Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
The best westerns use a vast landscape to show how hard men create some form of order. Deals are made, rules are understood, guns are necessary. The worth of man, understood but never spoken, is crucial. Appaloosa, the new western directed by Ed Harris, also knows this but adds something more: a woman with rules of her own.
Virgil Cole (Harris) and his partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are hired guns who operate under the semblance of law. They go from town to town, establish themselves as marshals, and kill the bad guys. Their work takes them to the town of Appaloosa, where the murderous Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) resides. Bragg and Cole are both strong-willed, and have no plans to leave. Soon Allison French (Renee Zellwegger) arrives. Cole, of course, is immediately smitten. He buys a house for his new flame, and makes Appaloosa his home. Everett is skeptical.
Much to my surprise, the movie works best as a romantic comedy. There is gentle humor throughout. Most of the movie’s running time is devoted to an unusual triangle between Allison, Virgil, and Everett. These two men know each other well, and have a relationship based on trust and respect. I wouldn’t say they are friends. Allison, whose intentions are dubious, quickly establishes herself as the alpha female. Her companion must be the best man around – she sets her sights on Cole first, but looks elsewhere. Even Bragg becomes a suitable choice for her. If I make Appaloosa sound like a Nora Ephron movie, don’t fret. The gun fights are deadly, fast, and brutal. Yet even during the shoot-outs, Harris directs with an understated style. He wants to give his characters room to develop. Yes, they must fight, but motivations are more interesting.
With long stretches of dialog punctuated by violence, there is plenty of time to observe the actors. Cole veers from taciturn to giddy, but Harris makes him convincing. Viggo Mortensen is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. He often plays stoic characters who reveal their thoughts with their eyes. Mortensen does the same here. Hitch is smarter than Cole, and wisely chooses to not say much. Ms. French is quite the strumpet, but with Zellwegger’s pluck and warm smile, the character remains likable. Jeremy Irons is a quite the character actor, and makes Randall Bragg a magnificent bastard. He’s cruel, snobby, duplicitous, and funny. Seriously folks, Irons should be the go-to movie villain. I can’t think of anyone who says their lines with such an icy delivery.
Appaloosa is pleasant but slow-moving. I enjoyed it, but not as much as other recent westerns. The crowd was probably the most grizzled I’ve encountered at E Street. They struck me as intense western fans – precisely the sort of people who should see this movie. I hope those mutton-chopped men enjoyed themselves.
Here are other movies where Jeremy Irons plays characters with memorable names:
Reversal of Fortune. Irons won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Claus von Bulow, a thoroughly strange man who stood trial for the attempted murder of his wife. Based on real events, the circumstances of Sunny von Bulow’s coma are convoluted: she was an alcoholic and a drug addict who has been in a “persistent vegetative state” since 1980. The prosecution argued that Claus gave his wife an overdose of insulin, causing the coma. After a conviction, von Bulow began the appeal process with the help of Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor. The movie is based on Dershowitz’s book of the same name. Irons plays von Bulow as an affected, pretentious aristocrat – someone prone to bizarre mannerisms and speech. He constantly jokes about his culpability, a fact which doesn’t particularly make him sympathetic. Yet he has a solid defense, and is eventually acquitted on all charges. Of course, the movie leaves it ambiguous whether von Bulow is guilty. Reversal of Fortunate is worth watching for its larger-than-life characters, and its memorable performances. Sure, von Bulow probably poisoned his wife, but he ultimately emerges as a strangely likable man.
Lolita. Irons stars as Humbert Humbert, the hero of this modern adaptation of Nabokov’s novel. Anyone who has seen the older version or read the book knows the territory: European professor falls in love with prepubescent girl, marries her mother, etc etc. Directed by Adrian “Indecent Proposal” Lyne, the 1997 version does not differentiate too greatly from the 1962 Stanley Kubrick version. I prefer Irons’ performance over James Mason’s – Irons takes more chances, making his Humbert more insidious and creepy. The supporting performances in the Kubrick version far exceed those in the Lyne version: Shelley Winters outshines Melanie Griffith as Dolores Haze, and Peter Sellers eclipses Frank Langella as Claire Quilty. Both adaptations often lack the subtlety (and dark humor) of Nabokov’s novel. Still, the 1997 update is worth watching for Irons and its racier content. Where else would you get the opportunity to watch a crazed Frank Langella nakedly sprint down a hallway?
Dead Ringers. Irons plays twin gynecologists in this David Cronenberg movie. Elliott and Beverly are brilliant doctors who delight in manipulating those around them. One will routinely pretend to be the other, and hardly anyone can spot the difference. The movie argues that twins have an otherworldly, indefinable bond that takes precedence over all other relationships. Beverly soon throws this bond in a tailspin as he becomes infatuated with an drug-addicted actress. Elliott desperately tries to save this brother, but soon all three descend into madness. Irons delivers a stellar performance – through subtle body language and verbal tics, the viewer is always certain which brother is which. Long before CGI, Cronenberg puts both brothers on screen by using “moving splits.” Most of the time, the illusion looks authentic. Like many other Cronenberg movies, Dead Ringers focuses on how uncomfortable we are with our bodies – Beverly invents some bizarre gynecological instruments that’ll freak everyone the fuck out. The movie is sort of like watching a surgery: coldly clinical, but nonetheless fascinating. Most viewers probably won’t feel much of an emotional impact, but the performances and imagery will haunt your thoughts.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I (probably) am rich, unhappy, and English.