Friday, December 30, 2016

GIVE A GIRL A BREAK (1953)

Broadway director Ted Sturgis' new revue "Give a Girl a Break" is in rehearsals until the star throws a tantrum about feeling ignored by Ted (Gower Champion). He apologizes but she quits anyway. To save the show, Ted, his assistant Bob (Bob Fosse), and his producer Leo (Kurt Kaszner) decide to go for a PR stunt; instead of hiring another big name, they'll do a well-publicized talent search for a star, literally giving an unknown girl a big break. The choice is quickly narrowed down to three, each one championed by one of the men: Suzy (Debbie Reynolds) is a young dancer with little experience but a cute face and a bubbly personality whom Bob has fallen head over heels for, despite her overbearing stage mother; Joanna, an older and more experienced dancer (Helen Wood) is the favorite of Leo, but he doesn't realize that she's married, and that her husband may expect her to give up her career to follow him to Minnesota for a teaching job; Ted's choice is his former dance partner—and, we assume, ex-lover—Madelyn (Marge Champion), who has a comeback on her mind, despite the lukewarm reception that her idea receives from her current boyfriend. We see three fun fantasy dance numbers, each dreamt up by one of the men, and ultimately the choice is not so much up to the men as to the life decisions made by each woman.

By cosmic coincidence, I saw this movie just days before Debbie Reynolds passed away, and I'd like to see it again. It's basically a B-movie musical; it looks colorful and it has a few very good numbers, but the script is thin, the songs are fairly blah, and the performances feel second-string. I can't help but think how much better Gene Kelly would have been as the director (apparently the movie was first intended as a vehicle for Kelly, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, but when they were unavailable, the budget got cut). Kaszner seems to be trying to channel Gregory Ratoff's producer performance in ALL ABOUT EVE but fails. Helen Wood and Marge Champion are unmemorable, which leaves the whole thing riding on the shoulders (or, more to the point, the dancing feet) of Reynolds and Fosse, and the two do manage to carry a good chunk of the movie. It feels like they have as much screen time, if not more, as the Champions, who are supposed to be the stars: they have great chemistry, they're both cute as hell, and they look like they're having a ball. The highlights of the movie are their two dance numbers, one in a Manhattan park and one, the dream number, which features hundreds of colorful balloons and Reynolds and Fosse dancing backwards—thanks to well-handled trick photography. There's an amusing running joke about Ted using the word "palaver" all the time. For me, Reynolds' peak was her first big movie (SINGIN' IN THE RAIN) but in these lower-budget musicals she did for MGM, she's delightful, and is usually a good enough reason to watch. This may not be a top-rank MGM film but it's fun, and it's a chance to enjoy Reynolds and Fosse (pictured above) in their youth. We'll miss you, Debbie. [TCM]

Monday, December 26, 2016

FOREVER FEMALE (1953)

Broadway star Ginger Rogers has gotten good notices for her latest play—in which at age 40, she's playing 29—but the play itself is lambasted, so she and her producer (Paul Douglas), who is also her ex-husband, are on the lookout for a better play. Young playwright William Holden has such a play; its main characters are a 19-year old girl and her mother, and Rogers would seem suited for the role of the mother, especially with novice actress Pat Crowley hot after the role of the teenager, but Rogers wants to play the daughter, even if that means advancing the character's age to 29, like in her last play. Crowley falls for Holden even as he starts re-writing the play for Rogers. A dalliance develops between Rogers and Holden, despite Crowley's feelings—and despite the still-simmering feelings that Douglas has for Rogers. Eventually, the play in previews is a flop, but Crowley has engineered it so that she appears in the role of the daughter in a summer stock production of the play in Maine, and when Holden sees it, he realizes the error of his ways, both in terms of the play and his choice of love object.

The critic at Blu-Ray.com correctly points out the thematic similarities between this and ALL ABOUT EVE—an aging stage actress having both romantic and professional problems, a young actress ready for the spotlight—but there's no comparison in terms of quality or entertainment value. EVE is a movie for the ages; this one is a light throwaway romantic comedy that could use help in the writing and acting departments. Rogers (pictured with Holden) is adequate, but I've never thought much of her presence aside from in her films with Fred Astaire. Crowley, in her first role, is pretty bad, though part of the problem may be that her character is fairly unpleasant—she has a habit of drawing attention to herself in every situation, hoping she'll get noticed by someone who can help her career, and she changes her name at the drop of a hat for the same reason. An actress with a bit more substance and a bit more edge might have done well here, but Crowley feels at sea. Holden has little chemistry with either of his leading ladies and therefore wilts. Douglas is fine, as is James Gleason in the small role of an agent. This isn't a bad movie, but it feels like a waste of a good idea. [DVD]

Friday, December 23, 2016

CHARMING CHRISTMAS (2015)

Meredith Rossman (Julie Benz) is the daughter of the owners of Rossman’s, a successful department store in Portland, Oregon. In order to make sure her parents get the retirement they deserve, Meredith is in talks with a businessman named Daniel to start a nationwide franchise of stores, but Mom and Dad aren't yet on board 100%. When an old Mrs. Claus costume that Mom used to wear is found, the folks say they’ll consider the deal if Meredith will play Mrs. Claus in the store's Santa village—they hope doing this will help her relax a bit from the strains of running the store. Reluctantly, Meredith agrees, but she almost changes her mind when she discovers she has to work with Nick (David Sutcliffe), the new Santa. Young and handsome (and most assuredly not equipped with a Santa belly), the two start off on the wrong foot and continue that way for a while—she tries to remain all about business and he tries to get her to see the store employees as family, and perhaps to rethink the franchise opportunity. He also teases her with the possibility that he might actually be Santa Claus, which does not endear him to her. However, Meredith slowly thaws out and soon is helping some of her employees, including struggling single mom Jessie and administrative assistant Olivia who has career and romance troubles. But just as she and Nick seem to be striking sparks, Daniel raises the stakes by offering to buy Rossman's instead of just franchising. The catch: she’ll have to lay off a handful of workers.

This TV-movie is a nice variation on the Scrooge story, and to the movie's credit, Meredith is never presented as a truly mean person, just someone who needs a little help finding her way. The epiphany I had while watching this: these bland and formulaic Christmas movies are equally irritating and comforting: the rote ticking-off of all the plot points—introduction of the mildly troubled main character, introduction of the savior figure, slow growth of attraction between the two, the snag along the way, the inevitable redemptive happy ending—is irritating, especially when it's done in a fairly uninspiring way as it is here. But as in most genre pieces, it's comforting to watch the conventions fall into place. So on a scale of 1 to 5 for the Christmas TV-movie genre, this gets a 4, bumped up a bit because the blandly handsome leading man, David Sutcliffe, is particularly charming, and does a nice job keeping us off balance as to whether or not he's a magical guy or just the right man at the right time. Julie Benz is OK but sometimes seems like she thinks this is all beneath her, and to truly make these movies work, the actors have to be invested so that the viewer doesn't stop and think that the movie is beneath him or her. Paul Hopkins, who played Mouse in the Tales of the City sequels, is fine as Daniel, and in a bit of a break with tradition, he is not presented as a romantic foil. Pleasant, and despite the generally average production, one I'd consider re-watching. [Hallmark Channel]

Thursday, December 22, 2016

THE CHRISTMAS PAGEANT (2011)

Vera (Melissa Gilbert) is a successful but temperamental Broadway director who has just been fired from her latest gig when her agent tells her that a small town nearby is willing to pay her big bucks to stage their annual Christmas pageant, hoping to put their town on the cultural map. Reluctantly, she agrees, and the usual culture clash of urban vs. rural, noisy vs. quiet, big vs. little, old vs. new plays out between Gilbert and the pageant participants. When Eddie the mail carrier proves incapable of carrying a tune, Vera's first reaction is to dump him, but instead she makes him her assistant. When cranky Beverly keeps complaining about every little change Vera wants to make to the traditional pageant, Vera ignores her, but then does some digging and discovers that Beverly is keeping a sad secret. See, Vera is becoming more human already. But she is genuinely startled to find Jack (Robert Mailhouse), an old flame, living and working in this small town, to which he retreated after the death of his wife (wait—a dead spouse in a Christmas movie??). Just when the locals start to like Vera, and when she starts warming up to Jack, she gets an offer to go back to the Big Apple to direct a big play. It would mean leaving before the pageant performance and, of course, she's torn. What will Vera do?

This comes in on the low end of the Christmas TV-movie continuum. The plot is filled with timeworn devices—though to be fair, some of them still work well, as with Beverly's plotline—and moves in completely predictable directions with little payoff for the viewer who might like something a little fresh thrown into the mix. Gilbert fails completely at being a hot-shot director, though she seems more in her element as she makes friends in the small town. Mailhouse is sturdy but otherwise unmemorable. Edward Herrmann and Candice Azzara fare much better as the owner of the bed & breakfast where Vera stays, Kate Flannery (Meredith on The Office) is fine as Beverly, and it was nice to see Steve Lawrence still looking good as Vera's agent. I enjoyed seeing Gary Hershberger, whom I remember as a handsome high school jock on Twin Peaks, in a small pageant role. Despite my criticisms, this wasn't exactly painful to watch, and I did get a little teary at the end, just like I'm supposed to. Pictured from left to right: Flannery, Gilbert and Mailhouse. [Hallmark]

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

LOVE AT THE CHRISTMAS TABLE (2012)

30-year-old Sam (Dustin Milligan) arrives in his hometown to spend Christmas for the first time in five years, and he's nervous about seeing his old friend Kat (Danica McKellar). As Sam walks into the Christmas festivities and exchanges greetings with everyone, we flashback to when Sam and Kat were kids, and then flash forward through several of the Christmases that they spent together over the years. What we see is that, even as they become best friends, an attraction grows between them than neither one acts on. They date and live with other people, break up, and move on—or fail to move on—the whole time fighting the romantic feelings they have for each other. After what seems to be a major rupture in their relationship, Sam stays away for years, and now he's back—with a proposal of marriage for Kat. But is she still game?

