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.

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.

White God (2014)

aka Fehér Isten

2016 #11
Kornél Mundruczó | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hungary, Germany & Sweden / Hungarian | 15 / R

Thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen are forced to temporarily live with her father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), because her mother is going on holiday with her new partner. Dániel doesn’t like Hagen anyway, but when the dog’s behaviour causes problems for him, he sets Hagen loose on the streets. Already angry with her father and his attitude, a devastated Lili sets out to find her beloved dog, who is busy discovering the darker side of mankind and our treatment of animals.

If White God sounds a bit bleak then, well, it can be. It’s a European arthouse drama, really, and so you get the attendant choices with pacing and storytelling style, as well as a commitment to realism — until the third act, at least, which I’ll come to in a moment. Hagen ends up in some very dark places, and co-writer/director Kornél Mundruczó doesn’t shy away from showing their brutality. Conversely, real dogs were used throughout filming, and the film doesn’t have a Hollywood budget for prosthetics or CGI, so we’re spared some of the imagery a less fiscally inhibited director might’ve forced upon us. Mundruczó insisted that all the dogs in the film were real animals trained to perform (and none were harmed, of course), which must’ve been limiting at times, but makes everything we see that much more effective.

For all the toughness of the journey, where it leads is triumphant; not entirely so, I must add, but enough. The film’s third act can pithily be described as Rise of the Planet of the Dogs: having seen the abuses of humans, an impounded Hagen leads a canine uprising that seeks to… well, they don’t speak (they’re dogs, remember, and this isn’t Disney), so who knows what their precise aims are? “Revenge” would be too cruel, but they definitely seeking some retribution. The film’s sadness doesn’t disappear (hence why not entirely triumphant), but some wrongs are righted.

The comparison to certain films about apes goes further than just the theme of an animal revolution, however: just like the last two Apes movies, White God drags a little when it leaves the animals for the humans. I’d love to see an edit which just followed Hagen’s story — you’d certainly keep all the film’s interesting and memorable bits, and lose very little. Not that the human bits are bad, per se, but they don’t go anywhere particularly new. Ooh, a teenager striking out, going to clubs (gasp!), and then realising that her parent isn’t such a monster after all (twist!) The performances are good — young Psotta is very naturalistic, and Zsótér makes you understand the humanity of someone who could’ve been a straightforward villain — but the dogs are where the real interest is at.

Some will find the middle of the film a slog, I suspect, both emotionally and with its occasionally lagging pace. However, the bookends seek to justify it. There’s catharsis in the finale, as described, but even better is the film’s opening. It has to be seen to be properly understood, but it’s operatically scored, shot, and edited, and involves hundreds (literally) of trained dogs en masse. It’s spectacular, unforgettable moviemaking; perhaps even one of the best openings to a film ever. And I don’t say that just as a “dog person”.

White God could benefit from tightening in some places, and less focus on the by-the-motions human subplots wouldn’t be a bad thing, but as a kind of magical realist drama, almost an arthouse take on certain Hollywood blockbuster narratives, it’s a compelling and sometimes awe-inspiring movie.

4 out of 5