Saturday, April 13, 2024

#2,954. Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975) - The Films of Richard Donner


This made-for-TV movie hits pretty hard, shining a light on an issue most weren’t aware of in 1975: teenage alcoholism. Even director Richard Donner initially turned the project down because he didn’t believe it was a real problem (producer David Levinson took him to a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and, after hearing the testimony of a pre-teen alcoholic, Donner immediately signed on).

In the opening moments of Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, voice-over narration provided by Michael Lerner (who also has a key role in the movie) plays over black and white photos of high school kids. Lerner informs us that, by 1975, America had approximately half a million preteen and teenage alcoholics.

But that’s just a number. What Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic does - and does very well - is bring the issue to the forefront, and in a manner that’s positively grueling.

Sarah Travis (Linda Blair) is not a happy kid. Her dad (Larry Hagman) is out of the picture, and Sarah’s mother (Verna Bloom) is remarried to a successful executive (William Daniels). What’s more, Sarah now lives with her mom and stepdad, which means she’s starting over in a new school.

One night, at a party thrown by her parents, Sarah steals a guest’s drink and quickly downs it in the kitchen. This kicks off what would prove to be a long and perilous addiction for Sarah, who even uses booze to help her fit in at school.

Her new boyfriend, Ken (Mark Hamill, two years before Star Wars made him a household name), is concerned about Sarah’s drinking, and worries she is taking it too far. But Sarah can’t stop. She sneaks liquor from her parents whenever she can, and, on occasion, steals it right off the shelves of liquor stores.

Concerned for her daughter but a little more worried about her social standing in their new neighborhood, Sarah’s mom reluctantly agrees to take Sarah to psychologist Dr. Marvin Kittredge (Michael Lerner). At that first session, Dr. Kittredge tells mother and daughter that the only way he can help Sarah is if she admits, then and there, that she is an alcoholic. But Sarah doesn’t believe she is, insisting she can stop drinking anytime she wants.

Sarah still has a little more to learn - and a lot further to fall - before she will realize just how serious her problem has become.

Always a strong director of children (The Omen, The Goonies), Richard Donner coaxes a brilliant performance from Linda Blair, who is just as good playing Sarah the insecure teen as she is portraying Sarah the teenage alcoholic. Her scenes with Mark Hamill have a sweetness to them, and watching their relationship grow brings something special to an otherwise hard-hitting story.

On the flipside are the scenes in which Sarah is drinking. And she drinks a lot! At parties… in her room… even standing in front of her locker at school.

We know what it is that drives Sarah to drink. Her mother is all about not embarrassing the family in their neighbor’s eyes, and dotes more on her older married daughter (Laurette Spang) than she does Sarah. As for Sarah’s dad, in the one scene in which they are together, we notice right away he is also addicted to alcohol (he downs several beers while the two are walking down the street).

But over the course of the movie, Sarah will make dear old dad look like a teetotaller.

Sarah hits lows that, frankly, for a TV movie in the ‘70s, surprised the hell out of me. There is a brilliant scene at an AA meeting (which Sarah walks out of after hearing an 11-year-old admit he is an alcoholic), but it’s the final 10-15 minutes of Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic that will shock you.

Written by husband / wife team Richard and Esther Shapiro, Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic is a movie with a message, and it delivers that message with a crippling right hook.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, April 6, 2024

#2,953. This is Cinerama (1952) - Documentaries


The threat of television loomed heavy over the motion picture industry in the early 1950s, and Hollywood needed to up the ante to compete with the more convenient home-based medium.

It was then that Cinerama was born.

Invented by film pioneer Fred Waller, Cinerama utilized images shot by three individual cameras, operating in unison by way of a single shutter, that, when projected, offered viewers a widescreen experience like no other, a complete “field of vision” presentation beamed onto a 146-degree screen that wrapped around the theater. Combined with another new innovation, stereophonic sound, the Cinerama process was unlike anything seen before, and the movie that introduced it to the world was the 1952 documentary This Is Cinerama.

Produced and co-directed by Merian C. Cooper, the mastermind behind another revolutionary motion picture, 1933’s King Kong, This is Cinerama opens with a black and white sequence, presented in the standard aspect ratio, during which narrator Lowell Thomas offers a rundown of the history of moving images, from the attempts by prehistoric man and ancient Egyptians to show pictures in motion to the days of early animation, Thomas Edison, and The Great Train Robbery.

Once this segment is over, Lowell, staring straight ahead, bellows “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama”, at which point the screen expands, the picture changes from black and white to color, and the viewer is treated, in full stereo sound, to a ride on a rollercoaster (the cameras were attached to the front of the Atom Smasher coaster in New York’s Rockaway Playland).

I can only imagine how that first audience reacted to this initial sequence, but to paraphrase Al Jolson in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, they ain’t seen nothing yet!

This is Cinerama follows it up with a variety of amazing segments, shot in Venice (including a Gondola ride), Scotland (The Rally of the Clans at Edinburgh Castle), Vienna (featuring an outdoor performance by the Vienna Boys Choir), Spain (where we witness a bull fight in a packed arena), and Milan (one of the film’s most impressive sequences, the triumphal scene from the opera Aida, staged at the La Scala Opera House).

Then, after a brief intermission and a demonstration (audio only) of Stereophonic sound, This is Cinerama focuses on a more “American” experience, with a half-hour water show at Florida’s Cypress Gardens followed by aerial images (shot from a B-25 bomber) of some of the country’s more familiar landscapes, including Manhattan, Washington D.C., Chicago, the Mississippi River, and the Grand Canyon. Even today, in this age of high-tech entertainment, all of the film’s sequences are breathtaking.

The three-camera process as presented in This is Cinerama would be featured in a handful of movies over the next 10 years, mostly documentaries (Search for Paradise in 1957, South Seas Adventures in 1958), but also in two narrative films, both released in 1962: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and the amazing How the West Was Won. It was during the making of How the West Was Won that the Cinerama corporation realized it could create a similar (though not quite as grand) widescreen 70mm experience using a single camera, as opposed to the more expensive three-camera set-up. This new technique, renamed Ultra Panavision 70, would become the standard for Cinerama in the years to come, and be utilized in such movies as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Hallelujah Trail, and, most recently, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Still, even with its short life span, This is Cinerama proved there was something special about that three-camera set-up. Watching it on Blu-Ray, projected onto my high-definition television, gave me a taste of just how cutting-edge this process was at the time, yet I can’t help but envy those lucky patrons who saw the movie in 1952 on that 146-degree screen.

I was enthralled, impressed, and entertained, but they were witnesses to history in the making.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, March 30, 2024

#2,952. Alone in the Wilderness (2004) - Documentaries


In 1968, 51-year-old Richard Proenneke, mechanic and veteran of the U.S. Navy, retired and settled in the Alaskan wilderness, specifically the Twin Lakes area. Skilled at woodworking, Proenneke arrived in May of that year and spent the summer building a log cabin.

Using 8mm films shot by Proenneke himself, and with narration (by producer Bob Swerer Jr) lifted directly from the outdoorsman’s personal journal, 2004’s Alone in the Wilderness brings his entire first year in the Alaskan wilds to the screen, and it is a fascinating watch.

Like all nature documentaries, there are some stunning shots of the Twin Lakes area, from ice breaking up on the lake to scenes of caribou, brown bears, and rams on the surrounding mountainsides. But the bulk of Alone in the Wilderness’s 57 minutes is dedicated to Proenneke building his retirement cabin from the ground up. At first, I wasn’t sure if watching a guy build a cabin was going to hold my attention. Proenneke went into great detail in his journals, laying out the process of not only assembling a comfortable, waterproof dwelling, but also the amenities he would need. At one point he carves a wooden spoon out of a stump, making it just big enough so that one pour from it would equal one flapjack.

The more detail he went into, however, the more intriguing I found the movie. Who would have thought watching a guy make wooden hinges for a front door could have me on the edge of my seat?

We see it all, including the construction of his icebox (buried in the ground and covered with moss, it maintained a temperature of 40 degrees even when it was 80+ outside); the building of his fireplace (an especially tedious, though entirely necessary process); and even his outhouse!

As interesting as the footage and narration are, it’s the sheer magnitude of the project itself, and Proenneke’s tireless dedication to seeing it through to the end, that really impressed me. From his smokehouse to the storage containers he rolled himself out of sheet metal, this guy thought of absolutely everything, and I sat in awe of what he was able to accomplish.

Alone in the Wilderness does feature some additional footage shot by producer / narrator Bob Swerer Jr, which, because the quality of the image is so different from the rest of the movie, proves a distraction. The extra shots are mostly inserts of wildlife in their natural habitat, but one late segment, where Proenneke describes how he made ram stew, which is then brought to life by this “new footage”, felt particularly unnecessary. And while Proenneke was an amazing survivalist and outdoorsman, he was not the best photographer. The scenes of him building the cabin, when he set up the camera from a distance and left it running, are actually better than his shots of the landscape. Still, these are minor quibbles, and do not detract from the experience of watching this captivating film journal.

Richard Proenneke would spend the majority of the next 30 years living off the land, finally returning to the Continental U.S. in 1999 at age 83 to live the remainder of his days with his brother in California. Alone in the Wilderness chronicles that first year, which saw harsh winter conditions and threats from bears, wolves, and other creatures. I doubt I would’ve survived that first year. I doubt most people would. To have done so for another 29 years on top of it is beyond amazing.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, March 23, 2024

#2,951. In Old Chicago (1938) - Don Ameche 4-Pack


On the heels of MGM’s hit 1936 film San Francisco, Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox countered with In Old Chicago, a fictionalized biopic of the O’Leary family, whose cow is rumored to have sparked the deadly 1871 fire that destroyed a large section of the city.

While relocating his young family to Chicago, Patrick O’Leary (J. Anthomy Hughes) is killed in a freak accident. Left on her own, his widow Molly (Alice Brady) brings up their three boys, two of whom would make a name for themselves in the city.

Oldest son Dion O’Leary (Tyrone Power) is a schemer with big dreams. After convincing lounge singer Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye) to join him in a new business venture, Dion alienates Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy), Belle’s previous employer and the most powerful crime boss in the section of Old Chicago known as “The Patch”. Establishing himself as the new driving force of “The Patch”, Dion manages to get his younger brother Jack (Don Ameche) elected as Chicago’s new Mayor, using deception and backdoor dealings to steal the election from Warren himself, who ran against him.

A trained lawyer, Jack takes his new position seriously, and intends to clean up Chicago by wiping out the political corruption running rampant in “The Patch”. In so doing, he finds himself squaring off time and again against Dion. But when a fire started in the O’Leary’s barn threatens to wipe out the city, the two brothers put their differences aside and do what they can to save their beloved Chicago.

Tyrone Power has charisma to spare in the role of Dion, a swindler and crook who is always looking for the advantage in any situation. Whether it’s stealing a shirt from his mother’s laundry business to wear for the evening or making unwanted passes at Belle (the initial scenes between the two, where Dion comes on strong and refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, don’t play so well today), this is a guy who usually gets what he wants, and won’t back down until he does.

With a smile on his face, Dion lies and steals his way to the top of Chicago’s underworld, to the point that he’s powerful enough to rig an election in his brother’s favor. By the time the final act rolls around, Dion is firmly established as the film’s true villain, and yet Power is so damn likable in the role that we can’t help but admire the guy!

Don Ameche is also solid as the straightlaced, well-meaning brother; as are both Alice Faye (who gets to sing a few songs) and Alice Brady (winner of that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as the cantankerous Mrs. O’Leary), but from the moment he first strolls on-screen, In Old Chicago belongs to Tyrone Power.

As it was with San Francisco, all the drama, the family spats, and the political machinations are merely a set-up for the disaster yet to come: a reenactment of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Director Henry King and his crew spent $150,000 on this final segment, and the fire is a sight to behold. Walls topple, buildings explode, and houses burn to the ground, all at a fever pitch. There’s drama here as well; Gil Warren manages to convince many residents of “The Patch” that Mayor Jack O’Leary, who had been looking to have that section of Old Chicago condemned, started the fire intentionally. Warren even assembles a posse to confront Jack as Chicago burns around them. Still, it’s the awesome spectacle of a city on fire, presented so realistically, that makes this final act as hard-hitting as it is.

Yet much like San Francisco before it, In Old Chicago ultimately proves to be more than the sum of its disaster sequences. In fact, I found myself so wrapped up in the story of the O’Leary boys and their squabbles that I had forgotten about the tragedy to come! In Old Chicago works as an early disaster film, but it works just as well as an example of a big Hollywood production done right.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, March 16, 2024

#2,950. Don't Make Waves (1967) - Alexander Mackendrick 4-Pack


Don’t Make Waves gets off to a wild start, then barely slows down to take a breath.

Tourist Carlo Cofield (Tony Curtis) stops along a stretch of road in Southern California to admire the ocean view. Also nearby is temperamental artist Laura Califatti (Claudia Cardinale), who, after abandoning her effort to paint a picture of the landscape, angrily hops into her car and speeds off. Unfortunately, she clipped the bumper of poor Carlo’s vehicle on the way out, sending it careening down a hill and off the side of a cliff!

Stranded and with no money (his car exploded on impact, burning all of his worldly possessions), Carlo spends the night in Laura’s beach house, with the promise that she will give him her insurance information, to pay for the damages, the next morning.

Things take an uncomfortable turn when Laura’s “benefactor”, Rod Prescott (Robert Webber), president of a company that installs luxury swimming pools, turns up in the middle of the night and demands that Carlo leave immediately.

Forced to spend the rest of the evening on the beach, Carlo nearly drowns during high tide the next morning, but is rescued by the gorgeous Mailbu (Sharon Tate), a sexy skydiver who is dating body builder Harry (played by David Draper, at the time the reigning Mr. Universe).

Realizing the true nature of Laura’s and Rod’s romance (Rod is already married, and Laura is his mistress), Carlo weasels his way into a job with Rod’s pool company, promising, in exchange for his employment, he’ll keep his mouth shut and not reveal anything about Laura or the affair to Mrs. Prescott (Joanna Barnes).

Now gamefully employed, and having recently purchased both a beautiful house and a classic car for practically nothing, Carlo sets his sights on winning the heart of Malibu by forcing a wedge between she and Harry, going so far as to convince the bodybuilder, with the help of a writer / astrologer whose pen name is “Madame Lavinia” (Edgar Bergen), that sex wears the body down, and could keep him from winning the upcoming championship.

Everything comes to a head during a torrential rainstorm, at which point Carlo and the others discover why his house was so inexpensive.

A later entry in the Southern California beach movie craze, Don’t Make Waves is a breezy, lighthearted romantic comedy, with Tony Curtis giving a strong performance as the lead who, though likable, has a sinister streak a mile wide. Not only does he blackmail his way into getting a job (after first proving his talents as a salesman by talking none other than Jim Backus, who appears briefly as himself, into buying a pool), but he’s also slick and dishonest in the way he breaks up Harry and Malibu. In fact, by the time the final act rolls around, we feel a little guilty that we like Carlo as much as we do!

Claudia Cardinale is beautiful as always, but also demonstrates here that she is an able comedienne (her opening scenes are a riot), while Webber, Barnes, Tate, and Bergen hold their own in supporting roles.

Featuring a handful of crazy moments (including a skydiving fiasco and a pretty costly mudslide); a catchy title song (performed by The Byrds); and more than its share of bikinis, Don’t Make Waves flows along at a brisk pace, and manages to keep us smiling the entire time!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, March 9, 2024

#2,949. Moonfall (2022) - Roland Emmerich Film Festival


Neil deGrasse Tyson is one very, very smart dude. Having studied at Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton, he is the world’s foremost Astrophysicist. He’s penned a number of books, researched everything from cosmology to stellar evolution, and holds well over 20 honorary degrees. In 2001 President George W. Bush even appointed Tyson to a Commission tasked with laying out the future of the United States Aerospace Industry

In short, the guy knows his stuff, especially when it comes to physics and outer space. So, when Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in October of 2023 and said Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall violated more laws of physics per minute than any other science fiction movie he’d ever seen, you can bet it’s the truth.

But then, Roland Emmerich also made The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, neither of which are known for their scientific accuracy. And let’s face it: a movie about the moon breaking orbit and hurtling towards earth is gonna require more than the usual “suspension of disbelief”.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a man of science. Roland Emmerich is a showman, and Moonfall, as insane and unscientific as it may be, is, first and foremost, entertainment. On that level, it is at least somewhat successful.

That said, there are characters and scenes scattered throughout Moonfall that had me longing for the subtlety of The Day After Tomorrow!

Eleven years after an accident in space was blamed on his “human error”, former astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) has been struggling to make ends meet. Divorced from his wife Brenda (Carolina Bartczak) and estranged from his son (Charlie Plummer), Harper continues to insist he did nothing wrong that fateful day aboard the Space Shuttle. Unfortunately, nobody believes him. Not even his former friend and colleague, Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry), who is now the Deputy Director of NASA.

Then something incredible happens: conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley), leader of a small group that’s convinced the moon is not a planetary body but an alien-built megastructure, determines that the moon has changed its orbit, and is moving closer to earth.

Initially dismissing Houseman as a crackpot, Harper is stunned to discover NASA has also noticed the orbital discrepancies. What’s more, there’s a strong possibility the trouble is being caused by alien technology, which has altered the moon’s trajectory and put it on a collision course with earth!

As with most of his movies, Emmerich generates some genuine excitement and impressive destruction throughout Moonfall, with tidal shifts flooding out coastal towns and loose fragments from the approaching moon crashing to earth, leveling entire cities. There is also a plot twist in the last half hour or so that leaves little doubt what we’re watching (and what Emmerich intended) is straight-up science fiction, with no footing in reality whatsoever.

As for the characters, I did enjoy John Bradley’s turn as Houseman, a guy who hasn’t achieved much in life and is struggling to care for his mother (Kathleen Fee), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. As for Wilson and Berry, Moonfall is far from their finest hour. Wilson isn’t particularly likable through much of the film, with his Harper coming off as moody and kind of arrogant; while Berry doesn’t seem to be putting her heart into it at all. A few supporting players, including Michael Pena as Brenda’s new husband and Kelly Yu as Michelle, an exchange student acting as nanny for Fowler’s son Jimmy (Zayn Maloney), fare better than the main stars.

Yet the real stinker in Moonfall is its script, written by Emmerich, Harald Kloser, and Spenser Cohen. Along with its plethora of far-fetched situations, the dialogue is obvious and trite, and somne of the secondary characters are as one-dimensional as they come (worst of all being NASA Director Albert Hutchings, played by Stephen Bogaert, who is the typical “movie” official, i.e. – unreasonable, deceitful, and cowardly).

Bottom line: I didn’t go into Moonfall expecting to learn anything about space or science. I wanted a fun disaster movie, with decent special effects and a whole lot of destruction.

And it’s a good thing that’s all I wanted, because that’s all I got! If it was intriguing dialogue or believable characters I was after, I would have been as disappointed as Neil deGrasse Tyson!
Rating: 5 out of 10

Saturday, March 2, 2024

#2,948. Bitter Moon (1992) - Erotic '90s


Nigel Dobson (Hugh Grant) and his wife of seven years, Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), are on a Mediterranean cruise. Shortly after boarding the ship, they meet French beauty Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner) and, later, her wheelchair-bound American husband Oscar (Peter Coyote).

An unpublished writer, the cynical Oscar invites Nigel back to his room on several occasions, regaling the young man with the entire story of his romantic past with Mimi, from the moment their eyes first met aboard a Paris bus through to their more recent history, when the two have come to despise one another.

Realizing that Nigel is smitten with his estranged wife, Oscar, who is paralyzed from the waist down, uses these meetings as a way to enflame Nigel’s passion, promising him that, once his tale is over, he is free to do as he wishes with Mimi.

But is that really why Oscar is revealing his deepest, most personal secrets to Nigel, or does he have another motive altogether?

The bulk of Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon is told in flashback, with scenes of Oscar’s and Mimi’s tumultuous affair as related by Oscar himself, thus making him the narrator of these sequences. There are plenty of steamy moments during said flashbacks, everything from implied oral sex to roleplay and even bondage. “Have you ever truly idolized a woman?”, Oscar asks Nigel at one point. “Nothing can be obscene in such love. Everything that occurs between it becomes a sacrament”.

Polanski does not shy away from the early passion that drives Oscar and Mimi, nor does he hold back when the relationship sours, with first Oscar humiliating Mimi on a regular basis (and he is cruel as hell, criticizing her hair and make-up at a party while romancing two other women at once), then forcing her to have an abortion when she announces she is with child. Oscar even agrees to take Mimi on vacation to the Caribbean, then hops off the plane just before it takes off, convinced he has finally rid himself of her.

Even with him acting as narrator, we despise Oscar in these moments. So, when Mimi returns a few years later, as Oscar is recovering in hospital from being struck by a car, she begins to treat her now-crippled former lover in much the same way he treated her. These scenes are just as difficult to sit through, yet we can’t help but feel that Oscar deserves it.

Tying the flashbacks together are the scenes involving Nigel and Fiona. Nigel can barely conceal his attraction to Mimi, and a wounded Fiona, in response, flirts openly with a young man (Luca Vellani) she meets in the bar. Having witnessed the collapse of the relationship between Oscar and Mimi, we now watch as another is on the brink of destruction, and Polanski ensures that we the audience side with the ladies in both instances, even if their behavior does also, occasionally, cross the line.

The performances are spot-on, with Coyote standing out as the oft-loathsome Oscar; and Polanski (who also co-wrote the screenplay) shines a light throughout Bitter Moon on some very difficult subject matter as it pertains to relationships, presenting it all in such a way that even the most perverse sequences (whether described by Oscar or shown in detail) come across as honest.

A sweltering erotic drama that crosses into thriller territory (especially in the final act), Bitter Moon is a fascinating study of the destructive side of romance, and how it can not only wound, but destroy lovers.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, February 24, 2024

#2,947. Blood on the Moon (1948) - The Films of Robert Wise


Director Robert Wise infuses his 1948 western Blood on the Moon with a film noir sensibility, giving us a hero we barely know who sometimes does things that are less than heroic.

Invited by his old friend Tate Riling (Robert Preston), gunman Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) rides into town. Riling has come up with a scheme to cheat a local cattle owner, John Lufton (Tom Tully), by purchasing his herd for a fraction of what it’s worth. With the help of government agent Jake Pindalest (Frank Faylen), and Garry’s gun backing him up, Riling believes his dastardly plan will go off without a hitch

But Garry is none too pleased to be involved, and when he falls for Lufton’s daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes), he figures he may be on the wrong side of this conflict.

Mitchum is perfectly subtle as Jim Garry, a guy we’re not too sure about at first. The fact that he’s friends with a scoundrel like Riling is enough to raise doubts about his character. But Mitchum plays Garry so close to the vest that, whether he’s helping Riling or working against him, we’re never quite sure what he’s thinking, or what he will do next.

Preston, on the other hand, plays his character with gusto to spare, and brimming with personality. Even when Riling is up to no good, including romancing Lufton’s other daughter Carol (Phyllis Thaxter) to get the upper hand on the cattleman, we can’t help but like the guy. It’s an interesting correlation: a hero we can never pin down and a villain we occasionally admire, and director Wise handles the dynamic between the two wonderfully, building to a tense showdown between the former pals that caps the story off in dramatic fashion.

Also good in support are Del Geddes as the tomboyish Amy and the great Walter Brennan as farmer Kris Barden, who also signs on to help Riling but has a change of heart.

Crisply directed by Wise and with the incredible cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca, who makes great use of the western landscape (including a handful of scenes shot in John Ford’s old stomping grounds: Utah’s Monument Valley), Blood on the Moon proves an entertaining blend of action and film noir, and features what may be one of Robert Mitchum’s most underappreciated performances. That alone makes it worth your time.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, January 27, 2024

#2,946. Frank and Jesse (1994) - The Wild West


Jesse James has been the subject of a number of films over the years. From director Henry King’s 1939 biopic Jesse James to Walter Hill’s superb The Long Riders, the exploits of the American West’s most notorious outlaw have been brought to life time and again on the silver screen.

Released in 1994, writer / director Robert Boris’s Frank and Jesse might not be the most spectacular of the Jesse James sagas, but with a strong cast and a handful of explosive scenes, it manages to leave its mark all the same.

The American Civil War is over, and the James Brothers, Frank (Bill Paxton) and Jesse (Rob Lowe), who fought for the south under Quantrill, have returned home to Missouri. When their kid brother is murdered by one of the railroad’s hired guns (Luke Askew), the James boys join forces with the Younger brothers, Cole (Randy Travis) and Bob (Todd Field), as well as former compatriots Clell Miller (John Pyper-Ferguson) and Arch Clements (Nicholas Sadler), and turn to a life of crime, robbing banks and Northern railroad trains by the dozen.

Their back against the wall, the railroad hires Allan Pinkerton (William Atherton) and his detective agency to apprehend the James / Younger gang. Pinkerton knows he is facing an uphill battle; the locals, as well as the press, have turned Jesse James and the others into folk heroes, which makes tracking them down damn near impossible. But when Pinkerton’s own nephew is shot dead, he vows to bring Jesse James to justice, dead or alive.

Rob Lowe is solid as Jesse James, an outlaw who sometimes lets his temper get the better of him (he murders a banker during their first hold-up, despite having promised Frank there would be no bloodshed), but it’s Bill Paxton as the more reflective Frank who delivers the film’s finest performance. Frank does his best to reign in Jesse, which occasionally puts him at odds with his brother. Yet Frank himself isn’t a man to be trifled with (he’s a much better gunman than Jesse). Also good in support are Randy Travis as Cole Younger and William Atherton as Allan Pinkerton, a man who will stop at nothing, including murder, to get his man.

Shot on-location in Arkansas, Frank and Jesse boasts a number of memorable scenes, chief among them the infamous Northfield Minnesota bank robbery, and while the film doesn’t bring much new to the table, the final act changes things up in a unique way, handling Jesse’s last moments in a manner I had not seen before.

When it comes to movies about Jesse James, my personal favorites are The Long Riders and 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But Frank and Jesse proved an entertaining entry in the outlaw’s filmography, and is well worth checking out.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

#2,945. National Lampoon's Movie Madness (1982) - 80s Comedies


In his book A Futile and Stupid Gesture (a biography of National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney), author Josh Karp called 1982’s Movie MadnessA cocaine-fueled fiasco”, adding “nobody had a sense of structure or how to write a screenplay”.

He let this movie off easy.

As much as I love National Lampoon’s first movie, Animal House, which I rank as one of the all-time great comedies, that is how much I dislike Movie Madness. This is a film devoid of laughs. An anthology featuring three movie “spoofs”, I smiled twice, and kind of chuckled once. And all during the same segment.

The first entry, titled Growing Yourself, is a spoof of such divorce-themed weepies as Kramer vs. Kramer and An Unmarried Woman. It stars Peter Riegert as Jason Cooper, a husband and father of four who convinces his wife (Candy Clark) that she needs to leave him, and explore her full potential. Now a single father, Cooper embarks on several new career paths, losing track of his kids along the way and entering into affairs with a series of women, including a 14-year-old high school sophomore (Diane Ladd) and a flighty opportunist (Teresa Ganzel).

Next up is Success Wanters, which takes a few jabs at daytime soap operas. Recent college graduate Dominique Corsaire (Ann Dusenberry) moves to Los Angeles, hoping to make a name for herself. Landing a job as a stripper, she is assaulted by a group of butter executives, and looks to take her revenge by rising to the top of the cut-throat margarine industry. In a matter of days, Dominique manages to seduce a margarine executive (Robert Culp), a Greek Tycoon (Titos Vandis), and the President of the United States (Fred Willard).

The third and final segment is Municipalians, a parody of TV cop dramas. Naïve rookie policeman Brent Falcone (Robby Benson) wants to make a difference, much to the chagrin of his experienced partner Stan Nagurski (Richard Widmark), who refuses to so much as lift a finger in support. While searching for a serial killer (Christopher Lloyd) who leaves a copy of his drivers license on every victim, Officers Falcone and Nagurski encounter a number of lowlifes and degenerates, all of whom slowly chip away at Falcone’s cheery disposition.

Let me say up-front that the lone sequence I reacted to was the third, Municipalians, and the reason why was the performance of Robby Benson, who here portrays the kind of happy-go-lucky character he played in movies like Jeremy and The End. Watching Benson’s cop deal with all the trials and tribulations thrown his way (including getting shot… which happens to him maybe a half dozen times) was mildly entertaining. Yet aside from a few chuckles, even Municipalians was mostly devoid of laughs. Damn near every joke misses the mark, including the running gag of a killer who leaves his I.D. on his victims, yet is not considered a viable suspect.

Still, as unfunny as this third segment was, it pales in comparison to the pathetic Growing Yourself (I dare you not to cringe when Riegert’s character romances a teenage Diane Ladd) and Success Wanters (Dusenberry is likable as the lead, but there isn’t a laugh to be found in this misfire).

As quoted in A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Shary Flenniken, one of five writers who penned Movie Madness, said of the movie “We cut stuff and boiled it down. It lost its purpose and just became a bunch of crazy crap”.

I half agree. A bit of focused “crazy” could have actually helped this disaster. But it is definitely “crap”.
Rating: 2.5 out of 10

Saturday, January 20, 2024

#2,944. Josie and the Pussycats (2001) - Films of the First Decade of the 2000s


I never read the comic, and I doubt I saw a single episode of the cartoon series from start to finish, but man oh man did I have fun with 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats!

It is every bit a comic book movie, a film pitched at the level of a cartoon, and yet there are aspects that rise above these over-the-top inspirations, resulting in a musical / comedy that I absolutely adore.

Following the “inexplicable” disappearance of popular boy band DuJour, producer Wyatt Frame (Alan Cummings) of MegaRecords is on the lookout for the label’s next superstars. As luck would have it, he stumbles upon Riverdale’s most underappreciated band, The Pussycats. All at once, lead singer Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), bassist Valerie (Rosario Dawson), and drummer Melody (Tara Ried) go from who-the-hell-are-they to rock sensations.

But there’s more to their meteoric rise than meets the eye, and if MegaRecords chief executive Fiona (Parker Posey) has her way, the band, now billed as Josie and the Pussycats, will not only rake in millions, but also help her label control every aspect of American pop culture. The question is: to what end?

Josie and the Pussycats establishes its over-the-top, comic-book mentality during the pre-title sequence, where we’re introduced to boy band DuJoir (Donal Faison, Seth Green, Brecklin Meyer and Alexander Martin). After performing for their fans at the airport, DuJour hops aboard a private jet, arguing with one another the whole time, much to the chagrin of manager Wyatt (superbly played by Alan Cumming). This gets the film off to a fun start, yet what grounds the movie, keeping it from becoming a total cartoon, is the camaraderie of the three main characters, so well-portrayed by Cook, Dawson, and Ried. As everything around them spirals out of control, Josie and Valerie remain grounded, while Melody, the flightiest of the trio, is blissfully ignorant of the unbelievable events that led to the band’s overnight success. The chemistry between the three is what gives Josie and the Pussycats its heart, and we root for the trio every step of the way. In a world of product placement and subliminal messages, the Pussycats remain the film’s focal point, musicians enjoying a success they realize is unlikely, and maybe even a little scary.

Another great feature of Josie and the Pussycats is the music, almost all of which was written for the film. From the opening tune by DuJour (“DuJour Around the World”) to the Pussycats’ “Three Small Words”, which they first perform at Riverdale’s local bowling palace, the music is catchy and entertaining. Not a single tune falls flat. In addition to the original numbers, there’s a great use of Meatloaf’s mega-hit “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, which plays briefly during a pivotal scene.

Cummings and Posey are at their manic best as the baddies (and kudos to writers / directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont for actually making us care a little about them before the credits roll), but it’s Cook, Dawson, Ried, and the music that make Josie and the Pussycats such a wonderful surprise. This movie was off my radar for years, and I feel like a fool for not having seen it sooner.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Sunday, January 7, 2024

#2,943. Helen of Troy (1956) - The Films of Robert Wise


Released four years before Spartacus, three before Ben-Hur, and eight months prior to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Warner Brothers lavish production of Helen of Troy features moments as grand and spectacular as any of these later classics, even if it does fall a bit short of them.

Based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Helen of Troy carries us back to the year 1100 B.C. Paris (Jacques Sernas), a prince of the walled city of Troy, announces he will travel to Sparta to strike an agreement with King Menelaus (Niall MacGinnis) in the hopes of avoiding yet another costly war. With the blessings of his father, King Priam (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Paris sets sail, only to be thrown from his ship during a violent storm.

Washing up on the shores of Sparta, he meets Helen (Rosanna Podesta), the wife of King Menelaus and, thus, the city-state’s Queen. Mistaking her for the Goddess Aphrodite, Paris falls instantly in love with Helen, who herself develops feelings for the Trojan Prince. Anxious to leave the domineering Menelaus behind, Helen agrees to accompany Paris back to his homeland, knowing full well that doing so will ignite a war between Troy and the whole of Greece.

Directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story), with cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr. (My Fair Lady, A Streetcar Named Desire) and a score by great Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind, Casablanca), Helen of Troy has the look and feel of a full-blown Hollywood epic. This is especially prevalent in the film’s second half, when 1,000 Greek ships land on the shores of Troy, kicking off a series of impressive battle scenes, from the initial attack on the city (which features thousands of extras and plenty of catapults and battering rams) to the mano-et-mano showdown between Paris’ brother Hector (Harry Andrews) and Greek hero Achilles (Stanley Baker). The icing on the cake, however, is the infamous Trojan Horse sequence that closes out the movie, which is staged to near perfection.

While the second half of Helen of Troy is a rousing success, the first is a little more hit and miss. The storm at sea that tosses Paris from his ship is thrilling, as is a fight between Paris and Ajax (Maxwell Reed) set in the court of King Menelaus. Where the movie falters is the romance between Paris and Helen, with the chemistry between the two surging in one scene, then receding the next.

The fault cannot be laid entirely at the feet of its two stars. Italian actress Rosanna Podesta is stunning as Helen, and delivers a stirring turn as the “face that launched a thousand ships”, while French actor Jacques Sernas, though inconsistent, makes for a likable lead. Alas, both performances were dubbed into English, with mixed results (especially weak is Geoffrey Toone’s English dub of Paris, which lacks personality).

For trivia buffs, Helen of Troy is notable for being the first American film to feature Bridget Bardot (she briefly appears as Helen’s slave Andraste), as well as boasting a second-unit director who would go on to bigger and better things: Mr. Sergio Leone!

It may not have stood the test of time like Spartacus, Ben-Hur, and The Ten Commandments, but Helen of Troy is an epic that fans of early Hollywood won’t want to miss, and will be damn happy they saw.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Friday, January 5, 2024

#2,942. The Choirboys (1977) - Films of the 1970s


The first hour or so of Robert Aldrich’s The Choirboys has the look and feel of a made-for-TV film, but the personality of a bawdy R-rated comedy. Throwing a spotlight on a group of Los Angeles cops, the movie is pitched at a very bizarre level early on, with party scenes that spiral out of control; run-ins with the public that go very, very wrong; and morning briefings during which everyone tosses insults at one another.

Yet for a movie about L.A. cops and the dangers they face (the reason they act like drunken fools during their off-time is to relieve the tension), there is an artificiality to it all; characters are so goofy and over-the-top that anyone missing the opening credits might think they were watching an extended TV pilot for an inferior Barney Miller spin-off.

Among the officers at this particular precinct is 19-year veteran “Spermwhale” Whalen (Charles Durning), whose bad attitude may end up costing him his pension when he retires in six months. Then there’s the bigoted Roscoe Rules (Tim McIntire), a foul-tempered cop whose antics get him and his young partner Dean Proust (Randy Quaid) into plenty of sticky situations.

Black officer Calvin Motts (Louis Gossett Jr.) and Asian Frank Tanaguchi (Clyde Kusatsu) are often the butt of jokes aimed at their ethnicity, while Baxter Slate (Perry King), Spencer Van Moot (Stephen Macht), Sam Lyles (Don Stroud), and Harold Bloomguard (James Woods) fumble their way through one assignment after another.

