Western

A Million Ways To Die In The West

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2014

Universal Pictures

Directed by Seth MacFarlane

Produced by Seth MacFarlane, Scott Stuber and Jason Clark

Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild

I’ll give Seth MacFarlane credit for his ambition in making a western comedy. Mel Brooks pretty much had the last word in that genre with his side-splitting “Blazing Saddles” a film that to this day I still consider the funniest movie ever made. And Mel Brooks is safe as A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST comes nowhere near the level of hilarity that “Blazing Saddles” does. Oh, it tries hard and there are some touches here and there that are homages to “Blazing Saddles”: the overblown theme music that sounds as if it were scored for a straight-up Western Saga. The townspeople who act as a Greek chorus commenting on the antics of the main characters. The gleeful politically incorrect jokes.

But where Seth MacFarlane goes off course that there are long stretches of the movie where I think he forgot he was supposed to be making a comedy. I appreciate his efforts to give us an honest love story in there but he had no idea how to smoothly integrate the two. So we get a comedy that stops dead in its tracks for the love story which in turn has to be put on hold when MacFarlane realizes he hasn’t given us a joke in the last five minutes.

It’s Arizona, 1882 and as failing sheep farmer Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) puts it; “Out here everything that isn’t you is trying to kill you.” People in the town of Old Stump die in horrible, sudden ways and Albert is miserable. The only light in his life is his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) who dumps him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) a foppish dandy with a wicked mustache.

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During a bar brawl, Albert saves the life of Amanda (Charlize Theron) who has come to Old Stump with her brother. The two of them work on a friendship and Amanda encourages Albert to challenge Foy to a duel for Amanda’s hand in a week. Unfortunately, Albert is the worst shot in the West but luckily, Amanda just happens to be a markswoman of near supernatural skill who assures Albert she can teach him to shoot by then. Albert will need to be able to shoot but not for the reason he thinks. Amanda is the wife of Clinch Leatherwood, the most notorious gunfighter in the territory and when word gets back to him via Amanda’s brother (who really isn’t her brother but a member of Clinch’s gang assigned to keep an eye on her) that Amanda and Albert are getting way too close for comfort, Clinch comes to town intending to kill him.

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This actually is a pretty good Western story and if you took the comedy out of the movie entirely you still would have a solid Western, especially when the situation gets complicated with Albert and Amanda actually falling in love and Albert having to sort out exactly which woman and which life he wants. But where the problem comes in is that first of all the movie is simply too long to support such a slim story. Clocking in at 116 minutes there just aren’t enough jokes to justify that running time and as a result we have long stretches devoted to the love story which is actually kinda sweet and charming.

There’s been a lot of criticism of Seth MacFarlane’s performance but I myself didn’t have a problem with it. No, he’s no great actor but he has a sincerity and unpretentiousness about him that I like. He knows he’s no Marlon Brando and doesn’t try to be. He does the best with what he’s capable of doing and for me that was good enough. Liam Neeson is terrific as always but I think somebody must have slipped him an alternate version of the screenplay as he acts as if he’s in a serious Western. It’s Charlize Theron who walks away with the acting honors in this one. She looks like she’s having a ton of fun being in a Western and glides back and forth between the comedic and the dramatic without a hitch or a bump.

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Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman provided a lot of the laughs for me as a Christian couple who have a truly unique relationship. She’s the town’s favorite whore who insists that she and her fiancé (Ribisi) wait until they’re married to have sex. The highlight of the movie is the many cameos sprinkled here and there. Some of them you’ll get right away. Some you won’t. I had no idea Ryan Reynolds and Ewan McGregor were in the movie until I read the credits at the end and there’s one cameo that had the audience we saw the movie with cheering and applauding.

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I have to say that the cinematography is absolutely fantastic. MacFarlane shot most of this movie in Monument Valley where so many classic Westerns were filmed and MacFarlane takes full advantage of the location. There are many scenes that are simply beautiful and it goes a long way to making A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST look and feel like a grown-up motion picture instead of like a TV pilot on steroids like “Ted”

So should you see A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST? I say yes, but if you haven’t seen it yet, try and catch a matinee instead of paying full price or even wait to rent. It’s a funny movie but nowhere near as funny as it could have been. The too-long running time and thinness of the story means that there’s no way to justify the long lag time between the jokes. Still, the cast is fun to watch and what the hell, it’s the summertime. You won’t hear me say this very often but I will in this case; go see A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST and be sure that when you turn off your cell phone before the movie starts, turn off your brain as well.

 

Rated R

116 Minutes

Duel At Diablo

1966

United Artists/MGM

Directed by Ralph Nelson

Produced by Fred Engel and Ralph Nelson

Written by Marvin H. Albert based on his novel “Apache Rising”

DUEL AT DIABLO is one of those westerns that when I mention it even to fans of westerns I get a blank look and a “say wha?” It’s one of those movies that appear to have been long forgotten even though it stars three of the best loved and most popular actors to have worked in Hollywood: James Garner, Sidney Poitier and Dennis Weaver. But even fans of those stars seem to have never heard of the movie and that’s truly a shame because DUEL AT DIABLO, while not a masterpiece of the genre is a damn good western for a number of what I believe to be strong reasons and we’ll get into those after a summary of the plot:

Army scout Jess Remsberg (James Garner) while on patrol out in the desert comes across the hideous remains of a man brutally tortured by the Apache.  On the trail of those Apaches Remsberg rescues a woman from them. Not only is Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson) not grateful to be rescued she actually was looking for those Apaches for reasons that will become quite important to the plot later on. Remsberg returns Ellen to her husband Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver) who is more upset that the horse his wife had taken is dead than anything else.

