Tag Archives: Romance

Fifty Shades Again and Again

Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed 


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(5/5)


Pros: Holds your interest in more than the sex vignettes.

Cons: Small print is still my nemesis. Reading in the bathroom for two hours causes your legs to fall asleep.

Having already read (and reviewed) Fifty Shades of Grey, I couldn’t wait to read the next two installments. I planned to write a separate review of each, but as I read Fifty Shades Freed, it didn’t make sense to write about these two novels separately. To do so, I might end up giving away plot points instead of writing a review.


What I would like to explore is the “I couldn’t put it down” phenomenon that began with Fifty Shades of Grey. I fell victim to that sensation, too. But I didn’t observe it in my husband when he read it. I’m not using my husband as an example of all men, nor am I an example of all women. Yet, there is definitely a difference as to how we responded to E. L. James’ writing style.

I read all three books while in the bathroom. The overwhelming majority of us read on the toilet but are hesitant to admit it. That’s okay, I’ll be the poster child for readers on the go. I would plan to read until my main purpose had been accomplished. James’ style wouldn’t let me put the book down. Chapters end and begin at pivotal moments – creating and resolving cliffhangers. Even when the chapter break wasn’t during a dramatic or sexually driven section, it was always in the middle of something interesting. There are natural scene breaks within each chapter that I used to help me switch gears and get off the pot. Most of the time I was able to do that, but only because I had to get dressed for an appointment.

Another habit of mine is to read one book from beginning to end. When I’ve tried read more than one book at a time, I would confuse characters and plots. This is just how my brain works, period.


My husband’s reading style is completely different from mine. He reads two books at a time – one serious, the other light. He typically reads non-fiction. His favorite place to read is in bed, but he’ll also read in the living room or spare bedroom. He never reads in the bathroom – not even the newspaper. I think his reading style makes him immune to the “I couldn’t put it down” phenomenon.

Another interesting factor in the Fifty Shades series is that it’s set in the United States. With the exception of a few chapters in Fifty Shades Freed, nearly all of the story takes place in Seattle and Portland. Along with this, there is a lot of product placement. Christian give Ana an Apple Notebook, iPad, and iPod; a Blackberry, and cars from Audi. Perhaps this is a trend in newer novels, but it serves its purpose. Reading the actual product brand name makes the extravagance of Christian’s gifts believable for me. I can understand that he’s so wealthy that big ticket purchases don’t make a dent in his wallet. We all know what it costs to buy technology, and most of us would have to max out our credit line to purchase more than one of these items in a year while Christian buys them all within a week or two. Moreover, he can’t understand why Ana has difficulty getting used to having all this and more showered upon her.

Their sexual vignettes are described in excruciating detail. I was often breathless after reading these sections. Every possible sex toy, whether for domination or just kinky enjoyment, is described from Ana’s perspective. She’s never seen any of these items, so we learn what they look like and feel like through her before we learn what their names are. Sometimes, they’re not named at all.


Despite all the sexual acrobatics, this is a love story between a woman who had to work for everything she had and a man who had everything money could buy except for emotional stability – a flawed Prince Charming. Christian’s possessive tirades are almost his undoing. Ana has learned to be submissive in the Red Room but fights Christian toe-to-toe when her independence is at stake. Ana’s rebellious nature is nearly her undoing.

Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that we learn more about Christian’s family, Ana’s friends and family, and all the events that made Christian the person he is today.

Now for the husband/wife seal of approval:
We both enjoyed all three books in the Fifty Shades series. As for the sex toys, I discovered that there was a lot out there that wasn’t covered in 37 years of a sexually active marriage. My curiosity was piqued. My husband was not as curious about them as I was. I teased him a little about being stodgy, but for all my curiosity, I wouldn’t actually buy any of those things. It’s nice to think about the possibilities.


Actually, I started imagining how Ana and Christian would do it in their 60s. In one escapade, Christian tells Ana not to go to the bathroom beforehand. If Ana and Christian were 60 and 67, she wouldn’t have made it through the cuffing before bursting. He might have had his own prostate-driven emissions.

All joking aside, I wanted to see Ana and Christian grow old together. Fifty Shades Freed gives a small glimpse of their near future together through a series of epilogues. I don’t want to give anything away, but James does a great job of tying everything up with a ribbon. Instead of calling it a happy ending, I prefer to think of it as a happy beginning. The very last entry in the epilogue series is a pleasant surprise that I refuse to expose. Trust me, it’s fulfilling!

I realize that I’ve been bouncing around more than I would in a standard book review. Fifty Shades has that effect on me. There is so much more than a standard book formula. Ana and Christian are stuck in my head, along with everyone they know. If James decides to write about middle-aged-to-senior Ana and Christian, I’d be first in line for more.

Much More than Explicit Sex!

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James (pen name for Erica Mitchell)

Cover design of Fifty Shades of Grey

(5/5)

Pros: Despite what everyone’s heard, there is much more to Fifty Shades of Grey than explicit sex.

Cons: For me, it was small print.

Fifty Shades of Grey is the first of a trilogy. The second and third titles are Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shade Freed.

Most people read this book and salivated in expectation of the film. That’s the way things usually happen with a popular book. Most critics felt that the film didn’t live up to the novel. That’s something that usually happens when the hype from a wildly popular book exceeds any possible outcome for the upcoming film. I compare it to the disappointment we experience when a meticulously planned event doesn’t quite go the way we planned it. Instead of celebrating what we have, we curse at the dream that wasn’t realized.

I’m not like most people. I actually prefer reading the book after seeing the film. True, I’m not riding the tidal wave of “trending,” but I can enjoy the film without comparing it to the book. When I do read the book, some aspects of the characters that were left in the air on film become clear and help me get to an “aha moment” that I didn’t even know I missed.

Seeing Fifty Shades of Grey prior to reading also helped me absorb the story instead of just the erotica. Don’t get me wrong, I found myself inexplicably out of breath while reading the parade of sexual encounters between Ana and Christian – and I’m not even talking about the “S&M” events. I wondered if my husband and I could have ever managed multiple encounters within minutes of each other when we were in our 20s. My conclusion is that one of us would have fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion during the second or third time.

Reading Ana’s first encounter with Christian reminded me of the first book I read that detailed the first sex act, Peyton Place. I was at least 20 at the time and still a virgin (this is important to note). The book, film, and TV show had faded from the spotlight years before I happened upon my mother’s copy. I remembered seeing the film a few years earlier, but that was a time when anything controversial was filtered in film. You had to know the keywords used during pivotal scenes to understand what they were talking about. The courtroom scenes relied on Legalese to keep the censors at bay. The book was an eye-opener, especially for someone whose mother sheltered her from anything too explicit. I understood the general mechanics of sex but didn’t know how it would feel, especially the first time. Lucky for me, Peyton Place took the reins and told me that it would hurt and there would be blood. I remember thinking about that on my wedding night. I wondered if the hotel would sue us if they couldn’t get the stains out (yes, guilty conscience trumps carnal anticipation).

After reading Ana’s inauguration into sexuality, it made Peyton Place look like a sixth-grade health class textbook! I decided immediately that my husband should read this book. Why? I remembered comments from men who read excerpts from the book state that it didn’t turn them on. When I told my husband I wanted to see the film, he said that he read an article stating that women get turned on by thoughts instead of images while men are the opposite. If he reads it without – ahem – losing his objectivity, he might be able to learn more about women (particularly the one he’s been married to for 37 years). He might read it, he told me the other day.

When you get past all the sex and the Dominant/Submissive chapters, you have a love story told in first person. Anastasia Steele meets Christian Grey when she interviews him as a favor to her sick roommate. The chemistry is overwhelming, and Ana spends most of the interview trying to ignore it while reading her roommate’s questions. When Christian shows up at her job, she tells herself it’s a coincidence, but it doesn’t take much more for her to realize that Christian is pursuing her – and she reluctantly likes it. I say reluctantly because she’s not fond of receiving extravagant gifts. When Christian shows Ana his playroom and hands her a contract describing the limits of their arrangement, she’s completely unprepared for the world she’s asked to enter.

Ana soon discovers that being in love with a man who cannot return it is as painful as being a Submissive. Christian treats the “arrangement” like a professional contract. Terms like “genital clamps” glare at the reader in the contract Ana must decide whether or not to sign.

To relate anything more of the plot would be a spoiler.

However, I can tell you that Fifty Shades of Grey is a good read — especially if you want more than a Harlequin romance. Ana is an intelligent, independent woman preparing for a career in publishing. She is no pushover. Christian is young but every bit the CEO – control is what he feeds on.

E. L. James even inserts a bit of comedy when Ana and Christian meet each other’s parents. On the surface, they’re boyfriend and girlfriend; but there is so much more going on between glances and stares. She writes not just Ana’s feelings and sensations, she paints a picture of Christian’s stares. His gray eyes seem to change tone with his emotions. Hence, Fifty Shades of Grey can also refer to his eyes – but that’s my take as an artist.

For anyone who feels intimidated by the shock of seeing expletives in print, try to put that feeling aside. Those words have purpose. They’re not merely there to shock. For example, the difference between “f—ing” and “making love” has to be illustrated. If the language is G-rated, everything else falls flat.

My recommendation is to buy Fifty Shades of Grey. I borrowed it from our local library and now regret that I’ll have to return it. I plan on reading the rest of the trilogy, and it would have been nice to consult the first book to jog my memory – or just reread it on the spur of the moment.

Fate Hiccups and Waits for the Door Selection

If I Stay by Gayle Forman – The Novel

If-I-Stay

(5/5)

Pros: Well written, Mia’s self assessments, The Family relationships, Trust, Story

Cons: Intense, Openness about Young Adult sexual relationships, Debated topic won’t align with some beliefs

Fate can be unforgiving but occasionally it hiccups and creates a crack in the realm of opportunities. If two doors wait to be open, one to stay or one to go,  which would you choose?

Such was the case on snowy day when there was no school and no work and a family was out to enjoy the snow day. If I Stay is a passionate teen story about a high school senior who finds herself in that blink-of-an-eye crack offered by fate. It’s a life-affirming story about how life took a dramatic turn one winter day when it found Mia out with her parents and younger brother on their way to school to pick up her cello. A tragically unavoidable collision with another car kills her parents and separates her from her brother.

 

Gayle Forman’s book grips with a fast pace that is told over a period of 24 hours, the time that Mia’s body lay in ICU. While there her spirit explores the hospital’s waiting room and hallways, and in this state she vividly learns about her passions, friendships, parents, life and the young man she loves. In this space between death and life she reflects upon her life and ponders staying or going. She takes comfort in hearing her grandfather give her permission to go if she chooses.

 

While in limbo between life and death she engages in self-reflection alternating between memories from her life and observations within the hospital halls. We learn about Mia, her unusually wonderful parents, and her love for her little brother. From the moment Mia looked into her newly born baby brother’s eyes she was bonded. Her best friend Kim completely understands her — their relationship formed following a fist fight. She is a world-class-cellist in the making and has attended music summer camp for years and will probably be accepted into Julliard. She fell in love with Adam who is perfect for her and was enthusiastically accepted by her parents. Her life was enviably good.

How does this fill a book? How will this sufficiently provide for a movie?

While young her life has been filled with unusual richness. Mia’s 24 hour out-of-body experience becomes a time for reflection. She wonders where her parents are and why they’re not inviting her to join them in the spirit realm. She eavesdrops in the waiting room as the numbers of friends and family increases and discovers how serious her injuries are.  She has yet to learn that her parents and brother died in the collision.

Following a second surgery in the 24-hour period Mia reaches a point where she accepts that she will die. A variety of friends and family visit during this anguishing 24-hour period, but none are more powerful or dramatic than Kim and Adam.

My eyes are closed so I hear him before I see him. I hear the raspy, quick rushes of his lungs. He is panting like he just ran a marathon. Then I smell the sweat on him, a clean musky scent that I’d bottle and wear as perfume if I could. I open my eyes. Adam has closed his. But the lids are puffy and pink, so I know what he’s been doing. Is that why he went away? To cry without my seeing?”

What happens when we almost die is a hotly debated topic.  Author Gayle Forman handles this old topic in a refreshing way with a book that compels us to burn through the pages – it’s less than 200 pages but most young adult readers won’t put it down until they’re done. If I Stay is about relationships, passions, life and love. Some readers (or their parents) might object to the openness of Mia’s and Adam’s intimacy and that her parents fully accepted it. Some readers might disagree with the author’s concept of the out-of-body experience where Mia makes her choices to stay or go. But most readers will agree that Gayle Forman skillfully combines a variety of layers in this sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous story of life, death and choices.

If I Stay, in my opinion, will be found powerful for many pre-teen readers (possibly overwhelmingly powerful?), but mature young adults will enjoy the plot, characters and the love stories in this undeniably moving story from Gayle Forman.  You’d have to be pretty cold-hearted to not cry through the end of this story and were I still a teen I’d probably call this one of my favorite books.

A Soft Porn Interpretation of JAWS: ¡TINTORERA!

¡TINTORERA!

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(2/5)

Pros: Quite funny at times; sleazy as all get out

Cons: Many problems: overly lengthy; boring; minimal shark action; clunky construction and direction; the “artistry” of actor Hugo Stiglitz…

Directed by Mexican trash auteur Rene Cardona, Jr., 1977’s ¡TINTORERA! (a.k.a. Tintorera: Tiger Shark) plays like a mashup of Jaws and a soft porn movie. Loaded with scantily clad bodies and lots of free lovin’, this gloriously trashy film follows the (s)exploits of Steven and Miguel, two of the least likely Lotharios that the cinema has ever seen. Steven, an absurdly wealthy American businessman, has traveled to (a pre-Spring Break haven) Cancun to live on a rather lavish houseboat as an escape from the stresses of his job, while Miguel makes money by “exploiting” the local women. After feuding over the affections of the same woman, Steven and Miguel become buddies, working in tandem to bed any female in their vicinity – all of whom seem to be of the ditzy and/or skanky variety. Eventually, the two set their sights on an English tourist named Gabriella, setting up a “perfect triangle” in which Steven and Miguel get all the sex they want as long as they don’t fall in love with the plucky woman. Meanwhile, as the two guys struggle with what appears to be unfulfilled homosexual attraction for one another, a large tiger shark cruises the nearby waters, searching out human victims and building up (?) to a not-so epic showdown between man and beast.


From left, Andres Garcia, Susan George, and the man…the myth…the legend Hugo Stiglitz.

Written by director Cardona, Jr. from a novel by oceanographer Ramon Bravo (who also served as the cinematographer on the film and did a horrible job I might add), Tintorera hardly plays like a horror film at all. This picture is much more concerned with the romantic exploits of its leading male characters, and in doing focusing on these moronic, horn-dog characters, it very nearly becomes a comedy. While I could almost buy the athletic and confident Andres Garcia in his portrayal of Miguel as the type of man women might fawn over, the stiff-as-a-board Hugo Stiglitz is so awkward in his acting here that the film is quite often hilarious. Constantly in a cranky, surly mood and having the tendency to snap at the people around him, it’s impossible to buy this dude (who in the hands of Stiglitz, arguably one of the least talented actors ever to have some semblance of a career, comes across not only as a total creeper but as a complete jerk off and tool bag) as getting anywhere near the amount of tail he does in this film. I love the numerous scenes where Stiglitz stares blankly either directly into the camera or at the woman he’s supposed to be wooing – this man has the charisma of a barn door. The atrocious dubbing in this film doesn’t help matters either since none of the dialogue has any sort of emotion behind it. As a result any of the “drama” in the story (of which there is plenty) is pathetically ineffective; considering the film runs more than two hours long in its director’s cut version, this makes for an extremely drawn-out and boring film. I should point out that the 85-minute “Americanized” version of this film isn’t any better: it’s even less coherent and still tedious.

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This, friends, is acting…FEEL THE ANGST

But wait: I know what you’re saying. There’s gotta be some shark action somewhere in here right? Indeed there is. Still, in the hands of Cardona Jr., a viewer shouldn’t be expecting much. Swimming along to a burpy and flatulent musical theme created by composer Basil Poledouris (a bigger talent than this film ever deserved), the less-than-impressive, murderous “Tintorera” is created through the use of an endless supply of stock footage showing normal-sized tiger sharks – ignore that character who insists the beast is twenty feet long…PLEASE! Occasionally, the creature attacks a swimmer or diver, leading to some of the most clumsy gore sequences imaginable. Brutal violence including images of gut-leaking human torsos sinking to the ocean floor or a scene in which a diver’s head is wedged in a shark’s mouth can’t make up for the fact that it’s difficult to determine what’s happening in any of these sequences due to the scatterbrained editing. Especially frustrating is the finale: one of the most inconsequential and muddy endings ever committed to celluloid. After a series of seemingly unconnected images, Tintorera just ends without solving anything. It’s unbelievable that any director (let alone one that, by 1977, had nearly fifteen years of feature film credits under his belt) would have ever believed that this was an effective way of telling a story: in comparison, Lamberto Bava’s 1984 Jaws-clone almost… almost… resembles a good movie.


Level of sleaze throughout the film is ridiculously high. You’ll need a cold shower afterwards.

I suppose given that the film mainly deals with a pair of promiscuous, unlikely man-whores that it’s not entirely surprising that this film is loaded with an astonishing amount of nudity and sexual content, but what maybe is shocking is the appearance of several actresses of note in this piece of trash flick. Susan George of Straw Dogs fame plays the fairly substantial role of Gabriella, demonstrating that her career truly had hit rock bottom by the late ‘70s. George looks great without a top on but can’t do anything to enhance the level of melodrama relating to her character. Also, like many of the characters in this film, her mood switches on a dime for no reason whatsoever: there’s no consistency to this story or the players in it. In peripheral roles, British genre actress Fiona Lewis and a pre-Three’s Company Priscilla Barnes are nothing more than eye-candy in a picture that’s remarkably sleazy and undeniably chauvinistic. Simply put, a picture that demeans women as much as this film does simply couldn’t be made today. It’s worth pointing out however that Tintorera offers up nearly as much male nudity as female. Garcia’s pasty white behind is probably seen more than the shark, and there’s even some brief full-frontal glimpses. Frankly, seeing Stiglitz paraded around in a Speedo (or having to glance upon his unclad can) was enough to make me wanna lose my lunch: presenting this buffoon as the ultimate stud muffin is just absurd.

shark
THAT’S A TWENTY-FOOT LONG SHARK, I SWEAR!

As questionable as this movie is as a whole, it’s most reprehensible for its presentation of positively gratuitous wholesale animal slaughter committed once Stiglitz decides to go on a one-man crusade against all sharks. Though perhaps not as rigorous as what the cannibal genre of horror movies would shortly unleash upon the world in terms of authentic onscreen death, I quickly grew sickened by scenes of sharks being killed either by “bang stick” (i.e. a sort of prod loaded with a rifle cartridge which is fired into the shark’s brain, causing a twitching ballet of suffering and death in the stricken animal) or by being beaten over the head with a club while being dragged out of the water. Some of these scenes are quite bloody – aside from the shark deaths, a turtle is also sliced open, allowing its entire blood supply to drain out – and while the deaths of sea animals isn’t as offensive to most people as watching land animals being killed (why exactly is that?), knowing that many shark species are now endangered precisely because of this type of behavior on the part of humans makes these scenes all the more disgusting and distressing to watch.

were it only
Were it only that Steven would have been killed early on, this whole film would have been much improved.

In the end, what we have here is one of the lousiest of the low-grade Jaws clones to come out in the late 1970s and early ’80s: a film that blows any opportunity it had to succeed by not only mismarketing itself as a horror film, but by giving us a script that is simply painful to sit through. One can almost imagine with some (or hell…a LOT of) tightening up and tinkering, this flick could have at least been watchable – the amount of gorgeous women willing to drop trou on camera alone should have been enough to maintain some level of viewer interest. As it is though, Tintorera is not only sloppy and ugly to look at despite it’s idyllic locations, it’s a outright mess. Full of jaw-dropping dialogue, preposterous story elements, crude gore effects, and wooden acting, it may be one that fans of bad movies would enjoy (I for one laughed a lot), but it’s not something most people would ever need to see.


ACTING!


“25th Anniversary Edition” from Desert Mountain Media presents a rather soft full-frame print of the film. Both Spanish and English are spoken during the film, and an optional subtitle track translates whatever is being spoken to the other of these two languages (i.e. if English is being spoken, it translates into Spanish). Aside from very brief cast and crew biographies, a selection of trailers to other Spanish-language films is the only bonus material included.


8/10 : Some graphic gore effects relating to shark attacks, but the real shocks are provided by authentic scenes of animal slaughter. This last thing makes the film all the more distasteful, but it’s very much a product of its time.


3/10 : Very isolated, rather minimal instances of strong profanity in the subtitle tracks. It’s really the overpowering stupidity of the dialogue that’s offensive.


8/10 : A ton of full nudity (both male and female) and sexual content, but this film isn’t at all titillating despite the presence of some good-looking women.


5/10 : Certainly one of the more bizarre Jaws clones out there, but also one of the most dull and boring of the bunch.


Dialogue, or description of the film: “It was horrible…HORRIBLE. This goes beyond anything.”

Click the picture below to watch original trailer –

WARNING! Trailer Not Suitable for Work!

“We Got a Cockamamie Circus On Our Hands!” GRAND THEFT AUTO

GRAND THEFT AUTO

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or at Amazon

(2.5/5)

Pros: Car crashes galore (often filmed in slow motion)

Cons: Not as fun as the best car chase flicks out there and a bit of a mess

Continuing much in the same manner of 1976’s Eat My Dust!, a film in which Happy Days actor Ron Howard agreed to star provided that producer Roger Corman would give him his own movie to direct down the line, 1977’s Grand Theft Auto was the fulfillment of that offer and Howard’s directorial debut. Considering his later, much more accomplished and polished films, GTA seems like a bit of a disaster, a literally free-wheeling bit of “car crash porn” from the late 1970s that sort of reverses the plotline of Eat My Dust! and mixes that film’s story up with that of 1971’s seminal (and outstanding) Vanishing Point. It’s loud, obnoxious and rather crude; though it may be entertaining as a pure popcorn flick, I’d place it in the bottom half of the “carsploitation” genre.

RR
Yep, that’s an actual Rolls Royce – and it goes off-road!

Paula Powers, daughter of an extremely wealthy would-be mayoral candidate Bigby Powers (what does that name suggest?), more or less kidnaps her boyfriend Sam Freeman in order for the two of them to elope to Vegas to get married in the scenario for Grand Theft Auto – a plotline that’s almost the opposite of what was seen when Howard’s character took his girlfriend for a joyride in a stolen stock car in Eat My Dust!. Paula, you see, has been set up in marriage by her father to a rich but woefully moronic young man named Collins Hedgeworth, and the young woman has no interest in following through on the arranged engagement. After an argument with daddy, Paula steals her father’s Rolls Royce and heads out on the road with Sam. Things get complicated from there: the Hedgeworth family offers up a total of $50,000 in reward money for the safe return of both Paula and Collins (who’s now in pursuit of his reluctant fiance), which causes group of oddball reward-hunters to take up the pursuit. Additionally, when a radio DJ decides to follow the story of the “Paula Powers-Sam Freeman Love Flight to Vegas” and provide intermittent updates on the plight of the two lovebirds, the story becomes national news.

Basically, this is one extended (and increasingly goofy) chase sequence, and one of the best things I could say about Grand Theft Auto (which was produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures) is that it’s about the perfect drive-in movie. The film clocks in at 85 minutes in length and moves along at a brisk pace: there’s only about five minutes worth of set-up at the start of the film and once this script gets going, it never abandons the big chase sequence at its center for more than a minute or two at a time. Though I might be inclined to point out that the script by the father and son screenwriting team of Rance and Ron Howard almost throws too much into the mix, the assortment of characters involved in the pursuit of Paula and Sam (each of whom has their own outlandish vehicle of choice, ranging from a Volkswagen Beetle to an ice cream truck to a 1930s race car and more) ensures that there’s plenty of room for screwball comedy at every turn.

crackup
What would a ’70s car chase flick be without a few outrageous crack-ups…

Considering that the film goes out of its way to entertain its audience, it’s strange then that the finished film didn’t strike me as being as much fun as similar films like Eat My Dust! or even 1974’s Gone in 60 Seconds. Some of this may come down to the fact that director Howard is quite obviously inventing his sense of style as he goes along: there are some rather clunky sequences in GTA which don’t so much completely derail the picture as limit its overall potential and effectiveness. The script was obviously written under the assumption that more is always better, but it seemed like the writers were trying to disguise the fact that there wasn’t much substance to this story by overloading the film with physical comedy and slapstick which simply gets tiresome after awhile. Additionally, the Howards’ script also seems a bit too obvious in its characterizations. Every character here is a blatant stereotype – hell, the character names (“Powers” and “Freeman” – c’mon!) pretty much tell a viewer all he needs to know about their motivations. It’s also hard to deny that there’s absolutely nothing in this film that hasn’t been seen (and pulled off better) in other films. The basic scenario here offers up no surprises (of course the two lovebirds are going to get into a little spat at some point…), and since we’re absolutely sure about what’s eventually going to happen in a story as predictable as this, the main point of interest for a viewer is to see whether or not the (expensive!) Rolls Royce is actually demolished during the course of this (low-budget) film.

explosions
…or some fire and explosions?

