Appaloosa


Appaloosa

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris discuss the finer points of Western living.

(New Line) Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henricksen, Timothy Spall, James Gammon, Adam Nelson. Directed by Ed Harris

Without law and order, all would be chaos. But who writes the laws and who maintains the order? When the two are one and the same, is it justice or vengeance?

The town of Appaloosa in New Mexico Territory circa 1882 is living without either. The local sheriff and his deputies all disappeared on a routine trip to a local ranch, run by the ruthless Bragg (Irons). In desperation, the town fathers (Spall and Gammon) hire a notorious gunslinger, Virgil Cole (Harris) and his right-hand man Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to become town marshal and protect the town from the increasingly egregious offenses of Bragg’s thugs.

Cole and Hitch make a mark right away when they have a run-in with several of Bragg’s men in the local saloon. When asked to desist from urinating on the bar, they refuse. When told they were under arrest, they guffaw. When told that if they resist arrest or be shot, they resist. When they’re shot, they die.

Bragg is, to say the least, displeased and a wary standoff exists between the vile rancher and the deadeye lawmen. Into this mix comes a young ranch hand who witnessed Bragg murdering the previous marshal in cold blood and is willing to testify. A more devastating development comes in on the stagecoach, Miss Allison French (Zellweger), a widow of limited means and resources who is neither a schoolmarm or a lady of the evening. Instead, she plays piano – and not very well. However, she knows how to use her considerable charms to her own advantage and has the unerring instincts of a survivor. A showdown is inevitable, and the world of Appaloosa will never be the same afterwards.

Harris, one of the finest actors of his generation, hasn’t sat in the director’s chair on a feature length film since 2000’s Pollack and this film couldn’t be more different than the other. There are elements of the old school western to this, but it is firmly New School western as well. It isn’t as violent and brutal as say, Sam Peckinpah might have done it and it isn’t as iconic as Clint Eastwood might have done it.

Instead, this is a movie that is extremely character driven. Virgil is less educated, prone to using words he has difficulty in pronouncing or even remembering; Everett is smarter, quieter, and content to be second banana to Virgil but is as dangerous as a rattlesnake in his own right. Bragg is a steely-eyed villain of the traditional Western, evil because he can be. All three actors in these roles do fine jobs.

At the core of the movie is the relationship between Virgil and Everett, and it is a friendship that is totally believable. Certainly Virgil is not without his flaws, but Everett never questions his boss openly and when he does, only because he sees danger coming. Otherwise, he is fine with letting Virgil do his thing, which sometimes can be unhealthy for those who cross him.

Unfortunately, Zellweger’s Allison is less easy to get a handle on. In these more enlightened times she might come off as manipulative and disloyal, but she is really a pragmatist. She gives her loyalty to whomever can best protect her and provide for her and if something better comes along, she gladly takes it. It’s not a flattering role, but Zellweger bravely assumes it, warts and all.

The big problem with Appaloosa lies in its pacing. Harris is content to let the characters drive the plot rather than the other way around. The advantage to that is that it allows the characters to become real people in our eyes; the disadvantage is that the plot moves along at a fairly majestic place, making the movie feel longer than it actually is. The fact that there are a couple of false codas in place before the final denouement doesn’t help matters.

I will admit to having a soft spot for Westerns. Not because I’m a particular fan of them mind you but because I have a soft spot in my heart for underdogs and no genre fits the description of underdog in Hollywood better than Westerns. They are archaic in many ways and a throwback to a different time and maybe that’s what I like about them most. When well-executed, they are wonderful entertainment. I wanted to like Appaloosa much more than I did, and in some ways, despite its flaws, I still admire it. Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience recommend it completely because of the egregiousness of its flaws. However, I can say that lovers of good Westerns will find a lot to like about the movie. Those who aren’t so fond of Westerns should mosey on to another choice in the video store.

WHY RENT THIS: Westerns are few and far between these days and ones that give you pause to think even more so. Strong performances by the cast and wonderful cinematography make this a solid effort.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing drags in places, making the movie seem longer than it actually is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a modicum of harsh language, just enough to make this for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Mortensen both worked on David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are four featurettes here but two worth noting; one on the historical accuracy of the film, mostly to do with costume and set design, and an interview with legendary cinematographer Dean Semler.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

Leaves of Grass

Note: While I saw this at the Florida Film Festival, it isn’t scheduled to be released until a to-be-determined date this summer. A full review will be posted on its theatrical release date or DVD release date. In the meantime, here’s a mini-review.

Edward Norton stars in the dual roles of Bill, an uptight but brilliant academic and Brady, an Oklahoma pot grower who is equally brilliant but pot-addled into a life of lesser accomplishment. When Brady gets into trouble with a drug distributor, he lures his identical twin brother Bill home by faking his death. Once there, Bill gets subjected to a life he left behind on purpose and in the process discovers the family he’d turned away from. With a barrel full of excellent performances led by Norton but including director Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfus and Josh Pais, the movie takes a startling left turn about two thirds of the way through that is unexpected but delightful. It’s a very well made movie that will grow on you, pot references aside. See it at a film festival near you or at your local art house, or if not, on DVD when it comes out in that format.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Waking Sleeping Beauty

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Up in the Air


Up in the Air

George Clooney as Ryan Bingham is home.

(Paramount) George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Zach Galifianakis, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons, Danny McBride, Chris Lowell, Steve Eastin, Young MC. Directed by Jason Reitman

We all create our own cocoons. Some are membrane-thin and allow a great deal to pass through; others are like solid steel and will deflect anything and everything that comes our way.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) has an unenviable job. He works for a consulting firm based in Omaha, Nebraska that sends specialists to businesses all over the country for the purpose of informing employees of those businesses  that they’ve been fired. Think of them as the opposite of corporate headhunters; more like corporate axemen. Given the state of the economy, business is booming.

As a result Bingham spends a great deal of his time on the road, travelling from city to city. The nature of his job requires Bingham to be exposed to extreme emotional responses, ranging from anger to grief. He has isolated himself from this by building a thick shell around him, letting nobody and nothing in. He has become the ultimate road warrior; the things that annoy most of us about travel and air travel in particular bring Bingham comfort. He has piled up enough miles to have become a member of the most elite of frequent flier programs, allowing him to sail through check-in whereas most of us normal schlubs must wait in line.

Bingham also has a side business of his own; motivational speaking, or perhaps more accurately, anti-motivational speaking. Using the metaphor of a backpack, he espouses that the fewer possessions that one has and the fewer relationships that one is in, the better. Sort of like 21st century EST, in a way. While most of his speaking engagements have been in relatively small conferences or seminars, he is getting interest from much larger, more prestigious events.

The anonymity of faceless chain hotel rooms suits him, and he numbs himself further with drinks in hotel lounges. In one such he meets Alex Goran (Farmiga), a fellow road warrior from Chicago who is impressed by his collection of hotel loyalty program cards, but most of all by the Concierge Key, an American Airlines program offered only to the most valued customers. There is one plateau, however, that Bingham has yet to meet – the 10,000,000 mile club, only achieved by six travelers ever. More people have walked to the moon, Bingham tells her, than have received this honor.

Predictably, they wind up in bed but the casual nature of their relationship appeals to both of them and they make plans to meet again later. First however, Bingham must return home to Omaha for a meeting at the corporate headquarters where he receives a bit of a jolt – the company is looking at a software program that will allow them to video conference via computer and in short, terminate via the internet. Bingham’s boss Craig (Bateman) has taken the advice of a young hotshot named Natalie Keener (Kendrick) fresh out of college who has come up with the program.

As you might imagine, Bingham very much disagrees with this new direction and tells his boss so. Furthermore, he feels (quite rightly) that the inexperienced Natalie has no clue what the consultants actually do and what the job entails. Craig agrees and orders him to take Natalie with him on the road and show her the ropes. Bingham is reluctant but Craig is resolute – go on the road with Natalie or don’t go at all. Reluctantly, Bingham consents.

Natalie is woefully unprepared for the rigors of the road and the emotional fallout from the work. Bingham shows her the ropes and some of the tricks and efficiencies of travel; which lines to get into at the security check and that kind of thing. He also shows her how to turn around a bad interview around as he does in St. Louis with Bob (Simmons), a longtime employee. When Natalie’s by-the-book script fails, Bingham turns the situation around with a little well-placed information from Bob’s resume, urging the terminated employee to seize the opportunity to chase the dreams he gave up when he started working the job he’s being let go from. “This is a wake-up call,” he tells Bob and in a sense, he’s right.

Natalie and Bingham don’t get along well, but when her boyfriend dumps her via text message during a stopover when Alex is visiting Bingham, they begin to bond a little. Alex and Bingham, for their part, are finding themselves increasingly attracted to one another.

This further becomes cemented when Bingham goes to northern Wisconsin to attend his sister Julie’s (Lynskey) wedding to a wide-eyed dreamer named Jim (McBride) with Alex in tow as his “date”. The older sister Kara (Morton), who is having marital troubles of her own, notes that Bingham has had zero effect on the lives of the two sisters; he’s absent from their lives in a way that he is absent from his own. Still, everyone has to come off the road sometime and Bingham’s ideal lifestyle looks like it’s about to end.

There are some amusing moments but director Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) hasn’t made a comedy. It’s more of an observational piece, ostensibly on the cold corporate climate that grows more impersonal and dehumanizing by the day.

That makes Bingham the ultimate 21st century worker. His Omaha apartment is a reflection of the sterile, personality-challenged hotel rooms he is most comfortable in. There is nothing personal there, nothing to indicate that a human being lives there. It could easily be the room of a Comfort Inn, only less inviting and less clean.

Clooney fills the role beautifully. He is in many ways, perfect for it; the characters he plays tend to be, emotionally speaking, less accessible than other actors. He is personable enough that people will instinctively like him, but he is so shut off that one wonders if he’s got blood flowing through his veins or machine oil. In a world where most socializing is done remotely via the Internet, he fits in as a kind of ultimate expression of that; a person who may be there physically but not emotionally. As Clooney begins to realize what his life has become, his character panics, leading to some of the most satisfying scenes of the film.

Reitman is a savvy filmmaker and he divides his vignettes with overhead shots of anonymous cities with the name of the city in big graphics; we pass over Wichita, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee without getting a sense of the cities at all – like the characters in the movie, there is nothing to connect us to them other than those graphics. It’s a marvelous device and sets up the action of the movie nicely.

Kendrick does an outstanding job in the ingénue role; she is wide-eyed and innocent, vulnerable in many ways but with her own strength and spunk. This is a career-establishing performance and is being given serious Supporting Actress consideration for the Oscars. Farmiga has become a very dependable actress who has yet to really get that plum role that will define her career; this isn’t it either, but she is still memorable in her role.

The ending was a source of disagreement between Da Queen and I; she didn’t like it at all, whereas I understood it and thought it made organic sense. Some may find the message a bit of a downer, but I think it’s refreshingly realistic. In the end, not all of us are cut out for relationships but that doesn’t mean we don’t need them. In any case, this is another solid film to add to Reitman’s impressive resume; it has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle of the Christmas release glut, but perhaps instead of making a fourth or fifth trek to see Avatar you might want to give this outstanding movie a try.

REASONS TO GO: Clooney and Kendrick give terrific performances. Well-directed commentary on the impersonal nature of modern corporate culture and relationships

REASONS TO STAY: Clooney isn’t the most emotionally accessible of actors which makes it hard sometimes to empathize with his character.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sex and language concerns, but the concepts here might be a little much for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With the exception of Simmons and Galifianakis, every person that is fired in the movie is not an actor but a person laid off recently in reality. The filmmakers posted ads in St. Louis and Detroit posing as makers of a documentary on the effects of the recession; those who answered the ad were instructed to treat the camera like the person who fired them and respond either as they had or as they wished they had.

HOME OR THEATER: Much of the movie takes place on airplanes, in hotel rooms or in conference rooms. The intimate feeling lends itself to home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Uninvited

I Served the King of England


I Served the King of England

Julia Jentsch prepares to lick Ivan Bartev clean.

(Sony Classics) Ivan Barnev, Julia Jentsch, Oldrich Kaiser, Martin Huba, Marian Labuda, Milan Lasica, Jaromir Dulava, Tonya Graves. Directed by Jiri Menzel

It is part of the human condition to want more than what we have. Some of us have absolutely no idea how to get it while others have detailed plans on how to attain what we want. Still others will do absolutely anything to get it.

Jan Dite (Kaiser) has been released from a Czech prison (he was set free after serving only 14 years and 9 months of a 15 year sentence) and has been repatriated to a place near the border with the expectation that he will flee over it. However, Dite finds himself a small pub that has been abandoned and decides to restore it and open it for business.

As a young man (Barnev), he had been something of a con artist who amuses himself by scattering coins on the ground and watching wealthy men bend down to pick them up. He dreams of being a millionaire and becomes taken by a vision of a grand hotel in prewar Prague, bull of tuxedo-wearing, white gloved waiters, crystal chandeliers and enough snootiness to put the House of Lords to shame.

He gets a job in one as a waiter and becomes the protégé of the headwaiter (Huba) of the restaurant who is the essence of impeccable service, manners and haughtiness. When asked the secret to his demeanor, he replies “I served the King of England.” It’s the only appearance the King of England makes in the film.

Barnev moves from hotel to hotel, each more prestigious than the last, learning everything that he can so that one day he might own a hotel of his own. He may be small in stature (a running gag through the movie) but that doesn’t diminish his ability to be in control of any situation that comes his way. He also has a taste for beautiful women that he exercises as often as he can.

That is, until the Nazis occupy Czechoslovakia and then, pragmatist that he is, supports the Nazi regime in order to further his ambitions. He even marries a fervent German teacher who forces him to prove his Aryan lineage before she’ll consent to wed him and bear purebred Aryan babies. The marriage is short-lived, however as she is killed trying to retrieve a box of valuable rare stamps she had looted from Jewish homes while she was working in Russia. Dite finds her body and gently removes the box; no sense in wealth going to waste.

And it doesn’t. Dite uses the money from the sale of the stamps to buy one of the magnificent hotels he was formally employed by and becomes a millionaire – until the communists throw him in jail as they did with all the millionaires. As Dite says in voiceover narration at the onset of the film, it is always his luck to find bad luck.

Director Menzel is a veteran of the Czech film industry, having directed the much-revered 1967 Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains. He suffuses an odd mix of style here, making a kind of silent slapstick screwball softcore sex comedy of manners. The movie was the most popular Czech release of 2007 mainly because Menzel knows what two things are most dear to the Czech man’s heart – beautiful naked women and beer, and there’s a cornucopia of both here.

Barnev moves through the movie with an expression of smug insolence much like a naughty boy who knows he can get away with murder because he isn’t going to get caught and even if he is, he certainly won’t be punished. He is a major component as to why the movie works; while the scenes alternate with Kaiser playing the older version of him narrating the tale and preparing his pub, it is Barnev who captures the attention.

Menzel understand what makes a comedy effective. He examines some of the baser aspects of human nature and allows us to see those flaws in ourselves and shake our heads and laugh ruefully at them. There are some broad slapstick moments to be sure, but there is also a good deal of subtle, gentle humor that is actually quite refreshing. There is a good blend of laughter and pathos; Menzel is wise enough to understand the proper measurements of each to make a compelling brew.

WHY RENT THIS: A gentle sense of humor about class, ambition and lust in pre-war Europe allows us, like all good comedies, to laugh at these elements in ourselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This may be a little too low-key for some who prefer the comedies broad and raunchy, although there is plenty of the latter. It is also subtitled, which turns off some viewers.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of nudity and sexuality in the movie, but much of it is done in a humorous manner; shouldn’t be too offensive although I’d think twice before letting the kids watch this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name “dite” in Czech means “child.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Push