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Zebra in the Kitchen (1965)
Mixture of animal horseplay and financial seriousness is uneven, at best
Ivan Tors, who brought "Flipper" to movie (and later television) screens, tried his luck again with this animal-based comedy-drama starring Jay North, from TV's "Dennis the Menace". Framed in flashback for no apparent reason (other than to pad the reedy-thin narrative with exposition), story concerns a domesticated Puma mountain lion and his unhappy preteen owner, who is forced to give his pet to the local zoo after his parents relocate them from the sticks to the city. Nothing in this movie feels accurate: the boy's father lost the family homestead because he was apparently hurt, but there seems nothing wrong with sturdy Jim Davis in the part; the zoo appears to be in mountain terrain (away from the town) and is described for us as "shabby" and "pitiful" when, actually, it seems well-staffed and very clean; also, the youngster is taken in quite readily by the friendly zookeepers as an assistant, yet he treats this job indifferently (while scheming to betray everybody and free the Puma). North, a competent child actor, isn't allowed much mischief beyond stealing Andy Devine's cage-keys, and is kept petulant and scowling. The extraneous shots of animals eating or pacing their cages are dropped in sloppily (much of the time, they're not even reacting to anything, so there's no humor in their presence), while the quasi-slapstick finale--with zoo animals finding their way into homes, as well as the local ice cream shop--lays a big egg. *1/2 from ****
The Second Coming of Suzanne (1974)
Another disappointment for Sondra Locke fans
'Ambitious', idiotic low-budget sludge concerns a filmmaker and his hippie troupe involved in the production of a new-fangled religious saga, with a woman cast as Christ. Independently-financed drama, a would-be dream-like parable (apparently inspired by Leonard Cohen's song "Suzanne"), is so meager in budget--and so sloppy in execution--that the results are nearly unintelligible. After a promising start in films, Sondra Locke truly lost her way as an actress before Clint Eastwood rescued her career; this is the worst movie she ever appeared in (ditto Richard Dreyfuss, looking embarrassed in the small role of a production associate). Writer-director Michael Barry was clearly inspired by Bergman and Antonioni; he either needed more finance to expand on his 'poetic' leanings or simply had to be told No. The finale, wrong-headed and ridiculously bizarre, strains for "meaning", while the threadbare budget hampers any chance the actors have of sustaining interest. NO STARS from ****
My Sweet Charlie (1970)
Race relations and a mixed 'platonic romance' in the south...
Melodramatic and contrived though it may be, this acclaimed television drama about the budding friendship between a temporarily homeless, pregnant white girl and a black man running from the law attempts to do a real service in examining race relations in the late-'60s south. Richard Levinson and William Link adapted David Westheimer's novel (and failed Broadway play) with great care and sensitivity, and the dialogue between these two disparate, desperate characters is often raw and ultimately rewarding. The central situation, however--two luckless people in a resort town closed for the off-season, taking refuge in a lighthouse cottage--is pure hokum. Patty Duke won the Emmy for Outstanding Leading Actress, though her affectation in the early scenes shows her insecurity, not the character's; Al Freeman, Jr.'s angry black lawyer from the north is also tough to swallow, however both performers do improve as the tale unfolds, and the finale is quietly affecting.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Above-average sci-fi from Hammer Films
Engrossing Nigel Kneale screenplay, adapted from his original story (which had already been a popular serial for BBC television entitled "Quatermass and the Pit"), concerns modern-day London beset with an alien spacecraft, unearthed in excavation, which exerts destructive supernatural powers once assorted scientists and military personnel attempt to crack it open. Excellent production and direction, solid cast (including handsome, bearded Andrew Keir as the amusingly humorless Prof. Quatermass), although the final showdown with the Martian intelligence is visually inept. For the most part, an interesting and entertaining genre effort. **1/2 from ****
Death Game (1977)
"What's 'dreck'?" ... "Garbage!"
Execreble 'warning' film could easily be written off as low-budget trash were it not for the talent involved (both on-camera and off). Three good actors--Sondra Locke, Seymour Cassel and Colleen Camp--are lost at sea in ugly thriller about a happily married man who tries to help out two comely young ladies while his family is away, but ends up a prisoner in his own home. This is "Kitten With a Whip" with two kittens, a sex scene in a hot tub, and a lot of angry shouting--mostly about guilt and castration. Production design is credited to Jack Fisk & Co. (!), while Fisk's wife, Sissy Spacek, served as one of the set dressers; this hardly matters however, as David Worth's cinematography is so muddy, the set design is the least of the film's many problems. Quickie exploitation nonsense opens with the information that the story is true, but ends with a credit telling us the characters are fictitious; the rest of the film--including the direction, the screenplay, the dubbing and the music--is equally insecure. Locke is quite convincing acting deranged, but who wouldn't be with a knife held high in the air? 90 minutes of pure tedium. NO STARS from ****
A retelling of "Sleeping Beauty"...revised, but without suspense or irony
Did Walt Disney's 1959 adaptation of "Sleeping Beauty" need to be updated for today's audiences? I'm guessing executive producer and star Angelina Jolie thought so, especially as it affords her the opportunity as an actress to "show both sides" of the de-winged black fairy Maleficient, dominating here as the villain and the savior. In the prologue, little Maleficient and the future king Stefan become friends and then sweethearts, but when he deserts (and eventually crosses) her on his way to the throne--stealing her wings--we are never given a hint as to his actual personality (Linda Woolverton's weak screenplay turns the character of Stefan--Aurora's father--into a cheat and a liar, without guilt or conscience). In the interim, there's a battle between Maleficient and the reigning king, who wants to take control of the enchanted Moors, that makes no sense (it's just visual bombast), while Jolie swoops through the skies with absolutely no authority (her cheekbones are more severe than her apparent conviction). After Maleficient has cast an evil curse upon King Stefan's newborn baby, three tiny pixies named Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit are introduced for comic relief, but it's too late: the picture is already doomed. The art direction and visual effects are marvelous (if at times either too candy-colored or dimly-lit), but the narrative is a squashy mess, the action looks expensive but feels rote, and the plot twist involving 'true love's kiss' is given an updating which, if potentially clever, is not followed through with any sense of surprise. The filmmakers have put all their vested interest in the fire-breathing dragon and the battle in the castle, but these beloved characters are left wanting. ** from ****
Prime Cut (1972)
Self-bemused black comedy...full of visual bravado, but short on brains
At some point in Michael Ritchie's "Prime Cut", you have to stop looking (or hoping) for logic and just accept the film on its elements: visual flair to spare--and silver-haired Lee Marvin holding the screen with smooth, somewhat sheepish panache. Marvin plays a modern-day enforcer for the Mob in Chicago who travels with his honchos to Kansas City to collect a debt from racketeer "Mary Ann" (Gene Hackman), who is using a meat-packing plant as a cover for human slaughter. Ritchie, working from a reedy screenplay by Robert Dillon, and cinematographer Gene Polito manage to spike the often ridiculous proceedings with over-the-top action and an excitable camera. This works for awhile, until you realize the picture isn't going to amount to anything except a few bravura sequences (such as one where a combine devours a car in a wheat field). The females in the cast (including a very green Sissy Spacek in her acting debut) are served up to be ogled, and in this case one cannot separate the filmmakers from the slimy exploiters on the screen. ** from ****
The American President (1995)
Top talents in a soft commercial comedy...
The Democratic U.S. President, a handsome widower with a teenage daughter who is up for re-election, finds his poll numbers dropping after meeting and dating an attractive environmental lobbyist; the Republican candidate (a slimy worm) combats what is left of the President's reputation with mud-slinging (seems the President's new lady was present at a rally some 17 years ago where an American flag was burned). Star-laden comedy juggles politics with romance and lightly comic asides, but why the President's approval rating keeps dropping never makes much sense (one woman worries about the poor First Daughter caught in the middle!). Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is pure fluff--even the dramatic points he hopes to make, such as a bungled metaphor about people following a mirage in the desert, are noodle-soft. In the leads, Michael Douglas and Annette Bening share a very nice chemistry, and they're surrounded by a wonderful assortment of acting talent, but the political arena director Rob Reiner gives us here simply isn't persuasive. **1/2 from ****
Smartly done-up sitcom targeted at the mass audience
Slick, entirely superficial, entirely unconvincing comedy with a sparkling star-trio at the helm; it passes the time, if not much else. Cary Grant, an advertising executive who makes $15K a year, wants to move his wife and two kids (and a sass-and-sweetness black maid) to the country, but building a new home rather than buying one proves to be a costly headache. Grant has obviously been encouraged to play this material to the hilt, and his hammy, wide-eyed reactions are funny if eventually a bit smug and tiresome. Myrna Loy doesn't have much to play as Grant's wife (she drawls out a few funny lines in her calm, cool-headed manner), but Melvyn Douglas out-acts them both as "a friend of the family" with a small crush on the Mrs. Director H. C. Potter, working from a screenplay by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama (from Eric Hodgins' book), knows how to sell this picture to an eager-to-laugh mass audience: he keeps the pace popping, the cast manic and the visual jokes easy to spot. A picture so completely manufactured might easily wear some viewers down, if situational comedy is not their thing. **1/2 from ****
The Man Between (1953)
High price for atonement
Ex-lawyer and Nazi sympathizer James Mason is aiding the Germans in kidnapping certain individuals from West Berlin and bringing them across the Eastern border; Claire Bloom, a lovely British miss who was under the assumption Mason had romantic feelings for her, is kidnapped by mistake. Sketchy melodrama, directed somewhat weakly by Carol Reed, was filmed mostly in England with a few actual Berlin locales scattered about. Visually, the picture is drab, with a potentially suspenseful finale mucked up by poor cinematography and editing. Reed feasts on Mount Rushmore close-ups of Mason, with only the star's molars and his precise diction (enunciated to reach the high balconies) making an impression. Bloom is very good, as is Hildegarde Neff (later Kneff) as a world-weary Frau, and the kidnapper's actual target. ** from ****