Review: Slow West

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DIR/WRI: John Maclean  • PRO: Iain Canning, Rachel Gardner, Conor McCaughan, Emile Sherman  • ED: Roland Gallois, Jon Gregory • DOP: Robbie Ryan  • DES: Kim Sinclair • MUS: Jed Kurzel • Cast: Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann

John McClean, formerly of The Beta Band, continues his foray into filmmaking with his debut feature, the Western Slow West, winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic Winner prize at Sundance earlier this year.

Slow West is definitely an unusual Western, a British New Zealand co-production with New Zealand standing in for Colorado. It takes more of a leaf from the anti-Westerns of the ’70s rather than its European ancestors, such as the Italian Spaghetti or the German Spätzle Westerns.

The pared-down plot has Jay (Kodi Smith Mc Phee), an infatuated milksop of aristocratic stock on a journey to find the woman he is infatuated with; Rose, a recent escapee from Scotland after the accidental killing of Jay’s uncle by her father. Rose and her father carry a bounty on their heads. Aware of this and helping Jay but really with his eye on the reward is the tough ruthless Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who constantly chews on cigars trying to mine his inner Clint Eastwood. Following them with similar intentions to Silas are another bunch of outlaw bounty hunters of various types led by Ben Mendelsohn, one of the busier go to bad guys working in film today. All of this will of course lead to the inevitable showdown.

Sounding like Bono’s long lost cousin, Fassbender’s Silas provides the narrative with a voiceover. The device feels like a band aid rather than a truly creative element, and proves quite intrusive at times.

The film is beautiful to look at, aided by the assured cinematography of Irish DoP Robbie Ryan and one cannot fault any of the performances (though Smith did grate on me personally as a character).

McClean’s eccentric execution is at once interesting and alienating, its absurdities fight against the human story trying to breakout. The use of characters as types begins to leave one a little cold towards the end. As said earlier, it reminded me of those early ’70s Westerns (The Hired Hand, Bad Company to name just two) that were concerned with revisionism and truthfulness regarding the history of the West and were informed by what was going on in the world of American politics and foreign policy at that time.

Compared to some of those films Slow West feels like it’s playing at being a Western – its sly nihilistic humour and elements of parody constantly mark out its eccentricities but don’t help give weight to its characters so that we can truly invest in the plight and denouement that inevitably comes. The so-called quirkiness mentioned by a lot of people outweighs its heart.

That said, it’s always nice to see a Western on the big screen.

Paul Farren

 

15A (See IFCO for details)

83 minutes

Slow West is released 26th June 2015

Slow West – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Starred Up

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DIR: David Mackenzie • WRI: Jonathan Asser • PRO: Gillian Berrie • DOP: Michael McDonough • ED: Nick Emerson, Jake Roberts • DES: Tom McCullagh • CAST: Rupert Friend, Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Spruell

As perverse a statement as it may be to make about the popular viewing public-at-large it is at this point unquestionable that the prison movie is a staple of the coming-of-age genre. The institutionalized frame has seen more boys become men (or indeed men become men) than that of the average upper middle-class boarding school and so, like trips to the old West or West London gangster locales, there is weighty canon of quality work to stand tall against, for as cynicism comes like steps to the seasoned cinema goer, and I have been dying to pile more accolades on 2008’s magnificently forgotten The Escapist, if only at the outright denouncement of another picture. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, this reviewer may have to wait for Danny Dyer’s next outing behind bars because David MacKenzie’s Starred Up delivers on almost all counts.

The opening 20 minutes of one’s standard prison outing dilly-dally with time by telling us things we know already from other prison films. Starred Up grabbed my attention almost immediately with a dazzling sequence in which Jack O’Connell’s Eric strips down his cell, melting a razor into the end of his toothbrush and fashioning a stash out of his light-strip in less than 90 seconds. This, as well as many a violent outburst in the film’s opening act , establish Eric as a seasoned con who may rely on experience and expertise during his interim, which, as we consider his age, concocts a new statement in its own right.

The nature of Eric brings one instantly to mind of early Alan Clarke productions, in particular Scum and Made in Britain, with one iconic scene from Scum being quite obliquely referenced midway through. However, the main ripples from Clarke’s features are seen thematically; for instance, as Eric awaits guards in his cell with a shank in either hand, and a greased up stomach to more easily evade capture, one cannot help see a disillusioned man whose only interaction with authority has thought him to resist it and thus he has evolved.

Where the film gauges more interest and earns its stripes as a coming-of-age picture are with the dynamics between Eric and his would-be authority figures, namely Rupert Friend’s amiable psychoanalyst Oliver, Sian Breckin’s cruel warden and Ben Medelsohn on typical terrifying form as head-con Neville who also transpires to be Eric’s estranged father. As the three jostle for his rehabilitation, subjugation and submission, respectively, the film’s indictment of institutionalisation as counterproductively marginalising becomes its centrepiece and the symbolic standoff of the third acts takes a potentially typical conclusion and makes it interesting.

I have mentioned Ben Mendelsohn as I always must regarding anything he’s appeared in since 2010’s superb Animal Kingdom but truthfully (and thankfully) the most intriguing, energetic acting on show here comes from O’Connell, whose growing legion of fans will only grow with this picture. He is the bustling, brawny centrepiece of this often grim yet somehow uplifting slice of Brit-grit, of which I know nothing comparable to in recent years, except maybe 2009’s superb A Prophet. With Starred Up, MacKenzie and O’Connell have both upped their games so significantly that I would be surprised, nay, disappointed to not see them work together again.

 

Donnchadh Tiernan

16 (See IFCO for details)
105 mins

Starred Up is released on 21st March 2014

Starred Up – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Killing Them Softly

DIR/WRI: Andrew Dominik   PRO: Dede Gardner, Anthony
Katagas, Brad Pitt, Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz  DOP: Greig
Fraser • ED: Brian A. Kates, John Paul Horstmann • DES: Patricia Norris 
Cast: Brad Pitt, Scott McNairy, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard
Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn

Although only on his third feature film in 12 years, Australian
writer/director Andrew Dominik has garnered quite a reputation for
himself. Having debuted with his homegrown black comedy Chopper in
2000 (which launched the film career of then TV comedian Eric Bana)
about Australia’s most notorious criminal, Mark ‘Chopper’ Reed,
Dominik took an extended break from filmmaking before returning with
the masterful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert
Ford in 2007.

Originally set to be released in 2006, Dominik’s take on the famed
American outlaw was delayed due to an on-going battle with Warner
Bros. to gain control of the final cut of the film (the studio were
angling towards a more action-driven picture, while Dominik was aiming
for a meditative feel), The Assassination of Jesse James… was
critically lauded, and would be recognised with two Academy Award
nominations for Casey Affleck and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

With such a prolific double whammy on his back catalogue, anticipation
was always going to be high for his next release, and with Jesse James
star Brad Pitt once again on leading man duties, Killing Them Softly
has all the appearance of a sure thing.

Dominic updates George V. Higgins’ Boston-set 1970s novel Cogan’s
Trade (the film’s original title) to modern-day New Orleans, where
Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, a professional enforcer, is brought in to
investigate a robbery of mobster Ray Liotta’s high-stakes poker game
by a pair of small-time crooks, played by Monsters’ Scoot McNairy and
Ben Mendelsohn (recently seen as the snivelling John Daggett in The
Dark Knight Rises).

Having previously organised the theft of his own game, people suspect
that Liotta may be the one behind it again, but Cogan suspects
otherwise, and he enlists the help of ‘New York’ Mickey to get to the
bottom of it.

Having set the bar so high with his extraordinary sophomore effort, it
is inevitable that his take on a straightforward crime thriller
wouldn’t have the same impact. Yet, though the use of archival footage
of George W. Bush and Barack Obama doesn’t really take effect until
the final moments, Killing Them Softly is nevertheless a slick and
stylish (and often darkly humorous) film, that will find favour with
fans of the genre, as well as Dominik and Pitt devotees.

Though he is off-screen for much of the opening-third of the film,
Pitt is on terrific form as Cogan, bringing the same kind of
effortless cool to the role that we have seen from the Oklahoma man in
films like Ocean’s Eleven, Inglourious Basterds, Fight Club and last
year’s Moneyball.

The supporting performances are also on the money, with the reliable
Richard Jenkins building up a good rapport with Pitt as his secretive
contact with an anonymous benefactor, McNairy and Mendelsohn are
perfectly cast as the hapless criminals at the centre of the piece,
and it is interesting to see a Sopranos reunion of sorts with
Gandolfini, Vincent Curatola and Max Casella cropping up alongside
Liotta, a gangster film veteran.

At 97 minutes, Killing Them Softly is somewhat slight (and like Jesse
James its running time was originally much longer), but it still comes
with a high recommendation, and the Dominik/Pitt partnership is one
that both parties should be eager to expand upon in the future.

Daire Walsh

18 (see IFCO for details)
97mins

Killing Them Softly is released 21st September 2012

Killing Them Softly – Official Website

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