But Remsberg has his own problems to think of as he finds out from his old friend Lieutenant Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers) that his Comanche wife was murdered and scalped. McAllister doesn’t know who did the killing but he knows where there is a man who can point Remsberg in the right direction. But he won’t tell Remsberg the name until he agrees to scout for him. McAllister has to escort a unit of twenty-five inexperienced soldiers green as Christmas trees to Fort Concho and McAllister badly needs Remsberg to help him get them there. Once at Fort Concho, McAllister agrees to give Remsberg the name of the man. Willard Grange goes behinds McAllister’s back to get permission to accompany the unit to Fort Concho with his supply wagons.  This doesn’t make McAllister happy at all but the guy who’s really pissed off is Toller (Sidney Poitier) a veteran of the 10th Calvary Buffalo Soldiers who was contracted to provide forty horses to the army. Toller has only broken half of the wild horses and he won’t be paid for the other twenty unless he goes with the unit and breaks the horses on the way.

Once the unit gets on the move they quickly find themselves in one hell of a mess. The local Apache chief Chata (John Hoyt) has gone on the warpath and the unit must pass right through his territory. He targets the unit as one of Grange’s wagons is filled with ammunition and because Ellen Grange has the one thing he cares the most about: his grandson, the child Ellen Grange had with Chata’s son when she was held captive by the Apache.  Ambushed by the Apache, the badly outnumbered and inexperienced soldiers must somehow hold out at Diablo Canyon while Remsberg attempts to evade the Apache and ride to Fort Concho to get help before they’re wiped out.

DUEL AT DIABLO has a lot of selling points that I think make it worth your time to watch and here’s number one: we’ve got three of the most likeable actors in Hollywood. They’re all known for playing easy-going guys full of warmth, charm and with strong moral and ethical souls. Not in this picture. Garner, Poitier and Weaver play three men who are hard, brutal, violent and in a lot of ways downright unpleasant. Matter of fact, in the first thirty minutes of the movie Garner, Poitier and Weaver threaten to kill one or the other at least once and there’s a tense moment later on when Poitier and Weaver face off for a gunfight. I recently watched the movie a few days ago and I don’t think I can recall a single moment where any of them even so much as smiles. It’s a radical departure for them as actors and I enjoyed watching the three of them enjoying playing against type. Especially James Garner. If you had never considered him a badass before, you will after seeing this movie. I really like his look in this movie. From start to finish he’s unshaven, sweaty and appears to have not taken a bath in weeks nor does he appear to give a damn.

DUEL AT DIABLO also may be the first American western where elements and style of the growing Spaghetti Western genre were being used. Like Spaghetti Westerns, there’s nobody in this movie who is entirely good or bad. We understand why everybody is doing what they’re doing or acting the way they do even if we don’t agree with it or like it. The locations, set design and photography are very much like Spaghetti Westerns as well as the violence which is really brutal at times. We’re not talking Sam Peckinpah level slaughter here but it is a harshly realistic depiction that I don’t think one expects to see in a pre-“The Wild Bunch” American made western.

What else did I like? I like how Toller’s ethnicity was never pointed out or made an issue. Even though McAllister and Toller don’t get along it’s due to their differing opinions on how things should be done, not because Toller’s a black man. I like how Ellen Grange and Scotty McAllister have distinctive accents. All too often I hear movie fans complain about characters having accents and I think that’s a highly insensitive and downright ignorant to say. Especially when it comes to Westerns where I’m betting you couldn’t walk twenty feet in any direction without hearing half a dozen different accents as everybody and their mother were coming to America to make their fortune. Having character with accents in Westerns reminds us that this is a country of immigrants. Something that we all need to be reminded of once a while. I also liked the music score which also sounds more like a score you’d hear in a Spaghetti Western.

So should you see DUEL AT DIABLO? Absolutely. The movie has excellent performances and a great story. Right from the start when a huge, bloody Bowie knife slashes a X through the United Artists logo, DUEL AT DIABLO is promising it’s not like your usual Western. And it delivers on its promise.

103 minutes

Buck And The Preacher

Columbia Pictures

1972

Directed by Sidney Poitier

Produced by Joel Glickman and Harry Belafonte (uncredited)

Screenplay by Ernest Kinoy

Based on a story by Ernest Kinoy and Drake Walker

When I was growing up there were few actors cooler than Sidney Poitier.  Here was a black man who personified everything that I myself wanted to be: smooth, intelligent, proud, articulate, charming, and witty.  I missed the mark on a lot of those aspirations but as a role model I couldn’t ask for better.  He distinguished himself as a major actor way back in the 50’s and 60’s and when his movies such as “To Sir, With Love” “A Raisin In The Sun” “In The Heat Of The Night” and “Lilies Of The Field” were shown on television in my house it was a major event.  My mom and dad plopped me and my sisters down in front of the set right alongside them to watch.  I know it’s kinda difficult for anybody under the age of 30 to understand why an actor such as Sidney Poitier was so important to black people back in the 60’s and 70’s because now we’ve got Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Avery Brooks, Wayne Brady, Don Cheadle, LeVar Burton and two dozen other notable black actors both male and female.  But once upon a time not so long ago, Sidney Poitier was all we had.  He was it.  He not only was at the top of the pyramid, he was the pyramid.

BUCK AND THE PREACHER is notable for a couple of things that lifts it a couple of notches above your average western.  First off, it’s Sidney Poitier’s first directorial effort and it’s a damn good one.  It’s a western that addresses a major problem former slaves had after The Civil War: okay, we’re free but now what do we do with that freedom? And it’s got a wonderful comic performance by Harry Belafonte, previously best known for popularizing Caribbean calypso music in The United States.  Harry Belafonte had done a number of films previously: the classic “Carmen Jones” with the outrageously beautiful Dorothy Dandridge and 1957’s “Island In The Sun” which was considered a daring movie at the time due to the subject matter of interracial relationships.  But all of his previous movies had been dramas.  In BUCK AND THE PREACHER Harry Belafonte demonstrated a real gift for comedy that he would display again in a later film also directed by his good friend Sidney Poitier: 1974’s “Uptown Saturday Night”

