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What! No Laughs?, 21 July 2014

Buster Keaton's last starring Hollywood feature is all about the joy of unrestricted boozing, but leaves a sour aftertaste.

Taxidermist Elmer J. Butts (Buster) decides to invest his life savings on what pal Jimmy Potts (Jimmy Durante) calls "the idea of a century...a bonzana," namely brewing beer to satisfy the public's appetite after voting down Prohibition. "A hundred and twenty cracked lips are straining at the leash," Jimmy says. The problem is Prohibition is not yet officially repealed, putting Elmer and Jimmy in the gunsights of both gangsters and the police.

Durante and Keaton had already made two comedies together, and while at least one of them, "Speak Easily" (despite the title, not about Prohibition or drinking) is modestly amusing, "What! No Beer?" is a painful demonstration of their lack of chemistry, and Keaton's poor condition as divorce and drink took their toll. Keaton is almost inanimate for much of the movie, while Durante overcompensates with his signature malaprops and heavy body English.

In one scene, Elmer and Jimmy try to make beer in an abandoned brewery with the help of some hobos. By now, Buster's screen persona had been reduced to fey simpleton. Told to add a can of malt extract to their mixture, he throws the entire can into the tub. Later, he tries to cap bottles with a hammer, crushing them into shards. There's also a fire hose that gets everyone wet.

Later on, Elmer and Jimmy face some angry cops about to put them away for their illicit brewing. While Jimmy rants up a storm, Buster struggles silently to keep his balance, handcuffed to his friend. It's supposed to be funny because Buster falls down a lot, but it hurts to watch him so badly used as a prop.

Was Buster drunk through the entire film? One suspects he was at best hung over, as his facial reactions are frequently slow and unsteady. Facing the steamroller that was Durante, he seems resigned to his sad fate most of the way. One scene, where Jimmy explains he is only making fake "St. Louis Beer," exposes Buster in clearly soused condition. He is in no shape here to make the kind of comedy Keaton was a master of, even when the subject is alcohol. Potts is the one character in this film we are supposed to think is not a drinker.

Durante's material is little better. Apparently, the creative team just let him rip with his "hot-cha-chas" and hoped audiences would be forgiving. Told by Elmer that one of the stuffed animals is a kangaroo, "a native of Australia," Jimmy smacks his forehead and exclaims: "My sister married one of them!"

However weak the joke, someone at M-G-M must have liked it, as it gets three callbacks later in the movie.

Director Edward Sedgwick was the credited helmer of "The Cameraman," Buster's great comedy made just five years before. It's hard to believe Sedgwick could do no better for his old star than recycle quality gags from "Seven Chances" and "Spite Marriage" in diluted form. But that's what happens here.

I enjoyed one line of Durante's, when he tells Elmer that they don't have to come up with real money to buy their brewery: "This is high finance. You don't have to pay cash." Phyllis Barry reminds me of Kay Francis and delivers some sexy presence late in the film, but she did no better than Buster as her Hollywood career sank after this.

In the end, there's a big build-up that comes out of left field to save our heroes, followed by a rare bit of political commentary from M-G-M when Durante proclaims Prohibition's coming end. It's one valid moment in a painfully contorted affair; Buster's sad fate here offers ample evidence how Prohibition only worsened the condition of problem drinkers.

Brilliant Cutting Makes For Great Slasher, 19 July 2014

"The Silence Of The Lambs" is famous for being Hollywood's finest slasher film, a masterpiece of unblinking psychological gamesmanship, but its best cuts were made in the editing room.

Time is running out for psychopath Buffalo Bill's latest kidnappee. Trying anything, the FBI sends a young trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), to chat up an especially diabolical serial killer now in custody, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The hope is the two will hit it off well enough so that Lecter will help with nailing down Bill's persona. But what starts out unsettling enough for Starling soon becomes a real journey into fear.

"Silence Of The Lambs" has a great story, diabolical atmospherics, and a stark visual template that pulls you in. But two things work for it beyond these elements.

The first, which is widely commented upon, is how everyone in this film is working outside their comfort zones, all the way through to the audience. Director Jonathan Demme did quirky, humanistic comedies centered around redemptive themes. Foster didn't play cops. Hopkins didn't play psychos or big-screen villains, unless it was a historical figure like Hitler. Handing such creative people different hats and making them work allowed for fresher, vital impressions.

Second, and more critical, was the way "Silence" was cut. Looking at the "Collector's Edition" DVD reveals scenes trimmed or edited out entirely, employing plot elements from Thomas Harris' source novel. A couple of dropped scenes between Starling and FBI lead investigator Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) are particularly involving, but the overall subplot they work to establish, about Crawford's dispute with a nasty superior and Starling's own line-crossing of FBI strictures, only obscure what the audience cares most about, which is the relationship between Hannibal and Starling and also the ongoing case of Buffalo Bill.

The first of these is really where "Silence" best delivers. So much of the movie's cultural legacy rests in the exchanges between Starling and Lecter as written by Ted Tally and delivered by Foster and Hopkins.

It's a tense cat-and-mouse situation, not devoid of humor or pathos but focused relentlessly on the core issue of stopping Buffalo Bill. What motivates Lecter is not sympathy but his interest in Starling, both as someone he rather likes and as a worthy opponent. "People will say we're in love," he jokes at one point, and it's funny because it's kind of true in a twisted way the movie is not afraid to develop, even if the idea of an actual relationship between the two seems absurd, at least in this iteration.

While known as a slasher film, violence is handled very well. We see as many murders actually take place here as we did in "Psycho," which is not that many. More is done by showing less. Hitchcock would have approved.

Some aspects of the film keep me from declaring it perfect. The way Hannibal makes his big play in Tennessee is too much of the Hollywood- magic-villain variety, while Demme emphasizes Starling's discomfort as a woman in a man's world in a way that comes off dated and pedantic today. Howard Shore's music adds to the atmosphere but never gels as anything with a character of its own.

But when you watch the movie, all you care about is what happens to Starling and what Lecter could do to her. And that is exactly what should happen. The end result is a very involving, one-of-a-kind experience.

Duke And Gabby Kick It Around, 11 July 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Watching those two icons of early Westerns, John Wayne and George Hayes, play off each other years before people knew them as Duke and Gabby, is worth something. At least "The Lucky Texan" gives you that.

Jerry Mason (Wayne) and Jake Benson (Hayes) luck into a big gold strike, but their haul attracts the interest of some shady assayers who want not only the gold but Benson's ranch besides. Can Mason save Benson from wrongful imprisonment? Can Benson save Mason from same? Will Mason wind up with Benson's pretty granddaughter?

Spoiler alert - What do you think?

Wayne's Lone Star westerns are often criticized for formulaic plots, which is unfair here. You get two almost completely unconnected plots in this one. Neither makes sense, but at least they defy reasonable expectations that way. In the first, Benson gets arrested for murder by a sheriff who apparently didn't bother to make sure the victim was dead first. In the second, those assayers make their play for the gold with the subtlety of the 7th Cavalry.

The only thing "Lucky Texan" has going for it is lucky indeed: Duke and Gabby in their second-ever on screen pairing, the first one where Wayne didn't have to pretend to sing and play guitar. There's real pleasure to be had watching the two meet in their opening scene, even with their exposition-laden dialogue.

"Say, you're a regular mountain, ain't yuh?" Benson asks Mason right off, who grins easily in reply. You want to hang with these guys, however dull the story around them.

Lone Star did well with Wayne once they retired the singing cowboy shtick and worked humor more directly in his films, like here. "The Lucky Texan" actually goes pretty far in this direction, once the wheels come off story #2. Benson is the star of a wild courtroom scene which really deserves to be seen, for the total commitment of Hayes if nothing else. By movie's end, the villains are reduced to comic foils, which is fine as they weren't working as villains. I found the last 15 minutes pretty enjoyable overall. Not as thought-out or clever as it could have been, but fun.

All this doesn't quite redeem "Lucky Texan." It's just too goofy otherwise, like Wayne's big stunt riding an upright stick down a log flume to catch up with a bad guy after falling off his horse. You get some schlocky dialogue ("So that's your game, eh?" is something Hayes actually says when the bad guys get the draw on him) and head-scratching moments like why a bad guy trying to get a canteen of gold from a bucking mule doesn't just shoot the beast.

