Sunday, May 31, 2015
‘STRANGE EMPIRE’ AND ‘DOC’ REVIEWS, PLUS ‘HELL ON WHEELS’ AND ‘BASS REEVES’ NEWS, OLD WEST AUCTION!
‘STRANGE EMPIRE’ – Series Review
With little fanfare – or even warning – the first two episodes of a new Western series, STRANGE EMPIRE, appeared on the Lifetime Movie Channel on Friday night. If you missed them, check your local listings, because they’re playing again on Thursday, and you do want to track this one from the beginning.
Set in the 1860s, on the North American frontier between what would become Montana, and Canada, several groups of travelers converge by chance at a stagecoach stop. Kat (Cara Gee) and Jeremiah Loving (Richard de Klerk) arrive at a moment of tragedy – too late for a doctor to save their baby. Wistfully, the same man of God who buries their child marries them. They’re joined by Dr. Bill Blithely (Bill Marchant) and his young wife, an odd but gifted would-be doctor, Rebecca (Melissa Farman), and others. Things get quickly out of hand – they learn a pair of teenage girls traveling with them are on their way to be whores. The local power, a man named Slotter but pronounced ‘slaughter’ (Aaron Poole), arrives with his crew to claim the girls, and is livid when he can’t find them – only Kat has the courage and cool to face him down.
Kat in the cemetery
At night the travelers are brutally attacked, perhaps by Indians, and practically all of the men perish. Then Slotter is back, to ‘rescue’ the women and bring them to Janestown, his headquarters, where he runs the mines, is building a railroad, and his wife Isabelle (Tattiawna Jones) is the brothel madam and a fraud clairvoyant. Slotter is determined to turn all the women to whores to service his men, from miners to influential politicians. Kat is equally determined to find out what’s happened to her missing husband and, with the others, to escape.
Rebecca and the girls
The full title of the series is STRANGE EMPIRE – THE RISE OF THE WOMEN, and you could even add ‘and the fall of the men,’ because this is really Kat, Rebecca and Isabelle’s show – in an amusing nod that isn’t really reflective of the show’s dark tone, the title sequence features the three in CHARLIE’S ANGELS poses. Made by the Canadian Broadcasting Company last year, STRANGE EMPIRE drew a very enthusiastic following, but only lasted one season. We’ll have to see if Lifetime decides to extend it.
Auctioning the ladies
The first two episodes have considerable strengths. Cara Gee as Kat effectively carries a large percentage of the interest, as the sensitive but tough-as-nails heroine. Rebecca seems a bit dippy, but redeems herself in ways I won’t spoil in episode two. So far there is no reason to care about Isabelle’s character. Watching the teenage girls play happily in a field with young boys, and then recalling what those girls are bound for, gives the viewer a twinge in the stomach. Telling us they’re going to be whores is one thing; making us feel it is the work of talented writers and directors and actors.
Mrs. & Mr. Slotter
The action is well done. The art direction and sets are convincing, if at times too seedy. The costuming is not always strictly accurate, but well within the range of acceptability for a period show that’s meant to be dramatically stylish. The photography, from the very first shots of running horses, is often stunning, and makes full use of the beautiful Canadian forest locations.
Kat in the hat
Aaron Poole, recently in the BBC COPPER miniseries, seems slight to be a worthy villain against Kat. He needn’t be huge, but he should be strong. Ian McShane’s Swearengen in DEADWOOD was smaller than everyone around him, but had the gravitas to make him a threat. There will be a new episode of STRANGE EMPIRE on Friday nights.
‘DOC’ – A Film Review
There is revisionist history, and then there is heresy blasphemy, and that’s what a lot of critics and Western fans called ‘DOC’ when it opened in 1971. Just released on DVD by Timeless Media Group, the MGM film was denounced as a Western made by men who wanted to destroy the genre. But not everyone thought so; Roger Ebert gave it a largely enthusiastic review, and the Western Writers of America, no pushover organization, named its screenplay the best of the year. Not perfect, it’s surprisingly good in unexpected ways.
Keach and Dunaway
Starring Stacy Keach as Doc Holliday and Faye Dunaway as Kate (for obvious reasons there is no reference to her being ‘Big Nose’ Kate), the movie focuses on the period when Doc was on his way to Tombstone to meet up with Wyatt Earp, and their time in Tombstone, culminating with the O.K. Corral gunfight. While painting a more subdued portrait of Doc Holliday than we are used to – especially post Val Kilmer’s turn in TOMBSTONE (1995) -- the shocker is Harris Yulin’s characterization of Wyatt Earp. No he-man in the style of Fonda/O’Brien/Lancaster/Russell/Costner, Yulin’s Earp is a cold politician whose interests are purely financial: he wants to be Sheriff because it pays better than being Marshal and gives him more jurisdiction and power. He’s indifferent to how he treats people, innocent or guilty, to get there. The offer he makes the Clantons is shocking because it’s not only anti-heroic, it’s…perfectly practical. Even Johnny Behan is played as a nice guy! This is the movie the ghosts of the Clantons and Maclaurys always wanted to see made.
Yulin and Keach
The first film written by journalist Pete Hamill (FLESH & BLOOD, THE NEON EMPIRE), and directed by Frank Perry (DAVID & LISA, THE SWIMMER, DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE), neither man had made a Western before (or since), and it almost feels as if they’d never watched one either – the film is full of exceptional scenes that you’ve never seen before. Without calling attention to it, almost nothing traditional – or cliché – happens in this film, which is refreshing and frequently exciting.
While the major events are familiar, the story is not. Doc meets Kate when he gets in a card game, putting up his horse against the other man’s ‘wife’, Kate. Doc wins, and in an inexplicably charming way, their romance blooms on the road to Tombstone. Dunaway, when we meet her, is as dirty and unappealing as any leading lady you’ve ever seen. But she sure cleans up nicely – I don’t think I’ve ever seen her more beautiful. The film’s greatest strength is the performances; Dunaway as she tries to make a home for Doc and protect him from Wyatt; Keach as the doomed man finding love too late; Yulin as the manipulator; and Denver John Collins as ‘The Kid’, who befriends Doc against both of their better judgments.
The action is ample and well-done; the gunfight pared down to the time it probably actually took. It’s not a documentary, and some simplification of events will upset even non-purists. And it ends too abruptly. But it’s a very well-made and enjoyable Western with a different take on a story you might have thought you knew too well. You can order it from Timeless Media HERE.
BRIAN LEBEL’S OLD WEST AUCTION WEDNESDAY & THURSDAY!
This Wednesday and Thursday, June 6th & 7th, Brian Lebel’s Annual Old West Auction will be held in Fort Worth, Texas, and as always, the items he has to offer are astonishing. Among the 370 lots to be offered over the two days are so many examples of stunning Indian art, saddles, tack, Civil War and Indian Wars swords, and so many other fascinating items that I hardly know where to begin. So I’m just going to highlight a few items, and encourage you to visit the auction site on-line to learn more, and to bid (my birthday’s the end of June, in case you might be wondering).
Item #245 is an 1879 voucher signed by Bass Reeves, the legendary lawman and first black U.S. Deputy Marshall. The estimate is from $2,000 to $2,500.
Item #283 is a cane made of buffalo bone that belonged to Wyatt Earp, and was given to him by Senator George Hearst, father of William Randolph Hearst. The estimate is $30,000 to $35,000.
Item #284 is Frank Stillwell’s single-action Colt, which is believed to be the gun he used to kill Morgan Earp, and possibly to maim Virgil Earp. A relic of the famous Wyatt Earp ‘vendetta ride’, the gun was recovered from Frank Stillwell’s body, after he was confronted in a train yard by Wyatt Earp, Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, Sherman McMasters and John Johnson, who shot the ‘Cowboy Gang’ member to pieces. The estimate is $175,000 to $225,000.
Item #285 is a pastel portrait of Virgil Earp by celebrated artist E.A. Burbank, best known for his hundreds of portraits of American Indians – his portrait of Chief Joseph of the Nez-Perces is also up for bids. The Earp portrait is estimated at $60,000 to $80,000.
To see all of the items going up for auction, go HERE.
And something new has been added! For the first time, Lebel is offering what they’re calling The Rest of the West, fifty-five lots of high quality, but less expensive, items which will be available for bid on-line only, including a framed collection of Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill items, expected to fetch between $600 and $900.
MORGAN FREEMAN ‘BASS REEVES’ MINISERIES SET AT HBO
Folks have been trying for decades to get the story of Bass Reeves, the escaped slave turned lawman, on the screen, and now Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary’s Revelation Pictures has it in development at HBO. Also involved is actor James Pickens Jr. of GREY’S ANATOMY; Pickens optioned the Reeves bio BLACK GUN, SLIVER STAR, by Art T. Burton, on which the mini will be based. It will be written by writer and director John Sayles, twice Oscar-nominated for scripting LONE STAR and PASSION FISH.
‘HELL ON WHEELS’ RETURNS FOR FINAL SEASON JULY 18TH!
The 5th and final season of the series that dramatizes the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, and the life of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), will return to AMC on July 18th. It will be a split season, with the first seven episodes running this summer, and the final seven some time in 2016. Cullen will find himself in Truckee, California, headquarters of the Central Pacific Railroad, rivals of Doc Durant’s (Colm Meany) Union Pacific in the race to complete the Transcontinental Railroad. Details coming soon!
THAT’S A WRAP!
Have a great week, folks! I’m not even gonna guess what next week’s Round-up is going to be about! Don't forget the new episode of TEXAS RISING on Monday night!
All Original Contents Copyright May 2015 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved