Good morning, and what a fine week it is for new releases here inside the Vault. There are a couple of crime dramas that rate as average and above average along with a couple decent re-releases of some 1940s classics.
The average crime drama, and probably the release you’ve most likely heard about this week, is “Firewall.”
In it, Harrison Ford portrays a security expert forced to rob a bank he’s been hired to protect in order to pay off his family’s ransom. I suppose the times are ripe for a computer hacker crime thriller, but I can’t help thinking about Ron Howard and Mel “Gimme back my son!” Gibson’s “Ransom” back in 1996. That movie started out with a good premise and blew it by giving way to convention. Word is that “Firewall” doesn’t go much further, but it is Harrison Ford, who is watchable in anything. It’s rated PG-13 and goes 105 minutes and gets middling to above middling marks.
The better than average crime drama this week is “Running Scared.” Paul Walker portrays Joey Gazelle – Get it? Running? Gazelle? – a low-level mob flunky whose job entails getting rid of guns used in mob executions. When the gun used in the killing of a police officer goes missing, Joey has got to take it on the lamb from cops and crooks alike. It’s rated R and goes 122 minutes and looks like a slightly better bet.
The re-issues this week include the family friendly Disney classic, “Dumbo,” and a pretty good John Ford/John Wayne flick, “The Long Voyage Home.” “Dumbo” is a tasty hour-long morsel about a circus elephant who longs for a baby. When the stork finally delivers, the baby elephant of the title has the embarrassing deformity of freakishly oversized ears. It’s a great family film and well worth watching if you’ve never seen it.
“Voyage” is among a number of The Duke’s reissues in recent weeks but it doesn’t stand up as your average John Wayne movie.
Wayne is but a member of a good ensemble cast combining four one-act plays by Eugene O’neill concerning life on the high seas. Still, the enduring Ford / Wayne team is great for outstanding frames and evocative shots that linger in the mind’s eye. Nominated for six Academy Awards, it aint “True Grit,” but it’ll do.
This week’s pick hit, though, is a true western from an unlikely source.
“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”
2005: Tommy Lee Jones
Rated R – 121 minutes
Vault Rating: 8
When somebody as cool as Tommy Lee Jones decides to direct and star in a modern western you just kind of know you’re getting into something good. And in these days of U.S. reinforcements being sent to guard the southern border, a story about a cowboy trying to sneak a dead Mexican back across the border is ironic, poignant and humorous in turns, and entertaining throughout.
The “modern western” of late, depending on your point of view, has been trashed or glorified by films like “Brokeback Mountain,” which uses the form to take on social issues. One could argue that Mr. Jones is also using the genre to push an issue, but I disagree. I get all of the entertainment and very little of the political end of the six shooter here.
Jones plays Pete Perkins, who is a flinty rancher in the classic mold. He’s got a deeply lined face and speaks plainly in sentences that John Steinbeck would adore. He is alone in the world but for a roadworthy waitress – played amiably by Melissa Leo – and his best friend, Melquiades Estrada.
Estrada, played by Julio Cedillo, is an illegal immigrant who shows up at the ranch one day looking for work and winds up staying. By the time we get to know him he’s raising goats on a small patch of remote but suitable border ground. Estrada is kindly and soft-spoken and, through a series of get-to-know-you vignettes, we begin to sense a depth of companionship between Estrada and Perkins. Being illegal, Estrada has few friends and confides to Perkins that, if he should die, he would like to be buried south of the Rio Grande, “Where there are less billboards.”
This deep friendship and code of honor drives the whole movie. Out of duty to his friend, Perkins is obligated to see Estrada buried in his home town. But sneaking a dead illegal back into Mexico is no easy thing. For one, there is the border patrol to consider, especially given the questions surrounding Estrada’s death.
The border patrolman, played by Barry Pepper, is painted in less than flattering tones. He’s well armed, drives a desert worthy patrol vehicle and spends his days with porno mags on the lone prairie. He’s from Ohio and he’s brought his hot, bored and luckless wife along to live in a mobil home on a barren plot of dirt. Rather than waste away, she strikes up a relationship with Rachel, the aforementioned waitress, who, shall we say, has connections.
Perkins compels an unlikely and highly reticent assistant to help him on the dangerous journey, by horseback, through the arid western landscape. The escapades on this journey over high cliffs, into rattlesnake dens and on sleep-overs at a blind man’s decaying shack are unusual and thought provoking.
This film, like all good westerns, is about a man’s word, some misdeeds and maybe a shot at redemption. The film, which simply oozes loneliness, refuses to wrap up lose ends, which I found very pleasant. The principals’ lives are changed at the end of the day and another story might just as well begin where this one concludes.
Go now, and pull this fine film off the new release rack. You can thank me in the VaultMail.
WORTH A LOOK FOR THE WEEK OF 6/6/06:
“Glory Road”: In 1966, Texas Western coach Don Haskins led the first all black starting line-up for a college basketball team to the NCAA national championship. 2006 – Drama / Sport – Rated PG, 106 mins.
“Jesus is Magic”: Comedienne Sarah Silverman goes places you wouldn’t think of going in her narrative digressions on sex, race, politics, and more. She’d better be funny after getting her picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone. 2005 – Comedy – 72 mins.
“The Wings of Eagles”: Director John Ford offers a sentimental biography of his friend, Navy flier turned screenwriter, Frank W. Wead. Stars John Wayne in the only movie in which The Duke appeared without his toupee, as “Spig” Wead. Also stars Maureen O’Hara. 1957 – Drama / War – 110 mins.
“Straight into Darkness”: Two American soldiers lost in the winter forests of WWII Europe desert their unit in search of a physical and mental escape from war. When they stumble upon a church they make a grisly discovery and find something else to fight for. 2005 – Action / War -Rated R – 95 min.
OTHER NEW RELEASES:
Other films released to video this week include “Underworld Evolution.” If you liked “Underworld” … and I certainly didn’t … here’s more vampires versus werewolves. Stars Kate Beckinsale. “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is another horror film drawn from the marvelously creepy writing of H.P. Lovecraft, whose gifts don’t always translate to the big screen. “Like Mike 2” is the story of another kid with hoop dreams who finds an old pair of Michael Jordan’s sneakers. “Maid of Honor” is a thriller that may or may not have you guessing who the killer is. Anna Paquin narrates “Joan of Arc,” a television docudrama on the life of Saint Joan.
Hey! You’re welcome. And so are your comments. Drop a line to us in the VaultMail at email@example.com and we’ll include your comments in the regular VaultMail feature. And until Tommy Lee Jones is no longer cool … Enjoy!