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.

Young Winston (1972) review-a tale of two Churchills

Even though historical biopics traditionally clean house during Oscar season, this genre of film can be downright insufferable if handled incorrectly.

In the past, a lot of filmmakers have been tempted to fit the totality of a person’s life and accomplishments into a single feature-length runtime, which can result in a bloated script and laughable use of old-age make-up.

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Director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter Carl Foreman attempt to sidestep these problems in Young Winston (1972) by focusing on a specific period of Winston Churchill’s life: from his childhood to his time in the military to his early years in British Parliament.

While the pair are mostly successful in crafting an accessible take on a larger-than-life figure, they do stumble a bit when it comes to the overall storytelling, which prevents this film from achieving “all-time classic” status alongside other historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Young Winston’s biggest strength and weakness lies in its narrative structure that is broken up into two distinct halves.

The first part is more of a coming-of-age story/domestic drama featuring Churchill’s academic struggles and his dysfunctional relationship with his parents.

Hour two is an all-out war movie that showcases some pretty awe-aspiring recreations of events like the Battle of Omdurman and Churchill’s involvement in the Second Boer War.

While both sections boast some tremendous performances and prestige production values, the opening 60 minutes fall a little short in terms of introducing the audience to Churchill as a character.

Don’t get me wrong, the basics are all there, with the future UK Prime Minister being framed as an unsure young boy who is trying to follow in the footsteps of his father (who was a tremendously successful politician in his own right).

Plus, his sense of alienation is really hammered home thanks to some compelling work from Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft, who do a great job of portraying parents struggling to relate to their son.

However, the problem is that the first hour of this film dedicates far too much time to these supporting players, without giving the titular character any real time to make a big impression.

I’d estimate that at least half of the scenes in the first act of Young Winston feature Shaw and Bancroft exclusively, with the various child actors playing Churchill being shuffled off to the side.

Again, it’s not like these scenes are bad or anything (quite the opposite actually), but I did get the impression that the filmmakers tried to smuggle a backdoor biopic about Lord Randolph Churchill (the father) into a film that’s supposed to be about his son.

As a result, Young Winston feels a little bit unfocused at first, with most of the protagonist’s motivation being vocalized by other characters rather than being dictated by his own actions.

Another puzzling narrative choice introduced in the first half of this movie is the filmmakers’ use of overlapping narration, which is something I haven’t seen (or heard) since watching David Lynch’s screen version of Dune (1984).

Just like in that film, Young Winston features voice-overs from multiple different characters, who are meant to provide exposition and spout off about how great/terrible the main protagonist is.

I actually counted each time a new omniscient voice popped into the story and tallied over 10 narrators by the time the credits rolled.

Not only is this lazy storytelling, but layering the movie with so many conflicting narrators results in a really jarring movie-going experience that broke my immersion on multiple occasions.

Now, with all that bellyaching aside, Young Winston eventually finds its footing and picks up tremendously during its second half.

For one thing, Attenborough really gets to flex his talents as an action director, using dynamic camera movements and strategically placed extras to give the last formal cavalry charge in British military history its proper due.

Later on in the film, Attenborough outdoes himself in the action department by staging a truly nail biting sequence in the Second Boer War, where Churchill and his squad have to escape an ambush by pushing over a derailed train car.

But outside of all that bombastic war spectacle, Young Winston’s biggest asset in its second half is actor Simon Ward, who finally gets to take centre stage as an adult version of Churchill.

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Despite the fact that this is his first leading-man role, Ward is completely comfortable in front of the camera and finds the right emotional beats to carry the audience from scene to scene.

He showcases some pretty impressive range throughout the film’s runtime as well, effortlessly transitioning from a nervous British schoolboy to an up-and-coming politician who easily captures the attention of his colleagues in Parliament.

Ward also doesn’t rely on doing a simple impression of his real-life counterpart to carry the story, which is a pitfall that a lot of actors fall into when they’re cast in a biopic.

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Instead, he actually commits to playing a character, whose doubts and insecurities are eventually overshadowed by his sheer determination to make his mark in politics.

Of course, a lot of this character depth came be attributed to screenwriter Carl Foreman, who does a really great job of fleshing out all of the film’s major players.

Even though this approach leads to some clunky storytelling early on, everything eventually clicks into place once Ward gets to command the lion’s share of Foreman dialogue in the film’s second half.

That being said, I got the impression that the screenwriter was a little too enamored with his real-life subject, since there are select moments in the film that come across as fanboy wish fulfillment.

For example, Churchill easily guns down a bunch of enemy combatants in one of the first scenes of the movie, even though the character has very little field experience at this point in the story.

Moments like this could be chalked up to the fact that Foreman chose to base his screenplay on Churchill’s 1930 autobiography My Early Life; a book that is bound to contain at least a couple exaggerated retellings of real-world events.

So anyone walking into this film expecting any kind of critique about the less savory elements of the Churchill’s legacy, like his views on race and imperialism, will be sorely disappointed.

But judging it as a film, and not a historical document, Young Winston definitely succeeds more than it fails thanks to some very talented people working in front of and behind the camera.

It may not pack the same visceral punch as any war film directed by David Lean or Stanley Kubrick, but Attenborough still knows the right places to invest his time and money on screen, which would serve him well in future large-scale biopics like Gandhi (1982).

And with over 60 depictions of Churchill existing on film and television, Young Winston at least stands out on a superficial level by focusing on an period of his life outside of World War II.

The entertainment industry constantly acts like modern history only revolves around this one conflict, and any movie that breaks from that trend is a breath of the fresh air.

Verdict:

7/10

Corner store companion:

McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits and Tetley Earl Grey Tea (because it is the most British food and drink combination I could think of)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: July 21, 1972 (UK), Oct. 10, 1972 (US)

-Box office gross: $ 4,687,000 (US)

Young Winston was nominated for three Oscars at the 1973 Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Simon Ward also won the Most Promising Newcomer (male) award at the 1973 Golden Globes.

-Ward went on to reprise his role as Winston Churchill in the 1994 Turkish television miniseries Kurtulus.

-Malcolm McDowell was originally slated to play the lead in this film, but repeatedly declined the role.

-Outside of portraying Churchill as a young adult, Ward also provides the voice of a middle-aged Churchill who narrates large chunks of this film.

-Besides helming Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough directed several other high-profile biopics later in his career, including Chaplin (1992) and Grey Owl (1999).

-Surprise cameo: Sir Anthony Hopkins makes as short appearance at the end of the film as David Lloyd George, one of Churchill’s more prominent political allies who also served as the UK’s Prime Minister between 1916 and 1922.

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.

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.

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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)

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.

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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.

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Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

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

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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.

Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) review-just as bad as you remember

I honestly find no joy in dogpiling on a universally reviled piece of 90s media, mostly because there’s nothing really left for me to add after all this time.

Case in point: Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) has been an industry laughing-stock ever since it was released and remains a stain on Sylvester Stallone’s illustrious career.

Not only did the film “win” three big Golden Raspberry awards, but critics across the board absolutely torn it apart, with Roger Ebert famously calling this action-comedy “one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” twice in a single review.

Even Stallone holds nothing but contempt for this project. In 2006 interview with Ain’t It Cool News the actor pegged it as “maybe one of the worst films in the entire solar system” and that “a flatworm could write a better script.”

The movie-going public also remained largely ambivalent to this star-studded vehicle, since the film only regained 63% of its $45 million budget at the domestic box office (although it did go on to gross around $70 million thanks to international audiences).

But my guiding philosophy is that every famously bad movie is worth a revisit just in case I end up finding something worth recommending (check out my write-up of You Light Up My Life for proof of that).

However, in this instance I’m going to have to fall in line with the critical consensus, because Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot fucking sucks!

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The film’s plot follows Stallone’s tough-as-nails LAPD police sergeant Joseph Bomowski, whose world is turned upside down when he gets a visit from his overbearing, elderly mother Tutti (played by Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls).

When Tutti witnesses a murder on the streets of Los Angeles, Joe is forced to keep her around for a longer period of time and tolerate her excessive mothering as he tries to catch some illegal gun dealers.

Of course, the two eventually team up to nab the bad guys and to make sure the screenwriters have an excuse to shoehorn the movie’s title into a cringe-inducing line of dialogue.

Like Stallone pointed out in that 2006 interview, the film’s biggest offense is its script.

Even though the two leads have decent chemistry, the “overbearing mother-exasperated son” dynamic gets old quickly and doesn’t develop past something you would see in a two-minute SNL sketch.

You never get a real sense of where this familial dysfunction came from or why Joe has allowed it to continue well into his adult life. There’s some passing mention of Joe’s father dying when he was a kid, leaving Tutti all alone to raise him, but it’s not explored in any significant detail.

Beyond that, around 95% of the jokes land with a dull thud, since the screenwriters only find two things funny: Stallone getting embarrassed and Getty using harsh language occasionally.

For some reason, they also thought it was a good idea for this Golden Girl to quote lines from Dirty Harry and The Terminator, which is the comedy equivalent of your own mom tagging you in an outdated meme on Facebook.

Additionally, the screenwriters have a tough time keeping Getty’s character consistent in terms of her intelligence.

Despite the fact that Tutti showcases pretty impeccable crime detection ability, she still can’t grasp pretty basic stuff like how it’s not a good idea to wash your son’s service weapon in the sink.

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All these script writing problems culminate in the film’s finale, where (SPOILERS) the filmmakers expect us to take Tutti’s side and castigate Joe for being too uptight.

Even though the ending is meant to be heartwarming, I couldn’t help but think that none of their underlying problems were resolved and that Joe is going to turn into Norman Bates somewhere down the line.

If it seems like I’m spending way too much time analyzing this movie’s shallow script, it’s because Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot doesn’t bring anything else interesting to the table.

Not only is Roger Spottiswoode’s direction flat, but all of the side characters are boring carboard cutouts and the music seems like it was composed by a computer program set on “default.”

Admittedly, some of the stunts and practical effects are well done. There’s a particularly impressive scene during the film’s climax where Stallone drives a big-rig truck into an airplane propeller.

But those moments are few and far between and don’t make up for the rest of the movie being a total misfire.

Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot also isn’t hilariously bad enough to be put in the same category as other famous 90s disasters like Cool As Ice (1991) or Batman and Robin (1997).

Say what you will about those latter two films, but at least the people behind them had a vision and managed to produce something that was entertaining in terms of how misguided it was.

This Stallone vehicle is pretty lifeless by comparison, since the filmmakers never take any risks and just rely on recycling a bunch of tired buddy-cop clichés instead.

So does Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot earn its status as one of the worst high-profile movies of that decade? Maybe.

But will I ever watch it again to gleefully gawk at the sheer level of incompetence that managed to make it on screen? Definitely not.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Glad garbage bags (because this movie is trash)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Feb. 21, 1992

-Budget: $45,000,000

-Box office gross: $28,411,210 (US), $70, 611, 210 (worldwide)

Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot officially “won” three Razzie Awards in 1993 for Worst Actor (Stallone), Worst Supporting Actor (Getty) and Worst Screenplay (Blake Snyder, William Osborne, William Davies).

-The 20th episode of The Simpsons’ 18 season is titled “Stop! Or My Dog Will Shoot” in reference to this film.

-Unexpected cameo: Ving Rhames plays one of the thugs that Stallone takes out in the opening scene of the movie.

-Director Roger Spottiswoode would recover from this giant flop by directing some much better action films in the future, including the 18th entry in the James Bond franchise Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

-Arnold Schwarzenegger famously tricked Stallone into starring in this film, feigning interest in the project in order to get his big screen rival to audition. Schwarzenegger confirmed this story during a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel in October of this year.

The Terror (1963) review-the only thing scary about this movie is how cheap it is

Before we get started let me make one thing very clear: I did not walk into Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963) expecting to see opulent production values.

I was fully aware of Corman’s status as an iconic B-movie director/producer ahead of time and adjusted my expectations accordingly.

But even if I grade this gothic horror film on a curve it’s is still dreadfully boring, confusing, and not scary in the least.

