Two great movies, four good movies, and one crappy movie

Two BIG YESes today. Don't think I've ever had two simply great movies at once before. Plus there's a bonus review of Tom Hanks at the end, at no extra charge!

An Adventure in Space and Time

This is the simply splendid made-for-TV recreation of Doctor Who's invention in 1963.

BBC programmer Sidney Newman had a slot to fill on the schedule, and wanted a sci-fi show that would appeal to kids and their parents. It'll be about an old and mysterious doctor who travels in time, he said, but being "an ideas man," that's as far as he took it.

He hired Verity Lambert, making her the first female producer at BBC, to flesh out everything else about the show. She promptly broke Newman's rule that the show must have no "bug-eyed monsters," and instead delivered an episode about strange peppermill-shaped aliens called Daleks.

Of course, the Daleks famously terrified Britain and made the show a huge hit. Me, I've always thought they're among the lesser monsters of Doctor Who, but like Newman says in the movie, what do I know?



Jan. 20, 2023

"What the hell's that? A sink plunger and an egg-whisk? Oh well, if they can't take over the universe they might at least be able to whip up a decent omelet."

The film is a warm, sometimes funny human drama that even people unfamiliar with the show would enjoy. Anyone who already likes Doctor Who would marvel at this film, made in honor of the show's 50th anniversary in 2013. And for me, someone who frickin' loves Doctor Who, it honestly waters my eyes every time I re-watch it, which is once or twice yearly.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (1989)

Who didn't love the original Raiders of the Lost Ark? Hey, I saw it the day it opened and saw it again the next day, but I didn't love it as much as these middle-school kids did.

They were so wowed they went back and watched it over and over again, even sneaking a tape recorder into the theater so they could get the dialogue right, and they filmed their own remake on Betamax cassettes. It took them seven years to finish the project, and the result is—

"Snakes — why did it have to be snakes?" 

The result is a towering achievement in "do-it-yourself." 

The Adaptation is loaded with heart, and has it all — kids breaking a bottle over someone's head, kids drinking whisky, kids doing bad French and Middle-Eastern accents, kids in ridiculous fake beards, kids at an archaeological dig, kids on a military ship, kids in a (fake) burning pick-up truck, and also what appear to be genuine fire scenes, where you'll hope an adult was nearby.

It even has a kid jumping from a tree onto a moving truck, then getting dragged behind the truck. The truck is moving at about 5 mph, but still. And of course, it has 12-year-old Indiana Jones kissing the girl, hubba hubba. 

I've seen fight scenes worse than what's here, acting that's worse, and frankly, professionally-made movies that are worse than this. Not sure I've seen lighting that's worse, though, and it's on videotape, so it looks smudgy and streaky.

Costumes are credited to Salvation Army and Goodwill, but someone's parents must've spent some money. Where do kids get all those Nazi flags? And hieroglyphics, and skulls, and actual special effects when the ark of the covenant is opened?

Great music by John Williams, and screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan.

And don't click it off before the closing credits — it's hilarious seeing the same kids' names over and over and over again, because the kids had to do everything.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The American Friend (1977)

This is based on Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game, third of five in her series about Tom Ripley, the charming but sociopathic criminal.

Dennis Hopper stars as Ripley, and Bruno Ganz plays Jonathan Zimmermann, who frames paintings for a living. Ripley needs Zimmermann because his current scam involves selling artworks forged by the actual artist (Nicholas Ray), who's faked his own death to increase the value of his paintings.

When Ripley and Zimmerman meet, though, Ripley feels a bit slighted, and if there's anything you don't want to do it's slight Tom Ripley. 'Nuff said.

I've read two of the Ripley books, including this one, and seen most of the films, but I didn't realize this was a Ripley movie until it was about 1/4 over. Partly that's because much of the film is in German, but also it's because Hopper plays Ripley quite differently than Matt Damon or Barry Pepper or John Malkovich did.

Director Wim Wenders left out more of the novel's plot than seems necessary, but what's left is gorgeous and thrilling, feels noiry despite the rage of colors, and it's never not entertaining.

"I know less and less about who I am, or who anybody else is."

Curiously, Wenders brought in other film directors to play all of the movie's shady characters — Hopper and Ray, of course, but also Samuel Fuller, Peter Lilienthal, Daniel Schmid, and maybe more directors I'm unfamiliar with. Seems a wacky thing to do, but Wenders is wacky and no thespianistic deficiencies were noted by me.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Beat Girl (1959)
a/k/a Wild for Kicks

A wealthy architect has re-married, and his teenage daughter hates her new stepmother. The girl's decided that her stepmom used to be a stripper, and though the truth or importance of that accusation was never clear to me, she tries to convince her father to dump his new wife because of it.

The stepmother is a bit overbearing, but not wicked. The girl's rebellious spirit is never believable or explicable, unless it's her goal to be annoying every moment she's alive. Which, I guess, is the goal of most teenagers, but this kid is worse than that. She really got on my nerves.

At one point, a London cop says, "If it weren't for my pension I'd wallop her," and she certainly could stand a good walloping.

She's supposed to be 16, and movies never cast ordinary-looking or teenage-looking kids as teenagers. I would've guessed Gillian Hills (playing the 16-year-old) was 25, but if she wasn't lying about her age, IMDB says she was 15. Suffice to say, she neither looks nor acts like any 15- or 16-year-old I've encountered.

She hangs out in beat bars, and in a strip club owned by Christopher Lee. At the beatnik joint, Oliver Reed drops in, very young, and looks all wrong, even frightening, bopping his head to the 'beat' music.

The music doesn't sound like 'beat' music to me, but it's catchy, and it's the first film score by John Barry, who later wrote music James Bond killed people over. A few late-1950s British pop stars (unknown to me) are in the cast, and each sings a song. The kids who aren't Gillian Hills seem sorta like kids, the songs are honestly good, and Lee's performance is pleasantly slimy. 

Actually, everything in the movie is interesting or at least OK, except for the central story and starlet.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Defiance (1979)

Jan Michael Vincent plays Tommy, an out-of-work ship worker who's struggling to learn Spanish because it's a requirement for the crew he wants to ship out with.

He carries everything he owns in a duffel-bag, and moves into a shitty apartment in New Yawk City. This being a movie, he immediately meets a beautiful, unattached woman, and this being an action movie, he also meets some troublemakers.

"I'm just passing through. I mind my own business."

This is much better than your average action movie, though. First off, there's not that much action, and when there is, it's believable, not crazy jujitsu or bloody machine gun stuff. The heavies are sufficiently vile without being complete terrorists, and instead of the movie cliché where one man kicks twenty bad guys' butts, Defiance builds toward a collective vigilante response — We're all in this together — which is more realistic, and more satisfying.

Jan Michael Vincent was always stuck in B-movies, but he could play tough or sensitive, and here he's both. Danny Aiello plays a younger version of the guy who'll eventually own an unlucky pizzeria in Do the Right Thing. Art Carney runs a small grocery store, and I gotta say, Carney has bugged me at least a little in every role I've seen him play, but here he seems like a guy who runs a grocery store. 

Location filming adds so much, in big images, sure, but also in little ways. In one scene, we're walking in front of a dilapidated seafront structure, and an hour later we're somewhere else entirely, but you can see that same shell of a building off in the distance. It adds to the sense that someone gave a damn, and you're not just watching a commercial product.

Haven't seen Mr Vincent on screen in ages, and I've missed him. Google says he was seriously injured in a car crash in the late 1990s, and had a fatal heart attack a couple of years ago. Which I guess rules out a late-career comeback.

Directed by John Flynn (The Outfit, Rolling Thunder). Great music, too, and some pretty good songs by someone I'd never heard of whose name I didn't catch.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973)

"There has to be more to life than fighting for fish heads!"

Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a #1 best-seller in the early 1970s. It's a metaphysical fable about a seagull who wants to fly higher and faster than flock rules allow.

Among the millions who read the book was me, and I remember it fondly, as a corny but cool allegorical self-help book, a 50/50 mix of fairy tale and woo.

They made a movie out of the book, and it stars actual gulls, filmed with gorgeous wide-screen camerawork. Considering that they had no CGI back then, no drone-mounted cameras, the film is a remarkable visual accomplishment. Somehow they filmed a seagull doing loop-de-loops, and shot enough miles of birds on film that they're able to pick and choose from the clips and seemingly make seagulls act. The tagline could've been, "You will believe a seagull can fly 200 miles an hour."

The 'dialogue', in voiceover of course, is almost entirely whispered or very soft-spoken, which gets tedious, and what these birds are saying is often sappy '70s feel-good tripe. When voices are raised, the delivery is not Oscar-worthy. James Franciscus (TV's Longstreet) voices Jonathan, and Juliet Mills (Avanti) plays his ladybird. You wouldn't expect to encounter the "Asians are mystical" trope in a movie full of seagulls, but the wise elder bird who becomes Jonathan's mentor is named 'Chang' (Philip Ahn).

A big plus is that Neil Diamond wrote the music and sings several songs, which echo and amplify the spirit of the proceedings. He's included a few unneeded shout-outs to God in the lyrics, but only a few so what the hell. 

What's missing is the line, "Based on the novel by Richard Bach." The author had his name removed from the credits, because he was angry that the moviemakers caught footage of an eagle attacking a seagull, and added the attack to the storyline. Bach must be pricklier than a cactus, because the scene in question is brief, visually electrifying, and then it's over and not mentioned again. It's maybe a minute of a movie that's otherwise very faithful to the book.

The film received almost universally scathing reviews, and Roger Ebert walked out of it, but everybody makes occasional mistakes, even Ebert.

Admittedly, the woo gets thick and sticky toward the end, and it would be easy to laugh and let your eyeballs roll, but if you put your skepticism aside, JLS is often thrilling and thoughtful. It's an interesting experiment in moviemaking — at its best moments, inspirational, and at its worst, harmless. It's certainly worth an hour and a half of your time.

If nothing else, it's a Neil Diamond concert.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Reborn (2018)

If the very first moment in a film is thunder and lightning, at night, over a spooky-looking building, you know you're in for a movie full of clichés. 

Lena O'Neill is an aging actress on a downward career spiral, after enduring the very traumatic birth of her stillborn daughter sixteen years earlier. Only maybe the baby wasn't quite so stillborn?

Secretly, the tot was brought back to life by a mad scientist in the hospital's morgue, and the process imbued her with the power to flicker lights and use electricity as a weapon. And now there's a teenage girl (Kayleigh Gilbert) who doesn't know who her natural mother was, who tracks O'Neill down and joins her acting class.

Obviously, I was mistaken — despite the thunder and lightning, I did not know what I was in for, and this is not a movie full of clichés.

It's written and directed by men, but most of the central characters are women, and none of them are stupid or stereotypical victims. It feels like a horror movie from a female perspective, but not a victim's perspective, and that's uncommon.

I was never even minimally scared by any of it, so it doesn't work as horror, but it's a pretty good minor melodrama, maybe even science fiction. It's a close call, but I'm giving Reborn a thumb's up.

Also, it's old-timers day! The movie features several names from decades earlier, including Barbara Crampton from Re-Animator and From Beyond, Michael Paré from Streets of Fire and The Warriors, Rae Dawn Chong from Choose Me and Quest for Fire, Monte Markham from TV and schlock, Chaz Bono from Sonny & Cher, and Peter Bogdanovich as Peter Bogdanovich. The performances are all good, too, even Paré — first time I've ever seen him act like an actor.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

This last item is not a movie review, because I didn't see A Man Called Otto (2023). That's a new flick I'd never heard of, but my brother Clay saw it, loved it, and thought I'd love it too.

It's about Otto, a grumpy old man who's given up on life after his wife's death, and he's thinking of killing himself. Well, I've never seriously considered suicide, but I am an old grump who's given up on life since my wife's death. I can see why Clay thought of me, and I was momentarily intrigued. 

But it stars Tom Hanks, and to that I must say no and no and no again. I wouldn't believe Hanks as anyone grumpy, and his very presence is enough to reveal everything about the movie's inevitably heartwarming conclusion.

Here's my review of Tom Hanks: He was fine in light comedies like Big and Splash, but since then he's made a long string of dramas that haven't interested me, and I'm tired of him. I was tired of him in the previous millennium, and he's still making movies I don't want to see.

I did see Philadelphia, which was OK, and Catch Me If You Can on the back side of a double feature, but it was so bad we left before it was over. I may have seen one other Hanks film in the past 35 years, but it's a memory I've repressed.

Tell me if there's a masterpiece of Hankery that would unlock the mystery of the man's superstardom, because I am baffled.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions: 

• Baraka (1992)
• The Beguiled (1971)
• Bernie (2012)
• Performance (1970)
• Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
• Puce Moment (1949)
• Rope (1948)


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. WTF? Catch Me If You Can is one of Spielberg's top five flicks!

    As for Jan Michael Vincent, he's one of my ten favorite actors of the 70s. Even if the movies he was in were less than great, he was always compelling. Some faves:

    The Mechanic
    White Line Fever
    Damnation Alley
    Big Wednesday

    He also has a cameo in Buffalo '66

    1. I have a visceral hatred for Leo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks is a blank spot on the screen, and latter-day Spielberg has become a yawn, so that's the trifecta of nope. Ain't no way CATCH ME IF YOU CAN could've caught me.

  2. >WTF? Catch Me If You Can is one of Spielberg's top five flicks!

    I'm not sure I agree, but I was also perplexed. It's a good movie. Not a capital letters Great Movie, but pretty dang good, IMO.

    1. I hate Leo DC's smug punchable face.

    2. I was resistant, too. But there's a lot of interesting things going on in this movie.

      That facile "charm" from DiCaprio is entirely appropriate to the character, a true-life scam artist who wore disguises and conned millions from businesses, but who really had no identity underneath. And Hanks, and FBI agent, is actually a total prick for 95% of the film. At one point he says to Leo's character, "You don't have anyone else, do you? That's why you're calling me on Christmas?" and then he laughs uproariously and cruelly.

      There's a scene as good and dark as anything Capra did, where Leo, after multiple escapes from the law, and multiple changes of identity, goes to his mom's house. Snow is falling, his mom has a new family, he looks in the windows, it might as well be a department store window in which there's nothing he can afford.

      And Christopher Walken is really fantastic in this, his role in years. Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, all great.

    3. What, you're asking me to challenge all my preconceptions and be openminded instead, possibly expose myself to something new and worthwhile?

      I don't think I'm that good a man.

    4. It's a deceptively light-footed film. It's very entertaining, but there is something there.

      I'd say Catch Me, Munich and Bridge Of Spies are the best post-2000 films by Stevie. Minority Report is a noble effort but I like it less each time I see it.

      Of course nothing he ever makes will top Close Encounters.

    5. That's certainly my opinion — CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is a big beloved flick for me.

      I've added CATCH ME IF YOU CAN to my list, but I'm going to put it off a long time because I frickin' hate Leo DC, and it'll have to be a real masterpiece to overcome that.

    6. Was going to ask if you've seen any of Leo's many Scorsese collabs this century.

      I think The Departed is excellent, if deliberately bombastic. I like it more than Goodfellas (which is excellent but wildly overrated) because despite its flamboyance it's much more cynical and bleak and no one in the film survives. The system they operate within - cops/robbers - kills everyone, no ifs ands or buts. Goodfellas is a bit romanticized; Departed is icy cold.

      The other Leo/Marty pics I can take or leave. Wolf of Wall Street has some funny bits but is otherwise a heinous adulation of a human piece of shit. Marty is uncritically obsessed with tough guys. Sad. David Walsh at WSWS is literally the only critic willing to call him out for this.

      My favorite of Scorsese's recent movies are Silence and The Irishman, both in his top five in my opinion.

      You'd like Munich and Bridge of Spies more than Catch Me. Give Munich a try, it's pretty close to a masterpiece.

    7. I saw THE DEPARTED, and thought it was OK but seriously marred by the shitty acting of Leo DC. That was his last chance for me, and I haven't seen anything he's made since then.

      Scorsese and tough guys? Yeah, it gets tiresome, and it's why I think he's a bit overrated. RAGING BULL, for example. It's a terrific movie, but about such a tedious thug.

      MUNICH is about Israel's bloody response to the terrorism at the '72 Olympics? I dunno, man. I am doubtful — it smells like propaganda to me. Tell me again that it's great and I'll add it to the list, skeptically.

      I don't think it's possible to talk me into BRIDGE OF SPIES.


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