The Duel at Silver Creek (1952) review-western junk food

If you asked somebody who doesn’t like westerns to write a script for a western, they would probably come up with something similar to Don Siegel’s The Duel at Silver Creek (1952).

In other words, this hypothetical person would probably insert a lot of violence, landscape shots and stoic “cowboy” dialogue, neglecting to leave any room for the kind of emotional nuance that transforms typical genre pictures into great films.

As a result, The Duel at Silver Creek feels like a fundamentally hollow viewing experience, even though it does pack a punch on a visceral level.

Admittedly, the film’s screenwriters at least come up with a solid premise, with the plot centering around a gang of claim jumpers who execute honest miners after forcing them to sign over their property at gunpoint.

However, the gang eventually falls into the crosshairs of the Silver Kid (Audie Murphy) and Marshall Lightening Tyrone (Stephen McNally), who decide to team up after these ruthless outlaws murder their father and mentor figure, respectively.

Even though that kind of plot has been recycled in hundreds of different westerns, The Duel at Silver Creek at least captures your attention at the very beginning by showcasing how vicious these claim jumpers can be.

Not only do they murder innocent people in cold blood, but their methods of execution can be downright brutal for 1952, with the gang’s femme fatale character strangling a wounded witness before he can let slip some valuable information to the authorities.

This set-up puts you in the right headspace for a pretty strait-laced western, where you want to see the clean-cut white hats triumph over such obviously amoral black hats.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really have anything else offer beyond that initial sugar rush, especially when it comes to things like character, dialogue, and plot.

The film’s biggest missed opportunity, in my view, is the dynamic between McNally and Murphy, which could have been interesting if the screenwriters decided to dig at least an inch beneath the surface.

After all, both characters recently lost an important person in their life in the same horrific fashion; something that could have made for interesting scenes where the two bond over a shared tragedy.

But McNally and Murphy, while making for convincing gunslingers, don’t get a chance to talk in any meaningful fashion, and are just relegated to swapping factual information about their current circumstances.

I know that a lot of people may joke about how this describes most male relationships in real life, but I feel like even the most macho pairing in the world could have convincingly pulled off an exchange like:

“Your dad died? Damn! Mine too. That sucks.”

“Thanks bro.”

No such dialogue ever makes its way into the script of The Duel at Silver Creek, with McNally and Murphy mostly communicating through sarcastic quips that highlight their difference in age and experience.

Equally flat is the pair’s respective love interests, who aren’t developed in any meaningful way and don’t receive a satisfying send off before the credits roll.

Admittedly, actress Susan Cabot is slightly interesting playing a rough-around-the-edges tomboy, who dresses in jeans and isn’t afraid to get in a gun fight with the boys.

Unfortunately, she gets downgraded to being a damsel in distress for the film’s climax, which is disappointing and undermines any potential her character might have had.

For some reason, the filmmakers also made the baffling decision to give McNally an internal monologue, even though this technique is not used to flesh out his personality or state of mind.

Instead, this voice-over is only wielded to relay extraneous plot information, and it comes across just as unnecessary as Harrison Ford’s narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner (1982). 

However, all those half-baked elements aside, The Duel at Silver Creek at least succeeds in activating that primitive part of your brain that just wants to watch cowboys punch and shoot each other, which is here in spades.

A lot of the stunt work is pretty impressive too, especially one scene where McNally tosses a bad guy through a window just to make a point.

And the story climaxes with an exciting shoot-out near the eponymous Silver Creek, even though the gun battle itself takes place between over a dozen men rather than the two hinted at in the movie’s title.

Still, all that technical expertise kind of goes to waste if you don’t care about any of the characters, and Siegel never managed to master that secret formula with this project.

And In the end, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for emotional depth in a classic Hollywood western, since cerebral genre pictures already existed in droves around that time.

In fact, I stumbled across one such example last September with Leslie Fenton’s Whispering Smith (1948), which features a touching male friendship at its core in addition to all your typical western window dressing.

Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) also presents a much better story about cross generational gunslingers, mostly because that film gives its characters room to breathe and chat with each other in between every obligatory bar fight.

Heck, even Siegel would eventually discover some thematic maturity later in his career, managing to pry a sensitive performance out of John Wayne for his final acting role in The Shootist (1976).

So, in this sense, it might be a little harsh to pinpoint Siegel as being the sole architect of this painfully by-the-book genre picture, especially since this marks his first western and his fourth feature film as a director.

But that doesn’t take away from the reality that The Duel at Silver Creek is in serious need of some nutritional value as far as things like characters, plot and dialogue go.

Instead, all you’re left with is the cinematic equivalent of empty calories that taste good in the moment, but don’t make a lasting impression in the long run.

In other words: it’s western junk food.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Doritos, Maynards Fuzzy Peach candy and an Oh Henry! bars (because these items will give you the sugar rush you need to get through the more derivative parts of this film)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Sept. 5, 1952

-Box office: $1.25 million

-Director Don Siegel was renowned for collaborating with actor Clint Eastwood on a variety of high-profile projects, including: Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), The Beguiled (1971), Dirty Harry (1971) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

– Surprise cameo: Famous Hollywood tough guy Lee Marvin has a small supporting role playing a local roughneck who becomes a pawn in the bad guy’s overall scheme.

A Walk to Remember (2002) review-Is it dusty in here or something?

My inaugural journey into the Nicholas Sparks cinematic universe got off to a shaky start last year, with Message in a Bottle (1999) providing lots of beautiful imagery but a fundamentally flawed love story at its core.

Because of this, I booted up A Walk to Remember (2002) with some serious reservations, expecting the same unbalanced experience that failed to show me why Sparks’ brand of romantic fiction has resonated with so many people.

However, this time around, the cast and crew behind the author’s second big-screen adaptation really went out of their way to sell you on the central relationship between the two leads, which is all you really need for this kind of movie to work.

The plot of A Walk to Remember revolves around rebellious high schooler Landon (Shane West), whose tendency to hang around with the wrong crowd eventually lands him in hot water with the law.

In order to avoid jail time and expulsion, this troubled young man signs up for a variety of community service programs, which puts him in close proximity with fellow student Jamie (Mandy Moore).

Even though they come from different backgrounds, the pair form an unlikely romantic bond that puzzles Landon’s friends and worries Jamie’s minister father. 

Now, if you read that synopsis (or watched the above trailer) and rolled your eyes I wouldn’t blame you.

This “star-crossed lovers” premise has been executed hundreds of times on film and A Walk to Remember does very little to mix up that formula.

In fact, it’s almost comedic how far director Adam Shankman goes to position West and Moore as an unlikely couple in the beginning.

Not only does the pair dress like they are inhabiting different centuries, but the film’s soundtrack even reinforces this disconnect by giving each character contrasting musical cues.

While Moore is usually surrounded by a choir or gentle, ambient music, West’s bad boy interloper is constantly backed by a punk or grunge band whenever he is on screen.

Even though this technique accomplishes its goal of distinguishing these two characters, the filmmakers lay it on way too thick, to the point where each scene transitions feels like you are jumping into a completely different movie.

This ham-fisted set-up also isn’t helped by some clunky dialogue early on, where screenwriter Karen Janszen decided to cram a lot of Jamie’s backstory into a single conversation.

But as the plot moves forward, a lot of those glaring weaknesses begin to fade away as the dynamic between Moore and West finally takes shape, which is hands down the best part of the movie.

Not only does the pair have crazy chemistry, but Janszen also maps out some pretty satisfying character development through their evolving relationship.

Like most great movie romances, Landon and Jamie bring the best out of each other as they become closer, helping to fill an emotional void that both characters have had to endure because of an absent parental figure.

Once this bond really takes hold, both characters demonstrate their ability to grow as people, with Jamie learning to come out of her shell while Landon finally showcases some empathy that he had been lacking up until this point.

And then, cruelly, Sparks pulls the rug out from under the audience with a third act revelation that has made this story a prolific tearjerker for an entire generation of readers and moviegoers.  

A WALK TO REMEMBER, Mandy Moore, Shane West, 2002 (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection.

Again, nothing about this framework is revolutionary, and A Walk to Remember got righteously raked over the coals by critics when it was originally released for being “boring,” “melodramatic,” “cliché-ridden” and even “simple-minded.”

However, I believe that this simplicity is why the movie works so well, since it is laser focused on the two appealing leads and doesn’t get bogged down in a bunch of unnecessary sub plots.

In fact, one of the film’s biggest missteps, in my eyes, are these brief digressions involving Landon’s estranged father, who doesn’t meaningfully add to the plot and should have been cut out of the story altogether.

Because, at the end of the day, all the audience really cares about is watching Moore and West interact on screen, and for very good reason.

 The back and forth between these two is very fun to watch, since they genuinely appear to enjoy each other’s company and don’t rely on the film’s soundtrack or cinematography to do the heavy lifting.  

Moore is particularly impressive inhabiting a role that requires her to act like a full-grown adult stuck in a teenager’s body, especially since she was only 17-18 at the time of filming. 

And when that tragic third act revelation finally rears its ugly head, her performance actually takes on a whole new layer of meaning, encouraging you to watch the whole movie again with this new information in mind.

Admittedly, these two strong lead performances aren’t backed up by any real impressive filmmaking, since Shankman’s direction is pretty bland and doesn’t hold a candle to the scenic vistas that were on display throughout Message in a Bottle.  

That being said, he does show some flourishes every now and again by utilizing the occasional long take, including a series of lengthy tracking shots that introduce a lot of the supporting cast in the opening minutes of the movie.   

Still, I’m not going to pretend like Shankman’s mise-en-scène in A Walk to Remember is particularly noteworthy or eye-catching.

In fact, it seems like most of those key visual elements—like composition, production design, lighting and costuming—are being used to service the two main leads as opposed to all the surrounding scenery.

But, in retrospect, that decision was probably for the best, since the relationship between Moore and West is the main selling point of the movie. And in that respect, I think most people left the theatre back in 2002 feeling like they got their money’s worth.

Overall, I think the main reason why A Walk to Remember succeeds where other romantic dramas fail is that the central love story is simple and earnest.

Even when the plot veers off into some heavy subject matter later on, the film doesn’t feel overly manipulative or like it is trying too hard to make the audience weep.

Instead, those tears flow from a very natural place, which is a testament to Janszen’s script and the original source material.

I don’t know if any of Sparks’ other screen adaptations contain similar levels of emotional potency, but I’m looking forward to seeing where this journey takes me.

After all, if I’m going to cry living under these lockdown conditions, I’d prefer my source of woe to be a piece of media rather than the crushing realization that I can’t see my friends and family right now.

Er …. anyway … Happy Valentine’s Day!!!

Verdict:

7/10

Corner store companion:

Scotties and Kleenex brand tissues (because you’ll really need them for the final reel of this film)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Jan. 25, 2002

-Budget: $ 11,800,000 (estimated)

-Box Office Gross: $ 41, 281,092 (domestic), $47,494,916 (worldwide)

A Walk to Remember serves as Mandy Moore’s first major movie role following her well-established career in music. Before this film, she mostly nabbed supporting roles in films like Dr. Dolittle 2 and The Princess Diaries.

-Many of the sets featured in A Walk to Remember were used by the cast and crew of Dawson’s Creek, a long-running teen drama that was also shot in Wilmington, North Carolina.  

-Even though Sparks’ original novel took place in the 1950s, he and the filmmakers decided to update the setting to the 1990s/2000s for the screen adaptation, believing that this change of scenery would resonate a lot more with modern audiences.

-In a 2015 interview with The Wrap, Shane West revealed that he was so enamored with the 1967 Chevrolet Camaro he drove in this film that he bought this classic muscle car following the first week of shooting.

-Like Moore, Shane West has an extensive background in music as well as acting, serving as the lead singer of the punk bands Johnny Was in the 1990s and Twilight Creeps in the 2010s.

-Musical highlight: “Cry” by Mandy Moore (this thematically appropriate song plays over the movie’s closing credits)

Gotcha! (1985) review-the man with the paintball gun

You could use a lot of colourful adjectives to describe Jeff Kanew’s Gotcha! (1985), but the one word that keeps rattling around in my brain is “frustrating.”

The film’s quality undergoes so many peaks and valleys throughout its hour-and-forty-minute runtime that you swear it was put together by a bunch of an out-of-touch movie executives who were throwing everything at the screen to see what sticks. 

While this movie does feature some genuine highlights, Gotcha! never really ties its disparate elements into a cohesive whole and just comes across as a naked attempt to kick-start a new spy-comedy franchise at Universal Pictures.

The film stars Anthony Edwards as Jonathan Moore, a UCLA student who visits Europe with his roommate in a hormone-driven quest to lose his virginity.

After meeting a mysterious older woman named Sasha Banicek (Linda Fiorentino), Jonathan gets wrapped up in an international espionage plot that involves the KGB, the CIA and a top-secret film cannister that both groups are trying to get their hands on.

The script also establishes early on that Jonathan is an expert paintball player—a fact that doesn’t come into play again until the very end of the movie.

Gotcha! is a difficult film to talk about, since it goes all over the place and undergoes such rapid shifts in tone. Heck, even some promotional material at the time admits to this fact, with the announcer of this TV spot not even knowing how to classify its story for prospective moviegoers.

This uneven focus comes to pass in the movie itself, since the filmmakers don’t do a great job of balancing the “spy” and “comedy” aspects of the story, especially during the opening 30 minutes.

Throughout that entire stretch of time, the broader espionage plot is never mentioned or even hinted at. Instead, Kanew is mostly content with just rehashing the same kind of raunchy, coming-of-age hijinks that he rode to box office success in 1984 with Revenge of the Nerds.

This weird plot structure actually reminded me a lot of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), which randomly switches from being a neo-western to a supernatural-horror film without any significant foreshadowing to speak of.

And while Gotcha!’s transition from light comedy to full-on spy thriller is similarly jarring, the film at least finds its footing in its second act, thanks in part to Fiorentino’s compelling performance as the romantic lead.

Even though the material she’s given is pretty suspect, Fiorentino still manages to pull off the conflicted femme fatale archetype remarkably well.

Not only does she adopt a convincing Eastern European accent, but Fiorentino also navigates a lot of complex emotional ground with ease, so much so that you actually wish the movie was centered around her point-of-view.

Instead, all we’re left with is Edwards’ dweeby college student, who is meant to be the audience surrogate, but comes across as too whiny and milquetoast to really excel in that role.

The filmmakers try and compensate for this fact by making Edwards’ character a crack shot in paintball, although that comes across as a blatant attempt to cash in on a cool new sport that was gaining popularity across North America at the time.  

Still, Edwards and Fiorentino at least have good chemistry together, which helps prop up all the cloak-and-dagger stuff that dominates the movie’s middle section.

This part of the film is also complimented by some great use of on-location shooting—including stops in Paris, Berlin and the Spandau Citadel in Germany—that briefly tricks you into thinking the narrative is leading to a thrilling conclusion.

Unfortunately, once the action returns to America in act three, the filmmakers start to fumble the ball again when it comes to cultivating a consistent tone.

Even though the serious spy story is supposed to be ramping up at this point, screenwriter Dan Gordon can’t help but insert these little comedic digressions that bring the pace to a grinding halt.

Jonathan’s parents believing that their son is a drug addict (when he’s actually being chased by the KGB) might have been a funny joke for the beginning or middle of the story, but it has no place in the film’s final 30 minutes when the audience should be laser focused on the looming climax.

However, that’s not to suggest that Gordon can’t put together a well-constructed joke, since the film is sprinkled with several gags that made me laugh out loud.

One of my favourite scenes involves Jonathan telling off East German customs officials after he endures an invasive strip search crossing Checkpoint Charlie.

But for every genuinely funny moment like that, you still have to sit through a bunch of scenes that just don’t land, especially when the Edwards is left to his own devices and has to single-handedly rise above the screenwriter’s lesser material.

One of the worst examples of this comes early on in the story, where Jonathan tries to order drinks in a Parisienne café without a strong grasp of the French language, and proceeds to chew out the waiter like that’s his fucking problem.

For some reason, Gordon decided to make the waiter the butt of the joke in this scenario and not the Ugly American, a decision that hasn’t aged well in the 36 years since the movie’s release.

In fact, Gotcha! is full of a dated elements that might turn modern audiences off depending on their appetite for 1980s aesthetics and culture.

While the film’s heavy synthesizer soundtrack and Cold War politics are fairly inoffensive, its cavalier attitude towards drawing guns in public places might turn some heads in 2021.  

Obviously, there is no way Gordon could have predicted the future prominence of mass shootings in American life, but it’s still distracting to see his characters brandish weapons at a prominent university campus (in broad daylight) without bystanders so much as batting an eye.

The filmmakers were also really banking on the newfound popularity of paintball being a reliable marketing tie-in for this movie, since Edwards repeats the line “Gotcha!” so many times that you think he was auditioning for a commercial.

Historical hindsight aside, my biggest takeaway from watching Gotcha! is that it could have been a genuinely entertaining spy-comedy with some light restructuring and a couple tweaks around the edges.

But as it stands, the film is largely a frustrating exercise in mediocrity, with little kernels of greatness popping to the surface every now and then.

However, Gotcha! contains plenty of out-of-left-field zaniness that made it worth watching at least once, including one of the funniest movie title cards I’ve ever seen.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Prana’s Fuji Premium Salty Mix (because unlike this movie, you can pick out the parts you like and consume them separately)

Fun facts:

-Release date: May 3, 1985

-Budget: $12.5 million

-Box Office Gross: $10,806,919 (domestic)

-According to IMDB, Gotcha! is the first major film to feature the sport of paintball in a significant fashion.

-The writes of the NBC spy series Chuck paid tribute to Gotcha! by reusing the name “Sasha Banicek” for another character in the Season 2 episode “Chuck vs the Seduction.”

-On top of containing several nods to James Bond, Gotcha! actually came out in theatres a couple weeks before the 14th entry in the franchise, A View to a Kill, was released.

-The music for this film was composed by Academy Award winning conductor Bill Conti, who is most famous for scoring all six Rocky movies (and for creating the series’ iconic theme song “Gonna Fly Now”).

Gotcha! belongs to a short but prestigious list of films that have exclamation points in their titles. This group includes: Safety Last! (1923), Oklahoma! (1955), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Oliver! (1968), Airplane!  (1980), Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992).

-Musical highlight: “Gotcha!” by Thereza Bazar (this kick-ass theme song plays over the movie’s opening and closing credits)

Deck the Halls (2006) review-just watch Christmas Vacation instead

One of my family’s more consistent holiday traditions is watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation every December, although we’re far from the only people to do so.

Ever since that movie was released in 1989, it has gone on to become required viewing in a lot of households, due in large part to the film’s memorable cast and John Hughes’ crackerjack script.  

Even if you’ve never seen Christmas Vacation before, chances are you’ve already experienced a lot of its sights and sounds through cultural osmosis, like Chevy Chase’s epic meltdown during the movie’s climax.

In fact, Christmas Vacation was so influential that director John Whitesell decided to recycle a lot of the same story beats and plot elements for his own holiday-themed comedy Deck the Halls in 2006, although he neglected to capture the same wit and heart that made that original film so memorable in the first place.

For those of you who missed it, the plot Deck the Halls revolves around two rival neighbours played by Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick, who start to butt heads due to their conflicting beliefs on how best to celebrate the holidays.

While Broderick’s Steve just wants to organize a quiet family Christmas, DeVito’s Buddy strives to make the biggest public spectacle possible, dressing his house up in hundreds of thousands of lights in the hopes that the dwelling can be seen from space.

As this war of attrition gradually escalates, both men’s families get caught in the crossfire, which threatens to tear them apart for good.

While it may not seem like a watered-down Christmas Vacation rip-off on the surface, Deck the Halls contains way too many similarities to the 1989 classic for it to be a coincidence.

Not only is a father’s infatuation with creating the perfect old-fashioned family Christmas the main narrative through line in both films, but a variety of jokes and plot points are also shared between the two. These parallels include:

-A character obsessing over decorating their house in as many lights as possible.

-A holiday advent calendar being used to chronicle the passage of time.

-A Christmas tree expedition going horribly awry.

-An extended gag where the main character loses control going down a snowy hill.

-Growing tension between neighbours resulting in lots of property damage.

I’m sure there’s other similarities I missed, but the point is that Deck the Halls’ three screenwriters (Matt Corman, Chris Ord and Don Rhymer) did their best to lift material from Hughes without attempting to replicate his ability to balance slapstick humor and relatable family drama.

Because of this, all the movie has to offer is a series of cartoony pratfalls and one-liners that occasionally entertain, but don’t stick with you on any meaningful level. 

Admittedly, Deck the Halls did make me laugh on a number of occasions, although most of those chuckles could be chalked up to the movie’s over reliance on physical comedy.

I’m an easy man to please when it comes to this style of humour, and the filmmakers at least knew how to stage a lot of these low brow gags in a satisfactory manner.

However, the same cannot be said for a lot of the movie’s verbal jokes, which usually land with a dull thud due to how they are put together in post.

It seems like the editors always leave a moment of silence at the end of every punchline to give the audience room to laugh, even though this technique spectacularly backfires more often than not due to awkward it is.

But the film’s biggest sin, by far, is its uneven tone that occasionally switches between wholesome family entertainment and raunchy sex comedy.

Even though Deck the Halls is rated “G” by the MPAA, the screenwriters somehow managed to get away with loading up their script with a bunch of suggestive jokes that are quite blunt and not clever in the slightest.

Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me, since studios like Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks always sneak some dirty joke into their children’s films.

But with Deck the Halls, it seems like these gags are clumsily crowbarred into the movie for no real rhyme or reason other than to alienate the movie’s target demographic.

One of the more mean-spirited recurring bits in the film involves the local police sheriff, whose propensity to wear lady’s underwear creeps Broderick out to the point where he doesn’t report any of DeVito’s various bylaw infractions.

Because, according to these writers, nothing gets people in the holiday spirit more than judging others for what they decide to wear underneath their work clothes.  

The absolute worst example of this approach to comedy comes later on in the film, when Broderick and DeVito unknowingly cat call their respective underaged daughters at a winter fair, with Broderick’s character even going so far as to yell “who’s your daddy?”

Not only is the act of inserting an incest joke into a family film a slight against human decency, but this scene doesn’t even make sense from a script-writing perspective, since neither character have displayed any outwardly pervy behaviour up until this point in the story.

Outside of testing my gag reflex, this one scene actually exemplifies why Christmas Vacation works and Deck the Halls doesn’t.

Sure, Hughes’ film featured a lot of off-colour jokes and some questionable decision-making from its protagonist, but that story was at least anchored in some recognizable holiday season struggles that most people can relate to.  

Deck the Halls, on the other hand, is an absolute farce, mostly due to the fact that its main characters are completely unlikable and have problems that no one can identify with.

For instance, DeVito’s goal to ensure that his house can be seen from space is treated like it is a noble endeavor instead of a rabid act of consumerism.  

Now, this element could have potentially worked if the screenwriters turned the story into a satire about Christmas commercialism gone amok. But I think that idea went right over the filmmakers’ heads and they decided to take such a shallow ambition at face value.

