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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

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

Fun facts:

-Release date: May 3, 1985

-Budget: $12.5 million

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-A Christmas tree expedition going horribly awry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

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

Fun facts:

-Release date: Nov. 22, 2006

-Budget: $51 million

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

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

Fun facts:

-Release date: Feb. 12, 1999

-Budget: $80,000 (estimated)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

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

Fun facts:

-Release date: May 14, 1941

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Faylen as Whitey Du Sang.

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

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

Fun facts:

-Release date: Dec. 9, 1948

-Budget: $2 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $2.8 million (US)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

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

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Fun facts:

-Release date: June 17, 2005

-Budget: $10 million (estimated)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superstar (1999) review-is a comedy supposed to make your skin crawl?

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Saturday Night Live has an extremely spotty track record when it comes to producing feature films.

For every classic like Wayne’s World (1992) and The Blues Brothers (1980), the late-night titan could dish out bonafide clunkers like Coneheads (1993) and Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) as well.

Bruce McCulloch’s Superstar (1999) definitely falls into that latter category, since this film spent way more time creeping me out than making me laugh.

The film stars Molly Shannon as Mary Katherine Gallagher, a Catholic high school student whose only ambition in life is to become a Hollywood “superstar” so that she can parley that fame into getting her very first kiss.

While Gallagher’s awkwardness makes that task seem impossible, she finally gets the chance to shine when her school puts together a talent show, where the grand prize is getting to work as an extra in an upcoming movie.

Now, I’m no SNL scholar, and I’m certainly not an expert on Shannon’s run with the late-night sketch show between 1995 and 2001 (that program came on way past my bedtime).

But even though I had no idea who Mary Katherine Gallagher was, I went into this film with an open mind, thinking that Shannon and fellow SNL-writer Steve Koren crafted a movie that would illustrate why this character deserved the big-screen treatment in the first place.

Well, if their goal was to introduce me to a new horror movie villain who is more disturbing that Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter combined then mission accomplished.

If I were to describe Mary Katherine Gallagher using only three words it would be “severely emotionally disturbed,” since she consistently yo-yos between being hyperactive, aggressive and withdrawn in pretty much every scene.

While this quirky behavior is mildly tolerable in the first five minutes of the film (which is, coincidentally, the average length of an SNL skit), Shannon’s gimmick grows increasingly creepy and unnerving with every passing moment.

When she isn’t breathing heavily or making out with inanimate objects, Gallagher seems to be harboring some deep-seated homicidal rage that’s bubbling right beneath the surface.

The only way she can relate to her fellow humans and their emotions is through re-enacting scenes from old movies, which creates a rift between her and the other characters that isn’t endearing at all.

It also doesn’t help that the writers make her simultaneously behave like a nymphomaniac and a small child; two things that should never go together in a screenplay unless you’re making a critique of bad character writing.

And while the film’s plot is designed to get the audience to root for a nerdy underdog, I couldn’t help but think that this story could be easily turned into a serial killer movie with some selective editing and a new score.

Now, I get that director Bruce McCulloch probably made Gallagher creepy and unnerving on purpose, since he and his fellow compatriots from The Kids in the Hall reveled in putting these kinds of depraved weirdos on TV.

But the reason why a lot of these skits work is they were over in a couple minutes, meaning the audience doesn’t have enough time to think about how these characters would function in the real world.

By exposing us to someone like Mary Katherine Gallagher for over an hour, your mind can’t help but think about things like how many dead cats she keeps buried in her backyard.

Besides that, everything surrounding the film’s main character isn’t much to write home about either.

The plot is paper thin and beyond cliched, featuring a lazy talent show finale that’s served as the climax for an endless number of other high school comedies.

Except for Will Ferrell as Shannon’s love interest, pretty much all the other side characters are completely forgettable since they aren’t given anything to work with.

And the vast majority of the film’s sight gags lack serious imagination, barring some brief detours into dated movie parodies and dream sequences that feature Ferrell as God.

Of course, all of these shortcomings could be forgiven if Superstar consistently made me laugh throughout its runtime. But beyond the first five minutes, and a few decent lines from Ferrell, this movie is a giant comedy dead zone until the credits role.

While a lot of that is due its repulsive protagonist, Shannon should be given some credit for taking on this kind of role in the first place, since she’s fully committed to make herself look as unhinged as possible.

And to her credit, this kind of edgy character work would prove successful in other projects.

