The Conquering Hero: Baby Blue Marine (1976, directed by John D. Hancock)


The year is 1943 and America is at war.  All young men are expected to join the Marines and fight for their country but the Corps is not willing to accept just anyone.  Marion (Jan-Michael Vincent) wants to continue a family tradition of service but, as his drill sergeant (Michael Conrad) puts it, Marion just is not pissed off enough to be a Marine.  Marion is kicked out basic training and told to go home.  He is given a blue uniform to wear on his jury so that anyone who sees him will know that he couldn’t cut it.

Ashamed of his failure and in no hurry to confront his family, Marion takes the long route home.   While having a drink in California, he meets a Marine (Richard Gere) who did not get kicked out of basic training.  Though not yet 30, this shell-shocked Marine already has a head of gray hair, which he says he got from the horrors of war.  The Marine is due to return to the fighting in Europe but, upon meeting Marion, he sees a way out. When Marion gets drunk, the Marine knocks him out, switches uniforms with him, and goes AWOL.

When Marion comes to, he discovers that everyone that he meets now judges him by his new uniform.  Strangers buy him drinks.  Other servicemen try to pick fights with him.  When he stops off in a small Colorado town, a local waitress (Glynnis O’Connor) falls in love with him and nearly everyone that he meets assumes that he must be a hero.  Marion doesn’t exactly lie about his past.  Instead, he simply allows people to believe whatever they want to believe about him.  It seems like an idyllic situation until three prisoners from a nearby Japanese internment camp escape and the towns people expect Marion to help capture them.

Loosely plotted and sentimental, Baby Blue Marine is a dramatic version of Preston Sturges’s Hail The Conquering Hero.  Though the film has a gentle anti-war message, it’s actually more about nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent time.  If the film had been made at height of the Vietnam War, it might have been more angrier and more cynical.  But, instead, this is one of the many post-Watergate films that wistfully looked back upon the past.  When Marion settles into the town, he finds what appears to be a perfect and friendly home.  Only the nearby internment camp and the town’s hysteria over the escape prisoners serve as reminders that things are never as ideal as they seem.  Jan-Michael Vincent gives one of his best performances as the well-meaning Marion and actors like Richard Gere, Bert Remsen, Katherine Helmond, Dana Elcar, Michael Conrad, Bruno Kirby, and Art Lund all make strong impressions in small roles.

One of the few films to be produced by television mogul Aaron Spelling, Baby Blue Marine is not easy to find but worth the search.

Playing Catch-Up: Crisscross, The Dust Factory, Gambit, In The Arms of a Killer, Overboard, Shy People


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Crisscross
  • Released: 1992
  • Directed by Chris Menges
  • Starring David Arnott, Goldie Hawn, Arliss Howard, Keith Carradine, James Gammon, Steve Buscemi

An annoying kid named Chris Cross (David Arnott) tells us the story of his life.

In the year 1969, Chris and his mother, Tracy (Goldie Hawn), are living in Key West.  While the rest of the country is excitedly watching the first moon landing, Chris and Tracy are just trying to figure out how to survive day-to-day.  Tracy tries to keep her son from learning that she’s working as a stripper but, not surprisingly, he eventually finds out.  Chris comes across some drugs that are being smuggled into Florida and, wanting to help his mother, he decides to steal them and sell them himself.  Complicating matters is the fact that the members of the drug ring (one of whom is played by Steve Buscemi) don’t want the competition.  As well, Tracy is now dating Joe (Arliss Howard), who just happens to be an undercover cop.  And, finally, making things even more difficult is the fact that Chris just isn’t that smart.

There are actually a lot of good things to be said about Crisscross.  The film was directed by the renowned cinematographer, Chris Menges, so it looks great.  Both Arliss Howard and Goldie Hawn give sympathetic performances and Keith Carradine has a great cameo as Chris’s spaced out dad.  (Traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam, Chris’s Dad left his family and joined a commune.)  But, as a character, Chris is almost too stupid to be believed and his overwrought narration doesn’t do the story any good.  Directed and written with perhaps a less heavy hand, Crisscross could have been a really good movie but, as it is, it’s merely an interesting misfire.

  • The Dust Factory 
  • Released: 2004
  • Directed by Eric Small
  • Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Hayden Panettiere, Ryan Kelly, Kim Myers, George de la Pena, Michael Angarano, Peter Horton

Ryan (Ryan Kelly) is a teen who stopped speaking after his father died.  One day, Ryan falls off a bridge and promptly drowns.  However, he’s not quite dead yet!  Instead, he’s in The Dust Factory, which is apparently where you go when you’re on the verge of death.  It’s a very nice place to hang out while deciding whether you want to leap into the world of the dead or return to the land of the living.  Giving Ryan a tour of the Dust Factory is his grandfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl).  Suggesting that maybe Ryan should just stay in the Dust Factory forever is a girl named Melanie (Hayden Panettiere).  Showing up randomly and acting like a jerk is a character known as The Ringmaster (George De La Pena).  Will Ryan choose death or will he return with a new zest for living life?  And, even more importantly, will the fact that Ryan’s an unlikely hockey fan somehow play into the film’s climax?

The Dust Factory is the type of unabashedly sentimental and theologically confused film that just drives me crazy.  This is one of those films that so indulges every possible cliché that I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t based on some obscure YA tome.  I’m sure there’s some people who cry while watching this film but ultimately, it’s about as deep as Facebook meme.

  • Gambit
  • Released: 2012
  • Directed by Michael Hoffman
  • Starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Tom Courtenay, Stanley Tucci, Cloris Leachman, Togo Igawa

Harry Deane (Colin Firth) is beleaguered art collector who, for the sake of petty revenge (which, as we all know, is the best type of revenge), tries to trick the snobbish Lord Shabandar (Alan Rickman) into spending a lot of money on a fake Monet.  To do this, he will have to team up with both an eccentric art forger (Tom Courtenay) and a Texas rodeo star named PJ Puznowksi (Cameron Diaz).  The plan is to claim that PJ inherited the fake Monet from her grandfather who received the painting from Hermann Goering at the end of the World War II and…

Well, listen, let’s stop talking about the plot.  This is one of those elaborate heist films where everyone has a silly name and an elaborate back story.  It’s also one of those films where everything is overly complicated but not particularly clever.  The script was written by the Coen Brothers and, if they had directed it, they would have at least brought some visual flair to the proceedings.  Instead, the film was directed by Michael Hoffman and, for the most part, it falls flat.  The film is watchable because of the cast but ultimately, it’s not surprising that Gambit never received a theatrical release in the States.

On a personal note, I saw Gambit while Jeff & I were in London last month.  So, I’ll always have good memories of watching the movie.  So I guess the best way to watch Gambit is when you’re on vacation.

  • In The Arms of a Killer
  • Released: 1992
  • Directed by Robert L. Collins
  • Starring Jaclyn Smith, John Spencer, Nina Foch, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Sandahl Bergman, Linda Dona, Kristoffer Tabori, Michael Nouri

This is the story of two homicide detectives.  Detective Vincent Cusack (John Spencer) is tough and cynical and world-weary.  Detective Maria Quinn (Jaclyn Smith) is dedicated and still naive about how messy a murder investigation can be when it involves a bunch of Manhattan socialites.  A reputed drug dealer is found dead during a party.  Apparently, someone intentionally gave him an overdose of heroin.  Detective Cusack thinks that the culprit was Dr. Brian Venible (Michael Nouri).  Detective Quinn thinks that there has to be some other solution.  Complicating things is that Quinn and Venible are … you guessed it … lovers!  Is Quinn truly allowing herself to be held in the arms of a killer or is the murderer someone else?

This sound like it should have been a fun movie but instead, it’s all a bit dull.  Nouri and Smith have next to no chemistry so you never really care whether the doctor is the killer or not.  John Spencer was one of those actors who was pretty much born to play world-weary detectives but, other than his performance, this is pretty forgettable movie.

  • Overboard
  • Released: 1987
  • Directed by Garry Marshall
  • Starring Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Edward Herrmann, Katherine Helmond, Roddy McDowall, Michael G. Hagerty, Brian Price, Jared Rushton, Hector Elizondo

When a spoiled heiress named Joanne Slayton (Goldie Hawn) falls off of her luxury yacht, no one seems to care.  Even when her husband, Grant (Edward Herrmann), discovers that Joanne was rescued by a garbage boat and that she now has amnesia, he denies knowing who she is.  Instead, he takes off with the boat and proceeds to have a good time.  The servants (led by Roddy McDowall) who Joanne spent years terrorizing are happy to be away from her.  In fact, the only person who does care about Joanne is Dean Proffitt (Kurt Russell).  When Dean sees a news report about a woman suffering from amnesia, he heads over to the hospital and declares that Joanne is his wife, Annie.

Convinced that she is Annie, Joanne returns with Dean to his messy house and his four, unruly sons.  At first, Dean says that his plan is merely to have Joanne work off some money that she owes him.  (Before getting amnesia, Joanne refused to pay Dean for some work he did on her boat.)  But soon, Joanne bonds with Dean’s children and she and Dean start to fall in love.  However, as both Grant and Dean are about to learn, neither parties nor deception can go on forever…

This is one of those films that’s pretty much saved by movie star charisma.  The plot itself is extremely problematic and just about everything that Kurt Russell does in this movie would land him in prison in real life.  However, Russell and Goldie Hawn are such a likable couple that the film come close to overcoming its rather creepy premise.  Both Russell and Hawn radiate so much charm in this movie that they can make even the stalest of jokes tolerable and it’s always enjoyable to watch Roddy McDowall get snarky.  File this one under “Kurt Russell Can Get Away With Almost Anything.”

A remake of Overboard, with the genders swapped, is set to be released in early May.

  • Shy People
  • Released: 1987
  • Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
  • Starring Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Hershey, Martha Plimpton, Merritt Butrick, John Philbin, Don Swayze, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Mare Winningham

Diana Sullivan (Jill Clayburgh) is a writer for Cosmopolitan and she’s got a problem!  It turns out that her teenager daughter, Grace (Martha Plimpton), is skipping school and snorting cocaine!  OH MY GOD!  (And, to think, I thought I was a rebel just because I used to skip Algebra so I could go down to Target and shoplift eyeliner!)  Diana knows that she has to do something but what!?

Diana’s solution is to get Grace out of New York.  It turns out that Diana has got some distant relatives living in Louisiana bayou.  After Cosmo commissions her to write a story about them, Diana grabs Grace and the head down south!

(Because if there’s anything that the readers of Cosmo are going to be interested in, it’s white trash bayou dwellers…)

The only problem is that Ruth (Barbara Hershey) doesn’t want to be interviewed and she’s not particularly happy when Diana and Grace show up.  Ruth and her four sons live in the bayous.  Three of the sons do whatever Ruth tells them to do.  The fourth son is often disobedient so he’s been locked up in a barn.  Diana, of course, cannot understand why her relatives aren’t impressed whenever she mentions that she writes for Cosmo.  Meanwhile, Grace introduces her cousins to cocaine, which causes them to go crazy.  “She’s got some strange white powder!” one of them declares.

So, this is a weird film.  On the one hand, you have an immensely talented actress like Jill Clayburgh giving one of the worst performances in cinematic history.  (In Clayburgh’s defense, Diana is such a poorly written character that I doubt any actress could have made her in any way believable.)  On the other hand, you have Barbara Hershey giving one of the best.  As played by Hershey, Ruth is a character who viewers will both fear and admire.  Ruth has both the inner strength to survive in the bayou and the type of unsentimental personality that lets you know that you don’t want to cross her.  I think we’re supposed to feel that both Diana and Ruth have much to learn from each other but Diana is such an annoying character that you spend most of the movie wishing she would just go away and leave Ruth alone.  In the thankless role of Grace, Martha Plimpton brings more depth to the role than was probably present in the script and Don Swayze has a few memorable moments as one of Ruth’s sons.  Shy People is full of flaws and never really works as a drama but I’d still recommend watching it for Hershey and Plimpton.

Film Review: The Hindenburg (dir by Robert Wise)


80 years ago, on May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship, exploded in the air over New Jersey.  The disaster was not only covered live by radio reporter Herbert Morrison (whose cry of “Oh the humanity!” continues to be parodied to this day) but it was also one of the first disasters to be recorded on film.  Looking at the footage of the Hindenburg exploding into flame and sinking to the ground, a mere skeleton of what it once was, it’s hard to believe that only 36 people died in the disaster.  The majority of those who died were crew members, most of whom lost their lives while helping passengers off of the airship.  (Fortunately, the Hindenburg was close enough to the ground that many of the passengers were able to escape by simply jumping.)

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of speculation about what led to the Hindenburg (which has successfully completed 63 flights before the disaster) exploding.  The most commonly accepted explanation was that it was simply an act of God, the result of either lightning or improperly stored helium.  Apparently, there was no official evidence found to suggest that sabotage was involved but, even back in 1937, people loved conspiracy theories.

And really, it’s not totally implausible to think that the Hindenburg was sabotaged.  The Hindenburg was making its first trans-Atlantic flight and it was viewed as being a symbol of Nazi Germany.  One of the ship’s passengers, Captain Ernest Lehman, was coming to the U.S. in order to lobby Congress to give Germany helium for their airships.  With Hitler regularly bragging about the superiority of German industry, the theory was that an anti-Nazi crewman or passengers planted a bomb on the Hindenburg.  Since no individual or group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, the theory continues that the saboteur must have perished in the disaster.

At the very least, that’s the theory put forward by a film that I watched earlier today, the 1975 disaster movie, The Hindenburg.

A mix of historical speculation and disaster film melodrama, The Hindenburg stars George C. Scott as Col. Franz Ritter, a veteran of the German air force who is assigned to travel on the Hindenburg and protect it from saboteurs.  Ritter is a Nazi but, the film argues, he’s a reluctant and disillusioned Nazi.  Just a few weeks before the launch of the airship, his teenage son was killed while vandalizing a synagogue.  Ritter is a patriot who no longer recognizes his country and George C. Scott actually does a pretty good job portraying him.  (You do have to wonder why a seasoned veteran of the German air force would have a gruff, slightly mid-Atlantic accent but oh well.  It’s a 70s disaster film.  These things happen.)

Ritter is assigned to work with Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), a member of the Gestapo who is working undercover as the Hindenburg’s photographer.  Tt soon becomes obvious that he is as much a fanatic as Ritter is reluctant.  Vogel is a sadist, convinced that every Jewish passenger is secretly a saboteur.  Thinnes is chilling in the role.  What makes him especially frightening is not just his prejudice but his casual assumption that everyone feels the same way that he does.

And yet, as good as Scott and Thinnes are, the rest of the cast is rather disappointing.  The Hindenburg features a large ensemble of actors, all playing characters who are dealing with their own privates dramas while hoping not to burn to death during the final 15 minutes of the film.  Unfortunately, even by the standards of a typical 70s disaster film, the passengers are thinly drawn.  I liked Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as two con artists but that was mostly because Meredith and Auberjonois are so charming that they’re fun to watch even if they don’t have anything to do.  Anne Bancroft has one or two good scenes as a German baroness and Robert Clary does well as a vaudeville performer who comes under suspicion because of his anti-Nazi leanings.  Otherwise, the passengers are forgettable.  Whether they die in the inferno and manage to make it to the ground, your main reaction will probably be to look at them and say, “Who was that again?”

Anyway, despite all of Ritter and Vogel’s sleuthing, it’s not much of mystery because it’s pretty easy to figure out that the saboteur is a crewman named Boerth (William Atherton).  Having seen Real GeniusDie Hard and the original Ghostbusters, I found it odd to see William Atherton playing a sympathetic character.  Atherton did okay in the role but his attempt at a German accent mostly served to remind me that absolutely no one else in the film was trying to sound German.

Anyway, the main problem with The Hindenburg is that it takes forever for the airship to actually explode.  The film tries to create some suspense over whether Ritter will keep the bomb from exploding but we already know that he’s not going to.  (Let’s be honest.  If you didn’t already know about the Hindenburg disaster, you probably wouldn’t be watching the movie in the first place.)  The film probably would have worked better if it had started with the Hindenburg exploding and then had an investigator working backwards, trying to figure out who the saboteur was.

However, the scenes of the explosion almost make up for everything that came before.  When that bomb goes off, the entire film suddenly switches to black-and-white.  That may sound like a cheap or even sensationalistic trick but it actually works quite well.  It also allows the scenes of passengers and crewmen trying to escape to be seamlessly integrated with actual footage of the Hindenburg bursting into flame and crashing to the ground.  The real-life footage is still shocking, especially if you’re scared of fire.  Watching the real-life inferno, I was again shocked to realize that only 36 people died in the disaster.

In the end, The Hindenburg is flawed but watchable.  George C. Scott was always at his most watchable when playing a character disappointed with humanity and the real-life footage of the Hindenburg disaster is morbidly fascinating.

Oh, the humanity indeed!

A Movie A Day #75: Wanted: The Sundance Woman (1976, directed by Lee Philips)


This made-for-TV sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid opens several years after the death of Butch and Sundance in Bolivia.  Etta Pace (Katharine Ross, reprising her role from the original film) is now a wanted woman.  Hiding out in Arizona, she does her best to keep a low profile.  But when Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo (Steve Forrest) comes to town and one of Etta’s friends (Michael Constantine) is arrested, Etta knows that she’s going to need help to survive.  Crossing the border into Mexico, she teams up with revolutionary Pancho Vila (Hector Elizondo).  In return for helping him get his hands on a shipment of guns, Vila agrees to protect Etta.

Wanted: The Sundance Woman was ABC’s second pilot for a possible television series about Etta Pace’s adventures at the turn of the century.  The first pilot starred Elizabeth Montgomery as Etta and directly dealt with Etta’s attempts to come to terms with the death of Butch and Sundance.  While Katharine Ross returned to the role for the second pilot, Wanted: The Sundance Woman does not actually have much of a connection to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.  Katharine Ross could have just as easily been playing Etta Smith as Etta Pace.

Wanted: The Sundance Woman is held back by its origins as a TV movie and a rather silly romance between Etta and Pancho Vila.  Hector Elizondo is hardly convincing as a fiery revolutionary and Steve Forrest is reliably dull as Siringo.  It is not really surprising that this pilot didn’t lead to a weekly series.  On the positive side, the film does feature an exciting train robbery and Katharine Ross is just as good in this sequel as she was in the original.  Even though she was talented, beautiful, and had important roles in two of the most successful films of the 60s (The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Hollywood never seemed to know what do with Katharine Ross.  While she did have a starring role in The Stepford Wives, Katharine Ross spent most of the 70s appearing in stuff like The Swarm, They Only Kill Their Masters, and The Betsy.  It’s unfortunate that Hollywood apparently did not want Katharine Ross as much Pancho Vila wanted the Sundance Woman.

Back to School Part II #7: Cage Without A Key (dir by Buzz Kulik)


Cage-without-a-key_tv-guide-poster

For the fifth film in my Back To School series of reviews, I watched Cage Without A Key, a made-for-TV movie from 1975.

17 year-old Valerie Smith (Susan Dey) would appear to have everything.  She has a loving mother and a loyal best friend.  She just graduated from high school and has been accepted to a good college.  She’s looking forward to going down to San Francisco for the weekend before starting her summer job.  The future look great and, of course, that means that she’s about to make the biggest mistake of her life.

And she’s going to do it 70s style!

When her car breaks down on the way to San Francisco, she makes the mistake of accepting a ride from a long-haired guy in a Volkswagen microbus.  Buddy Goleta (Sam Bottoms, in full 70s weirdo mode) went to high school with Valerie and appears to have a crush on her.  Buddy also appears to be a little bit crazy himself as he tells everyone that he meets that Valerie is “my old lady.”  Finally, Buddy pulls over to a convenience store and kills everyone inside.  Since Valerie’s in the microbus, she gets arrested along with Buddy.  Since Buddy claims that he and Valerie are lovers, she’s convicted of being an accessory and is sentenced to a … REFORM SCHOOL!

(Cue dramatic music.)

The warden — Mrs. Little (Katharine Helmond) — insists that she’s not running a prison.  Instead, she’s running a very progressive school where the students all happen to be thieves and murderers.  The school even has pleasant euphemisms for all the standard prison film elements.  For instance, no one is put in solitary confinement.  Instead, they’re sent to meditation.

Anyway, while Valerie waits for her dedicated public defender (David Brandon) to prove her innocence and get her out of reform school, she finds herself being approached by the various gangs who run the school.  Valerie says she doesn’t want anything to do with any of that.  She just wants to fly under the radar until she’s set free.  But then she’s approached by a predatory lesbian and, as we all known from watching other prison films, nothing will make you join a gang faster than being approached by a predatory lesbian…

Okay, Cage Without A Key is not exactly Orange Is The New Black.  What it is, however, is a time capsule of the time it was made.  Everything from the slang to the clothes to the attitudes to the squishy, upper class liberalism of Valerie’s lawyer practically screams 1970s.

Add to that, classic film lovers will appreciate the fact that the evil gang leader is named Suzy Kurosawa!

Incidentally, Cage Without A Key was written by Joanna Lee, who readers of this site will probably best remember for playing one of the alien invaders in Plan 9 From Outer Space.