Monday, December 31, 2018


I guess I have time for one more Hallmark Christmas movie. This one manages to be thoroughly average in general while being below average in at least one area and above in another. Emilie Ullerup works as a freelance photographer, but she is hoping to get a regular gig at a Boston newspaper by winning a competition for best Christmas photo spread. It is suggested that she "find something we've never seen" and since she's heading to Cape Cod for her widowed father's marriage, she decides to make a Cape Christmas her theme. Though she is 100% behind her dad's new relationship, she is still dealing with grief over her mother’s death, especially when Mom was a gifted photographer and several of her photos still line the walls of a local gallery. She also comes to realize that she is conflicted about the promise of the Boston job—she would be settling down but might find herself creatively stifled. And finally, one last problem arises: the presence of a former summertime boyfriend (Josh Kelly) who lives on the Cape working in his family's real estate business but is considering a move to London for a new career.

This pretty much embodies the Hallmark template: successful woman facing a life change leaves big city at Christmas, goes to small town and finds guidance with family, new friends, and hunky down-to-earth guy. But this also illustrates how tired the conventions get, especially when Hallmark has produced 37 new movies this year—technically new, but mostly very familiar re-workings of the same old plot and character beats. Everything feels just a little too tired (yet another unrealistic Christmastime business competition rears its ugly head) and undeveloped, and the writer and director can't find anything new here except the Cape Cod setting—and already some viewers have expressed dismay that the movie was obviously shot in Canada and not the very recognizable real Cape Cod (though this didn't bother me). There is one new Hallmark aspect: an interracial couple is featured briefly, but not long enough to really register as an important plot point. I am of two minds about another problem: the lack of any real melodramatic conflict. On the one hand, it's a bit refreshing that the conflicts that exist are fairly low-key and there's no last-minute romantic obstacle in the form of a former boyfriend or girlfriend. On the other hand, the lack of tension makes the last half-hour go by awfully slowly to the inevitable happy ending. The main pluses here are the two leads. I'll watch Josh Kelly in almost anything—he has the sweet, non-threatening masculinity thing down pat. I'd never seen Emilie Ullerop before but she is right in the mold of the blond Hallmark heroine and she and Kelly have good chemistry. It's an odd note on which to end the holiday season: I feel lukewarm about this movie but I'd recommend it as a good intro into the Hallmark Christmas movie mindset. And, you know, Josh Kelly. [Hallmark]

Thursday, December 27, 2018


Tom (Dermot Mulroney) used to be a war correspondent but now has settled down and writes human interest stories—on topics like he-and-she closets. Four days before Christmas, he is taking a train from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles to be with his girlfriend Lelia. She's pissed that he isn't flying, but he's hoping to get a good story out of observing the people on the train. It's also clear that he isn't all that excited about seeing Lelia again. Also on the train: Max Powers (Danny Glover), a famous film director, and his faithful assistant and script doctor Eleanor (Kimberly Williams-Paisley); Misty, a friendly psychic; Agnes, an eccentric and occasionally nosy woman who is a regular train rider; young couple Steve and Julie who are planning a wedding on the train, despite Steve's parents objections; Higgins, an older, laid-off railroad worker; Kenny, a friendly bartender; and Kelly, a man still grieving his wife's death, trying to force himself to read Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." On the train, Max introduces Tom to Eleanor, hoping he can help her with a script about train travel, but it turns out that the two had a long-term relationship while they were both reporters; according to Tom, she left him in Jerusalem with no notice, and both still have scars from their shared past. Soon they seem to be striking sparks again, but the haughty and unlikeable Lelia joins the train at one of its stops, with marriage on her mind. Of course, other complications set in. Among them: a petty thief steals small but important items, like Julie's wedding ring, Kenny's railroad car model, and Tom's favorite pen; the minister who was supposed to marry Steve and Julie can't make it, and worse, Steve's parents are threatening to disown him; Agnes seems to be keeping a secret about her past. Then, on Christmas Eve, the train gets stuck in snow in the mountains, ruining everyone's hopes for a happy holiday. But can this delay actually help the passengers and their dilemmas?

This Hallmark Christmas movie is a little different from the usual. It's based on a book by best-selling author David Baldacci and it has slightly higher star power with the presence of Mulroney, Glover, and Cusack. Of course, the plot doesn't diverge too much from the Hallmark template: we still have the white upper-middle class couple who have to overcome their problems by Christmas day, the ethnic sidekicks (in addition to Glover, there's the African American psychic and the Chinese bartender), and plenty of snow and Christmas decorations. The plot is a bit quirkier than usual, with a twist ending that I liked at first, but later came to see as outlandish and a bit shoddy. The performances are good all around: the leading couple has good chemistry, Joan Cusack is amusing as Agnes, Anthony Konechny as Steve is a handsome All-American blond type, and Nelson Wong as Kenny is charming. Overall, a welcome deviation from formula, even if the formula reinstates itself by the end. Pictured from left are Williams-Paisley, Mulroney and Glover. [Hallmark]

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


Claire (Alexandra Breckenridge) is a venture capitalist whose latest IPO for a company called Mistletoe doesn't launch well. It's almost December and she has a lot of vacation time stacked up so to relax and recharge, she decides to take the month off and head to a small town of Glastenbury, Vermont, famous for its Christmas celebration. Her late mother talked a lot about her visits to the town, but the two of them never got to go together. When she gets to town, she discovers two things: 1) the bed & breakfast at which she is booked is above the Fortenbury Bookstore and part of the arrangement is that she will work as a kind of co-manager with Mrs. Tumulty, the manager (Jane Alexander) while she's there; 2) the town council has cancelled the Christmas displays because of a catastrophic flood earlier in the year, and the small business owners are all feeling a bit depressed because of the lack of tourists. Claire, being good at marketing, starts sprucing up the dusty bookstore and trying to get the town back in the Christmas spirit, and she makes a third discovery: Mrs. Tumulty's nephew, who owns the bookstore building, is a hunky blacksmith named Andrew (Jamie Spilchuk). Sparks fly between the two until she makes a fourth discovery: Andrew is selling the building to the head of the town council who plans on getting rid of the bookstore. By now, Claire has a lot invested in the store and she puts up a fight for its future.

The pluses of this Lifetime Christmas romance: Breckenridge and Spilchuk are easy on the eyes and have a nice rapport; the bookstore setting is fun (especially for me as I used to work in retail bookselling); two of the supporting characters are an Anglican priest and his African-American husband (and their new baby)! However, there are minuses: Jane Alexander, who I normally love, is wasted as her character is basically just an onlooker; the ending is rushed; and the plot is driven by what seems to me to be a ridiculously preposterous notion, that a B&B guest would be expected to help manage a retail establishment. I can't believe that the writer (Michael J. Murray), who seems to specialize in Christmas TV-movies, couldn't come up with a better plot device, like having Claire be related to someone (other than Andrew) at the bookstore. I had a hard time getting past this, but I admit the presence of the same-sex couple—who show up in several scenes and who would never make it into a Hallmark film—made me eventually warm to the movie. [Lifetime]

Tuesday, December 25, 2018


Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson) is a widowed village vicar, aging and but still active, tended to by his eldest daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson, with Richardson at left). She is in love with local boy David and they want to marry, but he is about to be transferred out of the country for two years, and Jenny feels that she cannot leave her father alone—she hasn't even told him that she and David are serious about each other. This Christmas, for the first time in years, Martin will have a full house of relatives for Christmas Eve. His son Michael (Denholm Elliott) is in the Army and, despite getting in trouble for sneaking into his barracks late after a date, manages to wangle a 48-hour pass. His other daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton), who has been out of touch for years, makes a last-minute decision to come, despite having a secret she is loathe to reveal and which has driven her to drink. There is also Aunt Bridget, a cantankerous spinster, and Aunt Lydia, a widow who is much more pleasant but also becoming more pessimistic about life—she has a lovely line about enjoying the holiday, especially the "dark green and glittering Christmas tree," but facing up to how much magic goes out the season as one ages. The last visitor is cousin Richard, friend and godfather to Margaret, the only person present who knows the agony which has caused her to isolate herself—she bore a child out of wedlock (who later died) and she feels she cannot talk to her vicar father about it without him being blinkered and judgmental. We discover that the family members, though they love the vicar, feel like they cannot be honest with him—both aunts are heartily in favor of Jenny asking Margaret to come and do her part caring for Martin—and the vicar remains oblivious to their concerns, in part because of his obligations to his congregation. After the long day's journey into Christmas Eve during which secrets come tumbling out, will Christmas morning help heal wounds?

This British film is difficult to find—it’s never been released as a region 1 DVD, or even on VHS as far as I know. I first saw it on cable back in the early 80s and remember being a bit disappointed that it didn't really feel like a Christmas movie. But having finally found it streaming online earlier this year (TCM also aired it this season), I must revise my opinion. Though the genre it most belongs to would seem to be dysfunctional family melodrama, it actually references Christmas quite a bit: a tree, sparse but realistic decorations, two lovely scenes of carolers (the "Good King Wenceslas" moment in particular is nicely shot as we see the serious faces of family members listening as they process knowledge that is causing them discomfort), and Aunt Lydia's observation noted above. There’s not a lot of humor here, and the funniest line is rather dark comedy; at one point, Richard says to a pouting Michael, "Cheer up, old boy, in a hundred years, we'll all be dead!" The happy ending feels in this day and age like a too-neat wrapping up of plotlines, but remember this was 1952 when an ambiguous or depressing ending would have been unique (outside of film noir or tragedy).

It's based on a play and does look and feel rather stagy, with most of the action occurring in rooms in the vicar's home, but it never feels closed in or artificial. The acting is excellent all around, with main honors going to Richardson (whose old-age makeup consists of an odd-looking white hair wig) and Johnson. Leighton is fine but her character could have stood more development. It's startling to see a very young and cute Denholm Elliott (above right), whom I know mostly from roles he played 25 to 30 years later. Though a relatively happy ending is in store for all, the bulk of this film is not exactly upbeat. One character is well on the way to becoming an alcoholic; two characters confess to being atheists, which would probably been seen as marks against them back in 1952. At least two of the central issues of the movie are still concerns today. The vicar is told that his children kept things from him because of religion, but he retorts that because of religion, he should be a more sympathetic listener. Whether or not he would have been remains an open question. Also, there is talk about the meaninglessness of life, how we fill our lives with events just to keep going even though we're ultimately doomed to fail. The vicar's response is rather more reflective of Eastern religions: the root of all evil is that we keep wanting. These kinds of discussions don’t feel very Christmassy, but still everything comes together for a very satisfying movie, watchable in any season. [TCM]

Friday, December 21, 2018


On Christmas Eve, 1844, a year after the cranky miser Ebenezer Scrooge (David Ruprecht, at left) was visited by three ghosts and became a generous Christmas-loving man, Jacob Marley's ghost sends him, with no explanation, to the small town of New Britain, Wisconsin in the year 2013 to work some redeeming magic on Timothy Cratchit VI. The head of the Scrooge and Cratchit financial company, Tim (Matt Koester) has become a cold-hearted moneyman just like Scrooge was. When Tim and his associate Ron (David Koester) visit the Dinner Belle for a cup of coffee, they run into the diner's owner, Belle (Shannon Moore), who remembers Tim from high school. Their reunion is not a happy one. Tim's company is in the middle of a neighborhood renewal project and she is behind on her mortgage payments; he is there to let her know that he will boot her out if she can't pay up by the end of the year. Scrooge, out of his element, stumbles into the diner and Belle takes pity on him, giving him coffee and helping him to get current with customs and lingo (ordering elaborate drinks at the coffeehouse and saying things like, "I’m stoked!"). When he produces a partnership document from 1844, he takes it to Tim's office and claims half-interest in the company. Scrooge immediately begins making friends of the employees and changing the mood in the office from unpleasant to fun, much to the chagrin of Tim (though Ron actually warms to Scrooge and his influence). As it gets closer to Christmas, will Scrooge eventually figure out why Tim is so cold and thaw him out by Christmas Eve?

Like JOURNEY TO PARADISE, this is another problematic production from the sincere but overly ambitious Christian entertainment company Salty Earth Productions and director Steven F. Zambo. There are so many things wrong with this film that pointing them all out could easily take three more paragraphs. The low-budget sets look terrible (which the sets in PARADISE did not); the acting is generally poor—again, as in the previous movie, the Koester brothers (at right, David and Matt) excepted; the story is filled with so many plot holes that you pretty much just sigh and accept it as an almost hallucinatory avant-garde narrative: Why does Marley send Scrooge to 2013 without explaining what he's supposed to do? How has Belle stayed in business at all when she seems to be a terrible manager? There's a plotline involving a pastor and his homeless buddies who Belle feeds for free that really has no payoff and serves little purpose except to show that Belle's heart is in the right place. The biggest problem is a spoiler that involves the ending which I'll save for my last paragraph. The score is bland and the featured song by Michael Schroeder is awful (as it was in PARADISE). And once again, the Christian elements, mostly absent from the Dickens' original, feel uncomfortably added to the mix. In only one scene does Scrooge spout religion, and the actor's voice bizarrely drops to an artificially serious tone, which made me laugh out loud.

So you might ask, why go on at length about this shoddy film? Well, 1) the plot does have promise; as I've noted before, updatings of A Christmas Carol are always fun; 2) Matt Koester is a better actor than his material calls for; 3) the humor as Scrooge adjusts himself to the 21st century is cute; 4) I appreciate their attempt at multiculturalism by including a Latina character as Belle's friend and employee. As a fan of Christmas movies, I find this (and PARADISE) interesting for going against the Hallmark grain of vanilla romance stories, which leads me to the SPOILER: Belle and Tim were friends in high school but Belle keeps insisting that she didn't feel romantic about him. The reason, which comes out of absolutely nowhere in the last few minutes, is that Tim is Belle's brother! Better than that, they're twins! He grew up as an adopted orphan, but we are given no reason for why he would have been given up and Belle kept. In this case, a Hallmark romance ending would have been preferable. I hope if Salty Earth does any more Christmas movies, they give the screenplay a more thorough going-over for plausibility and coherence. [Amazon Prime]

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


During the Depression, single dad William Kamp (Brian Krause) is just barely getting by—at Christmas time, he has survived the latest round of layoffs, but it's still a challenge to raise five kids, the youngest of whom, Norman, has polio and walks with a leg brace. There's also his oldest, Verna, a senior in the town's one-room schoolhouse; handsome teenager Warren; young Ruthie who dotes on the family dog (the last child, Russell, is given no personality or quirks and might as well be invisible). The good news at Christmas is that dad has saved up a dollar in change so that all the kids can dip into it in order to get presents for each other. The bad news constitutes the bulk of the storyline: 1) Warren has been offered a part-time job as an auto mechanic but even though his income would help the family, William won't let him consider it, mostly out of pride that he alone should be the family breadwinner. Warren is also sweet on a friend of Verna's but is too shy to even talk to her; 2) Ruthie clashes with the new teacher, young Miss Mayfield, who won't let her bring her dog to school. She is also desperate to win a school contest for performing the most kind and thoughtful acts for others during the holiday season, but snotty brat Lenny cheats to stay ahead of her in the tally; 3) Verna would like to become a nurse but the family's financial insecurity won't allow her to apply to colleges, even though Miss Mayfield thinks she has promise; 4) Norman is entranced with a horse belonging to cranky neighbor Mrs. Rathbone, but when he sneaks onto her property to spend time with the horse, he winds up in quite a bit of trouble, exacerbated by villainous bully Lenny.

