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Mixed Nuts (1994)
Bad on a biblical scale
10 January 2005
Given its stellar cast and pedigree, you could be forgiven for expecting "Mixed Nuts" to be really, really funny. Make no mistake--it's not. This movie is bad on a biblical scale--it's the cinematic equivalent of an Old Testament plague.

Steve Martin heads a suicide prevention hotline on Christmas. This weak premise gives Nora Ephron an opportunity to roll out every cruel, mean-spirited and painfully unfunny stereotype in the bad movie book, from the mannish transvestite to the forced-zany suicidal loon to the ever-popular Recurring Dead Body. One wonders why Martin and his staff run a suicide prevention hotline if they hate the mentally ill. As a Christmas movie this cynical, nasty exercise makes "Bad Santa" look like "Miracle On 34th St." The script is an incomprehensible mess, even veteran comic actors like Martin, Garry Shandling and Madeline Kahn seem lost, and Ephron's direction is so sloppy and hamhanded that the film plays like cutting-room debris stitched randomly together. If you're a Steve Martin completist you may feel compelled to see "Mixed Nuts", but do yourself a favor and don't. This movie is physically painful to watch. Everyone involved with this film should be embarrassed.
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Don't Let It End!
5 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Probably one of the most singularly bizarre moments in rock, Styx's 1983 short film "Kilroy Was Here" paints a picture of a dystopian, rockless blue-neon future ruled by religious zealots and screamingly racist Japanese androids (designed by effects guru Stan Winston). The loose plot has superstar rocker Robert Orrin Charles Kilroy (played to the hilt by Styx leader Dennis DeYoung, who dreamed up this concept and wrote the film) framed and convicted of murder by the Majority for Musical Morality, led by the evil preacher Dr. Righteous (guitarist James Young, who should not quit his day job). Kilroy's downfall comes on the same night that rock and roll is outlawed forever, and he's locked away for good--that is, until five years later when Kilroy sabotages a "Mr. Roboto" and breaks out, in search of Jonathan Chance (Tommy Shaw), the rockin' rebel leader of an underground movement to bring down bible-thumping Dr. Righteous and return the youth of America to their headbanging, Camaro-driving ways.

"Kilroy Was Here"--the movie and the album that inspired it--was laughably over-the-top even for the 80s. It spawned hits like "Mr. Roboto" and "Don't Let It End"--both included here--but its gut-busting excesses broke up the band, who dumped Dennis DeYoung for ruining their image as "serious rockers." Band members later dismissed the project as a huge DeYoung ego trip, and casting himself as the martyred saviour of rock and roll does strain belief beyond the breaking point. However, it's also a huge part of this film's charm. It's very much a "Spinal Tap" type project, with overblown special effects and every slick 80s music video cliché in the book--the fog budget alone must have been enormous. But it's tremendously entertaining for what it is. And though its vision of rock being banned outright seems ridiculous, Frank Zappa and Dee Snyder were testifying before Congress in rock's defense just a few years later. Who knows, maybe DeYoung's comically dark vision of the future is on its way even now.

The complete film "Kilroy Was Here" can be found at the beginning of the out-of-print VHS concert video "STYX: Caught In The Act".
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The best and most bizarre TV special ever made
5 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Paul Lynde was a one-of-a-kind character whose flaws have been amply documented by tell-alls like the "E! True Hollywood Story". What shows like that neglect to mention is that besides being a troubled man, Lynde was also an outrageously funny and willfully campy entertainer who never had a dull TV moment. A milestone in TV history, Lynde's Halloween special is one of the best things ever committed to videotape.

The basic outline is that Lynde is magically conjured up by two of the most famous witches in TV and film history, "The Wizard Of Oz"'s great Margaret Hamilton--reprising her role nearly 40 years later--and "H.R. Pufinstuf"'s Witchiepoo, Billie Hayes. He's paid for his services in wishes, which leads to bizarre fantasy transformation sequences that involve everyone from an extremely accommodating Tim Conway to "Happy Days" supertramp Pinky Tuscadero (in character!) Florence Henderson appears in various kinky outfits, Billy Barty makes dinner and the triumphant pièce de résistance is an appearance by a band naturally associated with arch-camp homosexual comedy--KISS. No, seriously, this special was KISS's network television debut! You have not lived until you've seen Peter Criss sing "Beth" to a middle-aged gay man. KISS also plays "Detroit Rock City"and "King of The Night Time World" while an appreciative Lynde flirts shamelessly. It's a beautiful thing. Hollywood legend Hamilton's bizarre interaction with KISS will also add breathtaking new dimension to any "six degrees" game you care to play. And did I fail to mention the other musical guests--Donny and Marie?

This special aired only once, in 1976. I was fortunate enough to see it then, although extremely poor quality bootlegs exist. Should the masters survive, this special should be released on DVD at once. Perhaps Gene Simmons has buried this the way George Lucas deep-sixed "The Star Wars Holiday Special"--but Lynde's Halloween special deserves a wide audience, both for its inimitable 1970s camp value and to introduce Lynde's riotously funny, uniquely gay sense of humor to a new generation. "Will and Grace" is "The Waltons" by comparison. No assessment of the strides made by gays in the media can be complete without giving this special--and Lynde--significant attention. But you definitely don't have to be gay to laugh yourself silly here.

Anarchic, unhinged, showered in sequins and hypnotically immediate, "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special" will grab you from the first frame, beat you senseless and leave you begging for more. See this special at any cost.
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A Grave Disturbance In The Force--Maude! (possible spoiler?)
5 January 2005
Check your illusions at the door. "The Star Wars Holiday Special" is genius. Oh, sure, it'll cost you your immortal soul to watch, but it's genius. It's like the apple Adam and Eve famously snacked upon--a myth-destroying wake-up call. Once you see this, you'll never look at "Star Wars" the same way.

Behold the power of the Dark Side: Bea Arthur of "Maude" and "Golden Girls" fame tends bar at the Mos Eisley cantina. Harvey Korman is a wisecracking transgendered robot. The lamest band of the 70s, Jefferson Starship, plays a song called "Cigar Shaped Object." Carrie Fisher, high as a kite, sings a plaintive Wookie "Life Day" ballad. Boba Fett and Snaggletooth get down and get funky. Chewbacca's dad gets all Wookie-aroused at a singing holographic Diahann Carroll. Mark Hamill is made-up like Gloria Swanson. Bruce Vilanch "zingers" abound. And that's just the beginning. There is ample evidence here that Mel Brooks wasted his time making "Spaceballs"--this is much, much funnier.

Fans love to imagine that George Lucas was forced to do this special at gunpoint, that he was drugged and abducted and brainwashed, but it's just not the case. He may have taken some bad, bad advice, but he was the writer and director of the biggest movie of all time. He could have said no. His presence here--and the presence of almost the entire original cast--makes denying this special's existence a little disingenuous. "Star Wars" as a film and as a phenomenon did not exist in a vacuum--it's very much of the 70s, just as the heartbreakingly bad altered versions of the original films, and the nearly unwatchable first prequel are very much of the 90s. And the 70s were a cheesy, cheesy time where Bea Arthur and Bruce Vilanch ruled the earth. I was a first-generation "Star Wars" fan and I still love it, but it wasn't the laughable, inconsequential "Star Wars Holiday Special" that first broke my Jedi heart. It was those sickeningly cutesy singing Ewoks in the tremendously disappointing "Return Of The Jedi." I would have much preferred Bea Arthur.

Lucas need to stop denying this beast exists and release it on DVD--maybe as a hidden "special feature" on "The Phantom Menace". He could then set the record straight once and for all about how it came to exist. The man came up with Michael Jackson's "Captain EO" and "Ewoks." He produced "Howard The Duck." This special is no more embarrassing. And it doesn't diminish the greatness of Lucas' original achievements. Watch "The Star Wars Holiday Special." Laugh at it. Mock it. Learn from it--that no mythology is perfect, that no writer/director/actor is above a few colossal mistakes, that no creative entity is immune to the excesses of its own era, that hubris is a dangerous thing. And beware of anything that takes itself too seriously.
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Off to an excellent start
4 January 2005
Craig Ferguson is one of the brightest and funniest comic wits Great Britain has produced in the last ten years. Still, Ferguson's selection as host of the Late Late Show came as a big surprise. Known to American audiences mostly from his appearances on "The Drew Carey Show," Ferguson seemed like too much of an unknown quantity to host a nightly network talk show. Judging from his first shows as host, however--especially his smashing official debut--casting Ferguson may have been a stroke of genius. The irreverent Scot--a cult figure from his work on "Red Dwarf" and "Freakazoid"-- is lively, likable, sharp and captivating, gently mocking competitors like Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel and poking merciless fun at the dull conventions of late-night. Fans who may have worried that Ferguson's UK comic sensibilities would be blunted or watered down by US network standards should rest easy--at least in early episodes, he's at his best, and is a significant improvement from Craig Kilborn's snarky Hef's-grotto fratboy sensibilities. O'Brien and especially Kimmel should keep a close eye on Ferguson--this show is off to a bold start, and savvy viewers will find Craig Ferguson hard to resist.
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Witty and edgy--but strays far from the novel
30 December 2004
Fred Allen was--with the possible exception of his "rival" Jack Benny--the biggest star in the history of radio. He was Letterman to Benny's Leno--an acerbic smartaleck who practically invented topical humor/current political events satire. While he had numerous small film roles and cameos (and later starred in TV's "What's My Line?"), "It's In The Bag" was Fred Allen's only starring role in a motion picture, and it was a good one.

The plot--Allen gaining, then losing, then frantically trying to recover an inheritance hidden inside one or more mystery chairs--is just a skeleton on which to hang the movie's wry jokes, strange interludes and satirical jabs at Hollywood stars. A trainload of radio and film comedians appear in this movie, including Jack Benny (with whom Allen shared a longtime "feud" that was as successful--and as manufactured--as anything the World Wrestling federation ever produced). Author and bon vivant Robert Benchley makes a strong appearance here, and Richard Wallace's steady direction manages to keep up with the comic mayhem.

Allen's irreverent humor, wild tangents and complete disregard for film conventions (including the sacred fourth wall) inspired Mel Brooks, who, drawing from its source material, made a version of "It's In The Bag" as his second feature, "The Twelve Chairs"--although literary purists who love the original darkly satiric Russian novel by Ilf and Petrov, take note: you will likely hate both these movies with a fiery passion. Even faithful Russian screen adaptations of that extraordinary book have failed to capture its greatness, and "It's In The Bag" doesn't even try--it's merely a sardonically humorous sendup of 1940s Hollywood in general and Mr. Allen in particular. It's no intricate Russian literary classic, but if you love vintage Hollywood comedies with an edge, you won't be disappointed.
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Delta House (1979– )
Let's not go to the "Delta House."
28 December 2004
In the 1970s, no hit film was safe from the clutches of ambitious TV producers. "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" became "Alice," "Private Benjamin" became, um, "Private Benjamin", and let's not even talk about ABC's ill-fated attempt to turn "The Deer Hunter" into a sitcom vehicle for Norman Fell.

In that vein, "Delta House" had the potential to be a worthy follow-up to "Animal House." It reunited much of the cast of the debaucherous 1978 classic as well as many of the original's creative team. Trouble was, "Animal House" was a raunchy R-rated movie, and in 1979, television was so squeaky-clean you couldn't even say the word "pregnant." ABC, land of "Three's Company"'s wacky-till-it-bleeds double-entendres, stuck "Delta House" in an early-evening timeslot worthy of "The Waltons" and surgically excised any trace of the original's humor, leaving the cast with nothing to do but pass around tone-deaf anti-establishment banter that even Dean Wormer would have found square. "Delta House" got promising ratings despite all this, but perhaps sensing the creative impossibility, ABC pulled the plug. The cast and crew deserve a medal for trying, but there was just no way to adapt a screamingly funny R-rated film for broadcast TV in 1979, and thankfully there still isn't. John Belushi's Bluto would have smashed this show to bits on a staircase.
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Manimal (1983)
Not to be confused with "Garanimals."
28 December 2004
Is there, in the whole English language, a better word than "Manimal"? I think not. And should you be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this show, you'll never be the same again.

Putting the "high" in "high concept," Glen Larson's crime-fighting shape-shifter was a man who could turn into ANY ANIMAL. Any animal at all. As long as that animal is a panther. OK, in a pinch, he can do a hawk, but can we stick with the panther please? It's not so much that special effects technology didn't exist in 1983, it's just that network TV could not afford them. Production costs were high for all that Manimalization, and when low ratings did not quickly morph into Neilsen success, Manimal was hastily euthanized.

Simon MacCorkindale does fine work as the Manimal, but to modern eyes this show plays more like an extended Saturday Night Live skit, when the promise of a man who can be any animal turns into the reality of a guy being swapped out for the same piece of stock panther transformation footage week after week. Still, I sincerely hope Manimal is reissued, because for all its faults, it's a priceless slice of ridiculous 80s fun.
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Alice (1976–1985)
There's a new girl in town, and it's Jean-Paul Sartre!
28 December 2004
Future cinematic forensic technicians are going to have a field day figuring out how Martin Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"--a beautifully realized film rich with meaning, showered with Oscar nominations--became a two-dimensional sitcom that was so jacked-in to the pop-culture zeitgeist of the 70s that 30 years later, people still tell unsuspecting passers-by to "kiss my grits."

The bare-bones plot lines are similar--woman's husband dies, she and her son leave home searching for a new life, end up in Phoenix where her dreams of becoming a singer take a back seat to serving burgers at Mel's diner. But where that's a jumping-off point for Ellen Burstyn's Oscar-winning Alice, poor Linda Lavin's Alice just stays and stays and stays, dishing out nine interminable years of hard-scrabble deep-fried wisdom to Mel (played in both versions by sensitive thespian Vic Tayback) and celebrating life's little mysteries with fellow waitresses Vera and Flo. But even Polly Holiday's Flo soon escapes to her own catchphrase-fueled sitcom, and to make matters more surreal, the movie Flo, Diane Ladd, replaces her--albeit as "Belle," who does comparatively little grit-kissing to everyone's disappointment.