The plot itself follows a fresh-faced, 26-year-old Jack Nicholson, who plays a French soldier in Napoleon’s army who gets separated from his regiment and wanders into a spooky castle occupied by the reclusive Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff).

There, Nicholson’s character becomes obsessed with a young woman (Sandra Knight) who resembles the Baron’s dead wife and he attempts to unveil the mystery of what happen to her and why.

And that’s about as succinct a synopsis as I can provide, since the film’s story is all over place and never really provides concrete answers as to what’s going on.

One of the biggest plot points that drove me crazy is the Nicholson’s love interest (Knight), since it’s never clearly established if she’s a zombie or a ghost.

Despite disappearing at random times like an apparition, she also talks about being “possessed” and under the influence of a local witch.

She also might have the ability to Animorph into a hawk, although (again) the screenwriters never make that clear.

Legend has it that Corman only filmed four days worth of footage with Karloff before handing the reins over to a handful of other second-unit directors to bring this film up to feature length.

There was apparently no real script during this part of production either, which probably explains why so many important plot points later on in the film come across as being an afterthought or improvised.TheTerror2

Corman’s corner cutting approach to filmmaking also affects the way the movie looks, since he apparently just re-used some of the same sets from his previous project The Raven (1963).

Because of this, the filmmakers never really establish a consistent mood or atmosphere, and it just feels like they’re throwing any kind of horror movie set dressing at the wall to see what sticks.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Corman recycled old costumes as well, since Nicholson’s period appropriate military garb really clashes with the Hugh Hefner-style robe that Karloff wears most of the time he is on screen.

But those aesthetic discrepancies are the least of the movie’s problems, since The Terror is also littered with shoddy filmmaking techniques like bad ADR, obvious day-for-night shooting, and shockingly incompetent scene transitions.

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The only element of the film that doesn’t come across as being cheap is its score, and that’s only because Corman’s production company found an inexpensive way to record it in Germany.

Now, all of this could be forgiven is the movie wasn’t painfully dull.

But I’d guess that 70% of the runtime features Nicholson and Karloff walking around dark hallways looking confused, with the occasional telegraphed jump scare thrown in to keep the audience awake.

And since the two actors aren’t given any consistent direction, their performances come across as being completely lifeless, with no clear motivation driving their characters’ actions.

Admittedly, there is some novelty in watching Nicholson play a handsome, leading man since most of us have only seen perform him as a balding, middle-aged reprobate.

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Unfortunately, that element alone can’t salvage the fact The Terror is a barely qualifies as a movie, with a story that goes nowhere and production values that are on par with a high school play.

Now, this whole diatribe isn’t meant to crap all over Corman’s legacy, since the man’s definitely earned his stripes as a trailblazer in the world of independent cinema.

But it’s obvious that this film didn’t receive his full attention, since he couldn’t even be bothered to come up with one of his trademark zany titles like Angels Hard as They Come (1971) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959).

Anyway, Happy Halloween and Hail Satan!

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Candy Corn (because it’s barely food, the same way The Terror is barely a movie)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: June 17, 1963

-Five second-unit directors were ultimately tasked with finishing this film after Corman wrapped-up his four days of shooting. This group included Francis Ford Coppola and even Jack Nicholson himself.

-Not only were Nicholson and his co-star Sandra Knight married during the production of The Terror, but Knight was pregnant with the pair’s only daughter, Jennifer, as well.

-IMDB credits Roger Corman with producing 415 films between 1954 and today. He’s also responsible for directing 56 films in his career, with his last full-length feature being Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990).

-If you Google “The Terror,” make sure you don’t get this film mixed up with the AMC horror anthology series of the same name.

The Terror is currently in the public domain, which means you can watch the whole movie on YouTube.

Perfect Stranger (2007) review-Hitchcock for wine moms

The jury’s still out on whether or not Halle Berry is a recipient of the Oscar curse.

Even though she’s remained a household name to this day, Berry never really lived up to her potential after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for Monster’s Ball (2001).

Rather than using that momentum to further her career as a critical darling, Berry starred in a series of bonafide clunkers instead, including Die Another Day (2002), Gothika (2003), and Catwoman (2004).

