Thursday, August 16, 2018

Review: "Alpha"

“Alpha” is a lyrical supposition of a movie. It imagines what the first meeting was like between man and dog that did not end in violence, and shows us how human and beast might have taken the initial steps in what is surely the most enduring and consequential partnership between any two species.

This is a gorgeous, transportive adventure movie that lifts you out of your seat and sets you down in the rocky peaks and valleys of Europe 20,000 years ago. We careen off cliffs, endure howling blizzards, battle hungry animals who crave human flesh (and vice-versa), and much more.

It’s as good an example of “You are there” filmmaking as I’ve seen since “Gravity.”

Director Albert Hughes shot the movie using IMAX 3D cameras -- no squishy aftermarket conversion here. 3D movies were a big thing for a while, until audience figured out it was mostly an excuse to hit them for a $3 upcharge.

But here is one film I strongly recommend you see on a good IMAX screen. This is the sort of cinematic experience in which you should feel enveloped.

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, a young man on his first buffalo hunt with his tribe. His father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is the chief, and it’s clearly expected that he will one day step into those fur-skin boots. He points to the alpha wolf baying across the valley, and instructs that leadership is earned, not given.

But Keda seems a bit scrawny and kind-hearted to be a great hunter.

His father tries to teach that taking life is a necessary step in sustaining the life of the tribe. The annual buffalo hunt keeps their small band stocked with meat and furs to last them the winter. Still, when the time for confrontation happens, Keda finds his courage wanting.

Through a set of circumstances I’ll not divulge, he is separated from the other hunters, and must spend months traversing the terrain back to his village, overcoming injuries and starvation. One of his first unfortunate encounters is with a pack of wolves. Hobbled by a dislocated ankle, he manages to slice one with his stone-bladed knife and scrambles into a tree to outlast their hunger.

When he finally climbs down, Keda discovers the injured wolf still lying there. After finding he lacks the heart to slay it, he carries it to a cave and they spend time healing up together. When he finally has the strength to start his journey home, the wolf, whom he dubs Alpha, tags along.

The screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt (story by Hughes) contains oceans of silence in which no dialogue is spoken. (Even when the people do speak, it’s in an ancient tongue that sounds like a mishmash of several Western languages.) Keda eventually starts talking to Alpha, but their greatest communication is through whistles, motions and eye contact. Soon natural enemies are the surest of allies.

The cinematography by Martin Gschlacht is just jaw-droppingly amazing, assisted by a little CGI here and there. We really feel like we’ve wandered back into prehistory, where the survival of the species depended on primal instincts.

“Alpha” is a terrific piece of entertainment that also imagines how man’s best friend earned that nickname.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Dirty Dancing" (1987)

"Dirty Dancing" may just be one of the most seminal garbage movies ever. But, garbage it is.

Somehow I missed seeing this film, a smash success when it came out in August 1987. The omission is perhaps not surprising: I had just gone off to college, and it looked to be a sappy romance dressed up against the backdrop of dancing, something in which I have never had an iota of ability or interest. (No surprise that "Footloose" and other dance flicks of the era also escaped my contemporaneous notice.)

It's about a sweet Jewish teen girl in the early 1960s who falls for the bad boy dance instructor at Kellerman Hotel, the posh Catskill Mountain resort where her family is turning "summer" into a verb. He teaches her to dance, and to stand up for herself, and she teaches him that nice Jewish girls make good lays if you have feathered '80s hair in a story set in 1963.

I kid, I kid... but not by much.

The movie, directed by Emile Ardolinio ("Sister Act") from a script by Eleanor Bergstein, gleefully mashes up pop culture references between the two decades -- not so much an homage as a reconfiguring of the past to make it more palatable to modern audiences.

That's best encapsulated by the film's theme song, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," to which the main characters dance in the big scene at the end, brazenly showing off their forbidden love to the world. It sounds very much like a 1987 pop song, not even attempting to mimic the rhythms and instrumentals of the era. It wound up a chart-topping hit, and won prizes at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and Grammys.

