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Reviews

Sidewalks of New York
(2001)

Smart, palatable social comedy of errors with flavorful New York backdrop.
Similar, yet different, from his other films ("The Brother's McMullen" and `She's the One'), writer/director/producer/actor Edward Burns, with his typical minuscule budget, broaches on Woody Allen territory this time as he explores the ooohs, aaahs and owwwws (mostly the owwwws) of the marriage and dating game. The sights and sounds of New York is in the air as the movie zeroes in on six disparate Manhattanites, all of whom trying their damnest to find the no-real answer to happiness. No belly-laughs here, but a lot of knowing smiles.

This brash, perceptive, ultimately winning cyclical comedy first introduces us to good-looking, nice-guy Tommy (Ed Burns) who has just split up with his girlfriend and has been thrown out of her apartment. Tommy takes a sudden interest in evasive school teacher Maria (Rosario Dawson), whom he meets in a video store. Maria is divorced from small, tough-talking schlmiel Ben (David Krumholtz), a doorman and rock musician wannabe who cheated on her. Ben, still pining for Maria, finds a welcome distraction in edgy student/waitress Ashley (Brittany Murphy), who is having an affair with a much older and married dentist, Griffin (Stanley Tucci), whose suspecting wife Annie (Heather Graham), a real estate agent, has her eye on one of her customers, Tommy (back to Ed Burns again), who is (remember?) looking for a new pad since his girlfriend kicked him out. So much for the Kevin Bacon six degrees of separations and divorces angle.

To punch up the thought processes of our six relationship-minded specimens, Burns has given his film a documentary/reality TV feel. Each of our protagonists express their own individual and personal philosophies on the meaning of love and sex with a `man on the street' interviewer. These telling bits are conveniently spliced here and there into each of their ongoing stories, which are not only a biting commentary on the social scene, but often humorously contradict their actions and intent.

Burns, a native New Yorker, gives us a passionate, authentic, down-to-earth vision of his 'hood. No picaresque postcard images are to be found here. No tourist-like views of Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, etc. And just as dressed-down and down-to-earth is his solid ensemble cast. The stories are evenly laid out with no one performance getting short shrift. Burns, Dawson, Tucci, Murphy, Klumholtz, and Graham all have meaty roles here and each of their stories are well-presented and attention-grabbing. The philandering Tucci character, the least sympathetic of the bunch, still manages to drum up some pity, if not sympathy, for his subsequent actions. What's more, the outside circle, the peripheral friends/instigators/colleagues, etc., add immeasurably to the humor and atmosphere of the piece, particularly Aida Turturro as a worldly wise teacher/friend of Dawson's, Dennis Farina as Burns' overt male chauvinist boss, Michael Leydon Campbell in dual roles as a rocker and male half of a bickering married couple, and Callie Thorne as the bickering wife.

No one treats New York better than Woody Allen. With "Sidewalks of New York" Edward Burns pays tribute to this fair city, and he pays homage to Mr. Allen -- 1992's "Husbands and Wives" in particular. Notice Burns' analytical approach to his characters, the hand-held camera work and jump-cut style of editing (which is actually smoother and less jolting than in Allen's above-mentioned film), the pneumatic jazz score, the reflexive, conversational-like bantering between his characters, the episodic storylines, and, most importantly, the obvious devotion he has for NY. It all but spells out W-O-O-D-Y. But, in this case, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. He's learned well from the master.

Bullets Over Broadway
(1994)

Rollicking, rib-tickling 'Roaring 20s' comedy gem -- a diamond among the Woodman's recent rough.
Sadly, I've been let down by most of Woody Allen's recent comedies. So it was most rewarding indeed to see the Woodman back again true to form (after a lengthy drought) with 1994's Bullets Over Broadway." Fun, foamy, and clever, it has everything we've come to love and expect from the man.

While "Take the Money and Run" and "Bananas" first turned trendy audiences on to his unique brand of improvisational, hit-and-miss comedy episodes, and the more neurotic, self-examining cult hits like "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" cemented his Oscar-winning relationship with Hollywood, the comedy genius has stumbled mightily in this last decade. Attempting to contemporize his image with the coarse, foul-mouthed antics of a Coen or Farrelly brother (see "Mighty Aphrodite") is simply beneath him, and has been about as productive as Stevie Wonder taking a turn at hip-hop. Moreover, casting himself as a 65-year-old romantic protagonist with love interests young enough to be his grandchildren (see "Curse of the Jade Scorpion") has left a noticeably bad aftertaste of late. With "Bullets Over Broadway," however, Allen goes back to basics and wisely avoids the pitfalls of excessive toilet humor and self-aggrandizing casting, and gives us a light, refreshing bit of whimsical escapism. Woody may not be found on screen here, but his presence is felt throughout. Though less topical and analytical than his trademark films, this vehicle brings back a purer essence of Woody and might I say an early innocence hard-pressed to find these days in his work.

John Cusack (can this guy do no wrong?) plays a struggling jazz-era playwright desperate for a Broadway hit who is forced to sell out to a swarthy, aging king-pin (played to perfection by Joe Viterelli) who is looking to finance a theatrical showcase for his much-younger bimbo girlfirend (Jennifer Tilly, in a tailor-made role). The writer goes through a hellish rehearsal period sacrificing his words, not to mention his moral and artistic scruples, in order to appease his mob producers who know zilch about putting on a play. The rehearsal scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

Aside from Allen's clever writing, brisk pace and lush, careful attention to period detail, he has assembled his richest ensemble cast yet with a host of hysterically funny characters in spontaneous banter roaming in and about the proceedings. Cusack is his usual rock-solid self in the panicky, schelmiel role normally reserved for Woody. But even he is dwarfed by the likes of this once-in-a-lifetime supporting cast. Jennifer Tilly, with her doll-like rasp, is hilariously grating as the vapid, virulent, and thoroughly untalented moll. Usually counted on to play broad, one-dimensional, sexually belligerent dames, never has Tilly been give such golden material to feast on, putting her Olive Neal right up there in the 'top 5' fun-filled film floozies of all time, alongside Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont and Lesley Ann Warren's Norma Cassady. Virile, menacing Chazz Palminteri as the fleshy-lipped Cheech, a "dees, dem and dos" guard dog, reveals great comic prowess while affording his pin-striped hit man some touching overtones. Dianne Wiest, who has won bookend support Oscars in Woody Allen pictures (for this and for "Hannah and Her Sisters") doesn't miss a trick as the outre theatre doyenne Helen Sinclair, whose life is as grand and exaggerated off-stage as it is on. Her comic brilliance is on full, flamboyant display, stealing every scene she's in. Tracey Ullman is a pinch-faced delight as the exceedingly anal, puppy-doting ingenue, while Jim Broadbent as a fusty stick-in-the-mud gets his shining moments when his actor's appetite for both food and women get hilariously out of hand. Mary-Louise Parker, as Cusack's cast-off mate, gets the shortest end of the laughing stick, but lends some heart and urgency to the proceedings.

While the play flirts with a burlesque-styled capriciousness, there is an undercoating of seriousness and additional character agendas that keeps the cast from falling into one-note caricatures. And, as always, Woody's spot-on selection of period music is nonpareil. With healthy does of flapper-era Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, not to mention the flavorful vocal stylings of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, Allen, with customary finesse, affectionately transports us back to the glitzy, gin-peddling era of Prohibition and slick Runyonesque antics.

I remember the times when the opening of a new Woody Allen film was a main event. As such, "Bullets Over Broadway" is a comedy valentine to such days. In any respect, it's a winner all the way, especially for Woodyphiles.

Sweet Charity
(1969)

Big, splashy musical bursts at the seams with flash and style, but still feels empty.
Ya gotta have heart...as they say in the song. But `Sweet Charity,' a story of a luckless girl's neverending search for true love, doesn't. It sings a lot...a LOT!...but it never really SINGS. Lord knows, it knocks you over the head in its attempt. Dancer/director Bob Fosse (in his debut) throws lots of pizzazz and pop art distractions our way, but he can't disguise the fact that underneath all the gaudy hoopla is a simple story that's begging to be told, well, more simply. It's hard to care for this girl when her story is buried under tons of unnecessary spectacle. Dancer/director Gene Kelly had the same problem with `Hello, Dolly!' Maybe it has something to do with a dancer's visual and flashy sense of style. When in doubt...accessorize! Oh well, whatever mistakes Fosse made with this one, he redeemed himself twelve-fold with `Cabaret' a few years later.

Shirley MacLaine is a smart, obvious choice to handle the midadventures of Charity Hope Valentine. MacLaine has been down this road many times before...the kooky loser, the prostitute with a heart of gold. Her credentials include some of the best: "Some Came Running," "The Apartment," and "Irma la Douce." As Charity, MacLaine is pure show biz. She gamely takes on all of Fosse's garish extras and doesn't get lost, but it's a strenuous, no-holds-barred performance and it shows. She has much to compete with and Fosse doesn't help things by foisting every imaginable 1969 techno flash invented on her - scores of stills, jarring zoom-shots, pop art psychedelics, you name it -- giving everything a choppy feel to it. Every dramatic scene oozes pathos and bathos. Every hopeful scene gushes with giddiness. Every song comes out of the starting gate bigger, glitzier, more manic, more depressing, more invigorating, and, ultimately, less effective than the one preceding it. From Shirley's dizzy 'Somebody Loves Me' sequence as she dances about New York City to the wide-eyed `If They Could See Me Now'; from the relentlessly somber `Where Am I Going' to the relentlessly overdone `I'm a Brass Band,' every souped-up song for Charity chips away at the heart and soul of her...making her more of a cartoon and showcase for a big star. With all due respect to MacLaine, I often wonder what Fosse's then-wife at the time, Gwen Verdun, who originated the role on Broadway, might have done. The multiple Tony-winning dancer/actress was not a bankable film star and had the same kind of thin, reedy voice as MacLaine, but there is a built-in frailty and openness in Verdun that might have better suited the role.

As for the support staff, John McMartin as Oscar, a prospective suitor/savior, is rather bland and lost in all the chaos, a dim memory by picture's end. Ricardo Montalban is typically suave and narcissistic while Barbara Bouchet is breathtakingly beautiful, but both of them are forgettable too. Stubby Kaye, usually a sunny scenestealer, doesn't get to show off his stuff as well this time with only a so-so version of "I Love to Cry at Weddings." Groovy Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr.'s brief time on the screen gives the movie a time capsule feel with his `un-cool' version of `The Rhythm of Life.'

The true star is, of course, Fosse's trail-blazing choreography. Paula Kelly and Chita Rivera, as two of Charity's dance hall pals, add electricity to the seedy surroundings as they front the chorus of come-on gals in the crackling `Hey, Big Spender' number and join MacLaine in a soaring version of `There's Got to Be Something Better Than This.' The highlight, however, belongs to the kitschy `Frug' sequence. Fosse is at his best here though the sequence seems out of sync with the rest of the movie. For me, it's a natural tape rewinder.

Part of the problem (for those of us art-house snobs anyway) is the genuine awe we feel for `Nights of Cabiria,' Fellini's foreign masterpiece from whence this musical came. After seeing the tiny, Chaplinesque Giulietta Massina whose sad clown eyes spoke volumes as the gutsy, pitiable streetwalker determined to find love and a life of respect, much of "Sweet Charity" rings hollow and over-the-top.

There is entertainment value for sure, for anything by Fosse is definitely worth a look. But the heart of this movie is about as fake as the heart tattooed on Charity's shoulder. It becomes much ado about nothing.

Auto Focus
(2002)

Above-average bio-drama handles luridness with sharp leads, a sly point of view and wink-wink cleverness.
Those waiting to get a thrill out of the sleazy topic at hand may want to toss aside the raincoat for Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus" does not give in so much to the exploitive element as it does present a smart, clever, elbow-nudging look at the intriguing facade of actor Bob Crane, whose decidedly genial, wholesome image on TV was severely undermined by a pathological addiction toward sex.

It seems inconceivable that hopelessly smarmy material could be presented in ways other than smarmy, but if we look back, it has been done. None more so than Bob Fosse's "Lenny," which was another superbly directed account of an assertive, self-destructive sleaze (comedian Lenny Bruce) that effectively captured all the contrary motives of its protagonist with a bold, clever eye. Although "Auto Focus" is not on par with "Lenny," Greg Kinnear still manages to pretty much do for the "Hogan's Heroes" TV star what Dustin Hoffman did for the late comic.

Kinnear fascinates by not allowing his most complex and interesting character to date try and be all that complex. With almost a flawless superficiality, he manages to slip into the mind and pants of this TV personality with a, well, Bob Crane-like ease, and examine the not-all-that-deep dichotomy of a ladies' man torn and confused by a normal, seemingly healthy preoccupation. Kinnear plays the highly appealing Crane just as he was...with a smirk, a handshake, a joke, and a deceptively leering eye. It's a subtle, captivating package that actually pulls more weight and dimension than may be perceived.

The always interesting Willem Dafoe excels as Crane's creepy partner-in-slime, John Carpenter, who validates his lonely existence by servicing the stars. While setting up a music system for "Hogan's Heroes" co-star and buddy Richard Dawson, Carpenter happens upon an interested Crane and immediately picks up on the man's predilection for video equipment and a beautiful woman's body. In a matter of no time, the predatory Carpenter has leeched onto his biggest catch yet, a TV star, and, with arm around shoulder, willingly leads his pal down whatever mangy sexual road he cares to experience. With Crane first jokingly playing percussion at a strip joint, Carpenter slowly adds some of his own rim shots for extra measure in the form of wanton females, and off they go. Careless along the way, Crane's squeaky-clean Disney image starts to fall by the wasteside.

Director Paul Schrader introduces us into the pre-Hogan life of Crane with a clear, assured, brightly-colored camera focus as it recounts his more promising days as a talented "King of the Airwaves" disc jockey who earlier enjoyed a wholesome stint as Donna Reed's next-door-neighbor on her long-running sitcom. Even the opening credits seems to have a bouncy, upbeat, fanny-slapping "Rat Pack" allure to it. Schrader allows the happy-go-lucky Crane (Kinnear) himself to serve as an almost mirthful, posthumous narrator with tones of cheerful, bemused denial -- a narrative that easily recalls Kevin Spacey's darkly effective chronicle of his own life in "American Beauty." Ever so slowly, Schrader's camera begins to become grainier, muted, darker and shakier as Crane's life spirals out of control. By film's end the camera has served as the film's most potent metaphor...Crane's life has the cheap quality of a porn film.

Lots of jiggling babes with big mammaries to be found here, some pretty, some not, but Schrader's point is not for titillation. After a while, just like anything else, they become a blur. Teasing, but strangely unerotic, they start serving as your standard, every-day dangling carrots.

The movie, and the book on which it is based ("The Murder of Bob Crane") points the obvious finger at Carpenter as Crane's murderer. However, the movie is less efficient in setting up this accusation. To me, Carpenter knew the abject seriousness of Crane's addiction. A major desire to go straight and brief respite would probably not have lasted long. It had happened time and time again and they got back together. The two videophiles would have reconnected soon enough. The breaking-up scene seem half-hearted on Crane's part. What scared Carpenter this time in thinking Crane meant what he said? It wasn't set up as well as it could.

"Auto Focus" could have been just sleaze entertainment, but thankfully it offers much more thanks to director Schrader and actors Kinnear and Dafoe. Definitely worth seeing.

Sweet Home Alabama
(2002)

Cute, utterly predictable comedy redeemed by highly attractive casting.
Not a single fresh idea or inspired moment is to be had in "Sweet Home Alabama," the semi-Cinderella tale of an up-and-coming NY fashion queen on the threshold of marrying her absurdly wealthy, not to mention exceedingly handsome, Prince Charming who has to take care of a few loose ends before walking down the aisle. Yet I found myself coasting and smiling all the way through anyway. What a chump I am.

It seems our princess has a past. Her blonde New York coiffe has Southern white trailer trash roots -- and a Li'l Abner of a husband who won't give her a divorce. So off she treks back home to Alabama for the first time in seven years to force the grease monkey to sign on the dotted line and let her go on with the nouveau riche lifestyle she's meant to live. While there, of course, she confronts and owns up to a past she was once ashamed of. Gee, where is this heading?

Broaching on Meg Ryan territory and coming off a winner, Reese Witherspoon is just adorable. What can I say? Our new box office star is taking absolute fluff like this and turning it into box-office gold. She has a very promising future. Her petulant-princess-sees-the-light formula is going to work for her very well I predict. Witherspoon is ably supported by two fetching pieces of eye candy -- Josh Lucas and Patrick Dempsey -- as the laidback first hubby and too-good-to-be-true hubby-to-be respectively. The three of them are just so charming and so darn irresistible, they help me forget the truckload full of contrivances. And that's what makes movie stars movie stars.

Candice Bergen yet again throws out her Murphy Brown-styled barbs every which way, but actually has a couple of good zingers this time as Dempsey's unapproving mayor-mother. Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place relax into their Southern mom and dad roles like a pair of well-worn slippers.

'Taint nothing like a big heap of Southern hospitality and that's what you get here. Relax, take your shoes off, sit a spell, and enjoy.

The Fluffer
(2001)

Synthetic "Boogie Nights" wannabe -- stripped of strong story-line and, ultimately, characters.
Considering the good reviews this movie received, I expected quite a bit more. A young, just-off-the-bus L.A. neophyte with "camera experience" tosses a coin to see which direction his career will go -- legit or porn. Expecting to rent "Citizen Kane" one night at the video store, he accidentally winds up with a man-on-man movie entitled "Citizen Cum" and ends up drooling obsessively over its top blue star, Johnny Rebel. Before you know it Sean, our obsessive young protagonist, says the heck with mainstream and is scouting out the Men of Janus Studio (where Johnny Rebel is an exclusive client) praying for "behind"-the-scenes work, or anything else, so he can worship his newest wet dream up close. And so it goes...

What begins promisingly as a mild spoof on the porn business goes off the deep end and into so many tangents that "The Fluffer" more-or-less limps along until the final reel, with no one tangent garnering much interest. As played by Michael Cunio, the role of Sean is a meek, wimpy, sad-sack little patsy who you know is going to pay dearly for his impulsive and unrealistic choices. It's hard to sympathesize (though I certainly can relate) with a man-child who doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of finding true love with a straight, completely self-serving "gay-for-pay" hunk. Had he settled for living out the fantasy of the title role, he could have packed it up, called it a day, and carved a big notch on his bedpost. But then we wouldn't have had much of a story, would we? Suffice it to say, Cunio doesn't have the requisite charm or charisma to shoulder the weight the film begins to take on.

Now Scott Gurney is another story. An incredible speciman to watch and watch again, Gurney is the appetizer, main course and dessert of this movie meal. The embodiment of every superficial male fantasy in his various outfits, he alone is worth the price of admission. My favorite is his Indian gear which fronts the movie title "Poke-a-Hot-Ass." He's absolutely hot. He knows it. We know it. And he plays it as such. Gurney's laconic, superficial Johnny has a laidback, mesmerizing charm and streetwise surliness that keeps us from drifting too far off. He IS the movie.

Roxanne Day as "Babylon" the stripper-girlfriend of Johnny gets the most dramatic mileage out of the movie, having a number of taut, tense scenes. But the rest of the characters are cardboard in presentation. A few familiar names add little value to the movie. Comedian Taylor Negron, singer Deborah Harry, and character actors Tim Bagley, Richard Riehle and Robert Walden are completely wasted in tacky, thankless roles.

The movie strives to be a gay version of "Boogie Nights" but is undone by indifferent, poorly motivated characters and an uninventive, often turgid script. It has neither the grit nor the daring. Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler may not have quite the initial impact or animal magnetism of Gurney's Johnny Rebel, but it's a much more fleshed-out, tormented character, in pants and out, with lots of colors and shadings. Though both are afforded the familiar dramatic seductions of succumbing to the hand-in-hand pressures of porn fame and heavy drugs, the ego-driven complications of Dirk Diggler are infinitely more fascinating. Walden has the Burt Reynolds overseer role. But, again, it's predictable, flat and, though it's written to shock, comes off embarrassing.

As the title indicates, "The Fluffer" is a movie tease for gay men that shoots for more than it should. But Johnny Rebel WILL definitely keep your interest. And if Scott's legit career ever comes up a cropper...well, let's just say his BVDs could still sell DVDs.

Possession
(2002)

Exceedingly handsome but emotionally distant flash-back romancer not at all up to Merchant-Ivory standards.
This handsomely mounted costume drama uses that well-oiled gimmick of mirroring present and past love connections to whet the viewer's appetite. Strange then that one is left curiously undernourished by film's end.

One could point out the choppy, unflavorful script and erratic back-and-forth shifts between present and past. This technique worked more efficiently in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "The Bridges of Madison County," but, then again, both of these films had Meryl Streep at its emotional core. Sadly, she is not here to lift this one. Contemporary director Neil LaBute, who initially turned heads with his bold, unrelentingly caustic views on love ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors"), takes on a decidedly different approach, shooting straight for the heart instead of the gut...with mixed results.

The contemporary story pairs up Gwyneth Paltrow and LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart as two literary historians who get caught up with one another as they uncover surprising new information, via a chain of age-old love letters, of a torrid, highly discreet affair between two unlikely Victorian poets, played in flash-back by the charismatic Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle.

With all this potential talent aboard, someone forgot to add the requisite fire and passion to this supposedly fiery, passionate drama. The chemistry between Paltrow and Eckhart is strangely lacking. While Eckhart has a certain scruffy charm, his offbeat, rather jokey approach to this wise-guy character doesn't jell at all with the mood and tone of the piece. Paltrow, brushing up on her "Shakespeare in Love" accent, is slightly better (as well she should -- having proven herself earlier in "Emma"), but, again, her character is given a dull edge and she remains much too placid to ignite the contemporary love story.

