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5/10
Iced-over storyline and action
21 June 2009
James Bond, Harry Potter, and Star Wars notwithstanding, there are not too many movie franchises that aren't gasping for breath by the third entry. The latest evidence is the animated comedy "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs."

Like the "Shrek" movies, the "Ice Age" stories began modestly but have now caved under the weight of too many characters. No. 3 brings back the wooly mammoth Manny (voiced by Ray Romano); his significant other Ellie (Queen Latifah); Diego (Denis Leary), the macho tiger; the hapless sloth Sid (John Leguizamo); and the wordless squirrel Scrat (Chris Wedge).

The first few scenes are ominously discouraging. Ellie's is shown to be "with child," and Diego is starting to feel his age. So we get a lot of touchy-feely dialogue about mortality and sharing your emotions – not the kind of talk you're eager to receive from a couple of wooly mammoths.

These characters have worn their more endearing traits down to a nub. Sid was always meant to irritate his on-screen friends, but now he gets under our skin as well. Ray Romano, in what was once his only credible movie role, makes Manny as grating as his "Everybody Loves Raymond" persona was. And if you've seen Denis Leary on his TV series "Rescue Me," you know that the last emotion he should be asked to display is sensitivity.

As if just giving enough screen time to each returnee wasn't enough to intimidate the movie makers, they added an underground world of dinosaurs, so the whole gang can get chased around and scream as if they're in Jurassic Park.

Then they get a travel guide, in the form of a macho weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg), so that the movie can score a few "Apocalypse Now" jokes.

Who's supposed to care about any of this guff? Cartoony as they were, the first two movies made you feel as though something was as stake for these creatures. Now they've turned into stand-up comics, delivering little zingers before they lumber off-screen. The movie alternates between these puny jokes and drawn-out scenes of frantic action, neither of which adequately carry the story or its many subplots.

Finally, it must be noted that the movie is in 3D, with the usual cheesy glasses provided at each screening. If you're a fan of this format, ignore my carping. But I share critic Roger Ebert's view that if animation is done plausibly enough, a viewer shouldn't require special glasses to be dazzled by it. Here, 3D is just another prominent distraction.
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Up (2009)
10/10
Drag me to heaven
27 May 2009
UP, Pixar's latest animated feature, is just delightful. But how do you go about extolling the movie's virtues without giving away its surprises? Like the kid at the beginning of the movie, you don't try to conquer the immovable force; you work around it.

The one clue I can give away – because it's the movie's heavily hyped premise – is that Carl Fredrickson, a gruffy old widower (voiced with gruffy old charm by Ed Asner), miraculously inflates enough balloons to use his house as an aircraft. Soon, he finds himself reluctantly sharing his ride with a short-attention-spanned kid named Russell.

I'll also mention a couple of other items that can gauge your potential interest in the movie. One is a gag that is a take-off on a famous painting – perhaps too inside of an inside joke, but typical of Pixar's cheery attempts to appeal to viewers of all ages.

Also, part of the plot involves Carl's long-held wish to meet a Lindbergh-type adventurer named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer!). This is another in-joke that's even vaguer than the first one. Cartoon historians know that Walt Disney started in the cartoon biz by creating Oswald the Rabbit for producer Charles Mintz, who then greedily stole the rights to Disney's creation. This gives you a pretty good idea where the ostensible hero Muntz stands in the scheme of things.

Beyond that, I can only offer you some enticing clues about the characters. There's a dog who's the leader of his pack and in menacing beyond measure, until he opens his mouth and gets one of the movie's biggest laughs. There's a huge, awkward bird that is a big laugh-getter at first. Then she becomes a real enough character that – at least in the audience I was in – when she's injured, she elicits screams of fright worthy of Bambi's late mother.

There's surprising, heartfelt emotion, vivid imagery (you can almost touch the landscapes and skies), and a music score by Michael Giacchino that's practically a character in the movie – particularly in a thoughtful montage that takes Carl from childhood to widowhood.

There aren't many (or at least not enough) live-action movies that are engrossing as this cartoon. Pixar Studios has gotten to be one of those movie icons that shouldn't even have to deliver a premise to get funded anymore. The moneymen should just shut up, hand over the money, and trust they'll get a product that will appeal to everyone.

UP is only the second Pixar feature to get a PG rating, only for mildly intense imagery and action – nothing off-color in the least. Again, if you can handle "Bambi," this film should be a breeze.
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8/10
More of the same, but that's not necessarily bad
18 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
(SPOILER ALERT: The movie's set-pieces are described in the next-to-last paragraph; otherwise, nothing major.) The fourth "Indiana Jones" movie is as much fun as you'd hope it would be. But when you think about the movie later, it holds up like one of those bridges that Indy and his gang manage to cross just before it collapses. So let's cover the flaws first.

· "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" – Whew, that title is almost as long as the movie! What's more, since said kingdom isn't really the movie's main point, this might be the film to have its MacGuffin in the title.

· Some of the more heralded actors come off as lightweight. As a Russian villainess, acclaimed Cate Blanchett seems to be working out her Natasha Fatale impression. And while Shia LaBeouf is likable enough, he proves it takes more than a pompadour, a cap, and a sneer to emulate Marlon Brando in "The Wild One." · Even my 11-year-old son noted that the movie's major set-piece is at least partially lifted from the recent "National Treasure 2." And the movie's climactic fireworks – like the similar ending of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" – practically show us the scriptwriter ("Jurassic Park's David Koepp) shrugging his shoulders once he reaches the end.

All of that said, the movie rates as one of Indy's best adventures. The movie brings Indy (Harrison Ford, aging quite well) under the scrutiny of both the FBI and Russia's KGB when he inadvertently aids an old pal in the pursuit of the titular and powerful Crystal Skull. Despite his best effort to stick his neck out for no one, Indy gets caught up in the hunt for the famed orb.

(Oh, and Indy's love interest from "Raiders," Marion (Karen Allen}, makes a welcome return. But far be it from me to disclose how she gets woven into the plot.) The movie is set in 1957 and makes vague nods to that era's interests in McCarthyism, UFO's, and psychic power. But all the "Happy Days" blather is eventually ditched in favor of heart-pounding stunts, and in that department, the movie is well up to the level of its predecessors.

The thrills include: an entire fake city that almost gets Indy nuked (the movie's least plausible set-piece); car chases and swordfights that seem homages to exec-producer George Lucas' "Star Wars" series; and the biggest bleepin' colony of killer ants you'll ever see.

Like the famed dancing bear, the truth that a new Indy adventure is no longer novel, is less impressive than the fact that Ford, Lucas, and director Steven Spielberg pulled it off at all. Like its three-quel prequel, "Crystal Skull" is adrenaline-packed fun.
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7/10
With great parody comes great responsibility
29 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
If "Superhero Movie" gives you the same giddy, guilty-pleasure feeling as "Airplane!" and the "Naked Gun" movies, it's no accident. Some of those movies' personnel – who were also involved in two lesser "Scary Movie" sequels – show up here. (Those include writer-director Craig Mazin, who happily has come a long way from 1997's abysmal "Rocketman.")

The movie's title says it all. It's a comedy that takes a well-known hit (in this case, "Spider-Man"), turns it inside out, and uses it as a clothesline for gags. In this parody version, nerdy Rick Riker (amiable Drake Bell of cable-TV's "Drake and Josh") gets bitten by a mutant dragonfly, turning him into...well, take a guess. Meanwhile, a well-meaning scientist (Chris McDonald) turns nasty when his experiment backfires and he finds he must sap others' life-blood in order to keep himself alive.

As is typical of such parodies, the movie's approach is as subtle as a spitball gun. Some of the gags are terrific, and some are groaners. But they're all fired at such a rapid pace that after a while, you have no choice but to give in to the silliness. The characters are like shooting-gallery ducks waiting to have parody lobbied at them. Best of the bunch are Rick's well-meaning but dotty uncle and aunt (delightfully played by Leslie Nielsen and "Happy Days'" Marion Ross). The most pitiable is a take-off on disabled genius Stephen Hawking, who seems to push Mazin's bad-taste button over and over ad nauseum.

