Destry Rides Again (B). I wasn’t sure what to expect from this 1939 Western starring Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation) and Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution)—I had never heard anything about it and saw it pretty much on a whim. But I must say that I rather enjoyed it—much more than the Dietrich movies in “The Glamour Collection” that I watched so long ago. It’s rather tongue-in-cheek, as Westerns go. It’s set in a typical rough-and-tumble Western town, with a typical villain, his typical gang of ruffians, and an atypical saloon songbird named Frenchie (Dietrich) who helps the villain fleece people in crooked card games. When the town’s sheriff disappears under not-very-mysterious circumstances, the new sheriff sends for assistance in the person of Tom Destry (Stewart), son of a well-known lawman now deceased. But Destry quickly becomes a town laughingstock when he refuses even to carry a gun. Can he defeat the bad guys with nothing more than his wits? And maybe woo Frenchie on the side? It’s sort of goofy, but enjoyable. Worth a look, especially since it’s only 95 minutes long!
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (B). Well, I’m trying to get back into the swing of regular moviegoing, so I decided to see if the Magnolia Theater is still running its classic-movie series on Tuesday nights. Lo, it is, and I caught this 1969 Western this past Tuesday. I had never seen it before and still don’t quite know what to make of it. It stars Paul Newman (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Robert Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as the outlaws of the film’s title, and as best I can tell from extensive Wikipedia research the movie is actually fairly true to history. It’s the late 1890s, and Butch, the Kid, and their Hole in the Wall gang are making a living robbing banks and trains—until they irritate some big plutocrat and he hires a very dangerous posse to bring them to justice. So, in the interest of self-preservation, they make some unusual career choices after that. Although IMDB.com categorizes the film as “Biography, Crime, Drama,” it has a strong comedic element, with Newman providing lots of amusing dialogue, Redford being amusingly laconic, and an oddly jaunty soundtrack playing in the background. (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” won an Oscar.) And yet, there is quite a bit of shooting and killing, albeit with very little blood visible. Katharine Ross of The Graduate fame drops in for a while as the Kid’s love interest, but Butch shows more interest in her than the Kid ever does, and really this movie is a bromance between Butch and the Kid from start to finish.
Anyway, the film held my interest, but I still think it’s kind of an odd bird. It’s #73 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest American movies, so I guess it’s a classic.
Forsaken (B). Well, I’ll be gob-smacked! It’s only February, and this is the second brand-new Western I have seen this year! Anyhoo, this movie seems very reminiscent of Shane. John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland, Pompeii) comes riding back into his old home town some years after the end of the Civil War. His dear old maw has passed away, and his pacifist preacher dad (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games) is none too proud of the famous gunslinger his son has become since the War. Their reunion is rocky, to say the least. Meanwhile, a mean old rattlesnake named McCurdy (Brian Cox, Troy) is buying up local farms in advance of the railroad’s arrival, and farmers who won’t sell out to McCurdy often come down with a bad case of lead poisoning, if you get my meaning. John Henry could be just the man to even out the playing field, but unfortunately for the farmers, he’s trying to put his old ways aside in order to please his paw. Michael Wincott (The Doors) almost steals the show as McCurdy’s top gunslinger, Gentleman Dave. Oh, and Demi Moore (Mortal Thoughts) has a couple of scenes as John Henry’s old sweetie from before the War. It’s not the most original story line, but I still enjoyed it.
Jane Got a Gun (B-). No, this isn’t a movie based on the 1989 Aerosmith tune. It’s an even more unlikely concoction—a Western starring Natalie Portman (Closer) as the heroine and Ewan McGregor (Down With Love) as the bad guy. Truly, I expected it to be terrible, like the recent Western Sweetwater. But instead it turned out to be not half bad, like the recent Western The Homesman. The set-up is nicely formulaic: Natalie’s husband comes riding up to their dusty New Mexico homestead all shot up, and he barely has the strength to warn her that the Bishop Boys are coming. So Natalie has to convince a surly neighbor with whom she has a past to help her fight off the evil varmints that are riding her way and will probably arrive around High Noon. The numerous flashbacks that fill us in on the backstory kind of bog the movie down, but eventually the movie picks up steam and gives us the shoot-em-up we’ve been waiting for. Worth a look, if you like oaters.
Shane (C). I guess this is considered a classic Western—and it got six Academy Award nominations—but I didn’t think it was anything special. Shane (Alan Ladd, The Great Gatsby (1949)) is a wandering gunfighter who accidentally wanders into a Wyoming range war between a big rancher named Ryker and a bunch of homesteaders who want to fence and farm the valley. Shane throws his lot in with the sodbusters, led by stalwart Joe Starrett (Van Heflin, 3:10 to Yuma (1957)), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur, You Can’t Take It With You), and his annoying son Joey (Brandon De Wilde, Hud). A very young Jack Palance (City Slickers) got a supporting-actor nomination for his performance as an evil gunslinger the rancher brings to town to deal with the farmers. Roger Ebert calls it a great movie, but I thought it was only passable.
The Homesman (B). Westerns are such exotic creatures, I like to try to see them whenever a new one is released. Of course, they are frequently terrible, like the January Jones vehicle Sweetwater, but I admire directors who try to breathe life into this wheezy old genre. I assumed this one would be laughably bad from the capsule reviews I read: Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough-as-nails farmer in the Nebraska Territory who agrees to transport three pioneer women back East because the three have gone stark raving mad from the tragedies and hardships of life on the frontier. It turned out to be not half bad. Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black 3) directs and co-stars as a crusty old ne’er-do-well who agrees to help Cuddy attempt the six-week trek through dangerous and desolate Indian country. Swank gives a brave performance as a lonely 31-year-old spinster who gets told to her face, more than once, that she is a very plain-looking woman, and bossy to boot. It’s a pretty grim tale, with some moments of dark humor to lighten (?) the mood. I’d give it a higher grade but for a serious twist that seemed pretty unlikely to me. You’ll be impressed at how many famous actors Jones persuaded to be in his pic, including Meryl Streep (Hope Springs), John Lithgow (Interstellar), James Spader (Lincoln), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), and Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer (Frances Ha) plays one of the crazy women.
The Big Trees (D). Another day, another dollar DVD. Alas, it was still a waste of money. This is a 1952 release starring Kirk Douglas (A Letter to Three Wives) as Jim Fallon, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century con man whose racket is lumber, of all things. The ins and outs of his scam were lost on me, but basically he goes to northern California with an eye to making a killing by logging the mighty redwoods through some shady but barely legal shenanigans. There he discovers that a large community of peaceful Quaker-types is already living in the woods, including the lovely Widow Chadwick (Eve Miller, April in Paris). He gets set to kick them out and take the lumber, but then a second gang of lumber thieves wants a piece of the action, and they’re really mean. Kirk Douglas exudes charisma, but he can’t save this pedestrian quasi-Western. Alan “Skipper” Hale of Gilligan’s Island fame has a bit part as one of Fallon’s cronies. You’ll probably never have a chance to see this movie, but if you do, be sure to skip it.
Sweetwater (D-). I can hardly believe it when a new Western gets made, and when a new Western stars January Jones (TV’s Mad Men) as a reformed prostitute turned Avenging Angel of Death, I pretty much feel obliged to see it. Clearly, my sense of obligation is misplaced. Jacob Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) plays a psychopathic religious leader (does Hollywood know of any other kind?) out in the wild wastelands of frontier-era New Mexico. Ed Harris (The Third Miracle) plays a loony lawman sent by the governor to find out if his niece’s husband disappeared on account of foul play. (Hint: Yes, he did.) And Jones plays Sarah Ramirez, a bad girl gone straight who just wants to be left alone with her nice husband on their poor dirt farm. The movie is very violent, features some squalid and explicit sex, and is generally repulsive. Only Jones’s impressive rampage for revenge at the end generates some suspense and saves this movie from the F it probably deserves.
The Lone Ranger (B+). Why is so much hate getting dumped on this movie? I thought it was a perfectly good action/adventure movie, and any movie that can keep me entertained for 2 1/2 hours has to have something going for it. Armie Hammer (The Social Network) has charisma to burn in the title role, and Johnny Depp (The Rum Diary) plays Tonto as a sort of anti-Jack Sparrow: impassive and laconic, but with flashes of acerbic wit. The two team up after Hammer’s lawman John Reid is nearly killed in an ambush, but their partnership is basically one of convenience; they argue constantly as they pursue their separate but related paths of vengeance. The big fight scenes are well done, the main villain is an appropriately leprous-looking varmint played by William Fichtner (Blades of Glory), and there are a few sporadic scenes of surpassing weirdness apparently just to shake things up. Seriously, I do not understand why this movie has been panned so badly or why it has done so poorly at the box office. Do take the PG-13 rating seriously; it is pretty violent at times.
Man of the West (B). This 1958 Western stars Gary Cooper (High Noon) as Link Jones, a former outlaw who has gone straight and made a new life for himself. On a trip to Fort Worth, his train is held up by bandits, and he and two other passengers get left behind when the train makes its getaway. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, Jones and his comrades fall in with the train robbers—who turn out to be members of Jones’s old outlaw gang, headed by the psychopathic Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb, The Exorcist). Jones has no choice but to agree to help the gang with a bank heist. A pretty good movie, but it’s no High Noon.
Epic movies provide us with sights and sounds that are unshakeable. These sights and sounds pop into our minds when we are on an elevator or waiting at a red light, even if the movie was not in our consciousness at the time. Django Unchained is one of those movies. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film deals with the heaviest of all subject matters: slavery in the United States pre-Civil War. Jamie Foxx stars as Django, who is a recently freed slave. Django helps a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) look for three fugitives from justice. Their travels lead them all over the south, including to a notorious plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). While Tarantino made the movie into a western in a nod to the spaghetti westerns, he does not take a lighthearted approach to its subject matter. This movie is not for the faint of heart because of its violence, subject matter, language, and images. Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio, and several other stars are all exceptional. However, the true star of the movie is Tarantino. As the film’s director, he took things to another level and provided us with images and sounds that we will never forget. GRADE: A.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (B). This 1966 release is a great, sprawling Western — two hours and forty minutes long in the DVD version I picked up (from “The Best of Eastwood” collection). The film is set during the Civil War. Three men who operate on the wrong side of the law are all on the trail of $200,000 in stolen Confederate gold. Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) is a laconic figure known only by the nickname “Blondie.” Eli Wallach (The Holiday) plays Tuco, a flamboyant but ruthless Mexican bandit. And Lee Van Cleef (Escape from New York) plays the implacably villainous Sentenza, a/k/a Angel Eyes. The movie takes a good long time before the Confederate gold plot really kicks in. Blondie and Tuco start out as uneasy partners in a bounty-hunting scam, then become enemies, and end up uneasy allies again when each gets a different clue to where the Confederate gold is hidden. The gold hunters cross and re-cross Civil War battle lines, encountering some memorable figures along the way. There’s a sojourn at a monastery where Tuco’s brother is a priest. And of course there’s a big showdown when the three outlaws get close to the gold. The movie was too long for my own good, but I can’t deny that it generally held my interest.
True Grit (A). I am unfamiliar with the book and the John Wayne version of this movie, so I had no preconceived notions–except that I would probably like this movie because I’ve liked everything I’ve seen by the Coen brothers for a long time. (I still don’t get Barton Fink, though.) Obviously, I thoroughly liked this movie. Hailee Steinfeld is wonderful as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl whose father has just been murdered in 1870s Fort Smith, Arkansas (on the border with the Indian Territory). Smart and determined, she persuades broken-down federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, Tron) to pursue the murderer into the Indian Territory for the promise of a $100 reward. Matt Damon (The Informant!) plays LaBoeuf, a Texas ranger who’s tracking the same guy for a crime he committed in Texas. The dialogue is strangely elevated, almost like a Whit Stillman film, but it somehow seems right. Mayhem is never far away as they track the villainous Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, The Goonies). Good stuff!
True Grit (A-). I’ll resist the urge to compare this film to the original starring John Wayne–mainly because it’s been too long since I saw the original version. I confess, however, that I was prepared to boycott this film because it seems wrong to push John Wayne deeper into the shadows by making another movie from the book. But when I saw the cast and directors, I couldn’t resist the lure to see it.
This 2010 film is very entertaining. A big part of what makes this movie so good is the witty dialogue. One of my favorite lines is delivered by spitfire Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) after Leboeuf stakes a claim to the outlaw Tom Cheney by telling Ross that he’s been pursuing Cheney hither and yon for a very long time: “Why have you ineffectually been pursuing Cheney?” But even good dialogue needs the actors capable of delivering it, and this film obviously has that, with Jeff Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn, Damon as the boasting bounty hunter from Texas, and Josh Brolin as the outlaw Tom Cheney, who killed Ross’s father. Relative newcomer Steinfeld rounds out the cast and proves that she’s an equal to her co-stars. If there is one weakness in this film, it comes at the end when you see a grown-up version of Mattie Ross. The grown-up version doesn’t really match what you’d expect Mattie to become as an adult. But this is a minor point.
I recommend seeing this film. You’ll be glad you did. I was.
The Tall T (B). I bought a five-pack of movies called “The Films of Budd Boetticher” based on a favorable review I saw in Entertainment Weekly magazine. They are all old Westerns starring the mountainous Randolph Scott, and this is the first one in the collection. It’s a 1957 flick in which Scott plays Pat Brennan, a solitary fellow who’s trying to scratch out a living on a poor ranch somewhere. After he loses his horse in a bet, he bums a ride on a stagecoach carrying a newlywed couple. But the stage is held up by three bloodthirsty outlaws. They shoot the stagecoach driver and take the other three hostage. Can Brennan get himself and the other hostages out of this scrape? It’s a surprisingly effective little movie, and I quite enjoyed it. It looked great on The Borg Queen’s 55-inch TV too. Makes me look forward to the other movies in the collection.
Deadwood. Season 1 (12 episodes). When it comes to television dramas, HBO has set the bar extremely high with The Sopranos and The Wire. Deadwood did not disappoint. It was not an instant classic like those two other shows, but the show was memorable, captivating, and entertaining. It was often shocking because of the violence and profanity, but it seemed very realistic, despite being a western.
The show is about a town in uncharted territory in the north midwest in 1876 after the Civil War and during a bonanza gold rush. The inhabitants of the camp range from businessmen from the east to prospectors to prostitutes to rustlers to criminals. The Town is at the crossroads of loving its freedoms with wanting to be annexed by the United States. There are over twenty characters, but the show focuses on two primary characters: virtuous Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant) and scheming, diabolical, maniacal, greedy, and nefarious Al Swearengen (exceptionally played by Ian McShane).
Reviewing a television show is not like reviewing a movie. A television drama is more like a novel with a series of story lines and many complex characters. A show can go in a thousand different directions with no end in sight. Deadwood is like that. It takes you on a journey that provides no inclination of where it might end or how its characters will turn out or even survive. Just be prepared to be shocked, entertained, infuriated, and overwhelmed along the way.
Bleacher Bum Grading Scale: Homerun, Triple, Double, Single, Strikeout
Garden of Evil (C+). This was the last of a trio of Westerns I bought as a package, along with Rawhide and The Gunfighter. It is only a middling movie, but I must say it looked great on The Borg Queen’s giant HD TV. It was filmed in Cinemascope, which I gather was some sort of ultra-widescreen format. Anyway, three Americans are stranded in sleepy Mexican village when the ship they are traveling on blows its engine. There’s the mysterious and laconic Westerner (Gary Cooper, High Noon), the voluble gambler Fiske (Richard Widmark, How the West Was Won), and the hot-headed young bounty hunter Daly (Cameron Mitchell, Death of a Salesman). Then the lovely Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward, Rawhide) bursts onto the scene, promising scads of money to anyone who will travel with her into the Mexican wilderness to help her rescue her injured husband (Hugh Marlowe, The Day the Earth Stood Still) from a collapsed gold mine. The three Americans, plus one Mexican fellow, sign on for the journey deep into the territory of the deadly Apache Indians. Drama and adventure, more or less, ensue. It’s not particularly believable, but the scenery is nice, and it’s hard not to like Cooper and Hayward.
Rawhide (C-). This 1951 Western starring Tyrone Power (The Sun Also Rises) and the lovely Susan Hayward (Garden of Evil) just wasn’t very good. The setting: a stagecoach station somewhere in the remote wilderness, manned by a grizzled old hand and tenderfoot Tom Owens (Power). A stagecoach stops for lunch; its passengers include Vinnie Holt (Hayward) and her infant niece, whom she is taking back East. But word arrives that four outlaws are on the loose in the vicinity, and company policy forbids the transport of children under such circumstances, so Holt and her niece are stranded at the station. After the stagecoach leaves, the outlaws show up, led by George Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe, The Day the Earth Stood Still), with a plan to rob the next gold-laden stagecoach passing through from California. The grizzled old hand is quickly dispatched, and for the rest of the movie we wonder whether Tom and Vinnie will survive the inevitable showdown with the outlaws. Personally, I couldn’t be bothered to wonder very hard about it.
The Gunfighter (B). According to Entertainment Weekly, this is a classic Western (1950) only recently released on DVD, so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a pretty good little movie. Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) stars as Jimmy Ringo, a famous outlaw and gunslinger who, at 35, has grown tired of his life of notoriety. He seeks out his long-estranged wife in the frontier town of Cayenne, but he finds he cannot easily leave the past behind. Hot-headed young guns want to test their mettle against him, and others seek revenge against him for past crimes, real or imagined. Having grown up knowing Gregory Peck only from his portrayal of Atticus Finch, I doubted his ability to play a fast-draw cowboy, but he turns in a surprisingly believable performance. And at 85 minutes, the film doesn’t dawdle much. I also liked the short featurette “The Western Grows Up.”
Riding Shotgun (C-). This Randolph Scott flick was only marginally better than the other two in this three-movie collection of mine. He plays Larry DeLong, a hired gun who “rides shotgun” to protect stagecoaches from bandits. He gets tricked into leaving his post, and a stagecoach gets ambushed, and when he finally makes it into town himself, everybody in town suspects him of being a decoy sent by the robbers. Most of the movie consists of scenes where he’s holed up in a bar and the townspeople are all outside wanting to lynch him. It really doesn’t make much sense, but there’s a decent little twist at the end that elevates this movie from a D+ to a C-.
Thunder Over the Plains (D+). This is the second in a three-movie collection of Westerns starring Randolph Scott (The Man Behind the Gun). I already reviewed and panned The Man Behind the Gun, and this is one is no better. A lengthy voice-over narration explains that our setting is Texas, 1869. The good citizens of Texas chafe under martial law and the greedy carpetbaggers. Randolph Scott plays Army Captain David Porter, whose duty to uphold the law conflicts with his natural sympathies with his fellow Texans. Nothing of much interest happens except when Army reinforcements arrive, including a fresh-faced young captain who wastes no time trying to make time with Porter’s unhappy wife Norah (Phyllis Kirk, House of Wax). There are a couple of amusing scenes where Scott is either chasing someone or being chased, but the editing is so bad you never have any idea where the pursuer and the pursued are in relation to each other. Finally, a special shout out to Elisha Cook, Jr., who plays a tax agent in this movie but went on to win great acclaim in a guest spot on Star Trek as a crotchety old lawyer named Samuel T. Cogley.
The Man Behind the Gun (C-). Back in the day, Randolph Scott was apparently a pretty popular Western movie star. Today, he is apparently largely forgotten. Personally, I had never heard of him until I read an essay that praised of some of his movies for their moral ambiguity. (The essay also pointed out a scene in Blazing Saddles that would have sailed over my head, in which the heroes invoke Randolph Scott to shame the cowardly townspeople.) Anyhoo, I found a cheap DVD of three of Scott’s movies. This, the first one, is not very good. Scott plays an Army major sent to southern California on a secret mission to prevent that part of the state from seceding and becoming a slave state. It’s just so-so. But props to a young and skinny Alan Hale, Jr. as one’s of Scott’s sidekicks, before he went on to fame and fortune as the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island. and somewhat less fame in The Giant Spider Invasion.
Appaloosa (C+). Ed Harris (The Human Stain) directs and stars in this new Western also featuring ViggoMortensen (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and Renee Zellweger (Cold Mountain). Harris and Mortensen are long-time pardners Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, out riding the range. We soon come to learn that they are lawmen for hire–when a town sprouts up too far from civilization and gets menaced by forces of evil too big for local law enforcement, it hires Virgil and Everett, who are handy with shooting irons and learned everything they know about law enforcement by watching Gene Hackman’s character in Unforgiven. So they get hired by the town of Appaloosa in the New Mexico Territory to deal with a low-down varmint named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, Dungeons & Dragons) and his gang. But long about that same time, a pretty little widow-woman named Mrs. French moves to Appaloosa and turns Virgil’s head. Adventures ensue. It is a good-looking movie, and you can almost feel the grit of the blowing dust down the streets of Appaloosa, but the story is just not all that gripping. I didn’t even recognize pasty ol‘ Lance Henriksen, the android Bishop from Aliens, as another gunslinger that Virgil ‘n’ Everett have to deal with.
High Noon -Turner Classic Movies – High Noon is an American classic movie and western. It was released in 1952. On the day he gets married and hangs up his badge, lawman Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) is told that a man he sent to prison years before, Frank Miller, is returning on the noon train to exact his revenge. Having initially decided to leave with his new spouse, Will decides he must go back and face Miller. However, when he seeks the help of the townspeople he has protected for so long, they turn their backs on him. It seems Kane may have to face Miller alone, as well as the rest of Miller’s gang.
I was influenced to watch this movie by Bill Clinton. When Clinton left office, he was asked in an interview what movie would you advise George W. Bush to watch to prepare for being President of the United States. Clinton said that he would recommend High Noon. Now, I see why. Gary Cooper is terrific. He is literally scared to death, but his fear takes a back seat to do the right thing. However, doing the right thing is replaced by a sense of loneliness when he can’t get anyone to help him, including his friends. Cooper’s face tells the entire story. And his look at the end is priceless.
Bleacher Bum Movie Scale: Homerun, Triple, Double, Single, Strikeout
Stagecoach (B). Some John Wayne movies are coming out on DVD now, and you can get them at Sam’s Wholesale dirt cheap. That is how I came to watch this, my very first John Wayne movie. Considering that it was released in 1939, it holds up remarkably well. Several people are traveling west on a stagecoach. As they approach Apache country, they learn that they are losing their Army escort, and they decide to proceed without it even though Geromino is reportedly on the warpath. One of the company is The Ringo Kid (Wayne), who intends to get revenge on the murderous Plummer gang if the stagecoach reaches its destination. A good film, and it features a remarkable stunt in which a stuntman falls under the team of horses and gets passed over by the stagecoach itself. (There’s an homage to that stunt in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I believe).