Three new reviews and I really don't know how much more different these movies could be. It begins...now.
The Duchess – A couple of months ago in my review of “Brideshead Revisited,” I stated, “I've always thought the term ‘British costume drama’ was rather odd.” After all, every actor wears a costume. Still, rightly or wrongly, it’s a label that’s been attached to a certain kind of film. “The Duchess” very much falls into that category and while it is not a bad film, it puts a little too much emphasis on the costume and not enough on the drama.
Directed by Saul Dibb, this film tells the story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), and how she was loved by everyone and loved by no one. Her husband, The Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), is a cold man with no real understanding of love or emotion. He connects more to his dogs than to his wife and it doesn’t help matters that Georgiana gives birth to three girls. His need for a male heir remains unfulfilled.
Still, everyone else seems to love Georgiana, especially Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a dynamic young politician who has long known her. Her one real friend, Bess Foster (“Brideshead’s” Hayley Atwell), encourages Georgiana to pursue her heart, but there turns out to be an ulterior motive for Bess.
“The Duchess” starts off slowly. The early scenes entail people staring out of windows and shots that linger on flocks of birds. It reminded me of the description of Russian plays from “Withnail and I.” Thankfully it picks up a bit, but the script, credited to three writers, seems to give Knightley little to work with in what could have been the role of her career. Georgiana’s life is so tragic and yet we rarely feel terribly moved by her plight. Fiennes is given a little bit more to work with and he flies with it. He makes the Duke scornful yet pitiful and there is something strangely comical in his complete inability to understand the feelings of anyone. It’s a performance that should be kept in mind come awards season.
“The Duchess” is worth a look if it’s something you’re already interested in, but otherwise you can do better. It has neither the substance of “Sense and Sensibility” nor the eye popping appeal of “Marie Antoinette.” If you want both rent “Barry Lyndon.” 6/10.
Appaloosa – I suppose you could call the western the “American costume drama.” Once upon a time it was the most popular movie genre in the USA, but now it seems we get one a year, maybe two as we did last year. Going in it appeared that “Appaloosa” was going to have more in common with the overrated “3:10 to Yuma” than the underrated “Assassination of Jesse James.” (If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you know my love for that movie knows no bounds.) Thankfully though, I enjoyed “Appaloosa” more than I expected.
“Appaloosa” is the second directorial effort from Ed Harris (the first being “Pollock”) and from the start it’s clear the man has an affinity for old school westerns. The sorts of movies where good guys were good and bad guys were very bad. This is the right approach to bring to the story of Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). In an opening bit of narration, Hitch explains to us that these two friends have been keeping the peace together for the last 15 years, going wherever they’re needed.
The town of Appaloosa needs them desperately and within minutes of their arrival it’s clear to outlaws everywhere that these two mean business. The murderous cattle rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) believes he can keep control of the town and its residents in spite of the presence of Cole and Hitch and a battle of wills begins. Things are complicated when Cole falls for the new woman in town, Allison French (Renee Zellweger). Hitch has feelings for Allison too but out of loyalty he pushes them away.
“Appaloosa” is essentially made of three pieces. As a traditional western it works pretty well. The characters, dialogue, scenery, and gunplay work nicely. It’s not “Unforgiven” but it’s quite good.
As a love story it does not fair as well. I lay the blame squarely on Zellweger for this. She excels at comedy but in dramas she seems to only be able to provide what my friend Justin refers to as “acting face.” She simply doesn’t have the range to play this role and “Appaloosa” is weaker for it.
It is as a story of friendship that “Appaloosa” shines. Harris and Mortensen play off of each other splendidly. Cole and Hitch’s friendship is incredibly authentic. We absolutely believe these two have been riding together for 15 years and their loyalty to one another is beyond question. They communicate with nods and glances and when Cole can’t quite seem to figure out what word he is looking for, Hitch is there to provide him with it. I would never spoil the ending of a movie for you, but suffice it to say that the final scene of this film is one of the greatest displays of true friendship I have ever witnessed in a movie. This is what sets “Appaloosa” apart. 7.5/10.
An American Carol – This movie doesn’t work. It simply isn’t believable. Take its main character. Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) is a smug propagandist filmmaker who cleverly edits interviews and encounters so as to further his own agenda, regardless of the context of the situation. Still, he passes his films off as documentaries, he wins numerous awards and educated people eat his work up. As a film viewer I can only suspend my disbelief for so long. Are we really to accept that such a man could exist in the real… Oh… Oh wait.
“An American Carol” tells the tale of Malone’s campaign to abolish the Fourth of July while he unwittingly makes friends with terrorists. Outlandish to be sure, but this is brought to us by director and co-writer David Zucker (“Airplane,” “The Naked Gun”). Malone is loud, brash, and anti-American at every turn. His Scrooge-like view of the USA is about to be challenged though, when he’s visited by the ghosts of John F. Kennedy, General George Patton (Kelsey Grammar), and George Washington (Jon Voight). Plot wise it’s easy to see where “Carol” goes from here.
How this movie got made is truly shocking. Zucker and everyone else involved are putting themselves on the line and in Hollywood anyone seen anywhere near this movie won’t be making friends. Regardless of your political stance you have to admire the boldness it took to make “An American Carol.”
From the start, the movie takes dead aim not only on terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. The Hollywood elite, college professors, obviously a certain director, and anyone else camped in the “blame America first” crowd are targets. Having attended the University of Washington I had a special appreciation for the shots taken at liberal professors and students who think their outspokenness makes them brave. I’m not a very political person but I do know that if Hollywood and major universities have one thing in common, it’s that being a liberal does not make you a risk taker. Zucker knows it too and these college scenes are amongst the sharpest in the movie. There is also a fair helping of slapstick (which is hit and miss) but “Carol” is at its best when exposing the hypocrisy of those who declare that free speech is essential until someone says something they disagree with. It’s not at the level of “Team America: World Police,” but it is often very funny. If you’re conservative and want to see a movie that shares your point of view for a change or if you’re a liberal who can laugh at yourself, “An American Carol” is worth a look. As for those of you who turn queasy at the site of politics, it’s just funny. Most critics (the vast majority of whom wear their liberalness on their sleeves) will tell you it’s not. Not everyone can laugh at themselves. 7.5/10.