Ha ha!

You certainly never know what movie he'll review next!

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Burl reviews The Hudsucker Proxy! (1994)



Hi! My name’s Burl with my hair in a curl! I write the reviews that make you unfurl! Ha ha! I realize that doesn’t make any sense - no, I don’t even have curly hair! - but I’m trying to usher you all into the spirit of today’s review, which is for the Coen Brothers’ big-budget curio The Hudsucker Proxy!
Ha ha, it’s one of those movies a studio spent a lot of money on, but which is so out of the current of popular moviedom that you can’t imagine it ever making a penny at the box office! I certainly went to see it, you can bet your nellie, but the weekend it opened, March 11, 1994, Guarding Tess and Lightning Jack also opened, and both of those skunked Hudsucker, if you can believe it! But who remembers those pictures? Ha ha, nobody!
The story is laid in December of 1958, but its heart is further back, in the 30s! Inspiration is taken from screwball comedies and newspaper pictures with fast-talkin’ dames, and Frank Capra hovers over the production like a portly man in an angel costume, dispensing some It Happened One Night here and some Meet John Doe there!
Tim Robbins, the well-known presence from Tapeheads and Fraternity Vacation, plays Norville Barnes, fresh off the bus from Muncie and ready to conquer the New York City business world! And ha ha, there’s no bigger business on the street than Hudsucker Industries! He starts in the mail room, of course, where everybody starts; meanwhile, to the consternation of the Board of Directors, Hudsucker prexy Waring Hudsucker takes a dive out of the 44th floor boardroom window - 45th floor if you count the mezzanine!
For reasons, the board must find a dim-witted proxy to take over for the prexy until the close of the year, and naturally they find Norville, and events unfold from there! Cynical newshound Amy Archer, played with a Hepburn accent by Jennifer Jason Leigh from Grandview U.S.A., gets involved, as does the Hudsucker second-in-command perfectly essayed by disaster king Paul Newman, from When Time Ran Out and The Towering Inferno! Sure sure, ha ha! Charles Durning from Stick plays old Waring Hudsucker, who returns from the grave in angel form; John Mahoney from The Manhattan Project is Amy’s blustery editor; none other than Ash from the Evil Dead pictures plays her snap-brim co-worker; and Bill Cobbs from Trading Places manfully wrestles with the picture’s weakest conceit, the Wise Old Black Janitor Who Can Stop Time If Need Be!
Much of the picture turns on Norville’s great brainwave: the hula hoop, which he has drawn out as a circle to show off to people! “Would an imbecile come up with this?” he demands! Ha ha! The picture has a centerpiece sequence in which the newly released plaything languishes on shelves until an amazing kid picks one up and starts doing tricks! Hula hoop madness sweeps the nation, but still the story brings us, like Meet John Doe, to the ledge of a building at midnight!
The picture is filled with verbal and visual invention, and with game actors who give off the artificial dialogue with joyful aplomb! It’s all very artificial, of course, which creates a distance between the viewer and the narrative, but it’s also a snap-brimmed good time! It’s not one of the Coen’s strongest works, but it was still a lot better than most of what got released in 1994, ha ha! Yes, it’s better than Clifford! I give The Hudsucker Proxy three extruded plastic dinguses!

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Burl reviews The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb! (1964)



All for the love of bandages, it’s Burl! Ha ha, clomp, clomp, yes, I’m reviewing a walking mummy picture today, a Hammer walking mummy picture to be more precise! To be more precise still, it’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb! Ha ha, I don’t think I’ve reviewed many Hammer pictures for you, but ol’ Burl’s a longtime Hammer cheerleader! I even gave a lecture on their doings once at a special illegal restaurant!
Now, this was hardly the only walking mummy movie the company made, but I don’t think they made many! It begins, as all walking mummy movies must, in Egypt, at an excavation made by Europeans who feel it’s their right to dig stuff up and cart it all back to their own country! Ha ha, the mere suggestion that maybe these colonialists should keep their mitts off is met with bewilderment, scoffing and supercilious anger! So of course it takes a curse to sort things out!
This takes effect back in England, where our Egyptologists - Annette Dubois, her fiancé Ronald Howard, and dyspeptic old Sir Giles, plus an all-too American promoter-type fellow - meet a mysterious aristocrat-with-a-secret called Adam Beauchamp, who insinuates himself into the group and most especially into the heart of young Annette! Soon we hear the beat of the cloth-wrapped feet, ha ha, and there are several genuinely frightful sequences featuring the attack of the walking mummy! He even stomps one fellow’s head, as walking mummies frequently seem to do! (I particularly recall one such happenstance in Dawn of the Mummy, which of course was part of the Great Walking Mummy Revival of the early 1980s, along with The Awakening and Time Walker!)
Something you will notice as you watch the picture is that none of the principals are played by the usual Hammer stars - no Cushing, no Lee, not even an Andrew Kier or an Ollie Reed or a Barbara Shelley or an Ingrid Pitt! We are reassured that it is indeed a Hammer film when we see Michael Ripper, whom we remember from X the Unknown, in brownface as a victim-to-be, ha ha! The lead actors, in fact, are almost all people who’d never been in a Hammer film before, and were never in one after! Ha ha, curious!
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb has its spooky moments, as noted, and the walking mummy itself is pretty creepy! It’s a mildly enjoyable picture on the whole, but there’s really not a lot to it, and it breaks no new ground in the walking mummy genre! To accuse it of lacking pep might be to ignore a fault endemic to the form, so I’ll just say, ha ha, that The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is a minor work, but not the worst walking mummy picture to amble around the pike! I give it one and a half enchanted amulets!

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Burl reviews McBain! (1991)



With a blast of action, it’s Burl, reviewing for you a movie that was apparently made within the exceedingly narrow window in which Christopher Walken was considered a potential action hero! (I don’t really count The Dogs of War as an action movie; more a drama with some action in it!) Ha ha, this one is called McBain, and it comes to us from action-uncle James Glickenhaus, the fellow who made that seamy picture The Exterminator and slightly less seamy efforts like The Protector and Shakedown!
Now of course I hear you saying “Ha ha! McBain! How does Ranier Wolfcastle do in the picture? Is he a good actor?” Well, not so fast! This is a different McBain entirely, with, as mentioned, Christopher Walken as the titular star! And the assumption that he’s not really action-hero material is borne up in the picture’s opening moments, which find McBain in a thunderdome in Vietnam having the tar beaten out of him! The timely arrival of some other soldiers saves McBain from his fate, and, when McBain asks Santos, the leader of the patrol that saved him, how he can ever properly thank him, Santos rips a hundred dollar bill in half, gives it to McB, and says “Ha ha, if the other half of this bill ever finds its way to you, then you will know it is time to repay me!”
Well, nineteen years later, McBain is working the same job Edward James Olmos did in Wolfen: welding at the top of the Brooklyn Bridge! Santos, meanwhile, is the leader of a group of Columbian rebels seeking to take down corrupt El Presidente, and when the revolution fails and Santos is killed, his girlfriend Maria Conchita Alonso comes climbing up to hand McBain the other half of the C note! McBain doesn’t hesitate: he rounds up the old gang from ‘Nam and, after some marvelous business in New York, they head down and take over Columbia! Ha ha!
The marvelous stuff in New York involves their attempts to raise money for the trip! First they break into a low-level drugs den and kill people left and right! Luis Guzman, well known from Innocent Blood, is in charge, and when he sees the mercenaries have shot most of his men, he delivers a righteously shame-inducing speech to an abashed McBain and his gang! They find a much richer gangster, hang him off a building and pretend to be rogue Mossad agents until he agrees to give them money! Ha ha, Walken playing a steelworker-turned-mercenary playing a tough Israeli is a thing to behold, all right!
Chick Vennera, who had been involved in this kind of thing before in High Risk, does a good job as Santos! It’s a shame when he’s shot in the head by El Presidente, who, by the by, is played by Victor Argo from Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai! None other than the always-likeable Steve James from Avenging Force, and the less-likable but no less fantastic Michael Ironside from Watchers and Total Recall, are members of the buddy gang, along with Thomas G. Waites from The Thing, and Jay Patterson from D.O.A. plays the one who’s a doctor, and who miraculously saves a gravely injured girl in the third act! And we know female lead Maria Conchita Alonso from her work in Extreme Prejudice!
But after all this, is McBain a good movie! Ha ha, no, not really, but, against the odds and in contrast to most of Glickenhaus’s other pictures, it’s a strangely good-natured one! Ha ha, you’ve got the child being saved, and the fact that, though hundreds of people are killed, all of the mercenaries make it through happy and unscathed!
On the other hand, the movie’s politics are so demented as to be unreadable; and it's replete with the sort of stupidity that takes you out of the drama and leaves you scratching your head! Take, for example, the scene when McBain and his crew are buzzing down to Columbia in a twin-engine prop plane and are suddenly joined by a Columbian fighter jet! After the old “Sorry, our radio's busted” trick, McBain, in the co-pilot’s seat, pulls a gun, shoots it past his pilot’s head, through the window without breaking it, across to the fighter jet, through that cowling without breaking it, and into the pilot’s head! Ha ha, talk about a magic bullet!
I think by now I’ve said enough about McBain! It’s got lots of explosions but it’s rarely exciting, and somehow, though it’s called McBain, Walken’s character barely seems to be the lead! I give McBain one and a half bamboo thunderdomes!

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Burl reviews Tulips! (1981)



Ha ha to everybody, and again I say ha ha! It’s Burl, and I’m here to review a picture by the name of Tulips! Now, in response to this you’ll surely say “Tulips? Ha ha, nope, never heard of Tulips!” And there’s no reason you should have heard of it, so don’t worry! It’s an obscure Canadian tax shelter production that looks to have been more troubled than most, given that it had at least three different directors, working under the umbrella pseudonym of “Stan Ferris!” Ha ha!
The picture stars the rosy, bearded lips of Gabe Kaplan, which fleshy proboscises you may recall from Fastbreak! They play the rosy, bearded lips of Leland Irving, a tuba player and introvert whom we are informed is a genius, though little evidence of this is seen! His brother, played by the King of Kensington himself, Al Waxman, whom you’ll remember from his grisly inflations in Spasms, is constantly giving him advice on how to get out and meet people! After the hair plugs he endures at his brother’s instruction net him only ridicule, Leland decides to kill himself! His attempts are repeatedly foiled, so he hires an effete hit man called Mr. Avocado, played by Henry Gibson from Nashville and Innerspace, to do the job for him!
Meanwhile, kooky waitress Rutanya, played by Bernadette Peters, who is well known from Vigilante Force, The Jerk and of course Heartbeeps, quits her job and is rejected by her married-man boyfriend, and so falls into a similarly suicidal funk! Ha ha, God save us from kooks and kookiness! Of course the two characters meet and fall in love, and many allegedly hilarious things ensue, and then Leland remembers he’s to be assassinated and that puts a pall on the romance! It all ends with a confusion in which Leland plants a bomb in Mr. Avocado’s car, but then Rutanya ends up inside the car as she tries to plead for Leland’s life! The car blows up, apparently incinerating both Rutanya and Avocado, and a devastated Leland crawls into the gutter and swallows a bottle of pills! Ha ha!
Of course there’s a happy ending in which Rutanya turns out to have jumped out of the car at the last moment, and Leland’s pills don’t actually kill him! But my goodness, even with that, it’s one of the least funny movies ever made! I’ve never found suicidal depression especially uproarious, but if there’s dark humour to be mined from such situations, this picture never strikes a vein! The funniest thing in the whole affair is Leland’s tuba playing, and that’s not any funnier than any tuba playing is!
Like Taking Lives, the movie takes place in an undisguised Montreal, but absolutely no special use is made of this location! The cast has some talented people in it, notably Bernadette Peters, and she’s the only one who seems to be trying! Ha ha, Kaplan must walk that fine actor’s line between depressive and disinterested, and though I feel he was probably committed to the role, he doesn’t really sell it! The spark that is supposed to exist between the two leads is pretty damp, too! And Henry Gibson, so nicely if arbitrarily evil in The ‘burbs, mostly just lurks here! Ha ha, he lurks outside of windows, on bridges and across streets, lurk, lurk, lurk!
If you’re wondering what the title means, “tulips” is some sort of code word Gibson uses to indicate he’s ready to start his program of assassination! It doesn’t make any more sense than anything else, and nor is it funnier than anything else! And nothing else is very funny at all! I give Tulips half a hair plug, which is among my very lowest ratings!

