Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Ellen Burstyn

ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974). Director: Martin Scorsese.

After the death of her husband in an accident, Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn of The Exorcist) packs up and drives off to a new life as a singer with her young son Tommy (Alfred Lutter). Trying to get a job as a singer -- although she's not very good -- she winds up as a waitress in a diner in Arizona and along the way gets involved with two very different men (Harvey Keitel and Kris Kristofferson). This once very popular movie hasn't worn well with time. Although Alice was hardly the first Hollywood movie to deal with a widow moving on and starting a new life for herself, stumbling all the while, it came out in a decade reappraising women's roles and therefore seemed more novel than it actually was. Burstyn is good, if a bit overwrought at times, and won the best actress Oscar for the role. Lutter as her son is terrific and the rest of the supporting cast, including a young Jodie Foster as a friend of Tommy's, is excellent. A product of its time if little else.

Verdict: Pleasant and well-acted. **1/2.


RADAR PATROL VS. SPY KING (12 chapter Republic serial/1949). Director: Fred C. Brannon.

Operative Chris Calvert (Kirk Alyn) and scientist Joan Hughes (Jean Dean) versus Spy King John Baroda (John Merton) and hench-woman Nitra (Eve Whitney), who hope to sabotage radar defense stations. The cliffhangers involve deadly acid, deadlier explosions and cars off of cliffs, plus a poison gas inside an encyclopedia and an exciting plane crash in chapter eleven. Tom Steele and Tristram Coffin are also in the cast. The serial has mediocre villains but a good climax in the air. George J. Lewis, who plays good guy Lt. Agura, was a villain in Federal Operator 99. Jean Dean was also in Blood of Dracula and Eve Whitney, playing herself, was the brunette party goer who inspires the jealous gals to go to "Charm School" on a classic episode of I Love Lucy. Merton was in several other serials, including Brick Bradford, Hop Harrigan, and The Adventures of Sir Galahad.

Verdict: Acceptable but second-rate serial. **1/2.  


BLACK SABBATH (aka I tre volti della paura/1963). Director: Mario Bava.

A trio of horror stories from the director of Blood and Black Lace. In "The Telephone" a young lady is bedeviled by an old boyfriend who escaped from jail, or is it really a woman friend [or lover] who is causing the turmoil behind the scenes? This segment is interesting but half-baked, bordering on stupid. In the best and second segment, "The Wurdalak," starring Boris Karloff and Mark Damon, a family must wonder if their returning patriarch has become a vampire. The best scene has a dead little boy crying out pathetically for his grieving mother. In the final sequence, "The Drop of Water," a woman steals a ring from a hideous corpse that haunts her. Like most of Bava's films, the art direction is excellent, but sometimes the garish color works against the film's atmosphere. Frankly, the first and third sections should have been dropped and the middle segment expanded into a full-length feature.

Verdict: One out of three ain't bad. **1/2.



If you can't get enough of Betty White, here's a DVD collection of some of her shows from the fifties. There are two episodes of Life with Elizabeth that she did with Del Moore [three sketches per episode] in which they play a married couple. The skits range in quality from amusing to tiresome but all are well-acted. Betty reveals a very pleasant singing voice on an episode of the daytime variety show The Betty White Show. Betty surprises a young orphan (also named Betty) with a ton of gifts but it's hard to tell if the strangely subdued child is shell-shocked or annoyed that she didn't get the gift she wanted! Then there are two episodes of the sitcom A Date with the Angels in which Betty and Bill Williams play another married couple. On one episode stately Nancy Kulp [Miss Jane Hathaway of The Beverly Hillbillies] plays a highly sophisticated wife of a friend. Judging by these episodes, A Date with the Angels was pleasant but forgettable. Lastly, there's two episodes of yet another program called The Betty White Show [this one aired in the evening] which also has comedy sketches featuring Jimmy Boyd and the wonderful Reta Shaw. I have to confess I didn't like the Olga cleaning woman sketch any better than I did Carol Burnett's later charwoman routine. All in all, this is an interesting collection, however. White exhibited a bundle of comedic talent practically from the first.

Verdict: If you're not into the "fabulous fifties," there's always White in The Golden Girls. **1/2.


Wesley Snipes as vampire/vampire-hunter Blade
BLADE (1998). Director: Stephen Norrington.

The character of Blade first appeared in the Marvel comic book Tomb of Dracula. He was human, immune to vampire bites, and on a mission to find the particular vampire who turned his mother, even as he was in her belly, into a bloodsucker. Along the way he'd kill any vampire he encountered. Oddly, when this movie was made decades after Blade first appeared, they borrowed an idea from rival DC comics series "I, Vampire" from House of Mystery, in that like the hero of that series, the movie Blade is also a "good" vampire. A bigger problem is that this film isn't especially well directed, and the action scenes have no true punch, although there is a nifty sequence when skulls tear their way out of vampires' mouths. Wesley Snipes isn't much of an actor, and his performance seems to be a collection of grimaces. As his main adversary Deacon Frost, Stephen Dorff [Xlll] underplays too much and betrays no dramatic flair as the villain. Kris Kristofferson, without stretching overly much, probably gives the best performance as Blade's associate, Whistler. N'Busche Wright is also okay as a young doctor who becomes embroiled in dastardly events after being bitten. Blade is a somewhat noble figure who needs better treatment and a better actor. Unlike Tomb of Dracula, written by Marv Wolfman, the characterization in this film is minimal. Followed by two sequels.

Verdict: Stick with Dracula. **.


THE HOAX (2006). Director: Lasse Hallstrom.

"No one flew you to Nassau, Cliff -- you're not that important."

In 1971 writer Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) comes up with an idea to secure respect and power in the publishing field by purporting to have worked with the infamous Howard Hughes on his autobiography. Excited by what they think they've got in their hands, his agent and publishers go along with him, quelling suspicions, until the questions become insurmountable. The film details how Irving, aided by collaborator Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) and Irving's wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), comes up with some immoral if gutsy maneuverings to outwit his doubters, rips off his publishers for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and basically disgraces himself -- although Irving himself probably wouldn't have put it that way. Irving tries to convince people that his real goal was to "take down a corrupt president" in a clumsy attempt to tie it all in with Watergate and come out smelling like a rose. Irving published a book about his experiences as a con artist, which was turned into this film, for which he was undoubtedly paid good money for the screen rights, sort of proving that sometimes crime does pay. By all rights, Irving should have been completely shunned by the publishing world but he managed to see a few more books in print. Gere is quite good as Irving, if probably less obnoxious than the real man, and an excellent Molina (Spider-Man 2) steals the show as his buddy-in-crime, the forgotten Suskind. Harden and other cast members, including the always-oustanding Eli Wallach, are also notable.

Verdict: Entertaining, but basically another hoax. **1/2.



DEATH KAPPA (2010). Tomo'o Haraguchi.

When a young Japanese woman's grandmother is killed by drunken, speeding revelers, a kappa, or water goblin, who loves cucumbers comes forth to get even with them. Later, when a gigantic monster called Hangylas attacks the city, the kappa grows to humongous size and takes it on. It's hard to tell if this movie is a deliberate parody or just utter schlock. The light-hearted tone is at odds with scenes of flying severed limbs and heads. Shaky camera movements, and no real improvement in effects since Godzilla of the fifties.

Verdict: atrocious. O stars.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


THE COWBOY AND THE BLONDE (1941). Director: Ray McCary.

"Oh, you beautiful dope!"

Actress Crystal Wayne (Mary Beth Hughes), a complete bitch, is softened when she falls in love with a hopeful new cowboy star, Lank Garrett (George Montgomery), which is just as well because Garrett proves to be a hopeless actor except when he's doing love scenes with Crystal. The couple have a series of dumb misunderstandings throughout the 64 minute movie, which seems three hours long. Alan Mowbray plays Crystal's liaison in the studio. Minerva Urecal shows up for a minute or two. It's hard to believe this dog was actually released by 20th Century-Fox, as it looks like nothing so much as a poverty row item with an undistinguished cast. Hughes is at least somewhat vivid as Crystal; Montgomery has some charm but little else. This "comedy" has not got one single real laugh in it.

Verdict: 64 minutes long and only one half-hearted chuckle! *.


Charles Smith
HENRY ALDRICH'S LITTLE SECRET (1944). Director: Hugh Bennett.

"I stand here slaving over a hot iron all day and you go out and make dates." -- Dizzy.

Henry (Jimmy Lydon) and his best bud Dizzy (Charles Smith) are in more hot water when they wind up babysitting little Ricky Martin (John David Robb) for a woman (Ann Doran) who leaves town abruptly to try to clear her wrongly imprisoned husband.This doesn't prevent Henry from going out on a date with sexy Jennifer (Tina Thayer), who has a ring Henry desperately wants to get back. Henry takes the baby with him when he takes Jennifer to a night club, and even asks the hat check girl: "I don't suppose you have any place to check a baby?" Lydon and Smith are both excellent -- like Lydon, Smith was a highly talented comic actor -- and this final entry in the Aldrich Family series is one of the very best and funniest.

Verdict: Henry goes out in style. ***.


George Zucco

THE MAD MONSTER (1942). Director: Sam Newfield.

"I'm not interested in your imbecilic mouthings."

Dr. Cameron (George Zucco) wants revenge on the scientific colleagues who mocked him, so he uses a formula created from wolf's blood to turn his handy man Petro (Glenn Strange) into a voracious monster complete with two fangs, a shaggy beard, and lipstick! Petro goes out to take care of Cameron's alleged enemies. Anne Nagel of The Secret Code is the doctor's daughter, Lenora, and Johnny Downs [Adventures of the Flying Cadets] plays a reporter named Tom Gregory. The film has its share of foggy atmosphere, but there's an awful lot of talking about things we already know about. But the performances are good: Nagel [Black Friday] is always a pleasure, and Zucco is fun to watch no matter what the vehicle.

Verdict: Low-grade wolf man film with some limited appeal -- and Zucco! **.


HERE WE GO AGAIN: My Life in Television, 1949 - 1995. Betty White.
Scribner; 1995. Updated edition.

The multi-talented White has written an engaging book about her days on television starting with a five hour long daily show in the fifties, at least three shows named "The Betty White Show," Life with Elizabeth, her stint as Sue Ann Nivens on Mary Tyler Moore, The Golden Girls, her many appearances on classic game shows, and her romance and marriage to Allen Ludden, host of Password and an actor in his own right. White also appeared a couple of years ago on the CBS soap The Bold and the Beautiful and gave a wonderful dramatic performance. Still, going strong, she is in the cast of TV Land's sitcom Hot in Cleveland. White writes with warmth, enthusiasm, and compassion, admitting some things are gratifying to the ego but never coming off as an egomaniac. The book provides an often fascinating look at the early days of television and the sometimes startling contrasts between those days and the mega-wonderland of the multi channel, Oprah-bucks cable experience of today. She's able to provide an interesting book even though she doesn't tell nasty stories about her co-workers, a feat in itself.

Verdict: Let's hope this gal goes on until shes 100 and then some!***.


DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE (12 chapter Republic serial/1939). Directors: John English; William Witney.

Harry Crowell (the great Charles Middleton) escapes from prison and is out to get diabolical revenge against Horace Granville (Miles Mander), whom he blames for his imprisonment. Crowell actually manages to disguise himself as Granville, hide the real Granville in a dungeon, and take his place in his own mansion -- with no one suspecting! The "daredevils." who are actually circus performers, get involved in the hunt for Crowell after the little brother of one of them is killed in one of the disasters Crowell engineers. Then there's the "Red Circle," a mysterious cloaked figure who leaves notes for the three daredevils  -- played by Charles Quigley (The Crimson Ghost, The Iron Claw), Bruce Bennett (Herman Brix) and David Sharpe. Carole Landis [A Scandal in Paris] is Granville's daughter, Blanche, and we mustn't forget the dog, Tuffie, a beautiful collie. There are several notable cliffhangers, including a flooded tunnel in chapter one.

Verdict: Fast-paced serial action. ***.


THE END OF NORMAL: A WIFE'S ANGUISH, A WIDOW'S NEW LIFE. Stephanie Madoff Mack. Blue Rider Press; 2011.

NOTE: Great Old Movies is reviewing this as it sounds like a good bet for a telefilm. 

Stephanie Madoff Mack, the widow of Mark Madoff and the daughter-in-law of Bernie Madoff, writes of her ordeal [with the aid of Tamara Jones]. I'm not certain if a book on the trials and tribulations of the wealthy will necessarily go over big in these days of Occupy Wall Street and the 99%, but The End of Normal still makes a compelling read. It's unlikely that the book will unite Mack with the other members of the Madoff family as she writes unflinchingly of the foibles of her mother-in-law, Ruth, and brother-in-law, not to mention the deservedly detested Bernie. In other words, there's lots of insider "dish" in the tome. Mack describes Ruth as being "clueless," but she probably should have wondered whether it was a good idea to mention how she put up her own money, thousands of dollars, to run in a marathon when she's supposedly broke. [Of course, upper class people only think they're broke when they're down to their last $100,000.] Mark Madoff's decision to kill himself was a bad one, considering he left behind a wife and children, but as this book describes the emotional torment he went through dealing with betrayals by both father and mother, his ruined reputation and the like, it is easy to understand that his killing himself did not necessarily mean that he knew what his father was up to. That being said, other books, such as Madoff with the Money, insist that other family members did know what Bernie was doing but just looked the other way. Was it guilt, innocence, or the loss of a cushy lifestyle? Who knows?

Verdict: Very readable. ***.


SCRE4M (also known as Scream 4/2011). Director: Wes Craven.

"How do you think people become famous? You don't have to do anything. Just have fucked up things happen to you."

It's been eleven years since the last Scream movie [Scream 3].  Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has written a book about her ordeal and is back in town to promote it. Wouldn't you know there's yet another deranged individual who begins phoning teens, asking about horror movies, and slicing and dicing with abandon. The film is full of far too many unlikable characters, full of attitude, but sometimes the more appealing people get killed off as well. Emma Roberts plays Sidney's cousin, Jill, and Hayden Panetierre is her friend, Kirby. Mary McDonnell is Jill's mother. David Arquette and Courtney Cox are back as Sheriff Dewey and his wife, reporter, Gail Weathers. Anna Paquin is supposed to be in this but I swear I never noticed her, possibly because she's older than she was in X-Men. The picture isn't badly directed by Wes Craven [Kevin Williamson returns as writer], but you often get the impression that the music is doing most of the work. The acting is generally good, and whatever its flaws, the picture is entertaining and suspenseful.

Verdict: The Scream franchise reinvented for the youtube generation. ***.