Open Range – A Short Movie Review

True Grit: The Duke, The Dude and The Dutiful Daughter; Part I

True Grit – Part 2, Rooster Redux

Having been born in the fifties of the last century I am familiar with westerns from the early days of Hollywood and the later era in the sixties.  Now these two styles were as different as night and day.  The earlier movies represented a simpler more idealized version of the old west.  The sixties represented the era of the anti-hero and the anti-heroic west.  Both of these periods produced memorable films.  I have favorites from both periods and depending on the mood can enjoy either.  In the last twenty years, some good westerns have been made.  Interestingly they represent an evolution that contains aspects of both these earlier film types.  Unlike the earlier films, they do not represent an idealized world and at the same time they lack the relentlessly negative depiction of the sixties western.  Let’s say it’s a more balanced approach.  So, some of these new movies appeal to me for a variety of reasons.  Some are remakes of earlier classics.  One of these, True Grit, I’ve already reviewed.  Some are new stories like Open Range.  I’ll say what I like about this story and why.

The plot of the story is a familiar one.  It’s settlers versus herders.  A small herd owner passes through a town run by a rich tyrannical landowner, Denton Baxter (played to the hilt by Michael Gambon) who controls the sheriff and attacks and kills any free grazing herders that come through his land.  His men attack and kill one of the cowboys and injure another.  The herd owner, Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), and his lead man, Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner), come back to the town to get a doctor for their shot friend and to get justice.  The narrative runs to a climactic gun fight.   Mixed in is a love story between Waite and the doctor’s sister, Sue Barlow (Annette Bening).  Seeing as Costner and Bening aren’t kids anymore, the love story is appealing to people of my generation and fits in with the theme of a changing world closing off one familiar lifestyle while opening up a better one to those willing to see.

So, this is a pretty standard plot.  Why do I like it?

First off, the look and feel of the movie.  It must have been filmed in the Canadian Rockies.  The panoramic views and the outdoor scenes are fantastic to look at.  The scenes in the town look good.  They spent enough money to make the sets look authentic.  The soundtrack is first rate.

Second, the portrayals by all the leads and many of the supporting characters are well done and very engaging.  I’m a fan of Duvall’s and the chemistry between him and Costner makes the movie work.  The Costner/Bening love story is understated and enjoyable.

Third and most important, the gun fight at the end is epic.  Our heroes Duvall and Costner line up against five men and then fight their way through the rest of the gang to stay alive and win the day.  So why is it so good?  Well first off, these have to be the loudest guns ever fired.  Even sitting in my living room, I can feel the percussion rattling my teeth.  Honestly, I doubt there were Iowa Class battleships with guns this robust.  Secondly, Kevin Costner was lucky enough to own revolvers that were twenty-five-shooters.  He would peel off ten shots at one adversary before moving on to another dozen shots at the next opponent.  This can be both dramatically useful and conducive to a gunfighter’s health.  And finally, the bad guys are so enjoyably bad.  One villain even brags about how much he enjoyed shooting someone in the head just as he himself gets shot practically right between the eyes.  The lead villain, Baxter is continuously issuing threats and insults at anyone he sees and is thoroughly despicable.  It’s truly a pleasure seeing him dispatched by our heroes’ thunderously loud and apparently infinitely loaded shooting irons.

Open Range is one of my favorite modern westerns.  In style, I think it throws back more to the pre-sixties westerns.  But it is so well-acted and generally well made that it actually updates many of the conventions it adheres to and gives them new life.  I highly recommend it.  And the ladies like it too.  So, throw it in for date night.  You can’t go wrong.

 

Brings the Lightning by Peter Grant: A Short Book Review

Peter Grant’s “Brings the Lightning” is a western.  It is the story of a confederate soldier who heads west after the war to make a fresh start.  Of course, this is well mapped territory.  Recently I reviewed the movies and novel called “True Grit” and that broadly falls into this sub-genre.  But a time-tested plot can still be entertaining.  What is required is the ingredients of any good story.  The action needs to be interesting, the characters engaging and the writing style appropriate to the intended readers.  For instance, if you intend to attract the extreme literary type reader to a tale of the west, then you probably select a highly introspective confederate protagonist.  This will be the sort of hero who, when faced with danger, falls into a reverie and expounds (either to himself or to his companions) about the philosophical and theological ramifications of the action at hand.  An extreme example of this would be the epic poems of Homer or Virgil.  In these stories a hero will interrupt a battle to discuss his ancestry with the enemy.  Doubtless there is some charm in this approach.  This is not the style taken by Grant in the present book.  The story tracks the progress of Walter Ames as he goes from cavalry soldier, to post-war civilian in the occupied south, to westbound settler.  And the form of the narrative resembles the character of the protagonist.  The approach is straightforward and direct.  Ames encounters the altered reality of his new life and determines a plan for escaping it and overcoming his circumstances.  He shows himself resourceful and flexible (as any good protagonist should) and proceeds to pick up the interrupted thread of his life and direct it where the great drama of the American West is being written.  During this action, we will become acquainted with the paraphernalia of settler life.  We learn about how the great army surplus of the Civil War is made available to civilians (either legitimately or through bribery) and details of the weapons and transport equipment enlisted into the settlers’ quest.  We meet all sorts of people.  There are riverboat gamblers, army officers and NCOs, tradesmen, craftsmen, thieves, murderers and schoolmarms.  We meet trail scouts, freed black slaves, indian braves and outlaws from North and South.  By the end of the story Ames has navigated from the Old South to the Rocky Mountains and gone from a young soldier in retreat to a tested and respected individual on the frontier.

On the cover, we see the subtitle, “The Ames Archives Book One.”  So, this is a series.  And the stage has been set for expansion of the plot in several directions and dimensions.  It can be anticipated that several of the characters will have added importance later on and some unfinished business will resurface.  All these things are expected and even necessary to expand the scope of the story to encompass some of the larger themes that exist within the western genre.  But it’s important to tell the potential reader what he’s letting himself in for, more volumes.  It’s an episodic story in a planned series.

Now for my opinion.  I like it and recommend it.  The prose is clean and uncluttered.  The characters are sketched sufficiently and enjoyably.  The subject matter is interesting and the plot contains enough excitement to justify its inclusion in this genre.  It’s a good western.  But just to be perfectly clear, you’re not getting James Joyce or Thomas Mann.  This is more in the mold of Charles Portis.  It’s an adventure story.  If that is what you are looking for and you have similar tastes to mine, you may be happy with this book.  If you’re looking for Hamlet, move on.

True Grit – Part 2, Rooster Redux

True Grit: The Duke, The Dude and the Dutiful Daughter; Part 1

So, who’s the better Cogburn?  Of course, there’s no answer to this.  If I were to guess on the consensus among the populace, I’d speculate that voting would be strongly divided by age.  Anyone under the age of forty (I’m guessing) would be more likely to be in the Bridges camp.  Anyone over the age of fifty would favor the Duke.  Chronologically then, I should be in the Wayne camp.  But it’s not that simple.

These are both fine films.  And even though I have fond memories of enjoying the older film over the years, I found the Coen Brothers film incredibly entertaining.  And it’s going to be hard to separate my judgement on the comparative virtues of the Cogburn portrayal from my overall feelings for the two movies.  But that is what I will be trying to do here.

I’ll start by comparing both film portrayals to the novel.  It is fair to say that both films depart in places from the book.  Overall, I’d say that the newer movie diverges by adding additional plot elements while the older film removes some elements that give the book a harsher plot.  These differences in part, exist because of the differences that exist in film-making practices between 1969 and 2010.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the novel and the 2010 film portrayal of Rooster is the greater animosity between Cogburn and LaBoeuf.  In the 2010 movie LaBoeuf and Cogburn have such a major falling out that the joint expedition is ended not once but twice.  A subtler difference is the increase in the amount of bantering mockery that Rooster heaps on the Texas Ranger.  Although the tone and even the flavor adheres to the book’s character it is an amplification of the actual text.

The obvious change to the story line between the book and the 1969 movie is the conclusion of the story.  In both the book and the 2010 movie, we read that after the desperate ride to save Mattie from the snake bite, Mattie loses her arm to the venom.  Also, she never sees Rooster again.  In the 1969 movie, she makes a full recovery and Cogburn meets up with her at her family home shortly after her recovery.

Taking into account the conventions that existed in 1969 against grittier subject matter, I do not feel either portrayal can be shown to excel the other in fidelity to the spirit of the book.  And I would say they both are excellent translations of the book to cinema.

But that’s a cop out.  Somebody has to win and someone has to lose.  Surprisingly, I’m choosing Bridges.  Events in the last few decades have prejudiced me in favor of tougher portrayals of the world.  I find the more realistic version of things more useful and more honest.  And even though it has more to do with the Coen Brothers skills as film makers than Bridges acting skills in the scene, I greatly admire the affect produced by the scene where Cogburn rides and carries Mattie to save her life.  So, even though the Duke is an iconic figure and his Rooster Cogburn was one of his best parts (and won him his only Oscar), I’m giving the prize to the Dude.  He definitely abides.