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Rated X For Exasperating, 24 June 2017
3/10

Woody Allen has spent decades showing cinema-goers he's not only a funnyman. Let's take a look back at when he wasn't so fussy...nor that funny.

Based off David Reuben's bestselling answer book about sex, Allen's film is a collection of comic riffs relating to assorted sexual curiosities. Reading these reviews reveals most people think there's at least one good sketch, and widespread disagreement as to which that is. Comedy is subjective.

For me, the class amid the crass is the third episode. Allen plays a stylish Italian trying to get his wife (Louise Lasser) to achieve orgasm. Nothing's working. A friend asks if he is "small."

"Small?" Allen replies indignantly. "Like a French bread!"

Funny as that is, it's funnier in Italian, which is how the whole sketch is played. With nods to stylish Italian cinema, wry quips, and a happy ending, it's the one bit that worked for me.

The rest of the time, Allen flails at finding a balance between adult concerns and childish wisecracks. The bits sometimes have promise, like a final episode taking place inside a man's body as he gets lucky on a date. We get to see the various parts of the body spring to action, including Allen as a frightened spermatozoon, while Tony Randall and Burt Reynolds as managers in mission control try to avoid "failure."

"We're missing her ear and blowing into her nose," Randall reports.

But this sketch does go on too long, as do the others. Even the Italian one could lose five minutes.

The funniest 30 seconds in the entire movie is Gene Wilder's wordless reaction as a cool doctor who discovers his patient loves a sheep. But then the sketch goes on and on from there, to depict the doctor's own romance with the sheep, with bad jokes about his wife smelling lamb chops and him drinking Woolite when the sheep finally disappears.

Other sketches include a quiz show, "What's My Perversion;" and a man who gets caught wearing his hostess's dress. Most of the jokes here are of the groaner variety. Watching Allen play a jester trying to have sex with a queen plays up the idea of getting his hand caught in her chastity belt, while he jokes about hurrying up before the Renaissance.

As much as I love early Allen, before he became America's most famous foreign filmmaker and was still going for laughter, "Everything You Always Wanted To Know..." demonstrates his limitations. He's not Mel Brooks, able to simply set something up and riff on it. He needs context and character development.

What you get here is goofier, scattershot, and ill-focused. He's trying too hard to be both offensive and likable. He does the former better than the latter; I was offended by the missed opportunities and the overall waste of time.

D.O.A. (1950)
Running Out Of Time, 17 June 2017
7/10

A fine film noir where a thin plot is overridden by an engagingly gloomy mood and a fantastic set-up, "D. O. A." is defined by its relentless pace. It's worth seeing for the editing alone.

Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) is a small-town accountant who finds himself with an upset stomach while vacationing in San Francisco. To his shock, he is told he has ingested a luminous poison which attacks the vital organs and has already been absorbed into his system. Realizing he is a dead man walking, Bigelow sets out to solve his own murder before time runs out:

"Sure, I can stand here and talk to you. I can breathe and I can move. But I'm not alive. Because I did take that poison, and nothing can save me."

"D. O. A" has a famous opening sequence, watching Bigelow from over his shoulder entering a police station to report his pending homicide. What gets me is how the cool detective behind the desk registers no major surprise at the stranger telling him he's been murdered. He just looks at a sheet of paper he happens to have.

"Your name Bigelow?" the detective finally asks. "Frank Bigelow?" Talk about existential dread; it's right out of Kafka!

The film does have a problem, which is the next 20 minutes. Establishing Bigelow's normal life before his poisoning is an exercise in tedium. Many reviewers here point to the annoying wolf whistles which are scored whenever Bigelow crosses path with a young woman. More annoying for me was Bigelow's girlfriend, Paula (Pamela Britton), who smothers her man in every scene while reciting unbelievably trite dialogue in polished rapid-fire. Bigelow's annoyance in turn is understandable, but hardly sells their relationship.

Both Frank and Paula dodged a bullet when he ingested poison; marriage would have been something out of a Sam Kinison routine.

There are a lot of holes in the actual crime, like how the murderer was able to catch Bigelow at a jazz bar or how he's able to jump to the right conclusions from a wayward glance. But the film sells its many MacGuffins with style, playing a nifty shell game with the audience where you never know what's happening next.

Neville Brand is the cast's supporting standout, a psychopath named Chester who grins ferociously at the pain he's about to inflict between punches: "Soft in the belly…Can't take it. See, whadda tell yuh!" Future femme fatale Beverly Garland puts in her first screen appearance, going by her then-married name of Campbell, but her dark hair and there being two other deadlier femme fatales in this film may cause you to miss her.

Director Rudolph Maté made his name as a cinematographer; it's easy to appreciate "D. O. A.'s" distinct visual texture and style even if it was made on a small budget. A smart, clever wind-up sends you home with no false notes of optimism, somehow satisfied that not every good ending has to be a happy one.

Argo (2012)
Making It Up As He Goes Along, 24 May 2017
5/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Hollywood movies get a lot of flak for messing with the truth. Sometimes it's because people don't appreciate that compromises have to be made to fit in a two-hour window. Other times, like "Argo," the compromises wind up compromising what's on screen.

November, 1979. In Tehran, Iran, the Islamic Revolution is flexing its muscles. After the deposed Shah goes to the U. S. for cancer treatments, the U. S. Embassy is seized in retaliation, its personnel now hostages to pressure the Shah's forced return. Six Americans who escaped the embassy now hide, their days of relative freedom numbered.

It's a tense-enough situation, but director Ben Affleck and the creative team behind his star vehicle "Argo" can't resist giving audiences extra tension. His superior (Bryan Cranston) warns him of the high stakes if the refugees are discovered by the Iranian revolutionaries:

"Standing room only for beheadings in the square...These people die, they die badly."

Did anyone think that was really going to happen? Iran had gone insane, yes, but the hostages at the embassy were still alive. The psychological tortures they endured, outside of being paraded blindfolded for the cameras, wouldn't become public knowledge until much later.

It's hard to imagine the Iranian revolutionaries so put out not having six more hostages. For all the introductory talk about the CIA propping up the evil Shah, the real reason for taking hostages isn't addressed in the film; Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, whose embassy sheltered the refugees (who would become known as the "guests") points out in a DVD extra that there were four major factions in Iran fighting for supremacy. The hostages became a trump card for the radical Shiite faction. They didn't care about having all the embassy personnel, or they wouldn't have let some go in the days immediately after the takeover. What they wanted, and got, was the attention of the international media.

This would still make for an interesting film, if not one with totally fictional devices like car chases and an angry confrontation at a Tehran bazaar. You would need a director and screenwriter with more of an interest in the six refugees and their search for help in the days before reaching the Canadians than as simple MacGuffins for the main character, Affleck's exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, who gets all the big close-ups.

The most egregious departure from the truth also makes the least sense within the confines of what's on screen: That Mendez opts to make his play to evacuate the six after being told the operation is a no-go by higher-ups in Washington. There was no such decision made at this late stage of the operation, but I guess Affleck felt he needed it to juice up the plot. Time and again, you sense Affleck just played with the real story like this, to give him an excuse for the heavy music and dramatic close-ups. Here, what you get, in the context of this already compromised story, is a guy who risks the six people on an operation that may never get off the ground.

I wish I minded all this messing around less, because I really do enjoy watching the movie. The editing is tight, the comic relief is funny, Affleck plays a cool hero with engaging poise, and the period costumes and set design are first-rate. I finally found out where my childhood collection of Hardy Boys books went.

Alan Arkin has a part as an irascible Hollywood producer which is a lot of fun. Many of the film's great lines are his: "John Wayne is in the ground six months, and this is what's left of America."

The Canadian Caper, as it is rightly known, is a good story. Too bad "Argo" does such a poor job of telling it. I know movies are like history's second draft, meant to be reviewed and put in the right context, but "Argo" pushes the entertainment button too often and winds up missing the mark.

Marty Makes His Mark, 16 May 2017
6/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I'm not a big Martin Scorsese fan. "Goodfellas" is a true classic I enjoy, but that's not something I can say about his other films. Still, there's a lot of meat to his movies, and you see his vision fleshing out nicely in this confusing yet involving drama.

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small-time mobster with dreams of making it big in his neighborhood. He's held back by spiritual concerns as well as a sense of obligation to his loose-cannon buddy Johnny (Robert De Niro) and Johnny's cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) with whom Charlie is involved. In time, these concerns become dangerous dead weights to Charlie's aspirations.

"We talk about penance and You send this through the door," Charlie says to God as we watch Johnny making a carefree entrance in the gang's watering hole. "Well, we play by Your rules, don't we?"

Actually, we are playing by Martin Scorsese's rules, which means a lot of idle banter and male bonding occasionally interrupted by fisticuffs and/or gunshots. If you enjoyed "Goodfellas," you may be entertained like me by "Mean Streets'" atmosphere of casual danger and goofy laughs. Actually, "Mean Streets" isn't as hard-toned as what you might expect from seeing "Goodfellas;" actual killings are kept to a minimum. But I missed a serious stab at story or structure.

There are some visually strong sequences in "Mean Streets." I like the opening credits, which features a home movie. We see Charlie shaking hands with a priest on church steps. Just as the credit comes up "Directed by Martin Scorsese," we see Charlie direct the priest to move into the sunlight for a better shot. It's a clever nod to who this story's protagonist really is.

In his typically warm and engaging DVD commentary, Scorsese calls the film "a declaration or statement of who I am" at the time the film was made. Charlie, like Marty, is very likable, a "politician" trying to smooth the waters Johnny roils. It's the film's key problem that, outside of the religious overtones, we don't understand why Charlie cares so much.

Johnny is a nasty piece of work, unable to hold his peace even when it's for his own good. This was Scorsese's first collaboration with De Niro, and the actor gives an electric performance, but it lacks for empathy or understanding. He's going to make trouble no matter what Charlie does. Once you realize this, it becomes a weight and a roadblock.

Scorsese does plug into the world of New York's Little Italy, his own home neighborhood, in a way that feels vital. There are funny moments on the journey. I like the dialogue Charlie and Johnny have about a pair of girls. Johnny says he wants the one on the left.

"Your left or my left?"

"We're both standin' the same way."

Scorsese says he was influenced here by Abbott & Costello; it's a welcome relief from his heavier, left-field allusions to William Blake or inserts from famous movies like "Gilda" and "The Searchers."

{SPOILERS} And what's the deal with the ending? I get that Johnny has an overdue date with danger, but why is Charlie punished, too? If his problem is standing up for Johnny, he isn't doing so at anyone else's expense. He's as invested as anyone in making restitution, so why is he targeted? Also, I don't understand the objection to Teresa. Charlie's mob-boss uncle tells him she's "sick in the head" because she has epilepsy, but you know who else had that problem? Julius Caesar, the greatest Italian mob boss in history. So what's the real issue? {SPOILERS END}

Overall, the film betrays signs of sloppy editing, and includes a lot of go-nowhere scenes that mark time around its undernourished plot. As a story, it's lacking. As a cinematic tone poem, it hits many marks and leaves an impression. So I guess I like it, enough to recommend it to those who liked "Goodfellas." Just don't expect the same kind of film.

Heavy Hitters Settle For Singles, 3 May 2017
6/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Can a movie suffer for just being good? There's a strong argument to be made for that in "The Horse Soldiers," with director John Ford and star John Wayne doing competent work in one of their less- heralded turns.

It's a dark time for the Union in the American Civil War. Up against a stout Confederate defense at Vicksburg, General U. S. Grant (Stan Jones) take up an idea floated by cavalry Col. John Marlowe (Wayne) to lead a force deep behind enemy lines, lay waste to a rebel railroad junction at Newton Station, and ride on south to Union-held Baton Rouge.

"The main trick is no fighting until we reach Newton Station," Marlowe explains. After that, all bets are off as to a safe return.

"The Horse Soldiers" is a film that challenges you, not to judge its director and star on the basis of prior collaborations, namely the famed "Cavalry Trilogy" and "The Searchers," the latter of which was made just three years before. You get the sense here that Ford wanted Wayne to play the same kind of hard-edged character that made him so great in "The Searchers." Only in "The Horse Soldiers," Marlowe's tough tone gets tiresome too fast.

To that end, Ford enlists the help of William Holden, playing Marlowe's foil as a medical officer named Kendall the colonel has no use for; and Constance Towers as a Southern belle who frets at her mistreatment by the Yankees she'd dearly love to see squashed.

Watching Wayne and Holden go at it is fun, especially since you more or less see Kendall's point of view. Ironically, he's the West Pointer while Marlowe was an engineer in civilian life, which makes it odd to see Kendall fret about the cost of war while Marlowe goes about doing his small-unit version of Sherman's March. Kendall should know better, but Holden the pro sells it.

I really enjoyed Towers here, who has to carry a lot of baggage regarding Ford's famous love-hate attitude toward strong women. But the film doesn't quite know what to do with her, which becomes a problem in the second half when a left-field romance is shoehorned in.

At times Ford is on point as a director, bringing out the autumnal hues of the setting. An opening shot of Union horsemen riding against a fading sunlight is striking, and so is our first shot of Marlowe entering a ship's compartment backlit by a driving rain. The final battle is one of Ford's better ones.

But there are moments where "The Horse Soldiers" feels labored. In the middle of Marlowe's occupation of Newton Station, a Confederate force arrives and for no good reason proceed to charge into Marlowe's well-positioned forces to predictable effect. Even Pickett's Charge made some tactical sense. Here you see Ford straining for effect, and overdoing the flags and musical underscoring.

I really didn't get Marlowe's hostility toward Kendall, even after Wayne has a big drunk scene explaining it which showcases the actor at his weakest. You really want something more settled and grim in his character, not this loudmouth telling us doctors are no good because they couldn't save his wife.

Ford also overloads the film with dramatic deaths, Marlowe telling a dying soldier "There's nothing to be scared of" and so on. Many of the characters get little enough screen time for their passings to register as more than filler, but they keep piling up.

But when Ford connects with a good scene, some of them borrowed from past glories like "The Searchers" and some of them fresh to this film, you understand why he and Wayne mattered so much in the annals of American film. They register as true icons, even in lesser work.

Such is my verdict on "The Horse Soldiers," a decent film with some great moments to pick out amid the clams. Look, it's Ford and Wayne, and they count for a lot, so settle in and give it a look. Just remember if you like it more than me, you have a bunch of films even better than this to enjoy even more.

The Golem (1920)
Clay Kong, 30 April 2017
5/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A feast for the eyes weakened by a dodgy plot, "The Golem" is a silent horror film that pulls you in at once but accomplishes little to reward your interest.

Times are about to get bad for the Jewish ghetto of a medieval European city, as Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) discovers watching the stars. Sure enough, the city's prince is planning to cast the Jews out. Loew needs a miracle to save his ghetto, and finds it in the form of a clay figure he animates with help from the dark spirit Astaroth. The golem's power is enough to impress the city prince, but proves too much for the rabbi to handle.

"Then the lifeless clay will turn against its master, intent on deceit and destruction," the rabbi is warned.

Director Paul Wegener does triple duty on this production, co- writing the script and playing the Golem, a figure he portrayed in two prior films, now lost. To say he makes a strong impression is underselling it. Wearing a concrete Beatle wig and giant belt buckle, his expressions range from mute docility to fierce anger once Astaroth's spirit takes over.

Alas, "The Golem" is a one-golem show for the most part. The plot point of the Jewish pogrom, so apt for the time and place the movie was made, doesn't actually figure in the movie's resolution. Instead, dramatic tension consists of a romantic triangle between Rabbi Loew's flirtatious daughter, Miriam (Lyda Salmonova); the fey knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), and Rabbi Loew's jealous assistant (Ernst Deutsch), who sics the Golem on Miriam when he catches her with Florian.

At least when the film is focused on the Golem, it holds your attention, if not your interest. Wegener does some clever, subtle things with his character. When he first walks outside, you see him react with pleasure to his sunlit surroundings. He shows his teeth when Rabbi Loew attempts to remove his source of power, a five- pointed star worn on the Golem's chest.

