Wagons East (1994, Directed by Peter Markle) English 4

Starring John Candy, Richard Lewis, John C. McGinley, Ellen Greene, Robert Picardo, Russell Means, Don Lake

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Finding the old west to be not all as advertised, a group of 19th century settlers hire a drunken wagon master, James Harlow (Candy), to lead them back east. Perhaps unfairly derided as an epic travesty and Blazing Saddles wannabe, Wagons East is bad, but not as bad as its 0% on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. This is a watchable film, with a solid, if undemanding performance from Candy in his last film. If you want to pretend that his last film was Cool Runnings instead, I understand. That being said, I did laugh one or two times, and the premise could have yielded better results with a better filmmaker. The main problem is too many lame, lazy jokes involving gay stereotypes and lowest common denominator humor.

The Hateful Eight (2015, Directed by Quentin Tarantino) English 10

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum

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Shacked up in a remote lodge, snowed in by the blistering Wyoming conditions, bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Russell) reluctantly requests the help of a fellow bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson). Ruth is carrying precious cargo, Daisy Domergue (Leigh), with a massive bounty on her head, and while the reward states dead or alive, Ruth insists on seeing her hang (meaning taking her in alive). Ruth senses something’s afoot at the lodge as he looks at the fellow guests: there’s the weaselly Sheriff Mannix (Goggins), fork tongued Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), the quiet Joe Gage (Madsen), notorious Confederate General Smithers (Dern), and shifty Mexican Bob (Bichir). Ruth believes that one of them, maybe more than one, maybe all of them, is working to free Daisy, and so he recruits Warren, the only one he basically trusts. What follows is a trademark Tarantino extravaganza: killer dialogue, wild tonal shifts, extreme violence, and a gallery of unforgettable characters. Race is a major issue, and many critics complained how it is used in this film for provocation rather than enlightenment or insight. I see it as a continuation of Tarantino’s recent films that were grounded in wish fulfillment. Here, the black guy, Warren, is the smartest guy in the room. As the murder mystery unfolds, we watch him unravel the deception and conspiracy through intelligence and deception of his own. There’s a shocking (to some) scene in the middle of the picture exemplifying this where Warren uses a story I believe to be fictional simply to elicit a dumb response from an enemy so that he can dispose of him. Some characters work better than others. Mobray and Bob aren’t given much to do, and Gage, while being a textbook western character, seems boring next to the outlandish surrounding cast. There’s also an odd cameo that I’m unsure of. However, Jackson, Russell, Jason Leigh and Goggins are outstanding, and the setting, as filmed by Robert Richardson, is glorious.

Hostiles (2017, Directed by Scott Cooper) English 8

Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach

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As tormented as he is revered, Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Bale) begrudgingly accepts his mission to deliver an aging Indian war chief (Studi) and the man’s family to their native home. Along the way, Blocker and his men are confronted with Comanche war groups, past demons, and a grieving widow played by Rosamund Pike. Some may find the film too derivative. The influence of John Ford’s The Searchers goes beyond homage at times. I’ve read others questioning its pace, or bemoaning the violent bigotry of Bale’s character. I found it to be an exceptionally made, expertly performed western. Bale, in particular, does a delicate job of not hiding his character’s racism and notorious past, and not overplaying the character’s kinder, more redemptive moments. His deft handling of the material is the key to its success, but director, Scott Cooper, gives all of his actors their moments, and the result is a quietly romantic, intimate, superior western.

Pardners (1956, Directed by Norman Taurog) English 5

Starring Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Agnes Moorehead

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In order to save their ranch, Slim and Wade Jr. (Martin and Lewis) take on a violent gang known as the masked raiders, over twenty years after their fathers were murdered by that same gang. A lesser Martin and Lewis pairing, while still showcasing an abundance of style, that lacks wit and any memorable musical numbers. Lewis’ screen time dwarfs Martin’s, and I don’t consider that a positive. There’s also no romance to speak of, despite there being two romantic interests. Too much Lewis, not enough Martin.

American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991, Directed by Simon Wells and Phil Nibbelink) English 6

Voices of Dom Deluise, Amy Irving, John Cleese, James Stewart

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Fievel and his family return, this time moving west thanks to a scheming gang of cats. Fievel, overhearing their plot, attempts to find help and thwart the evil cats. Don Bluth’s productions have always suffered from uneven storytelling. His animation and artistry, however, are incredible. The story is just engaging enough, and the voice work is top notch. This was James Stewart’s last role.

The Naked Spur (1953, Directed Anthony Mann) English 8

Starring James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell

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Wanting to begin again in life, Howard Kemp (Stewart) tracks down a wanted fugitive (Ryan) and plans to collect on his bounty. The venture is complicated by two strangers-one a caddish soldier (Meeker) and the other a deceptively meek prospector (Mitchell)-who want a piece of the pie. The three men transport the criminal and his girl, while always keeping an eye on each other. The best of what are termed the Anthony Mann psychological westerns. With shades of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the chief pleasure of the film is its clash of distinct characters. As a Hollywood western of the classic tradition, it’s a little too glossy at times. Still a superb picture. Simple story, complex western.

Rio Bravo (1959, Directed by Howard Hawks) English 10

Starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ricky Nelson

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After arresting a wealthy and corrupt man’s brother, Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) must hold his small town prison off from a horde of deadly mercenaries. The only help he has are his two deputies, the self-destructive Dude (Martin), and the lame Stumpy (Brennan). Classic western, one of the last and best of the old Hollywood style, coming right before the genre would be redefined by Italians and Sam Pechinpah. Centered more on characters and dialogue than most westerns, Rio Bravo is a terrific entertainment, kind of a boy’s fantasy. Hanging out with friends. Facing off against villains. Romancing a beautiful woman. Great stuff.