After The Civil War, wagon trains of former slaves are heading west, the promised forty acres and a mule never having been delivered.  But there’s plenty of unspoiled, unclaimed land far to the west and the former slaves are willing to make the hazardous journey.  Buck (Sidney Poitier) is a former Union soldier/scout who uses the skills he learned in the Army and the valuable alliances he has made with the Indians to take the wagon trains through.  It’s not an easy job.  The wagon trains are hunted down by “labor recruiters” who use any means necessary to turn the former slaves around and drive them back to the southern plantations.  And Buck has a price on his head, himself being relentlessly tracked down by bounty hunters Deshay (Cameron Mitchell) and his sadistic right hand man Floyd (Denny Miller)

It’s during one of his escapes from Deshay’s posse that Buck encounters The Reverend Willis Oakes Rutherford of The High And Low Order of The Holiness Persuasion Church (Harry Belafonte) a smooth talking wandering minister with bad teeth and a six shooter in his Bible.  Buck switches horses with The Preacher which leads to The Preacher almost getting killed by Deshay’s men.  It isn’t long before The Preacher catches up with Buck and he thinks he’s got an easy mark in the prospective settlers.  But a bloody nighttime raid affects The Preacher more than even he would have guessed and before you know it, both men have joined together to become outlaws in order to get back the money stolen from the former slaves and get them to their new home in the west, far from the harsh unhappy life they previously knew.

BUCK AND THE PREACHER doesn’t beat you over the head with a history lesson but the motivations of the characters are different enough from your average western that it gives the material a fresher spin than you might be used to.  The plight of the former slaves is laid out with no punches pulled so there’s a clear understanding of what’s at stake.  And the performances by Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte sell the movie.  Poitier’s the grim stoic while Belafonte is the grinning trickster.  They make a great team.  Ruby Dee plays Ruth, Buck’s woman and she has a great scene where she lays it out for Buck as to what she wants out of life and she doesn’t want it in America.

There’s a nice subplot with Buck’s relationship with an Indian chief (Enrique Lucero) and his wife (Julie Robinson) who are sympathetic to the plight of the former slaves but not so sympathetic that they’ll risk the lives of their people.  Cameron Mitchell and Denny Miller (a former Tarzan and for years was ‘The Gorton Fisherman’) make a great pair of bad guys.  Cameron Mitchell has a nice little scene where he explains to a sheriff how slaves are a way of life in the south and without them, that life will soon be nonexistent.

So should you see BUCK AND THE PREACHER?  I think you should.  It’s got a story that showcases a little known period in The Old West so there’s something extra for you.  But it’s also got some great shootouts including the final one where Buck and The Preacher make a last stand against a dozen opponents.  The performances are solid and Harry Belafonte is obviously having a great time with his character.  It’s got Sidney Poitier.  And it’s a western.  What more do you need?

Rated: PG

102 minutes

Once Upon A Time In The West

1969

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Sergio Leone

Produced by Bino Cicogna

Written by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone and Sergio Donatti

Music by Ennio Morricone

Three men wait a remote train station.  One man (Al Mulock) endlessly cracks his knuckles.  The second man (Woody Strode) stands underneath a leak in the water tower. Eventually the water gathers in the crown of his hat and he drinks it with a really satisfied smile.  The third man (Jack Elam) engages in an existential war with a fly that just won’t leave him alone.   The train arrives and one man (Charles Bronson) disembarks.  The three men have obviously been waiting to kill him.  The lone man plays a sad dirge on an old battered harmonica and he asks the three men if they brought a horse for him.  The third man jokingly says that it looks as if they’re one horse shy.  The harmonica player disagrees:

“You brought two horses too many.”

The harmonica player whips out his gun, kills all three men with incredibly fast and accurate shots and that’s how ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST begins.  A movie that I think is the best western ever made.  You can disagree with me.  I don’t mind.

Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in the boomtown of Flagstone to take up housekeeping with Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) whom she met and married in New Orleans.  Jill is desperately looking to put her former life as a prostitute behind her but that dream is totally shattered as she finds that McBain, along with his three children have all been brutally murdered.

The townspeople are quick to put the blame on Cheyenne (Jason Robards) a local bandit noted for his flamboyance and rough charm.  But Cheyenne is for once the innocent party.  The McBains were actually killed by Frank (Henry Fonda) a merciless killer in the employ of railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) who is dying from tuberculosis of the bones but is determined to stay alive long enough to see his railroad reach The Pacific Ocean.  Frank’s got other plans.  And those plans include the McBain ranch of Sweetwater which Jill has inherited.

The ranch is sitting on a vast underground lake of fresh water.  And Brett McBain’s intention was to build a railroad station right on the spot where the railroad would pass through.  McBain knew that the water was worth millions and whoever controlled the water would control the town that would spring up around the station.  Frank is determined to get that land.  Jill is just as determined that he doesn’t.  Cheyenne genuinely likes Jill and genuinely doesn’t like Frank and wants to help her out.  Nobody knows what the motives and intentions of the mysterious man that they all call Harmonica are.  But he moves among these four and manipulates their actions for his own dark purpose.  A purpose we don’t learn until the end of the movie and one I wouldn’t dare reveal here.

I love all of Sergio Leone’s movies and I’ve thought for years that ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was his highly underrated masterpiece.  Most would say that “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” takes the top honors among Leone’s films but I gotta disagree.  Much as I love “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” I love ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST even more.  Why?  Okay, sit back.  This will take a while.

First of all is the title: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.  Leone is letting you know right up front he’s telling you a grown-up fairy tale.  This isn’t going to be a fairy tale that has a happy ending because it takes place in the west.  But it really isn’t The American West we know.  The film critic Danny Peary wrote in his review of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST that Sergio Leone’s West was inhabited by a select group men who belonged to an elder race of warriors who possessed near supernatural skills with guns.  And I think that’s valid.  Sergio Leone’s American West is actually as much a fantasy realm as Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Era.  But in Leone’s fantasy world his warriors tote sixguns instead of swords.  In fact, there’s a key scene where Charles Bronson’s Harmonica says to Henry Fonda’s Frank that he belongs to ‘an ancient race’.

Second of all is Claudia Cardinale.  Sergio Leone may have slighted women is his other movies but he made up for it with this one.  He takes every opportunity to film Claudia Cardinale the best way he can.  She’s an astoundingly beautiful woman and Leone takes advantage of that, giving her an amazing amount of close-ups where we can just take delight in how lusciously gorgeous she is.  And she’s not just there as eye candy.  Miss Cardinale’s character is the one that sets everything in the movie into motion.

Third is Henry Fonda.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is legendary as the only movie where he played a bad guy and I guess we’re lucky because if Mr. Fonda had really put his mind to it we’d have gotten some of the scariest bad guys of all time from him.   Henry Fonda  scares the you-know-what outta me everytime he shows up on screen in this movie.  He’s so scary that when this movie was first shown on American television, some of his scenes were actually cut out including Frank’s killing of a little boy.

Fourth is just the way the story is told.  Sergio Leone takes his time in all of his movies and this is no exception.  He’ll tell the story he wants to tell in his own way and in his own time.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is no exception.  There are many scenes which have nothing but characters staring at each other.  And compared to how fast the gunfights happen you might be bewildered at how much time Leone takes setting up the gunfights.  But that’s because Leone is more interested in the rituals leading up to the gunfight.

Fifth is the score by Ennio Morricone which I think is the best he’s ever done.  Do yourself a favor and pick up the two-disc DVD version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST in which you’ve got commentary by guys like John Carpenter, John Milius, Claudia Cardinale and numerous others including Morricone who himself says that Leone wanted ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST scored liked an opera.  Every main character has their own theme music and the hauntingly evocative ‘Jill’s Theme’ is used to its greatest effect in the last ten minutes of the movie.  Which is Leone’s commentary in full on the mythic Old West he loved so much.

Should you see ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST?  It’s one of the movies in my Movies You Can’t Call Yourself A Movie Fan If You Haven’t Seen list.  It’s got terrific performances by Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and the exquisite Claudia Cardinale.  It’s not a western you want to see for non-stop action and bloody shootouts.  But the way it’s filmed, its story and the acting it’s captivating.   If you call yourself a fan of movies or a fan of westerns then ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a movie you need to see.

171 minutes

Rated PG-13

My Name Is Nobody

1973

Paramount Home Entertainment

 

Produced by Fulvio Morsella

Directed by Tonio Valerii

Screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi

Based on a story by Fulvio Morsella and Ernesto Gastaldi

 

As will usually happen to a writer, people will always ask me what my influences are.  And I name various writers and genres and then I mention spaghetti westerns and a strange thing happens: their eyes light up and they start asking me have I seen this movie or that movie in the genre and people are always surprised that I proudly cite spaghetti westerns as an influence on my writing style.  I don’t see why. Out of the nearly 600 spaghetti westerns made between 1960 and 1975 I would estimate I’ve seen at least 200 of them.  You don’t see that many movies in a genre without it having a profound effect on you.  And I’m not the only one.  If you’re a fan of John Woo, Roberto Rodriguez and Quentin Tarentino then you’ve seen three of the most popular filmmakers of current times who were profoundly influenced by the spaghetti western.  Most people only know the Sergio Leone “The Man With No Name” Trilogy as an example of the genre.  But as far as I’m concerned “Once Upon A Time In The West” is the greatest western ever made with “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” following a damn close second.   But there are many, many, many more spaghetti westerns besides Sergio Leone’s that are well worth seeing.  But we’ll get into those in other reviews, okay?

For many movie fans, myself included, Sergio Leone invented the spaghetti western, as we know it.  Leone created a mythic American West that has more in common with the fantasy fiction of Robert E. Howard than the actual American West.  In Sergio Leone’s American West, warriors carried six-guns instead of swords and instead of sorcerers they fought villains of unimaginable cruelty whose skills rivaled that of the heroes.  And in most of Leone’s movies, the only reason the good guys won out was because they played just as dirty or even dirtier than the bad guys.  Evil was challenged, fought and defeated by a greater evil that somehow was nobler and more pure.

Now if you look at the credits of this movie above you’ll see that Sergio Leone’s name is not mentioned and since he is officially unaccredited I did not do so.  But trust me that MY NAME IS NOBODY is a Sergio Leone picture.  He worked on the screenplay, he choose Henry Fonda for the movie (in fact, he wouldn’t make the movie without him) and he directed key scenes.  And he did so because this movie was his statement about The American Western Vs. The Spaghetti Western.

Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) is an aging gunslinger just looking to retire in peace and quiet.  Unlike most gunslingers his age he knows his time is up and the world has moved on.  He’s booked passage on a ship that will take him to retirement in Europe.  Jack only wants to get on the ship and spend the rest of his days his peace.  It’ll take Jack about two weeks to get to the ship and he plans on doing it nice and easy.

However, Jack runs into a young, handsome gunslinger that apparently has no name.  Whenever he’s asked what his name is he simply replies: “I’m Nobody.”  But this Nobody (Terence Hill) clearly idolizes Jack.  He knows everything about Jack’s life and can recite the names of every man Jack has killed, where he killed them and even how many shots it took for Jack to kill them.  Jack isn’t clear as to what this Nobody wants.  Does he want to face down Jack in a gunfight?  No, actually Nobody wants Jack to take on The Wild Bunch, a gang of 150 purebred sons of bitches and he wants Jack to take them on alone in a battle of Ragnorakian proportions.  Nobody wants Jack to go down in the history books as the greatest gunslinger of them all and for much of the movie, Nobody manipulates Jack until Jack has no choice and he has to face down The Wild Bunch in an epic gunfight.

It’s interesting to see how MY NAME IS NOBODY is filmed because the scenes with Henry Fonda by himself are done as a straight American Western while the scenes with Terence Hill are done as a Spaghetti Western.  What Sergio Leone was doing in this movie is basically acknowledging both genres, using the then current icons of the genres and letting them play off each other and it’s a really good piece of work.  MY NAME IS NOBODY is a very funny movie in its own right as Terence Hill made his rep in western comedies, often pared with Bud Spencer who played his brother in the ‘Trinity” movies and he’s got some great comedic moments here.  I always like how he treats his near supernatural abilities with a gun as if it’s the most boring thing in the world.   He’s got a great scene where he’s holding his saddle on one shoulder and on a dare, draws his gun and replaces in the holster three times with the same hand holding the saddle without letting it drop.

Henry Fonda is really good in this movie.  The whole thing revolves around the relationship between Jack Beauregard and Nobody and Henry Fonda sells it.  He never really knows exactly what Nobody wants or what he’s trying to do but by the end of the movie you truly get the sense that they have become friends.  And you also get the sense that Sergio Leone has made friends between The American Western and The Spaghetti Western.  And I couldn’t write this review without mention of the score by The Master Himself: Ennio Morricone.  He’s got this really hilarious theme for The Wild Bunch whenever they show up in the movie that’s based on Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” that you’ve have to hear for yourself to believe.  Only Morricone could make it sound both threatening and funny at the same time

It’s a remarkable film just in the way it’s filmed, with those vast vistas that Italian directors loved.  There’s a tense scene where Nobody and Jack are talking in a graveyard that is deadly serious and another that mirrors that scene but it’s in a pool hall and played mainly for whimsical laughs.  Henry Fonda is his usual reliable self when it comes to acting.  His Jack Beauregard is a tough old son of a bitch who can still outdraw and outshoot young punks half his age.  He just doesn’t want to anymore.  And Terence Hill is a really goofy, funny actor who I like a lot.  He’s absolutely great in this movie and he works well with Fonda.  They make an intriguing team and MY NAME IS NOBODY is a movie you should put on your Netflix queue to see if you haven’t seen it yet or even if you haven’t seen it for a while.  It’s a worthy western that any fan of the genre should see.

117 minutes

Rated PG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The War Wagon

1967

Universal

Directed by Burt Kennedy
Produced by Marvin Schwartz
Screenplay by Clair Huffaker
Based on the novel “Badmen” by Clair Huffaker

THE WAR WAGON combines two of my favorite genres into one rip-snorting package: The Western and The Caper Film. I absolutely love a good horse opera and many of my favorite movies are westerns that I can watch over and over again. And I love a good caper. I just enjoy the hell outta seeing a bunch of expert thieves steal something that everybody says can’t be stolen. Maybe it’s because most thieves are so inept in real life and never seem to be able to pull off their heists with the aplomb and style movie thieves do.

THE WAR WAGON can be classified as the western version of an armored car heist. The title vehicle is an armored fortress on wheels that is protected by a Gatling gun and 32 heavily armed riders on horseback and the entire convoy gallops along at full speed from start to finish. Nobody has ever successfully been able to rob The War Wagon and its owner is about to transport the largest shipment of gold The War Wagon has ever carried: a half million dollars.

Taw Jackson (John Wayne) has a carefully put together plan to rob The War Wagon and the way he sees it, he’s got a right to the gold. After all, it came off his land that was stolen from him by Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot). Pierce had Taw framed for murder and sent to prison and in the years that Taw has been incarcerated, Pierce has been stripping Taw’s land of the gold. Taw assembles a motley crew to help him take The War Wagon: Lomax (Kirk Douglas), a gunslinger for hire who once almost killed Taw. Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel), an Indian fully assimilated into the ways of the white man who talks a Kiowa tribe into the heist. Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker) is an uncontrollable drunk until it comes time for him to handle explosives and then he’s as calm and centered as Sunday morning. Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn) works for Pierce.  His inside knowledge of The War Wagon’s schedule and Pierce’s organization is vital to the success of the heist.

The plan gets complicated when Pierce contacts Lomax and offers him $12,000 dollars to kill Taw once and for all. Taw has also got to keep Billy Hyatt away from not only the firewater but Wes Fletcher’s extremely pretty young wife who shows just as much of a liking for Billy as he has for her.

One thing you notice about THE WAR WAGON that is different from other roles John Wayne has played: usually in a movie like this, whenever the hero comes back looking for revenge for wrongs done to him, he can usually find a few townspeople willing to help him out. Not here. In fact, when Wayne’s character returns to town, it’s almost as if the townspeople act like Taw Jackson deserved what happened to him. Taw doesn’t have a friend to back him up and indeed, he spends a lot of this movie looking over his shoulder to make sure that Lomax doesn’t try to collect the sure $12,000 bucks as opposed to a share of the half million.

There’s really no point in reviewing John Wayne’s performance in a Western is there? No other American actor looked so comfortable sitting in a saddle as Wayne or so at home in the film genre that made him a legend. John Wayne never looks right when he acts in a contemporary movie, such as his Dirty Harry-ish cop movies “McQ” and “Brannigan” and indeed, he looks seriously out of place. Not so here. Wayne’s right at home on the range where he belongs. Kirk Douglas is equally Wayne’s match as the flamboyant gunslinger Lomax and Kirk Douglas is probably the only man who can look tough while wearing a tight leather shirt. They have some nice sarcastic dialog between them such as the scene where they simultaneously shoot two men. Douglas says: “Mine hit the ground first.” Wayne replies without missing a beat, “Mine was taller.”

If the movie has any major faults is that there’s no really memorable villain here. Bruce Cabot’s Pierce is a little more than a glorified bookkeeper with a mean streak. He’s always sneering at Wayne while hiding behind a wall of flunkies and hired guns. The movie’s all about the heisting of the gold and that’s it. But it’s an enjoyable heist with loads of action and with interesting supporting roles from some familiar faces. Look for Bruce Dern early in the movie and Gene Evans (who starred in Sam Fuller’s classic war film: “The Steel Helmet”) is in this one as well. THE WAR WAGON isn’t on the level of other Wayne westerns such as “Rio Bravo” “El Dorado” “The Shootist” or “True Grit” bu it is good watching if you’re into westerns or caper films.   But I’ll tell you what…just check out the opening credits and the absolutely kickass theme song with Ed Ames lustily belting out “The Ballad of The War Wagon” and then tell me you don’t wanna see the rest of the movie.

101 minutes

Paint Your Wagon

1969
Paramount Pictures

Directed by Joshua Logan
Produced by Alan Jay Lerner
Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

In the late 1960’s Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood were at the top of the heap based on the tough action movies and westerns they both enjoyed immense success with. It seemed to be a no-brainer to put them in the same movie. So for their only film together what did they make?

A gritty, bloody western full of gunsmoke and dead bodies all over the place? No.

A suspenseful modern day urban crime thriller? No.

A stirringly glorious war epic with them heroically slaughtering Nazis by the thousands? No.

They made a musical comedy set in the days of The California Gold Rush called PAINT YOUR WAGON.

I’ll be honest here: for years I avoided PAINT YOUR WAGON because I want to see Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood killing folks, kicking ass and busting heads, not trying their best to sing. But every year Turner Classic Movies runs their annual “31 Days Of Oscar” where they show nothing but Oscar winning and nominated movies all month long. So it’s a great opportunity for me to catch movies I’ve never seen so I said what the hell and sat down to watch PAINT YOUR WAGON. And surprise, surprise, surprise: after about a half hour I found I liked the movie a lot and by the end I was satisfied that I had been thoroughly entertained.

Mountain man and gold prospector Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) crosses paths with a wagon train on its way west. There’s an accident where one wagon goes over a cliff and Ben rescues a young man who suffers a broken leg.  The young man’s brother is killed.  It’s while Ben and some of the men are saying a few words over the dead man that Ben spies gold in the grave. He promptly throws out the body and stakes the claim in the name of the young man he saved. The young man (Clint Eastwood) who Ben calls ‘Pardner’ all through the movie (he does have a real name but we don’t find out what it is until the very end of the film) throws in with Ben and they prospect for gold together while a rough mining camp springs up around them.

Into the camp comes a Mormon with two wives in tow and he’s persuaded to put up one of his wives, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg) for auction. Through a bizarre set of circumstances Ben ends up with the wife and the relationship turns out to be nothing like what either one of them expected. Ben finds that he actually begins to care for the well being of Elizabeth and he builds her a fine log cabin some distance away from the mining camp. Which really isn’t a camp anymore but has grown into No-Name City, a bustling pit of vice, sin, drunkenness, lawlessness and who knows what all else that actually looks like a lot of fun.

The situation gets complicated when Pardner and Elizabeth fall in love while Ben is away hijacking a stagecoach full of French prostitutes on their way to another town and brings them to No-Name City instead. Now Ben and Pardner each are willing to go away and let the other man have the woman but Elizabeth comes up with a novel solution: if a man can have two wives then why can’t a woman have two husbands?

The arraignment is satisfactory to all parties concerned until farming families come to No-Name City and Elizabeth develops a hankering for a more respectable way of life. In the meantime, Ben has found a new way of prospecting along with Pardner and Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston). It involves digging an extensive and complex series of tunnels under No-Name City itself and collecting the gold dust that falls between the floorboards of the various buildings. Miners are so careless with their gold dust that soon Ben, Pardner and Mad Jack are collecting more gold than they ever did prospecting. The mining scheme takes up a good deal of the last 45 minutes of the movie and comes to an ending that made me laugh out loud at its total lunacy. And yes, the unique marriage arraignment between Ben, Elizabeth and Pardner comes to a resolution as well before the final song.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way; PAINT YOUR WAGON is nowhere near as bad as I’ve been told all these years. Matter of fact, it’s a lot of goofy fun and that is thanks to Lee Marvin, who walks off with this movie from beginning to end. It always amazed me that for an actor known mainly for his tough guy roles, the only Oscar Lee Marvin won was for a comedy; “Cat Ballou”. But after watching PAINT YOUR WAGON I’m no longer surprised. The man actually was very gifted at comedy and 90% of the laughs in PAINT YOUR WAGON come from him. Lee Marvin had me hooked right at the beginning where he’s delivering the eulogy for Pardner’s dead brother. And there’s a bit he does at the end where he’s walking away from the devastation of No-Name City that he caused. There’s something about the way he’s trying to pretend he’s got nothing to do with what’s happening that cracked me up.

How about his singing you ask? Well, Lee Marvin doesn’t actually sing. He does that Rex Harrison/Richard Harris style of singing where he’s more or less talking along with the music. But he pulls it off. And there’s a song near the end called “Wand’rin’ Star” that he actually does really well. It’s worth sitting through the movie waiting for that number.

Clint Eastwood is very laid back and likeable in this movie. His crooning isn’t that bad, either. It’s certainly not anything memorable and his “Gold Fever” number is hideous but the other songs he does are okay. Jean Seberg is the acting disappointment in this movie. She comes off as a bland and uninteresting actress and the relationship between Ben and Pardner are much more interesting than the relationship Elizabeth has with them. And her singing is atrocious. Actually the singing of whoever dubbed her is atrocious. If you decide to watch this movie, when they get to her big (and only) number “A Million Miles Away Behind The Door” feel free to head to the kitchen for snacks or take a bathroom break. You won’t be missing anything.

Probably the only song you’ll recognize right away is “They Call the Wind Maria” sung by Harve Presnell. I also liked “The Gospel of No-Name City” and “Hand Me Down That Can of Beans” Try your best to keep a straight face when Clint sings “I Talk to the Trees” and don’t listen too closely to the lyrics.

So should you see PAINT YOUR WAGON? I don’t see why not. It’s nowhere near in the league of classic movie musicals, that’s for sure and it’s the only musical I can think of where none of the leads can sing. But it does have that wonderfully loony Lee Marvin performance and I liked the way the story bounced from one goofy scene to the next without stopping to catch it’s breath. Clint Eastwood and Ray Walston both look as if they’re having a good time and if you can stay awake through the scenes where Jean Seberg is on screen I think you’ll have a good time as well.

164 minutes
Rated PG-13

Priest

2011

Screen Gems

Directed by Scott Stewart

Produced by Michael DeLuca

Written by Cory Goodman

Based on the comic book series created by Min-Woo Hyung

I have no idea why a movie like PRIEST didn’t click with audiences.  It almost got by me as I tried to watch it twice and both times fell asleep maybe about twenty minutes in.  It could be because I tried watching it late at night after a long and activity filled day.  But I was advised to give the movie another chance.  So I did and I’m happy to say I’m glad I did.  There’s something utterly freewheeling about the way PRIEST takes three genres: The Western, Horror, Science Fiction and gleefully mashes them up into one big gloopy ball and throws it at you.

Thanks to a marvelously gory animated opening sequence we’re educated into the history of the Great War between humans and vampires.  And make no mistake, these aren’t your emo vampires who look for love and wistfully meander through eternal life longing to be human.  Hell, no.  These are frightening monsters that will rip your mollyfoggin’ head off and joyfully bathe in the fountain of blood spurting out of the stump.  In this movie, vampires are truly a separate species, creatures without eyes that enthrall humans to act as their familiars.

In this alternate universe, apparently the Catholic Church has taken over control of much of the world and has created a special order known as The Priests.  Basically they’re Jedi Knights without lightsabers.  Although they do have some pretty cool weapons such as throwing stars shaped like crosses.  Thanks to The Priests, the vampires are defeated and placed on reservations while humanity retreats to the safety of high walled cities where The Church rules with totalitarian control.  All those who do not wish to live under The Church are free to make a living the best way they can in the wastelands between cities.

And The Priests?  Not having any more use for them, The Church disbands them.  Much like Vietnam veterans when they came home from that war, Priests are shunned and avoided.

All this changes for one Priest (Paul Bettany) when he is approached by Hicks (Cam Gigandet) the sheriff of the town where Priest’s brother (Stephen Moyer) lives with his wife (Madchen Amick) and his daughter Lucy (Lily Collins).  Vampires attacked the town and took Lucy.  Hicks, who is in love with Lucy wants Priest to help get her back.  Against the explicit order of Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer) Priest leaves the city to go find his niece.  He finds a lot more once he discovers that his best friend and former fellow priest (Karl Urban) has been transformed into a human/vampire hybrid and has organized the vampires into an army.  Using a train to transport the vampire army by daylight, the plan is to raid the walled cities one by one and renew the war between humans and vampires.

Now, that’s not much, but considering the movie is a quick 87 minutes, how much do you really need?  The movie makes no secret that it lifts its plot from the classic John Ford western “The Searchers”.  Especially when Priest explains to Hicks his intention to kill his niece if she has been assimilated by the vampires in a scene that could have been swiped word for word and shot for shot from that movie.  But there’s also a lot of other stuff taken from other movies and you can have a field day just looking for those.  There’s some of the “Mad Max” movies thrown in here as well as some Kung Fu once Maggie Q joins the quest as a Priestess whose original mission was to find the rogue Priest and bring him back home.

The scenes set inside Cathedral City reminded me a lot of “Blade Runner” in the level of detail and sheer griminess.  This is one of those movies where everybody wears black, looks like they haven’t bathed in days and nobody has any fun whatsoever.  It’s a pleasure when Priest gets on his badass motorcycle that is little more than a jet engine with handlebars and tires and goes tearing out into the wasteland. At least then we get some sun.

Karl Urban walks away with the acting honors in this one.  He relishes playing a bad guy and in his broad brimmed black hat and flapping black duster, he could have walked right out of a Sergio Leone western.  Brad Dourif shows up as a hustler selling vampire bite oil.

So should you see PRIEST?  Yeah.  It’s by no means a must see or classic but it does have a solid story working for it and these days, any action movie that doesn’t use shaky-cam is alright by me.  Scott Stewart knows how to direct exciting action/fight scenes and he knows how to keep the story moving.  This movie is a major step up from his previous disappointment “Legion”.  And as I said earlier, PRIEST is a lean 87 minutes so there’s absolutely no fat or padding on it.  No, there’s not much characterization or Oscar-level acting but let’s face it, that’s not what you look for in a movie like PRIEST.  You look for action, cool fight scenes, impressive visuals, big scary monsters, wicked villains and heroes to root for and that’s exactly what PRIEST delivers.  Enjoy.

Rated PG-13

87 minutes

Cowboys & Aliens

2011

Universal Pictures

Directed by Jon Favreau

Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg

Screenplay by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby

Story by Steve Oedekerk

Based on the graphic novel “Cowboys & Aliens” created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley with pencils by Luciana Lima

 I’ll tell you right up front so if you don’t want to be bothered reading the rest of the review, you don’t have to.  I enjoyed COWBOYS & ALIENS a lot.  It’s a very well made movie with performances I enjoyed and an entertaining premise.  However, I have to say this: the parts of the movie with the cowboys are so entertaining that when I got to the parts of the movie with the aliens, I was wishing I was back with the cowboys.

A man with no memory (Daniel Craig) waked up in the desert with no idea of how he got there.  He does have a picture of a beautiful woman and a strange metal bracelet on his arm he can’t remove.  The man makes his way to the boom town of Absolution which has gone bust.  The town is so bust it depends on the cattle baron Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford).  Which means suffering the drunken tantrums of his son Percy (Paul Dano)

The man runs afoul of Percy, attracting the attention of Sheriff John Taggert (Keith Carradine) who identifies the man as Jake Lonergan, notorious outlaw.  Taggert intends to ship Lonergan off to federal prison along with Percy when Dolarhyde shows up.  His intentions are simple: he wants his son back and he wants Lonergan as well.  Seems as if Lonergan has been helping himself to Dolarhyde’s gold.  Dolarhyde means to shoot up the town if his wishes aren’t met.  But he’s beaten to the punch by alien spacecraft that not only blow the town to splinters but kidnap a sizeable number of citizens.