During the same year this movie came out, Amy Sedaris achieved cult comedy status through playing 45-year-old high school freshman Jerri Blank in the Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy. Although, part of the reason why that show work where Superstar failed is because the creators of Strangers admitted that Blank was a disturbed person in virtually every episode.

And even though I loath Napoleon Dynamite (2004), it recycled Superstar’s plot to much better results, since the writers at least managed to capture a quirky snapshot of middle America oddballs that resonated with audiences.

All Superstar managed to do was kill the public’s interest in Mary Katherine Gallagher. Following the movie’s premiere in October 1999, Shannon would only portray the character one more time on SNL before leaving the late-night sketch show in 2001.

And since these SNL films are only made to boost the profile of certain intellectual properties, I don’t think that’s the result they were looking for.

These days, SNL relegates most of its cinematic ambitions to digital shorts and the odd pre-recorded skit, which is probably for the best.

Heck, that recent Joker parody featuring David Harbour as Oscar the Grouch generated more demented laughs in three minutes than Superstar could during its entire feature-length runtime.

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Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

All the cleaning supplies in your residence (because you’ll feel unclean after watching this movie)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Oct. 8, 1999

-Budget: $34 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $30,636,478 (worldwide)

-Before staring in Superstar, Molly Shannon, Will Ferrell and Mark McKinney all previously appeared in the 1998 SNL feature A Night at the Roxbury.

-According to Wikipedia, Shannon played Mary Katherine Gallagher a total of 20 times on SNL between 1995 and 2015. Her last appearance as the character was Feb. 15, 2015 during the show’s 40th anniversary special.

-SNL produced a grand total of 17 films within the span of 31 years. Their debut feature was Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video in 1979 and their last was MacGruber in 2010.

-A large chuck of Superstar was filmed at the University of Toronto.

-Musical highlight: “Beautiful” by the Go-Go’s (plays over the film’s opening credits)

Bitter Victory (1957) review-war may be hell, but it sure makes for compelling drama

One of the most interesting things about Mill Creek Entertainment’s “5 Classic War Films” DVD is that the majority of its content is pretty subversive in nature.

Sure, something like Commandos Strike at Dawn (1940) is pretty clear-cut military propaganda, but entries like The Prisoner (1955) and Castle Keep (1969) are openly anti-war stories that showcase just how absurd and dehumanizing these protracted conflicts can be.

That’s a pretty impressive ratio considering that this product is designed to be sold to a decidedly older and more conservative demographic.

Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory (1957) operates on largely the same subversive level, and does a great job of disguising its real message by presenting viewers with visceral violence and potent melodrama on the surface.

The film stars Richard Burton and Curd Jürgens as two very different British officers in World War II, who are tasked with leading a raid on a Nazi outpost in Benghazi to retrieve some top-secret documents.

Of course, the operation doesn’t go exactly as planned, and the two men butt heads as their squad is forced to retreat across the Libyan desert to safety.

To make matters more complicated, Burton’s character previously had an affair with the wife of his superior officer (Jürgens) which drives an even larger wedge between them.

BitterVictory5

The aforementioned clash of personalities between Burton and Jürgens is the absolute highlight of the movie, both from a writing and acting perspective.

The two characters are diametrically opposed in virtually every way except for the fact that they both wear a uniform, and screenwriters Ray, René Hardy, and Gavin Lambert do a great job of illustrating that fact to the audience.

Five minutes into the movie it becomes abundantly clear that Jürgens’ Major Brand is a careerist in the military, who is much more interested in handing out orders and appeasing his superiors rather than getting his hands dirty.

In fact, it’s quickly revealed that Brand has been relegated to a desk throughout most of his career, which doesn’t inspire much loyalty in his men when he’s expected to lead them behind enemy lines.

Conversely, Burton’s Captain Leith is an experienced academic and field researcher who speaks multiple languages and actively volunteers to go on this into a dangerous mission, rather than waiting to be told.

Plus, Leith’s compassion for the well-being of his fellow soldiers (and even some enemy combatants) easily eclipses Brand’s indifference to anybody who isn’t his wife.

This sounds like basic stuff on a scriptwriting level (and it is), but that solid foundation is taken to a whole new level thanks to Burton and Jürgens themselves.

BitterVictory4

Outside of fully committing to their respective performances, these two actors also provide enough nuance and complexity to prevent their characters from coming across as broad stereotypes.

While Major Brand is cowardly and definitely not fit for command, you can’t help but feel sorry for him since Jürgens’ 1000-yard stare hammers home the idea that he knows he is way in over his head.

And even though Captain Leith is much more capable under fire, he does not come across like a stoic badass cut from the same cloth as Sgt. Rock or John Rambo (from First Blood: Part Two onwards at least).

In fact, Burton has this sorrowful look on his face every time he’s forced to commit an act of violence, which does a better job of highlighting the film’s anti-war themes than a lengthy monologue ever could.

Unfortunately, the same praise can’t be dished out for a lot of the film’s supporting players, who kind of fade into the background in order to make room for the two towering leads.

This is a real shame, since the cast is full of talented English actors like Christopher Lee (yes THAT Christopher Lee) who only get a few lines before they are shuffled off to the side.

However, maybe the disposable nature of all these secondary characters was by design.

After all, the filmmakers are really preoccupied with showcasing how these lower ranking soldiers are often forced into situations where they have no choice but to be sacrificial lambs so that officers like Major Brand can complete their objective and get a promotion.

Outside of the violent deaths that occur in the film’s main action sequences, Ray and his fellow screenwriters communicate this theme through much subtler means thanks to key strategic visuals.

One of Bitter Victory’s strongest lasting images is the practice dummies that litter the opening and closing of the film, which serve as stand-ins for the nameless soldiers who are simply used as pawns by the uncaring military machine.

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Of course, clever visuals can’t make up for some of the film’s more noticeable blemishes, like little production shortcuts that come hand-in-hand with such a modestly budgeted war movie.

For example, even though Brand’s squadron is supposed to air drop behind enemy lines, all the audience sees is a quick dissolve edit and a group of men packing up their parachutes on the ground.

I get that the filmmakers probably didn’t have the technology to properly capture a real HALO jump in 1957, but the least they could have done is spring for some cheap military stock footage.

And although this might be an unfair gripe, one of my biggest pet peeves in older movies is when characters get shot and they have to clutch their chest dramatically to make up for the obvious lack of an entry wound.

Again, I understand that squibs were not widely used in movies at that time, but this style of production always takes me out of a movie no matter how it is shot.

Outside of those small quibbles, Bitter Victory is still a hell of an engaging war movie that works on a variety of levels.

For those who just want to sit back and enjoy an old-school, men-on-a-mission type story with a love triangle sprinkled in, Ray and his fellow scriptwriters have you covered.

But if you want to dig a little deeper and find a film that is all about sticking up for individuals who are suffering under the thumb of an authoritarian institution, there’s still a lot to chew on.

This film also serves as a great follow up to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which tackled nearly identical themes from that same year.

In fact, the only group who wouldn’t enjoy Bitter Victory is the masterminds behind the modern military-industrial complex, since they would realize that people have been on to their shit from the very beginning.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

Spitz Sunflower Seeds (because you chew them up and spit them out, the same way that the upper brass treat lower ranking soldiers in this movie)

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Fun facts:

-Release dates: Aug. 28, 1957 (Venice Film Festival), Nov. 29, 1957 (UK), March 3, 1958 (US)

Bitter Victory is an adaptation of the book Amère Victoire written by the film’s co-writer, and WWII-era French resistance fighter, René Hardy.

-French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard championed Bitter Victory as the best movie of 1957.

-Nicholas Ray’s biggest claim to fame before helming Bitter Victory was directing James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

-This film was nominated for the Golden Lion award at the 1957 Venice Film Festival, but lost to Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (the second part of his famous Apu Trilogy).

Bitter Victory features two future Bond villains in its cast: Christopher Lee would go on to portray Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) and Curd Jürgens became Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

-After serving a supporting role in Bitter Victory, Christopher Lee starred as The Creature in Hammer Studios’ The Curse of Frankenstein during that same year. In 1958, Lee hit the big time by taking on the lead role in Hammer’s Dracula and would go on to star as the horror movie icon another eight times.

 

Sweet Hearts Dance (1988) review-What a bunch of jerks

Likeable characters are the lifeblood of any light piece of entertainment, especially your standard romantic comedy.

After all, if we (the audience) can’t relate to the story’s leads why should we care about whether or not they get together at the end.

Despite featuring a lot of charming actors, Robert Greenwald’s Sweet Hearts Dance (1988) can’t seem to grasp that simple concept, since its cast is full of narcissists, pushovers, jealous lovers, and all-around jerks.

The film’s plot revolves around Wiley (Don Johnson) and Sam (Jeff Daniels); two lifelong friends who have chosen radically different paths in their adult lives.

Sam is the local high school principal and is just starting a relationship with the town’s newest arrival Adie (Elizabeth Perkins).

Meanwhile, Wiley and his wife Sandra (Susan Sarandon) have been married for 15 years and produced three children in that time.

Unfortunately, Wiley decides to leave his wife and kids after suffering a midlife crisis and Sam is forced to play mediator between the two affected parties.

Now, in order to make this premise work, the director and screenwriter really have to sell you on Johnson throwing away his family life, or else the rest of the movie pretty much implodes.

And while abandoning your responsibilities as a husband and father is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of audiences, this kind of selfish character arc can work if the filmmakers flesh out the serious ramifications of his decision.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Ernest Thompson doesn’t go there, and depicts this (theoretically) heart wrenching separation as a minor speed bump in the relationship that can be easily repaired.

In fact, it feels like Johnson never seriously tries to earn the forgiveness of his wife and children, since he spends most of the movie moping about the life he could have lead if he didn’t get married at such a young age.

To make matters worse, Sarandon’s anger at her estranged husband is disappointingly muted.

Even after he embarrasses her in public several times, which includes bedding a random bartender on New Year’s Eve, Sarandon’s character doesn’t have enough of a backbone to simply kick this loser in the dick and move on with her life.

Instead, she’s the one who makes the first move and attempts to reconcile the relationship, even though Johnson has done nothing to earn that level of respect.

These topsy-turvy character dynamics are especially hard to take since we live in a world where infinitely better divorce-dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) or Marriage Story (2019) exist, which do a much better job of making you sympathize with both sides of such a messy, painful process.

In Sweet Hearts Dance, the characters never come anywhere close to having a deep conversation that gets to the core of their marital strife. As a result, they come across as immature high school students going through a minor tiff, rather than two full-grown adults who are about to change their lives forever.

The supporting cast don’t come across much better.

While Perkins is going for sarcastic, Aubrey Plaza-level wit, she just comes across as being a mean-spirited cynic since her character isn’t given enough room to develop.

And even though Daniels is supposed to act as the voice of reason in his friend’s marital woes, he makes a bunch of extremely questionable decisions in his own love life.

Not only does he come across as a jealous psycho by giving Perkins shit after she sunbathes nude on vacation, but he impulsively asks his girlfriend to marry him even though they’ve only been going out for a couple months.

While this behavior could have been salvaged by injecting Daniels with some refreshing self-awareness, his romance with Perkins kind of putters out and their problems are never resolved in any meaningful way.

In fact, this film is full of half-baked ideas that could have been interesting if they were tweaked a little bit.

The most glaring example of this is how the film is structured, since early sections of the story are framed using major American holidays (Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.).

But for some reason, the filmmakers abandon this festive sequencing after New Year’s Eve and decide to organize each subsequent story beat under title cards that read “Open House,” “Going Away,” and “Coming Home.”

I understand that the first few months of the year are short on noteworthy celebrations, but why in the blue hell did they skip over Valentine’s Day? You know, that one time of the year where sweet hearts usually attend a dance!?

It’s a shame that the script is as messy as it is, since all these actors have great chemistry.

Daniels and Johnson really sell you on the idea that they’ve been friends since grade school, with some of the best scenes in the movie involving them tobogganing, sailing, and threatening to beat up some local teenagers.

And even though their breakup and reconcilement isn’t well defined, Sarandon and Johnson at least feel like a married couple who are struggling to recapture the magic of their early relationship.

However, the film’s script can’t attain that same level of consistency, and the tone constantly flip-flops between light comedy and serious domestic drama without fully committing to either.

Because of this, I can’t get a beat on who this movie is meant for. It’s not sappy or wholesome enough for the Hallmark Channel and not edgy enough for the Sundance crowd.

Sweets Hearts Dance also doesn’t work as a date movie, since all this underdeveloped marital dysfunction definitely won’t put you and your companion in the mood.

My recommendation would be to watch this movie solo on a Sunday afternoon. That way you can turn down the volume and enjoy the film’s nice Vermont scenery while you vacuum and complete other weekend chores.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner Store Companion:

The Perfect Man milk chocolate bar (because it’s the closest you’ll get to finding a sweet romantic lead while watching this movie)

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Fun Facts:

-Release date: Sept. 23, 1988

-Budget: $ 9 million

-Box Office Gross: $ 3,790,493

Charmed actress Holly Marie Combs makes her feature film debut here as Johnson’s daughter “Debs.”

