Thursday, December 31, 2020


As this was the tipping point year for same-sex couples in Christmas romances, I wanted to briefly comment on two more movies that made news. In DASHING IN DECEMBER, on Paramount Network and Logo, Peter Porte is a big city financial planner who goes back to visit his widowed mom at the family ranch over Christmas. The horse ranch, which hosts holiday guided tours, has been losing money for years; Porte has been paying its bills and taxes but has decided the time has come to sell the property. Mom (Andie McDowell) is sad but understands; however, openly gay ranch hand Juan Pablo Di Pace is not only upset but fairly hostile to Porte--until he discovers that Porte is also gay, and single. The traditional ups and downs follow until they finally kiss and make up. Some critics are comparing this to Brokeback Mountain, but don't believe it--this is a TV romantic comedy/drama, not a serious and melancholy character study. I wanted to like this, but it falls a bit flat. Although Peter Porte is gay, he feels like he wasn't told he was playing a gay character, so Di Pace (pictured to the left of Porte) has to do all the heavy lifting here. There is little chemistry between them--a failing in many a Christmas romance--so the romance element falls flat, though gay male viewers will still thrill to their kiss, and to a lingering shot of Porte in boxer briefs. 

Hulu made a media splash with HAPPIEST SEASON, a Christmas film with two women (Kristin Stewart and Mackenzie Davis) in the leads, but this is not really a Christmas TV romance, as the women are already together, with a marriage proposal in the offing--it’s really a Christmas coming-out story. Davis and Stewart are already living together when Davis invites the orphaned Stewart to come to stay with her family over the holidays. Stewart assumes that Davis is out to her parents but she's not so the two have to hide their relationship, which over the week becomes harder for Stewart to do. There are laughs but also some serious moments, and other family secrets threaten to come to light. Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen, Alison Brie, Dan Levy, Jake McDorman and a criminally underused Ana Gastyer are all fine in supporting roles. Stewart is a bit too intense here--it feels like she's acting a different, more interesting movie--but overall it's likable if not as ground-breaking as Hulu would like you to think.

I'm very happy to see same-sex couples featured in these films, but I wonder it it's just a one-season novelty thing. Also, the three romance genre films (DASHING, CHRISTMAS SETUP and CHRISTMAS HOUSE) highlight the artificial and repetitive nature of the movies. Adding gay characters may have stretched the tolerance of conservative Christian viewers of Hallmark and Lifetime, but it didn't substantially stretch the genre conventions themselves. All three films could have featured male-female couples with little change in dialogue or plot, with DASHING and SETUP holding on to the big-city/small town dichotomy so prevalent in the genre. It's not a complaint, but an observation. I'll be curious to see what the next holiday season holds for same-sex romancing. One last note: my favorite Christmas movie of the season is one I reviewed back in July, the gently satirical A CHRISTMAS MOVIE CHRISTMAS (with Brant Daugherty, pictured at right) which I would recommend for any time of the year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020


Alice Chapman owns her late father's antique shop; she gets by but just barely. Her fiancé Will Mitchum, a high-powered real estate salesman, is subtly angling to get her to sell the shop to a big-time developer. He asks her to spend Christmas with his parents in his hometown, but he has to send her ahead because he needs to stick around another day or so to close a deal. At the airport when she arrives, she literally runs smack into a guy who spills coffee all over her, causing her phone to malfunction. As they exchange pleasantries, she learns that his name is Matt Mitchum and he has a brother named William, though Matt calls him Billy. They both assume that she is there to stay with his family, though Will has never mentioned having a brother. She heads off with Matt to meet the Mitchums who, though their son has never mentioned having a fiancée, welcome her with open arms. After spending a warm and cuddly day and night with this old-fashioned friendly family, Alice is shocked when Billy arrives—and he is definitely not her fiancé Will. Of course, as the title of this movie warns us, there's been a mix-up—she's with the wrong Mitchums. Soon, things get cleared up, but by the time Will arrives, Alice and Matt have fallen in love. Reluctantly, Alice leaves to meet Will's parents who are rich, brittle and unhappy. Then Will gives her a Christmas present: the lease to a new storefront as he is about to close a deal to sell her dad's shop. Clearly, Alice is with the wrong Mitchum.

It's a Hallmark movie so you know how it ends—of course the mix-up gets sorted out in the last ten minutes and Alice and Matt wind up together. But there are a few small pleasures to be had along the way. The movie begins with Alice (Alicia Witt) telling Will (Scott Gibson) the legend of a clockmaker who, in order to be with the woman he loved, made a clock that stopped time so he and his beloved, who was promised to a man she didn't love, could run off together. This story returns to play an interesting part in the finale. The scenes at Will's family home are quite amusing, with Mimi Kuzyk doing a nice job as the chakra-cleansing, stand-offish mother. And the atmosphere at Matt's family home is cozy and Christmassy. But otherwise, this is a little off from Hallmark's norm. Witt is fine, as she always is, as the Christmas heroine, and Gibson is a standout, getting more screen time than usual as the big city boyfriend we love to hate. Mark Wiebe (pictured with Witt) is only fair as Matt—he's not a natural fit for the typical Hallmark down-to-earth small town guy (who, yes, works with his hands—he makes furniture). And, to be totally shallow, he's not especially attractive. The various machinations involving cell phones and mixed messages are bit much. However, if you're looking for a nice Christmas setting, an unusual set-up, and a tiny sprinkling of fantasy, you'll enjoy this. [DVD]

Friday, December 25, 2020


The title would indicate that a snowy cityscape and a jaunty Christmas carol should open this film, but instead, we get some rather ominous music and shots of folks in togas looking anguished against a seascape. In 12th century Greece, the lovely Daphne (Jessica Morris) rejects the amorous advances of the studly Pericles (Kyle Lowder), so he goes off to war and his mother Theodora (Sheree J. Wilson) puts a curse on Daphne, turning her into a mermaid. She'll get a chance to redeem herself by periodically returning to human form to find Pericles reborn and perform a selfless act; if she succeeds, she'll remain human. If not, the touch of salt water will return her to her mermaid self. Flash forward a few centuries to Christmastime in the coast town of Cocoa Bay, Florida where the studly Travis (also Lowder), still grieving from the death of his wife Vanessa a few Christmases ago, is about to lose his dive bar, the Coral Cantina. The villainous mayor, Tiffany (Arianne Zucker), has bought all the property surrounding his in order to build new hotels and condos. Now she's offering him good money for his bar, but he refuses to sell, so she gets the bank to call in his $50,000 loan—which was used to cover Vanessa's medical bills—just days before Christmas. Travis is holding a fundraiser at his bar, but Tiffany is forcing people to stay away. Enter Daphne who, noticing Travis's resemblance to Pericles, decides to help him raise his money. Travis, his charmingly clumsy brother Beau, and his feisty bartender Roxie (on whom Beau has a secret crush) all assume that Daphne is just a nut case, but on the beach, Travis sees her legs transform temporarily back into a tail. 

To get the money Travis needs, Daphne swims out to sea and brings back a treasure chest full of gold, enough to pay his debt and then some. But this can't be the end because there's like 20 minutes left in the running time, and sure enough when salt water hits Daphne, her tail returns. What more can she do to prove her selflessness? Well, she and Travis are falling for each other, but Tiffany, whom we discover used to date Travis before he married Vanessa, tells Daphne to leave or she'll tear down all the properties around his bar to destroy his livelihood. Before it's all over, Tiffany will reveal a secret that has caused her great guilt, Beau will try to tell Roxie how he feels, Travis will commune with his dead wife's spirit to try and get her OK a relationship with Daphne, and Daphne will have to decide if she's willing to give Travis up for his own good.

