Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
A horse brings murder to Baskerville Hall

Murder at the Baskervilles (aka "Silver Blaze") (1937)
Starring: Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming, Lyn Harding, John Turnbull Lawrence Grossmith and Arthur Goullett
Director: Thomas Bentley
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Wontner and Fleming) are spending some quiet time in the country at the home of their old friend Sir Henry Baskerville (Grossmith) when an attempt to fix a race involving Sir Henry's prize horse Silver Blaze leads to a double murder.

Although this was Arthur Wontner's final outing as Sherlock Holmes--after a string of five films that caused critics of the day to describe him as the perfect screen Sherlock Holmes--I am choosing to make it the first of his films that I include in the Sherlock Sunday line-up, because of my love of continuity. Story-wise, it seems like it is best placed before the other Wontner Holmes films currently easily available, because it has him still actively employed as a detective and it describes his first direct clash with Professor Moriarty.

I can see Wontner's Holmes appeals to both fans and critics alike. He, moreso than any other actor in the role I've considered in a critical mindset, resembles the illustrations from the original printings in "Strand Magazine" and his Holmes is lively without being too aggressive and often sardonic without being excessively cruel to those he puts down. Best of all, from my perspective, although he is not shy about showing Watson how much smarter he is, he still treats him with the consideration due a friend and one never wonders why Watson bothers spending time with him. Wontner presents a charming Holmes that is somewhat low key when compared to the actors who followed him, but still entertaining. (And watching this Wontner film again makes me think that there must be another reason for why I didn't find Matt Frewer's Sherlock Holmes particularly engaging as the two portrayals are very similar.)

As for Watson, Ian Fleming provides a decent if unremarkable portrayal of Holmes' friend and biography. Both from the way the role is written and the way Fleming portrays Watson, it easy to understand why Holmes associates with him, which is a flaw in many on-screen interperations of the character. Watson even gets a moment in the sun when he is captured by Moriarty's men and remains brave in the face of certain death.

Speaking of Moriarty, who, like Sir Henry Baskerville has been added to the mix by the writers of this adaptation, I very much like the approach taken to him in his film. He and his main henchman, Colonel Moran, are set up like dark reflections of Holmes and Watson. Moriarty is to the underworld what Holmes is to the law-abiding citizen, a genius to whom they can appeal for help when all other avenues have been exhausted. It adds a great deal to the flavor of Moriarty and it makes it even clearer why the two men admired and hated each other so much and why it was so hard for one to defeat the other. (At least in concept. For a criminal mastermind, Moriarty is somewhat hamfisted and clumsy in this particular caper, although that can be excused by his own admission that fixing horse races is not his usual area of activity.)

All-in-all, this is a pleasant Holmes film. It's a little on the bland side, but I think fans of Holmes and 1930s mystery pictures will enjoy it. It's a shame that there does not appear to be a decent copy available on the DVD market. (I've come across three different versions, all equally faded and ragged... perhaps even taken from the same print?)

(I mentioned Matt Frewer's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes above. I invite you to check out my review of "A Royal Scandal" by clicking here and perhaps even leave a comment about why I might be wrong about Frewer as Sherlock Holmes.)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

'Runaway Jury' is topnotch courtroom drama

Runaway Jury (2003)
Starring: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz
Director: Gary Felder
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Rankin Fitch (Hackman) is THE jury consultant--a man who, with a large team of investigators and specialists behind him can deliver just about any verdict his corporate clients want him to deliver, by making sure that whatever jury they want seated is seated, and by giving their attorneys the best possible coaching on his to manipulate those jurors once the trial has started. Fitch will also do whatever it takes to never lose. However, when he is hired by a gun manufacturer to handle a wrongful death suit in brough in New Orleans by Wendell Rohr (Hoffman), Fitch finds himself challenged by a mysterious blackmailer (Weisz) who is manipulating the jury from outside of the courtroom, and a juror (Cusack) whose mundane surface during jury selection was a cover for the cypher that is his true nature.

"Runaway Jury" is a highly watchable and greatly entertaining courtroom drama/thriller/mystery film. The cast of wall-to-wall great actors--with special recognition going to Hackman--and the shifting perceptions of who and what the various characters are as the film unfolds will keep those who enjoy this kind of film watching each twist with great anticipation.

The film also features a Big Secret and a Big Revelation at its climax, which, unlike so many other thrillers of recent vintage, actually works, and this despite the fact that it's quite far fetched. This could be due to the fact that it's based on a John Grisham novel, but it could also be to the credit of a well-written script. Whatever the reason, I wish there were more filmmakers who could pull this sort of movie these days.

For more about John Grisham's books and the movies based on them, visit John Grisham Online.

Friday, February 26, 2010

'Disk Jockey' is a quirky gangster film

Disk Jockey (2005)
Starring: Devyan DuMon, Josh Fallon, and Kristin Busk
Director: Zachary Yoshioka
Steve's Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Dane (DuMon) and Frankie B (Fallon) a pair of hitmen who are as fast with their mouths as they are with their triggers, have spent the past six years attempting to track down a computer disk stolen by a former partner, a disk that is a complete record of all the murders they've committed. Just as it seems to be within their grasp, a mysterious trio of gun-toting women snatch it away. Will our murderous heroes prevail (particularly since they only have a 60-minute movie to do so in)?

"Disk Jockey" is a strange little gangster movie that moves with lightning-fast speed from action to goofy comedy to third-wall self-mockery and back again, in a completely unpredictable fashion. This random mix of elements gives the film a playful quality and makes for interesting viewing. The actors very clearly seem to be having while making the film is also transferred to those watching it.

The film is all the more fun to watch in that its leads are actually pretty competent actors. DuMon manages to both be funny and menacing as a hitman who likes to bake pastries in his off-hours, while Fallon shines as the film's third-wall narrator (causing the action to literally freeze in place when he turns to address the viewer) and an annoying "gangsta"-type character.

Another strong aspect of the film is that the director didn't feel the need to pad it to a particularly running length. It runs a very fast, barebones 60 minutes, and not a single second is wasted. I wish more low-budget directors would take this approach. (That said, I think the film might have benefited from a couple of real character development scenes.)

On the downside, there are times when the actors are having just a little too much fun and the film crosses moves well past the line between goofiness and stupidity, such as when one of the female assassins decides to climb some monkeybars while they are covertly sneaking into a house early in the film. The film (and the actors) are also just a little too playful in an extended fight sequence between our "heroes" and their female competitors; either more practice was needed on the part of the actors, or more care was needed to have been taken in filming the fights, because I've rarely seen stage fighting so badly presented on film. Even the most generous viewer won't be able to find the fight convincing, because it's obvious that none of the kicks or blows connect. Basically, it is so obvious that everyone is play-acting that it's impossible to get into the film at those points. (On the other hand, the gun violence is rather nicely done.)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

My name is Jean Claude....

A regular name and face in these parts will be Jean Claude Van Damme, a favorite of mine among the action stars who flourished in the 1980s and 1990s (not to mention starring in one of the best movies of the decade just gone by, "JCVD").

Here's a novelty video featuring Van Damme unlike any other you're likely to see. It features a looped clip of the Muscles From Brussels as an extra in the 1984 film "Breakin'". (Beware... the tune is likely to get stuck in your head for several days.)

This bit of weirdness comes to us via Chuck Norris Ate My Baby.

A 1960s satire that remains relevant

The President's Analyst (1967)
Starring: James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden, and Joan Delany
Director: Theodore J. Flicker
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When Dr. Sidney Shaefer (Coburn) is recruited to be the President of the United States' personal psycho-analyst, he is thrilled and honored. However, being the person the most powerful man in the world can confide in soon becomes too much pressure for Sidney to bear, and, while suffering from a nervous breakdown, he flees Washington, D.C.. This is when his real troubles begin, however, as every foreign intelligence agency in the world (including the Canadian Secret Service) want to capture him and force him to reveal the president's secrets.

