REVIEW: “Hostiles”

Hostiles poster

A new traditional Western is somewhat of a rarity these days. You could say 2016 was the year of the subversive Western while 2017 didn’t offer much of anything for the genre. But then along comes “Hostiles” which sits somewhere between subversive and traditional.

“Hostiles” is written and directed by Scott Cooper, probably best known for his award-winning feature film debut “Crazy Heart”. The movie begins with the ‘traditional’ – a familiar but effective opening sequence showing a frontier family brutal attacked by a Comanche war party. The lone survivor, a wife and mother named Rosalie Quaid (played by an excellent Rosamund Pike), is left in a state of shock.

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The story then moves to Fort Berringer, New Mexico. Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has seen his share of frontier bloodshed. And while he tells himself he was justified by simply “following orders”, the killing has taken a toll. He reluctantly accepts a mission to escort an imprisoned, dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their Montana tribal homeland on orders from President Harrison.

Bale and his handpicked soldiers set out with their Native American prisoners to make the dangerous journey north. Cooper fills this party with some good faces. Bale is outstanding with a ‘less is more’ approach and I’ve always enjoyed Wes Studi. But we also get Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach and current flavor of the year actor TimothĂ©e Chalamet. Pike joins them after her traumatized Rosalie is discovered among the charred remains of her frontier home. A blood-soaked pilgrimage follows with several characters forced to reckon with their past and present sins.

There is an interesting line “Hostiles” walks. On one side it openly recognizes the part bigotry and brutality played in American policy towards the indigenous peoples. On the other side it doesn’t insult Native Americans by portraying them as overly sentimental dramatic pieces. Walking that line is Blocker, disillusioned by the military he has blindly served and bitterly prejudiced because of the men he has lost in battle with the natives. He is the film’s centerpiece and while there are intriguing ideas about what he represents, I was just as much into his personal quest as a broken man in search of repentance.

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“Hostiles” is a bleak and tough-minded movie. In Cooper’s portrayal of death and suffering neither discriminates and none of his characters are free from the sting whether it be during their trek north or from scars of the past. Cooper uses explosions of violence but he also allows for quiet meditative moments that aren’t without purpose. It makes for a slow burn which may not satisfy those looking for a more traditional western shoot ’em up. But as the group moves across Masanobu Takayanagi’s beautifully shot landscapes I appreciated the action as well as the contemplation.

Some of the responses to “Hostiles” have been curious. Many have criticized Cooper for his “white perspective” even going so far as to say the movie is an attempt to ease a nation’s guilt over their treatment of Native Americans. Those are dramatic stretches which tags the film with an unfair label. It never draws a broad equivalence between the motivations of the U.S. Army and the natives. Again, Blocker makes several references to his “job” which he knows is genocide. And the Army’s atrocities take various forms within the characters particularly Cochrane’s and in Ben Foster who appears later on. It’s even hinted at in the D.H. Lawrence quote which opens the movie — “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

“Hostiles” is unquestionably solemn and dour yet fittingly so considering the subjects it wants to explore. But at the heart of the movie lies a message of reconciliation and healing which is especially welcome during our current times of such division. The wonderful final shot offers us a glimmer of hope. It’s filled with uncertainty and it’s far from tidy. Yet it’s hopeful in a way that brings the film’s ultimate message to light.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

“Jack Reacher” – 3 STARS

Jack Reacher

You wouldn’t know it by looking at his string of recent films, but Tom cruise is still a bona-fide movie star. His newest effort is “Jack Reacher”, a crime thriller that’s based on the popular series of novels by Lee Child. Released in the shadow of the box office juggernaut “The Hobbit”, “Jack Reacher” has received little fanfare. That’s a shame because compared to much of the stuff that passed for movies this year, this is a good, solid film and a perfect vehicle for Tom Cruise. It’s a sleek and snappy movie that features a bit of everything even though it doesn’t go far enough to really state its own identity. It’s also sure to leave you scratching your head at some of the things you’re seeing. Nevertheless, I had fun with this picture.

On the surface “Jack Reacher” resembles something pulled right out of the late 1980s. Reacher is a hard-as-nails, ex-military type turned drifter and ghost. He has the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes and the butt kicking ability of Jason Bourne. I’ve never read any of the books so I’m uncertain of who Jack Reacher is beyond that. The movie never clearly says. Instead it plays up the character shrouded in mystery. Is he a vigilante? Is he a hired gun? Is he an off the grid cop? Well, maybe a little bit of “yes” to all. Cruise does a nice job handling the character. One of the biggest concerns about this movie with some folks was his height. Fans of the books quickly noted that Cruise’s build doesn’t match with the picture that Child creates in the series. I can’t speak to that, but I had no problems with what Cruise was doing on screen.

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“Jack Reacher” isn’t a title-to-credit, nonstop, action movie. That may be one reason why Cruise worked out so well. Most of the film centers around the investigation of a brutal mass sniper shooting of five random people at a Pittsburgh promenade during broad daylight. While not graphic, the opening sequence depicting the shooting was incredibly intense and even more sobering in light of current events. It’s brilliantly shot and sets the table well. Reacher pops up and enters the investigation due to a past connection with the chief suspect. He works alongside an idealistic defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) who agrees to take the case against the better judgment of her district attorney father (Richard Jenkins). As with any decent movie mystery there are several twists and turns that keep this from being the clear-cut, open and shut case that it first appears to be.

The story moves at a snappy pace and never bogs down even though it may not have needed all of its 2 hour plus running time. As mentioned above, it never develops its own real identity. At one point it feels like a crime drama with elements taken from the 1940s. But at other times it seems to want to be an action picture, a revenge movie, or even a comedy. Luckily none of these changes in tone and direction jars the movie too far off course. It kept me interested and involved even when things begin to get a little preposterous.