Though the classically handsome Northam is the epitome of what a dashing costumed lover should be, and, ditto Ehle, who is reminiscent of Streep here with her serene, delicate, pinched features, their more interesting love story never gets to soar either. Problematic for them is the pace, which is too languid, and the emotional payoffs, which are either diffused or snuffed out. Worse yet, the impact of their story is diluted by the incessant narration (via the reading of the love letters) of the contemporary leads.

A gallant try I should say, and it is visually beautiful, but I think I'll stick to Merchant/Ivory at this time, thank you.

Stage on Screen: The Women
(2002)

Sharp, tangy update of Claire Booth Luce's catty classic stands on its own claws.
What a delightful surprise dusting off this furry warhorse after so long. This taped version of the Roundabout Theatre's 2001 stage production works remarkably well under the obvious constrictions. The camera work is clean and expedient, the outré costumes glorious, the hairstyles period-perfect, the sets fun and functional, and the performances frisky and stylish.

Claire Boothe Luce's stinging all-female play `The Women' was first filmed in 1939 and starred MGM's crème de la femme at the time: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, Virginia Weidler, etc. It's a wickedly cherished film that deftly chaffs at the idle rich (well, the idle FEMALE rich anyway) for all it's worth. A stage version is rarely seen these days due to the Luce estate, which is very protective of this property, and because of its enormous (ergo, expensive) cast, which has 24 women performing 36 roles.

Off-putting to some in that it continually punches home the fact that a woman's station in life at that time was to marry money and breed, Luce portrays her gadflies as little more than brainless, vindictive, status-seeking gossips who have absolutely no purpose in life outside marriage. Lying, cheating husbands were better than no husbands at all. Luce's contempt for the 30s woman is quite obvious. In fact, she was even accused of misogyny after writing this satire! The focus instead should be directed squarely on the delightfully sharp, acerbic dialogue, the incendiary characters, and the terrific interplaying of its distaff cast. It's amazing how well everything holds up after all these decades.

Though the performances are a mixed bag, nothing detracts from the overall fun to be had. Cynthia (`Sex and the City') Nixon heads the cast as that noble sufferer Mary Haines whose husband has been led astray after a solid decade of marital bliss. Highly appealing, Nixon effectively overrides the more treacly scenes (and she is given a few), while her quivery voice has an interesting Billie Burke ring to it. She gives the piece a strong center of gravity while justifying the more melodramatic intrusions in the play.

But it's the bitchiness, the cattiness, and the empty attitudes and platitudes that everyone wants served up. And, boy, do they ever get it! Kristen (`Third Rock from the Sun') Johnston as Nixon's `best friend' goes for broke in the hilariously gabby, astringent Roz Russell role. With her pearl-handled guns drawn, she draws instant blood while imposing a panther-like frenzy on the proceedings. Her antics are as wonderfully over-the-top as the Hedda Hopper-like headgear she gets to flaunt. She succeeds in putting her own indelible stamp on this wacky blueblood.

Jennifer Tilly, in the Joan Crawford role, has her scathing moments too as homewrecker Crystal Allen, especially while trading delicious barbs with her competition (Nixon), but she is far, far too obvious as the counter girl out to sleep her way into nouveau riche society. In a one-note performance, Tilly's screechy voice is so unappetizing, her nastiness so brash and her intentions so transparent, it's hard to believe any man would be foolish enough to tangle with her. Nothing subtle, nothing enticing, nothing clever...nothing special.

Give it up, however, for the incredible Jennifer (`Best in Show') Coolidge who induces laughter with every groan and grimace. Looking like she just ate a barrelful of persimmons, her grumpy, feather-brained socialite steals the limelight whenever she's on. An excellent comedy farceur, Coolidge has a series of uproarious moments, the best being her postpartum hospital scene following the birth of her fourth child. It's priceless.

In somewhat lesser roles, Rue McClanahan is quite marvelous as the flighty, French-spewing, love-hungry, often-divorced countess, while Mary Louise Wilson offers the perfect cutting edge as Nixon's all-knowing mother. But Hallie Kate Eisenberg (from the Pepsi commercials) is woefully wrong period-wise as Nixon's precocious daughter. It's an annoying, thankless part to begin with but she doesn't help things with her joltingly contemporary performance. As for the rest of the large cast, including the downstairs help (Heather Matarazzo and Mary Bond Davis), all are given the chance to shine.

The show moves at a fast clip and the jokes are rippingly fun. Most surprising is how coarse and risque the original play was. The 1939 version was obviously softened quite a bit to get past the censors. Here, they get to go for the throat. By the way, in 1956 there was a filmed MUSICAL remake called `The Opposite Sex' starring June Allyson, Joan Collins, Ann Sheridan, Dolores Gray, Agnes Moorehead, Ann Miller, and the wonderful, wonderful Alice Pearce as the loose-tongued manicurist. This interesting but misguided feature chose to give life to the husbands (Leslie Nielsen, Jim Backus, Dick Shawn, among them), which diminished its impact. Still, you might want to give it a once-over just for comparison's sake.

The Big Lebowski
(1998)

A total Coen Brothers misfire. I was bowled over by how bad it was.
Agreed, the enormously popular Coen Brothers are an acquired taste. And the David Lynches of quirky slapstick must be considered a hit-and-miss affair, but diehard fans are almost always left hungry for more.

In the indigestible "The Big Lebowski", however, somebody REALLY forgot to tell the boys that off-the-wall just for the sake of off-the-wall can REALLY be bad. Like the equally indulgent and incomprehensible "Mulholland Drive," this so-called entertainment misses at every step -- as spoof, satire, revenge comedy, whatever.

Check out "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo" to see real genius at work. Unfortunately, the Bros took a total sabbatical from creative filmmaking when they locked horns on this one. I guess the success of "Fargo" went SO to their heads that they decided to test their core fans. Are we now SO cool and SO popular that we can pass anything off as long as its weird?

Obviously, from the looks of things, they can. Oh, please, IMDB people -- this "film" is BOTTOM "250", not TOP "250" material. It reminds me of the time back in the 1970s when Paul McCartney wagered that he too could throw out anything musically and have the gullible public eating it up. And so he did. He composed a new pop tune using the lyrics of "Mary Had a Little Lamb", of all things, and earned his next solid hit. Ugh! I fear for the future of mankind when stuff like this happens.

A thuddingly dull, incoherent mess that purports to be a quirky comedy, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, who play bowling teammates, are the primary victims of this highway robbery. Sad too, because this could have been Goodman's night to shine (as he did in "Raising Arizona") and, God bless 'em, he does give it both barrels, but what can you do when you're given blanks? Always the professional, Goodman tries to act cool...like he's in on the insanity. A sleazy Bridges too rolls with the punches as a pothead slacker named Dude who through a series of mistaken identities finds a way of making make some quick dough involving a porno king and mobsters.

How can such a dazzling, eclectic cast, who are perfect for this peculiar type of movie fodder, be so abominably misused? Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Peter ("Fargo") Stormare, Ben Gazzara, and David Huddleston in the title role are such pros and come off looking like rank amateurs. The last vignette with narrator Sam Elliott on a barstool is the capper. Terrible...just terrible.

There are two reasons only why I gave this "BOMB" a "2" out of "10" instead of "1". John Turturro as a creepy bowler named Jesus literally comes out of nowhere and demonstrates the Coen Brothers at full potential. His freakishly hilarious scene (which, of course, makes no sense whatsover) shows exactly what can happen when the Bros assert themselves.

The other reason is sentimental. Much of the action takes place at the Hollywood Lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, California, where I use to bowl every Monday night. I loved that place as it holds many fond memories. Out of nowhere the district decided to tear the place down in the summer of 2002 to make room for a school. Opposers, like myself, felt it was a landmark and deserved to be protected. Anyway, it's gone now.

The good news: Any time I get nostalgic for the old bowling center, I can always rent out "The Big Lebowski." The bad news: I have to rent out "The Big Lebowski."

John Q
(2002)

Not even Denzel can save this misguided, at-the-end-of-one's-rope drama that gets progressively sillier and sillier.
From the introductory scene of a pretty young female motorist weaving capriciously in and about menacing semis accompanied by a strange, lush score, one smells trouble early on. But, you say, a movie with Denzel Washington at the acting helm will automatically right itself and avoid the obvious curves and potholes that could lead to disaster, right? Nope. Both the lady and the film are D.O.A.

Direction, writing and performances are so wretched, I found myself unintentionally laughing at its most serious of intentions.

Washington plays a struggling, low-to-middle class income factory worker with a working wife (supermarket checker) and son. At the beginning of the movie we see one of the family cars getting repossessed and dad scouting out a second job due to cut-backs at work. Things get so bad the cute youngster even offers dad his $46 dollar allowance savings. I guess the family that pays together, stays together.

Anyway, all seens endurable until the young Little League whippersnapper suffers thumper problems while running from first to second base (or was it second to third?) after hitting a line drive. Rushed to the hospital, the parents find out their son has an enlarged heart and needs a transplant very soon in order to survive. Trouble is, Denzel's insurance (remember, he's part time now) won't cover the $200,000 plus, and he and the Mrs. are destitute.

And the treacly dramatics that were tolerable up to this point now go haywire. What we really end up with is a movie that pushes for health insurance reform. To HMO or not to HMO: that is the question. Well, gosh, if that's all, why not just a "20/20" featurette?

After the big bad hospital tells Denzel his son has to to be released due to it's strict "no-money, no-heart" policy, our hero goes ballistic and holds the entire emergency room at gunpoint until his son is put on a donor's list. In a series of bad moves, the movie dissolves into a massive, gooey mess that strains reality with every heart beat. Hostages rooting for Denzel, the swarming public rooting for Denzel, the wife rooting for Denzel, the bad, bad administration now rooting for Denzel. Everyone's rooting for Denzel...except the script.

The always charismatic Washington looks so focused here, he doesn't realize he's in such a stinker. But Robert Duvall, as a hostage negotiator, sure does, and he looks mighty uncomfortable. And for good reason. His at-odds scenes with an over-the-top Ray Liotta, as a press-hungry Chief of Police, are ridiculous and superficial. Kimberly Elise as Denzel's wife may have a couple of true moments as Denzel's emotive wife but hardly enough. Anne Heche too is given short shrift as a "heartless" hospital administrator. Amazingly, this is a top-notch roster of stars and each and everyone comes off like a rank amateur.

The most laughable moments are saved for the hospital emergency room where Denzel holds hostage a motley crew of staff, security, patients, and (apparently) bad actors, including the usually terrific James Woods -- not-so-terrific as the hospital cardiologist. These are among the worst group crisis scenes I have encountered since "The Poseidon Adventure" thirty years ago.

A major crash and burn for the usually reliable Denzel. He offers his heart (literally!) to this picture and the tears seem real enough, but the deck is stacked. A poor choice of roles right after his award-winning "Training Day." And director Nick Cassavetes shows none of the genius expected as the son of legendary director John.

"John Q" should not be foisted on the public.

