Bloody, Pensive 'Hostiles' Strays From Path to Significance

Directed by: Scott Cooper; Runtime: 134 minutes
Grade: C

The pushback against the history books regarding the treatment and colonialization of Native Americans has strengthened over the past half-century, but the yearly calls to abandon Columbus Day and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests have kept the issues prominent in current discussions. The urge to work these contemporary perspectives and messages into live-action historical fiction may be noble, but they run the risk of going against the grain of how attitudes likely were during earlier eras, especially in terms of the Americans' treatment of their indigenous people during the transformative late-1800s. Among other modern enlightened ideals, Scott Cooper's Hostiles attempts to work these considerations and concerns built on hindsight into his elongated adventure from New Mexico to Montana, and the awakened changes that characters undergo become questionable in response. Strong performance value, gritty frontier survival, and a tasteful representation of Native American heritage fail to thrive under the weight of doubtful logistics and impractical personality transformations ... and pacing that drags the trek out longer than it should.

After rounding up yet another Native American family and bringing them to be imprisoned at his military fort, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) nears the end of his demanding, bloody military career, one largely dominated by pursuing and warring with the country's indigenous peoples. In his final orders before retirement, Blocker has been given a particularly contentious assignment: to escort an imprisoned Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his entire family to their valley homeland in Montana, before he succumbs to "the cancer". This isn't just some Indian, though, as he's been responsible for the deaths of many of Blocker's fellow soldiers, putting him in a very complicated position. Armed with a mixture of troops of his choosing and those appointed by his superior, Blocker and his crew begin the long, arduous escort mission, one that's going to take them through the wild and lawless frontier. Unsurprisingly, they encounter others along the way, from violent native tribespeople to a widow, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), whose entire family was murdered by them.

The very last scene of Hostiles centers on a train leaving its station, and it's a bothersome final image to send it off on because it makes one think about the arduous journey of Blocker's party … and how it could've been far less bloody and demanding had they all just taken a train. There may be reasonable explanations to why they didn't, rooted in the covert nature of safely transporting a Native American between locations, factoring in the complex historical turning point regarding their integration into the society of frontier-era United States. None of this gets addressed, though, leaving the audience to assume that this horse-led journey -- through wide expanses of volatile wilderness -- must be the only way possible, and that the resistant Captain Blocker is the only guide who can shoulder the responsibility due to his grasp of the land and of the native's language. Working from a manuscript by Oscar-winner Donald E. Stewart, Cooper attempts to make the most of it by putting Blocker's embittered traits under a magnifying glass, but these circumstances seem manufactured so that the greatest amount of time and conflict are forced upon him, all so his perception of who he's escorting will change.

Hostiles doesn't ease those watching into accepting what change might come to Blocker's perspective, either, beginning with a depiction of the brutal -- and sporadically absurd -- murder of Rosalie's family at the hands of the more violent type of Native Americans roaming the lands; she really shouldn't have made it out alive. With scalping and indiscriminate gunfire upon women and children, the point gets made that certain stories told about their vicious nature aren't exaggerations, which explains Blocker's intolerant position against them. Christian Bale telegraphs a sturdy portrayal of a weatherworn captain with blood on his hands, and it's tough not to sympathize with his hardened viewpoint after seeing the brutality at the start. Nor does the authenticity of Rosamund Pike's shell-shocked demeanor come into question, in which she produces a genuinely distinctive performance as the grief-stricken widow, teetering on the line between anguish and delusion in her grasp on what's happened to her.

Once they're on the journey from New Mexico to Montana, Hostiles adopts the kind of drawn-out, sparse pacing that steers it away from being a western and closer to a tense period drama, centered around prolonged close-ups that reveal what's going on in the minds of soldiers, widows, and natives alike. The focus on these characters may be potent, but it can also feel time-displaced in how it approaches grief, murder, and forgiveness. Scott Cooper devotes less time to the gravitas of physical conflicts, sporting only a handful of gritty scenes of exchanged gunfire and resorting to random encounters to create suspense and conceptual parallels involving the many kinds of "hostiles" scattered across the country. Those on the hunt for the next Proposition or 3:10 to Yuma won't find that here, discovering instead a deliberate character examination populated with severe, awkwardly philosophical conversations and overstated drama involving the cavalrymen -- especially from Rory Cochrane's haunted, bearded Sergeant Metz -- which come across as out-of-place and filtered through modern thinking.

With beautiful craftsmanship involving the picturesque landscape and the restrained, properly spare aesthetics, Hostiles doesn't lack for legitimacy in its setting, nor in its evenhanded and non-stereotypical depiction of the era's Native Americans, mixing soulfulness with intimidation; The Last of the Mohicans' Wes Studi absorbingly plays the sagely elder, passing the torch to another actor now embodying a face-painted bad guy. What it does lack is credible evolutions of its harrowed primary characters, especially Blocker, which occur at accelerated and unconvincing rates in the context of the experiences they've endured, opting for the overpowering potency of absolute understanding instead of nuanced, measured progress through experiences. Blocker has many years of antagonism toward what Native Americans have done to him and his fellow soldiers, and his headspace -- and general circumstances -- once Hostiles reaches its bloodstained destination misses the mark with the premise's expressive potential, traveling between stark idealistic peaks and valleys in how it portrays one white man's converted awareness to where the hostility really comes from.

Film review also appeared over at [Click Here]

Unsettling 'Miss Zombie' Lacks Gray Matter as Zombie Drama

Directed by Sabu; Runtime: 85 minutes
Grade: C+

Explorations of the underlying feelings and dramatics involved with being one of pop-culture's noteworthy "monsters" have grown in popularity over recent decades, from the immortality and blood-drinking necessity of vampires to tormented ghosts and werewolves controlling the beastly side of themselves. These creatures possess the foundation for genuine explorations of what it's like to live in their skin -- the struggles and associated themes -- because their stories offer a glimpse at what the world looks like through the lens of their perception, which hasn't directly impacted their human-like thought processes. Zombies, on the other hand, have been purposely designed to lack coherence and a grasp on what it's like to be human, with their disease transforming them into mindless flesh-eaters. Therefore, the underlying conceit of Sabu's Miss Zombie already hits a wall that its stunning black-and-white productions design and gritty, committed performance value cannot scale over.

Miss Zombie does try to adjust the context of a world populated by zombies, in which the condition has many stages -- not unlike a disease -- that develop with time and fluctuate depending on the individual zombie's situation, notably whether they eat meat or not. Due to the degrees of the zombie condition, almost-human versions of the creatures can be utilized and indentured servants or slaves or however one wants to classify them, where their semi-mindless state can be controlled and applied to menial tasks. A Japanese family receives one of such zombies, Sara (Ayaka Komatsu), locked up in both a metal cage and a wooden crate, along with an included pistol just in case the servant grows out of control. As the zombie begins to work around the house, shuffling her feet and monotonously scrubbing the floor, both the family that currently controls her and the other workers on their property begin to look at her differently, some viewing her with more humanity and others in an unsavory and abusive light.

The starkness of the monochrome photography and the intense focus upon Sara's scarred and veiny appearance evoke harshness in Miss Zombie, but it's a stunning and absorbing sort of harshness that draws one into Sabu's world-building. By playing with depth of field and the extremes of light and shadow, the director and his cinematographer Daisuke Soma craft an absorbing atmosphere around which the zombie perpetually and rhythmically scrubs a heavily-textured floor and walks to-and-from a living space some distance away from the property. The sounds of her shuffling feet, signaling her approach or departure, takes on unique meaning throughout the film depending on how she's perceived at a given time: trepidation, curiosity, and eventually a human degree of suspicion. Based solely on the sharp-contrast aesthetics and the oddly disquieting mood generated within them, Sabu's handling of the zombie's presence around the household could be labeled stimulating and provocative.

Examining Miss Zombie beyond the surface elements and into Sabu's deeper emotional and social considerations never works, though, and that revolves around the arbitrary nature of the zombie's dulled awareness of the world around her and the degree of humanity that remains within her. Actress Ayaka Komatsu capably embodies the stoically deadened attitude of a zombie under some form of control, be it self-control or programming, allowing flickers of personality to come out in subtle, sluggish glances and movements. Sympathy for the zombie emerges in how she's mistreated on a day-to-day basis, but those intentions are clouded by the vagueness over what's going on in her head and how she's able to tolerate it, both the violent aspects of being stabbed or stoned and the emotional scars that follow along. That ambiguity may be intentional with Sabu's world-building, but without some frame of reference as to how distorted her perception has become as a member of the undead -- or without internal monologues, like in Warm Bodies -- the thematic elements can't be properly evaluated.

Despite those impenetrable issues that have made zombie character studies a rarity, Miss Zombie doesn't tread over much new situational or symbolic ground within the broader undead subgenre, either, stitching together elements from other shock-value horror-drama hybrids. Sabu doesn't shy away from difficult themes in his depiction, hinged on the monster's perceived lowered worth as an individual and the unique situations involved with granting a form of immortality to those who are bitten by the afflicted. From the sexual abuse of Deadgirl and the reformation aspects of The Woman to turn-undead desperations that immediately trigger thoughts of Interview with the Vampire, the ideas cobbled together here do shuffle close to a deeper purpose reflecting upon the ostracization, exploitation, and objectification of, y'know, regular people. As the zombie seems to develop more value, the "normal" humans exhibit less worthwhile qualities and begin to resemble figurative monsters with their impulses, a functional parable about the nastiness of mankind that lacks freshness.

Shocking, mildly avant-garde imagery and an uptick in dramatic uncertainty cannot distract from the fact that Sabu struggles with coherent and contradictory storytelling in Miss Zombie. Little about the timeline and logistics of the situation seems clear, notably how the zombie is allowed to walk back and forth between the house and her ramshackle living space, a trek that's long enough to see daylight disappear while tempting her with aggravating confrontations and meat-eating possibilities. This ends up being one of many messy allowances taken by Sabu in service of his conceptual ambitions, which get even messier and contrived as he reaches a crazed finale driven by gunfire, accidents, and flashbacks that creep up and have a cerebral impact whenever the director sees fit. Despite an intriguingly gradual escalation of emotional tension created by the zombie's presence, Sabu pulls the trigger on jarring shock value at the end of Miss Zombie and he misses the mark due to how it's completely hinged on an individual whose thought-processes exist in an indeterminate state of cogency.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

'Stolen' Robs Female-Driven Western of Charisma, Practicality

Directed by: Niall Johnson; Runtime: 98 minutes
Grade: D

Capturing the experience of being a woman during the western/frontier era has its complications, regardless of the country within which it's taking place, where filmmakers must trot along the line between credible depictions of gender dynamics and inspiring feats of independence and wherewithal. Some tread closer to the territory of realism -- such as the austere and slow-rolling Meek's Cutoff -- but most other contemporary female-led westerns take themselves less seriously to elevate the empowering action and themes, hinged on murdered or debilitated husbands that force spirited women to fend for themselves and, more often than not, quickly learn to get comfortable using a gun. The Stolen plays out like a reaction to other films of its type, as if purposely muting the overstated mannerisms of its contemporaries while also trying to keep the lead character's growth from dainty wife to capable gunslinger somewhat genuine. Doing so has also robbed action-oriented energy and personality from the heroine, resulting in a dull and haphazard period drama.

Alice Eve takes her shot at the genre as Charlotte, a beautiful and delicate wife to a wealthy landowner in New Zealand, who's recently given birth to a young son. In the middle of the night, a group of masked bandits show up and rob them at gunpoint, with the sequence of events leaving Charlotte's husband dead and her young infant taken somewhere unknown. Grieving the situation and seemingly hopeless, she one day receives a letter ensuring her that her son's alive and can essentially be bought back with a sum of money. With only the barest of knowledge about how to operate a firearm, Charlotte takes matters into her own hands and tries to sleuth her way to her son's location, leading her across the wilderness and into the dens of less savory individuals, some good-natured enough and others as vile as they come. The journey, understandably, becomes a transformative experience for the mostly soft-spoken and genteel Charlotte, bound to get even tougher if she actually finds her son and tries to reclaim him.

Based on the film's appealing yet stripped-down capturing of the period and the presence of a talent like Alice Eve -- a disarming and empathetic actress in need of the right leading role -- The Stolen holds promise in its depiction of a grieving woman surviving alone and pursuing her abducted child in mid-1800s New Zealand. Eve has a reputation of bringing unexpected pluckiness to supporting roles, yet she usually does so after establishing a credibly reserved presence and then lets her edginess poke out, which could plausibly elevate Charlotte's transformation of her demeanor. With elegant garments and the actress' pursed attitude, the beginning of The Stolen builds its historical world well enough around Charlotte, even going so far as to plant early seeds in her ability to use firearms. Emphasis falls on the quality of her husband's character and her trepidation in changing lifestyles, after moving to a more remote location without farmhands and houseworkers. These positive qualities can only sustain the film for a brief time, yet there are early glimmers of substance behind Charlotte's story.

Then, the circumstances leading to the creation of our maternal heroine's solitude emerge in The Stolen, and the wheels start coming off. Precise, hard-to-stomach connections of events are crucial to discovering where her son might be and to how she gets there, to "Gold Town", sending her on a ramshackle trek across the perilous New Zealand countryside with a gaggle of salacious "working women" in the wagon with her … and questionable men guarding them. The contrast in their personalities remains predictably stark as the high-chinned, long-necked Charlotte winces and tolerates their looser and more invasive presence, then begins to see the human side and hard-livin' awareness that each one has to offer, playing into the film's methodology of shaping Charlotte into her own kind of independent woman. The connections that could've formed between them never develop beyond how they progress the script's threadbare plotting and shield Charlotte from the unwanted advances of men, growing more complicated and less plausible as the wagon ride turns ludicrously calamitous and fatal.

The Stolen doesn't really concern itself with the entertainment side of the western genre, as it desperately tries to make the audience take it seriously by respecting the mother's grief and restraints of her gender roles, sporting only a few tame, throwaway shootouts and assorted action throughout. Some suspense may be unearthed once Charlotte reaches Gold Town alongside that troupe of prostitutes and very few other women around, forcing her to adapt to the surroundings and remain in good standing with the town's owner, McCullen (Jack Davenport), but her progression from upper-cruster to an undercover lady of the night doesn't persuade enough to lend significance to her survivalist tendencies. Beyond moments of seduction that Charlotte cleverly exploits to her advantage, The Stolen leaves one searching for a purpose -- either narrative or expressive -- to her trials rather than digging into the hazards of pursuing her son: the consequence of relying so heavily on hardbound melodramatics instead of having a little fun with Charlotte's vengeance.

Once she stands with a new, piercing demeanor and a steady hand holding a revolver, it's hard to know what to make of Charlotte by the end of The Stolen, as she's neither the prim-‘n-proper debutante from the beginning nor the brazen, fully independent woman on display by her prior traveling companions. She's undergone an evolution, but director Niall Johnson doesn't place enough emphasis on the impacts that her experiences have had to illustrate what kind of woman she's become or will continue to be. Decoding that answers and interpreting the caliber of Charlotte's liberty might've been an interesting exercise under better circumstances, yet The Stolen doesn't offer enough substance to achieve that, and the timed arrival of a hackneyed last-minute savior undercuts -- and distracts from -- some of those deeper consequences. With marginal action and muddy dramatic purposes, what's left is a shallow, rudderless period drama whose commitment to practicality and evasion of cinematic indulgence leaves a film that's robbed of enough character to care.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]