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Midsomer Murders: Echoes of the Dead
Episode 3, Season 14

The worst MIDSOMER so far?
This episode is nearly a total failure. The murderer is obvious the moment we see him; he has otherwise no place in the story whatsoever. His motivations are ridiculous-- unconvincing and almost silly. When the two women closest to the main female character have been murdered, wouldn't the police have at least offered her some protection? But noooo.".. Not only are there no clues planted fairly to allow a sharp- eyed viewer at least the possibility of deducing whodunit, but NOBODY solves the mystery. The killer is caught because of an improbably civic-minded peeping Tom. Barnaby and Jones might as well have stayed home. These problems are not the fault of the cast, but of the writers and the producers.

River of No Return

Not so much a review as a question
So who sings the song behind the titles? No one is credited on screen. The producer paid Tennessee Ernie Ford to record the song, and he did include it on some of his albums. But to me, the singer seems to be Robert Mitchum himself. I'm very familiar with Ernie Ford--a big favorite of mine, in fact--and the voice simply does not sound like Ford's. But it does sound like Mitchum, who took stabs at singing several times in his life, recorded at least two full albums (one all calypso!) Did he make a side deal with Ernie Ford and the orchestra, and record the song for this movie? The producer still claims it was Ford, but it sure doesn't SOUND like him.

40 Guns to Apache Pass

Bland, uncaring Western with one great performance
Audie Murphy plays a tough, by-the-book Cavalry officer in Apache territory who's hard on his men. He's sent to pick up 40 automatic rifles and bring them back to the fort, but he runs into difficulties (of course). This is one of those very routine minor movies that Murphy kept turning up in after the end of his Universal contract. The "fort" is a one-rail corral; the soldiers are colorless, minor character actors--with one exception (see below). Distances shrink and enlarge at the whim of the plot (sometimes the action takes place a couple of days from the fort, then it's an hour's ride). The locations are overly familiar--a couple of day's shooting in Red Rock Canyon, a couple of days probably in the Owens Valley, and a couple more in rolling California hills. But--and it's a big one--Bodine, the antagonist, is played by the reliable Kenneth Tobey. As always, he gives it his all--turning this minor role into a distinct, peculiarly likable heavy. He's wry, vindictive, amusing, and--unusually for a Western where most of the good guys are former Confederates (unless the name "Quantrill" is evoked)--he fought for the South, but he's a bad guy.

The Day Lincoln Was Shot

One of the best Lincoln movies, one of the best Lincolns
I bought this from Warner Archive without remembering that it ever existed. I was somewhat surprised that I hadn't previously thought of Henriksen as a potential Lincoln, but he really does look more like the President than any other actor I've seen in the role, including Royal Dano. The makeup is excellent, but Henriksen's face is already 2/3 of the way there. He's a greatly underrated actor; he approaches all his roles with dedication, focus and intelligent; the same is true here. In the header I said he's one of the best Lincolns; actually, he may be >the< best, rivaled only by Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey. But everything about this understated, well-researched movie is outstanding; I was surprised and pleased by how good it is.


This should be out on DVD
The producers of this show originally wanted Andy Griffith, but instead made the very interesting choice of Jimmy Stewart. )We all know what Griffith did end up doing.) Stewart is one of the greatest movie stars ever; very few on his level ever ended up the star of a TV series, much less two. I'm not asking for the Stewart sitcom; I am asking for HAWKINS. The interplay between him and resolutely colorful Strother Martin was funny, the mysteries were satisfying, Stewart was just fine. Mystery series do well on DVD; Stewart movies do well on DVD. This would seem an obvious choice--but to whom do we complain? Does MGM (and probably therefor Warners) own the video rights, or does CBS?


Half good, half rotten
The first half of this movie is well-researched and well-written, with the most realistic depiction of Doc Holliday ever filmed. And some of the performances, particularly those of Val Kilmer and Powers Boothe, are outstanding. But after the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the movie goes off a dramatic cliff. Earp's vengeance ride lasted only three weeks, and only a few people were killed; in this movie, it implies Wyatt's vengeance stretched on for months. The movie becomes ludicrously overstated with scenes as hammy as in any 1930s's B Western, such as Wyatt staggering through a lighting-laced thunderstorm, his brother's blood on his hands, moaning "Morgan!" Or his silly, uncharacteristic question to Doc late in the film about what makes a man like Johnny Ringo do the bad things he does. A great opportunity for a movie that could have been both historically accurate and entertaining as a film was badly blown, beginning well but destroying itself the longer it goes on.

Poirot: The Mystery of the Blue Train
Episode 1, Season 10

Good script, wretched direction
It's easy to tell this latter-day batch of Poirot adventures are not being made by the production company that turned out the hour-long episodes and the first group of feature-length TV movies with David Suchet. Not only are Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon gone (along with the fine actors who played them), but so is Poirot's Arte Moderne apartment building--and any reasonable sense of time and place. These were virtues; they are sorely missed.

"Mystery of the Blue Train" has a pretty good Poirot plot with some colorful supporting players and a few effective performances, but it is so badly directed--no, ATROCIOUSLY directed--as to be a headache-inducing pain to watch. There are no establishing shots of buildings, no wide shots of ballrooms and the like, and there are dozens upon dozens of off-center closeups. Furthermore, many of the closeups are hand-held, an extremely poor choice of technique for a story set in the 1930s. The director also resorts to the very tired effects of an extraordinarily unimaginative mind: virtually every set, including some exteriors, is drenched in thick, almost impenetrable smoke. This is usually "explained" by having one or more of the characters puffing away on cigarettes--so obtrusively (including many crushed out under foot) that you begin to assume that cigarette smoking has something important to do with the plot. Especially early in the film, the director grotesquely overuses shots in or of mirrors--again so frequently that it seems that it must have an important plot explanation. In the last half, set on the Riviera, there are fewer mirror shots, but now she chooses to have blurry objects in the foreground in many, many shots. At other times, we glimpse characters in the middle distance, almost hidden by objects in the near foreground. Finally, most of this stuff--hard to see, hard to follow--is reduced further in simple watchability by being edited like a rock video. I wouldn't blame anyone who, first coming to a Suchet Poirot story with this one, swearing off ever watching another.

But ultimately, Poirot and Agatha Christie win out. Even though the gathering-of-the-suspects scene is again jaggedly edited, full of thick, opaque smoke and hampered by an overuse of extreme closeups, the story wins out over the director--who I hope never, EVER again is invited to direct an Hercule Poirot mystery.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Remarkable movie about a warm-hearted man
For a number of reasons, there are flocks of parrots in several cities around the USA; these are not native birds, but imports from the tropics. Sometimes people complain about their raucous, noisy behavior, but usually onlookers are charmed by the colorful, intelligent birds.

Even San Francisco has a few of these flocks, one centering on Telegraph Hill. Mark Bittner, a jobless but not irresponsible man living for several years on the Hill became curious about the parrots--mostly cherry-topped conures--and eventually befriended them, spending much of his time feeding the chipper, clever birds.

This movie is really about the man, not the birds, and shows how and why he became so attached to them. Bittner is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and sometimes engages in persuasive self-examination. He talks about particular birds, describing their distinctive traits, and the director uses footage that depicts these traits, winning and otherwise.

It's an oddly fascinating movie, respectful and warm toward the birds and their caretaker--and gradually turns into something even more extraordinary: a love letter to an unusual man. This is very highly recommended.

The Hollow

Hollow is the right word
This dreary, dull and badly-acted trifle trashes Washington Irving and his classic story. To begin with, the entire premise is that the original story is a HORROR story. It's nothing of the sort; it's a pleasant, funny "folk tale" that has a brief scary section.

The movie goes wrong so many ways it's a waste of time to list them all. But a short list would include that it's not remotely scary. It bears little resemblance to Washington Irving, though his name (and gravestone) are mentioned a lot. It takes forever to get going, and when it does, too much happens off screen. This is supposed to be New York in the fall, but all the trees are completely green, and most are evergreens, not the deciduous trees common around the real Sleepy Hollow. The lead actors are all very bad except for Stacy Keach and Judge Reinhold; it's interesting now to see Reinhold, who used to play geeky youths, is now playing the father of a geeky youth. But this geeky youth is drop-dead handsome, resembling Tom Welling. (Gee, do you think that was an accident?)

Finally, the headless horseman has a head.

