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You Make It Feel Like Christmas

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 24 December 2017 07:58 (A review of You Make It Feel Like Christmas)

If you had asked me what I thought a potential Gwen Stefani Christmas album would sound like, I’d probably respond with something along the lines of the bratty New Wave of the Waitresses song “Christmas Wrapping,” maybe the synthpop of Wham!’s “Last Christmas” (more on that song later), or the alternative rock of No Doubt’s cover of “Oi the World.” I wouldn’t expect an album of 50s doo-wop and 60s girl group pop. But it’s a pleasant surprise how well her quirky voice can wrap around these sounds, for the most part.


“Jingle Bells” sets us off, and it’s a propulsive blast of old school pop and rock sounds with Stefani’s trademark vibrato riding the waves of the song wonderfully. It’s colorful, it’s quirky, it’s fun, and it sounds like Stefani is as energized here as she was on This Is What the Truth Feels Like. It’s fun to hear her unique voice deliver traditional songs like “White Christmas” or “Let It Snow.” She brings a certain spunk and animated character to them.


Yet the limits of her voice show in “Silent Night,” a song she just doesn’t have the range for. She sounds like she’s pushing hard for some of the bigger, higher notes, and maybe this one should’ve been left on the chopping block in favor of something like “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” or “Blue Christmas.”


While her version of “Santa Baby” can’t hold a candle to Eartha Kitt’s original, it’s still miles better than several other covers. I’m looking at you Madonna! Stefani’s voice has a certain quality that’s Betty Boop-ish at times, and it’s deployed on this song to strong effect. It’s a fun bit of kitsch, and you can practically conjure up a music video for it with Stefani in some glittery naughty Mrs. Claus outfit done up like a pinup girl.


The real surprise of the covers is “Last Christmas.” No mournful synthpop here, instead it sounds like a song the Shirelles might have recorded. It’s a stellar cover where Stefani’s penchant for breakup melodramatics gets to sparkle, and she makes a meal out of it. She mentioned the A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector as an influence on the album, and that sound is most apparent here with the layers of background vocals, instruments, and hint of melancholy.


The other half of the album is original material, with the treacle of “When I Was a Little Girl” and love song “Never Kissed Anyone with Blue Eyes Before” being standouts for the wrong reasons. Many Christmas songs are love songs of joy or heartache wrapped up in yuletide garnishes, but these songs have little to nothing to do with the season. A much better example of the combination of Christmas/love song is “My Gift Is You,” which sounds a bit like “Stand By Me” and proclaims the greatest gift isn’t anything material but the love she’s found with her paramour.


Speaking of him, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” is a sweet little love song that bounces and grooves like a Motown banger. While “Christmas Eve” may be the best of the original songs, as Stefani digs deep into her Catholic upbringing to craft a song that sounds at once like a pop ballad and a hymnal. It’s gorgeous, highly dramatic, and filled with just a hint of sadness and nostalgia that creeps in around this time for all the colored lights and joyful noise. You Make It Feel Like Christmas is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s a strong, pleasant listen overall.


DOWNLOAD: “Last Christmas”

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Merry from Lena

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 24 December 2017 07:22 (A review of Merry From Lena)

Not quite standard yuletide fare but rather a lounge club act centered on the Christmas spirit, Merry from Lena zips and swings with Lena Horne’s trademark sultry and jazzy vocals and bits of adult-oriented humor to give it plenty of flavor. “Jingle All the Way,” a reworking of “Jingle Bells,” sets the tone for the rest of the record, and it’s snappy and grooves along with a ring-a-ting vibe that wouldn’t sound out of place among the Rat Pack. It’s in these moments that Merry from Lena springs to life the most.


Listen to how punctuated and emphatic a sultry invitation she makes out of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” She swings along on the groove and delivers well known lines like “I brought some corn for popping” in completely fresh and engaging ways. It sounds like a cozy party with cocktails, humor, and maybe something more under her direction.


Then there’s “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which she mostly plays straight until dropping this joke: “I think he had a problem. I think he probably liked a little nip once in a while.” Her tongue is firmly planted in her cheek, and zips through the song as if it’s a riot of improbability and drunk humor. You can practically hear the wink she gives while delivering that opening joke and a few other phrase readings.


Much of Merry from Lena is made up of traditional ballads, these gives straight dramatic interpretations. Horne was one of our greatest vocal storytellers, able to build up a song’s interior life and dramatics through phrasing, pauses, and belts. “Silent Night” is gorgeous and melodramatic, “The Christmas Song” is unbearably sophisticated, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” quakes with vulnerability and the sadness baked into the song.


Some of the album is just a pleasing showcase for her vocal styling, “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” and a extra-swinging version of “What Are You Doing on New Year’s Eve” are all pleasing if not exactly redefining. They play out indistinguishable as arrangements from numerous other versions with only Horne’s vocals being the thing that makes identifiable. Still, Merry from Lena is an enjoyable and fun trip through the season. And she manages to make “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” into a hepcat tune, not too shabby.


DOWNLOAD: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

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Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 8 December 2017 08:51 (A review of Compulsion)

The true crime story of Leopold and Loeb is something that continues to entrance audiences with its layers of complicated motivations and deviant behavior, add in a dash of homosexuality and Nietzschian ideology and the whole thing practically comes gift wrapped with tabloid glamour. The best known film inspired by the true story was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, a grand artistic experiment that finds it stylistic flourishes hampering its merits as a film, but this one may be the best film made out of the case.


Compulsion dives us into the minds of its two killers, affluent prodigies who commit their crime simply to prove that they can and that they’re somehow superior to everyone else around them, but primarily situates itself into Dean Stockwell’s Judd Steiner. Stockwell is a revelation here, and Compulsion provides him with the first of many great roles in his adult career (in just a few years he’d dazzle once again in Long Day’s Journey Into Night alongside heavyweights Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, and Jason Robards.) We spend a great deal of the first half of the film with Judd, and Bradford Dillman’s Arthur Straus to a lesser extent, as the aftermath of the murder and the impending criminal investigation is circling ever closer.


It is here that Stockwell gives us a wide-ranging performance as Judd transforms from snotty intellectual into fragile, scared young man. It’s a part that could easily lend itself towards big emotions and overplayed scenes, yet Stockwell withholds at all times. He finds the truth of the character and material, including playing the latent homoeroticism as fact even when the script is clearly merely flirting in that direction. You really believe that Stockwell is in love with Dillman, and how frightened he is once their “perfect” crime slowly dissolves under closer scrutiny and their mistakes.


Then the second half switches to a court room drama and away from the twisted, well, not quite a love story of the first half. Orson Welles makes a grand entrance as their lawyer and the film effectively becomes his showcase. The second half is actually uniformly stronger than the first, and Welles provides the second essential ingredient to the launching the film into stronger territory. Welles, for his part, thought that he would be given directorial efforts, and it was, frankly, a better idea to have him do both. Richard Fleischer’s work is fine if unremarkable, but Welles could liven up any type of genre or setting with his incomparable artistry. Compulsion could have been an unheralded classic under Welles instead of a remarkably solid lesser known entity.

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Panama Hattie

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 8 December 2017 07:33 (A review of Panama Hattie)

This one feels like a second-tier throwaway from MGM’s infamous Arthur Freed unit. Panama Hattie is only as good and entertaining as any individual scene in the movie, and some of it is truly uninspired or downright dumb. I’m thinking of just about any of the scenes with a precocious Jackie Horner and several scenes with a mugging trio of sailors (Red Skelton, Rags Ragland, and Ben Blue) as particular low points. While Ann Sothern is a brassy delight throughout, giving her all and a charismatic movie star-style performance no matter how questionable the material. The undeniable highlight of the film is “The Spring,” a musical sequence that brings together Lena Horne’s vocals, the Berry Brothers dancing, and Vincente Minnelli’s staging. It’s an isolated moment of solid gold in an otherwise tepid, uneven film.

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The Towering Inferno

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 29 November 2017 05:21 (A review of The Towering Inferno)

The all-star disaster epics of the 1970s were a strange little time capsule, as if the ethical quagmires and pervasive paranoia of the era could only be expressed in blockbusters that trapped a bunch of people in an isolated spot and made sure to shockingly kill off several of the big names every so often. The super-producer of these films was Irwin Allen, and fresh off of throwing a group of stars in a capsized cruise ship in camp classic The Poseidon Adventure, he returns to the template with his “more is better” magnum opus, The Towering Inferno.


Some films are great because of the strength of their plots, their visuals, their acting, or some combination of all of the above. But there’s another group of films that are very good-to-great, and those are the films that are pure entertainment. The Towering Inferno is an expertly made piece of entertainment. A bit too long at three hours, but it still provides a movie that enraptures you with its pounding sense of dread and claustrophobic anti-camp gravitas.


It’s also just a great excuse to watch Paul Newman and Steve McQueen size each other up, old vets like William Holden, Fred Astaire, and Jennifer Jones add gravity to the proceedings, and starlets like Faye Dunaway suffer elegantly in beautiful gowns. We often go to the movies to watch beautiful, charismatic people romance each other, escape from danger, or behave badly, and The Towering Inferno checks all of those boxes. If nothing else, it’s also a underscoring of the idea that a well-known formula executed with conviction and style will always turn up a winner.


There’s a bit of melodrama punctuated by very competent and still thrilling special effects work in its action scenes. You genuinely care about a majority of these characters, either rooting for them to escape or happy to see them meet their demise. While Newman and McQueen are the two leads, and both of them are great in their alternate takes on gruff masculine heroism and sexy, sweaty, it’s the performances of Astaire and Jones that walked away with all of the awards love.


Jones, in her final role, is not a surprise, she was an awards darling during her halcyon days, and she gets a solid little character to play here. She engages in a romance with Astaire, is selflessly heroic and maternally caring while rescuing two kids with Newman, and gets to do some stunt-work before her shocking death by falling out of a broken elevator window. But Astaire as a lovable grifter with a knockout final scene does a sneaky stealing of several scenes, yet his Oscar nomination still feels slightly like a “Lifetime Achievement” concession.


Part of the terror of The Towering Inferno is how brutally realistic it can feel to be trapped inside of a burning skyscraper. Part of this success is in how this is a disaster movie with plenty of real world parallels and enough realistic special effects work to unnerve. Yet it’s a tightly controlled narrative with predictable beats, the mid-section of the film does seem to repeat far too much, and a sprinkling of shocks to make you sit up and take notice. That miniature work holds up well, as does the real sense that these are the actual stars dangerously close to the uncontrollable (and hungry) flames. The fires of this film demand a sacrifice (or several) for man’s hubris.   

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Angel, Angel, Down We Go

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 November 2017 10:03 (A review of Angel, Angel, Down We Go)

Angel, Angel, Down We Go, also known as Cult of the Damned, is a doozy of a head trip. I can’t even describe the plot, and won’t even try since none of it makes any sense and none of it feels consequential, but I can say it’s worth a glance. Don’t let my low star rating fool you, this isn’t a “good” movie by any stretch, or an even liberally applied use of the word, but it is really something.


I mean, this is a film that gives us the chance to see the former Saint Bernadette declare, “I made 30 stag films and I never faked an orgasm!” Trust me, this is more than enough of a reason to sit back and watch this thing. Jones goes for broke as she disregards the craft of acting in favor of spitting out her bizarre lines with venom and a heavy slur. It’s a hysterical piece of acting, and a bit like watching Gloria Grahame (another Oscar winner who burned out fast) slumming it in Z-grade horror schlock.


Angel, Angel, Down We Go appears to be taking place within the id of its central character, Tara Nicole Street (Holly Near), the chubby teenage daughter of Jones’ grand lady and potently homosexual father (Charles Aidman). In-between narrative beats there are collages of old movie star faces, the characters, and paintings that provide bold underlines to the aggression on display, as if it needed more. It’s hard to know what exactly is true, what’s a hallucination, what’s just blatant fakery as we first meet Tara in voiceover giving a whitewashing and heavily-edited variation of her personal history. It’s just easy to see that all of it is provided at maximum volume to be confrontational.


