In a Valley of Violence (2016)

2017 #20
Ti West | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

In a Valley of Violence

The spirit of the Spaghetti Western is alive and well in writer-director Ti West’s shoot ’em up; though where they once took inspiration from samurai movies, now Mr West has his sights set on modern-day gun-fu movies — specifically, here he retrofits John Wick into a familiar Old West narrative.

On his way to Mexico with just his horse and dog Abby for company, drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) passes through an almost-deserted town, where he ends up in a fight with wannabe-tough-guy Gilly (James Ransone). It turns out Gilly is the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), but he considers the matter settled and lets Paul move on, ordering his son to leave it be. A shamed Gilly has a different opinion, however, leading his gang of friends to assault Paul in the dead of night. But as is the way with halfwit villains, they leave our hero alive, ready for him to ride back into town and exact his vengeance.

If you come to movies looking for an original storyline, you’ll be disappointed here — as I say, it’s basically John Wick in the West (if you’ve seen that Keanu Reeves actioner, you’ll already know the outcome of Gilly’s revenge on Paul). The devil is in the details, however, and in that respect In a Valley of Violence is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the biggest mark in its favour is its sense of humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but Gilly’s gang are borderline incompetent in a way that’s increasingly laughable.

Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the West?

Travolta gets in on the act as a man who seems very much in control of his own little kingdom, but when things truly kick off he’s somewhat caught in the middle. Thankfully he’s not just the bullying villainous type, instead getting a nicely balanced reaction to events: he knows Gilly’s done wrong, but stands by him because he’s his son; but when Paul’s pushing comes to shoving… well, familial loyalty only gets you so far.

As Paul, Hawke finds some degree of complexity in the (anti-)hero, but this isn’t exactly a movie built for psychological complexity. Taissa Farmiga is positioned as the love interest, but thankfully isn’t entirely reduced to such a thankless role. As her sister, Karen Gillan reminds us that, while she may be best known for brightly-coloured sci-fi on screens both big and small, her roots are in comedy. But the biggest star is, of course, the dog. You can’t help getting attached, even when you know you’re watching John Wick of the West.

The dog's the star

The film offers many stylistic nods to remind us of its Spaghetti inspiration, like the starkly animated title sequence, or Jeff Grace’s Morricone-riffing score, which some criticise for its obviousness but I thought was fun. It even comes through in the film’s structure, with a slow-burn first half that reminded me of Leone’s attitude to action. Some complain of the pace there, or lack of it, but I rather liked that. It partly functions as a deliberate delaying of gratification: the main reason we’re here is for the bloody vengeance we know will eventually be coming, but West carefully sets the scene and gradually puts characters in place early on so that the second half can more fully concentrate on the violence. The wit is kept alive even then, with more than one of the deaths provoking at least some laughter.

The more I write about it, the more I wonder if this film is something of an acquired taste. It’s not out-and-out comical enough to be classed as a comedy, but action die-hards may feel the lighter elements undermine the violent thrills they seek. I thought it worked, but experience has taught me that I’m more accepting than most of such tonal mash-ups.

Cool cowboy

Despite the plot similarities, In a Valley of Violence isn’t going to challenge John Wick for ultra-choreographed action satisfaction, but it has many aspects to recommend it for those who like a chuckle alongside their bloodshed.

4 out of 5

In a Valley of Violence is released direct to DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on 6th March.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from today.

Advertisements

The Present (2014)

2016 #114
Jacob Frey | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Germany / English

The PresentA short film about a boy and his dog, The Present was a graduation short for the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany (yeah, I copy & pasted that), which has since won more than 50 awards after playing at film festivals around the world. Reportedly it also single-handedly landed its animator/director a job at Disney — he went on to work on Zootopiatropolis.

The simple story sees a videogame-obsessed boy given a mysterious box by his mother. Distracted long enough to open it, inside he finds a puppy, and… well, the film’s only four minutes long — you’re better off watching it than having me describe the story.

Regular readers will know I’m a bit of a sucker for cute dogs nowadays, be they real or animated — I gave Disney short Feast a full five stars last year. If you enjoyed that, then I’m certain you’ll like The Present too. There are other similarities: it’s about a guy bonding with his dog; it’s told in near-silence, with the big emotional reveals left for you to pick up through the pictures rather than explanatory dialogue; and it certainly tugs on the heartstrings to a similar degree.

In fact, I don’t think it’s going too far to say The Present may even be the better of the two — though it’s a close call.

5 out of 5

You can watch The Present free on Vimeo.

P.S. A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

2016 #19
L.Q. Jones | 90 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Based on a novella by esteemed author Harlan Ellison, this is a low-budget sci-fi comedy-drama about a horny teenager (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog (voiced by Tim McIntire) surviving in a post-apocalyptic wilderness, who are lured into a weird underground world. It’s a film fuelled by weirdness, left-field ideas, and a controversial tragicomic ending.

It’s a “not for everyone” kind of film that, I must confess, I found hard to properly engage with thanks to watching the poor quality, overly dark, windowboxed copy that used to be hosted on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

One to try again someday, maybe.

3 out of 5

Feast (2014)

2015 #28a
Patrick Osborne | 6 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

FeastThis year’s Best Animated Short Oscar winner is a charming little tale of a dog and his owner. I absolutely adored it, though there’s little doubt that it was helped to victory by being produced by Disney and released theatrically alongside Best Animated Film winner Big Hero 6. I haven’t seen any of the other shorts nominees, but you only have to look at clips of The Bigger Picture and learn a little about how it was made to see that it’s a monumental technical achievement, if nothing else. But I’ve not seen it, so perhaps a nomination was reward enough.

Anyway, Feast is the (mostly-)silent story of a stray dog and his adoptive owner, told from the dog’s point of view through their shared meals. The little dog is the man’s faithful companion, particularly for all the wondrous food he provides, but when the man finds love, will our little canine hero be subjected to healthy food for the rest of his life?

Essentially one long montage, Feast is the very model of economical storytelling. With nary a word of dialogue — certainly, none that drive the plot — we quickly learn everything we need to know, see everything the characters are thinking, and follow their decisions and motivations. It’s obviously a slight tale — it’s only six minutes long — But it's empty!but nonetheless packs an emotional punch. Viewers have been known to shed a little tear (though fear not, dear reader: it doesn’t come via a Marley & Me-type ending).

Whether Feast is the greatest or most groundbreaking short on this year’s ballot, I wouldn’t like to say. It is, however, a lovely rendering of a beautiful little story about, truly, man’s best friend.

5 out of 5

Feast is available on the Blu-ray (and DVD, I guess) release of Big Hero 6, out in the UK today.