April 28, 2017

Bone Tomahawk Review (S. Craig Zahler)

Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins star in Bone Tomahawk.

It’s no secret that the Old West is not a hospitable place. Outlaws roam the countryside, and there are constant dangers for “civilized” folk. Even so, movies and TV series have given us a romanticized vision of the frontier. There are villains to face, but there are also the wonders of the open land! I’m speaking in general terms of course. Modern revisionist westerns like John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada have depicted a much darker side of frontier life.

Joining this established band is S. Craig Zahler’s debut film Bone Tomahawk, a brutal genre mash-up with little optimism in sight. Released in 2015, the grisly story often veers into straight-up horror with a Western backdrop. This grim outlook is evident from the very first shot of a robber cutting his victim’s throat. It’s hardly the quick slice of your typical action film either. This act is vicious, bloody, and seems like it lasts for an eternity. Zahler presents a mission statement for his worldview right at the start. This is an unforgiving, nasty world.

This opening scene also reveals monsters that lurk behind the scenes and overwhelm the typical brigand. They kill without warning and have no regard for who’s on the other end of the arrows they shoot. The change-up in this prologue sets the stage for frequent surprises from Zahler, who rose to prominence as a writer after the success of his novel A Congregation of Jackals. He frequently avoids the expected beats, particularly with the dramatic shift in this film’s third act.

Before we reach those twists, a less confident set-up introduces the main characters in the town. It feels like Zahler just wants to blitz through this section and move back into the wild. We meet the grizzled Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his drunk deputy Chicory (a nearly unrecognizable Richard Jenkins). There’s also the cute young couple Arthur (Patrick Wilson) and Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons). The town’s citizens include head-scratching cameos from Sean Young and Fred Melamed, who disappear once you realize they've arrived. Matthew Fox also shows up as the well-dressed gunslinger Brooder.

These scenes feel like a throwback to classic Westerns, but not always in a good way. We meet the film's lone African-American character, and he’s immediately killed in a brutal fashion. Zahler introduces Samantha as a strong woman with medical knowledge and a confident attitude. Sadly, she’s quickly abducted by the unseen monsters that we saw at the start. A scene where Hunt questions and quickly shoots a suspicious guy plays out strangely and like a rehash of better scenes in other films.

Before continuing, I’d like to take a moment and discuss the two couples in Bone Tomahawk. More specifically, the age gaps between the actors involved are unsettling (though predictable). Russell is 66 years old, and Hunt’s wife Lorna is played by Kathryn Morris (48). She only appears briefly, yet it’s still a noticeable gap. Wilson is 43 and 20 years older than Simmons (23). I’m calling this out because it’s so normal. It would be more surprising if Lorna was actually played by an actress in her 60s.

Thankfully, the early scenes are merely a set-up for the moment when Hunt, Chicory, Arthur, and Brooder set out to rescue Samantha and another settler. Zahler’s direction and writing immediately feel more confident in this setting. The pace remains deliberate, but it’s easy to spend time with these actors. Russell and Jenkins are sharp as expected, and Fox surprises in a role that is more nuanced than I expected. Wilson has a challenging role of hobbling around behind the others, but he injects Arthur with a determination that’s easy to respect.

What sets this story apart from a typical Western is the way Zahler depicts the enemies. They’re often called “savages” and would be Native Americans in a lesser film. Instead, the troglodytes feel like a mix between people and sub-human animals. An eerie whistle signifies their impending arrival, and there’s no way to stop them. This sound plays a larger role because of the lack of a typical score in this film. We’re out there with the characters and helpless to save them. The slow capture of Hunt and Chicory is horrifying because it’s so slow and unstoppable.

Zahler takes a slow-burn approach, which gives us time to understand the characters. It also helps to increase the tension, particularly when intruders unexpectedly appear. There's little of the openness you might expect from a trip into the wilderness. Instead, Zahler builds a claustrophobic feeling that only increases as the guys draw closer to the troglodytes. The payoff is mostly worth the time, though it still feels a little padded at 132 minutes. The long journey obviously recalls John Ford's The Searchers, though the final destination is quite different.

There’s one moment that pushes Bone Tomahawk into a different realm, and no one will forget it. The violence is so over-the-top that it’s nearly laughable, but it doesn’t move into camp. Shot in close-up, Russell’s face reveals a horror that drags us back into reality. The workmanlike way that the cannibalistic troglodytes execute their jobs adds to the queasy feeling. There are no clever quips or mustache twirling to let us off the hook. We’re stuck inside that cage with Hunt. It’s an inconsistent but incisive debut from Zahler, who’s a filmmaker to watch. Working with a limited budget, he creates a vivid world that’s safe for no one, including the audience.

Bone Tomahawk is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Squeamish viewers should look elsewhere.

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February 25, 2017

Black Panthers Review (Agnès Varda)

A striking image from the 1968 documentary Black Panthers from Agnès Varda.

It’s easy to look back at the Black Panthers as a small piece of history from a chaotic time. Founded in 1966 and active until the early ‘80s, the Black Panther Party took a militant approach to black nationalism. On the other hand, they also promoted education and built social programs that made a difference in the community. Agnès Varda’s 1968 short film Black Panthers gives an up-close look at a group that was hardly one-note. Also known as Huey, this 28-minute documentary offers a human portrait of a complex organization.

