Wednesday, February 25, 2015


You'd think a movie with a script by Morrie Ryskind (A Night at the Opera) and a score by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill (no credits needed), would be long-considered a classic. But the answer to the musical's title, Where Do We Go From Here?, is "down the memory hole."

It's certainly an unusual concept for a musical, being the story of Bill Morgan, a 4-F scrap dealer who wants to impress the soldier-crazy slut Sally Smith, while blind to the affections of the good-girl Lucilla Powell. An inept genie in a magic lamp tries to grant Morgan his wish to join the army, but succeeds only in sending him back and forth through time -- the American Revolution, Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World, and 16th-century New Amsterdam -- while encountering Sally and Lucilla's ancestors along the way.

Fred MacMurray tries unsuccessfully
to look down June Haver's dress.
Alternately refined and juvenile, lively and tedious, Where Do We Go From Here? feels like a Broadway show that 20th Century-Fox decided would make a swell Technicolor movie instead. Gregory Ratoff's directing style consists of long, unedited takes without the panache of, say, Alfred Hitchcock or even Laurel & Hardy. While it works for the astonishing USO production number "Morale," it tends that much more to make the movie resemble a filmed play.

Not that Where Do We Go From Here? is without charm. Fred MacMurray, the man least likely to sing Kurt Weill, does a nice job with the dreamy "All at Once" and "If Love Remains" -- two numbers that are probably Cafe Carlyle staples even today. "The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria" (guess which scene), on the other hand, is a 10-minute mini-opera that impresses for its sheer audaciousness. 

But the score's overall sophistication is so far out of step from other '40s movie musicals and its own silly script that Where Do We Go From Here? probably bewildered its original audience. Sometimes bizarre is good. Other times it's just... bizarre.

Anthony Quinn and Fred MacMurray get cozy
while ignoring the hot squaw on the rug.
Along with MacMurray, the cast is something of a ragtag bunch. Joan Leslie and June Haver are beautiful but bland second-tier leading ladies. Mexican-born Anthony Quinn is a fast-talking 15th-century Indian chief who threatens to scalp Morgan, before selling him the island of Manhattan -- which already has Times Square street signs. (If you love relentless anachronistic humor, Where Do We Go From Here? is for you.) 

Gene Sheldon goes back
in time so he can refuse to
make this movie.
Stage actor Gene Sheldon speaks more dialogue as the idiot genie than he probably did in the rest of his career. If you're old enough, you may remember Sheldon on TV as either Zorro's mute sidekick, or variety shows playing banjo while making funny faces. Actually, you probably don't, but I do.

Where Do We Go From Here? has some trappings of an A-picture but with a B-movie running time of 74 minutes. (A sequence featuring Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes, presumably set in the Old West, was excised before its release.) Too, its May 1945 release date -- rather late for a flag-waving, World War II-themed picture -- suggests that it had been sitting on the shelf for at least a year. Like Fred MacMurray's character, Where Do We Go From Here? was probably never in quite the right time or place.

Anyone interested in watching the lengthy "Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria" production number can go here.

The demo for a deleted song, combining tongue-twisting lyrics and insulting Native American humor, can be heard here performed by Gershwin & Weill.

Monday, February 2, 2015


One of the most popular movies at this year's Sundance film festival was shot on an iPhone. The White Gorilla outdoes this DYI style by consisting mostly of footage from a movie made nearly 20 years earlier. The only way the moviemakers could have been lazier would have been to simply release it without the newly-shot material. In fact, it would have been better.  

The White Gorilla uses "highlights" from the 1927 serial Perils of the Jungle as flashbacks narrated by Steve Collins, a hunter recounting his African adventures with a friend, Bradford. 

"Let's you and him fight."
Well, not exactly with Bradford. You see, the actor playing Bradford is running around in 1927 while the actor playing Collins is skulking behind bushes or atop trees in 1945 allegedly watching the action unfold before him. No matter how much danger anyone is in, Collins uses every excuse in the book to avoid getting involved ("With the lions between me and the shack, there was nothing I could do but sit tight.") This is supposed to explain why the two actors never appear together, but actually makes Collins look like a coward. So much for the brave white hunter.

"If only someone from 1927 could save me!"
The moviemakers further try to hide the antiquity of the silent footage by badly dubbing in sound effects, music, and the occasional cry of "Help!" (which Collins, of course, never responds to). This doesn't rationalize, however, the drastically different fashions or brief scenes where characters' mouths move but no dialogue is heard. Even for undemanding B-movie fans of the '40s, The White Gorilla must have been greeted with flying popcorn boxes by everyone except kiddie matinee attendees. 

Ofay the Jungle Boy.
The "flashback" scenes, however, are good for reminding us of the classic jungle movie cliche of the white interlopers holding sway over the natives. The Perils of the Jungle footage takes it once step further by presenting some five year-old white kid as the ruler over anyone with skin darker than a coconut. They even kiss the brat's hand. Al Sharpton would love this picture. (The one "African" in the 1945 footage speaks with a Southern patois. South Africa, perhaps?)

My wife would love a coat like that.
But wither Konga, the titular white gorilla? He's in the 1945 footage, courtesy actor/stunt man/ professional gorilla imitator Ray Corrigan. Konga's bad attitude is due to being rejected by his darker-skinned "tribe." If you think the screenwriter intended The White Gorilla to be a social metaphor, don't bother. The movie was merely cashing in on the popularity of a similar movie then in release, White Pongo. Yes, there was a white gorilla movie craze in 1945. 

Grown men got paid to do this.
In addition to impersonating Konga, Ray Corrigan also plays hunter Steve Collins, thus giving him the chance to chase himself onscreen for a moment. When they come to fisticuffs, however, a double appears to step in as Collins. (Corrigan was quite protective of his monkey business.) Konga is later killed in a fight with another ape, which looks more like a bad wrestling match between two drunks in, well, monkey suits. 

This new footage runs less than half of White Gorilla's 60-minute running time, accounting for its alleged 3-day shoot. The scenes at the trading post which appear throughout the movie look like they could have been shot between breakfast and lunch. Make that breakfast and coffee break.

Yet I can't help but admire the moviemakers' chutzpah in promoting it as "The Greatest Wild Animal Picture Ever Made!" (Never trust a movie whose opening credits lists two actors followed by "AND AN ALL-STAR CAST.") And since producer Lou Weiss was responsible for both Perils in the Jungle and The White Gorilla, he didn't have to pay anyone for the rights to the old footage, thus lowering the already cut-rate budget. 

Don't give Harvey Weinstein any ideas. Given the chance, he'd happily find a way to combine the next Quentin Tarantino picture with Shakespeare in Love.


Friday, January 30, 2015


One of the many things I love about old movies is their simplicity. Or is it the original audiences' simplicity? Because there are times you have to swallow an awful lot of malarkey with these things (which I happily do).

Take Eyes in the Night, a 1942 M-G-M programmer. While trying to clear a friend of murder, Police Captain Duncan McLain breaks up a Nazi spy ring. 

You'd trust a blind cop with a gun, right?
So far, so World War II. But what sets McLain apart from other cops is that he's blind. And like other blind cops, McLain has no problem getting the drop on bad guys with his own patented martial arts technique, or walking (with his seeing eye dog) to a greenhouse on a property he's never visited before. McLain even has perfect cursive handwriting. The only thing he can't do is explain how the hell he's capable of all of this.

Friday's ticked off because his
contract said nothing about
publicity stills.
And speaking of geniuses, his dog Friday can understand commands like "Hide behind the bed," "Take this message home," and, probably, "Make me a South Beach Martini, and don't be stingy with the Cointreau."  Friday is also capable of jumping 12-foot walls and figuring out how to escape from a locked basement by knocking over a pile of mattresses and... well, it doesn't matter. You wouldn't believe me, anyway. Suffice it to say, this mutt makes Rin Tin Tin look like Goofy. According to the credits, Friday is played by Himself, which is a strange name for a dog. (Memo to wife: That's a joke.)