Speaking of the Big Dance: the scene where Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) strides up to the table of Frances "Baby" Houseman's (Jennifer Grey) family and announces to her dad (Jerry Orbach), "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," has become a certified Iconic Cinematic Moment.® It's been endlessly referenced and parodied, and even today people toss it around as a phrase of empowerment.

Coming so very late to the game, I have two observations:
  • The moment makes no sense. Baby is sitting against a wall on the side of Kellerman's ball room, not in a corner. She's next to a stone column that sticks out about 8 inches, but it's not like she's deeply ensconced in shame and shadows. And her dad didn't order her to sit there; she's sitting next to her mom (Kelly Bishop). Presumably, she chose the spot herself, leaving the seat closest to the stage for her sister, Lisa (Jane Brucker), who was part of the summer-ending show.
  • When Baby's father (Jerry Orbach) briefly stands up to object, there's an awkward do-si-do where Johnny takes Baby's hand, negotiates her around dad and they stride off together to the stage. Orbach, a tall Broadway actor, towers over the much shorter Swayze in a way not favored for screen protagonists. In other scenes where the two men confront each other they're eye-to-eye, so I suspect the old reliable "apple box trick" was employed.
The film was a breakthrough for Swayze, Grey and Orbach, who each saw their acting careers launched to previously unknown heights. Orbach, the stage veteran, suddenly found himself an in-demand presence for film and TV roles in his 50s and 60s. He became so popular playing cops and heavies, mostly notably as Lennie Brisco on "Law & Order," that later on audiences were baffled to discover he was a song-and-dance man with great pipes, as he showed off playing Lumiere in "Beauty and the Beast."

Grey, who previously had small roles in "Red Dawn" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," soon saw her star fading, largely resigned to television movie roles amid a pair of botched nose jobs that (in)famously left her unrecognizable. It was an odd choice to make: Her petite, slightly hooked schnoz is the very feature that made her stand out from other actresses of the day, giving her an authentic, relatable look. But she was hardly the first starlet to be undone by ill-advised visits to the plastic surgeon.

(Though I use "starlet" in the most generous sense. As is Hollywood custom, Grey was a decade or so older than her teenage character.)

Swayze went on to become one of the top leading men of the late 1980s and '90s, ping-ponging back and forth between romance pictures ("Ghost") and ridiculous action flicks -- "Road House" and "Point Break," two more movies that have gone on to cult status despite having charms that elude me.

A trained dancer via the Joffrey Ballet, Swayze won the part of Johnny over the much-younger Billy Zane, who apparently couldn't dance a lick. He and Grey butted heads on the set of "Red Dawn," but they dance beautifully together. And while their dancing montages are loaded with schmaltz -- Johnny playing air guitar to her feline stalking representing the zenith -- it's hard to deny the onscreen heat between them.

The choreography (by Kenny Ortega) plays pretty well to these untrained eyes. The story is set in motion when Johnny's usual dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), is felled by a botched abortion, and Baby offers to sub in. Johnny teaches her the ins and outs of the mambo and other conventional steps shown off at Kellerman's, as well as the more "dirty" dancing that the resort workers engage in at private parties.

This seems to consist entirely of the two dancers stepping between each other's overlapping legs, so they can grind their crotch against the other's thigh. Ah, l'amore.

Interestingly, Baby does not turn into a spectacular dancer overnight. She learns enough in a few days of cramming to perform a passable mambo for a gig at another resort, though she makes a few mistakes and is too afraid to execute the dramatic lift. Saving that for the last scene, I suppose.

There really isn't much plot other than I've outlined here. There are some jealousies and intrigues that pass via secondary characters, notably Robbie (Max Cantor), the snotty medical student who knocked up Penny, and Neil Kellerman (Lonny Price), the also snotty son of the resort owner (Jack Weston) who's in training to take over the business and has eyes for Baby.

