mcornett

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Reviews

The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(1968)

Daring for its time, and still fun today
I watched this on and off as a kid...I was too young to catch it in first run, but then it aired in reruns for a long time but trying to find it could be tricky as sometimes it was in a morning cartoon block, sometimes on Saturday mornings, and sometimes not at all. Later, as an adult, I told friends about this show and they didn't believe me...but now there's proof as it's on DVD!

Tom, Huck, and Becky are chased by Injun Joe into a cave that suddenly turns into animated backgrounds. They flee Joe through the cave (I guess it's meant to be a sort of inter-dimensional portal...) and they end up wandering through different locations and time periods, always encountering adventures with villains who look and talk just like Injun Joe.

The unique thing was that the three heroes were live-action actors against an animated background and interacting with animated characters. And for its time, it was very well-done. The animated portions were very much standard Hanna-Barbera of the late 60s.

The stories ranged from the comical to the adventurous to the downright sinister. Settings ranged from ancient Greece to Spain (where they meet Don Quixote) to China to India to a Gothic swamp to a generic medieval Europe to a valley inhabited by cave men. (No explanation is given as to why they shift time periods and location so easily; as I kid I wanted to know!) Injun Joe always showed up, as a robber captain or a Nemoesque mad scientist or a wicked king or even an evil sorcerer. (He never recognized the kids, but he was always their enemy. Again, no explanation.) Sometimes they riffed on classic literature; plots are cribbed from Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Greek mythology, and others. One episode, "The Ancient Valley," is a clear, wry commentary on the arms race, and another, "The Conquistador's Curse," is a commentary on greed with Injun Joe barely appearing at all.

In its time it was popular with kids and teens, and the young stars had their 15 minutes of fame, but actual ratings were so-so and a second season never produced.

Watching it today, it's still fun, making me remember snowy Saturday mornings watching this and dreaming of the sort of flamboyant, pulpy adventure it depicted. To modern eyes, it's sometimes primitive but still impressive, and on occasion the depiction of minorities is less than enlightened by modern standards, but nearly every group is depicted as having its good and bad, so there's that much, at least.

So, maybe not dazzling, but good if you're nostalgic like I am. I'm so happy it's now available on DVD!

Saving Christmas
(2014)

Every bit as bad as its reputation says
This movie is so, so utterly wretched, not only in its execution but also in its conception.

Just from a filmmaking perspective, it's extremely shoddy. Many portions look like home movies. A large part of the film is Cameron sitting in a car talking to a friend, and that's not interesting to watch. "Comedy" scenes have nothing to do with the rest of the story, and are creepily unfunny. A bizarre dance scene at the end is out of place and seems inserted to extend the time. Cameron's presence here is smarmy and smug; he lays out his spiritual views and his friend just gushes about how right Cameron is and how he's helped him see the light and love Christmas and all that.

A bigger problem is the misinformation that Cameron spews so authoritatively, some of which runs counter to the Bible and to known history. To give a partial list:

Cameron claims that Joseph and Mary were hiding from soldiers sent by Herod to kill all babies being born. But the Gospel of Matthew says the soldiers were sent by Herod AFTER Jesus was born, when Herod was tipped off by the visiting Wise Men that a King of the Jews had been born. Joseph and Mary then took Jesus and did the Flight into Egypt to save the child's life.

Cameron insists the Nativity took place in a cave because the manger was made of stone. No source claims the manger was stone, or that the Nativity took place in a cave. Matthew says it was in Joseph's house in Bethlehem, Luke says it was a stable. This seems like a post-hoc attempt to link the Nativity with the Resurrection.

Cameron says frankincense and myrrh were "funeral spices." Although myrrh had been used in Egyptian mummification, frankincense was not, and both were much more commonly used as a sacred incense in Hebrew temples.

He goes into detail about Saint Nicholas' life, presenting it as fact, but in truth very little is known for sure about him, and some Christian leaders openly suggest that he may never have existed. All that is known for sure is that someone named Nicholas was at one point the Bishop of Myra; everything else is unsure and in the territory of legend and myth.

Legend has it that during the Council of Nicaea, Nicholas angrily struck Arius in the face for saying that Jesus and God were separate. Cameron depicts Nicholas savagely and brutally attacking Arius and beating him with a shepherd's crook, a scene many Christians found objectionable.

Cameron depicts the historical Saint Nicholas climbing on a sleigh to deliver presents to children, something he never did in any legend. He also claims that Saint Nicholas is the gift-giver everywhere, also not supported by history. Some areas give gifts on Christmas, others at Epiphany, others on St. Nicholas' day, and in some areas the gifts are delivered by someone else entirely, such as La Befana in Italy, St. Basil in Greece, the Yule Lads in Iceland, St. Lucy in Croatia, and multiple countries have the gifts delivered by the Magi, angels, or the Christ Child himself.

Cameron says Nicholas was "sainted," when in reality Nicholas was never canonized. His sainthood was more by word-of-mouth.

Cameron makes an elaborate rationalization for Christmas trees relating to the crucifixion and to the Garden of Eden; this connection is very convoluted and labored, and doesn't hold water. And he doesn't address the parts of Jeremiah which some feel are a commandment against Christmas trees.

He claims that gifts piled under the Christmas tree are perfectly acceptable as they are reminiscent of the skyline of Jerusalem. By that reasoning, they could also be the skyline of Babylon or Rome, and could represent oppression and slavery. It's a poorly considered analogy that should never have been included.

I'm sure I'm missing other bits, but I'm not inclined to go back and watch it again. It's unsettling to see Cameron stand and claim that it's OK to be materialistic at Christmas, because that's when God came to the Earth in material form. (That's pretty much a direct quote.) Never mind the many passages where the Bible tells us to set aside worldly things and not be materialistic! He exhorts viewers to eat themselves to bursting and buy the biggest ham and the richest butter....but isn't gluttony considered a deadly sin?

At no point does he address such issues as helping the poor, feeding the hungry, giving to charity, volunteering, or anything. One is left with the impression that one should only think of one's self and one's immediate family and friends. Does Cameron remember Jesus' command to his followers to give away all they had to the poor? Somehow, I don't think so.

Cameron gives the impression of someone who read parts of the Bible long ago, but rather than fit his life to the Bible, he is fitting the Bible to the life he wants to lead, and making one justification after another without ever bothering to double-check if he's remembering it correctly, or if there's something in the Bible that disagrees with him. It's clear he considers himself a better Christian than you. Many of the faithful have been turned off by this movie, some even going so far as to declare it blasphemous and call Cameron a false prophet. I'm not so sure I would agree, but at the same time, this movie does have some value of showing how even a faithful Christian can fall victim to the sins of pride and arrogance. It's clear that Cameron's ego was in overdrive, and this movie is not as much a testament to God as it is an expression of Cameron's arrogance.

The Betrayal
(1948)

Based on contemporary reviews, and the script...
I've read a number of articles about Micheaux and his films, and some stuff about this movie in particular, and it looks dire.

The released cut was just over 3 hours long, and by all accounts there was barely enough plot to cover something half that long. The acting received poor reviews (he had several amateur non-actors in the leads) and the script is absurdly verbose; a remark is made that Micheaux would use 100 words when 10 would do. There are lengthy speeches against interracial marriage (Micheaux seems to have had some racial-separatist views) and also took the stand that American blacks should abandon the cities and take to the frontiers to build new lives and communities. By all accounts, one of Micheaux's biggest failings was that he was a humorless and overly didactic storyteller, and even his best films became tedious and preachy. Apparently this was no exception. African-American audiences of the day found the film offensive. Micheaux's politics may have been outdated by the time the film came out; doubtless they would not go over well today.

Even though it's based on a novel, it's really a remake of his first film, "The Homesteader", telling an identical story with different names. By all reports, the technical aspects are crude, but that's almost to be expected as Micheaux's projects were chronically underfunded. He was a maverick in the "race movie' world and deserves to be remembered as a pioneer, but it's too bad that much of his work is seemingly so unimpressive. A similar issue is true of a pioneering female moviemaker, Dorothy Davenport, whose films are spoiled by a melodramatic, preachy tone as she sought to solve society's ills with well-intentioned finger-wagged.

Harper Valley P.T.A.
(1978)

Not great, but I view it with affection
Back during my youth in the 70s, the town I lived it was very conservative and tightly wound. Parents cringed at the thought of James Bond movies shown on TV, as the locals thought of them as hardcore porn. Strict standards were expected from everyone.

As teens, the local kids started to realize how overflowing with hypocrisy the town was, and when this movie came along, we rejoiced.

Stella Johnson is a freespirited widow in a conservative town who gets a nastygram from a disapproving PTA. Getting an earful from her friend who runs the local beauty parlor (they weren't called "salons" back then!), she confronts them at a meeting with their own failings (alcoholism, promiscuity, gambling, etc.), but after they don't back down, she engages in a series of pranks to expose and humiliate them. In the meantime she makes over her daughter, falls in love, runs for PTA president herself, and uncovers real corruption.

Yes, it's creaky material, done a jillion times before and probably done better. But Barbara Eden is an energetic and sympathetic heroine, and is believable as the dishy nonconformist mom. Nanette Fabray is also a hoot as her friend Alice. And a bunch of old pros do their best.

But we loved it in our town because so many of the younger set were disgusted with the self-righteousness and hypocrisy we saw in our teachers, in the town government, in the church leaders, and frequently in our own parents. We relished our daydreams of exposing their foibles and confronting them, but too often never did. (Unfortunately, the truly self-righteous view these as simple malice and never truly realize they brought it on themselves.) So even if this movie isn't all that, it appeals to the downtrodden teen who still lives in me and is still disgusted with the self-righteous, it's-OK-if-I-do-it establishment. And I STILL need to expose my sticky-fingered mother about her larcenous habits...

Paranoiac
(1963)

Great macabre atmosphere
A nice, low-key b&w thriller from Hammer, not typical of their product. A decadent upper-crust British family is thrown upside-down by the arrival of a mysterious man claiming to be the younger brother who drowned himself at 15. Is he really? And who is playing the organ at night? Is the sister really insane? It's a crackling good story, a tale of jealousy and murder and inheritances and people not being who they truly are. Everyone has a secret in this story, and some are surprises.

The acting is good, especially from a young and handsome Oliver Reed who is more and more insane as the movie progresses. The crumbling house and chapel are great settings for the goings-on in the story. PARANOIAC is good Gothic suspense, great viewing on a cold gray Saturday afternoon.

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing
(1955)

A bit dated, a bit imperfect, but still worth watching
Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) is a half-Chinese, half-European lady doctor at a hospital in Hong Kong of 1949. She lost her husband to the Chinese communists and now avoids emotional entanglements. Enter Mark Elliott (William Holden), an American journalist who falls head-over-heels for her, but has to surmount the difficulties of having an estranged wife who refuses to grant him a divorce.

Sure, it sounds like pure soap opera, but along the way we get some good observations on Suyin's status as a biracial person at a time when that could make you an outcast from polite society. Timewise, this movie isn't that far from movies like "The Shanghai Gesture" of 1941, in which a Eurasian woman is viewed as unclean and not fit to live, and Hitchcock's "Murder!" from 1930, in which a murder is committed to hide a person's mixed-race status. But "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" shows a Eurasian woman as sympathetic, desirable, and worthy of love and respect, a real step forward for the time and an eye-opener for people of this day and age where that sort of thing is no big deal.

There's also frank depictions of prejudice, adultery, and the tense political situation, not only in Hong Kong but also in Korea. Another Eurasian character is worried about "passing for British." And there's a lush, intoxicating depiction of Hong Kong of the 50s.

Debits are an occasional lack of chemistry between Jones and Holden (reportedly they loathed each other but were professional enough to put that aside when the camera was on), occasional story elements that have dated poorly, and a sometimes overly-schmaltzy score. But overall it's great to see a love story in which the star couple is not starry-eyed callow teens but mature adults who know what's what. The dialog sparkles and sounds like poetry.

Interestingly, this is a fictionalized (and probably very Hollywoodized) treatment of a true story, although the real Han Suyin would go on to marry twice more after the events of this film. A TV soap opera was based on this, and started off by having Suyin's now-grown daughter coming to the US...but the show's depiction of her love affair with a white American was too controversial for TV in the 60s and the character was dropped. We've certainly come a long way.

Gideon Oliver
(1989)

Problematic
I remember some good things about it, but also some bad, and part of it had come from author Aaron Elkins' disowning of the show.

He didn't have a problem with Oliver being made black (Elkins had never specified Oliver's ethnicity in the books), but two things Elkins always refused to include in his books were Satanism and violence against children.

And the premiere episode was about a Satanic cult sacrificing children.

Elkins and his fans were horrified. And personally, I had no problem with Gossett, and thought he did a good job, but after reading some of the books, I found the series a turnoff. They had the smartness but none of the wry humor and light touches. I gave up on it after two shows; may have been unfair of me, but I found the show's dismissal of the author's work to be too much of a turnoff.

Encounter with the Unknown
(1972)

Padded, hokey, but with a certain 70s charm.
As another reviewer noted, the hyped "Rankin cluster phenomenon" appears to be total BS. The movie overall has a bit of interest and a few memorable moments.

The first story involves a prank that goes horribly wrong and costs a young man his life, so his witchy mother (in the film's most memorable scene) lays a curse on them at the funeral, although she's never seen to curse the person truly responsible for her son's death. And the guys responsible all die in "accidents" on schedule...

The second story involves a mysterious hole in the ground that appears on a rural farm in the early 20th century. It's just suddenly there one morning. Smoke roils out of it and weird sounds are heard. A local farmer is lowered into it....

The third is the weakest, a rehash of the tired "Phantom Hitchhiker" story that was already a cliché decades before this film was made.

The biggest weakness is that there's so little substance to these stories. Scenes are played over and over and over in obvious attempts to pad it out to feature length. Every story is supposedly based on a "true story" although it seems to either be urban legends or made up from whole cloth. Another amusing bit is in the third story, which has flashbacks to the 20s, and in those scenes were shown a wealthy stylish girl who has long flowing hair...something totally out of whack, as stylish girls of the 20s had bobbed hair! (Of course, by the 70s, long flowing hair was stylish again...) I saw this on a local station back in the 70s or early 80s, and finally came across it again on YouTube. It's cheap hokum, never particularly scary or disturbing, sloppily written and badly edited. Watching it again I can't help but wonder if it was meant to be the pilot for a TV series. It's amusing when one is nostalgic for cheap 70s horror, but ultimately it fails because of the clichéd nature of the stories (except the second one) and the obvious padding. Something with a bit more imagination and more willing to have fun with the material, and even take some liberties with the urban legends, would have been much more enjoyable. The music over the opening credits is memorable, though.

Trying Times
(1987)

Smart, sharp TV that deserves to be brought back
The idea of this limited series was simple...each episode was built around an everyday stressful situation (meeting your current lover's ex, getting a job, visiting your lover's parents, taking your driver's test, moving house) and build an absurd story around them. Have them written by smart writers (including veteran TV comedy writers and a number of top playwrights like Wendy Wasserstein, Terence McNally, and Christopher Durang) and acted by some big names in show biz, like Spalding Gray, Stephen Wright, Teri Garr, Swoosie Kurtz, Rosanna Arquette, Stockard Channing, Carrie Fisher, and Candice Bergen in her pre-Murphy Brown days, proving she really could do comedy. (And how did they afford all these folks anyway?). And you have gold.

This show was a rarity; I was lucky to come across it late at night on my local PBS station, but I was roaring with laughter. I know I missed some episodes, but the ones I saw are cherished memories after all these years.

It was almost therapeutic; at the time I was coping with my own trying times and being able to laugh at the situations here made it easy for me to cope. I wish it would be released on DVD, or rerun; smart, well-acted comedy like this would be a breath of fresh air today. Or at least resurrect the concept with some edgy new writers and directors.

Furry Vengeance
(2010)

Dismally unfunny
Brendan Fraser has uprooted wife Brooke Shields and their teenage son to some unspecified rural area, where he's overseeing the construction of a McMansion community in a formerly pristine natural area. This angers the local wildlife, headed by a cackling raccoon, who set off to humiliate, injure, and presumably kill Fraser and other human interlopers.

Now, I'm all for the stupidly funny. I wasn't expecting Oscar material and certainly didn't expect it from this. But even on its own low terms, this movie just fails to be funny, and in my eyes, there's little worse than a bad comedy. Bad efforts at other genres can be great for laughs, but when comedies fail to elicit laughs, they're just painful and dull.

Fraser's goofy amiability has levitated other films before, but this time he's just not up to it. There's too much bottom-of-the-barrel slapstick, an overpopulation of stupid characters, and predictable family drama. Also, frequently weirdly inconsistent. At one point Fraser is flung into a bee's nest and is covered with stings, but the next morning he's shown without a scratch or swelling on him. Early on, another character suffers an animal-induced auto accident that's rather appalling since it would be clearly fatal and later we're told the character "disappeared." There quite a bit of wet-crotch and groin-injury humor; I remember a time when that was considered too risqué for children, and now is standard for kid flicks. At any rate, they're cheap laughs.

Fraser looks bad; he's gained weight and looks pudgy and uncomfortable. Brooke Shields can be a great comic actress but spends most of the time playing the straight man, so her talents are underused. She also doesn't look her best, either. They're basically playing second fiddle to the cutesy animals, which range from real animals to poorly-done CGI stand-ins. Also has nocturnal animals, like owls and raccoons, running around in the day, and daytime animals, like crows, active at night. Not to mention seagulls suddenly showing up in a clearly inland and mountainous locale. At one point the flick attempts to set up some sort of mystical/magical reasoning for the intelligent animals (who not only understand human speech, but seem every bit as aware of human pop culture as the humans are), but then it's quickly dropped and forgotten.

I saw this at a preview screening; there were a number of families there and I could tell the very young found it funny, but older kids and adults were clearly not amused and unimpressed. I guess they wanted a sort of live-action cartoon here, but amidst all the mayhem they forgot to make it truly funny...and contrasting it to a halfway realistic family drama doesn't help. You're better off staying at home with some classic Warner Brothers cartoons. FURRY VENGEANCE is to be avoided at all costs, one of the worst things I've seen in a long time.

Kid Power
(1972)

Noble intentions, but...
I remember this show from my own childhood. While some remember it with great affection, I recall it as being low on my childhood favorites. They did a good job presenting a multi-ethnic cast of characters...but to my recall, the show was never particularly funny or exciting, so there was little appeal to a kid like me. Even the animation was nothing special; in fact, I remember it being rather crude. I recall watching a few episodes of it, but it got to the point that when I saw the opening credits, I would look for another show, or turn off the TV entirely. It just never grabbed me. I give it 5/10 for good intentions but lackluster execution.

Craft Corner Deathmatch
(2005)

Howlingly funny and yet informative and inspirational
As others have said, the craft-game-show format is fun, and Jason Jones is an incredible host, treating it all as a pro wrestling announcer (he's even borrowed a few moves and riffs from the WWE). This is a show that does not take itself seriously at all, having fun with the audience and with itself.

And yet...amid all the comedy there's some legit craft ideas. I can't see myself making candleholders from pasta, but the homemade notebooks look very doable and practical and fun. One friend was inspired by the Astroturf purse challenge to make her own purse...not from Astroturf, thank heaven, but she never would have tried without this show. And ya know, there's a lot to be said for inspiring people.

Other shows about crafts make them look stodgy and old-fashioned; this gives crafting a fun, postmodern edge. And Jason Jones is just amazing!

The Phantom of the Opera
(1983)

Middling, muddled
I wonder why so typically French a story was transferred to Budapest. In the novel, the opera house is as much a star of the story as the characters. It makes no sense to shift the story.

The acting is OK at best and often quite silly. Overall this is a rather cheezy and lame attempt at the story, with the usual attempts to rewrite and revise the story.

I often wish that someone would attempt a version that is truer to the original book, even though it was penny-dreadful claptrap. All too often they try to make the Phantom so sympathetic that they lose sight of his psychopathic side. However, in the original novel Christine is such a stupid drip that she does get quite annoying.

The Lost City
(1935)

Loony, goofy, surreal
How bizarre is this serial? Very.

It was made fairly cheaply but does have some impressive sets and occasionally decent effects. But the writing and the acting are all terrible.

Kane Richmond is bland as the square-jawed hero. Claudia Dell seems miscast as the love interest; although she was only 26 she looks 40ish and plain. She has an overall prim, quavering, schoolmarmish air that's rather off putting. Jerry Frank as Apollyn is easy on the eyes in his gold lame shorts and little else. He helps rise this serial to a certain level of homo erotic camp.

The serial belongs to William "Stage" Boyd as mad scientist Zolok. He camps it up hilariously, although obviously meant to be serious. His final scenes are strangely effective; I'm told he was actually roaring drunk during the filming of those scenes which makes his final madness seem more effective. He died not long after completing this serial, making this an odd obituary.

The story? Well, Zolok is menacing the world from a lost city in Africa, once inhabited by a highly advanced race of which Zolok is the last member. He has hunky Apollyn and a twisted hunchback as assistants, and also has a captive scientist who has the requisite "lovely" daughter (Dell). Richmond goes to stop him and runs afoul of one trap after another, as well as Zolok's army of mindless black giants, and the queen of an African tribe who a) falls for Richmond and b) wants to be white.

Yup, this serial is morbidly racist. Quite a bit of plot hinges on the scientists' ability to turn black people white; at one point it's done and the subject jumps and leaps about with glee. When the Queen proposes marriage to Richmond, he smiles smugly and says, "Oh, I'm afraid that's out of the question."

Some audiences may find THE LOST CITY unpalatable, but it must be bourne in mind that it's a product of less-enlightened times (MUCH less enlightened). I view it not as a serious racial statement but just a reflection of the limited psyches of those involved.

It's actually pretty fun if you make the campiness of it part of the deal. I understand this was actually considered quite old-fashioned and out-of-date when it was released in 1935, making it a true oddity. See it and enjoy, but you were warned...

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