While Ron Howard is acceptable in the role of Paula’s lover Sam, the rest of the cast is iffy at best in pulling off their parts. Nancy Morgan has the plucky attitude one would want in the heroine character of a film like this, but when it comes down to doing any actual emoting, her credibility suffers tremendously. During the aforementioned sequence when she and Sam have the obligatory little squabble, Morgan’s crocodile tears are more laughable than affecting, and the whole cliched scene made me want to throw something at the screen. The buffoonish cast of supporting characters probably fares even worse as they overact to the point of absurdity. In some ways, the exaggerated acting gives this film the feel of being a live-action cartoon, but I still think it would have worked better overall had actors like Paul Linke as the jilted lover Collins Hedgeworth, Barry Cahill as Paula’s well-to-do father (who’s concerned more about his Rolls Royce than his daughter), and Don Steele (the real-life DJ who provides a sort of ultra-annoying commentary throughout the film while covering the chase on the airwaves) been reined in a little.


Wonder how the story will work out for these two lovebirds? You probably already know…

In the end, I’d probably position Grand Theft Auto on a level with the 1976 cross-country road-trip film Cannonball (directed by Paul Bartel, who actually has a cameo in GTA) as being dumb and largely unremarkable entries in the “carsploitation” genre. Both of these films include just the basic story that provides an excuse to show slow-motion car crashes and plenty of vehicles plowing through the countryside (GTA may be the only motion picture in history to feature a Rolls Royce going off-roading), but neither really does enough to distinguish itself from the pack of similar films that turned up during the 1970s. Sure, it’s interesting to watch this early work in the context of Ron Howard’s later directorial career (this is the same man who later made such high-profile and well-regarded films as Splash, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and many others), but this a minor film any way one looks at it – even in the rather dubious genre of the ‘70s car chase flick. Maybe this clumsy effort would be worth a looksee for fans of Ron Howard or for those who appreciate a silly car chase extravaganza, but I’d say that viewers might be better off skipping Grand Theft Auto entirely.


“25th Anniversary Edition” from New Concorde (full-screen format) includes interviews with Roger Corman and Ron Howard, but it’s clear to me that the way to go would be the “Ron Howard Action Pack” DVD release from Vivendi Entertainment. This package also includes (the superior) Eat My Dust!, and includes Grand Theft Auto in its original widescreen format along with a featurette about the Howard family’s involvement in the film, a pair of interviews with Corman and Ron Howard, and two commentary tracks – one featuring Corman and Ron Howard, the second with Rance Howard as well as several of the production crew (including editor Joe Dante). A very nice DVD release.


3/10 : Some mild physical violence and a number of car wrecks. Nothing too serious and, in cartoon-like form, no one gets seriously injured at any point.


4/10 : Though PG-rated, this was made in the late 1970s, when quite a bit of profanity still elicited that rating. Thus, we have quite an peppering of strong language – including one F-bomb.


1/10 : Sam and Paula get frisky a few times behind the wheel and there are a few rather mild sexual references, but this is pretty clean.


4/10 : Yes, it’s a screwball ’70s car chase flick, but I’d call this one of the worst and most forgettable films of the genre.


All-too prescient commentary on celebrity culture: “Well, if you have it [a crash], I’m gonna report it, because every time you turn around and fart, it’s news.”

Rowdy Original Trailer:

THE BARON OF ARIZONA spreads “The Stench of Swindle”

THE BARON OF ARIZONA

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Vincent Price; complicated, intriguing story based on true events

Cons: Looks cheap; maybe too slow and talky for some viewers

Taking its basis from the true story of James Reavis, who made two falsified land claims in the 1880s that would have granted him more than 18,000 square miles of property in the American Southwest, director Samuel Fuller’s fictionalized account of Reavis, 1950’s The Baron of Arizona, stars the one and only Vincent Price as the cunning fraudster who begins his wide-ranging swindle by creating a phony 1750’s land claim that grants most of the state of Arizona to a young orphan named Sofia. After appointing a governess to “refine” the young lady, Reavis sets a plan in motion by which he falsifies documents on both sides of the Atlantic, transforming Sofia into royalty of sorts in the process. Upon returning to the United States, he marries Sofia and officially files the claim, acquiring riches beyond his wildest dreams in the process. This of course, doesn’t sit well with either the local landowners (who now have to pay “rent” to Reavis for land that they had originally legally acquired from the government) or the government itself (since Reavis has effectively “changed geography”). As Reavis acquires more power by negotiating property deals and mineral rights with various businessmen, a government investigator named Griff begins to suspect that all documents relating to the Reavis land claim are forgeries, setting up an inevitable showdown between the swindler and the feds.


Well?

Told from the perspective of Griff, who recounts the story on the eve of Arizona’s admission into the union, The Baron of Arizona features a complicated plot that’s told extremely well in Fuller’s screenplay. One can very easily tell that Fuller’s first employment was as a journalist, since this film is constructed in much the same way that a newspaper expose would be handled, juggling timeline events and presenting the major facts with a harsh eye for detail. This film also seems to have been remarkably well-researched considering that the process of falsifying documents is meticulously recreated. The story here is somewhat similar to the basic premise of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane since it focuses on the ups and downs of a sort of magnate. While Welles’ film was flashy and innovative though, Baron is a more efficient piece and thus, pretty typical of most Fuller films. Though the director could craft tightly-structured stories, his films are usually workmanlike instead of being artistic marvels. Despite a lack of big-time action sequences (the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. worked as a stuntman on this film – that may tell you something), the ongoing drama in the film (and tension stemming from the fact that it’s only the audience who knows from the beginning that Reavis has invented his land claim from scratch) is more than enough to keep a more patient viewer interested.

Much of that interest level would stem from a wonderful cast who do a very nice job in this piece. First and foremost, we have Price (who considered this a favorite among his own films) starring in a role quite different from the parts he’s most known for. I’m used to seeing Price overact to the point of absurdity in his many horror film roles, but here he’s refined and as sharp as a tack – and it’s a good thing too, since his character is under constant surveillance from many people trying to prove that he’s a phony. The actor really does a fine job of exhibiting a sort of pompous, holier than thou attitude when dealing either with people his character views as being inferior or those who he has to manipulate, but he’s also able to convey an inner torment and sense of vulnerability at key moments during the story. As might be expected, Price also gets to display some deliciously sinister and dark sides to the Reavis character – and check out the violent persecution scene late in the going that, in showing Price having to deal with an angry mob attempting to kill him, predicts many, many later Price films. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Price’s role here is that Reavis is portrayed as a sort of womanizer. This seemed very odd considering that the later Price films would often feature him as a character more inclined to shackle a woman to the wall than share a tender moment with one. I had to laugh at moments when, in an attempt to win over a lady friend, Price repeats the same corny line, recited in a whimpering manner with a quivering brow: “I’ve known many women…but with you…I’m afraid…” All in all, it was wonderful to see the full range of Price’s acting ability on display in this film.

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The elaborate office from which Reavis controls his empire.

Ellen Drew plays Reavis’ wife Sofia as a slightly naïve woman who positively loves her husband through thick and thin. It’s somewhat strange that, after all is said and done, The Baron of Arizona turns out to be a story of love and redemption, and the fact that the film not only turns out this way but (mostly) works on those terms is largely due to Drew’s emotionally affecting performance. Honestly, it seems like acting alongside Drew brought out the best, most heartfelt performance from Price, and it’s fascinating to watch the relationship between their two characters evolve as the story goes along. Initially, Reavis’ motivations for marrying Sofia are purely selfish, but eventually he falls in love with her. This, in turn, is a major factor determining the way the film concludes.

