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