25 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
it's not the top, but it certainly ain't the bottom
6 September 2015
As a viewer who had been bombarded with negative commentary on this film for almost 40 years without having actually viewed it, I suppose I'd drunk the Kool-Aid and assumed that the naysayers were right. But after viewing the Blu-ray (which is a presentation of James Blakely's "unauthorized" re-edit of the film, which he did to amuse himself while working at 20th, and then quietly placed "his" version into TV distribution), I now see how off-base these attacks were.

It's difficult to know, without seeing the 1975 cut, nor the first TV re-edit done by Bogdanovich himself, where the differences in the versions lie (and complicating matters, Bogdanovich was finally able to tighten up bits and pieces and add an entire missing 90-second sequence to the Blakely cut for the Blu-ray). Indeed, seeing the Blakely cut, it's hard to imagine how the trims or changes would have happened at all, as the majority of picture is in long, unbroken shots (beautifully lensed by Laszlo Kovacs). From the occasionally dupey and ragged image quality here evident in the current Blu-ray transfer, it would appear that some numbers were simply discarded entirely in 1975, and replaced by lesser source material by Blakely. The looseness of the structure would have enabled some chess-playing with the sequence of events, but it's hard to imagine the film being truly butchered beyond recognition.

In any event, it's more fruitful to view this film as a very earnest experiment, rather than a "throwback musical". The decision to shoot all the musical numbers live, with the actors not only using their own voices to sing, but doing so on-camera without overdubs, immediately places the entire enterprise in some cinematic twilight zone, out of time, floating weirdly between an era of 1930s Lubitsch and 1970s underground cinema. But, amazingly, it works, in no small part due to the uniformly appealing and earnest cast. Cringe-worthy duff notes aside, even Burt Reynolds pulls it off, and is often genuinely charming in his menage-aux-trois pairings with both Cybill Shepherd and Madeline Kahn. Duilio Del Prete clearly carries his musical numbers with ease, unlike the other three leads, but avoids upstaging them with what is obviously a better-trained singing voice.

Indeed, the film works astonishingly well as an ensemble piece, perfectly suited to the double-entendre-laden Cole Porter tunes around which it is all based. The group sequences in tight quarters, such as the repeated bits in playboy Reynolds' chauffeured limos, are completely charming. The physical comedy is a gentle slapstick, not overly broad.

It doesn't all hang together perfectly. The already-thin narrative feels stretched to the breaking point somewhere around the three-quarters mark, and the whole thing feels a bit long in the tooth at 121 minutes. It's easy to see how mid-1970s audiences would have found the entire enterprise utterly confounding, even after enjoying Bogdanovich's PAPER MOON two years prior. It overreaches, but is no failure.
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delightful, inexplicable cornpone from Kansas City, MO
12 May 2014
It appears that some particular IMDb user has rather hopefully indicated that Robert Altman served as co-director on this one-of-a-kind production, but there is no available documentation to back that up. Altman was brought in to write the screenplay, from a story by the film's producer (Elmer Rhoden, Jr.) and director (Robert Woodburn), but it is unquestionably a product of its production team. Such as it is. For all intents and purposes, and hopeless attempts to see the film as presaging NASHVILLE, Robert Altman had little to do with this picture's result. It is strictly an aberration, well outside of his "oeuvre".

This CORN sprang to life as both a showcase for local talent and a long-form commercial for popcorn at the same time. The story is of a local TV "variety hour" sponsored by the Pinwhistle Popcorn company (which, embarrassingly, is only a half hour) hosted by toothsome crooner Johnny Wilson (played by singer Jerry Wallace, in his first, and evidently only, lead role in a feature). Wilson's wallflower 12-year-old sister sings lead vocals for Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers, who sporadically perform throughout the picture. But the real pathos concerns poor, struggling Mr. Pinwhistle's ill-fated association with a slimy promoter, Waldo Crummit (a rubber-faced James Lantz) and his utterly talentless singing wife, Lillian Gravelguard (look for the amusing CITIZEN KANE reference in her first television performance), who are conniving back-room deals to "buy popcorn for peanuts".

There's little point in further summarizing the plot here, because the meat of the matter is in the film's staggeringly strange design and equally strange performances (particularly Keith Painton as Pinwhistle, whose particular brand of gesticulating should be the stuff of legend). Ostensibly framed for the 1:1.85 widescreen exhibition of the time, it can only be viewed/projected as full-square 1.37 aperture because of the extreme framing of its subjects. Widescreen would lop off lower halves of bodies while leaving yards of "headroom" up top. As it is, you'll never see a picture with more inadvertent emphasis on fabric curtain rod covers and bizarre paintings hung on set walls. By all accounts, the cinematographer simply didn't have proper guidelines in his camera viewfinder to properly frame for widescreen, and this only lends a uniquely bizarre feel to the whole enterprise, as if the entire production is floating in some strange liminal space.

The other leads in the picture are determined local amateurs who turn in utterly charming and naive performances. Popcorn savior Agatha Quake, as played by Dora Walls, is like an unholy mixture of both witches from Oz; 12-year-old Cora Rice as Johnny Wilson's singing sister steals every scene she's in, playing Greek chorus to on screen shenanigans with aplomb. Every musical number is its own little piece of gold.

Unavailable for decades, and having never had a wide release in the first place, the film has just been restored by the Northwest Chicago Film Society (with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation) and premiered at UCLA in May, 2014, which is where this reviewer saw it. That its penultimate musical number takes place in outer space on a "trip to Mars" only underscores what a beguiling and utterly unique little picture this is.
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you'll be hard pressed to find another film as conniving as this...
12 May 2014
What a shockingly rough movie to watch. While there are plenty of clues in the film itself, it's pretty hard to discover who is REALLY behind the movie without digging deep: The Ramtha School of Enlightment (or RSE). RSE is another Scientology-like "cult"-like religion, so BE ADVISED that you are in for a namby-pamby recruiting tool rather than an informative movie if you go to see "What the Bleep Do We Know". The movie: Marlee Matlin mugs and grimaces her way through this horrendously-directed digital atrocity, making for plenty of unintentional and embarrassing laughs as she mouths her dialogue in classic "deaf" accent, surrounded by headache-inducing, often intrusive CGI animation (the entire theme of which is ripped straight from the classic short film "Powers of Ten"). The film presents a universe so perfectly caucasian that when ethnicity is finally portrayed you actually get a WISE BLACK BOY WITH A BASKETBALL (I'm not kidding) and a Native American in full stereotypical feathered head-dress. Matlin's character lives in a faux-industrial yuppie loft (appropriate, considering it was shot in the loft-happy Pacific Northwest) and has a "wacky" artist roommate.

Furthermore, the film is so unsure of itself and its narrative that it winds up playing any attempts at humor with equally broad strokes; within one atrocious set piece (an apparent Polish wedding) there is a "Polack" joke which goes un-challenged, grotesque sub-Pixar CGI creatures running about, "Porky's"-level teen sex gags, an embarrassing "polka" dance number and even a very graphic near-porn moment or two. All of this "legitimized" by the often spaced-out meanderings of various real-life scientists, mystics (yes, mystics), chiropractors and writers, who throw quantum theory at the viewer through a series of impenetrable interviews (and none of the voices are given screen identification until the end of the film). There's even a totally out of place sequence discussing crystals, sure to tickle the new-agers in the audience. It all doesn't add up to a hill of beans in any informational sense... 108 minutes of a handful of simple messages, among them: addiction is bad, right and wrong can get very confused, black children aren't all thugs and monogamy is always for the birds.

Previous cult leaders have made movies before; remember The "Moonies"' Reverend Sun Myung Moon and "Inchon"? At least that was basically just a dull war movie, rather than a blatant recruitment tool for a cult. You have been warned.
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a studio-wrecked travesty
21 March 2010
THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS is one of the darker chapters in John Ford's sound film career. A "dream" project for the director, it instead became a debacle very early on in its tumultuous production history.

Among other things: RKO wouldn't import the full cast of the stage version, leading Ford to cast Preston Foster and Barbara Stanwyck in roles which arguably needed to go to Irish nationals more familiar with everything from the complex subject matter to the accents they would use. The producers misunderstood the story completely, and not only insisted on re-shooting sequences explaining the marriage of Stanwyck and Foster's characters (with a different director), but inserted newsreel footage and atrocious documentary-style narration. Contrary to another comment here, Ford had _nothing_ to do with the insertion of the archival footage... which is actually from the _wrong_ battle: it's from 1921, not the Easter Rebellion of 1916 described in the play/film.

Ford's generally deft handling of comic and dramatic elements collapses here into a confusing mess, in large part because Ford's depression over the project led him into an alcoholic bender during production.

Possibly Ford's worst sound film, which can be filed next to his other unfortunate duds such as THE WORLD MOVES ON and WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HOME.
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a bristling Richard Conte performance, a peculiar film
23 May 2009
NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL is a perplexing film noir entry. Among its many merits is the astonishing cast: Broderick Crawford (who spits out his dialogue in Howard Hawks-rapidity as if he were on amphetamines), Anne Bancroft (astonishing) and the always reliable Richard Conte. But it never shakes the feeling of being two films in one, sitting uneasily side by side: a stern "semi-documentary" expose of the "syndicate" on one hand, and a bleak and brutal pre-Godfather mafia family saga on the other.

