Film Review: The Sisters Brothers (2018)

***No final plot spoilers***

It has been some time since I watched a western, but this one was on TV with no advertisement breaks, and the cast list appealed to me. This is an adaptation of a novel. I haven’t read the book, so will not be commenting if it is true to the original story.

1851, and the Gold Rush is in full swing on the west coast of America. A powerful and mysterious man, known only as The Commodore, sends two hired killers on a mission to find and kill a man named Warm. They are the mis-matched brothers named Eli and Charlie Sisters.

Meanwhile, The Commodore has engaged the services of a well-spoken and efficient private detective. His name is John Morris, and he is on the trail of Warm, so he can find him and hold him captive until the brothers arrive to do the dirty work. Warm has a secret chemical formula for identifying gold under water at night. The Commodore wants Eli and Charlie to torture the chemist, write down the formula, and then kill him.

So the quest begins.

We soon discover that Charlie is a quick-tempered drunkard, who is ready to cause trouble and shoot off his gun at every opportunity. By contrast, older brother Eli is a relatively gentle person, pining for his beloved schoolteacher, who he had to leave behind in their home town. Morris finds Warm and pretends to become his friend, waiting for the opportunity to detain him pending the brothers’ arrival.

But they are delayed by all kinds of obstacles. One of their horses is attacked by a bear, and while sleeping one night, Eli is bitten by a huge spider, almost dying from the poisonous bite. When they finally arrive at the rendezvous in Jacksonville, they learn that Morris and Warm have teamed up, and fled to the gold fields. In the next town, they are betrayed by a conniving female saloon-keeper, and have to shoot their way out to freedom.

When they finally catch up with the chemist and the detctive in the California gold fields, things do not turn out as the viewer might suspect.

So, back to that casting, which made me watch the film in the first place.

John C Reilly is the older brother, Eli. Always a reliable actor, and completely convincing as the ruthless killer with a warm heart inside. His brother Charlie is played by Joaquin Phoenix. I can often take or leave that actor, and in this film I didn’t think it mattered who played the brother. Being aggressive and acting drunk has been done by many before, and some have done it better.

British actor Riz Ahmed plays the chemist, Warm. Again, he does a good enough job, but I could have thought of a dozen others who would have done it just as well. Rutger Hauer, near the end of his life, has a mere cameo role as The Commodore. His longest scene is in a coffin, so his talent was rather wasted.

It turned out to be Jake Gyllenhall who stole the film for me, a close second to John C Reilly. His erudite detective was a compelling character portrayal, and I would have liked to have seen even more of him in that film.

Full marks for historical accuracy too. From the saloon interiors, the costume department, and even the weapons used by everyone totin’ a gun.

Cinematography was first rate, as the film is undoubtedly ‘photographed’. It is a film of two halves in many ways, and the second half is far superior to the first. So, stick with it, and you will be rewarded by the latter section. By the way, the soundtrack is really good!

Far from being a landmark film, but better than many I have seen in the same genre.

(The first 25 seconds of this trailer is intentionally dark)

Just been watching…(71)

Jane Got A Gun (2015)

***No real spoilers***

Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, and Joel Egerton, all in a western film that I had never even heard of. When that popped up on a TV film channel, I thought it was worth a look.

The film gets right into the action, then slows down to tell the story in flashbacks. New Mexico, 1871, and Jane (Portman) is living with her husband and child on a remote farmstead. He returns home, and has been shot by the Bishop Gang. He brings the news that they are coming to finish off the family. Jane gets straight into gear. Dropping off her child with a neighbour, she heads out to seek help from her one-time fiance, Dan, (Egerton) but he initially refuses. So she goes into the nearby town to stock up on ammunition and weapons, where she is captured by a gang member, and saved at the last moment by Dan, who has changed his mind.

When they return to the farm to fortify it against the expected attack, flashbacks tell us the story of Jane and Dan during the Civil War, and how she first met Bishop, (McGregor) and Hammond, her husband. This works in informing the viewer, but I would have preferred a more linear construction, with the story told in two distinct halves. After Jane and Dan have made their preparations, the film turns into a predictable shoot-out, once the Bishop Gang arrives. After a tense fire-fight, another plot reveal leads Jane and Dan onto the final quest, ending the film is a satisfying-enough fashion.

Sadly, this film is forgettable. I only watched it last night, and the details are already sketchy in my mind. Portman does her best as the feisty Jane, but McGregor settles for being a ‘black-hat’ villain of no substance, and Egerton’s reliable Dan is a ‘seen it before’ character. There is little or no point to the tale; no message, real twist, or interesting conclusion. Just an excuse for a conventional western gunfight, with a woman in the lead role for a change.

I watched this so you don’t have to. Watch something else instead.

My DVD Films: A stack from the front

Continuing this occasional series about the collection of DVD films stored on my bookshelves, I slipped this stack of six from one of the front rows earlier. The selection surprised me. Even though I have watched all the films reviewed in these posts, I am guilty of sometimes forgetting what I actually own.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

Based on the book by Helen Hanff, this was produced by Mel Brooks, and starred his wife, Anne Bancroft, alongside the always reliable Antony Hopkins. This is a true story that gave rise to Hanff’s book, which was followed by a stage play, on which the film is based. An American researcher writes to a bookshop in London, and receives a reply from the manager. So begins a series of increasingly intimate letters between the two that lasted for nineteen years, though they never met.

This may not seem like a riveting film plot to those of you who haven’t seen it, but the perfect performances of all involved, and the fine sense of period conveyed over the years, all adds up to making this one of the best feel-good films ever made. The development of the relationship between Hanff (Bancroft) and Doel, (Hopkins) as well as members of his staff and family, is never less than completely believable, and handled with great warmth. Bancroft won the BAFTA for best actress for her portrayal of Hanff, and Judi Dench was also nominated, for her part as Mrs Doel.

This may seem to some to be little more than a weepie, or one of those films popular on afternoon TV schedules. But it is a great deal more. It is about a love of books, respect, manners, human kindness, and long-distance relationships based on trust and goodness. It is just wonderful.

The Tuskegee Airmen

This is an HBO TV film from 1985, released as a DVD in the UK. It is the based-on-truth story of the all-black unit of combat airmen who flew for the US Air Force in the Second World War. Subject to the usual prejudice and racism, at first the fliers are not allowed to participate in any action. After a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president, they are reluctantly allowed to go onto combat duty. They show a real flair for fighting in the air, and eventually become escorts for bombing missions into Europe, flying the famous Mustang fighter aircraft. They paint the tails of these planes red for identification purposes, and earn the nickname ‘Red Tails’, from both friend and foe.

A star-studded cast lifts this film from its inherent sentimentality and TV roots. Lawrence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Junior, Courtney B. Vance, and John Lithgow, are just some of the familiar names and faces that you will see. The combat footage is convincing, and occasionally quite exciting too. So if you are interested in a glimpse into the history of both war in the air, and the treatment of black servicemen by the US during that war, this will be something you might enjoy.

Black Robe

Directed by Bruce Beresford, in 1991, this is an Australian/Canadian production (English, Cree, Mohawk, and Algonquin languages, with subtitles) about the life of the early settlers in 17th century Canada. If you are thinking it sounds similar to ‘The Mission’, or ‘The New World’, you are in the right area; but it is far superior to both, in every way imaginable. Lothaire Bluteau plays Father LaForge, the black robed priest that gives the film its title. He is sent on a dangerous mission into the territory of the Huron natives, with a group of Algonquin indians as escort. This journey is a cinematic treat in itself, with canoes paddling quietly along vast waterways, surrounded by breathtaking scenery.

They meet some of the Montagnais tribe, who have never encountered Europeans. LaForge is disliked by their holy man, the shaman of the tribe, and he convinces the Algonquins to abandon LaForge, and to leave for their hunting lodge. But they feel guilty, and soon return, to try to save him. This ends in disaster, when the party are captured by Iroquois, and dragged off to their camp, where they are beaten and tortured. Even after they manage to escape, wounds and weather get the better of some of them, and the survivors eventually accept LaForge’s pleas to convert to Christianity.

This is a compelling and convincing look at early European settlement of the Americas, and of the cultural and spiritual differences that existed for so long, before all the tribes were eventually subdued. The different native American nations are shown with great respect, and efforts are made to explain why they behave as they do. The locations are stunning, the cast near-perfect, and the ending is far from the easy option it might have been.

Heaven’s Gate

This epic from 1980 is probably more famous for its huge budget overspend, and the antics of director Michael Cimino, than for its content. With a running time of over three hours, an enormous cast, and covering events over a period of more than thirty years, it is not something that can easily be explained in this short appraisal. It is rumoured to have cost over $45 million dollars to make, and almost broke the studio and financiers that backed it, when it failed to recoup a fraction of this sum at the box office. It signalled an early end to the burgeoning career of Cimino, who had enjoyed huge success with ‘The Deer Hunter.’

This is a western, set around the time when the cattle barons and big landowners were coming into conflict with settlers and immigrants who wanted to create small farms and new communities. It follows the fortunes of two Harvard graduates. One becomes a marshal in Wyoming, the other an alcoholic drifter, espousing causes, and spouting poetry. It is very loosely based on real events know as The Johnson County War, which culminated in a violent shoot-out between armed settlers and farmers, and the hired guns of the cattle barons.
In the meantime, we are treated to a very accurate representation of the period. It is always a delight to watch, and strong performances by the leads hold together the sprawling plot. Less attractive is Cimino’s insistence on using ‘real sound’ (trains drown out conversation, for example) and some of the lingering set pieces, such as the roller skating in the hall known as ‘Heaven’s Gate’, which gives the film its title.

The cast is a who’s-who of the period. Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Isabel Huppert, and many, many, more. Don’t be put off by the criticism of Cimino, and the negatives that surround this production. It is worth the effort, I assure you.

The Army Of Crime

A worthy French film (Original language, English subtitles) from 2009, this deals with a band of resistance fighters during WWII. It focuses on the Manouchian Group, led by an Armenian immigrant, which operated against the German occupiers in the areas in and around Paris. Because he was a Communist, and many of his group were Jews, the Nazis labelled them ‘The Army Of Crime’, attempting to insinuate that they were foreign criminals, rather than French patriots.

The film doesn’t try to glamourise the fighters, and readily shows how disorganised, and occasionally shambolic they were. Yet their efforts are effective enough, and they also grow large, with up to 100 members in their complex organisation. The Germans were so keen to arrest them, they issued the famous ‘Affiche Rouge’, (Red Poster) showing the photos and names of more than twenty of the ringleaders. It was on this poster that they were first called ‘The Army Of Crime.’

The film has a realistic, everyday feel to it, which also makes it a little dull in places. Sense of period is good throughout, and the eventual downfall of the group, and the imprisonment and execution of most of them, is all dealt with in detail. One for fans of the genre, but a very good effort.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

France again, (Original language, English subtitles) this time from 2005. This film was released to great critical acclaim, five-star reviews, and also won many awards, including a BAFTA. I read a review of the film in Empire magazine that was so good, I bought the DVD as soon as it was released. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. This will give you a rough idea of the story.

Thomas is a shady estate agent who together with his partners, spends time doing dodgy property deals, and helping out his equally crooked father, who specialises in acquiring property by intimidating the tenants. His father also gets into serious trouble with Russian gangsters, asking Thomas to help him out. Meanwhile, Thomas rediscovers his childhood talent for piano playing, and employs a glamorous Asian piano tutor, Miao Lin, to bring him up to concert standards. Before his audition, he gets involved in another deal with his partners, arrives unprepared, and fails miserably. Going to tell his father, he finds him dead, apparently killed by Minskov, the Russian gangster.

The film moves forward in time. Thomas is now Miao Lin’s manager, and he once again stumbles across Minskov, who he fights with at the concert hall.

Are you still interested? I wasn’t. But surely all those critics cannot be wrong? I must have missed something. Perhaps I was unable to comprehend a masterpiece. I will never know.

There you have six more from my collection. They are quite varied, and offer something for most tastes.