Month: April 2011

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

1978                         

Universal Pictures

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Executive Producer: Steven Spielberg

Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis

The time is February 1964 and the world doesn’t know it yet, but an event is about to take place in New York City that will change the course of history.  Four mop-topped singers from England have formed this little band they’ve named The Beatles that will irrevocably transform the culture of the world entire forever.  After their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, nothing would ever be the same again.

Pretentious opening, huh?  I thought so too.  But I wanted to get your attention because nothing else about this review is going to be anywhere near as serious and it shouldn’t because I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND takes nothing about itself seriously.  It’s a movie made by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale who have brought us such outstanding movies like “Romancing The Stone” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The “Back To The Future” Trilogy and one of the Ten Funniest Movies Nobody Seems To Have Ever Seen, “Used Cars”

A group of teenagers from Maplewood, New Jersey aim to break into the New York hotel where The Beatles are staying and to accomplish this come up with a harebrained scheme worthy of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz: they’ll use a limousine to get past the police barricade since any other cars that pull up to the hotel are carefully searched.  They figure that security will assume anybody who can afford a limo has a right to be in the hotel and let it through.  The group is made up mostly of girls: Pam, who has no real interest in The Beatles since she’s planning on eloping that night and she just gets dragged along for one Last Great Adventure.  Grace has aspirations of being a photographer for LIFE and figures that an exclusive picture of The Fab Four would be her ticket in.  Rosie just wants to get close to Paul, The One True Love Of Her Life. The appropriately named Janis absolutely hates The Beatles since she’s a folk rock groupie and she’s appalled that the local record store in their town doesn’t carry any Joan Baez or Bob Dylan.

The girls are joined by greaser Tony, who sees The Beatles as a threat to his beloved Doo-Wop.  Love-stuck Larry who has the whim-whams for Grace. Along the way the gang picks up Peter, a twelve year old desperately trying to stay away from his father who wants him to get a haircut and Richard, who is such a Beatles fanatic that his proudest possession in life is a two foot plot of dirt that was stepped on by Paul.  Grace and Rosie are the ones who pull along everybody in their single-minded goal and the two of them are as determined as Gregory Peck and David Niven in “The Guns Of Navrone”.  What follows is a freewheeling movie that doesn’t try hard to work at its story.  Visual gags come fast and furious as the gang arrives in New York, promptly get separated and go off on their own strange adventures, which allows Zemeckis to jump around so that we’re never bored.  We’re always wondering what’s happening with the others and Zemeckis gives his young cast more than enough screen time.

I especially enjoyed Wendie Jo Sperber’s performance (she’s probably best known for her supporting role in the ‘Bosom Buddies’ TV show.  Her character had the hots for Peter Scolari’s character, remember?) Not only is Miss Sperber cute as a kitten, she’s a remarkably physical actress and to watch her fling herself from cars moving at 80 miles an hour and go tumbling down streets, leaping down entire flights of stairs and swinging in elevator shafts is exhausting for us to watch as I’m convinced it must have been for her to do.

When Wendie Jo Sperber passed away after a long and heroic battle with breast cancer I was really hurt to hear that sad news.  Watch her performance in this movie and especially in Steven Spielberg’s ‘1941’ and I think you’ll appreciate how much of a remarkable actress she really was.  Wendie Jo Sperber projected wit, intelligence and sexiness in all her roles.  And she did as much of her own stunts as she was allowed to do and that adds even more to her charm on screen.  She was an amazing talent that wasn’t appreciated in her own time.

She has some great moments in I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND.   I howled with laughter every time she uses the phone to try and call in to win this contest for Beatles concert tickets.  She throws handfuls of dimes at the coin slot with a manic desperation that never fails to tickle the hell outta me.  Her physicality is even more remarkable because Wendie Jo Sperber was what we call in our PC times “full-figured”.  Just so happens I love me some full-figured women and I watch anything Wendie Jo Sperber is in because she does throw herself into physical comedy with such exuberant abandon you’re afraid the poor girl is going to hurt herself.

She’s paired with Eddie Deezen for a lot of the second half of the movie and they make a good team.  Deezen was The King Of Geeks in movies of the 70’s and ‘80’s and he’s very funny here as a guy who has been living in the hotel for weeks before The Beatles even got there as part of his plan to get their autographs.  Teresa Saldana is also very good as Grace as she tries one crazy plan after another to just get one picture of The Beatles.

Nancy Allen has got a couple of strange scenes here that didn’t quite seem to match the innocent hi-jinks of the rest of the movie.  She actually makes it inside The Beatles’s suite and it’s pretty obvious that she’s having a sexual meltdown as she fondles their clothes and the dishes they ate on.  She kisses and caresses Paul’s guitar passionately in a clearly sexual fashion and passes out with it locked firmly between her legs.  And later on she has a scene with her husband-to-be that’s downright creepy as the guy talks as if he’s been getting marriage tips from multiple viewings of “Sleeping With The Enemy”.  I didn’t get those scenes and they certainly don’t match the silliness of the rest of the movie.  The only thing I can figure is that Zemeckis was attempting to show how the liberating new British sound reached something inside these small town, middle class girls who were brought up to believe that all they were expected to be in life were housewives and baby making machines and that’s it.  But that’s a little too heavy for me. I’d rather focus on the sheer exuberant fun of the movie and I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND is certainly that.   By all means this is a movie you oughta see.

104 Minutes

I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND is rated PG-13.  The language is positively sanitary and actually I think this is a PG or even a G movie when you compare it to today’s standards.  The only scene that is kinda kinky is the one with Nancy Allen when she gets inside the hotel room where The Beatles are staying.  What she does with Paul’s guitar is kinda hot so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And since it would be sacrilegious to show anything else, here’s a video of The Beatles performing the title song.  Enjoy.

Highlander

1986

20th Century Fox

Directed by Russell Mulcahy

Produced by Peter S. David and William N. Panzer

Written by Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson

Here’s a perfect example of what people mean when they use the expression ‘milking it for all it’s worth’.  When HIGHLANDER had its original theatrical run it was hailed as an above average action/adventure with a strikingly different visual style and an intriguing premise: what if a secret race of Immortals walked among humankind, waging a hidden war that has gone on throughout the ages, lasting for centuries?  A war that would decide the fate of Immortals and Humans alike?

If it had been left at just this one movie, the whole concept would have been stronger but there have been a series of really bad sequels, some so-so television spin-offs, including an animated one.  All of them violated just about everything that was set up so well in the original movie but even HIGHLANDER is not without some glaring plot holes that virtually guaranteed that any sort of sequel that followed it was doomed to failure.

Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is a warrior living in the Scottish Highlands of 1536.  During a battle between rival clans, Connor is viciously attacked by The Kurgan (Clancy Brown) a nightmarishly savage barbarian from Russia whose people entertained themselves by throwing children into pits with wild dogs and watching them fight.  The Kurgan delivers to Connor what should have been a deathblow but amazingly, Connor recovers from his mortal wound and the next day is walking around alive and well, his wound miraculously healed.

Quite naturally this means he must be in league with Satan so his own people cast him out and he wanders the land until finding love and peace with Heather (Beatie Edney).  This peace is disrupted by the appearance of the strutting, dashing swordsman Juan Sanchez Villa Lobos Ramirez (Sean Connery) who reveals Connor’s true nature to him.  Like Ramirez, Connor is an Immortal, fated to slay or be slain by other Immortals who must all kill each other until only one is left.  And this one will receive ‘The Prize’, some great gift that will change the fate of the world forever.  Ramirez trains Connor in swordsmanship and teaches him how to use his Immortal abilities but unfortunately The Kurgan is also an Immortal and once again disrupts Connor’s life, killing Ramirez and brutalizing Heather.

In 1985 New York, Connor lives as an art/antique dealer named Russell Nash and comes to the attention of The NYPD due to the fact that there seems to be a lot of headless bodies showing up whenever he’s around and in particular to police forensic scientist/ancient weapons expert Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) Brenda finds metal shavings at a crime scene near a headless body that she’s convinced came from a samurai sword that was made two thousand years before the first recorded katana and she’s even more convinced that the mysterious Russell Nash knows about the sword.  Well, of course he does.  But he can’t very well tell her that he’s going around defending himself from attacks by his fellow Immortals by cutting of their heads, which is the only way to kill an Immortal with the sword he inherited from his mentor Ramirez.   But she soon finds out the truth as The Kurgan is also in New York and at last after centuries of Immortals slaying each other it has come down to just The Highlander and The Kurgan, who is holding Brenda as a hostage to gain an edge on Connor…. and There Can Be Only One…you just knew I was going to work that in somewhere, didn’t you?

When it comes to the look and visual style of the movie, it still holds up really well.  Russell Mulcahy had directed plenty of videos before HIGHLANDER and he made a horror film called “Razorback” which is about a giant wild razorback pig terrorizing the Australian outback.  Trust me; the movie is a lot better than it sounds.  Mulcahy brought the visual techniques he used in his videos to HIGHLANDER and they’ve been copied so often since then that we see them and yawn but back in 1986 this was really exciting stuff.  Even today many of the shots are breathtaking, such as the opening shot of a crowd in Madison Square Garden that dives and swoops like an eagle trapped inside the building until the camera zooms in on Lambert.  The scenes set in 16th Century Scotland are astonishingly beautiful as well and provide a nice contrast to the concrete cliffs of 20th Century New York.  The fight scenes are beautiful, brutal and bloody as all good movie fight scenes should be.

But it’s after the movie is over and you sit back and think about it you realize that HIGHLANDER is a lot like a politician’s campaign speeches: There’s a lot of talking but not a damn thing has been said.  I’m kinda disappointed that we’re presented with a race of Immortals who instead of working together toward a common goal spend their time running around hacking off each other’s heads.  We’re given tantalizing glimpses into what surely must be a fascinating culture but that’s all we’re given.  It’s never explained why The Immortals have to kill each other off or how they found out that the only way to kill an Immortal is to cut his head off (seems like a secret I’d keep to my own damn self) or why they never fight on holy ground.  And if the whole point is for Immortals to kill themselves to get ‘The Prize’ then why does Ramirez train Connor instead of taking his head?  Do Immortals age naturally until they reach a certain age?  It would explain why Connor, The Kurgan, Ramirez and the couple of other Immortals we see in the movie are all obviously different ages but this is never explored.  How did The Immortals learn about ‘The Prize’?  Who told them?

I know…I know…there were sequels that attempted to explain some of these questions but trust me on this: you don’t want to see them, especially “Highlander II: The Quickening” which is undoubtedly the worse movie Sean Connery ever made.   Supposedly the only reason he was in it was because he and Christopher Lambert got along so well and Lambert wouldn’t do the movie without him.  The bottom line is this: there’s a tantalizing amount of good stuff that just isn’t used here and as a result the movie is wildly entertaining but strangely unsatisfying to me.  I wanted to know more about these Immortals and I didn’t get it.  And the ending of the movie where we finally find out what ‘The Prize’ is has to be one of the biggest let downs I’ve seen in a movie.  I sat through the whole thing waiting to see what this ‘Prize’ is gonna be, figuring it’s gonna be something really nifty and when it was finally revealed I screamed; “That’s IT?!”

However, HIGHLANDER has three big things going for it: Sean Connery, who steals every scene he’s in as Ramirez who even though he has a Spanish name is actually a two thousand year old Egyptian. Christopher Lambert who I really like as an actor.  He can be badass, cool, charming and goofy all in the same scene and make it believable.  He’s got a strong scene where he’s comforting his dying wife Heather who has grown old while he has stayed young and strong and it’s a very touching moment where Lambert effectively captures the pain of what being an Immortal must be like.  Clancy Brown is terrific as The Kurgan and plays him as an unstoppable killing machine with a grisly and totally inappropriate sense of black humor.  He’s one of the best movie bad guys ever.

And I can’t end this review without mentioning the outstanding music score that features songs by Queen. Everybody knows ‘Princes Of The Universe’ but ‘One Year Of Love’ and ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ are equally memorable and near the end of the movie there’s a brief bit of Queen doing ‘New York, New York’

So should you see HIGHLANDER?  Sure.  It’s perfectly entertaining high adventure that’s got a fun story, interesting characters, a great music score, some good fight scenes and despite what I think are plot holes big enough to fall into, you can ignore ‘em and just have a good time.  It’s not a demanding movie by any stretch but it is what it is and that’s more than enough.  Enjoy with my blessings.

Rated R

116 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toothless

1997

Walt Disney

Directed by Melanie Mayron

Written by Mark S. Kaufman

Produced by Joan Van Horn

There is one reason and one reason only I would even consider watching a movie like TOOTHLESS and the reason is Kirstie Alley.  I’ve been a big fan of hers ever since “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Cheers” In fact, I didn’t start watching “Cheers” until Kirstie Alley joined the cast as I think that Shelly Long is such an unfunny and untalented actress that she makes Tanya Roberts look like Katherine Hepburn.  I loved Kirstie Alley in her short lived Showtime series “Fat Actress”.  And ever since she burned up the ballroom floor on the 12th Season of “Dancing With The Stars” I’ve become even more enamored with her.  Who really knows why I stopped to watch the movie but all I know is that after ten or fifteen minutes I was hooked as I got really curious to see where this story was going to go and how it was going to get there.

Dr. Katherine Lewis (Kirstie Alley) is a prominent and successful dentist, following in the footsteps of her father who she worshipped and adored.  Katherine’s life should be a rich and happy one but she has few friends and always feels four or five steps removed from life.  Her best friend Mindy (Melanie Mayron) is constantly after her to get out and meet new people, make new friends, you know the drill.  But Katherine keeps putting off going after the things she really wants out of life until the fateful day when her life runs out and she’s killed in an accident.

Katherine arrives in Limbo, which is a barren, arid desert decorated with surrealistic rock formations.  There are a number of Airstream trailers neatly lined up, all with different art deco signs: ‘Training’ ‘Uniforms’ ‘Offices’ ‘The World’ and Katherine is informed by The Gatekeeper (Yeardley Smith) that she is dead and has to wait for her Supervisor who will explain things to her.  The Supervisor is no-nonsense, by the book disciplinarian named Rogers (Lynn Redgrave) who was probably Sgt. Hartmann’s mom when she was alive.  She informs Katherine that Limbo is a waiting area where newly arrived souls have to perform certain jobs before they can go on to Heaven or Hell.  And Rogers has a job that’s uniquely suited to Katherine: The Tooth Fairy.

This is where the movie started to get interesting because the story started to remind me of a series of books written by Piers Anthony called ‘Incarnations Of Immortality’ which was about how mortals were given various jobs to perform such as Death, Nature, Time, War and how they fulfilled these functions and some of the best moments in TOOTHLESS are those that show how Katherine is trained to be The Tooth Fairy by Raul (Daryl Mitchell) who is in charge of not only training Katherine in how to do her job but also The Easter Bunny and Cupid among others.  Despite his tutelage Katherine never does get the hang of flying or landing (she flies about as well as Ralph Hinkley) but she’s plucky and she sets out to be the best Tooth Fairy she can be.

Things get complicated when Katherine gets involved in the lives of Bobby Jameson (Ross Malinger) and his dad Tom (Dale Midikoff).  Bobby has recently lost his mother and he desperately needs help in how to cope with school, girls and his increasing absent dad and against her better judgment and The Rules Of Limbo, Katherine begins to give him advice.  Of course, being a kid, Bobby tells his friend, who tells two of his friends who tells to of their friends and so on and so on and so on and soon there’s a rash of kids doing everything they can including eating pure sugar and punching each other in the jaw to lose teeth so that The Tooth Fairy can come help them with their problems and it’s not long before Katherine is one overworked fairy.  The Office of Bicuspid Procurement is ecstatic because Katherine’s the most successful Tooth Fairy they’ve had in hundreds of years but her constant flaunting of the rules may earn her a one way trip down in The Hellavator which only has one stop and it’s a hot one.

The performances in this movie aren’t what I would call Academy Award material but they are energetic and they sell the movie.  Kirstie Alley looks as if she’s having a ball, especially in her scenes with Lynn Redgrave where the two of them are trading insults and arguing back and forth.  Daryl Mitchell shares a couple of scenes with Kirstie that have honest emotion behind them, especially the one where he painfully explains to her why he can never leave Limbo.  Eileen Brennan shows up as the Chief Judge of The Judgment Board.  All six members are named Joe and the reason is never explained.  In fact, there are a lot of goofy things in Limbo that are never explained, they’re just thrown in as eye or ear candy and I liked that a lot.  And for the comic book fans, if you ever do see this movie keep an eye out for Helen Slater (“Supergirl”) who has a supporting role as the mother of the girl Bobby has a crush on.

So should you see TOOTHLESS?  That depends on the individual.  There are some who will read this review who wouldn’t go near a Disney movie if you paid them and openly sneer at anybody who does and that’s a shame.  There’s nothing wrong with movies that are made simply to make you feel good after you watch it and that’s the feeling TOOTHLESS left me with.  Not every movie made has to be a masterpiece but it does has to be true to it’s story and it’s characters and be made with an honest commitment that the cast and crew believe in what they’re doing and they do it with imagination, humor and professionalism. TOOTHLESS has all of that.  Put your cynicism and sophistication in the sock drawer for an hour and a half and I think you’ll enjoy it.

92 minutes

And since there’s no trailer for the movie itself, I’m gonna give you Kirstie Alley doing the cha-cha-cha on “Dancing With The Stars”.  Enjoy

Hanna

2011

Focus Features

Directed by Joe Wright

Produced by Marty Adelstein

Screenplay by David Farr

 

HANNA is a movie that I fear I may be doing a disservice to as I wasn’t in the mood for the type of movie it is.  It’s an espionage/revenge film with some nifty fight scenes (Eric Bana has the best ones) a straightforward plot and some good performances with enough characters bits and quirks that had me chuckling a couple of times.  Which usually is enough to satisfy me in this genre.  But there are plot holes large enough to throw bowling balls through.  And it’s an action movie told and filmed as though it were an art house movie.  But then again, what can you expect from the director of 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement”?  I’ve not got a thing at all against a director attempting to tell an old story in a new way but this way wasn’t my huckleberry.  But again, I say that could be because I was more in the mood for some good ol’ fashioned shoot-em-up-punchy-punchy-run-run and HANNA isn’t that.

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a sixteen-year old girl who has spent her entire life raised in isolation.  Her whole world has been a cabin in Finland and the icy wasteland surrounding it.  Her father, rogue CIA agent Eric Heller (Eric Bana) has unrelentingly trained her to be a killer, pure and simple.  Hanna has extraordinary hand-to-hand combat skills, can live off the land and speak half a dozen languages fluently.  Her drawback is that Eric has taught her nothing of the outside world.  But she knows it’s out there and she wants to go and see what it’s like for herself.

Eric pulls out a transmitter he’s kept hidden all these years and tells Hanna if she’s truly ready to go, flip the switch to turn it on.  He warns her that if she does, their enemies will come for them.  Hanna turns it on.  The transmitter sends out a signal that alerts CIA agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) that Eric is still alive.  She deploys a team to dispatch him but most of them end up getting dispatched themselves.  The survivors come back with Hanna, while Eric goes on the run, hiding out in Berlin.  Surprisingly enough, Hanna demands to speak with Marissa who is too smart to meet with Hanna herself.  She sends an agent in her place who is murdered by Hanna in an amazingly cold-blooded scene.   Hanna escapes from the high tech holding facility she’s been locked in, discovering to her amazement that she’s now in Morocco.  While wandering around, Hanna meets up with Sophie (Jessica Barden) who befriends her and persuades her parents (Jason Flemyng and Olivia Williams) to give Hanna a lift to Berlin.  Hanna’s dad has had her memorize a number of fake back stories which she uses to convince Sophie’s parents she’s simply a very independent young lady traveling on her own (they seem to completely overlook the fact she has no money, no passport and no luggage) and she hitches a ride with them.  So while Hanna gets a crash course in the ways of the world from her new surrogate family, Eric Heller and Marissa Wiegler continue to play out a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, bound by a dark and deadly secret they are actually eager to kill each other over in order to keep it buried.

When we stick with the espionage stuff, we’ve got us a pretty good movie.  Cate Blanchett appears to be having a good time being bad.  The only thing off about her performance is that she loses her American southern accent right in mid-sentence in some scenes and I’m wondering if she did it on purpose, especially given what we learn about her and her relationship to Eric Heller and Hanna.  And no, it’s not what you’re thinking.

I always enjoy spy/espionage movies set in Europe as they seem to be darker and less frivolous than American-set movies of the genre and HANNA takes advantage of great locations such as Germany, Morocco and Finland.  I only wish the story didn’t have such obvious holes.  Eric Heller has raised Hanna in a totally technological free environment for sixteen years yet she can work a computer to Google information about DNA research.  Sophie’s hippie family is embarrassingly ignorant.  And there are way too many fairy tales references thrown into the movie to try and give it that feel.  Especially near the end when Marissa’s role as The Wicked Witch/Evil Stepmother is practically spelled out in neon.

So should you see HANNA?  It’s an interesting movie; I’m not going to deny that.  I can’t think of the last time I saw an art house espionage movie and HANNA is well made, I’ll give it that.  It just didn’t engage me on an emotional level or make me care about its characters or what happened to them.  I say wait until it comes to Netflix.

PG-13

111 minutes

Better In The Dark #105

Episode 105: TOM AND DERRICK VERSUS THE ALIEN FIGHTING MARINES, THE SMART DRUG, THE EIGHT MINUTE ALTERNATE TIMELINE, NATALIE PORTMAN’S BOW, THE DOUCHE WITH THE GAS GUN, AND THE DISSOCIATIVE STRIPPER…OR IS SHE A BALLERINA?

After a brief hiatus, The Boys Outta Brooklyn are back with a massive Review Episode! Tom and Derrick cover eight films, including the final word on The Green Hornet, Limitless, Frankie and Alice, Unknown and The Life of Death (our first screener!). Plus listener mail, why Kevin Smith needs to buck up, we pay our respects to Liz Taylor and Sidney Lumet, Derrick rethinks his ‘no Natalie Portman’ rule, and a revival of the most divisive argument from the Gilt-Edged Bonds series. You know it’s going to be funny ha-ha as opposed to funny weird, so get to clicking!

BETTER IN THE DARK
Two Guys Outta Brooklyn Talk Movies

DJ COMICS CAVALCADE
Silver Age Comics Through Modern Eyes

Join us now at http://www.earth-2.net!

Tom and Walter Bonham tackle the comic book issues of the day at BURNING COMICS! http://tschamp.podomatic.com

DILLON
http://dillon-dlferguson.blogspot.com/

Valdez Is Coming

1971

MGM/United Artists

Produced by Ira Steiner

Directed by Edwin Sherin

Screenplay by Roland Kibbee and David Rayfiel

Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard

When you hear the name Elmore Leonard you might think of the current hit television show “Justified” which is based on a character he created for a couple of novels.   Some of you will know him from “Get Shorty” and “Be Cool” as he wrote the novels those highly popular movies were based on.  But way before then Elmore Leonard really bounced into popularity during the 70’s and 80’s with a bunch of very successful crime novels.  His novel “Rum Punch” was filmed as one of my favorite movies of all time: “Jackie Brown” starring Pam Grier and directed by Quentin Tarantino.  But even more way before then Elmore Leonard got his start back in the 1950’s writing western novels.  Plenty of Mr. Leonard’s westerns have been adapted into some classic movies: “Joe Kidd”“3:10  To Yuma””Hombre””Last Stand At Saber River” But my favorite Elmore Leonard western film stars one of my all time favorite actors: Burt Lancaster in VALDEZ IS COMING.

Bob Valdez (Burt Lancaster) is a Mexican-American sheriff who works the Mexican half of a small town on the Texas/Mexico border.  The Anglo sheriff is away on other business and so Valdez is called in to resolve a dangerous situation.  A black man living with a Mexican woman has been accused of murder by the powerful gunrunner/rancher Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher).  Valdez hopes to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the standoff.  The shack the suspect is holed up in is surrounded by the bigoted white posse who are using the shack for target practice  when Valdez arrives to do his job.  Due to a series of shockingly idiotic misunderstandings Valdez is forced to kill the black man, who turns out to be innocent of the crime.

Wracked by guilt, Valdez seeks to do right by the dead man’s Mexican woman and thinks that it isn’t too much that she be given $100 so that she can move back to the Indian reservation and start a new life.  Valdez first goes to the town’s leading citizens who are of the opinion that since the whole thing was Tanner’s fault; he should put up the money.  But they’re willing to make a deal: if Valdez can get $100 from Tanner, they’ll match it with another $100.  Valdez’s attempts to get the money from Tanner results in him being laughed at, beaten like a dog and humiliated in a truly brutal fashion: he’s tied to a rude wooden cross which he has to carry on his back through the desert.   Valdez gets free and once he gets back home pulls out the dusty footlocker under his bed which holds his most precious possessions.  The uniform he proudly wore as a member of the United States Army when he was renowned as the most dangerous hunter/killer of Apache warriors.  His Sharps buffalo rifle with which he can shoot a man in the eye at a 1000 yards. And his fearsomely large Buntline revolvers.  His old battle skills reawakened, Valdez begins a guerrilla war with Tanner in which he starts killing off Tanner’s hired guns one by one, leaving them alive long enough for them to return to their boss and deliver a chilling message: “Valdez Is Coming”

What makes VALDEZ IS COMING such an interesting western is the racial bigotry theme behind the story.  Blacks and Mexicans are the victims here and Valdez is motivated not so much by personal revenge as you might think.  Although being tied to a cross and being forced to walk through the desert would be more than enough to piss me off, lemme tell you. But Valdez’s motivations are deeper than revenge.  His personal code of justice is outraged.  And he has an overwhelming desire to see that to see men act like men, own up to their mistake, do the right thing and acknowledge the innocent black man and the Mexican woman as human beings.  Or at least as much as can be expected in the Old West where life was cheap and the life of minorities was even cheaper.  What makes it even more interesting is that the posse Tanner puts together to hunt Valdez is primarily made up of Mexicans. Tanner’s own right hand man, El Segundo (Barton Heyman) is a Mexican and a pretty damn dangerous man in his own right who understands what Valdez is trying to do and tries to make his boss understand as well to no avail.

The performances in this are really good. Burt Lancaster plays Valdez with a dangerous understatement that fits the character well.  He goes through the first half of the movie as a shambling, quietly spoken man who has put his wild life and lethal skills behind him and is just trying to do a difficult job the best way he can.  But when they rouse this sleeping giant, oh baby, does he get payback in a big way.  Richard Jordan has a good role as a hired gun who oddly enough is conflicted about the way he feels about Valdez and has to put his feelings about Valdez as a Mexican and as a man in a whole new perspective as the hunt for Valdez becomes increasingly more deadly.  Susan Clark is really good in this movie.  Most of you reading this will probably remember her from the TV show “Webster” and I was surprised at how effective she is as Tanner’s woman.  There’s an interesting subplot with her character as it’s taken as a given by the townspeople that Tanner killed her husband so that he could shack up with her.  Valdez takes her hostage to try and bargain with her life for the $100 and through their time together the truth about that situation is resolved in a surprising way I really didn’t see coming.  Frank Silvera plays Valdez’s best friend and they have a really good scene that says everything that needs to be said about how whites view Mexicans that resonated for me given the current climate in the Unites States about Mexican immigrants and makes you think that maybe this country really hasn’t come so far in our racial views as we like to think.

So should you see VALDEZ IS COMING?  I think you’d enjoy it a whole lot if you’re a western fan like I am.  While it’s not as action packed or as purely entertaining as some of the other westerns Burt Lancaster has made such as “The Scalphunters” “Vera Cruz” or “The Professionals” it is a satisfying horse opera in terms of performances and story.  And, yes, it’s not PC to have an Irishman playing a Mexican but that’s how things were done back then so if you want to see the movie, make your peace with that.   There’s a whole lot more to VALDEZ IS COMING than the good guy simply blowing away the bad guys which is underlined by the ending which is one of the most unusual of any western I know but it so absolutely right that I can’t imagine any other way the movie can have ended.  If your cable/satellite provider carries Turner Classic Movies you can wait for VALDEZ IS COMING to show up there as it seems to be a favorite there of somebody in Programming as they usually run it on a Saturday afternoon and if you’re lucky you’ll find it paired with “The War Wagon” or “The Magnificent Seven”.  But if you don’t want to wait, by all means put it on your Netflix queue.  If you’re looking for a solid western with good performances, fine action sequences and a story that contains a little bit more thought to social issues than you might expect from the genre, VALDEZ IS COMING is my recommendation.

Rated PG-13

90 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Seat Filler

2004

Magnolia Home Entertainment

Directed by Nick Castle

Executive Producers: Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith

Produced by Nia Hill, Duane Martin and D’Angela Steed

Written by Mark Brown, Duane Martin and Tisha Campbell-Brown

One of the best things about watching movies with my wife Patricia is the unpredictability of what she’ll pick for us to watch.  She’s not as snobbish about movies as I can be and will watch a movie she knows nothing about, has no idea who the director is, who wrote it, who the cinematographer is.  She just goes with her gut and says; “let’s watch this.”

Now in the case of THE SEAT FILLER you would most likely take it as a given that we watched it because it’s a romantic comedy with a predominately black cast.  And in this case, you’d be wrong.  ‘Cause if you’ve been hanging around me for any length of time you know that romantic comedies are on the bottom of my list when it comes to movie preferences and I don’t much care who’s in it.  But Patricia was intrigued by the title and asked me what a seat filler was.  After I explained the job of a seat filler, she wanted to see it.  And just in case anybody out there doesn’t know what a seat filler is, attend: seat fillers are hired to occupy empty seats vacated by celebrities at major award shows.  The purpose is to give the folks watching the event at home the impression that the audience is full.

I figured that any movie that provides me with the opportunity to ogle Kelly Rowland for 90 minutes with the permission of the wife can’t be all bad so I settled in.  And you know what?  At the end of those 90 minutes I had a pleased smile on my face as I ended up liking the movie a lot more than I thought I would.

Derrick Harver (Duane Martin) is a young, good-looking guy determined to make his dream of becoming a lawyer come true.  To pick up some extra money in order to continue his studies and help out his family, he takes a job as a seat filler along with his best friend/roommate E.J. (DeRay Davis).  It’s a steady gig since he lives in Hollywood and the movie’s main running gag is that there’s always some award show going on.

The number one rule of seat filling is to Never Talk To Celebrities.  But Derrick can’t help himself when the gorgeous up-and-coming pop singer Jhnelle (Kelly Rowland) is seated next to him.  They hit it off almost immediately and Jhnelle quite naturally assumes the tuxedoed, well-mannered, funny and charming Derrick is also a celebrity as well.  She has him checked out and in one of those cases of mistaken identity that is the pumping heart of so many romantic comedies, Jhnelle thinks he’s Alonzo Grant, hotshot entertainment lawyer.

Now if you’re like me, you’re saying; “So why doesn’t he just tell her she’s made a mistake?” It’s a question I usually ask myself when watching romantic comedies since if the people up on the screen would just talk to each other, the movie would be over with a lot sooner and I could get on with more important things.  And so Derrick romances Jhnelle, all the while trying to figure out a way to tell her who he really is

However, the sheer chemistry and likeability of the cast was enough for me to overlook that and just enjoy the movie.  I’ve always been a huge fan of Kelly Rowland and it’s an injustice she doesn’t have a bigger career as she’s far more talented and beautiful than most of the One Name Wonders pretending to be singers.  Along with Duane Martin they work at selling the story and the characters and it worked for me.  In supporting roles as the obligatory best friends of the lead actors, DeRay Davis and Melanie Brown (yep, Scary Spice herself) know what their role is in a movie of this type and act accordingly.  Although DeRay Davis does get a little out of control every once in a while, it’s not annoying and thankfully the movie doesn’t hold up the story for his hijinks.

Shemar Moore, Patrick Fischler and in a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-him role Glynn Turman provide stable, solid support.

So should you see THE SEAT FILLER?  Why not?  It’s a nice little movie you and your significant other can snuggle up with and enjoy without guilt.  The contrivances of the plot get bent a little out of shape to drag out the mistaken identity bit but the movie has good intentions and that goes a long way with me.  And it’s always an added plus when I can find a movie with an African-American cast that doesn’t insult me with stereotypical ignorance.

90 minutes

PG-13

Beyond The Sea

2004

Lion’s Gate Films

Produced by Jan Fantl, Andy Paterson and Kevin Spacey

Directed by Kevin Spacey

Written by Kevin Spacey and Lewis Colick

I think Bobby Darin’s version of “Mack The Knife” is one of the greatest songs ever recorded and it never fails to crack me up at the look on people’s faces when I tell them it’s a song about a serial killer.  Apparently a lot of people never really listen to the lyrics of a song, especially this one.  Mackie commits a whole lot of mayhem during the song and there’s even a couple of lyrics Bobby Darin left out of his version where Mack burns down an orphanage and rapes a underage girl.  It’s a song that is light, bouncy, extremely cheerful sounding but hides a lot of darkness.  Listening to “Mack The Knife” is like unwrapping a glittering, beautifully wrapped gift box and finding a decaying heart inside.

The movie biopic of Bobby Darin’s life, BEYOND THE SEA is also, light, bouncy, extremely cheerful.  It’s full of glitter and beautifully filmed.  But there’s no darkness to contrast the beauty.  In fact, as you watch BEYOND THE SEA you may get the feeling that you’re watching a less than objective examination of Bobby Darin’s life.  I’ve read that Kevin Spacey worships at the alter of Bobby Darin and spent 17 years trying to get this movie made.  And it shows.  It’s most definitely a vanity project and it’s not a bad one.  I just don’t think it’s an altogether honest one.

The movie starts out with Bobby Darin (Kevin Spacey) on the set of a movie he’s making about his life.  He’s pissing off the crew and cast because he insists on take after take of the opening number.   A young boy pops up on the set.  Supposedly it’s the child actor (William Ullrich) who is playing Bobby Darin as a child but in a left turn the movie takes into fantasy, it turns out that this actually is the real young Bobby Darin who takes his older self on a journey through their mutual past as they attempt to understand and come to terms with their life.

We see how the young Bobby Darin suffered for much of his early life with rheumatic fever and his doctors didn’t expect him to live to see his 15th birthday.  Once his mother (Brenda Blethyn) introduces him to music, Bobby not only lives and thrives but goes on to a career in entertainment, assisted by his sister Nina (Caroline Aaron) her husband Charlie (Bob Hoskins) and his manager Steve Blauner (John Goodman) where he becomes a big hit with the teeny boppers with his first major hit; “Splish Splash”.

Now, the more perceptive of you who are familiar with my reviews may think that I rushed through an awful lot in the preceding paragraph.  Think of how I felt watching the movie.  It goes from the sickly Bobby Darin as a boy with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel to the adult Bobby Darin being a smash hit on ‘American Bandstand’ in the first half hour of the movie.  Considering the movie is nearly 2 hours long I was wondering what was going to fill up the rest of the running time.

I didn’t have to worry.  The rest of BEYOND THE SEA is mostly taken up with telling us what a great guy and what a brilliant performer Bobby Darin is.  Even though he’s described in some scenes as being ‘an arrogant asshole’ nobody in the movie really seems to mind all that much.  Nobody really argues with Bobby.  He never seems to have problems.  He marries Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) who was the hottest actress in Hollywood at that time.  His albums sell faster than hotcakes (how fast do hotcakes sell, anyway?) His club dates and concerts are standing room only.  Hollywood begs him to make movies.  He’s beloved by millions.  I was sitting watching the movie and waiting for Bobby Darin to roll back the rock and holla at Lazarus to come on out and play, as I was convinced it was going to happen sooner or later.

That’s the problem with BEYOND THE SEA.  Kevin Spacey is so in love with Bobby Darin that he obviously couldn’t bear to show us the dark side of the man or show us what struggles he certainly must have gone through during his career.  We understand why he was so driven to be a success since he considered every day to be a gift since he was supposed to have died as a child.  But if you go by the movie, Bobby Darin didn’t seem to have to work very hard for his success.  Or his relationships.  There’s a scene where he courts Sandra Dee with a lavish musical number and bingo, she ups and marries him.  Sandra Dee’s mother is violently opposed to the marriage but in virtually the very next scene, Moms is hanging out with Bobby and Sandra at home when their first child is born with no explanation of how they got from There to Here.

There’s a nice scene where Bobby throws a tantrum after losing out on the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor to Melvyn Douglas and Sandra Dee tells him quite sensibly that it took Douglas 40 years to get a nomination and it only took Bobby two and he should be happy with that.  But then the scene turns into a farce as both Bobby and Sandra get into a madcap chase as they try to beat each other in leaving the other first.  Yeah, I know how it sounds but that’s what happens.  We learn very little about Bobby’s relationship with his children other than he loves them very much and they love him (yawn) and there’s a major revelation in his life that causes him to write a stirring protest song against the war in Vietnam.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to cheerful, happy movies and I’m glad that BEYOND THE SEA spared us the usual story arc that is standard operating procedure in a biopic of an entertainer.  But by presenting Bobby Darin as a near perfect icon with no flaws makes for some damn boring movie watching, I tell you what.  The most glaring example of this is when the movie takes time to show that Sandra Dee was an alcoholic but never shows us how Bobby dealt with it or indeed, how it was dealt with at all.  There’s a scene in Las Vegas when Bobby and Sandra talk about her drinking and Bobby makes a soulful plea for her to cut back on the booze and apparently she does so because the subject is never addressed again.  Hell, didn’t everybody back then drink to excess?  Maybe everybody except for Saint Bobby, I guess.

Maybe I’d better just concentrate on what I liked about the movie.  During its theatrical release there was a big deal made about how Kevin Spacey did his own singing in the movie and he even went on a nationwide tour with a full orchestra singing Bobby Darin songs.  And make no mistake: Kevin Spacey is a pretty good singer and he does a wonderful job of dancing in the movie’s several terrific musical numbers.  He’s no Sammy Davis, Jr. but he’s far better than you would expect him to be.  During the scenes where he performs at Las Vegas hotels you can see that Spacey would have been right at home hanging out with The Rat Pack.

Kate Bosworth has never impressed me with her acting and I think she’s horribly miscast as Sandra Dee (although not as horribly miscast as Gwen Stefani playing Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator”) while John Goodman has very little to do as Bobby Darin’s Manager.  His role consists mainly of bringing Bobby good news: “I got you the Copacabana!” or “You’re playing The Flamingo in Vegas!” Bob Hoskins as Bobby Darin’s brother-in-law probably comes off as the best actor besides Spacey himself in this one.  They have a more complicated relationship than even the one Darin has with his wife.

So should you see BEYOND THE SEA?  I recommend the movie on the basis of how much you like Kevin Spacey as an actor.  Me, I’ve loved him ever since he showed up on the TV show ‘Wiseguy’ and if he didn’t do any other movies after ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’ he’d still be a genius as far as I’m concerned.  He does his usual great job of acting here but I think he should have turned the directing job over to someone else who would have been more objective.  I didn’t know much about Bobby Darin before watching this movie and after I finished I found myself not wanting to find out more.  Usually a biopic like “The Aviator” or “Ray” will lead me to dig deeper and learn more about the subject of the movie.  After two hours of Kevin Spacey trying to convince me how terrific and funny and brilliant and innovative and daring Bobby Darin was, I felt I knew all about the guy I wanted to.

118 minutes

Rated PG-13

Hercules, Samson & Ulysses

1963
MGM

Directed and Written by Pietro Francisci
Produced by Joseph Fryd

Before I get to the movie review I ask you kindly to indulge me for a bit while I explain what influenced me to write this review, okay? Thank you kindly. Back when I was growing up in Brooklyn during the late 60’s and 70’s our Channel 9 station would program Italian sword-and sandal movies on summer Saturday afternoons under the blanket title of “The Sons Of Hercules.”   The show would start out with a memorable theme song that sounded like something more suited to a spaghetti western than a sword-and-sandal epic:

The movies starred famous bodybuilders of the time who played heroes with names such as Machiste, Ursus and occasionally there would even be a Hercules movie. These movies were filmed on the extremely cheap but for a lad who soaked up fantasy the way other kids his age soaked up basketball and football they were magic. I loved those Italian sword-and-sandal movies and when Turner Classic Movies aired HERCULES, SAMSON & ULYSSES I watched it and was delighted to find that I remembered this movie from those long ago days when I was a kid sitting cross-legged in front of the family TV set held spellbound by the story unfolding in front of me.

Being older I of course could see the flaws and the cheapness of the movie but y’know what? It didn’t matter. Watching HERCULES, SAMSON & ULYSSES put me back in touch with that younger Derrick Ferguson for 90 minutes and that’s a gift I treasure and cherish. For 90 minutes I wasn’t the Derrick Ferguson with adult responsibilities and worries. I was the Derrick Ferguson with nothing more important than a summer Saturday afternoon that seemed to last for a week in which I could do anything I wanted.

Hercules (Kirk Morris) is asked to destroy a sea monster terrorizing local fishermen. He agrees and is accompanied by a loyal crew, a fine ship and his young friend Ulysses (Enzo Cerusico) who is the son of the local king. Hercules has been training the boy who is a long way from the heroic deeds he will achieve later on in life. But even at a young age he displays courage, agility and frighteningly keen eyesight. Hercules, Ulysses and the crew find the sea monster and kill it but they’re caught in a horrible storm that leaves them shipwrecked and washed up on the shores of Judea. During their search to find a way home, Hercules is mistaken for Samson (Richard Lloyd) when he kills a lion with his bare hands. The Judeans can’t really be blamed for mistaking Hercules for Samson as they quite naturally reason that there couldn’t be two men in the world who could kill a lion in such a way.   And so Hercules and his friends are captured and sentenced to death by the Philistine King. But The Philistine King’s concubine Delilah (Liana Orfi) persuades the king to let Hercules go so that he can capture Samson. Her argument is that the only man who can capture Samson is a man as strong as he is. Hercules accepts and leaves Ulysses and his friends as hostages to go capture Samson with Delilah in tow as she obviously has a thing for nearly naked muscle men.

That brings us to what we’ve really wanted to see: the fight between Hercules and Samson, which takes place among ancient ruins made of Styrofoam. And it’s a pretty good fight what with Hercules and Samson throwing huge pillars at each other before the fight ends in a draw with the two muscle men deciding to join forces to destroy the Philistine King as well as rescue Ulysses and the others.

This is far from being an Academy Award winning movie. The dubbing is horrible and the movie is obviously filmed on a budget of about eleven thousand bucks. But it’s got some scenes that made me laugh such as when after the shipwreck Hercules, Ulysses and their friends are on a raft arguing. Hercules solves the argument by throwing everybody off the raft except for him and Ulysses. It’s a nice little touch that Ulysses has the best eyesight out of anybody else in the movie and sees things long before the other characters. The movie also takes the time to have a sensible reason for Hercules and Samson to meet and team up. And when they do they have a nice moment where they talk about the responsibilities and burdens of being demi-gods. And it sure doesn’t hurt that Liana Orfi wears dresses that show off her more than generous cleavage.

Now I don’t know if this is available on Netflix but if it is, give it a look.  Or if your cable/satellite provider carries Turner Classic Movies and this happens to come on while you’re in a willing moment, turn it on and check it out. If you’re like me and remember those summer Saturday afternoons when your local TV stations showed Ray Harryhausen movies and Italian sword-and-sandal flicks, you’re the perfect audience for this one. Enjoy.

85 minutes

Shock Corridor

1963

Allied Artists

Written, Directed and Produced by Samuel Fuller

Samuel Fuller is one of my heroes.  A man of staggering talent as a novelist, screenwriter and director, his films are among my favorite because they’re flat out pulp.  Sometimes lurid pulp, sure.  But isn’t that the best kind?  I like Mr. Fuller’s movies a lot because there’s no pretension in them.  And the protagonists of a lot of his movies aren’t heroic or even likeable.  He serves them up exactly as they are and he lets you decide who and what they are.  And as a result he comes closer to art than writer/directors who deliberately start out with lofty goals of cinematic immortality.  Sam Fuller just wanted to tell a good story.  And SHOCK CORRIDOR is one of his best.

Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is already touched with a kind of madness when we first meet him.  He’s being coached by Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) how to behave like a sexual deviant.  Johnny’s madness is the single-minded pursuit of fame and he’ll do anything to write a Pulitzer Prize winning story.  Even if the story is inside of an insane asylum.  Johnny is determined to solve a murder that took place in the facility.  There are three witnesses to the murder and they’re all insane themselves.  Johnny’s plan is simple: he’ll pretend to be insane, get himself committed to the asylum and then question the three witnesses, solve the murder, write the story and collect his Pulitzer.  Hell, he may even get a book or movie deal out of it he excitedly explains to any one who will listen.

His stripper girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) hates the plan and thinks that if Johnny spends too long in there, he’ll end up with the spots on his dice missing as well.  But the plan needs her co-operation as she has to pretend to be Johnny’s sister and swear out a complaint against him.

Johnny gets inside and begins his investigation.  But it’s nowhere near as easy as he thought it would be.  After all, it’s tough pretending you’re crazy when you’re not.  Unless, of course you happen to be surrounded by madmen more than willing to show you how it’s done.  And those megavolt shock treatments don’t help either.  Or being raped by nymphomaniacs.  And you stick to your cover story of your girlfriend being your sister to the extent that you actually start to believe she is your sister.   Johnny doggedly pursues his quest and pieces together clues even while his own mind starts to come slowly apart.

SHOCK CORRIDOR is one of those movies made with such raw fearlessness that it amazes me that it was made during the 60’s.  Sam Fuller isn’t afraid to go for broke and his depictions of the various kinds of crazy suffered by the inmates range from humorous to downright horrifying.  There’s a big, friendly bearded bear of a guy who calls himself Pagliacci and sings opera.  At the other end of the spectrum there’s Trent (Hari Rhodes) who was the first black student admitted to an all-white Southern college.  Trent cracked under the strain of living in what was for him enemy territory.  And when I say he cracked I mean he busted wide open.  Trent steals pillowcases to make hoods, declares himself Grand Wizard of The KKK and spends his days inciting attacks on the other black inmates and giving brutally racist monologues.

It’s Hari Rhodes who steals the acting honors in this one.  Trent is truly a terrifyingly tragic character and Rhodes plays him for all he’s worth.  Peter Breck never impressed me much as an actor and I attribute his amazing performance in SHOCK CORRIDOR to Sam Fuller’s direction.  It’s a brutally comprehensive character arc Johnny Barrett goes through and Breck is totally committed to selling the character and the story.  Constance Towers is good here as well, equally as good as she is in “The Naked Kiss” another Sam Fuller movie that you should definitely check out.

So should you see SHOCK CORRIDOR?  Chances are if you’re familiar with Sam Fuller you already have.  If you’ve never seen a Sam Fuller movie then this is a great one to start with.  I also highly recommend “The Steel Helmet” “The Naked Kiss” “Forty Guns” “The Crimson Kimono” and “The Big Red One”.  But for me, none of them pack the punch delivered by SHOCK CORRIDOR.  Enjoy.

101 minutes