Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Take: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)



Let me get it out of the way right up front: I liked this film a lot.
It has flaws and some plot holes you could drive a Humvee through --- but what big-budget action flick these days doesn’t? And, when all is said and done, that’s exactly what it is and all it sets out to be … a big, sprawling, rip-snortin’ Western actioner.
I’m not familiar with the original Seven Samurai, so I can’t/won’t try to compare how this newest version stacks up against that. As for the Yul Brynner/Steve McQueen 1960 Western that most readers of this blog are likely more familiar with, I think this one holds its own.

The basic plot remains the same. A peaceful community of lower/middle class working folks is overrun by a ruthless force of hardcases against which they have no chance of fighting back and winning. In desperation, they pool all their meager resources of any value and seek to hire professional gunmen who will fight back on their behalf. The first man they approach for the job – Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter - is moved not by the price they are willing to pay but rather by what it represents to those offering it. (“I’ve been paid a lot for my services before, but never everything.”) Chisolm takes the job and begins gathering up some other professionals to aid him.
This time around, the community is not a humble Mexican village besieged by bandits out of the mountains but rather a small mining community being overrun by a greedy, vicious corporate industrialist looking to drive everyone out of the valley in order to mine all the land for himself. The villain is named Bartholomew Bogue and is a supremely evil cur written to such an excess that it’s like the old Snidely Whiplash/tie-the-fair-maiden-to-the-railroad-tracks days

Denzel Washington, of course, is Sam Chisolm. Joining him are: Christopher Pratt as Farraday, the gambler who dabbles in explosives; Ethan Hawke as Goodnight, the ex-Confederate sharpshooter who is haunted into current inaction by all of his past killings; Vincnet D’Onofrio as mountain man/Indian fighter Jack Horne; Byung-hun Lee as Billy Rocks, an assassin indebted to Goodnight; Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, a Mexican outlaw; and Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior.

My first reaction upon first hearing the changes to the plot structure the listing of characters who would make up “ the Seven” was: OK, here we go again: Political Correctness on steroids --- everything from the greedy, nasty Big Industry guy to Diversity in the form of representation by every ethnic group known to mankind. But you know what? Except for the over the top uber-villainy of the Bogue character, everything else works just fine. Each character has his moment, his back story, and his purpose to the group. And the camaraderie that develops amongst them plays out nicely.
What’s more, the female lead --- Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen, a widow from the town --- brought so much to the story via her strength as written and the power of Ms. Bennett’s performance that it wouldn’t have been too far out of line to have made her one of the Seven … or perhaps called it The Magnificent Eight. (Yeesh, now who’s getting caught up in this PC crap!)

The action sequences throughout and especially the big climax (although a bit excessive and too drawn-out) are exceptionally well staged. In fact, all the production values --- acting, photography, set designs, music --- are all top notch. And did I say music? During the closing credits we even get the swelling, stirring strains of Elmer Bernstein’s famous theme from the 1960 classic.

All in all, IMO, this movie is just what we need the most right now --- a big, boisterous, good old-fashioned Western!
Recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Another Look: Walt Disney's DAVY CROCKETT AND THE RIVER PIRATES



As a youngster growing up in the mid-1950s, I was swept up in the phenomena that was Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier like nobody’s business. Knew every verse of the song, which wasn’t hard to learn because for a couple of years you could hear it playing practically EVERY-flippin’-where you went.
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knowed every tree
Killed hisself a bar when he was only three
Da-vee, Da-vee Crockett
King of the Wild Frontier 
Many a young vocal cord was strained trying to hit the high note on that last syllable of “Da-VEE”, let me tell you. And many a barbered and carefully combed head of hair was turned into a sweaty tangle by having a coonskin cap clamped over it for a hours on end, too. The “official” Davy Crockett hat (and all sorts of other gear and related toys) were channeled through a dime store chain called Kresgie’s (sic?). My folks, God bless ‘em, couldn’t afford the official version so the coonskin cap I got was some ratty, roadkill-looking thing (probably more authentic than the official version) but I nevertheless wore it proudly and constantly for a long time.
Getting back to the Kresgie stores, they were making so much money off the arrangement that they pumped “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” over their public speakers with religious fervor. I can only imagine how frazzled the adult employees of those stores must have gotten after hours and days on end of listening to that. I mean, at the time, as a kid, I thought the song was so great that there was no need for any other song to ever be written or performed … But now, as an adult (no wisecracks), I gotta admit that a little bit of that catchy little ditty goes a long way.

So, anyway, the three-part airing of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier on Disney’s TV show in 1955 was so incredibly popular that it left Mickey Mouse’s papa and his staff scrambling on how to milk its success even more. They re-aired it, they edited the episodes together into a full-length color feature that played in theaters, and they had the marketing department cranking out related products like crazy. But the public wanted more Crockett and Disney wanted to give it to them (and reap additional profits for himself in the process).
A problem arose, however, from the fact that the character of Davy in King of the Wild Frontier (following the fate of the real-life Crockett) died at the Alamo.
How to tell more tales about a popular character you’ve gone and killed off? The answer was, although I don’t believe the term was in common use at the time (maybe not even in existence) --- a prequel. Go back to an earlier point in Davy’s life and tell some more adventures from there.

Hence, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.
It first aired in 1956, as a two-parter, once again on Disney’s popular TV show. Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race was shown in November, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates came in December. The following year, the two segments were spliced/edited together for another full-length color feature that played in theaters.
I had the pleasure of watching this version again (probably for the third or fourth time – though not for many, many years) when it played the other night on TCM. Both the little kid in me and what pretends to be an adult found it to hold up very well. The tale stems from a meeting between Crockett and the legendary/quasi-mythical river man Mike Fink. As the segment titles pretty clearly indicate, at first the two are pitted against one another in a rough and tumble keelboat race; then they join forces to battle a pack of marauders pretending to be Indians who are attacking/sacking boats that pass by their hideout at Cave-Inn Rock on the Ohio River.
The leaders of the gang are the notorious Harpe brothers --- vicious, real-life characters, who truly committed river piracy, among other crimes, and were serial killers responsible for as many as 50 victims. As you might imagine for a Disney feature, this aspect of their villainy is not presented as part of the story here. As a matter of fact, the whole treatment of this adventure is done mostly as broad, semi-slapstick comedy. Jeff York, in the role of loud, boisterous Mike Fink (“I’m half wild horse, half cockeyed-alligator, and the rest o’ me is crooked snags and red-hot snappin’ turtle; I can out-run, out-jump, out-drink, out-cuss, and out-fight any man on both sides of the river!”), pretty much steals the show. And Buddy Ebsen, in the role of Davy’s pal Georgie Russell, displays masterful comic timing honed from years of vaudeville and earlier supporting roles. Fess Parker, as Davy, is the stalwart. And, over-arcing all the fun, there is plenty of excitement and rough-and-tumble action.
The production values --- color, music, period touches, supporting players --- are all top notch.

As already mentioned, I enjoyed the heck out of viewing this gem all over again, even after so many years. And you know what else? If I still had that ratty old coonskin cap from decades ago, I likely would have clapped it on and wore it while once again trying to hit the high notes of the ballad whenever it played in the background.
Recommended.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Noteworthy Reads: SHARES THE DARKNESS by J.R. Lindermuth



In this seventh installment of the Sticks Hetrick series, author Lindermuth once again brings the fictional setting of Swatara Creek vividly to life … and death, as it were, this being a murder mystery after all.

The power of the Hetrick series (as with all of Lindermuth’s work) is the depth of the characters and the simple yet detailed way the author captures and presents them. The people of Swatara Creek are, for the most part, basically decent, hard-working, middle class folks the reader truly comes to care about. This is on particularly strong display in this entry where the Hetrick character is essentially given a supporting role while center stage is taken by Police Officer Flora Vastine, someone Sticks previously mentored when he was the town police chief before moving on to his current position as a special county investigator.

The main plot this time out revolves around a former classmate of Flora’s who is first reported missing and then found murdered. Other matters involving illegal timbering, auto theft, and some romantic entanglements are also smoothly woven in but, through it all, Flora doggedly follows her own instincts and in the end --- with some timely intervention by her old mentor Sticks --- sorts out the true culprits from the myriad suspects.

Colorful characters, some surprises and twists, nice touches of wry humor, all served up with crisp dialogue and the clear, straightforward narrative of a talented writer make this another highly enjoyable read from Mr. Lindermuth.
Strongly recommended.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Noteworthy Reads: TOUGH JOB IN DRIFTWOOD by Richard Prosch





Richard Prosch writes with a distinct voice that has, in recent years, made him one of my favorite authors.

I savor not only the way he spins a yarn, but also the tales that he tells. He has written primarily of the Old West as set mostly in Nebraska and some of Wyoming. A native of Nebraska, his love for the state, the region, and the unique frontier stories he grew up listening to shine through in his writing. TOUGH JOB IN DRIFTWOOD is a collection of seventeen such stories, each one a gem in and of itself.

The cover blurb sums it up nicely:
A wrecked wagon spells trouble for a Niobrara river man; the leader of a roadhouse band needs a tough man for a dangerous job; a gambler bets on the outcome of a western showdown; a pulp fiction character haunts a woman's memory of her husband.
Old gunnies, laconic lawmen, John Coburn, Whit Branham and a host of villains bring the action, humor and irony Prosch is well known for.
Old favorites and five brand new tales firmly establish Prosch as an exciting new voice in Western fiction.

Richard’s 2016 Spur Award-winning short story “The Scalpers” is unfortunately not included in this collection. It is available on Amazon, however, as part of a short eBook anthology titled WESTERN TALES – Volume 10 from Western Trailblazers. It includes other fine stories by Philip Dunlap, Eric Bowen, and Troy Smith. It is reasonably priced and I would encourage anyone who appreciates good Western fiction to check it out also.

But then, I encourage readers who like good stories, period, to check out anything with Richard's byline featured.
You won’t be sorry.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Noteworthy Reads: TORN AND FRAYED by David Cranmer




This seventh installment of the Drifter Detective series is penned by series creator David Cranmer, coming out from behind the Edward A. Grainger byline that he uses for his popular hardboiled Western stories featuring Cash Laramie, the Outlaw Marshal. 

In addition to his fine writing skills, Mr. Cranmer, as most everybody knows, is the head honcho behind the Beat To A Pulp webzine and books --- a publishing concern that has provided an outlet to a wide range of talented writers telling a wide range of entertaining tales.

The Cash Laramie tales are at the core of it all (although the BTAP features are branching wider and wider all the time) and the Drifter Detective series – featuring one Jack Laramie, by name - is a direct extension of that; Jack, you see, is the grandson of Cash. As a mobile PI operating out of a DeSoto-drawn horse trailer in post-WWII Texas, he seeks to dish out the same kind of justice his grandfather did in the 1880s Old West.
It’s a creative concept done well throughout the series to date. A variety of fresh settings and problems handled with the distinct flair of a slightly modernized “town tamer”. When Jack Laramie gets involved, things are gonna get shaken up and they might not be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction, but they’re likely to be better than they were.
TORN AND FRAYED is a somewhat moodier, more nourish entry than much of what has come before - with some interesting Ross Macdonald/Lew Archer touches. The writing and the twists make it all go down as smooth as a belt of good bourbon at the close of a hard day.
Strongly recommended.