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

Django Unchained


Smoking the competition.

Smoking the competition.

(2012) Western (Weinstein) Jamie Foxx, Leonardo di Caprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayoutte, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, RZA, Anthony LaPaglia, James Remar, Jonah Hill, James Russo, Walton Goggins, David Steen, Nichole Galicia, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most iconic film directors of our time. When all is said and done I truly believe he’ll occupy a spot in the pantheon among the best ever. He has a love and respect for genre films that places him squarely in fanboy territory, yet he understands what’s great about them and how to turn them into something more than just basic entertainment. He elevates them – which is why I sit waiting with baited breath for his first horror/sci-fi film.

Until that day, you get to deal with his latest which takes on the spaghetti western, although this is set in the antebellum South so you might join Tarantino in referring to this as a “Southern.” In it a German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) liberates a slave named Django (Foxx) from a group of slave traders delivering their property to the market. It seems that Django once worked on a plantation where a trio of wanted men – the Brittle Brothers – had worked as overseers. Dr. Schultz has paper on them but doesn’t know what they look like. Django does. A partnership is born.

They travel to the plantation of Big Daddy (Johnson) where Django spots the brothers, two of whom are getting ready to whip a slave. Oh, no you didn’t. Django shoots ’em dead, and then guns down the third as he tries to ride away. Big Daddy doesn’t take kindly to it  so he organizes a posse of bag-wearing rednecks (including Hill in a cameo role) which is among the movie’s funniest scenes – the riders can’t see very well in the improperly cut bags. However Dr. Schultz devises a plan that outfoxes the rednecks, which Django implements.

Django has earned his freedom and $75 in his share of the bounty and is eager to track down his wife, who was sold separately from him to a different plantation.

She has in fact been sold to Candyland, the fourth-largest cotton plantation in Mississippi and the home of young Calvin Candie, whose hobby is Mandingo wrestling – pitting slaves from different owners in battles to the death. Candie who isn’t above having his dogs tear slaves to pieces, is a seemingly diffident yet genteel sort on the surface but he has all sorts of bad seething below that surface. He is supported by his house slave Stephen (Jackson), a crotchety sort who jealously hordes his position and authority in the house; Leonide Moguy (Christopher), an oily lawyer and Mr. Pootch (Remar), a debonair but deadly bodyguard.

Django first must hone his  skills as a bounty hunter before taking on that bunch, and when he is finally ready in the spring he is quite the killer but he is up against some of the most ruthless, sadistic men in the South. Is Django more than a man?

Of course he is. This is a Quentin Tarantino mash-up and he is not only targeting Spaghetti Westerns but also Blaxploitation and B-movie revenge flicks from the 80s. Django harkens back to classic heroes from all of those genres (but particularly John Shaft whom Tarantino has said is his descendent; in fact, his wife’s slave name is Broomhilda von Schaft).

Foxx imbues Django with a quiet dignity, which is about what you’d expect. Django isn’t worldly but he’s bright; he learns quickly and while his voice rarely gets raised he carries himself with such self-assurance that it’s easy for him to convince white folks that he’s a free man. It’s not a flashy performance, but it’s a confident one and illustrates the growth that Foxx has made as an actor in just a few short years. In many ways this is an even better performance than his Oscar-winning turn in Ray but might not attract the attention in that regard not only because it’s so low-key but because the competition for Best Actor this year is so bloody fierce.

He has plenty of support though. Waltz, who achieved his breakout role in Inglourious Basterds for Tarantino, switches gears and is a good guy this time out, although he’s got a bit of a dark side. Here as Dr. Schultz, he is urbane, witty and erudite. He uses a lot of five dollar words that most of the people he deals with have not a clue what they mean. He smiles a lot, is a bit of a charmer and a flirt but is at his core a decent fellow who is repulsed from slavery and the vicious things that are done to the slaves.

Di Caprio is a serviceable villain; he doesn’t play villains often but when he does he can be as over-the-top as any and that’s what the role calls for; at one point in the movie Candie pounds a table in emphasis. Di Caprio hit the table so hard he cut his hand open. Tarantino refused to yell cut and the scene proceeded with Di Caprio’s hand bleeding and that’s the take that’s used in the movie. The intensity, as it always is with Di Caprio, is there.

Jackson also plays villains less often than heroes and like Di Caprio, is no stranger to over the top. This is a part tailor made for Jackson and he inhabits it. It’s not the part you’d think he’d play – Yessuh Massuh isn’t exactly his style – but when you think about it, who else would you cast in the role? As good as the talent is among African-American actors right now, none spring to mind when you think “who could play Steven properly?” Just SLJ and like the trooper that he is, he does it note-perfect. Of course, I’m not sure that Jackson would have taken a part like this for anybody other than Quentin Tarantino.

One of the plot elements is that the story of the movie is supposed to parallel that of the legend of Siegfried which it kind of does. Like the legend, the movie’s story is told really in three parts. Each part has certain parallels with the legend – and no, I’m not going to explain it to you here. Just be reassured that Waltz tells you what the story is at the beginning and by the end you think back and say to yourself “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah!” Far be it for me to remove the thrill of connecting the dots from you.

Now, the elephant in the room when it comes to this picture is the use of what has come to be called the “N” word. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that and I can understand it – it’s a word I don’t personally use and normally I don’t encourage its use. However, in this instance, Tarantino’s intent is to portray not only the physical degradation of the slaves but the mental and spiritual humiliation as well. The word was in wide use at the time for one thing and it wouldn’t be realistic to ignore it. I found that the first couple of times I heard it that it was kind of a shock, but after that I grew numb to it. Maybe that’s a point Tarantino is trying to make, but be warned that the word is used a lot and if it offends you, you might want to take that into consideration.

All of these things are fine by me but there are a few things that I do have to say that aren’t as positive. The movie is nearly three hours long; I’m guessing that about 20-30 minutes of it could have been cut without ruining the flow or continuity of the movie or disrupting the story. For example, there’s a scene near the end where Django is being transported to a brutal mine where he will be worked to death. How he escapes takes a good five to ten minutes; it’s a scene that under a more economical director could have been easily accomplished in under a minute. Of course, Tarantino is not known for his frugality (being kind of a gregarious sort of guy, that figures) but that kind of thing happens several times during the course of the film.

More unforgivably, the movie drags in places. Few if any write better dialogue than Tarantino but there are times when things just…drag. Too much talking. Not enough action. The directors of those movies Tarantino loves so much could let 15 minutes go by without so much as a word being spoken. Actions do speak louder than words and rarely is that so apparent as at the movies.

I was hoping that this would be one of the year’s ten best but it won’t make that list sadly. This isn’t one of Tarantino’s best. Plainly. And I’m sure that disappointment has probably brought down his rating a tad; if anyone else had directed this, I might well have given it more stars. At the end of the day though, it doesn’t measure up to his best works and that is part of your moviegoing experience – are your expectations being met. It’s not terribly fair that my expectations of a Tarantino film are so high but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. It’s a very good film. It’s just not a great one.

REASONS TO GO: Foxx, Waltz, di Caprio and Jackson are all at the top of their games. If you love Tarantino you’ll love this!

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Those who don’t like Tarantino will hate this. Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely graphic violence (i.e. when people get shot they get shredded with blood going everywhere), plenty of bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foxx rides his own horse, Cheetah, in the film during the bareback sequence.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch

SHOT IN THE NUTS LOVERS: Hopefully there aren’t a lot of you out there but if there are, there’s a whole lot of it going on in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Young @ Heart