Saturday, September 08, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

An Elmore Leonard short story provides the basis for both Delmer Daves' 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma and James Mangold's new remake. The author, better known for crime comedies like Get Shorty and Jackie Brown, is a master with plot, and the set-up for 3:10 brings a variety of colorful characters together in an intense situation so smoothly, you don't even realize you're watching a complicated story coalesce.

Down on his luck rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) desperately needs money to save the family business. (As the film opens, Dan's banker has sent a few employees to set fire to his barn.) When an unscrupulous railroad official (Dallas Roberts) offers Dan $200 to escort the infamous murderer Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to Yuma, where he'll be arrested and sentenced to hang, Dan has no choice but to accept, despite his concerned wife's (Gretchen Mol) protests.

In Daves' original, the tension between these two men drives the entire film. (The entire second half of the 1957 version, in fact, takes place in a Yuma hotel room, as Evans and Wade converse while awaiting the titular train.) Mangold sets his sights on larger themes about redemption and sacrifice, and clearly sees this story as an excuse to work in as many classic Western scenes, conventions and set-ups as humanly possible. For the most part, it works...until it doesn't.

I think my largest problem with Mangold as a filmmaker is that he doesn't seem to respect his audience. His "thriller," Identity, contains arguably the lamest twist ending in recent film history. His last film, Walk the Line, while well-made, includes some truly groan-worthy dialogue, as when Reese Witherspoon chirps "you cain't walk no line!" to our hero, in a ludicrously obvious echo of the film's title/theme.

Here, too, the script by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas occasionally gets silly, as when Ben Wade repeatedly tries to charm women by asking if they have green eyes. But that's not the film's largest problem by a longshot. I'll try my best to avoid spoilers, but it must be said that the last 15 minutes of 3:10 to Yuma are intensely silly, even ridiculous. It's as if Mangold thought that 100 minutes or so of really watchable, entertaining Western action would put everyone in such a positive, upbeat state of mind, they'd overlook the fact that his conclusion makes no sense - he tries to fall back on our goodwill towards his movie. This is not a strong bet.

Now, if it were just a plot twist or two that seems far-fetched, that I could deal with. That wouldn't ruin an otherwise solid movie (and Yuma really is a solid, well-done genre film for that first 100 minutes). But the conclusion of the film seems to cancel out all that has come before. A character makes a transformation that feels terrifically out of touch with all that has been established about his character; not only are his choices not foreshadowed by the screenplay, they are not set-up in any way. A man suddenly decides to change everything about himself and his life, for no real reason, and nothing we have seen about him before indicates that he'd be likely to do such a thing.

The film seems to say that anyone can be redeemed, that our present actions say more about who we are than our mistakes in the past. But Mangold fails to show us anyone actually redeeming himself or herself, save for the one character who was pretty much good from the beginning. Everyone else's redemption just sort of arrives, on cue, out of nowhere like a gift from Screenplay Heaven.

The pat, on the nose conclusion is particularly disappointing because Mangold, his writers and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (who also shot Walk the Line) get so much right. The action scenes in particular far exceed any recent Western. (I honestly can't think of a single contemporary Western to build to a shootout as intense, gritty and stylish as 3:10's climax.) The film feels natural and authentic, not glossy and overly-polished like so many Hollywood period films. And it's amazingly permitted to be violent, and to show the consequences of its violence. Some scenes in 3:10 are surprisingly brutal, not because I'm shocked to see such gore depicted in what was once thought of as a family genre, but because the violence in such films tends to be fraudulent, delighting in the kinetics of a gun battle without wanting to linger on the aftermath, with its resultant blood and dead people.

Performance-wise, Christian Bale's kind of saddled with the non-arcing, predictable straight-arrow ranch-hand part, flatly played by Van Heflin in the original. He's good but it's a pretty staid, reserved turn. Western vet Russell Crowe (you'll recall, he was Cort in The Quick and the Dead) has the showier role as the steely, unflappable criminal Ben Wade, and makes the most out of every scene. The last time we got an appearance from this Russell Crowe, rather than his phone-lobbing, overacting, Oscar-grubbing doppelganger, was 2003's Master and Commander. Before that, 1999's The Insider. Once every few years, Crowe just finds the right role and absolutely kills it, and he's so good in 3:10 to Yuma, I'm willing to overlook Cinderella Man.

The supporting cast is likewise above reproach. Ben Foster, whom I recall most clearly as Claire's squirrely, bisexual art school boyfriend on "Six Feet Under," goes big and theatrical as Wade's psychopathic right-hand man Charlie Prince, and it somehow works. (His performance reminded me of Michael Biehn's in Tombstone, but in a good way.) Peter Fonda gives terrific "old coot" as a Pinkerton detective trailing Wade. And "Firefly" veteran Alan Tudyk injects some much-needed levity in a minor role as the Bisbee, Arizona town doctor.

I was really really with this movie for a while, which made the peculiar conclusion all the more unsatisfying. After the jumbled third act of Copland, the sub-sub-sub Shyamalan idiocy of Identity and now the highly questionable turnabouts in the last moments of 3:10, this is clearly something Mangold needs to work on. Endings matter.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Our President, Ladies and Gentlemen...

I'd make this into a caption contest, but it's just too easy...Plus, you one ever leaves comments.

Apparently, Will Ferrell's impression of our president is a lot more accurate than any of us ever imagined.

The article that goes with this picture is about a book coming out tomorrow that makes a shocking, brain-melting revelation. Get ready this...after months of careful, close research, journalist Robert Draper is ready to declare...George W. Bush may not know what he's doing!

I know, I know, I didn't believe it either, but Draper apparently has it on good authority.

Here's some excerpts from the New York Times:

Mr. Bush went on to share private thoughts that appeared to reflect a level of sorrow and presidential isolation that he strongly implied he took pains to hide, a state of being that he seemed to view as coming with the presidency and with which he professed to be at peace.

Telling Mr. Draper he likes to keep things “relatively light-hearted” around the White House, he added in May, “I can’t let my own worries — I try not to wear my worries on my sleeve; I don’t want to burden them with that.”

“Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Draper, by way of saying he sought to avoid it. “This is a job where you can have a lot of self-pity.”

Bush seems unaware that the entire conservative rhetorical strategy pivots around self-pity. "The media never reports our side of the story." "Liberals don't tolerate our views." "We're not free to practice our majority religion." "The terrorists hate our freedoms." "Gays are infringing on our right to marry."

Self-pity is the only thing that has happened to his presidency.

The Washington Post account focuses more on the squabbling within Bush's inner circle, and is thus more amusing.

In "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George Bush," journalist Robert Draper writes that Rove told Bush he should not tap Cheney for the Republican ticket: "Selecting Daddy's top foreign-policy guru ran counter to message. It was worse than a safe pick -- it was needy." But Bush did not care -- he was comfortable with Cheney and "saw no harm in giving his VP unprecedented run of the place."

When Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, expressed concerns about the Miers selection, he was "shouted down" and subsequently muted his objections, Draper writes, while other advisers did not realize the outcry the nomination would cause within the president's conservative political base.

Honestly, I know he's a venomous little troll, but this is the first time I've felt even a twinge of pity for Rove. He knew there was something about Cheney that was wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Granted, he was deciding this for the wrong reasons - trying to protect George W. Bush rather than America - but the conclusion was sound. So, yeah, he's evil, but he wound up having to devise strategies to explain a lot of evil things he probably would not have chosen to do himself. Just sucks is all...

It was John G. Roberts Jr., now the chief justice of the United States, who suggested Miers to Bush as a possible Supreme Court justice, according to the book. Miers, the White House counsel and a Bush loyalist from Texas, did not want the job, but Bush and first lady Laura Bush prevailed on her to accept the nomination, Draper writes.

After Miers withdrew in the face of the conservative furor, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. was selected and confirmed for the seat.

Roberts rejected Draper's report when asked about it last night.

"The account is not true," said Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg, after consulting with Roberts. "The chief justice did not suggest Harriet Miers to the president."

Now that things aren't going right, all of these once semi-dignified people have been reduced to petty, schoolyard squabbling.

"Inviting Harriet was all John's idea."

"Nuh-uh, it was George's!"

"Nuh-uh...You guys suck! I'm retiring to join lecture circuit!"
And that is what the Deciderer is planning to do, if you can believe it. Lecture. He wants to give speeches...professionally...

First, Mr. Bush said, “I’ll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol’ coffers.” With assets that have been estimated as high as nearly $21 million, Mr. Bush added, “I don’t know what my dad gets — it’s more than 50-75” thousand dollars a speech, and “Clinton’s making a lot of money.”

Yeah, this sounds promising. I think George ought to stick with motivational speaking. Maybe he could go to high schools and talk to the kids about why you shouldn't invade sovereign nations with centuries of complex, tribal rivalries simmering just under the service. Or drink and drive. (Laura could come too! I'm sure she has keen insights on the vagaries of vehicular manslaughter!)

Then he said, “We’ll have a nice place in Dallas,” where he will be running what he called “a fantastic Freedom Institute” promoting democracy around the world. But he added, “I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch.”

I'm not sure Bush realizes that when smart people say "institute," they mean a big, boring building full of offices where people write proposals and books and such. He's most likely picturing some Willy Wonka-esque enchanted factory distributing a gooey, sugary substance known as Freedonium to all the rich old white men of the world. I mean, the "Fantastic Freedom Institute"? Has he learned nothing in the last six and a half years? The least we could ask from the Bush Presidency is that George W. Bush, the man, grow a little bit from the experience. We ask that from John Hughes movies, it's the least we can expect from the leader of the free world.

(P.S. I'd just like to add, for the record, that Bush doesn't really do any ranching. Everyone knows by now that the whole Crawford, Texas ranch thing was part of his presidential run, a symbol for the gritty American cowboy branding of his political campaign. How pathetic that he intends to keep up this charade even after he's no longer president, when it no longer matters...It'd be like Jared Fogle touting Subway sandwiches to disinterested tourists on Manhattan street corners 20 years from now, long after the food service company had dissolved his contract and cut all ties to the perky nuisance.)