Jane Got a Gun (2016): Troubled Hannie Caulder Remake (Review)

Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton

It took almost three years for this tepid and troubled remake of “Hannie Caulder” to be released. Taking so long, in fact, that co star, and co-writer of Jane Got a Gun, Joel Edgerton wrote, directed and co-starred in his own film, “The Gift.”

However, apart from the female protagonist being raped by a gang of unpleasant villains, there is little to tie these two films together. Jane, played by Natalie Portman, does not benefit from a Robert Culp type character who spends a good bit of time teaching her how to win in a gunfight.

The villains are not grotesque off-shoots of humanity; all bigger than life and equally disgusting while simultaneously being quite funny.  (The original gang, all three of them, were played by western stalwart Jack Elam and – fresh off their  The Wild Bunch roles as Dutch and the one of the bounty hunters – Ernest Borgnine and Strother Martin.)

A completely unrecognizable Ewan McGregor was the only “name’ in the villain’s camp and unlike the Caulder trio, never seemed to have laid a hand on Jane, let alone anything else. While  Jane Got a Gun went through two directors, one before a single  frame of film had been shot and a number of leading men, it  does entertain.

In many ways it is a superior film to the 1971 Raquel Welch original.  To be fair, “Hannie Caulder” was an attempt to cash in on flat brimmed hats, ponchos and a fast draw who could also dispense witticisms as well as bullets.   It was, after all, the age of the Spaghetti Western.

Jane Got a Gun does not depict Jane as a helpless “little woman.” When her husband comes home, shot to rag doll ribbons, she does not whimper or hesitate. This frontier wife straps on a gun and saddles up her horse. She takes the kid to a neighbors and heads to her  former fiancé’s  house and asks for help.

He refuses.

Rather than plead with the man, she heads to town to stock up on ammunition and dynamite. She is grabbed by one of the Bishop gang, the baddies who raped her and shot her husband.

Dan Frost  (Edgerton) almost intervenes but stops short of shooting the Bishop gang member. Jane does that herself.

Thus begins the long middle part of the film where Dan fortifies the house against the expected marauders and he and Jane share backstories.  Jane’s husband Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) has little to do apart from lay flat on his back and drink whiskey for his pain. 

The plodding midway point does hurt the film somewhat. When the gang do arrive, the shootout is somewhat underwhelming. after all that preparation. Apparently the Bishops stopped to pick up a few friends to help out.

Jane Got a Gun has an ending that feels a little tacked on.  Without giving too much away, it has “happy Hollywood ending” written all over it.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor, who stepped in to replace Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (who had a falling out with producers after having a falling out with Michael Fassbender)  does a good job.

The film is too claustrophobic to have much  in the way of panoramic visuals but the few shots which are there to show the desolation of the homestead look brilliant.

Written by no less than three people:  Edgerton, Brian Duffield and Anthony Tambakis,  the film could have turned into a helpless hodgepodge of floating plot lines and ramshackle scenes. It does what is says on the label, however, and delivers a western with a strong female protagonist. 

Jane Got a Gun may have been influenced quite heavily by Hannie Caulder, it is a loose remake after all,  but it takes itself far more seriously. One cannot cast an Oscar winning actress in a role that requires her be a helpless female in any size, shape or form. (Portman’s character does not even cry, Edgerton’s, however, does get very teary eyed.)

It is a bit puzzling that McGregor decided to hide his well known visage behind a black mustache and heavy black eyebrows.  He does, however, “give good villain” although he does not appear too often in the film.

Overall, Jane Got a Gun is a 3.5 star film. It loses a bit for the claustrophobic setting and the lack of gunplay. While there is shooting, it is mostly from the other side and the good guys shoot very little in return.  Also, in the final scene, there is a close up of Jane’s gun. She has just told the villainous Bishop that she has two rounds (or as she calls them, “bullets”) left. The front of the gun’s chambers show all the “bullets” to be unexpended, in other words, the pistol is fully loaded. Oops.)

Jane Got a Gun is on Netflix at the moment and certainly worth watching.  Fans of westerns should enjoy it and fans of Portman may opt to suffer through an unloved genre to see her.

Possession (2012): Better the Dybbuk You Know…

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Directed by Danish director Ole Bornedal (who directed and wrote both the original Danish film Nightwatch and the Ewan McGregor remake) Possession is based on “true events” and deals with a box used to store Jewish spirits; a Dybbuk box. Co-written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (Boogeyman) based on an article by Leslie Gornstein entitled Jinx in a Box.

Starring:

Jeffrey Dean Morgan Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Clyde
Kyra Sedgwick Kyra Sedgwick
Stephanie
Natasha Calis Natasha Calis
Madison Davenport Madison Davenport
Hannah
Matisyahu Matisyahu
Tzadok
Grant Show Grant Show
Brett

*Courtesy of IMDb*

Possession is the story of a family going through the stresses of divorce and re-settlement. Clyde (Morgan) is a high school basket ball coach who has shared custody of his and ex-wife Stephanie’s (Sedgwick) two daugters Em (Calis) and Hanna (Davenport). He buys a house on the outskirts of town in a new development.

This part of the film felt a little like the classic film Poltergeist in its tract house setting and it also felt very isolated when you realise that Clyde and his daughters are one of the few people actually occupying a house in the development.

Younger daughter Em loves the rural setting and Hanna is horrified. After staying the weekend, Clyde is driving them back to Stephanie and her new partner dentist Brett (Show) when the girls spy a yard sale. Hanna tells her father to stop as he needs dishes. While he talks on his cell (mobile) phone about a new job coaching in a university, Hanna gets dishes and Em finds a curiously carved box with straps around it. She asks Clyde to buy it and he does.

In the house that is hosting the yard sale, a woman that we’ve met earlier in the film is wrapped in bandages after her attempt to destroy the box that Em is holding in her hands. She sees Em with the box and starts soundlessly screaming and beating the window. A nurse closes the curtains, but not before Em is badly frightened by the display.

Em is fascinated by the box and it whispers to her. She accidentally discovers how to open it and she finds some strange things inside it. In metal “jars” she finds a carved animal, a death moth, a ring and a few other odd curios. She slips the ring on her finger and begins to act strangely.

The film descends into a mix of suspense and some pretty scary scenes based around the personality change of Em. When things start to crank up and Clyde tries to get rid of the strange box, Em goes crazy and after acting like Clyde has struck her she runs out of the house to the dumpster where he threw the box away. Once there the box opens and things go from bad to worse in a moment.

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Clyde takes the box to a professor of the Occult and finds out that it is a Dybbuk box and it has a pretty scary past. He then goes to the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn to get help. After one of the Jewish Elders tells Clyde that whatever happens is in the hands of God, a younger man Tzadok (Matisyahu) offers to help.

This film obviously owes a lot to William Peter Blatty‘s The Exorcist. But to give  Bornedal credit he pulls out all the stops to keep the film from becoming a farcical parody of the  original and eschews the use of spinning heads and spewing vomit. He relies on sound and shadows to increase the tension and build up the suspense.

Morgan does a great job as Clyde the father who is trying very hard to hold his dwindling family together. I have not seen him in many films, the last one was The Watchmen. But by the end of the film, I decided that he should be in a lot more. Sedgewick as the highly strung mother who has decided that she wants to be with the anally retentive dentist is just as impressive.

The real star of the film was Calis as Em. She was brilliant as the Jewish version of Regan aka Linda Blair. She managed to look vulnerable and downright scary; sometimes in the same scene. The other young actress who played her sister, looked too much like a young Lindsey Lohan for me to warm to her too much, but young Davenport as Hanna held her own against the other actors in the cast.

A pretty decent scary film that did not rely on gore or fantastical special effects to sell the story. The use of sound and repetitive dialogue and distorting Em’s voice all worked well in the film. The director also relied on a great score to move things along and the use of shadow also worked very well in the film.

I’d give this film a much higher rating than either IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes. At least a 4 stars out of 5 film that delivers it’s scares matter-of-factly and with a certain panache that left me admiring the story and it’s “open” ending.

The box that starts all the trouble.
The box that starts all the trouble.

The Orphanage (2007): Peter Pan Darkly

The Orphanage (2007 film)
The Orphanage (2007 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do you do when you want to watch the latest Guillermo del Toro film and there’s nothing new to watch?  Do the next best thing and watch  a film produced by del Toro and directed by his protégée.

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona as his first feature film, he must have done something right, because he’s just finished making The Impossible with Ewan McGregorNaomi Watts and Geraldine Chaplin.  Of course he had del Toro to guide him and it shows. The Orphanage  looks, feels and sounds like a del Toro film.

But that is not a bad thing, at all.

The Orphanage, or El Orfanato, is a Genre film. This term Genre was coined when critics tried to put Joss Wedon’s works into a specific genre. Whedon specialises in blending several different genres into one film or program, hence the use of a new film type of genre that is called just ‘genre.’ The term fits this film like a glove.

The film combines elements from the worlds of horror, the supernatural, fantasy, mystery, thriller, drama and tragedy. It borrows more than a little from the children’s tale of Peter Pan and the lost boys. It also offers up deep heart breaking truths that almost make you want to pull your hair and rend your cloths with grief for the main character. It is in essence the very picture of a ‘Genre’ film and it is a masterpiece by any definition.

The film opens in 1976, a young girl named Laura is playing with her friends and fellow orphanage ‘inmates’ when she finds out that she has been adopted. Playing the game, one-two-three-knock on the wall is the last activity she will enjoy with her friends.

The film moves up to present day and the now 37 year old Laura (Belén Rueda) and husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) along with their adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) move back to her old orphanage home. She and Carlos have purchased the old building with plans to renovate it into a home for disabled and terminally ill children. Laura and Carlos want to do this for two reasons, Simón their adopted son has HIV and is dying and Laura has wonderful memories of the place and wants to recreate them with Carlos’s help. Especially poignant is the fact that Simón doesn’t know that he is dying.

While Carlos and Laura are renovating the old orphanage, Simón has found a new friend Tomás and Laura gets a visit from a ‘social worker’ Benigna Escobeda (Montserrat Carulla) who says she checking on Simón because of his HIV status. Later Laura finds Escobeda skulking around the coal cellar. She and Carlos call the police who reveal that Escobeda is not a social worker.

Simón draws a picture of his new friend and he shows him having a cloth bag over his head. Laura is intrigued but is too busy organising an open day party to raise interest in the planned children’s home. On the day of the party,  Simón and Laura have a huge falling out. It seems that Tomás and the other ‘invisible’ children that Simón has been playing with have shown him his adoption file and that he will soon die from the HIV.  A fact that neither Laura nor Carlos have passed on to Simón.

Laura tries to make up with Simón who wants her to see Tomás’s “little house” but because of the party she doesn’t have time. With Simón angry at her again, he storms off to play with his friend. During the party, Laura keeps seeing a child with a burlap bag over his head. When she tries to track him down, he vanishes. So does Simón. During the party both Laura and Carlos look for him but he cannot  be found. The police are contacted and they think that perhaps Escobeda has taken him.

The rest of the film deals with Laura and Carlos trying to find Simón and work out what happened to him.

As I said at the beginning of this article, this film has so many elements in it. Geraldine Chaplain has a cameo as a psychic that Laura and Carlos call in to help them find out what happened to Simón. Whether you think of The Orphanage as a ghost film, a fantasy or, especially after the ending, a bittersweet fairy tale, the film will affect you.

I found myself jumping with fright, tensing with suspense, flinching with horror and getting a  lump in my throat with tears streaming down my face, several times during the film. The allusions to Peter Pan and Laura being a Spanish Wendy to Simón and  the ‘lost children’ of the orphanage are obvious and heartbreaking.

If you watch The Orphanage, be prepared to be put through an emotional wringer. But believe me, it is worth the exhausting  journey that you take with these characters.

Guillermo del Toro has taught Juan Antonio Bayona well.