Reed Hadley, who previously had played a fatherly Jesse James in Fuller’s directorial debut I Shot Jesse James, features in the smaller but crucial role of Griff in Baron of Arizona. Hadley’s Griff is a perfect foil to Price’s Reavis, a G-man who’s as confident and cocky as the forger he’s investigating. It’s intriguing that this film, like Jesse James before it, presents a positively ignoble character (Reavis) as its main focus point. In both films, the obvious “good guy” (in the case of Baron, this role would be Griff) is actually more the villain of the story, since a viewer winds up identifying more with the criminal character. This narrative approach ensures that the story takes some wild twists and turns as it plays out, and the audience is never quite sure who they should be rooting for – especially since in the end, Reavis winds up seeming like a decent guy.

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Despite being a story of love and redemption, the film has a few moments more similar to later, much darker Price movies.

One of the biggest compliments that could be paid to The Baron of Arizona is that it looks and feels like a much “bigger” film than Samuel Fuller’s debut picture I Shot Jesse James, made for roughly the same amount of money just a year earlier. Fuller seems to have grown a lot as a film maker during the time in between these pictures: his command of the actors and the visual element of the film is much more assured this time around, the tone of the story is more consistent, and the message is more profound. In most every way then, Baron is simply a better film, and it’s the first picture that for me, demonstrates Fuller’s true talent as a filmmaker. Some may find the film talky and slow, much in the same way some people don’t care for the drama of Citizen Kane, and it’s clear that this low budget effort is nowhere near as eye-popping or technically brilliant as the “A” films of the day. Nevertheless, the story of James Reavis certainly has many fascinating aspects to it provided a viewer is willing to toss aside the need for explosions and gun battles. All things considered, this is simply an effectively told tale bolstered by solid acting performances; it’s certainly worth a look.


Included in the Criterion Collection box set of early Fuller films (Eclipse Series #5, which also includes I Shot Jesse James and The Steel Helmet), The Baron of Arizona is full-frame, in a nice-looking black and white print. No extras unfortunately.


2/10 : Some threatening behavior, including an angry mob on the rampage and a few fist fights. Generally, it’s pretty minimal.


1/10 : Lots of talk; nothing much objectionable save a few unflattering remarks about gypsies.


0/10 : Don’t you make those eyes at the baroness!


2/10 : It’s a Samuel Fuller film with Vincent Price in it, but the slow pacing would minimize its appeal.


“Nothing is sufficient for anyone who can change geography…”

Film Clip – Vincent Price in the gypsy camp:

james reavis

The Assassination of Robert Ford by The Reputable Edward…er John Kelly: I SHOT JESSE JAMES

I SHOT JESSE JAMES

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(3/5)

Pros: Strong acting from Ireland and Foster; Fuller’s evolving visual approach

Cons: Unconvincing character motivations; too much melodrama

The feature film debut of Samuel Fuller, perhaps best known for the 1953 crime drama Pickup on South Street, 1949’s I Shot Jesse James could be considered an early western that focused more on the psychology of its characters rather than on lively action sequences. The film chronicles the life of Robert Ford who, after shooting his friend and legendary outlaw Jesse James in the back, is tormented by self-doubt and jealousy. Most of Ford’s problems have to deal with a showgirl named Cynthy Waters whom he plans to marry; it was actually the prospect of providing a good life for himself and Cynthy that drove Ford to assassinate James in the first place. Instead of getting a hefty reward for the killing though, Ford only winds up with $500, a clean criminal record, and a reputation as a coward since his act was despicable in the eyes of the general public. In an attempt to strike it rich, Ford leaves Missouri and travels to Colorado in search of silver, but this only leads to a fateful confrontation with John Kelly, a town marshal who has caught Cynthy’s eye.

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Since James is gunned down within about fifteen minutes, it’s obvious that he is not the focus of this film.

Featuring an ignoble character at its center, I Shot Jesse James clearly is a much different animal than the somewhat standard, “Cowboys and Injuns” westerns of the day, and is much less action-oriented than one might expect. Truthfully, the film mostly details the complex relationship between Ford, Kelly, and Cynthy, as the two men fight over the woman’s affections. Early in the film, it’s clear that Cynthy is quite fond of Ford, but like the general public, she becomes disillusioned with him after he guns down the beloved Jesse. This is precisely the moment when the significantly more reputable Kelly shows up and wows Cynthy with his integrity and sophistication. In typical good guy fashion, Kelly abandons his courtship when Cynthy declares that she loves Ford, but as time goes on, Cynthy’s commitment to Ford grows weaker and weaker. Meanwhile, Ford’s single-minded quest to marry the showgirl threatens to consume him whole.

Though the script by Fuller himself invents a new way to approach the western genre, I’m not entirely sold on the fact that this film is as special as some would like to believe it is. Surely, it’s economically made (obviously made quickly and inexpensively) and entertaining enough to watch (check out the slam-bang opening scene depicting a violent bank robbery), but it’s also fairly typical in its depiction of the romantic triangle which exists among the main characters. That’s not so bad in the bigger scheme of things; many films of this time period followed specific patterns in the way they were developed, but in my opinion, Fuller’s script never quite explains the some of the character motivations. In particular, Cynthy’s feelings and attitude towards Kelly are confusing : it’s almost like the romantic relationship between these two appeared out of thin air just to provide a major conflict for Bob to deal with. Though actress Barbara Britton is gorgeous and is given some magnificent period dress while playing the role, she struggles to find the right tone in her performance. Especially obnoxious is a scene late in the going in which a hysterical Britton declares (over and over) that she doesn’t love Ford anymore. This whole somewhat laughable, overplayed scene reinforces what a viewer would have sensed for quite some time, and only succeeds in beating him over the head with the obvious.

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The three major players (from left to right) Ford, Cynthy, and Kelly.

On the plus side, Fuller’s background as a journalist serves him well in concocting both a detailed timeline of events and a fine, sympathetic psychological portrait of Bob Ford after he’s gunned down James. John Ireland is appropriately mopey as Ford, a character initially torn between his loyalty towards James and his desire to “settle down” and have a normal life. Early in the going, the film establishes the bond that Ford and James have (a bond which, at times, seems to almost border on being – shall we say – eccentric: witness the often-mentioned bath scene in which James instructs Ford to “scrub his back”), going so far as to have James (played by an almost priest-like Reed Hadley) reject his wife’s insistence that Ford “git going” and leave the James gang. From a cinematic standpoint, these early scenes appear bright and sunny, showing the salad days as it were of Ford’s life. Following the assassination of James however, the entire look of the piece changes; it gets darker and more moody, infected with a sense of paranoia since Ford has to watch his back at all times. At this point, Ireland’s demeanor changes as well: he goes from seeming like a slightly perplexed country bumpkin type to a conniving and almost sinister character.

Preston Foster arguably turns in the best performance of the main cast members; his Kelly is the sort of unblemished character that classic westerns tended to revolve around, but this isn’t the case throughout the film. Early on, with the narrative focusing exclusively on Ford and presenting him in a more positive light, Kelly is introduced as an odd-man-out and a sort of minor villain since he’s attempting to take Ford’s girlfriend for himself. It’s intriguing then that Foster’s Kelly transforms into being an almost majestic figure by the film’s conclusion, the voice of reason when everyone around him has been torn apart by conflict. A moment when the stolen wedding ring that Ford had bought for Cynthy is returned by Kelly finally cements the fact that it’s ultimately he, not Ford, who is worthy of Cynthy’s affection. The fact that it’s only after Kelly has squandered a substantial fortune on an ill-advised prospecting operation and has been reduced to living the “modest life” that Ford had dreamed of that he wins over the girl (while Ford, having made a fortune mining silver, winds up losing Cynthy) provides a not-so-subtle message about how money isn’t everything.

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Little by little, Ford is overcome by paranoia…

In the end, we have a competent but relatively minor piece in the bigger history of the career of Samuel Fuller. I Shot Jesse James certainly demonstrated Fuller’s inherent talent for constructing interesting stories in the confines of genre films, but it’s not by any stretch a masterful piece. Albert Glasser’s well-chosen music cues (including a memorable folk song about James and poignant use of the well-known tune “Beautiful Dreamer”) compliment the action of the story quite nicely and it is well photographed by Ernest Miller, but even if this film does introduce psychology into the western movie formula and is appropriately downbeat in its depiction of a broken Robert Ford, it relies too heavily on sometimes woefully unconvincing romantic drama. With precious few scenes of legitimate action or tension, it may be a film that many genre fans would find boring even if there are a handful of remarkable sequences (the low-key scene in which Jesse is gunned down and one in which a traveling minstrel sings Ford a tune for instance, are wonderful). I’d call it a worthwhile time-waster that provides nothing that’s too far out of the ordinary, mostly of interest to fans of the director’s later work.


Version of this film included in the Criterion Collection’s box set of early Samuel Fuller films is full-frame and looks great. Unfortunately, this box set (part of the Eclipse Series which also includes 1950’s The Baron of Arizona and 1951’s The Steel Helmet) includes no extras to speak of.


2/10 : Some gun violence, but it’s of the cartoony variety (people who have been shot fall down; no blood seen)

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0/10 : Nothing objectionable


0/10 : Barbara Britton looks great, but there’s nothing going here.


2/10 : Pretty standard, mostly forgettable stuff, notable mostly for being Fuller’s first film.


A (singing): “…cause it was Robert Ford, that dirty little cow…anything wrong mister?”
B : “I’m Robert Ford”
DUN DUN

The Entire Minstrel Sequence:

Full of “Sensuality and the Vigor of Sadism,” THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is Trashtastic!

THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA

(3/5)

Pros: So bad, it’s a hoot

Cons: Many. Oh so many.

Confused and poorly made by any conventional standard, the Italian-made 1960 horror film The Vampire and the Ballerina (also known as L’amante del Vampiro) probably is most interesting today for being one of director Renato Polselli’s earliest features. Polselli would later gain some level of recognition among shock film aficionados for his deliciously perverted 1972 horror/mystery Delirio Caldo, known in its English-language version simply as Delirium, but a viewer would be hard pressed to spot any serious talent behind the camera in the Ballerina film. The script, written by Polselli along with Ernesto Gastaldi and Giuseppe Pellegrini, makes nary a lick of sense at any point and comes across as being a tiresome retread of territory covered many times before in far-superior genre films. In the end, while The Vampire and the Ballerina is a definite curio and a film that’s enjoyable for precisely the wrong reasons, it’s not something that most people would have any interest in seeing.

The film deals with a dance troupe who have inexplicably chosen to relocate to a remote European estate in order to practice their routines. After learning about the area’s vampire myths, two of the blonde dancers named Francesca and Luisa (played respectively by an overly hysterical Tina Gloriani and a sluggish Helene Remy) and their unlikely Lothario of a male companion Luca (played by a goofy Iscaro Ravaioli) stumble upon a supposedly abandoned castle that’s actually the home of a knockout Countess (the busty Maria Luisa Ronaldo, who reminds me a bit of Barbara Steele) and her shady manservant Herman. Wouldn’t you know it that Herman is actually a vampire, attacking local women and draining their blood in order to rejuvenate both himself and the Countess. Though Francesca suspects something is not quite right with the Countess, it’s Luisa who winds up in the worst situation, and the inevitable vampire attack leaves her as a sort of somnambulist who is under the influence of the fiend who drank her blood. Following the attack, Francesca launches a campaign to rally the fellow dancers and the handful of men at the estate against the Countess and her vampire companion, but as she ventures closer to the brink of madness, will anyone believe her?

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“…And it’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight…”

Filmed in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Angelo Baistrocchi, The Vampire and the Ballerina looks fantastic and boasts wonderful interior sets used to detail the expansive interior of the Countess’ castle. Unfortunately, none of these characters or the ongoing action in the story make any sense from a logical standpoint. It’s almost as if the trio of writers just passed the script back and forth, picking and choosing vampire film conventions to play around with while throwing consistency and character motivation in the loo. Literally, the moods of various people in this film changes from second to second, which is never more evident than in a scene where Francesca first tells her fellow dancers about the suspected vampire who’s attacked Luisa. Within ten seconds, the sense of worry disappears as the dancers forget about the potential danger they’re in and instead begin performing an impromptu “interpretive dance” based on the story of a vampire attacking a young woman. Additionally, the script reaches a level of incoherence usually reserved for a Lucio Fulci film when a young woman is buried alive even though (since there’s a see-through window in the coffin she’s lying in) she peers and screams at the gravediggers as they are throwing dirt down on top of her. If I didn’t know any better, I might almost say that the writers of this film suffered from short-term memory loss since they seem completely incapable of ensuring that any single scene plays through in a consistent manner: there’s always something that comes out of the blue to alleviate any building suspense, drama, or creepiness.

From a purely technical standpoint, Vampire and the Ballerina is a mess. Even in its original, Italian-language print that I saw, the film has been dubbed – like many Italian genre films of the 1960s, it was filmed without sound and had the audio added in post-production. Thus, the problems typically associated with dubbed prints of foreign-produced genre films exist even in the original version of this film – the voice acting not only makes the performances seem laughably bad, but also is so poorly synched up to the picture that it becomes difficult to take any of it seriously. The film reaches a low point when Francesca finds herself alone in a dark and dank crypt. Presumably, this scene would have been one of the obvious “scary movie” sequences, yet curiously there’s no spooky music to set the mood. Worse though is the fact that actress Tina Gloriani is mainly seen sitting motionless against an earthen wall for most of the scene while excruciatingly loud gasps, screams, and wails echo on the soundtrack. The voice is completely out of place for what we’re actually seeing onscreen (Gloriani’s mouth barely moves, let alone contorts in a manner that suggests that she’s screaming), and the result is that this scene, one of the few in the picture that really had the potential to be somewhat eerie, is more ludicrous than scary.


…And then there was the day Regis skipped the makeup trailer…

And then there’s actor Walter Brandi, who appears in the film playing the role of Herman the vampire. Though Herman typically looks like a normal, middle-aged guy, when he hasn’t fed on human blood for awhile, he transforms into a being that resembles an extremely haggard Regis Philbin, with unconvincing plastic fangs, gangly, swollen hands, and a mop of shaggy hair. In contrast to the quiet and restrained Herman, the vampire can do little except go into lengthy monologues about how he’s the “master of the world” and finish every stretch of dialogue by cackling maniacally while whipping his head to and fro.

Arguably one of the strangest elements of this film (which is saying something) is the music score by Aldo Piga which frequently seems completely inappropriate. The film features several completely absurd, misplaced dance routines which typically play out to some jaw-dropping, inappropriate music (subtle, classical ballet melodies one second, blaring burlesque tunes the next). Furthermore, this may be the only film in history in which a possibly suspenseful chase scene is accompanied by honest-to-goodness stripper music playing on the soundtrack. All in all, the unexpected soundtrack cues, moody photography, not-so-subtle eroticism, and surreal touches provided by the disjointed storyline nearly allow this film to play as a demented arthouse production.


Gotta love any flick with gratuitous, spontaneous dance numbers!

To most viewers, this film would play as the low-budget Eurotrash that it quite obviously is. As much as viewers could say what they want about it though, they never could call this film dull. There’s plenty of insanity going on here, and it compares favorably to films from this period made by the more “acclaimed” director Jess Franco. The Vampire and the Ballerina wouldn’t be something that many or indeed most people could appreciate, but if you get a kick out of films that are “so bad they’re good,” this not-altogether-coherent film that’s nonetheless strangely enjoyable might be worth tracking down.


I saw this On Demand in a nice-looking, full-screen, Italian-language print with English subtitles. While it hasn’t been released on video, it is available streaming from amazon.


4/10 : Pretty minimal throughout much of the film, with only a few bloodless vampire attacks. A goopy ending gives it some punch however.


1/10 : Some fairly mild suggestive dialogue; pretty clean overall.


3/10 : Heaving cleavage galore, nice-looking women prancing around in leotards, some lesbian overtones. No nudity, but definite cheesecake value.


8/10 : It’s strange and stupid, the kind of thing that’s tailor made for cult film fanatics.


Contradictory dialogue in action: “There, you are a monster again. Just a hideous monster. And I still need you. You are hideous…”

Brother Against Brother on the Race Track : INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY

INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY

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See it or ! 

(1/5)

Pros: Ann Sheridan and her smartass remarks

Cons: Just about everything

Featuring a climax that takes place during the famed Indianapolis 500 mile auto race that occurs each Memorial Day weekend, 1939’s Indianapolis Speedway plays like a scene-for-scene remake of 1932’s The Crowd Roars directed by Howard Hawks. Considering that Hawks’s film, which featured James Cagney and Joan Blondell in leading roles, was none-too-great to begin with, one has to wonder just what exactly Warner Brothers was thinking in green-lighting a remake only seven years later, especially given that the pool of talent assembled for Indianapolis Speedway pales in comparison to those who worked on the original film. I’d have to suspect that one of the main reasons why Speedway got the green flag was the fact that the same racing sequences seen in the original film could be inserted as-is into the remake, thus saving quite a bit of money and effort. These were, after all, the “action sequences” of the story, and most of the remaining footage could be thrown together quickly, cheaply, and without too much effort. Ultimately, the lack of imagination is what sinks the remake: Indianapolis Speedway is a complete waste of time, a piece cranked out rapidly in order to make a few bucks at the box office.

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Ah, the good ol’ days of motorsports…

It’s pretty shocking that the script for Indianapolis Speedway is credited to Sid Herzig and Wally Kline, based on a story by Howard Hawks. To say that this film is an original work stretches the notion of authorship beyond the breaking point: essentially, it’s a shot-by-shot recreation of The Crowd Roars, featuring the same set of characters and an identical scenario. The story starts off by introducing Joe Greer, a champion race car driver, visiting his younger brother Eddie for the first time in several years. Viewing his kid brother as the “brains” of the family, Joe’s been using his race winnings to send Eddie money to pay for his college tuition. Turns out though that Eddie’s been spending the money on other things, namely the construction of his own race car, and he’s been having moderate success on the local circuit. Initially reluctant to see his brother enter the dangerous world of auto racing, Joe agrees to tutor him in the “rules of the road” after he witnesses Eddie’s determination to succeed. The brothers’s racing career hits a major hurdle however when Eddie falls for a sharp-tongued young woman named Frankie who Joe believes would provide a bad influence in the young and naïve man’s life. This leads to inevitable hostilities between the two brothers that only intensify when they’re racing together, and following a tragic accident that occurs as a result of aggressive driving, it seems that Joe’s racing career is all but over. Do you suppose that the rivalry between family members can settle down long enough for the duo to claim victory in the world’s biggest automotive race?

To be frank, director Lloyd Bacon’s Indianapolis Speedway is just a clunker of a movie, even (perhaps especially) when compared to the strictly mediocre film that served as its blueprint. By any stretch, The Crowd Roars wasn’t a great flick, but to its credit, it did have a legitimate talent in Howard Hawks calling the shots from behind the camera. The entire feel of the film seemed to have been flavored by the types of crime thrillers that Cagney is best known for, and indeed one of the most interesting aspects of this talky and mostly tedious film was that one could see the actor in a role outside of his typical “tough guy” characterization. Bacon’s Indianapolis Speedway plays in a much different manner, operating during its opening third as light slapstick, emphasizing goofy humor and witty dialogue spat out very quickly by its cast of actors. This comedic tone is simply forgotten at some point in the film in favor of a more dramatic storyline, but I wasn’t willing to buy into this abrupt and rather jarring transition. The “tear-jerker” moments that exist later in the film are more ludicrous than heart-wrenching, and the blame for this situation falls on a cast that simply can’t hold their own with the given material.

Pat O’Brien as Joe Greer comes across as a jerk from the opening moments of the film. Mind you, Cagney’s Greer wasn’t much better, but at least Cagney could act. O’Brien seems incapable of presenting any genuine emotions when he’s called on to do it: it’s pretty amusing to watch scenes in which he gets that far-away look in his eyes when he attempts to reconcile his feelings of worthlessness and failure. A scene in which he starts out whining to his on-again-off-again girlfriend only to break down weeping is nearly too much to bear, perhaps one of most jaw-dropping examples of “overdoing it” I’ve seen in quite a long time. John Payne portrays Eddie as a sort of go-lucky everyman, but why is it that he (easily the more appealing of the brothers) permanently plays second banana to the womanizing, boozing, and rather despicable Joe? The most satisfying thing in the film is watching Joe hit rock bottom and mope about it – this guy doesn’t in any way, shape, or form deserve any better. That we have to later witness his character’s miraculous redemption actually ruins the film since it details precisely what I didn’t want to happen under any circumstance.

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Can’t. Keep. Eyes. Off. Ann. Sheridan.

Given that Joe is a scumbag, his would-be girlfriend Lee (played by Gale Page) is perfectly forgettable, and Eddie clearly isn’t the main focus of the story, it’s really no surprise that Ann Sheridan all but steals this movie playing Eddie’s spunky ladyfriend Frankie. Sheridan (at one point strutting around in GASP! a revealing outfit that exposes her bare midriff) has all the best lines (listen for the scene in which she – rightfully- admonishes Lee for hanging around with Joe), and gives this film the spark it oh-so-desperately needs. Problem is that the writers and director don’t seem to latch onto the fact that Sheridan is easily the best character here – right when it seems like we’re finally going to have a character who can potentially make this film watchable, Frankie is all but eliminated from the narrative, playing only a very minor role throughout the last half of the film. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost declare that those responsible for making this picture purposely sabotaged the production by focusing the narrative on characters a viewer doesn’t give a damn about while downplaying and/or eliminating the film’s best aspects.

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Yep. They’re really racing…

As mentioned earlier, all the racing scenes in this film were lifted straight out of The Crowd Roars, and while they played OK in the film they were designed for, these sequences look like the “stock footage” that they are in Indianapolis Speedway. Cut-ins featuring O’Brien and Payne sitting in cockpit mock-ups with dirt being thrown at them while rear-projection race cars speed around in the background aren’t at all convincing, and in the end, the very race scenes that should be the highpoint of this film wind up being bland, positively tiresome and lackadaisical. Even if a film like the much-maligned Days of Thunder careened off course, becoming a full-on romantic drama at some point, the thrilling race sequences ensured that a viewer didn’t completely lose faith in the production. Yes, the film was super cheesy (not to mention dumb), but it delivered what a viewer expected he would get out of it. Indianapolis Speedway, on the other hand, not only focuses too heavily on domestic issues, but lacks any tension or suspense as it builds up to a sputtering, unexciting climax. Poorly acted and lazily directed, this unoriginal and corny film stands as a horrific remake of a film that in no way shape or form ever needed to be remade. Skip it: the real deal Indy 500 has truckloads more action and drama.


It’s available on a DVD-R paired with the highway scare film The Bottle and the Throttle (which sounds like it would be more fun that the feature). I caught this on TCM, and personally, wouldn’t recommend shelling out any cash for it.


3/10 : Realistic portrayal of the dangers of racing, including a fatal accident. Minimal blood; some disturbing themes.


1/10 : Some threatening language; nothing major


2/10 : Ann Sheridan oozes sex appeal, but alas, we get nothing more than a few glimpses of bare skin


0/10 : Tame and lame


“You’ve taken that guy’s exhaust for so long you’ve got monoxide poisoning…”

A Definitive but Imperfect Spectacle Picture: GRAND PRIX

GRAND PRIX

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Sound; editing, racing sequences

Cons: Acting; story

Focusing on a sport that still may be the most expensive and most outright dangerous in the world, director John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix, which follows the Formula One world championship as it (literally) circles around Europe, is regarded by many as the finest auto racing movie ever made. I can see why this would be the case, since the racing sequences themselves are incredibly exhilarating and technically marvelous considering the time in which the film was made. Unfortunately, this nearly three hours long film plays too often in the manner of a soap opera, dealing mainly with the romantic exploits of a group of generally unlikable characters. Throughout much of the picture, I was unsure who exactly I was even supposed to be rooting for or viewing as the main character since the narrative jumps around quite a lot and rarely seems to settle in long enough to provide a satisfying depiction of any individual figure. Ultimately then, Grand Prix is a film of contrasts: one that will undoubtedly captivate the viewer for the half of its running time that chronicles the racing itself but will put him to sleep during the remaining duration that follows off-track activity.

During the biggest Formula One race of the year taking place in Monaco, teammates Pete Aron (played by rather surly James Garner) and Scott Stoddard (a lackadaisical performance from Brian Bedford) are having a fierce battle on-track when a mechanical failure causes Aron’s transmission to seize. Stoddard, with nowhere to go, plows into the rear of Aron’s car and is seriously injured in the ensuing crash. Furious at the mishap which he believes is Aron’s fault, the team owner fires Aron, leading him to seek a racing drive elsewhere. An opportunity arises in the form of an up-and-coming team owned by Japanese businessman Izo Yamura (the great Toshiro Mifune, whose voice is dubbed by the same guy who did the voice of Dr. Hu in King Kong EscapesWTF??!?), and Aron jumps at the chance to get back in a race car. As the rivalry between Stoddard and Aron heats up, one is also brewing at the Ferrari team between veteran French driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (French actor Yves Montand) and his cocky and young Italian teammate Nino Barlini (a lively Antonio Sabato). Meanwhile, soap opera shenanigans taking place off-track pop up when Aron tries to shack up with Stoddard’s flirty, suddenly-estranged wife (played by none other than Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter), while Sarti puts the moves on a plucky, older American woman (Eva Marie Saint) doing a story on the racing scene and Barlini charms any female in sight (including French singer/actress Françoise Hardy). As the championship battle comes down to the wire at the season’s final race in Italy, these interpersonal relationships begin to either spiral out of control or get real, and not everyone is going to walk away from this racing season unscathed…

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On the high banks at Monza

As one might expect considering that this is the work of a director coming off a number of tightly-constructed thrillers including The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds, Grand Prix is a technical marvel even if it in ways comes across as a bit of a mess. On one hand, the film definitely does a fine job of capturing the glitz and glamor of Formula One racing and the high society folks that inevitably are drawn to the sport. The picture also is phenomenal from a cinematic standpoint, with split-screen work and rapid-fire editing (designed by legendary graphic artist Saul Bass) that does a remarkable job of relating the tense atmosphere surrounding the races themselves. This film was photographed in 70mm and it shows, playing as a sort of test run at the types of techniques that would be used in the landmark music/concert film Woodstock. The editing and split-screen work flawlessly convey the idea of concurrent events taking place and give the viewer a seemingly authentic portrait of a “live” event as it happens. Additionally, Grand Prix boasts amazingly colorful photography by Lionel Lindon which not only captures breathtaking international locations, but also makes it seem like a viewer is right in the driver’s seat much of the time. I can easily see how this film influenced television coverage of auto racing since it includes aerial shots taken from helicopter which provides a “bigger picture” view of what’s happening in the race as well as in-car views that show how intense the competition is on the ground. Obviously, this film was made well-before in-car-cameras became widely used, so all this technology had to be developed exclusively for this film. The results of all this work are stunning to look at.

Problems begin to creep into the picture anytime cars aren’t barreling around on various racing circuits though: the script by Robert Alan Aurthur gets increasingly lame and tiresome as it goes along. Any sort of relationship issue one can imagine might turn up in the film, actually does – I was waiting for one of the women to declare that she’s pregnant at any moment. It’s rather disheartening that Aurthur appears to use various cliché story devices simply to elicit a gut response in a viewer rather than develop anything any aspect of these characters, and the barrage of sappy story material left me more nauseated by than legitimately concerned about them. I also thought the ending of the film was downright ineffective: I can understand that the film didn’t want to end on an entirely sour note in its depiction of Formula One, but the cop-out final scene with Garner walking the grid at Monza lessened the impact of the hard-hitting moment that featured at the climax of the picture. Given that one of the minor themes of the film deals with the racing audience’s need for accidents, blood, and potentially death, it’s strange that Frankenheimer and Aurthur didn’t go for the jugular here when they very easily could have. The conclusion of the film, in my mind then, simply drops the ball.

in car camera
Early in-car camera…yikes!

As much as I could say that the acting performances in this film are par for the course in a film of this nature from this time period, I also could point out that the actors don’t entirely impress. Generally, it seems as though most of the attention here is on Yves Montand as the honorable, veteran French competitor who’s beginning to see that his days racing are numbered. Considering that the Montand story comes across as schmaltzy despite the actor turning in arguably the best performance in the picture, it seems a ridiculous notion to focus a large amount screentime on an even less interesting storyline involving James Garner and his relationship with the wife of his main rival. It’s also pretty astonishing that a universally appealing and likable actor as Garner comes across like a prick in the film: I just couldn’t in any way shape or form like this guy no matter how much charm Garner as an actor has. To be frank, Jessica Walter seems like a total bimbo as she flip-flops from one guy to another while “living it up” in the racing scene, and Eva Marie Saint simply gets too hysterical down the stretch after doing a nice job in her early scenes. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the hilariously awful scene in which Sabato and Hardy engage in a war of words late in the going – listening to these two attempt the English language will just make your jaw hit the floor.

F1
Formula 1 Racing in the 1960s was DANGEROUS!

While the story leaves quite a bit to be desired, it should go without saying that Grand Prix would be an absolute must for fans of Formula racing since it shows the cars, tracks, and drivers that actually were competing in the sport in the mid 1960s. Being a fan of F-1 since I was a lad, the history on display was amazing to see, and it was also fascinating to me that this film seemed to capture the exact moment when the “old time” racing drivers were starting to find themselves challenged by “hotshot” younger talent – a situation that is even more prevalent today. I also loved how the climactic race took place (and was filmed) at the classic combined Monza circuit replete with high-speed, high-banked turns – this made the whole finale all the more exciting for me. Finally, it was pretty remarkable to see how much safety regulations have changed since the mid 1960s. I was shocked to see these cars speeding around the (full and lengthy) Spa-Francorchamps course in Belgium considering that this course uses public roads, runs within feet of actual residences, and has no guardrails of any sort over much of its length. Though the film doesn’t shy away from depicting how dangerous the sport is/was, it may actually downplay the outright brutality of Formula One racing in this era: in the era from 1966-1975, fourteen drivers – including Jochen Rindt, Jo Schlesser, Jo Siffert, and Lorenzo Bandini who all appeared in the film – lost their lives due to injuries sustained in crashes.

Despite its (many) shortcomings, it’s safe to say that Grand Prix is decidedly more interesting to watch than big-budget, star-studded melodramatic trash of the Airport variety – as much as I did get frustrated with all of Grand Prix’s stale off-track debacles, it never reaches the ultra-cheesy lows of a piece like the aforementioned 1970 disaster opus. A viewer can endlessly wish Frankenheimer’s amazingly ambitious film would have been more consistent, had better story material, and gotten better mileage out of a talented ensemble cast, but I’d have no problem saying that the images and sound alone make it worth watching. The roar of automobile engines have rarely been captured this well (the film won well-deserved Oscars for Best Sound, Sound Effects, and Editing), and Maurice Jarre’s music perfectly captures the ups and downs of competitive racing, with the opening overture in particular superbly mimicking the sound of race cars whizzing by. This film seems to be exactly what modern television producers are trying to achieve in their coverage of racing events, and imperfect though it is, Grand Prix is, quite simply, spectacular viewing.


A nice home video package – a gorgeous widescreen print of the film is supplemented with a half-hour “making-of,” a featurette about Saul Bass’s editing schemes and the sound design, a short tour of the famous Brands Hatch raceway, and a vintage behind-the-scenes program. Most interesting (to me anyway) was a short featurette dealing with F-1 racing in the 1960s that included interviews with various drivers and some cool archival footage.


3/10 : A few gnarly racing accidents showing the expected blood and carnage. If anything though, this film actually tones down the brutality of classic Formula One racing.


2/10 : Some adult-oriented discussions, a few uses of the word “damn;” pretty sanitary overall.


3/10 : These drivers get lucky on and off the track, though this film is mostly all saucy talk.


4/10 : Race fans will dig the hell out of the action sequences – and be bored beyond belief in between them


“I used to think nothing could be better than motorbike racing. Three times I am a World Champion on my motorbike. I am happy. Then I go into one of these, these cars: you sit in a box, a coffin, gasoline all around you. It is like being inside a bomb! Crazy, but of course the cars are faster, and that is the most important thing. ”