This leads me to the movie's most required caveat. While the flick is mostly silly fun, it pushes its "PG-13" rating right up to the edge of the "R" cliff. The movie is larded with sexual gags and profanity abound, and what might possibly be cinema's longest-ever flatulence gag.

But if you can bear up under the cringe factor, "Superhero Movie" is mostly high-powered fun. Nifty comedy here runs neck-and-neck with bad taste. It's a close race, but the comedy wins.

"Superhero Movie" is rated PG-13 for countless sex and drug references, crude humor, and adult language.
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10/10
Priceless!
6 January 2008
What a treat to go to "National Treasure 2" (itself an escapist ecstasy) and find this brand-spanking-new Disney short preceding it. A beautifully done addition to the countless "How to" Disney cartoons in which The Goof starred in his heyday, it shows that a quarter-century after their creation, the Disney cartoon characters still have lifeblood (and adrenaline) in them.

An absolute hoot, the cartoon depicts Goofy jonesing for a full-screen TV to watch football games, and thus entering a Best Buy-like, all-encompassing electronics store. From there, the laughs only come more quickly.

I hope this inspires The Disney Co. to reprise a regular series of cartoon shorts, as the Warner Bros. group briefly did in the 1990's with a too-short but delightful series of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons. If you make 'em, we'll still watch 'em!!
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10/10
Shave and a haircut -- two slits!
16 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I came to "Sweeney Todd" with a clean slate, as it were. I'd never seen any of the previous stage or screen versions, and I'm generally adverse to the archly ironic style of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.

All of that said, I was thoroughly delighted by director Tim Burton's version of the story. As with Burton's best work, it's movie-making at its Grand Guignol finest.

For those even more ignorant of the story than I am, Johnny Depp plays the title role, or should I say evolves into it. Initially, his character is named Benjamin Barker, and he's a happily married father in Victorian London.

But an evil judge named Turpin (Alan Rickman at his oil-slick smoothest) lusts after Barker's wife. So he wrongly sentences Barker to prison, seduces and poisoningly induces Barker's wife, and takes Barker's baby daughter as his "charge," to await the day when she is old enough to marry him.

Fifteen years later, Barker escapes from prison, returns to London, and adopts the persona of barber Sweeney Todd. At first, he intends only upon avenging Turpin. But he soon discovers he has an other-barberly way with a razor. And as it happens, Todd's landlady (Helena Bonham Carter), an unsuccessful baker, could use some fresh ingredients to sell her pies.

Oh, and this is a musical, too -- albeit the bloodiest musical ever, with shot after shot of Todd severing the necks of bourgeois customers whom he feels have it coming.

So why do I heartily recommend such a gruesome holiday offering? For one thing, the script (by John Logan, an avid "Todd" buff) and Burton's elegant direction take the story its bare bones, with vivid characterization and crisp plotting and timing.

Of course, the actors contribute much as well. And every last one of them -- including Sacha Baron Cohen, whose "Borat" business turned me off -- sing and act wonderfully, taking some of the sting off the movie's black-comedy ickiness.

Johnny Depp, again, takes major chances and scores. The feyness of Burton/Depp collaborations such as "Ed Wood" and "Willie Wonka" is gone. In its place is Todd's grisly dark confidence and rationality of his murdering ways -- the ultimate depiction of the maxim "Be careful what you wish for." Its dark themes aside, "Sweeney Todd" is the latest entry in an apparent renaissance of the movie musical -- and justifiably so.

"Sweeney Todd" is rated R for numerous scenes of violence and murder, and themes of cannibalism.
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6/10
Patie du faux paus
25 July 2007
Warning: Spoilers
"No Reservations" is like a puppy begging for your attention. Sometimes it's cute and charming, and other times you just want to push it away.

(Plot summary follows in next three paragraphs - might have spoilers)

The movie has more plot than it knows what to do with, and it's all predictable. It starts with Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a renowned chef at an upscale Manhattan restaurant. The movie's opening scenes take great pains to make us see what a control freak Kate is, to the point that you wish you could slip her a Valium.

It's quickly obvious that the movie's point is to get Kate to slow down and smell the roses. It does this by briefly showing us Kate's single-mom sister and then killing her off in a car accident, leaving behind Kate's niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin), who of course is now lost without her mother.

As if that wasn't enough, the restaurant owner decides to hire another chef, a bon vivant named Nick (Aaron Eckhart), as a partner for Kate. Whereas Kate runs her kitchen by-the-book, Nick plays and sings opera for the kitchen staff while he's cooking. Gee, d'ya think all of this might work upon Kate's reserves and, ya know, lighten her up a little? If ever there was a movie that needed its actors' charm to get the story across, here it is. In particular, Nick is the most hopelessly written character in the film. He's nothing but smiles, songs, and slickness. And you don't believe for a minute that he has anything resembling a real past. His sole point of existence is to remove the bug that is so firmly implanted in Kate's curvy posterior. That Aaron Eckhart sells him to us with seemingly no effort is a tribute to his acting.

Catherine Zeta-Jones' sales job isn't quite so smooth. We're meant to see that Kate is so frosty because she's been hurt a lot in life, but in the end, all we really get is Kate's prickliness -- particularly when the movie's climax brings back Kate's coldness just when we thought it had been safely tucked away.

The movie's lucky charm is Abigail Breslin. Zoe talks smart, but unlike most movies with wisecracking kids, the movie makes you believe it's because Zoe is intelligent and gets right to the heart of things. Breslin was pretty good in the equally contrived "Little Miss Sunshine," but here, she's the 11-year-old motor that keeps things running; without her, the movie's contrivances would be even more threadbare than they are.

There's nothing wrong with a movie that has familiar destinations; the dealmaker is how novel the movie is in getting there. As a "weeper," I mildly recommend "No Reservations" -- but not without reservations.
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Bug (2006)
1/10
Bugged out!
25 May 2007
Warning: Spoilers
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound in this review.) If you want to be in on bad-cinema history, drop whatever you are doing and go see "Bug." It is the greatest movie Ed Wood never made.

And after "Eye of the Beholder" and "Ya-Ya Sisterhood," "Bug" conclusively proves that Ashley Judd seeks out these humiliations in a movie script: gratuitous nudity; heavy emission of bodily liquids from the eyes and nose; and dialogue that turns her character into a total ditz.

Our first clue that this movie is off the beam is that it's set in Oklahoma, yet the phone that we see in constant close-up displays a 904 area code. This is an ominous sight to a Florida moviegoer, but I let it pass at first.

Anyway, Judd plays a lonely bar waitress named Agnes. One night, a friend introduces Agnes to a drifter named Peter (Michael Shannon). At first, Peter strikes Agnes as monosyllabic, but soon the two tentatively open up to each other.

Later, Agnes' nasty ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) shows up and gives the movie some palpable tension -- fooling you into thinking that this might be a rational movie.

But soon, Peter tells Agnes he hasn't made love to a woman in a long while, and Agnes commands, "Come 'ere, boy," like a road-company Blanche DuBois. Later that night, Peter gets a bug bite and has a long conversation with Agnes about bedbugs -- because the surest way to score points with a naked Ashley Judd is to discuss insects.

At one point, Peter deserts Agnes, and we're thinking, "Good for her." Then he returns to tell Agnes how the government has been running bug experiments on him, and Agnes gets the worst case of Stockholm Syndrome ever.

Before long, Peter is using a junior-high microscope (where'd a drifter get that?) to examine stuff that isn't even there, and Agnes is so afraid of losing this wack-job that she starts seeing the stuff too.

From there, the movie derails to a completely bonkers climax, with Shannon making like Christopher Walken, Connick doing Jack Nicholson, and Judd doing...well, bad Ashley Judd.

And every bit of it is fascinating. Because who cares about Peter -- when did Ashley Judd start to unravel so dramatically? By movie's end, you half-expect an usher to come around and solicit contributions for Ashley Judd's fading movie career.
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Spider-Man 3 (2007)
3/10
I cried, too -- at how badly the movie's makers botched it
24 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
(SPOILER ALERT: If you really want the movie to surprise you -- and good luck there -- read only the first paragraph and the final three paragraphs of this review.)

After the glorious heights of "Spider-Man 2" -- probably the best comic-book movie ever -- the franchise succumbs to sequel-itis with the decidedly earthbound "Spider-Man 3." It's rare that a movie's opening credits make you dread what is to come, but this might be No. 3's only triumph. Behind the credits is a montage of highlights from the first two, far superior movies. Sappy "Star Trek 3" did the same thing. It's as if co-writer/director Sam Raimi was saying, "My other movies were great, so cut me some slack for this new one, would you?" Write it again, Sam.

Then we get some aw-shucks narration from Spidey/Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), telling us how he's still in love with M.J. (Kirsten Dunst) and is still thriving in college. Then we're shown what a nerd Parker still is, as some idiotic classmates sit behind him using -- I can't believe I'm writing this -- pea-shooters on Peter. Do today's college students even have time for this kind of stuff? Most telling is what we might call the de-characterization of M.J. I suppose she was always just "the girlfriend in peril" (a la Superman's Lois Lane), but at least it wasn't so drearily obvious in the other movies. The same woman who ended "S2" declaring eternal love for Peter is now a self-centered drip, whining about Peter "not considering her feelings" and other psycho-babble.

The villains are flimsy, too. Peter's buddy-turned-foe Harry (James Franco) is so sketchily written, half the time he can't even remember whether he's Peter's enemy or not. The origins of the Sand Man (Thomas Haden Church) are sloughed off with a movie cliché: He became a crook only to raise money for his sickly daughter's operation (Awww!). And don't even get me started on Peter's job rival Eddie Brock (Topher Graceless, excuse me, Grace).

After that, Raimi tosses other sequels in the air and picks their worst elements off the floor. The villains are so weak on their own, they have to bond to fight Spider-Man (same as in "Batman Forever"). Some alien goo lands on Spidey/Peter and makes him show his darker side ("Superman 3," been there, done that).

The special effects are snazzy, as always, even though Raimi has publicly claimed that he didn't have enough time to get them right. So that means he had time to hone the script and let that slide instead? And finally, a sop to fans of cult actor Bruce Campbell: As in the first two movies, his short but funny role here is probably the movie's comic highlight.

The message that this movie labors to shove down our throats is that each person has a choice and should make it properly. Here's my recommended choice for "Spider-Man 3": Wait for it on HBO.
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Deja Vu (2006)
9/10
It really isn't deja vu all over again
12 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
"Deja Vu" is surely the most ironic title of one of the best movies of the year. The only way in which this movie is formulaic is that it resembles John Travolta's "Blow-Out" (1981), another superb and underrated thriller in which the hero grasps at technology to try and save a woman's life.

Denzel Washington plays yet another cop, but after "Out of Time" and "The Inside Man," what a treat to see him play a *smart* cop. Here he's Doug Carlin, a New Orleans ATF agent called in to help find an assassin-terrorist who set off a bomb that killed hundreds of people on a ferry.

Carlin is put on the case because he has a way of sniffing out relevant details. This turns out to be extremely helpful when the New Orleans police are shown to have technology that can show the whereabouts of anybody, anywhere, three-and-a-half days before a given event.

Carlin has discovered that an innocent and now-dead woman was a pawn in the assassin's plot, so he has the technologists look at her life just prior to her death. The late woman is, of course, too beautiful for words, and we're given long, loving shots in which Carlin beholds her gorgeousness.

At this point, you figure that the movie will be a bargain-rate version of "Laura" in which a slack-jawed cop falls in love with a dead woman. And you wonder why the brilliant techno-geeks are letting this guy use their up-to-the-minute software to pursue some lurid fantasy. And it is at precisely this point that you have gotten it all wrong.

I can't bear to give away any more plot points. Suffice to say, the cop is far smarter than we thought, and so is the movie -- a film with extremely thoughtful ideas, that engages its audience instead of allowing them to be passive viewers. The last movie I can think of that offered so many clever concepts to chew on was "Contact" (and that was ten years ago). "Deja Vu" is worlds removed from that sci-fi gem, yet it has the same sort of plot twists that come out of left field and yet seem wholly plausible when they add up to the bigger picture.

For once, credit goes to everyone. To screenwriters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio for writing such a satisfying convoluted script. To director Tony Scott, who (like his brother Ridley) seems to be making better movies in his later years than he did two decades ago. And to stars Washington, Val Kilmer (his best work in years), and just about everyone else in the sterling cast.

Like most viewers, I put off seeing "Deja Vu" after seeing middling reviews that complained how convoluted its plot is. I think a lot of people have forgotten that you can engage your brain at a movie and still have a great time with it.
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5/10
In its own way, more perverse than Rocky Horror
11 June 2006
I saw this movie on video many years ago, so I confess that my memories of it are a bit vague. Still, I can't help thinking what a sheer act of perversity it was for scenarist/songwriter Richard O'Brien to re-assemble most of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show's" cast, re-use the characters of Brad and Janet (now married) and their hometown setting of Denton, and then not do a sequel to "Rocky Horror." (The big absences here, of course, are Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, here replaced by Cliff DeYoung and Jessica Harper as Brad and Janet, and Tim Curry, who would have had no reprise of his Dr. Frank N. Furter role but was initially intended to be the wacko Farley Flavors.)

The big joke here is that Brad and Janet go on a TV game show and unexpectedly get threatened with lobotomy. Whereas "Rocky Horror" was a delightful send-up of horror-movie conventions and clichés, the intended satire here appears to be of TV game shows, nothing that a typical "Saturday Night Live" sketch couldn't finish off in less than ten minutes. Harper, who was very good in other movies, definitively lacks Sarandon's unusual combination of naivete and sauciness. DeYoung is best remembered for a role in a 1975 TV-movie weeper based on the John Denver song "Sunshine," and has been little heard from since this movie's release. The other actors are good sports for merely showing up.

But again, what was intended by this movie? Its satiric target is too mainstream for a cult movie, and its treatment is too outre for the movie masses. "Shock Treatment" is an interesting failure, perhaps worth viewing once. But it's no surprise that you've never seen any moviegoer coming to your local theater dressed as Farley Flavors on a Friday night at midnight.
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10/10
It's a gem!
1 January 2006
I first saw "A Christmas Caper" in Nov. 2005, when it was a "curtain-opener" for the Wallace & Gromit feature film. Blessings, it arrived a month later on DVD as a supplement to the "Madagascar" video. I've seen it about a half-dozen times with my young son, and it's still a hoot. The premise is that a quartet of penguins act like an Army squadron, headed by their all-knowing (at least HE thinks so) "Skipper," as they rescue "one of their own" when he ventures out of the zoo into the real world to get a Christmas present for a forlorn member of his zoo. The whole cartoon plays as though Wile E. Coyote got every one of his schemes absolutely right for once. If you don't watch to watch "Madagascar" for some reason, play "A Christmas Caper" as a prelude to watching "March of the Penguins" and make it an all-penguins viewing night. "Caper" is a hoot.
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10/10
One of my favorite musicals
26 December 2005
This movie is a riot, not to mention that it practically comes off a feminist statement (two women doing quite well on their own, and on their own terms) in an era that never even heard the term "feminism." Most people will tell you that this is Monroe's movie, and she certainly acquits herself with her "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number. But Russell's no slouch either -- check out "Anyone Here for Love?" (much ballyhooed in recent years for its gay subtext -- how could so much beefcake ignore the busty Russell??) and Russell's courtroom parody of Monroe in which she shakes everything she's got (far sexier than "The French Line," in which she was *supposed* to be a sex bomb). An absolute hoot from start to finish, in no small part due to those "two little (sic) girls from Little Rock."
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The Outlaw (1943)
4/10
No fuss'll help Russell in this flick
26 December 2005
After years of hearing about this movie and my lusting after Russell in far superior movies, I picked up a public-domain VHS tape of this movie many years ago and was severely disappointed. It's hard to believe that any censor could get rankled over this flick -- Russell's publicity shots for the movie are far steamier than anything in the film. Indeed, it seems as though there's more of a, er, relationship between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett than there is between Billy and Russell's character. Critic Pauline Kael correctly critiqued that Russell "slings her bosom around" for most of the movie, very unerotically. Worth a look if you're still curious; then go watch Russell in Bob Hope's "Son of Paleface," a Western where she's far sexier than in her movie debut.
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The Nude Bomb (1980)
5/10
Mostly a plug for the Universal Studios tour
26 December 2005
As another IMDb contributor has noted, it seems very strange that Universal wanted to make a Maxwell Smart movie -- in fact, at the time, there was talk of doing a series of Smart movies a la Inspector Clouseau -- and then went out of its way to remove nearly every element that made "Get Smart!" so funny. Nearly all of Don Adams' supporting cast (esp. Barbara Feldon and Edward "Chief" Platt) are absent here, as are rivalling spy agencies CONTROL and KAOS, as well as *any* of the show's writers or producers. Happily (with the exception of the deceased Platt), they'd all get it right nine years later, for the TV-reunion-movie "Get Smart, Again!" Indeed, as of this writing, that movie is the only "Get Smart" item available on DVD; better that than "The Nude Bomb," at least.
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Not candid enough
10 September 2005
I have not seen this movie, but I was surfing the IMDb and came across this entry. Anybody in the know about this particular event will find great irony in the title, in that this short subject didn't begin to cover the debauchery that occurred at this convention. The July 2003 issue of Vanity Fair magazine has a *truly* candid (and sordid) account of the chaos that took place at this party, including the rape of one woman who was forced to remain mum about it for over 60 years after Hal Roach covered up the incident at the behest of powerful MGM head Louis B. Mayer. A subject for further research (and a potentially powerful film) if ever there was one.
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10/10
A great symphony of a comedy
23 July 2005
Though he directed a few more movies over the years, Unfaithfully Yours was the last great hurrah from one of Hollywood's greatest comedy writer-directors, Preston Sturges. But Lawdy, what a way to go out.