Training Day
(2001)

Grim but riveting cat-and-mouse cop flick with a flashy central performance by Denzel Washington.
A total downer from beginning to end, `Training Day' reeks with immoral, unredeemable characters while filling the screen with unavoidable bloodshed. Yet what keeps it from being just another standard tale of urban terror is its sharp, imaginative direction (Antoine Fuqua), an ultra-tense and engaging script, a jaunty pace, and knockout performances by Denzel Washington as an L.A. narc with dirty hands, and Ethan Hawke as his straight rookie partner learning the ropes.

Interesting shakeups begin right off the bat as Washington plays a corrupt black cop and Hawke an honest white one. Jake Hoyt (Hawke) dreams of elevating his young family's lifestyle. He's given a plum opportunity when he's placed in the hands of hotshot veteran Alonzo Harris (Washington) for a trial run as a narcotics cop. Hesitant because of the escalated risk but buoyed by the inevitable raise in pay and respect, Hoyt seizes the moment. If he can pass the muster, he's in. If not, he'll probably end up doling out speeding tickets or pushing papers the rest of his career. But Hoyt is an action man and seems up to the daunting task. He learns quickly on his first day of training that Harris isn't your everyday, by-the-book officer. He's a fearless, arrogant braggart who plays hard ball. Harris has developed his own survivalist style in bringing in the bad guys. His methods are underhanded and he only plays for high stakes. Intimidating, remorseless and just as terrifying as the street gangs he infiltrates, Harris exposes Hoyt to the money laundering and sexual favors, the crooked deals, the set-ups, the frame-ups. Punk-ass thugs and rapists who turn informants are thrown back into the water as bait for bigger game. And Harris is lord of it all, preening about his L.A. ghetto like a peacock, proud of the infamous reputation he's made for himself on the streets. He's an avalanche of cocky confidence and streetwise cleverness out to win every drug game he plays, at any cost, at anybody's expense.

Oscar-winner Washington is nothing short of brilliant in a role that completely shoots down the upstanding ‘good guy' screen image he's thus far cultivated. What remains, however, is that undeniable Washington charm, charisma and quicksilver intelligence. Ethan Hawke (Oscar-nominated) gives one of the best performances of his young career as a man caught between a badge and a hard place -- trying to fit in without compromising his code of ethics. How far can he go? How much can he endure? His boyishly tough yet vulnerable cop gives the audience something to root for. The character byplay between the two leads is strong, real, and fascinates as Harris draws Hoyt further into his dark world, playing some dangerous mind games along the way.

Ravaged, seamy locations and scary, menacing support characters capture the requisite feeling of urban paranoia and moral decay, and surrounds the film with an almost apocalyptical sense of hopelessness and doom. Peripheral characters offered by Macy Gray, Snoop Dogg and, particularly, Scott Glenn as an equally distrustful retired cop, add intensity and atmosphere.

In no sense of the term is "Training Day" an urban action flick. On the contray, it is a taut, stark, ugly, complex character study that shows off some powerhouse talent. Those who prefer mindless escapism will probably be turned off by its unrelenting grimness; those who prefer cerebral, realistic character studies will see it as a plus. Repelling and unforgiving, I only wish the conclusion had been a bit more plausible and less grandiose. It much too much for the realistic story presented.

Director Antoine (`Bait,' `The Replacement Killers') Fuqua, who began directing rap music videos for such artists as Coolio and Arrested Development has a promising future, at least in this genre. It is an assured move into stronger film territory.

On Golden Pond
(1981)

Warm, reflective, touchingly basic human drama, with Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn offering treasured performances in their twilight years.
"On Golden Pond" is simply an old-fashioned testimonial to long-lost youth and facing one's mortality, and, in its simplicity, becomes a life-affirming valentine to those who feel that time has become the enemy - a seemingly ageless, universal perception. If not for the magnificent acting duet between Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, this lovely, sentient piece would have been ignored by most moviegoers. But buoyed by these two acting legends, it manages to circumnavigate the heavy, mawkish waters -- rising far above and beyond anybody's expectation. Earning a whopping ten Oscar nominations, Ernest Thompson's reflective screenplay won one of those Oscars, but, for me, it's Dave Grusin's soothing, glistening score that is the stronger selling point here, adding immeasurably to the film's ruminative tone and gently rustic surroundings.

Henry Fonda plays brusque, cantankerous Norman Thayer, a one-time college professor approaching his 80th birthday with a mixture of anger, cynicism and fear as he shows signs of losing his faculties. Norman is not a particularly kind or considerate gent. Abrupt, callous, remote, and ill-equipped to offer nurturing support of any kind, living with Norman must have been quite an ordeal for those growing up under his roof. As a means of self-preservation, their only child, Chelsea, has long estranged herself from the family, unable to emotionally come to terms with her unhappy, unhealthy relationship with her father.

Fonda offers the most affecting, endearing performance of his durable career. He manages to use Norman's undesirable traits to his advantage, investing in his character a gruff charm and cynical sense of humor that is totally winning. He melts away the harmful, negative elements, as Carroll O'Connor managed to do for Archie Bunker, and makes Norman not only funny and entertaining, but loveable. As a result, Fonda becomes the glowing centerpiece of `On Golden Pond,' and it is this portrayal, along with his `Grapes of Wrath' Tom Joad, that will remain indelibly etched in our hearts and minds for decades to come.

Kate Hepburn is his Ethel, a loving, pragmatic anchor who obviously has played an important role in the lifetime success of this complicated man. Devoted to a tee, Ethel understands and compensates for the weaknesses of her husband. She valiantly assuages his deepening fears with good-natured kidding, feigned hopelessness, and careful but subtle guidance. She is Dulcinea to his Don Quixote. As a lioness would shield an endangered cub, she has automatically assumed the roles of caregiver, protectorate and confidence booster without pause or grief. Only for Ethel does Norman step out of his shield of emotional armor and display a genuine affection that is lost to others, including himself. Hepburn absolutely radiates with warmth and vitality, providing the film with a necessary center. Though less flashy and substantive, both she and Fonda were Oscared for their work here, with Hepburn winning a record-breaking fourth 'Best Actress' award. Incidentally, this was their ONLY screen pairing, yet they work together as if they've known each other all their lives.

Fifteen-year-old Doug McKeon manages to hold his own among the star power here as a young resentful upstart whose dentist father (Dabney Coleman) is romantically involved with Chelsea. Forced to play out the rest of his summer with the old folks while his father and girlfriend spend quality time together, he learns a delicate lesson or two as he develops an unlikely bond with Norman. Coleman himself has one edgy, amusing scene as he tries to gracefully deal with an overly wry Norman.

Surprisingly, the weakest story link involves Norman's strained relationship with daughter Chelsea, played by Hank's own daughter, Jane Fonda (Oscar-nominated). The familial situation obviously parallels their own real-life lack of connection, but the scenes seem strangely shallow and self-serving as they forge through some mucky emotional moments as if striving for real-life closure. What should have been insightful and compelling comes off forced and distracting, particularly on Jane's part.

Henry Fonda's own physical frailty at the time of shooting adds a special poignancy to the film. Ironically, Hepburn won her second Oscar in 1967 for playing another wifely Rock of Gibraltar in `Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' The ailing Spencer Tracy died shortly after the completion of that film. Fonda would pass away a few months after winning his only Oscar.

A most welcome and satisfying diversion that touches with its unpretentiousness, `On Golden Pond' is a lovely, lovely little film that should resonate for ages to come.

Grand Hotel
(1932)

Suffers from delusions of "Grand"eur.
Lewis Stone's bookends this notable classic with the line: "Grand Hotel...always the same...people come, people go...nothing ever happens." He's actually right on the ball. A whole lot of nothing happens, and what DOES happen is unimaginative and stale. However, 70 years later, there is a campy value that can be savored.

1932's "Grand Hotel" is one of those so-called vintage treasures that has a built-in, protective reputation-slash/seal of approval. It's almost sacrilege to attack it. But this contrived nonsense, which seems to follow a myriad of hotel residents who briefly filter in and out of each other's lives with obvious results, simply does not live up to its almost mythic status. The glossy cavalcade of MGM royalty that parade about this visually striking dramedy cannot support the flimsy writing and laughable dialogue; they can only distract you. And that they do...up to a point. Agreed, "Grand Hotel" created a brand new screen formula for star-studded casting and it won "best picture" that year, but isn't it odd that it wasn't nominated for anything else? MGM was strongly influential during the first decade of the Academy Awards, and I strongly suspect that this was a major factor. In a year of not-so-great films, a sentimental win for "The Champ" would have made better sense than doling it out this glitzy artifact.

Top-billed Greta Garbo gives either one of the worst dramatic performances or one of the most deft, deceptive, tongue-in-cheek comic turns ever. The jury's still out on this. Her brooding ballerina gives "manic depression" a whole new meaning and scope. Her lows are SO excruciatingly low she literally must drag herself from mark to mark. Her highs are SO exhilaratingly high she literally bounces off the hotel walls a la Fred Astaire, sans trick photography. This is the movie where she delivers the classic line, "I vant to be alone!" Three times. And she might as well be. Giving a mechanical performance of moods and poses, she seems to be playing solely to the camera. Everything and everyone else around her is incidental...or invisible. And shame, shame, shame on costumer Adrian for dressing her in that absurd-looking ballerina garb. Visions of Streisand's Fanny Brice cavorting about in her "Swan Lake" sequence kept dancing in my head. It looked that ridiculous. Garbo didn't look like a ballerina and certainly didn't move like a ballerina. Add some insipid dialogue together with a thick Swedish/Russian accent and you've got unintended laughs galore. Please, please look elsewhere to find the magic this woman created on film. It is not evident here.

John Barrymore's elegant cat burglar at least tones it down to a happy, comfortable medium, if that's possible in this movie. Still, his emotional love duet with Garbo will no doubt dredge up memories of the "Funt and Mundane" sketches with Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman. Better are his playfully titillating scenes with Joan Crawford's rapacious yet likeable stenographer, who provides the film with a necessary heart. Crawford keeps her character sweet and the mannerisms down, walking away with the film and the acting honors. Lionel Barrymore could have been quite touching, but he turns his welcome-mat bookkeeper who has little time left on the books into a whiny, depressing irritant. Wallace Beery's underhanded Teutonic-clipped corporate runs amok too, like an angry bull in a china shop.

No help from the others either. Jean Hersholt is surprisingly wasted in a small, colorless part, and the rest of the cast are merely stiffly-acted stereotypes, especially Rafaela Ottiano as part of Garbo's entourage, whose overly wary presence and stern eagle eye probably gave Cloris Leachman some ideas for her Mel Brooks' characters. Nobody seems to understand the meaning of 'less is more' in this picture!

However, for something positive to focus on, check out the mammoth art-deco interiors, lavish costumes and Busby Berkeley-like panoramic camera shots. They're a lot of fun and actually more subtle than the performances. And if you can look at the performances as kitschy fun instead of high art, you will be doing yourself a big service.

That said, for my money, this hotel is way, way over-priced.

A Family Torn Apart
(1993)

Tense, gripping, well-executed mini-movie that rises above its tabloid trappings.
There are precious few TV movies that remain indelibly etched in one's mind. After awhile they all seem to be the same routine stuff -- capitalizing on the same lurid titles, based on the same sordid headlines. But 1993's "A Family Torn Apart" stands apart from the rest of those violent-edged movies we usually witness. Superbly acted by young actors Neil Patrick Harris and Johnny Galecki who play half-brothers, this stark drama makes quite an impact, rising far above its potentially sensationalistic trappings. With taut, believable characters, knowing direction and a gripping storyline, we are presented with an "A" class bit of storytelling.

Both Harris (from "Doogie Houser") and Galecki (from "Roseanne") grab the opportunity to shed their earnest, amiable TV typecasts for once and immerse themselves completely into the minds of these two poor unfortunates. And as we witness, via family flashbacks, the harrowing pressure-cooker situations Brian and Daniel are forced to live under, we understand the "why" and the "how" of this tragic family occurrence.

John M. Jackson and Linda Kelsey give remarkable performances as ill-fated

Joe and Maureen Hannigan. By outward appearances, they appear to be stable, dedicated, church-going parents who have earned the respect of their flag-waving community by participating in selfless civic endeavors. But behind closed doors we get to see an entirely darker side.

Extremely strict, overbearing, eccentric and subject to religious fanaticism (she, in particular, shows warning signs of manic mental illness), their demands for perfection make life increasingly unbearable for quiet honor student Brian (Harris) and troubled, delinquent foster son Daniel (Galecki), especially as the latter gets into more and more trouble. And then one day, the parents are found savagely murdered in their home. Was it a random act of violence? Or did one of the boys go off the deep end and do it?

Bleak, depressing and often disturbing, "A Family Torn Apart" may cover familiar ground, but it covers it much better than most. Well, well above average. And like a bad accident, it's hard to look away from it.

The Stranger
(1946)

Atmospheric, but surprisingly superficial post-war Wellesian melodrama that simply lacks a convincing story line.
A particular disappointment for those who recognize Orson Welles as a film innovator and genius. Despite many critic's belief that "The Stranger" is a minor masterpiece, the truth is that it's little more than a convoluted piece of propaganda intended to assuage the feelings of post-war audiences. On the plus side, director Welles does manage to show a stylish touch here and there, and the stark black-and-white photography evokes a somber and appropriately eerie pall over the proceedings. But nothing can overcome the banal, increasingly preposterous story line which, by some miracle, received an Oscar nomination.

Top-billed Edward G. Robinson plays a federal agent who has assigned himself the task of finding a heinous, sought-after Nazi war criminal who played a principal role in the operation of concentration camps. By cleverly allowing the "escape" of a minor Nazi figure, Robinson hopes that Nazi minor will lead him to the whereabouts of Nazi major. As the action unfolds, the trail quickly leads to a quaint, quiet, seemingly unaffected Connecticut town.

Welles' batting average at this point of his film career was poor. He had struck out profitably with his prior three movies, but producer Sam Spiegel gave Welles this final opportunity to prove he COULD churn out a movie on time and within the budget. For Welles the result was remunerative and commercially successful. But at such a cost! While the studio was appreciative, Welles himself called it the worst film of his career and I couldn't agree more. It probably succeeded because the film's content struck a politically correct chord with its 1946 post-war audiences. I can think of no other reason.

Accenting this suspense melodrama with shadowy camera angles and wonderful "portrait-like" close-ups of his stars, Welles shows surprisingly little of the inventiveness he is known for. Everything seems rehashed, including a strikingly reminiscent clock tower finale a la Alfred Hitchcock. Moreover, Welles dilutes most of the film's suspense with stale, ineptly drawn, poorly motivated characters -- most of them sacked with implausible dialogue and situations. Even the musical score is obtrusive and obvious.

Wisely understated, Robinson comes off best here as the dogged agent whose instincts do not fail him as he ferrets out his suspect. His character's tone seems balanced, direct, and realistic, which is truly welcomed for he is surrounded by a cast of over-emoters.

Welles the director comes off marginally better than Welles the actor. He plays the small-town professor-turned-suspect as if he were Macbeth in a production of "Our Town." His classical demeanor just doesn't jell. At least his Nazi isn't a caricature, but his intense, incessant brooding here quickly turns mechanical, registering every sinister act and intention with a wide, fixated, stony gaze. One of his few good moments occurs at a dinner table sequence when he is allowed to expound on everything from Marxism to the mental restoration of post-war Germans.

Loretta Young is the chief violator of most of the film's acting problems. As the unsuspecting wife of Welles' character who refuses to see the obvious, she is simply unconvincing in her many scenes, unleashing a plethora of emotions, none of them coming from anywhere real. Her reactions are over-baked and, at times, unintentionally amusing as she feigns shock, disbelief, false bravado, and everything else under the sun. The dialogue served on her certainly doesn't help either.

But the most frustrating aspect of this film is that Welles, in order to advance the plot, allows his characters to do such silly, unsubtle, nimble-minded things. Neither Robinson's methods of tracking down his man nor Welles' ability to elude the ever tightening dragnet are done with much intelligence. One wonders how they ever achieved their stations in life. And poor Loretta! She is practically offered up as a sacrificial lamb just to expose her husband's true identity, when other methods could have utilized just as well!

While "The Stranger" cannot seriously damage Orson Welles' reputation as a masterful but frustrated filmmaker, it certainly does nothing to enhance it.

Meet John Doe
(1941)

Dark yet optimistic, beautifully realized piece of Americana as only Capra can dream up.
Frank Capra's unabashed patriotism wins another pennant for Team U.S.A. with `Meet John Doe,' an Oscar-nominated feature (for original screenplay) that roots for the underdog while demonstrating the power of the people en masse. He backs up his strong, daunting ideology with sharp, crisp writing and even sharper character delineation. Capra's social piece was timely released in 1940, when Nazi sympathizers were gaining a potent voice in America, just prior to our involvement in WWII.

Struggling columnist Ann Mitchell (the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck) is one of many about to receive their walking papers as the latest casualties of a newspaper takeover. Learning that her dismissal is in part due to a writing style that lacks bite, she vents her anger on her last assignment, fabricating and printing a somber, biting `John Doe' letter. `Written' by a despairing, unemployed man, who, tired of life's indignities, has given up on an indifferent, capitalistic society, the writer vows to throw himself off the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve.

Ann's last column sparks a major outpouring of varying concern, not only from top government officials, but from newspaper competitors who claims the piece is a work of fiction designed to promote sales subscriptions, and from the public who are genuinely moved by this man's plight. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the new editor-in-chief (James Gleason, in a marvelous turn) reluctantly keeps Ann on the payroll (with a bonus) while deciding to run with the story. Auditioning indigent men to lend a face to their `John Doe,' they find their man in 'Long John' Willoughby (played to perfection by Gary Cooper), an ex-baseball player who has fallen on hard times. Willoughby becomes an instant celebrity and an identifiable symbol of integrity and humanity. `John Doe' clubs soon start sprouting up all over the place promoting `good neighbor' policies. Trouble brews, however, when a ruthless financier (played with typical malice by Edward Arnold) agrees to sponsor `John Doe' appearances for radio and the lecture circuit, then threatens the movement by using it for his own political aspirations.

Cooper and Stanwyck are ideal in their top roles. Stanwyck is peerless when it comes to playing smart, gutsy gals. Here, she shows all sorts of vibrant colors as an assertive reporter trying desperately to climb up the newspaper ladder without getting her hands too dirty, trapped on both sides of the fence and playing both sides superbly. Coop too is deeply affecting, the epitome of the `aw shucks' kind of 'everyman' who manages to find a stirring, articulate voice underneath all that awkwardness and reticence. Nobody plays this kind of role better.

It helps too that the leads are surrounded by all-star character pros. James Gleason is marvelous as the frustrated editor who must wrestle with his conscience as the hoax he orchestrated gets seriously out of hand. He has one exquisitely tipsy scene in a bar with Coop where he lays all the cards out on the table. Regis Toomey, as a prime spokesperson for the "John Doe" movement, has a touching moment as he expresses the impact the club has made on his community. Edward Arnold is exemplary as the manipulating moneybags, and Walter Brennan's straightforward Colonel is insightful as Coop's obstinate buddy who sees his friend falling into the same opportunistic trappings he is supposedly rebelling against. The one veteran, scene-stealing player not up to snuff is Spring Byington, who is stuck on the bench in a rather benign, devoted mom role.

The only foul ball I found in this fast-paced, smooth-running story takes place atop the City Hall with an overly hysterical Stanwyck punching home Capra's idealism ad nauseum. It could have been more effective with a still strong but subtler set-up and approach. So, hey, it's not quite a shutout, but why quibble when the rest of the film is way ahead of the game.

Like the equally dark `It's a Wonderful Life,' Capra's genius is that he knows how to pitch and score the important points when necessary, not only with laughter and tears, but with unyielding hope and, most significantly, with words. It's more than any home crowd can ask for.

Klondike Annie
(1936)

Come on and see it sometime.
The inimitable Mae West struts her stuff yet again in this breezy, passable, but lesser Paramount Studio vehicle. Based on her play ("Frisco Kate") and co-credited for the writing here, she is the whole show naturally.

The story, if you care, has Mae playing Rose ("the Frisco Doll") Carlton, an 1890s entertainer who has to take it on the lam after bringing down one of her paramours - not with sly one-liners, but with a knife in the back. She's forced to slum it on a ship headed for the Klondike. With the police breathing down her bodice, she winds up impersonating a Salvation Army missionary (Helen Jerome Eddy), who conveniently dies of a `bad heart attack' while on board. In a change of heart, the sultry Mae, now dressed down in drab, basic black, vows to fulfill the woman's mission and ventures on to reform an Alaskan town full of drunks, prosties and other sinner types with her own revamped style of Bible-thumping. Somehow you feel these unfortunates will never be ENTIRELY saved, but that's never the point anyway. Interspersed throughout are a few typical West songs, notably `I'm an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love' decked out in full Oriental regalia, including headgear, which really has to be seen to be believed.

It's always grand entertainment to see the most virile of men falling all over themselves over La West -- reduced to simpering, whimpering fools once they zero in on our gal. This time one of filmdom's most rugged and respected character stars, Victor McLaglan, becomes her prime, buffoonish play toy. McLaglan (who had won an Oscar a year or two before) plays Bull Brackett, a brusque, salty ol' sea captain here, who barks out orders in his best Wallace Beery imitation and roughs up nearly every guy within throwing distance. But watch the big brute turn to pure mush at the first sight of Mae -- sulking, grousing, bumbling, even running into poles, for God's sake. And McLaglan's not the only one. Dashing, doe-eyed Philip Terry's Mountie, McLaglan's chief rival, risks all respect, not to mention his career, in his play for her, while obsessive-compulsive `Oriental' Harold Huber loses much more than that over his fascination with " the pearl of lotus flower.' Ah, yes, in a distinct case of reverse gender discrimination, every man is weak, inept, servile, and just plain putty around dear ol' Mae. Improbable fun...but fun.

And speaking of support roles, nobody has ever been given the chance to steal a Mae West movie, so to mention anyone else in the cast would be a waste of time. By the way, you won't see any pretty dames supporting West either. She wouldn't stand for it. So every other female -- bar girls, suffragettes, society ladies, you name it - are at least 50-70 in age here, and either much heavier than the quite zaftig West or downright ugly. Smart girl that Mae!

Suffice it to say there's never much action in a Mae West movie because the old girl (she was 44 at the time this movie was released) simply can't move in those tight, breath-taking (literally!) outfits she wears. She simply sashays from place to place, plants herself, and lets out a few double entendres. The dramatic action is usually compromised by a series of set poses - lighting a cigarette, filing her nails, primping her platinum-blonde locks, laying carefully on a settee, or shoving some pawing, lovesick puppy away from her camera light. Actually, what you're waiting for anyway are Mae's delicious quips, but, sadly, there are way too few of them in "Klondike Annie", none of those classic lines we all enjoy and remember so well. Methinks those dastardly censors cut out her best lines this time, because there's not a lot of zing in the ones she delivers here. Rumor has it William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper establishment took offense at Mae portraying any kind of religious figure and insisted on immediate congressional action. Whatever.

Raoul Walsh directed this but there is really little directing going on. The narcissistic Mae could never have been considered a director's star. And as for her acting? Well, if Mae were alive today, I'd love to ask her, "What the hell DO you see looking up at the ceiling all the time?" Whatever it is, I'm sure it's better than some of the silliness we're seeing down here.

But Mae is Mae, so what you see is what you get.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
(1945)

Bleak, tear-stained turn-of-the-century drama focusing on the hard knocks of tenement living offset by brilliant direction and radiant performances; an absolute must.
All one needs to view this 1945 near-masterpiece is an appreciation for brilliant film-making. I assure you, you will lose yourself completely in the story of the Nolan family, a humble, impoverished Irish-American family holding on by mere threads in 1900 New York. Director Elia Kazan's first film experience is often overlooked by his magnificent cinematic efforts in years to come (`A Streetcar Named Desire' and `East of Eden'), which is hardly fair. So much heart has gone into this emotional piece of Americana –- notably its flawless attention to detail and its ultra-sensitive, Oscar-nominated screenplay -- that it deserves equal attention. Superb in every aspect.

`A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,' from Betty Smith's poignant novel, is able to capture the essence of the author's words not only because of its trenchant

writing, but because of three remarkable, beautifully-realized performances. Peggy Ann Garner offers one of the most astonishing child performances ever, finding the very spirit of this 12-year-old child going on 21. Blessed with one of the most expressive faces witnessed on camera, her eyes are sheer poetry and alone speak volumes as Francie, a young girl devoted to her ailing, debilitating father and brutally distant from an unnurturing mother she partially blames. It is such a complete performance. Her steadfast growth in this film is beautiful to observe as she begins to spread her branches and assume her rightful place in life sooner than expected. Garner is simply unforgettable.

James Dunn, as Jimmy Nolan, leaves an indelible impression as the amiably charming ne'er-do-well, a solitary dreamer who has frittered his life away, as well as his family's money. Despite the cruelties of his actions, your heart aches for this man. His touching scenes with daughter Francie reveal his innate goodness and its heart-wrenching to watch him dissolve before your very eyes. Even a treasured bond with his idolizing daughter isn't enough for him to fight hard enough to forego the liquor bottle and regain his place at the head of the table. It is an unbearably sad decline, one that haunts you long after the picture is over. Both Dunn and little Peggy Ann would never find movie roles like these again, and earned well-deserved Oscars (Peggy actually copped a 'special juvenile' award) for their work here.

In an exceptionally careful and astute performance, Dorothy McGuire plays the necessary heavy here, the taciturn, seemingly cold-hearted matriarch Katie Nolan, who is also this family's hope and salvation. Unable to trust her husband or afford him the time and patience he desperately needs, she has ultimately abandoned her love for him out of necessity, what with two children and a third on the way, and no viable means to support them. Ms. McGuire, in a career best performance, serves up a somber, beautifully restrained portrait of a flawed, modest, uneducated, somewhat ignoble woman handling life the only way she knows how, and expecting little in return. McGuire, who was only 27 at the time this was filmed, easily nixes any comments that she is too young for the part by displaying a strong, careworn maturity well beyond her years.

Joan Blondell, as only Joan Blondell can, puts some oomph in the drab and dreary proceedings as Katie's gregarious sister, Sissy, who juggles husbands in her ever search for the right man, and earns the scorn of the town in her reckless, law-breaking pursuit. Blondell manages to give the film a breath of fresh air everytime she appears, though her character's development is choppy in its transition. Her story, unfortunately, gets lost midway and never truly kicks back in. Little Ted Donaldson as younger brother Neeley contributes fine work also, but is another victim of the primary focus the film decides to takes -- Garner's Francie is rightfully the heart and soul of the piece and she is quite up to the task.

Despite being robbed of a best picture that year (I mean, really, "Anchors Aweigh" and "Mildred Pierce" were nominated over it??) and the fact that Ms. McGuire was overlooked completely, it is slowly earning the attention it deserves. It should be in the top "20" of anybody's movie lists. For me, this movie is most effective come the yuletide season. It is that touching and meaningful.

The 1974 TV-remake of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" starring Cliff Robertson and Diane Baker is a mere sapling compared to this giant oak of a film.

The Boys in the Band
(1970)

Alternately frank and uproarious landmark film still stands boldly thirty years later - a potent, worthy emblem of gay pride.
I was 20 years old when this pre-AIDS movie came out. It meant nothing to me. I was still in the closet and would be for another seven years. But striking a deep chord the first time I saw it (about a year or two after coming out), I invite myself to rewatch it every so often just to show myself where I am, where I was, and the strides I've made. In some ways, incongruous as it may seem to some, this movie has become my `Schindler's List.' It allows me to never forget the past and try to change the future. `Boys in the Band' was an aggressive turning point in gay awareness - a huge, sure-footed step. It was both a sweet and bitter pill to swallow in its self-examination. Admittedly dated in certain aspects, the overall power of it cannot be denied. Interesting enough, the play was first performed a year before the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots. The movie version came out a year after.

The stage play was a surprisingly huge hit and fearless playwright Mart Crowley had the know-how, the resources, and keen sense to keep his talented stage cast together when it transferred to film, knowing the importance of a tight ensemble. In short, a festive NY chic birthday party involving eight gay men turns sour and savage when a ninth man (married, but questionable) inadvertently intrudes on the proceedings. Landmark in that it presented homosexuals as thinking, feeling human beings and not caricatures set up merely for ridicule or a chuckle, director William (`The Exorcist') Friedkin zeroes in on the whole gay package - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Kenneth Nelson as the acerbic, vindictive, persecuted Michael first impressed me with his beautiful singing voice as the original Matt in the off-Broadway musical `The Fantasticks.' This was his film debut and what an auspicious debut it was. Had it been a straight role, he could have launched an enviable film career that might have lasted decades. Nelson's character lashes out with such alarming rage and self-hatred. The nice, obedient, church-going `yes man' lost in a straight world, who takes society's scorn and repulsion and turns it back on himself and anybody else within a close proximity. Living a lie outside his apartment door, he punishes himself for it while inside. I could never go where Michael goes emotionally, but there is an identification factor to his anger and his anguish. Frederick Combs' effectively underplays Donald, Michael's good friend and polar opposite, a man who solves his own problems with a joint, pills and as little hostility as possible. A walking failure, he rather retreat than confront. The self-imposed pacifist with little drive and even less direction, Donald concerns himself with just making it through the day with as little pain as possible.

The exceptionally handsome couple of Keith Prentice (Larry), the man who's feeling the chains of his relationship, and Laurence Luckinbill (Hank), who prefers a monogamous home life, gave me my first connection to what a mature but complex gay union could be like. Despite their serious problems, I actually saw two, non-stereotyped gay men trying to make a go of it while dealing with the many pressures - one still craving an exciting night life of promiscuous sex and the other striving to overcome the guilt of leaving his wife and children.

While Ruben Greene as the more centered but embittered Bernard puts a mild black perspective on the turbulent gay lifestyle, Cliff Gorman's Emory comes equipped with a ferocious swish and campy, razor-sharp quips to handle his hostility and self-loathing - sure to be the center of attention as a life-of-the-party diva. Birthday boy Harold, the 'pock-marked Jew fairy', and played with bold, captivating flamboyance by Leonard Frey, is an inspired cynic and wit, supposedly insured with a thick skin and quick tongue, but actually frayed by massive, self-destructive insecurities. Harold's `birthday present' in the form of Cowboy, well-played by Robert LaTourneaux, eeks out a nowhere life for himself playing dumb, icing-on-the-cake stud boys, using body muscle and not brain muscle to get by. Forlorn-looking Peter White as Alan, Michael's gloomy, married friend who unwittingly sets off the party fireworks, makes the most of his character's uncertainties, keeping the guessing game of his sexuality a constant intrigue until the end.

Nobody's character gets off easy here. Although Nelson, Gorman and, especially, Frey have the flashiest roles, the rest of the ensemble finds opportune times to expose their heart and heartache. Depressing as much of it may appear with its vituperative `Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' style of game-playing and raw confrontation, it also shares that movie's agility in delivering potent, poetic dialogue with much-admired gusto. `Boys in the Band' will leave you just as exhausted as `Virginia Woolf' did and will stay with you long after the explosive climax. But, just as importantly, while it succeeds as a bitter commentary, it also triumphs as a devilishly funny campfest.

It is important for me to address Babe Hardy's thoughtful but highly naive July 15, 2001 comment that the entire cast of `Boys in the Band' was made up of straight men. She couldn't BE more wrong. As of this date, more than half of this brilliant cast succumbed to AIDS. In death, however, Robert LaTourneaux (1986), Leonard Frey (1988), Keith Prentice (1992), Kenneth Nelson (1993), and Frederick Coombs (1993) have left a life-affirming legacy with brave, uninhibited performances way ahead of their time. True, Larry Luckinbill is straight, as is Cliff Gorman, who, ironically, plays the über-queen Emory, but the rest? You ain't got the facts STRAIGHT, ma'am.

Unlike the gay comedies of today that are softened to appeal to a more mainstream audience (this is not a bad thing), `Boys in the Band' will be too bold in its observance to attract many outside the personal freedom fort. Me? I am thankful and rejoice in its honesty and intent.

A Streetcar Named Desire
(1984)

Earnest but pallid TV remake, with performances washed away by the originals.
You can't improve upon perfection. Remember that, all you young, impressionable, earnest Hollywood executive types out there even thinking about a TV remake of `Citizen Kane.' Back in 1984, some daring soul decided to re-film the immortal 1951 classic, `A Streetcar Named Desire.' After 33 years it was bound to happen I suppose, but, I thought, with the right mix of talent, it is not unfathomable to think that a decent, even above-average production could be had.

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando put their indelible stamps on the roles of Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski, and time simply refuses to erode their puissant images. Elia Kazan's stark and stagy production, despite its sanitization by the Hollywood production code, made a landmark impact in Hollywood, pushing film into a new era of mature adult themes. It remains one of my 'top 5' movies of all time. Moreover, this is THE movie that single-handedly venerates the genius of one of America's foremost playwrights, Tennessee Williams.

All right, back to reality. This TV replica was almost unbearable to watch. A drowsy, perfunctory adaptation to say the least, I'll give it an extra point in that its intentions were honest and sincere, but this version is totally eclipsed by its predecessor both in raw power and sheer theatricality. In fact, not a single aspect of this production challenges the original in any way, shape or form.

As Blanche, the frail, illusory, emotionally unbalanced charmer who depended on the kindness of strangers, it appears that Ann-Margret had virtually no one, not even herself, to depend on here. Quoting the late critic Pauline Kael from another infamous review, this actress runs the gamut of emotions from `A' to `B.' It is merely a facsimile of a performance. There is nothing harder to `reel' in than a star playing a Southern belle. It seems to bring out the very worst in Hollywood actresses. Ms. Margret's aggressive performance is littered with irksome, Southern-baked affectations and unsubtle acting choices. And the harder she bears down on this tortured creature, the more unintended laughter she elicits -- none more so than the scene where Blanche's treasured love letters have fallen to the floor, having been touched and tarnished by Stanley. The way Vivien's Blanche grappled for and embraced her private recollections is heart-breaking. With Ann-Margret, she could have been holding junk mail. Even the reading glasses she wears in that scene look funny and fake on her.

The truly lamentable fact is that Ms. Margret really, really, REALLY tries. After the 1970 movie `Carnal Knowledge' came out, she beat down her "sex kitten" label and received the good seal of approval by film critics, but she is still identified with her feline roles in `Viva Las Vegas' and `Kitten With a Whip.' This is an altogether different undertaking. She is not classically-trained, or even stage-trained for that matter, and, with all due respect, it shows. By the way, she received some highly positive reviews, even earning an Emmy-nomination in the process. I don't know -- either there was a shortage of good performances that year or a gallant gesture for her effort. A much better TV-movie for her was the touching "Who Will Love My Children," which was shot the year before.

Lost as well, Treat Williams, who has strutted his stuff to good effect in other potent material (`Prince of the City') has neither the strut nor stuff to even infer the magic Brando brought to Stanley Kowalski. And the exciting cat-and-mouse chemistry between Blanche and Stanley is strictly high school. Only Beverly DeAngelo as sister Stella displays a freshness that actually threatens to rise above its mediocre surroundings, but she is defeated at almost every juncture by the less-than-adequate interplay with Ann-Margret and Williams. Randy Quaid completes the quartet, merely OK as the sensitive oaf who is taken in, then repelled by Blanche's charms. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden have nothing to worry about.

This `Streetcar,' is filled with unexciting passengers and hits dead-ends wherever it goes. Avoid it and take the `A' train, via the original. By the way, in 1995, Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin took their much-heralded Broadway roles to TV, faring somewhat better. Although the always interesting Lange makes some bold, original choices for Blanche that's worthy of a look, Baldwin is much too cerebral to make a dent as the animalistic Stanley.

Like I said, if it ain't broken...

The Birds
(1963)

Superior mankind vs. nature horror, with a consummate Hitchcock at the flight controls.
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore!' Not as `Poe-etic' maybe but just as grim and fateful in its intent was 1963's hotly anticipated `The Birds,' loosely based on the1952 Daphne Du Maurier Gothic-styled novella (originally set on a post-WWII English coast). Alfred Hitchcock had faithful fans scurrying to the theater houses in droves for his first feature in three years following his macabre masterpiece `Psycho.' In between, Hitch launched his celebrated TV anthology series, winning a whole new generation of admirers.

By altering the image of our fair, feathered friends from symbols of peace, freedom and paradise into terrifying tools of terror, Hitch once again assaulted our eyes and ears in a fresh, cleverly laid out manner. Flocks of birds of varying species descend upon a small California coastal town and attack without provocation, turning into Armageddon-like messengers of doom and annihilation. It was an ingenious ‘comeback‘ idea and Hitch did not disappoint. I can't recall an earlier movie that so rerouted a creature as sweet and innocent as a sparrow.

Since `Psycho' put the `H' in (modern) Horror, what could we expect from `The Birds' on its initial release? Would this heroine too meet an early, similar fate ála Janet Leigh? Would she be beaked to death before the end of the first reel? What would the gore factor be now that `Psycho' had opened Hollywood's bloody doors? Unmercifully playful as always and a master of pre-show suspense, Hitch released his birds with tremendous fanfare and, of course, made quite an impact. The movie became the prototype for a stream of `nature's revenge' movies involving unlikely human predators – ants, frogs, rabbits, and the like.

The characters in `Psycho' and `The Birds' are similar in their presentation. They are chilly, not easily embraced, hardly flesh-and-blood characters. They appear to be mere instruments to present, not distract from, the ultimate horrific elements, and yet they becoming more fascinating with each repeated viewing.

Over the years Hitch had a penchant for taking beautiful, sometimes limited, well-coiffed blonde actresses and turning them into exquisite mysteries. Kim Novak of `Vertigo' comes foremost to mind. Here, Tippi Hedren provides one of the most vexing, deceptively intriguing characters yet. A coy, superficial, self-indulgent socialite whose reckless, news-making escapades has been front-page tabloid material, Melanie Daniels, one day at a pet shop, happens to meet and fix upon Mitch Brenner, an assertive, strapping, hirsutely handsome ‘nice guy' attorney (Rod Taylor), totally out of her league, yet a down-home charmer just the same. A casual but obvious flirtation filters out between the two. The capricious lady proceeds to drive all the way to the isolated little town of Bodega Bay to sneak a pair of lovebirds, into Mitch's mother's home for his much, much younger sister's (Veronica Cartwright, by at least 20 years!) birthday. Hedren is a cool but captivating young heroine who gets to thaw out a little as the film progresses. The other roles are handled just as professionally.

Rod Taylor (`The Time Machine') is a definitive man's man and an ingratiating ladies' man to boot. Doling out steadfast, unflinching heroes most his career, he has that fine reputation as a protector extraordinaire, and though he remained in the second ranks for the long duration, his wry charm, stocky masculinity and sexy banter has always been first rate with me. His Mitch Brenner may still be caught up in his mother's apron strings a bit, but on him it looks honorable, not emasculating.

The always wonderful Jessica Tandy returned to the cinematic fold after a decade of stage and TV work as Mrs. Brenner. A wan, high-strung, overly possessive widow incapacitated over the years by fear and anxiety, her desperate attachment to her son was sure to discourage any female competitor. Tandy's performance bears close attention. She draws out a subtle flurry of emotions in what at first might appear to be a one-note performance, drawing sympathy in spite of her limitations.

Lovely Suzanne Pleshette, in a rare, dressed-down support role, gives one of the more curious performances of the film. As the insular, cynical school teacher Annie Hayworth, she inspires genuine empathy as a young woman mysteriously bitter and broken in spirit for such a young age. Once in love with Mitch until Mrs. Brenner's interference, she strangely hangs around as a friend, yearning maybe for a reconciliation. Despite her obvious beauty and intelligence, she has consigned herself to living a small-town life of boredom, broken dreams, and ultimate loneliness. Ironically, it is she, the self-appointed spinster, who makes the ultimate mother's sacrifice – protecting her `children' at all costs.

A number of familiar faces, if not names, flutter about as well: Ethel Griffies as an ornithological expert, Lonny Chapman as a restaurant operator, comedian Doodles Weaver (uncle of Sigourney) as a boatman, Ruth McDevitt, flighty as always, as a pet shop owner, Richard (`The Dick Van Dyke Show') Deacon as Mitch's dour city neighbor, and, with a keen eye, little Morgan Brittany can be glimpsed as one of the terrified schoolgirls. Of course, there is a bit of fun to be had trying to spot Hitch himself, whose trademark cameo appearance comes early in the film.

As in all of Hitch's films, the successful buildup of suspense is done in a myriad of ways. Nobody works a camera like the master. Slightly distorted angles accentuate the character's imbalance and gathering paranoia. Even something as unvarnished as Hedren's little boat trek across the lake offers a moving camera that taunts with eery tension. The absence of a screechy Bernard Herrman score, using this time only the intermittent chirping and cawing of his foul fowl, enhances the feelings of isolation and vulnerability. Classic ‘terror' scenes here include Hedren's school bench sequence in which clusters of crows furtively take over a school playground; Tandy's slow discovery of a neighbor's grisly attack; and Hedren's claustrophobic telephone booth assault -- all indelible visions long after the finale.

Metaphorically speaking , the outcome is purposely left `up in the air' – which, I suppose, is relatively germane to the world-threatening conflicts of today. Hitch's film projects may be designed for escape but he has a knack for making them seem awfully real. First shower-taking, now bird-watching. He has a devilish habit of taking the fun out of life's little pleasures, doesn't he?.

Reflections in a Golden Eye
(1967)

John Huston's depressing, oddly compelling adaption of Carson McCullers' best-selling social elegy is, still and all, a misfire.
Carson McCullers' second novel `Reflections in a Golden Eye,' first published in 1941, is a great depressing read -- full of lurid, loveless, neurotic, alienated, self-destructive characters who mire in their own and others' unhappiness. The mood and tone distinctly reflect the author's own morbid life story (McCullers, the Diane Arbus of literature, was a chronic depressive and bisexual who was married to a suicidal alcoholic and bisexual). In 1967, John Huston took her novel to film. End result: the book is infinitely better than Huston's erratic, muddled handling of the rather ignoble material. I'm sure it was very tempting to tinker around with this type of scandalous fodder, especially with the abolishment of the longstanding Hollywood production code in the mid-60s, but what comes off morbidly fascinating in the novel with its themes of self-mutilation, masochism, impotence, sex and murder, is just plain dreary here. Pseudo-smut can come off quite boring, sometimes laughable, if not handled properly.

Set on an army base in the Deep South, the story revolves around Captain Penderton (Marlon Brando), a morose high-commanding officer and pent-up homosexual who disguises his humiliation with sadomasochistic acts. He finds an interesting outlet for his deep-seated frustrations by fixating on a very handsome young private on base, who has his own arousing aura of mystery. As the Captain scouts around, he finds out that the private, a raging sociopath if ever there was one, gets his kicks taking naked midnight rides in the woods on his horse and engaging in voyeurism. The Captain naturally is curious yellow and yearns to find who the target of this man's obsession is. Meanwhile, the Captain's shrewish, adulterous wife, Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), a spoiled slob of a socialite who, after the death of her son, decides to make life a living hell for her husband, sexual distraction with Major Langdon (Brian Keith), her neighbor, while his crackpot invalid wife, Alison (Julie Harris), a walking suicide just waiting to happen, seems to find her only source of joy in the company of her devoted, extremely prissy houseboy who gets off on spouting poetry passages and flouncing around the room like `Tinkerbell.' God, love it-- is this America or what?

The first and foremost problem with Huston's film is that its interest is derived not from the sordid characters but from the high-profile stars who play them. Taylor delivers another in a long list of blowsy, viper-tongued bitches that she started churning out after her Oscar-winning performance as monster Martha in `Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' in 1965. As in other grotesque roles of this ilk and era (`Boom!', `Hammersmith Is Out,' you name it' ), she is all bark and all bite...shrill and shallow. It is a one-note performance that comes off lazy, annoying, and ultimately tedious, with no shred of dimension or nuance to perk up the distastefully sensational aspects. Like Bette Davis' Rosa Moline in `Beyond the Forest,' Taylor squelches our desire to care about or understand this vindictive, bitter woman's misery. Just feed her to the wolves and be done with it. Is it any wonder Brando's character is turned on to her polar opposite -- a man with nothing to say?

Marlon's tortured Captain is the film's big lure here. He brings to the movie all the mumbling melancholy he can muster and he alone commands any sympathy. But you can't help forgetting the character while concentrating on Marlon's technique as he teases us with ever-so-slightly mincing affectations. How is Marlon going to play a closet queen in uniform? That is the excitement and the oddly compelling element of this feature. Is he successful? Not really. But you can't help but be drawn to him. He is Marlon after all. Initially cast in this role was Taylor's close, devoted friend (and closet homosexual) Montgomery Clift, who died before filming began. I doubt if he could have done any better than Marlon, despite Monty's correlation.

Dark, handsome, saturnine Robert Forster is indeed another drawing point in the role of the remote, taciturn private. This was his first big role and though he has almost no dialogue, Huston manages to make him a fascinating, rather enigmatic and sexy figure. Gruff and virile Brian Keith is reliable as always, while plaintive Julie Harris is a pro when it comes to dishing out the neurotics. Zorro David's portrayal as Anacleto, the houseboy, is bad and sad enough to send the gay movement back thirty years. It's reviling, degrading and, like a horrible traffic accident, impossible to ignore. No wonder Brando's character is desperate to keep his little secret. Look at his role model! This was David's first and only film role. You see? There is justice.

The overall production values may be up to snuff but the camera work is lifeless and mundane -- and they certainly do not flatter the actors, that's for sure - particularly Taylor, who was getting quite zaftig at this time. To top it all off, the supposedly explosive climax is shot terribly, with Huston's jarring, swerving camera moves from character to character coming off amateurish. A totally bizarre miscalculation on his part to achieve the shocking effect he was going for.

You WILL stay with `Reflections in a Golden Eye' but be warned: it will leave you as empty as the film's characters, and you'll probably hate yourself in the end for caving in to your primitive, prurient curiosity. McCullers' first novel, `The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,' as a book and film, is better in practically every respect. Catch IT instead.

What's Up, Doc?
(1972)

Peerless contemporary looney-tune, a self-appointed comic valentine to the 30s served up in expert fashion by Peter Bogdanovich.
Finally, a zany, riotous slapstick comedy that lives up to what it purports to be...a zany, riotous slapstick comedy! Silly, simple and superficial, with no lowbrow, leering takes or hidden moral messages lurking, `What's Up, Doc?' is pure, unadulterated fun. Bugs Bunny should be proud.

Saluting its classic screwball predecessors, this innocent send-up has all the joy, style and panache one could ask for, hitting its broad targets about 90% of the time. Director Peter Bogdanovich, (who also wrote the story and co-produced) was at his zenith when he made this in 1972. Thirty years later, I've yet to see anything comparable top it.

Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand recycle the wacky `Bringing Up Baby' characters created most famously by Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, then Hollywood's reigning king and queen of elegant farce. The madcap plot and situations may have been altered and updated, and the approach itself may be less than chic, but the results are still the same: non-stop hilarity.

Proving before her she had a nose for comedy (she was a hoot in `The Owl and the Pussycat'), Streisand outdoes herself here. She wisely (and generously) defers to the director and, in return, churns out her most engaging performance yet as a wacky, accident-prone, highly determined gal who creates utter chaos out of confusion while striving to win the guy. She proves once and for all she is a funny, FUNNY girl, her quicksilver timing a joy to behold. And, as a bonus, she sings!

Matching Streisand schtick for schtick, O'Neal is the perfect deadpan foil as the hapless but oh-so-handsome cluck she sets her unyielding sights on. His milquetoast musicologist, who has substituted rocks for brains and is about as exciting as plankton, is wonderfully maudlin -- a textbook performance in sad-sack comedy. Bogdanovich apparently brings out the best in O'Neal (`Paper Moon') who was often vilified for his lack of cinematic presence.

Madeline Kahn, in her film debut, is side-splitting as O'Neal's prodding, adenoidal, anal-retentive fiancee. Stealing scene after scene, she offers the most consistently funny character since Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont in `Singin' in the Rain,' and that's saying something. The late Ms. Kahn a sublime farceur who could probably draw laughs from a well, would never again be put to such good use as she was under the early 70s tutelage of both Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks. And how could a slapstick comedy be complete without the comicbook villainy of snooty Kenneth Mars and Austin Pendleton's inept, rumpled genius?

Be sure also to catch a number of familiar TV faces strewn about in minor roles: Mabel (`Bewitched') Albertson, John (`Magnum P.I.') Hillerman, Sorrell (`Dukes of Hazard') Booke, Graham (`Fame') Jarvis, John (`Soap') Byner, and Randy (`Davis Rules') Quaid. Best of all, however, is diminutive Liam Dunn, hilarious in the climactic courtroom scene, as a cranky, pill-popping judge.

The film receives a tremendous boost from other key creative hands, notably the fast and furious scriptwriter and the colorful production designer. Each help to amplify what's happening onscreen.

In a time of uncertainly and skittishness, `What's Up, Doc' is a refreshing reminder that laughter is still the best medicine. Th...Th...That's all, folks!

The 5th Dimension Traveling Sunshine Show
(1971)

Overly sunny, ill-conceived musical variety does not do the group justice.
The melodic Fifth Dimension had a slew of pop-soul chartbusters in the late 60s and 70s, their group patterned after the Mamas and the Papas. Originally called the "The Versatiles," they decided to change their 50s-sounding name to "hip up" the image of the group. Their first solid hit was "Up, Up and Away" and, sure enough, their career followed suit, skyrocketing with #1 hits like "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." Marilyn fronted most of their bestsellers ("One Less Bell to Answer," "Wedding Bell Blues" and "Love, Lines, Angles & Rhymes."

This musical variety was put together in 1971 at the height of their popularity, and I must say I was looking forward to renting it simply to savor my nostalgic taste buds. I was roundly and soundly disappointed. Bland, haphazardly put together and ill-conceived from the get-go, instead of focusing on their unique vocal talents, they instead go for silly, sugary, poorly choreographed concept pieces and overly contrived "vanilla" songs that are not even associated with them.

The group is best known for their distinctive harmonies and blends. What they emphatically show here is that they are not even close to being dancers or entertainers, and that they are not particularly comfortable and animated in front of a camera lens. This show does not do them justice AT ALL!

Sorry to hear that Ron Townson, the hefty tenor of the group, recently died of kidney failure. Marilyn and Billy (husband and wife in real life) left the group many years ago in pursuit of solo/duo careers, while Florence and LaMonte headline a new group of Fifth Dimension with three replacements. I saw them back in 1991 when the original five reunited briefly at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

For sturdy fans like myself, I recommend excerpts of their appearances on the old Ed Sullivan Show as testament to their greatness. This show is worthless as entertainment and spotlights them in a truly unflattering fashion.

Das Trio
(1998)

Diverting, ingratiating European gay comedy worth seeing, but `La Cage aux Folles' it ain't.
What ever happened to the meaning of those steadfast mottos `there's honor among thieves' and `blood is thicker than water?" `Das Trio,' an ingratiating German-made comedy (with sub-titles) taunts and tests these age-old theories to ostensible effect. It's a deceptively simple, amusing, if less than gut-busting tale of a rootless family of pickpockets who invite turmoil into their lot as a clash of very disparate libidos begins to chip away at the fabric of their operation. Buoyed by expert performances, it'll keep a smile on your face at the very least.

Zobel is the middle-aged, hands-on leader of this tiny trio of merrie men who steal from the rich and give to themselves. The two other cohorts are his feisty, independent daughter, Lizzi (from an incidental heterosexual liaison), and his aging, subservient, doleful lover, Karl, who conceals his advancing age with a toupee and prances about in women's gowns as an inducement to foreplay. Somehow managing an existence all these years, their mode of operation is hardly original. I mean, the blind man with the cane routine? Come on. How they survived this long, I'll never know. As the despondent Karl grows more insecure, dissatisfied and absent-minded, the possibility of a new partner is bandied about by father and daughter.

An unfortunate accident leaves Zobel and Lizzi no choice but to prevail upon the raw talents of a young Artful Dodger wannabe, an outcast who takes in snakes as pets and writes crappy poems. It just so happens Rudolf is also a very sexy, shambling young upstart who is only too willing to gratify the father/daughter team in whatever ways it takes to become part of the scheme team. Complications arise, dissension grows, and most of the film's intended humor comes about as the teacher becomes enamored by his new thief-in-training, even though the boy has already taken to bedding down the daughter.

Götz George as Zobel plays the roguish, Fagin-like ringleader with customary flair. One of Germany's most popular actors, the virile actor gets to play an aging and openly robust gay character here, yet loses little of his own characteristic machismo. Slightly softening his edges while infusing him with a gentle charm and a wanton sex drive that just so happens to be aimed at men, George provides a strong, believable center for the film.

Jeanette Hain gives daughter Lizzi a taut, highly appealing Winona Ryder-like quirkiness, and boyishly handsome Felix Eitner as the new third party fits the enigmatic pretty-boy part to a tee. His Rudolf is awkward and ambitious, with a dumb-kind-of-smart off-centeredness that sustains your interest. Christian Redl as Zobel's long-suffering lover and sycophant nets a great deal of empathy from the viewers as the man desperately tries to come to terms with his decline in importance.

Director Hermine Huntgeburth succeeds in comfortably sidestepping the negative, unappetizing aspects of her characters. After all, why should we care about, much less enjoy, the antics of four lowly parasites of society, robbed even of a conscience when it comes to each other? Even more problematic is the fact that we are not always clued in as to the intent or purpose of some of their hurtful, purely narcissistic actions, leaving the viewer somewhat cold and in a quandary as to who or what to root for. Credit the director and actors for nearly overcoming that big obstacle.

By the way, don't let the soft-core, erotic-looking box cover picture with two hands (one female, one male) groping a well-built young man's posterior clad only in tight underpants mislead you. It's an obvious and unworthy ruse to accelerate rental sales. This is NOT a titillation picture despite the fact there are a number of homosexual and heterosexual clinches throughout. Behind it, there is actually an intelligent plot abetted by four supremely professional actors who make it all worthwhile. And it's all capped off by a fun, wry twist at the end.

As a renter, "Das Trio" is a real steal!

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