Archive for the ‘Western’ Category

Appaloosa

Monday, October 27th, 2008

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It’s interesting that this is only the second film that Ed Harris has directed. It looks like the work of a seasoned filmmaker. Maybe it’s this freshness as a director, at least as a director of westerns (his only other directorial credit was 2000’s terrific biopic Pollock), that helps give the film that special kick.

Appaloosa is a straight up western, all right, but it’s also a bit unusual. It’s got of a sense of humor, it’s cynical and it looks at the Old West’s sense of justice and vigilance in a unique way. This is a western that questions the system, ethics and code of westerns.

A great deal of the success of the film is thanks to its leads, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, who play peace makers Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, respectively. Harris and Mortensen have an easy chemistry here, creating two characters who have been around each other so long that they have grown to rely and depend on each other. It’s not one of those phony-baloney Hollywood buddy pictures where the two guys play best buds but you don’t buy it for one second; this is authentic.

Virgil and Everett have been summoned to the town of Appaloosa to bring a vile man named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, who plays the part with lip-smacking devilishness), who has, in the chilling opening sequence, executed the town’s sheriff and his two deputies. Everett, speaking for Virgil, explains to the men in charge of Appaloosa that in order to protect the town, they must hand over complete control to Virgil and Everett. In order to maintain order, they will absolute power. This scene couldn’t help but remind me of the our current commander-in-chief and his administration.

Renee Zellweger plays Allison French, a young woman who arrives to Appaloosa, and becomes involved with Virgil, and lusts over both men. It’s a strange, tricky role, and Zellweger plays her as sweet, quiet and a little unbalanced. It’s definitely unlike the depiction of women in most modern westerns.

For me, one thing about this movie that helped make it work is the cinematography by Dean Semier. Semier takes full advantage of the beautiful landscapes, to be sure, but he also strikes unusual compositions that help elevate the story. One shot I particularly liked was of Ms. French, Virgil and Everett standing in a triangular shape; this makes perfect sense since this is a love triangle of sorts.

There are scenes of sudden violence, most chillingly when Virgil, seemingly out of anger at Ms. French for humiliating him regarding a question of a personal nature, beats a man at the bar within an inch of his life. There is also a terrific gunfight scene that feels, unlike many gunfight sequence in other westerns, seems like the way a real gunfight would go down.

Two other supporting roles come to mind: Timothy Spall plays the mild-mannered lawyer who wants order at all costs, and Lance Henriksen shows up as a gunslinger-for-hire. Appaloosa is an interesting western, and well worth a look.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) (****)

Friday, September 21st, 2007

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Several months ago, I went to some film that I can’t really recall any details of, and there was a preview for the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, a 1957 western that had starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. “Oh, God,” I muttered to whoever was unlucky enough to have gone to the movies with me that night, “not another remake. Why must Hollywood remake everything? What’s the point? I’m sure it will be terrible.” I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Not only is director James Mangold’s new interpretation one of the best remakes I can remember, but it’s also one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. Oh, and yes, as all the reviews are saying, it’s bringing back the Western to its former glory. It also returns to Russell Crowe his former status as “bad ass,” a status which was under great speculation for a few years.

The story concerns Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a rancher who lost his leg in the Civil War and is rapidly losing the respect of his wife (Gretchen Mol) and his eldest son (Logan Lerman). As the film opens, Evans’ barn has been burned down because he hasn’t paid back a local land baron (his youngest son needed medicine) and the baron is planning on stealing his land to make way for the railroad. Meanwhile, feared outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) has just pulled off a daring robbery with his crew of bandits and murderers, including his right-hand man, the simple but vicious Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). Evans and Wade’s paths cross here, and as Evans leads a wounded bounty hunter (Peter Fonda) to town, Wade leaves with Evans’ horses.

Eventually, Wade is caught and Evans is hired by an executive from the railroad (Dallas Roberts) to transport Wade to Yuma, so he can stand trial and be executed for his crimes. Although the film has plenty of action and incredible set pieces (most memorable a rousing escape from a labor camp), the heart of the film is in the relationship between Wade and Evans. In another time, under different circumstances, these two could’ve been friends. Of course, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are two of today’s best leading actors (don’t believe me, rent L.A. Confidential and The Mechanist, and compare them to the performances they give here. These aren’t actors, they’re chameleons). Crowe plays Wade as brilliant and ruthless, a man who follows his own moral and ethical code and also manipulates and deceives others the way some people play the piano. There’s no doubt that Ben Wade is a bad man, but Crowe makes him one of the most likable and watchable bad guys in recent film history. Christian Bale’s part is a little trickier, Evans is a good man, but a lifetime of hardship and bad breaks has turned him harsh and resentful. We feel his anger. With every role Bale takes, he further convinces me that he can play anything.

As with Mangold’s previous film, the excellent Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk the Line, he peppers the film with several memorable supporting performances. Dallas Roberts, who played Sam Phillips in Walk the Line, plays the fussy, proper railroad agent who represents the new order of the West. Alan Tudyk plays Doc Potter, the local veterinarian who doubles as Wade’s personal physician. Peter Fonda is marvelous as the bounty hunter, his throat sounding practically burnt by the sun (and suspiciously Eastwood-ish). Ben Foster, who started out on a silly Disney sitcom in the mid-90s, is slowly becoming a very good actor (you might remember him as the creepiest of the trio of criminals in the Bruce Willis movie Hostage from a few years back). Here, he is a ruthless bastard, and plays it masterfully. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Gretchen Mol (who is both supportive and critical of her husband in her scenes), Logan Lerman, who is also very good as Evans’ eldest and Vinessa Shaw as a bartender who has a few scenes with Wade that suggest his sweeter side. There is also a cameo appearance by a well-known actor who in this film plays a henchman, but I wouldn’t dream of writing who that actor is.

3:10 to Yuma is a rousing action film, a thoughtful study on male bonding and, above all, a great Western. It’s also the best remake since The Departed. Too bad that awful remakes are much more common than great ones.