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Pass This One By, 26 February 2015

John Wayne made a number of crummy movies at Lone Star. Trying to decide which was worst is not easy, but "The Man From Utah" is hard to beat.

John Weston (Wayne) rides into a new town looking for work, and immediately jumps in to stop a robbery in progress. U. S. Marshal George Higgins (George Hayes, later known as Gabby Hayes), then asks Weston to help solve a series of mysterious rodeo deaths he believes are caused by insiders running the rodeo, whose hired hands always win when these rodeos end in sudden death.

"It's mighty peculiar that these outsiders fall off those tough broncs sufferin' from snake bite," Higgins says. "I tell you it just ain't natural." That's some mighty fine po-lease work, I tells yuh.

Everything about "The Man From Utah" suggests a cut-rate, hurry-up production, more so than the usual Lone Star offerings Wayne made with director Robert N. Bradbury. The movie is slathered with minutes of footage of real rodeo action which seems a decade older than the rest of the film. Parading American Indians, steer roping, stagecoach races, people in stands waving and cheering, it just goes on and on.

Wayne is terrible in this one, stiff and wooden. He talks in a monotone and barely seems engaged in what he's doing. A weak script supplies his character with zero motivation to do more. Asked by this guy he never met to go undercover and risk his neck to solve the rodeo mystery, Weston simply smiles and says "Sounds great to me!" without even asking about pay.

"I'm kind of green at this racket," he says at one point. Green don't cut it here.

For some reason, the film introduces Weston on a horse and singing. I think it was him singing, and not the horse, though each seems to lip-sync as well as the other. When Weston reaches town, he puts the guitar behind a tree and the singing never comes up again. Why bring it out in the first place?

Padding. It's the reason for the stock footage, too, and a lot of other things in this movie. Take a sequence where Higgins takes Weston to meet a man chopping wood, who then takes Weston to a canoe on a river, whereupon they paddle to a small corral where the guy gives Weston a horse and tells him there's a trail to the town where the rodeo is being held. Why did we need to see all this, if not to fill time? Fifty-two minutes never seemed so hard to fill.

Everything is off in this film, from the opening gunfight (everyone including Wayne wave their pistols up and down when firing them, like finger jabs) to the closing battle, where Wayne rides up on two men who shoot and shoot at him, not breaking stride until he jumps off and tackles them to the ground simultaneously.

Hayes is fun to watch at times, and so was Polly Ann Young as the pretty love interest, though like everyone else she's saddled with bad dialogue trying to shoehorn a love story in the off minutes. Everyone else plays their parts like rejected extras from a social- disease short.

It's hard to rustle much love for this one. Even one of the more positive reviews of this movie notes: "Looking too deep into the story shows its flaws." I second that sentiment, provided "looking too deep" means watching it for more than 90 seconds. "The Man From Utah" is something you don't want to watch unless you are a John Wayne fan, in which case you REALLY don't want to watch it.

Billy Liar (1963)
Last Train To London, 23 February 2015

In a world, Billy Fisher is a war hero, beloved despot, acclaimed novelist, writer of the reform-producing prison memoir "I Have Paid," and grandson of the woman who invented radium and penicillin (presumably not simultaneously).

Unfortunately for Billy, this world exists only in his imagination. The rest of the time, he fights a losing battle with grim reality in the Yorkshire city where he lives, toiling as a mortician's clerk while dreaming of making a name for himself in London and lying whenever he feels threatened by reality, which is often.

Tom Courtenay plays Billy as a mixture of dreamer and low-grade sociopath, drawing both our sympathy and scorn. Taken from an even bleaker comic novel by co-screenwriter Keith Waterhouse, "Billy Liar" is an enigma of a movie, directed by a man, John Schlesinger, who liked to make enigmatic films. Surrealistic yet gritty, "Billy Liar" throws a lot of comedic curves at the viewer, yet leaves you with heavier feelings.

"I turn over a new leaf every day, but the blots show through," is how Billy explains it to the one person who seems to understand, the radiant gadabout Liz (Julie Christie). Liz tells Billy he doesn't need to be stuck in his northern town; he can go to London like she does any time he wants. But of course it's not that simple, especially if you are a cheat and a coward at heart.

The fantasy sequences are low-key but effective. We see Billy leading a parade where he also appears as various soldiers. A newspaper advertisement features an article about Billy with the headline: "Genius Or Madman?" When he's with one of the two young women he is presently engaged to, he imagines her slinking over to his bed in a negligee until his reverie is cut short when she catches his hand on her thigh.

