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Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Pretty Good Blend
Sporadic comedy with soap opera overtones. Fortunately, Allen avoids soap's stickier pitfalls. Seems Hannah and her two sisters Lee and Holly have to work through tangled romances while trying to advance their artistic careers. Naturally, these lead to complications with two of the main swains Mickey (Allen) and Elliot (Caine). Meanwhile, hypochondriac Mickey is going through an existential crisis as he contemplates an eternity of nothingness. Of course, Allen specializes in squeezing chuckles out of such fretful material, as he does here.
The cast performs superbly as Oscar winners show (Caine and Wiest) show. I really like how the production doesn't glamorize the girls, pretty as they are. That way guys follow persons rather than heightened allure. Great also to see old timers like Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O'Sullivan picking up paydays; it also amounts to a shrewd casting move on Allen's part.
Overall, the movie's many individual threads blend pretty well. In fact West's Holly manages considerable poignancy without getting weepy, while Allen's rather dramatic role still has its comedic moments. However, fans looking for straight comedy may be disappointed as the more serious moments come through. Nonetheless, the movie's a worthy addition to the wacky guy's canon.
Angel Baby (1961)
Spotty, But Has Its Moments
Uneven revivalist tale harmed by spotty acting and somewhat muddled message. But then the movie's a commercial product dealing with phony faith healing. Understandably, a message like that can't be made too offensive to believers. So key compromises aren't surprising.
Sweet young Angel (Jens) is encouraged by revivalist Strand (Hamilton) to overcome a disability and speak. She's been mute for years, apparently the result of childhood trauma. Strand doesn't claim to be a faith healer, so when Angel finally speaks, it's apparently resulting from group encouragement and not a "miracle". As a result, Jens is drawn to the charismatic Strand and his Godly way of life. Meanwhile, Strand recognizes her soft-spoken charisma and works her into his stage program. Trouble is his aging wife, Sara (McCambridge), gets jealous of the younger woman. So she maneuvers her into getting her own traveling tent show that Strand reluctantly agrees to.
However, Angel Baby's independent effort doesn't take off, limping along on the edge of failure. Then along comes a greedy businessman (Clark) who sees potential in her, but only if she converts from low-key preacher to angelic faith healer. Nonetheless, Angel's dubious, her religious scruples still intact. However, she's persuaded when--unknown to her-- he hires people to fake disabilities and then miraculously recover thanks to her apparent faith healing. He then exploits her success by selling a sideline of products to the crowds now coming to see her. Meanwhile, Strand is alerted to Angel's compromised status and comes to her moral rescue. The final episode leaves us unsure whether miracles really occur or are only momentary relief, probably the best conclusion for this commercial product.
To me, the best part of the production are the many faces of everyday people. No Hollywood and Vine here. In fact, there's no effort at glamorizing or even polishing the humble Southern surroundings. It's one of the more unvarnished productions of the period. Happily, Jens is excellent as the humble Angel, without an ounce of emoting. Hamilton too surprises as a fairly effective revivalist. However, the redoubtable Joan Blondell over-emotes in embarrassing fashion. I guess her ridiculous mugging is supposed to be comic relief. Nonetheless, it's that crowded cast that tends to scatter the narrative, thereby reducing overall impact. Anyway, given half-a-chance energetic rowdy Burt Reynolds almost steals the show in his first movie role.
The message I get is that revivalist preaching is fine, but faith healing is suspect. At the same time, the question of miraculous healing is finessed. All in all, the movie has its revealing moments, but lacks the impact of thematically similar Elmer Gantry (1960). However, unlike the latter, this spotty effort has since faded into obscurity. Nonetheless, those etched faces never fade.
Peter Gunn: The Most Deadly Angel (1961)
A Murderous Groupie
A tough guy that Pete helped send to prison gets shot by a mystery woman. Now Pete's got to find out what happened since many suspect him of the killing. It doesn't help that the dead guy has an equally tough brother and a scary father. Good luck, Pete.
Different kind of premise from the standpoint of the killing's motive. Otherwise, it's a fairly standard episode. Edie gets to croon a torch song, after which she and Pete cuddle on the balcony. And catch the colorful Oscar (Johnson) doing a little gender-bending as an art dealer. And that's along with chubby Mary Smith (Frazee) as a hooker, a bit over the hill, but always willing to accommodate. And, of course, there's the great Harold J. Stone as the intimidating family head. Then too, mustn't forget Mary Sinclair, very effective as a cold-blooded mystery woman. Check out her bio that's rather interesting.
