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Laughter and tears for one tirelessly dedicated entertainer.
16 March 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Rose Marie, a child star famous before Shirley Temple was born and who outlived her as well, had a surprisingly compelling life and this well-crafted documentary presents it beautifully. What with grabbing the spotlight at 2 years, nine months in a style that knocked audiences on their behinds and being granted her initial moniker of "Baby Rose Marie" by none other than the notorious Evelyn Nesbit to doing voiceover work in her late-eighties and so much in-between she was like a living Rolodex of show business experiences and relationships.

Her early life and the key people in it are represented frequently by re-enactors and while I have never been fond of this practice (somehow it tends to give things an "Unsolved Mysteries" or "Rescue 911" vibe...!), they are generally well-handled here and even clever at times with the actors' lips moving to the voices of Rose Marie as she relays the tales in question. Fortunately, as she grows up (and the accessibility of actual footage becomes more available) the reenactments taper off. We see her grow from a dazzling child singer to a charming young vocalist who works steadily in Las Vegas and elsewhere. The presence of gangsters in Las Vegas and in her life is not ignored. She is also called to Broadway, though her shot at the movies is marred by the salacious greed and pettiness of a producer.

She meets THE love of her life, the husky but beautiful trumpet player Bobby Guy and her father will have none of it, causing complications that are only partly addressed in this film. Love wins out, though, and they share a glorious couple of decades together until fate steps in. It's telling of her deep adoration for her husband that even after more than fifty years had gone by she could not speak of his passing without becoming touchingly emotional.

She put on a brave face for audiences of her sitcoms and games shows and kept on plugging along. Then, she and several other ladies who were considered "washed up" by the pups then in vogue got together and proved them all wrong with a staggeringly successful group act, "4 Girls 4."

Seeing that Miss Rose Marie could barely stand to be idle, even when work on TV and the stage sometimes yielded a barrage of headaches from unreliable producers or irritating costars, clues you in to what kept her alive until she was 94, even with her body failing her. She just NEEDED to perform and to win over an audience. This documentary contains beautiful visuals, a compelling format, priceless home movies (including color footage of the cast of "The Dick Van Dyke Show") and entertaining clips, but the real jewel of it is the up close and personal interview footage. It could have been an hour longer and still held attention, she was so heartfelt, charming, poignant and hilarious. Rest in Peace, dear lady.
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Fontaine gives a lesson in social-climbing.
13 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
In one of director Ray's earlier films, Fontaine portrays a young blonde woman whose polite and coy exterior masks a savagely ambitious and passionate core. Fontaine's uncle Vermilyea arranges for her to live with his secretary Leslie while she attends business college and she "just happens" to arrive one night early, in time for a party full of wealthy and appealing men. Though robust author Ryan immediately likes Fontaine, she actually has her sites set more on Leslie's rich fiancé Scott! As one can guess, the machinations kick in as Fontaine wrangles everyone around her as much as she can, but will she be happy when and if she ever gets what it is she's after? Fontaine is too old for the part she's playing, but her performance is interesting enough most of the time to get past that. She's saddled, especially through the early portion of the film, with a rather fluffy, unruly, bleached hairstyle that does her fewer favors than she probably imagined or intended. Her gowns by Hattie Carnegie are in most cases far less attractive, complimentary to her and striking than those of Leslie's, which were done by Michael Woulfe. Again, this was surely not the intention! Ryan is excellent throughout. He is given several saucy lines and delivers them effectively. He adds a liveliness to his part, along with the deep feeling, that is most welcome. Scott, an actor who excelled at shifty and slimy characters, is the more upright person here and does well, even eliciting some sympathy. One of the real surprises is Leslie, who offers up a pretty, lively and appealing presence despite the demands of the script, which calls for her to come off as a little bit dim. Just as her overall styling is superior to that of the other Joan, her hair is beautifully arranged throughout. She would soon leave the business to raise her family. Ferrer, in one of his earliest film roles, portrays a starving artist who is gossipy and spongy and could be read as gay, though it is never outright suggested, of course. There is a scene, however, in which he and Ryan are pictured so closely together and in such a way that it could almost be snapped, cropped and used in a suggestive Confidential article or something! Vermilyea, as Fontaine's somewhat knowing uncle, and Farmer, as her completely unknowing aunt, lend solid, sometimes amusing support. The film has a solid directional hand in it thanks to Ray and moves along nicely. While it isn't necessarily believable, it is usually entertaining. It is also, for 1950, pretty straightforward about the sexual relationships that are taking place. Ryan even uses the words "sex attraction" at one point. Fans of the stars ought to enjoy it quite a bit.
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Genghis Khan (1965)
A kinder, gentler Genghis?
4 August 2009
Warning: Spoilers
One of the world's most legendary conquerors gets a heroic sheen in this colorful and often inaccurate latter day epic. Sharif plays the title role, a young Mongol who watches his father die at the hands of his rival Boyd and is then burdened with a large yoke around his neck, thus rendering him incapable of much, if any, physical threat. One day, Boyd makes the mistake of taking the yoke off and from then on the two are locked in combat to the death. In this rendition of the story, Sharif is bent on a united tribe of Mongols, something Boyd is against, preferring his independence. Boyd would rather team with other leaders, such as Wallach, to stamp out Sharif. Meanwhile, Sharif aligns with and learns from the Chinese, though they do not wish to see him leave once he has aided them in their own struggles. Sharif is noble and driven and even, at times, tender, not qualities that are always associated with the name Genghis Khan, but which are intended here. Boyd is one-dimensionally nasty throughout. The character he is playing was, in real life, a one-time ally, but that is not explored. Rather the script plays up a longstanding enmity that can only be stopped by the death of one or both of them. Dorleac, with 1960s bangs, plays Sharif's devoted wife and support system. It's a mostly decorative role aside from a few feisty moments, but she fills it well enough. Savalas is billed high, but is given next to nothing to do in the somewhat crowded landscape. Wallach appears briefly, but is at least permitted to make some sort of impression. Hordern rather hams it up as Sharif's partially blind mentor while Strode, as his muscular aide, provides silent strength. Two notable actors appear in faux-Asian makeup, as was the custom of the day. Morley, as the Chinese Emperor, fares best despite his inappropriateness to the role. His ever-individual style adds texture and humor to the part. Mason, face fixed in a permanent grin and speaking in the most stereotypical manner imaginable, is less impressive. It's a performance that will likely offend those who lean towards the sensitive in cases like this. Almost worthless as a history lesson, the film does succeed in delivering a fairly grand adventure with terrific music, decent battle sequences and positively jaw-dropping scenery. Though a pat approach to the script and an overriding simplicity threaten to mar the movie irrevocably, for those who aren't too demanding, the finished product is entertaining. Look out for the amusing glimpse of a Chinese princess in which she is nude except for some artfully arranged bits of scenic bric-a-brac surrounding the screened window some men are looking through. The mainstream cinema was still just toying with various amounts of exposed flesh in this time period. Sadly, Dorleac would die within two years in a fiery car accident. Mason, Sharif and Boyd had previously appeared together in the superior, but not very successful, epic The Fall of the Roman Empire."
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To Sir with Hate
29 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
A hot-button topic of the day, this conflict-filled drama concerns the effects of imposed busing of white students into an all-black school in order to diversify the enrollment. Lockhart plays a former basketball great who has escaped the ghetto to become a well-regarded teacher at a white school. One day, he is coerced into transferring to Lafayette High School, a black school downtown into which 200 white students are to be deposited. Alarmed parents use connections or other means to avoid this, meaning that only 60 of the white kids actually appear there on the first day of school. They are barely off the bus before reverse discrimination takes place and they are taunted and mocked. Resentments continue to build, thanks especially to one ringleader (Watson) who feels threatened by the presence of the new students and takes pains to make life difficult for them. Lockhart refuses to give up on Watson, despite his deplorable behavior and, for a time, is able to start to break through to him. However, Watson's anger over a friend's suspension and his dislike of Bridges, who wants to play basketball on the team, cause him to reignite his negativity. Lockhart gives a solid, smooth, amiable performance. He's idealistic, but not unbelievably so, and handles the material well. MacLachlan plays a fellow teacher who wants out of the almost prison-like school, but who warms to his line of thinking. Bridges does a fine job as a persecuted student. His final scene displays a remarkably fit physique. Watson seems to be bringing some degree of dimension to an outright villainous role. Other notable performances include Asner as the school's P.E. teacher, Reiner as a trouble-causing white student and Kleeb as a well meaning, but ineffectual teacher. While the script certainly points to the black kids as making a difficult situation worse, there are various good and bad folks on both sides. The situations presented do not tend to be outside of the realm of possibility (with the possible exception of a highly invasive act performed by some female students at the climax, though even that could taken place.) As is to be expected, there are many episodes and vignettes depicting the differences and problems of these kids, but often they are handled in a disarming, even amusing way, such as when Lockhart tries a new way to get illiterate youths interested in reading. The red tape and political machinations of the situation do not get ignored and the film doesn't try to pretend that there are any easy answers. Rather, it tries to show that everyone has to give a bit in order for everyone to get along. It also promotes the value of getting an education. A different take on the somewhat similar "To Sir With Love" in which black Sidney Poitier tried to make headway in a lower class, predominantly white school. Here, black Lockhart faces hostility from members of his own race who feel that he has sold out. Recent TCM airings have a curiously censored version, which sometimes removes the word "honky" and sometimes doesn't, along with varied allowance of the "n" word while some, but not all, cursing is dubbed out as well. The scene in the girls' locker room may have been pared down, too.