Putting aside the impossible comparison between a masterful film and its weird TV echo--"Animal House" versus "Delta House", anyone?-- "Alice" the sitcom is watchable and even funny, in measured doses. The banter is sharply written, the catchphrases work for a while, the characters are likable. The theme of struggling to make a better life is still there and still engaging. Alice still dreams of singing, of finding a new love, of life on the left coast. But like those seven stranded castaways cursed to forever wander La Isla Gilligan, you can't help but remember that the laws of television sitcom physics mean Alice and her son are doomed to live and die in Mel's Diner in the kind of greasy-spoon hell even Milton couldn't dare dream up. If you missed the 70s and want to understand what was popular in TV comedy and why, if you're looking to add to your fatally-hip retro catchphrase quotient, or if you just like seeing hapless sitcom characters spend nine years making snappy quips in a doomed existential loop with "no exit," you need look no further.
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What if they gave a parody and nobody came?
21 December 2004
Trapped in a hellish copyright limbo for over a decade, Thom Eberhardt's "Night Of The Comet" is a film whose reputation is due for a serious rehabilitation. Generally--and wrongly--categorized with typical 80s teen horror films, "Comet" is in fact a smart, skillful parody of the low-budget sci-fi horror classics of the 50s, 60s and 70s--and a wry commentary on teen culture in the 1980s as well. For those familiar with the original films, the parody "clues" are all over the place--not least of which is that the early part of the film takes place in the back of LA's classically offbeat El Rey movie theatre, which is showing low-budget B horror movies. Most of the "scary" scenes are preceded (subtly or otherwise) by the famous "red light" warning used commonly in the 60s and 70s. And the apocalyptic plot, settings and dialog, especially among the scientists, are straight out of the 50s.

Catherine Mary Stewart is by far the centerpiece of the movie as Reggie, the only teenage girl in Los Angeles who's both a lowly-paid theatre usher and an expert with assault weapons. She is most definitely *not* a Valley Girl. A pre-"Voyager" Robert Beltran is Hector "date night in the barrio" Gomez, the classic b-movie hero, and far more engaging here than his stoic, dry-as-bones role for the McTrek franchise. Kelli Maroney brings the totally 80s camp value as Valley Girl Samantha, who realizes with horror that her pool of potential Izod-clad boyfriends has just shrunk dramatically. Geoffrey Lewis sheds his mostly Western image here as the deliciously megalomaniacal leader of the researchers, whose taste for superscience soon gives way to a craving for hot buttered gray matter.

Eberhardt is a canny director who doesn't miss a trick--the scares are rare, but when they come, they'll get you. The gore is minimal, but the atmosphere of malevolence gets progressively thicker until the climax. The tightrope between comedy and fright is skillfully toed--undead droog stockboys, anyone? The effects may not be the digitized visual pablum people take for granted these days, but in a way they're more engaging for their rawness. Anyone who thinks this was a low-budget movie has never tried to completely empty out downtown Los Angeles at 7 am for a film shoot. Thom Eberhardt should be hailed for his brilliantly sharp, funny script and his deft execution as director.

Veteran sci-fi/indie/horror actress Mary Woronov is "Night Of The Comet"'s direct physical and spiritual link to the golden days of the genre. She's passing the baton here to a new generation of camp sci-fi/horror fans. That nobody has thus far picked up that baton is a tragedy.

To address a distressingly common misperception: the comet in question is *not* Halley's comet. Both in-film plot elements and the film's tagline suggest this comet only appeared once before, when it wiped out the dinosaurs. Halley's comet, on the other hand, has had more comebacks than Cher.

"Night Of The Comet" works pretty well the way a lot of people view it--as a simple 80s cheesy sci-fi comedy. But as with "Rocky Horror," if you've seen the original material it's spoofing, the results are a hundred times more rewarding. A future DVD release is a must.
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The greatest movie by one of the great filmmakers of all time
21 December 2004
Ed Wood was one of the greatest moviemakers in film history. Could he direct? Not really. Were his movies technical masterpieces? Could his actors act? Did he have huge budgets? No. We're here fifty years later, talking about him, because he created worlds on film nobody had ever seen before or since. His characters talked like nobody we've ever heard before (though there are strong echoes in the works of Hartley and Lynch). And unlike every Hollywood movie ever made, Ed ripped open his heart and poured it out on the screen. Never more so than in "Glen Or Glenda," his original avant-garde masterpiece.

Avant-garde? You heard me. What is the definition of avant-garde film? Some attributes are unconventional narrative, unique visual style, radical rejection of artistic or social norms, an often willful disregard for reality. Gloria Floren said "Avant-garde films are often iconoclastic, mocking conventional morality and traditional values; the filmmaker's intense interest in eccentricities and extremes may shock viewers.  Indeed, the avant-garde film maker's purpose may be to wake or shake up the audience from the stupor of ordinary consciousness or the doldrums of conventional perspective."

Imagine if people viewed "Un Chien Andalou" or "Meshes Of The Afternoon" or "Eraserhead" with fratboy derision instead of holy reverence. They'd be viewed as unwatchable nonsense too. Everybody'd have a good snark watching for continuity errors and bad camera moves. Does "Glen or Glenda" rise to the level of those classics? Time will tell, but try this experiment: watch it as if it were, and see. The results may surprise you.

Here are some hints. Lugosi is not a mad scientist--he's God, looking down upon twisted human morality and "pulling the strings". The "green eyed monster" that "eats little boys"? Envy. Envy of women and in this case, their clothes. That envy has "eaten" vast amounts of Glen's life, it's been a torture to him. There are numerous references to that torture and misery. There's also an entire section devoted to judgment--human judgment versus that reserved to God.

The "nonsensical" stock footage of buffaloes and the army? It signifies the rush of adrenaline, fear and anxiety as "Glen" tries to confront his identity and "come out" to his girlfriend. Far from random, it's actually used with ingenuity and skill.

The symbology of scenes in which "Glen" battles his female self and resists the devil should be obvious. But then again, a generous viewing of "Glen or Glenda," rather than a beer-fueled "let's watch a crap movie" viewing, would reveal a great deal. Even the campy scene at the end, when Dolores Fuller relents and gives Glen her sweater, comes with the always-missed segment where God absolves Glen of his misery. There are a dozen moments like this. Sure, there are a dozen technical flubs and random nonsense too, but all good art is organic. There's a guy wearing a Timex in "Ben-Hur," for god's sake.

The "narrator" seems comical and dated to us, but in 1953 he was standard-issue, and the lines we now take as campy were then revolutionary, almost treasonous. A plea for tolerance for sexual and gender differences? Condemning the police for arresting gays and transvestites just for existing? During the McCarthy era, when all homosexuals were presumed to be communists? A film like that is bound to make some enemies. Especially a film that featured, not actors playing "deviants," but the deviants themselves, in their own words.

It's telling that the extreme-religious-conservative Medved brothers were the ones who named Ed Wood "worst director of all time." They must have thought they were really sticking it to Ed Wood for making all those subversively weird films involving crossdressing and homosexuals and society's outcasts. Thankfully, irony remains the most powerful force in the universe, and their mean-spirited declaration made Ed Wood a household name. Whether they admit it or not, a lot of this movie's detractors are laughing at the subject, not the movie. Many others are baffled by the unconventional narrative. Just because you don't get something, doesn't mean there is nothing to get.

It's easy to give any movie the MST3K treatment, especially ones that veer into uncomfortable or seemingly absurd territory. If you're looking for the worst movie ever made, go watch "Armageddon" or "Crossroads." If you're looking for THE pioneering moment in GLBT film history, the greatest and most underrated American DIY avante-garde feature of its time, or an experience that just might change the way you view movies and the world at large, start right here.
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Joanie Loves Chachi (1982–1983)
You'll beg for "The Ropers" or "AfterM*A*S*H*" instead
21 December 2004
Some show generate spinoffs. Others metastasize. "Happy Days"--itself a spin off from "Love, American Style"--generated everything from "Laverne and Shirley" to "Mork And Mindy" to the rarely-seen "Anson Williams, P.I.". "Joanie Loves Chachi" was the final, genetically damaged offspring of this long, inbred line.

The premise--and here I use the word "premise" in the broadest sense--is that our Chachi has left Milwaukee to start a singing career in that hotbed of the music industry, Chicago. Joanie went with him, of course, along with Al (who has opened a new restaurant to escape the long shadow of Pat Morita). Chachi and Joanie have a band with painfully zany characters. Chachi and Joanie sing and dance--usually several times--in each episode. Chachi and Joanie sing the theme song. The only minor technical problem with all this is that Chachi and Joanie can't sing a note.

Erin Moran and Scott Baio are as grating and unlikeable here as they were in "Happy Days," only here they're on screen for the entire 22 minutes. How the producers dreamed up a romance between these two is a mystery--they have no chemistry. It's like watching Al and The Fonz kiss. The spin off was clearly intended to breathe new life into the "Happy Days" franchise, but here the "sitcom hijinks" are as tired and threadbare as they were in the original's Richie-less last gasps. Also, the ethnic stereotypes would make any Italian cringe. They boycotted the Sopranos but not this?

To be fair, this show is such a relic of early 80s television cheese that it would have to have some retro entertainment value now, especially for those who were young enough to enjoy it the first time. The Fonz and the Cunninghams show up with alarming frequency, and kitsch/camp fans who loved master thespian Baio in "Charles In Charge" will find gold in his "singing teen idol" incarnation, especially since Leif Garrett never made a TV series. The Christmas episode in particular is amusing in retrospect. But viewing it without irony/unintended humor, "Joanie Loves Chachi" is difficult, bordering on painful, to watch. I knew Arthur Fonzarelli. Arthur Fonzarelli was a friend of mine. Chachi Arcola, you are no Arthur Fonzarelli.
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The worst film by a great filmmaker
21 December 2004
It is my sincere personal opinion that Ed Wood made some of the greatest, most imaginative, heartfelt and memorable films ever made. Ed was the original DIY filmmaker, and while he lacked technical skill, he more than made up for it with enthusiasm, plots, and especially dialog phoned in directly from Alpha Centauri.

Having said that, "Necromania" will only interest the already-converted Wood fan trying to fill in the gaps between the end of Ed's "official" filmography and the unfortunate end of his life. The casual or first-time Wood viewer should stay away from this one like the plague. For Wood fans, there are items of interest here, not least of which is Ed's (apparent) final appearance in a feature-length film. There are plot elements (and here I use the word "plot" in the most generous of senses) reminiscent of Ed's 50s classics, set pieces that recall (and may indeed have been used in) "Bride of the Monster" and "Plan 9", a way-out score, and echoes of the trademark Ed Wood dialog that to this day puts Hal Hartley and David Lynch to shame. There's also more than a little tragedy on display here; the truly sincere fan of Ed Wood (and there are about five of us) has to watch this hugely creative and tremendously life-loving soul in near total decay, ravaged by the wasting effects of too much alcohol and too little self-respect. One can't help but wish he had lived long enough to revel in the anti-hero status that was just a few years off. He would have taken the derision gleefully, knowing that somewhere out there, one viewer in a million would see his films and "get it." That's the one he was making movies for. Who knows, maybe it's you.

(Disclaimer: despite what is presented in "Necromania," there is no established scientific or medical evidence linking necromancy to increased male potency.)
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Winner Take All (1952– )
A fascinating relic of early television
18 December 2004
This short-lived revival of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman's original 1948 "Winner Take All" was most notable for introducing a young Bill Cullen to a national television audience. Cullen, who would be forever associated with legendary game shows such as "The Name's The Same," "I've Got A Secret" and countless others, shows here why his career endured. Likable, fresh-faced and witty, Cullen has great fun with an array of contestants--shy housewives, cranky retirees, military officers--and handles ad-libbing with ease. The game itself was remarkably dull--first one to answer three questions wins a prize, usually a major appliance the size of a Humvee. It's fascinating to watch the contestants--for whom television is a fresh new novelty--as they struggle with working the buzzer, finding cameras and microphones, and waving to the folks back home. As a study of early 1950s America, and extremely early television style, "Winner Take All" is a fascinating document.
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A wonderful film full of "heroes and villains"
18 December 2004
"Beautiful Dreamer" is a lovingly produced account of the rise and tragic fall of Brian Wilson and his subsequent musical and spiritual rebirth, centered around the piece of music that was both his undoing and his salvation--the legendary pop symphony "SMiLE." Using straightforward narrative and extensive interviews from friends, collaborators and "witnesses," David Leaf's film follows Brian from his creative zenith with the Beach Boys, 1966's incomparable "Pet Sounds," through his creation with lyricist Van Dyke Parks of an even more ambitious follow-up, 1967's ultimately-aborted "Smile" project. Participants as diverse as Sir George Martin, Paul McCartney, Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night, Elvis Costello, Leonard Bernstein (in archival footage) and many others recall how Wilson inspired them to create some of their best work, not least of which was the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" album.

The documentary clearly puts the blame for Brian's collapse (and "Smile"'s failure) at the feet of the other Beach Boys and especially Mike Love, who envisioned the group as a "cash cow" as long as nobody messed with the cars/surf/girls "formula". Interviewees (Wilson's closest friends among them) debunk longstanding urban legends about Brian's alleged drug use and its supposed blame for his collapse, and the film offers glimpses inside Brian's paranoia--notably how he came to believe his composition "fire" was actually causing buildings to burn.

Most inspiring, the documentary shows how Wilson's backup band, the amazing alt-pop group the Wondermints, helped him to revisit the original compositions and augment and arrange the surviving segments into a cohesive score. It's truly inspiring to see Wilson's transformation from the throes of depression and mental illness to joyous, unencumbered musical genius as the completed "SMiLE" debuts to a sellout crowd in London.

Rich with rare archival footage and revealing interviews, "Beautiful Dreamer" handles its subject with care, giving both longtime Wilson fans and newcomers plenty to "smile" about.
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A postmodern delight that was gone too soon
17 December 2004
"Andy Richter" was a wonderful, all-too-short-lived TV series that followed the fictional "Andy" through his moribund work days--and, more often, through the frustrated writer's hilariously warped fantasy life--a sort of Walter Mitty on bad acid. Subversive and screamingly funny, "Andy Richter" was brilliantly conceived and sharply written, and the cast--from Richter himself to Paget Brewster, Irene Molloy, Jonathan Slavin and James Patrick Stuart--had tremendous chemistry and perfect comic timing.

Like the live-action "The Tick" (another casualty of Fox's early 2000s "create brilliant shows and then slaughter them like rabid dogs" policy), "Andy Richter" was a postmodern delight that was gone too soon. One can only pray to the mighty disc gods for a DVD release.
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The Perfect Pitch (2002 TV Movie)
A funny, disturbing peek behind the scenes of network TV
17 December 2004
A rare peek inside the warped world of television production, "The Perfect Pitch" reveals in chilling detail how the best and brightest creative minds must take their innovative, original ideas for new shows and run them through the gauntlet of "pitching" to fickle executives who have the ultimate power over TV life and death.

Narrated with wry humor by Andy Richter and Sarah Silverman, "The Perfect Pitch" takes viewers on a step-by-step process from idea to pitch to--occasionally--the production of a pilot episode. A phalanx of television's best and brightest, from "Freaks and Geeks" vet Judd Apatow to legends like Larry Gelbart and Sherwood Schwartz, spin great yarns about their experiences--and frustrations--creating some of the best-loved shows in TV history. The pitfalls of dealing with network executives are shown in great detail, from execs who simply don't want to try anything new/risky/interesting to execs who doze off or take phone calls in mid-pitch, to the unfortunate executive who took a meeting not knowing he had already been fired and that "the pitch didn't count." There's some sympathy for these execs, though, whose careers hang by a thread and who often don't dare do anything other than rehash what's already been done ("Joey," anyone?)

Anyone interested in pursuing a career in television, especially fledgling writers and producers, would be well served by watching "The Perfect Pitch." It's a funny, harrowing primer in how to create for TV--and, more often, how not to.

Critics often bemoan TV's lack of innovation and creativity. Given the hilarious, sad, occasionally baffling true-life horror stories producers and writers tell in "The Perfect Pitch," it's a wonder anything good makes it to air at all.
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A slice of 80s life, but not a laugh riot
17 December 2004
The 1980s were full of role-reversal comedies where black became white, father became son, rich became poor, old became young, male became female. "Just One Of The Guys" expands on the latter theme, suggesting the best way to battle rampant sex discrimination is to switch sides. "Valley Girl" and "Spinal Tap" veteran Joyce Hyser was already pushing 30 when she starred as teenager "Terry/Terri," whose rapturous beauty made her a reject in the beauty-hating world of high school journalism, but somehow didn't keep her from passing as a guy who looks eerily like Ralph Macchio.

The expected "Three's Company"-esquire comic misunderstandings arise, where "Terry" has to hide being in love with "his" new best friend Rick, but must also constantly avoid boy-crazy stalker Sherilyn Fenn. The film takes such tortured pains to avoid the merest hint of homosexuality that the results are sometimes a little painful to watch.

The film has funny moments, though, and through its extensive location shooting at Coronado and Scottsdale High Schools in Scottsdale, Arizona, it perhaps inadvertently captures a genuine slice of teenage life, 1985-style. (Not that at age 16 I was an uncredited extra in this movie or anything like that.)

For sheer 80s teen movie nostalgia, give "Just One Of The Guys" a chance, if you come across it on TV. It's not Shakespeare, but it's better than watching C. Thomas Howell as a black man.
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Alphabet (2002)
A beautiful, intricate film
17 December 2004
"Alphabet" is a beautifully photographed short that recalls elements of "The 400 Blows" in its theme and visual style. While the Truffaut influence is palpable, it's director Chelsea Spear's innovative, often jarring use of jagged edits that emphasizes the organic, handmade feel of the film, taking us inside Emily's experience as she works out the intricate linguistic connections between mathematics and music. Katherine Sullivan is perfect as Emily, the young girl whose moment of transcendent realization is the centerpiece of the film, while Jim Gilbert strikes the perfect note as her Math teacher, Mr. Diddlebock (a sly nod, one suspects, to legendary director Preston Sturges.) Dense, atmospheric, and worthy of multiple viewings, "Alphabet" is a strong early effort from this director.
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Lookwell (1991 TV Movie)
The Thinking Man's "Police Squad"
17 December 2004
"Lookwell" is the thinking man's "Police Squad," a fiercely funny sendup of the TV detective genre. It's a national tragedy that NBC execs pulled the plug. Adam West's deadpan delivery is so slyly self parodying that at times you wonder if he was in on the joke.

O'Brien and Smigel manage to drop in references to nearly every Quinn Martin 70s police drama while at the same time weaving a bitterly hilarious ode to the chew-em-up, spit-em-out world of Hollywood TV actors who go from being essential pop-culture icons to unemployable has-beens in what seems like weeks.

Often overlooked in glowing tributes to "Lookwell" is the work of longtime television director E. W. Swackhamer, a veteran of the very shows "Lookwell" parodies, who imbues every frame with the dead-serious crime-fighting authenticity of "Tenspeed and Brownshoe" and "S.W.A.T." One imagines the mighty O'Brien could feasibly get "Lookwell" back in production, and he should do so at once. An essential piece of television.
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Freejack (1992)
I saw this movie for free, and I still wanted my money back
14 December 2004
I saw this movie for free, and I still wanted my money back.

Emilio Estevez makes yet another argument for his candidacy as the worst actor of the 20th century in this mind-numbingly bad time-travel disaster. Estevez plays Alex Furlong, a race car driver (unfortunately) snatched from death by futuristic body snatchers from the impossibly distant year 2009 who want to suck out his brain and replace it with the noggin of a dying bazillionaire. It's a plot worthy of Ed Wood, but the difference is that for all their faults, Ed Wood movies are actually interesting. No one can claim the same about Geoff Murphy's celebrated oeuvre. ("Under Siege II", anyone?)

Kitschy, campy turns by David Johansen and Amanda Plummer are worth watching, but the rare starring role by Mick Jagger is a letdown. Those expecting the charismatic Jagger of Performance or Ned Kelly will be sorely disappointed. One expects Jagger to chew scenery, but he barely manages a nibble. Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo also appear to be searching for the nearest exit, probably to fire their agents.

The special effects are dismal--you've seen better blue screens on your local weather forecast. Given Estevez' almost insanely serious performance and the presence of so many cult figures, it's possible that in future years, "Freejack" might gain a following of fans of "so bad it's good" cinema. But trust me, honey, this one is so bad it's BAD.
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A subversive satirical gem
9 December 2004
Writer-director Preston Sturges is generally regarded as one of the greatest comic talents ever, and his impeccable track record--including The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels--is more than worthy of the praise. Often overlooked, The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek ranks with Sturges' absolute best work.

Sturges takes an almost Capra-esque WWII America and turns it on its pointy little head, with Betty Hutton as a girl who's more than willing to give "the boys" departing for the war the utmost reason to fight for our country. Stripped of her usual production numbers, Hutton cranks up her comic acting skills and creates a surprisingly rich characterization of a young woman straining against the restrictive social attitudes of the time. Eddie Bracken is his usual self-effacing self, and his sad-sack Norval Jones is an earnest, often moving portrayal of the kind of understanding, devotion and love almost never seen in American movies of the era.

A "screwball comedy" only on paper, the often frenetic pacing and physical humor was sufficient to distract censors (and often audiences) from Morgan Creek's almost brutally derisive satire about the hypocrisy of small town "values" and military behavior during wartime, satire that still resonates given the current political climate. No target is safe, from "the troops" and bucolic Anywhere USA to state governors, the Dionne quints, and Adolf Hitler. Sturges pushed hard against the production code and probably earned a few ulcers slipping racy plot twists and subversive dialogue past the censors, but the results were well worth the Maalox. One of the funniest and most pointed satirical comedies ever produced.
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Mazes and Monsters (1982 TV Movie)
Campy Hanks Fun, Awful Film
30 December 2002
"Mazes and Monsters" attempts to capitalize on the then-hot role-playing game trend with a sensationalistic, cliche-ridden script suggesting that such games inevitably lead players into madness, despair, and suicide. So, sadly, can dismal TV-movies. But this one has an added bonus: An extremely pre-Oscar Tom Hanks.

Camp-friendly fans of Hanks should not miss this film. Fresh off the comparatively Shakespearian "Bosom Buddies," Mr. Hanks tries his best to tackle the material. Unfortunately, the implausible scenes and unintentionally hilarious dialogue soon overtake him, though he soldiers on bravely. If you enjoyed Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Hercules In New York," you'll enjoy Hanks in "Mazes and Monsters." Extensive scenes set in and around the World Trade Center are especially strange in retrospect. It's a terrible film, but Hanks' immense charm--and his ample mystical-hooey dialog--are worth the price of admission, especially in this "Lord Of The Rings"-friendly era.
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