"The President's Analyst" is a hilarious satire that skewers the internal politics of the American intelligence and law enforcement services, pokes fun at American society in general, and spoofs the ever-popular chase-thriller. Although some small portions of the film are dated--like the hippies that Shaefer hooks up with while on the run, the obvious spoof of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and the scene where the gun-toting liberal from New Jersey explains to Shaefer how he sponsored the "colored family" to move into the neighborhood--most of the comedy remains fresh and even relevant forty years after the film's initial release, marking it as a true classic.

In fact, given how Hollywood seems to be cranking out more and more remakes of movies that don't need to be remade, I'm surprised that we didn't seen a remake of "The President's Analyst" back when everyone in Hollywood was trying to show how George Bush was eeeevil. Perhaps this film is ultimately too politically neutral for the knuckleheads that run the film industry to see that they could have shot the script mostly as-is with just a few search-and-replaces to update it--maybe they can't see past the portrayal of "liberals" or the fact that CIA (sorry, CEA) agents are among the film's good guys? I'm glad no one has taken this classic and turned it into a steaming pile of "reimagined" crap, but I'm astonished it hasn't been done.

The witty, fast-paced script of "The President's Analyst" is delivered with great style by a cast of actors who all turn in a fine job. Coburn in is in fantastic form, with his usual winning smile coming across as hilariously maniacal while Shaefer is proving that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. Cambridge and Darden also turn in funny performances as an American and a Russian spy with shared mutual respect and love of goofy disguises.

Anyone who likes a well-made farce should check out "The President's Analyst"... and should do so before the inevitable crappy remake shows up in theaters or on cable TV.

All-star cast presents 'Death on the Nile'

Death on the Nile (1978)
Starring: Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Olivia Hussey, Simon MacCorkindal, Maggie Smith, Jane Birkin,Angela Lansbury, Jack Warden, Bette Davis, David Niven, and George Kennedy
Director: John Guillermin
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When the very rich and very obnoxious Louise Bourget (Birken) is murdered while on her honeymoon cruise on the River Nile, master detective Hercule Poirot (Ustinov) must pick through a ship full of clues (and suspects, each with solid motives for murdering Louise). But what are the motives for the other murder that soon follows? Is is even connected to the first? Will the great detective finally be stumped?

"Death of the Nile" is one of the very best Agatha Christie adaptations to ever be filmed. It's beautifully filmed, with an all-star cast who are all excellent in the roles--with Ustinov as Poirot and Mia Farrow as a one-time best friend of the victim, now turned stalker of her and her husband (MacCorkindale) giving particularly fine performances.

The film is also noteworthy for its shocking violence. It's not that the movie is gory, but it's the fact that nearly every violent act comes without warning and is bound to make the viewer jump, even if you're intimately familiar with the novel upon which the film is based.

It's a film worth checking out by anyone who enjoys a good murder mystery.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Double Feature: Tales of Jimmy the Tulip

The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Starring: Matthew Perry, Bruce Willis, Amanda Peet, Natasha Henstridge, Roseanna Arquette, Michael Clarke Duncan and Kevin Pollack
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When Oz (Perry), a hapless nice-guy dentist caught in a loveless marriage to an uber-bitch wife (Arquette), befriends his new next door neighbor Jimmy (Willis), his life is transformed overnight. Suddenly, he is surrounded by killers, femme fatales, and revenge-hungry Hungarian gangsters.

"The Whole Nine Yards" is a movie that's part screwball comedy, part romantic comedy, part heist story, part crime drama, and a whole lot of hilarity. It's a movie full of likable characters with a charming air about it that reminded me of a number of comedies or light-hearted mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s (such as "Slightly Honorable", "Half a Sinner", "His Girl Friday", and "Bringing Up Baby", even if the stakes and body count are far higher here than in any of those movies). Matthew Perry's performance in particular reminded me of the hapless,clumsy heroes featured in those sorts of movies. I can't think of anyone who has been able to be goofy and do pratfall after pratfall yet still maintain a sort of dignity like Perry does in this film since Cary Grant.

The fun of this movie is found partly in its twisting and turning story--which sees two major, very well executed major reversals of audience expectations without losing even a tiny of momentum of as it keeps building toward not one but two dramatic and well-done endings--but also in its cast of charming characters presented by perfectly cast actors.

Bruce Willis gives perhaps the most versatile and surprising performance in the entire movie. He plays Jimmy the Tulip, a self-centered, greedy contract killer and Willis projects exactly the sort of menace that you'd expect such a character to exude. At the same time--literally, in more than one scene--he also projects a level of charm and likability that makes you wish he was your next door neighbor. Amanda Peet's character is much the same; she plays the most likable and lovable sociopath I've ever seen in any movie. Their casual, jovial approach to the business of murder is offset by the calm grace of Natasha Henstridge who plays a classic femme fatale. (And, of course, Matthew Perry's Everyman character provies a solid foundation for the other performances, as he stumbles and pratfalls his way through the ever-thickening and deadly plot while giving voice to the sense of horror and outrage the audience should be feeling if they weren't so busy laughing.)

This a very cool comedy that features a stellar cast at their best. I recommend it highly. (And I think I may have to reevaluate my opinion of Matthew Perry. I'd only ever seen him before in the two or three episodes of "Friends" I'd tried to sit through. He's obviously far more talented than anything that was on display there.)

The Whole Ten Yards (2004)
Starring: Matthew Perry, Bruce Willis, Amanda Peet, Kevin Pollack, Natasha Henstridge, and Tasha Smith
Director: Howard Deutch
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Two years after successfully hoodwinking organized crime and authorities to let murderous lovebirds Jimmy and Jill (Willis and Peet), the past comes back to haunt nebbish dentist Oz (Perry) and his gun moll wife (Henstridge) when she is kidnapped by Hungarian gangsters in search of revenge. Oz turns to Jimmy for help, making a bad situation worse and starting a series of events that grow increasingly strange and evermore deadly.

"The Whole Ten Yards" is a clumsily named sequel to one of the best mob comedies ever filmed. It's also so clumsily executed that it will be hard to follow if you haven't seen the film it's a sequel to, "The Whole Nine Yards", because it assumes complete knowledge of the main characters and the events that brought them together in the first place.

Unfortunately, if you saw "The Whole Nine Yards", all you'll take a way from this movie is disappointment. The jokes are mostly lame, the charming sides of Perry, Willis' and Peet's characters that made the first movie so enjoyable is nowhere to be seen here--and even Perry's physical comedy and spittakes seem tired and forced here. Worse, the suspense that mixed easily with the comedy in the original film has been replaced with badly mounted attempts at absurd humor. (Perhaps these differences are the mark of a film helmed by a talented director versus one that isn't?)

Rating a very low 4, "The Whole Ten Yards" is a great disappointment considering the excellence of the film it follows and the great cast that reprised their parts that has nothing of what made the first movie worth watching (including Amanda Peet's naked breasts).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
Matt Frewer vs. THE Woman

A Royal Scandal (2001)
Starring: Matt Frewer, Kenneth Welsh, Liliana Komorowska, R.H. Thomson and Robin Wilcock
Director: Rodney Gibbons
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Frewer) is retained to recover compromising photos of one of Europe's crown princes (Wilcock). The case is complicated by the fact that the photos are in the possession of Holmes' old love/adversary Irene Adler (Komorowska) and that the British government and Holmes' brother Mycroft (Thomson) want to get their hands on the photos as well.

"A Royal Scandal" is a so-so Holmes tale that merges "The Bruce-Pardington Papers" with a loose adaptation of "A Scandal in Bohemia." It's a made-for-TV movie that wastes no time in getting started and keeps the pace nice and brisk as it unfolds and makes sure that the viewer is never bored--assuming the viewer is in the mood for a Holmesian-style mystery. The way Holmes deals with betrayal and dishonesty by those he cares about (and whom he thought he could rely on) is an interesting aspect of the story. That, along with the Victorian espionage intrigues--echoes of last week's Sherlock Sunday entry, "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes"--is one of the more entertaining aspects of the film, but it isn't enough to make up for the weaknesses.

The film's problems lie primarily with the casting, and, to a lesser degree, with the scripting.