First things first: this isn’t a traditional Hallmark Christmas movie. Its holiday tropes are more inspired by Dickens than by Hallmark. Also, it seems to have been done on a much lower budget than most holiday TV movies. But the first thing is a good thing, and the second thing doesn't ultimately hurt the movie, though I wish that the Coral Cantina had been a less shoddy set—it's not even up to dive bar standards. I wasn't familiar with the actors, but it turns out that most of them are soap opera stars (Lowder, Morris, Zucker, Kathleen Gati who plays Travis' mom, Nadia Bjorlin who plays Vanessa). Sheree J. Wilson, who appears only in the short prologue, was a regular on the original Dallas, and Ian Buchanan, who has appeared in soaps for some thirty years, is the narrator—though he only narrates for a couple of minutes. In terms of talent, they can generally hold their own against Hallmark regulars. Morris and Zucker are particularly good, with Zucker having fun with the bitch villain role. At one point, someone says to her, "You sound like a character on a soap opera" and later when she's asked why she's being so mean to Travis, she replies, "Because I'm the bad guy!" She also has a cute running gag where she keeps yelling, "Christmassy is not a word!!" Lowder is a little weaker, but I'm shallow enough not to care because he's pretty darn hot. Chadwick Armstrong is amusing as the hapless kid brother. There's no snow (because, Florida) and in fact, even the Christmas elements aren't played up very much. It also has a hard time keeping the balance between serious and humorous from tipping occasionally. But as a change of pace from the usual holiday fare, this was kind of refreshing. [Amazon Prime]

Thursday, December 24, 2020


Before he leaves for the holidays, Hugo gives his boss an ultimatum: make him a partner at the law firm by New Year's or he'll be looking for a new job. Hugo and his BFF Madelyn head to Milwaukee to spend Christmas with Hugo's vivacious mother Kate and his Army soldier brother Aiden, but the first thing he does is run into Patrick, a hunky Christmas tree delivery guy. Back in high school, Hugo had a crush on Patrick, who was both popular and openly gay, and Hugo was neither. After Patrick mistakes Madelyn for Hugo's wife, things get cleared up and, while Patrick seems like he'd like to hang out more with Hugo, Hugo remains a bit stand-offish, feeling like Patrick is way out of his league, especially when he finds out that Patrick has taken a very early retirement after he sold, for several million dollars, a popular app he invented. But what Hugo doesn't know is that good old Mom has been pulling strings and is actively trying to set him up with Patrick. And if that's not enough meddling, she's also decided to get her other son Aiden interested in Madelyn. So inevitably, Hugo and Patrick begin striking sparks, leading to a very romantic kiss beneath the Northern Lights. But when Hugo gets the news that he has gotten his promotion and will be sent to London to head up a new office, their relationship seems doomed--or is it?

This is, as far as I can determine, the first holiday-themed TV-movie romance to feature a same-sex couple front and center. As such, I was quite pleased that it works so well. Surely there will be some very woke queer people who will be unhappy that the movie isn't more edgy or subversive (the homosexuality of Hugo and Patrick is a given and they seem to be accepted by everyone in town). But the real point here is that the conservative Christmas romance genre has been opened up enough to allow a gay couple to partake of the same conventions as straight couples have: high-powered big-city lawyer goes home and falls for a man who works with his hands; they have a possible kiss moment halfway through that gets (unrealistically) short-circuited; an obstacle rears its head at about the 90 minute mark; but all is resolved in the last five minutes. The straight couple, Aiden and Madelyn, become the supporting characters, and Mom is played for comic relief. There is a nice subplot involving Hugo's discovery that a late founding father of the town was in a same-sex relationship with his "traveling companion," but otherwise, this is a fairly standard Christmas romance plot. The ending [Spoiler!] is happy but oddly unsatisfying--unless I missed something, we're not sure how Hugo and Patrick will work out a long-distance thing.

The acting is standard TV-movie acting (not meant to be dismissive, just descriptive). The boyish looking Ben Lewis (William Clayton on superhero show Arrow) is as cute as a groundbreaking romance actor needs to be, though he's never able to pull off the gravitas of a high-powered attorney--a problem in many of these Christmas movies. The unthreateningly sexy Blake Lee is Patrick, and the chemistry the two have is undoubtedly helped by the fact that they are married to each other in real life. Fran Drescher is amusing as the mom--the funniest line has to do with someone jokingly referring to her thick Milwaukee accent. Ellen Wong is fine as the friend; Chad Connell seems a little too intense in the beginning as the soldier brother--I kept thinking he was going to snap from some war trauma, though he eases up a bit later. Overall, an impressive new step for the Christmas TV movie. Pictured at top are Lee and Lewis. [Lifetime]

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


On a December evening in 1903, Charles Whitley, a wealthy engineer and inventor, has bought at auction an antique Christmas clock for his fiancée Eliza, beating his business rival Harold Moran, whom he also suspects of being a rival for Eliza. In truth, Charles isn't really in love with her, but he thinks a man of his age and social standing should be married. The two have a spat about attending a party that night; he refuses to go, thinking it trivial and distracting, and she leaves in a huff. Charles' maid Rosie notices an inscription on the clock: "Wind once at Christmas moon, true love will find you soon." After she leaves, he does indeed wind the clock and he immediately passes out on the floor. When he wakes up, he is in his study, but things are very different. It’s now 2020 and the Whitley mansion has become a museum (Charles vanished mysteriously that night in 1903 and was never found) in which tours are given and actors dressed in period costumes play the parts of Charles, Eliza and Rosie. When an understandably confused Charles comes downstairs during a tour, he tries to order everyone out of the house. Megan, the woman playing Rosie, who also runs the museum, manages to make everyone think that his anger is part of the show--and later when the two figure out what has happened, Megan agrees to help him find the long-lost Christmas clock so he can reverse its actions and get back to 1903. However, there are complications. For one, after Charles disappeared, Eliza married his rival Harold and seemed to have led a happy life. Second, Megan, who is the great-granddaughter of the original Rosie, finds herself falling for the handsome and gentlemanly Charles.

This is an unusual story for a Hallmark movie: it opens with a ten-minute sepia-toned sequence set in the past, and the usual big-city/small-town conflicts aren't present--there is a small subplot about Megan applying for an academic job at a local university, but that takes up about three minutes of screen time. However, if you worry about Hallmark straying too far from their templates, the narrative settles down into the familiar plotline of one romantic lead who needs to come to the realization that he or she needs to give something up and stay with the other romantic lead. This is helped greatly by the handsome Ryan Paevey who does a nice job as a man uncomfortably out of his time. His way of indicating that he's from the past is to speak in complete sentences and to use formal, slightly stiff body language. There is some humor as he runs into things like cell phones and the Internet, but surprisingly that is kept to a minimum amount of comic relief. It also helps that Peavey has good chemistry with Erin Cahill who plays Megan as though she has some brains and common sense--not always in evidence in Hallmark heroines. A secondary romance involving two of the other actors in the museum is neither irritating nor especially involving. The device of the "Christmas moon" is explained as happening when there are two full moons in December. That doesn’t actually seem to be a "thing," but it’s clever. Overall, quite watchable. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 21, 2020


Mike Mitchell is the handsome star of the TV legal drama Handsome Justice, but he may be out of a job when, just before Christmas, the network has indicated that they might not renew the show. But Mike has little time to worry about that as he and his brother Brandon (along with his husband Jake) have been called back home by Mom and Dad. The plan is to celebrate one last splashy holiday in the house they grew up in before it's put on the market. But Mike suspects that there are unspoken tensions in the house. Brandon and Jake are trying to adopt but don't want to jinx their plan by talking about it too soon. Mom and Dad seem to be having relationship problems: Dad has retired into an easy and predictable routine, but Mom, just retiring, wants more out of life, and eventually we learn that they plan to separate after the house sells. Finally, there's Andi, once the girl next door and almost Mike's girlfriend in high school. After a divorce, she's back home as a single mom, and sparks may be reigniting between the two. Can everyone get the spectacular Christmas House in shape and still manage to work out their problems?

The plot here is nothing unusual, but the movie has gotten a lot of publicity for its inclusion of a same-sex couple in a major plotline. To give Hallmark credit, they work the two men into the Christmas romance template nicely. In fact, after an opening featuring Mike in character as Handsome Justice, the first people we meet are Brandon and Jake, holding hands and talking about adoption. They even get a full-on kiss which seems fuller than the kiss that Mike and Andi (inevitably) share at the end. But having said that, overall the movie is a bit too stuffed with supporting character incidents, and the main romance, between Mile and Andi, doesn't feel well developed. Andi is played by Ana Ayora; refreshingly, she goes against type for a Hallmark heroine--she's not blond (short and dark haired, she's Colombian-American) and not bubbly and never comes close to shedding a tear. And while I should feel good about all that, I admit I missed the fizziness of other Hallmark romantic leads. Robert Buckley is sincere and appropriately handsome as Mike--and the opening scene from Handsome Justice is fun. The other actors are fine: Treat Williams and Sharon Lawrence as the parents, Jonathan Bennett as Brandon, and Brad Harder as Jake.