"Four walls and a roof... or is it
four roofs and a wall?"

Smart as he is, Friday can't talk (yet), so McLain has a two-legged sidekick, Marty, to describe the surroundings when inspecting crime scenes. But when Marty's played by the perennially dim-witted Alan Jenkins, you know that the dog ultimately has the upper paw. Jenkins, on loan from Warner Bros., seems almost out of place in a Metro picture, even one on the lower-end of the budget spectrum as Eyes of the Night, but, as usual, is a welcome sight. Well, except for the blind cop.

Ann Harding is 41 but playing 50.
Donna Reed is 24 but playing 17 while
looking 35
. The magic of Hollywood!
While it's always fun to see not-yet famous stars in early roles, it's even better when they're playing the opposite of what you're used to. And here, it's Donna Reed as the 17 year-old slutty bitch (or bitchy slut) Barbara Lawry, who's having an affair with her stepmother's ex-lover (the soon-to-be murder victim). In Eyes in the Night's final scene, Reed's character is going on a date with the middle-aged McLain. What people called a happy ending, we now refer to as "daddy issues."

"OK, anyone who isn't a Nazi, say 'aye.'"
I'm not sure how many Nazi spy rings there were in America, but judging from 1940s movies, you couldn't open a refrigerator without hearing "Sieg heil!" In Eyes of the Night, the krauts make up the theatre group Barbara Lawry belongs to and Norma's entire household staff. Didn't anyone hear of background checks?

I have no idea what's supposed
to be happening here.
Edward Arnold plays Capt. McLain with what used to be called his usual aplomb. Sophisticated, clever, almost happy to be blind, McLain doesn't let his affliction stop him from doing his job, although I wouldn't want to live in a town where there's a blind cop packing heat.

But Arnold's style is partly his undoing. Adept at playing villains (like Satan in the Metro short Inflation), he makes me just a little uncomfortable when a good guy, as in Eyes in the Night. There always seems to be something nasty simmering just below the surface, like a desire to kick his dog in the face without warning. (Paul Newman admitted basing his performance in the Coen Brothers' 1940s-style farce The Hudsucker Proxy on Arnold. Take it from someone who's seen it -- it was a bad idea.)

Maybe audiences didn't buy the blind-cop premise after all. The studio waited three years before making another McLain movie with Arnold before scuttling the whole idea. These were also Friday's only movie appearances. Not much of a call, apparently, for seeing-eye dogs working with blind cops. Typecasting's brutal, even if you can hide behind a bed on command.


To read about Inflation, go here.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


Blessed with direction by the legendary William "One-Take" Beaudine; actors whose neighbors probably never even heard of; and a title that makes no sense whatsoever, Below the Deadline is more interesting than it has any right to be.

On the surface, it's just another B-criminal picture about one gambling king, Joe Hilton, mooching in on the territory of another, Oney Kessel. What gives Below the Deadline an interesting twist, though, is that Joe is a World War II vet who happily inherited the underworld job after the murder of his brother Jeffrey.

In a time when post-war movies portrayed vets as world-class heroes who, at worst, had a little trouble adjusting to civilian life, Below the Deadline must have been unique. From the moment we meet Joe, we know he's trouble. Having lost his soul somewhere on the Philippines' battlefields, he's returned with a redwood-sized chip on his shoulder and an itch for violence. One of those vets who hates civilians, Joe has no empathy for anybody's death outside a war zone.

"So your hat's still on, eh? Well,
take that!"
Joe's first move in taking over Jeffrey's business is beating the hell out of one his yeggs, Nichols, just to show him who's boss. The fight scene is strangely absorbing, being sloppy, violent and surprisingly lengthy. And it's always fun to watch a fight where neither guy's fedora is knocked off until almost the very last moment -- hats must have been tighter in those days. Joe's Jewish bookkeeper Pinky looks on approvingly, telling the others, "That's m' boy!", a catchphrase repeated throughout the movie. (Character actor John Harmon plays Pinky with an a naturalness that turns up in old B-movies from time to time. He's so good, so real that it's almost discombobulating -- how the hell did he get in this picture?)

Apparently her high school
graduation picture.
Still, even the hardboiled Joe needs a jane, and it's Lynn Turner, one of his croupiers. Discovering that she's underage, Joe fires her before getting serious with the wooing. Lynn is supposed to be 19, but doesn't look like any girl my daughter goes to college with. (The actress, Ramsay Ames, was in reality 26.) Lynn somehow sees some good in Joe, but failing to straighten him out, breaks it off. C'mon, lady, let the guy be himself -- a semi-psychopathic criminal with a violent streak!

Nor can Joe be reformed by his former CO, Sam Austin, who tries convincing him into going in on a private air transportation business. But something good finally takes hold, when Joe donates some serious scratch to an anti-gambling
Lynn is impressed at Joe's ability to
 get shot in the stomach and still not bleed.
mayoral candidate named Vail, a vet who lost his leg in Okinawa. Joe's rival Oney takes this personally, leading to a climatic shootout at Sam's office. (Guys, can't you take this outside? I'm trying to run an airline here!) Oney goes to the slammer, while Joe leaves the craps tables behind, taking a job with Sam and reuniting with Lynn. How he managed to avoid prison time for his illegal activities is left unexplained.
William Beaudine, in a rare
moment not yelling, "Cut! Print!"
Below the Deadline features all the hallmarks of a Monogram movie. Actors casting multiple shadows on the walls; grimy sets; a 65-minute running time; men's suit with mile-wide lapels, and women's hairdos that no stylist outside a movie studio would be able to replicate now. Special mention must be made to the aforementioned William Beaudine, who directed close to 1,000 movies and TV shows, from 1915 to 1968. (Now you know how he earned the nickname "One-Take".)

I'm no fan of remakes, but Below the Deadline is just waiting for an update: An Iraq war vet comes home to take over his brother's drug ring and wipe out his rival once and for all. His on-the-level girlfriend wants him to go straight. His army buddy tries to get him to join him in a software business. Climactic shootout in the giant offices of the software company. Comedy relief from the Jewish bookkeeper. 

There, Hollywood, I've given it to you. Just change the title. 


Friday, December 12, 2014


Uptown New York tells the well-worn of the story of a woman, Patricia Smith, in love with two men, Dr. Max Silver and gumball-machine entrepreneur Eddie Doyle. As its poster's tagline reads, A human story of a girl who was... just human! We all know what that means, don't we? Just to make it clearer, ViƱa Delmar, who wrote Uptown New York's scenario, was also the author of the novels Bad Girl, Loose Ladies and Kept Woman. No wonder she's the rare writer whose name was on the promotional materials.

With that pedigree, I was hoping for some drug use and a bastard child thrown into Uptown New York -- especially when Patricia and Max spend the night together. However, the only genuine pre-code moments could be counted on one hand:

1) Max's overtly-Jewish family. His proud father invites friends over to announce that Max has graduated from med school -- or, as he says in his sing-song Yiddish accent, "I got for you a big surprise. I'm going to make for you a speech!" That kind of overtly-ethnic portrayal, the only kind portrayed in early talkies, would soon disappear, making movies waspier than an entomologist's greenhouse.

2) Eddie meets Patricia by rescuing her from a ladies room whose door is stuck shut. (Yes, he came in through the bathroom window.) No way would this be approved once the Hays Office dropped the hammer. Nor would they go for Eddie demanding, "Whatcha in there for, anyway?" But at least it gives me a new way to annoy my wife.

3) When Patricia yells at a couple of juvenile delinquents, the older of the two gives her an angry thumbs-up, which appears to be the '30s equivalent of "Up yours!" This gesture is worth trying at your next business meeting -- they'll never know what you're really thinking.

Uptown New York gives some interesting insight on what men expected of women in 1932. When Patricia asks Eddie why he's fallen so hard for her, he replies, "You're clean and good." This was movie-speak for "virgin," something we know she isn't. And once Eddie learns that Max had been her "sweetheart" two years earlier, it almost kills their marriage. Man, if that's what's going to stop Eddie, it's a good thing he's not around today.

"Of course I love you...
up to a point."
And talk about old-fashioned. The only reason Max didn't marry Patricia was because his family paired him off with a rich man's daughter so he could start a practice in Vienna before returning two years later. Such a trade-off! (Max is played by Leon Waycoff, who would soon change his name to Leon Ames, promptly becoming another of those "Oh, that guy!" character actors for the next 60 years. Don't believe me? Go here.)

Being a release from the long-forgotten Sono Art-World Wide studio, Uptown New York's low budget is onscreen throughout. Authentic New York shots consist only of stock footage, mostly under the credits. A sloppy process shot through a diner window looks like Times Square in the middle of an earthquake. And the climax -- Eddie begging Max to perform surgery on Patricia after she's hit by a truck -- is right out of Al Jolson's abysmal Say it with Songs from 1929.

Still, the movie has a nice scrappy feel about it, thanks mainly to Jack Oakie as Eddie. On loan from Paramount, Oakie is extremely likable. His naivete concerning Patricia's sexual history, along with his pride at owning a string of gumball machines across the city, is actually kind of charming in a goofy way. Guys undoubtedly identified with Oakie in a way impossible with, say, William Powell.

"Look at me when you're
talking to me!"
Oakie's performance -- all of his performances, in fact --  are that much more remarkable when you consider the after-effect of his childhood bout of scarlet fever. As Oakie's temperature rose, he could hear his eardrums pop -- and, he told a reporter, "that was the last thing I ever heard." Next time you read about an A-lister wrecking his dressing room trailer because he's been supplied with stale peanuts, just watch any Jack Oakie movie and remember: he's lip-reading his co-stars because he's deaf.

Most astonishing about Uptown New York, however, is Sono Art-World Wide's notorious pre-credit logo: a comely young woman strategically holding two spinning globes directly in front of her. The screenshot doesn't do it justice. You have to see it in action for the full effect. Supposedly dreamed up by studio investor (and one-time "king of comedy") Mack Sennett, it couldn't have been anything other than an outrageous in-joke meant to grab the audience's attention long enough for them to sit through an entire movie. 

As you can tell, it worked for me.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

DECOY (1946)

Decoy is a good name for a movie that looks like a typical film noir, only to feature a plot twist alien to the genre; stars a couple of unknowns who look like two other, famous actors; and features a third actor playing completely against type.

After Frank Olins is given the hot seat for an unspecified crime -- selling loose cigarettes? -- his two-timing girlfriend Margot Shelby seduces the noble Dr. Lloyd Craig into injecting him with the life-reviving drug Methylene Blue (which I hereby trademark as a new color for Uniqlo). 

It's all for love -- that is, the love she has for the 400-grand Olin's got socked away in the woods. Once Olin hands over a map leading to the money, he's plugged by Jim Vincent, his overpriced mouthpiece who's also Margot's third lover. How does this dame keep these guys straight?

Now in over his stethoscope, Dr. Craig is forced at gunpoint to drive Margot and Jim to the buried loot. Before the night is over, Margot has fatally run over Jim before finding the money and shooting Dr. Craig to death. Or so she thinks.

Mirror mirror on the wall,
who's the damnedest of them all?
Filled with little moments that separate it from other low budget crime pictures, Decoy opens with the ghostly Dr. Craig washing his hands in a bathroom right out of the Beggars Banquet album cover. Gazing at his reflection in a broken mirror, he seems shocked to be alive. After silently hitching his way to San Francisco, he plugs Margot but good before expiring. The oddly-named cop Joe Portugal drops by a moment later to hear Margot's deathbed -- make that death couch -- confession. It's a testament to her strength that she can inaugurate a 65-minute flashback after being shot in the chest. Ambulance? What ambulance?

Margot's nastiness comes wrapped in silk, thanks to her generous boyfriend Frank Olins. But considering that she's keeping two other guys punching the clock in her bedroom, Olins, the toughest of the bunch, is probably the biggest sap of the three. Imagine being electrocuted, then brought back to life an hour later, only to be shot by your sweetie's lover before your body's barely warm again. Hardly seems worth the trip.

He's not the only one
playing with fire.
You can't help feel sorry for him -- after all, he's played by Robert Armstrong, who brought King Kong to New York 13 years earlier. His stunned, disbelieving reaction to just lighting a match after being brought back to life is almost pitiful. "I'm alive!" he shouts, arousing memories of Frankenstein, "I'm alive!" Not for long, bub, not for long.

The original version of Midnight Run.
And for all this meshugga, Dr. Craig gave up his altruistic career as a slum doctor. As with Frank Olins, you feel bad for the doc, a good guy suckered by a pretty face, a sweet line of lies, and a body to revive the dead for. Herbert Rudley, who plays Dr. Craig, juices up the sympathy by being a near-double for Charles Grodin, the ultimate hangdog actor.

A fur hat for a cold mind.
Unlike other tough dames of this genre, Margot is a sophisticated, smooth-talking Brit. That's be due to "Miss Jean Gillie," as she's billed in the credits, being a sophisticated, smooth-talking Brit herself.  And by the looks of her, I'd wager she was being groomed as the next Joan Fontaine. (Aspiring actresses: if you want that kind of special billing in the credits, marry the movie's producer, as Miss Gillie did.)

A kiss to build a laugh on.
One more welcome twist is the great character actor Sheldon Leonard on the right side of the law for a change, as Det. Joe Portugal. Sneering as if his paycheck depended on it, he's all too familiar with Margot's type: the trollop with a heart of ice. Yet not even a misanthrope like Joe can resist her allure. Going in for a kiss requested by the dying Margot, he's unexpectedly spurned by the most contemptuous laugh ever captured on celluloid.

Supposedly a "lost" film until recently, Decoy is a welcome surprise to noir fans who thought they had seen them all. There was more than a little thought put into all aspects of its production, from the bizarre script to the atmospheric cinematography, and is the kind of Monogram production that rightfully drove the French cinema buffs into throes of extase. This Decoy, without doubt, is the real thing.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

THE BRAVE (1997)

When you read "A FILM BY" attached to a person who's never even directed traffic, and "SPECIAL APPEARANCE BY" with a big name, it can mean only two things. The movie is going to be self-consciously grim with a lot of heavy symbolism, and the big name is onscreen for five minutes. Just warning you. 

If you wonder why a movie starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando flew under your radar, don't worry. The Brave was never released in America, and is available only as a DVD from Asia. For that, you can thank its critical reception following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. To say that it was negative would be to describe the bombing of Hiroshima as a stern warning. 

Certainly the story should have met the approval of America-loathing cheese-eaters. Raphael, a poor American Indian living with his family in a trailer next to a garbage dump, agrees to be tortured and murdered in exchange for $50,000. In the week he has remaining to live, he tries to make life better for his people. That's it, kimosabe. 

How. Or more like, what the --?
Johnny Depp's first of many mistakes, other than agreeing to direct and rewrite the script, was to cast himself as Raphael. Despite his claims to be part Cherokee or Creek -- disputed by the tribes themselves -- Depp looks as Native American as I do, which is Irish. Long black hair and a bandana do not an Indian make. You wonder why his character just doesn't hop a bus to the nearest modeling agency if he wants to make some serious dough -- he's more beautiful than most women.

Then there's the idea of going through with being murdered. (Every review of The Brave says Raphael has been hired to appear in a snuff movie, but that wasn't made clear to me.) If you received $50,000 and was told return in a week to get sliced, wouldn't you maybe, just maybe, get the the hell out of Dodge?

So just why does Raphael intend to return? Because the snuff movie producer trusts him. Oh, brother. They should have called this movie The Stupid. (In the novel upon which The Brave is based, Raphael is indeed a mentally-defective drunk.)

"Sorry you don't have a shirt, kid.
But you can ride on the merry-go-round!"
OK, so maybe you do have some kind of honor. You hold up your end of the bargain because you're, I dunno, brave. But you have two kids and a wife back in the trailer next to the dump. You'd do right by them. Like opening a savings account with that 50 grand. Getting advice from a good accountant. Buy them some nice clothes instead of the rags they're walking around in.

Nah, you'd do what Raphael does -- build a carnival out of scraps from the dump. Then take your kid grocery shopping, where you load up your carts with junk food and race up and down the aisles, knocking over displays and laughing. Then throw a party for the tribe. Why not just buy a case of Grey Goose while you're at it and call it a day? (One of the party guests, whose character credit is "MAN EATING LEG", is Iggy Pop, who also wrote the score. Because Iggy's just as Indian as Depp.)

Crucifixion symbolism alert!
If you think all this would attract too much attention, well, you just aren't ready to make a movie. Raphael's old partner in crime, Luis, drops by for his share of the score and, when he doesn't find it, beats up the wife and son. Because no self-respecting ex-con like Raphael would ever take revenge for such a thing. 

Depp washes his sins away and, in doing so,
drives all the girls in the audience crazy with lust.

Just kidding! That night, Raphael goes all Mike Tyson on Luis, first biting off his ear, then breaking his neck. And he does all this in front of two hookers. That's OK -- he's going to be murdered tomorrow anyway! But first, he stops off to see his father, who performs a ceremony calling up the spirits to... well, I dunno, the old guy didn't say exactly. Then Raphael goes to town the following morning to get killed. A real popcorn movie, The Brave is.
Last War Dance in Arizona.

Marlon "Special Appearance" Brando plays McCarthy, the snuff movie producer -- if that's what he really is -- as if he never left the set of Apocalypse Now. Pushing himself around in a wheelchair, blowing a harmonica, mumbling his flowery dialogue (self-written by the sounds of it) through suspiciously large, red lips, the gargantuan method actor has apparently been visited by the ghost of Lee Strasberg with the instruction, "You are a talking whale!"

It's commendable, in a way, that by this stage of the game, Brando didn't care what people thought of him. But in comparing his bizarre maundering here to his epic soliloquy in Julius Caesar, you're almost awed by how far down he's come -- or rolled. And yet... you keep yearning for him to reappear in The Brave because his wackiness stands in such stark relief to the rest of the movie.

As for Depp's direction, it's Very Serious. A low shot of Raphael on one side of the screen and a priest on the other, while divided by the church, is a little too on the nose. On the other hand, his choice of keeping The Brave dialogue-free for the first ten minutes is actually interesting. Best of all is the early scene with Raphael applying for a job in a rundown office with faulty fluorescent lighting, a manager with a bad attitude and an unidentified, muttering freak in the corner of the room. (You have to see it to really appreciate it -- kind of like Orson Wells meets David Lynch.) Raphael being led through an increasingly-hellish series of dark hallways and giant elevators to meet McCarthy gives The Brave a genuine, welcome creepiness that never returns. Other than Brando playing harmonica.

Between takes: Brando minus his
hairpiece, while Depp wonders what the hell
he's saying.
In the wake of The Brave's poor reception, Johnny must have thought twice about directing ever again. Certainly the idea of tackling something as serious as this never crossed his mind. From here on out, it was clear sailing with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Alice in Wonderland, and the Dark Shadows parody. Like his idol Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp is more than willing to go from "most respected actor of his generation" to "human cartoon." Maybe he is The Brave after all.

Confession: My copy of The Brave is 30 minutes shorter than its official two-hour running time. That in itself should have prevented me from writing about it, but probably made me that much more positive about the whole thing.