Brave Cowboys, Beautiful Princesses, Noble Horses

I discovered I had a broken link and my review of 2004’s Hidalgo wasn’t available so yesterday I fixed it and in the process reread it and rediscovered Roger Ebert’s review of it, which I think nails it (far better than I did). In fact, his conclusion is a very succinct capsule of all you really need to know:

Whether you like movies like this, only you can say. But if you do not have some secret place in your soul that still responds even a little to brave cowboys, beautiful princesses and noble horses, then you are way too grown up and need to cut back on cable news. And please ignore any tiresome scolds who complain that the movie is not really based on fact. Duh.

I really like this movie and despite my take on it not being the best, I’m putting it up again. Written in 2004:

Hidalgo (2004)

Hidalgo - PosterDirected by Joe Johnston

I don’t quite understand why Hidalgo came and went with little notice, but it did and that’s too bad. I quite liked it. We’ve seen many action-adventure type movies recently that aspire to capturing something of the Indiana Jones movies but it seems to me Hidalgo is one of the few that even comes close to doing that.

Despite modern elements, including computer work, it has some intuitive understanding of the source of the Indian Jones films, old Hollywood B movies. (It does, however, take huge liberties.)

I recall one review I came across that thought the movie would have worked better if the main character, Frank Hopkins played by Viggo Mortensen, had been more of a wisecracking hero. It struck me that the movie must have sailed right over that reviewer’s head.

Had the movie gone that way with the character portrayal we would have had yet another movie with of the endless, cookie-cutter heroes who populate the incessant stream of adventure drek we keep getting. And heaven knows, we have enough of those to last several lifetimes.

Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) tries to tame the horse Hidalgo.
Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) tries to tame the horse Hidalgo.

The review also appears to have missed the strong note of humour running through Hidalgo, perhaps because it’s dry and, sometimes, rather subtle. A wise-cracking Hopkins would have been like playin Hannibal Lector like Inspector Clouseau.

Hidalgo is another of those Hollywood movies that mixes styles – generally, not a good idea given the results we often get.

In some ways, this is a weakness of the film but, that being said, quite often it does work.

The movie tries to be a western and action-adventure film at the same time. This is difficult to pull off because westerns work best with simplicity whereas action-adventure films, while simple in story, are spectacles. Visually, the two genres are at opposite ends of the scale.

Riding Hidalgo.
Riding Hidalgo.

However, Hidalgo gets away with it by and large. I think this is due to a great, understated performance by Viggo Mortensen. To be honest, he and a few of the other actors are a bit better than the movie really deserves. But thanks to them, a movie that’s a little run-of-the-mill becomes something much better.

The story is straightforward: a cowboy, part Indian, part white, is something of a drunkard having hidden the native part of his lineage in order to fit in better.

However, he’s also the cowboy who takes orders to U.S. troops at Wounded Knee Creek, the orders that eventually led to the massacre of natives there.

Burdened by guilt and being someone who lacks an identity – neither Indian nor white, a lost man – he works clownishly in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, living off his reputation as the best long-distance rider.

To cut to the quick: he’s invited to go across the ocean and ride in the great Arab race, The Ocean of Fire, a 3000 mile life-threatening competition. He accepts, and the movie is about the race. And Hopkins is, of course, accompanied by his horse, Hidalgo.

Zuleikha Robinson as Jazira meets Hidalgo.
Zuleikha Robinson as Jazira meets Hidalgo.

While there are certain absurdities to the movie, factual and realistic fallacies, I like Roger Ebert’s take on it.

If you’re familiar with a certain kind of Hollywood movie, if you’ve loved them, these aren’t problems.

They aren’t what the movie is about. It’s about a hero facing obstacles and overcoming them. At the risk of overstatement, it’s mythical in that way. It’s why we like it and why we don’t give a rat’s behind about how likely or “true” it may be.

It’s fun, invigorating and satisfying – the good guy wins.

While largely a fun ride, Hidalgo is about a man discovering himself. It’s a film about redemption. In native terms, the horse Hidalgo acts as a kind of spirit guide for Hopkins, often simply by its presence and tenacity.

I really enjoyed this movie. If I had my way, I would of toned down the action-adventure aspects and played up the western since it captures all the best elements of the genre – the simplicity and the moral tale of a man finding himself, his honour and nobility.

But that’s kind of quibbling. The movie is fun and Mortensen demonstrates that not only can he carry a movie, he is made to carry them.

How one romantic comedy could have been fixed

It doesn’t seem right to call this a romantic comedy but that is how most would refer to it. Probably the most frustrating thing about it is that it could have been a good romantic comedy. It had the ingredients. It had the actors. So what went wrong? Continue reading

Mumford and the art of listening

Below I refer to John Sayles but maybe the movie Mumford is more like Lasse Hallstrom amused and charmed by a Norman Rockwell America. Whatever it is, and despite a few anachronisms, I still find this movie appealing. It has so many actors in it I’ve always liked. Part of its appeal may be that we don’t often see ensemble pieces like this anymore.

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The tall tale of The Mexican

Call it a tall tale, a shaggy dog story or any of the other variations, this is a movie that uses exaggeration and fable to tell a story that centres around another romantic tall tale. And it works much better now, ten or more years later, with distance from the marketing and celebrity media atmosphere that surrounded it when released.

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Pralines and cream: Legally Blonde

Maybe the reason I like this movie so much is because when I first encountered it I was sure I would absolutely hate it. It is such a piece of candy. It is such a piece of Hollywood fluff. It is so like a video … How could I like it? It is so pink!

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Less fun than sobering: Spielberg’s Catch Me

I watched Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can yet again (third time) over the weekend and now I’m back to my original opinion (as opposed to the one expressed below). Despite being promoted as ‘fun,’ and despite the sixties style ‘fun’ animation of the title sequence, this is really a rather somber story of a young man desperate to save his father from a marriage and life that are disintegrating.

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The strange love of movies – Cinema Paradiso

I last watched Cinema Paradiso about ten years ago. I’ve been meaning to watch it again for a long time but two things have held me back: the length (almost three hours — I don’t ever seem to have the time) and what I fear is a problem with my DVD copy. I hate the idea of getting halfway into a movie then finding a problem prevents me from seeing the rest.

But maybe this weekend I’ll overcome these hesitations. I really do want to see this again. For now, my impressions from when I saw it back around 2003 …

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore

My memory is poor, so I really don’t recall the original, theatrical version of Cinema Paradiso. Whether or not the longer version I have (the 2003 DVD release) is better, I’ve no idea. It adds 51 minutes to the film – a 174 minute movie compared to the theatrical release at 123.

This version of Cinema Paradiso is broken into three parts – the main character Salvatore as a child, a young man, and finally as an older man (middle-aged). It begins with a kind of prologue of Salvatore as the older man.

The beautiful opening shot is almost still, like a photograph. Slowly the camera pulls back as the opening credits roll. As we pull back, the image we have is truly a filmmaker’s image: it’s very deliberately staged and framed, and I think we’re supposed to be aware of this. It is still, as if frozen, somewhat like the memories of the character Salvatore.

As the camera continues back, we become aware that we’re looking through a window. Slowly retreating, at one moment it almost looks like a film screen.

But once the credits are over and we’re at the furthest distance of the pull back, we see we’re in a room in a house. Dialogue begins and we see Salvatore’s mother move into the frame. The serene beauty of the opening shot, the staged nostalgic memory (which is what the opening has been) is disrupted by reality of everyday life.

The current reality of this beginning (following the opening shot) establishes the kind of life Salvatore is living as a well-known filmmaker. It shows us a man avoiding his past. It gives us a man disconnected from his personal history and disconnected generally with the humanity around him. He’s isolated, and has chosen to be so.

The beginning also is what leads us into the story as it flashbacks to his life as a child, the film’s first section (following its prologue). It’s significant that we get into his childhood this way because it determines what we see and how we see it: it’s through the older Salvatore’s memory. It’s therefore not necessarily true in an objective sense.

This first part, Salvatore as a child (his memory of it), is generally brightly lit. It’s very open and spacious (compare the town square at the beginning of the film to the car-packed square at the end). In fact, everything here is open except for one thing: Alfredo’s little room in the Cinema Paradiso.

Alfredo, the projectionist at the town of Giancaldo’s movie theatre, the Cinema Paradiso, and who is the key figure in Salvatore’s life, is seemingly imprisoned. With the exception of a few scenes, we almost always see him looking through his window on the square, looking through the small opening in the projection room on the theatre, or loading and unloading reels of film in his cramped projection room. His life is contained by these small confines. He is always an observer. He is never a part of the audience below him in the theatre who seem to be continually chattering and interacting.

Like an image on film limited by the frames, his world is constrained by the walls of his projection room. But as the movie’s opening has shown us, and as demonstrated in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, there is a world beyond the image’s frame (Tori’s mother in the movie’s opening). However much they may delight, or how real they may seem, movie’s are not everything. There is a world beyond them.

