Category Archives: Genre: Western

Hell or High Water (2016)

Even months before I even knew what it was about or who was in it, I had heard about some movie called Hell or High Water. I don’t think it even got a cinematic release where I’m based, but the praise was fairly universal.

And so, just a few days before it was named one of the 9 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars later this month, I finally got to watch it — and I absolutely concur: Hell or High Water a brilliant film, completely different to what I expected but an authentic, immersive experience fueled by high-octane performances, tense action and a surprising amount of depth and insight into today’s America.

I went into the film knowing virtually nothing about it except that it’s regarded as a “modern western”. Set in West Texas, the film tells the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who turn to robbing banks. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger hot on their heels as he tries to piece together their patterns and the reasons behind their intense crime spree.

Hell or High Water is directed by David McKenzie (Young Adam, Perfect Sense) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), and if you’ve seen any of their past films you’ll be able to get a decent sense of the tone and pacing. Granted, westerns are not my favourite genre, and the rhythm of the film is more contemplative than frenetic, with long segments of pure dialogue.

However, there is just something magnetic about how the film has been executed. The cinematography is stunning and the depiction of the desolate landscapes and foreclosing ranches is sobering. The troubled characters come across as genuine and the sharp dialogue they get to spew out is some of the best of the year — insightful, humorous and cutting. Actually, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Hell or High Water probably explains Donald Trump’s election victory better than any other fictional film released in 2016.

The performances are wonderful. Chris Pine isn’t known for his acting, though his turn as the more level-headed of the two brothers is perhaps the best performance of his career to date. Jeff Bridges has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, though for me, the guy most deserving of recognition is Ben Foster (either as Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor), who plays the crazy, unpredictable brother. His presence is so intense and managed to keep me at the edge of my seat because he’s just so unpredictable.

Hell or High Water is also a film that shows you don’t need a huge budget or special effects to crank out spectacular action sequences filled with tension and impact. Despite a budget of just US$12 million, McKenzie makes the most of the landscape and creative ideas to infuse the action scenes with gripping thrills. Some moments actually reminded me of the action in the final season of Breaking Bad. It’s that good.

Some viewers might find the pace a little on the slow slide, though my only complaint is that there’s too much mumbling in the dialogue. I thought it was just be Jeff Bridges because we’ve heard it before, but both Pine and Foster do their fair share of it too. Apart from that, Hell or High Water is a sublime cinematic experience that ticks all the right boxes — an intriguing plot, well-rounded characters, great dialogue, compelling action and thought-provoking drama. Definitely check it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

So I was on a short flight recently and had the opportunity to either do some work or watch a movie. When I saw that they had The Magnificent Seven, which I missed out on during its theatrical run,  the choice became a no brainer.

I’ve never watched the 1960 classic or Seven Samurai, the 1954 Japanese film that inspired the American version, but I knew of their reputation and the fact that this remake was unlikely to live up to either. That said, I also knew this latest version of The Magnificent Seven is directed by gritty action director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and written by Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detective, so I knew it was unlikely to be bad. After all, it does feature a superstar cast led by Denzel Washington, along with Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Cam Gigandet, and Matt Bomer.

I was kind of surprised just how simple the premise is. Sarsgaard plays a corrupt, mean baddie who likes to take advantage of the little people. Before he returns to pillage a little town, Haley Bennet decides to hire a warrant officer played by Denzel Washington to save them. Denzel goes on to recruit a group of magnificent gunslingers and warriors from all walks of life to help him, along with assistance of the townspeople. They prepare and then engage in a spectacular battle. It’s essentially a tower defense game masquerading as a Western.

I liked the tone and spirit of the film. All seven dudes are cool and charismatic in their own ways, with Denzel and Pratt being the obvious standouts. And the action, when it finally hits, is spectacular and unrelenting. I didn’t time it, but it sure feels like nearly half the movie was spent on this all-out gunfight with bullets and explosions galore. It’s well-executed action with a blazing score from legendary composer James Horner before his tragic passing last year. As far as popcorn entertainment goes, The Magnificent Seven is indeed quite magnificent if you’re into old school Westerns.

On the other hand, it felt like the movie didn’t have time to develop the characters with any level of depth. There are, after all, seven of them, plus a main villain and a couple of important supporting characters, but there’s only 133 minutes to share between them. So really, all you get is a slick introduction and then not much more with the exception of a one-liner here or there. Some are handled better than others, but on the whole,  film is unable able to do any of the characters or their interactions and relationships justice. And as  result, the motivations of these characters in fighting a battle with the odds firmly stacked against them are never properly fleshed out. There are virtually no subplots, and certain plot points are set up in a way that make the resolutions blindingly obvious.

In all honesty, I think The Magnificent Seven would have been better off as something like a 10-episode TV series, where you introduce a new character each episode and have them fight it out in a long two-episode finale. That’s the only way they would have been able to address the shortcomings and add a little more flesh to the bare bones story. As a full-length feature film, it is what it is — a fun, largely forgettable popcorn ride with a super cast and some cool moments — but not much more than that.

3.25 stars out of 5

Slow West (2015)

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I’m getting close to finishing off my list of 2015 films to watch so I can finally do my best of and worst of lists. One film that was suddenly added to the list was Slow West, a little-known Western that caught my eye after it found its way onto a couple of “Best of 2015” lists I came across.

Created by first-time writer and director John Maclean, Slow West stands out because it is so darn unusual. It may star Michael Fassbender and recognisable names such as Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn, but it’s understandable why the film got so little buzz among mainstream audiences and media even though it won jury prize at Sundance.

The premise is weird: McPhee plays Jay, a young Scottish man who heads to the American West to search for his love. There, he encounters Silas (Assbender), a bounty hunter who offers to protect him along the way in exchange for payment. But ulterior motives are involved and Jay doesn’t really know if he should be terrified of Silas or trust the bounty hunter with his life — or both.

It’s not easy to describe the kind of film Slow West is. The title is apt because it is a Western and the pace is slow. It’s an atypical coming-of-age film that’s pretty to look at, quirky, awkward, darkly comedic and slightly absurd, but also extremely violent. This sweet juxtaposition reminds me a little of Fargo, both the movie and the TV show, which I think just are two of the greatest things ever made. If you’ve seen the movie or the show you’ll have an idea of what I mean, though in my opinion Slow West isn’t quite up to the level of those masterpieces.

Smit-McPhee, who a lot of people don’t realise is Aussie, is carving out quite a career for himself despite not growing up looking like a traditional heartthrob. The Road, Let Me In and soon X-Men: Apocalypse as Nightcrawler; the 19-year-old is sure picking a lot of great roles. He’s excellent in Slow West, exuding a quiet charm and resiliency despite playing essentially quite a wimpy character.

Likewise, Assbender is totally bending asses again left and right as the cool bounty hunter. It’s good to see him produce and star in a small film like this while making all these huge blockbusters, and putting in equal effort to make his characters come to life no matter the size of the role or the budget.

As much as I enjoyed it, I recognise Slow West is likely to polarise audiences. It has elements that critics love (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), but may be too weird and slow — even at just 84 minutes — for mainstream audiences. Personally, I found it to be nice little film, interesting and funny enough to sustain my interest until the wild and gripping climax. While I wouldn’t place it in my top 10 of 2015, I appreciate it for what it is and look forward to seeing Maclean had in store for us next.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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The Hateful Eight, the eighth motion picture by master director Quentin Tarantino, was one of my most anticipated movies of 2015. Average, good or masterpiece, every Tarantino movie is an event in my cinematic calendar.

And this one certainly appeared to be promising, with a ridiculous cast featuring Old faces like Samuel L Jackson, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, as well as new ones like Jennifer Jason Lee, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern and Channing Tatum.

The premise itself – even though Tarantino movies are usually more about the situations and dialogue than the actual plot – is also intriguing: a Western and whodunnit mystery rolled into one, with a bunch of nasty outlaws, bounty hunters and gunslingers all trapped in a cabin during a snowstorm.

Still, my expectations were kept in check after some lukewarm scores from critics I follow and a friend who called it one of the worst movies he has ever seen! The film also performed poorly for a Tarantino movie at the box office, though some blame that partly on it crossing paths with Star Wars (and besides, it still made money overall).

Now that I’ve watched it I can say that I understand some of the negative feedback. Tarantino has always been a bit of an acquired taste, though if you appreciate his style you’ll tend to love most of his movies. On the other hand, if you don’t have the patience to learn how to appreciate his style, his films can sour in a hurry.

I saw the general release version, which is a whopping 167 minutes, but still 20 minutes shorter than the 70mm roadshow version. In my opinion, it probably would have been better at about 120 minutes. Told in six “chapters”, the film takes a long time to get rolling and didn’t really get interesting for me until the second half. But once it picked up momentum the film became a well-oiled machine that rampaged all the way until its thrilling finish.

As such, The Hateful Eight was a real a mixed bag for me. There were parts I didn’t care for and parts I consider vintage Tarantino. As usual, you have to pay attention to the dialogue, which is mostly sublime, and the dark humour and racism and violence is of course quintessential Quentin. Tarantino also again gets the most out of his cast, and it’s hard to pick a standout from the bunch. Samuel L Jackson and Michael Madsen seem very comfortable, as they should be, so I’d probably have to go with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell and Justified’s Walton Goggins.

Conversely, the pace of the movie is often slow – at times dropping to snail-like speed – with the conversation occasionally descending into pure convoluted indulgence. I’ve always indulged Tarantino’s ego and self-indulgence, though this time I felt having absolute free rein to do whatever he pleased may have ended up being a detriment.

Having said that, The Hateful Eight does have its cracker moments, those memorable scenes of hilarious mayhem and carnage only Tarantino can pull off to such perfection. My love for those moments does salvage the overall experience to some extent, meaning I will likely remember The Hateful Eight as a more enjoyable movie than it really is.

3.5 stars out of 5

Blunt Force Trauma (2015)

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It’s not hard to see why a seemingly promising film like Blunt Force Trauma, featuring stars such as Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto and Ryan Kwanten, would end up completely slipping under the radar. It’s a bit rough to call it “garbage”, but it’s not a stretch to say almost nothing about this film worked at all.

The start of the movie does grab your attention. Two dudes wearing bulletproof vests stand face to face across a room, each inside a crudely drawn circle, both holding guns. Like an old Western, they draw at the same time and fire to see who can knock the other person out of their circle first. This kind of showdown is apparently a real banned shooting “game” from South America, and it’s the gimmick that drives Blunt Force Trauma, a thriller written and directed by former Blue Bloods  showrunner Ken Sanzel.

I could see Sanzel’s efforts in trying to create this gritty underground world where people put their lives on the line  — in arguably one of the stupidest ways possible — for some cash and an adrenaline rush. But apart from the initial thrill and intrigue from this “game”, the film is shockingly dull, with weak characters and a weak plot that doesn’t go very far. While the action scenes are decent, they get a little repetitive after a while (I mean, how much can they do with such a simple game), and it seems everyone on screen is taking the movie much more seriously than we are.

Ryan Kwanten is the true protagonist and he does his best to inject a bit of life into the movie, though I had a difficult time buying Freida Pinto’s attempt at reinventing herself as this hardened bad-ass out for revenge. Inconsistent accent aside, she just wasn’t convincing, and it’s almost as though Sanzel recognised this because she was strangely pulled out of the storyline towards the end like she didn’t matter at all.

The big name is of course Mickey Rourke, who doesn’t appear until the final act and doesn’t do much except mumble his way through some lines while looking very Mickey Rourkish. It’s remarkable how much he has beaten himself up with an ugly stick over the past 25 years.

Despite a running time of just 95 minutes, Blunt Force Trauma felt long and uneventful, and more importantly, completely meaningless.

1.75 stars out of 5

PS: Shit ending too.