Baby's dad is a hardworking, upstanding doctor who is beloved by Baby. When she asks him to treat Penny in secret, he does so but comes away with the assumption that it was Johnny who impregnated her. Displaying classic "wrong side of the tracks" pride, Johnny allows this to pass, used to being looked down upon. When and Baby begin their secret affair, their biggest challenge is she won't stand up for him, or herself.

Well, that and his side gig as a male prostitute.

While it's never overtly depicted, it seems that Johnny's true role at the resort is not just to teach middle-aged Jewish ladies to dance, but to have sex with them for money. Sometimes this is done discreetly, but in at least one case, it's actually the husband paying off the dance stud to bed his wife and keep her out of his hair so he can play cards. This is the sort of scenario that has only ever existed in a Hollywood movie.

It's curious that Baby never seems bothered by Johnny's side hustle as a hustler. (Or the danger of STDs... a curious thing for a physician's daughter.) At one point in the movie Johnny announces to Baby that he's giving up sleeping with those other women for cash, and it's laughably depicted as a poignant moment.

One other thing struck me about the movie: the lack of commentary on the schism between the Jewish clientele vs. the gentile staff at the resort. The cultural references are not exactly hidden -- Catskill Mountains, the emphasis on girls marrying lawyers or doctors, the surfeit of "-man" surnames -- yet it's never brought up explicitly as another reason to drive these star-crossed hoofers apart.

As you've probably detected from the tone of this essay, I don't have a lot of respect for "Dirty Dancing." Nobody expected it to be anything other than a low-budget romantic musical featuring some nostalgic pop tunes and some slightly sweaty, PG-13-rated naughtiness.

It became something far more, and our popular culture is lesser for it.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Video review: "Avengers: Infinity War"

If the first “Avengers” movie felt like a convergence, the point toward which years of disparate superhero film franchises had been building, then the third, “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” is the beginning of the end times.

I don’t say that to mean superhero flicks are on their way out. Anything but. You can take a look at the box office tallies for this movie, “Black Panther” and other recent iterations from the Marvel Comics Universe and know they’re going to keep making them until people stop going.

But my take is that in the hereafter fans of these movies will refer to the genre in terms of “before AIW” and “after AIW.”

This is a game-changing film that takes all our hopes and dreams bound up with the modern mythology of superheroes, and dashes them against the wall. The story arc of dozens of future movies will hinge upon this movie and its sequel, due out next May.

I won’t give anything away for the few people who haven’t seen it, but before “Avengers: Infinity War” came out it was a common parlor game to guess how many characters would die in it, and choose which ones. Afterward… let’s just say a lot of people making picks were right.

You know the story. World-beater Thanos (Josh Brolin) is coming to Earth to claim the last of the Infinity Stones, which will essentially render him all-powerful. His goal: to eradicate half the living beings in the cosmos so the others can prosper on the remaining resources.

This is more than just an Avengers movie, as almost every single hero of all the Marvel franchises make appearances -- the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, and so on. There’s too many characters to list, but Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) are the most pivotal.

The plot lines move through a number of smaller battles, culminating in a massive one in the hidden nation of Wakanda. On a number of occasions the heroes have a chance to sacrifice one of the Stones in order to prevent Thanos from collecting them all, and decide that the principle of protecting one life is more important than emulating their enemy’s behavior.

We’ll see how that works out for them.

“Avengers: Infinity War” is the culmination of the superhero cinematic adventure that’s been growing for more than two decades. Where things go from here, I can only wait to see.

Bonus features are good, not great. There’s a feature length commentary track by directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; a gag reel; four production documentary shorts totaling about a half-hour; and deleted and extended scenes adding another 10 minutes of footage.



Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Review: "BlacKkKlansman"

I’ve been looking forward to “BlacKkKlansman.” It’s been awhile since I could say I was genuinely anticipating a new Spike Lee movie.

Heck, I’ll admit that lately I haven’t been aware when a new Lee “joint” -- his word for his work -- has been about to come out. Let’s just say the acclaimed cinematic purveyor of African-American experiences hasn’t been the cultural force he once was in the 1980s or ‘90s. I think “Miracle of St. Anna” from a decade ago was his last feature I saw in a theater.

“BlacKkKlansman” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, an annual event that lately has told us more about how the French feel about America or its current president than they do about a particular film.

Lee’s movie, based oh-so-loosely on the true story of a black police officer who successfully infiltrated (sorta) the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, is an explicitly anti-Trump movie that unambiguously links the president’s worst rhetoric with the overtly racist tactics of white supremacy groups of the day.

They’re still doing the same things, Lee argues, they’ve just dressed it up in more palatable terms.

Based on the book by Ron Stallworth, with a screenplay Lee collaborated on with Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott and David Rabinowitz, “BlacKkKlansman” follows Stallworth (a charismatic John David Washington) as he joins the Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 1970s. Through grit, talent and spunk, he moves up from the records room to undercover detective.

His first assignment: infiltrate a speech by the former Black Panther firebrand Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) to see if he’s riling up Colorado Afro-Americans. (Pity that term didn’t outlive the ebony nimbus hairdos of the day, which are replicated for the film to glorious effect.)

There he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the local black student union. He finds himself sympathetic to their revolutionary rhetoric, and drawn to her passion.

After seeing a recruitment ad in the local paper by the KKK, Ron calls up the number and uses his “white voice” to convince them he’s an Aryan type who hates all people of color. The relationship builds until they want to meet in person, which presents an obvious problem. So fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is brought in to play Ron in the face-to-face encounters, with the real Ron listening in via the wire attached to the ersatz one’s chest.

The Klansmen are an assortment of buffoons, mouth-breathers and dead-enders, so we never really take them too seriously. Topher Grace plays Grand Wizard/Executive Director David Duke, who’s still a prominent voice in the white supremacist movement, as a gullible -- even slightly needy -- fellow who thinks in Ron he’s found a fellow traveler.

They talk on the phone frequently, and at one point Ron even goads Duke into claiming he can tell the difference between a white man’s voice and a black one’s.

The only one who’s truly scary is Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), the most militant member of the local Klan. He is immediately suspicious of Flip, insisting he looks like a Jew (he is), and suspects him of trying to infiltrate the group for nefarious purposes (right again). His warnings go unheeded, of course.

Like a lot of Spike Lee’s films, “BlacKkKlansman” mixes comedic satire with barely suppressed rage. Much of the actual events depicted are Hollywood inventions, which is par for the course.

We drink in Ron’s brazenness, laugh at the cartoon Klansmen and, if we’re so disposed politically, nod our head sagely when Lee cuts to news footage of Trump or Duke speaking contemporaneously.

It’s an entertaining, messy film that thinks a bit too much of itself.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Video review: "The Rider"

Some people I respect are calling “The Rider” the best movie of 2018. I wouldn’t go nearly so far. This film, about a young rodeo rider recovering from a serious injury, is often hampered by some rather amateurish acting. But it’s got a spare, powerful beauty and a compelling existential journey to explore.

Real-life family members Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau and Lilly Jandreau play son, father and daughter, respectively. It’s the first screen credit for each of them. The fictional Blackburn clan lives somewhere unspecified out West -- the film was shot in the South Dakota badlands -- and virtually everything they do is connected to the land and the animals upon it.

Brady is a rodeo bronco rider who has just suffered a serious injury. As the story opens his head is shaved and there are big staples across his skull. The doctors are telling him he can’t ride competitively ever again, but he doesn’t want to hear it. He continues to hang out with his rodeo bodies, and visits a famous former bull rider, Lane Scott (using his real name), who suffered an even worse mishap and requires full-time rehabilitative care.

