The Wind (2018)


Some books you CAN judge by their cover.

(2018) Thriller (IFC Midnight) Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles, Ashley Zuckerman, Dylan McTee, Miles Anderson, Martin C. Patterson. Directed by Emma Tammi

 

When we think of the early settlers of the West, we think of covered wagons, saloons, small towns with good hard-working people in them and undoubtedly all of the above were there. However, many pioneers were on their own, alone in an unforgiving land, relying on what they themselves could accomplish in order to survive.

Isaac (Zuckerman) and Lizzy Macklin (Gerard) are just such pioneers. They live alone on a deserted prairie with town more than a day’s ride away. The journey to town wasn’t without peril, so generally Isaac would go, whether to pick up supplies or to bring in what produce and animals he could sell. While Isaac is gone, Lizzy is alone; in fact, Lizzy is alone much of the day. She doesn’t seem to mind much, other than the whisper of the ever-present wind which some nights grows to a deafening howl.

Into their world comes Gideon (McTee) and Emma (Telles) Harper; they are “neighbors” if a walk of several hours can be called a neighborhood. They are young and perhaps a bit green; Emma’s skills as a cook are pretty weak and the more “worldly” Lizzy offers to teach her how to improve. In turn, Gideon has a lot to learn about working a farm and the generous Isaac is often at the Harper place helping Gideon get by.

Naturally Lizzy and Emma become friends, and when Emma becomes with child, Lizzy promises to help in every way she can. Emma though is growing frightened; how is she going to give birth and raise a child so far from civilization? And in the sound of the wind she begins to hear other things and she becomes absolutely convinced that there is something out there. Gideon is sure that Emma is imagining things and at first Lizzy is too. Then she begins to hear them.

After tragedy strikes the Harper family, Lizzy is more alone than ever but now she is sure that there is something out there too. Isaac is as skeptical as Gideon was but Lizzy is adamant. While Isaac is away returning Gideon to civilization, things come to a head with Lizzy and the dweller of the prairie but is it real? Or has Lizzy gone mad?

Tammi, heretofore a director of documentaries, acquits herself honorably on her first narrative feature. She manages to create a real sense that there’s something not quite right going on, that the environment is far from benevolent and that the people in it are highly vulnerable. She also does a great job of realistically portraying the pioneer life; the women work as hard if not harder than the men (I’d wager most women would agree with me that some things haven’t changed).There are no modern conveniences; laundry must be hand-washed and hung to dry in the wind; if she wanted bread with dinner, she had to make it and often meals consisted of whatever they had on hand which was often not much.

The heart and soul of this movie is Lizzy and Tammi cast Gerard wisely. The actress isn’t a household name – yet – but she carries the movie effortlessly, her haunted eyes and stretched face telling the story. The movie begins moments after the Harper tragedy occurs and we see Lizzy emerging, zombie-like. It’s a powerful moment and we have no explanation as to what happened. Gradually, through flashbacks, we learn what happened in the cabin until the audience catches up with the story, after which we resume with Lizzy’s own ordeal.

Although many are categorizing this as a horror film, I’d prefer to describe it as a psychological thriller with elements of horror. There’s enough gore and disturbing images to satisfy horror fans as well as some fairly interesting special effects that give us some insight as to what Lizzy is imagining (or experiencing – we’re never really sure). The budget on this probably wouldn’t cover the electrical tape budget on any of the Conjuring series movies but Tammi makes effective use of every penny.

On the technical side, the movie makes a wonderful use of sound, from the whistling, howling and whispering of the wind to the unearthly shrieks that emanate from the prairie, helping to create that atmosphere I referred to earlier. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief makes excellent use of light and shadow, keeping that feeling of something menacing in the darkness. There aren’t really any jump scares here so the horror comes honestly.

There are a couple of drawbacks. The editing is at times ragged and jarring. Also, some of the performances (other than Gerard) were a mite stiff at times. However, those are largely sins that don’t disrupt the overall enjoyment of the movie and it is enjoyable, not just for horror fans. The last 20 minutes of the movie incidentally will have you white-knuckled and trying not to jump out of your own skin. The “twist” isn’t a game-changer but it does fit nicely.

All in all, this is the kind of movie that should be celebrated by cinephiles and horror fans alike. Indie horror movies have been extremely strong of late and The Wind is right up there with some of the best of them, even if strictly speaking it’s not completely a horror movie. Still, this is a movie well worth your time and effort.

REASONS TO SEE: The last 20 minutes are gut-wrenching. Tammi elicits a real sense of unease, that something is off. The filmmakers use light and darkness effectively as well as sound effects and the soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is a bit stiff in places and some of the editing is a bit abrupt.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images, gore, violence, partial nudity and sexuality,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on the 1928 silent film The Wind which starred Lillian Gish.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centennial Episode 11: The Winds of Death
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Storm Boy

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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

September Dawn


September Dawn

You'd better be good or Jon Voight will go all Old Testament on your ass.

(Black Diamond) Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Jon Gries, Taylor Handley, Huntley Ritter, Daniel Libman, Dean Cain, Lolita Davidovich, Shaun Johnston, Terence Stamp. Directed by Christopher Cain

So much pain, so much bloodshed has been perpetrated in the name of God and Christ. Even today, religious fanaticism and intolerance has led to the most heinous of acts.

