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Hang 'Em High

Skip this, go for Leone
'Hang 'Em High' gets off to a great start, but after a set of fantastic opening titles, the movie quickly becomes 'Leone Lite.' Literal in its approach but rambling in structure, 'Hang 'Em High' begins with the premise that Clint Eastwood will go out and seek revenge on the men who nearly killed him. And, well, for the next hour and forty-five minutes or so, that's pretty exactly what you see him do. In between rounds of 'justice,' the film gets bogged down with preachy passages condemning the rigidity of capital punishment and a half-baked subplot/love interest that doesn't begin until the film is nearly over and then doesn't amount to much. It was cheaply made with obvious painted backdrops outside open doorways and noticeably redressed sets. Also, it was sloppily assembled – look for the film equipment under the hangman's scaffold.

To compound things, the men Eastwood is out to get really aren't that bad. By and large, the posse that strung him up at the beginning did so only because they believed he was the man responsible for the killing of a well-respected rancher and his wife and a personal friend to most of the posse's members. With a few exceptions, the men were guilty of little more than overreacting and punishing the wrong person but doing so with honorable intentions. They should have been paid for this, but, frankly, I just never felt they deserved what they got.

High Plains Drifter

Simply okay
Eastwood had obviously picked up a thing or two from Sergio Leone, and it shows in this bleak, violent, and absurd Western. But whereas Leone's 'Man with No Name' was a likable purveyor of death and vengeance, Eastwood's 'The Stranger' is so menacing and cruel that he's rendered completely unsympathetic from the get go. While I enjoyed some of the film's more surreal moments (painting the town red and the apocalyptic finale), Eastwood goes too far in trying not to take his character seriously and turns him into a nearly cartoonish comic book figure. When he tosses the dynamite into the hotel room and then guns everybody down, about the only thing missing was a 'Yippee-ki-yay, motherf*cker' or 'I'll be back' type quip.

I'm sure there are those who prefer action over art and gritty realism over style, but I'll take 'A Fistful of Dollars' over 'High Plains Drifter' any day.

In Name Only

Bring your Kleenex and pillow
The mega-stars of the old studio era are usually remembered for the iconic films they starred in: Humphrey Bogart and 'Casablanca,' Katharine Hepburn and 'The Philadelphia Story,' Jimmy Stewart and 'It's a Wonderful Life.' When you come across a title in a star's resume that you've never heard of, it usually means that it's a lesser, forgettable film. And this is the case for "In Name Only" for both Cary Grant and Carole Lombard.

This is a minor, sudsy weeper that only moves from plot point to plot point because the characters don't do or say the things they should in order to extract themselves from their predicaments. By the time the film comes to an end with the doctor explaining the importance of having a positive psychological outlook in order to combat pneumonia, I had lost interest and was actively wishing the movie would end.

The Stepford Wives

Heaps better than the remake
I'm sure 'The Stepford Wives' spoke more to the audiences of 1975 than it does to the audiences of today, but this holds its own as decent, satisfying thriller. Really little more than a variation on 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' 'Stepford' follows that film's structure of slowly unspooling clues and suspicions and saving its bigger 'gotcha!' moments for the end. Katherine Ross was no doubt the star of this film, but Paula Prentiss really stood out for me. Gawky and enjoyable, she oddly predicted Geena Davis by a full generation. At one point in the film, my girlfriend commented of her wardrobe, 'Wow, can you imagine a grown woman today wearing a hot pant jumper?' The '70s… yikes!

I had the misfortune of both seeing the remake of 'The Stepford Wives' before seeing the original and *actually seeing* the remake of 'The Stepford Wives.' If the original serves any purpose, it is to expose the remake for the gutless, toothless, anemic waste of everyone's time that it is. God, what a terrible movie…

Wuthering Heights

Natural sleep aide
A sideburned mannequin falls in love with a severely bi-polar woman and spends the rest of the movie making literally *everyone* around him pay for it. Heathcliff's thirst for emotional revenge borders on the Shakespearean, but unless you're my brother, this is one long snooze-fest.

