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.