Big Kill (2018)


You can always tell the bad guys by their eccentric taste in fashion.

(2018) Western (Cinedigm/Archstone) Christoph Sanders, Scott Martin, Clint Hummel, Jason Patric, Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Parė, Danny Trejo, K.C. Clyde, Elizabeth McLaughlin, Audrey Walters, Jermaine Washington, Dennis LaValle, David Manzanares, Sarah Minnich, Paul Blott, Stephanie Beran, Toby Bronson, Bob Jesser, David Hight, Itzel Montelongo, Tsailii Rogers. Directed by Scott Martin

 

Part of the reason Westerns were so popular 50 and 60 years ago is that once upon a time, they were fun. The hero was always an easy-going sort with a code of honor not unlike a knight of old, the shopkeeper was as honest as the day was long, the villains were shoot first and don’t ask questions at all, and the saloon gals had hearts of gold.

Along came the ‘70s to turn the heroes into anti-heroes, the shopkeepers to be racists, the villains even more despicable than the heroes but only just so, and saloon gals who were hookers whose bustles came off at the drop of a cowboy hat.  The audience became somewhat more sophisticated and Westerns all but disappeared from the cinematic landscape.

They’ve begun to slowly come back only recently and there have been a few really good ones in and among the mix with even the occasional big budget Hollywood western making an appearance every so often. The hallowed B Western, once the province of actors like Dean Martin, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood, have remained in the background although from time to time an indie western surfaces, generally on the ultra-violent side (Bone Tomahawk).

Big Kill opens up with a pair of ne’er do well gunfighters – Travis (Hummel) who never met a woman he couldn’t seduce, and Jake (Martin), a gambler who if it weren’t for bad luck wouldn’t have any luck at all – being run out of Mexico by a general (Trejo) whose daughter Travis defiled. While under the protection of the U.S. Cavalry in an outpost so forlorn and isolated it can barely be called a fort, they meet up with Philadelphia accountant Jim Andrews (Sanders) who is on his way to the Silver mine boom town of Big Kill, Arizona to meet up with his brother who wrote Jim glowingly about the saloon he owns and how successful the town is.

When they get there, nobody has heard of Jim’s brother, the town is nearly deserted and those who have remained are intimidated by the nefarious Preacher (Patric) who believes in handing out his brand of justice on the end of a gun and salvation, as he administers the last rites to those he guns down, as well as the Preacher’s enforcer, sociopathic gunslinger Johnny Kane (Phillips) who looks like Wayne Newton playing a gaudy 50s cowboy in a red suit.

Travis and Jake are all for leaving while the leaving is good but Jim needs to find out what happened to his brother. He meets shopkeeper’s daughter Sophie (McLaughlin) who is sweet as pie but a real pistol. She gives Jim another reason to stick around; however, you know that a confrontation between the bad guys and the good guys for the soul of the town is just around the corner.

This is a fun little movie that has some really nice touches; the final gunfight between Jim and the Preacher involves the two mostly circling around each other and firing off wild shots that don’t hit anything except, maybe, a cameraman on the movie filming over at the next butte. Despite the fact that the Preacher was earlier shown to be a proficient gunfighter, Jim being an Eastern tenderfoot and proud of it likely would be hard pressed to hit the broad side of a barn door. Sanders, best known as lovable dim bulb Kyle in Last Man Standing, is perfectly cast for the role and does a pretty credible job of holding our interest.

Patric, a veteran of some really good movies back in the 90s, does a fine turn as the charismatic villain that makes me wonder why he doesn’t get cast more often. Phillips doesn’t play a mustache twirling villain all that often but he does a good job of it here, sans the mustache twirling.

Like most westerns, there are some beautifully photographed vistas and a soundtrack that mixes soaring themes with the occasional twang twang twang of the Jew’s harp to lend color. Where the movie falls down is in the editing; some of the exposition is drawn out too much and some of the scenes could have used some tightening up. Still, there is a lot to like here. This is the kind of Western I used to watch regularly on TV and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. A little nostalgia is good for the soul.

REASONS TO SEE: This really isn’t half-bad. Sanders is inspired casting.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the exposition is excessive and would have benefited from tighter editing. It’s a little bit derivative.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a good deal of violence, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magnificent Seven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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Flypaper (2011)


Patrick Dempsey auditions for a TV cop show role.

Patrick Dempsey auditions for a TV cop show role.

(2011) Comedy (IFC) Patrick Dempsey, Ashley Judd, Tim Blake Nelson, Mekhi Phifer, Matt Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, John Ventimiglia, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Curtis Armstrong, Rob Huebel, Adrian Martinez, Natalia Safran, Octavia Spencer, Eddie Matthews, Rob Boltin, James DuMont, Judy Durning, Joseph Nemmers, Monica Acosta, Kasey Emas. Directed by Rob Minkoff

Greed is a big motivator. It attracts us like a magpie to shiny things. We want more, we want it all. Well, that’s true for some of us anyway.

It’s closing time at a bank which is about to receive a major security software update. Once the doors are closed the bank will be locked down for the night, its security systems offline. The employees are getting ready to go home when a trio of armed bandits come in through the back. They’re well-armed and professional.

As if things weren’t bad enough, a couple more robbers come in through the front door – two bumblers named Peanut Butter (Nelson) and Jelly (Vince). They aren’t affiliated with the other gang – they’re just there to take down the ATMs. Still, you can’t have two gangs in the same bank without a gunfight and that’s precisely what happens. An innocent bystander gets shot and killed in the crossfire, further raising the stakes.

Locked in the bank now, the last customer of the bank, a compulsive man named Tripp (Dempsey) suggests that both gangs can have what they want. An uneasy truce is negotiated between PB&J and their rivals (Phifer, Ventimiglia, Ryan). Tripp and the remaining bank employees – obsequious manager Blythe (Tambor), the creepy security guard (Martinez) and tellers Kaitlin (Judd) and her sassy colleague Madge (Spencer) are herded upstairs and told to wait in a conference room.

But Tripp, the obsessive sort that he is, can’t let go of the nagging thought that there’s someone else pulling the strings. Too many coincidences. So he decides to investigate. That can be a very dangerous thing when amidst trigger-happy thugs who take their place on the FBI’s most wanted list quite seriously.

Minkoff is best-known for directing The Lion King and Stuart Little. He hasn’t done a lot of non-family films and he went after a script penned by the co-writers of The Hangover. This isn’t on par with any of those films except for maybe Stuart Little.

It’s not for lack of effort. Dempsey is one of the most engaging actors today. It’s incomprehensible that he isn’t an A-list star by this point but most of his romantic comedies have done solid but not spectacular business. Here he shows some real skill. His character is full of tics that could easily have overwhelmed the film but Dempsey wisely plays them down and let’s his character serve the story rather than the other way around.

Judd is a usually reliable actress who has been flying under the radar of late. She does a credible job here but she really doesn’t have much to work with. She does have a bit of a romantic subplot with Dempsey’s character but it really doesn’t burn up the screen nor prove to be anything more than a brief distraction.

Nelson and Vince make a good team as Peanut Butter and Jelly, with a kind of earthy bumpkin charm to the both of them. They make an ideal counterpoint to the other three who are straight men with an edge. Phifer deserves better.

There are some real funny moments but not enough of them for my taste. The twists and turns are pretty predictable to the moviegoer with even below average intelligence and the characters other than Tripp aren’t particularly well-drawn. Still, it has its own innate charm and that can’t be discounted. You can seek this out if you’d like to but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time looking for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Dempsey should be a bigger star than he is. Some funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough funny moments. The twists are pretty predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a fair amount of bad language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tripp’s medication, Depakene, is a mood stabilizer normally prescribed for Bipolar disorder patients, implying that is what Tripp is suffering from.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some one-on-one interviews with members of the cast and crew.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dog Day Afternoon

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Godfather

Animal Kingdom


 

Animal Kingdom

Grandma's forgotten to take her meds again.

(2010) Crime Drama (Sony Classics) Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Mirrah Foulkes, Ben Mendelsohn, Laura Wheelwright, Clayton Jacobson, Anthony Hayes, Dan Wyllie, Jacqueline Brennan, Anna Lise Phillips. Directed by David Michod

 

You can choose your friends but not your family. Usually that’s not a bad thing but for certain families, it is a nightmare indeed. Growing up in a family of sociopaths is bound to affect you, even if you’ve been shielded from the worst of them.

Joshua “J” Cody’s (Frecheville) mom is a heroin addict. Make that was – she checks out of this world while watching TV. J calls the authorities and while paramedics work on her, watches “Deal or No Deal” impassively. The boy has issues.

He is sent to live with his grandmother which might seem to be a good idea but really is throwing J from the frying pan into the fire. Janine (but everyone calls her Smurf) Cody (Weaver) might seem motherly and affectionate on the outside (she is always asking her sons for a kiss, kisses which go on just long enough to be uncomfortable) but her boys – Darren (Ford), Craig (Stapleton) and Andrew (Mendelsohn) – the latter known to one and all as Pope – are, respectively, a dim-witted thug, a coke-addicted unpredictably violent thug and a remorseless psychopath. How’d you like to attend that family reunion?

J gets sucked into the family business of armed robberies, drug dealing and other petty crimes and he gets to know Pope’s right hand man Baz Brown (Edgerton) who yearns to leave the life. However when a transgression against the family leads to tragedy, Pope is forced into hiding and Craig and Smurf assume control of the family business. Meanwhile, Police Sgt. Nathan Leckie (Pearce) is hot on the trail of the family and is concerned for J’s well-being. He also sees J as a potential informant, the key to ending the Cody family’s reign of terror once and for all.

It’s hard to believe that this is Michod’s first feature as a director. It’s so self-assured and well-executed that you’d think someone like Coppola or Scorsese had something to do with it. It doesn’t hurt that he has a bangin’ script to work with, as well as a group of actors who are quite talented although other than Pearce and Edgerton not terribly well-known in the States.

Weaver was justly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards and while she didn’t win, she gives a performance here that she will undoubtedly be remembered for the remainder of her career. She is at turns sweet and cuddly, cold and manipulative and creepy and psychotic. She’s the type of person who in one moment can be kissing her grandson and the next ordering his execution. It’s a bravura performance and worth renting/streaming the movie for all by itself.

Mendelsohn is nearly as impressive. He is absolutely without remorse or any real human feeling other than rage. He takes because he can; he wounds because he can and he kills because he can. He understands that he is the de facto godfather of Melbourne’s most notorious crime family and will do whatever it takes to keep it that way. He is not motivated so much by love of family as he is love of being feared.

Frecheville has perhaps the most difficult and most thankful role of all. If this were Goodfellas he’d be Henry Hill; he’s the audience surrogate but at the same time, he is a wounded puppy. He’s got definite issues but at the same time he’s a typical teenager, prone to acting rashly and not always logically. It is tough for a character like this to remain sympathetic but Frecheville manages to make J remain so throughout the film, even when he’s doing boneheaded things.

There are times when it gets a bit too realistic for my tastes; I was genuinely creeped out by some of the actions of the Cody family from grandma on down, and there were times I was taken out of the experience because of it. Still, for the most part this is one of those movies you can’t turn away from once you sit down to watch and it will stay with you for a long while after you get up to go.

WHY RENT THIS: Stark, brutal and authentic. Career-defining performances from Weaver, Mendelsohn and Frecheville. Taut and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes overboard on the creepy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, as well as some drug use (as well as drug culture depictions) and a buttload of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie owns the record for most Australian Film Institute nominations for a single film with 18.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A with director Michod and actress Weaver from the Los Angeles Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; it seems likely that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Midnight Meat Train

True Grit (2010)


True Grit

Not bad for a one eyed fat man!

(2010) Western (Paramount) Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Marvel, Leon Russom, Ed Corbin, Candyce Hinkle, Bruce Green, Peter Leung, Don Pirl. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

When you remake a movie that most would consider a classic, you had better know what you’re about. Not only must you retain the essence of the original, you need to add something significant to it; otherwise, what’s the point?

Maddie Ross (Steinfeld) has come to Ft. Smith, Arkansas from her farm in Yell County. Her father has been brutally gunned down by a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Brolin). Nobody in Ft. Smith seems particularly interested in pursuing Chaney who has fled into the Indian territories. The Sherriff (Russom) has no authority there and recommends a U.S. Marshal. There are several choices, but the Sherriff recommends Rooster Cogburn (Bridges).

Mattie tries to track down the Marshal but is unsuccessful at first. He’s obviously drunk and refuses to come out of the outhouse – and it’s not as if she’s about to go in after him. In the meantime she goes to Col. Stonehill (Matthews) to settle her father’s affairs with him. He’s a horse trader who meets his match in the 14-year-old girl. When after being bested in the first session she means to initiate a second, he moans “Oh God we’re not going to haggle, are we?” He knows a superior negotiator when he sees one.

