12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
Fei ying gai wak = Operation Condor / directed by Jackie Chan (1991, VHS). Jackie Chan, Carol 'Do Do' Cheng, Eva Cobo, Shôko Ikeda, Aldo Sambrell. Not to be confused with the real-life Operation Condor of the 1970s, a highly organized campaign of terror, torture, and assassination by the right-wing governments of South America performed with the aid of the United States. In this Operation Condor, Jackie Chan not only is the star, but also the director and co-writer-- basically giving us Jackie in his pure form: an action hero with superb comic timing. Badly dubbed with weird inflections, the Indiana Jones/Nazi gold plot (such as it is) is hard to follow, but who cares? Filled with bad Mideastern and German stereotypes, the villains all have the look of the henchmen in the Adam West Batman series of the 1960s. Apparently Jackie sees women as lovable but basically ineffective in a charming way when it comes to doing battle with the baddies. Fast-paced, incredibly corny, and funny-- with half of the laughs being unintentional. Go Jackie!
"Future Echoes" (Red Dwarf, series I, byte 1) / directed by Ed Bye (1988, VHS). Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Norman Lovett, John Lenahan (voice). Thanks to the senile spaceship computer Holly attempting to attain beyond light speed, the crew have a chance to see "future echoes," images of events that will happen in the future. Lister gets an opportunity to see himself at age 171 and he learns he will have two sons, anticipating a hook into a later episode. Talky Toaster makes his debut (I wish I had one). Holly performs a passive/aggressive act upon Rimmer's hairstyle. Favorite line: "Everyone dies. You're born and you die. The bit in the middle is called 'Life' ..."
Pao Da Shuang Deng = Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker / directed by Ping He (1994, VHS). Jing Ning, Xiaorui Zhao. A tale of forbidden love set in China on the eve of the Xinhai Revolution. My Western filter translates the title to mean Red as in love, Green as in jealousy. A young girl inherits control of a fireworks factory, making her the virtual manager in a company town. Along comes the lone antihero drifter, an artist, and, well, you know the rest because you've seen it a zillion times. As A. Whitney Brown said, "There are a billion people in China. It's not easy to be an individual in a crowd of more than a billion people. Think of it. More than a billion people. That means even if you're a one-in-a-million type of guy, there are still a thousand guys exactly like you." The portrayal of corporate slavery is brutal at times in this film, but that is offset by the gushy and slow-moving melodrama. The voiceovers of the two main characters is jarring. Background animal noises are used as signatures of moods: barking dogs means there is too much testosterone going on, caged birds reflect the character of the heroine, rooster's crow is pride, etc. Although the visuals in this movie are outstanding, it is difficult to tell if the haze in most shots was an intentional way of demonstrating the town is Fireworks Central, or if that was really a reflection of China's current pollution problem. There is an amazing and eerie scene with dancing monks that was all too short. Also a fireworks contest that should be included in the Darwin Awards. The ending has a couple nice bittersweet twists but it sure felt like it took a very long time to get there.
"I've Been Here Before" (Car 54 Where Are You?) / directed by Stanley Prager (1963, VHS off-air). Fred Gwynne, Joe E. Ross, Jake LaMotta, Dort Clark (uncredited). Toody shows classic symptoms of A.D.D. when he cannot concentrate on his police textbooks and instead watches the "Crimebusters" television program every night. But as it turns out, the broadcast helps him solve crimes where the books fall short. Yes, that's boxing legend Jake LaMotta in the credits. He plays a thug named "Bugsy." Joe E. Ross is a trip.
Sahara Hare / directed by Friz Freleng (1955, VHS off-air). Mel Blanc (voice). Bugs vs. Yosemite Sam with the stage being the Sahara Desert, which Bugs mistakes for Miami Beach when he first arrives. Sam's camel is a nice touch. The TV version omits Sam's acts of violence against the animal. Daffy Duck makes a cameo appearance. Although at one point Bugs calls to Sam, "Yoo hoo, Mr. A-rab!" the little red-haired varmit hunter is still the crusty character out of the Old West: "Great horny toads! A trespasser! Gettin' footy-prints all over my desert!" Mel Blanc must've had a blast doing what he did.
"The Abbey Grange" (The Return of Sherlock Holmes) / directed by Peter Hammond (1986, VHS off-air). Jeremy Brett, Edward Hardwicke, Anne-Louise Lambert, Oliver Tobias. In a case Holmes calls "exceedingly remarkable," he wonders why the victims of a mansion invasion and assault (which resulted in the murder of a family member) would shield the perpetrators. More so than most episodes, we really do get the sense we are watching the story unfold through the eyes of Holmes' friend and colleague, Dr. Watson. As in some other stories, Holmes presumes to take the law into his own hands and acts as judge. But this time he appoints Watson as the one-person jury, "Vox Populi, Vox Dei." Perhaps it is the fact he is one quarter French that the Great Detective has a soft spot for crime passionnel. Brett is in wonderful form, giving us entertaining glimpses of Holmes' enormous ego, discomfort with women, and dedication to justice. We get to actually hear Holmes say, "The game is afoot." Hammond's direction jumps around a little too much for my tastes. It is slightly scattered in a way that seems inspired by Oliver Stone-- it isn't to the point of wrecking the story, it's just a little annoying.
The Stepford Husbands / directed by Fred Walton (1996, VHS). Donna Mills, Michael Ontkean, Cindy Williams, Louise Fletcher, Jeffrey Pillars. This made for CBS TV movie could've been entitled Invasion of the Body SNAGgers. What can you say about a film that starts out with a downer shotgun murder/suicide? As it turns out, they are the lucky ones, being spared the humiliation of having their acting careers damaged by close connection with this bowser. In a scenario that would confirm the worst fears and paranoia of conservatives who enjoy using the term "FemiNazi," the men of Stepford are "rehabilitated" from angry, punch-in-the-nose, sports-loving, scotch-drinking, shopping-hating normal guys into docile, domestic, obedient and passionless drones who always put the toilet lid back down. There is no middle ground in Stepford. Louise Fletcher picks up where she left off from her role as Nurse Ratshit in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. I found almost all of the acting in here to be stilted and awkward, with the exception of Jeffrey Pillars who played the before-and-after beer swilling neighbor. The best scene in this movie was where we see Donna Mills using the newspapers on microfilm in her local public library to solve a major mystery. In the end, love conquers all. Isn't that nice? Remember, the "fast forward" button can be your friend, or better yet, the "eject" option.
Unbreakable / directed by M. Night Shyamalan (2000, VHS). Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn. M. Night Shyamalan knows how to tell a story. His ability to reveal the essence of a character within just a few minutes is a form of cinematic poetry. The world of superhero comic art and comic books serves as the stage for the adventure of two opposites. Willis is good as the quiet and somewhat sad hero attempting to find a purpose in the world. Jackson is incredible as the twisted comic art dealer who considers his subject with such gravity that it becomes very funny. He wears the clothes, drives the car, maintains the expression, and holds on to an obsession worthy of a supervillain. The director visually presents the tale as if it was a comic book. Certain colors are associated with definite characters or types, many of the shots are framed as if they were cartoon panels, and several images are given to us from a "skewed perspective" (mostly, but not always associated with Jackson): mirrors, reflections, upside down points of view. The camera does a lot of panning, following the dialogue from speaker to speaker. The long unbroken pan where Willis emerges from the hospital and is reunited with his family is one of the most amazing graphic tricks in the story. Very nice soundtrack, and Shyamalan does something I'll call an "audio zoom," playing with sound the same way a camera zooms in and out. Maybe this is due to my own activities as a cartoonist, but I believe this is a better film than his previous Sixth Sense.
Wishful Thinking / directed by Murray Langston (1990, VHS). Murray Langston, Michelle Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Billy Barty, Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini. The "Unknown Comic" unmasks himself and writes, directs and acts as the lead in his own movie. In it he plays an agoraphobic screenwriter who is subject to a major scam but still finds his true love. This mixture of Walter Mitty with Gaslight is low brow, low grade, low budget, and the low tide in jokes. Yet I still laughed at many parts. There is a major element missing, perhaps in the comic timing. It almost has the feel of film that has been dubbed into English. Yet Langston was able to deliver the same sort of delightfully bad jokes here and there that he did onstage. As an in-joke, a bank robber in the story wears a bag over his head just as the Unknown Comic did. A college student probably could've produced and directed a motion picture just like this one. But they didn't. Langston did. I've seen worse from bigger directors with bigger budgets. One word: Zardoz. Wishful Thinking is good for watching during a pizza party after an evening of bowling. Once. Nice to see Billy Barty again.
The Skin Game / directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1931, DVD). C.V. France, Helen Haye, Edmund Gwenn, Phyllis Konstam. Awful and barely watchable. A class war involving land use between old money and nouveau riche families descends into hardball sleaze-- including blackmail. Slow, yet it has a hurried feeling. Murky and melodramatic. The most exciting scene where we see a glimpse of the Hitchcock we love was the auction action early in the story. I do believe I heard someone emit a flatulent sound and Hitch just left it in. After all, this was the early era of talkies and cinema audio was novel. Farts happen in real life, why not include it? Hitch always was a pioneer. Phyllis Konstam as the Bad Girl was the only cast member allowed to act and not merely recite lines.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla / directed by William Beaudine (1952, DVD). Bela Lugosi, Duke Mitchell, Sammy Petrillo, Charlita. Petrillo and Mitchell had made a short-lived career as Martin and Lewis copycats. They could be seen on the nightclub circuit in the early 1950s. Before Jerry Lewis shut them down, they managed to get one movie under their belts. Duke Mitchell, who treats us to a few musical numbers, is no Dean Martin. It doesn't help that his movie wardrobe made him look like a supporting character out of The Birdcage. Petrillo's Jerry sometimes out-Jerrys Jerry. He manages to be almost as annoying as that kid in Shane-- quite an achievement! While Mitchell and Petrillo were on the on the way up (granted, it was a short ride), Lugosi was in descent. Yet he was still very much the Big Star here. Hey, his name was in the title! Even in double Z films in the last decade of his tortured life, Lugosi was able to bring a certain decayed elegance to the worst of films. He does get to use the line, "a very interesting cranium!" and also explains the theory of evolution as he performs ungodly experiments in genetics. The plot includes Hollywood's idea of an aboriginal tribe, gorilla suits, and a real chimp-- so as we all know, no good can come from this combination. William "One Shot" Beaudine rivals Ed Wood in the Bad Director Department. Beaudine has several Woodian touches, such as inappropriate music for the action, lots of stock footage, no-budget production values. But he lacks Wood's enthusiasm, vision, and, yes, I'll say it, genius.
A Christmas Story / directed by Bob Clark (1983, VHS off-air). Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Peter Billingsley, Jean Shepherd (narrator). One of the all-time great family films presenting Jean Shepherd's view of the Christmas season in an Indiana town around 1939 through the eyes of a 9-year old boy. With the anticipation of Christmas morning as the hub, we follow the boyhood rituals of dares, dealing with bullies, manipulating adults, getting punished with soap in the mouth, sibling relations, and daydreaming. The central character, Ralphie, desires a Red Ryder BB-gun rifle and is met with the "you'll shoot you eye out" response from the world of grown-ups. Thus his challenge and quest is set. Shepherd's writing and delivery really make the movie, particularly concerning the father, played by McGavin. In describing the Old Man's battle with the oil furnace, Shephard tells us: "In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenity that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan." I particularly enjoyed Shepherd's comment on the Old Man and his car: "Some men are Baptists. Others Catholic. My father was an Oldsmobile man." There is one part where the mother (wonderfully played by Dillon) scoffs at the Old Man's interest in a newspaper article about a man swallowing a yo-yo, to which he replies, "What do you mean 'silly'? That's real news! That's not like politics slop!" Shades of Carl Kolchak! The scene where Ralphie visits Santa is priceless, and something of a coming of age for him in a myth-busting way. Impressive production values throughout the film and excellent casting. The soundtrack alternates between inspired (using classical and popular music of the time) and sappy. This movie served as template for the television series Wonder Years.