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A satisfying Down Under Western and a depressing doc.

"The Proposition", "Who Killed the Electric Car?" 

The Proposition (R), directed by John Hillcoat, opens Friday, August 4, at Little Theatres and Movies 10 | Who Killed the Electric Car?(PG), directed by Chris Paine, opens Friday, August 4, at Little Theatres and Pittsford Cinema.

Operating within and without the law

A dusty and violent 19th century frontier; the encroachment of the modern into the traditional; and the wholesale subjugation of indigenous people by those less brown are just a few of the themes that identify the film genre known as the Western, widely touted as a uniquely American breed. But if you go as west as you can on this continent and then paddle a bit wester, you'll hit Australia, a country that experienced many of the same growing pains we did and possibly the only other place on Earth that could host a true Western.

Set in the Australian outback of the 1880s, The Proposition is a beautifully bleak slice of cinema that takes its title from an offer extended from a lawman to an outlaw. As the film opens a hideout is being riddled with bullets, and in the aftermath Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone, Cold Mountain) makes a deal with prisoner Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, Memento) that sends Charlie after the head of bloodthirsty older brother Arthur (Danny Huston, The Constant Gardener) in exchange for the life of terrified little brother Mikey, due to be hanged nine days hence.

While Charlie searches the remote parts for Arthur and his henchpeople, Stanley stays in town to sate the revenge-minded townsfolk, including slimy superior Eden Fletcher (David Wenham, Faramir from the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Stanley's brutal everyday life is in stark contrast to the genteel domesticity he tries to enjoy with well-bred wife Martha (the peerless Emily Watson, always looking as though she's about to spill all of her secrets), and he's relatively successful at keeping his differing existences separate, until one day when business brutally mixes with pleasure.

Pearce effectively recycles his gaunt and haunted look from (guilty pleasure alert!) the awesome cannibal period piece Ravenous, and though he gets top billing here, his ethereal presence is no match for character actors extraordinaire Winstone and Huston. Both men play against type, with Winstone tempering his gravelly growl and imposing physicality to channel a decent man trying to bring order to a place in desperate need of it, and my new crush Huston finally able to unleash the ferocious allure only hinted at in repressed roles like 21 Grams and Birth as sadistic Irish fugitive Arthur. And yes, that's Noah Taylor (The Life Aquatic) getting plugged in the opening firefight.

The perfect cast is enough to recommend The Proposition --- I didn't even mention John Hurt's flawlessly hammy cameo (hameo?) as a dignified bounty hunter --- but the attention received by the film is mostly due to its screenwriter, iconic Australian musician NickCave. Director John Hillcoat basically takes the darkness that defines the music of the famously macabre Cave (fittingly, he also co-composed the film's superbly evocative score) and lets it simmer in the scorching Australian sun, resulting in a vision of defiant violence and gritty despair. It's certainly not the feel-good movie of the year, but it's one of the best thus far.

Last summer's documentaries were a collection of inspiring tales (Mad Hot Ballroom, March of the Penguins, Murderball), while this summer's nonfiction offerings seem to be designed to blind us with rage before propelling us into a debilitating depression. Hot on the heels of An Inconvenient Truth and The Road to Guantanamo is Who Killed the Electric Car?, a scathing indictment recounting the shocking shortsightedness of the government, corporations, and you.

Director Chris Paine frames his filmmaking debut as a sort of murder mystery, using both celebrities (we'll miss you, Mel Gibson!) and actual smart people to relate the story of the invention and subsequent massacre of the battery-powered car. As narrated in bedtime-story cadence by Martin Sheen, General Motors was the first of the big automakers out of the gate with the EV1, a sleek and rechargeable little number designed to comply with the California Air Resources Board's emission mandates. This made the oil industry understandably nervous, and since the powers-that-be are snugly in bed with the cartels, the electric car never really stood a chance.

But while Big Oil is the obvious suspect, it's not the only one. Who Killed the Electric Car?runs down a list of those responsible for the green vehicle's demise, including the hydrogen fuel cell contingent (though the use of this technology is still far off) and regular ol' Americans consumers, our initial indifference resulting in unprofitability for the automakers. None of this sounds too anger-inducing, until GM calls in the leases on every single one of their electric cars and then brazenly flattens them, a fitting image to illustrate the waste and insensitivity that define this country to much of the world.

  • A satisfying Down Under Western and a depressing doc.

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