Finally when she meets Marshall Cogburn he is at first unimpressed but when Mattie shows up with $50 he takes her a mite more seriously. She insists on accompanying him, not trusting him to do what he says he will. He is reluctant to allow it but at last gives in.

However, Mattie isn’t the only one looking for Chaney. There’s a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (Damon) who wants to collect the reward for a murdered State Senator and has been tracking Chaney (who was called Chelmsford in Texas) for months. He entreats Mattie to go home but she is obstinate. This won’t be the first time she displays that trait.

She wakes up to discover that Cogburn has already left. Nonplussed, Mattie follows on her pony Little Blackie who turns out to be a helluva horse. She is surprised to discover that LaBoeuf has thrown in with Cogburn but after LaBoeuf takes a switch to Mattie that partnership disintegrates. Truth be told, Cogburn admires the determined young girl deep down.

Cogburn believes that Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Pepper, ironically enough) who is an outlaw operating out of the territories. He goes in search of information to confirm it and winds up deep in the Indian Territories, going up against hardened outlaws…and the frailty of his employer…of himself.

It is inevitable that the new version will be compared to the old. Let’s first establish that Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne. Quite intelligently, Bridges doesn’t even attempt to be Wayne. His Rooster Cogburn is allegedly closer to the character in the Charles Portis book both films are based on (I can’t say for certain because I haven’t read it). He’s a drunken reprobate with a past that for one or two wrong turns may have turned out just like Chaney or Pepper. He dances just this side of the angels and has one foot on the side of the devils.

This isn’t a typical Coen Brothers movie. Gone are the quirky characters, the off-kilter sense of humor that pervades. In that sense, this is more like No Country for Old Men; the storytelling is more linear, more direct. The Coens are very particular about the language they use; the language here is more authentic than the original True Grit. In that sense, again this is closer to the Portis novel which was known for utilizing authentic idioms of the era. The 1969 movie was made for audiences of that time who weren’t looking so much for authenticity as much as adventure, and to a certain degree, of the Duke although by that time he had fallen out of favor to a large extent, having grown old and less imposing than he once was; he was also battling cancer at the time which was less known.

Wayne and Bridges aside, this is Mattie’s story and once again we are left to compare Kim Darby, 20 when she filmed the 1969 movie and Steinfeld, 13 when she filmed this one. Darby is spunkier than anything and while she talks like a bookkeeper, she is less convincing as a 14 year old. Certainly Steinfeld gets points in that regard and she has the inner strength that the character possesses, as well as the intelligence and fortitude. She also has the singularity of focus; Steinfeld certainly is impressive in communicating all these things. She is a gifted young actress who may very well get a Best Actress Oscar nomination this February. 

Damon plays the Texas Ranger role that Glen Campbell played and here is where this movie gets better. Damon gives the Ranger much more depth than Campbell was able to deliver and to be fair Campbell was more or less stunt casting. Damon makes the Ranger much more dangerous than the Campbell version which was more or less comic relief. You can believe that LaBoeuf is quite capable of killing from distance and efficiently here.

One of the issues I have here is the ending and this is where the filmmakers teach us a valuable lesson; not everything that is in the book is necessarily as good as the first movie. This movie adds the epilogue that was in the book, showing Mattie 25 years later (Marvel) but the coda is a bit anti-climactic and really adds nothing to the story.

However, this really is a much different movie than the first one and in some ways judging one against the other isn’t real fair but is necessary – after all, the first won the Duke an Oscar and is a bit of a standard among westerns. This has already become the largest-grossing movie in the Coen Brothers 20 year career and comes about it honestly, without a 3D or IMAX upcharge to artificially inflate the numbers. This is serious entertainment and proof positive that even though Westerns are no longer a guaranteed box office draw that when done right they can still be big hits. This is deserving of the success and is one of the must-sees of the holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography adds to strong performances throughout. While Bridges is no Duke, he holds his own. Damon makes a great LaBoeuf.

REASONS TO STAY: While it is very good in its own right, this is still not as good as the John Wayne version. Much grittier than the original, sometimes too gritty in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, a few disturbing images and some peril for 14-year-old Mattie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Bridges and Brolin have portrayed Wild Bill Hickock, whose Wild West Show is the setting for the movie’s epilogue.

HOME OR THEATER: If you watch it at home at least you can get up and leave without bothering anybody.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Little Fockers