That last film even netted Berry a Razzie for Worst Actress, which she famously accepted in person with her Oscar in tow.

While Perfect Stranger (2007) is a few years removed from this famous losing streak it carries that same stench of failure, boasting piss poor box office returns and an even more dismal critical reception (10% on Rotten Tomatoes).

And while I don’t think this psychological thriller is that bad, it’s still crushingly stupid and something that definitely won’t be brought up in any of Berry’s future sit-down interviews with Oprah.

In terms of plot, Berry stars as crusading journalist Rowena Price who decides to investigate wealthy businessman Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis) after her childhood friend (who was having an affair with Hill) turns up dead.

To find the real killer, Rowena goes undercover at Hill’s ad agency and even adopts an online persona to try and seduce him on two fronts.

It’s hard to talk about Perfect Stranger without veering off into the realm of spoilers, since the film’s biggest weakness is it over reliance a ludicrous plot twist that’s meant to prop up the entirety of the story.

Sticking to just the acting for just a minute, Berry’s performance as the movie’s lead is very hit and miss. She’s perfectly serviceable in scenes involving tense intrigue or flirty conversations over drinks. But whenever she’s called upon to deliver a line that’s above a dull roar, Berry can’t help but go over the top and chew up the scenery like she’s headlining a Lifetime Movie.

Thankfully, Giovanni Ribisi picks up the slack in the acting department, since he does a much better job of finding a happy medium between those two conflict tones in a supporting role as Rowena’s closest confidant and secret stalker.

Willis is also surprisingly decent at playing the sinister ad executive, although that’s probably because his dialogue is kept to a minimum.

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On the directing side, James Foley does a good job of emphasizing the lurid subject matter, making sure to crowd the screen with bold colours in every scene involving explicit sex and violence.

And screenwriters Jon Bokenkamp and Todd Komarnicki should be given some credit for trying to tell a story about losing one’s identity in the digital age way before the explosion of social media.

But that’s about as far as I’ll go to praise the writing, since the film’s plot is one long Shaggy Dog story.

While each individual story development isn’t too outlandish, for this kind of trashy thriller anyway, it’s all built on a foundation of sand.

Without going into specific details, the revelation of the killer’s identity and their overarching motivation comes completely out of nowhere and resembles something the producers put together at the last minute to artificially throw savvy moviegoers off the scent.

In fact, according to IMDB, the filmmakers shot three different endings for this movie, each with a different character as the killer, which means the revelation was designed to be a gimmick rather than an organic conclusion.

Unlike a good movie twist, there’s no breadcrumb trail to follow up on after the fact that puts everything in the proper context. Instead, all the audience is left with is a wet fart of a climax that’s meant to shock but not make any sense.

It’s the kind of bad ending that taints the rest of the film, even the parts that are relatively enjoyable.

Suffice it to say, Perfect Stranger is not a modern answer to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Hell, it’s not even on the same level as 2000s M. Night Shyamalan.

It’s basically Hitchcock for wine-moms, where well-crafted suspense and intrigue is replaced by hammy acting, cheap titillation, and soap opera style plot progression.

On that level, this thriller is worth watching just for the fun of picking apart its non-sensical plots threads.

Halle Berry completionists also might want to give this film a look, although their time is probably better spent watching B*A*P*S for the 20th time.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Kinder Surprise (because it’s an appealing shell containing a crappy surprise)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: April 13, 2007

-Budget: $60,795,000

-Box office gross: $23,984,949 (US), $73, 090, 611 (worldwide)

-Film critic Richard Roper ranked Perfect Stranger as his 10th worst film of 2007, right behind Rush Hour 3 and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

-This movie was originally supposed to be set in New Orleans, but the script was re-written to take place in New York City after Hurricane Katrina hit during pre-production.

-Unexpected cameo: model Heidi Klum pops up briefly during a Victoria’s Secret party that is being thrown by Willis’ fictional ad agency.

-After helming Perfect Stranger, James Foley would go on to direct TV for the next decade, including episodes of Hannibal, Billions and House of Cards. He returned to the world of feature films with a vengeance in 2017-18 by directing the second and third entry in the cinematic Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed).

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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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: