True Believer (1989) review- A compelling legal thriller if you can get past James Woods’ awful ponytail

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my lifetime of consuming media it’s that people never tire of legal dramas.

Whether it’s watching old re-runs of Law & Order or listening to the latest true crime podcast, the public’s appetite for seeking out some form of justice in a cruel and uncaring world is seemingly bottomless.

Even though it was released in theatres thirty years ago, Joseph Ruben’s True Believer still scratches that itch through presenting a compelling mystery and a trio of rock-solid performances that give its courtroom proceedings even more dramatic weight.

James Woods stars as brilliant lawyer Eddie Dodd, who’s become so disillusioned with the legal system over the years that he’s gone from defending civil rights activists in the 60s to bailing out scummy drug dealers in the 80s.

[insert lame boomer joke about how those two are the same thing]

However, Dodd starts to regain some of his lost mojo after he reluctantly takes on the case of Shu Kai Kim, a man who is currently in jail for a gangland murder that he (according to his family) didn’t commit.

True Believer is by no means a ground breaking story, since it doesn’t radically deviate from the legal drama tropes that were old hat even when the film came out back in 1989.

Even if you’ve haven’t seen a second of this movie, rest assured that legal loopholes will be exploited, surprise witnesses will be conjured out of thin air and objections will be overruled in increasingly dramatic fashion.

However, Cape Fear scribe Wesley Strick makes those clichés a lot more digestible thanks to his tight script, which does a great job of gradually revealing clues and plot information without feeling forced or contrived.

It also helps that Woods and his plucky legal clerk (played by a pre-arc reactor Robert Downey Jr.) have great chemistry and are talented enough to make this overly complicated jargon sound compelling.

You also can’t ask for a better villain than Kurtwood Smith, especially since he plays a smarmy, elitist district attorney who is diametrically opposed to Woods’ champion of the downtrodden in every conceivable fashion.

The only weak link in the cast is Yuji Okumoto as Shu Kai Kim, who isn’t given nearly enough screen time to provide any insight into what it’s like being falsely accused of murder.

Instead, he becomes more of a plot device than an actual character, which is very disappointing since so much of the movie’s tension is built up around his well-being.

And since we’re talking about negatives, I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to saddle Woods with wearing this terrible wig that makes him look like your frumpy, middle-aged aunt.

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I know the ponytail is supposed to serve as a tribute to iconic civil rights attorney Tony Serra, who inspired Woods’ character, but that rug just kept taking me out of the story, especially when it is “complimented” by a big purple scrunchie.

Luckily, Woods was able to win me back with his very heartfelt performance, which straddles the line between the sleazy, underhandedness of Saul Goodman and the moral righteousness of Atticus Finch.

It’s also hilarious when you consider that Eddie Dodd’s lefty politics are completely at odds with Woods’ actual world view. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that the actor would probably blast someone like Dodd as a “cuck” on his Twitter.

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All that aside, if you aren’t sick to death of true crime content by this point then you should definitely give True Believer a watch.

It won’t set your world on fire, and you may even roll your eyes at the use of some well-worn tropes, but its potent mix of efficient storytelling and magnetic performances is perfect for the aspiring legal crusader in all of us.

That being said, Woods’ wig is still super gross, so I have to deduct points from this movie’s final score because of that alone.

Sorry. I don’t make the rules.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

Fritos Hoops (because it’s an acquired taste, but very satisfying once you get to the bottom of it)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Feb. 17, 1989

-Box officer gross: $8.7 million

-The plot of True Believer is loosely based on the real-life case of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American who was wrongly convicted of a gangland killing in 1973 San Francisco. Not only did Chol Soo inspire the film’s character played by Yuji Okumoto, but his real-life attorney Tony Serra (mentioned above) also served as the main inspiration for James Woods’ eccentric lead performance.

-In a season five episode of The Simpsons titled “Homer and Apu” guest star James Woods, playing himself, namedrops True Believer during his job interview to become the temporary manager of the Kwick-E-Mart.

– This film was popular enough to inspire a short-lived television spin-off in 1991 called Eddie Dodd, which starred Treat Williams in the title role. The show only lasted six episodes before it was cancelled by ABC.

True Believer was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award in the “Best Motion Picture” category back in 1990 (based on the strength of Wesley Strick’s screenplay). It eventually lost out to Daniel Waters’ work on the dark teen comedy Heathers.

-Musical highlight: “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix (the song marks a major turning point in the story when Dodd decides to stop being cynical and return to his roots are a moral crusader).

Beethoven’s Big Break (2008) review- Beethoven hits the reset button

As a true blue 90s kid, I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t dipped my toe into the Beethoven cinematic universe until now (I was always more of an Air Bud fan).

Thankfully, Beethoven’s Big Break, the sixth in the series, was specifically designed for newbies like me, since it serves as a complete reboot of the franchise.

For those of you who don’t know, the Beethoven films follow the exploits of the titular St. Bernard, whose big frame and even bigger appetite constantly gets him into trouble.

While the first five Beethoven movies centered around the dog’s adventures with the fictional Newton family, this 2008 entry throws all previous continuity out the window and starts from scratch.

This time around, Beethoven is taken in by struggling animal trainer and single dad Eddie (Jonathan Silverman), who attempts to turn the canine into a movie star.

However, as Eddie tries to control Beethoven’s diva-like behavior on set, he also has to worry about 1) spending enough time with his son Billy and 2) warding off an evil animal trainer who is trying to kidnap the dog and hold him for ransom.

Now, before I nitpick this family movie like some asshole critic, let me just say that Beethoven’s Big Break is a pretty harmless affair.

At no point during the film’s runtime did I raise my eyebrows at some off-colour joke or weird moral that the writers tried to smuggle into the script. Instead, most of the movie is chock-full of broad slapstick and clear-cut messages about the importance of family, which is probably good enough for its target audience (i.e., young kids).

Unfortunately, the parents who will be forced to watch this alongside their children won’t find a lot to engage with, unless they were big fans of the original Beethoven films from back in the early 90s.

This is because the filmmakers use this movie’s status as a reboot to blatantly recycle a lot of old gags from the early films, including the famous scene where Beethoven shakes a bunch of muck all over the protagonist’s bedroom.

While this element could be written off as a J.J. Abrams style tribute, the writers also get lazy when it comes to the film’s antagonist, whose villainous scheme and bumbling henchmen are directly lifted from the 1992 original.

And let’s not even get into the tired single dad drama that permeates most of the movie, with Eddie constantly grappling with the idea of accepting a new family member after his wife’s untimely death.

The one fresh idea that Beethoven’s Big Break brings to the table is its meta-commentary.

Since a lot of the story revolves around film production many of the jokes are aimed at making fun of how notoriously difficult animals are to work with in Hollywood.

The writers are even bold enough to take some subtle jabs at the franchise’s legacy as a vehicle for using a paper-thin plot to string together a bunch of outrageous sight gags.

This mostly comes to play with the story’s love interest, who is constantly asked to re-write the in-universe movie script on a near daily basis (even though the director favours Beethoven’s spontaneous shenanigans on set anyway).

But that kind of clever genre introspection will probably fly over the heads of the movie’s target demographic, and is only interesting to hopeless adult movie geeks like myself.

At the end of the day, all you need to do to deliver the goods in a movie like this is to showcase plenty of cute animals and some cheeky slapstick, and Beethoven’s Big Break succeeds in that regard.

I just wish that the gags were more creative and the filmmakers didn’t rely on distractingly bad CGI animal doubles for some of the more elaborate set pieces.

But again, take my criticism with a grain of salt, because there’s only so much room in my jaded heart for 90s film franchises staring dogs.

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Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Lay’s Classic potato chips (because you get what you pay for, but not much else).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Dec. 30, 2008 (straight-to-video).

-As right now, there are eight official Beethoven films, with the last entry (Beethoven’s Treasure Trail) having been released back in 2014.

-While the first two films in the franchise (Beethoven and Beethoven’s 2nd) were theatrical releases in 1992 and 1993, respectively, the rest have been straight-to-video affairs.

-On top of eight feature films, Beethoven even spawned a cartoon series in 1994-95 that lasted 26 episodes.

-Big chunks of Beethoven’s Big Break was filmed in and around Universal Studios Florida.

-Surprise cameo: Despite getting pretty sizable billing, the “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan only shows up for a few brief scenes to give some sage advice on animal training.

