The bone dry West: A critical review of “Bone Tomahawk” (2015)

“Bone Tomahawk” was not the best Western of 2015–that would be “The Hateful Eight”–nor was it the most disappointing Western of 2015–that would be “Slow West”–but there’s something nice about there being enough Westerns released last year that I had to choose. As it stands, 2015 must have been a good year for the genre because three out of four Westerns I saw were quite good, and “Tomahawk” was one of them.

“Bone Tomahawk” follows four men (Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins) across an unforgiving landscape as they attempt to rescue a few townsfolk from an Indian tribe of shadowy cannibals–think “The Searchers” meets “The 13th Warrior.” I was hooked as soon as I heard “Kurt Russell in a Western-horror,” and it didn’t hurt that it was lauded by some of my betters on WordPress. I was a little skeptical going in because I was afraid the film would turn out to be “zombies in the West”–I had enough of that with in the cute but forgettable “zombedy” “Undead or Alive”–so I was relieved to find a far more original foe.

Girding the film are two things in particular. First is the script, which is smart and sensitive to its characters (writer-director S. Craig Zahler was a novelist before he was a filmmaker). Nobody’s backstory was really explored, but what was sketched out was just complex enough so that none of the main characters felt flat; and what really made it work was that what little backstory we were given felt completely organic. Also, the dialogue was crisp and often darkly humorous, and it avoided anachronisms–a tricky thing when one is dealing with an occasionally controversial period of history. The film does feel its two-plus hours, but there is nothing glaring to cut. Could it have used some trimming? Probably. I’d start with Jenkins (as “backup deputy” Chicory), whose moments of forehead slapping explanation were probably put in for comic effect, but if you’re like me you’ll be wishing for him to shut up.

The other thing is Kurt Russell. Russell is a Wild West vet (“Hateful Eight” this year and a little film called “Tombstone” a bit before that), and if there is any actor alive who looks like the West, it is he. As Sheriff Hunt, Russell has all the appearance of the frontier both nobly romanticized and rendered grittily real, and he moves through the film like weary inevitability. The supporting cast is rather interesting as well: Sean Young (“Blade Runner”), Fred Melamed (“A Serious Man”), an underused David Arquette (the Scream franchise) and Sig Haig (if I have to tell you a horror movie Sig Haig’s been in, you need to watch more horror movies).

“Tomahawk’s” flaws are, unfortunately, fairly obvious. The movie looks like it was shot on cheap equipment, and the photography is not quite imaginative enough to distract me from that. Not to mention the fact that the screen shakes at some inopportune moments. Here’s a tip indie filmmakers: If you can’t afford a top-of-the-line camera, get a really solid tripod, and then just don’t touch it while you’re shooting. Further setbacks are the less than effective makeup and the poorly shot action scenes, both of which are kept to a minimum, but the film could have used a director more familiar with blocking fights.

In another way the film looks fine. The John Ford trick still works–if you photograph pretty countryside with an ounce of vision, you’ll do OK. And special mention must be made of the costumes, which are impressively authentic. Modern cowboy hats and off-the-rack denim are nowhere to be seen, and bowlers are as common dust.

“Bone Tomahawk” is overlong and underfunded, but it’s still a good film. It is a Western first and a thriller second because its themes are Western themes: honor, duty and the paradox of civilization–keeping the peace through violence. Which is not to warn off horror fans. There are some tense moments in the frontier darkness, and there’s a human vivisection, which is always fun. The film probably fits most comfortably in the “weird Western” genre. The cannibals might be supernatural in origin, or they might be just…well, weird. Either way, it works.

Worlds apart: Critical reviews of “Jurassic World” (2015) and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)

So I just noticed a fun coincidence concerning the blockbusters of summer 2015. There were two vaguely sci fi thrillers that were the much later fourth entries in their respective iconic series–I am obviously referring to “Jurassic World” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Did anyone else point this out? Or have I finally said something original? One thing that’s interesting is how each film approached being a fourth film–the reverence with which it held the previous three.

Anthony Lane of the New Yorker suggested that “Jurassic World” was trying to live up to, outdo and flat out ignore the original Jurassic Park. Yes, John Williams’ theme is danced around like a teased lover; yes, traces of the original park are comically avoided. One of the biggest visual examples of one-upmanship came at the end, where “World” practically says to the original “our deus ex machina is better than yours.”

There are four names attached to the script–five if you count Michael Crichton–and it feels overworked. Several big themes–the importance of family, the dangers of rogue corporate and military science, the nature of animals, the disillusionment of people in the face of more dinosaurs–are dropped directly in the audience’s lap…and then none are explored. Add in some blunt dialogue and some oddly balanced shocks and jokes, and you have a script with all the grace and balance of a tipsy party guest.

The film looks fine. The photography is crisp and the editing is clean, but director Colin Trevorrow doesn’t do anything interesting with the camera. There are some overhead shots–used to much lesser effect than the overhead shots in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”–and some obligatory stock thriller shots–someone’s gotta wear a night vision camera and we’ve gotta have some shaky camera shots, complete with a sudden, unsteady zoom right in the middle. It’s hardly an innovation, but probably the nicest visual touch is not to show off the biggest, baddest dinosaur until halfway through the film. Although maybe newcomer Indominus Rex was camera shy; compared to the look of some of the more outrageous dinosaurs of the series, she comes off a bit plain-Jane.

The human cast is more visible. Chris Pratt is likeable as a sinewy security specialist, Bryce Dallas Howard is pleasant, but probably miscast, as a corporeal corporate type, and it’s only when the two of them get together that I consider caring about the characters. Irrfan Kahn’s CEO is probably the most interesting guy in the movie, or at least the one with the most potential. In one scene, his child-like desire for a scarier dinosaur seems to have run afoul of his Zen-like attitude of releasing control and embracing nature. Has he misjudged his own philosophy? Or not adhered to it enough? He then climbs into a helicopter and explodes, so now we’ll never know. Considering that the film fetishizes the deaths of some of its lesser characters, his demise is sudden and somewhat disappointing. Of course, it shouldn’t have been a big surprise; the film plays like a top 10 list of bad decisions, from Pratt walking right into the middle of Indominus Rex’s apparently empty cage to Vincent D’Onofrio’s choice in shirt size.

Oh well. For the most part, you probably won’t care. The thrills might be stock, but they are plenty, and the CGI dinosaurs look pretty good (although I was pleased to see a couple of practical reptilian effects, especially a dying sauropod in one of the more emotionally successful scenes). Don’t get me wrong; dinosaurs are awesome. But I’d still have liked a script that wasn’t written with buckshot. Or at least a cooler looking evil dinosaur.

In a summer that was probably inspired by Lego sets, we move from dinosaurs to cars. I remembered seeing teaser trailers for “Mad Max: Fury Road” and worrying about the implications. The Mad Max series has always been high octane thrills first, thoughtful sentiment second, so it seemed a natural for a big budget reboot. And yet, auteur George Miller always kept a steady hand on the Mad Max wheel, and when he was in top form the films were intelligent and creative, so there was a lot that could go wrong if things weren’t handled carefully. But when I saw Miller was returning as writer and director, my interest in the project revved up. I cannot say I was disappointed by the end product.

I know that it might seem unjust to call “World” overwritten when it has four screenwriters while “Fury Road” has three, but keep in mind that one writer is Miller, one is Nico Lathouris, who appeared in the first Mad Max film and was probably kept around for purposes of spiritual continuity (it’s his only writing credit), and the final writer is Brendan McCarthy, who’s an arts and animation guy–Miller worked out the visuals before the words, which probably explains why McCarthy is counted as a writer and why the film looks so darn good.

And boy does the film look good. There is a leery, dream-like quality to the images. A familiar color contrast technique is cranked way up, so that sizzling orange deserts mate with vapor blue skies. The editing (by Margaret Sixel, Miller’s wife) is elegant but woozy, so that frames speed up, slow down or clip in and out at will, and flashback sequences race by like subliminal hallucinations.

Mad Max might well be renamed Weary Max given Tom Hardy’s stoic performance. Max feels less like a human being and more like a natural force that just happened to get strapped to the hood of a car for a few minutes. He is nicely paired with villain Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, also a first film vet), who is likewise played more like a presence than a person. If anyone initially suffers from this stony style of performance, it’s Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, but she redeems herself by opening up as the film evolves. Theron is our entry into the post-apocalyptic world because she alone changes with it.

We need all the help we can get, because this is quite a world. Weird landscapes (dig those crazy night scenes) are populated by weirder characters. Fans of the second film in particular will be pleased by the wild car chases–the movie is almost just one big car chase–populated by motorcycles, oil rigs, Volkswagen Beetles converted into porcupines, a much lauded electric guitar-flamethrower combo, and plenty of wide angle shots so you can soak in all the action. In other words, “Fury Road” builds on its predecessors rather than just trying to outdo them.

The film also raises some interesting questions along the way. What is the cost of zealotry? What is one’s place in society? What is civilization, and is it worth fighting for? The film has no specific answers. Heroes sometimes make unlikable decisions and sympathy is occasionally thrown upon the villains. Max himself offers no answers. By the end of the film, when he should be assuming his place or reaping his rewards, he vanishes silently into the desert. However, by not speaking a word, Max has said more about purpose and persona than some films say with 120 pages of copy.

I’m stuck with a valuable friend: On privacy, visibility and Bowie

I never expected to write a kind of obituary on this blog. But not only have I slowly-but-surely become a David Bowie fan for the past few years, the blog’s name was actually Bowie inspired–it’s a corruption of a line from “Up the Hill Backwards.” Really, is it any surprise that a rocker as esoteric as the Thin White Duke wouldn’t fail to inspire an outlet as obsessed with metaphysics as this one?

I also hadn’t really been expecting Bowie to die. Not only did Bowie seem to be beyond petty mortality, nobody had heard he was sick. Much like the release of 2013’s “The Next Day,” the news came out of nowhere, as if everyone who was in on the details had been sworn to secrecy.

Of course, part of the allure of Bowie has always been his mysterious nature. Throughout his chimerian career, Bowie appeared to be more of the character on stage than the man behind the makeup, blurring his reality even to him. The character was obvious; the man was obscured–it’s easier to miss David Bowie than it is to miss Ziggy Stardust. It also highlights an interesting link between being seen and the perception of importance.

Somewhere along the line, we have associated celebrity with accessibility as much as with achievement. Importance is as determined by what you have to offer as by how often you’re on the public mind–measured scientifically by shares, re-tweets and dollars raised at Kickstarter. In a world where visibility equals importance, the only crime is not being seen. Bowie’s later career spat gleefully in the face of this association. His past couple of albums and cameos were unleashed upon the world quietly, like gifts from an old friend.

The modern world is a connected world; it’s an easier place to be seen, and it’s a harder place to get lost. Twitter followers hang on our every hashtag, ideas gain validity with more views and GPS systems guide our cars safely to our destinations without our ever having to worry about how to get there. Connectivity shows no signs of slowing down, and it will be interesting to see how its march will affect notions of privacy, independence and even identity. But that’s still a little ways away. There’s still time to get lost.

The world of art–film, fashion and obviously music–is a poorer one without Bowie. But it is possible to take one small thing from his passing; it is comforting to see that, in an age of increasing connectivity, it is still possible for a gentleman to get by without discussing his illnesses and to die peacefully, privately,  lost in the comfort of his own home.