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.)

Gridlocked (2015): ‘The Hard Way’ Sans the Humor (Review)

Cody Hackman and Dominic Purcell

Gridlocked feels like a remix of the 1991 Michael J. Fox film The Hard Way, sans the romance and the  laughs.  The film also lacks James Woods, but has Dominic Purcell as the millennial version of Woods and even has Steven Lang as the bad guy. Lang was the villain in The Hard Way as well.

There are elements of Assault on Precinct 13 without the Carpenter touch and the film even seems to borrow a bit from  Sabotage. Gridlocked has Cody Hackman as Hollywood star Brody Walker; a former child actor who, despite being a success at the box-office,  has issues. One  these problems includes  assaulting a member of the paparazzi.

To keep from doing jail time, Walker is assigned to Purcell’s character, David Hendrix, a cop recovering from being shot on duty. Stephen Lang is Korver, an old colleague of Hendrix’ who is after some bearer bonds in an evidence locker. Vinnie Jones and Danny Glover have small roles in the film, with Jones on team Korver and Glover as a cop.

(There is a self referential moment where Glover’s character sighs and says he is “Too old for this sh*t.” Something his character in the Lethal Weapon franchise was always saying.)

While the film does resemble the 1991 Fox/Woods vehicle, in this version, Hendrix is not trying to get rid of Walker. The cop opts to take the Hollywood bad boy under his wing instead.  Hendrix takes the star to the training facility, a ‘la “Sabotage,”  and Lang’s people, after disabling the building, attempt to overtake it.

There is plenty of action. Gunfights and hand to hand combat are the order of the day and the good guys have a mole on their side who is working for Korver.  As Lang’s character repeatedly tries to enter the building, Hendrix and his small team fight them off. Eventually  the bad guys get in and the fighting gets up close and personal.

As Gridlocked moves from a siege to an invasion, Hendrix has more problems. He has a mole  on his team, and  a personal connection with the bad guys who want in.

Aussie actor Purcell does a good job as the injured action hero and Hackman is convincing as the irksome Hollywood star. Lang really does give the best ”bad guy” in the business and Glover is splendid in his cameo as the cop  nearing retirement.

On a sidenote, there is a practical effect later in the film where one of the character’s is shot through the face.  Uncomfortable to look at, it looks real and not a little bit freaky.

Directed and co-written by Allan Ungar (his second feature length film) Gridlocked  flows well and does not drag.  The action may feel a bit formulaic and the plot does seem to be influenced by the above mentioned films. However, the cast keep things interesting and Purcell proves that he is more than a one trick pony. 

Vinne Jones has little to do other than to look menacing though later on he does fight Purcell’s character. (In terms of cameos, the excellent Saul Rubinek does  a splendid turn as Walker’s agent.)  

At just under two hours the film moves along at a crisp clip and does not drag at all.  While the film is more “action” than acting, it will never be mistaken for Shakespeare, Gridlocked does entertain.

This is a 3.5 star film.  Nothing to write home about but good enough to get lost in for an extended period of time. It is streaming on Netflix at the moment. Pop up some corn and pour some fizzy and see what you think.

Into the Badlands: Clippers; the New Samurai (Review)

AMC’s new offering, Into the Badlands has “clippers” as the new samurai and is martial arts heavy with flashing swords, Katana blades and, in at least one scene, a fight in stiletto heels.

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AMC’s new offering, Into the Badlands has “clippers” as the new samurai and is  martial arts heavy with flashing swords, Katana blades and, in at least one scene, a fight in stiletto heels.  This action drama features  beautifully choreographed fight sequences, exemplary wire work and plot that moves at a snail’ s pace.

Starring Daniel WuEmily Beecham,Marton Csokas,Orla Brady and with Avatar’s Stephen Lang as the requisite “Hollywood” star on the cast list, Into the Badlands is a hybrid series. Shakespearean with a touch of Curse of the Golden Flower, mixed with Crouching Dragon Hidden Tiger and a tinge of the Spaghetti Western mythos.

The series also appears to be Influenced by role-playing video games  but with a post-apocalyptic vibe sans zombies, nuclear wastelands and dragons. There is, however a touch of the supernatural, or even paranormal as the young M.K. (Armies Knight) eyes fill with a unnatural light when his blood is spilt and he turns into a super martial arts warrior.

Despite the very obvious Akira Kurosawa influence (Yojimbo, Seven Samurai) and the John Woo nuances, the series feels cumbersome, except for the fight scenes that are, in a word; spectacular.

Like some of the best martial arts films to come out of Hong Kong in the past decade, the fight scenes are intricate set pieces that include brilliant, and seamless, wirework and breathtaking choreography.  At one point, a character called “The Widow” (played with impressive panache by Brit actress Emily Beecham) takes on a bar full of badmen wearing almost thigh high laced boots with a stiletto heel so long and sharp is could be counted as a lethal weapon on its own.

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Emily Beecham as The Widow, stiletto heels and kick-ass moves.

The cast is full of non-American actors. Most notably,  scenery chewing Kiwi actor Marton Csokas and Mancunian actress Emily Beecham (who features in the highly enjoyable, if improbable, martial arts fight scene where her character kills a number of foes whilst wearing those stiletto heels mentioned in the previous paragraph.)

Filmed in New Orleans, Louisiana, Into the Badlands has enough English actors filling “American” roles that  it is surprising that the SAG -AFTRA are not up in arms. This new action themed series also has another actor from “down under” filling a major/starring role. Although Csokas is from New Zealand and not Australia, like Blindspot‘s Sullivan Stapleton, this is, apparently the face of US television in the new millennium.

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Irish actress Orla Brady as Lydia

Show creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar have given viewers a world full of modern day (Futuristic?) feudal barons who are all shoving one another in a power struggle to control the whole area.  There are, according to the verse, five barons in total, although the audience have yet to meet more than two; Quinn and the Widow.

Quinn is the son of a former worker whose father was beaten to death without ever lifting a finger in his own defense. When he got older, the lad volunteered to become a “Clipper” (this world’s version of a samurai) and kills his first man, by breaking his neck in five seconds flat.  The laborer’s son goes on to become baron and his faction grow poppies and produce drugs.

The Widow’s “oil” allows Quinn to process the poppies and at the start of this series, these two are engaged in a power play that eventually becomes a war.  Quinn has headaches and this violent man kills the family medical retainer who diagnoses his “death sentence.” We are spared the sight of the Baron killing his loyal doctor and wife, after the doc discovers that Quinn has a malignant brain tumor, but this becomes a defining moment in the life of his head clipper Sunny (Wu).

The Widow is searching for M.K. (Knight) who becomes a killing machine when bloodied.  The lad is saved from Nomads, hired by The Widow to find the boy, by Sunny who takes him to Quinn’s fort.  The boy escapes, with help from his savior, and stumbles onto the woman’s lands who wanted him kidnapped in the first place.

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Armies Knight is M.K. the lad with the dark power.

There is much subterfuge and double-dealings going in, similar to  the Shakespearean in scope, Curse of the Golden Flower, Quinn is turned into cuckold by his own son, like Emperor Ping in CotGF,  and The Widow’s daughter Tilda (Ally Ioannides) helps the boy by tricking her mother. 

In terms of plot versus action, Into the Badlands may prove to be too slow for its target audience.  Infrequent fight scenes, despite being incredibly well done, may not be enough to sell the plodding storyline.  The world that Millar and Gough have created is one without guns, only a few cars (and these appear to be outdated “classics”), at least one motorcycle, a few horses and a lot of people on foot. This means a verse that will, by necessity, move slowly.

This slow approach may alienate the very audience the show wants to ensnare.  Into the Badlands is  gorgeous and lovely to look at but this may not be enough to bring viewers rushing back to see the next installment. It airs Sundays on AMC and may turn out to be as addictive as the product of Quinn’s poppies.  With a  nod to the Bard, Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, this may prove to be the best of the network’s lineup or a complete turn off.

 

Exeter (2015): Horror for the YouTube Generation

Party levitation

The 2015 horror film Exeter, directed by Conan the Barbarian and Friday the 13th remake helmsman Marcus Nispel, ( who also provided the story which was turned into a script by Kirsten McCallion nee Elms) feels like it was produced exclusively for the YouTube generation. Not that this is a bad thing.

Far from it.

There are moments that feel like some viral video wanna be which work very well. It has been noted that this is the first film Nispel has helmed that is not a remake, this may explain some of the rougher elements of the movie as well as some of the holes.

The film boasts Avatar baddie Stephen Lang who may just have more screen credits than Carter has little pills, and a group of younger actors with impressive CV’s (resume’s) and a young actor, Michael Ormsby who looks like a tweenie version of Jason Mewes. (Considering the character played by Ormsby manages to overdo his consumption of pharmaceuticals it seems strangely apt, no reflection on Mewes but rather on the type of characters’ he plays.)

Lang does have what amounts to an overly large cameo but his presence is appreciated, feeling a little like the adult chaperone who has been hired to look after the younger performers. Still, his “father figure” is not quite what he seems and later becomes a part of another “homage” a la I Know What You Did Last Summer sans hook.

There are some parts of the film that are slyly funny.

The young adults (Older teens?) looking up exorcism on the Internet and finding a YouTube video which is a DIY step-by-step instruction manual for novice exorcists. (The best bit about the whole “you can find anything on the web schtick” is the warning to ask your “priest” if you have difficulties.)

After an introductory sequence where a young partially clad woman kills herself, the film segways into  faux news footage in a documentary that tells of abuse that mentally challenged children suffered at the Exeter institution.  The property is under the purview of Father Conway and the building is falling apart and being scavenged for materials.

A group of young people have a party at the dilapidated structure and a smaller group decide to experiment on levitation, something they see on YouTube, and  while the rest of the  participants get their freak on, a young boy becomes possessed by something evil. His big brother sets out to save his younger sibling but things quickly get out of hand.

The film has a lot of moment where things make no real sense or the timeline is a bit shaky but there are many other things in the film that feel impressively spot on. In one instance it is a piece of dialogue.

Patrick and his new female friend Reign (Kelly Blatz and Brittany Curran respectively) share a moment where one of Patrick’s friends, Brad (played by Brett Dier) storms off on is own. Patrick starts to follow him and Reign says, quite realistically, “Just let him go.” 

The scene has the same solid ring of truth that exists in Tremors when Reba McEntires tells her character’s husband, “I know they think they know every thing.” [sic] In each instance it is less about the script and more about the delivery. the lines feel and sound as matter of fact as ordering extra mayo for your burger.

Another scene in Exeter that feels spot on is the cupboard (wardrobe) scene. Patrick and Reign are looking for Rory and hear the newly possessed Amber (Gage Golightly) coming down the hall after them. They open a cupboard door and all manner of junk falls out, including an ironing board. 

When the two hear Amber getting closer, they stop and push all the rubbish that tumbled out of the cupboard back in before entering the thing and closing the door after them. A moment that feels truthful and works. Even the dumbest possessed creature would notice a mound of junk that obviously just fell out a cabinet/cupboard.

Some of the scenes are blackly comic, such as the demise of one character in a manner that seems to proves that when your mother told you about running with sharp objects in your hands, she was right. Another, perhaps inadvertently, amusing moment is when the possessed Amber is knocked down into a load of fire extinguisher foam and in her “death throes” begins to make a foam angel…

Nispel pays homage to a few films and at least, apparently, one iconic film maker. There is a clear nod to Takashi Miike and Ichi the Killer and another to the 1999 film House on Haunted Hill.  Despite these nods and winks to other films at 91 minutes, despite the “cleverness of the homages” the movie feels longer. It does not drag, per se, it just feels overly long.

Perhaps it is the culmination of annoying things. Such as the repeated camera lingers on the lawn mower, or the oddly amusing “shake and bake” death of the baddie at the end.

Still, this first move away from doing remakes of other films, the director, overall, does a satisfactory job. The movie entertains and mangoes to balance humor and horror quite nicely. The focus on the internet generation works very well and the film is a decent attempt at horror.

Exeter is a 4 out of 5 stars, earning an extra half star for the nods/homages in the film and those few stunning moments of truth. Streaming on US Netflix at the moment it  is definitely worth a look.

Stephen King’s A Good Marriage (2014) Joan Hall Captivates Completely

Still from A Good Marriage with Joan Hall
Based on a Stephen King story, from his 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars. A Good Marriage stars Joan Hall (Death Race, The Bourne Legacy), Anthony LaPaglia (Crazy Kind of Love, Mental), Kristen Connelly (Cabin in the woods, The Whispers) and Stephen Lang (Avatar, Conan the Barbarian) and is directed by Peter Askin (Trumbo, Company Man) and King himself adapted the story into a screenplay.

This is the first time since the 1989 film Pet Semetary that King has adapted his own work. In his novella, Darcy Anderson discovers that her “perfect” husband is, in fact, a notorious serial killer. She accidentally finds a box of trophy objects from the murders and she decides to take things into her own hands rather than contact the police.

In the film, Joan Allen captivates completely as the older partner who finds that her loving husband has a killer inside of him. Another personality called Beadie, who rapes, tortures and kills women and has done so for years. Allen shows every emotion that her character is going through on her face, not comically but subtly with just enough of a “tell” that we know what she is thinking.

The horror, shame, disgust and fear all mingle on her face and in her actions. Anthony LaPaglia, as Bob, is also impressively sinister and smarmy. The audience do not believe that he will stop for one moment. In one dream sequence, which seems frighteningly real, it is apparent that Darcy does not really think he will quit killing either.

The very fact that her husband has managed to keep this secret from her and their two kids for 12 years indicates a man who is obsessed. His workshop screams OCD, everything put neatly in its place, even his “evidence” box is specifically placed, which is how he knows that Darcy now knows his secret. Stephen Lang, as the retired detective, hovers about in the background ominously and later shows up to reveal that he knows that Bob Anderson was Beadie.

For those who have read the King novella, the story will already be familiar. That will not spoil the film though. Peter Askin does a great job keeping that other shoe dangling tantalizingly in the air as we wait for Darcy to decide how she is going to deal with this horrific discovery. The sly underlying horror is still in the movie.

The fact that her sick husband believes that everything will be fine and that she will accept his promise to never kill again shows just how far gone this “split personality” killer was. His glib explanation that he never killed anyone, that it was his dead friend Brian, aka BD, rolls off his tongue while Darcy listens in growing horror.

Stephen Lang’s Holt Ramsay rules the screen when he finally makes his appearance. His doomed ex-investigator, who clearly has lung cancer that is rapidly killing him, is a scene stealer. A Good Marriage is, however, Joan Hall’s film. She nails her performance and is so thoroughly convincing that she is reminiscent of the late great Geraldine Page in top form.

A splendid little film with spotless performances from its stars and a first rate adaptation from the master himself. Director Askin does a brilliant job as well; he is not afraid to have silence versus a score in a tense or emotional scene. A real 4 out of 5 star film available on US Netflix.