Christopher McQuarrie, who worked with Cruise on “Valkyrie”, wrote the screenplay and directed the film. He’s a very capable writer as evidenced by his work on “The Usual Suspects”. But even though I was never bored with his script or his pacing, there were a few things that seemed surprisingly off, specifically the characters played by the great filmmaker Werner Herzog and Robert DuVall. Herzog plays a shadowy Russian mobster who is more of a cartoon character than a real menace. Both he and his intentions and motivations feel terribly underwritten. DuVall is a lot of fun when we first see him as a blustery gun range owner. But he turns into Reacher’s gun-toting sidekick during the big bullet-ridden action finale, a move that felt about as conventional as you’ll find.

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There are also several instances of cheesy dialogue that Cruise actually handles well. Whether some of them were intentionally or unintentionally cheesy I can’t answer, but it reminded me of many of the movies I grew up watching. These few scenes left one critic saying that “Jack Reacher” belongs in a bygone era of movies. I disagree. For me, the cheese worked. I also have to praise the slick and stylish action sequences. Caleb Deschanel’s camera work is often times stunning. In fact, he stages and shoots one of the best car chase sequences I have seen in a long, long time. The movie is worth seeing just for this amazing chase.

In the end, “Jack Reacher” is a tough movie to review. It’s an engaging and entertaining movie but a slightly flawed one. It’s also a film destined to be lost in the crowd of December movies and awards season entries. I liked this picture and I liked Cruise’s performance. But the movie doesn’t end up being the one it starts as. The intense opening sequence sets the movie up as a serious and gritty crime thriller. It evolves into sheer Hollywood escapism. That certainly doesn’t kill the movie, but I would be interested to see how the other “Jack Reacher” would have played out. Still, I have to commend the movie for engaging me and giving me a good time at the theater. I would have no problem seeing this again, but I still can’t help but feel that it wasted some of its potential.

“WRATH OF THE TITANS” – 2 1/2 STARS

Apparently I was one of the few who liked 2010’s “Clash of the Titans”, a remake of the 1981 mythological action film. In fact, one of my biggest disagreements with critics centered around their brutal reviews of that movie. I like the remake because it never pretended to be anything other than what it was. It was a fantasy monster picture in the same vein as the first “Clash of the Titans”, “Jason and the Argonauts”, and the “Sinbad” films. In many ways the remake was an homage to that old genre, replacing the classic stop motion animation with computer-generated imagery. The movie wasn’t a deep, intellectual exercise nor was it intended to be. It was a fun popcorn action flick that reminded me of those old films I grew up with.

That brings us to “Wrath of the Titans”, an original sequel that tries to strike the same chords as the first film but ends up falling short. The sequel starts at least 10 years after the ending of the first movie. Perseus (Sam Worthington) has settled down in a small village where he fishes and raises his son Helius (John Bell). Zeus (Liam Neeson) pays him a visit and tells him that the walls of Tartarus are falling and the God’s powers to stop them is limited due to the lack of prayers from the humans. Zeus’ brief words are really the only introduction we get to story. There’s practically no setup at all. Perseus first refuses to get involved choosing to stay and raise his son instead. But when the walls of Tartarus fall, monsters are unleashed across the earth and one attacks Perseus’ village. Of course this gets him immediately involved.

Much like the first film, “Wrath of the Titans” turns into quest movie. Perseus teams up with Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), Agenor (Toby Kebbell), Poseidon’s demigod son, and several token tagalongs to stop the fire monster Kronos from being freed from Tartarus. To do that they will need three weapons that will join together to form the Spear of Triam. Much like “Clash”, the journey takes them to several locations and they encounter several different creatures. But unlike “Clash” the creatures and the battles with them just aren’t that impressive. I still remember the extremely cool scorpion battle sequence and the fight with Medusa from “Clash”. There isn’t a single creature battle here that I’ll even remember a year from now.

It’s not that the creatures look bad. In fact, the CGI special effects are very well done. The creatures look amazing, feature fluid movements, and they blend in perfectly with the environments. The camera often times turns away or jerks at just the right moments to help the scenes look more realistic. The problem is the scenes aren’t choreographed that well. Another problem is that there really weren’t that many new creatures. Every creature in the film was shown in the trailers and I was disappointed that I wasn’t surprised with a few others. But the CGI is exceptional in creating some wonderful environments and landscapes. The group has to make their way through a rubik’s cube-like labyrinth that looks fantastic. Tartarus also looks great and I was really impressed by some of the sweeping overhead shots of some of the battle sequences.

While the story lacks a good introduction, some of the characters lack development. Neither Andromeda or Agenor are developed to the point of feeling like important characters. I think back to Perseus’ fellow journeymen from the first film. There were several of those characters that I liked despite their limited screen time. That’s not the case here. But the movie does ease up on the cheesy lines especially between gods. Ralph Fiennes is back as Hades and his conversations with Zeus as considerably less corny that before. Fiennes and Neeson are actually quite good and I did enjoy the powerless gods angle.

“Wrath of the Titans” does capture some of what I liked in the first film. It’s still a straightforward popcorn action picture that doesn’t try to be anything else. The story is simple but it still manages to provide some fun. The creatures look amazing even if their fight sequences aren’t as exciting as they should be. This Perseus is a kinder and gentler Perseus and in many ways this feels like a kinder and gentler movie. It has some nice eye candy and a few pretty cool moments but it lacks the kick and the grit of the first film. Even with its fun scenes and shiny coat of paint, I just can’t help but see “Wrath of the Titans” as a disappointment.