Sweet Hearts Dance director Robert Greenwald received a Razzie in 1980 for directing famous b-movie Xanadu. However, he was also nominated for an Emmy in 1995 for helming the TV miniseries A Woman of Independent Means.

-Greenwald eventually pivoted into documentary filmmaking and political activism later in his career, founding the media company Brave New Films in 2004. For the next 16 years, Greenwald dedicated his career to tackling hot button issues through documentaries like Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004), Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005) and Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013).

-Surprise cameo: Vermont senator, and current U.S. presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders makes an uncredited appearance handing out Halloween candy at the very beginning of the film. Sweet Hearts Dance was filmed near the city of Burlington, where Sanders served as mayor between 1981 and 1989. Sanders’ only other feature film roll is playing a rabbi in the 1999 low-budget comedy My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception.

More American Graffiti (1979) review-a brilliant, acid trip of a sequel

Lately, it seems like the Internet’s most valuable currency isn’t Bitcoins or Instagram likes; it’s Star Wars hot takes.

One of the more thought-provoking topics to emerge from this ongoing discourse is whether or not the franchise suffered because series creator George Lucas wasn’t on writing duties or sitting in the director’s chair after he sold it to Disney.

While I don’t want to add to that speculation, I thought it would be interesting to talk about another much-maligned sequel to a Lucas property: More American Graffiti (1979).

For those of you who don’t know, the original American Graffiti (1973) was Lucas’ big claim to fame before he created the most popular media franchise in the history of human civilization.

But in stark contrast to the sweeping scale and sci-fi bombast of the original Star Wars, American Graffiti is a small, intimate coming-of-age story that centres on a group of California youth in 1962 who just graduated high school and are on the cusp of early adulthood.

The film follows these kids during one hectic night and morning, where they get into street races, fall in love, and decide if they even want to go to college, all set to a period-appropriate rock ’n’ roll soundtrack.

Thanks to Lucas’ uncanny ability to capture the sights and sounds of the early baby boomer generation, the film went on to gross $140,000 million off of a $777,000 budget, which paved the way for the Hollywood outsider to bankroll his ambitious space opera.

I don’t have to tell you what happened when Star Wars (later dubbed Episode IV: A New Hope) finally came out in May 1977, but suffice it say that Lucas got very busy, which forced him to put other projects on the backburner.

Because of this, when a sequel to American Graffiti was in development Lucas only served as an executive producer (and uncredited editor), handing off directing/writing duties to Bill Norton.

Rather than just rehash the same format, Norton decided to take this sequel into new and interesting directions, following the original film’s characters (except Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt) across four different New Year’s Eve celebrations from 1964 to 1967.

When More American Graffiti was eventually released in 1979, it was savaged by critics, with many calling this new structure “confusing,” “pointless” and “a mess.” Currently, the film holds a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 10 reviews) and a not-so-great 5.3/10 user rating on IMDB.

Having recently watched this film for the first time, I do wish people would give More American Graffiti a second shot, since it’s genuinely one of the most creatively ambitious sequels I’ve ever seen.

First let’s talk about the film’s aforementioned structure.

Going into the movie blind, I’ll admit that splitting the story into four segments did catch me by surprise and took some getting used to.

Not only do these storylines happen simultaneously (constantly switching back and forth) but they’re also shot in their own unique style and aspect ratio.

The opening segment in 1964 follows now professional drag racer John Milner (Paul Le Mat) and is shot using a wide angle, stationary camera that was typical of 1950s exploitation cinema.

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Terry the Toad’s (Charles Martin Smith) attempts to survive the jungles of Vietnam in 1965 are captured using a handheld, 16mm camera.

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The psychedelic adventures of Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) in 1966 San Francisco are probably the most experimental sections of the film, since the director utilizes multiple split-screen camera angles to depict the character’s wild, drug-fueled hippie lifestyle.

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Thankfully, the movie settles down for the final segment in 1967 California, where the buttoned-down, domesticated Steve and Laurie (Ron Howard and Cindy Williams) get swept up in a violent student protest.

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After cycling through this process a couple times, you’ll quickly find that this visual style is not just some dumb gimmick.

In fact, this kind of filmmaking elevates More American Graffiti from being a cheap, cash-grab sequel to something that expands on the story of the original while also maintaining its own unique voice.

For one thing, these contrasting filmmaking styles kept me engaged through the entire 110-minute runtime, since there was always something new and exciting to gawk at.

At the same time, Norton manages to exercise some restraint in the editing department and gives each scene just enough room to breathe before jumping ahead in time.

The contrasting aspect ratios also do a great job of telling you what year it is without the need to artificially slap a distracting title card on the screen every time the setting changes.

Plus, on a creative level, I just have to admire the balls it must have taken to greenlight such a weirdo sequel in the first place.

I imagine the filmmakers were seriously tempted to simply replicate the structure of the first film, where all the action takes place within a couple hours. Maybe the characters from American Graffiti come back together for a high school reunion or a wedding, and hijinks ensue from there.

But instead, Norton and company decided to split these characters up (for the most part) and scatter their stories across different stretches of time and geographic space, robbing the audience of the warm nostalgic comradery that made the original American Graffiti so popular in the first place.

To bring the conversation back to Star Wars for a second, that was a very Rian Johnson move.

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But the fractured nature of More American Graffiti serves a very specific thematic purpose, since it’s meant to reflect the tumultuous, divisive nature of the United States in the 1960s.

Not only are most of the characters thrust into some of the biggest political and cultural touchstones of that era (like Vietnam, the hippie music scene and student protests) but we, the audience, view them all happening at the same time.

And while this mixture of sights and sounds can be slightly disorienting, it paints a really beautiful picture a bunch of people trying to find their way in an increasingly complicated and chaotic world.

Film critic Nathan Rabin actually sums up the experience better than I ever could in a write-up for The Dissolve, saying: More American Graffiti is about the fracturing of a culture, and the simultaneously exciting and terrifying freedom of that splintering.”

Even if you hate this stylistic approach, most American Graffiti fans will at least appreciate the sequel’s stellar soundtrack.

Following up the original’s famous set list is no easy task, since it featured pioneering rock ’n’ roll figures like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.

However, Norton managed to cultivate a set list that perfectly encapsulates how that same genre of music evolved throughout the1960s, with songs from counterculture icons like Bob Dylan, The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Byrds.

The film’s cast is equally strong, which is impressive considering they could have easily phoned in their performances for (if we’re being honest) a sequel that no-one was really asking for.

Instead, these actors, thanks in part to Norton’s script, are fully committed to injecting new depth into their characters.

High school nerd Terry the Toad finally grows a spine in the jungles of Vietnam. Debbie’s impulsive personality finally bites her in the ass and she is forced to take on more responsibility. John realizes that his “cool guy” status from high school is quickly fading. Meanwhile, Steve and Laurie’s conservative values are put to the test when they witness the horrors of police brutality first-hand.

I’m also thoroughly impressed with how Norton managed to recruit pretty much all the major players from American Graffiti to reprise their roles, even down to minor characters like the members of the Pharaohs street gang.

Heck, he even got Harrison Ford to make a brief cameo as Bob Falfa even though the next Star Wars movie was looming on the horizon.

To bring this conversation back full circle, I guess watching More American Graffiti was exactly the palette cleanser I needed after sitting through The Rise of Skywalker.

Instead of playing it safe and relying on cheap nostalgia to tell your story, this Lucas sequel decided to challenge its audience by going way off the reservation and taking some real creative risks.

Of course, this approach didn’t really work out in the short term, given the thrashing it received from critics at the time.

And More American Graffiti definitely has its fair share of rough edges that even I can’t excuse, with some obvious production gaffs (like obviously fake props and a visible camera man being in frame at one point) that somehow making it into the final cut.

But I’ll definitely take a messy film full of heart and interesting ideas over a glorified corporate line item any day of the week, although I’m worried that Disney is choosing the latter approach when it comes to all their newly acquired intellectual properties.

Oh, and on an unrelated topic: here’s my 50-page master’s thesis on why The Last Jedi is [content redacted].

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Verdict:

9/10

Corner store companion:

Salt & Vinegar, Barbecue, All Dressed, and Ranch Crispers (so you can enjoy four distinct flavours for each section of the film)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Aug. 3, 1979

-Budget: $3 million

-Box Office Gross: $15,014,674

More American Graffiti served as Ron Howard’s last major film role. After this movie wrapped, the actor would only appear in television before transitioning into directing, producing and voice-over work only.

-The filmmakers attracted thousands of extras for the movie’s climactic drag race scene by promising them free Star Wars toys.

-Bill Norton would go on to carve out a nice career for himself by directing television, including episodes of The Twilight Zone, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel.

-Musical highlight: there are so many great tracks to choose from, but I’m going to have to go with Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which plays over the closing credits.