The movie stars Rex Harrison in what might be seen as a kinder, gentler cousin of his egomaniacal diction professor in My Fair Lady (1964). Here, Harrison is Sir Alfred de Carter, a world-renowned symphony conductor who is still astoundingly infatuated with the woman he refers to as his "bride," Daphne (charming Linda Darnell). The movie never declares how long or short of a time the Carters have been married, but judging from their passion level, one would guess they're still in the honeymooning stage.

(The far more down-to-earth married couple, Alfred's in-laws August and Barbara, are portrayed wonderfully by Rudy Vallee and Barbara Lawrence. Barbara gets all the great barbs off against her husband, who is only to happy to show his ignorance of them.)

One day, August accosts Alfred with the unfortunate news that he paid a detective to tail Daphne while Alfred was out of town. Alfred is so convinced of his wife's fidelity that his reaction starts at outrage and goes haywire from there. Little by little, though, Alfred is given reason to think that Daphne might have needed some spying-on after all. At his concert that evening, Alfred conducts three pieces by Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, and with each piece, Alfred imagines the stylish revenge he will extract upon Daphne for her presumed cheating.

From this sober-sounding scenario, Sturges--as he always did--goes all over the place, from sparkling dialogue to skittering slapstick to rich drenches of sentiment. And the melange has never worked better than it does here. Just for kicks, take three of the movie's set-pieces: Alfred's achingly funny dressing-down of August for siccing a detective on Daphne, the first fantasy where Alfred hatches an elaborate murder scheme, and Alfred's drunken attempt to carry out the scheme. Three scenes of complete different tones, and they all plausibly fit into the same movie. Now try to imagine any modern-day comedy-maker whose work would display the wit of any of those scenes.

The Criterion Collection DVD of the movie does it full justice. It includes a seemingly irrelevant but nonetheless enjoyable critique of Sturges' work from Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones. And an interview with Sturges' widow Sandy, as well as copies of voluminous memoes to Sturges from uncredited producer Darryl Zanuck, demonstrate why the movie was initially a colossal box-office failure. Zanuck hounded Sturges to the point that the gifted creator of (to name but two) The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek began doubting himself as a writer, resulting in the final humiliation of Zanuck cutting the film on his own. Then a timely scandal involving Rex Harrison forever killed the box-office chances of a black comedy starring Harrison as an ostensible woman-murderer.

Happily, Unfaithfully Yours, like Chaplin's similarly dark Monsieur Verdoux, survived its prudish times and has become renowned as a great movie. Alfred's take on Delius might be delirious (as professed by one of his fans, played by the great Sturges alumnus Edgar Kennedy)...but Sturges himself remains stupendous.
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8/10
Tell your children...about this campy comedy
19 April 2005
"Reefer Madness" (Showtime, 4/24/05, 8 p.m.) is a heady, sweaty mix of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Little Shop of Horrors," and Monty Python that should be eagerly devoured by fans of outrageous black comedy and be energetically avoided by everyone else.

For those unfamiliar with the original, "Reefer Madness" began life as a 1936 propaganda movie produced by '30s anti-drug czar Harry Anslinger (who lovingly has a high school named after him in the new version). The movie told an eerie tale about the evils of marijuana that was entirely based on nonfactual theories--chief among them that marijuana would lead its users to immorality, insanity, and jazz piano.

The new, musical (!) version is an obvious take-off on the original's hysteria. A smug narrator (played with perfect pitch by Alan Manning) lectures a group of naive parents about the devil's weed. This segues into a movie-within-the-movie about Jimmy, a naive high schooler led down the primrose road by slick drug dealer Jack (Steven Weber) and his reluctant accomplice Mae ("SNL" vet Ana Gasteyer), who have nothing better to do than drag cute high school kids down the road to ruin.

Critics have already noted that the '36 movie is too easy a target for satire, but that doesn't stop writers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney from gleaning huge laughs from cultural naivete. Novices will be surprised to find that much of the new movie's most eye-rolling dialogue comes from the '36 original.

And the cast has a ball with the concept. Ana Gasteyer is far too tall and formidable to be playing a slapped-around dame, but she's still a riot (with a surprisingly good singing voice). Cumming chews the scenery with the grand fervor of someone with the munchies. I could go on forever, but suffice to say, there's not a bum note in the whole cast.

Be forewarned that this is comedy at its blackest. The gore gets laid on a little thick, there's a blasphemous musical number (shades of Monty Python's "Christmas in Heaven") that won't do liberals any favors, and the finale tries for social commentary after one-and-three-fourth-hours of campy fun.

But "Reefer Madness" gives a hilarious nose-thumbing to those who are all too willing to let jingoists do their thinking for them. It's an absolute hoot.

"Reefer Madness" is unrated but would probably earn a PG-13 or R for brief nudity, sexual situations, and stylized violence and gore.
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Absorbent and yellow and porous is...wait, that's the script
13 November 2004
Warning: Spoilers
He's a slippery slope, this SpongeBob SquarePants.

The appeal of a cartoon, Jerry Lewis-like talking sponge has always been lost on me, and it continues to elude me with "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." Yet people around me were laughing as though it was the funniest thing since cardboard pants. (Pardon me, that's one of the movie's excuses for a sight gag.) As with the TV show, the movie's setting is Bikini Bottom, the undersea town where S.B. and his cohorts live. Without giving away too much plot (which is meager enough as it is), the story involves The Krusty Krab, famed for its "Krabby Pattie" sandwich and its employment of S.B.; a villainous plankton who wants to steal the "Krabby Pattie" secret recipe and its resulting profits; and an undersea king (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor) who has had his crown stolen, leaving him as helpless as Samson was after his enforced haircut.

And as with the TV version, the movie's gag construction consists of taking a joke that might work as a throwaway and stretching it far beyond its due. The idea, I guess, is not that the gag itself is funny, so much as the fact that the moviemakers are beating you over the head with it to make you laugh. As Mel Brooks' movie career can show you, this sort of comedy eventually suffers from the law of diminishing returns.

And the movie even does its own twist on a movie cliché. One of critic Roger Ebert's pet peeves is "The Fallacy of the Talking Villain." That's the cliché where the bad guy has the good guy by the short hairs and could easily do him in, except that he brags endlessly about himself and gives the good guy time to escape.

This movie's climax (spoiler alert here) creates "The Fallacy of the Talking Hero," where the bad guy could easily do in SpongeBob, except that the bad guy is so hypnotized by S.B.'s brainless chatter that it gives S.B. a chance to save the day.

In the end, the movie is what it is. If you like the TV show, you'll love the flick. If you're a parent who's never seen the show and gets dragged to the movie by your kid...well, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.

"The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" is rated PG for mild crude humor.
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