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Sweetwater Blu-ray Review

Sweetwater (2013) movie poster Sweetwater

Theatrical Release: October 11, 2013 / Running Time: 94 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Logan Miller / Writers: Logan Miller, Noah Miller (screenplay); Andrew McKenzie (story)

Cast: Ed Harris (Sheriff Cornelius Jackson), January Jones (Sarah Ramirez), Jason Isaacs (Prophet Josiah), Eduardo Noriega (Miguel Ramirez), Stephen Root (Hugh), Luce Rains (Sheriff Kingfisher), Amy Madigan (Madame Bovary), Jason Aldean (Daniel), Kathy Lamkin (Bertha Jean), Vic Browder (Martin), Dylan Kenin (Jim), J.B. Tuttle (Curly), Kevin Wiggins (Barley), Mia Stallard (Isabel), Jiji Hise (Gretchen), Jenny Gabrielle (Jolene), Logan Miller (Jacob Webb), Noah Miller (Levi Webb)

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Brothers Logan and Noah Miller made their feature filmmaking debut on Touching Home, a family drama starring Ed Harris that secured limited theatrical release two years to the day that it premiered at the 2008 San Francisco Film Festival.
Their second movie, the western Sweetwater, rustled up a $7 million budget and assembled some big name talent around four-time Oscar nominee Harris, who also numbers among the executive producers. Still, it had to settle for festivals, straight-to-video release in international markets, and an October theatrical engagement that earned just over $6,000.

That modest reception does not accurately reflect the film's quality or indicate a lack of commercial appeal. Maybe it's the genre, the Millers' lack of experience, or the nature of its distributor, ARC Entertainment, whose name and theater count do not even appear in Box Office Mojo's listing for the film. Whatever the case, after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival last January, Sweetwater has yet to find an audience, despite some star power and a perfectly digestible composition. ARC brings this to Blu-ray and DVD on New Year's Eve looking like a direct-to-video film, even though the rear cover's comparison to Tarantino and the Coen Brothers isn't all that absurd.

Sarah Ramirez (January Jones) wields a gun in her spiffy new purple dress in the 2013 western "Sweetwater."

Presumably set in the titular frontier county in the late 19th century, Sweetwater introduces us to a number of distinctive characters whose paths will cross. There's the prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs, with dark hair to rival his Lucius Malfoy wig and a lush goatee), a bigoted, bigamist Christian preacher who has been gobbling up land in the name of the Lord and in the interests of his small, devout congregation. There's his neighbor, Sarah (January Jones, "Mad Men"), the daughter of an outlaw and a madam, a former prostitute herself who is now married to the Mexican Miguel Ramirez (Eduardo Noriega) and expecting a child.

After lodging a complaint regarding Josiah's sheep wandering onto his property, Miguel goes missing and for reasons that we and the perverse preacher know. Meanwhile, Cornelius Jackson (Ed Harris) arrives on Governor's orders and relieves the town's good-for-nothing sheriff (Luce Rains) of his post. Cornelius is investigating the disappearance of two young men (played by the screenwriter siblings) who recently were expected to pass through these parts. Regarding this, too, Josiah knows more than he lets on.

The rear cover-quoted blogger's comparisons to Tarantino and the Coens are easy to appreciate. Like the True Grit and No Country for Old Men filmmakers, the Millers populate their film with bold, eccentric characters who have a way with words and actions. Like Tarantino, Sweetwater embraces a female's vengeance and does not shy from the occasional graphic violence. This Western is dark, unflinching, and sometimes gross, but it's never boring or short on ideas.

A scene-stealing Ed Harris plays the new sheriff Cornelius Jackson, who here does some investigating of a peephole death. Supporting the Coen Brothers vibe, Stephen Root plays Hugh, a banker who swindles the Ramirezes with some period racism.

