A documentary filmed over three years, following the last band of sheep taken to pasture on public lands in the Montana mountains. I watch a lot of documentaries, and most of them are incredibly focused on talking. This one isn't. There are no talking heads. This is about the immersive experience of being out there, living a hard life for months in utterly beautiful country with the two hired herders and their flock.
The director--an anthropologist whose academic background almost certainly led to the minimalism of the film--was present at the screening where I saw the movie. It was interesting to get his take on it. Things were moved out of their original context for the sake of the narrative, but it seemed to me from his answers that he was really trying to communicate the experience, which he had lived alongside the herders and the animals for three summers. To be honest, it seems like the art of it, the raw aesthetic beauty, was partly just a side-effect of that, but if I had seen the film by itself, I would have thought it was the primary goal. There are some amazing shots in this film (one comes to mind, a long-distance shot of the flock just flowing down the mountain), and the sound design is both unique and effective. It's slow-paced, with a lot of long, uncut shots, the work of a man who stops to really look at things. A beautiful film.
The best cartoon western I've ever seen, easily. It knows the clichés, and it approaches them with tongue firmly in cheek, but it plays along with them like someone who loves them. And I love westerns myself, so it works for me.
There's been some talk about the ugliness of the character designs, but their monstrousness is actually quite charming in motion. Actually, "charming" is probably the best description for the film as a whole. It's rarely laugh-out-loud funny (though when it was, very few other people in the theater were laughing besides me). The villains are genuinely frightening, though, which is not something I can say about a lot of children's films. How often nowadays can you see characters invoking guns and bullets as objects that cause actual death in a family movie? In fact, the threat of death is ever-present--if it's not thugs with weapons, it's death by thirst, or by automobile. Which is about right for a western, actually, especially one set in a desert.
The theater was full of kids when I went to see it, and they seemed largely alienated and bewildered by Rango. Which is a shame. This movie is actually very good.
Give 'Em Hell, Malone (2009)
I don't know how this movie was even made. I'm serious--I see why it got pushed into the direct-to-video category, but I'm baffled that it was made at all. The premise: a detective-turned-hired-gun who both dresses and talks like a hard-boiled detective from a film noir has to figure out why he was sent to pick up a mysterious briefcase. There's a femme fatale, some gimmicky thugs and assassins, and a manipulative businessman in charge of it all--all things that might be normal if it was a straight film noir throwback, but it isn't. The primary cast essentially live in a time-warp, driving vintage cars, using payphones, but the story is clearly set in modern times, with a brief mention of e-mail, modern cars all around, modern clothes on background characters, and cell phones used by minor characters. That alone was unbelievably weird.
The film as a whole is a combination of 1940s pulp detective story and modern over-the-top action movie. It's silly, and it knows it's silly. This is partly its downfall (some winky-nudgy acting being the primary flaw) and partly its saving grace. It thankfully never bothers explaining why Malone doesn't slow down after being shot and knifed so many times--he just says at the start of the movie that he's "hard to kill" and we're expected to just accept it. I found that kind of wonderful.
The acting and characterization is pretty bad throughout. It's like someone took a set of film noir stock characters and comic book villains and shoehorned them into a modern setting. There's even a performance by one of the bad guys that is very clearly inspired by Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. Everyone here seemed to be giving it a sincere try, but their characters are just concepts. The most complex character is Boulder, a hired tough who is only working for the head villain out of desperate hope that his wife will come out of a coma (the money is paying her medical bills), and he is not that complex.
This isn't a good movie. Not by a long shot. But I have to admit, I enjoyed watching it. It's one of those completely puzzling movies that has no idea who it's for. It's not "so bad it's good," but despite its missteps, it's entertaining. With some changes in direction and casting, maybe it could have been legitimately good.
- The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
- Barney's Version (2010)