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Ice Age (2002)
Fun With Fossils, 25 November 2014
6/10

If you want a showcase presentation for your big-screen Blu-Ray TV, "Ice Age" is a good way to go. It's brilliantly animated, with amazing texture and detail. As a story, it's more than a bit sloppy, and the humor is hit-and-miss, but it does get better as it goes and makes for painless companion viewing with the little 'uns.

Long before the dawn of modern man, we join a migration of prehistoric mammals – heading north instead of south. For Manfred (Ray Romano), a mammoth, and Sid (John Leguizamo), a giant sloth, it's less a marriage of convenience than the fact they have no one else. They meet an abandoned Neanderthal baby and a saber-toothed tiger named Diego (Denis Leary) with an unhealthy interest in taking the kid for himself. The three work out a deal to deliver the kid to its missing father. Diego's true motives are just the start of their trouble.

Basically an animated, kid-friendly version of the John Wayne cowboy flick "3 Godfathers," "Ice Age" presents a harsh winterscape of high imagination. An early example of a fully computer-animated movie produced not by Pixar or Dreamworks but the smaller Blue Sky Studios, "Ice Age" is remarkable for its tactile depiction of snow and water as well as the strange beasts long extinct that make up its cast.

It's not all that funny or engaging on its own. The banter is merry but tends to be unmemorable.

"How do we know it's the Ice Age," we hear one critter ask.

"Because of all the ice!" answers another.

The best thing about the movie, beyond the sheer spectacle of it, is the voice work of the main actors and David Newman's infectious musical score. Co-directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha seem more amused by the plight of "Ice Age's" luckless critters than they have a right to be, particularly a poor sabre-tooth squirrel named Scrat whose attempts at securing an acorn unleash a lot of Chuck- Jones-style mayhem without the twisted joy of those classic cartoons of yore. Any time the action shifts to Scrat, I wince a little, but the kids will like it if they are anything like the twisted brats I know.

The film does get better as the relationships between the characters develop. The Diego story arc, as predictable and hokey as it is, pays off rather well. To enjoy "Ice Age," you have to believe in the threat behind the story, and Diego provides much of that. Leary is very good at working the menace into the jokes, and vice versa, though Leguizamo is easily the funniest of the trio, while Romano makes for a solidly enjoyable center.

Some things are not well explained, like the reason Manfred is so determined to journey north in the first place and why he puts up with the annoying Sid for so long. The film moves a bit too slow, even after it brings together our core foursome but especially before that. An emphasis on sentimentality, like multiple close-ups of the spritely Neanderthal baby and Manfred's backstory as revealed in some cave drawings, give "Ice Age" a weightiness it doesn't really earn. You just know the directors want to get the theater sniffling, as they admit in their DVD commentary.

The best scenes do have the power to bring out the kid in anyone. If Blue Sky ever opens their own Magic Kingdom, I hope they offer an ice-tunnel ride or Sid Slalom of the kind we get to enjoy here. The film plays too much to its core demographic that way, but I found it preferable at times to the more adult sensibility of snarky Shrek or the Pixar factory.

Looking Death In The Face, 18 November 2014
9/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Often praised as quintessential film noir, "The Killers" holds up well as an absorbing, existential murder-mystery in its own right. It asks the question what value a man's life has, after that man is gone, and suggests it is well over a $2,500 life insurance claim.

Ole "the Swede" Andreson (Burt Lancaster) is already lying on his back when we first meet him, waiting for the hearse. Warned he is being sought by a pair of hardened criminals, he seems barely interested. A few moments later, Lancaster's film debut comes to a sudden end, at least in real time. Flashbacks carry us the rest of the way.

"I don't want to know what they look like," he tells the guy with the warning. "I'm through with all that running around."

The rest of the film is devoted to the investigation of insurance detective Jim Riordan (Edmond O'Brien), who learns who the Swede was mixed up with and how it sped him to his doom. Riordan discovers a green handkerchief emblazoned with harps, ("angels play 'em") and figures how the Swede was played himself by femme fatale Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).

The existential nature of the film is made clear early and often, in the Swede's acceptance of his doom, in the ink-stain-like lighting design, and in the gallows humor of the two men who fix to blast the Swede into eternity.

"He never had a chance to do anything to us," one of them tells a luncheonette owner. "He never even seen us."

"He's only going' to see us once," the other killer says.

The doomy mood is so pervasive it seems no one has a chance in this film. People face death so much its like Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," except no one has time for chess. But there's also an odd Christian message buried in the subtext. A cleaning woman stops Swede from killing himself by pleading with him so as to "sleep in consecrated ground," and later, we hear one of the culprits get told, while trying to get someone else to take the fall, "don't ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell."

It's a strange movie for that, and other intriguing things as well. Based on an Ernest Hemingway short story, it quickly wanders off into its own territory by building out a story of multiple perspectives that fits together only for Riordan and the viewer's sake. I don't think "The Killers" is hard to follow at all, just a bit complicated in places where it works rather well.

Riordan's actual mission is not exactly understandable. He's congratulated at film's end for having reduced the basic rate of the Atlantic Insurance Co. by one-tenth of a cent. But we care about what happens, and for that, the bringing of "The Killers" to justice feels a bit sunnier by its conclusion.

There's another film version of the Hemingway short, made in 1964, which is nearly as good, albeit not as film noir but rather pulp fiction. What this version of "The Killers" has is magnificent scenics, a gripping story, and a firm command of the material by director Robert Siodmak which never lets you go from the first frame to the last.

The House Is The Star, 11 November 2014
7/10

While it's not the first film in the "Evil Dead" franchise to recommend to a non-seasoned viewer, "The Evil Dead" has pride of place for being the first of the films, as well as for being so visceral and intense.

Five young people journey to a mountain cabin near the Tennessee border for a weekend getaway, only to accidentally awaken malevolent spirits of the dead by flicking the "play" switch on a recorded recitation of "ancient Sumerian burial rituals and funerary incantations." One by one, they are done in by the grisly ghouls, until only Ash (Bruce Campbell) is left to deal with the supernatural menace – or die trying.

Billed as "The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror," "Evil Dead" is markedly different from what you expect having seen the first two sequels. There's no "groovy" catch-phrase in this one, and the terms "deadites" or "Necronomicon" aren't mentioned. (The "Book of the Dead" here is called "Naturon Demonto.") Humor is mostly in the eye of the beholder; on the surface this is a "video nasty" that lives up to its name with exploding heads and a straight-faced, unforgettable depiction of tree-rape.

I'm not on board with the idea of this being a classic. But it is a good horror film, directed by Sam Raimi with real flair and engaging depth-of-field camera-work. After a slow opening 22 minutes, the film kicks into high gear and never lets up all the way to the end.

The film proved a bit of a slow-grower. A sluggish box-office performer when released in 1981, it has since become a bigger deal culturally than "Chariots Of Fire," the year's Oscar-winner for best film, as well as other big 1981 hits. Great, no, but it has a kind of greatness about it.

"Why are you torturing me like this?" Ash cries out at one point.

"We're going to get you..." the spirits answer, singing tauntingly.

What makes the film work so well as I see it is not the acting, which is frill-free minimalist work to put it kindly, but rather the sense of location. The strange house, more a shack really, is a thing of wonder, with various rooms tricked out with odds and ends that suggest more than we see. There's a bit of a "Snoopy's doghouse" effect going on here, as the house interior seems way too spacious and crammed with accouterments to match the exterior we see. There's even an attic visible in some exterior shots which never comes into play in this movie.

Why are the kids so insanely willing to stay in the house when things start to go so wrong? The car steering wheel suddenly acts on its own, the bridge they drive on to the house gives way as they pass over it, a pendulum clock stops in mid-swing, a woman's hand becomes possessed as she sketches, and a trap door bangs and flies open by itself. Perhaps it's some moonshine they drank that was lost in the editing, or some pot-smoking which was scripted but never filmed. The end result is you never really care about these dumb characters, who seem more like lab rats than people. Without the same level of humor that buoys "Evil Dead 2" so brilliantly, you don't care as much as you should.

But that's more a quibble than a fault. The positives outweigh the negatives, especially in terms of the brilliant sound design by Joe Masefield (which adds immeasurably to the spooky mood throughout). They are further enhanced on the DVD thanks to dueling commentaries by Campbell and by Raimi and producer Robert Tapert, who play up their different views of what went wrong and right with what apparently was a grueling production.

The end result was worth the struggle. "Ultimate Experience," maybe not, but "Evil Dead" is a solid stab at shock horror that will leave you breathless, and quite possibly wanting more.

Not Your Standard McQueen Car Flick, 8 November 2014
7/10

Steve McQueen tools around in a classy car, dodging bad guys, loving the ladies, and not giving a cuss. This may read like your typical 1960s effort from him, but that's something "The Reivers" ain't.

What is it? I guess it can be summed up as a broad coming-of-age comedy set in the American South in 1905, featuring a boy named Lucius (Mitch Vogel) who, against his better judgment, sets off with a couple of older-but-not-wiser friends in his grandfather's stolen automobile to visit the wicked city of Memphis. In no time he is holed up in a local bordello, trying to help win back his grandfather's car in a desperate horse race.

At the center of Lucius's worries is the man who talked him into the whole adventure, Boon Hoggenbeck, who wants the car to impress one of the pretty Memphis prostitutes he has set his cap on. "He knows no obstacles, counts no costs, fears no dangers," Grandpa warns young Lucius of Boon.

Okay, that does sound like McQueen the way Gramps put it there. But McQueen's Boon is more of an overgrown boy than stolid icon. A bucolic coming-of-age comedy based on a William Faulkner novel, "The Reivers" seems McQueen's attempt at stretching out from action-hero mode. He's quite a bit of fun with his sometimes outsized comic reactions, a bit old for the part but certainly a capable center in what amounts to his first ensemble piece since "The Great Escape."

Director Mark Rydell made life-affirming American-heartland flicks that celebrate homey characters and downhome values, and "The Reivers" certainly fits his oeuvre. He is abetted wonderfully by the sunny lenswork of Richard Moore and a graceful, jaunty score by John Williams. In its elegiac, serio-comic tone, it is a lot like the film McQueen chose to make this over, "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid."

More a situation than a story, "The Reivers" introduces us to a shifting cast of characters and lets each spend some time with the viewer. Some leave stronger marks than others.

Rupert Crosse leaves the deepest impression as Lucius' distant black relative Ned, who drives Boon crazy asserting his rights as a member of the McCaslin family by virtue of a great-grandfather who impregnated a slave. Ned is a proud man who likes to push his point beyond the bounds of reason, stowing away on Grandfather's car when Boon and Lucius make their Memphis trip.

"If I wait until I'm invited I'll never will go anywhere," Ned points out when Boon tries unsuccessfully to toss him. Ned is the agent provocateur in "The Reivers," somewhat dangerous in his ways but valuable, too, played with a vulnerable, humor-filled grandeur by Crosse, who got an Oscar nomination for his work. You laugh more with him than at him, but it's a bit of both.

Where "The Reivers" goes a little wrong is with some of the other characters. Sharon Farrell is the proverbial prostitute with a heart of gold who bonds with Lucius, while other smaller parts are filled by memorable character actors who get little to do. "We were a pleasant and courteous people, tending to our business," Burgess Meredith explains in the voice-over narration, and often they seem a bit too much of just that. Even the bad guys, like a racist sheriff played by Clifton James, seem a bit toothless and too-easily- handled.

Still, I enjoyed this film, if more around the margins than in the main. It's not unusual to see McQueen wielding a pistol, but it is to watch the target josh him about his lousy aim between shots. Aided especially by Crosse and Vogel, "The Reivers" isn't maybe as wise or knowing as it tries to be, but does leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling that doesn't stale with repeat viewings. A sleepy charmer, it shows even a king can make for a capable jester once in a while.

Requiem For Poor Joe, 28 October 2014
2/10

Even for John Wayne's legendarily weak Lone Star westerns, this one's a real turkey.

Wayne plays John Travers, who takes over as sheriff of the terrorized town of Little Rock after a horse-stealing, stage-robbing mastermind known as "The Shadow" kills the last "star-packing" lawman. With the help of his Indian partner Yak (Yakima Canutt), Travers investigates how the Shadow operates and leads a gang of locals against him.

Dan Phillips makes a great point in his review here. Early in the movie, we see Yak tell Travers "two men going to hold up stage... Coyote Canyon...much money on stage." So what does Travers do? He holds up the stage himself, disarms the guard riding shotgun, a guy named Joe, and rides off with the loot, leaving the disarmed guard and driver to be shot by the hold-up men, the guard fatally. Travers only rides in after the hold-up men ride off, to save the driver and the pretty girl Anita (Verna Hillie) on the stage.

What the heck!

We are told early on by rancher Matt Matlock George – not yet Gabby – Hayes), that the Shadow "has absolutely no regard for human life." That apparently holds true for Travers as well, who shares a laugh with Anita after the shooting death of poor Joe. Sure, he foiled the robbery by stealing the money, but why couldn't he and Yak have hung around and stopped the stage robbery by riding up on the bad guys from behind?

You aren't supposed to ask questions with these sorts of films, made for young boys who craved adventure. But I'm pretty sure they were bright enough to wonder about Travers, too. Later in the film, Travers leads a captured baddie to a wall safe from which the Shadow gives his orders. Travers is only a few feet away from the guy, separated by an open safe door. Why not grab the Shadow then and there?

The only explanation we get is given at the start of the movie, by Yak: "More trouble, more fun." If Travers stopped the Shadow then, he wouldn't have had another chance to save Anita from a runaway wagon.

"The Star Packer" does have a lot of stunts. I counted five horse spills effected by trip-wires, those things that the ASPCA finally put a stop to which killed many of the horses. They made the horses fall end-over-end, risking broken necks and legs. You don't really need them, and other Lone Star westerns don't use them nearly so often. Here, director Robert N. Bradbury was taking no chances. He knew he had a bore of a story on his hands, and must have counted on the stunts to liven things up.

The usual Lone Star gang is in evidence here, including Canutt and Hayes playing on opposite sides of the law, though not the same sides their characters were usually on. Earl Dwire, a personal favorite, is a bad guy here, like he was half the time in these movies, as a villain who sneers "We'll be outta here by noon tomorrow" when Travers puts him behind bars.

Wayne is more wooden here than normal, and kind of dull, unusually so for him. He generates zero chemistry with Hillie and seems ready to move on to his next on-screen adventure. The film moves so predictably that I can't blame him. Even with a town interestingly tricked-up with hollowed logs and secret passages, everything moves in such a slow fashion you don't care how it ends, just so it does.

Will Travers save the town and win the girl? I could have cared less. All I could do was think of poor Joe and those horses. They deserved better. So do you.

Mad Max (1979)
Cruising At The Speed Of Fright, 25 October 2014
8/10

The moment which made Mel Gibson as a film actor comes in a hospital room when he has a final meeting with an old friend.

"That thing in there, that's not the Goose," he blurts out. "No way."

Of such a moment legends are born.

"Mad Max" is a movie of many such moments, which coheres in a sporadic yet indelible way. Gibson is Max Rockatansky, a key member of the Main Force Patrol, whose duties include stopping the nomad trash and scoot jockeys terrorizing the Australian outback. Max is good at his job – too good. He's worried getting too attached to the "rat circus" for his own good.

And he's starting to make some rough enemies.

The first of the "Mad Max" movies, "Mad Max" is an outlier in a couple of key ways. Max is a more focused character here, genuinely concerned about his humanity and the love of a beautiful young wife who blows a mean sax. More key, the world we see in this film is markedly different than the more desolate worldscape we see in the two sequels. Things seem just slightly off this time out. There are dangerous people about, but also hospitals and commercial establishments and Royal Crown Cola. Max even eats a peanut butter and honey sandwich, a far cry from the dog food he eagerly downs in the first sequel.

Director/co-writer George Miller was clearly not thinking of building a franchise here, but instead making a stand-alone action flick that borrows loosely from cowboy flicks and motorcycle-gang movies. Fordian landscapes dominate our horizon.

What "Mad Max" has is focus, a lot of it. We get that right away in a cold opening featuring "The Nightrider," a fellow we lose 20 minutes in, who is engaged in a furious, high-speed chase with police. Max is listening on the radio, seen only from behind and side angles as he waits for his cue to get involved. When he does, it sends the film into a higher gear from which it only occasionally comes down, never for long.

