A low key pleasure
By Lady Liberty
** 1/2 out of ****
It was pure happenstance that I stumbled on some positive reviews for The Proposition. With a budget apparently sadly lacking in publicity funding, I might otherwise have ignored it entirely when it quietly showed up at a local movie venue. But bolstered by those few reviews, I determined not to let the opportunity pass me by.
The Proposition takes place in the Australian outback of the 19th century. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to our own "Old West" of that time. It's dirty, dry, and dusty, and it's a long way from the civilized world of larger cities or, better still, Europe. The territory — and thus the movie — is sparsely populated with ne'er do wells and outright villains as well as ruthless lawmen and prim and proper women.
Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is one of the villains. Only recently splintered away from his older brother and the leader of the notorious Burns Gang, Charlie and his younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson) are on their own when they're captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), a military man charged with imposing the law on the unruly territory. Stanley is no idiot. He's well aware that the eldest Burns brother is the real leader of the gang. In the wake of a particularly vicious rape and murder, Stanley is willing to deal if he can get his hands on the man he really wants.
Stanley tells Charlie he has a proposition for him. He'll keep Mikey captive and hang him on Christmas Day, two weeks hence. Unless, that is, Charlie will agree to seek out his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and kill him. With little choice in the matter, Charlie accepts a horse, a gun, and the captain's proposition. Mikey, meanwhile, is wheeled away in a cage on wheels to await the fate his brother holds in his hands.
Captain Stanley's own small piece of civilization is waiting for him when he returns to his base: his wife, Martha (Emily Watson) has done her level best to make and keep a genteel home for her beleaguered husband. Local governor Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) sorely intrudes on Stanley's authority both at home and on the job, however, with his unceasing demands that the soldiers tame the territory, and that they do it now. While Mikey suffers in his cell and Charlie seeks his brother, all that Stanley can do is mark the days off on his calendar and try to counsel Fletcher to patience.
The Proposition involves a deceptively simple plot and a misleadingly low key beginning. Even in the midst of the gun battle during which Stanley captures the two youngest Burns brothers, there's somehow little suspense. But like I said, it's misleading. I spent the first 15 minutes or so of the movie convincing myself to stay by noting that, "Well, at least the cinematography is spectacular!" (It is.) But not long after that, I discovered I was thoroughly immersed in the tale being told.
Guy Pearce is very, very good, but he's helped more than a little by the incredible authenticity of the make-up (his teeth alone are enough to give you pause), the costumes (hand made by costumers for added realism), and the sets. Ray Winstone hits just the right note of a man possessed of conflicting hope, resignation, unbearable responsibility, and loss; Danny Burns is spectacular and truly terrifying as a loving brother who quite literally feels nothing for any outside his close family circle. And that I wanted to shoot David Wenham myself (despite the fact I adored him as the Lord of the Rings' Faramir) tells you what a terrific job he did as the smarmy Fletcher.
The direction is low key, just as is required to make some of the more shocking and violent scenes as shocking as they need to be for effect; the script might have been punched up a little, but likely suits the characters and the time best as is. I didn't really like the ending; I didn't really like most of the characters much, either. And yet I can't stop thinking about them or the way each was forced to live, either via circumstances or their own unheeding choices. The Proposition genuinely proves greater than the sum of its parts, even though a few of those parts are considerable in and of themselves.
I can't recommend The Proposition for all since it's unquestionably going to prove a bit of an acquired taste. But if you like westerns and don't mind graphic violence, or if you appreciate the hallmarks of very good movie-making (from costumes to cinematography, The Proposition is an example of very, very good indeed), you might find The Proposition one you won't regret having accepted for yourself.
POLITICAL NOTES: The overt lies and intentionally false promises made by government authorities in the film — all for the good of the decent citizens, of course — are awful enough within context. But when you consider how little some things have changed, well, the punishments endured by Mikey and the gloating pleasure taken in those punishments by Fletcher are even more abominable than they might otherwise be. Simply because we don't (mostly, anyway) engage in active torture any more doesn't make comparable officials any less the scum than Fletcher was.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Proposition is rated R for "strong grisly violence and for language." The violence is, indeed, grisly, and I can't recommend that anyone under about the age of 16 see the film as a result. In fact, those who don't have strong stomachs would also be well advised to stay away. But for the rest of you, well, like I said, The Proposition is an acquired taste. But as disturbing as I found much of the movie myself, I must say that I'm also glad to have acquired it for myself.
* 1/2 out of ****
With the incessant publicity of The Break-Up coupled with the non-stop media attention of Jennifer Aniston in the wake of "Brangelina's" new baby, it was tough to think of The Break-Up as anything but the movie to see this weekend. Unfortunately, despite the extraordinary attention the film garnered, it proved a very ordinary movie indeed.
When Gary Grobowski (Vince Vaughn) first sees Brooke Meyers (Jennifer Aniston), he immediately determines he must meet and woo her. With a combination of self-deprecating humor and a quick wit, he does so successfully and the two become a couple. Now fast forward to today, when their relationship is steady enough for the pair to have bought a condo together, but beginning to show some strain at the seams.
Gary, who makes a living operating a Chicago tour guide service with his two brothers, wants only to watch sports and have "quiet time" when he gets home from work. Brooke, who also works hard as a sales rep for an art gallery, would just appreciate a little help from Gary with her many domestic chores. The apparently long time feud erupts in earnest after the pair have a dinner party for their respective families.
Gary walks out in a huff and heads for the bar where his best friend, Johnny (Jon Favreau) works; Brooke, meanwhile, gets on the phone with her own best friend, Addie (Joey Lauren Adams). Both complain bitterly, but already the stereotypical differing emotional viewpoints of men and women is obvious. Brooke hopes the fight and her threats of a break-up will get Gary to change; Gary tells Johnny that Brooke has broken up with him and it's over even as Johnny encourages him to move on.
Throughout the balance of the movie, Gary and Brooke negotiate their way through their break-up with the support — and the obstacles — represented by their friends. Gary's younger brother Lupus (Cole Hauser) pushes him to get back into the singles scene; his older brother, Dennis (Vincent D'Onofrio) would just appreciate it if Gary would get past his personal problems to hold up his end of business obligations. Meanwhile, Brooke cries on the shoulder of Christopher (Justin Long), the receptionist at the Marilyn Dean Gallery, and eventually gets advice from Marilyn (Judy Davis) herself.
But when Johnny confronts Gary, when a friend and their realtor (Justin Bateman) offers advice neither wants to hear, and when Brooke is asked out by a young and handsome — not to mention rich — art lover (Ivan Sergei), is there any hope left for their broken relationship? And when their friends are forced to take sides and even their much-loved condo comes up for discussion and custody battles, is it already too late?
Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston are both just fine, especially in the passion of their fight scenes (while the two do have some onscreen chemistry, it's no comparison to that exhibited by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — and what chemistry there is is unfortunately at its peak during those aforementioned fight scenes). The supporting cast is also good, particularly Judy Davis. What's not so impressive is the script.
The Break-Up is billed as a comedy, and it's not funny. In fact, to anybody who's ever endured a break-up — and who among us hasn't? — it's actually realistic enough at times that it will probably prove a little painful to watch. Unfortunately, despite those moments of realism, in its efforts to be a comedy it also proves much too lightweight to be a serious drama. In the end, it's unsatisfying on a variety of levels, almost as if the movie remains unfinished somehow — and the only thing you lament more than its unfinished state is the fact that you really don't care. (Coincidentally, previous reports say that test audiences didn't like the ending of the movie, and so it was changed. You can actually see the original end and then the tacked-on new ending, and trust me: yes, the old ending was singularly unsatisfying, but the new one isn't much of an improvement.)
I wanted to like The Break-Up, not least because I really like Vince Vaughn and because I think Jennifer Aniston deserves a hit. Unfortunately, their reward is apparently going to have to be the real life relationship they established when they filmed the movie because the resulting film isn't going to give either of them what they both were aiming for.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Break-Up is rated PG-13 for "sexual content, some nudity, and language." The sexual content is minimal; the nudity is all but non-existent; and the language isn't all that bad. That being said, the circumstances are so adult that younger kids aren't going to have anything at all to relate to within the context of the story. If nothing else, the movie does have that much going for it, at least for anyone who's loved — and lost — in an adult relationship. But being unsuccessful as a comedy, and being a woefully inappropriate choice as a date movie, The Break-Up frankly doesn't have much of a built-in audience in any age group.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.