Posts Tagged ‘Western’

MOVIE: Unforgiven (2013) (Japanese remake)

July 20, 2014

unforgivenFans of the Western genre will appreciate the symmetry of this film.  Back when Clint Eastwood was an actor instead of a director, he appeared in the film A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti Western based on the Japanese samurai movie Yojimbo.  And now, mumble-mumble years later (I could look that up, but I won’t) one of his films has been reverse-engineered into a samurai movie all its own.

The good news is that it’s very good.  The bad news is that it’s virtually a scene-for-scene remake, with few surprises.  The guns have been replaced with swords, and the outfits are (mostly) different, but aside from that, most of the characterizations and the action is the same.  Which is fine, really; it’s a remake, after all. It’s just that there was a lot of room in this story for newness based on the fairly dramatic cultural and historical differences, and that didn’t get as much consideration as I would’ve liked it to.  Maybe the grim business of killing is the same in every culture, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by the lack of invention.

Fans of Ken Watanabe, future Boyfriend of the Week, should definitely catch this one — he makes an excellent Clint Eastwood.  But even better is his sidekick Akira Emoto, who not only plays Morgan Freeman’s character, but looks exactly like a Japanese Morgan Freeman.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him, frankly.  It was amazing how much they resembled each other.

Definitely recommended to fans of the original, but this film stands alone just fine as well, so if you hate gunslingers but love samurai, you’ll find a lot to like here for sure.

[View trailer]

Genre: Western/Eastern, Foreign
Cast:  Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Jun KunimuraShiori Kutsuna, Yûya Yagira


BOOK: Doc by Mary Doria Russell (2012)

May 14, 2013

docI first fell in love with Westerns in Japan, of all places.  When I was 12, we lived for a year in a little town in Southern Honshu named Iwakuni, and because buying electronics is one of the things one does when one lives in Asia, my dad bought a $700 Betamax player (oops) and rapidly began scooping up pirated movies galore (oops, again) .  Since he was in charge of developing the Wood Family Betamax Library of Copyright Infringement, he tended to focus on the movies he loved himself — which is why I grew up watching a LOT of Clint Eastwood films.

As I got older, I branched out of the Eastwood spaghetti Western genre (though those still hold a very special place in my heart — see my previous review about Tarantino’s Django Unchained and references therein!) and started getting into the other classics.  But despite seeing more than one variation on the infamous O.K. Corral yarn, I never really got sucked into that story or its players (the Earps, etc.) until 1991’s Tombstone tumbleweeded into local theaters.

Thanks largely to Val Kilmer’s exhilarating performance, I was instantly intrigued by dentist-turned-gunslinger John “Doc” Holliday (when I first met my husband, in fact, I told him I wanted to be Doc Holliday when I grew up.  His response?  “Be careful who you emulate, cough cough.”).  In the years since, I’ve rewatched many of the Holliday players of the past (My Darling Clementine, The Outlaw, Cheyenne Autumn, etc.) and also most of the players since (Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp and Randy Quaid in Purgatory, to name two Quaids), and I’ve never found a performance of that role that has struck me nearly as much as Kilmer’s did.

I’ve since read a number of books (fiction and non-fiction) about Holliday, the Earps, and even a novel about Doc’s prostitute girlfriend “Big Nose” Kate Harony (though for the life of me, I cannot find the title of that book anywhere now, which is too bad because I remember really enjoying it).   And one of the things that’s always struck me most about the Western genre, as I got more and more into both fact and fiction, is how completely idealized it is; how utterly beautified the real stories become in the hands of storytellers, beginning with the dime novels springing up back in the day and carrying all the way through to the big screen.  I mean, this is how it usually goes when you take a true story and you turn it into a movie or a novel, I suppose, but it’s a characteristic of Westerns in a way I don’t always see it in other genres.

In other words, if you’ve ever read a non-fiction book about Doc Holliday, you know what you see in Kilmer’s performance, as delightful as it is, is not exactly the truth.

In this regard, Russell’s novel Doc is a real stand-out; it was clear from early in the story that this was not going to be the usual White Hat vs. Black Hat oater.  Russell did her research, and the Doc in this book comes to life in a completely new and mesmerizingly authentic way.  It begins with the line, “He began to die when he was 21,” and from that sentence forth, we feel the pall of that death sentence hanging over everything Doc does in a way I’ve never really been cued into it before.  Imagine getting that diagnosis back then at that age — I can’t do it.  I can’t imagine it.  Not just a death sentence, but a PAINFUL death sentence.  Thanks to this novel, however, the agony, despair, and fear that drove so many of Holliday’s choices becomes tangible.  And moving in the extreme, to boot (pun intended) (about the boots).

Doc takes us from John’s early years, born into a wealthy family with a mother fiercely determined to make sure all her sons grew into educated gentlemen, through his fleeing West, seeking relief for the constant coughing and throat pain from his tuberculosis.

There, he initially strives to establish a career as a dentist, something most mass media portrayals of him barely touch on.  As one of the first dentists to practice in the West, though, Doc finds it’s not nearly as easy to convince the locals to take care of their teeth as he’d hoped (most were afraid of dentists, having never ever been to one before).  A lot of times in a lot of films and novels, Doc is depicted as a man out to make a buck — a gambler first, and a gunslinger. . . er, tied for first. But in reality, he was an extremely compassionate man.  He went into dentistry because he wanted to relieve suffering, and he worked for many years in the West pro bono or on a sliding scale to try to help as many people as he could.

As his TB worsened, though, and whiskey became the one “treatment” that eased his raw throat, he began to struggle with his financial situation, especially once he realized he could make more money in a single night of gambling than in a year of dentistry.  And that’s kind of where his life started to fall apart.

Though the novel introduces us to the Earps, obviously, Wyatt isn’t the Earp boy with the biggest role — another new look at an old story.  Instead, and apparently this is true, Doc met Morgan first and was very close friends with him (you know, the brother with barely any lines in Tombstone?).  Though he deeply respected Wyatt, their relationship was never as close as his friendship with Morg.

Those looking for another telling of the infamous OK Corral tale, by the way, will need to look elsewhere — this novel ends before we get that far (and how refreshing that it does, really).  Doc’s gun-fighting days are not the relevant ones in this story — it’s more about how he got to those days, than what he did with them once they arrived.  Russell has always been a wonderful descriptive writer (her sci-fi novel The Sparrow is an old favorite of mine and though it’s been over a decade since I last read it, there are still images from that book I can picture vividly in my mind — that tells you a lot about her power as a writer, I would say), and under her fingers, the Wild West comes alive in such a sympathetic way it seems like a brand new creation.  An alien planet of a far more commonplace type of compassion and struggle — and survival — than we usually get to see in this genre.

Ron Charles, in a review of the novel for the Washington Post, described it like this:

“‘Doc’ is no colorized daguerrotype; it’s a bold act of historical reclamation that scrapes off the bull and allows those American legends to walk and talk and love and grieve in the dynamic 19th-century world that existed before Hollywood shellacked it into cliches . . .”

I love that — and I loved this book!  Absolutely a must for any fan of the genre, or of really original and evocative writing.  Another new favorite book by Mary Doria Russell, who has hit up just about every genre at this point and nailed them all.  I can’t wait to see what she does next.  A true delight, her work.


(Incidentally, how annoying is that book cover?  Primo example of the issue outlined by Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times last year about the differences in jacket art for books written by men vs. women:  I have to wonder how many men have walked right by this novel after taking one look at the cover, thinking it’s “chick lit” instead of a powerfully good Western. Very frustrating.  Don’t be fooled, fellas — this is a book for both genders!)

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MOVIE: Django Unchained (2012)

May 13, 2013

djangoEvery time I watch a Quentin Tarantino film, I have the same exact thought:  Quentin Tarantino is a fascinating man.  And this is a fascinating movie.  Which is not to say it’s perfect — it’s actually flawed in more ways than one, in my humble opinion (not the least of which is that it’s 20 minutes too long).  But I keep thinking any film now, I’m going to burn out on Tarantino’s “thing” — and it’s simply not happening.  Every movie he makes intrigues me a little bit more, and this one is no exception.  The camerawork, the music (oh, the music!), the dialogue, the characters.  He’s definitely the master of creating intriguing people, even while he’s putting them into less-than-intriguing stories (not always, of course, but the story in Django Unchained is definitely one of it’s weaknesses).

And the best part?  Throughout the whole film I was thinking of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly — another over-the-top Western that crosses paths with slavery and the Civil War.  And then at the end of Django!  A delightful tip of the hat to GBU, and one only diehard fans will catch, I think.  Hard not to appreciate that.  At least, if you’re a big goofy spaghetti Western fan like me (incidentally, other big goofy spaghetti Western fans will also see parallels with the 1966 uber-violent Franco Nero film Django, for more reasons than just the obvious one).

The minute I was done watching this movie, I wanted to start it over and watch it again — a response I’m finding Tarantino movies almost always pull out of me.  Definitely recommended, though, as is usually the case (always the case?) with QT films, it’s not for the faint of heart.

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Western
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Michael Parks, Don Johnson

MOVIE: Rango (2011)

March 13, 2011

Okay, professional movie critics (Ebert exempted — he loved it), what IS your problem?  This extremely kooky and delightful film got kind of trashed by most of the reviewers I read regularly, and the primary reason for it seemed to be that the cartoon critters weren’t cute enough.

What the. . .?  What do you have against warts, whiskers, and waddles?  Lizard bigots.  Sheesh.

This entertaining, clever Western is about a chameleon who is on a road trip through the desert with his human family when the car swerves after hitting an armadillo (who was pretty ugly, I’ll grant you, but hey, looks aren’t everything!), sending our new amigo flying out the back.

Totally lost and completely out of his element, he starts walking and eventually stumbles across a little town named Dirt full of a variety of other desert animals.  He moseys into the local saloon in search of a glass of water, and is immediately approached by a gang of locals who ain’t too keen on strangers.  This gives the chameleon an idea — he loves to act, so he decides to pretend to be a gunslinger named Rango, regaling the saloon’s sots with a Wild West tale about the time he took out seven bad guys with a single bullet.

As Rango settles into town, eventually given the rather dubious honor of being named sheriff (none of the other sheriffs have lived too long, he’s told AFTER accepting the gig), he begins to pick up on the fact Dirt is in trouble.  It’s the middle of a terrible drought and the town is nearly out of water.  But when he and his new gal pal, a lizard lady named Beans, start to notice strange things going on (what looks like a large dumping of water outside of town, the fact the mayor doesn’t seem terribly worried, the robbery of the last of the town’s water), they begin to suspect a conspiracy.

Can Rango and Beans figure out who’s keeping the town dry (and why) before the bad guy comes after them?

Well, of course they can, duh — this is a kid’s movie, after all; it’ll have a happy ending (though I want to note here that this movie is really more suitable for older kids than little ones — there are a lot of truly scary scenes and I’m also not sure little kids will be able to follow the story).

Any fan of Westerns will get a kick out of this smart, satirical flick, which affectionately incorporates almost every classic Western element, from rolling tumbleweeds, angry mobs, bank robbers, posses, and High Noon duels, to bar brawls, a rancher who won’t give up her land, a bad guy who wants to keep the town squished flat under his thumb, and a romance between a drifter and the woman who seems destined to help him put down roots.

There were also some pretty clever additional touches for adults, including a cameo by Dr. Gonzo and Raoul Duke (on their way to or from Vegas, no doubt), a batty take on the helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now, and a sweet hat-tip to The Man With No Name (voiced perfectly by Timothy Olyphant, who really does a mighty fine Clint Eastwood).

The animation is absolutely gorgeous too — there were several scenic shots that were true works of art, in my opinion, and though the critters might, in fact, be a bit on the homely side, they’re intricately drawn, with tons of character in their faces, and even the ugliest of the ugly good guys had an irresistible charm that will win you over by the end.

“No man can walk out of his own story” is a great moral to this classic tale, and I think Rango is a movie both kids and grown-ups will really enjoy (though, again, it’s rated PG, not G, for a reason).

Also glorious:  it was made in 2D and it’s being shown in 2D and there is NO OPTION to see it in 3D.  Utterly refreshing.

And highly recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Animation, Western, Kids
Cast:  Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone

MOVIE: True Grit (2010)

January 5, 2011

I was raised on Westerns (especially spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood —  thanks, Dad!) and I’m a fairly big fan of the genre overall.  For a girl, anyway.  I’ve seen gazillions of Westerns, both new and old, and therefore, I’ve seen a lot of great Westerns, a lot of good Westerns, a lot of mediocre Westerns, and a lot of really, really bad Westerns.

Now, don’t hate me, but I’ve seen the original True Grit a couple of times, both as a kid and as an adult, and I would put it smack-dab in the middle of the “mediocre” category.  I liked Rooster Cogburn a lot better, but I’ve never been much of a fan of The Duke.

That said, the story for True Grit — about a little girl who hires a drunken, over-the-hill U.S. Marshall to help her track down and exact vengeance upon the killer of her father — is a great one.  A classic Western tale.  All it needs is the right writers and the right cast and it could be absolutely mind-blowing.  And so, when I heard the Coen brothers were taking it on, I was beyond excited; I was thrilled.  At least, I was thrilled until the reviews started to come out last December, almost all of which said pretty much the same thing:  meh, s’awright.

What??  Only all right?  How could this not be great?  The trailer looked great (man, did it ever, especially the early one, which I can’t seem to find online, alas).  The actors are all great.  The Coen brothers are certainly great.  And the story is great.  How do you make a “meh, s’awright” movie out of this combination?

Well, my friends, you do it like this:  You turn off everything that makes you a unique, interesting filmmaker, and you just go straight old-fashioned genre.

The Coen brothers’ True Grit is a fine film.  The acting is strong, the story is entertaining, and the script is sharp and clever (although, if you ask me, slightly too sharp and too clever in a few places to be believable — I especially had this problem with the Mattie Ross character, who, even as a precocious little girl, doesn’t talk like a precocious little girl, but instead like an adult telling the story of a precocious little girl (which is why she talks like that in the novel, narrated by Mattie as an adult, if I remember correctly.  But she maybe shouldn’t have talked quite so much like that in the film.)).  I laughed out loud more than once, and was completely engrossed in the story throughout the entire picture.  Additionally, I thought both Matt Damon and the ridiculously-underrated Barry Pepper did excellent jobs with their parts.  (Jeff Bridges, on the other hand, I wasn’t nearly as impressed by — in large part because he sounded just like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade to me, complete with guttural gruntings, and I couldn’t stop waiting for him to interject suddenly something about “French fried pataters.”  Distracting.)

The problem is, despite fine acting and a fine script, there’s nothing about this movie that really stands out:  there wasn’t a visual that struck me, there wasn’t a line delivered in a way that stuck with me, there wasn’t a character who will remain with me for any significant amount of time.

This movie did not move me, I think is what I’m saying — it merely entertained me.  It is a fine film — and that’s it.

Which is okay, of course.  There’s nothing wrong with a good, entertaining movie — in fact, there are many things right about good, entertaining movies.  It’s just that after seeing the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which is, in many ways, also a Western, I was expecting something a lot more interesting.   I think many Western lovers felt the same way — and I can tell many film critics did.

Fans of the genre will find much to enjoy here, I think, and so, frankly, will non-fans (my husband liked it a lot more than I did, for example, and he’s not all that into Westerns).  It IS undeniably well-written, well-acted, and well-made.  It’s just that it’s a little too much “well” and not enough “wow.”

Now, off to watch A Fistful of Dollars for the 87-bazillionth time.  Dad, wish you were here.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Western
Cast:  Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

This Week in Steve McQueen: Nevada Smith (1966)

February 4, 2010

The latest installment in the Steve McQueen festival I’ve been attending was last week’s screening of the 1966 Western, Nevada Smith.  I’d actually seen this movie once before, at the impressionable age of about 13, and mostly all I remembered about it were the things the average impressionable girl of about age 13 would remember — the Native American woman being stripped to shame her and then brutally murdered (while she looked her also-being-murdered husband in the eye and said, “I am not afraid” — I never forgot that), and the romantic scenes involving first the Cajun woman who loses her life trying to help the hero and later the young Native American woman with whom he first experiences “true love.”

What I’d forgotten, or more likely not even noticed, was that this is actually a pretty bad stinker.

The story focuses on a young man, Max Sand (McQueen), who arrives a few minutes too late to save the lives of his (white) father and his (Native American) mother after they are tortured and murdered by a gang of three bad guys.

Max’s response, as a hot-blooded young’un, is to immediately pack up his horse and the eight bucks he’s got to his name and set out on a quest for vengeance.  One by one, he hunts down each killer and takes them out — until gets to the final one, the ringleader, where he suddenly has an epiphany of sorts about the (lack of) value of vengeance.

Meanwhile, he meets some good guys, smooches some hotties, etc. etc.  The story is fairly standard, though I appreciated some of the things the writer was trying to do with his tale.  But the direction of this film, and, I’m sorry to say, the hammy acting from Steve McQueen, eventually turn what could otherwise have been a fairly solid (if predictable) Western into an absolute wreck.

For one thing, the director, Henry Hathaway, tried way too hard to turn his film into something visually grand.  A visually grand Western epic.  There are lots and lots (and LOTS) of swooping, dramatic shots of stunning enormous scenery, for example.  And while those shots were, in fact, frequently lovely, it finally got to the point where I stopped appreciating the beauty, which served no narrative purpose I could see, and instead started to get really annoyed.  Okay, enough with the hills and trees already– let’s get on with the story.  I don’t have all day here, and neither does Max Sand.

Even worse, though, were the badly, madly choreographed fight scenes, which were where, surprisingly enough, Steve McQueen really fell down on the job for me.  Silly faces (baby faces, really, far too young for his character), poorly done pulled punches, and some “stunt” work that was absolutely laughable  at times — both clumsily done and ludicrously out of place with the action.  So bad.  So BAD.  So very, very bad.

The acting was so goofily overdone in places it was impossible for me to connect to any of the characters, the direction was an annoying and unpolished blend of lethargy and startles, and the look of the film itself was just. . . meh.  Uninspired.  It was like Hathaway had seen lots of really great Westerns and was trying to replicate what he’d seen without truly understanding it.  He was missing the point.  He missed the point completely.  He totally Passchendaele‘d it.  And man, I hate it when that happens.

Overall, I give Nevada Smith decent marks for theory, but low, low marks for execution.  Definitely one you’re better off dodging, and that goes double for fans of Steve McQueen.  (Avoid!  Avoid!  Avoid at all costs!)

Tune in next week for my review of The Sand Pebbles — three hours of Steve McQueen hanging out on a boat and periodically blowing some shit up in Asia.  Yeah, bring it, Steve.  I’m in.  I’m up for that.  But, please, for me, dearest good sir, try to act your age?  No more of this silly baby-face stuff and the flying over branches when you’ve barely been tapped on the shoulder.  You’re a man now.  Let’s not be ridiculous.

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Western
Cast:  Steve McQueen, Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Arthur Kennedy, Suzanne Pleschette, Martin Landau

MOVIE: Heartland (1980)

January 25, 2010

The other day at Scarecrow Video (my favorite local video rental shop), I found myself pressed for time and needed to find a second movie to rent fast (it was two-for-one day and what idiot only rents one on two-for-one day?).  So, you know what I did?  I went up to the Independent Drama section, closed my eyes, reached out, and picked a box off the shelf at random.  This is the movie I ended up with, and, I’ll confess, I almost put it back when I flipped it over to read the description.  I mean, really, how many times have I seen this EXACT movie?  A million times.  A million, at least.  The box described it as a film about a widow who takes her daughter to Wyoming in 1910 to work for an unmarried rancher who needs a housekeeper, and if you can’t predict exactly where this is headed, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Thing is, even though everything I expected to take place in this film did, in fact, take place in this film, I still ended up loving it.  For one thing, I have always adored Conchata Ferrell, though I confess I never knew that was her name until today.  Remember her as the pizza parlor owner in Mystic Pizza?  Or how about as the boisterous nurse in that 80’s sitcom with George Clooney, E/R?  Always loved her, and man, does she ever carry this whole movie on her shoulders too.  Ferrell plays Elinore Randall, a middle-aged widow with a 7 year-old daughter  who finds herself forced to move from Denver to Wyoming when she loses her job and needs another one.  Rancher Clyde Stewart (Rip Torn) pays her way, under the contract she’ll stay a full year, and their first encounter is when she gets off the train after a long, long journey and he hands her a shopping list and walks off.  Friendly, that guy.

At first, the relationship between Randall and Stewart is an awkward one.  He’s not much of a talker, she’s pretty no-nonsense, and, man, can you imagine having to live that closely with someone you don’t even know?  It’s a two-room ranch house — it’s close quarters.  But as time passes, Randall and Stewart begin to slip comfortably into a routine.  It’s not love at first sight, but it’s functional.  It works.  It’ll do.

Only Randall’s not one to sit still anywhere in life, and the more of Wyoming she sees, the more she begins to love the land and long for her own place, having “worked for others all [her] life.”  When she puts a claim down on the land abutting Stewart’s ranch, he sits her down and gives her the straight talk about how hard it is to make it alone as a rancher in Wyoming, especially in the winters, which are long and brutal.  The conversation ends with a dose of practicality — why don’t we just get married?

So, they do.  And then they have a son.  And then their son dies during their first hard, hard winter together, and so does a lot of their cattle, taken by snow, taken by starvation, taken by disease.  But when spring rolls around and their grief begins to settle, Randall and Stewart emerge as a strong, loving unit, and life goes forward.  Life goes well.  Life has hope and companionship and peace at last.  It’s hard, that life.  But now — now — it can be done.

So yes, you see?  It’s just like every other movie you’ve ever seen about this — hardscrabble people in a hardscrabble land coming together to make things just a little less hardscrabble.  But this one is filmed well, written well, acted well, and features a lady who has, hands down, the greatest laugh in the history of laughs (oh, Conchatta, I love you, keep laughing, never stop).

Definitely recommended, and hey, you know what?  I think I’ll do that blind-selection thing again this Wednesday at Scarecrow too.  So far, so good.

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Western
Cast:  Rip Torn, Conchata Ferrell, Lilia Skala, Barry Primus

BOOK: Resolution by Robert B. Parker

April 2, 2009

I’m not sure why I picked this book up, considering the fact I wasn’t that impressed with the first book in Parker’s Western series, Appaloosa, nor was I that impressed with the film version that came out last year (starring Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris).

The only way I can explain it is that I’ve been a fan of Robert B. Parker’s since I was a teenager, and, kind of like with the show ER, once I’ve invested over a decade in something — a TV show, an author, a convoluted procedure by which I consume a bag of M&Ms (don’t ask), it’s hard for me to let go.

In any case, as I’m sure you can tell, I wasn’t all that impressed by this second installment in the Hitch and Cole series either. In this one, Hitch has left partner Cole behind in Appaloosa, and been hired to “keep the peace” in the small town of Resolution. There’s a local guy who has been systematically taking control of everything in town, and the local farmers, keen to keep their land, eventually also enlist Hitch’s support in their cause. As those of us familiar with the character no doubt knew was coming, Cole shows up eventually, having finally come to his senses about flaky, flirty wife Allison. So, the team is back together again, uniting to save the town from the bad guy.

Here’s my problem — again, this is a storyline that I’ve encountered 86 gazillion times in the Western genre. I’m a big fan of that genre, so I know all these stories already, and Parker doesn’t seem capable of coming up with any new plotlines for this series. That would be fine, though, if the characters were unique and interesting. Here, they just aren’t. Watch Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, and then watch Ed Harris again in Appaloosa, and I think you’ll see what I mean. And in written form, Hitch and Cole are no more interesting. They’re just flat, with a few little personality affects that are supposed to authenticate them, but just aren’t quite “on” enough to seem anything but forced.

Anyway, I hate to say it, but dude, I sincerely hope Parker ditches this series soon and returns to the characters we already know and love – characters that have remained dynamic and authentic for years and years. I actually MISS Spenser when I’m in between novels. When I finished Appaloosa or Resolution, I honestly never gave Hitch and Cole another thought. Meh. Done.


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MOVIE: Appaloosa (2008)

February 9, 2009

appaloosa1I’m having a hard time with this one.  I actually saw it over a week ago and I STILL can’t decide if I liked it or not.  The film, based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, has all of the elements that I typically love about Westerns: intense male bonding, a smidge of romance, good guys versus bad guys, where the good guys aren’t really all that “good” but aren’t as “bad” as the bad guys so it’s close enough, etc. But at the same time, there’s almost too MUCH of the stuff I typically love about Westerns — which is the exact same problem I had with Parker’s novel, so I suppose this should have come as no surprise.

The story is about two old friends, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his “strong and silent type” partner Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who travel around working as lawmen for hire, helping towns that are having, shall we say, “security” problems.  Their latest gig is in the town of Appaloosa, where the mayor and others  have hired them to battle a bad guy named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a rancher who has been trying to take over the town.  As Hitch and Cole settle in, they also become involved with another newcomer to Appaloosa, a young woman named Allison French (Renee Zellwigger), who Cole quickly falls madly in love with.  But Allison isn’t quite the “good girl” she makes herself out to be, leading to a series of complications that make Cole’s job in Appaloosa all the more challenging.

Here’s the thing, though.  As was the case with the novel, I never really felt like any of the characters in this film ever truly came alive.  Of the four stars, I would say Viggo came the closest, but that’s partly because his character’s job was mostly to look serious and occasionally throw out a sentence now and again.  Viggo’s good at that brooding, distant kinda thing.  Harris, on the other hand, was sadly forgettable as Virgil Cole, and that’s despite the fact he had the one role in the movie that involved a degree of wit.  Zellwegger I was more or less bored by, whatev’, and Jeremy Irons?  I don’t know why he was cast in his part to begin with.  He was completely wrong for it.

That said, the film did have its moments.  There’s a slowness about it — a loping easiness, I guess — that brings a nice rhythm to the story.  It’s a quiet movie about two extremely close friends doing their best to make the world a better place, and the relationship between Virgil and Hitch was one of the few that I felt actually had a little bit of chemistry to it.  There’s also a very intriguing lack of violence in this movie, which was a pretty interesting way to make a Western.  The one big shoot-out scene is over in seconds, and the characters even comment on it, Hitch saying, “That happened quick,” and Cole replying, “Everybody could shoot.”  I got a chuckle out of that, because I always find it kind of ridiculous how many times in movies and TV the shoot-em-up scenes last forever because nobody seems like they could hit the broad side of a barn with a tractor.

In any case, meh, I don’t know.  I thought Ed Harris might’ve been able to take the novel and transform it into something with a little more depth (he wrote the screenplay, in addition to starring in it), but I’m not convinced he did.  I mostly felt kind of underwhelmed the whole time I was watching this movie, and it hasn’t really lingered with me at all.  It’s not a BAD movie.  It’s just not that interesting or unique either.  I’ll try it again sometime soon and see if it goes down better the second time around (when expectations are lower, see?).

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Genre: Western
Cast:  Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellwegger, Jeremy Irons, James Gammon, Timothy V. Murphy

MOVIE: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

March 17, 2008

Many, many years ago, I read the novel on which this movie is based. I’d picked it up at a bookstore one day because the title had given me a chuckle. Not the part of the title in which it is told to us that it’s about Jesse James getting assassinated (a couple of weeks ago, by the way, a friend of mine asked me what this movie was “about,” and I was all, “Um, did you just ask me what a movie entitled ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ was ABOUT?”). But instead the whole title itself, which is so reminiscent of those old — oh hell, what are those things called? Not dime novels, which came later, but the little books they used to write about Western heroes back in the 1800’s? The ones about the Earps, Doc Holliday, and, of course, Jesse James.

It’s been years now since I read Hansen’s novel, and though I remember really enjoying it, I don’t remember anything else about it. When I heard it was being made into a movie with Brad Pitt as Jesse and Sam Shepard as his brother Frank, though, my reaction was one of unbridled glee. First of all, we need more Westerns. And second, Brad may be just ridiculously gorgeous, but he is also, without a doubt, a truly talented actor with an extremely wide range. I could see Brad doing James pretty easily. And what’s more, I really WANTED to see Brad doing James.

Unfortunately, as a film, I have to say this one fell a bit flat for me. Part of the problem with this movie is that it tries to get too arty for its own good. I started out loving the gorgeous scenery — the pause when the train comes around and you see its lights glowing through the trees, the sweeping prairie shots, etc. But once it started moving towards (and then past) the 120 minute mark, I confess I got a bit impatient. Westerns are often full of rambling slow moments of sweeping scenery — consider the ubiquitous tumbleweed shot — it’s one of their trademarks, really. But in a GOOD Western, the scenery should feel more like an extension of the cowboy himself, rather than an attempt on the part of the director to win an award for cinematography. Here, it just felt too heavy-handedly like the latter. To me, anyway.

And as for Brad Pitt’s Jesse James, he takes a quintessential American hero/anti-hero and turns him into. . . yaaaaawn, I’m sorry, were you saying something? I nodded off there for a second.

Know what I mean?

I appreciated that, for once, a movie about Jesse James made the attempt to demonstrate that he was, in fact, a really bad guy (compare to, for example, unBoyfriend Colin Farrell’s James in American Outlaws). Pitt’s James is clearly violent, lugging around some pretty intense mental and emotional demons (take the scene in the barn with the kid, for example). But his attempt to do “troubled and intense” mostly seemed to involve sitting around looking stony-faced, and it just didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid.

Casey Affleck, on the other hand, is just plain genius as Robert Ford. About twenty minutes into this film, it occurred to me that what I was watching was actually Single White Female with dudes on horseback — it really is the same story. It’s the tale of a young man totally infatuated with the person he thinks lives the perfect, most ideal life imaginable. Infatuated to the point of obsession. But it’s not that Bob wants to be partners with Jesse James, or even to earn his respect, really. It’s that he wants to BE Jesse James. The more he comes to realize the only person who can be Jesse James is Jesse James, the more he starts to turn ye olde stalker message of “If I can’t have you, nobody can” into “If I can’t BE you, nobody can.” And it’s all kinda downhill from there for both parties.

As with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck brings an truly fascinating balance of innocence and toughness to his part. Even knowing, as we all do from the title, that Bob is going to kill his childhood hero by the end of the movie, we can’t help but feel sorry from him from the moment he enters the screen. He’s a sad, pathetic little wannabe, desperate to be taken seriously. But he doesn’t have the intelligence and strength to actually obtain greatness. So, he does what so many pathetic little wannabes do to try to become famous — he assassinates someone bigger than he is. And down in history he goes.

The last thirty minutes or so of this movie, focusing purely on the two Ford brothers (Bob’s brother Charley is played by Sam Rockwell, by the way), is one of the best parts of the entire film, in my opinion. It follows Bob and Charley’s respective regrets and downfalls as they first try to capitalize on the murder by turning it into a stage play, thinking they’ll be heroes for having brought down one of the notorious bandits ever, and finally realize they are even less respected than ever before (didn’t help, of course, that Bob shot Jesse in the back). This was a part of the story we don’t often see, and it was a part I found both intriguing and moving.

In any case, despite my minor complaints, I think this is a movie well worth seeing. I think it could’ve benefitted from stronger editing and better pacing, though. And, sorry to say it, someone other than Pitt in the title role. Nevertheless, Western fans will find much to enjoy here, and so will anyone interested in the history of an American legend.

(By the way, best version of that Jesse James song at the end of the film in the bar? The one by The Pogues.)

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Genre: Western
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Mary Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Jeremy Renner