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Engaging But Soft, 18 May 2015

A loose story developed around an amusing concept, "Be Kind Rewind" showcases the limits of good intentions alone as much as it does the visual cleverness of writer-director Michel Gondry.

Mike (Mos Def) works at a video rental store in Passaic, New Jersey. One day the store's entire inventory of videotapes is accidentally erased by bumbling pal Jerry (Jack Black). Forced to improvise, the pair set about restocking the store with special new footage for the lost movies they shoot themselves, using whatever is on hand. The end result proves wildly popular, but can it save the store from demolition?

"Be Kind Rewind" works hard at establishing a rudimentary concept of "do-it-yourself" filmmaking it calls "Sweding." This basically involves taking the core idea behind a big-budget Hollywood production, say "Ghostbusters" or "Rush Hour 2," and shooting a 20- minute improvised version of that on videotape.

It's a fun concept that takes up a half-hour of montage sequences and set-ups. The rest of the time, we get Gondry's vision of Passaic as a multi-cultural melting pot of good vibes and offbeat whimsy. Rather pleasant, yet it never coalesces into anything substantial.

Much of the more structured comedy is dropped on the shoulders of Black, who plays one of his more antic wild men here, to a somewhat obnoxious extent. A lengthy opening section plays up his character's annoying, trouble-causing nature especially as it relates to a power plant which Jerry claims is controlling and "paranizing" him. This is one of many pieces of "Be Kind Rewind" which feels totally random, more so after it is dropped for the "Sweding" idea.

The whole film is like that. We are given a lengthy preamble about the singular importance of Fats Waller to the community, only to learn later on that he wasn't really born in the building where the video store is, and so what? A long section centers on the video store's owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) and his fight to keep the building from being demolished which is played up at dramatic length but never resolved.

At least the "sweding" is fun. Shooting "Ghostbusters," Mike does his own version of the end credits, him basically saying "Starring Bill Murray and other actors" after the shoot is over. When the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man explodes, the final effect is achieved by holding a still photo of a crowd of people in front of the camera lens, then spraying it with whipped cream.

I especially enjoyed Melonie Diaz as a young woman named Alma who Mike and Jerry enlist to help them make their movies, basically to play any of the female parts that require kissing scenes. Like everything else in the film, Alma is introduced randomly, but with Diaz in the part I didn't care. It's fun watching her interact with everyone else in such an unaffected way, however absurd it gets.

Gondry, who made his mark with high-concept projects like "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," seems here to be consciously stepping down from that more serious headspace to make something designed to be enjoyable and to celebrate the human spirit. After about 30 minutes, I was more or less enjoying the experience, if never quite enough to recommend it.

Garish Side Of Ford, 16 May 2015

John Ford's willingness to play it up big in his movies was normally one of the director's great strengths. But sometimes it got away from him. A good example is this tribute to his friend "Spig" Wead.

Wead (John Wayne) is a U. S. Navy officer chafing to get up in the air. The way he sees it, "How else are we gonna get aviation?" To that end, he takes on the Army, Navy superiors, and even his wife, Min (Maureen O'Hara). His commitment to air power is such that it cancels out everything else, until a sudden accident forces a change of focus.

"Spig Wead," Min fumes at one point. "Never listen to anybody else. Just do exactly what you wanna do all the time."

"The Wings Of Eagles" is one of Ford's stranger movies. Sudden shifts in tone predominate. The film starts out a light-hearted service romp with pratfalls and car chases. Then sudden tragedy occurs. More light-hearted antics follow. Then Ford drops the big boom on Spig. The next half-hour centers on a long, painful convalescence.

Ford did mood shifts in his films all the time, of course. Normally, the gears didn't grind so loudly as they do here.

"Wings Of Eagles" is perhaps best known for Ford's insertion of an autobiographical element, a director named "John Dodge" who enlists Wead as a screenwriter, which Ford actually did after Wead's Navy career came to a sharp end. An argument can be made that Ford is actually presenting us with a double self-portrait: Wead comes off here as difficult, selfish, alcoholic, career-obsessed, and unable to hold onto relationships, all flaws Ford's biographers say the director had in spades. No wonder Ford can't decide whether to play it as comedy or tragedy.