In the late summer and early fall of 1857, the Fancher-Baker wagon train, led by the redoubtable Captain Fancher (Johnston) reaches Utah territory and the land of Bishop Samuelson (Voight) of the Mormon church. They are exhausted, and need food, supplies and rest before pushing over the rest of the Rockies to make it to California, where they are bringing Kentucky racehorses for the purpose of gambling. Samuelson’s sons, Jonathan (Ford) and Micah (Handley) meet the party with unfriendly distrust.

The Mormons had good reason to mistrust. They were on the verge of being invaded by the U.S. Army, as the American government was not too pleased with the idea of a religious theocracy developing on American soil. The prophet of the Mormons, Joseph Smith (Dean Cain) had been murdered at the hands of an angry Missouri mob, an event witnessed by Samuelson himself. However, he is the voice of hospitality as he tones down the boys’ unwelcoming and bids the settlers stay and rest awhile.

What he really wants to do is keep them close by while he can keep an eye on them and find out what they’re up to. What he thinks they’re up to is to sneak guns in to help murder Mormon citizens of Utah and pave the way for the U.S. military to wipe them all out. He is further disturbed by the sight of a woman, Nancy Dunlap (Davidovich) wearing pants, a no-no in Mormon culture…well in American culture pretty much of the time as well.

He means to punish the infidels or Mericats as the Mormons called them and praises God for delivering them into his hands for punishment, or more accurately retribution. Simultaneously, the Fancher party’s Reverend Hudson (Libman) is giving thanks to God for the party’s deliverance into hospitable hands.

Jonathan has fallen for the good Reverend’s spirited daughter Emily (Hope) who challenges him on an intellectual level that none of the local girls is able to do. However, to his horror, his father has ordered that the party be wiped out with the complicit support of Mormon leader Brigham Young (Stamp). Mormon leaders approach the local Paiute tribe to do their dirty work, warning the Native Americans that the party is out to take their land.

When the Paiutes fail to carry out the Mormon’s plan, John Lee (Gries), a militia leader for the Mormon Church, offers to escort the Fancher party to safety if they lay down their arms, which would appease the hostiles. Instead, on the morning of September 11, 1857 he leads them to the Mountain Meadows where the party is ambushed and massacred, with only the small children being allowed to live, taken to be raised as Mormons by Mormon families.

Most of the events above actually happened; the massacre did take place 144 years before the World Trade Center fell. In all fairness, there is no historical evidence that confirms that Brigham Young condoned or even knew about the attack; his deposition, which is recreated here, took place nearly a decade after the events occurred (the Civil War kept the United States a little busy before they could return and properly investigate the massacre). Only Lee was ever charged or convicted for the crime, and his execution is shown at the movie’s conclusion, in fairly graphic but accurate detail.

The Mormon Church has decried the movie, saying it is anti-Mormon and historically inaccurate and certainly there are plenty of inaccuracies here. However, it is widely believed that Young’s strident teachings created an atmosphere that allowed the massacre to take place. Certainly that Mormons took part in the crime is beyond doubt.

One doesn’t look to Hollywood for history lessons, and if you do, you do so at your own peril. Director Cain has been accused of making the film in order to derail the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, a charge which is patently ridiculous (the writing and preparation for the film took place long before Romney announced his candidacy). Whether there is anti-Mormonism in the movie is a judgment call; I for one didn’t detect that it was particularly against the Church of Latter-Day Saints but certainly depicted individuals within that Church as fanatic and paranoid.

Voight is a tremendous actor, and he gets license to go over-the-top and he does so with a great deal of gusto. He wears his Old Testament beard like a genuine prophet, or at least a man believing himself to be. There are some nuances to his performance that I liked a great deal, as he portrays Bishop Samuelson as a man scarred by his own inability to save his wife or Joseph Smith, and a man enraged by the threat of the Gentiles, as the Mormons then referred non-Mormons as.

The romance between Jonathan and Emily simply doesn’t work for me. They get together mainly because the screenplay tells them to; I never got the impression that there was anything binding them together that was real or believable. Johnston is suitably heroic as Captain Fancher, and Handley suitably tormented as Micah. Most of the rest of the performances are of the movie-of-the-week variety.

I do like that a nearly-forgotten incident from American history has been brought to light for public debate. The details of the Massacre remain cloudy to this day. The crime remains a heinous one, even by modern standards; women and children were shot, sometimes at point-blank range. Their remains were left unburied to be consumed by animals and scattered by the elements. Witnesses who came to the site years later proclaimed it to be one of the most horrific things they’d ever seen.

This is a movie that may well have excited a certain amount of debate on the subject if only it had been a little bit better. Far too much emphasis was placed on the star-crossed romance that never occurred. A movie about the Massacre that focused on the people who were victimized by it as well as those who were complicit in its planning and execution might have made for far more gripping fare. Still, I was at least motivated to do further research on the event and learn a bit more, so some good did come of the movie as far as I’m concerned.

WHY RENT THIS: Brings to light a forgotten event in American history that shouldn’t be. Even though he’s chewing the scenery somewhat, Voight still manages to be compelling.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This certainly depicts the Mormons in a very unflattering light; some might be offended by it. The romance between Emily and Jonathan is less than scintillating.

FAMILY VALUES: The depiction of the massacre is pretty brutal and is not for the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reverend Hudson and his daughter Emily actually left the wagon train before it reached Utah; also, Nancy Dunlap’s husband is said in the film to have died before the action takes place, but historically he perished in the massacre.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the historical aspects of the massacre which tend to support the theories of the filmmakers – take these with a grain of salt. Of more interest are interviews with the descendents of those who perished in the massacre, which lends some perspective on the events of the film. It may not be a bad idea to watch both of these features before viewing the actual film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: How About You