Appaloosa (2008)

Yes, they’re still making westerns. The plots are still generic. Lawmen upholding the law in a lawless land. So what’s new?

What’s new is the fine tuning of characterization, the focus on internal conflicts and dilemmas, and the more stylistic and agile camera works, the music, and the slower, almost meditative pace of story development. I have in mind Open Range (2003), and the recent 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

… And at the Globe where the movie was screened, among the full house attendance at the Calgary International Film Festival, some enthusiasts even dressed western for the occasion.

Ed Harris has proved that he is versatile as an actor and director (Pollack, 2000), and now as a screenwriter. He is all three in Appaloosa. Based on the book by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa is a typical western buddy movie.  Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen, with Harris in A History of Violence, 2005) are two “itinerant lawmen”.  They are hired this time by the town of Appaloosa, as marshal and deputy, to get rid of the lawless rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his gang.  The twists begin to emerge when a young widow shows up in town.  Allie French (Renée Zellweger) is so alone, so vulnerable, that she has her eye on the tough marshal Cole as soon as she enters town.

The buddy duo has some adjustment to make with this sudden appearance of a third party.  With a woman in his life, Cole himself has become vulnerable and is soon confronted with the dilemma: woman or duty.  Well that’s just one of the several twists of the story, a plot that takes its time to unfold.

As much as I like Renée Zellweger, I find her portrayal of Allie French less than satisfactory. There is definitely a miscast here. It takes more than just acting to bring out the sly femme fatale persona… her look and demeanour just do not reflect the menacing shrewdness and seductive lure needed here. It is unfortunate that Zellweger is cast into a role that she simply does not look the part.

But the movie is still enjoyable just the same. It is slick, funny, clever, and entertaining. Overall the acting is superb, but it is Viggo Mortensen who steals the show. As the quiet, and very intelligent sidekick of Virgil Cole, Everett Hitch has been more than supportive of his buddy. He is Cole’s vocabulary teacher, attentive listener and counsellor, and at the end, fulfills what justice and honor require a man to do, something which Cole himself has neglected. Mortensen has delivered a most gratifying performance which I think deserves an Oscar nomination.

At the end, after twists and turns, the hero rides off into the sunset, a typical conclusion. But this time, we are reminded why we come to see a western to begin with.  Such is the kind of movies where honor and nobility of character is expected of the protagonist, and that the good still wins, and justice served.  How satisfying.  Maybe that is why they are still making westerns, knowing there is an insatiable yearning for such ideals which are beyond time and genre.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Miss Potter for Christmas

It’s not too early to make up a Christmas gift list, or actually start some Christmas shopping. I’ve a recommendation here for a DVD that you can safely watch with your children. But you’d also want to watch it by yourself too, because then you can savour in solitude the touching moments an adult can appreciate, and yes, shed a private tear, and let the movie work its magic freely in your heart.

Miss Potter (2006) is the story of Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, one of the best loved children icons of all times. The film is a gem glittering with acting talents. As Beatrix, Renée Zellweger (Oscar for Cold Mountain 2003) brings to the screen a most delightful character, her genuine and innocent demeanor captures the audience’s heart the very moment she appears. She receives nominations this year for a Golden Globe and a Saturn Award for her role in Miss Potter, and well deserved.

Ewan McGregor (of Star Wars and Moulin Rouge fame, no relation to farmer McGregor) plays the slightly comical first-time publisher who has made history with his appreciation and confidence in the talents of Beatrix. The two naturally fall in love. Like a Jane Austen novel, such a relationship is frowned upon by Beatrix’s upper-middle class family and openly forbidden. But this time, a hundred years after Jane, Beatrix boldly confronts the inequitable and restrictive Victorian values and norms.

Emily Watson, herself an Oscar nominee for her role in Gosford Park, (and she is excellent in Angela’s Ashes), plays a lively supporting role as McGregor’s unmarried sister. The social issue of the unmarried female in a male-dominated society is freely explored through her outspoken character, but not without poignancy.

I must mention the song written for the movie, which has won the 2007 World Soundtrack Award for Best Original Song Written for Film. “When You Taught Me How To Dance” is sung by Ewan McGregor in the film during a mesmerizing and moving scene. As the credit rolls in the end, this touching tune is heard again, this time in its entirety performed by Katie Melua. Now, she’s another story to write about.

The captivating soundtrack matches the beautifiul scenery and period costume, together with the excellent script and the whimsical animation of Beatrix’s animal friends, make the movie utterly enjoyable and gratifying, but still delivering effectively the depth of sentiments and the dramatic twists and turns.

The DVD includes background on Beatrix Potter, commentary by director Chris Noonan and a making-of documentary with extensive interview with Renee Zellweger, plus a music video performed by Katie Melua singing “When You Taught Me How To Dance”. A valuable collection and I’m sure, a welcomed gift.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Beatrix Potter: A Journal (2006)

Beatrix Potter A Journal Book Cover

As a companion to the movie, and another great gift idea, is the book Beatrix Potter: A Journal which came out last year. A visual journal in the vein of Nick Bantock, the book is an imaginary scrapbook Beatrix would have made to chronicle her own life, with handwritten entries and notes, amusing drawings, little attached booklets, photo albums, and letters that can be taken out from envelopes. The book corresponds amazingly well with the movie, like a visual commentary.

Here are a couple sample pages from the journal:

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~~~3 Ripples for both Movie and Book