King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Is there anyone out there who was clamouring for a new King Arthur movie? With certain standards, like Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, there’s a real sense that there is a fanbase out there, and that those characters have stories in them to tell. King Arthur though? Sure, his story is the backbone to plenty of other stories, but the Knights of the Round Table themselves have never really popped onscreen (give or take a Holy Grail). Since no one is interested in seeing a King Arthur movie (a truth I will assume correct until proven wrong), it’s no surprise that Guy Ritchie had no interest in making one either. His King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is really a sneaky way for him to make a familiarly Guy Ritchie Cockney crime lark, with some Arthurian legend in the margins to convince the studios to give him a budget. At least, that’s what it seems like, but far too often those margins grow and swallow the energy of the rest of the film.

After a ten-or-so minute intro on the backstory of kings and mages, King Arthur reaches its absolute peak: a wordless quick-cut montage that zooms through 20-odd years of history, showing us the maturing of Arthur on the streets and in the brothels of London (then Londinium) and the rise of the evil King Vortigern. It then catches us up with Arthur as he recounts an encounter with a Viking who assaulted a prostitute to the local leader of the guards, with a four-way narration between Arthur, his two mates, and the guard leader. Colorful names abound, from Goosefat Bill to the three Mikes (Flatnose Mike is the main topic of discussion), and energy pops off the screen, reminiscent of the best moments in Ritchie’s crime trifecta of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RockNRolla. It’s all very much like the second coming of A Knights Tale, just a bit less anachronistic and a bit less noble.

For these moments, King Arthur looks like a winner, but it loses steam when it tries to say something about the “King” part. There are moments here and there after Arthur pulls the sword from the stone that hint at some originality and some joy, but with the exception of a montage of Arthur dealing with rodents of unusual size, they all relate to the city and its crooked side. An assassination attempt midway through the movie is a blast for the most part (best one-line character in the movie: “I’m a target, aren’t I?”), but falls flat when it moves from talk to action. Mostly, this has to do with the use of Excalibur, which puts Arthur in some kind of fighting super-mode. It’s about as much fun to watch as someone play a videogame on the easiest setting. Jude Law doesn’t get much to chew on as Vortigern, although thankfully the magical elements of his character have been played up in the trailer; he’s at his best growling from the throne, collar open like some kind of medieval Elvis impersonator. It’s obvious from this movie that Guy Ritchie could make a really fun period piece if he focused on his strengths. Epic storytelling just isn’t one of them.

C+

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, and Jude Law
Rotten Tomatoes (26%)

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Free Fire is as cheap and joyless as its poster suggests

Let’s look at the poster for Free Fire, shall we?

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First off, the tagline “All Guns, No Control” feels like it was tossed off in the first marketing meeting for Bowling for Columbine, only to dusted off in a moment of ah-fuck-it by whoever picked up the rights to this one. Secondly, the poster looks like something released direct-to-VHS two years after Reservoir Dogs, getting a quickie re-release after Brie Larson’s (well-deserved) Oscar win. After Tarantino made it looks easy to make an engrossing crime flick in almost a single location, a flood of imitators came out, and Free Fire is a twenty-year late entry into the genre of lazy Tarantino ripoffs. Unlike more forgivable entries in this storied genre, Free Fire has a well-known team behind the camera (Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley) and a reasonably well-reputed cast. But instead of being the fun lark its Rotten Tomatoes rating would suggest, Free Fire is an example of why great writing exercises don’t always make for great movies. Or even good ones.

Aside from twenty-odd minutes of table setting, Free Fire takes place entirely within a single location, within a single firefight. A deal goes bad between a American/South African arms dealers and IRA rebels, all decked out with the appropriate ’70s attire, leading to both sides hiding behind warehouse crates and scrambling to get their hands on the briefcase of money in between them. The setup is simple, and could have been a lot of fun if the characters were fun to watch. Unfortunately, they’re shit. The characters that don’t go full ham are essentially non-entities, and the often great lead actors (the aforementioned Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer) and usually memorable character actors (Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor) never get enough individual focus to make them pop in any way nor provide even a baseline of character motivation. As for the characters who get some personality, they’re uniformly irritating, especially Sam Riley’s Irish junkie Stevo, but more especially Jack Reynor’s hotheaded asshole Harry, but MOST especially Sharlto Copley’s idiotic arms dealer Vern. The movie could devolve into a bit of slasher-esque scorekeeping, where you could keep a bit of a fun betting pool going as for who’ll make it alive, but none of the characters make enough of an impression to be worth rooting for, and Wheatley and Jump seem interested in giving the absolute worst of the lot the most screentime.

What may catch many off guard is how quickly things turn to shit once they turn to shit in Free Fire. Pretty quickly, every character has at least one wound on them, resulting in a whole lot of immobility and people crawling at each other. Free Fire could have said something about the futility of violence here, or at least injected some colorful dialogue to make it a bit of fun to watch, but instead it tells the same joke over and over: ohh Stevo/Harry/who cares got shot again, looks like it hurt eh? Even at only 85 minutes long, that joke gets old.

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D

Free Fire (2017)
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Sharlto Copley
Rotten Tomatoes (79%)

Free Fire is as cheap and joyless as its poster suggests

Get Out is unsurprisingly thoughtful and surprisingly terrifying

Catching up on Get Out a little later than most, I knew to have my expectations high, but I didn’t know precisely how high. Based on the trailers and director Jordan Peele’s sketch comedy pedigree, I expected a subversive and satirical take on suburban racism, kind of like if Cabin in the Woods was more interested in the world around it than horror tropes (the presence of Bradley Whitford certainly didn’t hurt that expectation). Suffice to say, Get Out is not the film I prejudged it to be. It’s insights into white-collar racism are sharp, but I expected that. It has its moments of deadpan hilarity, but I expected that. What I didn’t expect is how terrifying and tense the film is, and how visually distinctive and original Peele’s production is. This is not only a movie that deftly highlights a rift in the modern discussion about race, but it is also 2017’s answer to It Follows and The Witch as an original vision in horror, and an announcement of Jordan Peele as a filmmaker well worth following.

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Let’s start by looking at the frame above, which despite its presence in the trailers caught me completely off guard during the film. The push-in is uncomfortably close, actress Betty Gabriel’s face uncomfortably strained, all of which would be textbook unnerving scene-setting. But then there’s that damned bedpost on the left side of the image, which is ever-so-slightly tilted, temporarily destroying our frame of reference, and dark, making the push-in feel even more closed off. There’s nothing objectively scary in the image, no jump scare introduces it, but it’s among the most effective in the film. As the film slowly details its situation, the type of horror it plays with naturally shifts, and Peele constantly finds interesting ways of expressing it. His sense of humor certainly comes in handy to break the tension (a VHS recording late in the film manages to end on a note that’s equally unsettling and hilarious), but don’t be fooled by Peele’s sketch-comedy resume: Get Out is self-aware but not self-satirical.

Of course, Get Out is being discussed mostly for its social commentary, which makes nuanced points that beg further dissections (sample titles for the inevitable undergraduate papers on Get Out: Deer, Colonist Avatar or Symbol of Bondage?, and Appropriation Reappraised: The Folly of Colorblindness). Peele avoids making its upper-class white villains unbelievable Stepford-esque twats or hood-wearing cartoons; at the start, they feel very much like well-meaning but out-of-touch suburbanites (Bradley Whitford’s Dean Armitage would have voted for Obama a third time, after all). Get Out doesn’t engage with the alt-right; such a target is too easy. Instead, it questions the post-racial line of thinking, exposing the often unintentional and non-malicious white supremacy that is pervasive in liberal communities. That it doesn’t fall into hamfisted preaching, nor feel the need to pat its white audience members on the back, is great. That it seamlessly marries its commentary to visceral terror is masterful.

Film Title: Get Out

A

Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, and Catherine Keener
Rotten Tomatoes (99%)

Get Out is unsurprisingly thoughtful and surprisingly terrifying

Ghost in the Shell is too underwhelming to justify its controversy

I’ve never been one for manga and anime personally. Not out of spite for the medium, or nativism, or unearned self-superiority about “cartoons”; there’s just too much damn fiction out there to ingest, and Eastern animation never managed to rise to the top of my to-do list. Which is to say that, while I’m aware of its influence on The Matrix and its ilk, I’ve not particularly familiar with the Ghost in the Shell source material. But even if I was completely ignorant of the source material, Ghost in the Shell betrays its manga origins in the same way Zack Snyder’s Watchmen or Ang Lee’s Hulk betray their comic-book source. Ghost in the Shell tirelessly recreates scenes that feel like splash pages of a graphic novel, which works in small doses but feels engineered to be distant, kind of like an entire movie with the style of the dream sequences of The Big Lebowski. Rather than find a way to bring the story and characters to a style more suited to film, director Rupert Sanders has tried very hard to jam something that looks like a manga sensibility into every frame, exposing the weakness of film for these sorts of tricks (things that look slightly fake and dumb suddenly look *really* fake and dumb). The wanton attempts to create memorable visuals are rendered nearly completely moot by forgetting to first build an environment that we can imagine ourselves in, by forgetting to give us a reason to care in the first place.

The plot of Ghost in the Shell isn’t complex, and can in some ways be summarized as Shitty Blade Runner. After an accident, robotics developer Hanka has Mira Killian’s brain transplanted into an android shell, successfully fusing the human soul (“ghost”) with android strength and providing her with a decidedly fake-looking body suit. Because there is a need for action sequences, Mira is of course renamed Major and used as a supercop. In case this didn’t make it obvious that Hanka aren’t the good guys here, bad-guy CEO Cutter is introduced saying, out loud, in a line of scripted dialogue, “I don’t care about her, I want to use her as a weapon,” as if we couldn’t understand that through the next scene where she shoots about twelve goons after crashing through a window. Firstly, Cutter is the absolute worst, a completely forgettable, mustache-twirlingly evil villain played by an actor who is trying to chew scenery but completely unable to exert any kind of presence. Secondly, the entire first half of the movie is full of lines like this. One of the advantages of basing a movie off of an influential piece of work is that, even if the audience is unfamiliar with the specific material, you can trust them to be able to follow the general flow. Ghost in the Shell has absolutely no faith in its audience to be able to understand a single thing, and despite its emphasis on crafting capital-b Big visuals, very little confidence in using those visuals to convey anything other than cool desktop backgrounds.

There’s precisely one moment where the movie threatens to legitimately become something a bit more than a Hollywood actioner, where Major peels off fashionable artifice from a human plucked off the street to intimately examine the difference. It’s a short scene, cut off and never really revisited, but feels yanked in from a better movie (really, it feels like something out of Under the Skin, a much better Scarlett Johansson sci-fi film about what it means to be human). On the other side, at one point near the end, the great Takeshi Kitano’s Section 9 Chief character finally gets something to do and the movie threatens to become pulpy and fun, a kind of neo-Tokyo A-Team. But its attention span isn’t long enough to even pull this off, instead ending quickly in an cold showdown with a stylistically neutered final boss. The action sequences overall seem maybe better suited to a video game, interesting in concept and nicely loud but completely unengaging to observe. While I’m willing to live with a Hollywood sci-fi that doesn’t deliver on its thematic potential, but Ghost in the Shell does so in such a horribly uninteresting manner. It’s hard to get mad about something so completely dull.

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D+

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, and Juliette Binoche
Rotten Tomatoes

Stray Observations

  • While I can’t say for sure, I’m willing to bet the movie does a decent job of capturing the city design from the source material, only because it looks more like something people in the early 90s thought the future might look like rather than anything resembling a modern interpretation. The blocky holograms all feel supremely tacky, and worse than that, often feel decidedly less futuristic than what the world looks like right now. Sure, the billboards in NYC might not be 3D flying things, but at least they don’t look as poorly rendered as Brain Age guy.
  • I don’t want to get in the weeds about the casting controversy, and plenty of digital ink has been spilled about that. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong about adapting foreign fiction to Hollywood (e.g. The Departed, which transplanted the basic plot of Infernal Affairs but made its new Boston setting an important part of its style), but Ghost in the Shell tries to have its cake and eat it too, retaining strong Japanese elements while casting all of its lead characters (Takeshi Kitano aside) as white folks, and putting it in the hands of a white Hollywood director whose only previous credit is Snow White and the Huntsman. There’s probably an interesting American adaptation out there, exploring the separation of ghosts and shells in terms of how our body, be it our race or gender or whatever, determines our self, but this certainly isn’t that. Instead, this version strongly co-opts its Japanese stylistic origin, which does make the whitewashed casting fairly icky.
  • That being said about the casting, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really work here (her understated style conflicts with the movie’s need to vocalize everything), but just in case that sounds like I’m dismissing Johansson getting these kinds of roles, I cannot recommended Under the Skin enough, where Johansson plays an alien who slowly grows empathy and curiosity about the men she abducts and her own human form, and I have an unabashed love for Luc Besson’s Lucy, that dumb movie where Johansson can utilize 100% of her brain and uses it to kick all kinds of ass. She can clearly fit both sides of the bill to play Major; the production here just does her no favours.
Ghost in the Shell is too underwhelming to justify its controversy

Logan’s muted maturity is undermined by its sillier tendencies

Logan gets a lot right about superhero movies. It makes its central conflict small-ish in scale, rather than putting the fate of the world in jeopardy, but still establishes very real stakes. It eschews a parade of cameos in favour of focusing on two or three characters. It knows that, while it may be based on comic books, it is a movie, and wears its cinematic influences proudly. It uses an R-rating to make its themes and motifs more mature rather than cruder. And it trusts its audience to be smart enough to be able to fill in a fair number of blanks. With all of this together, it comes close to joining The Dark Knight in the lonely class of great superhero movies that can be talked about without the “superhero” clarification. But while its aims at being a neo-Western and a meditation on purpose are admirable and far from wholly unsuccessful, Logan is undone in a similar way to its protagonist. Just as Logan the character cannot escape that he is The Wolverine and the violence that entails, Logan the film cannot entirely escape that it is an X-Men movie and the silliness that comes with the territory.

Just to get the complaints out of the way, the villains really let Logan down at the end of the day. Oddly, the villain that shows up early, Boyd Holbrook’s cyborg mercenary Donald Price, is not the problem at all. Holbrook chews scenery but in a way that adds nicely to the slightly post-apocalyptic vibe the movie has going (more in the category of the original Mad Max rather than Road Warrior or Fury Road, but the influence is there), and normal mercenaries for brief moments feel like valid threats, as Logan’s healing ability has slowed thanks to age and adamantium poisoning. But the true big bad turns out to be an uninteresting evil scientist, feeding a conspiracy-theory big-government angle that worked well in previous films but falls flat here. I suppose that government persecution works when the metaphor relates to persecuted communities as it does with Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, but seems more extraneous here. The reveal of the real physical threat late in the film is both silly enough to ruin the grounded tone the film worked to maintain, and thematically rather blunt (spoiler: man vs. self literalized). Additionally, while it’s thematically necessary that Logan allows blood to be spilled, it has plenty of scenes of children engaging in gory violence played not for laughs or horror, but rather excitement, which doesn’t quite gel.

But there’s a lot for fans and non-fans to like here. Jackman has made clear that this is his last time wearing the claws, and he also visibly wears the struggles of the character over the past eight appearances. Charles Xavier is also provided a new angle for the first time in ages, as a degenerative brain disease takes root in what is noted as “the most powerful brain in the world”. No other returning characters appear, allowing for a fantastic degree of focus. The collection-of-oddballs road trip consisting of Logan, Xavier, and mysterious fugitive Laura powers the films occasionally fantastic middle third, especially a brief respite of normalcy that serves as a poignant character beat until that silliness shows back up. Logan has the bones (or adamantium skeleton) of a bona fide classic, but while it serves as a fantastic sendoff to potentially both the cinematic Wolverine and Xavier, it doesn’t transcend its origins in the way it blatantly wants to.

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B-

Logan (2017)
Directed by James Mangold
Starring Hugh Jackman, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, and Patrick Stewart
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Logan’s muted maturity is undermined by its sillier tendencies

The Top 9 Movies of 2016

For a year that seemed as long as 2016 did, it already feels like it was an eternity ago. In addition to the feeling that glitz just isn’t as enjoyable as it was twelve short months ago, maybe that’s why awards season feels a bit less enticing this year; 2016 happened a lifetime ago, can’t we just put it to rest?

Regardless, there’s a feeling that the movie year truly ends and begins anew with the Oscars. Most of what is in theaters now are the breakout dramas of 2016 that are finally being released to cities other than L.A. and New York, or whatever the studios decided wouldn’t sell in more competitive months. After February, movies get judged as part of 2017, rather than the scraps of the previous year. And by February, thanks to delayed wide releases and conveniently leaked screeners, schmucks like me get a chance to finally catch up on the more elusive films of the previous year. While I didn’t see everything I wanted to, there were nine movies that felt a cut above the rest.

(I set the cutoff at the point where I felt comfortable not giving a shoutout to a film, although there are honorable mentions at the end)

(Oh, and all reviews and ratings, 2016 or otherwise, can be found here)

9. Green Room (RT 90%, IMDb 7.1)

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Green Room is a perfect example of what to do when suddenly given a bigger budget. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin was a low-budget work of wonder, and Green Room uses its extra money to beef up the cast, but maintains its predecessor’s mastery of tension through claustrophobia. Green Room is absolutely brutal stuff, but continually engaging and suspenseful rather than gratuitous. I’m incredibly excited for whatever Saulnier comes up with next.

8. Manchester by the Sea (RT 96%, IMDb 8.0)

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At what point is a movie just too damn sad? Manchester by the Sea toes that line, coming very close to plain misery porn, but finds enough humour in its ludicrously dark premise and Casey Affleck provides enough humanity to keep it from falling into absolute melodrama.

7. Little Sister (RT 95%, IMDb 6.3)

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A small-scale family drama that ends on a photo montage may seem a bit trite, but Little Sister does a fantastic job of examining how we assign stereotypes even to those we are closest to. It helps that its small cast is plenty charming, and its central brother-sister relationship is just the right kind of feel-good.

6. The Witch (RT 91%, IMDb 6.8)

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The Witch is an exercise in atmosphere, mood, and restraint. Taking a lesson from Jaws, the monster is seen early and then rarely afterwards; even when the monsters finally make a tangible impact, they do so often just off camera. But the way The Witch shows a family tear itself apart on paranoia, akin to an actual witch hunt, is a thing of unsettling mastery. The period setting adds to the consistently unnerving nature of the film, tapping into the eeriness of the woods for a constant sense of unknown danger.

5. Hell or High Water (RT 98%, IMDb 7.7)

Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine star in Hell or High Water

One of the best qualities a film can have is a colorful and interesting world that nonetheless feels like something you could just walk right into. Hell or High Water does a remarkable thing for a neo-Western, in that it hits all the right Western vibes, but still feels distinctly modern. There’s a big hat and a great one-off scene with a cattle wrangler, but it mixes Western themes and modern rural issues into something entirely of its own. It also stages some of the finest bank robbery scenes this side of Heat, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

4. The Invitation (RT 89%, IMDb 6.7)

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Who would have thought that, aside from Manchester by the Sea, the most intriguing film about pain and grief last year would be a horror flick? The Invitation takes a setup mired in loss and turns it into a slow-burning, gut-churning suspense. It effectively asks what we would do in the same situation, asking when suspicion should turn into worry, when worry should warrant action, and what social capital might be associated with action. More than any other movie this year, in a year full of great horror movies and thrillers, The Invitation left me squirming.

3. The Handmaiden (RT 94%, IMDb 8.1)

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The Handmaiden is, at its heart, a fun heist romp. Its premise is sheer pulp, and it knows it. Hell, a major set of the characters in the movie are connoisseurs of artful smut, and Park Chan-Wook has made a masterpiece of exactly that. Its unabashedly erotic and unforgettably stylish.

2. Moonlight (RT 98%, IMDb 7.9)

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Moonlight is exactly as good as the reviews say it is, and if there is justice in the world, it will walk away with Oscar gold tonight. In a world where identity politics has become a dirty word, Moonlight at once takes intersectionality incredibly seriously and deconstructs it. The main character, Chiron, is black, is gay, is poor. But this isn’t a shortcut for awards or for pity. “Who is you Chiron?”, he’s asked in the third act. “I’m me,” he responds, even if not completely sure what that means. Moonlight explores what self-identity even is with plenty of visual and narrative style, calmly low-key while being innovative in all respects.

1. The Lobster (RT 89%, IMDb 7.1)

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While movie worlds may be the most entrancing when they feel tangible, like in Hell or High Water, they’re the most fun when they hold a warped mirror to the real world. The Lobster puts its satire on thick; no one would call its take on couples culture subtle. But it is sharp and multifaceted, inviting drunken dissections that can go on for at least the length of the film itself. It’s also one of the damn funniest deadpan black comedies ever made; poor Biscuit Woman alternatively makes me wince and laugh just thinking about her. For all its batshittery, The Lobster was the best time I had in theaters last year.

Honorable MentionsGhostbusters, Nocturnal Animals, Arrival, La La Land, Don’t Think Twice, Tickled, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Into the Forest, Sleeping Giant, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Christine

Haven’t Yet Seen: Paterson, Jackie, Elle, Lion, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, Hush, Zootopia, Moana, Finding Dory, 20th Century Women, Tower, Cameraperson, The Witness, Captain Fantastic, OJ Made in America, The Saleman, Toni Erdmann, Krisha, American Honey, Love & Friendship, Silence, Sing Street, Kubo and the Two Strings

The Top 9 Movies of 2016

In a Valley of Violence delivers on its title

In a Valley of Violence feels like a movie where a cast and crew of mixed indie and Hollywood favourites felt like making a Western solely because they realized they never have before, and just went ahead and did it. To do so, they took a cursory look at the IMDb summary for John Wick, added some horses, and started shooting. It’s a bit rough around the edges and certainly is far from original, but its a hell of a lot of fun. Director Ti West and his crew actually built a full-size set in New Mexico, and they show it off often (one of the final act’s greatest assets is its well-defined geometry). Each of the actors is given a trope and has fun with it, from John Travolta’s perpetually put-upon marshall to Karen Gillan’s astoundingly funny hotelier. Ethan Hawke spends a bit too much time monologuing to his far-too-adorable dog, but his sole purpose is to sell us some righteous justice. This isn’t Unforgiven; when violence arrives, it rarely asks us to pause for a moment to question morality. The poor-mans-Morricone score and fantastic opening credits, a pastiche of of monochrome cutouts riding against of black background, sell its B-movie aspirations, and while it never transcends that level, it meets its goals just fine.

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B-

In a Valley of Violence (2016)
Directed by Ti West
Starring Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, and John Travolta
Rotten Tomatoes (77%)

In a Valley of Violence delivers on its title