DVD Review: Appaloosa
I’m not a huge westerns guy, but as with any genre, it’s got its share of great movies (Tombstone is a personal fave, and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns are excellent), but it’s not a genre that I typically get excited about one way or another. And at this point, westerns tend to fall into two categories: post-Unforgiven “revisionist” westerns that aim to show how violent and amoral that mythical era actually was, and movies that use the tropes of the genre for more traditional action-adventure stories, like the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma (which I didn't much care for). Appaloosa doesn’t really fall into either category; it has very little in the way of “action,” but it’s also got an old-fashioned flavour to it, and co-writer/producer/director/star Ed Harris doesn’t seem interested in using his film to make a statement about the treatment of Native Americans or the brutality of the real American West, choosing instead to focus on character.
Appaloosa, which is based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, co-stars Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons, and it’s this stellar cast (I actually don’t care for Zellweger at all, and I had many issues with her character as well, but more on that later) that helps to elevate Harris’ film to an above-average entry into the genre. Harris plays marshal Virgil Cole, who travels around from lawless town to lawless town bringing justice, aided by his loyal, shotgun-toting deputy, Everett Hitch (Mortensen, rocking some of the most impressive facial hair I’ve seen in a western since the mustache festival that was Tombstone). Cole is hired by the residents of the fictional town of Appaloosa to help them deal with local rancher Randall Bragg (Irons) whose workers are running roughshod over the nearby town. The film opens with Bragg coldly murdering a marshal and two of his men (two of his men brutally killed a married couple, and the lawmen showed up at his ranch to collect them) which proves to be the last straw for the people of Appaloosa, who hire Cole to deal with Bragg permanently. Cole takes the job, and he, Hitch and Hitch’s facial hair set about bringing peace to the town.
One of the best things in Appaloosa is the characters and how they interact. Harris and Mortensen, paired as rivals in A History of Violence, have a wonderfully easy chemistry, and they really do seem like they’ve been riding together for more than a decade. They have a great dynamic, and their banter (Harris estimates about 85% of the dialogue was just taken verbatim from Parker’s book) is sharp and often hilarious. Harris plays Cole as an almost robotic killer – he’s less a proper lawman than he is a hired gun who earns his money killing criminals and thugs – while Mortensen’s Hitch is the duo’s conscience, more intelligent and well-read, and less prone to jumping into a situation without thinking. Throw in a brilliant actor like Jeremy Irons as the villain, and you’ve got yourself a solid western based on that alone. Just getting to watch three capital-G great actors do their thing is a treat.
Which brings me to Renée Zellweger’s character. As I said earlier, I’ve just never liked her as an actress, but I like to believe I’m capable of looking past my own personal feelings when I’m in Reviewer Mode. (I find Jack Black irritating as hell, but that didn’t stop me from loving both Tropic Thunder and Kung Fu Panda, and he does great work in both). My issues with Zellweger in Appaloosa have to do with her character. I can’t go into too much detail about what happens with her as the movie progresses for fear of spoiling plot points, but, like many westerns, Appaloosa is very much a Guy’s Movie, and I was a little troubled by the vaguely sexist tone the movie takes on when it comes to her character (though I can only assume that’s taken from the book). Basically as soon as she arrives in Appaloosa, Cole falls in love with her at first sight, and their romance throws his dynamic with Hitch all out of whack – the story of Appaloosa has as much to do with their friendship being tested by an icky girl than it does about their attempt to bring Bragg to justice. As a result, Zellweger’s character just comes across shrill and annoying – she nags Cole about why he has to spend all day guarding his prisoner (i.e. doing his job) in his holding cell instead of spending time with her, for example.
