Operation Pacific (1951) review-America takes a victory lap

While most classic Hollywood war films have a pretty clear set of objectives (selling bonds, driving up recruitment numbers, etc.), George Waggner’s Operation Pacific (1951) is an entirely different animal.

This John Wayne-led naval adventure is much more celebratory and easy-going in tone, clearly riding off the protracted high that many Americans were still feeling since World War II ended six years earlier.

As a result, the film is a lot more interested in exploring what a soldier’s life might be like after “the fight” comes to an end, rather than providing some insight into what this specific conflict looked like in a larger context.

Even though this tone might upset some military diehards, Operation Pacific actually benefits from the gift of hindsight, since it doesn’t get completely bogged down in the cynical saber rattling that kneecaps so many other war films of that era.

The plot of Operation Pacific revolves around Duke Gifford (Wayne), who serves as an executive officer aboard a submarine called the USS Thunderfish during World War II.

After returning from a dangerous mission in the Philippines, Duke runs into his ex-wife Mary Stuart (Patricia Neal) while on leave at Pearl Harbor.

Even though the two still have feelings for each other, Duke’s responsibilities as a naval officer keep getting in the way of his romantic advances toward Mary, especially as his patrols in enemy waters get increasingly treacherous.

Now, some of you might be scratching your heads after reading this plot synopsis, since this sounds more like a Nicholas Sparks novel rather than a gritty war epic starring John Wayne.

This element caught me by surprise as well, since lengthy sections of the film are dedicated to Wayne and Neal making doe eyes at each other, while a lot of the naval combat scenes are pushed to the sidelines.

Operating Pacific also goes out of its way to depict the more blasé and uneventful aspects of military life that border on the comical, some of which wouldn’t be out of place in an Abbott and Costello movie.

In one scene, while on shore leave, Wayne is tasked with bailing his men out of a Honolulu jail after they get into a drunken brawl with some local police officers.

When the crew is at sea, they use some of their down time to screen a movie in the submarine’s mess hall.

And after rescuing an infant from enemy territory, the men of the USS Thunderfish figure out how to feed the child using a rubber glove.

While these moments do tonally clash with the naval combat scenes—which are awash with gunfire, explosions and technical mumbo jumbo — they do add some much-needed variety to what would otherwise be a pretty by-the-numbers war movie.

And by shifting the film’s focus away from the “battlefield,” Waggner (who also wrote the screenplay) is very clearly trying to appease a post-World War II audience, whose appetite for outright bloodshed had definitely cooled after six years of peacetime. *

Plus, by 1951 the US Baby Boom was noticeably underway, with the romance between Wayne and Neal in this film serving as an obvious nod to the kind of cathartic, romantic energy embodied in classic wartime imagery like Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day in Times Square” photograph.

In fact, this film is so uninterested with broader conflict itself that there’s not really any main antagonist to speak of.

Sure, Wayne has to butt heads with a fellow soldier who is also after his ex-wife’s affections, but their relationship is always very cordial and never escalates beyond a harsh word.

Because of this, most of the film’s charm comes from its quieter moments, where the main characters hang out and discuss what life is like back on dry land.

That being said, Operation Pacific does slightly buckle under some clichés that one would expect from a Hollywood war epic from that era.

For one thing, a lot of the film’s action sequences rely way too heavily on stock imagery, which isn’t spliced into the director’s original footage in an organic fashion.

Additionally, Waggner is pretty upfront about presenting this story as a piece of military propaganda, opening up the movie with a Star Wars-style crawl that pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the line of duty.

While there’s nothing wrong with this kind of cinematic remembrance, it does set the tone for a movie that casts World War II in an overly simplistic light, where all American soldiers are depicted as being absolute paragons of virtue.

This approach to characterization turns into a problem whenever the movie veers off into a territory that isn’t morally black and white, like the aforementioned moment where Wayne has to bail his men out of jail.

Even though these characters assaulted several police officers under the influence of alcohol, this scene is largely played for laughs, where the crew is ultimately left off the hook for committing such a serious crime.

This uncritical eye is prevalent throughout the rest of the movie as well, since the filmmakers don’t provide any insight into the Imperial Japanese Navy, outside of the fact that they are a mostly faceless enemy who must be defeated.

Thankfully, this outdated propaganda isn’t so heavy handed that it ruins the movie, although everyone’s mileage may vary (especially if you don’t care for the term “Japs” being thrown around in casual conversation).

And even if you’re not a big fan of romance being mixed in with your violent war movie, at least take comfort in the fact that Waggner does a pretty decent job of balancing those two elements throughout the film’s 111-minute runtime.

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen this kind of genre bending done way worse, with Paul Gross’ crushingly melodramatic Passchendaele (2008) immediately coming to mind.

Plus, in this case, the relationship between Wayne and Neal actually saves Operation Pacific from being completely irrelevant to a 2021 audience.

After all, [SPOILERS] their successful reconcilement at the end of the movie is obviously meant to tap into America’s desire to return to some state of normalcy after a long period of societal upheaval.

And in that respect, Operation Pacific has become way more relatable than ever in the seven decades since its original release now that the country (and North America more broadly) is turning the tide in the fight against COVID-19. **

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Ghirardelli sea salt chocolate (because it’s the only nautical-themed snack food that I could find)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Jan. 27, 1951

-Budget: $1.46 million (estimated)

-Box office: $2.56 million (US), $1.3 million (worldwide)

-Retired US navy admiral Charles A. Lockwood served as a technical advisor on Operation Pacific to ensure its accuracy when depicting submarine warfare. According to Wikipedia, Hollywood producers sought out Lockwood a couple more times to advise them on a variety of other film projects, including Hellcats of the Navy (1957), On the Beach (1959), and Up Periscope (1959).  

-Near the finale of Operation Pacific, the men of the USS Thunderfish can be seen exchanging film canisters with a friendly American sub so that both crews can enjoy a movie night. These films, Destination Tokyo (1943) and George Washington Slept Here (1942), were both produced by Warner Bros. Pictures in real life.

-Following the release of Operation Pacific, George Waggner mostly directed television for the remainder of his career, including episodes of The Green Hornet, Maverick, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Batman.

* I realize that the US was involved in the Korean War by 1951, but that conflict wasn’t nearly as pervasive in American society as World War II was, so I think my original point stands.

** I sincerely hope this statement doesn’t become extremely dated in the coming weeks and months.

Bird on a Wire (1990) review-the perfect Mel Gibson movie

Mel Gibson is definitely one of those public figures who is going to have an * permanently affixed to his career from now until the end of time.

While I don’t have time to go into the actor’s relationship with alcohol abuse, religious fanaticism and outright bigotry, suffice it to say that these transgressions have dogged his otherwise pretty impressive career in the movie business.

Hell, even with all these controversies in mind, I still teared up watching Hacksaw Ridge back in 2016, which is a testament to Gibson’s talent behind the camera (in addition to his acting chops in front of it).

While Bird on a Wire (1990) isn’t as fondly remember as some of Gibson’s other projects (Braveheart, Lethal Weapon, Mad Max), it’s still a great showcase for the actor’s natural charisma, so much so that it will make you briefly forget that he once called a female cop “sugar tits.”

The plot of Bird on a Wire revolves around Rick Jarmin (Gibson), an FBI informant who is trying to adjust to life in the witness protection program after testifying against some corrupt DEA agents (Bill Duke and David Carradine).

But when those criminals finally track Rick down, they immediately swear revenge and seek to put him in the ground.

This situation is made even more complicated when Rick randomly runs into his ex-fiancé Marianne (Goldie Hawn), who previously thought that her old flame had died in a plane crash.

From there, Bird on a Wire turns into a chase movie, where Gibson and Hawn must race across the north-eastern United States to meet up with an old FBI handler who can provide the pair with some protection.

And in that respect, the film mostly succeeds, due in large part to the natural chemistry between the two leads.

Gibson and Hawn really sell you on the idea that they are old lovers reuniting under extreme circumstances, without getting bogged down in the endless bickering that can sink other on-screen relationships.

This core dynamic between the pair is also blended seamlessly into the film’s many action sequences, where each daredevil stunt is punctuated by a zingy one-liner or well-timed physical gag.

In fact, Bird on a Wire is chock full of laugh-out-loud jokes even when the pace slows down, which is a testament to how well Gibson and Hawn play off of each other.

The film also gives Gibson some room to show off his range as an actor, since the plot requires him to adopt a variety of characters as he backtracks through his previous identities in the witness protection program.

Admittedly, the part of the movie where Gibson has to briefly slip back into his life as a gay hairdresser is a little cringey (even attracting the ire of GLAAD), but he still commits to the bit and makes it convincing.

However, some of the writing surrounding Gibson’s character is a little suspect.

While Rick Jarmin is presented as a cinematic everyman, he actually adopts the characteristics of a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) who is inexplicably good at everything.

Throughout the course of the movie, Rick proves himself to be somewhat of a savant, who is naturally gifted at: hairdressing, automotive repair, carpentry, motorcycle riding, sharp shooting, piloting airplanes and triggering female orgasms.

Plus, all the peripheral characters never really comment on Rick’s genius-level intellect throughout the movie’s runtime, which only draws attention to this disconnect between the writing and the filmmaker’s intent.

That being said, Hawn’s character is treated far worse by the screenwriters, since she spends most of the movie screaming her lungs out and being useless.

Her performance actually reminded me a lot of Kate Capshaw from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; a blond damsel who only exists to be in distress and get bailed out by the rugged male hero.

What’s especially disappointing is that the writers set her up as a smart and gutsy lawyer at the beginning of the movie, and I assumed that that quality was going to come in handy at some point later in the film.

But as soon as she meets up with Gibson, Hawn’s character quickly devolves into a brainless idiot, who never rises to the challenge or uses her intellect to get one up on the bad guys.

It’s not like I expected her to turn into Lisbeth Salander or something, but some kind of tangible character arc would have been welcome.

In fact, a great template for this character already existed in Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone (1984), where Kathleen Turner’s sheltered city slicker successfully adapts to life as an adventurer in the Columbian rainforest.

But I guess the screenwriters of Bird on a Wire never saw that film, since Hawn’s character continues to wear her high heels even after being chased by gun wielding thugs for several days.

Despite all this shoddy writing, Gibson and Hawn still manage to keep the film afloat through their natural chemistry alone, encouraging the audience to keep watching to see if their characters successfully reconcile in the end.

Coupled with director John Badham’s firm grasp of how to balance action and comedy, Bird on a Wire offers a fun escape for roughly two hours, even if it kind of falls apart in the third act.

But maybe this is the best kind of movie to sum up Gibson’s career, more so than the projects that have resulted in Oscar wins or major box office returns.

After all, Bird on a Wire is fun, charming, and easy on the eyes, even though it does harbor some major character flaws right beneath the surface.

To me, that seems to be an accurate summation of Gibson’s reputation in Hollywood at this point, even though the final chapters of his controversial career have yet to be written.

So while Bird on a Wire is far from perfect, it’s probably the perfect Mel Gibson movie, in the sense that you actively enjoy it against your better judgement.

Verdict:

7/10

Corner store companion:

Chef Boyardee ravioli (because you enjoy it, even though it contains some problematic ingredients)

Fun facts:

-Release date: May 18, 1990

-Budget: $20 million (estimated)

-Box office: $70,978,012 (US), $138,697,012 (worldwide)

-The title from this movie is taken from a 1969 Leonard Cohen song “Bird on the Wire.” A cover version of this single, composed by The Neville Brothers, was included on the film’s official soundtrack.

-The second unit director of Bird on a Wire was none other than Rob Cohen, who would go on to spearhead major action blockbusters like xXx (2002) and The Fast and the Furious (2001) years later.

-According to IMDB, the gigantic zoo exhibit featured in the climax of Bird on a Wire was the largest studio set ever built in Vancouver at the time. Much of the movie was shot in and around the British Columbia city.

-Before directing Bird on a Wire, John Badham is probably best known for helming Hollywood hits like Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Short Circuit (1986).

-The end credits for this film scroll up instead of down for some reason.

-Musical highlight: “Aquarius” by The 5th Dimension (this 90s synth cover of the famous medley by The 5th Dimension was arranged by composer Hans Zimmer and plays at the very beginning of the film).

Two Brothers (2004) review-cuteness can only get you so far

Even though I adore animals in real life, I’m not really a big fan of live-action films about these creatures outside of nature documentaries.

No matter how well these movies are made, I always have a hard time getting immersed in a piece of entertainment where the main star is a trained dog or monkey who is obviously getting instructions from a trainer off camera.

I’m no hardcore animal rights activist, but that set-up became increasingly phony as I got older, which is probably why I had no desire to revisit 90s classics like Free Willy (1993), Air Bud (1997) or Fly Away Home (1996) until very recently.

For the purposes of this blog, I decided to give this genre another chance through Universal Studios’ “Animal Friends” collection, starting off with the forgettable but harmless Beethoven’s Big Break (2008).

While Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Two Brothers (2004) is better film overall, it still relies too heavily on cute animal shenanigans that simply can’t satisfy a feature-length running time.

In terms of plot, the movie revolves around Kumal and Sangha, two Indochinese tiger cubs who get separated after their father is shot and killed by a European author and treasure hunter (Guy Pearce).

While Kumal ends up performing for a local circus troupe, Sangha gets taken in by Cambodia’s French administrator after his son (Freddie Highmore) discovers the cub alone in the wild.

As these the two live out their lives separately for years, they long to escape captivity and reunite with their mother in the jungle.    

Even though I’m still not a big fan of these types of films, I still have to admit that Annaud does a pretty good job of delivering on the animal cuteness.

Not only does he capture some amazing footage of the twin tiger cubs frolicking in the Cambodian jungle, but he also gives those scenes room enough to breathe and make a sizable impression.

He accomplishes this feat by dedicating the first 12 minutes of the movie to the cubs and their parents almost exclusively, and doesn’t rely on voice-overs or any other shortcuts to communicate different story telling beats to the audience.

If this was an American feature, I have a feeling that the studio would’ve chickened out and paid Morgan Freeman to narrate this intro bit by bit, afraid that the audience would get bored without a human voice to guide them.

But Annaud is no stranger to crafting stories based on action and impressive nature photography alone, having already directed films like Quest for Fire (1981) and The Bear (1988) that are largely dialogue-free.

And these strengths shine through in the first 12 minutes of Two Brothers as well, with the Cambodian jungle and its ancient ruins providing a compelling backdrop for what’s ultimately a pretty simple story.

Unfortunately, the film kind of loses this purity once it introduces all the human characters, who aren’t interesting and don’t really add any flavor to the story.

For example, Guy Pearce is pretty lifeless as the aforementioned treasure hunter (McRory), which is too bad because it’s his job to bridge the human world and the animal world for the audience.

After gunning down the twins’ father, McRory feels bad about this turn of events and takes Kumal with him back to civilization, periodically bumping into the cub as he passes from owner to owner throughout the years.

Now, a talented actor could wring a lot nuance out of this kind of character arc, and Pearce has proven himself to be more than capable of navigating complex emotion ground throughout his career.

But for whatever reason, he absolutely sleepwalks his way through this role, with a consistently dull performance that does a poor job of outlining his character’s true feelings and motivation.

Even his accent is all over the place in this movie, waffling between an English and Australian inflection seemingly at random.

While Freddie Highmore fairs a little bit better at conveying the childlike wonder of owning a tiger cub, he’s not in the movie nearly enough to make a big impression on the audience.

As a result, basically all the emotional weight of the story rests on the tigers themselves, who don’t speak and are basically identical in terms of how they look and behave.

While this dynamic isn’t a big issue in short bursts, like the first 12 minutes of this film, the tigers’ inherent lack of relatability becomes a major problem as the movie goes on and they are asked to carry entire scenes by themselves.

One of the most glaring examples of this disconnect is when [SPOILERS] the now fully adult tiger cubs finally reunite, and Annaud (the director) must do all of the heavy lifting in this moment through his use of strategic edits and swelling music.

Admittedly, this is the same kind road block that most filmmakers encounter if they choose to produce a live-action animal epic that isn’t cushioned by celebrity voice-overs.  

Comedian W.C. Fields knew this when he famously coined the maxim “Never work with children or animals,” having personally witnessed how their unpredictable behavior can derail any film production.

And while Two Brothers never suffered any major behind-the-scenes snafus (to my knowledge), it’s over reliance on animal performers to tell the story wears thin around the one-hour mark, especially without any interesting human characters to fall back on.

Still, I think the team behind this project really had their hearts in the right place, ending the film with a rallying cry to protect these endangered Indochinese jungle cats from extinction.

That attitude comes across in the filmmaking as well, with Annaud and his team having a good eye for capturing natural landscapes and the majestic beasts who dwell within them.

But all that pleasant imagery can’t prop up a 100-minute movie, especially these days when people can get their tiger cub fix by watching three-minute clips on YouTube.

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Frosted Flakes cereal (not because this movie is ggggreat, but because of … you know … tigers)

Fun facts:

-Release date: June 25, 2004

-Budget: $42 million

-Box office: $19,176,754 (US), $62,174,008 (worldwide)

-According to IMDB, around 30 different tigers were used in the shooting of this film, with most of them hailing from either France or Thailand.

-Five full-size animatronic tigers were built for this film, being reserved for any scene that might pose a real risk to an actor’s safety.

-Despite taking several safety precautions, Guy Pearce was reportedly bitten on the should by one of the tiger cubs, although this incident did not result in any serious injury.

-Outside of keeping their eye on the live tigers, the crew behind Two Brothers also had to steer clear of all the active landmines that still littered the Cambodian terrain at the time of filming.

– This film marks Freddie Highmore’s second feature film after appearing in the 1999 romantic comedy Women Talking Dirty

-If you’re looking for clips of Two Brothers on YouTube make sure you include the word “film” in the search bar, otherwise you’ll be directed to this classic bit from Rick and Morty.

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.