Streets Run Red (Cassidy Red, 2017)

Cassidy_Red_PosterA young prostitute who appears to have had a very bad day starts to talk with a saloon (brothel?) piano player…an older man named Cricket, who tells her a tale of heartache and revenge.

Joe Cassidy was the daughter of a prostitute. We then go back in time to learn how the two met.  While young Jakob and Joe were drawn to each other, she ends up opting for a life of comfort with Tom Hayes. And affair begins and Joe leaves town (with Jakob planning to follow).  Prostitute and friend Rowena tells her Tom killed Jakob and so she leaves, intent on getting revenge.

She returns to kill the man who killed her lover, only to discover that he is still alive and in prison.

Cassidy Red is focused on the romance between Joe and Jakob.  It is a fairly standard “forbidden romance” tale.  But the western elements are kept me entertained.  First time writer and director Matt Knudsen seems to have a love of the genre that comes through.

I especially liked the performances by Gregory Zaragoza as the melancholy Cricket and Rick Kramer’s Cort Cassidy (Joe’s father).

The film’s opening credits are very memorable (evoking the animated open of Fistful of Dollars).  Honestly, they put me right in the mood for a spaghetti western, and Cassidy Red works to deliver it.  The focus on backstory can slow things down, but the core tale is pretty effective.

Supported with some strong performances, Cassidy Red should keep the attention of fans of westerns. And man, I really liked those animated titles.

Beat the Devil (Diablo, 2015)

Diablo_PosterI gotta say…if you were going to make a western about young Bill Munny, Scott Eastwood would be the guy you would hire to play him.

Jackson is a veteran of the Civil War whose young wife is kidnapped by Mexicans (the film is intentionally vague on this…other than they are Mexican).  He sets out to find her.  Along the journey he crosses paths with the cruel Ezra.  Ezra keeps showing up at the worst times, leaving a path of bodies.

Diablo takes what could be an impediment, Scott Eastwood looks remarkably like his father Clint, and uses it to it’s advantage.  The audience fills in the rather loose sketch of a character with what we expect from his father’s westerns. Jackson is a loose sketch of a character until about the last half hour of the film.

Eastwood does not quite have his father’s charisma (at least not yet), and so it benefits him that the film allows the viewer to fill in the blanks.  Walton Goggins plays the mysterious Ezra with a real undercurrent of menace.  Why is he following Jackson? Why is he so quick to kill with no remorse?

There is a moment late in the film that saves it from being a generic imitation of old Clint Eastwood films.  Diablo is not perfect, but it is a decent western that seeks to subvert the expectations they audience brings with them.

 

Outlaw_Josey_Wales_PosterAt the end of the Civil War, Josey Wales just wanted to live in peace.  When Union Soldiers burn his house and kill his wife, he takes up with a band of rebellious Confederate Soldiers.  Eventually, their leader Fletcher convinces everyone to turn themselves in to the Union Army.  Wales refuses to join his compatriots.  Watching from afar, he starts to realize Fletcher has sold his men out and they are going to be killed.

After causing havoc, Josey only is able to save the life of one young man, Jamie.  The two go on the run from Union Officer Terrill and Fletcher. Along the way, Josey starts to pick up other strays, such as the wise old Lone Wati, Laura Lee and her grandmother.

Wales is a remarkably sympathetic character.  His whole motive for joining the Confederate rebels is the death of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers.  He never seems to display any interest in the motives that drove the Confederacy, and it seems clear he would have never joined the group had he and his wife been left alone.

Chief Dan George’s Lone Watie is a rather thoughtful character.  He is far more complex than the Native American representations of Hollywood westerns.  This is actually true of the film’s outlook on the Native American community.  They are not savages.  They are educated men with traditions and beliefs. They don’t speak in choppy english.

The Outlaw Josie Wales is before Eastwood started to question the portrayal of violence, and so it is unquestionably seen as justified behavior anytime Wales gets brutal. But it is an entertaining film with a terrific cast.

Black_Panther_PosterCreated by comic book icons Jack ‘the King’ Kirby and Stan Lee, Black Panther has seemed like a character Marvel wants to really make active…but struggles to figure out how to make him work best.  Initially being a guest star in the pages of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, T’Challa (the titular Black Panther) got solo stories starting with 1973’s Jungle Action # 5. The series was not a top seller, and Marvel cancelled it. They tried to continue the Black Panther in his own series, which lasted until 1979.  They tried again in 1988, with a mini-series. This was followed by an appearance in Marvel’s anthology series Marvel Comics Presents in 1989.  1990 saw another series.  But it was 1998 where Black Panther found some footing.  Christopher Priest began his run and truthfully, he cracked the code with an incredibly engaging series. It lasted 62 issues (Priest wrote 60 of those issues). They worked on a new series in 2005 with Reginald Hudlin. 2016 brought back the Panther in his own series led by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This, for me, has come the closest to rivaling Priest’s terrific run.

While the Black Panther film was announced a few years ago, we did not get to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe take on the character until Captain America: Civil War.  I really enjoyed his introduction.  The film only hinted at a larger Wakandan culture, and so now is the opportunity to explore it deeper. This is a spoiler free review (so story references remain vague).

Opening with a young boy asking him to tell the story of home (Wakanda) before bedtime. This works rather nicely, filling us in on how Wakanda was built on Vibranium, how five tribes were united under a single king who was granted powers via plant life altered by the vibranium. Wakanda grew more technologically advanced than any other nation.  They sought to hide from the world.

The film quickly establishes that while the world believes that Wakanda is a low tech third world country, it is a vibrant high tech society. T’Challa and his family are still reeling from the events of Civil War, and it is time to T’Challa to take the mantle of King.

Of course, there are those who oppose him.  The weapons supplier Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “Claw” and first introduced to audiences in Avengers: Age of Ultron) and a mysterious young man called Killmonger are collecting Wakandan tech.

T’Challa struggles with his role as king. Heartbroken over his father’s death (again, in Civil War) and struggling with the role of Wakanda in the world.  His ex-girlfriend Nakia believes that Wakanda should be sharing it’s riches with the world…to be a beacon for the world, not tucked away. She loves him, but cannot see a place for herself in Wakanda when she has seen such suffering in the outside world.

The film shows us a society which has a richness of history and culture. The costume design is beautiful.  The king’s personal guards are all striking in appearance with lush reds and gold.  They are all warrior women with shaved heads (in one entertaining moment T’Challa, Nakia and general Okoye are undercover and she complains about having to wear a wig).

The Wakandan tech is exciting sci-fi tech that would make Bond jealous.  The Wakandan landscape is a combination a immense futuristic cities and beautiful forests and mountains. There are some fight scenes set amongst giant waterfalls that Director Coogler and his cinematographer use lighting and sunsets to amplify the sequences with intensity and beauty.

I really liked the characters in this film.  For T’Challa, it carries over his lessons learned from Captain America: Civil War.  T’Challa is merciful and a good man.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown…this film shows T’Challa struggling to be a King and Protector and not being blind to the world around him.

The women really steal the show in this film.  Okoye is a formidable warrior and guardian.  Nakia is intensely stubborn in her dedication.  But she also is in love with T’Challa (who is also very in love with her).  His mother is a woman of pride and wisdom (Angela Basset is just regal and beautiful).  And then there is his sister Shuri.  She is a fun character who lovingly spars with her brother.  She is a brilliant scientist, but her youth presents a more brash attitude. She is like a super competent “Q”.

Everett Ross (created by Christopher Priest in his 1998 series) appeared in Civil War, but we did not get a real feel for the character.  Here we find him seeming over-confident at first, but he rises to the challenge of helping the Black Panther and his family. While he begins seeming a bit like he might be the comedy relief, he becomes a character who shows himself as heroic and willing to risk himself for his friends.

Killmonger is a villain with a good back story.  He wants to rule the world, but not in some cheesy maniacal ruler fashion. He wants to rise his people up to subjugate the colonizers. Klaue is just after money, and shows no arc…but Andy Serkis seemed to have a lot of fun in the role.

Full of action, heart and punctuated with some great humor, Black Panther was worth the wait.  I would easily categorize this as one of Marvel’s best.

High_Plains_Drifter_PosterThe small mining town of Lago is shaken by the arrival of a mysterious stranger who came from the desert.  After he guns down three men harassing him, the town wants his help.  The sheriff was killed by a gang, and they want him to help them deal the returning gang.

After agreeing, the Stranger discovers the town was actually complicit in the death of their sheriff, who had discovered important information about who owned the land the mine is on.  However, they turned on the gang.  This raises the question if the town will also turn on the Stranger.

To be honest, I have trouble rooting for the Stranger in this film.  Very early on, there is a scene where one of the women of the town berates the Stranger.  He drags her off and rapes her.  And this is not a scene I can play off as “it was the times…” This is not presented as one of those outdated “she really wanted it, he just needed to overcome her frosty exterior” sequences.  The film recognizes it is rape and treats it like she has it coming.  It casts the Stranger in a very unpleasant light previous Eastwood leads did not have, even prior “scoundrels”.

This casts a long shadow over the story making the entire affair tough.  The Stranger is clearly the hero of the story, but he commits an obscene act of cruelty that makes him impossible to see in the light of “hero”.  Not even an anti-hero.

