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Grim Westerns, Grim Dystopias & Oscar Nominees in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Grim Westerns, Grim Dystopias & Oscar Nominees in TheatersPhoto via IMDb.
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Hundreds of movies came out last week. I’m ball-parking, but there were a lot. Not so, this week. Slim pickins. Grim pickins. Not a lot of smiles in here, but hey, maybe melancholy Westerns and YA dystopias are for you. If not, nearly every theater in Columbus is stocked this weekend with Oscar nominees, including Dunkirk in 70mm at Gateway. Now that is an idea!

Hostiles

Hey, Christian Bale and Ben Foster are in another Western. Remember how fun 3:10 to Yuma was?!

Well, writer/director Scott Cooper is a very serious man. If there is one thing you won’t call his films—Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and his latest, Hostiles—it’s a laugh riot.

Hostiles is a morose Western with too-obvious intentions. Thanks to Bale and cinematographer Mesanobu Takayanagi, though, the result is a graceful if revisionist image. With Takayanagi’s help, Cooper recalls the best of John Ford’s The Searchers, and with Bale’s help he rectifies its worst.

Facing retirement from a lifetime of warring with Native Americans across the West, Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) has one final assignment: escort the ailing Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana so he can die with his people.

After many years of hatred and resentment toward Native Americans in general and Yellow Hawk in particular, Blocker wants no part in this “parade.” But he is a good soldier.

The journey offers opportunities for many an adventure, the first of which is the meeting of homesteader Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). Blocker’s party finds her in her burned-out home, but we already know what happened thanks to the profoundly brutal attack that opened the film.

Over the course of the film’s 133-minute running time, lessons are learned, each one coming at a very bloody cost. Though Bale and most of the supporting players deliver quietly devastating performances, their arcs feel more than forced. They feel patronizing.

Mainly that’s because the Native American actors have no such arcs. Studi, along with Adam Beach, Tanaya Beatty, Q’orianka Kilcher and Xavier Horsechief—the prisoners—are one-dimensional beings of pure wisdom, compassion and nobility.

Which is no doubt preferable to the being nameless, bloodthirsty monsters that stand in for Apache characters.

Cooper sets his tale at a bitter transition in American history when civilization was beginning to overtake the Wild West and people like Blocker were no longer sure of their purpose, no longer comfortable with their past. Like Blocker, Cooper seems determined to right a wrong but, again like his character, he doesn’t seem to know quite how to do it.

Grade: B-

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

As if the YA heroes in The Maze Runner films haven’t been through enough, here come the zombies!

OK, they’re really zombie-like, after catching the “Flare Virus” that is quickly sweeping the dystopian future world of the trilogy’s finale, The Death Cure. But some young adults seem immune, and when Minho (Ki Hong Lee) is among those rounded up for research purposes, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and the rest of his maze-running friends hatch a rescue plan.

Director Wes Ball is back to finish what he started with the first two MR films, and he flashes a well-developed eye for the composition of an effective action sequence. From the train-robbing prologue through the exploding finale in the “Last City,” the set pieces from Ball (a former visual effects supervisor) hold up. It’s what fills the time between the action, and how long it takes to reach that finale, that makes The Death Cure such a slog.

The themes are familiar and borrowed from any number of similar films, but it feels like there is a taut and tense action thriller buried under the two hour and twenty minute bloat.

While Will Pouter’s return gives the YA ensemble an impressive talent boost, Patricia Clarkson, playing little more than Standing Around Kate Winslet from the Insurgent series, is unnecessarily   wasted. The connective drama here lacks the substance for all the mining it’s given, and the emotional depth the film is trying so hard to reach never materializes.

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:
Aidas Secrets (NR)
Desolation (NR)
Ex Libris: New York Public Library (NR)
Padmaavat (PG-13)

Reviews with help from George Wolf.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly film podcast http://screeningroompodcast.com/.

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