Booze, bullets, and broads

By: Wes Lawson
Daily Egyptian
“Appaloosa”
Rated R
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renee Zellweger
Directed by Ed Harris
Run time: 114 minutes
4 out of 5 stars

The Western is seeing a minor resurgence in Hollywood. In the last three years, there have been three of them that saw theatrical releases- two of which were meditative, slow moving tone poems (“The Assassination of Jesse James,” “The Proposition”) and one that was a throwback to the simple Westerns of olden times (“3:10 to Yuma”).
“Appaloosa,” the latest film to fit into the Western genre, goes for the throwback aspect, and it succeeds admirably. It is not a groundbreaking or amazing film, but it tells a good story with solid acting and solid filmmaking, and it’s quite a pleasure to watch to boot.
As the film begins, we see Randall Bragg (Irons) shoot the sheriff and two of his deputies as they trespass on his ranch just outside the town of Appaloosa. We then shift to Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen), two traveling law men whose job is to come to small towns and clean them out of their criminals. They descend upon Appaloosa with the intention of convicting and killing Bragg, but they find it more difficult than they initially expected. Further complicating things is the arrival of Allie French (Zellweger), an organist and well dressed woman who instantly wins Cole’s heart.
The plot has further developments, shootouts, and love scenes, but that’s not really what the film is about. It is essentially a character study of Cole and Hitch, and shows how they react to the various characters in their life and their particular brand of justice. The two men are obviously very good friends, but they rarely speak openly about feelings and thoughts, especially when Hitch has misgivings about Allie. It’s interesting to watch Harris and Mortensen play off each other, since they are two fine actors who understand that these men know each other too well to ever be anything more than deep friends. Zellweger, thankfully, does well in her role and is a fairly multilayered woman, which is so uncommon for a Western, and Irons is great as the villain, even if his British accent slips in every once in a while.
The film is based on a novel, and it shows, but that’s not a detriment. Too many films feel like they’re rushing to get to the conclusion and the next plot point, but “Appaloosa” is slow paced and well developed. That makes it sound incredibly serious, but there are some terrifically funny bits to be had too, like the exchange Virgil and Hitch share after an incredibly brief shootout. Though the final act drags out a bit too long, the film has all the length it needs and it gives the audience a better appreciation of the characters and more emotional resonance in general. Harris, who also directs and co-writes, has shot a film that is evocative of the old West, and there are some incredibly beautiful shots on display, especially one with a cougar watching a train heading into the distance.
The only other flaw apart from the pacing toward the end is the music. A strange complaint, to be sure, but the music does not feel like something that belongs in a Western. There are saxophones and weird upbeat violins that immediately taint the mood of certain scenes, and after the beautiful melodies of “The Assassination of Jesse James,” it’s weird to hear a Western with such a poor soundtrack.
Despite these slight misgivings, “Appaloosa” is a very good film that is completely worth the time and the effort of watching it. Plus, any movie that ends with someone riding into the sunset has to be at least somewhat good.

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Stay out of “Quarantine”

Provided Photo

Provided Photo

By: Wes Lawson
Daily Egyptian
“Quarantine”
Rated R
Starring: Jennifer Carpenter, Jay Hernandez
Directed by John Erick dowdle
Run time: 88 minutes
2 out of 5 stars

The first person, “found footage” documentary style of filmmaking is slowly becoming its own subgenre in Hollywood, and as it develops into a subgenre, the odds of more bad movies being made from the concept increases twofold.
“Quarantine” is probably the first in the line of mediocre movies made from this concept, although it has enough tension and scares to be almost worth watching. However, in creating a film that is supposed to be shot by an ordinary person, the ways in which the genre can go wrong become more and more evident, which makes “Quarantine” an ultimately frustrating experience.
“Quarantine” is based on a 2007 Spanish horror film called “[REC]” and of the two, the Spanish one is the one you should see. (It’s not yet available on DVD in America but it’s easily seen on YouTube and various other sites.) The premise of both films is the same; a TV reporter named Angela Vidal (Carpenter) and her cameraman Scott are spending the night shadowing two firefighters as they do their jobs. We get a brief period to get to know the characters, and then the alarms sound, leading the firemen and Vidal to an apartment building where several residents are infected with a violent, mutant virus. The entire building is sealed off by the center for Disease Control and the police who are afraid that the virus will escape the building. After this, the film becomes straight horror, as residents are infected, zombified residents chase after the survivors, and people are killed, eaten, and otherwise eviscerated as they try to escape.
Anyone who thought “Cloverfield’s” camera work was nausea inducing will probably run vomiting from the theater by the midpoint of “Quarantine.” The camerawork is trying to give us a sense of the immediacy of the situation, butit’s so shaky, blurry, and unintelligible at points that it’s completely impossible to tell what’s happening. The final third of the film has characters being killed and coming back to attack, but because the film hasn’t given us a very basic sense of the spatial relations of the building, trying to tell who’s running where and who’s attacking is a futile quest. It also doesn’t help that the soundtrack is essentially loud shrieks and crashes and the sound of Carpenter whimpering and crying. Her performance pushes past plausibility and into the realm of unintentional hilarity- a deadly sin for a horror movie to commit.
Another large detriment is the sheer number of characters who are on hand here. We get bits and pieces of their back stories, but quickly the audience realizes that who these people are doesn’t matter much, because they are all zombie fodder anyway. Because the characters aren’t established well, they disappear and reappear as infected people seemingly at random, and it’s hard to care about people when you don’t even realize that they were off getting infected.
It’s a shame, really, because “Quarantine” does contain some genuinely frightening scenes, especially one towards the end which is shot in night vision, and a completely expected jump scene that still provides a huge jump. This could be viewed as a warm up for a much better film, and certainly the pieces are in place for one, but “Quarantine” doesn’t quite make it into the realm of good horror.

Note to the people in charge of the marketing for “Quarantine”: If you want your movie to have any tension whatsoever, don’t give away the final shot of the film in every single trailer, TV spot, and poster for the film.

“Blindness” is beautiful

Wes Lawson
Daily Egyptian
‘Blindness’
Rated R
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Gael Garcia Bernal
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Run time: 130 minutes
4.5 out of 5 stars

On an ordinary afternoon in an unnamed city, a Japanese man suddenly goes blind while sitting at a stoplight. People come to his aid, and unwittingly acquire his infection, which causes people to go blind.
“Blindness” stems from this scene, shows how the virus spreads and how the people react when an entire population is stripped of their sight. It is powerful and beautiful to watch, and it is absorbing and completely emotionally satisfying.
The movie remains purposely vague, so as to show that this could happen anywhere, to any population. None of the characters are given names, and the nature of the blind disease is never explained. But it does spread quickly and without mercy. The Japanese man infects a doctor (Ruffalo) who ends up being forced into an internment camp with the rest of the blind.  The camp is divided up into wards, and the food rations are quickly eaten, and the grounds become a filthy, barely livable place. This is when a bartender (Bernal) declares martial law and exchanges food for both jewelry and sexual favors. Obviously, this society cannot be sustained for long, and the film shows how people would react if thrown into a situation such as this.
The crucial element of the story is that the doctor’s wife (Moore) can still see.  Only her husband knows, and she is forced to feign blindness in order to survive in the camp. In a fearless performance by Moore, she leads the characters through the grounds, help them wash and bathe, and ultimately, plans their escape.
“Blindness” is meant to be a film that makes you think, and on that note, it succeeds. It is based on a award winning novel by Jose Saramango, and it shows not only how society breaks down when our sight is taken from us, but how in the ashes of this, a deep sense of humanity develops. Being forced to rely on other people for everything that you used to do without help can be completely degrading, and though “Blindness” rarely pauses for happy moments, there is a deep undercurrent of hope throughout, especially in the film’s final scenes, when rain becomes a metaphor for the washing away of the past and the acceptance of the future.
It helps that the film has absolutely fantastic actors to lead us through the proceedings. This is a film that requires people to be naked, dirty, uncomfortable, and completely beaten down, and every single person in the film is up to the task. Moore, Ruffalo, and Bernal especially do some heavy lifting, and Glover provides one of the film’s most emotionally satisfying moments.
If nothing else, “Blindness” will be remembered as a masterpiece of cinematography. Director Fernando Meirelles and cinematographer Cesar Charlone have crafted a film that shows what motion picture cameras are capable of. The film is shot through a white haze, simulating the blindness the characters feel. There are filters, moments of total darkness and total light, flashes of focus and scenes that play almost entirely out of focus before shifting into focus, all of which fully absorb the audience into the world of the blind. Like 2006’s “Children of Men” and 2007’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” this is a film that pushes the limits of the film medium.
“Blindness” is not an easy film to watch, nor is it an easy film to think about, but therein lies the point. The film works as an allegory and as a thoughtful reminder of what humanity is capable of, and it does it with style and grace and hardship. “Blindness” is one of the year’s best films.

