The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Warpath (1951)

Coursing through one story after another, the concept of good, old-fashioned bloody revenge/vengeance seems quite at home in the western genre. Don't it? And sometimes, that's all you need for a good story. Take 1951's Warpath, a decent little western that could have been pretty good. If it had just stuck to its revenge-driven guns...

Riding into a dusty, wind-swept town in the west, a man named John Vickers (Edmond O'Brien) gets off a stagecoach and promptly runs into the man's he long been after. He prods him into drawing first and shoots him dead, but not before getting some information out of the dying man. Vickers is looking for two other men and has been doing so for the previous eight years, always on their trail, always one step too slow. Now, he's got to take it one step further. Those two men he's pursuing have joined the cavalry. What to do? Driven solely by revenge, Vickers joins up too, knowing the regiment the duo enlisted with. That outfit? The infamous Seventh Cavalry, commanded by General George Armstrong Custer. Vickers hopes he can finish his mission, but has he bitten off more than he can chew?

I'm always on the lookout for new westerns, especially harder-to-find B-westerns like this entry from director Byron Haskin. Nothing too fancy here, a pretty straightforward revenge story that's undone by some story choices. It brings together all sorts of genre conventions, throws them in a mixer and you get to watch the finished product, a western clocking in at about 100 minutes that has a somewhat disjointed feel. Not especially good, not especially bad, but worth a watch for genre fans.

Edmond O'Brien is criminally underrated. Westerns, film noirs, dramas, thrillers, this guy could and did do it all. His John Vickers manages to hold things together throughout all the bouncing balls. He's a Civil War veteran hellbent on revenge, looking to avenge the death of his fiance who was shot and paralyzed as an innocent bystander during a bank robbery. He watched her die slowly, wilt away, and intends to exact revenge no matter where it takes him. It's a good part for O'Brien, simmering with rage and intensity as he puts himself through all sorts of trials and tribulations to exact that revenge, often putting himself at great danger to do so. Or is that his plan and has been all along? Hmm, interesting. Something to think about, huh? :)

The cast has some familiar names and faces, helping smooth out the rough patches. Among the cavalry soldiers O'Brien's Vickers finds in the Seventh Cavalry, there's Forrest Tucker, Paul Fix, Wallace Ford, and the always welcome Harry Carey Jr. Also at the fort, Vickers meets the comely daughter (Polly Bergen) of the owner of the general store (Dean Jagger). Wouldn't you know it? She likes Vickers...but she also likes another soldier! Oh, no! Yeah, the story goes down that path. A story that already bounces around too much grinds to a halt in those oh so painful moments.  If you're a western fan, the solid supporting cast overall should pull you in. It did for me!

There's enough here to recommend. It's a solid B-western from the early 1950's, but it certainly has an edge to it. It's a kinda leisurely revenge-seeking trip -- how does it take 8 years to track 3 people down when you seemingly are always on their tail? -- and O'Brien's Vickers seems to take quite a risk enlisting in the army in the hopes of finding two men in an entire cavalry regiment. And as mentioned, the forced love interest never really takes off.

Still, 'Warpath' does take some risks that pay off. It's clearly made on the cheap, including an art insert of the fort walls as the cavalry troops ride in and out. Helping cancel things out are a combination of some western notables. A midway action scene has a twist on the Battle of Beecher's Island, one of the more fascinating, little-known battles in the wild west. Then, the finale is set against the backdrop of Custer's Last Stand, maybe the most iconic moment in American history in the wild west. So yeah, if the ending is a little abrupt -- oh, right, Custer and the whole regiment are dead! -- so be it. It's a fun little western.
Warpath (1951): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, April 10, 2016


While superhero, horror and animated flicks dominate theaters on a week-to-week basis, the western....well, you've got to search out that generally forgotten genre quite a bit more. There's been some options at least in '16, including Jane Got a Gun (pretty good) and Diablo (pretty bad), and a Magnificent Seven remake is even scheduled for an August release. So where does 2016's Forsaken fall? Keep on reading, pardner!

It's been years since the end of the Civil War and John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) is finally coming home. He's spent those years drifting along from town to town, hiring on as a gunfighter, as a hired gun, whoever needs his service with a pistol. Now, he's looking to hang up his gunbelt and move on, settle down, and especially mend his relationship with his father, a reverend, William (Donald Sutherland). Years apart has not mellowed either man with some past wounds still very fresh. John Henry is committed though, and he intends to go straight. That's going to be easier said than done. James McCurdy (Brian Cox), a local businessman, is looking to scoop up all the land for miles and doing so with fear tactics, intimidation and straight-out murder. The only one capable of stopping McCurdy and his own gunmen? John Henry Clayton, who must now decide if he'll strap on his gunbelt one more time.

I rented this western from Redbox this week. The Internet reports that 'Forsaken' was released theatrically in February, but it must have been the shortest theatrical release ever. I look for flicks like this and didn't see it anywhere near the Chicago-area! So however its release was handled, the end result is the same....

It's a good, old-fashioned, traditional western. It doesn't try to rewrite the genre, bringing to life one of the more familiar western stories around. Bad guy wants land, land owners can't/won't fight back, gunfighter must stand up to bad guy. Lather, rinse and repeat! It's Shane and The Magnificent Seven and countless other westerns, but director Jon Cassar is a more than capable filmmaker to have in the director's chair. Filmed in Canada and borrowing some locations from Open Range (along with some basic storytelling devices), 'Forsaken' is content to be a good, old-fashioned western. It looks gorgeous, the score from composer Jonathan Goldsmith is above average and blends well with the story and visual. If you like westerns, this is more than a safe bet. An easy recommendation.

Not surprisingly, 24's Jack Bauer is a pretty easy transition into the western anti-hero. Kiefer Sutherland is very solid as John Henry Clayton, a gunfighter with a checkered past who's looking to go straight. The grizzled, trail-worn look fits Sutherland well, and he slides easily into the genre. His past is doled out in small doses as we see what's driven him to the breaking point. Long story short? He's very good with a pistol but that ability has gotten himself into trouble. There's a cool dynamic -- rather heated at times -- too between the real-life father and son, Kiefer and Donald Sutherland. The elder Sutherland has some unresolved feelings toward his son, long brewing in his gut and struggling to put into words when his son arrives without warning after years away. Surprise member of the cast? Demi Moore -- a welcome addition! -- as a lost love of Kiefer's who's moved on...or has she?!?

Now the fun of the pretty straightforward good guy vs. bad guy angle is that the bad guys can be very, very bad. Dirty, despicable, murdering, conniving, backstabbing folks. Who better for that than Brian Cox? No One. He's clearly having some fun as the sneering villain who you just love to hate. Aaron Poole plays his brutal enforcer while Michael Wincott is a scene-stealer as Gentleman Dave Turner, a well-dressed, polite, lives by a code hired gun who's nonetheless brutally efficient with a gun. It's the best part in the movie, and Wincott's scenes with Kiefer Sutherland are a gem, featuring some great dialogue as two tough guys test out the water back and forth to see where they stand.

Nothing fancy here from beginning to end with a western that clocks in at just under 90 minutes. The action is saved for the finale when John Henry has finally had enough -- you can only pushed a deadly gunfighter so far I've learned :) -- and decides to do something about it. Some cool moments, a good twist, and a satisfying ending to a pretty decent little western. Worth checking out.

Forsaken (2016): ***/****

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Hour of the Gun

One of the seminal moments in American history, especially in the 19th Century, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is synonymous with the wild, wild west. It was a gunfight that only lasted 15 or 20 seconds, but the men involved would became famous because of their actions. What about after the gunfight though? What happened next? That is a story that is far less well-known, but it gets a fascinating examination in a mostly forgotten 1967 western, Hour of the Gun.

It's October 26, 1881 in the Arizona silver boom-town of Tombstone. Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp (James Garner), his two brothers, and their friend Doc Holliday (Jason Robards), are heading for a fight after a long-running, long-simmering feud with Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) and his gang of gunmen, bandits and rustlers. A gunfight ensues with three men -- all outlaws -- killed while Wyatt's brothers are wounded. The fight does nothing to end the feud, only adding fuel to the fire. The immediate response begins in a courtroom as Wyatt, Doc and the Earp brothers are brought up on charges for their actions that led to the gunfight and then for outright murder. This won't be resolved with words though. Too much has passed between the two sides with too many deaths for it to be fixed so easily. Wyatt and Doc live by the gun as does Ike Clanton. Let the bullets fly and those who get caught in the be it.

From the first time I saw 1993's Tombstone, I was fascinated not just by the gunfight at the OK Corral but what happened after it. Unless I'm missing a flick, this is the first western to dive in headfirst to the aftermath. An unofficial sequel from his film 10 years earlier, Gunfight at the OK Corral, director John Sturges turns in a dark, moody, character-driven angle of the story. There's gunplay but not a ton. The story condenses months and months of history into a tightly-packed 105-minutes but one that doesn't feel too rushed. It's a daunting extended stretch to handle but Sturges and writer Edward Anhalt do a pretty solid job condensing and tweaking and twisting here to make it more manageable.

Two years later, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch would kick open the door for the western, effectively starting the genre on a path that proved to be its doom. The spaghetti westerns started it, Peckinpah continued and the revisionist westerns of the 1970's finished it off. Where's 'Hour' fit? Somewhere in between. It isn't a revisionist western. It's just a straightforward, mostly honest, not heroic interpretation of the real-life events. There aren't heroes, just less unlikable individuals. Case in point is Garner's Wyatt, not the crisp, clean, honest lawman he's often portrayed as. Here, he's a hypocrite, blinded with rage and almost completely driven by it. Towns are run by the rich, everything depends on power and money, and that power depends on backstabbing, back-shooting and all sorts of underhanded dealings. This ain't no good guys in white hats vs. bad guys in black hats. A precursor of the things to come in the western genre.

In film or on television, James Garner has a reputation as a likable presence, a sympathetic hero's awesome to see him take these darker roles, like 1970's A Man Called Sledge. As we've learned, Wyatt Earp wasn't necessarily the heroic, noble lawman he's often portrayed as. 'Hour' delves right into that concept. Here, he's a revenge-seeking murderer hiding behind a marshal's badge and a warrant for arrest. It's a fascinating character and not necessarily sympathetic. Garner doesn't disappoint with this darker role. Just wish he had done more roles like this!

The key relationship in all the Earp/Tombstone movies though is between Wyatt Earp, the law officer, and Doc Holliday, the gambling dentist slowly dying of tuberculosis. All Holliday performances pale in comparison to Val Kilmer in 1993's Tombstone, but Robards is pretty damn good and belongs in close second with Dennis Quaid in the otherwise painful Wyatt Earp. Robards does what he always does. He quietly steals all his scenes to the point you don't even realize he's doing it. His chemistry with Garner is impeccable, a friendship with more of an edge than we're used to seeing. Their arguments become heated to the point of lashing out violently. Through it all though, there's an unspoken bond between them, two loners, two outsiders who have found the unlikeliest of friends. Two excellent leading performances.

Beyond Ryan, 'Hour' is light on star power, but that's not a bad thing. Ryan's Ike Clanton is probably the most exaggerated part here with the movie Clanton not resembling the actual historical Clanton. Still, it's Robert Ryan in sneering, condescending villain mode, and that ain't a bad thing. Wyatt's misfit posse includes Monte Markham, William Windom and Lonny Chapman. Their targets include Michael Tolan, Robert Philips, Steve Inhat and a very young Jon Voight. Too many familiar faces from film and television to mention, but also look for Albert Salmi, Karl Swenson and Bill Fletcher among many others.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but I liked 'Hour' much more on this second viewing than the first (it had been at six or seven years). It isn't an easy western to watch, and doesn't do much to pull you in in any sort of obvious fashion. That said, there's just something about it. Filmed in Mexico with cinematographer Lucien Ballard (one of the all-time greats), the movie looks stunning. Throw in one of Jerry Goldsmith's more underrated scores and it all adds up. Listen to the score HERE. It's a familiar story by now, that of Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral, but this adult western holds together quite well. Highly recommended.

Hour of the Gun (1967): ***/****

Monday, April 4, 2016

Field of Dreams

I love baseball and everything about it. The Chicago White Sox to the fantasy leagues, going to games to listening on the radio and watching on TV. It is and hopefully always will be my favorite sport. Naturally then, baseball movies have to be the best, right? My list starts with a classic, 1989's Field of Dreams.

Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is a 36-year old man who owns a farm in Iowa and lives with his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan) and their young daughter, Karen (Gaby Hoffmann). One day while he's out in the expansive cornfields, Ray hears a voice tell him multiple times 'If you build it, he will come..." He doesn't know what to make of the voice and its mysterious message. What could it possibly mean? After hearing the voice repeat itself several times over several days, Ray thinks he's figured it out. Somehow, some way, Ray is supposed to build a baseball field in his cornfield. His reasoning? He thinks if he builds that field, his father's hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, will get a chance to redeem himself for his actions with the 1919 Black Sox. He builds the field and waits...and waits but nothing happens. Then one night as he mulls over their future with Annie, a man appears out on the field. It's Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) himself. That's only the start though. There's much more to come.

Ask 100 sports fans 'What's your favorite sports movie?' and who knows? Maybe you get 100 different answers! I don't know if it is my favorite, but it's certainly in the conversation with Hoosiers, Rocky, and a whole bunch more I can rewatch over and over again. The TV description of the 1988 film from director Phil Alden Robinson (he also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay) describes it as 'Capra-esque' -- as in Frank Capra -- and it's an incredibly apt description. It's an American story of family, baseball, hopes and dreams, and without being heavy-handed, believing in something mystical, something bigger than us that doesn't necessarily need to be explained. You just take it on faith and go for a ride.

I like The Natural, love Major League and The Sandlot, and swear by any number of other baseball flicks, but 'Field' is up there at the top. Why? Maybe more than any other baseball movie, it loves and respects the game. It appreciates the history, the unspoken connection people have with the sport, and maybe most importantly, the simple beauty of the game. In a late monologue, James Earl Jones explains the power of the game in one of the movie's most effective scenes. Far earlier as Ray meets Joe Jackson, the famous Shoeless expresses his personal love of the game in a simple, eloquent, authentic monologue. The story loves the history of the game, especially the 1910's and early 1920's. Watch it for that love and respect, the classic uniforms, those famous players, the infamous 1919 Black Sox, and so much more.

Who better to lead the way through our mystical baseball story than Crash Davis himself, Kevin Costner? Just a year off Bull Durham (another excellent baseball flick), Costner returns to the sports/baseball genre and delivers -- for me -- one of his all-time best roles. He's a 30-something farmer who knows little about farmer looking for some answers out of life. Instead, he gets a mysterious voice imploring him 'If you build it, he will come.' Costner's Ray doesn't always know where the road will take him, but he believes. Simple as that, he believes. He believes something good is down the road, and that him building a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield has a higher meaning. It has to, right? When everything seems to scream at how illogical the whole thing is, Costner sticks with his gut and keeps believing. Madigan is excellent as his ever-supportive wife, Annie, with him through thick and thin, while 6-year old Hoffmann is equally solid.

Three supporting performances help take the movie from really good into the classic stratosphere, Ray Liotta (relatively unknown at the time) as Shoeless Joe Jackson, James Earl Jones as reclusive writer Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster (in his final role) as Doc Graham, a former baseball player who became a doctor in his Minnesota hometown. I don't want to give away too much -- for the 6 people who haven't seen this movie by now -- but these performances are pristine. They're perfect. Liotta brings some edge to Shoeless, the mysterious ex-ballplayer who was banned from baseball even though evidence indicates Jackson did nothing wrong. He's got some cards up his sleeves for sure. Jones as Mann makes it look so freaking easy. Based on J.D. Salinger, Mann has retired from public life and is looking to live a quiet, peaceful life. His chemistry with Costner is pitch perfect from scene-to-scene, dramatic and funny. And, oh yeah, Burt Lancaster, a halfway decent actor in his own right (I guess). He's on-screen for maybe 4 or 5 minutes and steals every second he's in. Three great performances.

Also look for Timothy Busfield as Mark, Annie's brother in the real estate business who's trying to convince his brother-in-law to...ya know, not be nuts, and Frank Whaley as Archie 'Moonlight' Graham, a much younger version of Lancaster's Doc Graham. Dwier Brown has a quick but brutally effective part as John Kinsella, Ray's father. As for other players from the '19 Black Sox who show up, look for some familiar faces who make the most out of their quick, but highly effective parts.

The movie itself is a road picture once things get going, the story of a journey both for Ray but also the people and individuals he meets along the way. We see how Ray's decision to build the baseball field affects one person after another, somewhat like the universe is laying out the groundwork for him -- testing him of sorts -- and seeing if he'll follow along. As for the movie itself, it is a visually subtle but very good-looking movie. Always seems to be shot at sunset with all sorts of beautiful light. If not that time of day, that field o' dreams always is bathed in sunlight without a cloud in sight. Composer James Horner (one of the all-time bests) delivers an Oscar nominated-score that is an additional character there all along the way for the story.

So what is baseball best suited for? As 'Field' shows, it is a sport often shared between father and son, the crux of the story here itself. This is a sport with the subtle, charming ability to bring people together. That sentiment leads to one of the all-time great endings ever with a ridiculously strong final 20 minutes. It's one memorable moment after another, one great line after another, all of it leading to one of the more iconic closing shots ever if you ask me. Is it heaven? No, maybe not, but it's a perfect sports movie and just a great movie all-around. Must watch for sports fans and non-sports fans alike!

Field of Dreams (1988): ****/****