Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: "Too Funny to Fail"

Imagine you're a television executive and someone pitches you a show: it will be headlined by one of the biggest "Saturday Night Live" stars, Dana Carvey. At the time, he is fresh off co-starring in the "Wayne's World" movies, and everybody wants a piece of him -- he actually turns down David Letterman's gig after he decamped to CBS. Carvey can literally do anything he wants, and he chooses to have his own sketch comedy show.

ABC is giving you their full backing and a fat budget. The showrunner will be Robert Smigel, another legendary SNL alum. The head writer will be Louis C.K. Charlie Kaufman is another. The two big acting recruits will be a pair of young sketch geniuses, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. A bunch of other super-talented performers and writers are in the mix, including Jon Glaser and Robert Carloc.

Oh, and the thing will go on right after the single top-rated show on all of TV. A sure-fire can't-miss, right?

Or so everyone thought. "The Dana Carvey Show" lasted all of seven episodes in 1996 -- a crashing failure so bad it's barely even remembered by audiences today. Also plagued by health problems, including open-heart surgery the following year, Carvey's career as a film and TV star was effectively over.

And yet the short-lived debacle touched a lot of lives. It helped groom the next generation of comedy giants.

One of its popular bits, a cheeky animated superhero parody, "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," would move to SNL and become a staple for years. Colbert would be recruited by the rejuvenated "The Daily Show" based on his work on the Carvey show, and he would insist they hire Carell as well. We know how they turned out.

Now, Hulu is presenting "Too Funny to Fail," a feature documentary about the Roy Hobbs of TV comedy, the show everyone thought would break the mold but would instead become its own punchline. It debuts Saturday, Oct. 21.

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, it's an insightful, wry and thought-provoking look at what goes on behind the screen of network television. ABC thought it was buying Dana Carvey's suitcase full of popular impressions and characters, from the Church Lady to President Clinton. What they got instead was a truly subversive show with off-the-wall scenarios and a puckish attitude.

The young renegades wanted to do their own thing, by their admission "draw a line in the sand" for audiences who weren't cool enough to understand their brand of funny. For their very first sketch, they chose to have the POTUS demonstrating his empathy by taking drugs to grow realistic-looking teats, and have him suckle live puppies and kittens on-air.

Quite literally, millions of people turned off their TVs after the first five minutes -- and they never came back. Critics were even less kind.

Another one of their ideas was to have the name of the show change every week with a rotation of sponsors. So the debut was "The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show." The first show was such a train wreck, with national headlines talking about how offensive and unfunny it was, Taco Bell loudly announced they were cutting ties -- even though sponsors were only supposed to last one show.

But it started a virtual evacuation of advertisers. By the end, the sponsor was literally the local Chinese diner where the crew bought their lunch.

Festooned with in-depth interviews with nearly all of the principles -- Louis C.K. being the notable exception -- "Too Funny to Fail" comes at the perfect time, as the people involved in making the show have seen their careers recover sufficiently to laugh about how young and deluded they were.

Probably the least injured is Carvey himself, who had such high hopes and knew right away his enterprise was doomed. But it allowed him to be close to his family, raise his two young boys and return to standup on his own terms.

It's a cliche to say something was ahead of its time, but with "The Dana Carvey Show" I think that's literally true. Panned as racy and kooky, it was probably a better fit for late night than prime time. Certainly, it did not mesh well with its pedantic lead-in, "Home Improvement" starring Tim Allen.

One bit, a real promo for a maudlin "very special episode" of HI, followed by the "The Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show," had me laughing as hard as anything I've seen in awhile. Greenbaum knows how good the moment is, too, milking it with a collage of the interviewees guffawing over the clanging contrast.

Comedy is by definition highly subjective. In its (very short) day, not many people appreciated Carvey's show for what it was, rather than what they wanted it to be.

Review: "Only the Brave"

"Only the Brave" is really a war movie, with the characters battling wildfires instead of Germans or ISIS. It's throwback sort of filmmaking -- manly men doing manly things, while occasionally tussling with the womenfolk back on the home front.

I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Josh Brolin is a rock-solid presence as Eric Marsh, the "supe" of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. The "Seal Six" of wildfire containment, Hotshots go wherever the big forest fires are, digging break lines and back-burning to keep the blaze from overrunning towns or destroying entire swaths of the American West.

