Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983) review-when a franchise runs out of gas

People often say that “good things come in threes,” but those folks obviously never watched the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy.

Sure, the series started off on the right foot in 1977 with an easy-going sleeper hit that defined “cool” for an entire generation of moviegoers.

Unfortunately, the Smokey name quickly nose-dived into sellout territory with a 1980 sequel that was in short supply of laughs, charm, and impressive stunt work.

That film was so bad that director Hal Needham declined to take part in Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983), with star Burt Reynolds only agreeing to make a brief cameo.

As such, the focus of this movie shifted to Jackie Gleason’s bumbling sheriff Buford T. Justice, who (mostly) serves as the protagonist this time around even though the first two films in this series were bristling with anti-authoritarian energy.

To make matters worse, Part 3 was plagued with conflicting creative visions during production, resulting in a bunch of expensive reshoots that forced the filmmakers to cobble all these disparate pieces together in the editing room.

Because of this, the theatrical Smokey and the Bandit trilogy ends on a pretty sour note, with a lazy, unfocused final entry that’s totally content with coasting on cruise control.

While the absence of Burt Reynolds is already a tough pill to swallow, the plot of Part 3 doesn’t help matters by being completely inane.

Even though Buford T. Justice serves as the protagonist here, the writers basically recycle the same story from the last two films, where a pair of wealthy Texans task the recently retired police officer with transporting some precious cargo across the American south for $250,000.

This kind of premise might have worked for an outlaw character like the Bandit, but Gleason’s cop seems like a square peg that the filmmakers are trying to stuff into a round hole.

After all, Justice never seemed preoccupied with material concerns like money throughout his first two big-screen appearances, with his motivation to catch and arrest Reynolds’ charming rogue being primarily ego-driven.

I guess the logic behind Part 3 is that Justice is bored after retiring from the force and is looking for some kind of action to relive the glory days.

But that element never gets addressed in any meaningful way, with the filmmakers being far more preoccupied with staging zany car chases and bad comedy skits.

The plot gets muddied even further with the re-introduction of Bandit’s sidekick Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed), who is hired to disguise himself as the famous outlaw and distract Justice on the road so that he doesn’t arrive at his destination in time.

It’s at this point that the movie goes from being lazy to outright shameless in terms of its attempt to hoodwink the audience into thinking they’re watching the first film.

Not only do the filmmakers dress Reed up in Reynolds’ iconic red shirt and cowboy hat, but they also give him the keys to the Pontiac Trans Am and have him pick-up another runaway woman who isn’t Sally Field.

Even though Reed tries to put his own spin on the Bandit character, he comes across as a cheap imitation of Reynolds and not even an amusingly absurd one like Norm MacDonald’s work on SNL.

This element of the movie also highlights the behind-the-scenes production woes that plagued Smokey and the Bandit Part 3.

According to multiple sources, Reed wasn’t even supposed to be involved, with the original plan being that Gleason would tackle a dual role as both Sheriff Justice and the Bandit.

However, this version of the film, titled “Smokey is the Bandit,” was disliked by test audiences, which encouraged Universal Pictures to order re-shoots with Reed’s participation.

While the severity of these re-shoots is still a matter of debate, it’s clear that these last-minute production changes had a significant impact on the final product, given how disjointed everything feels.

Since the filmmakers don’t fully commit to Justice or Reed as the main character, there’s no emotional throughline to lead the audience through this razor-thin story that mostly consists of throwaway car stunts, janky editing and bad ADR.

In fact, if one were to take out the end credits and the two-and-a-half minute introductory recap that consists of archive footage, this movie is barely feature length, which is undoubtedly a consequence of all the “Smokey is the Bandit” footage being scrapped.

But with that being said, Part 3 isn’t a total bust and actually does improve on its predecessor in one key area.

While the team behind Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) were surprisingly reluctant to stage any car chases until the very end of that film, director Dick Lowry and his crew do a much better job of pacing the action this time around.

Admittedly, a lot of the stunt work here is pretty basic and way too reliant on slow motion to artificially crank up the excitement of every chase.

But at least the automotive destruction is in good supply here and should satisfy anyone who just wants to see a police cruiser plow through a milk tanker.

Part 3’s soundtrack is also surprisingly strong, offering a variety of original tracks from country music heavyweights like Lee Greenwood and Ed Bruce.

So on a purely surface level, this film provides all the sights and sounds one would expect of a road comedy from this era, although there’s not a lot to praise beyond that.

Overall, the project feels like a lot of the cynical sequels and remakes that get made these days, where the audience is constantly bombarded with winks and nods to the original property they like, without anything fresh or original being offered in return.

But whereas these soulless cash-grabs keep racking in major box office returns today, moviegoers in 1983 at least had the good sense to stay away from Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 in droves.

In stark contrast to the $120 million that the first Smokey film generated, Part 3 couldn’t break even on a $9 million budget, meaning the franchise had officially run out of gas.

Of course, the Bandit name didn’t completely die out after this bomb, with Hal Needham eventually bringing the character back just over a decade later, this time on the small screen.

But that’s a story for another time.

For now, I just hope the lost “Smokey is the Bandit” footage eventually sees the light of day, since the surviving promotional image of Gleason dressed up like Reynolds is way funnier than most of the jokes in Part 3.

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

Diet Pepsi (because it’s that thing you like, without some of the key ingredients that make it cool)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Aug. 12, 1983

-Box office: $5,678,950

-Budget: $9 million

-Roger Ebert named Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 one of the worst movies of 1983, calling it an “annuity in action” for how blatantly it was trying to capitalize off of the box office success of the first two films.

-In 1983 Jackie Gleason also starred in The Sting II, another maligned sequel to a beloved film that retained none of the original leads.

Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 marks director Dick Lowry’s only theatrical release. Lowry spent the rest of his career helming television projects.

-Remnants of the old “Smokey is the Bandit” footage can be glimpsed in certain sections of Part 3, since Reed’s stunt double is sometimes a heavy-set man who was obviously meant to be a stand-in for Gleason. 

-Musical highlight: “The Bandit Express” by Lee Greenwood (plays during one of the movie’s many car chases).

Caught in the Draft (1941) review-we could all use a little Hope right now

While Bob Hope’s USO tours remain an indelible part of his career as a stand-up comedian, he would occasionally play a military man on the big screen as well.

A quick scroll through the actor’s lengthy filmography will reveal that projects like Give Me a Sailor (1938), Caught in the Draft (1941), Let’s Face It (1943), Off Limits (1952), The Iron Petticoat (1956) and The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell (1963) all fit into this category.

However, David Butler’s Caught in the Draft feels a little bit different from the rest and not just because it became the fifth highest grossing film of 1941 (alongside Howards Hawks’ Ball of Fire).

After all, the United States would enter World War Two five months after this movie premiered, which gives this comedy a real “calm before the storm” kind of vibe.

Throughout the next four years, Hollywood pretty much became the unofficial propaganda arm of the military, with members of the Bureau of Motion Pictures exercising tremendous oversight in terms of what ended up on screen.

In this environment, it’s hard to imagine a film like Caught in the Draft getting greenlit without major changes, since most of the runtime consists of Hope and the cast using basic training as an excuse to chase women, slack off, and treat the whole experience like a giant farce.

But from a 2022 perspective, this sense of anarchic fun is what makes Butler’s film such an enjoyable watch and the perfect vehicle to showcase Hope’s unique flavour of self-deprecating humour and slap-stick comedy.

In terms of the overall plot, Hope plays a famous actor named Don Bolton, who accidently enlists in the military in a misguided effort to impress the daughter of an army colonel.

The kicker is that Don is terrified of loud noises and possesses all the negative qualities one would associate with a pampered celebrity, which doesn’t endear him to his superior officers at all.

But Don is still determined to make it as a well-disciplined soldier, especially since his love interest’s father agreed to let the pair marry if he can achieve the rank of corporal.

When it comes to structure, Caught in the Draft is actually very similar to Buck Privates (1941); the last movie I looked at on my “Wartime Comedies” DVD.

In that film, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello also get enlisted in the military against their will and pratfall their way through basic training for the bulk of the runtime.

Both movies even climax with a war games exercise that quickly spirals out of control, giving the respective protagonists an opportunity to prove their mettle without going overseas. 

However, Butler and his team manage to pull off this story with a little more clarity and gusto, since they had the confidence to really prop up their lead actor instead of shuffling him off to the sidelines (which is the fate that befell Abbott and Costello in Buck Privates).

As someone who wasn’t very familiar with Hope’s comedy until watching this film, it’s pretty obvious to me now why this actor was able to carve out a show biz career that lasted almost eight decades.

His vaunted reputation for being able to execute a variety of physical comedy ticks while firing off witty one-liners is well preserved here, especially with a character who is so accident-prone.

But what really impressed me about Hope is that his comedic chops still manage to shine through in some of the film’s more low-key scenes that don’t involve tanks or explosions.

The first 30 minutes of the film mostly consist of Don trying to worm his way out of getting conscripted in the first place, whether that means faking an injury or marrying one of his many former girlfriends.

While this is undoubtedly scummy behaviour, Hope manages to maintain some degree of likability through his boyish charm and quick movements, which make the most of scenes that mostly consist of dialogue.

But a leading man is only as strong as his supporting cast, and the film is definitely elevated by talented journeyman actors like Lynne Overman and Eddie Bracken, who portray Hope’s agent and driver, respectively.

The trio all have tremendous chemistry and bring a ton of energy to any scenario the screenwriters cook up for them, even if it involves something as mundane as peeling potatoes.

Dorothy Lamour should also be given a lot of credit for breathing some life into the film’s main love interest, since this kind of character archetype is so often completely devoid of personality (especially in movies from this era).

Instead, Lamour comes across as the perfect foil for Hope, using her quick wits and level head to immediately see through a lot of his buffoonery and zany schemes.

While this may sound like she’s being pigeonholed as a typical “female killjoy” archetype, Lamour actually serves an important role in the story, since her mere presence forces the immature male protagonist to actually grow up and take some responsibility.

It also helps that the film’s writers didn’t force these two together through dishonest means, quickly jettisoning any “love by deception” storylines before they get started.

And having already watched five Nicholas Sparks films for this blog, that was a very refreshing discovery.

But that doesn’t mean that all the writing decisions are top notch.

Even though I laughed pretty consistently through the film’s 82-minute runtime, there were a couple dated jokes that did dampen my enjoyment somewhat.

Outside of an unfortunate reference to The Jazz Singer (1927), this movie also contained a couple period-specific jokes that will leave modern audiences scratching their heads.

The most egregious of these cultural/political deep cuts is a jab at the failed 1940 presidential campaign of Republican nominee Wendell Willkie, which probably felt like a dated reference even for 1941 movie-goers. 

It also must be said that the film’s third act and denouement feel pretty rushed, although that same complaint could be lobbed at a lot of Hollywood’s output during its Golden era.

However, those minor weaknesses can be largely brushed aside due to the treasure trove of snappy lines and well-choreographed physical gags that Hope and company bring to the table.

In the end, it’s really difficult to wring any meaningful analysis out of this kind of well-executed comedy, so the best compliment I could pay to Caught in the Draft is that it simply works at a core level.

And for anyone who is worried about the film feeling like a star-studded recruitment ad, the setting mostly comes across as cinematic window dressing or an excuse for Hope to ply his trade with military-themed props and costumes.

This career decision turned out to be quite prophetic, since the actor started to perform in front of US troops on a regular basis when the nation entered World War Two shortly after the film’s release.

Those were difficult times to be sure, with the globe being plunged into such a far-reaching conflict, but I’m sure Hope was able to provide these soldiers with a small sliver of comfort through his comedy stylings.

And now that Europe is in the middle of another self-destructive war that threatens to draw in the rest of the world, we could all use a little Hope in our lives, even if it is just for an hour and twenty minutes.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

Kraft peanut butter and Premier Plus crackers (because it just works on a fundamental level and doesn’t require a lot of explanation)

Fun facts:

-Release date: July 4, 1941

-Box office: $2.2 million

-Between 1941 and 1991, Hope took part in 57 different USO tours. Because of this, and his various other contributions to the American military, Hope became an honorary veteran of the US Armed Forces in 1997 (six years before his death).

-Outside of Caught in the Draft, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour starred in many other films together over the years, including all seven entries in the popular Road To … series (1940-1962).

Caught in the Draft contains multiple references to real-life Hollywood stars in its script, with Hope name dropping director Cecil B. DeMille and actor Gary Cooper at one point. The writers even make a weird meta reference to Hope’s co-star by having the actor describe her as looking like “Dorothy Lamour with clothes on” within the film.

-Outside of acting, vaudeville and performing at USO shows, Bob Hope was also best known for being a recurring host at the Oscars, having fulfilled this role 19 times (more so than any other entertainer).

Caught in the Draft can be watched in its entirety on YouTube right now.

The Lucky One (2012) review-Sparks on autopilot

After watching Scott Hicks’ The Lucky One (2012) last month, I finally polished off my 5-Film Nicholas Sparks Collection from Warner Brothers.

Having never indulged in any of Sparks’ romantic dramas before purchasing this DVD set, I was originally bracing for a pretty miserable movie marathon based on bad word-of-mouth and poor critical reception across the board.

However, running through all five films has proven to be a much more well-rounded viewing experience in terms of quality, with distinctive peaks (The Notebook, A Walk to Remember), valleys (Message in a Bottle) and plateaus (Nights in Rodanthe).

With this in mind, I was hoping to end this journey on a high note with The Lucky One, especially since this project boasted another attractive cast and picturesque American setting.

Unfortunately, this film also turned out to be a greatest hits compilation of all the worst elements of the four previous entries in this collection, with cheesy dialogue, ludicrous plotting and flat characters who belong in a cartoon.

Because of this, my initial journey into the world of Nicholas Sparks ended with more of a whimper than a PG-13 rated bang.

In case the trailer didn’t make it clear, the eponymous “Lucky One” of the story is Logan (Zac Efron), a US marine who miraculously survived several near-death experiences during a recent tour of Iraq.

Logan believes that his good fortune is due to a random photo he found in the dirt moments before a mortar shell killed several of his squad mates.

After returning state-side, Logan vows to find the woman featured in this photograph, eventually stumbling upon dog kennel owner Beth (Taylor Schilling) in a sleepy Louisiana town.

Rather than telling Beth the real reason why he showed up out of nowhere Logan applies to work at the kennel instead, allowing their romantic relationship to blossom on top of a healthy foundation of lies.

Of course, the flimsiness of this premise is suspiciously familiar to Message in a Bottle (1999), where the main character of that film also withholds the truth in order to get closer to a potential lover.

While Efron is not nearly as creepy or manipulative as Robin Wright was in Message, his character’s decision to lie by omission still comes across as being an extremely lazy way of manufacturing conflict.

After all, one of Logan’s defining characteristics in The Lucky One is that he is an honest and good-natured hunk, which doesn’t gel at all with the deceptive nature of his meet-cute with Beth.

I know screenwriter Will Fetters was bound by the constraints of the original source material, but judging by the Wikipedia summary for Sparks’ 2008 book he already changed around the basic plot structure for this movie adaptation. So, from where I’m sitting, a couple more tweaks couldn’t hurt.

For this hypothetical re-write, Fetters should also look at revising the other major antagonistic force in this story, which is Beth’s divorced husband Keith.

While actor Jay Ferguson is no stranger to playing jerks on TV shows like Mad Men, here he’s given absolutely nothing to work with portraying a romantic rival who is more warthog than man.

