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.

Pill

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.

Noth2

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)

IMG_0126(online)

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.

13-David-Harbour-Grouch-SNL

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

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

IMG_9741

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.

BitterVictory3

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)

IMG_8773

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)

SweetHeartsDance5

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.

MoreAmericanGraffiti1

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

MoreAmericanGraffiti2

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.

MoreAmericanGraffiti3

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.

MoreAmericanGraffiti4

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.

TheLastJedi

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].

LukeGreenMilk

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)

IMG_7487(a)

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.

Jingle All the Way 2 (2014) review-needs more Sinbad

For reasons that continue to baffle me, Jingle All the Way (1996) has sort of become a new holiday classic amongst my fellow millennials.

I know the potency of 90s-stalgia is overpowering to a lot of people in my age demographic, but the reality is that this comedy is aggressively mediocre and is mostly remembered for its cast, which included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Phil Hartman, and a pre-Episode I Jake Lloyd.

It’s possible that the plot even resonated with some parents at the time, since it involved two rival dads (Schwarzenegger and Sinbad) nearly killing each other to get their hands on the season’s hottest toy.

The influential meme economy also might have given this film some extra room in people’s collective memory now that there are more YouTube remixes of Schwarzenegger spouting the line “put that cookie down” than I care to count.

However, I do find it comforting that Gen Z movie buffs won’t remember Jingle All the Way 2 (2014) with the same resonance, if at all, because it’s just as bad as the first one but without the budget, weirdness, or Hollywood star power to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

Despite its name, Jingle All the Way 2 is a sequel in name only, since it doesn’t feature any characters from the original film.

Instead, we’re saddled with fake redneck Larry the Cable Guy acting out the same basic plot, where a father tries to secure his child’s affection during Christmas by buying a toy that every other kid is after.

To the filmmakers’ credit, they didn’t try and replicate the original story beat for beat, choosing instead to mimic its overall concept and structure, which left screenwriter Stephen Mazur plenty of room to fill in the blanks.

The problem is he decided to clog the runtime with a bunch of half-baked shenanigans that would barely prop up a half-hour of network television.

I hate to give the original Jingle All the Way any sort of compliment, but at least that movie had momentum. At least you were kind of invested in the cutthroat rat race between Schwarzenegger and Sinbad that served as the backbone of the story.

While Cable Guy is saddled with his own parental rival (his ex-wife’s new husband) in this straight-to-video sequel, their back-and-forth never really rises above passive aggressive sniping until the very end.

As a result, all we’re left with is the film’s attempts at physical comedy, which involves Larry getting electrocuted, thrown off a mechanical bull, and beaten up by old people.

While I’m not above a good prat fall or quality nut shot, these gags aren’t even well executed as the timing seems to be off by a couple seconds. It’s almost like the filmmakers thought they were shooting a TV sitcom and left room for canned audience laughter to be added in later.

Of course, the shift in quality between the two films is directly tied to the difference in budget, with the 1996 entry having the financial backing to pull off lots of grand spectacle.

For example, one of the film’s most memorable sets pieces features Schwarzenegger getting into a brawl with a bunch of black-market toy dealers before it is broken up by an entire precinct worth of police officers.

In Jingle All the Way 2, this same scene is staged between only a handful people, including a sparse trio of cops.

While having a small $5 million budget is a definite disadvantage, that doesn’t excuse the sheer level of incompetence on display from the screenwriter and director.

From a writing perspective, Mazur doesn’t even know how to structure this simple story, since one of the supporting characters blurts out the film’s moral 24 minutes in. After Larry is directly told that his daughter will love him no matter what, how are we, as an audience, supposed to remain invested in the story?

By revealing this information this early on, all we have to look forward to is Cable Guy’s manufactured working-class charm for the next hour.

In terms of providing fun holiday visuals for kids, I wouldn’t even recommend playing this movie on mute, because it mostly looks like shit.

The filmmakers made the baffling decision to shoot this movie near Vancouver, which isn’t known for its traditional festive scenery even in mid-December.

And since the Jingle All the Way 2 crew didn’t have the resources to transform soggy Langley into a winter wonderland, the production design looks rushed and slapped together, like they bought a bunch of discount holiday decorations the night before principal photography began.

Say what you will about the Christmas movies they mass produce for Netflix and the Hallmark Channel, but at least they put their money where it matters: set dressing and ambiance.

The people behind Jingle All the Way 2 couldn’t even be bothered to find a frozen lake for an exterior shot of an ice fishing shack and just provided a static image instead.

IMG_1485

This is seriously a shot from the movie.

Even basic technical stuff like scene transitions are noticeably cheap, almost like they were ripped straight from Microsoft PowerPoint.

The only thing I can really say in the sequel’s favour is that the child actress who plays Cable Guy’s daughter (Kennedi Clements) is actually pretty charming and is a way better performer than Jake Lloyd in the original (although, in retrospect, that’s a pretty low bar to clear.)

Otherwise, the rest of the movie is a complete comedy dead zone and its mere existence as a low-effort, cash grab sequel emphasizes the absolute worst elements of the holiday: naked commercialism dressed up as a wholesome family entertainment.

The original Jingle All the Way is guilty of the same thing, sure, but the filmmakers behind that movie managed to inject some energy in the proceedings, something that this follow-up is sorely missing.

And I never thought I would type these words in any context, but this sequel desperately needed some Sinbad to liven things up.

Sinbad

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Lindt Lindor chocolates (because you deserve to consume something of quality while watching this dreck)

IMG_7200

Fun facts:

-Release date: Dec. 2, 2014 (straight-to-video)

-Budget: $5 million

-Mercifully, Larry only shouts his signature catch phrase “git’ r done” once in this movie.

-Following Jingle All the Way 2, director Alex Zamm would go on to helm a bunch of regal holiday movies, including A Royal Christmas (2014), Crown for Christmas (2015) and A Christmas Prince (2017).

Jingle All the Way 2 marks the feature film debut of Anthony Carelli, better known as WWE wrestler Santino Marella, who plays Larry’s best friend Claude.

Jingle All the Way 2 is the 31st film that was produced by WWE Studios.

-Around 2014, WWE Studios made a habit of producing straight-to-video movies featuring intellectual properties from other companies. Outside of Jingle All the Way 2 (20th Century Fox), they also released Leprechaun: Origins (Lionsgate) and Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery (Warner Brothers) in that same year.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) review-Christopher Lee deserved a better send-off as the Count

Besides Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee is probably the most prolific actor to ever don Count Dracula’s cape on the silver screen.

This is no easy feat, since the Prince of Darkness has been portrayed in over 200 films by some of the industry’s most respected thespians, like Gary Oldman, Klaus Kinski, and Frank Langella.

But from 1958 to 1973, Hammer Studios turned Lee into a horror icon by casting him as the main antagonist in their revival Dracula series that took the character into new and interesting directions.

This is definitely true for The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the last film in the series to feature Lee, since the story revolves around a morbid cult helping the Count carry out his evil deeds in 1970s London.

Luckily, the descendent of Dracula’s old foe Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing for the fourth time) catches wind of these malicious machinations and teams up with a group of government agents to stop this undead fiend once and for all.

Full disclosure, I haven’t watched any of the other Hammer Dracula films starring Lee, since my horror DVD 12-pack only came bundled with this single entry.

But based on what I’ve been able to glean from online critics like James Rolfe, the series’ continuity is all over the place and doesn’t really make sense anyway.

All you need to know is that Dracula is skulking around modern day London and most of the older films’ gothic sets and atmosphere have been replaced with cheap on-location shooting.

For some reason, the filmmakers also decided to try and modernize this story by imbuing it with period appropriate funk music, which makes it sound like Shaft is going to jump out of the shadows at any moment and kick vampire ass.

The movie’s tone in general is all over the place, switching from scenes involving satanic cults and human sacrifice to dry exchanges between government agents that resemble a John le Carré spy novel.

Based on this description, you might be fooled into thinking that The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a fascinating mess of a film that keeps you hooked based on how off-the-wall some of its ideas and concepts are.

While this does happen occasionally, the movie is mostly a giant bore that barely features Lee in any meaningful way.

Dracula himself doesn’t show up until half-an-hour into the film and takes up less than 20 minutes of total screen time.

While this is apparently par for the course when it comes this series, critics like Rolfe said that previous entries at least made up for the lack of Dracula by providing some interesting performances, eerie atmosphere, and impressive gore effects.

Satanic Rites really doesn’t bring any of that to the table with its bland main characters, goofy score, and tepid use of bloodshed.

The most compelling thing about the film is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, since he at least tries to take this bonkers material serious. Sadly, he isn’t given that much to do, since 90% of his dialogue consists of dolling out exposition.

The movie’s plot also really starts to go off the rails in its second half when Van Helsing discovers that [SPOILERS] Dracula is planning to wipe out humanity by developing a new strain of the bubonic plague. How he would be able survive in a world without human blood to feast on I have no idea.

The writers try to salvage this idiotic turn by suggesting that Dracula wants to die himself and take the world down with him. However, that doesn’t explain why he spends so much of film’s running time turning pretty English girls into his vampire brides instead of focusing on his plan to commit mass genocide.

The last nail in this film’s coffin is its insulting finale, where [SPOILERS] Dracula meets his end by walking into a hawthorn bush.

NakedGunHeadSlap

Obviously, the people over at Hammer were running out of ways to kill Lee at the end of every movie, so I guess they came up with some bullshit about how vampires are vulnerable to the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross.

