funkyfry

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Reviews

Brigham Young
(1940)

A major boondoggle
Well, this is the first film I've reviewed since the IMDb removed the message boards. I might have just gone to the CFB and ranted over there for a while about all the film's negatives.... if you think I'm being too critical here, you know who to blame. There's now no space for discussion, and I just can give you my initial reactions.

First of all, Dean Jagger is the worst possible casting choice to play Brigham Young. He has the sincerity -- too much of it -- but that's about it. I was affected viscerally, not so much by my distaste for Mormonism in general but just the way that he gave endless speeches that are all self-righteous and very flat. Jagger is earnest, and that's about his whole range of emotions. It's as if they had hired Alan Thicke to play Alexander the Great. Dean Jagger belongs as a frustrated dad on a sitcom, not as a religious visionary in an epic historical film. It sinks any possibility the film might have had.

Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell aren't given much of anything to work with either, and their sections of the film often slow the proceedings down even more than Jagger's endless speeches (there's a bonus feature showing a still from yet *another* Jagger speech, so Zanuck must have realized he had too much of a "good" thing on the editing table). John Carradine seems like he walked out of another movie, and he cuts a truly dashing figure with long braided hair, pulling his pistols out in the courtroom. But even his character is a disappointment since it feels like he's built up for an action scene that never happens.

I don't usually spend a lot of time criticizing a film for historical inaccuracy, but since what we're talking about here is a film that is essentially functioning as propaganda for the Church of LDS, I think that it would be irresponsible to let them get away with so many outright lies about Young. The film glosses over the issue of his multiple wives, only referring obliquely and only in the very last portions of the movie allowing any wives other than Mary Astor to be shown. There's even a few scenes, the one with Power and Carradine riding and joking about having 40,000 grandchildren (Carradine says, "I'm gonna do my part for the population" hardy harr harr), and another scene where Jagger's Young makes an analogy of women to having a huge chunk of tobacco -- is it too much for me to chew? These are terrible, offensive scenes that try to downplay and normalize the Mormons' awful patriarchy (women weren't allowed to marry 40 men, let's put it that way).

Just as offensive is the way that the film tries to gloss over the violent relationship between Brigham Young, his Mormons, and the Native American inhabitants who he displaced and often murdered when he settled Utah. In the film, Young refers to the Great Basin Valley as a place "nobody would want to live" (actually many Native people were displaced when they moved there), and the film also shows a group of Native Americans welcoming the Mormons, and Brigham Young comparing himself as a refugee to the flight of Native Americans. This puts Young on the side of the victims, against the colonizers, when in fact he was a colonizer himself and a hardcore white supremacist.

But the fact is, the movie stinks either way. The director, Henry Hathaway, has shot so much coverage that the film lacks any focus from that standpoint, and the whole thing just drags and drags on. The only parts of the movie that really have any punch are the very beginning with the mobs raiding the Mormon settlers, and the ending with the cricket swarm. The whole thing is basically, Cecil B. DeMille-lite. If it was a DeMille movie, at least it would have some internal movement. But this is a lot of dead weight hung around the skeleton of an epic.

oh yeah one more complaint -- definitely not enough Vincent Price in this movie! Why didn't they cast Price as Brigham Young? Jagger is just exceptionally awful.

The Emerald Forest
(1985)

Senstional jungle epic by Boorman falls flat
When this movie first came out, I was a kid, and to me it was pretty interesting and eye-opening. Certainly compared to doing homework and my paper route in the suburbs, this kid was pretty lucky to get kidnapped by "indians". He got to hang out and swim with naked girls, hunt animals, and fight. There's definitely some wish fulfillment and some fantasy in the film, which presents itself as a sort of "heart of darkness" tale of the encounter between civilization and nature.

That's a good starting point, perhaps, for the problems with the film. We have basically 2 tribes, and one of them likes to take lots of drugs and have lots of sex, while the other one is brutal and cannibalistic. This neatly ties the 2 dominant ways that white colonists tend to look at indigenous cultures into a concrete dichotomy: the noble savage vs. the cannibal savage. Also interestingly, the film shows the father figure (Powers Boothe) as a would-be white savior, but his attempts to blow up the dam with dynamite are preempted by the magic of the noble tribesmen. Regardless of the political appeal of this conclusion, the film doesn't really offer any kind of answers for what is to be done to save the rain forests or the indigenous peoples or, more importantly, to help them save themselves by any means other than frogs and magic. It's just, like "Medicine Man" and other films of this type, using the "jungle" and its inhabitants as a means of drawing the audience in and giving us a fantasy version of indigenous life.

The cast in the film is notably poor, especially Boorman's son Charley, who plays the kidnapped boy as an adolescent. To be fair, the script demands an awful lot of Charley Boorman, but he can't really deliver much of it. Meg Foster barely registers, and the film in general has a very paternalistic and patriarchal tone, almost totally concerned with the relationship between men who are fathers and sons.

If, like me, you have fond memories of this one from your childhood, perhaps it's best to just leave them there. The film is very well- photographed, but all the scenes with "wild" animals look like somebody put the animals right there to be photographed. It suffers very greatly compared to, say, Herzog's films like "Fitzcarraldo" where instead of inserting tropical animals just to provide some momentary visual interest, the jungle even in its dangers is allowed to become "normal." We feel as if the tribes in Boorman's film live within a vacation destination or a zoo.

It's also well-directed, but in the sensational way that Boorman seems to only know how. If you look at some of Boorman's other films, like "Zardoz" and "Excalibur", you'll see that he sort of lets actors do whatever they want, resulting in the more experienced actors totally dominating all the film's energy (arguably, in "Excalibur", that's part of the design of the film). Here, we have no real actors. While Boothe has a nice low-key demeanor, that only makes it more ridiculous when he grabs a machine gun and starts killing the "bad" natives like he was your average 80s action hero.

It's somewhat of an admirable effort, considering how many other films you could see in the 80s that didn't offer the sort of escapist adventure, nor any of the message of this film -- however, it's deeply and intrinsically flawed and does not make up for in drama what it lacks in realism.

The Arrangement
(1969)

Style over substance
I had a strange feeling, as I watched Kirk Douglas speeding down the highways of L.A. to his own "Zephyr" cigarette ads, that I was watching a movie I had already seen -- even though I've never heard of "the Arrangement" until I found the video last week at the library. The premise of the movie is so familiar as to lead one to speculate that it is, in itself, an ironic reflection on the banal. Douglas plays a middle-aged advertising executive having a midlife crisis, trying to kill himself, saying and doing "crazy" things, having a lot of sex with Faye Dunaway's character, and way too many prolonged bedroom arguments with his wife, played by Deborah Kerr.

Even though the story is dull, it's a somewhat gripping movie because it's so stylish, and because Dunaway and Douglas at least put in some pretty compelling performances. Sometimes I think that they were being too aggressive with the editing. It reminded me of Sergio Leone or something, which isn't necessarily an insult, but this movie didn't have enough action to justify all the cross- cutting. A lot of it just feels manipulative, and kind of cheap, like the scene where he uses editing to "switch" Dunaway with Kerr.

It's also an uneven narrative, because the whole second half of the movie ends up having to do with Douglas' relationship with his father (Richard Boone), who doesn't even show up in the first half. Kerr's stuck in a pretty thankless role ultimately, too.

It's a movie that shouldn't be as good as it is. I don't think I would want to read the novel, but once he got out there on the set with the actors Kazan made a decent film out of it. Boone's performance is particularly surprising, to me anyway.

But it's not a good movie, overall. Kirk Douglas has been on the same terrain too many times. I thought "Two Weeks in Another Town" was a much more compelling film, from about a decade earlier. And we've seen the rapacious and soul-less side of Douglas too, before, in "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Champion" and other films. What's interesting about the film is Dunaway's character, and how she breaks down his persona. I would have enjoyed the film more if it wasn't so hung up on making Douglas the "good guy." We've seen that enough times too.

The FBI Story
(1959)

Slick propaganda with Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart is artificially aged and then made young again in this ambitious propaganda film from director Mervyn LeRoy and Warner Bros. studios. The story covers a 35 year period of time, and the FBI action scenes are interspersed with an improbable domestic melodrama involving Vera Miles as the long-suffering wife. Interesting that 2 of Hitchcock's favorite actors show up here, and there are also some intriguing small performances from people like Nick Adams (as a man who blows up a jetliner to collect insurance money on his mother!).

I didn't think there was enough glue to hold all the parts together. Actually it bored me enough that I had to watch it in two sittings, which is unusual for me. At least one of the reviews here says that people are being distracted by their dislike of J. Edgar Hoover (whose voice appears often in the film, and who receives a special "thanks" -- in other words, he had script approval), and that the movie itself is actually pretty good. I disagree. The domestic situations with the daughter's love situation and the son going off to war are predictable and not well developed. Vera Miles' whole decision to leave him at one point comes off as very arbitrary. And there's really no attempt to link up the family story with the FBI story, other than a few scenes with Miles' wife character worrying about her husband getting shot.

So is it "good" propaganda? Yes, in the sense that it makes the FBI look a lot better than it deserves to. For example, there's a whole scene showing the FBI fighting against the KKK, but the film obviously ignores Hoover's tendency to harass civil rights activists just as much as he did the KKK. Then right after the film shows the FBI versus the KKK, it goes into a racist sequence that shows Native Americans, who've suddenly become rich from oil, spending their money and behaving like children. Obviously, they need the FBI to protect them because they can't take care of themselves. Later in the film, there's a sequence that justifies the FBI's role in arresting "criminal" Americans of Japanese and German descent during WWII. And the film's final action sequence involves a communist spy (who, the film points out, "looks normal" like all commie rats! They could be anywhere!), about whom Stewart jokes, "since he was a communist, we knew he wasn't going to church...."

Again, just to use one example from the film which to me was just unaccountably sloppy film-making (as opposed to this supposed maligned "good" film that is being dismissed because of its propaganda) -- there's the scene where Mario sacrifices himself to prevent the fascists from following Stewart and the other American across the bridge. But there's no explanation for why Mario couldn't have remained safe and just exploded the bridge from the other side, where Stewart was watching him get killed. It was just contrived to create a situation where they could show Mario sacrificing himself. Right from the scene earlier when he talks about how the river goes down to the sea, I knew he was gonna die, because in a movie from this era they never let a black or brown character say more than two or three words unless he's going to get killed. Ever notice that?

But hey, it's a good movie. Right?

99 Homes
(2014)

Solid performances boost mediocre storytelling
I really wanted to like "99 Homes." I didn't hate it, but it is far from perfect. The skinny: Andrew Garfield is a construction worker who loses his home to foreclosure, unable to find work. He has to move with his young son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern) into a hotel on skid row, but through a twist of fate find himself working for the man who evicted him (Michael Shannon). As he gets involved deeper in various real estate scams, his sense of morals has to be balanced against his need to provide for his family.

Some of the action and the plot is very contrived -- there's no reason for this big time con man (Shannon) to bring in a protégé and give him so much access and place so much trust in him. At one point, he's given a crucial assignment, to deliver a forged document, that Shannon obviously could have just as easily done himself. You can always identify dodgy writing when the story has to be manipulated in order to put the characters in dramatic situations. Another problem in the film is that while Shannon's bad guy is quite nuanced, Laura Dern is forced to play the same wise grandmother role she plays in lots of Disney movies. After being kicked out of her home, you'd think she might not be quite so high and mighty about the chance to get ahead in life. The writers of the film can see more than one shade of evil, but only one shade of good.

And that kinda gets at the heart of what's wrong with the film -- it's a film made in 2014, about events that took place in 2010, and yet the film's vision of America matches what Capra put on celluloid in 1946's holiday film "It's a Wonderful Life." According to the film, America is made up of mostly hard working and honest folk who might steal a little water or power from a bank-owned home next door but who would never -- ever -- EVER -- do anything to hurt anybody else in order to get ahead. Whenever the film tries to play at moral ambiguity, it easily betrays it for sentiment. How did we get here, and how do we get out? The film should either present no answers or it should present a better answer than it does. The ending feels like a definite letdown. It's not really earned.

Andrew Garfield continues to show himself as one of the best young actors working, and this really should be sort of a star-making role for Michael Shannon as well. The film is well-directed, but the script is too manufactured.

