Sunday, June 1, 2014
‘MILLION WAYS TO DIE’ AND ‘STOLEN RANCH’ REVIEWED, PLUS ‘LONGMIRE’ RETURNS!
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST
A Film review
I’m wary of bestowing possessive titles on films: I’m fine with ‘John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS’ or ‘Howard Hawks’ RIO BRAVO’ because those men have earned that credit over time. To my surprise, I really think it’s ‘Seth McFarlane’s A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST’, because not only does he direct and star in the film, he co-wrote it, and his fellow writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild attest to the fact that MacFarlane is the driving force, the one with the long-term commitment to making a western, in this case a western comedy. He has done it surprisingly well; A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is a charming, raunchy delight!
From the opening moments, you know the film is no throwaway – Universal loves McFarlane after the money he made them with TED, and it’s said they’ll give him anything he wants as long as he makes TED 2. Following the unwritten but crucial rule that you can’t successfully parody something if you can’t do it as well, the film is breathtakingly shot and beautifully scored. Much is shot in Monument Valley, and cinematographer Michael Barrett lenses those John Ford buttes and valleys and mesas as gorgeously as anyone ever has. Composer Joel McNeely, who won an Emmy for his YOUNG INDIANA JONES scores, creates a score that, while not derivative or imitative, brings to mind the best of Dimitri Tiomkin, Elmer Bernstein, Alfred Newman and George Bassman.
Set in Arizona in 1882, though largely shot in New Mexico, it’s the story of Albert Stark, a sheep-rancher, and since it is a measure of impressive self-restraint – not something MacFarlane is known for – let me astonish you: there is not even one reference to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN in the entire film! Instead, the film opens with poor Albert about to be gunned down by a cattleman for letting his sheep stray and overgraze the prairie – see, MacFarlane has actually seen a lot of westerns! Portraying a character not unlike Bob Hope’s in his westerns, Albert, with no hope of outdrawing the man, manages to negotiate a deal – and in the process loses the love of his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who now sees him as a coward as well an incompetent sheepherder. Her affections are stolen by the ultimate mustache-twirling villain, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who actually runs a mustache emporium!
Matt Clark, with and without the fur
In the desert just outside of town, an old prospector is riding along, his donkey pulling a buckboard, the old sourdough telling the animal how their gold strike will make them rich. Then their way is blocked by a band of outlaws led by Clinch (Liam Neeson), who exudes the kind of smiling menace only a man with supreme confidence can produce. Despite the protests of Clinch’s wife Anna (Charlize Theron), the old man doesn’t live long. And cheers for MacFarlane’s love of the genre for casting Matt Clark as the prospector! The Elisha Cook Jr. of his generation, Clark has played victims and low-level villains in scores of westerns: in 1972 and 1973 alone he appeared in THE COWBOYS, THE CULPEPPER CATTLE CO., THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, JEREMIAH JOHNSON, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. Displeased at his wife’s behavior, Clinch sends her and one of his men to the nearest town to sit out the next train robbery – they’ll be back for her in twelve days.
In town Albert and Anna meet, and circumstances free her from her gun-toting wet-nurse. They become friends, and Anna’s attempts to help him win back Louise, by making her jealous, backfire when the outcome is Albert challenging Foy to a duel. Of course, Louise has to teach Albert how to shoot. Now, as a reader of the Round-up, I’m going to guess that, between movies and TV, you’ve probably seen ‘teaching-the-beginner-how-to-shoot- bottles-off-a-fence’ sequences a hundred times – maybe more. Somehow MacFarlane, who really takes his time with this, manages to make it fresh and convincing and funny, and ultimately romantic. And the barroom brawl is the best scene of its kind I can recall in twenty or thirty years, all the more because it acknowledges its own absurdity: when the fight breaks out between two characters, all the uninvolved men throughout the bar give a, “Oh well, here we go again” shrug, and start randomly beating each other.
The big 'Mustache' dance number
A lot of the fun grows out of the history: when Anna and Albert want to sing, they have to acknowledge that there are only about three songs, and all of them are by Stephen Foster. In fact, in a square-dance sequence that is something of a nod to 7 BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and CAT BALLOU, Foy leads them in a song about mustaches, which is credited to Foster as well. When Albert, missing Louise, is leafing through pictures of them together, instead of the sort of snapshots that are usually used, and historically ridiculous, he is looking at tintypes, and much fun is gotten from the fact that you couldn’t smile in them, because the exposures took so long.
Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi
Wes Studi has a nice part as Cochise, who introduces Albert to the exciting world of peyote. Also enjoyable in supporting roles are Albert’s friends, the local whore, played by Sarah Silverman, and her virginal boyfriend, played by Giovanni Ribisi – they’re saving him for marriage. Taking a bit of the fun out of them are the frequent references to them being Christians, as if there is some Christian dictate that it’s okay to be a prostitute but not an unmarried non-virgin. Of all the world’s religions, only Christians – Mormons included – are expected to tolerate this crap incessantly.