So yeah, not a great way for Lee to cap off his iconic run as Dracula.

Even though the actor revealed in later interviews that he grew less and less fond of playing the character as time went on, there’s no denying that he injected some new blood into Bram Stoker’s original creation.

Not only was Lee one of the first actors to portray the Count in vivid Technicolor, but horror movie fans also got to see this classic character inflict new levels of gratuitous violence on his victims thanks to Hammer’s famously schlock-heavy approach to filmmaking.

Sadly, that initial spark of creativity is completing lacking in Satanic Rites, which ends this franchise with a dull whimper rather than a deafening bang.

But luckily, I don’t think this film hurt Lee’s legacy in the long run, since he would go on to portray a litany of other iconic movie villains until his death in June 2015 at the age of 93. And that’s on top of his decorated military service and amazing run as a heavy metal recording artist.

Count-dookuFrancisco_ScaramangaSarumanpm_338485

So yeah, I don’t think he gave this movie a second thought after he collected his paycheck … and that’s about all it deserves.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Glade scented candles (because they provide better gothic atmosphere than the movie itself)

IMG_0067

Fun facts:

-Release date: November 3, 1973 (West Germany), January 13, 1974 (UK), October 1978 (US)

-Box office gross: ₤223,450

-Alternative title: Dracula Is Alive and Well and Living in London

-While Hammer produced nine films in their revival Dracula series, Christopher Lee only appeared in seven of them. However, the second and ninth films in the franchise, The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), still feature Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.

Satanic Rites wasn’t the last time Lee would be cast as Dracula, since he donned the cape one last time in the 1976 French comedy Dracula and Son.

-Before he played Dracula for the first time in 1958, Lee also got the opportunity to portray Frankenstein’s monster in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein from 1957. Lee’s run as the creature only lasted one movie, since the remaining six films in the franchise focused on the adventures of Baron Victor Frankenstein, played by Cushing.

-Musical highlight: “Massacre of the Saxons” by Christopher Lee (this song has nothing to do with the movie, I just wanted to remind everyone that Lee recorded a series of heavy metal albums when he was in his late-80s and early-90s).

You Light Up My Life (1977) review- Why you should give this film (and the song) a second chance

Movies don’t always stick into the popular consciousness the way their directors would like them to. Some films, for example, are only remembered for one particular thing, whether it’s a standout scene or a single iconic performance.

You Light Up My Life is an obvious victim of this phenomenon, since many people forget that it was even a movie in the first place.

Instead, most people associate this film with its title track, which was one of the biggest hit songs of 1977, staying at the #1 position in the Billboard charts for an unprecedented, at the time, 10 consecutive weeks.

Not only did this single’s popularity make Debby Boone a star, but the following year it also netted director/composer Joseph Brooks an Oscar for Best Original Song, giving him a lot of credibility in the eyes of Hollywood elites (albeit temporarily).

Meanwhile, the original 1977 film that spawned this track is definitely not remembered as a classic, judging by its low rating on sites like Rotten Tomatoes (20%) and IMDB (4.6).

And even though the song initially fared well in the eyes of the public, its stock has severely diminished with time. In fact, if you Google “You Light Up My Life” right now you’ll find a bunch of modern culture critics writing about how it is one of the worst songs of the 1970s.

This overwhelmingly negative critical consensus on both fronts definitely came as a big surprise to me, since I found this film to be a charming romantic drama and the song to be an absolute show stealer.

MPW-39057

The story proper follows Laurie Robinson (Didi Conn), a working artist in Los Angeles who bounces around different commercial auditions and comedy acting gigs at the behest of her overbearing showbiz father (Joe Silver). However, her true passion lies with composing music and she even gets the opportunity to showcase this talent when she meets an established director (Michael Zaslow) by chance.

Laurie’s personal life is also put in jeopardy when she starts to develop feelings for this director, which complicates her impending marriage to another man.

Now, I’ll admit, there’s a lot of melodrama packed into this movie, especially when the run time is a slim 90 minutes. But Conn’s lead performance as Laurie really holds everything together, since she carries this entire movie on her back almost single-handedly.

It’s hard to put into words how endearing and likable she is on screen, as her character goes from audition to audition, facing rejection and failure at almost every turn. Conn’s optimistic personality and lack of cynicism really makes her a captivating underdog to watch, someone who also isn’t afraid to show cracks in that sunny demeanor when things get really rough.

Her relationship with Joe Silver is also a pivotal part of the movie’s appeal.

While Silver’s showbiz dad is totally ignorant of his daughter’s real interests, he isn’t trying to be malicious or exploit his only child for financial gain. Instead, he pushes her in a certain direction out of a genuine belief that stand-up comedy is her real passion, even though that’s mostly projection on his part.

The warm back-and-forth between Conn and Silver comes across as being very authentic and makes you believe that the actors would carry out these same conversations once the cameras stopped rolling.

In fact, most of the characters and dialogue in the movie comes across as very naturalistic, to the point where I almost thought I was watching a slice-of-life drama in the same vein as a Richard Linklater or Cameron Crowe film.

But I know what you’re asking: “What about the title song? Isn’t it awful and derail the entire movie?”

Actually, no. I would actually argue that the title track works on many levels and is one of the film’s biggest highlights.

 

From a filmmaking point of view, this uplifting number comes in at just the right point in the story, when Laurie desperately needs a win and finally gets the chance to showcase her singing and song writing ability in front of some Hollywood big wigs.

This exulted feeling is hammered home by the way the scene is shot, since it is all presented to the audience in a single take with fluid, sweeping camera movements.

And even though Conn obvious isn’t providing her own singing voice, she still acts the hell out of this moment, since her body language and facial expressions perfectly match the pipped in vocals.

(Plus, if Rami Malek can win an Oscar for lip syncing, why should I hold back praise for another quality pantomime performance?)

On a musical level, it’s important to point out that the movie version of “You Light Up My Life” is different than the Debby Boone rendition most people are familiar with.

The track was originally performed by classically trained opera singer Kasey Cisyk, whose powerful, uplifting voice effortlessly elevates the admittedly simple lyrics and makes them sound profound.

Boone’s performance is pretty bland and lifeless by comparison, which is part of the reason why, I imagine, this song has garnered such a bad reputation in the intervening 40 years.

I also feel like the instrumental accompaniment in the movie version of the song is alot stronger, especially the string section, but that could just be my imagination.

And even if you don’t like Cisyk’s version of the “You Light Up My Life,” the film is sprinkled with a handful of other catchy numbers, with “Do You Have a Piano” being another standout.

That’s not to suggest that every song is used appropriately.

The director has a bad habit of artificially squeezing his original music into scenes just to pad out the run time, like whenever Conn has to drive from one location to another.

Plus, not every track is a winner, with the dreary “California Daydreams” coming across as a bad Simon and Garfunkel rip-off.

In terms of filmmaking weaknesses, I would be remiss not to mention that You Light Up My Life occasionally veers off into the realm of a sappy soap opera, with some cheesy lines and plot contrivances that really strain the realm of believability.

But at its core, this movie still has a beating heart and the director is obviously very passionate about showcasing the struggle one must endure to make it in the entertainment industry.

The filmmakers in general do good job of blending the music with the overarching narrative, so movie-goers who have re-watched the recent A Star is Born remake for the 15th time might get a kick out of this story too.

I know that singing You Light Up My Life’s praises won’t win me any critic brownie points, since the movie has fallen into relative obscurity and the song has garnered a pretty unshakable reputation as being seven shades of uncool.

But every now and then I’m in the mood for some romantic fluff, especially if the lead performance is strong and the soundtrack adds an extra layer of intrigue.

For everyone else, just make sure you go in with an open mind and don’t buy into the anti-hype that’s built up around this song (and the movie that bears its name) for the last four decades.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

White Wonder Bread (because it’s bland but emotionally satisfying)

IMG_9385

Fun facts:

-If you’re wondering why director Joseph Brooks didn’t use the Kasey Cisyk version of “You Light Up My Life” for radio play it’s because he is a giant piece of shit. According to Cisyk’s second husband Ed Rakowicz, Brooks made improper advances towards the young singer and became angry when she rejected him. The director went on to hire then newcomer Debby Boone to re-record the song and even instructed her to replicate Cisyk’s performance as closely as possible.

-Even though her rendition of “You Light Up My Life” is (arguably) inferior to Cisyk’s version, Boone’s career took off like a rocket after it hit the airwaves. Not only did the single earn her an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, but she also won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1977 and Song of the Year in 1978.

-Brooks’ monstrous behavior with Cisyk was only the tip of the iceberg. In June 2009 he was arrested for raping or sexually assaulting over 10 different women after his assistant lured them to his Manhattan apartment. Brooks committed suicide on May 22, 2011 before he could be tried for 91 counts of rape, sexual abuse, criminal sexual act, assault, and other charges.

Star Trek scholars cite Michael Zaslow, who plays the director Didi Conn falls for, as being the franchise’s first-ever “red shirt” or expendable crew member that perishes during a planetary expedition. During the Original Series’ first official episode titled “The Man Trap,” Zaslow’s character, crewmember Darnell, famously met his end after being seduced and killed by a shape-shifting alien.

-You can watch the entire movie on YouTube for free (with Spanish subtitles) here:

Another Midnight Run (1994) review-Flagrant false advertising

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

FrozenFood(1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooter(1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AnotherMidnightRunPoster(1)

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

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

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

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

IMG_6624

Fun facts:

-Original air date: Feb. 6, 1994.

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

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