Tag Archives: John Travolta

Land of Old Tropes

Mob Land

by Matt Weiner

Stop if you’ve heard this one before… good-hearted, small-time criminals get caught up in a web of violence and forces far beyond their control, with a dash of social commentary and vague nods toward the senselessness of the universe and fate.

Mob Land, the feature film debut from Nicholas Maggio, could at a distance be mistaken for any number of neo-noirs it borrows heavily from. Strong, silent Shelby Conners (Shiloh Fernandez) relies on what work he can get—legal and otherwise—to support his family in rural Alabama. When his brother-in-law Trey (Kevin Dillon) comes up with a plan to rob a local pill mill, Shelby tags along as wheelman.

Both men of course end up over their heads and soon have to tangle with the ruthless New Orleans mob outfit that runs the clinic, as well as local law enforcement, headed up by a sheriff who exudes “too old for this” with each gruff word.

When it comes to showing its influences on screen, Mob Land is as unlucky as Shelby and Trey. The movie has the guts to take from more incisive forebears, and it’s hard not to make running comparisons. It’s also hampered by a script from Maggio that always feels right on the cusp of making a point about its characters and the hands they are dealt. But here again, it lacks the follow-through to turn its stars into more than the slightly off-discount versions of the brand name version.

The dialogue and character choices are likely too great for any ensemble to overcome, but Mob Land has brief flashes of a world where a less restrained pastiche might have worked. John Travolta’s performance as the tired sheriff is reserved to the point of redundancy. It serves mainly as a reminder that he deserves to find the right vehicle for this stage of his career.

But it falls to Stephen Dorff’s mob hitman Clayton as the prime example of how Mob Land stretches out the seams of the influences it wants to inhabit. Clayton is the AI output of an Anton Chigurh text generator. An unstoppable force with questionable morals who speaks almost entirely in empty aphorisms for the whole movie, Dorff tries valiantly to add dimensionality to the part. That it almost works is a testament to the actor, whose eclectic filmography belies how good he is in the right part.

Story aside, credit to Maggio as a director. Along with cinematographer Nick Matthews, Maggio elevates the film’s limited settings to deliver a believably lived-in southern noir. As by-the-numbers as much else seems, Mob Land takes an effective approach to the creeping dread and violence that tear apart Shelby’s world.

These touches aren’t enough to salvage the film, but they do keep it from being outright bad. Worse, Mob Land is mostly forgettable, perhaps the greater sin for a noir. There are echoes of the poverty porn of Hell or High Water, and more than a few heaping doses of the Coen brothers.

It’s all thrown together too haphazardly, and with little room left for Mob Land to have something to say of its own that we haven’t already heard before.

Grass Is Green, Girls Are Pretty

Paradise City

by George Wolf

Until the recent news that Bruce Willis had sold his “likeness” for use in future projects, Paradise City was once targeted as his final film before the retirement brought on by aphasia.

It seemed like a good plan. Reunite him with John Travolta, add the talents of Stephen Dorff, and Bruce could bow out with a respectable crime thriller.

Turns out, they should have saved Gasoline Alley for last.

Paradise City lands as another cookie cutter production from Edward Drake, Corey Large and Chuck Russell, surrounding solid work by the three leads with a litany of dreadful supporting performances and careless construction.

Willis is bounty hunter Ian Swan, who goes missing in Maui after finally confronting the $10 million fugitive he’s been tracking for years. Ian’s son Ryan (Blake Jenner) wants in on the family business, so he travels to Hawaii where he teams with Ian’s old partner Robby (Dorff) and a Maui cop named Savannah (Praya Lundberg) to take up the mystery of what happened to his old man.

And odds are it has something to do with Buckley (Travolta), a local big wig who’s buying off all the Maui politicians for the rights to strip mine all over the island.

Explosions. Shoot ’em ups. Bikinis. Embarrassing fight choreography. Unsurprising surprises.

Fattening this holiday turkey to feature length also requires a side trip to the village of Paradise City, where the natives are resisting Buckley’s bribes. Why don’t Ryan and Savannah use one of her endless supply of off days to try on some skimpy swimsuits and learn about Hawaiian culture?

And then…back to the bad guys.

Travolta mercifully tones down scenery chewing, Willis is game for what he’s asked to do and Dorff seems like Olivier next to most of the cast members he’s often saddled with.

Really, I can’t imagine what was going through Dorff’s head during some of his takes. He may as well be teaching a class for mannequins who just came to life that very day. But they’re so excited to be acting! Painful.

But they all probably had a great time in Maui.

Valley Dogs

In A Valley of Violence

by Cat McAlpine

Paul (Ethan Hawke) just wants to make it to Mexico, and freedom. Unfortunately, a random and heart-wrenching act of violence detours him down a bloody path to revenge. Writer/director Ti West brings his experience in the horror genre to the Wild West, with surprising but refreshing reserve.

In a Valley of Violence benefits from West’s time in horror. The build is steady and slow. Paul transforms from quiet stranger to calculating killer, but all the blood is earned. The shootouts aren’t elaborate but they are grisly and realistic.

The first note I wrote down was “color”. (The second note I wrote down was “His dog wears a bandana.”) West has colorized an homage to old westerns, bright and yellow. At the turning point, though, his roots show.

The camera work changes with Paul. A flashback is handled with a shaky cam and a flashlight. It feels like found footage, and though it’s a jarring stylistic change, it’s not unwelcome.

Another scene is shot from a single vantage point that makes the view feel like a security camera. The small room almost gets that fisheye quality, as Paul sneaks up behind an unsuspecting bather. These touches gently meld the horror and western genres, using cues from both to shape the viewers’ journey.

The performances are as realistic as West’s measured use of bullets and blood. Hawke is brooding and dangerous, but soft, too. His dog is an excellent device to extrapolate the way PTSD can function. Paul confidently banters with his dog, makes her promises, plots with her… but when he’s faced with people he keeps his mouth shut and his eyes low.

As the sheriff, John Travolta plays with equal restraint and mastery. He’s quiet but commanding, a good match to Hawke. As he devolves into panic, Travolta becomes funnier and more terrifying.

These performances from the two veterans balance out a younger cast of characters who are spoiling for adventure.

Karen Gillan shines with absurdity and humor, and she’s hard not to watch, even sprinting across the back of a shot. Taissa Farmiga is all wide-eyed wonder, but carries enough grit to make her character arc as compelling as Paul’s.

Most of the absurdity comes from a truly excellent Burn Gorman, as the priest. His drunken ramblings about sinners are bizarre, and showcase some of the best writing in the film. The priest’s appearances divide the film into three distinct parts, highlighted by Paul’s changing interaction with him each time. He serves as a beautiful device and a welcome, though momentary, release of pressure.

In a Valley of Violence is an homage to the traditional western with updates from the horror genre, not with blood, but with tension. Paired with a fantastic score from Jeff Grace and a cast that delivers, West has avoided the trappings of the modern shoot-em-ups and rejoined the classics with some fresh perspective.