Joe_Kidd_PosterEx-Bounty Hunter Joe Kidd is in jail.  His opportunity for freedom comes when Frank Harlan wants to hire him to take out the revolutionary leader Luis Chuma. Reluctant at first, when he learns Chuma has raided his ranch (and hurt a worker), Kidd joins up.

Kidd vows to bring Chuma to actual justice, rather than to a lynch mob, putting him at odds with  Harlan.

While Kidd is not a mysterious character, Joe Kidd leans more towards the violent tough guy of Eastwood’s western persona. Joe is a guy who would be happy to be neutral, and it really takes Chuma crossing a personal line.  But his willingness to avoid violent revenge makes him stand out a bit in the westerns of Eastwood.

Written by Elmore Leonard, Joe Kidd is a good western, though not quite as distinctive as some of the westerns that Eastwood had yet to come.

Two_Mules_For_Sister_Sara_PosterHogan comes across Sara, a nun in peril.  After saving her, the two become traveling companions.  Sara is on the run from the French and Hogan agrees to help her out.

Hogan is a more detailed character than his “man With No Name” role. This is needed for the film, because Hogan and Sara’s relationship is dependent on their ability to connect to each other.  The film has a light undertone, mainly in the verbal sparring of Sara and Hogan.  One scene that works well is when a wounded Hogan explains that he needs Sarah to climb up a bridge to place the dynamite to blow some train tracks. Her shock going to resignation that she has got to do this to help out makes it a fun exchange.

Unsurprisingly, Shirley MacLaine can hold her own with Eastwood in any scene.  I confess, I do not have a ton to say about this one, but I think it is one of Eastwood’s more fun westerns.

 

Victor_Crowley_PosterBack in 2006, Adam Green made a splash within the horror genre with a throwback to 80’s slasher films called Hatchet.  The story of a group of folks on a Louisiana swamp tour who run afoul of the local legend Victor Crawley.

The legend went that the poor young deformed Victor lived with his father.  One night a group of kids tried to scare Victor, only to set the house on fire.  While trying to save Victor, his father accidentally kills him with an axe. Years later, after a series of deaths, that part of the swamp was declared unfit to visit. The tour group discover that Victor is more than a legend…he is an “unkillable” murder machine.

The first hatchet got a positive enough response for Green to make two sequels, which garnered a cult fanbase.  And really, it is a fun franchise.  The violence is far to ridiculous to be judged seriously.  Green filled the films with horror royalty like Robert Englund and Tony Todd. The films relied on traditional practical effects and buckets of blood.  Like, an absurd amount.  Green always approached the films with a sense of humor.  And using the most famous Jason, Kane Hodder, he managed to create a pretty memorable bad guy.  The first film also had a really memorable teaser trailer:

Green ended the franchise with Hatchet 3 in 2013. And Victor Crawley was laid to rest.  Late last year, fans were invited to an anniversary showing of Hatchet.  Except, when Adam Green stepped before the audience, he informed them that instead, they were about to watch a brand new fourth film in the franchise, simply titled Victor Crawley.

The film has a bit of a shaky start with a brief flashback of a couple who meet a terrible fate.  The film picks up with Andrew (Parry Shen), the lone survivor of the third film who has written a book about his experience with Crawley. Chloe, an aspiring horror director is hoping to get Andrew to join her and her film crew (well, her boyfriend and friend) in making a film about his meeting with Crawley.  Meanwhile, he is talked into joining a television crew for an interview in the old Crawley stomping grounds.

Chloe and her friends are trying to figure out the voodoo incantation that made Crawley into the terrible monster he became by looking it up on YouTube. When they are distracted by the sound of a plane crash, they forget the phone and the incantation plays over and over. As to be expected, the survivors of the crash and the filmmakers must try and survive the night with Crawley.

Green tries something a bit different hear.  In prior films, the characters roam the swamp, this time around they stay inside the wrecked plane most of the film as Victor tries to draw them out to creatively murder them.

Like the previous films, this one relies on outrageous practical effect gags and copious amounts of fake blood splashed everywhere. The humor of the films is still there, with Parry Shen (who has appeared in all four films as three different characters), Laura Ortiz and Dave Sheridan are all quite entertaining and Sleepaway Camp’s Felissa Rose provides some good laughs as Andrew’s brash and loud agent. And Kane Hodder returns to play Victor Crawley once more, giving the series a pleasant consistency with it’s villain.

Victor Crawley is not reinventing slashers, but it is a pretty fun ride with a sense of humor about itself.