Though Hallmark has yet to make a gay couple the lead in a movie, this season seems to be the tipping point for same-sex Christmas romances. Lifetime, Paramount Television, and Hulu all have holiday movies with same-sex leads, and I'll be viewing some of those next. Five years ago, I would have said that Hallmark would never have gay lead characters, but now I'm not so sure. I must give credit to the director, Michael Grossman, and the writers (who include actors Buckely and Bennett) for pulling this off this small step. Pictured from left: Bennett, Buckley and Harder. [Hallmark]

Sunday, December 20, 2020


After a month of writing reviews of Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies, it has finally dawned on me that I keep saying the same thing about them all being the same movie, from the same template with the same conventions and often the same actors. Of course, this is more or less true of many genres--cozy mysteries, thrillers, romances, superhero movies, etc. and why genre lovers keep coming back for more. But those genres contain many variations whereas the Christmas TV-movie does not. It used to, back in the 90s and early 2000s, when you could find stories inspired by A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, or stories with actual magic or ghosts or Santa. But now they all seem to center around the big-city career woman grounding herself by finding the right small-town man. Or sometimes it’s a businessman and a small-town gal. Or two business people in competition for a job. There are movies with veterans and royalty, but those aren't my cup of tea. 

This one is no better or worse than any other I've seen this year. Scottie Thompson is a big-city single mom who is about to accept a job at a high-powered ad company. At Christmas she and her daughter go to the small town of Hopewell to sell her grandmother's house. The meet-cute moment: at the local bookstore, she sees handsome Ryan Paevey shoplifting some books, but when she reports him to the owner (Colleen Winton), she is told he is a schoolteacher who looks for books and settles up at the end of each month. The moment when you know Scottie will get stuck in the small town: she agrees to help Colleen, an older woman thinking of retiring, run the store over the holidays. The hero's hidden depths: in addition to being a much-loved elementary school teacher, he works at a Christmas tree farm, takes over as the town Santa, is a widower, and a published author (under a different name). Romantic sparks fly, fanned by the daughter, but also complications arise (a minor misunderstanding causes Scottie to become peevish and stubborn in the last 20 minutes of the movie). But it's hardly a spoiler to note that in the last five minutes, Scottie decides to turn down the big city job, stay to take over the bookstore, and settle in with Ryan.

As usual, it all comes down to the look (very Christmassy) and the actors. Paevey, pictured, who was a soap opera actor before Hallmark discovered him, is ridiculously handsome (in a soapy way) and has no bad angles from which to be shot. He is masculine (deep voiced) in an nonthreatening way. (This movie has no romantic rivals to threaten either of the leads.) Thompson is mature, attractive and likable (even when she's being unreasonably angry at Ryan). Winton is older, spunky and wise, and serves as co-matchmaker with the daughter (Erica Tremblay, who is fine). Race watch: Scottie's potential boss is Black, and Ryan's best buddy is Asian (Nelson Wong, who has make a career out of these sidekick roles). This is absolutely average in every way. It's pleasant viewing but you'll remember little about it the next day, which is why I wrote this review in a hurry. But coming up this week, I'll cover two movies which finally break the mold in a more important way: same-sex couples are featured prominently. Will this be a good thing? Stay tuned. [Hallmark]

Thursday, December 17, 2020


Sarah (Lindy Booth) is a successful interior designer for a hotel chain, but she needs a little time away from New York because of publicity concerning her recent breakup with a big Hollywood star, so she heads off to a ranch in Colorado to spend time with her Uncle Roy (Treat Williams), who raised her, and her brother Cody (Chris McNally). Roy's wife died last year and Roy is seriously considering selling the ranch, which dismays Sarah as, to her, it's the only real home she's ever had. Cody is sympathetic, but he has dreams of getting into movies as a horse handler. To make matters even worse, who should show up at the ranch but movie star Graham (Kristoffer Polaha, pictured), who has decided to spend a couple of weeks working as a ranch hand as research for his next movie. Despite her wariness about movie stars, Sarah finds herself attracted to Graham, and vice versa. However, more complications arise: Sarah takes on the task of organizing the Christmas parade that her late aunt used to run; Graham's co-star Nicole shows up, believing the studio publicity that she and Graham are an item; and it looks as if Roy has a buyer for the ranch. Will Sarah's Christmas wishes for love and home come true?

I don’t really have much to say about this—it's an absolutely run-of-the-mill Hallmark Christmas movie (businesswoman escaping the big city, finding love in a small town with a hunky but sensitive man). In a by-the-numbers case like this, it comes down to the actors. Kristoffer Polaha is a Hallmark regular and he is a notch above the average Christmas hero, with an appealing casualness about him. Lindy Booth is not as appealing—her emoting is done mostly by ducking her head down a bit and looking up with sad and/or intimidated eyes, but also the part is underwritten. Her past, including the fling with the movie star and her growing up on the ranch, is all presented as exposition so she doesn't get a chance to express any emotions except mild frustration. Chris McNally makes the most of his supporting part as the brother, and old pro Treat Williams pretty much sleepwalks through his stereotyped part—that's not meant as a slam, it's about all he can do with the thin material and the lazy direction. Even the title is a problem; though technically set in a Colorado town in the Rockies, mountains play no part in the story or even much of the scenery. On the other hand, it's hard to work up much hate for the movie. Like I said, run of the mill. 3 Christmas trees out of 5. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 14, 2020


Phoebe is the owner of a successful small town flower shop, but she's a bit stuck in her ways and is hit hard by the fact that her old neighborhood's Christmas tradition of decorating the entire street as Candy Cane Lane won't be happening this year. Her friend and business partner Laurie tries to get her to adopt some new traditions, like helping to decorate at the local assisted living facility. Meanwhile, Eric, the town's much-loved and handsome vet, is still feeling wounded after breaking up with his fiancée last year and his co-workers are pushing him to start dating again. The obligatory meet-cute moment comes when Eric goes to Phoebe's shop to buy a poinsettia for his Aunt Maggie (a resident of the facility, though frankly she seems more vibrant and healthy than most of the other cast members). Phoebe finds him attractive but when he refers to his aunt only by the "she" pronoun, Phoebe assumes he has a girlfriend. When she goes to help decorate, she meets Maggie and Eric, and realizes her mistake, so it's gotta be clear sailing for the two to start clicking and dating and doing all things Christmas, right? Of course not, because there is still an hour of movie left.

Sad to say, the film goes downhill from here. Of course, the Christmas romance genre demands complications, but the writer isn't able to craft a compelling narrative, let alone a logical one. They kind of, sort of, start to date--they're both rather passive characters and the sidekicks (Laurie, Aunt Maggie, the vet workers, and a delivery guy named Joe, all of whom are more interesting than Phoebe and Eric) put in all the work of trying to get them together. Obstacles include minor misunderstandings about other potential dating interests, and a major misunderstanding when Phoebe overhears a conversation about Eric's ex and assumes that she's back in the picture (how original!). In one of the most ridiculous Christmas movie scenes ever, Eric manages to get Phoebe under some mistletoe, but their kiss is thwarted--by the ping of a microwave oven that was warming up some cocoa. Really? They couldn't warm up their lips and let the cocoa get cold?

