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Fear Chamber

Karloff is always worth seeing, but . . .
One of those dreary Mexican productions that Boris Karloff made toward the end of his career, "The Fear Chamber"'s only attraction for the great but now aged and ailing star must have been the paycheck. The plot, already described elsewhere, is ludicrous, the set looks like somebody's basement, and the effects are cheap.

It's always worth seeing Karloff, but otherwise the only attraction is the supporting cast which includes various beautiful women, including Isele Vega (best known for "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia"), who are called upon to add some sex to the mix. The lesbian scenes make no sense within the context of the story, but they may at least prevent you from fast-forwarding to the conclusion.

Ma vie en rose

Quite lovely
"Ma Vie En Rose," winner of the 1997 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film (its English title is "My Life in Pink"), concerns Ludo, a 7-year-old boy who likes to dress up as a girl and dreams of marrying a boy, even staging a mock wedding with himself decked out in a pink satin dress and pearls.

His parents are appalled. When Ludo makes an appearance at a family gathering dressed as a girl, the father covers his embarrassment with nervous laughter and insists his son is just joking. The mother drags him to the sink to wash off his lipstick. When Ludo continues to cross-dress, they take him to a therapist "to set him straight."

Ludo's attempts to be a typical boy prove disastrous, however. When he tries to kiss a girl, she knocks him to the ground. "I don't kiss girls," she sneers. He proves too gentle for football, and when another boy sees him through the opening of a toilet stall, sitting down to pee, he explains that he's a "girl-boy."

Of course, Ludo is almost certain to grow up to be homosexual or transgender, perhaps opting to change his gender through surgery. The film doesn't take us that far into the future, but does conclude on a note of acceptance. "Whatever happens, you'll always be my child," the father tells Ludo, shortly before the credits roll.

The boy in "Ma Vie En Rose" is adorable, and is very convincing when dolled up as a female. The film itself is quite lovely. Undoubtedly, there are those who would assail it as propaganda meant to promote tolerance toward homosexuals and gender-bending boys. Maybe it is, but the fact remains that there are boys who want to be girls, and such boys would exist even if a film like Ma Vie En Rose did not. If it succeeds in making the life of a "girl boy" easier, what's wrong with that?

Brian W. Fairbanks

The Black Room

Karloff in a dual role
"The Black Room" is a clever little thriller from Columbia Pictures that gives Boris Karloff a dual role.

Karloff plays twin brothers from a powerful family. The oldest is the kindest of gentlemen, and the youngest is wickedness personified. When Bad Karloff is bad, he's really bad, fond of murdering women and burying their bodies in a basement pit. His subjects are on to him and call on Good Karloff to take his place. If only it were that simple. Bad Karloff adds his good brother to his collection of corpses, confident that a prophecy in which he dies by a knife held by his older sibling can no longer be fulfilled. Again, if only it were that simple.

Karloff is terrific in both parts, and there's a fine atmospheric touch, not surprising since "The Black Room" was directed by Roy William Neill, the unsung genius who guided Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce through 11 of their 12 Sherlock Holmes movies at Universal.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Faithful and engrossing remake of Swedish original
If you saw and liked the original Swedish film based on Stieg Larsson's novel "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," you might be pleased or disappointed with David Fincher's English-language remake for the same reason: this is a pretty straight-forward remake with few surprises for fans of Neil Arden Opley's 2009 adaptation of the same material. Even the leading players, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, seem to have been chosen because of their resemblance to Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace.

Despite its familiarity, I found this version as engrossing as the first with the cast more than equal to the challenge of bringing these characters to life. And if you're looking for a great insult to direct at an enemy, the phrase on Mara's T-shirt in one scene is a masterpiece of raunchy perfection. I think Leo the Lion, M-G-M's mascot, may have read it, too, which could explain why his roar was silent for a change when the company logo appeared on screen before the movie.

Be sure not to miss the opening titles which reminded me of the opening of a Bond film as it might appear in a nightmare.

The Cocoanuts

Technically crude, but charming
"The Cocoanuts" was released in 1929, only two years after sound was introduced to the movies. Not surprisingly, it's a little crude technically, but I find that to be part of its charm. Like most Marx Brothers films, the plot isn't particularly important. It plays second-fiddle to their hilarious hi-jinks, and there are plenty of them to savor. The musical numbers can be a bit tedious, but they're worth sitting through while we wait for Groucho, Harpo, and Chico to take center stage. Oh, yeah, Zeppo's in this one, too, but who really expects much from him?

One of the delights of "The Cocoanuts" is the presence of a pre-stardom Kay Francis who would soon sign with Warner Bros. and become one of their highest paid stars. Sadly, her reign as the queen of Warners was short-lived, and she is rather obscure today, but she was not only a great actress, but an absolute babe! Having seen her in this, I now look forward to seeing more of her films.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Morte a Venezia

A pedophile fantasy
I never read "Death in Venice," but I'm sure it concerns more than an artist's homosexual longings. Luchino Visconti's 1971 film is interested in little else. Considering that Visconti and his star, Dirk Bogarde, were both gay, that is hardly surprising. In Mann's novel, the artist is a painter. Visconti makes him a composer, an odd choice for a film maker who one would expect to relate better to another visual artist. Maybe Visconti was attempting to distance himself from the character, to make his film appear less autobiographical and less scandalous.

The object of beauty with which Bogarde's composer becomes obsessed is a young boy of 15 with delicate features and a long mane of wavy blonde hair. Played by Bjorn Andresen in his film debut, he dresses in a sailor's suit through much of the film and resembles a doll. He is, indeed, an "object" to admire like a painting or piece of statuary. He has almost no dialogue. He is present to be observed and to occasionally acknowledge Bogarde's stares with a teasing glance. The boy is wise enough to know this man is enthralled by his beauty and seems to enjoy the power it gives him. The boy could literally bring the man to his knees. If "Death in Venice" was a porno film, he would, too, but this is art, you know, so the boy keeps his nice white sailor's slacks on and Bogarde communicates his passion only through longing gazes.

"Death in Venice" has an intellectual veneer, but it's really about a gay pedophile. That doesn't disqualify it from consideration as art. Indeed, sexual passion has likely inspired some of the greatest masterpieces, and when the passion is forbidden, all that pent-up desire needs an outlet. But homosexuals have never been stigmatized in the arts as they have been in other professions. As a film director, Visconti likely had many opportunities to indulge his sexual appetite that would not have been available to a closeted accountant or grocery store clerk. Still, he channeled his passions into his work. There's little doubt that Bjorn Andresen was cast as the boy who ignites Bogarde's passion because Andresen ignited Visconti's. In later years, Andresen acknowledged that Visconti had a sexual interest in him and took him to gay bars during filming.

Visconti's homosexuality informs "Death in Venice," but there is a larger theme even though the director reduces it to a footnote. An outbreak of cholera in Venice leads not to concerns about the artist's own health as might be expected, but to fear that it will harm the boy and wipe his beauty from the earth. The artist is also sad about the passing of his own youth and lets a barber dye his hair and powder his face to improve his appearance. Age, the inevitability of decay, etc, are what "Death in Venice" is supposedly about, and the symbolism in the ending is a little too obvious.

The theatrical trailer included on the DVD flashes the word "Masterpiece" on the screen, but does not attribute it to any critic. Visconti was an artist, but that doesn't make every film he made a masterpiece. "Death in Venice" doesn't make it. Other than the lovely shots of Bjorn Andresen's face, the imagery makes no lasting impression, and without memorable images, all we are left with is music by Gustav Mahler accompanying an emotionally muted and ultimately shallow homosexual fantasy.

Brian W. Fairbanks


Pretentious drek
Jack Nicholson is lucky that actor Rip Torn quit "Easy Rider" after butting heads with director Dennis Hopper. If he hadn't been hired as Torn's replacement, where would he be now? Before finding belated stardom in the 1969 biker flick, Nicholson dabbled in screen writing, but his most notable credit, 1968's "Head," wouldn't be remembered at all today if not for the film's stars: the Monkees. The faux pop quartet consisting of two real musicians (Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) and two actors (Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz) were created as TV's answer to the early Beatles. In an example of killing two birds with one stone, "Head" marked both their big screen debut and their last gasp as stars of any medium.

There is no plot and no story, but in the waning days of the LSD-drenched 1960s, that didn't matter much. Few things geared to youth made sense back then, including some of the best music made by the Beatles ("I am the walrus, goo-goo-goo-joob"). Clarity and coherence weren't "hip," baby, so any amateur with access to a typewriter could tap out a screenplay and be taken seriously as an artist. What counted was the "Statement" you made about the "System," man, or about the "Man" himself, whoever he was. Television was always a good target, and it is the subject of some "commentary" in "Head," just as it was in Nicholson's equally lame and all but forgotten directorial debut, "Drive, He Said." The boob tube's crimes are not made clear. We see a TV as someone flips through the channels, and the clips of old movies (including 1934's "The Black Cat" with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) are better than anything that Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson can come up with. We also see news footage of Vietnam, Rita Hayworth in "Gilda," and an ad for Playtex Cross Your Heart bra. At some point, the Monkees are trapped in a box which is probably meant to symbolize TV. We see the boys on television, as well, until Victor Mature (yes, Victor Mature of "Samson and Delilah," "The Robe," and the original "Kiss of Death") kicks the set and sends them rolling down a hill of sand and over a bridge, and . . . well, who really cares?

The 1970 film version of "Myra Breckinridge" also used a lot of vintage film clips. Like "Head," it proved that the filmmaker who cannibalizes other, better movies for his own film has no worthwhile ideas of his own. "Head" has some decent music, notably a dreamy Gerry Goffin-Carole King effort called "Porpoise Song," which the Monkees only managed to take to # 62 on the Billboard chart in October 1968. Less than a year earlier, they were outselling the Beatles and spent four weeks at # 1 with "Daydream Believer" and two weeks at # 3 with "Valleri." If their appeal hadn't already waned, "Head" surely would have killed it.

Brian W. Fairbanks

American Teen

Seemingly staged "documentary"
Although I like documentaries, I tend to favor those about historical events or historical figures with film clips and an off-screen narrator rather than those in which a camera follows "real" people around, supposedly capturing events as they occur without benefit of, well, you know, a script. The presence of a camera changes everything, does it not? The presence of a camera is only too obvious in "American Teen," a supposed documentary that I found as believable as any TV "reality show" or your average bestselling memoir.

In this film, the subject is a group of Idaho teenagers who are experiencing their final year of high school. The kids themselves are all stereotypes, even if they are "real." There's the popular girl, the jock, the nerd, the misfit, etc. These are all average kids, we're told, but how many average kids would be willing to subject themselves to exposure in a documentary? Of course, I speak as someone who grew up in the days before the Internet and Facebook, both of which seem to have led to an epidemic of narcissism and a complete lack of concern about something as silly as privacy, so maybe I'm out of touch. Still, it's rather apparent that some of the incidents in "American Teen" are staged.

The most obvious example of pre-planning is when Megan, the popular girl, gets back at someone for an offense I don't remember, by spray-painting a nasty word and a nastier drawing on his window. She does it even though she's well aware that she's being filmed. Later, while the cameras are still running, she worries about the possibility of getting caught. Of course, she is caught and called on the carpet by the principal, and it's all caught on film.

"American Teen" is a phony, and proof that, if you really want to tell the truth, do it with fiction.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Dances with Wolves

"Dances With Wolves" won seven Academy Awards for 1990, including best picture and best director, both of which were claimed by the film's star, Kevin Costner, whose performance was also recognized with a nomination. There's been grumbling from film buffs that Costner's triumph was undeserved, that Martin Scorsese's gangster epic, "Goodfellas," should have won, with Scorsese taking the director prize, and there's been a tendency to sneer at Costner's directorial debut ever since. If the Academy was turned off by "Goodfellas"'s violence and misanthropic characters, they could feel safe voting for "Dances With Wolves" since it seemed more noble, in the same vein as "Gandhi." As Kevin Costner's Calvary officer makes peace with an Indian tribe and they welcome him into their fold, it speaks well of the human race, certainly more so than Ray Liotta talking fellow mobster Robert DeNiro out of "whacking" a fellow hoodlum. "Dances With Wolves" has its villains, all of them white U.S. calvary soldiers, whose anti-Indian actions make them racists, and, therefore, deserving of the audience's hatred.

Native American issues were big at the time, thanks in part to the critical and popular success of Forrest Carter's "The Education of Little Tree," a "memoir" of the author's childhood as the member of a Cherokee tribe that continued to be popular long after Carter was exposed as Asa Carter, a pro-segregationist former Klansman and speechwriter for Alabama governor George Wallace, and definitely not a Cherokee. A true Native American author, Sherman Alexie, was also making a mark at this time with such novels as "Reservation Blues." In short, Costner's feel-good epic was the right movie at the right time, very appealing to audiences, who made it a several hundred million dollar grosser, and the Academy, who could vote for it and feel as though they were finally addressing the grievances that Marlon Brando introduced when declining his Oscar for "The Godfather" 18 years earlier in protest of Hollywood's treatment of Indians in all those John Ford westerns.

I avoided "Dances With Wolves" for years, having dismissed it as politically correct, New Age slop in a pretty package. I finally caught up with it in 2006 and was impressed. Slow moving and rather boring at times, especially when Costner reads from his diary in a monotone that would have gotten him kicked out of any high school drama class, it is nonetheless an extraordinary achievement overall, with lovely cinematography and a John Barry score that's already a classic. When it comes, the action is well-staged, particularly a buffalo stampede, and the Indian's attack on the Calvary troop that has taken Costner hostage. There's a lot of mystical nonsense, including the shot of a wolf howling from a cliff, but it's moving regardless, especially set to Barry's majestic score.

Although it's often classified as a western, "Dances With Wolves" is more of an historical epic, though a fictional one. I don't think it deserved the Oscar over "Goodfellas," but it was far more deserving of that prize than many other films that the Academy has honored through the years, and Costner gambled with his career to make it.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Harry & Son

A mess
"Harry and Son" must have meant a lot to Paul Newman because he not only played Harry, but co-wrote the story and screenplay, as well as co-produced and directed the film. His wife, Joanne Woodward, also got dragged into this mess in a small supporting role.

Before Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Newman's buddy Robert Redford stepped behind the camera and won Oscars for directing, Newman won a lot of praise and some awards for his 1968 directorial debut, "Rachel, Rachel," for which Woodward received an Oscar nomination. The film was also nominated for best picture, but Newman was passed over by the director's branch who nominated Stanley Kubrick for "2001: A Space Odyssey" instead (although it might be more accurate to say the Academy gave the best picture nomination that "2001" deserved to the Newman-Woodward film). Whatever promise Newman showed behind the camera wasn't fulfilled, however, and Newman directed only a handful of other films, the best of which, in my opinion, was 1971's "Sometimes a Great Notion" from Ken Kesey's novel about a logging family in Oregon that featured a remarkable scene involving a drowning.

"Harry and Son" suggests that, as a director, Newman was spent. His first mistake was in casting himself as a construction worker, an ornery guy who would have been more suitable for George C. Scott, but made his biggest misstep by casting Robby Benson as his son. Robby Benson!? There was a time in the '70s before the Brat Pack era of the next decade when the soft-voiced, overly pretty, and annoyingly coy Benson seemed to get all the major male roles between the ages of 16 and 25. Fortunately, until the Brat Pack era of which he was not a part, there weren't too many major roles in movies for males aged 16 to 25. Movie audiences, even the 18-25 year olds said to represent the demographic Hollywood covets most, preferred stories with adult characters played by middle-aged actors, whether it was Sean Connery (or Roger Moore) as James Bond, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, or any of the roles played by Newman, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Burt Reynolds, and the other box-office draws of that era.

Benson was awful in just about everything he did, and always too goody-goody and sensitive to be believed. He's not convincing as Newman's son, nor does he believably portray a writer which the construction worker's son aspires to be. He sits grimacing at his typewriter, aggressively pounding the keys, and when his father asks why the stories he writes are always being rejected, he calmly says, "It's part of the ritual." That sounds like a remark that a neophyte writer would write for a character who is a writer. It's not what a writer would likely utter while watching the rejection slips piling up, suffering a crisis of confidence on one hand, and feeling defensively superior on the other.

Newman isn't much better. I guess he couldn't help it if he looks too handsome and physically fit for a 58-year-old laborer, but that's because he wasn't a laborer. He was a 58-year-old movie star who kept himself in tip-top shape and resembles a male model more than a construction worker even in his snug jeans and flannel shirt. Newman would convincingly play a blue collar guy a decade later in the excellent "Nobody's Fool," but he didn't write the script for that and left the directing to Robert Benton. As for Benson, he went on to voice the beast in Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast," and has mercifully remained behind-the-camera ever since. Sorry, Robby, but as an actor, you stank.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Dark Passage

Preposterous but fascinating film noir
"Dark Passage" is a silly film when you look at it objectively, but an effective film noir, a subgenre that, though set in the real world, has an exaggerated, almost feverish quality, emphasizing the dread, anxiety, and paranoia of modern life.

Humphrey Bogart plays a man who escapes from prison where he was sent after being wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife, and tries to prove his innocence and bring the true culprit to justice. The plot may bring to mind The Fugitive, but unlike that film's hero, Bogart's Vincent Parry remains a fugitive even after undergoing plastic surgery to conceal his identity. This is film noir, after all, which rarely concludes on a happy note.

In retrospect, "Dark Passage" was an unusual choice for Bogart at a time when he was at the height of his box-office power. We are 37 minutes into the film before we see him, and even then his face is covered in bandages. Prior to that, we hear his voice and see the action through his eyes. Those bandages don't come off until we are one hour and two minutes into the action. Jack Warner is said to have opposed a production in which the star spends a third of its running time off-screen, but his protests were registered too late, after filming had already begun on San Francisco locations.

Warner may have also had qualms about the story. It's far-fetched, with Bogart crawling through the bushes after his escape while a police chase is in progress. Bacall, as an artist who never met Bogart's character but followed his trial in the newspaper, just happens to be driving by at the time. She gives him a ride, and then shelters him in her classy apartment. "I don't believe in fate or destiny, or any of those things," she tells him when explaining how she rescued him. Director Delmer Daves who wrote the screenplay based on a novel by David Goodis, may not have believed in those things either, but, what the heck, bring 'em on if your story is too weak for more sensible solutions.

Bogart's encounter with the plastic surgeon occurs after equally unlikely circumstances. A chatty cab driver who "can tell what people think, what they do, sometimes even who they are" from looking at their faces, recognizes Parry, but is sympathetic to his troubles. Rather than turn him in to the police, he takes him to see a friend, a plastic surgeon who works out of a tiny office hidden away in a dark alley. "I perfected my own special technique 12 years ago," he says, "before I was kicked out of the Medical Association." This is the kind of doctor who also did the work that turned Jack Nicholson into the Joker in 1989's "Batman," but Bogart fares much better, emerging with the face of the world's greatest movie star.

The film's most memorable scene is when Bogart, obviously drugged during surgery, hallucinates, and we see the surgeon cackling hysterically like the mad doctor in a horror movie. Drugs and their effect were pretty much a new topic in movies in that era (see "Murder, My Sweet" for a similarly grotesque hallucination), but it was not unusual in film noir.

"There's no such thing as courage," the doctor tells his apprehensive patient. "There's only fear - a fear of getting hurt and a fear of dying." Fear haunts Bogart throughout Dark Passage, and is often the dominant emotion in film noir. The poor guy can't even eat in peace when he stops at one of those all-night diners that frequently turn up in noir. A detective grills him about his identity, and Bogart is on the run again.

"Dark Passage" is not a great film, but it's weird and interesting, a must-see for devotees of both Bogart and film noir.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Werewolf of London

The gorgeous Valerie Hobson!
The best thing about 1935's "Werewolf of London" is not the performances of Henry Hull and Warner Oland, or the werewolf makeup created by the legendary Jack Pierce for Hull's transformation from man to beast. The true star of this Universal horror film is Valerie Hobson who played Elizabeth in the same year's "Bride of Frankenstein." According to Gregory William Mank, author of "It's Alive," a book about the Frankenstein series, the English born Hobson was only 17 that year, a minor, and therefore too young to play the wife of either Colin Clive or Henry Hull. You'd never know it though. She has a poise and maturity that belies her youth. She's also stunningly beautiful and deserving of greater fame and stardom than she achieved. She was hampered, no doubt, by her association with Universal, a studio whose most memorable films in the 1930s and 1940s were all in the horror genre. The only requirement for an actress when chased by Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, or a werewolf was to shriek at the top of her lungs while still looking gorgeous. Hobson excelled at meeting those requirements, but she was a good actress, deserving of better, more challenging roles.

Hobson is very convincing at conveying terror when confronted with Hull's wolf man, but since Hull isn't that terrifying to behold, her reaction is the only thing that makes the horror scenes effective. Other than the fangs, Hull's sideburns and pompadour bring to mind a beatnik from the pre-rock n' roll 1950s. I can picture Hull be-bopping at a corner table in a café where goateed poets recite wretched verse, scarves tied around their necks, smoking cigarettes and sipping lattes. The film is also short on atmosphere, crying out for fog or something to create an aura of menace. It's little wonder that Universal's first excursion into lycanthropy was deemed a failure. It would take Lon Chaney, Jr. and 1941's "The Wolf Man" to make a success of this theme.

But I will continue to rank "Werewolf of London" alongside the more superior films from Universal's Golden Age of Horror because it provides a rare opportunity to appreciate the beauty and talent of Valerie Hobson.

Brian W. Fairbanks

The Wolfman

Not great, but not quite a disaster either
The remake of The Wolfman does not resonate the way the original 1941 film does. I even found myself thinking back to scenes from that version while watching this ultimately disappointing revision. In a sense, it's inaccurate to say I was disappointed because I really wasn't expecting much. Even before I read the mostly dismissive reviews, the film's history had marked it as a misfire. In addition to several changes in directors, the film was scheduled for release in spring 2009, then rescheduled several times before finally opening this weekend. But though this is no classic, or even a movie that's likely to linger in the mind for more than a minute after the credits roll, it's hardly a disaster. It certainly helps to have a fondness for the Universal horror classics from the '30s and '40s, even though this film has more in common with the lesser films from that period. It's more on a par with House of Frankenstein or The Mummy's Ghost than with Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, or The Black Cat.

On the plus side, the sets are impressive, and the effects are effective, but not surprisingly, the emphasis is on gore more than atmosphere. It lacks the haunting power of the original which was simpler, less pretentious, and superior despite special effects that were limited to fog and Jack Pierce's makeup for Lon Chaney, Jr. (Universal dropped the "Jr" in the official credits.)

Blood and guts are very prominent in this full color remake which draws on but wildly diverts from Curt Siodmak's 1941 screenplay, and also pays slight homage to Hammer's Curse of the Werewolf with Oliver Reed. As is typical of contemporary horror films (and those based on comic book characters), everything is overdone, including the story which presents us with two werewolves. The climax is a battle between the two snarling creatures that reminded me of the fight between the two beasts in the Edward Norton version of The Incredible Hulk. The best scene is one in an asylum where Larry Talbot, believed to be insane, is gagged and bound in a roomful of doctors while a full moon is on the rise outside. Their theories about Talbot's mental state are soon ripped to bloody shreds.

Benicio Del Toro is fine as Talbot, Emily Blunt is lovely as his late brother's fiancée, and Anthony Hopkins is okay, but he's on hand to lend the film his stature more than his talent. Rick Baker's makeup is effective, and Danny Elfman's score is okay, but not as memorable as Frank Skinner's simpler, yet spookier, score for the original. The Wolfman is far from great, and it leaves no cliché untouched, but it delivers enough of the ingredients you'd expect from a werewolf movie to earn a passing grade.

Brian W. Fairbanks

My Father's House

Well-acted and produced, "My Father's House" is a rather depressing drama made for ABC-TV that finds heart attack victim Cliff Robertson remembering the happier times of his youth.

With Robert Preston playing his father in the flashbacks, and with death casting a grim shadow over the story, this is almost a companion piece to 1963's "All the Way Home," based on James Agee's "A Death in the Family." In some ways, it's also reminiscent of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone episode "Walking Distance" in which a middle-aged Gig Young is transported back in time to his secure, carefree and happier childhood. There's nothing supernatural here, though. Grim reality is explored instead, and the results are frequently moving and depressing as hell.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Columbo: Murder by the Book
Episode 1, Season 1

First "Columbo" series episode
Peter Falk's third appearance as Columbo (after a pair of two-hour NBC World Premiere Movies) officially kicked off the "Columbo" series, as well as the "NBC Mystery Movie" in September 1971.

Filmed after the superior "Death Lends a Hand," but aired first, it has the distinction of having been directed by Steven Spielberg in those days before "Jaws" when he was still cranking out episodic television on the backlot of Universal. There are some smart directorial touches, particularly in the opening scenes where the sound of Martin Milner's typewriter serves as the sole soundtrack, but this a disappointing episode overall.

As the less talented half of a famous mystery writing team (not unlike Richard Levinson and William Link, "Columbo"'s creators), Jack Cassidy makes a classy villain, one who would be invited to square off against Peter Falk on two more occasions (including season three's "Publish or Perish" which was also set against a publishing background). Unfortunately, Steven Bochco's script drags along, making this a frequently dull episode. Worse, the denouement finds Columbo wrapping things up based on flimsier than usual evidence. Had the killer not confessed, he could have walked away from his crime.

Still, Peter Falk is terrific, and makes it worth watching.

Brian W. Fairbanks


The worst Oscar winning best picture. EVER!
Very simply, "Crash" is the worst film to win the Oscar for best picture. Ever! "Crash" may even be the worst film to be nominated for Hollywood's highest honor. Condescending, contrived, and trite, this is the work of hacks. The screenplay violates one of the simplest but most important rules of writing in ways even a C student in screen writing would be unlikely to do. Ever heard the command to SHOW, NOT TELL?

Since neither Paul Haggis nor his co-conspirators have the talent to show the effects of racism on individuals and society, they tell. And tell. And tell. The actors might as well be reciting a newspaper column, one written way back in the 60s, a decade when this pretentious, self important piece of tripe might have managed to fool even the wisest among us that it had some relevance. Then again, the 60s was the decade of "In the Heat of the Night," not to mention the more obscure "Pressure Point," both of which looked at race relations with unblinking honesty and a knowledge of how people really act, think, and talk. The characters in "Crash" are laughable stereotypes who rarely utter one word that sounds like something that would emerge from the mouth of a real human being.

Not since "Doctor Doolittle" scored an Oscar nomination for best picture in 1967 (depriving "In Cold Blood," "Cool Hand Luke," and several other better films of that honor) has Oscar made a blunder as bad as giving his top prize to this dim-witted dud.

In the Heat of the Night

Once timely, now timeless
One of the great films of the 60s, "In the Heat of the Night" hasn't aged a bit in the four decades since its release and now deserves to be ranked with the great films of all time. Beautifully atmospheric, Haskell Wexler's brilliant cinematography and Norman Jewison's first rate direction make you feel the humidity of the small Mississippi town in which a black detective teams with the redneck sheriff to solve the murder of an important industrialist.

As sheriff Bill Gillespie, Rod Steiger is superb in his Oscar winning role, and this film provides Sidney Poitier with some of his greatest screen moments, including his famous admonition to Steiger that became the title of the less impressive 1970 spin off: "They call me MISTER Tibbs!"

This is one of the few politically correct films to make its point without resorting to heavy-handed, sanctimonious preaching. Stirling Silliphant's Oscar winning screenplay never hits a false note, and the change that occurs in the relationship between the leading characters is subtle, and, therefore, believable. The two stars are ably supported by an outstanding cast of both veterans (Lee Grant, Warren Oates, Beah Richards) and newcomers (Scott Wilson, Quentin Dean, and the delightfully creepy Anthony James). The score by Quincy Jones, featuring Ray Charles' rendition of the title song, captures the proper mood throughout.

In a year when the odds-makers were predicting an Oscar victory for "Bonnie and Clyde" or "The Graduate," "In the Heat of the Night" surprised the prognosticators by taking the Best Picture prize and four other Oscars. Considering its theme of racial tolerance, it seemed an appropriate choice at an Oscar ceremony that was postponed following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The film's theme made it timely, but its artistry makes it timeless.

The Academy made the right choice.

Brian W. Fairbanks

The Bob Newhart Show

Classic sitcom
Not cutting edge like "All in the Family," and lacking the social relevance of Mary Tyler Moore's single woman who was gonna make it after all in a man's world, "The Bob Newhart Show," which shared the CBS Saturday night lineup with those shows in the 70s, nonetheless had the strongest legs. While Archie Bunker fumbled once daughter Gloria and "Meathead" moved out, leaving him without a regular nemesis, "The Bob Newhart Show" delivered first rate comedy as dependably in its last season as it did in its first.

Newhart was a more mature Seinfeld in that most of the madness was provided by the supporting cast, and a terrific one it was too: Suzanne Pleshette, sassy and sexy as Bob's earthy wife, Emily; Peter Bonerz as the dentist and sarcastic ladies man, Jerry Robinson; and Bill Daley as perpetually befuddled pilot Howard Borden. Then there was Marcia Wallace as snippy receptionist Carole, the wonderful John Fiedler as mousy Mr. Peterson, and Jack Riley as the truly deranged Mr. Carlin. All had their moments of brilliance, but it was Newhart, with his low-key genius, who held the show together and made it work. A comedy classic.


First three seasons are superb
"M*A*S*H" is a rarity: a TV show based on a theatrical feature that immediately surpassed the original in quality, and eventually dwarfed it in popularity, as well.

On the downside, as "M*A*S*H" grew into a pop culture phenomenon in the late 70s and early 80s, its quality declined, a none too surprising development when actors gain more clout and demand a bigger piece of the pie. So instead of providing some solid laughs as a relatively minor character, Jamie Farr's cross-dressing Corporal Klinger put on pants and was pushed too much in the forefront, perhaps to compensate for co-star Mike Farrell's complete lack of charisma. Worse, perhaps, was the addition of David Ogden Stiers as Major Winchester, as pompous as Larry Linville's Major Burns but never as funny or believable.

The show's main failure was that its creators seemed to let the critical praise go to their heads. With each passing season, "M*A*S*H" took itself more seriously, and spent too much time sermonizing when the anti-war message was more effective when it was subtly weaved into the laughs.

The first three seasons are superb - classic television at its best - thanks in no small part to the presence of Wayne Rogers, likable as Trapper John where Alan Alda's Hawkeye was frequently smug, and McLean Stevenson as Col. Henry Blake who provided the show with much of its heart. Their simultaneous departure after the third season was a wound that the best surgeons of "M*A*S*H" couldn't heal.

Brian W. Fairbanks

The Kremlin Letter

Spy thriller missing in action
After performing poorly at the box-office in 1970, John Huston's "The Kremlin Letter" had at least one network showing (on ABC in 1974), then disappeared without a trace.

I haven't seen this John Huston directed thriller since the year of its release (I saw it at the drive-in where it played second fiddle to another obscure movie, "Barquero" with Lee Van Cleef). I was but a lad at the time and it struck me as intriguingly perverse, packed end-to-end with double-dealing, backstabbing characters who made James Bond and his villainous opponents look like boring Boy Scouts. The cast, including Patrick O' Neal in a rare leading role and "Peyton Place" veteran Barbara Parkins, is excellent, but it's the great Richard Boone who steals the show with a commanding performance.

Is "The Kremlin Letter" as superb as I remember, or was I too young to recognize it as trash the first time I saw it? Until it's rescued from the vault, it's a purely academic question. 20th Century Fox recently released "Myra Breckinridge," another of their neglected (and in that case, deservedly so) 1970 titles on DVD. It's time for them to do the same for "The Kremlin Letter."

The Snoop Sisters

Before "Murder, She Wrote"
Long before Angela Lansbury brightened TV screens as the mystery writing sleuth of "Murder, She Wrote," Helen Hayes, the first lady of the American theater, joined forces with film veteran Mildred Natwick to solve crimes as "The Snoop Sisters," one of four rotating segments during the second season of The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie.

"The Snoop Sisters" had rather obvious roots in Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mysteries but also tried to be a senior citizen revamping of "McMillan and Wife," which was the product of the same producers. Hayes and Natwick are delightful, but for obvious reasons a show starring two aged performers lacked the slam-bang action that viewers might have preferred in the cop heavy atmosphere of the 1973-74 TV season.

Lacking the wit or clever plotting of "Columbo," this series never got off the ground. Even a guest appearance by then red-hot rocker Alice Cooper in one episode failed to enliven the proceedings. After four 90 minute episodes, "The Snoop Sisters" joined the rest of The NBC Wednesday (and at midseason, Tuesday) Mystery Movie segments ("Banacek," "Tenafly," and "Faraday and Company") on the trash heap of cancelled programs.


"It's Bana-CHECK"
After years of playing what he described to TV Guide as "tight-jawed men of action" in routine theatrical films, George Peppard made his small-screen bow as the star of "Banacek," one of three series ("Madigan" and "Cool Million" were the others) that rotated under the umbrella of The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie when it premiered in September 1972 (following in the successful footsteps of the original Mystery Movie trio of "Columbo," "McCloud," and "McMillan and Wife" which moved to Sundays for their second season).

Almost every TV cop had a gimmick in that era, be it a wheelchair ("Ironside"), a Stetson ("McCloud"), or a walking stick ("Longstreet"). Thomas Banacek's appeal had much to do with his being Polish, and the sleuth (actually an insurance investigator) had enough confidence and sex appeal to counter any ethnic joke that came his way. When he wasn't seducing the leading ladies, he was correcting those who mispronounce his name ("It's Bana-CHECK"), more often than not with a smart-a** response.

Like "Columbo," this show's mysteries weren't who-done-its so much as they were how'd-they-do-it? Each episode opened with a mysterious disappearance (a football player vanishes after being tackled in one show, a priceless artifact or an airplane disappears in another) that Banacek would spend the bulk of each 90-minute episode attempting to solve. Smoking fine cigars, and displaying an expertise on the more elegant things in life that would make James Bond envious, Banacek could be insufferably arrogant, and Peppard inhabited the character to perfection.

"Banacek" was introduced in a two-hour World Premiere movie which aired on NBC in the 1971-72 season, then went on to headline 16 episodes from 1972-74. Despite healthy ratings, Peppard, whose contract with Universal and NBC originally called for a weekly series, and was therefore easily broken, bowed out in the hope of producing and directing a film about Long John Silver. When that project failed to materialize, he returned to series TV in the lesser "Doctors Hospital" in 1975 but enjoyed his greatest success as the leader of "The A Team" in the 80s. But "Banacek" remains his finest work in the television medium.


One of NBC's Mystery Movie segments
After striking ratings gold with the original NBC Mystery Movie ("Columbo," "McMillan and Wife," "McCloud") in 1971-72, the network and Universal hoped to duplicate the success with a second night of rotating detective shows. The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie premiered a year later, but though viewers tuned in to "Banacek," "Madigan," and "Cool Million," they apparently didn't warm to them, and in fall 73, the network wiped the slate clean (except for the returning "Banacek") and introduced three new shows, one of which, "Tenafly," seemed to have potential since it was the creation of Richard Levinson and William Link, the team responsible for the show that made Peter Falk a household name.

"Tenafly" starred James McEachin, a Universal contract player whose most notable role was as Clint Eastwood's fellow DJ in "Play Misty For Me." An African-American family man whose job just happened to be as a private detective, Tenafly was refreshing due to his lack of gimmicks (no lollipops, no wheelchair, no Stetson, no raincoat, etc). Maybe a gimmick would have helped the show distinguish itself in a television season dubbed by Time magazine as "The Year of the Cop." After four 90 minute episodes, "Tenafly," like the other Mystery Movie segments introduced in fall 1973 ("The Snoop Sisters," "Faraday and Company"), disappeared after one season.

The four episodes (a pilot boosts the episode count to five) are all entertaining but fairly standard fare typical of the era.

Faraday and Company

Segment of NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie
Mildly diverting series that was one of the four rotating segments of The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie during its second and final season (1973-74). Dan Dailey, previously seen in the ABC sitcom "The Governor and J.J.," played Dan Faraday, a private detective who returns to Los Angeles after a quarter century in a South American jail. The son he didn't know he had is now in business as a private investigator. Dad helps him solve cases, along with girl Friday Sharon Gless, several years away from success as one half of "Cagney and Lacey."

The entertainment value of most of the episodes (only four were produced) were dependent on Dailey's attempts to grapple with a world that passed him by. The charm that saw Dailey through numerous big screen musicals is showcased in each episode to good effect, but the premise was a bit too gimmicky to ensure a long run. After one season, "Faraday and Company" was cancelled along with "Banacek" (in its second season), "Tenafly," and "The Snoop Sisters." NBC, having failed to duplicate the success of the original "Mystery Movie" trio ("Columbo," "McMillan and Wife," and "McCloud") that premiered in 1971, cancelled the second night of mysteries all together.

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure

Beyond hope
After bombing with "The Swarm," producer Irwin Allen, perhaps sensing that the disaster film cycle spawned by the success of "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno" was about to end, returned to the scene of his first major, I mean success...and gave us this unnecessary sequel.

No matter how much money they make, it seems actors, except for those at the absolute top of the box-office rankings, suffer from an insecurity difficult for most of us to imagine, always believing that their last movie will, indeed, be their last movie. What else can explain Michael Caine's presence in this film? Having appeared in Allen's disastrous "The Swarm" a year earlier, he surely didn't expect this one to be a winner. And then there's Sally Field who would win an Oscar for "Norma Rae" released later in the year. On the other hand, it's no surprise to see Telly Savalas lurking around in this mess. After years of asking "Who loves ya, baby?" as TV's "Kojak," he had no credibility left as an actor and this is the best he could hope for.

Stick to the original Poseidon. It stunk, but like a turd on the water, it could still float.

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