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It Came from Hollywood

Clip Show Of The Darned
A weak movie that celebrates weak movies, "It Came From Hollywood" presents clips from more than a half-century of movies, most bad, some not, presented in the form of themes hosted by popular comedians of the day.

Sometimes, the result is amusing. Richard "Cheech" Marin and Tommy Chong work their stoner screen personas to solid effect watching clips of famous drug cautionary films like "Reefer Madness." I don't care for Cheech & Chong generally but found their work here entertaining in a low-burn way.

A clip from the Ed Wood classic "Plan Nine From Outer Space" features Dudley Manlove pondering an attack on mankind: "As long as these humans think, we'll have our problems."

Cut to Chong at the ticket window: "I want my money back."

Alas, that's as much as I can offer in the way of positive comment about the interstitial sketches which make up the original content in this film. That's a shame because I am a fan of both Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner from their "Saturday Night Live" heyday and John Candy of SCTV. They make up the other three players introducing the recycled content here. Seeing Gilda and Danny relive their small- screen glories playing SNL characters like Judy Miller and a short- fused detective should be more fun than it is.

Some reviewers here see a connection between "It Came From Hollywood" and "Mystery Science Theater 3000," which ran bad movies over caustic commentary that was often funny. But the blog Dead 2 Rights has it right: This is a cracked remake of films of the prior decade like "That's Entertainment." Producer-directors Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo are out for cheap yuks.

Instead of overblown reverence, you get easy scorn for silly B- movies about rampaging gorillas and brains that fly around and attack people.

"C'mon, honey, you want it and you know it," Aykroyd says over footage of a woman being jumped by a brain in "Fiend Without A Face." "Don't be a brainteaser."

Chuckles do come, but never develop into anything more, the way they so often did on MST3K with their zany sketches and running gags. The clips are more interesting for curiosity value, like a chance to see Rosey Grier try to sell the idea of having Ray Milland's head attached to his body in "The Thing With Two Heads."

"This picture started the black street fad of wearing middle-aged white men," Aykroyd explains.

The inclusion of clips from classic films like "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and good genre flicks like "The Creature From The Black Lagoon" is annoying, though, as are any of the sequences featuring Radner, as lost here as she did in any other movie she made.

"The movie theaters just show scary monster movies so you drop all your popcorn and candy on the floor and they put in back in the boxes and resell it," she explains as her Judy Miller character.

A decent sequence showcases two Ed Wood films, "Plan Nine" and "Glen Or Glenda?" It's hosted by Candy, who makes the fair point that it's hard to make a movie when there's no budget. If the rest of the film followed this more explanatory approach, rather than generally commenting on the weak plots and overacting, it could be worth your time.

To be fair, "It Came From Hollywood" came from 1982, the year of David Letterman's late-night debut when snarky irony became suddenly fashionable. Snarky irony is mostly what you get here, and while it works at times, it isn't enough to make it that interesting.

Fear in the Night

Noir To A Fault
I was really impressed by the first five minutes of "Fear In The Night." Then the rest of the film happened. My short take: Mood alone is never enough.

Film lovers enjoy debating whether an old movie qualifies as "film noir." No need here. From the murky circumstances to a sleepwalking main character to constant dream sequences cutting in abruptly, this is noir, alright. It even has keywords "fear" and "night" in the title.

But man does this film draaaaag.

Vince Greyson (DeForest Kelley) is a bank teller who wakes up to the gradual realization that he just killed someone. Who and where, he doesn't know. But he does know he has marks on his neck, blood on his wrist, and a strange key in his pocket that weren't there before. Enlisting the help of police detective Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly) who happens to be his brother in law, Greyson discovers what it is to have "an honest man's conscience... in a murderer's body."

A great premise, yes, from a short story by Cornell Woolrich (billed as "William Irish" in the credits), and with some smashing effects work. But the story wastes too much of its short running time on conversations between Greyson and Herlihy about whether he imagined it. An intrusive narration by Greyson explains what we are seeing on screen, as if director Maxwell Shane had no confidence visuals alone would do the trick. I suspect this was done in editing after the producers realized how hard the film would be to follow otherwise.

Of the leads, DeForest Kelley gives an uneven performance. At times he is effective in portraying real fear and guilt; other times he overacts badly. Much of the time he sleepwalks, because that's what the script calls for. Did they want a Kafkaesque anti-hero or more of a conventional everyman rising to a challenge? He suffers from a lack of clear direction.

Paul Kelly is much better, a studio pro who radiates some needed strength and reason. But he is saddled with some dumb moments, too. Like why does he get the bright idea of sending his shaky brother- in-law into a dangerous situation without police backup?

When Greyson tells his story, Herlihy's first response is to wave it off: "You've just been stretching your nerves thin, kid." Then, after Greyson takes him to the house where it happened, Herlihy transforms into Dirty Harry, slapping the poor kid around and calling him "lower than the lowest rat we ever brought in for knifing someone in an alley." I give Kelly credit for making his about-face play at all, but it leaves a weird aftertaste.

I don't hate this movie; the visual dynamics are strong throughout. Shane's track record was pedestrian, but that opening suggests real vision at the helm. How did they get all those mirrored-room shots without exposing the camera? We watch Greyson stumble around, looking submerged as he fights with a man who seems as asleep as he. Then the scene breaks up, and there's this fantastic swirl of light and fog that literally leaves him dumped on his bed.

After that, though, you feel Shane struggle to match the surrealism of those opening moments. Occasionally, he succeeds, like in a harrowing episode where Greyson finds himself on a ledge, fighting Herlihy to throw himself over. More often, the results are just silly, like Greyson fainting at the sight of nail polish on his wrist.

The conclusion is especially rushed and unsatisfying, featuring the most unbelievably powerful mesmerist since Dr. Caligari hung up his shingle. Everything is tidily resolved, including Greyson's ridiculously one-sided relationship with a long-suffering girlfriend.

Good film noir plays with convention, but not by discarding such things as logic and convincing motives. "Fear In The Night" does, making it a noir film only a die-hard noir lover could love.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Rooting For The Dinosaurs
The first "Jurassic Park" was all about the science of bringing dinosaurs back to life. "The Lost World" is about the ethics of same. Ethics have always been tricky territory where Hollywood is concerned. That's true here, too.

Four years after InGen populated an entire island with dinosaurs, the company finds itself on the ropes. Wrongful death suits are expensive; so is bad publicity. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) goes from horrified onlooker to potential hors d'oeuvre when he travels to Isla Sorna to persuade his paleontologist girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) to come back home with him.

Director Steven Spielberg called this film "my first pure sequel," noting his Indiana Jones films are more like installments in an adventure series. But "The Lost World" fails miserably as a sequel, offering none of the joy of discovery while doubling up on carnage. It is a weird, grim spectacle film where logic in thrown out and characterization reduced to the broadest strokes.

The question I am left with: Are we supposed to be rooting for the dinosaurs? The pro-forma good guys are a motley crew of SJWs whose constant virtue-signaling is about the only thing audible over the raptor roars. In between snuggling up to a baby stegosaurus and bringing an injured T. Rex into her trailer, Dr. Harding lectures a photographer not to smoke a cigarette on the island. "We're here to observe and document, not interact," she tells him.

Spielberg could have made a good movie out of this if he dispensed with the idea of making Harding his hero, rather than a big part of the problem. The photographer turns out to be a Greenpeace operative, and we watch him and Harding release some captured dinosaurs which then trample through a camp of fellow humans. They are hunters, so this is apparently positive behavior, even if this "ethical" sabotage winds up killing most of the people we see.

The CGI is more active here than it was in the first film, and much more artificial-looking. Spielberg's A-Team, composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, plod through the motions in delivering a lot of mood and odd triumphant tones which feel hollow even as they are delivered. The whole film fails as a transportive enterprise, reminding you of past glories while adding nothing new.

There's one performance I really liked in the film. It's not Pete Postlethwaite as Roland the hunter, which everyone else including Spielberg loved; he's a cipher too hemmed in by the silly script. Rather, it's Arliss Howard as Peter Ludlow, nephew of John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who as acting head of InGen is trying to use the dinosaurs to repair his shattered business, and doesn't care who gets hurt in the process.

Howard is so smoothly smug and mean, I found myself seeking him out in group scenes. He's really not much of a villain, since his motives are less evil than capitalist (the same thing in Spielberg's world, maybe, but not mine), but he adds the right notes of conflict whenever given the chance, like when Malcolm grabs his arm in an early scene to make a point: "This suit costs more than your education."

Howard doesn't do much villain work, so I was happily impressed enough to give him my 1997 Doe Avedon Award for great performance in a bad movie.

What passes for a plot involves watching the various name characters try to avoid the same brutal fate they bestow on those who meet them, and then try and save an angry T. Rex storming through San Diego. This latter piece is so tacked on it betrays "Lost World's" focus on being an effects film. The original "Jurassic Park" was that, too, but the storycraft was good enough to keep you watching.

No luck here. "The Lost World" is as much a slaughterhouse of ideas as it is of people. We can argue about whether Spielberg ever made a worse film ("1941," perhaps), but this stands supreme as his most disappointing.


Nostril Porn
When is a motion picture all picture and no motion? To have the answer, see this three-hour collection of close-ups and costumes, a musical ponderously directed by Josh Logan starring three actors who can't sing.

In England's early medieval period, King Arthur (Richard Harris) and his new bride Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave) bring together the flower of knighthood to establish a new golden era of "might for right." But Arthur's most powerful ally, Lancelot (Franco Nero) becomes the undoing of the realm when he and Guenevere begin a passionate, painful affair.

"How did I blunder into this agonizing absurdity?" is the question Arthur poses in his opening scene. It starts with a musical where the music is not so much performed as presented, shot with abrupt jump cuts and suffocating close-ups that zero right up the noses of the three stars.

With three hours, and the Excalibur legend to play with, you would think there is a lot of story here. But there isn't. For ninety minutes, about the same screen time it took Rick and Ilsa to make their plans or Charles Foster Kane to leave his wife, you get a pair of mistaken-identity cute meets and a pointless joust which somehow prompts the previously distant Gen and Lance to fall in love. The next 90 minutes are for watching everything fall apart.

Logan indulged his actors famously on set, even allowing Harris to flash Redgrave for cheap laughs and letting Redgrave mess with the Alan Jay Lerner lyrics. Despite its reputation, this isn't Lerner and partner Frederick Loewe's best score; yet the movie makes matters worse by overusing the strings and robbing the songs of any pull. The title song should be a thrusting, raucous number; it's Muzak here.

In a promotional show made at the time of the film's release, Logan emphasizes the word "texture" a lot. There is a lot of this on display, what with its touted "45 sets and 3,500 costumes." The costumes look okay; the sets decked out like Christmas trees in "GoodFellas." But where's the story?

The Arthur legend is a sprawling epic; to fit something digestible into even three hours you have to make choices. Here, Logan and the production team seemed to decide to zero in on the three main characters and ignore everyone else, except for cheap comic relief from Lionel Jeffries as Pellinore, a king who can't remember where his kingdom is; and David Hemmings as sly and slinky Mordred, the bad guy of the piece. Neither manage to do more than annoy.

Of the principals, Harris and Redgrave talk-sing while Nero is dubbed. Nero has negative comic presence, rendering his opening number "C'est Moi" inert; Redgrave is cool and unlikable throughout. Only Harris has a pulse, but as his character is all over the map his energy becomes a weight as the story flips around. Nothing is really established about what makes his Camelot special; the only time I noticed the Round Table was when a horse galloped across it.

If you want to celebrate the notion of a land dedicated to the principle people matter, why undercut it by ignoring everyone but the king and his two favorite subjects? It's reflective of the sort of star service Logan made his career; the result is even worse than usual for him.

Texas Terror

Jumping To Conclusions At The Lazy M
The Lone Star westerns John Wayne made for Monogram Pictures became his cut-rate purgatory before stardom. Some go down easier than others; "Texas Terror" mostly just goes down.

Sheriff John Higgins (Wayne) is fooled into believing he shot his best friend in a gunfight with robbers. It's decided the friend, an old man who happened to be carrying a wad of dough, was part of the robber gang, so Higgins is off the hook. He turns in his badge anyway.

"When duty makes it necessary to take the life of a man like Old Dan Matthews, then I'm through with duty," Higgins declares.

"Texas Terror" is the kind of movie where things happen abruptly. Coincidences abound unexplained. People deliver long exposition in the form of conversation, stiffly and at one point, staring directly at the camera: "I'll be so happy to get home. You see, I'm Bess Matthews, and I own the Lazy M," a woman tells a driver after he has presumably been driving her awhile.

Bess (Lucile Browne) is the daughter of the slain man, and for some reason new sheriff Ed Williams (George Hayes, not yet going by his better-known moniker "Gabby") decides Higgins is just the man to help Bess get Pa's ranch up and running. Never mind the fact he supposedly killed her father. Is this sort of thing supposed to be a secret forever, or does Ed think they will laugh it off when she finds out?

Wayne's Lone Star pictures were mostly sub-par films, often worse than that. But most of them do feature Wayne coming into his own as a solid anchor performer. Here, however, he seems flustered and bored. At one point, when talking to the second male lead, villain Joe Dickson (LeRoy Mason), he seems to forget the character's name, awkwardly stopping mid-line.

Director Robert N. Bradbury plays with spatial reality a lot here. In the beginning, we see Higgins right behind the robbers, even shooting one off his horse. The wounded man stumbles into a house where Dickson shoots Dan Matthews. This would have been heard by Higgins, you'd think, except somehow now the guy is ten minutes behind, so he can be led to believe he shot Matthews himself in a later battle, never mind the corpse is lying in the middle of a room, not near a window.

The film does have some grace notes. A milking contest brings some country charm, with lovable Fern Emmett as Bess's Aunt Martha going toe-to-toe with a competitive but amiable old coot. You also have a scene where rustlers threatening the Lazy M are set upon by local Indians who act at the behest of their friend, Higgins. The Lone Star productions were death on stunt horses, but nobody in the 21st century can fault them on their handling of Native Americans. Throughout Wayne's run there Indians are depicted as his wise and loyal friends.

Whatever the intentions on view, the movie is so draggy, unbelievable, and lifeless I struggled to sit through it, short as it was. Even Hayes seems less invested in his character this time around. Wayne looks formidably scruffy for a while after leaving the sheriff's job, even sporting a beard for a while, but he is hemmed in by the same exposition-laden dialogue that does in everyone else. "Texas Terror" wound up more like Texas Tedium to me.

The Hitch-Hiker

Asphalt And Fear
This solid chillfest presents what happens when two ordinary men take an unlucky road trip and meet up with the title character, a merciless killer with a taste for sadism.

Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are war buddies who take off for a planned fishing trip to Mexico when they pick up Emmett Myers (William Talman), standing beside a stopped car. But Myers isn't the owner of the car, whom he murdered some distance away. He's a serial killer who sees Collins and Bowen as his next victims, as soon as he gets clear of the U. S. He wastes no time pulling his revolver and telling them the score:

"You guys are gonna die, that's all. It's just a question of when."

Director/co-writer Ida Lupino puts you in the car with the two doomed men, making every pit stop into a nail-biting exploration of how people deal with madness-induced pressure.

There are three enjoyable anomalies worth considering along the ride. Two of them are much commented upon: the fact a glamorous film actress is at the helm of such a hard film, with no female speaking parts in English and informed throughout by a kind of Hemingway tough-guy sensibility; and the fact the heavy is played so absorbingly by Talman, that future law-and-order foil to TV's Perry Mason.

The third: Of the two actors playing the prisoners, the one with the biggest name, O'Brien, who made such an impression three years prior as a similarly put-upon innocent in "D. O. A.", is something of a second banana here. Lovejoy's character is the one who employs patience and courage. He's got a wife and children, and as Myers taunts, "Just keep thinking' how nice it'll be to see 'em again."

Lovejoy and Talman, not to mention Lupino, deserved more chances to stretch themselves as effectively as they do here. All three put up stellar work.

Lupino and husband co-writer Collier Young set a quick tempo, punctuated by Myers' sneering jibes at his fellow travelers. No attempt is made at making him sympathetic, yet his terse, flat commands keep you riveted.

When he relaxes, he's even more unlikable. He mocks Collins and Bowen for being "soft" and even brags later on how one of them might have gotten away if they weren't that way.

"You kept thinking' about each other, so you missed some chances," he says.

You get the feeling Myers enjoys torturing the pair even more than he does the prospect of killing them. His fleering eyes, even with his right eyelid always half-closed, tell all you want to know about him.

The film moves even more quickly than its 71-minute running time suggests. Occasionally there are breaks in the action while we see an American fed talk strategy with a Mexican police commander (Jean Del Val, recognizable as the first actor seen speaking in "Casablanca.") This feels a bit canned, though, as do the radio bulletins telling of Myers' progress whenever he tunes in. The climax comes off a bit flat, too.

But "The Hitch-Hiker" entertains with its strong tension and its lack of gushiness or fat. This is a man's movie, no less manly for being the product of a woman who knew what men like, and how to deliver same.

Elvis & Nixon

Come Together
When the surviving Three-atles got together for a 16-minute conversation featured in The Beatles Anthology in 1995, they spent much of the time talking about another icon: Elvis. Like which of them met him last (George) and what he was like.

So it figures that when Elvis himself met another icon, Richard Nixon, in the Oval Office in December 1970, they wound up talking about the Beatles, finding common ground on how much the two men disliked them.

"They may not actually be in the employ of the Communists, but if encouraging revolution doesn't sound like subversive behavior, I don't know what is," the King (Michael Shannon) tells a nodding 37 (Kevin Spacey).

Whether this was the actual spark that transformed a trivial historical footnote into the stuff of legend is hard to say. But director Liza Johnson and the writers do what they can to make sure the viewer is amused and engaged.

Two things lift this film out of its curious anecdotal substance: Sharp editing by Michael Taylor and Sabine Hoffman that pops off the screen with the help of a fine vintage Memphis-soul-infused score; and Shannon's solid performance as "E."

It's true he doesn't look the part, or sound that much like Presley, but Shannon grounds his performance in Elvis's well-known sensitivity. He knows he's a star and will get the big treatment wherever he goes, and you can see he's uncomfortable with that, as well as the responsibility of being gracious to the people he meets even when they are acting like idiots. He may not remember this moment, but he knows they will, and wants to do right by them.

"When I walk into a room, everybody remembers their first kiss with one of my songs playing in the background," Elvis explains, in between dabbing his eye sockets with Preparation H to conceal the bags. "But they never see me."

Spacey is more of a caricature, but a good one. He's not the subject but the object of the piece, and plays his few scenes for comedy and some surprising moments of empathy. For all his bigness, it appears Nixon is a little star-struck, too.

"Elvis & Nixon" is a deliberately minor effort, weighing in at well under 90 minutes. It features some tangents about one of the people behind that meeting, future manager Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), and his anxieties about meeting his prospective parents-in-law, which feels belabored and concocted in the direction of serving Schilling's ego. (He was a producer of this project.)

In the end, though, the takeaway I got from this was pleasure, particularly a final section where Elvis and Nixon finally meet, and discuss the miracle that is America for both of them. It reminds me of the HBO films they used to make in the 1990s, before it became about big ratings and "Game Of Thrones" and the idea was to give a platform to a film that wasn't likely to draw big box-office. I just hope Amazon keeps it up with this kind of original programming. "Elvis & Nixon" is a promising start.

Ten Little Indians

Invitation To Dine...Or Die?
Ten people come together at a mountain mansion, guests of a mysterious U. N. Owen who keeps them waiting, and waiting...

"I find a singular lapse of manners a house party and the host the last to arrive," huffs Judge Cannon (Wilfred Hyde-White).

For Judge Cannon and the other nine, a lapse of manners is just an appetizer for what follows: Accusation, isolation, and eventually, a menu full of murder.

"Ten Little Indians" is a delightful jaunt of swinging-'60s ambiance that plays a bit with the conventions of a classic Agatha Christie mystery while still delivering the goods. A Mancini-ish jazz score and a cast that features Fabian, Bond girls Shirley Eaton and Daliah Lavi, and slumming luminaries like Hyde-White and Dennis Price keep fun in the foreground.

I love Elsa Grohmann (Marianne Hoppe)'s one-word review of Lavi's actress character, Ilona Bergen; and how Fabian's singer character Mike Raven gets on everyone's nerves singing about their "strictly nurseryville" situation. Butler Grohmann (Mario Adorf) even asks, after the guests begin dropping like flies: "How many do you think there will be at dinner tonight?"

At the same time, the film works hard building up the classic Christie structure of constant mortal danger, and in places even refining it a little.

For example, you wonder how the actress and the general know each other, and if the "dab hand" of detective Blore (Sterling Holloway) has something to do with a sudden power cut. Why does Hugh Lombard (Hugh O'Brian) carry luggage with the initials "C. M."? Why would Ann Clyde (Eaton) take a job as secretary to a man she never met? Yes, it's done with yuks, especially watched a second time when you see the red herrings clearly and the crafty culprit right in front of you, but amid all the frosting there's a wickedly fine cake, dark and deadly and cold as hell.

Director George Pollock and producer-writer Harry Alan Towers (writing here as Peter Welbeck) previously developed several successful if slightly irreverent film adaptations of Christie's Miss Marple stories. Here they work that same comic touch into the darker material of "Ten Little Indians." They even pause the action for what they call a "Whodunit break."

Of course this shouldn't work, especially with a cast that seems to strain at the self-conscious celebrity of a "Fantasy Island" episode a decade or so later, yet the pieces come together. There's an especially well-delivered twist at the end, as scott-palmer2 points out in his August 2009 review unique to this particular adaptation, which is ironically set up by that most clichéd film convention, a sudden romance involving our sexy leads.

One sequence near the end, involving a staircase and a revolver, is played too cute and feels forced. Also, there are some minor contrivances, like when two characters have a fight for no other reason than to give one of them an excuse to make an abrupt exit from the story.

You may not like the characters, but empathy is not the object here, no more than it was with Christie's novel. Here, suspense is alleviated by comedy, and while no substitute for reading the disturbing book, what you get is high-class entertainment with a game cast and a crafty script.

Hail the Conquering Hero

He Hasn't Begun To Fight
When Woodrow Truesmith comes marching home, it's to the happiest homecoming any U. S. Marine ever saw: Marching bands, a mortgage- burning ceremony for his mother, even a campaign for mayor. But Truesmith's not only a reluctant hero, he's no hero at all.

Transforming a false-flag endeavor into the stuff of comedy would be a challenge for any writer-director circa World War II: Preston Sturges handles it with steady aplomb. Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is no fraud; rather he's found himself with six real Marines who take to him and his failed effort to join their ranks, and decide to grant him the stature that hay fever denied. The fact Truesmith himself wants no part of this only makes it more interesting.

"They want heroes, we got six of 'em," says Marine Sgt. Heffelfinger (William Demarest). "All right, we throw in a seventh for good luck. Who's counting?"

Bracken and Demarest have some great back-and-forths, two overbearing actors who find just the right backboards in each other. When Truesmith refuses to wear a Marine uniform because it's against regulations, Sgt. Heffelfinger waves it off: "That only applies to Marines."

When the other five Marines take turns telling terrible Truesmith tales to the tipsy townspeople, Truesmith complains they are lying. Heffelfinger again holds firm: "Every one of those boys is telling the truth except they changed the names a little so as not to give out military information."

Why are the Marines so gung-ho on selling Truesmith so high? Some of it has to do with his father, a war buddy Heffelfinger saw fall at Belleau Wood. Heffelfinger probably senses Truesmith would have turned out the same had hay fever not gotten in the way, and he's keeping faith with the old man. Also, these six Marines still have a war to fight. By championing Truesmith, they are getting maybe their only chance at a heroic homecoming of their own.

And what a homecoming! Norman Rockwell couldn't have painted it better. Georgia Caine as Woodrow's mother makes breakfast for six new sons, while Ella Raines as the girl Woodrow left behind keeps putting off breaking the news that she's gotten engaged to someone else. This is comically difficult when everyone in town including the fiancé's mother is pulling for Woodrow.

The usual Sturges stock company shows up here; this time there's no awkward shoehorning as the characters have just enough time to make their unique impressions without clogging up the works. It's actually a marvelous thing how the movie flows together, a thrusting narrative that makes time for diverse voices by having everyone interrupt everyone else. Raymond Walburn as the narcissistic mayor even interrupts himself.

Just when things seem to be reaching critical mass, Sturges cuts to a tender moment between Bracken and Raines, or a tense one between Woodrow and one of the Marines (Freddie Steele) who suffers from undiagnosed PTSD and is fixedly determined that Woodrow not disappoint his mother, being he has no mother of his own. Even this isn't beyond Sturges' comedy.

"Are you nuts or something?" Woodrow asks him.

"Maybe," the Marine answers.

Sturges works a political campaign into the story, coded messages about greedy Republicans doing battle with selfless Democrats with a war hero thrown in the mix. It's very simplistic, but adds to the fun.

Sturges films can be exhausting, but "Hail The Conquering Hero" hits all the right notes. It has a lot to say about military service, and how people can contribute to a larger cause with or without putting themselves in combat. There are many ways to be a hero.

The Undefeated

Second-Tier Duke, But Pretty To Look At
If you want an easygoing movie that employs likable actors to pleasing effect, you may wind up accepting "The Undefeated" for what it is. But if you are like me and want a story that keeps your attention and moves you to a satisfying conclusion, this makes for a tough sell.

At the end of the American Civil War, a Union and Confederate colonel separately lead their people into Mexico. The Yank, John Henry Thomas (John Wayne), is bringing 3,000 horses to the Emperor Maximilian at $35 a head. The Rebel, James Langdon (Rock Hudson), is escaping the ignominy of surrender.

Mexico, alas, is in the throes of a bloody revolution. If they are to survive, they must set aside their differences and work together.

As John Henry explains it: "We got Maximilian on one hand and Juárez on the other, and bandits in between. And on top of that, we're Americans in Mexico taking a cavvy of horses to a very unpopular government. Why should we expect trouble?"

A product of that last great year for Westerns, 1969, "The Undefeated" has amazingly crisp and dynamic cinematography. William H. Clothier knew about shooting horses and horizons, and showcases both talents to majestic effect. The dialogue is often funny. But the film itself offers a hodge-podge of undernourished subplots, sweet talk, and sudden bursts of action that never gels.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen liked to cram his films with lots of different stories and people. Sometimes, like with his Wayne movie the next year, "Chisum," it worked. Here it doesn't.

There's a listless quality to the crux of the movie, John Henry and Langdon working together. Hudson's character is introduced as headstrong ("I got no taste losin' to a lot of Yankee rabble") but seems too easygoing with his former foe. Much time is wasted on a gormless romantic subplot involving Langdon's daughter and John Henry's adopted Cherokee son. Ben Johnson as John Henry's chief buddy has little to do but shrug and make wisecracks. The cast list includes John Agar and Richard Mulligan, but there's only a brief glimpse of the former and no sign of the latter in the finished film. McLaglen must have bit off more than he could chew in post- production.

Wayne is perfectly adequate, settling into the role of senior presence rather than a major player. McLaglen has fun setting up Duke's gruff charm and understated reactions, but as Oscar material, he hardly posed a threat to that year's winner, John Wayne in "True Grit."

Goofy subplots include surly cook Dub Taylor, whose main bit of business is telling everyone but his faithful tabby to go to hell; and a Rebel civilian no one will talk to because he didn't serve in the war. So why did he join them on this dangerous journey? It's never explained, but you hardly notice when nothing else is.

SPOILER ALERT - The ending is a strange one, where John Henry and Langdon turn on Maximilian after Juárez's people take the Southerners hostage. To spare their being massacred John Henry gives up the horses and rides home. Perhaps he realizes the Juáristas despite being ungentlemanly have a point, it being their land, but it's never explained: "You win one, you lose one," John Henry shrugs, and that's that. SPOILER END

There are fun scenes in the movie, and everything is beautiful to look at, so I won't carp too much at all the loose ends. My real beef is wishing McLaglen, a solid pro in other efforts, did more with his cast and opportunities here.

The Big Parade

Silence Is Golden
A lot of old movies work despite the fact they are silent. "The Big Parade" is unique to me in that it is hard to imagine it working so wonderfully if it wasn't a silent.

There's no gainsaying the greatness of silent comedies, like those of Keaton or Lloyd. Silent horror films like "Nosferatu" pack an eerie power. But dramas usually work for me when I can hear the actors talking. Not so "The Big Parade."

Here you see American soldier James Apperson (John Gilbert) and French farm girl Melisande (Renée Adorée) struggle to build a connection despite not speaking each other's language. With no sound, their pantomime becomes more engaging, more amusing, and cuts to the heart of what their relationship is about.

"I don't know a word you say," Apperson says, "but I know what you mean."

Watching Apperson's unit walk into action, we hear nothing but the tick-tock of a metronome, broken only by an odd pling of string whenever a flying bullet connects with one of his comrades. We see officers and non-coms give direction, but have no idea what they are saying. Everything about the battle is surreal.

Apperson's comrade, Cpl. Slim (Karl Dane), gives us the only hint of strategy: "We're gonna keep going' till we can't go no more."

"The Big Parade" is a film that draws on various tangents of wartime experience, from pathos to terror to humor. A long opening section has Apperson, Slim, and their buddy Bull (Tom O'Brien) bonding over mail calls and wine cellar raids. You are encouraged to relax and enjoy their company, but you pull back. It's like bonding with a puppy in a kennel you know you can't take home.

King Vidor makes a nearly perfect movie. There are slower stretches, and a late bout of overacting from Gilbert, but "The Big Parade" has a solidity to it that rewards watching over and over, a tough-nosed story buttressed by a clear sense of mission. At the same time Vidor avoids making too much of a Big Statement. His focus is on war's dislocation, not its folly.

Vidor based his film on a treatment by a World War I veteran, Laurence Stallings, for whom the emotional toll was at least as important as the physical. According to Jeffrey Vance's illuminating DVD commentary, Stallings was focused more on military life behind the lines. It's here the film pulls you in, before any violence sets in, with the cooties and the way the soldiers settle in to their new environment.

Gilbert is terrific to watch, whether he's walking around a village wearing a barrel or trying to teach Melisande how to chew gum. Usually love scenes kill a good war movie, but Gilbert and Adorée are such fine company you enjoy their lulls together. I don't know if Gilbert had a real issue with his voice when sound came in, or if its myth, but his scenes remind me of Norma Desmond's claim about the superiority of silents: "They had faces then."

If I had to recommend a silent movie to a person wary of them, and I didn't want to stack the deck with one of the great clowns or a horror film, I would choose this. It may not be the greatest silent movie, but "The Big Parade" draws upon the unique strengths of the form to create a multi-layered, involving entertainment that holds its value a hundred years later.

On the Waterfront

Overcoming The Idiot Plot
A triumph of movies in its realistic depiction of a man alone bucking the system, "On The Waterfront" scores in another department for me. It's a prime example of a film overcoming what the late Roger Ebert liked to call "the idiot plot."

As Mr. E. put it, the idiot plot is where a movie depends on its characters acting like complete dolts in order for it to function. Here, an idiot summons a pal to a roof knowing his bully buddies who want to silence the pal wait there, not figuring that they might, you know, push him off said roof and silence him for keeps.

A priest kicks off a tense meeting by asking who killed the guy, thinking somehow someone will just blurt it out and not figuring a public forum might intimidate them into further silence.

A union boss figures the best way to keep idiot #1 quiet is to kill his brother and hang him on a hook for him to see the night before said idiot is scheduled to give testimony. Oh, and when the guy tells what he knows anyway, the boss blows his top and attacks him in front of the press.

Still, "On The Waterfront" triumphs over such qualms and delivers a solid story, aided by powerhouse performances. Marlon Brando centers everything with an assured turn as Terry Malloy, a former boxer turned goon for Longshoremen's Local 374. Sure, Terry's an idiot, but he has a lot of heart: "I figured the worst they were gonna do was lean on him a little bit. Wow. He wasn't a bad kid, that Joey."

Brando's scenes with Eva Marie Saint as Joey's sister, Edie, retain a kind of raw power, of two people finding each other in a cruel world and making something good amid the carnage. Their scenes together have an intimacy and subtlety that make them stand out more. One critical moment between them, easy to miss, is when during their first extended time together, after she lets him do most of the talking, she quietly reveals she has had her eye on him for a long time, back at school when he was a troublemaker and she was just a mousy kid in braces and braids.

Director Elia Kazan was at the midpoint of his distinguished career, and gets a lot of mileage off of scriptwriter Budd Schulberg's tough-talking script. The scenes around the pier hut where the union boys run their scams are crisp and flavorful, dominated by Lee J. Cobb's nasty Johnny Friendly. "Everything that moves in and out, we take our cut," he boasts.

Here and elsewhere, there is an "on-the-nose" quality to the dialogue, and to the way the film is constructed. It's manipulative the way we see Terry shot in the mesh of his pigeon coop like he's in a web, or how a crossbeam gives an aspect of a crucifix whenever Edie appears. Yet it works. "On The Waterfront" is a kind of passion play for organized labor, arguing successfully that tolerating corruption makes for a sin of omission.

The famous "coulda been a contender" scene with Brando and Rod Steiger as his brother Charlie remains parody-proof, and the socko ending with Terry's big confrontation at the dock remains one of the great moments of cinema. They are rare big scenes that fully earn their acclaim.

I don't love "On The Waterfront." I find it too pushed in places, and not very convincing. But it still holds up well as a testament to what movies can do, and how they can make you feel.

Safety Last!

Getting High With Harold
It's not Harold Lloyd's best film, nor my personal favorite, nor his snappiest, warmest, or funniest film (different ones, all), but "Safety Last" is the sky's-the-limit icon for Harold Lloyd. You know the shot; now see where it came from.

But first, you have to sit through a long introductory section that is by turns inventive and contrived, a taffy pull which drags even as it offers up some inventive gags. Comedy is hard, even sometimes for the audience. But what a payoff.

The story is simple: Harold works at a department store and wants to impress his fiancée (Mildred Davis) by buying her fancy things he can't afford as a sign of imaginary wealth. "She's just got to believe that I'm successful – until I am." His campaign works too well: Mildred's mother sends her daughter to snap up Harold before another woman can.

I find Mildred Davis the weak link in this film. She plays a thin character, rather unlikable in the way she fixates on status and relishes Harold ordering people around. Another actress might have played her as an amusing gold-digger, or else a zany flapper with suspicions about Harold's game. Davis tended to stick with sweet and simple, and it feels wrong here.

There's also the contrivances, another frequent Lloyd qualm of mine. The opening shot is one of those false opens Harold liked to do, in this case a train station set up to look like a gallows. An overhead mail hook resembles a noose and Mildred's father is a minister, so there's a momentary disassociation, except it's the first scene, so it's forgettable immediately. So is a bit where Harold gets stuck in a laundry truck driven by a deaf driver, making him late for work.

But amid the whiffs there are hits, like a scene in a crowded trolley and another about dodging a landlady. As the film moves along, it gets much better.

To appreciate "Safety Last," I had to realize from the DVD commentary that the film was constructed in reverse. Lloyd and his team (including writer-directors Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor) had their ending all set, and shot it first: Harold on top of that building, hanging on for dear life. The trick for them was figuring out how he gets up there.

When I thought of "Safety Last" that way, the contrivances and gags became much more clever and enjoyable, because they are serving a larger end without my realizing it. Why would Harold go up the 12- story Bolton Building? To draw a crowd and impress his girl. Why does he do it himself, when his roommate (Bill Strother) is a high- rise climber? Because Bill is being chased by a cop. Why is Bill being chased by a cop? You get the picture.

A real joy of "Safety Last" is seeing members of Lloyd's stock company show up, including Noah Young as the cop, Charles Stevenson and Anna Townsend from "Grandma's Boy" as an ambulance attendant and a customer, and even Roy Brooks, a fixture of many Lloyd shorts, leaning out a window.

"That's the best one you pulled yet!" Brooks tells Lloyd as he's clinging from the ledge. Is this a call-back to "Never Weaken," a short made two years before where Brooks played Lloyd's pal while Harold climbed another high-rise chasing after Mildred? I can see Harold dotting the i there, even as he also lets his buddy give "Safety Last" its first and most enduring review.

Funny how some people talk about Lloyd's genius but then almost sheepishly admit he wasn't quite risking his neck on that building like he appears to, instead of realizing that makes him even more of a genius.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Cheesy Or Clever...Why Not Both?
This is the hardest Star Trek movie for me to review, so bear with me.

On the one hand, it is forced in its social-message earnestness. The apocalyptic set-up takes too long and is rather lame besides. The hug-it-out ending is the kind of thing earnest old Gene Roddenberry might have rejected as too cloying by half.

On the other, it's the most enjoyably comic entry in the "Star Trek" canon barring "A Piece Of The Action" and maybe "Galaxy Quest," showcasing some of the best cast chemistry among The Original Series regulars.

In short, I find it somewhat tedious on the whole and very entertaining in much of its parts, especially the 65-minute middle section which brings James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew to San Francisco in 1986.

I'd rather not waste time setting the film up. The film itself does too much of that, and it only falters in the explanation. Something about a mysterious craft that has the power of shutting down all power in and around the planet Earth. It's sending out unrecognizable lines of communication; Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) recognizes humpback whalesong. Since humpbacks are extinct in the 23rd century, Spock determines the best way to handle this is find some whales in Earth's past that can respond and send the craft back from whence it came.

It's a weak device, throwing up a lot of unanswered questions (what became of all those unfortunate crewpeople on ships that we see in the opening drifting powerless into space's vaccuum?) All you are supposed to care about are the usual suspects, Kirk and the gang of the late U. S. S. Enterprise, now aboard a stolen Klingon bird-of- prey. If you can, good for you.

Give Nimoy a lot of credit. I don't like the script he helped write, but as director he makes it work by building up his fellow actors from the TV show. Anyone notice how Spock never gets the last word this time in his exchanges with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley)? Instead, he's the butt of much of the humor, as when he strains futilely to inject profanity in his exchanges in order to fit in on 20th-century Earth.

"He's not exactly working on all thrusters," McCoy reminds Kirk.

A silly-looking Spock is not what you expect, but watching him try to drop "hells" and "damns" with unbecoming Vulcan gravity is a joy of repeated viewings.

I can do without the save-the-whales message being troweled on like mortar. Kirk's female contact on 20th century Earth has a "I Heart Whales" bumper sticker, and there's a long section showcasing whale slaughter in gory detail. I don't need the violins as I tuck into my whale steak and heat my cottage with blubber oil.

Yet "Star Trek" did inject social commentary a lot in its TV period, along with some fairly comic outings. In both cases, "Star Trek IV" serves as a pleasant return to the well, reminding us why it was so enjoyable for so long. Humor comes across to some degree in other outings, but here it becomes more central than usual. Not all the jokes are great, but the delivery is solid. Even Chekov (Walter Koenig) gets some overdue attention as an object of last-minute rescue.

Who doesn't get a kick out of watching Kirk and Spock negotiate mass transit? Non-fans will enjoy the digs, while fans who balance their loyalty to the franchise with an appreciation for popular-if-dated entertainment tropes will find this a worthwhile if minor addition to the mythos that is Trek.

Riders of Destiny

John Wayne Singing Debut Goes Like You'd Expect
A passable first effort by John Wayne for Lone Star Westerns is undone by odd comic relief and an attempt at strangling the career of Hollywood's greatest cowboy before it began by giving him a guitar.

That's right, it's time for the musical stylings in the key of Duke. Ellington, he's not.

"His eyes were blazing with flames of hate/ And his guns were loaded with poison bait/ As they hung and swung at his side."

That's Wayne as "Singin Saunders," known around the Old West as "the most notorious gunman since Billy the Kid," apparently for his ability to mow down hombres acapella. As an offstage singer tunelessly mutters lyrics while caressing a guitar with an oven mitt, Wayne lip-synchs his way into battle.

It's the first of three Lone Star singing-cowboy roles for Wayne, and the one that jumps out at you for the way it is doggedly incorporated into the plot, with five separate scenes where Wayne's character breaks into song.

When Wayne isn't singing, his quiet strength and easy charm make him a good fit for a low-key oater about a rough boss named Kincaid (Forrest Taylor) using his water rights to starve out a law-abiding town. Cecilia Parker makes for a lovely love interest, and Wayne is partnered for the first time ever by George (not yet Gabby) Hayes as Parker's pa. They make a fine trio.

Unfortunately, this film has other issues. Everyone in it operates as if no one has a memory lasting more than five minutes. For example, after Parker's character is saved by Saunders, she comes to believe he is working for Kincaid and confronts him. Saunders shoots Kincaid's chief muscle and then gets offered the vacated job because Kincaid doesn't hold grudges.

One sequence involves Saunders' plan to bypass Kincaid's water- rights chokehold by having a stooge ride a water wagon to the town, wait for Kincaid's goons to ride up and shoot said stooge in mid-drive, then ride up behind the goons and board the runaway wagon before it goes off a cliff. It's a good plan because {BRIEF SPOILER} Saunders works for the government and clinging onto the bottom of a runaway wagon restricts his ability to burst into song.

The film suffers from a strange decision to save on comic relief by having clowns Al St. John and Heinie Conklin double as Kincaid's main henchmen. They stumble around in pursuit of Sandy in a serious of contrived encounters, one of which winds up with them lassoed together. "You make a fine pair of lovebirds," Kincaid sneers.

But the real black mark on this lemon is the singing. Wayne didn't like having to do it, and it shows in a performance suggesting director Robert N. Bradbury had Wayne's family and dog tied up somewhere. It's an uncomfortable start to Wayne's Lone Star era, which did produce some decent results once Wayne left his guitar with Gene and Roy.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask

Rated X For Exasperating
Woody Allen has spent decades showing cinema-goers he's not only a funnyman. Let's take a look back at when he wasn't so fussy...nor that funny.

Based off David Reuben's bestselling answer book about sex, Allen's film is a collection of comic riffs relating to assorted sexual curiosities. Reading these reviews reveals most people think there's at least one good sketch, and widespread disagreement as to which that is. Comedy is subjective.

For me, the class amid the crass is the third episode. Allen plays a stylish Italian trying to get his wife (Louise Lasser) to achieve orgasm. Nothing's working. A friend asks if he is "small."

"Small?" Allen replies indignantly. "Like a French bread!"

Funny as that is, it's funnier in Italian, which is how the whole sketch is played. With nods to stylish Italian cinema, wry quips, and a happy ending, it's the one bit that worked for me.

The rest of the time, Allen flails at finding a balance between adult concerns and childish wisecracks. The bits sometimes have promise, like a final episode taking place inside a man's body as he gets lucky on a date. We get to see the various parts of the body spring to action, including Allen as a frightened spermatozoon, while Tony Randall and Burt Reynolds as managers in mission control try to avoid "failure."

"We're missing her ear and blowing into her nose," Randall reports.

But this sketch does go on too long, as do the others. Even the Italian one could lose five minutes.

The funniest 30 seconds in the entire movie is Gene Wilder's wordless reaction as a cool doctor who discovers his patient loves a sheep. But then the sketch goes on and on from there, to depict the doctor's own romance with the sheep, with bad jokes about his wife smelling lamb chops and him drinking Woolite when the sheep finally disappears.

