A Million Ways To Die In The West

A-Million-Ways-To-Die-In-The-West-Official-Poster

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

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