Cassidy Red


Jo Cassidy gets the drop on her Dad and all of the rest of us as well.

(2017) Western (Vision) Abby Eiland, David Thomas Jenkins, Jason Grasi, Jessy Knudsen, Gregory Zaragoza, Rick Cramer, Lola Kelly, Alyssa Elle Steinacker, Hudson Bothwick, Lindsey-Anne Campbell, Lyle Kanouse, Bryan Harnden, Peter Fuller, Mercedes LeAnza, Annie Pace, Morgan Smith, Veronica Conran, Alicia Herder. Directed by Matt Knudsen

 

The Old West was no place for a woman. Life was hard, even for those who had husbands to protect and provide. For those that didn’t there weren’t many choices and often they found their way to the bordellos and cathouses of the time. Pregnancy was a way of life and those born of prostitutes back in the day had a very rough road ahead of them.

Josephine “Jo” Cassidy (Eiland) was one such daughter. Her mother (LeAnza) was a prostitute; her father, Cort Cassidy (Cramer) a bounty hunter. Jo grew up splitting time between her mother’s brothel and her father’s ranch. On the former she learned how to use her looks to her advantage; on the latter, how to defend herself thanks to her dad and dear old Colonel Samuel Colt – as the old Western saw goes, God didn’t make all men equal, Colonel Colt did.

A half-Apache squatter she names Jakob (Grasi) catches her eye but also causes a conflict with Tom Hayes (Jenkins) who has an eye for Jo and even gets her to agree to marry him. Jakob is adopted by Tom’s guilty dad and becomes a valued ranch hand but although Jo is engaged to Tom, her heart belongs to Jakob. One night, Tom catches the two as they plan to run away together. Tom’s pride won’t allow that to happen so he arranges for Rowena (Kelly), a prostitute that Jo trusts, to inform Jo that Jakob was shot down by Sheriff Tom.

Jo seeks out her father’s help in learning how to gun down the much more seasoned gunfighter Tom but although he’s reluctant, Cort eventually comes around. However, there are some revelations to be had – not everyone is telling the truth which shouldn’t be a surprise. The situation is a lot different than Jo has been led to believe but it doesn’t matter. A reckoning is coming and as the tagline says, Hell hath no fury – and throw in a redhead at that and you’ve got trouble that money won’t buy you out of.

The production design is really pretty high-end for a low-budget western like this one. Lauren Ivy is a name to remember in that department; clearly she’s someone who can make a lot out of a little. Julia Swain does a bang-up job of cinematography, with the requisite Western sunsets and dusty town vistas but also some meadows and brothels to boot. It’s a splendid looking feature in every regard.

The movie does abound with Western clichés but they are approached from more of a female point of view; for once in the love triangle the gunslinger is the woman. There are also a lot of women behind the camera in positions of importance (I’ve already mentioned two of them) and in this day and age where women have a hard time building up a resume, that’s pretty big.

The story is told mainly through flashbacks as a piano player named Cricket (Zaragoza) regales jaded and disillusioned hooker Quinn (J. Knudsen) with the story of the star-crossed lovers. It isn’t too hard to figure out what the big twist is here and all of the little ones as well for that matter. I would have liked to have seen a little more character development without the framing story but that’s just me. In any case the action breaks away to Cricket and Quinn every so often and it doesn’t do anything good for the flow of the story.

Even so, despite a lack of attention to detail (the upright piano clearly sounds like a grand piano and some of the expressions used are more 21st century than 19th) this is surprisingly entertaining for a movie that hasn’t received a whole lot of notice. Most of the issues can be overlooked so while it’s not going to bring back the Western genre all by itself, certainly fans of that underserved genre will likely welcome a pretty decent new one into the fold.

REASONS TO GO: It is admirable that there are a whole lot of women in major positions for the film. Eiland and Grasi are both effective leads.
REASONS TO STAY: A little more attention to detail could have been used in post. There are a whole lot of Western clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a bit of sensuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was originally produced as a thesis film project for the UCLA Masters of Fine Arts directing program.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bandidas
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Chamber

Scorched Earth


Unlike Jesse Ventura, Gina Carano has time to bleed.

(2018) Sci-Fi Action (Cinedigm) Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins, Stephanie Bennett, Dean S. Jagger, Patrick Gilmore, Luvia Petersen, Patrick Sabongui, Nathan Mitchell, Alisha Newton, Daniel Bacon, Sarah Troyer, Bart Anderson, Kailey Spear. Directed by Peter Howitt

 

I’m all for B-movies, so long as they’re reasonably entertaining and have at least a scrap of originality or at least some imagination to them. Scorched Earth, a post-apocalyptic ecological action western (that’s a mouthful) probably doesn’t qualify for either and if it does only barely but I found myself giving it a fairly mixed review.

Bounty hunter Attica Gage (Carano) wanders the wasteland following a global ecological disaster (take that, climate change deniers!) after an event known as Cloudfall permanently polluted the planet with toxic chemicals leading a need for re-breathing devices that use powdered silver to work properly and tiny chemical pellets that purify the polluted water. In her era it’s a capital crime to drive a fossil fuel-burning vehicle and she collects bounties on offenders of that law, for instance Chavo (Petersen) who wears a cowboy hat with a couple of aces in the hatband. That’s what passes for eccentricity among the mass murdering set in the future.

Gage is one of those bounty hunters who always gets her man (in that case, woman) but she has a run-in with the sheriff of New Montana (population 24) whose sheriff (Gilmore) has misplaced her bounty until Gage “finds” it for him. Her only friend is Doc (Hannah), the town medic and a former bounty hunter himself until a knee injury did his bounty hunting days in. He tells her of the biggest bounty ever offered for Thomas Jackson (Robbins), the mayor of the town of Defiance – wait, wasn’t that the name of the town in a SyFy post-apocalyptic Western? – and warns her she won’t be able to collect it by herself as Jackson has a crew of ruthless killers. Of course she sets out on her own after him, confident she can impersonate Chavo by wearing her hat. Of course nobody really sees anybody’s face that often due to the re-breathers which are taken off regularly.

Anywho, it turns out that Gage has a personal connection to Jackson as well as his bar chanteuse and occasional plaything Melena (Bennett) who bears a passing resemblance to Gage’s dead sister Beatrice (Newton) who was kidnapped by Jackson years earlier. Jackson and his flunky Lear (Jagger) have plans to work an abandoned silver mine near Defiance but needs manpower to do it; what better way to get manpower than to kidnap slave labor from surrounding towns and caravans passing through? You know all this is going to lead to a reckoning between Gage and Jackson and let the best man – or woman – win.

It’s hard to believe that Howitt also directed the superb Sliding Doors but he did; this is definitely not his finest hour. The script is loaded with elements borrowed from other films and has little originality in that regard. That would be okay if the elements were handled in an original way but they’re not. You’ve seen this movie before kids, even if you haven’t seen it yet.

Carano was at one time thought to be a rising star in the action field in Haywire never really fulfilled the promise she displayed in that movie (which was not as good a movie as most people at the time thought) despite a couple of high-profile roles. Direct to home video seems the next step for her; I can’t imagine that this film will get her decent roles in future films. It’s not that she’s bad, she just has cringe-inducing dialogue to recite and most of her hand-to-hand combat is done with guns which is a failure to utilize her skills properly. At one point she tells Melena “Head to New Montana; it’s a better way of life” which sounds more like a slogan the Montana tourism board might utilize than something an actual human being might say.

For some reason Howitt has chosen to stop everything dead in its tracks by having Melena sing the blues in his saloon every so often. The music isn’t really all that scintillating and the tone is jarring enough that it takes the viewer out of the film. Worse still, the singer – who is obviously not Bennett – doesn’t lip-synch very well to the actress, or vice versa.

 However, Howitt does handle the action sequences with aplomb and they flow nicely. Also the deadly cloud effects with plenty of CGI swirlies and lightning are pretty cool in and of themselves. Those however don’t a great movie make and quite frankly watching Gage get up and walk away after being thrown over a cliff in a coffin that’s been nailed shut is the kind of taking-leave-of-their-senses logic that the screenwriters display all too often in this mildly entertaining but ultimately not really worth seeing film.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are handled pretty nicely. The cloud and storm effects are also pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The musical interludes are jarring and disruptive. This film has a definite case of the indestructible heroes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, adult themes and profanity herein
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gage was initially written as a male character with Sean Bean being considered for the lead; when that fell through, the part was re-written for a female character and Carano was eventually cast for the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/18: 13% positive reviews: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Eli
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Above & Beyond Acoustic: Giving Up the Day Job

The Magnificent Seven (2016)


Don't ever mess with Denzel.

Don’t ever mess with Denzel.

(2016) Western (MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Hailey Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Joss, Cam Gigandet, Emil Beheshti, Mark Ashworth, Billy Slaughter, Dodge Prince, Matthew Posey, Dane Rhodes, Jody Mullins, Carrie Lazar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

We often feel helpless about things. Those in power have too much money, too much power, too many guns. They have control over everything and we basically just have to take it and as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to exist while those who are in charge seem to have it easier and easier, and do more injustice to us with impunity. In a situation like that, who are you gonna call?

In the town of Rose Creek, it’s easy to recognize who is oppressing them; it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), a ruthless industrialist who runs the gold mine outside of town. He has bought and paid for the Sheriff (Rhodes) and treats his miners like slaves. Now he’s turned his sights to the town which he wants to destroy so he can further mine gold deposits he thinks might be there. He is trying to intimidate them into leaving – and it’s largely working, but some of the townspeople are willing to stay and fight. Those must be taught a lesson and that lesson ends with Matthew Cullen (Bomer), a good-hearted farmer, gunned down in front of the church which is also burned out.

His widow, Emma Cullen (Bennett) then goes in search of a gunman who can bring her if not justice at least vengeance. She finds Sam Chisolm (Washington), a duly licensed officer of the court from Wichita, Kansas – or a bounty hunter, which is what he really is. When Emma explains what’s happening in Rose Creek, at first he’s reluctant to get involved – until he finds out who is doing unto the good citizens of Rose Creek. Then he’s ready to take on an army.

He’ll need some tough characters to take on the murderous mercenaries that Bogue has hired. First up is gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) who essentially owes Chisolm for getting his horse out of hock. After that came sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his associate Billy Rocks (Lee), an immigrant from Asia and an expert with knives. Then there’s the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche brave Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Finally there’s Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), a legendary trapper.

It is seven hard men against an army. When they ride into town, they take Bogue’s men by surprise and take over the town but they know that Bogue, who is in Sacramento at the time, will be back with many, many more men. They train the townspeople to defend themselves and they also liberate the miners who also will make their stand there. But how can they, when the bad guys are so many, so much better armed and so much more experienced at fighting?

This is of course a remake of the classic John Sturges western of 1960 which in itself was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, is a big fan of Westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven was always one of his favorites. Feeling that the themes of tyranny and terrorism were even more apt today than they were in 1960, he took on the daunting task of remaking an iconic Western which in many ways made the career of Steve McQueen (in the Josh Faraday role).

The cast here is pretty top notch. Washington is at the top of his game, channeling Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. Few actors in Hollywood today can play a badass as effectively as Washington can; despite the 70s porn star mustache, he is intimidating and tough as nails. He also looks pretty freaking good for a man in his 60s.

Pratt like Washington is an enormous star and here he brings his trademark irreverence to the role, making Josh Faraday not just comic relief (which he is occasionally) but a badass in his own right. This role isn’t going to advance his career any further but it isn’t going to knock it backwards either. Pratt has a tendency to play the same role over and over again recently and this is more of the same.

Hawke has a good turn as the sharpshooter whose Civil War experiences haunts him and has made him reluctant to take up the rifle again. For my money though, one of the performances you’ll remember is D’Onofrio, whose high squeaky voice doesn’t sound remotely like what we’re used to from him, but plays Horne honestly and with relative dignity. He just about steals the movie.

Fuqua gets points for casting ethnic actors into the proper roles; a Hispanic actor plays the Mexican, a Korean actor the Asian and an Inuit actor the Native American. There isn’t really any mention of racial prejudices which in that era were prevalent and extreme; few white people would have sought or accepted help from an African American, even if they were desperate, nor would they have looked to Mexican or Native help as well – most white settlers considered all three ethnic groups subhuman. I like the diversity of the cast, but I do think that ethnicity should have been addressed at least somewhat.

