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Thursday, July 18

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Airbags

For the record, my column's absence last week marked my first-ever "time off" from my weekly movie musings on this site. Stupid storm! Anyway, if all goes according to plan, by the time you read this, we should be nicely settled in our new temporary dwelling, and I'll be fully back in the swings of screenings. As a result of all the disaster-related activity, I've missed a few films opening this weekend, most devastatingly Shoot 'Em Up, which the studios opted to screen at 9pm on a Tuesday night. I know for a fact, they screened this about two weeks ago for certain "VIP critics," but once again online dudes get the shaft. But we still have a couple a choice offerings this week. It's good to be back.

3:10 To Yuma

There are going to be a lot of critics picking apart director James Mangold's (Copland, Walk The Line) transcendent remake of 3:10 To Yuma in an effort to tell you what it's really about. I have my own theories on this as well, which we'll get to in a minute. But the mere fact that so many wizened men and women (and a few goofballs as well) are spending so much bandwidth, ink and broadcast time analyzing this movie should tell you something: this is a film worth diving into and really investing your time and energy deconstructing. Or you can simply sit back and let the blood, dust, sweat and bullets wash over you, helping you remember what truly loving a Western is all about.

Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 To Yuma would not be as solid an effort without this particular cast (this exact cast, actually). And while many people will focus on the fine work put forth by Russell Crowe as the captured outlaw Ben Wade, I was able to anticipate exactly how Crowe would play this role. In the context of this story, Wade is a legend thanks to cheap pulp novels of the time read by young boys all over the country. He's about the swagger and the gallows humor, and as played by Crowe, Wade issues the same smile for every clever turn of phrase as he does for every man he kills. He's always the smartest man in the room, as well as the most charming and dangerous. When I say I was able to predict how Crowe would play Wade, I didn't mean that as a criticism. He absolutely makes this character one of his most memorable. But when compared to how Christian Bale plays the other lead in the film, Dan Evans, Bale comes across as more a man of mystery than Crowe could ever pull off.

I said I'd give you my two cents on what 3:10 To Yuma is really about. It's about the lengths a father will go to gain (or regain) the respect of his son. The father in this scenario is Evans, a soldier in the Civil War who lost part of his foot, a failure as a farmer, and a sad excuse for a role model in the eyes of his oldest boy Will (Logan Lerman). Will is one of those young men I mentioned who worships the adventures and courage of a man like Ben Wade. And when Will and Wade first meet, Will is star-struck into silence, and Wade knows exactly why and uses that to get under Dan's skin.

The plot of this film only matters slightly. Wade is caught shortly after he and his gang have pulled off a major armored stagecoach robbery (complete with many dead would-be heroes). A posse of lawmen (including Peter Fonda, Dallas Roberts and Alan Tudyk in a nice turn as a doctor) is charged with escorting Wade to a railroad station and putting him on the titular train to the Yuma Prison. Wade's gang (including the fierce Charlie Prince, played by Alpha Dog's Ben Foster) is out to stop this from happening. Dan Evans volunteers to act as the law's best shooter because he needs the cash to save his dying farm. Against his wife's (Gretchen Mol) wishes, he makes the dangerous trip in the hopes of appearing like something resembling a hero to Will and the rest of his family after so many years of feeling like less than a man. The set up is deceptively simple.

As exciting and blood soaked as the film's various gun fights are, 3:10 To Yuma's real strengths lie in what happens when the bullets aren't flying. Crowe watches how the men guarding him move and think; he's gauges their personalities in two seconds and knows exactly what to say and when to say it to get a rise out of them and make them slip up somehow. Dan doesn't have any particular hatred of this outlaw, but he does find himself in disbelief when son Will is discovered following his gang, not to be with him but to observe and admire Wade. The dynamic between these three characters lies at the heart of this film, and it makes the ending so incredibly satisfying and appropriate. Bale plays Dan Evans as a solemn, thoughtful man of few words, but there is a person of no small intelligence racing around behind his eyes. Bale is on a near-perfect acting roll since 2000's American Psycho, which was followed by Shaft, Equilibrium, The Machinist, Batman Begins, Harsh Times, The Prestige, The New World and Rescue Dawn earlier this year. The guy is one of the greatest actors working right now, and I'm always curious about his approach to each new role. He plays Dan Evans as the last man on earth you'd consider a hero, and that makes his actions and motives all the more impressive.

On a purely visceral level, 3:10 To Yuma is equally awesome. The gun battles are quick, loud, bloody and executed with no frills. This is what I've always liked about James Mangold as a director; his style (more like anti-style) is to let the story tell itself and not try and overwhelm an audience with too many wild camera tricks and artsy flare. He makes it seem like he's just filming what's happening rather than making his movies feel stagy or rehearsed. Cap off the quality filmmaking with a memorable score by Marco Beltrami, and you've got yourself a great way to kiss a summer largely without substance goodbye. Ignore the talk about "The Return of the Western," and consider 3:10 To Yuma a return to films that make you think about violence in a way most escapist action films don't. This is a film of substance that still manages to be about as entertaining as anything I've seen this year. It's also a great chance to see these two acting giants play against each other in unexpected ways and create an uneasy partnership that is greater than the sum of its parts.

To read my interview with Christian Bale, visit Ain't It Cool News.

The Hottest State

I'm not exactly sure whose corn flakes Ethan Hawke pissed in, but the response I've been reading so far to his latest film as a director has been kind surprisingly negative. Based on his own novel, The Hottest State might not have intrigued me as much on the printed page, but the film is a sexy, emotionally charged and sincere view of first love between a would-be actor and a young singer in New York City that rings more true than any crappy romantic comedy I've seen in the last 10 years. By actually taking its whirlwind romance seriously, the film manages to actually earn our emotional investment and not make us feel like we or the characters are idiots.

Rising talent Mark Webber steps into the role of William (essentially Hawke in his younger days), where he lives a life with no money or connections in the city. Laura Linney plays his little-seen mother, who has little to offer him beyond criticism of his lifestyle. Seen mostly in flashbacks, Hawke plays William's long-gone father, who fell in love with his mom in a passionate yet short-lived love affair. William meets Sara (played by Maria Full of Grace star Catalina Sandino Moreno), a lovely but elusive singer. The two have an odd courtship that culminates in an extended (mostly naked) stay in a Mexican hotel room. What impressed me so much about Hawke's handling of this material is that he absolutely captures that fleeting, must-do-everything-now feeling you get with a new love. It's like you're on deadline, time is running out, because you sense that soon the intensity will die and what you're left with will either be a lifetime commitment or the kind of hatred for someone you can only feel for someone whom you once loved immensely.

Webber and Moreno have a seductive quality together, but they also play the nervous innocents quite believably. Their conversations are about nothing most of the time, but they still convey a love and passion that is remarkable. Hawke has painted the portrait of a young, broke couple that believes all they need is each other, but eventually discovers that maybe the each need a little something more than the other can provide. The heartbreak and emotional low points are a little too realistic. Ethan Hawke has impressed me as an actor for many years now, but it wasn't until this movie (following his 2001 feature Chelsea Walls) that he also has moved me as a filmmaker. The Hottest State never shies away from the foolishness and pain of young love, but it also captures a time and place so well that it's clear it could only come from someone who experienced these journeys personally.

Hatchet

After a summer's worth of anticipation (and longer for some), I can finally report to you that writer-director Adam Green's blood-splattered, maniac-in-the-woods (or in this case, the swamp) feature Hatchet is finally hitting theaters a week after the sadly underwhelming Halloween remake bored and confused us all last weekend. Barring any kind of miracle, Hatchet probably won't make a fraction of the money that Rob Zombie's film did, and that's a shame. Hatchet is spirited, depraved and gory beyond belief. Green has studied his works of '80s horror and, rather than borrowing from them, has captured their mood and threat level to a note-perfection. He sometimes tries too hard to make the film funny when it should be scary, and his style has room for improvement, but as a drive-in-ready series of nasty-ass killings, Hatchet works perfectly.

Set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, the plot follows a group of boozed-up horn dogs on the prowl for loose women and more beer. The sole buzzkill is Ben (Joel David Moore), who was recently dumped by his girlfriend. Rather than perform the duties of the consummate poon hound, he decides he'd rather go on a haunted boat cruise through the swamps. He convinces his friend Marcus (Deon Richmond) to go with him, and in one of the film's more annoying aspects, Marcus never fucking shuts up about what a mistake it was going with Ben. Without going into too much detail (there aren't too many genuine surprises in Hatchet, so I don't want to give away too much), the dudes end up on a boat with a collection of would-be porn stars and their director; an elderly couple; a sulking woman named Marybeth (Tamara Feldman); and an obnoxious tour guide/captain. The gang eventually arrives at the rundown cabin once belonging to Victor Crowley, a young disfigured man who was burned and accidentally slashed through the face with an axe by his father (Kane Hodder, who also plays the grown-up Crowley). Legend has it that, the ghost of Crowley still stalks the swamps taking out his revenge on the world that killed him, or some shit like that. Let's get to the killing, motherfuckers!

Green successfully sets up the Crowley legend in the spirit and style of the notorious murdering madmen before him. He doesn't hide Crowley from us for long, and once the killings begin, you almost have to beg for them to stop. For what I'm assuming was a small budget, the quality of the slaughtering is handled beautifully. The cameos by the likes of Robert Englund and Tony Todd are fun, but they don't really add much to proceedings. Green's strengths lie in giving us what we demand from horror films that claim to follow the old-school slasher film mentality. It's all here. Hatchet is filled with ample amounts of boobs, scares, blood and guts. I was actually a bit stunning that the film managed to land an R rating, and I can't wait to see what the unrated DVD (assuming there is one) will spew forth.

Almost as much as I liked the film, I like that a filmmaker like Adam Green exists. He's someone who gives me hope that there's at least one crazy bastard who gets it, who knows how to deliver on a type of film where so many others in recent years have let us down. Hatchet is far from a masterpiece, but it does act as a herald to what I'm praying will be many more films from Green that seek to make us soil our shorts in fear and revulsion. Hatchet is both a promise and the first step toward fulfilling that promise from Green to horror fans everywhere.

Exiled

I first saw this last February as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's Hong Kong! Film Festival, and my love for it as a razor-sharp, tough-as-nails, laser-guided action masterwork has not waned even a little bit. Director Johnnie To's latest, Exiled, is another in a long line of his works exploring both the dark and humorous elements of the Hong Kong underworld, filled with crime bosses, hitmen and maybe a few thousand bullets thrown in for laughs.

A group of assassins convenes at the home of a childhood friend, who owes their Triad boss money. Some are there to kill him; others are there to stop him from being killed. The group (which includes the soon-to-be-dead man) decides to commit one big score before the execution to ensure the target's wife and newborn are left with plenty of money. The superstar cast includes Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and Francis Ng. Director To fills Exiled with energy, richly drawn characters and more firepower and tension than most can stand. But he also finds the time to allow these men to reflect on (and often regret) their chosen lives, while never losing sight of the fact that there's a job that needs getting done without the boss finding out that the intended target is still alive for the time being. With no shortage of visual flare and brooding, stylish criminal types, Exiled is among To's finest and most epic offerings. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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