Burl reviews The Nightmare Before Christmas! (1993)



Ha ha, ho ho ho and booga booga too, it’s Burl! Yes, I’ve just come from a special screening of the animated picture The Nightmare Before Christmas, with a full orchestra playing the Danny Elfman score, so perhaps this review will be slightly skewed by this charming and unusual movie-going experience! Or perhaps not; it’s hard to say! All I know is that it was y first time seeing this picture in any scenario, so my impression will always be that its standout quality was the music!
And this of course is hardly fair to the animation, which is stellar! The story I found less compelling, but that’s okay! It all takes place in the magical world of holidays: each special calendar day, it turns out, has its own little world, which is responsible for that particular holiday! Ha ha, I guess it’s a stretch to call Halloween a “holiday,” because, after all, it’s not exactly holy, and more crucially, your boss doesn’t give you the day off of work!
But anyway, in Halloweentown, a lanky fellow called Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King, the fellow evidently most responsible for coming up with their annual scary Halloween gambits! Everyone loves Jack, ha ha, but he himself falls prey to a vague but powerful misgiving, a feeling that there must be more to life than Halloween! And so there is: he comes across a forest glen where trees are marked, restroom-style, with the symbols of different holidays, and the trees prove to be doors! After a brief sojourn in Christmastown, Jack is charmed by the concept and resolves to bring Yuletide joy to Halloweentown!
Jack’s specific plan is a little half-baked, but he ends up masterminding the kidnapping of Santa Claus, whom he imagines to be a towering half-man, half-lobster with snapping claws and crushing mandibles! This turns out to be a misapprehension, ha ha!
Anyway, by the time Christmas comes and Jack is riding a coffin-sled pulled by skeleton reindeer, he’s given cause to regret his rash embrace of someone else’s holiday, and Santa certainly upbraids him for the attempt! Ha ha, perhaps Jack would have been better off appropriating Casimir Pulaski Day! Christmas is saved in the end, and the main bad guy, some sort of boogen living in the basement, is revealed as being made of bugs!
There are Tim Burton design touches everywhere to be found, which would surely have felt fresher back in 1993! Ha ha, Christmastown is sort of boring and boilerplate; you can tell his heart is in Halloween! The movie itself was directed by Henry Selick, who later did a fine job with Coraline and other creepy animations! Jack is given voice in song by Elfman himself, which occasionally gives the thing the flavor of a feature-length Oingo Boingo video; his speaking voice, less frequently heard, comes from Chris Sarandon, well-known from Fright Night! Catherine O’Hara from The Paper provides the female voices, and William Hickey from The Sentinel is a nasty duck-lipped scientist!
I enjoyed watching the picture, but having missed out on it all these years, I can’t see it becoming a holiday perennial for me! Maybe there were just too many songs! But there’s lots to admire, and the live orchestral accompaniment was a lot of fun, so I’m giving The Nightmare Before Christmas two and a half shrunken heads!

Friday, 29 November 2019

Burl reviews Planes, Trains & Automobiles! (1987)



Ha ha and best of Thanksgivings to my Yankee Doodle friends! Yes, here for you is one of the quintessential American Turkey Day movies, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, which has no particular holiday resonance for me, being Canadian as I am, but is a perfectly enjoyable picture simply on its own merits! I like it better than Uncle Buck, anyway, ha ha!
Anyway, a viewer looking for Canadian content need look no further than John Candy, who alone provides a great deal of content, ha ha! This beloved comedy star, admired for his appearances in pictures like Summer Rental and Armed and Dangerous, and of course that other holiday classic The Silent Partner, plays shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith, who travels around hawking his wares and making friends everywhere he goes! Meanwhile, uptight Chicago ad man Neal Page, in New York for a presentation, wants to get back to Chi-town to be with his picture-perfect family for the holiday! Neal is played by silver-domed Steve Martin, famed for roles in All of Me and ¡Three Amigos!
This picture is the story of their trouble-filled journey from Wichita, where foul weather forces them to land, to Chicago, and of course there are many delightful happenings along the way, and strong performances from both Martin and Candy! Ha ha, in fact, I think this may be Candy’s best work! Alongside the delights there are plenty of patented John Hughes moves, like the ascension of minor inconvenience to high tragedy when the victim is a white upper middle-class fellow; the absolute fealty to bourgeois family ritual; sudden sledgehammer blows of sentiment; and the use of horror movie tropes like musical stings and oblique cinematography to introduce working class characters, who are supposed to be naturally terrifying, I guess, unless they’re founts of wisdom like Carl the janitor in The Breakfast Club! Ha ha!
It’s a two man show for the most part, but Hughes sprinkles in plenty of cameos and familiar character faces! Kevin Bacon, well known for his appearance in Friday the 13th, shows up as a young businessman trying to get the same cab as Neal; Michael McKean from D.A.R.Y.L. turns up near the end as a highway patrolman; Larry Hankin from Escape From Alcatraz is Doobie the cabbie; Richard Herd from Summer Rental and Gary Riley from Summer School are in there too, along with plenty of others! There are even familiar voices, like that of Chino ‘Fats’ Williams, who is an unseen bus driver here, and was one of the old boys in the blues bar in Weird Science!
Anyway, we all know the story and we all know the jokes, and probably most people feel Planes, Trains & Automobiles is as much a comfy blanket to put on in a cold season as it is a movie! Ha ha! But it raises a lot of questions, too - things that are maybe explained by the rumoured four-and-a-half hour original cut, ha ha! I wonder if that wouldn’t have been a bit much? Anyway, I wonder how it works out after the concluding freeze frame on John Candy’s face: did Del stay for Thanksgiving dinner? Did the in-laws all accept him? Where did he go after that? Who paid for the destroyed rental car? Ha ha, I give editor Paul Hirsch a lot of credit for putting it all together and leaving room for all the comedy smash cuts Hughes was so fond of!
Well, it’s a solid little picture, not beloved by me, but I admit it has a comfy feeling to it! I saw it at the theatre, maybe on not exactly a date but one of those little co-ed gang outings that sometimes happened! Ha ha, I saw The Breakfast Club that way, too, which was apt! In any case, it gave me a fondness for both these Hughes works that I might not have otherwise, and so I give Planes, Trains & Automobiles two and a half pillows!

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Burl reviews The Right Stuff! (1983)



Ad astra, friends, it’s Burl! No, I’m not reviewing the recent Brad Pitt movie by that title, not yet anyway, but instead a picture suffused with the spirit of this inspiring phrase! Ha ha, yes, I’m talking about The Right Stuff!
This movie was a pretty big deal back in the early 1980s, as I recall, though not in terms of box office! I guess it’s a pretty long picture, and people were worried they might have to go to the bathroom in their spacesuits, ha ha! I wish I’d seen it in the theatre, you bet, and why my family didn't go is a mystery to me, because we usually took in all the epics! It’s a beautifully shot picture - take a bow, Caleb Deschanel! - and would have played magnificently on the big screen, I am sure!
Of course it’s the story of the beginnings of the American space program, before they even had a thing called NASA, and plays a little like a prequel to Apollo 13! It starts with Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and his ladywife Glennis, personified by Barbara Hershey from Hoosiers! They ride horses, banter a bit, and then old Chuck goes and breaks the sound barrier! After that we get into the recruitment and training of the Mercury 7 astronauts, and as the space flights start, we get all sorts of ups and downs both technical and personal!
The cast, of course, is extraordinary! The Mercury 7 include Scott Glenn from The Hunt for Red October as Alan Shepherd; Ed Harris, well known from Creepshow, as John Glenn, no doubt drawing on this experience when he played control room chief Gene Kranz in Apollo 13; Dennis Quaid, playing Gordon Cooper the same way he later played Tuck Pendleton in Innerspace; Fred Ward from UFOria playing Gus Grissom with great wounded dignity; Scott Paulin from Forbidden World as Deke Slayton; Charles Frank from Russkies as Scott Carpenter; and Lance Henriksen from Aliens, The Visitor, The Horror Show, and many, many others, as Wally Schirra, who later sold ointments on TV as I recall!
The wives are just as strong a group: Veronica Cartwright from Nightmares; Pamela Reed from Junior; Kathy Baker from Edward Scissorhands; and Mary Jo Deschanel from 2010, in which she played a different astronaut’s wife! Plus we get Donald Moffat from The Thing as a cranky LBJ; a pair of comedy-relief recruiters seeking out the spacemen for the program, who are played with an Artoo and Threepio dynamic by Harry Shearer of Godzilla and Jeff Goldblum of Into the Night; a proto-NASA official played by John P. Ryan of Avenging Force; another official type played by David Clennon of Matinee; the always-welcome Levon Helm from Staying Together, playing mechanic-designer-gum supplier Jack Ridley; and the great Royal Dano, playing another in his long line of cadaverously allegorical memento moris!
The picture is in many ways a remarkable thing: at once mythmaking and myth-deflating; a resolutely personal telling of a defiantly epic story; traditional and grounded while reveling in outrageous eccentricities and gross-out gaggery! Ha ha! It celebrates individual achievement while insisting the same is not possible without communal effort, wastes no time on flag-waving, and its stand-up-and-cheer moments come as much from small moments, like John Glenn backing up his shy, stammering wife when she doesn’t want to meet Johnson, as from aeronautical triumphs!
Ha ha, I wonder if there’s a Russian version of this story! If there is, I’d like to see it! In the meantime, this excellent telling of the tale from the American side will have to do! I give The Right Stuff three and a half nurses peeking through portholes!

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Burl reviews Taking Lives! (2004)



Ha ha and hollyhocks, it’s Burl reviewing at you again! Now, what might you get if you took Silence of the Lambs and mixed it up with Se7en? Well, ha ha, you’d get any one of the dozens upon dozens of rip-off serial killer pictures that came out in the 1990s and 2000s! Among those hangdogs is Taking Lives, one of the slicker and more big-budget of the imitators, but in its way as weak a simulacrum as something like, oh, Red Team!
Angelina Jolie, of the bee-stung lips, plays the usual sort of FBI agent who has some preternatural insight into the minds of serial killers, like Will Graham from Manhunter, and while it’s a talent she might rather not have, she’ll grimly and doggedly use while she’s got it! She arrives in Montreal (which is played in the movie interchangeably by both Montreal and Quebec City, ha ha) to help the local constabulary track down a serial killer who was played as a young lad by Paul Dano, but by now might look like just about anybody!
Why, he might look like Ethan Hawke, the actor famed from Explorers, who here plays a mild-mannered art gallerist who happens to have interrupted the killer in the midst of his latest murder! Or he may resemble Kiefer Sutherland, whom we know from Stand By Me and The Lost Boys, and who certainly acts the part of a killer! Or he may look like some random nobody, or even one of the cops, which is the twist I was expecting! Only Gena Rowlands from Light of Day and The Brink’s Job, knows for sure, because the killer is her son, and though he’s long been thought dead, she recently spotted him on a boat!
So I guess the whodunit angle is where the picture tries to distinguish itself from the movies it’s modeled on, but the dearth of suspects renders this distinction not much of one at all! Ha ha! The Quebec locations, and a brand of Canadian-ness with the quality of having been arrived at by way of the children’s game of Telephone (“I should have stayed in Winnipeg!” Hawke’s character grouses at one point), give it a tiny sliver of uniqueness though! Still, it’s strange that all the Quebec cops are played by French actors: Tchéky Karyo from Kiss of the Dragon, avuncular and wise; Olivier Martinez from IP5: The Island of Pachyderms, resentful and angry; Jean-Hugues Anglade from Betty Blue, neutral and doomed!
It’s pretty cookie-cutter stuff, and, ha ha, I can't see it being anyone's favourite movie! There’s a pretty fair boo-scare in there, and some gross Special Makeup Effects, but these things are surrounded by an awful lot of silliness! Ha ha, I give Taking Lives one and a half horrible straw mattresses!

Monday, 25 November 2019

Burl reviews The King of Marvin Gardens! (1972)


Ha ha and welcome, friends, to another movie review! Today I’m talking about a picture I saw many years ago and remembered in my mind as being pretty great! Well, I watched it again recently, and let me tell you, it holds up very well! The movie is one of those 1970s classics, and the title - which, let’s be honest, isn’t a great title - is The King of Marvin Gardens!
Jack Nicholson, renowned for his antics in The Witches of Eastwick, was early in his stardom at this point, and was still well able to play restrained characters who never need to raise their voices or speak in little bullets of biting, cynical pith! Here he’s playing a quiet Philadelphio called David Staebler, the host of what must be the most depressing radio program of all time! Called down to Atlantic City by his jailbird brother Jason, essayed as an all-time slimeball by Bruce Dern from Smile and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, David is drawn into a world of petty crimes and con jobs!
He’s also pulled into the world of his brother’s two ladyfriends, a stepmother-stepdaughter duo played by Ellen Burstyn, whom we know from Getting Gotti and The Exorcist, and Julia Anne Robinson, who appeared in the film version of A Fan’s Notes, but died in a fire in her apartment when she was only 24! That’s sad, because she was pretty and, on the evidence seen here, a talented actor!
David is at first rather freaked out by this weird world of big dreams and petty swindles, but he soon becomes as intoxicated by it as everyone else, and before long the quartet are prowling the beaches and boardwalks and Ventnor Avenues and everywhere else you find on a Monopoly board, taking jitney rides and, for whatever reason, auditioning auctioneers! All of this is photographed with picturesque verve by Laszlo Kovacs, a man of great ability, and directed in a laid-back, observational style by Bob Rafelson, who later gave us the less intriguing Black Widow!
Scatman Crothers, known for his appearances in Truck Turner and with his buddy Nicholson in The Shining, has a great bit as Lewis, the local godfather upon whose name Jason trades! Ha ha, of course Lewis is less than pleased about this! But one thing I love is that, in this picture about gangsters in Atlantic City, a gun is still a really big deal, as it should be! They’re treated as truly dangerous objects, and there’s even a scene in which two tough hoods come to kidnap Jason, but as soon as a gun comes out, they run away! Ha ha, there’s a feeling of real consequence surrounding the objects in this picture, and that consequence, of course, comes to pass in the third act!
Other familiar faces pass through in the meantime, like John P. Ryan, known to all from Fatal Beauty and Avenging Force, not to mention Runaway Train, The Right Stuff and the It’s Alive pictures, who here plays a pharumphing concierge! Josh Mostel from The Money Pit is in the mix too, playing the producer of Nicholson’s hilariously mopey radio show! Everyone involved seems to be on the same wavelength, and they work together to make the movie funny and bizarre and not merely tragic! It’s also got a great off-season atmosphere, and I of course am a big fan of the off-season genre! I’d put pictures like Tough Guys Don’t Dance and The Slayer into this basket too, ha ha!
It’s a generally marvelous little picture, with the same sense of creeping desperation you find in other great little lesser-known 70s pictures, say Fat City or Scarecrow! I was very glad to find a DVD of it, as I’d seen it back in the VHS era and have been thinking about it ever since! I give The King of Marvin Gardens three and a half lobster bibs!

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Burl reviews Misery! (1990)



Good day you dirty birdies, it’s Burl, here to review a movie about a demented fan! No, though it does feature Lauren Bacall from The Big Sleep, it’s not The Fan! In fact it’s Misery, a movie that, like Stand By Me, involves Rob Reiner taking a Stephen King story and doing some of his very best work with it!
James Caan from Submarine X-1 and Elf plays a writer called Paul, whose most famous works are a series of antebellum soap operas featuring a Scarlett O’Hara character called Misery! But he’s the usual Stephen King type of writer, the kind with literary ambitions buried beneath his commercial success, which he has now exercised with a new, as yet untitled, book about street waifs! He types the last lines of his book in his Colorado winter resort cabin, enjoys a smoke and a glass of champagne, and sets off in his Mustang for New York City!
But this foolish writer has not checked the weather, and he evidently is not accustomed to winter driving, so his ‘stang flies off the road! He’s rescued by Kathy Bates, well known for playing Gertrude Stein in Midnight in Paris, a demented farm lady who loves the Misery books above all else, and who sets Paul’s shattered legs and feeds him soup, and who has a head full of cracklin' bran! When she discovers first that Paul has written a profanity-laced, non-Misery book about street waifs, and then that his latest Misery book kills her favourite character off, she’s not too pleased, yo! Ha ha!
It’s not quite the two-hander it sounds as though it might be from that synopsis: Richard Farnsworth from Into the Night plays the local lawman Buster, who slowly pieces together the clues, and… well, ha ha, have you seen The Shining? Yes, I’m sad to report he’s the Dick Hallorann of the piece! Frances Sternhagen from Outland plays his salty wife, and there’s even a little cameo from J.T. Walsh, known for his appearance in Eddie Macon’s Run, as a hilariously insensitive state trooper! But it’s the Caan and Bates show for the most part, and both of them are excellent!
It’s a marvelously crafted picture, which gets pretty grisly in parts, but doesn’t go overboard the way it probably would if someone made it now! It’s a little hokey the way Paul uses his tools as a writer - stories, writing paper, a typewriter - as his weapons against his buggy warder, but this aspect comes directly from the King book! The supporting cast, particularly Farnsworth, Sternhagen and Bacall, is made up of the sort of faces you just plain feel glad to see when they come on screen, and Reiner’s direction is restrained and strong, and William Goldman’s screenplay simplifies and externalizes only what needs to be simplified or externalized! It’s a solid picture, which I remember enjoying in the theater and which holds up well now! I give Misery three beloved pet pigs!