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 - directorIMDB 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 JenkinsIMDB 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.