In the second part of the movie, Salvatore begins to become like Alfredo, at least this is a choice he is presented with. He takes over the projection booth. But he does have a choice and this is what the second part concerns.

While isolated in the projection booth, he also has a foot in the more tactile and chaotic world of the audience. This is through his relationship with the young woman Elena. In this part of the film, director Guiseppe Tornatore introduces a sexual element – in the films seen in the Cinema Paradiso, in the behavior of the boys of Salvatore’s age, and in Salvatore’s relationship with Elena, though this latter is more romantic in its treatment than sexual.

But the purpose of the sexuality is its relationship to romance and personal connections. It is something that pulls Salvatore away from the isolated world of films into the community of the audience, the town.

Alfredo, knowing this, and sensing the cinematic artist in Salvatore, undermines the relationship between Salvatore and Elena. This action parallels that of the town’s priest who in the first part of the film had been ordering the censoring of all the scenes involving kisses, scenes that suggested intimacy.

Salvatore’s relationship with Elena no longer a possibility, he now leaves the town (the audience). Alfredo not only supports this decision, he prompts it. He tells Salvatore, “You have to go away for a long time, many years, before you can come back and find your people.”

It’s ironic that Alfredo says this as he has never gone away, at least not physically. It could, however, be argued he has left emotionally and spiritually and has yet to return.

This leads to the film’s third part, the movie’s “now.” The older Salvatore finally returns to the town of Giancaldo. He returns for Alfredo’s funeral (who, in a sense, is finally “going away”). For Salvatore, the return is a series of revelations. As he says himself, he has been afraid to return.

One of his biggest discoveries is of Alfredo’s manipulations to keep Salvatore and Elena apart. She did not betray Salvatore, nor he her. It was Alfredo. His reasons were to force Salvatore out to his career as an artist, a famous filmmaker.

The other revelation is the film’s conclusion where Salvatore sits alone in the theatre watching Alfredo’s final gift, a reel of film. It is all the kisses and other intimate moments of human relationships the priest had removed from the movies. It is as if Alfredo is trying to return the part of life he had removed from Alfredo.

In contrast to the film’s beginning, this final section is visually darker and cramped. It is the real part of the film, as opposed to the remembered.

In this final part, we also see the destruction of the theatre, the Cinema Paradiso. While not the destruction of movies, it seems it’s the destruction of the tyranny of fantasy. While painful, it frees Salvatore from the confines imposed by images. It frees him of the prison art imposes and allows him back into life. We see a shot of young people laughing with a youthful sense of fun as they see the destruction of the building. It’s as if the present is clearing away the past so it can live.

The film appears to have two meanings, or at least two intents. In part, it is a loving homage to cinema and what it gives us. At the same time, it is also about the tyranny of art, at least for the artist. It is about what is denied him or her in order to pursue their art. It seems to say, as an artist you can observe life but you cannot be a part of it. You must remain a step removed. And movies are not real. They are moments; they are memories.

I think the film, at least in its extended version, is less a film about a love of cinema than a film about the sacrifices demanded by art. And while it does not provide an answer, I think it also speculates on the relationship between life and art and which has greater value.

The fantastic western of George Pal

You can see a number of actors best known for their television work in the 1960s and 1970s — Tony Randall, Barbara Eden and Arthur O’Connell — in one of the oddest films: 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.

Is it a fantasy? Without a doubt. Is it a western? I think so. Is it good? Umm … well, that’s one I’ll avoid but I’ll say this — I found it entertaining!

7 Faces of Dr. Lao

Directed by George Pal

This movie, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, is peculiar to say the least, and in its peculiarity is a wonderful fantasy that doesn’t make for the greatest film ever made but a delightful one nonetheless.

Once seen, it’s not surprising to find it is directed by George Pal, who gave us such movies as The Time Machine. Based on a novel by Charles G. Finney titled The Circus of Dr. Lao, the movie is an odd cross between a typical western and fantasies like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. (That movie was not directed by Pal.)

I make that comparison because you don’t often come across a western that employs old school animation. I believe it was called claymation.

To begin with, though dressed up in western garb the movie takes its first left turn when its lead character, Dr. Lao played by Tony Randall, shows up. He is Chinese – or is he? His accent changes as the situation demands, deliberately. Dr. Lao has brought his circus to the town of Abilone (and Randall plays all the characters in the circus, including Merlin and the Abominable Snowman).

