Saturday, October 5, 2013

Wyatt Earp

Year 5, Day 277 + 278 - 10/4 + 10/5/13 - Movie #1,558

BEFORE: The "other" Wyatt Earp film tonight - released in 1994, the year following "Tombstone" - so once again there must have been two Hollywood studios working on a nearly-identical topic at the same time.  Which one ripped off the other's idea?  Linking from "Tombstone", Billy Bob Thornton was also in "The Alamo" with Dennis Quaid, as I saw earlier this week.  Quaid played Sam Houston in that film, but tonight he's Doc Holliday.

THE PLOT: The good times and the bad times of one of the West's most famous individuals.

AFTER: Another long running time - three hours plus, so once again I'm splitting a film over two nights.  I simply must get some more sleep on weeknights.  Thursday night (Fri. am) I watched right up until the point where Wyatt Earp moved to Tombstone, then I picked up the rest of the film on Friday night (Sat. am).  This film decided to portray all aspects of Earp's life, from young boyhood on.

And that's where it made me feel lazy, as a product of modern culture.  Back in the 1800's, it seems like people worked harder, or at least did more physical jobs, on the whole.  Plus the whole frontier was opened up in front of them, so everything seemed possible, and ambition was rewarded.  Heard there might be some riverboat jobs down in Missouri, and if that doesn't work out, I'll head up to Kansas and open a saloon, or maybe I'll strike out for Arizona and open a silver mine.  Heck, I can always make a few dollars in the meantime shooting buffalo and skinning them by hand.

Meanwhile, I feel like I'm exhausted after a day of just answering e-mails.   God, I'm lazy and out of shape.  Actually, I am called upon to do physical labor from time to time, mostly during the two weeks of Comic-Cons, in San Diego and New York.   But since I don't get much exercise the rest of the year, each week just wears me out and I need another week after to recover.

Anyway, back to "Wyatt Earp".  The longer running time also allowed the film to take a stab at metaphor, something there wasn't much time for in "Tombstone".  When Wyatt Earp made an early attempt at being a boxing referee, I couldn't help but see that as a foreshadowing of his lawman career.  When you're the one in charge of settling an argument, or judging a fight, there's always going to be one person who doesn't agree with the judge's call, and will hold him responsible for it.

Also, when Earp was working as a buffalo skinner, and the buffalo were pretty easy to shoot - it seemed like a foreshadowing of Earp's "Renegade Ride", his less-than-legal attempt to rid Tombstone of the outlaw Cowboys gang by tracking them all down and shooting them on sight.

But how do the two films compare with each other?  Sure, one does a better job detailing Earp's life before Tombstone, and the other does a better job detailing the shootout at the O.K. Corral, so I don't know - you may want to watch the first half of "Wyatt Earp" to get his background, then switch over to the other film to get a better handle on that fateful day.  If you don't mind Kevin Costner turning into Kurt Russell and Dennis Quaid turning into Val Kilmer, that is.

"Wyatt Earp" also has a strange ending sequence, with Wyatt and his second wife on a boat in Alaska, and a young man recognizing him and telling him a story of how he supposedly saved his uncle's life.  This is shown in flashback, but since Earp neither confirms nor denies the story, it's tough to see why it was included, especially out of sequence.  Was this just a device to use the leftover footage that didn't seem to fit in anywhere else?  Or does this serve to emphasize Earp's belief in the legal system, after a sequence where he completely disregards it?

Also starring Kevin Costner (last seen in "Tin Cup"), Gene Hackman (last seen in "Under Fire"), Michael Madsen (last seen in "Die Another Day"), Mark Harmon (last seen in "Natural Born Killers"), Jeff Fahey, Bill Pullman (last seen in "The Accidental Tourist"), Tom Sizemore (last seen in "Striking Distance"), Isabella Rossellini (last seen in "Wild at Heart"), Catherine O'Hara (last heard in "Bartok the Magnificent"), JoBeth Williams (last seen in "The Big Chill"), Mare Winningham, Joanna Going, David Andrews, James Gammon (last seen in "Cold Mountain"), Rex Linn, Adam Baldwin (last seen in "How to Make an American Quilt"), Annabeth Gish, Jim Caviezel (last seen in "The Final Cut"), with cameos from Karen Grassle, Tea Leoni (last seen in "Fun With Dick and Jane"), Betty Buckley.

