In a Valley of Violence (2016)

in_a_valley_of_violence_posterEthan Hawke had a very solid supporting part in 2016’s The Magnificent Seven, playing a mix of the Robert Vaughn and Brad Dexter characters. What better way to follow it up of sorts? How about another western?!? Much smaller scale, cast, budget and fanfare, but it’s still a western! Here’s 2016’s In a Valley of Violence.

Riding south to Mexico with his dog, Abbie, a drifter named Paul (Hawke) is short of supplies and stops in the small town of Denton. Mining interests have dried up and the town is a shell of what it used to be with the Marshal (John Travolta) ruling the town — or what remains of it — with an iron fist. Trying to get in and out of the town without incident, Paul runs into the Marshal’s bully of a son, Gilly (James Ransone), and his three friends. There’s a quick fight, but everything is resolved without too much trouble. Paul rides out of town still heading for Mexico, but Gilly and his gang aren’t done with him yet. Will they push too far though?

This B-movie western received a limited release, including locally at the always reliable Music Box Theatre in Chicago. I didn’t have a chance to see it, catching up with it instead on its DVD/Blu-Ray release. Long story short? Though it has some potential and memorable moments, I’m glad I didn’t put too much effort into tracking it down! Director/screenwriter Ti West has mostly done horror movies to this point, but Hawke, West and others had expressed interest in doing a western. The most frustrating part in reviewing/viewing is that there’s potential here. They’re all clearly fans of the genre, but those individual moments don’t hold together over a 103-minute run-time.

The biggest influence is from the spaghetti western genre. The opening title and end cards are ripped right out of the genre, and the opening credits do an incredibly enjoyable homage to the credits seen in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Of course, I can’t find them anyplace to link them, but they’re expertly handled. The same for the musical score from composer Jeff Grace that would fit nicely with any number of Eastwood, Van Cleef and Nero-led westerns. The story itself is as straightforward as possible, a straight-up revenge tale (spoilers withheld) of a man with a mysterious past. It’s hard to mess that up, but ‘Valley’ does just that.

Hawke is a solid silent anti-hero with a past. His scenes with his loyal dog are some of the highlights of the movie. The dog — named Jumpy in real-life — is an unexpected scene-stealer throughout. The relationship between man and dog reminded me some of the John Wayne western Hondo, for the right reasons too. Hawke isn’t flashy, just solid. He doesn’t say much, mostly talking to his dog, as he tries to get to Mexico. Why? You’ll have to watch. Here’s a man who just wants to be left alone. Just because he isn’t loud and outgoing about his ability with a gun doesn’t mean he’s not quite capable. A worthwhile western 2-for-2 for Mr. Hawke in Westerns 2016.

Unfortunately, there’s not much else positive in the acting department. Travolta I thought was decent as the underwritten marshal. I would have loved to know a little more about him and what drives him. The biggest issue with the rest of the cast is never a good issue to have. Almost every line delivery sounds overdone, exaggerated and not effective to the point I questioned if we’d gone from western to parody of a western. Characters are screaming at each other, and it’s cringeworthy at times. The lines and their deliveries feel very modern too, not at all how real people would have spoken. Along with Ransone’s Gilly, look for Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan as two sisters with opposite feelings on Paul, Gilly’s gang, Toby Huss (the Wiz from Seinfeld), Tommy Nohilly and Larry Fessenden. Also, a familiar face from Pirates of the Caribbean and AMC’s Turn Burn Gorman plays a down-on-his-luck priest (maybe) with some ulterior motives.

Too much of a mixed bag in the end. Just go for it with all its darkness and revenge, and we’ve got a decent movie. I keep asking though, bad acting or bad script? Either way, it’s enough to seriously dent any enjoyment you’d get out of this.

In a Valley of Violence (2016): **/****

The Book of Eli (2010)

book_of_eli_posterMy goal moving from Blogger to WordPress was to tighten up reviews, focusing more on westerns and maybe some war movies and heist flicks thrown in for good measure. Today’s review? A sorta western. A quasi-western. Or as Wikipedia identifies it, a “neo-western.” Call it what you want but 2010’s The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic western, and an excellent one at that.

