SWEETWATER – a Movie Review
Sunday, January 5, 2014
‘SWEETWATER’ BLU-RAY GIVEAWAY, PLUS WESTERNS COMING TO YOUR TV (OR PHONE OR I-PAD OR WHATEVER)!
UPDATED 1/8/2014 - SEE 'WHEN CALLS THE HEART' REVIEW
SWEETWATER - BLU-RAY REVIEW AND GIVEAWAY
I keep thinking there’s not a big difference between DVDs and BluRays, but when I saw the BluRay version of SWEETWATER, after previously viewing the DVD, I was stunned by the beauty of New Mexico. And January Jones. There really is that something extra in the BluRay format. Not that I’m tossing my DVDs – Hell, I’ve got a couple thousand VHS tapes I’m trying to convert to DVD. But if I’m given a choice of format, BluRay will win out.
If you, like me, do your best to see every western and neo-western and pseudo-western that comes out, then you know, the problem isn’t finding time for them all, but simply finding them. And I have concluded that SWEETWATER is the best theatrical western for the year 2013. That’s why I’m delighted that the distributor has provided me with two BluRay copies to share with Round-up readers. I’m re-printing my review from October minor changes, and after that I’ll be telling you about the special features, and how you can win SWEETWATER.
You can read my interview with Andrew McKenzie, who wrote the original story for SWEETWATER, HERE .
SWEETWATER – a Movie Review
SWEETWATER, a beautifully produced western directed by Logan Miller and co-written by him and his brother Noah from the story by Andrew McKenzie, opens with a mysterious, babbling figure, in the person of Ed Harris as Jackson, in a breathtaking New Mexico desert, dancing and making apparently religious incantations to the rising sun. Next we see Jason Isaacs as Prophet Josiah, amidst a phalanx of huge and oddly menacing white crosses, performing his own off-center-of-Christian ceremonies. These men represent the opposing forces that will butt heads over a murder and, in so doing, tear asunder the lives of January Jones and Eduardo Noriega as Sarah and Miguel Ramirez, a young married couple struggling to farm a future from the sun-blasted desert of New Mexico. They haven’t a snowball’s chance in Hell.
To put it mildly, the deck is stacked against the couple. We quickly gather that the young beauty is a former whore in a town where she used to ply her trade. Her husband Miguel is an eternal optimist, forever giving people the benefit of the doubt, but his generosity is wasted on people who see in him nothing but a dirty Mexican. Their paltry savings are stolen by the local banker. The local merchant is far more interested in voyeuristically pursuing Sarah than in doing business with them. When Prophet Josiah’s sheep eat their crops, and they suspect he’s killed their dog, the local sheriff is not even indifferent. He’s contemptuous.
Eduardo Noriega and Jason Isaacs
And Prophet Josiah who, with his flock, was run out of Utah, soon sets his sights on beautiful Sarah. Prophet Josiah is the man with the money and the power in this Hellish region, and has the willing support of all the local businessmen and government. At the same time, Sheriff Jackson has come to town to investigate the disappearance of two men, relatives of the Governor, whom we have seen Prophet Josiah murder for trespassing.
This is the grim world of the town of Sweetwater. Brad Shield, a 2nd unit cinematographer on many big movies, has a wonderful eye for simultaneously capturing the full-hued beauty and stark, barren ugliness of the New Mexico desert. And the stunning but not over-glamorized loveliness of January Jones, who shoulders much of the forward momentum of the story.
Logan Miller directs with a precision and confidence that mirrors his strongest characters. Nothing is arbitrary in the telling. He is blessed with several strong actors, and skilled at drawing performances from them, and he has an impressive control of camera movement. There is almost a hypnotic sense of menace to the scene where Miguel is threatened by a pair of men who circle him, one on foot moving clockwise, the other on horseback moving counter-clockwise. It could have easily been overplayed, but it is all the more frightening because it seems natural, as does Miguel’s distraction. Another scene, a hunt through the maze of a sheep pen, is particularly intense.
Jason Isaacs, who first impressed as the sadistic Col. Tavington in THE PATRIOT, and continued hatefully as Lucius Malfoy in the HARRY POTTER movies, is excellent as the sanctimonious hypocrite Prophet Josiah. You watch him, knowing that you’d never follow him, but others would.
January Jones, famous as Betty Francis, later Betty Draper in MAD MEN, compels your interest and sympathy by the strength of her character, and determination against tremendous odds. She embodies the pioneer spirit. And rather than modernizing the story to make it ‘relatable’, it stays in period, and portrays the desperation of a lone woman searching a vast land for her missing husband. There is no phone, no police, no APB, no tracking a cell signal. Pregnant, alone and searching, she must still plow the land or see the crops die. She doesn’t have a sidekick to share her thoughts with, so much of her performance is facial and physical, and while she is helped by the occasional camera crane-shot showing the enormity of her challenge, the credit for the performance must go to her.
Ed Harris and a pair of corpses
But the fun starts whenever Ed Harris appears on the scene. As Cornelius Jackson, with dapper suit and shoulder-length scarecrow hair, he’s part mystic, part detective and part loony. At times he plays it so broad it’s like he’s channeling Malcolm McDowell from CLOCKWORK ORANGE. But it’s sheer pleasure to watch him and Prophet Josiah face each other, especially the dinner scene where Jackson demonstrates his contempt for the religious leader.
SWEETWATER is a beautifully made Western, with a compelling plot, gripping action, strong performances, beautifully filmed and edited. It is an ‘R’ for a reason. In addition to some beautiful nudity on the part of Miss Jones, there is male nudity only a masochist would enjoy, apparent masturbation, sexual cruelty, and some rough language.
I do have some quibbles with moments that seem contrived. For no apparent reason, a man presents a woman with a parasol, so that she’ll later be able to jab him in the eye with it. Two men dig up a well-hidden body for the apparent purpose of being discovered doing it. A character says some revoltingly crude remarks just before being killed, as if to let us know that he’s no loss: believe me, we already knew. And just once in a while, I’d like to see a movie where a religious character is neither a hypocrite nor crazy.
‘SWEETWATER’ – THE SPECIAL FEATURES
The BluRay comes with three special features; the theatrical trailer, singer Hudson Moore performing the end-title theme ‘Cold Grey Light of Dawn’, and a ‘making of’ short. The trailer is solid. Hudson Moore’s performance is very good – it’s an excellent song, and it’s almost too bad that it’s used over the end credits rather than in the film. But this is not a ‘video’ per se, but the audio track played over a still photo of the singer. The ten-minute ‘making of’ short was my favorite of the special features, as it gave so many cast members, from the stars to the supporting players, a chance to speak. It was also interesting to see Logan and Noah Miller, who are identical twins with matching hair and beards, in action. Ed Harris tells you which twin has the mole on his face, to tell them apart, but they moved too fast for me to catch it.
‘SWEETWATER’ – THE CONTEST
I have two beautiful BluRay copies of SWEETWATER, and I’ll be awarding them to a pair of Round-up readers, and one of them could be you! How do you win? Answer the questions below.
#1.) Lovely January Jones may be best known for MAD MEN, but she is not a stranger to sagebrush. She’s starred in two previous western films, one made for TV, and the other a modern-day Western. What are the titles?
#2.) Ed Harris is also comfortable in the saddle. Like January Jones, he’s done one western for the big screen, and one for the small. He also did a film where he jousted on a motorcycle. Name all three.
#3.) It’s not Eduardo Noriega’s first rodeo either. What was his previous western?
#4.) While villainous Jason Isaacs was never in a western before, he was in two films plotted in North America in the 18th century, one set in Canada and one set in the United States. Name them both.
#5.) Stephen Root, who plays a very unpleasant character in SWEETWATER, has the longest western career of almost anyone in the movie, starting with a guest shot in a series in 1990. He had a regular role in a modern-day western series, voiced Teddy Roosevelt once, did a modern western for the Coen brothers, and did two westerns with Johnny Depp. Name any three of the six.
#6.) Finally, the original story writer, Andrew McKenzie, chose the name of Sweetwater for the town, as an homage to a classic Western movie. Name it. (Note: There are actually two legitimate answers to this. I know which one Andrew intended, but to be fair, I’ll accept either one.)
Please email your entry to firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to include your snail-mail address, and put ‘Sweetwater Contest’ in the subject line. We’ll be accepting entries until midnight, Sunday, January 12th, 2014. The two winners will be randomly selected from all correct entries. Good luck!
NEW WESTERNS ON THE WAY:
‘JUSTIFIED’ RETURNS ON TUESDAY JAN. 7 ON ‘FX’
On Tuesday night, Timothy Olyphant will be back as Raylan Givens, and creepy Walton Goggins will be back as Boyd Crowder for season 5 of one of the best shows on TV, JUSTIFIED. While everyone involved with the series feels the loss of the great Elmore Leonard, whose story FIRE IN THE HOLE was the basis of it, they are among the best writing, producing, directing and acting talent in the business, and will carry on in a way that would have made Dutch proud.
‘WHEN CALLS THE HEART’ SERIES PREMIERES SATURDAY JAN. 11
On Saturday, January 11th The Hallmark Channel will premiere their new Western series, WHEN CALLS THE HEART. The turn-of-the-century story about a privileged young Canadian woman who moves to the frontier to teach children in a mining town, and perhaps to fall in love with a Mountie, the story first appeared on the cathode ray as a TV movie (see my review HERE ) in October. Based on Janette Oke’s very popular Canadian West series of romantic westerns, she’s also the lady who created the LOVE COMES SOFTLY series, which proved hugely popular series of movies for Hallmark and for writer/producer/director Michael Landon Jr. The series has different stars, Erin Krakow and Daniel Lissing, in the leads, but maintained Lori Loughlin from the movie.
‘WHEN CALLS THE HEART’ SERIES PREMIERES WITH STRONG OPENER
Daniel Lissing and Erin Krakow
Good news for Western fans who found the ‘WHEN CALLS THE HEART’ movie pilot a bit unsteady: the premiere episode of the series, ‘Lost and Found’, airing Saturday, January 11th, shows much more confidence, and a pleasing blend of the comic and dramatic. The Hallmark Channel and Michael Landon Jr. might very well have a winner here, of the ‘Doctor Quinn On the Prairie’ variety.
While the movie had parallel stories, of niece and aunt as frontier teachers in different periods, which did not always mesh well, the series version focuses only on the niece in the beginning of the 20th century. Elizabeth Thatcher, now played by Erin Krakow, is still a daughter of wealth and privilege, and still at least partially motivated to teach in a frontier mining town by her younger sister’s belief that she doesn’t have the gumption to make a go of it. And while there still is a Mountie in the story, he’s no longer a friend from home. Now played by Daniel Lissing, Mountie Jack Thornton is, in fact, a constable who had a much more interesting post until he was transferred to this sleepy town of Coal Valley, perhaps at the request of Elizabeth’s powerful father.
Only Lori Loughlin, as widowed mother Abigail Stanton, remains from the cast of the movie, and has remained lovely to look at while bringing a strength and solidity to the proceedings. The episode recaps the final moments of the movie – reshot – where the young schoolmarm arrives in town after having her stagecoach held up, and learns the place is a well of sorrow: an explosion at the mine killed fifty-seven men, making Coal Valley largely a town of widows and orphans. And with no real school, and the church recently burned to the ground, the learning takes place in a saloon.
In the midst of her first day of class, a trumpet-blast from the mine clears the classroom – it signals that the last of the miners’ bodies have been recovered, and with them, a last goodbye scrawled by a dying miner on a piece of timber. Determining who wrote it, and hence to whom it belongs, is much of the remainder of the episode, and through the questioning, we begin to meet the townsfolk. And also through said questioning, Constable Thornton starts to suspect there may be more to the mine explosion than a simple accident.
The western town sets and the quality of the photography are more than pleasing to the eye. The costuming and art direction are of a much higher caliber and consistency that in the TV movie. The performances are by and large strong. Elizabeth’s early mistakes, and occasional catastrophes, are funny and endearing, and if the hostility between her and the Mountie are a predictable ‘cute meet,’ the fact is, it works.
The plank everyone claims.
Based on Jasette Oke’s novel, the plot of the opener serves to set up what is no doubt coming over the next nine weeks, as we learn more about the townspeople and the mine’s management. There is one inexplicable leap of logic near the end of the episode, but it concerns nothing so crucial as to spoil the story. I’m looking forward to week two.
‘KLONDIKE’ PREMIERES MONDAY, JAN 20 ON DISCOVERY
Executive Producer Ridley Scott brings a big, brawling tale of the Klondike gold rush, starring Tim Roth, Sam Shepard, Richard Madden and Abbie Cornish.
‘QUICKDRAW’ SEASON 2 SHOOTING FOR HULU
Comedian John Lehr will be back as Harvard-educated lawman John Henry Hoyle in a new season of QUICKDRAW for the internet entertainment site HULU. I don’t know when the new season will begin playing, but I understand that they are currently shooting at the Paramount Ranch, and will be there until mid-February. You can read my review of season one HERE, and if you don’t know the show, the trailer below, from season one, will serve as an introduction.
GONE WITH THE WIND’S ‘INDIA WILKES’, ALICIA RHETT, DIES AT 98
She only acted professionally once, but it was a pip! After auditioning for the part of Melanie, which went to Olivia de Havilland, the Savannah-born portrait artist won the role of the sister of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), India. An appropriate choice for her role, her great-grandfather was Senator Robert Rhett, known as ‘The Father of Secession.’ Offered other films roles, but not thinking herself right for them, she returned to Charleston, and continued with her career in portraiture, as well as painting children’s book illustrations.
The great-granddaughter of U.S. Sen. Robert Rhett, who was known as the "Father of Secession," Alicia Rhett was born in Savannah in 1915 but moved to Charleston following the death of her father, army officer and engineer Edmund Rhett, in World War I.
HAPPY 84TH BIRTHDAY TO TV’S ‘BRONCO’ – TY HARDIN!
Tall, muscular, handsome and modest, Ty Hardin, star of BRONCO, one of Warner Brothers’ great western series of the ‘50s and ‘60s, turned 84 on New Years Day. He also appeared in war movies like BATTLE OF THE BULGE and PT 109, and did several spaghetti westerns as well. And true to his Warner Brothers/BRONCO/CHEYENNE/MAVERICK roots, he’s the only guy I know who has TWO poker nights a week! Happy Birthday Ty! Click the links below to read my two-part interview with Ty.
SOMETHING NEW FOR ‘SPAGHETTI METAL’ FANS!
Here’s a peek behind the scenes of the Aussie metal band A BREACH OF SILENCE shooting their new video, NIGHT RIDER, which is a tribute to the Pasta West as well as Red Dead Redemption. Lots of head-banging music, pretty saloon girls, and nice photography, especially the make-up related stuff. I’m looking forward to the finished video!
THAT’S A WRAP!
I’ll be giving you details very soon about two new westerns that have just wrapped, and reviewing the first authorized set of DVDs of the complete first season of THE RIFLEMAN!
All Original Contents Copyright January 2014 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved