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Review of SWASHBUCKLER (1976) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Action-Adventure/Comedy
Rated PG (see below)

Pirates of the Caribbean fans who are looking toward the future and wincing at the prospect of Margot Robbie replacing Johnny Depp might find some comfort in looking backwards. I didn’t know it until I watched this all-region Blu-ray import, but the 1976 pirate movie Swashbucker was an obvious influence on Disney’s theme-park-ride-turned-film-franchise. 

The first third of Swashbucker has the same comic tone and breakneck action of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. The basic premise for the opening scene is here too:  Drums beat as a pirate is about to be hanged. But then a pirate ship comes around the corner, a pirate captain swings onto the hanging platform to rescue his second in command, and as they escape you almost expect one of them to say “You will always remember today as the day you almost caught . . . Nick Debrett, who sails with Captain Ned Lynch.”

Elements of the basic premise and structure are here, too. The kindly and fair governor of Jamaica has been deposed by an ambitious man and now is imprisoned. His daughter would have been as well, had she not fought and escaped. After that the three main characters who interact and drive the film are Jane Barnet (Genevieve Bujold), Nick Debrett (James Earl Jones), and Ned Lynch (Robert Shaw)—just as Disney’s films would depend upon the triangle of Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, and Jack Sparrow.

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Review of TURNING RED (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Animation
Rated PG

Turning Red is film that can seem uncharacteristically strident for Disney-Pixar. You’ve already heard the complaints: it deals with a young girl’s first menstruation, it “glorifies” juvenile disobedience, and the main character can be a bit much to take.

The first period criticism is way overblown, because it’s really just a mother’s assumption that briefly pops up. When Meilin “Mei” Lee is embarrassed, she does what many kids do:  she turns red. But her red is a giant version of the red panda.  It confuses her. It frightens her. She tries to hide it, especially from her over-protective and aggressive mom. That’s when Ming assumes her daughter is having her first period, but quickly learns it’s an animal transformation instead. 

So the “period” thing is nothing more than a brief blip on the radar screen. Parents worried about young children “getting an education” prematurely can relax. It’s subtle enough that the very young ones won’t even pick up on what’s happening, and those old enough to perceive what Meilin’s mother is talking about are old enough to ask their parents about it. Or maybe the parents would prefer to do things the old-fashioned American way and refrain from talking about something until it actually happens? You know, like Stephen King’s Carrie in the shower, who loses her mind thinking she’s dying?

I personally think any film that give families the chance to talk about important life changes and events is a good thing, and that includes the minutiae. In Turning Red, for example, Meilin has a crush on a boy, and that might be a conversation-starter for parents to talk to their children about crushes.

As for glorifying juvenile disobedience, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Meilin isn’t the first adolescent to sneak out of the house. I mean, even Disney’s Pollyanna did that, and her name is always equated with a goody-goody attitude.

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Flashback: Gunnar Hansen on playing Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre

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Fans of the horror genre know some of the milestones. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock, wanting to prove that a good movie could be made with a small budget, adapted the novel Psycho for the big screen, arguably creating the first slasher film. In Night of the Living Dead (1968), George Romero brought zombies into everyday American life—no longer something that existed only in Transylvania or as a curse from the past. Then, in 1972, Last House on the Left featured murderers as the horror, an inhuman human element that made it all the more shocking. But another big milestone came in 1974 when Tobe Hooper created The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That film redefined the horror genre by jumping right into the deep end of the pool and creating a sense of menace from start to finish. And who can forget Leatherface? The masked, chainsaw-wielding psychopath started a new trend in horror films. After that, we’d see a succession of masked horror villains in Michael Myers (Halloween, 1978), Jason (Friday the 13th, 1980), and Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984). The genre would never be the same.

With Dark Sky Films releasing an ultimate two-disc version of the classic 1974 film, which heavily relied on a single, hand-held camera, James Plath (then of DVD Town) talked with Hansen about his role as that memorable chainsaw horror villain, Leatherface.

Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, Hansen moved with his family to the U.S. when he was five years old. The family lived in Maine until he was 11, then moved to Texas, where Hansen completed high school and earned a degree in English and Scandinavian Studies from the University of Texas. Having participated in a few theatrical productions, Hansen heard about Tobe Hooper’s auditions and decided to try for a part. After playing the mentally disturbed killer in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—his first acting credit—he would appear in 30 more short films and features. In addition, he wrote stories and documentary scripts, among them Portrait of an Island (1990), Maine: America’s Coast (1995), and Ralph Stanley: An Eye for Wood (2015). He also wrote a memoir titled Chain Saw Confidential. Hansen died in 2015 at the age of 68.

The interview took place by phone on August 18, 2006.

Are you basking in the glow of the new release—the renewed notoriety—or have you always found yourself, because of this role, sort of notorious?

I think this movie has always remained strong because of the fan base. The great thing to me about a re-release is that the attention brings in a new fan base—people who are younger and may have heard about Chainsaw, but when Chainsaw isn’t getting a lot of attention they’re not inclined to look at it.

Jimmy Buffett once sang, “I don’t want the fame that brings confusion, where people recognize you on a plane.” You’ve certainly not had that problem

It’s been great for me.

What are people’s reactions when they find out? And how do you bring it up?

Well, it’s nice for me, because of course nobody recognizes me, and I’m pretty private. So I like the idea that it’s a separate thing. People are very surprised when they find out. Obviously, at a horror fan convention it’s different. But when I’m just on the street and I’m introduced to somebody, they’re always taken aback . . . and they really don’t know what to say. I’ve asked my friends, “PLEASE don’t tell them I was in the Chainsaw Massacre as the first thing you say about me. Surely there’s something else that’s interesting enough,” because the problem with telling them that first is that they truly don’t know what to say. They’re shocked. And I find it’s better that they find that out maybe as the second or third thing.

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Flashback: Heston, O’Brian, Hutchins and Pate talk about Westerns

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In the summer of 1996, the nationally recognized literary magazine Clockwatch Review: a journal of the arts was planning a special Western issue and mailed a series of questions to a number of actors that had appeared in Western films or television shows. Three—Charlton Heston, Will Hutchins, and Michael Pate—responded, while another, Hugh O’Brian, preferred to talk by phone during a later October 6, 1996 interview. That special issue of Clockwatch Review never left the corral, but it seemed a durned shame to waste the actors’ responses to James Plath’s questions.

Heston in The Big Country

Heston, who died in 2008, was quick to point out that he didn’t appear in many Westerns, but one of his most memorable roles was Will Penny (1968), an aging cowboy who takes a job at a large cattle spread and finds that things are changing rapidly. He also appeared in such Westerns as The Savage (1952), Arrowhead (1953), Pony Express (1953), Three Violent People (1956), The Big Country (1958), Major Dundee (1965), The Last Hard Men (1976), and The Mountain Men (1980).

The Australian-born Pate, who also died in 2008, had a film career as a character actor that spanned 40 years. He appeared in such TV series and films as Broken Arrow (1956), The Adventures of Jim Bowie (1957), Zorro (1958), Sugarfoot (1958), Westbound (1958), The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1959), Black Saddle (1959), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1959), Zane Grey Theater (1956-60), Maverick (1961), Tales of Wells Fargo (1960-61), Laramie (1960-62), Have Gun Will Travel (1957-62), The Rifleman (1958-62), Rawhide (1959-64), and Gunsmoke (1957-64). He also played Chief Puma in McLintock!, the rousing 1963 John Wayne Western, and 10 years earlier played Chief Vittorio in Hondo, which also starred Wayne.

Hutchins, still living, co-starred in two Elvis Presley films but is best known for his signature role as “Sugarfoot” Tom Brewster in a one-hour Western series that ran from 1957-61. But he also appeared in TV episodes of Maverick (1960), Cheyenne (1961), Bronco (1961), and Gunsmoke (1963), as well as the later Western films The Shooting (1966), Maverick (1994), and Gunfighter (1999). 

