Monday, September 29, 2014


FRONTERA – a Movie Review

Ever since the birth of theatre in ancient Greece, the classical tragedy has always been about people of social importance: if they don’t have social status to begin with, how can they fall?  And implicitly, if they’re not important, who cares about them?  That all changed in 1949, when Arthur Miller wrote DEATH OF A SALESMAN, and showed that the lives of ‘nobodies’ could be as compelling as the lives of ‘somebodies.’ 

FRONTERA is a tragedy about regular working people on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border – a retired lawman and his wife tending their ranch; a family whose father must travel north when there is no work at home, and another hungry mouth to feed on the way. 

To the south, the pregnant wife (a beautiful but de-glamorized Eva Longoria) dreads having her husband (Michael Pena) make the dangerous trek through the desert, even though he’s done it before.  And Pena has an extra worry – his father-in-law is saddling him with the son of a friend (Michael Ray Escamilla) who is stupid and irresponsible at best, and maybe much worse.  To the north, Amy Madigan has saddled her horse for a ride, and while her husband, Ed Harris, would come along, his knee is still healing.  He asks her not to take the best trail, because it runs along the border, but he knows she will.   Her meeting with the two men from the south is both cordial and cautious.  She kindly gives them water bottles, and a blanket from her horse against the coming cold of night.  The difference in the two Mexican men is most clear here: Pena is formal and respectful; Escamilla flirts childishly. 

Michael Pena, Eva Longoria

All would have been fine, each going their separate ways, until a series of gunshots shatter the silent desert air.  The woman is dead.  I am loath to give away too much more, because this is a highly compelling, masterfully told story.  It’s not a mystery – you always know who is committing what act, but not what the results will be, and yet the tale is told by writers Louis Moulinet and Michael Berry and director Berry with a self-assurance that makes the outcome of each scene seem both inevitable and infuriating: you can easily imagine yourself making many of the mistakes that the characters do.  For Moulinet, best known as an art director, and Berry, directing his first feature, it is a highly auspicious debut.

Ed Harris and Amy Madigan are actually husband and wife – they met on the set of PLACES IN THE HEART, and have since worked together frequently, including co-starring in RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE and the recent SWEETWATER.  Though here Madigan’s time on the screen is cut short, in a few strokes she etches a character that you like and miss.  Harris, Longoria, Pena and Escamilla bring humanity and dignity to their characters, and you care about them all.  Longoria in particular, when she tries to join her husband, pays a coyote to take her, and goes through sheer hell. 

And the movie plays fair with the highly controversial subject of unsecure borders, something I did not expect in the politically correct world of Hollywood.  Not all of the ‘secure the border’ crowd are portrayed as redneck racists.  Not all of the illegals coming across are people that anyone would want in their country.  In one stunningly effective but almost throw-away scene, two men out of a dozen traveling across the border with a coyote separate themselves from the others, throw down prayer-rugs and  begin bowing towards Mecca, underlining how little we, or even the coyotes, know about who is coming across the desert, and what their motives might be. 

I’ve described FRONTERA as a tragedy, and it is full of tragic events, yet it is not a ‘downer,’ nor are the characters without hope.  Cinematographer Joel Ransom gets plenty of atmosphere into the often moon-like border desert, and editor Larry Madaras bridges the gaps between places and moments seamlessly.  This fine film is receiving a sporadic release, and is very much worth the trouble of seeking it out. 


It’s kind of hard to know how much to tell you about Saturday night’s performance of THE WESTERN UNSCRIPTED, because you’re never going to see that story.  In fact no one will ever see it again – because it’s an improvised story, performed by members of The Impro Theatre, and no two performances are alike! 

The FALCON THEATRE, comedy legend Garry Marshall’s venue in Burbank, was packed – all 120 permanent seats were filled, and ten more chairs were put in place.  And no wonder; The Impro Theatre has quite a following, having already tackled CHEKOV UNSCRIPTED, SONDHEIM UNSCRIPTED, and L.A. NOIR UNSCRIPTED among others – coming in December is the return of TWILIGHT ZONE UNSCRIPTED!

As the audience took their seats, the mood was set with instrumental themes from THE WILD WILD WEST, TRUE GRIT, and HOW THE WEST WAS WON.  I was struck by the quality of the sets immediately: a projection screen in the back for the sky, a two-story saloon exterior on the left, and a two story building on the right.  Then the lights went down, a campfire bloomed center-stage, and an old sourdough explained that the rest of the cast would soon come onstage, and they would improvise an evening’s entertainment based on suggestions from the audience.  Then he picked up his campfire and left. 

A moment later, the cast cantered out like SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, handsomely period-costumed, and one of them, Lisa Frederickson, addressed the audience, asking for suggestions for a reason for a lot of town-folk to gather.  Audience voices called out, “A hanging!”  “A funeral!”  “A shotgun wedding!”  “A shotgun wedding.  I like that,” Lisa responded.  

Having seen a fair amount of improvisational comedy, I thought I knew what was coming: a brief sketch about a shotgun wedding, followed by more audience polling, and more sketches.   But I was wrong – this was a feature western, not a short subject, and they played the story for a full two hours, minus intermission, and never slacked the pace.  Within moments an actor had opted – or been appointed – to be the reluctant spouse.  A reason for the urgent marriage – a baby – was improvised with a rolled-up blanket.  The conflict was created – three other men became his accomplices in a series of train robberies.  There’s a big payroll coming, and they’ve been waiting for him to get this marriage done so they can pull the big job.  He wants to go straight, but this one job could help save her family’s farm…you know, that’s a darn good plot: I can see George Montgomery or even Joel McCrea doing it!  It already made twice as much sense as JOHNNY GUITAR!

It was hysterical -- wonderfully silly fun, without ever being juvenile.  On-the-fly, actors created characters and relationships; clearly the cast is well-versed in the common elements of westerns.  And as has often been said, comedy acting is hard, and if you can do it, you can certainly do drama.  One sequence involved a matriarch who’d disguised that she was dying until one of her daughter’s had married.  As the three daughters gather around their dying mother, even with the jokes, we got choked up: they were that good. 

Many of the jokes grew out of western clichés, and some grew out of anachronisms.  One of the actors, desperate to think up a name for a hideout, came up with Smuggler’s Cul-de-sac; I think they’re still needling him about that.   One of the lead bandit’s sisters-in-law gets the idea of smuggling him back to town dressed like a woman; the idea of seeing him in a dress becomes something of an obsession to several characters, even when it no longer serves the plan.  And the actors certainly challenge each other.   When the bandit’s accomplices taunt him for not re-joining them sooner, one says to him, more or less, “I think you’ve been away from it too long.  I think you've forgotten the plan.”

“I remember the plan.”

“Then tell it to us, all of it, to be sure,” forcing him to create off-the-cuff a four man plan to rob a train!  THE WESTERN UNSCRIPTED plays Wednesday through Sunday, October 5th.  Wednesday through Friday the curtain is at 8 pm; on Sunday it’s 4 pm.  I loved it, and I’m going to try to catch it once more, to see how different the second performance will be!  Here’s the link for information and tickets:


Barry Pepper in TRUE GRIT

Barry Pepper, who played Lucky Ned Pepper in the Coen Brothers’ TRUE GRIT, and appeared in THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA and THE LONE RANGER, is set to star in TRAIL OF BLOOD to run on CINEMAX for Endemol Studios, the folks who bring us HELL ON WHEELS!  He’ll portray a frontier preacher in search of his teenage daughter, who has been kidnapped by the Harpe brothers, real-life infamous serial killers who were active in the late 1790s.  It’s written by Ross Parker, and he and Christina Wayne, who was producer on the mini BROKEN TRAIL and the BBC-America series COPPER, will produce. 


Kurt Russell in TOMBSTONE

Western horror novelist S. Craig Zahler will make his debut as a writer/director with BONE TOMAHAWK.  The western tale of four men trying to rescue captives from a group of cave-dwelling cannibals has long been set to star Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, who will now be joined by Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox.  Peter Sherayko is consulting producer -- he and Kurt Russell last worked together on TOMBSTONE, which turned out rather well.


The Depp Version

The Michael Horse Version

I was catching up on the last three episodes of HELL ON WHEELS – thank goodness for the DVR – and was delighted to see Michael Horse, who was the best thing in 1981’s LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER, playing Tonto.  In the H.O.W. episode THE BEAR MAN he plays Old Porcupine, and a little bird told me he was poking fun at the new LONE RANGER movie, and Johnny Depp’s dead-bird headdress.    


Pickens & Gillam in BLAZING SADDLES

Great news via our good friends at Westerpunk!  They tell me that when Burton Gillam, the toothy and goofy star of BLAZING SADDLES, PAPER MOON, and many comic turns in westerns, appeared at their Weird West Fest, he revealed that he’ll be in the up-coming Broadway musical version of BLAZING SADDLES, playing Slim Pickens’ role from the movie!


Yul Brynner in WESTWORLD

Ed Harris in APPALOOSA

Remakes of terrific shows are usually a bad idea, especially when they involve recasting iconic characters: you don’t want to follow John Wayne or Steve McQueen or Yul Brynner into a role, no matter how good the paycheck.  But whoever thought of casting Ed Harris in Brynner’s role in WESTWORLD is a genius.  Movie also stars James Marsden and Evan Rachel Woods and Anthony Hopkins as the lead humans.  And if you don’t understand that reference, you need to run out and see Saul David’s original 1973 production of Michael Crichton’s WESTWORLD, posthaste.   Here's the trailer from the original.


I’m trying to get some script revisions finished this week, but I know I’ll have some interesting news next Sunday, including a review of a new book on the Christmas music of Gene Autry

Happy Trails,


All Original Content Copyright September 2014 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved


  1. Not sure I like the idea of a Westworld remake. I know the special fx will be better but do they need to be? Westworld is a masterpiece of its time, as good to watch today as it ever was. I might be giving a remake a wide berth.

  2. Oh no. Please no Westworld remake. PLEASE. I saw Westworld at the Olympic Drive-In in West Los Angeles when it opened and it has since been a huge favorite of mine. We don't need a remake. We need a Blu-ray with special features. *gasp*