Miller here was more interested in what makes Max tick than he was in the later films. We see Max in the beginning playing with a rubber Quasimodo mask which becomes a motif. Max is clearly commenting on his own transformation. He's not the only one.

"I think we've got a monster on his hands," he tells his wife about their baby son.

"Takes after his old man," she replies.

Joanne Samuel is a luminous Mrs. Max, a soft beauty who reminds me of that other Aussie-American import-export Nicole Kidman. Gibson plays so well off her it really makes the movie more affecting as it goes through its terrible, inevitable turns.

The villains are a right good bunch, too, especially the creepy Hugh Keays-Byrne as their leader, the Toecutter, who tells his tagalong boy-toy Johnny (Tim Burns) that killing cops a. k. a. "The Bronze," is a matter of self-respect: "The Bronze, they keep you from being proud." Such a dehumanized bunch makes for worthy tire-fodder, but Max wonders whether he will turn into one of them if he chases them too long. Then he doesn't care about anything, and the triumph and tragedy of "Mad Max" become reality.

It's a good movie, even if it doesn't square with the films that come after, unless you factor in some major external events this film doesn't suggest are about to happen. What it does offer is 90 minutes of savage, seat-gripping entertainment that puts us all on notice about the greatness of the Australian film wave and the guy from Peekskill, New York who would ride it to glory.

The Lodger (1927)
Danger Upstairs, 21 October 2014
9/10

Alfred Hitchcock made many great films. This was the film that made Hitchcock.

The streets of London are wild with fear as a crazed killer who calls himself "The Avenger" waylays young blondes. But all is well at the Bunting household, with pretty blonde daughter Daisy lining up a marriage with a police detective and a new free-spending lodger taking their spare room. But the lodger's habit of going out on the nights when The Avenger strikes, coupled with his apparent interest in Daisy, makes for an uncomfortable journey into fear.

The things with Hitchcock that made him great are on display here, his ability to keep you guessing, create twisted rooting interest, and find humor in suspense. June Tripp (billed just as "June" in the credits, as it was her stage name) plays Daisy with that playful capriciousness Hitch loved from his leading ladies.

But "The Lodger" is more than a calling card for cinematic greatness to come. It's a fine piece of film in its own right, stylistically unique from its opening shot of a woman's face in close-up as she registers the shock of her imminent murder. Rather than allow us to see the killer, the film then moves us into a sequence showing the media taking hold of the story, a scene reminiscent of David Fincher's "Zodiac" for the way the tumult and not the crime becomes our focus.

"Always happens Tuesdays, that's my lucky day," a busy paper-seller comments cheerfully about the crime.

Ivor Novello as the Lodger is a wonderfully beguiling figure, beauty etched with despair. He always seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, yet somehow resilient as photographed by Gaetano di Ventimiglia as a kind of saintly Nosferatu. Look at him one way and you think: How could he be... Look at him another and you think: How could he be anyone else?

Hitchcock and screenwriter Eliot Stannard play with this aspect of the story, and with Novello as such an appealing man of mystery, work up an interesting duality around him, which is best personified by the supporting role of the detective, played with deceptive subtlety by Malcolm Keen.

The detective, Joe, is a bully and a lout, and not much of a cop. He suspects the lodger early, but it's not clear whether this is from instinct or jealousy when he sees how Daisy has taken to the new guest. When Joe rounds on the lodger, our thoughts, like Daisy's, are likely to favor the lodger as the injured party. But if he's the Avenger, shouldn't we root for Joe?

That's another Hitch calling card, of course, the police, almost always ineffectual or hostile. Here it rises above a trope in a riveting conclusion that helps make "The Lodger" unforgettable.

I do agree with some of the criticism of the film being slow; it did seem that way especially the first time I saw it. But with every subsequent viewing, I found myself being more pulled in by every scene, despite now knowing how it turns out. That's another Hitch trademark, the good film that gets better when you see it again and again.

Frankie Meets The Boys, 17 October 2014
7/10

It's quite a pairing, though not the one the producers had in mind with their title: Icons Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx, together in a get-rich-quick farce that is rather amusing despite a plot thinner than Groucho's forelock.

Actually, the title "Double Dynamite" was a single entendre meant to highlight the presence of busty co-star Jane Russell. She's Mibs, a bank teller put off at her co-worker boyfriend Johnny (Sinatra) always crying poor when she wants to talk marriage. Alas, when Johnny falls into bigtime mobster money, she thinks he's stolen it from the bank. Groucho is a waiter who offers to help the lovebirds find a safe nest – across the border.

"You are in a barrel of rice with your mouth sewn up," says the waiter.

From the Sinatra books I've read, I came to watch "Double Dynamite" with low expectations. It was made right in the middle of his commercial nadir, when he joked that only process servers wanted his autograph. "Double D" is sometimes described as the "Mama Will Bark" of his acting career, so it was a pleasant surprise for me to be so entertained by the result.

Sinatra is amiably clueless as the straight-living beau, unwittingly turned into a high-stakes roller after helping out a grateful gangster who forces Johnny to accept his gratitude – or else: "What's the matter, don't you like money?" The only thing funnier than Sinatra made uncomfortable by his close proximity to gangsters is one made uncomfortable by booze and gambling, but Frank pulls off this atypical character rather well.

Director Irving Cummings and his creative team invest the film with a high-spirited, anything-goes quality that helps make for a fun 80 minutes. Groucho's slumming – heck, I guess even Jane was here – but the results are pleasant and sometimes cleverly subversive, as when we meet the CEO of Johnny and Miggs' bank, a guy so important he knows nothing of what goes on there.

Groucho even has fun with one of Sinatra's signature songs, when Johnny takes him to see where the gamblers hang out only to discover instead a shirt store staffed by middle-aged women. "It's witchcraft!" he cries.

There are only three musical numbers in the film, the third being a reprise of "It's Only Money," which tells us "The nicest people we know/Are the people who get their faces on dough." Sinatra and Russell also duet on a number that suits both of them well, the lightly croony "Kisses And Tears." Russell plays mousy so well here it seems a shame God made her such a vixen.

There is a nifty plot twist near the end of the film, and a lot of moments throughout for Groucho to show off his impeccable comic timing – "I've got a horse going in the third so fast that he'll win the second" is the kind of okay line he turns to gold. The script isn't Preston Sturges, but I laughed more here than I did watching "Sullivan's Travels."

All in all, "Double Dynamite" may be a case of rewarding low expectations. I had them, and enjoyed myself. But I think it'll prove solid entertainment even if you've been warned it's pretty good.

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Forever Gets A Lot Shorter, 6 October 2014
3/10

Back when I first saw this film in a cinema in 1985, I hated it for being so callow and smug. I can't say I feel that differently about its defects, but I don't hate "St. Elmo's Fire" anymore. It kind of captures the charm of the period even if it grasps annoyingly at times for laughs and pathos.

Seven young people just graduated from Georgetown University find themselves up against various life challenges revolving around love. Political aide Alec (Judd Nelson) wants to marry his live-in girlfriend Leslie (Ally Sheedy), but she's not sure. Journalist Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) hides his secret love, while waiter Kirby (Emilio Estevez) and social worker Wendy (Mare Winningham) are pathetically unable to conceal theirs. Billy (Rob Lowe) is married with a baby but can't stay faithful, while Jules (Demi Moore) dances as fast as she can with her office affairs and cocaine habit.

"It's our time on the edge," is how Billy puts it, but that edge seldom merits our interest. Unfortunately, director-writer Joel Schumacher's indulgent handling of his characters' various angsts creates a gulf for viewers like me. He likes them too much, I think, for them to be successful comic-tragic figures.

Too many groaner lines in the script, too, the kind that seem crafted for trailer use rather than real human dialogue: "Wasted love! God, I just wish I could get it back!" "I'm obsessed, thank you very much!" "Let's rock!" "You break my heart. Then again, you break everyone's heart!" Catch-phrase overuse really gets out of hand.

I won't say "St. Elmo's Fire" is so bad it's good, but it's certainly distinctive in a way that I think has improved it over the years. Much of it is in the way of camp value. But it also captures a period in time, and a group of young actors, at a point when pop culture was coming together around them. They became known as the Brat Pack, which made them seem even more insufferably popular than they already were. The "Brat Pack" moniker was something they didn't accept, and Schumacher whines about it on his DVD commentary, but it made them what they were and in this film anyway, they seem to live up to that image, with their toilet dunking and ritual chants.

Another thing Schumacher mentions on his commentary is the dinging he got for the film's elitist tone. He makes the point that the critics mistook "content for intent," but it's hard to miss the snooty ways the main characters look down on the poor unfortunates around them who aren't as cool as they are, whether it be a sad naked guy wandering a hospital corridor, a gay designer, or Wendy's schlubby suitor.

"Welfare recipients are getting better looking," says Billy, which would be wrong in anyone's mouth but particularly so from the sculpted lips of Rob Lowe. It's the kind of line that screams for a comeuppance that never really comes.

What works for the film is mainly visual. The wet streets, pastel shirts, neon ties, and Billy Idol wall mural all scream 1980s, but in a better way than they did then. The David Foster score still holds up, as do the two hit songs from the soundtrack. And the actors do work well together, playing against each other naturally and with considerable charm, even if Nelson does fume and McCarthy rub his eyes too much.

It's a time capsule film, one that deserves to be in its time capsule most of the time. But it has moments of real entertainment, perhaps nostalgia, perhaps something deeper, a sense of life's passage experienced in a kind of contented bubble you know is about to pop.

Goofily Entertaining Wayne Comedy Actioner, 2 October 2014
7/10

John Wayne in the 1960s was moving from the tough-guy vehicles that made him an icon into breezier, lighter fare. "North To Alaska" is one of his better light efforts, a story about a pair of gold prospectors trying to save their mine and their sanity when a pretty woman comes to town.

Sam McCord (Wayne) knows his way around a bar fight and a tall tree, but he's not as sharp when it comes to hearts. Not that of his partner, George Pratt (Stewart Granger), who just lost the only woman he loves, and not that of Michele "Angel" Bonnet (Capucine), a Seattle prostitute he picks up thinking she's just the thing to pick up George.

"A Frenchy broke his heart, a Frenchy can fix it," Sam thinks. But it's not that easy. In addition to those other hearts mentioned, there's another Sam doesn't count on: His own.

It's not a classic movie. The comedy is too broad at times, and so is the acting. Getting to see Wayne duke it out with fellow icon Ernie Kovacs should be more fun than it is; Kovacs plays his part too straight and his comic genius is outshone here even by Fabian, playing George's horny kid brother Billy.

But "North To Alaska" shines in other ways. The cinematography by Leon Shamroy heightens the natural beauty of the location shoot (California doubling for Alaska), pristine rivers and majestic skies. The film is well-paced, with plenty of ambiance but nothing too labored.

Best of all, Wayne is terrific fun, a bit of a heavy playing things broad enough so you know it's okay to laugh at him. He's got funny notions about love, which he discourses upon at great length and which of course Angel is going to shove in his face before the movie's over. "It's my only politics: anti-wife! Any woman who devotes herself to making one man miserable instead of a lot of men happy don't get my vote."

The best scene in the film has Sam glowering while George makes hay with Angel. Sam brought her over to make George happy, now he's miserable at his apparent success.

"He's in his silent period," George notes.

"You look kinda green," Billy chimes in.

"Shut up!" Sam growls, between pulls of his bottle. It's only a matter of time...

I was pleasantly surprised by the two one-named actors in this film, Fabian and Capucine. I thought the latter an undertalented clothes horse from seeing her in "What's New Pussycat" and "The Pink Panther," but she shines here as a woman who just wants a chance and is too easily hurt. It's a minor subplot, but an important one, as she holds her head up and tries to fit in, even when Sam warns her Alaska is not her kind of place.

"What is my kind of place, Sam?" she asks. As with many of her lines, Capucine finds the right quality of icy fragility to make it come off right. She's really a plus here.

Director Henry Hathaway worked several times with Wayne, and seemed especially adept at drawing out the Duke's comic side. It's important to remember Wayne did this film just five years after "The Searchers," it's a jolt to see him in a film that employs comic punch-outs and cartoon sound effects. But for its running time, it works more often than not.


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