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STAGECOACH: THE TEXAS JACK STORY (Blu-ray)

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stagecoachcoverGrade: C-/?
Entire family: No
2016, 91 min., Color
Cinedigm
Not rated (would be PG for violence)
Aspect ratio: Widescreen (letterboxed)
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Before we board this stagecoach let’s get one thing out of the way: country singer Trace Adkins looks like a character you’d see in the Old West, but he’s not much of an actor. Neither are some of the others who mouth poorly written lines or chew scenery in Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story.

Sometimes I’m hard on writers for dragging a movie down, but with this low-budget ($2.2 million) 2016 Western it’s the acting that mostly pulls you out of the experience and reminds you you’re watching a movie . . . and a slightly below average one at best.

stagecoachscreen1In the beginning, the film, shot in HD, looks promising enough, with some interesting camera work and a gritty, realistic depiction of a stagecoach robbery. But then it gets schmaltzy in the next sequence as we fast forward years later and see a level of domesticity and niceties you got from ‘50s sitcoms like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Nathaniel Reed (Adkins) has put his past behind him and is a hardworking man now who’s married to the local teacher (Michelle Harrison, The Flash). They want to start a family, but times are tough (when weren’t they, for average folks?) and the villainy is shifted to the bank, which is ready to foreclose on them.

From those clichés and cheesy moments the tone shifts again as the film becomes unintentionally funny with the appearance of a one-eyed marshal named Calhoun (Kim Coates), a former victim of the stagecoach robbers who now has a female sidekick —the two of them acting as if they’d been cast as The Joker and Harley Quinn or characters in a Tarantino movie. Robbing a stagecoach suddenly seems less of a crime than scene stealing as these two monologue and methodically pursue the individual members of the gang that robbed him when he was working for the stagecoach line.

stagecoachscreen2“You shoot my eye out, that makes you guilty,” he drawls. Lines like that kind of tickle the funnybone, as does “It’s gonna take a lot more than dyin’ to kill Sid Dalton” or “There’s a bad hombre after us.” In fairness, there’s an inconsistency in the dialogue, with some lines ringing true and others seeming labored or studied or unintentionally funny—but that inconsistency draws attention to the dialogue, or rather, the way that those lines are delivered.

Adkins is stiff and his lines feel as if they’re labored; without a recognizable name he’d be an extra at best, rather than the outlaw-turned-respectable-turned-outlaw-with-an-alias. Meanwhile, Coates is over-the-top and flamboyant by comparison. As foils, they make for a curious pair, and they draw attention to the fact that they’re both acting.

Another head-snapper is the disjointed time sequence. After establishing a straight progression forward suddenly it goes from “Three Weeks Later” to “Two Weeks Earlier.” Huh?

Put it this way:  there are far better Westerns out there.

Language: Just Westernisms
Sex: Nope
Violence: People shot at close range, people beaten and bloodied, hand-to-hand fighting
Adult situations: Not as much drinking or swearing or chewing tobacco as some Westerns
Takeaway: Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story feels like a movie that could have been so much better with better casting and a few changes in the script

JOHNNY GUITAR (Blu-ray)

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johnnyguitarcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
1954, 110 min., Color
Olive Films
Unrated (would be PG for adult themes and some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (full widescreen)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: A-
Trailer
Amazon link

In 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee interrogated members of Hollywood about alleged Communists in the film industry, and the “Hollywood Ten” refused to cooperate—which resulted in their being blacklisted and unable to work again in their profession. Even into the early 1950s, those “Red Menace” flames were fanned by Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose unsubstantiated claims that there were huge numbers of Soviet spies and sympathizers living among us sparked additional modern-day witchhunts.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible—his dramatization of the Salem witch trials—as an allegory criticizing McCarthyism, and anyone who knows history and watches the 1954 Western Johnny Guitar will recognize it as another allegory, one that references not only the idea of the McCarthy-style witch hunt but also Miller’s play. It’s hard not see in the “funeral attire” of a posse and the firebrand reformer of a woman who leads them a pretty exact match with the stark black-and-white dress of the Puritans who tried women as witches simply because another woman—jealous, perhaps—“accused” her of witchcraft. Accusation was enough to justify burning at the stake, and that same lack of tolerance and lack of due process drives this intelligent Western, which also features a “burning.”

johnnyguitarscreen2So what does that mean for family TV night? Well, Johnny Guitar isn’t a guilty pleasure, that’s for sure. It’s not the kind of movie you pop in for mindless entertainment. It’s not a typical formulaic Western with a strong male hero rescuing a damsel in distress. This revisionist Western features a strong female protagonist and big fight at the end that pits one strong woman against another. There’s gunplay, certainly, but as in High Noon—another intellectual Western—it’s measured, and a direct result of character. Compared to other Westerns, Johnny Guitar is high art—richly atmospheric and with noir elements that will remind viewers of such dramatic films as Key Largo. It’s directed by is directed by Nicholas Ray, who also gave us Rebel without a Cause, and fans of James Dean will see similarities here as well. All of which make this Western—which French critics collectively pronounced one of the best of all time—family viewing only if you have teenagers who can appreciate thoughtful and well-constructed films that aren’t made for the masses.

johnnyguitarscreen1Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a former saloon “girl”—a woman who survived by giving pleasure to men, though nothing so blunt is ever specifically stated. Through a series of events that also are left to our imaginations, Vienna has raised herself up. She once worked in a saloon, but now she owns a saloon isolated in the foothills apart from a small cattle town. She’s at odds with the townspeople, not only because of morality—Emma Small (as in small-minded?) wants to drive her away—but because she’s working with the railroad to run tracks through her property and build a depot right there by her saloon.

In a nod to TV Westerns and B movies, a stagecoach is held up by a gang, and the town accuses Vienna of being in cahoots with The Dancin’ Kid and his boys, which memorably include young Turkey (Ben Cooper) and crusty Bart (Ernest Borgnine). But this is an “iceberg” Western, with most of it lurking beneath the surface. Every character has a back story that viewers are invited to figure out, and to speculate about the relationship between Vienna and Emma, between The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and both women, among the “gang” members, and between Vienna and the unarmed stranger (Sterling Hayden) who rides into town with a guitar slung on his back. For that matter, Johnny Guitar invites you to speculate on the notion of power and who has it in this town—the head of the cattlemen (Ward Bond), the marshal (Frank Ferguson), or Emma as the voice of all things “proper.” And why does Vienna really want that railroad to go right past her saloon?

Johnny Guitar was added to the National Film Registry in 2008, and it truly is “culturally, historically” and “aesthetically” significant. Aside from the allegorical elements there’s much to appreciate and discuss about the film’s structure and the ways in which it plays with Western clichés, or the way it offers a feminist, revisionist take on the West. It’s the kind of movie that you discuss with your kids, rather than crack jokes during the film—though it might be hard not to joke briefly about Mercedes McCambridge’s performance as Emma, a fanatic who acts wild-eyed crazy, or even the harsh-featured Crawford, who plays her character like a strong-and-silent male Western hero. Yet, while the style of acting borders on the melodramatic, as was common at the time, the heady elements keep it from being unintentionally funny. Director Ray uses atmosphere and sparse dialogue to create and sustain a tension that holds you until the end credits. And for a 1954 film aimed at making a statement about politics run amuck, that’s a pretty good feat.

Olive Films has been quietly building a catalog of old films, but with this release they launch Olive Signature—“the next generation of fan-centered entertainment.” It’s their version of the Criterion Collection, with a handsome slipcase and a barrel of bonus features that draws upon the knowledge of film historians and admirers like Martin Scorsese. A full-color booklet includes a terrific essay on “Johnny Guitar: The First Existentialist Western,” and the print itself looks and sounds great in HD. It’s a wonderful release that’s aimed at intelligent people who can appreciate intelligent films. Especially if your teens are reading The Crucible in high school they might appreciate watching this one.

