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

Advertisements

Salt


Salt

Do you get the feeling Angelina Jolie is watching an entirely different movie?

(Columbia) Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Andre Braugher, Hunt Block, Olek Krupa, Daniel Pearce, Cassidy Hinkle, Yara Shahidi, Jordan Lage, Vladislav Koulikov, Olya Zueva. Directed by Phillip Noyce

It is somewhat emblematic of the flaccid crop of movies this summer that this movie is one of the best reviewed of the season, with some critics heaping critical praises on it that it scarcely deserves. Let’s get to the salient facts.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a spy; let’s get that straight first off. It’s not much of a spoiler, since the trailer tells you she is. She is evidently not a very good spy, because when we first meet her she’s been captured and is being tortured by the North Koreans.

She is eventually released and returns back to the CIA – or at least the petrochemical company that fronts for the CIA – and is preparing for an anniversary dinner for her arachnologist husband (Diehl), complete with intricately folded napkins. Nothing says romance more than linen folded into origami after all. However, dinner is going to have to wait; a Russian defector has walked into the CIA front building – apparently the CIA isn’t very good at hiding in plain sight either – and it is up to Evelyn to interrogate the guy since, well, nobody else in the CIA can do it, right?

Her boss Ted Winter (Schreiber) is eager to catch a plane, she wants to get to her anniversary dinner and the by-the-book agent Peabody (Ejiofor) just wants to take over because he apparently is the special agent in charge of Russian defections. Unfortunately, their plans are all thrown for a loop when Orlov (Olbrychski), the defector in question, informs them that a sleeper agent is planning to murder the Russian president on U.S. soil at the funeral of the Vice President the very next day. The name of the sleeper agent? Evelyn Salt.

All Jason Bourne breaks out right about then. Salt, knowing that her husband is going to be targeted – apparently this has happened before – decides she doesn’t have time to wait around to be interrogated and escapes. Orlov, channeling Rosa Klebb of From Russia with Love, boots himself out of an elevator. This would be the perfect time for a car chase, don’t you think?

There is certainly plenty of action here, some of it pretty nifty. Noyce, who directed the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, has a steady hand when it comes to action sequences, and while he doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, the action comes at you thick and fast, with Jolie leaping out of moving vehicles, out of helicopters and onto moving trucks and vans. She beats up everybody she can get her hands on, and a few that she can’t.

My problem with the movie isn’t so much the action but what lies between. I was never able to connect to Salt and there’s a reason for it. The whole is-she-or-isn’t-she theme of the movie only works if you aren’t sure if she is or she isn’t, and so she has to be enigmatic by definition, which makes it difficult for us to relate to her. Quite frankly, it should be fairly obvious early on whether she is or isn’t, and those who aren’t sure, look to the extraneous characters to help you figure it out. You know the ones; they only exist for a specific plot point that will become critical later in the film. These are the kinds of characters that are usually found in bad movies.

I know I’m being a bit harsh on Salt and I should temper it by saying that there are a lot of things in the positive column. Jolie, for one thing, is a terrific action hero, maybe the best female action hero not named Sigourney Weaver. Reportedly, she did a lot of her own stunts, which would make her one kickass broad, based on what I saw here. Certainly some of her parkour-like fighting moves were spectacular.

I never really was able to fall in love with the movie, and I was kind of hoping to. I am fond of action movies in general, but I felt like this was Jason Bourne with boobs channeling James Bond, only without being able to capture my rooting interest. It’s really not an awful movie, but it isn’t a great one either.

Sometimes, you can distill your feelings for a movie down to a single word. Concerning my feelings for Salt, that word would be meh.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the action sequences are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: You never get a reason to care about any of this; they’re so busy making Salt a cipher that she never connects with the audience.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a smattering of bad language and some implied sexuality, but nothing the average videogame wouldn’t pack in.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead role was originally written for a male; when Tom Cruise was attached to the movie, it was titled The Mystery of Edwin Salt but when Cruised bowed out to do Knight and Day, Jolie stepped in and the part was substantially rewritten.

HOME OR THEATER: I will have to admit some of the action sequences would be enhanced by the theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Kids Are All Right

New Releases for the Week of July 23, 2010


Salt

Evelyn Salt looks guilty even when she's trying to look nonchalant.

SALT

(Columbia) Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andre Braugher, Daniel Obrychski, Daniel Pearce, Hunt Block, August Diehl. Directed by Phillip Noyce

It starts off as routine, with decorated CIA agent Evelyn Salt interrogating a Russian intelligence agent who wants to defect to the United States. Then, he drops a bombshell; there is a Russian spy hidden in the very fabric of the U.S. security whose mission is to assassinate the President. That spy is named Evelyn Salt. From there a tense chase begins, with Salt’s husband the unwitting pawn and every law enforcement agency in the country after a lone woman. Is she being set up? Is she what the Russian says she is? There’s only one way to find out the truth…see the movie!

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, interviews and promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action)

Khatta Meetha

(Baba Films) Akshay Kumar, Trisha Krishnan, Makrand Deshpande, Kainaat Arora. A struggling contractor tries to navigate the corrupt and often confusing bureaucratic system in India to try and snag some lucrative government contracts and keep his business afloat. He has no money for kickbacks or bribes, so he has to use some unconventional means to get what he wants.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: NR

The Kids Are All Right

(Focus) Annette Benning, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska. The two teenage children of a lesbian couple decide to seek out their biological father and introduce him into the family equation that their two mothers built for them. This simple act creates absolute chaos as boundaries are stretched, lines are crossed and nothing remains the same – except that there is nothing more important than family.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use)

Ramona and Beezus

(20th Century Fox) Selena Gomez, Joey King, Josh Duhamel, Bridget Moynahan. Based on the beloved series of children’s books by Beverly Cleary, the movie follows the adventures of young Ramona Quimby and her big sister Beezus as the effervescent Ramona tries to save the family home, using her boundless energy and wild imagination.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: G

Four-Warned: July 2010


July 2010

Every month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either.
The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.
Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief explanation
Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

FOUR TO SEE


1. INCEPTION (1.0)
2. SALT (1.9)
3. DESPICABLE ME (2.1)
4. PREDATORS (2.2)

FOUR TO SEEK OUT (FILMS NOT IN WIDE RELEASE)


1. WINNEBAGO MAN (2.1)
2. THE WILD HUNT (2.4)
3. THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE (2.5)
TIE. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2.5)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

JULY 2, 2010

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE (Music Box) Genre: Swedish Thriller. A magazine publisher finds himself in a dangerous investigation of sex trafficking and abuse. Release Strategy: New York only. RATING: 2.5 The sequel to the highly regarded The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
GREAT DIRECTORS (Paladin) Genre: Documentary. Conversations with ten acclaimed and highly individualistic film directors from around the world. Release Strategy: New York (Opening in Los Angeles July 9). RATING: 3.5 Nice idea, but I’m not sure all of the directors on the list could be called “great”.
THE LAST AIRBENDER
(Paramount) Genre: Fantasy. A young boy with the ability to control the four elements must defend his people against an aggressive invasion by the Fire Nation. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D). RATING: 2.6 Director M. Night Shyamalan has been on a cold streak lately and I’m not sure this live action version of a Nickelodeon cartoon is the way to break it.

JULY 8, 2010

GREASE SING-A-LONG (Paramount) Genre: Musical. A classic musical gets re-released with restored prints and song lyrics. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 4.0 The only thing worse than Karaoke or American Idol would be going to a theater full of people singing along to Grease…pass.

JULY 9, 2010

DESPICABLE ME (Universal) Genre: Animated Feature. The world’s greatest criminal mastermind meets his match in three little girls who think he’s their dad. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.1 Universal is pushing this one hard, and given Steve Carell is voicing the mastermind and the trailers look good, this could be a massive hit.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
 (Focus) Genre: Comedy. The two teenaged kids of lesbian parents are determined to find their biological dad, who becomes a part of the family much to the horror of the moms. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 A terrific cast, and a nifty premise redefining what a family is in the 21st century.
PREDATORS
(20th Century Fox) Genre: Sci-Fi Action. A group of human predators are transported to an alien planet to be used as prey for the greatest predators in the universe. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.2 Does this franchise really need to be rebooted? Since its Robert (Sin City) Rodriguez, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
[REC] 2
(Magnet) Genre: Horror. An apartment building where a disease has rendered its residents into unthinking bestial cannibals, a government team investigates to find out a terrifying secret. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 The first one was the basis of the American horror film Quarantine; this one sounds even better.
WINNEBAGO MAN
(Kino International) Genre: Documentary. The story of a Winnebago salesman, whose commercial outtakes became an Internet sensation. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 Jack Rebney is one of those people who is interesting enough to deserve his own documentary.

JULY 14, 2010

THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (Disney) Genre: Fantasy. A sorcerer and his new apprentice are swept into an ancient war between good and evil. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.4 The jury’s still out on whether this is going to have blockbuster appeal.

JULY 16, 2010

INCEPTION (Warner Brothers) Genre: Science Fiction. A man who specializes in stealing secrets from the dreams of others looks to get out of the racket after one last big score. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, IMAX). RATING: 1.0 Christopher Nolan directing Leo di Caprio? I’d be in even if it was a remake of High School Musical!
KISSES
(Oscilloscope) Genre: Family Drama. A couple of runaways try to survive on the streets of Dublin. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.5 The trailer looks gritty and unsentimental; could be a big winner.
THE WILD HUNT
(Hannover House) Genre: Indie Drama. A young man follows his girlfriend into a medieval re-enactment game that quickly gets out of hand. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 Although the geek quotient is surprisingly low considering the subject, the trailer looked pretty intriguing.

JULY 23, 2010

THE CONCERT (Weinstein) Genre: Foreign Comedy. A disgraced ex-orchestra conductor intercepts an invitation meant for his old orchestra and sets out to make a triumphant return to the music scene with an orchestra of his own. Release Strategy: New York/Los Angeles (expanding August 6). RATING: 2.9 A good but underrated cast might make this a sleeper on the indie scene.
COUNTDOWN TO ZERO (Magnolia) Genre: Documentary. With the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed as if the nuclear threat had passed; this film indicates it hasn’t. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.7 A chilling look at nuclear weapons in the 21st century.
FAREWELL
(NeoClassics) Genre: Drama. A KGB agent in the 1980s passes secrets to the French ambassador that may well topple the Soviet Empire. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.1 I don’t know a whole lot about this movie but it sounds interesting.
LIFE DURING WARTIME
(IFC) Genre: Indie Ensemble Dramedy. The specter of war affects a family in unexpected ways. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.8 I’ve never been able to connect with director Todd Solondz but he is an indie icon.
RAMONA AND BEEZUS
(20th Century Fox) Genre: Family. An irrepressible moppet irritates her older sister, but they both must unite to save their family home. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.9 Based on a popular series of children’s books.
SALT
(Columbia) Genre: Action Thriller. A CIA agent is figured as a double agent by a Russian defector and now must discover who’s setting her up. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.9 This could be Angelina Jolie’s best action film since Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
VALHALLA RISING (IFC) Genre: Adventure. A mute warrior escapes captivity and joins a Viking crew who then gets massacred by a mysterious force. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.7 The trailer makes this look intensely gory and extremely exciting.

JULY 25, 2010

O APOSTOLO 3D (Artefacto) Genre: Animated Feature. A Spanish village labors under a 600-year-old curse. Release Strategy: Limited (3D). RATING: 3.3 iMDB says next to nothing about this, and their American distributor is unknown but Coming Soon lists it so here it is.

JULY 30, 2010


CATS AND DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE (Warner Brothers) Genre: Family. Age-old enemies must learn to work together against a common enemy to save their humans. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D). RATING: 3.5 The first movie was cute but was anybody really waiting to see the sequel after nine years?
CHARLIE ST. CLOUD (Universal) Genre: Drama. A young man with a bright future must re-adjust after a tragic accident changes everything. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.2 Even though Da Queen is not especially fond of Zac Efron, she loves tearjerkers so we’ll probably see it.
DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS (Paramount) Genre: Comedy. An ambitious man’s career hinges on finding the biggest loser to his boss’s dinner party. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.1 Having seen the trailer, the jury’s still out on this one.
THE DRY LAND (Freestyle Releasing) Genre: Indie Drama. A veteran of the Iraqi conflict returns home to West Texas and tries to adjust to civilian life. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 Could well be the Best Years of Our Lives of our generation.
THE EXTRA MAN (Magnolia) Genre: Romantic Comedy. A young man leaves a rarefied prep school environment for the eccentricities of the Big Apple. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.7 Kevin Kline automatically elevates any movie he’s in by a lot.
GET LOW (Sony Classics) Genre: Dark Comedy. A reclusive hermit plans his own funeral, which he plans to celebrate while he’s still alive – an occasion he plans to reveal a long kept secret. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 The trailer looked amazing; cast includes Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek.
HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST AND REBEL (Phase 4) Genre: Documentary. The life and times of a man who didn’t just start the sexual revolution; he also tirelessly advocated for racial equality, social justice and human rights. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.3 Hef is one of my heroes and it’s about time he got recognized for his other contributions to American culture.
TWELVE (Hannover House) Genre: Gritty Urban Drama. A drug dealer on the decadent Upper East Side sees his life turned upside down when his cousin is arrested for murder. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.7 An impressive cast but the trailer held no magic for me.

SCHEDULED TO BE REVIEWED HERE AS NEW RELEASES
The Last Airbender, Despicable Me, Predators, Inception, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Salt, Charlie St. Cloud