-The film’s end credits are littered with parody film posters that call back to classic Hollywood movies, like: Frisky Business, Raiders of the Lost Bark, Close Encounters of the Third K9, Drool Hand Luke and The Gradumutt.

-Musical highlight: “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” by Ludwig Van Beethoven (the song that inspires one of the main characters to give the lovable dog his name).

Another Midnight Run (1994) review-Flagrant false advertising

You ever buy some frozen food based solely on the strength of the brand name or box art, and it turns out to be some bland, goopy piece of shit? That is what’s it’s like watching Another Midnight Run.

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This made-for-TV movie bills itself as an continuation of the original Midnight Run, a 1988 action-comedy that gained a lot of traction from critics at the time thanks to its potent mix of exciting car chases and sharp dialogue.

It also didn’t hurt that this original project starred Robert De Niro, who injected street-smart bounty hunter Jack Walsh with a lot of edge and gravitas, qualities that would have been neglected by a lesser actor.

However, pretty much all of those elements are missing from this 1994 pseudo-sequel, which retains the names of some of the principle characters from the 1988 original but none of its charm.

That being said, the film does at least mimic the basic structure of its predecessor, since it finds Walsh being hired by a bail bondsman (again) to transport a pair of criminals from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Of course, Walsh’s captors (married con artists played by Jeffrey Tambor and Cathy Moriarty) are always trying to give him the slip every step of the way and go into business for themselves.

But after that promising set-up, it doesn’t take long before the filmmakers reveal that they don’t have any new ideas and are content with poorly rehashing old elements from the original film.

Strike one against Another Midnight Run is the fact that they replaced Robert De Niro with Christopher McDonald in the role of Jack Walsh.

No offense to the future Shooter McGavin, but he leans way too much on buffoonish comedy to play a convincing world-weary bounty hunter and comes across like he’s playing a parody version of the character on Saturday Night Live.

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It also doesn’t help that the screenwriter makes him out to be a complete idiot, who is constantly outsmarted by his captors.

Sure, De Niro’s Jack Walsh was a screw-up as well, but he at least displayed a basic level of competence and quick thinking that helped him get out of sticky situations.

In Another Midnight Run, McDonald can barely tie his shoes without fucking up, let alone keep a pair of career con artists in check.

At one point, the married couple successfully distract their captor by convincing him that a nearby bar patron is giving him the bedroom eyes, which he completely falls for like horny 14-year old.

And without a likable protagonist to anchor the narrative, or any supporting performances on par with Charles Grodin from the 1988 original, the rest of the movie completely falls apart.

Strike two against the film is that it’s hampered by a restrictive TV budget, which means it can’t come close to replicating the intricately staged action sequences that made the original film so memorable.

All Another Midnight Run can offer up in terms of excitement are scenes of McDonald falling into some trash cans or mildly jogging through an airport.

While this downgrade is to be expected when a property makes the transition from film to television, Another Midnight Run doesn’t even have a good script or likable characters to fall back on.

All it can provide in exchange is lame comedy and annoying characters that you wish would just drive off a cliff so the movie could end.

The third and final strike that sends Another Midnight Run back to the figurative dugout is that it comes across as being a big pile of wasted potential.

A motivated director and screenwriter could have used this opportunity to think outside the box and expand on the Jack Walsh character.

Maybe they could have explored his past as a police officer in Chicago or shown us his first stint as a bounty hunter after resigning from the force. You know, typical origin story type stuff that people can’t get enough of.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to play it safe and replicate the basic structure of the original, albeit without any of sharp wit or fun that made it so successful six years ago.

I know most of this rundown is just me bitching about how this made-for-TV sequel pales in comparison to the original film, but the filmmakers definitely invite this criticism.

The only reason Universal greenlit this project in the first place (as well as the two other made-for-TV sequels released in the same year) is because they wanted to cash in on a recognizable name that was still worth something in the mid-90s.

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But rather than putting in the work to remind people why this property was valuable in the first place, all they did was slap the name Midnight Run onto an otherwise generic, low-energy road trip comedy and hope that nobody notices the difference.

And while the film did manage to siphon a couple chuckles out of me here and there, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being grifted by the same kind of con artists and trickster characters that make up two-thirds of the cast.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Blue Water Seafoods’ Pacific Pink Salmon (because it promises quality but delivers a sub-standard product instead)

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Fun facts:

-Original air date: Feb. 6, 1994.

Another Midnight Run was followed be another two made-for-TV sequels in the same year: Midnight Runaround and Midnight Run For Your Life. All three films were produced for Universal Television’s “Action Pack” block that aired from 1994 to 2001.

-While the “Action Pack” line produced a lot of duds, like Knight Rider 2020 and Cleopatra 2525, Universal also debuted some landmark 90s television under this umbrella. Not only did they introduce the world to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules through a series of TV movies, but the spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess proved to be even more popular and still has a cult following to this day.

Lonely Hearts (2006) review- A sleepy lead performance from Travolta drags down an otherwise solid film noir

As an industry, Hollywood is collectively guilty of many story-telling sins, like the tendency to over-romanticize important people, places, and things.

From botched biopics to anachronistic period pieces, the American film business has shown time and time again that it will go to great lengths to prune away the more unseemly elements of historical fact in favour of presenting a digestible narrative for general audiences.

Even violent criminals will sometimes get this treatment, since films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) are still considered classics to this day despite being riddled with inaccuracies.

However, my general rule of thumb is that these white lies are forgivable as long the filmmaking behind them is solid, which is why Lonely Hearts (2006) works as a detective story despite the creative liberties its writer/director takes with the source material.

This movie’s plot follows the exploits of the “Lonely Hearts Killers,” a real-life pair of serial murderers who, from 1947 to 1949, lured as many as 20 women to their deaths through answering their personals ads.

While Jared Leto and Salma Hayek are saddled with portraying Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck (the killers), John Travolta also stars as a hardboiled detective tasked with tracking the couple down. Of course, like any good film noir, this case is never as simple as it seems and Travolta’s ability to bring the killers to justice is always being complicated by his own personal demons.

Lonely Hearts actually serves as a great example of why I’m not so anal about historical accuracy in film, since one its strongest elements is a blatant fabrication on behalf of the filmmakers.

Hayek’s performance as the Martha Beck is completely unnerving, terrifying, and full of surprises, especially when you realize that she is the architect behind a lot of the killings.

In fact, she’s so good that I didn’t even care that the real-life Beck was an overweight, homely white woman, who would have never been able to slip into the skimpy cocktail dresses that Hayek fills out so nicely in this film.

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While Leto is a little more willing to look like Raymond Fernandez (receding hairline and all), he’s also able to mix devilish charm with crippling insecurity, which makes him the perfect bait to attract a parade of desperate, lonely women.

And even though the two are playing remorseless serial killers, Leto and Hayek still manage to develop some compelling chemistry similar to other famous outlaw couples in popular culture, like Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen or (more fittingly) the Joker and Harley Quinn.

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Now, are the filmmakers guilty of making us sympathize with a pair of degenerates who caused a lot of pain and suffering in real life? Maybe. But the movie’s unflinching look at the brutality these two inflicted on their victims also doesn’t let us forget that their relationship is rooted in fear and jealousy rather than love and trust.

However, the same level of praise can’t be drummed up for Travolta’s performance, since he largely sleepwalks his way through his lead role as a heartbroken detective without any real edge or enthusiasm.

He doesn’t bring anything new to this well-worn character archetype, and can’t even be bothered to delivery his lines properly a lot of the time.

In one scene, Travolta yells “Don’t ever mention my wife again. It’s none of your fucking business!” to a superior officer with all the squeaky bravado of a teenager going through puberty.

It also doesn’t help that his partner is played by James Gandolfini, who acts circles around Travolta in virtually every scene they’re in together.

This weak lead performance really takes the shine away from some of the film’s finer qualities, since director Todd Robinson actually put a lot of work into creating a immersive atmosphere by littering the movie with tasteful tributes to classic film noir.

Not only is the soundtrack suitably jazzy and retro, but the grizzled voice-over narration by Gandolfini does a great job of setting the scene for a post-WWII America that is riddled with crime.

As the film’s sole screenwriter, Robinson also sneaks in some nice character development for Travolta’s character, whose quest to find meaningful intimacy mirrors Fernandez and Beck’s homicidal love story.

It’s too bad that Travolta’s half-baked acting sticks out like a sore thumb, especially when everybody else in front of the camera (and behind it) is firing on all cylinders.

And while the filmmakers definitely play fast and loose with their “based on a true story” hook, Lonely Hearts still manages to retain the dysfunction and creepiness of its real-life subjects, which makes it a compelling watch for anyone who is a fan of serial killer dramas.

Just try not to get distracted by Travolta’s bad acting, or his tough-guy toupee.

Verdict:

7/10

Corner store companion:

Hersey’s Kisses (because if you’re a movie nerd like me, chances are these are the only kisses you’ll be getting on Valentine’s Day).

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Fun facts:

-Original release date:

April 30, 2006 (Tribeca Film Festival)

April 17, 2007 (limited release)

-Budget: $18 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $2,517,423 (worldwide)

-Director Todd Robinson is the grandson of Elmer Robinson, the real-life detective (played by Travolta in this film) who investigated the Lonely Hearts murders in the late 1940s.

-Despite not being the same race as their real-life counterparts, both Leto and Hayek underwent slight cosmetic alterations to get into their roles. While Leto had to shave the front of his head to match Raymond Fernandez’s hairline, Hayek wore contact lenses to replicate Martha Beck’s blue eyes.

-The story of the “Lonely Hearts Killers” has been portrayed on film a total of four times. Besides Lonely Hearts, the story has been re-told in Mexican with Deep Crimson (1996), in French with Alleluia (2014) and in black and white with the American cult classic The Honeymoon Killers (1970).

 

Lady Frankenstein (1971) review-This exploitation film is poorly stitched together, just like the monster itself

Comic book franchises and cinematic universes are all the rage in Hollywood right now, but any keen film historian could tell you that this trend was pioneered way before the Avengers assembled back in 2012.

The Universal Studios monster mash of the 1940s is probably the earliest example of this, where larger-than-life characters like Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster dominated the box office and would regularly pop up in each other’s movies.

While Universal’s take on the Frankenstein monster was one of the most iconic figures to emerge from this cycle, neck bolts and all, he wasn’t the only version of Mary Shelley’s original characters to grace the silver screen.

Outside of being featured in eight movies made by Universal, Shelley’s Frankenstein characters would play a prominent role in at least 58 other feature films produced by film studios from around the world, ranging from Britain (Hammer) to Japan (Toho).

In 1971, the Italian studio Alexia Films took a stab at adapting this property with Lady Frankenstein,which shifted the focus to a female perspective and injected a healthy dose of sex and violence into the proceedings.

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Even though this movie starts off by following the basic framework of most Frankenstein stories (where an eccentric European aristocrat digs up corpses and uses their limbs to create a unholy monstrosity) the filmmakers begin to deviate from this source material around 30 minutes in.

After completing his initial experiment, Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) is killed by his creation and the rest of the story follows his daughter Tania (Rosalba Neri) as she tries to carry on the family name by bringing her own “monster” to life.

On the surface this premise is full of potential, since Frankenstein stories aren’t usually told from a female point-of-view. With a motivated creative team behind it, this film could have subtly explored gendered expectations in the 19th century scientific community and how that influences Tania’s monster making process.

However, the filmmaking on display is shackled by grindhouse sensibilities and an extremely low-budget, which means that most of that interesting subtext gets swept under the rug in favourof bad monster make-up and cheap nudity.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with selling your film using this kind of lurid subject matter, but the filmmakers decided to take the laziest possible route to get there.

For example, the screenwriters decided to put their unique stamp on that famous scene from the 1931 Boris Karloff Frankenstein film where the monster accidently drowns a small girl by throwing her into a lake.

In Lady Frankenstein, the monster’s drowning victim is an adult female … and naked, which is an edgy 13-year-old’s idea of making a classic story more “mature.”

This grade school understanding of adult dynamics also pervades the rest of the movie, since Tania’s motivation for carrying on her father’s work is to create the perfect “man” through combining the body of a hunky servant and the brain of her father’s assistant.

This is a big step down from most other Frankenstein protagonists, since they were mainly preoccupied with unlocking the secrets of life and death and couldn’t care less about their own sex life.

The filmmakers pay some lip-service to the idea that Tania’s creation is the only thing that can stop her father’s original monster from rampaging throughout nearby villages, but they seem much more preoccupied with the idea of an Italian beauty like Neri bumping uglies with a reanimated corpse.

Again, this concept could have been salvaged if it was put in the right hands, since acclaimed storytellers like David Fincher and Bryan Fuller have established successful careers through creating high art from trashy source material (like in Gone Girl and the most recent Hannibal TV series, respectively).

However, it doesn’t help that the film’s production values are in the toilet.

I didn’t expect much from a 70s exploitation horror movie, but the least they could have done is sync up the actor’s dialogue with their lip movements, which seems to be off at least 70 per cent of the time.

The film’s editing also operates on the same level of incompetence, since scenes abruptly change without any natural rhythm. These transitions are so sudden that the editor even managed to cut off key lines and important pieces of music.

And since most Frankenstein films live and die based on their unique monster design, the specimen on display here is mostly forgettable. The only interesting thing about Lady Frankenstein’s signature creature is a goofy prosthetic eyeball that looks equal parts fake and laughable.

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Not even a solid lead performance from Neri can salvage this exploitation remake, since she does an admirable job of balancing Lady Frankenstein’s alluring sensuality and her drive to meddle with the forces of nature.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film buckles under the weight of its own unrealized potential, poor production values, and unmitigated sleaze, which makes it much more interesting to talk about rather than to actually watch for entertainment purposes.

Lady Frankenstein isn’t even interestingly bad enough to justify viewing it as a cult classic, which means you might have to dust off that old Blu-ray copy of Blackenstein to get your fix.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Cheezies (because they’re just a cheap imitation of a better product)

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Fun facts:

-Original release date:

October 22, 1971 (Italy)

October 1973 (US)

-Budget: Under $200,000.

-Box office gross: ₤ 139.683 (Italian lire).

-This film was distributed in America through Roger Corman’s New World Pictures after this American studio provided the Italian filmmakers with an additional $90,000 to complete principal photography.

-Musical highlight: “Living Dead Girl” by Rob Zombie (Rob samples a line from the movie’s trailer at the very beginning of the song).

-You can watch the full movie on YouTube here.

Buck Privates (1941) review- Abbott and Costello finally make it big

If you’re trying to get a stubborn friend or family member to start watching older movies, I wouldn’t recommend starting them off with a comedy.

While all films are, in some way, influenced by the rapidly changing culture around them, comedies usually tap into something that is very unique to the specific time and place in which they were produced, more so than most other genres.

Plus, it goes without saying that what was once funny back in the day doesn’t always hold up to our [current year] sensibilities. I will never forget the first time I watched National Lampoon’s Animal House and was so confused when the filmmakers expected me to laugh at a scene where the joke basically boiled down to: BLACK PEOPLE ARE SCARY.

However, broad slapstick and clever wordplay usually breaks through these generational barriers, which is why comedy acts like the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are still recognizable names to this day.

Even though this legendary duo starred in 36 features together, their first big hit came in 1941 with Buck Privates, a film that casts the two as sleazy con men who accidently enlist in the army during America’s peacetime draft.

As Abbott and Costello pratfall their way through basic training they also come into contact with a quirky cast characters, which includes a spoiled playboy and his former valet, who are fighting over the same woman, a disgruntled drill instructor, and a musical trio played by The Andrews Sister, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the developing plot.

Now, when it comes to reviewing comedies, most flowery analysis about things like cinematography, pacing, and structure can be thrown out the window in favour of one simple question: “is the movie funny?” And when it comes to Buck Privates, the answer is (mostly) “yes.”

Abbott and Costello’s act might be in its infancy on screen in 1941, since this is only their second film as a team, but their classic “skinny straight man-fat buffoon” routine is already very polished after years performing on stage and on the radio together.

The duo’s chemistry is so on-point that they even managed to make me chuckle at a reoccurring bit about math and probability, which is something I never thought possible for someone as allergic to numbers as myself.

And despite the fact that a lot of the scripted jokes are pretty corny, the two still managed to generate some pretty consistent laughs through sheer delivery alone, which is the true litmus test for any great comedian.