Language: Nothing much; “tramp” is as bad as it gets
Sex: None, though everything simmers below the surface and is so subtle that children won’t get it
Violence: Several people are shot and killed, but old-school style, no blood; there’s also one lynching with the camera turning away during the crucial moment
Adult situations: Pretty much the entire film; it takes place in a saloon, so there you go
Takeaway: The more you watch this Western, the more you see, and its allegoric message is still sadly appropriate today

TRADED (Blu-ray)

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TradedcoverGrade: C- at best
Entire family: No
2016, 98 min., Color
Not Rated: Would be PG for violence and adult situations
Cinedigm
Aspect ration: 16×9 widescreen (letterboxed)
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Even though Westerns aren’t as popular as they once were, especially with young viewers, you’d think a Western version of Taken might win a few new converts. And Traded might have, if the writing and acting were better.

Clichés roll like tumbleweeds in this drama starring Michael Paré as a retired gunfighter now living as a rancher with a wife, an older teenage daughter named Lily (Brittany Elizabeth Williams) and a young son named Jake (Hunter Fischer). But familiarity isn’t the problem. Every Western is built on clichés. A good one makes you forget those clichés; a bad one makes those clichés stand out like the neck hair on a rabid dog.

Kids need characters to identify with, and unlike Shane, you lose the boy just a half-hour into the film when he’s killed by a rattlesnake—which almost comes as a relief, because the over-the-top family wholesomeness will strike today’s families as being trying-too-hard hokey. The family in Act 1 of Traded is more like the Flanders family in The Simpsons than the wholesome-but-believable Ingalls family in Little House on the Prairie.

Tradedscreen1When Lily is kidnapped by white slavers working as brothel suppliers and his wife Amelia (Constance Brenneman) has a breakdown, Clay Travis chooses to go after his daughter. That’s when you hope he also leaves the hokiness in his dust, but nope, it follows him to Wichita and then Dodge City. An exchange with a saloon owner (Tom Sizemore) and a face-off with a tough brothel owner (Trace Adkins) have the same kind of hokey dialogue as the opening sequences, and even the normally charismatic Kris Kristofferson can’t get past the bad writing as he plays an older bartender who provides help.

The look of Traded is authentic enough, helped considerably by location shooting in California and New Mexico and believable interior sets, but only a few moments stand out—like the scene where Travis tells a man to take his glasses off before he punches him, or when he wails on a bad dad and in so doing earns the help of the man’s teenage daughter. But scenes like those only serve to remind you that the rest of it is all pretty tedious and riddled with poor dialogue—so surface obvious that you find yourself wondering if the problem is with the lines themselves or the acting. Either way, director Timothy Woodward Jr. seems uneasily comfortable proceeding.

There aren’t enough plot twists for me to talk about narrative thrust without revealing too much, but though the action picks up in the third act I found Traded hard going. The West would have been easier, I found myself thinking. And my kids? No one had to kidnap them. They left the room voluntarily after the first confrontation didn’t up the ante enough for them.

Language: Some mild swearwords and old-timey Western equivalents
Sex: Nothing graphic, but prostitutes and brothels are shown
Violence: The obligatory Western showdown plus other gun and fist violence scattered throughout
Adult situations: drinking, smoking, houses of ill-repute
Takeaway: With a great premise, it’s surprising a film like this didn’t fare better. I blame the writers, and feel sorry for the actors whose performances seem boxed in by bad writing and scenic construction

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (Blu-ray)

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SheWoreaYellowRibboncoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
1949, 103 min., Color
Warner Archive Collection
Not Rated (would be PG for violence and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is the second in the so-called Cavalry Trilogy of legendary director John Ford. It’s also the only one shot in color and the last of the three to finally make it onto Blu-ray—available now from the Warner Archive Collection and at Amazon.com. While it doesn’t offer the same psychological character study as Fort Apache (1948) or the classic first pairing of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara moviegoers saw in Rio Grande (1950), it still features one of John Wayne’s favorite performances, and Ford’s slow-boil of a plot keeps picking up steam once the film hits the 20-minute mark.

That might be a little late for a young generation of viewers coming to old Technicolor Westerns for the first time, but this film is part of America’s heritage. Like it or not, imperialist or not, America’s westward expansion put settlers in conflict with Native Americans, and it was up to the U.S. Cavalry to protect and serve. Ford obviously had a soft spot for the men in blue, but his treatment of the American West can sometimes seem contradictory. In Fort Apache he cast Henry Fonda as a stubborn commander obviously patterned after George Armstrong Custer—so much so that the commander forces his troops into a near-identical “last stand.” But in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a voiceover tells us that Custer and his men were just massacred and word of a massive Indian uprising was worrying even outposts in the southwest. What was treated as foolhardy in the first film is paid tribute to in the second.

Ford was a stickler for authenticity, though, and you’ll marvel at shots of horses and riders and even horse-drawn wagons going over rough terrain. The backdrop is the dramatic Monument Valley, where Ford filmed at and around the Navajo reservation, insisting on employing the Navajo as extras instead of hiring whites made to look like Indians, as was still common at the time. Ford was so respectful and appreciative of the Navajo that one harsh winter he airlifted supplies at his own expense so the people and their livestock wouldn’t perish. Yet, apart from a single scene in which Wayne’s character talks with an Indian chief, the Indians get less respect this outing.

SheWoreaYellowRibbonscreenThe situation in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is this: Capt. Nathan Brittles (Wayne in make-up that aged him 20 years) is counting down the days until he retires from the Cavalry. For his last mission he’s sent to try to contain a group of renegade Cheyenne and Arapaho that have joined forces and have attacked settlers in the area. But with danger mounting, Brittles’ commanding officer also orders him to take along his wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece (Joanne Dru) in a wagon to meet the eastbound stage to safety. The niece, meanwhile, seems more interested in toying with the affections of two young officers—the nine-year veteran 1st Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and the rich and relatively green 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.). She wears a yellow ribbon in her hair, which signifies that she has a beau in the Cavalry, but won’t say which one she’s wearing it for.

The more you know about this film, the more you can appreciate it. The Monument Valley footage is stunning, especially in 1080p, and though Winton Hoch won an Oscar for his cinematography he was constantly at odds with Ford, who at one point ordered him to keep filming as a thunderstorm approached, despite Hoch’s concerns about the equipment acting as lightning rods. The West was wild, and Ford Westerns, especially those starring Wayne, have at least one character who drinks too much and a number of them who enjoy fistfights as much as drinking. In the Cavalry Trilogy it’s the highly likable Irish Sgt. Quincannon, though the equally likable Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson) balances the scales by not taking tobacco or alcohol. But it’s all about the soldier’s life, with an emphasis on honor and sacrifice and those comic fights that relieve the tension of serving in an outpost in the middle of nowhere.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is sentimental and nostalgic, a paean to Cavalry life on the frontier, and yet there’s something rousing, still, when the soldiers sing the title song as they ride off for what might be the last time. And Wayne is himself an American classic, as much as Ford and Monument Valley. Those are three great reasons for watching this film, at least once. Another is to give families a chance to talk about such things as changing attitudes. In this Western, there’s great respect for opponents and people who fought for other causes. Those who rode with the grey in the Civil War are still given the same measure of respect . . . and the Confederate flag, now widely banned, was placed atop the coffin of a soldier in one scene. Add to that attitudes towards America’s treatment of the Indians and it should make for a provocative discussion. Even one of Brittles’ mottos—“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness”—might prompt a family debate.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: Off-camera, mostly, except for a scene where one gunrunner is shot with an arrow and another is thrown repeatedly into a fire by the Indians
Adult situations: Drinking, cigars, and chewing tobacco
Takeaway: If your children are resistant to black-and-white and The Searchers is a little too intense and intensely racist, this film is probably the best to introduce them to John Ford and John Wayne’s American West

HOW THE WEST WAS WON: SEASON 2 (DVD)

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HowtheWestwasWoncoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
1978-79, 900 min. (14 episodes), Color
Not rated; would be PG for some violence and adult situations
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: None

What does the star of an iconic TV Western do after the series ends its 20-year run? If that star is James Arness, he goes right from Gunsmoke to How the West Was Won, turning in his marshal’s badge to hobble around bowlegged as cagey frontier scout Zeb Macahan.

