Bone Tomahawk


Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

(2015) Western (RLJ Entertainment) Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, Sean Young, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, Fred Melamed, Kathryn Morris, Michael Paré, James Tolkan, Geno Segers, Zahn McClarnon, Brandon Molale, Jamison Newlander, Omar Levya, Eddie Spears, David Midthunder, Raw Leiba, Marem Hassler. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

Love can be wonderful; a tender feeling of caring and compassion. But love can also be a terrible burden. If it requires us to go somewhere dangerous, then we go, heart heavy and maybe even terrified, but we go nonetheless.

Arthur O’Dwyer (Wilson) and his wife Sam (Simmons) are deeply in love. They live in the small town of Bright Hope, on the edge of the prairie near forbidding hills where even the cattle trails that Arthur uses as a cattle driver fail to go. She’s a bit of a nag, not letting him forget that she warned him not to go repair the roof in the middle of a storm. Per her warning, he fell off the roof and broke his leg, forcing him into essential confinement to bed. This is the Old West, after all, and men did what they had to do.

Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) also does what he has to do and that might involve shooting a drifter (Arquette) in the leg when he acts a little squirrelly. Because the town doctor is in his cups, Sam is summoned to remove the bullet from the drifter’s leg (she evidently has some sort of medical training). When she doesn’t return home, Arthur becomes a bit concerned.

Deputy Chicory (Jenkins) returns to the Sheriff’s office to discover everyone missing, including Deputy Nick (Jonigkeit). The evidence of a struggle includes a strange bone arrow at the scene. The local expert on Native Americans (Midthunder) tells them that it is from a tribe that isn’t even a tribe – it is in fact not exactly human. He refers to them as troglodytes and asserts that they eat the flesh of humans. He only knows they reside in something called The Valley of the Hungry Men.

A posse is formed. Sheriff Hunt is obligated to go, and even a broken leg won’t keep Arthur away. Deputy Chicory is ordered to stay behind but he refuses to; someone else can watch over Bright Hope while the Sheriff is away. Finally, dapper gambler John Brooder (Fox) also offers to go; he had escorted Mrs. O’Dwyer to the jail and feels obligated to assist in her rescue.

&Even on horseback it will take three days to get to the Valley if they can find it. The way there will be anything but safe, as bandits and bushwackers lurk in the hills. And when they finally get there, the men will be up against something they’ve never seen before – and are woefully unprepared to fight.

Russell is also starring in another Western opening up this winter, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and has found success in other Westerns – Tombstone comes to mind immediately. The plot has a little bit of The Searchers in it, but the similarity ends there; this is more of a mash-up between horror and Western than the traditional John Wayne horse opera.

Russell is at his best here, rough and ready in the saddle and apt to shoot first and ask questions later. His is the iconic taciturn lawman whose moral compass steers towards what’s right rather than what’s convenient. Fox, who is a decent actor who hasn’t yet equaled his role on Lost, does some of his best work on the big screen here, as does Wilson who has found a career boost in horror films like The Conjuring and Insidious. Here, Wilson plays to type but not just that; there is an inner strength to the character that is absolutely unexpected and mesmerizing. Arthur’s dogged determination and refusal to give up despite having a broken leg speaks volumes of what it means to be a man in the West.

And lest we forget the horror element here, it is more or less an overtone, although there is an onscreen kill here that is as brutal and as shocking as any you’ll see in more overt horror films this year. There is plenty of blood and gore and brutality, and those who are on the squeamish side are well-advised to steer clear.

Zahler is better known as a novelist and a musician as he is as a director, but he does a bang-up job here. There isn’t really a false note in the movie and while some critics have sniped at the length of the movie (just over two hours), it never drags and it never feels long. He also has wonderful cinematography to fall back of thanks to Benji Bakshi whose name should be on a lot of rolodexes after this.

It is unlikely the Western will ever go back to its level of popularity that it enjoyed back in the 1950s but it will never completely die. Movies like this one insure that the Western will always be around as a genre, and remind us that there can always be something new made of a time-tested cinematic formula.

REASONS TO GO: Well-acted. Exceptional cinematography. Captures the frontier mentality.
REASONS TO STAY: Excessive gore might put some off.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal, bloody violence, sexuality, graphic nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Russell authored a testimonial for Zahler’s second novel before this was cast.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Chi-Raq

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The Keeping Room


Augusta, get your gun!

Augusta, get your gun!

