Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The View From the Cheap Seats

So I don't get out to see new movies probably as much as I should, but on Saturday I was able to ingest two of this year's best that have long-overdue viewings for me: all for only $6. Yup, I went to the cheap theater to see A History of Violence, then as I walked out to my car, I realized that for another mere $3, I could see Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Yes, you've probably already read reviews of these two long ago, but if you stick through my takes on them, I might even throw in a couple bonus reviews.

A History of Violence
The title of this wonderful film could easily apply to its director, David Cronenberg, whose work usually features grosser than you'd expect gore and frequently contains visions of flesh being transformed and manipulated to show what a person is truly made of (see Videodrome, eXistenZ, The Fly). But while those movies deal with excruciating changes and transformations, it's a little refreshing that the central theme of A History of Violence is that people do not change, no matter how hard they try.

Cronenberg isn't trying to say much with 'Violence,' which is why it may feel a little too simple and inconsequential to some. I think its perfect that way, Cronenberg takes an old fashioned approach to his movie, using a pacing and story typically found in 1940s detective noirs (Out of the Past is the most obvious parrallel).

'Violence' introduces us to Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who has been trying his best for the past 20 years to be an ordinary guy, to forget his violent past. He owns a diner in a sleepy Indiana town and loves his wife and kids. But one night changes everything when his diner is held up by a couple of thugs. One of them utters a line that foreshadows an upcoming shot, when he shouts: 'Show them we mean business!' Before one of the thugs can assault a female employee, Tom quickly shoots and kills both of them. Before we leave the diner scene, we get a quick and biting shot of the thug Tom shot in the head, we see his fractured skull and how he's struggling through his last few breaths. It's a startling shot, but to me this is Cronenberg showing the audience 'he means business.'

Tom is soon visited by three men he pretends not to know, they are from his old gang in Philadelphia, they insist on calling him 'Joey' and ask why he hasn't talked to his brother for so long. The three (led by a brilliant Ed Harris) pester Tom's family before finally threatening to hurt them lest Tom returns to Philly. Tom can't keep up the charade any longer, and eventually heads to Philadelphia to confront his past.

Cronenberg never lets the audience doubt that Joey was once a very real, and violent criminal, but it's also realistic that Tom wants to leave Joey behind forever, no matter how many people he has to kill. I loved how Tom's killings in this movie are unflinchingly brutal and masterful. Joey may have changed his name to Tom and moved to the country, but he never forgot how to kill people.

Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit
June 1997, I'm in the middle of a way too long Aer Lingus flight to Ireland, sitting in the very middle of the claustrophobic middle aisle of a 747. The only thing that saved me from pulling the 'eject' button on my seat was a mid-flight showing of some shorts featuring these curious characters named Wallace and Gromit. The shorts (especially The Wrong Trousers) had some of the best animated action scenes I had ever seen, the fact that it was in claymation made it even more amazing.

W&G has been popular in the U.S. for a number of years, but it would take a movie like this to really unleash it on the masses. Years in devleopment, Curse of the Were-Rabbit not only one-ups itself in the action department, but also contains enough puns to make Carrot Top keel over (wishful thinking). I think it's one of the top 5 movies of the year and one of the best family movies in years, so why didn't it 'only' gross $55 million domestically? I really think it was a mistake to release it at Halloween, because it's pretty far from a scary or even a monster movie, and Halloween releases typically don't make much. W&G should have been released a week before Thanksgiving, put head-to-head with the other family movies that fight for audiences during the holiday.

It's really that good. I was in a theater full of kids and found myself probably laughing more than any of the tikes I was surrounded by. What enhances its value is that kids today are so spoiled on the Pixar-type animated movies that its a treat to see pantheon-level clay work. Steve Park and Nick Box could have easily used CGI for some of the scenes, but thankfully didn't (it's used tactfully in one scene, but you can barely notice).

Bonus review: Rio Bravo
I had heard alot about this epic Howard Hawks-John Wayne collaboration, specifically how it was one of the best siege movies, in the same league in the genre as Zulu and The 300 Spartans. So because of this, I had the mindset going in that it was going to be non-stop action like those two, and it most certainly is not. I wouldn't even classify Rio Bravo as a siege movie, even in the Western siege subgenre that includes High Noon, rather I'd just call it my favorite traditional western (which excludes the likes of Peckinpah and Leone) period.

'Rio Bravo' is one of the few movies I've found myself liking more and more as I continue to look back on it. This could be due to its deliberate-as-mollasses pace, which will turn off anyone looking for quick action. Though it is slow going for most of the movie, 'Rio Bravo' is very hard not to like. You have Wayne being The Duke, Dean Martin being a (what else?) drunk gunfighter and of course Walter Brennan having free-rein to be the sass-mouth rube deputy with half a leg that only he can play.

The trio of Wayne, Martin and Brennan is pure gold, and they're a small Texas town's only hope to keep a rich rancher and his henchmen from tearing the place apart to spring his brother from jail. It's been said before, but Hawks went about to make an anti-High Noon and bloody well succeeded. Whereas Gary Cooper goes looking for help in every tavern and church to brace for the arrival of Frank, Wayne refuses to enlist help from the town and makes do with what he has (for the most part). From its infamous dialogue-free opening to shootout ending, 'Rio Bravo' is a relic of a western masterpiece that deserves patience and praise.

Super Quick Bonus Review: Family Guy Presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story
Finally saw this one and was very impressed. As big a fan as I am of 'Family Guy,' the one problem I have with it is its inconsistency, the jokes are either fall on the floor funny or a shake your head miss. I thought this would be exacerbated in the movie, but that is not the case, as it has some of the best writing of the whole series.

Though it doesn't have the feel of a full-length movie (it's pretty much three episodes, and it even has writing credits for three 'parts'), 'Stewie' will probably exceed any 'Family Guy' fan's expectations, and the 'Ferris Bueller' parody at the end is worth the price of admission alone.


Anonymous said...

dang, mr mortensen is mesmerizing in a history of violence..

Anonymous said...

I saw Wallace & Gromit, and loved it, but I haven't seen A History of Violence yet. Did you hear that Aardman Studios burned down right before the US premier of Curse of the Were-Rabbit? I guess Nick Park happened to have the original models of Wallace & Gromit with him in his suitcase, but not much (if anything else). Everything at the studio was lost.

By the way, I think you should write obits. for your paper, instead of whatever else it is that you're doing. Consider this gem:

Joey may have changed his name to Tom and moved to the country, but he never forgot how to kill people.


Adam Ross said...

haha, actually the obits in my paper are usually more entertaining. They consistently find alternative ways to say they died, such as "On Nov. 15, Tom joined Jesus at his table in the sky."