Gunsmoke left the small screen after the 1974-75 season, and the following year Arness donned fringed buckskins to play Zeb Macahan in a TV movie. That realistic, location-shot film was so popular that it led to a mini-series in 1977, and a bona fide TV series in 1978. But Westerns were on their way out. Gunsmoke was the #1 TV show in America from 1957 to 1960, but How the West Was Won only managed to place 11th its first season, four places behind Little House on the Prairie—the only other Western to crack the Top 30 shows. After that, it dropped out of the Nielsen elite, leaving Little House on the Prairie as the only popularly watched Western. It was clearly the end of an era.

Partly, though, it was because the blend of realism and melodrama that sustained How the West Was Won its first two outings started to tip more toward melodrama by the second season. And Arness, who was so genially believable as the crusty Zeb Macahan, develops a slight case of John Wayne syndrome this season, with his performance at times resembling a caricature of his character.

That said, Season 2 is still a cut above the average TV Western.  More

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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LittleHouse2coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family:  Yes
1975-76, 1080 min. (22 episodes), Color
Lionsgate
Not rated: Would be G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Includes: Blu-ray (5 discs), UV Copy
Bonus features: C-
Today Show reunion clip

My ‘tweenage daughter doesn’t like historical dramas, isn’t a fan of westerns, and loves fashion so much that it’s like fingernails-on-the-chalkboard to watch the Ingalls girls parade about in their dowdy homemade calico pioneer dresses and bonnets. But she liked Little House on the Prairie: Season 2 enough to want to keep watching one episode after the other, and to shelve it in our collection for future play.

This wholesome family TV series from the ‘70s still has broad appeal, as you can see from the clip of the cast reuniting on The Today Show (link above) to promote the release of the Blu-ray on Season 1 and now Season 2.

The first season was more the authentic pioneer experience, as Pa and Ma Ingalls (Michael Landon, Karen Grasse) moved their brood of three daughters from Wisconsin to Kansas and finally Minnesota. There were Indians and hardships of every kind, and the emphasis was on the family’s journey and settlement.

The popular series was based on the juvenile books by Laura Ingalls Wilder that told of her family’s adventures on the newly expanding American frontier—books like Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and By the Shores of Silver Lake. The TV series ran for nine seasons, but by Season 2 the plots were already shifting from pioneer-specific storylines to ones that viewers may have seen elsewhere and could actually identify with better.   More

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE: SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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LittleHouse1coverGrade: B+
1974-75, 1,260 min. (24 episodes), Color
Lionsgate
Not rated: Would be PG for moments of peril and some drinking
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Includes: Blu-ray (5 discs), UV Copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

If your children like historical dramas and love imagining what life would have been like during pioneer times, there’s no better place to start than the Little House on the Prairie TV series. So many ‘70s shows feel dated or corny now, but this series—loosely based on the children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder—still plays well. It’s a deftly written, convincingly acted series that’s not afraid to tug at your heartstrings, but also tosses in a dose or two of reality. Not everyone rides a horse or drives a buggy, for example. There is a sizable population that walks everywhere—even great distances—because they aren’t affluent enough to do anything else. And when a hailstorm wipes out all the wheat, farmers everywhere have to leave their families and look for work in faraway places, or they’ll lose the farm and the family will starve.

Little House on the Prairie stars Michael Landon in his post-Bonanza and pre-Highway to Heaven role as the patriarch of a family of females who move from Wisconsin to Kansas and finally end up in Minnesota. The emphasis in this series is on family and family values before such a term came into existence. It’s wholesome, heart-warming, and full of life lessons.

The two-hour pilot, included here, is the most potentially traumatic, so if your family has small or sensitive children I’d start with Episode 1 instead and watch the whole season before suggesting, “Hey, would anyone like to see how the Ingalls came to Plum Creek?” after the children already know that everyone’s okay. There’s a time in the pilot when a family member is thought drowned, as well as several moments of menace that come as a result of wolves and Caroline Ingalls (Karen Grasse) and the girls’ encounter with Indians while Charles is off hunting.

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