Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ode to a Ballad: "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" (1983)

Entertaining western with a contemporary, unbiased mind set.

Taking place in 1901 Gonzalez, Texas, Gregorio Cortez is a Mexican on the run after being involved in not one but three different murders of some Texas law enforcement personnel. While cut and dried from the Texans' point of view, Cortez's full story of what happened remains to be heard. Edward James Olmos does a great job as Cortez. He does not speak English, and the film makers wisely do not subtitle his Mexican conversations, adding to the confusion of Cortez's crimes. He is confronted by a racist deputy and a sheriff, who accuse him of stealing a horse. Cortez's brother is shot and the sheriff is killed in a bizarre, confused shootout that sends Cortez to a friendly ranch worker's home. There, a posse attacks the house Cortez is in, and two more men are shot and killed. Cortez's brother dies as well.

Bruce McGill plays a San Antonio reporter who rides with the posse, and begins to get Cortez's story, as seen by the Texas Rangers. While the flashbacks to the killings are not along the lines of "Rashomon," they serve to illustrate the Texans' side well. As Cortez is caught and put on trial, he is represented by Barry Corbin, who finds out what really happened and tries to get his client off.

The film makers here do something very unexpected for this type of film- they show us that Cortez is neither a martyr or a saint. Cortez's side of the initial murder is not much different from the deputy's. The shooting started over a misunderstood translation between the deputy and Cortez and escalated.

Cortez's family is locked up in order to flush him out, and civil liberties are broken all over the place. Eventually, thanks to a end credits crawl, we find out Cortez was in and out of the courtroom many times as a result of these crimes.

The film opens with Cortez running, and a bunch of white guys chasing him, and bodies being returned to families, and I had no idea what was going on for the first ten minutes of the film.

Eventually, things begin to click, and Young's sure direction keeps it going. The cast is full of character actors whose names you do not immediately recognize but whose faces you have watched for years. Even Ned Beatty has a rather unnecessary cameo near the end.

If you are expecting another politically correct allegory about the plight of the Mexican in turn of the century Texas, you need to look elsewhere. This revisionist western shows us both sides of murder, and how both sides are at fault. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Billy Bob, You Can Turn Down Film Roles, You Know: "The Badge" (2002)

Billy Bob Thornton plays Darl, a sheriff in a backwater Louisiana town who investigates a murder with plenty of suspects. The film also suffers from too many players.

The opening credits indicate over half a dozen companies and ELEVEN executive producers contributed to the making of "The Badge," and it shows. The film is a mess. Thornton investigates the murder of a transsexual found shot to death in the swamp. The transsexual's wife, Scarlet (Patricia Arquette) comes to town to claim the body, and knows right away Darl does not have a chance of solving this crime.

Darl has other subplots on his hands (take a breath): his daughter is a goth running with the wrong crowd, his ex-wife (Sela Ward) is the district attorney cozying up to the governor running for reelection, his father is a gun toting drunk and former sheriff, his brother (Thomas Haden Church) is gay and Darl helped run him out of town, he is sleeping with one of his deputy's wives, he knows the local bar waitress is not 21, he steals merchandise from wrecked semis and hands it out to townspeople, his judge/mentor (William Devane) has him around his little finger, a former lover (Julie Hagerty) is a born again Christian trying to stop Devane's new area casino, another deputy is recruited to run against him for sheriff, and he cannot find his sunglasses (whew!). Darl and Scarlet investigate, running into one of those conspiracies that can only happen in the movies, or the Nixon administration, and the killer is eventually unmasked.

The heaviness of all these characters weighed on me like a four meat deep dish frozen pizza. I did not take notes about each and every character because that would mean transcribing the entire film's dialogue, and they really do not matter once everything is said and done. Robby Henson (not Benson) has written a top heavy script filled with homages (or borrowed ideas) from films like "Affliction," "The Crying Game," "Flawless," and every episode of "Law & Order" ever made, with a little John Grisham thriller added for spice. If he had trimmed even three or four of these people, the film would have been tighter. Henson's direction has a nice look to it, but he eventually succumbs to speeding up and slowing down his footage arbitrarily, which annoys me to no end. Here is a question I always have about these types of films: If the central cop is always so crooked, and decides the film's central murder is the one time he can redeem himself, why don't the conspirators pay him off to look the other way before he gets an attack of conscience?

The main reason this is not a one star review rests in the sure hands of Thornton and Arquette. Thornton is so sincere and humble in his role, you cannot help but feel for Darl. We watch his life collapse around him (he is dropped from the reelection ticket and falsely accused of statutory rape) and we do sympathize. Arquette's Scarlet is a woman who has lived this life in love with a transsexual, but finds the taunts and violence still hurt. Both actors do an outstanding job, and almost pull the picture off.

"The Badge" is written like a foul mouthed two hour episode of "In the Heat of the Night" meets "The Dukes of Hazzard." Yeah, neither one of those shows ever worked well, either. (* *) out of five stars.