Dolarhyde aims to go after the varmints who took his son and he needs Lonergan because the bracelet on his wrist turns out to be an extraordinarily powerful weapon.  The town doctor/bartender Doc (Sam Rockwell) wants to get his wife back.  Also going along is the grandson of the sheriff (Noah Ringer) Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) Dolarhyde’s right hand man and the town preacher (Clancy Brown) Rounding out this crew is the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde) who packs a mean shootin’ iron of her own and knows way more about the aliens than anybody else.

The road to the alien camp is one that made me wish that Jon Favreau was doing a straight-up western.  If Daniel Craig keeps making westerns I don’t give two hoots if he never makes another James Bond movie again.  Both he and Olivia Wilde look right at home in the genre.  And this is the best performance Harrison Ford has given since I dunno when.  In fact, I don’t think there was a performance in this movie I didn’t enjoy.

And Jon Favreau knows that even in an action movie you need moments where an audience can catch their breath and maybe get to know the characters a little bit better.  He’s good enough to do that and he’s also good enough to know how to rev the action back up to 11 after a slowdown.  My respect for him as a director continues to grow with every movie he makes.

So should you see COWBOYS & ALIENS?  I say yes.  It’s got truth in advertising as if has Cowboys and it has Aliens.  It’s not going to become known as a classic of the genre but it’s good, solid entertainment with a cast that knows what they’re doing and a director working at the top of his game.  Enjoy.

Rated PG-13

118 minutes

 

Quigley Down Under

MGM
1990

Directed by Simon Wincer

Produced by Stanley O’Toole and Alexandra Rose

Written by John Hill

Original Music by Basil Poledouris

I think it’s really a damn shame that Tom Selleck never became as big a movie star as I think he solidly deserved to be. He got jerked out of playing Indiana Jones and despite whatever you may have heard from that friend of yours who knows all about movies or that other friend who claims he knows the “real story” Tom Selleck was the first choice of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for Indiana Jones.

Tom Selleck has had a solid movie career, though and he did some really good stuff that I liked a lot. He got to do a couple of 1930’s adventure films such as “Lassiter” with Jane Seymour in which he played a cat burglar operating in London just before WWII and “High Road To China” where he played a boozy barnstorming pilot helping Bess Armstrong find her father who’s been kidnapped by a Chinese warlord. He also did more than his share of westerns and if your cable/satellite provider carries TNT then you know what I’m talking about. During the 90’s it seemed like every other week there was a new western starring Tom Selleck featured on that station. But he did one major feature western that has gone seriously unnoticed: QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER.

Matthew Quigley (Tom Selleck) is a cowboy/sharpshooter from America who travels to Australia with his trusty weapon: a modified 1847 Sharps Buffalo Rifle with which he can hit a man from 1200 yards away. That may not sound impressive but as a way of reference let’s put it this way: the modern football field is 100 yards long. You do the math. Quigley’s been hired by a wealthy and powerful landowner, Elliot Marston (Alan Rickman) for a job. He doesn’t say what the job is but he’ll pay Quigley 50 dollars in gold just to make the three-month trip to his ranch just to hear him out. Quigley finds Marston to be a refined gentleman obsessed with The American West. He even has a matched pair of Navy Colts that he’s become expert at using. Marston is also a sadistic racist who wants Quigley to use his sharpshooting skills to help in cutting down the Outback aborigines. Quigley’s response to this job offer is to kick Marston’s ass.

He would have been much better off just saying no and going on back home. He’s beaten half to death, taken out to the unforgiving Australia desert and dumped along with Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo) a woman Quigley has befriended. For some reason Crazy Cora thinks that Quigley is her husband Roy and part of the fun of the movie is that we’re never sure exactly how crazy Crazy Cora really is as even Quigley says to her at one point: “The scary thing is that from time to time you actually make sense.” Quigley and Cora are rescued by aborigines and that sets up the second half of the movie as Quigley goes after Marston and in the process becomes a legend among the aborigines known as ‘The Spirit Warrior’. He also learns the tragic history of Crazy Cora and why she became crazy.

QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER is rarely mentioned when even western fans get together and I don’t know why. It’s got Tom Selleck who is one of the few modern actors who actually looks as if he belongs in The Old West. He’s a worthy successor to Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, both of who would have slid into this role like you slide into your favorite jeans. He’s tough when he has to be in his scenes with Alan Rickman and tender in his scenes with Laura San Giacomo. Selleck has studied his westerns and he knows that in a role like this less is more. He says only what he has to say and no more. It’s a great old school performance.

Laura San Giacomo is totally terrific. She has to carry the load of being the only comic relief in the movie and she does it by creating a character that has us constantly wondering: “is she really crazy or just playing crazy?” Even covered in dirt she’s mad sexy and she has two really great scenes: one where she softly tells Quigley what happened to make her crazy and the other is where she spends a horrifying night defending an aborigine baby from a pack of dingos.

Alan Rickman is wonderful as Elliot Marston and if you expect to see him playing Hans Gruber In A Western, think again. Rickman’s too damn good for that. Marston’s a separate bad guy and he and Quigley make for wonderfully matched opponents. It helps that Rickman and Selleck look as if they’re having just as much fun going up against each other as Rickman and Willis did.

What else can I mention? Oh, yes…the simply magnificent score by Basil Poledouris. If you don’t know the work of this master then shame on you. And for QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER he composed one the most heroic, rousing scores I’ve ever heard for a movie. The location work is beautiful and really gives you a sense of how big Australia is. There’s a scene where Quigley has been already traveling four days to get to Marston’s and asks one of Marston’s men when will they get to his ranch and the man responds: “You’ve been on it for two days.” The look on Quigley’s face says it all. I would have liked to see more of the aborigine way of life but hey, the small bits we do see where they teach Quigley how to find water in the desert and how he teaches them how to lasso are fun and even charming.

So should you see QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER? I give thee a resounding “YES”. If you’re a fan of Tom Selleck in particular or westerns in general then you really ought to do yourself a favor and see this one. It’s got a solid story, some terrific action sequences and strong acting. QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER is a movie that belongs in the library of every movie fan.

PG-13
119 minutes