Jane Got a Gun


Jane takes aim at the industry suits who kept this film on the shelf for three years.

Jane takes aim at the industry suits who kept this film on the shelf for three years.

(2016) Western (Weinstein) Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Boyd Holbrook, Alex Manette, Todd Stashwick, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Chad Brummett, Boots Southerland, Nash Edgerton, Robb Janov, James Blackburn, Nicoletta Chapman, Ricky Lee, Darlene Kellum, Lauren Poole, Kristin Hansen. Directed by Gavin O’Connor

When you are threatened, I think that most of us can pretty much take it. You can do what you want to us, but leave our families alone, right? When home and hearth are threatened, well, one has to make a line in the sand someplace.

For Jane Hammond (Portman), that line has been drawn. When her husband Bill (Emmerich) shows back home with bullets in his back, he tells her that he had a run-in with the Bishop Boys, a gang he once rode with and who Jane herself has a past with. Now they are coming. Jane could easily take her daughter and run, but she’s done that her entire life. She loves her home and will fight to defend it.

But she can’t do it by herself and Bill’s wounds are simply too severe for him to be much use in a gunfight, so she swallows her pride and enlists Dan Frost (Edgerton), the gunslinger who was once her fiance. While he was away fighting the Civil War, she had become disillusioned, believing that he had been killed in action. While on a wagon train headed West led by John Bishop (McGregor), she was saved from the proverbial fate worse than death by Bill, along with a daughter fathered by Frost that he never knew he had.

Now the past has caught up with her and Bill and only Dan can save them. Dan has issues of his own, many of them stemming with his treatment at Jane’s hands so he’s ambivalent about helping her out, but he can’t leave the woman he once loved in the lurch, even if he has to save the man she’s with now. So he calmly goes about the business of fortifying her home, knowing that the force that is coming at them may be greater than even he can save her from.

This is very much in the vein of typical “against the odds” Westerns along the lines of a High Noon in which a heroic figure is preparing for the arrival of an overwhelming force that is likely to kill them. Natalie Portman is no Gary Cooper, but she does topline the film nicely. When I heard she was doing this film, I wondered about the wisdom of casting her in this kind of role; after all, she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world and has the grace of a ballerina. Could she play a dirt farmer’s wife in the Old West? Turns out, she can.

O’Connor wants to make a traditional Western with a bit of a twist, putting Portman in kind of a heroic role. While Edgerton – who co-wrote the film – is ostensibly the hero, Portman steals the show but not to the same extent that McGregor does. With his shoe polish black moustache and coif, he looks the part of a Western villain, maybe to the point of self-parody. But he is certainly venal enough and his smooth words disguise lethal venom. It’s a terrific villainous role for an actor who tends to assay heroic roles more often.

The dusty New Mexico landscape is dry as a bone and makes for an appropriately desolate setting. I have to admit that while the movie is decently paced and doesn’t seem to have any extraneous material, the flashbacks are a bit awkward and the whole balloon ride thing was more or less unconvincing – you half expected to see them sailing for Oz.

The movie has largely been left to fend for itself, which is a crying shame. It deserved a better fate than it got from Weinstein and various distributors, directors and producers. Despite its checkered past in getting from script to multiplex, this isn’t a bad movie and while it isn’t the best Western out there, it is a solid entry into the genre which has received a welcome resurgence over the past several months. Movies like this are likely to entice even more viewers into the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely paced. Acting performances are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing here is particularly different and exciting. Derivative.
FAMILY VALUES: There are violence and language issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally filmed in 2013, the movie sat on the shelf for nearly three years due to several release date changes, the bankruptcy of Relativity Studios (who were originally to release it) and reported clashes between the distributors and producers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hannie Caulder
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart begins!

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Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)


Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Tilly Vosburgh, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden, Bradley Hall, Hilton McRae, Sam Phillips, Victor McGuire, Jody Haise, Pauline Whitaker, Belinda Low, Leonard Szepietowski, Harry Peacock, Mark Wingett, Dorian Lough, Jon Gunn, Richard Dixon, John Neville, Lillian Price. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

In Victorian England, women didn’t generally have very many choices and those that did usually got them because they were stronger and more aggressive than most. Perhaps that’s why most Victorian heroines remain role models for women even today.

Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) is an educated, forthright young lady who loves the rural Dorset that she grew up in. She also loves horseback riding and it is during one of her rides that she encounters neighboring shepherd Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), a quiet man of good character. He falls hard for the impetuous young Bathsheba (who hates her given name by the way) and impulsively asks her to marry him, promising to buy her a piano if she does. She declines, telling him that she would want a man who could tame her and the quiet Gabriel never could. Shortly after that Gabriel loses his flock in a particularly devastating way and must sell his land in order to pay his debts. He sets out to find employment. In his travels he comes upon a barn fire and with the farm manager and owner both missing, takes charge and puts the fire out. When the owner returns and thanks him, he asks for a job. The owner turns out to be…Bathsheba.

In the meantime she had suffered a reversal of fortune of her own; no longer poor, she had inherited her uncle’s farm and was determined to make it successful. After firing her corrupt and useless manager (McGuire) she sets about managing her farm with the aid of Liddy (Barden), her assistant and Gabriel’s able stewardship it begins to turn a profit.

She also gets the notice of William Boldwood (Sheen), a neighboring farmer and the wealthiest man in the district. Lonely and socially awkward, he had been engaged once only to be jilted. Now mistakenly thinking that Ms. Everdene is interested in him romantically, he pursues her doggedly with his own offer of marriage and as a wedding gift, a piano. By this time however, she has a piano of her own and declines, valuing her independence too much.

But not for long. Into her life comes soldier Frank Troy (Sturridge), a dashing young man who dazzles her with his swordplay and ardor. Completely head over heels, she marries the military man even though Gabriel counsels her not to and loses his job because of it, only returning to work because the sheep are dying from a disease that only he knows how to cure.

It soon becomes evident that Troy has no interest in farming and less in Bathsheba. He prefers to gamble their profits away, and his ardor is reserved for Fanny Robbin (Temple) whom he had once intended to marry and had been left standing at the altar when she went to the wrong church. She is now pregnant with his child. All of these events are priming the players for tragedy and for Bathsheba Everdene, a choice – which man truly is the one for her?

This is the fourth filmed version of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel (the first released exactly 100 years ago in a silent version). In many ways, it captures the rural life that Hardy so loved (and through him, his characters) better than any of them. Certainly cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen captures the loveliness of the Dorset countryside in vista after vista; silky mist-shrouded mornings, blazing colorful sunsets, bucolic woods and fields.

Vinterberg (The Hunt) is best known as a co-founder of the influential but spare Dogme 95 movement in filmmaking and he would seem an odd choice for a lush classic of such epic sweep as Hardy but he keeps much of the movie simple. The country life that he depicts here seems almost heavenly; one could long for a lifestyle of washing sheep and harvesting grain, walking the country at dusk and singing with the farmhands at supper by candlelight. It is definitely enticing to those of us beset by the fast pace and cold technology of modern life.

Mulligan, Oscar nominated ] for An Education, has done the most brilliant work of her career thus far here. She captures the spirited nature of Bathsheba Everdene but also her vulnerabilities without making her seem too modern, although in many ways Bathsheba belongs more to the 21st century than the 19th, even back when Hardy wrote her – so much so that Suzanne Collins filched her surname for her spunky lead character in The Hunger Games. That Bathsheba chooses the dashing soldier over the security of William Boldwood and the bedrock but unspectacular love of Gabriel Oak is a lament that many guys, unable to compete with the cute and the popular in high school, can understand.

Schoenaerts is a Belgian hunk who has all kinds of upside. He reminds me a bit of Viggo Mortensen and has that charisma necessary to be the leading man in a big budget movie and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find him on the Hollywood A-list before too long. Sheen has continued his exemplary work of recent years and makes the haunted farmer Boldwood flesh and blood, as opposed to the kind of creepy pervert that Peter Finch portrayed him as in the 1967 version.

While it’s possible this could be contending for awards come Oscar time, it’s unlikely given the early summer release date. It’s quite possible that an autumn re-release might put Mulligan, Christensen and even Vinterberg up for Oscar consideration but even if not, this is a film worthy of attention even beyond the film buff and older audiences. I have to admit that it is a smart move to use this as refreshing counterprogramming to the big blockbusters that will be filling up the multiplex screens this time of year. Those who prefer their movies less loud and teen-centric should keep their radar out for this one.

