THE LONE RANGER (2013)

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Best described by one reviewer as “a film without a constituency”, The Lone Ranger works overtime to alienate any constituency it might have had in theory.  Within the first fifteen minutes we are shown The Lone Ranger and Tonto robbing a bank, and the man behind The Lone Ranger’s mask is established as irreligious.  Ha, ha!  The filmmakers want us to know right off that this is not going to be “your grandpa’s type of Western” — which is, of course, the only kind of Western anybody wants to see.

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We still long for the moral values, for the heroic role models, that Westerns once supplied, and whenever a modern Western mocks those things, it flops at the box office — just as The Lone Ranger flopped.  (The film lost approximately $150 million dollars overall for Walt Disney Pictures.)

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You can make a funny Western, a Western that pokes fun at Western clichés, without being cynical about the tradition, but being cynical about the tradition is the mark of hipness for a modern Western.  The only people who find this sort of cynicism amusing are the Hollywood hipsters who make such films.

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There are some funny things in the film.  There are some beautiful shots that reference classic Westerns like The Searchers.  There are some thrilling action sequences — or action sequences that would be thrilling if they didn’t rely so obviously on CGI.  Directors with big budgets just never know where to stop with the CGI stuff — it’s like a drug.  Watching a man sit a horse well as he rides through beautiful country is always exciting, cinematically.  Watching a man sit a horse indifferently as he rides in front of a green screen is just not the same.

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The people who made this movie made the delightful Pirates Of the Caribbean, which is also a goof on an old movie genre.  The Lone Ranger must have seemed like a cinch follow-up, goofing on a different old movie genre.  But people care about Westerns in a way they don’t care about pirate movies.  It was a fatal miscalculation not to understand this.

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Those who want to brave a viewing of The Lone Ranger should know that it’s one of those movies that gets worse and worse the longer it goes on, and it goes on for two and half hours — time enough to get really, really bad, swirling deeper and deeper into incoherence and silliness, all at a breakneck pace.

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DESTRY RIDES AGAIN

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This film, from 1939, is one of the most entertaining of all Westerns but one that’s very hard to categorize. At its heart is a sort of romantic comedy dynamic between Tom Destry, played by James Stewart, and Frenchy, played by Marlene Dietrich.

Theirs is the relationship in the film you care about, though it doesn’t develop in standard romantic comedy terms, and doesn’t have a romantic comedy denouement.

Stewart plays an idealistic deputy sheriff who doesn’t believe in gun play — Dietrich plays a hard-as-nails dance hall girl whose heart is touched by the sheriff’s decency and sly, insinuating machismo.

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This was Stewart’s first Western and he was undoubtedly cast because he went against the Western hero type. His bashful, apparently harmless geniality is a perfect mask for the steel backbone Destry turns out to have.

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As a cynical teaser and manipulator of men, Dietrich was cast precisely to type, though she played this role in an uncharacteristic way.  She seems to be having a total blast in the part, as befits the lighthearted tone of the movie, and her performance, even when things get dark, is an absolute delight to watch.

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Dietrich performs in the dance hall, of course, and is given a number which has since become iconic — “See What the Boys In the Back Room Will Have”.  There’s a spirited cat fight between Dietrich and Una Merkel which has a oddly erotic quality.  It’s ended when Destry douses them with a bucket of water, which turns their clothing into vexing sheaths — mild stuff by today’s standards but it caused some problems with the censors of the day.

Despite the comedic tone, there’s a real Western narrative swirling around the lead couple, involving two coldblooded murders and a lot of unpleasant frontier skulduggery.  Things end in a semi-tragic way.

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I kept getting reminded of McCabe & Mrs. Miller — there are times in their scenes together when Stewart’s youthful, feckless charm and Diterich’s world weary but still smoldering sex appeal call Warren Beatty and Juile Christie quite specifically to mind.  The mix of good humor and violence is also echoed in the Altman film.  Destry Rides Again doesn’t have the bleak ending of McCabe & Mrs. Miller — it goes out on a bittersweet but inspiring note — but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Altman had Destry in mind when he was concocting his Western pipe dream.

SHORT TAKE: HEARTS OF THE WEST

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This is a modest film from 1975 about the people who wrote pulp Westerns and made B-Western movies in the 1930s. It looks like a high-class TV movie but features an appealing performance by a young Jeff Bridges and treats its subject with genuine affection. If you love pulp Westerns and B-Western movies from the 1930s, you’ll enjoy it. If not, it probably won’t add up to much for you.

