Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rio Grande (1950)

There's a lot of rivers to cross in Rio Grande.

The actual body of water is the biggest one.

Apache Indians are causing major problems for Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) and his United States cavalry troops. But his orders stop him from pursuing the Apache when they cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, and safety.

Plenty of symbolic crossings have to be made too. Yorke's estrangement from his wife, Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara), is long-standing. He hasn't seen his son, Jeff (Claude Jarman, Jr.) in 15 years. The younger Yorke wants to serve in the military too, but he fails at West Point. Instead, he enlists in the cavalry and is posted as a trooper to serve under his father. He's with two other new recruits - Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Sandy Boone (Claude Jarman).

Kathleen shows up because she wants to get her son out of the service. Neither he, or Kirby, agree with her mission.

"What kind of man is he?" Jeff asks his mother of Kirby.

"He's a very lonely man," she replies.

Tyree is wanted by a deputy federal marshal (Grant Withers) for manslaughter. He's on his own journey too. Will he be taken into custody or make a bid for freedom?

Rio Grande is a much more satisfying view than Fort Apache, the first of director John Ford's cavalry trio. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is the second installment. The on-going humour that dragged down Fort Apache is much more muted here. The romance between Wayne and O'Hara is on solid ground compared to young lovers Shirley Temple and John Agar in Fort Apache.

The most impressive action scene in this film isn't a battle between the Apache and cavalry, but a training sequence when troopers stand, and ride, two horses. This long-time movie fan has never seen such a stunt before. It's jaw-dropping viewing.

Sons of the Pioneers make several welcome appearances with low-key music that enhances the film's mood, especially a romantic tune when Kirby and Kathleen first dine together.

Military folly was explored in Fort Apache. What stands out here is Kirby's early warning to his son not to expect a life of glory in the military, but one of sacrifice and hardship. How many times do you see those themes trumpeted in recruiting posters? An early scene as the movie opens finds wives of soldiers watching anxiously as Yorke and his men return from a mission. Who is dead? Who is wounded? Who is safe? That's war.

Rio Grande ends this trilogy in fine form.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Hey, that's Karolyn Grimes, Zuzu Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life, as Margaret Mary.

J. Carrol Naish, who appears as Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, made his last screen appearance in Dracula vs. Frankenstein.

Sons of the Pioneers appeared in nearly 100 films and television shows between 1934 and 1984.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Fort Apache (1948)

What kind of movie is Fort Apache supposed to be?

Yes, I know it's a western.

But is director John Ford's 1948 effort a slapstick comedy? Romance? Drama?

It's hard to pin this movie down because its mood is all over the place. That makes for a frustrating viewing experience despite some very fine cinematography by Archie Stout and William Clothier. In fact, the cinematography might just be the best thing about this movie.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is the new commander of Fort Apache. This career military man is definitely all business. He doesn't take kindly to being posted in the middle of nowhere and wants to move on - pronto.

Thursday is strictly by the book and doesn't take kindly to his daughter, Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), romancing 2nd Lieut. Michael Shannon O'Rourke (John Agar). Temple doesn't make much of an impression in this, one of her last film roles before retiring from the big screen in 1949. Agar was her husband when Fort Apache was shot, although they'd divorce in 1950. The romance takes up a good chunk of Fort Apache's nearly two-hour running time. Sigh.

Then there's the comedy, which also eats up a fair part of Ford's film. There's extended sequences with new recruits that go on too long. Even Temple gets mixed up with a comedic scene about living quarters that aren't very liveable.

Oh, there's the social life of the fort too, including a couple of dances. There's jokes about alcohol. Most of this screen time is tiresome. Fonda does get a good line when a stash of booze is found in the hidden inventory of Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). There's a suggestion the hooch is for a religious purpose. "Pour me some scripture," Thursday says.

Good grief, what's this movie about?

John Wayne doesn't do much for most of the film. One of his most promising scenes, when he meets with an important Apache leader, Cochise (Miguel Inclan), ends as soon as the two men meet.

Thursday is a great character. It's a wonder how he earned such a rank because he has zero people skills and shows little understanding of military strategy. Oh, he doesn't listen to his advisers either. It's too bad audiences don't get to learn more about what makes him tick. There's a suggestion of a past relationship with Capt. Sam Collingwood (George O'Brien). Each man made a decision in the past. It earned Thursday a promotion and Collingwood a ticket to Fort Apache. What happened? We never find out.

Fort Apache is a frustrating film to watch. Stick with My Darling Clementine or Stagecoach.

RATING: 4/10

FUN FACTS: Anna Lee, who appears as Mrs. Emily Collingwood, was Sister Margaretta in The Sound of Music . Her husband in Fort Apache is Ward Bond.

Movita has a small role as Thursday's servant.

George O'Brien's last film was in another Ford movie, Cheyenne Autumn.

UPDATE: Shirley Temple died on Feb. 10, 2014. She was 85.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Gary Busey rocks in this biography of American rocker Buddy Holly.

He earned an Oscar nomination for best male lead for this entertaining 1978 effort from first-time director Steve Rash.

Busey is intense as the young singer/songwriter who knows the music he wants to make, but has to contend with plenty of flack from detractors who don't want to hear rock and roll, or see him associate with black entertainers in the mid-1950s. The Texas native does a fine job with his vocal takes on most of Holly's major hits including Rave On, Oh Boy! and Maybe Baby.

It's a year after graduating from high school and Holly is starting to feel pressure from his parents (Neva Patterson and Arch Johnson) who want him to put his guitar down and go to college. Church preacher (Richard Kennedy, in very fine form) warns his congregation, including Holly and his parents, of "this jungle rhythm" that's "a threat to our very society." Holly's original rock material gets the kids excited, but the sponsors of his live spots on radio want him to stick with country - not rock and roll. That won't cut it with Holly. He quits the broadcasts.

Opportunity knocks when Holly and his band, drummer Jesse (Don Stroud) and Ray Bob (Charles Martin Smith) on stand-up bass, get an invite to Nashville. Hope of a record deal turns to frustration when the producer wants Holly to ditch rock for, yep, traditional country. His time ends in frustration in Music City, but another door soon opens when a New York-based label gets its hands on one of Holly's live performances. Sales are good.

Cue the chance to record material the way Holly wants, and plenty of success on the charts too.

Holly woos Maria Elena (Maria Richwine), a secretary to a studio boss, and deals with more race issues. She's Puerta Rican and Catholic. He's not. Holly turns on the charm to get the blessing of Maria's aunt, Mrs. Santiago (Gloria Irizarry).

At times, The Buddy Holly Story feels too obvious in its depiction of the American rock and roll legend. Hey, here's Buddy experimenting in the studio. Watch, Buddy deals with racial prejudice. Gailard Sartain, so wonderful in Mississipi Burning, doesn't fare well in his brief turn as The Big Bopper. But there's also some fine camera work, especially tracking Holly and his band backstage at New York's Apollo Theater and capturing the energy of Holly's performances. Stroud shines behind the drum kit too.

Rock and roll lost a great talent in Holly, killed in a plane crash in February 1959. He was 22.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: The Buddy Holly Story marked film debuts for Maria Richwine and Fred Travalena, who appears as deejay Madman Mancuso.

Neva Patterson, who died in 2010 at 90, appeared in An Affair to Remember and All the President's Menn.

Comedian Paul Mooney appears as Sam Cooke.

The Buddy Holly Story won an Oscar for best music.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Give The Magnificent Seven marks for being different.

Director John Sturges (The Great Escape) opens his film in an unusual way. An undertaker refuses to bury an Indian because the townfolk don't want him resting alongside the dead who have white skin.

Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) agree to bring the hearse to the graveyard, calmly ducking bullets and verbal barbs hurled their way. They have to face five armed men once they get to the cemetery too.

The opening minutes establish the film's theme of standing up for the little guy who is wronged, but can't fight back.

A delegation from a Mexican village appeals to Chris for help. Their community is pillaged on a regular basis by a bandido and his gang. They want him to round up, quite literally, some hired guns and free their community from tyranny.

Chris, being a gun for hire, knows where to find talent such as Britt (James Coburn), Bernardo (Charles Bronson) and Lee (Robert Vaughn). Part of his posse includes Horst Buchholz, a German actor who doesn't make much of an impression among such a stellar assembly of stars. That's a small quibble about a western that definitely stands out for its genre.

Viewers would expect these gunslingers to be tough, macho men. Instead, they definitely show signs of humanity. Lee looks like he's struggling to hold it together mentally. He's wondering if he's lost his touch with his gun and will soon be struck down by a quicker adversary. Bronson's Bernardo chews out youngsters who suggest their fathers are weak because they don't stand up for their community. This comes from a guy who has made plenty of money fighting other people's wars.

Conductor Elmer Bernstein was rightly nominated for an Oscar for best score. His music is a powerful sidekick to the action on the screen.

The Magnificent Seven helped establish McQueen, Bronson and Coburn as major screen talents. They'd be reunited for another film by Sturges, The Great Escape, in 1963.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: See if you can spot Victor French (Little House on the Prairie) in a small role in his first feature film.

Horst Buchholz also appeared in Life is Beautiful.

James Coburn was the owner of El Sleezo Cafe in The Muppet Movie.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Christmas Vacation (1989)

Here's a Christmas turkey.

This 1989 effort, from first-time director Jeremiah Chechik (The Avengers, Benny and Joon) offers humour best suited to audiences under 10.

Rocket charged toboggan rides, threatening squirrels, human feces, explosions, lots of breaking windows, old people who complain a lot and look goofy, a reference to a sex-crazed dog, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (Special Edition) packs all of these comedic bon bons under the tree.

But with several bursts of profanity, and a hint of nudity from Nicolette Scorsese in a small supporting role, youngsters shouldn't be anywhere near this movie. Older viewers are advised to steer clear of this dreck with former Saturday Night Live member Chevy Chase in the starring role.

His character, Clark Griswold, dreams of the perfect Christmas - mostly focused on having a huge tree and thousands of lights on his home. He dreams of adding an in-ground pool to the backyard with his hotly anticipated Christmas bonus. Yep, life sure is a struggle in the Griswold home.

Apparently Clark doesn't spend much time appreciating he has more than most people on the Earth could ever dream about. He has a wonderful wife, Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo), and two great kids Audrey (Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Johnny Galecki). Clark also lives in a huge home in the suburbs, which suggests his paycheque should also earn a secular version of Joy to the World once and a while.

All the in-laws are headed to the Griswold home in Illinois for Christmas. Clark, Sr. and Nora (John Randolph, Diane Ladd) and Art and Francis (E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts) fight a lot. Why? The putrid script from the late John Hughes never gives us an explanation. The unexpected arrival of Clark's cousin, Eddie (Randy Quaid), and his family ratchets up the tension level.

There are some, and I stress some, very funny moments in Christmas Vacation. Most involve Chase enduring some sort of physical pain. He gets whacked by wood a lot in this film. Hughes manages the occasional zinger of dialogue, such as Ellen telling her daughter, "I don't know what to say except it's Christmas and we're all in misery."

Eddie's daughter, Ruby Sue, and her family live in a RV. She tells Clark his home comes with a distinct advantage. "Your house is always parked in the same place."

When family squabbling peaks, Clark tells his wife "We're at the threshold of hell."

These are all good lines. But too often Christmas Vacation opts for silly, exaggerated moments. That may be great for really young viewers, but not for older folks. It gets exasperating.

What's especially sad is the waste of talent among Clark and Ellen's parents. These folks are talented actors, but mostly they're left to making wisecracks about physical ailments and being grouchy. There's one quiet moment between Chase and Randolph that creates genuine human emotion. Then it's gone.

Avoid this film.

RATING: 3/10

FUN FACTS: Johnny Galecki is now a member of television comedy hit The Big Bang Theory.

Doris Roberts appeared in another hit sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond. She was Marie Barone.

Mae Questel has a small role as another senior without many brains, Bethany. Her resume is really neat. Questel was the voice of Betty Boop in more than 150 shorts. She also voiced the character in a much better film from the 1980s, Who Framed Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary Edition (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo in DVD Packaging).