Monday, January 08, 2018

Go...North?: Hostiles & Dawson City: Frozen Time

Not exactly a planned double feature, but a pretty good one as it turns out, with both having a fair amount of focus on the 1890s and having folks go north, as Hostiles follows a trail from New Mexico to Montana and Dawson City goes much further. Happily, by the time I was actually out and about for this movie, Boston was no longer featuring Dawson-like temperatures, although it was a pretty cold weekend.

They're also both movies that at least some in the audience lost a little patience with; though I was taking my usual seats in the front section for Hostiles, a cold day means that you can hear boots stomp on the way out, and I was seated far enough back at the Brattle to see and hear folks get up and hit the restroom. Both of them are kind of lengthy movies - 2:15 is long for a western that actually doesn't have that much action after making the audience very uncomfortable in the first ten minutes, and two hours is a pretty long sit for a mostly-silent documentary. I'm kind of curious how much of the getting up and heading out of the theater in both cases was people not expecting to need to hold a drink in that long, people just being kind of fidgety, or people who genuinely weren't enjoying it.

(Fair amount of people whispering around me for Dawson City, too, although not constantly. Surprised it wasn't worse, to be honest - no dialogue and the desire to show your seatmate that you know what a documentary is getting at could prove much more irresistible for some movie-talkers!)

It was a bit disappointing that there were a fair number of people joining me in only requesting tickets for the one movie at the box office rather than the double feature. Wonderstruck is a pretty great little movie, and makes a more logical pairing with Dawson City as both rely on being modern silent films for much of the runtime. I suppose I wasn't the only one who needed to get groceries afterward and ws consoling myself with how it would soon be available as a 4K stream on Amazon Prime, although I surely hope it's on the high-res Blu-rays as well.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen on 7 January 2018 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Scott Cooper's new film is the latest film to de-mythologize the Western, shining a light on the ugly underpinnings of a genre once synonymous with simply morality and violence that provides a definitive resolution. This period and format has been so thoroughly deconstructed that one can watch Hostiles and not be entirely sure whether it is mean enough, despite it being quite brutal when it decides to dispatch a character or three, leaving little doubt that is not particularly interested in heroes from its beginning. It's the kind of movie where "going soft" is probably the best thing that could happen, and the big question is whether the movie earns it.

It's going to have a long way to get there, though it starts with the simple premise of a gunslinger escorting a party through hostile territory. The party being escorted is Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), who has been a prisoner in a New Mexico fort for the past seven years, and though once a fierce warrior, is now dying of cancer and has been granted clemency to return home to Montana with his family to die. The man chosen to lead the escort party is Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who knows the territory and speaks the language, but he and Yellow Hawk are old, bitter enemies. All involved know the route is dangerous, a fact underscored when they find Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) in a homestead burnt out after a brutal attack by the Comanche.

That, of course, is just the shell of the movie; it doesn't get into how the group chosen to make up Blocker's party forms an intriguing cross-section of the U.S. Army, circa 1892, or how one must spend much of the movie turning the kindness Yellow Hawk's family shows Rosalie over in one's head, wondering if it's defensive or if it's messed up to question it. Or how Scott Cooper's screenplay (based upon a manuscript by the late Donald E. Stewart) in many ways seems to invert the way movies work, with its sharpest moments toward the beginning, particularly the scene where Blocker gets his assignment: It would be something very familiar, with Christian Bale playing the burnt-out veteran resisting being pushed aside (he will be mustered out after this mission) and Stephen Lang as the more moderate commanding officer, but Cooper sticks Bill Camp in there as a writer from back east, seemingly just to needle Blocker and bring out the worst in him, making the scene downright uncomfortable.

Full review at EFC

Dawson City: Frozen Time

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 7 January 2018 in the Brattle Theatre [(Some of) The Best of 2017, digital]

There are times when Dawson City: Frozen Time feels like a baited trap, a way for the filmmakers to are trying to use the fact that people who watch documentaries are, by and large, passionate about film as a medium, taking advantage of the fact that they've got a movie-history hook to talk about the long-term life of a boomtown. And if that's the goal, good job of it - many in the audience might not have sought out a more conventional film more directly focused on that topic, and it's not like filmmaker Bill Morrison doesn't give the audience a heaping helping of what they want as well.

The hook, as one may or may not know, is that because Dawson City was the end of a "circuit" early in the twentieth century (rather than thousands of prints or hard drives being produced so that a film could debut on the same day, the same prints would move from theaters in large cities to smaller towns in sequence), many prints wound up there and be warehoused - and eventually buried as landfill - because they were too expensive to ship back. These volatile nitrate prints would be forgotten until they were accidentally uncovered in the 1970s, by which time many of the films found were considered lost.

Many films about these events might see this story and wheel out Leonard Maltin, or film scholars who specialized in American cinema of the 1910s, talking about the careers of the people involved, and the painstaking process that goes into restoring the movies. Morrison, however, often finds himself more fascinated not by the films that got to this northern outpost but by how that outpost came to be and how its rapid growth and nearly-as-quick contraction created a place that would have a voracious appetite for film but also the circumstances where things could be easily lost. Morrison gives what often seems like more detail than necessary, a sometime bewildering flurry of names and indications of how often gambling halls and other institutions change hands, barely stopping to mention the frightening fact that the city's downtown business district burned down nine years in a row as a symbol of what sort of churn the place saw. As the timeline extends toward and past the period in which the films were buried, there's time to look at other parts of the life-cycle of this sort of town, from the corporatized, mechanized end of one way of life to the attempts to revive the image of it for tourists.

Full review at EFC

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