RATING: 5 out of 10 cups of coffee

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Year 5, Day 276 -10/3/13 - Movie #1,557

BEFORE: From Texas to North Carolina to California to Arizona - I feel like I'm on my World Tour from late last year all over again.  But I don't think these films were even part of my list back then.  Linking from "The Claim", Wes Bentley was in a 2013 film called "Pioneer" with Stephen Lang (last seen in "Guilty as Sin").  Which sounds like another Western, but apparently it wasn't.

THE PLOT: A successful lawman's plans to retire anonymously in Tombstone, Arizona, are disrupted by the kind of outlaws he was famous for eliminating.

AFTER: This is it, the classic story of a Western shootout - you know, the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona?  Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday against the Clantons, McLaurys and Billy Claiborne in 1881, the most famous 30-second gunfight in the American West.  This is not cowboys vs. Mexicans, or even cowboys vs. Indians, this is lawmen vs. "cowboys" - in this film, cowboys is a bad word, nearly interchangable with "outlaws".

I took some time after the film to read up on Earp's life after he moved to Tombstone, which this film sort of simplified, only detailing his interests in dealing cards and trying to open his own gambling house.  But the truth is that he did serve as a deputy in Tombstone, and this film depicts him as dead-set against that, and trying to talk his brothers Virgil and Morgan out of working as lawmen.  And it's all about wearing that star, since really that's all that seems to define the legality of someone's actions in the Old West.

The conflicts between the Earps and the Cowboys were more numerous in the real world, there were incidents of stagecoach robberies and stolen mules and competing over women that were also not shown in this film - so they really sort of simplified that conflict, if you ask me. However, the depiction of the shootout at the O.K. Corral seemed like it stuck pretty close to actual events, including the county sheriff trying to arrest the Earps and Doc Holliday afterwards.

Of course, any film would encounter difficulties in reducing a historical figure's entire life to a mere two-hour film, but choosing to focus on Wyatt Earp's time in Tombstone is probably the ideal choice.  Thank God I wasn't subjected to flashbacks to his early life, or time in Dodge City, or anything like that.  

This film marked the third depiction this week of someone with a "frontier illness" - there was Jim Bowie lying sick in bed at the Alamo, and then the character in "The Claim" with consumption, which is another name for tuberculosis, which plagued Doc Holliday in tonight's film.  And both the town of Kingdom Come in "The Claim" and Tombstone demonstrated failed attempts at gun control (an odd theme tonight, considering the appearance of Charlton Heston...)

I reserve the right to revise the rating after tomorrow night's film, which is another telling of the same events...

Also starring Kurt Russell (last seen in "Miracle"), Val Kilmer (last seen in "Red Planet"), Sam Elliott (last seen in "The Contender"), Bill Paxton (last seen in "Mighty Joe Young"), Powers Boothe (last seen in "U Turn"), Michael Biehn, Dana Delany (last seen in "Housesitter"), Jon Tenney, Thomas Haden Church (last heard in "John Carter"), Jason Priestley, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Joanna Pacula, Michael Rooker (last seen in "The Bone Collector"), Terry O'Quinn (last seen in "The Cutting Edge"), John Corbett (last seen in "I Hate Valentine's Day"), Billy Zane (last seen in "Memphis Belle"), Robert John Burke (last seen in "Limitless"), with cameos from Billy Bob Thornton (last seen in "The Alamo"), Frank Stallone and Charlton Heston (last seen in "Bowling for Columbine").

RATING: 6 out of 10 red sashes

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Claim

Year 5, Day 275 -10/2/13 - Movie #1,556

BEFORE: From North Carolina I head out to Californ-eye-ay tonight, I means to do me a bit of prospectin'.  In spirit, of course.  Let's not get crazy.  Tonight's film clocks in at two hours even, which greatly increases my chances of staying awake.  Linking from "Cold Mountain", Donald Sutherland was also in the 1979 film "Revolution" with Nastassja Kinski.

THE PLOT:  A prospector sells his wife and daughter to another gold miner for the rights to a gold mine. Twenty years later, the prospector is a wealthy man who owns much of the old west town named Kingdom Come. But changes are brewing and his past is coming back to haunt him.

AFTER: Like last night's film, this one is also based on classic literature - but something a bit more obscure, namely "The Mayor of Casterbridge", by Thomas Hardy.  I'll look up that plot separately, but it sounds like something I was supposed to read in 11th grade and bought the Cliffs Notes instead.

This film also carries forward the theme of "desertion" - as a man (in flashbacks) trades his wife and infant daughter to a man in exchange for a gold mine.  Men everywhere saw this film and said, "Wait, you can DO that?"  JK.  But that's what the guy does, trades his wife for a mine.  Because there's just no way that can have any repercussions in the future.

But seriously, you should never even consider making a deal like this because as soon as you propose it, you've lost the game.  For one thing, if you change your mind, your relationship with your wife is forever tarnished - some things just cannot be forgiven.  And if you don't strike gold, you'll always be kicking yourself over what might have been.

Why, for example, can't this guy just get the gold mine next door?  Jeez, it's probably just as nice and just as likely to pay off.  Or do I not understand how mining for gold works?

Another thing that was very confusing to me - the railroad is coming to town, which is something often seen in these Westerns.  And at first it's going to be the best thing that ever happened to the town of Kingdom Come - which makes sense, it will bring more people, supplies, etc.  But then the railroad executives talk about the town like it's in the way.  Does this make sense?  Isn't the whole purpose of building the railroad to link to the existing towns?  Wouldn't the town make an ideal station stop?  Why else would people travel out to California, if not to get to a specific town?

Then the railroad planners say "The town can be moved."  Again, why?  Is the town in the wrong place, or is it right where the tracks need to be?   They never really specified.  But then they run the tracks through the valley, which is not near the town - further confusing the issue.  Then on top of THAT, they build a new town where the tracks are going to be, and everyone moves over.  Seems like a lot of work - wouldn't it have been easier to just put the tracks near the town, instead of the other way around?  I'm all for saving people a lot of unnecessary gruntwork.

The film has some other problems as well - mostly that nearly all of the characters aren't given much to do.  Most of them seem like blanks, the railroad surveyor most of all, and he's one of the key characters.  I know almost nothing about him, at the end of the day.  As for pacing, the whole affair just never seems to get out of first gear.

Also starring Wes Bentley (last seen in "Jonah Hex"), Milla Jovovich (last seen in "Stone"), Peter Mullan (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"), Sarah Polley.

RATING: 3 out of 10 frontier prostitutes

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Cold Mountain

Year 5, Day 274 -10/1/13 - Movie #1,555

BEFORE:  Back to the Civil War tonight.  See, I told you we'd get back there.  Linking from "The Alamo", Emily Deschanel carries over, which makes this quite easy.   I got a bit of a break with the length of "The Man from the Alamo", about 80 minutes, but "The Alamo" was about 2 hours 20 min, and tonight's film is about 2 hours 30 min.  What is it about modern Westerns that dictates they have to be so darn long? 

THE PLOT: In the waning days of the Civil War, a wounded soldier embarks on a perilous journey back home to Cold Mountain, NC to reunite with his sweetheart.

AFTER: I don't think I could have planned this much better, even though I'm bouncing back and forth between the Civil War and the Mexican-American War and back.  The one thing that was really missing from "Gone With the Wind" was a good battle scene (sort of strange, for a film about a war...) and then I dealt with a man labeled a deserter from the Alamo.  Tonight's story is about an actual deserter from the Civil War - to be fair, he was injured, and shouldn't have been sent back to fight.  Plus he had a hot girl waiting for him at home, so what would you do?

So, once again I've got an unintended theme forming - when given the chance, will a soldier stand and fight, or opt out of the next battle?  The main character tonight escapes from a hospital, but then faces the difficult challenge of getting home on foot.  For extra difficulty, Southern militiamen are actively seeking out deserters and are given free reign to torture or kill those who harbor them.

Along the way, he meets several unusual people, also suffering from the effects of the war, or their own sins.  These include a lonely widowed mother, a disgraced preacher, and an old lady who raises goats.  At the same time, his girlfriend is slowly learning to be self-sufficient on her farm, with the help of a more experienced, rugged woman, who's got family drama of her own.

There's something familiar about all this - it took me a while to see the resemblance to "The Odyssey" - and, by extension, "O Brother, Where Art Thou", which also adapted Homer's classic tale by placing it in the American South.  But this is perhaps a closer adaptation, since it's got the wartime connection - remember, Odysseus (or Ulysses, whichever) was trying to get home from the Trojan War (and I'll deal with that conflict in a few weeks...).

Similar to "The Alamo", this is hardly an upbeat tale.  And whether it has a happy ending sort of depends on your point of view, I suppose.   It's tough to say whether Inman should have stayed in the Confederate Army and fought - nobody enters a war thinking they're going to lose, of course, but what happens when it looks like loss is inevitable?  Once this happens, does a soldier have a duty to himself, to leave the field of battle and stay alive?  (And, by extension, what happens if you start to consider your job a dead-end or a sinking ship?  Does an employee have more of a duty to his job, or to save his own sanity and career by walking away?  Just wondering...)

Another interesting connection to last night's film - Billy Bob Thornton learned to play the fiddle for his role as Davy Crockett, and in this film Brendan Gleeson is an accomplished violin player, and performed music on-camera as well.

On the plus side, I got that big battle seen that was missing from "Gone With the Wind" - very action-packed, very gritty, the brutality of war and all that.  But on the minus side, it got pushed up to the very front of the movie, which meant that a fair amount of time-jumping had to take place, as the soldier had a number of flashbacks about how and why he ended up there - why couldn't the film have started with him meeting the love of his life, enlisting, and THEN shown us the big battle scene.  I doubt anyone would stop watching a film in the first 15 minutes, just because it hasn't gotten to the big action scene yet!  This story could have easily been told in proper linear fashion.

Also starring Jude Law (last seen in "Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows"), Nicole Kidman (last seen in "Billy Bathgate"), Renee Zellweger (last heard in "Bee Movie"), Brendan Gleeson (last seen in "In Bruges"), Natalie Portman (last seen in "The Other Woman"), Donald Sutherland (last seen in "Six Degrees of Separation"), Kathy Baker (last seen in "The Cider House Rules"), Giovanni Ribisi (last seen in "The Mod Squad"), Ray Winstone (last seen in "The Proposition"), Jay Gammon (last seen in "Life or Something Like It"), Charlie Hunnam (last seen in "Nicholas Nickleby"), Ethan Suplee (last seen in "American History X"), Jack White, Jena Malone (last seen in "For Love of the Game"), Melora Walters, Lucas Black (last seen in "The X-Files"), James Rebhorn (last seen in "Real Steel"), Cillian Murphy (last seen in "Red Eye")

RATING: 6 out of 10 loose shingles

The Alamo (2004)

Year 5, Day 273 - 9/30/13 - Movie #1,554

BEFORE:  I also watched the Emmys this weekend, a week late but at least I got through it.  Except for "The Voice" and "The Colbert Report", I don't think I watch any Emmy-winning shows.  It seems that the list of "quality" shows I'm NOT watching has grown larger than the list of shows that I do watch.  "Breaking Bad", "Veep", "The Big Bang Theory", "Homeland", "Mad Men", "Modern Family", "Nurse Jackie", "Game of Thrones", "Louie", "Girls", "The Newsroom", "House of Cards", "Boardwalk Empire", "Downton Abbey", "Dexter" and so on...  This is supposedly the new Golden Age of TV, and I'm more or less sitting it out while I catch up on classic movies.  Perhaps in a few years I'll have to go back and watch all this TV I'm currently avoiding.

Oh, I have my shows, don't get me wrong.  "Survivor", "CSI", "Law & Order: SVU", "Shark Tank", "Wipeout", "Cupcake Wars", "Iron Chef", "Top Chef", "MasterChef", "Hell's Kitchen", "Kitchen Nightmares", "Bar Rescue", "Chopped", "The Amazing Race", "Mythbusters", "Parks & Recreation", the Fox Sunday animated line-up and daily doses of "Jeopardy!", "The Daily Show" and "Late Show with David Letterman" - that all keeps me pretty busy, and the deal I made with the networks was that I wasn't going to take on any new shows until they started cancelling some stuff.  They complied, so I'm willing to take on ONE new show - "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.", and we'll see how that goes. 

Linking from "The Man from the Alamo", Dennis Weaver had a bit part in that, and he was also in the 1967 film "Gentle Giant" with Rance Howard (father of Ron + Clint) who appears in tonight's film.

THE PLOT:  Based on the 1836 standoff between a group of Texan and Tejano men, led by Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, and Mexican dictator Santa Anna's forces at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.

AFTER: It's sort of another history lesson tonight, where I have to admit that I don't recall much of whatever I learned about the Alamo in history class - other than I'm supposed to remember the Alamo, and that's not much help if I can't recall the details, now is it?   So, it's a chance for me to research the battle on Wikipedia and go over the details.  This is sort of an all-star moment in Texas history - with Col. Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett among the famous players.   

Hmm, it seems soldiers WERE given the chance to leave the Alamo, so I stand corrected.  Details as to how many men took up the offer to leave are quite sketchy, plus there were numerous couriers coming and going, so some lucky soldiers were sent out with dispatches, and Sam Houston didn't let them return.  History is written by the winners, after all.

I'm sort of reminded of "United 93" - no one can really know all the conversations that took place at the Alamo, the details of what it was like living under the siege, expecting an imminent attack.  This is where the filmmakers obviously have some leeway, so adding little details like Davy Crockett playing the fiddle in counter-melody to the Mexican army's band are apocryphal, but I appreciated them anyway.

This film didn't seem to do very well at the box office, and I can only speculate that people go to see films to be uplifted, to see stories of success, and that's not really what the Alamo is about, since all of the defenders of the mission were killed in battle, or executed shortly thereafter. (Oh, sorry - SPOILER ALERT!)  The importance of the loss at the Alamo came later - the ensuing rush to join the Texas army to defeat Mexico.  For this reason, the film wisely does not end when the Alamo falls (because that would be a bummer), but shows the Mexican army splitting into three parts to trap Sam Houston's army, and when Houston's army finally arrived (to be fair, news traveled slower those days, plus the guy was busy trying to form a government) he rallied his men with "Remember the Alamo!" and won the Battle of San Jacinto in just 18 minutes.  Sic semper tyrannus, Santa Anna.

Also starring Dennis Quaid (last seen in "American Dreamz"), Billy Bob Thornton (last seen in "U Turn"), Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson (last seen in "Prometheus"), Emilio Echevarria, Jordi Molla, with a cameo from Emily Deschanel.

RATING: 5 out of 10 cannonballs

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Man from the Alamo

Year 5, Day 272 - 9/29/13 - Movie #1,553

BEFORE: Well, after "Gone With the Wind", it's all downhill from here, right?  God, I wish.  I've  mentioned how I'm on the "tougher track" with some very long Westerns and war films coming up - now I wish I'd taken the easier path and scheduled the shorter, simpler Hitchcock films.  I could be hitting "Psycho" right around Halloween, and wouldn't that be something?  Oh, well.

I eneded up watching "Gone With the Wind" on the same day that "Lincoln" premiered on premium cable, and though it's mighty tempting to follow up with another Civil War-themed film, I'm looking at the big picture - so I'll get back to the Civil War in a couple of days and I'll get to Mr. Lincoln in a few weeks.

I'm not giving up on linking, just because I'm dipping back into the past for a couple of oldies.  Linking from "Gone With the Wind", Victor Jory (who played the evil overseer Jonas Wilkerson) carries over to play the main villain tonight.

THE PLOT:  During the war for Texas independence, one man leaves the Alamo before the end (chosen by lot to help others' families) but is too late to accomplish his mission, and he is branded a coward.

AFTER: As you might expect, I've got something of a bias for modern films, and I don't think I'm alone in this.  I know some people who won't even watch black-and-white films, just because they look so outdated.  Or maybe it's because nearly everyone in them is dead, I don't know.  Except Olivia De Havilland, apparently.

Anyway, when you compare most Westerns made in the 1940's and 1950's to films like "Unforgiven", or "Dances With Wolves", to me they just don't hold up.  For one thing, the technology of filmmaking has come a long way.  Those really fake-looking shots of people riding on prop wagons in front of obvious rear-projection backdrops drive me crazy.  At what point did Hollywood realize that it looked more real to transport the actors out to Arizona or New Mexico and film them on a real wagon in a real canyon?

Then we've got the simplistic plots to deal with.  You know what I'm talking about, all that Tom Mix/Roy Rogers/Lone Ranger stuff, where the good guy wears a white hat and clean clothes and the bad guys wear black and look all grimy.  The "High Noon" type stuff, where the sheriff has to defend the town against Black Bart's gang.  It entertained young kids in the 1950's, but seems really dated now.

Into this mix comes "The Man From the Alamo", where I must admit, it's not so easy to tell who's the good guy.  Oh, it's easy enough for the audience, it's the actor with top billing, Glenn Ford.  But for the characters on the screen, not so much. First off, he leaves the Alamo (yes, you read that right) - because apparently just before all of the valiant heroes in Texas made their last stand, there was a chance for them (OK, one of them) to leave.  Someone's sort of messing with history here - you can't just call a "time out" in the middle of a siege and let someone go.  When the commanding officer asks every man willing to fight to take one step forward, he's really not expecting someone to step back.  It's more of a rhetorical gesture, really, he doesn't expect anyone to opt out.  (I'm reminded of the British drill sergeant in "Monty Python's Meaning of Life"...)

Here's where the film screws up, because it can't really decide if this guy, John Stroud, is a coward or not.  Technically if he doesn't want to fight in a particular battle, that's desertion.  But he's thinking about defending his family, so isn't that a darn good reason for leaving the Alamo?  But then the talk among the soldiers who stood their ground seems to suggest that they drew lots to determine who would leave and check on all of their families - but who gave any of these soldiers any choice in the matter to begin with?

Word starts to spread about the guy who left the Alamo, and when Stroud comes to town on another matter, the whole town wants to beat him up.  And yet, he doesn't explain to any of them WHY he left the Alamo.  I assume this is part of his plan, because otherwise it doesn't make much sense - if the reason why he left is so simple, why not just say it?

Instead he ends up in jail, and his cellmate MIGHT be part of the gang of non-Mexicans that burned down his home.  I say "Non-Mexicans" because that's what they are - but they're pretending to be Mexicans.  I'm not sure if this is very clever of them, or was written into the plot to cover the fact that the casting director couldn't find any genuine Mexicans, or people who even looked Mexican.

But the real Mexicans are coming (though not seen in this film...) so the whole town of Oxbow packs up and forms a wagon train, and our hero catches up with them to defend them from the fake Mexicans, and get his revenge.  Which turns out to be a smart move, since the soldiers defending the wagon train are called away to fight - and the commander in charge faces a similar dilemma to the one our hero had at the Alamo - follow orders, or stay and defend the wagon train, which is the right thing to do, but is equivalent to desertion.  Ah-hah, it's not so easy, is it? 

NITPICK POINT: The whole town packs up and leaves Oxbow.  Then a bunch of men from Oxbow storm the jail in order to string up Stroud - huh?  Where did they come from?  And why didn't they leave to defend the wagon train?  Priorities, people!

NITPICK POINT #2: The men of Oxbow storm the jail, grab Stroud, and head out to lynch him - leaving the cell door hanging wide open, enabling Stroud's cellmate to escape.  That's some quality mob justice, there...

NITPICK POINT #3: Much is made of the characters with rifles needing to load with powder horns and clean the rifle before shooting - and they are then seen shooting multiple times as needed, without stopping to reload.  Huh?  What happened to reloading between shots?

Also starring Glenn Ford, Julie Adams (last seen in "World Trade Center"), Chill Wills (last seen in "Meet Me In St. Louis"), Hugh O'Brian (last seen in "Ten Little Indians"), Jeanne Cooper, Neville Brand (last seen in "Birdman of Alcatraz"), Guy Williams.

RATING: 4 out of 10 dispatches from Sam Houston