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NF-Lee's Gildor and Frodo

Three movies I'm glad I saw.

Posted on 2008.12.10 at 14:54
Tags: , , ,

I don't go to the movies much, and only watch DVD's infrequently, but I saw three movies recently that I really liked: Appaloosa, Australia and a film from last year, The Savages. Because the reviews for these films were not that great, I thought I'd go ahead and make a pitch.

1. Appaloosa (saw it at the movies).
Director - Ed Harris (first feature film)
IMDB blurb: Based on the 2005 Western novel by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa is centered around lawman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), two friends who are hired to defend a lawless 1880s town from a murderous rancher (Jeremy Irons). Their efforts are disrupted and friendship tested by the arrival of a woman. (Renée Zellweger).

~ Mortensen and Harris as Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole, Appaloosa's effective but quirky law enforcement team:


~ Everett Hitch sits on a porch as Virgil Cole comes up the street:


Appaloosa didn't impress critics in the U.S. that much, but I hear it has been well-received in other countries. It deserves it. It's not what I'd call a "great" film (LotR, Lawrence of Arabia, The Searchers and The Wizard of Oz are what I call "great" films), but it is a really, really good film, and a pleasure to watch.

Funnily enough, I almost didn't go. I have enjoyed watching Viggo Mortensen work in every film I've seen him in, but the title, Appaloosa, made me think this was going to be another horse movie. Not that I have anything against a good horse movie. Heck, I love "The Black Stallion". But even though I enjoyed watching Viggo's horse movie, "Hidalgo" well enough, I didn't feel like seeing another one. But Appaloosa turned out to be the name of the town in which the story is set, not the film's protagonist.

I admired the film as I watched it, which is always a pleasure, noting the craftsmanship, but I also loved the way Appaloosa crept up on me, working under the radar of my surface appreciation to worm its way into the deeper layers of my mind. Ha ha: "crept" is probably a good word, since some critics complained that the film was slow. I thought it simply "took its time", the time that it needed. Its pacing suited the material. The film's mood, in spite of intermittent bloody violence, is rather contemplative. Odd to say it, but it's sort of a Vermeer of a Western. Watching it, it seems a well-made but modest film, a small film--there are some "wide-open spaces" locations, but a lot of small interiors, and just a small cast of characters--but it lingers like a big film. It's like one of those pleasantly fruity tropical drinks that sort of sneaks up on you: you don't notice that you are becoming pleasantly inebriated but you are, the taste of it lingering.

I love the film, too, for its careful historical detail, in its design but also in the refreshingly faithful manner of the characters' speech. Their quaint phrases never make the characters seem stiff or remote, their talk merely reminds me, almost imperceptibly, that the story does not take place today. What I especially love, however, and what has lingered longest, are the quirky, memorable characters created by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. I could watch those two act a scene for days. Who'd have thought they'd be so good together?

I look forward to Appaloosa coming out on DVD, when I plan to watch it again. Who knows? Maybe I'll take the plunge and buy it.

2. Australia (saw it at the movies).
Baz Luhrmann - director
IMDB blurb: In northern Australia at the beginning of World War II, an English aristocrat inherits a cattle station the size of Maryland. When English cattle barons plot to take her land, she reluctantly joins forces with a rough-hewn stock-man to drive 2,000 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of the country's most unforgiving land, only to still face the bombing of Darwin, Australia, by the Japanese forces that had attacked Pearl Harbor only months earlier.

~ Four of the lead actors at a promo event: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, and David Gupilil:


~ Brandon Walters as Nullah, the film's child protagonist and narrator:


~ David Gulpilil as King George, a shaman and Nullah's grandfather:


You could say Australia is the complete opposite of Appaloosa. Where Appaloosa is small and tidy and precise and contemplative, Australia's a big, sweeping, messy thing, a bunch of stories stirred together and it's a matter of viewers' tastes whether they like the stew Luhrmann serves up or not. I went to see Australia not knowing what to expect. There'd been an enthusiastic but guarded review in the paper ("if you like Luhrmann's films, you'll probably like this, if not, look out"). I had liked Strictly Ballroom immensely, never saw Romeo and Juliet (didn't like the sound of it), and thought Moulin Rouge was interesting but too odd to like. I have never been a fan of using contemporary music for stories set in other eras. But I had liked the trailer for Australia, liked the actors in it (of the ones that I knew), and it was set in a favourite period (WWII era).

But mostly I wanted to see it to see Australia, the country itself. Our daughter did her spring semester there and she loved it. For months she emailed us tales of her travels, sent us pictures. How could I not want to see this film? I badly wanted to see the place where she'd been. And I did see it. Whether you like Australia [the film] or not (and a lot of reviewers have trounced it), it is a paean, a soaring, sweeping scrawl of a love-letter to the country: to its breathtaking natural beauty, its people (aboriginal and immigrant), its national character, and its history, good and bad. Luhrmann claims his country's full heritage, the wonderful and terrible.

