Like a Phoenix without Ashes – Planes (2013) And, no, you probably won’t get that reference.

Well, well, well.  What have we here?  Why, it’s a little blog called “365 Films a Year!” where once upon a time I wrote hundreds and hundreds of film reviews.

And now I’m back.  At least for today.  Because I feel the need to talk to you about a little film called Planes, which opened today. (But this isn’t really a *review*, as you will see.)

Now, to understand why I needed to write about this film, you need to know its history.  Planes is a spinoff of the Disney/Pixar “Cars” property.  If you were reading this blog back when I actually watched 365 films in one year, you’ll remember that I *loved* Cars. It is, in fact, still my favorite Pixar film.  But my love of the film did not follow through to its spinoff media.  The first “Cars” short, Mater and the Ghostlight was well made and pointed to great expandability for the franchise.

Unfortunately, what followed was a series of extremely silly and only occasionally truly engaging shorts called “Mater’s Tall Tales”, followed by the biggest disappointment of all, Cars 2.  (A film which, though still entertaining, seemed to forget everything that made the original Cars work.)  Cars 2 was the first Pixar film to receive generally negative reviews and it missed the $200M standard that Pixar film usually attain.  Cars was hardly a critical darling, had solid but not spectacular box office and lost the Oscar to the forgettable Happy Feet.  (Remember that one?  Didn’t think so.)

So, why make a sequel?  One simple answer: toys.  The “Cars” die cast car line is one of the most successful toy lines to emerge in the last decade, still holding down peg space seven years after its inception.  So a new movie (with its opportunities for new characters/product) was in the offing whether there was a compelling story or not.

And that’s where Disney Animation chief John Lasseter’s well documented belief in putting story first actually hurt Cars 2.  In the hands of a less scrupulous producer/director, Cars 2 would be a by-the-book rehash or, at best, a formulaic extension of the story.  But Lasseter had to find the “important” story to tell and, in doing so, pushed the narrative so far outside the realm of Cars as to be unrecognizable.  (Lasseter was wont to say that Cars 2 is a spy picture that happens to feature cars, instead of the spy *parody* it probably should have been.)  So, instead of a solid, but unoriginal, sequel, we got an ambitious drama that bears no resemblance to the film that spawned it.

But it sold toys.  Even to me.  I didn’t care for Cars 2 that much, but I did like the characters and I bought several (very expensive) Lego sets based on *both* films.  So with the toys still selling, we had not seen the last of this universe, even if Lasseter was unwilling to make a Cars 3.  The answer, to Disney, was to look up in the sky.  The idea behind Planes was born.

Planes would take place in the “world of Cars”, but be about…well…airplanes.  It would also be produced, not by Pixar, but by Disney Toon Studios, which means one thing: straight-to-video.  Disney Toon Studios had not had a theatrical release in years and even their home video output had been reduced to the Tinkerbell films.  “Planes” was to be their next home video series.

But, just as had happened with Toy Story 2 all those years ago, the Disney brass felt that Planes was turning out too well to just ignore the potential income from a theatrical release.  Now, if Planes had been initially intended for theaters, I’m sure Lasseter would never have given it to Disney Toon Studios.  As it is, it’s probably for the best that it didn’t land in the lap of the often-too-high-minded folks at Pixar.

Because Planes is the film that Cars 2 should have been.  Yes, it’s formulaic.  Yes, it’s predictable.  Yes, it rehashes themes from the original film.  But it’s fun, engaging and, if it isn’t quite on Pixar’s level, it looks really good on the big screen.

But the critics *hate* it.  They were disappointed with Cars.  They disliked Cars 2.  But they *hate* Planes.  They hate it because it’s “derivative”.  They hate it because it’s “safe”.   They *really* hate it because it was created to further the toy line.

The problem is, none of those things should be automatic negatives.  Yes, truly original material should be celebrated.  But “original” is not synonymous with “good”.  The Human Centipede was original.  Casablanca was not.  (No, I’m not saying Planes is as good as Casablanca.  Stick with me here.)  The point is that formula works.  That’s why the formulas are…formulated.  There are good formula films and bad ones.  But read those reviews of Planes.  Most of them (even the positive ones) will call the film derivative.  It is.  So what?  Films aren’t made for critics, who watch far too many films for their own good.  They are made for regular people who often just want to be entertained for an hour-and-a-half or so.

And they aren’t even consistent about this issue.  Somehow Planes being derivative is *bad*, but Star Trek Into Darkness‘ stealing plotlines, characters and actual scenes and dialogue from The Wrath of Khan is barely worth mentioning.  This is, of course, because the critics have focused on nuTrek’s “newness” (meaning everyone is young and acts nothing like the original versions of the characters) as compared to its many, many thefts from earlier (and better) works.

To me, *consistency* is much more important than originality when it comes to follow-up films.  “Fidelity to the source material” is how I put it.  For instance, NuTrek (because it was not a true “reboot” and has hooks into the original series) is *not* faithful to the series that spawned it.  Even if it *was* well made, it’s “newness” would not forgive it’s lack of fidelity to the source material.  Star Trek V, for all its many faults, fits into the real Star Trek universe.  I’ll take “V” over “Trek ’09″ any day.  Cars 2 fails not just because of its plotholes and outlandish storyline.  It’s because it feels nothing like Cars.

Planes does feel like Cars, and that’s a good thing.  It *is* unabashedly of the (“safe”) world of Cars and was made for its primary audience (children).  And critics *hate* that.  They don’t like films for children that adults can enjoy. (Cars)  They like films for adults that kids can tolerate. (Ratatouille – which was much higher rated and much less attended than Cars)

And, finally, why should it matter *why* a film was made?  Old Hollywood used to make films for lots of reasons; to make use of expensive sets to save on expenses (The Most Dangerous Game) or to promote a specific actor (The Wizard of Oz). These films weren’t made for some great artistic purpose.  But they are often great films.  It is ultimately up to the creative team behind a film, not the executive who green-lit it, whether a film accomplishes its goals.

But audiences know what they like.  Into Darkness underperformed.  Audiences loved The Great Gatsby.  Critics didn’t care for Iron Man 3 or Man of Steel.  Of course, there are films like The Avengers and The Lone Ranger that can still bring audiences and critics together, but the disparity seems to be getting greater and greater between what the media considers good and what audiences actually enjoy.  As the Oscars become more and more irrelevant (as popular films become less and less likely to win), audiences become jaded and trust critics less and less.  (As I once said, if the critics couldn’t shut down “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”, they are now toothless.)

In the final analysis, whether a film is good or not is *entirely* subjective.  A 26% on Rotten Tomatoes does not make a film bad.  Your not liking it does.

Me?  I liked Planes.  Your air miles may vary.

Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment

Unmagical: Wizards (1977)

Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards was his first film ostensibly made for a “family audience”.  It is filled with the trappings of the genre: fairies, wizards (naturally) and elves.  But it also has futuristic/fantasy Nazis and far too much sexual innuendo for the audience it supposedly targets.  When released, it was a modest success, mostly because it was so cheap to make, not even $2 Million.  The corners Bakshi cut to meet this miminal budget certainly don’t help the film’s case.

The cast is mostly a collection of still relative unknowns.  In fact, the only really notable actor is Mark Hamill, who really wanted to be in the film and got permission from George Lucas to do a voice during a break in filming Star Wars.

Wizards takes place on a far future Earth after mankind destroyed itself in the “inevitable” Nuclear War.  Millions of years after the war, fairies and elves have returned, along with a few humans.  Mutants still live in the radioactive lands.  Thousands of years pass. Into the world are born twin wizards, the goodie, Avatar and the baddie, Blackwolf.  (Maybe if their mom had chosen better names….)  Thousands of years pass.  The brothers have it out in an epic battle.  Avatar wins.  Thousands of years pass.  Blackwolf discovers a great power that will allow him to conquer the world.

The action revolves around Avatar (Bob Holt) and the…oh…let’s call it a…fellowship…who travel to the lair of Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) in order to destroy Blackwolf’s great weapon, a – get this – film projector that he uses to inspire his army of mutants.  (Man, that’s some good tech.  Millions of years later and it’s still working.  My family’s projector doesn’t work and it’s only been forty years since it was bought.)  He inspires them by showing footage of Adolf Hitler and Nazi battles.  (And what kind of storage facilities did those guys use to preserve film that long?) 

Along with Avatar, there’s fairy-wannabe Elinore (how she is supposed to *become* a fairy isn’t really explained, nor how she is supposed to inherit the throne of the land from her father, who was “President”).  Voiced by Jesse Welles, she’s half-naked through most of the film and serves no purpose I can see except eye candy and an unconvincing love interest for Avatar.  The “warrior” of the group is elf Weehawk (Richard Romanus), who looks like he is about twelve, but is obviously meant to be a grown man.  Also on the team is Necron 99, a robot assassin for Blackwolf, quickly reprogrammed by Avatar and renamed “Peace”.  (Yes, friends, it’s the 70′s!)

There’s a heavy anti-war, anti-technology vibe going on here, completely subveretd by Bakshi’s bizarre ending.  (I won’t say.  You have to see it to believe it.)  Of course, as so often happens with Bakshi, the message is clear not because it is naturally compelling and easy to understand, but because he hits you over the head with it.  Subtlety?  Not his strong suit.

Another Bakshi trademark is on view here: lousy voice work.  Not the acting itself, per se.  It’s a combination of choosing voices that don’t quite fit the character and recording techniques that make it sound as if half the people are speaking behind gas masks.  There’s always some kind of disconnect between what we’re hearing and what we’re seeing.

Also, rotoscoping.  (The technique of tracing live action footage to create animation cels.)  Used to much greater visual effect in Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, here it is a pure cost-cutting measure, allowing him to show massive battles with footage from westerns, medieval epics and World War II films.  (Hastily amended to add demon eyes, horns, etc.)  In a film with a much simpler visual style than Rings, it’s jarring.

Much of the visual style seems inspired by comic artist Vaughn Bode, though Bakshi doesn’t mention him as an influence.  The still images that accompany the opening narration and pepper the film are by artist Mike Ploog and they are really quite impressive.  A book of just the Ploog illustrations would actually be welcome, since it would strip away all the annoying parts of Wizards: the direction, the voices, etc.

Wizards has attained a kind of cult status that, frankly, it doesn’t deserve.  There’s nothing fun or inspiring or visually impressive or original about it.  The only really good thing I think about it is that it led to Bakshi getting the go-ahead to make The Lord of the Rings, a vastly superior film.  This one?  Best left a curiosity.

Posted in 1977, Animation, Drama, Fantasy, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

An Early Vision of the Ghost Who Walks: The Phantom (1943)

Lee Falk’s “The Phantom” is one of the longest-running comic strips in history, debuting in 1936.  For such a long-running series, it’s been adapted to the big and small screen relatively few times, most recently in a live-action TV series.  But The Phantom’s first live-action appearance was this serial, produced by Columbia in 1943 at the height of the format’s popularity.

Starring as The Phantom is Tom Tyler, better known as the title character in the classic serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel.  Tyler proves a capable Phantom, his somewhat wooden performance style actually proving an asset in portraying the mysterious character.  The supporting cast is also solid, particular chief villain Dr. Max Bremmer, played by Kenneth MacDonald. Bremmer is a hoot as he strings the good guys along for pretty much the entire serial.  He presents himself as a friend, all the while using his position as the local physician to basically kill off anyone who gets in his way.

The sort-of love interest Diana Palmer, as played by Jeanne Bates, proves a bit too much of the typical damsel in distress.  She’s pretty and daring enough, but doesn’t bring anything new to the table and tends to faint whenever put upon.  (In fact, one of Bremmer’s schemes hinges on his certainty that she’ll faint at a particular point.  She does.)  As for the rest, you can spend the length of the serial playing spot-the-journeyman-actor. Lots of those “seen-him-somewhere” types on hand, doing their work, paying the bills.

In the original comic strip story, the Phantom is the latest in a line of men (and the occasional woman) who have kept peace in the jungle, fighting aggressive tribes and pirates with equal vigor.  Most later adaptations of “The Phantom” follow the pattern established here by kicking things off with the death of one Phantom and the introduction of a new one.  Being that it was created in 1943, piracy takes a back seat to agents of an unnamed country trying to establish an airbase.  But one macguffin is as good as any other and the screenwriters keep things moving without having to resort to repetition.

I can’t really say that The Phantom is a great serial.  I’ve seen too many examples of the genre that exceed it.  But it is quite good.  It’s certainly a step up from Columbia’s previous comic adaptation, Batman.  But that’s not saying much.  Columbia was always on the low end of the scale when it came to serials.  It couldn’t match Republic for splendor and Universal was always more creative.  Still, The Phantom stands as an entertaining entry, if one easily forgotten.

Posted in 1943, Based on Comic, Crime, Drama, Serial | Leave a comment

The Not-So-Great Whatzit: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

The critics liked Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 film based on Mickey Spillane’s 1952 novel.  Critics never really liked Spillane, so that should tell you how accurately this film portrays his signature character, Mike Hammer.

Hammer is played with basically two levels of emotion (flat and angry) by prolific never-was Ralph Meeker.  I won’t claim to know a *lot* about Mike Hammer, but I know he had integrity that would keep him from doing things like pimping his secretary (Velda, the love of his life in the books) so he can blackmail men for cheating.  Meeker’s Hammer is shown to be inexplicably attractive to women, despite his bland expression and lack of any kind of charisma.  He meanders through the film like a bull in a china shop getting almost everyone he comes into contact with killed.  The Hammer hasn’t got a single redeeming quality except, perhaps, dogedness and it doesn’t serve him (or the audienc) in the end.

The rest of the cast does no better.  Maxine Cooper plays Velda as a hopeless hanger-on, so deserately in love with Hammer that she’ll take any abuse he dishes out, not even displaying any of the charm that would make her useful to the film’s Hammer.  Even the pivotal character of Lilly Carver, played by Gaby Rodgers, is so random and scattershot in her inflection that I winced any time she opened her mouth.  In fact, only Jack Elam, in an early small part, really stands out.  He, at least, sells every scene he’s in.

Then, of course, there’s Cloris Leachman, who also stands out from the crowd of the utterly forgettable, but for a different reason.  She made her debut with this film and she’s memorable because (1) she’s Cloris Leachman and (2) she’s as bafflingly unreadable as most of the rest of the cast.  At least she eventually made something of herself.

Some have credited director Robert Aldrich and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo with courageous choices over camera angles and editing.  In reality, it’s yet another incoherent part of this film.  People lean out of shot or behind things not in a way that intrigues or is visually arresting, just annoying.  Also, simple things like sounds being out of synch (a sleeping man snoring loudly, but at a different pace than the actor, for instance) are extremely distracting.

And, you know, I don’t even want to bring up the silliness of the atomic angle that’s the key to the macguffin of this film (but not the book).  It seems ridiculously out of place and you’ll have to sweat through this film yourself to get the details.

So it shows Hammer as a sociopath at best, nonstop corruption and stupidity on the part of just about everyone and a preposterous resolution.  So, of course, the critics loved it.  No less than Peter Bogdanovich speaks well of it.  (Though he clearly doesn’t understand the ending he loves so much isn’t the real ending, but a hacked together changed one.) Audiences, on the other hand, not so much.

Spillane, it almost goes without saying, hated it.  It’s relative failure at the box office must have been a great relief to him, as a series of this *very* wrong Mike Hammer could have followed.  Instead, several more attempts were tried over the years (including a film, The Girl Hunters, starring Spillane himself as Hammer), none of which caught on.

Thankfully, this film is pretty much forgotten and Meeker is a long way from being the definitive Mike Hammer.  That honor goes to Stacey Keach, who first played Hammer in 1983 and continues in the role to this day, most recently in a series of audio dramas written by Spillane fan and collaborator Max Allan Collins.  A much more fitting legacy for the character than the characature on display in Kiss Me Deadly.

Posted in 1955, Based on Book, Crime, Drama | Leave a comment

H is for The Heartbreak Kid (2007), Film #236

I haven’t seen the original The Heartbreak Kid (starring Charles Grodin) in a long time, but I don’t remember it being as irritating as this remake. This time Ben Stiller takes on the role of the newlywed who meets his true love on his honeymoon. The big problem: we are never given a reason to care about this guy nor want him to find happiness. He doesn’t deserve it. He marries for the wrong reasons, has second thoughts for the wrong reasons, behave wrongly with the girl that he meets, handles the breakup wrong and even manages to screw up his potential happy ending. He’s an ass and you can’t capture an audience with such an unlikable loser as a central figure.

Nothing else about the film matters much. It’s nice to see Stiller’s father Jerry Stiller playing his fictional father and the new love interest is played by the remarkably striking Michelle Monaghan, but what’s the point? I’ll never watch this pile of drek again and you should avoid ever watching it in the first place.

Posted in 2007, Comedy, Remake, Romance | Leave a comment

G is for The Gnome-Mobile (1967), Film #235

The Gnome-Mobile is one of three featuring child actors Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice. When I point out that the other two are the excellent The Three Lives of Thomasina and Mary Poppins, it should be obvious that this one would be the weakest. But I wasn’t prepared for just how weak it would be.

Starring Walter Brennan in a double role as the children’s grandfather timber mogul D.J. Mulrooney and the elder gnome Knobby (whose people have been displaced by Mulrooney’s business interests), this is a slight film with forgettable songs and a story that barely qualifies as a plot.

The kids befriend Jasper (Tom Lowell), a young adult gnome who wants to marry, but has no women in his forest, where the gnome population is reduced to just him and his grandfather, Knobby. The kids convince their grandfather to drive the gnomes to a new home (re-naming his car, you guessed it, “the Gnome-Mobile” in an embarrassingly vapid song). Danger ensues when a carfty showman steals the little people and when Mulrooney’s second-in-command has him committed for claiming that gnomes exist. (A plot element that is never actually resolved.)

Some decent effects and Disney’s typical 1960s quality production values can’t rescue a film without a decent story or songs or, sadly, performances from a cast that all did much better in similar circumstances elsewhere.

Posted in 1967, Based on Book, Comedy, Family, Paranormal | Leave a comment

F is for From Hell (2001), Film #234

I had high hopes for this one. Johnny Depp in a Victorian-era murder mystery? Sounds great. Another take on Jack the Ripper? Not so great. Heather Graham in a period piece? A bad sign.

And, sadly, that’s the one that carries the film: the wrongheadedness of casting Heather Graham. All the great choices made in support (Ian Holm, Robbie Coltraine, Ian Richardson) can’t save a movie with Graham in so central a role.

I hate to harp on only one aspect of this film (since so many other parts fail in their own ways), but really, Heather Graham? Okay, Victorian prostitute with a heart of gold I can buy. But Victorian prostitute with the teeth of a Hollywood starlet? No. I don’t know what accent she was doing, but it didn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before. (And I’ve watched a lot of Victorian-era stuff, from Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Who.)

Even Johnny Depp can’t sace this one, as he’s made one of his trademark oddball character choices for his Inspector Frederick Abberline. Only this time it doesn’t work, one of the few times I could see Depp performing. Usually his performances, no matter how outlandish, are seamless and apparently effortless.

Holm, Coltraine and Richardson are all good, but they’ve all done this sort of thing before and much better. Smaller parts are unmemorable. I couldn’t even think of one worthy to receive comment.

It must have seemed like a bold decision to have this film directed by the Hughes Brothers. But perhaps Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and American Pimp just didn’t prepare them for Victorian drama. Whatever the reason, they never present a believable or engaging view of the era.

Depp fasn should probably give this one a viewing just to see how he handles the time period. Everyone else can give this one a miss.

Posted in 2001, Based on Comic, Based on Real Events, British, Crime, Drama, Historical, Horror, Mystery, Romance | Leave a comment

E is for Equilibrium (2002), Film #233

Equilibrium suffered mostly from the fact that it was released in the wake of The Matrix and much of its action and style was seen as a reflection of that film. It also suffers from the fact that many of its ideas have been expressed before.

Anchored by a strong performance from Christian Bale, this one is yet another portrayal of a futuristic totalitarian state. A bit of Farenheit 451 here, a touch of 1984 there, a sprinkling of THX-1138… All glued together with almost superhero-like action sequences.

It tells of a world where mankind has “chosen” to eliminate emotion in order to end war. The central government controls the population with drugs that keep them in their place. “Clerics”, such as Bale’s John Preston, are highly trained investigators who weed out those still feeling emotions. Naturally, Preston begins to see the truth and is set on a course that will see him facing the ultimate power behind their society.

Bale is the central figure and it is to his credit that he can carry a film like this, one that focuses so unrelentingly on his character. Support is good from Sean Bean, Taye Diggs and, particularly, Emily Watson as one of the feeling people that Bale brings in.

Ultimately, despite its shortcomings, I liked this one. Everything looks good and, derivative though it is, at least everything makes sense within the context of the backstory they have established. It even worked in a couple of twists that actually surprised me. (That’s hard enough to do these days.)

Despite the apparent intentions of the filmmakers, Equilibrium mainly works for action fans. It’s the one area that is startingly original (not nearly as much like the Matrix action as contemporary reviewers indicated).

So watch it for the action. Watch if for Christian Bale and Emily Watson. The rest will carry you along without much offense, but certainly won’t stick with you.

Posted in 2002, Drama, Military, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

D is for Drive Me Crazy (1999), Film #232

Okay, I don’t know any way to say this except to just come out and say it. I thought Drive Me Crazy was a really good movie.

It is a romantic comedy. A *teen* romantic comedy. And I still thought it was great.

I put this down to one thing: the cast. Melissa Joan Hart and Adrian Grenier are able to instill their characters with a realism that is usually missing from these kinds of films. It certainly helps that this film doesn’t descend to the typical over-the-top sex and gross-out jokes that have plagued the genre since American Pie.

Of course, it’s one of the most formulaic movies you could ask for. It’s a romantic comedy, remember. A teen romantic comedy. Hart plays the popular girl who needs a date, Grenier is the outsider she tries to transform to impress the others. Not exactly groundbreaking. I can’t stress enough that this film is exactly what you expect it to be. You will not be surprised by anything that you see.

This formula carries over to the supporting characters; geeky best friends, backstabbing girls, absentee fathers, etc., etc. etc. Seen it all before. Yet another gathering of standard issue formula characters sprinkled about to populate the film.

But as I’ve said before, just because it’s a formula, doesn’t mean it’s crap. This is teen romantic comedy done flawlessly. Of course, your ability to enjoy it will depend entirely on whether it is possible for you to enjoy romantic comedies. If you can, you’ll find it a high quality example of the genre. On the other hand, if you don’t, this one isn’t going to sell you on the genre.

Posted in 1999, Based on Book, Comedy, Romance | Leave a comment

C is for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Film #231

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind had a lot going for it. An interesting story (Chuck Barris’ life would be interesting even if you stuck to the verifiable television stuff), a good cast (Sam Rockwell is a chameleon and should be a bigger star than he is) and the celebrity of its freshman director (George Clooney) allowing them to attract notable names to smaller parts (Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Clooney himself). But the film never comes together as a narrative or as a piece of entertainment.

The problem is mainly with Clooney’s direction. He somehow imbues even the obviously true stories of Barris’ rise through the ranks of television with a sense of unreality that prevents the audience from believing anything. It’s all disjointed, so once the subplot of Barris’ alleged involvement with the CIA is introduced, there’s no reason in the world to take it seriously.

And that’s too bad, because at the heart of the film is Rockwell, just working his butt off to recreate Barris is an amazing way. The way he carries himself, the way he talks; it all seems vividly authentic. But placed into these unbelievable settings, it doesn’t fit together. It doesn’t help that the same thrust of the spy subplot (the search for a mole among the elite assassin group) is painfully transparant. If you haven’t figured out who the mole is the moment the plot point is introduced, you just weren’t watching.

This film could have worked a number of ways. It could have been a bizarre, through-the-looking-glass film like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It could have been a wacky reality-light comedy like Ed Wood. It might even have worked as a pal-around-with-my-friends film like Clooney’s “Ocean” films. Clooney tries to have the film be all these things and it ends up being none of them.

Still, fasn of Sam Rockwell will want to watch this one for his performance alone. It almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. Almost.

Posted in 2002, Based on Book, Based on Real Events, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Espionage, Historical | Leave a comment

B is for Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), Film #230

Seriously, how did this film not work? You’ve got Elvis (Bruce Campbell) and JFK (Ossie Davis) teaming up to fight a mummy/zombie/killer terrorizing an old folks home.

I think the real problem is that the film never quite decides if it wants to be a wacky over-the-top comedy or a poignant end-of-life drama. It ends up mixing both together and they don’t go together as well as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, let me tell you.

Campbell makes a fine Elvis, as you may have suspected. And I think a serious drama about an elderly Elvis would be well served by his presence. And when Bubba Ho-Tep veers into this territory, Campbell handles it well. But as soon as you start to settle in, there’s a killer zombie mumy running around.

Ossie Davis is a fine actor and I get that part of the joke for his character is that despite being black, he is convinced he is the real JFK. Elvis eventually just accepts this as truth, but it’s hard to tell if he is sincere or merely being expediant.

The plot itself doesn’t differ too much from standard B-movie horror material. It’s only in who is doing the monster-slying that things stand out. (Old folks for one thing, historic icons for another.)

Boy, I wanted to like this. I thought it would at least be a crazed bizarro trip, if not laugh-out-loud funny. But there’s far too much musings on the nature of death and age, far too many pitiful views of elderly people nearing their end, far too little joy. One wonders, as Elvis and JFK make their stand against the evil, just what they are defending. The film gives them nothing to really fight for, so the audience has little invested in their success or failure.

Ultimately, this one was a nice idea that just doesn’t work.

Posted in 2002, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Paranormal | Leave a comment

A is for The Aviator (2004), Film #229

The Aviator is a biopic about the life of Howard Hughes. Directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Scorcese’s new golden boy) as Hughes, it’s a vast, sweeping look at one of the most colorful people in American history.

The problem is that the film demands a fairly decent knowledge of Hughes’ life as a prerequisite to understanding much of its tone. Although we get the sense of Hughes’ eventual fall into madness by the end of the picture, it is hinted at from the beginning in ways that would mean nothing to someone who didn’t already know how Hughes wound up.

On top of that, the film is far too episodic in nature. While things are tied together, they do not flow. It is difficult to discern how much time has passed from scene to scene because few clues are given to indicate it. The result is like a Cliff’s Notes on Howard Hughes, not a true biography. We never really get to know him or the people in his life.

Visually the film is quite stunning. DiCaprio does his usual stellar job and actually captures the essence of Hughes pretty darn well. The same can be said of Cate Blanchette as one of Hughes’ greatest loves, Katherine Hepburn. (I disliked Blanchette in this film in almost exactly the way I disliked Hepburn, so she did a great job.) Other cast members are less memorable and some (such as Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner) simply cannot capture the spirit of their subject.

Now, lest all this belly-aching make you think I found little worthwhile in this film, let me be clear. There’s a lot of good stuff in here. If you know Hughes and want a look deeper inside of his life, this is for you. Just don’t come in without some foreknowledge. The scenes of his life are faithfully re-created and you really get a sense of place (if not, as I said, always of time). And it’s proabably worth a look for DiCaprio alone. As the central figure, of course he holds the movie together. But his performance is strong enough that it is worth seeing once, at least.

Posted in 2004, Based on Real Events, Biopic, Drama, Historical | Leave a comment

On a Mission from God: Film #228 – The Blues Brothers (1980)

I don’t really have time to talk properly about The Blues Brothers. While not a perfect film, it was one of the most significant ones from my youth and if I start to really talk about it I’ll go on for days. So instead, just a few points about the film that have stuck with me all these years.

  • The soundtrack is fantastic. Not only do the Blues Brothers themselves perform great renditions of classic songs, you’ve got multiple recordings from legendary R&B acts like Ray Charles and James Brown. I even feel that Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Think” and Cab Calloway’s rendition of “Minnie the Moocher” are superior to their original recordings. My old LP (which I still have, thank you) is *worn out*.
  • Carrie Fisher is fabulous as Jake’s jilted fiancée. Her multiple attacks are great the way they build to the final showdown. That the boys are being safeguarded is never clearer than when she can’t kill him from close range with an automatic gun. (BTW, I have a Mexican lobby card of that scene hanging in my front entranceway.)
  • The “Illinois Nazi” material, topical in its day, has not aged well. The Bob’s Country Bunker stuff, on the other hand, still rings true.
  • This is a surprisingly heartfelt movie. One would almost have expected something more profane than profound. But once Jake sees the light, even their dastardliest deeds have a wholesome edge. And they pay for their actions in the end.
  • A virtuoso performance from the leads, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Belushi was just coming into his own, but Aykroyd was no less impressive. It doesn’t work if they don’t *both* work.
  • If ever there was a comedy that did *not* need a sequel, this is it.
  • Posted in 1980, Based on TV Show, Comedy, Crime, Fantasy, Musical, Religious | Leave a comment

    Film #227 – Run Ronnie Run (2002)

    Oh, this one’s a doozy. Spun off from one of the funnier sketches on Mr. Show, Run, Ronnie, Run fails to capture the manic spirit of the original, but also fails to tell a compelling story of its own.

    Still, there is Mandy Patinkin performing a song in “Ronnie: The Musical” and a filthy song sung by Jack Black that was “cut for time” from a beloved children’s film. Highlights from a film that has far too few.

    Original review.

    Posted in 2002, Based on TV Show, Comedy, Crime, Romance | Leave a comment

    Sagas of a Star World: Films #225 & #226 – Battlestar Galactica (1978) & Conquest of the Earth (1981)

    Here are two different “films” from the universe of the original Battlestar Galactica. Yet when you look closely, they are not so different after all. They also represent the alpha and the omega of BG movies. The first is the theatrical film released to theaters to both capitalize on the success of the series and to recoup the exorbinant costs of that series’ production. It is essentially the series pilot re-edited to add in some material and make it stand up better on its own. The second is made up of material from five different episodes of Galactica 1980, with some BG footage thrown in to better tie it to the original series.

    I hope that it goes without saying that Battlestar Galactica is the better of the two. Its narrative is not heavily altered; it tells the story it was originally intended to tell and does that well. It’s easy to see why the series captured the attention of a fanbase awakened by Star Wars and eager for similar thrills. (Although, technically, in the “grab a piece of the Star Wars zeitgeist race, BG was beaten to the punch by Jason of Star Command.) The leads (Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict & Lorne Greene) are solid, the villains (John Colicos & the voice of Patrick Macnee) mustache-twirlingly evil. Lots of great support from the likes of Ray Milland, Jane Seymour, Hebr Jefferson Jr., Terry Carter Wilfrid Hyde-White, Laurette Spang and in smaller parts Ed Begley, Jr. and Rick Springfield. Most of these characters were, of course, intended as setup for the long haul on the television show, so they get more airtime and attention than they probably would for a straight movie.

    Conquest, on the other hand, suffers due to the fact that it tries to cram so many different elements of the various episodes into one narrative. The lower-level cast doesn’t help, either. Lorne Green returns, but noone else. (At least in new footage. John Colicos returns as Baltar in footage from the original show.) New leads Kent McCord and Barry Van Dyke are solid enough, I suppose. But the only other names of note are Robert Reed and Wolfman Jack. Yes, that’s right, Wolfman Jack…as himself.

    I always liked the original Battlestar Galactica and this theatrical version reminds me why. With designs from the likes of Ralph McQuarrie, it’s easy to see the Star Wars influence. But it does its own thing with similar tools. A great, rambling space epic that deserved more time to tell its story (and not the way Galactica 1980 finished it). Still, the later series *was* a valiant attempt to keep the Galactica’s story going. It just doesn’t quite cut it.

    So, the upshot it that if you want a good idea what made the original Battlestar Galactica tick, the theatrical film is for you. If you want to see what made Galactica 1980 flop, Conquest of the Earth will give you a nice, capsule summary of its few successes and several failings.

    Posted in 1978, 1981, Based on TV Show, Drama, Made for TV, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Oh, Deer: Films #223 & #224 – Bambi (1942) & Bambi II (2006)

    I’ve certainly seen the original Bambi many times (I’ve owned it on laserdisc for years before getting the Platinum DVD), but this was the first time I had seen it (and it’s straight-to-video offspring) since having read the original novel by Felix Salten. And the thing that struck me the most is how perfectly Walt adn his team distilled that book into the well-loved movie. The book is much harsher (and, in fact, the characters are harder to like). The film is able to take the basic idea (understanding the very different thought processes of woodland creatures) and make it all clear, while still keeping everyone likable. This, more than anything else, was Walt Disney’s genius. Like recognizing that Pinnocchio becomes an instantly relatable story just by *not* killing the cricket, he saw what needed changing to amke the film work.

    Much ringing of hands and gnashing of teeth has been done over the Disney straight-to-video line, but as I said originally, Bambi II is actually pretty good. I can also now report that it takes some sequences from the book that were left out of the original. (None of the overly harsh stuff, but more of that “what it’s like for deer” material.) A nice touch that the filmmaker didn’t necessarily have to make.

    Bambi is, of course, a classic. But I am pleased to remind people that Bambi II is pretty good as well and does nothing to ruin the heritage of the original film.

    Original review of Bambi.

    Original review of Bambi II.

    Posted in 1942, 2006, Animation, Based on Book, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Sequel, Straight to Video | Leave a comment

    Static Air: Film #222 – Radioland Murders (1994)

    Oh my.

    The long, strange trip of Radioland Murders from the page to the screen should be made into a film itself. Originally intended by George Lucas to be one his follow-ups to the enormously successful American Graffiti, it languished in development hell for two decades before Lucas finally made up his mind to push it into production.

    Basically, this film is an example of Lucas making a movie purely as an experiment in filming techniques. (He did a similar thing with More American Graffiti, which he only allowed to be made so he could try out some camera tricks.) In the case of this film, Lucas wanted to see if his notion of virtual sets (where only rudimentary sets are built and the rest is added digitally) would work. So the film was a success because the technique worked. The film itself, however, did not. It came and went in the blink of an eye, a blink that was still probably longer than it deserves.

    Radioland Murders is a basic whodunnit comedy, trying to harken back to the zany rat-a-tat dialogue of 1940s comedies like The Front Page. Also in the mix is the story of radio’s place in people’s lives, just before the advent of television.

    The problem is that the mystery is not that interesting (all the characters are unappealing enough for the audience not to really care that they are being killed off) and the subtext is too subtle, so we never really get why radio is so important. People say it is and it’s obviously important to those whose jobs depend on it, but we don’t *feel* its importance. The film never properly conveys it.

    Part of this problem is the leads. Brian Benben is an actor best known for the HBO comedy Dream On, a show whose success I never understood, whose cast all did better work elsewhere. Except, of course, Benben. I have never found Benben appealing and I’ve never understood even his modest level of fame. He can’t move beyond caricature with his performance in this film, coming across not as a person from the 40s, but as a person *imitating* someone from the 40s.

    Mary Stuart Masterson is not much better. Usually, I like her. But here she is a shell of a person and her total lack of chemistry with Benben doesn’t help. We learn that she has been promoted to positions of great importance, but there’s nothing about her character that explains why. The audience is never given a reason to get behind her or Benben. And without engaging leads, there’s no way a film can succeed.

    The list of notable supporting actors is actually quite impressive. Ned Beatty, Michael McKeon, Christopher Lloyd, Jeffrey Tambor, Corbin Bernsen, Harvey Korman, Larry Miller… It goes on and on. There’s even cameos from radio greats George Burns, Rosemary Clooney and Billy Barty. All for naught. Talented people running around in circles doing nothing.

    Of course, many of these weaknesses could be overcome if the film was funny. But it’s not. What passes for humor is people getting knocked around and lots of fast dialogue that doesn’t make up for the fact that it has nothing to convey. A really nice idea about a cleaning woman who gives the writers their best ideas is dropped without any kind of resolution. It’s as if they had pieces of several scripts and grabbed pages at random. Nothing connects.

    There is virtually nothing good I can say about Radioland Murders. In fact, the only thing I think really works is those virtual sets I mentioned earlier. They really do fit in pretty seamlessly. So chalk this one up as a win, I guess.

    Posted in 1994, Comedy, Crime, Mystery, Romance | Leave a comment

    A Bigger Boat: Film #221 – Jaws (1975)

    Jaws is an interesting film for me, as I never actually wanted to own it. It was one of those films that I loved watching whenever it came on, but didn’t think I’d actually watch it if it was in my collection. Such has proven to be the case. I’ve owned it for about three years and I think I’ve watched it twice. Most recently, I was inspired by a scene from the film that showed up when I was playing Scene It! on my Xbox 360.

    That’s not to say that I don’t like Jaws. In fact, I think it is one of the most perfect films ever made. I love it. And I thoroughly enjoy it every time I see it. I’m just young enough to have missed seeing it in the theaters, so I don’t have the perspective of how it changed the nature of the summer blockbuster. But from the vantage point of someone who gre up with it as a known quantity, I can say it deserves its reputation.

    It starts at the top. Director Steven Spielberg has never been better that he was when he worked on this film. That includes Close Encounters, E. T., the Indiana Jones films, Schindler’s List, you name it. He takes what is essentially a “town-under-siege” horror film and together with screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley (adapting his novel), constructs something more. He refuses to make anyone the bad guy, even the Mayor who’s responsible for keeping the beaches open when he knows they should be closed. We understand him and pity him. There are no cardboard cutouts, everyone is vividly real.

    And it’s the cast that makes sure that happens. Roy Scheider, of course, gets full credit for his Police Chief Brody. If he didn’t work, everything else would fall apart. Conflicted over his desire to keep people safe and political pressure to make people *feel* safe, the audience is with him all the way. As an outsider new to the town, he’s the perfect character for people unfamilair with such seaside locales to get to know how they work. He handles the lighthearted moments and the horrific ones with equal apparent ease.

    Of course, it helps that he has great support. Richard Dreyfuss plays the sarcastic, know-it-all shark expert Matt Hooper. Using his trademark smirk to full advantage, he expresses the folly of the local establishment, but without turning his character into some kind of perfect saint. He’s arrogant and dismissive, even of those he should listen to. That Dreyfuss still makes him likable is to his great credit.

    But, for me, the seminal, iconic performance is from Robert Shaw. Quint is one of the great characters of all time. Larger than life, yet in a realistic way. The kind of person who storms into ones life, then storms out again. Big, bold and unforgettable. We’ve all known one or two people like that. Quint is one we all get to know. He’s the heart of the film. The one who understood everything that was happening and everything that needed to be done right from the start. Again, this kind of almost epic character is not easy to make real and likable, but Shaw pulls it off. He’s always the one I think of when I think of Jaws.

    I should also take a moment to speak of the shark itself. Notorious for its unreliability, “Bruce” the mechanical shark is nothing short of astounding on film, even today. Speilberg’s excellent use of the creature, limiting his on-screen time to limit the liklihood of its mechanical nature being spotted, he succeeds in bringing the dangerous beast vividly to life.

    Lastly, a topic I never tire of mentioning: John Williams’ music. There’s a reason he’s the most successful film scorer of the last (count ‘em) three-plus decades. He could do more with a simple “da-dum da-dum” than most could do with an entire orchestration. I’ve noted elsewhere that Williams is the only composer whose themes are never discarded by later films in the series. Danny Elfman may have written a memorable theme for Batman, but it was gone from all subsequent films. But from Jaws to Superman to Harry Potter, Williams’ themes are considered essential and so they are. Nowhere moreso than in Jaws, where the themes can work for the audience (warning of upcoming danger) or against it (with false warnings). Always present, but never ocerpowering the action, Jaws is one of Williams’ best.

    I could go on and on about Jaws, but I’ll stop there. Let’s just say it’s one of the best films ever and leave it at that.

    Posted in 1975, Based on Book, Drama, Giant Monster | Leave a comment

    Spy-Lite: Film #220 – Condorman (1981)

    Condorman had taken on an almost mythic quality by the time I finally saw it again. I had first seen it many years ago (I can’t even be sure I had seen all of it, but I remember seeing at least *some* of it.) and it had been out of print on DVD, so I couldn’t get it when I began collecting Disney DVDs a couple of years ago.

    Well, the Disney Movie Club finally put it out and I bought it right away. By now, I had been forwarned by the disappointment that was Superdad, another Disney film that I had highly anticipated on DVD.

    Thankfully, Condorman is not as bad at all that. A spy spoof, it does suffer from a lot of very silly notions, but much of it still works.

    Michael Crawford (in his wimpier pre-Phantom persona) plays comic book artist Woodrow Wilkins who must live his characters’ adventures. He gets pulled into CIA-type intrigue by his friend Harry (James Hampton) where he comes face-to-face with Soviet operative Natalia (Barbara Carrera). His apparent forthright nature engages her interest and she soon tries to get out from under the thumb of her superior, Krokov (Oliver Reed).

    The cast is solid and many of the special effect, though over-the-top are no sillier than anything in the more outlandish Bond films. Crawford makes an engaging lead and Natalia’s turn is at least viable, if not entirely likely.

    A pleasant, light example of the spy film genre, Condorman doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, but it does it all pretty well. Fans of the genre who’d like a film they can show to the whole family can do a lot worse.

    Posted in 1981, Based on Book, Comedy, Crime, Espionage, Romance | Leave a comment

    Gonzo: Films #218 & #219 – Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) & Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

    Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas take two very different paths in an attempt to acquire a similar goal: catch the essense of Hunter S. Thompson and his greatest work on film.

    Buffalo purports to be a re-enactment of the actual events (borrowing from other writings by Thompson) while Fear and Loathing tries to depict the book itself in some kind of meaningful way.

    Bill Murray plays Thompson in Buffalo while Johnny Depp plays Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) in Fear and Loathing. It’s safe to say that neither really gets Thompson perfectly, but Depp has the definite edge. It helps that Depp was much more experienced at the time he did his film, while Murray was only just starting to experiment with “proper” acting, coming off fame on Saturday Night Live and in Meatballs and Caddyshack. Murray definitely has his moments, but Depp throws himself so completely into the role (including shaving his head, something Murray didn’t do) that it doesn’t matter of we’re seeing the real Thomsposn or not, Depp’s creation is as vivid as life anyway.

    In the sidekick role inspired by Thompson’s friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, Peter Boyle (here named Carl Lazlo, Esq.) plays well off Murray’s more subdued Thompson. Benicio del Toro plays Fear and Loathing‘s Dr. Gonzo with dangerous mania in keeping with that film’s more over-the-top nature.

    And that’s what really separates the two. Buffalo tries to tell a “gonzo” story with traditional techniques. Heck, the camera isn’t even that active. It relies on the stories of excess themselves to propel the narrative and it doesn’t always work. Fear and Loathing takes the madness of the book to its natural extreme, with director Terry Gilliam’s typical visual flair gone bonkers.

    Another area where Fear and Loathing excels is in the supporting roles. In addition to Depp and del Toro, you can find Toby Maguire (wearing an odd balding wig as a hitchhiker), Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Mark Harmon and even Thompson himself in an odd bit of self-awareness by Duke. Buffalo boasts Bruno Kirby, Rene Auberjonois and Craig T. Nelson, so not too shabby, either.

    Neither film really captures the feel of Thompson’s work, but certainly Fear and Loathing comes closer. Both are worth seeing if you are a Thompson fan, if only to see how different periods of time treated him. While Buffalo got a lot of bad press in the day, the performances from Murray and Boyle *almost* succeed in holding it up. Depp will pull you through Fear and Loathing by himself.

    Posted in 1980, 1998, Based on Book, Based on Real Events, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Historical | Leave a comment

    May the Schwartz Be With You: Film #217 – Spaceballs (1987)

    A classic for the ages, this is probably Mel Brooks’ last great film. Robin Hood: Men in Tights has some good moments, but this one is pretty much the end of the line as far as Brooks’ originality and ability to nail a genre perfectly.

    A solid cast including Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga, John Candy, Rick Moranis and, of course, Brooks himself.

    The main advantage that this film has over other, similar, parodies is that while it mostly consists of a parody of the Star Wars series, it actually has a full, perfectly reasonable plot all its own. I’ve alwasy said that the best parodies are the ones where you strip away the jokes and a solid example of the genre is left behind. Spaceballs with its Intergalactic Empire out to steal other planets’ air for their own use could easily be a straight-forward sci-fi film. (Although today’s filmmaker would no doubt make it an environmental message-heavy piece of propoganda.)

    None of that here. Spaceballs is straight-out comedy from start to finish and well deserving of its status as a classic.

    Original review.

    Posted in 1987, Comedy, Crime, Romance, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    To the Hills!: Film #216 – Race to Witch Mountain (2009)

    Race to Witch Mountain is essentially a remake of the 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain, just with a greater emphasis on action.

    It stars Dwayne Johnson (who has recently dropped “The Rock” from him name – most likely because it’s owned by the WWE) as a cab driver with a questionable past who finds himself in the company of two strange youngsters (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig). These two have strange powers and he must, with the help of a specialist on extraterrestrials (Carla Gugino) get them to safety and out of the hands of a government operative bent on capturing them (Ciarán Hinds).

    This remake lacks a lot of the more subtle touches of the original, but still manages to be entertaining. Director Andy Fickman has a good handle on what it takes to make a family-friendly actioner, never allowing things to get too grim or go too far over-the-top for its intended audience.

    Johnson continues to prove that he’s particularly well suited to family entertainment, perhaps moreso than the more seemingly appropriate R-rated field (where he’s often too cartoony). Gugino, of course, has the “Spy Kids” franchise under her belt, so does fine with this material. Robb and Ludwig have their work cut out for them, following in the footsteps of Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann (both of whom make excellent cameos here). The new kids prove up to the challenge, giving their characters an otherworldliness that the original film lacks to a degree. There is also an amusing performance by Garry Marshall as a Conspiracy theorist even further on the fringe of science than Gugino’s character.

    As for the plot of this new version, it does suffer a bit from cliched notions like the “all-powerful-government-agency-no-one-knows-about” and the “we-are-trying-to-save-our-world-that-is-dying-much-like-yours” notions. There is also an “unstoppable-killing-machine” on the kids trail. At least the silly environmental message, thankfully, gets little screentime and the government agency is shown to be on thin ice from the get-go, so its downfall is at least consistant. The alien creature, though, is unconvincing and just an excuse for action sequences to break out now and again.

    This one’s not a bad remake/re-imagining, though it probably could have used a good re-write to shore up the plot and remove some of the more formulaic aspects. Still, as kiddie-actioners go, this one is solid.

    Posted in 2009, Based on Book, Drama, Family, Military, Remake, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    BLON-DIE!!!: Films #202 – #215 – The Blondie film series: Part One (1938 – 1943)

    Blondie (1938)
    Blondie Meets the Boss (1939)
    Blondie Takes a Vacation (1939)
    Blondie Brings Up Baby (1939)
    Blondie on a Budget (1940)
    Blondie Has Servant Trouble (1940)
    Blondie Plays Cupid (1940)
    Blondie Goes Latin (1941)
    Blondie in Society (1941)
    Blondie Goes to College (1942)
    Blondie’s Blessed Event (1942)
    Blondie for Victory (1942)
    It’s a Great Life (1943)
    Footlight Glamour (1943)

    The 1938 film Blondie, based on the even then long-running comic strip, proved to be the start of a remarkably successful film series for Columbia Pictures. From 1939 to 1950, they would make a further twenty-seven films in two fourteen-film blocks. (They took 1944 off.)

    At the beginning of the series we find the family unit established as Dagwood Bumstead (Arthur Lake), his wife Blondie (Penny Singleton), their son Baby Dumpling (Larry Simms) and the family dog Daisy. Over the course of the films, Daisy would have a litter of puppies and Blondie would give birth to a daughter, Cookie (Marjorie Kent). All the while Dagwood tries to balance his family life with Blondie (who especially in the early films had a tendency to allow jealousy to drive her to leave Dagwood) and his touchy life at work under his grumpy boss Mr. Dithers (Jonathan Hale).

    Sound like the set-up for a sit-com? Well, in those pre-TV days, this was pretty much as close as you got to one. Each film runs about one hour and couldn’t have cost much to make. Columbia often used these films to promote their up-and-coming actors including Glenn Ford (Blondie Plays Cupid) and Rita Hayworth (Blondie on a Budget). Both are excellent in roles quite different from what they would be known for and lightyears from the way we see them together in Gilda. Other key guest appearances come from Lloyd Bridges (Blondie Goes to College), William Frawley (Blondie in Society) and Mary Wickes & Hans Conried in my personal favorite, Blondie’s Blessed Event.

    But at the heart of the series, naturally, is Blondie and Dagwood. Penny Singleton is a perfect Blondie, pin-up girl pretty, but down-to-earth (if, as mentioned earlier, a bit flighty). Arthur Lake was typecast for the rest of his life as Dagwood (after the films, he continued in the role on radio and then returned for a Blondie TV series in 1957), but boy was he meant to play it. He may not look a lot like Dagwood does today, but he’s the spitting image of Dagwood in the comics circa 1938. He carries his body and moves in just the way you’d expect if you’ve read comics of that era. It may be the most uncanny performance of a comic-strip character of all time.

    As for the quality of the films themselves, as with any really long series, some are better, some are worse. As indicated, I think Blondie’s Blessed Event is the best of the bunch. (Even with a clearly slim-waisted Penny Singleton supposedly being ready to give birth at any moment.) It’s got a wide-ranging story that incorporates a lot of changes for the Bumsteads alongside the usual formula of comic household and work-related strife. Hans Conried gives a virtuoso performance as a writer who worms his way into the Bumstead household, only to use those same snake-oil characteristics to fix the damage he’s done. Even Baby Dumpling (on the verge of being renamed Alexander) has a chance to show his stuff. Solid entertainment all around.

    As for the worst, unfortunately that has to go to the very next film, Blondie for Victory. Propoganda-type films rarely work but there are certainly plenty of examples from Hollywood of the era where they do. This one, however, is “rah rah” from start to finish, with a flimsy plot wrapped around it to try and hold it together. The gist is that Blondie gets so wrapped up in the war effort that things suffer at home, causing a rebellion among the men whose wives have been “led astray” by Blondie. It’s tedious and I was glad that the war was used as only a backdrop for the remainder of the films.

    But that’s just one bad apple. Overall, the Blondie film series is a delightful slice of Hollywood’s Golden Age and a fine example of how the comic-strip-to-film transition can work.

    Posted in 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, Based on Comic, Comedy, Family, Military, Mystery, Paranormal, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Da Da Dum!: Film #201 – The Cannonball Run (1981)

    The Cannonball Run was the heir to the great tradition of wacky over-the-top race movies that is probably best known from films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the like. The difference is that this one was based on an actual race, the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. The race had inspired two “unofficial” films back in 1976, Cannonball (and action flick with David Carradine) and The Gumball Rally (a comedy with Michael Sarrazin), but The Cannonball Run was written by Brock Yates the founder of the actual race, so has at least an air of authority about it.

    The film’s strongest asset is the cast. Headlined by Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, there’s a huge array of 1970s/80s-era stars here. I’ll try to name everyone off the top of my head (no IMDb or Wikipedia help): Roger Moore, Jamie Farr, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Adrienne Barbeau, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Tillis, Farrah Fawcette, Jackie Chan…

    Of the secondary characters, Roger Moore is the most impressive. Playing off his image as James Bond (he plays Seymour Goldfarb, Jr. – an ordinary man who *thinks* he’s Roger Moore), he gets to have a lot of fun with the Bond cliches, while maintaining his suave personality. Martin and Davis are wacky drunkards dressed as priests who can barely keep up appearances. Barbeau and sidekick Tara Buckman (the director or producer’s girlfriend) are enticing as buxon babes who use their wiles to get out of violations. (They also provide the backdrop for a great cameo by Valerie Perrine.) Jackie Chan is mostly wasted, only getting one chance to show off his fighting style.

    Farrah Fawcette plays the nominal love interest, a concerned citizen helping goverment agent Arthur J. Foyt (George Furth) in his efforts against the “cannonballers”, who is basically kidnapped by Reynolds and DeLuise as part of their cover as an ambulance crossing the country for an emergency. She has some nice moments and shows why she was so attractive to audiences of the day, but there is little for her to invest in her character. But she does have some chemistry with Reynolds and DeLuise and you can’t make the argument that she was just cast for her name. She does a fine job with the material.

    But this film is completely in the hands of Reynolds and DeLuise. It is their natural, easy rapport that makes all of the nonsense around them palatable. As recently as a couple of years ago they demonstrated on an episode of Robot Chicken that they still had the same ability to play off each other with ease. At the time of this film, they had already made Smokey and the Bandit II, but The Cannonball Run is their ultimate collaboration. DeLuise’s dual role as Reynold’s sidekick Victor and also Victor’s delusional alter ego Captain Chaos give DeLuise ample opportunity to engage in his particular brand of over-the-top wackiness. Reynolds is more laid back, mostly serving as a straightman and it works perfectly.

    If you are looking for sophisticated comedy, you aren’t going to get it here. This is flat out goofy fun and if you can get past the realistic view of the way these drivers behave (that is to say recklessly) there’s a lot of fun to be had with The Cannonball Run.

    Posted in 1981, Based on Real Events, Comedy, Crime, Romance, Sports | Leave a comment

    Swing, Baby, Swing: Film #200 – Swing Parade (1946)

    Swing Parade (also known as Swing Parade of 1946 - as near as I can tell there weren’t “Swing Parades” of any other years) is a light little ditty of a musical that is best known today for featuring the Three Stooges in supporting roles. It marks one of Curly’s last performances with the group and his final appearance in a feature film.

    I only own it because it was released by Legend Films with a commentary track by MST3K alumnus Mike Nelson (and later as a “three-riffer” Rifftrax edition with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett along for the ride). But unlike a lot of MST3K/Film Crew/Rifftrax/Cinematic Titanic material, this time I was interested enough to want to watch the film on its own. And while it’s certainly not “A” material, it proved to be a solid, pleasant film that is enjoyable to watch, but doesn’t stick much in the memory. In other words, a perfect B-movie.

    The story revolves around down-on-her-luck singer Carol Lawrence (Gale Storm), who tries to get a job singing in a nightclub owned by rich-boy / singer Danny Warren (Phil Regan). Meanwhile, Danny’s father (Russell Hicks) wants to shut the club down because he doesn’t think its proper. Miss Lawrence is kicked out of the club because the bouncer thinks she is a process server and then gets hired by Danny’s father to serve him the papers! When Danny’s washing crew (Moe, Larry and Curly) catch her trying to sneak in, wackiness, misunderstandings and (naturally) true love ensue. Yeah, this is a 1940s B-musical, all right.

    As the central figure, Gale Storm is quite the cute bundle of energy. I’m fairly certain no one ever said “This part needs real gravitas. Call Gale Storm.” (And that’s not an insult.) In light entertainment like this, it’s important that the leads be sympathetic and endearing and Ms. Storm certainly was that. She handles all the singing and dancing well and the comedy and romance just fine.

    Phil Regan is a bit stiff and less convincing, but the male lead in this kind of film isn’t as important. He does what he needs to do and doesn’t screw anything up. Good enough for me.

    There’s lots of decent support from the bouncer Moose (Edward Brophy), a love-struck older woman (Mary Treen), Mr. Warren’s lawyer (John Eldredge) and, of course, the Stooges. They work well here because they are kept to a minimum. A few one-liners and the occasional visual skit lifted from an old short. Good stuff and not too over-the-top for those who can only take so much of the Stooges.

    There are some fine musical numbers from Storm, Regan, and real-life perfromers Connee Boswell, Louis Jordan and Will Osborne.

    All in all, Swing Parade may get people’s attention because of the Stooges, but it’s pretty darn good in its own right.

    Posted in 1946, Comedy, Musical, Romance | Leave a comment

    Almost Wonderful: Film #199 – The Wiz (1978)

    Much derided at the time by critics who couldn’t see past Diana Ross’ age (that seems to be a major factor in the film’s negative reviews), I watched The Wiz again mainly because of my memories of the late Michael Jackson’s wonderful performance.

    Now, the film *is* overshadowed by Ross’ performance as Dorothy. You couldn’t get further away from the classic portrayal from the books and the 1939 film. But just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. And Ross’ performance proves to be a mixed bag. The story is altered to fit her different circumstances (a grown-up teacher finding it difficult to face the real world) and for the most part that works. The biggest negative concerning Ross is that she spends so much time scared or upset (something that doesn’t seem as strange for a little girl), we rarely get to see her looking as lovely as she certainly could. But generally she handles the drama just fine and, of course, has no problem with the songs.

    The songs themselves are also a mixed bag. Some of them (“Ease on Down the Road”, “Brand New Day”) are fantastic and memorable. Others (“Slide Some Oil to Me”, “Mean Old Lion”) are decent, but forgettable. And still others (“Can I Go On?”, “If You Believe In Yourself”) seem to just be filler and I couldn’t wait for them to be over. One of the good things about musicals is that one tends to remember the good songs and the bad ones just fade from the memory. I found myself singing along because I knew some of the songs so well.

    Yet another mixed bag is the rest of the cast. Oh, they are all good enough. But only a few are truly memorable. Richard Pryor makes a particularly pathetic (in a good way) “Wizard” and Ted Ross and Nipsy Russell have some nice moments as the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man, but Jackson as the Scarecrow is *the* star of the film. He was singled out at the time and deservedly so. Every moment he is on screen he is lively and he gives Ray Bolger a run for his money as the definitive Scarecrow (though he doesn’t quite surpass him).

    Visually, the film has a strange look to it, that makes clear director Sidney Lumet’s intention to avoid any visual reference to the ’39 film. It is a very dark film, and I mean that lighting-wise. Most scenes are dimly lit, even those in the Emerald City. Much of the land of Oz is grungy and dirty, symbolizing the corruption of the Wicked Witches. The big celebratory number, on the other hand, couldn’t be more dazzling (even if there is a bit too much skin for what is ostensibly a family-friendly film). Overall, it may not all work, but it is memorable.

    At best, The Wiz is a misunderstood gem that deserves more attention from music fans, film buffs and fans of the Oz books. At worst, it is a grand folly; big, bold and brassy. Someone once said that the worst sin a film can commit is being dull. The Wiz is certainly not that.

    Posted in 1978, Based on Book, Based on Play, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Musical, Remake | Leave a comment

    Film #198 – Logan’s Run (1976)

    When I decided to watch a movie to mark the passing of Farrah Fawcette, I had very little to choose from. I couldn’t bear to watch Saturn 3 again, I never liked The Burning Bed and the only copy of The Cannonball Run that I owned was in Chinese. So, I chose an excellent film that features Farrah in a small role, Logan’s Run. I’ve spoken about the qualities of the film itself before, so I’ll focus on Farrah herself.

    Her small role as a doctor’s assistant got a lot of press back in the day. She was a hot commodity, coming off of her work on Charlie’s Angels, but they didn’t really give her much to do here. But what little she has to do she handles pretty well. I think the filmmakers wanted her to play pretty ditzy, so you can’t blame her that she does.

    In the course of an epic film like Logan’s Run, however, she’s just not very memorable. I never think of her when I think of the movie, even though she’s kind of important at one point. While it doesn’t really stretch her or show her at her best, it’s not an embarassment, either.

    Original review.

    Posted in 1976, Based on Book, Drama, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    Crime Pays: Film #197 – Fun with Dick and Jane (1977)

    I watched this one to mark the passing of Ed McMahon. He was known primarily as Johnny Carson’s sidekick, as the host of Star Search and as the guy from the swepstakes commercials. But Ed was also an actor, and not a bad one. Fun with Dick and Jane may be the best example of that.

    The film revolves around Dick (George Segal) and his wife Jane (Jane Fonda) who find themselves in financial straights after Dick loses his job working for defense contractor Charlie Blanchard (McMahon). Dick decides to embark on a life of crime, quickly to be joined by his wife.

    It’s the late 1970s, so you can expect lots of cynicism and knocks against the “American Way”, but for the most part its a lighthearted comedy. It’s hard to actually side with Dick & Jane, as it is their own foolish overspending that puts them in trouble so quickly after Dick’s firing. But the filmmakers, of course, set up Charlie as an even bigger evil so that we *can* side with them. I can’t say it holds up that well, but it is entertaining.

    Segal is his usual self. You’re not going to be surprised by what he puts on the screen. Ditto Fonda, still trying to dig herself out of the publicity hole she put herself in as Hanoi Jane. She’s engaging and attractive, but still between her starlet phase and “serious” actress phase. There are some nice bits from Fred Willard and Hank Garcia, but the real revelation for most will be McMahon.

    Ed McMahon was such a personality that one might expect to be unable to separate him from his character, but it’s not true. Sure, a guy like his boss Johnny Carson was as talented as they came, but *he* couldn’t actually act. He could be entertaining in a film, but he was always *Johnny Carson*. Ed is giving a true performance here and it’s impressive. His scenes are the strongest and my longest lasting impression of the film was always of him. It seems to me that he could have had a real career as an actor if he had the inclination.

    The film was recently remade, and I would suggest fans of that film see the original. (It’s always a good idea.) But for everyone who thought even a bit about Ed when he passed away, watch Fun with Dick and Jane. There was more to him than most seemed to remember.

    Posted in 1977, Comedy, Corporate, Crime | Leave a comment

    The Twilight Time: Films #185 – #196 – The Latter-Day Ed Wood films (1965 – 1976)

    After years of failure in mainstream filmmaking, Edward D. Wood, Jr. maintained his tenuous grip on the world of filmmaking by working in the seedier side of the business.

    It all begins with Orgy of the Dead (1965), the first film that Ed did as a collaboration with director Stephen Apostolof (using his “A.C. Stevens” persona). This one basically strings together an array of cheezy strippers with themes like “mummy girl”, “cat girl”, Indian girl”, etc. It’s held together by a storyline about a writer of horror stories and his girlfriend, who bicker throughout the film. Criswell is the only classic Ed player in this one, playing the “Lord of the Dead”. He presides over the “Orgy”, clearly reading his lines from a cue card. The best material in this film is Criswell’s introduction, which is lightly adapted from the intro to Night of the Ghouls, which was unreleases at that time.

    For Love & Money (1967) is based on Ed’s novel The Sexecutives and involves a gang that sends beautiful girls to seduce powerful men for blackmail or other nefarious reasons. several examples are shown before the plot is uncovered. No Ed regulars appear and this one really lacks his touch, probably because he did not write the script. Without Apostolof to give the film some visual style, it looks lousy, too.

    The Love Feast (1969, a.k.a. Pretty Models All in a Row) is of questionable authorship, as some sources say it was written and directed by Ed, while the original credits say it was Ed’s friend Joseph Robertson who was responsible. What can’t be denied, though, is that it stars Ed in his largest role since Glen or Glenda as a lascivious photographer who lures models to his house. One day they show up one after the other until it all gets too crazy for him to take. It’s very silly and barely erotic, despite copious nudity and simulated sex situations. It’s sad to see Ed having wasted away, but he still has a bit of a spark about him and has some fun with his character.

    One Million AC/DC (1969) is one of the craziest of the films from this period. Ed wrote it under one of his pen-names, Akdon Telmig, and shows the day-to-day lives of a group of cavemen and women. They are being terrorized by a gigantic dinosaur that lives just outside their cave. While their leader tries to cope with the dino as well as challenges to his leadership, the others basically have a lot of sex. (This includes a ritual rape/deflowering, a pornographic cave painter and an “orgy” of food and sex.) Clearly *meant* to be silly, this one is almost worth it for the forced-perspective-powered plastic dinosaur that is downed by a single arrow.

    On the other hand, there is one prime example of Ed’s particular brand of genius that comes from this era, albeit via Japan. The Venus Flytrap (1970, released in the US under the title The Revenge of Doctor X) is an honest-to-goodness Ed Wood classic. Using a script Ed wrote in the 1950s, this film was produced in Japan starring minor Hollywood actor James Craig. It is a formulaic story of a scientist who allows his devotion to his experiments (in this case finding the evolutionary link between man and plant) to overtake his life, bringing about his downfall. This one has lots of great Ed dialogue, extreme overacting and a classic Japanese style man-in-monster-suit creature that makes it fun for any fan of B-to-Z movies.

    Necromania (1970) is Ed’s best-known (if not only) foray into true porn. He created two versions, a softcore one with lots of simulated sex. as well as one where he inserted explicit scenes. It tells the story of a couple who go to a mystic to solve their sex problems. Lots of sex follows until their fate is decided. Based on Ed’s novel The Only House in Town, there’s not much plot here and the characters are simplistic. Their acting is what you would expect from professional porn actors like Rene Bond and Ric Lutze: awful. There are a few moments of Ed’s typical nutty syntax and his particular dialogue flair, but for the most part there’s just not enough here for anyone not interested in watching *everything* Ed ever did.

    The Class Reunion (1972) is one of three films in the Wood/Apostolof canon that is little more than an excuse to string sex scenes together. By using the framing structure of a reunion, Ed and Apostolof can have lots of different configurations between the characters, as well as recycling some footage from Apostolof’s earlier film College Girl Confidential. Nothing too great here.

    Drop-Out Wife (1972) has more depth to it. It tells of a wife whose husband becomes bored with their sex life. He convinces her to start “swinging” and she finds such pleasure in this new world, that she eventually leaves him and her family behind before realizing what she was missing. Pretty good for what it is, Ed and Apostolof are able to hit most of the points they seem to be trying for. They refuse to make good guys of either the husband (who causes his wife to have a miscarriage) or the wife (who puts her own desires above her family). The film doesn’t actually try to present a solution, but gets points for at least posing them in a film that was ostensibly just a thrill-ride.

    Snow Bunnies (1972) in the next string-of-sex-scenes film, this one covering a group of women who go on a skiing holiday to find men (and women) to have sex with. They do. That’s about it.

    The Cocktail Hostesses (1973) at least has a bit of plot to it. It stars Rene Bond as Toni, a woman whose affair with her boss brings her no happiness and no money, either. Trying to find something better, she leaves her job to become a cocktail hostess, where she quickly learns she can make a lot on tips as well as plently “on the side”. A series of vignettes like others, this film does have the advantage of each story actaully illuminating an aspect of the new life Toni has chosen. Lighthearted and fun for the most part, the only big negative for a modern audience is the point where one of Toni’s fellow hostesses is raped and it is pretty much shrugged off by everyone, including the woman herself. Other than that, this one succeeds on every level one could expect from a 1970s softcore sex film.

    Fugitive Girls (1974), Ed’s penultimate work, is probably the best one on which he actually worked during this period. Yes, it’s a sex film. Yes, it’s a women-in-prison / women-on-the-run film. But unlike most of the films in the Wood/Apostolof canon, this one *does* have a story and characters with a bit of depth to them, even if it’s just by-the-book stereotypes. More importantly, it features Ed himself in his final film roles. (Yes, roles!) Ed plays both the colorful “Pops”, a crochety oldster who runs a plane feuling station and the Sheriff who eventually catches the fugitives. He plays them both for all their worth and I think it’s great he got one last performance in before he left us. The girls themselves aren’t great, but they aren’t that bad, either. Given something to sink their teeth into, even Rene Bond is able to approach a bit of real acting craft here. Along with Drop-Out Wife, this is one Ed sex film that’s actually worth watching for the average viewer.

    And it all comes to an end with The Beach Bunnies (1976), a silly little sex farce about a magazine editor chasing a story about a Hollywood hunk on vacation. (Has he had a sex change? Yes, Ed was still reworking themes from twenty years earlier.) Like Cocktail Hostesses, this one sadly contains another lighthearted look at rape. (“I didn’t want them to, but then I discovered I liked it!”) This last one doesn’t have much of that old Ed magic in it. I guess he just didn’t have anything left.

    Original review of Orgy of the Dead
    Original review of The Venus Flytrap
    Original review of Fugitive Girls

    Posted in 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, Based on Book, Corporate, Crime, Drama, Espionage, Giant Monster, Historical, Horror, Mature, Mystery, Paranormal, Romance, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Hey! Hey!: Film #184 – Head (1968)

    Head is, perhaps, the perfect coda to the Monkees phenomenon.* Directed by series co-creator Bob Rafelson and written by Rafelson and (yes, it’s true) Jack Nicholson, this film was built simultaneously to exploit the Monkees popularity and destroy the image that made them stars. But it succeeded at neither. It did dismal box office and did nothing to dispel the band’s reputation as an empty construct (undeserved though it may have been).

    Now, let’s not fool ourselves, Head is not a great film or anything. It’s a disjointed, trippy mess in many ways. There’s no reasonable storyline or even stream-of-consciousness throughline to hold it all together.

    What it does have is a wide range of guest stars, both established (Annette Funicello, Frank Zappa, Victor Mature…) and up-and-comers (Teri Garr, Toni Basil…), some of the Monkees best songs (“Circle Sky”, “Can You Dig It”, “Porpoise Song”) and a bunch of truly bizarre (and sometimes hilarious) set pieces. (I’m partial to the Davy Jones/Toni Basil dance number set to Harry Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song”.)

    I first watched this film back in the day when my sister and I were on a big Monkees kick and I loved it then. I can see its flaws today, but I still really like it. The guys are clearly into it and their dedication to the film is infectious.

    If you like The Monkees (the band or the show), you should watch Head just to see how far from the straightlaced formula they were willing to stray.

    *The fact that the band limped along for a few more years is no fault of the movie. Head is where the “classic” era of the Monkees ends.

    Posted in 1968, Based on TV Show, Comedy, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Military, Musical, Romance | Leave a comment

    Lost at Sea: Film #183 – Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN (1966)

    This one was something of a disappointment. And that’s surprising because my expectations weren’t that high. Usually when a film is in that kind of a position it can win out just by exceeding my low estimations, but not this time.

    Basically, this film is a reworking of the classic “Robinson Crusoe” story, just updated for the 1960s. Dick Van Dyke takes the part of Robin Crusoe, stranded on a desert island when his plane crashes. Nancy Kwan (of World of Suzie Wong fame) plays a girl from a neignoring island that Crusoe names Wednesday, this film’s equivalent of the original story’s Friday. Additional comic relief is provided by a monkey who was apparently a test space pilot who’s been missing for years.

    The main action of the film revolves around the revolt of Wednesday and other girls of her island against her father (who is the chief) and their society’s rules concerning the freedom of its women. This being the 1960s, Crusoe naturally helps the girls gain their independance. (This being the 60s, this, of course, involves tricking them using their gods as a go-between.)

    It all goes along pretty much as you’d expect. The original plan goes wrong, wackiness ensues, chases, etc. What I didn’t expect (and jump to the next paragraph if you don’t want spoilers) is that when he finds himself in a marriage ceremony with Wednesday, Crusoe bolts, happy to get back to America and his bland fiance, to whom he has been dictating the entire story. Okay, so I’m all for twist endings, but please! Turn down Nancy Kwan? There are some things I just can’t buy.

    It doesn’t help that until that somewhat-of-a-surprise ending, there’s very little about this film to make it stand out from the hundred of other goofy comedies that Disney and every othe studio was pumping out in the 1960s. It looks pretty good, there are some laughs, but there’s nothing truly memorable about it (except Nancy!). This is one you can safely skip and you won’t have missed a thing.

    Posted in 1966, Based on Book, Comedy, Military, Romance | Leave a comment

    Film #182 – Sleeper (1973)

    Sleeper marks Woody Allen’s only real excursion into science fiction (although he comes close in some sequences from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex). At its heart, it is a typical man-from-the-past-wakes-up-in-the-future story. The kind of thing probably begun with Rip Van Winkle and carried on through Buck Rogers all the way to Futurama.

    Allen, of course, milks it all for laughs, particularly a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at 1970′s culture. (His Nixon jokes, like most Nixon jokes, are particularly ham-fisted.)

    Diane Keaton is in great in her first real work for Woody. (She had done an anti-Nixon short for him in ’71.) She gets to go from pretentious high-brow product of the controlled society to pretentious earthy child of the revolution and plays it all with gusto. And she looks absolutely gorgeous doing it, I might add.

    Woody Allen is, as usual, playing a variety of the “Woody Allen character”. This was when he was at his best at using the persona for pure comedy, before his reputation and need to diversify made him darken things up. He’s a hoot, constantly throwing out one-liners and sight gags pulling us through the movie. Sleeper reminds me of the better works of Buster Keaton in that respect. Woody plays a somewhat dopey guy who manages to win out in the end and get the girl.

    Sleeper is hardly Woody Allen’s strongest work. It is a rlelentlessly silly movie and most of its social commentary is weak at best. But it is consistantly funny and the leads, Allen and Keaton, are appealing enough to keep me coming back. It’s no Broadway Danny Rose, but it’s a keeper.

    Posted in 1973, Comedy, Military, Romance, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    Are You Ready for the Summer?: Film #181 – Meatballs (1979)

    The movie that catapulted Bill Murray to fame, Meatballs still holds up pretty well after all these years. The themes (lower class vs. upper class, geeks vs. jocks, finding one’s place in society…) were all fairly commonplace then and are still today. But old hat though they may be, they are all handled well by the creative team. Jokes don’t seem forced and the more emotional scenes seem natural and not tacked on for the sake of pretending to have a plot like so many modern day “teen comedies” that have followed in its wake.

    Murray is in top late-70s form as Camp Councillor Tripper Harrison and never fails to deliver on any setup or scene; wacky hijinks, romantic banter or sage advice-giving. Meatballs is one of two films (along with My Bodyguard) that made a star of sorts out of Chris Makepeace. He doesn’t have a *lot* to do here, but his Rudy “The Rabbit” Gerner is an appealing “everykid” with whom it proves easy for an audience to identify. Kate Lynch is the embodiment of 1970′s sex appeal as the earthy Roxanne, the object of Tripper’s affections.

    Modern filmmakers could take a lesson from Meatballs. Raunchy without being crude, outrageous without being disgusting, it proves that you can appeal to the cheap seats without selling yourself out. It’s why Meatballs will be remembered long after the “American Pie” films have been relegated to the trash bin of history.

    Posted in 1979, Comedy, Romance, Sports | Leave a comment

    Caped Crusaders: Films #171 – #180 – The Batman theatrical films (1943 – 2008)

    Note: This one’s a long one, with practically a full-blown review of The Dark Knight at the end, so settle in, kids.

    Batman (1943)
    Batman and Robin (1949)
    Batman (1966)
    Batman (1989)
    Batman Returns (1992)
    Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
    Batman Forever (1995)
    Batman & Robin (1997)
    Batman Begins (2005)
    The Dark Knight (2008)

    There are a lot of people who want to define what Batman should be.  Usually, these are the people who feel that Batman is a dark, brooding figure and should be nothing else.  But if time has taught us anything, it is that characters like Batman are a lot more flexible.  Those who insist on a one-note Batman are missing out on a lot of good stuff. Continue reading

    Posted in 1943, 1949, 1966, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2005, 2008, Animation, Based on Comic, Based on TV Show, Comedy, Corporate, Crime, Drama, Family, Mystery, Reboot, Romance, Sci-Fi, Sequel, Serial, Super-hero | Leave a comment

    Super Enough for Me: Film #170 – Super Mario Bros. (1993)

    Yes, it’s another one of those “soft spot” movies that I like more than they probably deserve. Bob Hoskins does his “Roger Rabbit” Brooklynese as Mario and John Leguizamo makes a surprisingly effective Luigi (thought why he has a Hispanic accent when he was raised by an Italian, I don’t know). Dennis Hopper chews the scenery as usual and Samantha Mathis makes a fine Daisy. And I always thought Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson were entertaining as the bumbling (then cerebral) henchmen.

    Big bonus points for masically making this a “Super Luigi” movie, which probably irriated most fans of the game, but as a Luigi fan, I loved it. I also liked how they tried to squeeze as many references to the game in as possible, although *how* they squeezed them in was not particularly successful. (Two missed opportunities – Why did they name Mario’s girlfriend Daniella? I would have loved it even more if they had named her Pauline. And when Scapelli is devolved, instead of a monkey, he should have become an ape and started throwing barrels.)

    All this praise shouldn’t make you think I don’t recognize the film’s serious flaws. It’s plot is nonsensical, characterizations innaccurate, and the look (though striking) completely misses the point of the Mario universe.

    But I don’t care. It’s “Luigi’s Big Adventure” and that’s good enough for me.

    Posted in 1993, Based on Video Game, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Romance, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    Rock, Roll and Remember: Film #169 – American Graffiti (1973)

    A groundbreaking effort for not only its nostalgic look back at the 50s (in the middle of the cynical 70s), but also its stirring Rock & Roll soundtrack and multi-layered storytelling style. American Graffiti was such a phenomenon that many felt writer / director George Lucas could never possibly match its success. (He’d prove them wrong, of course.)

    There are too many great performances to go into detail, but each set of characters represents a thread: Ron Howard and Cindy Williams (“golden couple” faces the future), Paul Le Mat and Mackenzie Phillips (“outsider” reflects on his place in the world), Charles Martin Smith and Candy Clark (“loser” finds his personal value) and the primary focus, Richard Dreyfuss and his character’s search for direction. Key smaller parts for Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers and, especially, Wolfman Jack.

    While the nostalgia factor has long been replaced by overkill for the era (Happy Days, “Grease”, Sha Na Na, etc.), the one that started it all still holds its power. Although the eras may have been different, most of us go through a situation similar to one of the main characters as we transition from the last era of childhood (high school) to the first slice of adulthood. This film still speaks to that and rocks while it does so.

    Posted in 1973, Comedy, Drama | Leave a comment

    Murphy at the Peak: Film #168 – Coming to America (1988)

    Here we see Eddie Murphy absolutely at the top of his game. He would never be this consistantly good again. Playing multiple roles as well as a dynamic and engaging lead, this one is all Murphy’s show. Arsenio Hall, best known as a talk show host, is along in support and does well with his own multiple characters. It makes one wonder what he could have done if he had pursued acting more diligently.

    The story is standard romantic comedy fodder; rich Prince of a foreign land (Murphy) tries to escape an arranged marriage by going to America to find a woman he can truly love. Formulaic? Sure. Father who doesn’t understand his son? Check. Prospective father-in-law obsessed with his daughter marrying money? Check. Jerk boyfriend? Check. Mistaken identities? Check.

    But none of that matters. Murphy holds it all together and his cast makes sure even the most cliched character feel legitimate. There’s even a sly callback to Murphy’s earlier Trading Places that always makes me chuckle. The only thing keeping this from being for absolutely everybody is a high level of nudity and some bad language. (One suspects they added that stuff to get an “R” that would have been expected of Murphy in those days. They add nothing.)

    Posted in 1988, Comedy, Romance | Leave a comment

    Carry On Filming: Films #162 – #167 – The Early Carry Ons (1958 – 1962)

    Carry On Sergeant (1958)
    Carry On Nurse (1959)
    Carry On Teacher (1959)
    Carry On Constable (1960)
    Carry On Regardless (1961)
    Carry On Cruising (1962)

    In these early films, the basic formula that would drive the Carry On series was developed.

    Sergeant is probably the strongest of these early efforts. Being the first, it’s the only one that isn’t trying to recapture something. Nurse is close (and really starts the formula rolling), but doesn’t have a clear plotline to hold it together. (A sign of things to come.)

    I despise Teacher. As a stand-alone film, it might have worked, but I watch the Carry Ons for the main actors and in Teacher, it is clear that we are supposed to side with the kids.  The adults are set up as the bad guys, petty and obsessed with corporal punishment. We are supposed to chuckle at the naughty children and, ultimately, see them for the little darlings they are.  Well, I don’t buy any of it.  They deserve every punishment they get and more.  It is only a lazy script that allows them to get away with their nonsense and all the sentimental claptrap in the world won’t make up for it in the end.  This one is the most far afield of any of the Carry Ons and one of the few I only watch when I’m watching them all.

    Constable is a much better return to form.  It also features the debut of Sid James, who would become, to many, the face of the Carry On films.  Sure, the plot is weak (new officers forced to go out before they are ready because of an outbreak of illness), but it allows for a lot of the same type of humor that populated Sergeant.  James is also at his least lascivious here and it works out to be an excellent entry overall.

    The first of the real slapped together Carry Ons, Regardless, tries to mil the formula before its fully cooked, so to speak.  An “odd jobs” business gives an excuse for putting the Carry On crew into a wide variety of situations.  There’s little but the agency to hold it together and it would have worked better, perhaps, as a short TV series than as a film.  Still, there are good laughs to be had and it doesn’t run too far against the grain, like Teacher.

    Cruising sees the cheekiness level starting to ratchet up, though James is still not the center of it.  The biggest piece missing in this one, to me at least, is Joan Sims.  As in Sergeant, there is a part ideal for her, but which is filled by Dilys Laye, who just doesn’t have the chops of Sims. Everyone else does a nice job and Cruising comes off as a solid entry, if not particularly memorable.

    Original review of Carry On Sergeant.
    Original review of Carry On Nurse.

    Posted in 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, British, Comedy, Crime, Romance, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Everything According to Plan: Film #161 – The Sting (1973)

    The Sting is an old-fashioned movie made at a time when films were getting grittier and grittier, I think the fact that it is a throwback is part of the reason it holds up better than a lot of its contemporaries.

    Paul Newman and Robert Redford play off each other beautifully and (as part of the plot) the audience never knows if they are really working together or not. They make every possibility completely believable. Redford is the lead, but without Newman, it would fall apart.

    The supporting cast is also excellent with great performances by Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Harold Gould and many others. The music is great and the look and feel is impeccable.

    But, of course, it is David S. Ward’s brilliant script that makes The Sting. Clever without ever being obnoxious, complicated without ever being impenetrable, it is one of the greatest pure scripts in the history of film. Director George Roy Hill deserves credit for bringing it all together, but a script like this is easy to screw up (see The Sting II) and difficult enough just to make workable. But this one never misses a step.

    Posted in 1973, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Historical | Leave a comment

    Hello, Pretty Pretty: Film #160 – Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (1968)

    Speaking of female flesh, that’s also the main draw of Barbarella. The difference here is that I’m pretty sure it was meant to be a comedy and the over-the-top nature of everything gives Barbarella the kind of wackiness needed to make it a must-see. Jane Fonda looks great, the soundtrack is trippy, the sets and costumes as colorful as they get. Say whatever you want about the logic of the story, it’s certainly interesting to watch from start to finish and filled with quotable (if nonsensical) dialogue.

    A personal favorite, this one.

    Original review.

    Posted in 1968, Based on Comic, Comedy, Crime, Giant Monster, Mystery, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    Bad Kitty: Film #159 – Cat People (1982)

    Okay, so I was making my way through my HD DVD collection when my cat gave birth to kittens. Naturally, that day I had to watch Cat People. Frankly, it’s not that good. Sure, Nastassia Kinski is gorgeous and Malcolm McDowell proves why he was the go to guy for creepy in those days. But the story is a mess and the relationship between Kinski’s Irena and John Heard’s Oliver Yates doesn’t resonate as it needs to. Annette O’Toole’s Alice Perrin (also quite attractive) comes off as a bit of a simpleton in her obvious desire for Yates; another botched relationship.

    Overall, if you want to see some nice looking female flesh, there’s plenty for you in Cat People. If you want an actual story, look somewhere else.

    Posted in 1982, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Paranormal, Remake, Romance | Leave a comment

    Challenger of the Unknown: Film #158 – The Lost World (1925)

    The earliest adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s seminal “dinosaurs in modern times” story, this one does a nice job of simplifying the story, while adding the kind of romance and interpersonal difficulties that audiences demand. The special effects of the dinosaurs (by Willis O’Brien, later of King Kong fame) are quite impressive for the day, but (unlike those of Kong) don’t retain the same level of power after all these years.

    Wallace Beery makes a fiery Professor Challenger, an appropriate portrayal for this force of nature. While the romantic leads (Lloyd Hughes and Bessie Love) are fine, they are more forgettable, as is the rest of the supporting cast. It’s Beery and the dinosaurs that stick in the mind.

    Worth a viewing for those who’d like to see where the throughline to Jurassic Park began.

    Posted in 1925, Based on Book, British, Drama, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Silent | Leave a comment

    The Owls are Not What They Seem: Film #156 & #157 – Twin Peaks (1990) & Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

    Yes, Twin Peaks counts. Even if I *didn’t* count TV movies (including pilots), which I do, I watched the European version, which has an ending and everything. (That’s right, the whole thing wrapped up in under two hours.)

    Anyway, the greatness of the original Twin Peaks pilot film still proves true after all these years. The quirky characters and strange sense of humor never fail to entertain me. I particularly enjoyed watching the relationship between Dale Cooper and Harry Truman grow. With the exception of Bobby, James and Donna, not much of the supporting cast gets much chance to shine, but they all make ample use of their minimal airtime. Watching it again after all these years (I recently got the Gold DVD set), I realised how much I missed them all. The story is set up well, but in the European cut, it ends far too abruptly and is distinclty unsatisfying. It still works, but this was meant as a show launcher and it just can’t hold up as a standalone work.

    Fire Walk with Me is a bit controversial because, rather than pick up the strands of the cliffhanger ending of the show, it instead showed the events leading up to the death of Laura Palmer. Much of the humor that carried the series (as well as most of the supporting cast) is missing here. The opening sequence with Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland is pretty much a hoot, though. Isaak’s Special Agent Chester Desmond couldn’t be more different than Dale Cooper, yet they clearly work in the same league. And I was always tickled to see the “Sam” (Sutherland) that Dale warns Diane not to go to.

    As a separate musing on the nature of Laura Palmer’s descent into darkness, Fire works. As an ending chapter to one of television’s most enigmatic series, it is sorely lacking. The music’s nice, though.

    Posted in 1990, 1992, Crime, Drama, Made for TV, Mystery, Paranormal, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Doesn’t Quite Sing: Film #155 – Dreamgirls (2006)

    This one really should have been better than it was. The idea is great and I can tell that it probably kicks major ass as a stage show. But as a film it is sorely lacking.

    The one, true highlight is Jennifer Hudson who, despite the film’s failings, deserved her Oscar. In fact, if I have one major complaint it is that the film needed to focus on her *more*. She’s the only character you come to care about, as everyone else is selfish to the point of being blind to everything around them. Eddie Murphy was good (maybe not Oscar good, but solid) and Danny Glover brought his usual gravitas to the table. Everyone else was utterly forgettable (except when I was out and out hating them). Beyonce shows again why she needs *very* specific roles, tailored to her, in order to succeed. She just doesn’t have the acting chops to fill a role like the one she is handed here. She drowns in any scene opposite Hudson or Jaime Foxx.

    The songs are okay, but not terribly memorable. Again, they probably work well on the stage, but on a film, a song needs to be more original and less of a pastiche of classic song stylings. (Spectacle will only take you so far in the movies.) I also found the staging of the songs odd, as they often flowed from “in character” singing to “musical-style exposition” singing. The shifts were often jarring and it was difficult to tell whether I was just hearing a song or should be listening for plot points.

    There have been better done grim tales of the music industry and those looking for depth and originality should look elsewhere. But if you want to know what a breakthrough performance looks like, watch Dreamgirls for Jennifer Hudson. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.

    Posted in 2006, Based on Play, Based on Real Events, Drama, Historical, Musical | Leave a comment

    The Game’s a Foot. The Right One: Film #154 – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)

    Probably the wackiest take on Sherlock Holmes ever devised (certainly amongst those put into theaters), this Dudley Moore / Peter Cook creation is also notable for a large cast of notables and the insertion of some classic Cook/Moore bits into an otherwise remarkably accurate adaptation (despite the comedy). Also, Moore’s score which he perfomed himself entirely on the piano.

    Original review.

    Posted in 1978, Based on Book, British, Comedy, Crime, Historical, Mystery, Remake | Leave a comment

    I Am…You Get the Idea: Film #153 – Spartacus (1960)

    Overlong in its original form, I watched the “restored” edition and I didn’t think the new material added anything of value. There are some good performances in the film, particularly Kirk Douglas’ powerful creation in the lead. Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov are also excellent as the powers that be (or the powers that want to be) in Rome. (I’m a sucker for Roman political intrigue.) But Tony Curtis is woefully out of place and Jean Simmons never seems like the slave girl she is meant to be. Herbert Lom (of Pink Panther fame) is almost unrecognizable in a small, but vital role.

    The film plays fast and loose with history (as these films usually do), but gives the essence of the story proper breadth. Action sequences are well staged, but tend to go on too long. Despite being directed by Stanley Kubrick, he tended to disown it and I think he’s correct. This is clearly star/producer Kirk Douglas’ film and would have ended up pretty much the same no matter who he had put behind the camera.

    Worth seeing. A classic in its day, but simply doesn’t hold up as well after all these years.

    Posted in 1960, Based on Book, Based on Real Events, Drama, Military | Leave a comment

    I’ve Seen About Everything: Film #152 – Dumbo (1941)

    This one is still a bit too hard to watch, even at its ridiculously short length. Shot merely to give Walt Disney a breather (both artistically and financially), it was just what the studio needed, but it provides little of the entertainment that I need today.

    Original review

    Posted in 1941, Animation, Based on Book, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy | Leave a comment

    Kings of Broadway: Films #150 & #151 – The Producers (1968 & 2005)

    I never tire of the original film, but as the years go by, I am less and less amused by the musical remake. The habit that Lane and Broderick have of aping the original actors grates the more I see it. What I have said before, however, is still true. All the new bits and the expanded characters work well. I find the new Ulla much more fun and her storyline keeps the new film from being a complete rehash. Still, much of the remake works, it just never comes close to the brilliant original.

    Original review of The Producers (2005)
    The first double review of both films

    Posted in 1968, 2005, Based on Play, Comedy, Crime, Musical, Remake, Romance | Leave a comment

    No More Pancakes: Film #149 – Zelig (1983)

    There are very few movies that I can watch as easily and as readily as Zelig. Even Broadway Danny Rose, my favorite Woody Allen film, requires that I be in the correct mood. Zelig is a perfect creation and always goes down well.

    Original review.

    Posted in 1983, Comedy, Drama, Historical, Romance | Leave a comment

    The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: Film #148 – The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

    King Kong was a very expensive film to make at the time. So, to cut costs, creator Merian C. Cooper shot a second film on many of the same sets and with much of the same cast and crew. The Most Dangerous Game was based on a popular short story and, while it lacks that something special that defines a classic, is still a well-made and entertaining thriller. Fay Wray plays a damsel in distress, but this time with less spunk than in Kong and, frankly, less chemistry with her onscreen partner, Joel McCrea. Robert Armstrong is also on hand, this time as a drunk. Leslie Banks plays the villainous Count Zaroff, over-the-top in all the right ways.

    The film looks good and moves along at a decent pace. Fans of Kong should see it just to play “spot the location”, but there’s plenty of thrills and excitement to get out of this one for anybody.

    Posted in 1932, Based on Book, Drama, Romance | Leave a comment

    Nice One, Earth Dick: Film #147 – Mom and Dad Save the World (1992)

    Another cult favorite of mine, this film stars Jeffrey Jones and Teri Garr as the titular “Mom and Dad” (Dick and Marge). When evil dictator Todd Spengo (Jon Lovitz) falls in love with Marge while planning the destruction of Earth, he brings them to his planet (also called Spengo) where they find the local populace are not only alien, but amazingly stupid. With Dick’s superior intellect (comparitively), he manages to to save Marge, the Earth and the people of Spengo.

    MaDStW doesn’t reach the brilliance of, say, Galaxy Quest, but it still gets points for even *trying* sci-fi comedy, which has always proved to be a difficult undertaking. And I found it funny right from the get-go. Jones and Garr are at the top of their game and this is one of the few places where Lovitz really gets a chance to shine. Solid support from Eric Idle, Wallace Shawn and (yes) even Kathy Ireland makes this one certainly worth seeing.

    Posted in 1992, Comedy, Family, Military, Romance, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    Refried Star Wars: Films #143 – #146 – The Star Wars Animated Adventures (1997 / 2004)

    These four straight-to-video films were compiled from episodes of the animated TV series Ewoks and Droids. The Droids films (Pirates and Treasure) work the best because Droids had story arcs and these movies basically represent cut down and reworked versions of two of the storylines. (There was also an honest-to-goodness Droids TV movie, The Great Heep, that I will be watching later.) Ewoks, on the other hand did not have these kinds of extended storylines. That being said, Haunted Village does use several related episodes (revolving around the witch Morag), so it holds together better than Tales, which is obviously still episodic in nature.

    None of these movies works as well as the original shows. For one thing, the music from the original series have been tossed aside in favor of much more generic and repetitive music. This is particular aggregious in the case of Droids, whose music was originally composed by Stewart Copeland and is some of the best I can remember from 80s cartoon shows.

    But the stories are still good and are fun for younger audiences. I understand the desire to package this stuff in a more easily digested format. My only hope is that these compilation films won’t prove to be the only way we can enjoy this material.

    Posted in 1997, 2004, Animation, Based on TV Show, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Made for TV, Sci-Fi, Sequel, Straight to Video | Leave a comment

    The Neverending Story: Film #142 – Shenmue: The Movie (2001)

    Watching this right after Monsters, Inc. really made it clear how limited the animation is in this film that utilizes imagery direct from the Dreamcast video game. That being said, the story is still quite immersing and I get pangs of regret that because Sega won’t be making any more episodes after Shenmue II, I’ll never see how it all turns out.

    Original review.

    Posted in 2001, Animation, Asian Cinema, Based on Video Game, Drama | Leave a comment

    They Scare Because They Care: Film #141 – Monsters, Inc. (2001)

    For years, Monsters, Inc. vied with Toy Story 2 for the title of my favorite Pixar film. (Eventually both were surpassed by Cars.) Watching it again, I was instantly reminded why that was the case. An engaging, original story with great characters and performances, it has everything you could want from any film, not just one that is animated. No matter that most of the characters are monsters, they have real personality and the acting from the stellar cast (John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Tilly, James Coburn, etc.) makes them just as valid as live actors. Another great score (and song) by Randy Newman finally rewarded him with an Oscar after fifteen previous nominations. (“I don’t want your pity!” he joked when accepting the award.) Robbed of the “Best Animated Feature” Oscar by the flashier, lowbrow Shrek. A solid effort from Pixar at a time when they seemed like they could make them without any effort at all and still one that stands up to any output from any animation studio (including Pixar) today.

    Original review

    Posted in 2001, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Giant Monster | Leave a comment

    If You See One Star Trek Film This Year, Make It This One: Film #140 – Ömer the Tourist in Star Trek (1972)

    Made in 1972, Turist Ömer Uzay Yolunda is the last in the eight-film Turkish “Ömer the Tourist” series that began in 1964 with Turist Ömer. Most of the films saw Ömer visit various locations and get into wacky shenangians. This final film, however, basically inserts Ömer into the Star Trek episode “The Man Trap” (with a few elements taken from “Mudd’s Planet” and “Amok Time”).

    Footage and sounds from the U.S.S. Enterprise are lifted directly from the TV show, but the other sets fail to capture the look and feel of the Enterprise. The location filming, on the other hand, works pretty darn well because the desolate wastelands actually *are* desolate wastelands, *not* stages.

    Ömer (Sadri Alisik) is difficult to define for a non-Turkish audience. Much of his humor comes from wordplay that simply does not translate into English. Still, he plays off of Spock (Erol Amaç) to some comic effect and some of his jokes *do* come through pretty well. The rest of the regular Trek crew is present as well, but only Spock, McCoy (Ferdi Merter) and Kirk (Cemil Sahbaz) get major screen time. Amaç does a nice comedic Spock and Merter does a decent McCoy, but Sahbaz is a puzzlement as an awkward, gangly Kirk. Kayhan Yildizoglu as Professor Crater and Sule Tinaz as the most common manifestation of Nancy do fairly decent re-creations of the characters from the TV show.

    Overall, this one is a pretty interesting oddity. Not canon by any means, it is, nontheless, a viable look at a “what if” Star Trek story. Certainly as valid as any fan film (or *ahem* theatrical reboot), I’d suggest Star Trek fans seek this one out. It *is* a comedy, but it is fairly respectful to the source material; something I wish more “re-imaginings” could say.

    Posted in 1972, Based on TV Show, Comedy, Drama, Mystery, Remake, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Baby, He’s a Star: Films #136 – #139 – The Prince theatrical film canon (1984 – 1990)

    The Prince film canon is an interesting one. Blazing onto the big screen in Purple Rain (1984), Prince immediately channeled the mojo he got from that film into a vanity piece, Under the Cherry Moon (1986), which bombed. Then he put together a concert film (with a bit of a narrative), Sign “O” The Times (1987) which has been hailed as one of the best concert films of all time. Then, inspired by his work on Batman, he put together an unlikely sequel to Purple Rain, the lyrical Graffiti Bridge (1990), which was welcomed with decent album sales, but yawns from critics and audiences.

    I can honestly say I love ‘em all. Purple Rain, of course, is a minor masterpiece. It captures the mood and the excitement that surrounded Prince at that time, while telling a valid story. All underscored by some of the best music of the 1980s. Prince’s stuff, of course, but also stellar entries from The Time and, yes, even “Sex Shooter” by Apollonia 6 holds up (for what it is). The cast is great. Prince’s charisma grabs the audience’s attention whenever he is on screen, particularly when coupled with Apollonia, who really was drop-dead gorgeous. The wonderful double-act of Morris Day and Jerome Benton provide most of the laughs *and* true menace, an amazing combination. And there’s a great smaller performance from Clarence Williams III as Francis L, The Kid’s troubled father. It is a bit formulaic, but it never really makes a misstep except for a few wooden performances from “real people”. Still, nothing to ruin an otherwise classic film.

    Graffiti Bridge, on the other hand, is not as well loved. But it has an important place for me. In 1990, having been impressed with Prince’s Batman music, I chose to go see Graffiti Bridge instead of Miller’s Crossing (a film whose quality would, therefore, elude me for over a year) as both films were closing that day. While I now recognize that I saw the lesser film on that occasion, I was very impressed with what I saw at the time. In fact, I immediately drove down the street to a local record store and bought the LP. New. I don’t even do that *now* and I certainly didn’t tend to do that then, when I had less money. Anyway, I loved the album and have been a die-hard Prince fan ever since. But why do I like the film? Well, the music is great. Prince had just formed his first regular backing group since The Revolution, The New Power Generation, and I’ve always felt that he worked best with a solid group with whom he collaborated, not just dictated. Prince wrote (or co-wrote) stellar material for the other artists in the film, too. The Time, Mavis Staples, George Clinton and Tevin Campbell all get moments in the spotlight to great effect. The acting in Graffiti Bridge is a lot more stylized than Purple Rain, but I think that is intentional. Everything is shot on soundstages, so there isn’t an attempt to make it real. This film, unlike the first, is a visual poem. Anyway, even if you can’t dig the music or wrap your head around the message, Graffiti Bridge will supply you with some more vintage shenanigans from Morris Day and Jerome Benton. That stuff is worth one viewing, at least.

    Original review of Purple Rain
    Original review of Graffiti Bridge

    Then there’s Under the Cherry Moon. Let’s not kid ourselves, this film is bad. But it is *perfectly* bad. Shot in color, Prince made the studio print it in black & white. His love interest is played by Kristin Scott Thomas (who must rue that this is her screen debut), who towers over him. (Unlike Apollonia, they have no chemistry, either.) The story is ridiculous from start to finish and *everyone* overacts. (It only works with Benton, who actually got the few good notices this film generated.) Watching this film is saved from being a complete disaster by two things. First, Prince does a fine job with the direction. The imagry and camera movements are natural and engaging. (If only *what* we were seeing was as engaging as *how* we were seeing it.) The second thing is, naturally, the music. This was Prince at the height of his original collaboration with The Revolution and I think it resulted in his best work. Parade – Music from the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon is my absolute, all-time favorite Prince album to this day.

    Original review of Under the Cherry Moon

    Finally, Sign “O” The Times, which is everything they say it is. It perfectly captures one of Prince’s best live periods, the tour that immediately followed his breakup of The Revolution. Many of the members are still in evidence (notably missing Wendy & Lisa) and new members include standouts Sheila E. on drums (she had already had solo success on Prince’s Paisley Park label) and Boni Boyer on backing vocals. The “story” (which revolves around dancer Cat’s relationship difficulties) is perfuctory and only really there to give the songs some kind of throughline. But even that is handled pretty well (and certainly better than in Cherry Moon).

    Original review of Sign “O” the Times

    Posted in 1984, 1986, 1987, 1990, Based on Real Events, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Musical, Romance, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Return Engagement: Film #135 – Munster, Go Home! (1966)

    Playing out like an extra-long episode of the TV show, Munster, Go Home! is a fine example of how to bring a show to the big screen. This is hardly surprising, as it appeared in theaters mere months after the final episode appeared on television. The whole cast comes over except, of course, Marilyn (who had been played by two actresses on TV and would be played by a fourth in the reunion TV movie). But Debbie Watson proves a more than adequate replacement. (Munster fans may disagree, but I think she’s more endearing than Pat Priest.)

    The regular cast are, naturally, all perfectly on target. With so little time having passed, there’s no question of them being out of character. From the supporting cast, Terry-Thomas is on hand to be…well…Terry-Thomas. (Did he *ever* stretch?) And John Carradine is on hand as a spooky butler. I was certain he was going to end up being more than he seemed, but he never did. He’s just a spooky butler. (Of which 1966 film should he have been more embarrased? Having an extremely minor role in Munster, Go Home! or playing the major antagonist in Billy the Kid versus Dracula?) The final notable supporting role is that of Marilyn’s love interest played by Robert Pine, destined for fame as Sgt. Joseph Getraer on CHiPs.

    Basically, if you are a fan of The Munsters, this is more than worth your time. It’s a solid adventure for the clan. If you’re not, this one isn’t going to sell them to you. If you are interested, though, this is as good an instroduction as you could want.

    (Sidenote: I noticed that Carradine’s character was named Cruikshank, while his employer was played by Hermione Gingold. Munster’s Hermione & Cruikshank / Harry Potter’s Hermione & Crookshanks…Coindidence? Yes. But these are the kinds of associations one makes when one’s mind is stuffed to the brim with basically useless pop culture trivia.)

    Posted in 1966, Based on TV Show, Comedy, Crime, Family, Fantasy, Romance | Leave a comment

    Stéréotypé, mais décent: Film #134 – Banlieve 13 (2006)

    French action film that I only saw because a co-worker has been loaning me Blu-rays and he gave me this one to try out. Overall, it was too much of a formula action/revenge flick for my taste, but I must admit that the action sequences were well done. In particular, I was struck by a chase scene early in the film that was able to actually do something *new* with a foot chase, not just make it overlong. (I’m talking to you, Casino Royale.) Worth a viewing if you like action, but there’s ultimately not much to it.
    Posted in 2006, Crime, Drama | Leave a comment

    He’s Okay!: Film #133 – The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave (1998)

    This is exactly the film you expect it to be: an excuse to string together a bunch of jokes about Super Dave Osborne (Bob Einstein) being injured. It’s also got everything these kind of bring-TV-character-to-the-big-screen films always have: love interest, major rival, big showdown. It’s all harmless fun and done pretty darn well for what it is. If you like Super Dave, you should certainly check it out. For anyone else, though, there’s nothing here to really make it worth your while.
    Posted in 1998, Based on TV Show, Comedy, Romance | Leave a comment

    Fits Like a Glove: Films #131 & #132 – The Ace Ventura Films (1994 / 1996)

    The original Ace Ventura is the movie that made Jim Carrey a star. And while I know a great many wish that had never happened, I think that’s a good thing. (Yes, he’s made plenty of bad movies, but the good outnumber the bad in my book.) But the earliest impression most had of Carrey was this role. (Most people didn’t watch In Living Color and no one watched The Duck Factory). It has shaped him image ever since.

    Even in films like The Mask, Carrey has never been as over-the-top as he was in these. But especially in the original film, there’s still something about Carrey that makes the craziness okay. The necessary-only-for-the-money sequel can equal the first for zaniness, but not for audience interest. The big mistake is not having there be a proper “Private Eye” type mystery. That’s why the first one works; because underneath it all, it’s just a mystery movie with animals. Such a simple formula, yet so easy to screw up.

    Pet Detective is worth seeing to witness a star being born. Also, good stuff from Courtney Cox and (matching Carrey for over-the-top nutiness) Sean Young. The sequel is for die-hard Carrey fans only. (Although it was interesting seeing Academy Award nominated Sophie Okonedo in an early role.)

    Posted in 1994, 1996, Comedy, Crime, Mystery, Romance, Sequel | Leave a comment

    The Emperor Has No Clothes: Film #130 – Star Trek (2009)

    Here’s the short review: Star Trek stinks. Bad story, poor acting, inaccurate representation of the Star Trek universe. What it has is excellent special effects, lots of flashy action sequences and pretty people in all the major roles. Undiscerning audiences, eager for a “hot” Star Trek have been dazzled into ignoring the many, many defects. In years to come, I believe this film’s reputation will sag. More importantly, they have laid a foundation of sand that will cause future sequels to sink.

    Now, some specifics:

    • I can see Nero going back in time and killing Kirk’s father and a few others causing changes in Kirk’s life and those around him, but how does it cause Starfleet’s technology to change so completely in around thirty years?
    • If the Vulcan’s are such an intelligent and knowledgeable race, why does it take thirty-five attempts before the Vulcan punks try calling Spock’s mom a whore? You’d think they’d try that one right away. They must really suck at “Yo Momma” contests.
    • Why does Pike make Kirk first officer? There’s no reason besides giving the film a convenient way to make Kirk captain. After all, Pike was in the process of sending Kirk on an extremely dangerous, unlikely-to-work practically suicide mission. Is *that* the time to name a guy first officer? No. It makes no sense.
    • Isn’t it convenient that the last piece of the classic Trek crew (Scotty) just happened to be stationed on the planet where Nero dumped Spock (conveniently placed close enough to where Kirk lands to rescue him)?
    • Speaking of that point, I don’t care how much emotional turmoil he might be in, the real Spock would’ve just thrown Kirk in the brig. There was no reason to jettison him from the ship except, again, for the convenience of the writers.
    • Why didn’t they just cast Mike Myers as Scotty if all we were going to get was an imitation of Myers from So I Married An Axe Murderer?
    • Uhura is reduced to little more than a Mary Sue in this film. She not only gets to be Spock’s “bit of stuff”, she also has “the bestest hearing in all of Starfleet!” I guess just being a competent Starfleet officer isn’t enough in this day and age.
    • Why, when confronted with the news that Nero has changed time, causing him to never know his father, is Kirk not determined to fix the time stream, rather than take it as it is? They all seem remarkably accepting of this new reality (destruction of Vulcan and all) rather than determined to fix it. This despite the fact that practical time travel has been clearly demonstrated.
    • There seems to be a need for these characters to be exceptional right from the get-go. The original crew gained their reputation through experience. But in this film (in addition to “super hearing” Uhura), Sulu is an expert swordfighter (despite the fact that he says he’s studied *fencing* – like in the show – he fights with a broadsword in the convenient duel), Chekov can do the one impossible transporter move that is needed (but strangely isn’t the one to make the *second* tranporter breakthrough of the film), and Scotty is a brilliant engineer that Starfleet somehow didn’t notice (again so he could be in the one place he needs to be at the one point he needs to be there). Even Kirk is not immune. Apparently he has a genius level intellect (something never hinted at in the original show). Only McCoy comes off unscathed by this nonsense. I kept expecting him to cure a plague in five minutes or something.
    • The cast is universally bland. This includes, sadly, Leonard Nimoy, who seems to be doing an impersonation of Spock, rather than actually acting. None of the new principals has the screen presence of the original cast. I was particualrly disappointed in Eric Bana, a great actor who I loved in Troy and really liked in the flawed Hulk. His “angry miner” character lacks the power of a villain like Khan.
    • The music is awful. There’s not a single theme that hooks you, like the scores for the better Trek films (II/IV) or any Star Wars film. Michael Giacchino does well with atmospheric music, but these kinds of films need scores that speak to the movie, able to evoke memories of the film just by hearing them. There’s nothing like that here.
    • The direction is shoddy. It’s that quick-cut / jump around stuff that gives me a headache most of the time. Abrahms needs to learn how to tell a story with proper pacing.

    Just about the only thing in this film that I liked was the effects. There’s no denying that Industrial Light & Magic did their usual bang up job on the visuals. As I said, I actually burst out laughing twice: when the Nokia commercial came on and when Spock and Uhura have their “moment” before Kirk and Spock beam over to the Romulan ship. I would have respected this film more if the filmmakers had had the guts to truly reboot things, rather than giving themselves the backdoor of the time travel/alternate universe nonsense. (Frankly, I’m sick to death of Star Trek time travel stories.) As it is, it fails to maintain the spirit of the original show while simultaneously failing to stand on its own without the crutch of the original seires to hold it up.

    To state it again, I think the flashy visuals and “hot” young actors has gotten everybody worked up to the point where they don’t recognize the film’s very serious flaws. Without the Star Trek name and the iconic characters associated with it, I don’t think this film would be getting the critical response it is. It is truly a case of the Emperor having no clothes and not enough people willing to admit to it.

    Posted in 2009, Based on TV Show, Drama, Military, Reboot, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Fun, But Dated: Film #129 – Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

    Speaking of films that *have* aged poorly, there’s Smokey and the Bandit, a true product of the 1970s if ever there was one. When I was a younger person, I enjoyed this film a lot. In the years since, I’ve become less sympathetic to the “rougish criminal” type epitomized by the charming Bandit (Burt Reynolds). He and his pal Snowman (Jerry Reed) cause a lot of damage and put a lot of people’s lives at risk just for their stupid bet. (Yes, I know it’s a comedy, but I just don’t have a stomach for that stuff any more.) It doesn’t help that the film portrays *every* *single* cop as pretty much an incompetent idiot. The one exception is Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice, whose dogged pursuit of his son’s runaway bride (Sally Field) is just as reckless as the Bandit’s actions, so is just as celebrated by the film. (Even the Bandit pays his respects to the Sheriff by the end.)

    That being said, there is some great dialogue in the film. Burt Reynolds plays off both the Enos father/son duo (Paul Williams and Pat McCormick) and Sally Field to great effect. Gleason and his idiot son (Mike Henry) also provide lots of great moments. Truly, it is Gleason who still comes off the best in this day and age. He may be misguided (and a bit of a bigot), but he’s always entertaining and you never want him to shut up.

    Much of the film still works today, but it is the relentless CB talk that really dates it. This was during the height of the CB craze and it’s a bit too much to take nowadays. (The notion that there is not *one* person on the CB airwaves that isn’t willing to put themselves at risk to help the Bandit is also a bit hard to take.)

    Still, the performances bring it through and it’s still worth watching, if only to see how amazingly sexy Sally Field was at a time when most people still thought of her as Gidget or the Flying Nun.

    Posted in 1977, Comedy, Crime, Romance | Leave a comment

    This is All I Need: Film #128 – The Jerk (1979)

    One of my favorite films when I was a kid, it still makes me laugh consistantly whenever I watch it. (Which, until I got the HD DVD recently hadn’t been for *years*.) This was Steve Martin at his early wackiest (which I kind of miss) and co-writer/director Carl Reiner shows why he was the best collaborator in the business, able to elevate whoever he was working with. (He didn’t do so well on his own.)

    I particularly remember that it was this film that made me enamored of the (still) adorable Bernadette Peters. Despite her well-endowed nature, she’s the perfect example of a beautiful innocent. There’s little in the way of true support, as the film focuses so exclusively on Martin and Peters, but there are plenty of great performances in the smaller roles. Jackie Mason, Bill Macy, M. Emmet Walsh, William Schallert and both Carl and son Rob Reiner give memorable turns.

    The wacky, nonsensical nature of the film means that it hasn’t aged at all. There’s nothing in this film that screams “late 1970s” except maybe the costumes and the disco scenes, but even those aren’t *completely* out of place in 2009.

    The Jerk is no longer my favorite Steve Martin film (I think it’s The Man With Two Brains or possibly All of Me), but it’s still a great entry from one of the most versatile talents in the industry.

    Posted in 1979, Comedy, Romance | Leave a comment

    Strength in Numbers – Film #127 – A Bug’s Life (1998)

    One of the lesser-Pixars, this one is still a great film in its own right. (In fact, it’s *much* better than most of Disney’s output over the last ten years and most of Dreamworks output, period.) It lacks the epic scale of most Pixar films, but still delivers an entertaining story and appealing characters.

    Original review

    Posted in 1998, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Giant Monster | Leave a comment

    Who You Gonna Call?: Films #125 & #126 – The Ghostbusters films (1984 & 1989)

    Always loved these movies. I’m aware that there’s some negativity towards II, but I find it to be pleasant, funny and it has less of the off-color material that keeps the original from being truly family friendly. (And with this franchise, I feel that’s the way to go.) There’s no denying, however, that it is the original that is the truly groundbreaking film and a classic to this day.

    Original review

    Posted in 1984, 1989, Comedy, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Horror, Mystery, Paranormal, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Disney’s Move Forward: Film #124 – Meet the Robinsons (2007)

    I was a bit down on this one when I first saw it, actually preferring Chicken Little. In the time since, it has become my favorite latter-day Disney Animated Feature. I think it’s the best since The Emperor’s New Groove at least, and maybe since The Lion King. Again, no, it’s not perfect, but it hits all the right notes, is a rollicking good time and I always enjoy watching it.

    Original review.

    Posted in 2007, Animation, Based on Book, Comedy, Family, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    A Smaller Epic: Film #123 – Willow (1988)

    I’ve always had a soft spot for this one. My main problem with the film is that George Lucas tries to tell far too large a story for its running time. Everything else about it; story, characters, effects (mostly) still work well. A bit of an underrated film, but no classic.

    I go into greater detail in my original review.

    Posted in 1988, Drama, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Paranormal | Leave a comment

    A Lemon: Film #122 – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

    Overlong, stretched beyond the limits that the premise could hold, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is *very* loosely based on Ian Fleming’s only non-James Bond fictional work, the children’s novel of the same name. From the original novel we get the name of some of the main characters, the car and a few loose (and unimportant) plot points. Instead we get a bloated film shoved full of decent musical numbers (with songs by the Sherman Brothers), but little of the excitement of the original book.

