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243 reviews in total 
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Depraved by the Bell, 8 March 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is a strange mixture of the SF "mad scientist" trope with a serial killer story. Dr. Cordell is trying to find an antidote for nerve gas, but ends up creating a new gas that permeates his protective mask. Will he turn into a monster? Grow to be 50 feet tall? No - the only result is that he goes nuts when he hears bells ring. The first victim is his landlady's parakeet, and the trouble escalates from there.

We're left for awhile wondering how a mysterious gas can cause "tintinnabulophobia," but then the resident doctor takes it to the ridiculous limit with his explanation: the gas could alter the chemistry of a man's brain. So if, perhaps, when he was a child, he was tormented by an older sibling using a toy bell, the change in chemistry coupled with the "trigger" sound of a bell causes these old memories to come flooding back, followed by homicidal rage. I kid you not. Tortured by a toy bell.

This is one of prolific THRILLER contributor Donald Sanford's only original scripts, and it's a mish-mash of clichés from a variety of genres. Robert Vaughn handles his Jekyll/Hyde role well, and there's a lovely twisted tribute to VERTIGO at the end. But the highlight for us baby boomers is the opportunity to watch Napoleon Solo murder "That Girl," Marlo Thomas.

Spaceballs (1987)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Too little too late - a horribly unfunny spoof, 9 January 2016

I saw this film in first release back in 1987 and thought it was pretty awful. The main problem (and many critics agreed with me) was that Mel was several years too late for this film to be a good topical spoof. It came out four years after the third STAR WARS movie, after dozens of other spoofs had been made on TV.

So here in 2016 in the wake of STAR WARS reboot fever, I thought I'd revisit the film on Blu-Ray to see if I had misjudged it. No, it was still just as awful as the first time. The casting is terrible (who would hire George Wyner and Dick Van Patten as main characters?), the jokes are grade-school level, the timing and direction are almost always off, and there is a sense of desperation to get a laugh. (As Roger Ebert pointed out, Brooks keeps repeating the lame line "May the Schwartz be with you" as if eventually it will become funny.)

Rick Moranis and John Candy, who were riding the crest of SCTV popularity at the time, are completely wasted, except for Rick's improvised play-with-dolls scene. There are a few good laughs - about one every fifteen minutes - especially the closer when John Hurt paid Mel back for producing ELEPHANT MAN by reprising his ALIEN performance.

I have a rule of thumb about Mel Brooks movies: they are funny in inverse proportion to the amount of time that Mel is on screen. In SPACEBALLS he gives himself TWO roles which is twice too much Mel.

I suppose a group of fifth-grade boy scouts on a field trip might enjoy watching a film like this, but it feels like a bunch of second-rate TV skits glued together. Mel began to slide after "Young Frankenstein" and this film was fairly far down the slide.

Pianomania (2009)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Piano technician vs. Demanding pianist, 13 September 2013

I'm a classically-trained pianist and composer, so behind-the-scenes movies like this have a lot of appeal for me. I respect the piano technicians, such as the film's protagonist Stephan Knüpfer, who know how to coax the right sound from an amazingly complicated instrument. This documentary is a tribute to his skill, and especially his patience, as he deals with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, an ultra-demanding control freak who will just about drive you insane as you watch.

Aimard's attempts to get Knüpfer to recreate the many piano tones he has in his head forms the main plot thread of this documentary. In between grueling sessions of watching Aimard complain about the shape of a particular note's tone, the documentarians have inserted scenic pictures of Vienna, and clips of other, less annoying pianists, including two comedians who provide much-needed relief for the Aimard-induced tension.

There are some lovely shots of the interior mechanism of the piano, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at Vienna's concert hall. But overall, I found this film tedious due to Aimard's perfectionistic attitude. Would anyone else put up with it? Knüpfer seems to relish it somehow, because it presents him with a technical challenge. The film rambles on, cutting back and forth to the main story for no apparent reason, and be warned: 90% of it is in German with subtitles.

Definitely for the piano lover only.

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Action-packed walk on the noir side, 2 July 2013

Who would go to see a film called "Armored Car Robbery"? It sounds like a documentary, or maybe a how-to flick for yeggs. A zippier title would have been more fitting for this taut little noir film, in which intrepid cops (using all that hi-tech early 50s gadgetry) track down a gang of crooks who pull a clever heist right outside a crowded athletic stadium. This is a very early effort for Richard Fleischer, who would later direct box office hits such as SOYLENT GREEN and THE BOSTON STRANGLER. The story moves along at an unflagging pace, with William Talman keeping our attention as the slightly unhinged brains of the gang. It's a great post- war period piece, and deserves to be aired more often.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A delightful look at early 50s pop culture, 2 July 2013

I knew I was going to like this movie when a 25-year-old Stan Freberg walked onto the screen in an early scene, playing an employee at an ad agency. In fact, I would have given this movie a good rating just on the basis of all the TV icons in the cast: Fred MacMurray, Jesse White, Natalie Schafer, and in tiny cameos John Banner and Hugh Beaumont. And speaking of cameos, how about Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, and Esther Williams? Yes, they're here too.

This comedy is WAY above "B" picture level, with a snappy script by the team of Frank and Panama, who earned their comedy medals writing for Hope/Crosby and Danny Kaye. Howard Keel does a fine job in his dual role, while Fred and Dorothy try to please a cantankerous sponsor and keep their phony cowboy happy at the same time. There are plenty of laughs, and some plot twists to keep you wondering how it's all going to work out in the end. If you watched TV in the 1950s, you'll especially enjoy this gentle satire of the entertainment and advertising industries of the time.

Billy Jack (1971)
6 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Everything you hated about 1970 rolled into a ball, 12 May 2013

I was a high school sophomore when this movie came out. It was one of the iconic movies of the period, but I managed to miss it until 2013 when I caught it on cable TV. All I knew about its content was what I learned from the Paul Simon SNL parody "Billy Paul" which ran a few years after the film's release. I had the impression that it was a sort of violent revenge film along the lines of "Death Wish."

Instead, it's a 2-hour reminder of how truly awful the hippie era was, full of pretension, naiveté, new-ageism, and horrid folk songs that make you want to pull a Belushi with the guitar player. The plot itself takes about 60 minutes to unravel; the rest is filler, featuring "music" or improvised comedy by the 60s troupe "The Committee" (including Howard Hesseman under a stage name). The clichés flow freely, and the characters are all cardboard cutouts, but at least things are livened up by a few good fight scenes featuring the "pacifist" Billy Jack. It's the kind of movie you'd expect when a husband/wife team writes a script, then give themselves the starring roles and the director's chair. With any luck, this film will cure any nostalgia you may still have for the late 60s/early 70s.

23 out of 52 people found the following review useful:
Top of the Lake: Bottom of the Barrel, 21 April 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The essential content of this dreary mini-series could have been shown in 90 minutes, and even then might not have been worth the time. There were several occasions in the first few episodes when I almost gave up, but I figured that at some point, the filmmakers would have to get on target and actually deal with the plot. But no...after seven hours it all turned out to be a waste of time. What was billed as a "mystery" is little more than a perverse soap opera, filled with incest, child abuse, rape, murder, and an inordinate amount of bad language. There are loads of useless plot elements (such as the odd commune of women led by Holly Hunter) which end up having no meaning whatsoever, yet there are MAJOR plot elements which are either not wrapped up at all, or given short shrift in a breathless finale. The writers' only way to maintain interest is to have characters peel off their clothes, including quite a few who should NEVER be seen naked in public. (I guess I should have anticipated this, considering Campion's horrible 1993 monstrosity THE PIANO.) Don't believe the hype. You will want to flagellate yourself (as, incidentally, one of the characters does on more than one occasion) when you are through.

The two stars are to honor the beautiful country of New Zealand, where the series was filmed. The scenery is gorgeous. Sundance Channel would have done better by splicing together the nature shots and making a travelogue.

Roommates (1961)
5 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Takes one to know one..., 21 February 2013

I should confess right away that I spent two years as a student in a conservatory, and have spent all my life hanging around with musicians. I'm sure that influenced my positive opinion about this movie, and I can understand why other reviewers who don't share my background don't find it funny.

I knew I was going to enjoy it when the opening credits featured cartoons by the inimitable Gerard Hoffunung. The cast list also promised a host of Britain's most amusing character players. The script and score are by Bruce Montgomery, a fine mystery writer and film composer. And how odd that the opening scene outside the music school used the exact same filming location as was used for the hospital in "Doctor in the House." (Not to mention that the doctor's nemesis also plays the students' nemesis here, too.)

Of course, as others have pointed out, most of the actors are too old for their "student" roles, and the plot is fairly thin (but typical for a sitcom). What's funny for me are all the jokes and situations that any working musician will have had to deal with: overbearing teachers, time-wasting teachers, blabbing conductors, over-confident student hot-shots, conflict between "serious" and "pop" music, etc. If you don't know who Barbirolli and Sargent are, you'll miss a couple of jokes. (And you might not also catch the "skeletons on a tin roof" joke from Sir Thomas Beecham.) There's even a tip of the hat to Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, if you look carefully at the music school sign.

The 90 minutes breezed by, and the HD version available on Amazon Prime looked pristine on my iPad. Recommended highly for musical people; and fairly highly for fans of mid-century British comedy. Kenneth Williams alone is worth the price of admission.

4 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Serling at his most naive and preachy, 31 December 2012

If you've watched Twilight Zone and Night Gallery (and I've seen them all), you know that when Rod Serling had a point to make, he could be very heavy-handed, obvious, and preachy. This film, unfortunately, is like three of those episodes strung together.

I grew up during the early 60s, and I remember the pro-UN propaganda we regularly received in grade school, going as far as asking us to collect coins for UNICEF while Trick-or-Treating. The UN was still fairly new then, and perhaps we were all more starry-eyed about what it could accomplish. The intervening decades have proved what a useless, crony-laden, corrupt, meddling outfit it truly is. So it's hard to watch this UN propaganda without cringing. (To be honest, the UN is not specifically mentioned, but its supposed missions are trumpeted throughout, and it WAS made as a plug.) So here, we get Sterling Hayden as the embodiment of everything lefties like Serling hated: militarism, isolationism (oddly enough), nuclear weapons,individualism, racism...fill in the blanks. There's even a little kid with a pretend gun, in case you didn't get the message about violence. The dialog is on par with Serling's other politically-motivated scripts, pretentiously poetic and deadly serious.

The fact that I gave it any stars at all reflects the high quality of the production and the acting. The cast does all it can with the material, and the set decoration and lighting are top-notch. Even the print itself is pristine, sharp and clear as the old TZ shows. Henry Mancini wrote the score, although the lovely tune "Carol for Another Christmas," which appears on his Christmas album, doesn't seem to show up in the movie that shares its name. For Serling fans, this is something to sit through just to say you did it. For others, except the most wide-eyed, naive, hopey-changers who believe (as the script and our current president repeats often) that talking is the solution to everything, it's a dull, wordy Dickensian dud.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Time capsule from the swinging 60s, 8 September 2012

Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In" was one of the cultural icons of the late 1960s, the "don't-miss" show if you wanted to be considered cool at the water cooler (or the playground, in my case). I never saw this movie when it was released. My parents would have found it scandalous. These days, it's much tamer than the majority of prime-time comedy shows, even those for "family viewing." It opens with a funny stand-up routine by Dan and Dick, commenting on the credit roll. This is the closest the movie gets to capturing the spirit of the TV show, and R&M are the ONLY cast members from the series to appear. So it's not really a "Laugh-In" movie; as others have pointed out, it's more like an Abbott and Costello monster film, or a racy episode of "Scooby-Doo." The plot is paper-thin, but that's OK, because the screen is always brimming with 60s goodness, especially in the forms of Carol Lynley and Julie Newmar. How can you miss with character actors like Mildred Natwick, Fritz Weaver, David Hurst, Dana Elcar, and 60s TV staples Leon Askin (Hogan's Heroes) and Robert Reed (Brady Bunch)? The ending has a Pythonic twist to it (a few years before 'Holy Grail'), with a funny version of the "who shot the gun" film cliché.

All in all, this is probably a film that only veterans of the 60s will enjoy. It's mindless, but an entertaining way to spend an evening.

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