Renée Zellweger in Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris, 2008).

When the only two bad things about a movie are the title font and the song that initiates the end credits, it's an occasion for celebration. Ed Harris has annoyed me at times in the past with his sincere, oaken maleness, but he knows how to make a western. He knows, for instance, the effectiveness of good banter, how it can account for up to 73% of the script. A good reference point here is Howard Hawks' triumphant Rio Bravo, which is really just John Wayne, Angie Dickinson, and Dean Martin trading small talk with a little jailhouse siege thrown in towards the end.

It's very satisfying watching Harris, Viggo Mortensen, and Renée Zellweger respond to each other's verbal and nonverbal cues with acute sensitivity and humor early in the film. It makes it even more satisfying when the easy conversation runs up against betrayal and disillusionment, and when those traumas are in turn met with pragmatic, stoic reason rather than stock bursts of violent passion (in the romantic plot, at any rate--there's plenty of frontier vengeance on the shoot-'em-up front).

It's an old-fashioned movie, but never blandly nostalgic. Zellweger's Allison French might be perceived as gendered in retrograde ways, but this depiction actually serves as an energizing constraint for both actor and script. Early on, Harris' Virgil Cole asks her if she's a whore. She takes it as an amusing affront, laughing in response, "Don't be crude." And it seems obvious to us as well that his question was inappropriate--until later events recolor our judgment. But then all is carried yet further to a delicate balance of grace and realism. Her "weakness" is what makes her interesting, not because she is able to transcend it, but because like most of us, she works around it, and finds others who are willing to do the same. Some viewers have complained that her character is underdeveloped; really, it is developed exactly to the right point. We are kept just far enough outside her interiority for it to take on a conjectural weight no concentrated performance could match.



Josh Brolin in W. (dir. Oliver Stone, 2008).

W. is a movie almost entirely without a point of view. Oh sure, it depicts the Bush presidency and the Iraq invasion as a massive travesty, but that's not a viewpoint; it's just current events. What Oliver Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser fail to include is any rationale for why we ought to be interested in W.'s personal background on any level beyond that which should interest students of politics and history. So he had issues with his father and he really liked baseball. So he was really into jogging. So he was ambitious but kind of dumb. So he was human. So what? If the point is that he was a simple, ordinary man who got thrust into a position far beyond his capabilities, fine, but we should then be given either a valid reason to feel sympathy for him, or a mercilessly satirical caricature of the monster this experience turned him into. As it is, he is presented as too oafish for us to like beyond a mild pity, and too confused for us to hate beyond a weary exasperation. The film reduces both his actual humanity and our legitimate outrage to a series of Lifetime TV moments. Everything is too programmatic and too disorderly at the same time: the plotting is both inert and sporadic, lurching and peakless. Moments of "genuine drama" are interspersed with bits of SNL-style lampooning. Stabs at serious journalistic exposé are squeezed uneasily between episodes of parodic soundbite collage. There are interesting performers, but they aren't allowed to give interesting performances. Josh Brolin is very good, but it doesn't do any good. Although I did laugh in the scene where the bespectacled young waiter comes up behind him in the restaurant to tell him he has a phone call, and he looks at him, jumps a little in his seat, and says "whoa, Buddy Holly!"


The Mack

Max Julien as Goldie in The Mack (dir. Michael Campus, 1973).

Could director Michael Campus possibly be the same Michael Campus responsible for this year's made-for-DVD Thomas Kinkade's Home for Christmas, as IMDb indicates? I guess so. The other two films I recognize from the list there are ZPG (Zero Population Growth), which I never saw but remember from the newspaper ads in the movie section of the Modesto Bee circa 1972, one of those sensationalistic sci-fi current-events-jobs that partly defined the cinematic mood of the era, and Survival (1976), about which there is surprisingly little info, and which I actually did see on its release, a gross-out docudrama about the Rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes and who resorted to cannibalism, based on a book called Alive, which was filmed again in 1993 under that original title, and which I did not see, being suitably scarred by the first version.

As for The Mack, it's a fine, earnest pimp drama, filmed with some real feeling and style, and featuring an agreeable mix of amateurish stiffness and poignant emotiveness on the part of its principal, Max Julien. The real highlight, though, is Richard Pryor's performance in the supporting role of Slim. He's just over the verge into grotesque, moueing and gasping and keening like that stock cartoon figure from earlier in the century, the one who pounds his fists against someone's chest, screaming, ya gotta help me, don't let them take me away, his body twisting into impossible attitudes of desperation and alarm. Disturbingly, Pryor's mannerisms here seem to prefigure his later state of actual physical disintegration.


Hang 'Em High

Bruce Dern and Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High (dir. Ted Post).

If you stare at that title long enough, it stops looking like English.

The biggest surprise for me about Hang 'Em High--a movie that's been on my must-see list for years--is how novelistic it is--and by "novelistic" I mean slow and talky. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but by about thirty minutes in, you get the feeling that the cast and crew lost the script and just had to wing it. Again, that makes it sound interesting, and it sort of is, as long as you don't have your heart set on a raucous, bloodletting revengefest like High Plains Drifter, or even Unforgiven. There's a segment with James MacArthur as a preacher delivering a sermon before a hanging that seems like it goes on for fifteen minutes (the sermon, not the hanging). In its own way it's as mind-altering as a John Cage composition.

I'm intrigued by Ted Post. His other films include Magnum Force, the underrated Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Harrad Experiment (god, I'd love to see that: it looks terrible!), and lots and lots of TV stuff from the early fifties through the early nineties. His lack of basic directorial competence sits in an uneasy relationship to his instinct for arresting imaginative scenarios and high moral speculation.

The other noteworthy thing is just how fully developed as an actor Eastwood already is by this point. That could be taken as a backhand compliment, suggesting that his range is extremely limited. Well, that's true, but as narrow ranges go, it's an extremely compelling one. I'd say range-wise he's somewhere between Bela Lugosi and Dick Van Dyke. Like most of us.


Smiley Face

Anna Faris in Smiley Face (dir. Gregg Araki, 2007).

[Thanks to Mike Hauser for recommending this!]

The little I remember of Gregg Araki's doom-and-gloom extrusions of decadent Gen-X trauma from the 90's has long since settled into a puddle of muted indie hysteria, but last year's Smiley Face is a flawed, sweet treasure. It is no more nor less than a vehicle for Anna Faris to push one button over and over and over: the "I am so stoned" button. And she does this with such determination, such high (get it?) seriousness, that if this turns out to be her best performance ever, it will be enough.

The plot of the film is as elegantly simple as one can imagine: woman ingests way, way too much pot and must subsequently go around trying to do things. There are at least two ways this premise could go wrong: by idealizing her cannabis haze so that what is really just stupor emerges as a privileged mode of insight that yields ultimately happy results, or by squashing its comic aspects under a pessimistic mass of neo-Menckenesque social excoriation. If Araki errs in one of these directions, it is more the latter than the former, but for the most part he doesn't do either in an obvious way, hence the arguments over whether this is a hedonistic stoner comedy or a tendentious anti-drug satire.

Even if he does err, it doesn't really matter. It all comes back to Faris, and her ability to be completely winning and completely pathetic ("pa-thet-tick," roommate Danny Masterson sneers) at the same time. In the throes of her wastedness, she looks up into the sky as a huge golden smiley face forms, gleaming and twinkling. She returns the smile, religious rapture spreading outward like sunshine from her own face. Suddenly the face in the sky morphs into an angry skull that levels a growling damnation at her. She cringes and cries out, in that instant becoming the most vulnerable and wounded of beings. It all passes with the next sensation. Or, catching a ride from a friendly prole (John Cho), she switches abruptly into libidinous abandon, swiveling around in the passenger seat, gaily leering: "Why don't we just fuck?" before it's revealed as only a brief fantasy. She's absolutely irresponsible, and absolutely blameless. This is the naked American fantasy--seductive as a sticky green bowlful, and destructive as an all-consuming cloud of paraquat.