By Marc S. Sanders

David Carradine plays Woody Guthrie in Bound For Glory, directed by Hal Ashby.  It’s a magnificent performance in a well-constructed film especially by the standards available in 1976, and still today in 2022.  Yet, am I capable of showering the film with additional accolades?

My first viewing of the Oscar nominated picture occurred with my Cinephile pals (Thomas Pahl, Anthony Jason and Miguel Rodriguez).  More or less, we all had the same reaction.  The film is as slow moving as much as the slow-moving trek that Guthrie embarks on from his dustbowl home town of Pampa, Texas all the way to California.  Guthrie is a musician, especially when he’s strumming a guitar and he’s altogether attractive to anyone within earshot as he seemingly makes up the lyrics to his Depression-era Americana songs on the fly.  Anyone reading this has certainly heard of “This Land Is Your Land.”

Woody is married to Mary (Melinda Dillon) with two children, and as the film opens in 1936, his hometown is flat broke.  There are no jobs anywhere.  Families are abandoning their homes that they can’t afford to maintain.  Literally, no one has two nickels to rub together.  It also doesn’t help that the town and outlying areas are plagued with monstrous dust storms.  Ashby with legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler offer up a caption of one such storm towering over the town like a terrible tsunami.  Even on Blu Ray, this is eye opening.  It’s a magnificent visual effect that took me completely by surprise. 

Shortly thereafter, Woody ups and leaves his family with just a note saying he’ll send for them once he settles down in California.  I can only guess he’s looking for a better life, and I can only presume California is the promised land of wealth and well…glory!  I don’t recall a prior conversation that praises the state as the land of milk and honey.

Wexler spoils the viewer with countless moments of scenic design as the film moves on.  We follow Guthrie as he walks the endless roads towards the west with nothing to hold in his hands.  He hops on cars that pass by.  He also hitches rides upon locomotives heading in the western direction.  Ashby reminds us that the sojourn is not easy. Seems like everyone has the same idea in mind as Woody; looking for a better way of life. Fights for sitting space on train cars break out.  Authorities try to shoot stowaways off the trains, and the best place to hide is maybe on the roof of the train, or simply hanging on to a ladder with your elbow painfully folded over, as the train moves on.

Whenever I watch a film, I try to make a habit not to look at the time.  If I do, I feel like I’ve broken the wall of the environment I should be immersed in.  I kept to my rule on this film, but Guthrie’s journey takes so long, that I truly thought once he reached California, that would be the end of the picture.  Not so.  There was at least another hour to go.  Wow, did this thing move at a snail’s pace.  Woody arrives and gets into episodes of infidelity, and more importantly he bonds with another strummer named Ozark Blue (Ronny Cox), who travels the state singing in support of a union for the poor and destitute working odd jobs on farms and railroads earning only pennies by the day.  Woody eagerly takes up the cause even as he is becoming a pop sensation on the radio.  The fight for the rights of the poor becomes so passionate for him that he butts heads with the radio big wigs who insist on knowing what he’s going to sing about on air, to ensure the wealthy sponsors remain happy. 

I read briefly afterwards that much of what is depicted in Bound For Glory is actually not true to Woody Guthrie’s story.  My buddies felt a little betrayed knowing that.  I still don’t know what is and isn’t accurate.  I dismissed all of that, though.  What fascinated me was the technical work of the film.  When David Carradine is leaping on to a moving train or jumping off of it, that’s really him.  We also uncovered that along with Rocky, also released in 1976, Ashby’s picture was one of the first to use a Steadicam and the output is marvelous.  Ashby with Wexell’s lens is unbelievably impressive.  They capture Carradine walk through an ocean of extras while strumming the guitar and singing in the moment; his voice never cracking and all happening in one take.  Carradine is seen standing in between train cars and lying on top of them with the rising or dawning sun in the foreground.  The film delivers a literal moving picture to Woody Guthrie’s most famous song “This Land Is Your Land.”  For a film made in the mid-1970s I certainly believed what was captured was genuine to the mid-1930s. 

Ashby also seemed to be inspired by the The Grapes Of Wrath.  Numerous cars of the time are disproportionally stacked with furniture like dressers, kitchen chairs and tables, along with knapsacks and sleeping bags, while the raggedly clothed children hang out the window or sit on top.  A nipple bottle top is attached to a glass Coke bottle for a baby to drink from.  If you are looking for reference material of what it was like to live in the times of the Depression, look no further than Bound For Glory.

I can’t say I will rush back to watch this film again.  The story never grasped me.  I was waiting for that special turnaround moment to come that would perk up my interest.  It just never arrived.  There’s no question, however, that the merits of the piece stem from the set design and camera work at play.  It is absolutely jaw dropping.  Woody Guthrie’s story, though, not so much.  He had faults. We learn he is not a devoted family man (something we’ve seen many times over in countless stories), and his drive to fight for the rights of the working man doesn’t appear to stretch very far.  After nearly 2 hours and twenty minutes, Guthrie up and decides to resume his countrywide walkabout on trains to sing in devotion for the working class across the country, but beyond a favorite camp fire song, what else did he truly accomplish?  There’s never a time when he sways the authority to see it his way, and there’s never an announcement that a union is established in direct response to Woody’s movement.  At best, we are offered Randy Quaid in a small role as a one of the poor family men who reminds Woody to keep doing what he’s doing.  However, that’s a staple of any biography film really, and in pictures like Malcolm X or The Last Emperor, it seemed that much more effective. 

Maybe there was more to Woody Guthrie.  I just didn’t feel that Bound For Glory illustrated much beyond the song we all know and love.  So, was that enough? 


By Marc S. Sanders

Not until December 25, 2021, had I seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  Friends and colleagues couldn’t believe it, the same way they can’t believe I’ve never eaten a cheeseburger.  I’m not a big Chevy Chase fan.  I think the one film I like of his, because of him, is Neil Simon’s Seems Like Old Times.  The guy is just not a draw for me.  My fellow Cinephiles (Thomas Pahl, Miguel Rodriguez and Anthony Jason) introduced me to Fletch earlier this year.  Wow, did that movie start with a really interesting premise that just stumbled like 2,000-pound stone slowly sinking to the bottom of a very deep and empty sand trap.  The film didn’t work because of Chevy Chase.  Once it got past its exposition, Fletch relied too heavily on boring and unfunny schtick from a very unfunny Chevy Chase.  I was waiting for Christmas Vacation to fall into that same trap.  For a fraction of the film, thankfully, it didn’t.

By and large, what works with Christmas Vacation is because of its writer John Hughes, who writes with the consistency of humor that worked in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and especially Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  The slapstick is most apparent here, then in other Hughes film released before.  (Home Alone would win that record title a year later, of course.)  As I said, Christmas Vacation relies entirely on the slapstick element.  There is no sensitive allowance for warm hugs or coming of age realizations and character arcs.  Clark Griswold gets in one predicament after another.  Like a mediocre Three Stooges short, some of those predicaments work.

Pun intended, the biggest highlight is when Clark decorates his Chicago suburb home with an infinite number of lights, eventually disrupting the next-door neighbors intimate candlelit dinner and blinding them into pratfalls.  The timing is pure John Hughes craftsmanship; John Hughes…not Chevy Chase

Stupid set ups include Clark getting trapped in the attic, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, as well as him hanging from the outside gutters and losing control of a tall ladder.  What works in these moments are what worked for the humor in Ferris Bueller with the school principal character, or Steve Martin’s character in Planes, Trains… .  Clark tries to come up with a way to get out and tip toe across the floor beams of the attic, trying to avoid a haphazard accident in the process.  The floors creak.  The items he finds in the attic squeak and grind.  When he’s hanging from the gutter, the rusty piece of metal is gradually giving way as he holds on for dear life.  I appreciated the prop humor.  The victim might be Chevy Chase, but that could’ve been anybody.  I guess sometimes, the pie is funnier than the one who gets it in the face.  So, there are moments that work.  I like the beginning as well where the dumb patriarch takes his family out to the forest to literally cut down a tree and then carries his optimism that he can actually fit it in the living room.  Moe, Larry and Curly had this kind of positivity when they convinced the Hoi Polloi that they could repair a plumbing problem in a mansion.

Much doesn’t work here either, though.  An overabundance of relatives show up to celebrate the holiday.  The set up is the same as in Hughes’ first film, Sixteen Candles.  However, in that film, each grandparent was given a moment to stand out among the masses.  Christmas Vacation doesn’t capitalize on that so much despite great talent that features Diane Ladd, Doris Roberts and EG Marshall.  No relative is a given a personality or unique and humorous annoyance.

The most remembered relative is Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie, but honestly, I found nothing funny about the guy and I thought he only served for irritated facial expressions to capture Chevy Chase in close up.  I know.  I know.  Before seeing this film, I was well aware of the “Shitter’s full” routine.  Okay.  Okay. Shit, poop, doodie, whatever you want to call it is funny.  Shit is God’s endless joke on the living beings he/she/they created.  A two word sentence of dialogue while draining a hose full of shit does not a movie make, though.  Otherwise, there is nothing marvelous about Randy Quaid in this film or the other relative extras that appear.  Clark’s (third time recast) kids could have also been funny but the script doesn’t let them.  There was just no material for these people on the page.  We know how pitch perfect actors like Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki have become over their careers.  I’d argue they are funnier and more talented actors than Chevy Chase ever was, but like the other supporting players the script didn’t consider the talent.  Beverly D’Angelo is back as Clark’s wife too.  Moving on…

I could have had regretted watching this film.  I finally, finally, FINALLY gave in per the insistence of practically everyone I know, on a whim, when I saw it available on HBO Max.  I don’t regret watching it.  Truly I don’t.  Yet, I don’t feel better having done so either.  Christmas Vacation is not an all-time great comedy or holiday film.  I don’t believe it did anything for anyone’s career.  Notice I didn’t mention the director’s name, because it doesn’t matter and I haven’t heard from that guy since this picture.

The film is just there, I guess, and as each passing December comes and goes, it is awarded new life…. unlike the electrocuted, exploding cat that perishes under a love seat.  Now that’s funny! Thankfully, this precious feline gave up his lives for a chuckle from me.  Had it been Chevy Chase though, then this review might have gone in another direction.


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Randy Quaid, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 87% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The story of a taboo romantic relationship between two cowboys, and their lives over the years.

Brokeback Mountain is the kind of movie that makes me wish I was a better communicator, like Lost in Translation.  I know I love these movies, I know WHY I love these movies, but it’s difficult for me to put into words.

Brokeback is, of course, the movie that will forever be known among the snark peddlers as “that gay cowboy movie,” which is insultingly reductive.  That’s like referring to Star Wars as “that space movie.”  To reduce the movie to those terms is to totally ignore the boundless riches to be had by watching it, I mean really watching it.

For one thing, damn, just LOOK at it.  Look at the way the skies fill the frame, with clouds hanging heavily over the mountains and the dusty streets and the trailer parks.  Director Ang Lee makes the sky into a tangible character all its own, much like Kubrick did with the Overlook Hotel.  It infuses every outdoor scene with a sense of the largeness of the world around us.  It’s a fitting backdrop for the intimate story presented to us.  In fact, those huge scenic backdrops are kind of a throwback to the ‘70s, to the films of Cimino and Arthur Penn and Bertolucci, when painting a picture with the camera was two-thirds of the story.  Virtually every outdoor scene in Brokeback Mountain is worthy of framing in an art gallery.  Stupendous.

The movie turns on the story of two men who unexpectedly and passionately fall in love in 1963, a time when gay love was still taboo, at least in polite society, and especially in any given cowboy community.  But as the story winds its way through almost twenty years in the lives of these men, it becomes less about the FACT of their affair, and more about the enormous sense of yearning and loss that comes from desperately wanting something that you can’t have.  Who among us has never felt that kind of insane desire?  Not necessarily for a person, even, but for anything at all?  A crippled man who longs to walk, or a blind man who yearns to see.  A dream job.  A dream vacation.  That’s what this movie is about.

Heath Ledger delivers the performance that really put him on the map.  His portrayal of Ennis Del Mar is incredibly subtle, although his Western accent flirts with impenetrability at times.  I love the way he shambles and mumbles through his role, virtually the entire movie, which pays off in that fantastic scene by the lake (“I wish I knew how to quit you!”) when this hulk of a man is torn down by his own unspoken passion.

Again…I’m not a poet, so this really doesn’t quite get at the mood generated by the movie.  It’s no feel-good film, that’s for sure, but it’s worth seeing by anyone who loves world-class storytelling.  Don’t let anyone, or your own preset notions, steer you different.