The Blu-Ray contains a couple commentaries and a behind the scenes featurette. There is also a nice little interview with Green where he opens up about why he returned to a franchise he thought he was done with.  Green talks about a serious bout of depression (brought on by the death of a close friend, his marriage ending and his TV being canceled when the network was shut down by a merger) and how George Romero helped point the way out of his spiral.

If you like the Hatchet franchise, I doubt you will be disappointed by Victor Crowley.  And if you are a fan of over the top 80’s slashers, you should check out the film (if you are not already familiar with the franchise).

Once_Upon_a_Time_West_PosterOnce Upon a Time In the West specializes in a big trait of Sergio Leone’s work…patience. The film opens with a scene of three men waiting for a train to arrive.  Everything is quiet, with hardly a word spoken.  Only the sounds of a rickety windmill and water dripping onto a hat fill the soundscape.  The three men’s motives uncertain.  And we wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And it is amazing.  This could, and frankly, should be a terribly dull sequence…but the tension keeps building until the train arrives.  And all we see is a man toss a bag off and the train moves on…but it is the reveal of what waits behind the train.  We see a lone man standing before the other three.  In a great bit of snappy dialog, the stranger notes they only brought three horses.  One of the thugs laughs and says they are a horse short.  After a pause, the man replies “You brought two horses two many.”

Once Upon a Time in the West follows  the story of a young woman named Jill.  She has arrived to be with her new husband and his children, only to discover on arrival the an and his children have been murdered.  A railroad baron and his associate want her land, but two men have stepped in to challenge the crooked men. Cheyenne and “Harmonica” have different reasons for coming to town, but they unite to help Jill (while fulfilling their own plans).

Leone knows how to do an introduction.  With Robard’s Cheyenne, he goes for a humorous introduction.  We see Jill in a Catina talking with the owner, when they are interrupted by the sound of a gunfight.  We never see it, only hear it, and it’s comic effect hits home as Cheyenne walks through the door full of swagger.  In the same scene, we see a shot of Harmonica (Charles Bronson) sitting in the corner.  There is a swinging lamp and the light and shadow dance across Bronson’s face poetically.

Henry Fonda’s villainous Frank (a gang leader who has adapted to the business world of the railroad barons) is charming and frightening.  Claudia Cardinale is lovely in every scene, but it is not simply her beauty that the character brings to the table.  She is a strong and dominant force in the film.

So many things that seem like they would have been fine as simple character affectations actually have deeper meaning and connections. We never learn Harmonica’s name, instead, when Frank grills him for who he is, he replies with the names of men Frank has killed.  And his harmonica playing has a dark twist added.

Ennio Morricone produces another wonderful soundtrack.  Harmonic’s playing is woven into it and it is some of the simplest and most haunted sounds you will ever hear.

The film is long, and I get why some find it to slow moving…but to me, this is part of what makes it such a rewarding viewing experience.  Leone gives you the opportunity to soak in the environment.  It is a film worthy of the term “Classic Western”.

duck_you_sucker_posterOriginally called a Fistful of Dynamite, Duck, You Sucker is Sergio Leone’s fourth Spaghetti Western, the first without Clint Eastwood.  While a certainly more “poetic” title, Fistful of Dynamite suggests a tie to the Man With No Name films when one does not exist.

Duck, You Sucker (a line repeated throughout the film) is the tale of a Mexican gang with a plan to rob a bank who stumble across an explosives obsessed Irishman. They get paired up when Juan Miranda’s gang damages John Mallory’s motorcycle.  Miranda thinks he can help them pull off a major heist.  But Mallory has plans of his own, and uses Miranda’s greed to get them all drawn into the Mexican revolution, something Miranda has no desire to be a part of.

About the first half is very entertaining.  This has all of the flourishes of the Man with No Name films, with an added does of humor.  Leone gives us insanely close up close ups.  Beautiful long shots of the rugged land.

Mallory is not a mystery man.  He is a member of the Irish Republican Army in hiding.  A lot of humor comes from James Coburn’s glee in the role. Steiger (playing Mexican gang leader Miranda) is a bit more uneven.  Sometimes he is tough and wily…others a racist caricature of a Mexican Outlaw. He is at him best when his character turns serious regarding why he has no interest in revolutions.  The people who read books tell the poor what they need to do and then leave the poor to suffer the consequences.

Unfortunately, at this point the film starts to get into long and more drawn out scenes and flashbacks. While meant to give insight into Mallory, instead they just confuse things.  At nearly two and a half hours, the film could use some trimming to make everything tighter.  A revolutionary and a man who wants none of it makes for a compelling story, especially as their friendship grows. I just wish the second half had been as strong as the first.

However, the Ennio Morricone soundtrack is terrific all the way through.