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Beulah Land (1980)
Spawn of the Wind
28 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Surely Margaret Mitchell's legendary tome "Gone With the Wind" is not the only book of its type, nor is the film version the only movie of that type. However, the book and the movie, both, are sterling examples of the subject matter, some might say untoppable. So iconic and legendary is the story of Scarlett O'Hara that anything coming after it suffers by comparison. So here is a miniseries based on two books concerning the trials of the Deep South during The Civil War that comes off as a sort of parallel universe "Gone With the Wind," except that instead of a selfish heroine, there's a deeply caring and noble one. Warren plays the pretty and forthright young wife of inept and immature plantation heir Rudd. Rudd's mother Lange knows that he will never be able to properly manage Beulah Land, but sees potential in Warren. When the war comes, and with it destruction, desolation and depression, it is Warren's core of strength that keeps things afloat. Meanwhile, she must deal with her selfish, philandering sister Baxter, snarling, confrontational overseer Shenar, withdrawn, mentally-bruised sister-in-law Stowe and various other troublesome relatives, slaves, Yankees and so on. Several decades of storyline are presented, sometimes skipping a few years at a time, as Warren's character goes from a young girl to a mature woman. Warren gives a sensitive, multifaceted performance in what is about as close as anyone (outside of Joanne Whalley-Kilmer in that ghastly mini-series "Scarlett") will ever get to portraying a role so close to that of Mitchell's heroine. The 6-hour (with commercials) project needed someone very appealing and heartfelt to keep it going and she more than fits the bill. A few of her many costars stand out as well. Johnson has an all-too-brief role as a lascivious bridegroom of Stowe's and wears some of TV's most eye-opening trousers in his first scene. Lange lends quiet authority and stature to her matriarchal role (she's almost unrecognizable at first in her red wigs.) Baxter has a bit of a field day with her snotty character and even gets to sort of reenact the big Atlanta hospital and perilous journey home scenes. Albert affectionately plays an elder uncle. Scott enjoys a late career turn as Warren's caring, if traditional, aunt. Shenar is appropriately nasty and threatening, if rather one-dimensional. Harewood plays Rudd's boyhood friend, a slave who would eventually live to see freedom. Along with the decent performances there are those that fall short. Of course the landscape is so full, after trying to squeeze the material of two novels into one film, that sometimes characters show up only long enough to be killed a few scenes later! Sarrazin doesn't add very much oomph or charisma to his role of a photographer who is smitten with Warren. Agutter seems rather wasted as a prostitute who manages to marry her way out of the brothel. A lot of the smaller roles are filled with people who have a lack of acting skill and presence. There's a feeling (some might say fairy tale-like) of racial harmony at Warren's plantation. Perhaps there were some places like that and on one hand it's pleasing to see, though it may possibly be sending out an incorrect notion. However, the film will never be shown again on television in an uncensored version due to its use of frank racial language from the antagonists of the piece, among others. At this point in time, Warren was, if not Queen of the Miniseries, then at least a princess and it's all geared as a showcase for her and her melodramatic gifts. On that level it succeeds. It's less successful as a depiction of the way things were in that place and time. In the 80s, it became a brief rage to film miniseries out of sprawling Civil War stories such as "The North and the South" and "The Blue and the Gray." Oh, and keep an eye out for the preposterously revealing portrait that Sarrazin paints of Warren! No way.
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Don't Mess with Jess!
27 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Eastwood was not an actor who was going to be content toiling away in bit parts of B movies or as the star of a weekly television series, nor was he going to be content to simply remain a leading man when that success finally found him. He wanted to direct and with this film, he got the chance. Fortunately, the project was one that had potential for commercial success, being that it deals with suspense and sexual relationships, but his heretofore-untapped artfulness didn't hurt either. He plays a Carmel, California disc jockey who regularly hears from a female caller requesting to hear "Misty," a romantic standard. One evening, he meets the female caller (Walter) by "chance" and indulges in a no strings attached sexual liaison even though he's trying to work things out with his estranged girlfriend Mills. Before he knows it, Walter has attached herself to him like a barnacle and he can't get rid of her. This kicks off a series of disturbing events that include interference with his career, vandalism and even assault. No one seems to be able to contain Walter from her evil-doings and, in time, Eastwood ceases to be her only target. Eastwood does a decent enough job acting-wise, though he is not particularly suited to the part he's playing. His coup here is in helming his first motion picture with style and skill. Walter is a revelation. She has many moments involving quick changes from flirtatiousness to fury and handles them expertly. Some of her outbursts are hilariously inappropriate such as when she tells one of Eastwood's neighbors to "go screw yourself" or exclaims that Hervey, the mature business associate of Eastwood's "couldn't get laid in a lumber camp!" It's an electrifying, scary performance that made it a little difficult to completely trust her in later portrayals! Mills role is almost completely decorative, but she was a good one to pick in that department. Eastwood did make good use of her beautiful eyes, especially in one revelatory moment. Larch adds some nice texture to his role of police detective, McEachin plays a doobie-loving fellow DJ and Taylor has some fun as Eastwood's mouthy housekeeper. Frequent Eastwood director Siegel has a small role as a chummy bartender. The film's location is another character, with the shoreline of Carmel being paid striking tribute throughout. Two sequences have, at times, been accused of slowing down the pace. One is a love montage between Mills and Eastwood set to the song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." This is actually, though lengthy, a very evocative and well-handled sequence and a necessary one in establishing the relationship of the couple. The other is a digression to the annual Monterrey Pop Festival. This one, while an interesting time capsule of the moment, does slow down the momentum and is too taste-specific and distracting to be as long as it is, serving very little purpose dramatically. The once startling and fearsome plot devices of this film were later ripped off quite heavily in the bigger budgeted "Fatal Attraction" (as well as in various TV shows and other movies.) Glenn Close was also quite amazing in that film, but Walter certainly paved the way with her eye-opening work here. Thankfully, Walter chose to call in and request "Misty" or the film might have been titled, "Play The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face for Me!"
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Basically no one had the instinct to see it, nor should they.
22 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Ms. Stone seems to have taken a page from Madonna's dismal failure "Body of Evidence" rather than to faithfully revisit her own concoction from the original film. This belated and besieged sequel to "Basic Instinct" has precious little to do with the first film in character, setting or sensibility, choosing instead to create a maze-like, senseless storyline with plenty of "shocking" language and a surprising lack of sex and nudity. Stone plays the infamous crime novelist Catherine Tramell, now established in London where she manages to drown one of her lovers within the opening moments of the movie. But was it intentional or just an unfortunate side affect of her soon-to-be-diagnosed "risk addiction?" And does anyone really care? She turns to a psychiatrist for help in conquering her demons, but he has at least as many issues as she does and, naturally, is involved with any number of people with whom Stone is also intimately acquainted. When some of them start popping up dead, the shrink (Morrisey) becomes as much of a suspect as Stone is, if not more. Mangy detective Thewlis tries to piece everything together while Morrisey's associate Rampling becomes entwined in the mess as well. Stone appears to have poured all of her attention into appearing as glacially beautiful as possible and in the bargain has not only forgotten the more conflicted and interesting character that made her famous, but has forgotten to perform at all! Countless shots of her in outré designer duds, spouting vulgarity or otherwise attempting to be stunning do not add up to much of anything. She comes off as a lewd mannequin without any identifiable qualities. Morrisey is saddled with a character so pliable and ignorant that he also lacks identifiability for the audience. Needless to say, he also lacks the star power that Michael Douglas brought to the first film. Someone involved should have realized that a character as provocative as Catherine Tramell works better as a supporting character rather than a lead, though the producers struggled all along to find ANY name actor willing to take the male part in this debacle. Who knows why Thewlis and Rampling are present. Thewlis already proved that he is willing to appear in anything when he worked on the deadly "Island of Dr. Moreau" with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, but Rampling typically knows better. At least they manage to emerge with their dignity intact. It's rather sickening to hear the late Jerry Goldsmith's amazing music applied to this idiotic movie (uncredited!!) The one thing the film has going for it is it's beautiful design. The costumes are striking, the cinematography is gorgeous and the sets are often stunning. London is presented in a captivating and eye-appealing way and the clothes are frequently selected to match the locations perfectly. Otherwise, this is a major waste of time and money that found practically no audience waiting for it at the theater. It was a notorious bomb.
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...and the movie grows on viewers.
22 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Based on a tremendously detailed novel by Betty Smith in which she recounts her experiences growing up poor in the title borough, this beautifully realized film contains strong performances and direction. Garner plays the imaginative, but fiscally challenged, young girl who strives to make a difference with her life despite various hurdles. Her mother McGuire works on her hands and knees in their apartment building, trying to scrape together a few extra pennies to make ends meet. Her father Dunn is a singing waiter whose jobs are few and far between. He passes part of his time drinking away the family funds, desperately resigned to his fate yet dreaming of something better, if not for himself than for Garner. Donaldson plays Garner's eternally hungry younger brother while Blondell is McGuire's flirty, much-married sister. A person would have to look long and hard to locate a child performance (particularly a dramatic one) that equals or exceeds that of Garner here. Her face reflects all the hardships and the little triumphs with a radiance that is unforgettable. Not only is she not "cute" in the traditional Hollywood way, but she also avoids many of the mannered pitfalls that other kid actors might have slid into. It's a stunning piece of work and she was appropriately rewarded with a special Oscar. It's odd to see the usually erudite and refined McGuire using poor grammar and playing someone rather simple in her ambitions, but she acquits herself well. There's an earthiness and dignity in her performance that makes one sympathize with her plight, even when her character says and does things that are hard to accept. Dunn, a man who had his own set of personal issues away from the camera, emerged briefly from career oblivion to deliver a sensitive and poignant portrayal that won him an Oscar as well. His final moment on screen is memorably haunting. Adding some welcome spice, humor and even glamour to the proceedings is Blondell in a role so endearing and heartfelt it can't help but create new fans of her work out of any viewer. Nolan appears as a kindly local policeman. This had the potential of becoming an oppressive, downbeat story with depressing elements, but thanks to deft direction, wonderful performances and a solid script, it is instead an uplifting and inspiring story. The creators wisely allowed many amusing moments to shine amongst the darker aspects of the material. Among the memorable moments throughout are Garner and Donaldson planning to acquire a Christmas tree, Garner and her teacher Nelson discussing the fate of a small pie, Garner keeping McGuire company as McGuire endures a medical emergency and Blondell instructing Garner to check her school desk before leaving for graduation. One thing that does seem odd is that the family is so insistent upon keeping up with their insurance and yet, once it is needed, they don't seem to have been compensated accordingly (yet they later come off as being better off financially. But how?) Still, any quibble regarding small bits of the story are more than made up for in the end result. It's a special, evocative and compelling motion picture that anyone should see.
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Tickle Me (1965)
...just not there.
22 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The deadening treadmill of cookie-cutter Presley vehicles, foisted upon him by his "mentor" Col. Parker, continues here with both good and bad results. Presley plays a singing rodeo rider who finds himself working at a ranch where zaftig women go to peel away pounds. It's run by Adams, who has her sites set on him and is also home to exercise instructor Lane, who is more skeptical, at least at first. Presley's roomie is dim bulb fellow hand Mullaney while his chief antagonist is jealous swim instructor Faulkner (who sports one really awkward-looking and unappetizing set of swim trunks hoisted up practically to his chest!) Presley has to fend off the female guests of the ranch who are hungry not only for steak, but for him, while Lane searches in vain for a fortune her grandfather left behind in a nearby western ghost town. It all comes to a head in a protracted finale that seems more like a very bad episode of "Scooby Doo" than a piece of musical froth. Presley lopes through the film with varying degrees of interest, lip-synching to songs he had recorded months and years prior (a symptom of the low budget of the project), not that it stands out too much to the casual viewer. It's just that the songs bear virtually no relation to anything and there's not even a title tune. The script is preposterous, so Presley goes along for the ride as well as he can. Lane is almost legendary as one of The King's most attractive costars. Her body, even by today's standards, is unbelievable, so it's hard to imagine how jaw-dropping she must have seemed in '65. Her acting leaves quite a bit to be desired, but most male viewers will care very little! A Brit in real life, she provides a creditable American accent. Adams doesn't even try to mask her character's outright lust for Presley. She isn't given much to do at all beyond drooling over him, but she looks great doing it and does it with verve. Mullaney is annoying as would be expected from anyone being led through tired "3 Stooges" style schtick. (The films writers had worked with the comic trio previously.) Most of the rest of the cast are only shown is brief bits. At times it seems like the story – to use a term loosely – was cobbled together in order to take advantage of pre-existing sets left over from a prior movie and it's possible that that is what happened. Nonetheless, this was an inexplicable box office smash, placing the studio that backed it into the black and giving Presley (who was entitled to 50% of the profits) a hefty payday as well. At least it is colorful and attractive to the eye most of the time and undemanding (to say the least.) It's just a shame that someone as handsome and talented as Presley was unable or unwilling to be placed in projects that better displayed his charms while also paying tribute to them instead of bleeding them and his reputation dry.
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Xanadu (1980)
XanaDO for some, Xanax required for others!
21 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Infamous for barely recouping its cost at the box office upon release, this gaudy fantasy-musical could not exactly be described as good, but is nonetheless eye-catching and contains some bouncy and enjoyable songs. Beck plays a struggling artist, mired in a nowhere job reproducing record album covers. Skating (yes…) to his rescue is Newton John, a muse sent to Earth in order to help him realize his potential. Meanwhile, one of her former objects of affection during a prior stint on Earth, Kelly, has a chance to have his own dreams fulfilled. Beck and Kelly pair up in order to create the ultimate nightclub, a 40s meets 80s showplace with a built-in skating floor. That's pretty much it as far as plot goes. Beck, taking over a role originally intended for Andy Gibb, isn't really at home in this milieu. He's trying, but the material is frequently substandard and he doesn't exactly soar in his few moments involving dance movement. Newton John is exceedingly lovely to look at and her voice is terrific, though she is basically playing a flavorless mannequin much of the time. Diction was never her strongest suit when singing, so the DVD's closed-captioning comes in handy, especially during some less familiar songs at the end. Her beauty transcends some really vomitous Little Roller Rink on the Prairie outfits before the finale where she is allowed a variety of fun looks. Kelly ought to be more embarrassed then he is to be found here, though it is undeniably great to see him still moving with aplomb through several dance sequences. Despite the overwhelming tackiness, he still had it (and even put some skates on, himself, briefly!) These three comprise most of the cast, though there are some sequences in Beck's workplace that are so poorly written and pitifully acted that they are excruciating. (These elements were wisely eliminated from the later Broadway musical adaptation.) Veteran actors Hyde-White and Brown vocally portray Zeus and Hera in one scene. There's a lot of neon special effects work and even an animated sequence by Don Bluth (in which the female looks NOTHING like ONJ, though the male resembles Beck!) The music, half provided by Newton John's pal John Farrar and half by Electric Light Orchestra, is alternately lovely and invigorating, though the energetic, heavily-synthesized numbers are frequently paired with some preposterous dance moves (more like displays than dances!) At the time of filming, nothing was hotter than roller-skating, so that was featured rather heavily. This lends an inherent campiness to the project now, apart from all the other aspects such as the clothing, sets and music. The film contains, perhaps, the most annoying scene change wipes in the history of cinema. The soundtrack was a smash success and it's the songs and the wacky visuals that give the film its entertainment value. The plot doesn't hold up (it was cobbled together during filming!) For example, Beck is a frustrated artist, but his fulfilled dream has nothing to do with drawing or painting. The ending with he leads hardly makes sense, either, based on what's come before. Still, it's a garish, goofy good time for those in the mood. Look quickly in several of the dance sequences for alternately overemphatic and blank-faced Lattanzi, who would soon marry Newton John and father her child Chloe.
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Even after a nuclear holocaust, Dad gets to smoke after dinner while Mom does the dishes in her sweater and capri pants...
17 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
On what promises to be just another family camping trip, Milland and Hagen, with their teenage children Avalon and Mitchel, set out bright and early one morning with their pull-along camper and head for the mountains of California. Before reaching their destination, they hear rumbling from the sky and see a massive mushroom cloud over the area of their home. In order to check on grandma, they begin driving back(!), but soon realize that everyone else is driving away from the explosion and so they decide to retreat to the mountains as they'd originally planned. Milland strays from the main drag in order to take advantage of uniformed storekeepers who won't be gouging prices on things like food, gas and weaponry. Eventually, they set up housekeeping in a cave until they can determine whether it's safe to go back home. In the meantime, societal order has begun to break down and there are a few dastardly types who may complicate matters. Milland (who also directed, one of five films he helmed) is quite autocratic as the father. He predicts that people will begin to act irrationally and illegally and doesn't waste too much time joining in, truth be told! However, he does always attempt to pay for the things he takes at least. Hagen mostly gets to fret and fuss about everything, though she does have one moment of minor action with a gun. The script keeps forcing her to say things like "It's all right" over and over. Avalon is reasonably appealing, though it's hard to buy him as Milland's offspring! Mitchel is a thorough annoyance from her first frame till practically her last. Freeman shows up fairly late in the game as the bedraggled victim of repeated gang rape. Fortunately, within a day of being discovered, she has flawless bouffant hair and heavy eye makeup in place, business as usual. Who needs electricity? Bakalyan plays a thug who threatens Milland & Co. more than once along with his two buddies. Garland is a shop owner who can't catch a break. The film is clearly a low budget AI time-killer, but Milland manages to infuse it with a certain amount of dramatic tension and decent visuals for the most part. It's not afraid to fess up to some ugly truths regarding the scenario either. The pace tends to be pretty good overall. One debit would include certain parts of the script, which either feature repetitive dialogue or preposterous situations such as having Milland announce that they are going to stick to their moral standards by shaving, even though he's already committed any number of crimes! Also, the loud, jazzy score by Les Baxter is a matter of taste. Then there's the way that the principals keep running into each other as if they're in a sandbox even though the story takes place all along a major highway, through various towns and in the mountains! Sadly, the viewer never gets a shot of "the women" getting jostled around as they ride IN the trailer during some dicey moments. Oh, and don't miss petite Avalon carrying a 10-point buck on his shoulders (which morphs into a stuffed animal at some point!) Despite the differences in plot points, there is similarity between this film and "Hot Rods to Hell." This isn't necessarily a good movie, but it's rarely boring and alternately amusing (unintentionally) and engrossing.
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THX 1138 (1971)
The original film is intriguing, but George should have kept his hands off of it.
19 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
For his feature directorial debut, Lucas elaborated on one of his celebrated student films ("THX 1138EB") to present a cautionary sci-fi thriller about the dangers of complacency, mindless consumerism and deadened emotions. In a stark world, perhaps Earth's future, Duvall plays a worker in an assembly line in which android police are manufactured. He has a platonic female roommate, takes copious drugs, which are mandated by the powers that be, watches limited holographic programming and buys worthless items, which are disposed of faster than it takes to buy them. The entire society operates at this level with occasional troublemakers placed in prison or destroyed altogether. One day, Duvall's roomie McOmie, decides to cease taking drugs and starts to deprive him of his own, resulting in feelings between them which are not only revolutionary and new, but also against the law! A fellow citizen (Pleasence) takes an interest in Duvall and wishes to join him in his enlightened state, but eventually the three of them are apprehended and duly punished for their transgressions. Duvall, however, may not be so easy to defeat. This is an unusual role for Duvall and, for this stage in his career, a rare opportunity to enjoy a leading role. He is solid throughout and becomes a person worth rooting for against the ever-oppressive society in which he is trapped. Pleasence is also good, though his role is more of a supporting one. This was the only film McOmie made for decades and she has a striking, unusual quality. It's a part that required more than a little bravery on her part and she acquits herself well. The fact that she is so unknown only adds to the aura of her work here. Colley appears late as an ally to Duvall. His towering presence and good-natured persona help give a bit of a lift to the proceedings. Haig has a small role as a degenerate prisoner being held in the same area as Duvall and others. There's a striking visual design to the film and an even more impressive aural design. The world that the characters reside in is elaborately depicted (within the constrained budget) yet not very fully explained, making the viewer pay close attention to things and fill in the blanks frequently. It's a challenging piece to take in for the uninitiated, but it has thought provoking themes. In truth, totalitarian types of government full of control and aesthetic denial are not new to science fiction and weren't in 1971, but there is enough individuality to this to capture the attention. The audacious decision to make everyone shave his (or her!) head and to use white very heavily make this a very stylized viewing experience. (There is also a bit of a flaw in that many freshly shaved heads have evidence of tan lines, something that would not be present in this situation.) What's interesting is that Lucas felt the need to warn of a society in which people become overly reliant on video entertainment, cyber-sex, pharmaceuticals, needless buying and impersonality and yet we are far closer to that in 2009 than when the film was released! The bad news is that Lucas, with endless money and resources at his disposal, is insistent upon going back over his previous films and tweaking them, "enhancing" them and "improving" them while making the originals (at least in this case) uneasy to find. In 2004, he added CGI effects to this motion picture and re-edited it considerably. He replaced some feral animals with wholly computerized versions, which stick out like a sore thumb no matter what money was spent to do it. It's not only annoying and unnecessary, but insulting, offensive and retroactively anachronistic since most moviegoers with a brain know that such technology was not available at the time. It's jarring, distracting and reprehensible, whether or not it is "his" to do with what he wants. Can audiences not be trusted to accept the film as it was originally presented, taking the effects in context? In attempting to change history, he is guilty of the type of manipulation that the film was trying to speak out against in the first place! So, while his original work was arresting and fascinating if maybe a tad crude along the edges at times, the redux is appalling.
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They all left.....
16 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Considered the favorite of director Bogdonovich's own pictures, this is a very personal movie featuring his friends and characters based on his friends and himself. It's also astonishingly indulgent, which may put off many viewers (as it did upon first release.) Gazzara, Ritter and Novak play private investigators, hired to spy on a pair of married women who may be indulging in extramarital affairs. Ritter and Novak are tailing pretty, young Stratton while Gazzara has his eye on wealthy wife and mother Hepburn. During the peeking, peeping and following, other characters are woven into the mix such as the men's employer Morfogen and his efficient secretary MacEwan, sensuous cab driver Hanson, enigmatic Latin Ferrer and bombastic, frenetic country singer Camp. They bop around New York as if it's a tiny hamlet such as Mayberry, constantly running across each other and interacting, associating and cross-pollinating. Ritter, enacting the director's alter ego, goes for slapsticky laughs throughout with middling success. He tries hard, but his character isn't particularly interesting, engaging or even appealing, really. Gazzara coasts through the movie on understated charisma, allowing only an occasionally glimmer of spunk to show through. Hepburn isn't heard until halfway through. She lends an air of grace to the movie that would otherwise be absent, but also seems out of place against most of her other cast-mates save Gazzara. Rail thin, she's like a hairy Q-Tip with oversize designers sunglasses on much of the time. Stratton is truly pretty and occasionally displays a propensity for screen acting, but she has no character to play whatsoever. She's a prop. Novak is even skinnier than Hepburn and hairier, to boot! His "cool" character is frequently annoying. Camp is practically unbearable. Bogdonovich has said that she's basically playing herself throughout which is certainly no compliment! The less said about the rest of the cast the better because they are almost all really bad and, fortunately, most of them only did another project or two before disappearing from the movie camera's eye forever. Hyser and Pena being exceptions. Though the film is a Valentine to Manhattan, and parts of the city have rarely been presented so prettily lit and so affectionately displayed, the good news mostly stops there. The story, such as it is, is vague, non-involving and tiresome while the characters are alternately dull or grating. There is very little to take an interest in or root for, though there is a palpable sense of regret and suffocation where Hepburn is concerned. Music in the film ranges from classy and appropriate to intrusive and obnoxious. There's genuine sadness in the fact that Stratton is seen here playing a lovely woman, married to a lout, being followed by a detective when in real life she was a lovely woman, married to a lout, being followed by a detective and when the detective discovered she was being unfaithful, her husband killed her and then himself. This fact has been blamed for the film's dismal box office performance, but that's not the reason it failed. It failed because it is too personally specific to appeal to most people and too off-putting and self-indulgent to even bother delivering characters and plot that anyone could care about. Were "Giant" and "Rebel Without a Cause" hampered by the death of James Dean prior to their release? Did "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" tank when Spencer Tracy died soon after filming wrapped? Did people stay away from "The Dark Knight" following Heath Ledger's death? No. People actually are curious to see a movie after the star has died suddenly unless the movie is simply no good.
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Arresting drama concerning an escaped convict and his respectable brother.
16 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
A rather trim study of family discord and torment, this film offers a surprisingly expansive cast of experienced actors along with some decent acting and a good set piece or two. Cotten plays a wealthy ranch owner living just north of the Mexican border in a fairly remote area. One night, during a heavy storm, he finds his estranged brother Johnson at his home, freshly escaped from prison and eager to cross into Mexico where his wife and children are already waiting. Before Cotten can get used to the idea that his convict brother has invaded his self-created paradise, his wife Roman bursts in with a passel of their rich, heavy-drinking friends. Cotten decides to pass Johnson off as a long lost friend, but must wait out the rain and the dangerously high river before getting Johnson out of the picture. Unfortunately, Johnson may become too much to deal with before that happens. Cotten has a fairly one note role to play and does it adequately if not spectacularly. It's kind of a stubborn, bitter role without a ton of dimension. He and Johnson are very unlikely brothers, though they try hard to make it work. Johnson comes off surprisingly well. Best known for boy-next-door roles and colorful froth, he is wonderfully dour and serious here and has a manly, rugged presence. It's among the best of his screen roles. Roman really only gets to register heavily in one scene against Cotten and otherwise is used more decoratively. Her nicotine-laden voice can take some getting used to, however. The society friends are played by a familiar gaggle of faces, though most of them have to scratch for anything notable to say or do. Carson, for example, is capable of doing more than he's given, though Hayes, as his wife, enjoys a gossipy part. Also to be spotted are Dexter, Davis and Lindsay. (The film was shot in widescreen without a lot of close-ups, which means that smaller TVs cannot give full justice to the actors when they're shot in group situations, something that happens a great deal here.) Former Olympian and movie Tarzan Bennett plays the local lawman. Gates has one scene as Johnson's anxiety-ridden wife, surrounded by three children, all of whom had busy careers before the camera in their youth. One thing that helps the movie a lot is the location filming. Interior scenes, though, take place on the spacious and sometimes patently false-looking (Roman's kitchen, for example) sets that 20th Century Fox favored during this time, no doubt meant to glean best use out of the Cinemascope lens. Some of the dramatics get a little overheated at times, but many solid scenes appear as well, one involving Morgan as a bar proprietor. There's also a convincingly treacherous river that figures into the climax. It packs a fair amount of entertainment into its hour and a half running time.
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Goofy, oddly affectionate look at the roller-coaster life of a music superstar.
5 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The wave of reverent, dramatic bio-pics of famous singers that has flourished over the last few years ("Ray," "Walk the Line" and others) gets a quirky skewering in this well-appointed lampoon. Reilly plays the title character, a young musician who is haunted (and blamed by his father) over the death of his promising and gifted brother. With the promise of success in the music world made clear after a successful local performance, he takes off (with his preteen girlfriend Wiig in tow) for a climb to the top. Naturally, it isn't long before all the clichés are trucked out including infidelity, drug abuse, discord with the band and so on. Various genres of music are explored as Reilly hits it big with rockabilly and then tries to continue to eke out a career in folk, psychedelia and even TV variety-level disco. Along the way, all conceivable incidents and situations happening with real life troubled artists arise in order to be parodied. Reilly, who plays his character from early teens on (a jab at those projects which expect audiences to buy middle aged stars playing their characters in youth!), is so committed to this characterization that it becomes realistic, despite all the silliness. Not only does he give his part all the passion, annoyance and stupidity that it requires, but he can also sing quite well and does so frequently! It's a rare starring showcase for him and he acquits himself admirably. Wiig, as his wife and the mother of (many of) his children, lends excellent support, though her character isn't particularly fleshed out or even interesting. Fischer fares better in a flashier role as a sultry female singer who joins with Reilly for a (hilariously entendre-filled) duet and ends up with his heart. Meadows has a role as one of Reilly's band-mates who introduces him to increasingly dangerous and addictive drugs despite protestations that he shouldn't be coming near the stuff. Sure to come off more amusingly to those who have seen real films of this type, it nonetheless stands alone, bolstered particularly by a raft of great original songs. It's shocking that none of the musical numbers from this film were able to land any Oscar nominations, especially in light of the utter garbage that seems to dominate the category each year. To go further, the numbers in this film are integrated into the film, not tacked on to the end credits in desperation for a nod, like a lot of others. Not as wild as, say, a Zucker Brothers parody, there's still a large amount of zaniness. One of the most outrageous sight gags includes Reilly talking on the phone to Wiig amidst the aftermath of an orgy as a frontally nude man stands next to him asking questions about where his belongings are! It's a taboo-breaking moment that may help get some squeamish folks past their body shame. Another enjoyable aspect is the wide variety of clothes, hairstyles and furnishings that denote the ever-changing eras of music. Several name actors pop up in cameos (some more successfully than others) including Paul Rudd and Jack Black as Lennon & McCartney, who take Reilly on an LSD-fueled "trip." Though the movie is not intended to be taken seriously, Reilly is solid enough with his character to at least allow a viewer to connect with the story while chuckling at the absurdities that pop up.
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Brainstorm (1983)
Unavoidably affected thriller with mixed results.
5 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
A trouble-plagued production that, sadly, wound up making little impact at the box office and isn't terribly well known today (an awkward change-up in screen ratio within the film complicates home-viewing to a point as well!), this was the final motion picture of Wood's career. Walken plays a scientist who, along with fellow computer wizard Fletcher, has developed a virtual reality device, which allows the wearer to see, hear, smell, taste and feel the experiences of another person whose sensations have been recorded onto special tape that can be played back. The excitement over the breakthrough isn't allowed to last long before shifty owner and backer Robertson is letting the government take an interest in it for military purposes and also before certain individuals abuse the pleasurable aspects of it, causing detriment to themselves. Walken's estranged wife Wood is hired on to reduce the mammoth helmet to a more workable, sellable size. Walken uses the device to impart his feelings of love towards Wood into a tape that demonstrates his feelings and gives it to her as a reminder. They have barely begun to reconnect when the trouble surrounding the device starts to hit home and create havoc. Eventually, they have to take measures to prevent it from proceeding further, though there is danger to their own selves in taking that stance. Walken, never one to come off as completely normal or balanced in any film, is afforded the rare opportunity to play a somewhat traditional leading man. There's a cerebral quality to him that makes him well suited to this material. Interestingly, he is noticeably younger than both Wood and Fletcher (who he is also romantically involved with in the film.) Wood is often radiant in this movie (which she died before completing in a very controversial drowning accident) and establishes considerable chemistry with Walken. There are a few off-kilter costumes and overly fussy hairdos (she looks best, believe it or not, when her hair is all pulled back off her face in one scene), but she generally looks good and tries to invest her flimsy character with real emotion. Some degree of her appearance in the film was affected by her death, though it's not obscenely obvious to an uninformed viewer. At any rate, it's a far more flattering swan song than, say, "Meteor" would have been! Robertson had found a niche in portraying potentially immoral corporate men like he does here and he does so well, but kind of evaporates with little fanfare after a while. Fletcher has been lauded for her portrayal of a driven, chain-smoking inventor, but it's really quite a mannered, over-the-top and at times, quite embarrassing performance. She's overemphatic and frequently unintentionally funny and her final scene is hellaciously bad. She isn't helped at all by a director whose forte was special effects and not human conditions and traits. Most of the remainder of the cast doesn't register significantly. The film features an array of point-of-view shots meant to represent the scope of the virtual reality device from riding a roller-coaster, to flying over canyons to crashing a car off a cliff to even having a nubile blonde sitting astride the wearer, ready to engage in sexual intercourse! (Kudos to the writers for not ignoring the fact that with technological advances, sex is rarely forgotten as part of the equation!) These scenes are presented in an aspect ratio roughly twice as wide as the rest of the film in order to broaden their effect in the theater. This means that on home video, the majority of the film is letterboxed on all four sides, which is akin to watching the film through a large keyhole. It's a situation that will likely put some viewers off, though perhaps it will come off better on the newer (and larger) widescreen televisions. Director Trumbull, who developed a lot of eye-popping effects for the cinema, provides some interesting imagery for this film, though there is, of course, by now a dated quality to it. Though he managed (or the stars themselves managed!) to give Walken and Wood's story a certain degree of feeling, the film tends to flounder when it comes to focus and story flow. How much of this is due to the necessary retooling is unclear. It does come off as complete, just, perhaps, not perfectly so. Another side effect of the era is product placement, including Budweiser and other items, most notably a scene in which Walken is inexplicably and unnecessarily chawing on Ruffles potato chips! The climax is also unbelievable in a number of ways. It has to count as a wounded, but interesting, film. Depending on one's affection for the stars and interest in the subject matter, it may supply more entertainment for some than for others. Fans of James Horner will be drawn to the score, which features choral sounds associated with much of his work.
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Badge 373 (1973)
Gritty, grim character study of a suspended policeman bent on vengeance.
28 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
There is only a certain window of time (around the late 60s to the early 80s) that a police film of this type would have been made with the kind of gritty, deliberately ugly, murky, downbeat sort of verisimilitude that's on display here. Before that, studio craftsmanship and censors would have prevented it and after that the gaudy style of the 80s and then the refusal to accept "under the top" action and effects made it impossible. Here, Duvall plays a paunchy, tough, New York City police detective who is suspended following the questionable death of a suspect who fell from the top of a building during a drug raid. Soon after, his partner is killed and, despite not officially being on the force, Duvall sets out to determine who has murdered the man, who may or may not have been on the take. His investigation takes him into a world of revolutionary Puerto Ricans who are interested in rising up against the oppression of their "rulers," the United States. Meanwhile, his new lady love Bloom is having trouble accepting the dangerous, rough and tumble lifestyle of Duvall. With the occasional aid of his superior Egan (whose real life exploits as a cop provided the basis for this and other stories), Duvall winds his way through a minefield of murder, hate, gunrunning and racial unrest (with antihero Duvall himself portrayed as intolerant of Hispanics and pretty much any other minority.) Duvall, gut on display and frequently disheveled, is excellent in his portrayal of this common, insensitive, driven man. It's a warts and all performance in which he lets loose with any variety of foul language and slurs with little regard for his own vanity. Nonetheless, the audience is on his side because the enemy kills anyone who takes his part. Bloom hasn't got a large role and it isn't really a rewarding one, but she manages to make the most of it. Darrow makes a late film appearance as a criminal kingpin and, for some reason and to his detriment, wears dark glasses for 98% of his screen time, day or night. Egan is hardly a stunning actor, but does help in the way of authenticity as he sprang from this environment prior to working in films. Few other performers make a particular impact as the film is mostly concerned with Duvall and his quest through the mire of a dank NYC, though fans of "The Electric Company" may be interested in seeing Avalos as an arrestee trade epithets with Duvall. The city as presented here mirrors the dreary, dirty New York of so many movies from this era, something that prompted the city to reinvent itself as much as possible and take a turn towards a cleaner and more user-friendly town. Enough can't be said of the bleak, drab atmosphere (offset by the sunny and green surroundings of a cabin that Duvall retreats to after being assaulted.) There's a set piece, involving a wild chase in which Duvall commandeers a public bus in order to escape a gang of thugs, which is audacious and realistic at the same time. The same type of scene would today be shot with frantic editing, overwhelming speed and lots more destruction, though it's far more believable the old way. The script is riddled with (now) politically incorrect putdowns and plentiful foul language (kudos to TCM for recently airing the film unedited, albeit overnight!), which may offend some viewers, but American films were enjoying a new freedom in those and other areas and the envelope was forever being pushed. Hardly a perfect film, it is at least a thought-provoking one. There is a rally included in which real-life activist Luciano presents a diatribe against Puerto Rican oppression and raises some interesting questions (it's a shame, though, that so many people portraying Puerto Ricans in this movie keep pronouncing it the incorrect "Porto" Rico, which is jarring to those who know better.)
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Perhaps "The Roman Fall of Mrs. Stone" would have been too obvious a title.
28 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
In a film that, perhaps, would lose some of its meaningfulness were one not aware of the condition of its leading lady, the subjects of loneliness and exploitation are explored. Leigh plays a celebrated, but fading, stage actress who, after suffering a humiliating premiere, flees to Rome to escape the world. Though her devoted husband isn't able to join her as planned, she stays on, secluded in her luxury apartment, occasionally venturing out wearing dark glasses. Enter the troll-like, but somehow captivating, local procurer Lenya who introduces Leigh to her latest prize, the handsome Beatty, who is eager to make some money off of his own tender flesh. Though Leigh takes more than a little wearing down, eventually she and Beatty become heavily acquainted, with Leigh becoming more attached than she ought to. Beatty feels he no longer needs Lenya, which leads to a scenario that spells despair for Leigh. Leigh, who grappled with physical and mental ailments for a large part of her life, was incredibly fragile during the filming of this movie, having lost the love of her life, Laurence Olivier, to Joan Plowright. Looking every bit and then some of her age (thanks in part to a relentless smoking habit), she nonetheless projects loveliness and grace and sports some chic Balmain clothes. She is hampered, particularly in the first half, by wigs of ill-judged color and style, but overcomes this to deliver a captivating and sympathetic performance. Her voice is low and lacking the ability to intone with the same nuance and she can't seem to leave certain of her clothes alone in some scenes, but the magic is still there. Beatty is really quite awful, apart from the inherently challenging attempt of playing Italian. Though he definitely looks good, he gives a self-conscious and, at times, overly emphatic performance that comes close to being laughable at times. Lenya is to die for. She handily steals the scenes she's in with her lascivious expressions and crafty ways. The cast includes Browne as Leigh's vaguely lesbian good friend and St. John as a hot, young starlet whose career trajectory is the opposite of Leigh's. Filmed partly on location in Rome, it's typically pretty obvious when the locales switch to British soundstages, but generally the look is sumptuous whether in Leigh's elegantly appointed home or Lenya's garish one. Interestingly, especially considering the time it was made, the notion of homosexual prostitution is not ignored. While it isn't necessarily blatant, keen viewers will see it presented matter-of-factly (even leeringly, as one gigolo draws attention to a bauble he has acquired from a sugar daddy.) It's been noted that author Williams use Leigh's character as an extension of his own feelings and fears and that comes through rather strongly despite the fact that he is not the one who wrote the screenplay. Languidly paced, it's not a movie that will appeal to all tastes, but fans of the author and of Miss Leigh will want to check it out, certainly.
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It's Alive (1974)
"Threaten me with an abortion, will ya?!"
21 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Paranoia regarding the effects of drugs on an unborn child is touched upon in this horror flick with the conceit that a baby is born in mutated form and kills practically anything in its path! Ryan and Farrell play the parents of an 11 year-old boy who have another one on the way, a baby they weren't 100% sure they should proceed with. Following a particularly difficult delivery, the infant slaughters most of the attending staff and slinks off into the night to find more victims. Ryan struggles with the idea that he could sire such a thing while warding off insensitive journalists and other hostile people while Farrell begins to lose her grip, retreating to her bed in a drug-fueled haze. While police scour the city looking for the bloodthirsty tyke, Ryan decides he needs to be the one to kill it himself, especially after a close encounter with the little beast spells death for one of his relatives. Combining elements of classic 50s sci-fi and 70s splatter, this is a cheap, often schlocky movie, but one with cult appeal and with an interesting cast. Ryan is a severe-looking presence and comes off as very stoic much of the time, but does reveal a tender side every now and then. This was a rare chance for him to assume a leading role. Farrell (who, ironically, had endured a horrific episode in the delivery room in real life prior to this – involving a stopped heart and considerable amnesia!) is generally effective, though her role is never quite as significant as Ryan's. Perhaps she comes off as a little over-the-top at times due to the frequent underplaying of her costar. Several notable actors pop up, rather briefly, in supporting roles. Stockwell has one good-sized scene as Ryan's faux sympathetic employer, Duggan has a scene as a research physicist who would like to study the "baby" and (startlingly bald) Ansara has a blink-and-miss-it cameo as a police detective. Wellman plays Ryan's brother, one of the most normal and relatable people in the film. Filmed rather darkly, sometimes with rickety hand-held camera-work that may as well have been done by Katharine Hepburn, the stark cheapness of the project actually makes the events a little scarier and more accessible than they might have been otherwise. The decidedly low-rent visuals (and editing via Ginsu knife apparently!) are given a lift by legendary composer Bernard Herrmann's score, though many people questioned why he was associated with such a movie. He and the director struck up a friendship and it led to their working together. Future effects whiz Kenny Baker did the "creature work" here with mixed results. There are instances in which the baby is laughable (none more so, though, than in a scene at the end when what is supposed to be the monster baby wrapped in a coat is briefly revealed to be a white, furry dog! The director left this in deliberately for the purposes of his own amusement.) and moments when suspense is considerable. Almost as scary as the storyline is the cornucopia of eye-assaulting, intensely ugly 70s décor that marks the residence of Ryan and Farrell. There are some doozies in the way of furniture, wallpaper and so on. Note also how much smoking goes on and where! Times have changed. Film fans will likely enjoy some of the quirky aspects that the creator has inserted (such as Ryan doing a Walter Brennan impersonation to his son for no apparent reason.) Not necessarily a good movie, it is, one way or another, an entertaining one and has a loyal following. It was followed by two sequels and a 2008 remake.
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Star Trek (2009)
Frenetic, brainless bastardization of the original concept.
20 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
It happens on daytime television: A new storyline is developed which renders everything that came before it impossible and inconsistent. It happens in comic books: Entire histories and established conceits of a character or situation are redone without regard for the previous effort. Here it happens in a movie. A revisionist, souped-up, tweaked version of the famous television series comes along that jettisons about 80% of what made the original meaningful, resonant and special. Not only does it reconfigure or ignore the "established" continuity of the characters' prior universe, but it's also unapologetic about it. Who cares what anyone else thought when they watched "Star Trek" during its original run or in syndication? This is the way it's going to be for the A.D.D., Xbox, Jonas Brothers, youtube, Hannah Montana, iPod, CGI set and anyone who doesn't like it can be damned. Since the makers of this and other products, which undercut any personal investment a viewer may have made in the previous work, have no regard for that audience, the only recourse that audience has is to resist supporting the new work. However, that hardly matters when something comes along that, despite its emptiness, idiocy and even ignorance, appeals so much to the target audience that it can't help but be a huge success. All that's left to do is either chuck one's emotional connection to the original concept and get on board or sit at home with the 4 decade old series on DVD. Though not every fan of the original series will be this polarized, it's a decision that many folks will have to make. The good news is that Pine is an appealing, dynamic and enthusiastic Kirk (though not much like William Shatner, for better or for worse), Quinto is close to perfection as Spock in both looks and manner and the chemistry between the core cast members is adequate enough to provide a decent sense of camaraderie in the inevitable follow-up, especially if, on the off chance, the producers decide to actually follow the intended path and put the team into the scenario of seeking out "new life and new civilizations" together instead of rehashing and retreading everything that was already "established." Cross and Ryder also prove to be effective choices as Quinto's parents. Also, Bana's ship is decidedly imposing and threatening looking. The bad news is that virtually any semblance of the vision, social commentary, optimism, discovery, sense of unity or even a sense of adventure, really, is absent from this incarnation. In its place are lightning fast camera-work and editing, animated effects, over-the-top "stunts" and lots of explosions and death. The people are props and/or caricatures and are, in fact, incidental to the action "showpieces." With luck, the next installment will capitalize on the premise of the Enterprise's mission and allow the ensemble to gel into a unit that sticks together as they explore the farthest reaches of the galaxy. This messy, inane, disrespectful prologue doesn't inspire much faith, however. Oh, and check out the female Vulcan council-member's beaming expression of pride and joy when Spock is admitted to their academy! Did anyone associated with this film ever see even one episode of the series?
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Helen of Troy (1956)
Attractive coating on the outside, but the filling isn't tremendous.
13 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Noted (and versatile) director Wise amassed a considerable team of behind the scenes personnel and an impressive array of actors for this large-scale epic rendition of the legendary story of the title character. Unfortunately, the production suffers somewhat from the casting of the leads, primarily stemming from the fact that neither one was able to use his or her own voice. Sernas plays a prince of Troy who journeys to Sparta to attempt to establish peace between them and his own people. Shipwrecked before he can even get there, he is greeted on the shore by Podesta, to him the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. After recovering from his close call, he heads to the palace to speak to king MacGinnis and is sorely mistreated and disbelieved. He then discovers that his object of affection is, in actuality, MacGinnis' queen! Circumstances lead him to spirit her back to Troy where she is skeptically received by his unhappy family. MacGinnis pulls together a massive army of men from various Greek states and proceeds to attack Troy. When things look almost impossible, one of his men oversees the construction of the famed Trojan Horse, which makes things look awfully bleak for Sernas and Podesta who are, by now, deeply in love. Podesta is curvaceous and attractive, but not necessarily what one might expect as the woman whose face launched a 1000 ships. Having learned her lines phonetically just to get through the shoot, she was then dubbed by an American actress. This, along with the fact that her platinum wigs don't really compliment her dark coloring, prevents her from really registering very heavily in the role. Sernas (who is caressed by the camera almost every bit as much as Podesta is, frequently shirtless) is likewise dubbed and, though he gives it a good shot, winds up not being able to craft a character that audiences could really care a great deal about. (Some of this stems from the fact that the character really wasn't written as heroic or particularly likable in the original Homer story to begin with!) Fortunately, a host of fine character actors is on hand to help out. Hardwicke plays Sernas' father, Swinburne is his mother, Andrews is his brother and a nearly unrecognizable Scott is his soothsaying sister. MacGinnis is strong in his part and is ably matched by Thatcher, Baker and Douglas as his associates. Reed appears briefly as the hulking Ajax, who takes on Sernas in a fairly savage grudge match. Also popping up to good effect is an ebullient Bardot in an early role as one of Podesta's servants. She, too, is dubbed by an English-speaking actress. There is a lot going for the film, including a splendid Max Steiner score, a vast collection of extras, impressive sets and moments of genuinely good drama. On the flip side, the costumes often lean towards the pedestrian, the script lacks zest and some of the model work is a tad poor. This film includes references to the Greek Gods, but eliminates them as actual characters and does not attribute any of their own actions to them directly. Rather, things take place as if they are occurring without the interference or direct influence or aid of the deities. Though it's certainly not blatant, there is the opportunity to read Baker and his chief aid Longdon's relationship as more than platonic. Fans of epic films ought to appreciate the pageantry and scope of it, but may find themselves wishing for a little more meat in the story and, perhaps, more significant acting from the leads.
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Simplistic telling of the legendary story with mostly now-forgotten actors.
7 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
After having made a bit of a splash as "Valentino," Dexter took part in several films that further suggested him as a dashing hero in the silent star mold. One of them, "The Brigand," cast him in a dual role as a King and a commoner who masquerades as the King and costarred Lawrence as his love interest. They teamed up again in this independent production as the title icons, though this must be counted as a more minor effort. It's early 1600s Jamestown, Virginia and Dexter is trying to forge a settlement out of the swamp while fending off distrusting Indians and impending starvation. One day, while seeking to reach peace with the head of the nearby tribe, he comes upon the chief's daughter Lawrence bathing and tries to establish a connection. A short time later he is captured and nearly killed, but she steps in to save his life. Soon, they are wed and she is a symbolic liaison between the settlers and the natives. Unfortunately, shifty Seay, a nobleman who is part of the settlement, wishes for it to fail so that he can lay claim to gold in the area, so he tries to thwart anything that will lead to unity and success. Meanwhile, Clarke, Dexter's pal, finds himself caring more and more for Lawrence himself even though he knows he shouldn't. Eventually, Seay's duplicity leads to an accident for Dexter and an uprising that threatens the future of Jamestown. Dexter, an actor who is practically unknown except to film buffs and who showed more promise than he was permitted to deliver, is not really at his best here. He starts off rather athletically with plenty of action, showing off his physique (which is maybe a little undernourished by today's standards) and making a decent impression, but eventually gets a bit lost in the tedium and starts to lose impact. A simplistic script and fairly uninspired direction do him no favors. Lawrence is lovely and pretty spunky, but often comes off rather silly with her blues eyes, perfect red lips and pigeon English. She gets credit for maintaining her dignity and for demonstrating a sense of integrity, but is hampered by some of the silly conventions of the era. Clarke is an amiable, pleasant presence though his character was not at Jamestown at the same time as Dexter's in real life. Hale appears as a burly and loyal settler in a way that fans of his will find familiar. Seay (whose real life counterpart was not at all this devious and trouble-making) is adequately selfish and thoughtless. Dumbrille plays the Indian chief and could really have used a hairpipe breastplate to cover up those moobs. The natives are portrayed by a wide variety of Caucasian actors in heavy tan makeup. Menken, as a brave with affections for Lawrence, has a disarmingly flat American accent. Though the action scenes are sprightly and enthusiastic, they are often incompetently staged to where the choreography is obvious and the bloody wounds are frequently muffed. More than once, an actor makes a pained expression and then lifts a bloody hand to his face, smearing it as if he's been injured in the head. The story is treated, at times, at an almost comic book level. That said, it's a colorful, pretty fast-moving and certainly, at 76 minutes, not overlong movie. Like most other films on the subject, some bits of the truth remain while plenty of fabrication is also on hand. One's tolerance for the film may vary depending on one's devotion to the facts.
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Space Academy (1977)
Saved By the Bridge
6 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
On the heels of "Ark II," Filmation Studios put together another science fiction-oriented, Saturday morning, live-action show. Here, Harris (playing a 300 year-old character who doesn't look a day over 70!) plays the instructor of the title school, a large facility built into an asteroid, which collects all the brightest young minds and trains them for duty in space. Though the school contains red teams and yellow teams, the show focuses almost exclusively on the blue team. Psychic siblings Carrott and Ferdin, somewhat flippant Henderson, martial arts trained Tochi and dedicated, pretty Cooper made up the main team, though they were soon joined by pint-sized Greene, an orphan who was rescued from a dying planet. Also scooting around was a robot, Peepo, voiced in a deliberately monotone way by the daughter of the producer Scheimer. Each episode pitted the team against some sort of outer space emergency or an alien presence or perhaps a fellow team member with an attitude problem (one of these was portrayed by Paula Wagner, future power player and business partner of Tom Cruise!) The kids were practically all earnest and sweet to death, though occasionally a difference of opinion or a bit of mischief, primarily by Greene, would provide some conflict. Everything was lorded over by Harris in his inimitable over-the-top acting style. Sporting near "Baby Jane Hudson" level makeup and a hair helmet made up of combed over, fuzzy S.O.S pad, he did occasionally come off as a bit preposterous, especially when a significant amount of derring do was required. Carrott, though fresh-scrubbed looking, was actually quite a bit older that the others and had even done a T&A movie or two before this! His thick northern accent came out frequently. Ferdin was by now a veteran child star. Her voice had developed into an almost cartoonish delivery, no doubt a side effect of the animated voice-over gigs she had landed previously. Her career only lasted a year or two beyond this. She and Tochi had appeared together in an original "Star Trek" episode. Here, he is more than a little "on," constantly shaking his hair and reacting in a very over-eager way to everything. Considering the time this was made and the budget available, the special effects are actually quite good! The seekers, small ships the team took to explore other planets or phenomenon, were partially based on and constructed from the main vehicle from "Ark II." There's a bouncy theme song to grab the attention. It must be said that, though the uniforms of the students are well made and inventive, they really display some seriously bad panty lines, especially on the guys for whatever reason. It's an undeniably cheesy and goofy spin on "Star Trek," sort of "Star Trek Jr.," but it's also a fun throwback to the simpler style of kiddie television. It also, like most every Filmation program, encourages good moral judgment and the importance of doing right.
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...but not the world's greatest movie.
28 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
One in a long series of formulaic, "teenager with a difference" Disney comedies, this movie is of interest mainly for its cast and its occasional bits of amusement accidentally tossed in amongst the tedium. Amos plays a college athletics coach, who leaves on a sojourn to Africa with his assistant Conway in tow, after suffering yet another humiliatingly bad season. While there to forget his troubles, he is introduced to Vincent, a spectacularly talented young man who is the orphaned child of missionaries and who has been raised in the wild. He can outrun a cheetah, out-jump a monkey and basically outdo anyone or anything in the realm of sports. In an extended sequence, Amos coerces him to return to his school (with his pet tiger along for the adventure!) and play for his track & field team. Since Vincent has been in the jungle his entire life, he needs a tutor to help him with his college subjects (!) and so Amos enlists pretty Haddon to help him. This leads the jealous and devious Goldman to retrieve Vincent's witch doctor mentor Browne from the continent and have him taken back, out of the way. Browne uses voodoo to foul up Amos's dreams of glory for Vincent and to keep Conway from alerting Amos to his presence. Naturally, it all ends well, this being a Disney movie. Amos (who made something of a historic footnote by playing the first black lead in a Disney film in decades) is animated and enthusiastic in his role, though a bit one note. It's hard to imagine that the man here, straining to make a lot of tired jokes funny and overplaying a lot of them, is the same one who stormed off of "Good Times" because of the scripts and who later made such an impact in "Roots." Conway's improvisational style sort of butts up uncomfortably against the carefully structured formula comedy found here and his timing seems off as a result, though he does have an amusing extended sequence in which he is shrunken to the size of a doll and knocked around inside a purse and around a bar area. Vincent, who, naturally, is in peak shape here, is hilariously bad in his acting, but impressive in the action sequences. It's also quite stunning to see him (and Amos, Conway and Walker!) cavorting with a real tiger in the film! Haddon, not coincidentally playing a girl named Jane, has a rather sensuous moment with Vincent as she's tutoring him, but otherwise isn't given much to do. (She would famously appear in Playboy right after filming this, confounding the Disney executives!) Browne is clearly enjoying his sly, magical role and has a lot of fun disrupting things and yanking the chains of those around him. Walker tries to inject some humor into her preposterous role of a nearly blind landlady who keeps mistaking the tiger for an inebriated tenant. Some real life sportscasters appear to lend an air of authenticity to the patently unreal proceedings, chiefly Gifford, McKay and Cosell, who has trouble playing himself, though he does tick off an amusing line or two along the way. It's not a bad movie, it's just a very routine one with humor that had to be a tad stale even at the time of release.
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Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Valley of the Dolls: The Golden Years
28 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
In what was already a tried and true formula by 1941, this film examines the trials and tribulations of three young ladies, each trying to scratch out an existence in the glittering, but sometimes damaging, world of show business. This story concerns the legendary Ziegfeld Follies, in which the master showman Florenz Ziegfeld would showcase a variety of singing and comedy acts while filling the stage with some of the most beautiful and ornately gowned women of his time. LaMarr plays the wife of a concert violinist who, while waiting for him to audition at the Follies, is plucked away and transformed into a showgirl. Her decision to support the couple with her considerable earnings upsets the husband tremendously. Garland is a hoofer and singer, appearing with her Vaudevillian father Winninger in various clubs, who is asked to join the Follies on her own. She strains to find a way to accept her good fortune at the expense of her father's pride. Finally, Turner is a pert, pretty elevator operator who turns Ziegfeld's head and is given a glamorous new position in the show. Desperate to collect as much money and baubles as she can and to escape her dire existence with her poor family, she turns her back on her loyal boyfriend Stewart. She undergoes a tumultuous series of ups and downs as a result of her shallow greed. LaMarr, undeniably attractive, doesn't really register much in the way of acting or presence, though her storyline is also probably the most slight. It's a sort of remote, glacial performance, actually, but she's striking to look at nonetheless. Garland has a variety of emotions to work with and gets to perform a few very enjoyable musical numbers from the poignant "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" to the effervescent "Minnie From Trinidad." Turner is handed one of her very best early roles and really tries to stay on the acting roller-coaster. She may not always nail it (consider the horrible breakdown scene in her apartment), but mostly comes off looking sensational and acquitting herself acting-wise very nicely. Her descent down the theatre staircase near the end is highly memorable. Stewart also has a multi-faceted part as a lowly truck driver who strives to get ahead in order to keep up with his successful girlfriend. Also on hand is Martin as the resident singer of the Follies and the pursuer of LaMarr. He sings the now-standard number "You Stepped Out of a Dream" to a plethora of elaborately garbed showgirls. Cooper plays Turners eager brother, who also has his eye on Garland while Hunter is a wealthy man who offers Turner jewels and more in return for her company. Arden plays a hard-boiled veteran of the show who makes occasional wry commentary. The extensive cast continues with Horton, as (the invisible, in this rendition) Ziegfeld's right hand man and casting agent, Dorn, as LaMarr's proud, stubborn spouse, Hobart, as Martin's understanding wife and Dailey, as a brutish prizefighter. It's a big, well-produced concoction with some eye-popping costumes and staging and a reasonably engrossing set of stories. Yes, it is guilty of soap opera level contrivances and histrionics and is a touch long, but it remains entertaining. It's interesting to consider the way Garland resembles a less tormented Neely O'Hara, Turner could be a Jennifer North type and LaMarr is not unlike Anne Welles. Though Jacqueline Susann likely didn't base her characters off of this, the general prototypes remain similar.
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