I'm glad he didn't; this is one Lone Star western where it's safe to say no animals were harmed in the production. It's not much to crow about otherwise, yet seeing Wayne and Hayes begin to define their enjoyable partnership is some compensation. Just try to ignore the feeble excuse of a plot being kicked around them.

Coriolanus (2011)
Anger's His Meat, 9 July 2014

As a first-time director, Ralph Fiennes gives a good account of himself in a challenging production, but is under-served by two sources from whom one expects better: Fiennes the actor and William Shakespeare the scenarist.

Caius Martius (Fiennes) is a proud Roman, rather overmuch in the minds of many of his compatriots. In the midst of a war Martius is doing much to win, a conspiracy takes root to displace him of his high station in Roman society. Despite counsel of his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and patrician friend Menenius (Brian Cox), Martius' knack for blowing up at the wrong time proves his Achilles heel.

"Coriolanus" is one of Shakespeare's more interesting problem plays, articulating an elitist attitude that seems designed to annoy inhabitants of future democracies. Either you accept Martius's contempt for the people he serves, or you relish his undeserved downfall as the result of excess pride.

Fiennes doesn't try to recast the story in a more populist way, even as he repositions the story in a modern setting and employs the use of hand-held cameras and TV studio sets. A CNN-style network, Fidelis, provides the same role as messengers do in the original play. Combat takes place using automatic weapons in a style reminiscent of a "Call Of Duty" video game.

This all works better than I expected, grounding the play in a way it needs and doesn't have in the writing. Nice work is offered by the supporting players, particularly Cox, who plays Menenius as sage and crafty with a nicely understated delivery. My favorite line in this film is a simple one he delivers over his shoulder late in the film: "I'll undertake it."

What is wrong with the film is mainly the fact Shakespeare wasn't at his best here spinning the story. There is a rather simple plot, more a character piece where the character in question performs two 180s in two acts. Fiennes and writer John Logan employ some useful trims, but they still leave alone some rare clams from the Bard, like Volumnia's raging cry: "Anger's my meat!" and Martius's "O, a kiss/Long as my exile, sweet as my revenge."

Playing Martius, Fiennes ranges between two poles, those of soft-voiced underplaying, such as at his entrance; and hammy, spittle-flecked ranting, like when he has his showdown with the people of Rome. This makes empathy for an already difficult character much harder. "Bolder, but not so subtle," is how his enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler) describes him, and boy, is he not kidding. After a while it kinda grates.

The Shakespearean language doesn't add or subtract from the overall experience. It never quite feels natural. If you know what is happening, and Fiennes the director does a good job making it clear, you can glom onto what the various characters are saying easily enough, and enjoy the way they play with their deliveries. It's a good cast, even if no one puts forward their best work. Redgrave's entirely too gentle in the role of fire-eating Volumnia, but she has her moments.

It's that kind of film, really. I ended up watching it again for this review in installments because even at just over two hours I found it a bit much to absorb in one sitting. I suggest you do the same; it's a decent time-passer if not something to leave an impression.

In And Out, 26 June 2014

It's ironic Derek Flint gets not one but two post-mortems in James Coburn's second and final turn as Twentieth Century Fox's goof on James Bond. Twice in the film his boss Lloyd Cramden (Lee J. Cobb) mourns the secret agent's passing; each time he learns Flint has managed an impossible escape.

"Of course it's impossible, that's why he's Flint!" a teary Cramden chortles.

Flint was always a tricky balancing act; making a spy that genuinely wowed viewers with his feats of daring-do while simultaneously mocking his ability in that and other departments. The first Flint film, "Our Man Flint," managed to develop the character quite well that way; it works as a comedy as long as there's some attempt at grounding it as a serious adventure.

This time, goofiness takes over early. "In Like Flint" pits Flint and Cramden against a female conspiracy that supplants the president with an actor and works toward a society where men no longer get much of a say. Of course, Flint is the ideal weapon against this crew; just a flick of his famous cigarette lighter sets hottie opponents a-purring.

Unfortunately, even with tongue in cheek, "In Like Flint" doesn't really have the craft to pull off this idea, or a related one about a renegade general who wants to use the nation's nuclear arsenal in some diabolical if unexplained way. At just under two hours, "In Like Flint" drags noticeably, suffering from plot sprawl and a tendency to play things too cute.

The film boasts a visibly larger budget than "Our Man Flint," a sign of that film's left-field success. This time, the enemy lair is well- designed, and the cinematography quite brilliant in places, especially when the movie moves to Jamaica, Bond's home territory.

Cobb, a boon in the first film, really shines here, showcasing a warmer side in Cramden's relationship with Flint. For his part, Coburn employs his growing star power at close to full magnitude, never taking things too seriously, even allowing himself to be introduced in conversation with a dolphin. He has three women living with him, catering to his every whim.

"Didn't there used to be four?" Cramden asks.

"There were five at one time, but that got to be a bit too much," Flint replies.

Not much else is too much for Flint; whether ballet dancing in Moscow or riding a rocket into space. His brilliance was more fun the first time, though; when it took you more by surprise. Here, it amuses, thanks to some nice twists, but still, after two hours the joke wears thin.

I did like director Gordon Douglas's fight scenes, especially one set in a document disintegration chamber and another in a gymnasium, where action and comedy are well-mixed. Otherwise, what passes for a plot moves aimlessly from scene to scene. Whatever what Flint doing in Moscow? Watching Coburn have a rather steamy kissing scene with Yvonne Craig put me in an accepting mood, but too many U-turns make you feel the film isn't really playing fair. James Bond stories never got quite as goofy as this.

Coburn apparently had enough after this, retiring the lighter and the harem for keeps. It's a fun film, but there's nothing in "In Like Flint" to make you think he shouldn't have gotten out.

Picture Perfect, 15 June 2014

I understand why people want to call "The Cameraman" Buster Keaton's last silent film: It makes for a helluva swan song before a hellacious fall, not to mention a powerful and hilarious example of Buster's screen persona's drive and moxie against terrible odds.

"No one would ever amount to anything if they didn't try," Buster is told early on by the woman he is trying to court by taking up the job of newsreel cameraman. Telling him about his movie camera, but perhaps about life, too, she urges him: "You must always grind forward, not backward."

"The Cameraman" is all about grinding forward. To make it in the newsreel business, and impress fair Sally (Marceline Day), Buster's character has to endure a lot. It's tempting to draw a connection, as one often does with Buster, between his art and his real-life situation. In 1928 he was being forced to adapt to a new way of doing things at big studio MGM, and even had to hand over the director's chair to Edward Sedgwick, though Keaton clearly contributed.

In his art, if not in life, Buster could always beat the odds. That he does here is no surprise; it's the way he does it that satisfies me so. MGM wanted Buster to play more for audience sympathy, and here he manages to do so without surrendering his keen comic edge. Day was a very typical MGM ingénue in the Norma Shearer mode (Shearer herself can be glimpsed on a city billboard right after Buster falls off a bus), but she makes that work, her eyes matching Buster's for the way they absorb pain and disappointment.

Comedy usually suffers when the comedian plays for the heartstrings; not this time. Buster keeps the laughs coming, from all directions. You alternately get a comedy of manners (Buster trapped in a women's drawing room) slapstick (Buster shares a dressing room with a portly grouch), sex comedy (Buster loses his bathing suit in a pool while out on a date with Sally), action comedy (Buster finds himself covering a gang war) and animal humor (a monkey named Josephine whose adoption of Buster provides the last third with a high-octane kickstart.) The only thing you don't get is a signature Keaton chase!

The focus on Buster and Sally pays off, with a simple but effective plot that piles indignity after indignity upon our hero and dares him to keep grinding forward. He's so dogged it is rather funny even as it remains affecting. So lost in reverie is Buster at the prospect of a date with Sally that he walks up the staircase of his apartment building right past his apartment and to the roof. Faced with a rival at a pool, he cleverly slips Sally's kerchief out of her pocket while the two are engaged in conversation, then deftly punts the rival into the pool when the guy pauses to pick it up.

Begging for a job at the newsreel office just to be close to Sally, Buster manages to break through the glass door – literally.

Maybe there are times when Buster is a bit too much in his "Elmer" mode, that being the doofus character MGM stuck him with as his career progressed, and mostly regressed, though the early sound era. He doesn't seem all that bright. But the character here works to make the situation more believable, and as the film goes along, it gets much richer and deeper.

Seeing the famous scene in the projection room, when Buster's final film is unspooled to three sets of hilariously divergent reactions, one is tempted to say this is Buster looking at us, his future audience, rewarding us for seeing the brilliance people in his own time too often missed. Yet Buster was no obscure talent in his own time, and "The Cameraman" was quite a hit. Buster was still riding high here, and it shows.

Not Conforming To Expectations, 13 June 2014

Meeting an attractive young woman in a bar, Arthur Seaton wastes no time making his play. He asks her name, and is told with some embarrassment it's Doreen. She doesn't like her name. He doesn't like his, either.

"Neither of 'em's up to much, but it ain't our fault," he tells her. Like everything else in his unhappy life, it's all a matter of inheritance.

Arthur may share a name with a heroic English king, but he's not one to wear his lower-middle-class crown agreeably. He drinks away his wages, lashes out at defenseless women, and lies with discomfiting ease. But Albert Finney and the filmmakers make sure you care about him anyway.

As Seaton, Finney glowers a lot in the way you expect from a protagonist in a kitchen-sink drama, a celebrated product of British New Wave cinema. But the film plays with your expectations just as life does his. He doesn't want to settle for life as he finds it, and while "Saturday Night And Sunday Morning," Alan Sillitoe's adaptation of his own novel directed by Karel Reisz, spits a lot in the direction of conformity, it belies its angry-young-man pedigree with a sense of cosmic acceptance at taking what life has to offer.

Seaton's a "madhead," make no mistake. But he's not an especially honest one. He lies impulsively, often to no purpose, and is even proud of it. "I always was a liar, a good one and all," he tells the married woman he sleeps with, Brenda (Rachel Roberts). Ironically, it's his one honest moment on her behalf that lands him in real trouble.

The film gives us other hints Seaton is not an admirable figure, like shooting an annoying neighbor with an air rifle in a manner that comes off more creepy than defiant. A "working-class anti-hero," as other reviewers put it, and the real craft in both the direction and in Finney's performance is how it accomplishes the balancing act of establishing Seaton as both miserable company and a rooting interest.

It's a well-structured film, too, a quick 90 minutes that breaks neatly into thirty minutes of establishing the situation, thirty minutes of developing a crisis (Seaton stringing along two women, one pregnant), and thirty minutes of tense resolution. At the same time, Reisz gives his film a grimy authenticity that feels real, never stagy, with scenes that have a real lived-in quality while serving the larger story.

"Saturday Night And Sunday Morning" is a bleak film in many ways, not pleasant to watch. Laughs and insights are minimal, and Finney downplays his considerable screen charm. There are hardly any toothy grins like he'd bestow on his later breakout role, as the title character in "Tom Jones." The handling of his relationship with Doreen is a trifle pat, and too-simply resolved. So is the issue of his relationship with Brenda, although Finney shares a good final scene with her character's husband, played effectively by Stephen Fry lookalike Bryan Pringle.

There are a lot of good performances in this film, which blend together to create an effective if routine story. If it's not what you expect from angry-young-man cinema, it's nice to have your expectations batted down now and then.

Square Guy In A Tough Hole, 7 June 2014

This solid Jimmy Cagney tough-guy film offers a striking twist: Cagney's not its most interesting player, letting co-star George Raft all-but run away with the picture.

As reporter Frank Ross, Cagney uncovers scandal in high places and is punished by being framed for a fatal drunk-driving accident. That lands him in the Big House, where he meets gangster "Hood" Stacey (Raft) and finds himself running afoul of a nasty prison system while stubbornly insisting on his innocence.

Ross is the kind of part Cagney played often and well, not a bad guy but tough when cornered. Cagney's intensity electrifies several key scenes. So I sense he knew what he was doing when he let Raft dominate their scenes together, knowing it would make a better film as well as offer a chance to shine to his friend and new Warners colleague. Raft certainly makes the most of it.

Totally cool but never cold, Raft has a great opening scene with Cagney where he asks the reporter: "How tough are you, babe?" When Ross responds by taking a swing at him, Stacey seems almost amused. Even before that, Raft gets off the first of many great lines, this about reporters, "smart guys that are always writing about 'crooks are yellow' and 'crime don't pay.' The DA don't like that because he knows better."

Raft's performance, and his chemistry with Cagney as the film goes on and their characters forge an unlikely friendship, is so winning I feel bad not liking this film more than I do. "Each Dawn I Die" is a fast- paced character study of men living under pressure and behind bars which manages to unobtrusively weave serious social concerns into a suspenseful crime story. Still, it's almost too efficient in the way it is constructed, with archetype characters (the snitch, the crazy, the good-natured ox, the sadistic guard) and clichéd dialogue abounding. It seems everyone in this film but Cagney calls someone else "a dirty rat" at some point. (Cagney himself never uses the famous phrase, but does get called "a dirty little rat," which must have stung.)

The secondary performances aren't anything to write home about, even with some recognizably excellent Warner players in several roles. But they make an impression in their hammy way, and with Raft and Cagney in the lead roles, it's hard to complain. Cagney's big moments include a breakdown in front of the parole board and tearing up when his mother visits with a home-cooked meal. Raft eschews histrionics, exuding a quiet, almost smug authority, his limpid, beady eyes glowering in anger only in brief, key moments. We are encouraged to like Stacey, but know he means business.

Raft also does a great job selling the film's big open question: Why would Stacey go so far helping a reporter who openly disapproves of his livelihood? "You're the only guy I ever met who gave me a break and didn't put the bee on me for dough," is how Stacey answers that, and with Raft delivering the line so naturally, you have to buy it.

Prior to this film, I saw Raft in "Some Like It Hot" and the original "Scarface," but never thought him as good a performer, or even in the same league as, the big three crime-movie stars of his time: Cagney, Bogart, and Edward G. But by George, I need to rethink that one! He's not only believable, but a grace note in what otherwise is a heavy- handed, serious film. He also adds a layer of moral ambiguity to a film that asks us to distrust authority and root for the bad guys.

Director William Keighley gets you to care about the characters and the story, and works things up to a big finish involving a violent prison break. It still packs a punch. The rest of the film isn't quite at that level, especially a rather draggy middle section, but "Each Dawn I Die" is never dull, and Keighley's emphasis on his two leads pays out handsomely by the climax.

Cagney fans will enjoy "Each Dawn I Die" for the chance to see their man in another high-energy performance, but I suspect many will walk away more impressed with Raft, and wishing the two stars had had more chances to ply their trade together.

Mild Max, 26 May 2014

"He's bad, he's beautiful, he's crazy!" Mel Gibson gets quite the build up in this third installment of the "Mad Max" series. Does he live up to it?

It depends on what you expect. If you were a fan of the high-octane "Road Warrior," or the even fiercer "Mad Max" which kicked things off, you may well miss the disturbed loner of the earlier films, and mind the fact he is more settled and less crazed than ever. But if you watch this film divorced of such expectations, well, I think "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" is still problematic, if entertaining in fits and starts.

We meet Max still alone in the post-Apocalyptic deserts of Australia, his goods and camels stolen. In search of them, he arrives in Bartertown, a pig-poop-powered oasis for cheats and chiselers. Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) takes an interest in Max, enough to offer a proposition. Kill a rival in town so she can have full control of Bartertown. Max agrees readily.

"Who's the bunny?" he asks, clearly not caring one way or the other.

That's about the only Mad Max moment in "Thunderdome," which otherwise deepens the character by adding a layer of sentimentality and, eventually, paternal protection to a group of cute kids who live all alone in the deepest desert and sees Max as the return of their saviour.

You can read the responses here and on the comments thread. These kids are too much like the Ewoks in "Return Of The Jedi," only worse because the "Star Wars" movies always had a kid focus and fuzzy alien types. "Mad Max" was geared more for adults, which makes long close-ups of dewy-eyed babes under a cloying score that much harder to take. This long detour into Joseph Campbell-evoking storytelling sessions takes up a lot of time that Max could be spending lubing his car axles with some mohawked maniac's guts.

Actually, Max doesn't do a lot of driving in this one, just a bit at the end. For the most part, he's regulated to the sidelines, listening to the kids or else Auntie, who explains about her den of misery: "It's civilization. I'll do anything to protect it."

As long as "Thunderdome" focuses on Auntie and Bartertown, it's at least enjoyable if not as focused or as visceral as the prior Max films. You enjoy the pungently nasty characters that people Max's world, the debris of the old world re-purposed to strange ends, and the guy who hawks camels by telling a crowd: "This is the vehicle that sent Detroit broke!" Max is there, too, a man of few words as always, his actions building to a cage death match in "Thunderdome" that is one of the movie's major reasons for being.

After that, though, the film wanders. "Beyond Thunderdome," it turns out, is more than a cool name; it's an all-too-accurate descriptor of the proceedings. Beyond Thunderdome, there's little for Max to do than go back into the desert and discover his lost humanity with the help of those impish Lord Of The Flies kids.

A new "Mad Max" film, sans Gibson but bringing back director George Miller, is expected to open in 2015. If "Thunderdome" accomplished anything for Miller and company, it was to lower the bar set by the earlier Max films. "Thunderdome" is not terrible, it just makes you fidget in the wrong places.

The Blob (1958)
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Goo Times, 18 May 2014

"There's always room for Jell-O..." Vintage ad copy becomes end-times prophesy when a growing globule takes on a small American town, and it's up to a few teenagers to raise the warning. But will the adults listen?

"The Blob" is a fun nostalgia ride that tells a good story, less about the horror than about how young people find themselves in trying to do something about it. The title monster has some chilling scenes, though its slow movement and the cheap period special effects make it more a curio than anything frightening. Where "The Blob" succeeds is as a portrait of small-town life, and of young people trying to come to grips with something they don't understand.

Or as the story's hero puts it: "How do you get people to protect themselves from something they don't believe in?"

Two 1960s icons check in here. Burt Bacharach provides the catchy title melody, his first of many hit songs for movies. More significantly, Steve McQueen shows up in his first lead role as the hero, Steve Andrews. He plays the role with many of the practiced ticks and mannerisms pioneered by James Dean, but like Dean also showcases real screen presence and charisma.

The same goes for the rest of the cast, consisting largely of regional stage actors and bit-part movie actors. Even though they are far from polished, they work to sell the homey nature of our setting and its characters. Credit director Irvin Yeaworth, a maker of religious films who made this to help fund his other endeavors, for giving his players the room to work their own personalities into the production, rather than trying to turn it into another Hollywood spectacle.

As someone with a fondness for the Eisenhower years, I get a kick out of the cool cars Steve and his buddies drive, the sense of ready community spirit, midnight movies, kissing under the stars, and the corny, good- spirited humor. Sure, everyone seems to be white here, but it was shot in Pennsylvania, so even that kind of works.

The monster does have its moments, too. The opening scene when old-timer Olin Howland finds the meteor and the thing inside it still packs a punch, as does his later demise. When "The Blob" came out, 40-year- veteran screen actor Howland might have been its most recognizable player, but that doesn't stop Yeaworth, like Hitchcock in "Psycho," from giving his star an early exit.

The middle is where it gets too fuzzy. Having made his big entrance, the monster disappears for a long interval, perhaps to field press questions or sign an endorsement deal with some cooking-spray company. The focus draws more on the kids, which is okay in that you care about them and enjoy their company (especially that of McQueen and leading lady Aneta Corsaut) but debilitating in terms of building on the early suspense. While the disbelieving-adult angle is worthwhile, too much energy is spent on non-credible elements like a police sergeant who insists Steve is pulling a "gag" when talking about seeing the town doctor killed.

As a McQueen fan, I enjoy seeing the star playing a more sympathetic version of what would become his trademark man of action rather than words. Sure, he wasn't a teenager like the character he played, but he's effective all the same. He has a couple of terrific scenes with Corsaut, where he tries to convince both of them of what he saw. I also get a kick of a bit where the future "King Of Cool" is coronated by his teenage buddies for beating them in a drag race. They even crown his head with a hubcap, like they traveled forward in time and saw "Bullitt" before shooting this scene.

"The Blob" is padded in other ways, but fortunately its only 82 minutes, and a harrowing conclusion manages to overcome sloppy animation as well as the wobbly build-up. Mostly for the nostalgia and McQueen, but also a few other things, "The Blob" is worth your time.

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