REVIEW: “The Salvation”

Salvation poster

Several years ago Westerns saw a bit of a resurgence. It didn’t come close to matching the genre’s popularity of the 1950s and 1960s, but it was great to see the visions for Westerns from modern perspectives. We still get the occasional Western from time to time which brings me to “The Salvation”, a Danish revenge tale from co-writer and director Kristian Levring. The film tips its hat to several classic Western movie tropes, but at the same time it maintains an evocative and unique edge to it.

One of the film’s strengths is found in its charismatic lead Mads Mikkelsen. He plays Jon, a Danish settler and ex-soldier in 1870’s America. With the help of his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), Jon establishes himself and then sends word for his wife and son to cross the Atlantic and join him at their new home in the American West. But shortly after reuniting with his family, an encounter with two thugs ends with his wife and son being murdered. Jon tracks down and kills the thugs responsible.


But Jon doesn’t realize that one the dead killers is the brother of a ruthless gang leader named Delarue (played with grizzled gusto by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the husband of the physically and emotionally scarred Madalaine (Eva Green). Delarue makes it his aim to find and pay back his brother’s killer. This sparks a conflict with the revenge-fueled Jon that (literally) bleeds into a small town held hostage by fear of Delarue. The town’s weak-kneed sheriff (Douglas Henshall) and opportunistic Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) are little help and they leave Jon to fend for himself.

Mikkelsen is the perfect man for his role. Jon is stern and rugged but also reserved and soft-spoken. Mikkelsen has always been able to convey through expression and Levring often relies on that. The story takes its lead character to some pretty grim places, and a quick gander at Mikkelsen’s filmography will show he’s familiar with taking characters to grim places. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the burly, gravelly voiced Morgan who seems to be channeling a nuanced Jack Elam vibe. Morgan’s character chomps up scenes with a playful abhorrence and he’s a nice counterbalance to Mikkelsen’s Jon.


Another strong point is the revolving aesthetic that defines the film’s dry and dusty world. In shooting the movie Levring and cinematographer Jens Schlosser move between classic Western imagery and a type of visual hyperbole. At times the film looks as if it were plucked out of a Sergio Leone picture. Other times things look stylized and experimental. We see it in backgrounds, camera techniques, and color pallets.

One could say “The Salvation” is too generic and cliché, but I don’t think Levring’s approach is that simplistic. The film certainly borrows from or pays homage (depending on how you choose to look at it) to certain Westerns that came before it. Yet the film has a unique feel and an intense visual flair that goes along with its violent self-awareness. Mikkelsen shines, Morgan is a hoot, Eva Green is a boiling mystery. When put together as a whole it is a stylishly focused and concise movie which happily embraces its influences.


4 Stars


REVIEW: “Listen Up Philip”


It’s a good thing that you aren’t required to like or root for a main character in order to enjoy a movie. If that were the case the film “Listen Up Philip” wouldn’t have a fan in the world. This is the third movie from 30-year old independent filmmaker Alex Ross Perry and it can be a challenge. It is relentlessly unpleasant and it may feature the most detestable lead character you’ll see this year. Yet at the same time the dialogue is razor sharp, it is at times darkly funny, and it features a wickedly good lead performance from Jason Schwartzman.

The opening scene reveals to us the type of man we will be spending our time with. Philip (Schwartzman) sits in a restaurant impatiently waiting for his ex-girlfriend. She is 20 minutes late and he has already rehearsed how he’s going to belittle and confront her, not just for being late, but for never supporting him during their time together in ways he finds satisfactory. Philip is a writer who has just completed his second novel. His taste of success has fed his insatiable narcissism and he can’t wait to rub it in his ex’s face.


Philip’s haughty self-absorption isn’t just reserved for his ex-girlfriend. We see it with a stranger at a bar, with his publisher, and we mostly see it with his current girlfriend Ashley who is played wonderfully by Elizabeth Moss. Ashley is one of our few refuges. She is a likable character who loves Philip and seems to have found a way to navigate his crazy range of emotions. But relationships can only sustain so much when a toxic character like Philip is factored in.

Now throw in an accomplished but aged writer Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). He is Philip’s literary idol and a man desperate for new inspiration. Having appreciated Philip’s first two books, Ike contacts him with an invitation to stay at his country cottage and write. Philip jumps at the chance, leaving Ashley behind and fully expecting her to wait for him. We quickly learn that Ike isn’t the blueprint Philip follows in writing only. Ike’s also shares the same miserable self-centered lifestyle. The question becomes will Philip learn from Ike’s pathetic example or emulate it?

“Listen Up Philip” can be seen as many things. For one it’s a gut punch to many of the creative elites. It shows the striking differences between the happiness they bring through their creativity and the self-inflicted misery many of them live in. The film shows the fantasy world many elites live in built upon self-importance and the idea of being better than anyone else. These acidic personalities also bleed over into relationships. We see it with Philip and Ashley and later when he meets a French professor played by Joséphine de La Baume. For Ike it’s evident by his strained relationship with his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter).


As I mentioned, the real challenge is in staying with these characters. I can easily see some people struggling with the film as they wait and search for at least an ounce of humanity in Philip. It seems as if Perry anticipates this problem. At one point in the film Philip vanishes for nearly 20 minutes and we follow Ashley and her struggles with Philip being gone. I’m still struggling with how I feel about the narrative shift. I like the Ashley character and there are some good moments in our time with her, but I’m not sure the divergence fully works. On the opposite end, by the films final act I did find myself worn down. I had grown tired of Philip despite the compelling nature of the character.

A part of me is thankful that people like Philip and Ike do crave some degree of solitude. This film pulls no punches in conveying these corrosive personalities, but it does so with a nice smattering of humor and with some very committed performances especially from Schwartzman who is perfectly cast. But in the end I felt exhausted and I was ready to close the book on these people. Was that the film’s desired effect? I’m not certain.


REVIEW: “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”


One of my great joys growing up was reading the G.I. Joe comic book series. The action figures, the vehicles, the cartoon series – G.I. Joe equaled big money in the late 80s and early 90s. But my favorite remained the comic book. I read it for around 100 issues and I loved the way it treated its characters, their relationships, and their storylines. So imagine my frustration when “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” hit the big screen in 2009. It was a movie ripe with potential but full of crap. The shoddy acting, the overt political correctness, and the ridiculous story supplied enough reasons to dislike the film. But for me its biggest vice was the butchering of the characters that I’ve loved since my childhood. Whether it was poor research or poor creative decisions, I don’t know. But I do know I despised that movie.

Four years have passed and now Paramount Studios have given us a sequel, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”. This time around they dangle Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Bruce Willis like a carrot in front of a horse, trying to convince us that this movie aims to be better. Well, actually it is better but I’m not sure that’s saying much. One thing that stood out was that it did attempt to be a little more faithful to the comic book source material than the previous movie. There are several tips of the hat and even a side story straight from the pages of the print series. Unfortunately the side story will make absolutely no sense to anyone who hasn’t read it and this leads to the biggest problem with this entire project – the lame and often times amateurish writing.


The movie picks up shortly after the events of the first film. Zartan is masquerading as the President of the United States while Cobra Commander and Destro are in some sort of cryogenic stasis in an underground government prison. But Cobra has a bigger plan at work that of course includes world domination and extinguishing the G.I. Joe team. Meanwhile, the Joes are out doing what they do, thwarting terrorist attacks, retrieving stolen nuclear warheads – you know, standard Joe stuff.

Duke (Channing Tatum) is back and he’s the man in charge. He shares a bromance with his best friend and team heavy machine gunner Roadblock (Johnson). We also get the seemingly loose cannon Flint (D.J. Cotrona) although they completely abandon his loose cannon angle. Then there’s the gorgeous but able Lady Jaye (played by the gorgeous and occasionally able Adrianne Palicki). And of course there’s the super cool and personal favorite Joe of mine Snake-Eyes (Ray Park). After the team is decimated by a Cobra attack sanctioned by the bogus president, the few surviving Joes are forced underground where they must put together a plan to expose Cobra and avenge the death of their comrades.

The movie is really just a series of action set pieces linked together by a few strands of plot. But did anyone honestly go into a G.I. Joe movie expecting anything deep? The story is adequate enough to move this action-oriented film along. It’s when the story tries to branch out into side stories that things begin to get messy. The most obvious example is a side story dealing with Snake-Eyes, Storm Shadow, and the events of their connected pasts. As a fan of the comic series I smiled as I remembered reading this story from the books. But in terms of this movie, its incorporation into the main story is horribly done. It comes completely out of the blue and instead of gelling with the main narrative, it violently collides with it. There’s no sense of place and there’s no real connection at all.


The poor writing also shows itself in some of the character’s underwritten subplots and in some of the corniest dialogue you’ll hear all year. Some of the jokes and attempts at humor are nothing short of cringe-worthy. There were times, particularly in the first half of the film, where these lines felt so awkward and disingenuous. Then there was the macho military banter, again mostly in the first half of the film, that was so incredibly silly and fake. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting this on paper and thinking it sounds good. It’s also hard to take any of these characters seriously while you’re constantly face palming due to the goofy dialogue! Thankfully a lot of this subsides as the movie goes on.

As with many of this year’s movies we’ve seen so far and that are on the way, the action is the big focus. It’s pretty relentless so be prepared to be bombarded with bullets, blades, and explosions. For me, this was the film’s strong point. I thought the action sequences in the first film did nothing to save it from its serious flaws. The action sequences in this film are actually pretty good and they did help me get past some of this movie’s shortcomings. They also translated well in 3D, something that was a pleasant surprise considering my usual dislike for the technology. But like other movies with such heavy dependence on CGI, things sometimes feel too synthetic. There’s a wildly entertaining ninja showdown on the face of a huge mountain. But as fun as it is, it’s still hurt by its absurdity and obvious computer generated visuals. The action is also helped and sometimes hurt by Jon Chu’s direction. Now I was happy to see a new director on board after the first debacle. But I’m hard-pressed to believe that a director known for the “Step Up” series and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” was the best choice.


The Rock is intended to be the big draw here and while he’s big on charisma, he’s not when it comes to emotion. But is that just something that comes with casting him or was he handcuffed by the material he’s given? Another draw was Bruce Willis but this is clearly a check cashing role for him. His short screen time adds a few mild snickers and he serves as a plot hole filler (kind of) but that’s about it. Tatum is as forgettable as usual but again the material does him no favors. I think Jonathan Pryce may be the most fun actor to watch in the film. He plays around and has fun as both the president and Zartan posing as the president.

So after all of that what’s my conclusion on “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”? Is it as awful as I anticipated? Nope, not even close. Is at a good movie? I don’t think I can go there either. Let me just say it’s a better movie than its predecessor and at times can be entertaining. I enjoyed the attempt to add a pinch of realism to the story and I liked some of the money moments such as Snake-Eyes vs Storm Shadow. But in the end “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” seems content to be a better movie rather than a really good one. Granted it’s aimed at an audience made up of teen boys and nostalgic men and it’ll score some points there. But nostalgia only carries me so far.