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.)

The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017): Life of an “Also Ran” (Review)

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The Ballad of Lefty Brown is an interesting concept from start to finish. Part homage – it pays more than a little tribute to both The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Unforgiven – with a story about a western “also ran” who did not make the pages of the penny dreadfuls of the time. Written and directed by  Jared Moshe, the film is described as a “coming of age” film. 

Lefty Brown, played brilliantly by personal favorite Bill Pullman, is a “man-child.” His implied backstory is that at one time he and three other partners terrorized the southwest territory. One of these is going to be the new senator (Peter Fonda in a small but pivotal role) and after his death, two other old friends arrive to sort things out.

The film gives us a protagonist that, at times, is both simple and sly. One wonders just how much of Lefty Brown’s “slowness” is real. There are many instances where this character appears to be more than meets the eye.

We are privy to Lefty’s journey and Moshe gives us a story that pleases almost as much as it dismays. Pullman’s character goes through his paces with a doggedness that one assumes has been his main trait since birth.

It is his very pedantic, and simple,  approach to all things that has kept him from gracing the pages of the dime novel that the greenhorn Jeremiah (played very well by newcomer Diego Josef) carries with him in the film. Jim Caviezel and the splendid Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan are outstanding as the two old pals who were once part of the “gang.” 

Kathy Baker is spot on as the bitter and angry widow who fights for what is rightfully hers and the tale, while coming across as rather dire, is interesting enough to keep one glued to the seat for the climax. At just under two hours, The Ballad of Lefty Brown successfully manages to combine a character study with the western genre. 

This is Pullman’s film. From start to finish he commands the screen with his characterization of a man destined to be forgotten by all who knew him and it is Oscar-worthy. “Lefty Brown” combines music, sets and costumes effectively to make this oddly intimate film feel like a sweeping epic, along the lines of a John Ford (Cheyenne Autumn for example) western with just a touch of Spaghetti Western for good measure.

There is not an awful lot in the way of gun play, just one short gunfight in the middle, and the violence is not overly visceral in nature. This is more of a character study as we watch a man whose life has always been, it seems, outside the action.

However, there is the hint of a backstory that is slightly evocative of the Ford classic, “The Searchers” where the marshal’s wife was kidnapped by a Native American Tribe and one of the small group wishes for the good old days when “folks’ trembled before them.

This is an American West that resembles the AMC Robert Redford retelling of this countries history. It is all corrupt politics and bad men profiting from their past. Somethings, apparently, have not changed.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a solid 5 star film that delivers some solid performances from all the leads and gives Bill Pullman a real chance at garnering some awards.  Fans of the genre will love this homage to all things western.

Why the New Magnificent Seven Fails

Film Poster for 2016 Magnificent Seven

As Hollywood continues to travel on the remake train, with a rumored re-imagining of The Wild Bunch still bouncing around the ether, despite the demise of Tony Scott who was to helm the picture, the new Magnificent Seven fails on several levels. Not as a western, per se, but as a remake of an original classic that was itself a remake.

Akira Kurosawa was a fan of the American western, specifically John Ford’s films.  He made Seven Samurai and also went on to make Yojimbo; the film that Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone turned into A Fistful of Dollars (which started Clint Eastwood on his rise to stardom and eventual transmutation into a film icon.)

Hollywood liked the western premise of “Seven Samurai” so much that they decided to make their own “westernized” version of Kurosawa’s love letter to the American West. John Sturges directed a script adapted by William Roberts; presumably based upon Akira’s original screenplay. 

The original film, “Seven Samurai” feels very western-ish with its Samurai heroes, who are in reality Ronin (Samurai without masters who are roaming the land and accomplishing little for money.) that still have the “code of honor” that they live by, or at least try to live by.

“SS” is slow and meandering and quite epic. It is also very verbose, all Japanese films at that time, even “Yojimbo,” featured heroes and villains who talk a lot. There are prerequisite (and long) speeches about everything, even before an attack, and the participants will talk the issue to death before turning to sword play.

The Sturges film got rid of all the heroes long winded pontification and kept it to a minimum. Yul Brynner, who plays the main gunfighter (Samurai) recruits the other six men who help the beleaguered villagers, and does so without resorting to long speeches.

Later in the film, when the time comes for a “long” speech, Brynner and the other gunfighters explain why their life is not one that anyone should envy. Each of the “Seven” give their short spin on the lifestyle.

Each of the gunfighters in the Sturges remake are like the Ronin (Samurai) from the Akira Kurosawa film. All have a code and each one has accomplished little in the recent months. The men not only have a sort of honor that they follow but they also find that their worth has diminished somewhat.

As the Charles Bronson character; Bernardo O’Reilly says, “Right now $20 is a lot of money.” All the men, after Brenner’s character Chris states that no one has given him “everything” before, follow for little money and the chance to do the right thing for people who need their help.

While Mexico was not overly pleased with how the Mexican villagers were depicted in the film; men with no weapons and little knowledge of the world outside their farms and families, the tale was intimate, simple and epic.

Sturges understood that the epic nature of this film depended on the intimate nature of the village and the naivety of the people who needed help. This naivety even extends to the bandit leader who really steals from the unfortunate villagers in order to feed his men.

It is a case of survival for both the heroes and the villains. Even Chris and his magnificent seven gunfighters are doing the job for the “food and board” more than anything else.

The bare minimum of recompense and reward is what turned this film into an instant classic. That and the performances of all the players, Brynner, Steve McQueen, Bronson, Eli Wallach, Brad Dexter, Horst Buchholz, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn all turned in brilliant performances, each a shaded nuance of their Samurai counterparts, and this, along with the script and direction made this slow moving and simple western a massive hit.

The remake, however, and Antoine Fuqua work on the premise that bigger is better. The screenwriters (Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto) hark back to the original screenplays and the overall feeling is a mishmash of Spaghetti Western ambiance with a lot of Hollywood Western cliches.

Chris is now Sam Chisolm Denzel Washington, a warrant officer for the court and he has a connection with the villain of this piece, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Somewhat irritatingly, in a bit of backstory, Sarsgaard’s character hired men who hung, somewhat unsuccessfully, Sam Chisolm. This act turns the whole thing into a Hang ‘Em High type scenario at the end which detracts from the whole message of both the original and the 1960 remake.

This new version moves the action from south of the border and turns the farmers into town folk being terrorized by the greedy Bartholomew (Sarsgaard) who wants the gold and all the land to himself. This move alone creates a problem in that after the Civil War, many of the townspeople were not helpless sheep, as depicted in the 2016 film.

As Louis L’Amour pointed out in many of his books about the old west; towns were filled with old campaigners who had fought in several wars, including taking on the indigenous population that the white man forced off their tribal lands. No one, in the real west, would have allowed Bartholomew’s hired guns to run roughshod over their town.

(In this film’s move to make corporate greed and gold the main motivation for the villain, they also inadvertently entered “Pale Rider” territory.  Even the film’s opening shot of Washington’s character has him riding through a heat shimmer, very similar to another Clint Eastwood western, “High Plains Drifter” – a western that also dealt with gold as its prevailing plot line.)

None of the original characters are transferred wholly from either film to the new “Seven.” There is the Robert Vaughn character Lee, being played by Ethan Hawke, but he is a sniper, not a gunfighter at all. James Coburn’s character, a variation on the master swordsman in Kurosawa’s classic, has been taken over by Korean actor Byung-hun Lee and there is no Horst Buchholz  character at all.

There are things that stand out with Fuqua’s vision of Magnificent Seven. He has included some Native American characters and his Mexican member of the team is no neophyte but is instead a hardened killer. He also allows the token female – Haley Bennett, who plays recently widowed Emma Cullen, to be one tough piece of work.

What is missing are the clean lines put forth by Sturges’ film. The intimacy has gone and been replaced with huge shoot outs that includes all the well-armed townspeople. By including dynamite, a gatling gun (Oh so reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) and a 150 strong army of hired gunfighters, the epic intimacy has been thrown out the window.

In this version of the film, the villagers are not so much learning what they must do to survive against an outside evil, not that much different from them, but are fighting against corporate greed and an inflated ego. Sarsgaard’s character in this film is an old west version of Donald Trump, in essence, and this move exacerbates the change of victim.

Ultimately, the film lacks the oomph of Sturges’ version and feels more like a homage to Sergio Leone than Akira Kurosawa.  The Elmer Bernstein score, from the 1960 film is only used during the end credits and this also effects the film.

The actors in the film all do well but lack the stoic and taciturn quality of the western heroes brought to screen in the original “Seven” and while they all bring much to their roles, the screenplay lets them down.

The 2016 Magnificent Seven, despite a huge shootout which leaves the streets of the one-horse town littered with bodies from both sides, is, in the end, a little boring and more of an oddity than a brilliant re-imagining of two classics.

By having a connection between the new and not improved version of the Mexican bandit and the new Yul Brynner character  the film loses the nobility of the characters and the storyline of both Sturges’ film and Kurosawa’s.

Despite the high scores on IMDb, with Rotten Tomatoes being a bit less enthusiastic, the film, with so many influences (including a bit of Tarantino) is only a 3.5 star film. It is enjoyable but not overly so. Watch once and then move on…

Sweetwater (2013): A Different Sort of Western (Review)

January Jones in Sweetwater

While Sweetwater could be called yet another variation on the 1971 Raquel Welch vehicle Hannie Caulder (sans the gang rape and the shooting lessons) it is a different sort of western underneath that premise.

A few years ahead of the Natalie Portman “Caulder remake” Jane Got a Gun Sweetwater has a heroine that asks no one for help. Unlike Caulder and Jane, this woman can shoot already, she is, in fact a better shot than her soon to be dead husband.

The story follows a trio of different people whose paths converge. Sarah Ramirez (January Jones), Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs) and Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris) are all drawn to each other for different reasons. 

Josiah murders Sarah’s husband Miguel (Eduardo Noriega) as well as a couple of trespassers. Jackson comes to find the dead trespassers and gets involved with solving the crime as well as a new murder committed by Sarah. 

The three main characters are diverse beyond age and gender. Josiah is clearly a renegade Mormon.  Jackson references the prophet’s moving from Utah and his “many” wives. Sarah was a prostitute in the very town that she and Miguel lived outside of. The sheriff is an eccentric man who is years ahead in the detecting game.

Out of the three, Jackson is outwardly a little nuts.  His demeanor is, overall, one of joy.  Right up until he beats the town marshall (Luce Rainsinto submission and then shoots him in the hand, Jackson is disturbingly cheerful.

Later, when he questions Josiah about the two missing men, his behavior is callous, aggressive and threatening.  The sheriff may be a tad different but he is not certifiable.
Josiah, on the other hand, is clearly as mad as a box of frogs.  He has fits, after raving and reading his Bible,  and then goes on to do horrible things.  His goal seems to be, apart from procreating with all his wives, to take over the territory around him.

Sarah goes through a major amount of tribulations as the film progresses. She loses her dog, husband, the baby she is carrying and gets raped as well. Finally the former prostitute has had enough. Sarah Ramirez exacts her revenge one bullet at a time.

At its core, Sweetwater, is a thriller and a revenge picture set in the old west. The film is, however, a western by virtue of the trappings and  time period. Regardless of the base genre, this is a brilliantly quirky oater.

The characters are different and not what one usually finds in the genre.  A peeping tom store owner, a banker (played detestably by Stephen Root)  who decides he will pay out Sarah’s savings one dollar at a time, in exchange for oral sex and a religious zealot who covets a lot more than his neighbor’s wife.

Co-written and directed by Logan and Noah Miller Sweetwater is a spellbinding film. It offers a strong female character and two male leads who chew up the scenery with abandon.  

The cinematography is stunning. One can almost feel the heat, taste the dust and smell the sheep, as the camera follows events in the film.

Sweetwater feels a bit operatic in nature, somewhat akin to a Leonie Spaghetti Western without the extreme closeups. Although there is also an element of “noir” in the film.

With an excellent cast of stellar performers this different sort of western is a cracking bit of entertainment. At 95 minutes the film does not lag nor does it race to a conclusion. Its pacing is just right.

Sweetwater is rated ‘R’ for violence, some sex and a bit of female and male nudity.

This is a 5 star effort by all concerned and this treat is streaming on Netflix at the moment. Fans of more traditional western fare may want to give this a miss. However, folks who like a bit of variety will get a kick out of this one.

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.