Though this aired on Lifetime, it was made by The Asylum, a company that typically produces low-budget, direct-to-video horror films, and it's a little edgier than the average cable TV-movie. Is this a good thing? I'm not sure. I give it points for trying to do something a little different for a Christmas movie, and the visuals are lovely, but the writing is on the weak side. I never really understood why these two didn't get together before they do (oops, sorry, spoiler). The concept of focusing only on Christmas gatherings at the house of a neighbor (well played by Lea Thompson) is novel, but because of this, we get limited fleshing-out of the characters. Milligan and McKellar work up some nice chemistry but they both feel a little lackluster in the acting department. Scott Patterson offers nice support as Kat's single dad, but aside from Thompson, that's about it for a supporting cast. It’s hard not to like this, but it winds up leaving you wanting a little more. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, December 19, 2016

CHRISTMAS BELLE (2013)

Since I seem to have seen all the classic-era Christmas movies, I'm going whole-hog for the TV-movies this year, all week long. This first one is a bland but harmless Hallmark holiday confection. Isabella (Haylie Duff), who works for her father as an estate assessor (with a specialty in rare books), is sent to the large old house of handsome but aloof Hunter (Nicholas Gonzalez). He is planning to sell his large inherited estate in California wine country because of sad memories of his grandparents, and he's also not into celebrating Christmas because of sad memories of his late wife. And he's not very happy to see an attractive young woman arrive to work on cataloging the estate and he's rude to her. Naturally, despite the tension, sparks soon begin to fly between the two until slimy Gaston, err… I mean, Tony butts in. He has been carrying a half-hearted torch for Isabella for some time, which her dad (C. Thomas Howell) has encouraged, and now he decides to press his case, which causes misunderstandings between Isabelle and Hunter. Can things be patched up by Christmas?

There is quite of bit of Internet commentary on this TV-movie, most of it negative. Yes, it's a re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast—specifically the Disney version—but that in itself is not a negative. The Christmas atmosphere is half-hearted at best, but even that isn't necessarily a deal-breaker (even the 1954 classic WHITE CHRISTMAS is only really Christmassy at the beginning and end). Critics find Duff and Gonzalez a little on the plastic side, but that's cable TV movies for you. Some even complain that Gonzalez has a couple of shirtless scenes—hell, that a big plus in my book. For me, the worst I can say is that the movie was completely average in all departments: acting, plot, dialogue, setting, atmosphere. One negative is the lack of interesting supporting characters. Sheree J. Wilson has a nice turn as an employee of Hunter's who helps Isabelle figure him out; Mark Famiglietti is serviceable as the bad guy; best is former teen idol Howell as the dad—he has aged gracefully, and I agree with some of the Internet critics that the character comes off as gay, and I wish this had been done on purpose for some intriguing backstory. But if it was, nothing is done with the detail. More fleshing out of any or all of these three (in place of some of the endless anguish scenes between the leads) might have made the movie memorable. It isn't really, but it's also nowhere near as bad as many online viewers have made it out to be. If you're a fan of modern Christmas romances, you'll like it. [Hallmark]

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

BROADWAY THRU A KEYHOLE (1933)

Frank Rocci (Paul Kelly) runs a protection racket in New York City and has become a wealthy and powerful man. Crowley, a disgruntled underling, leaves his employ because of the small cut he's getting. Frank's buddies warn him to keep an eye out for Crowley, but Frank seems unconcerned. In fact, his biggest concern is the career of young singer Joan Whelan (Constance Cummings), an old family friend. Without telling Joan, Frank gets her a job at a nightclub run by ostentatious hostess Tex Kaley. Max, the musical director, is not happy with this development, but knows it's best for his health to go along with Frank's wishes—especially when Frank becomes owner of the club. Worldly Frank and innocent Joan start dating and, surprisingly, it seems to work—her influence softens Frank a bit. But when Crowley starts threatening Frank, he sends Joan to Florida for her safety where she falls in love with handsome crooner Clark Brian (Russ Columbo), whose only fault seems to be that he has a delicate constitution when it comes to blood and violence. Clark breaks his contract in Florida and goes back to New York with Joan. How will Frank react? And what happens when Crowley gets the bright idea to kidnap Joan?

This story, credited to Manhattan columnist Walter Winchell who narrates it, is based (apparently quite closely) on the lives of Ruby Keeler and Al Jolson, with Joan based on Ruby, Clark based on Al, and Frank based on gangster Larry Fay. But even if that knowledge means nothing to you, this is still a fun, energetic pre-Code romantic melodrama which sometimes goes off in unpredictable directions, particularly in the last fifteen minutes. Kelly is tough and charismatic, making a surprisingly likeable gangster. Cummings has never been particularly memorable to me but she's fine here, especially if you picture her as Ruby Keeler. Russ Columbo (pictured) was a popular singer who died in a shooting accident at the age of 26 the year after this film was released. As an actor, he makes a good looking singer, but he does, like Kelly, have charisma. Real-life nightclub owner Texas Guinan plays a version of herself as Tex Kaley, and singer Blossom Seeley is fun as Joan's companion. Reliable bad guy C. Henry Gordon plays Crowley. Some pre-Code touches: a gay interior designer who lispingly calls a room "simply stunning"; a reference to "Peter Pansy" male dancers in the dance line; an amusing opening sequence with Times Square signs (like "Most Beautiful Girls in the World Here") alternating with a neon "NUTS”"sign from a peanut shop. An interesting and somewhat overlooked pre-Code film. [TCM]

Friday, December 09, 2016

THE ATOMIC MAN (1955)

aka TIMESLIP

A man (Peter Arne) is found floating in the Thames, alive but unresponsive, with a bullet wound. He is operated on to remove the bullet, and he actually is clinically dead for seven seconds, but recovers. However, he doesn't seem to remember who he is—and his strange responses to questioning would indicate further mental confusion. Reporter Mike Delaney (Gene Nelson) uses his paper's photo files to discover that the man is atomic scientist Stephen Rayner, and Inspector Cleary is happy to know this—until they find out that Reyner is at work, albeit with a couple of bandages on his face. Who is the recovering patient, and why, when they take pictures of him, are the photos foggy? Answers come slowly. The reason for the strange answers the man gives: because he was dead for seven seconds, his brain is seven seconds ahead of the rest of the world, so they discover he is answering questions before they are asked. The problem with the photos indicates that the patient has radiation poisoning, which leads the police to believe that the patient is the real Dr. Reyner. If so, who is the man claiming to be Reyner, and what is he up to?

This is an odd duck of a movie. Both of its titles promise science-fiction, and certainly there is a bit of that here (though the seven second gimmick seems more fantastic than scientific), but it really belongs more to the journalist-playing-detective genre. At times, it seems related to film noir (I'm thinking of KISS ME DEADLY), but it's too light in tone for that. The sci-fi aspects of the film are brought up and discarded with little impact on the overall narrative. So let’' just say this is an atomic-age thriller. As such, it's rather fun, with Nelson making a likeable leading man—and doing a nice job with his comic relief scenes—Faith Domergue as his photo-journalist girlfriend, Arne doing a nice job in a dual role. Ultimately, it's an industrial sabotage story involving (wait for it…) tungsten. Still, it's worth seeing. Pictured are Nelson and Domergue. [Streaming]

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

ONCE A DOCTOR (1937)

Dr. Frank Brace is a big shot at the city hospital, and his two sons are interns following in his footsteps. However, unknown to dad, Jerry (Gordon Oliver) is an irresponsible lout with a drinking problem, and his foster brother Steven (Donald Woods) is always covering up for him. Dr. Nordland, inventor of the Nordland compressions used in heart surgery, plans to make Steven his assistant, but fate has other plans. One night Steven takes over for another intern, but Jerry, out for a drunken joy ride with his girlfriend Ruby, has an accident and takes Ruby home instead of to the hospital, and talks Steven into leaving the hospital to attend to her while he promises to take over Steven's duties. Steven tries to help Ruby but she dies, and at the hospital, the drunken Jerry passes out, failing to attend to a particular patient who also dies. Steven tries to get cowardly Jerry to fess up that everything was his fault, but Jerry double-crosses his brother in front of their father and Steven loses his medical license. Nordland, who still has faith in Steven, hires him to be a nurse at a clinic for the poor with the understanding that he cannot perform operations. But when an emergency arises and Nordland is out of town, Steven operates using the Nordland compressions. The child dies and Steven is sentenced to a year in jail for operating without a license.

In the meantime, Jerry has started dating Nordland's daughter Paula (Jean Muir) even though Steven was sweet on her before. Nordland gives Steven one more chance, running a clinic in Cuba where he will able to practice medicine legally. Also on their way to Cuba for a vacation are Jerry, his dad, and his girlfriend. During a storm at sea, drunken Jerry gets in trouble again and Steven, again, could help out. Will he? And if he does, will he gain redemption or just get trampled over by his brother? This is an hour-long melodrama from the Warner Brothers B-movie unit, the best in the business, so you know you’re in good hands from the start. Woods is always a solid B-lead, and Oliver is fine as the rat-fink brother. Muir is a little one-note, but she doesn’t get in the way of the two male leads. Character actor stalwarts Joseph King (as the father) and Henry Kolker (as the surgeon) are pros. There is a lot of plot in this short movie, but that helps keep it moving, even though some of the twists feel rather improbable. Pictured are Oliver and Woods. [TCM]

Friday, December 02, 2016

ALIAS JOHN PRESTON (1955)

The residents of the small British town of Deanbridge include banker Dick Sanford, his daughter Sally, newspaper editor Joe, and Joe's son (and local golf champion) Bob. Sally has been dating Bob but has come to find him a little on the boring side when a new gentleman arrives in the village: the wealthy and slightly mysterious John Preston (Christopher Lee). He claims to have been buddies during the war with a soldier from Deanbridge who was killed. Now, John wants to live in peace and quiet, so he buys up property and rebuilds some moribund businesses, and soon he has become a well-respected community member. He also begins dating Sally, much to Bob's annoyance. But when the local hospital hires a psychiatrist, Dr. Walton (Alexander Knox), John expresses anger, dismissing analysis as no better than voodoo. Bob, spiraling downward after Sally announces her forthcoming marriage to John, plans to shoot John but can't bring himself to do so. Instead, he starts sessions with Walton, trying to work out his anger issues. Surprisingly, Walton soon has another patient: Preston, who has been having recurring nightmares in which he imagines that he is not really John Preston at all. Does Preston have a split personality? Is he dangerous to himself or others? Do his dreams that he has killed a blackmailer mean anything?

The fact that Christopher Lee stars is reason enough for most film fans to assume that this is a horror movie, but it's actually a rather bloodless psychological thriller. Lee gives a good performance as the conflicted hero (or is it anti-hero?), but the rest of the acting is only so-so, the pace is slow, and over forty minutes go by before we get to the meat of the plot, meaning that over half the movie is exposition—and largely beside-the-point information at that. I was never exactly bored, but I realized about 25 minutes in that I had no idea where the narrative was going—not because of any postmodern trickery but just due to lack of incident. There is quite a bit going on in the last section of the movie but it's too little, too late. Knox, whom I like, has the second largest role but is given little to do except listen to people talk. Betta St. John (Sally) co-stars with Lee in a much better movie, HORROR HOTEL. Not a bad movie, really, but not the thriller it seems to want to be. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

OLD ENGLISH (1930)

George Arliss is the aging chairman of a shipbuilding company; near 80, he is described by board members as "very feeble," and indeed, he always needs a pull to get up out of his chair. Creditors suggest that Arliss declare bankruptcy, but we find out that he has illegitimate grandchildren he wants to be sure are taken care of, so he engages in shady dealings to get them an inheritance. When one of his creditors (Murray Kinnel) finds out what's going on, he tries to blackmail the old man. [SPOILER]: To escape exposure, Arliss, who has been warned to take it easy on food and drink, treats himself to a huge final meal of rich food and drink, and dies in his chair.

This is a lesser Arliss vehicle. It's basically a filmed stage play, taking place entirely on a couple of sets, and focuses completely on the Arliss character; it's not literally a one-man show—a number of minor characters pop on and off, none of them fleshed out—but it might as well be. Even in a weak film, Arliss is fun to watch; however, his showpiece near the end, as he enjoys his suicidal meal, goes on a bit too long even for me, an Arliss fan. There are some amusing lines: Arliss calls his brandy "Mother's milk"; he uses expressions like, "Oh, my hat!" and "Oh, my grandmother’s wig!"; he refers to someone as "milk and water masquerading as port wine." There is a secondary plot concerning a young man in love with Arliss' granddaughter, but it comes to little. This film is part of a DVD boxed set of Arliss movies, but none of them (the others are A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY and THE KING'S VACATION) are among his best. Still, it's good to have some Arliss available. [DVD]

Friday, November 25, 2016

THE SLAVE (1962)

In 48 BC, Julius Caesar sends loyal soldier Randus (Steve Reeves) on a mission to Egypt, ostensibly as a representative of Caesar but actually to spy on Crassus, a Roman governor who is suspected of plotting against the Empire. On the way, Randus saves Saide, a slave girl, from the whip of her overseer and she joins him. Their ship is lost in the fog and hits a reef; they survive, but while they struggle through the desert, they are captured by slave traders. The slave Gular recognizes an amulet Randus wears as having belonged to the legendary slave Spartacus who led a revolt against Rome some years ago before being crucified by Crassus. At first, Randus dismisses this and eventually finds his way to Crassus where he is taken into the court. But soon, he is operating under two identities: during the day, he appears to be just a loyal Roman centurion at Crassus' beck and call, but by night, he wears a mask, strips down to sweaty muscleman togs, and leads a band of slaves fighting for freedom. A large painted "S," the former sign of Spartacus, is left behind whenever the slaves attack—shades of Zorro—fomenting the rumor that Spartacus has somehow returned. Crassus doesn't become too concerned until he finds an "S" on his own bedroom wall. Given that the original Italian title of this film is SON OF SPARTACUS, it's not hard to predict that this is heading to another "I am Spartacus" finale.

The presence of a bare-chested Steve Reeves on the poster for this movie would seem to promise a typical Hercules-type adventure; on a production level, that's what this is: a (high) B-grade sword-and-sandal film. But in content (and intention), this really is trying to be a sequel to SPARTACUS. It contains one of Reeves' best performances—despite the awkward dubbing—and the plot is more complex than that of the usual Italian peplum film of the era. The sets and costumes look good, and the violence is amped up a bit. There is a (not terribly graphic) decapitation—in fact, if you blink, you’ll miss it; I had to back the DVD up to be sure I'd seen what I thought I saw. There's also a very cool death-by-molten-gold scene. The director, Sergio Corbucci, has a nice eye for pictorial composition, and it helps that many exteriors were shot in Egypt. The acting is passable and better—in addition to Reeves, there’s Jacques Sernas as Vero, the man who first recognizes Randus' parentage; Claudio Gora as Crassus; and Gianna Maria Canale as Crassus' wife. Frankly, though SPARTACUS is the higher quality movie, it's always struck me as overlong and overdone; this was almost more enjoyable as entertainment. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

THE PHYNX (1970)

The Super Secret Agency has its office entrance behind a men's room stall in an International House of Pancakes. Their latest mission: sneak into Albania and rescue a slew of pop culture celebrities who have been kidnapped. The disappearance of folks like Johnny Weissmuller, Edgar Bergen, Butterfly McQueen, Rudy Vallee, and Col. Sanders of KFC fame is lowering the morale of American citizens, and superspy Corrigan (Lou Antonio) can't get past Rostinov (Michael Ansara) who guards the Albanian border. One idea is to parachute Bob Hope in and Albania will think that a war has been declared. But the supercomputer (named Motha and shaped like a buxom woman) comes up with another plan: put together a pop group, get them a big following, and have them visit Albania on the pretext of giving a concert. Four young men are chosen to form a band called the Phynx (pronounced "Finks"); there's the cute one, the jock, the black guy, and the Native American. First, they're sent through boot camp, then renowned (and nutty) producer Philbaby is brought in to make their first album. They appear on Ed Sullivan, and James Brown gives them their gold record.

In Europe, agent Martha Raye—who wears a "Rosebud" bracelet—reveals that a map to the Albanian castle where the celebs are being held is tattooed in three parts on the stomachs of three lovely young women, which leads to all manner of lurid behavior (X-ray glasses, 1000 one-night stands—actually more like 10-minute stands) to find the three bellies and the map. Albania extends "the warm fist of friendship" to the band, they attend the National Flower Festival—their flower is the radish—and eventually make it to the castle where they find the celebrities. In the end, they all get away when the Phyn'’s rock and roll performance causes the castle walls to collapse. Yes, rock and roll saves American popular culture!

I have long wanted to see his notorious movie because of the long list of classic-era names putting in cameos—in addition to those named above, we see Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Maureen O’Sullivan (who gets a cute scene of banter with her former Tarzan co-star Weissmuller), Xavier Cugat, Busby Berkeley, Dick Clark, Richard Pryor (blink and you'll miss him) and Pat O'Brien (whom Gorcey calls "Father" in reference to their 30s movie ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES) among many others. George Tobias and Joan Blondell have more substantive roles as the rulers of Albania. There seems to be some debate as to whether or not this movie ever got an official release, but over the years, it has gotten a reputation as one of the worst of the worst. Surprise: it's actually fun. A good movie? Not really, but I had great fun watching it and I can imagine watching it again sometime. It helps that it's meant to be stupidly funny, so when they throw everything against the wall, a few things have to stick. Lou Antonio as the spy boss is good, though it took a while for him to grow on me. Less amusing is Mike Kellin as Antonio's boss. The band members are fine, though only one (Lonny Stevens) has gone on to other movie credits. The others, for the record, are A. Michael Miller (the cute one), Ray Chippeway, and Dennis Larden. Sadly, the music, though not awful, is not memorable, despite the fact that all the songs were written by Leiber and Stoller, co-writers of many great rock hits ("Hound Dog," "On Broadway," "Stand By Me"). Most critics dismiss this as a mess, but Paul Tabili at DVD Drive-In hits the nail on the head when he compares its "vibe" to that of the TV show Laugh-In. It doesn’t work for Tabili but it mostly worked for me. Others reactions are bound to be similarly scattershot. If you have any interest in either the late-60s comic ethos or the classic stars gathered here, you should see this one. Pictured at right are Joan Blondell and Col. Sanders. [TCM]

Monday, November 21, 2016

ESCAPE FROM EAST BERLIN (1962)

aka TUNNEL 28

In 1961, East Germany, under Russian control, built a wall to separate East and West Berlin. The Berlin Wall was heavily guarded by armed patrols to stop East Berliners from escaping, either to join relatives who had already left or to get out from under Communist rule. This film's focus is on Kurt (Don Murray), a mechanic and driver for Major Eckhardt. Kurt is a carefree young man, still living with his family in East Berlin and engaged in a clandestine affair with the Major's buxom wife. One night after work, he hitches a ride with Gunther, a fellow driver, hoping to talk him into sharing a beer. But the nervous Gunther drops Kurt off, then turns his truck around and races desperately for the wall. His truck does crash through, but he winds up tangled in barbed wire and killed by guards. The next day, Kurt runs into Gunther's sister Erika (Christine Kaufmann), who makes a half-hearted attempt to break through some barbed wire at a less-guarded area of the wall. She is certain that her brother got through, but Kurt can't bring himself to tell her the truth, though he does hide her when some suspicious guards come after her. Soon Kurt finds himself pressured—by Erika, by a potentially blackmailing neighbor, and by the presence of a stranger named Brunner (Werner Klemperer) whose motives for hanging around Kurt's family’s house are unclear—into attempting an escape by tunneling under the Wall.

Based on an actual escape that occurred only months before shooting on the film (in West Berlin) began, this is a low-key thriller whose main suspense is generated not so much by the escape at the end—which actually feels a little rushed and anti-climactic—but by the character development of Kurt from unambitious playboy to committed hero. Though derided by some critics as too bland and Midwestern, Murray brings a certain easy charm to his part and does a decent job of showing his (mostly internal) struggle with committing to political action—albeit mostly because he falls in love with Erika. Klemperer nicely underplays the wild card character. Tension is kept up well throughout without much in the way of histrionics or bombast. Robert Siodmak, the director, was known for his film noirs of the 40s (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE DARK MIRROR) and this movie has a dash of the noir flavor in its shadowy nighttime scenes. Not a masterpiece but enjoyable. [TCM]

Friday, November 11, 2016

AFTER TONIGHT (1933)

In a Luxembourg train station at the outbreak of World War I, a lovely nightclub singer (Constance Bennett) is trying desperately to get a train to Vienna, but with hundreds of tourists also eager to get out, she's having problems. Dashing German soldier Gilbert Roland gets her passage with him on a train and they seem to hit it off, but she leaves at the first stop and he's mystified. Roland is on the lookout for the spies that are leaking German plans to the Russians, but he doesn’t realize that he's just let a successful spy slip through his fingers. We see Bennett traipsing across Austria smuggling information out via messages sewn in coats and written in invisible ink in books. Eventually she is reunited with Roland and later, when she seems to be caught red-handed, Roland, blinded by his love, lets her go, but soon his sense of duty gets the best of him and her sets her up to be caught for good this time. This is a well-made spy thriller that nevertheless doesn't rise above average. It seems very mechanical, like a script written to certain specifications. The spy details are fun, but nothing very exciting happens until the end, and even there the action feels perfunctory. I'm not a big fan of Constance Bennett; she always seems to be a little bored or just not altogether present, and that's pretty much how she is here. Roland is better but there's no real chemistry at work between the two. The ending is almost comical. For fans of Bennett or of the genre. [TCM]

I'm heading off on the final Turner Classic Movies cruise so this blog will go dark for about a bit, but I'll be back before Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

ELEVEN MEN AND A GIRL (1930)

Upton College has had a losing football team for years and the trustees have told the president that if his team can't beat Parsons, their chief rival, he'll be forced out. Star player Speed Yates (Joe E. Brown) convinces Nan, the president's daughter (Joan Bennett), to take off her glasses and flirt with star players from other colleges to get them to come to Upton so they'll have a winning team next term. She manages, with some unspoken promises of love (or at least lust), to snag eleven football stars—played by the real-life All-American football team of 1929—with a twelfth player, rich cocky Tommy (James Hall), being a bit of a question mark because his father won't let him go to Upton. But Nan and Tommy click and he enrolls under an assumed name. Complications arise when the other eleven players realize they've been bamboozled by Nan—when Tommy finds out, he says to her, "This college is too small for you; you should have joined the Navy!" When Tommy's father discovers his subterfuge, he tries to have his son pulled out of school on the eve of the big game. Will this be Upton's last stand?

As early-talkie college romance movies go, this is rather fun even if the acting is not top-notch. One doesn't expect the football players to be great actors, though a couple of them seem to be having fun, and Bill Banker from Tulane has a fun scene in which Bennett serenades him, but the leads seem less than fully involved in their roles. Hall, playing the juvenile lead, was 30 and looked it. Bennett seems stiff, and Brown has little to do after the opening scenes—which is OK by me as I'm not really a fan. But still, the film has a nice, buoyant feel and a couple of scenes are memorable: one with a bear on the ground and Bennett up a tree, and one in which all the players pretend to be drunk and unable to take the field in order to get back at Bennett. Also released as MAYBE IT'S LOVE, the song Bennett sings to Bill Banker. [TCM]

Monday, November 07, 2016

SHADOW OF CHINATOWN (1936)

Reporters in San Francisco think a Tong war has started in Chinatown, but actually a cabal of Eurasian merchants led by Sonja Rokoff has hired a fix-it man named Poten (Bela Lugosi) to get rid of Chinese competitors in the import business. Society reporter Joan Whiting tries to get mystery novelist Martin Andrews to help her find out who's behind the violence in Chinatown, hoping that breaking the story will get her a better job—and also, perhaps, hoping to land Martin as a husband though he seems to mostly find her a pest. The Eurasian Poten hates both the Chinese and Caucasians and plans to use his scientific prowess to develop plans to destroy the races and start a new mixed race (with, one assumes, himself as the "father"). Joan and Martin eventually figure out Poten's plan and also realize that he has put Sonja, who now regrets her role in the Chinatown plot, under his hypnotic power. The two follow Poten to Los Angeles and back in their attempt to stop his dastardly plan, the specifics of which are never really made clear.

This is a 70 minute version of a 15-chapter serial with the same title that ran for over 4-1/2 hours. That’s probably the reason why this story, after it gets going, makes little sense—even my general plot summary above is based to some degree on hunches rather than full knowledge of the events as played out. Clearly most of the cliffhangers and action scenes have been stuffed into this version with little regard for the niceties of narrative or character. Bruce Bennett (here acting under his birth name Herman Brix, also the name under which he won a medal at the 1928 Olympics) is disappointing as Martin, the hero; he looks the part but recites most of his lines as if he hadn’t seen a script until moments before the cameras started turning. Joan Barclay, who never broke out of B-movies, is at least energetic and appealing as the heroine. Better still is Luana Walters as Sonja—though she doesn't come off as Eurasian, she does manage to project an exotic mystique and wind up as a sympathetic character in the end. Strangely, Lugosi lets us down here; his ripe enthusiastic manner is toned down here, and the movie definitely suffers. Production values are particularly poor, lower than the average B-movie serial. Given how much of the original film is missing, I'm tempted to watch the serial someday, but I have a feeling I'd wind up asleep in the middle of chapter 2. (The pictured poster is for chapter 1 of the serial) [YouTube]

Friday, November 04, 2016

X MARKS THE SPOT (1942)

Eddie (Damien O’Flynn) is a private detective, son of an Irish cop, who is taking a post with Army Intelligence in a couple of days. His dad has the bad luck to run into gangster Marty (Jack La Rue) as he's hijacking two trucks filled with tires (in wartime, tires were in high demand for their rubber and became essentially a controlled substance). Marty shoots the cop dead and Eddie, naturally, gets himself involved, trying to track down the killer in the few days of freedom he has left. This B-mystery is rather messy in its details and cheap in its look, but it has a few points of interest. Local clubs and diners use what amounts to a human jukebox; the patron inserts money and talks to an operator at a central location, requesting a certain song which she then plays. I have no idea if this was ever a real thing, but it's crucial to the plot for two reasons: the operator (Helen Parrish) gets involved in the case, and at one point, she announces an air raid blackout which is called in—and which turns out to be a false alarm, rigged up so a character can be killed in the dark yet still in public. O’Flynn is a bland leading man, with Parrish only marginally better. Much better are La Rue (as the baddie), Dick Purcell (as a police lieutenant), and Neil Hamilton (as the owner of the tires). As far as the title, there is no "X," just a place run by Marty called the One Spot Café. Completely average of its type. Pictured are O'Flynn and Parrish. [YouTube]

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

HER SISTER’S SECRET (1946)

At a wartime Mardi Gras celebration, Toni (Nancy Coleman) is making the rounds with wealthy playboy Guy (George Meeker) when, at a crowded restaurant, she makes eye contact with Dick (Philip Reed, pictured with Coleman), a lonely soldier on furlough. They hook up on the dance floor and he talks her into spending the night with him. The next morning, he says he'll be back in six weeks and they arrange to meet again at the same restaurant, but when the time comes, his leave is cancelled and he can't make it. He sends a letter explaining, but the slightly drunken restaurant manager (Felix Bressart) overlooks it and poor Toni is left alone—and pregnant. She goes to New York to talk to her sister Renee (Margaret Lindsay), whose husband is in the Navy and will be overseas for some time. They hatch a plan: Toni will give the baby to Renee who will claim it as her own, even fooling her husband. The plan works for a while, but in a year or so Toni has second thoughts and tries to talk Renee into giving her the baby back. Renee does not want to, and even tells Toni to stay away from New York for at least three years. Eventually, back in New York City, Toni makes a half-hearted effort to kidnap her baby, while Dick returns from the war and searches for her in New Orleans.

This rather routine melodrama is notable for a few reasons: it's the little-seen work of cult B-director Edgar G. Ulmer, it was restored recently by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and it's the rare Production Code movie of the time that allowed an unwed mother to escape at the end unpunished by death or tragedy. The first half, especially the scenes set in New Orleans, have nearly an A-budget feel to them, though in the second half, both the narrative and the production suffer a bit. Coleman, Reed and Bressart are very good, as are Regis Toomey as Renee's husband and Henry Stephenson as the sisters' father. Lindsay feels a bit restrained, like she didn’t get much direction. George Meeker's character seemed potentially the most interesting character, but he's given little screen time. Solid if generally predictable. [TCM]

Monday, October 31, 2016

TWINS OF EVIL (1971)

The village of Karnstein is dominated physically by Karnstein Castle and in most other ways by the decadent Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), who regularly engages in orgies and such, and who has now, in his continual search for excitement, decided to hold a human sacrifice to see if he can raise the devil. Karnstein's nemesis is Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), head of the local witch-hunting group known as the Brotherhood. Weil and his men go hunting down women whom they suspect of witchcraft—all young, attractive, and single—and burn them at the stake. (Karnstein and Weil seem to be cut from similar psychosexual cloth, though Weil does seem convinced that he is doing God's work.) Into this smoldering tinderbox come Weil's lovely twin nieces—the demure Maria and the sultry Frieda—to stay after the death of their parents. Weil is certain that the twins will soon be up to no good, and in fact Frieda does seem to be chomping at the bit to do a little bit of living it up. Meanwhile, Karnstein's sacrifice doesn't conjure up a demon, but blood from the dead woman drips down into the crypt of his dead ancestor Mircalla and she materializes, putting the bite on Karnstein, transforming him into a vampire. When naughty Frieda wanders up to the castle, the stage is set for vampiric antics galore.

This Hammer movie is the third in a loose trilogy inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire story "Carmilla," the other two being THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. Despite its silly sexploitation title, it's one of the best of the 60s/70s horror films: well-acted with good sets, rich color, sexy vibes, and one the best decapitations I've seen in a horror flick. Despite the title, the twins aren't both evil, just Frieda, and they aren't really the focus of the film. That would be Peter Cushing, who is excellent as the somber witch hunter—based on this performance, I think he might have been better than Vincent Price in the cult classic of a few years earlier, WITCHFINDER GENERAL. In fact, much of this film plays out like a variation on that film. Thomas gives a full-blooded performance as the decadent vampire, and the Collinson twins (Mary as Maria, Madelaine as Frieda), best known as twin Playboy bunnies, are actually quite good in the leads. David Warbeck is fine as the handsome hero, though he doesn't have as much screen time as the average horror hero. Kathleen Byron, best known as the nun who goes insane in BLACK NARCISSUS, is wasted as Cushing's wife, but she delivers a strong performance anyway. Fine direction by John Hough. The previous Carmilla films are good, but if you're only going to see one of the three, make it this one. [DVD]

Friday, October 28, 2016

SON OF DRACULA (1943)

At Dark Oaks, the Caldwell plantation, a party is being given in honor of visiting Hungarian Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.); young Kay Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) met him in Europe and became fascinated with his esoteric philosophies. Her fiancé Frank (Robert Paige) isn't too happy about her obsession, and the rest of the guests are unhappy that Alucard hasn’t shown up yet, though some large coffin-shaped boxes of his do arrive. The aging patriarch leaves the reception to go to bed, but we see a large bat fly in through his window and next thing you know, he's dead with a bite mark on his neck. The mysterious, aloof Alucard eventually shows up, and Brewster, the family doctor (Frank Craven), has already noticed that his name spelled backwards is "Dracula." Kay is now sole heir to the plantation, and she and Alucard marry in secret. When Frank finds out, he is distraught and pulls a gun on Alucard, but the bullet goes right through him and hits Kay, standing behind him. She crumples to the ground, apparently dead, but the next day, she is alive and healthy, though she admits to Frank that she is now a vampire (she also says, about the label of vampire, "Don’t use that word—we don’t like it!"). She also tells Frank that she was just using Alucard to gain eternal life; now, she wants Frank to kill Alucard—by burning his coffin at dawn before he can get to it—then she will put the bite on Frank and they can live undead forever.

It is generally acknowledged that this movie's biggest problem is Lon Chaney Jr.; he is clunky and wooden and has none of the majesty or creepy charisma of Lugosi. I agree in general—Chaney rarely comes off as scary—but he is effective in other ways. His Alucard is something of a brute force of nature rather than a mysteriously charming and deadly being. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter than much because after the opening, Alucard largely becomes a supporting player. This is also one of the first vampire films—as far as I remember—that presents a willing and romantic victim; in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, the manservant has been holding onto Countess Zelinka's promise to give him vampiric eternal life, but their relationship is not portrayed as one of love or lust—and he never gets the promised bite. It takes a long time for anything much to happen; aside from the death of the father, which we don't actually see, it's a half-hour in before anything resembling action happens, and when it does, the motivation for it is weak: Frank shoots (to kill) Alucard because he thinks Kay is in love with him, but had Alucard not been a vampire, Frank would have wound up guilty of murder and would have lost Kay anyway. As it is, his character winds up pretty much broken at the end, one of the few times that would happen in the classic movie era to the nominal hero of a horror movie.  The supporting cast is OK; Allbritton isn't quite saucy enough for her role and Robert Paige does his best with a poorly written character, but I like Frank Craven, J. Edward Bromberg and Samuel S. Hinds as the men who perform Van Helsing's "wild work" to get rid of Dracula. And as far as I can tell, it's never established if Alucard actually is the son of Dracula, or Dracula himself, or some sorry-ass pretender. If this is ultimately disappointing, it's worth seeking for its moments of atmosphere and its somewhat unusual ending. (Pictured above: Allbritton, Chaney, Paige) [DVD]

Thursday, October 27, 2016

THE PHANTOM SPEAKS (1945)

Businessman Tom Powers pulled himself out of poverty to become rich and powerful, but money doesn't buy happiness, and one night he shoots and kills his wife's lover. He is tried, found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Stanley Ridges, a doctor who dabbles in the occult and has written a book about making contact with the dead, is convinced that the only reason he has failed in his attempts at communication is that the will of the dead to return is not strong enough to overcome the lure of the afterlife. Ridges visits Powers on the day of his execution and, believing that Powers has a strong will, talks him into trying to make contact. Sure enough, the next day, Ridges shuts himself up in a dark little curtained-off circle, concentrates really hard, and the spirit of Powers appears next to him. However, Ridges has little time to celebrate: Powers is indeed so willful, he possesses Ridges and uses his body to exact murderous revenge against his widow, his lawyer, and others who led to his death. Ridges' daughter (Lynne Roberts) works with reporter Richard Arlen to get the bottom of it all.

I've been a classic-era horror movie buff for over fifty years, but I’d never heard of this movie. I think that’s because it was marketed as a psychological thriller. But make no mistake: this is a story of supernatural horror. It's no overlooked gem, but it's interesting. Though Arlen is top-billed as the hero, the movie belongs to Ridges (who is very good) and Powers (OK but a little too one-note to come off as an especially strong-willed person; he mostly just seems cranky, like he does playing Stanwyck's unlikable husband in DOUBLE INDEMNITY). Between these two, there’s not much left for Arlen to do, and even less for Lynne Roberts. I rather liked Charlotte Wynters as Ridges' loyal assistant Cornelia—she comes off a bit cold, but the possibility seems to exist that she is his mistress. From Republic Studios, directed with some B-movie panache by John English, known for westerns and adventure serials (MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN, DRUMS OF FU MANCHU) [Paramount Vault on YouTube]

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

THE TERROR (1938)

A notoriously mythic criminal named O'Shea masterminds the theft of a huge shipment of gold coins; in the middle of the night, he pumps knockout gas onto the back road the truck is on, causing the drivers to pass out while he and his two men, Connor and Marx, all wearing gas masks, make away with the gold. But O'Shea himself calls Scotland Yard and turns the men in; they go to jail and the mysterious O'Shea (whose face we never see) keeps the entire stash. Ten years later, Connor and Marx are released and head off, independently of each other, to the place where they were supposed to split the gold, an old priory used in secret, it was rumored, by a devil-worshipping group called the Black Monks.

Now, it's a home owned by Colonel Redmayne who rents out rooms to boarders. Currently in residence: Mr. Goodman, an old friend of Redmayne's; the slightly dotty Mrs. Elvery, who claims to be psychic, and her more level-headed daughter; Redmayne's daughter Mary, returning to see her father after years away at school; a generally unflappable butler named Hawkins and a couple of maids. Mrs. Elvery is sure there are strange things going on, especially after she is awakened in the night by organ playing and chortling laughter, but Redmayne wants to shut down any wild rumors in the interest of his daughter's comfort. But the arrival of two unexpected guests may be just as disruptive: a man named Ferdy Fane who is constantly drunk, and a vicar—whom we know to be Marx, one of the two recently-freed crooks, in disguise. Soon, more midnight organ playing and mysterious monk sightings unsettle the guests until dead bodies start to pile up. Could one of the residents be O'Shea in disguise trying to keep the secret of his gold?

Based on an Edgar Wallace novel, this is a well-made B-thriller of the "old dark house" variety, filled with interesting characters and good performances. The creepy atmosphere could have been kicked up a notch, but overall it's a fun ride. Bernard Lee, best known as the original "M" in the early James Bond films, is the drunk, who, it is painfully obvious from his first scene, is not really drunk and instead will be Our Hero—and romantic partner to Mary (Linden Travers). Wilfrid Lawson is Goodman, who is full of spooky stories about the old priory, and who also comes on, rather out of the blue, to Mary; Arthur Wontner, best known for a series of B-movies he made as Sherlock Holmes, is the Colonel; Iris Hoey does very nicely as the obnoxious Mrs. Elvrey who keeps proclaiming, "I'm psychic!" at the drop of a hat. The delightful Kathleen Harrison has a small bit as a maid. Best of all is Alastair Sim (pictured at right with Bernard Lee) as the crook Marx—even though he has fairly low billing in the credits, he has a good-sized role and steals a couple of scenes in that way he has. There's a good running gag about a tall, skinny cop who keeps trying to make suggestions to the chief inspector and keeps getting sushed before he can get very far. A scene near the end, of the mad monk at the organ, was clearly inspired by Phantom of the Opera, and other dark house clichés abound. Not easy to find, but fun. [Amazon streaming]

Friday, October 21, 2016

ARREST BULLDOG DRUMMOND (1938)

Someone who calls himself "the Earl of Destiny" has been sending letters to the press and to Scotland Yard commissioner Nielsen, claiming that he has the answer to all the world's problems. Meanwhile, on the day before his long-delayed wedding to his fiancée Phyllis (Heather Angel), Bulldog Drummond (John Howard, at left) gets a strange letter from his scientist friend Richard Gannett saying he can't attend as he's too busy saving mankind from future wars, and after his signature, he signs "Earl of Destiny." We find out that Gannett has created a death and destruction ray (actually, two rays fired up together); he wants to use it for peaceful ends, but Rolf Alverson (George Zucco) and his henchmen kill Gannett and steal the device for nefarious purposes. When Drummond finds the dying Gannett, his last words are "Look out for the stinger!" and oddly, it turns out that Gannett died from stingray venom, despite being nowhere near water. Once again, Drummond postpones his wedding to investigate with his good friend Algy (Reginald Denny), bring the killer to justice, and get the death ray back before it wrecks havoc.

I'm not typically a film buff completist—I don't need to see every movie in a series—but I have enjoyed tracking down the Bulldog Drummond films, most of which are in the public domain and fairly easily available, though often in somewhat tattered prints (I found this one on the Criterion streaming channel through Hulu and it was in very good shape). Even though Drummond was played by Ronald Colman, Ray Milland, John Lodge and Ralph Richardson (among others), I think I like Howard best of all. He may not be a great actor or cut the butchest figure, but he has an easygoing manner, approaching danger as though it's just another aspect of a playboy's lifestyle. Howard is helped by the antics of the reliable Denny, and the presence of other regulars in the series (Angel as Phyllis, H.B. Warner as the commissioner, E.E. Clive as the resourceful butler—who seems to me to be a model for Woodhouse, the much-suffering butler on TV's Archer). Zucco is, as always, a gem as the madman villain. There is a cute running gag involving Drummond's inability to tie his tie. Though I find the constant stalled wedding antics tiresome, they aren't too intrusive here. A strong entry in the series. [Streaming]

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

THE GHOST AND THE GUEST (1943)

On his wedding day, James Dunn is desperately trying to call his bride (Florence Rice) but her line is perpetually busy, so in a gag scene that sets the movie's tone, he sends a telegram. After the wedding, she tells him that she has cancelled their California honeymoon in order to spend time at a house that her father has bought for them. Dunn and his valet (Sam McDaniel) aren't happy about the change in plans, but they have no choice. When they arrive at the house, they meet the caretaker (Robert Dudley), a retired hangman who still makes little nooses as a hobby, and he tells them that the house belonged to a killer named Honeyboy who was Dudley’s last "client." Several surprises are in store for our newlyweds: 1) Dudley claims that the house was left to him; 2) Honeyboy's body is being shipped to the house that very day; 3) arriving to meet it is a clutch of grieving relatives—but they're actually gangsters looking for Honeyboy's secret stash; 4) unbeknownst to anyone, it’s not Honeyboy in the coffin, it’s the very live Killer Blake who has broken out of prison and plans on finding the stash himself. Let the B-movie shenanigans begin.

This amounts to an old-dark-house comedy done on a low budget, and the print I saw is, in spots, very murky, which is a problem when much of the last half of the movie takes place in dark rooms. But generally, this is fairly fun, and one reason is the joke-filled screenplay by Morey Amsterdam, much better known as comedy writer Buddy on the original Dick Van Dyke Show. The laughs don't all land, but a higher percentage do than in the average Poverty Row indie of the era. James Dunn and Florence Rice don't have strong comic chops, but McDaniel has some fun with his limited role, and he gets some good lines; after dealing with secret passages and dead bodies, he exclaims, "In two hours we could be in New York with millions of people around—and all of them alive!" Mabel Todd is a standout as a ditzy moll. Short (under an hour) and painless. [YouTube]

Monday, October 17, 2016

WAY…WAY OUT (1966)

In the far future of 1994, America and Russia have weather stations on the moon, each manned by one weathernaut and one astronomer. When the Americans (Howard Morris and Dennis Weaver) have what amounts to a nervous breakdown (attributed to sexual frustration) and start assaulting each other, NAWA—the weather version of NASA—decides to send up a married couple to replace the two men. Jerry Lewis, the next weatherman in line for the job, has to get married fast, and from a pool of two eligible female astronomers, he picks the lovely and wholesome Connie Stevens. She's not crazy about the idea but agrees if he’'l keep the relationship platonic, which frustrates Lewis no end. On the moon, the two become friendly with the Russians—the sexy Anita Ekberg and her boyfriend Dick Shawn—but a bump develops when Ekberg says that she's pregnant and so a Russian will be the first baby born on the moon. There’s no way that Lewis and Stevens could arrange to beat that, is there?

I'm not really a Jerry Lewis fan, but he's going to be on Turner Classic Movies cruise I'm going on next month, so I thought I should prepare by trying to catch a couple of his movies. I like THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, but I have never taken to his more slapsticky, "Hey, Ladyyyyyy" performances. In this film, he is subdued—his character is a mild playboy figure, though not as extreme as Buddy Love in PROFESSOR—but the surrounding movie is nothing more than an extended riff on sexual frustration. At the time of release, some of this may have seemed almost daring—for example, the Russians are co-habiting but are not married—but now much of it just seems cutesy-smutty. Lewis is bearable, Stevens is appropriately sweet, and Robert Morley is good as their NAWA boss. The rest of the performances are all over the map. Morris and Weaver have good chemistry as the battling men (their fisticuffs scene is a highlight), though Morris is a bit over-the-top sometimes in his near-drooling horniness. Ekberg fulfills her role (to be hot) well; Shawn, also not one of my favorites, is generally OK. What I really liked about this movie, however, is the production design. It's a perfect colorful 60s view on what the future would look like. Watch for a young James Brolin in the opening scenes. Harmless but mostly recommended to fans of either Lewis or of 60s sex farces. Pictured above are Weaver and Lewis. [FMC]

Thursday, October 13, 2016

HOUSE OF DARKNESS (1948)

A composer of film music tells a director the story of where he got his inspiration for his current piece. There's a house in Dorset that the locals call the House of Strange Music; they say that a ghostly melody can be heard that conjures up visions of the past residents, a dysfunctional family named Merryman. Young Francis (Laurence Harvey), a composer and pianist, resents the fact that his older brother John (Alexander Archdale), a violinist, has control of the family estate until his death. Both live in the house along with Francis's wife Elaine; a third brother, the passive Noel who is engaged to Lucy; and the feisty housekeeper Tessa. Francis has been racking up gambling debts and signing John's name to the IOUs, and now John, who is plagued with a weak heart, has had enough and takes steps to disassociate himself from Francis. But Francis is one step ahead and during an angry confrontation, he goads John into a heart attack. John dies and Francis seems to get what he wanted—until strange sounds and visions make the family believe that John's ghost may be haunting the house.

This little-known film is a gem of a Gothic thriller; it has some of the shortcomings of a low-budget B-film—some plot holes, mostly so-so acting—but it also has the young Laurence Harvey (pictured) in his first film role and, though I'm not particularly a fan of his, he is very good here, carrying the movie and standing head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. The other actors are fair to middling—the strongest being John Teed as Noel and Grace Arnold as Tessa—and it might have been fun to see Harvey enact his role with stronger actors opposite him. But as it is, Harvey has a bit of an Anthony Perkins-Psycho vibe, especially early on. He has a tendency to smirk which some critics think is a fault, but I think it's perfectly in tune with his character. At heart, this is a psychological thriller with a ghost story overlay and a nicely ambiguous ending. The frame story, which features George Melachrino playing himself as a film music composer, is an awkward fit with the rest of the story, but it is unusual. Recommended. [TCM]

Monday, October 10, 2016

THE THIRD DAY (1965)

George Peppard climbs up soaking wet to the highway from a wrecked car; he has amnesia so he just keeps walking until he comes to a bar where people seem to know him—and they don't especially like him. Turns out he's a playboy-type (even though he's married to Elizabeth Ashley), son of a rich but dying father (Herbert Marshall). The family is particularly disliked right now because Peppard's brother-in-law (Roddy McDowell) is pushing to sell the family factory, which would throw many townspeople out of work. The pianist at the bar (Arte Johnson) seems to loathe Peppard; we soon find out that Peppard was having an affair with his wife (Sally Kellerman). Even worse, when the police find Peppard's car in the river, they find the dead body of Kellerman and want to charge him with murder. Of course, the amnesiac Peppard is a nicer guy than the playboy Peppard, but can he patch things up with his wife, stop the sale of the factory, and get out of the murder charge?

This is not the most original plotline and it becomes predictable pretty quickly, but the movie is generally entertaining—if you can buy the "amnesia change" aspect of the story, which is a tried and true plot device in literature and movies. The young and handsome Peppard (pushing 40 but looking younger) does a nice job in the lead role, managing to convey a certain personality emptiness without coming off as vacuous. Ashley—his wife in real life at the time—has to work with a character that is not well-rounded and so doesn't make  much of an impression. Better are the nasty, brittle Roddy McDowell (gay subtext, of course) and the nastier Arte Johnson, who banishes all thoughts of his comic character on Laugh-In. A strong supporting cast helps: Mona Washbourne as Peppard's aunt, Robert Webber as a cop, and Arthur O'Connell as a doctor. This was Herbert Marshall's last film—he died a year later—and he plays an uncommunicative stroke victim whom McDowell is trying to get around in order to sell the factory. Funniest (unintentionally) line: a rider showing off says about his horse, "Watch me put the wench through her paces—she’s all woman!" Style-wise, it's shot like a TV movie but the widescreen angles are often filled with nice background detail. [DVD]

Friday, October 07, 2016

PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN (1940)

Archeologist John Benton returns from an expedition to Mongolia where Benton found a scroll in an ancient tomb which may hold the key to the location of the fabled Temple of Eternal Fire. His cameraman Frasier shows some clips of the expedition at a presentation at the local university, but just as Benton is about to discuss his findings, he drops dead at the lectern. The police, led by Captain Street (Grant Withers), find that someone had put a quick-acting poison in his water carafe. Jimmy Lee Wong (Keye Luke), a former student of Benson's, offers Street his help and soon the two are trying to narrow down a list of suspects including Win Len, Benson's somewhat secretive secretary (Lotus Long); Tommy, the expedition pilot (Robert Kellard); Frasier, the cameraman; the owner of a Chinatown restaurant who acts like he has something to hide; and Benton's butler. Added to the mix is Mason, an expedition team member assumed lost and dead in a storm in Mongolia but who may be alive and kicking—and out for revenge.

This is the last of six Mr. Wong B-mysteries from Monogram, and, despite attempts at doing something different, one of the lesser efforts. The primary unusual aspect is that a central Chinese character is actually played by a Chinese actor. I've liked Keye Luke in supporting roles, but here, he doesn't have the charisma or gravitas to anchor the movie. The earlier films all had Boris Karloff in the main role, which points to another interesting thing about this film: it goes back in time to show Wong before he became a card-carrying detective—but this potentially intriguing plot point is never brought forward, so if you were unaware of the earlier Mr. Wong movies, this would just be another Asian detective yarn. Wong fans may enjoy the continued presence of Grant Withers as Capt. Street, but the rest of the supporting cast is unexceptional at best, and in the case of Lotus Long, terrible—she reads virtually all of her lines like it's the first time she's read them. Unsurprisingly, she did not have a stellar career, though she does have small roles in other Mr. Wong movies. I'm sorry that the handsome Robert Kellard (pictured with Luke) had so little to do except look handsome. The plot itself is a little unusual in that it's basically a "Mummy" movie storyline, set in China instead of Egypt, and without a mummy. But the filmmakers don't do much with that novelty, except for the gimmick of having flashbacks to the expedition alternate with the filmed footage that Frasier took. Monogram gets a couple of points for trying, but generally a disappointing end to the series. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

THE MUMMY (1959)

In Egypt in 1895, archeologist Stephen Banning discovers the long-lost tomb of Princess Ananka. The Egyptian spoilsport Mehemet Bey warns him that there is a curse on desecrators, but he ignores that and, leaving his son John (Peter Cushing) laid up with a broken leg, behind at camp, Stephen enters the tomb. He discovers something called the Scroll of Life, reads it out loud, screams, is found a gibbering mess, and spends the next several years in an asylum. Eventually, he comes out of his state long enough to tell his son what happened: the reading of the scroll awoke the mummy Kharis (Christopher Lee), protector of Ananka, and guided by Mehemet Bey, Kharis will be tracking down the desecrators. Sure enough, that's what happens.

This is a Hammer reboot of the Universal series. It’s largely based on the later 1940s B-movie series of Mummy movies (in which the name Kharis is first used) rather than the 1932 classic with Boris Karloff, and it's one of Hammer’s weaker efforts, though not for lack of trying on the part of Lee and Cushing who, like Vincent Price, almost always tried their best even when the material was far below them. The opening sequence, featuring the archeologist going mad, is based directly on the opening of the 1932 film, and though the tomb set is fairly well done, the scene itself misses the mark by quite a bit—it's just not scary. The idea that a living woman (played blandly by Yvonne Furneaux) reminds Kharis of his princess and the Egyptian character who aids Kharis are both borrowed from the Universal mythology to only occasionally effective use. A specific link to the Karloff film is an nicely done flashback scene showing how Kharis became the creature he is. The one plus this has over the earlier series is that the mummy moves quickly and attacks brutally, and Lee, his piercing eyes vivid under the mummy makeup, makes the most of his scenes. This is worth one viewing, but I doubt it would stand up very well to repeat visits. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

THE PEOPLE (1972)

Young Melodye (Kim Darby) leaves city life behind to start over in the country; she is hired by the people of the small California farming village of Bendo to be their schoolteacher. The inhabitants are not exactly unfriendly but they are standoffish and seem a bit old-fashioned, having largely cut themselves off from popular culture, and she is surprised when she is given carte blanche to teach in the one-room schoolhouse however she sees fit. But the children are a joyless bunch who don't know how to sing and shuffle when they walk. One young man, Francher (Chris Valentine), shows some promise, but Melodye is freaked out when it seems that he can read her mind. When he shows her his ability to levitate, she realizes she's embedded with a strange group of people indeed, but are they well-meaning or sinister?

This TV-movie is based on the concept created by Zenna Henderson, specifically the frame story to her first short story collection, Pilgrimage: The Book of the People. I read that collection when I was a teenager, and I found the overall idea of the People to be more interesting than most of the short stories themselves, which all tended to have the same themes of conformity and prejudice. I won't spoil your discovery of who the People are, but suffice to say that this movie was intended as a pilot for a TV series that wasn't picked up. Considering its limitations as a TV-movie, it comes off quite well. A big chunk of the acting is done by kids, most of whom did not go on to long acting careers, though all of them, especially Valentine, are fine. William Shatner (pictured above) has a surprisingly low-key role as the village doctor, and Diane Varsi and Dan O’Herlihy play the primary adult roles. The whole thing has a Ray Bradbury feel to it, just as the original book seemed inspired structurally by The Martian Chronicles. This is not on DVD; the print I watched on YouTube was unnaturally stretched out from the original full-screen TV format to an inappropriate widescreen format. I was able to adjust for this on my television, but if you can't do that, beware. [YouTube]

Friday, September 30, 2016

NO HANDS ON THE CLOCK (1941)

Private detective Humphrey Campbell (Chester Morris) was hired to find Louise (Jean Parker), a missing heiress, and when he found her, he married her. Now they're in Reno on their honeymoon, which doesn't stop his boss Oscar from tracking him down to take on another missing persons case, this one involving Hal Benedict, the son of a wealthy rancher. Humphrey doesn't want it, but Oscar promises Louise a mink coat if she can talk him into it, and of course she does (otherwise, there'd be no movie). Thus are Humphrey and Louise thrown into a most convoluted mystery. Hal was supposed to marry his father's ward Rose, but according to a bar pianist, Hal was dating Irene; when Humphrey goes to visit her, he finds her dead with Rose hiding in the house, insisting that Irene was dead when she arrived. Meanwhile, Humphrey gets involved with a brassy blonde named Gypsy (which makes Louise jealous), a couple of FBI agents also looking for Hal, and a gang of bank robbers led by Red Harris (Dick Purcell) who think that Humphrey is a former gang member turned snitch. Two more developments: it turns out that Rose was engaged to Tom Reed, a foreman on the Campbell ranch; and Hal had hired a Reno private investigator named Copley to get back love letters to Irene that were being used to blackmail him.

There is much more to this B-mystery, and it is a credit to the filmmakers that, though the proceedings get murky, I was for the most part able to straggle along with the labyrinthine plot and enjoy the movie. Morris makes a fine leading man, and he has good chemistry with Parker; the two are pictured above in a slapstick shower scene. The film is based on a book in a series by Geoffrey Homes that featured Campbell; another one was adapted a few years later as CRIME BY NIGHT featuring Jerome Cowan as a re-named Sam Campbell. Morris makes a good fit and it's too bad that no more were made with him—instead he wound up spending much of the decade as another sleuth, Boston Blackie. There's a running gag about how much Campbell likes milk, even ordering it at bars, and how milk gives his wife a rash, but the payoff is very minor. Others in the cast include Astrid Allwyn as Gypsy, Rod Cameron as Reed, Grant Withers, Keye Luke, and Milburn Stone. Entertaining; if you find the plot hard to follow, just go along for the ride. (The title comes from a clock without hands above the entrance to a mortuary.) [YouTube]

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

ENCORE (1951)

This is the last of three British anthology films made from the stories of (and introduced by) W. Somerset Maugham, the earlier ones being QUARTET and TRIO. Television made these kinds of films mostly obsolete, but there is a certain nostalgic charm to this that makes it still quite watchable. In "The Ant and the Grasshopper," wealthy lawyer Roland Culver is constantly approached by his slacker brother (Nigel Patrick) for money which he immediately wastes on gambling. Culver begins refusing and insisting that Patrick be gainfully employed, so Patrick gets jobs that put Culver in an embarrassed position—doorman at his club, bartender at his pub, etc. Finally, Patrick goes on holiday, meets a rich woman, and an unexpected reversal of fortunes closes the story. In "Winter Cruise," which is amusing but is basically an extended variety show skit, Kay Walsh, a good-natured spinster who never shuts up, gets on the nerves of the crew of a cargo ship on which she has booked passage for a vacation cruise to the Caribbean and back. How the crew tries to distract her forms the bulk of the vignette.

The last story, "Gigolo and Gigolette," is about a husband-and-wife acrobat act (Glynis Johns and Terence Morgan, pictured) currently performing at a ritzy resort. At the climax of their act, Johns does a high dive into a small pool of water surrounded by a ring of fire. This is the gimmick that has made them in demand, but after hearing a story of a diver who lost her nerve, Johns becomes convinced that she will too, and tries to get out of doing the high dive. The rest of the story explains her loss of nerve and how her husband tries to help her get it back. Unfortunately, this last story is the weakest—it's well acted but feels underdone. Still, the first two are fun and not completely predictable. Culver, Patrick and Walsh are all quite good. It's a shame that the weak entry wasn’t first—I suspect it's in last place because it's the most serious. [TCM]

Monday, September 26, 2016

VEILED ARISTOCRATS (1932)

John Walden left his home in Fayetteville twenty years ago, leaving behind his mother and baby sister—and his African-American identity—to pass for white, go to law school and become a successful lawyer in the big city.  Now he's returned to his family home (called the House Behind the Cedars by the townsfolk) with an agenda: to take his grown-up light-skinned sister Rena back to the city, have her pass for white, and marry her off to an appropriately well-off white man. But Rena's in love with local fellow Frank and isn't crazy about leaving. Frank thinks she should go with John for a while, if only to give Frank time to become successful as a building contractor. Six months later, Rena is installed in a nice house with African-American servants and has a marriage proposal from wealthy white man George Tryon, but ultimately she decides to give up her sham life, go back to Fayetteville, and marry Frank.

This early talkie from the acclaimed black director Oscar Micheaux exists only in a very worn and choppy print, at times making the plot machinations a bit unclear. But even excusing this, the movie is hard to sit through. Almost every scene consists of two or three people in a room talking, with breaks every so often for a completely unrelated musical number—one is sung at a fancy party, one by a maid at work, and the last one, which goes on for almost six minutes, features Rena's servants kicking up their heels at her return to her roots (as one woman says, laughing, "Once they love a spade, ain't nobody can take him away—and I bet he's a dark one!"). Frankly, this number is the highlight of the film which in general is poorly acted and directed. Lorenzo Tucker (pictured), known as the Black Valentino, is credible as John, as is Laura Bowman as his mother. In an interesting twist, the white George is played by light-skinned black actor Barrington Guy who never made another movie but was known as a dancer and nightclub performer. The rest of the cast feels amateurish—especially Lucille Lewis as Rena which makes it hard to whip up any sympathy for her character. Bizarrely, the reunion scene between Rena and her brother feels uneasily like a lover's reunion, for which I blame the direction. The background music is wildly melodramatic, and between the cuts, the poor dialogue and the static pace, the story feels like it's being summarized instead of acted out. Interesting from a historic perspective, but even if a complete non-choppy print was found, I'm not sure I'd bother to revisit it. [TCM]

Thursday, September 22, 2016

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941)

This almost completely fictionalized version of the life of General George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) begins with his dandyish entrance as a cadet at West Point. At first he's mistaken for a visiting French officer, then he is made the butt of pranks by Ned Sharp (George Kennedy). Despite a number of infractions on his record, the cocky Custer graduates, meets cute with a general's niece, Libby (Olivia de Havilland), and thanks to some help from that General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet), winds up with a commission in the Army and fights at Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War. Custer has a tendency to ignore orders, but he manages to come off heroically on the battlefield. After the war, he marries Libby but winds up bored with civilian life so Libby gets Scott to put him back in the Army and he is given command of Fort Lincoln in the Dakotas. There, he runs into Ned Sharp, operator of a trading post and a saloon at which the soldiers spend a little too much time. The men are whipped into shape, the saloon is closed, and Sharp connives with his father to pull off a plan to tarnish Custer's image. This leads to the threat of an Indian war and the infamous climax in which Custer's men are slaughtered by the Lakota at Little Big Horn, though here Custer is presented as deliberately sacrificing his life (and his men) to save another Army company. Though I know very little about Custer, this film is clearly best approached as a rousing Errol Flynn adventure movie rather than as a history lesson. As such, it works quite well. Flynn is in top form—especially in his early scenes as the naïve cadet—he's handsome and charming, but also smart and conflicted. De Havilland doesn't get a lot to do, but she too cuts a good looking figure. Kennedy is very good as a man who shifts from good guy to bad guy and back again. Standouts in the big supporting cast include Hattie McDaniel, Gene Lockhart, John Litel and Charley Grapewin. I was pleased to see the uncredited John Ridgely and Gig Young in bit parts. Director Raoul Walsh keeps the plot clear and the action exciting. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

INTERNATIONAL SETTLEMENT (1938)

In 1937, the conflict between China and Japan intensifies when Japan bombs Peking (or Peiping as it was called back then), and a shipload of partying passengers on the way to Shanghai are advised to transfer to another ship and go back to San Francisco because their safety cannot be guaranteed. Del Forbes (George Sanders), playboy and adventurer, stays as he's going to be training Chinese pilots, but he advises the young and innocent Joyce Parker (June Lang) to leave—she first introduces herself as a journalist but admits that she's on board because she won a newspaper contest, and she hopes to write a series of articles about her trip. Before he leaves the ship, Forbes is called to the room of ailing notorious gun-runner Maurice Zabello, who asks Forbes to impersonate him in Shanghai to close a million dollar deal for a shipload of guns to be delivered to a Joseph Lang. When Forbes checks in as Zabello at a hotel in the International Settlement—a district shared and controlled by foreign governments—he runs into Joyce, who decided to stay though she has a hard time getting a room, and his old friend Wally Burton (Dick Baldwin), a cocky but charming newsreel reporter, who after an initial rough patch, bonds with Joyce. Forbes is also shot at by the exotic singer Lenore (Delores del Rio), who has a grudge against Zabello. After they get things straightened out, Forbes goes to collect the money from Lang (and his unsavory associate Murdock), but we see that a Mr. Silvers is keeping a close eye on the transaction, apparently planning to horn in at some point. Just as Forbes is about to deliver the money, he finds Zabello has died, and now he's stuck with a false identity, a lot of money, and no way to deliver the guns to Lang. He'll soon need all the help he can get from Joyce and Wally, but can he really trust Lenore? What about that sinisterly snoopy Silvers? And, worst of all, Japanese bombers are heading to Shanghai.

That's a lot of plot to cram into a 75 minute B-movie (albeit it high-B) and, surprisingly, there are still a few dead spots in the proceedings, but overall this is mild fun. The biggest problem is Sanders, who looks very young and dapper, but as I've noted before, is not an action hero, and when fisticuffs occur, it's plain that a double has stepped in for him. Still, he's fine in the first half. I'm not a big fan of Del Rio, but she's serviceable here. Baldwin (pictured above left with Del Rio) is fun in the buddy role—at times, he seems like Robert Cummings with an extra dose of testosterone—and Lang (pictured at right with George Sanders) does well as the naïve but plucky gal pal. She went on to a so-so career in B-films, though Baldwin, who seemed more promising, only made a handful of movies before going into real estate. The support is a notch above the usual: Leon Ames and John Carradine are good, Harold Huber is straightforward as Lang. The movie stops dead for two mediocre songs, one right at the beginning which is about a supposed dance craze called The Shrug. Key Luke has a crucial but thankless role as a doctor near the end of the film. The slow pace at the beginning is needed to get all the plotlines unspooled, and it does pick up in the home stretch. [YouTube]