Monday, July 1, 2013

Flop Watch: The Lone Ranger

Heading into the Independence Day (long) weekend, which will actually start Wednesday for many folks, the big question at the box office is will The Lone Ranger flop? Here are my thoughts…

As has been documented extensively, the film has an extremely high budget! It has a far higher budget than any Western should have. But, then again, this is no ordinary Western. This is a “Disney tent pole summer potentially franchise starting Western produced by Jerry Bruckheimer”. Since the budget has ballooned into the $250+ range, the film would have to come out like gangbusters to recoup that kind of investment. Going up against Despicable Me 2, I would be shocked if Ranger opened at Number 1 and owned the weekend. In fact, I’ll go on a limb now to say it won’t happen. Despicable Me 2 will most surely earn the top spot as families flock to animated features that appeal to children as well as adults (look at Monsters University, which stayed in the lead this weekend in its second week of release).

So, look for critics and industry watchers to jump on The Lone Ranger bashing bandwagon. With a troubled start (Disney scrapping the project over budget fears, then green lighting it again), and a long production history, I promise you there are those who want this movie to fail!  Also, look for critics to point to the picture as evidence of the “death of the Western,” and how the genre is no longer relevant. For those who care what critics say, this sort of word-of-mouth will hurt the film.

I expect The Lone Ranger to be a moderate success. However, with its high production cost, the odds of being a blockbuster are already stacked against this film. My hope is that a sequel is still green lit, as I long for more big-budget Westerns on the silver screen. My final prediction: The Lone Ranger will not be a flop the epic proportion of Heaven’s Gate, but it will not exactly set the box office on fire, either. I hope I am wrong, but we’ll know this weekend. Have you seen the film? Let me know in the comments section what you think of it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Forgotten Gem: Backlash

One of my favorite directors…in fact maybe my absolute favorite director…is John Sturges. I will not take the time to list all of the Sturges movies I like, but I am particularly fond of his westerns. Recently, I had the chance to catch one of his oaters that I haven’t seen before. Backlash, from 1956, is excellent! I had not heard of the film until I came across it on Encore Westerns, but I am glad I found it!

The movie stars (the underrated, in my opinion) Richard Widmark, joined by Donna Reed. I will not give too much away regarding the plot (no spoilers here), and will only say that the story revolves around Widmark searching for the man who left a group of men stranded. This man ran off with quite a sum of gold, leaving others behind to be slaughtered by Apaches. The search for this man, and the quest to learn his identity, is well handled and very suspenseful. In fact, the premise, and suspense that stems from it, has caused some reviewers to classify this film as a “psychological western.” This subgenre is known for building slow burning suspense, relying more on tension rather than scenes of action (the original 3:10 to Yuma is a good example). Backlash certainly has elements of this, but make no mistake, there is a ton of action in this picture! In fact, I was amazed at just how many gunfights there were. The film practically opens up with one, and never slows down. Widmark battles a band of gunfighting brothers, Apaches, hired gunhands, and a ruthless cattle rancher.

The film is only 90 minutes, and the story moves along at a brisk pace with little to no filler. It’s a lean, action-packed gem of a western with excellent pacing, an exciting story, and great acting. I am not sure why this movie is not more well-known, or why it has not received a wide DVD release. It is a forgotten treasure that every western fan should see. It’s just the type of movie I love, and while not a masterpiece of epic filmmaking or groundbreaking, I give it a perfect 5 stars out of five.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Where Parting Will Be No More

One of my great-great grandmothers was Tenny (or Tinny) Zella Stanfill. Even though she was born in Arkansas in 1903, her unique name of Tenny came from the State of Tennessee where some of her ancestors were from. She was a fun, colorful ol’ gal who had the greatest stories. I know because Tenny lived to be 101 years old! In fact, she did not die until I was well into my twenties. Many are not fortunate enough to know their great-great grandma, and I consider myself very blessed. Stories she told me could take up more than a few blog posts (she was a very interesting person, to say the least). But, today I want to focus on one of my ancestors whom I did not know: Tenny’s great grandfather, Lewis Baird. Lewis would be my great grandfather five “greats” back, if my math is correct (Lewis’ daughter Rachel married Melton Stanfill, and together they had James who was the father of Tenny).

Lewis was born in 1795 in North Carolina. And while Lewis was a Southerner, during the Civil War he apparently, very publically, sided with the Union (it is said that his sons even fought for the Union). Because of this, he was arrested in 1862 by Confederate soldiers and imprisoned in the Salisbury Prison.

 Salisbury was an empty cotton factory that was converted into a prison to house POWs after the War began. At first, sources state only a little over 100 men were housed there. But, as the War went on, the numbers began to swell. By 1864, it is said that the conditions at the prison had deteriorated, and the prison was not only housing captured Union soldiers, but also Confederate deserters, common criminals, and Union sympathizers like my grandfather, Lewis Baird. The prison that was originally designed to hold 2,500 men ended up housing a few hundred shy of 10,000 prisoners. It is reported that some prisoners slept under buildings, some in tents, and some simply on the ground-even in the winter. Deaths became common place, and Lewis was one of the casualties.

In conducting my family research, I have found a letter (posted by other descendents of Lewis Baird, whom I would like to thank) written by another inmate and friend of Lewis. This letter was sent to Lewis’ family.

To the sons of Lewis M. Baird:
I, as comrade of your father in prison, deem it my duty to write to you at this time to let you know his present condition. He is in the hospital and to all human appearance must soon be numbered with those who have been taken from the evils of this world. There is no particular disease apparent but old age and confinement have done the work. Having become acquainted with him soon after his arrest, and have been with him ever since, he now seems like a father to me. I can truly sympathize, we have slept together and I have been able to obtain many little necessaries from him. He has stood it very well until lately. I have often heard him say that he would like to know how you all were and let you all know how he was but he never got to hear from any of you at home.

I have talked to the old man upon the subject of religion. He always expressed himself as being prepared, which is a great consolation. I assure you that all that is possible for me to do shall be done for your father. Pray that God in his great mercies may spare him yet to return home. He wishes for me to say if he does not live to see you in this world; that you will strive to so live as to meet him above where parting will be no more. Very truly yours, Thomas Cayton

Lewis Baird never returned home, but died at Salisbury Prison on May 11, 1864 at the age of 68. Sadly, he does not have an individual grave marker, but was laid to rest in a mass grave along with other deceased prisoners. Today, a monument stands marking the general area where the mass graves are.

It is said that Lewis could have gone free, had he simply sworn allegiance to the Confederate cause. He refused. I hope one day, when I too am “where parting will be no more,” can look up Lewis and tell him how much I admire the fact that he stood for what he believed in. From what I have uncovered in my family research, he was a man of integrity and I respect him for it. I was very excited to uncover this small piece of my family tree. But the work (and fun) must continue, as I know there are other stories waiting to be told from my family's history.

Note: I have another grandfather whom I admire that fought in the Civil War, only for the Southern side. He was at the Battle of Shiloh, and was eventually captured and imprisoned at Camp Chase in Ohio. I hope to tell his story soon!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Film Review: Night of the Creeps

Save for the Universal and Hammer classics, I’m not a huge fan of the horror genre. But, for whatever reason, several weeks ago I found myself watching Night of the Creeps from 1986. And, while I almost always avoid modern horror like the plague, sometimes a good cheesy scary flick from the ‘80s can be fun, and Creeps did not disappoint.

First of all, there seemed to be a trend in the ‘80s to mix horror with comedy, and Night of the Creeps does this effectively. In fact, this may be more of a comedy than an outright horror film, with some elements of sci-fi thrown in for good measure. Without giving too much away, the opening scene, taking place on an alien spacecraft, is very funny! This scene is short, and is about as “sci-fi” as the film gets. The movie then shifts to 1959 (presented effectively in black and white), before moving to the main story set in the mid-1980s (returning to color). The plot involves “creeps” (little slug like space creatures) that attach themselves to a host body and turn their victims into zombie like creatures who then try to kill other people. Yes, you read that plot description right. Oh, there’s also an escaped asylum patient with an ax, who makes an appearance during the 50s sequence, as well as in zombie form in the 80s portion.

Basically, this is just your standard horror comedy with elements of science fiction featuring aliens, mutant slugs, zombies and college students fare.

And because this is a ‘80s movie featuring college kids, there is a fair share of partying and a bit of nudity (I think it was a requirement for most “teen” films in the ‘80s…I envision some studio executive reading the scripts and then exclaiming, “I know what this picture needs: more boobs!”). The nudity is pointless and brief, and very typical of the era. In addition to this, there’s some random cursing, so better not watch this one with the kids around. There is also some over-the-top gore, but it’s so cheesy and all done in good fun, which made it hard to get offended. Let’s just say special effects have come a long way since 1986, but that adds to the charm and fun of the movie.

There are clich├ęd characters in this one; the college kids featuring nerds and mindless jocks, the washed up cop with a lot of emotional baggage (played very well by Tom Atkins), and of course, the pretty girl all the boys like. It’s hokey in parts, but to be fair, it was the point. And, unlike many modern horror movies, this film is not mean spirited and is certainly not taking itself too seriously. The bottom line is, I like this film probably more than I should, and give it a rating of 3.5 out 5. If you’re in the mood to revisit the ‘80s, then give Night of the Creeps a try.

Two side notes: There’s a reference to Christian glam rock band Stryper that I thought was very funny and really dated this picture! Also, the music during the 50s portion of the movie was great!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Film Review: Riders of the Purple Sage

In the 1990s (and a couple of years beyond), TNT was the “best little movie studio on television.” In other words, they produced some darn good original pictures, and in particular, some darn good Westerns. As a teenager in the ‘90s, I tried to catch as many of them as I could (this was in the days before the blessed invention known as the DVR, and my VCR recording skills weren’t particularly great). Somehow I missed Riders of the Purple Sage from 1996, and have been waiting to see it ever since. It has been on VHS for a number of years, but until recently was not on DVD. I would check for the DVD release several times a year (along with one of my favorites, The Avenging Angel) but was always disappointed to discover it was still not available…until now! Thanks to the Warner Brothers Archives, most of the TNT Originals are now on DVD, and I for one could not be happier. As a devoted and loyal Western fan, I recognized that TNT has given us some of the best modern films in the genre. Thankfully, they do not seem as much like a made-for-television movie as does, say, Hallmark Originals (this is not to say Hallmark doesn’t have some good Westerns, but even the best ones feel like long episodes of a television series, not necessarily a movie). TNT offered great casts, great stories, and some good action.
I say all of this to get around to my review of Riders. Based upon the Zane Grey novel from 1912, this version stars Ed Harris as Lassiter and Amy Madigan as Jane Withersteen. I will admit, I have never read the entire book, but only pieces here and there for a Western literature class I took in college. But, I did notice this filmed version has several differences from the novel. First of all, Zane Grey specifically identified the villains of his story as being Mormons. The 1996 movie does not actually mention Mormonism by name, and I am alright with this. I believe Grey unfairly characterized Latter-day Saints in his book, so I’m fine with that aspect being omitted. In the movie, it is simply a sect of some religious order that is not overtly identified.
Secondly, the movie completely omits a side plot regarding the adoption by Jane Withersteen of a young girl. But, the book may be overly plot heavy, so some trimming was certainly needed in adapting the work for screen.

The movie moves along a bit slowly at times, but I actually never lost interest. In fact, the cinematography is great, and I almost got the feeling that I was actually in Southern Utah watching the storms roll in over the mesas. The beauty of the landscapes alone was enough to hold my interest. But the plot moves along at a fairly good pace, and there are some gunfights sprinkled throughout to keep things interesting. And speaking of gunfights…minor spoiler alert…the final gunfight taking place at the church is one of the best Western gunfights filmed in the last few decades. It had this fan of cowboy action shooting very happy!
Overall, I give TNT’s Riders of the Purple Sage a rating of 4 out of 5. It is a beautifully filmed Western, with a strong story and great acting. The plot drags just a bit in the middle, keeping the film from scoring a perfect five. But, the action packed final twenty minutes makes for some great viewing.

If you are interested in purchasing Riders of the Purple Sage, it can be bought directly from Warner Brothers or from Amazon. Happy watching.