Basically, every negative trait you could associate with a jealous ex is put into a blender and poured into this character’s mould to make Efron look even better by comparison.

Outside of being physically and emotionally abusive to the mother of his child, Keith is also written to be a spoiled redneck who uses his status as the town sheriff to bully and intimidate people he doesn’t like (knowing full well that his judge father will absolve him of any wrongdoing).  

This character is so comically evil that he even points a loaded gun at Efron’s dog near the end of the movie, an action that should put him on the shit list of every viewer who isn’t an outright serial killer.

But despite this, the filmmakers also attempt to give Keith a rushed redemption arc at the tail end of the story, even though such a development isn’t earned or organic in the least.

But spotty writing is far from the only thing weighing The Lucky One down.

On a technical level, this film is littered with awkward cuts and weird editing decisions that give the proceedings a very amateurish feel.

At times it seems like the filmmakers simply lost certain footage during post-production, forcing them to splice certain scenes together without all the connective tissue.

For example, there’s one moment where Beth tells Logan about a treasured memory of her dead brother, where he sealed up one of her books in a brick wall.

However, this revelation lacks a lot of emotional impact on screen since the director didn’t include a close-up of the object in question, making it look like Schilling is staring at nothing.

In terms of acting, most of the cast actually turn in a respectable performance given the subpar material they have to work with.

Riley Thomas Stewart is particularly impressive as Beth’s nine-year-old son Ben, who outshines a lot of the adult actors in terms of presence and charisma.

Blyth Danner also gets saddled with some of the best lines as Beth’s sassy grandmother, reminding me, once again, of Message in a Bottle and how Paul Newman steals that movie in a similar, gender-flipped role.

While Efron does a decent job of playing the strong, silent type, it’s a shame he couldn’t decide on an accent to really anchor his performance.

Most of the time he sounds like your typical California surfer bro, but every once in a while he decides to deliver his lines with a Southern twang for some reason.

And as good an actor Efron can be given the right project, he’s not talented enough to save some of the Harlequin Romance novel-level dialogue he’s asked to spit out, like when he tells Schilling that “You should be kissed every day, every hour, every minute.”

But then again, that kind of corniness is what makes these movies (and the books they’re based on) so successful.

Having sat through five Sparks adaptations now, I’ll admit that there is something very appealing about how these different filmmakers lean into this highly romanticized material so unapologetically.

Through populating each movie with endless sunsets, vast aquatic scenery, vintage vehicles, and impossibly beautiful people, they’re able to create the perfect breeding ground for a love story that isn’t confined to a specific decade in late 20th century America.

The Lucky One is no different, with director of photography Alar Kivilo doing a lot of the heavy lifting to create that signature look and feel.

But unlike some of the better films in the Sparks canon (The Notebook, A Walk to Remember), this 2012 entry doesn’t have a strong enough script to elevate this unmistakably shallow subject matter.

Even though the movie tries to establish some depth early on by making a big deal about Logan’s PTSD, that important character detail is all but abandoned as soon as the romance with Beth gets fully underway. 

So in the end, The Lucky One doesn’t have a lot to offer besides some purely superficial elements that one can already experience by staring at the film’s generic theatrical poster.

And while this did represent a sour conclusion to my first foray into the world of Nicholas Sparks, I remain mildly interested in seeing how his six remaining movie adaptations turn out.

After all, this franchise is successful for a reason, and I feel like I’m getting closer to cracking that code with every new screening.

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

Carnaby Sweet marshmallow hearts (because it’s some cheap, sugary crap that should only be consumed around Valentine’s Day)

Fun facts:

-Release date: April 20, 2012

-Budget: $25 million (estimated)

-Box office: $60,457,138 (domestic), $99,357,138 (worldwide)

-While The Lucky One received mostly negative reviews from critics, the film picked up a number of Teen Choice Awards (choice movie actor-Efron, choice movie-drama) and a single People’s Choice Award (favourite dramatic movie actor-Efron). Riley Thomas Stewart was also nominated for a Young Artist Award for his performance in this film as Schillings’ son Ben.

-The Louisiana house where Beth lives was re-used for the 2014 Nicholas Sparks film adaptation for The Best of Me.

-Outside of feature films, director Scott Hicks has a history of helming documentaries and music videos for the Australian rock band INXS.

Musical highlight: “The Story” by Brandi Carlile (plays over the end credits)

Sisters of Death (1976) review-too dumb to live

If I were to give any unsolicited advice to an aspiring screenwriter it would be this: start with a bang and end strong.

In my experience, a good beginning and conclusion can salvage a complete cinematic misfire, or at least help you forgive some of the glaring problems that dominate a movie’s middle section.

Outside of the newest entry in the James Bond franchise, my most recent encounter with this phenomenon took place during a viewing of Joe Mazzuca’s Sisters of Death (1976), a low-budget horror film that is rife with plot holes, cheap titillation, and bad production values.

However, I couldn’t bring myself to truly hate this film, since there were enough interesting elements at play to hold my attention for 97 minutes (including a really entertaining finale).

Still, I wouldn’t go as far to say that Sisters of Death is some kind of underrated horror masterpiece or anything, since the film often looks and feels like a porno with all the explicit sex scenes taken out.

The plot of Sisters of Death kicks off with a literal bang, where a secret college sorority initiation ceremony goes horribly wrong and results in one of the pledges being shot in the head.

Seven years later, the surviving members of the sorority meet up for a reunion at a secluded compound, although nothing is as it seems.

Once the women realize that they have been trapped by an electric fence, paranoia begins to set in once a mysterious killer starts picking them off one by one.

On paper, this sounds like a perfectly serviceable premise for an exploitation flick, especially with noted b-movie queen Claudia Jennings serving as the main lead.

And like I mentioned before, the opening couple minutes of this film serve as a great hook, where the filmmakers use an ethereal score and sudden burst of violence to set the stage for a movie that’s meant to be equal parts mystery and slasher.

Unfortunately, the script really starts to fall apart as soon as the plot gets rolling, since virtually all of the characters make one bone-headed decision after another, even by horror movie standards.

For one thing, the invitation to this college reunion was sent out by a mystery benefactor, which doesn’t set off any alarm bells for most of the women involved.

The majority of these ladies also find no problem with getting into a car with two strange men who were hired to drive them out into the middle of the desert.

And when they finally arrive at their destination, the sorority sisters are thrilled to find that this shadowy figure has supplied them with champagne and their own bathing suits to enjoy the compound’s luxurious pool area.

This serious lack of curiosity and self-preservation makes you resent these characters before they are even put in mortal damage, which robs the latter half of this movie of any real tension.

And that’s a real shame, since the entire cast are obviously doing their best to work with the material they were given.

Even though the sorority sisters are brainless idiots, the actresses playing them all have great chemistry and really sold me on the idea that they are old friends.

The movie’s screenwriters also do a decent job of imbuing the five main actresses with unique personalities, which helps you at least keep track of all the main characters once they start dropping like flies.

The people behind the camera should be given some credit as well, since they made the wise decision to utilize a lot of long takes to build suspense. 

Combine all these lingering shots with an eerie, atmospheric score and Sisters of Death occasionally resembles the better “Giallo” Italian horror movies that were coming out around the same time, albeit with a fraction of the same directorial skill that was wielded by filmmakers like Dario Argento.

Because as hard as he tries, Mazzuca’s cinematic ambitions are constantly at odds with the poor production values that plague most of this movie.

One of the most glaring examples of this dynamic is the “giant” electric fence that is meant to keep all the main characters from escaping the compound.

While I’m sure the original script for Sisters of Death specified that this fence needed to be 20-30 feet high, what ends up on the screen is a structure that is barely taller than an average man.

As pointed out by YouTuber Robin Bailes, the characters could have easily escaped this deadly scenario if they simply stacked some furniture next to this fence and hopped to the other side.

Instead, the sorority sisters and their two male companions simply wait around like sitting ducks and continue to go about their day and night almost like nothing had even happened, deciding to take hot showers and go to bed in their underwear.

This would have made sense if Sisters of Death was an outright porno, where the filmmakers were financially obligated to crowbar some inorganic sex scenes into the plot every five minutes or so.

But since that never happens, all I’m left with is the cinematic equivalent of blue balls and lingering thoughts like: “why didn’t they stay outside where the killer can’t sneak up on them?”

It also doesn’t help that the movie’s editor was seemingly asleep at the wheel, since I spotted the crew’s boom mic in at least five different shots.

But despite all those shortcomings, Sisters of Death actually manages to pull itself together for the final 10 minutes, where all the various plot threads wrap up in a pretty compelling fashion.

I won’t spoil what happens, but suffice it to say that Mazzuca and his screenwriters successfully threw some curveballs at me that I wasn’t expecting for a film of this caliber.

And while a strong ending isn’t enough to override the film’s many shortcomings, it at least made me feel like I hadn’t completely wasted my time.

Is this a back-handed compliment? Sure. But if the writers of Seinfeld have taught me anything, it’s that glaring character flaws can be forgiven if you leave the audience on a high note.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Wagon Wheels (because the middle is the worst part)

Fun facts:

-Release date: April 19, 1976 (IMDB), August 1977 (Wikipedia)

-According to IMDB, this movie was originally shot in 1972, but wasn’t released until several years later.

-Actress and Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings, who plays the lead character in Sisters of Death, tragically died in an automobile accident on Oct. 3, 1979, only a few years after this movie was released. She was 29 years old.

Sisters of Death marks Joe Mazzuca’s last project as a live-action film director before switching over to being a production manager for several animated TV shows. His filmography includes work on programs like: Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, Muppet Babies, and Dexter’s Laboratory.

Sisters of Death can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.

Nights in Rodanthe (2008) review-vicarious vacation viewing

Producing a worthy follow-up to a hit movie is always an unenviable task, even in the world of Nicholas Sparks book-to-film adaptations.

However, George Wolfe was saddled with this very responsibility when he was hired to direct Nights in Rodanthe (2008) a few years after the release of The Notebook (2004).

Even though it received a mixed critical reception, The Notebook proved to be a sleeper hit at the box office and would go on to gain a massive cult following, thanks in part to its period setting, attractive cast and unapologetic sentimentality. 

In fact, critics have given The Notebook a serious re-evaluation over the last decade, with some publications now considering it to be one of the best chick-flicks of all time.

However, no such accolades have been given out to Nights in Rodanthe, which was met with an overall shrug from critics and audiences at the time of its release and has mostly been forgotten outside of the most passionate Sparks supporters.

And while it’s easy to see why this film faded into obscurity, Nights in Rodanthe at least offers enough nice scenery and atmosphere to justify a Sunday-afternoon viewing, even if the central romance doesn’t really work.

The plot of Nights in Rodanthe revolves around single mom Adrienne (Diane Lane), who is struggling with whether or not she should let her estranged husband back into her life after he cheated on her.

While Adrienne is mulling this question over, she’s charged with overseeing her best friend’s bed-and-breakfast for the weekend, even if the seaside hotel only has a single guest checking in.

This one guest turns out to be handsome doctor Paul (Richard Gere), who is attracted to Adrienne despite the fact that he is dealing with some intense personal shit in his own life.

Even though I already provided a preamble on The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe is actually much more comparable to Message in a Bottle (1999)—another Sparks novel adaptation where the central romance is the least interesting part of the movie.

In this case, Diane Lane really does all the heavy lifting, since her protagonist exudes a tremendous amount of flustered charm that is sure to connect with a lot of single moms out there.

After all, these women often get shuffled off to the sidelines in a lot of mainstream Hollywood movies, where their role in the overarching story is relegated to giving out sage advice while exercising no real agency of their own.  

So it’s refreshing to see an older woman’s story take centre stage in a big movie like this, and Lane does an excellent job of articulating a lot of the challenges of being a single mom without turning into a gross caricature.

This is best exemplified in Adrienne’s relationship with her teenage daughter (played by Mae Whitman), since the pair have a combative dynamic at the start but gradually develop more empathy for each other as the plot moves forward.

Unfortunately, Richard Gere’s character isn’t nearly as engaging, since he spends the majority of the movie brooding and looking constipated.

And this kind of mopey attitude bleeds into his on-screen relationship with Lane as well, since the two actors don’t have a lot of chemistry while their two characters have little in common beyond the fact that they are both attractive, single and have kids.

Because of this, the pair’s romance never feels like anything beyond a brief weekend fling, even though the screenwriters pretend like they are crafting some once-in-a-lifetime love that can never be replicated.

However, the real star of Nights in Rodanthe isn’t any individual member of the cast.

Instead, the most captivating presence on screen belongs to the Rodanthe Inn itself and the beautiful North Carolina beach-front property that surrounds it.

Admittedly, all the Nicholas Sparks films I’ve seen up until now have flexed some impressive cinematography. But this is the first time all that energy and skill has been funneled into making one specific location look appealing.

And director of photography Affonso Beato gives the audience a pretty breathtaking intro into this sea-side hotel, providing a panoramic view of the building that begins on the inside of Gere’s car and ends at the check-in counter.

Even though the interior of the hotel was built in a studio, the production crew did an excellent job of making it look like a place you would want to spend your vacation, with plenty of calming colours, eccentric wallpaper, and natural lighting on display.

In fact, this production design was so influential that the real-life owners of this hotel decided to completely renovate their interiors following the film’s release to more closely resemble what was on screen.

And like I mentioned before, this kind of beautiful imagery follows Lane and Gere whenever they leave the hotel to take a scenic stroll on the beach or enjoy a dockside cook out in a nearby town.

Unfortunately, all the postcard scenery in the world can’t compensate for a weak central romance, especially since that’s the main reason why most people pay money to watch these Sparks adaptations in the first place.

But I still think there is something to be said for the laid-back atmosphere that Wolfe and his team created for this film, not just through some expert cinematography but a well-crafted, ambient score as well.

After all, sometimes you just want to sit back and relax by watching a movie like Nights in Rodanthe, where the stakes are low and most of the conflict is strictly internal.

While this slice-of-life drama has been done way better by directors like Richard Linklater, Greta Gerwig, and Hayao Miyazaki, Wolfe works with the material he’s given and still manages to overcome some of the film’s narrative shortcomings through his keen cinematic eye.

Couple that together with Lane’s endearing lead performance and Nights in Rodanthe becomes the movie equivalent of taking a relaxing vacation with a very charming tour guide.

And after the last year-and-a-half, I think we could all use a nice vacation, even if you’re not ready to get off the living room couch just yet.

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Quaker Crispy Minis (because it’s the kind of snack you can equally enjoy laying on the beach or sitting on the couch)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Sept. 26, 2008

-Budget: $30 million (estimated)

-Box office: $84.4 million (worldwide)

Nights in Rodanthe was shot in several locations across North Carolina, including the Village of Rodanthe itself.

-Shortly after filming on Nights in Rodanthe was completed, the hotel featured in the movie (called “Serendipity” at the time) was condemned due to an insufficient foundation. The building was eventually bought by a new set of owners, moved to a more secure location nearby and renamed “The Inn at Rodanthe.” It remains open to this day

Nights in Rodanthe marks the third screen collaboration between Richard Gere and Diane Lane after The Cotton Club (1984) and Unfaithful (2002).

-While director George Wolfe’s film work has been sporadic throughout the 2010s, he came back with a vengeance in 2020 by helming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  The film (based on a play by August Wilson) went on to win two Oscars for costume design and makeup/hairstyling and bagged another three nominations (including a posthumous nod for Chadwick Boseman).

-Musical highlight: “In Rodanthe” by Emmylou Harris (plays over the end credits)

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)