What I’m watching: a flawed Western and Netflix’s latest feature

May 9, 2018 | G. Michael Dobbs

I’m watching a new Western and a Netflix drama.

At the Redbox: Hostiles

The Western used to be staple of the American cinema. It’s a genre that could be used to tell almost any kind of story from adventure and action to dramatic and political to comic.

In the past few decades the Western has fallen into disfavor. Perhaps it is the over-exposure the films had for most of the 20th Century. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgement of the political incorrectness that was part of many of the storylines.  Perhaps the struggles of people more than a century ago just don’t seem relevant.

“Hostiles” is a well-meaning effort to address one of the blaring problems with the genre: how Westerns portrayed Native Americans. While I admired the fact that Scott Cooper, the film’s writer, director and producer, wanted to take on a story of forgiveness and redemption, the result is a dramatically choppy film that lurches at times from scene to scene.

Christian Bale is Capt. Joe Blocker, a career Army officer now facing retirement after 20 years. He is now on his last assignment, escorting imprisoned Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from New Mexico to Montana by order of the president. Yellow Hawk has terminal cancer and has become a cause celebre in Washington, D.C. Naturally he doesn’t want the job.

Yellow Hawk is an old enemy and Blocker hates him, as he does all Native people. He views that his job in the Army has been to kill them and he admits to killing men, women and children. While his long-time sergeant admits to having severe regrets, Blocker won’t admit it.

With his pension at risk, though, he accepts the job and saddles up a detail to make the long ride to Montana. Along the way he meets a woman whose family has been wiped out by a band of Comanche who joins the group.

There are many perils along the way, and slowly Blocker seems to accept that what he is doing is right and makes some sort of peace not only with Yellow Hawk but also with himself.

This is a film that could have been as much about a character’s internal struggles as his exterior struggles, but Cooper seemed more interested in presenting scenes of the party rising through the glorious western country than detailing how Blocker’s change is coming about.

I must admit the film lost me in the opening moments when we learn of Blocker’s assignment. The director sets the time to 1892, when trains crisscrossed the West. Why the hell didn’t the Army simply put Yellow hawk and his family on a train? If the film had been set earlier the long horseback ride would have made much more sense.

The performances are as fine as the script allowed. Bale is intense but inscrutable as Blocker. Rosamund Pike is fine as the widow, but Wes Studi is not given enough dialogue or screen time to fully develop his character.  

While at times admirable, “Hostiles,” isn’t wholly successful.

On Netflix: Kodachrome

I’m always interested in the kind of movies Netflix produces itself for the streaming service and “Kodachrome” features some good performances in a by-the-numbers drama.

As such, it’s not a bad way to kill 90 minutes, but not the best either.

Jason Sudeikis plays Matt, a record company executive who is told his long estranged father Ben, a world-renowned photographer, is dying and wants his son to drive him to Kansas where the last lab that develops Kodachrome film is about to close. Ben, played with a nasty grittiness by Ed Harris, has several rolls of film that he took early in his career and wants them developed for his last show.

Ben is accompanied by a nurse, Zoe, (played by Elizabeth Olsen) who will go with them, as Ben need constant attention.

Do I have to spell it out for you folks? Will Ben and Zoe fall in love? Will Ben continue to be a jerk, but then admits his faults? What will be on the rolls of film? I bet you have the answers.

The film is well cast and it isn’t bad, but it’s predictable. The story follows the conventions of such a film by the numbers. Although I know many people enjoy watching a film with a time-honored plot, I wanted a little more.

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