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Hard Times (1975)
A good but not great movie, yet its fan base grows bigger every year...
A street-fighter of brawn but very few words in 1930s New Orleans picks up a manager and a physician before taking part in illegal bareknuckle bouts in the area with big money on the line. Walter Hill's debut as director, which he also co-wrote with Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell from Gindoff and Henstell's original treatment, doesn't appear to be much at first, but "Hard Times" has a way of seeping quietly into the subconscious until you find yourself replaying scenes over in your head. This is due in great part to Charles Bronson's laconic performance in the lead; he doesn't speak much, yet he's amazingly straightforward in his actions rather than an enigma (it's a fully-realized characterization). James Coburn is perhaps too pushy and gregarious, and Strother Martin and Jill Ireland haven't much to do in support, but the fights are amazing (despite the overacting extras). A good movie, not a great one, though fans of the picture will swear otherwise. **1/2 from ****
The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970)
"Dumb stupid cops! I've seen better heads on cabbage!"
A black funeral home director in a small Tennessee town seeks a divorce from his wife, a sexy young thing who's cheating on him with a white policeman; she's contesting the divorce to get as much money out of her husband as possible, which would mean bringing the interracial affair with the cop into the courtroom. Heated racial melodrama directed by William Wyler, in his final bow, is a world away from his previous film, "Funny Girl". Screenwriter Jesse Hill Ford, adapting his novel "The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones", plugs the scenario with narrative, which Wyler is surprisingly ineffective at handling (the picture feels disjointed or, at times, constipated). Many fine actors pop up in the cast, though their drawlin' Suth'n performances are as over-scaled as the plot. *1/2 from ****
White Line Fever (1975)
Gun-totin' redneck thrills...
Jan-Michael Vincent gives his usual forthright performance as an honest Arizona trucker (named Carrol Jo!) who refuses to transport stolen goods and is blackballed by the local racketeers running the produce-hauling industry; he's forced to take a load by force, but the head honcho calls out his goons to stop him. Meanwhile, back home, Vincent's wife just found out she's pregnant... Redneck thrills for the drive-in crowd has lots of wrasslin' and gun-toting action...and, if that's not enough, there's also Slim Pickens as a slimy worm in a white cowboy hat (who does get an outlandish exit!). Director Jonathan Kaplan barrels through his and co-writer Ken Friedman's screenplay without regard to logic or credibility, but fans of trucker flicks won't mind. Good supporting cast includes Kay Lenz, Don Porter, Martin Kove and Dick Miller, but L. Q. Jones offers nothing new in his repertoire as the slow-talking baddie. *1/2 from ****
She *croaks* the blues right outta the horn...
Critics at the time complained that "Mame" was overproduced, but you simply can't stage a musical version of Patrick Dennis' novel/memoir "Auntie Mame" and not have it be splashy with all the trimmings. Screen-adaptation of the hit Broadway show (previously staged and filmed without songs as "Auntie Mame" in 1958 and starring Rosalind Russell) had a lot of people in 1974 crying foul over the casting (they were "anti-Mame"). The by-passing of Broadway's Angela Lansbury for the lead brought nothing but slings and arrows for this new Mame, Lucille Ball, who--despite a sandpaper voice--is to be commended for giving her all to a distinctly old-fashioned presentation. Ball has several amusing scenes, particularly when she's due to be on stage with gal-pal Vera Charles (Beatrice Arthur) and can't stop primping in her vanity mirror. The plot is the same as before: an orphaned lad goes to live with his merry, madcap aunt in 1920s New York and learns about life. Robert Preston is well-cast as a romantic suitor, and Arthur is wonderful reprising her Tony-winning role as Vera. The picture has gauzy, gaudy razzle-dazzle, though not enough to justify a two hour-plus movie. Portions of it creak and sag with the weight of sentimentality; worse, an unnecessary montage of hugs-and-kisses at the finish line is grueling. Still, the cast works hard to keep things bubbling along and there are some choice highlights. ** from ****
Russian Roulette (1975)
Worth-seeing for the cast
George Segal plays an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, currently on suspension, who accepts "piece of cake" assignment keeping a nonconformist immigrant from Latvia under his surveillance during the Soviet Premier's visit to Vancouver...that is, until his subject is kidnapped. Assassination thriller adapted from Tom Ardies' novel "Kosygin Is Coming" was just a quick-stop for Segal during a busy decade for him as a leading man. Plainly-filmed, mostly forgettable, but with little eccentric bits of humor. Good cast includes Cristina Raines, Denholm Elliott, Richard Romanus and Louise Fletcher, plus Segal is always fun to watch. The first of only two films directed by Lou Lombardo, revered movie editor on many '70s and '80s classics including most of Robert Altman's releases of the era. ** from ****
California Split (1974)
Quirky fun when the spirits are high
The colorfully eccentric, often salty and irascible gamblers at various casinos and racetracks (and at least one boxing match) set the tone for this Robert Altman-directed drama about two gambling addicts and buddies who chase the cards-and-craps games from Los Angeles to Reno. Elliott Gould is the pie-eyed dreamer, a guy who can bet on horses all day and play poker all night (life is a party for him, even when he loses); George Segal shares similar qualities but is deep in debt and on a downward spiral. The acrid milieu is wonderfully vivid, and the sideline characters who supply the overlapping voices and funny bits of business are as important to that milieu as are the stars. There really isn't much of a story, though the episodes are fun when tempers don't flare up too high (there are a few ugly encounters, and one robbery too many). Joseph Walsh is credited with writing the screenplay (and reportedly collaborated on an early draft of the script with his friend, Steven Spielberg), yet one gets the feeling much of this dialogue is personality and director-driven. If so, Walsh got the last laugh with a WGA nomination for Best Original Comedy.
The Father (2020)
Another tour-de-force from Hopkins
The devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease (although never mentioned by name) on an aged ex-engineer in London. There is no conventional story in "The Father", and that's as it should be. Director Florian Zeller, who also co-adapted his 2012 play "Le Père" with Christopher Hampton, gets inside the deteriorating mind of the central character with astonishing skill (although it takes about 15 minutes to get into the movie's rhythm). Anthony Hopkins gives an incredible performance; his confused, frustrated Anthony is delusional, forgetful, obsessed with time, unable to distinguish the past from the present, and prone to nostalgic bewilderment and angry fits of befuddlement. We, too, are lost in time as people Anthony is introduced to are either figments of his imagination or are substitutes for whomever is trying to communicate with him in the present. It's a moving journey through a trap-door existence, though the operatic pieces by composer Ludovico Einaudi are a tiny bit excruciating (less so if you admire the genre) and Zeller tends to overdose on weary-eyed closeups of Olivia Colman playing Anthony's conflicted daughter. Six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Hopkins as Best Actor. *** from ****
3 Men and a Baby (1987)
"These diapers are too big!" .. "They're 'super absorbent'!"
Popular comedy, a remake of the French farce "Three Men and a Cradle" from 1985, wrings (repeated) easy laughs from the sight of three clueless guys trying to change a dirty diaper. Bachelor roommates in Manhattan--Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg--become temporary caretakers of an infant girl left on their doorstep, fathered by one of the three men. For those still watching--and no doubt hoping for more--there's also a subplot about heroin dealers and cops on the New York City narcotics squad. Leonard Nimoy was chosen as director, and he shows about as much style and humor as would any Vulcan. Followed by a sequel, "Three Men and a Little Lady", in 1990.
A hard luck case or a bad luck case?