With all that being said, I don’t think Deck the Halls is as bad as a lot of other critics say it is, especially since sites like Vogue, Paste Magazine,  and Rotten Tomatoes currently rank it as one of the worst holiday movies of all time.

While the film is definitely vapid and soulless, it did manage to elicit a few laughs from me, which is more than welcome as this dumpster fire of a year finally comes to a close.

However, I will probably never get the impulse to watch Deck the Halls ever again, whereas the movie it was clearly trying to rip off (Christmas Vacation) still has a permanent place on my annual holiday watch-list.

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

Holiday M & M’s (because DeVito played the human version of an M & M in a Super Bowl commercial one time)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Nov. 22, 2006

-Budget: $51 million

-Box Office Gross: $35,093,569 (domestic), $47,232,776 (worldwide)

-Film critic Richard Roeper ranked Deck the Halls as the sixth worst movie of 2006 (alongside Unaccompanied Minors) during an episode of At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper

Deck the Halls picked up three nominations at the 2007 Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Supporting Actress (Kristin Chenoweth), Worst Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito) and Worst Excuse for Family Entertainment.

-Surprise cameo: Kal Penn (of Harold and Kumar fame) shows up briefly to play a software engineer whose program, My Earth, is being utilized to determine if DeVito’s Christmas decorations can be seen from space. The most notable thing about this performance is Penn decided to adopt a terrible British accent for some reason.

Message in a Bottle (1999) review- missing that crucial spark

When it comes to film criticism, I always try to take my professional life out of the equation, especially when a movie decides to mimic the world I inhabit as reporter.

But Luis Mandoki’s Message in a Bottle (1999), based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, contains such a flagrant example of journalistic malpractice from the main character that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at what’s otherwise a pretty enjoyable romantic drama.

The film stars Robin Wright as Theresa Osbourne, a researcher for the Chicago Tribune who conducts a nation-wide search for a mystery man after one of his love letters (contained in a bottle, naturally) washes up on the shore of a nearby beach.

Theresa’s search eventually leads her to a sleepy sea-side town in North Carolina, where she comes face-to-face with the author himself: a soft-spoken widower played by Kevin Costner.

Even though Theresa was sent there to gather information on the man (Garrett) and his tragic love story, she neglects to disclose the real reason for her visit, not wanting to spoil the mutual attraction that’s growing between them.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with this set-up on multiple levels.

In terms of journalistic ethics, Theresa failing to divulge her true assignment to Garrett from the get-go is incredibly sketchy, since she’s gathering sensitive details about a man’s dead wife under false pretenses.   

This approach might have made sense if the character worked for a scuzzy tabloid newspaper that is completely devoid of editorial scruples.

But in the real world, even the gutter trash “reporters” that work for TMZ announce who they are when they harass celebrities at the airport, so I don’t know why Sparks and screenwriter Gerald Di Pego decided to portray the Chicago Tribune staff in such a negative light (intentionally or not).

On a writing level, this deceitful action also drags down Wright’s otherwise solid lead performance as Theresa, who is meant to be this kind, empathetic figure but just comes across as being manipulative.

No matter how many times she shares a cute moment with Garrett or even his crusty father Dodge (played by Paul Newman), I couldn’t get invested in these relationships since they are built on a foundation of lies.

Of course, it’s obvious why they decided to include this plot element in the story: to build tension.

Theresa’s deception serves as a kind of Sword of Damocles for the narrative, something that hangs over the central romance and threatens to destroy it at any second.

And while every good love story needs tangible conflict beyond a “will they, won’t they?” dynamic, a seemingly good-hearted person lying to a grieving widower by omission seems like the laziest possible way to inject that sort of speed bump into the plot.

In my view, Message in a Bottle (1999) would be vastly improved if Theresa simply revealed her intentions to Garrett from the outset.

Not only is this approach more consistent with how the character is written, but it also provides a much more interesting avenue for conflict, where she gradually has to win Garrett’s trust as both a reporter and romantic partner throughout the course of the story.

I know my fixation on this one plot point is a little over-the-top, but that’s only because it drags down a movie that I really wanted to like.

After all, this is my first time indulging in a Nicholas Sparks story, and it’s easy to see why his specific slice of romantic fiction has spawned such a vast media empire on the printed page and silver screen.

For one thing, the film’s cinematography is consistently gorgeous, with Oscar-nominated DP Caleb Deschanel doing an expert job of capturing the beauty of costal America that Sparks loves to write about.

Some lingering shots of sailboats and crashing ocean waves might wander into the territory of scenery porn, but that at least has some relevance to the plot, reinforcing Theresa’s desire to abandon her life in the big city to live with Garrett.

This idyllic, small-town atmosphere is made even more appealing thanks to a really strong supporting cast, who come across as the exact kind of people you would want to chat up after checking into a bed and breakfast.

Paul Newman really shines in this capacity, with his character’s salt-of-the-earth wisdom and sassy comebacks leading to some of the film’s best moments.

Plus, the movie’s soundtrack features a bevy of easy-listening icons like Faith Hill, Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan, which compliments this laid-back aesthetic in a very meaningful way.

Of course, Message in a Bottle has a couple other things holding it back aside from a single questionable writing decision at its core.

For one thing, the film’s runtime clocks in at over two hours, which is way too long for this kind of movie and it really kills the momentum in the third act.

You’ll also notice that I haven’t commented on Costner’s qualities as a romantic lead up until this point, and that’s because he barely registers as a presence on screen.

I understand that it’s difficult to squeeze a compelling performance out of a character who is meant to emotionally withdrawn, but Costner never really manages to get himself out of first gear, even when he’s asked to deliver a passionate monologue later on in the movie.

It’s almost like he suffers from the reverse problem of his co-star (Wright), since Costner’s wooden acting doesn’t compliment some admittedly solid character writing from Sparks and Di Pego.

Unfortunately, these two incomplete characters don’t coalesce into a compelling whole, which is a big problem when your romantic leads are the movie’s biggest selling point.  

Despite this film’s mixed quality, it still hasn’t discouraged me from watching the remaining four entries in my “5 Film Collection: Nicholas Sparks” DVD set.

Clearly the author has tapped into a formula that resonates with a lot of people—having sold over 115 million copies of his books worldwide—and I’m curious to see if the more appealing qualities of Message in a Bottle (1999) are way more prevalent in future film adaptations.

But hopefully this story marks the last time Sparks dips his toes into writing about the world of journalism, since he’s clearly out of his depth when it comes to this subject.  

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Sensations Cracker Assortment (because this is possible one of the whitest movies I’ve ever seen)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Feb. 12, 1999

-Budget: $80,000 (estimated)

-Box Office Gross: $52,880,016 (domestic), $118,880, 016 (international)

Message in a Bottle is the first of 11 total Nicholas Sparks film adaptations. Altogether, these movies have grossed a combined $ 889,615,166 worldwide. 

-While all of Sparks’ films manage to turn a profit, none of them are critical darlings. Out of all 11 movies, The Notebook has come the closest to achieving a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes at 53 per cent.

-Sparks originally published Message in a Bottle back in 1998. It was his second official novel after The Notebook in 1994.

-Sparks’ most recent written work, The Return, was released back in September of this year, which marked his 21st published novel. He’s also written two non-fiction books.

-Kevin Costner was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award (Worst Actor) in 2000 for his performance in both Message in a Bottle and For The Love of the Game.

-Musical highlight: “Carolina” by Sheryl Crow (plays over the end credits)

King of the Zombies (1941) review-possibly the worst Oscar contender of all time

To properly gauge the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ historic distain for the horror genre, one need only consider the curious case of Jean Yarbrough’s King of the Zombies (1941).

As it stands, this low-budget film is, according to IMDB, the only zombie-related property to ever be nominated for an Oscar, with Edward Kay getting the nod for Best Original Score for a Dramatic Picture.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with that scenario, the most obvious gripe being the fact that King of the Zombies actually bills itself as a comedy and features truly forgettable music.

But the bigger problem emerges once you realize how bad this 1941 shit-fest actually is in comparison to all the other great horror cinema that came along after it, only a small fraction of which got any attention from the Academy Awards.

The plot of King of the Zombies, if you can call it that, revolves around three travellers (a pilot, a passenger and his manservant) who crash land on a mysterious Caribbean island that’s inhabited by a mad scientist.

After a lot of haunted house hijinks transpire, the trio eventually discover that their host has enslaved the native population and turned them into mindless zombies, hoping to use their voodoo magic to extract military secrets from a captured US Admiral.

As zany and madcap as that plot recap sounds, it’s incredible how dull and devoid of life (pun intended) King of the Zombies actually is for most of its runtime.

Most scenes just involve the film’s principle characters standing in the middle a static shot and spouting off one-liners, like they are rehearsing for a high school play.

Even when zombies finally enter the picture, at least two out of three leads treat this situation way too casually and do a really poor job of conveying the fact that anything remotely supernatural is happening.

The filmmakers also put next to no effort into establishing a macabre or spooky atmosphere, as most of the props and sets seem like they were recycled from a patchwork of other, better movies.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned in the past, most of these cinematic shortcomings can be forgiven if a comedy manages to bring the laughs on a consistent basis.

Unfortunately, King of the Zombies only has one big comedic trump card in the form of Mantan Moreland, who plays the befuddled manservant Jeff.

On one hand, Moreland is the most endearing character in the movie, since he reacts appropriately to the existence of shambling corpses, as opposed to his fellow co-stars who might as well be replaced with cardboard cutouts.

The actor also manages to score some of the movie’s only genuine laughs through his natural comedic timing, something that he probably developed through years of performing vaudeville.

But it’s impossible to talk about Moreland’s performance without tackling the style of comedy that he employs, which is heavily influenced by southern minstrel shows.

Now, I don’t usually like to bash older movies for containing elements that [inset current year] audiences might find distasteful. But when it comes to King of the Zombies, the filmmakers’ over reliance on Moreland’s bugged-out eyes and dull-witted enunciation gets old quickly, especially when you realize that the movie has nothing else to offer in terms of comedy.

It also doesn’t help that Moreland’s Jeff is constantly put in a position to try and convince the other characters that they are in danger, even though his concerns are regularly swatted away like he is an over-imaginative child.

Racial stereotypes aside, the biggest acting sin on display in King of the Zombies actually belongs to Henry Victor, who plays the mad scientist Dr. Miklos Sangre.

Reportedly, Victor was a last-minute replacement for a role that was designed for two other actors and it really shows.

Outside of being of horribly miscast as a villain, Victor also can’t seem to remember his lines half the time, resulting in a bunch of awkward scenes that should have been relegated to a blooper reel.

Even though the film’s two remaining leads (Dick Purcell and John Archer) can at least deliver their dialogue confidently, the pair still have very little personality or charisma to speak of.

This leaves Moreland to carry the entire movie on his back almost single-handedly, even though its screenwriter (and broader society at the time) didn’t view him as anything more than a cheap comedy sidekick.

As a result, King of the Zombies’ biggest failing, outside of its piss-poor production values, is the fact that it doesn’t provide the audience with any emotional weight to anchor all of the supernatural shenanigans.

And it’s not like this is a tough formula to crack. Around that same time, actors like Bob Hope, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello found a lot of success mixing comedy and horror through projects like The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

But King of the Zombies probably didn’t have a hope of being good at its conception, since it was produced by Monogram Pictures.

Unlike Universal Studios or any other big-time operation in Hollywood, Monogram employed a “fast and dirty” approach to film production that emphasized speed over quality, resulting in movies that managed to turn a profit despite not getting a lot of attention from critics.

But even with this reputation, King of the Zombies still managed to snag a historic Oscar nomination in 1941, which is either the result of an insider bet gone wrong or someone working at Monogram knowing how to play the system.

Either way, this movie remains an interesting footnote in the Academy Awards’ storied history, serving as a small exception to the organization’s traditional disdain for horror filmmaking.

It’s just a shame that such a historically significant film is the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry.  

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

Twizzlers (because you deserve to enjoy something tasty while watching this dreck)

Fun facts:

-Release date: May 14, 1941

King of the Zombies ultimately did not take home the Oscar for Best Original Score for a Dramatic Picture at the 1942 Academy Awards. That honour went to Bernard Herrmann for his work on All That Money Can Buy.

-Both Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre were considered for the role of the film’s mad scientist, but a deal could not be reached in time for either actor.

-While horror movies routinely get snubbed at the Academy Awards, some films have managed to break through that barrier and actually bring home a gold statue. These movies include: Rosemary’s Baby (Best Supporting Actress-Ruth Gordon), The Exorcist (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound), The Omen (Best Original Music), Misery (Best Actress-Kathy Bates), Black Swan (Best Actress-Natalie Portman), Get Out (Best Original Screenplay) and Silence of the Lambs (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor-Anthony Hopkins and Best Actress-Jodie Foster).

-Monogram Pictures operated in Hollywood from 1931 to 1953 before transitioning to the name Allied Artists Pictures Corporation. Monogram/Allied ultimately filed for bankruptcy and dissolved in 1979.

– Mantan Moreland reprised his role as Jeff in the film’s sequel Revenge of the Zombies, which was released in 1943.

King of the Zombies is currently in the public domain and can be watched in its entirety on YouTube.

Whispering Smith (1948) review-soft-spoken cowboy makes a good first impression

While some old school heroes manage to endure over time, others fade into relative obscurity, which the fate that befell western gunslinger Whispering Smith.

Originally conceived by American novelist Frank H. Spearman in 1906, the railroad detective went on to headline several silent films and eventually a couple talkies, with the first of these being titled, appropriately enough, Whispering Smith Speaks (1935).

However, the character’s biggest showcase came in 1948 with Leslie Fenton’s Whispering Smith that starred Alan Ladd and was shot in vivid Technicolor.

But unlike a lot of other popular book-to-screen heroes of the Post-WWII era, like Zorro or Sherlock Homes, the Whispering Smith character never really got to achieve that transcendent level of popularity again outside of a short-lived TV show in 1961.

In hindsight, it’s too bad that Ladd never got the chance to reprise his role as the soft-spoken cowboy in a proper series of films, since his 1948 version of the character showed a lot of potential.

The plot of Whispering Smith (1948) follows a lot of the same beats as the character’s previous incarnations, where a stoic railroad detective gets entangled with some outlaws who are looking to pull off a series of increasing daring train heists.

However, Smith’s latest case hits a little too close to home after he suspects that life-long friend Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston) has become involved with a group of bandits.

This situation is made even more complicated thanks to the involvement of Murray’s wife Marian (Brenda Marshall), who still has feelings for Smith despite the fact that she chose to marry his best bud.

On a surface level, Whispering Smith has all the scenery and aesthetics that one would want from a Golden Age Hollywood western: vast landscapes, dingy saloons, grimacing bad guys and revolvers that generate clouds of smoke whenever they are fired.

But all those standard cowboy trimmings are elevated to a whole new level thanks to the movie’s astounding presentation.

Not only does the Technicolor processing make all of the film’s reds, greens and blues really pop off the screen, but cinematographer Ray Rennahan utilizes a lot of fluid camera movements that gives you a better look at all the impressive set dressing.

For example, when Smith enters a bar midway through the film to confront a villain, the camera follows him pretty much every step of the way without cutting, giving the audience a perfect view of every nearby extra and their unique costuming.

As a result, the world of Whispering Smith doesn’t look like a cheap studio backlot like so many lesser-quality westerns of the time. Instead, everything feels simultaneously lived-in and larger-than-life, which isn’t an easy feat to pull off on film.

But the movie’s main draw outside of all its gorgeous surroundings is the core relationship between Smith and Sinclair, which forms the thematic and narrative backbone of the entire story.

In a very short amount of time, the movie establishes everything you need to know about these two men, their past adventures and the decisions that have brought them to this point in their respective lives.

Smith’s obviously chosen the path that’s more befitting of an archetypal western hero: a travelling loner and gun-for-hire who doesn’t leave a lot of room for personal attachments.

Meanwhile, Sinclair decided to carve out a life that is much more relatable to a post-WWII audience, where he’s left his fighting days behind him to settle down and run his own business (in this case, a ranch).

But, in a bold move, the filmmakers decided to make the relatable everyman the antagonist of the picture, with Sinclair’s growing resentment towards Smith and his dissatisfaction with the idea of making an honest living gradually turning him to the dark side.

This central conflict works well on the page and it is made even better thanks to Ladd and Preston’s stellar performances. Not only do the pair have great chemistry as life-long friends, but they also do a great job of playing off each other as reluctant enemies.

In fact, the duo’s bond is so strong that you wish they could just put their guns down and resolve everything with a couple shots of whiskey instead of resorting to shots of lead.

Admittedly, Sinclair’s heel turn in the latter half of the film does feel a little rushed.

One second the rancher is deeply conflicted about the prospect of teaming up with a group of outlaws, and the next he’s gleefully robbing trains in a fast-paced montage.

I understand that the filmmakers didn’t have a lot of time to work with, with the runtime clocking in at just under 90 minutes, but they could have included at least a couple extra scenes to make his transition a little more believable.

And without getting into too many spoilers, the film’s ending suffers from a similar kind of problem.

Like a lot of older movies, Whispering Smith (1948) doesn’t really feature a prominent denouement, which means the credits roll basically the microsecond the climax is over.

As a result, several plot threads are left dangling, with the film’s main romantic storyline between Smith and Marian not getting a proper resolution. 

But despite these shortcomings, Whispering Smith (1948) still packs a real wallop on a visceral level, with enough emotional complexity bubbling beneath the surface to give the film real depth.

It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is rounded out by a terrific supporting cast, who give standard western archetypes like the old train conductor and town sheriff just enough dimension to keep things interesting.

A special mention should go out to veteran character actor Frank Faylen, whose Whitey Du Sang should really belong in the Henchman Hall of Fame for his cold-blooded stare alone.

Frank Faylen as Whitey Du Sang.

And while this film doesn’t represent the peak of Ladd’s talents as a leading man in a western , that would come later in Shane (1953), he still injects Whispering Smith (1948) with enough pathos and gravitas to give the story the emotional anchor it needs.

With all this in mind, I still think its strange how Frank Spearman’s original creation largely disappeared from the entertainment landscape following this 1948 film, with NBC providing the character with a brief 26-episode revival on the small screen 13 years later.

I guess some pop culture figures just don’t stand the test of time or are limited in terms of their ability to adapt to emerging cultural trends.

But if you want to take a break from all the morally compromised anti-heroes that dominate most modern movies and TV shows, you could do a lot worse than the classic good-guy heroics featured in Leslie Fenton’s Whispering Smith.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

Bush’s Best Original Baked Beans (because it’s not fancy, but it gets the job done)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Dec. 9, 1948

-Budget: $2 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $2.8 million (US)

-Author Frank Spearman modeled the character of Whispering Smith off of real-life lawmen from the old west, including Timothy Keliher, Joe Lefors and James L. “Whispering” Smith.

-Screenwriters Frank Butler and Karl Kamb were nominated for a WGA Award (Best Written American Western) for their work on Whispering Smith (1948).

-Outside of the 1948 film, Whispering Smith’s most famous outing is probably the short-lived 1961 TV series of the same name. The show starred Audie Murphy in the title role, with his version of the old west police detective operating out Denver, Colorado. NBC only ended up airing 20 of the program’s original 26 episodes, since the studio was constantly defending the show’s “mature content” from various groups, including the US Senate. Currently, you can watch the entire 1961 series on YouTube.

Young Winston (1972) review-a tale of two Churchills

Even though historical biopics traditionally clean house during Oscar season, this genre of film can be downright insufferable if handled incorrectly.

In the past, a lot of filmmakers have been tempted to fit the totality of a person’s life and accomplishments into a single feature-length runtime, which can result in a bloated script and laughable use of old-age make-up.

JEdgar

Director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter Carl Foreman attempt to sidestep these problems in Young Winston (1972) by focusing on a specific period of Winston Churchill’s life: from his childhood to his time in the military to his early years in British Parliament.

While the pair are mostly successful in crafting an accessible take on a larger-than-life figure, they do stumble a bit when it comes to the overall storytelling, which prevents this film from achieving “all-time classic” status alongside other historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Young Winston’s biggest strength and weakness lies in its narrative structure that is broken up into two distinct halves.

The first part is more of a coming-of-age story/domestic drama featuring Churchill’s academic struggles and his dysfunctional relationship with his parents.

Hour two is an all-out war movie that showcases some pretty awe-aspiring recreations of events like the Battle of Omdurman and Churchill’s involvement in the Second Boer War.

While both sections boast some tremendous performances and prestige production values, the opening 60 minutes fall a little short in terms of introducing the audience to Churchill as a character.

Don’t get me wrong, the basics are all there, with the future UK Prime Minister being framed as an unsure young boy who is trying to follow in the footsteps of his father (who was a tremendously successful politician in his own right).

Plus, his sense of alienation is really hammered home thanks to some compelling work from Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft, who do a great job of portraying parents struggling to relate to their son.

However, the problem is that the first hour of this film dedicates far too much time to these supporting players, without giving the titular character any real time to make a big impression.

I’d estimate that at least half of the scenes in the first act of Young Winston feature Shaw and Bancroft exclusively, with the various child actors playing Churchill being shuffled off to the side.

Again, it’s not like these scenes are bad or anything (quite the opposite actually), but I did get the impression that the filmmakers tried to smuggle a backdoor biopic about Lord Randolph Churchill (the father) into a film that’s supposed to be about his son.

As a result, Young Winston feels a little bit unfocused at first, with most of the protagonist’s motivation being vocalized by other characters rather than being dictated by his own actions.

Another puzzling narrative choice introduced in the first half of this movie is the filmmakers’ use of overlapping narration, which is something I haven’t seen (or heard) since watching David Lynch’s screen version of Dune (1984).

Just like in that film, Young Winston features voice-overs from multiple different characters, who are meant to provide exposition and spout off about how great/terrible the main protagonist is.

I actually counted each time a new omniscient voice popped into the story and tallied over 10 narrators by the time the credits rolled.

Not only is this lazy storytelling, but layering the movie with so many conflicting narrators results in a really jarring movie-going experience that broke my immersion on multiple occasions.

Now, with all that bellyaching aside, Young Winston eventually finds its footing and picks up tremendously during its second half.

For one thing, Attenborough really gets to flex his talents as an action director, using dynamic camera movements and strategically placed extras to give the last formal cavalry charge in British military history its proper due.

Later on in the film, Attenborough outdoes himself in the action department by staging a truly nail biting sequence in the Second Boer War, where Churchill and his squad have to escape an ambush by pushing over a derailed train car.

But outside of all that bombastic war spectacle, Young Winston’s biggest asset in its second half is actor Simon Ward, who finally gets to take centre stage as an adult version of Churchill.

SimonWard

Despite the fact that this is his first leading-man role, Ward is completely comfortable in front of the camera and finds the right emotional beats to carry the audience from scene to scene.

He showcases some pretty impressive range throughout the film’s runtime as well, effortlessly transitioning from a nervous British schoolboy to an up-and-coming politician who easily captures the attention of his colleagues in Parliament.

Ward also doesn’t rely on doing a simple impression of his real-life counterpart to carry the story, which is a pitfall that a lot of actors fall into when they’re cast in a biopic.

TheRoom

Instead, he actually commits to playing a character, whose doubts and insecurities are eventually overshadowed by his sheer determination to make his mark in politics.

Of course, a lot of this character depth came be attributed to screenwriter Carl Foreman, who does a really great job of fleshing out all of the film’s major players.

Even though this approach leads to some clunky storytelling early on, everything eventually clicks into place once Ward gets to command the lion’s share of Foreman dialogue in the film’s second half.

That being said, I got the impression that the screenwriter was a little too enamored with his real-life subject, since there are select moments in the film that come across as fanboy wish fulfillment.

For example, Churchill easily guns down a bunch of enemy combatants in one of the first scenes of the movie, even though the character has very little field experience at this point in the story.

Moments like this could be chalked up to the fact that Foreman chose to base his screenplay on Churchill’s 1930 autobiography My Early Life; a book that is bound to contain at least a couple exaggerated retellings of real-world events.

So anyone walking into this film expecting any kind of critique about the less savory elements of the Churchill’s legacy, like his views on race and imperialism, will be sorely disappointed.

But judging it as a film, and not a historical document, Young Winston definitely succeeds more than it fails thanks to some very talented people working in front of and behind the camera.

It may not pack the same visceral punch as any war film directed by David Lean or Stanley Kubrick, but Attenborough still knows the right places to invest his time and money on screen, which would serve him well in future large-scale biopics like Gandhi (1982).

And with over 60 depictions of Churchill existing on film and television, Young Winston at least stands out on a superficial level by focusing on an period of his life outside of World War II.

The entertainment industry constantly acts like modern history only revolves around this one conflict, and any movie that breaks from that trend is a breath of the fresh air.

Verdict:

7/10

Corner store companion:

McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits and Tetley Earl Grey Tea (because it is the most British food and drink combination I could think of)

YoungWinston2

Fun facts:

-Release date: July 21, 1972 (UK), Oct. 10, 1972 (US)

-Box office gross: $ 4,687,000 (US)

Young Winston was nominated for three Oscars at the 1973 Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Simon Ward also won the Most Promising Newcomer (male) award at the 1973 Golden Globes.

-Ward went on to reprise his role as Winston Churchill in the 1994 Turkish television miniseries Kurtulus.

-Malcolm McDowell was originally slated to play the lead in this film, but repeatedly declined the role.

-Outside of portraying Churchill as a young adult, Ward also provides the voice of a middle-aged Churchill who narrates large chunks of this film.

-Besides helming Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough directed several other high-profile biopics later in his career, including Chaplin (1992) and Grey Owl (1999).

-Surprise cameo: Sir Anthony Hopkins makes as short appearance at the end of the film as David Lloyd George, one of Churchill’s more prominent political allies who also served as the UK’s Prime Minister between 1916 and 1922.

The Ladies Man (2000) review-a pretty limp comedy

In the modern sphere internet movie critics, one of their favourite recent punching bags is the (relatively) new phenomenon of social media influencers starring in feature films or ongoing series.

“Oh look,” they say over a glass of Cognac. “Somebody decided to remake Airplane with noted corpse vlogger Logan Paul. How very pedestrian.”

“You think that’s bad?” another would chime in while polishing their monocle. “Check out this hospital drama where the entire cast is made up of Tik Tok stars.”

While these commentators are not wrong, I think their analysis often falls short in terms of putting these entertainment properties in the right historical context.

After all, out-of-touch movie executives have always been on the lookout for some flash-in-the-pan celebrity that they can turn into a star overnight, no matter what era of film we’re talking about.

Take, for example, SNL Studios’ output from the late 1990s and early 2000s, since this production company specialized in using middling characters from the late-night sketch show to headline theatrical releases.

While I’ve already talked at length about Bruce McCulloch’s Superstar (1999), Reginald Hudlin’s The Ladies Man (2000) suffers from largely the same problem, where the central protagonist cannot sustain a 90-minute runtime.

The story itself centres around Leon Phelps (Tim Meadows), a self-professed love guru who dishes out dubious sex and relationship advice over late-night radio.

When Phelps’ show gets thrown off the air due to lude conduct, the “ladies man” is forced to re-evaluate his priorities and figure out how he wants to spend the rest of his life (and with who).

Meanwhile, a mob of angry cuckolds is roaming the streets out for blood since Phelps secretly bedded all their wives and girlfriends.

Having never watched a Leon Phelps sketch before popping in this DVD, I was pretty baffled as to why this character was popular in the first place (to the point where SNL execs thought he could carry his own movie).

Outside of saying raunchy things at inappropriate moments, and dressing like a Soul Train reject, Phelps doesn’t have anything else substantial to offer in the comedy department, which puts the film on extremely shaky ground.

The whole movie I was waiting for Meadows to move past spouting grade school sex jokes and reveal an extra dimension to his personality, but that time never came.

Instead, all of Phelps’ character growth is boiled down to his evolving relationship with his producer Julie (Karyn Parsons), even though that romantic turn is telegraphed from a mile away.

The writers try and give this character a little more depth by providing him with a backstory at the very beginning of the movie, but this flashback doesn’t really play into anything later on and just serves as filler for a movie that’s only 84 minutes long.

Phelps’ status as a lothario and master seducer also left me scratching my head.

Even though Meadows is a good-looking guy, he carries the same kind of cheesy bravado of a pre-teen boy who just discovered his first chest hair, with cringy pick-up lines that wouldn’t even work during happy hour at Chili’s.

It would be one thing if the writers framed Phelps as a kind of Johnny Bravo character, who talks a big game but constantly gets rejected.

But judging by the sheer amount of the scorned husbands and boyfriends who what the “ladies man” dead, Phelps’ obnoxious style of courtship is irresistible to the opposite sex, apparently.

This sloppy writing creates a disconnect between the character and the audience, since we’re never given any opportunity to see him as a person who could potentially operate like this in the real world.

Of course, these shortcomings could be tolerable if the jokes were at least funny, but The Ladies Man severely fumbles in this department as well.

While the movie did elicit a chuckle from me here and there, most of the gags were dead on arrival because of how lazy and predictable they are.

For example, 25-minutes into the film Phelps scores a short-lived gig at a Christian radio station; a scenario that any half-baked writer could spin into comedy gold.

Unfortunately, they only thing this crew could come up with involves Phelps interviewing a nun who spouts off a bunch of unintentional double-entendres like how she is going to “assume a missionary position” in “Bangkok.”

The film’s running gags don’t fair any better, since most of them involve taking tired concepts and completely driving them into the ground.

One of the worst examples of this involves Will Ferrell’s character (one of the cuckolded husbands), whose repressed homosexuality is tied to his affinity for Greco-Roman wrestling.

In fact, the film is so devoid of imagination that some of its supporting players spontaneously break out into a poorly choreographed musical number just to fill up two minutes of screen time.

Just to be clear, I have nothing against raunchy sex jokes or “LOL SO RANDOM” humour, but those elements need to be presented with some level of finesse in a feature film. Otherwise, I might as well be watching a “funniest nut shot” montage on YouTube.

With that being said, The Ladies Man does at least contain a couple decent supporting characters that help make the movie’s surrounding mediocrity a little more digestible.

The strongest of these is played by Billy Dee Williams, who doubles as Phelps’ mentor and the story’s narrator.

Not only are Williams’ silky tones welcome in any movie, but the writers also sneak in some decent fourth-wall breaking jokes where the actor’s monologue constantly gets interrupted by other characters in the film.

And Karyn Parsons is really grounded and likable as Phelps’ assistant Julie, so much that you wonder why she is wasting this quality performance on a film that has barely enough material for a five-minute sketch.

In the end, The Ladies Man’s biggest shortcoming is that it fails to justify its own existence as a star-making vehicle for Meadows, who never really got another chance to be a leading man after this movie flopped (both critically and financially).

However, this isn’t entirely the comedian’s fault, since not even a more versatile performer like Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock or Jamie Foxx could make this sub-par material sing.

But if Meadows wanted to bring a character like Leon Phelps back in 2020, the door is definitely open for him on an online platform like YouTube, where seemingly every celebrity is spending more and more of their time because of COVID-19.

Just don’t be surprised if such a move is met with scorn and derision by the internet commentators I mentioned earlier, since there’s nothing that these folks love more than tearing down a mainstream actor moving in on their territory.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Compliments Wieners (because it they’re short, cheaply made and don’t leave you satisfied)

TheLadiesMan2

Fun facts:

-Release date: Oct. 13, 2000

-Budget: $24 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $13,743,212 (worldwide)

-According to Wikipedia, Tim Meadows appeared as Leon Phelps on SNL a total of 15 times between October 1997 and October 2000. His last appearance as the character took place on Oct. 7, 2000 (a week before the movie was set to premiere).

-At the time of this movie’s release, Meadows was the longest running cast member on SNL, having been with the sketch show since 1991. His record was surpassed in 2005 by Darrell Hammond and again in 2017 by Kenan Thompson.

Surprise cameo: Julianne Moore makes a brief appearance as one of Phelps’ former flings who has sex with him in a full clown regalia. This role took places two years after Moore was nominated for a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Boogie Nights (1997).

The Ladies Man is also the title of a 1961 comedy starring Jerry Lewis, who stars as a nervous young man trying to overcome his fear of women.

Musical highlight: “Sweet Thing” by Rufus and Chaka Khan (because the title of the song is the pet name that Phelps gives to all of his lovers)

The Perfect Man (2005) review-rotten to the core

Sometimes, a movie fails because of poor execution, where a good idea on paper isn’t successfully translated to the screen.

Mark Rosman’s The Perfect Man has an entirely different problem, since its foundational premise is completely faulty and causes the rest of the film to collapse in on itself.

This romantic comedy stars 2000s teen idol Hillary Duff as Holly, a young girl who is tired of having to move across the country every time her mom (Heather Locklear) breaks up with her current boyfriend.

When the family relocates to New York City, Holly vows to find her mom [insert movie title here], even if she has to conjure such a person out of thin air.

So, under the tutelage of a local restaurant owner (Chris Noth), this plucky teenage begins writing her own mother love letters in the hopes of keeping her happy and staying in one location for a longer period of time.

I’m sure you’ve already picked out the massive flaws in this premise, but I’ll spell it out anyway.

For one thing, the movie tries to position Locklear as a relatable single mom who is simply unlucky in love and just doing her best to raise her girls (Duff also has a younger sister played by Aria Wallace).

However, WHAT KIND OF MOM FORCES HER FAMILY TO MOVE EVERY TIME A NEW RELATIONSHIP DOESN’T WORK OUT?!

It would have been way more understandable if Locklear’s character lost her job, giving her at least a financial incentive to uproot her daughters and force them to severe their current friendships.

But no. She just has a terrible taste in men and her children must suffer the consequences, apparently.

And it’s not like this has happened only one or two times either. The film establishes early on that Duff’s character regularly updates a travel blog that details her every move across the country, which means that this process must repeat every couple months.

And keep in mind, all these problems are established in the first five minutes of the film, which doesn’t set a great precedent for the remaining runtime.

Pill

The next line of bullshit this movie expects us to swallow is Duff’s hairbrained scheme to stay in New York permanently, since it involves setting her mom up with a suitor who doesn’t exist.

At no point in the story does Duff’s character divulge how she is going to bring her plan to its natural conclusion, which would have to involve producing some sort of flesh-and-blood man (or at least a robot duplicate).

Instead, she just writes more and more love letters to her mom and eventually moves into email and instant messaging, since that was still a relatively new flavour of courtship in 2005.

This dumb plan isn’t even called into question by the various people who help Holly carry out this scheme, including her nerdy love interest (Adam Forrest) and street-mart best friend (Vanessa Lengies from Popular Mechanics for Kids).

I understand that the movie would have no conflict if Duff’s character concocted an air-tight plan to begin with, but the fact that the movie’s screenwriters never bothered to spell out any sort of endgame is pretty insulting to the audience.

Plus, the mechanics of Duff’s plan to court her mother via an imaginary proxy comes across as extremely creepy, especially when she starts sending Locklear messages online.

If this wasn’t a PG-rated movie aimed at teens, then Duff’s character definitely would have been forced to exchange increasingly lurid emails with her mom.

Now, I don’t usually get hung up on a stupid plot point here and there when watching a romantic comedy (or any genre of film, really). But the people behind The Perfect Man make it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief, since any remotely enjoyable element in this movie is tangled up in a web of dumb plot.

For example, Chris Noth is his usual suave self in his role as Duff’s unwitting Cyrano de Bergerac, and he really makes you believe that he holds all the secrets to wooing any woman.

Noth2

In fact, one of the film’s best scenes involves Duff hilariously unloading a bunch of her teenage angst into Noth’s lap, since he is the first male authority figure she’s been able to confide in for a long time.

But, of course, this cute moment is undercut by the Three Stooges-esque hijinks that immediately follow, where Duff has to prevent Noth and Locklear from bumping into each other in a public place (she previously used his likeness to accompany one of her letters).

Even the legit chemistry between Duff and Forrest can’t escape the plot’s gravitational pull.

Despite establishing a charming back-and-forth early on, it’s only a matter of time before Duff’s love interest gets involved in her idiotic ruse by imitating Locklear’s secret admirer over the phone.

And it’s not like the film has some tight direction or great cinematography to fall back on either.

In fact, most of the shots in this movie come across as extremely flat and uninteresting, like something you would find in a Hallmark or Lifetime Channel movie (albeit with more recognizable actors filling up the screen).

A lot of the character writing isn’t above that low standard either, with side players like Carson Kressley’s flaming gay waiter coming across as particularly annoying.

And the less said about Lengies’ terrible Brooklyn accent the better.

Ultimately, I get the distinct impression that The Perfect Man was put into production solely to capitalize on Duff’s rising star in the early to mid-2000s, without giving too much thought as to how each moving piece would work as a whole.

And while I haven’t seen any of Duff’s other movies or TV shows from that period, I can’t imagine those pieces of media being bad at such a bedrock level.

Judging by the trailer to The Lizzie McGuire Movie, at least the premise of that film doesn’t revolve around the teen idol seducing a family member over the internet.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Chips Ahoy! Sour Patch Kids cookies (because it’s a complete failure at a conceptual level)

IMG_0126(online)

Fun facts:

-Release date: June 17, 2005

-Budget: $10 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $ 16,535,005 (US) $ 19,770475 (worldwide)

-The story behind The Perfect Man was partially inspired by the life of screenwriter Heather Robison, who sold her first script to Universal Studios in 2004.

-Duff received a Golden Raspberry nomination for her performance in this film and Cheaper by the Dozen 2. She inevitably “lost” to Jenny McCarthy for her role in Dirty Love.

-Mark Rosman directed Duff in 11 episodes of the Lizzie McGuire TV show before helming The Perfect Man.

-Unexpected cameo: Dennis DeYoung, the former lead singer of Styx, makes a brief appearance as the lead singer of a Styx cover band.

-The filmmakers behind The Perfect Man shot an alternate ending where Holly and Adam (her nerdy love interest) meet up at a comic book convention instead of heading to a school dance.

-Musical highlight: “Collide” by Howie Day (plays during the movie’s obligatory sad montage at the end of act two)