If there is a film that "The Golem" foreshadows, it is "King Kong," where the beast proves no match for beauty. Just like Kong coveted pretty Ann Darrow, the Golem becomes fixated on Miriam, carrying her off after breaking up her romance with Florian for good.

Nothing much comes of this, though. It's a problem I had with the whole film. No sooner does something build into a plot point, whether it be the persecution of the Jews or Rabbi Loew's meeting with the city prince, then it wilts under a lot of light and shadows and we move onto the next scene. I found this movie difficult to watch in a single sitting, short as it was.

What makes "The Golem" fascinating viewing are the way the scenes are shot. Cinematographer Karl Freund makes masterful use of the surroundings and Wegener's one-of-a-kind face to dazzle you with image after image of Expressionism run amuk, whether it's the vine-like hinges of Rabbi Loew's house or the gingerbread streets of the ghetto. Wegener's eyes miraculously glow whenever he is on screen, adding wonderment to his ample menace.

If only the story was better. Instead, Wegener presents lifeless scenes populated by overemotive characters, when a dollop of realism would have done wonders to give the horror decent grounding. One scene shows the Golem saving the prince, after his retinue makes the mistake of laughing at a mystical show the rabbi performs. We see a ceiling come down but are at a loss as to why. A better film would have set up the scene, and managed a stronger payoff.

The movie ends on a note of surprising grace, again like "Kong" cluing us into the idea the fearsome beast had a heart. It involves not Miriam but a little girl, but the end result is the same. Fallen beast, grateful citizens, and a twinge of sadness for what became of our title character.

If only the film had more going for it in the way of personality or story, it might live on as something more than cinematic spectacle and historical curio.

Suddenly! (1954)
He's Got The World On A String, 21 April 2017
7/10

Frank Sinatra proved he could make a mark in a dramatic role in the movie he did just before this one, "From Here To Eternity." He proves something else here, that he could dominate a film doing same.

Sinatra is basically the whole show here, a cold killer named Baron who sets his sights on the President of the United States. He and two henchmen pull into the town of Suddenly, California and set up a sniper's nest in a hillside home occupied by war widow Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), her father-in-law Pop (James Gleason), and her son Pidge (Kim Charney). Only the town sheriff (Sterling Hayden) knows the score, but he's no good with a gunshot wound in his arm. Or so Baron figures.

Sinatra seems to be playing Richard Widmark in his first and only psycho role. Thing is, it's a great Widmark impression. He's got the sneer, the giggle, and the ruthless efficiency to make this film work.

"One phony and she's got a kid with his throat cut," he tells the hostages. "Doesn't make much noise that way."

"Suddenly" is a film of its time, hokey in places with its Norman Rockwell images and soliloquies about patriotic duty and the wrongness of murder. The director, Lewis Allen, even has Sinatra speak into the camera a couple of times to illustrate how nasty he is. The beauty of Sinatra's performance is that he sells it. He did the same with a few hokey lyrics, too.

The supporting cast does an excellent job making sure you don't stop watching Sinatra. They are pretty wooden in the main. Hayden is the biggest surprise, very stiff and barking out his lines with unconvincing stentorian stiffness. Maybe he just didn't feel it; before the drama begins he's lecturing Pidge not to call his mother "she" and telling Ellen to get over being a widow and marry him already.

"You're diggin' a big black pit and shovin' us all down into it!" Or maybe she just don't dig sharing her precious bodily fluids with you, huh?

Allen has a stiff style that accentuates the unnaturalness of such scenes, but once it gets down to Sinatra and his goons in that house the film settles into a tough-nosed, believable suspense yarn that flies by. Baron is a strange guy, who likes to think he's just doing a job but clearly enjoys the power trip he's on much more. Using this knowledge will help the sheriff, and it also helps give Sinatra score more points for his character.

Called a "born killer" by the sheriff, Baron just nods thoughtfully and says "yeah" without a hint of menace. When Ellen tells him he's an animal, he grins: "How do you like your roast beef, medium rare or well done?" Even the way he moves through the room shows you he has skills.

Was this the real Sinatra? You kind of wonder when you finish, not just because of his hard reputation but how believable he is in the role. He never played such a villain again, which is sort of a shame. After "Suddenly," he didn't have to.

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The Elmerization Of Harold, 30 March 2017
3/10

The advent of sound hit Harold Lloyd like a well-thrown pie, even if he maintained his box-office appeal for a while. Proof of that is this, his best-regarded sound picture.

Harold Hall (Lloyd) is a clumsy clod from the Midwest who dreams of making it big in Hollywood. After sending by accident someone else's photograph to a big studio, Harold is happily surprised to cadge an invite to Tinseltown. But getting there is one thing; does Harold have what it takes to stay there?

I can't say I hated everything about "Movie Crazy;" the opening score is buoyant and energetic. Most reviewers point to Constance Cummings' dynamic turn as an actress who takes a fancy to Harold; she is every bit as amazing as they say. But man this film makes Lloyd look bad!

Lloyd was a comic performer of great subtlety and inventiveness; qualities absent from what he delivers here. With his too-earnest delivery and prim inflections, he makes an odd impression as he overacts every big line. "When I come back, I'll come rolling in a Rolls-Royce," he tells his parents.

Worse, as with "Feet First" he plays an idiot, a far cry from the capable, sympathetic clown he essayed in silents. Sound transformed Buster Keaton into the dolt "Elmer;" here Lloyd works a lot of double takes and plays up his character's naïve stupidity at nearly every turn. Much of the comedy here involves Harold tripping over himself, oblivious to the world around him.

This works in his favor with Cummings' Mary Sears character, charmed by his stumbling and the fact he hasn't come on to her like every other guy in town. She nicknames him "Trouble" and plays a mean but funny trick on him, by playing up Harold's confusion that the Spanish bombshell she portrays in her latest movie is somebody else, not her.

I'd like "Movie Crazy" a lot more if they knew what to do with this inspired idea. Cummings has fun with the dual performance, and there is a fine scene where Harold approaches Mary in her Spanish disguise to get his pin back, so he can give it to Mary. She urges him to give her a good-bye kiss first, asking him how this Mary could know.

"Believe me, she sees everything!" Harold replies.

But instead of going in a screwball direction with this, Mary becomes genuinely hurt when her ruse works too well, and Harold is hurt in turn. The film limps on like this for another 30 minutes.

I think I know what the matter was with Lloyd and sound. In silents, he played an archetype, an engaging one that captured the zeitgeist of the time and meshed with the kind of physical comedy he perfected. But sound pushed him to play more of a character, with realistic reactions, and it was too much.

To compensate, Lloyd oversold the clowning, to the point where every other motion leads to a pratfall or a crash. This makes it much harder to root for sound Lloyd than it was for silent Hal.

Lloyd also directed the film, uncredited, and shows some characteristic visual flair setting up shots. As long as he focuses on Cummings, he holds my attention. But it's not really a case of the actress upstaging the star; it's more like nature abhorring a vacuum. By the way, a vacuum is the one gag prop that doesn't show up here.

Live Long And Pander, 29 March 2017
5/10

The needs of the franchise outweigh the needs of the movie. It's certainly logical. I just wish the movie left me more to think about.

Shortly after the battle that resolved "Star Trek II," we join a largely vacated U. S. S. Enterprise heading home. Still mourning his friend and comrade Mr. Spock, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) discovers Spock's sealed-off cabin occupied by "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley), himself occupied by Spock's "katra," or spirit.

"Climb the steps of Mount Seleya," a tranced-out McCoy tells Kirk, kicking off a new journey for the Enterprise.

No doubt the "Star Trek" production team, buoyed by the great success of their prior film but now stuck with a gaping, pointy- eared hole, saw its repair as job one. Bringing Spock back to life thus becomes the focus of the film, and the only thing that it gets right.

A series of decent if lully setpieces that awkwardly cohere into a larger story, "Star Trek III" feels stuck in orbit from first to last. The funeral tone of mourning Spock, established in the opening moments, hangs over the rest of the film. Kirk broods about the "emptiness" he feels, about abandoning "the noblest part of myself" and "our dearest blood."

Having spent decades unsuccessfully separating himself from his best-remembered part, director Leonard Nimoy could have told his old comrades it was no use. You don't just say goodbye to Spock and expect him to stay dead. Nimoy lets his film linger over the loss of our favorite Vulcan, at the expense of the tension and suspense that animated "Star Trek II."

What Nimoy does do well is engage the other actors, at least the ones he worked with in the original series. Kelley is delightful as the keeper of the katra, struggling to reconcile his new persona as a logical Vulcan while retaining Bones' short temper. "It's his revenge for all those arguments he lost," McCoy fumes when Kirk explains what has happened to him.

What did happen, anyway? The introduction of a mystical element to the Vulcan story, that Spock has what Kirk calls "an immortal soul," is at odds with "Star Trek's" materialistic approach to life, especially as it culminates in a religious ceremony conducted in English with a lot of "thou" and "thee." I can't say I bought it, but then again, it wasn't like I felt expected to. It's something to justify the reason we are here, getting Spock back.

The rest of the film punctuates this by giving us little else to watch. There's some business about renegade Klingons trying to steal the secret of the prior film's Genesis project from the Federation, but the action here is strictly by the numbers. Christopher Lloyd spits every line as the head Klingon, pushing to dominate every scene he's in. Long sections of narrative deal with the collapse of the Genesis planet and its impact on a young Vulcan who may be Spock, a plot device which is neither believable nor compelling.

What "Star Trek III" needed was something to pull us from the Spock story, a crisis/adventure to engage us long enough for Spock's return to take us by surprise, the same way his demise did in "Star Trek II." Unfortunately, "Star Trek III" doesn't find that hook, and the film becomes a minor slog with some funny character-driven moments, pleasant for fans but eminently forgettable.

Eagle Never Gets Off Ground, 23 March 2017
1/10

It's unfair to review a 1930s serial by today's entertainment standards; expectations were different and the formula is an alien one. That caveat out of the way, man, does "The Shadow Of The Eagle" stink.

Craig McCoy (John Wayne) is a stunt pilot at a struggling carnival who gets $100 for a skywriting job just when carnival owner Nathan Gregory (Edward Hearn) finds himself $97 short of paying off a debt collector. McCoy is happy to keep his boss in business, but both soon find themselves under suspicion when McCoy's skywriting turns out to be a threat to a group of factory owners who used Gregory's stolen invention to build a fortune.

"You stand in the shadow of the Eagle," a voice in the darkness tells the owners shortly before one of them turns up dead.

Seeing Wayne star in a serial gives you a chance to see the future star work his on-screen charisma in its fledgling form. Unfortunately there's not much to see here; not from Wayne, who does little more than work his smile between stunts; not from the film, which hits you with a succession of half-baked cliffhangers.

I know I can't really complain about logic gaps, character inconsistencies, and tone shifts in a film designed to entertain eight-year-olds in an era long before Nintendo or "Game Of Thrones." But if the film is going to throw so much nonsense up in the air, the least it could do is make it move. "Shadow Of The Eagle" features long sections of wooden dialogue and endless cycles of captures and recaptures.

A lot of the film is spent with various characters watching the Eagle's skywriting, as slow as skywriting tends to be.

"Why...it's a question mark!"

"Why...it means that Clark's been wiped out, and they're asking who's next!"

Adding to the underbaked effect is the way director Ford Beebe cheats the cliffhangers between chapter. One chapter ends with a car blowing up, only to begin the next chapter by having it explained as a tire blowout.

Wayne has a nice moment early on when he is confronted by an aggressive questioner ("I'll do the questioning..." "Well, you'll do your own answering, too.") There's also that stunt classicsoncall mentioned in another review, the plane buzzing McCoy as he runs across a field like Cary Grant. But such moments are thin on the ground and get thinner as the serial moves along and various supporting characters pop up and drop off without explanation.

"Shadow Of The Eagle" bears the marks of a project being made up as it went along by a no-budget studio. Unfortunately, while inspiration is free, talent is not. The result of working around that reality is terribly obvious with more than three hours to fill.


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