After her husband dies and she loses her job at a Nevada sheetrock plant that permanently shuts down (emptying out the entire town of Empire), a fiercely independent and stubbornly self-sufficient woman in her early 60s takes to the road in her RV. Unwilling to file early for Social Security benefits--and equally unwilling to put down roots with family or friends, both of whom offer shelter--she takes on a series of seemingly temporary jobs, living in her vehicle and stopping at various parks and parking lots to rest up before taking to the road again. Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century" from 2017 has become a very personal film for star and co-producer Frances McDormand, writer-director-editor Chloé Zhao, and a large cast of mostly non-actors playing themselves. Our heroine, Fern, is eccentrically driven and a hard worker, though the film's narrative--splintered and spotty and darting about--only allows us quick snippets of her days and nights. For instance, we don't know where the money goes that she earns working various jobs; we don't understand why having a roof over head makes her feel boxed in (putting her on the defensive, as if the road was a jealous lover); and we don't know why she prefers living a Worst Case Scenario lifestyle instead of formulating a plan to improve her conditions. Fern experiences the desert, the mountain forests and the ocean, and she loves the freedom nature allows her...but what are we to feel about her when she refuses help? I didn't find Fern particularly likable; McDormand plays her with a tight smile and quick, friendly herky-jerky movements (she's not anti-social), but we don't learn what makes her tick. She's a "nomad", a drifter, and always has been (according to her sister), so there's not a dramatic character arc here. Fern doesn't want a man in her life, she doesn't want a home. She's loyal, and a good listener, but she seems to be not just a hard luck case but a bad luck case. By the third act--when fellow-traveler David Strathairn hands Fern a baby to hold--I was more concerned with the baby's safety than enjoying Fern's motherly affection for it. **1/2 from ****
"May I have the envelope, please--so I can push it?"
Lily Tomlin recreates her Tony-winning, one-woman Broadway show from 1985 for the screen, which received a limited theatrical run before appearing on Showtime (the film's production company) and picking up two Emmy nominations. Written by her partner Jane Wagner, Lily is featured both on-stage and in-costume as several different characters all on a quest to find the answers to Life. The film gets off to a funny start by misspelling "Intelligent" in the opening titles, but then stumbles a bit trying to find a compatible visual style for Tomlin's personality changes. The dryly witty lines delivered by the comedienne's incarnations come so fast that the ones you hope to quote are obliterated in your memory soon after by a topper (this is both pro and con). Of Tomlin's cast of characters, Trudy the Bag Lady is the least amusing (are bag ladies ever funny?). Still, there are universal truths here that should resonate with those attuned to Tomlin and Wagner's absurdist humor--if you can catch the cleverness on the fly. ** from ****
Superman II (1980)
More is less...although audiences didn't mind
Superman tosses an elevator equipped with a terrorist's bomb out into the universe, where the explosion inadvertently releases the three criminals banished into the Phantom Zone by Superman's father at the beginning of the 1978 film. The trio comes to Earth to take over, partnering with an opportunistic Lex Luthor. Meanwhile, Lois Lane has figured out that her co-worker at the Daily Planet--clumsy, bespectacled Clark Kent--is really Superman; he comes clean and relinquishes his powers to romance her. Trouble on this production began with original director Richard Donner vowing not to work again with French producer Pierre Spengler. Then, Marlon Brando sued co-producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind for unpaid percentages from the predecessor and his likeness as Jor-El was removed from the sequel. Richard Lester stepped in as director, giving the film a more comedic feel than was really necessary (such as a wind-blowing sequence that goes on and on), but audiences at the time seemed to enjoy the changes. The principals--Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman--are worth-watching, as always, but the Kryptonian villains wear out their welcome fast. In fact, Terence Stamp as General Zod, Sarah Douglas Ursa and Jack O'Halloran as Non are good for about three scenes apiece. The film opened in several countries around Christmastime 1980 but didn't reach the US until June 1981. No Oscars this time, and one can see why: the picture has tacky color and iffy effects. **1/2 from ****
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
"The Beatles...starring in their first full-length, hilarious, action-packed film!" (trailer come-on)
Vehicle for the rock-and-roll sensations from Liverpool has John, Paul, George and Ringo arriving in London, attending a party, rehearsing for a television show, meeting fans. Not much in the way of "action", but the plot is easily dismissible, anyway. It's the cheeky impudence of the Fab Four's personalities and their music which makes this a happy event. Gilbert Taylor's stunning black-and-white cinematography still impresses today. Two Oscar nominations: for George Martin's music scoring and Alun Owen's original screenplay. *** from ****
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
The CliffsNotes version of the making of a superstar...
Rock-bio on the formation of British rock band Queen, led by an incredibly self-assured baggage handler at Heathrow Airport named Farrokh Bulsara, he of the protruding front teeth, a young man disdainful of his Indian-British-Persian heritage. Bulsara lucks into the lead singer's slot with a pub band called Smile in 1970, after the original vocalist leaves for greener pastures; the next thing we know, the band has recorded a self-financed demo and is being eyed by a high-profile manager. This is when Bulsara legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury; he tells his horrified father of this in an incredibly static scene at a family gathering that includes his bandmates and girlfriend (Freddie boasts, "I even had it changed on my passport", as if doing all this was akin to changing one's shirt). Soon, the band has been rechristened Queen (apparently at Freddie's suggestion, though this happens off-screen) and has landed a record deal, finding themselves on tour in the US. This narrative is hurried along at a rapid pace, at the expense of the drama. Though the movie runs just over 2 hours, there's far too little history of the band in favor of concert reenactments and a blurry montage of Queen's rise to prominence. There's also the proverbial scene of Freddie telling his sweetheart that he's bisexual (with the girl giving him the standard "why me?" reaction). The middle portion of the film is the weakest--it's difficult recalling any specific scene from this section in retrospect--but the prologue and epilogue centering on the band's comeback performance at Live Aid in 1985 are pretty fabulous. Rami Malek was an excellent choice to play Mercury; his false front teeth are a marvelous attribute and he's got Freddie's moves down (he actually looks the most like Freddie Mercury in profile or when he's wearing tinted sunglasses--the eyes give the actor away). The rest of the band is equally good: Gwilym Lee as Brian May, Queen's lead guitarist; Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, their drummer; and Joseph Mazzello as bassist John Deacon. Director Bryan Singer probably did his homework and mounted this biography with great interest and care, but the big dramatic scenes are sketchily-drawn. Singer does well by his cast, letting them strut their stuff to Queen's incredible soundtrack, but there's a void in this movie that the music cannot fill. Winner of four Oscars: Malek as Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. **1/2 from ****
I, Tonya (2017)
Despite ham-handed attempts to be winking or cute, a ballsy bio
The pretty little ice princesses in skating competitions around Portland in the 1980s find themselves competing with a rough-hewn, cigarette-smoking, foul-mouthed dynamo--one, Tonya Harding--whose specialty is the enviable triple axel. There is one major obstacle for our young heroine: the pristine sweethearts of the ice are walloping her in scores because, as one judge says, strictly off the record, "It isn't all about the skating." Years later, after finishing a dismal 4th at the 1992 Winter Olympics, Harding is granted "a second chance" when it's announced the Olympics will be returning in just two more years instead of four. Cleaning up her act (somewhat), and leaning on her abusive-but-obsessed ex-husband for support, Harding hopes to topple her main competitor, Nancy Kerrigan--a sometime-partyer who otherwise knows how to play by the rules; fate, however, intervenes infamously once Tonya's former-spouse and his low-life buddy decide Tonya needs a little help. Salty, ballsy biography of Harding (Margot Robbie), her tough-as-nails mama (Oscar winner Allison Janney) and her dumber-than-dirt husband (Sebastian Stan) gets the white-trash milieu down right, while the ice-skating sequences are pumped with excitement. Still, director Craig Gillespie goes a little cute on the cheeky asides, opening with 'funny', contradictory interviews of the principals, then flashing back in time to Tonya as a (soft) four-year-old skating under the thumb of her scheming mother. Perhaps Gillespie finally figured out what we surmise by the halfway mark: there isn't enough material here to sustain a feature (perhaps "I, Tonya" would've had more impact as a cable movie?). The director, the screenwriter, Steven Rogers, and the talented cast just about pull it off; you certainly don't end up caring about these unsentimental characters, but that's part of the enjoyment. Nobody needs to poke fun at them or look down on them--these mean, ignorant rednecks are funny enough on their own without any additional maliciousness--and watching them chasing their own tails in search of fame and fortune is the stuff of rich black comedy. Three Oscar nominations in all, including Robbie as Best Actress.
A pro-environment, pro-Indian, anti-government and big business monster movie...calling Billy Jack!
For anyone still doubting the cruelty of show business, consider this tacky thriller was directed by John Frankenheimer, once an A-list filmmaker of merit reduced in 1979 to making a monster movie. Tenement doctor accepts a government job easing tensions in the forests of Maine, where lumber czars are taking land away from the Indian tribe; meanwhile, toxic waste attributed to the business has created its own rampaging monster, which looks like a melting grizzly bear and walks upright like a man. Depressing, distress-laden nonsense. One figures screenwriter David Seltzer had to be kidding; he's so heavy-handed with his messages, he even gives the doctor a pregnant wife afraid to tell her husband of her condition (he thinks there's enough people in the world already!). Good actors Robert Foxworth (looking a bit like Grizzly Adams himself), Talia Shire and Armand Assante are wasted. Assante, the stern, solemn mouthpiece for the Native-Americans, fights everybody in his path and gets kicked in the crotch for his trouble. Seltzer seems to be asking, "Who's worse, the lumber lunkheads or the beast in the forest?" Save a kick for Seltzer, who must have penned this for the paycheck. * from ****
Obviously a triumph of technical achievement...but it is artistry in a vacuum
In a castle by the sea in North East England, a present-day married couple--the husband a milquetoast Englishman, bald with glasses and skinny legs, and his wife a fiery French lass, barefoot in blue jeans and with untamed hair--play unwilling hosts to a wounded American gangster on the run with his partner, who has just expired in the kitchen. The wife berates her weaselly spouse for not standing up to the raspy-voiced intruder, who needs the couple's help pushing his defunct car into the barn and burying his friend. Later, he poses as their caretaker once friends unexpectedly drop by. Interesting directorial effort by Roman Polanski, who also co-authored the screenplay, is beautifully shot in crystalline black-and-white by Gilbert Taylor and features sharply-observed flickers of drama, black comedy, and of nature (as with 1962's "Knife in the Water", Polanski displays an unerring talent for capturing the sea, the changing sky, the gulls in the air and the wind whipping through the sea grass). The picture would seem to have a great deal to recommend it, including fully-invested performances by all the principals, but the long, unbroken takes and the rambling dialogue sections tend to flatten the film out. There's also an unnecessarily bizarre (and unfunny, if it's meant to be comedic) sequence wherein nerdy Donald Pleasence is unable to find his pajamas and his wife dresses him instead in her nightie (complete with mascara around his eyes and lipstick). This is meant, possibly, to show that the husband is easily led into humiliating himself, and also for the gangster to call him a "fairy" and thereby display his dominance. While Polanski, his cinematographer and his production designer ensure a terrific-looking film, the characters remain ciphers (with no intriguing qualities) and the story loses momentum as a result. ** from ****
Flashy, empty romantic drama-lite has Dirk Bogarde in good form as Sebastian, a brilliant mathematician in London who supervises an all-female staff of cryptologists (or, decoders) to crack complex codes for British Intelligence. The opening scenes featuring job interviews followed by a new group of hires on their first day (including university dropout Susannah York, who has a keen mind for deciphering letters and numbers) are lively and intriguing. Unfortunately, the rather inert affair which develops on the sidelines between Bogarde and a smitten York stops the film's breathless pace in its tracks. It isn't even a romantic affair that we see--neither highly-charged nor a slow-to-blossom union--and it just gets in the way (though it's meant to tie the finish together with a happy ribbon). Another plot, with Sebastian having tendered his resignation but brought back to the fore with a chance to help the Americans decipher a code from a Russian satellite, is just a tease, while the time away from the office (where the heart of the picture really lies) has drained all the effervescence from the narrative. ** from ****
The Evil (1978)
Haunted House 101...bumping and grinding in the day and night, courtesy Roger Corman
100-year-old stone castle in the mountains, left alone by Indian tribes (who dubbed the location "Valley of the Devils), is snapped up by married doctors Richard Crenna (sporting a beard) and Joanna Pettet, who bring in their friends to help refurbish it. There's a German Shepherd, too, who senses something rotten down in the basement. Cheap, glum thriller with false scares followed by shocks, and the usual round of dumb humans who are warned to get the hell outta there but don't listen. Pettet sees an apparition on her very first visit, but doesn't think to tell her husband or the realtor. On her second visit, she sees a statue turn its head in her direction, but agrees with hubby Crenna that it was probably a trick of the light. Horror buffs have been down this road multiple times--and there was a glut of similar stories yet to come--so what does this variation have to offer? An interesting estate, a solid (if somewhat colorless) cast and a few good effects. Gus Trikonis directed (and reportedly wrote the original draft); his pacing is brisk, but he hasn't anything new to add to the genre apart from Victor Buono as a pleased-with-himself Prince of Darkness. *1/2 from ****
Simon, King of the Witches (1971)
Never write a warlock a bum check!
Andrew Prine is the whole show in this otherwise thoroughly disappointing occult thriller which has a modern-day warlock named Simon, an actual magician of the black arts, living in a storm sewer and befriended by a young hustler with connections to a decadent circle of people. After one of the wealthy naysayers crosses Simon--and writes a bad check for his tarot reading--the male-witch is challenged to exact his revenge (and he must do so or lose his power). His talents also come in handy when his friend needs help seducing a married lady, or when the district attorney and the chief of police come down hard on the local potheads for using, but soon Simon finds himself at the mercy of his own magic. Prine's pithy, hipster-cool approach to the titular role is almost charming at times, that is until Simon is turned into his own worst enemy. Prine is also the only actor in the cast capable of giving a performance, everyone else being an amateur. Director Bruce Kessler spends far too time on the goof-off dopers sitting in front of their TV set watching the news reports--did he run out of material? Also, the special effects (a bowl of roses wilting, a violent rainstorm, a bright red specter) are sub-par. There's also a curious gay vibe early in the movie that is soon proved to be a false lead: Simon's buddy comes on like a midnight cowboy, a streetwise teen-swinger, but is soon revealed to be just a regular boy with a crush on a girl. In the film's worst scene, he sets up a "faggot" for Simon is to use in a ritual to create a supernatural charge, which is played for a nasty laugh yet shows the direction screenwriter Robert Phippeny was inclined to take: put the plot into motion with a 'realistic' portrait of a magician, then undercut the scenario with crude humor and melodrama. *1/2 from ****
VHS Massacre (2016)
The demise of physical media still has many fans and filmmakers hanging their heads in sorrow!
What did the death of VHS movies and video game rentals mean to the low-budget, independent filmmaker? A lot, surprisingly. "Mom and pop" video stores around the country, neighborhood institutions for decades, began shutting their doors in the 2000s, taking a hit from Blockbuster, which took a hit from competitor Hollywood Video, which took their hits from the internet, Netflix and "free" downloading and streaming (i.e., piracy). What goes around comes around: VHS killed Beta because it was less expensive, consumers preferred quantity over quality, and adult movies were exclusive to the VHS format. But, as Carmine Capobianco, co-owner of Funstuff Video, says, "The sell-through (the ratio of the quantity of goods sold by a retail outlet to the quantity distributed to it wholesale) dropped the value of the VHS. Walmart killed the video business. Netflix killed the video business. Computers killed the video business." But how many of us are mourning the loss of our VCRs? I can name several favorite titles of mine that never made that journey from VHS to DVD (which, along with Blu-ray, is also slowing in sales). I can also name many instances where the VHS cover-art was superior to that of comparable DVDs. Are VHS tapes collectible like vinyl records? I never thought so. I don't like the picture quality of VHS, I always hated the occasional tracking issues, and they take up too much valuable space. But the fans, movie makers, actors, distributors and radio personalities brought together in this entertaining documentary obviously feel different, as they reflect on the home-viewing market of the '80s with pride, discussing how independent filmmakers flourished during that time having various outlets for their products. For filmmakers today, starting out small and hoping to build a following, there is no money to be made from streaming. Depressing, yes, but...the VHS may make a comeback yet! And if the industry rallies, watch out "Toxic Avenger"! I'll be the first to buy a brand-new VCR, one with a remote to adjust the tracking from my living room sofa. **1/2 from ****
Love & Mercy (2014)
"I think it's an acquired taste." .. "Marriage?" .. "Matzah ball soup."
Brian Wilson, the leader/producer/arranger of the popular 1960s group the Beach Boys, stays behind in the US when his brothers and cousin Mike Love tour Japan in order to write songs and lay down instrumental tracks for their next album, "Pet Sounds". His busy, creative life, tinged with bitterness over his tumultuous relationship with his father (whom the band had fired as their manager), is juxtaposed with Wilson's life in the '80s as a shattered man inching his way towards a healthier, more normal existence. Vivid, though exposition-heavy shuffling of episodes in Wilson's life and career, with a fussy, somewhat overblown production design in the '60s scenes (where Wilson is played by the impeccably-cast Paul Dano) counterbalanced by a deceptively bland calm in the '80s (with John Cusack portraying the older Brian as a possible paranoid schizophrenic under the thumb of possessive therapist Dr. Eugene Landry). The screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, "based on the life of Brian Wilson," is well-researched if overwritten; every introduction to somebody new on-screen is followed by needless dialogue covering who they are and what they do. Dano could not be better as the younger Wilson, emulating the musician's budding genius and unassuming ego with an introspective, nice-guy personality (until he's pushed, when he becomes defensive though never arrogant). By contrast, Cusack doesn't fare as well. Whether or not Cusack and director Bill Pohlad were aiming for an impersonation here doesn't matter, as the actor's brand of nervous self-doubts and sad regrets have been well-documented on film, making it difficult to accept him in this role; under different circumstances--say, in a roman à clef--Cusack's performance would be solid, but his casting here (perhaps for box office cache) doesn't quite work. The film is a near-miss, but entertaining on the whole, with terrific recreations of Wilson and LA's the Wrecking Crew making musical magic in the recording studio. **1/2 from ****
Die Screaming Marianne (1971)
"Love's not for you, Marianne!"
Susan George plays Marianne, a young go-go dancer in London apt to running away from any man who takes a liking to her; she's not fickle, exactly, she just has a troubled past with men starting with her nefarious father, nicknamed "the Judge." After a fellow picks Marianne up on the road, she finds herself at the altar about to marry him, but enters their best man's name on the marriage certificate instead. This enrages her intended, who turns snitch to the Judge (and Marianne's wicked half-sister) who's in desperate need of a Swiss bank account number that only Marianne knows, an account that houses legal papers incriminating the Judge in various dirty doings. Written by Murray Smith and directed by Pete Walker (who also produced), the misleadingly-titled "Die Screaming Marianne" (without a comma) isn't a horror movie or a suspense-thriller; it's more of a character portrait-cum-criminal melodrama, one that is curiously coy in its violent and sexual matters. George is seen dancing in a bedazzled bikini under the opening credits, but she doesn't dance again, nor does she get much of a chance to create a genuine character. Marianne is unpredictable in all the wrong ways; she's a question-mark whose actions are confusing, confounding and often reach a dead-end (running off from her new husband in the early morning hours, she hitches a ride, stops to rest in the meadow grass, applies for a dancing job, turns it down when the boss asks to "see the goods," and then returns home). Finale at the Judge's seaside spread in Portugal is even odder, with lustful, jealous Judy Huxtable bent on torturing Marianne to get that account number before killing her. Before long, bodies have piled up, corpses have to be identified, the cops are on their way, and we still have no idea who Marianne is. *1/2 from ****
In 1966, two brothers from Edinburgh, Scotland, Derek Longmuir (drums) and Alan Longmuir (bass)--presumably working-class, though that's only intimated--form a band named The Saxons, playing teen dances with minimal success. Once their first single, "Keep on Dancing", a cover song borrowed from The Gentrys, hit the charts in 1971 (and the executives at Bell Records smelled real money), the sonic polishing began, first with new band members except for the Longmuirs and the songwriting team of Bill Martin and Phil Coulter (who contributed the cheerleader-chant "Saturday Night" to the Rollers' first album, ignored in Britain but eventually a number-one hit in the US). It took the pop band quite a while to become "overnight sensations" in the UK and their homeland--and even longer in America, which didn't catch on until 1976--but the pandemonium among teen and pre-teen girls, as well as chart success on both continents, was short-lived. Derek and Alan are interviewed here, as is lead vocalist Leslie McKeown and guitarist-turned-bassist Stuart Wood, but lead guitarist and chief songwriter for the group, Erik Faulkner, is absent. This points up something that Carl Hindmarch's mediocre documentary doesn't wish to dwell over: that internal unhappiness in the band was so strong, one of its most important players won't even talk about the group all these years later. Made up mostly of news footage, the film almost makes the case for non-admirers of the Rollers that they were strictly a fan-phenomenon and not much of a music group. Perhaps the absence of Faulkner meant that the filmmakers could not spotlight the band's musical output, instead putting the emphasis on screaming girls, police barricades, etc. There's a good story here, but "Rollermania" doesn't tell it, excitement in the streets only taking you so far--as the Rollers themselves soon found out. ** from ****
The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
Not-bad horror compendium, its title being more fearful than the product
Four stories (plus a linking prologue and epilogue) centering around an eerie estate in the English countryside that reflects the personalities of its tenants. "Is it haunted?" one potential renter asks. "Not exactly." Denholm Elliott plays a mystery writer whose latest creation, a mad strangler, haunts him at night; Peter Cushing, mourning the demise of his one great love, finds her replica in a waxworks museum in town; Christopher Lee is afraid of his own daughter, an angelic-seeming child with an interest in witchcraft; and Jon Pertwee is a ham actor of vampire films who becomes a real bloodsucker whenever he wears a vintage cloak. With a screenplay by "Psycho" author Robert Bloch (and an uncredited Russ Jones reportedly penning the second episode), the tales are imaginative and entertaining, although not particularly frightening--and not at all bloody. Two vampires rising from their coffins at midnight is about as scary as it gets. TV's "The Twilight Zone" did this kind of thing much better--these chapters are more on the level of "Night Gallery". Fine performances nevertheless, some twists and turns, and a solid direction by Peter Duffell, who doesn't rush things through and shows a sense of humor as well. **1/2 from ****
And Soon the Darkness (1970)
Stylishly glum murder-mystery with no great solution
Jane and Cathy, British student nurses on holiday in the French countryside, take a break from bicycling on a dull stretch of road because Cathy, having eyed a gentleman in the previous village, wants to rest (and give him a chance to catch up). The more pragmatic Jane wants to reach the next town before nightfall and decides to head out on her own. Mystery story from screenwriters Brian Clemens and Terry Nation might either be called a compact thriller or a very unimaginative one--it literally goes nowhere but back and forth from town to the woods, into the woods and back out again. The usually-volatile Pamela Franklin has a rather benign role this time; she's curious unfettered upon discovering her friend has disappeared, courteous and polite to the strangers she tries to make conversation with, and not a very good detective or judge of character. The language barrier is a problem with a picture like this: Franklin must keep explaining everything we already know to the French villagers (potential suspects and wayward eccentrics) and we're not sure if they understand her or maybe just think she's insane (and vice-versa). The picture isn't a horror movie--there's hardly any blood shown--and director Robert Fuest guides it along with a sure hand, but it becomes repetitive. Franklin's Jane goes back to search for her friend, she gets a ride into town, she waits for her ride to come back, she hitches a ride back to the woods, she retrieves her bicycle, and then she goes on to the next town. It isn't an exciting film, nor an important one, but it does have an abundance of atmosphere and has been been produced in a very classy manner. The finale is underwhelming. The case does get solved, yet there are a lot of unanswered questions left in the movie's wake, as well as the feeling that Fuest did his very best to enliven this scenario without a lot of help from his writers. Remade in 2010. ** from ****