    Dick Van Dyke is fine as Caractacus Potts (no “mockney” here) and Sally Ann Howes fills her love interest role just fine. The most notable performaces, though, go to Benny Hill as a toymaker and the leaders of a despotic country, Gert Fröbe and Anna Quayle as Baron and Baroness Bomburst.

    Produced by Bond series producer Albert R. Broccoli, I spent most of the time playing “spot the Bond connection”. In addition to Fröbe (best known as Goldfinger), Anna Quayle appeared in 1967′s Casino Royale, Desmond Llewelyn (“Q”) plays Coggins, the man who sells Potts the car, and the script is by children’s author Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes, who was one of the five directors of Casino Royale. The script also had additional material from longtime Bond writer Richard Maibaum. There were, naturally, also many other crew members who worked on Chitty and various Bond films.

    Overall, a disappointment. Maybe someone will remake this one some day, as a striaghtforward adaptation could be quite fun.

    Posted in 1968, Based on Book, British, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Family, Musical, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    He’s a Good Cop: Films #118 – #121 – The Dick Tracy 1940s features (1945 – 1947)

    Dick Tracy (1945)
    Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946)
    Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (1947)
    Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947)

    After four highly successful movie serials in the 1930s starring Ralph Byrd as the comic-strip detective, Dick Tracy returned in this series of four hour-long features. At first, the role was filled by chisel-faced Morgan Conway before Byrd was brought back for the third and fourth films. Byrd really was the definitive Tracy, even returning to the role one more time for a 1950s TV show. Conway does well enough, but he lacks the charm of Byrd. He was too gruff.

    That being said, Cueball is probably the strongest of the four features. Like all four, it’s “Noir Light”, but with enough grit to hold the audience and enough humor to keep things from getting too grim. Dick Tracy is too formulaic, perhaps as it was intended to re-introduce Tracy in more traditional surroundings. (In the serials he was portrayed as a G-Man, instead of a cop.) Also helping Cueball stand out is Ian Keith as Tracy’s actor friend Vitamin Flintheart, perhaps one of the most accurate page-to-screen performances I’ve ever seen.

    The return of Ralph Byrd makes the second two pictures feel much more “correct”, but the writing does drop a bit from Cueball. Dilemma is too straightforward, but has some good stuff, including a return engagement for Vitamin and Jimmy Conlin as the “blind” pencil salesman Sightless. The biggest problem with Gruesome is the central plot of a fantastic “immobilizing gas” that seems out of place in a Dick Tracy story. This one is saved by a stellar performance by Boris Karloff as the titular Gruesome, proving he could hold the screen just as well away from his regular horror surroundings.

    In all four, support is given by Lyle Latell, who proves an excellent choice for the well-meaning, but somewhat bumbling, Pat Patton. Tracy’s girl, Tess Trueheart, is played by Anne Jeffreys (who would go on to a long career) in the Conway films, which gives his a bit more continuity. In Dilemma it’s Kay Christopher and in Gruesome, it’s Anne Gwynne (who was a bit of a scream queen back in her day). All three were solid, but unexceptional in the role.

    Fans of Dick Tracy or film noir shouldn’t miss these. They are great pieces of meat-and-potatoes cinema when people who “knew what they were doing” could crank out quality entertainment with apparent ease. No, they aren’t masterpieces, even the flawed kind like Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy from 1990. But they are entertaining.

    Posted in 1945, 1946, 1947, Based on Comic, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Not Like Lightning: Film #117 – Bolt (2008)

    Disney’s most recent animated feature and the last of the “CGI-era”. Not bad, but a bit too formulaic for my tastes. With hints of everything from Toy Story to every road-trip/buddy-film you’ve ever seen, this one never really succeeds in defining itself. It may look better than, say, Chicken Little, but at least that earlier film stands on it own. It’s not surprising that I would feel similarly about this film as I did about Pixar’s Ratatouille, given that both films had their original directors yanked and underwent massive reworking before release.

    The basic story is that a little dog named Bolt (John Travolta) is the star of a TV series where he plays a super-dog. But he believes it to be real and when he gets out, spends the rest of the film trying to find his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus). Along the way he kidnaps an abandoned cat, Mittens (Susie Essman), and befriends a hanmster in a ball, Rhino (Mark Walton). The parallels to Buzz Lightyear (and for Mittens, Jessie the Cowgirl) are obvious and overplayed. In fact, I found myself wishing they had tossed out the entire “find your true self” storyline and just made a movie about a superdog. The opening sequence (meant to be an episode of the show) was my favorite part and I think they should have just rolled with it. (Something comparable to The Incredibles could have resulted.)

    Also, the whole story is set in motion by a network bigwig who demands that the Bolt show become more edgy to attract the young adult demographic. I simply don’t buy *any* network suit with any kind of experience wanting to cater to the 18 – 35 year-olds with a show about a super dog.

    In the end, it *was* entertaining. Rhino, in particular, provides some great moments. It does have a good soundtrack (yes, even the Miley Cyrus/John Travolta song from the end is good). Kids will certainly love it. But it just doesn’t have that extra something that will allow it to stand the test of time.

    Posted in 2008, Animation, Comedy | Leave a comment

    The Wacky West: Films #115 & #116 – Support You Local Sheriff!/Gunfighter (1969 / 1971)

    Two films made by James Garner following his success on the television show Maverick. In both of these films he plays a similar type of character; a stranger who wanders into a mining town and helps them through their troubles. For the most part, Sheriff is the better of the two. Garner’s first character (a wanderer “on his way to Australia”) is more sympathetic than the second (a womanizer on the run from a woman he promised to marry). Although Gunfighter‘s Suzanne Pleshette is attractive, Sheriff‘s Joan Hackett is more fun and the relationship between her and Garner more natural and believable.

    That being said, both are excellent examples of comedic westerns from before Mel Brooks blew the lid off the genre with Blazing Saddles.

    Posted in 1969, 1971, Comedy, Crime, Historical, Romance, Sequel, Western | Leave a comment

    Stories to Tell: Film #114 – The Brothers Grimm (2005)

    This one has quickly become my second favorite Terry Gilliam film (behind The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and I like it more and more each time I see it. This time it was on the recent Blu-ray release and it looks even better than I remember. (Not all films stand up to the Blu-ray test. Some just show the cracks in the corners.) This is the film that sold me on Heath Ledger and I’ll probably never like Matt Damon this much again. (Or at all, for that matter.) And, good heavens, could Monica Bellucci be any more achingly gorgeous or deliciously evil? Great additional support from Lena Headey, Peter Stormare and Jonathan Pryce.

    Original review

    Posted in 2005, Based on Real Events, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Horror, Paranormal | Leave a comment

    Would You Believe?: Films #110 – #113 – The Get Smart Films (1980 – 2008)

    The Nude Bomb (1980)
    Get Smart, Again! (1989)
    Get Smart (2008)
    Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd: Out of Control (2008)

    The “Get Smart” movies are a Masters Class in “Lowered Expectations”.

    First, The Nude Bomb. I remember absolutely loathing this movie when I first saw it because it jettisoned the storyline of the original series and charted its own territory. Now, many years and about a thousand “reboots” later, I can appreciate this film for what it gets right and hate it less for what it gets wrong.

    Wrong is Agent 22 (instead of 99), PITS (instead of CONTROL) and some sort of demented fashion designer in charge of KAOS. Right is Don Adams. That’s all it needs to hold me. Even in the “wrong” surroundings, Adams could bring Maxwell Smart to life and it is for his performance that the film is worth seeing.

    Of course, it’s even better when he can do it in the “right” surroundings, as he does in Get Smart, Again!, the made-for-TV movie that saw the return of just about everyone from the original series who wasn’t dead. Picking up where the series left off, it succeeds in updating the premise without ignoring (or insulting) the past. While not pitch-perfect in its humor, it’s darn close and the best “Get Smart” since the end of the series. (The short-lived 90′s series had its moments, but… no.)

    Get Smart, the reboot starring Steve Carell, was not something I was looking forward to. Although Carell is probably the best person for the role, I’ve always felt that there was too much Don Adams in Maxwell Smart for another actor to portray him. (Much like Sgt. Bilko or Andy Taylor) But while I felt that the movie was a major disappointment, it was ultimately not the portrayal of Max that gave me the most trouble.

    It was the film itself. Too much action, not enough jokes. Max and 99 never really click on-screen, they just sort of come together because they’re supposed to. (Contrast that with Max and 99′s first scenes in the original series pilot. They crackle.) And while I suppose that a film about espionage was bound to have some jokes about the then-President, couldn’t they think of at least one *original* joke? (Let’s see…stupid…check…reading to kids in a crisis…check…unsophisticated…check…misspeaks…check…cowtows to the veep…check…) And how can you waste a character like Sigfried and an actor like Terrance Stamp? The best thing I can say about this film is that it didn’t ruin *everything*. And now that the pieces are in place, they may be able to make a decent film next time.

    But that next time is *not* Bruce and Lloyd. This dainty little straight-to-video tie-in film has even less to do with “Get Smart” that the film it is spun from. In the final case of “lowered expectations”, this actually works in its favor. Since it doesn’t even try to be like the old show in any way, shape or form, it is free to do its own thing and it does that…okay. No, it’s not that good. But there are some chuckles to be had and Jayma Mays is on hand to do her Anna Faris impersonation again. I ended up liking this more than the theatrical film precisely because it is what it is, not trying to be something else.

    Posted in 1980, 1989, 2008, Based on TV Show, Comedy, Crime, Espionage, Sequel | Leave a comment

    In A World He Never Made: Film #109 – Howard the Duck (1986)

    Much maligned in the day, I’ve always had a soft spot for this one. In the days before I earnestly collected comic books, I had significant quantities of only three titles in my meager collection: Atari Force, Groo the Wanderer and Howard the Duck. My Howard collection only existed because I liked the film so much.

    After many years, it finally appeared on DVD and I watched it in full for the first time since I rented it with my cousin years ago while I visited him in Cleveland. (It seemed the thing to watch.) I was surprised at how many inappropriate-for-children jokes there were (and nudity!). Having seen it mostly on a taped-off-television VHS, I had honestly forgotten about most of it.

    Still, Tim Robbins is fun in an early role, Leah Thompson could really work that 80′s hair and Jeffery Jones gives a great performance as the “mad scientist” whose body is taken over by the Dark Overlord.

    Is it a great piece of cinema? No. Is it fun? Yes. Did it gross twice as much as Punisher: War Zone did twenty-two years later? Hell, yeah it did.

    Posted in 1986, Based on Comic, Comedy, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Romance, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    Good Things?: Films #103 – #108 – The Disney “Package” Films (1942 – 1949)

    Saludos Amigos (1942)
    The Three Caballeros (1944)
    Make Mine Music (1946)
    Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
    Melody Time (1948)
    The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

    During World War II, much of Walt Disney’s production was given over to propoganda films, leaving Walt shorthanded for his feature films. So he basically turned the features over to the teams usually working on shorts. They would string these shorts together (sometimes with a story link, sometimes without) and create a feature. The six films made during this period (the so-called “package films”) fall into three categories: the “Our Friends in South America” films, the “Junior Fantasias” and the “Double Mini-Features”.

    Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros were ostensibly made to improve relations with South America. They both feature live action footage as well as animation and cover various parts of South America, introducing these locales to North American audiences. Saludos is more a straightforward collection of stories, while Caballeros has the advantage of Donald Duck providing a narrative throughline. While Saludos has some nice bits, Caballeros features great songs, entertaining “shorts” and some truly breathtaking visuals. It also has the titular caballeros themselves; Donald, Jose Carioca (a parrot from Brazil) and Panchito (a rooster from Mexico). The three are great and I never understood why they didn’t utilize them more in the years that followed.

    If I seem biased here, I’ll admit that The Three Caballeros has always been my favorite Disney Animated Feature. Where else do you see Donald Duck chase skirts for over half an hour?

    Make Mine Music and Melody Time both use the same basic premise of Fantasia, in that they are visual adaptations of various pieces of music. Make Mine is, perhaps, the better of the two, with solid entries like “Peter and the Wolf” and “Casey at the Bat”. Melody, on the other hand, is lots of smaller stories like “Johnny Appleseed” and “Pecos Bill”. There’s also a return of Donald in “Caballero” mode in “Blame it on the Samba”.

    Neither are very engaging and it’s easy to see why they never get special treatment. While entertaining to a degree, neither is that special.

    Lastly, there’s the two-fers. Now, in the case of Fun and Fancy Free, both stories (“Bongo” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk”) were originally developed as features in their own right. “Beanstalk” in particular has some great visuals that could have benfitted from a bigger budget and more screentime. In fact, like many of the segments in these “package films”, “Beanstalk” was later released as a stand-alone short and I think it works better in that context than as a part of a collection. “Bongo” (the tale of a circus bear who goes into the wild) is utterly forgettable.

    The Adventues of Ichabod and Mr. Toad makes no pretense of connecting the two disparate stories, so it’s not surprising that they stand alone pretty well, too. Neither stick too closely to the source material (both cleaned up a bit for the kiddies) and as a result neither has the impact of the originals. Just as with Alice in Wonderland, though, the designs for both stories are excellent, so fans of the originals should at least see them, even if they will find themselve dreaming of a more faithful adaptation.

    Original review of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros
    Original review of Fun and Fancy Free
    Original review of Melody Time
    Original review of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

    Posted in 1942, 1944, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, Animation, Based on Book, Based on Real Events, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Educational, Family, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Historical, Military, Musical, Sequel | Leave a comment

    The Last Hurrah: Film #102 – Clash of the Titans (1981)

    The last hurrah for stop-motion in general and Ray Harryhausen in particular, Clash takes the visual style out with a bang. Its long development time meant that it seemed dated even when new, but I remember really enjoying it then and it is still effective today. Does it stand up to modern CGI? No. As I said, it didn’t even look state-of-the-art in 1981. But as time has passed, it can be judged in a greater context and it holds up.

    Harry Hamlin is big and bold, just as a sword-and-sandal hero should be. Judi Bowker is drop dead gorgeous as Andromeda and the gods are all a hoot as they squabble and fight amongst themselves (primarily Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Ursula Andress and Jack Gwillim). Burgess Meredith, Sian Phillips and Neil McCarthy are all solid in support.

    As reworkings of ancient legends go, this one does a nice job of conflating multiple stories into a cohesive whole. I’ve certainly seen worse. It will be interesting to see if the 2010 remake can up the visuals, but not lose the film’s heart.

    Posted in 1981, Drama, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Historical, Romance | Leave a comment

    Hey! Listen!: Film #101 – Horton Hears a Who (2008)

    I’ve said it before, there’s only one animation studio these days that can give Pixar a run for their money as far as consistant quality is concerned and that’s Blue Sky Animation (Ice Age, Robots). At the same time, though, Dr. Seuss adaptations have not had a good track record. But I figured that if anyone could do it properly, it would be Blue Sky and I was right.

    First, the casting was excellent. Jim Carrey redeems himself as far as Seuss is concerned by making Horton a believable (if over-the-top) character. Steve Carell does the same with the Mayor of Whoville. Both plots are significantly extended for the film, but not in ways that contradict the original material like the two live-action movies. The animation is great, really looking like Seuss despite being in 3D and it is all fluid and exciting.

    If I have one complaint its that Carol Burnett’s Kangaroo is a bit too harsh and the citizens of Horton’s jungle a bit too bloodthirsty, but that can’t ruin an overall excellent adaptation.

    Posted in 2008, Animation, Based on Book, Comedy, Family, Remake | Leave a comment

    No Glory: Film #100 – Meet the Spartans (2008)

    My expectations were set so amazingly low for this parody of 300 (of which I am such a massive fan that I *had* to see this) that I actually enjoyed it a bit. Just a bit, mind you. Sean Maguire does an impressive job recreating Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas and there are some good bits from Kevin Sorbo, Diedrich Bader even Carmen Electra. But as it is with all of these films that consitute the major career of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, they just don’t know how to construct a film properly. If they had focused completely on 300 (with additional material from other sword-and-sandals like Gladiator or even Spartacus if they have any sense of history), they could have had something. As I have stated, I *love* 300. But I also recognize how deathly *serious* it is. It’s ripe for the picking. That these guys could aim at so perfect a target and still miss overall, just shows how little they have to offer.

    Posted in 2008, Comedy, Historical, Military | Leave a comment

    Tales from the Road (Mostly): Films #095 – #099 – The “Vacation” series (1983 – 2003)

    National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
    National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985)
    National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
    Vegas Vacation (1997)
    National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure (2003)

    Well, this series certainly runs the gamut, doesn’t it?

    I put the success of the original Vacation down to four main factors: John Hughes’ brilliant script, Harold Ramis’ dead-on direction, Chevy Chase’s virtuoso performance as patriarch Clark Griswold and Lindsey Buckingham’s kick-ass theme song, “Holiday Road”. Not that the supporting cast has any slouches in it, either. Let’s see: Bevery D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Randy Quaid, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Imogene Coca, Christie Brinkley, Eddie Bracken and even Jane Krakowsi. Not a misstep in the bunch. Does it go over the top? Maybe a bit. But always in the name of keeping things funny and lively. A true classic.

    The second film, on the other hand, is a clear example of sequel-itis. Following too closely in the original’s footsteps, NLEV fails to chart any original territory of its own. Replacing the kids with new actors is fine, but none of the new characters can match those in the first film. Even Eric Idle (usually good for a laugh or two in small roles) falls flat. Lackluster direction and only half of a Hughes script. A failed attempt to recapture the magic. But there is one good thing about the fact that this film performed decently at the box office: it led to a third film.

    Frankly, Christmas Vacation is the wonder of the series. Jettisoning the “road trip” angle (and “Holiday Road”), CV is, at heart, a traditional Christmas flick. What amazed me is how John Hughes (who returned to pen this one alone) was able to deliver this feel-good, heartwarming film without in any way compromising the basic nature of the Griswolds. The new kids (including a young Juliette Lewis) are joined by a returning Randy Quaid and the grandparents; John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E. G. Marshall and Doris Roberts. Also great in very small parts are Nicholas Guest (Christopher Guest’s brother) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as obnoxious yuppies. This one is everything I hoped it would be, much to my surprise.

    Vegas was, therefore, inevitably going to be a letdown from that previous high, but still managed to be a decently entertaining film. The fourth set of Griswold kids lack any kind of memorable quality (though Marisol Nichols as Audrey was pretty darn cute). Randy Quaid is back, as is “Holiday Road” and Christie Brinkley, still looking fine fourteen years later in a sly callback to the original film. This is the film European Vacation *should* have been. Not great, but good enough.

    But European Vacation can thank Christmas Vacation 2 for keeping EV from being the worst film in this series. A “Vacation” film without the Griswolds? (Or most of them anyway.) The only notable thing about this made-for-TV film is the return of the best Audrey, Dana Barron. She looks great and is at least somewhat entertaining to watch. Randy Quaid does his best to try and eke something out of the Cousin Eddie character, but it just proves why characters like this one work is *support*, but not in the lead. Ed Asner, Fred Willard, Stephen Furst and Eric Ide (Yes, again. Reprising his earlier role.) are wasted and add little. This one’s worth watching only if you’re watching them all, like I did.

    Overall, the Vacation series is more hits than misses and even the weakest of the “proper” series is worth a viewing.

    Posted in 1983, 1985, 1989, 1997, 2003, Comedy, Crime, Family, Made for TV, Romance, Sequel | Leave a comment

    But Someone’s Got to Do It: Film #094 – Dirty Work (1998)

    Okay, this one is a bit of a favorite of mine. Not a great film by any stretch, but a perfect expansion of Norm MacDonald’s snarky characterization from Saturday Night Live. All of his trademark bits are in here (except references to the Germans) and he comes off well. This is a vehicle designed for him and he takes advantage of it. Artie Lange is great in support, as is Jack Warden in one of his last roles. Also proving he wasn’t past it is Chevy Chase, brilliant as the gambling-addicted doctor.

    Posted in 1998, Comedy, Crime, Romance | Leave a comment

    Film #093 – The Passion of the Christ (2004)

    I put off watching this one for a while, as I wasn’t sure I could take it. But after seeing Apocalypto, I was convinced that this would be good, and it was. Yes, it is bloody and savage. Yes, it is unflinching in its portrayal of the Passion. But there is humor and there is heart and there is great storytelling here.

    The cast is superb (particularly James Caviezel as Jesus) and the visual splendor and attention to detail can pull you in. Of course, that attention to detail extends to the brutality inflicted upon Jesus, but that is necessary to convey the depth of the horrors he endured.

    It’s not going to convince any non-believers, but it is masterful storytelling, no matter your faith (or lack thereof).

    Posted in 2004, Based on Real Events, Biopic, Drama, Historical, Religious | Leave a comment

    The Big Picture: Films #083 – #092 – Ed Wood’s classic films

    Glen or Glenda (1953)
    Jail Bait (1954)
    The Lawless Rider (1954)
    Bride of the Monster (1955)
    The Violent Years (1956)
    The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
    The Bride and the Beast (1958)
    Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
    Night of the Ghouls (1959)
    The Sinister Urge (1960)

    OK. Are *any* of these films the “worst ever made”? No. Even the worst one on this list (probably Night of the Ghouls), is better than Manos, the Hands of Fate. And Bride of the Monster is actually pretty well done.

    One thing you can say for Ed is that all of his films are watchable. There’s very little of the clock-checking, looking-around, when-is-this-going-to-be-over stuff that you get with really bad films (like Superman Returns).

    As I’m not going to go into detail on all of these, a few awards to sum up:

    Best film: Bride of the Monster
    Best Actor: Gregory Walcott (Plan 9)
    Best Actress: Loretta King (Bride of the Monster)
    Best Bela: Bride of the Monster
    Best use of music: Plan 9 from Outer Space
    Most original plot twist: Jail Bait
    Most misleading title: Jail Bait
    Most surprising guest appearance: William Benedict (Bride of the Monster)
    The You’ll-Go-Far-In-Italian-Films Award: Steve Reeves (Jail Bait)
    The I-Can’t-Believe-Ed-Didn’t-Write-Or-Direct-This Award: The Astounding She-Monster
    Hottest Leading Lady: Charlotte Austin (Bride and the Beast)
    Most disturbingly attractive: Jeanne Fontaine (The Sinister Urge)
    Best episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 utilizing an Ed film: Experiment #613 – The Sinister Urge

    Posted in 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, Crime, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Horror, Military, Mystery, Paranormal, Romance, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Trust Me, It’s a Classic: Film #082 – Kung Pow!: Enter the Fist (2002)

    Sublime masterpiece by Steven Oedekerk as he blends himself into footage from the 1970s Hong Kong actioner Hu hao shuang xing (aka Savage Killers aka Tiger and Crane Fist) while telling an original story. Not all the jokes strike gold, but it hits more often than it misses and when it hits, it’s as good as it gets.

    Original review.

    Posted in 2002, Asian Cinema, Comedy, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Historical | Leave a comment

    No Thanks: Film #081 – Wanted (2008)

    *Very* loosly based on the comic book of the same name, Wanted is visually exciting and did hold me throughout the film, but ultimately proved to be too formulaic for my tastes. The characters were unappealing and the story derivative of a thousand previous “revenge” films.

    Worth watching for the effects, but little else.

    Posted in 2008, Based on Comic, Drama | Leave a comment

    Who is Doctor Who?: Films #079 & #080 – The Doctor Who theatrical films (1965 / 1966)

    I’ve always liked these two adaptations of the television show Doctor Who, despite the coolness with which they are often received by some fans. Peter Cushing’s Doctor (actually named “Dr. Who”) is every bit as valid as any other actor who followed in William Hartnell’s footsteps. (At the time, the entire concept of the Doctor as a “Time Lord” had not been invented. To hold that against the film is just silly.)

    Yes, both stories needed to be trimmed down for the theater (especially the second, which is based on a six part serial), but neither jettisons anything of importance, instead boiling the stories down to their essence.

    Cushing is great in one of his few non-horror roles of the day. He is ably supported by Roberta Tovey (a more age-appropriate Susan), Jennie Linden (Barabara – now also Dr. Who’s granddaughter) and Roy Castle (as a more comedic Ian) in the first film and by Bernard Cribbins (Ian replacement Officer Tom Campbell), Jill Curzon (Barbara replacement Louise, Dr. Who’s neice) and Tovey.

    The effects on both films are solid for the day and not only easily outstripped anything the show was doing at the time, I think the effects in the second film are more believeable than those in the current (2005-present) series of Doctor Who.

    Worth seeing by any fan of Doctor Who or 1960s sci-fi in general.

    Original Dr. Who and the Daleks review.
    Original Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. review.

    Posted in 1965, 1966, Based on TV Show, British, Drama, Remake, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    The Right Formula: Film #078 – My Favorite Brunette (1947)

    Frothy little Bob Hope vehicle, it’s a perfect example of why he was so successful for so long. He is able to portray his bumbling (basically incompetant) wannabe detective with enough idiocy to make an audience laugh, but with the heart to make them root for him anyway. His trademark wisecracks and asides are in full force and he is ably supported by a stellar cast including love interest Dorothy Lamour, heavies Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr., and “proper” detective Alan Ladd. (Of course, Bing Crosby has a cameo as well.)

    Like all the best parodies, this one has a solid plot that could easily be a regular noir film if the jokes were stripped out. An excellent example of Hope in his prime.

    Posted in 1947, Comedy, Mystery | Leave a comment

    Puny Humans!: Films #075 – #077 – The Hulk films (1977 – 2008)

    The Incredible Hulk (1977), Hulk (2003), The Incredible Hulk (2008). Three very different approaches to the same basic material. After all these years, and despite advances in technology, the original TV movie on which the famous series was based is still the best of the lot. The theatrical films each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Ang Lee’s artistic direction on the 2003 film is undermined by his muddy storytelling and angsty father/son nonsense. But the 2008 followup, while adhering more to the mood of the TV show, has an even sillier plot and the cast lacks the gravitas of the first. I also feel that the creature in the first film was more accurate than the later one.

    But the TV movie is practically perfect. The only place where it really falls down is the silly Hulk makeup (big forehead!) that would be abandoned for the series. You can’t fault the script, which adheres to the tragic nature of Banner’s condition while extrapolating a story that better fit a weekly TV series. Bill Bixby is perfect and his sad non-romance with Susan Sullivan has all the heartwrenching truth that neither Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly nor Edward Norton and Liv Tyler could match. Even Lou Ferrigno, a definite non-actor at the time, gives a great performance as the beast who just can’t understand what’s going on around him.

    As for the Hulk’s enemies, in the 2003 film at least Sam Waterson is able to imbue his General Ross with an underlying nobility that is sadly missing from William Hurt’s empty shell of a character. But then, Nick Nolte in 2003 was a cliche of a failed father figure while Tim Roth at least had some oomph as the eventual Abomination. None can hold a candle to the one-two punch of the TV movies nemeses: Jack Colvin’s iconic Mr. McGee and Banner’s own obsessions.

    Hulk tried to carve out new territory for the character with only minimal connection to the show. The Incredible Hulk (2008) did a lot more to tie in, but still fell far short. The definitive Hulk remains Bixby/Ferrigno.

    Posted in 1977, 2003, 2008, Based on Comic, Crime, Drama, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Military, Romance, Super-hero | Leave a comment

    It Starts Here: Film #074 – What’s New Pussycat? (1965)

    Woody Allen’s first film (script only), What’s New Pussycat is an interesting entry. Originally written as a vehicle for Warren Beatty (the title was actually a catchphrase of his), he was replaced by Peter O’Toole when Allen’s character started overshadowing Beatty’s. Lots of crazy, wacky shenanigans from not only Allen and O’Toole, but also Peter Sellers as a crazed physchiatrist, Capucine as the object of his affection and Paula Prentiss as a stripper with problems. Romy Schneider keeps it all hanging together as O’Toole’s girlfriend/fiance. Woody was notoriously annoyed at the production and kept producer Charles K. Feldman at arms length on their next collaboration, Casino Royale. But it stands out as a classic example of that nutty 60s comedy sensibility.

    Posted in 1965, Comedy, Drama, Romance | Leave a comment

    Not Too Bright: Film #073 – Sunshine (2007)

    A mix of every “crew stuck out in space” movie you’ve ever seen, heavy on the Event Horizon. Some nice visuals and decent enough performances, but not a surprise or interesting twist in the whole darn thing. Predictable to the end.

    Posted in 2007, Drama, Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    Not Toying Around: Films #070 – #072 – The Toy Story films (1995 – 2000)

    I guess I was into revolutionary filmmaking at this point, because here’s another one. This time, it’s Toy Story, the first completely computer generated feature film. A solid story that surprises with its depth and different take on the family film, it’s the movie that built an industry.

    The biggest surprise, then, is that Toy Story 2 surpasses the original in almost every way. With an even more emotional story, yet just as much comedy and fun, TS2 is a marvel. (And one of the few animated films that can get me all choked up. That “When She Loved Me” sequence gets me every time.)

    Buzz Lightyear, on the other hand, is a rare example of Pixar caving to the demands of merchandising. This has as much to do with Toy Story‘s original status as “Disney’s Toy Story” as it does with Pixar’s weaker position back in 1999/2000. This traditionally animated straight-to-video film is basically the launching pad for the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command animated series. For the film, they got Tim Allen to return to voice Buzz and the story, while not groundbreaking in any way, is still fun and serves as a decent intro to the series. Worth a look for Pixar completists (there’s an opening sequence animated by Pixar) and fans of Buzz.

    Original Toy Story review
    Original Toy Story 2 review
    Original Buzz Lightyear review

    Posted in 1995, 1999, 2000, Animation, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Military, Sci-Fi, Sequel, Straight to Video | Leave a comment

    Bald nerve: Film #069 – THX-1138 (1971)

    Not much I can say about this film that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. Diametrically opposed to director George Lucas’ other famous sci-fi story, THX-1138 is a minimilaist masterpiece filled with great performances and a classic storyline that shows the dangers of government run rampant.

    Original review

    Posted in 1971, Drama, Remake, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

    They Walk Among Us: Films #066 – #068 – The Jurassic Park series (1993 – 2001)

    Jurassic Park was a truly revolutionary film in its day. The first to use extensive CGI creatures alongside real-life actors, it helped immensely that it was a great story put together by an all-star creative team. Based on the book by Michael Crichton, directed by popcorn-movie icon Steven Spielberg, music by John Williams and with groundbreaking effects by Industrial Light and Magic, it not only broke new ground, it holds up perfectly well today. The thrills, action, comedy and even bits of the book’s original philosophy all coalesce into the perfect summer blockbuster. No surprise that neither sequel can come close to measuring up.

    The sequel, however, (despite much of the same team returning) is surprisingly bad. Spielberg’s apparent need to make this one a “message film” gets in the way of the excitement and the fun that made the original so strong. It doesn’t help that Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm (so vibrant in support in the first picture) simply can’t carry the sequel. Ultimately, it’s just as blatant a “sequel-for-the-sake-of-it” as Jaws 2 (which Speiberg pulled out of because he couldn’t see it working).

    This makes Jurassic Park III a surprising return to form for the series. JPIII never tries to be anything more than a formualic sequel and that works in its favor. Since the audience doesn’t have to pretend that there’s any depth here, it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy the ride. I wasn’t crazy about some of the storyline decisions and the film’s unwillingness to kill sympathetic characters hurts it, it’s still a lot more entertaining than The Lost World.

    Original Jurassic Park review
    Original Jurassic Park III review

    Posted in 1993, 1997, 2001, Based on Book, Drama, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Horror, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Brave Bird: Film #065 – Valiant (2005)

    During Disney’s dispute with Pixar, they made production deals with a bunch of different animation studios in hope that lightning would strike twice. Vanguard Animation (a British studio) produced Valiant, the story of a pigeon during WWII. With its stellar cast (Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Cleese, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Tim Curry, Rik Mayall…) the film delivers a solid bit of classic British storytelling. It’s a real throwback to the “army life” pictures that were so prominant British cinema in the 50s and 60s. No doubt it is this positive portrayal of military service that led to its generally negative reception from critics.

    My original opinion was pretty blah on Valiant, but it grew on me over time. It’s now one of my perennials, something I can just pop in and watch anytime.

    Original review
    My second take

    Posted in 2005, Animation, Based on Real Events, British, Comedy, Drama, Military | Leave a comment

    A Lot to Answer For: Films #061 – #064 – The Scary Movie series (2000 – 2006)

    Parody series kicked off by a movie known for being more successful than the film it was parodying (Scream). Launched by the Wayans Family (primarily by Shawn and Marlon, who co-wrote and star and Keenan Ivory, who directed), the series was handed off to David Zucker (of Airplane! fame) after two installments.

    The first is still the best, with solid comedy that fits the genre and (and this is important to a parody, kids) a solid storyline. As you might guess by the quick turnaround, the second film seems forced and cannot recapture the magic of the first. With the change of direction, the third film takes on more “serious” horror films and again seems to find its footing. The fourth is probably dipping into the well one too many times.

    That being said, all four have some really good material in there, you just might have to wade through a lot more duds to find them in the even-numbered installments. Besides that, all four focus on the inimitable Anna Faris, who came to prominance with the first film (she was so unknown that she didn’t even appear on the original theatrical poster) and has carved out a nice career for herself since. (Okay, I’m crushing a bit here.)

    The Wayans(es?) are solid in their two outings, Regina Hill provides some additional continuity to the series and individual highlights are Shannon Elizabeth in 1, David Cross in 2, Charlie Sheen in 3 and Bill Pullman in 4.

    Previously I have mentioned that Airplane! was ultimately responsible for many of these horrible “parodies” that keep showing up, but really it all comes down to the fact that Scary Movie gave careers to co-writers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who simply will not stop making them. Please, someone stop them.

    Original review of Scary Movie 3

    Original review of Scary Movie 4

    Posted in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, Comedy, Crime, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Horror, Military, Paranormal, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    The Not-Too-Distant-Future Ain’t What It Used to Be: Film #060 – Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1995)

    Not the strongest entry, marred somewhat by the fact that the film on view, This Island Earth, is mostly pretty good. I think this is part of the reason that the SOL crew isn’t affected badly at all by the film, stunting the power of the entire premise. Still, an interesting one-off that allowed Best Brains to stretch a bit and the perfect slice of MST if you don’t have time for a regular episode.

    Original review

    Posted in 1995, Based on TV Show, Comedy, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Oh, Behave!: Films #057 – #059 – The Austin Powers series (1997 – 2002)

    Mike Myers’ tribute to the comedy spy films of the 60s kind of lost steam after the first, brilliant film, but the secondary characters pick up the slack. It’s the bad guys that pull us through Spy and Austin’s dad gives us the emotional center for Goldmember. I’ll still never forgive them for ruining the well-crafted love story of the first film, but what can you do? Watching them again I’m struck by how much better Beyonce is in her first film role than Heather Graham, who theoretically should have been much better than she is. Neither, of course, holds a candle to Elizabeth Hurley, who is both ravishing and endearing as Austin’s true love, Vanessa.

    Ranking the films, Man of Mystery is, naturally, first. Goldmember comes in a solid, but distant, second. (Mainly because of the father/son storylines, the “Hollywood” Austin and the presence of a Ming Tea song.) Bringing up the rear is the disappointing Spy Who Shagged Me, which never quite comes together (despite some great bits and a brilliant performance by Rob Lowe).

    If rumors of a fourth film are true, they better not punk out on Scott Evil’s character arc (really the best part of the overall trilogy).

    Posted in 1997, 1999, 2002, British, Comedy, Espionage, Historical, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Return to Glory: Film #056 – Enchanted (2007)

    Still my favorite movie of 2007 (although 300 gives it a run for its money). It isn’t 100% successful at reviving the classic Disney “princess” motif, but its darn close. It only misses perfection because of a few vestiges of its earlier incarnation as a “Shrek”-like sendup before it found its true voice. Still, the great songs, production values and performances from the *entire* cast make this one a classic.

    Posted in 2007, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Musical, Romance | Leave a comment

    It’s not the years, it’s the mileage: Films #052 – #055 – The Indiana Jones series (1981 – 2008)

    So my nephew was staying with me and he wanted to see Temple of Doom, since it was the only one his father hadn’t bought for the family. Maybe it was watching it with an eleven-year-old or maybe just that it grew a bit on me, I was able to enjoy the bits I liked and tolerate the bits I didn’t more this time. I still don’t like it overall, though.

    Anyway, I always watch the Indy films in chronological order, so I figured I might as well watch the rest as well. I still can’t decide whether I prefer Raiders or Last Crusade (they have different strengths) and my enjoyment of Crystal Skull has not diminished. (Side note…Crystal Skull was my first Blu-Ray. It hardly sold me on the format like 300 did on HD DVD. Three and a half months later and I have exactly five Blu-rays – and thirty or so HD DVDs.)

    Here’s my original review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

    Here’s my original review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

    And just for fun…

    Here’s my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation

    Posted in 1981, 1984, 1989, 2008, Drama, Espionage, Historical, Mystery, Paranormal, Prequel, Religious, Romance, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    A Good Start: Film #051 – Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

    I know this one has a bad reputation and there’s no denying that they hadn’t quite got the style down yet at this point (subsequent episodes of the TV show have been more polished), I still found this to be an entertaining piece of Star Wars Expanded Universe fiction. Certainly better than any book in the “Legacy of the Force” series.

    Here’s my original review, where I go into much greater depth.

    Posted in 2008, Animation, Crime, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Sequel | Leave a comment

    Greetings, programs!: Film #050 – Tron (1982)

    What more can be said? A classic, ground-breaking film. It may not be perfect, but it’s still damned entertaining and looks great. My eleven-year-old nephew (who I would have thought wouldn’t be impressed by the relatively primitive effects since he won’t watch black & white Doctor Who episodes) absolutely loves it. He actually watched it twice one weekend; once with me and once on my PSP (because he’s thinking of getting one). As for me, I will always remember seeing it in the movie theater and being absolutely blown away by it all. While I’m glad there’s finally going to be a proper sequel, it can never approach the newness of the original film.

    Posted in 1982, Animation, Crime, Drama, Fantasy, Giant Monster, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment