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Monday, January 5, 2009

FILM REVIEW OF ''RIO LOBO'' (1970)

According to Todd McCarthy, in his 756-page biography “Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood,” the legendary producer & director repeatedly admitted that he didn’t care for his final film “Rio Lobo.” Editor John Woodcock remembers Hawks advising him to whittle down scenes that didn’t live up to the director’s high expectations. Reportedly, Hawks enjoyed the American Civil War prologue, but his feud with lead actress Jennifer O’Neil and her appallingly callow performance as the heroine marred later scenes, such that Hawks eventually wrote her out of the finale altogether and gave Sherry Lansing the privilege of killing the vile villain. McCarthy’s opinion of “Rio Lobo” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) mirrors that of Hawks, too. He contends the entire film resembles a made-for-television feature with perfunctory dialogue and “shoddy” visuals and everything appeared “tired and unengaged, with the repetition of previous situations and conceits played out to diminishing returns.” Indeed, “Rio Lobo” isn’t the greatest western. Nevertheless, with its comic byplay between the principals, Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative music, and his scenes of violence, Hawks’ last collaboration with John Wayne manages to be a lot of fun. Moreover, “Rio Lobo” neither dawdles nor wears out its welcome. As bad as Jennifer O’Neil’s performance is, the cast seems to work together quite jovially and the dialogue—nothing memorable—flows with a rhythm. Hawks ribs John Wayne’s character for his increased girth and age and the girls ridicule Jorge Rivero’s romantic Frenchman without mercy. Let’s not forget Jack Elam as the cantankerous Mr. Phillips who chews the scenery with vigor as much as he loves to shred anybody and everybody with his double-barreled ‘splatter’ shotgun.

“Rio Lobo” opens with an entertaining and inventive prologue about a Civil War gold robbery. Four Union troopers load a strong box into a yellow caboose at the Plainsburg railway depot. Colonel Cord McNally (John Wayne)awaits the train at Rocky Ford. He remains in close telegraph communication with Plainsburg and orders Lieutenant Ned Forsythe (Peter Jason of "They Live") to proceed with caution and remain inside the caboose until he bangs on the door. Meanwhile, Confederate soldiers have been monitoring the telegraph and prepare to rob the train. Specifically, they grease the railroad tracks that the Union train transporting a shipment of gold is traveling on and then hurl a hornet’s nest into the caboose where the troops stand guard over the strongbox. Between the hornets and the Confederate gunfire, the Union soldiers are either shot or bail out. After they smoke the hornets out of the caboose, Captain Pierre Cordona and his men uncouple the caboose from the rest of the engine and the wood car. Just to make sure that the locomotive cannot follow them, the Southerners blow of the engine’s steam. Talk about a slick piece of work. The rebels ride the caboose and flat car down the mountain and halt the runaway vehicle with heavy ropes stretched across the tracks, the same way the Navy used to suspend a net across their carrier decks to stop careening jets. As soon as they discover that the telegraph lines are down, McNally and his men ride breathlessly to the scene of the robbery, and McNally finds one of most dependable officers, Lieutenant Forsythe lying in a field with his neck broken. Forsythe's last words to McNally are "catch them will you." McNally and his men split up as they trail the rebels into the woods. The rebels single out McNally and take him prisoner, among the Confederates are Capt. Pierre Cordona aka Frenchy (Jorge Rivero of “Soldier Blue”) and Sgt. Tuscarora Phillips (Robert Mitchum’s son Christopher of “Big Jake”), who are both pretty handy with this six-shooters. Eventually, McNally outfoxes them and leads them into Union territory. He offers to release them if they divulge the identity of the traitor who has been giving them insider information about the gold shipments. Cordona and Phillips refuse and serve their time out in a prison camp.

After the war ends, McNally visits Cordona and Tuscarora as they are being discharged and buys them some drinks. The colonel still wants to know who sold him out because he refuses to tolerate treason. When Tuscarora asks him why he doesn’t bear a grudge against them, McNally reminds them that what they did constituted an act of war. Selling information is on the other hand treason and McNally wants to get the soldier in his command who sold his country out. McNally gives them some money to supplement the two dollars that Union authorities have given them so that they are head west. Cordona and Tuscarora agree to alert McNally when they have any useful information. The time between the prison scene and the subsequent scene in the Texas town of Blackthorne is compressed and McNally shows up in civilian garb in response to a summons from Cordona. No sooner does McNally show up than trouble breaks out because a bunch of deputies from Rio Lobo, operating out of their jurisdiction try to arrest a willowy girl, Shasta (Jennifer O’Neil of “Class of ’42) for questioning in connection with a snake oil medicine show she was running. Blackthorne Sheriff Pat Cronin (veteran character actor Bill Williams of “Son of Paleface”) tries to intervene, but the Rio Lobo thugs get the drop on him. One of the villains is none other than journalist George Plimpton in a cameo. Shasta pulls a derringer out of her purse under the table where she sits and fires through it, wounding Deputy Whitey Carter(Robert Donner of “High Plains Drifter”) while McNally disarms the gunman with a rifle (Plimpton) who stands behind him. Cordona appears half-dressed at the top of the stair in the saloon/hotel and helps gun down the opposition.

Cordona explains that the man that they think sold them the information about McNally’s gold trains is a wealthy rancher in Rio Lobo named Ketchum. Veteran heavy Victor French of “Charro!” is the slimy villain who is forcing everybody to sell their land at rock bottom prices. Ketchum has the notoriously corrupt sheriff, Blue Tom Hendricks (Mike Henry of the “Smokey and the Bandit” movies) on his payroll. Hendricks’ chief deputy is played by future “Dallas” patriarch Jim Davis. Shasta guides Cordona and McNally to Rio Lobo, and they arrive under cover of darkness. The next day McNally watches as couple of Blue Tom’s deputies give Tuscarora a beating, charge him with stealing his own horses, and lock him up. McNally, Shasta, and Cordona visit Tuscarora’s father’s ranch where Blue Tom's gunmen have besieged old man Phillips. Our heroes and heroine shoot their way into Phillips’ ranch and convince him to accompany them to Ketchum’s ranch. McNally catches up with Ketchum who he knows better as Sergeant Ike Gorman. He roughs up the former noncommissioned officer. Our heroes kidnap Ketchum after busting heads and shoot their way into Blue Tom’s jail to free Tuscarora. Meanwhile, Cordona heads off to fetch the U.S. Calvary, but the villains capture him and engineer an exchange, Cordona for Ketchum.

Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote both “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado,” contributed to Burton Wohl’s original script, and the result is a retread of many earlier scenes that have been altered to fit the new movie. Instead of the heroes slinging dynamite as they did against the villains in “Rio Bravo,” the villains get to sling dynamite at the heroes. Nevertheless, the pace is fast, the shoot-outs are vigorous enough, and the dialogue bristling with enough humor to make the all-too liesurely “Rio Lobo” a pleasure to watch. Nevertheless, "Rio Lobo" emerges as the least entry in this western trilogy. John Wayne is the only star left over from "Rio Bravo" and "El Dorado." "Rio Bravo" and "El Dorado" boasted famous co-stars. More importantly, "Rio Lobo" lacks a strong heroine like Angie Dickinson in "Rio Bravo." As a result, "Rio Lobo" seems almost lightweight and awkwardly comic by comparison. Future movie studio chief Sherry Lansing has a bit part as Amelita, a Mexican girl that Blue Tom disfigures. “Rio Lobo” has a solid plot and makes good use of foreshadowing. Of course, the real star is Howard Hawks' distinctive dialogue. Bob Steele and Don “Red” Barry have cameos.

FILM REVIEW OF ''THELMA & LOUISE" (1991)

The firestorm of controversy that erupted over the release of “Thelma & Louise” (**** out of ****) took British director Ridley Scott, first-time scenarist Callie Khouri, and principal co-stars Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis entirely by surprise. Men and women on both sides of the issue whether feminist activists or otherwise weighed in on the combustible argument. Some said it degraded men, and other heralded it as a testosterone-laced female manifesto, while still others “Time” magazine critic Richard Schickel devoted three pages to the “white-hot debate” seething “over whether Thelma & Louise” celebrated “liberated females, male bashers—or outlaws.” Schickel concluded that Scott’s film possessed “a curiously unselfconscious manner about it, an air of not being completely aware of its own subtexts or largest intentions, of being innocently open to interpretation, appropriate and otherwise.” Moreover, Schickel went on to say that its “makers, without quite knowing what they were doing, sank a drill into what appeared to be familiar American soil and found that they had somehow tapped into a wild-rushing subterranean stream of inchoate outrage and deranged violence. Indeed, when Scott decided to helm “Thelma & Louise,” he wanted to “raise this film from being about two girls in a car to something with a little bit more of a statement.” As for Khouri, she reacted to the male bashing assertions as “shocking.” Nevertheless, this gender bending controversy didn’t harm the box office. Budgeted at $6.5 million, “Thelma & Louise” generated $20 million in revenues in less than a month and eventually grossed $45 million. Ironically, despite its notoriety, Khouri noted later that “Thelma & Louise” didn’t open up more roles for women.

Fed-up coffee shop waitress Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) and her claustrophobic housewife friend Thelma Dickerson (Geena Davis of “Beetle Juice”) plan a weekend fishing trip. Louise has an on-again, off-again romance with a sweet-hearted musician boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen of “Reservoir Dogs”), who suffers from a commitment phobia. Meanwhile, Thelma contends with a domineering husband, carpet salesman Darryl (Christopher McDonald of “Grease 2”), who keeps her on a short leash. These gal pals load up Louise’s 1966 T-Bird convertible and paranoid-minded Thelma packs a gun. Our heroines don’t get very far before they slake their thirst at a country & western roadhouse with a band and dance floor. Thelma flirts with a charismatic redneck, Harlan (Timothy Carhart of “Witness”), who winds up assaulting her in the parking lot. Louise saves her girlfriend before Harlan can sodomize Thelma. Momentarily, everybody backs off in an uneasy truce. What we don’t learn about until later is Louise has concealed an incident in her past that she has never resolved. When the would-be rapist insults Louise with a derogatory dog reference, she shoots him dead cold dead on the spot without a qualm. Our heroines hightail it without a second thought.

Thelma insists that a jury would blame her for enticing Harlan with her flirtatious manner and provocative apparel. As fugitives on the lam, our protagonists embark on a cross-country journey through Oklahoma and New Mexico, carefully avoiding Texas, for the sanctuary of Mexico. Everything goes awry when they pick up a sexy, Stetson-wearing, denim-clad hitchhiker, J.D. (Brad Pitt of “True Romance”), who steals their money when Thelma has her mind on his hunky physique. At this point, Louise relinquishes her role as the stern mother figure and Thelma—who had been in the daughter figure role—takes it over. Since they have no money, Thelma decides to put into practice J.D.’s formula for robbing convenience stores to use and holds up a grocery store. Darryl is shocked when the FBI shows him the videotape of the robbery.

Thelma and Louise’s odyssey of liberation turns into a tragic manhunt in the tradition of the modern-day Kirk Douglas western “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) where a lone cowboy is chased by cars and helicopters across the wilderness. Eventually, a posse of heavily armed lawmen, among them a sympathetic Arkansas State Police investigator, Hal Slocumbe (Harvey Keitel of “Mean Streets”), who has tried to reason with them, corners them at the equivalent of the Grand Canyon. Rather that capitulating to justice and inevitable jail time, our heroines refuse to surrender. Literally, they take flight, launch themselves off a cliff, and plunge their car into the oblivion of a canyon and certain death. We never actually see them die. Scott concludes this larger-than-life epic on a freeze frame of the protagonists soaring through air in their automobile, reminiscent of George Roy Hill’s memorable freeze frame at the end of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when the heroes charge an army of soldiers. Appropriating the male bonding movie formula, “Thelma & Louise” reversed its sexuality so that women rather than men bonded, shared life-altering experiences, and savored a taste of freedom that neither sought to forsake despite the consequences. Previously, the buddy picture had been exclusive domain of men with examples such as “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” “The Sting,” and “Easy Rider.” Scott’s film, however, irrevocably changed the landscape, and nothing comparable to “Thelma & Louise” has been produced. Previously, Scott had made a pioneering foray into feminism with “Alien” (1986) when he cast Sigourney Weaver as the survivor. “Thelma & Louise” emerged as a cautionary tale about what can happen when men refuse to treat women with respect. Callie Khouri not only won the Oscar but also a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. Sarandon and Davis received Best Actress Oscar nominations as well as Golden Globe nods for their performances. Ridley Scott received a Best Director nomination for the Oscar as well as the C├ęsar--French equivalent of the Oscar. Amid all of the kudos for Khouri, Sarandon, Davis, and Scott, the most overlooked person in “Thelma & Louise” is actor Christopher McDonald who steals the show with his hilarious performance as Darryl, much of which was—according to Scott—improvised by McDonald on the set.