Marked Woman
(1937)

Courtroom drama with nice emphasis on female characters
Although Humphrey Bogart appears second-billed to Bette Davis, most of the actresses in the supporting cast (including Mayo Methot, who would soon become Bogart's wife) get more to do really than he does. However, it's a great Bette Davis picture; heavy drama, a bit contrived and obvious, but well-played. She's a hostess in a nightclub run by a gangster (Eduardo Ciannelli), who happens to be a pretty ruthless character even by movie gangster standards. After testifying for him in a rigged trial, she ends up going after him through the courts for revenge after her kid sister (the impossibly wholesome Jane Bryan) is killed. Bogart plays a government lawyer who gets taken to the cleaners in the first trial but helps Davis trap the bad guy.

There's not a lot of poetry in the film.... Lloyd Bacon is usually a very straightforward director, but the final shots of the film are very nice with the women going off into the fog together, the real heroes of the story ignored by the media who are chasing after Bogart, the hero male. In the scene with Davis and Bogart where they say goodbyes, she's waiting for him to say something emotional. Her performance here isn't subtle, but it's not that type of movie. All the scenes with her and Bogart have a nice double-edged chemistry to them, where he's trying to downplay his emotions and she's faking all these wild emotions for various reasons. It's quite an interesting movie to look back on from a feminist angle.

Black Moon
(1934)

"King Kong" without the ape....
Certainly this is an oddball film, worth watching perhaps for a few laughs, but I must have watched another movie than the one that most reviewers here are talking about. First of all, if you're saying that this was ahead of its time, you're just showing your ignorance. It's not a precursor to the Val Lewton films of the 40s, it's a rehash of the bad racist jungle epics of the 1920s. There were tons of these movies, and the only thing that really makes this film notable is the fact that Fay Wray is in it, and that it allows the husband (a visibly embarrassed Jack Holt) to get away with killing his wife (Dorothy Burgess) in order to prevent her murdering their daughter in a voodoo ritual.

Sounds pretty exciting, right? It's really not. The photography and direction are dull, there's no real magic nor any monsters, and the story is just a trifle designed to shock middle-class theater patrons of the early 1930s. It is full of racist imagery and characters, and even the ostensibly noble black character (Clarence Muse), whose presence perhaps was intended to make the film seem less racist, just manages to make things even worse.

Dramatically, the film suffers from a transparent plot, and the lack of any real villain outside of Burgess' bored housewife on a voodoo binge. The black characters are treated as too infantile to do anything without the direction of either their priest or the white woman they inexplicably worship. Whenever a dangerous situation looms, Holt simply fires his gun at whoever is causing the danger and the situation is immediately defused. If only he had fired his pistol at the screenwriter.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
(1970)

Somewhat enjoyable but truncated
I had never heard of this movie until a few weeks ago when I read about it in a book about the director, Billy Wilder. Wilder is one of the few directors I can think of who started out as a brilliant writer but nonetheless, for the most part, manages to make films where the images speak louder than the dialog. However, he does seem to be quite enamored of the back-and-forth between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely). Which is not too bad, because it's the main entertainment value here, in a film largely bereft of real "mystery" or discovery.

Apparently the film was intended to be a much longer examination of various cases that were too embarrassing or personal to be told during Holmes' lifetime. That central conceit does go a long ways, as we see Holmes pretending to be a homosexual (and then we are asked: was it pretending?), being fooled by a lovely German spy (Genevieve Page), etc. Christopher Lee appears in a couple scenes as Holmes' brother Microft, in a silly plot involving a fake Loch Ness Monster. Would the extra scenes have added more mystery? We can only hope.

The film is enjoyable but very flimsy and disjointed in its present form. Blakely and Stephens are fine, but not particularly interesting, and perhaps more inspired casting would have made the film more intriguing.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
(2015)

Satisfying but unoriginal reboot
Everybody seems to either be jumping up and down for joy or chomping at the bit to dissect and destroy this film -- I thought it was just good clean fun, nothing as memorable as the original films but nothing to really complain about if you're a fan of this type of thing. The new characters are pretty well developed, especially John Boyega's "Finn", who has some of the attributes of Han Solo in the original film but who is also amusingly man-childish, which makes sense considering that his character has been locked up in a military academy and mopping floors on the death star in his spare time. It's charming when he flirts with Rey (Daisy Ridley) like a 14 year old with his first crush, and when he's reunited with pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), he thinks Poe is serious when he starts ribbing him ("hey, that's my jacket!").

The big drawback, at least for those of us who are familiar with the original films (which is to say, about 2 billion people on this planet), is that it's basically a remake of the first "Star Wars" film. It begins with an orphan on a desert planet who finds a droid with important data, its emotional climax comes 30 minutes before the end of the movie with the death of a primary character, and its main threat is another "technological terror" capable of destroying entire planets. We even get treated to another dull scene where Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) sits in a room staring at a holograph while the men go off and fight the bad guys. Perhaps with all the fans complaining about Lucas' "prequel" films not being enough like the originals, the screenwriters (including Lawrence Kasdan from the original films) thought that people really just wanted a remake.

It's neither good enough nor bad enough to deserve as much attention as its getting. It possesses neither the highs nor the lows of the prequel films. As he did with "Star Trek", director Abrams has managed to bleed all political meaning out of the series. The film's weakest element is its villains -- Andy Serkis' "Snook" is just a big CGI that looks, feels and sounds like Gollum from the Tolkien movies. Adam Driver's "Kylo Ren" (one thing you can say about the movie is that at least they keep the streak of ridiculous names going, although nothing here is as golden as "Count Dookoo") is a pouty emo-kid whose only interesting element is that he seems to admire "grandfather" Darth Vader but doesn't seem to be quite evil enough to stand a comparison with him. Worst of all is Domhnall Gleason's one-note politician bad guy, who seems to be in the movie simply to fulfill whatever vague role Grand Moff Tarkin had in the original film.

People who like "Star Wars" movies are going to enjoy it. People who think "Star Wars" movies are the greatest thing ever are going to hate it, because nothing is ever good enough for them. Everybody else is just going to forget about most of it a few months from now.

White Christmas
(1954)

lacking in true delight, but pays off with surface charm
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play a pair of entertainers, who seem to be possessed of the songwriting talent of Rodgers & Hart plus the singing and dancing talent of..... Crosby and Kaye? Rosemary Clooney looks good and sings beautifully, and Vera-Ellen performs at her usual high-energy level (in several scenes she's paired with George Chakiris for dances that are clearly beyond Crosby and Kaye's skill level).

The entire plot of the movie is that the sad-sack Dean Jagger is now sad because he's running a hotel instead of being a general in the army. Crosby and Kaye decide to put on a show to cheer him up, and Rosemary Clooney somehow becomes convinced that they are trying to embarrass him. That's it. Who cares? I guess. The musical numbers are pretty good, mostly dug up from Irving Berlin's endless box of old numbers from his "Music Box Revue" days.

Against All Odds
(1984)

Would be disappointing, if you had any expectations
Low expectations are the key to enjoying this movie. Keep in mind that the film is anchored by a dubious ballad by Phil Collins, an even more dubious performance by top-billed actress Rachel Ward, and was directed by a man who has the word "hack" in his name (Taylor Hackford). It is a re-make of Jacques Tourneur's equally stylish but infinitely more cynical 1940s classic "Out of the Past." While Tourneur's film took us on a death-trip that proceeds with cold logic to its blazing suicidal finale, this film is too invested in the romance at its core to allow the characters to be truly bad or truly alive.

Let's face it, Jeff Bridges is not a replacement for Robert Mitchum. It says everything about the difference in these two films, that Mictchum's character is a broken-down man who operates a gas station in the high deserts of Nevada, while in this version Bridges plays a football player. That's right, and the plot actually has something to do with football players, coaches (Alex Karras appears prominently), bookies (Dorian Harewood and James Woods), corrupt real estate moguls (Jane Greer, from the original film) and professional fixers (Richard Widmark). The primary weakness of the script is that it spends the first half trying to convince us that Rachel Ward is a femme fatale, and then by the time we're halfway believing it (she deserts Bridges in Mexico after murdering Karras' character), the rest of the movie is spent trying to convince us that she's got a heart of gold. Her character makes no sense, and she doesn't have the screen presence to make us look past that fact.

A high speed chase with sports cars that takes place 10 minutes into the film is the highlight of the entire film. We also get to see Kid Creole do his best Cab Calloway impersonation, and other bits of 80s "nostalgia" for things that weren't worth showing in the first place. The director is mostly concerned with having his characters walk through rooms that are stylishly decorated and architecturally moderne. If he had spent more time working on the script and less time scouting locations, it might be worth something. As it is, this film is not only an embarrassment to anybody who is a fan of the original film, but just a poor effort in and of itself. Widmark is the only actor who comes out looking better than he did going into it. Eminently skip-able.

The Toll of the Sea
(1922)

Dull melodrama elevated by Anna May Wong's performance
Lotus Flower (Anna May Wong) finds an American sailor (Kenneth Harlan) washed up on her shores, and quickly succumbs to his amorous advances. After being convinced by his ship-mates that he doesn't want a Chinese wife, he abandons her and the son he doesn't know about. The film goes on to show Lotus Flower pining after him and penning her own letters from him as a pretense to shore up her pride. When the incredibly insensitive sailor returns, he brings his new wife (Beatrice Bentley) along!!! Lotus Flower decides to give her son to the couple so that he can be raised for a better life in America.

This film is mostly notable for two reasons: first, because it is an early and fairly impressive performance by Anna May Wong, who's asked to hold the whole film together practically by herself. Some of the other posters here have voiced respectful reservations about Harlan's performance -- I'll just say that he stinks in the whole film. His performance is so unappealing that it makes the character even more reprehensible than the writers obviously intended him to be. Bentley, a non-actress, fumbles through her scenes with Wong. Let's be frank: half the film is basically Anna May Wong standing around weeping with her hand pressed against her forehead. It's a testament to her talent and beauty that the movie isn't totally insufferable.

The second reason the film is notable is the photography by J.A. Ball, a person who seems to have been a technician with Technicolor and who has no other credits as a photographer. In fact this film was produced by Herbert Kalmus and the Technicolor corporation, which had been incorporated a mere 7 years prior. Finding it difficult to convince any of the major film companies to use their expensive process, the company decided to make a feature film as a demonstration model. This is that feature film. The photography is sometimes nice, certainly interesting to look at, but it's generally not any more inspired than the direction. However I was startled by the obvious lens flares in the final shots of the film -- these could have been re-shot, so perhaps they used the effect deliberately? If so it must be the first time this was ever done on film. Perhaps it was a happy accident.

Tammy and the Doctor
(1963)

Where no Tammy has been before....
A medical emergency for the kindly old Mrs. Call (Beulah Bondi) brings Tammy to uncharted waters -- Los Angeles, where she sets up camp at a modern hospital as a nurse. It's quite a feat, considering she just dropped out of college, but she has some experience already with birthin' babies. Along the way, as usual, she has to help solve the problems of uptight non-river folk. Her boyfriend's (Peter Fonda) mentor, the senior doctor (Macdonald Carey) seems to think that being a heart surgeon requires a vow of abstinence, and is very keen to force this impression on his protégé as well. In order to get laid or, whatever it is that she does once she gets her claws in these various men, Tammy must convince the nurse to seduce the overly dedicated surgeon.

This one has a few more genuine laughs than the others, since Tammy's chores give her plenty of opportunity for light slapstick and situational comedy (typical of the series' low but corny humor is a scene where a black baby is substituted for "Bernard Schwartz"). My hopes were raised for this one when I saw that they had hired veteran cameraman Russell Metty for this final film in the series; however, the film only gives him a brief opportunity to show us the river and the quaint college before plunging us into concrete L.A. and a bland hospital set that's impossible to light in any interesting way. The direction by Harry Keller is just as dull as his work on the previous Tammy film.

Sandra Dee seems to have warmed up to the role and feels more confident here, more in possession of the Tammy character she inherited from Debbie Reynolds. Peter Fonda is somewhat more appealing also than her other two previous boyfriends..... Leslie Nielsen was too stiff and sincere, and John Gavin just seemed to grin at everything she said as if he was amused at her. Fonda instead brings a kind of shy quality, a more introspective version of the "dream man". Contemporary viewers will be amused to see future TV Batman Adam West pop up as the sleazy alternative man (each Tammy film has a variation on this undesirable man scenario), the aptly named "Dr. Hassler."

Won't disappoint those who enjoyed the other two films, but manages to be slightly more entertaining, though by far the dullest in the series to look at in terms of set design, costumes, etc.

Tammy Tell Me True
(1961)

slightly better than the original
Sandra Dee more than adequately fills the role formerly occupied by Debbie Reynolds, as "Tammy", a naive river hick who helps people discover their true selves and who falls in love with stiff- shouldered men. It turns out that Leslie Nielsen's character from the original film didn't really care for Tammy after all, never returning any of her letters. Tammy decides she needs to go to college in order to be a fit wife for her man, so she takes up the anchor and has her riverbarge friend (Cecil Kellaway) tow her down to a spot closer to institutions of higher learning.

As in the original film, Tammy is adopted by various needy individuals, most notably the local Dean of Women (Virginia Grey), who's trapped in a sexless marriage with a failed painter (Charles Drake). However, most of her attention this time is devoted to an elderly lady (Beulah Bondi) who she befriends, while her scheming daughter (Julia Meade) is trying to have her committed and steal her fortune. Bondi is a more seasoned and talented performer than just about anybody in the original film, and she really gives this movie a huge boost.

Essentially though, it's still the same kind of unambitious, saccharine and totally predictable film as its predecessor. The director, Harry Keller, brings the same kind of vision that he brought to other important screen properties like "Commander Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe" and the same sense of drama that he brought to television for the unforgettable "Letter to Loretta" series. The movie is pleasant enough, and it lacks some of the elements that made the original "Tammy" movie so execrable.... notably racist stereotypes and the constant presence of Debbie Reynolds. I find Sandra Dee to be much cuter, much more genuinely funny and slightly less corny.

John Gavin basically has just as little to do here in this film as Nielsen did in the original. Perhaps by teaming Gavin and Dee in this film and in "Imitation of Life" the producer Ross Hunter hoped to clone the magic of his combination of Rock Hudson and Doris Day in "Pillow Talk." But it would have helped if they gave Gavin an actual human character to play, instead of just the new version of Tammy's idealized male. Not that I'm sure Gavin can actually play a real human being, but it would be interesting if he had the chance.....

Although this film lacks the truly offensive middle section of its predecessor, it does manage to score some good housekeeping points by allowing Tammy to teach Bible lessons to atheist children (no less than a tiny Bill Mumy) and giving her a good opportunity for an anti-feminist message -- she convinces Virginia Grey that all her problems with her husband are caused by the fact that she makes more money than he does. I'm sorry, the guy seemed like a total creep to me, he was trying to get in Tammy's pants the minute that he saw her. Instead of telling the poor woman to adopt a kid she should have told her to dump her creepy husband and hook up with a man that isn't intimidated by a successful woman. But then, nobody should really be asking Tammy for romantic advice.....

Tammy and the Bachelor
(1957)

ludicrous colorful comedy
Debbie Reynolds plays a country gal, Tammy, raised on a houseboat next to a river by her moonshinin' pa Walter Brennan. In an early scene, Tammy bemoans the fact that she's never seen her "complete self" in a mirror. Somehow she knows all the tricks to modern makeup however. As I was watching the film, I kept wondering how it would have played if they had actually cast somebody who looked or felt even remotely like a hillbilly. But this film exists in some kind of Pollyanna time warp, its down-home Americanisms pushing skinny Debbie Reynolds into the over-sized and outdated shoes of Mary Pickford where they are unsurprisingly uncomfortable.

Leslie Nielsen's performance is a study in generic male appeal with no real personality. He's a male ingénue and not given much of any chance to do any of the interesting things we now know that he's capable of. The rest of the cast features some pleasing turns from veterans like Brennan and Fay Wray, but the whole enterprise is soaked in mawkish sentiment, a sort of worshipful attitude towards naiveté. Absolutely nothing unpredictable is allowed to happen, and there are few genuine laughs. The film's only redeeming quality, for those not already intoxicated with the talents of Debbie Reynolds, is the colorful set design and costumes which are captured faithfully and unimaginatively by Arthur Arling's photography.

This is basically a movie for people who like TV. If you watched "Wonderful World of Disney" every Sunday night back in the 70s, then you might enjoy this completely vanilla film. The less said about the film's middle section, where Tammy and the rest of the members of the household dress up as Antebellum stereotypes -- including the maid in a red bandanna mammy outfit -- by the far the better. You might find yourself, like me, with your mouth agape that a film so bland and so deliberately inoffensive could actually be so vile. It's not as if the film-makers weren't aware of what they were doing and, "oh it was a different time" -- if that were the case, they would not have put that little scene where Tammy and the maid discuss how distasteful the whole thing is. Tammy could have said something about it and took a stand, but she's not really the heroine that all the characters in the movie make her out to be. She's just another movie naif who we're supposed to adore, for no particular reason except that she's Debbie Reynolds in pigtails.

The Swimmer
(1968)

themes and ruminations of a perfect mixed bag
"The Swimmer" is a brilliant one-man show for aging Burt Lancaster - - an impressionistic swirl of suburban alienation that hits vaguely like a reverse-image of "The Graduate." Director Frank Perry (most in- famous for TV films like "Mommie Dearest") allows his actors total free reign in their characterizations and this results in an uneven film that feels like it's supposed to be uneven. Lancaster holds the whole enterprise together.... he had long before figured out how, with films like "Sweet Smell of Success", to make himself less appealing. But all his performances are grandiose, and here he's given us a vision of the grand pathetic.... a sort of suburban Lear.

The film thematically is very interesting, as you don't really see a film very often about personal failure. His professional failure is something that we figure out about halfway through the film, but we don't want to face the idea that he is a failure as a human being any more than he does. Every gesture that seems spontaneous early in the film, every moment that comes across as an expression of his will to power and his joy in living, later reveals itself as dull repetition and escapism. There is a thin line between the casual recklessness of the perpetual winner and the empty boasts of the fallen champion.

There's more going on in the film's script than meets the eye, so I'll just take a single motif and look at it in that context.... how about, alcohol? In the first scene, Lancaster's character refuses a drink which is repeatedly being offered to him by his seemingly over-the- hill younger friends. Lancaster comes off in this scene as a winner, physically fit and envied by his friends who are dependent on alcohol to bond or relax or distract themselves. About halfway through his journey, he begins to reluctantly accept a drink ("just one, to be polite"), but by the time he arrives at his former lover's (Janice Rule) house, he admits "I need one." Looking back on the first scene in hindsight with what we know by the end, his friends come off a lot better. They're disturbed to see him in a state of denial, they want to hear "all about it" over a drink; they've gone from being the losers to the winners. The difference is one of perspective: as Julie's (Janet Landgard) cute crush on the guy she babysits for morphs into a dangerous situation where Ned (Lancaster) harbors unrequited affection for the nymph who is now even more inappropriate as a partner.

I like the film a great deal, not so much as a finished product which is in many ways unevenly executed and deficient as entertainment (too episodic and without enough verve), but as a springboard for conversation and thought. I would compare it to a film like Joe Losey's "Boy with Green Hair", another "cult" film -- far from being "great" in any sense but also genuine and unconventional enough to resonate and take on a life of its own.

The Postman
(1997)

Costner & Co. create absurd and grandiose epic
Well, I really put off watching this one for quite a long time, having just given it a first chance at long last. Not quite love at first sight, but the early scenes in the film have a quiet majesty and intrigue about them that's hard to deny. Costner's performance has a real core, and as the film expands in scope to include dozens of characters in an epic post-apocalyptic sprawl, Costner in his role as director generously allows the actors to really inhabit the space, creating strong characters nearly across the board.

It's a long film, and it has several distinct sections with different mood: the early laconic wanderer, then the bitter prisoner on a wild escape, and eventually we get Costner as a revolutionary organizing young people into ad-hoc postal committees to spread information and propaganda against the sadistic fascist regime of Bethlehem (Will Patton). The later parts of the film have a sort of "Red Dawn" vibe about them, with almost as much nationalistic flag-waving as Milius' film but less of a pro-military attitude.

Costner takes his themes and his story seriously, which is admirable and certainly ambitious, but the whole thing is really too sentimental, particularly in the denouement. He has this obsession with slow- motion close-ups of people riding on horses past other people..... just cuz it looked cool in "Dances With Wolves" doesn't mean he needs to do it in every other shot.

Although I'm sure her presence in the film did young Olivia Williams no good, her performance is credible and, again, Costner deserves praise for moving over and letting her steal a lot of their scenes together. Paxton is fascinating, but ultimately not gripping enough to be a great movie villain.

It's a unique film in the post-apocalyptic genre because it has a lot more focus on character and mood than just about anything else I've seen, at least up to its time.

The Martian
(2015)

solid entertainment but nothing really exceptional
The audience wasn't bored despite the running time, and Matt Damon does a really good job of holding everybody in just the right amount of tension, but the whole thing is too calculated and manipulative and, like most of Ridley Scott's output, looks like an advertisement. In this case, it's a big propaganda advertisement for the American and Chinese space programs and for various corporations that get prominent screen space -- who wants to bet me that the big "Forever 21" logo that looms over half the screen towards the film's climax looks just as stupid as the the bit TDK neon sign at the end of "Blade Runner"?

It was one of those movies I walked out of with a good feeling, but the bad taste spreads the longer that it sits in my stomach. It's almost too cute, how Matt Damon's character makes these witty statements every 10 minutes or so, and the disco music and all of it. "I will survive!" The world is sure ready to put a lot of effort into saving a single white man sitting on some damn planet he has no business being on in the first place. He even brags about being the first colonizer! This movie will really be hilarious to watch in 2040, I'm telling you!

But it wasn't too bad to watch in 2015 with a nice date and a good crowd of people either. Hard to hate it, but impossible for me to love it. Every time I was hoping for a good idea, it delivered sentiment or sardonic wit. At first I was into the way the movie raised intelligence and science up as virtues. But when Matt Damon gets up at the end to deliver a soliloquy about how science can deliver human beings from any problem..... you have to wonder why we can't spend some small part of the energy that we would spend to bring an astronaut home from Mars to, I dunno, save a child from slavery in a mine or a textile factory in the "third world." And, yeah, I'm pretty sure Matt Damon wonders the same thing.

Underworld U.S.A.
(1961)

reaching for masterpiece....
Sam Fuller's ambitious "Underworld U.S.A." is a focused, driven little machine of a picture with Cliff Robertson as a man intent on avenging his father, who was murdered by 5 men who eventually became mafia kingpins. In order to do so, he must first spend time in the "big house" to get the info from the one perp he identified, and then insinuate himself into the organization to track down and destroy the others.

What's notable to me in the film is the way that the positive/moral characters in the film are only vaguely given much room to actually wield moral authority. For example, Sandy (Beatrice Kay), the kindly tavern owner who more or less adopts Tolly Devlin (Robertson) after his father's murder, is characterized by gigantic posters of babies on her walls and creepy looking dolls stuffed throughout her house. The police are portrayed in a positive way, but they're also showed as dupes (Devlin easily abuses the D.A.'s trust for his own revenge) and perhaps overly zealous. The film repeats propaganda tropes about young people ("age 10 to 15" as the villain specifies) becoming hooked on drugs by the mafia, much in the same way Fuller's "Pickup on South Street" scared us with the ever-present commie threat to our way of life. There's a sense that the depiction of that menace is being undermined by the film's single-minded focus on the hero's equally single- minded mission.

Robertson and the rest of the cast are solid, not necessarily remarkable... it's a weird film because in some ways it more closely resembles a film from the late 40s or early 50s, but in other ways it's ahead of its time. It's a bit closer to "Death Wish" or "Point Blank" in terms of how little credence or attention it gives to the idea of the hero actually "going straight" or doing anything other than follow a very linear path to a gruesome ending. As such, it fits into a pattern of other late 50s/early 60s films that reached back to 30s archetypes and tried to re-invent them in more brutally deterministic terms (Fuller's westerns from the period follow the trend as well).

There are many truly memorable scenes here -- this one deserves to be seen by a lot more people.

They Call Me Mister Tibbs!
(1970)

They call me Mr. Sequel!
Even allowing for the inevitable "sequel letdown", this film is more than just a little mediocre. I doubt Poitier would have done it if he hadn't been offered a lot of money. Basically, everything that made the first film work is either missing or wrong. For example: Rod Steiger's racist cop and all the narrative friction that came with him -- gone. Quincy Jones' excellent music -- here, as stylish as ever but done in a funky style that's incongruous with the character of Virgil Tibbs and which makes the film seem more generic in a "70s blaxploitation" way than it should. The only major element still present in force is Poitier, and his performance is good. He's added a more sexual element to his performance, and finds some humor as well in the mostly dry situations. It's just not enough to power such a mediocre film.

The mystery elements do not work very well. We know from the beginning that the murderer is either the really obvious guy, a landlord (Anthony Zerbe) who looks like date rape on two legs, or the slightly less obvious guy, a preacher (Martin Landau) who's an old friend of Tibbs. Landau's character is so poorly conceived that it's amazing Landau is able to do anything at all with it. BTW, with his largely black congregation and his political crusades, Landau's character more than a little resembles the infamous Oakland/San Francisco preacher Jim Jones, who would rocket to stardom a decade or so later in supremely unfortunate circumstances.

To make up for the lack of "heart" (the first Tibbs movie was a buddy cop story), this film gives him a family. He's also been moved inexplicably from Philadelphia to San Francisco, but presumably the audience wasn't supposed to remember anything from the first film, right? Anyway, his home life is so dull, and so objectionable on so many levels -- after having an awkward conversation with his son about how he was "supposed to be there, the black man and all that", he hits him in the face -- that it makes a film that otherwise might have been mediocre into a disaster. Barbara McNair, whose main experience prior to this was playing a nun in an Elvis movie, must have been thrilled to share so many scenes with Poitier but she can't strike a rapport with him that makes up for the fact that we already saw an entire Virgil Tibbs movie without her. She's window dressing of the most painful sort, and the writers' attempts to make Tibbs' family life some kind of social statement is just about as successful as their attempt to make Landau's preacher into some kind of activist hero.

In fact, that's the film in a nutshell -- the first movie was timeless, this one tries instead to be topical.

It wouldn't be fair to close these comments without a few words about the director, Gordon Douglas: he sucks. Right from the very first shots of the movie you can tell it's a disaster: he shoots the entire murder in first person subjective camera angle, which is just as tacky and dated as extreme zooms from the same era. The fact that the producers picked a guy like Douglas, who'd been in Hollywood already for almost forty years and had directed almost 90 mediocre films, says a lot about their lack of ambition for this picture. Which is really too bad, because the original film combined genre mystery elements with social problems in a stylish way, whereas this film just plods along like any other B movie.

Angels Over Broadway
(1940)

Minor gem directed by Ben Hecht
A comedy that examines the hopelessness of modern urban life -- Ben Hecht combines the bitter and the sweet, with a dash of autobiography thrown in. The legendary theater man acted as writer, producer and co-director on this film, making a supremely ironic bid to eclipse young Orson Welles. Perhaps the film's only major fault is its ambitiousness -- like the inebriated has-been playwright played in the film by Thomas Mitchell, this film sets up too much for it to satisfactorily resolve. However, I prefer a stew with too many ingredients than too few. When Mitchell's character begins to refer to Rita Hayworth and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as characters that he is re-writing into the hero and heroine, we know we're in for something special, and we're not wrong.

Hayworth's acting here is more effortless than usual, allowing her charm to come full to the fore. Doug Fairbanks Jr. was never more natural or believable than he was here, playing a suave nobody. I thought their banter had some real appeal -- they spend the picture posing for each other, acknowledging their poses and then acting hurt when the other recognizes the truth. The film also presents a rare opportunity for a real performance from John Qualen, as well. If you don't bite your nails when the poor guy is trying to pretend to be a big-shot at the poker-table, you've got no heart.

This film came out in 1940, but it's really a meditation on the decade that preceded it. The theme is similar to "Casablanca", but with purely humanist goals instead of patriotic ones. Fairbanks is a ruined idealist, pretending to be a hardened cynic. Hayworth is a ruined romantic, pretending to be a whore. It says a lot about how urban Americans saw themselves at the time, and how Mr. Hecht thought they could seek some form of redemption -- note the title, "Angels", not "Angel." This isn't a story of redemption through love, but rather love through redemption.

It's vastly under-rated and deserves to be remembered as one of the milestones in Hecht's astonishing career. Lee Garmes has contributed some very nice photographic details, such as the startling overhead shot of the gambling table, and the opening shots of Fairbanks in the rain. An outstanding production which amounts to a witty film equally dark and convincingly optimistic.

Body Slam
(1986)

Hmmm yeah
I missed the first couple minutes of this movie, so if there was ever an explanation of why a little girl (Kellie Martin, who's exactly a week older than me) is allowed to accompany a group of pro wrestlers and rock stars on an RV tour of America, well I missed it. Presumably she was present to make the movie more appealing to little girls.... doubt that worked out super well, but she's the oddly cynical and realistic member of this motley 80s crew.

The movie's plot seems to concern a sleazy manager (TV star Dirk Benedict) in his efforts to help a pair of wrestlers (Roddy Piper and Sam Fatu) win a championship and to win the heart of an intelligent rich girl (Tanya Roberts). Benedict plays it so broad, there's little room for whatever appeal is supposed to develop.

But the film is a blast, at least for those who grew up in the 80s and enjoyed pro wrestling, or perhaps for people keen to see some really cheezy stuff from the period. Benedict's character, a sociopathic loser, strikes gold by combining his clients out of sheer desperation, organizing a rock 'n rasslin' tour that sells out gymnasiums across the country. The sequences showing local talent (and announcers) taking on Piper and Fatu are hilariously banal, if such a thing is possible.

"Captain" Lou Albano (who, besides making this movie, also briefly managed Cyndi Lauper in the 80s and appeared on the legendary "Super Mario Bros. Super Show!" as Mario) is the villainous manager out to ruin Piper's career and put little Kellie Martin in the orphanage. At the film's climax, Piper and Fatu must battle Albano's fearsome "Cannibal Brothers", while Albano tosses Dirk Benedict (and, kid you not, Billy Barty) around at ringside for good measure. A gallery of fading but beloved faces emerges to see the title bout, including Ric Flair, Bruno Sammartino and "Classy" Fred Blassie (who, true to form, roots for the Cannibals).

The music, provided by a group called "Kicks" who later change their name to "Kick", is so poor that it's hard to believe somebody (perhaps stuntman turned director Hal Needham) wasn't having a joke with it. Still, I can remember a time in the 80s when this type of thing was marginally acceptable, if not cool. There's a great scene where Benedict's character is supposed to be talking to a reporter from Rolling Stone, and he says he changed their name to "Kick" because, "Who ever heard of the Whos?" To which the reporter responds, "how about the Beatles?" Now, I wanted to single this scene out because, first of all it's the only intentionally funny scene in the film. Secondly, it gives a good capsule description of this movie's universe. The reporter is an ostensibly "real" person, much like the little girl. Everyone else, the wrestlers and rock stars and particularly Benedict, are running around as if they are in some kind of psychotic delusion; or, perhaps more accurately, they are playing a 10 year old boy's version of adults. Which is to say, psychopaths. Come on, you gotta love this movie!

Diamond Head
(1962)

"Giant" on the isles
This is a big film -- the kind of film made from big novels about big ideas about big people, like Charlton Heston's character (originally written for Clark Gable) "The King." In fact, it reminds me of Edna Ferber's "Giant", or James Michener's "Hawaii." The themes of racism and family strife that motivate the film might have been daring in the early 60s but aren't compelling enough at this point to power the film's entire running length.

The big revelation in the film, for me, was (3rd billed) George Chakiris' performance. I never really thought of him as much of an actor, but he definitely nailed this role. He's not a man who is unlikable, but rather a man who doesn't want to be liked (or, perhaps, who doesn't want to need to be appreciated, only respected). At first, his pride and resentment seem simply racially motivated and come off as jealousy; eventually, we begin to see Heston's "King" the same way Chakiris' character does.

James Darren is attractive and serviceable, and Heston approaches the role with his usual sincerity and self-sacrifice (he's not afraid to gradually turn this respectable powerful man into a heel). Yvette Mimieux has a bit too much of a baby face for the role.... at times it feels like a Gidget movie with her and Darren running around on the beach. But her performance is OK.

There's just nothing really compelling or moving about any of these characters. Overblown, novelistic dialog doesn't help. The film feels a travelogue with melodrama thrown in, like a 20s/30s MGM movie (with Clark Gable, of course!) by Victor Fleming or Woody Van Dyke movie, but cinematographer turned director Guy Green is no Victor Fleming. There are some awesome compositions, but they sort of fly by in the midst of the relatively trite plot directions. The characters take their situations so seriously that one is reminded of Douglas Sirk, sans irony.

Mad Max: Fury Road
(2015)

Somewhere between the Road and Thunderdome.....
While not reaching the dizzy dystopian heights of "The Road Warrior", this film at least does not have the uneven quality or the naked sentiment of "Beyond Thunderdome", so in a sense this new film from George Miller has saved the series -- it wasn't right for "Max" to end on a bad note.

I've heard one person say, "it's too bad Mel Gibson couldn't be in it." But only one person. Most people I think recognize that his presence would only have complicated things; besides which, Tom Hardy is arguably better in the role than Gibson ever was. He's much more adept at disappearing into the role, and portraying Max as somebody who, rather than imposing his will on his environment, rolls with whatever is happening to him and tries to adapt and survive. I halfway think that the reason George Miller waited so long to make this film is that he wanted Gibson to be too old so that he wouldn't be criticized for replacing him.

I know that I wasn't supposed to take the film totally seriously, but the whole carnival/heavy metal aspect of the villains was just too much for me to take. Apparently, when the apocalypse happened a bunch of head bangers (as we used to call them) got together and decided to create a new society based on the lyrics to Slayer and Metallica songs. Everybody knows that it's absolutely essential in the post- apocalyptic environment to have your flaming guitar player with you when you set out on a desperate mission. Can't leave him at home.

To me, the presence of these silly elements does detract somewhat from the film's themes of survival and dignity in the midst of social disintegration. My other problem with the movie is the aggressive way that Miller used the flashbacks to the dead/endangered child. "The Road Warrior" stands alone, without much reference to his family or to anything that happened in the first film -- so why did Miller and/or his writers think it was so important for this film to constantly refer back to the dead family? The dialogue about redemption was heavy- handed and literal.

For every problem, there are a half dozen excellent and fun things about the movie, so I am recommending it to people, but I would say it's not as good as the first two films. I loved the earth mamas on their bikes ("One bullet, one man") -- oddly enough they reminded me of Esme Cordelia Hoggett in "Babe: Pig in the City", kicking ass and rescuing the farm. A lot of people criticized Miller actually for leaving Father Hoggett on the farm to be rescued by his wife -- I think it showed the "feminist" streak that manifested in this movie and lead to even wider criticism of Miller. I'm pretty sure from where he's sitting, with this film raking in dough around the world, he's not too concerned with what a bunch of so-called "men's rights activists" think about the film. He's a subversive guy, and for the most part he knows how to challenge our preconceptions and our expectations just enough to leave everybody happy. The mixture of craziness, sentiment, and thematic force are just about right here.

Don Peyote
(2014)

Turgid mess
One thing you can say about "Don Peyote" is that it's interesting. The story is fairly dark, there are a lot of "tripped out" sequences -- unfortunately, the directing doesn't rise to the challenge, so you don't really feel immersed in the weirdness but rather like an unwelcome and unwilling spectator of it. The scenes, for example, where he's taken to an underground lair of homeless people or when he finds his fiancé having a sex party at their apartment, are supposed to feel like Fellini but they feel more like Andy Warhol on his worst day (and that is something terrible to behold). It's as if the director invited a bunch of his friends, told them to bring the sexiest date they possibly could and to wear an odd costume, and just shot the results.

Weirdly, Anne Hathaway shows up halfway through this film in which almost every other actor is obviously non-union. Supposedly Topher Grace is in it too but I didn't spot him; perhaps he wore sunglasses or some fake hair to make his appearance here less embarrassing and noticeable. And yeah, when Topher Grace is embarrassed to be in your movie, you have a problem.

I did make it to the end of the movie, because I wanted to see if anything interesting would happen: it doesn't.

If you think about it, the plot is the same as the Hangover: guy's about to be married, goes on a wild drug experience wit his friends. But this guy Dan Fogler -- who's billed 7th despite the fact that his mug is in a close-up in nearly every shot of the entire film -- actually makes Zach whatshisname or Jack Black or any of those people look like Peter Sellers. He's not a horrible actor, but he can't sustain an entire film, and he's not very funny.

Leave this one alone if you can. Unless one of your friends is in the movie, then it might be worth watching if you can spot them in the middle of this madness.

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