As this is a Christmas movie, there is little doubt that most of their problems will work out in the end. What is a bit surprising, however, is despite the fact this was made by two religious film companies (one Catholic, one Mormon), the religious elements are kept to a minimum, pretty much confined to the conclusion, at church on Christmas morning. The tone is well-balanced; there is sadness (they're still mourning their mother) and a little humor (Lenny's comeuppance, Warren's shyness), and the children's problems are treated seriously but an upbeat Waltons-like atmosphere prevails. The acting is mostly fine. Old pro Brian Krause is a solid anchor, as is Nancy Stafford, best known for continuing roles on St. Elsewhere and Matlock, as Mrs. Rathbone who thaws very slowly toward the family. Heather Beers is the weak link as the schoolteacher, who seems altogether too modern for the 1930s heartland. James Gaisford is fine as Warren, as is Ruby Jones as Ruthie. Best of all is 10-year-old Jacob Buster as Norman; he is vulnerable but strong, and he doesn't overuse either a smile or a scowl, coming off as a kid weighed down by his circumstances but not ready to give up. The movie is bookended with cute scenes showing Norman daydreaming riding the horse and facing bad guys just like his hero Hopalong Cassidy does. One could quibble with the low-budget sets and costumes, but if you’re looking for a slightly sentimental Christmas story that will leave you just a tad teary, this will work. [DVD]

Monday, December 17, 2018


Channel 7 in the small town of Paradise, Wisconsin is known as Paradise 7 and has been in business for years, run by the Collins family. But as Christmas approaches, trouble is brewing. A larger Wisconsin media company apparently wants to muscle in and Lucy Collins (Hannah Fager) wants to bring in a new associate producer to pump up their ratings. During a holiday station party, a handsome guy from Chicago arrives at the studio. Lucy assumes he's there about the position, though we can tell from his behavior that he's there for some other reason. Still, Joe McNamara (Matt Koester) goes through an informal interview and Lucy decides impulsively to hire him on the spot. The family even offers him temporary use of a small apartment above the studio. The family and staff all love Joe, except for Lucy's obnoxiously protective brother Mike who doesn't trust him and has frequent altercations with him. Mike may be onto something; we see Joe clandestinely watching videos that Lucy had made and sent to her fiancé while he was in the military—we know that she is no longer engaged and that it's a topic that has made her less interested in celebrating Christmas. Soon, we discover that Joe has his own unresolved pain; when he interviews a pastor on TV about a Christmas event, Joe goes off on a tangent, questioning the idea that God is truth and has all the answers, and making the interview go off the rails. Despite all this, sparks fly between Lucy and Joe, but they're both going to have to reveal their past secrets to each other if they want to build a relationship.

There are a lot of problems with this low-budget, almost amateur movie, but I slowly warmed to the film almost despite itself. As a Christmas romance, it's more religious and dramatic than the kind that Hallmark shows. It was produced by Salty Earth Productions, whose mission statement is to provide "entertainment […] to share Christ, Jesus with the world." Oddly, however, the explicitly religious material feels shoehorned into the story—there are only really two or three scenes in which God or Jesus are even brought up. The one scene that doesn't work at all involves Joe walking through the small town, thinking about his conflict while an awful country song about Jesus being the reason for the season plays and images of the Bible and of nativity sets are superimposed over the visuals. I don't object to the content (duh, it’s a Christmas movie!) but the sledgehammer style feels so out of place in what is otherwise a relatively thoughtful narrative about dealing with loss and building a new life. I like the fact that at the end, Joe's spiritual quandary is still not completely resolved.

Other good and bad things here: the two leads are both fine, though they have not gone on to work in many other films. Matt Koester has done stage work and has appeared in couple of other Salty Earth productions, but I'm surprised that Hannah Fager, who looks and acts the part of the TV-movie Christmas heroine to a tee, has no other acting credits on IMDb. On the other hand, the rest of the cast is almost uniformly amateurish (though Daniel Koester, Matt's real-life brother, shows promise as the aggressive Mike). The story idea, which I don’t want to spill too much about, is original and interesting, but important plot points are ignored or brought up so late in the proceedings that they feel plopped in at the last minute. One more draft of the screenplay would have been beneficial. Worst of all is the dog puppet that the weatherman insists on carrying and using all the time. Though fairly serious in tone (what with its themes of spiritual searching and dealing with guilt from the past), there are many moments of humor, not all of which come off. At 2 hours, it's way too long, but for reasons I can't quite articulate, I have a soft spot for this local Wisconsin production, and I'd watch it again. [Amazon Prime]

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Molly (Nicky Whelan) is essentially married to her big-city job at a software company, and she’s not a fan of Christmas [diehard Hallmark movie fans already know where this is going, so they can skip to paragraph 2], so she's planned on working at the office through the holidays. When the boss decides to close the offices for two weeks as a reward for everyone's hard work, Molly is not happy. On a whim, she enters a radio contest for a holiday trip to Jamaica and she wins. However, once she gets on the plane, she realizes she's headed for Jamaica, Vermont, to an old-fashioned inn called Reindeer Lodge, known for the reindeer who visit during Christmas week. Thinking she got on the flight in error, she tries to make the plane go back, but the contest really was for Jamaica, Vermont. Jared, a handsome stranger (Josh Kelly), watches in amusement as all this plays out. He is headed for the lodge for some mysterious purpose, and the only other lodgers are Greg, an aspiring photographer who is planning to put together a book of photos of the lodge, the town, and the reindeer, and his wife Kayla. Once there, the visitors eventually learn the sad truth: the lodge has fallen on hard times, partly because the reindeer's migration patterns seem to have changed and they no longer visit.  Despite the general gloom, Molly and Jared begin a tentative flirtation, and Molly comes up with an idea for a silent auction of Greg's photographs to help save the lodge. But what will happen when she discovers that Jared is there as a representative of this father's firm to foreclose on the property?

There is absolutely nothing original about this movie—it could serve as a template for the average Hallmark Christmas romance. Even the Christmas atmosphere feels a bit forced. But I stuck with it because of the charm of the leading man, Josh Kelly. He's handsome and hunky like most Hallmark men, but he also has a sly look that plays about his face on occasion which suggests that there might be more to the character than we see on the surface. Everyone else is average, never rising above adequate, even Beth Broderick as co-owner of the inn. Nicky Whelan is amusing in the opening scenes as she expresses frustration with her situation, but soon she is as vanilla as everyone else. Little in the script rings true, partly because the backstory of the inn isn't fleshed out very well, and the return of the reindeer at the last minute (c'mon, not a spoiler—you knew darn well it would happen) doesn't feel as climactic as it should, maybe because they look like CGI reindeer. Still, Josh Kelly. I'll recommend this one just for him. [Hallmark]

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Charlotte (Maggie Lawson) is about at the end of her rope—she's been trying for years for her big break in acting, but all she gets is TV ads so she lives with a roommate and relies on her job as a waitress in a coffeehouse to get by. When her friend Rachel visits from Chicago and encourages her to apply for a job at her event-planning company, she hems and haws a bit but finally gives in, realizing this means the end of her dreams. Meanwhile, over at the Grand Theater, a small off-Broadway company is preparing their annual production of A Christmas Carol. The head of the troupe, and the director, is TV action star Julian Walker (Brennan Elliott), who would like to leave Hollywood behind and stay in New York—his late father founded the company. When Charlotte waits on Julian at the coffeehouse, she is mortified—years ago, she auditioned for a part in the TV show that shot Julian to fame, but his improvisation during her audition threw her off and she didn't get the part. Despite some chemistry between them, she has always blamed Julian for her failure. Julian gets her agent to send her to tryouts, but when she discovers Julian is directing, she leaves in a huff. But later, sensing this could be her last shot, she goes back, auditions, and wins the lead of a modern-day female Scrooge. Just as things seem to looking up for Charlotte, however, two complications arise: 1) Julian's old celebrity girlfriend shows up; 2) the owner of the theater building threatens foreclosure.

Despite being centered on a production of Dickens' famous Christmas story, this Hallmark Christmas movie seemed to be a bit lacking in holiday atmosphere—it could have just as easily been set at Easter or Halloween. Even the element of the Scrooge-like property owner feels thrown in and is dealt with almost too easily. Lawson is fine as the romance heroine, but when she is playing Charlotte "acting," she’s not at all believable as someone who could come swooping in and win a role just like that. In her few short scenes as the female Scrooge, she's terrible. Elliott is more consistent as Julian, but I'm shallow enough to be disappointed that he's not more attractive than he is. Nice-looking, yes, but not a vanilla Hallmark hunk. In the supporting cast, the only real standouts are David Tompa as Gary, Charlotte's friendly boss, and stalwart character player Art Hindle (with over 150 acting credits on IMDb) as Sid, a member of the theater group who becomes the first connection between Charlotte and the Grand Theater folks, though by the last half of the movie, he's just a background face despite getting first billing after the romantic leads. Mercedes de la Zerda has been directed to have not an ounce of nuance as the villainous ex-girlfriend. Finally, this has absolutely zero feel for New York or off-Broadway. They should have just set it in Toronto (where it was probably filmed). I'd have to say overall that this one, though perhaps not awful, is thoroughly run-of-the-mill, uninspiring, lackluster, and any other synonyms for "mediocre." [Hallmark]

Monday, December 10, 2018


Stop me if you've heard this before—on the other hand, don't, because then this would be a very short review. Sophie (Allison Sweeney) runs a Colorado ski lodge that has been in her family for years. But now, thanks to a couple years of no snow, she's gotten behind in her mortgage payments and may lose the property by the first of the year, even though this year, the lodge is snowy and busy. Meanwhile, Evan (Jordan Bridges) arrives for a quick visit at the height of the Christmas season; Sophie and he click right away and she talks him into staying the whole week of Christmas, but what she doesn't know is that he is there as an emissary for a real estate company looking to buy the lodge cheap and replace it with a prefab chain lodge. But the longer Evan stays, the more he comes to appreciate the extended family experience of the people who have been coming to Holly Lodge every year, and he secretly tries to find a way to help Sophie hang on to her property. Of course, when she finds out who he really is, she is angry and upset, and certain she'll lose the lodge.

Hallmark needs a few new plot templates for their Christmas movies—this story is so well-worn and predictable (and its "twists" telegraphed so far in advance) that I almost switched it off in the first half-hour. But I stuck with it because of the two leads. Sweeney and Bridges have great chemistry and both are quite attractive (in a very vanilla way, which is not meant as an insult—Bridges in particular makes vanilla look sexy). Oddly, their chemistry falters near the end, when they actually are allowed to kiss—Hallmark doesn't let their leads kiss until the final moment. But generally, the two are among the better Hallmark players. Sheryl Lee Ralph (a Tony nominee for the original production of Dreamgirls) is fine as the chief supporting player; Toby Levins is a scruffy standout as a handyman pal of Sophie's. Both characters get their own (brief) storylines, and either one could probably carry their own TV-movie. I liked it OK, and less demanding Hallmark movies fans will love this one. Pictured are Bridges, Sweeney and Ralph. [Hallmark]

Friday, December 07, 2018


It wouldn't seem like we need any more film or TV versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"—Wikipedia lists almost 100 from the silent era to now, including sitcom, animated and drama show versions (Bewitched, Family Guy, Mr. Magoo) and loose adaptations (Ebbie, An American Christmas Carol). But there are least three reasons why we'll keep getting them: 1) people watch them; 2) writers and actors of each generation want a shot at doing their own versions; 3) it's interesting to see the variations that get worked on the basic outline and details of the original story. There are certain characters and story beats that always remain: Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, three ghosts, a movement toward empathy and charity. It's what changes that can make a new version fun or relevant.

In this version, made for British TV, Eddie Scrooge is a low-life loan shark who, with his assistant Bob Cratchit, goes about on Christmas Eve making life miserable for some of his clients. At the apartment of a single mom with three kids who is behind in her payments, Eddie takes her TV set and gleefully throws it off a balcony. He pesters an elderly couple, brushes aside charity requests, and ignores the mother of his former partner Jacob Marley who was murdered a year ago under mysterious circumstances that Eddie may know something about. As usual, Eddie rebuffs his nephew Dave's yearly request for Eddie to join him and his wife for Christmas dinner. The only somewhat tender side we see of Eddie is the regret he feels for letting his girlfriend Bella get away; when he refused to leave his thuggish life behind, she turned down his marriage proposal. That night, in his high security apartment in a rough inner-city neighborhood, the late Jacob Marley shows up on his mission of reform, with the promise of three ghosts who will help. The first major difference in the structure of Dickens' story is that Marley himself becomes the Ghost of Christmas Present; Past is Eddie's dad, and Future is a child who is... well, that would be a spoiler. The second major difference is that after the visits of each ghost, Eddie wakes up on Christmas Eve all over again, and ventures out in mostly half-hearted attempts to change his behavior. It isn't until Future's visit that Eddie has a sincere desire to change.

The cast is composed almost completely of actors I'm not familiar with. The shaved-headed Eddie is Ross Kemp, known in England for his iconic tough-guy role in the soap opera East Enders (pictured with the three ghosts at top right). He was generally good, though his final transformation scenes aren't as fizzy or giddy as tradition would dictate. The only actor I knew was Liz Smith (the dotty old lady in The Vicar of Dibley) who played the elderly woman, but I was impressed by Ray Fearon as Marley and Daniel Ainsleigh as Dave (pictured above). The best metamorphosis was turning the symbolic children of Want and Ignorance into real teens who are homeless and near death from pneumonia. I was a little confused by some of the details of the Bob Cratchit/Tiny Tom storyline, and there's one character (Eric, maybe) who pops up quite a bit but didn't have a Dickens parallel that I could discern. The look of the movie is drab and colorless, but it's worth checking out if you can find it—I saw it on This TV, one of those free cable channels that mostly shows reruns and movies. My only warning: the British accents can get a bit heavy, and subtitles were not an option.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018


Capt. Webb (Lewis Stone) may seem kindly and avuncular, but he runs the Bureau of Missing Persons which he considers one of the toughest assignments within the police department. Homicide cop Butch Saunders (Pat O'Brien) has let his temper get the best of him one too many times and is transferred to the bureau, which he dismissively refers to as "kindergarten" and a "school for pansies." Webb tries to set him straight: they look for people who might be dead (even, as we find out later, chopped up into pieces), missing on purpose, or victims of amnesia and it can take a subtle touch to work with both the found people and the people looking for them. Butch gets an education as we see several cases play out: an actress pulls a missing persons publicity stunt at the behest of her agent; a married man who has gone missing may be in hiding with his mistress; a lonely old man becomes the victim of a "serial vanisher" who works her way into a household and gets some money before she leaves. After a rough start, Butch gets the hang of it and successfully reunites a 12-year-old violin prodigy who ran away from his rich parents because he wanted to live the life of an everyday boy. Soon a woman named Norma Roberts (Bette Davis) needs help finding her husband who left their hotel room after a spat and hasn't returned. Butch takes a personal interest in the case as he finds himself falling for Norma, but when cracks appear in her story, he discovers that she's not quite who she seems to be.

When Bette Davis made this film, she wasn't yet the star she would become just a couple of years later, and her role, though sizeable, wasn't really worthy of top billing—she doesn't even appear until about halfway through the 75 minute movie. But when it was re-released in 1936, her name was moved to the top of the cast list. Davis is fine, and her fans won't be disappointed, but the real stars are O'Brien and Stone who both do good work. The supporting cast includes Glenda Farrell as Butch's estranged wife (who shrieks "Butchy-wootchy!" at him to make his life miserable), Ruth Donnelly as a secretary who has a secret, and the always welcome Allen Jenkins as a case worker. It's interesting to see Hugh Herbert, who usually plays stammering comic-relief doofuses playing against type as a relatively subdued and serious case worker. Favorite line: O'Brien yelling at Farrell, "Why don’t you break out in hives and scratch yourself to death?" A solid classic-era Warners comedy-drama. Pictured are Jenkins and O'Brien. [TCM]

Monday, December 03, 2018

NAVY BORN (1936)


On a ship in the Pacific Ocean, Navy pilot Red Furness (William Gargan) reads a telegram to his nervous buddy Tex Jones: Tex is now the father of a baby boy, whom the other pilots all start referring to as the Admiral. The happy Tex can't wait to get home to San Diego, but by the time he gets home, there is sad news: his wife has died from complications and his wealthy sister-in-law Bernice (Claire Dodd) is determined to take custody of the baby. To send this story completely into soap opera territory, Tex himself, dazed and confused over the idea that his son might be taken away from him, stumbles into traffic and is hit by a car. In his dying words to Red, he asks that Red take care of the baby. Before Tex's in-laws can act, Red and his navy pilot buddies (Steve, a womanizer, and Bill, who has no defining character traits other than completing the trio) have spirited the baby away to their bachelor rooms, hiding him from both the in-laws and Navy brass. They eventually get Red's Aunt Minnie to take care of the baby and the rest of the plot consists of playing keepaway with the kid while Red does his best to woo Bernice over to the idea of his guardianship—and maybe to the idea of a romance. I saw this B-movie under the title MARINERS OF THE SKY and was very disappointed as there is not much "sky mariner" action here, and what there is isn’t terribly well done. But as a domestic comedy-drama, it’s serviceable. I usually like Gargan and he's the movie’s chief asset, remaining charming throughout. Dodd is fine and Douglas Fowley is a standout as the horndog Steve. Addison Randall makes a good impression in his brief scenes as Tex—the actor would, under the name Jack Randall, make a string of B-westerns before his untimely death in 1945. In order to pad it out to 70 minutes, a strange plot twist involving the baby being kidnapped is thrown in, but it doesn’t really add much. Pictured are Randall and Gargan.[YouTube]

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


Sam and his faithful Indian guide Billy, who seem to work at a Florida animal compound, head deep into the Everglades to prepare the way for a group who are on a field trip to study the Everglades ecology. But when they reach an area that is rumored to contain the tomb of Tartu, an ancient Seminole witch doctor, Billy won't go any further, afraid of conjuring up a curse in which Tartu returns to life to punish any defilers. Sam forges ahead and is sorry he did; the spirit of the mummified Tartu, lying in a coffin in a cave, takes the form of an anaconda and strangles Sam to death. The group arrives, consisting of archeology professor Ed, his wife Julie, and four students—Johnny, Cindy, Tommy and Joann—and Billy is surprised that Sam hasn't returned. Nevertheless, being broad daylight, the group heads into the swamp without a guide. After some make-out sessions and mild, jerky dancing, Tommy and Joann go frolicking the water where Tartu, apparently considering himself defiled, appears in the shape of a shark and kills them both. Ed, who has found a stone with warnings about Tartu carved in it, realizes (since sharks aren't found in the Everglades) what's happening. Johnny tries to head out to get help, but he's killed when a snake leaps up in the air and bites him in the face. Cindy gets chased by Tartu as an alligator, and in the final confrontation, Ed faces Tartu himself, incarnated as a young and healthy man.

The Everglades location shooting makes this Z-grade horror film a little more interesting than the average, and the skull-face make-up on Tartu is good. But aside from the anaconda attack, in which the actor actually has a constricting snake wrapped around him, the other animals aren't especially scary—and the biting snake, so obviously a plastic prop being held by someone just off-camera, is laughable. Few of the actors remained in the business; Cuban actor Fred Pinero is pretty good as the professor, though the actress playing his wife is terrible. Some of the students' delivery is irritating and shrill, and none of them can dance—though they certainly can kiss. There are a number of mismatched shots, and some scenes fade to black as though this was made for TV ad placement, and the tedious 15-minute sequence of Sam trekking into the Everglades almost kills the movie off before it gets a chance to be scary. (A brief pre-credit scene of an earlier explorer finding Tartu's coffin is amusing; after Tartu kills the guy, he unrolls some scrolls the man was holding, and they contain the credits.) The cinematography does not make the Everglades look particularly appealing. Frank Weed, who plays Sam, is also the animal handler, which may be why his scene with the snake works so well. [TCM]

Friday, November 23, 2018


Mozart's opera is filmed by Ingmar Bergman as a staged performance in a theater, with occasional glimpses of an audience and, during the intermission, backstage activities. Young handsome Tamino is chased by a dragon (a big, furry, non-threatening puppet). Three ladies, sent by the Queen of the Night, slay the beast (though happy-go-lucky passerby Papageno tries to claim credit) and ask Tamino to rescue the Queen's daughter Pamina from the clutches of the evil Sarastro, promising Tamino that he can claim Pamina for his own. Tamino, accompanied by the sweet-natured but simple Papageno, accepts the quest, but they soon discover the truth: Sarastro, the head of a brotherhood that follows rationality, is actually Pamina's father, and he is trying to save her from her mother's dark irrationality—and desire for power.

I'm not a fan of opera, and had only seen one opera on film before this—the 1982 La Traviata with Placido Domingo, which I enjoyed. But whereas that film was opened up for the camera, shot on large sets and exteriors, Bergman chooses to shoot this as though it was being performed in an opera house, with costumes and sets that highlight the artificiality of the proceedings. Mostly, it works, though there are more close-ups than one might wish for, and the combination of the borders of the stage and the square (non-widescreen) aspect ratio give a claustrophobic air to many of the scenes. The camera cuts frequently to the face of a young girl in the audience who is pretty but static—with her big eyes and half-smile, she reminded me of the 2001 Starchild. But generally, the staginess of the production feels right given the amorphous feel of the fairy-tale narrative. I'm no judge of opera, but the singing sounds fine to me (it was pre-recorded and lip-synched by the actors), and the acting is, appropriately, more naturalistic than you would typically find on an opera stage. Josef Kostlinger is sturdy and coldly handsome as Tamino, Irma Urrila is OK as Pamina—not as magically beautiful as I would have imagined the character. My favorite performer is Hakan Hagegard (pictured) who is perfectly suited for the cuddly comic relief of Papageno—and ultimately, it feels he has almost as much screen time as Tamino, and we have as much if not more invested in his storyline (he is looking a true love as well) as in the main narrative. A lovely film with a unique fantasy feel to it. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 21, 2018



In Bergen, Norway in the early days of WWII, the ukulele player for the Mark Mendes big band is shot to death by an unseen assassin during a nightclub performance. The British government is concerned because the man was a British spy trying to figure out if Mendes was actually a German agent who was somehow passing along information about British ship movements, leading to an increase of successful attacks by German U-boats. The Brits prepare to send a replacement agent, but during a blackout, hapless George Hepplewhite, a ukulele player for a small band called the Dinky-Doos, is mistaken for the agent and put on a ship to Bergen by accident. When Mary Wilson, a hotel receptionist who is actually a contact for British agents, discovers the mistake, the two work together and soon discover that Mendes is literally sending his messages in the music that his band broadcasts. George gets his hand on the code, but Mendes soon realizes what he's done, and plots to get rid of George the same way he got rid of the first ukulele player.

The plot sounds serious, but this is a comedy anchored by leading man George Formby, a very popular musician and comedian in England—he was for several years in the 1930s the highest paid entertainer in British films. He never broke out here; his persona, that of the naïve but lovable bumbler, is familiar (a little like a less manic Jerry Lewis) but his style is strictly British music hall, akin to American vaudeville which had gone out of favor in Hollywood films by the mid-30s. Formby mugs and tells mildly bawdy jokes and spends a big chunk of film time singing music-hall sing-along ballads which I couldn't always understand. One I did figure out is "Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now" about a Chinese man who gives up his laundry business. Sample lyric: "He had his eyesight tested, a most important matter / Through a bathroom window, a lady he peeps at her / His eyesight's getting better but his nose is getting flatter / Cause Mr. Wu's a window cleaner now." The alternate title, To Hell with Hitler, comes from a dream sequence in which Formby drops into a Nazi rally and punches Hitler out. Otherwise, there is little real wartime content here, except for the threat to shipping which is the MacGuffin that drives the plot. Like many classic-era comics, Formby doesn't so much act as perform and he's generally tolerable—I admit I laughed every time someone asked who he was and he replied excitedly, "I'm a Dinky-Doo!" Phyllis Calvert is fine as the heroine, and it was fun to see a young Coral Browne (Vera Charles in Auntie Mame) as a sexy villain. I enjoyed this film but I admit I'm not in a big hurry to see more for Formby. BTW, the ukulele strumming you hear at the end of the Beatles' "Free as a Bird" is by Formby. [TCM]

Friday, November 16, 2018

DUNKIRK (1958)

In 1940, the state of war that exists between England and Germany is called by some a "phony war"; a newsreel we see proclaims boldly that Germany will never try to challenge the Royal Navy. But when Germany invades Belgium, British and French soldiers are forced to evacuate. Without enough British ships to help, citizens are called upon to use their private boats to help out, and over a week's time, over 300,000 soldiers are rescued. This film follows two narrative threads to bring the battle to life. One is focused on the home front: a garage owner (Richard Attenborough) does what is considered essential war work and seems to enjoy a special status even as he belittles the war effort, and his friends resent him on both counts. His friend (Bernard Lee), a reporter, is angry at the apathy of the British, and particularly at Attenborough when he tries to get out of loaning his boat to the Dunkirk rescue effort. The other plotline follows a small group of soldiers separated from their unit; led by Binns (John Mills), universally known by his nickname 'Tubby,' they make their way to the beach at Dunkirk hoping to be rescued. The two stories converge near the end. Obviously, this is not as spectacular in its action effects as Christopher Nolan's recent film of the same title, but I found the characters and their situations here to be more interesting than those in the 2017 movie. Though the action scenes, such as they are, are OK, the standout moment in the movie for me involves a mother holding a gas mask she may have to use for her infant. The acting is good all around, with Sean Barrett a standout as a teenage worker whom Attenborough brings along when he finally comes around to participating in the rescue. Pictured are Barrett, Lee and Attenborough. [Steaming]

Monday, November 12, 2018



Maura (Patricia Neal) is an unmarried middle-aged woman who lives in a small English town with her domineering adoptive mother Edith (Pamela Browne). The relationship is stifling and dysfunctional: Edith is blind and keeps a tight leash on Maura as a caretaker, partly using guilt over the fact that Edith nursed Maura back to health after a stroke several years ago. Maura works part-time at a nearby hospital performing therapy with stroke victims; the doctors want her to work more hours, but Edith won't allow her to be away from home that long. Into this atmosphere comes Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay), a scruffy but attractive young drifter in need of work. After some initial hesitation, Maura hires him as a live-in gardener and handyman after Edith talks herself into thinking that he is a blood relation (there are Jarvises somewhere in the family line). Billy seems to think of Maura as a surrogate mother, though Maura slowly becomes romantically attracted to him. We can tell right off the bat that, despite his looks and rough charm, something's not right with Billy, and sure enough, we soon discover that Billy is responsible for a series of assaults and murders of young women, triggered by his memories of women taunting him for his impotence. (Both of the film's titles come from his post-murder activity in which he digs graves for his victims in a road that is under construction.)

For about two-thirds of its running time, this feels like a horror movie, or at least a creepy thriller. Though the deaths of the women are not graphically presented, we do see them happen, and we are led to believe that Edith and Maura could become Billy's next victims. But the film takes a potentially interesting turn when Maura and Billy become lovers (apparently his impotence comes and goes, no pun intended). Unfortunately much of the tense mood of the movie evaporates; the fact that the two women seem to be out of physical danger, though a left-field twist, leads to an anti-climactic final section. This is really a character-driven psychological melodrama, but oddly, the backgrounds of the characters aren't explored fully enough for the plot twists to be effective. Though based on a novel, Roald Dahl, Neal's husband at the time, wrote the screenplay for her as part of her comeback after her strokes—though she seems quite healthy here. Neal is good, as is Clay who hits an odd note of frailty and aggression combined. There's no denying that Billy, as a killer, is the villain of the movie, but Edith and her gossipy neighbors are unpleasant at best. The conclusion is often commented on for its ambiguity on at least one major plot point, but it's a satisfying ending to a movie that is not completely satisfying as a whole. Pictured are Neal and Clay. [TCM]

Thursday, November 08, 2018


Henry, Earl of Kerhill, is in charge of some substantial funds belonging to an orphans' fund, but he has used them in a business speculation deal. The deal failed, his partner killed himself, and now that the money is to be presented to the charity at a house party, Henry also opts for suicide. But James (Warner Baxter), who is love with Henry's wife Diana, agrees to take the fall for him. When it's announced that the money is missing, Henry leaves in a hurry, as though he is guilty of the embezzlement, and flees to America, though Diana knows the real story. He acquires a patch of land in Buzzard's Pass, Arizona, but the thuggish Cash Hawkins, who is engaged in black market dealings in dope and booze, tries to muscle him off his homestead. A young Indian woman named Naturich (Lupe Velez) is one of the few people in the area who will stand up to Hawkins, and she also pines away for Jim, who himself is pining away for Diana. When Hawkins finally comes around to get rid of Jim for good, Naturich shoots him dead from outside but isn't discovered. Soon, after sitting outside Jim's cabin during a sleet storm, she is taken in by Jim. Seven years later, the two have a son and are happy together, despite the sheriff continuing to investigate Hawkins' murder. Then Diana shows up in Buzzard's Pass; on his deathbed, Henry confessed to his crime and Diana wants Jim to come home with her. He refuses but does agree to send his son to England for a proper education, something that doesn't sit well with Naturich. The final straw comes when the sheriff finds evidence that implicates Naturich in the death of Hawkins. Tragedy ensuses.

This is the third version of the 1905 stage melodrama that Cecil B. DeMille made, and one of his earliest sound films. I haven't seen the silent versions but I'm not sure what drove DeMille to want to make three versions of this rather obvious frontier melodrama. The procession of events is predictable, the characters flat, and the actors don't seem challenged by their roles. Baxter is good as the hero, Velez is OK but doesn't exactly shine as the "squaw," and Eleanor Boardman and Paul Cavanagh are fine as Diana and Henry. A young Charles Bickford makes an effective bad guy (Hawkins) but he's not in the story long enough to make much of an impression. The "miscegenation" aspect of the plot (Anglo man, Native American woman) is no longer a viable exploitation device as it would have been in 1931. Roland Young steals his scenes as a titled friend of Jim and Diana's, and little Dickie Moore (best known as the deaf teenager on OUT OF THE PAST) appears as Jim's son. Interesting as a period piece, but not a particularly powerful part of DeMille's oeuvre. Pictured are Baxter and Velez. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 06, 2018


In the summer of 1938, Carol (Joan Bennett) and her German husband Eric (Francis Lederer) decide to head to Germany for a bit of a working vacation—his aging father needs help selling his factory. When Dr. Gerhardt finds out they're going, he gives them a bundle of cash to pass along his brother who is in a concentration camp in Dachau. Carol, Eric and their young son Ricky arrive in Bremerhaven, met by the lovely Frieda, a friend of the family. While Carol sees how bad things are—the concentration camps for political prisoners, the stifling of criticism of the government, the constant spying on friends and neighbors and the mistrust that breeds—Eric begins to express admiration for the Nazis, something that bothers both Carol and Eric's father Heinrich. When Carol tries to deliver the money to their doctor's brother, she is told he died in the camp of appendicitis—even though Carol is told by the the man's mother that he'd had his appendix out years ago. Despite the darkening state of affairs in the country, Eric decides he wants to keep the family in Germany and take over his father's business, a decision which does not sit well with Carol. Things go from bad to worse when Carol makes a joke about Hitler and Eric tells her that is grounds for divorce in Germany.  That's a threat he may follow through on when she finds out that he is having an affair with Nazi apologist Frieda, and that, though he's willing to let Carol go back to the States, he wants to keep Ricky with him.

This feels like a WWII variation on the post-WWI melodrama EVER IN MY HEART which similarly involves problems between a German man and his American wife whose political views begin to differ. Bennett and Lederer are fine, though Bennett seems like a bit of a lightweight—despite the increasing tension, I never really felt like she considered herself in peril, so Lederer (pictured) takes the focus of the movie by default. The film is fast-paced but a little too episodic so it becomes predictable that every 10 minutes or so, a new obstacle will arise or a new secret will be revealed—there's a whopper of a secret saved for the end that I won't spoil here. Lloyd Nolan is good in the limited role of an American reporter, Anna Sten is Freida, and Otto Kruger (as Eric's father) and Maria Ouspenskaya (as Gerhardt's mother) give good support. This was one of the earliest Hollywood films to take a serious and explicit anti-Hitler stance and is well worth watching if this era interests you. [TCM]

Friday, November 02, 2018


We are introduced to Custer College though the eyes of a new—though not young—physics professor (Marc Connelly) who is befriended by his neighbors, a stuffy ethics professor (Ray Walson) and his much less stuffy wife (Anne Jackson). The big story on campus is the arrival of a tall and lovely co-ed (Jane Fonda) who admits she came to Custer to snag a tall husband, in particular the reigning basketball star (Anthony Perkins). And that is the entire plot of this weightless but generally inoffensive comedy which borders on being a sex farce—but, of course, a sex farce in 1960 under the Production Code was very different from what it would be just a few years later, so this is actually pretty squeaky clean. It’s not a musical but it kept reminding me of BYE BYE BIRDIE, partly perhaps because of a passing resemblance between Fonda and Ann-Margaret, and because of a plot wrinkle in the last half involving visiting Russians, not a ballet company as in BIRDIE, but a basketball team. The first half of the movie is all about Fonda chasing the naïve and clueless Perkins, even enlisting the help of her professors; at one point, a frustrated Walston says, "I am a professor of ethics, NOT a madam!" Once she snags him, the plot turns toward their future; they decide to buy a motor home from a fellow student (Tom Laughlin) but can't afford it until a stranger offers Perkins a big chunk of money to throw the upcoming game to the Russians. Perkins agrees and deliberately flunks his ethics exam so he'll be disqualified from the game. But just as the game begins, Perkins has second thoughts, and the only way for him to play is if Walston will give Perkins a make-up quiz on the spot; the professor of ethics isn't likely to stoop so low… or is he?

As I said above, this is mostly weightless fluff; it has its bright moments, most belonging to the young and energetic Jane Fonda, but it does get bogged down in the second half which, compared to the first half, feels like it's playing out in slow motion. Perkins (pictured above with Fonda) is surprisingly good (and cute) in the kind of frivolous role that he wouldn't be called on to do very often after playing Norman Bates in PSYCHO later in the year. Walston and Jackson are good as the academic couple, and Connelly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, holds his own as the more empathic professor. It's fun to see a youthful, fresh-faced Laughlin, later famous as Billy Jack, in his supporting role. Throughout, individual scenes work OK but they don't mesh well into a satisfying whole. As other viewers have noted, the whole bribing storyline is illogical at best and completely unbelievable if you think about it too long. Watch for quick bits by Gary Lockwood as the main Russian player and Van Williams (TV’s Surfside 6 and The Green Hornet, pictured at right) as a hunky guy in the showers. Robert Redford is listed on IMDb has a basketball player but I didn't see him. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) is a classical music journalist who has snagged an interview with the great but cantankerous pianist Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens). Duncan is dismissive of Myles until it comes out that Myles had studied for years to be a concert pianist, but gave it up when he received scathing reviews for his first recital. Duncan seems obsessed with Myles's hands and encourages him to take up the piano again. Myles's wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset) isn't terribly happy when Myles begins spending lots of time in the company of Duncan and his beautiful daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins), the two of whom seem almost incestuously close. But Duncan is dying of leukemia and Myles volunteers to give blood for a transfusion. Afterwards, Myles lapses into unconsciousness and Roxanne carries out a Satanic rite involving plaster masks, Myles's blood, and a gooey blue liquid dabbed on Myles’s forehead. Next thing you know, Duncan is dead and soon Myles is acting very differently and playing the piano with a new fervor, so much so that Roxanne arranges for Myles to replace Duncan at a concert. The audience reaction is rapturous, and with good reason: as we discover, the Satanic rite has replaced Myles's soul with that of Duncan's. At first, Paula doesn't really notice, though she is happy that Myles's lovemaking has become more satisfying, and it doesn't hurt when Duncan's will is read and Myles is the recipient of $100,000 and ownership of Duncan's beloved pianos. But when Paula's daughter dies of an mysterious illness, Paula does some digging into Duncan and Roxanne's past and begins to suspect that supernatural forces at play.

This stylish horror film has a bad reputation, but seen today in a lovely widescreen transfer, it comes off much better than you might anticipate. Yes, it owes a debt to Rosemary's Baby—though later movies like The Exorcist and The Omen may have been influenced, at least in small ways, by this film—and the narrative arc is predictable.  But good devil worship movies are few and far between, and if nothing else, this looks great, with bright colors and disorienting visual effects. It takes a little getting used to Alan Alda as the not-exactly likeable male lead, because his very likeable Hawkeye Pierce character from the TV show MASH keeps getting in the way (he filmed this the year before MASH started). But if you can get past that, he does give a decent performance, especially early on as the passive and colorless reporter, though later Alda isn't quite capable of going full-out evil. Bisset is good, though Parkins is a little wooden; it might have been more effective if she had switched roles with Bisset. The movie isn't exactly scary, but it is creepy, and the creepiest thing is the incest vibe between Parkins and the considerably older Jurgens, which, to their credits, the actors approach full-on. Alda (pictured above left) more or less vanishes for a good chunk of the ending which gives Bisset time to shine. Bradford Dillman is good in a small role as Roxanne's former husband. The cinematography is full of odd angles and distorting shots, and the colors are rich, so when the acting is so-so, or when a plot weakness pops up (as they do here and there), the visuals can distract you. Recommended for Halloween night viewing. [Amazon Prime]

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Rarely has a title been so inappropriate for its movie.  It suggests a titillating exploitation flick, which this is not. None of the other alternate titles this has been released as (CURSE OF THE LIVING DEAD, OPERATION FEAR) fit either. Maybe it should just be called A MARIO BAVA PICTURE, and fans of Bava's films like BLACK SUNDAY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE will know they should see it for, if nothing else, its lurid colors and stylish visuals. The movie begins with a startling sequence of a woman running from something and then falling (or jumping) out of a window to wind up impaled on spikes. Coroner Paul Eswai is called in to conduct an autopsy, and, though some villagers try to stop him, he finds that a gold coin has been embedded in her heart. Ruth, the local witch, says she did it to ease the girl's spirit into the afterlife. Soon Paul and Monica, a former villager who is visiting her parents' graves, are enmeshed in the mystery of the Villa Graps. It seems that years ago, seven-year-old Melissa Graps died due to some drunken revelers, and ever since, the ghost of Melissa has haunted the village. People have disturbing visions of the little girl (and a creepy bald doll--pictured above) and it's rumored that the ghost forces people who see her to kill themselves. It's also rumored that anyone who visits the Baroness and the Villa Graps never returns. Can Paul, Monica and Ruth get to the truth and break the spell that the evil house has over the village?

Much of this feels like a Hammer horror film, though the striking visual style is quite unlike the average Hammer movie. Saturated reds, greens, oranges and blues are effective in building an eerie atmosphere. Shots of the little girl recall the appearances of vampires in windows and doorways in classic-era horror movies. I could do without the gratuitous use of zoom shots, but mostly, this is gorgeous to look at. There's a sequence of Paul chasing (apparently) himself through the same series of rooms that has a David Lynch feel to it. The acting, as usual, is not the important element here, but if there are few standouts (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart does solid work as Paul), there are no real weak links. Viewers drawn in by that awful title may be disappointed with the lack of sex and gore, but the spooky Gothic atmosphere should make up for that. [TCM]

Monday, October 29, 2018


One day, a boy sweeping the church in a small Transylvanian village discovers blood on the belltower rope, and the priest finds a dead woman hanging upside down in the bell, two gruesome bite marks on her neck. Though Dracula (Christopher Lee) had been vanquished, frozen in the ice of a mountain river, the townsfolk take this as a sign that the church, occasionally touched by the shadow of Dracula's castle, is not a safe place and parishioners quit going to mass. A visiting monsignor (Rupert Davies) sends the local priest up to the castle to perform an exorcism which involves wedging a huge golden crucifix in the door of the castle, but being scared and a bit drunk, in the process he falls and cuts himself; his blood trickles down through the ice and re-animates the Count who breaks free and turns the priest into his Renfield-type slave. Meanwhile, the monsignor's niece Maria (Veronica Carlson) is sweet on the poor but handsome pastry cook Paul (Barry Andrews, with Roger Daltry-ish looks), who is an outspoken atheist which causes tensions with the monsignor, and to get revenge against the meddling cleric, Dracula puts the bite on a busty barmaid who is supposed to help him get to Maria. This fourth entry in the Hammer Dracula series was intended as a direct sequel to DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS (which ends with Dracula sinking into the ice), though the movies never really feel very connected, with Lee the only actor to appear in more than one of the movies. The Hammer look (fairly artificial but atmospheric) works well here, especially the scenes in front of the castle with the huge cross. The acting is fairly colorless, though Andrews has a nice scene arguing about his atheism with the monsignor, and Lee is his usual stoic, steely-eyed vampire self, given little dialogue and even less motivation. The odd use of color filters to indicate Dracula's presence is distracting, but overall this is a slightly better-than-average film in the series. [DVD]

Friday, October 26, 2018



One night on an isolated European island, an archeologist named Bolton goes snooping around in a deserted church where he discovers the bleeding hanging carcass of a sheep, obviously a sacrifice of some sort. He is set upon by a more-or-less one-eyed hulk (named in the credits as The Wild Man), is strangled by a handsome fellow hiding in the shadows, and then placed under a huge stone sarcophagus; the two men break the coffin's legs and it falls, crushing Bolton to death. Days later, Bolton's son Chris (Andrew Prine) arrives to find that his dad's body is still under the enormously heavy sarcophagus, and freeing it will require equipment, men, and a couple days' time. But he is welcomed warmly by Peter (Mark Damon)—whom, despite his smiling friendliness, we recognize as the handsome strangler—and his attractive sister Mary (Patty Sheppard). The stone coffin supposedly contains the remains of the 13th century Queen Hannah who, according to legend, was marooned on the island, succumbed to vampirism and turned the entire island's population into vampires. Peter says he is researching a historical novel based on these events, but as we soon find out, he is actually attempting to raise the dead queen through demonic means. Mary, who knows nothing about her brother's plans, hits it off with Chris. We meet a few villagers, including a wise old blind sailor, all of whom are wary of plans to open the coffin. When they do, they find the perfectly preserved body of Hannah—lovely, blond, and wearing a sparkling tiara. Soon, she is fairly active around the island, occasionally turning into a wolf and threatening one and all, including a couple of children. At the climax, Peter is holding a black mass of sorts in hopes that he will become Queen Hannah's favored acolyte while Chris and Mary lead other villagers in trying to stop Hannah before she spreads her evil.

Despite the cheesy titles, this is a solid piece of classic-era Euro-horror. The colorful restored print looks great, showing the atmospheric sets and shadowy locales—except for a particularly bad day-for-night sequence late in the film. Prine is too reminiscent of a wasted hippie wanderer to be truly effective as a hero—plus, as other critics have noted, with his 70s mustache, he looks a lot like the unsavory porn star John Holmes—and I never really warmed to him. But the good-looking B-lead Damon, best known as the romantic hero of Roger Corman's HOUSE OF USHER, carries the film. The fact that we clearly see his face in the opening scene makes hash of any attempt to make his role as vampire-worshiper a surprise, but that's the director’s mistake, not Damon's. Sheppard is pleasant looking as Mary but doesn't have a lot to do. While she's half-alive in the coffin, awaiting resurrection, Teresa Gimpera as Hannah (above left) looks way too modern (the shiny ash-blonde hair, the mascara), but once she's revived, she plays the role nicely, acting mostly with her eyes since she has no dialogue. Once only available in murky public domain prints, this looks great on Blu-Ray and Amazon Prime. Pictured at right are Damon and Prine. [Streaming]

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


The CARRY ON movies were made in England from the late 50s into the 70s. Aside from a kind of repertory cast of actors, the films had nothing in common except they were slapstick, slapdash comedies inspired by the British music hall tradition, and though Monty Python went off in a totally different direction, inspired more directly by the radio comedy The Goon Show, you can see some of the Carry On tradition kept alive in Python skits (bawdiness, a focus on breasts, coherent situations that go rapidly askew). In the sense that many of the Carry On films satirized specific film genres (Carry On Spying, Carry On Cowboy, Carry On Cleo—as in Cleopatra), you could say that this series influenced Mel Brooks (BLAZING SADDLES, etc.) and the Zucker brothers (AIRPLANE!). This is the only Carry On movie I've seen, and from what I've read, it seems to be a fairly typical example of the series.

One night, Albert and Doris are making out in the woods when Doris is freaked out by a strange noise. While Albert goes to investigate, a monster carts Doris off, but one of his fingers (more like a claw) breaks off. Albert finds it and takes it to the police. Sgt Bung and Detective Slobotham—pronounced "slowbottom"—tell him about a series of female abductions, and soon they are hot on the trail of some strange goings-on at the Bide-A-Wee Rest Home, in a huge spooky-looking mansion, run by the voluptuous Valeria Watt and her cadaverous associate Dr. Orlando Watt. We soon discover that Dr. Watt (yes, there's a Dr. Who reference made as part of a "Who's on first" routine) is literally a corpse who Valeria revives electrically now and then. The two kidnap women and turn them into mannequins which they sell to fashion shops.

In the beginning, this farce, which in part is parodying Hammer horror films (the sets look exactly like Hammer sets), is fun and energetic; they throw so many gags at you that some are bound to make you laugh. For example: Cop: "I warn you I'll take down anything that you say!" Suspect: "Alright then, trousers." When the monster, Oddbod, is discovered missing an ear, Dr. Watt says, "Oh well, ear today, gone tomorrow." I admit I was laughing or at least chuckling at a fairly high percentage of the jokes, puns and sight gags. But after half an hour or so, it gets a bit wearing as the pace increases but the quality of the humor does not. At 100 minutes, this should have been about 30 minutes shorter. There are lots of mildly smarmy sex gags and, being British comedy, a man in drag eventually crops up. In a cast where everyone is camping it up to one degree or another, standouts include Harry H. Corbett who provides a solid center as Sgt. Bung, Jim Dale as Albert, Fenella Fielding (above right) as Valeria, and Charles Hawtrey who has a funny bit as a men's room attendant. Kenneth Williams (above left with the monster) is a bit too much as Dr. Watt, but he's bearable. I don't know how many more Carry On movies I'd care to see, but I'm glad to have finally gotten one under my belt. [TCM]

Monday, October 22, 2018


Chase Cordell plays Paul, a geologist (or archeologist or something—he still lives with his mom, I think) who lives in New Mexico and pals around with a Native American college professor named Johnny Longbow (Professor John to his students). Paul, Johnny, some students, and a photographer named Cathy meet up in some hills where Paul has been digging. They all go off to Johnny's cabin where he makes them dinner. An asteroid is about to hit the moon, resulting in a spectacular meteor shower, and since Paul and Cathy hit it off (quickly but blandly), they head out to the hills to watch it. Rather improbably, Paul gets hit in the head by a small flaming chunk of meteorite but plays it off as nothing, though we discover later that a small fragment of the meteorite is actually lodged in his brain. In the midst of a multi-day courtship, Paul and Cathy visit a museum where a moon rock shoots a laser-like ray of light at Paul's head. That night, a sweaty, writhing Paul transforms into a giant lizard beast—like a human-sized edition of the dinosaur-looking monitor lizard that Paul keeps as a pet—and winds up mutilating and killing a drunk guy whose wife then dies of a heart attack when she sees his body. This keeps happening, and the only clue crops up when Johnny recalls some Navajo folklore about the moon causing a man to change into a giant lizard. Sadly, the folktale ends with the lizard beast eventually dying of spontaneous combustion—is this how things will end for Paul?

B-movie heaven and B-movie hell often coincide, as they do here. There are some delightfully cheap thrills on a low budget, with several moments that wound up getting mocked by the guys on Mystery Science Theater 3000, the funniest of which is Johnny's tedious recitation of the ingredients of his tasty stew: "Chicken, corn, green peppers, chili, [long bored sigh]… onions." There's a also show-stopping—in a bad way—moment in a bar of a folk band performing something called "California Lady." The acting is dreadful throughout, but an eye dulled by drink might come to see the acting as contributing to an almost surreal atmosphere. Some critics call Chase Cordell wooden and distracted, except when he's writhing his way through a transformation, but you could be inclined to say he's presenting a character who is socially inept, or anti-social, but hides behind his bland half-smile (and his several shirtless scenes made me judge his performance a little less harshly). Worse is Leigh Drake as Cathy, whose flipping between overacting and underacting makes it seem like she's in a totally different movie from Cordell. I was pulling for Gregorio Sala as Johnny, but his character is so inconsistent and underwritten that he comes off as badly as the two leads. The appearance of the Moon Beast, done by future make-up and FX superstar Rick Baker, isn't bad though it looks nothing like the fabulous poster art (looks like the work of Frank Frazetta but it probably isn't). The beast attack scenes are awkwardly staged and edited, but a scene of the Moon Beast ripping a guy's arm off works almost in spite of the way it was filmed. Fun for junk-movie aficionados but other should beware. [DVD]