The opening shot depicts a sign displaying the words “Black is Honest and Beautiful” in large letters. This statement reminds us that the Black Panthers had an uplifting message. Shots of kids playing and dancing at the outdoor event are quite a contrast from the usual images. Despite the live music and happy children, an unidentified female narrator reminds us that “this is no picnic in Oakland”. It’s part of the “Free Huey” movement to protest the arrest of co-founder Huey P. Newton for the shooting of police officer John Frey. Varda gives a snapshot of the Black Panthers at a specific moment in their history and reveals quite a bit in a short time.

Varda’s camera delivers some remarkable shots within the fly-on-the-wall framework. One stunning image presents an extreme close-up of a serious face in the foreground while a speaker addresses the crowd far in the back. It shows both the commitment and the education from the Black Panthers all in one shot. The speakers include Stokely Carmichael, who makes a convincing case that the U.S. has “declared war on black people”. It’s easy to connect his words to what we’ve seen recently with the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many more.

There’s also an interview with Newton, who talks about his poor conditions in prison. He seems optimistic about his case but recognizes that the deck is stacked against him. Newton was only 26 at the time and looks even younger, but he makes valid points. It’s tricky because we only have a small portion of the story. Varda is French and presents the Black Panthers from an outsider’s perspective, but also with respect for their views. This empathy makes it easy to understand their struggle, especially given the forces marshaled against them.

Varda also focuses on positions of power for women in the Black Panthers and their choice to go with natural hair. Kathleen Cleaver is a memorable figure that speaks passionately about her role in the party. She’s now an accomplished lecturer and academic, and that’s no surprise after seeing this film. It’s clear from her brief scenes that she’s intelligent and committed to making a difference.

Black Panthers plays differently in the Trump era as many of us look for ways to resist his policies. A statement that describes the U.S. as “this racist nation” rings true when you consider our current leadership. Militant actions may not be the best choice today, but the commitment that we see from the Black Panthers does connect to the struggle now. An effective mix of activism, greater education, and a convincing message should help to change the tide. It helps to know more of the past, and this film offers a glimpse at a small part of the bigger picture.

Black Panthers is currently streaming on Filmstruck in a restored version.

February 13, 2017

The Lobster and Cults of Singular Thinking

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz run for their lives in The Lobster.

It’s become easier with each passing week to understand dystopian films. Elected officials make statements that would seem hilarious if they weren’t so frightening. This is especially true when it comes to basic ideas of identity and respect for differences. When a candidate thrives under a message of bigotry and ignorance, it indicts all of us. This moment also gives close-minded thinkers the belief that they can speak freely with intolerant views. These issues all connect to the absurd world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, particularly ideas on romantic relationships. The strict rules of that society don’t seem as far-fetched when you consider them while under a potentially authoritarian leader.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay from Lanthimos (Dogtooth) and Efthymis Filippou depicts The Hotel — the world’s worst singles retreat. Residents like David (Colin Farrell) have 45 days to find love or will become an animal of their choosing. He chooses a lobster (hence the title), which doesn’t seem like the best idea. There are many rules to follow at The Hotel, including the partner you choose. You can’t just lie and say that you love another person. A specific personality or physical trait has to match the other person. It’s eventually clear that these rules do not just apply to The Hotel. They are a core aspect of The City on the whole. Even the animals must find companions or risk extinction. The entire society thrives on coupling.

This premise is absurd on its surface, and it appears more outlandish because everyone plays it straight. No one but David even gets a character name in the credits. Ben Whishaw’s character is known as Limping Man, though you could also call him “Man Who Smashes His Nose to Get the Girl”. The set-up works as a comedy, and there are plenty of funny moments. It also clicks as an indictment of our culture, and that idea has only grown for me with each passing day. I’m married but can remember the days of probing questions from relatives about girlfriends and marriage. Loners are regarded with suspicion, and relationships that differ from the norm receive scrutiny. Fear of anything out of the ordinary remains a common trend in society.

What makes The Lobster more than a comment on marriage is the way it presents The Loners out in the woods. A lesser film would depict that group as free-thinking rebels like Denis Leary’s gang in Demolition Man. Instead, they also have restricted views and employ brutal punishments to offenders. People who flirt can face the “red kiss”, and I don’t even want to consider what the “red intercourse” punishment would be. Lea Seydoux plays the Loner Leader with a stone-cold detachment, and she enforces the strict rules without compassion. The Loners seem even worse than The Hotel because their choices defy our expectations.

The connective tissue between the Loners and The Hotel is the cult of singular thinking. This lack of nuance hits home when you consider the frustrations of our current political divide. It’s all or nothing, with little in between the sides. When David and the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) fall in love, the response from the Loner Leader is quiet but vicious. She can justify the move with the rules, but it’s really just a cruel act. This type of logic is dangerous, particularly when it goes to people in power. Others will fall in line just to avoid a similar fate.

The Lobster works as a comedy and includes wonderfully odd moments, especially at The Hotel. John C. Reilly fits right at home in this setting. The romantic interactions are painfully awkward as characters look for any way they connect. If a couple starts to struggle, you can always give them a kid to change the landscape. It’s such a nihilistic look at relationships! The only true romance happens by chance, but there are few opportunities for long-term happiness. A society built on restrictions will stamp out anything that veers from the model. Lanthimos reminds us to stay vigilant against normalizing these rules; they can only lead to our destruction.

The Lobster is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime and highly recommended.