REASONS TO GO: Really gives a sense of the beauty of rustic life. Mulligan is a strong lead. Classic story.
REASONS TO STAY: Adds little to previous film versions of the novel.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mulligan suffered a concussion when she was thrown from a horse. Nobody realized she was injured until she fell to her knees during the next scene to be filmed. Schoenaerts thought she was acting and continued his lines; it was only when she slumped over that anyone realized that there was something wrong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wuthering Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Child 44

Dear John


Dear John

Sharing a kiss in a southern summer rain.

(2010) Romantic Drama (Screen Gems) Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, Keith Robinson, Scott Porter, Braeden Reed, D.J. Cotrona, Cullen Moss, Leslea Fisher. Directed by Lasse Halstrom

Nicholas Sparks is a novelist, many of whose works have been turned into movies (all based in his native South Carolina at least to some degree) including The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and The Last Song. There are many who adore his novels and although I haven’t read them, I’m sure he’s a decent enough writer. In all honesty while I liked the adaptation of The Notebook, I have not been felt the magic in his other adaptations.

So when noted director Lasse Halstrom (Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Shipping News) was attached to it, I had some hopes that this movie might actually be the second Nicholas Sparks movie to move me.

No such luck. John Tyree (Tatum) is a soldier on leave who must return to Germany in a few days in the summer of 2001. When young Savannah Curtis (Seyfried) accidentally knocks her purse into the water off of a pier, John dives in to its rescue, forever earning her gratitude. Yes, it’s yet another case of a sodden accessory leading to romance. Happens all the time.

There before our eyes young love blossoms. We know it does because there are montages of late summer South Carolina and soulful music. But then he has to return to his post in Germany. But they’ll write….he’ll send her all his love every day in a letter….sealed with a kiss. Hey, they had to say goodbye for the summer after all.

Of course, September arrives and we all know what happened in September 2001. His enlistment nearly over, John winds up with a choice – either love or duty. This being a Nicholas Sparks movie, he chooses duty. Savannah understands but she winds up falling in love with someone else while he’s gone; hence the double entendre title. Clever, this Nicholas Sparks fellow.

I neglected to mention the autism factor here. Sparks’ son suffers from a mild form of autism and so that becomes a major theme here. Savannah has a neighbor (Thomas) whose son (Reed) is autistic. John’s dad (Jenkins) is mildly autistic, or at least so Savannah thinks – this leads to a fairly major argument between John and Savannah.

Halstrom is a gifted director who has a habit of choosing material that is overly maudlin. Sparks is pretty much the poster boy for maudlin, 21st century style. That’s why the pairing of the two makes much more sense than it at first appears. Like with most Sparks works, there is a palpable sense of melancholy that suffuses the mellow golds and oranges of the half-light of a South Carolina sunset. It lends a certain nostalgic air, particularly with the scene, pictured above, in which the lovers kiss in an idyllic summer shower. Yes, it’s very cliché but it’s also very effective.

Seyfried is a very charming actress but sadly in my opinion, she has a much smaller role than you would think. It is Tatum who must carry the load, and quite frankly it’s a little beyond him at this point. He is not one of the most emotionally open of actors, which in a situation where the audience needs to strongly identify with the lead, can be a deal-killer. Tatum is good looking and when given roles in his emotional wheelhouse can bat them out of the park, but this one is not one of those.

A quick word about Richard Jenkins. Ever since winning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor Jenkins has performed in a series of roles that have played to his strengths. This is actually a little bit different than we usually see from him; he is pushed in the role of the coin-collecting dad who cooks lasagna every Sunday (my kind of dad) and has a bit of the obsessive-compulsive to him. Jenkins lends the role dignity and compassion and makes it the most interesting and human of all the characters here.

Dear John isn’t going to boost me on to the Nicholas Sparks bandwagon; for me, he is an acquired taste that I have failed to acquire. I realize that there are some who think he is the bee’s knees, and that’s fine – there is nothing wrong with a good bittersweet romance. I would just like to see a little variation in the storyline and until then, his first movie that I had contact with – The Notebook – remains the one that I will hold up as the bar to judge all his adaptations against and unfortunately, Dear John falls short of that bar.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Tatum and Seyfried. Jenkins as always puts in a memorable performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Nicholas Sparks formula holds true. Seyfried’s character disappears for a good chunk of the movie and when she reappears near the end, the movie loses a lot of its steam.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and a little bit of sensuality but not so much as to alienate family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the movie that dethroned Avatar from the #1 spot in the box office which it had held since its debut in December 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a moving featurette on Braeden Reed, the actor who has autism in real life and plays the autistic Alan here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115M on a $25M budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: When in Rome