Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Magnificent Seven Ride Again

I was never a fan of signing cowboys. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and lesser lights were too goody two-shoes for me. I categorize heroes as wholesome, flawed, and anti-heroes. In my mind, this is not three distinct categories, but a continuum, with Roy Rogers at one end and Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men on the other.

I’m not an enthusiast for either extreme. As a youngster, I preferred Wanted Dead or Alive and Paladin to the Lone Ranger. (I admit I watched Rin Tin Tin. You can’t get more wholesome than a boy and his dog.) Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall and Richard Boone’s Paladin engaged in gray professions and rejected many societal norms. Both characters were portrayed as generally good, but conflicted people who did the right thing in the end.

In the fifties, western films mostly pitted a good guy (and frequently a sidekick) against bad guys. In 1960, The Magnificent Seven broke this mold to start a trend toward far more complex protagonists.  There were not only seven “good guys,” they were flawed to the point of tipping into the anti-hero class. The Magnificent Seven was not the first western with anti-hero protagonists, but its enormous success triggered the Hollywood trait to copy what worked in the past. One of my favorites was the 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The complex, dark Tom Doniphon was one of John Wayne’s best roles, and James Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard certainly had reason for remorse. The Wild Bunch (1969), Silverado (1985), Young Guns (1988), and others employed crews of anti-heroes who seek redemption by righting wrongs.

The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges led the pack. In its original theatrical release, the box office exceeded more than double the cost of the film and it has been considered a genre classic ever since. Anchored by movie star Yul Brynner, the cast included television stars and solid character actors.  Many emerged from the film as bankable Hollywood properties. The taut script moved the story capably forward with character-driven dialogue and memorable scenes. A great director, a seminal cast, and an exceptional script. That’s all you need to make a Hollywood classic.

The seven are again coming to a theater near you. Antoine Fuqua is directing a remake, due for release this fall. Will it be a hit or a miss? Remaking a box office success seems safe, but taking another turn at a classic carries its own set of risks. Most remakes fall short because the audience already has a preset image of the story and deviations can be jarring. Why would a studio invest 9 figures on a risky venture? Who cares about a new Magnificent Seven? Evidently a lot of people. As of this writing, the teaser below has nearly 7.5 million views. That number will fill a lot of multiplexes.

Will the movie be a success? Some have expressed concerns about this version’s adherence to the politically correct. That’s not my concern. From the teaser, I’m worried about too much reliance on pyrotechnics. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) that overwhelms story is the current Hollywood disease. We’ll see.

By the way, my favorite piece of trivia from the original film has to do with a little tension on the set between Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. McQueen kept upstaging Brynner, so Brynner supposedly told McQueen that if he did it one more time, he would remove his hat. It must have worked because Brynner is never seen without his black hat firmly snugged down on his bald head.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Hateful Eight— Tarantino mailed it in

I like westerns and I like Quentin Tarantino films, so I had high expectation when I rented The Hateful Eight. Bummer. It's not only a crummy movie … punishment is compounded by its interminable length. Long is usually good for Tarantino, but it’s a bad sign if you ever consciously wonder when this thing will be over. The movie desperately needed editing by someone unintimidated by the grand master.

The Hateful Eight came across as a parody of a Tarantino movie instead of the genuine article. His good films are characterized by stylish cinematography, clever and incongruous banter, startling and extreme violence, and artful revelation of plot through time displacement. The Hateful Eight included all of these elements, but without charisma. It felt flat and uninspired. Tarantino dispassionately applied his formula without the artistic essentials that make it work.  Too bad. He’s tried twice to hit one out of the park with a western. Django Unchained was a ground-rule double, and he may have barely beat out an infield grounder with The Hateful Eight.

I have watched Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill films many time. I’ve also re-watched other Tarantino movies. I can’t imagine spinning up The Hateful Eight again.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

1,000 Book Reviews and Counting

I read every book review. Can't help myself. I'm perverse. I even like to read bad reviews. I also keep count by book. Dumb, I know, but it's a five minute exercise I enjoy with morning coffee. Anyway, on May 31, I hit a milestone of sorts: 1,000 Amazon reviews for an average of 4.41. Pretty cool. (Actually I  have 2,304 Goodreads ratings, but those only require a simple mouse click or screen touch.)

I appreciate every reader. For the most part, I don't know them. A review or an email note gives me a feel for my audience and helps me connect with readers. Less than 1% of readers leave a text review and I'm grateful for every one. Each review helps me with my next book. Thank you.

If you like short illustrated reviews, I get a kick out of 3-Panel Book Reviews by Lisa Brown.

Lisa Brown's 3-panel Book Review  of The Metamorphosis

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

My father never met me. He died in WWII in the cockpit of his P-51. I wouldn't be here, except for a brief leave between flight school and his assignment to Iwo Jima. He provided escort service to the B-29s that bombed Japan daily. The flight was so long and tiresome, two pilots were assigned to each P-51 and they flew on alternate days. On the fateful day, he was actually two missions beyond the thirty required for an extended leave at home.

I don't have many pictures of him, but this one was posted to a website honoring the 506th Fighter Group. My father is the furthest out on the wing.

I'd like to wish him and all of his compatriots that helped keep us safe and free, Happy Memorial Day ... and thank you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Back From a Fun Trip to Peru

My wife's photo of Machu Picchu

I like traveling to places my wife and I both enjoy. She loves history and art, while I prefer to see how people in other countries live today. This makes Egypt and China two of our favorite destinations because she can gaze in wonder at the pyramids or walk the Great Wall, and I get to witness a completely different culture.

Peru falls into this category. The 14th Century Inca ruins fulfill her need to touch and feel a culture long gone, and I get to enjoy the lively and complex Peru of today. I kidded her by saying she liked dead Peru, while I liked live Peru. That's an over-simplification, of course, but it's not too far off the mark.

Another Peruvian benefit is plenty of exercise ... at high altitude. When I got back to sea level I felt energized with all that oxygen.

Peru was wonderful. Friendly people who know how to preserve their heritage.

Oh well, vacation's over. Better get back to writing.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Final Episode of Justified

I watched the final episode of Justified last night. A little tardy you might think. Not to my way of thinking. I never watch any TV until the entire season is available on DVD or streaming.  That way I can binge-watch the series without ugly commercials or intervening days of holding my breath for the next episode. I get it all, and I get it the way I want.

Except … the sixth season of Justified has been available for nearly a year, so you might ask what took me so long. Justified is my favorite television program. (Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite authors.) I was heartsick when I heard the series had come to an end. As long as I never watched the last season, it was not really over. It was always there to look forward to.

Here is what I wrote about Justified in a previous post:
Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and a host of other fine actors, is a character-driven modern day western based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. I believe bad guys and gals make heroes heroic, and Justified has a bevy of really bad characters. Our hero has sidekicks of course, but basically, it’s Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens against this cast of misfits, hoodlums, and felonious masterminds. Good actors portraying interesting characters in a tightly written drama presented with masterful storytelling. Who could ask for more?

But good things can’t be put off forever, so I watched the last season of thirteen episodes in four nights. The final episode did not disappoint. It echoed the pilot in a well-crafted conclusion that sets a high standard for future finales. Good writing starts with good plot decisions and Graham Yost and crew did a masterful job. It’s hard to imagine a different ending that would leave viewers as satisfied.

For the impatient, here is the #1 Showdown!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A genuine Westerner?

I believe Mark Twain is the greatest western writer of all time. Not only did Tom and Huck live on the frontier, but Roughing It describes his own adventures in the Wild West, including his stint as a reporter in Virginia City when it was wilder than any cow town on Saturday night. Twain thought the West was a hoot, so he kept traveling in that direction until he reached the Hawaiian Islands. In 1866, he spent four months in paradise as a reporter for the Sacramento Union.

Here are a couple of things Mark Twain said about Hawaii.
This is the most magnificent, balmy atmosphere in the world--ought to take dead men out of grave.
The missionaries braved a thousand privations to come and make them permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Wanted: A Western Story Collection

Snake in the Grass
A Steve Dancy Tale

A lone wrangler with a fine herd of horses goes berserk in the middle of nowhere. 
Steve Dancy and Joseph McAllen must decidehelp the crazed boy or ride off.

Wanted: A Western Story Collection ebook edition is available for pre-order at Amazon. The paperback edition will come along in a few weeks. The anthology includes a Steve Dancy short story. Since this was my first short story in the series, I decided to have a little fun and wrote it from Joseph McAllen's point of view.

From the Backcover

Seven bestselling western authors join forces in the time-honored tradition of the old West to deliver a collection of short stories featuring their most popular and beloved characters. Read about the adventures of Steve Dancy, Gideon Johann, Shad Cain, Lee Mattingly, the McCabes, Hunt-U.S. Marshal, and Jess Williams. Enjoy your favorite authors and discover new friends along the trail.