A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: May, 2014

“The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon” (1998)

"The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon" poster


Man, did Disney have money to burn back in the day. While it seems that the studio’s every film nowadays is in some way an exercise in brand management, its live-action output was a free-for-all of throwaway comedies just a few decades ago. Today’s bean counters wouldn’t give a dime to the likes of Gus, Snowball Express, The Gnome-mobile, or any of the other movies that were greenlit as the House of Mouse’s animation department fell out of favor with the public. But the ’90s saw a resurgence of such titles in the form of the “Wonderful World of Disney” programming block that aired on ABC. It was out of this line — one that gave us Bruce Campbell in a reboot of The Love Bug and cast Kirstie Alley as a tooth fairy long before The Rock underwent the same punishment — that The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon (that’s the movie’s poor punctuation use, not mine) somehow wormed its way into existence. But while I wish I could stand here and say that the film itself is as ridiculous as its attention-flagging title, it’s actually pretty mundane stuff, just another insanely-predictable sports comedy that still manages to work in a touch more genuine charm than its bigger-budgeted counterparts.

Barney Gorman (Tony Danza) is a schlub’s schlub. He gets up at the crack of dawn every morning to spend the day picking up Philadelphia’s trash as your friendly neighborhood garbage man. He’s got a good life, although his occupation is a source of embarrassment to his son Danny (Gil Filar), who goes so far as to keep his school’s Career Day a secret so his dad won’t come. But one day, a chance encounter at the local dump proceeds to change Barney’s life in the most unexpected way. Years of kicking a broken lever on his truck has strengthened Barney’s leg to the point that he can punt just about anything a long distance away. His talents catch the eye of the Philadelphia Eagles’ new owner (Ray Wise), who signs him on as a publicity stunt in order to raise ticket sales. Despite the misgivings of his teammates and his gruff coach (Art LaFleur), Barney becomes a surprising asset, training hard and helping the lead the Eagles to victory after victory. But both Barney’s fame and his ego proceed to swell with each game, causing him to lose sight of what he holds most dear: his family.

Within five minutes of pressing play on Phenomenon (the name I’ll be using from now on, since TGPFGKPP is an acronym as unwieldy as the actual title), I had the whole thing mapped out. Every joke and every subplot sprung to mind, the product of ages spent watching ten dozen other movies exactly like this one. Combined with the low-rent quality of filmmaking at work (which convinces you not once that Danza is ever standing on a legit football field), I thought I was in for a world of hurt with Phenomenon. But surprisingly, while the story does play out approximately 98 percent like how I thought it would, the flick ends up exuding more likability than one could anticipate. It’s formulaic as hell, yes, but it’s a formula that Disney has been working with for years, a tale about the little guy making it big that’s been told in everything from widespread theatrical releases like Invincible and The Rookie to small-scale stuff like this. Although Phenomenon hits all the familiar notes, that it doesn’t make a big deal out of them or try to force the drama actually works in its favor. It’s a very relaxed flick that eases you through each clichéd crisis it queues up; if a conflict that feels all too overdone emerges, the movie at the very least reassures you that it won’t be dwelled upon for very long.

Besides, if you’re going to make a film centered around an aw-shucks, working-class schmoe, hiring Tony Danza is just about the best move you could possibly make. There’s not much to say other than that the guy wastes no time in winning you over, getting by for quite a while on flustered smiles and nervous laughs alone. So likable is Danza that even when the time comes for Phenomenon to turn Barney into a jerk, you still root for the lug, since you’ve long since bought him as a dude who only wants what’s best for his family but is just dim enough to be easily led astray. That being said, part of me did wish that the humor and plotting — as good-natured as they are — had aspired beyond the pedestrian level at which they stubbornly remain. The most shocking plot development is that Wise’s character doesn’t have a scheme to ruin the team, as is the usual case in flicks like this. But there isn’t the mildest hint of suspense as to whether or not Barney will stop being a douche, patch things up with his family, and earn the respect of his fellow players. The story is a slave to predictability, and the sitcommy jokes and unexciting football action don’t make the process any less routine.

Sorry, future Nostalgia Critics of the world, but The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon is just too harmless to dissect for laughs. Its worst crime is rehashing a premise that Hollywood’s not about to loosen its claws on anytime soon, which isn’t to say there’s absolutely nothing about it one can find amusing. Phenomenon is a perfectly amiable distraction, a little on the conventional side (okay, a lot on the conventional side) but without a condescending bone in its body.

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (1973)

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" poster


Legends have been told of the made-for-TV fright flicks that inspired many a pair of soiled undies, but I must’ve been tuned into the wrong stations. From my experience, the number of truly scary television terrors has been drastically overstated, with the majority of the pool consisting of over-indulgent miniseries and shorter features whose surplus of padding made them feel four hours long anyway. 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has always been mentioned among the cream of this subgenre’s crop, freaking out the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth creator Guillermo del Toro so much that he even spearheaded a big-screen remake in 2011. But while the film attempts turning its inability to show much graphic content into a strength rather than fall victim to it, the atmosphere ends up almost completely unraveled by the end. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark only lasts for an hour and change, but its lack of a constructive plot makes justifying even that brief of a running time a pretty tall order.

All that Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) wanted was a fresh start. Despite her husband Alex (Jim Hutton) wanting to remain in the city, she’s finally convinced him to move into the big old mansion she just inherited from her dearly departed granny. Sally is eager to fix up the place and make it look good as new…unaware that something sinister is keeping a close watch on her. Deep in the bowels of the basement, a fireplace has been sealed up with bricks, bolts, and steel, with the local handyman (William Demarest) refusing to say why. Sally’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she pries off an opening, only to regret her actions in the coming days. Futzing with the fireplace has freed a pack of small creatures, diabolical little devils who quickly go to work terrorizing Sally. Because the monsters can work their malicious magic and retreat from sight in a flash, Sally can’t get anyone to believe her, and with each attack chipping away at more of her will, it’s only a matter of time until the diminutive demons claim her for their own purposes.

Had I been of age when Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark first aired, there’s little doubt that I would’ve adopted at least a couple mental scars by the second commercial break. Its scares are low-key in a good way, using as their basis small-scale events that would give anyone the jitters when the lights are dimmed. Tiny whispers of voices echo in the night, items are knocked over by unseen forces, and some thing skitters about under cover of blackness. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark keeps its frights on a relatable level, and even as it introduces more elements of the fantastic as it continues, the threats benefit from being shrouded in mystery. Sure, the magic is ruined a bit once you get a good look at the creatures, whose inconsistent heights (which make them as large as a garbage bin but tiny enough to be dwarfed by books at the same time) do become the subject of some irritation. But as for what exactly these things are, where they come from, and why they’re so fixated on Sally is anyone’s guess. What’s important is how well director John Newland plays off of our childhood fears of boogeymen coming to get us, letting our brains fill in the blanks of what horrors could await our protagonists within their own home.

Unfortunately, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark‘s knack for spinning its narrative wheels ensures that most of this creepy good will has vanished by film’s end. There’s just not much to this movie other than having Sally cower in fear of the creatures, and…that’s it. She’s not the most resourceful heroine in horror history, spending most of the running time shrieking, shivering, and taking whatever psychological punishment the monsters can dish out. Some have stated that this is part of an underlying commentary on anti-feminism, criticizing Sally for being oblivious to her own strengths and letting everyone else take care of her, but that seems like a stretch at best. In any case, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ends up defining Sally almost entirely as a victim, and while we sympathize with her ordeal to a point, she simply doesn’t possess enough personality to care about her to the end. As a result, the flick’s later scare tactics end up falling flat, and because Sally commands so much of the focus, there’s not much room for supporting players to come in and shake things up (although Demarest pitches in a good performance as the film’s resident doomsayer).

For every Dark Night of the Scarecrow that takes viewers on a deliberately-paced journey into suspense, there are a dozen Don’t Be Afraid of the Darks that are stuck wandering in circles. I can’t say that there’s no tension here whatsoever, but thanks to a go-nowhere plot and an ineffectual heroine whom we pity more than we cheer on, much of it goes to waste. While it tries what it can with the few resources at its disposal, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has long since lost its ability to make people hurl their Swanson dinners in the air out of shock.

(Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Big Bad Wolves” (2013)

"Big Bad Wolves" poster


Even though Adam Sandler offers compelling evidence to the contrary year after year, I like to think that every movie has a chance of being good. Seeing a film overcome miscast actors or a terrible premise to rock my socks off is one of the pleasures that makes being a certified cinema junkie worth it. If something like Israel’s Big Bad Wolves wants to wrest gallows humor out of a subject that would be the ultimate nightmare fuel for any parent, I’m all for giving it a shot. But when something of such high ambitions ends up failing, it usually does so in spectacular and painful fashion, as is the very case here. Because it’s not confident enough in one area to be able to organically bring the other into it, Big Bad Wolves never clicks as a gritty revenge thriller or as a dark comedy. Instead, the film whips you back and forth between the two at a breakneck velocity, juxtaposing the harrowing and the silly in a manner that leaves the viewer in a greater sense of confusion than fulfillment.

Our story kicks off with a most heinous act: the abduction of a little girl. Micki (Lior Ashkenazi), a Cop Who Doesn’t Play by the Rules, instantly suspects meek schoolteacher Dror (Rotem Keinan) of the crime and sets about clobbering a confession out of him. His superiors seem to think that stuff like procedure and the law are important, so after the beating ends up being broadcast over the internet, Micki is dropped from the case. But when the girl’s headless body is discovered, he becomes more obsessed than ever, tailing Dror on his own time before moving into kidnap him… or at least that’s the plan. As it turns out, the child’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), is on Dror’s trail too and decides to haul the both of them to a house in the middle of nowhere. There, Gidi straps the object of his obsession into a chair, intent on torturing him until he gives up the location of his daughter’s remains — while not even giving a second thought to the idea that Dror may be innocent.

Setting aside its massive tonal issues for the moment, Big Bad Wolves has trouble as it is just getting its story off the ground. From the start, we’re pretty damn lost, as the audience is not made privy to the circumstances under which Dror becomes the police force’s prime suspect. Is he a notorious creep? Is he a misunderstood social outcast? None of this is revealed, and while I can understand the need to keep things vague with a plot like this, we don’t get nearly as much background info to go on as we should. This especially becomes a nuisance when writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado attempt to make a mystery out of whether or not Dror really is a sicko, while simultaneously casting as depraved of a light as possible upon him. He just barely professes his innocence and remains remarkably blasé under threat of torture, none of which help out when the filmmakers want to keep you guessing. No matter where you turn, the sense of misdirection is shot; if he’s a villain, then these are some pretty weak mind games he’s playing, and if he’s innocent, they made it too obvious by stacking the deck so much against him. Any payoff is sure to disappoint, with all pretense shattered the first moment you witness a scene and get the sinking feeling that the creators patted themselves on the back for being so novel instead of ensuring it made sense.

But the most glaring issue with Big Bad Wolves is its attitude. Despite the very disturbing subject matter, the film tries introducing a darkly humorous edge to the proceedings, which is fine. But in this movie’s case, “darkly humorous” translates to underscoring scenes of Gidi confronting a man who may or may not have done unspeakable things to his child with wacky incidental music more akin to a Meg Ryan romcom. Moments wherein brutal torture sessions (which are quite convincingly staged) become interrupted by pushy parents or for some other stupid reason run rampant here and constantly ruin the mood. It’s almost impossible to snicker at the humor because of how ghastly the events in the background are, and it’s hard to stay on the edge of your seat when a sitcommy joke is waiting to shove you off again. What a miracle it is, then, that even though they spend the bulk of the film fighting against the screenplay to create more complex characters for themselves, our three main actors give damn good performances. Ashkenazi is solid as the renegade cop who’s more of a softie than he thinks, Grad is absolutely stone-cold as the vengeful father, and Keinan walks away as the flick’s MVP, sowing doubt as to what Dror’s true colors are to the best of his abilities.

Even with its messy staging, Big Bad Wolves has occasions on which it does get its desired effect. Some lines are as funny as they’re written to be, and certain suspenseful sequences are executed in a truly nail-biting fashion. But while several have grown fond of Big Bad Wolves and its bite (including Quentin Tarantino, who declared it 2013’s best film), it’s likely to inspire as much praise out of viewers as it will exasperated fits.

“The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” (1939)

"The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" poster


Maybe it’s because I hadn’t the faintest clue who its subjects were before giving it a whirl, but The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle struck me as much less rigid than biopics traditionally feel. How often have we seen a famous person’s life and times relegated to a checklist of their most well-known accomplishments or coated with so much enhanced melodrama, it’s difficult believing that any such events took place, even if they really did? But although it carries an air of fantasy, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle still feels more genuine and affectionately-made than those flicks with more interest in racking up awards cred than in bringing history to life. It’s a swoony sweetheart of a film that treats its characters as people rather than dramatic pawns, with the sense of respect and fuzzy feeling that its execution leaves you with allowing it to get away with what one assumes are its fair share of liberties taken at the expense of true events.

He’s a vaudeville comic. She’s a rich daddy’s girl. When a seaside trip causes them to cross paths in 1911, Vernon Castle (Fred Astaire) and Irene Foote (Ginger Rogers) find that their personalities couldn’t clash more. They’re almost instantly critical of one another, with Irene looking down her nose at how Vernon wastes his natural gifts as a dancer in lowbrow slapstick, while he sees her as nothing but a spoiled brat who isn’t as talented as she thinks she is. The two are stubborn, petty, pig-headed — and absolutely perfect for one another. Following a courtship with enough bickering to make the Kramdens beam with pride, Vernon and Irene marry, determined to break away from vaudeville and make a name for themselves as a dancing team. The newlyweds face hard times on the road to establishing their act, until fortune smiles on them in the biggest way in Gay Paree. Almost overnight, the Castles become international sensations, yet while their fancy footwork entertains countless crowds all over the world, the chance to live a normal, loving life together remains their greatest desire.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle chronicles the end of an era not only for its subjects but for the actors portraying them, as well. It wasn’t the last time that Astaire and Rogers would collaborate on film (that’d be 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway), but it did mark their final partnership with RKO, the studio that made them the silver screen’s premier toe-tappers in the 1930s. The movie was also the only one out of the lot that wasn’t a frothy comedy in which the plot was an excuse to get from one dance number to the next, but rather a biographical piece, one that saw Fred and Ginger playing a couple whose moves took America by storm twenty years before they did the same thing. Knowing of their relationship on- and off-camera gives The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle an added poignancy, as you can undoubtedly see a little bit of them in their characters as they butt heads, kiss, and make up. That the film so smoothly integrates the drama with the song and dance that fans came to see is a real blessing, allowing Astaire and Rogers to not only display the craft that made them famous but to also truly come into their own as actors. It may have taken them until their penultimate pairing, but Fred and Ginger finally got a script that gave them well-rounded roles to fill, as well as occasion to cut a rug across the screen with their trademarked grace.

The very picture of sincerity, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle easily wins over audiences without the need to be cloying or contrived. Sure, even with Irene onboard as a technical advisor, I’m sure the film took license with the actual turn of events quite often (not the least of which included substituting the Castles’ faithful black manservant with Walter Brennan, who’s close to overdosing on quirky a lot here). But its heart is in the right place, and save for maybe one tune crooned out of the blue, the picture doesn’t do much to strain its credibility. It’s not a downbeat production, nor is it an overly fanciful affair; it strikes a delicate balance between the two, aiming to please while employing as little saccharine as possible. The story’s focus is always on Vernon and Irene’s romance, blazing through their rise to fame in a single montage just so it can sooner address how incidents like Vernon’s eagerness to enlist in World War I affect their relationship. Both Astaire and Rogers do a marvelous job of playing their characters as strong-willed yet vulnerable, and while they unquestionably dominate the flick, supporting actors like Edna May Oliver (as the agent who catapults the Castles to stardom) work hard to make an impression all their own.

Though something of a commercial disappointment upon its release, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle remains what’s very likely the most personal addition to the Astaire/Rogers catalogue. The film evokes the whimsical high one gets by popping in one of their musical delights, while including the added bonus of a lovingly-crafted plot and set of protagonists. Though The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle often feels lighter than air, its sentimental nature is anything but frivolous.

“The Hideaways” (1973)

"The Hideaways" poster


The movies have been good to me, but they’ve never provided the kind of solace that the library has. Some of my earliest memories involve loading up on dozens of books with those amazing hand-drawn covers, hauling them home, and surprising my disbelieving parents by finishing them all off in a couple weeks’ time. But one tome that I never picked up but remember being around was E.L. Konigsburg’s much-admired “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” It’s strange that I never got around to it, since its story of two kids in search of an adventure to make their lives a little more special would’ve been right up my pre-pubescent alley. But while I’ve no doubt that I would’ve devoured Konigsburg’s book back in the day, it’s a different time now, long past the point at which my tolerance for overly-precocious children was at its zenith. Thus, it comes to pass that 1973’s The Hideaways — the first time “Frankweiler” was brought to the screen — doesn’t carry the charm that it might have before, coming across as a pale and uneventful recitation of what could’ve been a neat little story.

Claudia Kincaid (Sally Prager) feels like she’s getting a bum deal. Although she’s a bright grade-schooler who gets good marks, her folks (Richard Mulligan and Georgann Johnson) always seem to poo-poo her fantasies about King Arthur and hoist upon her an endless succession of chores (yeah, life’s a real bitch, ain’t it?). But Claudia has had enough of emptying wastebaskets, deciding to run away from home on an adventure, with her little brother Jamie (Johnny Doran) in tow. However, they’re not tearing off to just anywhere, for Claudia has in mind the perfect hiding spot: New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Kincaid siblings quickly make themselves at home, sleeping in old exhibits, hitting up free food samples at Macy’s, and taking baths in the water fountain. Then one day, Claudia becomes fascinated with the museum’s latest acquisition, an angel statue said to have been created by Michelangelo himself. Excited at the prospect of a mystery to be solved, the kids decide to authenticate the piece themselves, with their ensuing investigation leading them to its original owner: a rich, old recluse named Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Ingrid Bergman).

Say what you will about going easy on young performers, but one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is kids acting like adults. While I know that children who are wise beyond their years do exist in the real world, nothing takes me out of a movie faster than when such a character ceases to embody the simple truths that grown-ups so often forget and starts serving as a mouthpiece for what nuggets of wisdom the writer thought looked good on paper. It wasn’t long after Claudia started speaking that I knew I was in trouble with The Hideaways, which is more of a criticism of the script than of Prager herself. Both she and Doran give fine performances for their ages, but the film itself never succeeds in selling the stilted and contrived dialogue with which each is stuck. On the one hand, the point of The Hideaways is ultimately to pull the rug out from under Claudia, to show that no matter how much proper diction she tries to enforce upon her brother or how wise to the ways of the world she thinks she might be, she’s still a kid with a lot to learn. But the film so seldom glimpses at the humanity behind her bossy and self-important behavior, she really does spend most of her time feeling like a brat putting her folks through grief for no good reason.

Also, there’s the simple fact that The Hideaways is a picture in which very few events of interest actually take place. Being directed at children and set primarily in a museum with no Ben Stiller or supernaturally-enhanced exhibits in sight, I didn’t expect the story to thrust the Kincaids into peril at every turn. That said, a movie whose protagonists only occasionally take time away from gazing at artwork to sidestep a guard or two could’ve easily made room for a little more conflict. Aside from a fun little cameo by Madeline Kahn as a tour guide Jamie snarks off to, the flick is ill-prepared to give the children stuff to do once they get to the museum. The statue mystery doesn’t arise until pretty late in the game (and with no reason for Claudia to become so invested in it, other than she just is), with Mrs. Frankweiler showing up even further into the third act. Bergman puts on a good performance (one of her last, to boot), but the story tries to pretend she’s this figure dominating the proceedings, when she’s really more thrown in as an afterthought.

I couldn’t tell you how well The Hideaways represents Konigsburg’s original book, but in spite of all my curmudgeonly griping, the movie will do kids absolutely zero harm. While there’s not much to it, I can see some impressionable youngsters popping it in and being inspired to take an interest in the arts or tap into their own creativity to bring some specialness into their lives. That’s the best one can hope for out of The Hideaways, a film that, even considering all its good intentions, is still a whole lot of boring.

(The Hideaways is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Grand Piano” (2013)

"Grand Piano" poster


My cinematic weaknesses are many. Should any film happen to boast con artists, found footage, or Kat Dennings, chances are that their pockets will be lined with my dollars sooner than later. I’m also a bona fide sucker for gimmicky thrillers, flicks that write themselves narrative obstacles around which they’re forced to direct a steady stream of suspense. Single-setting movies like Buried or Phone Booth pique my interest in a big way, and while I’ve been burned before (it’s you I’m shooting the stink eye at, ATM), I’m always up for seeing how they overcome the challenges of making a crackerjack picture under such restricted conditions. Going into Grand Piano, I’d heard that it was one of the better titles in recent years to employ this style, reports that I’m relieved to confirm are true indeed. Tightly-paced and constantly on edge in one way or another, Grand Piano goes beyond just having a novel premise to deliver a gripping and very satisfying experience.

Few can claim to have experience the sort of stage fright that gifted pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is about to. Five years have passed since Tom last performed publicly, having flamed out by botching a difficult piece composed by his mentor. But with the encouragement of his actress wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), he’s taking to the stage one more time, to play in a concert dedicated to his dearly departed teacher. However, more is at stake than his public image this time around. Soon after the show begins, Tom is notified by a disembodied voice (John Cusack) who claims that he has a sniper rifle trained on him, which he plans to fire if a single wrong note is struck. With no way to call for help without endangering Emma’s life, Tom is forced to continue, completely at the mercy of a madman he can’t see. But when the shooter’s scheme involves confronting him with the composition that stymied him all those years ago, will Tom be up to the task of pulling it off and making it out of his ordeal alive?

When you have a premise like the one at Grand Piano‘s core, the temptation to overcomplicate things is tough to resist. A filmmaker imagines viewers growing restless with the simplicity at work and wants to give them more bang for their buck with an elaborate payoff, only for the story’s entire conceit to unravel and become too ludicrous to hold up. But the genius behind Grand Piano lies with how it sticks to its guns, how it keeps its proceedings relatively grounded and refuses to pile on twist after inane twist to bestow upon itself the illusion of bigness. On the one hand, yeah, that means providing pretty stock answers to the mystery behind who the bad guy of the day is and why he’s targeting Tom, all of which inspire nitpicks to sprout up from the woodwork if they’re paid the slightest bit of mind. But it’s nothing that causes the tension that director Eugenio Mira spends the movie establishing and heightening scene by scene to go up in smoke, nor does it bring to the forefront any moments where it’s obvious that the plot is just stalling for time.

Not counting the ending credits, Grand Piano falls short of the 80-minute mark, which feels like a good, snug fit. It introduces the principal players, gives us just enough background info to feel a little extra something for the characters, and comes to a close right before whatever plot holes we might have spotted dominate our minds. The film also isn’t presented as stiffly as you might think, with the camera often leaving Tom at his piano to roam around the concert hall, which bodes well for the thrill factor when other parties get involved with the situation without his knowledge. Mira simply does a terrific job of preserving the anticipation of seeing how Tom gets out of this one with expedience and without obliterating our suspension of disbelief. Wood gives us a rock-solid turn as our hero, nailing the character’s insecure nature before he even steps foot onstage but convincing us that he can keep his act together under the ultimate pressure. Cusack serves as a fine foil, with his no-nonsense voice chipping away at Tom’s self-esteem (although, as with Kiefer Sutherland in Phone Booth, his presence would’ve benefitted greatly had the marketing campaign kept it secret).

Grand Piano is likely to win over more fans than a tougher sell like the underappreciated Buried. It’s a film that doesn’t mince words, one that doesn’t pad out its running time with characters talking in circles and hardly has a minute to its name that doesn’t feel constructive. Grand Piano doesn’t last terribly long, but in the moment, it makes sure that your seat’s edge is occupied comfortably.

“Hit the Deck” (1955)

"Hit the Deck" poster


During the ’40s and ’50s, a radical notion was introduced into the American musical. Someone got the bright idea that song and story — largely considered two separate entities within a show — just might work in tandem, each serving as an extension of the other. It was a move that changed the genre and brought upon some of the most bold artistic achievements it would ever produce…it’s too bad that 1955’s Hit the Deck didn’t get the memo. With the bulk of its soundtrack having not a damn thing to do with what’s happening on the screen, it’s no stretch to rank this among the frothiest of cinematic musicals, which is just fine; even the greats like Astaire and Rogers had to hoof it on air many a time in their careers. Though it may two-step along with a flimsy narrative for a bit on the long side, Hit the Deck isn’t without good times to share, with its lively tunes and eye-grabbing visuals making it an ideal choice for the Warner Archive Collection’s growing Blu-ray catalogue.

In the tradition of maritime musicals like Follow the Fleet and On the Town, our story concerns three sailors who want to be anywhere but in the service. But after having a heck of a time wrangling themselves some shore loves, Bilge (Tony Martin), Danny (Russ Tamblyn), and Rico (Vic Damone) finally get themselves two days to hit the city and live it up as fast as they can. Unfortunately, as soon as they set foot off the boat, these gobs proceed to get themselves wrapped up in troubles of the romantic kind. Bilge rushes to his dancer girlfriend Ginger (Ann Miller), only to find her fed up with having waited six years for a marriage proposal that never came. At the same time, Danny begins courting stage actress Carol (Debbie Reynolds), while Rico falls for Danny’s big sister Susan (Jane Powell) after rescuing her from a lothario’s arms. An impromptu brawl sends all three boys on the run from the shore patrol, leaving them with only a few hours to sort out their love lives and avoid the law before the Navy calls them back.

I won’t begrudge Hit the Deck‘s desires to put on a good show for its audience. With a string of up-and-at-’em anthems to its name (including its signature song, “Hallelujah!”), the movie’s optimism and energy are hard to deny. It’s a spirit-raiser in the oldest tradition, with director Roy Rowland (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) seeming to have pulled out all the stops to make sure that viewers are kept entertained. The songs are belted out as passionately as they can be, the legendary Hermes Pan’s choreography nicely complements the soundtrack, and the production design exhibits a poppy nature that skews sentimental over tacky. No matter what, Hit the Deck at least looks like a million bucks, aiming to give folks their money’s worth through their eyes alone. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes, in which Reynolds and Tamblyn cavort about a carnival’s house of horrors, doesn’t even feature any singing at all, yet it’s a pleasure enough just to see each actor bounce, bound, and flip all over the place.

But while you can argue that Hit the Deck is a bubbly little musical that never harmed anyone, it’s still a whole lot of nothing with whom we have to spend nearly two hours. All we get to string our interest along for the running time are the romantic antics of its three leading men, all of whose situations have conclusions to foregone for us to care about what happens. Everyone’s guaranteed to make it out alright from the word go, and the film doesn’t even pretend to disguise it, from what little suspense and how few trials the characters experience en route to their happily ever afters. Not even the flick’s closest thing to a bad guy (that being a philandering actor played by Gene Raymond) carries very much wait, amounting to just more busywork for the story to sift through as it stalls for time. Everyone in the cast has appeal out the wazoo, but outside of dancing, telling hokey jokes, and playing the occasional broad ethnic stereotype, none of them have a whole lot to do. They all just smile, do their jobs, and hope the audience has enough collective patience to last them to the final curtain.

Though saying it makes even a fleeting impression is doing it a kindness, I don’t have anything against Hit the Deck. There’s not much to it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to have a grand old time, which the terrific tunes, charismatic characters, and dynamic dance moves work hard to make happen. Hit the Deck amounts to little beyond a couple of hours killed, but there’s enough fun here to convince you not to give up the ship so soon after setting sail.

(Hit the Deck is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Mr. Nice Guy” (1997)

"Mr. Nice Guy" poster


Jackie Chan’s movies are among the few that really are as awesome as your friends describe them. It’s an absolute pleasure to see the man in action, bounding across the screen with such fluidity and using physicality that extends beyond mere right hooks to take down goons. If you catch just one of Chan’s incredible stunts, you’ll know instantly what rightfully sent your buddies into “Dude, you have to see this!” mode. Even the most generic of action projects have benefitted greatly from his presence, as was the case with the mid-’90s romp Mr. Nice Guy. If anyone else was the star here, it would be a low point in their careers, with its stock bad guys and hokey, almost nonexistent plotting. But plunk down Chan into this, and the whole joint lights up, ultimately delivering a cheesy but highly entertaining festival of flying fists and feet.

Chan stars as a celebrity named Jackie, although this character is famous for entirely different reasons. He’s one of the top TV stars in Melbourne, slinging dough and whipping up mean omelets on his own popular cooking show. Jackie’s a simple guy, but he’s dragged into a steaming pile of trouble when he literally runs into crusading reporter Diana (Gabrielle Fitzpatrick). She’s fleeing from thugs sent by Giancarlo (Richard Norton), a big-time gangster whose dirty dealings she’s managed to capture on videotape. In the ensuing chaos, the tape ends up in Jackie’s possession, making him a target not just for Giancarlo but for a rival gang of street punks looking to muscle in on his turf. But unbeknownst to these unsavory types, Jackie comes equipped with all the physical prowess he needs to get himself out of a jam. When the evildoers start going after his loved ones, he pounces into action, flipping, kicking, and clobbering his way into saving the day.

There’s no dancing around the fact that Mr. Nice Guy isn’t the most well-polished movie. The whole thing is essentially an extended chase built on the most basic premise you could come up with: Chan and company have something, and the most stereotypical villains in film history really want it. Seriously, these bad guys are like how spoofs making fun of action flicks would show bad guys, loudly talking about being evil and how much they like drugs; it’s the equivalent of sitting in a bank president’s chair and going, “Buy! Sell! Loans!” Plus, it’s disappointing how Jackie’s background as a chef is never creatively incorporated into the action. Chan is in fine, hindquarters-kicking form, but there’s no angle to really discern this dude from most of the other heroes he’s played. We get a couple lines of dialogue to explain how Jackie is such a skilled martial artist, so for most of the movie, we’re left wondering how this average schmoe can just so happen to make everyday objects into weapons of mass skull-clonking.

But I can’t stress how much Chan is the glue that ends up holding Mr. Nice Guy together. Despite one of the first scenes featuring Giancarlo burying a woman alive in a construction site, this is one of Chan’s more comical vehicles, imbued with a carefree attitude that’s reflected perfectly in the stunt work. The “He did not just do that!”-inspiring feats are in full force here, all of them pulled off with flair and expert precision. Chan leaps onto ladders, dodges spinning blades, flees from dump trucks, and crashes giant inflatable gorillas into mass motorcycle gang weddings (I said this was an awesome movie, didn’t I?). The timing is impeccable, with its star showing little hesitance in his movements and making sure that every scene — be it comedic or action-packed — is played to its full effect. It’s only during the requisite ending credit bloopers that you get an idea of how many close calls and how much abuse Chan experienced in ensuring that every stunt look just right on screen. There are a million little nitpicks to zero in on here (like the rushed subplot with Jackie’s girlfriend and the astounding amount of dubbed characters who are already speaking English), but the movie is simply too much fun for them to be that big of a bother.

Yes, Jackie Chan’s made better movies, but Mr. Nice Guy is such an outright blast, I can’t turn my nose up at it. With its mild cheese factor, lighthearted atmosphere, and flurry of amazing stunts, it’s actually an ideal introduction to the man’s résumé, making fast work of hooking you into wanting to see more. While it’s no genre giant, Mr. Nice Guy packs an exciting punch and exemplifies a lot of what made Chan one of my all-time favorite action stars.