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June 4th, 2009
An Idle Word: More men’s movies

An Idle Word: A column

As promised, I am expanding on my column last week, which was prompted by my friend and regular Mercury commentator Charles Sims on his outrage over Esquire’s magazine’s recent list of “75 Movie Every Man Must See”, and it’s omissions, notably “The Wild Bunch.”

I was almost tempted to interrupt my chain of thought (a frequent habit) because of my fascination with the Republican Party’s suicide attack on the Sotomayor Supreme Court appointment. But my fellow Mercury columnist and most national commentators have covered that so thoroughly, I decided to leave the issue to the warring kings and return to idle words.

As promised I wanted to comment on two movies, one of which I described as “chick friendly” and the other as “family fare.”

Turns out the “chick friendly” movie is actually on Esquire’s list, but it is decidedly more than a “man’s movie” even though the framework is that of a murder mystery.

It is a movie every Texan should see. The movie is John Sayles’ 1996 “Lone Star” in which Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey received top billing.

The real star of the movie however is an actor who you’ve probably seen in numerous great performances but have trouble recalling his name—Chris Cooper (American Beauty, Breach, Adaptation).

Cooper plays the sheriff of South Texas border town (the movie was filmed in Eagle Pass) who was appointed to the job when his father, the “legendary” Sheriff Buddy Deeds died.

Due to changing demographics, Sam Deeds is likely to be the last Anglo sheriff—his Hispanic chief deputy plans to run for the job—and Sam isn’t too fazed by the prospect. Living in the shadow of a legend is no easy life.

When the film opens, two soldiers out metal detecting in the brush lands around the nearby Army base for old bullets, discover a Masonic ring instead and it’s attached to the finger of a skeleton. Sam arrives on the scene and a badge is found near the body.

Texas State University even gets sort of a plug as Sam tells the soldiers, “I’ve got the forensics fellow coming down from San Marcos.”

Most troubling for the sheriff is that the body was the victim of gunshots and is likely to be Charlie Wade, the Sheriff who disappeared, along with $10,000 from the county treasury, in the late 1950’s,clearing the way for Chief Deputy Buddy Deeds to assume the post and begin his legend.

The movie cuts from the present to the Fifties throughout as Sam wrestles with the distinct possibility that his father launched his political career by murdering his predecessor.

The young Buddy Deeds is portrayed by McConauhey while old lefty Kristofferson, playing completely against type, portrays the racist, corrupt, brutal Charlie Wade—a “bribes or bullets sheriff” as Buddy’s fellow deputy Hollis Pogue, now the town mayor and chief keeper of the Buddy Deeds flame, describes him.

It seems that on the night Wade disappeared he and Buddy had a very public, near violent argument in the local Mexican restaurant when Buddy informed him that he was not going to include being a bagman as part of his duties.

So, yes, it’s a murder mystery and a damn good one at that. But like “The Wild Bunch” the real themes are much different.

While investigating the crime, Sam encounters his old girlfriend from high school Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), newly divorced and returned to her hometown to teach. Their youthful interracial romance was forcefully opposed by both Buddy Deeds and Pilar’s widowed mother, now a city council member who remains hostile to the possibility of a rekindling of their romance.

Meanwhile, the proprietor of the town’s African-American nightspot faces the probability of going out of business, when the military base’s commander, his own son who believes his father abandoned him, threatens to declare the club off-limits to his soldiers, Otis’ chief clientele.

So while this may be a mystery, it’s really about modern relationships—between races, fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. And being a John Sayles’ movie means that the dialog is brilliant,–heartbreaking one minute, gut-busting laughter the next.

In his 2000 collection of magazine pieces, the great Texas ‘’literary outlaw” Gary Cartwright includes an article on Kristofferson and describes “Lone Star” as the best movie of 1996 and the best movie about Texas since “Hud.” I like it better.

And even with the great themes of the movies, it succeeds as a murder mystery with a great twist solution.

Charley tells me that my selection of “Secondhand Lions” is pretty corny and I guess I have to admit he’s right. But being Southern, I’ve always had an affinity for corn and any movie that stars Robert Duvall and Michael Caine has got to have something going for it.

Even though there aren’t lines of the quality of “I love the smell of napalm on the morning,’ Duvall is still Duvall and the man brings something special to every role he plays.

In this, he and Caine are eccentric bachelor brothers living in a ramshackle monstrosity of a farmhouse in 1960’s Texas surrounded by signs discouraging outsiders and sitting on their front porch surrounded by dogs and shooting at travelling salesmen who ignore the signs—except for those few who have something that really interests them like a clay pigeon thrower, a biplane or the retired circus animal that gives the movie its title.

They are forced to take on new responsibilities when their nephew (Haley Joel Osment now cured of seeing dead people) is sent by his strumpet mother to live with them. She really has a secret agenda, hoping that her son will discover a fortune they are rumored to have stored away.

Local lore has it that the brothers are old-time bank robbers who escaped the long arm of the law. Caine fills the shy youth’s head with tall tales of the brothers’ adventures as members of the French Foreign Legion and his brother’s swashbuckling adventures, making off both with an Arab Sheik’s true love and a large amount of his riches.

At any rate, the brothers seem to have enough money for their curious recreations and other great passion, red meat—lots of red meat.

Like William Holden in “The Wild Bunch,” Duvall though is haunted by the belief that he is a man who has outlived his time—particularly when he’s stricken with a mild heart attack.

Nonetheless, within the hour after his hospital release he’s is a local roadhouse devouring a plate of ribs when he’s hassled by a group of four leathered jacketed punks who want a sample of the ribs from the “old man.”

After cleaning house with them, Duvall drives them back to the farm to apply red meat (always plenty of that) to their battered faces and is then closely observed by his nephew as he gives them a departing lecture. Caine informs them that he’ s giving them “his what every boy needs to know about being a man speech” arousing the youth’s curiosity.

He finally gets to hear a portion of the speech near the end and yeah it’s corny. But Duvall corn is better than most actors’ caviar. I’ll rather you hear it from his own lips but a summation it would be that “men should believe in things worth believing in—honor, courage and virtual mean everything and power and money nothing.”

“Sometimes, things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most,” he counsels, promising more as the youth approaches manhood.

Charlie, we’re going to have to agree to disagree about this one. It is corny, it is heartwarming but despite all that I still love it.

Now enough of the movies until Rush Limbaugh narrates the sequel to “March of the Penguins”—“March of the Lemmings.

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