The story is relatively simple and progresses more or less episodically. Dr. Lao comes to a town and using his circus and magic and stories that teach lessons, reveals the town to itself. In doing so, he saves it from disappearing by selling out to a cynical land baron, Clint Stark played by Arthur O’Connell.

The rich and greedy man trying to buy a town to capitalize on a railroad that will soon be coming is a standard, even cliché western story. This movie would be just another, average version of that story except for its fantasy element. (The movie also has its obligatory love story as a romantic John Ericson tries to woo a resistant and bundled-up school teacher, Barbara Eden.)

Several things make the movie stand out. The first is the unusual use of an Asian as the lead character – something unheard of for the period (1964) and especially so for a western. However, typical of the period, the Asian isn’t Asian – it’s a white Hollywood actor (Tony Randall) doing a characterization of an Asian (which, like Mickey Rooney’s Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, probably makes the hair stand on end for anyone from an Asian country).

On the other hand, as it does this it also suggests that Dr. Lao might not be Asian but rather what is actually the case, a white man mimicking a western world idea of a man from China. So the movie plays it cute and cagey in this repect.

Something else that makes the movie unusual (and mentioned already) is the use of claymation. Who on earth ever heard of that in a western? One result of this is to date the movie. Seen today, the movie either has a nostalgic quality for anyone who grew up seeing these kinds of movies or, for many others, it has a retro, kitsch quality.

For me, the aspect I find truly interesting, and where I think this movie really veers off from its surface western look, is in how the “bad guy,” Stark, isn’t really so bad. His character is as cynical as he is because as a younger man he was so idealistic. In the end, he is happy because he has lost and thus proven wrong. And throughout the movie, he may be the nicest bad guy movies have ever seen. He’s almost always smiling.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao is not a great movie – not by a long shot. But it is very entertaining, moves quickly, and is a more than a little fascinating for its numerous quirks. And as movies go, it’s about retro as retro gets.

John Wayne heads north – booze and brawls ensue

DVD cover for North to AlaskaDirected by Henry Hathaway

This movie, North to Alaska, is a difficult one to account for. I really like it a lot. But I can’t think of a single cinematic merit it has going for it. Essentially, if you don’t like John Wayne’s later movies, especially the comic ones, you won’t likely take to this film. In fact, you may take a strong dislike to it because it’s corny and wildly sentimental. But if you do like John Wayne …

From something I read somewhere on the Web (does it get more definitive or authoritative?), North to Alaska was one of the first, if not the first movie of John Wayne’s later career, the older Duke, as far as his comic films go. Later, there would be films like, Hatari!, Donovan’s Reef (his last with John Ford) and McLintock!.

In this movie, Wayne is teamed with Stuart Granger. They’re Sam (Wayne) and George (Granger), two guys who strike gold in Alaska. Both are elated, George so much so he sends Sam to Seattle to bring back his fiancé, Jennie. Unfortunately, in Seattle Sam discovers she’s already married. She wasn’t nearly as serious about the engagement as George was. Sam, determined not to see his friend disappointed, brings back a saloon dancer instead, Capucine (Michelle Bonet).

There are, of course, complications. For instance, Sam and Capucine fall in love, complicating Sam’s determination to take care of his friend. And there’s Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs), a scoundrel looking for ways of cheating Sam and George out of their claim.

In the middle of all this there is a good deal of brawling between the boys of the Alaskan town (including Sam and George), as well as romantic gamesmanship between Sam and Capucine.

In the end, it’s romantic fantasy – an Alaska that didn’t exist (except in the most broadly interpreted sense) and a feisty and unlikely romance. But realism wasn’t what they were going for. It’s intended as escapist entertainment. So you never see the reality of brawling like that or of drinking that way.

On that basis, it’s a fairly engaging film and pretty well succeeds at what it aims to do. It may come across as somewhat anachronistic to anyone who didn’t grow up with John Wayne movies. The sensibility is definitely not contemporary.

If this was the first of the later John Wayne comic films, it’s easy to see the template established: a bit of “battle of the sexes” romance, a lot of phony-baloney brawling and a good deal of drinking that appears to have only brief ill-effects, and only if the plot calls for it.

It’s fantasy but it’s fun. Movies like this are really about giving the audience the John Wayne they expect, in situations that underline the image, and doing it in a light-hearted way. In a way, it’s a bit like teasing a beloved friend or relative.

Yes, I think that’s what I’d say these movies are: light-hearted teasing of the John Wayne image that underscores just how beloved he was.

2½ stars out of 4.