Sunday, November 30, 2008


History veracity doesn’t necessarily translate into cinematic virtuosity. The well-intentioned people that fought tooth and nail to produce the 2005 Civil War romance “The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams” (* out of ****) a.k.a. “Strike the Tent,” are direct descendants of the protagonist. Co-director, producer, scenarist, and leading man Julian Adams, who plays his real-life great-great grandfather Robert Adams, deserves recognition for this reverential independent film production that depicts one Southerner’s view of the War Between the States. Indeed, Adams has won several Indie film awards for this effort. Nevertheless, “The Last Confederate” qualifies as a tedious re-enactment with leaden performances by all except Mickey Rooney in a bit part as a bedridden Pennsylvania uncle. However, I must add that “The Last Confederate” is worth watching, even though I found it lacking. I had to opportunity to speak with Julian Adams, the man who wore all the hats on the production, and he shared his experiences in making the film. Although I didn’t like this movie, I have a great deal of admiration for the trials and tribulations that Adams endured to get it produced and distributed. Anybody who reads this critique has the right to disagree with my appraisal of the film. Mr. Adams took issue with my appraisal. Feedback isn’t something that I often receive. Had Adams been a Hollywood mogul, I’d have laughed in this face, but he isn’t a mogul. He knows that his film isn’t perfect, but it isn’t perfect because he didn’t have a budget.

As the descendant of a Mississippi Civil War soldier, I enjoy movies told from the Confederate perspective, but “The Last Confederate” conjures up little suspense and excitement, and the dialogue is hopelessly contrived. Sadly, the actors and actresses could have been reading their lines right off cue cards for all the heart that they put into their performances. Once again, this is an independent production and good talent doesn’t come without some considerable expense. Let’s just say that they performed their parts as the late Spencer Tracy observed. They got their lines out and they didn’t bump into the furniture. As the hero, Adams doesn’t generate a great deal of charisma, but then he did have his hands full with producing this epic, right down to sinking his own money into the handguns and the muskets.

Technically, everything looks accurate enough, but dramatically, this period piece never generates momentum, even during the explosive battle scenes. Adams manages to stage one good gunfight in a shack toward the end. Indeed, most of the epic scale battle sequences are simply re-enactors fighting battles with cameras set up on the periphery of the action. (I know this because I shot video of the battle of Shiloh and there were only certain places that cameras were allowed to be set up.) These scenes with hundreds of dutiful re-enactors parading around and discharging their black powder arms contribute solid production value, but they don’t bolster the drama. Adams renders no judgments against either side, North or South, and the political content is conspicuously absent, but “The Last Confederate” was made to pontificate about values. Adams told me that he was simply relating the facts of history. In any case, on his tight budget, adopting an attitude would have been more than his low budget could have accommodated. The romance between Adams and a Pennsylvania woman, Eveline McCord (co-scenarist Gwendolyn Edwards of “The Broken Hearts Club”), who came to South Carolina to teach school before hostilities, lacks any vibrancy. Again, it’s really a shame, but this stuff really happened.

Directors A. Blaine Miller and Julian Adams relate their yarn in flashback. Our hero, Captain Robert Adams, rushes to the aid of a wounded Confederate soldier and looks up to find a Union soldier taking a bead on him with his revolver. The remaining 90 or so minutes that ensues is devoted to events before and after the war, and there is a hint that perhaps the protagonist didn’t survive this trial by bloodshed. Miller and Adams never make the protagonists seem sympathetic until the middle of the action when Adams and two of his friends engineer an escape from a Federal prison and a grudge-totting Yankee officer chases them. The filmmakers lacked the budget to develop the kind of tension that would make you fear for the lives of the characters. For the record, Adams survived the war, and Eveline and he raised four children and ran a school. What makes Robert Adams is important and essential as a Confederate patriot is never explained. Julian Adams doesn’t provide enough insight into his character to differentiate him from countless other characters. He strikes a gallant figure, but we never get under his skin.

Alas, the fortunes of low budget filmmaking prevented Adams from addressing this problem. The romance between the hero and the heroine is sterile. Some histrionics wouldn't have hurt this otherwise flat-lined drama. Shawn Lewallan’s color photography makes the grade, but there isn’t much subtlety in his lighting. If you suffer through the end credits, the producers reveal that they invoked dramatic license to make their history more palatable. Ostensibly, “The Last Confederate” boasts ambitious intentions, but delivers only a modicum of dramatic impact. Comparisons with the multi-million dollar “Cold Mountain” are inevitable. Initially, when I reviewed this film (which I bought with my own bucks, I described it rather disparagingly as “Dull Mountain.” I still think it is pretty dull, but I will be a man enough critic to applaud Mr. Adams for making this film. He invested his heart and soul in “The Last Confederate.” While I didn’t care for this movie, I appreciate it a lot more after having a conversation with Mr. Adams. Just because I didn’t like it—for purely artistic reasons—doesn’t mean that you will dislike. Ultimately, Julian Adams is a better producer than he is a director.


“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” meet “Return of the Living Dead” in former “South Park” scribe Glasgow Phillips’ directorial debut “Undead or Alive,” (**1/2 out of ****), a creepy, tongue-in-cheek, zombie western starring former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Chris Kattan and “Desperate Housewives” hunk James Denton. Everybody looks like they had a good time making this frontier farce about a couple of hard-luck cowboys on the lam from a posse of zombies. Mind you, “Undead or Alive” never takes itself seriously and prefers to spoof its elements rather than scare the daylights out of us. Writer & director Phillips tosses a few surprises into this supernatural saga while the camaraderie between Luke (Chris Kattan) and Elmer (James Denton) is sufficiently strong enough to make us laugh at their tribulations right up to the twisted finale. Indeed, Chris Kattan and James Denton reminded me of Bob Hope and Bing Cosby in one of their road comedies. “From Dusk Till Dawn” make-up effects wizard Robert Kurtzman makes his usual sterling contribution that boosts “Undead or Alive” into the ‘must watch’ category. The flour-faced ghouls are shown gnawing on enough brains and getting shot enough times to make it worth watching at least once. “Slumber Party Massacre 2” lenser Thomas L Callaway endows “Undead or Alive” with a larger-than-life look. Some of his splendid widescreen compositions that make this “Blazing Zombies” horse opera appear almost artistic. Clocking in at a trim 91 minutes, Phillips doesn’t wear out his welcome and provides suitable closure. Although it doesn’t rank as the greatest zombie western ever made, “Undead or Alive” qualifies as entertaining enough to sit through a couple of times, with sturdy production values and an amusing dialogue.

“Undead or Alive” establishes its premise immediately in a prologue about the legendary Apache chieftain Geronimo (Lew Alexander) who concocted something called ‘the white man’s curse’ that turns ordinary, everyday Anglo-Saxon Americans into flesh feasting fiends. The action unfolds at a hard scrabble farm where a farmer Ben (Brian Posehn of “Eulogy”) somehow comes down with Geronimo’s curse. He pulls an Ozzie Osborne and bites the head off a chicken before he tears into his wife and your daughter. The story shifts then to the frontier town where an Army deserter on the run, Elmer Winslow (James Denton), climbs off the tailgate of a wagon that he hitched a ride on to cut the dust from his throat in the local saloon. He observes there is not being a piano player and settles behind the ivories to plink out a tune. A sexy saloon girl (Patricia Greer) who loves to display her cleavage decides to accompany Elmer. Luke Budd (Chris Kattan) picks that moment to saunter into the saloon with some form of desert plant for his so-called ‘princess,’ only to find the slut cuddling up with Elmer. Later, Luke explains that she had told him that she’d marry him. Luke and Elmer tangle briefly, wind up on the floor, and find themselves staring into the business end of a shotgun with the town sheriff Claypool (Matt Besser of “Drillbit Taylor”) standing over them. Claypool hauls them off to the calaboose, takes their boots, and confiscates Elmer’s $500. They encounter the skin eating zombie farmer locked up in a nearby cell. Eventually, Elmer picks the cell door and they get the drop on Claypool, recover their loot, and hightail it out of town. Predictably, when they skedaddle out of town, Luke rides off in the wrong direction. Generally, Luke is a goofy galoot in a singing cowboy outfit. Elmer describes him later on “as a brokenhearted cowboy that doesn’t know his ass from a bag of sweet potatoes.” That line of Phillips’ dialogue has an Elmore Leonard flavor.

Sheriff Claypool regains consciousness and unties his pot-bellied deputy Cletus, but by then Ben has taken a chomp out of Cletus, so Cletus takes a chomp out of Claypool. The sheriff hangs Ben and assembles a four-man posse to ride with Cletus and him on the trail of our heroes. Before long Claypool and Cletus realize that they love the delicious smell of their posse and chomp on them, turning them into zombies. While Claypool and his posse scour the sagebrush for our heroes, Phillips shifts the story back to the town. The citizens cut Ben down, but discover to their horror that he is still alive and starved for human flesh. Ben embarks on a human buffet and turns everybody into a zombie. Meanwhile, our heroes fall victim to an Apache maiden, Susan (Navi Rawat of CBS-TV’s “Numbers”), who is Geronimo’s niece and speaks fluent English. She explains that she was educated at a New York boarding school. She disarms and strips them of everything except their Stetsons and boots. Later, after they sweet talk her, she gives them their clothes and guns back and they try to ambush Claypool’s posse only to realize that the lawmen have mutated into bona fide zombies and cannot be killed by bullets or arrows. Not even the surefire George Romeo shoot-them-in-the-head strategy works. Evidently, the only positive way to kill the zombies is to literally chop their heads off. These zombies resemble those in "Return of the Living Dead" and Romeo's "Land of the Dead" because they retain some semblance of motor function and can think to a limited extent. Luke, Elmer, and Susan outrun the posse only to be captured by Elmer’s old U.S. Army buddies who arrest them and escort them back to their fort near the Grand Canyon. When they ride into the fort, our heroes and their army escort get the surprise of their lives.

Glasgow Phillips has written a fairly entertaining zombie western. Classically speaking, it could be compared to a Budd Boetticher based on its story arc. Our heroes escape from jail, a posse chases them, and each side confronts the other at a mountain-top army stockade. Whether he knows it or not, Phillips has pulled elements from classic westerns into his oater. Cletus warns our heroes after they have been jailed that the sheriff plans to tie them to the hitch rack and horse whip them for their rambunctiousness. This is a clear homage to “One-Eyed Jacks,” the classic western where Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) whips the hero (Marlon Brando) for everybody to see. The western town and the western outfits all look authentic, except for Kattan’s B-movie cowboy gear. The special effects get pretty nasty toward the end in the army fort and the ending isn’t exactly a happy one. The DVD comes with an insightful commentary track with many of the stars and the director. “Undead or Alive” is better than most critics say.