McCABE & MRS. MILLER

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[Warning -- SPOILERS below . . .]

I saw this film when it came out in 1971.  I was 21 then and didn’t like it much.  I was a film purist and was annoyed by all the zooms and telephoto shots, which were the clichés of “with-it” filmmaking at the time.  I also was annoyed, or unconvinced, by the optical snow effects in the concluding scenes.  All these things took me out of the movie.

I just watched the film again for the first time since 1971.  I’m still a film purist and was still annoyed by the zooms and telephoto shots and optical snow effects, which have dated the film terribly.  But I found many other things to love about the movie which I hadn’t fully appreciated in my youth.

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The film is set in a frontier town that is growing.  Altman shot it in sequence, as the sets for the town’s expansion were being constructed, so you see the town growing, literally, as the narrative progresses.

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The film was also shot in all kinds of weather, which gives a lovely sense of atmosphere.  (There was real snow falling as the final scenes were shot, though not continuously, which is why the optical snow had to be added.)

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Warren Beatty gives a genial performance and Julie Christie a great one.  In the first hour of the film, which is basically a lyrical romantic comedy, their interactions are a delight to watch.  As in many romantic comedies, the female protagonist is smarter and stronger than the male protagonist, and we admire him just for keeping up with her — hoping he’ll prove his worth to her in time.

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But then things start to go wrong.  Dark forces, representing the evils of corporate America, move into the town and threaten the idyll of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  McCabe seems to get weaker and weaker and is repeatedly humiliated by the thugs.  A showdown is inevitable.

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McCabe kills the thugs at the cost of his own life — Mrs. Miller, high on opium, doesn’t seem to care or even notice.  The film ends on a nihilistic note.  Very trendy for 1971, as the Vietnam War raged and people began to think that all American ideals, especially as portrayed in Westerns, were and always had been meaningless posturing.

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Ho hum — all very puerile and cheap.  Still there is that town, that weather, those two appealing stars and much good humor.  The film, shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, is magically lit throughout, with filters and a slight flashing of the negative to give the effect of a turn-of-the-century Autochrome.  In between the zooms and telephoto shots there are many extremely beautiful images.  Altman had very much wanted to make a Western, and he almost made a very good one, but by the end, like Mrs. Miller, he seems to have retreated into a drug-induced indifference to the form.  Pauline Kael called the film “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie”, and there’s some truth in that.  The whole thing sort of drifts away like smoke, and leaves a kind of emptiness in the heart.

TWO RODE TOGETHER

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Dramatic geniuses can get a bit eccentric towards the end of their careers. In his late romances, Shakespeare pretty much abandoned plausibility and consistency of tone — he just threw together incidents and scenes and characters and language that interested him and cobbled them together this way or that. He basically said “fuck you” to the “well-made play” and pleased himself.

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The results were both magical and unsettling. The same can be said of many of John Ford’s late-career movies. They’re not tightly constructed, they veer around drunkenly between themes and dramatic arcs, with the director concentrating on the stuff that interested him, whether it had a clear structural function or not, and fecklessly tossing off the other stuff.

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This is true of Donavan’s Reef (above) and Cheyenne Autumn — both of which are uneven as dramatic works but have passages of great beauty, as powerful and moving as any in Ford’s work.

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It’s true also of Two Rode Together, above, a Ford film from 1961.  The film starts off at a stately pace, apparently setting up a buddy adventure between the characters played by its two stars, Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark.  But Ford quickly loses interest in the adventure.  He pauses to let the two great actors banter with each other, in leisurely and absolutely riveting exchanges.  He makes breathtakingly beautiful shots of horses and wagons moving across the landscape and neglects the visual possibilities in scenes that have dramatic weight in the story.

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The adventure sort of fizzles out by the end, but by then Ford has switched his interest to the sexual and racial dynamics in the romantic subplots his leads get entangled in.

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It’s like listening to a great storyteller drinking and talking by the fire, getting sloshed and losing the thread of the tale he started out to tell, but still captivating you with his voice and with the brilliance of his digressions.

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The result is a perplexing film that is also great and immensely pleasurable — like Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.  You know that wherever the tale is going, the journey is going to be worth it — maybe not in the ways you expected but  . . . somehow.

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3:10 TO YUMA (2007)

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The 2007 remake of 3:10 To Yuma had a very strong opening weekend, topping the box office with grosses around 14 million dollars. There were obviously a lot of people eager to see a remake of the classic Western.

Then it died, with receipts dropping off precipitously. In the end it barely made back half its production costs in rentals.

The reason for this is fairly simple. It was an o. k. film but a very bad Western. The core audience for Westerns which rushed out to see it wasn’t amused and killed the buzz and the film just wasn’t good enough to cross over to a wider audience without that core support.

[Warning -- there are spoilers ahead . . .]

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In the original film, and in the Elmore Leonard short story on which it was based, a beleaguered and somewhat timid rancher becomes a hero by getting a vicious killer to a train that will take him to prison.  He does this against impossible odds and in the end single-handedly.  It’s a classic Western tale of shame and redemption.

The director of the remake James Mangold says the original film had a powerful impact on him as a teenager, which is why he wanted to redo it, but he felt the need to make some improvements in it “for a modern audience”.  So the rancher is beleaguered but only reluctant to fight back for perfectly honorable and sensible reasons, one of which is that he lost a foot in The Civil War.  No shame, and thus no need for real redemption.  The rancher does want to look good in the eyes of his son, who doesn’t understand his father’s apparent timidity.

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Getting the outlaw to the train goes horribly awry in the remake, and the rancher succeeds in his mission only because the outlaw turns out to have a soft side and takes pity on him.  After delivering the prisoner to the train, or allowing the prisoner to deliver himself, the rancher is shot in the back and killed.  His son thinks he’s a hero, but he’s really a failed hero.

Christian Bale, who plays the rancher in the new version, says he likes the message of the remake, because “It doesn’t give you false hope — do the right thing, vanquish the bad guy and everything will be good.”

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This is what James Mangold thinks a modern audience wants from a Western?  In storytelling terms the approach is lunatic — like making a fairytale in which the young hero accomplishes a series of heroic tasks to win the hand of the princess, only to find out at the end that she’s run off with someone else.  Wanting to confound and disappoint an audience in this way is puerile posturing.

In terms of Westerns, the approach is suicidal — as one cynical, “realistic” Western after another proves as it fails to find an audience.  Mangold betrayed his own youthful appreciation of 3:10 To Yuma and the Western genre he claims to love — not out of maturity or realism, but simply because the values of a traditional Western might not look hip enough.  The audience told him in no uncertain terms what it thought of his “hipness”.

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KEEPING THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT ALIVE

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A new Amazon customer review:

Another good collection from Fonvielle

The most recent release from Lloyd Fonvielle, Christmas in the West is a collection of six short stories set in various time periods in the West. While the majority of them are authentic Westerns, “Christmas in December” is set in contemporary times and “Twilight” takes place during World War II.If you’ve read Fonvielle’s previous work, Christmas in the West is largely more of the same. His characterization and plotting is as tight as ever, interweaving characters from all walks of life in a believable, honest and non-sentimental way. My personal favorite story is the aforementioned “Christmas in December,” about a neglected young man who takes up with a Vegas escort, deftly avoiding even the slightest hint of bathos.

If you’re looking for a brief but enjoyable fiction collection, Christmas in the West is worth a read.

For the review and book details, go here:

A NEW AMAZON CUSTOMER REVIEW!

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Western stories?! Yes — and recommended

Don’t be fooled by the title; this is not your Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. These are skillfully-crafted stories couched in a succinct and no-self-indulgence prose, presumably influenced by Elmore Leonard, with clever, unpredictable, and often witty turns of plot. Despite the strictures of the genre, each story and each character is different. Recommended.

To see the review and for book details, click here:

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A RECENT AMAZON CUSTOMER REVIEW

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Excellent Read

I was first introduced to Lloyd Fonvielle and his writing through his website, which I try to visit as often as possible. It is always full of engaging and interesting content. After following for a while, I read Fourteen Western Stories and thoroughly enjoyed it. Missouri Green was next up and I again had a wonderful time reading it. A short, but concise story with wonderful characters. I especially enjoyed the dialogue throughout this western tale. It is a great read and I look forward to digging into more of his work in the future.

Go here for the review and book details — Missouri Green.

A THOMAS EAKINS FOR TODAY

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Cowboys in the Badlands, 1887.

Eakins based this painting on studies he made during a ten week trip to the Dakota Badlands in 1886, following his dismissal as an instructor at the Philadelphia Academy Of Art.  He was dismissed for presenting totally nude male models to female students at the academy, and went West to recover his spirits.

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