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Straw Dogs (2011)
Lurie has replaced Oliver Stone as our most important creator of socially-conscious films
To call Rod Lurie's Straw Dogs a remake of the famed (infamous!) 1971 Sam Peckinpah controversial classic of that name is to do the new film a great injustice as well as to under-rate what has been accomplished here. Lurie's narrative follows the same basic storyline, originally presented in the pulp novel The Siege at Trencher's Farm, about an upscale couple besieged in their rural home by rednecks. All similarity ends there, particularly as to the anti-feminist bias in Peckinpah's movie, most of all as the much discussed rape scene is concerned. Without wanting to give too much away, Lurie has actually managed what might have seemed the impossible by transforming this into a pro-feminist fable, and the manner in which he has done so will be of interest to serious cinema buffs, even as the film will play beautifully to the mass audience that only wants to see an excellent action film, perfectly mounted. Lurie draws the best possible performances out of actors who have been appealing, if nothing more, before this. Here's a film that demands to be seen at the moment yet will also prove of long-lasting value. For anyone who has not noticed before, Lurie has replaced Oliver Stone as our most important creator of socially-conscious films.
Resurrecting the Champ (2007)
young journalist meets down and out boxer
Almost a year ago, I saw the first half of this movie at a special screening for students at a major university. They were held spellbound by the superb storytelling, the fascinating characters, and the manner in which writer-director Rod Lurie was able to include complex themes about journalism, sports, and the relationship of personal integrity to both. When this movie reached its mid-point, and the lights went up so that a discussion could commence, I could feel the sense of shock among those who had attended that they were not going to see how 'things turned out' and would have to wait a year. My guess? They will all be first in line to see the film this coming Friday when it opens nationally. I know I will be! here's about the highest compliment I can pay the film and its maker: On the one hand, this is very much a contemporary film, once that addresses all the issues that are most important to thinking people, those who still try to live a moral life in what appears to be an amoral world, in a way that touches very deep at what the best movies have always been all about. At the same time, it hones to the rules of classical cinema, the great tradition of narrative storytelling that most of today's movie makers don't appear to understand. In particular, Lurie's approach reminds me of Frank Capra: His work, like Capra's, is always political, whether it's that great indie film THE CONTENDER or the superb COMMANDER IN CHIEF on TV, the show that may well have paved the way in popular culture for Americans to openly embrace a female president some two years from now. More important, though, Lurie doesn't merely make politics the subject of many of his films and TV shows, which in and of itself does not necessarily qualify a film as truly 'political.' In the tradition of Capra, who made IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT as political (if by implication) as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, Rod Lurie is able to give a political sensibility to a seeming action film like THE LAST CASTLE or a human drama, with sports/journalism background, like THE CHAMP. This is about politics in the broadest and deepest sense - the politics of life itself. The plot seems simple enough: an aspiring journalist (Josh Hartnett) discovers a washed up boxer (Samuel L. Jackson) and decides to do them both a favor by resurrecting the champ and also making a Pulitzer level writer out of himself. But all is not as it seems. I would die before I'd give away the mid-movie twist, but I can tell you this: it's the best since THE CRYING GAME (though this one does NOT entail anyone's sexual identity!!!). This was the point where I had to stop watching. I can't wait to see what happens and will report back just as soon as I've seen the entire movie with a further commentary. IN the meantime, here's proof that the summer blockbusters are (thankfully) receding and that it's time for intelligent people to go back to the movies. If you're one of them (You know who you are!), this is the one to see.
