Ha ha!

You just never know what he'll review next!

Thursday 29 December 2022

Burl reviews Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers! (1980)


By the whiff of the stinking rose, it’s Burl, here to review a picture by the marvelous documentarian Les Blank! Ha ha, I once attended a screening of his great Leon Russell movie A Poem is a Naked Person, and that was back in the days when Blank had to be in attendance for it to be screened legally, so he was there, and afterward I and some others went out to a nearby bar with him for a few beers! He was a nice fellow and awfully good company, and those qualities can be seen in the movie under review today, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers!

Now, whether or not that specific equivalence is accurate, the movie makes a strong case for garlic as a curative and as a flavourer of food! No scientists are trotted out to make the case; neither Julia Child nor Edna Lewis nor any other celebrity chef of the day appear; instead, Blank visits a parade of bohemian food lovers who proselytize about the aliment and its many uses and benefits! Ha ha, I’ve always used garlic in my own cooking, so I was naturally sympathetic to these arguments!

The impression left is that there must be a thriving subculture of garlic-mad neo-hippies out there, cooking like maniacs and shoveling in the allium sativum as quickly as they can! Blank talks to chefs and enthusiasts, and spends time at a California garlic festival, and all of this is arranged in a wonderfully haphazard and aptly organic manner! There are some unexpected ingredients in this concoction: for instance, a bewildered Werner Herzog, whose mug we recall from the bad-guy role in Jack Reacher appears in order to give his two cents on garlic’s efficacy on vampires, and why he didn’t include that aspect in Nosferatu!


The heart of the picture are its many scenes of meal preparation, which make you want to rush to your kitchen and start cooking up a feast yourself! Vegetarians will not take to the movie, though – there are plenty of dead animals here, and meat being ground up in close shots; but cuisineries both committed and, like myself, casual, will find themselves transfixed by the lovely 16mm colour images!

There’s not a propulsive or coherent story being told here, but nor should there be! It’s a grincingly effective love-chaunt to an oft-maligned foodstuff, and at 51 minutes it’s just about exactly the right length! There’s some good music being played and some wonderful eccentrics appear, and if you like the way Les Blank organizes his movies, you’ll like this one as much as Burden of Dreams or In Heaven There Is No Beer? or any of his other fine works! Ha ha, I recommend it heartily! I give Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers three staring animal eyeballs!

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Burl reviews Lethal Weapon! (1987)


Getting too old for this shit, it’s Burl, here to review 80s buddy-cop carnage for you! Of course there had been buddy cops before this movie came out, and even black and white buddy cops as we have in this picture (Number One with a Bullet, anybody? Ha ha, anybody?), but the success of this particular duo led to an explosion (often literal) of buddy cops – in only the year and change after this one’s release we had alien/human buddy cops in Alien Nation and The Hidden; living/dead buddy cops in Dead Heat; American/Russian buddy cops in Red Heat; natty/slobbo buddy cops in Tango & Cash, and army/civilian buddy cops in The Presidio! And the movie that kicked this genre into high gear? Ha ha, Lethal Weapon, of course!

And as we know, the picture canonized another tradition: setting action movies around Christmas! Earlier action pictures – First Blood, To Live and Die in L.A., Cobra – had already flirted with a touch of noel flavouring, and then Die Hard came along the very next year to solidify the trend, and Die Hard 2 to lacquer it, but I think it was Lethal Weapon that made it a thing! Certainly it popularized the use of incongruous holiday music to make some kind of ironic point! And it goes that extra Christmas mile by casting Phil Spector’s Christmas Album superstar Darlene Love as Danny Glover’s wife!

The setup and story hardly bear repeating, but here goes! Mel Gibson, whom we recall from his roles in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Conspiracy Theory, plays Martin Riggs, so archetypally the emotionally hollowed-out cop that he seems a parody of the form; and whether he’s putting a gun in his mouth or sharing his dog’s breakfast or acting all bugeyed and crazy, he doesn’t seem much like a real person! This behaviour had more impact back when it was fresh, but it was never very realistic! Meanwhile, Danny Glover, well beloved from his role in The Dead Don’t Die, is Roger Murtaugh, whom I used to think was so old but is only just turning fifty as the picture opens! And just as Riggs is a near-parody, of course Murtaugh is the very model of the too-old-for-this-shit family-man cop still doing the job, but with half an eye on retirement and his driveway watercraft which ought to be named the Midlife Crisis! The introductory scene where he’s relaxing in his bath and the whole family bursts in to give him a birthday party while he’s in his birthday suit always struck me as odd, but I guess that’s the repressed North American in me!

The action is kicked off in the opening moments by a naked lady, zonked on the devil’s dandruff, plummeting to her doom from the top of a luxury tower! This unfortunate lady turns out to be the daughter of none other than Tom Atkins from Halloween III and Night of the Creeps, playing an old pal of Murtaugh’s called Hunsacker! Then we have the obligatory scenes in which Murtaugh meets-cop with Riggs and reluctantly becomes his partner; Riggs acts crazy and near suicidal and Murtaugh becomes upset; and Riggs comes over to the Murtaugh house for dinner and relations between the two buddy cops soften into a true partnership! Ha ha!

The baddies are a bunch of drug-smuggling army fellows led by a pocky old general played by Mitchell Ryan from Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers! The plot particulars are actually a bit murky, and there’s a sense of the filmmakers not really caring much about the mechanics of it, or how Hunsacker’s daughter's death plummet fits in! The important thing is how evil these fellows are, particularly Gary Busey from Silver Bullet playing Mr. Joshua, the general’s right-hand man, who literally offers up his right hand to be burned by a cigarette lighter on the general’s casual instruction just to make a point! And of course, ha ha, there’s perpetual hench Al Leong as Endo, who’s forgotten more about administering pain than the rest of us will ever know! Mr. Joshua’s pain endurance capabilities are not really explored beyond the cigarette lighter scene, and Endo’s legendary talents as, conversely, an inflictor of agony don’t seem to stretch beyond crude car battery electrocution, so in these senses the movie is more talk than walk!

But in other respects it’s a perfectly-wrought 80s action extravaganza, right down to the climactic front yard punchfight, complete with MTV effects provided by a spurting fire hydrant and a hovering helicopter spotlight, and cops kept at bay by only a few words from Glover! Richard Donner, who'd earlier brought us The Omen, directs the thing with about the right amount of flair, and the performances, as clichéd as they may seem to us today, are on point! It hums along like a well-tuned engine, and never mind how sketchy the plot is or how contrived the events! The bad guys all get their just desserts, and then Riggs, who invites himself over for Christmas dinner, presumably gets some dessert too! Ha ha! I give Lethal Weapon two and a half dashboard grenades!

Saturday 24 December 2022

Burl reviews Toys! (1992)


Ha ha and z-z-z-zinnngggg! it’s Burl, here to give a review to a bomb of whimsical proportions! And I’ll tell you, I went to see this one with my buddy Pellonpaa and we employed a little electric lettuce to become high as kites before the screening! And at some point during it, there was a moment so surprising and funny that both Pellonpaa and I literally fell off our chairs and rolled on the ground! I watched it again the other day, but straight this time of course, and wondered if the hilarity of the moment would repeat!

Anyway, the movie is Toys, and the answer to my wonderment is no, it wasn’t as hilarious a moment this time around! It was still funny though! The picture is a slick and strange big-budget affair featuring Robin Williams from The Best of Times and Club Paradise as an ill-defined manchild called Leslie Zevo! He’s the son of toymaker extraordinaire Ken Zevo, who’s played by none other than Donald O’Connor from Francis in a sweet low-key performance, and who dies very early in the picture!

Because he deems neither Leslie nor Leslie’s dopey-sweer sister Alsatia, played by Joan Cusack from Grandview U.S.A. and The End of the Tour, to be ready to take over the toy factory, Ken asks his warmonger brother Leland, essayed by Michael Gambon from Sleepy Hollow and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, to assume command! Leland’s wingman in this venture is Captain Pat Zevo, his son, played bumptiously by LL Cool J from Deep Blue Sea and Halloween H2O! All of these characters get nearly as much screen time as Williams's Leslie, so it ends up feeling more like an ensemble picture than it was marketed as! But Williams can't help but be a showcase, and he gets to be goofy, eccentric, and weird, and also gets nearly serious in moments when he's realizing what his uncle and cousin are up to!

From here it becomes a battle of wills (though emphatically not of wits) to determine whether the factory will continue with its tradition of making wind-up mechanicals and other sundry geegaws, or transition into violent war toys and indeed drone technology as the General fervently, even dementedly, desires! On Leslie’s pacifistic side he has pretty love interest Gwen, played by Robin Wright from The Princess Bride; Owen Owens, the old toy factory factotum played by Arthur Malet, the graveyard keeper from Halloween; and of course his sister Alsatia, who is revealed later in the picture to be not quite what she appears! (Or maybe it’s that she turns out to be exactly what she appears, ha ha!) And Captain Pat has a change of heart and joins the good guys as well

In the margins of the cast are familiar faces like Jamie Foxx from Django Unchained, Yeardley Smith from Maximum Overdrive, Steve Park from The French Dispatch, and Debbie Mazar from Singles, while the old Zevo grampa is played by Jack Warden from Dirty Work in makeup that makes him look exactly like Lionel Stander! But as committed as all these people are to their roles – and I do really like Williams’s performance here, which to me recalls his mumbling work in Popeye – the people are not the stars of the show! No, it’s the sets and the props, which are spectacular and occasionally clever, like the crossword-puzzle room that reduces even as its occupants are trying to have a serious meeting about fake vomit! And the whole world of the movie is either invented, studio-bound fantasy-adjacent confections, or rolling green fields with a road winding through them! But mostly it's sets, with machines and robots and wind-up mechanicals and lots of extras all labouring in the background!

And it was these sets that most captivated me back when I saw this movie on the big screen, as I recall! The plot seemed a garble, not, it turns out, because I was stoned, but because it actually was, and is, an incoherent mess! The central conflict is simple enough, and so is the message, but the storytelling is about as organized and cohesive as an elevator fart! Ha ha, I’m sorry to make such a crude joke, but it’s much in the spirit of the movie under review! Anyway, it’s an extraordinary movie in many ways, and a very bad one in many others, and unfortunately the bad is a pretty fundamental part of the whole enterprise, and the impression left is of a bad picture! But I liked Williams and the rest of the actors too, and there were a few sharp gags and lots of clever visuals, so it’s hardly a total loss! I’ll give Toys one pea and one carrot!

Monday 19 December 2022

Burl reviews Ronin! (1998)


With a screech and a roar and a “Hey you guys!,” it’s Burl here to review some underappreciated 90s stealth Christmas action! It’s a picture I saw and enjoyed on the big screen, and its several scenes of realistic car-crunching chaseology makes good solid sense when you take into account that the picture is a late work from John Frankenheimer, crusty gent and director of Prophecy and The Train! Ha ha, yes, naturally the picture I’m talking about is Ronin!

The movie is all about how things are done, and much less about why they are done! It’s a crime procedural, I guess, and involves a group of folk living on the grey side of the law who gather in France to wrangle a silver case, contents unknown and irrelevant, away from the shady parties who possess it, and get it into the hands of the Irish! Representing the people of the shamrock is Dierdre, played by beauteous Natasha McElhone from The Truman Show, and her crew includes Sam, an American played by Robert De Niro from Mean Streets and Mad Dog and Glory, whom the other characters take to be ex-CIA (but is he ex???); Jean Reno from Godzilla playing Vincent, the man who can get what’s needed; Gregor, a German who used to work for the Russians, played by the Swede Stellan Skarsgard, whom we know from The Hunt for Red October and The Avengers; and the clearly out-of-his-depth Spence, essayed by Sean Bean from How to Get Ahead in Advertising, who’s always good at characters like that, though he can play other types as well!

Ha ha, and we know Bean from GoldenEye of course; and the picture also includes prominent roles for Michael Lonsdale from The Day of the Jackal and Moonraker and Jonathan Pryce from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Tomorrow Never Dies! So there we have a total of three James Bond antagonists in the same movie! Here, one of them plays a bad guy, one a good guy, and one is neither! And there’s also a little smiley cameo appearance from Amidou, whom we might recall from Sorcerer!

The caper involves, or at least results in, several crackerjack car chases, which are without question the highlights of the movie! But with that terrific cast and dialogue from a pseudonymous David Mamet (“You ever kill anybody?” “I hurt somebody’s feelings once”), and a general air of what we might call “invented realism,” the picture is a totally enjoyable bit of non-comic book action! And as I say, like Cobra and Die Hard and Lethal Weapon and Die Hard 2 and To Live and Die in L.A. and Invasion U.S.A., this is an example of 80s Xmas Action – that is, it’s set over the Christmas season and features a few holiday accoutrements, in this case some carolling, a background appearance by Pere Nöel, and a few words of Christmas-related conversation here and there!

It’s hardly a perfect movie, though! It somehow doesn’t fully grip in the way it should, which is probably because it’s so procedural that it doesn’t bother with any of the other niceties of drama, like characters and plot and emotional stakes! It seems at times like an exercise put together by old pros as a display item, for which they concentrated on surface effects rather than substance; but on that surface level it excels! It’s a good, grown-up crime film, sort of a spiritual stepson of Melville’s great policiers, though not their equal, and I’m a fan even as I recognize its unidimensional characters and cereal-box plot! Ha ha, I’m giving Ronin three spilled cups of coffee!

Sunday 11 December 2022

Burl reviews Call Northside 777! (1948)


Ring ring, it’s Burl, here with newspaper drama! Yes, ol’ Burl is a big fan of the newspaper genre – I really like All the President’s Men of course, and His Girl Friday, and Ace in the Hole, and I even found lots to like about The Paper – not least, ha ha, that it was a newspaper movie! And I’ve just watched one I’d never seen before, a little joint called Call Northside 777!

The title refers to a wee classified ad discovered in the paper by newshound P.J. McNeal! McNeal is played by James Stewart, well known from Thunder Bay and Rear Window, and, following up the ad, he discovers an old floor scrubber named Tillie Wiecek in despair because her son Frank has been in jail these last eleven years for killing a cop! Of course she claims he didn’t do it, and hopes her ad, and the $5000 in reward money she’s spent the past decade on her hands and knees earning, will help bring forth a witness who can clear Frank’s name!

McNeal is initially dismissive, not willing to give a cop killer the time of day! But as he digs into the case, and once he goes to the jail to meet Frank, who’s played very well by Richard Conte from Ocean’s Eleven and is an incredibly sympathetic character, he starts to think, hey, maybe this fella Frank is innocent after all! The great Lee J. Cobb from Gorilla At Large is McNeal’s editor, and, as the story starts to catch the public attention, he encourages his reporter to follow it up!

McNeal does so, occasionally going home to visit his wife, played by Helen Walker from Nightmare Alley and The Big Combo, where they sleep in separate beds as per bizarre Code rules and she makes him sandwiches when he has insomnia worrying about the Wiecek case! I guess he couldn’t make his own sandwich for some reason! McNeal gets on the trail of a witness called Wanda Skutnik, who proves to be just as unpleasant as her name, and he often returns to the Statesville prison, where an unbelievably accommodating warden accedes to his every request! Wiecek is at first justifiably angry about the negative attention the publicity is giving his wife and son, and demands that McNeal lay off! But this reporter is too dogged for that!

E.G. Marshall from Creepshow appears as the kindly (or as kindly as Marshall can manage) man whom Wiecek’s wife marries while he’s in prison so that their son can live a more normal life; and here’s where the movie really shines: in laying out the terrible difficulty of having a husband and father supposed by everyone to be a cop killer! You really feel for these Wieceks, and want Frank to get out of gaol and that post-haste, ha ha! But this movie is an occasionally long 112 minutes, so before that happens there’s plenty of time to watch all the details of how a polygraph test is administered, for example!

Because that’s the other thing: the movie is a gallery of all-new police techniques, like polygraph machines and forgery detection and photo enlargement processes, and a fantastic sort of proto-fax machine that whirls around like a lathe and sends pictures across the wire – but, ha ha, you have to develop them on the receiving end before you can see them! But they really wanted to keep it real for this movie, so when it comes to the lie detector scene, they got the guy who invented the gosh darn machine to play the fellow administering the test, and they take care to depict every intricacy! And McNeal, the newsman, is all the while asking the sort of questions any layman would, and getting detailed explanations of the technologies!

So there’s occasionally the feeling of watching an educational film or a sponsored documentary, but the olde-tyme tech aspect is really interesting, to me anyway! And, as I say, you get really caught up in the family’s situation, so by the time the boy is running toward his freed father, shouting “Daddy! That’s my daddy!” you may shed a happy tear! I don’t think I’m giving anything away to reveal that Wiecek is in fact proved innocent, but another thing about the conclusion, foregone as it may be, is that it doesn’t really follow up the hints of conspiracy and cover-up that are teased in the first half! I suppose we’re meant to take the railroad job done on Wiecek as just one of those things, and the subsequent cover-up as just what any sensible authority figure would do after committing a horrible blunder! Ha ha, some of the sensibilities are a little out of date, I guess, and this fealty toward authority is among them! But the movie has lots to recommend it, and Stewart is always good, so I give Call Northside 777 three linotype slugs!

Saturday 10 December 2022

Burl reviews The Dark Half! (1993)


By the squirrels of autumn it’s Burl, here to give you a new film notice! Yes, we find ourselves once again in the company of the great Beardsman of Pittsburgh, the zombie maestro who brought us excellent films like Dawn of the Dead, along with some less excellent but still perfectly watchable works like Monkey Shines! It’s Mr. George A. Romero of whom I speak of course – ha ha, sadly I never met Mr. Romero, but I did once get to see him introduce a  movie close to his heart, Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman! One fails to discern the Archers’ influence on the picture under review today, however: The Dark Half!

It’s a Stephen King tale, based a little bit on his own life and how he was outed as the maniacal overachiever who wrote so many books that he had to publish some of them under the name Richard Bachman! (I read Thinner when it was still unknown that Bachman was King, and thought to myself “Boy, this guy sure writes a lot like Stephen King!”) Timothy Hutton from Turk 182 stars as the King stand-in, Thad Beaumont: here not a gargantua-selling horror novelist but one of those cartoonishly “serious” writers King features so often, and somewhat longingly, in his stories! And yet Beaumont has a sideline in writing punchy pulp novels under the name George Stark, featuring an amoral killer as a hero, and, after Stark is revealed to be Beaumont and Thad conducts a mock burial of the pseudonym, it’s this aspect of Thad that starts to make trouble! 

Amy Madigan from Streets of Fire plays the wife who wonders what’s going on, and Michael Rooker from Cliffhanger is the cop-acquaintance who suspects Thad when the Stark persona corporealizes somehow and starts killing people in gross and violent ways! Ha ha, the parade of victims start with Robert Joy, whom Romero used again in Land of the Dead, and who plays a sleazy guy who tries to blackmail Thad about his double identity! The carnage continues with the magazine writer of the story, essayed by Kent Broadhurst who’d Kinged before in Silver Bullet; Thad’s literary agents, played by Rutanya Alda from The Stuff and Tom Mardirosian from Trading Places; and then some old geezer with a false leg! I feared for the lives of Julie Harris from The Haunting, playing Thad’s university colleague, and Royal Dano from The Right Stuff as the local gravedigger (named, of course, Digger), but needn’t have as it turns out!

Of course the premise is utterly goofy (though not the goofiest in King’s canon – ha ha, The Mangler, anybody?), but I don’t blame King, because after all the idea was designed for print, not film, and it’s much more palatable, not to mention thematically apt, on the page! Putting this concept in a movie significantly exposes the utter impossibility of it, and in response the cast all work extra hard to sell it! Rooker in particular expresses how he’d be more likely to believe the culprit was a ghost rather than a name that never was! Romero also treats the premise seriously, perhaps too much so; but now and again, as in some nice scenes early in the picture involving birds and brain operations, it pays off!

As King/Romero collaborations go, it’s no Creepshow, and Creepshow isn’t even all that great I guess! Don’t get me wrong, it’s a highly enjoyable omnibus horror picture, but it’s just no masterpiece! The Dark Half is a few rungs below that, though it has elements to recommend it: some strong autumn atmosphere (I’ll admit that I watched – or rewatched, since I first saw it in the theatre way back when – the picture this past October and am only getting around to reviewing it now, and the fall miasma struck a sweet chord at that time); nice photography from the most unlikely of cinematographers, Tony Pierce-Roberts, who usually shot highbrow British stuff like A Room With A View and Howard’s End; and a strong cast! It’s got some effective moments, but, like its antagonist, lacks the cohesion necessary to triumph! I give The Dark Half two black pencils, freshly sharpened!

Friday 2 December 2022

Burl reviews Better Off Dead! (1985)


Friends and neighbours, ahh, listen to me now! Ha ha, it’s Burl here again with a movie review for you, and this time it’s a beloved 80s teen comedy set at just around this time of the year! Well, it covers December and goes into January I guess, so there’s a little bit of Christmas cheer in there, much as we find in another, lesser, 80s teen pic, Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home! But this one is fondly recalled by me and by my friends, and by, I gather, quite a few other folk as well! It’s Better Off Dead!

Of course the movie stars John Cusack, and with this he was following up yet another vaguely Christmastime teen comedy romance, The Sure Thing, released the year before! Here he plays Lane Meyer, a prototype for the character he’d play later in Say Anything: a guy who’s kind of sporty (Lane, or at least his stunt double, ha ha, is a decent skier), sort of cool (he has a cute horseyface girlfriend and a hot, if immobile, car), but also a little bit of a nebbish, loser, and geek! So I guess they’re trying to have and eat cake at once by making Lane an Everyman, but with movie protagonist qualities (good looks, athleticism, a Camaro) that the genuine Everyman rarely possesses! His best and seemingly only friend is Charles De Mar, an eccentric who wears a top hat, snorts anything he can coax up a straw, and is played perfectly by Curtis Armstrong of Revenge of the Nerds fame; and Charles, I suppose, by his stovepipe whimsicality is meant to provide hard evidence of Lane’s mid-to-lower level social station!

Lane’s girlfriend Beth, played by Amanda Wyss from A Nightmare on Elm Street, dumps him right off the bat, and this provides the motivation for what slim narrative drive the picture offers! Mostly it’s a shapeless accumulation of incident, some of it almost realistic teen angst comedy, like the breakup and the ski race against blonde bad guy Roy Stalin; some more fanciful, like the demoniac paperboy or the two Japanese brothers who street race against Lane every chance they get, colour-commenting on the race in a Howard Cosell voice over loudspeakers on their car; and some much crazier still, as in the scenes where Lane’s mute little brother creates a laser gun or a bedroom brothel or a home-built space shuttle! And Lane himself spins off into fantasyland regularly, imagining himself as a Dr. Frankenstein creating living hamburgers who sing and play like Eddie Van Halen! Of course there are the repeated, if halfhearted, suicide attempts, which had aged badly even between the time the movie was shot and when it came out, and haven’t gotten any better since! There’s not a lot of hilarity to be wrung from teen suicide when you get right down to it!

In the course of the movie we also meet Lane’s father, who is perpetually annoyed with the immobile car and with other bizarre family behaviours, and who is played by David Ogden Stiers from The Cheap Detective and, in a later reteaming with Cusack, Shadows and Fog! Lane’s mother is played by Kim Darby from Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and she keeps busy wearing crazy costumes and cooking unpalatable meals! Across the street is a yet more grotesque family: Mrs. Smith and her bulbous, crochet-loving son Ricky, but they have as a houseguest a French foreign exchange student played by supercute Diane Franklin, known from The Last American Virgin and Amityville II: The Possession! Ha ha, and when she wears a ballcap and gets automotive grease all over his face, she’ll simply capture your heart just as she does Lane’s! And let’s not forget Dan Schneider from Making the Grade and Hot Resort as the neighbour Ricky, who shows off some excellent physical comedy skills in the course of the picture! Ha ha, that little futile jump he does when trying to get his balloon back is priceless!

This was director Savage Steve Holland’s feature film debut, and he recruited Cusack again the following year for One Crazy Summer! That one never developed the legs of its predecessor, though – ha ha, back in the old VHS days, Better Off Dead got the repeat replays from my friends and I, while the follow-up got maybe one viewing in toto! That doesn’t mean Better Off Dead is a great film – ha ha, far from it! It’s as shapeless as a sea-level blobfish and lots of the jokes don’t hit; but on the other hand plenty of them do, and it’s got an antic sense of absurdity that carries it along nicely! We get some fine comic performances, and the bit with the math teacher, played by Vincent Schiavelli from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, whose students hang on his every word and live for his homework assignments, is a good example of how the movie occasionally strikes a relatable chord for all of us Everymen but does so in a way that’s both overextended and baggy, yet still pointed and funny! Anyway, its good nature goes a long way, and so I give Better Off Dead two dollars and a fifty cent tip!

Wednesday 30 November 2022

Burl reviews Foreign Correspondent! (1940)


By the turning of the windmill, it’s Burl, here with a bit of Hitchcockery for you! Ha ha, this is Hitch in actionman mode, making a big old wartime crowd-pleaser with plenty of derring-do and get-‘er-done sentiment! It’s not the most finely-crafted picture old Alfred ever made, nor his most suspenseful, nor his most rollicking, but there’s a case to be made that, alongside North By Northwest, it’s the one that most effectively combines all these qualities! Ha ha, and the name of the movie is Foreign Correspondent!

It’s set in a very specific period of time, which I always appreciate in a movie! The thunderclouds of war have spread across Europe, and just about everybody knows it’s coming – and there are some shadowy figures, it seems, who want to hurry it along! But before we meet them, we are introduced to Johnny Jones, the putative hero of the picture, a Big Apple newsman who is the right guy to go find out what’s up in Europe, figures his editor, because (and the cop-phobic Hitch loved this no doubt) he once beat up a policeman!

It seems Hitch wanted Gary Cooper for the role, but he got Joel McCrea from Sullivan’s Travels and Ride the High Country! This disappointed the director, who found McCrea too affable; and you can certainly see why he’d want Coop for a two-fisted role like this! Maybe the fact that they were each known by nicknames made up of the first half of their surnames was an extra attraction to Cooper for the portly filmmaker, but who knows! Anyway, I like McCrea – his affability gives a lightness to the picture that helps keep it aloft, and he’s able to get serious when he needs to, as in the Thing From Another World-style coda!

It’s late August of 1939, and you know what that means - Nazis are about to make their move! When Johnny Jones arrives in England, he finds a dyspeptic colleague played by the great Robert Benchley (who also wrote some of the dialogue, or at least his own); the leader of some kind of peace party, Stephen Fisher, played by Herbert Marshall from The Fly; and Fisher’s beautiful daughter Carol, essayed by Laraine Day from The Story of Dr. Wassell! Malarkey of some kind is going on, and things only get weirder after a diplomat called Van Meer, who is instrumental in whatever chance there may be to stave off the Germans and whom Johnny is supposed to interview, gets himself shot in the face in a surprisingly brutal moment!

Johnny also meets the real hero of the picture, or at least I thought so, a debonair newshound called Scott ffolliott (and yes, ha ha, they address the lower-case double Fs), played by the marvelous George Sanders, whom we recall from Doomwatch and Endless Night, and from his own pithy suicide note! ffolliett is a real cool customer, an adventuresman who, it seemed to me, had as much of Hitchcock’s attention as the hero! After the famous windmill scene – well, relatively famous, probably cracking the top ten or twelve of famous Hitch scenes – and Van Meer has mysteriously returned, still played by Albert Bassermann from Alraune, Johnny is hot on the trail of the story, and so naturally it’s time for the movie to hang with ffolliett for a while! Yes, ha ha, it seems for a while that ffolliett (a relation to ffolkes, no doubt!) is the new hero of the movie, and one is not unhappy to have him!

There’s some great stuff here! Edmund Gwenn from Them! and The Trouble With Harry pops up as a hitman who maybe was a bit past his prime! And there are some terrific mugs in the margins, like Mr. Krug, played by Eduardo Cianelli from Strange Cargo, who tortures poor Van Meer with hot jazz music! The special effects and sets are simply top notch, and the plane-crash climax is a corker!

You can tell Hitch wasn’t too interested in the specifics of the peace process or the ginned up McGuffin here – ha ha, as McGuffins go, this is one of the director’s most transparently immaterial! It’s a weird mix of ripped-from-the-headlines reality and the sort of picture they were making in the lead-up to the war, where the evil country would remain pointedly unnamed, perhaps in the hopes of avoiding any kind of intercontinental rile-up! I suppose that’s because history marched on as the picture was being written and prepared, and all of Fisher’s mournful references to “his country” were left over from prewar days!

It’s a chaotic movie, but all of a setpiece by the end, ha ha! I’ve seen it a couple of times now, and it sure does hold up! The plotting is maybe not completely thought through everywhere, but it’s got it where it counts! I give Foreign Correspondent three and a half phonographs!

Sunday 27 November 2022

Burl reviews Phantoms! (1998)


Ha ha and sweet goofballs, it’s Burl, here to review a tale of underground gumphries! You might say to yourself “Ha ha, Burl, what the heck are underground gumphries?” No, I don’t know, because whatever the monster is in this picture, it may as well be called an underground gumphry as anything else, because it’s one of the vaguest creatures ever to come down the pike! And the movie in which it is featured is called Phantoms!

The picture is much like Deep Rising, with which it shares an amorphous creature, some dodgy digital effects, some refreshing gloop and gore, an approximate release date (January 1998), and at least one actor, Clifton Collins, who here plays an ill-fated general! The story is laid in a small Colorado mountain town as two bickering sisters, played by Joanna Going from The Tree of Life and Rose McGowan from Scream, drive into town for a visit and wonder at the total lack of human activity on the streets! Ha ha, but when they start discovering things like disembodied hands clutching at a rolling pin, they twig that something terrible has happened to the townsfolk! They run into some equally bewildered cops led by Sheriff Ben Affleck of Dazed and Confused and Gone Girl fame; in his company are a pair of deputies, one played by Nicky Katt from Gremlins, and the other, a giggling snickering jerky-jerk and an obvious madman from the moment he steps on screen called Wargle, is essayed by Liev Schreiber from The Daytrippers!

They find the desiccated corpse of Linnea Quigley in a hotel room, and Wargle, whose complex of pathologies includes being a pervhound, seems to want to have relations with it! Ha ha, and shortly thereafter he goes completely boo at the zoo and has his face eaten off by a giant moth! At this point in the review, if you haven’t seen the movie or even if you have, you’re probably wondering just exactly what it is menacing the town! Is it a giant moth? Is it the revived corpses of some of the victims, including Wargle, who pop up now and again? (These, I take it, are the phantoms of the title!) Or is it something else, aliens perhaps? Well, ha ha, it’s hard to say!

Clarification, or as much as we’ll ever be granted, comes from a character preposterously called Dr. Timothy Flyte, who is played by none other than Peter O’Toole, most famed from his role in Club Paradise! Flyte is napped by a pair of agents played by Bo Hopkins from Tentacles and Rob Knepper from Wild Thing, who deliver him to the beleaguered town, tip their caps, and are never seen again! By this time the army has become involved and there’s a mobile laboratory that I was heartened to see! Flyte, once he’s hooked up with our gang of protagonists, compares the malevolent entity to a petroleum jelly, so I guess that’s how I’ll refer to it to, because, much like most of the film’s characters, I never really had any idea what they were up against!

I did appreciate such background as is provided: Flyte calls the creature the “Ancient Enemy,” and spins vaguely Lovecraftian tales of how this ageless jelly occasionally rises up from the earthen underworld in which it dwells to wipe out entire towns or civilizations! I like that kind of thing in a movie, but they don’t do a lot with it here! When it’s not a moth or a zombie, or shaking down The Thing by incarnating as a dog and then bursting forth from within it, the jelly resembles a sort of fudge, or a putty of sorts, or maybe just a big shmoo! Its powers are ill-defined, its goals unclear (it seems to crave publicity, of all things), its weakness implausible and its inspirations obvious! But, ha ha, on the other hand it will occasionally telephone the characters and scream at them through the receiver!

O’Toole and the rest of the cast take all this as seriously as they’re able, and I have to admit they didn’t do a bad job of it! This being a Miramax production and featuring Rose McGowan in a leading role, one gets the creeping willies thinking about that horrible Weinstein brother and his monstrous treatment of McGowan and who knows how many other women – in fact, there’s a moment when Wargle tries out some of his perv-dude talk on Sheriff Affleck and is promptly shut down; one wonders if this was meant as a sort of proxy dramatization of real-life Weinstein-Affleck conversations, with Affleck in the role of the righteous hero and the slobbering madman rapist standing in for Weinstein! Well, who knows!

But it’s a real lombego, this movie! I saw it in the theatre, so I’m feeling that extra bit of affection I carry for such pictures, and the simple fact is I do like a monster movie, and I really like The Thing, which this is trying to be! But ha ha, that it sure ain’t! The dialogue clangs about like a collapsing church organ and the goofnugget level is off the charts, but there are a few effective scenes if you let yourself get into it! It’s dumb and it’s derivative, but the things it’s imitating are mostly fun and interesting, so it benefits from the echoes! It reminds me of a bigger-budget version of something like The Kindred, or a lower-budget simulacrum of the 1988 The Blob, and it receives additional credit for possessing, more or less, that spirit! It’s bad and nothing can change that, but you might find it entertaining! I give Phantoms one and a half phone calls!

Tuesday 8 November 2022

Burl reviews Only the Lonely! (1991)


Hoch now, it’s Burl with a review for all the lonely people! Where do you all come from? Ha ha, just a little Beatles reference for you, but it should be said that the picture under review today is less a Beatles-type movie and more of a Roy Orbison joint! At least that’s where the title and the opening credits music comes from, and of course we can be talking about no other photoplay than Only the Lonely! (Ha ha, actually we could be talking about Pretty Woman or In Dreams, but nope, not this time!)

John Candy, so well known and loved from his roles in The Silent Partner and Volunteers and The Great Outdoors and many more, is Danny Muldoon, a Chicago cop who, alongside a partner played by Jim Belushi of Trading Places fame, has the job of transporting dangerous felons and also, mainly it seems, carrying away the dead bodies from the crime scenes! (The picture only very slightly explores the potential psycho-emotional ramifications of such a job, and there I think it might have missed a bet, although one scene is dedicated to plumbing its comic potential!)

Danny is a big friendly fellow who’s devoted to his mother, but not quite in a Norman Bates-y sort of way – though you can tell the relationship might be headed in that direction if allowed to fester, ha ha! Mother is played by flame-haired Maureen O’Hara, whom we recall from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, and who was here returning to pictures after a twenty-year absence; and it must be said that she hadn’t lost a step over that two decades of whatever it was she was doing instead of acting! And of course Mother is perfectly happy for her son to while his life away in service to her, and for his social life to comprise entirely of trips to the pub with her to hang out with Doyle and Spats, two barfly buddies nicely played by Milo O’Shea from The Purple Rose of Cairo and Theatre of Blood, and Bert Remsen from McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Lies!

There’s also a younger Muldoon brother, Patrick, essayed by Kevin Dunn of Marked for Death and Godzilla, and he’s the one who went to law school and got married and had kids (one of whom is that rapscallion Macauley Culkin, ha ha), and who catches a well-deserved punching from Danny in one of the picture’s more dramatic moments! But the big transformation in Danny’s life comes when he meets funeral home assistant Theresa Luna, played by Ally Sheedy from Blue City! She’s shy and mousy and can’t get dates because of her job, but of course to Danny, who handles corpses for a living, that’s no problem! Ha ha, her death-centric career notwithstanding, as someone who had a pretty big crush on Sheedy in the 1980s I did find it a bit unbelievable that Ms. Luna couldn’t get dates!

Mother, meantime, is an old-school bigot who seems to hate just about everyone who isn’t Irish – we hear all about her anti-Italian, and in particular anti-Sicilian, prejudices, and thanks to an amorous neighbour played by Anthony Quinn from The Guns of Navarone, we learn of her anti-Greek opinions as well! Of course she has many lilting objections when Theresa comes on the scene! As Danny and Theresa get closer, she becomes so desperate that she consults a “Polack priest” played by Marvin J. McIntyre from Fandango, who has no time for her nonsense! “I know you realize it’s the nineties, Mrs. Muldoon,” he tells her! “I’m just not sure you realize it’s the nineteen-nineties!”

So that’s the conflict: Danny is devoted to Mother and is constantly stopped in his tracks by alarming fantasies in which she meets a violent doom thanks to his distractedness; while Mother continues being nasty and spiteful and racist (we never hear her thoughts on, say, Jewish and Black people, which is probably for the best); and Theresa, for her part, quickly gets tired of her beau’s mommy fixation! The picture doesn’t always go exactly where you think it will with these dynamics, and that’s refreshing, though Sheedy’s character does seem to overcome her alarming shyness in unrealistically quick order! Candy is very much in Uncle Buck mode here, and one could argue that the performances are too similar, but on close inspection I found him to have an array of subtle techniques for individuating the two characters! So I feel grateful to Only the Lonely for helping me better appreciate the big man’s craft, an appreciation that I will admit took a hit after I saw JFK!

I watched the picture because I like Candy (ha ha, who doesn’t!) and want especially to see all the movies he starred it, with the possible exception of his final bow, Wagons East!, but frankly I wasn’t expecting much! It was a little better than I thought it would be, however, and while not particularly memorable and featuring too many instances of Candy's catch phrase "It's good to be a cop," it’s a solid showcase for the big man and demonstrates how good he could have been had he survived into his later years! (Ha ha, imagine his Lear!) Still, I wish the movie was better, and that it had a bit more pep and humour and grit and real complication! It’s not much more than a pale copy of Marty, but, mainly thanks to the cast, enjoyable enough while it’s on, and so I give Only the Lonely two breakfasts in bed!

Burl reviews Street of a Thousand Pleasures! (1972)


Toora-oop-de-doo, it’s Burl, bringing you a review of a picture that isn’t pornoo, but veil-dances mighty close to it at times! If you’re looking for a story, pass this one by! If you want art or craft, keep on moving! But ha ha, if you’re after a parade of naked ladies being leered at and nuzzled by a first-person camera, then sister, take a walk down the Street of a Thousand Pleasures!

Floppy-haired John Tull, whom we recall as the pig-lovin’ Junior in Sassy Sue, plays “field geologist” John Dalton, leaving his unseen but shrewish-sounding wife to do some field geology in the Middle East! On arriving he manages to save his host, a fake sheikh, from a would-be assassin, and as a reward is allowed to visit the forbidden slave market, which is where most of the rest of this mind-numbing production takes place! The prevailing theme is erotic astonishment, and indeed a truly astonishing number of naked ladies are paraded before his eyes!

We hear the aptly-named John’s creepy thoughts as he observes the unclad ladies: “These girls are naked! She’s so young looking!” Happily none of the ladies are particularly young looking – they’re not old, but they’re clearly beyond their teenage years, and with the camera taking Dalton’s perspective we continue to leer at them and hear his thoughts! “Uhhhh, ohhhh, so soft!” he says as he, or at least the camera lens, kisses a breast! Occasionally it cuts back to Dalton with a disbelieving look on his face, and then it’s back to his gross and unwanted narration as his hairy hands caress the ladies: “Ooh, such hard little nipples! Like elevator buttons!”

You can see from this what kind of movie it is, and one feels for the women on display here – not actual slaves perhaps, but maybe not far off either! The gross creep Dalton keeps up his inner commentary for what seems like forever, moaning things like “Oooh, aaahh, your buttocks are so firm!” and “Nice! Very nice! Very, very nice! Very, very, very nice!” and “I’ve never seen a woman so beautiful! I’ve never seen a woman so beautiful!” And of course he must continue with his POV kisses on their breasts, bellies, and thighs, complete with little lip-smack sounds and occasionally the imprint of the camera lens visible on the body as it pulls away!

Occasionally more human thoughts intrude: “She looks so sad!” Or, commenting on the other fake sheikh and fez-wearers wandering the market, “They look at them like they were livestock! Well they’re a far cry from livestock!” He reacts with mild disfavour when he sees the girls being mistreated, but then it’s back to the same monoto-logue: “Mmmm, so beautiful! Just wandering around, just milling around, all nude! They just never wear clothes it seems! Ha ha!”

Things turn a little darker when he spies a woman tied up and a devilish figure molesting her, but he’s soon back to his old tricks, ogling and fondling the girls as his neverending monologue runs, expressing disbelief and admiration, chuckling and smacking his lips, guessing at the nationalities of the girls and so on! But soon he’s begging “No more delights!” In a different room, a sheikh played by the director is receiving a fake BJ from a lady, and the scene doesn’t end until the sheikh has said “Ho!”

But in the last moments there’s a bit of incident, and suddenly John is on the run with one of the slave girls in tow, then we catch up with the two of them back in America, with John in a secret room in his house where he keeps the slave girl away from the prying eyes and barking voice of his horrible invisible wife! It doesn’t seem like a sustainable situation, but that’s where we leave our floppy-haired protagonist! And yes, more naked ladies dance naked under the end credits!

Some of the ladies in the picture are familiar, like Joyce Mandel of Weird Science and the mighty Uschi Digard from Truck Stop Women and many Russ Meyer productions! But most are just mildly uncomfortable-looking women who’ve been thrown a couple of bucks to stand around in the buff, either tied to posts or dancing lazily! You can really see the difference a few years on from nudie pictures like Hot Nights on the Campus, which had more plot and fewer naked ladies, versus this one, which has endless nudity – and even some dudes, ha ha – and no plot at all! Well, maybe plot is overrated! I give Street of a Thousand Pleasures one half of a pathetically fake Arab sign!

Saturday 5 November 2022

Burl reviews Last Man Standing! (1996)

Blam-blam-blam, it’s Burl, here with a tale of genre-splicing gun-fu from the mid-1990s! What are the genres in question, you might wonder? Well, they took Kurosawa’s great picture Yojimbo, and, as Sergio Leone had done thirty years earlier, transplanted the story to the Old West! Except they made it less old – although everything is set in what looks like the typical Western town, the action takes place in the 1930s, and the cowboys have been replaced by bootleggin’ gangsters! Ha ha, and the result they poured out of the genre-mixing cocktail shaker is titled Last Man Standing!

It’s a Walter Hill picture, but more on the Extreme Prejudice end of things than, say the Brewster’s Millions one! This means the story is full of manly men with stone faces expressing manly sentiments and punctuating these with cannon-like blasts of their guns! Bruce Willis, whom we know so very well from festive pictures like The First Deadly Sin and Die Hard, is the stoniest-faced of them all, and he’s the nameless hero who rolls into town and quickly divines that there are two gangs nearly at war with one another, and that he might profit from this conflict!

One gang is Italian and is led by Strozzi, played by Ned Eisenberg from The Burning and Moving Violations! The other more consequential gang is Irish, and while the nominal kingpin is Doyle, played by David Patrick Kelly from Commando and Dreamscape, the real terror in this bunch is a fearsome scarface essayed by Christopher Walken, well known from The Sentinel and A View to a Kill and of course The Prophecy! Initially neutral parties in the town include a corrupt but redeemable sheriff played by Bruce Dern, a fine actor we’ll recall from The King of Marvin Gardens and The Laughing Policeman, not to mention Hill’s The Driver; and innkeeper William Sanderson from Blade Runner and Nightmares, who I guess was cast not just because he was perfect for the role, but because he’d already been in an earlier picture called Last Man Standing! Ha ha!

If you’ve seen Yojimbo – and I assume and hope you have, ha ha! – you know how it goes! Willis joins up first with one gang and then the other, playing both sides against the other and appearing to be a step ahead of them all the time! But then of course he gets ahead of even himself and suffers the sort of beating that would have any actual person hospitalized for months, but which Willis weathers with only a limp and the occasional pained wince! Of course it’s not giving away much to indicate that yes, despite this punishment, by the final frames of the film he indeed is the last man of the title!

Walter Hill’s in full Peckinpah mode here, though the movie conspicuously lacks the poetry and profundity not only of Peckinpah’s best works, but of Hill’s! (I don’t call it a rip-off, though, especially because Hill knew and worked with ol’ Sam, so that gives him a certain leeway in this arena!) Whatever resonance there was to this particular story had already been wrung out of it by Kurosawa and Leone, I guess, and so when this iteration comes to an end, and as entertaining as it may be while it’s on (and given the cast and Hill’s well-honed craft, it is entertaining), the only reaction possible is a sort of shoulder shrug! I give Last Man Standing two ahh-ooga cars!

Friday 4 November 2022

Burl reviews I Walked With A Zombie! (1943)


By a gust of the tropical winds it’s Burl, here with a film I’ve long loved! Ha ha, if you’re a fan of zombie pictures you’ll know there’s no shortage of such movies which predate the one commonly thought of as the great-grandpappy of the genre, Night of the Living Dead! Of course there are plenty that came before! Naturally there’s White Zombie, and Revolt of the Zombies, and King of the Zombies, and of course Zombies of Mora-Tau! But my favourite of them all is this wonderful Val Lewton production, I Walked With A Zombie!

As is often mentioned in reviews and notices, the story cribs a little from Jane Eyre: in this version, a Canadian nurse, Betsy, played by Frances Dee from Mister Scoutmaster, is engaged to care for the wife of a Rochester-esque sugar planter on a West Indies island, as the wife has gone cataleptic! The planter, Paul Holland, is played by Tom Conway from Bride of the Gorilla, here very much in “George Sanders’s older brother” mode, and when Betsy arrives in the fictional land of San Sebastian she finds not just a cataleptic woman but a whole hotbed of family dynamics, some dynamite calypso music, and an island nation founded on the blood and sweat and tears of slaves! It’s a colonialist tale for sure, but, for the time, an uncommonly sensitive one!

Paul Holland has a younger half-brother called Wesley Rand, played by James Ellison from Sorority House, and there’s bad blood between the semi-siblings – something to do with the mute and mindless Mrs. Holland, who nightly glides around the island in her flowing white gown, a puppet of the voodoo houngans! There’s also Paul and Wesley’s mother, Mrs. Rand, who seems helpful enough, and a doctor, played by James Bell from A Lawless Street, who doesn’t believe in voodoo powers! But the locals know better, ha ha – these personages include Theresa Harris from Strange Illusion as Alma, the maid; and Sir Lancelot, who was also in Curse of the Cat People and The Ghost Ship, here performing some marvelous calypsos, through which he supplies some background on the Holland-Rand family and their tribulations!

The walk of the title is one of the picture’s highlights! Betsy takes Mrs. Holland to the voodoo hounfour in a bid to cure her, pushing through jungle and reed, past a skull and a dead pariah dog hanging from a tree, and meeting big tall Darby Jones playing the zombie guardian Carrefour! Ha ha, I love that walk! It’s beautifully photographed by J. Roy Hunt, whom I think of as the guy who shot Mighty Joe Young rather than as a master of sinister light, but here he even gives regular Lewton cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who shot The 7th Victim and whose very name conjures up velvet-black shadow) a decent run for his money!

And of course it’s all nicely directed by Jacques Tourneur, responsible also for such marvels as Lewton’s The Leopard Man and the great noir Out of the Past! The conclusion is dark and tragic, but not hopeless – it’s all a sort of tropical poem haunted by death and by the clacking of dried palm fronds, the moan of the wind, and the crash of the surf at night! It’s a picture I hold close to my heart, and I recommend it highly! I give I Walked With A Zombie three and a half carafes!