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.

 

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EVIL ROY SLADE

Most people are going to remember comic actor John Astin for his role as Gomez Addams on The Addams Family television series. As Gomez, Astin swaggered onto the stage and delivered one-liners and off-beat dialogue with impeccable timing.

However, I remember him most vividly in the title role of Evil Roy Slade, a made-for-TV movie that came out back in 1972. On that first viewing, that movie became my favorite comedic Western, even outstripping James Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff. It’s really unfair to group the two movies together in some respects. Support Your Local Sheriff tells a real story and Garner plays the character straight.Some might want to throw Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles into the pot for consideration, and that’s fine. I just preferred the with and quick turns of my two personal favorites. I enjoyed Blazing Saddles, just not as much.

With Evil Roy Slade, the humor is over-the-top and moves at a purely frantic slapstick pace. If you don’t pay attention to Evil Roy Slade you’re going to miss a snappy comeback, an offhand remark that is delicious, or a bit of physical comedy mugging for the camera that is to die for.

Where else can you get math problems like:

Betsy: Evil Roy, if you had six apples and your neighbor took three of them, what would you have?

Evil Roy: A dead neighbor and all six apples.

Or:

Evil Roy: My definition of a nine-to-five job? Nine guys robbing five guys!

Or:

Poker Player: I got jacks with an ace.

Evil Roy: I got threes…with a gun.

Poker Player: You win! Wow, you are lucky!

The laughs are often deft puns and plays on words, with Astin mugging his way through them in true vaudevillian style. No one else could have played Evil Roy Slade.

Until the DVD arrived and I sat down to watch it with my son, I didn’t know that Garry Marshall and his long-time writing partner Jerry Belson had written the script. Looking back through the movie, it’s easy to see Marshall’s trademark of working with people he enjoys. He gave roles to his younger sister Penny Marshall (and later created Laverne & Shirley for her) and Pat Morita (and later cast him in the role of Arnold in Happy Days).

Anyone familiar with Marshall and Belson’s work (on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show, and the adaption of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple to name a few) will recognize the snappy patter and quick play on words. No one did it better than they did.

The movie has a familiar plot, bad guy falls in love with pretty woman who tries to make him turn good, but the unrelenting, quick pace of the humor transcends the rather staid storyline. Evil Roy Slade quite simply takes no prisoners.

Mickey Rooney plays Nelson Stool, the railroad tycoon chasing Evil Roy. Dick Shawn stars as Ding Bell, the singing cowboy marshal Stool sends for. Henry Gibson plays Stool’s ne’ver-do-well nephew. Edie Adams stars as the woman scorned by Evil Roy. Milton Berle plays a shoe salesman who tried to help Evil Roy go straight. In a hilarious role, Dom Deluise stars as a psychiatrist. In an uncredited role, Ed Begley has a brief walk-on that’s funny. This talented cast all add to the timing and pacing of the movie.

If the rejoinders or the wry observations don’t get you, then the visual gags or Astin’s constant preening and monologues will. The actors and actresses move like clockwork throughout the movie. Even when you get ahead of the plot and see something coming (like Evil Roy getting stuck riding a Shetland pony with his boots dragging the ground), the sight of it being played out is goofball hilarious.

This is one of the most perfect family movies I’ve seen in a long time. There’s no profanity, no nudity, no innuendo. It’s just slapstick comedy at its purest form.

If you haven’t seen Evil Roy Slade, you’re in for a treat. And if you have seen the movie, treat yourself to a return bout with the best comedic Western film ever made.