Wes Lawson can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 275 or w4027@siu.edu.

Blog Wars: Shakespeare

For our second installment of Blog Wars we will be taking a cue from SIUC’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and discuss our favorite Shakespeare works.
Sean McGahan, Wes Lawson and Luke McCormick will be offering up their in-depth insights.

Sean McGahan:
Most of the Bard’s tragedies have enough murder, betrayal and suicide
to make Quentin Tarantino blush. But no play pushed the limits of racism,
religion, witchcraft and just plain nastiness like “Othello.” You know its bad when the ones who get smothered are the lucky ones. Centuries before Glenn Close fried up a cute little
bunny, Shakespeare made husbands and wives alike deadly afraid of adultery. For this
achievement, we have the legend of Venice’s most intriguing Moor to
thank.

Luke McCormick:
I’m going to throw a vote to “Macbeth” here. Sean is doing big talk about betrayal, suicide and murder–amp that up a few notches and toss in a supernatural element as well.
“Macbeth” is terribly intense and dark, as Shakespeare gets his readers or play attendees questioning some serious life issues.
Is society fundamentally amoral? Is human life just a tedious chore with no significance?
There is not much good showcased in the character’s in this classic, but their dark actions will have you scratching your head.

Wes Lawson
Um, if you’re discussing Shakespeare and not discussing “King Lear,” then you are pretty much not my friend anymore. It’s Shakespeare darkest and most relevant tragedy. It also features a role that you’re not allowed to play until you’re 50.
Basically, it’s about a king who divides his kingdom between his daughters, and, needless to say, everyone ends up dead. It’s a wonderfully nihilistic story about how power corrupts, hiw family isn’t exactly the strongest bond you can have, and about how if you try to take power, you could get your eyes gouged out by a rival.
Hey, just like Guantanamo Bay!

The all knowing “Eye”

By: Wes Lawson

‘Eagle Eye’
Rated PG-13
Starring: Shia Labeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson
Directed by D.J. Caruso
Runtime: 118 minutes
3 out of 5 stars

With our overreliance on technology nowadays, a movie like “Eagle Eye” was probably inevitable. It’s a movie about technology going haywire and computers controlling every aspect of the lives we lead.
Granted, that’s a fairly simplistic summary, but then again, “Eagle Eye” is a fairly simplistic movie. That kernel of an idea is buried in a movie that is so ridiculously over the top and implausible that it’s a miracle that the movie isn’t a comedy. Despite this, it remains an entertaining thriller, as long as you don’t think too hard about it.
The film’s teaser trailer pretty much sums up the opening of the film, and the first twenty minutes or so of the film are pretty much brilliant. Two Chicago residents receive mysterious calls on their cell phones telling them to obey the caller’s orders or terrible things will happen. The two are Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf), a down on his luck kid whose brother just died in Iraq and who suddenly has an apartment full of explosives, and Rachel Holloman (Monaghan), a divorced mother whose son is on a train to Washington that the caller threatens to derail. Once the plot is set in motion, the voice brings the two together into a plot that is insanely complex and involves a force that can control every electronic device in the entire country. Two FBI agents are hot on their trail (Dawson and Billy Bob Thornton) and the two manage to evade capture as they are slowly brought to realize why this caller needs them.
The amount of enjoyment the average audience member will derive from “Eagle Eye” depends on how far audience members are willing to suspend their disbelief. Again, it’s a movie that requires a force that can control everything in the country, from cell phones to traffic cameras to cranes in junkyards to baggage claim. This is a movie where the two rob an armored car at gunpoint in order to obtain a briefcase that contains a serum which will lower their heart rates while they ride in the cargo hold of a plane. The plot moves at such a steady clip that we are expected to not acknowledge all the hoops that the characters have to jump through, but it’s kind of hard not to acknowledge scenes like this, especially when the final solution to the film is so simple that the effort put into the plot seems perfunctory.
In Shia Labeouf and Michelle Monaghan, the casting directors certainly made a right choice. This is not a movie about acting or brilliant performances. It is mostly about people running around and looking harried. Both actors are excellent in other films and will do other films that are better than this one, but they do a good job with the material given. Billy Bob and Rosario Dawson don’t do much, but they get paid and have some good one liners.
Director D.J Caruso keeps the film moving at a slick pace and fills it to the brim with ADD-addled action sequences. The film runs just shy of two hours and there’s rarely a moment where it pauses for breath, and on that it is successful. The film is an entertaining action thriller, as long as it is not taken seriously, and though the idea at the bottom of it is a good one, you would be hard pressed at the end of the film to understand why they started with that idea and surrounded it with explosions, shootouts, and car chases.
“Eagle Eye” is a dumb but entertaining thriller that does what it sets out to do and not much else. There are better entertainments in theaters right now, but one could do worse than turning off their brains and sitting through this one.

Visit this “Terrace”

By: Wes Lawson


Daily Egyptian
‘Lakeview Terrace’
Rated PG-13
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington
Directed by Neil LaBute
Run time: 110 minutes
3 out of 5 stars

There’s nothing better than a movie that inspires lengthy discussion and nothing worse than a movie that self destructs in its final act.
“Lakeview Terrace” falls under both of those categories. For 2/3rds of its runtime, it is an interesting and compelling film about a variety of hot button topics, but then falls into generic thriller cliché and pointless violence to resolve its conflicts. Coming from a director as good as Neil LaBute, this is quite a surprising turn of events.
The film focuses on Abel Turner (Jackson), a twenty-something year veteran of the LAPD, whose wife died and who imposes strict discipline on his two children. He lives in a relatively peaceful part of Los Angeles, until Chris and Lisa Mattson (Wilson and Washington) move in next door. Turner is clearly unnverved by this couple, merely because it is a white man married to a black woman. He begins a subtle attack on the couple, dropping thinly disguised racist remarks into conversations with them and eventually committing full blown actos of arson and intimidation. Chris and Lisa can’t really do anything about it, since Turner is a cop and it’s his word against theirs. These events slowly build and the Mattson’s begin to fight each other, until the whole situation comes to a head in the midst of an approaching wildfire that threatens the neighborhood.
This is somewhat of a simplistic description for the film, and doesn’t go into the sheer cruelty that Turner displays for this couple. The film’s trailers have depicted turner as a cruel monster who menaces the couple for no real reason, but it’s about deeper resentments and issues than that, largely due to Lisa’s race. He has his reasons for being racist, though the reasons are largely beside the point, because the movie is about the thoughts and feelings of Turner and the Mattsons and how they deal with each other. The film also has scenes of the Mattson’s discussing the race issue with each other, and one particularly painful scene shows Lisa’s father asking Chris if he is ever going to give Lisa children. Scenes like this show us the inherent racism and disapproval many of us have within ourselves, and it’s frightening to see the mirror reflecting back at the audience and showing us the hidden parts of ourselves.
The film is largely compelling and features scenes of such pain and cruelty, subtle and over the top, that it’s a miracle this movie got a PG-13 rating. This is an adult film through and through. It doesn’t exactly deal with its topics with as much depth as it could have, but it inspires a discussion and a strong audience reaction, which is what director LaBute is going for.
It helps that he has Samuel L. Jackson in the key role, in a performance that is completely convincing. He is a man who carries deep hatred in his heart and we see this in the way he treats the couple. His performance never tilts into caricature, and he has scenes of tenderness and anger that are both brilliant. Wilson and Washington also do a good job of showing a marriage on the rocks, although their characters aren’t as interesting as Jackson’s.
For everything the movie does right, it’s a shame that it can’t quite figure out how to end. The movie becomes a generic thriller in the final reel, with shootouts, people yelling at each other, and an ending that is both happy and predictable. A movie that goes so far in its convictions should have had a better ending. The subplot about the wildfires is also completely pointless, inserted to drum up tension where there really didn’t need to be any.
“:Lakeview Terrace” is an imperfect film but it is also an important one, dealing with inherent racism far better than crap like “Crash” does. Budget some time for coffee and conversation afterward, because you are going to need it.

“Burn” is on fire

By: Wes Lawson
Daily Egyptian
“Burn After Reading
Rated R
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Run time: 96 minutes
4 out of 5 stars

After the amazing achievement of “No Country For Old Men” and the bevy of Oscars that came with it, it was largely expected that the Coen brothers would follow that film with something equally important and groundbreaking. Obviously, the people who thought this don’t know the Coen brothers, who pretty much do whatever they want without fear of persecution by critics and audiences.

“Burn After Reading” is a massive tonal shift from “NCFOM” and some audience members will probably be turned off by the complex plot and the weird mixture of thriller and comedy elements. “Burn After Reading” represents a minor work by these two filmmakers, but it still remains an incredibly enjoyable film that offers wit, surprise, and intrigue for anyone who loves their films.

The plot is labyrinthine and insanely complex, so to attempt a full summary would be pointless. Here are the basics. The film revolves around a CD belonging to Osborne Cox (Malkovich), a CIA analyst who quits his job to avoid getting fired. The CD, which contains the first draft of Osborne’s memoirs, is found by Linda and Chad (McDormand and Pitt), two health club employees who decide to sell the CD back to Cox in order to afford plastic surgery for Linda. In the mix is also Osborne’s wife (Swinton) who is having an affair with Harry (Clooney) who eventually becomes disillusioned with her and begins seeing Linda. The characters and plots keep intersecting and becoming more complicated, involving Russians, break-ins and murders–and that’s just the first hour of the film.
Really, the plot is not the important part of this film, partially because it is so complicated that deciphering it would be impossible, and partially because the Coens know that the plot is not really the point of the movie. It is essentially a parody of really intricate spy movies, and on that note it succeeds. A tone point, a character says, “Come back to me when this all makes sense,” and he could be talking about the plot itself. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what happened, but the Coens know how to keep it interesting while gently poking fun at movies that cram so much information into two hours. The movie takes a little while to get going, and its first 20 minutes are a bit dry, but once the plot threads start progressing, the movie goes insane, and big laughs come at a fairly steady clip.

The movie is more interested in the characters and how they react to the situations they find themselves in. The movie is essentially a bunch of people who are either really stupid or not as smart as they think. None of them hold all the pieces to the puzzle which leads to misunderstandings and unbelievably stupid choices, but that’s what makes the movie so much fun. The actors throw themselves into the proceedings with abandon and it’s awesome to see them swinging for the fences. Worth noting particularly are Malkovich, who has scenes that require him to go completely insane and drop F-bombs in an awesome manner, and Pitt, who delivers a comedic performance that is quite unique and far outside his norm.
Though the movie is not perfect, and it’s certainly not one of the best movies the Coens have produced, “Burn After Reading” is a wonderful time at the movies, and certainly one of the better comedies released this year. Is there anything these guys can’t do?