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Friday Film Review: Broken Trail

Friday Film Review: Broken Trail

Broken Trail (2006)
Genre: Western
Grade: B+

Ah, the beauty of the West, of a herd of wild horses, of a campfire crackling at night, of a group of young Chinese women being driven to a fate worse than death in a rough hewn mining camp – wait, back up, strike that. Let’s start again. Last fall I reviewed another movie, “Thousand Pieces of Gold,” set in the old west featuring a young Chinese woman who is sold across the Pacific to be a prostitute but who manages to escape and build a better life for herself. At the time, I mentioned that movie reminded me of aspects of this one and now I’ve finally had the time to watch it again and review it.

It’s 1898 and Print Ritter (Robert Duvall) is riding up to a cow camp in Oregon where his estranged nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church) is working. Print brings Tom a letter from his (Tom’s) dead mother and the news that she left Print, her brother, her estate. Print then proposes a plan to square things with Tom. The two of them will round up a herd of wild horses and drive them 800 miles to Wyoming to sell to the government then divide the profits. Seeing a way out of a future becoming a broken down man tending another man’s cattle, Tom agrees.

Still settling into a relationship, the two begin the journey and quickly pick up an itinerant Virginian, Heck Gilpin (Scott Cooper), to help with the herd. A little while later, they come across a suspicious man, Billy Fender (James Russo), driving a wagon full of young Chinese women (Jadyn Wong, Olivia Cheng, Caroline Chan, Gwendoline Yeo, and Valerie Tian). It quickly becomes obvious what he’s driving them to – a mining camp where they’ll be prostitutes – and that he’s already sexually abused one of them. Though the men find him distasteful, their initial plan is just to part ways with him in the morning. Until they wake up to discover he’s drugged them, stolen their horses and left them with the women.

Tom takes Fender’s old horse and tracks the man down, dealing out the Old West justice for a horse thief. But the men are now faced with the question of what to do with the women.
When they try to leave them at the mining town, they discover there’s no law there and are told by Lung Hay (Donald Fong) that slitting the womens’ throats would be a kinder fate. With no other choice, they decide to take the women with them along with an older whore Nola Johns (Greta Scacchi) who’s desperate to get out of town.

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But Big Rump Kate (Rusty Schwimmer) the Madame who paid for the “Celestials” for her business isn’t about to let her investment slip through her fingers and she recruits Ed “Big Ears” Bywaters (Chris Mulkey) to go after them. Will Print and Tom get the horses and the women safely through to Wyoming before Bywaters and his ruffians catch them? And is there any hope for a romantic future for Tom or Print?

At a roughly 3 hour running time, the made for TV movie takes its time – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is time to develop the plot, the characters and their interactions with each other as well as show the magnificent scenery of Alberta, Canada which stands in for Oregon and Wyoming. There’s enough mud for realism and the towns have a rough “just hacked out of the wilderness” quality. The whores don’t wear satin dresses or feathers in their hair while the men’s hats have a nice “broken in” look to them. It’s obvious that the production crew took time to try and get the details right.

Robert Duvall is the obvious star of the show but only because of his great acting and ability to bring out the best in his coworkers. He’s at home on a horse and as Print has a gruff charm that reassures the frightened women who don’t speak a word of English. I figured before things started that he’d be just fine in his role but it’s Haden Church who surprised me. As one person said, he’s come a long way since “Wings.” He’s not trying to play the handsome, younger man role – in fact he looks kind of rough around the edges. The John Wayne quote “Talk low, talk slow and don’t talk too much” describes the character of Tom to a T. But along with his uncle, he’s a decent man who can’t simply abandon these women.

Another thing I like about this film is how it treats the female characters with respect. They aren’t just pale shadows upon whom wrong is done merely to serve as an excuse to goad the men to action. Greta Scacchi, in a wonderful character role, gives Print an unsentimental view of life as an aging prostitute. As the film progresses, she slowly regains her dignity – like a wilted flower given water – and ends up forging her own future. The Chinese women, despite their situation, provide some subtle wry humor as they comment among themselves about these strange men with whom they’ve ended up. I wish there had been more time allotted to differentiate between their characters but as it the two I remember best are Gwendoline Yeo – who goes after a relationship she wants – and Valerie Tian – who plays a woman whose feet were bound and who often has to be carried around. Hell, even Big Rump Kate – you’ll understand the nickname after seeing the movie – is a strong woman who takes nonsense from no man and who is a force to be reckoned with in the area.

The movie is filled with big sprawling scenery but manages to stay focused on the character driven plot. It has a natural, low key feel as the emotions flow from the acting and aren’t forced. I get the feeling that I’m seeing how life really was back in the day when life was still hard for everyone but especially still for women who had few options for survival. There is plenty of violence so be warned. But the chemistry between all the actors is superb and if you’re looking for a Western to sink your teeth into, it’s a film I highly recommend.


REVIEW: Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves

REVIEW: Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves

Bleeding Violet by Dia ReevesDear Ms. Reeves,

I was casually perusing the Book Smugglers' blog when I came across this midyear list of their favorite books of 2010 and saw that Ana had given your debut, Bleeding Violet a grade of perfect 10.

Since the book's genre (YA with a paranormal flavor) is one I enjoy, I looked up Ana's review of Bleeding Violet. The book sounded unusual and well-written, and perfect 10's are a rare event on the Book Smugglers' blog, so I thought I'd give it a try. I downloaded Bleeding Violet from the Sony store to my ebook reader, began to read, and found myself engaged almost immediately.

The truck driver let me off on Lamartine, on the odd side of the street. I felt odd too, standing in the town where my mother lived. For the first seven years of my life, we hadn't even lived on the same continent, and now she waited only a few houses away.

Sixteen year old Hanna Jarvinen arrives in Portero, Texas to reunite with her mother, who isn't expecting her. The town of Portero isn't in any way normal, but then Hanna doesn't feel normal, either. She's not only biracial and bicultural (half African American and half Finn), but also bipolar.

As she approaches her mother's house, Hanna hallucinates her deceased father's voice coaching her on how to deal with her mother. Hanna's mother, Rosalee Price, left Hanna with her father in Finland shortly after Hanna's birth, and Hanna has no memories of Rosalee. But the voice of Hanna's father, Joosef, warns Hanna not to wake her sleeping mother by knocking on her door in the middle of the night.

So, after finding the spare key and letting herself into Rosalee's house, Hanna follows her father's advice to lure Rosalee out of her bedroom with the scent of a grilled cheese sandwich.

My grandma Annikki once told me that anyone who looked on the face of God would instantly fall over dead. Looking at my mother-’for the first time ever-’I wondered if it was because God was beautiful.

To Hanna, who did not resemble her Finnish relatives, Rosalee, who looks much like her, is beyond beautiful. Hanna wants nothing more than her mother's approval and love.

But Rosalee is not pleased to find her daughter in her kitchen instead of in Finland. As she learns that Hanna and her father came to the United States nine years earlier, and that in the last year, Hanna's father passed away, Rosalee notices the bloodstains on Hanna's clothes.

It turns out that Hanna struck her aunt Ulla, with whom she had been living, on her head with a rolling pin during an argument over whether Hanna should be committed to a mental health facility. And that discovery is how Rosalee learns that her teenaged daughter hears voices and is prone to violence.

While Rosalee tries to ascertain just how badly Ulla was injured, Hanna settles into the attic and unpacks her wardrobe of violet dresses. Hanna sews her own clothes, and she is going through a purple phase.

Rosalee does not want Hanna to move in, but Hanna digs in her heels and refuses to leave. And so, Hanna and Rosalee strike a bargain: if Hanna can fit in at Portero's high school and in the town within two weeks, she can remain in Rosalee's house. If not, she will leave.

Hanna is elated and determined to make friends and stay, but there's only one problem: she has never fit in anywhere.

Still, Portero is not anywhere. When Hanna goes to the school, she discovers that it is a very strange place, one where glass statues shaped like students get more attention than newcomers, where nearly everyone wears black clothes and uses earplugs for some mysterious reason, and where Hanna's geometry textbook turns into "A Teen's Guide to Living with Bipolar Disorder" with multiple choice questions like this one:

12. All work and no play makes Hanna ____________.
a. eat Cheerios c. go crazy
b. limp awkwardly d. very sad

At first Hanna thinks she's hallucinating, but then she begins to suspect that that's not exactly the case. The other students refer to Hanna as a "transy," and after school, Hanna asks her mother what the word means.

"A transient." She grabbed an apple for herself and leaned against the picture window, since she couldn't sit with me at the table. "Anything transient. Like a mayfly."

I knew about mayflies, had seen them in action during the slow summers at our lake house in Finland. Huge swarms of them rising like dark mist from the lakes, mating in the air in winged orgiastic abandon, only to flutter back down into the water, drained. Dead. An entire lifetime played out in the space of a few hours.

But what the hell was mayflylike about me?

Since the students treat Hanna with indifference, she decides the quickest way to gain acceptance is to attach herself to a popular boy. The best candidate appears to be Wyatt Ortiga. Unlike everyone else, Wyatt dresses in green. Students seem to hang on his every word. And Hanna finds him attractive, if annoying at times.

As Hanna gets to know him better, she discovers that Wyatt is as far from normal as she is, and that he is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend, Petra. But that doesn't stop Hanna from pursuing him. And Petra, who doesn't seem to be entirely over Wyatt herself, does not discourage this.

Petra grabbed my shoulders, leaning on me again, but this time so she could whisper in my ear. "Do yourself a favor and find someone tough, someone like Wyatt, who'll look after you. You'll thank me." She let me go and rushed off to join Lecy.

Someone tough to look after me?

Petra seemed like a nice girl, not quite the bitch I'd been expecting, but even if I'd wanted to be her friend, her attitude would drive me insane. Did she think this was the fifies? I didn't need some guy to look after me. I could look after myself.

The more Hanna discovers about how dangerous Portero can be, the more determined she is to face its threats head-on. And that means becoming more and more involved with Wyatt, who knows more about those dangers than any other kid in Portero.

Hanna's goal is to win the right to stay with her mother, and more than that, to win Rosalee's love. But with threats abounding from sources both supernatural and natural, what will she discover about Portero, about Wyatt, about Rosalee, and about herself in the process?

Bleeding Violet is one of the freshest and most original books I have read this year. I don't want to reveal too much of what is going on in the story, but the world-building is startling and surreal, and some scenes have a dreamlike, hallucinatory quality.

But as great as the world-building was, what I liked even more was the writing and the characterization. The dialogue was exceptional – snappy, surprising and real, while the narration was full of the contradictions that make Hanna such an interesting character.

Yes, the girl may be prickly, even pugnacious, and she's not above using her boyfriend, but her need for love and her determination to attain respect and acceptance made her indelibly appealing to me.

Hanna's relationship with Wyatt stands out from many of the teen romances I've come across because the two jump into bed pretty quickly. One of the things that impressed me was how much I liked Wyatt despite his difficulty in getting over Petra even after he was sleeping with Hanna. There was decency and goodness in Wyatt that Hanna sensed from the first but which he could not see in himself.

Rosalee was also a memorable character – seemingly cold in her constant rejection of her daughter, but more complex than she appears at first. And many of the side characters stand out too, from Wyatt's fierce mother to the insecure Petra to the objects that should have been inanimate but came to life and acquired a personality.

I have very few criticisms of this book. Although the portrayal of Hanna's illness did not seem realistic to me at first, I quickly realized that that was because of the book's surreal quality. I do feel that at one point, during the ramp up to the book's climax, the supernatural goings on overwhelmed the human conflicts a bit, but that problem quickly righted itself.

Besides that, I have just one gripe, and that is that not about the book itself, but about the typesetting for the electronic edition I read. As mentioned before, I purchased the book from the Sony store, and my copy was peppered with question marks in places where I think there should have been dashes.

But those minor caveats aside, I enjoyed Bleeding Violet enormously. Original, quirky, suspenseful, occasionally funny, romantic, and dramatic – it was all these things and more. A for this one.


Janine Ballard

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