And speaking of the offensive stuff, the obscene dialogue and occasional sheep-urinating-on-the-star’s-face ‘gags’ seem oddly arbitrary, often forced, and usually not funny beyond shock value. Although maybe this was meant as a jab at DEADWOOD’s excessive obscenity, and the pious and absurd claims that ‘this was how they really talked back then,’ when in truth, using ‘fighting words’ as mild as ‘sonuvabitch’ could get you legally shot.
As opposed to, say, BLAZING SADDLES, which is pure burlesque from start to finish, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is at its core a sweet movie with likable characters you grow to care about. A great deal of its potential rises and falls on Seth MacFarlane’s ability as a leading man, and he carries the movie very well. Aside from youngsters who do not need to be rushed into adulthood, and adults for whom the obscenity would ruin the fun, I recommend it highly!
THE STOLEN RANCH – A Silent Western
A DVD Review
Grapevine Video just keeps expanding my knowledge of the silent western, this time with a Fred Humes starrer, THE STOLEN RANCH (1926). Not familiar with Humes? He was a pretty big name towards the end of the silent days. Under contract to Universal in the twenties, in popularity he was a runner-up to the studio’s reigning kings, Hoot Gibson and Jack Hoxie.
THE STOLEN RANCH is an unusual story, set not in the old west of the 19th century, but the nearly contemporary – for 1926 – west of the First World War. Humes plays Breezy Hart, a soldier who befriends another in the trenches, Frank Wilcox (Ralph McCullough). The stress of endless war has caused Frank to crack: only Breezy’s tight grip and calming talk keeps Frank from an ugly death in ‘no man’s land’. After the war Frank, suffering from what would be called Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome today – then it was ‘shell-shock’ – is heading to his late Uncle’s ranch. Frank expected to be left the ranch, but his uncle’s foreman claims a new will gives the ranch to him.
Determined to get a look at the inside of the ranch operation, Breezy gets a job there as the cook’s assistant, and does some snooping. Also in the cast are Louise Larraine as a ranch girl and Humes’ love interest, Nita Cavalier as the lawyer’s daughter and Frank Wilcox’s love interest, and villains like William Bailey, Slim Whitaker and Jack Kirk, who each have more than 300 screen credits, nearly all of them westerns. Humes is a cheerful, likable performer, and the movie skillfully switches back and forth between the western mystery elements, comic romance, and the trauma of war flashbacks triggered by the sound of a random gunshot.
Admittedly, the film is not a classic in its storytelling: too much plot relies on overheard conversation. And by today’s standards, the amount of male hugging and other physical bonding borders on the homoerotic. But overall it is a thoughtful and entertaining movie, with all the action elements you want in a western, and enough unexpected aspects to make it memorable.
Men psychologically damaged by war, and the mixed welcome soldiers received when coming home, were not usually the stuff of western programmers, but then, most western programmers were not directed by the likes of William Wyler. One of the truly legendary directors of Hollywood, Wyler’s sophistication, intellect, and heart would earn him three Oscars, for BEN HUR (1959), MRS. MINIVER (1942), and most relevant to this discussion, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), the story of returning veterans of the Second World War. For the record, Wyler also directed Walter Brennan to an Oscar playing Judge Roy Bean in THE WESTERNER, excelled in romantic comedies like ROMAN HOLIDAY, and drew two of the best child performances ever – from Bonita Granville and Marcia Mae Jones – in THESE THREE (Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea are pretty good, too). He also put aside his career for several years to go to war, making films for the government, entertainingly detailed in the new book, FIVE CAME BACK: A STORY OF HOLLYWOOD AND THE SECOND WORLD WAR, by Mark Harris.
Another pro on the project was writer George H. Plympton, an unsung master of entertaining storytelling whose over 300 credits, often shared, include FLASH GORDON, and many of the best Republic serials, plus b-westerns and Bowery Boys films.
Humes and Wyler would make two more westerns the following year, but the actor, who as a sideline played gorillas in several movies, would have a minor career once sound came in. Although he worked steadily for many years, it was mostly unnamed characters in uncredited roles. Humes, who played sidekicks and villains to Hoot Gibson in five of the star’s silents, may have made a personal connection. In 1935, when Hoot was a big star, and Humes was reduced to playing bit parts, Hoot used him in two more movies.
THE STOLEN RANCH, which features a lively piano score by David Knudston, is available from Grapevine Video. http://www.grapevinevideo.com/stolen_ranch.html
‘LONGMIRE’ MARATHON PRECEDES SEASON 3 PREMIERE MONDAY NIGHT!
Monday, June 2nd, at 10 p.m., LONGMIRE returns to A&E for a third season. I can’t tell you too much about the new season because I haven’t seen any yet – I hope to have a screener on Monday, and will review it next Sunday. What I can say for sure is that of all the current dramas of the past several years, there are only two that I never miss: HELL ON WHEELS and LONGMIRE. If you are behind in your episodes, or you just want to refresh your memory, A&E is running all of season two earlier in the day – check your local listings!
THAT’S A WRAP!
That’s it for today! Have a great week!
All Original Contents Copyright June 2014 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved