HOSTILES

Cert 15 133mins Stars 3

Ride the wild frontier with Christian Bale as he stars in this solidly handsome yet creaking western.

The Welshman stars as Blocker, an exhausted shell of a cavalryman ordered to escort a Native American chief and his family from New Mexico to Montana. They are long time foes with unresolved grievances.

Along with him is Rosamund Pike’s grief stricken frontierswoman. Despite her demented dirt-scratching performance, her flawless complexion and perfect teeth are in distracting contrast to the admirably authentic production design.

Plus the casting of Brits is at odds with the insular nature of the film. For all it’s well staged gunfights in the epic landscape, the script speaks inwardly to the US about its violent history.

Writer, director and producer Scott Cooper’s previous films such as Black Mass and Out of the Furnace have similarly explored US economic and social division.

And the lack of humour and ponderous pace make this grand journey a belligerent experience for outsiders.

BRIMSTONE

Cert 18 149mins Stars 3

There’s a powerful operatic air to this brutal western for which you may need a strong stomach to digest it’s gut ripping action.

When a new preacher arrives in town promising pain for sinners, he begins a campaign of terror against a local family.

Guy Pearce has a hoarse voice and a nasty facial scar as he pursues Dakota Fanning’s young wife and her children. As the story moves back and forth in time, biblical themes of revenge and punishment are explored.

Religion is used to justify treating women as slaves. They are bought, sold, beaten, raped, mutilated and hanged.

And there’s strong political commentary in the script as women are often gagged to deny them a voice with which to protest.

As this bleak and chilly epic sweeps across the harsh yet beautiful landscape, the ripe and bloody melodrama is ramped up with thunder and lightning.

Plus the relentless brutality and considerable length make for a demanding watch.

 

 

 

Free State Of Jones

Director: Gary Ross (2016) BBFC cert: 15

Matthew McConaughey is the Hollywood romcom star who so successfully reinvented his career he won an Oscar. In only his third leading role since his 2014 success in Dallas Buyers Club, he gives a brooding and impassioned performance in this high minded American civil war drama.

What begins as an exciting action movie develops into a sincere and somber look at how the wealthy white elite kept their grip on the lives of freed slaves when the fighting stopped.

Newton Knight is a confederate deserter who leads of an insurrection during the American civil war. McConaughey hides his leading man looks behind long hair and a ragged beard, mostly saving his charm for Rachel. The underused British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw does well to bring depth to her role as a slave who joins his band of outlaws as they hide out in the local swamp.

The two leads ensure it’s always watchable and there’s no shortage of battles, burnings, hangings and evil deeds by the Ku Klux Klan. But brief flash forwards to a court room drama involving Knight’s great great grandson muddy the narrative flow, and the story becomes mired in the Mississippi swamp.

Although the film is keen to flag up its the accuracy of its historical accuracy via contemporary photographs and on screen captions, Knight is presented as an unrealistic combination of Robin Hood, Che Guevara and Jesus Christ.

As a revolutionary socialist who preaches from from a bible, Knight inspires slaves, farmers and women to take arms against the powerful and the rich. They declare themselves the free State of Jones.

However as Knight moves from pacifist medical orderly to merciless killer and then political activist, he suffers from an alarming lack of self reflection and none of his horrific experiences seem to affect him. And if he isn’t moved by what he sees, there’s no reason why we should be.

@ChrisHunneysett

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Director: Antoine Fuqua (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Compared to the truly magnificent 1960 original, this unlooked for western remake is unsurprisingly inferior. But after a summer of poor blockbuster fare, it’s passable entertainment in its own way.

Unburdened by any more ambition than a broad desire to be please, the film trots through the familiar story of a small posse of cowboys facing overwhelming odds.

There’s a liberal lifting of scenes and dialogue from the John Sturges version and a cheeky play of Elmer Bernstein’s majestic original score over the end credits. The new main score by the late James Horner is monumentally forgettable.

Reasons for watching include handsome photography, great period design and the no shortage of old school action. There are real sets, stuntmen and horses instead of CGI fakery. The $100M budget is all on screen.

Traditional western themes of comradeship, courage and loyalty are wrapped up in a glossy tale of redemption. This is an optimistic vision of how the US could still be won, with a rainbow society trying to overcome corporate greed and restore the church to the centre of civic life. This last point will resonate with US conservative Christians, a larger and more influential congregation across the pond than here in the UK.

Headliners Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke are clearly enjoying themselves and their combined charisma is the film’s biggest strength. Vincent D’Onofrio adds more humour as a tracker, a fool who speaks truth to power.

The casting attempts to accurately reflect the ethnic mix of contemporary US, and presumably hopes to attract the audience which makes the multi-ethnic Fast Furious franchise such a global success. So the remaining gunslingers are respectively Chinese, Mexican and Native American. Sadly they’re so poorly scripted, their race is pretty much the extent of their characterisation. One is described as an assassin but they may as well have gone the whole hog and called him a ninja.

Washington stars as bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, hired by a young widow who needs protection from a corrupt industrialist. Haley Bennett offers true grit as Emma, the only female speaking role of note.

It’s a shame there aren’t a few more women in the movie, or even – gasp – in the seven. Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Natalie Portman’s Jane’s Got A Gun featured strong willed gun-toting women. We could have done with more similarly natured women here.

Although Emma plays a small but crucial role, she definitely is not part of the all-male gang. As it is, she barely qualifies as the female Smurf. Amid all the back slapping diversity, fifty percent of the population are woefully under-represented. Except for whores, who are everywhere.

Chisolm has a personal reason for taking the job and recruits collection of desperadoes and misfits to defend the gold mining town. They include Pratt’s gambler and Hawke’s PSTD suffering civil war veteran.