The Rough Riders (1958)
two yanks and a johnny rebel travel west together following the civil war
Even as all TV westerns were beginning to look and sound pretty much the same in 1958, here was one that dared to be different - perhaps too different, as it lasted only one season on ABC, in a late evening spot that attracted little attention. The premise was simple enough: immediately following the Civil War, two yankees - a no-nonsense officer (Kent Taylor, formerly TV's Boston Blackie and still sporting the same abrupt mustache) and a large, mean-looking but easygoing sergeant (Peter Whitney) team up with an elegant looking southerner (Jan Merlin) and head west together, looking for a fresh start. Ordinarily, a series like this would begin with a pilot which set the stage for how the three came together in the first place, though that was not the case here. We were more or less thrown into the situation and asked to fend for ourselves. What most qualified the show as an original was that, other than the opening shot of the three riding over a hill together while a narrator spoke in voice-over about this being the beginning of the legend that would lead, half a century later and miles away, to the charge on San Juan Hill, most of the series took place not in easily identifiable western settings - prairies, mountains, towns, deserts, etc. - but in thick swamps, where the trio appeared to have bogged down. It wasn't until nearly halfway through the season that they ever even wandered into a town that looked at all like those seen in other western TV shows of the time. This lent ROUGH RIDERS a unique aura, for the trio almost seemed like that couple in Twilight Zone - you know, the one that kept trying to drive or travel by train out of a small town but always ended up right back where they had begun? Supposedly these three were headed west, but week after week, we'd seen them pass the same bog, ride under the same moss covered tree, as if they had somehow become disconnected from all the other similar western series then taking place. none of the scripts particularly stood out as strong - all the shows seemed variations on the same theme, with character - and the relationships of the three characters - taking precedence. Until cancellation time, of course. Not that this was a whole lot better than most oaters on the small screen at that time - but is sure was different!
Terry and the Pirates (1952)
An American adventurer enjoys romance and excitement in the East.
I was maybe seven years old . . . we had one of the first TV sets on the block . . . and I heard a promo for a new series called TERRY AND THE PIRATES. There wasn't much for a kid to watch in 1952, so being a big fan of TREASURE ISLAND, I literally began doing a dance . . . until my father explained that these weren't "those kind of pirates . . . but modern ones . . . after WWII" . . . when the East was alive with turmoil. Sounded way too political for me, but I figured I'd give it a chance. Two minutes in, I was hooked. Big time. There was Terry, the typical American he-man hero, flying planes for a none too trustworthy Asian owner of a seedy airline. And Terry's sidekick Hot-Shot Charlie, who reminded me of Mickey Rooney. Or a road company version thereof. But what made the show click was the villainess . . . The Dragon Lady. It was love at first sight. Most of my buddies had a crush on Burma, the slightly soiled American blonde night club singer who resembled Marilyn Monroe. Or a road company version thereof. Not me. It was the evil, if irresistibly so, Dragon Lady from day one. She slithered about in silk skirts. One year later I'd discover the Catwoman in BATMAN comics, and Dragon Lady would have some real competition when it came to my fantasy dreams of gorgeous bad girls. For a brief while, the Dragon Lady ruled supreme. She'd be up to her nefarious crimes and always slip away at the last moment, to strike again. The following week, I'd be there waiting to watch. In the old days, TERRY ran Sunday afternoons in New York on the old Dumont Channel 5. A ginger ale company sponsored the show and gave away free TERRY comics with a sixpack. THE DRAGON LADY STRIKES BACK was my all time favorite. Does a copy still exist anywhere in the world? I'm sure I'm not the only collector who would love to get ahold of it again! Several years later, when LAWMAN premiered on ABC, the publicity said young star Peter Brown was the son of the woman who had played The Dragon Lady. I never believed them.
loner (Jeff Hunter) is drawn into a dark, dangerous game of intrigue.
There are a few distinctions to this film, one being that it is the only movie ever to have been directed by Edmond O'Brien, the 1940s leading man who, a decade later, put on a great deal of weight and turned into a top character actor, even winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Once was enough as a director, though, for this crime thriller appears to be an imitation of the film noirs that O'Brien starred in (most notably, D.O.A.) earlier in his career, and that genre had all but disappeared from the screen by the early 1960s, only to be revived again toward the end of the century and at the beginning of the next, via neo-noir - which even included a disastrous remake of DOA with Dennis Quaid. But I digress . . . one of the other distinctions is the re-teaming of Jeffrey Hunter and David Janssen, who had worked together very well a year and a half earlier in a far better and more ambitious film, Hell to Eternity, a big scale WWII action flick. In between, Hunter had played the part of Jesus in King of Kings and, after that, he seemed desperate to do anything to try and distance himself from the image of purity he incarnated there. That included second rate 'programmers' (as studio B movies used to be called) in which, at the very least, he could remind audiences of the differing roles he was capable of playing. Hunter blew his last big chance for success, incidentally, when a few years later he listened to the lady in his life when she told him NOT to do Star Trek! Anyway, the third reason to take a look at this flick (don't go out of your way, mind you) is to catch Stella Stevens displaying her range of talents and reminding us that, in addition to a ditzy-glitzy blonde in comedy roles, she could do a femme fatale just fine. She may have third billing behind the boys, but this is her show all the way, and whenever she's on screen, sparks fly - as they do nowhere else in this minor movie.
Last of the Redmen (1947)
hawkeye attempts to save some settlers during French and Indian war.
One more version of the oft-filmed LAST OF THE MOHICANS, this one was shot in color and has what might be described as an 'interesting' cast. The big surprise, perhaps, is the Jon Hall does not play the scout Hawkeye, though at about the same time he attempted to make the changeover from sarong-star, most often opposite Dorothy Lamour, into a western hero, having played the legendary scout Kit Carson in a relatively big budget production from Edward Small. Instead, he's Duncan, the up-tight British officer who vies with Hawkeye during the French and Indian war. Michael O'Shea plays Hawkeye, and what's most intriguing about the film is that he does it as a character role, coming much closer to the "Natty Bumppo" of James Fenimore Cooper's books than is usually the case with Hollywood, where Hawkeye almost invariably is turned into a conventional hero figure, tall, dark and handsome. The pace is sometimes sluggish, though the film remains of interest in terms of the way in which it sometimes closely follows and at other moments departs from the source. Most offbeat of all is the casting of Buster Crabbe, usually a hero of outer space (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers) or the old west (Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp in B movies) as the evil Magua, a Huron who betrays Alice and Cora Munro - certainly the biggest stretch of Crabbe's career.
Pony Express (1959)
Troubleshooter Tom Clyde (Bill Cord) cleans up problems for the pony express.
A quarter century before the YOUNG RIDERS show premiered, this little known syndicated series employed the pony express as the background for its western dramas. Perhaps the reason that the show, unlike RIDERS, failed to succeed has to do with the fact that very little time was given over to the actual business of riding for the famed (if, historically speaking, short-lived) company. Apparently, the writers couldn't imagine how they might come up with a weekly drama about a young man riding along at a fast clip, and barely stopping at a way station for a new horse before heading on again. Instead, they took an approach that have proved highly successful for Dale Robertson in NBC's TALES OF WELLS FARGO, which likewise spent precious little time with the stagecoach drivers and instead focused on a detective working for the company, which allowed for far more gunplay and romance. In PONY EXPRESS, the unknown Bill Cord played a similar role, a hero named Tom Clyde who showed up at the express way stations to solve mysteries and the like. Coming toward the end of the western craze, and without a network slot, the show was not picked up by enough local stations to make the creation of a second season worthwhile. One interesting note: Dick Jones, who had played the sidekick to Jock Mahoney on RANGE RIDER and then headlined his own Gene Autry-produced kiddie western, BUFFALO BILL, JR., appeared in one episode as a kind of young sidekick to the hero. The only problem was that Jones had begun to visibly age, and no longer had that scrappy teenager look of his earlier work, even though he was cast in just such a part. At any rate, despite the fact that he rode off into the sunset alongside the hero at the episode's end, Jones didn't show up on PONY EXPRESS again.
offbeat anthology of realistic western stories hosted by walter coy
In 1955, the golden age of live drama was quickly giving way to filmed series, mostly escapist fare, with the western dominating. Here was one of the few - and at best modestly successful - attempts to bridge the gap. Worthington Miner was a highly regarded producer who was known for the seriousness of his programs. It wasn't likely that he would do an ordinary western. And he didn't. Frontier was the second important anthology western series, with a continuing host ("The Old Ranger" on Death Valley Days) and a promise that each individual episode was at least inspired by something factual. Death Valley Days ran, of course, for more than a decade, with numerous other hosts taking over including, for a well-remembered two-year stint, Ronald Reagan. Frontier lasted only one season, and pretty much served as a foil to Death Valley Days, the latter stressing patriotic themes and upbeat endings. Not Frontier. Each week, the show opened and closed with a caravan of covered wagons heading off into the distance (Death Valley did, in fact, similarly begin with a single Boraxo wagon trudging along). Walter Coy (best remembered as John Wayne's doomed brother in the early sequences of The Searchers) would begin with, "This is the way it happened . . . movin' west" and then close with "That's the way it happened . . . movin' west." The shows were consistently downbeat. For instance: When they did the story of the Alamo, the focus was on the one deserter, not the heroes who died fighting. That episode was called "The Texians," and focused on the impact that the deserter has on a family when he stops at their isolated farm. In real life, the deserter's name was Rose, the family Zuber. No flag waving allowed on this series. Walter Coy not only narrated but showed up once in a while as star of individual episodes.
A father and four brothers run a ranch during the days of the fading frontier.
Am I the only person who considers Bonanza to be the WORST TV western ever? (Then again, please note that I consider DANCES WITH WOLVES to be the worst western movie ever!) Maybe I'm crazy and the rest of the world is right. Maybe I'm like John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the wilderness, trying to tell the truth when everyone else refuses to listen. All I know is that, while I may be the biggest TV western buff who ever lived, even as a kid I smelled a rat in Bonanaza. Though it was one of the first color westerns shown on a network, the color looked so washed out I'd rather it had been in black and white. It was supposed to be a kind of epic on a big scale, but most of the scenes could have been shot in my back yard, at least during the opening seasons. I thought that the comedy interplay between Hoss and Little Joe was embarrassing, not funny, and that Lorne Greene came off as pompous and pretentious rather than convincingly patriarchal. Adam I kind of liked, though he disappeared fast. Everything struck me as corny and sentimental. And as for it being in any way 'original,' the first episode I ever tried to watch (when it was still on Saturday evenings at 7:30, eastern time) was a total rip off of the great movie western High Noon. How much more I liked The Big Valley, in which there was a great deal of believable conflict between the brothers. Or better still High Chapparal, one of the most underrated of TV westerns, with on-location shooting in Old Tucson that really did give it an authentic western look and epic scale, and had Leif Ericson as a father figure who was flawed and fallible and as such human and believable in a way Pa Cartwright never was - for me, at least.
The Lawless Years (1959)
a tough but honest cop (James Gregory) fights organized crime in the roaring twenties.
Sometimes the magic happens, sometimes it doesn't. Consider this basic plot for a TV series: Back in the roaring twenties, a a tough but honest cop gathers around him an elite force and sets out to stop organized crime in a major American city. Sound familiar? Sure . . . it's The Untouchables, which premiered in 1959 on ABC with Robert Stack as Eliot Ness. Also, though, it's The Lawless Years, which began that same autumn week on 'another network.' James Gregory played Barney Ruditsky, a New York City (The Untouchables was based in Chicago) cop who likewise puts together a task force to take on the mob. But the magic didn't quite happen, because very few people watched, even as The Untouchables became an instantaneous hit. Maybe it's that the fine character actor Gregory (catch him as Angela Lasnbury's pathetic husband in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE - no, not the abysmal remake, the original!) didn't exude the charisma and sex appeal of a born star like Stack. Maybe the members of his team weren't as interesting and/or diverse. Maybe they didn't have as strong character actors playing as intriguing villains (like Neville Brand and Bruce Gordon as Al Capone and Frank Nitti on the ABC show). Certainly, they did try to capture the tenor of the times and the atmosphere, including excellent music by Max Steiner, was terrific. Maybe it was the lack of Walter Winchell as the narrator, or the fact that at half an hour they couldn't develop as interesting situations. Any way you cut it, this show - which survived for two years - is one of those forgotten exercises in crime drama on the small screen.