Marsh is basically a mystical warrior, staring the "black heart" of the wildfire dead in the eye, spying signs others can't see to predict where the devastation will spread. Thick-armed with a steely gaze behind Harry Potter glasses, he loves his crew proudly but gruffly, encouraging plenty of Y-chromosome joshing and light hazing.

Miles Teller is the other lead as Brendan McDonough, a young screw-up and junkie who sees the light when a daughter is born to an old girlfriend, and he realizes he needs to step onto a worthier path. Marsh sees something of his younger self in Brendan and gives him a shot.

The first half of the movie, directed by Joseph Kosinski from a script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, covers Brendan's efforts to make the team, and the team's attempt to be certified as Hotshots, the elite of the elite in outdoor firefighting. As the story opens they are "deucers," a local team funded by the city of Prescott, Ariz., who do mop-up and other drudge work far from the front lines. All the other Hotshots are federal outfits, and they're trying to become the first municipal group to become Hotshots.

I'm sure you can guess how it turns out.

Marsh is hot-headed but his instincts are nearly always true. Brendan is dubbed "doughnut" because of his inability to answer any questions about firefighting strategy when quizzed. (At least, during his early going.) He gets razzed pretty hard by the other members of the crew, but gradually begins to prove himself.

He also steps up as a father, dropping off diapers and groceries on the doorstep of his baby mama (Natalie Hall), who wants nothing to do with him. Though heroism has a way of changing minds...

The second half covers the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, in which the Granite Mountain team faced tremendous odds, a "skunker" -- an easily contained fire -- that turned into a fast-moving death trap.

Jennifer Connelly plays Amanda, Marsh's wife, and it's a lot meatier than the usual "wife at home" role. She's a tough nut herself, running her own business rescuing abused horses, and the two share a relationship that's close but not without strife. She gets a great speech late in the story on what it means to love long-term.

Jeff Bridges plays Duane Steinbrink, a local man of influence who helps with the Hotshot certification and acts as mentor to Marsh. Andie MacDowell is his wife, with wisdom of her own. James Badge Dale is Jesse Steed, Marsh's reliable right-hand man. Taylor Kitsch is Christopher MacKenzie, Brendan's chief tormentor-turned-wingman. Geoff Stults, Ben Hardy and others round out the background players.

The firefighting scenes are pretty terrifying, as we see just how quickly a fire can spread, jumping trees like an angry zephyr. The men both love and hate the fire, and see it as a living foe. Marsh's nickname is "Bear," and we'll find out why.

Marsh shows his trainees a beautiful forest view, then tells them that soon they'll only be able to look upon it as fuel to the fire. Plumped up with resin, the burning trees can literally explode when they fall.

"Only the Brave" is straightforward and unironic movie-making. I could easily see this film coming out in the 1940s, though the special effects wouldn't be nearly as good. In this time of so much focus on toxic masculinity, here's a movie that reminds us why he-men are worth having around.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: "The Florida Project"

“Do you know why this is my favorite tree? Because it’s tipped over but it’s still growing.”

It is the nature of children to adapt to circumstance, even that which no child should have to bear. Their intrinsic miracle is that they can find joy just about anywhere.

In “The Florida Project,” 6-year-old Moonee (a vibrant Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives on the edge of the most magical place in the world, the Walt Disney Resort near Orlando, Fla. But hers is not the world of $100-a-day admissions to theme parks, luxury hotels and getaway vacations.

Rather, it’s the seedy underbelly of minimum wage workers who feed the tourism machine, living in towns like Kissimmee, packed together in squalid motels slapped with bright paint so as not to depress the out-of-towners when they’re passing by on their shuttle bus to the Magic Kingdom.

I did not grow up in this world, but I observed it from close at hand. When you are reared in a town that’s famous for visitors coming and going to partake in illusions, you quickly learn that perception and reality are often at cross purposes.

(I still chuckle upon meeting people who say they found Orlando “too touristy,” and with a few queries ascertain that they never got closer to the city’s downtown than International Drive, aka “I-Drive,” some 15 minutes away.)

In the stifling humidity of the Central Florida summer, where shirts are stuck perpetually to the smalls of backs, Moonee and other kids roam feral between the motels and third-rate tourist attractions, unattended by working mothers and long abandoned by their fathers. Moonee and her best friend, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), curse, spit on cars and hit up soft strangers for free ice cream.

Their behavior is a little shocking at first, but director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”), who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, soon settles us into an episodic rhythm of observation. We witness the strong connections between these children, and come to see their daily life as not so different from that of Scout and Jem roaming around their quaint town in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Watching over them is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the beneficent manager of the fuschia-hued Magic Castle motel where Moonee and Scooty live with their mothers. Part caretaker, part social worker, part cop, Bobby works tirelessly to keep everything aboveboard, though there’s always something broken. Bobby repeatedly threatens to throw people out, but the offer of another last chance is always forthcoming. Seemingly the only line he’s unwilling to cross is allowing prostitution to take place on “the premises.”

There’s not a lot of narrative to “The Florida Project,” just the ebb and flow of the summer tide. Kids rotate in and out of Moonee’s circle, with shy, red-haired Jancey (Valeria Cotto) entering the sphere and gradually absorbing its brash energy.

Bria Vinaite plays Halley, Moonee’s mom, an occasional stripper who’s always on the prowl for a quick buck. Tatted up generously, with a slattern strut and hair to match the Magic Castle’s walls, Halley works the nicer locales where the tourists stay, crashing the free breakfast buffets and buying cheap perfume to sell at markup. She brings Moonee along to help with the pitch, because what kind of scammer brings a little kid with them?

The movie edges right up to daring us to condemn Halley, but then keeps pulling us back. Any conventional narrative would quickly dub her the villain of the piece, the quintessential terrible mother. But Baker also asks us to revel in Halley’s defiant rebel nature, a woman clinging to the last rung of society’s ladder, extending two middle fingers to anyone who would disparage her, or especially her kid.

There’s a quick scene where Halley gives the helpful woman who works in the Magic Castle’s laundry some weed, and she thanks her with a hug, saying everything will be all right. Halley limply accepts the embrace, indifferent to the woman’s soothing outreach, and we sense that Halley is not simply a mean person, but one in whom some of the gears that guide emotionality are just plain missing.

“The Florida Project” is a triumph of grainy verisimilitude. Watching the film is like stepping behind the backdrop of a theater stage to find real life, grimy and exuberant, turning away behind the pretty façade.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Video review: "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

From a creative standpoint, Spider-Man is deep in middle age, debuting in Marvel Comics some 50-odd years ago. Even as a cinematic hero, Spidey is hardly a newbie, with seven films and three different sets of actors portraying the web-slinger since 2002.

But the latest iteration, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” is very much a product of teenage angst. Its hero, Peter Parker, is a 15-year-old high school sophomore played by Tom Holland. He’s a pretty typical kid: he’s a nerdy brain on the academic all-stars team, pines for an unattainable senior girl (Laura Harrier) and has a close circle of like-minded friends, chiefly fellow geek Ned (Jacob Batalon).

Except for one thing: he’s also secretly Spider-Man, who sneaks off from school and the Queens apartment of his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to fight low-level evildoers.

After getting a taste of Avengers action at the behest of Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter is eager to leave his dull school life behind and join the super-team full-time. But the invitation seems to have gotten lost in the mail, though Stark did give him a super-suit with a bunch of cool features to help him along.

Michael Keaton plays the villain, who’s not really at the center of the story. He plays the Vulture, aka blue-collar contractor-turned-criminal Adrian Toomes, who parlayed some of the alien technology that fell on Manhattan a few years ago into a thriving underground enterprise. He and Spider-Man run afoul of each other’s activities, with the professional antagonism eventually taking a decidedly personal turn.

Directed by Jon Watts from one of those screenplays-by-committee, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” can be rather uneven at times, with cockeyed action scenes and a little too much silliness for its own good.

But it energetically takes the hero back to his roots, without rehashing old creations myths. (Does anybody need to see that radioactive spider bite thing ever again?)

Holland may just be the best Spider-Man yet, giving us a teen in turmoil who just happens to be able to bench-press a bus.

Bonus features are quite expansive, starting with “The Spidey Study Guide” with all sorts of wiki-style info and clues about the web-head. There are also 10 deleted scenes and seven making-of featurettes, ranging on everything from storyboarding to creating the film’s oft-amazing stunts.

There is also a production photo gallery, a gag reel and more of those hilarious “Rappin’ with Cap” fake public service announcements featuring Chris Evans as Captain America, which were briefly glimpsed in the film.



Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: "Marshall"

Chadwick Boseman has played James Brown and Jackie Robinson on the big screen, superlative performances both, and completes a trifecta of historical biopics with "Marshall," an engaging look at Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall during an early point in his career when he was a rabble-rousing lawyer for the NAACP.

The movie is a straight-down-the-line "great man" drama that does everything very well without taking any chances or breaking new ground. The only unexpected turn is Boseman's take on the legal giant, portraying him as brash bordering on cocky, a two-fisted drinker who also uses those same knuckles against fat-faced racists when they inevitably come a-knockin', in a scene that's a bit of pure Hollywood hokum.

(Question: why are all the villains in historical racial injustice stories big, beefy guys? Didn't they have any lean racists back in the day?)

Josh Gad co-stars as Sam Friedman, a mousy insurance attorney in Bridgeport, Ct., who gets roped into being Marshall's partner in the trial, because the patrician judge (James Cromwell) doesn't want to approve any uppity (code word) out-of-town lawyers for the sensational case. He's also good friends and former law partners with the dad of the prosecutor, played by Dan Stevens in full flaring nostrils mode.

Set in 1941, the story (screenplay by Jacob and Michael Koskoff) centers on a rather unknown part of Marshall's life, when he acted as co-counsel in the defense of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), an African-American chauffeur who was accused of brutally raping his master's... oops, excuse me, employer's wife, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

The case has enraged the entire community, the sort of thing we usually only see in Southern cinematic settings. Marshall is the only attorney for the legal defense fund of the NAACP, making it his business to travel around the country defending black people falsely accused of crimes because of their race.

"Marshall" is directed by Reginald Hudlin, who was one of Hollywood's busiest directors during the 1990s but hasn't made a feature film in 15 years. He gets terrific performances out of his cast, and shoots the film beautifully with vintage cars and costumes. (Boseman is decked out in gorgeously contrasting three-piece suits.)

The heart of the film is the relationship with Friedman. It's nice to see Gad doing a non-comedic, non-musical role for once. He plays Friedman as a timid man who comes to discover reservoirs of iron underneath his nebbish facade.

It's not a partnership of equals: because Marshall is forbidden to speak at trial by the judge, Friedman essentially acts as his co-counsel's puppet in the early going, gradually coming into his own as a lawyer and as a man because of Marshall's tutoring.

On the one hand, I recognize that "Marshall" is rather conventional filmmaking, setting us up with the usual surprises and changes in tempo. (You can practically count down to the moment when Marshall and Friedman, having come to gain a measure of respect for each other, are split by circumstance and renew their hostilities.)

But it's hard to deny this is a smartly acted, entertaining movie about one of the titans of the civil rights movement. What "Marshall" lacks in originality it more than makes up for with assured confidence and capability.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: "The Foreigner"

“The Foreigner” is a novel concept: a Jackie Chan movie in which Jackie Chan is completely unnecessary to the plot.

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. This joint Chinese/British production has all the hallmarks of a Chan film: chop-socky action, Westerners underestimating an undersized Asian man, and cool/quirky stunts in which the 63-year-old action star demonstrates he’s still got plenty of spring in his step.

But really, with a little rewriting you could completely eliminate his character, Ngoc Minh Quan, from the movie without missing much of a beat. The real heart of the story is about an internal struggle within the IRA, with Pierce Brosnan playing the smooth political operator trying to keep the peace, attempting to stave off young upstarts blowing things up and threatening the détente with the Brits.

The set-up is that Quan’s teen daughter (Katie Leung), is killed during a gruesome bombing, and vows revenge. Everyone dismisses the timid little restaurant owner, who keeps persistently calling and showing up in people’s offices. His chief target soon becomes Liam Hennessy, an Irish deputy minister who used to be part of the IRA brigade but these days plays both sides.

Brosnan, as Hennessy, brings smarmy charm and a buried volcano of rage, trying to find a solution that serves both his IRA allies and the British authorities. Meanwhile, this nettlesome “Chinaman” keeps getting in the way.

Needless to say, Quan turns out to be a whole lot more capable than anyone imagines. His part of the story is sort of a mix of Sylvester Stallone in “First Blood” and Liam Neeson in “Taken,” content to leave others alone but ready to whip out a mondo-sized can of whup-tushie when confounded. He has a very specific set of skills…

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, Hennessy’s mistress who has a little more to her story; Ray Fearon is the chief police inspector on the case, looking to cut a deal with Hennessy; Orla Brady is Hennessy’s wife, who has her own old resentments stirred up; Dermot Crowley is one of Hennessy’s old running buddies; and Rory Fleck Byrne plays Hennessy’s nephew, who has a military background that’ll come in handy later.

In case you didn’t notice from that summary, all the main supporting players are all defined by their relationship to Hennessy, not Quan. It’s a pretty standard-issue procedural thriller, as various forces converge to stop a terrorist plot. But then this odd little man shows up and throws everyone’s plan into kerflooey.

Chan seethes as the determined father who harbors a lot of secrets and past pain. But let’s face it, he’s a star in the Schwarzeneggerian mold, featured for his physicality rather than his emoting. His mask of rage looks more like a peptic ulcer.

Directed by Martin Campbell, who helmed a few James Bond films and the execrable “Green Lantern,” from a screenplay by David Marconi based on a novel by Stephen Leather, “The Foreigner” works reasonably well as a martial arts action flick, and as political thriller. Only trouble is, those parts don’t go well together, like mismatched suit pieces that clash rather than complement.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Far Country" (1954)

James Stewart and director Anthony Mann made eight films together between 1950 and 1955, five of them Westerns that have stood the test of time, with "Winchester '73" probably the best known of the bunch. Though the stories are very different, there are a lot of thematic similarities, with Stewart usually playing an ornery loner who comes to recognize that he can't completely detach himself from society without suffering an ill fate.

His Jeff Webster from 1954's "The Far Country" is a prime example. A doggedly independent cattle driver who throws off any attempt to yoke him to a place or a people, Jeff's credo is, "I can take care of myself." He repeatedly rejects calls to act in an altruistic way, believing that if can look after himself, then others should do the same for themselves.

Of course, in the end he must rely upon others to survive, and in turn is motivated to take up arms to protect them against other gunmen who are much like his old self.

What's truly interesting about "The Far Country" is what's left unsaid. Screenwriter Borden Chase, who also penned the scripts for "Winchester '73" and another Stewart/Mann Western, "Bend of the River," gives his characters a distinctive sense of presence without necessarily an explicit backstory to go with it. That we must fill in ourselves.

We don't know much about Jeff Webster, other than he came from Wyoming, is driving a herd of cattle up to Alaska, and plans to use the proceeds to buy a ranch in Utah with his longtime companion, Ben Tatem, a cantankerous oldster from the Walter Brennan stock of cowboys, miners and soldiers.

Ben walks with a hitch, wear a hat with an upturned brim, speaks in a squawky yodel, can do most anything with his hands but doesn't have a lot of sense. His tendency to amiably gab about most anything repeatedly gets the duo in trouble, most notably his buying of two pounds of coffee grounds the day after buying two more, which raises eyebrows and suspicions that turn fatal.

Why Ben is the only person Jeff seems to have any attachment to remains a total mystery, even after Ben is killed off about three-quarters of the way through the movie. (Sorry, no spoiler warnings after 63 years.) Jeff will even affectionately grab Ben's chin or cheek and light his pipe for him, pledging to protect him and look after him in his doddering years.

Clearly they have history together, but its nature remains doggedly obscured. They actually once owned a spread together, but Jeff got the itch to wander again, and off they want, pursuing the bird in the bush they already had in hand. Jeff took the tinkly little bell that Ben hung over their door and attached it to his saddle horn, which becomes his quirk and calling card.

There's not a lot to the story, which is more driven by character clashes than anything else. Jeff and Ben arrive in Seattle with a small herd of cattle that they intend to ferry up to Skagway, Alaska, and then on to the gold rush town of Dawson. The film is set in 1896, long after the California rushes had played out, but while there was still plenty of color to be had panning the streams up north.

(I'm not sure if there were budget constraints on the film, but Mann struggles to achieve any shots where it looks like there's more than 20 steers.)

There are two cowhands with them who are paid $100 apiece, and clearly want to plug Jeff in the back now that the job is done. It seems two other fellows tried to ride off with part of the herd and Jeff shot them down. They report him to the local authorities, who arrive to arrest Jeff just after the ferry has departed. Jeff hides out in the state room of a wealthy woman, Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), and a romance ensues that simmers the rest of the movie.

Things go poorly when they arrive in Alaska. The ferrymen try to extort Ben and a new addition, the lawman-turned-drunkard Rube Morris (Jay C. Flippen), out of $5,000 in bogus fees. But Jeff rides the cows right off the boat ramp into town, where they jostle the hangman's gallows the local lawman, Judge Gannon (John McIntire), has built to string up three men.

In short order, Gannon has confiscated the herd as a fine for disrupting the execution. It quickly becomes clear that Gannon is little more than a local robber-baron, using the mantle of the law to confiscate property to add to his growing wealth and influence. It turns out that Miss Castle is his partner, running the Skagway Castle saloon as part of his empire designed to gyp gold miners. For instance, Gannon has a local law that no one can depart town without at least 100 pounds of food, and he owns the only grocery.

Castle is sent ahead to Dawson to establish a base there, with Jeff and Ben's cattle as grubstake. Castle hires Jeff as driver of his own herd, along with add-on cowboys (including Harry Morgan.) There are dangers and arguments along the way, including an avalanche where Jeff initially refuses to help those trapped.

Acting as his conscious is Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), a strong-headed French/Canadian ingenue who also sets her adoring gaze upon Jeff. The love triangle continues throughout the rest of the story, with Jeff manfully displaying absolutely no interest in either one of the women.

(I'm sure a critic writing from a queer perspective would have a field day with this film.)

Things go fine for a while in Dawson, with Jeff stealing back his herd from Castle, and her then buying it back for him, outbidding the local hash house run by three tough older gals: Hominy (Connie Gilchrist), Grits (Kathleen Freeman) and Molasses (Connie Van). With the hastily put-up Dawson Castle serving steaks and the trio of ladies stuck with bear stew, Gannon quickly has a foothold.

Soon he'll show up himself in his top hat and mortician's suit, laying claim to gold claims that aren't his. He rounds himself up some muscle, including Morgan and google-eyed Jack Elam, and personally guns down good-natured miner, Dusty (Chubby Johnson), when he tries to stand up to him. He also backs down Rube, who has been tapped as marshal (after Jeff refuses the job).

Jeff parlays his cattle proceeds into a prosperous claim of his own, planning to split town as soon as he and Ben have enough gold for their Utah dreams. Gannon's men are staking themselves outside town to jump departing miners at Two Mile Pass, but Jeff has a plan to take a secret Indian route along the river. But then Ben blabs about the coffee, he's killed and Jeff is shot up.

Nursed back to health by Renee, with a little assistance from Castle, Jeff finally sees the error of his ways and opts to take on Gannon in an obligatory showdown.

The relationship between Gannon and Jeff is rich with subtleties. They take an instant like to each other, despite the consistently oppositional nature of their encounters. They are closely aligned in skillset and their belief that people should rise or file by dint of their own willingness to stand up for themselves and claim what's theirs.

The difference is that while Jeff is a pure individualist, preferring to "find his own trails," Gannon uses the pioneer code as cover to mask his malevolent manipulations. Despite his title of Judge and position as the law, he really thrives on chaos and bullying. Gannon represents the evil that prospers when good men like Jeff do nothing, concerning themselves with themselves.

(Screenwriter Chase doubtlessly based Gannon on legendary Western con man "Soapy" Smith, who operated in a number of places including Skagway, where he was eventually gunned down in a dispute over a bag of stolen gold flakes. Though Soapy preferred to have lawmen on his payroll rather than wear a badge and a gun himself.)

"The Far Country" is really a tidy morality tale that acts as counterpoint to the classic John Wayne type of Western, where a man's gotta be a man, and womenfolk stay put in the background -- preferably the kitchen.