seven horses fit for hard labor. Infuriated by the injustice, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) announces a cash reward for whomever can find and kill the men responsible.

Decrepit old pig farmer Will Munny (Eastwood) was once one of the most feared men in the midwest, known for ruthlessly killing men, women and children alike. When he met his wife he vowed to change his ways, although she passed away before the film opens, leaving him vulnerable once more to the loneliness and despair of bachelorhood on the prairie. Word about the bounty travels fast and Will finds he could really use the money (I can only imagine how long you could make $1,000 last back in the 1800s . . . ). After telling his children he’ll be back “in a couple weeks” he rides south, headed for an old accomplice and friend’s homestead, one Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).

On their ride the pair encounter an excitable young cowboy nicknamed ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) who doesn’t exactly view killing the same way the older and jaded Ned and Will do. Whereas he can’t wait to kill the sumbitches responsible, the other two, haunted by violent pasts, anticipate and to some extent dread what they will soon have to do. Meanwhile in Big Whiskey, a town that strictly prohibits visitors to carry guns on their person, Daggett has to contend with the contemptible English Bob (Richard Harris), who’s come to town in hopes that he’ll get to claim the cash reward. His out-of-town status is made amply clear on the virtue that he believes the superiority of the British royalty is based upon how easy it is for an American president to get shot and killed (the assassination of President Garfield has just made the papers).

Indeed, English Bob is a bit of an annoyance, but he’s all bluster compared to the aggressive sheriff, who takes pleasure in kicking Bob all around the town after he refuses to hand over his firearms to the proper authorities, and subsequently kicking him out of town. In a single scene a couple of things become clear: 1) Big Whiskey is a well-defended and hostile little community; and 2) Gene Hackman deserved that Oscar. His law enforcer is a real bad seed, Hackman’s penchant for intimidating characters culminating in the dastardly Daggett.

Unforgiven is a departure from many western films and violent films in general in that rather than glorifying and exaggerating the violent nature of survival in supposedly simpler times, it emphasizes the personal toll it takes on someone who has killed, be it for survival or in self-defense. Killing just for the sake of killing isn’t the issue here. The difference between the Schofield Kid’s lust for blood (in a fireside scene he boasts about killing five men already despite his age) and the older men’s reluctance to keep pulling the trigger comes under scrutiny as they inch ever closer to their destiny. Eastwood, the director, emphasizes subtlety and ruminates on the extreme nature of killing. “It’s a hell of a thing, to kill a man. Take away everything he’s got, everything he will ever have,” Will says to the deeply disturbed Schofield Kid in the aftermath of a shoot-out.

The delicate treatment of life and death is handled brilliantly in said scene, where the trio come across their targets in a shallow canyon and stalk them out. In a western, it’s all too natural to expect the scene to erupt into a battle of bullets and bloodshed, but Eastwood keeps it contained. As one of the cowboys slowly bleeds out, from around a protective hill Will asks one of his fellow riders to give him some water, an act of compassion that, rather than softening the film, bolsters Unforgiven‘s comity.

As a result, the action that pops up sporadically — this film is also restrained in terms of how often it breaks into fits of chaos and one-upmanship, as these things often do — hits much harder. Because we learn to respect the violence when it happens, it’s that much more difficult to watch Daggett lash out (literally) against those who defy him. This isn’t to say Unforgiving is a bloodless picture, of course, but Eastwood deserves credit for recognizing the difference between effective depictions of violence and simple mind-numbing excess. In a time when civilization was more obviously defined by responses to matters of life-and-death, it’s refreshing to journey back to that time where seemingly more trivial concepts like decency, courtesy and respect have more of a role.

Eastwood’s final journey out on to the frontier manifests as a thoroughly enjoyable, occasionally jarring and often somber adventure that has far more intelligence than the typical shoot-’em-up. And the final showdown between Will and Daggett confirms once again that there is no one more badass than Clint Eastwood.

Recommendation: A restrained picture in terms of how it depicts violence and stages action set pieces, Unforgiven is a unique western that reminds one far more of a psychological drama than anything John Wayne or Paul Newman might have starred in. Well-acted and beautifully shot, this is a trip well worth taking if you haven’t seen it before and are curious about one of the last truly great westerns. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 131 mins.

TBTrivia: Only the third western to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. The other two being Dances with Wolves (1990) and Cimarron (1931).

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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