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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Producer Irwin Allen hit a home run in his first at-bat in the disaster genre with "The Poseidon Adventure," a terrific suspense classic that actually looks as good today as it did upon its release in 1972.
The plot is simple: a tidal wave hits a huge luxury liner in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. When the ship capsizes, a small group of survivors must climb their way UP to the bottom of the ship in the hopes that rescuers can cut through the hull and rescue them. Since the entire crew of the ship has apparently been killed, an outcast minister named Rev. Scott (Gene Hackman), who is borderline psychotic and holds some incredibly unconventional views about God and his influence on mankind, assumes leadership of the group. Scott's chief rival is a gruff and bitter cop named Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), who is travelling with his nasty, foul-mouthed ex-hooker wife Linda (Stella Stevens). Other survivors include an elderly Jewish couple (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), a teenage girl and her young brother (Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea), a middle-age bachelor (Red Buttons), a pop singer (Carol Lynley), and a crewman (Roddy MacDowell). Of course, the suspense all revolves around who will live and who will die.
While the characters for the most part are stereotypes, what makes "The Poseidon Adventure" stand apart from other films of its type is the strong plot and the utter unconventionality of its lead character. Gene Hackman, coming off his Oscar win for "The French Connection," is absolutely sensational as Rev. Scott, a minister who doesn't believe in prayer and actually sees it as a sign of weakness. He believes that God has put man on Earth to fend for himself and has given him a brain to figure things out for himself. I honestly have never seen quite a character on film before or since, and the religious subtext actually gives the film additional meaning beyond the standard thrills and chills. He may be psychotic, but the man makes sense, at least in this predicament.
Most of the rest of the cast is also quite good, with Borgnine making an excellent sparring partner for Hackman, and Stevens having her finest on-screen hour as the hilariously unpleasant Linda. I also liked the burgeoning relationship between Buttons and Lynley, who are quite touching in their loneliness. And then there's audience favorite Shelley Winters as Belle, a nosy (and obese) Jewish grandmother. Winters managed to get an Oscar nomination for this role, but let's face it: she's just a teeny-bit terrible in this one-note role. And the kids are ridiculously out-of-place here: why would parents put their kids on a luxury liner instead of flying them to Greece? Its obvious they are around solely for audience sympathy. It doesn't help that young Eric Shea is so obnoxious as the young brother you may very well find yourself wishing he had drowned with the rest of the passengers.
Then there's Leslie Neilsen as the ship's captain. At the time a serious actor, it's impossible now to keep a straight face watching this master clown in this serious role. You keep expecting him to break into slapstick mode, even though you know he's playing it straight. Regardless, he's believably authoritative in the role. But you'll still laugh.
If I have one negative thing to say about "The Poseidon Adventure," it's that the establishing scenes, in which the characters are introduced, are pretty bad, laughable even. But once the ship capsizes, the film turns into topnotch entertainment, with fabulous Oscar-winning special effects that still are convincing today.
Irwin Allen followed this one up with the even better disaster epic "The Towering Inferno." Together, they make a terrific, if day-long, double feature. Forget "Titanic." "The Poseidon Adventure" remains the top of the maritime class. ***1/2 (out of *****)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In 1974, Disney studios tried for a hip generation gap comedy with the
"Superdad." Unfortunately, the film is anything but "hip," even for the
early 1970's. In fact, it is, was, and always will be hopelessly dated,
even for the era.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD
This rock-bottom dud stars Bob Crane as Charlie, happily married father of Wendy (Kathleen Cody). Wendy is a lovely teenager who is involved with a laid-back surfer named Bart (Kurt Russell) and hangs out with an aimless lot of beach bunnies right out of a '60's beach party movie. His wife Sue (Barbara Rush) is an amiable sort who likes her daughter's friends, but Charlie wants Wendy to dump them all and go to college, not to get an education but to find a rich husband, preferably a doctor or lawyer.
One day while watching a relationship-oriented talk show (definitely NOT in the Jerry Springer mode) he takes a psychologist's advice and decides to join his daughter's gang at the beach, which leads to typical Disney slapstick of the era. In short, the day is a disaster and he's even more determined to separate Wendy from her friends. This leads to an ill-conceived plan to ship her off to a private college on a bogus "scholarship." When Wendy learns of the plan, and that Bart figured it out and said nothing, she disowns them both. Charlie and Bart spend the rest of the film trying to win her back.
All this may sound well-and-good in print, but on film it's absolutely dreadful. The film plays like a relic from the '60's, especially when Wendy becomes involved with a ridiculous, stereotyped hippie loser named "Clutch." To have this beautiful, level-headed and intelligent young woman become involved with such a loathsome, idiotic loser throws credibility to the wind. Also, Wendy's gang is way too nice and squeaky clean, and Bart is polite, clean-cut and respectful, so Charlie's distaste for them makes Charlie look like an idiot, which isn't the point.
The film is also episodic, badly paced, and wastes a good performance by the great Joe Flynn, who is hilarious (once again) as Charlie's boss. Flynn, who died less than a year after this film was released, deserved better. And Russell, who has matured into one of our finest and most reliable actors, scores with a forceful and professional performance. But don't get me started about the incredible waste of the lovely Rush, who is given absolutely nothing to do but be incredibly supportive of her idiot husband. As for the gang, only Bruno Kirby and Ed Begley, Jr. went on to careers of any note. The rest, well, are better left forgotten.
In short, bad writing, choppy direction and incredibly dated situations leads to a film that should have been called "Superdud."
* (out of *****)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD
Kurt Russell's final Disney film (not including his vocal work in "Fox and the Hound") was also the last of the studio's formula college comedies, and the last film appearance of the late, great Joe Flynn, who died before the film's release.
Once again Russell plays amiable science major Dexter Reilly, and once again Reilly stumbles on an incredible scientific breakthrough, this time a potion that induces superstrength. And once again Medfield College's Dean Higgins (Flynn) sees the discovery as a way out of the college's financial problems while villainous A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero) gets out of jail just in time to try to steal it. Add Eve Arden and Phil Silvers (very funny as the villain) as rival cereal makers eager to use the potion to increase their cereal sales and you have a top cast doing it's best to enliven a so-so comedy.
I must say I thought the previous film in the series "Now You See Him, Now You Don't" to be an absolute riot, so this film is a bit of a letdown. After a wonderful first half-hour, Russell and Flynn all but disappear from the film and Arno and henchman Cookie (Disney regular Richard Bakalyan) take over when they are hired by Silvers to steal the formula, which Higgins has sold to Arden. This leads to a series of disastrous theft attempts and a midsection that moves like molasses, and includes an offensive scene involving the racial stereotyping of a Chinese acupuncturalist.
Fortunately, the film recovers for a wonderful, and absolutely hilarious, finale involving a weight-lifting competition and an engaging chase scene involving Dean Higgins' supercharged vintage car, which has been "fed" the formula. That the beginning and end of the film are the best parts of the film, and that they both feature Russell and Flynn, is no coincidence, since they work so good together whenever they aren't on screen the film comes to a complete stop.
So, basically, you have a funny beginning, a hilarious ending, and funny performances by Flynn and Silvers, two authentic comedy legends. I also love the film's bouncy and catchy theme music, by the underrated Robert F. Brunner, who scored many of Disney's comedies of the time. So count this one as a mediocre, inoffensive Disney effort. You can do far worse. ** (out of *****)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I can't believe the negative comments being written about Todd Graff's
"Camp," an obviously affectionate tribute to his youth spent working as a
counselor at a special camp for teenage Broadway and show-business
in upstate New York. Yes, it's a little ragged around the edges, with
characters that appear and disappear without warning, and some of the
performances are uneven, but so what? I wish more Hollywood films were
half as entertaining and written and directed with even half the passion
that Graff (an actor best known as "Hippy" in "The Abyss") brings to his
directorial debut. IMHO, "Camp" is tons of fun, especially in the
musical numbers sprinkled throughout the film.
Evidently, the only campers who frequent Camp Ovation each summer are straight girls and gay boys, the vast majority of whom are school outcasts. Their crimes? Aside their sexual orientation, they are guilty of the felony of preferring Stephen Sondheim to Britney Spears, and it is at Camp Ovation that they all come together to bond and perform in the only environment that they all fit into. And, of course, in a film like "Camp," an outsider has to be brought in to shake things up and in this case it's Vlad, or as one impressed counselor enthuses: "A boy. A real, honest-to-goodness straight boy!" That he is, and a bonafide "hottie" at that, who proceeds to melt the hearts of just about every camper around, but none more so than roommate Michael, a teenage drag queen who shows up at camp just after being beat up for trying to attend his junior prom in drag. Michael's infatuation with Vlad in turn threatens his relationship with best friend Ellen (a "plain Jane" who is humiliated at the start of the film when she can't even get her own brother to take her to the prom), when Vlad and Ellen start going out. Also shaking things up is the camp's new musical director Bert Hanley, a washed-up, alcoholic Broadway composer who had one hit about ten years ago, then disappeared from sight.
Other campers include Michael's other best friend Dee; Jenna, an overweight girl whose father has had her mouth wired shut; and most hilariously, Jill and Fritzy, a sort of "All About Eve" match (Jill's the diva, Fritzy the ingenue who is so fixated on Jill she has taken to washing her friend's underwear in the sink.) whose falling out leads to the biggest laughs in the film.
That's about all there is to the plot and the audience is left to see if their questions will be answered: Is Vlad really as straight as he seems? Is he toying with Michael emotionally, or does he really like this guy as a friend? What are his motivations with Ellen, who is clearly out of her league romantically? Will Jenna finally confront her father about her weight? Will Bert Hanley stop drinking long enough to find that he still has something to contribute to society? Will Jill and Fritzy end up killing each other? What do you think?
Some people have commented on the ragged nature of the film and the uneven performances, but I believe low budget first films like "Camp" should catch a bit of a break when it comes to these issues, especially when they are as entertaining as this one is. I think both Daniel Letterle and Robin de Jesus are real finds as Vlad and Michael, and their relationship in this film is as complex and well-handled as any such relationship I have seen on film in quite a while. Why would an All-American boy like Vlad even want to hang out with Michael, even if they are roommates, unless he's "the world's biggest closet case?" Especially since he has to know Michael has fallen hard for him? And why is Vlad so nice to Ellen (a nice bit of work by Joanna Chilcoat)? I admit I found Vlad too good to be true at first, but everything is explained and revealed in the last scene, which may very well end up being my favorite film sequence of the year. Honestly, if I have one criticism of these three central performances, it's that Letterle relies on his killer smile a bit too much, the same criticism that has been leveled at Tom Cruise at times.
As for the rest of the performances, there are three obvious standouts: Alanna Allen is hilarious as the diva Jill, especially in one inspired scene where she tries to fight her way through a number even though she is so sick she has to throw up after every line; Tiffany Taylor literally brings down the house during Jenna's big number, in which she sings with such passion and power about accepting her as she is even her father gets the message; and especially Don Dixon as Bert Hanley. I've read many negative comments on his transformation in the film but I think it works fine, especially since he's still drinking at the end of the film. He's better because he's regained his professional confidence, but he's still a drunk. Dixon nails this role, and is especially good in an inspired scene where he verbally berates, insults and tries to discourage Vlad, Michael and Ellen's musical aspirations.
As for Graff, like I said his film is ragged around the edges and some of the minor characters should have been better developed or dropped entirely (the athletic director, for instance, who is used in two short--albeit very funny scenes--then disappears for good), and the musical numbers could have been better incorporated into the flow of the main story (most revolve around minor and supporting characters and not the three leads). Although Vlad has a couple of solos with his guitar that show he might make a decent folk-pop singer, Michael and Ellen never do really have a chance to show off their skills, so I have no idea how talented they are. But Graff does show a flair for directing vibrant musical numbers and they do stand well on their own, expecially Jenna's solo and the finale, inwhich we see Michael in drag for the first time since the film's opening and finally see why he is the way he is; with his acne covered in makeup and flamboyant hair and dress, he literally comes alive with an exuberance and happiness that is positively infectious.
In short, "Camp" is an entertaining winner, and the first movie musical in years that deserves positive comparison to Alan Parker's great 1980 film "Fame." When "Camp" is released to video, you can bet that will be the double feature at my home theater that evening. ***1/2 (out of *****)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Airport '77" has the reputation of being a bad movie, but it's not THAT bad. In fact, compared to the other "Airport" sequels, it qualifies as high art, simply because director Jerry Jameson and his all-star cast (Jack Lemmon, Brenda Vaccaro, Lee Grant, Darren McGavin, Christopher Lee, Olivia DeHavilland, Joseph Cotten, etc.) actually take the whole thing seriously and seem to be trying to do good work, instead of phoning in inept cameos and working harder at cashing paychecks than giving decent performances.
The plot is definitely the film's weakest component: luxury jumbojet full of jetsetters (and two children for sympathy's sake) and priceless artwork is hijacked by a gang of art thieves (and a crooked copilot) and driven into the Bermuda Triangle after the pilot and passengers are knocked out with nerve gas. The plan is to land on an island and make off with the art while the passengers sleep. Unfortunately the co-pilot runs the plane into a radio transmitter and they crash into the water. Luckily for the passengers who survive the impact, the plane is evidently built like a tank and pressurized like a submarine, since it doesn't break up and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. It's up to the passengers to figure out a way to save themselves, since they're 200 miles off course and no one knows where they are.
Now, obviously, this premise doesn't hold water (pardon the pun). The plane would break up either on impact or while sinking, due to the incredible pressure of the outside water. That's a given. But suspend disbelief and you have a pretty nifty premise. And unlike "Airport 1975," the set-up to the accident is well-done and sustains interest and the aftermath actually is well-paced and the rescue scenes exciting and believable. There is no "filler" here--no silly comic relief, no characters that don't fit into the plot in one way or the other--unlike the previous sequel's "Hollywood Squares" cast of worthless caracitures. That's not to say that stereotypes don't abound (Grant is particularly annoying as a one-dimensional, nearly psychotic rich bitch who actually at one point says: "What's going to happen to me?"), but they're less annoying than usual, and are inhabited by some good character actors-- Lee in a rare "saintly" role, Kathleen Quinlan, Robert Hooks, Robert Foxworth (quite good as the villain), DeHavilland as a rich matron and Cotten as her one-time beau. We also get a cameo by James Stewart as the millionaire who arranges the trip.
The best part of the film, however, is Jack Lemmon's presence as the dedicated pilot. I checked his filmography and I believe this is his sole film appearance in an entirely heroic role. For those who don't understand why such a great actor would take a role in an "Airport" sequel, that says it all. At the time he seemed to be playing one tortured loser or everyman on the edge of a nervous breakdown after another. Playing a strong hero must have been a real treat and he is obviously enjoying himself here. It's amazing how by simply putting on a fake mustache and carrying himself with authority, Lemmon can pull off such an atypical role and make us remember how bad Charlton Heston really was in "Airport 1975." Unfortunately, we also get a gratuitous, unnecessary cameo by George Kennedy as Joe Patroni, who went from airline troubleshooter in the original, to airline vice-president in the second film, to some kind of airline liaison to Jimmy Stewart here. But at least he's not as ridiculous here as in "The Concorde--Airport '79." Enough said.
As far as the direction, another TV hack (Jerry Jameson) worked on this one, and he at least delivers a competently edited and photographed piece of work. The visual imagery is sharp and the special effects are actually very good. (Even the miniature work looks impressive, which wasn't always the case back then--see the aforementioned "Airport '79.") And, as I said before, it helps immeasurably that Jameson and the writers didn't feel the need to add a lot of cornball humor and other emotional hooey to a film that needed to be directed with a straight face in order to work at all.
Okay, so "Airport '77" has a ridiculous premise and a reputation as a bad movie. But watch this after "The Swarm" or "When Time Ran Out..." and you may find that it's a pretty competent piece of work, and rather entertaining to boot. You may not even hate yourself for liking it. I don't. *** (out of *****)
"The Concorde--Airport '79" is truly one of the worst films ever made. It
is tacky, imbecilic, and inept, with some of the most inane plotting ever
committed to celluloid. It comes complete with what is probably the worst
script ever by an Academy Award Winner (Eric Roth of "Forrest Gump" fame).
It is so dumb it is laughable. It is stupid. In fact, it is so bad they
advertised it as a comedy!
The plot is inane: wealthy weapons manufacturer (Robert Wagner) is confronted by television anchorwoman/girlfriend (Susan Blakely), who tells him she has evidence that he is selling secrets to the Russians and is going to expose him. Does he kill her then? No. Since she has been assigned to cover the inaugural flight of the Concorde (Washington, D.C. to Paris to Moscow), he decides to shoot down the plane with the anchorwoman in it. So when the plane takes off with the usual "Hollywood Squares" cast of television has-beens as passengers, and the two most unlikely pilots in the business (Alain Delon as Capt. Marquand and George Kennedy as Capt. Joe Patroni--that's right, airline mechanic turned executive turned Concorde pilot), he tries to shoot it down with a wayward missile, which he could conveniently blame on equipment failure. After the pilots elude the missile by flipping the plane over a half-dozen times and firing a flare out the window while flying at mach 2 (!!), they survey the damage and decide to fly on to Paris, since noone is hurt and structural damage evidently not a concern. Then they get to Paris, where they are attacked by a couple of fighter jets, which they manage to elude. They then crash land (in one of the most cheesy uses of obvious miniatures I have ever seen in a supposedly big-budget film--even the trees are obviously plastic) and disembark. That's the end, right? Wrong. The movie is only half over, so after an overnight layover, in which the cast couples as if the Concorde is Noah's Ark, everyone reboards the plane to go on to Moscow, even though they know someone is trying to bring it down.
Anyway, let's just say the second leg of the trip ends even worse, with the plane crashing into a snowdrift without a single passenger or crew fatality. So what does our wealthy weapons manufacturer do? He shoots himself in the head. Fade to Black.
Where do I start? Obviously this is absolutely ridiculous from start to finish. And then there are the actors: soft-core porn star Sylvia Kristel as a stewardess, Jimmie "J.J." Walker a saxophonist, Mercedes McCambridge looking ridiculous as a Russian gym coach, Andre Marcovicci as a gymnast who appears to be six feet tall, John Davidson as a TV reporter, Bibi Andersson a prostitute, Eddie Albert the idiot Concorde owner and Sybil Danning his trophy wife, David Warner the flight engineer, etc. etc. There's even a cameo by Charo (yes, Charo) as a passenger who tries to smuggle a chihuahua onto the plane by pretending to be blind and saying it's her "seeing eye Chihuahua." And, sadly, we're treated to the sight of the great African-American actress Cicely Tyson, reduced to picking up a paycheck as the mother of a heart-transplant recipient who's accompanying the heart to Paris where her son waits. (In the late '70's, the two most highly regarded TV performances of the decade were Sally Field in "Sybil" and Cicely Tyson in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." Field was rewarded for her performance with a film career that was capped by two Oscars. Tyson disappeared after appearing in this travesty. How sad.)
Yep, the stupidity runs rampant: Kennedy and Andersson make love by a fire. Kennedy tells stewardess Kristel: "They don't call it the cockpit for nothing, honey," a line that would get you fired in a second nowadays. Albert says upon disembarking in Paris: "Nobody is keeping us from going on the Moscow!" Martha Raye adds unfunny comic relief as an old lady with weak bowels. When she's nervous, she runs to the bathroom. She spends the entire film in the bahtroom. (Ho! Ho!) And no one even mentions lawsuit once, even after the plane turns upside down. And the cast? Dreadful. All the way down the line. Paychecks, paychecks, paychecks. That's all anyone was after on this one.
Incidentally, the "director" of this mess was yet another television hack, David Lowell Rich, who may as well be named Ed Wood. But he's the least of the problems. No, the problem is a studio that insisted on dumping cheapjack product like this on an undemanding public instead of taking the time to hire truly talented visionaries who could come up with a decent premise, or better yet, not make the darned film in the first place. The only good thing about "The Concorde--Airport '79"? Released at the same time as "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" and the year before "When Time Ran Out...," it delivered strike two in the at bat that mercifully ended the disaster craze of the '70's. And not a moment too soon. no stars (out of *****)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Help us! Oh, my God, help us!" Stewardess Nancy Pryor screams into the
radio at one point in "Airport 1975." She may as well have been speaking
for the audience that was suckered into seeing this cheesy, silly and
unnecessary sequel to the excellent 1970 suspense classic "Airport," one
those rare sequels that is so bad it actually dimishes the original in
The film opens with Nancy (Karen Black) meeting her pilot boyfriend Al Murdock (Charlton Heston) at Washington D.C.'s Dulles International Airport. Both are headed back to L.A., Al on an earlier flight, but Nancy has something "important" to talk to him about and wants him to wait and fly back with her. He has an important meeting and can't. She gets p*ssed (PMS maybe?) and blows him off. They part, and you know nothing good will come of it. It's not long before Nancy is working her flight, "the red-eye special," a non-stop cross country overnighter. The flight crew is composed of Capt. Stacy (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), the co-pilot (Roy Thinnes) and Flight Engineer (Erik Estrada). Since this is typical Hollywood filmmaking, the stereotypes run rampant: the captain is a good, stable family man, the other two lecherous, rude, chauvanistic dopes, while the stewardesses are beautiful, young midwestern refugees like cute young Bette (Christopher Norris). And then there are the passengers: a bunch of drunken Conventioneers (Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell, et al), a couple of professional football players, two nuns (Martha Scott, Helen Reddy--Helen Reddy???!!!), the wife of the "vice president of operations" Mrs. Patroni (Susan Clark), an old drunken matron (Myrna Loy), a pathetic wannabe actor (Sid Caesar) and a famous movie star (Gloria Swanson) and her assistant (Augusta Summerland). And then there's the last to board--a dying kidney patient being flown to California for a kidney transplant (Linda Blair) and her mother (Nancy Olson). More about THAT later.
About the same time the plane takes off, small pilot Scott Freeman (Dana Andrews) is about to leave Boise, Idaho, evidently to fly south for the winter. (Actually, I'm being a smart*ss. He's going home from a business meeting.) He decides to make the trip even though the weather is terrible, which has no bearing whatsoever on what happens next. Anyway, after wasting a half-hour or so of screen time on silly banter between the passengers and crew and a famously parodied scene (see "Airplane") involving Reddy's "singing" nun and Blair, the pilots inform the passengers they have to land in Salt Lake City since "the entire West Coast" is socked in with fog (more about this later also). Ditto Scott Freeman. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Freeman has a heart attack and plows into the 747, blowing a hole in the cockpit, killing Thinnes and Estrada, blinding Zimbalist and leaving Nancy to fly the plane, which brings us back to where we began, with the classic: "Help us! Oh, my God, help us!" I won't give away any more of the plot, although it's predictable what's going to happen, since there are no pilots on the plane and the film's hero (Heston) is on the ground. Oh, and did I mention George Kennedy returns as the original picture's most popular character Joe Patroni? He's been promoted from airline troubleshooter to the aforementioned "vice president of operations" and his wife and son are also on board, so he becomes Heston's sidekick in the rescue attempt.
So what's wrong with this film? Oh, let me count the ways. The script, for one, is horrible. Don Ingalls, a former airline pilot is responsible for this lumbering and boring pile of cliched characters and hackneyed dialog. The direction by '70's hack Jack Smight is singularly uninspired and wooden, failing to coax a single winning performance out of what is a pretty impressive cast. The attempts at humor are preposterous: are we to believe an out-of-work actor could afford to fly cross-country simply because of his pathetic bit part in the on-flight movie? And that it's funny to watch Myrna Loy order a boilermaker? The only thing funny here is some of the dialog, and that's unintentional: Bette to Nancy: "This sure beats Ogallala, Kansas!" (Well, Bette, I hate to tell you this but Ogallala is in NEBRASKA, dimwit!) And then there's the whole subplot involving the kidney patient, which is absolutely ridiculous. No doctor would ever okay a girl in that poor of health to fly cross country to get a kidney transplant. They'd fly the kidney to her on a special flight! It would be quicker in the long run! I'm sorry I'm shouting, but I hate when my intelligence is insulted in a movie. And speaking of insulting, being from California, I have to say never, in my 40 years of life, never have I seen the entire West Coast socked in by fog. It is impossible. They could have flown into Ontario or any of a number of inland airports in the region.
Anyway, suspense is minimal since you know how this one will end, although in real life not three years later a similar mid-air collision resulted in nearly 150 deaths and the obliteration of a North Park neighborhood in San Diego, which amplifies how preposterous the entire enterprise is. As for the acting, it is lazy and uninspired with one exception: Karen Black actually tries to give a semblance of a performance and is plucky and believable throughout. Kennedy also at least tries to liven up some deadly dialog, but Heston (the once great actor reduced lately to national joke as the one-note arch-Conservative NRA President), is stiff and actually looks at times like he'd like to put a bag over his head so noone will recognize it is him in this giant pile of silliness. Noone else registers much more than a blip on the interest scale, although you'll never forget Reddy in a full habit kissing her rosary, counting her beads and belting out inspirational folk tunes while strumming a guitar in one of the all-time great camp performances. And as for Gloria Swanson, she evidently smelled the stench that was the script early on and wrote all her own dialog, which is why she spends the entire film talking about the benefits of health food and not eating "poison" foods--her favorite talk-show subject at the time. Worst of all, though, is watching the great comedian Sid Caesar and the great actress Myrna Loy reduced to picking up paychecks as pathetic, sleazy caricatures who matter not one iota to the film or the plot. They could have blown out of the cockpit hole along with Thinnes and Estrada and no one would have noticed. Is that any way to treat two legends?
Finally, a couple of interesting notes: look closely behind Karen Black when she addresses the passengers near the end of the film and you'll see a very young (and slim) Sharon Gless, looking beautiful and grinning from ear-to-ear. But look quick, because that's her entire role, even though she's listed in the beginning credits. Also, the beautiful young woman who plays Swanson's assitant is credited as "Augusta Summerland," aka "Linda Harrison," aka "Nova" in the original "Planet of the Apes." Just in case you're interested. *1/2 (out of *****)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Any list of the top ten films from 1976 should include "The Bad News
but most probably don't, since this film was, and remains, an underrated
classic. I can't say enough about how much I love and appreciate this
and it remains fresh and vital nearly 27 years later.
Walter Matthau is Morris Buttermaker, a washed-up minor league pitcher turned alcoholic San Fernando Valley pool cleaner. He's hired by a client, Councilman Whitewood (Ben Piazza) to coach a pathetic baseball team called the Bears, made up of pre-teen Little League rejects. This doesn't sit well with Roy Turner (Vic Morrow), unofficial head of the League and hard-case coach of the best team, the Yankees. He's p.o.'d because Whitewood sued to have the boys accepted into the league instead of letting them play in less competitive leagues in the Valley. His contempt is shared by his assistant Cleveland (Joyce Van Patten), an undecidedly nasty piece of work. Buttermaker, however, couldn't care less since he only agreed to coach after Whitewood agreed to pay him, since noone else would do it. And it's no wonder: this is the most pathetic group of losers you'd ever imagine--all of them the type of kids that would be picked last in any P.E. class. (I say this affectionately since I was the type myself.) There's fat Engelberg, the emotionally unstable catcher; Ogilvie (Alfred Lutter), the brain and expert on baseball stats; Whitewood's amiable son Toby; the token African-American Ahmad Abdul-Raheem (Erin Blunt), a Hank Aaron wannabe; Jewish pitcher Rudy Stein, who couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat; the Mexican Aguilar brothers, who don't speak English; Regi Tower, an average kid with a typically overbearing Little League father; curly-topped Jimmy Feldman; and most famously Tanner Boyle (the terrific Chris Barnes), a foul-mouthed, hot-tempered and fist-happy runt and his nemesis Timmy Lupus, a shy, quiet back-of-the-class type who Tanner berates in the film's most famous line of dialog as a "booger-eating moron."
The plot proceeds according to form: the teams stinks, they fight, they lose their first game in embarassing fashion, all the while Buttermaker drinks himself into a stupor and barely notices. But after seeing the kids humiliated--and being insulted himself one-to-many times by the apallingly arrogant Turner--he decides to get serious and pulls a couple of secret weapons out of his hat: his former girlfriend's eleven-year-old spitball-throwing daughter (Tatum O'Neill) and the town juvenile delinquent Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a chain-smoking, skirt-chasing, motorcycle-riding hellion who is a seriously talented ballplayer no one else wants because of his attitude. And to everyone's amazement, they manage to turn the whole league upside down.
There are many things to like about this film but I'll start first and foremost with the script, which was written by Burt Lancaster's son Bill Lancaster. This script should be taught in every screenwriting class on how to write for the screen. There is not a single wasted line of dialog, wasted scene or wasted moment in the entire film. Every line of dialog advances either the plot or character development, every scene is necessary and runs exactly the right length. And it is absolutely astonishing that in merely 102 minutes, the film deals with 18 major characters (13 team members, Buttermaker, Turner, Cleveland, Whitewood and Turner's little jerk of a son Joey) and gives every one of them a moment to shine and a distinct personality while not straying from it's central theme of the importance of teamwork and perserverance. And the entire film takes place on or around the ballfield, the exceptions being when Buttermaker visits Amanda and takes the team along on some pool-cleaning jobs. And the film is refreshingly unsentimental. When the story starts the kids dislike Matthau and he dislikes them. At the end, they still aren't wild about each other, but they have developed mutual respect. Buttermaker's relationship with Amanda is also something to behold--he refuses to admit how much he cares about the kid even when she practically begs him to. In one particularly memorable scene he actually throws a beer at her; I'd have to say anyone who doesn't think Tatum O'Neal can act should watch this scene and they'll know she's capable of better than she's given over the years.
Michael Ritchie's direction is also something special and probably as responsible for the tight construction of the film as Lancaster's script. Not once does he let the action get out of control and he coaxes good performances out of all the kids, especially Haley, Lutter and Barnes. Matthau is terrific, but then Matthau is always terrific. Morrow is also perfect as Turner, especially in an astonishing scene when he confronts his son about an "inside pitch." And the ending is perfect, and ironically similar to that of 1976's other crowd-pleasing sports movie, Best Picture Oscar-winner "Rocky."
In 1976 the main source of appeal of the film was the four-letter words spouted by the kids, which was something we hadn't seen before in an era of squeaky-clean Disney family films. And while some of the lines are hilarious, they are also the weak part of the film. It's believable that kids would talk this way, especially around someone like Buttermaker, but not during a Little League game, especially the championship game where they threaten each other with bats, kick each other in the groin, give each other the finger, etc. It's just not believable. Also, as another poster wrote earlier, "ringers" aren't allowed so Amanda probably would be ineligible to play. But these are minor quibbles. "The Bad News Bears" is a winner, and in spite of the "family film" reputation it has because of it's bowdlerized TV version, it is actually for teens and up. In other words, it earns its PG rating.
I have one rant: Once again, Paramount video has let DVD viewers down. The current DVD consists of absolutely no extras of any kind. No documentaries, no commentaries, no trailers, no nothing. I realize Ritchie, Lancaster, Matthau, Morrow and Piazza are no longer living and therefore a commentary track might not have been as informative as we would have liked, but producer Jaffe, Joyce "Cleveland" Van Patten, O'Neal, Haley, Cruz and the rest of the kids are still alive, so a commentary track would still have been possible. Also, a "where are they now" documentary on the kids and their experiences making the film would be informative and fun. So, how about it, Paramount? Why don't you stop being the bargain basement, stingy DVD outfit that you are and start taking your job as film restorers and historians seriously and give classics like this the DVD treatment it deserves. (See Disney's Vault Classics for instruction on how it should be done.) Thanks for nothing. ****1/2 (out of *****)
"Wet Hot American Summer" is one of those films that the distributor
obviously didn't know what to do with, so it was dumped in theaters
fanfare, performed trifling business and then just as quickly ended up on
home video. Therefore, I never even gave a thought to renting it, since
cast is made up of a group of talented, yet secondary comedy actors who,
with the exception of Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce, have never
even registered a blip on my comedy radar. Then, during a bout of
I turned on pay cable and caught the last half and found myself laughing
hysterically throughout, enough so that I bought it the next day and
it all the way through and laughed more than I have ever laughed while
watching a comedy feature, with the possible exception of "Blazing
A rather subversive spoof of 1970's camp comedies like "Meatballs" and "Little Darlings," as well as early '80's gross-out farces like "Gorp" and "H.O.T.S," "Wet Hot American Summer" notches up the sexual innuendo, spits good taste into the wind, worries about offending nobody and ends up absolutely hilarious, and ten times better than any of the movies it is sending up. It is the last day of summer camp at Camp Firewood, circa 1981. In the first scene, we pan a row of bunks in which couples are paired up, dry humping each other under the covers. Counselors, you suppose? Try pre-teen campers, at least that's what we find out when one boy throws off the covers and yells, "We got to get back to our cabins!" As dozens of young boys run back to their cabins, the camp director (Garofalo) watches from the porch of her cabin and says rather unenthusiastically, "You're not supposed to be out of your bunks," but she might as well be chastising them for not eating all of their vegetables. The humor is all uphill (or downhill, whichever you prefer) from there as we meet the rest of the campers and counselors, all of whom are so oversexed that you wonder if they have anything else whatsoever on their minds. And that's to say nothing of Garofalo, who when she isn't ignoring campers she's putting the moves on the scientist next door (David Hyde Pierce) or officiating at gay weddings.
My favorite bits? How about the insane camp cook, a Vietnam War veteran who is so nuts he is given to making love to a refrigerator in front of the entire camp? (Don't ask.) Or the incredibly oversexed counselor who reveals himself to be a virgin to an incredulous friend, then proceeds to wreck the camp van (He crashes into a tree for no reason whatsoever.) while racing back to camp to jump a female counselor's bones. And how about the incredibly oversexed (get the trend?) lifeguard (Paul Rudd) who is so busy making out with a nymphet counselor that he ignores a drowning boy's cries for help until it's too late? (Don't even get me started about what he does with the body.) Or a ridiculous motorcycle chase where the driver is too stupid to know to drive around a bale of hay laying in the middle of the road? Or the two incredibly oversexed counselor nerds who are so intent on getting their supposedly virginal friend laid that they don't even catch his oh-so-obvious homoerotic signals? And then there's a hilarious scene with SNL's Molly Shannon as a severely depressed counselor whose husband has dumped her. What's a girl to do? She finds solace and romance in the arms of a wise-beyond-his-years 12-year-old, of course. (Shannon to Garofalo: "Be sure and come to our wedding next week!" to which Garofalo conveys her delight.) Like I said, good taste is not a priority here. But my absolute favorite bit has to be the counselors' trip to town, which goes so out of hand Garofalo literally mugs a little old lady for drug money.
I could go on-and-on but won't. Let's just say Garofalo and Pierce are as funny as always, the supporting cast (including co-writer Michael Showalter as the requisite nerdy virgin counselor in love with the unattainable camp babe) is terrific, the direction by David Wain inspired though visually ragged at times (but then so were it's predecessors) and the script by Wain and Showalter shameful, irresponsible, politically incorrect, disgusting and absolutely hilarious from start to finish. Too bad "Meatballs" and the rest of its ilk were not even remotely as successful as "Wet Hot American Summer."
As a bonus, the DVD has a terrific deleted scenes section with director/cowriter commentary in which Wain and Showalter actually explain why certain scenes were left out (besides the obvious NC-17 rating it would have garnered were they included) and an alternative soundtrack (which I have yet to sample) that promises "extra farts and more!" "Wet Hot American Summer" is a deserved candidate for future cult film status. ***1/2 (out of *****)
"The Shootist" was John Wayne's swan song as a film legend and, to put it
mildly, he hit a home run. It is a terrific end to a legendary
After a brief prologue made up of film clips of Wayne in his career prime, we meet his cinematic alter ego, John Bernard Books, an aging gunfighter who rides into Carson City, Nevada in the early 1900's looking for Doc Hostetler (James Stewart), the old sawbones who once saved his life and apparently the only man he trusts. It seems the old guy has prostate cancer and only a few weeks to live, and as Hostetler tells him, it will not be a pleasant death. Books, with no where else to go, checks into Bond Rogers' (Lauren Bacall) boarding house to live out his final days in peace under the alias "William Hickok." When Bond's delinquent son Gillom (Ron Howard, in a nice change-of-pace performance and his last major film appearance before becoming a director) informs her of his true identity, she tries to throw him out but relents when she finds out his condition and agrees to help him die in peace.
Unfortunately, things don't go as planned as everyone from the town mortician (John Carradine) to an old girlfriend (Sheree North) to a newspaper editor (Richard Lenz) try to take advantage of his situation and turn a fast buck. And then there are several lowlifes (Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brien, Bill McKinney, etc.) who want to seal their reputations by taking him out. Since it's obvious that no one will leave him alone in his final days, and since he grows fond (to put it mildly) of both Bond and Gillom and wishes them no harm, Books decides to go out in style and on his own terms, and to take a few scumbags along with him.
"The Shootist" is one of those rare films that seems to have gotten better with age. It wasn't particularly successful with critics or audiences at the time, as they were apparently put off by its leisurely pace and relative lack of action. Typical of the reaction was a TV guide critic (who shall remain nameless), who once derided it and its stars as coming across as "relics of the old West." (Wasn't that the point?) However, it is now pretty much considered a classic, and rightfully so, especially when viewed next to some of the lesser films of Wayne's 1970's period ("Cahill," "Rooster Cogburn," "The Cowboys"). In fact, it is now hard to believe that Wayne was not nominated for an Oscar here, as Books is clearly one of the best performances of his career and definitely eclipses his extravagantly praised, Oscar-winning mugging in "True Grit." Indeed, "The Shootist" deserves to stand alongside Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and Oscar-winning "Unforgiven" as the last three great Westerns in cinema history. Everything about it is immaculate--the sets, the costumes, the supporting cast (including Harry Morgan in a terrific cameo as an unsympathetic sheriff who tells Books, "What I put on your grave won't pass for roses."), the script, and the chemistry between Wayne and Bacall, teaming up for the first time since "Blood Alley." And everything is held together by old pro director Donald Siegel who, aside from the late Hal Ashby, may very well be the most underappreciated director in cinema history.
But "The Shootist" is John Wayne's film all the way. He is simply sensational, and BRAVE, since he apparently knew at the time his cancer was back and that this would probably be his last film. It's not every film legend who gets to end his/her career on a high note, but Wayne did just that. I just hope he knew it before his death barely three years later. ****1/2 (out of *****)
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