Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Gunslinger (1956) – MST3K Review


Welcome to the Old West! Or at least Roger Corman’s version of the Old West. In a small town Rose (Beverly Garland) is happily married to the marshal of these parts. But when her husband is gunned down in cold blood, Rose decides to take the law into her own hands, literally. She demands that the mayor make her the marshal until the new one arrives.

With this power, Rose starts tracking down the men that killed her husband. But she also suspects that the sultry, sneaky saloon owner Erica Page (Allison Hayes) is the real power behind the crime wave. Turns out she is right! Erica hires infamous killer Cane Miro (John Ireland) to kill Rose. But Cane takes a shine to the firebrand marshal. Erica is never one to put all her eggs in one basket, and begins to weave a web to destroy this lady Gunslinger and might take the whole town with it.

Movie Review:

"Do you think Corman is still filming us?"
No, this is not an adaptation of the first novel in Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga. It is a western written and directed by Roger Corman - Reading those words you kind of know what you are in for, don’t you? Well yes and no. Lots of the typical issues that arise from Corman’s low budgets and rushed production schedules are present but the film has some good elements too. The final result is a movie that doesn’t ever fire on all cylinders.

Let’s take a look at the good points first. Corman and his crew mostly filmed this on location. There were plenty of Western sets still in use when Corman tackled the movie. In fact many of the locations look like old Paramount Ranch, which appeared in plenty of movies and television series including Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman. In any case, the dusty trails, rolling hills, chaparral, and twisted oaks give Gunslinger a classic western feel.

Most of the indoor sets work well too, including the Red Dog Saloon and the marshal’s office. The only bits that doesn’t quite convince are the hotel rooms where Erica and Cane plot. As Joel and the bots point out, doors to hotel rooms don’t usually open out, nor do they have numbers facing the inside of the rooms. This leads to some very funny riffs about having trysts in the hallway of the hotel.

Erica doubts the veracity of your claim.
The other aspect that works reasonably well is the acting. Beverly Garland is really good as the no nonsense, tough talking, sharp shooting marshal. Her scenes with Erica and Cane give her plenty to work with. Rose comes across as not only confident and dangerous, but also clever. She also has a strong sense of needing to uphold the law, even if that means waiting until he has Erica caught in the act before she can bring the hammer down.

Speaking of Erica, Allison Hayes is just as good playing the deceitful antagonist in Gunslinger. She has an alluring way to her, and you can see why Cane and Little Man (Jonathan Haze) are attracted to her. But she also reveals a steely determination that matches Rose. Of course Erica is out for herself, looking to cash in on a huge property scheme. It is a delightfully devilish performance, only hampered by the clumsy dialogue she has to deliver.

Ireland plays Cane Miro as a typical tough guy who has a dark past. We get to know why he turned into a gunman for hire, and all around criminal (from Tombstone no less). When he’s playing up the cold killer aspects of the character, Ireland makes it work. But the scenes where Cane and Rose start falling for each other never really click. I don’t think the two have much chemistry, and it makes that portion of the film feel a little flat. But all in all, Ireland gives a solid performance.

"Breakfast any time? Well I'm ready for flapjacks!"
I like the supporting cast too. If you’ve seen enough of Corman’s films (or MST3K episodes) then you’ll recognize many of them. Jonathon Haze really comes through as Little Man. He is Erica’s slimy henchman who is a bit feeble minded and obviously in love with her. Haze really sells the role and may be one of the most pathetic characters I’ve seen in a MST3k film. You feel bad for the little loser by the end of the movie. Jonathan Haze is very good in many of the films he’s in. He usually goes for the part full bore and can play just about any type of character he needs to. I also like Martin Kingsley as the blowhard mayor. He won’t stop talking about the good old days during the Civil War. But when push comes to shove he shows his true colors. His story arc works well because his performance is believable.

The story at the heart of Gunslinger has a lot of potential. The idea of a marshal’s wife watching her husband getting gunned down and then taking up the star herself is full of potential. I especially like the idea of two powerful, confident women waging a battle against each other in this small frontier town. Each one doing what she thinks she has to do. In the middle of this is Cane Miro, a man that has a past with Erica and starts to fall for Rose. He becomes a key piece in the chess game, but who will end up controlling him? Executed with skill, Gunslinger could be considered well ahead of its time.

Alas this is a Roger Corman film. It just wasn’t going to happen.

She switched his coffee for flavor crystals.
Lets see if he notices.
ow, I know Corman is admired in many circles. I will say that when he made some good movies in his time. But I will also say that he showed potential in many films, including Gunslinger, that I think he had a real knack for selecting and writing interesting story concepts. But the execution of those stories, from the script level especially isn’t strong enough to build a really great movie on.

Knowing Corman, the actual script for Gunslinger was hashed out in a matter of days (or even hours). The result is an unfocused script that muddles itself far too often. Not that the film is confusing or complex, but it loses track of what it is trying to deliver.

A simple example is how they handle the killers who targeted Rose’s husband. Rose manages to shoot one of the men as they two ride away. And then the other guy shows up at the funeral of the man he just killed! Who does that? Rose spots him and guns him down right there. The silliness of that scene aside, it would have made for a more compelling film to leave one or both killers alive, and focus on Rose putting together the pieces of the plot and hunting them down. We could see her skills as a detective, work in some action, and build up Erica at the same time. Erica would obviously be watching Rose work with rising concern and then send out for Cane Muro who would arrive in the middle of the film after Rose takes out the last of her husband’s killers.

I just came up with that solution, and it works much better than what we ended up with. The movie is filled with script opportunities like that.

Make out session in the hallway and Wormy
isn't pleased.
The script ends up with these aimless montage scenes where Rose and her deputy Joshua (Chris Acaide) stop a crime wave with relative ease. These montages are so badly executed you have to laugh. In one scene it looks like Joshua just walks into a bank robber as he makes his escape and is able to punch him out right there.

Cane Muro suffers the most. The idea of the lone wolf in the thrall of two women has plenty of story potential. But, as I mentioned, the chemistry between Ireland and Garland just isn’t there. Those scenes fall flat. But they could be avoided by having Muro admire Rose’s tenacity and skills. It doesn’t have to be love, but respect that increases as the movie goes along. He could even realize near the end that he is outmatched and outwitted by both women, and become a tragic figure in this. His final shootout with Rose could be a more desperate one, as he realizes that she’s just a better Gunslinger and his number is up. That would have made an even more edgy film, especially for 1956.

The final shooting script has too many silly lines, meandering conversations, and unclear character motivations, or moments that run contrary to what we think the characters are after. It’s a mess, and it impacts the acting too. I get the feeling that several members of the cast were just not sure how they were supposed to play certain scenes.

"Mayor, you got to get them to stop calling  me Wormy!"
This also impacts the pacing. All the strange pointless conversations end up dragging the film down. A well-tuned script could have made this a crisp exciting film. But we get stuck in the mire one to many times. Surprisingly this movie isn’t padded with walking scenes, something Corman is notorious for. He even manages some decent action sequences, including a full blown bar brawl. But these bright moments get drowned in yet another conversation between Erica and Cane that doesn’t give us any new character or plot information.

Gunslinger isn’t a horrible film. But with a little more time, a little more care, it could have been a fondly remembered classic that was ahead of its time. Hell, Beverly Garland could have become one of the greats of the genre if given a chance. She does ride off into the sunset at the end of this film. I bet she could have appeared in a follow up or two. Alas, we get a sluggish mess that in some ways is more frustrating than an out and out bad movie. But it provides Joel and the bots with plenty of material.

Episode Review:

"Love what you're riding. Pinto?"
For the most part Mystery Science Theater 3000 tackled science fiction, horror and fantasy films. But every once in a while they would tackle a different genre and seem to have a blast with it. I Accuse My Parents is a melodrama that you wouldn’t think would make a great episode, and yet it is a fan favorite. Pumaman is a hilarious episode that makes me with they tackled the super hero genre more frequently. Danger! Death Ray is a hilariously bad 60s spy flick that MS3K turned into gold. So how do they do with their first Western?

In all honesty Gunslinger is one of those episodes that I have to be in the right mood to appreciate. It all comes down to the pacing of Corman’s movie. It is deadly dull in spots. If you are not prepared to be bored by aimless dialogue than getting through the film can be difficult. But if you are ready to take is nice and slow, this is really a well-riffed episode.

His only crime was making too many beans.
This episode comes in the middle of Season Five, one of the best seasons of the Comedy Central years. The writers were really experienced with pacing and timing. The riffing in general seemed a bit crisper and more rapid. It helps compensate with the movie’s slow pacing and dreary tone. You also get the feeling that they are just jazzed about tackling a Western, even if it is one as turgid as this one.

A lot of the riffing comes at the expense of the poor editing and some of the budgetary seams that start showing up all over the place. There is a hilarious moment where the camera pans to the right, and you can clearly see two riders waiting for their cue. Tom yells, “Action!” and they start riding “into frame”. A similar moment happens where the scene starts with Alison Hayes obviously waiting for her cue, and the start of the scene. Joel and bots just crack up and Crow sighs, “Corman!” with incredulity.

They are so naughty. Naughty they are.
I also get a chuckle out of the scenes that are shot day for night using an obvious filter. Tom comments “It is looking rather blue tonight”. Garland and Ireland are having a heart to heart discussion, but the lighting is so bizarre. It reminds Tom of 2001: A Space Odyssey. So he starts singing the monolith music whenever the camera cuts back to the spooky looking Garland.

The Red Dog Saloon is a source of a lot of jokes. Erica keeps insisting that “The Red Dog Saloon is open 24 hours,” to which Crow chimes in, “Breakfast any time.” Whenever the can-can dancers appear on the screen, Tom offers numerous back-to-back riffs on their routine including helpful choreography tips such as “Spank and spank and spank and you’ve been bad in the tushy.”

They also have a lot of fun with Jonathon Haze’s character, who they dub “wormy”. When he tries to show Erica how he can take out Rose with a rifle, pretending his broom is the firearm, Crow chides, “Wormy, that’s an O Cedar!” And when Haze attempts to mount a horse for a secret mission, Joel provides the voice of the horse grumbling, “Oh no, not Wormy. Have some mercy!”

The pacing does present a challenge, as do some of the longer talking scenes between Erica and Cane in the hotel/hallway. But the boys do a pretty good job overall.

Pony express... or Gypsy express?
The host segments come in different flavors and most of them are amusing. The episode opens with Tom’s head replace by a balloon inspired by the game Kaboom! Crow can’t wait to blow up Tom’s head! For the invention exchange the Mads have created a manual to blow up people’s heads like the film Scanners. The result is pretty hilarious. Joel becomes obsessed with the whiffle ball and wants to turn everything into whiffle: including whiffle hat, whiffle cup and my favorite whiffle cheese (which is Swiss cheese, “natures own whiffle”). At the first break, Joel and bots lie in caskets and imagine their own funerals. Tom wants elephants, lots of them! When we join them again, Tom uses the pony express (Crow riding on Gypsy) to send a message to Joel. It goes really poorly and takes forever. The next break has Crow and Joel trying to figure out how John Ireland kept teleporting all around the town during a chase scene. Joel thinks its because the town is made up of false fronts. Tom proves that John Ireland can warp time and space using quantum linear super position. It all ends up with  Tom demonstrating and warping time and space like Doctor Who. After the movie ends Joel and the bots compare and contrast the 1870s and the 1970s. Frank seems to have had his head scanned into a million pieces, or maybe he just watched Gunslinger.

For me, this episode is a fun one, not a favorite, but one that I usually enjoy when I revisit it. If you are a fan of westerns, Beverly Garland or even Roger Corman, you’ll probably get a bigger kick out of it than I do. Still this is a Season Five episode and most of those are in the top tier of the series, so you can’t really go wrong here.

I give it three wormy-guys out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Vol 6 and by itself.

Wormy auditions for "The Rifleman".

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Hail, Caesar! (2016)


So when you see Joel and Ethan Coen with writing and directing credits for a movie, you can assume the film is going to be quirky. I can almost say it would be guaranteed. But you know what, I like their kind of quirky. Films like O' Brother Where Art Thou and HudsuckerProxy get regular views around here. So is this flick going to join those quirky favorites?


Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the man who can fix anything at the studio. Need someone to get the right actor for the drama directed by sophisticated director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes)? Need someone to find the big star Baird Witlock (George Clooney) after he disappears from a set? Need someone to find out why the sexy starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is less than happy with her current role? Eddie can do it all.

But things start to get complicated when it looks like Witlock may have been kidnapped. Is it a rival studio trying to crash the latest big budget biblical epic? Is it a scheme hatched by the notorious gossip columnist Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton)? Or is it a communist plot? Eddie’s got a lot on his plate, but he isn’t going to let that slow him down. By the end of the night he’s going to make sure the film, Hail, Caesar!, gets its lead actor back.

Good Points:
  • Josh Brolin gives an excellent performance
  • Lots of fun moments for fans of classic Golden age films
  • Makes for a fun game of spot the actress/actor

Bad Points:
  • The tone of the film is all over the place
  • Feels like it was a longer movie that got edited down
  • If you don’t like golden age Hollywood films or don’t know much about how they were made, this movie may not click for you


I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. If you know about the Hollywood studio system of the 50s then you’ll find lots of satirical fun at hand. But the tone of the film careens from silly, to serious and back again. Combined with scenes that feel like they were trimmed down, and you get a movie that is a bit of an uneven ride. Recommended to folks who enjoy TCM.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

And Then This Happened... His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday is one of those movies that always comes up when someone mentions favorite classic comedies featuring Cary Grant. The dialogue moves at a fast clip, has plenty of witty verbal fencing and even manages a couple of sight gags. Rosalind Russell also inspired Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance in The Hudsucker Proxy, so there is that connection as well. But for some reason I always remember this little guy whenever I think of the movie. I think he might be caption worthy.

And then this happened...

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Movie Music Musing: The Goldsmith Award - 2016

I've mentioned before that Jerry Goldsmith is my favorite film composer. One of his gifts was the ability to take a really poor film and give it a great musical score. It is easy to lose track of how many times the best part of the film was Goldsmith's music. For a while there he was stuck providing the score to poorly reviewed films like The Final Conflict, Link, Congo and First Knight. Now some of these films had some entertainment value, others were just not worth your time or money. But Goldsmith didn't let that stop him. He had a job to do.

The same things happens these days. Hard working composers get pulled into projects that may look good on paper, but just don't pan out with critics or audiences. Somehow these films inspired the composer and we get a great score out of it. So this year, I'll be presenting these scores with The Goldsmith Award of Excellence.

For 2016, there is one movie that pretty much appeared on every "worst of" list of 2016, Gods of Egypt. This fantasy adventure rubbed critics the wrong way and didn't attract much audience attention. I hear that it is probably perfect for a moving riffing night, so I might give it a chance at some point.

But one element that was actually really entertaining was the score by Marco Beltrami. He crafted music that combined classic Hollywood ancient Egypt style, first made popular in Golden Age classics like The Egyptian and The Ten Commandments, and fused it with a modern sound. In fact it reminds me a quite a bit of Goldsmith's music from the 1999 version of The Mummy. That that is a good thing.

So here is a sample of that score, the winner of the 2016 Goldsmith Award of Excellence - The Coronation from Gods of Egypt.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget: Looking back at 2016

"Really dark in here, must be looking back at 2016."
You know, I never did one of these for 2015, but that's OK. I was busy looking at what new features and content I was adding in 2016 instead. But I'll admit that I'm one of those people that likes to reflect rather than plan. That is why there is os much nostalgia and older films on this blog instead me trying to keep current with new films.

So I did take some time away from this blog to work on my fiction. I am still plugging away at my fantasy novel. I got a bit distracted from in it December with all the holidays and family fun time kicking in. But I'm shooting to get that first draft completed by mid-February and then take a break from fiction writing for a little bit before diving back in. I'll be posting some thoughts on my Storytelling blog if you are interested.

One of the interesting things about this blog is that I still almost reached 100 posts for the year. I wasn't expecting that. But I did modify the content a bit so that I could post a bit more frequently without having to put in as much work. I love writing the in depth review content, but it takes quite a bit of time and finding all the screenshots is actually the biggest issue. I pull most of them from DVDs myself, and for a long movie it can take a while to find the perfect fit.

Based on the number of replies and click my And then this happened... posts are the most popular new addition. I have a lot of fun finding the perfect moments for these posts and I'm glad you are enjoying them as much as I am.

Conan's first impression of the Ben Hur 2016
I'm still not sure about the First Impressions posts. Those are made on movies I feel like I want to comment on, but don't have enough material to write a full review of without another viewing. So The Force Awakens is a great example. But once I got my full review up, the First Impression seems kind of pointless. I'll keep this concept up for this year, but I'm not sure how much I'll utilize it. Instead I might just shift it to the Movie Musings section.

I had a lot of fun with the Movie Musings section. This allowed me to write a bit about more than one film, or a film concept without feeling like I was tied to just reviewing the movie. These did tend to take a bit longer to work on, so unless I was really feeling inspired I didn't get to them too often, but I enjoyed the freedom these offered.

You'll notice I only posted a couple of Favorite Scenes posts. I really enjoyed doing these, but man did they take a lot of work to pull screenshots for. Very time consuming. I had a couple more ideas for these in 2016 but each time I sat down to work on it, I got intimidated by the amount of screenshots I'd have to capture. I'll keep the option open another year, but if I don't do too much with it, it might also get folded into the Movie Musings section.

"Only a month dedicated to Star Trek?
Most illogical."
Another thing I did that I really enjoyed was having theme months. I've done this in the past with November being "Turkey" month where I tackle MST3K and cheesy favorite, and of course October being horror movie month. In 2016 I dedicated most of July to Star Trek and most of May to Star Wars. It was quite a bit of fun, and I will probably do that again this year.

I'm wondering if I want to spend a bit more time on movie music this year. While I find that aspect of film making fascinating, I'm not sure if it is something anyone here wants to read more about. I've been toying with the idea of writing some film score reviews, just to try my hand at it. But we'll see.

That said, I'm open to suggestions. You want to see tackle a specific movie, a specific topic or you just want me to try to find a And Then This Happened... moment from a movie, feel free to comment on this post or shoot me an email or on Facebook. I've done reader suggestions in the past and had a lot of fun with them.

All in all I had a lot of fun blogging about movies again this year. I want to thank all of you who have been reading and commenting on this blog. It means a lot to me to have folks that spend some time reading my thoughts on movies (meandering as they may be). Looking forward to what 2017 brings!