Hostiles (2017): Slow Downbeat Western With a Message (Review)

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Hostiles is a film that screams out for Sam Elliot, or at the very least a Sam Elliot “type.” Christian Bale attempts to fill Elliot’s boots but loses something in the translation. This is not to say that Bale fails in his interpretation of a bitter and cold “Indian” fighter who must transport a Cheyenne chief (the brilliant Wes Studi) back to his hunting ground to die, but Captain Blocker was tailor made for Sam Elliot and one wishes devoutly that the older actor had been cast instead.

(That said, it turns out that the casting of Bale in this film led to his dropping out of the Travis McGee film “The Deep Blue Goodby” where he had been hideously miscast as the hero…)

Co-written and directed by Scott Cooper (Donald E. Stewart is also credited on the screenplay) Hostiles is Cooper’s fourth time at the helm as director. Like the storyline itself, Cooper does a decent job, although it is a tad convoluted. Overall this message film is slow and not a little downbeat. 

Performances tend to be pretty much spot on although each character is so taciturn and stoic that the sheer lack of dialogue leaves one wishing for more action. It has to be said that the casting of Oklahoma born Wes Studi was a stroke of genius. With his face showing years of strain mixed with a certain tired nobility, the actor does more with his character’s long silences than the rest of the cast put together.

Hostiles relies upon a certain amount of stereotypes while, at the same time, utilizing a “modern” approach to prairie life back at the time of the white man’s  steadfast, and cold blooded, fulfillment of their “manifest destiny.” Brit actress Rosamund Pike, is a wife and mother in the middle of teaching her two daughter’s the finer points of English at the start of the film. 

As Mrs. Quaid, Pike manages to have the most satisfactory character arc out of the entire cast. Bale’s journey ends almost too predictably, with his coming to an almost “Dances With Wolves” inner acceptance of his -previously hated enemy.

The start of the film, with it’s brutal murder of an entire family sans one, tells us the direction that Cooper intends to take from the first shot fired. Mr. Quaid is sawing wood when a small group of Comanche warriors ride into view. He immediately sounds the alarm, tells his small brood to hide and he runs out of his cabin and begins firing his carbine before the band of “hostiles” are within range.

It is the white man who shoots first, which results in the Comanche party retaliating with deadly and over-zealous force. (This short-lived battle, where Pike’s character loses everything she loves, shows the Native American proclivity for using the white man’s weapons, six shooters and rifles, along with their more traditional weapons.)

Hostiles moves at a sluggish pace. It appears that Cooper has used the 2014 Tommy Lee Jones/Hilary Swank western “The Homesman” as a template for the modern westerns. (Although it could be argued that Clint Eastwood started this slow trend with his 1992 award winning western Unforgiven – another film that also offers a bleak but bloody storyline.)

*Cooper does offer up a small homage to the Eastwood western by having one of his characters repeat William Money’s line of “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another.”)

Filmed in New Mexico and Arizona, the film looks stunning and while there are no real “panoramic” views, the bits of scenery on offer are breathtaking and makes one feel assured that this tale really is taking place in the “old west.”

Bale is satisfactory as the hard Indian wars campaigner, Studi deserves an award for his portrayal of a chief dying of cancer, Pike is spot on, and she is another member of the cast who should get a gong from the academy this year. Honorable mention goes to  Scott Wilson, aka Hershel from the AMC hit TWD, who has a splendid cameo as one nasty land owner. 

(Ben Foster has an excellent cameo as another campaigner who is set to be hanged when he is returned to civilization. Although his storyline is too predictable by far.)

Hostiles is a 4 star film that could have been a full 5 had it trimmed the overall running length from its mind numbing two hour and 13 minute run time. The film offers some surprising non visceral blood letting, a lot of f-bombs and not one bit of nudity. Cooper has even opted to leave out anything remotely resembling sex.

Cooper’s film has finished its festival circuit and will open with a limited release on 22 December this year. This one may be slow and plodding but it is worth a look, check it out on the big screen and see what you think. (In closing: Kudos to the filmmakers here for using what appears to be real Cheyenne language in the exchanges between Studi’s small band and Bale.)

Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014): Simply Sublime

Still from trailer for Hector and the Search for Happiness

Despite having worked as a “film critic” and being a member of the Nevada Film Critics Society, I am not jaded enough to find the 2014 film Hector and the Search for Happiness anything other than simply sublime. Reading various reviews and finding that the film opened to mixed and negative reviews surprises and disappoints. Simon Pegg is truly wonderful as are his co-stars in the film and Rosamund Pike works brilliantly in this far removed from Gone Girl role.

Helmed by award winning English director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity, Shall We Dance) from a script adapted from the French book of the same name by François Lelord, the film follows the journey of Hector, a psychiatrist who is fed up with his relationship, his job and his life. He undertakes a trip to discover just what happiness is and how to get it.

In many ways the movie is like an exotic travelogue. Pegg’s character visits Singapore, Africa and America in his journey. Like a modern day Phileas Fogg, just without the balloon, Passepartout or indeed the wager that gets the whole thing started, Hector travels to several different countries meeting new people and old friends in his search.

Hector and the Search for Happiness also has a bit of an Alan Whicker or Michael Palin (the old Monty Python member who traded in his comedy chops for travel documentaries) feel, where the main figure learns of other cultures and how they see the world. Even before finding out that the film is based on a French novel, one can tell by the structure of the film and its plot that this could very easily have been a film from that country.

The use of cardboard cutouts in the plane scene, the flashbacks to childhood and the feeling of the film is one of arthouse chic. This combined with the simplicity of its message must have put off the more serious minded critics who reviewed the movie at the cinema.

Leaving such pretentious prattling behind and looking at the cast, the film delivers brilliantly. Stellan Skarsgård drops his Norwegian accent, and leaves the world of the Avengers behind, to become Edward; a richer than rich businessman who insists that one can buy happiness. Jean Reno leaves his badge and assassins tools at home to play an African drug lord who trusts no one but loves his wife completely.

Christopher Plummer uses his dulcet tones to narrate and play the small cameo of a professor who uses a machine that looks like an old fashioned hair dryer to track emotions in the human brain. Toni Collette plays Hector’s former flame with perfection.

The end of the film moved me to schmaltzy tears as Pegg discovers a few home truths. (I’ll not say what they are, no spoilers here.) His journey may not be life shattering over all, although at one point it looks as though Hector may not survive, but it is interesting enough to keep the viewer watching.

*On a side note, I did notice that just as in real life, all airport terminals do indeed look the same no matter where they are.*

Sure, some of the signposts are a bit stereo-graphical in nature but that does not spoil the message of the film or take away our delight when Hector finishes his search. Despite what other reviewers have said about this particular offering my verdict is a full 5 stars. Any film that can make me cry in Burger King in front of strangers, without the darkness of a cinema to hide my blushes, gets full marks. Hector and the Search for Happiness is streaming on US Netflix now. Watch this one and enjoy, unless you are too sophisticated for it.

Christian Bale as Travis McGee? What the Fudge?

Christian Bale in promo shot

Okay, just when you thought that the worst casting decision in the world was Marky Mark as Nathan Drake in the Uncharted film, Hollywood chucks one out that is breathtakingly bad. Christian Bale as John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. Really??

What the fudge people.

After this initial sense of outrage, disbelief and shock, it turns out that the movie is in a sort of “development hell.” The movie was first touted as a vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio as long ago as 2010/11 and resurfaced again in 2013. Scheduling problems took the Wolf Of Wall Street star off the picture and the last word was that Bale was being considered for the role of “salvage consultant” beach bum McGee.

Rosamund Pike, (Gone Girl) is now attached to the project and while that may be good news, the fact that Bale’s name is still associated with the film is not. It was the news of Pike’s connection to the movie that pointed out Bales as being the new McGee. One thing to cling to, however, is that Fox do not really seem to know what they are doing with this property.

From the very start, it looks like the studios have never read any of the superb John D. MacDonald’s series, first publicity blurbs talk of a “World War II” film. Trav was a Korean War vet, although later in the series this became a sort of “open to interpretation” as to which war he had participated. The time settings of the latter stories made the Vietnam War more likely than the big WWII.

At least twice Travis McGee and his best friend Meyer (an economist) have been portrayed on film. Australian actor Rod Taylor on the big screen and laconic actor Sam Elliott on television have both played the beach bum with a penchant for women “who are broken birds.” While both actors did a good job, Taylor seemed a better fit for the role in terms of physicality.

For the audio versions of the stories, TV’s old Mike Hammer, and later Carl Kolchak, Darren McGavin voiced McGee and became, for many, the perfect embodiment of MacDonald’s hero.

In the books, the author described McGee as a big man with sandy hair and “spit colored eyes.” The idea of Christian Bale, with his “tortured” air and intensity, playing the McGee is almost sacrilege. Perhaps in terms of size and delivery, Dick Van Dyke’s son Barry (Diagnosis Murder) comes closest to fitting McGee than any other actor out there.

Unfortunately with names like Bale and, now, Rosamund Pike being touted for the big screen version of The Deep Blue Goodbye, Van Dyke will never get a look in. The other downside is that at 63, Barry is far too long in the tooth to play the Florida bachelor. There may be other younger actors who would be a better fit than Bale, but in terms of box office he will be the stronger choice, as was DiCaprio initially.

Why the Batman actor is being considered for the role is mystifying. His latest film, where he depicts a tortured and intense Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, proves that he cannot escape his usual style of performance even when portraying a biblical figure. At least on that film, he did not come unglued and scream at a technician on set.

It is a shame that the Fox project, which had the talented Dennis Lehane writing the script, cannot come up with a better choice for the role of Travis. Even Leonard DiCaprio, the studio’s initial casting, was not a good fit. Too young and not physical enough. No arguments with the casting of Rosamund Pike at all at this point but, please Fox, pick someone else to play McGee.

Sadly, it seems that Hollywood will most probably not get this one right. This is not too dissimilar to Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm, played for laughs by Dean Martin, where perfect casting for a more serious version of the American James Bond proved elusive. No one actor really fit the bill and it looks like Travis McGee may well suffer the same celluloid casting fate.

McGee had a quality that kept the reader coming back and wanting him to find the perfect mate. By the last book, The Lonely Silver Rain, Trav had a daughter and Meyer was delighted to see his friend become more mature. Sadly it was the last McGee adventure to be written. MacDonald, a prolific writer, was taken back by the muses and at least one reader cried tears of loss after learning that “McGee” was dead.

The author died in 1986 and was the same creative genius who wrote Cape Fear, made twice into a film, as well as The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything, and a slew of other novels and short story collections on top of some works of non fiction.

The news of Christian Bale being considered for the role of McGee does tend to make one wail in disbelief and scream out “What the Fudge?” However, it is nice to think that this evergreen character, who has been around since the 1960s, is interesting enough to still be considered a good property for the big screen. All one can ask is that a better candidate than Bale be cast at the end of the day.

And of course there is still the issue of Meyer. Knowing Hollywood, they will probably make the best friend a skinny woman thus changing the entire purpose of the economist. This project still seems to be stuck in developmental hell for the time being, despite Pike’s being “cast.” Hopefully scheduling conflicts will negate the American Hustle actor becoming the latest casting mistake in Tinseltown.

Gone Girl: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike Hold Top Spot at US Box Office

Gone Girl: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike Hold Top Spot at US Box Office

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl hold the top spot at the U.S. box office for two weeks running and considering the competition it should come as no real surprise, although it has to be pointed out that the crime thriller did just squeak past Dracula Untold. The Gillian Flynn adaptation of his own novel by the same name pulled in $26.8 million on its second weekend at the cinema and the reworking of the Vlad Tepes legend grossed $23.5 million so certainly it was a very big squeak at a difference of $3.5 million in the box office receipts race.

Gone Girl Multi Faceted Crime Tale or a Modern Love Story

Gone Girl Multi Faceted Crime Tale or a Modern Love Story

Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry is most definitely a multi faceted crime tale of the finest order, or a modern love story, depending on how one looks at it. If anyone looks very closely at the events in the film, it really could be the latter rather than the former or a brilliant combination of the two. Based upon the 2012 book of the same name by Gillian Flynn the film starts on the five year anniversary of the two main protagonists, Nick and Amy Dunne.