The Shooter (1997, directed by Fred Olen Ray)

While riding his horse through the old, Michael Atherton (Michael Dudikoff) discovers a group of thuggish ranch hands attacking a prostitute named Wendy (Valerie Wildman).  Because Michael is known as being the Shooter, he has no problem coolly gunning the men down and saving Wendy’s life.  Unfortunately, for Michael, one of the dead men is the son of a fearsome rancher named Jerry Krants (William Smith) and Jerry has his own reasons for wanting Wendy dead.  Michael may be the Shooter but Jerry Krants is William Smith so you automatically know that it is not a good idea to mess with him.

In the grand spaghetti western tradition, Krants has his men kidnap Michael, beat him up, and crucify him outside of town.  The men leave Michael for dead but, after they’ve left, Wendy repays Michael’s kindness by untying him from the cross, nursing him back to health, and saving his life.  (The same thing used to happen to Clint Eastwood, except he usually had to nurse himself back to health without anyone else’s help.)  With everyone else believing him to be dead, Michael rides into town to get his violent revenge against Krants and his men.  With all of the townspeople convinced that Michael has returned as a ghost, only the town’s power-hungry sheriff, Kyle Tapert (Randy Travis), understands what has actually happened.  Tapert makes plans to use Michael’s return for his own advantage.  While it wouldn’t look good for Tapert to openly murder all of his opponents, what if he killed them and then framed Michael?  And then what if he made himself a hero by being the one to end Michael’s reign of terror?

Directed by Fred Olen Ray, The Shooter is a low-budget western that turned out to be far better than I was expecting.  Ray is obviously a fan of the western genre and, with The Shooter, he’s made a respectful and, by his standards, restrained homage to the classic spaghetti westerns of old.  He even shows some undeniable skill when it comes to building up the suspense before the climatic showdown.  Ray indulges in every western cliché imaginable but he does so with the respect of a true fan.

With his less than grizzled screen presence, Michael Dudikoff is slightly miscast as a Clint Eastwood-style gunslinger but the rest of the cast is made up of genre veterans who give it their best.  In particular, William Smith shows why he was one of the busiest “bad guys” working in the movies.  To me, the most surprising part of the film was that the casting of Randy Travis as a villain actually worked.  Fred Olen Ray made good use of Travis’s natural amiability, making Kyle into a villain who will give you friendly smile right before he opens fire.  Also be sure to keep an eye out for Andrew Stevens, playing the man who records Michael’s story.  It wouldn’t be a Fed Olen Ray movie without Andrew Stevens playing at least a small role.

Low-budget, undemanding, and made with obvious care, The Shooter is film that will be appreciated by western fans everywhere.

Book Review: Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers

First published in 2009, Hellraisers is a fast-paced look at the life and times of four men, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed, and an examination of what they all had in common.

First off, they were all talented actors who were at the height of their careers in the 60s and the 70s.

They all first came to prominence in the UK.  Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed were English.  Richard Burton was Welsh.  Richard Harris was born in Ireland.

With the exception of Oliver Reed, all of them were multiple Oscar nominees but none of them actually won the award.

All four of them could boast filmographies that included some of the best and some of the worst films of all time.

And, of course, all four of them were infamous for their drinking.  They were all, if I may borrow the book’s title, famous for raising Hell.

Hellraisers is a frequently entertaining look at their careers and their legendary off-screen exploits.  All four of them come across as being very different drinkers.  Richard Burton was a depressing drunk, one who drank because he was aware that he was wasting his talents in mediocre films.  O’Toole was a drunk who alternated between being charming and being dangerous, someone who was capable of coming across as being a bon vivant even at his lowest moments.  Richard Harris was the angry drunk but he was also the one who seemed to have the both the best understanding of why he drank and why, at a certain age, it was necessary for him to cut back.  And, finally, Oliver Reed was the showman, the one who viewed drinking a beer the way that others viewed having a cup of tea and who would rather damage his career than allow anyone else to tell him how to live.  He knew that he had a reputation and he was determined to live up to it, even at the risk of his own health.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s Oliver Reed who dominates the book.  There was very little that Reed wouldn’t do while drunk and he was drunk quite a lot of the time.  He was also perhaps the most unpredictable of all of the actors profiled in the book, a raw mountain of energy who kept audiences off-balance.  Personally, I would not have wanted to have been along in a room with a drunk Oliver Reed.  The book has too many stories of Reed dropping his trousers and asking everyone to look at what he called his “mighty mallet,” for the reader to feel totally safe with Reed.  At the same time, anyone who has seen a good Oliver Reed performance knows that he deserved better roles than he was often given.  (Then again, the book is also honest about the fact that a lot of filmmakers would not work with Reed because they had justifiable reasons to be terrified of him and his erratic nature.)  Over the course of the book, Reed comes across as hyperactive, easily bored, and also far more intelligent than most gave him credit for.  In many ways, he was a prisoner of his own reputation.  He was outrageous because he knew that was what was expected of him.  As shocking as some of his behavior seems today, he felt that he was giving the people what they wanted and Hellraisers suggests that he may have been right.

Personally, I don’t drink and I find most heavy drinkers to be tedious company at best.  That said, Hellraisers is an interesting book.  Burton, Harris, O’Toole, and Reed are all fascinating talents and the book takes a look at how their hellraising reputations both hurt and, in some cases, helped their careers.  However, the book is more than just a biography of four actors who drank a lot.  It’s also an examination of a different era, of a time when performers were expected to raise Hell and when one could get away with being a contrarian just for the fun of it.  One can only imagine what the moral scolds of social media would have to say if Oliver Reed were around today!  As a result, this is a book that can be enjoyed by both film lovers and history nerds, like you and me.

The Boys are Back In Town: Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head Episodes 1 & 2

Having done both America and the universe, Beavis and Butt-Head are back where they belong!

I just watched the first two episodes of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head on Paramount+.  The boys are once again spending their days sitting on the couch and watching videos.  They’ve got a flat screen now and, like the rest of the world, they’ve abandoned MTV for TikTok and YouTube.  Judging by these two episode, they’re a little smarter now than they were during their original run.  Butt-Head can now read (if he puts some effort into it) and Beavis knows how to use a drill.  Of course, smart is a relative term when it comes to Beavis and Butt-Head.  They haven’t changed that much.  They’re still getting trapped in boxes and they still can’t score.  Beavis still loves fire but, as he discovers during the first episode, Fire can be a tough taskmaster.

Beavis and Butt-Had aren’t the only ones to return.  Mr. Van Driessen and Mr. Anderson return in the second episode.  Mr. Van Driessen tells the boys that people will buy fresh honey.  Mr. Anderson tries to warn the boys about a giant wasp’s nest.  You see where it’s going but it doesn’t make it any less funny.  Unfortunately, Stewart hasn’t returned yet.  Is he still wearing his Winger t-shirt in 2022?

Each episode features two separate stories, along with cut-away scenes of Beavis and Butt-Head watching and commenting on videos.  The first episode started with Beavis and Butt-Head wrecking havoc at an escape room and it ended with Beavis talking to a dumpster fire.  The Escape Room story wasn’t anything special but it did serve to reintroduce Beavis and Butt-Head so it served its purpose.  The Dumpster Fire segment was better and it featured a rare solo turn for Beavis.  I loved that Fire’s instructions to Beavis were not what you would expect.  Get some exercise.  Recycle.  Think about college.  Fire cares!

The first episode was all about reintroducing Beavis and Butt-Head but the second episode showed the series settling into its groove.  The first story featured Beavis and Butt-Head getting trapped in a box.  Beavis, always the optimist, thought that maybe they should just get used to living in the box and that maybe some chicks would show up.  When they realized they were running out of air, Butt-Head started taking deep breaths to try to get as much of the air as possible before Beavis could get it.  The second story was a stone cold Beavis and Butt-Head classic, featuring farmer’s markets, wasps, shampoo, and of course, Mr. Van Driessen and Mr. Anderson.  Everyone knows that Beavis and Butt-Head never score and never will score.  The second episode reminded us that Mr. Van Driessen never score either and it’s usually Beavis and Butt-Head’s fault.  After years of being humiliated and often grievously injured by Beavis and Butt-Head, Mr. Van Driessen still hasn’t given up on them.  Maybe he should.

Of the videos that the boys critiqued, the highlight was Beavis revealing his love for BTS but I also liked their commentary on a creepy Cale Dobbs video.  Their TikTok commentaries seem like they’ll be more uneven but I did enjoy their reaction to the man explaining how to do a prison tattoo.  That will be a good skill to have when the boys inevitably end up in prison.

The most important thing about, though, is that Beavis and Butt-Head are back!  Just in time, too.  The world is finally stupid enough to benefit from their insight.

Cleaning Out the DVR: Scared Straight! Another Story (dir by Richard Michaels)

Who is ready to be scared straight … again!?

Scared Straight!  Another Story is a made-for-television movie from 1980.  As you can tell by the name, the movie was inspired by the documentary Scared Straight! and the addition of Another Story to the title would lead one to suspect that this was actually a follow-up or continuation to that documentary and I guess it kind of is.  A group of teenagers, all of whom have been in trouble with the law, are sent to a prison where they are finger-printed, forced to stay in a cell, and then yelled at by a bunch of prisoners who assure them that they don’t have what it takes to survive in prison.  Then, just as in the documentary, the teenagers leave the prison.  Some of them continue to get in trouble and some of them are scared straight.  As for the prisoners, they remain imprisoned.

The main difference is that, instead of featuring real prisoners and real delinquents, Scared Straight! Another Story is a dramatization.  As a result, the prisoners are saying the same thing that they said in the first Scared Straight! but now the prisoners themselves are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has watched enough old TV shows.  The prisoners may be yelling about how much life sucks but the viewer knows that they are all actors and, as a result, Scared Straight!  Another Story lacks the rough authenticity of the first film.  (It also doesn’t help that most of the profanity from the original documentary has been replaced with softer expressions of disgust.)  The film again makes the argument that the Scared Straight program can turn someone’s life around but it’s not as effective because, again, the troubled teens are all actors.  The viewer knows that they’re actors.  Their lives have already been turned around.

Surprisingly, the scenes of the prisoners yelling are the least effective parts of this film.  Instead, Scared Straight!  Another Story works best when it is exploring everyone’s life before and after the trip to the prison.  Stan Shaw, in particular, is effective as a prisoner who is inspired to take part in the program after he comes across the body of an inmate who has been driven to suicide.  Also well-cast is Terri Nunn, playing Lucy, the girlfriend of a small-time drug dealer.  Both she and her boyfriend are scared straight but it turns out to be too little too late as her boyfriend is eventually sent to jail for the crimes that he committed before the program.  (There’s an interesting scene, one that I wish had been explored in greater detail, where Lucy’s father observes the scared straight program and, instead of understanding that prison is a terrible place to send a kid, reacts by saying that the prisoners are all getting what they deserve.)  Finally, Cliff De Young, who has played a lot of corrupt government agents and out-of-touch teachers over the course of his career, gets a sympathetic role as Paul, the idealistic juvenile probation officer who sends three of his clients to the program.  The program works for two of them while the other eventually ends up joining the inmates who previously tried to warn him.  If nothing else, the film deserves some credit for admitting that the Scared Straight program isn’t going to magically reform everyone who attends.

Despite some good performances, Scared Straight! Another Story lacks the rough edged authenticity of the documentary.  It’s just not as effective when you know that everyone, including the prisoners, could go home at the end of the day.  Today, this is one of those films that is mostly interesting as a historical artifact.  Apparently, there really was a time when anything could inspire a TV movie.

Film Review: Scared Straight! and Scared Straight! 20 Years Later (dir by Arnold Shapiro)

Remember Beyond Scared Straight?

Beyond Scared Straight used to air on A&E.  It was a reality show, one where teenagers would be taken into a prison and harassed by the guards and eventually the prisoners.  The teenagers were usually guilty of things like skipping school, shoplifting, and either smoking weed or underage drinking.  Oddly, I can remember one episode where all of the teens had to wear signs that announced what their crime was.  One of them was wearing a sign that simply read, “I disrespect my parents.”  I mean, that may be bad manners but is it really a crime for which you can be sent to jail?

Beyond Scared Straight was best known for the segments in which prisoners would yell at the teens and tell them about life in prison and say stuff like, “You don’t belong here!  This is not for you!”  What is often forgotten today is that the prisoners were usually only a small part of each episode of Beyond Scared Straight.  Usually, more time was spent on the guards.  Beyond Scared Straight visited a lot of towns and a lot of jails but the guards always seemed to remain the same.  The male guards were always bulked up and bald and would try to yell like a drill sergeant.  The female guards would always scream at anyone who didn’t stand up straight.  “Kids today,” one of them said during one particular episode, “do not respect authority the way they should.”  Considering what we’ve seen of authority over the past few years, that lack of respect is perhaps understandable.  In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that the Scared Straight program does more harm than good.  Whenever I watched Beyond Scared Straight, it always seemed like the program was more about humiliating the teens than actually trying to help them or to understand why they were doing the things that they were doing.  It reminded me a bit of something that I read about the psychology behind spanking.  It’s more about the anger of the adults than the behavior of the children and it usually leads to a lot of resentment down the line.  There’s only so many times that anyone can be spanked or yelled at before they strike back.

I have to admit that, whenever I watched Beyond Scared Straight, I always enjoyed it whenever one of the “bad teens” would smirk at some screaming guard.  There were a few episodes where a teen would actually take a swing at a guard and those were my favorite episodes.  (I guess I have issues with authority, too.)  If I had a difficult time taking Beyond Scared Straight seriously, it was because it hard for me to watch it without thinking of Steve Carell’s performance as Prison Mike on The Office.

Far more effective than Beyond Scared Straight was the documentary that inspired it, 1978’s Scared Straight!  Scared Straight! followed a group of juvenile delinquents who were taken to a prison in New Jersey.  The film didn’t waste any time with the guards and indeed, the documentary emphasized the fact that the convicts ran the prison and not the guards.  (That’s the sort of thing that Beyond Scared Straight, with all of its “respect my authority” rhetoric, would never have the guts to admit.)  In fact, the documentary really didn’t even reveal much about the teenagers being yelled at, beyond the fact that they all thought that they were tough (or, at least, they did before going into prison) and that all the boys had really thin, barely-there mustaches.

Instead, it’s the prisoners who dominated this documentary.  The majority of them were serving life sentences.  A few of them were murderers.  They were angry, they were loud, and they made it clear that they didn’t like the people listening to them, filming them, or watching them.  They left the audience with no doubt that the prisoners would hate them just as much as they hated the teens in the program.  The prisoners stole everyone’s shoes.  They knocked a stack of cards out of one teen’s hands.  They regularly threatened to break one kid’s neck.  They talked about what it was like to be raped in prison.  They talked about what the teens would have to do in order to survive in prison.  Scared Straight! was narrated by Peter Falk who, early on, informed the audience that they would be hearing some “rough language.”  Falk wasn’t lying.  The prisoners in this film were frightening in a way that their later television counterparts never could be.  One doesn’t have to be a believer in the Scared Straight! program (and you’ve probably noticed by now that I’m not) to find the prisoners to be both compelling and disturbing at the same time.  All of the prisoners were obviously intelligent but, just as obviously, prison had left physical, mental, and emotional scars that would never heal.

Scared Straight! was a huge success, winning both an Oscar and an Emmy.  It led to various follow-up documentary, which explored whether or not the teens had actually been scared straight.  After I watched the original Scared Straight!, I watched Scared Straight: 20 Years Later.  Released in 1999, this documentary was narrated by Danny Glover and featured interviews with the surviving prisoners and program participants.  At the time the documentary was released, almost all of the prisoners had been paroled.  Three of them had died, one from a drug overdose, one from AIDS, and another from a sudden heart attack.  A few of the parolees had been re-arrested and were now back in prison and, just as importantly, a few others had stayed out of trouble.  As for the teens, one had died of AIDS and one was in prison but the rest of the surviving teens claimed that they had all learned from the program.  At least two were involved in the ministry.  The others all had families and steady jobs.  None of them seemed to be particularly well-off financially but, at the same time, the majority of them seemed to be happy.

Of course, Scared Straight: 20 Years Later was filmed over 20 years ago.  Things change.  One of the graduates of the original program, Angelo Speziale, appeared in 20 Years Later, playing with his children and talking about how he had a few minor run-ins with the law immediately after the program.  At the time, Speziale said that was all behind him and he was now just focused on being the best father that he could be.  As I watched Angelo Speziale talk about how perfect his life was, I couldn’t help but think that there was something slightly off about him.  He seemed to be trying too hard to come across as just a regular suburban dad.  In 2011, long after he was interviewed for 20 Years After, Angelo Speziale was arrested and charged with raping and murdering one of his neighbors in 1982, four years after he took part in the Scared Straight program.  Angelo Speziale is now serving a life sentence at the same prison where the original Scared Straight! was filmed.  As for the rest of the participants, who knows?  Hopefully, they’re doing well.

Farrell & Gleeson reunite in The Banshees of Inisherin Trailer!

Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) reunites his In Bruges stars Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin. I’m really looking forward to this one. The Banshees of Inisherin places two friends at odds when one decides he’s suddenly had enough of the friendship.

The film also stars Kerry Condon (also from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Eternals)

The Banshees of Inisherin is set to release on October 21st.

Music Video of the Day: Signal Fire by Snow Patrol (2007, directed by Paul McGuigan)

Tobey Maguire’s third outing of Spider-Man doesn’t get much respect, despite the worthy efforts of Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and Sam Raimi.  Spider-Man 3 has always felt overstuffed and, when compared to Maguire’s other two outings, it’s easy to see that Spider-Man 3 is often just going through the motions.  I still like the soundtrack, though.

Snow Patrol’s Signal Fire was the only single to be released from the soundtrack.  The video not only advertises the film but it also pays homage to not only the previous two films but what they meant to those of us who viewed them.  I remember when this video came out, some people felt that the school play concept was saying that the movies were meant for kids but I think, instead, the concept shows that the movies reminded viewers of what it was like to be young, hopeful, confused, and sad all at the same time.  The Maguire Spider-Man films comprised a coming-of-age trilogy and that’s what this video is all about.