Wayne is flat-out brilliant here. Just a year after making "The Searchers" with Ford, the actor was in his peak thespian form and plays the valleys of Wead's life with candid abandon, even shedding his hairpiece this one time on screen. For 15 minutes, he's required to carry major scenes with his face buried in a pillow, and pulls it off. I never got tired of watching him.

The same can't be said of the rest of this movie. The mawk runs thick with this one, with O'Hara doing a lot of crying into the camera while Spig flies around the world to prove something or other. Much of the rest of the time is spent on merry fisticuffs with rival Army aviators, or eye-rolling reaction shots from cigar- chewing Dan Dailey as Spig's enlisted buddy Jughead.

Spig's virtual abandonment of his family is one of the movie's constant themes. When Min tells one of her daughters about Spig's latest aviation record, the girl replies: "Would it be a record if Daddy came home?"

O'Hara has some good scenes, too, and so does Dailey, the latter especially as a prod to Spig's eventual rehabilitation. Both worked well with Ford and knew how to make use of the director's loose reins.

Yet Ford for some reason holds off on the happy endings. Normally, this might be a strength, but here it comes off as a bit wanton, especially when the film pushes so many light-comedy buttons. Through the chuckles, Spig suffers and suffers. After a while, so do we.

An Affair To Forget, 13 May 2015

Light comedies look like the easiest things to make when they work, but when they don't, it's more like quantum physics on acid. Take this 1984 sex farce.

Teddy Pierce (Gene Wilder) is a happily married ad man in San Francisco who goes gaga when he catches a glimpse of a beautiful model (Kelly LeBrock) in racy undies. With the help of some friends, Teddy works around the suspicions of his wife (Judith Ivey) and the anger of a spurned co-worker (Gilda Radner) to arrange a furtive rendezvous with the object of his desire.

Best remembered today for the film debut of the bodacious LeBrock and a soundtrack that featured Stevie Wonder's hit song "I Just Called To Say I Love You," this is a movie that aims low and still misses. Wilder, who wrote and directed, presents a comedy that is not only not funny, but so tonally off as to become uncomfortable to watch.

Take the scenes with Radner. One of the great comedic talents of her time, Radner's wasted here as the butt of humor as mean as it is nonsensical. We see her as a love-starved crone being duped by bad luck into thinking Teddy wants to get romantic with her, only to find he doesn't. This drives her to inflict vengeance on him and his helpless car. Why does Teddy put up with this, rather than take it up with her or with HR?

You might answer that it's because this is a farce, but elsewhere "The Woman In Red" is played much more dramatically, too much so. Two of Teddy's male friends undergo crises involving romantic partners that are played very seriously, and developed in a heavy- handed way by Wilder that threatens his largely jokeless comedy. Or was I supposed to be laughing when Joseph Bologna has a nervous breakdown after discovering his wife and kids left him?

Wilder is only a little more successful working on Teddy's home life, as when Teddy discovers his wife keeps a revolver around the house and admits to being easily jealous.

"You realize you might have shot me?" he tells her after her gun accidentally goes off.

"I would never do that," she answers. "Not without a reason."

There are also little side bits that never make any sense, like a daughter's boyfriend who sports an aggressive Mohawk hairdo and makes clumsy passes at Teddy's wife, or a destructive and pointless gag Teddy's friends play at a fancy restaurant. These don't connect to the main story, and they aren't funny on their own.

At one point, we discover Teddy's wife hosts a diet clinic in their home for reasons that are never explained. The entire purpose of this seems to be to provide Wilder with an excuse for some physical humor, walking through a thick crowd of people in his character's living room while an instructor drones on about something called "the Alphabet diet:" "You have to watch yourself carefully because by the time you get to 'P,' you might put on all the weight you lost on 'K,'" she tells them.

And what of LeBrock's character, Charlotte? As male fantasy object, she certainly works for me. Yet except for one scene in an elevator with Charles Grodin (playing one of Teddy's friends), she never breaks out of that to develop any comic identity or dramatic interest.

Wilder's performance alternates between goofy and wan; he was in an odd period in his career after some fantastic comedic performances over the prior 15 years apparently left him with no more mountains to climb. He seems tired and disengaged here, adding to the weight of a very labored film.

Key Largo (1948)
Disillusioned Vet Vs. Unwelcome Guests, 10 May 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

That rumble you hear over the Florida Keys isn't just thunder from an oncoming hurricane, it's two giants of Warner Bros.' classic gangster movies having one final on-screen brawl. And one of them brought his dame with him.

For the purposes of the film, that would be Edward G. Robinson's Johnny Rocco character, a semi-retired mobster who moves into a hotel in Key Largo off-season to make a big score, taking with him a few of his boys and an old flame, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor).

Humphrey Bogart's Frank McCloud is a former Army major who fought in Italy, and comes to pay his respects to the father (Lionel Barrymore) and widow (Lauren Bacall) of a fallen comrade, who run the same hotel. He's not a gangster this time, but he's still a tough guy, as Rocco and his bulls find out when they try and take McCloud for a ride.

"Key Largo" is a brilliantly acted, moody and suspenseful film worthy of the talents of all concerned, including director/co- screenwriter John Huston. It's got a distinct Hemingway vibe about it, kind of "Soldier's Home" meets "The Killers" with McCloud a sort of Nick Adams figure. He hardly says very much, but he makes you pay attention when he does speak. (Bogart and Bacall earlier made a movie based on a Hemingway novel that didn't seem much like Papa at all!)

Trevor won the film's lone Oscar, and deserved it, but Robinson steals the picture. As mark.waltz points out in his July 2012 review here, the name seems a callback to the crime-boss character Rico that Robinson played in "Little Caesar," and he's still the same trigger-happy dumbbell here that he was then. He exudes menace and cruelty, and also a sense of bewildered helplessness at his present condition that's rather affecting:

"After living in the USA for more than 30 years, they called me an undesirable alien. Me, Johnny Rocco. Like I was a dirty Red or sumthin!"

The gang around him is great, too, hard-boiled stereotypes but quite well acted. I particularly enjoyed Thomas Gomez as Curly, Rocco's number-two. He chews a mean wad of gum and has a hilarious monologue while trying to distract an angry Rocco about people bringing back Prohibition so the gangsters can have the old days back.

What I don't like so much about the film is the odd subtext, which plays up McCloud's current disillusionment on account of Rocco being present. Did he really think World War II was the war to end gangsterism?

There's also a subplot about some local Seminoles who huddle around the hotel when the hurricane strikes. You kind of need them late in the film for the tragedy that triggers McCloud's late burst of action, but it doesn't make any sense on its own. It feels tacked on and a bit stagey, like much else in this film.

And what's with the anger directed at McCloud for not plugging Rocco? Did that scene ever make sense as a display of apparent cowardice on McCloud's part? What was he supposed to do?

Max Steiner's overbearing score is another letdown. I didn't even think much of the final confrontation between McCloud and Rocco's gang. It's a bit too easy and low-key.

But what's good about "Key Largo" outweighs what's not. Bacall does fine work playing a part rather than burnishing her star power, and Bogart shows how to let another screen legend (Robinson) rant on and on without losing his own magnetism. And did anyone make a shave seem as hilarious and terrifying as Edward G.?

The Heart Of Harold, 29 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

You can't go wrong with self-confidence. This was Harold Lloyd's recipe for life, and the same holds true with the characters he plays. The best example of this is Harold Hickory in "The Kid Brother."

Harold is the youngest of three sons in the all-male Hickory clan who keep order in the town of Hickoryville. Harold desperately wants the approval of his father and brothers, but can't quite manage it. A new reason to shine comes in the form of beautiful dancer Mary (Jobyna Ralston), who rides into town with a medicine show. When Mary's partners steal the town treasury, it's up to Harold to save the day.

"The Kid Brother" isn't as iconic as "The Freshman" or "Safety Last," but it's right up there with the first and a good deal better than the other when it comes to showcasing the full range of Lloyd's cinematic talents. There are stunts and thrills and a big scary finish to keep an audience gasping between laughs, but the true beauty of the film is how well it sets up the sentimental side of Harold, which is where movie clowns often fall short.

Right away, we are told Harold is a bit of a town joke, born on April 1: "The stork that brought him could hardly fly for laughing." When we first see him, watching his father and brothers easily lift a great trunk, Lloyd's face reflects pride and chagrin. He can't measure up, his eyes tell us.

