Tuesday, March 31, 2009

3/30/09: Darling (1965)

I remember seeing the heavenly Julie Christie for the first time in 1978's Heaven Can Wait. Here's the film that catapulted her to international fame and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. I've always wanted to see it, and what a spectacular disappointment it is. Julie essays the role of Diana, an ambitious model who, through a series of love affairs, catapults herself to international fame...by boring me to death. Julie was said to be excruciatingly beautiful in her first major big-screen role, but she frankly possesses only the tiniest fraction of the beauty she would have playing opposite Warren Beatty some 13 years later. In Darling, Julie pouts, smokes, wails, argues and jumps from bed to bed, moving upwardly and keeping her eyes on the prize. The movie is cynical without being engaging; I never really cared what happened to the amoral Diana. There are a couple of tense, well-played scenes every time she breaks up with one of her boyfriends; the rest of the time is just filler. One of the drawbacks of these swinging 1960s British films is that everybody smokes, all the time. It's bloody difficult to watch. Rating: 2/5.

Monday, March 30, 2009

3/29/09: Nothing But the Best (1964)

In 1961, a stage musical called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying became a colossal hit on Broadway. A few years later, Alan Bates appeared in this film, which is sort of a non-musical black comedy version of the same story, with elements of Pygmalion tossed in. Bates plays a low-class clerk at a real-estate firm who wants to rise to the top as soon as possible, no matter what the cost. He meets Denholm Elliott, a posh but somewhat sleazy con artist who shows him how to at least act upper-class. Bates soon learns the art of backstabbing and getting ahead unfairly, and we discover that even murder isn't beneath him. It sounds more interesting than it really is; I've never been quite as charmed by Alan Bates as most people are, and in Nothing But the Best, he bored me more than usual. Elliott was the most interesting thing here, and it was nice to see Ernest "Professor Loftus" Clark from the old Doctor in the House TV series as the boss of the firm. Rating: 2/5.

3/28/09: Inadmissible Evidence (1968)

As a longtime Anglophile, I feel it's only fitting to have at least one full week of my project devoted strictly to British movies. I'm sure there will be more to follow, but this week will comprise English films dating back to the 1960s. First up is Nicol Williamson in a screen adaptation of the Tony-nominated play Inadmissible Evidence, written by John Osborne in 1964. I had read several places that the movie was basically a filmed stage play. Not even close. In fact, it seems singularly cinematic, as if they'd gone to quite a lot of trouble to "open up" the play: There are flashbacks, outdoor scenes, interior monologues, etc.

The story, such as it is, concerns itself with Bill Maitland (Williamson), a despicable divorce attorney who's bored with his family, ignores his clients, insults his friends, cheats on his wife, even cheats on his mistress. He dislikes everybody, especially himself, and his world is crumbling all around him as the people closest to him begin to shut him out. The film doesn't tell us everything we would like to know about the man, leaving certain details deliberately obscure (the editing of the film sometimes verges on the experimental), but there's no doubt that Maitland has painted himself into a corner, with little or nothing left to contribute to society. The movie is a tour-de-force by Williamson, whose amazing talent I first encountered in an outstanding episode of Columbo back in the 1970; I later had the honor of seeing him perform in Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet in 1991. He's just smashing here; I just wish the movie were as memorable as he is. Featuring the smoldering Gillian Hills as a nymphomaniacal receptionist. Rating: 3/5.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

3/27/09: Paris, Je T'aime (2006)

The reason Paris, Je T'aime wound up in my DVD collection is because one segment of this anthology movie was directed by Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), my favorite contemporary filmmaker. Consisting of 18 short films from directors around the world, Paris, Je T'aime concerns itself primarily with stories of love and loss; it's mostly in French, with a smattering of English. It's a bit like reading a book of short stories, but even more like sampling chocolates from a See's candy assortment—some you're bound to like, while others make you wrinkle your nose and scavenge for a more appealing confection.

The segments in Paris, Je T'aime range from the gimmicky ("Parc Monceau," starring Nick Nolte, is done as one continuous shot) to the overtly comedic ("Tour Eiffel," about the meeting of the mimes) to the fantastic ("Quartier de la Madeleine," a vampire tale) to the unbearably moving ("Place des Victoires" and "Place des Fêtes," both of which had me sobbing uncontrollably). Although not all of the individual films are worthwhile on their own, Paris, Je T'aime as a whole is a lovely tapestry. Bringing up the rear, Payne's segment ("14e arrondissement") is wonderfully poignant, as is another that Payne briefly appears in: Wes Craven's "Père-Lachaise," about a woman (Emily Mortimer, strongly reminiscent of my friend Su) who has a romantic problem with her fiancé (Rufus Sewell). Paris, Je T'aime put me in the mind of Love, Actually, another movie featuring numerous unconnected stories au sujet de l'amour; it has also inspired the upcoming New York, I Love You, which I will now be very curious to check out. Very special thanks to my mate Kevin Christian for gifting me with this DVD! Rating: 5/5.

3/26/09: Monsters Vs Aliens (2009)

Dreamworks once again gives Pixar and Disney a run for their money with the farcical 3-D cartoon Monsters Vs Aliens, an imaginative yet hilariously derivative sci-fi comedy that knows the best ideas to steal from, including (but hardly limited to) Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Independence Day, Close Encounters, Mars Attacks and even Disney hits like The Incredibles and Monsters Inc. The movie barely disguises what it plagiarizes: B.O.B., the film's gooey blue monster, is basically the same goofy spook that slimed Bill Murray in Ghostbusters with a color and personality facelift.

The plot of Monsters Vs. Aliens is wholly secondary to the special-effects and visuals. After being flattened by a meteor carrying some extraterrestrial muscle juice, Susan (Reese Witherspoon) becomes Ginormica, a 50-foot tall giant with super strength. She is captured and imprisoned with various other monsters, including the gelatinous B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), mad scientist Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) and the Missing Link (Will Arnett), a variation on the Creature from the Black Lagoon. When aliens suddenly attack San Francisco, the government decides the monsters are our best defense, and the fun battle begins.

Although it tends to play fast and loose with issues of scale, the film is a visual masterpiece, the first computer-animated feature originally produced in 3-D rather than being converted to 3-D afterwards. There's plenty of humor for the kids, with enough pop-culture jokes thrown in just for adults to keep them happy too (few 10-year-olds will appreciate the classic reference to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). There's nary a dull moment in this wild and charming video game of a movie, which features an all-star cast of TV comedians, among them John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson (The Office), Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live), Jeffrey Tambor and Will Arnett (Arrested Development), and even a few big-screen greats (Renee Zellwegger, Paul Rudd) thrown in for good measure. Rating: 4/5.