Looking it up after seeing it, I was surprised to see so many bad reviews for Australia. That's why I'm doing this pitch, actually, so that anyone who thinks they might enjoy it can see it while it's still on the big screen. Much of its glory (and even its detractors admit it's got some glory) is in its visual odes to the land, and the sheer magic of story-telling with no holds barred. This is a director who is not afraid of making the Big Gesture. A lot of the film's criticism had to do with too much Big and too much Gesturing, and not enough structure or self-discipline.

But what the heck, my daughter and I had a great time. The scenery was fantastic, the story-telling engaging, sometimes mesmerizing, and the performances all top-notch. Its child actor, Brandon Walters, was sent by the film gods. He plays the story's half-caste boy protagonist, Nullah. He narrates the film in a manner for which only a Scrooge could fail to fall. David Gulpilil, an aboriginal actor I already knew and admired from old films like Walkabout (dir. Nicolas Roeg) and The Last Wave (dir. Peter Weir), was just terrific as King George, the boy's shaman grandfather. I liked him so much, as soon as we got home I went online to our library's homepage and put in loan requests for as many of his films as I could find.

I'm not saying the film doesn't have a lot of faults, and schmaltz, but it's got so much good about it, I just have to say how much I truly enjoyed it.

The only sad note was David Wenham, who played the film's villain. He did a fine job, acting-wise, but it hurt me to see LotR's Faramir playing such an irredeemable *sleaze-bag* of a villain. (Stop laughing.) Sometimes it's great being a villain. Few roles are more satisfying to act or watch than great villains: men and women who show great promise but fail of it, who fall from moral heights into the depths. But Wenham doesn't get to play a Darth Vader or a Saruman. He gets to be a no-good, low-life, slime-ball of a Neil Fletcher, whom few pity or remember after he has met his end. In theatre and films, this is called a "thankless role". Someone's got to play them, but I am sorry it was David Wenham.

3. The Savages (saw it on DVD).
The Savages (2007)
Written and Directed by Tamara Jenkins
IMDB blurb: Jon and Wendy Savage are two siblings who have spent their adult years trying to recover from the abuse of their abusive father, Lenny Savage. Suddenly, a call comes in that his girlfriend has died, he cannot care for himself with his dementia and her family is dumping him on his children. Despite the fact Jon and Wendy have not spoken to Lenny for twenty years and he is even more loathsome than ever, the Savage siblings feel obliged to take care of him. Now together, brother and sister must come to terms with the new and painful responsibilities with their father now affecting their lives even as they struggle with their own personal demons Lenny helped create.

~ Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as the dysfunctional but very human brother and sister of "The Savages":


Not the cheeriest film, and not a film for everyone. Our twenty-year old daughter thought it dull as dirt, but the three oldsters watching (me, my husband and my husband's best friend, all in our fifties) loved it, recognizing all the neuroses and predicaments from our own lives. It's got a great script, super acting, and a collection of interestingly neurotic, exasperating, but very human characters. The topic, how middle-aged children (barely coping themselves) try to care for their aged and dying parents, is real-life stuff for me. I thought the film treated the topic, and its characters, with stark honesty, but also a humorous, forgiving compassion.


Some upcoming films I'd like to see:

~ Defiance (directed by Ed Zwick):
This is another WWII era film based on a gripping true story, plus the preview looked really gritty. The reviews so far, however, fault the storytelling, calling it earnest but dull and that sort of thing. Too bad, since I've thought a lot of Zwick's films.

~ The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (directed by David Flincher):
It's from a great-sounding F. Scott Fitzgerald story, it's getting great reviews, great. And it's got Cate Blanchett.

~ Milk (directed by Gus Van Sant):
About Harvey Milk, a [openly gay] San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, although this happened long before we lived in San Francisco (1996-99), I still feel a personal interest. And it would be cool to see Sean Penn do a great job again, too. The reviews so far are excellent.

~ Valkyrie (directed by Bryan Singer):
I'm interested because I am keen on stories set in WWII, especially ones based on actual events, and it has a lot of actors I love: Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Bernard Hill, Kenneth Branagh, and Terrence Stamp. However, it also has Tom Cruise--playing a titled German officer! Anyone knows that in English language movies set in Nazi Germany you're supposed to have British actors play the Germans, to give them a little class. And it looks like that's what they did, except for Cruise. How could this film be good? The advance press is very poor, especially for Tom's performance, which makes me sorry. It could have been a really great story.

~ Mechtild


Map-Maker, Lighthouse-Keeper
marinshellstone at 2008-12-10 22:24 (UTC) (Link)
Adam REALLY wanted to see Appaloosa but it was on such a limited run here that we missed it. And I am just so excited to see Australia, which I will probably sneak away and do tomorrow since Adam is out of town and he really doesn't want to see it. I ADORE Baz Luhrman. Every single film - from Strictly Ballroom to Romeo and Juliet to Moulin Rouge. I think he's effin' brilliant, and while i dislike Nicole Kidman as an actress, I adore Hugh Jackman. I am excited to read this positive review as it gets me more pumped up!
mechtild at 2008-12-10 23:02 (UTC) (Link)
Go see Australia. If you are a Luhrmann fan anyway, I don't see how you couldn't like it. It's funny, but like ROTK, it feels like it has multiple endings, yet I wouldn't have ended the film prematurely. But it's so much a Big movie, you really should see it on the big screen, the bigger the better.

I really, really thought highly of Appaloosa, as you can tell, but it's not going to be everyone's film. My daughter thought it was sort of dull, with not enough action. If one is thinking "westerns", it could seem pokey. But I loved it. Some critic or other called it "the thinking man's western". I'd add "the thinking woman's". :)

Edited at 2008-12-10 11:10 pm (UTC)
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mechtild at 2008-12-10 23:07 (UTC) (Link)
You saw it? I think hardly anyone has. I had barely heard of it, really, when my husband's friend invited us over to watch it (he's got one of those giant new TV's). I thought it was so *darned* good, and so *interesting*. I love movies that can present flawed characters so nakedly, and yet still show compassion for them. I think of them as models for my own life, for how to respond with honesty but humour and love for others and for myself (another flawed character).

I thought Laura Linney was wonderful, too. Didn't you just love every scene she was in? I loved that one with the empathetic nursing home worker, played so beautifully by Gbenga Akinnagbe.
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lijahlover at 2008-12-10 22:39 (UTC) (Link)
They all look good to me too :)
mechtild at 2008-12-10 23:09 (UTC) (Link)
That's good, Lijahlover. I think it's too late to see any but Australia in theatres, but I really enjoyed all of these very different movies.
shirebound at 2008-12-10 23:57 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you for the reviews! I agree completely that "Appaloosa is small and tidy and precise and contemplative." Perfectly said.
mechtild at 2008-12-11 00:02 (UTC) (Link)
Shirebound, you saw it! That's great because it didn't stay long at most theatres. Hey: I have this memory of rushing over the f-list weeks ago and seeing someone's LJ with a teaser about Appaloosa. 'I'll have to go back and read that', I thought, but I didn't and don't remember where I saw it. That didn't happen to be yours, did it?
primula_baggins at 2008-12-11 01:00 (UTC) (Link)
I saw Appaloosa a few weeks ago, and I loved it! I don't recall the reviews being bad for it.

I wanted to see Australia, I was really looking forward to it, but then I discovered it's based around a WWII event, and that sort of turned me off. Plus, it sounded like some epic romance movie. I dunno, it wasn't what I thought it might be. I'm sure I'll still see it, and I hope I'm not too disappointed. I wasn't aware that Wenham was in it, too.

Haven't even heard of Savages.

I definitely want to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button!

mechtild at 2008-12-11 01:50 (UTC) (Link)
I saw Appaloosa a few weeks ago, and I loved it! I don't recall the reviews being bad for it.

They weren't *bad*, but they weren't raves, either. I mean, there were plenty of really favourable reviews, but many "eh" ones, too. And there seemed to be little word of mouth building for it, or maybe there wasn't time to build any. It came and went at theatres before you could blink. My guess is that the right audiences didn't know to see it. If they were like me, they mistook it for a horse story, for starters. Or they might not have gone because they thought it was going to be a shoot'em-up action-movie Western. If they *were* thinking it was going to be that sort of film, they'd have been disappointed and give it poor word-of-mouth.

It sounds like you wouldn't care for Australia that much. It's definitely got a WWII event, although it does not at all dominate the film. And it does have a strong element of "epic romance" to it, if with a wink and a sense of humour. It's really a mix of genres, which some viewers will love and others will find off-putting.
verangel at 2008-12-11 01:10 (UTC) (Link)
I SO want to see MILK. Thank you for this great review. Somehow, I think we would have fun in the theater together and think much alike...except you put it so freakin well.
My favorite line you mentioned was in Australia..."Its child actor, Brandon Walters, was sent by the film gods. He plays the story's half-caste boy protagonist, Nullah. He narrates the film in a manner for which only a Scrooge could fail to fall." I took one look at these pictures and was astounded. He is so incredibly beautiful and intense looking in his delicate BIG brown eyed face. Um...I am imagining a small child with big blue eyes that had such an old soul as everyone noted.
hugs you always xoxoxo v
mechtild at 2008-12-11 02:00 (UTC) (Link)
Ah, Nullah and Frodo would have got on like a house a'fire. In fact, when I saw Nullah riding hell for leather across the outback on a horse, just a little guy with his long hair flying, full of intent and purpose, it made me think of Frodo in a horse race in a fanfic I followed for years. Frodo in the fanfic is supposed to be a teenager, but he seems as young, even younger than Nullah, since in the story Frodo is still very immature. Apart from fanfic, though, Frodo, like Nullah in "Australia", is wise beyond his years, even while filled with a youthfulness as vibrant as spring. I think you'll really like Nullah. He's a great character, and the young actor is wonderful playing him. He's got magic.

I read some of the reviews for "Milk". The critics who have reviewed it all seem extremely impressed, especially with the performances.
pearlette at 2008-12-12 17:11 (UTC) (Link)
Did you see Viggo and Ed together in A History of Violence? :)

I enjoy Baz's films. I love Strictly Ballroom, also really enjoyed his Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge (despite Nicole Kidman). I'm afraid I really can't stand Kidman. (She was good in The Golden Compass though.) Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters and the cinematography are the three reasons why I want to see Australia, so thanks for the glowing heads-up. :) I'm sorry about David Wenham. :( Someone's got to do it but why must it be the lovely man who played Faramir? *sob*

I missed The Savages in the cinema, sadly. It does sound like a must-see.

Oh dear, about Valkyrie. The trailer made it look really good, too. :(

mechtild at 2008-12-12 19:31 (UTC) (Link)
No, I never saw "A History of Violence". I know it was very well-reviewed, especially Viggo, but it sounded so, well, violent, I skipped it. Not that Appaloosa doesn't have violence, and Eastern Promises had plenty of it scattered throughout, but I knew when it would be so I closed my eyes. :)

Too bad you hate Kidman so much, she's definitely got a big part in Australia, in fact, I'd say she's the most important character. If you aren't won over by her at some point, I don't see how you could enjoy the movie. It's funny, your loathing, since at least one other LotR friend (my friend who writes Boromir fic) hates her too, but can't say why. She said Kidman always gives at least an acceptable performance, sometimes exceptional, but she just can't stand her. What's objectionable about her goes right by me. I can't say I thought much of her choice in husbands, but that's nothing to do with her screen work.

Speaking of her ex, yeah, I've read almost exclusively bad press for what Valkyrie turned out to be, especially for Cruise (as woefully miscast, not intrinsically awful). I'm so sorry if it is unwatchable. I just love watching Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, not to mention the other Great British Actors in it.
lame_pegasus at 2009-05-14 05:29 (UTC) (Link)
Found it! And second every word - though I don't think that the role of Neil Fletcher was a thankless one. It was a portrait of pure greed and selfishness; as I said in my review, King Carney at least had a conscience, while Fletcher had nothing of that sort. And there are simply too many Kidman-haters out there. I personally don't care if she freezes her face with Botox, as long as she's able to deliver a role and make me believe her performance. Which she did - she even made me cry the moment when Nullah ran into her arms after his rescue from the island (the whole scene reduced me to a puddle of tears anyway).

And I'd like to watch Appaloosa! (Plus that Valkyrieisn't half as bad as you might have heard. Critics in Germany gave it cautious praise after it came out, and the main problem were not Tom Cruise's acting skills (which are undoubtedly great) but his involvement with the Scientology Church (it has a horrible reputation over here, and his enthusiasm doesn't make things any better). And the Stoltenberg family simply didn't feel comfortable with him.

Edited at 2009-05-14 05:30 am (UTC)
mechtild at 2009-05-14 13:26 (UTC) (Link)
I think the biggest bar to fans I know online liking this film has been their dislike for Nicole Kidman. I really don't get it. So what if she uses Botox? So does almost everyone in public life. Heck, I found out some of my most admired "older women" actresses have been to cosmetic surgeons (like Helen Mirren and Judi Dench). That can't be it. There must be something else about her that just rubs them the wrong way. My mother has some irrational hates for this or that performer, and she really can't explain it. I wonder if it's that they remind her subliminally of people she hated or feared as a child, perhaps at school? Maybe Nicole Kidman reminds a lot of grown women of the sort of girls that made them feel bad about themselves when they were children. She has done a lot of "tall, thin, blonde, rich bitch" parts.

Anyway, I'm glad you also enjoyed the film. And I take the truth of what you said about the role of Neil Fletcher. He was necessary for the workings of the plot and film themes. I just thought it was too bad Wenham was used for that (and not something else), because it's the sort of role that creates no love or pleasure in viewers. So I guess what I meant was that while he did a fine job, it was the kind of role that would not improve his box office, which is an important thing when being considered for roles in films generally.

I watched Appaloosa again so my husband could see it and I liked it even better. He thought it was really worth watching and recommended it to several friends who also could appreciate a quirky "contemplative western".

Valkyrie I still haven't seen, but you're right: even here the reviews were better than had been expected.
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