"You're too modest, but I like you for it." That's Mary talking to Harold, but it could as well be us for the way we are introduced to him. There are many laughs in this film, but what makes "The Kid Brother" stand up so well 90 years later is the craft of the production.

Even if he didn't take a director's credit, giving it instead to his ailing collaborator Ted Wilde and journeyman J. A. Howe, Lloyd's touch is both unmistakable and deft. An opening scene of a derelict boat on a sun-burnished bay not only introduces the dreamy, pastoral quality of the entire film, but sets the scene for where it all comes to an end, desperately and triumphantly, in 90 minutes.

That final battle in the "Black Ghost" is a masterpiece of pure cinema, and so is a scene of Harold waving goodbye to Mary by climbing a tree that never seems to stop rising - without the camera ever losing Mary in the ever-deepening background. Likewise, Harold gets maximum use from the intense physiognomy of co-star Constantine Romanoff, who plays the heavy Sandoni, but could just as easily be Nosferatu for the way he is shot. He presents a horrific adversary, yet he's not only overcome but literally becomes a vehicle for Harold's final triumph.

"The Kid Brother" doesn't have the greatest gags of silent cinema. Harold's rivalry with an annoying neighbor who tries to steal Mary away is more trope than plot point. The crisis of the stolen money is kind of introduced out of left field. But craft and charm count for a lot in comedy, and so does timing, all of which this movie gives you. I never laughed once when I watched the scene where Harold's two brothers are caught out in their nightshirts by a sudden visit from Mary, but I never stopped smiling. It's not just some good gags, but the way the camera moves from room to room, and the way light and shade are used to suggest lurking menace, just before the tables are turned yet again and Harold escapes fraternal punishment.

You watch other Harold Lloyd films and get blown away by the skill, the comedic chops, and the acrobatic daring he brought to the screen. "The Kid Brother" has a quieter, subtler power that only builds with repeat viewings. If it's not quite a masterpiece, it shows how a great screen comedy can be made.

Needs More Nikto, 28 April 2015

(This review is for the 96-minute director's cut.)

A film that aims to please as much as "Army Of Darkness" does shouldn't be too hard to enjoy. But a weak story and flat characterizations did limit my enjoyment of director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell's signature inventiveness.

The last of Raimi's acclaimed "Evil Dead" films that all featured Campbell, "Army Of Darkness" marks a major tonal shift for the series, as the horror elements that dominated the first two films are replaced by humor, and the eerie original setting of an isolated cabin is swapped out for an unconvincing medieval Europe.

Ash (Campbell), deposited in the Middle Ages at the end of "Evil Dead II," makes an uneasy peace with Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and his people. Ash goes out to find the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead, which has the power to send Ash back to his own time. Ash finds it, along with much trouble, all because Ash forgot the last word of an intonation he was supposed to deliver when taking the book. Leave it to Ash.

"Did you speak the exact words?" Ash is asked by Arthur's bearded wise man (Ian Abercrombie), whom Ash calls "spinach chin."

"Look, maybe I didn't say every single little tiny syllable, no," Ash replies. "But basically I said them, yeah."

At the head of the evil horde roused by Ash's miscue is a familiar looking character, Evil Ash (also Campbell, in heavy make-up.) The series premise didn't start out being about Ash's stupidity, but that was what it became by "Army Of Darkness," now doubled by Ash's cruel-but-equally-dim doppelganger.

Watching the two trade macho quips and get fooled by each other is fun for a while, but as "Army Of Darkness" goes on it becomes obvious Raimi doesn't have much else on offer this time. He's still got that ingenious hyperkinetic style, with POV shots of flying arrows and catapult boulders, but as a story it seems oddly artificial. The other "Evil Dead" films were artificial, too, but their accent on thrills and gore made this easier to accept.

Here Raimi and Campbell double down on the comedy. Sometimes, it works, as when Ash and Evil Ash first meet and we find out why Evil Ash gets to wear such over-the-top make-up for the rest of the film. Yet the reliance on catch phrases gets annoying, as every action scene seems an excuse for a close-up of Ash saying something like "Come to Pappa" or "Gimme some sugar, baby."

There are bits of story that seem to get away from Raimi and his brother/co-screenwriter Ivan Raimi, like an alliance between Arthur and a rival lord which comes out of left field. And why is Bridget Fonda in this movie? She's gone after two minutes in a non-speaking role, yet was at the time by far the most recognizable face in the cast. If it was an in-joke by Raimi, I didn't get it.

The director's cut also suffers from a lame trick ending, which I won't give away except to say it is both too obvious and too heavy. I would have minded it even more if I had cared about the characters.

Mostly, the problem with "Army Of Darkness" is that it both requires familiarity with the other two "Evil Dead" films to understand at a basic level, yet pulls away so dramatically from what you expect going in as to make that backstory not only unnecessary but counter- productive. It's a strange film on its own, often funny and exciting, yet on the whole disappointing, too.

Wayne Gets Wet, 18 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The canoe overtakes the horse and the Mounties become the cavalry as the Canadian West is the setting for this rather different but still weak Lone Star oater starring a young John Wayne.

Rod Drew (Wayne) journeys to the wilds of western Canada to seek out the niece of a man named John Ball. On the train ride over he reacquaints himself with a college chum, Wabi (Noah Beery, Jr.) who quickly finds himself on the wrong end of a bad poker game. With Drew's help, the two make a daring escape by jumping off the train while it crosses a river, the first of many big splashes in this splash-happy film.

Give director Robert N. Bradbury credit for shaking up the usual Lone Star formula. The stunts this time are better than usual, and more smoothly integrated into an unusual story, adapted from the novel "The Wolf Hunters" by James Oliver Carwood, a noted writer in his day. Noah Beery, Jr. makes for an interesting foil, playing a decent fellow but one with a hidden agenda where a woman named Felice (Verna Hillie) is concerned. Several reviews here mention the scenic vistas, which are indeed impressive, California playing Canada nicely.

The problem with "The Trail Beyond" is it's a cheapo Lone Star film with jerky cutting, repetitive situations, and weak acting. Normally Wayne is pretty good in these films, but he's actually very wooden here. Just as bad is another Lone Star vet I have come to like, Earl Dwire, who is stuck with another of those bad-accented villain characters he can't pull off, this time as a French-Canadian who is two-timing his boss and plots to steal Rob and Wabi's gold-mine map.

Wayne just can't get out of his own way delivering bad dialogue like "Well, this is your little game, is it?" An opening exposition scene is painful for the way Wayne nods amateurishly at the wooden lines of some unnamed fellow for whom he is undertaking this expedition. In case you wonder about that, the script has Drew exclaim at one point: "I haven't forgotten that you were Dad's best friend," an awkward bit of excessive fat-chewing made worse by Duke's sheepish grin when delivering it.

Beery is better, but he's got problems, too, as the dialogue really pushes his character to dopey depths.

"I owe him my life but I'm not going to let him come between us!" he tells Felice.

"Why, Wabi, I never realized you felt that way, about me," she replies.

This whole jealous-Wabi thing could have been a more worthwhile plot point, but it's never developed. Wabi acts a bit squirrelly for a while, until he fesses up about misleading Drew. For his part, Drew just pats the guy on the shoulder and the story continues like nothing happened.

There are good moments in the film. I like Wayne's line after he and Wabi take their jump off the train: "Nice day for ducks." It's a classic Wayne one-liner for those of us who like to keep score.

The film does move quickly in the standard Lone Star way, and there is a nice subplot where we learn the fate of John Ball. The fact is a good story could have been told in the short running time afforded, which Bradbury shows us by nearly pulling it off. Watching Lone Star Wayne movies is usually a case of seeing a classy performance in search of a vehicle; here Wayne never finds the right handle and proves this film's most surprising disappointment.

Failure To Communicate, 15 April 2015

Ostensibly a murder mystery but more a romantic drama with strong social overtones, "The Crimson Kimono" comes armed with noble intentions and the stylistic panache you associate with director- writer Samuel Fuller, but not much in the way of a story.

A stripper named Sugar Torch is gunned down one night on a busy Los Angeles street. Detective Sgt. Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and his partner Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) develop a lead with the help of a young artist named Chris (Victoria Shaw). Both men also develop strong feelings for Chris, which leads to sparks and considerable misunderstandings after she makes her decision.