Through a suitably sweeping landscape we move briskly from one action scene to another. The action is staged with occasional invention but at times the geography is unclear. This is especially true in the finale where our heroes face almost insurmountable odds and a seemingly infinite supply of ammunition. Until the smoke cleared I wasn’t sure exactly who had survived.

Peter Sarsgaard sketches without light or shade his consumptive black hearted villain, Bartholomew Bogue. He mostly acts apart from the Seven and with the protagonist isolated there’s a sense the film isn’t terribly interested in him. Consequently nor are we very much.

For long periods it’s agreeable crowd pleasing stuff. We’re reasonably entertained but never roused or excited. This not a disaster such as the recent Ben-Hur remake is, but it is quite far from magnificent.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

Hell Or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie (2016) BBFC cert: 15

With scorching violence, bone dry humour and a social conscience, this hard baked heist movie is an extraordinary ride into the dark heart of the new wild west.

Jeff Bridges is magnificently grizzled as Marcus, a cantankerous Texas Ranger leading his Native American partner in pursuit of a pair of likeable bank robbers.

This finely balanced construction contains a timelessness and an immediacy as mythic archetypes canter across the cruel climes of current economic conditions. The four lead characters suggest reincarnations of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being pursued by The Lone Ranger and Tonto. And the film is frequently and intentionally entertaining as that sounds.

This acidic exploration of the American Dream touches upon the ownership of oil, land, money and its effects on life chances and family legacy. It reaches deep into the history of the nation to bring forward a lament for the state of the Union.

The of setting of Hell Or High Water is the macho world of dirt poor West Texas. An irony free world of cowboy hats, casinos and cattle drives, where every male of age carries a gun and drives a 4X4. Long shadows are cast by absent mothers and wives.

The action sequences are fast slaps to your face and the morally complex script bites with the venom of a rattlesnake. The melancholy tone is layered with lyricism via the earthy soundtrack provided by Aussie songsmiths Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The cinematography of Giles Nuttgens captures the rust and neglect of abandoned farm machinery, symbols of a poverty line existence.

Director David Mackenzie’s last offering was the vicious prison drama Starred Up (2014). Once again he demonstrates his keen ear for dialogue, sharp nose for a story and an astute eye for an image.

Mackenzie references the crime movies Touch Of Evil (1958) and Rififi (1955). He does it not to demonstrate his own knowledge, pad the film’s length or to distract the audience during a lull. There are no lulls in this film. The references are chosen for thematic sympathy and used sparingly and appropriately.

Bridges’ turn is also a modern day riff on Rooster Cogburn, the US Marshall from the remake of True Grit (2010) for which the actor was Oscar nominated. Plus the star’s presence recalls the actor’s early career where he sparred with in Clint Eastwood in Michael Cimino’s crime road trip Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). That film was based on Captain Lightfoot (1955) which also concerned a pair of highwaymen brothers.

The tremendous script by Sicario (2015) scribe Taylor Sheridan so acutely observes human behaviour  it could have been penned by the late great Elmore Leonard, the writer of novels from which sprung the films 3:10 To Yuma (1957 & 2007) Mr Majestyk (1974) and Out Of Sight (1998).

Marcus is partnered with Alberto, a native American officer played with a wearied reservation by Gil Birmingham. Knowing Marcus is days away from retirement, Alberto chooses to dismiss his casual racism as office banter.

Thieves Toby and Tanner are played by the film’s other excellent double act, Chris Pine and Ben Foster. They’re on a stealing spree from the very banks which are threatening to foreclose on their ranch. And they’ve only a couple of days to raise the cash. After every job they bury the getaway car, an exercise laden with grave portent.

Best known as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Pine’s leading man looks and easy on-screen charm often obscure his talent. He plays Toby, the younger, more bright and reflective of the siblings, an estranged father who owes months of child support.

Neither pair are abundantly blessed with great intelligence or skills and this ordinariness helps to incubate an empathy for all four protagonists.

Elegiac, bleak, funny  and always accessible and commercial, come hell or high water, you have to see this movie.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

I Saw The Light

Director: Marc Abraham (2016)

This befuddled biopic sheds little light on the life of country music maestro Hank Williams.

It begins with a spine tingling rendition of his classic ‘Cold Cold Heart’, but it’s sadly all down hill from there.

Though the star of TV’s The Night Manager Tom Hiddleston sings his heart out, he chooses to hide his looks and charm under a cowboy hat. He does a decent of copy of Williams’ agitated crab stage gait.

By the time Williams died in 1953 at the tragically young age of 29, he had became one of the most influential singer songwriters of his time.

But you wouldn’t know that from the episodic and jumbled narrative given to us here.

We first meet Hank when he’s already enjoying a degree of success with his band and a regular slot on local radio. He has ambitions to appear on The Grand Ole Opry, the number one TV destination for country singers.

An impetuous, tempestuous, immoral, feckless,unreliable husband father and artist, the narrative is a familiar rock biography checklist of an alcohol fuelled career slide as he loses gigs, wives and friends.

But it’s presented full of leaps, detours and evasions, offering random snapshots of his life instead of a coherent story.

We’re spoon fed a brief resume of his success at the end, but it’s provided without context and leaves us with no greater understanding of his importance to country music or wider cultural impact or degree of success.

The classic songs Williams wrote such as ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ are short changed.

And so are the women. They’re presented as grasping and fertile while Hank takes no responsibility for his own behaviour.

Elizabeth Olsen is a determined presence as his wife Audrey, but is portrayed as a humourless self serving money grabber.

Except for Hiddleston the performers don’t seem to be enjoying themselves, and I didn’t either.