Bridge to Terabithia -- Attack of the Misleading Marketing

I just caught the latest ad for The Bridge to Terabithia, and I have to wonder if the people behind the campaign are deliberately trying to piss off the parents who take their kids to see it? The commercials make it look like a Narnia type movie about kids who find their way into Fantasia. But if the film is even remotely faithful to the book, the other-world stuff is literally fantasy, just like the imaginary world of Parker and Hulme in Heavenly Creatures. And the actual plot of the story is only slightly less heavy than Jackson's film -- it's really a young child having to come to terms with death for the first time. I imagine there are going to be lots of parents who aren't familiar with the book who are going to take their sprogs to the film expecting light Disney fantasy, who will walk out of the theater pissed at Disney for misleading them.


Tall Men, Big Boobs, Tedious Film

Clark Gable. Robert Ryan. Jane Russell. In a Raoul Walsh western. How could The Tall Men not be awesome?

Very easily.

Some might place the blame on Gable and Walsh, who were both nearing the end of their careers when they made the movie. But the same year as The Tall Men Gable made Soldier of Fortune (also included in Fox's Gable set), an ass-kickin' adventure film, and Walsh made his great war film Battle Cry. Even a few years after this, Walsh made The Sherrif of Fractured Jaw, a light comic western starring an even more spectacular bosom -- while no classic, it's an enjoyable piece of fluff.

No, the problem with The Tall Men is with the story. The plot is the archetypal cattle-drive western -- and by archetypal, I mean a two hour string of cliches. You have the two brothers (Gable and Cameron Mitchell), one good and the other impetuous. They take a stake in a cattle drive with Robert Ryan, who naturally is a total jerk who's constantly getting into fights with Mitchell, forcing Gable to intercede. And then along comes Janey Russell who becomes the objects of affection for both Gable and Ryan. (I don't know why they'd fight over her when she has two large ... objects of affection, which are more than enough for two men to share.) And of course there're the bandits, the injuns, the comic-relief Mexicans, the blue-coated cavalrymen, etc., etc.

It's extruded western product.


Olde Time Trifles

Something I love about old books and movies is discovering that some piece of slang dates back decades, or even centuries. For example, the use of "crib" to describe someone's house dates back to the Victorian era, and "axed" for "asked" appears in medieval English texts.

One I discovered recently is the use of "trifle" as a verb in Will Roger's Life Begins at 40. It's commonly used today to describe someone who's getting worked up over nothing, as in "She's trifling with me." In the movie it's used slightly differently, though the general meaning is still the same.

Kenesaw Clark: Say, are you still triflin' with the affections of that girl over there at Colonel Abercrombie's?

Chris: I'm not trifling.

Kenesaw Clark: Is she trifling with you?

Chris: Yes -- uh, no -- I don't think so.

Kenesaw Clark: You're both serious?

Chris: Why ye-- no, no, yes sir.

Kenesaw Clark: Do you think you could get her to do something for ya?

Chris: Oh, sure, my Olga'll do anything for me. Practically.


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21st Century Cowboys

The Western as a film genre is primarily a product of the mid-20th Century, starting with silent oaters and then the B-westerns of the 30s. The genre really attained respectability with John Ford's Stagecoach, and had a good run up through the '50s. But then something happened, though no one agrees what it was -- some say it was the over-proliferation of TV Westerns; others blame the suburbanization of America; or simply a changing zeitgeist. But whatever it was, by the 1960s the Western was in decline. It rallied for one last hurrah in 1969, with True Grit, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but in the '70s the Western all but disappeared. Now when something like Unforgiven or Tombstone comes along, it's a curiosity.

Which is why it's so odd that 2006 saw two modern Westerns -- modern in the sense of featuring cowboy characters in today's world, sort of the ultimate update on end-of-the-frontier films.

One of these films is David Jacobson's Down in the Valley, a throwback to '70s-style New Hollywood films -- most notably Taxi Driver from which DitV draws its inspiration (to put it charitably). It's the story of Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a teenaged girl with no direction in her life. She lives with her brother (Rory Culkin) and ineffectual father (David Morse). One day she and her friends are on the way to the beach when the meet gas-station attendant Harlan (Edward Norton). He claims to be a cowboy from Montana who's recently moved to LA. Tobe takes an immediate liking to him and his seeming naivette and begins spending all her time with him, much to her father's predictable horror (the one redeeming aspect of this plotline is that the father recognizes that he's a boob who's doing a bad job raising his children). But even Tobe starts to sense something's off about Harlan, especially when he teaches her twelve year old brother to use a gun.

The plot is pretty threadbare, and devolves into a big chase-and-shoot-out ending, but Jacobson saves the film through brilliant direction of the cast. Not just Edward Norton, who could put in a great performance if he was guest-starring on Three's Company, but David Morse and Rory Culkin, two actors not normally known for their acting talents -- in fact, if not for this film, I wouldn't even think Morse, whom I remember despite my best efforts as the pilot in The Langoliers, as having the acting ability of a fifth grade talent show winner.

But while the acting is enough to keep me enthralled through the first viewing and leave me thinking it was one of the best films of the year, I've found that retrospect diminishes the movie. It is really good, but it lacks the oomph to make a true classic.

The other Western of 2006 is Tommy Lee Jones' directorail debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Jones plays rancher Pete Perkins who befriends Melquiades Estrada, an illegal immigrant who works for him. One day Mel is out with some sheep and shoots a coyote. Border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) is hangin' around jackin' off (I mean that literally) and thinks someone's shooting at him. Norton returns fire, killing Mel. Well Pete, having an Old West (or perhaps Old Testament) sense of justice, kidnaps Mike, steals Mel's body, and drags them both to Mexico. Pete puts Mike through nine kinds of hell on his quixotic quest to see Mel buried in his home town, and as the movie wears on you become steadily more uncomfortable with it. Yes, Mike is a putz, but he shot Mel by accident. He atones for his sin long before Pete lets up on him. By the end of the film Pete has your pity, but Mike has your sympathy.

For a first time director (a 60 year old one, no less) Jones does an impressive job. The one problem with the film is that it starts with the discovery of Mel's body in the desert and then flashes back and forth between the present and the events leading up to Mel's death, but Jones doesn't use any visual cues to distinguish between the flashbacks and present-time, so for the first twenty minutes trying to figure out when each scene is taking place. After a while you get used to it, but until then it's like putting together a puzzle. However, this is only a problem upon initial viewing.

And whereas Down in the Valley is best during the first viewing, The Three Burials... grows in your mind, becoming better as you have a chance to digest it.