The final confrontation between Bogue and his men and the townspeople takes up the bulk of the movie and is epic in scope. There’s some decent fight choreography here and while it doesn’t up the ante in action scenes, it at least distinguishes itself as well staged and exciting. The gunfight is everything you’d want from a climactic battle, so kudos for that.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect this movie to be replacing the original in the hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why Fuqua made it. Unfortunately, it will be held up against the original – whether Seven Samurai or the 1960 version – and it will come up short against both of those. However, taken on its own merits it’s not that bad but to be honest not that bad doesn’t measure up when it comes to two classic predecessors.

REASONS TO GO: Washington and Pratt are huge stars. D’Onofrio turns in one of his most interesting performances in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing is really added to the source material here. The racism of the era is glossed over.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most westerns, there’s plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’. There’s also a bit of foul language and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the final score by Oscar winning composer James Horner as he passed away June 22, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Blue Jay

Slow West


Shave every day and you'll always look keen.

Shave every day and you’ll always look keen.

(2015) Western (A24) Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Ken Blackburn, Alex Macqueen, Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Shalley, Stuart Martin, James Martin, Tony Croft, Karl Willetts, Edwin Wright, Andrew Robertt, Brian Sergent, Bryan Michael Mills, Kalani Queypo, Stuart Bowman, Brooke Williams, Madeleine Sami. Directed by John Maclean

The Western is kind of a finite genre. There are all sorts of stories you can tell in that setting, but by and large, most of them have already been told for the most part. You can go the ultra-violent route, or the lyrical; either way, there isn’t a lot that can be completely classified as new and exciting when it comes to Westerns.

Young Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee), the son of a Scottish aristocrat, has come to Colorado territory in 1871 (just five years before it would achieve statehood) in search of a girl – now that’s something I’d expect a 16-year-old to do. The girl, Rose Ross (Pistorius) has fled Scotland under somewhat obscure circumstances (which are, to be fair, revealed as the events unspool) and Jay, who was head over heels for her, has decided that the only thing to do is go be with her in America if that’s what it takes. So he heads out, woefully unprepared, into territory full of bandits, desperadoes and bounty hunters.

When he comes afoul of a former Union army officer (Thomas) he is rescued by Silas Selleck (Fassbender), a brooding, lonesome rider who has an agenda of his own. He agrees to protect Jay on his journey to find Rose, whose location he has discovered. Also on the way is Payne (Mendelsohn), a dandified bounty hunter who knows that Rose has a price on her head and means to collect.

That’s essentially all the story there is, but that’s all freshman director John Maclean needs. Maclean is better known for playing keyboards for the Beta Band, a Scottish band with a cultish following. His direction here has an autumnal quality; we get a sense of inevitability throughout, as we watch the young boyish Jay try to navigate the ugliness of men and the beauty of the land and reconcile the two. He is aided by the world-weary Silas, who knows both land and men and doesn’t trust either. Jay’s naiveté touches him and he ends up with an almost fatherly protective stance. It’s an interesting turn of  character and Fassbender pulls it off flawlessly.

Fassbender actually makes quite a decent Western hero, so much so that I wouldn’t mind seeing him on horseback again. His rugged good looks remind me of the Western heroes of a bygone age; his demeanor reminds me of Gary Cooper. Silas’ relationship with Jay isn’t typical of the Western sidekick/rough rider but there are elements of that here. Jay isn’t quite as eager as the average sidekick, but then again this is more his story than Silas’.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives us some beautiful images to look at. At the same time, we have some gorgeous music to listen to but surprisingly, it wasn’t composed by Maclean – Jed Kurzel did. Kurzel also has a rock band background, although his pedigree is in the Australian blues-rock band The Mess Hall. The vaguely folkish background music compliments the imagery nicely and establishes the melancholy mood.

This isn’t likely to be remembered as a seminal work for either the filmmaker or the genre, but it is a strong debut nonetheless. Certainly I would have liked an ending that felt less inevitable and there’s a throwaway kind of visual joke in which a character, wounded in a shootout, has a container of salt struck by a bullet shortly after him, allowing the powder to fall onto the wounds. Get it? I will give you that the climax does have some emotional impact, but not enough emotional resonance if you get what I’m saying. Smit-McPhee gives some gravitas to the pathos, possibly more than the scene deserves.

All in all, this is a strong work that made some waves at Sundance this year. It’s out on VOD and playing in selected theaters and should be one you’ll want to keep an eye out for. In a summer in which thoughtful, beautiful movies have been few and far between, this one stands out even if the field weren’t so weak. Maclean has a bright future as a filmmaker and you’ll want to get in on that action right away.

REASONS TO GO: Lyrically shot. Great music. Fassbender is a great Western hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Haphazard time jumps. Ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: Western violence and a few choice cuss words.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The South Island of New Zealand substituted for the American West.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seraphim Falls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Max

Riddick


Vin Diesel practices his badass scowl.

Vin Diesel practices his badass scowl.

(2013) Science Fiction (Universal) Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackhoff, Dave Bautista, Bokeem Woodbine, Raoul Trujillo, Conrad Pla, Danny Blanco Hall, Noah Danby, Neil Napier, Nolan Gerald Funk, Karl Urban, Andreas Apergis, Keri Lynn Hilson, Charlie Marie Dupont, Jan Gerste, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, Antoinette Kalaj, Lani Minella. Directed by David Twohy

Some characters need to be on their own turf to really be effective. Indiana Jones, for example, is at his best in some ruined palace, searching for treasure; high society shindigs are not his thing. As for Richard B. Riddick, well, let’s put him on some forgotten miserable barely habitable rock in the middle of deep space populated by vicious, deadly creatures and we’re interested.

And that’s just where Riddick (Diesel) finds himself after being betrayed by Lord Vaako (Urban) of the Necromongers (from The Chronicles of Riddick which preceded this). The world is desolate, filled with carrion eaters, a jackal/dog hybrid and a slithering nasty that has a venomous sting on its scorpion-like tail and a penchant for hiding in standing pools of water. Riddick is left on this planet to die, his leg broken and without any supplies or weapons except for a tiny little throwing knife.

Riddick manages to set his broken leg the hard way and finds his way to a grassland which is a bit less predator-filled. He manages to tame one of the jackal/dog puppy hybrids and keeps it as a pet and watchdog. He survives for years this way.

When he sees a storm brewing, he realizes his happy haven is about to be overrun by the slithering nasties. He needs to get off this rock and fast. He’s found a mercenary outpost and presses the panic button, making sure that he is detected. Given the bounty on his head, it isn’t long before two sets of bounty hunters – one led by the sleazy Santana (Molla) with his brutish sidekick Diaz (Bautista), the other a group of mercenaries led by Boss Johns (Nable) who has a personal stake in Riddick. He is supported by the laconic Moss (Woodbine) and the aptly-named Dahl (Sackhoff), a lesbian with no time for Santana’s shenanigans and the ability to kick his ass to back it up.

As you might guess, the two parties begin feuding almost immediately and Riddick is forced to pick them off one by one. The storm is almost upon them and once it gets there, things are going to get really, really bad.

This is more of a throwback to the first film in the series, 2000’s Pitch Black more than its successor. That was more of a thriller than the space opera that was The Chronicles of Riddick. Neither movie did particularly well at the theatrical box office but both performed much better on home video. Of course, it’s taken nine years for the second sequel to hit the screen (has it really been that long?) and tastes have changed somewhat since then.

Diesel has been identified with this role in many ways more so than Dom Toretto from the Fast and Furious franchise. Riddick is in many ways the ultimate badass; he’s a survivor no matter how overwhelming the odds and it is a prudent man who is terrified of Riddick. Yes, he has had his eyes surgically altered so that he can see in the dark – an effect they used well in the first film but for whatever reason have shied away from ever since.

The rest of the cast is pretty much serviceable but then they really aren’t given a whole lot of personality other than the one-dimensional kind. Sackhoff, best-known to genre fans for her run as Starbuck in the highly respected Battlestar Galactica reboot on SyFy a few years back, shows some big screen promise; she’s got tons of charisma, oodles of good looks and plenty of chops to become the female action hero that has been sorely lacking in Hollywood.

The creature effects are pretty spectacular and all of the non-human monsters look believable and deadly. Even Riddick has problems with the slithering nasty and realizes that discretion is the better part of valor with those baddies (he spends some time developing an immunity to the venom but rarely takes them on head-on if he can avoid it). While the slithering nasties (called mud demons  by and large) aren’t quite as lethal in some ways as the creatures Riddick faced in the first film, they do resemble the titular Aliens in some ways.

There is a good deal of posturing and posing, that kind of testosterone-slurping “my balls are bigger than yours” competitiveness between the various Mercs and Bounty Hunters (including Dahl) which gets a bit tiresome over the length of the film. The film’s climax is also a bit of a letdown, lacking epic scope and originality. It just kind of ends.

Thanks to a pretty minuscule budget by sci-fi standards, it seems logical that the movie will make a tidy profit, making the likelihood of a fourth film in the franchise (fifth if you count the short The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury) pretty strong. That won’t bother me in the least; as anti-heroic as he is, Riddick is one of the more compelling characters to come along in the movies in some time. I wouldn’t mind seeing what else he gets himself in to.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific creatures. Extreme badassery.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much posturing. Denouement lacks excitement.

FAMILY VALUES:  Quite a bit of violence, some brief nudity and sexuality and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel agreed to do a cameo in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift in exchange for the rights to the Riddick franchise in order to secure financing independently for the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Act of Killing

True Grit (2010)


True Grit

Not bad for a one eyed fat man!

(2010) Western (Paramount) Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Marvel, Leon Russom, Ed Corbin, Candyce Hinkle, Bruce Green, Peter Leung, Don Pirl. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

When you remake a movie that most would consider a classic, you had better know what you’re about. Not only must you retain the essence of the original, you need to add something significant to it; otherwise, what’s the point?

Maddie Ross (Steinfeld) has come to Ft. Smith, Arkansas from her farm in Yell County. Her father has been brutally gunned down by a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Brolin). Nobody in Ft. Smith seems particularly interested in pursuing Chaney who has fled into the Indian territories. The Sherriff (Russom) has no authority there and recommends a U.S. Marshal. There are several choices, but the Sherriff recommends Rooster Cogburn (Bridges).

Mattie tries to track down the Marshal but is unsuccessful at first. He’s obviously drunk and refuses to come out of the outhouse – and it’s not as if she’s about to go in after him. In the meantime she goes to Col. Stonehill (Matthews) to settle her father’s affairs with him. He’s a horse trader who meets his match in the 14-year-old girl. When after being bested in the first session she means to initiate a second, he moans “Oh God we’re not going to haggle, are we?” He knows a superior negotiator when he sees one.

Finally when she meets Marshall Cogburn he is at first unimpressed but when Mattie shows up with $50 he takes her a mite more seriously. She insists on accompanying him, not trusting him to do what he says he will. He is reluctant to allow it but at last gives in.

However, Mattie isn’t the only one looking for Chaney. There’s a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (Damon) who wants to collect the reward for a murdered State Senator and has been tracking Chaney (who was called Chelmsford in Texas) for months. He entreats Mattie to go home but she is obstinate. This won’t be the first time she displays that trait.

She wakes up to discover that Cogburn has already left. Nonplussed, Mattie follows on her pony Little Blackie who turns out to be a helluva horse. She is surprised to discover that LaBoeuf has thrown in with Cogburn but after LaBoeuf takes a switch to Mattie that partnership disintegrates. Truth be told, Cogburn admires the determined young girl deep down.

Cogburn believes that Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Pepper, ironically enough) who is an outlaw operating out of the territories. He goes in search of information to confirm it and winds up deep in the Indian Territories, going up against hardened outlaws…and the frailty of his employer…of himself.

It is inevitable that the new version will be compared to the old. Let’s first establish that Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne. Quite intelligently, Bridges doesn’t even attempt to be Wayne. His Rooster Cogburn is allegedly closer to the character in the Charles Portis book both films are based on (I can’t say for certain because I haven’t read it). He’s a drunken reprobate with a past that for one or two wrong turns may have turned out just like Chaney or Pepper. He dances just this side of the angels and has one foot on the side of the devils.

This isn’t a typical Coen Brothers movie. Gone are the quirky characters, the off-kilter sense of humor that pervades. In that sense, this is more like No Country for Old Men; the storytelling is more linear, more direct. The Coens are very particular about the language they use; the language here is more authentic than the original True Grit. In that sense, again this is closer to the Portis novel which was known for utilizing authentic idioms of the era. The 1969 movie was made for audiences of that time who weren’t looking so much for authenticity as much as adventure, and to a certain degree, of the Duke although by that time he had fallen out of favor to a large extent, having grown old and less imposing than he once was; he was also battling cancer at the time which was less known.

Wayne and Bridges aside, this is Mattie’s story and once again we are left to compare Kim Darby, 20 when she filmed the 1969 movie and Steinfeld, 13 when she filmed this one. Darby is spunkier than anything and while she talks like a bookkeeper, she is less convincing as a 14 year old. Certainly Steinfeld gets points in that regard and she has the inner strength that the character possesses, as well as the intelligence and fortitude. She also has the singularity of focus; Steinfeld certainly is impressive in communicating all these things. She is a gifted young actress who may very well get a Best Actress Oscar nomination this February. 

Damon plays the Texas Ranger role that Glen Campbell played and here is where this movie gets better. Damon gives the Ranger much more depth than Campbell was able to deliver and to be fair Campbell was more or less stunt casting. Damon makes the Ranger much more dangerous than the Campbell version which was more or less comic relief. You can believe that LaBoeuf is quite capable of killing from distance and efficiently here.

One of the issues I have here is the ending and this is where the filmmakers teach us a valuable lesson; not everything that is in the book is necessarily as good as the first movie. This movie adds the epilogue that was in the book, showing Mattie 25 years later (Marvel) but the coda is a bit anti-climactic and really adds nothing to the story.

However, this really is a much different movie than the first one and in some ways judging one against the other isn’t real fair but is necessary – after all, the first won the Duke an Oscar and is a bit of a standard among westerns. This has already become the largest-grossing movie in the Coen Brothers 20 year career and comes about it honestly, without a 3D or IMAX upcharge to artificially inflate the numbers. This is serious entertainment and proof positive that even though Westerns are no longer a guaranteed box office draw that when done right they can still be big hits. This is deserving of the success and is one of the must-sees of the holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography adds to strong performances throughout. While Bridges is no Duke, he holds his own. Damon makes a great LaBoeuf.

REASONS TO STAY: While it is very good in its own right, this is still not as good as the John Wayne version. Much grittier than the original, sometimes too gritty in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, a few disturbing images and some peril for 14-year-old Mattie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Bridges and Brolin have portrayed Wild Bill Hickock, whose Wild West Show is the setting for the movie’s epilogue.

HOME OR THEATER: If you watch it at home at least you can get up and leave without bothering anybody.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Little Fockers

Jonah Hex


Jonah Hex

You have to wonder if Josh Brolin didn't just take a blowtorch to his career.

(Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett, Michael Shannon, Tom Wopat, Aidan Quinn, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Julia Jones, Luke James Fleischmann, Rio Hackford, Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Directed by Jimmy Hayward

We all have a reason to get up out of bed every morning. Be it love, career or cause, there is something that motivates us to keep going even when the going gets rough. For some that cause is vengeance.

Jonah Hex (Brolin) was an officer in the Confederate Army under the command of General Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich) but when the General ordered the burning of a hospital with innocent women and children inside it. Jonah balks at this and betrays Turnbull to the Union Army. As a result of this, Hex is forced to kill Jeb Turnbull (Morgan), the son of the General.

As you might guess, the General doesn’t cotton to this very well. He finds Jonah and ties him to a cross, then makes him watch as he burns Jonah’s wife and son to death. That General Turnbull, he sure has a thing for burning women and children alive. Just in case Jonah forgets who is responsible for the death of his family, General puts a branding iron on the side of Jonah’s face while the General’s Irish right hand man Burke (Fassbender) holds him down.

Jonah is left on the cross to die, but was rescued by members of the Crow nation whose medicine men were able to bring back Jonah to this side. Jonah came back hideously scarred but with the ability to converse with the dead. That comes in handy since the dead can see where those they trafficked with in life are.

Jonah becomes a bounty hunter but after killing a corrupt mayor and his sheriff in the lovely mining town (if you can really call it that) of Stunk Crick, he finds himself with a bounty on his own head. Naturally, he does what any self-respecting bounty hunter would do in a situation like that – go visit a prostitute with a heart of gold, namely the fetching Lilah (Fox) who carries a torch for Jonah. She also carries a derringer and a knife. She may have a heart of gold but she’s also practical.

Their rendezvous is interrupted by about a dozen Union soldiers (Jonah’s withering bon mot – “How many men are you seein’ today?”) who get Jonah’s co-operation by telling him three words; Quentin Turnbull’s alive.

You see, everybody had assumed that Turnbull had perished in a hotel fire but it turns out that he had faked his death. You’d think someone able to communicate with the dead would have better intel about who had passed on and who hadn’t. In any case, the U.S. Army had determined that Turnbull was assembling a superweapon designed by Eli Whitney, inventor of the Cotton Gin and was planning to use it against the United States on the occasion of its Centennial celebration. President Ulysses Grant (Quinn) thinks that Jonah Hex is the best bet at stopping that wacky General, who not only likes to burn women and children but sure can’t let go of a grudge. Can someone who has cheated death so often do so once again?

I really wanted to love this movie, and I had high hopes that I would. After all, Josh Brolin has been hot as of late, with terrific performances in No Country for Old Men, W. And Milk all increasing his bankability as an actor. This looked to create his genre profile and maybe put a franchise character under his belt.

Alas, it is not to be. While the script writers Neveldine and Taylor are some of the most innovative action film writers in the business (they wrote and directed both Crank films), they missed the mark here. Early on there’s a nifty animated sequence, and the dead guy interrogation sequences are pretty cool, but this feels slopped together. The heavy metal score gives it a kind of steampunk feel but the doomsday weapon, which features a kind of rotating cannon firing device that shoots big iron balls that are detonated by an orange glowing bocce ball, is nonsensical and not really impressive.

As kind of an aside, I think there’s a trend here that any movie that depicts Ulysses Grant as president turns into a major bomb – first there was The Legend of the Lone Ranger, then the misfire that was the remake of Wild, Wild West and now the box office receipts for this one were anemic. Screenwriters, take note.

Brolin does a credible enough job as Hex, mainly having to squint, snarl and drawl his lines in a Clint Eastwood-esque rasp. You get a sense of his pain and his violent nature, and while Neveldine and Taylor do try to give Hex a bit of backstory, Brolin’s narration gives us more insight into the character than we might have had otherwise.

Malkovich is a capable villain, although this is probably not his best bad guy role (that would be In the Line of Fire) and Fox is easy enough on the eyes in her Victorian boudoir fashions that she wears throughout.

There are lots of explosions – most of the budget seems to have gone to pyro. It’s a shame we didn’t see more story here. The movie clocks in at a mere 81 minutes, so there was room for more exposition but I get the impression that story was sacrificed for pacing here.

Jonah Hex comes from the realm of DC Comics and I find it somewhat surprising that the powers-that-be at DC have elected to greenlight a film about what has to be characterized as one of their minor characters over better-known characters such as Wonder Woman, the Flash and the Teen Titans, none of which have had a chance to shine on the big screen as of yet. Given the talent both in front of and behind the camera, I would have expected a better movie than the one we got here, which does little to establish DC Comics as a player in Hollywood the way Marvel Comics is. It’s too bad; the story of Jonah Hex is a compelling one and with a little more focus, this could have been a really good movie instead of a mediocre one.

REASONS TO GO: The movie isn’t as bad as you heard it is.

REASONS TO STAY: It’s still a mess. Story seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of pacing.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of violence, a little bit of bad language and a little bit of sexual innuendo. Okay for teens but probably not for much younger than that.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Along with veteran film composer Marco Beltrami, heavy metal band Mastodon composed the film’s score.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will be gone from theaters by next weekend but quite frankly it’ll look a lot better on the big screen than the small.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Burma VJ