O’Brian, who died in 2016, was best known for playing famed Western marshal Wyatt Earp in TV’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61). He also played Earp or himself as Earp in cameos on The Danny Thomas Show (1956), Alias Jesse James (1959), The Secret World of Eddie Hodges (1960), Paradise (1989), Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (1990), The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (1991), and Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (1994). Other Westerns he appeared in include Little Big Horn (1951), Buckaroo Sheriff of Texas (1951), Cave of Outlaws (1951), The Raiders (1952), The Battle of Apache Pass (1952), The Cimarron Kid (1952), The Lawless Breed (1952), Seminole (1953),  The Man from the Alamo (1953), The Stand at Apache River (1953), Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), Saskatchewan (1954), Broken Lance (1954), Drums Across the River (1955), “Billy and the Bride” on TV’s  Stage 7 (1955), The Virginian (1962), and The Shootist (1976), John Wayne’s last film. O’Brian founded the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation, which has sponsored more than a half-million students since the nonprofit youth leadership program began in 1958.

Did you WANT to play a western hero/sidekick/villain, or did you resist?

Heston:  Of course I wanted to play in Westerns, though so far I’ve made less than a dozen.

Hutchins:  I played all three: Sugarfoot, a reluctant hero; the notorious Canary Kid, Sugarfoot’s nemesis; and Warren Oates’ sidekick in The Shooting. Loved all three.

Pate:  Of course. Didn’t every youngster in the Western world of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and the ‘60s—the decade they stopped making Westerns, real Westerns that is, with the exception perhaps of Lonesome Dove. I hated the Unforgiven, but don’t tell Clint. In those far-off, halcyon days, every young fella played cowboys and Indians—but I doubt any one of them ever wanted to be an Injun!

O’Brian as Wyatt Earp

O’Brian:  The wardrobe was a major fight, because they wanted me to wear a light-colored hat. They showed me what the hell they had laid out—they wanted me to wear the Gene Autry, Roy Rogers type clothes, the singing cowboy look—and I said, “Oh shit, forget that,” and I went and picked out what I felt Wyatt Earp wore. I looked at all the pictures and stuff and I picked out the black, flat-brimmed hat because I saw a picture that he had a similar hat and I picked it. And it was a frock coat and vest because that’s what the guy that owned the drug store wore, or the guy that owned the hardware store, or the mayor, because that was the wardrobe for a businessman. There weren’t any uniforms in those days. I mean, the only thing that came close to it was the badge.

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Flashback: Charles Dance on directing his first feature film

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Although Charles Dance has appeared in more than 150 films and television productions, he is perhaps best known to younger audiences as the ruthless patriarch Tywin Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-19).

Born in Worcestershire, England in 1946, Dance studied graphic design at art school in Leicester but eventually was drawn to acting, which led him to the Royal Shakespeare Company. His breakthrough came in 1984, when he played the part of Guy Perron in The Jewel in the Crown for Granada TV.

The Inn at the Edge of the World, which will be the second feature film that Dance has directed, is currently in pre-production. Based on the award-winning book by Alice Thomas Ellis, it’s a drama about five people who respond to an advertisement to escape Christmas and all its enforced jollity in London and retreat to an Inn of the West coast of Scotland.

Dance’s first time behind the camera came in 2004 with Ladies in Lavender, which prompted this December 15, 2005 phone interview with DVD Town’s James Plath.

Ladies in Lavender stars Judi Dench and Maggie Smith as two sisters who become enthralled with a mysterious foreigner who washes up on the beach of their 1930s Cornish seaside village. They tend to him and soon learn that he has a special talent: the violin. He awakens feelings in the sisters that they haven’t felt for years, feelings that are complicated when a vacationing Russian woman takes an interest in the man and threatens to spirit him away. Ultimately, though, his effect on people is far-reaching. Just as he touched the sisters, he brings about a transformation in the villagers, who become not just accepting of the stranger, but eventually claim him as one of their own.

I thought that Ladies in Lavender was a charming film, a beautiful film . . .

Thank you.

. . . but I couldn’t help thinking if the genders were reversed and it was two septuagenarian brothers who became enamored with a beautiful twenty-something woman they rescued from the sea, and if one of them behaved as Judi Dench did—however innocently—they would have been branded “dirty old men.” I was wondering if you were conscious of this double perceptive standard while you were writing the screenplay or directing the film.

To be honest, Jim, it didn’t occur to me. It didn’t enter my head at all, actually . . . because it’s a kind of fairy tale, the story, rather like all the other stories in this collection of short stories that I took it from. They all have a fairytale-like quality, you know, and there is a kind of innocence in fairy tales. And the feelings that go on in Judi Dench’s character are kind of many and various: they’re maternal, they’re kind of physical but not in a lecherous way, it’s love . . . you know, his presence awakens so many things in her, but the story doesn’t take it any further, and I didn’t intend to take it any further. And if the audience thinks that if he’d stayed and if perhaps the ages were a little different it might have gone further, then that’s up to the audience. But what you see is what happens, and that’s what you get. I didn’t think along the lines of “What if?”

Charles Dance

So there was no real change, then, from the original story to accommodate two older women, as opposed to the fortysomethings that were in the short story?

Well, yeah, I kind of blew the story up a fair bit and embellished it in many ways, and so there are things that happen in the film that don’t happen in the story. I changed their age . . . well, I didn’t change their age, actually. I mean, when I read the story, the only people I had in mind were Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. The fact that they are the age that they are—they’re both seventy, which is extraordinary, because they behave like 17 year olds most of the time—the age to me was kind of immaterial. However, if I’d have tried to find two women who could have been able to play those parts and would also have been as bankable, in their forties, which is the age that William J. Locke has them, and then set it in 1936, which I did, rather than the turn of the century, it would have meant that they would have been flappers in the Twenties. And if they were the age that Judi and Maggie are, they would have been too old to have been flappers. That time would have come earlier for them.

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Review of LICORICE PIZZA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Comedy-Drama
Rated R

Sometimes hype can be the kiss of death. It was for me, as far as Licorice Pizza was concerned. All the way through this self-consciously quirky film from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), I kept getting wannabe Almost Famous vibes but found myself thinking, when is this going to end?

That’s not the reaction I expected, given that the coming-of-age film Licorice Pizza, even at a sprawling 133 minutes, was the darling of the 2022 awards season. It earned Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay and won Best Screenplay at the BAFTAs. Licorice Pizza was also touted as the first MGM picture produced and distributed since Rain Man to earn a BP Oscar nod. Smaller film critics associations loved it too, but I kept wondering if maybe that was proof of how starved everyone has been for another small pebble to make a big splash, as Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, and Juno did.

I didn’t find myself as engaged by the characters or their situation as I wanted to be, and the quirkiness level was ramped up so high that it all felt absolutely contrived. As for the plot, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and Juno all had strong narrative trajectories, by comparison. Licorice Pizza felt meandering, but not in a way that seemed terribly organic. Small annoyances kept popping up, like why was one character arrested but then quickly released? Why was one character’s world so random? And why wasn’t the developing “love” more perceptible in its development?

Ninety-one percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics loved the film, as did critics on the aggregate site Metacritic, which scored it a 90 out of 100. In other words, just about every critic out there says I’m wrong. If I am, so is the rest of my family, who also wanted more than the quirkiness Licorice Pizza had to offer. More humor, maybe. Or more believable attraction. Or a plot that seemed less aimless. Or a more tightly edited story.

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Review of UNCHARTED (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13

I’m a big fan of the Indiana Jones and National Treasure movies, so I wanted Uncharted and its treasure hunt to have the same energy level and quality.

But it doesn’t. The writing isn’t as crisp, the plotting isn’t as complex-yet-understandable, and the whole film tonally just doesn’t feel as if the writers could agree on the level of tongue-in-cheekiness vs. serious adventure vs. video game style. Then there’s this nagging feeling that the stars aren’t having as much fun as they should be, all things considered. Tom Holland is engaging. Mark Wahlberg is engaging. But they feel separately engaging, and not consistently so.

When it hit theaters in 2022, Uncharted quickly became the fourth highest grossing film of 2022—which, given the mixed reviews, pretty much hints at how badly fans wanted to like this film in spite of what critics may have been saying.

I mean, when you cast Holland fresh off his latest Spider-Man success and pair his built-in naiveté and nice-guy affability with someone like Wahlberg and the world-weary cynicism he seems to drag behind him like a bag of complaints, you’d think something more fun would happen—or at least more than what the film provides.

You almost feel like the film is in trouble in the early going when the attempt to establish a backstory for Nate (Holland) feels a bit clumsy and confusing. So how is it that orphans Nate and brother Sam are somehow accomplished enough to try to steal a map from a Boston museum and can come and go as they please? And why, when the orphanage kicks Sam out and he leaves through a window, doesn’t brother Nate go with him if they’re legitimately a treasure-hunting team with that kind of capability? Whether Sam is using or protecting his brother, the sequence felt rushed and paint-by-numbers.

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Review of FLOWER DRUM SONG (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Musical
Not rated (would be PG)

I am not Asian or Asian American, so I’m not in a position to comment on what has lately been called “outdated cultural stereotypes” or “depictions.” But I can spot a song in this overlooked Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that feels more like it came out of South Pacific than San Francisco’s Chinatown, where this film version of the Broadway play is set. And I can look up who’s singing and see that, surprise, it’s the same woman who played Pacific Islander Bloody Mary in that earlier R&H musical. And that actress was of African and Irish American descent—not Asian American. 

Hollywood has a history of casting white. Marlon Brando as Japanese? That’s what audiences were supposed to believe when he played one of the leads in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). From 1957-58, TV’s The New Adventures of Charlie Chan featured Irish American actor J. Carrol Naish as the Chinese American detective. Of the 12 billed actors in The World of Suzy Wong (1960), only five in that “world” were Asian. In 1965, a remake of Genghis Khan replaced the laughably cast John Wayne from an earlier film with Omar Sharif in the title role—but Sharif was Egyptian. Even as late as 1980, British actor Peter Sellers starred as Fu Manchu in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). All of which is to say, Hollywood may have experienced a come-to-Jesus revelation when it came to casting whites as Native or African Americans, but they have been much slower to do so with Asian roles.

So it must have come as a pleasant shock to audiences that Flower Drum Song (1961), apart from Juanita “Bloody Mary” Hall, featured all Asian actors in the main roles—especially since that same year Breakfast at Tiffany’s presented Mickey Rooney as a buck-toothed nearsighted Asian caricature worthy of a WWII propaganda film. Also to its credit, Flower Drum Song was based on a novel by Chinese American C.Y. Lee. But while the film gets one thing right—telling an Asian American story from an Asian American perspective and using mostly Asian American actors—it lapses into the kind of flat characterizations that tend to accompany any attempt at humor. Often, unfortunately, that translates into outdated cultural stereotypes. Veteran character actor Benson Fong, who was forced into that straitjacket when he played Charlie Chan’s “Number 1 son,” is called upon for such service. And an outdated and corny routine featuring the children ends up in a See, hear, speak no evil pose.

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Flashback: Irene Bedard on giving voice to Disney’s Pocahontas

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The daughter of an Inupiat Eskimo mother and a French Canadian/Cree father, Irene Bedard was born in Anchorage, Alaska. Like most children, she grew up watching films and thinking how especially wonderful Disney movies were. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, her first role as an actress came with Disney’s Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (1994), and she went on to give voice to Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) and a sequel (1998).

Since then, Bedard has appeared in roughly 70 feature films, shorts, TV movies, and mini-series, including Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994), Smoke Signals (a 1998 film based on a short story from Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), Navajo Blues (1998), The New World (2005), Into the West (2005), and The Stand (22020-21). The multi-talented Bedard also sings in a band with husband Denny Wilson. As an activist, Bedard helped to found Guardians of Sacred Lands, which is devoted to educating the public about sacred lands and other Native issues.

In 2005 Disney released a 10th Anniversary Edition of Pocahontas, the story of an adolescent Algonquin Indian girl who saved the life of Capt. John Smith near Jamestown. This interview was conducted by James Plath in May 2005 and originally posted at the now-defunct DVD Town.

I understand congratulations are in order. You landed a part in Steven Spielberg’s big TV series?

I play Margaret Light Shines Wheeler in the story of a Lakota family and an Anglo family over a period of about 70 years, and it’s been a real great part. I just finished two days ago.

Were movies a part of your life when you were growing up, or did you come to them late?

I was really shy growing up, and movies for me were a really wonderful way for me to sort of be a part of the world in a different way than I was quite able to do at the time.

And did any movies leave a lasting impression on you when you were going through that phase?

For me, I always loved the science fiction stuff—you know, the E.T., the Close Encounters of the Third Kind, (laughs) all those really great ones—and for me, also, growing up with all the Disney stuff and Bugs Bunny and those things. They were a part of American history, by this point.

So it must have been a thrill to be a part of something like Pocahontas.

Oh, yeah, definitely, and it’s something that I’m really proud to be a part of.

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Flashback: Fess Parker on playing Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone

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Before his first appearance on television, December 15, 1954, Davy Crockett was a folkloric character of the Johnny Appleseed variety—known, but hardly famous. But after “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter” aired, followed by “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress,” “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race,” and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates,” there wasn’t an American young or old who hadn’t heard of the Tennessee pioneer and his trademark coonskin cap. The TV episodes, though shot in color (Disney was a visionary), aired in black-and-white because of TV’s limitations, but later were edited into two color feature films that played in theaters:  Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.

Actor Fess Parker became a household name and Crockett mania turned into a marketing bonanza estimated at $300 million. Just about every youngster in America sported a coonskin cap. Later, the craze would be analyzed in dissertations, because, as Margaret J. King pointed out in her 1976 study at the University of Hawaii, it demonstrated the power of a medium still in its infancy to shape generational behavior and values.

Although sidekick Buddy Ebsen went on to play Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies and private investigator Barnaby Jones, Parker, under contract for longer and defined by the frontiersman role, continued to work in the Disney “stable” and Western mode. He appeared in such films as Westward Ho! the Wagons (1956),  The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), and Old Yeller (1957). Between 1964-70, Parker donned the buckskins again to play Daniel Boone in the highly successful NBC series.

At the time this interview was conducted (June 28, 1995), Parker was busy putting his coonskin cap on wine labels—the logo for Fess Parker Winery vintages. Tourists who visited his winery in the gently sloping terrain of Santa Barbara County hoped for a glimpse of every baby-boomer’s hero, or better still, a snapshot and an autograph. Graciously, the man who will always be known as the King of the Wild Frontier, obliged.

This interview, conducted by phone on June 28, 1995, was first published online by the now defunct DVD Town in 2004. Asking the questions was James Plath, who had hoped to include the interview in a special Western issue of his award-winning journal of the arts, Clockwatch Review.

What was it that made Davy Crockett as Disney and you portrayed him so popular?

Well, first of all, Walt Disney was an icon.  Disney certainly had people who thought that some of his animations were a little too adult for children, but in general he was considered a beloved figure.  And when he decided to do television, I don’t think it mattered what Walt Disney was going to put on.  He would have drawn an audience. 

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