3/25/09: Life for Ruth (1962)

A young girl with life-threatening injuries desperately needs a blood transfusion, but when her father emphatically refuses to let the surgeon do his job, he explains that his Christian faith clearly prohibits it—he takes the Bible literally when it says, "Whatsoever man eateth any manner of blood, I will set my face against that soul."

Though made in the early 1960s, the theme of science vs. religion is still very topical today, and this undeservedly obscure movie makes the most of its story. Life for Ruth brings together two actors appearing in separate Disney films I recently screened for my one-a-day project: Janet Munro (Darby O'Gill and the Little People), as the conflicted mother of the child, and Patrick McGoohan (The Three Lives of Thomasina) as the doctor who seeks legal charges against the girl's father after she dies. Filmed in stark black and white, the movie successfully attempts to show both sides of the controversy and ends up being very compelling. It's a great film, although at times it seems to have been heavily funded by the British Tobacco Council. I purchased the DVD to see more of beautiful Janet Munro, who is made to look rather drab here but does a powerful acting job. Patrick McGoohan is, as always, mesmerizing. Rating: 5/5.

Friday, March 27, 2009

3/24/09: I Love You, Man (2009)

Billed as a "bromantic comedy," I Love You, Man gives us Paul Rudd as a guy who's always been more comfortable with close female friends than with the male variety. (Yes, he is playing a more handsome version of me.) When he gets engaged to lovely Rashida Jones, he is compelled to find a male best friend who can serve as best man. This inevitably leads him to Jason Segel (a ringer for Brendan Fraser), and all of the nervousness and awkwardness that comes from their "courtship." Roughly 80 percent of the laughs derive from the quasi-homophobic nature of this relationship; the other 20 percent is pure toilet humor. It's regrettable that writer/director John Hamburg felt the need to continually film Segel's dog defecating on the street, then showing people stepping in the crap—and how exasperating that the otherwise likable Segel turns out to be the kind of guy who refuses to clean up after his dog in the first place. I Love You, Man is enjoyable and genuinely funny enough not to need the gross-out humor...I wish I could take a print of the film into the editing room for half an hour. Andy Samberg from Saturday Night Live has a small role as Rudd's brother, and Sarah Burns plays a funny single lady who would normally be played by SNL's Kristen Wiig—she must have been unavailable. Fortunately, super-hot Jaime Pressly was not busy. She is the ultimate eye candy. Rating: 3/5.

3/23/09: Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, both seen most recently in Charlie Wilson's War, team up in this black comedy as sisters who launch a business cleaning up homes, hotel rooms and retail stores where a bloody crime has been committed—often a suicide. Rose (Adams) and Norah (Blunt) lost their mother to suicide as children, and they both deal with that loss in different ways as they scrub bloodstains out of the bathroom tile and grout. Rose, who has a young son and a married boyfriend, is the marginally more grounded of the two, while Norah is a flighty, irresponsible wreck—a second cousin of Anne Hathaway's character in Rachel Getting Married. The strong ensemble cast includes Mary Lynn Rajskub and Alan Arkin, the latter of whom appeared in the producers' previous film, Little Miss Sunshine. This charmingly oddball flick is the more rewarding of the two Sunshines; all of the performers shine, but Amy Adams is the real draw for me. She's simply superb. Rating: 4/5.

3/22/09: Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949)

Here's the second of three Mr. Belvedere movies starring Clifton Webb as the exceedingly acerbic, multi-talented, impeccably groomed genius who always has a snappy comeback to every remark hurled at him. ("You play like Rubinstein," gushes a female student as Webb tickles the ivories, to which he replies, "Rubinstein plays like me.") Belvedere has evidently retired from taming toddlers and set his sights on co-eds. The idea of Mr. Belvedere enrolling in college is as preposterous as shipping George Clooney off to Handsome School; sure, it's contrived, but it's a cute way to get the 60-year-old into a freshman's beanie and face hazing by upperclassmen.

Webb's co-star is Shirley Temple, playing an aspiring journalist. I've never seen a real Shirley Temple movie, so it's bizarre that my first would feature her as a widowed mother in her early 20s. (Her cuteness hadn't worn off, but I wasn't crazy about her hair style.) While not quite as hysterical as the first Belvedere film (Sitting Pretty), it's still full of great lines and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Featuring Alan Young, years before he became best friends with a talking horse in TV's Mr. Ed. I believe this qualifies as the first time I've seen three movies from the same series this year. Rating: 4/5.

3/21/09: 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of a 1957 Western starring Glenn Ford as the villain and Van Heflin as the cowboy charged with escorting him to the titular train that will take him to prison. The 2007 version gives us Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, and they're so perfectly cast that it's hard to imagine anybody else in the roles, including Ford and Heflin. This is normally the kind of story that instantly causes me to lose interest—it's the standard "We Gotta Go From Point A from Point B" Plot. (It's one of the reasons that Lord of the Rings made me squirm and force myself to fall asleep when I wasn't remotely tired.) But 3:10 to Yuma is really a psychological character study, showing how matters of trust and honor sometimes supersede mere good and evil. Throw in a million rifles and a few dozen horses, and you got yourself one action-packed Western. Crowe oozes likability as a morally corrupt bad guy who alternates between being Bale's captive and protector. In an abbreviated role, a grizzled-looking Peter Fonda, 67, looks almost ready to reprise his father Henry's role in On Golden Pond. Rating: 4/5.

And so Connie's Picks Week rounded out with two 5s, three 4s, one 3 and one 2. Average grade: 3.86. Sounds about average.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

3/20/09: Watchmen (2009)

Connie gave Watchmen a good review in the Miami Herald, but actually discouraged me from seeing it based on its violent content—which just goes to show you that knowing somebody for more than half your life doesn't always count for much. Since I liked it more than two of her actual recommendations (so far)—probably liked it more than she did, in fact—I'm including it in Connie's Picks Week.

Watchmen is the comic-book adaptation that's equal parts superhero flick, private-eye mystery, love story, action adventure and gory horror movie all wrapped up in a sleek, science-fiction wrapper. Amazingly, it all gels perfectly, a cinematic smoothie where every fruit is thrown into the blender to create a fascinating new flavor. Watchmen worships at the altar of contradiction: in this movie, the bad guys are evil, and the good guys are often worse. At times it's a relentlessly exciting Ninja-type yarn, then it dares to slow down and start philosophizing about how the world is doomed because of human nature, all while tunes as incongruous as "99 Luftballons" and "All Along the Watchtower" blare on the soundtrack.

The film isn't satisfied being merely a genre-bender—the storytelling isn't strictly linear, and although it takes place in the 1980s, the film gleefully ignores actual history and gives us a world where Nixon is still president after five terms and spaceships skyrocket over Manhattan. (The mishmash of anachronisms is dizzying.) Based on the famous graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen mixes costume-wearing crimefighters with names like Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman, made up to look exactly like Demi Moore) and Nite Owl (basically a Batman clone) with a bonafide otherworldly dude called Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a glowing naked bald guy who looks like a refuge from the Blue Man Group. Roughly the first half of the film concerns itself with the murder of one of the heroes (The Comedian), while another (Rorschach) hunts for the killer; the second half is mostly about a nuclear holocaust. As Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley steals the movie as a troubled crusader with Clint Eastwood's voice, whose cheesecloth-covered face displays inexplicably moving Rorschach patterns. (He has the movie's best single line, growing at a group of vengeful fellow prison inmates: "I'm not locked up with you—you're locked up with me.") This is the same brat from The Bad News Bears? Astonishing.

The movie works best while in Action Mode, with many almost comically violent sequences—arms get amputated, bullets pierce foreheads, and the disembowelments come at a fairly regular pace. For the record, I didn't look away once, although I may have audibly groaned. Stylistically, Watchmen steals from dozens of movies, including (but not limited to) Kill Bill, Sin City, Star Wars, The Dark Knight, The Matrix, 300 and X Men. But it's impossible to tear your eyes away from what is still a wholly original piece of work—to say nothing of Dr. Manhattan's long, blue prosthetic schlong. Rating: 4/5.

Monday, March 23, 2009

3/19/09: In America (2002)

Like pretty much every American, I worry about making enough money, keeping my loved ones safe, having enough food to eat and a million other little things. Watching In America, the acclaimed film about an Irish family that illegally emigrates to the USA, I kept thinking, "Great, now I have to worry about these people too."

In director Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical film, Johnny and Sarah Sullivan move their two young daughters, Christie and Ariel, into a Manhattan tenement occupied chiefly by drug addicts and transvestites (but nary a rat nor cockroach to be seen—it's the Disney version of a flophouse). We see most of the action from the point of view of Christie, who dutifully records the family's experiences with her beloved camcorder. Living in virtual poverty, Dad drives a taxi and Mom works at a local ice-cream parlor as they struggle to make ends meet. But the biggest problem dogging this family is the ever-present spectre of Frankie, the couple's dead son. Everybody is still in mourning, but the loss has all but immobilized Johnny emotionally. At length, the family befriends a fellow tenant, a mysterious Nigerian artist named Mateo Kuamey (Djimon Hounsou), who is dying of AIDS. Then Sarah announces she's pregnant, and the baby is born prematurely and in need of an expensive blood transfusion they can't possibly afford. (Confoundingly, nobody at the hospital ever asks Johnny for proof of insurance.) Also, it's swelteringly hot in New York. In case you hadn't noticed, this is not a comedy.

Despite all their woes, the Sullivans try to keep it together as best they can, largely for the sake of the two surviving kids—and more adorable children I've never seen in a motion picture. Narrated by Christie (Sarah Bolger) with heartbreaking earnestness, In America is mostly a downer, but contains just enough sentimentality and poignancy to keep it from being fatally depressing. Long before I ever concocted the "one movie a day" idea, Connie suggested that I move this to the top of my list of movies to see. Knowing how much I love films that elicit a strong emotional reaction, she might be surprised that I didn't rate this one higher; despite numerous effective scenes, what prevented me from liking it more were Paddy Considine as brooding Johnny and Samantha Morton as the nearly bald Sarah—Mr. Hard to Connect With and Ms. Hard to Look At. Rating: 3/5.

3/18/09: Dead Again (1991)

Fortunately, my friend Jay was around to point out all the ways this movie was confusing and cliche-ridden—not that I couldn't have figured that out on my own, but it was nice to have confirmation. Kenneth Branagh, the Amazing Lipless Wonder, stars as a private detective who tries to help an amnesiac victim (the always great Emma Thompson) figure out who she is. An antique dealer who dabbles in hypnosis (Derek Jacobi) puts her in a trance and starts to learn more about her past life than her present one. While there are some admittedly intriguing plot twists, the story is a little too preposterous for its own good, with some shockingly low-budget effects that had us howling (the flimsy giant pair of scissors that dispatch one character was the worst offender). Branagh, who plays two roles in the movie, probably bit off a little more than he could chew by also directing; I was frankly embarrassed by how badly he played the (contemporary) private eye, Mike Church, whereas he is obviously much more comfortable as his "Shakespearian" past-life character, Roman Strauss. In a minor role, Robin Williams does a much better job in one of his earliest serious performances, but Wayne Knight of Seinfeld fame is downright annoying as a newspaperman with a ridiculous speech impediment. And speaking of speech impediments, the climax of the film calls for Derek Jacobi to reprise his I, Claudius stutter—only one of the unintentionally hilarious scenes in Dead Again. It's a pity; this actually could have been a decent suspense yarn with some different people involved. Rating: 2/5.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

3/17/09: Nobody's Fool (1994)

Like Cary Grant, Paul Newman is a film legend whose many screen credits are somehow absent from the long list of movies I've seen. I began to rectify that last month by viewing one of Newman's most enduring classics, The Hustler. Now here he is again, 33 years older but every bit as mesmerizing. In Nobody's Fool, he's "Sully" Sullivan, a down-on-his-luck construction worker with a bad knee and a grown son (Dylan Walsh) who suddenly reappears in his life after a period of estrangement—along with a grandson he's never met. The movie takes place in one of those small towns where everybody knows each other and oddball characters inhabit every corner. We meet Sully's eighth-grade teacher (Jessica Tandy), slow-witted best friend (Pruitt Taylor Vince), one-legged attorney (Gene Saks), occasional employer (Bruce Willis) and the employer's wife (Melanie Griffith), with whom Sully has an ongoing flirtation. All of them play pivotal roles in this variation on the old redemption story; although Sully isn't really a bad guy, he's emotionally unavailable and responsible for nobody, including himself. The story unfolds at a snail's pace, but still manages to be gripping and enthralling throughout—it's a wintertime confection that's shamelessly heartwarming and deeply moving. (Even the title card at the end of the movie, commemorating the passing of actress Jessica Tandy, brings you to tears.) Featuring an early role by future superstar Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rating: 5/5.

3/16/09: The Awful Truth (1937)

Amazingly enough, I haven't seen many movies that can legitimately be labeled screwball comedies. Moreover, I haven't seen nearly as many Cary Grant films as some of my friends have. The only one I distinctly remember having seen is Arsenic and Old Lace, which had Grant doing a lot of physical comedy and double-takes. The Awful Truth is a similarly farcical affair, about a married couple (Grant and Irene Dunne) who file for divorce, then try to thwart each others' subsequent romances when they realize they're still in love with each other. The movie is lighter than air, but contains a heaping of hilarious lines delivered by Dunne and an extremely funny wire-haired fox terrier that all but steals the movie from its human stars. If all screwball comedies are as entertaining as this one, I should probably revisit the genre. Rating: 4/5.

3/15/09: The American President (1995)

This week's film choices were selected by one of my oldest and dearest friends, Miami Herald film critic Connie Ogle. It is the first time I have allowed somebody else to hand-pick the week's cinematic agenda—and given her consummate taste in films, I expect the average grade this week to be noticably higher than usual. I'll take stock at week's end to see how she fared.

We begin the week with a beautiful comedy-drama directed by Rob Reiner. It's a great old-fashioned romantic movie that would have been the perfect vehicle for Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn back in the 1950s. Widowed president Michael Douglas meets lobbyist Annette Bening, and begins the politically sensitive undertaking of courting her. Produced a few years before The West Wing, this film contains some of the same themes, jokes and even cast members as his landmark TV series about the personal and professional machinations of a Democrat in the White House. Filled with crackling dialogue and wonderful humor, The American President is the kind of movie I wish I could see every day. Douglas is wise, confident and inspiring, and the entire cast performs flawlessly; Michael J. Fox and Martin Sheen are particularly memorable as members of the president's staff, and Bening is the dictionary definition of sweet and charming. Rating: 5/5.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

3/14/09: Orgazmo (1996)

I suppose it was inevitable, albeit highly unlikely: two "1" grades in a row.

I could be forgiven for having high hopes for this raunchy "comedy," given how much I loved Trey Parker's later movie, the hysterical Team America: World Police. And at its peak, his TV series South Park was savagely biting and funny—everything this embarrassing excuse for a movie isn't. Parker wrote, directed and starred in this porno spoof, playing a Mormon who is reluctantly (to say the least) dragged into the production of an adult film. Hilarity would have been a good thing to have ensued at that juncture—too bad it never happens. There are one or two raunchy lines that elicited a smirk from me, but that's about it. The funniest thing in the film is actually Parker's outrageously over-the-top opening-credits song "Now You're a Man," which suggests "Eye of the Tiger" as sung by Toby Keith while overdosing on testosterone. (The song could only have been written by the genius who came up with "America, Fuck Yeah.")

I would complain that I want those two hours of my life back, but the movie only lasted 1 hour 34 mins. It just seemed like two hours. Rating: 1/5.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

3/13/09: The Night of the Following Day (1968)

I have always enjoyed watching actress Pamela Franklin, even when she's in subpar movies like A Tiger Walks from a couple of weeks back. My recent purchase of today's flick must have been to confirm that she wound up in a lot of terrible movies. The Night of the Following Day has an exciting kidnapping premise—Marlon Brando and three others hold Franklin for ransom—but the film is stupifyingly dull, detailing how the caper goes awry when the four kidnappers clash with each other. Richard Boone has the best role, as a particularly nasty kidnapper. The stories I've read about the troubled production (i.e., Brando arriving to the set drunk and battling with director Hubert Cornfield) are far more interesting than the actual movie. The film's ending is a confusing mindfuck. Rating: 1/5.

3/12/09: The Comedy of Terrors (1964)

I used to have a book about horror movies when I was in middle school, and one of the photos inside was a promotional still from this American International comedy-chiller. I was convinced that the man in the picture was supposed to evoke the image of W.C. Fields, and have always wondered about it. Now that I've finally seen the movie, I know it's actually Peter Lorre in a top hat.

Richard Matheson, author of dozens of Twilight Zone episodes, as well as the stories that inspired films like Duel, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Somewhere in Time, wrote this farcical sendup of Edgar Allan Poe-type stories. Vincent Price is a drunken funeral director who can't pay the rent, so he takes matters into his own hands by producing a few fresh cadavers, with assistant Lorre as his Igor. Various slapstick antics ensue, with a lot of bumbling and one particular corpse (Shakespeare-quoting Basil Rathbone) that just won't stay dead. It reminded me vaguely of another horror satire I saw when I was a kid called Arnold, although this movie is appreciably more madcap. Joyce Jameson shows off a lot of cleavage as Price's wife, while Boris Karloff, as her senile father, gives the film its great punch line. The film, though full of macabre one-liners, would undoubtedly have played much better in front of a live audience. Rating: 3/5.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

3/11/09: A Little Game (1971)

If there's one thing I really love, it's movies about evil kids. From Village of the Damned to The Children's Hour and The Bad Seed, precocious moppets with ’tude invariably command my full attention. I first learned about A Little Game a few years ago, while reading a book about movies made for TV. (I've seen a great many of them, but this one managed to stay off my radar until now.) It stars Ed Nelson as a man who starts to suspect that his troubled stepson Robert (Mark Gruner) might just be a cold-blooded killer. At the very least, Robert is a dangerous sociopath and a ticking time bomb. Gruner plays him with nasty resentfulness, despising Nelson for marrying his dear widowed mother (Diane Baker) and replacing his hero dad. Of course, it's only a matter of time before Nelson can convince his disbelieving wife that her precious son is actually the spawn of Satan. It's a typical 1970s TV-movie, which coming from me is a compliment. It becomes a little preposterous and overly simplistic, but which of them isn't? Christopher Shea, onetime voice of Linus from the animated Peanuts specials, has the film's most interesting role as Robert's confused but goodhearted buddy, who must find a way to rationalize the web of deceit he has unwittingly played a role in. Rating: 3/5.

3/10/09: Vanishing Point (1971)

Here's what happened: a few days ago, I polled my Facebook friends, asking them if they recalled the first R-rated movie they'd ever seen. To my astonishment, many of them named movies that were not rated R—which leads me to suspect that the entire MPAA ratings system is something that few pay very much attention to beyond yours truly.

One of my friends, Valerie, listed a movie, Vanishing Point, that was originally rated GP, but re-rated R in 1998 for some reason. Intriguingly, I'd never heard of the movie before, although I'd enjoyed its star, Barry Newman, in the mid-1970s TV detective series Petrocelli. "I recall that the entire front row of the theater was filled with 5th graders, and when the nude scene came on, we all were jaw-dropped and in shock—we did not expect that at all," Valerie wrote. "I still don't have any idea why all of those kids were allowed into the theater to see that show without our parents. The movie must have been filmed in our area or something...Probably a school field trip." (In fact, the movie was filmed in Austin, Nevada.)

Coincidentally, a several hours ago I noticed that a revival theater located less than two miles from my house had a midnight showing of Vanishing Point. I would be daft to pass up the opportunity to see it, if only for the fabled nude scene Valerie described. So I went.

Vanishing Point turns out to be the odyssey of Kowalski (Barry Newman), whose job is to deliver a white Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. After making a bet with his drug dealer that he can get it there in 15 hours, the movie turns into a long car chase, with some action-packed scenes of cops on his unstoppable tail and some flashbacks that enlighten us to his anti-establishment history. Along the way, he encounters a menagerie of fellow misfits who either help or hinder him on his journey. Cleavon Little plays a blind deejay named Super Soul, whose show Kowalski listens to on his car radio and who becomes a kind of spiritual guide in his existential journey—an ode to The Road. But the main character is really the car, and the movie will work best for those who like cars so much that they will be happy with a movie whose main character is...a car.

Apparently this was a big hit on the drive-in circuit in its day. It definitely has the look of a drive-in flick. I found the it plotless, overlong and fairly boring; the highlight was, as predicted, the prolonged scene where the nude motorcycle-riding hippie chick flirts with Kowalski. I could feel the collective pulses of the male audience members quicken. The entire movie should have been about her.

Postscript: I did enjoy discovering the revival house where this was playing: the Cinefamily Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, which has the feel of being in someone's living room. The host gave an entertaining intro to the movie, and even gave out free cold beer! I'll be back—and jockeying for a seat on one of their leather couches (undoubtedly more comfortable than their regular seats...ouch!). Rating: 2/5.

Friday, March 13, 2009

3/9/09: Bitter Harvest (1963)

One look at this potboiler's poster should adequately convey that Disney Week has officially ended.

Yet it was a Disney production (last week's Darby O'Gill and the Little People) that inspired my purchase of this British-made film, as it co-starred the beautiful Janet Munro. Here she's the lead, playing Jennie Jones, a lonely girl living a dull life in Wales and dreaming of going to London and becoming a glamorous fashion model. Taken advantage of in an early scene, we sympathize with Jennie and root for her to make a better life for herself...but even given some good opportunities, she makes some unfortunate decisions and spirals toward a tragic ending.

I was thoroughly enjoying this very adult (especially for 1963) story until the last scene—a premature and unsatisfying ending to an otherwise excellent drama. This is one movie that actually should have been longer! Still, I'll be seeking more films featuring Munro, who herself died way before her time. Rating: 4/5.

3/8/09: The Monkey's Uncle (1965)

We close out my second consecutive Disney Week with the sequel to The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. Made one year later, it's exactly the same kind of movie, with the same cast, same goofball humor and same madcap science theme. Like its predecessor, it's split up into two roughly 45-minute segments: in the first part, Merlin tries to save football at Midvale College by helping its dumbbell players study via a sleep-study technique; in the second part, he saves football by inventing a method of man-powered flight (don't ask). Annette Funicello is perky and pretty, and there's plenty of chimpanzee-based humor. The Beach Boys even appear to sing with Annette during the film's opening credits. And it's always great to see Arthur O'Connell (The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao), who provides the movie with its wonderful punchline. Lighter than air, but blissfully enjoyable. Rating: 4/5.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

3/7/09: The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964)

This 1964 comedy bridges the gap between two of Disney's mad-scientist series—the two early-’60s Fred MacMurray "Flubber" movies (The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber) and the three early-’70s Kurt Russell "Dexter Reilly" movies (Now You See Him, Now You Don't). Like the Dexter Reilly movies, Merlin Jones (Tommy Kirk) is a teenaged science buff who gets himself into crazy mishaps by experimenting with science. In this, the first of two Merlin Jones (mis)adventures, the monkey shines arise from mind-reading and hypnosis, literally and respectively. Annette Funicello is the beautiful girlfriend Jennifer; Leon Ames is Judge Holmsby (in whose court Merlin continually finds himself); and there's a cute chimp in a jumpsuit.

I have NO idea how I missed these two movies, as they're exactly the kind of Disney romp I love. Only debit: I made the mistake of reading up on the film before I had finished watching it, so learning that Tommy Kirk was a homosexual pedophile became a little distracting. (Now I know why Disney discontinued Merlin Jones and went with Dexter Reilly!) But the movie is still a lot of fun and I can't wait to watch the sequel tomorrow, even though it's said to be inferior. Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

3/6/09: Home on the Range (2004)

Disney once announced that this would be the last "traditionally animated" feature film to be released in theaters, as it was a major money loser, although they've since retracted this decision. Home on the Range is a Western about three cows (led by Roseanne Barr) who try to save their beleaguered owner's farm from being auctioned off. Naturally there are a horde of other farm animals, as well as some colorful humans, on display. Released four years after Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, this movie has very much the same "feel," including a lot of the same angles and curves in the characters. That was one of the main appeals to me, as I love Groove. Other high points include a several lively country songs by the likes of K.D. Lang, Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw, with music by the great Alan Menken. On the downside, the story leaves a bit to be desired (incredible, as at least six authors are listed), and although Roseanne does a good job voicing Maggie the cow, none of the other characters are standouts. Visually, though, Home on the Range is a real winner. I just wish the script had risen to the level of the terrific animation. Rating: 3/5.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

3/5/09: Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959)

A clever and magical little treat from Disney full of fun special effects that bring a world of leprechauns to life. It's all rather quaint by today's CGI standards, but it still brought a smile to my face. Based on H.T. Kavanagh's stories, Darby O'Gill is a love story steeped in ancient folklore and a sprightly Irish brogue. A pre-Bond Sean Connery stars as Michael McBride, the new caretaker at a manor who is replacing Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe) and his beautiful daughter Katie (Janet Munro). Michael and Katie fall in love, setting up the basic conflicts of the story. But Jimmy O'Dea steals the show as King Brian, the head leprechaun. There are some delightful songs and the requisite Disney happy ending. The only annoying thing about the film is that Darby spends too much time running after his daughter and yelling, "Katie!" It wore a bit thin.

Speaking of Katie, I had never heard of beautiful Janet Munro; so enchanted was I of her that before the movie was even over, I had ordered a couple more of her movies on DVD via the Internet. How sad to read that she died at age 38, a sufferer of both alcoholism and chronic heart disease. Rating: 5/5.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

3/4/09: Robin Hood (1973)

I had a curious reason for wanting to see Disney's animated Robin Hood feature from 1973.

When I was a child, my family would regularly pile into the car and head for the Florida Twin "Rocking Chair" Theater, which would typically offer a kids' movie on one side, and something more adult playing on the other. In late 1973, my Dad stunned me by inviting me to join the parents for the adult feature, which was the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force. This was an important "rite of passage" for me, the de facto end of my childhood. In recent years, though, I'd begun to wonder what the kids' feature my younger brother and sister had gone to see by themselves that evening. So, a couple of years ago, I decided to research it. I delved into the microfilm archives at the Broward County Libarary and checked the newspaper listings of the Miami Herals. Turns out it was Robin Hood. And so, 35 years later, I've given myself a new lease on my childhood by finally screening what many people insist is Disney's most underrated cartoon feature.

This was actually The Mouse's second filming of this stalwart tale, the first being the 1952 live-action The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men. I think the animated version belongs in the same Disney subcategory that began with 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmations and encompasses The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967) and The Aristocats (1970). Robin Hood has the same middle-period animation style, which is deliberately sketchy and much less pristine than vintage Disney. It also seems to rank with the same general overall quality in storytelling, direction, etc. Which is to say it's very good, just not quite in the league with early classics like Bambi or the 1990s renaissance that includes The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.

Still, Robin Hood is a lively and entertaining comedy, with a cast of anthropomorphic jungle critters (fox, snake, bear, lion, wolf, etc.) playing the roles of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Little John, Friar Tuck and the rest. Although clearly geared for kids, Disney-loving grownups are sure to find it charming. I did. Rating: 4/5.

3/3/09: The Ugly Dachshund (1966)

It's another animal-related Disney live-action flick. This one stars Dean Jones (The Love Bug, Million Dollar Duck) and Suzanne Pleshette as a married couple with a bunch of dogs. She loves her four adorable dachshunds; he's crazy about his Great Dane, a "four-legged demolition squad" named Brutus. To call the movie lighthearted would be akin to saying that the Grand Canyon looks large from certain angles. Jones and Pleshette look great together and the salami dogs are off-the-charts cute; there are a couple of laughs, but the movie is so annoyingly lightweight that it'll be enjoyable only for the people who thought That Darn Cat was too intense. Rating: 2/5.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

3/2/09: Follow Me, Boys! (1966)

I remember reading a terrible review of Follow Me, Boys! in one of the movie-review books I used to carry around like a Bible. It was the first time it had occurred to me that the great Disney studios could possibly turn out anything second-rate (but certainly not the last). It wasn't enough to put me off seeing it for myself, though; I have always enjoyed Fred MacMurray, as his appearances in Disney films like The Absent Minded Professor and Son of Flubber were fondly remembered artifacts of my childhood. Furthermore, Follow Me, Boys! is the first of ten movies Kurt Russell would make for the studio, and I've enjoyed a bunch of those as well. So today I finally made good on my promise to check it out.

Follow Me, Boys! is the story of how MacMurray moves to a small town, meets his sweetheart, and starts a local Boy Scout troop. Along the way, he meets a troubled youth (Russell), whom he eventually tames and comes to adopt as his own. It's as corny and syrupy as any movie ever made, with MacMurray seeming so much like Steve Douglas from My Three Sons that you might find yourself wondering where Uncle Charley is. There's a bit of adventure involving the boy scouts (including a preposterous sequence involving some Army war games, the film's low point), some nice romantic moments between Fred and Vera Miles, and even a rare Disney death scene when Kurt Russell's alcoholic father takes his final breath in front of the kid. It's a decent family picture, saccharine and dated, yet sincere. Rating: 3/5.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

3/1/09: Napoleon and Samantha (1972)

Maybe I just hated to end my vacation, or maybe I'm just addicted to G-rated movies...because here I am again, crawling back to the Disney well for more family-oriented fun. I guess this will be Walt Disney Week Part 2.

Aside from the grade I gave it, this has numerous things in common with last week's A Tiger Walks. Aside from being a Disney-produced family-adventure-comedy, it features one of the stars of TV's Family Affair, as well as a large jungle cat. But instead of Brian "Uncle Bill" Keith and a tiger, this time it's a Johnny "Jodie" Whitaker and a lion. Whitaker is a 10-year-old orphan being raised by his grandpa (Will Geer), while Jodie Foster, in her first feature film, is being taken care of by her grandmother (Ellen Corby). The respective grandparents don't have any scenes together, although they would get very well acquainted on The Waltons the same year.

There are a couple of touching scenes early in the movie: first Geer must explain to little Johnny that grandpa's days are numbered, then the next day the boy comes home to find the old man dead in his bed. Pretty heavy stuff for a Disney film! After Geer kicks the bucket, Whitaker tries to avoid the orphanage by heading for the hills with his pet lion, and Foster goes along for the ride. They get lost, and experience various mishaps...but the lion is always there to help them out of a jam. A very young-looking Michael Douglas figures into the story as well. This is a movie that would have played well to young kids a couple of generations ago; by today's standards it's bland and often preposterous. As one viewer noted, the lion ambles around through most of the movie looking like it was drugged, which I'm sure it was. A further creepy note is that 9-year-old Jodie Foster was briefly mauled by one of the lions used in the film, and is said to still have scars from the incident. Overall, not especially compelling...I might have liked it more back in ’72. Rating: 2/5.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

2/28/09: Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008)

Disney week (and my vacation) came to a close with this unshaggy-dog story. One of my main theories about going to the movies is that even a mediocre film can seem good if your expectations were low enough going in. In the case of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, my expectations were nonexistent, so it had more than a fighting chance. To my surprise and delight, I found BHC to be more than merely watchable; it's actually a great deal of fun. Aimed squarely at kids, it won't insult the intelligence of Mom and Dad. This is the second time I've seen Drew Barrymore voice a canine character (remember Olive the Other Reindeer?), and she brings Chloe to life with help from the CGI wizards. The other dogs get their voices courtesy of George Lopez, Edward James Olmos and Andy Garcia, while Cheech Marin and Paul Rodriguez have a lot of fun as a rat and an iguana, respectively. None of the humans are quite as winning as the animals, but this search-and-rescue story—the billionth of its kind from Disney—somehow gels very nicely. It's cute and consistently funny. No doubt it helped to have zero expectations, but I found myself loving virtually every second of this. Viewed on board the Disney Wonder ship, in the Buena Vista Theater—the perfect place to see a Disney film. Rating: 5/5.

2/27/09: A Tiger Walks (1964)

Quick—which early-1960s Disney movie features American actor Brian Keith as a concerned father of a teenaged girl portrayed by a British actress? Most people would probably answer, "The Parent Trap." But this 1964 drama also qualifies. Well, Pamela Franklin tries hard to sound like an American—a lot harder than Hayley Mills did, at any rate. Keith is a small-town sheriff who's in a bit of a pickle after a Bengal tiger escapes from a truck of a traveling circus. He finds himself torn between the townsfolks' desire to kill the beast, and his animal-loving daughter's insistence that it be captured alive; it all becomes a troublesome political issue, but anybody over the age of 12 won't have any problem predicting the happy ending. A Tiger Walks is a family picture that's dated and dull, with some sloppy and wince-inducing editing and precious little suspense. Keith tries, playing the same stern, put-upon character he always does—he might as well be Uncle Bill from A Family Affair, or Mitch Evers from The Parent Trap. Rating: 2/5.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

2/26/09: The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

Most Disney features fall into two categories: cartoon and live-action. But a scant few are hybrids, including some in which real people intermingle with animated characters (Mary Poppins, Pete's Dragon) and some that feature both separately (Song of the South). Made after Disney's enormous initial success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio—but predating Bambi—The Reluctant Dragon was Walt's first foray into the "hybrid" category, with separate animated and live-action segments.

The film begins like an ordinary black-and-white comedy, with real-life humorist Robert Benchley being henpecked by his wife to bring Disney the idea to make a cartoon out of Kenneth Grahame's famous children's book about a timid dragon. The reluctant Benchley goes to the Disney studios and ends up getting a tour of the facility (camera department, sound-effects room, color lab, etc.). Evidently, the movie was a response to the many fans who wanted to know more about how these animated pictures were done. Twenty minutes in, the movie suddenly drops the monochrome, a la The Wizard of Oz, and we are treated to some Technicolor cartoons, including a Goofy short and the 20-minute title segment, which are typically Disney delights. (The Benchley studio tour also changes to color as well—he looks better in B&W.) There's a great deal of self-deprecating humor from Benchley in the live-action segments, and the great Walt himself makes a brief appearance, as do Bambi, Casey Jr., Donald Duck, etc.

The most interesting thing about this 68-year-old film is how obscure it has become—few people outside of diehard Disney buffs even know about it, and even some Disney fans are likely clueless to its existence. Why is this? Well, probably because it's a mildly entertaining curio, paling in comparison to the studio's wonderful full-length cartoons of the day. (The film lost $200K of its $600K production costs.) While Dragon deepened my appreciation for all the massively hard work and imagination that goes into animating—the sketching, painting of cells, etc.—it was already deep to begin with. Presumably filmgoers were more interested in being spellbound by the magic of movies than by seeing how the magic is created. In its later showings on TV, the network dropped the live-action segments and just showed the cartoons. Rating: 3/5.

Monday, March 02, 2009

2/25/09: The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964)

A relentlessly charming pussy-cat movie, The Three Lives of Thomasina tugs at the heart while pulling out all of the familiar Disney themes and scenarios. Like Aunt Polly from 1960's Pollyanna, Andrew McDhui (Patrick McGoohan) is basically a good person whose heart has gone a bit cold—and it's going to take the near-tragedy of a young relative to restore his humanity. McDhui is a Scottish veterinarian whose main specialty seems to be euthanasia, which doesn't bode well for his cat-loving daughter Mary (Karen Dotrice) or her cat. Both Mary and her beloved feline, Thomasina, will be knocking on death's door in this fanciful tale concocted by Paul Gallico (famous for The Poseidon Adventure). But this is Walt Disney territory, where every Sleeping Beauty and Snow White eventually come back to life again—it's right there in the title, for heaven's sake. It's a winning, family-friendly heartwarmer that has lost none of its ability to put a lump in the throat nearly half a century after its release. The adorable Susan Hampshire helps give McGoohan a second chance at romance. This is one to show to my nieces. Rating: 5/5.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

2/24/09: Bolt (2008)

Disney cartoons account for some of the best movies I've ever seen (Toy Story, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast) and some of the very worst (Atlantis: The Lost Empire). Given that I've been unimpressed with some of the studio's recent CGI offerings, including Meet the Robinsons and Chicken Little, I didn't have a lot of interest or hope for Bolt. The trailer left me unimpressed, and the involvement of John Travolta didn't help. But since Disney was showing it in 3D for free on the Wonder cruise ship, I was happy to attend.

My low expectations went a long way to helping me appreciate how inventive, enjoyable and funny this movie is. At its very core, Bolt cribs heavily from Toy Story: in that film, the superhero Buzz Lightyear must be convinced that he doesn't really have superpowers and that the nature of his entire existence is a lie, just as superhero Bolt must be convinced that he doesn't really possess superpowers and that the nature of his entire existence is a lie. Also in TS, a group of the beloved characters must find their way home to their owner, Andy, against all odds—just as Bolt must find his way home to his owner, Penny, against all odds. Notice any parallels?

Despite the derivative nature of Bolt, it's still a fun ride, bursting with charm and full of great lines and characters. The movie is all but stolen by a fat hamster named Rhino who scurries around in a plastic ball. Susie Essman does a great job voicing the alley cat Mittens, and Greg Germann is hilarious as The Agent. In addition, there are a trio of pigeons that are deftly animated, and teen megastar Miley Cyrus is on hand as Penny. My faith in Disney CGI has at least been temporarily restored—and expectations are through the roof with the Randy Newman-scored The Princess and the Frog, due this Christmas. Rating: 5/5.

2/23/09: High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

The HSM franchise snares its first theatrical release with its second sequel, and my prediction proved true—Disney presented HSM3 on its big screen in the Buena Vista Theater on the Wonder cruise.

Now seniors, the Wildcats of East High are pretty much grownups by this entry, and trying to figure out what comes after graduation. Main protagonists Troy and Gabriella—the young lovers who have barely even kissed—must deal with the grim prospect of going their separate ways when college whisks them away; there's also the requisite school musical to be staged, with the usual interference from Sharpay (with assistance from a hot new British exchange student). The second HSM sequel is nicely constructed and perfectly enjoyable, yet somewhat more forgettable than its predecessor. The best moments are the song-and-dance numbers, including Sharpay's "I Want it All" and the Troy/Gabriella duet "Can I Have This Dance?" And the look on Shar's face near the end, when she realizes she's been living the plot of All About Eve, is priceless. Rating: 4/5.

2/22/09: High School Musical 2 (2007)

The first day of my vacation—commencing with a visit to Walt Disney World and continuing with a four-night cruise on Disney's Wonder ship—is also the beginning of an extended week of Disney movies.

I was aware of the High School Musical phenomenon for quite a while before I even knew exactly what it was. I wasn't sure if it was a live show, a movie, a TV series or some weird hybrid, and I can't say I much cared. But last year, I sat down with my young nieces and watched the 2006 Disney Channel TV movie that started it all, and to my surprise, I found it to be a very entertaining movie musical (it has since spawned a stage version), full of teen-pop songs, comedy and a cast of characters that felt strangely familiar to me. At some point during the movie, it dawned on me why. What if Archie, from the old comic books, had preferred sweet, unassuming Betty instead of rich, scheming Veronica? Now make Betty the brunette and Veronica blond, and you've got High School Musical. Both sets of kids sing pop songs, there are buffoonish teachers, concerned parents, assorted friends and every teenager cliche imaginable—the only appreciable difference is that High School Musical is marginally more cartoonish than Archie.

Having said that, the first HSM was surprisingly engaging (what can I say? I always loved Archie), so I knew I had to check out the sequels. I was reasonably certain that HSM3 would be screened on the Disney cruise, so I brought along HSM2 with the intention of watching them all in the proper order. I'm nothing if not a strictly linear fellow.

Thinking back on all of the classic female villains introduced by Disney over the years—Cruella De Vil, Cinderella's and Snow White's wicked Stepmothers, Ursula the Sea Witch, et al.—it's tempting to put Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) at the top of my list of favorites. A spoiled senior so egocentric that she has her own logo, Sharpay is the ultimate comic narcissist; she's the star of every talent show and school musical, and everybody loves her—or risks being an outcast. Sharpay has eyes for the popular jock Troy (Zac Efron), who in turn has eyes for pretty brunette Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens). This first HSM sequel opens as the clock ticks down on their final seconds as high-school juniors, and I've rarely seen an opening number of a musical more full of energy and enthusiasm than "What Time Is It?," the film's first song and one of the most delightful rejoicings of summer that I've ever heard. It's a joyous, exuberant showstopper that stops the show barely after it starts. I was charmed from the start, and the spell cast by HSM2 lasted all 104 minutes. The plot has to do with the kids all getting summer jobs at ultra-rich Sharpay's country club, and although I swear I saw the exact same thing on Saved by the Bell 20 years ago, I didn't much mind. For a movie aimed squarely at kids, I was amazed by how the writers deftly crafted half a dozen morality plays into the story—this is a film about trusting your instincts, treasuring longtime friendships, the importance of brotherhood and responsibility, the pain of breaking up, the dangers of selling out, the corruptibility of absolute power and the possibility of redemption. (No, I'm not kidding.) It doesn't hurt that all the teens are talented and extremely good-looking, and that the 10 or so songs are all very tuneful and performed flawlessly.

There's an almost science-fiction element hidden in here: Ryan, a flamboyant choreographer who wears pink shirts and a pretty pink hat, is heterosexual (!), never ostracized by his fellow classmates and, most significantly, not strung up by his balls, dragged from the back of a truck or even picked on once. I don't care if he's Sharpay's twin brother—high-school kids aren't this tolerant. But then, nothing about HSM is particularly true to reality. Didn't bother me; this is a sequel that surpasses the original, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't gone back and watched the movie again since my cruise. Rating: 5/5.

2/21/09: Taken (2009)

There have been numerous movies and TV shows through the years involving the abduction of children. When I saw the trailer for Taken, I was reminded of some of the famous ones, like Mel Gibson's Ransom, which featured the immortal line, "Give me back my son!" Coincidentally, Taken is also the title of thriller I read last year (the first in a series of Chris Jordan novels that all deal with child snatchings). I like revenge stories, so I had a hunch I'd like this movie, starring the Irish actor Liam Neeson as a former U.S. operative whose 17-year-old daughter Kim (fomer Lostie Maggie Grace, 24 at the time of filming) is seized during a visit to Paris. The Albanian abductors picked the wrong guy's daughter to steal: Neeson is a superb tracker, and in short order he's walking off a plane and gathering clues. Once the bad guys show up, Taken becomes a relentlessly suspenseful and action-packed yarn that keeps you permanently on the edge of your seat. Neeson fits the role (if not the American accent) very well, although some—like my movie companion, Joan—will wonder if Daddy causes a bit too much harm to innocent people who get in the way while he pursues his daughter. But that's a minor quibble; just sit back and cheer as Neeson dispatches the Mafia creeps, one by one. Rating: 5/5.

2/20/09: The Hustler (1961)

The Hustler is one of those seminal films that somehow slipped past me. Well, given my allergy to heavy noir, which tends to bore me, it's no surprise that the sluggish first third of this 134-minute film was so hard to get through. It's the famous story of "Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman), a pool hustler who goes up against the greatest shark of all time, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). There's also kind of a love story involving Piper Laurie, although it's one of those alcoholic, lost-soul romances that always end badly. George C. Scott, Murray Hamilton and Vincent Gardenia are familiar faces that keep the story going. Normally, I'm very interested in stories about confidence games—of which hustling is a variation—I was enormously tempted to quit this one 45 minutes in. But I stuck with it, and I was glad I did. Eventually it becomes an involving tale with themes of shame and redemption. Gleason is magnificent, and by the end, I was eager to check out the movie's sequel, The Color of Money. Rating: 4/5.