Village of the Damned

Not merely bad, but terrible
John Carpenter has made more bad movies than he's made good, but this would be a leading candidate for his very worst. Despite excellent photography and use of color on misty California coastal locations, despite a very good performance by Christopher Reeve, this reeks.

The script by David Himmelstein (etc.) repeats some of the main story points of the first film; every change from the original is not just a mistake, but a catastrophe, other than the shift to an American locale. First, we never know the origin of the children; a whispering shadow passes over Reeve at the beginning of the film, but that is, shall we say, less than illuminating regarding the origin of the children.

In the original, the children develop in the womb much faster than normal, and continue this accelerated aging after birth. No mention is made of this in Carpenter's version. In the original, it's clearly and explicitly demonstrated that the children have a shared mind--here we're simply told they do--there's very little evidence for this and some AGAINST this idea, as with David, the "good" kid among the Midwich children. (Speaking of children, although we're shown that the town has lots of regular kids, once the "dayout" children are born, we never see a single normal child again.)

Kirstie Alley is awful, but it's not entirely her fault; her part is all over the place, at first a scheming villain who later becomes semi-sympathetic. Just what she's doing in the story is never made clear. Nor is much of anything else. Thee were lots more women who could become pregnant in the opening scene than who eventually give birth. Bringing in a government representative serves the dopey function of suggesting a conspiracy without actually having to depict it. Killing Reeve's wife early on reduces his connection with the children, but there he is, still in the story.

This is a misbegotten mess.

L'amante del vampiro

Tired, routine story but exceptional photography
The plot is so routine it plays more like a late entry in the Eurohorror period of the 1960s than like the early entry it is. Clearly, few involved in the film took any serious care with the material, even throwing in some rather herky-jerky musical numbers, far from ballet. But the photography by Angelo Baistrocchi is both crisp and moody, attractively using the weathered castle locations.

Clearly influenced by (HORROR OF) Dracula, still it's more in the Italian mode than Hammer horror. But it's weakened by mostly uninteresting characters and a lot of running about, often near a rocky stream. Still, the weird relationship between the two vampires is unusual: she's a contessa, he's her servant, but he made her a vampire--so as humans, she dominates him, while as vampires, he dominates her. This leads to an intense love-hate relationship climaxed by them turning on each other at the climax--while still loving one another.

Crossfire Trail

Decent TV Western too short on originality
Though it's well-photographed on attractive locations and features an above-average cast, the story is tired and familiar, and the climactic shootout downright silly. A herd of cattle in the middle of a small town (with no railroad--so why are the cattle in town at all?) wanders about in the middle of a blazing gunfight without so much as a horn being nicked. Bullets slam into the swinging doors of a saloon--we see splinters fly--without moving them a micrometer.

But Selleck always comes across well in Westerns, especially when directed by Simon Wincer. The supporting cast do well, especially Mark Harmon as one of the nastiest small town bosses since Leslie Nielsen went goofy. But there isn't an original idea in the film; some ideas, such as conflict with Indians, are raised but then ignored.

Port of Hell

Surprisingly effective low-budget suspense thriller
This little-known movie is good enough that it deserves to be better known. While no world-beater, it's certainly a lot better than other comments here suggest. It's well-acted, the story has an interesting premise, and it does build (albeit slowly) a good head of suspense by the end. Part of this is by the use of an odd whine or wail on the soundtrack during the scenes following the revelation that there is a bomb aboard the ship in question.

It's also helped by extensive location shooting in the San Pedro area; in fact, it appears that every frame of the film was shot on location.

Wayne Morris, who's often somewhat lacking, is very good here as a tough but intelligent tug boat captain.

The Greed of William Hart

Cheap, tattered disappointment, unworthy of Slaughter
Knowing that this movie is Tod Slaughter's take on the tale of Burke and Hare promises a great deal more than this tawdry, cheap little bore could possibly deliver. It's shot on cramped, ugly sets, the story moves in fits and starts, it's endlessly talky and never gives Slaughter a chance to cut loose in his grand style. The movies he made in the 1930s are all entertaining and, for the tolerant, enjoyable and watchable even today. But if you like those, you can safely skip this one. Slaughter is given few chances to emote in his gloriously florid style; instead, he's handed reams of dull lines to read, as is everyone else. He has a few moments, but not many; more are provided by Aubrey Woods as Jamie with the barrow.

Bad Boys II

The first BAD BOYS was an okay comedy/action thriller, but there was nothing about it, including its profits, that demanded a sequel. Nonetheless.... This leaden mess is embarrassing; every gag is oversold, the two leads clearly regard themselves as brilliant performers; the story is slapdash and aimless; the action scenes wildly out of proportion. And yet it's so LONG. More than anything else, it resembles one of those "movies" made out of condensed serials. Just enough plot to get by on, with the real deal being all the gigantic action scenes. It's good that Smith and Lawrence really enjoyed themselves; somebody had to have something like a good time out of this waste of film and talent.


Surprisingly good
Seymour Nebenzal didn't have an especially illustrious career as a producer, either in Europe or the United States. Two of his American movies, in fact, SIREN OF ATLANTIS and this one, were remakes of movies he had produced in Europe. But in this case, he hired the right director.

Was it the growing Blacklist that resulted in this movie having no writing credits on screen? Perhaps, but also perhaps not, as the soon-to-be-blacklisted Howard da Silva and Joseph Losey both use their own names.

Losey and his team make excellent use of numerous Los Angeles locations, including Angel's Flight, Bunker Hill, the Bradbury Building (which is identified by name and location) and what seems to be that old amusement park in Long Beach, although what's seen here could be Venice.

David Wayne is fine as the disturbed child killer, and delivers the required final act speech very well. But he doesn't have the power and poetry of Lorre's performance--but then who in Hollywood in 1951 would have? The movie still has some of the comedy of Lang's original, but it's not as dry and sardonic, and there isn't as much of it. The score isn't good, and shoves the movie even more firmly in the direction of the melodrama it keeps threatening to become.

The very last shot is oddly theatrical in a literal sense: it looks like it is being performed on a stage. And I'm not sure what the point of the drunken lawyer trying to grasp a bit of his former glory really was. However, this element merely weakens the film, it doesn't destroy it.

No, this isn't as good as Lang's original, but Lang's original is perhaps the best film of a great director. It's a classic in almost every regard. This version of "M" is an interesting and largely successful attempt at adapting the themes and ideas of the original to Los Angeles, and to 1950s Hollywood. Naturally there are some weaknesses, but the movie is brisk and engrossing, and certainly doesn't deserve the obscurity into which it has fallen.

Some condemn the film merely for being a remake, but remakes have always been a large part of movie history. There's little reason to object to them, especially now that the original films tend to be available on video. (In the 1930s-50s, originals were generally withdrawn.) If the remake is good, then hooray, there are now two good movies on the subject. If it's bad, then the remake will soon be forgotten.

The Dick Van Dyke Show

My vote for the best sitcom of all time
I've been buying the season-by-season DVD sets as they come out; my wife and I have been watching them with great enjoyment. It's very interesting to see how the show and characters develop, how Laura changes from a more-or-less standard sitcom wife into a very distinctive personality.

Dick Van Dyke is one of the greatest comedy performers ever; I think he's up there with the great silent clowns--but really, only on this series. I mean, has anyone seen SOME KIND OF NUT or, say, FITZWILLY lately? He must have been the target of some awful career advice. But at least this show exists to show his incredible physical abilities, his perfect timing, his genial personality and so forth. Bless the hearts of whoever decided to put this show out on DVD.

One reason I think this is superior even to, say,THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW is that none of the regulars on DICK VAN DYKE were created as Comedy Characters--all are essentially realistic rather than clownish types like Ted Baxter on MTMS. That's a great series, too, but I have to give DICK VAN DYKE the edge.

The Dark Backward

Catastrophic would-be "cult" film -- one of worst ever
This movie has no heart and no soul; it's an attempt to whomp up a cult film out of the leavings of other, better, directors, principally David Lynch and Tim Burton. Rifkin seems to think that if he overloads on a kind of rotted visual style and fills the street with crud and garbage, he's making a statement. But it's not a statement ABOUT anything -- except the director's shrill shriek of "HEY LOOK AT ME! I'M AN ARTIST, TOO." But he doesn't have the imagination of an artist, just a good memory for things that worked -- such as some of the actors trapped in this -- for other directors. All of this would be almost acceptable if this movie was not a turgid, boring chore to sit through.


One of the rare remakes that's superior to the original
New Line had only six weeks to promote this film -- according to the outstanding documentary on the DVD -- and blew it anyway. They were targeting teenage boys when they should have been targeting older people and teenage >girls<.

Glen Morgan directs in a very interesting stylized fashion almost as eccentric as David Lynch or Tim Burton, and Crispin Glover gives a knockout performance in the title role. It's a dark, twisted story, just as it should be; the original WILLARD lightened up the very strange novel, but this one takes several big steps in the direction of the novel. (Not so far as to have Willard Styles wear a rat mask, though.)

The movie does have some awkward elements; the pacing is a bit off, probably because the structure is askew a bit, but overall, it's a fascinating, creepy movie, very well made with fine performances. And either the original ending or the reshot one would have satisfied me.

Behave Yourself!

Awesome disaster
A terrific supporting cast, plus Shelley Winters could and should have resulted in an outstanding, fast-paced comedy. But Farley Granger can't play comedy -- at least he can't here. George Beck's script is too busy, but that could have been dealt with by an able comedy director. However, Beck himself directed, and that's the element that sinks this mess completely. Everyone screams and overacts; even skilled muggers like William Demarest go off the deep end. It's almost painful to watch.

The Twonky

Dreary, smirky disaster
Henry Kuttner's short story was terrific, and could have made for a very good movie -- but not as in the hands of Arch Oboler. He overstates everything, drags out the compact story, and insists on inserting a MESSAGE into a story that doesn't require one. It's a shame that the great Hans Conried's only solo starring movie is one as bad as this.

Incidentally, this film is a prime example of why the IMDb rating system is faulty. It's inconceivable that 25 people would consider this trifle to be one of the greatest movies ever made -- but that's how they voted. 25 people gave this a 10. What a foolish thing to do.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Definitely the runt of the litter
After fussing around for too long, this script was slapped together out of material left over from RAIDERS (namely the rubber-raft escape from the plane, and the mine-train chase at the end). The entire middle section of the movie is annoying, especially cheap, dated jokes about the "weird food" people who are not like us eat, and the reliance on the Thuggee cult. But the weaknesses extend beyond that, too. Unlike in the first and third, Indy doesn't have a true quest that stems from his knowledge and love of archaeology. He almost literally stumbles across a village who needs a sacred stone returned, and so he obligingly goes and gets it. The action scenes are excellent, and the scope and scale of the movie are impressive, but overall it just doesn't work.

Point of Origin

A seriously missed opportunity
This confused and confusing movie tries to be based both on the real case of the worst serial arsonist in California history, and on a book by John Orr, a former arson investigator for the city of Glendale.

The script is clumsy and ill-formed, and plays a foolish trick on the audience regarding two of the characters, the arsonist and John Orr. Nothing is gained by this particular trick; in fact, a great deal of possible audience involvement is completely sacrificed.

The real case is depicted with some accuracy, but also some pointless fiction is inserted, and a potentially fascinating story is badly undercut.

The director is ordinarily a superlative cinematographer, and there's some good cinematography here, too. But there's also a great deal of silly camera trickery -- there's even a shot looking upward at two people (one a very minor character) from >under the foot< of one of them. The fire scenes are deeply unconvincing, and needn't have been.

One odd touch: two of the real-life arson investigators are depicted in the film, and one of them plays the OTHER one. And the other one also appears. Very complex and almost funny.

Bad Boy

Dreary as comedy, more successful as drama
Most of this movie is a would-be sex comedy, but it's rarely even remotely funny. The characters are unappealing, the situation is hard to accept, and the plot works itself out mechanically, with few details of any interest.

But surprisingly, near the end it unexpectedly swerves into more serious material, and is far more successful. The actual ending is unexpected and even touching. Maybe trying to make this as a comedy was a mistake.

Zig Zag

Utterly rotten, misbegotten ending ruins a promising movie
The premise is familiar -- guy learns he's going to die, tries to find a way to leave his family provided for -- but it's presented in an interesting manner here, with Kennedy an appealing if unlikely lead. All goes well until the ending, which is so outrageously wrong for the movie that it completely sinks the film. A surprise ending is generally something many thrillers try for, but it has to be a surprise ending that satisfies the audience on some level, not one that throws the whole story back in their faces.

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