As fun as Matt Frewer usually is to watch in most roles he's played, he makes a weak Sherlock Holmes. He doesn't have the arrogant intensity of Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing's Holmes, he doesn't have the boyish exuberance of Ronald Howard'd Holmes, he doesn't have the emotional intensity of Robert Downey Jr or Christopher Plummer's interpretations, nor even the limpwristed feyness of the one presented by Robert Stephens. He doesn't bring any larger-than-life qualities to the character, something which seems to be a necessity for a successful screen-portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. A giant such as Holmes need to have something to seperate him from the masses of humanity, and Holmes as portrayed by Frewer has nothing.

The script is also something of an issue. Holmes is one step behind his adversaries for the entire story. Although many cinematic tales of Holmes deal with him being bested--especially when Irene Adler is involved--few have him so completely in the dark as he is during this tale. Even after the case has been resolved, it's clear that although Holmes figured out the puzzle and mostly identified all the players correctly, he at no time had the initiative and he was successfully manipulated from beginning to end. All in all, a disappointing adventure both for Holmes and for the viewers.

The rest of cast is as bland as Frewer. Kenneth Welsh's Watson has very little screen time, but what he has is forgettable. Not only does Watson have very little to do in the story, but Welsh is completely unremarkable in the role. Liliana Komorowska makes an attractive Irene Adler and brings enough sexy charisma to the role to make it believable that Holmes might fall in lust with her, but the part itself feels underwritten and empty--and her tendency to carry around an unloaded gun is a very silly habit for a character who deals with lethal criminals and spies on a daily basis.

"A Royal Scandal" is a forgettable entry in the Holmes. The Five I am giving it is about as low a Five as possible without making it a Four. I'm being generous with the film because it did keep me entertained, but only just, and because it's all-around technically competent. But it's a film you can safely skip.

The mystery of Cletis Tout solved

Who Is Cletis Tout? (2002)
Starring: Christian Slater, Tim Allen, Portia de Rossi, and Richard Dreyfuss
Director: Chris Ver Weil
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Master forger Finch (Slater) has made his good his escape from prison, he's got a lead on a hidden stash of diamonds from his partner (Dreyfuss) and his daughter (de Rossi), but there's just one problem. Finch has stolen the identity of a man the mob wants dead, and now they're after him. Can Finch convince hit man Critical Jim (Allen) that he is not who he said he was in time to get the diamonds, the girl, and give the movie a happy ending?

"Who Is Cletis Tout?" is a charming, if forgettable, comedic crime caper. It takes all the standard elements of a film noir drama--a jewel heist, a prison break, mistaken identities, bloodthirsty mobsters, coldblooded hit men, an alluring femme fatale--and turns them all a bit sideways. It all comes together in a pleasing package, but nothing really ever 'wows' the viewer. There are some chuckles, but no real laughs, and the only tension that the movie ever really generates comes at the very end.

Still, the movie is fast-paced and the actors all give great performances. Tim Allen in particular shines as a quirky hit man who is such a movie buff that he strives to shape his life (and when possible, the lives of those around him) into the form a movie. I might even say that it's Allen's character that makes this movie worth watching. His commentary to Finch on the current sorry state of movie making is also dead-on, particularly his lament that most modern movies lack a third act.

(As I post this review, "Who Is Cletis Tout?" is out of print, but it is available for rent from Netflix and other outlets.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Henpecked Hitman must find spine or die

The Big Hit (1998)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips, and China Chow
Director: Che-Kirk Wong
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Melvin (Wahlberg) is a deadly, highly paid hitman who is so mild-mannered and timid in his personal life that his live-in girlfriend anc co-workers walk all over him, his other girlfriend is bleeding him dry of all his money, and manager of the local video rental store pushes him around. But when he is framed as the front man in the kidnapping of a Japanese industrialist's daughter (Chow), Melvin must stand up for himself or die.

"The Big Hit" is a fun action comedy featuring one of those characters who only exists in fiction: an assassin who's a really nice guy if you can overlook the whole murderer thing. While he may only killed really bad people (and a few who irritated), Melvin is a great guy who anyone would like to have a friend... and who would have been very happy in life if everyone around weren't more realistic characters in the sense that they are mostly exploitive, lazy, criminally minded scumbags.

Lou Diamond Phillips plays the lead scumbag and he does a fantastic job at it. He plays Chico who is the exact opposite of Whalberg's Melvin. Chico is a lazy braggart who takes advantage of Melvin at every opportunity and claims credit for Melvin's hard work in both setting up and executing the hits they perform. As much as we like Melvin, we're disgusted by Phillips and his obnoxious swaggering. As much as we want to see Melvin get relief from his situation, we want to see Chico get burned.

Storywise, this is a predictable movie that's full of stock characters and cartoony action and fight sequences. Melvin is the only character that has even the slightest bit of depth to him and even then he is something of a cliche. The movie delivers enough plot-twists and action sequences to be entertaining, but it is not a classic by an means.

"The Big Hit" is worth watching if you're a big fan of lighthearted crime dramas, but it is fairly mediocre with the exception of the performances given by stars Wahlberg and Phillips.

'Miracles' has Jackie Chan in his prime

Miracles (aka "Black Dragon" and "The Canton Godfather") (1989)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui and Richard Ng
Director: Jackie Chan
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When kindhearted accountant Cheng Wa Kuo (Chan) is made boss of the Black Dragon criminal syndicate through a series of coincidences, he sets about trying to reform the gangsters, starting with shifting efforts into a successful, legitimate Hong Kong night club, and culminating with an elaborate scheme to bring about happiness for a flower vendor and her daughter, who wishes to marry the son of a wealthy Shanghai industrialist. To pull it off, between the jealousy of his girl firend (Mui), a rival ganglord, and a corrupt police commissioner (Ng), he'll need several miracles.

"Miracles" is a lighthearted romp through 1920s Hong Kong. Bullets fly as tommy guns chatter, but the only death in the film is the gang leader that Chan takes over for. Everyone else survives the cartoon violence to fight another day... and, boy, do they fight!

This film showcases Jackie Chan in his prime. The two major fight scenes in the flim (one in a tea house, the other--and incredibly spectacular--in a rope factory) feature some of the finest Prop Fu of any of his films. The plot--which becomes so burdened with convoluted deceptions as the that the characters run themselvves ragged to keep them straight and concealed--is hilarious. It also manages to be sweet without getting overly sacharine in flavor.

I recommend this film highly for fans of Jackie Chan, lovers of romantic comedies, and those who enjoy movies set during the Roaring Twenties.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes'
is the most overrated Holmes film?

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Starring: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page and Christopher Lee
Director: Billy Wilder
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Holmes and Watson (Stephens and Blakely) endeavor to learn the identity of a woman suffering from amnesia (Page) after she is dropped off at their apartments at 221B Baker Street. They soon find themselves drawn into a mystery involving a missing Belgian engineer, Holmes' politically powerful brother Mycroft (Lee) and the Loch Ness Monster.

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" features an ill-implemented attempt at presenting a more vulnerable and human Holmes. During the film's first half hour, Holmes expresses discomfort at the way Watson's writings have turned him into a star and laments that he feels obligated to run around in a deer stalker hat and tweed cloak because that is how artists protrayed him in Strand magazine. Comments made by Watson in this early part of the film also seems to imply that he as exaggerated some of Holmes' exploits and characteristics.

However, as the film unfolds, this approach is dropped and it slips into a story-telling mold that was established with the Basil Rathbone-starring series from Universal Pictures during the 1940s, with Holmes abusing Watson at almost every turn yet still insisting that he's his friend. It's not the clever and unique approach that some reviewers paint it as.

Perhaps this is because they don't get past that first half hour. It was a description of that half hour from a friend whose taste I trust that made me move this film up in my review stack, because her description of Holmes starting a rumor that he and Watson were a committed gay couple sounded intriguing.

Sadly, like the idea of presenting a more human Holmes, the gay rumor angle ends up going nowhere in the picture as a whole. It's little more than an extended bit of sketch comedy within the picture, and as a story element perhaps one of the most aggregious examples of Holmes behaving like a jerk toward Watson for no reason whatsoever other than to let the viewer develope an intense dislike for Holmes and cause one to wonder why on earth Watson continues to consider him a friend.

