The Grey Fox


Bill Miner, at your service.

(1982) Western (UA Classics/Kino-Lorber) Richard Farnsworth, Jackie Burroughs, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson Timothy Webber, Gary Reineke, David Petersen, Don Mackay, Samantha Langevin, Tom Heaton, James McLarty, George Dawson, Ray Michal, Stephen E. Miller, David L. Crowley, David McCulley, Gary Chalk, Isaac Hislop, Sean Sullivan, Bill Murdoch, Jack AckroydDirected by Phillip Borsos

One of the great Westerns of the last 50 years is one that is often forgotten; Phillip Borsos’ The Grey Fox. It hasn’t been available to stream or view at home for a while, but the good folks at Kino-Lorber have given the film an all-new 4K restoration and it looks possibly better than it ever has. I admit that I hadn’t seen it in decades before re-watching it a few days ago.

It’s based on the true story of Bill Miner (Farnsworth), also known as the Gentleman Bandit, who committed a string of stagecoach robberies in the West. Caught, he was sentenced to prison in San Quentin which he served for more than thirty years before being released in 1901. The movie picks him up here, trying to adjust to life outside of the life of crime he’d always known and not really succeeding at it. Stagecoaches are not really in vogue anymore and robbing banks is not really Bill’s style.  An innovator in his time (he is for real credited with being the first to utter the command “Hands Up!”), he has entered a new century to find that the world has passed him by.

One evening, he goes into a movie theater and sees The Great Train Robbery, the 1903 Edwin S. Porter film that was only eleven short minutes long, but it would change Miner’s life. Why, here was a line of work he could get into! He sets out to do just that, but a botched attempt in Oregon leads him to British Columbia where he settles down in the small mining town of Kamloops under an assumed name. He puts together a team including the volatile Shorty Dunn (Hobson) and the consumptive Louis Colquhoun (Petersen). He also meets a feminist photographer named Kate (Burroughs) with whom he begins a romance that give him the thoughts of maybe, finally, settling down.

This is a beautifully shot movie; hopefully, once theaters reopen, your theater that shows revivals will book this for at least a one night screening. It certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen, but the 4K restoration makes the film look incredible even on much smaller screens.

But as beautiful as the film looks, the main attraction here is Farnsworth, who up to that point had been a stunt man for three decades as well as playing small roles for a decade, although he had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1979 for Comes a Horseman. This was his first leading role and it established him as an actor of tremendous skill. He would continue to act – including another Oscar nomination for a lead role in David Lynch’s The Straight Story – until he passed away in 2000.

The movie combines elements of the gritty 70s westerns with the grandeur of the westerns of the 60s, making it thoroughly entertaining. The romance between Bill and Kate is endearing and the chemistry between Farnsworth and Burroughs is genuine. The movie is available here in Florida, benefiting three theaters locally; the Enzian here in Orlando (here), the Corazon in St. Augustine (here), and the MDC Tower in Miami (here). Those readers out of state can click the photo above which will take them to a list of theaters that are also presenting the film; choose one of your liking. Purchasing the film at any of these three sites will benefit the theater in question, so feel free to purchase a movie that the entire family will enjoy at the same time benefiting independent theaters who need all the help they can get. It’s a win-win situation.

REASONS TO SEE: Farnsworth’s signature role. Beautifully shot. Has all the elements of an old-fashioned Western. Interweaves old movie footage in skillfully.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little too low-key for hardcore Western fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is widely considered to be one of the ten best films ever produced by Canada.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Last Laugh

Tombstone-Rashomon


You’re a daisy if you do.

(2017) Western (Tri-Coast) Adam Newberry, Jesse Lee Pacheco, Christine Dodge, Eric Schumacher, Benny Lee Kennedy, Richard Anderson, Jason Graham, Shayn Herndon, Michele Bauer, Haydn Winston, Bradford Trojan, James Miller, Callie Hutchinson, Rogelio Camarillo Brenda Jean Foley, Frank Gonzalez, Wade Everett, Pablo Kjolseth, Susan Sebanc. Directed by Alex Cox

 

One of the watershed moments in the Old West was the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory on October 26, 1881 has taken on mythic proportions in the annals of the American frontier.

What is not well-known is that a time-travelling film crew arrived in Tombstone to document the famous event. Unfortunately, they miscalculated and arrived in Tombstone on October 27. Although distraught at having missed the historic event, they chose to soldier on, interviewing the survivors and eyewitnesses.

Among the participants interviewed were Ike Clanton (Kennedy), J.W. “Doc” Holliday (Schumacher) and Wyatt Earp (Newberry). Also interviewed were Holliday’s common-law wife Mary “Big Nose Kate” Horony (Dodge), Sheriff Johnny Behan (Pacheco) and saloon keeper Col. John Hafford (Anderson). Each gave conflicting testimony as to what happened that day. We’ll never really know for certain what happened in those fateful 30 seconds on that cold, windy day but nobody will ever forget it.

Legendary cult film director Alex Cox comes up with an intriguing concept, but true to his ethos doesn’t really stick to it. Trying to put the events of one of the most famous events in the Old West through the same microscope as Kurosawa’s legendary 1950 samurai film Rashomon, we see footage of the events as told by the various interview subjects, although the title card at the beginning clearly states that the camera crew didn’t arrive until after that all happened. Cox might have been better served to either use animatics to illustrate the testimony (a fairly expensive proposition) or simply not state when the film crew arrived, although that might have messed with the whole Kurosawa angle.

I don’t know how much research was done into this – probably not a lot – but there are a lot of idiosyncrasies here. For example, the Hungarian-born Horony is confused as to grammar, referring to male subjects as “she” and “her” throughout. Although Horony had been in America for 21 years when the shootout took place. We also see the Earps arrive at the gunfight in a police SUV. I like goofy humor as much as the next guy, but I have a burr up my butt about anachronisms. It would have been just as bad if they had been singing a David Bowie song in the saloon.

The film was shot around Arizona although not in Tombstone itself, which is understandable since modern Tombstone is a tourist mecca and doesn’t really lend itself to filming movies anymore. The costuming is mostly authentic, although the clothes are much cleaner than they would have been in the 19th century.

The performances by mainly unknown actors are solid and believable. My one issue is with the interviewer (Sebanc) who speaks in a flat, emotionless and almost robotic voice. Something tells me that was the direction that Cox gave the actress, but it sounds like the interview is being conducted by Ciri or Alexa.

The movie is interesting enough to watch, but the little idiosyncrasies end up doing it in. Cox has a pretty legit resume and has continued to make flawed but fascinating movies since his heyday in the 80s, and this is another one of those.

REASONS TO SEE: Solid onscreen performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: The interviewer is robotic and stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Cox is best-known for his mid-80s cult hits Repo Man, Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandor
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tombstone
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Widows

The Sisters Brothers


The brothers ride.

(2018) Western (AnnapurnaJoaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Carol Kane, Rutger Hauer, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman, Patrice Cossonneau, Zack Abbott, David Gassman, Philip Rosch, Creed Bratton, Lenuta Bala, Jochen Hägele, Eric Colvin, Ian Reddington, Aldo Maland, Theo Exarchopoulos, Sean Duggan, Lexie Benbow-Hart. Directed by Jacques Audiard

 

You wouldn’t think that Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly would make a great pair of brothers who happen to be bloodthirsty bounty hunters in the Old West, but they do in this gritty, sweaty Western that is so realistic you cn almost smell the smoke from their Colts and the stink from their sweat-soaked shirts.

Eli (Reilly) Sisters and his brother Charlie (Phoenix) are a couple of hired killers who work for The Commodore (Hauer) in the pre-Civil War Oregon Territory. Basically, Charlie is the true gunslinger; Eli is a competent killer but not as natural born to it as Charlie is. Eli is weary of the life and hopes to give it up soon, maybe open a dry goods store. Charlie thinks he’s crazy.

Their latest assignment is to catch up with chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed) and get a formula from him that the Commodore claims was stolen from him. They will be aided by Detective John Morris (Gyllenhaal) who will track Warm down and hold onto him until the brothers can get there.

Morris, an educated man, is smart enough to see that the better possibilities for a future rest with Warm and not the Commodore, so he betrays the Brothers and takes off with Warm, hoping to make enough money to open up a Utopian society in the Dallas area. Naturally, the Brothers don’t take too kindly to this, particularly the hot-headed Charlie.

It is almost de rigeur for a Western to have beautiful cinematography and that is no less the case here, with Northern and Western Spain subbing for the American West. The pace is slower than a lame horse, though, and those who like their Westerns action-packed will be disappointed, although when there are gunfights, they are artfully staged, sometimes taking place in pitch darkness where all you can see is the occasional muzzle flash.

The chemistry between Reilly and Phoenix is what saves the day here. Of course, Reilly has made a career out of being the second banana in team-up movies (although he makes a compelling lead when he gets the opportunity) and he has always known how best to play off of his partner’s strengths. He does so here, giving Phoenix a chance to practice for his role as the Joker which he would undertake just a year after making this one.

As Westerns go, this isn’t bad but the languid pacing and overreliance on some really awful events happening to the brothers, ranging from bear mauling to spier bites to chemical burns to amputations. There’s also a penalty for unnecessary vomit; we get that Charlie’s a drunk without it. I suppose though, when you are going to make a gritty, realistic Western it’s going to go along with all the excretions and secretions a body can muster.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully acted and beautifully shot.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly long and ponderously paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some of it disturbing. There is also some profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first English-language Western directed by a French director. It is also the first English-language film overall by Audiard.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Pale Rider
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bohemian Rhapsody

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


Git along, lil’ doggies.

(2018) Western (NetflixTim Blake Nelson, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Jefferson Mays, Prudence Wright Holmes, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O’Neill, Jordy Laucomer, Brett Hughson, Thea Lux, Danny McCarthy, Harry Meling, Jiji Hise. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers have been one of my favorite directors going back to Raising Arizona. Their mix of cynicism and quirky humor have made even the lesser efforts highly watchable. When they’re on their game, there are none better.

They have always had a soft spot for the American West – many of their films are set there, if not out and out westerns – and this, their newest film is an anthology of six tales set in the old West. The opening tale which gives the movie its name features Nelson as a singing cowboy who turns out to be a cross between Gene Autry and Clint Eastwood. There are moments of horrific violence and wicked humor which ends in an unexpected way. This is my favorite segment of the six (and the shortest) and ranks right up there with some of their best work ever.

“Near Algodones” stars Franco as a bank robber and keeps up the momentum. Franco plays the luckiest – and most luckless – thief ever. While less unexpected than the first segment, it nonetheless is entertaining. “Meal Ticket” starts the film overall towards a darker turn. It stars Neeson as an impresario who employs an armless and legless thespian (Meling) who does soliloquys in a wagon that converts into an impromptu stage until…well, you need to see for yourself.

“All Gold Canyon” features Tom Waits as a prospector who strikes it rich but then must do battle with a claim jumper. It’s loosely based on a Jack London short story. “The Girl Who Got Rattled” is about a young woman (Kazan) traveling with a wagon train who is looking for love – and finds it. I also liked this segment, nearly as much as the first one. Finally, there’s “Mortal Remains” in which a group traveling in a stagecoach are treated to a tale told by a foppish bounty hunter (O’Neill). In many ways this is the deepest segment from a philosophical standpoint but it does make for an odd way to end the film.

This isn’t as cohesive as the best Cohen brothers movies are – it couldn’t be, given that it’s an anthology – but when it is at its best (the first and fifth segments) it is a riveting piece of filmmaking, from the beautiful cinematography in “All Gold Canyon” to the ironic wit in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” There is a definitely cynical tone here; it feels like over the past decade the films of the Coen boys have taken the point of view that there is nothing to recommend most people and the best thing we can do with our lives is die. I think I hold out a little more hope than all that, but they at least make their cynicism entertaining. Although I wish I could have seen this on the big screen, Netflix subscribers should make a point of adding this to their queue if they haven’t already seen it.

REASONS TO SEE: Has all the quirkiness you come to expect from the Coen brothers. The opening chapter is one of the best things they’ve ever done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Waffles between hysterically funny and bleaker than bleak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest film the Coen brothers have ever directed, and the first to be shot on digital media.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rustler’s Rhapsody
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Sonata

Badland


That’s one tough hombre.

(2019) Western (CinedigmKevin Makely, Mira Sorvino, Bruce Dern, Wes Studi, Trace Adkins, Jeff Fahey, Tony Todd, James Russo, Amanda Wyss, Ryan Kelly, Todd A. Robinson, Aidan Bristow, Reggie Watkins, Anita Leeman Torres, Omid Zader, Laura Cantwell, Lauren Francesca. Directed by Justin Lee

 

A good Western will make you feel the dust of the trail on your boots, feel the hot wind of the Southwest in your hair and maybe the smell of the campfire in your nostrils. A good Western is tonic for the soul. A bad Western, however, can leave you feeling cheated.

=Matthias Breecher (Makely) is a Pinkerton detective riding out West at the behest of Senator Benjamin Burke (Todd) to seek out Confederate war criminals and bring them to justice by whatever means necessary. His run-in with a bloodthirsty general (Adkins) ends up in an impressive shoot-out in which the numerical tactical advantage the general enjoys is for naught.

Next on the list for Breecher is one Reginald Cooke (Dern) who it turns out is on his deathbed with his devoted daughter Sarah (Sorvino) trying to hold things together on the farm, which baddie Fred Quaid (Russo) is eager to possess. Breecher, rather than executing his quarry, decides to let things take their natural course and give Sarah a hand on the ranch and with the nefarious Quaid. She is able to coax Breecher out of his shell somewhat, although likewise that all goes for naught.

Finally, Breecher goes after a crooked sheriff (Fahey) who is terrorizing a small town, including comely barmaid Alice (Wyss). Can Breecher save the day and maybe settle down at last? Fans of the Western genre ought to know the answer to that question.

=In an era where Westerns remain studiously out of favor despite evidence that a good Western will attract an audience. Lee has made a name for himself with low-budget Westerns shot efficiently. This one probably has the biggest budget of the bunch; it certainly has the most impressive cast. Adkins – who doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time – is nevertheless memorable as is Fahey who is clearly having a good time despite the cliched nature of the character. Makely is a handsome brooding sort with a gravelly voice who seems well-suited for Westerns; he has enough presence to make the movie interesting although not enough to raise the film above its own limitations.

The movie is divided into chapters, I suppose to try and give it a literary bent; it doesn’t really work. The coda chapter with Alice and Wainwright is somewhat unnecessary. It would have made a decent sequel (should one be warranted) but it feels like we’re getting a movie and a half for the price of a movie. The running time is a good twenty minutes too long; I would have liked to have seen the pacing pick up some and more character development given to the Cooke section which is, to be fair, the best of the three segments. Todd is also pretty decent in what is essentially linking sections.

While I’m not the sort who lives and dies by Louis L’Amour, I am fond of Westerns in general and it always tickles me to see a well-made one This one is a few bricks shy of a load in that regard, but there is enough here to give genre fans something to build on; hopefully Lee can take his next Western and elevate it to the next level.

REASONS TO SEE: Makely has some potential as a lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: The last half-hour feels completely unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair bit of western-style violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the last two calendar years, Lee has had six films released to date – half of them Westerns.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diablo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
To Be of Service

Big Kill (2018)


You can always tell the bad guys by their eccentric taste in fashion.

(2018) Western (Cinedigm/Archstone) Christoph Sanders, Scott Martin, Clint Hummel, Jason Patric, Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Parė, Danny Trejo, K.C. Clyde, Elizabeth McLaughlin, Audrey Walters, Jermaine Washington, Dennis LaValle, David Manzanares, Sarah Minnich, Paul Blott, Stephanie Beran, Toby Bronson, Bob Jesser, David Hight, Itzel Montelongo, Tsailii Rogers. Directed by Scott Martin

 

Part of the reason Westerns were so popular 50 and 60 years ago is that once upon a time, they were fun. The hero was always an easy-going sort with a code of honor not unlike a knight of old, the shopkeeper was as honest as the day was long, the villains were shoot first and don’t ask questions at all, and the saloon gals had hearts of gold.

Along came the ‘70s to turn the heroes into anti-heroes, the shopkeepers to be racists, the villains even more despicable than the heroes but only just so, and saloon gals who were hookers whose bustles came off at the drop of a cowboy hat.  The audience became somewhat more sophisticated and Westerns all but disappeared from the cinematic landscape.

They’ve begun to slowly come back only recently and there have been a few really good ones in and among the mix with even the occasional big budget Hollywood western making an appearance every so often. The hallowed B Western, once the province of actors like Dean Martin, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood, have remained in the background although from time to time an indie western surfaces, generally on the ultra-violent side (Bone Tomahawk).

Big Kill opens up with a pair of ne’er do well gunfighters – Travis (Hummel) who never met a woman he couldn’t seduce, and Jake (Martin), a gambler who if it weren’t for bad luck wouldn’t have any luck at all – being run out of Mexico by a general (Trejo) whose daughter Travis defiled. While under the protection of the U.S. Cavalry in an outpost so forlorn and isolated it can barely be called a fort, they meet up with Philadelphia accountant Jim Andrews (Sanders) who is on his way to the Silver mine boom town of Big Kill, Arizona to meet up with his brother who wrote Jim glowingly about the saloon he owns and how successful the town is.

When they get there, nobody has heard of Jim’s brother, the town is nearly deserted and those who have remained are intimidated by the nefarious Preacher (Patric) who believes in handing out his brand of justice on the end of a gun and salvation, as he administers the last rites to those he guns down, as well as the Preacher’s enforcer, sociopathic gunslinger Johnny Kane (Phillips) who looks like Wayne Newton playing a gaudy 50s cowboy in a red suit.

Travis and Jake are all for leaving while the leaving is good but Jim needs to find out what happened to his brother. He meets shopkeeper’s daughter Sophie (McLaughlin) who is sweet as pie but a real pistol. She gives Jim another reason to stick around; however, you know that a confrontation between the bad guys and the good guys for the soul of the town is just around the corner.

This is a fun little movie that has some really nice touches; the final gunfight between Jim and the Preacher involves the two mostly circling around each other and firing off wild shots that don’t hit anything except, maybe, a cameraman on the movie filming over at the next butte. Despite the fact that the Preacher was earlier shown to be a proficient gunfighter, Jim being an Eastern tenderfoot and proud of it likely would be hard pressed to hit the broad side of a barn door. Sanders, best known as lovable dim bulb Kyle in Last Man Standing, is perfectly cast for the role and does a pretty credible job of holding our interest.

Patric, a veteran of some really good movies back in the 90s, does a fine turn as the charismatic villain that makes me wonder why he doesn’t get cast more often. Phillips doesn’t play a mustache twirling villain all that often but he does a good job of it here, sans the mustache twirling.

Like most westerns, there are some beautifully photographed vistas and a soundtrack that mixes soaring themes with the occasional twang twang twang of the Jew’s harp to lend color. Where the movie falls down is in the editing; some of the exposition is drawn out too much and some of the scenes could have used some tightening up. Still, there is a lot to like here. This is the kind of Western I used to watch regularly on TV and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. A little nostalgia is good for the soul.

REASONS TO SEE: This really isn’t half-bad. Sanders is inspired casting.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the exposition is excessive and would have benefited from tighter editing. It’s a little bit derivative.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a good deal of violence, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magnificent Seven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The Wind (2018)


Some books you CAN judge by their cover.

(2018) Thriller (IFC Midnight) Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles, Ashley Zuckerman, Dylan McTee, Miles Anderson, Martin C. Patterson. Directed by Emma Tammi

 

When we think of the early settlers of the West, we think of covered wagons, saloons, small towns with good hard-working people in them and undoubtedly all of the above were there. However, many pioneers were on their own, alone in an unforgiving land, relying on what they themselves could accomplish in order to survive.

Isaac (Zuckerman) and Lizzy Macklin (Gerard) are just such pioneers. They live alone on a deserted prairie with town more than a day’s ride away. The journey to town wasn’t without peril, so generally Isaac would go, whether to pick up supplies or to bring in what produce and animals he could sell. While Isaac is gone, Lizzy is alone; in fact, Lizzy is alone much of the day. She doesn’t seem to mind much, other than the whisper of the ever-present wind which some nights grows to a deafening howl.

Into their world comes Gideon (McTee) and Emma (Telles) Harper; they are “neighbors” if a walk of several hours can be called a neighborhood. They are young and perhaps a bit green; Emma’s skills as a cook are pretty weak and the more “worldly” Lizzy offers to teach her how to improve. In turn, Gideon has a lot to learn about working a farm and the generous Isaac is often at the Harper place helping Gideon get by.

Naturally Lizzy and Emma become friends, and when Emma becomes with child, Lizzy promises to help in every way she can. Emma though is growing frightened; how is she going to give birth and raise a child so far from civilization? And in the sound of the wind she begins to hear other things and she becomes absolutely convinced that there is something out there. Gideon is sure that Emma is imagining things and at first Lizzy is too. Then she begins to hear them.

After tragedy strikes the Harper family, Lizzy is more alone than ever but now she is sure that there is something out there too. Isaac is as skeptical as Gideon was but Lizzy is adamant. While Isaac is away returning Gideon to civilization, things come to a head with Lizzy and the dweller of the prairie but is it real? Or has Lizzy gone mad?

Tammi, heretofore a director of documentaries, acquits herself honorably on her first narrative feature. She manages to create a real sense that there’s something not quite right going on, that the environment is far from benevolent and that the people in it are highly vulnerable. She also does a great job of realistically portraying the pioneer life; the women work as hard if not harder than the men (I’d wager most women would agree with me that some things haven’t changed).There are no modern conveniences; laundry must be hand-washed and hung to dry in the wind; if she wanted bread with dinner, she had to make it and often meals consisted of whatever they had on hand which was often not much.

The heart and soul of this movie is Lizzy and Tammi cast Gerard wisely. The actress isn’t a household name – yet – but she carries the movie effortlessly, her haunted eyes and stretched face telling the story. The movie begins moments after the Harper tragedy occurs and we see Lizzy emerging, zombie-like. It’s a powerful moment and we have no explanation as to what happened. Gradually, through flashbacks, we learn what happened in the cabin until the audience catches up with the story, after which we resume with Lizzy’s own ordeal.

Although many are categorizing this as a horror film, I’d prefer to describe it as a psychological thriller with elements of horror. There’s enough gore and disturbing images to satisfy horror fans as well as some fairly interesting special effects that give us some insight as to what Lizzy is imagining (or experiencing – we’re never really sure). The budget on this probably wouldn’t cover the electrical tape budget on any of the Conjuring series movies but Tammi makes effective use of every penny.

On the technical side, the movie makes a wonderful use of sound, from the whistling, howling and whispering of the wind to the unearthly shrieks that emanate from the prairie, helping to create that atmosphere I referred to earlier. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief makes excellent use of light and shadow, keeping that feeling of something menacing in the darkness. There aren’t really any jump scares here so the horror comes honestly.

There are a couple of drawbacks. The editing is at times ragged and jarring. Also, some of the performances (other than Gerard) were a mite stiff at times. However, those are largely sins that don’t disrupt the overall enjoyment of the movie and it is enjoyable, not just for horror fans. The last 20 minutes of the movie incidentally will have you white-knuckled and trying not to jump out of your own skin. The “twist” isn’t a game-changer but it does fit nicely.

All in all, this is the kind of movie that should be celebrated by cinephiles and horror fans alike. Indie horror movies have been extremely strong of late and The Wind is right up there with some of the best of them, even if strictly speaking it’s not completely a horror movie. Still, this is a movie well worth your time and effort.

REASONS TO SEE: The last 20 minutes are gut-wrenching. Tammi elicits a real sense of unease, that something is off. The filmmakers use light and darkness effectively as well as sound effects and the soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is a bit stiff in places and some of the editing is a bit abrupt.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images, gore, violence, partial nudity and sexuality,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on the 1928 silent film The Wind which starred Lillian Gish.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centennial Episode 11: The Winds of Death
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Storm Boy

Iron Brothers


Winter is coming and the Iron brothers are running!

(2018) Western (Random) Tate Smith, Porter Smith, Talon Teton, Trevor Beasley, Richard Dean, Luke Kalmar, Ernest Appenay, Terrence Appenay, Walton Appenay, Bryson Appenay, Kalen “Broken Arrow” Hammond, Stephen Barrus, Troy Moss. Directed by Josh and Tate Smith

 

The old West was a harsh mistress. Unforgiving landscapes of mountain, prairie and desert tested the limits of endurance; outlaws were a further issue. Mistrust between natives and white settlers added yet another dimension of danger. Those who hoped to survive had to be as tough as nails..as strong as iron.

The Iron brothers Abel (Tate Smith) and Henry (Porter Smith) Iron were fur trappers in the Rocky Mountain lowlands of the early 1850s. It is not a good time to be fur trappers; beaver has fallen out of favor as a fashion accouterments and the price for pelts has fallen starkly. Beavers themselves have gotten more and more scarce, as Abel who does most of the capturing of beaver can attest. Henry, the younger, does most of the negotiating (mainly with Randal (Kalmar) who has been their buyer for years) which isn’t really a good fit with his hotheaded temperament.

That hotheaded temperament led to their predicament; while Abel was out fur trapping he ran into some Shoshone natives out hunting and a misunderstanding led to the death of one of the Shoshone. As that was going on, Henry had taken some of their pelts to sell to Randal; when he gave him a substandard offer, Henry lost his temper and leads to a violent encounter. Randal’s associates managed to shoot out Henry’s horse (the only one the two brothers owned.

Henry managed to evade the two gunmen and make it home. When Abel arrived he made it clear they would have to leave their cabin and head west to California. It was the onset of winter and in a matter of days the weather would turn nasty and with no horse the two men had little chance to make it out but their chances of remaining alive if they stayed home were even worse. They will be chased by both the Shoshone and Randal’s associates who mean to do them in – if the winter weather doesn’t kill them first. Their bond will need to remain strong in order for both of them to survive.

This is a beautiful looking movie that captures the majesty and desolation of the Rocky Mountains in winter. Cinematographer Josh Smith uses a variety of cranes, handheld cameras, lenses and angles to make the background more interesting. This is a double-edged sword; for one thing, the magnificent scenery doesn’t really need it and at times he gets a bit carried away; some two-person conversations have as many as six different angles which became distracting.

The movie needs it unfortunately; although the condensed plot may sound pretty action-packed and fascinating on paper, the movie is edited for a more epic scope which gives it a sprawling feel but without the onscreen energy and action to justify it. Don’t get me wrong; Westerns should have an epic feel. They also require a certain amount of conflict and onscreen drama and there isn’t as much of that as there should be. The fights with the Shoshone are curiously restrained as if the hearts of the actors weren’t in it. That can be problematic especially for low-budget productions when the inexperienced actors all know each other.

It looks like most of the Native American roles were portrayed by Native Americans which is admirable, particularly in a low-budget indie film. Big budget Hollywood movies should take that page out of the Smith brothers book. However, one thing the brothers could have done better was the dialogue; there are a few words and phrases that they use (like “let’s do this”) that were not in vogue in the mid-19th century and when they’re uttered here it takes you right out of the movie.

However, the better aspects of the production do slightly outweigh the lesser ones and the movie is gorgeous to watch. Western fans, who are pretty much starved for content these days, should check this one out. Those who love the Rockies might also make an effort to give this a look.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography captures some beautiful but desolate winter mountain landscapes. They cast native Americans in native American roles.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is extremely slow-moving. Some of the dialogue is a bit anachronistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and a little bit of gore
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was a Smith family affair, with brothers Josh, Tate and Porter Smith involved both behind and in fron of the camera, sister Janelle doing costuming and father David producing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Searchers
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bennett’s Song

Cassidy Red


Jo Cassidy gets the drop on her Dad and all of the rest of us as well.

(2017) Western (Vision) Abby Eiland, David Thomas Jenkins, Jason Grasi, Jessy Knudsen, Gregory Zaragoza, Rick Cramer, Lola Kelly, Alyssa Elle Steinacker, Hudson Bothwick, Lindsey-Anne Campbell, Lyle Kanouse, Bryan Harnden, Peter Fuller, Mercedes LeAnza, Annie Pace, Morgan Smith, Veronica Conran, Alicia Herder. Directed by Matt Knudsen

 

The Old West was no place for a woman. Life was hard, even for those who had husbands to protect and provide. For those that didn’t there weren’t many choices and often they found their way to the bordellos and cathouses of the time. Pregnancy was a way of life and those born of prostitutes back in the day had a very rough road ahead of them.

Josephine “Jo” Cassidy (Eiland) was one such daughter. Her mother (LeAnza) was a prostitute; her father, Cort Cassidy (Cramer) a bounty hunter. Jo grew up splitting time between her mother’s brothel and her father’s ranch. On the former she learned how to use her looks to her advantage; on the latter, how to defend herself thanks to her dad and dear old Colonel Samuel Colt – as the old Western saw goes, God didn’t make all men equal, Colonel Colt did.

A half-Apache squatter she names Jakob (Grasi) catches her eye but also causes a conflict with Tom Hayes (Jenkins) who has an eye for Jo and even gets her to agree to marry him. Jakob is adopted by Tom’s guilty dad and becomes a valued ranch hand but although Jo is engaged to Tom, her heart belongs to Jakob. One night, Tom catches the two as they plan to run away together. Tom’s pride won’t allow that to happen so he arranges for Rowena (Kelly), a prostitute that Jo trusts, to inform Jo that Jakob was shot down by Sheriff Tom.

Jo seeks out her father’s help in learning how to gun down the much more seasoned gunfighter Tom but although he’s reluctant, Cort eventually comes around. However, there are some revelations to be had – not everyone is telling the truth which shouldn’t be a surprise. The situation is a lot different than Jo has been led to believe but it doesn’t matter. A reckoning is coming and as the tagline says, Hell hath no fury – and throw in a redhead at that and you’ve got trouble that money won’t buy you out of.

The production design is really pretty high-end for a low-budget western like this one. Lauren Ivy is a name to remember in that department; clearly she’s someone who can make a lot out of a little. Julia Swain does a bang-up job of cinematography, with the requisite Western sunsets and dusty town vistas but also some meadows and brothels to boot. It’s a splendid looking feature in every regard.

The movie does abound with Western clichés but they are approached from more of a female point of view; for once in the love triangle the gunslinger is the woman. There are also a lot of women behind the camera in positions of importance (I’ve already mentioned two of them) and in this day and age where women have a hard time building up a resume, that’s pretty big.

The story is told mainly through flashbacks as a piano player named Cricket (Zaragoza) regales jaded and disillusioned hooker Quinn (J. Knudsen) with the story of the star-crossed lovers. It isn’t too hard to figure out what the big twist is here and all of the little ones as well for that matter. I would have liked to have seen a little more character development without the framing story but that’s just me. In any case the action breaks away to Cricket and Quinn every so often and it doesn’t do anything good for the flow of the story.

Even so, despite a lack of attention to detail (the upright piano clearly sounds like a grand piano and some of the expressions used are more 21st century than 19th) this is surprisingly entertaining for a movie that hasn’t received a whole lot of notice. Most of the issues can be overlooked so while it’s not going to bring back the Western genre all by itself, certainly fans of that underserved genre will likely welcome a pretty decent new one into the fold.

REASONS TO GO: It is admirable that there are a whole lot of women in major positions for the film. Eiland and Grasi are both effective leads.
REASONS TO STAY: A little more attention to detail could have been used in post. There are a whole lot of Western clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a bit of sensuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was originally produced as a thesis film project for the UCLA Masters of Fine Arts directing program.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bandidas
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Chamber

The Hero


Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott are most definitely amused.

(2017) Dramedy (The Orchard) Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katherine Ross, Doug Cox, Max Gail, Jackie Joyner, Patrika Darbo, Frank Collison, Andy Alio, Ali Wong, Cameron Esposito, Linda Lee McBride, Christopher May, Demetrios Sailes, Sherwin Ace Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Todd Glieberhain, Norman De Buck, Barbara Scolaro. Directed by Brett Haley

In many ways, we use the term “hero” a bit too loosely in our society. A hero can be a first responder rushing into a burning building to rescue those trapped inside, or it can be a dad willing to play catch with his son. It’s a matter of perspective. One person’s hero is another person’s non-entity.

Lee Hayden (Elliott) was once upon a time an actor of Westerns who was one of the best of his time. His film The Hero remains an iconic look at the Old West. However, he didn’t know that was to be his career highlight. Now in his 70s, the actor smokes pot, hangs out with a former co-star and child actor now turned pot dealer Jeremy (Offerman) who ends up introducing him to another client, stand-up comedian Charlotte Dylan (Prepon). Lee’s agent isn’t exactly what you’d call a go-getter; his career has been stalled for some time, having only a barbecue sauce radio commercial to fall back on and a Lifetime Achievement award for a small-time Western Film Appreciation Society. We all know Lifetime Achievement awards are code for “I didn’t know he was still alive.”

This is all taking place about the time that Lee learns he has stage four pancreatic cancer. Lee copes with the news by snapping at his friends and smoking all the pot he can get his hands on. A chance encounter with Charlotte at a taco truck leads to an endearingly awkward invitation to be his date at the award ceremony.

His acceptance speech in which he pays a somewhat heartfelt but molly-addled thanks to his fans goes viral and suddenly he has offers and opportunities that he hasn’t had in decades. His relationship with Charlotte though is going through some rocky patches, his daughter Lucy (Ritter) doesn’t want to see him and Lee is terrified at what his future holds. What truly makes a hero?

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room – Sam Elliott is an iconic actor with a voice that sounds as timeless as the Grand Canyon and a face twice as lined. This folks is arguably the best performance of his storied career. While I admit it’s a bit strange watching Elliott as a pot head, this is as nuanced and as versatile a performance as I can recall him giving. He has moments when he’s funny as hell (as when he tells an adoring fan who loves his moustache “It loves you too, honey” and gives her a sweet peck on the cheek) and others that are pure pathos. My favorite moment in the movie is when he tells his ex-wife (played by his actual real life wife Katherine Ross) that he has cancer. The scene is shot in long shot and we don’t hear what’s actually said. We just see the ex break down and Lee move to comfort her. It’s an amazing moment by two pros who I wouldn’t mind seeing much more of on the silver screen.

And now for the other elephant in the room (this room sure holds a lot of elephants); the cancer-centric plot. It’s not that we haven’t been through hordes of movies that are about aging parents with limited time left trying to reconcile with their angry children and yes, that’s exactly what’s going on here. However, it never feels maudlin under the sure direction of Brett Haley and Elliott and his fine supporting cast make sure that the characters always feel real; never do we feel like Hayden is almost superhuman in his stoic acceptance of his oncoming date with death. Hayden shows moments of terror and at last realizing he can’t do it on his own reaches out to those closest to him.

The movie was a big hit at Sundance and was selected as the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival. That’s a high bar to live up to but The Hero easily reaches its lofty expectations and exceeds them. While some may think of the movie as being too sugary sweet on paper (and I admit it looks that way but only on paper) the reality is that the emotions felt genuine to me and Elliott’s performance transcends a lot of the fears I’d normally have with a movie like this. You may need a few tissues here and there but in reality this is the portrait of a truly heroic man, the kind of man who has become increasingly rare these days – a man’s man. With the scarcity of that particular species, it makes all sorts of sense to me that a woman Prepon’s age would fall for a man of Elliott’s. As hoary as the Hollywood May/December romance is, it works here. That’s a minor miracle in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this may be the best performance of Elliott’s career. There are some real nice visuals. The film is an interesting take on the nature of heroism.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little bit cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more drug use than you’d expect as well as a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elliott and Ross are married in real life (they play exes here); this is the first cinematic appearance by Ross in ten years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Fall, Winter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Gangster’s Daughter