(2014) Drama (Drafthouse) Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Kyle Soller, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall, Nicholas Pinnock, Charles Jarman, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Luminita Filimon, Delia Riciu, Stefan Veiniciuc, Bogdan Farkas. Directed by Daniel Barber

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we think of war, we think of the men (and lately, women) on the battlefield, the ones actually shedding the blood and dying for their cause. We rarely think of those left behind to take care of things while their kinfolk are off to war.

As the Civil War was coming to an end and William Tecumseh Sherman was making his inexorable march to the sea, three women on a bucolic South Carolina farm were desperately trying to survive. Augusta (Marling), the eldest, is the most practical and the hardest working. She has come to realize that her daddy and her brothers are not coming back and that whatever they have to eat is what they grow and what they hunt, so she’s getting to business.

Louise (Steinfeld) is a teenager, spoiled by her place as the younger daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. She’s used to be coddled and cared for, her every little whim taken care of by someone else. She’s never worked a day in her life and still thinks that once the war is done and the Yankees vanquished, things will return to the way they were.

Mad (Otaru) is a slave that has become indispensable, strong and tough by years as a slave but compassionate for the girls that were once her mistresses. She, like Augusta, knows the war isn’t going well and hopes it will come to a swift conclusion so that her man Bill (Pinnock) will come home to her and help her tend this farm.

When Louise gets bitten by a raccoon, Augusta realizes that medicine will be needed or Louise might die. She stops at a neighboring plantation, only to discover horrors that she never could have imagined. She continues on into a nearby town which is mostly deserted except for a kindly bar owner (Dennehy) and a compassionate prostitute (Nuttall) – and two scouts for Sherman, Henry (Soller) and Moses (Worthington). Henry has lost any sense of decency; he’ll kill anything that moves and rape anyone who’s female and will drink anything that will banish such demons as men like this possess. Moses is looking for love in all the wrong places and by all the wrong means. The two had recently murdered a white woman they’d raped, a carriage driver and a passing slave. When Augusta gets away from them, they decide to track her and follow her back to the farm. What they don’t know is that the women don’t plan to give up without a fight.

Barber has a keen eye and an understanding of setting a mood; often his scenes are shrouded in midst or bright sunlight depending on the mood. He uses a lot of stunning images to get across more than any dialogue could tell; for example, early on he shows a flaming carriage pulled by terrified horses in the night. The spooked equines are galloping as fast as they can to escape the flames, not realizing they are pulling their own destruction with them. I don’t know if you could get a better metaphor than that.

Marling is becoming one of my favorite young actresses; she’s very poised in her roles (this one included) and seems to have a very good sense of which projects to choose as I haven’t really seen her in a movie that doesn’t showcase her talents well yet. She has the kind of self-possession that Robin Wright has always carried, which bodes well for Marling’s future.

Steinfeld who is no stranger to period pieces isn’t given as much to do, mainly acting the spoiled brat and then the frightened young girl. When backed against the wall Louise comes out swinging but for the most part she’s been used to depending on others all of her life and not on herself; the chances of Louise surviving the post-war South will depend very much on her ability to find an eligible husband.

Otaru is a real discovery. I hadn’t heard of her before, but she holds her own and then some against two very capable young actresses. She is mostly silent throughout the beginning of the movie but she has a couple of long speeches in the movie that really give you a sense of who Mad is and what drives her.

Barber also knows how to ratchet up the tension to high levels and the second portion of the movie is basically up to 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 in that regard. There are those who may say that there’s too much of a good thing in the tension department, but I would guess that Alfred Hitchcock might disagree; while this isn’t Hitchcockian in the strictest sense, I think the Master of Suspense would have approved of this. Some of the cliches of the genre however are very much in evidence, maybe a little too much so.

I found myself completely immersed in the film and committed to the story, which is exactly where you want your audience to be. While there are a few missteps – some stiff or awkward sequences by some of the actors, an overuse of an unconscious hero waking up just in the nick of time to save one of the others – by and large this is a beautifully crafted, intensely thrilling work of cinematic art. Definitely one to keep on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful images. Beautifully atmospheric. Impressively tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Overuses the same thriller cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of violence, a bit of sexuality, some cussing and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set during the American Civil War in South Carolina, it was entirely filmed in Romania.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Uncle John

Silverado


Silverado

Scott Glenn catches Kevin Kline lying down on the job.

(1985) Western (Columbia) Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Rosanna Arquette, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt, John Cleese, Ray Baker, Lynn Whitfield, Jeff Fahey, Tom Brown, Richard Jenkins, Amanda Wyss, James Gammon, Joe Seneca. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

 

Back in ’85, the Western as a genre was essentially dead. It had been in many ways one of the most dominant genres in movies during the 50s and into the 60s but faded from popular appeal, although the Italians made some pretty good ones in the 70s with Clint Eastwood particularly. However, the anti-hero craze of that era didn’t translate to the Western very well although periodically movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and others managed to re-capture the magic.

Silverado was an attempt to do just that by Kasdan, screenwriter of Raiders of the Lost Ark and director of The Big Chill and Body Heat. He assembled a cast of some of the best young (at the time) actors in Hollywood and set them loose on the genre.

Emmett (Glenn) is a loner, an expert gunslinger just released from prison after killing the father of a cattle baron named McKendrick (Baker) who had drawn on Emmett. Now he wants nothing more than to be left alone but apparently it is not to be as he is attacked by a trio of bushwhackers ambushing him in his cabin.

Emmett decides to head to Silverado to find out what’s going on. Whilst en route, he discovers Paden (Kline), wearing only his skivvies and left to die in the desert. Emmett rescues him and together they head to Turley to meet up with Emmett’s brother Jake (Costner). Jake however is in jail awaiting hanging – he killed a man in self-defense but the judge didn’t see it that way. When Paden discovers one of the men who robbed him, he kills him and ends up in the same cell as Jake. Emmett breaks them both out and the trio escapes with the help of Mal (Glover), an African-American cowboy run out of town by Sheriff English John Langston (Cleese).

The quartet then encounter a wagon train whose money has been stolen by bandits. A comely homesteader (Arquette) attracts the attention of Paden, who along with his mates takes the money back and returns it to the homesteaders.

In Silverado, Mal discovers his father (Seneca) has been run off his ranch by McKendrick’s men who later return and kill his dad. Mal’s sister is working as a saloon girl in the saloon run by Stella (Hunt) and administered by the town Sheriff, Cobb (Dennehy) a former outlaw who once rode with Paden but now reports to McKendrick. He offers Paden the job of saloon manager which Paden accepts.

Emmett finds out from his sister that McKendrick is driving out all the lawful homesteaders in an attempt to make the range free for his cattle and indeed McKendrick’s men attempt to drive off the new set of homesteaders. The situation escalates when Emmett is ambushed and beaten nearly to death before being rescued by Mal, and his sister’s home burned to the ground, her husband (the land officer) murdered and their son Augie (Brown) kidnapped. The four men – Emmett, Paden, Jake and Mal – must take the law into their own hands if justice is to be done in Silverado.

This is really a throwback to the popcorn Westerns of the late 50s and the early 60s – John Ford would have approved, I think. The ensemble cast shows varying degrees of comfort in the saddle – Glenn is a natural for the genre, Kline less so although his laconic delivery channels that of Gary Cooper. The wide open spaces of New Mexico are brilliantly photographed and made ample use of by cinematographer John Bailey.

Costner’s performance of Jake is compelling and charismatic and would propel him into stardom. He damn near steals the show from his better-known peers which is no small feat. He captures the attention of the audience every time he’s onscreen and brings a whole lot of energy to the film. In many ways he drives the movie into a more modern vein, or at least modern for its time.

The 80s were a particularly fertile time for films and this one is a classic of its time. While it didn’t resurrect the Western the way I think the filmmakers and studio hoped it would, it did at least open the door for a trickle of Westerns (some with Costner) to get studio green lights. Without Silverado I doubt we see Dances With Wolves, The Unforgiven and the dozens of others that have appeared since then. I suppose in that sense, it was successful – the Western remains a fringe genre but at least it’s not extinct.

WHY RENT THIS: Great ensemble cast. A real throwback to the epic Western.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat pedestrian storyline.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are more than a few shoot-outs and a couple of bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner was cast as Jake by Kasdan as a way of making amends for cutting his role completely out of The Big Chill.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a very interesting interview with Costner as he is quite candid not only about making the film but about his misgivings about the character as well. The Gift Set edition included a pack of playing cards, although this version is long out of print. You may be able to pick it up on eBay however.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32.2M on a $23M production budget; it was considered a box office disappointment at the time although it has become more than profitable due to its home video release and regular cable and broadcast appearances.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tombstone

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1999)