Badland


That’s one tough hombre.

(2019) Western (CinedigmKevin Makely, Mira Sorvino, Bruce Dern, Wes Studi, Trace Adkins, Jeff Fahey, Tony Todd, James Russo, Amanda Wyss, Ryan Kelly, Todd A. Robinson, Aidan Bristow, Reggie Watkins, Anita Leeman Torres, Omid Zader, Laura Cantwell, Lauren Francesca. Directed by Justin Lee

 

A good Western will make you feel the dust of the trail on your boots, feel the hot wind of the Southwest in your hair and maybe the smell of the campfire in your nostrils. A good Western is tonic for the soul. A bad Western, however, can leave you feeling cheated.

=Matthias Breecher (Makely) is a Pinkerton detective riding out West at the behest of Senator Benjamin Burke (Todd) to seek out Confederate war criminals and bring them to justice by whatever means necessary. His run-in with a bloodthirsty general (Adkins) ends up in an impressive shoot-out in which the numerical tactical advantage the general enjoys is for naught.

Next on the list for Breecher is one Reginald Cooke (Dern) who it turns out is on his deathbed with his devoted daughter Sarah (Sorvino) trying to hold things together on the farm, which baddie Fred Quaid (Russo) is eager to possess. Breecher, rather than executing his quarry, decides to let things take their natural course and give Sarah a hand on the ranch and with the nefarious Quaid. She is able to coax Breecher out of his shell somewhat, although likewise that all goes for naught.

Finally, Breecher goes after a crooked sheriff (Fahey) who is terrorizing a small town, including comely barmaid Alice (Wyss). Can Breecher save the day and maybe settle down at last? Fans of the Western genre ought to know the answer to that question.

=In an era where Westerns remain studiously out of favor despite evidence that a good Western will attract an audience. Lee has made a name for himself with low-budget Westerns shot efficiently. This one probably has the biggest budget of the bunch; it certainly has the most impressive cast. Adkins – who doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time – is nevertheless memorable as is Fahey who is clearly having a good time despite the cliched nature of the character. Makely is a handsome brooding sort with a gravelly voice who seems well-suited for Westerns; he has enough presence to make the movie interesting although not enough to raise the film above its own limitations.

The movie is divided into chapters, I suppose to try and give it a literary bent; it doesn’t really work. The coda chapter with Alice and Wainwright is somewhat unnecessary. It would have made a decent sequel (should one be warranted) but it feels like we’re getting a movie and a half for the price of a movie. The running time is a good twenty minutes too long; I would have liked to have seen the pacing pick up some and more character development given to the Cooke section which is, to be fair, the best of the three segments. Todd is also pretty decent in what is essentially linking sections.

While I’m not the sort who lives and dies by Louis L’Amour, I am fond of Westerns in general and it always tickles me to see a well-made one This one is a few bricks shy of a load in that regard, but there is enough here to give genre fans something to build on; hopefully Lee can take his next Western and elevate it to the next level.

REASONS TO SEE: Makely has some potential as a lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: The last half-hour feels completely unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair bit of western-style violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the last two calendar years, Lee has had six films released to date – half of them Westerns.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diablo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
To Be of Service

Miss Bala


The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Coururier, Gabriel Heads, Noe Hernandez, James Russo, Jose Yenque, Juan Carlos Galvan, Lakshmi Picazo, Javier Zaragoza, Leonor Vitorica, Hugo Marquez, Eduardo Mendizabal, Sergio Gomez Padilla, Felipe Morales, Sergio Miguel Martinez, Gabriel Chavez, Leticia Huijara Cano. Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

Innocence is a commodity that falls by the wayside in a corrupt society. It is hard not to take sides when absolute power rules with brutality and intimidating force and often the side you take is not one taken of your own free will.

Laura Guerrero (Sigman) is a sweet and unassuming teenager who works selling secondhand clothes with her father (Zaragoza) and little brother (Galvan). On a whim she and her close friend Suzu (Picazo) decide to enter their names for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. That night they decide to go to a local night club and party.

During the evening, a group of thugs shoot up the club. Laura, who was in the bathroom at the time, escaped but witnessed the whole thing, being one of the few survivors. Her ordeal is just beginning; she is kidnapped the very next day and taken to Lino Valdez (Hernandez), the head of the drug cartel. Lino. Rather than executing the witness however, he uses her as a courier to ferry money across the border into the United States, bringing back arms and ammunition.

Lino and his gang use her brother and father to control her, threatening to execute them if she doesn’t do as they say and so she becomes a part of the gang. When they figure she can be useful for them as a pageant winner, they get her into the Miss Baja pageant and bribe the judges into letting her win. Her high profile allows them to use her as a means of seducing the powerful General Salomon Duarte (Couturier) and gaining control over him by that means. However, when she discovers that Suzu had not survived the shooting at the club (they assured her that she had), she realizes that nobody is getting out of this alive and she is left with a big decision to make.

As thrillers go this one is raw and gritty and sometimes not so pretty, even given the beauty pageant background. It displays the effects that intimidation, violence and brutality have on the lives of those caught in the crossfire and does so very effectively. Although it didn’t make the final short list, it was submitted as Mexico’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2012 Academy Awards.

There’s a gritty realism that shows not only the desperation and poverty of the people who live in Baja but also the arrogance, the brutality and the opulence of those in power. The consequences of our war on drugs have never had such a human face as this.

Sigman is not well known to me as an actress; she has mainly appeared in Mexican films and since this movie was made has had a recurring role on the F/X TV series The Bridge. She certainly has the beauty and the innocent look but there isn’t a lot of emotion that we get from her other than terror which isn’t necessarily a deficiency on her part – the role doesn’t really call for much else and therein lies the main problem with the movie.

