APPALOOSA

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Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen star as two talented town tamers in Appaloosa. The movie hit the big screen this weekend and I took one of my sons to the first showing early this afternoon. We both had a good time, and my trust and confidence in the stars was well deserved.

The movie is based on the novel written by bestselling author, Robert B. Parker. Parker has been writing the adventures of Spenser, a private eye born in Laramie, Wyoming, for years, and Spenser is as rough and tumble as any gunfighter in the Old West. Lately, the author has successfully dipped his quill into the Western arena.

I read the book when it came out a few years ago and had a good time with it. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the two heroes in the novel, and was pleased to see it reflected in the movie. Ed Harris plays Virgil Cole, one of the most feared and respected lawmen in the Old West. Viggo Mortensen stars as Everett Hitch, Cole’s dedicated and deadly right hand man.

The book creates a tight plot line with a lot of twists and turns. When I read it, I saw how easily it could become a screenplay. Parker writes lean, muscular prose. Obviously Ed Harris saw the same thing because he negotiated the rights to star and direct in the film.

Appaloosa starts off with a bang. Three of them, in fact. Bragg, a powerful man in the small but growing town of Appaloosa, faces the town marshal and defends two of his men that raped and killed a man and his wife. When the marshal doesn’t take no for an answer, Bragg kills the marshal and his two deputies.

Virgil and Everett arrive and Harris takes advantage of those couple moments to establish sweeping shots of the desolate countryside. Harris stays primarily with the characters and the action, but there are a lot of opportunities to shoot the sweeping landscape. The action takes place in Appaloosa, outside of town, in the hills and mountains, and in another small town with Mexican architecture.

I loved the detailed Old West setting. The bar and buildings look and feels well-researched. The house Virgil is buying on the outside of town is incredibly small by today’s standards, but Allie (Renee Zellweger) acts excited about having it built.

Of all the characters in the movie, Zellweger – in my opinion – has the hardest time pulling off her role. The character is complicated because she bounces between a sympathetic and naïve woman to a cold and calculating one. This type of female character often shows up in Parker’s work, so long-time fans won’t be surprised to watch her in action. However, Zellweger’s performance actually softens the character from the book.

Parker likes showing the dichotomy between the strong, silent male and one that can be twisted around a conniving woman’s little finger. Many of his characters have suffered through that in his novels. That paradigm is understated and succinct in the movie, but it still works well.

The author has also penned a sequel that came out this year, Resolution. He has one more planned that will tie up Virgil and Everett’s saga.

The film’s action is compelling. The movie and the actors keep a lot of balls in play. The sound effects on the gunshots are especially well done. Many viewers might not be able to tell it, but the gunshots sound like heavy thumps, from coarse black powder rather than the cleaner-burning cordite all of today’s rounds are made with.

There is a moment of brief nudity and the language is rough in a couple places, but not in any way that will be overly offensive. I think Appaloosa is a modern tribute to yesterday’s Western movies in a lot of ways. The heroes are brave and noble, but they’re also flawed. Harris and Mortensen play those iconic lawmen to the hilt with a hint of swagger and elegance by the bushelful. If you’re a Western fan, this is a movie you’ll enjoy. And if you haven’t seen a Western in a while, this is one you don’t want to miss.

 

PRINCE CASPIAN

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian hit theaters with a lot of expectation. The book series has been popular since they were first published nearly fifty years ago, and they’ve never gone out of print. Earlier movie versions, animated and live-action, have been made of them. But after the success of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, fans hoped for more and Hollywood banked on another success.

I had a good time with the first movie. Taking my son with me enhanced the experience, though. His innocent glee stripped years away from me and eased me right back into my own childhood. The sights and sounds of the world were amazing, as they would have to be in order to grab the audiences lying out there in wait now. And the pacing of the movie was well done.

However, Narnia purists are going to have a problem with this version of the novel. Hollywood has strayed far from the path in making this sequel. Yes, it’s true, Narnia has been Hollywoodized and given the big box office treatment. Which means that more has been left out of the book than was kept in, and even more new material was shoveled into the story. In fact, a whole rivalry sequence between Caspian (Ben Barnes) and Peter (William Moseley) has been tossed into the mix, as well as Susan (Anna Popplewell) “crushing” on Caspian.