Thirty years after a war tore the world apart, apparently ripping the ozone layer to pieces, Earth is a vast wasteland where water and food are rare commodities; commodities worth fighting for and dying for. Amidst this wasteland is a man named Eli (Denzel Washington), a quiet, unassuming drifter with a mission. In his possession is a book that could potentially hold the key to mankind’s survival. Books are all but completely gone, and Eli believes his book to be the last in existence. He’s walking west to the Pacific where he hopes to find something, anything at road’s end. His travel is incredibly difficult, especially when he walks into a small, well-guarded town run by an intelligent man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who wants nothing more than to get his hands on Eli’s all-powerful book.

Variations on post-apocalyptic worlds are all the rage and have been the rage for years now, from zombies like The Walking Dead to more light-hearted like The Last Man on Earth and many more. This 2010 flick from the Hughes brothers, Albert and Allen, was ahead of the curve in that department. What a good movie here. It qualifies as any number of different things, a western, an action movie, a road movie, and a faith-based story, even as an artsy film. The beauty of that is ‘Eli’ works bouncing among those descriptions. It is never limited and encompasses all of the above.

Like the best post-apocalyptic efforts, ‘Eli’ gives a sense of what the world has become. In bits and pieces we learn of what’s become of the world as some sort of nuclear apocalypse tore the Earth apart, leaving survivors but not in good shape. There is little color now – the Hughes Bros. desaturating the actual film – so everything looks washed out, bland and bleak. Wreckage and carnage line the roads, and small remnants of what the world used to be always hang in the not too far-off distance, whether it be a burned-out car, a collapsed highway, a decrepit home. This is one nasty, filthy world where just survival is incredibly difficult and comes at a high price.

Who better to navigate this world than one of the coolest actors ever? No one! Denzel Washington is a perfect lead here, a quiet, soft-spoken man who only reacts with violence when pushed, when his life and mission are on the line. When he does react….watch out. He’s equally good with machete, pistol or sawed-off shotgun. Just like the war’s back-story, we learn of Eli’s past in snippets, including the most important being why he’s risking his life to protect a book, even if it may be THE book. It is an understated, moving, and highly effective performance from one of my favorite actors.

Gary Oldman is equal parts The Man. He’s a welcome addition to any movie I’m watching. The supremely talented actor can bounce back effortlessly between good and bad, and he’s leaning BAD here. His Carnegie is a fascinating character, a power-hungry, aging man who remembers what life used to be. He knows the potential Eli’s book has and could have in controlling the masses. Their scenes crackle as two heavyweights go toe-to-toe to see who comes out on top.

Also look for Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, scene-stealing Ray Stevenson as Carnegie’s enforcer, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Tom Waits, and an uncredited Malcolm McDowell in a key part late. Kunis is solid, but I still hear Meg Griffin, Stevenson is excellent as is Beals, Waits another scene-stealer in his short scenes, and McDowell? An interesting part considering one of his most famous roles, A Clockwork Orange.

I don’t have too much to complain about at all here. The action is supremely exciting and stylish, like Eli taking on small gangs of bandits, killers and looters in one rush…several times. There are shootouts, fistfights, brawls, and some cool car chases in the finale. The highlight though is obvious; Washington’s Eli taking on six hijackers in a highway underpass. We only see silhouettes as Eli dispatches the fast-moving gang, with Washington performing his own stunts in a scene that was shot unedited with no cuts. Damn impressive!

A lot to talk about, but I don’t want to give too much away. I’m not an overly religious fella, but I like the simplicity of religion here. It’s a story that isn’t heavy-handed but far more subtle in its portrayal of religion, and more importantly, faith. We learn more about that in the second half, both in terms of the story and character development on many different folks. The ending itself is beautiful, aided by a moving score from Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne, and a voiceover from Eli. Quite the memorable ending.

Also – no spoilers – but there’s a doozy of a twist here. I maintain that the twist was a touch unnecessary but even re-visiting the movie, it works and generally holds up. That twist definitely adds a layer to the proceedings too, making things that much more interesting to contemplate and at least consider. You don’t have to believe it or even go along with it, but it should provide some fun, lively conversations. It did for me! Highly recommended flick that is well worth checking out.

The Book of Eli (2010): ***/****