REVIEW: IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

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IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

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Western homage is written and directed by Ti West who is known for horror films like The House Of The Devil and the recent The Sacrament. This is a departure for West and shows he can do more than just horror with this tale of revenge. Flick has ex-soldier Paul (Ethan Hawke) wandering into the small town of Denton, New Mexico. He is just passing through, but in true western fashion, has an altercation with the town bully/deputy, Gilly (James Ransone). Paul is commanded to leave town by Gilly’s sheriff father (John Travolta), but is pursued into the desert by Gilly and his thugs. Upon being ambushed, his beloved dog, Abbie is murdered and Paul himself left for dead. Surviving Gilly’s attempt at payback, the lone drifter heads back to Denton with death and revenge on his mind.

In A Valley Of Violence may not be perfect, but it is a fun homage to both spaghetti and American westerns. Ti West creates a classic drifter in Paul, a man who grew tired of killing Native Americans senselessly and left the army behind, too ashamed to return home to his own family. He wants no more to do with death, but is forced by the slimy Gilly and his father into picking up gun and knife once more. We also get the classic love interest in young Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) who happens to be the sister of Gilly’s fiancé, Ellen (Karen Gillan) and takes a shine to the handsome drifter. In telling this classic story, West’s horror background does come through. Paul uses an assortment of weapons to gain revenge, including gun, straight razor and bludgeoning a man with his own boot heel. The flashback to the Native American massacre the broke him down is also very reminiscent of his set up for the sacrifice scene in The House Of The Devil. This western is also a bloody one, thought he does not go overboard with it. If West stumbles a bit, it’s with the film’s odd sense of humor. It is a bit intrusive in a few spots such as during the climactic scenes with Paul stalking Sheriff Martin and his posse throughout the town. There are a couple of moments where some humorous dialogue interrupts the tension that West has built, such as after witnessing a cohort gunned down, one of Martin’s thugs (Tommy Nohilly) declares, in a rant, that he no longer wants to be called “Tubby”. The humor is blended fine most of the time, but here it seems to slow the momentum a bit and break the suspense. It doesn’t damage the film, but the climactic showdown could have been tighter and more tense. On a technical level the film looks good. Cinematographer Eric Robbins makes good use of the New Mexico locations and Jeff Grace gives it a homage filled western score that evokes Morricone at times.

West also gets good work out of an impressive cast. Hawke may be no Clint Eastwood, but he plays the tortured drifter very well. Paul is a man who has come to abhor violence, but is forced back into it, reluctantly, by the bully Gilly. His dog Abbie is the rock that what humanity he has left clings to and when she is taken, the killer is unleashed again. Hawke makes Paul likable, yet a bit distant and we do believe he is lethal when the time comes. Travolta is very good as Sheriff Martin. He plays him as not quite a bad guy, but obviously someone who lets his son and thugs have their way around town. He knows enough to not mess with the ex-soldier Paul, but sadly is not convincing enough to his son. As Gilly, James Ransone is appropriately slimy and full of himself. Gilly is a bit too much of a jerk to really be completely menacing and Ransone plays him as someone a bit too over confident to know when to quit. Taissa Farmiga is sweet and spirited as Mary-Anne, the lonely impressionable young girl who falls for Paul and Karen Gillan is also entertaining as her snooty sister Ellen, who is engaged to the bully Gilly. Indie flick icon Larry Fesenden also appears as one of Gilly’s three thugs along with Toby Huss and Tommy Nohilly.

Overall, I liked this odd little western homage and was entertained. The story is common to the genre as are the stereotypical characters, but that is completely on purpose. This is some nice tension and suspense to go with the bloody action and the cast all perform their parts well. If the film falters somewhat, it is in that sometimes it’s quirky humor comes at the wrong moments when things should stay tense. Otherwise this is a fun western from a man who has already impressed with his horror flicks and Blumhouse who continues to support indie filmmakers. Also stars Burn Gorman as a less than typical priest.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 six-shooters.

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975)

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Take A Hard Ride (1975)

You might think Django Unchained was the first flick to combine elements of Blaxsploitation and Spaghetti Western cinema, but in truth, Take A Hard Ride did it almost 40 years earlier. Directed by Antonio Margheriti, co-financed by Italian film producers and starring Blaxsploitation and mainstream legends Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly, Hard Ride can certainly claim to have done it first.

When cattle baron, Morgan (Dana Andrews) dies suddenly, his top ranch hand, Pike (Jim Brown) vows to get the $86,000 they made from a big cattle sale back to Morgan’s wife and ranch in Sonora, Mexico. All that money has put a target on Pike’s back and it’s a long way to Mexico. While pursued by all sorts of outlaws, as well as, vicious bounty hunter, Kiefer  (Lee Van Cleef), Pike finds allies in dapper and dangerous gambler, Tyree (Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson) and a karate chopping half-breed Indian, Kashtok (Jim Kelly)…and what Western would be complete without the prostitute with a heart of gold (Catherine Spaak).

Despite the presence of an Italian director, Hard Ride plays more like a traditional western, especially with Jerry Goldsmith’s score being that of a Hollywood style cowboy flick. There are plenty of gunfights, though we wish director Margheriti didn’t take such a leisurely pace with the scenes in-between. Despite our heroes being pursued by dozens of gunslingers, they never really seem to be in a hurry to get where they are going. It is fun, however, to watch Brown and Williamson play cowboy and Kelly doing his martial arts fighting and the rest of the cast are lively enough, too. They all seem to take their roles seriously yet, it’s obvious they are enjoying themselves. Need I say it’s always a pleasure to see the steely Van Cleef play a stone cold bad guy.

So, in conclusion, despite it’s reputation as the first Blaxsploitation/ Spaghetti Western, Hard Ride is actually a fairly straight forward Western which, works both for and against it. It is an entertaining enough Western and we enjoy seeing the leads in action, but from a nostalgia standpoint, we wish it had a bit more of the elements it’s reputation suggests, to make it more unique and one of a kind. Still worth a look for fans of all the genres and actors listed above.

An entertaining 3 (out of 4) pistols

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THE “D” IS SILENT: A LOOK AT DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) AND DJANGO (1966)

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As Tarantino’s hit Spaghetti Western homage comes to blu-ray on 4/16/13, I take a look back at Django Unchained and the film that inspired it…

Quentin Tarantino has become one of America’s most innovative filmmakers in that he takes his unapologetic love of movies, B movies in particular, and crafts original films out of bits and pieces that pay homage to the movies he loves. No more obvious than his latest ode to the Spaghetti Western, Django Unchained.

This epic story of ex-slave turned bounty hunter, Django (Jaime Foxx) has it’s main character named after the lone gunslinger played by Franco Nero in Sergio Corbucci’s classic Spaghetti Western of the same name. And in case you didn’t get that point, not only does the film open with that 1966 film’s theme song, but sports a delightful cameo from Franco Nero himself. The story opens with a slave, Django being bought in a humorously violent scene by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz ( Christoph Waltz). Schultz promises Django his freedom if the slave will help him track down three wanted men Django has seen, but Schultz has not. Django has quite a knack for bounty hunting and after their quarry is gunned down, in a great scene involving a hilariously sleazy Don Johnson as a racist plantation owner, the two team up. When Schultz hears of the plight of Django’s German speaking slave wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), he agrees to help him search for and free her. This brings them to the door of a vile plantation owner, who specializes in slave fights, named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Will Django and Schultz be able to rescue his wife from the devious and well armed Candie? A lot of bullets and blood fly before that question gets answered. Django Unchained isn’t perfect. It is definitely a bit too long and the last act could have been structured a bit more efficiently, but Tarantino has always been a bit overindulgent and we let him slide because of all the things he gets right…and because his films are usually so damn entertaining.

And one of the things he gets so right here is the performances out of his cast. Jaime Fox is impressive as Django bringing both a sly humor and a smoldering strength to the slave turned bounty killer. I’m not usually a fan, but he won me over here. Christoph Waltz is an absolute delight as the German bounty hunter with a heart and sense of honor. He gives Tarantino’s crisp and witty dialog vivid life and creates an instantly classic character from the pages of the director’s script. The same could be said of the phenomenal performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose wonderfully over the top Calvin Candie practically steals the show. DiCaprio is having a blast playing the vicious and sleazy dandy plantation owner whose charm oozes out of every pore, but only to cover up that this snake has fangs filled with venom and he will strike first chance he gets. And if that triple threat isn’t enough, we have a side splitting performance by the great Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s cantankerous head slave Stephen. Stephen may be a slave, but sometimes his manipulation of Calvin makes you seriously wonder who is really running the Candie Land plantation.

Tarantino once again gives this top notch cast some wonderful Tarantino dialog to work with and, as usual, shoots Django with his trademark luscious camera work. QT’s love of film fills every frame. He skillfully mixes controversial topics such as the horrors of slavery and racism with some very sly and funny humor and peppers it with some blood spattering action and violence. Basically it’s a Quentin Tarantino movie…and that’s exactly what we paid to see. A fiercely entertaining movie with a great supporting cast featuring the likes of Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Don Stroud, Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Dennis Christopher, Michael Parks and James Remar to name a few.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated a solid 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) pistols

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BONUS REVIEW:

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DJANGO (1966)

As 1964’s A Fistful Of Dollars was a huge hit, director Sergio Corbucci answered with his own Spaghetti Western in 1966, the classic, Django. Where Sergio Leone filled his films with beautiful sweeping vistas and made good use of the Spanish locations, Corbucci’s look for Django was very nihilistic and bleak as was it’s tone. Filmed in winter, the landscapes are barren and dead and the streets of the town are filled with mud and the sky seems mostly always gray. The films’ heroes Couldn’t be more different, too. Eastwood’s “Joe” is an opportunist who plays two rival gangs against each other in a dangerous game to profit from both, while Franco Nero’s Django, on the other hand, is a former soldier who returns to a small town dragging a coffin behind him and seeking vengeance for the loss of a loved one. Django is a man whose heart and soul have been torn out by the Civil War and the murder of his wife and he doesn’t care how many have to die before he exacts his revenge on the evil Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) for her death. And death is indeed what lies within the coffin he takes with him everywhere, as Jackson and his men will soon find out. The loner gunslinger Django also plays two gangs against each other for his own gain, but his gain is far more personal than profitable. The film’s graveyard shootout finale is also very bleak and makes one wonder if Corbucci is asking us whether Django’s surrounding himself with so much death has made him an outcast amongst the living. Django is a hard and violent tale under Corbucci’s direction and Franco Nero’s Django is a hard and violent man who, unlike Eastwood’s charming anti-hero, is a man on a path to hell and plans on taking as many with him as possible. His flashes of humanity are brief and seem only directed at the saloon girl Maria (Loredana Nusciak), who falls for the dark loner. But, even Maria is not immune to the violence that follows this man wherever he goes. Django is an interesting entry in the Spaghetti Western genre and seems to be the dark opposite of Leone’s series with Eastwood. And as such has earned it’s own classic status and is rightfully regarded as one of the genres best examples.

-MonsterZero NJ

Also rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) pistols

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