Also, the battle scenes are definitely more hardcore than they are in the book. And protracted. The novel dealt with them in a straight-forward manner and moved into the characters and the spirituality of the book.

But I have to give Hollywood its due. I’d wager most of the people buying tickets haven’t ever read the books, just as they hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings. They’re there packing the seats because they want to see adventure, excitement, and royal battles between good and evil.

I’d even read Prince Caspian to my son shortly after we watched The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. We’d read that book before the movie and he knew everything that was going to happen. He kept throwing hints to his mom during the movie. This time he really believed we hadn’t read the book because so much was different.

Hollywood chose to change the story, and I accepted that within a few minutes and simply enjoyed what was on the screen without proprietary interest. The special effects are awesome, the mythical beings are amazing, and the landscape is lush and incredible. My son was bowled over as Narnia once again unfolded before us. I have to admit, I was too.

Despite the differences in character and motivations, and the way the final battle was staged when Peter undertook single combat against Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), I had a great time. Susan stepped into the battles and became an amazing warrior (okay, I had to swallow hard at that one when I saw her first shooting men with her bow then using it as a staff to battle again in the thick of the fighting while wearing no armor). Peter was even more courageous than before, and naturally stepped into a leadership role. Edmund (Skandar Keynes) was a fierce fighter as well, and the young actor has certainly grown into the role. There is a fantastic scene where Lucy (Georgie Henley) blocks the retreating Telmarin army that had the audience laughing and cheering at the same time. The kids have changed.

The assault on the castle at night was terrific. My son and I sat on the edges of our seat and watched as the battle progressed and finally turned deadly. And when Aslan (Liam Neeson) stepped onto the screen, we were in Narnia fighting the good fight at the sides of the Narnians.

Maybe this isn’t a faithful interpretation of the original novel, but you’re not going to be able to find a much better early summer offering. I question the rating a little, because I would have bumped it up a notch due to all the physical action, the evil intent, and the PG rating isn’t warning enough.

With all the fantasy and superhero movies hitting the screens this summer, finding one that stands out head and shoulders above the others is going to be hard. I’ve decided not to stress over figuring out which one is the best, and instead concentrate on enjoying the feast!

NANCY DREW

Nancy Drew is one of those iconic heroes kids who read tend to grow up with. I know I shared several of her adventures (read on the sly because I’m a guy) when I was younger. I read the Hardy Boys out in the public eye, along with the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr., Ken Holt, and Rick Brant.

But Nancy’s adventures were always somehow more mysterious and more fun. They concentrated on the twists and the turns of the mystery, and the secrets of the suspects that Nancy had to ferret out. Although created by the Edward Stratemeyer Syndicate (as were the Hardy Boys, the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, Sr. and Jr., and the Dana Girls), most of Nancy’s adventures were penned by Mildred Wirt Benson. Benson wrote some of the best Nancy Drew mysteries ever printed (23 of the first 25).

The first books came out in 1930, and movies swiftly followed due to public familiarity and interest in seeing the character on the big screen. Four Nancy Drew movies appeared in the late 1930s. In the 1970s, a television series starring Pamela Sue Martin as Nancy Drew came out. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries became a hit and ran from 1977 to 1979. Television tried Nancy Drew as a series again in 1995, and a made-for-tv movie with Nancy in college came out in 2002.

Nancy Drew remains a solid sales force in video games. Based on her book adventures, the video games offer players a chance to point and click clues to solve mysteries. So far, 19 video games have come out from Her Interactive Inc. A new game was also made for the Nintendo DS game system.

Making a new movie about Nancy Drew seems almost a no-brainer. Warner Bros., the original studio that made Nancy Drew movies, returned to bring the new movie to life.

Directed by Andrew Fleming, the film is a delight for family night. Instead of having Nancy in her element in her hometown, she’s thrown into wild and wooly Los Angeles where she’s a fish out of water. She keeps a lot of the old-fashioned sense and sensibility from the original series, which makes her seem like a goof in modern times, and I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely won over by the treatment. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the sheer likeability of young Emma Roberts (father Eric Roberts and aunt Julia), I wouldn’t have bought into the representation of Nancy.

What I ultimately ended up doing is filing away my preconceived imaginings of Nancy Drew and embracing this version. I no longer thought of her as the Nancy Drew I grew up with, but more like a granddaughter of the original series heroine who hasn’t quite come into her own yet.

The Nancy Drew in this film isn’t quite finished, but I loved the pluck and drive of Miss Roberts’s presentation and thought she was fabulous.

There’s actually a lot going on in the film. I think that too much of it actually extends beyond the scope of the mystery and that made the personal plots as well as the crime solving fall apart at times. We see that Nancy is an overachiever and that she doesn’t fit in with the L. A. girls, but that subplot kind of staggers along till it solves itself (with the arrival of Ned Nickerson – Max Thieriot). Likewise, the mystery gets torn up by Nancy’s efforts to be “normal” and make her dad happy.

I would have preferred the movie focus on the mystery and the subplots to have branched out of that. Still, there were comedic moments provided by those subplots that were enjoyable and made the film move quickly.

Since Nancy got to pick the house that she and her father live at while in L. A., she chose one with a mystery. A Hollywood actress went missing for five months and was later, after her return, found dead in her pool while at her party. The murder was never solved, and that draws Nancy’s sleuth senses into overdrive.

I liked the mysterious clues, the secret passageways, and the riddles and clues that eventually lead Nancy to the solution of the murder. The film contains enough narrow escapes, chases, and threatening phone calls to keep every young detective (and mystery-loving parents) interested.

Josh Flitter plays Corky, a pre-adolescent would-be rapper Lothario that absolutely steals the show at times. He was one of the primary ingredients that kept reminding me this was not the Nancy Drew I grew up with, but I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at his antics. His sense of timing and delivery is awesome, and I’ve just found out he’s going to be in the starring role of Ace Ventura, Jr..

Bruce Willis has an uncredited cameo in the film that’s funny to watch. But, again, it’s one of those things that really detracts from the overall mystery. Nancy’s adventures in the novels, especially the early ones, focused tightly on the pursuit of the solution.

My ten year old had seen Nancy Drew books in the school library, but we haven’t read any of them yet. The movie hooked him and he sat with his mom and me to watch the whole film. He had a blast, so I can recommend this film to parents with kids wholeheartedly because he can be a tough audience.

I had a great time with Nancy Drew, and I think Emma Roberts will win over readers familiar with the teen detective in spite of the differences and escalated humor, and make new fans of kids that haven’t ever seen Nancy in action before.

The special features on the disc are skinny, but worth watching. The cast and crew obviously had a good time filming this one.

 

GONE, BABY, GONE

I’ve been a fan of Dennis Lehane’s private eye novels about Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro for years. I keep wishing Lehane would write another book about them. Instead, he’s written a couple of stand-alone books that have become a movie (Mystic River) and one that will become a movie (Shutter Island).

Gone, Baby, Gone stands out not only as the first Kenzie/Gennaro book to become a film, but is also Ben Affleck’s first turn as a director. His brother Casey (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) stars as Patrick Kenzie.

Both the Afflecks grew up in Boston, and the choice to use Lehane’s background for the series, Dorchester, was a no-brainer. Ben Affleck, when drawn to the project, stated that he wanted to make that microcosm of Boston come to life on the screen, and he used several people from the neighborhood in roles. In my opinion, he succeeds admirably. The background has a unique feel and rhythm to it that he couldn’t have gotten while shooting somewhere else.

Another thing that really rings too is the language. The dialogue is coarse and explosive, the way it tends to be in crowded metropolitan areas. And no matter where you put them, areas of cities that are in disrepair always stand out and offer their own views of the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small town or a large town, people tend to be desperate, trapped, and unhappy while living there. Since they’re not strong enough, mobile enough, or brave enough to take on people outside their neighborhood, the bad ones tend to prey on people inside the local environment.

I liked the motivation for Patrick and Angie to get involved, the fact that Patrick knew the mother whose child was kidnapped. They’d gone to high school together, and no one gets out of high school without a history and usually scars to show for it. Angie is reluctant to get involved with the case because she doesn’t want to find a dead kid, which is how things like this normally work out.

If you’ve only watched the movie, you should really read the book as well. Patrick and Angie’s relationship means a lot to the book series, and in particular to this novel. The movie can’t pull in all the history or the emotional angst that is in the pages of the novel. There’s just not enough room.

Patrick’s investigation immediately puts him in harm’s way of the police and the bad guys – which is exactly how a private eye story should operate. The PI is always the man or woman outside of the world that needs to be investigated. In this case, Patrick belongs to that world but he’s stepped outside certain aspects of it.

Although I knew the story and what was going to happen, it was great seeing Ben Affleck’s vision of it and Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Patrick. The city seems almost to close in on the viewer, especially during the scenes where Bubba leads Patrick to the house where the kidnapped boy is being held by drug addicts and a child molester.

Ed Harris turns in a fantastic performance as Remy Bressard. I love watching Harris work anyway, but seeing him in this role was a pleasure. Morgan Freeman, solid as ever, wasn’t given too much to do, but he always shines. Michelle Monaghan plays Angie Gennaro, but the focus is so much on Patrick that she almost gets eclipsed in everything. She’s so strong, though, that she seizes moments and makes them her own.

I really enjoyed this film. I liked the look and the pacing, though some people may find it a little slow in places. I was just glad to see this world come to life, and I think Ben Affleck did a marvelous job of doing that. Hopefully other novels in the series will be developed as well.

The plot twists and turns, but by the time everything gets sorted, there are hard choices to be made. The great thing is that the viewer is forced to make those choices as well. The subject matter is powerful and moving.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Spanish actor, Javier Bardem, plays one of the most cold-blooded, unstoppable killers to ever grace the big screen. From the very first instant he steps into view in No Country For Old Men as Anton Chigurh, Bardem radiates menace. The captive bolt pistol he carries as a killing device and a one-size-fits-all door opener is grisly and awe-inspiring. When he’s initially introduced at the beginning of the film, gets arrested, then steps back through the handcuffs in the background while the deputy speaks to the sheriff in the foreground, a cold chill cycled through me until Chigurh killed the deputy. By that time I was mesmerized.

The Academy-award winning film is based on bestselling author Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing) wrote and directed the film, returning to the crime and cowboy feel they love in so much of their work.

The plot is relatively simple, but it provides a tightly-wound backdrop of tension and motivation for all concerned. Josh Brolin is absolutely amazing as ex-Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss, and most of the screen time the first half of the movie centers on him. The movie is so terse that I had no idea who or what Brolin was or what he was ultimately after for quite some time.

I loved the careful, contained way that Moss walks up on the killing ground where the two rival Mexican gangs shot it out and killed each other during a drug buy. Brolin portrays a competent and savvy hunter, and I was rooting for him the whole way – until I found out he wasn’t as good as I thought he was. Even then, I’d bought so heavily into the character that I was pulling for him the whole way. Especially after I saw that he was clearly out of his league.

The movie delves into character without playing up the backstory too much. It tells you just what you need to know about each person, and I found that amazing. The dialogue is kept terse and to the point, while at the same time being witty and true to character and life. Most of the time you’re just watching action, forming your own opinions about things, and being surprised. There isn’t even a musical score to draw your attention off the developing plot and ever-tightening chase.

With Chigurh and Moss both in motion, both trying to survive, the movie picks up with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones) as he borrows his wife’s horse to go out to the crime scene. I loved Tommy Lee Jones. I think he’s one of the greatest actors to ever step into a movie, and he’s at his absolute best when he’s playing a character like Ed Tom Bell. Those characters are some of the best natural fits for Jones that I’ve ever seen. Bell is a man nearing retirement, but who’s also certain that the world is changing faster than he can keep up with it. Jones provides the voice-over at the beginning that won my heart before the last word floated out of the speakers.

Moss, with over two million dollars in his hands, is determined to hang onto it. Chigurh is determined to kill Moss and take it. Bell just wants to make sense of everything that’s happened and save whomever needs saving.

The Coens are noted for their camera work and angles, and both things are used to the best of their abilities in this film. The scenes move quickly. The background is absolutely stunning in the high definition presentation of the Blu-ray disc. The gunfights are exquisitely rendered, and violence smacks the viewer at regular intervals, often catching him off-guard.

Even though I was prepared for the film to be bloody, I was still blown away by Chigurh’s cold indifference. I loved how the killer moved so methodically, though, never showing any emotions. This is probably Brolin’s best role and best acting ever. Even though these actors are playing larger-than-life characters, never once is a scene overplayed, nor is the drama ever false.

If you haven’t seen No Country For Old Men, you’ve got a great film ahead of you. And if you have seen it, you’ll find that the Blu-ray version brings the audio and video quality of the theater into your home in a big way. Highly recommended.