Schlesinger works the comedy more than the novel did, a good thing as "Billy Liar" needs a light touch. It is a rare film that marries the kitchen-sink drama of British films being made at the time with more farcical elements, but the drama is ever-present and gets more thick as the movie goes on. Even the humor has an unpleasant edge: One of the biggest laughs comes when we see Billy cut down his boss (Leonard Rossiter) with a tommy gun.

Billy bickers constantly with his sullen father, while dismissing his mother rather heartlessly. "I'm not ordinary folk, even if she is," he says, after shaking off her attempt to talk some sense into him. Billy's just not that likable, even apart from his serial lying. The trick of the film is the way it gets you to pull for him anyway. We see how up against it he is, in the way Courtenay shrugs and smiles and drifts back into fantasy, losing precious time all the while.

"Billy Liar" could have been more fun and less dour, but that would have cut against its message of antic despair. You know what Billy should do with his life, and you know he knows it, too, but like Liz you see also how a dreamer's life can get in the way with reality, and understand why the future belongs to her, not him.

Reeling In The Years, 18 February 2015

Getting old is tough but beats the alternative. Putting as nice a bow on that situation as possible is the mission of this comedy- drama about an aging couple taking in life at their summer cottage; for me, a sturdy if low-key pleasure.

Approaching his 80th birthday, retired professor Norman Thayer, Jr. (Henry Fonda) finds himself forgetting things. A lot of things. About the only thing he can remember is that he's standing at the edge of his actuarial table, and the more he brings up this fact, the more it annoys his longtime wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn). The arrival of their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) adds friction to the pot.

"I think I'll start a new book so I can finish it before I'm finished myself," Norman tells Chelsea's new boyfriend Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman). When he picks up one he's read before, he just shrugs: "My mind is going, so it'll all be new to me."

This kind of humor pops up a lot in "On Golden Pond," which along with the beautiful Billy Williams cinematography and immersive set design, make it a kind of destination spot among movies. You don't watch it for story or even character development as much as an amiable place where quiet, rueful beauty reigns. An opening shot of the title lake (set in Maine, filmed in New Hampshire) transformed into burnished copper by a rising (or setting) sun is pure heaven.

The syrup runs pretty thick on this pancake. Director Mark Rydell does a fine job recreating the Thayers' quiet pattern of life, but occasionally reaches for a bigger moment that isn't there, like Norman trying to find his way out of some woods. Composer Dave Grusin gets so busy with his trills and minor chords, he never develops an engaging central melody. Hepburn delivers one of her typical kabuki performances, with much too much eye-flashing and hand-waving.

She's not one of my favorite actors, but here at least she has the right counterweight in Henry Fonda. He has the Norman character down so well it never feels like acting with him. You see the pain and fear in his eyes, but when he talks, it's in a low growl with W. C. Fields overtones. As Hepburn pushes, he pulls back, and the result feels like you are watching a real couple who have been together for decades, not a pair of movie stars who never met before this shoot.

He has many great scenes here. My favorite is the awkward comedy when he teases Bill Ray about sleeping with his daughter, a scene Coleman also plays very well. It's odd seeing Coleman acting so awkward and uncomfortable, given the hard-case types he usually plays, but it's easy to understand with Old Man Thayer giving him the third degree. He should have done light comedy more often.

The real-life situation of making "On Golden Pond" was at least as interesting as the movie. They shot it on location and around an actors' strike, and the set was apparently a tense one. A commentary track with screenwriter Ernest Thompson is especially illuminating and candid, talking about the challenges of reconfiguring his Broadway play around a cast and director who didn't always share his vision. At times, you can see where they got it right, especially in the second-half scenes where Norman teaches chippy young Billy Ray (Doug McKeon) about fishing on the lake. Overall, they went for a more dramatic flavor than the play had, and seem to get the balance right; a bit soppy, a bit heavy, affecting in the right places but never overbearing.

Much of the talk about this movie centers around the troubled real- life relationship Fonda had with his daughter, something I feel is a burden to "On Golden Pond." For one thing, it's a distraction to the Thayer situation the film is supposed to be about. For another, the relationship between father and daughter, whether Thayer or Fonda, isn't so much developed or resolved as it is waved aside in a wink and a hug. I didn't care about Chelsea at the end of the film and doubt anyone else did, either.

What "On Golden Pond" does offer is atmosphere, and a lot of it. The interiors of the Thayer house are so marvelously furnished and lit, I just want to hang out inside them and listen to Norman grouse at whoever has the misfortune of visiting, as long as it's not me.

Fields At Half Power, 15 February 2015

Coming off a three-year alcoholism-induced convalescence, W. C. Fields struggles more than a bit to show why he was the male comedy star of the 1930s. He finds a crutch in a three-and-a-half-foot wooden co- star named Charlie McCarthy.

Does he need it? The evidence of "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man" suggests so. Fields here has a lot of stunt doubles doing pratfalls, is absent from many scenes, and audio overdubs abound. The bare- bones story presents him as Larsen E. Whipsnade, a carnival owner keeping one step ahead of the law while rooking both ticket-buyers and employees. When his daughter lines up a rich suitor, Whipsnade's money troubles appear over, but will McCarthy and his partner Edgar Bergen ruin the marriage plans?

Other reviewers here say they enjoy Fields but find the Bergen- McCarthy material annoying. It's the opposite for me. The more I watch Fields' hat pulls and mutterings, the more I sigh and wait impatiently for the next scene. His constant cheating and overall nastiness gets to be a chore. He's just not that funny here.

"I'd rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42," he sings, apropos of nothing. Or when one of his underlings asks for his salary: "You'll get your celery, and olives and mustard, too."

But the Bergen-McCarthy stuff is funny. The notion of the runaway ventriloquist dummy was done before, but the delightful absurdity of Charlie finding himself inside an alligator calling out for help is played up winningly like in the classic Fields comedies "Million Dollar Legs" and "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break."

Bergen's ventriloquism was not difficult to catch out, something he calls out himself here. (Girl: "How do you talk without moving your lips?" Charlie: "You're asking the wrong man!") But he invests Charlie with a real personality, and the interplay between the two is such it's easy to buy them as a duo rather than a guy talking to himself. I love the bit where they are on a balloon and Edgar asks Charlie to keep a lookout so he can woo Whipsnade's daughter in private.

"You like him, don't you," the daughter asks Bergen about Whipsnade.

"Talk yourself out of that one!" prods Charlie.

The best scenes Fields has in this film have him play off McCarthy and Bergen, except one where Fields works his own ventriloquist act on a stony-faced audience. The rest of the time, he relies on dodging-the-sheriff gags and double-talking a gullible Grady Sutton out of his money.

Apparently Fields didn't get on with credited director George Marshall; the patchiness of a troubled shoot shows up especially at the end, where the carnival setting is ditched for a society soirée where Fields continually shocks the matron by throwing the word "snake" into his outlandish stories, then adjourns for an overlong ping-pong match and more stunt doubling.

Fields kept himself in the public eye during his convalescence doing radio appearances with Edgar and Charlie; at its best "Honest Man" brings some of this revitalizing energy and evergreen insult humor to screen. But there's a lot of fat and fluff on this one, and with Fields seemingly on shaky ground, it's less a film to recommend than a cultural curiosity of its time featuring a recovering legend and a terrific puppet show.

From Art-House To Playroom, 12 February 2015

A pleasurable children's film sometimes over-infused with adult sensibilities, "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" gives us plenty of charm and character, as well as a sense of director Wes Anderson poking a little fun at himself as noted art-house auteur.

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a retired fowl-thief who feels rather restricted by his new life as a newspaper columnist. When he moves to a new tree with his wife (Meryl Streep) and cub Ash (Jason Schwartzman), the prosperous farms of three mean humans prove too fat and juicy for him to ignore. But a life of crime has a downside, even for a fox as fleet and sly as the Fantastic Mr. F.

As a director of wit and sophistication, Anderson may seem an unlikely candidate for bringing Roald Dahl's children's novel of forest- animal hi-jinks to screen. But Anderson has always had one foot in the water of lost childhood, and his treatment of the source material is clearly a labor of love.

The film also benefits from the stop-action animation employed, giving it the feeling of one of those Rankin/Bass productions from the 1960s and 1970s. The film veers occasionally into twee territory working this vibe, but Anderson's usual directorial style of static compositions and tight close-ups seems a perfect match. At times, Anderson seems to play this up deliberately, pausing on a mealtime scene for one of Anderson's pregnant pauses, followed by the characters devouring their meals in wild-animal mode.