Other sketches include a quiz show, "What's My Perversion;" and a man who gets caught wearing his hostess's dress. Most of the jokes here are of the groaner variety. Watching Allen play a jester trying to have sex with a queen plays up the idea of getting his hand caught in her chastity belt, while he jokes about hurrying up before the Renaissance.

As much as I love early Allen, before he became America's most famous foreign filmmaker and was still going for laughter, "Everything You Always Wanted To Know..." demonstrates his limitations. He's not Mel Brooks, able to simply set something up and riff on it. He needs context and character development.

What you get here is goofier, scattershot, and ill-focused. He's trying too hard to be both offensive and likable. He does the former better than the latter; I was offended by the missed opportunities and the overall waste of time.


Running Out Of Time
A fine film noir where a thin plot is overridden by an engagingly gloomy mood and a fantastic set-up, "D. O. A." is defined by its relentless pace. It's worth seeing for the editing alone.

Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) is a small-town accountant who finds himself with an upset stomach while vacationing in San Francisco. To his shock, he is told he has ingested a luminous poison which attacks the vital organs and has already been absorbed into his system. Realizing he is a dead man walking, Bigelow sets out to solve his own murder before time runs out:

"Sure, I can stand here and talk to you. I can breathe and I can move. But I'm not alive. Because I did take that poison, and nothing can save me."

"D. O. A" has a famous opening sequence, watching Bigelow from over his shoulder entering a police station to report his pending homicide. What gets me is how the cool detective behind the desk registers no major surprise at the stranger telling him he's been murdered. He just looks at a sheet of paper he happens to have.

"Your name Bigelow?" the detective finally asks. "Frank Bigelow?" Talk about existential dread; it's right out of Kafka!

The film does have a problem, which is the next 20 minutes. Establishing Bigelow's normal life before his poisoning is an exercise in tedium. Many reviewers here point to the annoying wolf whistles which are scored whenever Bigelow crosses path with a young woman. More annoying for me was Bigelow's girlfriend, Paula (Pamela Britton), who smothers her man in every scene while reciting unbelievably trite dialogue in polished rapid-fire. Bigelow's annoyance in turn is understandable, but hardly sells their relationship.

Both Frank and Paula dodged a bullet when he ingested poison; marriage would have been something out of a Sam Kinison routine.

There are a lot of holes in the actual crime, like how the murderer was able to catch Bigelow at a jazz bar or how he's able to jump to the right conclusions from a wayward glance. But the film sells its many MacGuffins with style, playing a nifty shell game with the audience where you never know what's happening next.

Neville Brand is the cast's supporting standout, a psychopath named Chester who grins ferociously at the pain he's about to inflict between punches: "Soft in the belly…Can't take it. See, whadda tell yuh!" Future femme fatale Beverly Garland puts in her first screen appearance, going by her then-married name of Campbell, but her dark hair and there being two other deadlier femme fatales in this film may cause you to miss her.

Director Rudolph Maté made his name as a cinematographer; it's easy to appreciate "D. O. A.'s" distinct visual texture and style even if it was made on a small budget. A smart, clever wind-up sends you home with no false notes of optimism, somehow satisfied that not every good ending has to be a happy one.


Making It Up As He Goes Along
Hollywood movies get a lot of flak for messing with the truth. Sometimes it's because people don't appreciate that compromises have to be made to fit in a two-hour window. Other times, like "Argo," the compromises wind up compromising what's on screen.

November, 1979. In Tehran, Iran, the Islamic Revolution is flexing its muscles. After the deposed Shah goes to the U. S. for cancer treatments, the U. S. Embassy is seized in retaliation, its personnel now hostages to pressure the Shah's forced return. Six Americans who escaped the embassy now hide, their days of relative freedom numbered.

It's a tense-enough situation, but director Ben Affleck and the creative team behind his star vehicle "Argo" can't resist giving audiences extra tension. His superior (Bryan Cranston) warns him of the high stakes if the refugees are discovered by the Iranian revolutionaries:

"Standing room only for beheadings in the square...These people die, they die badly."

Did anyone think that was really going to happen? Iran had gone insane, yes, but the hostages at the embassy were still alive. The psychological tortures they endured, outside of being paraded blindfolded for the cameras, wouldn't become public knowledge until much later.

It's hard to imagine the Iranian revolutionaries so put out not having six more hostages. For all the introductory talk about the CIA propping up the evil Shah, the real reason for taking hostages isn't addressed in the film; Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, whose embassy sheltered the refugees (who would become known as the "guests") points out in a DVD extra that there were four major factions in Iran fighting for supremacy. The hostages became a trump card for the radical Shiite faction. They didn't care about having all the embassy personnel, or they wouldn't have let some go in the days immediately after the takeover. What they wanted, and got, was the attention of the international media.

This would still make for an interesting film, if not one with totally fictional devices like car chases and an angry confrontation at a Tehran bazaar. You would need a director and screenwriter with more of an interest in the six refugees and their search for help in the days before reaching the Canadians than as simple MacGuffins for the main character, Affleck's exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, who gets all the big close-ups.

The most egregious departure from the truth also makes the least sense within the confines of what's on screen: That Mendez opts to make his play to evacuate the six after being told the operation is a no-go by higher-ups in Washington. There was no such decision made at this late stage of the operation, but I guess Affleck felt he needed it to juice up the plot. Time and again, you sense Affleck just played with the real story like this, to give him an excuse for the heavy music and dramatic close-ups. Here, what you get, in the context of this already compromised story, is a guy who risks the six people on an operation that may never get off the ground.

I wish I minded all this messing around less, because I really do enjoy watching the movie. The editing is tight, the comic relief is funny, Affleck plays a cool hero with engaging poise, and the period costumes and set design are first-rate. I finally found out where my childhood collection of Hardy Boys books went.

Alan Arkin has a part as an irascible Hollywood producer which is a lot of fun. Many of the film's great lines are his: "John Wayne is in the ground six months, and this is what's left of America."

The Canadian Caper, as it is rightly known, is a good story. Too bad "Argo" does such a poor job of telling it. I know movies are like history's second draft, meant to be reviewed and put in the right context, but "Argo" pushes the entertainment button too often and winds up missing the mark.

Mean Streets

Marty Makes His Mark
I'm not a big Martin Scorsese fan. "Goodfellas" is a true classic I enjoy, but that's not something I can say about his other films. Still, there's a lot of meat to his movies, and you see his vision fleshing out nicely in this confusing yet involving drama.

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small-time mobster with dreams of making it big in his neighborhood. He's held back by spiritual concerns as well as a sense of obligation to his loose-cannon buddy Johnny (Robert De Niro) and Johnny's cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) with whom Charlie is involved. In time, these concerns become dangerous dead weights to Charlie's aspirations.

"We talk about penance and You send this through the door," Charlie says to God as we watch Johnny making a carefree entrance in the gang's watering hole. "Well, we play by Your rules, don't we?"

Actually, we are playing by Martin Scorsese's rules, which means a lot of idle banter and male bonding occasionally interrupted by fisticuffs and/or gunshots. If you enjoyed "Goodfellas," you may be entertained like me by "Mean Streets'" atmosphere of casual danger and goofy laughs. Actually, "Mean Streets" isn't as hard-toned as what you might expect from seeing "Goodfellas;" actual killings are kept to a minimum. But I missed a serious stab at story or structure.

There are some visually strong sequences in "Mean Streets." I like the opening credits, which features a home movie. We see Charlie shaking hands with a priest on church steps. Just as the credit comes up "Directed by Martin Scorsese," we see Charlie direct the priest to move into the sunlight for a better shot. It's a clever nod to who this story's protagonist really is.

In his typically warm and engaging DVD commentary, Scorsese calls the film "a declaration or statement of who I am" at the time the film was made. Charlie, like Marty, is very likable, a "politician" trying to smooth the waters Johnny roils. It's the film's key problem that, outside of the religious overtones, we don't understand why Charlie cares so much.

Johnny is a nasty piece of work, unable to hold his peace even when it's for his own good. This was Scorsese's first collaboration with De Niro, and the actor gives an electric performance, but it lacks for empathy or understanding. He's going to make trouble no matter what Charlie does. Once you realize this, it becomes a weight and a roadblock.

Scorsese does plug into the world of New York's Little Italy, his own home neighborhood, in a way that feels vital. There are funny moments on the journey. I like the dialogue Charlie and Johnny have about a pair of girls. Johnny says he wants the one on the left.

"Your left or my left?"

"We're both standin' the same way."

Scorsese says he was influenced here by Abbott & Costello; it's a welcome relief from his heavier, left-field allusions to William Blake or inserts from famous movies like "Gilda" and "The Searchers."

{SPOILERS} And what's the deal with the ending? I get that Johnny has an overdue date with danger, but why is Charlie punished, too? If his problem is standing up for Johnny, he isn't doing so at anyone else's expense. He's as invested as anyone in making restitution, so why is he targeted? Also, I don't understand the objection to Teresa. Charlie's mob-boss uncle tells him she's "sick in the head" because she has epilepsy, but you know who else had that problem? Julius Caesar, the greatest Italian mob boss in history. So what's the real issue? {SPOILERS END}

Overall, the film betrays signs of sloppy editing, and includes a lot of go-nowhere scenes that mark time around its undernourished plot. As a story, it's lacking. As a cinematic tone poem, it hits many marks and leaves an impression. So I guess I like it, enough to recommend it to those who liked "Goodfellas." Just don't expect the same kind of film.

The Horse Soldiers

Heavy Hitters Settle For Singles
Can a movie suffer for just being good? There's a strong argument to be made for that in "The Horse Soldiers," with director John Ford and star John Wayne doing competent work in one of their less- heralded turns.

It's a dark time for the Union in the American Civil War. Up against a stout Confederate defense at Vicksburg, General U. S. Grant (Stan Jones) take up an idea floated by cavalry Col. John Marlowe (Wayne) to lead a force deep behind enemy lines, lay waste to a rebel railroad junction at Newton Station, and ride on south to Union-held Baton Rouge.

"The main trick is no fighting until we reach Newton Station," Marlowe explains. After that, all bets are off as to a safe return.

"The Horse Soldiers" is a film that challenges you, not to judge its director and star on the basis of prior collaborations, namely the famed "Cavalry Trilogy" and "The Searchers," the latter of which was made just three years before. You get the sense here that Ford wanted Wayne to play the same kind of hard-edged character that made him so great in "The Searchers." Only in "The Horse Soldiers," Marlowe's tough tone gets tiresome too fast.

To that end, Ford enlists the help of William Holden, playing Marlowe's foil as a medical officer named Kendall the colonel has no use for; and Constance Towers as a Southern belle who frets at her mistreatment by the Yankees she'd dearly love to see squashed.

Watching Wayne and Holden go at it is fun, especially since you more or less see Kendall's point of view. Ironically, he's the West Pointer while Marlowe was an engineer in civilian life, which makes it odd to see Kendall fret about the cost of war while Marlowe goes about doing his small-unit version of Sherman's March. Kendall should know better, but Holden the pro sells it.

I really enjoyed Towers here, who has to carry a lot of baggage regarding Ford's famous love-hate attitude toward strong women. But the film doesn't quite know what to do with her, which becomes a problem in the second half when a left-field romance is shoehorned in.

At times Ford is on point as a director, bringing out the autumnal hues of the setting. An opening shot of Union horsemen riding against a fading sunlight is striking, and so is our first shot of Marlowe entering a ship's compartment backlit by a driving rain. The final battle is one of Ford's better ones.

But there are moments where "The Horse Soldiers" feels labored. In the middle of Marlowe's occupation of Newton Station, a Confederate force arrives and for no good reason proceed to charge into Marlowe's well-positioned forces to predictable effect. Even Pickett's Charge made some tactical sense. Here you see Ford straining for effect, and overdoing the flags and musical underscoring.

I really didn't get Marlowe's hostility toward Kendall, even after Wayne has a big drunk scene explaining it which showcases the actor at his weakest. You really want something more settled and grim in his character, not this loudmouth telling us doctors are no good because they couldn't save his wife.

Ford also overloads the film with dramatic deaths, Marlowe telling a dying soldier "There's nothing to be scared of" and so on. Many of the characters get little enough screen time for their passings to register as more than filler, but they keep piling up.

But when Ford connects with a good scene, some of them borrowed from past glories like "The Searchers" and some of them fresh to this film, you understand why he and Wayne mattered so much in the annals of American film. They register as true icons, even in lesser work.

Such is my verdict on "The Horse Soldiers," a decent film with some great moments to pick out amid the clams. Look, it's Ford and Wayne, and they count for a lot, so settle in and give it a look. Just remember if you like it more than me, you have a bunch of films even better than this to enjoy even more.

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam

Clay Kong
A feast for the eyes weakened by a dodgy plot, "The Golem" is a silent horror film that pulls you in at once but accomplishes little to reward your interest.

Times are about to get bad for the Jewish ghetto of a medieval European city, as Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) discovers watching the stars. Sure enough, the city's prince is planning to cast the Jews out. Loew needs a miracle to save his ghetto, and finds it in the form of a clay figure he animates with help from the dark spirit Astaroth. The golem's power is enough to impress the city prince, but proves too much for the rabbi to handle.

"Then the lifeless clay will turn against its master, intent on deceit and destruction," the rabbi is warned.

Director Paul Wegener does triple duty on this production, co- writing the script and playing the Golem, a figure he portrayed in two prior films, now lost. To say he makes a strong impression is underselling it. Wearing a concrete Beatle wig and giant belt buckle, his expressions range from mute docility to fierce anger once Astaroth's spirit takes over.

Alas, "The Golem" is a one-golem show for the most part. The plot point of the Jewish pogrom, so apt for the time and place the movie was made, doesn't actually figure in the movie's resolution. Instead, dramatic tension consists of a romantic triangle between Rabbi Loew's flirtatious daughter, Miriam (Lyda Salmonova); the fey knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), and Rabbi Loew's jealous assistant (Ernst Deutsch), who sics the Golem on Miriam when he catches her with Florian.

At least when the film is focused on the Golem, it holds your attention, if not your interest. Wegener does some clever, subtle things with his character. When he first walks outside, you see him react with pleasure to his sunlit surroundings. He shows his teeth when Rabbi Loew attempts to remove his source of power, a five- pointed star worn on the Golem's chest.

If there is a film that "The Golem" foreshadows, it is "King Kong," where the beast proves no match for beauty. Just like Kong coveted pretty Ann Darrow, the Golem becomes fixated on Miriam, carrying her off after breaking up her romance with Florian for good.

Nothing much comes of this, though. It's a problem I had with the whole film. No sooner does something build into a plot point, whether it be the persecution of the Jews or Rabbi Loew's meeting with the city prince, then it wilts under a lot of light and shadows and we move onto the next scene. I found this movie difficult to watch in a single sitting, short as it was.

What makes "The Golem" fascinating viewing are the way the scenes are shot. Cinematographer Karl Freund makes masterful use of the surroundings and Wegener's one-of-a-kind face to dazzle you with image after image of Expressionism run amuk, whether it's the vine-like hinges of Rabbi Loew's house or the gingerbread streets of the ghetto. Wegener's eyes miraculously glow whenever he is on screen, adding wonderment to his ample menace.

If only the story was better. Instead, Wegener presents lifeless scenes populated by overemotive characters, when a dollop of realism would have done wonders to give the horror decent grounding. One scene shows the Golem saving the prince, after his retinue makes the mistake of laughing at a mystical show the rabbi performs. We see a ceiling come down but are at a loss as to why. A better film would have set up the scene, and managed a stronger payoff.

The movie ends on a note of surprising grace, again like "Kong" cluing us into the idea the fearsome beast had a heart. It involves not Miriam but a little girl, but the end result is the same. Fallen beast, grateful citizens, and a twinge of sadness for what became of our title character.

If only the film had more going for it in the way of personality or story, it might live on as something more than cinematic spectacle and historical curio.


He's Got The World On A String
Frank Sinatra proved he could make a mark in a dramatic role in the movie he did just before this one, "From Here To Eternity." He proves something else here, that he could dominate a film doing same.

Sinatra is basically the whole show here, a cold killer named Baron who sets his sights on the President of the United States. He and two henchmen pull into the town of Suddenly, California and set up a sniper's nest in a hillside home occupied by war widow Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), her father-in-law Pop (James Gleason), and her son Pidge (Kim Charney). Only the town sheriff (Sterling Hayden) knows the score, but he's no good with a gunshot wound in his arm. Or so Baron figures.

Sinatra seems to be playing Richard Widmark in his first and only psycho role. Thing is, it's a great Widmark impression. He's got the sneer, the giggle, and the ruthless efficiency to make this film work.

"One phony and she's got a kid with his throat cut," he tells the hostages. "Doesn't make much noise that way."

"Suddenly" is a film of its time, hokey in places with its Norman Rockwell images and soliloquies about patriotic duty and the wrongness of murder. The director, Lewis Allen, even has Sinatra speak into the camera a couple of times to illustrate how nasty he is. The beauty of Sinatra's performance is that he sells it. He did the same with a few hokey lyrics, too.

The supporting cast does an excellent job making sure you don't stop watching Sinatra. They are pretty wooden in the main. Hayden is the biggest surprise, very stiff and barking out his lines with unconvincing stentorian stiffness. Maybe he just didn't feel it; before the drama begins he's lecturing Pidge not to call his mother "she" and telling Ellen to get over being a widow and marry him already.

"You're diggin' a big black pit and shovin' us all down into it!" Or maybe she just don't dig sharing her precious bodily fluids with you, huh?

Allen has a stiff style that accentuates the unnaturalness of such scenes, but once it gets down to Sinatra and his goons in that house the film settles into a tough-nosed, believable suspense yarn that flies by. Baron is a strange guy, who likes to think he's just doing a job but clearly enjoys the power trip he's on much more. Using this knowledge will help the sheriff; it also deepens Sinatra's character.

Called a "born killer" by the sheriff, Baron just nods thoughtfully and says "yeah" without a hint of menace. When Ellen tells him he's an animal, he grins: "How do you like your roast beef, medium rare or well done?" Even the way he moves through the room shows you he has skills.

Was this the real Sinatra? You kind of wonder when you finish, not just because of his hard reputation but how believable he is in the role. He never played such a villain again, which is sort of a shame. After "Suddenly," he didn't have to.

Movie Crazy

The Elmerization Of Harold
The advent of sound hit Harold Lloyd like a well-thrown pie, even if he maintained his box-office appeal for a while. Proof of that is this, his best-regarded sound picture.

Harold Hall (Lloyd) is a clumsy clod from the Midwest who dreams of making it big in Hollywood. After sending by accident someone else's photograph to a big studio, Harold is happily surprised to cadge an invite to Tinseltown. But getting there is one thing; does Harold have what it takes to stay there?

I can't say I hated everything about "Movie Crazy;" the opening score is buoyant and energetic. Most reviewers point to Constance Cummings' dynamic turn as an actress who takes a fancy to Harold; she is every bit as amazing as they say. But man this film makes Lloyd look bad!

Lloyd was a comic performer of great subtlety and inventiveness; qualities absent from what he delivers here. With his too-earnest delivery and prim inflections, he makes an odd impression as he overacts every big line. "When I come back, I'll come rolling in a Rolls-Royce," he tells his parents.

Worse, as with "Feet First" he plays an idiot, a far cry from the capable, sympathetic clown he essayed in silents. Sound transformed Buster Keaton into the dolt "Elmer;" here Lloyd works a lot of double takes and plays up his character's naïve stupidity at nearly every turn. Much of the comedy here involves Harold tripping over himself, oblivious to the world around him.

This works in his favor with Cummings' Mary Sears character, charmed by his stumbling and the fact he hasn't come on to her like every other guy in town. She nicknames him "Trouble" and plays a mean but funny trick on him, by playing up Harold's confusion that the Spanish bombshell she portrays in her latest movie is somebody else, not her.

I'd like "Movie Crazy" a lot more if they knew what to do with this inspired idea. Cummings has fun with the dual performance, and there is a fine scene where Harold approaches Mary in her Spanish disguise to get his pin back, so he can give it to Mary. She urges him to give her a good-bye kiss first, asking him how this Mary could know.

"Believe me, she sees everything!" Harold replies.

But instead of going in a screwball direction with this, Mary becomes genuinely hurt when her ruse works too well, and Harold is hurt in turn. The film limps on like this for another 30 minutes.

I think I know what the matter was with Lloyd and sound. In silents, he played an archetype, an engaging one that captured the zeitgeist of the time and meshed with the kind of physical comedy he perfected. But sound pushed him to play more of a character, with realistic reactions, and it was too much.

To compensate, Lloyd oversold the clowning, to the point where every other motion leads to a pratfall or a crash. This makes it much harder to root for sound Lloyd than it was for silent Hal.

Lloyd also directed the film, uncredited, and shows some characteristic visual flair setting up shots. As long as he focuses on Cummings, he holds my attention. But it's not really a case of the actress upstaging the star; it's more like nature abhorring a vacuum. By the way, a vacuum is the one gag prop that doesn't show up here.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Live Long And Pander
The needs of the franchise outweigh the needs of the movie. It's certainly logical. I just wish the movie left me more to think about.

Shortly after the battle that resolved "Star Trek II," we join a largely vacated U. S. S. Enterprise heading home. Still mourning his friend and comrade Mr. Spock, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) discovers Spock's sealed-off cabin occupied by "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley), himself occupied by Spock's "katra," or spirit.

"Climb the steps of Mount Seleya," a tranced-out McCoy tells Kirk, kicking off a new journey for the Enterprise.

No doubt the "Star Trek" production team, buoyed by the great success of their prior film but now stuck with a gaping, pointy- eared hole, saw its repair as job one. Bringing Spock back to life thus becomes the focus of the film, and the only thing that it gets right.

A series of decent if lully setpieces that awkwardly cohere into a larger story, "Star Trek III" feels stuck in orbit from first to last. The funeral tone of mourning Spock, established in the opening moments, hangs over the rest of the film. Kirk broods about the "emptiness" he feels, about abandoning "the noblest part of myself" and "our dearest blood."

Having spent decades unsuccessfully separating himself from his best-remembered part, director Leonard Nimoy could have told his old comrades it was no use. You don't just say goodbye to Spock and expect him to stay dead. Nimoy lets his film linger over the loss of our favorite Vulcan, at the expense of the tension and suspense that animated "Star Trek II."

What Nimoy does do well is engage the other actors, at least the ones he worked with in the original series. Kelley is delightful as the keeper of the katra, struggling to reconcile his new persona as a logical Vulcan while retaining Bones' short temper. "It's his revenge for all those arguments he lost," McCoy fumes when Kirk explains what has happened to him.

What did happen, anyway? The introduction of a mystical element to the Vulcan story, that Spock has what Kirk calls "an immortal soul," is at odds with "Star Trek's" materialistic approach to life, especially as it culminates in a religious ceremony conducted in English with a lot of "thou" and "thee." I can't say I bought it, but then again, it wasn't like I felt expected to. It's something to justify the reason we are here, getting Spock back.

The rest of the film punctuates this by giving us little else to watch. There's some business about renegade Klingons trying to steal the secret of the prior film's Genesis project from the Federation, but the action here is strictly by the numbers. Christopher Lloyd spits every line as the head Klingon, pushing to dominate every scene he's in. Long sections of narrative deal with the collapse of the Genesis planet and its impact on a young Vulcan who may be Spock, a plot device which is neither believable nor compelling.

What "Star Trek III" needed was something to pull us from the Spock story, a crisis/adventure to engage us long enough for Spock's return to take us by surprise, the same way his demise did in "Star Trek II." Unfortunately, "Star Trek III" doesn't find that hook, and the film becomes a minor slog with some funny character-driven moments, pleasant for fans but eminently forgettable.

The Shadow of the Eagle

Eagle Never Gets Off Ground
It's unfair to review a 1930s serial by today's entertainment standards; expectations were different and the formula is an alien one. That caveat out of the way, man, does "The Shadow Of The Eagle" stink.

Craig McCoy (John Wayne) is a stunt pilot at a struggling carnival who gets $100 for a skywriting job just when carnival owner Nathan Gregory (Edward Hearn) finds himself $97 short of paying off a debt collector. McCoy is happy to keep his boss in business, but both soon find themselves under suspicion when McCoy's skywriting turns out to be a threat to a group of factory owners who used Gregory's stolen invention to build a fortune.

"You stand in the shadow of the Eagle," a voice in the darkness tells the owners shortly before one of them turns up dead.

Seeing Wayne star in a serial gives you a chance to see the future star work his on-screen charisma in its fledgling form. Unfortunately there's not much to see here; not from Wayne, who does little more than work his smile between stunts; not from the film, which hits you with a succession of half-baked cliffhangers.

I know I can't really complain about logic gaps, character inconsistencies, and tone shifts in a film designed to entertain eight-year-olds in an era long before Nintendo or "Game Of Thrones." But if the film is going to throw so much nonsense up in the air, the least it could do is make it move. "Shadow Of The Eagle" features long sections of wooden dialogue and endless cycles of captures and recaptures.

A lot of the film is spent with various characters watching the Eagle's skywriting, as slow as skywriting tends to be.

"'s a question mark!"

" means that Clark's been wiped out, and they're asking who's next!"

Adding to the underbaked effect is the way director Ford Beebe cheats the cliffhangers between chapter. One chapter ends with a car blowing up, only to begin the next chapter by having it explained as a tire blowout.

Wayne has a nice moment early on when he is confronted by an aggressive questioner ("I'll do the questioning..." "Well, you'll do your own answering, too.") There's also that stunt classicsoncall mentioned in another review, the plane buzzing McCoy as he runs across a field like Cary Grant. But such moments are thin on the ground and get thinner as the serial moves along and various supporting characters pop up and drop off without explanation.

"Shadow Of The Eagle" bears the marks of a project being made up as it went along by a no-budget studio. Unfortunately, while inspiration is free, talent is not. The result of working around that reality is terribly obvious with more than three hours to fill.

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