We really don’t get to know Laura at all before the massacre and kidnapping. She seems like a fairly sweet kid, a typical Mexican teenager trying to help her family make ends meet. However, the movie gets into the action so quickly (which isn’t normally an issue for me) that by the time we really know what’s happening Laura is already in victim mode, and that’s really the only way we know her throughout the film all the way to its ambiguous ending.

Sometimes the ins and outs of the politics of the movie can be a bit confusing as to who is on who’s side, who is screwing who and who is at war with who. Things do come out of left field seemingly and while that keeps us off-balance a little bit, some further explanation might have been helpful, particularly for us gringos.

Where the movie excels is in its suspense and tension. From the moment the massacre starts most viewers will be on the edge of their seats, and not really sure what’s going to come at them next. Think of it as riding a roller coaster blindfolded and never sure if you’re going to go flying out of your seat. Some might find that an unpleasant experience but for the purposes here that does satisfy the Type A personality in me.

Despite the recent upsurge in quality Mexican films, this one didn’t get a great deal of attention when it was released back in the early months of 2011 which is a bit of a shame. While it isn’t as good as, say, Y tu mama tambien or Amores perros it is as good as any thriller that has come out from Hollywood in recent years.

WHY RENT THIS: Raw and gritty. Raises the thriller bar up a notch..

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Don’t really connect with Laura as much as we should. Occasionally confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a goodly amount of sometimes strong and bloody violence as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on Laura Zuniga, the former Miss Sinaloa, beauty queen and model who was arrested on December 22, 2008 for narcotics trafficking.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maria, Full of Grace

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Being Flynn

Open Range


Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are home on the range.

Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are home on the range.

(2003) Western (Touchstone) Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Benning, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi, Dean McDermott, Kim Coates, Herb Kohler, Peter MacNeill, Cliff Saunders, Patricia Stutz. Directed by Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner returns to the American West, a setting which has seen his greatest triumph to date in Dances With Wolves. Like that Oscar-winning classic, Costner directs as well as stars and once again proves effective in both roles.

Charlie Waite (Costner) is a former gunslinger who earns his keep these days as a free-grazing cattleman, along with his partner, Boss Spearman (Duvall). They are grazing their cattle on what appears to be an uninhabited meadow near a town; one of their hands, an easy-going doofus named Mose (Benrubi) gets into a fight in town and eventually has to be brought back to the range by his employers. The cattle baron who runs the town, Denton (Gambon) can’t abide the thought of free grazers in his territory, and he orders his thugs to take them out, while the law turns a blind eye.

Mose is killed, and Button (Luna), a young man that the partners have essentially raised, is gravely wounded. Of course, Waite and Spearman can’t just let this go by, and they return to town, aided by a comely physician (Benning), to take justice as best they can.

This blends the best of modern Westerns, including the easygoing relationship between Waite and Spearman, which is straight out of Lonesome Dove (it’s no accident that Duvall starred in both), as well as the division between town and prairie, with the town representing corruption and violence as opposed to the freedom of the range. This is a theme that recurs in Clint Eastwood’s best movies, especially The Unforgiven and Pale Rider.

Costner is a better director than he is often given credit for; he has had his share of bombs (Waterworld, The Postman) but he knows when to show us a pretty picture and when to show us an ugly one. He juxtaposes the openness of the West with the confines of the town, and makes the hard, relentless life of a free grazer almost desirable. He is also appealing as the lead here, and that is what makes Open Range so good. Charlie Waite is a wounded soul, suffering from the demons of his own guilt seeking to forget his past in the vastness that was the West. Boss, his truest friend, is a rascal, yes, but a fair one. The two have a compelling chemistry.

Costner as an actor has an affinity for Westerns. He gets the rhythms and the flow of them. Now, he doesn’t necessarily sound like someone from the Old West in the sense that he uses the same style of speechifyin’ but I’m talking about Westerns. He has the laconic delivery of a Gary Cooper with the innate honesty of a John Wayne and the rugged chiseled good looks of a young Eastwood. Costner captures the essence of a Western hero and by extension, of American men in general. We all aspire to those values that made Westerns the king of movies during an era when arguably America was at its most prosperous. We also yearn for a simpler time when life was hard but our prospects were unlimited. The West meant freedom and a man could make a fresh start out there, get a second chance in some cases. It is the most American of aspirations.

The gunfights are often at the center of traditional Western, and there is a mighty good one here. You should be warned that the gun battle is extremely loud; those who are sensitive that way may want to think twice before seeing this in a state-of-the-art home theater with Dolby sound and all the bells and whistles. Otherwise, this is a sprawling, wide-open movie with a terrific human story at its heart, aided and abetted by some fine performances in the lead roles. Even those who are not particularly fond of Westerns, such as my spouse, Da Queen, will give this a rousing thumbs up as she did.

WHY RENT THIS: A throwback to classic Westerns. Costner is at his finest. A human story on an epic scale.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly loud in places. Cliche in other places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Can be loud and violent.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Tig is not only the name of the dog in the movie but also the name of Costner’s production company. It’s taken from his grandmother’s nickname.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a 12 minute documentary about the history of the open range and free-grazing as well as a music video. It should be noted that the making-of featurette is unusually candid, dealing with the problems the film had obtaining financing (Costner and producers Jake Eberts and David Valdes put up about half of the budget from their own money) which weighed heavily on Costner during filming when there were no distributors lined up. Near the end of production, Costner was also working through severe abdominal pain which turned out to be appendicitis.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.3m on a $22M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lonesome Dove

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Nice Guy Johnny

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