The exchanges scripted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach also reflect this congruence:

"They'll kill the children!"

"Over my dead body they will."

"That's what I'm saying, you'll be dead, too, in that scenario."

"Well, I'm arguing against that."

Anderson's predilection for casting more actors than he has parts is evident here, too, but it kind of works. The usual gang of suspects, i. e. Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Wally Wolodarsky, etc., all provide sterling support as various animal characters, while Michael Gambon shines particularly as Mr. Bean, the nastiest of the human farmers.

It's a more overtly comical offering than you usually get from Anderson. The school Ash goes to has a sign reading "Co-Ed, All Species." The word "cuss" is used as a substitute for a popular profanity, as in "This is going to be a total cluster-cuss for everybody." The humor may play a bit above the heads of little ones at times, but the message of accepting one's differences as strengths rather than weaknesses is cleverly developed. As morals go, it's a pretty good one.

So is "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." At its best, which is often, it brings out the kid in you with its easy charm and pervading sense of wonder. It's not Anderson's greatest film, but it shows why he's worth watching.

Stumbling In The Desert, 25 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I feel guilty about not liking "3 Godfathers" more, a testament to director John Ford's overall brilliance as well as his overlush sentimentality and heavy-handedness. There is much to admire here, but you have to sit through a pretty tedious story to get to it.

Three rustlers decide to try their hand at bank robbery in the Arizona town of Welcome, which gets them on the wrong side of Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond) and eventually lost in endless desert, seeking water. They find instead a pregnant woman (Mildred Natwick) who, while dying, enlists them as godfathers and presses them to see her infant son to safety.

"And when he's a fine, big, brave man, like his godfathers, tell him about his mother, who so wanted to live for him," she says.

It's an affecting scene, one of many in this movie. A key problem in "3 Godfathers" is Ford's ability to deliver affecting scenes like this is pushed to eleven; with heavenly choirs and soughing violins. Ford was never subtle, but he was usually craftier than this.

John Wayne stars as the leader of the godfathers, Robert Hightower, and it's a breakout performance from the Duke. A pair of scenes, one where he explains a situation involving a wrecked watering hole, the other when he takes on the surprisingly arduous task of greasing down his new godson, demonstrate Wayne's supple talents both for tense dramatics and comedy; they deserve placement in any highlight reel of Wayne's greatest moments in cinema.

Pedro Armendáriz as another of the godfathers, Pedro, is at times even better, with his vim and cagey Spanish asides, but the third godfather, Harry Carey, Jr. as the Abilene Kid, is more than a bit of a weight. It's not his fault; Ford forces him to deliver the most mawkish dialogue in the movie, nursing a wounded shoulder and a sense of mission that comes off way too labored. As he quotes from the Bible, explaining a larger purpose to bringing the baby to safety ("You think it's just chance?"), he lifts his eyes to heaven and holds his pose until everyone in the theater gets how much a martyr he is.

"If I, I whimper for water, Pete, don't, don't give it to me, promise..." the Kid says at one point late in the movie.

I'd call this the nadir of the film, yet it is followed by an even weaker scene of Hightower stumbling through a cave talking to echoes and looking ridiculous. Others criticize the religious sentiment; I just find it way too troweled on.

In another review here, planktonrules makes a point with which I wholeheartedly agree. You are never sold on the moral reclamation of Hightower or his buddies, the film's purpose, because they are way too good. There is a moment when Hightower regrets picking up the kid, ("Why didn't somebody stop me before I promised that woman?") but it's never sustained. Say what you will of the 2001 animated remake, "Ice Age," at least that one presents some doubt as to the intentions of one of the three godfathers. Here they are just too good to warrant anything more than pity.

The visual compositions of "3 Godfathers" are often breathtaking. Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch gives us a foretaste of what is to come in his later Ford collaborations, "The Searchers" and "The Quiet Man." Even the Kid's big final scene, mawkishly written as it is, grabs you with its visuals of light and shade. The Mojave Desert becomes the film's most vibrant character.

I felt especially let down by the ending, which goes for chuckles and completely buries its potential for a big confrontation between Hightower and the sheriff. There are good moments, like a Christmas scene in a bar featuring a number of amusing Ford types, but by then I was itching for the film to wrap things up with something more befitting all the sacrifice that had been inflicted upon me. Bond goes from vengeful wraith back to amiable fellow too quickly, and the wrap-up scenes in the courtroom and after are too much lily- gilding for me.

Watching a Ford movie is almost always an experience, and there's enough here for me to respect if not enjoy. But I came away feeling that in his attempt to make a classic, Ford overshot the mark and left us with a movie where his ambition got away from him.

Ultimate Lee, 22 January 2015

Lee Marvin was a quintessential man of action in 1960s cinema, always acting, never explaining. While he enjoyed a run of good films and an Oscar for one that wasn't, this remains his finest hour-and-a-half on film.

Marvin is Walker, a man with no first name and a burning desire for getting back $93,000 stolen from him by his faithless wife and his false friend, Reese (John Vernon). As if by magic, a mystery man named Yost (Keenan Wynn) materializes to offer him a shot at the money...and revenge. Reese is now a part of something called the Organization, and Yost wants Walker's help bringing Reese down.

"You want Reese, and I want the Organization, you understand," Yost explains. "I'm going to help you and you're going to help me."

Marvin's spare approach to acting was never on better display than it is here. His face is granite inexpressiveness, but he never stops until he gets what he is after. The result is a grimly satisfying piece of pure cinema expertly directed by John Boorman and drawing from Marvin's own real-life combat experience. Walker's walking wounded, but never shows pain or much of anything else except when it helps him get what he's after.

The riddle of "Point Blank" rests in who Walker really is; the film is designed magnificently to keep you guessing. Normal human interaction is played at a curious minimum. Walker doesn't even ask questions when he confronts his wife, she simply talks in a monotone while he stares into space. Later, confronting a messenger, he just repeats whatever the fellow blurts out. For about ten minutes, from the time he meets Yost to the reunion with his wife, Walker doesn't speak at all. We just hear his footsteps echoing down an endless corridor.

Is he a ghost? Is he having a vision, perhaps in a dying dream? It's hard to say, and people have had a field day guessing about it. He appears and disappears in elevators and parking garages seemingly at will. Everyone he meets says they thought he was dead. He doesn't even kill anyone directly, except perhaps one death which Walker operates with the help of a bedsheet, something we associate with ghosts. The bedsheet even blows up and covers Walker at the climactic moment.

I'm still not sure what Walker is, but I enjoy watching Marvin make me guess. He doesn't even seem bothered when his sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson) batters him with his hands for a couple of minutes, though her tagging him with a pool cue does get his attention for a little while. Mostly he just moves and watches, self-contained.

He gets off a couple of funny lines, too, though you have to pay attention. At one point, Chris asks him why he brought her along for a meeting with a top Organization guy. "I thought you'd be safer with me than you would be by yourself," he answers. We have seen a lot of people by this point in the film who would have been much safer by themselves.

Occasionally "Point Blank's" arid tone and zen vibe are bothersome elements, and there's a scene in a modern home (actually the same pad the Beatles hung out in when they visited Los Angeles) where Chris and Walker seem a bit too caught up in the movie's farther-out elements. But mostly this is a very involving and crafty movie, with a left- field ending that sticks.

The film's unique style and rapid pace make for the kind of entertainment that is completely of its time and yet timeless, too. The same can be said for Lee Marvin, the hard-living man who left us this study of a man too hard for his own good.

Anarchy On B Deck, 21 January 2015

Groucho, Chico, and Harpo land themselves in another fine mess, and it's up to that heroic, charismatic dynamo Zeppo to bail them out and save the day.

Oh, well, I tried to validate my love for the under-appreciated Marx Brother. Yes, "Monkey Business" is the one where he clouts the bad guy and wins the girl, not to mention performs a mean Maurice Chevalier impression to help his brothers escape imprisonment. But he doesn't get much appreciation for his efforts. The fact the Marxes have little to do once they get off the boat is not my problem, unless I'm looking for a plot in this intentional shambles of a movie.

Recognized as the first Marx Brothers comedy to be based not on a stage play but original material, supplied by S. J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone, Arthur Sheekman, a couple of uncredited script doctors, and probably much ad-libbing, "Monkey Business" is the first comedy the boys shot in Hollywood, after replicating a pair of their stage shows on a set in Astoria, New York. We meet them as stowaways on an ocean liner, staying one step ahead of the ship's crew, with no money, no food, and a lot of complaints.

"I don't care for the way you're running this boat," Groucho tells the captain. "Why don't you get in the back seat for a while and let your wife drive?"

When the first mate (Tom Kennedy) suspiciously asks Groucho if he knows about a stowaway going around with a mustache, Groucho is unperturbed: "Well, you couldn't expect a mustache to go around by itself."

"Monkey Business" is shorter on plot than one has a right to expect, even from a Marx Brothers movie. It's 20 minutes before one even puts in an appearance, when we meet gangster Alky Briggs (Harry Woods) and his restless wife Lucille (Thelma Todd). How Briggs gets the idea that Groucho and Zeppo would make ideal hit men is something that never makes sense. Nor is it supposed to. The plot is just something to keep us occupied in-between comic bits and odd musical interludes involving various Marxes.

The film at times seems to make fun of this very fact. Groucho can't even bother to help out when his brother Zeppo is getting roughed up in a climactic battle, instead providing boxing commentary as he watches overhead. Chico seems to sleepwalk through this film until he spots a piano to play, while Harpo has his most famous moment taking over a puppet show.

The jokes aren't all winners, but it's hard to complain when Groucho delivers them rapid-fire: "With a little study, you'll go a long way, and I'd wish you'd start now."

About the only person other than the Marxes to make an impression is Todd, with whom Groucho has a couple of amusing scenes. She'd be back for the next film, "Horse Feathers," playing up her sexy flapper persona to even bigger effect.

There are several odd cuts, and the pacing really drags in the last half hour, but give director Norman Z. McLeod points for giving the Marx Brothers a platform to play off of. "Monkey Business" is not a great film, but it's a fine comic vehicle that holds up well.

Jaws 3-D (1983)
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Oh How It Bites, 17 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It's hard to believe they actually managed to make a Jaws film worse than this.

Several years after the Amity Island attacks that formed the original "Jaws," we meet Sheriff Brody's two sons in full-on adulthood. Mike (Dennis Quaid) is a senior executive at Sea World, where Sean (John Putch) visits after college. No Brody family reunion would be complete without a big ole shark to remind the boys and us of their glory days. Forcing its way into Sea World though an unsecured gate, the shark snacks on staff and coral poachers while the Brodies and their babes frolic in temporary ignorance, until it all hits the fan at the park's big opening.

The concept isn't that terrible. It's what the writers and director Joe Alves do with it that boggles the mind with sheer stupidity. Watching Quaid and the other actors utter weird inanities that supposedly pass for normal conversation is odd enough, without the wince-inducing performance by Bess Armstrong as the park's whale and dolphin manager and Mike's girlfriend. She seems to have raided Sandy Duncan's medicine cabinet and taken all her peppy pills. Then there's Lea Thompson as Sean's sudden new girlfriend, who thinks nothing of stripping down and enticing her new man to take a swim.

"I bet I can overcome your childhood fears," she says, wading into the water in just her bra and panties.

OK, I admit, that does sound pretty good. But take it from me, it's not. All you do is watch these cutesy scenes and wait like Captain Ahab for that big fish to show up. When it comes, it's not worth the wait.

The shark attacks are filmed in such a ridiculous fakey way you feel insulted rather than scared. You get a rush of bubbles, someone ducking their head underwater, stock footage of some shark filmed in Australia, and that's it. Oh, yeah, and a detached arm, pointing out at the screen to take advantage of something called "Arrivision 3D." The compositions are so stiff it hardly matters.

The big stiff is the shark itself, alternately a matte shot of a still image moving with glacial slowness toward the camera, or a rubberized model so fake it actually folds when it rams into something. At one point, we see Armstrong's character wading in a pool with the shark, pretending to nurse it while she actually pushes it around the water like Bela Legosi did that rubber octopus in "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Would anyone with any ocean sense get in a pool with a Great White? Well, I guess yes if it's more likely to capsize than bite someone, as the case is here.

I'd be remiss if I didn't call out Simon MacCorkindale, who plays a roguish English adventurer and gives "Jaws 3" its one source of true charm. He spends a lot of time bouncing around acting cocky and trading quips with Louis Gossett, Jr.'s park-owner character, but he is undeniable fun when he's on screen working his proto-Aaron Eckhart vibe so engagingly. He and Craig T. Nelson in "The Osterman Weekend" are my 1983 Doe Avedon nominees for giving the best performance in a bad film. But, oh, the thanks poor Simon gets…

After devouring several people and 90 precious minutes of your life, the shark concludes matters by smashing into the viewscreen of an underwater control room. It's the most ridiculous shot in a movie full of bad shots, more so as Alves for some reason plays it in slow motion.

I think it was slow motion; it was hard to be sure. Everything in this movie runs so slow time loses all meaning after a while. "Jaws 3" is such a bad movie it becomes kind of fun in a warped way to see what nutty tricks they pull next, something you can't say of a lot of halfway-decent films held down by competent directors and logical plots. I guess "Jaws The Revenge" is actually worse than this, based as it is on the idea of an actual vengeance-seeking shark seeking out the Brody clan. The silly fish needn't have bothered; "Jaws 3" did a better job finishing them off than he ever could.

Not Just A Good Ole Boy, 15 January 2015

An early warning about the power and peril of mass media, "A Face In The Crowd" introduces us to Lonesome Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter who becomes a demagogue. It's a fine, funny movie with powerhouse performances, if undercut by a moralizing tone.

Rhodes, you see, is beloved by millions for his folksy ways, but we know better right away when we are introduced to him in an Arkansas jailhouse where Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is trying to round up participants for her "Face In The Crowd" radio feature. "Better watch him, he's mean," someone tells her, an ironic comment since watching him will turn out to be a big part of the problem.

To say Griffith plays his role big is an understatement, yet he's doing what Budd Schulberg's script requires of him. He's a man who recognizes no limits in life. "I put my whole self into everything I do," he tells Marcia, which is the truth. The big laugh, the sudden bursts of anger and just-as-sudden swings into apparent (if, we suspect, insincere) regret all find in Griffith a magnificent vessel for our attention for two engaging hours.

As the snowball rolls on, "A Face In The Crowd" becomes a fascinating satire on big media in earlier days, Rhodes hawking a lame vitamin bill ("It won't kill you," is the best a doctor can say about it) which he transforms into proto-Viagra. "Vitajex gives a fellow that get-up that sets him up solid with the ladies," Rhodes purrs. We are soon treated to a montage of clever, corny TV ads of pigs transformed into wolves and sexy ladies singing the wonders of Vitajex while Rhodes smiles at the extent of his hoodwinking.

Less engaging, though still involving and brilliantly acted, especially by Neal (whose luminosity leaves a deep impression) is the relationship between Rhodes and Marcia. She knows he's a con but loves him anyway, in part because she made him what he is. But when Rhodes starts craving a different kind of power as enabler for an arch-conservative senator, Marcia wonders what she has unleashed.

"A Face In The Crowd" is often described as a political movie, which it is to a point. It's almost entirely non-ideological, though. We get that Marcia, and her pipe-smoking mild-mannered would-be beau Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), disapprove of this right-wing thing Rhodes gets into, but it's not the point of the film. Director Elia Kazan keeps the focus on Rhodes as crass opportunist, plotting to use his talents to hurt those who get in his way.

"I'm not just an entertainer, I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion," Rhodes exclaims at the height of his power.

There are moments where "A Face In The Crowd" seems ready to become even more interesting than it is, when we see glimpses of Rhodes as confused by what he is become, and reaching for Marcia with feral determination that doesn't seem put on. "Mighty tall grass," he mutters, fondling dying flowers in his Manhattan penthouse. "We're getting in deep, Marcia."

But the film falls back into disliking Rhodes for what he has become, and turning Miller into the voice of cool Eastern reason telling Marcia (and eventually Rhodes) just what's right. I love Matthau more than any other actor in this film, but he's the film's weak link because, like Griffith, he's playing the part as written and this time it's not much of a part.

The more the film tells me how awful Rhodes really is, the more I find myself wanting to know more about him, like why a guy who exudes such warmth can be so selfish and vituperative at heart. The ending is rather conventional, using the legend of Uncle Don's famous on-air faux-pas (which Simpsons fans will recognize as happening to the Great Gabbo) as an excuse to end things on a tidy and smug note. Having Mel give the final "what-it-all-means" speech is a sign Kazan, for all his command of cinema, didn't always trust his audience to get the message the first time.

Still, the great moments in the film are great indeed, and make for lasting commentary on the dumbed-down state of media then and now. The technology has changed, but the laughs endure. Griffith gives a performance for the ages, and assisted by Neal as well brilliant editing and cinematography, offers a milestone moment for reckoning with the power of big media.

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