She Demons (1958) review – micro-budgeted monotony

While independent filmmakers are often lauded for their ability to work outside the system and complete a project using a modest amount of money, they don’t always arrive at the same destination career-wise.

For example, directors like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson have become critical darlings despite their humble beginnings; debuting with simple crime features that lead to increasingly complex projects.

Meanwhile, people like Robert Rodriguez and John Carpenter have largely stuck with their lurid genre roots and developed more of a cult following as a result.

Then you have luminaries like Roger Corman, who is remembered more as a genius businessman because of his ability to turn a profit by shooting fast and cheap.

Some renegade directors have even cemented a legacy through their sheer lack of talent and business sense, which is largely the case with B-movie king Ed Wood.

But for every Ed Wood there are probably a thousand independent filmmakers like Richard E. Cunha, whose name has been cast into the dustbin of history while his similarly schlocky work lives on in the realm of public domain.

One of these projects is She Demons (1958), a sleazy science-fiction horror film whose production values are about on par with an elementary school play.

But to be fair, most elementary school plays at least go to some lengths to maintain some sense of stylistic consistency, whereas Cunha’s film feels like it consists of assets leftover from eight different movies.

And while part of me always admires the entrepreneurial spirit it takes to get any film project off the ground, especially on a micro budget, I can’t ignore the reality that She Demons feels like it is held together with chewing gum and masking tape.

For as disjointed as this movie gets, the plot is mercifully simple from the outset, where a spoiled heiress (Irish McCalla) and her entourage get shipwrecked on an uncharted island following a hurricane.

As the group gradually explores the island they stumble upon a menagerie of horrors, including Nazi soldiers, a mad scientist, and the titular female monstrosities, which turn out to be some conventionally attractive women wearing cheap Halloween masks.

After a bunch of corny fist fights and lengthy expositions dumps, the mad scientist eventually turns his attention towards McCalla, wanting to use her youth and vitality to restore the beauty of his horribly maimed wife.

Watching She Demons I was constantly reminded of a couple old episodes of Star Trek, the ones where the Enterprise crew would visit an alien planet that looked suspiciously like Earth during World War II or the Prohibition Era.

Of course, this sense of familiarity turned out to be a cost-saving measure, since it allowed the producers to re-use old sets, props, and costumes from other Paramount properties rather than shell out a bunch of money to create new ones.

It seems like Cunha’s team operated under the same penny-pinching philosophy, except they didn’t have access to the same caliber of writers that made those original Star Trek adventures so compelling.

Here, it seems like the story of She Demons was totally dependent on whatever sets, props, and costumes the filmmakers could get their hands on, leading to a weird sense of disconnect throughout the entire 77-minute runtime.

Admittedly, some of the exterior scenes look alright, since Cunha and his team at least had the good sense to shoot on an actual beach and public park in California to maintain the illusion that his characters are stuck on a tropical island.

But that illusion completely shatters whenever the actors venture indoors and are forced to interact with these cheap sets that were either quickly made or taken from other movies.

The patchwork nature of this production is present in a lot of other places as well, with the overuse of stock footage being a repeat offender.

The filmmakers didn’t even bother to set up important establishing shots in some cases, outright omitting any depiction of the giant shipwreck that’s supposed to set the entire plot in motion.

Now, you could excuse a lot of these shortcomings as being a byproduct of the film’s reported $65,000 budget, since that kind of money doesn’t leave a lot of creative wiggle room for a sci-fi, horror mashup, even by 1958 standards.

But what isn’t excusable is the movie’s script, which is simultaneously sloppy, nonsensical, and extremely long-winded.

For whatever reason, Cunha decided to take a simple premise (people getting stuck on an island populated with monsters) and weigh it down with a bunch of extraneous nonsense.

Instead of focusing on the characters’ struggle to survive, the film keeps introducing new outlandish concepts that come out of nowhere, like long-lost Nazis, experimental gene therapy, and using lava as a renewable energy source.

Cunha gets so carried away with these ideas that the titular “She Demons” barely factor into the plot and are only used as set dressing past a certain point.

It also doesn’t help that the movie’s complicated fake science is explained during a 10-minute-long speech from the main villain that only succeeds in bringing the film to a grinding halt.

The characters themselves aren’t much to write home about either, although you can at least tell that certain members of the case are trying to squeeze something meaningful out of this bonkers script.

The only person who comes close to making a lasting impression is Rudolph Anders as the main villain, since this German actor made a career out of playing doctors and Nazis and knows how to fuse those two archetypes together.

Irish McCalla also makes an impression as the leading lady, but that probably has more to do with her measurements than her acting ability.

Tod Griffin isn’t even worth bringing up as the main love interest, since his monotone delivery constantly sounds like he’s reading his dialogue off of cue cards.

While Victor Sen Yung is saddled with the hapless role of the wisecracking sidekick, the filmmakers at least had the decency to not force him to adopt a stereotypical Asian accent (as was the style at the time).

However, that didn’t stop Cunha and his co-writer from inserting some eye-rolling Oriental-flavoured expressions into the script, getting Yung to yell “jumpin’ wanton!” and “Great Confucius’ ghost!” at various points in the movie.

And despite the overall zaniness of the plot, She Demons’ biggest sin is it is a boring watch most of the time, with a punishingly sluggish pace that only picks up in the final five minutes.

So if you’re planning a Halloween-themed bad movie night, it’s best to avoid this film even in that context, since including it in your lineup will only succeed in killing the vibe.

The only real value you can glean from watching She Demons is purely academic, since it might give you some insight on what to avoid if you plan on shooting a movie for $65,000.

Now, I know that sounds harsh, especially since scrappy movie makers like Cunha still serve as inspiration to aspiring artists looking to break into the industry today.

But as much as cinephiles like to celebrate independent filmmaking as a whole, it’s always important to acknowledge the trash alongside celebrating the treasure, with She Demons being a prime example of the former.

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

OMG! Milk Chocolately Clusters (because you deserve to enjoy a delicious snack while watching this dreck)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Jan. 3, 1958 (U.S.)

She Demons was originally released in theatres as a double feature with Giant from the Unknown (1958), another cheaply made sci-fi, horror mashup directed by Cunha and released by Astor Pictures.

-Richard Cunha got his start in show business during World War II, where he served as an aerial photographer for the military. From there, he was transferred to Hal Roach Studios in Los Angeles to make training films, newsreels, and documentaries. After the war, Cunha worked his way up to becoming a cinematographer on television and eventually started directing his own feature films.  

She Demons marked the only time actress Irish McCalla received top billing in a feature film. She was also known for her starring role in the cult TV show Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (1955-56). McCalla retired from acting in the early 1960s and would go on to establish herself as a respected oil painter.  

She Demons can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (the picture quality here is actually an improvement over my DVD copy from Echo Bridge Entertainment).

Bandit Goes Country (1994) review – a shoddy new coat of paint

While film studios used to draw their power from the marquee stars they had under contract, it seems like the more valuable resource in the entertainment industry these days is intellectual properties.

So instead of focusing a lot of time and money on producing the next “John Wayne” or “Jimmy Stewart” picture, these movie executives are far more interested in cultivating big money-making franchises that allows them to produce as many sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and ancillary TV shows as possible.

Because of this, a significant amount of online discourse is now being dedicated to how these various studios are managing their IPs, with Disney and WarnerMedia currently catching a lot of heat for their handling of Star Wars and DC Comics projects, respectively.

Even though these multi-billion-dollar companies should be subject to public criticism, we should always keep things in perspective and realize that this dynamic could always be alot worse.

Because in my experience, I don’t ever think I’ve seen a film studio fumble the ball harder than Universal’s stewardship of the Smokey and the Bandit franchise.

After all, the original Smokey film starring Burt Reynolds became a cultural and box office juggernaut in 1977 by tapping into the rebellious spirit and easy-going attitude that characterized that particular decade.

And while the sequel that followed in 1980 was still financially successful, a lot of the magic had been lost by that point, causing director Hal Needham to sit out Part 3 altogether.

The third Smokey movie turned out to be such a thermonuclear disaster both in front of and behind the camera that the studio didn’t even touch the property again until the mid-1990s, greenlighting a series of four made-for-TV movies for Universal Television’s “Action Pack” programming block.

The first of these TV movies to emerge was Bandit Goes Country (1994), which starred Brian Bloom as the title character and saw the return of Needham to the franchise for the first time in over a decade.

Despite these familiar trappings, it’s pretty obvious that Universal was just hoping to produce a generic, low-effort action-comedy series with the “Bandit” name slapped on it.

Because without that title, this movie has no personality of its own and seems like it is riding off the coattails of other mid-90s TV schlock like Renegade or Walker, Texas Ranger more than anything.

Before you even get into the plot, Bandit Goes Country is already a mess from a conceptual level, since it’s very hard to figure out how it relates to the original three feature films.

IMDB describes this TV movie as something that “appears to be a prequel to the Smokey and the Bandit films” based on, I’m guessing, how young Bloom is compared to Reynolds during his first appearance as the character.

However, that theory goes right out the window as soon as you realize that Bandit Goes Country takes place in the 1990s and not in the 1960s like a proper prequel would require.

Additionally, the cast of this TV movie don’t feature any younger versions of the characters from the original trilogy, including Snowman (Jerry Reed) or Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason).

Even some of the more superficial elements of those original movies are missing, with the Bandit’s iconic Pontiac Trans Am being traded in for a Dodge Stealth.

So based on that information, I can only conclude that Bandit Goes Country is more of an attempt to reboot the franchise with a fresh coat of paint, completely unburdened by any past continuity or canon.

While I can respect the impulse to try something different and not rely on Baby Boomer nostalgia to get by, it’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t have any clear idea of where to take the character using this blank canvas.

This lack of direction is most visible in the movie’s story, which just meanders for 90 minutes and gets bogged down in a bunch of useless subplots.

The main storyline here involves Bandit returning to his hometown, where he attempts to make peace with a rival community that’s held a grudge against his people for generations.

But instead of sticking to that simple premise, the filmmakers constantly take you on these narrative detours that don’t amount to much.

These distracting subplots include:

-Bandit being hired to transport country music star Mel Tillis to his upcoming concert.

-Bandit being hounded by government agents who are investigating his cousin’s music pirating business.

-Bandit attempting to rekindle a romance with his childhood sweetheart (Elizabeth Berkley).

-Bandit trying to help another one of his old girlfriends marry her new beau in secret (since he hails from this rival community).

-Bandit picking up this random female hitchhiker, who does nothing throughout the whole movie until she decides to shack up with his cousin at the last minute for no reason (the pair had previously shared one small scene together).

With all these things happening at the same time, Bandit Goes Country feels like you’re watching someone play a redneck-themed RPG, where they decide to tackle all the side missions and completely ignore the main quest.

Story structure aside, what really sinks this television reboot is the noticeable lack of impressive automotive stunt work.

After all, this kind of thing was Needham’s big claim to fame as a director and you think that he would cook up something really special for his grand return to the series that made him a household name.

But outside of an early scene involving a light aircraft landing on a moving flatbed truck, the movie plays it pretty safe and seems reluctant to put its main character in any kind of mortal peril behind the wheel.

While I’m sure that Needham and his crew were constrained by a modest TV budget, that doesn’t excuse the sheer lack of imagination that ends up on screen.

To try and compensate, the filmmakers really lean into Bandit Goes Country’s status as a comedy, with Mel Tillis and his manager (Charles Nelson Reilly) taking on the lion’s share of the movie’s slapstick gags.

Unfortunately, most of these jokes fall completely flat and feel just as half-baked as the stunt work, something that’s become a recurring pattern in Needham’s career through films like Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981) and Body Slam (1986).

The cast also don’t make a very strong impression overall, with Bloom being the worst offender as the Bandit.

To be fair, the actor was definitely set up to fail from the beginning. Stepping into Reynolds’  boots is no easy task, especially if audiences were only familiar with Bloom’s work through the long-running soap opera As the World Turns at that point.

While Bloom would later showcase his range in the realm of voice acting, he’s completely lost in this project, being content with playing a smirking douche instead of a charming rogue like the role requires.

He’s also not done any favors by the wardrobe department, who decided to dress him up in the worst kind of mid-90s fashion, including a belt buckle with a giant “B” printed on it (like he’s a low-rent superhero).

But in Bloom’s defense, I imagine even Laurence Olivier would have trouble wringing a good performance out of this piss poor material, which seems like it was slapped together over a weekend.

Ultimately, I’m still kind of baffled that Universal Television saw fit to broadcast Bandit Goes Country at all.

It’s so flavourless and devoid of any similarity to the original source material that I can’t imagine it being a great starting point for the studio’s Action Pack programming block (that launched the same month this movie aired).

At least Another Midnight Run (1994), which I screened back in 2019, bore some resemblance to the feature film it was spinning off from in terms of characters and plot, ensuring that someone must have enjoyed it.

With Bandit Goes Country, it seems like Needham and his crew couldn’t even be bothered to put in the bare minimum effort to satisfy old Smokey fans or to even reel in new viewers.

And while I haven’t seen the three remaining TV movies in this series, it’s obvious that Universal’s poor management of this franchise in the 1990s lead to its untimely death, since all other attempts at another revival have sputtered out.

But at the end of the day, that might be for the best.

Our current media landscape is completely built on the cynical resurrection of old nostalgic properties, and we don’t need another re-animated corpse added to its foundations.

Having said that, I could totally see Universal dusting off this property once again if the company needed a new, high-profile TV show to help launch its own streaming service.

Maybe Bandit could wear a fedora and drive a Tesla instead of relying on the classic cowboy hat/Trans Am combo. That would get Twitter buzzing.

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

No Name Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips (because if you’re watching this movie, you already have an appetite for some off-brand entertainment)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Jan. 30, 1994

Bandit Goes Country was followed by three other made-for-TV movies that aired the same year. This series includes: Bandit Bandit (March 13, 1994), Beauty and the Bandit (April 3, 1994), and Bandit’s Silver Angel (April 10, 1994). All four movies starred Brian Bloom and were directed by Hal Needham.

-Elizabeth Berkley’s role in Bandit Goes Country represents an interesting transitional period for the actress, since her time on the TV sitcom Saved By the Bell (1989-1992) had come to an end and she was a year away from attempting to launch her movie career by starring in Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995).

-Outside of serving as a supporting character in Bandit Goes Country, Mel Tillis also appeared in Smokey and the Bandit II as an amusement park owner.  

-Musical highlight: “Coca Cola Cowboy” by Mel Tillis (the country music star gets rewarded for being in this turd by having his song play as Bandit rides off into the sunset)

Blood Tide (1982) review- come for the monster, stay for the bikinis

When it comes to my preferred style of film criticism, I try to avoid making it sound like a mathematical equation as much as possible.

After all, your evaluation of a particular movie can’t always be summed up by the simple listing of its pros and cons.

Instead, you sometimes have to just go with your gut and write about how a piece of art makes you feel, even if it flies in the face of a much more empirical form of analysis.

With that being said, weighing a movie’s strengths and weaknesses like you are trying to balance a scale is sometimes your best option, especially if that movie is Richard Jefferies’ Blood Tide (1982).  

Because while this low-budget creature feature has a lot of admirable qualities — like a consistently creepy mood, attractive cinematography, and at least one stand-out performance — it is held back by one glaring flaw.

And unfortunately, that one major shortcoming is the creature itself, which is hilariously fake and barely shows up on screen.

But if you can look past that laughable rubber suit you’ll find that Blood Tide still has a lot to offer fans of the folk horror genre, particularly for those same people who are also fond of James Earl Jones’ unique over-the-top acting.  

The plot of Blood Tide follows Neil and Sherry Grice (Martin Kove and Mary Louise Weller), an American couple who travel to an isolated Greek island to find the former’s missing sister.

Shortly after the Grices arrive at their destination, they discover that the sister (Deborah Shelton) is hanging out with a middle-aged archeologist (Jones), since the pair are obsessed with a mythological legend surrounding the island.

However, as these tourists continue to dig deeper into the island’s secrets, they run afoul of some hostile locals on land and a serpentine beast in the sea, turning this Mediterranean vacation into a real bummer.

Now, before I go on to bash how lame the monster costume is in Blood Tide, I have to commend the filmmakers for at least creating and maintaining a menacing atmosphere throughout the movie’s 92-minute runtime.

One of the hallmarks of the folk horror genre (The Wicker Man, Midsommar, etc.) is making the viewer feel isolated and paranoid, which is usually accomplished through trapping the main characters in a remote geographic location that is populated with sinister, cultish people.

While Blood Tide contains all the plot elements needed to check this box, Jefferies and his team crank up that looming sense of dread using every tool within their limited budget.

Cinematographer Aris Stavrou definitely pulls his weight by providing the viewer with wide, lingering shots of the island and the surrounding ocean, highlighting how alone the main characters really are.

In terms of audio, the film is populated with a bunch of quality music and sound effects that keep you slightly on edge, whether that is water dripping off a cave wall or a synth score that intentionally undercuts all those beautiful Greek vistas.

It also doesn’t hurt that most of the acting on display is pretty solid, with James Earl Jones being a particular standout.

His treasure hunter character easily steals every scene he’s in, with Jones chomping through chunks of scenery as he liberally quotes Shakespeare, handles explosives while drunk, and punches watermelons before eating them.

Even though this kind of zany acting style is very hit or miss for me, Jones brings just enough gravitas to the table so that you can take his character seriously, while also leaving room for some off-the-wall antics.

Unfortunately, a lot of this good will gets squandered by the time the monster shows up.

While I’m sure the filmmakers were trying to make this thing look like some kind of primordial underwater beast, it comes across as being more of a giant muscular seahorse with leprosy.     

And I have a sneaking suspicion that the director knew that his main selling point looked like crap, because it barely shows up in the movie.

If you were to clock it, I would say that the monster in Blood Tide has less than 30 seconds of screen time, with a lot of its movement being hidden by quick, incomprehensible cuts.

As a result, most of the creature’s menace has to be conveyed through first-person POV shots, which are sometimes ripped right out of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).

But unlike Jaws, there’s no big payoff at the climax of Blood Tide, where the viewer’s patience is rewarded with a clear view of the monster that’s been lurking in the depths this entire time.

Instead, [SPOILERS] all you get is a blink-and-you-miss-it confrontation between Jones and the creature that caps off the story on a real sour note.

Another unfortunate byproduct of the cheap effects is that the pace of the movie can sometimes drag, since the filmmakers can’t rely on shots of the monster to fill up time.

As a result, Jefferies and his team try to compensate by shooting a lot of scenes involving the main cast lounging around in their bathing suits, hoping that the constant presence of sex will override the severe lack of violence.

Even though this strategy works in the beginning, it grows stale as the movie moves forward, especially when the story reaches its rather lame climax.

With that being said, I never found myself truly bored watching Blood Tide, since its eerie mood and likable cast kept my attention throughout (even though it didn’t pay off in the end).

If the filmmakers had been given a bigger budget, it’s entirely possible that this project could have become a genuine folk horror classic, rather than just a cult curiosity that randomly features a heavy-weight actor like Jones.

But as it stands, I think the filmmakers should receive some recognition for working within their limitations and creating something that has managed to lodge itself in my mind.

Of course, one of my biggest takeaways from watching Blood Tide is that we desperately need more B-horror movies set in Greece, since that part of the world seems like an untapped market for combining scantily clad women and mythological beasts. 

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Liberté Greek yogurt (because it’s the closest I’m getting to a Greek vacation this summer)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Sept. 24, 1982

-Throughout his career, Blood Tide director Richard Jefferies only helmed one other major project, the 2008 Syfy Channel original movie Living Hell.

-In the movie, Deborah Shelton makes reference to the fact that James Earl Jones’ character played Othello once in college and “never quite got over it.” In real life, Jones has portrayed the Shakespearean character multiple times on stage, including a 1981 Broadway revival alongside Christopher Plummer as Iago.

Blood Tide can currently be watched in its entirety on YouTube (although the picture quality is quite poor and nothing compared to the recent Blu Ray release from Arrow Video).

-The song that plays over the movie’s end credits is sung by actor Deborah Shelton herself.

Head Over Heels (2001) review-who thought this was a good idea?

One of my favourite aspects of writing for this blog is it gives me an opportunity to go into a movie blind, where I haven’t watched any trailers or read a lengthy plot synopsis before pressing “play.”

This represents a nice alternative to our modern media landscape, where you’re inundated with clips and previews for every major upcoming release that leaves very little room for surprises once you enter the theatre.

By contrast, the randomized selection process that is a self-imposed signature of Corner Store Cinema™ has led me to discover some real hidden gems that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise, like the sublime slice-of-life dramedy Moscow on the Hudson (1984).

Other times I’ve been bamboozled by a truly bizarre creation like If Lucy Fell … (1996), which is so bad that I thought the filmmakers were playing an elaborate prank on the audience.

Mark Waters’ Head Over Heels (2001) definitely falls into the latter category, since it switches genres so often that it borders on being an experimental art film or a scathing satire of shallow American movie making.

But if you take a step back and look at this film from a distance, it becomes pretty obvious that Waters and his team of writers were just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick, without taking things like logic, consistency, or taste into account.

And while this approach caught me completely off guard and resulted in a memorable viewing experience, I’m under no illusion that Head Over Heels is anything more than a carnival freak show dressed up as a standard romantic comedy.

As you might have gleaned from the trailer, this film kicks off like alot of chick flicks from that era, where hard-working city gal Amanda (Monica Potter) falls for a good-looking fashion executive Jim (Freddie Prinze Jr.) despite their differences in lifestyle.

In order to capture Jim’s affection, Amanda enlists the help of her four roommates, who are all runway models and know a thing or two about attracting the opposite sex.

However, the plot takes a major turn when Amanda thinks she witnesses Jim commit a cold-blooded murder, and vows to get to the bottom of this mystery with her model roommates in tow.

It’s hard to describe in words how jarring this story pivot is, since the first 30 minutes of this movie contain nothing that foreshadows this sudden transition from Sex in the City-flavoured kookiness to Rear Window-style horror.

In fact, up until that half-hour mark, it seemed like the filmmakers were actively running through a checklist of rom-com clichés that were worn-out even by early 2000s standards.

Most of these tired tropes revolves around the main character played by Potter, who:

– uses a voiceover to highlight her romantic woes to the audience.

– has a gay best friend who only exists to be a sympathetic sounding board.   

– holds down a job that is professionally fulfilling but socially isolating.

– is conventionally very attractive even though the screenwriters pretend like she is plain.

– possesses superhuman clumsiness that is constantly used for cheap physical comedy.

It also doesn’t help that the movie’s initial set-up, where the main character moves in with four high-fashion models, seems like a failed sit-com pilot that got smuggled into a feature film.

Outside of the stagy set decor, with a bright, open-concept apartment that’s right at home with ABC’s TGIF programming block, many of the jokes feel like they were written with a live studio audience in mind.

But without the presence of any canned laughter, there’s nothing to distract from the reality that a lot of these gags are lazy and being delivered by paper-thin characters.

One of the roommates played by real-life model Sarah Murdoch is probably the most obvious example of this pedestrian writing style, since she introduces herself to the main character by talking about her pet dingo, as if her thick Australian accent wasn’t a big enough clue to her nationality.

With that set-up in mind, the movie’s transition into a murder mystery after 30 minutes is a hard pill to swallow, since the filmmakers hardly deviate from the cookie-cutter cinematic style that has already been established.

This problem is further compounded in the final third of the movie when the plot turns into a spy thriller of sorts, which just left me feeling discombobulated.

Now, one may argue that Waters is using this structure to be intentionally subversive, especially his follow-up projects Freaky Friday (2003) and Mean Girls (2004) were all about deconstructing well-established film archetypes.

But while those movies tried to mine their shallow premises for a deeper meaning, Head Over Heels doesn’t have much on its mind beyond an overriding scorn and hatred for the fashion industry.

Plus, producer Robert Simonds outright stated in a behind-the-scenes featurette that his intention was to make more of a “throwback” romantic comedy, so any theories about Head Over Heels being a stealth critique of the genre can be thrown right out the window.

Because of this, all you’re left with is the movie’s cavalcade of dumb jokes and visual gags, which constantly flip flop between being family-friendly and adult-oriented.

One minute the characters are taking part in a cutesy make-over montage that is straight of a Disney Channel original TV show. The next they’re secretly ogling Freddie Prinze Jr. with binoculars, wondering out loud whether or not he’s had sex with the underage school girls who recently visited his apartment.

And if that tonal whiplash isn’t bad enough, the writing also suffers from an over-reliance on Three Stooges-esque physical comedy, something that is randomly deployed every time the filmmakers don’t know how to make a scene interesting.

With that being said, there are a few key moments where the filmmakers hit a home run in the comedy department, with some gross-out gags that completely blindsided me in a good way.

One of these scenes involves Freddie Prinze Jr. loudly pooping out some perogies in his bathroom as some of the investigating models hide in a nearby shower stall.

Later on in the movie, these same characters get covered in shit after they are caught in a public bathroom plumbing accident.

While the main appeal of these gags is the pure spectacle of watching pretty actors willingly subjecting themselves to such low-brow toilet humour, the film’s editor still nails the timing and does a great job of making these jokes land.

Unfortunately, these few genuinely funny moments (alongside some charming performances from members of the cast) can’t make up for the rest of Head Over Heels , which is a complete mess in terms of its writing and structure.

Even though part of me wants to admire Waters’ attempt at combining a rom com, a murder mystery, and a spy thriller into one 86-minute movie, the reality is that these disparate elements mix about as well as oil and water.

But even if this film is not destined for a Criterion Collection release, it still remains a fascinating cultural artifact that should be poked and prodded at, like some kind of grotesque laboratory specimen.  

While genre mash-ups are interesting and can be done well, the crew behind Head Over Heels approach this concept with all the skill and subtlety of a drunk lumberjack performing open heart surgery.  

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

Planters Zen Blenz (because it contains a bunch of stuff that doesn’t belong together)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Feb. 2, 2001

-Budget: $14 million (estimated)

-Box office: $10,424,470 (gross in US and Canada), $13,127,022 (total gross including worldwide markets)

-There are at least three other feature films with the title “Head Over Heels,” according to IMDB. This includes a 1922 silent comedy, a 1937 British musical and a 1979 romantic comedy. A pair of short-lived comedy TV series from Britain and the United States, airing in 1993 and 1997 respectively, also bear the name “Head Over Heels.”

-The lead role of Head of Over Heels was originally supposed to go to Claire Danes, who dropped out of this project at the last minute.

Surprise cameo: Timothy Olyphant briefly shows up to play Amanda’s cheating ex-boyfriend, whose infidelity sets the whole plot in motion.

Musical highlight: “Head Over Heels” by The Go-Go’s (plays over a montage of the main characters stalking Freddy Prinze Jr. to see if he is really a serial killer)

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.