dwr246

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Reviews

Protocol
(1984)

Emirs don't date!
I originally wanted to see this movie because of the clip of Goldie Hawn pulling a camel through the dessert saying, "I got a camel! I got a camel!" Apparently that scene was cut from the movie, which is too bad, but really doesn't cut down on the movie's enjoyability.

Protocol focuses on Sunny Davis (Goldie Hawn), a young woman who is barely scraping by working as a cocktail waitress in Washington, DC. She drives an old clunker of a car that breaks down more than it runs, and rents a small room from a gay couple (Joel Brooks and Jerry Haines). One day fate intervenes when Sunny is part of a crowd watching the arrival of the Emir of Otar (Richard Romanus). Sunny notices a man pulling out a gun to shoot the Emir, and she immediately acts to stop him, ending up with a bullet in her rear end. Of course, she immediately makes the news, and comes to the notice of the US government, who immediately installs the now national heroine in a job at the state department. While there, she meets Michael Ransome (Chris Sarandon) a man who is impressed by her honesty and charmed by her naiveté, and sparks fly. Sunny also comes to the notice of the Emir himself, who decides he wants her to be part of his harem. The ambassador to Otar (Gail Strickland), who is also Sunny's boss, arranges for Sunny to go on a "diplomatic mission" to Otar (a fictitious country whose name is a combination Oman and Qatar, two very real countries on the Arabian Peninsula). While there, Sunny discovers what her intended fate is, which doesn't exactly thrill her, however, she has more pressing concerns when the Emir is overthrown in a coup. Upon returning to the states, Sunny is called upon to testify before congress about her role in the newly revealed scandal. She is advised on what to say to protect both herself and the state department, but Sunny has a few ideas of her own, and with Sunny, it's always best to expect the unexpected.

It's a rather cute movie, and pretty believably put together. Sunny certainly lives up to her name, and her bubbly personality hides a pretty impressive brain - she actually memorizes the code of conduct for State Department Employees, and recites the paragraph that tells her what she should do when the Emir tries to give her a car. And Sunny's annoyance at being treated like a pawn (or worse a prostitute) in relations with the Emir is quite believable. But of course, the most fun in the film is all the mayhem Sunny gets herself and those around her into due to her lack of understanding how diplomatic protocol works. In the end, her naiveté is a refreshing change for almost all who deal with her.

The acting was also quite good. Hawn easily carries the film, and is believable both as the bubbly airhead, and as the woman who finally grows up and learns to take accountability for her part in the scandal. Sarandon makes a nice romantic lead, and his chemistry with Hawn is excellent. Strickland also does a nice job as the cynical Washington operative who is continually foiled by a young woman who continually exceeds her expectations.

It's definitely a product of its time, especially in its attitudes towards the Arab world, but in terms of giving us a story where a downtrodden person finally reaches their potential, it's a fun movie, and one well worth watching.

Law & Order
(1990)

A show that seems bound and determined to prove all of those lawyer jokes...
At one point, I saw Sam Waterston asked in an interview why Law & Order was so popular. He seemed a bit surprised by the question and responded that it was the story lines. While he has a point in that they do come up with some unusual twists and turns in their storytelling, the writers had some big problems in how they developed their characters, particularly Waterston's.

The premise of the show is that it depicts the criminal justice system from the view of both the police and the courts. Consequently, the shows always start with the discovery of a crime, usually, but not always, murder. We then follow the detectives (Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin, Benjamin Bratt, Chris Noth, S Epathat Merkerson) as they solve the crime, eventually finding a suspect that they arrest and bring to trial. At that point we go to the DA's office, and follow Executive ADA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), a smug and arrogant man who conflates his desires with the law, and winning with justice, and his assistance of the season (Angie Harmon, Alana De La Garza, Elisabeth Rohm) as they work to bring the case to trial. Occasionally the DA (Dianne Wiest, Fred Thompson) gets brought in on the action. Eventually, the case goes to trial, and in the end, a verdict is brought in, although not always the one expected.

This is another show that suffers from some really unpleasant characters. While the police detectives are generally a likable lot, and seem to be doing the best they can, once things get to the DA's office, things take a turn for the worse. In general, the assistants are usually likable and compassionate people, as was DA Nora Lewin (Dianne Wiest). Unfortunately, once Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson) took over as DA, the DA stopped being quite so sympathetic a character. And the writers are to be congratulated in creating the worst villain ever in Jack McCoy. The only problem is, Jack McCoy is the one you're supposed to be rooting for. And his character, as well Arthur Branch's could have easily been humanized by the occasional mention of a family, a hobby, a favorite cause, anything to make them look as though they cared about something other than only winning their case. As it stands, once the crime has been solved, the show becomes painful to watch.

By and large, I find the acting to be pretty good. Dianne Wiest did a nice turn in her time as a DA. Jesse L. Martin was especially good as a detective, and S. Epatha Merkerson was wonderful as the head of the detectives. Angie Harmon did a nice job as McCoy's assistant, and Elisabeth Rohm was outstanding in that capacity. Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy is a puzzle to me, as Waterston is perfectly capable of creating a likable character, even when the character's actions aren't necessarily likable, e.g. in Finnegan Begin Again. However, there is absolutely nothing likable about Jack McCoy, and I'm inclined to think that is the fault of the writing, as I think Waterston could have pulled it off. Worst however, was Fred Thompson, who clearly was playing Fred Thompson. His departure from the show was a blessed relief.

Clearly the show was successful, and spun off several equally successful series. I just can't help thinking how much more successful it could have been had they worked a little harder to make the main characters people that you wanted to follow week in and week out.

NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service
(2003)

Nincompoops, Chowderheads, Idiots, and Simpletons
A friend of mine describes the cast of characters in this show as "a delightfully dysfunctional family." I certainly will agree that they are dysfunctional. Delightful? Not so much.

This is a crime show in a period where crime shows are all the rage, so the formula is a familiar one: a crime - usually, but not always, murder - is discovered at the beginning of the show, and the cast are the people who solve the crime. The main difference is that these crimes take place in the military, so the crime solvers aren't detectives, but agents. Leading our intrepid pack is Agent Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), "the best agent ever," according to director, Jenny Shepard (Lauren Holly). The rest of the team consists of Agent Tony DiNozzo (Michael Wetherley), whose last name fittingly rhymes with "Bozo," Agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray), who seems to perpetually be the unrespected "probie," and Agent Kate Todd (Sasha Alexander), who died at the end of season 2, and was replaced by Israeli Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), who, despite having been in the USA for many years, still doesn't seem to get American cultural references. They are assisted by Dr. Donald Mallard (David McCollum), incongruously called "Ducky," and Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), arguably the brains of the outfit, although her area of expertise is never specified. Somehow this rather offbeat and bumbling combination manages to solve the crime every week, and successfully sees that the guilty party faces the proper authorities.

The writing of this show is an odd mixture in that they do manage to come up with some intriguing scenarios, but have created some of the most unlikable characters I've ever encountered. Gibbs seems to rely on little else besides an arrogant stare and hitting his team members upside the back of the head to solve crimes. DiNozzo takes cluelessness to levels that really ought to get him thrown out of the Navy. Ziva covers her inability to get American culture with an attitude of superiority that is wearing. Ducky is a little too eager to describe the results of his autopsies in gory detail - with visual aids. And Abby really leaves me wondering how she manages to exist outside the confines of an institution. The only one I find to be both smart and likable is McGee, and nobody listens to him. Their efforts to solve crimes often come across as bumbling as the Keystone cops, and I'm left wondering how this is supposed to be representative of the Navy's finest.

Given that the characterizations are so unpleasant, it's hard to know how much of that is the fault of the writing, and how much of the actors themselves. Since the characterizations are so consistent from week to week (perhaps a little too consistent, since in some cases they show no growth at all), I'm inclined to say that the actors are doing a good job with limited material. Frankly, they could all benefit from a chance to stretch a bit with their characters, and I think they're all easily up to the challenge.

While I think the idea of showing us how the Navy deals with crimes that take place among its members is a good premise, I really don't care for the artistic choices made in bringing this show to life. In short, these aren't people that I want to invest an hour of my time watching, and the only way I'd ever enjoy the show is if somebody hit Gibbs upside the back of the head - repeatedly. Still, clearly, I'm in the minority, and it looks like this "delightfully dysfunctional family" will be around for awhile solving crimes and entertaining the masses. Enjoy, everybody!

Miami Magma
(2011)

Put a volcano in a swamp and it fizzles...
Since we've had volcanoes destroy LA (Volcano) and NYC (Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York), someone decided to let Miami in on the action. The original title, Miami Magma, had both alliteration and assonance, and was really quite clever. Unfortunately, SyFy decided to change it to Swamp Volcano, which is merely confusing, since swamps do not evoke Miami and vice versa, and only a very small portion of the movie actually takes place in a swamp. And unfortunately, the rest of the movie is on equally unsolid ground.

This cautionary tale about oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico starts off with an explosion on an oil rig owned by Holter Energy. The explosion occurs when they drill into magma instead of oil. Unfortunately, the CEO (Brad Dourif) and head of PR (Cleavant Derrick) seem to be more concerned about misleading the public, and hiding an illegal, although very lucrative, drilling operation in downtown Miami. Geology professor, Antoinette Vitrini (Rachel Hunter) becomes concerned when her ex-husband, Brad (J.D. Evermore) informs her that Holter's drilling activities seem to parallel her unpublished research. She has even more to be concerned about when she learns that her assistant, Brandon (Griff Furst), on whom her much younger sister, Emily (Melissa Ordway) has a crush, has sold her research to Holter. When she confronts Holter, she only manages to convince them that they need to kill her to keep her silent. Unfortunately, by this time, volcanic activity has started cropping up around Miami, so Antoinette must race against time, and potential assassins to save not herself and her sister, but all of Miami. Can she and Brandon do it?

I'll give the writers credit for some plausibility in suggesting that the Gulf of Mexico could be the caldera of a supervolcano, even though it's pretty widely accepted that the gulf is the result of continental drift. However, apparently they don't know geography terribly well, since Miami is on the Atlantic side of Florida, and therefore highly unlikely to be affected by vulcanism in the Gulf of Mexico. They really should have set the movie in Tampa. Equally hard to buy was the whole concept of a "steam tsunami" generated by an underwater eruption. Volcanoes erupt underwater all the time. They have to be pretty close to the surface in order to generate any kind of steam plume that could be threatening, and steam plumes don't behave the way they did in this movie. The "steam tsunami" really behaved more like a pyroclastic flow, which might have worked better. And I'm not sure I buy that liquid nitrogen could be used to redirect the flow of lava from an eruption. All in all, not very credible science.

The rest of the writing wasn't terribly credible, either. Antoinette and Emily appear to be very far apart in age, almost too far apart to be sisters, and it might have worked better if they were written as mother and daughter. It's also hard to buy that Antoinette, who is supposedly an experienced professor, wouldn't take better care to make sure that all of her students were accounted for before leaving one behind to get boiled in the swamp. Emily starts off as rather immature, and there's really nothing to indicate the kind of growth her character experiences throughout the movie. Brandon's motives both for selling Antoinette's research, and for his altruism at the end of the movie aren't really clear. And just about everyone involved with Holter seems to be motivated solely by greed, which just makes all of them seem one dimensional.

Oddly, in spite of the bad writing, I actually found the acting to be quite enjoyable. I expected to have a hard time buying Rachel Hunter as an academic, but she turns in a credible performance, and I enjoyed watching her. Likewise, Melissa Ordway does a good job of making her character likable, in spite of her early flightiness. Griff Furst does an excellent job of playing the hunky nerd. J.D. Evermore is quite likable as Antoinette's ex, so much so that you wonder why she treats him with such hostility at first. Cleavant Derricks does manage to make his character a little more complex, although the complexity rapidly disappears as greed takes over. And Brad Dourif use his intensity well to show a man who is so driven that he allows his greed to overtake his sensibility.

The effects are rather cheesy, and the movie could have used some scenes of destructions of familiar landmarks (I mean, there must be some in Miami). Likewise, the scenes of those who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time could have been better done. The steam tsunami scene was hard to buy into. And one would assume that the tennis players might have noticed that the ground was getting hot before it opened and spewed forth lava, turning a tennis ball into a deadly hot object (I'll give them points for good CGI showing the hole in the coach's chest, as well originality in the writing of that scene).

All in all, it was about what I would expect from a SyFy original film, which sets the bar pretty low. However, if you're in the right the mood, don't expect too much, and don't take it too seriously, it can be an enjoyable film.

The Haunting
(1963)

Classic adaptation of an equally classic novel
I saw this film when I was about eleven, and really didn't pay enough attention to it, for which I could have kicked myself. What I did see made such a big impression on me that I actually dreamt about it. But I never could seem to catch it when it came on TV. I finally did this past weekend, and it was worth the wait.

The story concerns the efforts of Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) to capture paranormal activity at Hill House, an empty mansion off by itself in the country. Markway has gotten permission to stay at the house for a few weeks, and conduct experiments. Joining him are the heir to the house, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn); Theodora (Claire Bloom), who exhibits a sense of ESP that almost amounts to mind reading; and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a recluse who cared for her recently deceased mother, and through whose eyes most of the story is told. Eleanor's first impression of Hill House is that it is vile, and the more time she passes there, the more right she seems to be, and yet she is drawn to it, and unwilling to leave, even after the others see the danger she is in and try to make her go. Can she get away, or will Hill House have her?

The idea of certain places being evil certainly isn't new, but Jackson's approach is quite fresh, and the film adaptation is fairly faithful to the novel. What license it takes doesn't harm the overall story. The film continually keeps you off balance, much like the characters within the story feel that they are also off balance. The end result is quite unsettling, which fits quite well with the atmosphere Jackson created in her book.

The acting was outstanding, particularly from Harris, who carries the film with ease. Bloom's Theo is equally well done, coming out with remarks that unsettle the listener and the audience in a needling kind of way, and yet equally sweet in some of her scenes alone with Eleanor. Tamblyn's young playboy is well done. And Johnson's well intentioned, but ultimately inept doctor is also skillfully done.

Atmospherically, this film is perfect, the brooding house, which is almost unnaturally quiet, creates an air of tension that never lets up throughout the film. And the sudden appearance and disappearance of Mrs. Markway (Lois Maxwell) helps to increase the tension, and propel the film to its inevitable conclusion.

All in all, an excellent adaptation, and worth the wait of many years to finally see it without distraction.

Dead of Night
(1945)

Classic collection of ghost stories
Sometimes it's not so much the story, as how it's told. In the case of this movie, it's both. This is a masterpiece of a film, which wanders into several well known ghost story plots, and ties them together in a somewhat unique way.

The story starts when architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) comes to visit Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) and his mother (Mary Merrall) for the weekend to discuss an addition that Foley wants to build. Foley has a group of guests staying with him, and as Craig comes in to have tea with them, he reveals that he has been having a recurring dream that features all of them. Reactions vary from Joan Cortland's (Googie Withers) rather strong statement that she believes Craig to Dr. Van Straaten's (Frederick Valk) insistence that dreams can't be precognitive. However, one by one the guests reveal their own encounters with the supernatural - Mr. Grainger (Anthony Baird), who sees a man driving a hearse, who later turns out to be the driver of a bus that crashes, and Grainger escapes death by not boarding the bus; Sally O'Hara (Sally Ann Howes), a young girl who unknowingly sees a ghost while at a Christmas party; Mrs. Cortland whose decision to buy a mirror for her husband, Peter (Ralph Michael), nearly costs her her life; George Parratt (Basil Radford) whose rivalry with Larry Potter (Naughton Wayne) is resolved in a supernatural, if somewhat comical way; and Dr. Van Straaten himself, whose work on the case of a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) who believes his dummy has come to life takes on a surprising turn. However, as the day wears on, Craig's dream does indeed seem to be coming true, which leads to a most terrifying conclusion.

I don't know how common these plots were in 1945, but we've certainly seen most of them since, in movies, and episodes of television series like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. The plots themselves are pretty good to begin with. The telling of them is quite suspenseful, although the golf segment is a bit weak, opting more for comedy than suspense. Nonetheless, the level of suspense keeps building as the action turns into the dream, and then back into the action. The overall effect is cyclical, and works very well for this film.

The acting was first rate, and all performances work well. Johns' Craig is a man who is both certain and perplexed at the same time. Michael's tortured husband is as exquisitely brought to life as Withers' wife who figures out what's happening, but can barely save herself from her husband's temporary madness. Redgrave's tortured ventriloquist is equally well presented. Howes is charming as the young neighbor. Valk is a bit pompous, but likable. And the supporting performances are equally delightful.

Overall, it's an excellent film, and well worth watching again and again, as knowing what's coming fits right into the main theme to begin with. This one should be broadcast more often than it is.

Rose Red
(2002)

What you get when you cross the Winchester Mystery House with The Haunting of Hill House
I generally enjoy adaptations of Steven King stories, especially when he does the adapting, and this was no exception. It has some surprising weaknesses, but all in all it was a very enjoyable movie.

The story focuses on Professor Joyce Reardon (Nancy Travis), a professor of psychology, whose fascination with the paranormal, and obsession with the mansion called Rose Red, have earned her the scorn of her department head, Professor Carl Miller (David Dukes). In fact, Prof. Miller's only desire in life seems to be to discredit Joyce, and to that end he has hired reporter Kevin Bollinger (Jimmi Simpson) to spy on her, take damaging pictures, and write damaging articles. While Miller sees Joyce's obsession with Rose Red as a way to completely humiliate her, Joyce sees it as a way to prove her theories about the paranormal. And it just so happens that Joyce is now seeing Steve Rimbauer (Matt Keeslar), descendant of John (John Procaccino) and Ellen (Julia Campbell) Rimbauer, the original builders of the mansion. So, it's not much of a problem to get access to the house for a weekend to do some research. And Joyce has lined up some special guests to assist her: Pam Asbury (Emily Deschanel), a psychic who gets impressions from objects she touches; Vic Kandinsky (Kevin Tighe), a psychic who's precognitive; Emery Waterman (Matt Ross), a mamma's boy with undetermined psychic abilities; Nick Hardaway (Julian Sands), whose strong psychic talents aren't really given a name; Cathy Kramer (Judith Ivey), whose gift is automatic writing; and Annie Wheaton (Kimberly J. Brown), an autistic girl with powerful psychic gifts, who is accompanied by her sister, Rachel (Melanie Lynskey), better known as Sis. Asserting that Rose Red is a dead cell, Joyce hopes to "awaken" the house, which, indeed she does, with results that surprise them all.

King's storytelling is as good as ever in this particular piece. He creates a brooding and foreboding atmosphere, and for the most part, gives just enough information to let you figure out what has happened. That being said, some of his characterizations are surprisingly weak, Sis and Annie's parents (Mary Jo Dugaw and Robert Blanche) are almost more caricatures, than characters, especially the abusive father. And a little more information about what actually happens to Pam, Vic, and Nick would have been helpful, although I suspect that may be due to elements that didn't translate well from the narrative. It's a little slow at times, but overall, it's a good, suspenseful story.

The acting was also very good. I'm not a huge fan of Nancy Travis, but I have to give her credit for creating a sympathetic character in the scenes that are told from her point of view, and a much less sympathetic character in scenes that are told from the point of view of others. I always enjoyed David Dukes, and was sad to note that this was his last performance, and that he died while filming the movie. Judith Ivey did an excellent job in a non comic role. Matt Ross and Julian Sands did good jobs with their characters. Emily Deschanel and Kevin Tighe are sadly wasted in unfortunately small roles. The film really belongs to Matt Keeslar, Melanie Lynskey, and most notably Kimberly J. Brown, all of whom turned in wonderful performances.

It's a bit long, especially when shown all at once, which is how SyFy has been doing it, but I still think it is well worth investing the time to see a very scary, and very well done movie.

Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York
(2006)

Is it terrorism or vulcanism?
I started watching this movie when SyFy broadcast it a few years back, but couldn't get past the scene where the guy's intestines literally fell out of his stomach (not terribly realistic, but still a bit upsetting). However, my curiosity got the better of me, and I did sit through the whole thing when it was on a few weeks back. And it did not fail to disappoint.

The story line of this particular offering has to do with a scientist, Dr. Levering (Michael Ironside)who has come up with a plan for tapping into geothermal energy to heat Manhattan much more cheaply than conventional methods. He has contacted city employee Neil Kavanaugh (Kevin McNulty), and the two of them are planning on franchising their method and becoming filthy rich. Unfortunately, instead of tapping into geothermal energy, Levering actually taps into real magma, which starts cropping up all over Manhattan, and wreaking all kinds of havoc. When a crew of employees, lead by Matt (Costas Mandylor), encounters some very suspicious, and deadly, conditions in the tunnels and aqueducts under the city, Kavanaugh covers up the real cause. Geological services comes in to investigate, and one of the investigators turns out to be Matt's ex-wife, Susan (Alexandra Paul). She doesn't believe Matt when he says he saw lava in the tunnels. However, as more suspicious, and deadly, events happen, she reconsiders. By this point, however, overzealous Agent Walters (Matthew Benedict) has come to investigate, and is convinced that terrorism is afoot. Can Matt and Susan manage to stop the volcano before it obliterates most of New York City?

Like most disaster plots, this one's full of holes. First off, our geothermal expert just didn't seem to really know anything about geothermal energy. Second, the implication for most of the deaths in the tunnel was that somehow the water in the pipes had turned into sulfuric acid, although they don't explicitly say so. However, it's hard to believe that the water would have changed to sulfuric acid without coming into contact with the magma, and if that had happened there would have been a huge steam explosion which would have obliterated most of Manhattan anyway. Then there was the homeowner who opened the door of his house only to be engulfed by lava. Why didn't he smell anything burning, or notice heat coming from the ground, and why would he open a door once he'd burned his hand on the handle? Dr. Levering is badly burned, and left unconscious when the volcano starts to erupt at the drilling site. How did he get out of there? And what exactly happened to him in the tunnels? Was he killed or merely knocked unconscious by the steam emitting from the bullet hole in the tunnel wall. And finally, throughout the movie, people are way to close to lava with no problems caused by the hear or the fumes. All in all, it's a pretty poorly written script.

There were some surprisingly decent actors in this movie. Michael Ironside does a pretty good job as the mad scientist, who just gets crazier and crazier as the movie goes along. Mandylor and Paul do okay with the material they're given. Unfortunately, it's just poorly written, and there's only so much they can do with it. Sad to say, the rest of the cast is pretty forgettable.

Is it too much to ask that the people who pen these movies actually learn something of the science that they're using for their plot devices? If this movie is any indication, I guess so.

Funny Lady
(1975)

What happens when the Funny Girl grows up
Poor Fanny Brice. She just didn't seem to have good luck with husbands. First Nick Arnstein lands in jail. And then she ends up with Billy Rose, which is what Funny Lady concerns itself with.

As it starts out, it's the Depression. The heydays of Ziegfeld's Follies are gone. And single mother Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) is having trouble finding places to perform. After more than a few disasters, she finds herself on the bill at Billy Rose's (James Caan) nightclub. Not having been asked to perform there, she is understandably incensed, but when she meets Rose, sparks of a different kind fly, and she does need the work, after all. Eventually, the two fall in love and marry. But marriage is never smooth sailing for Fanny, who's still battling her demons from her years with Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif). Can she overcome them, and once and for all let go of Nick before she drives Billy away?

This was a good movie, no question about it. It just doesn't quite have the deftness of touch that Funny Girl had. Still, you route for Fanny all the way along as she tries to free herself from her obsession with Nick Arnstein. Along the way, you get some wonderful singing and dancing, especially in the song "How Lucky Can You Get", which starts out as a simple statement, but by the end drips with irony. And you do want to cheer for Fanny when she finally tells Nick off for good, but it turns out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Nonetheless, Fanny still reacts with grace, class, and above all, wit, to what life throws at her.

The acting was a mixed bag. Streisand is wonderful, of course. Fanny Brice is a part she was born to play. Sharif is still somewhat stilted, but since he carries less of the movie, it's less of a problem, and actually works well, when Fanny finally realizes how self absorbed Nick is. The main disappointment is James Caan, who is his usual wooden self. While this occasionally works for Billy Rose, for the most part, Caan's reading-off-the-teleprompter delivery just doesn't give you a sense of why Fanny, or any woman for that matter, would find him attractive. Fortunately, Streisand carries the film just fine.

It's a fun movie, nonetheless, and it is a delight to see Fanny Brice finally claim her own self. No, it's not as good as Funny Girl, but it's still very good.

Funny Girl
(1968)

Hello Gorgeous!
Who better to play Fanny Brice than Barbra Streisand? It seems they had much in common - strong singing voices, a gift for comedy, and a vulnerability that made their personal lives less wonder than their stage ones. All in all, this a most auspicious beginning for Streisand's film career.

The movie chronicles Fanny Brice's (Barbra Streisand) rise from wannabe actress to star of the Ziegfeld Follies. She starts out as a young woman who will do anything to get on stage, and once she gets her chance, her talents do not go unnoticed, ultimately leading Flo Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon) to ask her to audition for him. Their relationship is a bit rocky at first, as Ziegfeld wants total control of the actors in his show, and Fanny has some very definite ideas about what she will and won't do. But eventually they learn to respect each other. Along the way Fanny meets Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif), a handsome and charming man who makes his living as a gambler. Perhaps predictably, they fall in love, and eventually marry. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a case of marry in haste, repent at leisure, as Fanny learns how much Nick spends gambling, and how much more important gambling is to him than she is. When Nick gets tired of being "Mr. Brice" and gets himself mixed up in a bond scandal in order to bring some money into the household, he is arrested, put on trial, and pleads guilty. As Nick leaves for jail, he suggests that he and Fanny divorce. Fanny doesn't want to, but will she change her mind in the eighteen months that Nick is in prison?

It's a touching portrait of the vulnerability and insecurity that lies underneath a glittering exterior. Both Fanny and Nick present a beautiful facade to the public, but neither can help the other deal with the insecurities that drive them apart. In the end, Fanny is forced to confront the fact that being funny in public has given her a private life that is nothing to laugh about.

Along the way, you get some wonderful singing and dancing. Streisand's talents for the musical stage were wonderfully showcased in the movie, as were her comedic talents. However, it is her skillful portrayal of the private Fanny that is perhaps most notable. She does a wonderful job in portraying Fanny's vulnerability and insecurity in a believable way. Sharif's acting is mostly of the "stand there and look good" variety. He does an okay job with Nick, allowing his less ebullient stage presence to contrast with Streisand's more energetic one. Pidgeon's Ziegfeld is delightful as a man who is simultaneously frustrated with and charmed by Fanny. Kay Medford does a wonderful supporting turn as Fanny's mother.

The end product is a wonderful movie that touches us while it makes us laugh. And it is a movie that has withstood the test of time beautifully.

Magma: Volcanic Disaster
(2006)

An exercise in killing off gratuitous characters with lava
Let's face it, volcanoes need little embellishment when it comes to producing fear. Why Hollywood writers don't understand that is beyond me, but their efforts to provide an "entertaining" story usually result in a silly movie. While this movie was no exception, it was better than I expected, which is a definite plus. Still, all in all, it was a pretty bad movie.

The movie starts out with a geological survey team on a dormant volcano in Iceland. When the volcano unexpectedly roars back to life, the team is unable to get off the mountain before being engulfed in lava. Enter our hero, Peter Shepherd (Xander Berkeley), a vulcanologist teaching in Rochester, NY. The term has just ended, and Shepherd, along with four of his TA's, is off to Iceland to find out why the geological survey team has gone missing (apparently no one saw the eruption?). History repeats itself when the volcano erupts again while Shepherd and his team are on the mountain, but this time they escape without injury. Confused by this turn of events, Shepherd consults his old mentor, a now wheelchair bound old man, who claims that this is the start of his "Exodus theory" in which mankind has somehow caused the core of the earth to heat up and expand, which is causing all of the volcanic eruptions. This will result in the possible extinction of life on earth. Shepherd takes this to the government, but the chief geologist, whose only motive seems to be to discredit Shepherd, balks. When Mt. Fuji erupts, killing Shepherd's mentor, Shepherd feels he must act to convince the government that he's right. His trip to South America to investigate more vulcanism results in the death of one of his students, the serious injury of another, and the discovery that his rival in the US government is stealing his theory. Shepherd races back to the states with a daring plan to ease the vulcanism. Along the way, he is also trying to reconcile with his estranged wife, Natalie (Reiko Aylesworth), getting advice on this from the female member of his team, Briana Chapman (Amy Jo Johnson). Will he be able to convince the government to adopt his plan? Will he be able to get his wife back?

It's a classic disaster movie plot. The problem is, it's exceptionally poorly written. The science is a bit off, although perhaps not as much as some of the other volcanic offerings we've seen. Still if our use of nuclear radiation is causing the problem, it doesn't make sense to us it to solve the problem. Shepherd and his team take senseless risks that cost them dearly. It's hard to believe a skilled vulcanologist would keep losing members of his team that way. In addition, the whole subplot about Shepherd's estranged wife was pretty lame, and more confusing was Briana's fascination with Shepherd. Was she falling in love with Shepherd? What about her boyfriend, who was also on Shepherd's team? Equally strange was Shepherd's mentor's insistence on being on Mt. Fuji when it erupted. At first, it seemed that he was there to study the volcano, perhaps to help convince the Japanese of the danger. However, all he seems to do is watch and wait for the pyroclastic flow to get him. Was this supposed to be an honorable suicide? And why did his companion stay when he'd asked her to leave? And why such animosity between Shepherd and the chief geologist for the government? Oddest though, were several scenes of characters we knew nothing about succumbing to the lava. These were purely gratuitous, and seemed to make little sense. Overall, there is much in this movie that could have been left out, in favor of a few more scenes explaining some of the more confusing aspects of the story.

The acting was a mixed bag. I liked Xander Berkely as Shepherd, and felt that he breathed some life into the character. Likewise Amy Jo Johnson did a good job with Briana, although her interactions with Shepherd were a bit confusing. Berkeley and Johnson had better chemistry than either had with their love interest in the story. Most of the rest of the acting was relatively wooden, and really didn't help liven the story any.

In the end, this could have been much better. But I do take some heart in the fact that it could have been much worse.

A Haunting
(2005)

An hour of television that never fails to entertain.
A Haunting is an interesting combination of documentary and dramatization. It combines recorded interviews with those who experienced the haunting, with dramatizations of the actual events. The end result is a scary show that has a much more realistic feel to it.

While the episodes are somewhat formulaic in nature - family (or sometimes family member) moves into a new house and begins experiencing unexplained phenomena, which eventually turns menacing; experts are called in to help dispel the evil entity, meeting with mixed results - the storytelling is excellent. You know going in that the point of this show is to scare you, and still it manages to do so every time. All elements of the production work together toward that goal - story, acting, cinematography, effects, narration, background music - all work together to keep the viewer riveted to the screen.

The acting is particularly good in these shows. The cast is not composed of well known actors, but the actors create believable characters with mostly believable reactions to the situations they find themselves in. The narration strikes just the right note between creepy menace and factual telling.

Those looking for actual proof of ghosts may find themselves a little disappointed with this show, as it does nothing to really prove the existence of ghosts. It merely accepts the stories of those to whom the strange phenomena happened. Likewise, the skeptics may be disappointed that the show doesn't disprove ghosts, either. But for those looking for good scary entertainment, without a lot of gore, this show is a must.

So, turn the lights down low, turn on the television, and get ready for an evening of chilling entertainment...

Under the Tuscan Sun
(2003)

Homage to Second Chances
When life gives lemons, make lemonade. Or so the saying goes. This film shows just how palatable that lemonade can be.

Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) is a successful writer and teacher, who finds that her marriage is ending in a most unkind way, when a writer she gave a bad review to lets slip that her life is about to take the plot of his book which she panned. Shortly thereafter, we see Frances in the office of her divorce attorney (Jeffrey Tambor), who convinces her that she should allow her husband to buy her out of their house. She does, and moves into an apartment building full of divorcées who are just as unhappy as she is. Her friends, Patti (Sandra Oh) and Grace (Kate Walsh) decide that she needs a change of scenery, and after some convincing, send her on a trip to Tuscany. Once there, she starts getting signs that she should stay, and buys a crumbling villa to start a new life in. Her new life does not start smoothly, however, and she wonders if she has done the right thing. She tells her realtor, Martini (Vincent Riotta), that the house should have a wedding in it, and children, and people to fill the bedrooms and cook for, but she has none of that. What if she doesn't get those things? In her search for them, she finds Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), a wise old protégé of Federico Fellini, adopts a group of Polish contractors, helps one of them, Pawel (Pawel Szajda) to wed Chiara (Giulia Steigerwalt), the daughter of her neighbors (Roberto Nobile and Anita Zagaria), provides a place for Patti to raise her daughter after Grace deserts her, and has her own unsuccessful romantic entanglement with Marcello (Raoul Bova). At Pawel and Chiara's wedding, which she hosts at her villa, Martini tells her that she has gotten everything she wished for. But Tuscany still manages to provide her with one more thing to make her life complete.

It's a feel good story, there's no doubt about it. And to that end, it overlooks a lot of the impracticalities of the situation, namely that Frances doesn't speak Italian, or Polish, or that she doesn't seem terribly worried about money, even though she's spending an awful lot of it, or should be. However, the practicalities of the arrangement are not what's important in this film. What is important is Frances' healing process, and heal she does, with wonderful results.

This is a well acted film. Lane carries the film with ease, giving us a believable portrait of a woman who overcomes bitterness which at times seems insurmountable. Oh gives a great turn as the helpful friend, who needs some help herself. Riotta is delightful as the compassionate realtor. Bova is wonderful as the smitten Italian who can't wait for Frances' life to sort itself out. Stegierwalt and Szajda are delightful as the young lovers, and Nobile and Zagaria are believable as the disapproving parents. Duncan's performance is charming. And David Sutcliffe turns in a nice performance in a small part as France's love interest at the end of the film.

Admittedly, it gets a bit far fetched at times, but the story telling is delightful, the cinematography wonderful, and the acting good enough that you really care about that. A good film about taking chances when they come your way.

Krámpack
(2000)

Delightful coming of age film
This movie is for every gay man or lesbian who had a crush on their best friend, but could do nothing about it. This is a delightful exploration of the sexual awakening of two friends who come to radically different conclusions, and yet still manage to be there for each other.

Dani (Fernando Ramallo) is left alone at his family's beach house for the summer. While there, he is tutored by Sonia (Ana Garcia), a surprisingly astute young woman. He invites his best friend, Nico (Jordi Vilches), to come stay with him for awhile. As the two have grown and become more sexually aware, they have resorted to the "krampack" to relieve their sexual frustrations in the absence of girls to sleep with. Dani is perfectly happy with this arrangement, and indeed is looking forward to continuing it with Nico. Nico, on the other hand, is looking forward to moving on to experiences with girls. So, when he meets Berta (Esther Nubiola), who is just as interested in him as he is in her, he is delighted. And being a good friend, he tries to set Dani up with Berta's friend, Elena (Marieta Orozco). Dani, however would prefer to be with Nico. To further complicate things, Dani strikes up a friendship with Julian (Chisco Amado), a handsome young writer in town for the summer to whom he is mutually attracted, although both are a little uncomfortable about Dani's youth. Through affairs, misunderstandings, and a disastrous dinner party, the story moves along to an inevitable, yet satisfying conclusion.

This is a nicely handled story. There is little judgment passed on the characters' sexualities, as what seems to be important is self acceptance. It is also nice to see that Nico and Dani remain true to their friendship, despite the fact that their desires are quite different. Conflicts are handled and resolved in a believable way.

The acting is delightful. Amado and Garcia do a nice job as the older and wiser adults, who still struggle with issues of their own. Orozco plays the shy adolescent to perfection, and contrasts nicely with Nubiola's more confident and beautiful young woman. Likewise Vilches and Ramallo contrast nicely with each other, and yet still portray a believable friendship.

All in all, an excellent portrayal of adolescent sexual discovery in all its myriad forms. A movie well worth seeing.

One of Them!
(1998)

The coming of age of two annoying gay teens
This was a double bill on a video I rented in order to see the other film (First Love and Other Pains). While it sounded interesting from the blurb, I found the film itself to be an annoying disappointment.