In a DVD doc that comes with this movie, director Curtis Hanson notes that this "fits in no genre except the Sam Fuller genre," which is a great description. "The Crimson Kimono" starts with a typical Fuller bang, a big brassy stripper doing her act and then walking into a dressing-room ambush. The killing doesn't really make sense, either as it goes down or when you think about it after the movie is over, but it makes an impression, which is why Fuller was Fuller.

The problem of the murder isn't only its incoherence, but the way it is swept under the rug so soon in favor of a social-issues drama which ostensibly deals with racism but is really about a guy his partner correctly describes at one point as a "meathead." At one point, we hear Bancroft even say "Nobody cares who killed that tramp," which is a heckuva line from a homicide detective except it fits with the mood of the film.

Corbett and Shigeta make for a sturdy pair in their film debuts, so much so we care more about their issues as the story develops than we do about any progress they make on the case. Too much time is spent on a secondary character, Mac (Anna Lee), who drinks, smokes, and dispenses enough folky wisdom about art and love we come to understand that she's basically Sam in a dress.

Lovers of the quintessential Fuller argot will have a field day here: "I'll have to tap her for a raincheck." "You tackle Rembrandt at the school and I'll shortstop Shuto." "You believe that eyewash?" All the above lines are from Kojaku, who seems like the last person to suffer a big emotional crisis by suddenly discovering he's a Japanese- American. But he does, because it's that kind of movie.

Fuller fans will appreciate the film's dynamics at play, the way he challenges the audience by setting up a potential romance between Bancroft and Chris and then pushing the race buttons once he's got you thinking you're all assimilated. It's a strange sort of racial- issues story in that none of the white characters seem to have serious hang-ups. Fuller did like to complicate racial issues in his movies, but the curves that worked so well in "Shock Corridor" kind of flop here.

Sam Leavitt's cinematography captures a somewhat hallucinatory Los Angeles at night, with smoky nimbi hanging over characters as they prowl lonely alleyways and pool halls. As a police procedural, "Crimson Kimono" has the right atmosphere.

Liking the atmosphere, the characters, and the tangy Fuller spirit is not enough when the story doesn't connect. In the end, you are left with a film about failure to communicate that itself doesn't really communicate much of anything other than the wrongness of jumping to conclusions and the need for a good mystery to care more than a little at the end as to whodunit.

Icebox Games, 12 April 2015

Lovely but inert, "The Illusionist" stands and falls on the basis of its trickery, both in its story and its visuals. If you aren't the questioning sort, you may be entertained, though not too deeply.

The film opens on a provincial stage in the old Austria-Hungarian Empire, where a police chief inspector named Ulm (Paul Giamatti) is about to arrest a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) in mid- performance. A lengthy flashback then shows us how Eisenheim's love of the Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel) caused him to create a unique show involving the promise of life after death that threatens the stability of the empire and the heir to its throne.

A term credited to Alfred Hitchcock, "icebox scenes," come into play a lot in "The Illusionist." Basically, they are scenes that you take at face value the first time you view the movie, but wonder about after, maybe while getting a glass of milk at the fridge. As the subject in "The Illusionist" is visual trickery, you are meant to wonder after at how what you see comports with what actually happens.

It doesn't quite gel, though. Trickery in "The Illusionist" is often of an artificially-enhanced variety that adds to an already-yawning distance between audience and characters.

Part of this comes from a story which never takes off. There is a stuffy, "Masterpiece Theater" vibe about "The Illusionist" with its fancy décor and costumes, as well as its focus on class and overall sense of restraint. The cinematography takes advantage of beautiful Czech locations, but overdoes the sepia tones; while a Philip Glass score is alternately hypnotizing and soporific.

The performances also keep you at a distance. Norton is very slick and assured in the lead role, but as usual with him I found myself disengaged. Giamatti is similar; a game performance but a bit too stiff. Biel wears the mantle of her gorgeousness with accomplished grace, but her character's romance with Eisenheim is the film's weakest element. "The only mystery I never solved was why my heart couldn't let go of you," is what passes for love talk between them.

The one standout element of this film for me was Rufus Sewell's dynamite performance as the film's heavy, Crown Prince Rudolf. Sewell plays his part with an understated arrogance that blends deftly with the ambiguity of the character as written, a political progressive with an imperious air and a reputation for hurting women. He also gives an otherwise too-quiet Norton a chance to draw sparks from someone else.

There's much potential for icebox talk with Rudolf, yet whenever he's not on screen the film contents itself with gaudy demonstrations of Eisenheim's trickery, prompting icebox talk of another, less happy kind. You wonder after at the improbable string of coincidences that seem to fall into place, the way Eisenheim's magic is pulled off so flawlessly in unlikely ways. It puts more attention on the CGI and director-screenwriter Neil Burger's story contortions than the film can safely handle.

Burger does offer a smart film here, and deserves credit for keeping a potentially outsized story from getting out of hand. There is a lot of charm on offer, and worthwhile moments. But the emptiness at the center is hard to ignore. As illusions go, this won't keep you wondering at the icebox very long.

Gremlins (1984)
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It Came From The Eighties, 31 March 2015

The sort of film where a good idea suffers from a patchy script and a lot of revisions, "Gremlins" reflects the time when it was made. The 1980s were a decade of goofy gimmick movies, and "Gremlins" offers exactly that.

While scouring Chinatown to sell one of his many inventions, Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is introduced to a cute, furry critter called a "Mogwai." He names it "Gizmo" and brings it home as a pet for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). Gizmo requires special handling: no bright light, no water, and no feeding after midnight. After getting wet, Gizmo produces replicant Mogwai. "This could really be the big one," Randall says happily. He is soon proved tragically correct.

When it was released in the summer of 1984, "Gremlins" was a marvel of cinematic wizardry on account of the animatronic puppets that make up the title characters. Much of the talk around the film centered on a sequence in the Peltzer kitchen where Billy's mother (Frances Lee McCain) has to fend off various attacks from the nasty gremlins, and in doing so contributed to the creation of a new MPAA- rating, PG-13.

It's a brilliant sequence, the one moment in the film where the special effects (designed by future Oscar winner Chris Walas), the story (by Chris Columbus) and a human performance deliver on the payoff "Gremlins" promises. McCain is so intense yet so funny you can get as much from watching her face as you do from the carnage on the countertops around her. It's one of the great moments of 1980s cinema.

The rest of the time, "Gremlins" is a tonally imbalanced, under- funny concept film that doesn't do much more than flog merchandise in the guise of a story. Conceived as a straight horror film, "Gremlins" went through various changes after producer Stephen Spielberg took hold of the project, so that when it finally was released, it became a scare comedy without the jokes.

Entire plot lines were dropped, but the film is so ineptly constructed that their beginnings remain. We are introduced to Billy's interest in comics, a local pub under threat of condemnation, a poor mother trying to find a way to feed her children for Christmas, an obnoxious co-worker of Billy's played by Judge Reinhold, and other things, all of which vanish when the gremlins take over the second half. None are addressed again; Reinhold, the biggest male name in the cast, disappears entirely once the gremlins attack.

Director Joe Dante does what he can to make the filler interesting. I like the Reinhold character's come-on to Billy's girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates), inviting her to his apartment with the tagline: "I'm talking cable." It's a very 1980s experience in that and other ways, such as when the gremlins don leg warmers and start flashdancing. But for too long a time, "Gremlins" seems to be in a holding pattern, doing nothing much at all except presenting these red- herring story lines that never get resolved while the monsters themselves wait in the wings.

It's a very goofy film. One secondary character has a consuming hatred for all foreign things, which he talks about non-stop. A science teacher runs late-night tests on a caged gremlin in a middle-school laboratory. Both father and son Peltzer are walking Murphy's Laws, where anything that can go wrong does. Once they run amok, the gremlins often wear fitted caps and coats, as if they happened upon the little people's section of L. L. Bean.

"Gremlins" kicks into a higher gear with that attack, though it never again achieves anything like the sustained brilliance of the kitchen battle with Mrs. Peltzer. The film posits at one point that the gremlins are subtle creatures who creep into machinery and make the resulting carnage seem like an accident. This would have made for an intriguing idea, but Dante and Spielberg never do anything with it. They are making a gimmick movie, and striving for audience impact in the cheapest way possible.

It's fun for young people, I suppose, and those who first saw it when they were children. Give me the sequel instead, where the comedy is much stronger and the story more engaging.

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