The Andrews Sisters also inject the film with a nice bit of musical variety, since they perform their hit songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Times” to punctuate every major story beat.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not entirely play to the movie’s strengths, since they  dedicated a lot of screen time to the dull love triangle featuring some satellite characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a daytime soap opera.

Maybe it’s because Abbott and Costello had yet to prove themselves as big box office draws in 1941 and the studio was trying to hedge their bets with two conventionally attractive leading men, but whenever the story cuts back to the boilerplate alpha males it seems like we’ve switched to a completely different movie.

The comedy duo doesn’t even factor into the film’s war games climax, which really downgrades them to the status of comedy sidekicks rather than protagonists you want to get behind.

Another thing worth noting is how this film is a pretty transparent recruitment tool to encourage movie-goers of the time to enlist in the US peacetime draft.

Unlike another WWII era propaganda film I reviewed earlier this year, Commandos Strike at Dawn, the filmmakers try to accomplish this feat by making the army look like a outdoorsy vacation spot instead of a dangerous environment where you get to prove your worth as a man.

I’m not necessarily saying this approach hurts the movie in any significant way, but I definitely noticed the sheer amount of scenes that would emphasize how the military is a great place to meet women, eat ice cream, and kill time playing dice with your buddies.

But then again, this movie was selling itself as a light comedy, so maybe writing jokes about amputated limbs and shell shock would have been too much for a 1941 US audience that hadn’t experienced the horrors of World War II just yet.

Ultimately, while Abbott and Costello would go on to star in better movies with higher production values, Buck Privates is still worth watching to catch a glimpse of the comedy duo’s first big break on screen.

It also serves as a good reminder of physical comedy’s universal appeal, since someone getting tripped up by their own loose pants is funny no matter what generation you were born into.

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Raisin Bran cereal (because the little sugary bits make the surrounding blandness tolerable)

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Fun facts:

-Original release date: Jan. 11, 1941.

-Budget: $180,000 (estimated)

-Box office gross: $4 million

-In addition to signing up for an official sequel in 1947, Buck Privates Come Home, Abbott and Costello would go on to star in two other service comedies that highlighted different branches of the military. These includes In the Navy and Keep ‘Em Flying, which were both released later that same year.

-The Andrews Sisters co-stared with Abbott and Costello in a total of three feature films.

-On IMDB, The Andrews Sisters are listed as a trio in addition to having separate acting profiles.

-This film scored two Academy Awards nominations for Best Score and Best Original Song (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”).

-According to film scholars, the Japanese military showed their troops clips from Buck Privates to demonstrate how incompetent the US army was during World War II.

-Musical highlight: “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Times” (because “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” has already gotten enough shine).

The President’s Man (2000) review- Everybody gets old, even Chuck Norris

As a pop culture figurehead, Chuck Norris has left behind a very complex legacy.

Despite being lauded as an action movie heavyweight alongside Schwarzenegger and Stallone, the U.S. Air Force veteran turned actor never really got the chance to star in any classic films that have stood the test of time.

Instead, Norris wallowed in B-movie schlock throughout most of the 80s and 90s, riding off his reputation as a real life martial artist and fitness spokesperson to generate box office returns. Even Norris’ lead role in the TV show Walker, Texas Ranger, which ran for nine-ish seasons on CBS, is mostly enjoyed ironically today thanks to comedians like Conan O’Brien and Chris Elliot.

This strain of ironic appreciation was brought to a whole new level in 2005 with the popularization of “Chuck Norris Facts” on the Internet, which cemented the exaggerated power of his roundhouse kicks and facial hair for a whole new generation.

Even though these jokes are old hat in 2018, I think it’s safe to say that Norris was at least vaguely aware of his own vaunted reputation several years before these memes started to spread, since that’s the only way I can explain his ridiculous character in the 2000 TV movie The President’s Man.

In this film, Norris plays Joshua McCord, an American government operative who is such a badass that he’s called in to complete dangerous missions that even the Marines Corps can’t handle. Basically, he’s a combination of James Bond, Batman, and Solid Snake, with a dash of Bushido philosophy thrown in for extra seasoning.

When he’s not busy breaking necks for the good ol’ US of A, McCord also busies himself with playing chess, teaching philosophy at a Dedman College in Dallas, and other scholarly pursuits.

