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Fantastic Fest: Quint begins his fest wrap-up with Western themed twofer! Ed Harris' APPALOOSA and JT Petty's THE BURROWERS!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a pair of western themed reviews from Fantastic Fest. This begins my catch-up on FF reviews. I don’t want to just hit you with two dozen mini-reviews, so we’ll see how many full reviews I can pop out before I say fuck it and just mini-review the remainders.

This was one of the secret screenings and I was anxious to finally see this. Let me start out by saying that I dig westerns, even deliberately paced westerns. Some people hated THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES because it was long and slow, but I liked it for the filmmaking and performances, even if I had some trouble with the overall story (which just finally seemed to start about 15 minutes before the movie ended). I love THE PROPOSITION. So, slower westerns don’t bug me. But it did bug me with this one. Now, I won’t say it’s a bad movie. Dean Semler’s (THE ROAD WARRIOR) photography is great, Viggo Mortensen’s performance is great, Jeremy Irons is great (despite a bizarre accent, an amalgam of old west drawl and upper crust British) and some of Ed Harris’ performance is strong, but it’s a disappointing movie for me. The problem with the movie is that it’s trying to tell a boring as hell romance with a woman that isn’t likable while at the same time trying to be a hard western without any real action. The romantic lead is Alli, played by Renee Zellweger at her most pinchy-faced. I actually like Zellweger generally, so this isn’t a dig at her, but the character she plays betrays the one big rule of a screen romance… they make her unlikable, so every action Ed Harris does to stay with her, every betrayal of his core character, just feels stupid to me. Basically, Ed Harris is a badass gunman named Virgil Cole and has an equally badass wingman named Everett Hitch (Viggo). They’re hired by the counsel of a small town to come in after their Marshall is killed by crazy brutal Jeremy Irons. That’s the plot of a few dozen Westerns, but it’s a formula that usually results in a pretty awesome clashing as two huge forces collide, usually in a hailstorm of lead. Now, I like that Harris was doing his best to take a fresh look at this kind of story, but as much as I liked the “realistic” shootout and the laughter moment when everybody involved gets shot and ends up on the ground, leading Harris to say that everybody involved knew how to shoot… as much I liked that, I missed the fun. There’s just no fun in this movie. I would have loved it if this movie had someone a little more charming and right for the Alli, someone you can love even when she’s revealed to be a pretty despicable person, and a little more fun injected throughout. I don’t need crazy Verhoeven squibs going off or Sam Raimi crazy-cam shit going on, but damn it… I need something to keep me interested. If you’re going to have a slow western, the writing has to be top notch, the characters intensely interesting. If you’re not going to have that, then you better bring some crazy awesome action. Both are lacking in this film, which leaves me only disappointed because they have so many ingredients I like in place. This should have been an awesome meal and instead turned out to be overcooked, dry and tasteless.

Here was a surprise. JT Petty’s THE BURROWERS is in many respects a lot like APPALOOSA. The film is deliberately paced, it aims to do a little something different for the type of film it is and it’s beautifully shot. But I feel JT Petty succeeded where Ed Harris failed (pretty crazy sentence, right?) in that Petty made a movie that took the world seriously, but didn’t forget to, you know, entertain the audience and deliver on the slow build. Basically what you have here is a Western that has monsters in it, but they treat the monsters as animals that exist within the world, hidden from the eyes of the white men, but known to the Native Americans. The animals appear every three decades to feed and capture food for storage. They used to feed on Buffalo but when they wake up this time their usual food source was been all been wiped out, so they turn to the most plentiful food left on the plains: humans. Reading over that, I can see how it’d be seen as cheesy, but that’s just a testament to Petty’s approach to the film that that synopsis can play so well. For one, he focuses on character and cast a few really great character actors to keep them interesting. My favorites being the great and underused Clancy Brown and Doug Hutchison (Percy from THE GREEN MILE). Brown is a hard-ass with a soul and Hutchison is working firmly within his comfort zone (not a bad thing) playing a slimy little weasel of a soldier. They’re all banning together to track down a girl who was taken from her home. The girl’s family was killed and she was taken. The assumption is it was Indians, but as the group gives chase it becomes clearer and clearer that it was something else. Karl Geary is also very good in this picture as the lead, an Irishman engaged to the missing girl. LOST’s William Mapother is also brought in to lead in the chase, bringing along the teenaged son of the woman he’s courting. He’s not all that nice of a guy, but I really dug his character. He’s forced to bring this kid along with him, but there’s a genuine connection that develops between the two. I mentioned the chase, hunting down the lost girl… that’s not an off-hand moment in the film… that IS the film. Most of the movie is on location, taking place on the open plains, which opens it up and gives it a rather unique visual identity. Now this movie might be too slow for some of the more impatient gorehounds. We get plenty of creature work and blood later in the film, but it really does take its time to get us used to the characters, get us used to the world, while it builds tension. That’s a good thing that a lot of horror films forget to do these days. The creature work is great. I started the review with a design concept for one of the Burrowers and it is executed very well. There’s some obvious CG enhancement that is done in the last act, but even then Petty went out of his way to keep the creatures as practical as possible, so it’s not a bunch of CG blobs running around trying to be scary. And the end… Well, it’s dark. Things don’t go well for a damn lot of the characters you’ve grown to like over the movie, but I won’t say much more than that. Nobody leaves this movie unscathed and just like the best of horror, we come to find that there’s no monster more terrifying and brutal than man. Right now this is going direct to video, which is a damn shame because so much attention was paid to making this film as theatrical and professional as possible. It’s a really good big screen movie and I wish that we’d see more horror like this on the big screen. But it seems all the good horror movies from the independent world or overseas just seems to be thrown direct to video, left to drown in a sea of cheap, shitty DTV movies. Dimension did that with INSIDE, possibly one of the best horror films to be made in recent memory and I’m seeing a lot of film fest movies like this one getting the same treatment. Here’s the trailer. Give it a view. You’ll see it’s not a cheap example of the genre:

Alright, two reviews down… a lot more to go as the catch-up goes into full swing! -Quint

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