Writer/director Chloé Zhao has given us a film that is unafraid to wallow in stillness and contemplation. Brady is an emotive presence despite playing a character who says very little and works to hide his emotions.

There’s not a lot of narrative. Brady comes close to getting back in the rodeo chute again, but thinks better of it. He starts to work with horses, showing an almost eerie skill in breaking wild ones into docile creatures. But then his symptoms, including a hand that clenches and won’t let go, become worse. It seems fate is conspiring to keep him away from even the simple joy of riding and taming the creatures he loves most.

Most of the supporting actors use their real names, and for most of them it’s their first time in front of a camera. For a few of them, it’s painfully obvious. I don’t make it a practice to call out amateurs for performing like amateurs, so I’m not about to start now. It hurts the movie’s impact, but not fatally.

“The Rider” is still a beautiful, tragic, worthwhile film about the price of loving something with everything you’ve got.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Review: "The King"

"Celebrity is the industrial disease of creativity." 
                                --Mike Myers
"The King" is not your typical biographical documentary. Director Eugene Jarecki knows that the life and career of Elvis Presley are well-explored topics upon which he can layer in few surprises. So he takes a left turn -- both metaphorically and politically -- and examines what Elvis meant to us.

Few figures can boast such a deep, lasting cultural impact 40 years after their death. Presley remains arguably the the most iconic pop musician of the last century, or ever. In Bangladesh or Colombia, there are kids running around who were born decades after Presley died, yet could probably do a reasonable imitation of his "Hound Dog" swiveling pelvis dance if prompted.

As a framing device, Jarecki uses a unique approach. He somehow got ahold of Elvis' 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom -- a loaner, I'm presuming -- and drives it all around the country, giving people rides as they talk about Elvis. Some are famous -- Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin, Emmylou Harris -- and others are regular folks given a chance to ride in the King's chariot. Some of them are musicians themselves, who play their own music or Presley's from the back seat.

Bluesman Leo "Bud" Welch offers this stunningly audacious assessment: "I heard Elvis Presley years and years ago. He had a style of his own, and I had a style of my own." I think Elvis would have appreciated the sheer gall of that.

We drive with Jarecki to Elvis' hometown of Tupelo, Miss., which continues to milk its most famous native son to this day. We visit the "official" childhood home on the white side of town, but when they go looking for the place the Presleys lived as one of only three white families in a black neighborhood, people aren't exactly sure which of the cookie-cutter shacks it is.

Around this point is when "The King" diverges from hagiography to cultural criticism. We talk to black artists who, like Chuck D of Public Enemy, are resentful of Elvis for appropriating a black sound and getting rich and famous off of it. Political firebrand Van Jones bashes Presley for remaining devotedly apolitical his entire life and not using his celebrity in service to a cause (presumably one in sync with Jones' own views).

We talk to old girlfriends, nightclub owners who knew Elvis during his bloated last years grinding out two shows a day in Las Vegas, and a key member of the "Memphis Mafia" of hangers-on and confidantes, Jerry Schilling. "Elvis was my best friend," he says. "I don't know if I was his best friend, but I know some days I was."

It's a compelling ride, as we drive down Route 66, through winter snowstorms and parched deserts, beautiful ocean-side vistas, exploring America and what it meant for Elvis, and what he meant to us. The Rolls has several bouts of mechanical troubles; at one point Jarecki turns his camera on his own pit crew boss, who tells him not only does he not know what the movie is about, he doesn't think Jarecki knows what it's supposed to be about.

He's got a point. Jarecki, no stranger to ardent lefty politics, lets the last third or so of the movie devolve into a wandering polemic, linking Elvis' descent into pills and money-grabbing to the rise of Donald Trump and his disgusting rhetoric. Many of the interviews were shot prior to the 2016 election, and several liberal folks -- James Carville and Alec Baldwin among them -- swear that Trump will never beat Clinton.

There's a desperate tinge to these pronouncements, ironic now of course, but this flavor becomes more pronounced and dissonant as the movie moves on. These are the end times, Jarecki seems to argue, because like Elvis our country always chooses the fast cash and the easy gig over staying true to ourselves.

"If Elvis is your metaphor for America, we're about to OD," says rapper Immortal Technique, laying out the film's theme as bare as can be.

Personally, I find this kind of talk to be juvenile poppycock. If your regard for America is swayed by the current occupant of the Oval Office, then I don't think you really understand the true spirit of the American experiment at all.

Still, I found the first two-thirds of "The King" to be an interesting and creative way to look at Presley's musical and cultural legacy. Even the last third, while indulgent, is never boring.

Here's a documentary that uses a portrait of Elvis Presley as a mirror for what Jarecki sees as the shattering American dream.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Kentuckian" (1955)

Usually when a movie star gets big enough to be in charge of their own films, the resulting pictures tend to be vehicles for them to portray larger-than-life heroes who bestride the globe like a colossus.

So it's interesting that in "The Kentuckian," the first of only two movies he ever directed, Burt Lancaster plays an unsophisticated common man who frequently finds himself the brunt of ridicule and misfortune -- losing the skin off his back, both figuratively and quite literally.

He plays "Big Elias" Wakefield, a rustic son of the Kentucky hills who is on the run -- though he eschews those words -- with his son of about 10 years, Little Eli (Donald MacDonald, who had a short run as a child actor with just three years of credited roles). It seems the Wakefields and the Fromes are the Hatfield and McCoys of the Bluegrass State, carrying on a war of dark deeds so long and bloody, the enmity has engendered its own bit of well-known verse.

Though it's never directly stated, it appears Elias killed a Frome in some sort of dispute, and lit out for Texas to escape his troubles and find some elbow room. An apparent widow (again, we're left to surmise), Elias is an expert hunter and tracker who has little ken when it comes to city life -- which, in 1820s Kentucky, means any collection of shanties where more than a dozen people congregate.

His true home is in the woods, his faithful hunting dog Pharaoh chasing after foxes, their meals whatever game they can catch or shoot, and their bed made by shuffling together a pile of leaves. Lancaster's wide face beams with smiling pride in the outdoor scenes, while a stoic frown overtakes him when they must go into town for supplies or whatnot.

Elias carries the Gideon Horn -- which is also the title of the novel by Felix Holt upon which A.B. Guthrie Jr. based the script -- a massive bone hunting horn that he uses to call Pharaoh back from the chase. Little Eli often bears the horn for him, a totem of their untamed heritage, and tries unsuccessfully to blow out a note himself. When he's finally able to, that means he's become a man, Elias says.

Troubles befall them in myriad form. Elias has the princely sum of $235 saved for their trip, mostly to pay for the ferry ride down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and the ship to Texas. But in town he runs afoul of the local sheriff, who sicced his dog on Pharaoh and didn't like when it lost the fight.

Thrown in jail for resisting when the constable made to shoot his dog, Elias is helped escape by Hannah (Dianne Foster), a local "bought" woman -- aka an indentured servant -- who works for the pub owner in virtual slavery. Little Eli insists she come along with them to Texas, and it seems a nice little domestic group has formed.

But the sheriff and bartender catch up with them (too much sleeping in the leaves, I guess) and demand all their money in bribe to let them go.

Elias had hoped to stop off to visit his older brother, Zack (John McIntire) and his wife, Sophie (Una Merkel), in the riverside village of Humility. But the lack of funds forces them to hole up there for a few months so they can work up a grubstake. Zack's stated intention is to tame Elias and turn him into a businessman like himself, running a trade depot that deals in tobacco, furs, etc.

Sophie takes an instant dislike to Hannah, seeing the lines of affection forming between her and Elias, deeming a "bought girl" as socially unfit to join the family. Hannah takes up working at the local bar run by Stan Bodine, the resident dandy/bully played by Walter Matthau. He has his eyes set on the schoolmarm, Susie Spann (Diana Lynn), so when she takes a shine to Elias that sets up the inevitable conflict between the two men.

Things do not go well for big and little Eli in Humility. The latter can't abide being cooped up inside a schoolhouse all day long when there's sunshine, trees and a great river to enjoy. Elias even lets Aunt Sophie tie up Pharaoh, which breaks both the boy's heart and the dog's spirit.

Elias is mocked by the townsfolk for his buckskin clothes and quaint ways. The derision grows to a fever pitch when he finds a huge pearl while harvesting river oysters. He consults a traveling salesman, Ziby Fletcher (John Carradine), impressed by the man's eloquent speechifyin'. Elias is cagey enough to know the (almost literal) snake oil shyster is a fraud, but figures someone that learned can clue him in where to get a good price on the pearl. Little does he know freshwater pearls are worthless compared to the saltwater kind.

Seeing a chance to secure his place in town by kowtowing to Bodine, Fletcher makes up a story about former President James Monroe being the biggest collector of river pearls in the land. Elias writes a letter to the ex0president, paying four bits in postage. The ruse sprung, the menfolk all enjoy a good laugh at Elias, while little Eli endures taunts by schoolchildren: "Your pa is President Pearl!"

Undoubtedly the most famous scene in the movie is the showdown between Elias and Bodine. It's initiated when Bodine sends his son to pick a fight with little Eli -- much the same way that sheriff sent his dog after Elias' -- and the boy is bloodied by a makeshift whip of rope. The boys are separated and the fathers take up their places, with Bodine wielding a real whip against the unarmed Elias, who is soon cut to pieces. He finally prevails, but only when Hannah surreptitiously intervenes to trap Bodine's whip under her wagon wheel.

I also enjoyed a jaunty little gambling scene aboard the steamboat Gordon C. Greene -- the same one used in "Gone With the Wind." Elias makes a show of his big bag of gold (actually Zack's money) to pass himself off as a rube, conning the con men by placing some smaller bets in conjunction with the experienced gambler demonstrating the game of roulette.

The idea is to lure in the sucker by showing him how easy it is to win, but Elias knows the game is rigged and he will win as long as he mirrors the other man's bets. After winning $280, he, little Eli and Pharaoh are then chased around the ship by the gamblers, who instruct the pilot not to stop at Humility, so they're forced to jump for it and swim to shore.

The proprietor of the steamboat -- though not involved with the gamblers -- is Pleasant Tuesday Babson (John Litel), a colorful figure who's recruiting pioneers to help settle Texas. He takes an instant liking to Elias, seeing him as the perfect specimen for wide open lands. However, by this time Zack and Susie have gotten their claws into him, and Elias is determined to stay.

The story wraps, not entirely convincingly, with the arrival of two Fromes brothers to claim their revenge. Played without credit by Paul Wexler and Douglas Spencer, these are twin, grim specters, so lean and hollow-eyed they appear to have set aside all nutrition in their crusade. After the obligatory shoot-out, in which both Bodine and Babson are collateral casualties and Hannah against saves Elias' bacon, Hannah, Elias and Eli resolve on the spot to unite into a family.

It brings the film to an abrupt end, without even so much as a final pull-out shot of the trio riding the steamboat south toward their fate.

As a director, Lancaster gets lively, authentic performances out of his cast. He seems to have largely left the camera work to veteran cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, resulting in some picturesque scenes of the countryside and river. The film was shot almost entirely on location in Kentucky, and it shows.

"The Kentuckian" is a very atypical adventure story for its time. Elias Wakefield is an ordinary man who carries a rifle, but never even fires it once in the course of the picture. He largely looks to avoid conflict, and when he does resort to battles of fists or wits, he always comes up on the losing side -- or would, if it weren't for help from Hannah.

It would be interesting to see this film remade from her point of view. She's actually the one who makes everything good happen for Elias, and in that sense Hannah is the truest Kentuckian.