It's a Gift, and six more movies



Today, a bad sci-fi, a worse sci-fi, an even worse martial arts flick, an amazingly awful movie based on a sit-com, sweet memories of Grandma, Phyllis Diller in an unfunny musical, and W C Fields comes to California.

• 20th Century Women (2016)
• The Day after Tomorrow (1975)
• The Fat Spy (1966)
• It's a Gift (1934)
• Lethal Panther (1990)
• The Munsters (2022)
• The Twonky (1953)

The best of these is a comedy even older than me: It's a Gift, starring W C Fields and Baby LeRoy. 20th Century Women is also quite good, and Lethal Panther is bad enough to become borderline enjoyable.

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20th Century Women (2016)

"Let's go out tonight. I want to see this modern world."

20th Century Women is a dumb title for this well-made movie. It mostly takes place in a shared house, with lots of quirky characters, some of them slightly messed up, and some more that slightly. Two of them are mom and son, and the mom (Annette Bening) is a believable mix of overprotective, lenient, free-spirited, and down-to-earth. She thinks she understands her son, and she's trying to understand punk rock, but she doesn't.

Greta Gerwig plays one of the flatmates, a photographer for the newspaper, who explains punk and makes it make sense. Billy Crudup is another flatmate who lives downstairs, works as a mechanic, but wants to be a potter. Elle Fanning is the mixed-up girl down the street, and of course Benning's son is in love with her. The boy playing the boy is someone named Lucas Jade Zumann, and he's fine in the role but looks 12 when he's supposed to be 15. Probably that's on me, because I'm so old everyone looks young.

These characters aren't merely quirky for quirky's sake; they're given backstories that make their personalities plausible. Bening is at the center of the movie, which is always a good idea, but she shares it with everyone else.

"Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know, it's not going to be anything like that."

This was written and directed by Mike Mills, who made Thumbsucker, which I didn't much care for but this is lots better than that.

It's set in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s, and remembers the time lovingly, albeit through a Hollywood gauze of nostalgia. I haven't seen so many VW Beetles since watching that documentary about VW Beetles.

It's a small drama that's occasionally too cutesy, especially at first. There's a lot of dumb adolescent stuff, and the most unreal element is that neither of the teenagers are ever particularly annoying.

But the movie has genuine laughs and heart and marvelous moments, and usually rings true to itself. Everything and everyone is portrayed as good-natured, and no matter where the story goes you know it's going to end warm and fuzzy. That's OK, though. There's a place for warm and fuzzy movies.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Day after Tomorrow (1975)

This is from Gerry Anderson, who made Fireball XL5 and Stingray and Thunderbirds and all the other puppet sci-fi shows of the 1960s and '70s. I never liked any of them; they always seemed too talky, and I was never able to get past the puppets.

For this film, the puppets held out for higher pay, so Anderson used human actors. They might as well be puppets, though. There's nothing alive in any of them.

The Day after Tomorrow begins and ends with narration that sounds like junior high school science class. There are numerous mentions of Einstein, as if to make the movie smart by association, but it's still dumb. 

We're on a long-distance space mission, traveling at the speed of light. Time moves slowly when you're moving that fast — Einstein was right — so to avoid that awkward bit where the astronauts return home to find everyone they ever knew is dead, it's a family affair. Mom and Dad, teenage daughter, and perky kid brother are all going into space together, but they're not allowed to bring the family dog.

Same as in his puppet shows, most of the dialogue is tech talk, like, "You're looking good, Altares. Acceleration is as predicted. You're well into the red spectrum of the Doppler shift. I know you are all under severe g-force stress, but if you can look at your screens you will see that the illusion of the ship crabbing is as predicted by Einstein's theory. We're losing you, we're losing link-up — goodbye, Altares…"

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Fat Spy (1966)

Phyllis Diller gets top billing, so I was hoping for a comedy, and I guess this qualifies, technically. There are a few bad jokes, and an ever-so-slight story about a pudgy spy who's in love with Diller. Jack E. Leonard plays the title character and his twin, and he reminds me of my father, who was also not very funny. I'm amazed to click the net and learn that Leonard was once a successful comedian.

Mostly the movie is a musical, with light rock and pop songs for the teenyboppers and old-style ballads for the old folks, a combination that can't possibly work and doesn't. 

The lovely and talented Ms Diller, the reason I watched this, doesn't show up for fifteen minutes, and she's not in it much. She says a few lines, and then we cut to a Montevani-like love duet, sung by a man and woman in front of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima statue.

There are billions of people on this planet, and many of them have no standards whatsoever, so I suppose that at some time, someone somewhere must've found this movie amusing. Not me, though.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

It's a Gift (1934)

W C Fields stars. Maybe that's all you need to know.

Everyone is familiar with Fields' grumpy persona, but I'd never sat down and watched an entire Fields film before. He's not as mean as he is in all the memes.

Here he plays an ordinary schmoe enduring life. He's married with two kids, and everything they do seems accidentally annoying to him. It's not, like in some old slapstick comedies, one goofy thing after another; it feels more natural and less contrived. Some of it's stale, dated, but lots of it's still laughable, and I mean literally — there are about fifty belly-shaking laughs here.

The plot is unimportant, but here it is anyway: Fields plays Harold Bissonette, who runs a corner grocery store that doesn't carry kumquats, but he doesn't like to admit it. He dreams of buying a California orange grove and moving the family across the country to farm it. His rich uncle is on the verge of dying, and everyone's rooting for death because there'll be an inheritance, and Bissonette has already bought the orange grove, despite his henpecker wife telling him not to. She also insists that his name be pronounced Bis-so-nay, not Bissonette. 

There's a series of sight gags about the blind man, Mr Merkle, house detective from the hotel across the street, who comes to the grocery for a pack of chewing gum. Yeah, it's prehistoric and makes blindness a joke, but give yourself permission to enjoy it and you will.

Better bits are the picnic under the sprinklers, Fields shaving while his daughter hogs the sink and mirror, all the scenes with Kathleen Howard as the nagging Mrs Bis-so-nay, and a terrific extended sequence when Fields tries to nap on the porch as neighbors, delivery men, a traveling salesman, and fate conspire to make a ruckus. Laughs all along the way. 

"Why were you sitting there like a stone image when those men were insulting me?"

"I was just waiting for one of them to say something to me." 

Verdict: YES.

"W C Fields in It's a Gift with Baby LeRoy," says the movie's title card, and who or what the heck is Baby LeRoy? Wikipedia explains that a 2-year-old tot was a major movie star in the mid-1930s, and he gets second billing here. It's the same brat whose baby bottle Fields infamously (claimed to have) spiked with gin, but that was on the set of a different movie. In this one, the kid's in only one scene, gets no cute close-up, and of course needs an adult's help to be funny. Like Fields, I don't see the appeal of Baby LeRoy.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Lethal Panther (1990)

There's a beautiful assassin, and a beautiful CIA agent, and they're both beautiful. They are enemies forever until they become buddies, in this unintentionally hilarious chop socky flick from Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Bad English dubbing doesn't help, but this must've been a shitty movie even in its native language(s). The story is complicated, which probably does lose something in translation, but there's way too much slow motion walking and painfully dramatic poses, usually accompanied by over-the-top music. There are softcore sex scenes, and frequent flashbacks to Vietnam. Clearly the leads know some kung fu, but the fights are so poorly choreographed and sped up that the action looks fake, and anyway, most of the killing is with machine guns. Everyone screams as they die, and many people die.

The version I watched has two sets of opening credits, first in an Asian language but silent, then in English with sappy action music. Which is of no importance, except as an early clue that this is going to be a mess. It's an amusing mess, though.

Verdict: NO if you're looking for a movie, but YES if you're looking for a laugh.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Munsters (2022)

I've never seen any of Rob Zombie's horror movies, but that's his niche, so handing him the re-boot keys for The Munsters was arguably not the worst idea since New Coke. Here it is, though, and it's devoid of any fizz.

It's the backstory nobody asked for, showing how Herman was built, his career in stand-up comedy, the night he and Lily first met, and their immigration to America.

None of this seems intended to be even slightly scary, and it isn't. The jokes, though, are supposed to be funny. That's a long-running tradition in comedy, and to some extent even on The Munsters TV show. Well, the jokes here are older than Dracula's crypt, and accompanied by a giggling trombone or tuba on the soundtrack.

There's one laugh in the entire film, and it's a joke nobody younger than me will even get: As Herman and Lily sing Sonny & Cher's "I got You Babe," the lyrics are changed to "We don't have a plot" instead of "pot." No other laughs. No smiles.

The sets and camera angles are competent, the costumes fit and look nice, and the people Zombie's brought in to play the show's iconic characters deliver reasonably good impressions. Overall, though, this is an appallingly empty effort, almost offensively stupid.

Sylvester McCoy, former Doctor from Doctor Who, is in the credits, but if he's in the movie I mercifully missed him.

Verdict: BIG NO. This is one of the worst non-amateur movies I've ever sat through.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Twonky (1953)

Hans Conreid gets a TV set, and it wants to run the house. The TV lights his cigarette, counterfeits money, walks around, talks, and takes over the repairman's brain when he tries to have it shipped away.

This is a science fiction comedy, from an era when TVs were the newest thing in most people's home. Just imagine, big boxes showing imagery that moved. The Twonky must've been a fun night at the movies back then, but times and television and movies and everything has changed, and now it's a museum piece more than a movie. With a conscious effort to pay attention as if it was 1953, I was able to watch it to the end, but the joy faded away decades ago.

Verdict: NO.


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. I didn't know there was a Munsters reboot until like 10 days ago. Where the hell did you see it?

    Rob Zombie has make some good movies, but I'm not shocked that this sucks.

    1. I watched The Munsters at my favorite theater, which is my recliner, reclined.

      With a self-selected name like Zombie, I assume he makes gross-out horror movies. I'm 95% sure I'd hate them, but if you recommend one I'll give it a look.

    2. Nah, you're better off without watching any.

    3. Mr Zombie is suspect to me, anyway. He's chosen to name himself after that dumbest, dullest, slowest, and least frightening of all the major movie monsters.

      I'm watching a good horror movie right now, but it's fifty years old.


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