I was ready to give up on this halfway through. The only reason I stuck with it was the presence of the charming Mark Ghanimé, of whom I’m a big fan, as Eric. He tries hard, but the only direction he seems to have been given was to smile a lot. Beverley Mitchell, a star of the popular family show 7th Heaven, is just dreadful as Phoebe. She's low energy, unlikeable, and drab-looking (mostly that lank hair). Virtually all the other actors, including Trudy Weiss (Maggie), Benedicte Belizaire (Laurie), and Brett Geddes (Adam, the vet's buddy), are more appealing than the leads. While I was watching, I even conjured up an alternate plotline in which Laurie and Adam became the central couple since Phoebe and Eric have no chemistry. Didn't happen. Though the Candy Cane Christmas of the title is largely set aside for most of the movie, it returns as the end when Eric and his friends (magically, it seems) manage to recreate the old tradition in less than 24 hours to provide a happy ending. Lifetime's holiday movies are usually a little more interesting than Hallmark's but not this misfire. [Lifetime]

Thursday, December 10, 2020


It's Christmas Eve and Kate has a plan. She heads to a department store to pick up a gift for her ex-boyfriend Jack to give him when they meet later when she hopes she can rekindle their relationship. Her stepmother has set her up on a blind date with a nice boy named Miles and the two of them are supposed to head over to the family home for dinner, but she's fully prepared to blow that off when Jack sees the error of his ways. However, at the department store, she gets perfume spritzed in her face and passes out. She comes to with a concerned older guy standing over her but seems to have no ill effects so goes on her way. Stopping at her apartment, she is brusque to her friendly neighbor who has baked her some bread. At a bar, she mistakes a nerd named Toby for her date and is rude to him. She meets Miles, who is handsome and pleasant enough, but disses him to meet Jack. Unfortunately, Jack has brought along his new girlfriend whom he is taking off to a cabin for a romantic Christmas Eve. She agrees to take Jack's dog for the weekend (the one nice thing she does) and falls asleep alone, but at the stroke of midnight, a spark shoots out of her TV set, turned to a shopping channel selling an Christmas partridge ornament, and she is whooshed back in time to earlier in the day when she wakes to find herself on the department store floor, and is soon reliving her disappointing Christmas Eve--and she'll have to go through it twelve times, as we know from the title. 

Yes, it's Groundhog Day set at Christmas, which means that slowly, the selfish Kate will learn lessons in relationships, humility, friendship, and generally being a nice human being. But Groundhog Day itself was clearly inspired in part by Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in which someone is forced to relive the past to become a better person. Also in the mix is a classic short story called "Christmas Every Day" in which a boy's wish that everyday could be Christmas is granted--bad things happen and lessons are learned (and that story was made into an ABC Family Christmas movie back in the 90s). So I didn't hold the rip-off against this film too much. At first, Kate focuses on winning back Jack, but she also begins paying attention to the people around her--her neighbor, the loser Toby, the helpful man in the department store--and each relived day, she becomes nicer. But there's still the matter of accepting that Jack is out of the picture, and that maybe Miles is a nicer guy than she gives him credit for. 

The acting is fine, with Amy Smart as Kate and Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Miles. I like that the ex (played by Benjamin Ayres) is presented as a nice guy, not a jerk as in so many Christmas romances. And I really like the final Christmas Eve which involves a gathering that would have been unthinkable on the first of Kate's Christmas Eves. But twelve eves are too many. I know twelve goes with the Christmas carol, but things would have played out more compactly and smoothly with just maybe six relivings. Still, the movie's heart is in the right place, and while I might not want to rewatch this twelve times, I could stand to see it again sometime. [Amazon Prime]

Tuesday, December 08, 2020


Rachel (Natalie Knepp) is a motivational speaker and author whose books are all about putting yourself first. Her first book was a bestseller, but her second one wasn't as successful, so her publisher is giving her new book a big push, culminating in a 12-day Inspiration Celebration seminar event held at Christmastime in her New England hometown. Rachel is not a big fan of Christmas, and she's wary of getting back into contact with her brother David, whom she hasn't seen in years, but this is a big deal for her career, so she cooperates with her high-powered manager Stuart (Steve Bacic), even approving the hiring of a PR consultant named Jack (Michael Rady), who left the big city life of Boston for a slower pace. Jack suggests a softening of her image, and even re-brands the event as a Christmas Inspiration Celebration. While distractedly crossing the street one day, Rachel almost steps out in front of a car and she is pushed to safety by a woman named Joy (Bonnie Bedelia), a kind if somewhat withdraw soul who helps run a community center for disadvantaged families and teaches music to the kids. Rachel hires Joy to be a consultant for the seminar, but some of her ideas, which seem to be taking Rachel away from her self-oriented philosophy, don't sit well with Stuart. Meanwhile, Rachel and Jack become closer and closer, and Rachel must make a decision about her future priorities. 

If I ever see a Hallmark Christmas movie that doesn't open with a swooping high shot of a snow-covered small town or big city, I would probably freak out and think I'd woken up in an alternate reality. This opens with such a shot, and pretty much sticks to one of the old templates: high-powered businesswoman is sent to a small town, falls in love with a salt-of-the-earth guy and changes her life for the better. The first hour of this was something of a chore to sit through; Knepp and Rady are OK but no real chemistry builds between them. But Bonnie Bedelia saves the day giving a nicely low-key performance as the somewhat mysterious Joy. Based on Christmas movie conventions, we might assume that Joy will turn out to be a literal guardian angel, but that's not the case here. However, she is involved in a secondary plot line that I won't spoil—but as soon as you get to the scene where she causally notes that she's allergic to chocolate, you'll know what's going to happen. I liked Steve Bacic as what passes for a bad guy here—you can feel Bacic chomping at the bit for a better-developed character. This is a run-of-the-mill Christmas romance that you could take or leave. [Hallmark Channel]

Monday, December 07, 2020


At her San Francisco advertising agency, Jen is in the running for a big promotion; her only real competition is a brittle, unlikeable co-worker. After Jen impresses her boss with another great ad campaign, she takes some time off to head to Chestnut Hill, a small town in Alaska, to see about selling some property her great-aunt left her. It turns out to be a lovely little inn that was always nicely decorated for Christmas. And, of course, her great-aunt was also instrumental in holding the traditional Christmas festival. And, of course, some of the locals are hoping that she’ll decorate the inn and participate in the town festivities. She gets some help from her aunt’s lawyer, Brian, who is, of course, handsome and, though a little snarky at first, quite charming when she gets to know him. Sparks fly, but she soon gets a nibble from a big corporation about buying the inn, and then is called back to town to attend the company’s holiday party and get her promotion. The big city is calling her and the small town has its hold on Brian--can they find a way forward or was this just a Christmas almost-fling?

This Lifetime movie is a good example of how the lay of the land of the Christmas TV romance has changed. The plot is the same rehashing of genre elements (businesswoman under pressure, small-town guy who works with his hands--in addition to being the town lawyer, Brian also builds sleighs!) but the central couple is interracial and it’s not problematic for anyone. Also, perhaps because this is a Lifetime movie, the two leads are a little off-center from the norm. Tia Mowry (with whom I was unfamiliar but who became a teen star in the TV show Sister, Sister) carries a little more weight and age than her Hallmark sisters; Rob Mayes as Brian is a little scruffier and a little less hunky than his Hallmark brethren. But both are quite appealing and do generate enough chemistry for their budding relationship to feel real--stronger writing to develop the characters would have been nice. You know they are destined to wind up together, but I liked the fact that in the end, both are willing to give something up to be with each other (Spoiler: Brian flies to San Francisco to tell her he’ll give up Chestnut Hill to be with her, unaware that she has already turned down her promotion to go back and run the inn.) It was a pleasant surprise to see Jackée Harry and Tim Reid as Jen’s parents, though they only have two short scenes. There is the now obligatory romantic subplot with two supporting characters who unfortunately have no chemistry at all, and I was a little disappointed that the Christmas Inn itself is basically ignored for most of the movie, but overall I enjoyed this as a kicking-off point for my 2020 excursion into Christmas movies. [Lifetime]

Friday, December 04, 2020


After we see some quotations about evil spirits from various scriptures, we learn that convicted strangler Ruth Rogen has been sentenced to death, but Dr. Houston (H.B. Warner), convinced that Rogen's evil spirit could possess someone after her death, gets permission to take delivery of her to try and stop it. Meanwhile, another plotline develops involving Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard) trying to contact the spirit of her murdered brother John through medium Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart). We know Bavian is a fake because we've seen him sneak into a funeral parlor and take a plaster cast of John's face to use in his phony séance. He hopes to weasel his way into getting a chunk of the Courtney fortune, and when his landlady tries to blackmail Bavian, he kills her by stabbing her with a poison ring. At the séance, Roma is convinced by Bavian's trickery, but her boyfriend Grant (Randolph Scott) is skeptical. When they go visit Dr. Houston to see what he thinks, he's in the middle of trying to trap Rogen's soul, but the evil spirit actually does inhabit Roma and then tries to drive Roma to kill Bavian. This seems like one of the earliest talkies to assume that the supernatural is, in fact, real. Where most other movies of the time would ultimately explain everything as fakery, this one takes the presence of undead spirits as a given. Director Victor Halperin was fresh off of WHITE ZOMBIE, a low-budget but very effective horror film with Bela Lugosi which has gone on to develop a cult following. This one does have some stylish effects now and then, but its big city setting doesn't lend itself as much to atmosphere. For a movie that's roughly an hour long, it zips quickly through a lot of plot. It's got an unusual feel—part horror, part sci-fi, with some dry comic relief humor and even romance thrown in. I've never found Carole Lombard appealing, and she's no different here, though she does do a nice job of acting evil after she's possessed. Vivienne Osborne is fine as Rogen. Interesting mostly as a novelty. Pictured is Lombard getting possessed by Osborne. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 01, 2020


This is another movie serial fans consider one of the best, and it is indeed quite entertaining, with good special effects and some decent gimmicks which would have kept the kids coming back week after week to see each new chapter—there are 12 in all here, totaling over three and a half hours, and while I can't imagine watching all the chapters in one sitting, I had fun watching two at a time over a week or so, as preludes to my evenings’ lengthier entertainments. An archaeological expedition in Siam comes across an undesecrated tomb which contains a scorpion statue outfitted with lenses that, when aligned correctly, can change metal to gold and/or emit a powerful destructive ray. Young Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.), who seems to be along as a kind of mascot, decides to follow the warnings engraved on the wall of the tomb and refuses to enter. For this, he is rewarded when a strange ancient man appears and bestows the magical power of transformation on him; when Billy says the word "Shazam," he turns from a skinny teenager to a grown-up superhero (played by Tom Tyler). Batson keeps this power secret, but is forced to use it frequently when, back in the States, the expedition members each take one scorpion lens for safekeeping and are targeted by a costumed villain called the Scorpion. Most of the chapters involve the Scorpion and his henchmen staking out the house of one of the expedition members and making a stab at stealing the lens, with Captain Marvel falling into a trap at the end of the chapter and escaping at the beginning of the next chapter. As in most serials, there is virtually no character development, and no real narrative thrust aside from the cliffhanger structure. The only continuing suspense is in figuring out who the Scorpion is, and my husband, who had never watched an entire serial before, figured it out early on. Tyler is very wooden as Marvel, though Coghlan has an appropriate gee-whiz tone. The special effects are fairly good, especially the flying sequences, which use a life-sized dummy double of Marvel which is zipped through the air quite effectively—it's basically the same sequence used once or twice an episode.  Some serial regulars, such as Reed Hadley and Robert Strange, appear, but the only supporting player who really registers is John Davidson, another serial regular, as the turbaned exotic Tal Chotali who is so mysterious, you know he can't be the villain.  The best cliffhangers involve an electrified hallway with a guillotine at its end, and a ship sinking during a storm, and one of the most memorable moments involves Captain Marvel casually tossing one the villainous goons to his death, a callous act that you won't see in most superhero movies. The image quality of the DVD is good if not quite what I would call restored.  If you've never seen a serial, this would be a good one to start with. [DVD]

Friday, November 27, 2020

SPY SMASHER (1942 serial)

Before Pearl Harbor, when the United States is, in theory, neutral in the European war, a freelance agent is operating in Paris as the costumed figure Spy Smasher. He is caught by some Nazis as he looks for secret documents, is tortured, and set to be executed by firing squad. But the head of the squad is a resistance member and the squad is ordered to deliberately miss Spy Smasher so he is able to escape back to the States. On a train to Lakeside Junction, there is an incident with a Gestapo agent who thinks he recognizes Spy Smasher; the upshot is that we find out that Alan Armstrong, a journalist who was reported dead months ago, is Spy Smasher, but in Lakeside Junction he has a twin brother named Jack who decides to join him in his attempt to thwart Nazi sabotage in the U.S. Admiral Corby, whose daughter is engaged to Jack, is working in secret with Spy Smasher, not aware of his real identity. Their chief nemesis is known as The Mask and, as it happens, his henchmen are operating nearby, plotting to flood America with counterfeit money--the first of several nefarious plots to be attempted and then thwarted by the Armstrong brothers. 

This 12-episode serial from Republic is considered one of the best of the adventure serial era, and it really is. Kane Richmond, a handsome and sturdy star of B-movies, is perfect as both brothers—an effect accomplished mostly through use of a look-alike stand-in shot from the back or side. Though Richmond bragged about doing some of his own stunts, it's obvious here that he was doubled sometimes by ace stuntman David Sharpe (DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE) who is occasionally recognizable. Some chapters are practically non-stop brawling and the fights are pulled off with gusto--you can hear real grunts and groans as men are punched and tossed about. Even the old admiral gets a few punches in. Among the more effective cliffhangers: a flooding submarine torpedo room, a plunging elevator, a brick-cutting machine, a roaring fire, and a boat chase. In one of the best stunts of all time (mostly for its unexpectedness) Spy Smasher, in a free-for-all set in a garage, grabs a mechanic's sliding board and shoots himself under a car to emerge on the other side. He also uses a whip like Indiana Jones would do 40 years later. The baddies use a triangle-shaped "Bat Plane" which can take off and land more or less vertically. Spy Smasher is not shy about killing Nazis; this serial has more deaths than usual, including a rather shocking one at the end of chapter 11. Aside from Richmond, the rest of the cast is unmemorable, including Marguerite Chapman (the daughter), Sam Flint (the admiral), and Hans Schumm (the Mask, a particularly weak villain). But overall this is great fun and a must-see for serials fans. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


In San Francisco, the World Peace Foundation is concerned that known gunrunning warmonger Eric Hazarias (Lionel Atwill) is on the trail of a mysterious element, Meteorium 245, that can be used as a defense against atomic bombs and would be worth a lot of money on the illegal weapons market. It would seem that Hazarias has recently died in a car accident, but we discover that Hazarias had a double of himself killed so he could take on the persona of a scientist named Geoffrey London and provide the backing for an expedition to the Himalayan city of Pendrang in the country of Zalabar. An archeologist named Elmore and his daughter Marjorie are working with London to find the mysterious Glowing Goddess, which is actually a chunk of Meteorium, in a hidden temple in the jungle outside of Pendrang. The Peace Foundation sends agent Rod Stanton and his associate Tal Shan to investigate. They discover several things. First, they realize that London is indeed Hazarias, and that Elmore and Marjorie are in the dark about Hazarias and his real reason for wanting to find the temple. The jungle tribes may be difficult to negotiate with in order to gain access to the temple, and London has gone to Indra, owner of the Light of Asia Casino—like Rick's in CASABLANCA, everybody comes to the Light of Asia—for help. Eventually, Stanton also approaches Indra, but she (like Bogart's Rick) is reluctant to take a moral stand and won't commit to not helping Hazarias. Through the thirteen chapters of this serial, a lake is blown up, an earthquake is caused by radio transmissions, people are threatened by a fire pit and a guillotine, and finally, when the Glowing Goddess is found, it might be too dangerous for either the good guys or the bad guys to handle.

This Thanksgiving week, I'm reviewing a couple of the best of the classic-era serials. The budget for this one seems higher than the norm, or at least the budget for the sets is—the Light of Asia comes off as a low-rent but still respectable double of Rick’s Café. Instead of numbingly repetitious action scenes leading to cliffhangers leading to more action scenes, this movie actually develops a story along the way, while still keeping the cliffhanger tradition alive. Most notably, instead of a text crawl at the beginning of each chapter to keep audiences up to date on the plot, we get scenes at the World Peace Foundation in which the executive members discuss what they know based on communications from Stanton and Tal Shan. Yes, this becomes predictable but at least it's a shot at something different. Unfortunately, chunks of dialogue that provide exposition are still laced throughout the chapters, slowing the action down. But that's an occupational hazard of making movie serials.

The acting is, for the most part, nothing special. Russell Hayden (Stanton) is a bit lacking in the rough and tough hero qualities—he's mostly known for B-westerns, particularly for playing the sidekick in a couple dozen Hopalong Cassidy films, and he would have come off better here as a sidekick. As usual, the heroine, played acceptably  by Jane Adams as Marjorie, has little to do except get in trouble and help get the hero out of trouble. The case of Lionel Atwill is unusual. During filming, he became ill with cancer and had to bow out (and died just a day before the serial premiered). His climactic scenes in the last chapters had been filmed, but a character named Malborn was written in—ostensibly an underling of Hazarias's, he is revealed to be the actual mastermind of the search. Plotwise, this makes hash of the story, but it doesn't really ruin anything. Keye Luke as Tal Shan (pictured with Hayden) is the best actor; Helen Bennett as Indra is the worst. She gives an artificial performance full of whiny petulance, on top of which her character is often saddled with delivering exposition with the same petulant tone in her voice. There are lots of secondary characters, too many to really keep track of, but knowing them isn't necessary to following the plot. I'd recommend this for serials fans, and maybe even for newcomers to the genre. Viewed in chunks of 3 or 4 episodes at a time, this was quite enjoyable. And Zalabar is my new favorite fictitious country name. [TCM; available on DVD]

Sunday, November 22, 2020


We see a group of businessmen meeting at the home of Dr. Saunders, discussing what seem to be business matters. But we soon realize that this is a group of fifth columnists, Americans who are secretly in league with the Japanese and are behind a string of events (explosions, strikes) designed to hurt America if it enters the war against the Axis. Later in the evening, a mysterious man named Columb (Bela Lugosi) arrives, claiming to be very ill and needing to see Dr. Saunders. After a quick consultation, Saunders, almost as if in a trance, dismisses his friends and implies that Columb will be staying at the house for a while. One of the men, Kearney, gets in a cab and is surprised by the presence of Columb, who calls him by a Japanese name. The next time we see Kearney, he is dead on the steps of the Japanese embassy with a Japanese dagger clutched in his hand. Detective Dick Martin (Clayton Moore) traces Kearney back to Saunders' home and meets his visiting niece Alice (Joan Barclay) who has been away for several years. Both are concerned when Columb tells them that the doctor has fallen ill and can see no one, though he communicates with them through his bedroom door--where we can see that Columb is controlling him. One by one, each of the businessmen at that meeting is killed by Columb, found with the same kind of dagger. When only one, Hanlin, is left, he gets a note saying, "The others are expecting you before midnight." The cops, who have no reason to suspect Columb, use Hanlin as bait at Saunders' home. Will Columb get caught? Will we find out his motive?

This B-movie from Monogram is one of the first films put into production after Pearl Harbor, and it's an uncomfortable mix of thriller and wartime propaganda. The idea has promise but the script is a mess. It wasn't clear to me when the film takes place. An opening headline refers to the Japanese bombing of Honolulu during peace talks, an event that, as far as I know, never took place. But the Japanese are definitely the villains here, so I just settled into assuming this was a post-Pearl Harbor narrative. (Actually, I suspect that the original script was not tied to the war, but changes were made along the way that weren't fully thought through.) There are mystery elements in the film, but we know from the beginning that Lugosi is the killer, so the mystery isn't who but why. The far-fetched solution is kept from us until the last fifteen minutes and when it comes, it isn’t very logical--most reviews give away the ending, partly because it is so bizarre, but I won't here. The cheap production values keep everything happening on just a couple of claustrophobic-feeling sets, though the acting is a notch above Ed Wood's repertory company--though to be fair, not much is demanded of the actors. Even Lugosi, usually all-in for even the cheapest affairs, seems a little low-energy here. Clayton Moore, later TV's Lone Ranger, is a lead with little to do, and a romance that seems to be simmering with Joan Barclay goes nowhere. (Oddly, there are hints that Joan is flirting with Bela, something that is sort of explained near the end.)

But for all those negatives, I still had some fun watching this. Suspense is built well regarding Lugosi's motive, and when it's revealed, it’s jaw-droppingly weird, especially since many narrative details remain murky. I can imagine some critic trying to make the case, as has been done for Edgar G. Ulmer's Poverty Row classic Detour, that its lapses in logic and story are deliberately ambiguous, but that's a stretch. It was shot in January 1942 and released in March in an effort to seem timely, so the sloppiness is certainly par for the course for a B-studio rushing its product out. Still, the movie's very oddness and tacked-together feel are pluses for us B-movie fans. The phrase "No one is who they seem" applies in spades to this, and there is fun to be had in finding out who everyone actually is. Pictured are Barclay, Moore and Lugosi. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, November 16, 2020


On his honeymoon, British race car driver Alan Colby (Ronald Lewis) gets into a accident; his wife Denise (Diane Cilento) is injured, the other driver dies, and Alan gets a concussion and is forced to spend months recuperating. When they eventually take their delayed honeymoon in the South of France, Alan is still moody and tentative, and when he and Denise start making out, he is compelled to try to strangle her. This, of course, is quite a problem on a honeymoon. At a party held by eminent psychiatrist Dr. Prade (Claude Dauphin), Alan is quite obnoxious (Prade humorously calls him "unconventionally rude") and Alan eventually punches Prade in the face when it is suggested that he might have still have emotional problems related to the accident. Back in London, after another strangulation attempt, Denise gets Alan to see Dr. Prade professionally. Prade, suspecting that Alan's unclear memories of the auto accident are causing his problems, gets him to relive the crash and in theory, begin to recover, but the next morning, Denise is missing from their apartment and evidence points to her having been murdered—by Alan. The film bogs down a bit in the middle, then takes a couple of nifty twists in its last 20 minutes that I won't spoil—even if the main one is a bit predictable—and the conclusion is satisfying, despite some remaining plot holes. Overall, a watchable thriller with two good central performances by Lewis and Dauphin, and a weak one from Cilento, whose French accent is irritatingly overdone. Lewis's character is almost always rude and unlikeable, mostly due to the crash and its aftermath, which occasionally makes it difficult to be sympathetic to him, but the actor (pictured at right) gives a committed performance nonetheless. Dauphin's character has the patience of Job as he tries to help Alan, and Francoise Rosay has a small but interesting role as the psychiatrist's mother. A Hammer film but suspense, not horror. Aka, THE FULL TREATMENT. [DVD]

Thursday, November 12, 2020


After the death of her husband, Governor Dick Crawford, his widow Edith visits her brother, district attorney John Grant, with a stack of love letters she found from her husband's mistress. For some reason, Edith wants to make a public fuss in hopes of ruining the woman, but John reveals that he knows who she is, or was: convicted murderess Nora Moran. We get a flashback to the hours before her execution during which time she is told that she could be spared if she told her motive for the murder. She refuses, and as she drifts in and out of consciousness due to a sedative she's been given, we learn her story through more flashbacks. After her parents are killed in a car accident, she manages to get through dance school, and takes a job with a traveling circus as assistant to lion wrestler Paulino. One night he drunkenly rapes her and she leaves, finding a job dancing in a club where she meets Dick Crawford, a (married) man being groomed to run for governor. They begin an affair and he puts her up in a nice house where he spends Mondays and Fridays with her. John finds out about the affair and, as one of Dick's political cronies, goes to Nora and asks her to break it off. Nora agrees but, as it happens, her old circus is in town that night and she gets a visit from Paulino who says he's going to blackmail Dick to keep their affair out of the news. Next thing we know, Paulino is dead, Nora having apparently struck him in the head with a whip handle, and John is helping her to get rid of the body, but Nora is caught, tried, and found guilty. As governor, Dick could issue a pardon and he is tormented over doing so, especially because, as we eventually discover, it was actually Dick who struck the fatal blow. But she doesn't want a pardon so she goes to her death with the story of their affair still secret. But back in the present, we find out that Dick had killed himself just moments after Nora was executed.

This fairly straightforward plot is told in an elliptical fashion that made my viewing of this film a bit confusing—I'm not even certain that my summary is completely accurate. In addition to nested flashbacks and an occasional flash-forward, there are a couple of possible supernatural occurrences—including a wonderfully creepy moment when Paul and Dick are standing over her candlelit coffin before she's been executed—not to mention the fragmented timeline; my chronological summary does not necessarily reflect the order in which we see the story unfold. Some critics claim that Orson Welles was influenced by this movie in putting together CITIZEN KANE, but a high-profile film from the same year, THE POWER AND THE GLORY, is more likely Welles' inspiration. As a product of Majestic Pictures, a Poverty Row studio, this is pretty amazing, though a bigger budget might have led to a less messy screenplay. Zita Johann (Karloff's reincarnated lover in THE MUMMY) is excellent as the tragic Nora, and Alan Dinehart is impressive as John, a part that grows in importance as the movie goes on. Paul Cavanagh as Dick and John Miljan as Paulino are OK but both characters are a bit underwritten. This hits several pre-Code tropes: rape, adultery, and a surprisingly explicit suicide scene, and the dark shadowy look of the film would be more common later in the 1940s when film noir blossoms. The director, Phil Goldstone, uses some interesting transitional devices, like wipes and dissolves and a darkening of the frame as we move between places and time frames, giving much of the movie a dream-like feeling. Very interesting indeed, and ripe for re-watching, if only to try and iron out the story wrinkles. Pictured are Johann and Cavanagh. [TCM]

Monday, November 09, 2020


China in 1926 is a land of turmoil. Communists, nationalists and local warlords are in conflict (a British observer calls the country "a patchwork quilt of bandits, warlords, mobs, rape, loot and chaos") and American gunboats have been patrolling the waterways for years as "peacekeepers." But now Captain Collins of the U.S.S. San Pablo has been ordered to stay out of local conflicts and to use military force only to protect direct American interests, including a group of missionaries led by Rev. Jameson and his young assistant, teacher Shirley Eckert. The men of the San Pablo, nicknamed "sand pebbles" (a local mangling of the name of the ship) are both bored and tense, and there are simmering problems with the Chinese coolies who run things below deck. Into this situation comes Jake Holman, a newly assigned engineer. Jake's innocent enthusiasm for his job is greeted with cynicism by most of the sailors. He makes some enemies fairly quickly, but also a couple of friends, including a sailor named Frenchy--who has a Chinese mistress onshore--and a coolie named Po-Han who Jake quickly promotes to an important position to replace a troublesome supervisor. As the local situation deteriorates, the San Pablo finds itself stranded not just in terms of its duty but literally in low river water; despite some threats from the Chinese, the captain insists they stick to their neutral stance. It's obvious from the start that this film can be read as a metaphor for America's involvement in Vietnam, so it's clear that things will not turn out well for the Sand Pebbles.

This Robert Wise epic (three hours long, shot on location, and presented in theaters as a reserved-seat roadshow with an intermission) is alternately boring and engrossing. Though the political context may not always be clear if you're not already aware of Chinese history of the 20s, the main plot lines are character-driven and hold the viewer's interest. I've never been a fan of Steve McQueen (though I liked him the underrated Ibsen adaptation AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE) but he is excellent here as the loner with simmering internal conflicts who takes heroic stands when needed. Richard Attenborough is just as good as the likable Frenchy. Both men try and but are unable to save their friends--Jake's buddy Po-Han and Frenchy's mistress both meet tragic ends (Po-Han's last scene is almost unbearable to watch). The final conflict, with Jake helping the missionaries escape the local mayhem, is satisfying, and McQueen's famous last line ("What happened? What the hell happened?") serves as a final comment on the Vietnam parallels. All the acting is solid, including Mako as Po-Han, Richard Crenna as the conflicted captain, Charles Robinson as the captain’s right hand man, Candice Bergen as the mission teacher, and Simon Oakland and Joe Turkel as sailors. For a three-hour movie, a lot happens, but there are also some long stretches of philosophizing and exposition--the movie might have been more effective if it came in a half an hour shorter. A good movie for a long Saturday afternoon, as long as a downbeat ending won't spoil your weekend. Pictured are McQueen and Bergen. [DVD]

Thursday, November 05, 2020


It's the future and much of Europe—including Amsterdam, Vatican City, and parts of London—are in ruins due to some unspecified wars. We meet Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch), a wealthy Nobel Prize-winning scientist who looks, dresses and acts like a swinging 1960s playboy, at the Viking-style funeral of his father, also an important scientist. His Indian mentor, Prof. Hira, tells Jerry that mankind's "long dark age" (which began around 3000 BC) is about to end, though that doesn't sound especially positive, given the state of the world. Jerry's dealing with some folks, led by Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre), who are desperate to get their hands on some microfilm left in his father's belongings. They refer to it as "the final programme" and it apparently involves the creation of an immortal self-replicating human being who would inherit the earth when we all kill ourselves off. To get into the family mansion, which has been taken over by Jerry's crazy brother Frank, Jerry enlists the aid of the faithful butler (Harry Andrews). In addition to the microfilm, Jerry is also trying to save his sister Catherine who is being held as a drug-addled prisoner in the house. There's a strong incest vibe going on here, but it’s ignored narratively—and speaking of narrative, after Jerry breaks into the house, any straightforward plot is more or less tossed out the window. Some things that happen: we see a life-sized pinball machine with people rolling around in large transparent balls (pictured at left); we see that Miss Brunner is pansexual in her tastes, and apparently literally absorbs her lovers physically after sex; we see what looks like a washing machine but is actually the world's most complex computer ("Does she do spin-dry as well?" someone asks); and we see an occasional needle-gun fight break out. 

If you can get through the middle of this strange, muddled, dystopian, satiric sci-fi comedy/drama, the storyline is clarified somewhat in the last 20 minutes, though I must warn you that the ambiguous ending does not give the closure you might want—I actually quite liked it though some viewers feel it's kind of a throwaway punch line. The movie is probably best enjoyed as a series of 60s setpieces (it was filmed in 1973 but feels much more like a relic of the 1960s). Sterling Hayden has a cameo as an American military advisor, and he's clearly riffing on his role as the dangerously paranoid General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. The intense Patrick Magee (the writer whose wife is raped in A Clockwork Orange) has an enjoyably nutty cameo. Renowned character actor Hugh Griffith has two brief scenes as Hira, and the reliable George Coulouris (Thatcher in Citizen Kane) is one of the scientists trying to get the microfilm. For me, Finch is a weak link, though that may be due to his character, a creation of writer Michael Moorcock who appeared in several novels. Here, he is passive, unsympathetic, and isn't as smart or sexy as the role would seem to demand. One wishes that the filmmakers had a bigger budget for their sets and effects, though occasionally, as with the pinball room or the psychedelic sex scene at the climax (no pun intended), the director, Robert Fuest of the Dr. Phibes movies, gets it right. [Blu-ray]

Monday, November 02, 2020


Annie Oakley (Barbara Stanwyck, pictured) is a backwoods gal known locally as quite a sharpshooter, and when she sees an ad for contestants to shoot against the famous Toby Walker (Preston Foster), a star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, she goes to Cincinnati to compete. When she arrives, everyone is surprised to see a woman, as they all assumed Annie was Andy. She gives Toby a run for his money, but ultimately she's dazzled by him (her mother suggests that "he was just too pretty" to lose) and she throws the competition to let him win. However, she is noticed by talent scout Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas) who hires her to tour with the Wild West Show, basically a recreation of Old West life which features rodeo performers and a reenactment of Indian battles. Annie's skills with a gun are beyond reproach, but her showmanship needs some polish, so Toby volunteers to teach her how to present herself more appealingly. Soon, she's a hit, and both Toby and Jeff fall for her. Chief Sitting Bull is so impressed by her that he joins up with the show. One day, a crazy man with a grudge against Indians tries to shoot Sitting Bull. Toby saves him, but the gun blast goes off close to his face and his eyesight is damaged, affecting his performance. Because of his eyesight, Toby accidentally wounds Annie in the hand during a performance. People think he did it on purpose because he was jealous of her acclaim, and he is fired from the show. Toby drifts into obscurity and Annie's star rises. The movie veers into "Star is Born" territory here, but this ending is happier, if a bit far-fetched.

As in many of my reviews of historical and biographical movies, I must admit I know little about Oakley except that she was married to sharpshooter Frank Butler and both were part of the Buffalo Bill show. Most of the rest of the narrative here is fictional, and even though it's not real, it is compelling enough. Stanwyck plays Oakley as innocent but not stupid and though she doesn't get much chance to really shine acting-wise, she holds the viewer's attention well. Foster is handsome but a bit wooden as Toby; Douglas is more effective as the third point of the romantic triangle, to the point where you start to root for him to get Annie. Pert Kelton has a nice turn as Toby's hotsy-totsy ex (imagine a slightly tamped-down Mae West). A Native American actor who went by Chief Thunderbird is fine as Sitting Bull. At some point, someone uses the phrase, "Well, dog my cats!" which I learned as a youngster and still use when appropriate--and, well, it’s always appropriate. [TCM]

Friday, October 30, 2020


An old man hires a psychic investigator (Clive Revill) to stay at the infamous Belasco mansion, referred to as the "Mt. Everest of haunted houses," to get the facts on whether or not there is survival after death. The house is supposedly haunted by the malevolent spirit of the decadent Emeric Belasco, and previous attempts at finding the truth were disastrous. Revill brings his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt), a young medium (Pamela Franklin) and a young man who barely escaped with his life during a previous investigation of the house (Roddy McDowell). Franklin is a mental medium, McDowell a physical one, but somehow Franklin is involved in some physical manifestations—chandeliers swinging, tables jumping, ectoplasm extruding. The invisible spirit of Belasco's son Daniel plays shenanigans in Franklin's room. In addition to these apparently ghostly doings, mental and emotional strains appear among the four. Eventually, Revill uses electronics to "de-energize" the house, but it doesn't work and "mindless directionless power" is unleashed even as the investigators try to put the restless spirit of Belasco to rest.

Throughout this movie, I couldn't help but make comparisons to the far superior film THE HAUNTING (1963), with its similar plotlines about psychic experts in a haunted house. This is like a Hammer remake of THE HAUNTING, with the main difference being that any ambiguity about the existence of ghosts is gone; from early on, we see phenomena that cannot be explained away rationally. (Even the occasionally distorting camera angles from THE HAUNTING are used here.) The issue to be solved isn't whether or not the supernatural activity is real, but why Emeric Belasco is haunting the house—and is it actually Belasco behind it all? But the set-up, the house, and even the characters—the academic lead investigator, the emotionally off-balance team member (McDowell is the stand-in here for Julie Harris)—all call up the earlier movie, and this film, though it has its moments, will always lose out to Robert Wise's creepy classic. Still, this is worth seeing for horror fans. The screenplay is by the reliable Richard Matheson who wrote the original novel, the acting is fine if not stellar, with McDowell giving an "old pro" performance as the nervous and neurotic ghostbuster, and Revill nicely in command as the rational one. Not a masterpiece, but recommended for horror fans. Pictured are McDowell and Hunnicut. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 28, 2020


Ellen West arrives in Cornwall one rainy night and has her cab driver let her out near a graveyard, wanting to take a short cut through it. The driver says no good can come of being in a graveyard at night but she insists, though she soon regrets it when she sees the headstone of Francis Real, who died in the 1700s, start shaking. His grave erupts and something (that we don't see but that Ellen does) comes flying out and up into the sky. Understandably, this drives Ellen into hysterics. The next day in the hospital, she claims that what came out of the grave was a giant vulture with a human face. We are then introduced to our primary cast of characters: landowner Brian Stroud, his niece Trudy, her American husband Eric, Brian's brother Edward, and Prof. Koniglich, an older man who walks on two crutches due to a recent fall. We also piece together the story of Francis Real. He was apparently buried alive with his dead pet vulture and a box of gold coins. While some believe that it was the resurrection of the vulture that broke open his grave, calmer heads think that someone was trying to find the gold in the grave. However, we also hear that there may be a curse on the Stroud family, as they were responsible for Real's death, and it is suggested that the Strouds avoid the outdoors at night, just in case there is a giant vulture man on the loose. One night, Brian ignores the warning by stepping out onto his balcony, and sure enough, gigantic talons come down from above and take him away; his body is found smashed on the rocks. Edward is the next to die by the same method, which leaves Trudy vulnerable to the curse unless her husband can figure out what's up.

The premise sounds rather ridiculous in summary, though given a bigger budget and the expertise of some studio like Hammer, it might have been pulled off. But the very weak cast, convoluted script, and poor monster effects make this a tedious exercise indeed. Robert Hutton is uninspiring at best as the hero, and Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford clearly would rather be anywhere than in this movie. Diane Clare is drab as milk as Trudy, which leaves Oscar-nominated old pro Akim Tamiroff as the sole bright spot as the mysteriously crippled German doctor. But he can't carry the whole movie on his back (or is that, wings?). The folklore-ish tale of the Strouds is rather silly—there is an attempt to base some of this on an Easter Island bird-god named Manutara, but that goes nowhere. There is an interesting mix of legend (the story of Real and the vulture) and science (nuclear—pronounced by Hutton as "nook-u-ler"—transmutation) in the solution, but the number of scenes of expository dialogue and of people driving from place to place scuttle the storyline. This got shown with some frequency on my local Friday night Chiller Theater show in the 70s, but I never caught it, so I was sort of happy to finally see it, but it’s difficult to recommend. The poster (at right) is spookier than almost any scene in the movie. [YouTube]

Monday, October 26, 2020

KONGA (1961)

Botanist Charles Decker (Michael Gough) is missing and presumed dead when his plane goes down in uncharted African jungles, but a year later, he returns to England; having been befriended by a native tribe, he stayed with then for a time, studying the rather exotic carnivorous plants that bloomed near their village. He brings back a few of those plants, and is also accompanied by a chimp named Konga. Decker, theorizing that these plants have almost-human properties, thinks they may be a missing evolutionary link between plants and humans. He creates a growth serum from the plants and gives it, in controlled doses, to Konga who is soon human sized. When he gets in trouble with his university for making outrageous claims to the press, Decker hypnotizes Konga to follow his commands, and the first one is to kill the university dean. Later he sics the beast on a rival botanist and when Decker falls for a young student named Sandra, he has Konga get rid of her more age-appropriate boyfriend. When his housekeeper Margaret (who has an unrequited crush on Decker) gets jealous, she pumps Konga full of the serum, resulting in his explosive growth; he crashes through the roof of the house and goes on a destructive rampage through London. Unlike in KING KONG, Beauty won't kill this beast as Sandra winds up as food for the carnivorous plants. Here, it's Decker who Konga picks up to take on his rampage. Eventually, with military might unleashed, both meet their fate below Big Ben, and on his death, poor Konga shrinks back to baby chimp size.

KONGA was part of the late-50s-early-60s horror movie revival which often put young people front and center (THE BLOB, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN), and here we have the lovely Clarie Gordon as Sandra and the nice-looking Jess Conrad, a minor British pop singer, as her boyfriend Bob. But they are both overshadowed by old pro Gough chewing the scenery as another nutty older guy (see HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM) who gets more unhinged as the various passions around him--Margaret for him, he and Bob for Sandra--go out of control. The giant Konga effects mostly involve a man in a gorilla suit against miniatures and matte shots, and the scenes of Konga bursting the house apart are almost laughable. The worst effect is of Decker (holding stock still) in Konga's huge fist--it was done much better 30 years earlier in KING KONG. The best effects are some shots of the creepy carnivorous plants in Decker's greenhouse that chew and move in an almost sexual manner. If you're nostalgic for this monster movie era, catch it. [Streaming]

Friday, October 23, 2020


At the end of REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, the Creature from the Black Lagoon was heading into the dark waters of the ocean to die from gunshot wounds after his brief stay at a Florida oceanarium. Now, the somewhat highly strung Dr. Barton is heading into the Everglades to find the Creature. He is accompanied by his disgruntled wife Marcia—what other kind of wife is there in these monster movies?— the hunky guide Jed Grant (love triangle, anyone?), and the handsome assistant Tom Morgan (the smart beefcake). Barton's plan is to experiment with the Creature to bypass evolution and change him genetically into a whole new kind of being. Tom warns against this (tampering in God’s domain and all), but they find the creature and dose him with a sedative. While getting him on the boat, he is accidentally set on fire. With his gills injured beyond repair, Morgan operates on him to allow him to breathe air, and he begins mutating in other ways to become more human. The docile creature is put in a cage and surrounded by bad behavior on the part of the humans—the boorish hunk Jed who keeps trying to get his hands on Marcia, and, despite his seeming good intentions, the deteriorating mad scientist Barton. In fact, as other viewers have pointed out, as the monster becomes more human, Barton becomes more monstrous, until among the physical (and psychological) wreckage, the Creature is the most pitiable figure of all, facing a very sad end. Though not as compelling a movie as the first two Black Lagoon movies, this is perhaps the most interesting thematically, with the Creature truly adrift in the world not his own. Unfortunately, the story itself is a bit repetitious: Jed keeps hitting on Marcia, Barton keeps getting crazier, and Tom stands around observing and trying to keep things on an even keel. Rex Reason (Tom) looks good as the smart hunk but doesn't get to do much; Jeff Morrow (Barton) is crazy-eyed from the beginning; Gregg Palmer (Jed) is passable as the loutish hunk; Leigh Snowden seems pretty much interchangeable with the other Creature heroines (Julie Adams in the original, Lori Nelson in REVENGE). While there's not a lot here to recommend—though the Creature on fire scene is very cool—there's no reason not to watch it if you’ve seen the other two. Pictured are Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason. [Blu-ray]