Monday, February 20, 2017
FREE STATE OF JONES – A Film Review
Matthew McConaughey and Jacob Lofland
One of the much-anticipated films of 2016, which disappeared far too quickly, THE FREE STATE
OF JONES is a remarkable, though flawed, film about a largely unknown aspect of the Civil War. ‘Based on actual events’ (how we dread those words), JONES is the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate Army nurse who deserts, skins home to Mississippi, where he finds the Confederate home guard is using the cover of war taxes to rob and starve the poor folks who’ve stayed behind to keep the farms running.
Mahershala Ali and McConaughey
Playing cat-and-mouse with the Reb Army, Newt helps the farmers resist, and when he’s driven into the swamps to avoid capture, he allies himself with runaway slaves. He fashions an alliance between the poor whites and blacks that becomes a ragtag army, and soon a force to be reckoned with, even offering assistance to Union General Sherman. McConaughey’s performance is terrific. He’s powerfully supported with several standout performances, including Mahershala Ali as the runaway slave Moses – currently Oscar-nominated for MOONLIGHT and co-starring in HIDDEN FIGURES, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Newton’s would-be wife Rachel, and Jacob Lofland as a boy pressed into military service before he’s ready – watch for Lofland in AMC’s upcoming THE SON. Keri Russell as Newton’s wife is fine, but one wishes she had more to do.
Keri Russell & Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Writer-director Gary Ross who wrote THE HUNGER GAMES (2012), and wrote and directed SEABISCUIT (2003) and PLEASANTVILLE (1998), writes and directs beautifully within scenes, but the overall vision is what probably brought the picture down. Simply put, all of Newton’s heroic efforts are for naught. There’s a stirring sequence where Newton and his men pounce on a military transport in the forest – in the best sense it recalls the great Errol Flynn adventure films, with Newton as a drawling Robin Hood. But if the Sheriff of Nottingham is ultimately the winner of the tale, the letdown is great.
The real Newton Knight
The story is repeatedly interrupted with a flash-forward sequence, either the 1950s or 1960s, where presumably a descendant of Newton’s is on trial, and the suggestion is, even almost a century later, things aren’t much better. Here’s a spoiler if you haven’t seen THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). Do the POWs accomplish everything they want to? No; some are killed, and almost all are recaptured. But they know they’ve made great problems for the Nazis, and when Steve McQueen returns to solitary with his baseball, you know he’ll be busting out again. FREE STATE OF JONES needed that kind of hope. FREE STATE OF JONES is available on DVD and BluRay, on Amazon Video, and all manner of platforms.
CIVIL WAR DAYS AT STRATHEARN PARK
Rebs tune up
Friday’s rains had been heavy, and sporadic rain was falling on Saturday, February 11th, turning some walkways into muddy creeks. “Rain?” scoffed a Rebel sergeant? “You should have been at Gettysburg!” Good point.
The Strathearn Park and Museum, in Simi, just a couple of miles from the Reagan Presidential Library, is a 19th century oasis, which includes ranch and farm buildings, Ventura County’s first library building, a mansion, and some smaller homes.
This weekend they were hosting Civil War Days – Union encampment to the left, Confederacy to the right, as you entered. Unusually, there was an enlistment booth right in the middle. Kids chose a side, and were issued a blue or grey kepi, a wooden rifle, and sent to boot camp. I thought it was a terrific way to get the kids involved, to immerse them in the history.
The rain had slowed me down – I had missed both the 11 a.m. skirmish, and the Gettysburg Address, but caught up with President Lincoln, and had a nice chat.
My great moment with Mr. Lincoln
I hurried to the barn in time to watch a square-dance class, where ladies in antebellum gowns and gents in uniforms of varying rank joined women in yoga pants, cavorting to the caller’s instructions.
Later, while enjoying a bowl of chili in the barn, I looked up at a souvenir display and spotted a pennant from one of the area’s bygone historical attractions, Corriganville.
I was determined to catch the 2 p.m. skirmish, so I kept an eye on my timepiece while I checked out the encampments, historical buildings, and was in the gift shop/bookshop when a cloudburst trapped several of us for a quarter hour. I ended up buying a stack of TimeLife Civil War volumes.
Bailey-Denton Photography had a fascinating display of period photography, as well as their own, using the old processes; they make tintypes and ambrotypes – photos on blue glass.
In the Visitor Center, we were treated to what was billed as a Civil War Era Clothing Demonstration. It was actually a slow-motion, and very lady-like, striptease, as a Southern belle removed layer after layer of petticoat, hoopskirt, corset, with a narrator describing each garment.
Sadly, I don’t know how far the lady went, because it was suddenly 2 p.m., and I hurried outside for the skirmish, and like the others gathered there, I waited. Having attended a few Civil War reenactments, I knew a few things. Principally I knew that the most available free standing room is by the cannon batteries, and for a very good reason: hearing loss. But there were no cannon to avoid.
A Confederate combo had been playing throughout the day, and now a Union band marched and played. We waited. The field of battle was mud, and empty.
Taking advantage of the delay, a squad of grade-school Union recruits took the field under their commander. A Rebel troop soon did the same. On command, they pointed their wooden rifles and yelled, “Bang!” They ‘reloaded’ and did it again. I checked my watch. “Bang!” Some kids were dropping in the mud. I gave them credit for letting themselves be hit, instead of yelling, “Missed me!” like me and my friends always did.
Rebs take the field
As I was checking my watch for the third time – 2:40 p.m. – it suddenly dawned on me: this, with the little kids and their wooden rifles, was the 2 p.m. skirmish! I looked up; the Confederate sergeant was by my side. “What were you expecting: Gettysburg?”
The 2 o'clock skirmish.
AND THAT’S A WRAP!
Happy Presidents’ Day! I was going to list all of the movies on TV today that are about Washington and Lincoln, but as far as I can tell, there aren’t any. There aren’t any about the other Presidents, either. So, I don’t know where you can get it, but I’m recommending Barry Bostwick’s portrayal of Washington in the 1983 miniseries GEORGE WASHINGTON. I checked for other portrayals on IMDB and sadly, almost all are comedy sketches. And I’m recommending Walter Huston’s portrayal of Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film ABRAHAM LINCOLN. I’m not saying Huston is better than Raymond Massey or Henry Fonda or Daniel Day Lewis; but he’s awfully good, and rarely seen – and it’s in public domain, so you can see it anywhere – I’ve posted a link to it on Youtube below. You might also want to check out Bill Oberst Jr.’s Lincoln in ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS. ZOMBIES. He does a particularly fine reading of the Gettysburg Address.
All Original Contents Copyright February 2017 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved
Sunday, February 12, 2017
MODERN HORSE-OPERA ‘RUNNING WILD’ REVIEWED, PLUS ‘UNDERGROUND’ RETURNS, ‘THE SON’ AND ‘THE HERO’ ON THE WAY, AND MORE!
RUNNING WILD – A Film Review
What do you do when you’ve gone through all of your wife’s money, incurred tremendous debt, and still failed to save her family ranch? One option is to drive your truck headlong into a tree at 80 miles an hour. The young, sheltered and coddled socialite widow, Stella Davis (Dorian Brown Pham) is blissfully unaware of her dire situation until, with her husband’s death, she learns that she’ll lose everything she owns in ninety days. Compounding her worries, several starving horses have wandered onto her property, and though she can barely afford to feed her own stock, she hasn’t the heart to push them out.
Stella gets more bad news
Desperate to create some income, she and her foreman Brannon (Jason Lewis) sign the ranch up for a prison program that prepares convicts for freedom by teaching them to train horses – the same program, Stella learns, that Brannon came out of. Now Stella must contend with debts, surly and dangerous cons (including SONS OF ANARCHY’s Tommy Flanagan, Tom Williamson and Michael Girgenti), and ‘friends’ like Jennifer (Christina Moore) who say they want to help, but would love to acquire Stella’s ranch and stud horse at a fire-sale price. But the biggest threat comes from Jennifer’s sister, Meredith Parish (Sharon Stone), a richer-than-Trump widowed animal-rights loony who thinks that all horses should be free – saddling one is tantamount to slavery! And she’s a media darling with the meanness, savvy and power to destroy Stella.
The animal activists you love to hate!
Effectively written and acted, populated by interesting characters – particularly the cons – whose stake in the outcome grows as the story progresses, RUNNING WILD is an entertaining and enjoyably hopeful film. French-born director Alex Ranarivelo has gone from zero to sixty practically overnight, from directing shorts to directing six or eight features back-to-back for ESX Entertainment, of which RUNNING WILD is the first to be released. And he has a skill with both drama and action – no surprise with the latter, considering his background in street racing.
Interestingly, some of the on-screen talents are stretching their legs in unexpected sides of the production. Sharon Stone, clearly willing to be beautifully detestable, is one of the producers. And her screen sister, Christina Moore, co-wrote the screenplay with Brian Rudnick.
Searching for runaway horses
While the plot is more than ample to hold your attention, this neo-Western has something on its mind beyond the conflict of its characters – exposing the plight of thousands of wild horses, overpopulating government land, left to starve, or rounded up and incarcerated (am I starting to sound like Sharon Stone’s character?). A related approach to this problem is shown in the fine documentary WILD HORSE, WILD RIDE (read my review HERE ).
Convicts get to ride -- with the law right behind!
RUNNING WILD is now available at selected theatres, and on demand, from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Luckily Brannon has a way with horses.
LOS ANGELES-ITALIA FESTIVAL FEB. 19TH – 25TH AT THE HOLLYWOOD CHINESE!
Franco Nero with Joan Collins
One of the truly not-to-be-missed annual events in L.A., The Los Angeles-Italia Festival, under the auspices of the Consulate General of Italy, is a week of Italian culture and Italian films, and all of the screenings are free, on a first-come, first-seated basis. In addition to many American premieres of Italian films, as well as some world premieres, there are many screenings honoring Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, and Italian-American actor Dean Martin. Some years have included many Italian Westerns, but the pickings are pretty thin this go-round. On Tuesday, Feb. 22nd at noon, RIO BRAVO, starring Dean Martin, will screen. On Wednesday, at 10 p.m., a new Western short starring Franco Nero, ALONG THE RIVER, will screen, and Nero will be present. To find out about all of the other screenings and events, go HERE.
UNDERGROUND RETURNS WED. MARCH 8TH
The second season of WGN’s UNDERGROUND will premiere on Wednesday, March 8th. This is a very involving and exciting series about The Underground Railroad, which was smuggling escaped slaves from Southern states to the safety and freedom of the North. If you missed season one, keep an eye on the WGN schedule, as my guess is that the previous episodes will be replayed prior to the new shows. I had the opportunity to talk about the design and look of the show with UNDERGROUND’s Production Designer and Costume Designer – keep an eye out for that soon in True West. In the meantime, here’s a trailer:
THE SON – FIRST FULL TRAILER
THE SON will premiere on AMC on Saturday, April 8th. I’ve seen the first two episodes of THE SON, based on Philipp Meyer’s critically acclaimed bestselling novel, and I think it’s terrific, a worthy successor to the network’s HELL ON WHEELS. The story of a Texas oil family, it’s told in two parallel storylines, both about Eli McCullough. In 1849, as a teenager abducted by Comanche, he is played by Jacob Lofland. As a turn-of-the-century oil magnate, he’s played by Pierce Brosnan. Both story-lines are fascinating, and shockingly true to history. I was able to speak not only to Meyer, but to producers and several members of the cast – again, coming soon to True West. And here’s the first trailer --
SAM ELLIOT IN ‘THE HERO’ PICKED BY THE ORCHARD AT SUNDANCE
Sam Elliot stars as an aging Western actor coming to terms with his life in THE HERO, which The Orchard has picked up for theatrical release this fall. His co-stars include his beautiful bride Katherine Ross, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, and Nick Offerman. Director Brett Haley and writer Marc Basch had previously collaborated with Elliot, when he starred opposite Blythe Danner in I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (2015).
While there’s not a trailer yet, here’s an interesting clip.
And here’s a clip from a TMZ show, where an unprepared reporter tries to interview Sam Elliot.
TRAVIS FIMMEL TO PLAY WYATT EARP ON HISTORY CHANNEL
Travis Fimmel, who has a huge following from THE VIKINGS series and the WARCRAFT feature, is finally getting to do a Western. A few years ago, when there was going to be a feature based on THE BIG VALLEY, he was cast as Heath – and Lee Majors was going to play his dad, the never-before seen Tom Barkley. Sadly, that project shut down when the director went to jail for scamming Massachusetts out of money on another film. But now Travis will be playing Wyatt Earp on a new anthology series for History Channel. He also wrote the episode, and is producing the series.
‘GUNSMOKE’ WRITER-PRODUCER RON HONTHANER DIES
One of the series’ fine behind-the-camera talents, Ron Honthaner, who worked for seven seasons on more than 150 episodes of GUNSMOKE, died on January 10, 2017, after a five-month battle with lung cancer. After serving four years in the Navy, Ron studied film at U.S.C., and worked on independent features, including the drama THE EXILES (1961), famous for its look at the lives of American Indians in Los Angeles. A man of many skills, his first job on a Western was on the animated feature THE MAN FROM BUTTON WILLOW (’65). Landing a position in post-production at Columbia—Screen Gems TV, he worked on THE ADDAMS FAMILY and THE WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY until, in 1967, he sold a script to GUNSMOKE. He would eventually sell the series another script – his two episodes are NOWHERE TO RUN (’68) and BLIND MAN’S BUFF (’72) – and he became Post-production Supervisor and, later Associate Producer on the series.
He also worked on the GUNSMOKE spin-off series DIRTY SALLY (1974).
He worked as an editor on several series, and directed the feature THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN in 1974. When James Arness returned to the west in the HOW THE WEST WAS WON series in 1976, Ron was Post-production Coordinator, as well as being one of the editors on ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE (1976). He even did a little acting in the Western comedy HOT LEAD AND COLD FEET (1978).
Lately Ron had turned to prose and written the excellent Western novel THE SHADOW OF THE HAWK (you can read my review HERE ), and you can order it from Amazon HERE .
Ron is survived by his wife Eve, son Jed, daughter-in-law Jackie, sister Joan Campbell, and many nieces and nephews. Donations in his memory can be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund (www.mptf.com/old/tributegift) or to Hospice Charities of America, c/o Sanctuary Hospice – 150 Paularino Ave., Suite C-125 – Costa Mesa, CA 92626.
AND THAT’S A WRAP!
Please check out my article in the February True West Magazine, featuring actress Constance Towers’ memories of working for John Ford on THE HORSE SOLDIERS, with John Wayne and William Holden. In the next Round-up, I’ll talk about the red carpet at the RUNNING WILD premiere, review the largely over-looked Civil War picture from last year, FREE STATE OF JONES, talk to stunt ace Walter Scott about his work on THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and THE COWBOYS, and look in on this weekend’s Civil War Days at Strathearn Park in Simi. Have a great week!
All Original Contents Copyright February 2017 by Henry C. Parke - All Rights Reserved