I also found that music really struck the wrong tone. Which sounds like a strangely minor thing to gripe about, but the only reason I mention it is because Appaloosa is one of the rare times I even noticed the score, and that’s because it felt so wrong in so many parts. Ed Harris is a very capable director, and much of Appaloosa is beautiful to look at, and there are more than a few excellently-constructed sequences. A few scenes come close to being genuinely great, but the music holds it back, ruining the atmosphere, particularly in the buildup to the gunfights (a crucial aspect of any western). There’s also a couple of bits of voiceover from Mortensen’s character at the beginning and end of the film that are problematic. The voiceover that opens the film is helpful, as it explains Cole’s relationship with Hitch, but his narration in the final scene really just heavy-handedly explains things that were already pretty clear from the characters' actions, and it ruins the subtlety of an otherwise well-done sequence. The ending would have been far more effective if it had been allowed to play out without Mortensen's voiceover.
Ultimately, though, I found that the good in Appaloosa outweighed the bad. The gunfights, though few and far between, are very well done, though they typically only last a few seconds, often finishing before you realize what’s happening. (“That happened quick,” Hitch says after one shootout in which several men go down in the span of about two seconds. “Everybody could shoot,” is Cole’s terse reply.) And for the first two thirds or so I thought Appaloosa was really quite standard in its story – gunfighter cleans up lawless town, but finds his heart softening when he falls in love – but as the final third began, the plot started taking turns I didn’t expect, for better or worse (usually for better). Overall, if you’re a fan of westerns, there’s a lot to like here, but if you’re looking for lots of gunplay and action, look elsewhere. Appaloosa is an above-average western with some issues that prevent it from being truly great.
The Appaloosa DVD has quite a few extras on it, and they’re pretty much all solid. Ed Harris provides commentary, and he’s soft-spoken to the point of potentially inducing sleep. But he was heavily involved in just about every aspect of production, so he manages to provide lots of insight. He’s joined partway through the film by producing partner and co-writer Robert Knott, and as much as the two have the easy dialogue of old friends, Knott’s arrival doesn’t really add much. The track is thoughtful, if a little dry.
Also included are a handful of making-of featurettes on the characters and actors, the historical accuracy, the town itself (which was laid out and planned with a surprising level of detail) and veteran cinematographer Dean Semler, who returned to the western genre – and traditional film stock – after spending several years shooting on digital. It’s a solid, if unspectacular package for a solid, if unspectacular film.
Labels: DVD review, westerns
First Watchmen post of '09!
Great news today for comic book geeks: The lawsuit filed by 20th Century Fox trying to block the March 6 release of the Watchmen film has been settled. I'm no entertainment lawyer, but as a huge fan of the original book, director Zack Snyder's work and movies in general, I'd been keeping an eye on this story, which first started to get serious around Christmas time when a judge agreed to hear the case. I was never that worried that the finished film wouldn't get its planned release date, at least not over this lawsuit, but it's nice to know that it's settled and the movie will come out as intended. Presumably Fox – which passed on the film, and then apparently decided they did want a a piece of it after all when the trailers first hit to incredible buzz, and I assume The Dark Knight's huge success, which proved there is a market out there after all for intelligent, complex films about superheroes didn't hurt either – is getting a ton of money in return for dropping the suit.I came across an interesting open letter by one of the film's producers, Lloyd Levin, about a week ago. He's been trying to get the film made for more than a decade now, and I found his input on this situation to be pretty insightful. Here's his take on the Fox issue:From my point of view, the flashpoint of this dispute, came in late spring of 2005. Both Fox and Warner Brothers were offered the chance to make Watchmen. They were submitted the same package, at the same time. It included a cover letter describing the project and its history, budget information, a screenplay, the graphic novel, and it made mention that a top director was involved.
And it's at this point, where the response from both parties could not have been more radically different.
The response we got from Fox was a flat "pass." That's it. An internal Fox email documents that executives there felt the script was one of the most unintelligible pieces of shit they had read in years. Conversely, Warner Brothers called us after having read the script and said they were interested in the movie - yes, they were unsure of the screenplay, and had many questions, but wanted to set a meeting to discuss the project, which they promptly did. Did anyone at Fox ask to meet on the movie? No. Did anyone at Fox express any interest in the movie? No. Express even the slightest interest in the movie? Or the graphic novel? No.Read the whole thing here if you're interested. It's a little moot now that the case has been settled and Watchmen is officially on track for its March 6 release date, but I'm a sucker for inside stories about how Hollywood actually works. And as a longtime fan of Watchmen, which was considered unfilmable up until footage from Snyder's film started coming out, I can say that if this film is half as good (and loyal to the source material) as it appears to be, the project's 15-year-long trip to the screen will have been worth every minute.
Labels: Movie news, superheroes, Watchmen
DVD Review: Hamlet 2
THE MOVIEHamlet 2 is easily one of the strangest comedies I saw in 2008. It’s not unlike Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder (see my review here), in that it’s spoofing a fairly well-tread subgenre – the “inspirational teacher movie” – while also managing to work as an entry into that genre. I didn’t think Hamlet 2 was as funny as Pineapple Express or Tropic Thunder, but unlike those films, it actually has some fairly pointed things to say about modern American culture (the closest the other two movies comes to any similar sort of statement is Tropic Thunder co-writer/director/star Ben Stiller’s ongoing fascination with the entertainment business, which can make a lot of his directorial work a little too inside-baseball for some), and it’s also smarter, and considerably angrier. I generally try to avoid using too many overdone reviewer-words, but “scathing” immediately came to mind while I was watching it. The plot of Hamlet 2, on its surface, is pretty standard inspirational teacher movie stuff. British comic Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschz (pronounced "Marsh," more or less), a struggling actor whose credits include ads for juicers and herpes medication and a tiny role on Xena: Warrior Princess (he was also Robin Williams’ stand-in for a week on Patch Adams) who know spends his days working pro bono as high school drama teacher in a Tucson, Arizona, where he puts on plays based on contemporary movies like Erin Brockovich and Mississippi Burning (!). He’s very unhappily married to an awful, bitter shrew of a woman (Catherine Keener) and to make ends meet, they’re renting out a room in their house to a dim slacker (David Arquette). When he finds out the school – which couldn’t care less about any arts programs, hence Marschz’s working for no pay – is cancelling drama, he decides he has to put on a blockbuster play to save the program. Taking the advice of an unusually verbose 14-year-old critic from the school paper (Marschz’s insane desire to get positive notices from a kid who cleans hamster cages is the funniest recurring gag in the movie), he decides to stop adapting mainstream movies for his plays and craft an original work. His idea? To write a sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The fact that Marschz unironically attempts to write and produce Hamlet 2 tells you all you need to know about his idiocy and self-delusion, but his ridiculously ambitious undertaking and his desire to save the program he loves gives him his first true bit of artistic inspiration. One of the greatest conceits in the movie is that, aside from a few offhand references to the play made by characters and a few glimpses of the production during the final sequence, the plot of Marschz’s Hamlet 2 is never really addressed in any detail. Instead we get tiny bits of information about what's actually in Marschz's sequel, such as a time machine, Albert Einstein, Jesus, at least one flying lightsaber duel, Satan kissing the president, and a stage setup that spoofs Rent’s scaffolding set. And as if that weren’t enough, Marchz is also using the play to address his serious unresolved issues with his father. Because Hamlet 2 is a movie that's very much about show business –Marschz is prone to bitter outbursts about his failed acting career, and Elizabeth Shue plays herself as a former successful actress who now works as a nurse in Tucson after she quit the business in disgust – the filmmakers fill it with references to actual inspirational teacher movies like Dangerous Minds (which Marschz watches after his first day with his new class full of the Latino “troubled kids”), Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus (another of his faves). But ultimately the difference with Hamlet 2, as the producers say in the extras, is that this time the ethnic kids from the bad side of town (another stereotype the film has some fun with – Marschz assumes his students are all dead-end gangbangers, and learns that one has a 3.9 GPA, with a father who is a successful novelist with a PhD in literature and a mother who is a painter with an exhibit in the Guggenheim) save the teacher, instead of it being the other way around. But as much as Hamlet 2 is about a high school play, it’s definitely not for kids; it’s filled with swearing and sexual references (the students perform a song alongside Marschz – who’s dressed as Einstein for reasons that are never explained – called ‘Raped in the Face’).Most importantly, Hamlet 2 is pretty damn funny. I haven’t seen any of Coogan’s signature BBC show, Alan Partridge, but he’s absolutely brilliant in everything else I’ve seen him in, and he’s no different here. He deserves a ton of credit for this movie working as well as it does; it’s a tricky balance the filmmakers are attempting to strike between satire and outright stupidity, and without someone as talented as Coogan carrying the whole thing, Hamlet 2 could have been a huge mess. Instead, Coogan makes Marschz a totally likeable buffoon through his relentless, infectious enthusiasm. I don’t remember the last time “lovable loser” was such an apt character description. But in addition to just being a comedy, Hamlet 2 has a lot to say. It’s a comedy about the anti-intellectual, anti-art sentiment that’s seemingly been growing in America in the past decade or so, as well as homogenous mall-culture. It’s set in Tucson, Arizona, and it’s filled with mean jokes about what a boring, lifeless dead-end place it is (I’ve never been, so I can’t really say, but the director mentions they had to shoot in New Mexico because officials from Tucson didn’t appreciate the script and didn’t want them to shoot there). But it’s also filled with more low-brow, broad comedy – it’s written by folks who worked on the South Park movie and Team America, so it’s got a similar all-over-the place vibe. If jokes about Shakespeare and the dumbing down of contemporary culture aren’t your thing, a silly pratfall or bit of male nudity will be along in a few seconds to try to get a chuckle out of you. And somehow the filmmakers even manage to make what little of the Hamlet 2 play we actually see emotionally affecting; it’s sort of a real moment when Marschz, playing Jesus (some time after the ‘Rock Me Sexy Jesus’ musical number – sadly not to the tune of Falco’s ‘80s classic, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’) forgives his own father. My biggest problem with Hamlet 2 was with Catherine Keener’s character as Coogan’s wife. As I mentioned earlier, she completely loathes her husband for being such a loser, but the character is so hateful that it’s difficult to identify her as even human. I get that she personifies all of Marschz’s self-doubt – she thinks nothing of belittling his ambitions or sperm count in public – but I couldn’t get past the idea that there was no possible way these two characters made it through one dinner together, let alone got married. This isn’t a knock on Keener; she’s an excellent actress, and she’s not bad here (and I also realize this isn’t a comedy filled with totally realistic, fully fleshed-out characters), but she was just too awful a person for me to buy her as anything resembling a real person. And I promised myself I’d mention that the “putting on high school plays based on hilariously inappropriate contemporary movies” is lifted from Rushmore. Overall though, Hamlet 2 is a very funny comedy with real ideas and genuine intelligence behind it, and there isn’t a whole lot of that going around these days. If you’re in the mood for something a bit different from the average comedy, check out Hamlet 2. At the very least, the ending is much more uplifting than Hamlet 1. GRADE: B+THE EXTRAS
The DVD features on Hamlet 2 are some of the cleverest, from a conceptual standpoint, that I’ve seen in a while. In addition to a couple of more traditional making-of/cast and crew featurettes (which do a decent job of showing the apparently fun on-set vibe) and a lone deleted scene, there’s a pair of sing-along features for the two songs performed in the film, ‘Rock Me Sexy Jesus’ and ‘Raped in the Face.’ There’s also a cute comparison between the brief scene from Marschz’s Erin Brockovich play and the same bit in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film. Finally, co-writer/director Andrew Fleming provides a solid, if unremarkable, commentary track.
Labels: comedy, DVD review
DVD Review: Burn After Reading
Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers’ follow-up to the flawless No Country for Old Men is a strange little movie. As a comedy (albeit a dark one), in many ways it’s the opposite of No Country, but both films share a pretty bleak view of human nature, and like many Coen Brothers films, it has bursts of shocking violence. It also boasts a cast that is, to use the cliché, star-studded, and everyone involved is doing great work. Combined with a deliciously black tone and its theme of peoples’ inherent greed and stupidity (a subject near and dear to my own cynical heart), Burn After Reading should be a minor classic. And yet somehow, it's strangely inert, and just never quite comes together.
While I know many people and critics really didn’t care for it, I wouldn’t call Burn After Reading a bad movie, just...odd. (I actually found it such a strange experience that I watched it again the following day, and found myself enjoying it far more than I did initially.) The comedy in Burn After Reading comes more from tone, but the movie isn’t really laugh-out-loud funny, though I did titter like a schoolgirl in many parts, particularly on the second viewing, and I had an evil grin on my face for much of its running time. The music, for example, is so hilariously overblown and serious – as if you were watching a “real” spy movie – that it perfectly underscores the petty silliness of what's happening on the screen.
One of the issues many people seem to have with Burn After Reading is that none of the characters are sympathetic (I actually tend to quite enjoy movies like that, but that's largely due to my own misanthropic tendencies); they’re all bad people or just plain stupid, or both. George Clooney is a scumbag sex addict who cheats on everyone, even his mistress; Brad Pitt is an dim, annoying douchebag; Frances McDormand is superficial, self-involved and oblivious; John Malkovich is an arrogant jerk; Tilda Swinton is an ice queen who, at the beginning, seems like the worst of the bunch, but by the end she seems like the least shitty person, because unlike all the other characters, she seems to have her shit at least somewhat together. Clooney and Pitt are playing so against type that if you’re interested in the movie because you think they’re glamorous and sexy movie stars, you will probably be disappointed. Clooney in particular is doing some impressive work as a sleazebag who tries to be charming – it’s like a great actor pretending to be a bad actor, and I’m sure it’s harder than it looks. Pitt is fantastic here, and his performance reminded me of an Esquire column I read years ago, I think shortly after Ocean’s Eleven came out, that basically argued that he’s an incredibly funny comedic character actor trapped in a screen idol’s body, and if you haven’t seen True Romance (another personal fave) or any other movies where Brad Pitt gets to be hilarious, Burn After Reading is worth checking out just for that.
One thing I really appreciated about the movie is that it has fun (granted, very mean-spirited fun) with the way that a lot of people nowadays behave as if they’re in a movie. Not literally, of course, but movies and TV shows have impacted the way we think the world works, in a lot of ways. McDormand’s and Pitt’s characters act like they’re in a spy film, and a lot of the humour and absurdity in their subplot involves their illusions about what espionage is like crashing against the far less sexy reality. They’re basically just trying to do things they’ve seen in movies, and none of it works, at all. Burn After Reading is a comedy for people who find themselves thinking from time to time about how much people suck. (Like me.) It’s a mean little movie about small, petty people doing small, petty things, only they all think their actions are grandiose and important.
All of this sounds overwhelmingly positive, I realize. But Burn After Reading, for all my gushing, is certainly flawed. It’s just that I really can’t articulate what those flaws are. Something about the film just doesn’t connect or gel the way, on paper, it feels like it should. It’s just weirdly…off in a way that I can’t really put my finger on. I feel like I appreciated it more than I actually liked it. All the pieces are here – and then some – but the final product somehow manages to be less than the sum of its very impressive parts. Burn After Reading isn’t a bad film by any means, but considering the talent involved, it’s a curious disappointment.
I don’t like to make presumptions about the motives of other people, especially other people as talented as the Coen Brothers, but their participation in the slight featurettes on this DVD (and others, like The Big Lebowski) doesn’t suggest an actual aversion on their parts to doing interviews and stuff for DVDs. But for whatever reason, Coen Brothers discs tend to be pretty spare, and Burn After Reading is no different. Two of the three featurettes are barely five minutes (one is just about how Clooney and the Coens like working together, the other, an ostensible making-of feature, is less than six minutes long). The most interesting (and, at over 10 minutes, the most substantial) is ‘D.C. Insiders Run Amok,’ about the actors and their characters, and it’s pretty fun stuff.
Labels: Big Lebowski, Coen Brothers, comedy, DVD review