Back In the Saddle

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008

"Comanche Moon" returns to the well whence sprang "Lonesome Dove" and its offshoots and finds that it's not exactly a gusher. Actually, the well was already on the dry side when "Return to Lonesome Dove" was made, but the franchise carries so much goodwill on the basis of the original film that it still seemed watchable.

"Lonesome Dove" eventually became as much commercial trademark as brand of distinction.

Even so, it could well be that "Comanche Moon" is the best "Lonesome Dove" movie since the first, which aired on CBS in 1989. Both are six-hour miniseries co-written by Larry McMurtry, who wrote the novels, and both are directed by Simon Wincer, who is no flincher. More than any theatrical film of the era, "Lonesome Dove" proved the viability, the timelessness, of the western and of dusty sandscapes and tumblin' tumbleweeds.

The latest "Dove" run can't match the vitality of the original and lacks the star power -- and yet it probably has a larger number of captivating sequences than any other miniseries of recent years, plus a few performances that are knockouts. First among them is Val Kilmer, fat and grizzled as Capt. Inish Scull, described in CBS publicity as a "Yankee aristocrat" but not looking very aristocratic as, horseless, he walks across the rough terrain in search of the sadistic bandido Ahumado (Sal Lopez), one of three arch villains in the piece.

Instead of killing Ahumado, Scull is caught and held prisoner, tortured first by being dangled in a wooden cage above a gorge and later by being tossed into a snake pit where gaggles of rattlers slither. Kilmer goes merrily over the top with a kind of mad panache and makes Scull a living symbol of ornery indomitability.

Strangely, although Kilmer co-stars with the actors playing younger versions of Texas Rangers Gus McRae and Woodrow F. Call, the three men share few if any significant scenes and might as well be in different movies. But they're all well played -- McRae by the engagingly dangerous Steve Zahn and Call by a stoical Karl Urban.

What seems most remarkable about the women in the new miniseries is the amount of clothing they have to wear, especially in the Southwest of the mid-19th century. How in the world could they stand schlepping around town in such enormous outfits with a nasty Texas sun beating down? Even the town madam, Inez Scull (Rachel Griffiths), seems overdressed. She also happens to be Capt. Scull's wife, not that either pays much heed to marital vows. Griffiths plays Scull as a very strong woman indeed, so strong that it hardly seems improper when a cowpoke punches her out in the third chapter. That is one mean woman, whipping out a gun and shooting from the brothel balcony at a cowboy she considers too young to enter.

As with "Lonesome Dove," McMurtry and the filmmakers look at aspects of western mythology you might not have known existed. When one bad guy is fatally attacked by a parrot that flies in out of the blue, it seems utterly incongruous; is there a lost race of prairie parrot that most western lore overlooked? The incident is treated in the film as odd but not unheard of, and one Indian insists that parrots once ruled the world, with human beings at their mercy.

You coulda knocked me over with a feather.

McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who wrote the teleplay together -- and together wrote the screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain" -- are clearly writers who like to take their time. Fortunately, Wincer can handle action sequences and close encounters with equal aplomb, and so "Comanche Moon" seldom stands still for very long.

And it's not only the grand old days of the West that are evoked by the film. Some viewers will also be reminded of another era of television, when networks thought bigger and the miniseries wasn't itself an endangered species. The current CBS Web site pays much more attention to the latest installment in the exhausting "Survivor" reality series than to "Comanche Moon," perhaps as yet another slap at writers and any other truly creative people who worked, or once wanted to work, in television. It all seems many and many a Comanche moon ago.

'Terminator'

Movie fans around the world remember Arnold Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back" from "The Terminator." But there were other catchy bits of dialogue, one of them spoken by a friend of the heroine after watching a TV news report: "You're dead, honey."

The report was about a woman named Sarah Connor having been gunned down by a strange, unearthly marauder. Despite relentless attempts, in that film and a sequel, Connor lived and bounces back yet again in a new Fox series, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." It noisily takes up where "Terminator 2" left off.

Right out of the box, however, the series commits a dirty trick. Writer Josh Friedman and director David Nutter plunge us into the kind of apocalyptic nightmare that was included in "T2," but after blowing maybe half their special-effects budget on fire and carnage, the boys basically admit (spoiler alert, though we're loath to give one because of this cheap trick): "Ha ha, it was all a dream." Connor's eyes pop open and yes, yet another attempted fake-out has flopped.

The filmmakers aren't playing fair. And besides, most people will figure out halfway through the sequence that the eponymous heroine is not going to be burned to a cinder in the first five minutes.

Because it picks up directly from "T2," it is set back at the end of the 20th century instead of in the present, which makes its time-traveling a bit more confusing. One of the main problems with "Connor Chronicles" is that it takes an exquisitely simple premise and keeps complicating it.

Obviously such steps are taken to avoid making every episode of the series one long chase -- Sarah Connor and son John, now 15, keeping their eyes peeled for more terminators sent from the future bent on destroying John and thus assassinating the leader of an armed revolt before he has a chance to become one. John is on the side of the angels, or at least humanity; a future war, the premise holds, will be fought by machines with artificial intelligence against the human beings that unwittingly created and enabled them.

Say what you want, it's a helluva setup for a popcorn picture. And although "T2" appeared to have a budget six or seven times larger than the original, the first film still stands as the unlikely triumph, a nightmarish peer into a future that, as the world becomes ever gadget- and computer-dependent, seems less and less preposterous. (I know for a fact that the machines in my house talk about me while I am asleep.)

One complication added for "Chronicles" is an additional ally from the beyond for John and his mother: the lovely but lethal Cameron (named after director James), played by sweet Summer Glau. She gets to utter one of "T2's" familiar lines when, after crushing a terminator with her big fat truck, she shouts to John, "Come with me if you want to live." John is played with insufficient energy by 19-year-old Thomas Dekker, while Lena Headey inherits the role of Sarah from Linda Hamilton, who never seemed even a shade less than perfect.

Headey speaks with a delicate British accent when not Americanizing herself for Sarah. But whatever she does, she can't compete with the memory of Hamilton hunkered down for the fight of the century.

You won't be glued to your sofa if you tune in, but you probably won't be cutting your fingernails, either.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (one hour) premieres tomorrow at 8 on Channel 5 and debuts in its regular time slot Monday night at 9; Part 1 of Comanche Moon (two hours) airs tomorrow at 9 on Channel 9, with Parts 2 and 3 airing Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 9.


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