This diverse skill set is put on full display in the first 15 minutes of the film, when McCord is summoned from a Japanese tea ceremony to rescue the First Lady after she is held hostage by terrorists in Rio de Janeiro.

After this latest mission is complete, McCord begins to wonder if he’s getting too old to carry on the mantle of “the President’s Man” and begins to train a younger replacement to maintain his legacy and keep Americans safe from domestic and international threats.

Now, an ambitious director and screenwriter could have taken this premise and elevate the story above what one would expect from the star of Invasion U.S.A and Lone Wolf McQuade.

Similar to what Clint Eastwood tired to accomplish in Unforgiven and Gran Torino, The President’s Man could have easily turned this into a meaningful deconstruction of Norris’ legacy as an 80s and 90s action star and what that means for a whole new generation of film fans.

Unfortunately, since this is a TV movie made by Norris’ production company and co-directed by his youngest son, any promise that this premise might have had is flushed down the toilet in the first 20 minutes, when it becomes painfully obvious that this film was shot for cheap and pumped out as quickly as possible to satiate the Walker, Texas Ranger fanbase watching CBS.

This means that the film is littered with production shortcuts that exposes its status as a TV movie, such as stock sound effects, bad original music, sloppy fight choreography, a generous use of stock footage and sub par acting from a lot of the cast’s major players.

Even someone who is a big fan of Norris won’t really get what they’re looking for here, since he’s not really the main focus of the plot after the first 15 minutes.

By then the movie mostly follows his protégé Deke Slater (played by Dylan Neal), who is doing all the heavy lifting in terms of character development as he trains to become the next “President’s Man.”

As such, Norris is mostly saddled with a mentor role for the next hour, which means all he has to do is give stern looks, dish out fortune cookie wisdom and barely break a sweat during the few action sequences he takes part in.

And despite being in great shape for someone who is over 60, Norris’ age is big detriment to his status as a believable action hero in this movie, since it becomes blatantly obvious whenever a stunt double 20 years his junior takes over on screen.

It also doesn’t help that Neal is much more charismatic and likable that his mentor, who can’t even be bothered to raise his voice a few octave levels above normal once he confronts the man who killed his wife during the film’s climax.

With that being said, I’m still a sucker for these kinds of legacy-hero stories, where a grizzled veteran takes a cocky young upstart under his wing and molds him into a more responsible person who is willing to sacrifice his well-being for the greater good.

Even though this dynamic was done much better in films like The Mask of Zorro and Ant-Man, I still found myself charmed by Neal’s gradual transformation and his good-natured flirting with Norris’ daughter Que (Jennifer Tung), who also serves as his liaison to the President.

However, Norris himself still barely registers as a presence on screen, which is a shame since he is obviously written to serve as the glue that holds this entire film together.

Instead, it’s obvious that he’s only interested in showing up to collect a paycheque and maintain his almost decade long stranglehold on the CBS television landscape.

And while I do think that Norris has earned his place alongside the Schwarzeneggers and the Stallones in the pantheon of American action heroes, The President’s Man is not a good representation of why he earned that reputation in the first place.

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

Jack Link’s Original Beef Jerky (because it’s the manliest snack you’re likely to find, despite being bland and largely flavourless).

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Fun facts:

-Original air date: April 2, 2000 (on CBS).

-Budget: $2 million.

-Chuck Norris’ birth name is Carlos Ray Norris.

-Despite his reputation for dishing out white-hot death through the barrel of a gun, Norris only tallies one firearm related kill in this film. The rest of his fatalities are courtesy of neck breaks, throwing knives, and roundhouse kicks.

-Two years later, Norris would star in this film’s direct sequel The President’s Man: A Line in the Sand. While Tung returns as his daughter Que, Neal wouldn’t reprise his role and the character Deke Slater is played by actor Judson Mills, instead. The only other thing worth noting about this sequel is that it’s actually a lot more competently put together than the original, which makes it much less interesting to talk about.

-Between the original airing of The President’s Man in 2000 and today, Norris would only star in four more feature films. The rest of his film and TV credits roles throughout that time consist of the last two seasons of Walker, Texas Ranger and cameo appearances in movies like The Expendables 2 and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.