The film relies on showy performances from both Harris and Isaacs, each playing no-nonsense characters. The plaid-panted Harris sings, dances, and punches his way through detective work, most stealing the show as Josiah's indignant dinner guest who carves up his host's brand new Honduras-imported mahogany table. Isaacs makes love to his three wives of assorted ages and shapes (and possibly his daughter too), distorts his calling in a yard lined with crosses, grabs balls, threatens castration, performs a stealthy punch and rape, and doesn't bat an eye at murder and torture.
The two are similarly committed to their beliefs and it isn't instantly clear with whom we are to sympathize, although you can easily figure it out from my descriptions.

As the woman caught between them who drives much of the third act, Jones mostly leaves her character a blank slate, which is nothing new for her. Outacted in each direction, at least the leading and only focal lady is more convincing as an independent frontier woman and former call gal than you would think.

Though Logan alone is credited with direction, he uses a screenplay attributed to Noah and him. The young men may have a lean body of work, but they are clearly capable visual storytellers, comfortable with action and stunts presumably unlike anything in their first film. While they do not appear to be on Hollywood's radars as of yet, acknowledging the impact of Harris' personal recommendation in a bonus feature, they could be once enough people see this film and recognize their potential as writers, director, and producers.

Sweetwater Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: December 31, 2013
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($20.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Sweetwater looks good in the Blu-ray's 2.40:1 transfer. The picture is slightly grainy, perhaps by design, but also sharp, clean, and consistent. Careful viewers may spot some of the shortcomings of digital video, but few will be any less than pleased with this presentation.

Sound is offered only in 5.1 DTS-HD master audio and the mix gets the job done very well. Gun blasts are loud and jarring, but that appears to be deliberate and not a goof in dynamics. English SDH subtitles are kindly supplied on the film.

Sibling filmmakers Logan and Noah Miller discuss their second film in "The Making of 'Sweetwater'." The music video for "Cold Grey Light of Dawn" plays the end credits song over this Hudson Moore headshot.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Though the case doesn't mention them, the film is joined by three HD extras on Blu-ray.

"The Making of Sweetwater" (10:32) is a typical but good featurette which gathers comments from the Miller brothers

and several of their leading cast members (including country musician Jason Aldean). Topics discussed include the Millers' energy and lack of experience, Harris' willingness to vouch for them, and the experience of filming in Santa Fe.

Next, it's a little bit of a stretch to call the presentation of Hudson Moore's "Cold Grey Light of Dawn" (3:19) a music video. After all, the song plays over a headshot of the singer and the URL to his official website, making its ill-fitting use in the film's closing credits a more exciting watch.

Finally, we get Sweetwater's trailer (1:37).

The Blu-ray opens with trailers for Bounty Killer, the Friedberg and Seltzer Hunger Games spoof The Starving Games (apparently that duo is still making movies, just not with major studio distribution anymore), and Vehicle 19.

Cheapened by navigational sound effects, the menu plays lightened clips above cloud-backed listings while a good chunk of "Cold Grey Light of Dawn" is looped. The disc does not support bookmarks.

No inserts, digital copy codes, reverse side artwork, or slipcover spice up the plain keepcase, which at least applies the rear cover's Jason Isaacs shot to the disc.

Convinced the Lord is on his side, deadly prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs) shows us his badass walk.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The upside to Sweetwater's almost non-existent theatrical release is that you enter with low expectations, anticipating mindless direct-to-video trash, and get something that's quite a bit better. This dark and occasionally violent material won't be to everyone's liking, but it's clearly a product of thought, care, and skill. While this may not be an utterly original or frequently appealing film, the technical competence and belief in story and characters on display are refreshing. This reasonably priced Blu-ray is basic but adequate.

Buy Sweetwater from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
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Ed Harris: Pain & Gain Gone Baby Gone The Way Back The Firm Nixon National Treasure: Book of Secrets
January Jones: Seeking Justice Unknown X-Men: First Class Mad Men: Season 6
Jason Isaacs: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 Armageddon | Eduardo Noriega: Vantage Point
True Grit (2010) There Will Be Blood Lawless Tombstone No Country for Old Men Once Upon a Time in the West

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Reviewed December 30, 2013.



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