Throw in weird diversions such psychedelic pop/rock songs from the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil songwriting team, a strange obsession with skydiving, the sight and theme of Hollywood eating its own, generational conflict, and the presence of Lou Rawls and Roddy McDowall to express weird jargon about black identity and homosexuality for no reason, and you’ll get close to an approximation of what watching this is like. Maybe a large in-take of substances would make it all have some semblance of sanity, but I somehow doubt it. It’s a happening and a freak out, often in violent collision with each other, and appears to relish its own sense of camp throughout. This doesn’t mean it’s a good movie, but it’s a fascinatingly awful one.  

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The Idol

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 November 2017 05:30 (A review of The Idol)

After four years away from the screen, and the first work post-David O. Selznick’s passing, Jennifer Jones makes for a curious figure. She seems ill-suited to the role here, and vaguely embarrassed by the things asked of her in the part. There’s nothing about her performance that is as flagrantly bad or mannered as she could be, but she appears to be adrift and unfocused here. Of course, it’s not like The Idol gives her a solid framework or depth of character or emotional texture to work against, or with.


The Idol is an obscurity, and it deserves that fate. It’s listless and overly long with a central character and performance that grate more than they help. Michael Parks is merely giving lukewarm Marlon Brando or James Dean, and it just underscores how much better those two were at the tortured, brooding youth than Parks is. They could reveal the layers and depths of their angst-filled anti-heroes that Parks can’t even try to emulate.


There’s no reason for us to care or want to know Parks’ Marco, an American college student studying art in London. He steals his best friend’s girlfriend, seduces his mother, turns his lone friend into an emotional eunuch, and generally behaves like an aggrandizing asshole. We’re supposed to buy that Marco is somehow a charismatic asshole with depth of character, or the distinct possibility that there’s nothing deeper there. But the film fails to make us want to spend time with this guy, and we see no reason as to why John Leyton’s character is so devoted to him.


The Idol is a hollow film with a worse reputation than it deserves. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even the worst film of Jones’ career, but it isn’t good. It’s unpleasant and obnoxious in how it tries to elevate a worthless cad to the level of misunderstood rebel.

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Tender is the Night

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 26 November 2017 05:52 (A review of Tender Is the Night)

The interior writing style of F. Scott Fitzgerald is practically impossible to adapt to film. It takes work for us to invest and understand the interior life of these characters, and this adaptation fails to do that. Many of these characters are not as sharply observed as they are in his novel, and the film continually suffers for it.


There’s also the strange case of Jennifer Jones in the lead role. She’s about twenty years too old for the role, but it’s the last performance of any worth in her career. It comes as a pleasant surprise after a series of overacted and artificial turns in films like Good Morning, Miss Dove and A Farewell to Arms. Jones had her own problems with emotional and mental disturbances, and she funnels those personal demons into this part. Nicole Diver is a part that can sustain her grandiose emotional turbulence, and Jones enlivens every frame as she expertly navigates her Zelda Fitzgerald proxy’s madness, recovery, and episodic fits.


It’s a shame that the rest of the players, and the film as a whole, do not rise to her level of commitment. Jason Robards is trying, but the script doesn’t believably transition his F. Scott proxy’s descent and turmoil. The worst of the worst has to be Jill St. John’s starlet, a completely vacuous creation as envisioned by the script and her wooden performance. Only Joan Fontaine as Jones’ older sister makes a good impression. Fontaine goes for broke, not in a sense of overacting but in a way that artistically channels the unintentionally callous and vacuous glitterati of Fitzgerald’s work. Fontaine and Robards have several tense scenes where she throws money at the problem, not in an effort to be cruel, but in a way that suggests this is the only way to problem-solve that she knows. Tender is the Night needed more of this character building and empathy and far less of the surface-level glitz and glamour that it traffics in. 

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A Farewell to Arms

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 25 November 2017 05:46 (A review of A Farewell to Arms)

This left me like Elaine in the Seinfeld episode where she’s forced to watch The English Patient, just staring at the screen and seething, “No, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. It’s too long….Just die already! DIE!” Looking at the critical reception of the day and the more recently, I am apparently not alone in this sentiment.


This would be the last production from David O. Selznick, and it follows his hardened formula set with Gone with the Wind, the instant classic he eternally chased. A Farewell to Arms also opens with a text scrawl over vibrant landscapes and highly demonstrative strings playing over it all. Whereas Gone with the Wind had enough source material to justify its prolonged running time, A Farewell to Arms does not. Ernest Hemingway’s prose style favored an unadorned simplicity that Selznick annihilates with his showmanship.


Yet it’s this exact choice of showmanship for its own sake that terminates the film from the beginning. Ben Hecht’s script is padded, witness the armistice of WWI occurring and still another thirty minutes of material happening before the final curtain, and much of it is pitched towards Selznick’s sense of grandiosity and cinematic overkill. At times these tendencies could whip themselves into a fury of a film that proved entertaining because of its excesses, but it leaves the romance inert here and Catherine Barkley as an unbelievable female character.


Strong performances could go a long way towards salvaging the material, and we get three of them in supporting players but less so in the leads. Rock Hudson looks adrift throughout and I wonder if the original choice for director, John Huston, could have managed to get something more out of him. Hudson was a blank slate actor that needed a strong guiding hand, look at his work for Douglas Sirk or John Frankenheimer, and Charles Vidor does not provide him one here. Vidor himself seems lost among Selznick’s never-ending demands. Hudson would later admit that taking the part in this film was a career mistake, and it’s a damn shame this turned out so poorly. Much like Gary Cooper, who played the role in the 1932 original, Hudson looks like what we imagine a Hemingway character would look like.


Even worse is the cast of leading lady Jennifer Jones. It was yet another excuse for Selznick to forge Jones as a cinematic Helen of Troy, but she’s about fifteen years too old for the role and flagrantly overacting here. Much like Hudson, Jones was an actor that needed a strong guiding hand to help her shape a performance, and she’s allowed to run wild with her worst instincts here and indulge in an emotional intensity that gives the impression that she needs to take a sedative and calm down. We don’t buy Jones and Hudson as a romantic pairing, and Jones’ crocodile tears and breathless, slurred line readings aren’t helping matters.


Only Elaine Stritch, Mercedes McCambridge, and Vittorio de Sica escape this thing with their dignity intact. McCambridge wasn’t stretching herself too much here, but she does what she normally does very well. It’s Stritch as a wise-cracking nurse and de Sica, Oscar nominated no less, as a morally confused, randy Major Rinaldi that really make this thing tolerable in brief moments. Vittorio de Sica’s haunted face and breakdown during a long march reveal the depth of feeling that was possible in this film that the leads were incapable of producing.


And so, A Farewell to Arms continues to spin out, adding more large scale scenes of soldiers marching, of battles, of more extensive production costs on the screen, but it’s all without a heart. Without a strong central reason to care, it’s all sound and fury signifying nothing. Don’t even bother with this version, just watch Frank Borzage’s romantic tragedy run-through of the material.  

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The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 25 November 2017 05:10 (A review of The Barretts of Wimpole Street)

A remake of the 1934 version with the same director (who allegedly shot the exact same script) leading the charge, this version of The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a dull bit of coloring by the numbers. Director Sidney Franklin feels like he’s on autopilot, and so does much of the resulting drama. Jennifer Jones and Bill Travers are stilted and hollow as the central lovers, both mistaking overacting and dominating for being commanding of our attention and engagement. It’s only John Gielgud who rises above the mediocrity to breathe life and drama into his role of an emotionally abusive and domineering father. This visit with The Barretts of Wimpole Street is like a plastic figurine: it’s handsome to look at but artificial and hollow.

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