Internet Movie Database makes you write a minimum of ten lines for a review, but the above is really all I have to say about "Wuthering Heights." So I'll pad this out by saying that I did respond to Hindley popping Heathcliff in the face with a large stone. But after that I pretty much spent the rest of the movie thinking about other movies I like better.

Okay. Still not ten lines. Well, one of the movies I thought of that I liked better was "Casablanca." That's a movie about doomed love and a man who makes everyone suffer for his own suffering. Better music, direction, setting, acting, dialogue, and nobody dies at the end. Well, except Major Strasse, but he pretty much had it coming, didn't he?

While the City Sleeps

While the Audience Sleeps
Dana Andrews George Sanders Thomas Mitchell Vincent Price Ida Lupino Fritz Lang

How could this go wrong? 'While the City Sleeps' probably would have made a better movie if it had been shot as a big, gaudy, Technicolor melodrama, a soap opera about the inner workings of a news conglomerate. It could have been a who's sleeping with who, who's stabbing who in the back-type of movie punctuated with a subplot about a serial killer on the loose. It fails, however, as a noirish crime drama. Pretty dull stuff.


The sad, sad truth
The only thing that I can think when reading the negative comments left for this movie is that the people who wrote them have *clearly* never temped. As someone who spent four years of his life wasting away in other people's cubicles, I can tell you with complete authority that this movie gets every mind-numbing, insulting, and degrading aspect of the experience dead on. I suppose you should be thankful if you can't relate to what's going on in this film because it probably means you've never had to tip-toe into some middle manager's office on a Friday afternoon to get a signature on your time card.

As for those who think "Clockwatchers" is "dull" or "boring," it's called subtly. Look into it.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

Hairy doctor
B-movies are so satisfying because they're either so bad that they're good or are so intelligent that they end up being better than they should be. 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' straddles the line somewhere between schlock and 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.' It has limited production values (an underground research facility that seems to be little more than a small command center connected by a boiler room), and curious dialogue (why does Carol tell her husband and father to bring their coffee spoons when she's out back grilling hamburgers?), but there are also smart passages where it takes time to consider temporal shifts, magnetic fields, and radio wave weapons. Unfortunately, the camp and the thoughtful just do no mix well in this one, and the result is stilted and dull.

And Dr. Marvin really needed to investigate hot wax. I shuddered a little bit when Carol put her arm around him in the last shot.

Dawn of the Dead

Gross, Funny, Good
I'll be the first to admit that the horror genre is not high on my list of favorites, so I'll freely admit I'm not as qualified to comment on 'Dawn of the Dead' as some. But I have to say the remake is just better than the original. I like the 1978 version of 'Dawn of the Dead,' and I was skeptical when I first heard about the remake to the point of being dismissive about it. But the effects were better, the sequences tighter, and the sense that the characters were really fighting for their lives much more immediate. The first ten minutes alone are more intense than anything that happens in the original (I know, I know, but, by comparison, the opening moment of the 1978 film are a disorienting, absurdly gory, muddled mess). I also know that the movie breaks a cardinal rule of the zombie film by allowing the zombies the ability to move quickly, but it really only helps the movie. Frankly, I think it's a lot scarier to have a raving thing come at you at top speed rather than just kind of lumber. I'll agree, the gallows humor and social commentary of the original are missing, but so is the bicycle gang.

I mean, really.

Come on.

What was that about?

Jailhouse Rock

Great hair, crap movie
I'm absolutely blown away by the people who have praised this movie and call this Elvis' 'best' picture. I don't usually do this, but let me recap 'Jailhouse Rock' just to remind those who have seen it and warn those who haven't exactly what happens in this thing (WARNING! SPOILERS!):

Elvis plays a construction worker who, in the second scene in the film, beats a man to death in a bar after the man starts to rough up a woman he believes was flirting with Elvis. Elvis goes to the State Pen and bunks with an old country music star who, seeing the kid's raw talent, teaches him how to play guitar. Elvis becomes an overnight success when he's seen performing in the prison talent show, which is, for some reason, being broadcast on live television. The months go by and Elvis receives an early release. Elvis inexplicably emerges from the Big House surly, arrogant, sexually aggressive, combative, and, well, an a-hole. It's not that he's rebellious in a Marlon Brando/James Dean kind of way. He's just a jerk. I mean, a *really* unlikable, well, a-hole.

In a strip club, he meets a sexy, young music rep who, recognizing the kid's raw talent, agrees to manage him. She gets him to cut a couple of demos, and, after a few failed attempts, they decide to start their own label. Now, things really take off. The records start selling, and the money starts rolling in. There are appearances on NBC (the famed 'Jailhouse Rock' number) and movie deals in Hollywood. Hollywood is where the movie finally settles down. Now living in a mansion, surrounded by hanger-ons, Elvis is just as surly, arrogant, sexually aggressive, combative, and, well, as big an a-hole as ever. His old bunkmate returns looking for a piece of the action and is given a job as a sort of lackey assistant.

Things reach a boil when Elvis is offered the opportunity to sell his record label to a major, which results in some very hurt feelings from the sexy, young music rep who, naturally, is in love with him despite all his shortcomings. She leaves in tears, and the former bunkmate, brimming with resentment and bonded bourbon, decides to whup Elvis good to teach him a lesson. Elvis takes a punch in the larynx and ends up in the hospital with a tracheotomy. Will Elvis ever be able to sing again? After a few days of recovering at home, Elvis gives it a tentative shot. Fortunately, the sexy, young music rep was hoping this would happen and has Elvis' band mates stashed out the hall. The band comes in, Elvis discovers his voice hasn't been irreparably damaged, and the movie fades to black as the sexy, young music rep and the remorseful former bunkmate look on approvingly.

This movie is *terrible.* Who in their right mind thought that 'Jailhouse Rock' was good for Elvis or his fans? The direction is static and uninspired, the plot is unpleasant, and the star is unsympathetic nearly from the moment he shows up on the screen. It's a series of missteps heaped on one another from beginning to end. People, this a rock and roll movie narrated by a lawyer for crying out loud!

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Beatles man. I do, however, appreciate Elvis and think his fame and place in history are well earned. His catalog, however, is mostly regrettable and only punctuated with occasional gems. I don't say this because I don't think he was talented-he absolutely was. His Sun Records recordings are proof of that. 'Jailhouse Rock,' though, should be considered exhibit A in what was a terribly mismanaged career.

Blackboard Jungle

Some nice performances but hasn't aged well
Most of the 'troubled youth' pictures from the 1950s feel condescending today. They were cast with adult actors behaving how they *thought* rebellious teenagers might without any apparent first hand knowledge. The result was usually unconvincing. One of the strengths of 'Blackboard Jungle' is that the troubled youth in the film actually seem troubled. Granted, kids are much more explicit today, but I still wouldn't, want to be alone with the kids in this film.

Yet further proof that the Eisenhower years were not the idyllic era we'd like to think they were, 'Blackboard Jungle' must have been a real wake call in its day. Glenn Ford's performance is the glue that holds the whole film together, portraying a man who is neither weak nor strong but is simply determined not to give up or make a difference despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Vic Morrow also does an outstanding job playing the remorseless heavy without becoming a caricature.

Having written that, 'Blackboard Jungle' is still a little too heavy handed (the overt foreshadowing of the records' fate) and corny (the doctor coming in at just the right moment, telling the Dadiers their child is going to be okay, and then switching on the radio 'Auld Lang Sign').

Gunga Din

Fun but not great
A rip-roaring, swashbuckler if there ever was one, I can see how, if you were a ten year old boy in 1939, you'd come out of the theater thinking this was the greatest movie ever! I think Lucas and Spielberg were channeling 'Gunga Din' when they made 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' (India, blood cult, temple, suspension bridge), which kind of helps explain their movie a little better if not redeem it. I was especially impressed that so much of it was shot on location. Throughout the movie, I kept thinking, 'There's no way a studio in the '30s actually sent the cast and crew to India for this?' and I was right-it was shot in Lone Pine, CA.

Somewhat dated today and a little hard to watch at times with nearly all of the action scenes being sped up slightly for some reason. I also think the relationship between Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks was forced. Okay, you're friends *and* rascals. We get it.

I see this is being remade in 2005. I'm sure they'll ruin it by taking out the fun and the adventure and emphasize the clash of cultures and the shame of British imperialism.

Paths of Glory

Great early Kubrick
'Paths of Glory' confirms what a great director Stanley Kubrick was early in his career. This and 'The Killing' from a year earlier are just a one-two punch. You can just feel Kubrick sharpening his knives on this one in preparation for 'Dr. Strangelove.' While this is a drama, you can't help but laugh at the complete absurdity of the situations. I kind of doubt (or at least *need* to, anyway) that an officer would be allowed to go as far as he did, but I think Kubrick wasn't necessarily going for a literal lesson here and was instead trying to make a larger statement about the lives of soldiers being in the hands of madmen. At any rate, Kirk Douglas does a wonderful job of portraying quiet, white-hot rage, and I especially liked Ralph Meeker, who reminded me a little bit of a young, goateed Orson Welles.

The black and white really stood out as well-I really liked the scenes in the basement of the chateau.

If I had to criticize anything about the movie, I suppose the very end with the German girl and the men didn't really work for me. It might have been powerful in another film, but I think it took away from the final showdown between Douglas and Adolphe Menjou. It's a trivial complaint and shouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing this.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Respectable remake, but not as good as original
The original 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' is one of my favorites. There were so many films from the 1950s that involved an alien threat menacing small town Americana, but 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' was one of the few standouts because it took what it was doing seriously. Not another in a long series of man-in-a-rubber-suit movies, its tactics were more psychological. We, like Dr. Bennell, are uncertain what's going on or even if there actually *is* anything going on until its too late. Then the walls close in on the doctor and Becky, and nowhere is safe, there is nowhere to hide. Added to this is the film's ambiguous subtext, and you end up with a movie that really is much better than it should be.

While I don't think the remake was bad necessarily, I don't think there's anything remarkable about it either. It was good for what it was, but it lacked any real suspense because it began by revealing the threat and then rushed to get that threat underway. Setting the film in a large city was a mistake. One of the strengths of the original was the confusion and horror the characters felt as they slowly watched the people around them, the people they had grown up with and known so well, become strangers. That element's lost when you set the movie in a place where nearly everyone is a stranger to begin with, where you wouldn't know if the person walking down the street is different today than they had been the day before. I also think the third act is overly long and drags out.

Kudos to the man-faced dog, though. That was great.

Peeping Tom

Decent film, bad casting
To be sure, 'Peeping Tom' has some very good ideas in it--so good, in fact, that I'm amazed that Hollywood, in it's zeal to put every form of serial killer and their acts on the screen two or three times over, hasn't done an update of the film. Powell was clearly influenced by Hitchcock's themes (someone actually discusses scopophilia--here pronounced 'scoptophilia'--in 'Peeping Tom' instead of simply depicting it) and style. Unfortunately, the overall production is just not up to the task. The plot is a little too heavy-handed and literal at times, the characters somewhat cartoonish, and the pacing leaden.

Really, the biggest flaw with the film is the casting of Carl Boehm in the roll of Mark. Looking somewhat like the offspring of Joseph Cotton and Peter Lorre in one of 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien's 'If They Mated' routines, Boehm plays crazy all right. That the problem, though: That's *all* he does. At no point did I believe that Mark is capable of holding down not one but two jobs. Perhaps the British standards of creeping out your fellow employees is different from ours here in the States, but the first time Mark locked eyes on me while mumbling in that high, lispy, vaguely accented voice of his, I'd be on the phone with Human Resources like that.

What makes Norman Bates such a compelling character is that he does have the ability to function in society from time to time. He can be charming, friendly, and even funny when he wants to be. Mark, however, is incapable of any of these qualities. His timidity is so pronounced that it's hard to believe he could ever screw up the courage to actually kill someone because that would require human interaction. And the idea that anyone--even someone as apparently oblivious as or with the appallingly low standards of Helen--could actually fall in love with someone Mark is hard to accept. Marion definitely sympathizes with Norman, but it is a pitying sort of sympathy. She senses there's something not quite right about Norman, and because of that at no point can she ever feel a romantic attraction toward him. Norman is irreversibly deranged and without hope. 'Peeping Tom,' on the other hand, seems to suggest that Mark *can* lead a normal life and perhaps even have a girlfriend if he just stops his habit of killing women.

Out of Sight

Good Little Movie
Ah, 1998… Bill Clinton was still in the White House, the Gulf War had no sequel, gas was under $2.00 a gallon, and a kinda-known actress was in her pre-J. Lo/Jenny from the Block/Bennifer/media whore phase.

Back when she used to have a little (now she has a lot), Jennifer Lopez was actually enjoyable in Steven Soderbergh's 'Out of Sight.' I saw this in the theater when it came out and remember thinking it was one of the better films I'd seen that year. I watched it again last night on DVD, and I have to say that it still holds up. Clooney is finally given a worthy vehicle, and he and Lopez have actual, undeniable chemistry on the screen. The supporting players (especially the incomparable Don Cheadle) are perfectly cast. Soderbergh effortlessly knocks this one out of the park.

One critic gave the film two and a half out of four stars and claimed 'Out of Sight' was in need of a 'shot of adrenaline,' but I have no idea where he's coming from. When you think of all the bad movies that are released in any given year, you'd think you'd appreciate something like this.

Dancer in the Dark

I Can See Where They Were Going with This, but...
What seems to divide most people into the 'Loved It'/'Hated It' camps is that the plot is poured on a little thick. The melodrama didn't bother me; the story would have been right at home in Douglas Sirk Land. The problem that I had with 'Dancer in the Dark' was the execution. First and foremost, digital video is just awful, and making anyone sit through two hours and 20 minutes of it is unforgivable. The editing style serves no purpose other than to alienate the audience. And the musical numbers-what I had expected, as a Björk fan, to be the highlight of the film-were jarringly out of place within the context of the rest of what was taking place in the movie and were downright laughable. Von Trier has his followers (although Lord knows why), but I'm guessing even some of them would admit that he just does not have the chops to direct and/or edit musical sequences.

Kudos to Björk, though, for turning in an extremely likable and sympathetic performance.

Donnie Darko

No Payoff
If high school student Donnie Darko is simply a paranoid schizophrenic suffering from delusions, then why do these delusions reveal actual things about people? I have no idea.

Can someone explain "Donnie Darko" to me? No, I mean, I *understood* it, but can someone *explain* it to me? What was this movie saying? What was it trying to do? And even if I knew, would it matter? I doubt it.

Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent Tobey Maguire imitation and Mary McDonnel, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wylie, and Katherine Ross appear to be in the film for no other reason than they owed the director a favor.

Hollywood Ending

Not Woody's Best
Don't get me wrong. I *love* Woody Allen and his films. Seeing him nearly two years ago walking in Central Park is one of the highlights of my life. But "Hollywood Ending" is pretty thin. The premise isn't bad, but the story just doesn't feel fully realized. Woody should really concentrate on releasing one good movie once a year rather than two so-so films.

There are a couple of laughs, and I especially liked the line about how Woody's favorite part of masturbation is the cuddling afterward.

The Man Who Wasn't There

Potentially Good Film Noir Goes Horribly Off Track
The black and white cinematography. The voice over narration. The black mail. The murder. It's all here, so what goes wrong?

The Coen brothers have the right style, but they're not sure what to do with it. Everything is just right up until the murder (I'm being vague out of consideration), but then the movie gets bogged down with the lawyer and his investigation. The subplot involving the girl and the piano just did not belong in the same film. I suppose I appreciated the way the movie tried to come around at the end by making Thornton's character pay for an one death after getting away with causing another (a la "The Postman Always Rings Twice"), but it takes so long to get there that it just doesn't have any kind of impact. And don't even get me started about the UFO. Yeah, that's right. The UFO.

Noir's simple. You take an aimless man, have him carry out a desperate crime, and then watch him squirm as the walls start closing in. You keep it simple. I felt angry and cheated after "The Man Who Wasn't There" was over. My girlfriend suggested that the film wasn't so much a film noir as an *homage* to the film noir style. Maybe, but who wants to see that? Noir is my favorite of all genres. It is a genre so rarely made today that when someone does get together the right look, characters, and situations, I want to see it done right.

The Blob

Steve McQueen's a teenager in this one? Uh-huh.

For an A-list 1950s sci-fi horror film, this is strangely disappointing. I'm not faulting it for being dated because the effects, for what they are, are actually pretty good. There just isn't enough of them. We really never get a good, long look at the Blob, and when it does appear, there's just never a sense of real danger. For a much better film, I'd recommend the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." That movie has a much higher sense of immediacy and paranoia about it that "The Blob" sorely needs.

Wife vs. Secretary

Nice Little Movie
"Wife vs. Secretary" is a nice piece of Depression era fluff. Gable plays a high energy magazine publisher, Myrna Loy's his wife, and Jean Harlow is the pretty secretary. Gable and Harlow's relationship is perfectly innocent, but neither can see how their secret conversations and closed door meetings are raising an eyebrow (Myrna Loy's included). This is one of those movies that if people just said the right things or asked the right questions, there really wouldn't be any kind of problem. Still, this a fun little movie with some good laughs and a very young Jimmy Stewart.


The Dullest Nudie Movie I've Seen (except for "Showgirls")
I remember Andy Kent Kern (this was his name) telling me about the scene in "Porky's" in which a guy pokes his penis through a wall in a woman's shower room while we were waiting in line to go ice skating at Ellenberger Park. We were in second grade. I had a sheltered childhood and hadn't seen `Porky's,' but the idea was nevertheless hilarious to me. Why would anyone stick his penis through a hole in a wall, I wondered. I guess I've carried the memory of that initial tantalizing curiosity with me, and this is why, after 18 years, I finally rented the movie and found out what Andy Kern was talking about. It really was not worth the wait.

"Porky's" is pretty much a raunchy comedy for anyone who found "Animal House" too sophisticated. Filled with a cast made up of "Summer of '42" rejects, "Porky's" goes along as if using the word "rubber" and the occasional appearance of boobs is enough to fill an hour and 40 minute movie. Sure, it strives for a little depth by sprinkling in anti-Semitism, abusive fathers, and a revenge subplot, but it really wasn't enough to keep me interested. I actually got up to get a snack during the shower scene.

Here's the one thing that bothered me about the movie the most: Why would Pee Wee hang out with those guys? They do nothing but ridicule him and don't make a single attempt to help him attain his, um, goal until the very end of the film. Aren't there some other guys in this school?

I rented this on DVD, and, although I appreciated the widescreen format, the transfer was crap. The sequel also appears on the flip side of the disc, but I don't think I'll be watching it.

The Stranger

Why Isn't This Film More Well Known?
In "The Stranger," Orson Welles once again demonstrates a level of depth and sophistication that so far exceeds the Hollywood that ostracized him. How many films or film makers were tackling the Final Solution in 1946?

The film owes much to the influence of Alfred Hitchcock. It reminded me quite a bit of "Shadow of a Doubt." It has a lot of the same elements of that Hitchcock film: the small town suddenly confronted by a criminal masquerading as something he is not as the authorities close in. The scene in which Welles' Professor Rankin frantically picks up the pieces of paper in the woods is right out of Hitchcock 101.

Sadly, "The Stranger" is overshadowed by Welles' other films like "Citizen Kane" and "The Lady from Shanghai." That's a real shame because this really is one of his best.

Journey Into Fear

More Hitchcock Than Noir
Why do I like Joseph Cotton so much? He just had such a wonderful every man quality about him, and it was never more appropriate than in "Journey Into Fear." Watching the mixture of bemusement, anger, and confusion on his face as he's batted around from one situation to the next is the highlight of this film.

This is another movie classified as a "noir" for some reason, but don't believe it. Yes, it's shot in black and white, and, yes, there are shadows, but those two things together don't always equal noir. "Journey Into Fear," with its ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary adventure involving assassins and war-time plans, has more in common with Hitchcock than it does Hawks or Houston.

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