Anyway, all the earmarks of the classic series are on display in this 1961 entry. So give it a try.
Wanting to gather authentic material for a book, a wannabe writer joins a Brooklyn street gang undercover.
Looks like I'm a minority, but I found the entry hokey as heck. The well-scrubbed cast, by and large, looks like they just stepped out of studio make-up. Only Candle (Musante) manages a degree of gang boy grit, while Caan looks about ten years to old for a delinquent. To me, the only interesting feature is Shaw's (Caan) innuendo that the gang chieftain, Tiger(!), may be gay. Now that's a real departure for the period.
Note how the script both finesses censorship and preserves Shaw's upright morality by implying no sex between him and Filene (Loring). But then this so-called gang girl looks and acts like a perfectly innocent virgin. That may help the ending, but further compromises the premise. Remember, this is supposed to be the toughest neighborhood in Brooklyn. Now, maybe I'm a fuss-budget, but the gang's calling their girls "Debs" sounds like a sorority instead of something more street-wise. Then too, the girls stand around like wallflowers waiting to dance. The ending, however, aptly dramatizes what the production was trying to get at. Too bad, the remainder is too airbrushed to equal the upshot.
Anyway, juvenile delinquency was a popular screen topic for about a ten-year period. For sheer grit, Blackboard Jungle (1955) shows how it could be done. I guess Hitch's show wanted to make a contribution to social betterment. But, looks to me like the series should stick to what it does best, namely, dark rooms and white-knuckle suspense.
Nancy Drew... Reporter (1939)
Lively little Drew programmer. It's really a personality feature since the plot is secondary. Happily, three of the four kids truly sparkle, while Ted (Donaldson) supplies a sober contrast. Granville's Nancy is irrepressible, a driving spark that ignites the proceedings. She can be a little much at times, but that bubbly charm carries her through. And what about those two scamps, Mary and Killer(!). Youthful actors Mary Lee and Dickie Jones bring the two little wildcards to life. I really enjoyed their goofy song and dance.
In passing-- Note how well dressed the passers-by in the street scenes are. I guess Warner's popped for a lot of extras for the set-ups. Too bad, however, that the studio didn't see fit to list Jack Perry in the credits. His Soxie may be an ugly thug menacing the kids, but he certainly has enough scenes to deserve credit listing. I don't rate movies like this because they're in a category all their own. Still, this one merits high ranking in teen-type entertainment that even geezers like me can enjoy. I did take away a lesson, howeverif sweet little Nancy asks for your hat, do not give it to her. I repeat, do not let her have it.
The Twilight Zone: Mute (1963)
Interesting but Uneven
Ace performance from little Ann Jillian that almost puts this 60-minutes over. The entry's concept of substituting telepathy for speaking is an interesting one. Unfortunately, the dynamics are muddied in development. It seems the telepathy taught to little Ilse must proceed in a language, English or German, yet she seems flummoxed by spoken words of any kind. Maybe I missed something, but the details of her acquired incapacity appear unclear in important respects. Adapting a concept of this type to an hour's dramatic format without lengthy exposition may be the underlying problem, even for such a skilled writer as Matheson.
Nonetheless, the acting's first-rate, especially from Jillian whose suffering can register only through facial expressions, which she does in controlled, non-sticky fashion. Ironically, it's hard to know just what therapeutic direction would help. It's certainly not that of the lock- step demanding teacher (Dailey). As a result, I ached along with her. Still, that Hollywood ending may have relieved audiences, but it's spread on pretty thickly, and amounts to a divergence from the TZ norm.
All in all, it's an interesting, if uneven, entry, salvaged in no small part by an excellent cast. (In passinggood to see the familiar face of the gnomish little Percy Helton picking up a payday.)
The Bourne Identity (2002)
So Where Are The Good Guys
The movie reminds me of a Hitchcock thriller. Of course, Hitch filmed during a period of much slower tempo, and would likely have emphasized emotional psychology over slam-bang action. Still, it's a heckuva thriller. Bourne's got more lives than a cat, and he'd better. That's because a secret agency of the US gov't has got him in their sights. Seems the poor guy was an assassin for them, but on one assignment got shot, thrown into the sea, and lost his memory. Now he's trying to find out who he is, but in the process is jeopardizing agency plans for something or other. So now they're using all their techno-wizardry to take him out. It's like banks and banks of blinking circuits on his trail. From Bourne's standpoint, it's like he's up against an entire unseen universe. Good thing he's got as many tricks up his sleeve as the agents tracking him.
I guess you could say this isn't exactly a promotional for our covert agencies. Their bureaucrats appear ruthless and unforgiving, especially headman Conklin whose neck is on the line. On the other hand, I think we sympathize more with Bourne than like him, given the bloody trail he leaves behind. Still, I like the way the screenplay eases him into the relationship with Marie, making it more credible. What I do have reservations about is that over-long and incredible car chase. Seems to me that careful use of a less can ironically add up to a significant more, a lesson this sequence needs to apply. Anyway, Damon's persuasive despite his boyish looks, while Potente gets to show her chops and in fairly subtle fashion.
All in all, the movie's a white-knuckle two hours. It also registers a popular change in how audiences view our gov't's covert agencies, plus the slimy politicians who pitch for them.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Not much left to add after so many reviews. Nonetheless, it is a highly enjoyable 100- minutes, even though there's no real plot, just scattered events that shrewdly add up to a losers' triumph. I think most kids and even adults can identify with the movie's outcasts, even if they weren't geeks themselves. High schools have a way of separating winners (athletes, princesses, popular types, etc) from more ordinary kids whose particular abilities may not emerge till adulthood. So the challenge for many is just to survive those four aching school years. That's what Napoleon and his geeky peers are struggling with, as high school's social cruelties may well foreshadow adulthood's.
Of course, the movie eases the hurts by challenging the teen elites. For example, the school's only Latino (Pedro) is elected school body president thanks mainly to Napoleon's latent skills. Wallflower Deb helps with her savvy photos, while the school's rank and file respond by flexing their collective muscles. I take this general outcome as providing crucial lessons for similar realities at the adult level. Thus, there's quite a serious, important message underlying the movie's engaging humor. No wonder the result made a ton of money.
Winter Kills (1979)
Can't Make Up Its Mind
Lamentably uneven film roughly paralleling the Kennedy killing. By the finish, it's hard to tell if the intent is to parody an assassination conspiracy or to offer up food for thought. Of course, the two can be combined, but if so, the results here are sloppy, more head-scratching than suggestive. Much time is spent with Nick (Bridges) chasing shadows, that amount to conspiracies behind conspiracies.
Okay, shadows can make for fascinating progression, not knowing who's involved and who isn't. This sense of dislocation was probably best conveyed in 1974's chilling The Parallax View. But here, such suggestive moments are undercut by exaggerations, such as the incredible shooting of the three men in the car, the ragged development of who Yvette actually is. To me, the only explanation for the frequent piling on of events is that someone was reaching for an element of parody, despite the seemingly dead serious parts.
Now I can well understand why the production here wanted to raise questions about the Lone Assassin official theory. It certainly hasn't withstood the test of time, as even a few key frames of the Zapruder film show. Moreover, 1978's House Committee on Assassinations found upon reviewing the evidence that Kennedy "was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy". But then the whole matter was dropped without follow-up. Ironically, I can also understand why officials don't want to pursue the matter. After all, who knows where it might lead or what crises an honest investigation might produce.
Anyway, Bridges turns in a riveting and energetic turn as the beleaguered president's brother. If spoof was the movie's intent, Bridges should have been informed since he plays it absolutely straight throughout. Also, veteran director and actor Huston towers as the shady and mysterious patriarch of the clan. Note too, how many veteran Hollywood names settle for brief appearances in an independent production, even super-star Elizabeth Taylor. Perhaps they too were unhappy with the Warren Commission Report and wanted to help boost critics who were gathering steam at that time. Of course, the movie debunkings would culminate in 1991's JFK.
Though this 90-minutes has its moments, entertaining and suggestive, it's too uneven and inconsistent to really register as either parody or expose.
The Twilight Zone: Still Valley (1961)
A Study In Still Life
No need to recap the plot. It's two of the scuzziest made-up characters on TV when Paradine (Merrill) and Teague (Taylor) trade words in yucky close-ups. Speaking of staging I hope those guys in frozen poses got paid triple, especially the guy balancing the barrel. Of course today's digital technology would have no trouble slotting in the poses as Merrill walks among them. But in those days, live poses had to be held if there was motion among them. Good job, TZ. And since the plot depends a lot on good acting, that fine actor Gary Merrill was hired for the central character, looking like he's been through the Civil War. Good also to see performers from that era like the versatile Vaughn Taylor and the boyish Ben Cooper, both of whom bring back fond memories, Anyway, it's an imaginative script, well mounted. Yet oddly and despite the premise, the story simply unfolds in interesting fashion but without generating much suspense. Worse for us guys, however, it plays out without a single skirt in sight.