At one point, officers Slate, Lyles and Bloomguard are assigned temporarily to Vice Squad under Sgt. Scuzzi (Burt Young), with disastrous results. Rules and Proust are sent in to break up a potential race riot at a tenement, only to be beaten to a pulp by damn near the entire building!

Many scenes in The Choirboys are also set in MacArthur Park, where the buddies gather nightly to blow off a little steam, moments that are played (mostly) for laughs. Yet while the movie features a number of amazing actors, we rarely believe any of them could pass as officers of the law.

Then, at right around the halfway point, The Choirboys starts to tackle more serious subject matters, with as much drama as comedy sprinkled into the mix. Lyles and Bloomguard are Vietnam vets who served together during the war, with Lyles especially traumatized by the experience (the film opens with an unconvincing flashback, showing the battle that scarred Lyles). There’s also a very poignant scene in which Burt Young’s Scuzzi, portrayed up the that point as a slob, has a heart-to-heart talk with a tearful homosexual teen arrested for soliciting sex from undercover cop Zoony (Vic Tayback).

The Choirboys gets even darker in the last act, and while it maintains that made-for-TV vibe throughout (MacArthur Park never looks like anything more than a backlot set), it also adapts some of the grittiness you’d expect to find in a ‘70s cop / crime movie, with Robert Webber turning up late and stealing the show as the hyper Deputy Chief Riggs (the one character who generates genuine laughs in his handful of scenes).

Does the movie earn this sudden switch in tone? Not really, but I welcomed it anyway. All at once, these guys seemed more like real characters than the clownish, drunken buffoons that earlier had been making a string of sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes. I found myself invested in their later situations and conflicts.

Not that any of this redeems Aldrich’s movie. The Choirboys is just too silly for too long to be taken completely seriously at any point. But at least we catch of glimpse of the old Aldrich, the filmmaker who helmed such classics as Kiss Me Deadly, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Dirty Dozen.

The Choirboys definitely pales in comparison to these three films, but with all the inane scenes in this movie, and the humor that falls flat a hell of a lot more than it connects, you’ll be happy that at least a glimmer of Robert Aldrich peeked through in the end.
Rating: A possibly far too generous 5 out of 10

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

#2,941. The McPherson Tape (1989) - Films of the 1980s


The uncut video footage you are about to see contains the most important evidence yet made public regarding the UFO abduction phenomenon. This footage is from the North Woods UFO CASE 77.

On the evening of October 8, 1983, a young man videotaped his niece’s 5th birthday party. As the night’s strange occurrences took place he kept his camera running, recording the entire event

Released originally as U.F.O. Abduction, The McPherson Tape is something of an oddity. It is a found footage-style sci-fi / horror movie from 1989, a full 10 years before The Blair Witch Project would rekindle (or some might argue - and rightly so - single-handedly ignite) interest in that particular subgenre.

According to writer / director Dean Alioto, The McPherson Tape was shot on video for around $6,500. Yet, despite its meager budget, it stands as one of the most intense, intriguing found footage movies I have seen, centered on a family that, thanks to the wonderful job of its cast, we come to care about.

October 8, 1983. The Vane Hesse clan has gathered at the remote mountain cottage of their recently widowed mother (Shirly McCalla) to celebrate the 5th birthday of young Michelle (Laura Tomas), daughter of oldest son Eric (Tommy Giavocchini) and his wife Jamie (Christine Staples). Also in attendance are Eric’s younger brothers, college student Jason (Patrick Kelley) and 16-year-old Michael (played by Alioto himself) as well as Jason’s girlfriend Renee (Stacey Shulman).

Michael, who just purchased a new handheld video camera, spends the evening videotaping the party (making Alioto not only the film’s writer / director and co-star, but also its cinematographer).

When the lights unexpectedly go out, the three brothers head to the garage to check on the fusebox, and while outside spot a bright red light flashing across the sky. The brothers rush into the woods to investigate, and are amazed to discover that a spaceship, harboring three aliens (played by young girls Ginny Kleker, Kay Parten, and Rose Schneider), has landed nearby!

When the aliens spot them, the three brothers dart back to the house to warn the rest of the family, kicking off a terrifying chain of events.

During one of the DVD commentaries for the [POV] Horror release of The McPherson Tape, it was mentioned that Dean Alioto is a big fan of Steven Spielberg, and how his E.T. was as much about a broken family as it was an alien visitor. In turn, It is the family at the center of Alioto’s 1989 movie, inspired, no doubt, by Spielberg’s classic, that brings us to the edge of our seats.

All of the performers do an amazing job of building that “family” chemistry. During the opening scenes, as they’re sitting around the table eating dinner, they are bickering with one another (both playfully and with a little passive-aggressiveness behind it) and constantly talking over each other. The relationships between the characters are not laid out at first, and it takes us a while to figure out who is who, but then why would they spoon-feed it to us? It’s supposed to be a family's home video! And director Alioto does a fine job of eventually bringing his audience up to speed.

Even after the film’s pivotal event, when the brothers go into the woods, then rush home in a panic after making a startling discovery, things eventually quiet down (for a while, it looks as if nothing will come of it) and they get back to the party. The tension does mount again, of course, and doesn’t let up until the shocking finale (which is also the only moment in the film that feels contrived).

Those who have a problem with shaky cam might find themselves nauseous during the forest scene with the brothers, but it’s what transpires both before and after it that makes The McPherson Tape a hidden gem, and a movie that fans of found footage horror will surely enjoy.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10