30 October 2008

The Burning Plain

Guillermo Arriaga's last project was the highly acclaimed "Babel".  On that, he was the screenwriter.  His latest foray (after public disputes with "Babel"'s director) was his directorial debut --  "The Burning Plain."  Much in the style of his other works, this one plays more with time and linear storytelling than with disparate tales. 
Set alternately in Seattle, Albequrque and Mexico, it marries the meandering tales of a cropduster and his daughter, a young teenage girl and her adulterous mother, and a beautiful young woman overcome by depression and self-loathing.  Told in a parallel manner (and therefore concealing everyone's connection until later), it explores how deeply we affect others and the ripples of consequences we cause.  
The interweaving lines are well connected and repeating symbology (scars, for example) are carried out.  Arriaga's weakness, or at least not his strength just yet, is getting great, vibrant performances from his actors.  Kim Basinger plays the mother of three who is stepping out on her trucker husband with a handsome Mexican who makes her feel like a woman again.  Basinger's performance is good, but there is no strength behind it.  The same is true of Charlize Theron's lead.  She does a perfectly fine job -- dark set eyes, emptiness behind them -- but there is no soul.  It is because the characters are well-written and played that it all hangs together.
All in all, this is a fine, well-crafted debut for Arriaga behind the camera.  Ultimately, he needs to find a verve, an energy that propels the film to add to his other obvious assets.

28 October 2008

Never Apologize

The younger generation probably knows Malcolm McDowell from his villainous roles in the last 10 years - Star Trek, Heroes, Superman and Rob Zombie's Halloween. A handful might know he was in the freaky classic, A Clockwork Orange. But before all that, McDowell was the it-boy of English film, starring in Cannes Palme d'Or winners and charming the pants of his audience. In Never Apologize, a tribute to director and dear friend Lindsay Anderson, McDowell relays stories of that experience in such a fashion that you feel as though you'd run into him at a pub. he stands, in mostly black, on a mostly dark stage with just a table set for two) and a podium with a small reading lamp. His simple tales are those of Richard Harris, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Bette davis, Lillian Gish, and John Ford. Yet they were not the tabloid fodder gossip about people we'll never meet. Instead, McDowell, through recollections, letters and diaries, convinces us they are our friends. They are humanized, real. They are funny and tragic. And a reminder of the importance of the influence, and importance, of friends in our lives.
An afternoon's luncheon with the royalty of English theatre in the 60s & 70s is a lightly sketched Shakespearean scene --- a misunderstanding among gods. A description of Lillian Gish is starkly contrasted with the riotous Bette Davis -- who is exactly what we'd all expect.
And a dying John Ford's brief conversation is only a prologue to the loss of Anderson himself.
McDowell deftly pulls us in. He reads and speaks with simultaneous vigor and tenderness. It says as much about McDowell as it does about Anderson.

10 October 2008


Based on Robert Parker novel, this Western manages to use the tropes of its genre mostly to its advantage.  Ed Harris (who also directed) stars as the no-nonsense gun-for-hire Virgil Cole, brought to town to quell the unruly Bragg clan.  His right-hand man, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) slings an 8 gauge better than anyone and the two are hired to restore peace to the fledgling town of Appaloosa -- governed by a limp mayor and council.  
None of these basic plot points fall outside the typical Western tale, nor does the appearance of the coy mistress, Mrs. French (Renee Zellweger).  
What makes Appaloosa special are the subtleties.  The partnership between the two gunmen is simple and deep.  Their trust extends beyond just "he saved my life" scenario, though there is that too.  They trust each other in life.  They give and take advice.   When Cole, an avid reader, is stuck trying to come up with a 'big word', he turns to his confidant Hitch - always solid and never failing.  When the traveling party is threatened by Apache, it is Hitch whose cool head prevails.  And when the frolicsome Mrs. French bounces between lovers, it is Hitch whose even keel directs Cole.   Indeed Mortensen steals the show.  Harris is solid but it is all about the wit in every detail Mortensen brings to the screen.   The smaller role of Jeremy Irons as the terrorizing Bragg is also strong.
But there were problems with the film as well, not the least of which was Zellweger. In addition to looking horribly puffy and unattractive, her acting fell far short -- and it was painfully noticeable among such giants.  She lacked the depth that others brought to their characters, something important in a genre film.  
There was also an unevenness of pace throughout.  It wasn't fatal, just a bit tiresome at points.  Still a good job for Harris' second attempt behind the camera.  To his credit, he did manage to find some interesting photography in a generally worn out setting.   But there was still a little too much clunk-of-the-boots-on-the-porch-with-jangle-of-the-spurs sound and the score made little sense.  Composer Jeff Beal was clearly trying for the Lalo Schifrin strains of spaghetti westerns but they fell flat.  Even his musical joke surrounded Chin the innkeeper was poorly timed and clunky.  Lastly, Harris also should have cut the bookend narration at appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the film.  It did not fit, wasn't necessary and sullied Mortensen's performance.
Ultimately, the film is perfectly enjoyable to watch.  Mortensen is particularly fun to see.  It's just a bit disappointing to see it lack a few details that could have made it a great film, instead of a good film.