One of Them follows two schoolboys in Australia. Jamie (Ciaran Pennington) and Lemmy (Cameron J. Watt) meet at school and become fast friends. Both are rather rebellious, often cutting class to go on adventures together. And both are rather effeminate, yet neither self identifies as gay yet. It is this conflict in their natures which drives the film, as the boys seem drawn to homosexuality, and at the same time fight it to the point of doing some horribly obnoxious things to those they suspect are gay. However, when they start examining their own desires, what they find is most disconcerting, and their struggle becomes one of self acceptance.

The main problem I had with this film is that Jamie and Lemmy are such annoying characters. They are obnoxious beyond words, and since so much of the film focuses on the horrible things they do to others "for fun," it's hard to feel sympathetic towards them when they are in the painful first stages of self discovery. A little toning down of their early activity would have made their later concerns more sympathetic.

The acting is okay. Both boys turn in believable performances, and do a decent job with the material they are given. But there's really nothing in either performance to recommend either actor as being particularly talented.

While it is laudable that this film deals with the emergence of homosexual longings in teens, this is much better handled in films like Nico and Dani, which I would recommend over this any day. A curiosity piece, perhaps, but not a particularly good film.

Sam Fooi
(1999)

An unusual intergenerational romance
If homosexuality is finding greater acceptance in the world of film-making, intergenerational romance, especially among men, is still somewhat taboo, which is what makes this film somewhat unique.

This film follows the relationship between Hugh (Edmund Strode), a bitter, alcoholic writer and professor in Hong Kong, and Mark (Alex Wong), one of his prize students. At first, Mark is merely another student in one of Hugh's classes, but Mark's talent soon brings him to Hugh's attention, and once Mark gets to know Hugh a little better, he is clearly smitten with Hugh. While Hugh tries to push Mark away at first, one night, Mark enters Hugh's apartment to find him drunk in the bathtub, and they give way to their passion. But, can they continue their relationship when outside pressures threaten to drive them apart?

It's an interesting premise, especially since there are any number of movies about young women who fall in love with older men, and a few more daring ones about young men who fall in love with older women. However, we rarely find much in the way of age disparity when the lovers are of the same gender. Even then, it is either a kept kind of relationship, like the one in "Jeffrey," or it is not the main romance of the story. This one is, which is laudable. Unfortunately, it really doesn't explore many of the issues related to the disparity in either age or culture, which is a pity.

The acting is okay. Strode gives an interesting performance of Hugh as a bitter, vulnerable man, but shows little about him that would inspire the kind of devotion Mark fawns on him. Likewise, Wong's performance of Alex is sweet, but his motivations are not always clear. Still the performances are well matched, so the movie works as a whole.

While I was delighted to see somebody actually explore the issue of intergenerational gay romance, I was disappointed that this film didn't explore the issue more fully. Still, this is a pleasant enough movie to watch, and I would recommend it as showing a facet of gay life which is not often shown.

Jeffrey
(1995)

It's Still Our Party
The world is a scary place, and serious contemplation of that could be enough to cause anyone to shut down. So, what happens when, in the face of the AIDS tragedy, one handsome, young gay man decides that he'd rather be celibate than risk it all? Worse yet, what happens when he then meets the man of his dreams who turns out to be HIV positive? Rent this little gem to find out.

Jeffrey (Steven Weber) is a handsome, young, single gay man in New York City, who is letting his fear of AIDS run his life. In fact, he is so afraid of AIDS that he has decided that celibacy is the only way to protect himself from it. And considering the kinds of sexual encounters we see him engaged in during the opening sequence of the film, that may not be such a bad idea. His closest friends, Sterling (Patrick Stewart), a wise old decorator, and his partner, Darius (Bryan Batta), a dancer in the musical Cats, don't necessarily agree with Jeffrey, but they remain supportive. And then one day at the gym, Jeffrey meets trainer, Steve Howard (Michael T. Weiss), a very handsome man who is very interested in Jeffrey. After agonizing over the decision, Jeffrey agrees to go out with Steve, but before their first date, Steve tells Jeffrey that he is HIV positive, and Jeffrey cancels. As the movie goes on, Jeffrey experiences several life changing events which cause him to question the wisdom of his insistence on celibacy, and to wonder if a life without risks is a life worth living.

It's rather a delightful script, full of wit and silliness, and flights of fancy. But underneath it all, there is a seriousness to the message, which only makes the comedy that much funnier. And its message about taking risks in life is one that should resonate universally.

The acting was superb. Batt's uneducated, kept dancer is nicely done, in that we see that he's not stupid, he's just not sophisticated. Stewart camps it up with hilarious results, and yet his serious scenes show just how much range and talent this fine actor has. Weiss gives a nice performance as a man with a confident exterior who is still quite vulnerable underneath. Weber plays Jeffrey's uncertainty very well, and is surprisingly good as a gay man.

Fun little film that shouldn't be taken too seriously, but which still has a serious message. And one well worth watching.

It's in the Water
(1997)

Juvenile attempt at social statement
The friend who rented this thought the story line was that something actually WAS in the water which turned everyone in town gay for a short period of time. That would have been an interesting idea for a film. Unfortunately, this benighted offering gets its title from a joke told by one of the characters about a third of the way through the film. Sadly, the film is as lame as the joke.

The story follows the residents of Azalea Springs, a small, Southern town, as they deal with an AIDS hospice opening in their midst. Most who live in the town are unhappy about the idea, and more than a few are downright hostile. However, Alex Stratton (Keri Jo Chapman) thinks it's a good idea, and despite the objection of her overbearing mother (Barbara Lasater), and wimpy, uncaring husband (Matthew Tompkins), she goes to work there. Once employed she reunites with Grace Miller (Teresa Garrett), her best friend from high school. Meanwhile, Mark Anderson (Derrick Sanders), son of the owner of the local paper, wants to cover the story in a light sympathetic to the hospice, but his father (Tommy Townsend) is only interested in sensationalistic news. And Mark has a few secrets of his own, which he shares with those who attend Brother Daniel's (John Addington) weekly meetings to cure those with homosexual tendencies. And Spencer (John Hallum), the requisite wise old queen with great style and wit, is busy overseeing the death of his unacknowledged lover. However, when Alex and Grace's friendship turns to romance, and Mark finds happiness in the arms of Tomas, a Latin house painter, the whole town is turned upside down. Will these couples be happy together, or will the forces of prejudice keep them apart?

It's hard to know where to begin with this film. Just about everything in it was poorly done. The writing was atrocious. Characters are merely stereotypes who are not developed at all. Their actions make little sense because they seem to have little motivation. And the dialogue was either painfully wooden, or ridiculously clichéd. Even the production values weren't very good, as the cinematography was rather uninspired.

The acting was equally bad. Lasater is so over the top, that you stop listening to her tirades (and that seems to be all she has in the way of lines) pretty early on. Sanders and Townsend are both wooden, and show no sense of any kind of father-son relationship. Tompkins' jilted husband is merely ridiculous and annoying. Garrett attempts to breathe some life into her character, but doesn't succeed terribly well. The only one who does reasonably well is Chapman, and it's not enough to carry the film.

Sad to say, I think there was a good premise here, but the execution was so poor that it just doesn't manage to generate a film that is either entertaining or thought provoking. In the end, it's just a curiosity piece, which fails to engage the viewer. You win some, you lose some...

Harold and Maude
(1971)

Hilarious Cult Classic
This is truly one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. So funny, in fact, that you can miss a really deep message hidden amongst the laughter...

Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is a young man of privilege, who is, nonetheless, very unhappy. He fakes suicides in order to get his domineering mother's (Vivian Pickles) attention. Unfortunately for Harold, he's done this so often that for the most part, his mother just ignores him. For fun, Harold goes to funerals. It is on one of these outings that he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a lively woman who will turn eighty in a few weeks. Surprisingly, they hit it off, and Harold begins spending a great deal of time with Maude, who starts teaching him some of life's most important lessons. Harold learns, but the last lesson Maude has to teach him may be more than he can live with.

This is an absolutely brilliant script - funny, poignant, intelligent. And the points it makes about life are indeed very important. But mostly, it's just a delightful romp that sweeps you along in its current, laughing all the way.

The acting is wonderful. Vivian Pickles' performance as Harold's mother is perfect, playing Mrs. Chasen as a woman who attempts to control her son, only to be controlled by him. Shari Summers, Judy Engles, and Ellen Geer, all have excellent cameos as Harold's hapless dates. Bud Cort does a phenomenal job in giving a deadpan rendering of Harold. But arguably the movie is Ruth Gordon's as she carries the film with delightful results.

While the movie makes some interesting statements about life, the living of it, and the ending of it, mostly it's just a lot of fun, which is the best recommendation I can give for watching it.

The Poseidon Adventure
(1972)

"There's got to be a morning after..."
I read the book first, and since I liked it, I was eager to see the movie. This was my first experience with watching something that had been adapted from a book, and I found the differences fascinating. In the end, I'd have to say the book was better, but this film, while a bit campy at times, is still pretty good.

The plot is quite simple. The S.S. Poseidon, on its way across the Atlantic, encounters a huge wave which capsizes it. This happens pretty early in the movie, and the bulk of the action is about a group of survivors who were in the dining room at the time the ship capsized. While the officers among them tell them to stay put until help comes, the Rev. Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), a man of action rather than contemplation, figures their best hope of escape is to head for the hull of the ship - specifically "shaft alley" where the hull is thinnest. Joining him are Det. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his abrasive wife, Linda (Stella Stevens), a former prostitute; Manny (Jack Albertson) and Belle (Shelley Winters) Rosen, on their way to Israel to see their grandson; Robin (Eric Shea) and Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) Shelby, on their way to join their parents in Greece; James Martin (Red Buttons), a haberdasher from Chicago; Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), the singer with the band; and Acres (Roddie McDowell), a steward. After they climb up the Christmas tree to the steward's passage to the kitchen, Rev. Scott's point is proved when the skylight in the dining room bursts, flooding the room. From then on, it's a race against fire, steam, and rising water to get to the hull so they can be rescued. It's also a guessing game as to who will survive, and who won't.

Paul Gallico's novel was a very cerebral book, and that aspect of it wouldn't have translated well to the screen. In order to keep the pacing up, the writers left a lot of those elements out of the book. The movie suffers a little for this, and at times becomes a little campy. On the whole, though, the choices were fairly solid, and the pacing is good, and the obstacles faced exciting.

The acting is good, but then the movie boasts a competent cast. Hackman isn't really believable as a priest, but he plays a man of action to perfection. Borgnine's tough exterior works well for Rogo, and his hurt at losing his wife is beautifully handled. Stevens' manages to make Linda a likable character - no small feat if you've ever read the book. Winters does a great job in playing a Jewish grandmother. Albertson, however, seems to phoning his part in. Lynley's shell shocked performance of Nonnie works, for the most part. Red Buttons enthusiasm works quite well. Martin's love struck teenager is a bit over the top. And Shea's precocious kid is a nice mix of both adorable, and annoying traits.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't raise the same kinds of questions that the book does about how ordinary people fare in an extraordinary situation. What is does do is entertain, and that it does well.

Deathtrap
(1982)

A maze of plot twists and turns that keeps you guessing until the end
Every time you think you have a handle on Deathtrap, another plot twist comes along. Best to just sit back and enjoy the ride on this one. Most noted for its on screen kiss between Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve (which was unfortunately cut from the televised version I saw), this movie has a great deal more to recommend it.

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) is a very unhappy man. Once a successful playwright, his last several plays on Broadway have flopped. And while his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon) is nothing but supportive, in both the monetary and emotional sense, this does little to make Sidney feel any better. To add insult to injury, young playwright, Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), has just sent Sidney a play to look at. It's Anderson's first, and Sidney can see that the young man is a gifted writer. He jokes to his wife that he should invite Anderson over, kill him, and submit the play as his own. She laughs with him at first, but when Sidney actually invites Anderson over for dinner, she worries that he may really be putting his scheme into action. And her fears just may be justified...

It's a brilliant script. There are twists and turns all through the plot, and they come faster and more furious as you get closer to the end. It's the kind of film that has you on the edge of your seat from the beginning, and keeps you there the entire time. An absolute masterpiece of suspense and mystery.

The acting is excellent. Caine gives his usual excellent performance, and he does exhibit a knack for playing cultured, refined, and intellectual men. Reeve also gives an excellent rendering of a man who isn't nearly as wide eyed or innocent as he seems. Cannon's franticness works well for Myra. And Irene Worth gives a nice performance as a nosy neighbor who is also a psychic.

This is a film with an ending you'd never expect, and repeated watchings help to pick up on things missed in earlier viewings. An unsung classic that is unfortunately only remembered for a scene which ruffled some sensibilities at the time - and that is a real shame.

Mame
(1974)

Loses some of its sparkle in this version
All things considered, this should have been an outstanding movie musical, as both the Broadway musical, and the non musical film were already great successes by the time this came out. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver, and while highly entertaining, it isn't on a par with either the musical or the movie that came before.

The story is the same as "Auntie Mame." Patrick Dennis (Kirby Furlong) unexpectedly arrives to live with his Aunt Mame (Lucille Ball). While he loves her, as she loves him, and he certainly enjoys her circle of friends, including actress Vera Charles (Bea Arthur), he is put in boarding school by disapproving Dwight Babcock (John McGiver). Mame marries Beauregard Burnside (Robert Preston), but is widowed after an unfortunately short time when he falls off the Matterhorn. Mame arrives back in New York to find a grown up Patrick (Bruce Davison) engaged to the objectionable Gloria Upson (Doria Cook). Even more objectionable than Gloria are her parents (Don Porter and Audrey Christie), so Mame decides that the engagement must be broken. Can she do so without losing Patrick in the process.

The writing is just as clever as the movie, depicting Mame as a woman who is a lot sharper than her actions might suggest, as well as a woman who is determined to do right by her nephew.

The main problem is the casting. Ball was just not right for Mame. She exhibits none of Russell's charm or ingenuousness, and charges through the part like a bull in a china shop. There are scenes where this works - many of them, in fact. But where subtlety and skill are called for, Ball can't produce them, and the movie as a whole suffers as a result of this. The rest of the cast does quite well. Arthur is a formidable comic talent, and plays Vera to perfection. Preston is charming. Both Furlong and Davison do a nice job with Patrick. Cook, Porter, and Christie do an excellent job of playing the snobbish Upsons. And Peggy Cass gives a scene stealing performance as Agnes Gooch.

In spite of a large casting mistake, this movie is still funny and touching, and quite enjoyable. It's just sad that it could have been so much better...

Auntie Mame
(1958)

"Life is a banquet - and most poor suckers are starving!"
Patrick Dennis clearly loved his Auntie Mame. And she loved him. And that is the central message of this movie, that no matter what else was going on in Mame Dennis' life - and there was a lot going on, no doubt - she loved Patrick and was determined to do right by him. This tribute shows that she did.

The movie opens with the Dwight Babcock (Fred Clark) bringing the newly orphaned Patrick Dennis (Jan Hindzlik) to live with his Aunt Mame (Rosalind Russell). Mame lives a rather madcap existence, never reads her mail, and has no idea Patrick is coming to live with her. She's in the middle of one of her raucous parties when Babcock and Patrick arrive. Already prejudiced by what he has been told by Mame's brother, Babcock is somewhat less than impressed with Mame's lifestyle, and vows to keep an eye on her. Eventually, he does manage to get Patrick away from Mame and into boarding school, but not before the two bond, a love that lasts a lifetime for both. Along the way, we meet, with Patrick, a cast of characters that include loyal servants Norah (Connie Gilchrist) and Ito (Yuki Shimoda), famous actress Vera Charles (Coral Browne), and southern gentleman Beau Burnside (Forrest Tucker), who eventually marries Mame, and comes to love Patrick as much as she does. Unfortunately, Mame's happiness is cut short when Beau falls off the Matterhorn, and she returns to New York to find that Babcock has set Patrick up with snobbish Gloria Upson (Joanna Barnes), and that they are to be married. When Mame meets Gloria's parents (Lee Patrick and Willard Waterson), she realizes that she must put a stop to the marriage. Can she do so without losing Patrick in the process?

This is a wonderfully written movie. The dialogue sparkles. And the pace is absolutely madcap, which is what makes it such fun. But beneath all of that is a portrait of a very determined woman, who puts her nephew's happiness ahead of her own, who tries to provide him with everything he needs, and who, in the end, realizes that she needs to let go of him so he can live his own. It is this gesture that ensures that she will always be part of it.

The acting is superb. Russell's performance is a tour de force, and she gives Mame an ingenuousness that allows her to get away with the audacious things she does. Hindzlik as the young Patrick is charming. Roger Smith as the older Patrick is equally well done. Barnes' spoiled airhead of a young woman is perfect, as are Patrick and Waterson as her prejudiced parents. Clark's Babcock bristles with malice, while Browne is delightful as the supportive friend, and Tucker charming as the loving husband.

This is a delightful offering, sure to entertain, as well teaching a thing or two about how to live.

Mr. Holland's Opus
(1995)

A touching movie about the power of music to change lives - even those of the ones who teach it
Opus literally means "work" in Latin. And this affecting tale of a man's life work is one of the best made in recent years.

The movie starts in the fall of 1965 when Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) starts teaching at John F. Kennedy High School (which is in the process of being renamed as he arrives). Mr. Holland was playing keyboards with a band, but has tired of touring and wants time to settle down and write his own music. He finds teaching to not be much to his liking at first. The kids aren't interested, and he doesn't know how to get through to them. In addition, his principal, Mrs. Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis), is always on his back, as is the Vice Principal, Mr. Wolters (William H. Macy). His only friend on the faculty turns out to be the football coach, Bill Meister (Jay Thomas). His complaints to his wife, Iris (Glenne Headley), are met with sympathy at first, but when he learns she is pregnant, he realizes that he needs this job to support his soon to be larger family. At that point, he commits and becomes an excellent teacher, learning how to connect to the kinds of music the kids like and relate it back to the classics he is required to teach. Along the way, he reaches several students: a young clarinet player (Alicia Witt), a football player (Terrence Howard) who learns to play the drums in order to keep his GPA high enough to continue to play - an undertaking done at the request of Meister, a gifted young singer (Jean Louisa Kelly) who longs to make music rather than work in her parents business and who develops a bit of a crush on Mr. Holland. His personal life fares a little less well. His only son, Cole (Nicholas John Renner, Joseph Anderson, or Anthony Natale depending on the age) is born deaf, and he can't share his father's love of music. Or so Mr. Holland thinks, until he realizes his frustration has shut his son out of his life. Once again, he rises to the challenge. However, it is only when the music program is cut from the curriculum, and Mr. Holland is forced to retire that he realizes what his true life's work has been.

It's a brilliant script. Mr. Holland's passion for life - music, his work, his family - is wonderfully depicted, and contrasted against his own limitations in being able to achieve his goals. When faced with his shortcomings, he does something about them, and in the end triumphs because of it. And having his former students come back and show him how he has influenced their lives is an especially nice touch.

The acting is excellent. Dreyfuss is a skilled actor, and he brings a warmth to the part that contrasts nicely with Mr. Holland's less appealing characteristics. Headley gives a sweet performance as a woman who loves her family and stands by them no matter what. The scene where she expresses her frustration at not being able to communicate with her son is especially well done. Thomas puts in a nice turn as the football coach. I'm not a big fan of Macy, but he does pretty well as the vice principal. Dukakis is nothing short of fabulous as the principal who decides to mentor Mr. Holland whether he wants her to or not.

Yes, it's a tear jerker of a movie, especially the ending. But it's well worth the sacrifice of Kleenex, whether it's the first time or the hundred and first. This is a movie that says yes, anyone can make a difference in ways they never dreamed of.

Sybil
(1976)

My God ! What did that monster do to you!?
For most, childhood is full of pleasant memories of loving parents. But what happens when your parents don't love you? Worse yet, what happens when they commit acts of unspeakable abuse? This movie examines one girl's choice as to how to cope with such horror.

Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Joanne Woodward), who narrates the movie, first meets Sybil Dorsett (Sally Field) in the emergency room of a New York hospital where Sybil has come after putting her hand through a window. Sybil seems a bit shaken up, and is acting strangely when suddenly, she appears to "wake up" and not know where she is or how she got there. Thus starts the journey these two women will take into Sybil's past to find out what happened to, in the words of Dr. Wilbur, "produce such a shattering," which led to Sybil's developing sixteen distinct personalities, all of which share her mind. Along the way, we meet Dr. Quinoness (Charles Lane), Sybil's childhood doctor, who lives with the guilt of remaining silent about Sybil's abuse; Sybil's father, Willard (William Prince) who blinded himself to what his wife was doing; and Sybil's mother, Hattie (Martine Bartlett), who earns the title of "monster" by abusing Sybil in an almost unimaginable way. But finding the cause of the split in personalities is only the beginning of helping Sybil to heal.

The movie is based on the book by Flora Rheta Schreiber, which was written at the request of Dr. Wilbur, and with Sybil Dorsett's consent. The script is basically faithful to the book, but some license is taken in order to make the story more dramatic. Whereas the book presents issues in a factual, almost unemotional, way, the movie gives a sense of the horror Sybil faced as a result of growing up with a mother like Hattie Dorsett. This works well in that when Sybil finally confronts what has been done to her, the audience is ready for the resulting catharsis.

The acting was excellent. Prince's portrayal of Willard is spot on as someone who will hide behind anything he can to keep from facing the truth. Bartlett is the epitome of evil malice as Hattie. Brad Davis does a nice job as a potential love interest for Sybil. Woodward's Dr. Wilbur is a stunning performance of a kind and caring psychotherapist. But the film really belongs to Field, who deserves the Emmy she won. Each personality is distinctly created, and comes across as its own vibrant entity. And Field's ability to instantly switch between them is astonishing. She gives a virtuosic performance.

While the contents are somewhat disturbing, the film is well worth the viewing, not only because it is a compelling story, but because it is so well told. This is a classic which holds up as well today as it did thirty years ago.

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