This would have been a stronger film if that first half hour had been strongly edited, with the entire business involving a Russian ballerina and Holmes pretending that he and Watson were gay lovers had been dropped. It's material that has nothing to do with the rest of the story and it adds nothing positive to the overall portrayal of Holmes or Watson.

This would also have been a stronger film if a more suitable actor had been cast to play Holmes. I never thought I would see a more effeminate version of the character than the one portrayed by Christopher Plummer in "Murder by Degree", but Robert Stephens has proven me wrong. Plummer's Holmes comes across like more macho-than-macho when viewed in light of what Stephens did.

The rest of the cast, however, does a good job--and Stephens isn't bad once one gets used to the simpering, limp-wristeed interpretation of Holmes--although there does seem to be a tendency to overact. Both Page (and the mystery woman) and Blakely ham it up just a bit too much in some scenes. It's expected from Blakely, as his Watson is pure comic relief, but Page should have dialed back on the melodramatic stylings once or twice.

If you enjoy the general tone of the Basil Rathbone Holmes, I think you'll like this one, even if you'll often find yourself wondering how much better the film would have been if Holmes had been better cast. You'll like it even more if you enjoyed the humorous approach found in the Ronald Howard-starring television series. What you won't find, however, is the alleged genius of writer/director Billy Wilder. Overall, this is an average presentation of the Doyle's classic characters with some glimmers of what could have been a great film shining through here and there. If only Wilder had been a little more aggressive with his reinterperation instead of falling back onto familiar and safe territory that had been thoroughly explored during the 1940s and 1950s.

Trivia: Christopher Lee is, so far, the only actor to portray both Sherlock Holmes (in "The Deadly Necklace") and Mycroft Holmes (in "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes").

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Psychic madman stalks innocent family

In Dreams (1999)
Starring: Annette Bening, Aiden Quinn, Paul Guilfoyle, Stephen Rea, Katie Sagona and Robert Downey, Jr.
Director: Neil Jordan
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Claire (Bening) finds herself connected psychically to a madman (Downey) who starts targeting her family for reasons only he understands. Will she able to convince anyone that she isn't crazy before he kills everyone she loves, including Claire herself?

"In Dreams" is an interesting supernatural thriller where the film takes its time revealing whether the main character is psychic, telepathically linked with a serial killer, or just plain crazy. That aspect of the film is very well done. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is dragged down by over-acting and poorly developed story elements.

Take for example the psychiatrist that plays a key role in getting Claire committed to a mental hospital. It's one thing to for him to do so initially, but why does it take him and the orderlies a couple of days to notice the carvings on the wall of Claire's cell, carvings that she could not have made? Well... no reason other than some time needed to pass for plot reasons. And it really is too much of a coincidence that Claire just happened to be placed in the same cell that her "psychic twin" had inhabited a decade or so earlier.

Too much of the movie's story relies on such far-feteched coincidences to be fully effective. If just a little more care and effort had been put into the script and if Annette Bening had dailed back the histronics and melodrama just a tad, this could have been an excellent little chiller. It's still entertaining--Robert Downey, Jr. makes a great madman and his final fate is one that will cause most viewers to chuckle evilly to themselves--but there are too many moments where the attentive viewer will be annoyed by the sloppy story. (Actually, even the ending, which I am fond of, is a bit underdeveloped.)

This flawed film is worth checking out if you notice it showing on TV, but it's not worth going out of your way for. It has some great and creepy moments and it has a neat ending, but those aren't enough to save it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Badly plotted movie showcases more about incompetent writers than evil bankers

The International (2009)
Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Brian F. O'Byrne, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Allesandro Fabrizi
Director: Tom Tykwer
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

An Interpol agent on the verge of a breakdown (Owen) and a dedicated New York Asst. District Attorney (Watts) team up to investigate a powerful international bank that will stop at nothing to achieve its business goals.

"The International" is a sluggishly paced thriller with a script that could have done with at least one more revision and an end product that should have gone back to the editor.

The bankers featured in this film must be the same guys who were in charge at Washington Mutual or maybe Freddie Mac in recent years, because they're the sort of idiots who would keep issuing loans to people who would never pay them back. If they didn't seem so incompetent, maybe the conspiracies they are engaged in would seem less far fetched and pointless.

The main plot point around which the film revolves--the bank is going to collapse if they don't make a convoluted arms investment scheme work--would have been solved 20 minutes in, if, as a character says in the third act, "You should have come to me first." Of course, that would have meant this would have been a really short movie without any action scenes... but that would have been preferable to what we end up with here.

As it stands, the bankers here are nefarious for no reason other than to be nefarious, and they are so stupid that it boggles the engaged mind our heroes (or even some bumbling US Senator in search of headlines) can't nail them. Of course, the script is so badly written that many of the setbacks are heroes suffer are just as much due to bad luck as the eeeevil powers of the International.

Almost worse than the bad script is the way the film is padded. It's just a few seconds here and few seconds there, but after a while it becomes annoying and obvious. Time and again, we're given establishing shots to establishing shots. Because the film takes its sweet time getting just about every scene underway--presumably because the director thought this would help build suspense--we're given plenty of time to reflect on the story problems in what we are watching unfold.

Tip to future filmmakers: If you have a bad script for your thriller, speed things up rather than slow them down. The audience won't have time to catch all the stupidity, and, even if they do, they'll be grateful that the film was only 85 minutes long as opposed to 111 minutes.

"The International" is rather like the conspiracy theories it tries to bring to life as it unfolds--you know, the ones about the Gnomes of Zurich running the world through international banks--in that if you apply any thought to them, they collapse under their own illogic.

Don't waste your time and money on this film. It has decent performances from every featured actor and a very cool shoot-out at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but these aren't enough to make it worth two hours of your life. (The four rating I'm giving it is a low four.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Double Feature: Sandra Bullock does 'Speed'

Lovers of actions movies should keep the following in mind when it comes to the "Speed" cinematic duology: The first one is a must-see, and the second one you should pass on unless it's the very last rental at the video store.

(Both films can be had in a single package, even if that version is out of print. If yuou can find it, it's the only way I'd get "Speed 2" if I were so inclined, because that way I could at least just consider it a bonus feature.)

Speed (1994)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock and Jeff Daniels
Director: Jan deBont
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When SWAT officer Jack Taven (Reeves) foils a mad bomber's (Hopper) extortion plot, it becomes personal. He traps Jack and along with a dozen passengers onboard a bus that is rigged to explode if its speed drops below 50 miles per hour. While the police try to figure out where the bomber is hidden, Jack must attempt to keep the busload of passengers calm while trying to find a way to save both them and himself.

This is one of those pressure-cooker action movies where things go from bad, to worse, to really bad--and the final bit of villainy from the bad guy gives the third act a twist that truly rocks. Aside from some hackneyed dialogue, "Speed is well-paced, well-filmed, and all the actors give excellent performances. Reeves, who usually annoys me, is even good, and Bullock (as Annie, a particularly resourceful bus passenger) also shines as her usual Girl Next Door character, even if she spends virtually all her time on-screen behind the wheel of the doomed bus. Dennis Hopper plays his part with a gleeful evil that is great fun to watch.

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Wilhem DeFoe and Jason Patric
Director: Jan deBont
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Annie (Bullock) goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend (Patric) only to find the ship hijacked by a mad-dog murderous terrorist (DeFoe) who is bent on crashing the ship into the harbor going at full speed. Much mayhem and property damage ensue... but very little that's particularly interesting or suspenseful.

Everything that director deBont did right in the original "Speed" he does wrong here. The setting is too open, the villains don't seem sinister enough, and whenever the story starts to build a little tension, it is dispelled by a ludicrous action sequence for the same of action, an unfunny bit of attempted humor, or something inane that defies description. I suspect that the writers and marketeers thought the subtitle "Cruise Control" was really clever ("it's set on a cruise ship, and it's under the control of bad guys, and it's a pun on cruise control in vehicles... get it, huh, get? [giggle-giggle]"), but instead it stands a description of how this exceedingly bad follow-up to an excellent movie was made: The creative and production staff were operating on cruise control, not really paying attention to what they were doing.

Kenau Reeves was smart to pass on this one. I wish Bullock had too, because her talent is completely wasted in this stinker. In fact, all the principles give decent performances, given what they have to work with, so they're all pretty much wasted.

For more reviews of awful movies, check out the companion blog Movies to Die Before Seeing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

'Toe Tags' is far from DOA

Toe Tags (2003)
Starring: Darla Enlow and Marc Page
Director: Darla Enlow
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A serial killer is knocking of the residents of Valley Creek Apartments. This knife-wielding maniac targets victims not only because they are a tight-knit group of apartment dwellers, but also because they all have ties to homicide detective Kate Wagner (Enlow). Even stranger, the killer is a trophy taker... he steals the toe tags from his victims out of the very morgue. Can it be that the killer is as close to the investigation as possible, that the killer is detective Wagner herself? Or maybe her new partner and friend, Detective Mark Weiss (Page), who is also found to have prior a prior relationship with some of the victims? Can the killer be stopped before the entire apartment complex is one big crime scene?

"Toe Tags" is a film that should be lauded for its excellent story and sparse filmmaking. These are two elements that too few indie filmmakers seem to be able to successfully manage in their works.

I've seen more detective movies and slasher films than I can count, and the script here kept me guessing throughout. Just when I started to roll my eyes, groan, and assume this would be a Four-tomato or worse movie because of the obvious nature of the killer's identity--and yet the characters couldn't figure it out--a twist was thrown in. It did this twice in its just-over-an-hour running time, something that few movies manage to do with this very jaded writer, and the ending also managed to surprise in a satisfactory way. (I have some issues with the police procedures portrayed in this film, but I doubt the average viewer would notice--I've spent too much time around real-life cops, in addition to having watched way too many movies.)

I also congratulate director Darla Enlow for not padding her movie with useless scenes. Every scene in "Toe Tags" is there to forward the story rather than pad out the running time. We have no overlong establishing shots, no dragged out "mood establishing" scenes that don't go anywhere, and no boring conversations that are being passed off as "character development" but are really just badly executed padding attempts.

Another technical strong point is the way the various murder scenes are shot. They combine quick cuts and well-done sound effects to make up for the films limited budget, and they give the viewer just enough to make the deaths horrific. (In fact, the sound design on "Toe Tags" is better than on many low-budget films where it seems to be an element that's ignored entirely.)

In most aspects, "Toe Tags" a well-done, taut thriller that script-, direction-, and editing-wise measures up against similar big-screen releases with ten or one-hundred times the budgets that this was made on.

Unfortunately, the movie is weak in the acting department. Even by low-budget, indie standards, the performances are universally stiff and the dialogue sounds very unnatural as it is delivered. The weak acting is brought all the more to the forefront by the way everyone politely waits for each actor to finish their lines before starting their own, even in arguments. I've never had a heated discussion where the person I was arguing with waits a beat before giving their response, yet that is what everyone in the world of "Toe Tags" does.

Still, the story is well-told and the filmmaking craft on display so solid that I can forgive the weak acting. It's an enjoyable film, and I think fans of both the thriller and the slasher genres will like it quite a bit.

(Oh... on a minor casting note, permit me to also congratulate Enlow for putting naked bodies on display that are actually pleasant to look at. No bad boob jobs or flabby male guts are waved in the viewers' faces here, and I appreciate that immensely. Too many people who appear in films at this level of production and funding really should keep their clothes on.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

When cultural stereotypes meet,
action films are born!

Fighting Mad (aka "Death Force") (1978)
Starring: James Inglehart, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Carmen Argenziano, and Jayne Kennedy
Director: Cirio H. Santiago
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Doug (Inglehart) and two other American soldiers (Kennedy and Argenziano) are returning home from Vietnam with a cache of gold earned by working with the black market when his partners-in-crime betray him and throw him into the ocean for dead. Rescued and befriended by a pair of soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army who have been living secretly on an isolated South Sea island, Doug is taught the ways of Samurai. Eventually making his way back to the States, he reunites with his wife (Jayne Kennedy) and sets about taking revenge on the men who betrayed him, by first dismantling the criminal empire they've built and then taking their lives.

"Fighting Mad" has all the making of a REALLY bad movie. When Doug was rescued by a pair of Japanese soldiers who didn't know WW2 was over, I was certain I was in for a stupid movie as well as a bad one. However, as ludicrous as the notion of him just happening to wash up on a desert island with a pair of old Japanese soldiers (one of whom just happens to be an honest-to-gosh samurai), it all worked.

Full of 1970s-ism such as pimps in big hats, Italian gangsters loving restaurants, references to Black Muslims, vengeful martial artists, and corrupt, twisted Vietnam veterans, this film turns out to be a rather engaging revenge flick. The Japanese soldiers turn out to be more charming than laughable, and the training period that Doug goes through is one that starts to feel believable. The same is true of the rise to power of the Vietnam vets turned Los Angeles crimelords in an age when gangsters still had a veneer of businessmen about them. The movie overall is a rather engaging, old-fashioned crime/martial arts fantasy with the villains who are such nasty pieces of work that it's a delight to watch our hero--reformed by the tutalage of an honorable warrior and the love he has for his wife and child--take them apart.

If the editing of the film had been just a tiny bit less abrupt--it seemed like there were only two establishing shots in the whole movie--this could have easily have rated a Seven or perhaps even an Eight on the Tomato-scale. The script was well done, tne acting good, and the action well-staged.

"Fighting Mad" is a movie that anyone who enjoyed "Kill Bill" or movies like it. It's also a movie that carries with it a curiously modern message of racial harmony, something that wasn't exactly common in "drive-in" type movies like this one back then. The man villains are a white and a black man working together with hired muscle that's mostly Italian or Hispanic, while the hero is trained by Japanese on the desert island, teams with a Japanese cabbie Stateside, and is helped along in his quest for revenge by one of the few white cops not bought off by the villains.

(Oh.. if someone out there reading this knows Brian De Palma, point this movie out to him. It's got those corrupt, murderous United States soldiers he's so fond of telling the world about. Maybe "Fighting Mad" will become a favorite and he'll be inspired to make a movie that's entertaining.)

"Fighting Mad" is included in several different low-priced DVD multipacks. It can also occasionally be found under its original title "Death Force."

Sherlock Sunday: The Woman in Green

The Woman in Green (1945)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Hillary Brooke, Henry Daniell and Matthew Boulton
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Inspector Gregson (Boulton) turns to Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) for help in solving a series of grisly mutilation murders. Holmes soon discovers the murders are only part of a much larger criminal enterprise... and that his old foe Professor Moriarty (Daniell) may have returned to London.

"The Woman in Green" is not one of the best of the Universal Pictures' Holmes movies, but even so it's obvious why so many fans believe the Basil Rathbone Holmes is THE Holmes. Pains were taken to make Rathbone and the set of 221B Baker Street like living manifestations of the famous Sidney Paget illos from Strand Magazine and those efforts go along way to making this film fun to watch. Rathbone's Holmes is also very no-nonsense and task focused, always straight to the point; with the exception of his occasional ribbing of Watson, there is none of the humor present in so many other portrayals of Holmes.

But speaking of Watson, he is the weak point in this film, as he is in just about every one of the Holmes films from Universal. Nigel Bruce does a fine job as being comic relief as the bumbling, dimwitted Watson, but one continues to wonder why Holmes would keep him around, because he causes more problems than he solves. Is it just so Watson can pick up the tab for dinner now and then? Perhaps Watson is going senile, and Holmes keeps him around out of love and respect for the way he used to be? As excellent and accurate as the portrayal of Holmes in these films is when compared to the Doyle stories, Watson is completely off target.

The plot of the film is original, although there's an assassination attempt on Holmes that's taken from "The Empty House," and there's some dialogue that I think was lifted from "The Final Solution." Like the majority of the other Universal Holmes films, the characters were transported to modern times (which means the 1940s), but this doesn't seem to harm them in any way. If anything, it enhances the characterization of Holmes, because it forced the costumers to ditch the ludicrously out-of-place tweed coat and deerstalker hat that so many filmmakers insist on making the character wear even while in the city.

"The Woman in Green" is one of several Holmes movies that slipped into public domain when the copyright wasn't properly renewed during the 1970s. It's available in a number of value packs (taken from copies of varying quality), but if you want to have the best image quality possible, you want to get "The Sherlock Holmes Collection, Vol. 3," which includes an excellent restoration. The other collection linked to is recommended due to its low price and the fact that you get three Rathbone films and three films starring Arthur Wontner as Holmes.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bulldog Drummond's
Road to the Wedding: Part Two

This is the second of two posts covering the eight Bulldog Drummond films produced by Paramount in the late 1930s. Click here to read some background on the series and its cast.

Bulldog Drummond in Africa (1938)
Starring: John Howard, E.E Clive, J. Carroll Naish, Heather Angel, Reginald Denny, and H.B. Warner
Director: Louis King
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Despite some extreme measures that adventurer Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond (Howard) and his friends take to stop him from being drawn into yet another adventure that will ruin the plans for his wedding, Fate once again intervenes. When his fiance, Phyllis Clavering (Angel), witnesses the kidnapping of Scotland Yard's Colonel Nielsen (Warner) by notorious freelance spy Richard Lane (Naish), Drummond and the gang persue the bad guys all the way to Morocco to rescue him.

"Bulldog Drummond in Africa" is one of the very best in the series released by Paramount Pictures. It's got some of the best gags (Drummond and Tenny, trapped in Rockingham Lodge without pants and money to keep Drummond from being lured into trouble, doing Scottish dances in improvised kilts to entertain themselves gives even more entertaiment for the viewers), it's got the most suspenseful storyline so far (with everyone being placed in extreme mortal danger during the unfolding story, and Drummond and the entire gang having one of their most narrow escapes ever). From its opening scene to the final fade-out, the film moves along at lightning pace, never letting off on the banter, action, or antics.

On the acting front, Howard, Clive, and Denny return as the characters they've played in previous films, and they do their usual excellent jobs. Denny's character of Algy Longworth (the undisputed champion in the Upperclass Twit Olympics) has a little more to do in this film, and viewers who might have started to wonder why Drummond tolerates him, can start to understand why.

Also, Heather Angel and J. Carroll Naish return to the series with this episode, Angel resumes the role of Phyllis Clavering (which she played in "Bulldog Drummond's Escape"), while Naish appears as a different bad guy than he played previously. Both are excellent in their parts, with Angel delivering a more energetic Clavering than Louise Campbell did in the intervening three films. (Campbell did a good job, but I prefer Angel's Phyllis.) Naish, meanwhile, is playing a far more interesting, competent, and evil villian than the one he portrayed in "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back". He has some nice lines, and the always jovial demeanor of Richard Lane, who is a murderous sociopath, makes for a bad guy who is fun to watch, particularly in interplay with new series regular H.B. Warner, who takes over the role of Colonel Nielsen from John Barrymore.

With Warner joining the cast, Nielsen returns to the sort of character he was in the first couple of films. It's hard to say whether Nielsen was badly written in "Bulldog Drummond's Peril", but here the character is back in form, and the calm, upper-lip-so-stiff-it-must-be-made-of-bone fashion he deals with Lang and his spy collegues makes it clear why Nielsen and Drummond are good friends. Nielsen is far more than just a former Army officer and high-level government official--he's every bit the hardcase adventurer as Drummond, and we get to see that in this film, even if he is basically the "damsel in distress."

I recommend this film to fans of 1930s and 1940s pulp fiction tales, adventure films, and even those who enjoy the "Indiana Jones" movies. While this isn't a good point at which to start the series, those who have seen one or more of the earlier films should note that as of the fifth entry, this series is still on an upward quality climb. There are few other movie series that can be said about.

Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police (1939)
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Starring: John Howard, Heather Angel, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, H.B. Warner, Loe Carroll, Forester Harvey, and Elizabeth Patterson
Dirrector: James Hogan

Just as it appears Hugh Drummond (Howard) and Phyllis Clalvering (Angel) are finally going to make it to their own wedding, a cooky historian (Harvey) shows up on the doorstep and says he comes to search for a massive treasure hidden in the catacombs below the Drummond family's ancestral home. A treasure hunt isn't enough to disrupt the wedding plans--Drummond thinks that can wait until the day after he and Clavering married--but the murder of the historian is. Drummond, his friend Algy (Denny), his faithful servant Tenny (Clive), house-guest Colonel Nielsen of Scotland Yard (Warner), and even Miss Clavering are soon searching the long-abandoned tunnels in search of a treasure and a deadly killer. But it's a deadly hunt, because the killer is one step ahead of them.

"Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police" is another strong entry in the series. The physical humor is strong in this one, and the action is fast-moving, entertaining, and downright suspenseful at times. In fact, there's a scene where several of our heroes are in ancient death trap and it actually feels like they might not escape.

The regular cast is excellent as usual, and they have Reginald Denny is funnier in this installment than he as ever been before, and Clive gets some excellent zingers off as well, with Tenny's signature "I rather like it" line being used to great effect on multiple occassions. Howard and Angel once again display excellent on-screen chemistry, and the viewer can easily understand why the two characters keep trying over and over again to get married, despite Fate continuially getting in their way. (In fact, Angel is perhaps the best I've ever seen her in this film--she lights up the screen in every scene she appears in, and she ends up as one of the feistiest "damels in distress" to ever make the bad guy regret taking prisoners.)

To add to the quality, this film can even serve as a jumping-on point for those who don't want to watch from the beginning. As it unfolds, the film manages to give a quick introduction of the characters and the ongoing "Road to the Wedding" subplot that's been running through the series since "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back" without boring those of us who have watched all the previous installments.

As good as it is, this episode is not exactly perfect. First, there is a very annoying, very stupid comic relief character that makes Algy look like a genius. Second, there's a problem with the villain of this episode. He's written in a very sinister fashion, he's got some good lines, and he proves to be a real threat to Our Heroes... but he's played by an actor who's nearly a non-entity compared to the high-energy performers he's surrounded by. Leo Carroll isn't exactly bad, but he's out of his league with the "Bulldog Drummond" ensamble.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: This series of "Bulldog Drummond" films reminds me more of the "Indiana Jones" series than any other films from the 1930s I've seen. Heck, there's even a death-trap scene in this one that brings part of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to mind... and in this installment Drummond and the gang are hunting for a lost treasure in an ancient castle!

Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1939)
Starring: John Howard, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, Heather Angel, H.B. Warner, and George Zucco
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Hugh Drummond (Howard) ends up a murder suspect when an international freelance spy (Zucco) kills an inventor and steals an experimental beam-weapon that remotely detonates gunpowder and explosives. With his wedding plans yet again disrupted, Drummond, his best friend Algy (Denny), his ever-resourceful gentleman's gentleman Tenny (Clive), and his fiance Phyllis (Angel) travel to a tropical island to capture the spy and return the deadly weapon to British hands.

"Arrest Bulldog Drummond" starts sluggishly, has a darker tone than the other entries in the Paramount-produced "Bulldog Drummond" series, and what gags that are present are rather tepid. The film is saved by a strong third act, the usual excellent performances by Howard, Denny, Clive, and Angel (with Denny and Angel getting quite a bit of screen-time, and their characters of Algy and Phyllis taking more active roles in the plot than usual), and a nifty turn by George Zucco as the sinister spy Rolf Alferson. Unfortunately, Colonel Nielsen (Warner) is once again reduced to a blithering idiot by the writers (something which seems to be a hallmark of the worst installments in the series.)

With a near equal amount of good parts and bad parts, "Arrest Bulldog Drummond" is one of the weakest entries in the series, with the strong finish and good performances by Zucco and the regular cast members barely managing to elevate the film to the upper-end of average. It's okay, but you won't miss much if you skip it.

Bulldog Drummond's Bride (1939)
Starring: John Howard, Heather Angel, Reginald Denny, Eduardo Ciannelli, H.B. Warner, E.E. Clive John Sutton, Gerald Hamer, Louise Mercier, and Louise Patterson
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Phyllis (Angel) gives adventurer Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (Howard) one final chance to marry her, forcing the matter to the point where she has promised to marry another suitor on the day immediately following their scheduled wedding should the date be missed again. But, despite the efforts of their friends and families (regular returning cast-members Clive, Denny, Patterson, and Warner), a small-town French mayor with a deeply romantic soul (Mercier), this wedding plan may be foiled by the deadliest obsticle yet: A murderous, bomb-happy bank robber (Cianelli) in search of revenge and the 10,000 pounds of loot that he hid inside Phyllis' portable radio and which Hugh shipped to France.

Whether or not Hugh Drummond and his fiancee Phyllis actually manage to complete their nuptuials, "Bulldog Drummond's Bride" ends the Paramount-produced series with a bang! It features one of the series' most sinister villains--second only to the opponent that almost fed Colonel Nielsen and Hugh to a lion in "Bulldog Drummond in Africa"--and a weddding ceremony that's exactlyl the sort of pay-off that's called for, given how long it's been in coming.

It's a little dissapointing that the characters of Tenny (Clive) and Colonel Nielsen (Warner) are reduced to playing very small parts, but the trade-off of John Sutton's character (Colonel Nielsen's assistant in four of the films, referred to mostly as "Inspector Tredennis", but called "Jennings" in "Bulldog Drummond's Revenge") getting to play a larger role, and to even manage to be the one to make sure Drummond stays put long enough to give his final hope of marriage even the slightest chance of happening; and the hilarious, pompous small-town mayor/chief of police character portrayed by Louis Mercier more than make up for it.

Although this final step of Bulldog Drummond's Road to the Wedding is a little short of hi-jinx (the only truly funny bit is bank-robber Henri Armides tormenting of a confused Algy (Denny)--the wild energy of the film's final minutes brings this series to a close at a very high point of quality.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bulldog Drummond's
Road to the Wedding: Part One

This is the first of two posts covering the eight Bulldog Drummond films produced by Paramount in the late 1930s. Click here to read some background on the series and its cast.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)
Starring: Ray Milland, Heather Angel, E.E. Clive, Guy Standing, Reginald Denny, Porter Hall, Fay Holden, and Walter Kingsford
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

As "Bulldog Drummond Escapes" opens, daredevil adventurer Captain Hugh Drummond (Milland) is returning from an extended trip abroad. Over the objections of airport officials, he lands his private plane in thick fog before jumping into his sports car and speeding off to his country estate. Along the way, he comes across Phyllis Clavering (Angel), and before the night is out, he has to decide if she's a damsel in distress, or a mentally unstable woman, as her sinister wards (Hall and Holden) would have him believe. Before this most unexpected adventure is over, Drummond finds himself not only captured by a ring of spies, but finds himself heads-over-heels in love with Calvering. But will either of them live long enough to make good on the promise of romance?

"Bulldog Drummond Escapes" spends its first few minutes introducing the viewers to the main character and the supporting cast, and then proceeds to present a story that is not only engaging, but which features subplots that will continue to develop over the next five sequels, such as Algy's relationship with his wife and his struggle to balance a life of adventure with his friends Drummond and Tenny with that of a responsible husband and father; Colonel Nielsen's ongoing attempts to force Drummond to just behave like a normal citizen and stop sticking his nose in government business; and Drummond and Clavering's marriage plans that are forever interrupted by various bad guys and disasters.

Despite the fact that the first "Bulldog Drummond" films appeared in the 1920s, you would be well served to ignore those and just start your viewing with "Bulldog Drummond Escapes" and the other Paramount-produced films that follow it, particularly if "Bulldog Drummond at Bay" is any indication of the quality of the films that came before the Paramount series.

What makes this film, and its sequels, so much fun is the interplay between the characters and the snappy dialogue. The relationship between Tenny and Drummond is particularly fun.

Cast-wise, everyone does a fantastic job. Milland is adequate as Drummond, but he is greatly bolstered by excellent performances from E.E. Clive (as the ever-unflappable manservant Tenny) and Reginald Denny (as the ever-stressed and freaked-out Algy, who is trying to help Drummond out of his latest jam while supporting his wife as she gives birth to their first child). Heather Angel's character of Phyllis Clavering is something of a non-entity in this film, but she does as good a job as can be expected with the part... and she's as cute as ever.

With its fast-paced, well-constructed script and solid characterizations of a likeable group of people who are joined together by a sense of adventure, fun, and mutual respect, "Bulldog Drummond Escapes" is a great start to an excellent series of films.

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)
Starring: John Howard, E.E. Clive, Louise Campbell, John Barrymore, Reginald Denny, J. Carroll Naish, and Helen Freeman
Director: Louis King
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Adventurer Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond (Howard) is preparing to marry the love of his life, Phyllis Clavering (Campbell), his past comes back to haunt him in a major way. Phyllis is kidnapped by Valdin and Soldanis (Naish and Freeman), a sinister pair of characters with very personal reasons for wanting to torment Drummond. As he is drawn into a deadly game of riddles and clues where Clavering's life is the prize, he calls upon his friend Algy (Denny) and loyal manservant Tenny (Clive) for help, and to keep Scotland Yard's Colonel Nielsen (Barrymore) from accidentially causing Clavering's death.

"Bulldog Drummond Comes Back" is the weakest of the Paramount-produced Bulldog Drummond films, but not through any fault of the actors. Every performer featured is excellent and they play their roles with great style and good humor or deadly menace (depending on what side of the Good/Evil line the characters fall on). The problem here is the script... the situations presented never seems believable or sensible, even when viewed through the screwy lense that captures the world of Hugh Drummond and his pals. As a result, everything seems frivolous and pointless.

Still, the film is great fun to watch. With John Howard replacing Ray Milland in the role of Drummond, the energy and charm of the character is ratcheted up several notches, bringing a rapidfire pace to the film that will be a hallmark of the series for the six.

E.E. Clive also comes fully into his own as Tenny in this film, establishing a scene-stealing dry wit that gives rise to some of this film's funniest moments. He also plays fabulously off the other actors, and he makes a much better on-sceen partner to Howard than he did to Milland.

Louise Campbell, who takes over the role of Phyllis Clavering, is not quite as beautiful as Heather Angel, but, like Clive, she establishes the Phyllis Clavering character as she will appear in the future films--not quite as fully realized as Drummond and Tenny, but the foundation is put in place: As a spunky, self-reliant heroine who can give Dummond and the boys a run for their money. (And she does this while still remaining feminine and mostly proper. As one of the original "spunky heroines", Clavering is an interesting and fun character.)

Barrymore's first outing as Colonel Nielsen is greatly entertaining, although a bit out of character. His persuit of Tenny and Algy in a series of provides as many highpoints to this episode as Tenny and Drummond's banterings.

The rest of the cast performs expertly, as I mentioned above, with Naish being particularly strong in his first turn as a bad guy in the series (he shows up again in "Bulldog Drummond in Africa").

The great performances by the cast, and some snappy dialogue, almost lifts "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back" to the high-end of average... almost but not quite.

Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937)
Starring: John Howard, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, John Barrymore, Louise Campbell, and Frank Puglia
Director: Louis King
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

While preparing to travel to Switzerland with his friends Algy (Denny) and Colonel Nielsen (Barrymore), as well as his manservant Tenny (Clive), so he can finally marry the love of his life, Phyllis Clavering (Campbell), Captain Hugh Drummond (Howard) is drawn into a nefarious scheme by murderous froeign agents attempting to steal the only existing sample of a newly developed high explosive, Hexonite. Can Drummond and his friends round up the guilty parties without spoiling yet another set of wedding plans?

"Bulldog Drummond's Revenge" is a fast-paced adventure tale that keeps things funny and lighthearted--almost in spite a sequence where our heroes are tossing about a suitcase that don't realize contains unstable explosives, and a series of ghoulish gags involving a severed arm.

The regular cast-members provide their usual charming and witty performances. Clive shines particularly brightly in this outing, with Tenny's plain frustration with the antics of his "betters" giving rise to some very funny sarcasm.

The film's main weak point is its reliance on far-fetched coincidences to both get started and keep the characters involved in the events. (I could accept that Drummond and pals just happen to be driving along the road where bad guys are executing Stage Two of their scheme... but it taxes my ability to suspend my disbelief that Drummond and Phyllis's train compartment just happens to be next to the ones reserved by the bad guy. There's also the issue that Phyllis seems just a tiny bit too shrewish at times during the film; it's hardly Hugh's fault that a suitcase and a severed arm literally dropped out of the sky as he was returning from London.

This entry in the series will be particularly appreciated by fans of the "Indiana Jones" movies, as it has much of a same tone as they do.

Bulldog Drummond's Peril (1938)
Starring: John Howard, Louise Campbell, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, John Barrymore, Porter Hall, Matthew Boulton, and Halliwell Hobbes
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

&Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond (Howard) once again courts danger (and misses his wedding date) when a security guard at his wedding reception is murdered, and he sets off in pursuit of the theif (Boulton) who stole a synthetic diamond that was among the wedding gifts. As a larger plot comes to light, and he and his manservant Tenny (Clive) run afoul the villains, his bride-to-be, Phyllis (Campbell), and his friend Algy (Denny) set out to find and rescue him. But will they make matters better or worse?

"Bulldog Drummond's Peril" is one of the best entries in the series. Fine acting, an engaging story, and attention paid to the events of previous films, it is certain to draw you in. (The fact that it pays attention to series continuity--the previous film ended with Hugh and Phyllis on their way to Switzerland to get married, and this one opens at the wedding reception a day or two before the wedding--makes it all the more enjoyable. If only more of the writers and producers of movie series in the '30s and '40s could have been bothered with such details....)

The film is part mystery, part adventure tale, and its convoluted plots twists back and forth as Drummond tries to catch a killer and unravel the many deceptions that are piled upon one another. And if the plot wasn't enough to keep the viewer interested, (There are two seperate groups of bad guys after the same goal but for different reasons, and they are alternatively cooperating and crossing each other, frustrating Drummond's efforts to get to the bottom of what is really going on.)

Although there isn't as much amusing banter in this film as in the three previous entries in the series--things are a little grimmer here, as one of Drummond's quarries is a respected business man and one of the peerage, (so Scotland Yard won't get involved without solid evidence of serious wrongdoing) and the laboratory of Algy's father-in-law is bombed--most of the returning castmembers give their best performaances of the series yet.

The villians of this installment are also superior both in writing and in the actors who portray them. In the previous two installments of the series, the bad guys were either a little too frivilous (in "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back") or too bland (in "Bulldog Drummond's Revenge"), but here they are perfectly slimey (the devious, arrogant British lord played by Matthew Boulton) or sinister (the sociopatic American scientist played by Porter Hall).

The film also provides an interesting expansion of the Drummond Universe in the revelation that Tenny is far, far more than just a clever gentleman's gentleman. He is himself something of an adventurer and a rogue with his own network of informants that he can tap into when he or Drummond needs it.

The only true weak point in the film, it John Barrymore's portrayal of Colonel Nielsen, Drummond's friend at Scotland Yard. In the previous three movies, Nielsen came across as consistenly irrirated with Drummond, but stll fairly professional, friendly, and even a little fatherly at times. Here, he comes across as an ignorant, bellowing jerk and almost slides into the "incompetent police inspector" stereotype that was so typical in films of this type. (He does get one of the films funniest lines, though right at the end where he effectively turns the tables of joking on Drummond.)

Please come back tomorrow for the reviews of the second and final half of the Paramount-prodcued Bulldog Drummond films.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Bulldog Drummond's Road to the Wedding:

There are eight films that make up the Bulldog Drummond series produced by Paramount Pictures between 1937 and 1939. It's a highly entertaining string of action/adventure/comedy films that are undeservedly obscure. (They are, for example, better on just about every level than the better-known "Mr. Wong" films from the same period.)

The “Bulldog Drummond” films are based on a popular British boys’ adventure book series by H.C. "Sapper" McNeil. (I've no idea how faithful they are to the source material, but based on what little I know about the original books, I think they're pretty far afield. But no matter. Fans of classic comedy and action will enjoy them... and I hold they're "must-see" for fans of Indiana Jones, because I suspect these films were among George Lucas' inspiration for those movies.

The Bulldog Drummond Films from Paramount Pictures
A wealthy man of noble heritage, Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond was a combat pilot in WWI and when he returned from the war, he found life too boring. So, he became an adventurer and amateur detective. His faithful manservant Tenny was always ready to join him, as was his life-long friend, Algy Longworth. Tenny was the perfect gentleman’s gentleman (despite the roguish ways of his youth, and his love of motorcycles), and Algy was the very model of the typical upper-class twit (but with a strong sense of right and wrong). Later, the trio was joined by Phyllis Clavering, Drummond’s fiancé who sometimes showed herself to be Drummond’s equal in resourcefulness and spririt. They were further assisted by a mutual friend of Drummond and Clavering, Colonel Nielsen of Scotland Yard.

The title role of Bulldog Drummond was first played by Ray Milland. As of the second film, that role was taken over by John Howard, and I think he made a far better Drummond; Milland’s Drummond seems somehow more fey than Howard’s version, more upper-class playboy than adventurer.

The part of Drummond’s ladylove, Miss Clavering, was also played by two different actresses over the course of the series. In the first film, she was played by Heather Angel, who left the series for a while, but resumed the role later. In the intervening features, Phyllis Clavering was played by Louise Campbell. Both actresses did a fine job in the role, but Angel is not only prettier than Campbell, but she presents a more energetic Clavering, so I prefer her in the role.

The part of the long-suffering Colonel Nielsen, who wanted nothing more than for Drummond to stay out of official police and military business, was initially played by Guy Standing, and then by H.B. Warner in the final installments. In between, the part was played by John Barrymore, who, in the twilight of his career by the late 30s, had been relegated to B-features. However, Barrymore’s presence elevated the entire series, as he brought a level of talent, energy, and comedic timing that isn’t evident until you watch an episode in which he appears and follow it immediately with “Bulldog Drummond’s Bride.” Warner isn’t a bad actor, but his performance seems pale and lifeless when compared to Barrymore. I believe it’s a testament to Barrymore’s talent that he brought so much to the series, without being a scene-stealer; his contribution wasn’t fully noticeable until he was no longer making it.

Out of the cast of regulars in the series, only E.E. Clive and Reginald Denny appeared in each installment.

E.E. Clive played Tenny, Drummond’s perfect gentleman’s gentleman, who was both a loyal servant and a valuable resource in assisting Drummond and his companions with their adventures. It’s evident in the series that Tenny and Drummond are close friends as well as servant and master, and the chemistry between Clive and Howard on-screen make this bond even more real.

Reginald Denny portrayed Drummond’s best friend Algy with an ever-present twinkle and goofy physical comedy. The character was the official “comic relief” of the series (although every character and actor had their downright silly moments in this lighthearted adventure series). Although dumb as a post, and a bit on the cowardly side, Algy is ever loyal to his friends and ultimately reliable when push comes to shove. The character rounds out the cast nicely, and his happy marriage is probably one of the reasons Drummond and Clavering are constantly trying to tie the knot.

A running subplot/gag through most of the films is the fact that Drummond and Clavering are ALWAYS on the verge of marriage when some dangerous adventure disrupts the wedding plans. Even the extreme measures taken Drummond and his friends in “Bulldog Drummond in Africa” and “Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police” can’t keep the wedding on track. However, in “Bulldog Drummond’s Bride” not even a mad bomber can stop the nuptials from taking place... even if it ends up being one of the oddest weddings on record!

Look for the first four reviews tomorrow!