As such, it is wildly and tragically uneven. The leads all turn in brilliant performances, but the screenplay has all the earmarks of a committee job; fascinating ideas and characterizations butt up against terribly overwrought clichés. The main cast is on fire with weighty dialogue, but the supporting cast flounders about as if they were in the most pedestrian B-noir instead of a star-driven studio picture. For the most part, the design is static and lifeless, shot with little flair by Eddie Fitzgerald. Director and co-writer Russell Rouse's previous noir entry was the chancy THE THIEF, also an uneven experiment.

But the film has its scenes of incredible power, usually those revolving around Conte, as a cold and calculating hit-man for hire, and Bancroft, as the put-upon mobster's daughter who can't crawl out from behind dad's shadow; Conte dispatching with "hits", his gunshots creepily muffled by a silencer; Crawford's repeated near-meltdowns; murderous planning done completely straight in a corporate boardroom, just big business as usual.

A puzzler of a film, leaving the viewer to wonder what could have been, had it been shot by John Alton and penned by, say, Dalton Trumbo. Still, it's an extremely valuable entry in the film noir canon, strangely almost impossible to see.
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a low-budget attempt at the G-Man thriller
23 March 2009
Dane Clark is always interesting to watch. His perpetual hangdog expression and droll line readings clash with his fairly diminutive size, making for strange anti-heroes in the films he's in (Borzage's MOONRISE being one of the very best).

And he does his best in this straightforward, occasionally pedestrian thriller about the Feds on the trail of munitions thieves, who are selling their purloined goods to resistance fighters in an unnamed South American country. Along the way, it manages to be both pro and anti-populist revolution, and almost pro-gangster, making for interesting viewing. As a thriller, it works some of the time; the best scenes involve hoods trying to outwit other hoods, with an undercover Federal man (Clark) impersonating a gun runner who plays both sides against each other if there's a dollar in it. But the cinematography and staging tends toward the pedestrian, there's not enough crackle in the screenplay, and the casting of the pneumatic Lita Milan as a torch singer/gun-buying revolutionary is ludicrous (though she provides the finest scenery in the picture). The film is buoyed by a decent amount of location photography in San Pedro, CA where the film is set, and there's a few nice character touches (the gun runner's best friend is a marmot-like creature named Victor who accompanies him everywhere).

But THE TOUGHEST MAN ALIVE leaves you hungering for something a little meatier. HOUSE OF BAMBOO it isn't, but as a low-budget time filler, it works. And I did see a print projected, so it's not an entirely lost item, though I can't imagine there are good 35mm materials left on the title.
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Cassavetes reference somewhat apt
7 March 2009
As said here previously, THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA is a far better film than its reputation suggests (or director Romero himself apparently believes). As with all his best work, the writing is snappy and original, and quite unlike his best work, it proves that he could have (had?) a career with non-horror pictures if he wished so.

The film is told in flashback, with the main character (played excellently by Raymond Laine) ruminating in seemingly improvised sequences about his failed relationship, as the film illustrates its path. Fascinatingly, it resembles nothing less than Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL from some six years later - and is the far better movie. Where Allen's "see? I'm a lovable schnook" persona made me want to murder him when I revisited the film recently, Laine's portrayal of a sort of anti-hero in emotional turmoil here actually rings true.

Among the many pleasures in the film is seeing various cast members of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (to say nothing of lead actress Judith Steiner) back again in completely different roles. But there are also a host of terrific set pieces, a great, HUSBANDS-like night of stoned debauchery with father and son among them.

It doesn't all work - there are two pretty awful sentimental montages which fail - but there's plenty of spirited jump-cutting, frame flashes and other unique touches which show a thoughtful stylistic hand at play. I wish Romero hadn't stopped with this "failure" - he certainly would have made a more interesting ANNIE HALL.
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Ruthless (1948)
He wasn't a man... he was a way of life
20 February 2009
This may be Edgar G. Ulmer's masterpiece. RUTHLESS is a terrific noir/melodrama - sharply written (by the to-be-blacklisted Alvah Bessie and Gordon Kahn), consistently beautifully photographed (by the underrated Bert Glennon), and truly adventurous in its editing and flash forward-flash backward construction.

Zachary Scott is the "ruthless" title character, but the title is more a cheap shot than anything else; Scott's Vendig is more an emotionally bankrupt, pathological character than a villain per se. The narrative takes pains to reveal - gradually - the series of events from childhood through adulthood which affected his perverse makeup, making for a fascinating character study. Subtle revelations and plot twists come about every fifteen minutes, but they're deliberately ambiguous when they hit the screen, forcing the viewer to pay close attention as the truth of the situation is revealed. This technique alone puts RUTHLESS way ahead of any other Poverty Row melodrama of the period and cements Ulmer's reputation as a thoughtful stylist.

Louis Hayward plays a sort of Greek chorus, an often acquiescent voice of conscience/best friend/nemesis who keeps the episodic story moving along. Diana Lynn (in two roles), Martha Vickers and Lucille Bremer each give terrific performances as the various women who appear, disappear, and reappear in the lives of both men. All are sharply drawn, a testament to the determination of Bessie, Kahn and other blacklisted writers to put strong female characters on screen in defiance of the Production Code, which seemed to encourage either submissive or predatory roles for women.

And as if all that isn't enough, Sidney Greenstreet drops in and sets the screen on fire in every sequence he appears in. A classic coiled spring, his portrayal of a similarly greedy corporate boss is perfectly slimy, and provides a genuine shock when he suddenly grabs Lucille Bremer by the hair and jerks her backwards for a kiss. Likewise, a later sequence where Bremer drags him in front of the mirror so she can brutally compare him to her new, younger lover is unforgettably painful.

RUTHLESS sits comfortably alongside DETOUR, THE MAN FROM PLANET X and THE STRANGE WOMAN, other Ulmer gems of note. A great movie.
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all time best ending of any film - ever
27 January 2009
No one will ever accuse THE MASK OF DIIJON of being a landmark thriller/drama/noir/whatever. But this film deserves the honor of having the all-time greatest final 30 seconds in the history of cinema. To reveal its wonderful climactic secret would be to rob the viewer of easily the best moment in the whole film, so I will resist, but it's all more worth watching than one might think.

Erich Von Stroheim chews up every scene he is in, which is the bulk of the picture, and this is a good thing. Anyone who adored him as Max Von Mayerling in SUNSET BLVD. knows full well that there isn't really any such thing as a bad Stroheim performance. He even smiles and laughs - admittedly rather briefly - in THE MASK OF DIIJON.

And the film is, for all its faults in narrative, an inevitably fascinating ultra-cheapie. The very fact that Stroheim committed to the project at all raises eyebrows; he treats the whole picture as a gag and is arguably the only sparkling performer in the whole project, and must have known this. The very opening sequence shows his character reduced to peddling cheap carnival tricks (and in doing so, tricks the audience by creating a fake beginning to the film), so there had to be an air of self-consciousness here, considering that the main conceit of the film (the power of hypnosis) is entirely preposterous. And there are a handful of nice touches throughout, particularly an outlandish sequence where Stroheim hypnotizes a would-be robber and stops the crime cold.

It's all a sublimely ridiculous tale, never believable for a moment, and pure entertainment. And it has the greatest ending ever. Trust me.
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why BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT is Lang's best US film
3 January 2009
Sometimes, in the world of 1940s-1950s film noir, we are given a film so transparently impossible and contrived that we can see ourselves giving up on watching it half way through. But is extremely rare that we are faced with a film where the very response the viewer is having holds the key to the success, rather than the failure, of the film.

Such is the case with BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, which has - to its credit - been completely misunderstood by many. When we reach the film's conclusion, we realize that even the title of the film itself is a joke, perhaps the ultimate prank on the viewer. Yet to offer analysis of the film would be to destroy its main and most sinister motive; you can't "explain away" the glaring plot holes and contrivances without revealing the twist the film takes in its climax, and to do would rob the viewer of a genuine experience. So... I won't.

Suffice it to say, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT is far more than it seems and is nothing without the sum of its parts, in total. Lang tackles the story of a person who creates a fictitious role for himself in order to, essentially, pull a fast one on the legal profession for personal gain (or, as it appears on the surface, someone else's). In the world of film noir, of course, we know that such a character won't get away with it, but when Lang depicts the tragedy the viewer knows will come, he majestically turns the entire premise on its head. As a result, it's a cold slap in the face - a devastating critique of the complicity of the audience in following along, hungrily, with such contrivances in cinema.

Every part of the film fits perfectly by not fitting at all. Even the visual style of the film is a cold, rarely pleasing one, almost daring you to suspend your disbelief just a little bit longer without even granting the pleasure of emotionally charged close-ups at key moments. The editing is brutal and jarring, cutting away practically mid-sentence and moving to a similar conversation elsewhere.

As a swan song to his Hollywood career, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT does to the audience what Billy Wilder does to the industry in SUNSET BLVD. - biting the hand that feeds. The result is a total masterpiece.
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