Johnny Guitar-Camp at its best/worst

Film Noir is a genre that is currently out of vogue in Hollywood. Film Noir done right can produce great cinema, and if it’s done poorly, it becomes camp. Perhaps that is why most directors don’t try many films in this style.

This weekend, Turner Classic is featuring one of the great Film Noir actors, Sterling Hayden, in a mix of camp and classic Film Noir in “Johnny Guitar” with Joan Crawford. Not too many westerns are known for the “Noir” genre, but the great Nicholas Ray (the director of “Rebel without a Cause”) tries his hand with this quirky Western.

The dialogue is camp at its best/worst, with Joan Crawford hamming it up in the lead as she carries a torch for her lost love, Johnny Guitar. There is no way to describe this movie, it just has to be seen. Perhaps not in its entirety, but speaking from experience, there are many far worse movies out there. (See my review on Bad Cinema!)

I would recommend Johnny Guitar to all lovers of camp and Film Noir. Sterling Hayden is good as the stalwart, guitar-strummin’, lady-lovin’ lead known as “Johnny Guitar.”

"Inglorious Basterds" is definitely a Tarantino film

Pulp Fiction is a groundbreaking film by any standard and is one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films. His latest, “Inglorious Basterds” is presented in much the same style as Pulp Fiction with the action being told in a series of vignettes that somehow tie it together in the end.

Although his work is uneven at times, Tarantino films usually hold the audiences interest if only to see how the peculiarities in each vignette somehow manage to weave together. This movie was billed and reviewed as a “shoot-em-up” war movie. There is a great deal of gore and one “chapter” devoted to the Basterds, but this is not a war movie. This is a Quentin Tarantino movie and those who come with an expectation of an old-style kind of war movie will be disappointed.

Most modern war movies make an anti-war statement or tell a story from a personal level of drama. This film makes a statement and a joke beginning with the fact that Nazi’s are always a parody of themselves and takes it from there.

The smaller intimate scenes in Tarantino films are my favorites. One of his best occurs in “True Romance” between two great actors: Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. Walken is a Sicilian Mafioso type and Dennis Hopper is the father of Christian Slater who is being grilled by Walken for information about his son. The action and the conversation turns into something altogether different when the audience realizes that Hopper has just deliberately slurred Walken’s Sicilian background because he knows he is going to die and Walken starts smiling in a totally evil way that suggests he knows it too. It is an extraordinary deft scene for a director that sometimes manages to go totally over the top.

It is the small, intimate details in his movies that are the best ones. “Inglorious Basterds” is no exception. From the beginning, we see the tension built in a scene at a French farmhouse where the Nazi “Jew Hunter” talks with a farmer he suspects of harboring Jews. One of the best vignettes occurs late in the film with members of the team of “Bastards” who get caught in a verbal cat-and mouse game in a bar with a suspicious SS officer. The audience knows that the tension is building and will explode at some point, but the verbal twists and turns sometimes lead in unexpected directions.

If you liked Pulp Fiction, you will like this movie. On the other hand, if you want to see a good action adventure war movie, I would recommend renting “Kelly’s Heroes, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen.” This movie is one part war adventure, two parts fantasy and pure Tarantino at his best. That sometimes makes for great cinema.

Top 10 Science Fiction Films of all Time

A recent online survey voted “Bladerunner” the top science-fiction film of all time. This comes as a surprise as I expected a movie like “Star Wars” (it was third), to finish in the top spot. I am always surprised when I’m in agreement with voting blocs as my taste usually runs outside of the mainstream audience.

I have never voted for “Citizen Kane”, “Gone with the Wind” or “Star Wars” in any kind of movie category denoting “best of.” This is partly an objective opinion on the moviegoer’s part, and partly because I find Citizen Kane boring and Star Wars extremely juvenile.

And although I would list the top ten “Best of” Sci-Fi movies slightly differently:
# 1: 2001; #2: Bladerunner; # 3: Close Encounters of the Third Kind; # 4: The Day the Earth Stood Still; # 5: Aliens; # 6: Terminator; # 7: Metropolis; #8: Forbidden Planet; # 9: The Road Warrior; # 10. The Empire Strikes Back; there were many films that I was glad to see in the top 100 list.

However, there were many on the list that don’t qualify in my opinion as “Science-Fiction” genre movies. The list includes comedies and some action-adventure movies and there are a few that are not high enough on the list (Sean Connery’s “Outland”) or simply not on the list at all, (Lost in Space with William Hurt, Colossus, the Forbin Project). All of the Star Trek & Star Wars movies should be on the list, Enemy Mine with Dennis Quaid and most of Jules Verne’s films, including “From the Earth to the Moon”.
Many of the Twilight Zone episodes and Outer Limits were written by some of the best science fiction writers of our time. And although Rod Serling and Harlan Ellison wrote some of the greatest science-fiction scripts of the twentieth-century; technically, these were not screenplays and could not be included in this list.

According to sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein, science-fiction is defined as “a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”[ Rod Serling explains that: “fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.”

Great Sci-fi movies by definition should include some suggestion or idea of future events and be made in a manner that captures the imagination. Unlike fantasy, Science Fiction must have some element of truth that is telling us not only to suspend our disbelief, but to project ourselves into a future where the fantastical could become a reality. This is the heart and soul of the science-fiction genre.

In Praise of Bad Cinema

Many years ago I wrote about really bad movies. Since that time, the list of contenders has grown but the criteria by which we judge deliciously awful films remains the same.

Number One- The plot must be non-existent or at least not relevant to the action of the movie. It helps if the actors stink up the joint but that is not a prerequisite.

Number Two-Most of the time it must have a very low-budget. Major films have been known to join the ranks, but as a rule, classically bad cinema usually is in the range from tin-foil robot hats to plastic doors and cardboard rocks.

Number Three-The gold standard to aim for is “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” The title is fairly important, and most bad movies are judged from the base camp of Director Ed Wood’s enduringly awful examples.

Number Four-Science-fiction is preferred, but other genres are always acceptable. If the film does delve into science-fiction, the science portion of the script is usually based on the merits upheld by a television show originally aired in the 1950’s.

Number Five-This is an important element. At some point in the action, the dialogue must be unknowingly funny. If the story line makes too much sense or they try to salvage a movie with a brave attempt at logical plot points, the film cannot qualify.

Tonight movie patrons around the country are being treated with a showing of the classically bad, “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. Some bad movies are just plain bad and boring to watch. The Plan 9 club for Bad B’s is in a class that is separate and apart from your typically awful movie.

Some modern nominees I have seen (over the past 20 to 30 years) are Donny & Marie’s “Goin’ Coconuts”, Snakes on a Plane, Alexander, all Chuck Norris movies, all foreign martial-arts movies, any movie with Godzilla in the title made in Japan, The Night the Lights went out in Georgia, Mad Max, Old Hercules movies, Jason & the Argonauts, the Ryan O’Neal movie, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance”, Lee Majors as a Viking in “The Norseman”, and any Paris Hilton movie.

It is important to note that in my day, we did not have the luxury of “fast-forwarding” through a movie with a button. That is cheating. The dialogue must be enjoyed or endured, however you want to look at it.

By the way, my favorite Ed Wood movie is not “Plan 9” but “Glen or Glenda.” It beats Plan 9 by a mile with the wooden dialogue & the inexplicable cuts of buffalo running across the plains, but the clincher is the man behind a desk explaining to the audience what a transvestite is and why they are different than homosexuals. It’s a hoot in any era!

What’s on TV

Portrait of Jennie: Under the heading “Nothing new under the sun” the plot for this film is basically the same as that of “The Time Travelers Wife” or it could be called, “The fantasy for males who would love to be able to give their wives the excuse, ‘Honey, I’d love to stay but I keep time traveling!!!!’

In regard to “Portrait of Jennie”, I remember loving this movie when I saw it on television years ago. I didn’t get to see the whole movie but the parts that I saw haunted me. It was a time when you used to see snippets of old films on TV and then they wouldn’t be shown again for ages. I saw “Portrait of Jennie” and remember thinking how mysterious and other-worldly the music & the plot seemed. When you watch it presented as a feature these days on Turner Classic, it looks a bit contrived but Joseph Cotton is still a great actor and Jennifer Jones is still beautiful as the mysterious and fun-loving “Jennie.” It goes to show that some movies are better than we remember and some are not as good as they seemed at the time!

“Three Godfathers” was a surprise to me. This is a John Wayne movie with a surprisingly religious overtone. If you have never seen it, I can highly recommend this one to all individuals who look for religious meaning in movies. The plot involves three men who come upon a wagon train where a dying woman has given birth. Thus, the three men are ‘godfathers” to an infant they must keep alive in a hostile environment. Of course, this is a Western that involves Indians and John Wayne, but this movie also has a message of redemption that is somewhat out of the ordinary from most shoot-em-up John Wayne films.

Julie & Julia

This is a movie with many facets. One of them happens to be about food. For all of the “food-ista’s” out there judging the merits of the cook’s ability to chop onions or the presentation of the dishes served, I believe you’re stretching it. This is a movie about working to make your dreams come true, creating joy in life and working hard to accomplish your goals. It is in the context of food, in the case of these two women, but it could serve as a metaphor for sports or art or business.

The food critic that reviewed the movie was satisfied in a snobby way with the food presentation. But if the purpose of the film was to show budding chefs the correct way to chop an onion, it would be a documentary now wouldn’t it? Sometimes the people who nitpick about films are trying to make a point the hard way, as they say in Vegas. This is a film for food lovers, for film lovers and for young and old alike.

One critic suggested that perhaps they could have added a scene where the two women met in a dream sequence. Yes, that could happen and it frequently does in many bad-b movies. But this is not the type of film where aficionados of bad acting and schmaltzy plots should congregate.

I would recommend “Julie & Julia” to most women and certain men who appreciate things like good acting with interesting characters. Food critics will like it too, if they manage to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours (plus!) That is about the time it takes to see a good flick these days.

A Grumpy Old Critic Reviews Film Criticism

There is an alarming trend growing in reviewing movies:
1. Emphasis is only on box-office profits. This is the major problem in contrast with twenty years ago when people would actually write well-reasoned, well thought out film reviews and criticism. The bottom line in the film industry and everywhere else is, of course, the amount of profit that a film generates and this is the first and foremost driver for any and all media outlets.
2. Inaccuracies in the details of films and sloppy or lazy writing (Reviewers that cannot be bothered to follow up with details of movie plot points or to consider what they are trying to convey when writing a review!)
3. Average people I talk to don’t pay attention to film reviews as they “always get it wrong.”
I remember years ago when Bladerunner got some bad reviews. After its initial debut, the reviewer actually recanted after someone explained to him that the movie had merit on several counts. It turns out that Bladerunner stands up well and is considered a classic science-fiction film. In this day and age, I’m not sure that any movie reviewer would bother to re-consider an opinion as the main arbiter of the review is always box-office take. (This problem is nothing new to the film industry!!!)

Another problem with film critics are those who are overly reverential when the director is considered a genius. I have seen several Woody Allen movies that are not watchable, and were reviewed well, There is also a problem with the action/adventure genre where movies are often panned because they are not “art.” There are films that are considered “art” that are unwatchable, comic book movies & other genre movies that are given way too much credence without putting them in the context of their genre- such as the fact that they are based on comic books! All light comedy is dismissed almost without exception-while some of the best actors working do light comedy-Renee Zellwegger comes to mind.
There are other problems with film criticism. There are actors who are overlooked, those who are over/under “hyped”, there are reviews without any attempt to deal with the plot, or trends, with meaning or analysis of the movies they review. Some reviews just state the plot and worst of all, are those reviewers that reveal the plot! One of the worst in recent memory was a recent review for “Taken” with Liam Neeson where the ending was casually announced with a phrase such as, “Well, of course in the end… and the outcome of the movie was revealed because, (I suppose they reason), it’s an action movie and no-one cares if you spoil the ending, right?!

Recently I happened upon a section of Netflix that features Customer Reviews. In this instance, a movie I had seen almost 20 years ago was being reviewed. The film was “Tune in Tomorrow” and it was, as I recall, a light comedy that gently lampooned the old radio soap operas that were so popular in the 1950’s. The film was a fairly forgettable comedy but I remembered Peter Falk had a good part in it and it also starred a very young Keanu Reeves.
The reviews for this film were, to say the least, quite startling to me. One of them spoke of the excessive profanity in this movie. Another seemed to be quite literally lambasting the film for stark racism and bigotry. There were a few that simply didn’t like it, which is perfectly fine. But I came to the conclusion after reading these “man on the street” type of capsule of reviews that: A) 2 out of 5 customers on Netflix are mentally imbalanced; B) Some people are so sheltered they have not seen movies for almost 20 years; C) More than a few people are just being ironic, satirical, have a weird sense of humor or are just not serious; or D) Most people are not very good at reviewing films.

In stating this theory, I can expand upon this by looking at recent trends whereby people that are PAID to review movies do a fairly lousy job of reviewing films. A case in point: Recently, I happened to read a local review of the recent re-make of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The reviewer skewered the movie on several points, but one of them was the fact that “there were several unexplained scenes” such as the first one where the lead character (AGAIN Keanu Reeves!) was seen as a mountaineer in the 1920’s and then later is featured as the alien, Klatu, from the invading spaceship.

The reviewer got just about everything wrong, starting with some easy technical points. Not only is the main characters human likeness later explained in the film but this is fairly standard sci-fi stuff. Alien abductions occur with such frequency in the world of popular culture, most (sophisticated) audiences do not need to see the characters actually lifted into the alien craft to get the general drift. This is the job of the critic, to “get it” when reviewing films and have the ability to sift through the unnecessary verbiage of a scene.

Another major problem with movie reviewers are those reviewing comedy. For Example: “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was touted as the funniest movie of the year? Yes, it had funny parts…BUT it was raunchy, and a very dirty R rated movie. Good Luck Chuck was not watchable. Another fairly recent comedy, Wedding Crashers was slightly funny, but not hilarious. The trouble with reviewing comedy is that it is just a subjective opinion. However, good acting as opposed to bad is not. (The actors in these films are not bad, but the content of the movie is questionable in my opinion.)
On one TV show, two critics were raving about the merits of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, comparing it with other comedies that were not as funny. In the first place, as stated, comedy is always highly subjective. I found this out when a friend worked at a video store and pointed out that several customers came back throwing the box on the counter and fuming with the complaint, “You told me that was funny!”, or “I thought that was funny! What do you mean you didn’t think it was funny?!” So, when screening this movie, I did find some funny parts. But funny is not the first word to come to mind when viewing this movie. Raunchy, dirty, X-rated and not fit for family viewing are my first thoughts when viewing this film.
I would like to point out that I used to believe myself to be a fairly sophisticated movie-goer. But the type of comedies that now pass as simply “funny” are seriously under-developed in slapstick and highly over-stocked with sexual innuendo and outright sexually explicit and sexually loaded material. I think to myself, “When did I become like Ruth Buzzi, this little old lady with a hairnet and a sour face hitting people over the head with a purse and wearing rolled up thick stockings and clunky shoes?”
The answer is, I suppose, a generational thing. Just as there is “a Guy Thing” in films, there is this huge generation gap in films today where the test audience seems to be only for ages 18-30.
After this, we are left with some films that use recycled and dated material for audiences that don’t know anything about classic movies or for that matter, any film that is older than the “Titanic.” This is a problem for baby-boomers, I suspect.

In conclusion, there is a problem for movie reviewers and for those who are reading a film review expecting to glean some information from the written review as to the merits and the quality of the film they are interested in viewing. There are still good writers out there who are interested in writing film criticism. This is an art form for a small group of people. But the pool is shrinking and as newspapers slowly fade into the sunset, I suspect the problem with finding quality movie reviews will continue to grow as the baby boomers fade away along with written words of newspaper copy.

Grumpy Old Critics Review

About The Dark Knight: Let me start by saying I didn’t like it. I realize that this opinion is counter to most opinions about this very popular movie but there you have it. This is not surprising as I don’t like lots of popular films of the day. I didn’t like Chicago either. I didn’t like The Dark Knight for different reasons. For one thing, it was too long. It took about one hour longer than it should have to tell the story of Batman and the Joker. They added one extra villain for good measure and added a tinge of tragedy to the comic book story. The problem I have with all of the latest Batman movies is that they are taking the comic book story and treating it as high art. Yes, the film is good but the story of good vs. evil is basic. And the “dark” element of Batman’s character was hinted at in the first wave of Batman movies with Michael Keaton. I liked the campy elements in that story because they seemed to fit the genre.
In The Dark Knight, the late Heath Ledger is very good. But great villains and great actors are found in many better movies than this. And so it goes that I would say this film is vastly over-rated, in my humble opinion.

It occurs to me that their might be “the Guy Thing” attached to the fascination with the Batman films. The same element of fascination mixed with excessive reverence is felt with “the Guy Thing” and the Godfather.”
For example,in the Godfather I hardly remember the part of the movie where they speak about “going to the mattresses.” Not only is it mentioned in several other movies by males like Tom Hanks and Greg Kinnear, but when the part is mentioned in real-life conversations with men, there is a universal recognition of the significance of the phrase “going to the mattresses.” This, in my opinion, is “a Guy Thing.”
Some films are “chick flicks” and some are “Guy Things.” With martial arts films, and certain “machismo-fantasy” films, there is the element of “Guy Things.” Films like “Sin City” and “300” come to mind in recent years. But there is an irritating quality to some of these movies that dictates that we are supposed to be reverent in our treatment of certain aspects of comic book genre films. There is nothing mysterious about a woman’s affection for a film like “Clueless” and the same goes for “The Dark Knight.” The attraction likes in the polarity of the characters and perhaps in the testosterone level of the viewer.

Doesn’t everyone know who Paul Newman is?

Here is the main reason I decided to write “Six Degrees of Film”. Too many times I’ve heard of young adults who know nothing about the history of film.(They don’t know who Paul NEWMAN was!) And that’s really too bad, because film classics are like “required readings of classical literature” in the sense that you can’t truly appreciate modern film without some working knowledge of film classics.

You may understand modern film. You may “get it” in a way that’s meaningful but still, you won’t truly appreciate the artistry of ‘Pulp Fiction” without the knowledge of a single classic gangster film or the work of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman or Humphrey Bogart.

For example, Russell Crowe is the epitome of quiet cool and tightly contained violence in so many of his performances. But without ever seeing Brando in “On the Waterfront” or “A Streetcar named Desire” it’s harder to appreciate the full body of his work.

Daniel Day Lewis in “There will be Blood” is less than six degrees from Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or Steve McQueen in “Papillon”. The killer, Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men” is less than six degrees from Tony Perkins in “Psycho” or Hannibel Lector in “The Silence of the Lambs”.

Martin Scorcese is less than six degrees removed in his directing style from the genius of Stanley Kubrick in so many of his classic films. Leonardo di Caprio is six degrees from Robert De Niro and both are protégés of Scorsese.

What is the process of six degrees of separation? It’s the idea that the world can be reduced to less than six degrees of separation for any given idea or connection. And in film, the factors are often less than six degrees because often the same types of movies or movie genres will cyclically fall into favor with the movie-going public.

For instance, westerns have been out of fashion with audiences for some years. They are considered old-fashioned, and yet every now and then a film will come along that becomes a major hit. And audiences invariably love a good “horse opera” where the forces of good and evil are pitted against one another. In fact it can be argued that every Star Wars movie has elements of the Western set against the backdrop of space.

With Harry Potter there are elements of the eternal fight against good and evil that can also be found in every Star Wars film. The same is true of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. In fact, the one movie that kept coming to my mind in watching the fourth installment of Harry Potter was “The Wizard of Oz”.

The Wizard of Oz, in the opinion of many, including myself, was one of the greatest movies ever made. It was pure fantasy with a cast of talented veteran Hollywood performers and some of the most imaginative elements ever committed to celluloid. The colors and the vibrant sets could segue-way into a thousand different plot points. But the action was always held together by one vulnerable child with her innocent little dog.

The possibilities of six degrees in film genres are endless. There are some more examples found in my book and on the website for Six Degrees. But the ones that are listed here are compiled from some recent movies shown on television.

Blazing Saddles is the break-though comic film for Mel Brooks. His comic genius in directing led to such classics as, “Young Frankenstein” and “High Anxiety. But Blazing Saddles led to another pivotal moment in film history with the “outing” of years of racial discrimination. Brooks used the character of the black sheriff to openly criticize the stereotyping and repression of African American characters in film and in society. Just as “Birth of a Nation” was a landmark film that was a huge hit about-believe it or not-a group of Klansmen depicted as heroes, “Blazing Saddles” also was a way of turning around the typical stereotypes that had appeared throughout the history of Hollywood film production.

From Russia with Love was one of the land-mark spy vs. spy films of the decade. Sean Connery’s portrayal of James Bond is the prototype for all future film spies. The Bourne character, whose superior intelligence and craftiness outwits entire government agencies, could never exist without James Bond or Philip Marlowe.

In Born Yesterday Judy Holliday was the textbook definition of “Dumb Blonde”. She and Marilyn Monroe paved the way for a long line of starlets that became known for their comic and vapid portrayal of stupid women who survive through a combination of beauty without a brain.

Field of Dreams-the phrase has landed in our vocabulary as a place where people can go to make their dreams come true. The phrase, “If you build it, they will come” is part of the American mantra where hard work and determination are sometimes the ingredients you need to make your dreams come true. Without the films of Frank Capra, we would never have a “Field of Dreams”.

The Sound of Music-it is said that there was a woman who saw the film every day while it played, entering the Guinness Book of Records. The end of an era of musicals produced one of the greatest movie musicals of all time. There have not been many musicals made since the sixties, but any and all can trace their roots to this classic film.

Curly Top-every child actor since has been eclipsed by the penultimate child star, Shirley Temple. No one under the age of 50 can remember the appeal of this child and the box office business that was generated by her movies. Shirley Temple remains the shining example of a successful child star. Many have followed, but very few can rival her success.

The Big Sleep-Think of Bogart and Bacall and Film Noir. The age of the private eye culminated with the Film Noir films of the thirties, forties & fifties. No one watching the popular pairings of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt or some of the movies of Clive Owen can appreciate their work without watching “The Big Sleep” with Bogart & Bacall. The clever dialogue and the screen chemistry between the two make this film entirely watchable even sixty years after it was released.

Pillow Talk to Working Girl. It all started with Doris Day comedies. The queen of light comic romances was Doris Day. All modern day romance film and twentieth into 21st century romances can give a nod to Doris. Any light comic film can be paired to a degree first with the screwball comedies of the thirties and subsequently the light comic films of Cary Grant or Doris Day.

The Awful Truth: Screwball comedies are arguably the baseline for all film comedy. To go farther back in time, Mack Sennett and the shorts of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy are “required viewing” for anyone that purports to love comedy.

Of course, with the many thousands of films out there it’s impossible to touch upon even a small number of them that can trace their origins to other film classics of the past. But this is just a sample of where the process of connecting present film genres with past ones can lead. The end result is a richer understanding of film and a deeper appreciation for films that we see today.