Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

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Morvern Callar (2002)

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Aka Le Voyage de Morvern Callar. There’s nothing wrong with here. It’s the same crapness everywhere, so stop dreaming.When her boyfriend commits suicide, supermarket clerk Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) passes off his unpublished novel as her own after inventing stories to explain his absence then chopping up and burying him, ignoring his instructions for a funeral.  She gets money from a publisher for the book and departs Scotland to bliss out in Ibiza with her closest friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) on a druggy odyssey but finds she cannot settle…Fuck work Lana, we can go anywhere you like. Lynne Ramsay’s work always has a striking quality, a visual enquiry into the spaces between but also within people. This adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1995 debut novel spans north to south in Europe so that the journey (internal as well as external) is also filled with an increasing but confusing warmth, from Scotland to Spain, from blood seeping across a kitchen floor to dry dusty roads cracking in the sun. The sense of emotion is silently portrayed as a kind of ennui tangled with growing grief, a bereavement that cannot be danced or drugged away, disaffection through a lack of emotion camouflaged with the simple theft of a book. Morvern is no writer, she doesn’t have the poetry: she’s a shop girl. The pictures shimmer and sing while Morton oozes with sorrow in a thriller without tension, expressing the affectlessness of the unambitious passive aggressive Morvern herself, adrift everywhere. Written by Ramsay and Liana Dognini.  Where are we going?/Somewhere beautiful

The Fearless Vampire Killers or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck (1967)

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Aka Dance of the VampiresThat night, penetrating deep into the heart of Transylvania, Professor Abronsius was unaware that he was on the point of reaching the goal of his mysterious investigations. In the mid-nineteenth century tottering bat researcher (and vampire hunter) Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his dim-witted bumbling assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski) travel to a small mountain village where they find the tell-tale traces of vampirism. Shy Alfred becomes enchanted by Sarah (Sharon Tate) the local tavern keeper Yoine Shagal’s (Alfie Bass) daughter, before she is promptly abducted. Determined to save the buxom maiden they confront the undead Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) in his castle… Takes me for a nincompoop, that necrophile. Despite its ostensible status as a parody, this is a mesmerising, beautiful concoction that might be the purest expression of writer/director Roman Polanski’s worldview:  witty, satirical, brilliantly poised between comedy and horror with hints of fairytale and deathly romance and a rather twist(ed) ending. From a story and screenplay by himself and Gérard Brach with exquisite cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, this mitteleuropäischer story was shot in the Trentino instead of Austria but it’s still in Polanski’s Alps and his love of the mountains and the juxtaposition of blood with snow is evident even in the titles sequence (the American version has a silly animation). The cast is perfection with Mayne hilarious in his Christopher Lee tribute and Iain Quarrier a hoot as his gay son;  Terry Downes is a scream as their servant; Bass has perhaps his best film part: Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!  The leads are sensational. MacGowran is lovable as the dotty expert and Polanski is positively Kafaesque as his fearful sidekick. Tate is one of the most staggeringly beautiful women ever on celluloid and the story gives her many bright moments. Last week I viewed those personal belongings of hers that are going on sale at Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks and it made me very sad, indeed I felt somewhat vampiric. She is gone almost fifty years and this year she would have turned 75 (last January 24th). Seeing her possessions behind glass – clothing, mementos, photographs – was unbelievably poignant. It is simply unfathomable that she suffered such a terrible demise. This is a delightful memorial to her and she and Polanski are terrific in the one film they made together before their marriage.  That night, fleeing from Transylvania, Professor Abronsius never guessed he was carrying away with him the very evil he had wished to destroy. Thanks to him, this evil would at last be able to spread across the world

Angelica (2017)

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You pursue your own desire at your family’s expense. In the Victorian era, a young wife Constance (Jena Malone) and her husband Dr Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard) go through a difficult time in their marriage after the arrival of their baby Angelica,  heightened by a mysterious ghost that enters their house. They have been advised to stop having sex following a traumatic birth and Barton is wholly frustrated by his wife bringing their daughter into the marital bed and eventually insists Angelica have her own room. When he resumes sex with Constance little Angelica experiences shared visions with her mother which become dangerously physical – but only in the child’s room.  When Constance pays a visit to Barton’s workplace she discovers he is carrying out horrific animal experiments.  Housekeeper Nora (Tovah Feldshuh) advises Constance to consult her spiritualist friend Anne Montague (Janet McTeer) whose intervention gives her small respite. Then Barton finds his daughter’s bed on fire and believes his wife is mad … My child suffers pain the precise moment I am submissive to my husband. Adapted from Arthur Philips’ titular novel, this is a precisely nuanced treatise on sexual repression in the Victorian era. Told in the form of an extended flashback from the sick bed of Angelica’s mother (with Malone playing the grown up Angelica) where she wants to explain the disappearance of Barton when Angelica was young, it utilises every trope from Gothic literature to dramatise the horrors of desire unleashed.  An exquisitely beautiful, rather mysterious film about women’s power that is let down only by the rather underpowered acting of the leads. Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, whose father is fabled Pop Art legend Roy, with mesmerising production design by Luciana Arrighi. The mother’s confession has a suitably ironic (actual) climax.  Find your pleasure elsewhere

 

Downsizing (2017)

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What kind of fuck you give me? What kind? American people, eight kind of fuck. Love fuck, hate fuck, sex-only fuck, break-up fuck, make-up fuck, drunk fuck, buddy fuck, pity fuck. Scientists discover how to shrink humans to five inches tall as a solution to overpopulation and global warming.  Years later, occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in Omaha so that they can obtain a proper home and move out from his sick Mom’s in order to get small and move to a new downsized community, Leisureland in New Mexico — a choice that triggers life-changing adventure.  Paul is catapulted in another direction by a stunning betrayal at the last minute .… A clever play on words leading to a (sort of) logical extrapolation of ideas, this is flawed at the level of characterisation, with the banal desire of people to keep their lifestyle with fewer imagined outgoings never truly drilled down to its micro-managed conclusion. There are fun concepts featuring this overweight protagonist with his anorectic wife (the nursery rhyme featuring Jack Sprat springs to mind) which in itself constitutes a challenge to the audience if you don’t like these Marmite actors.  Here, normal means uninteresting non-entity.  Even Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis and Udo Kier can’t save it. This is a bloated (130 minutes!) instance of so-called intelligent sci fi, an intriguing premise afloat on its own enlarged silliness and it turns into an end of the world scenario in some sort of guilt trip for liberal white people. Why? Size matters. Just not this much. Written by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne,

A Star is Born (2018)

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Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave – 12 notes and the octave repeat. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it. Seasoned musician country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers and falls in love with struggling singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) when she performs in a drag bar. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight, bringing her on stage at one of his gigs to perform a song she’s written and he has arranged. He feels sorry for her when she tells him she is constantly told, You sound great, but you don’t look so great. Jackson is playing better than ever despite his crippling tinnitus which means his ears buzz every time he’s onstage and his hearing is diminishing, while Ally shines in the light of his stardom. As Ally’s career takes off when she’s taken under his wing and then makes a deal with the help of her nasty manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) the personal side of their relationship is breaking down. The self-sabotaging Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons, drinking, drugging, fighting with his older brother and caretaker Bobby (Sam Elliott) who taught him everything he knew while Ally performs to adoring fans and he struggles with his hearing problem … Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. The fourth incarnation of this story under this title and a remake of the 1976 pop star version, this is an adaptation of a story that first came to the screen under the title What Price Hollywood? a cautionary tale about movie stardom. Electrifying and enervating by turns, I changed my mind about this film probably three times while viewing it. It hits all the screenwriting marks – one hour into running time, things begin to change and at minute sixty-five Ally is taking over and the last hour is rife with issues. A lot of the problems are summed up by the term naturalistic – something that could be described as a substitute for acting technique by one half of the duo at the story’s centre:  scenes are too long and you long for some reaction shots. Jackson’s earthiness is juxtaposed with the savvy pop Ally manufactures at her manager’s behest.  These people are performing for very different audiences but the film is truly at its height when they are duetting despite their contrasting aesthetics. The last seventy-five minutes drag rather repetitively with the suicide scene and its inevitability triggered by Jack’s admission to the psychiatrist that he first attempted it aged 13 which just indicates what we already know. The Saturday Night Live performance scene is poorly judged. The downward spiral needed one more story beat – to show that Jackson had some will to live:  the appeal of this Evergreen story lies in the will to power transformation of the ugly duckling into the swan while her progenitor dies to make way for her celebrity. It seems too easy for one talent to surrender to another. It gains traction however from the powerful songs which were largely co-written by the stars (with other writers including Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son) and their performance in live settings as they tell the story of the relationship and the diverging destinations of the protagonists. It’s all about her really – as we see from the clever titles in blood red echoing Garland and the final shot, a massive close up on Ally’s jolie laide face. It’s more than forty years since the last incarnation which means we missed the Nineties version and one of the issues here which is lightly touched upon is how the nature of celebrity has altered through social media and paparazzi in an entirely new century – it’s handled just enough to remain cinematic without horrible phone screens and irritating typage appearing (thank you to the debutant director for this mercy). Their differing styles are heightened as he looks from his old school perspective at the dancers Rez has deployed to give Ally mass marketability onstage:  it’s not just popularity she wants, it’s world pop domination. What we know about the woman for whom the story now exists is inscribed in the screenplay: Lady Gaga’s own physical attributes – the nose job was covered, oh, a decade ago?! in her real life and it of course alludes to Streisand in the same role; while she (sort of) protests about photos that don’t even look like me and we have seen for ourselves Gaga’s gradually altering appearance offscreen, meat dresses notwithstanding; and her appeal to Little Monsters is managed through her association with drag queens and her makeover with icky red hair (she objects to the suggestion that she turn blonde – why?) and the content of her lyrics; while her voracious desire for multi-platform fame is given a cover by bringing on a vicious British manager to be the bad guy. The central mismatched lovers find their balance in their family issues – with Andrew Dice Clay coming off like a nice version of Amy Winehouse’s dad complete with his delusions of Sinatra-style infamy. Cooper’s problematically deep speaking voice for the role is actually addressed in the script when he tells big brother Sam Elliott I stole your voice which is both an in-joke and a nod to the audience’s familiarity with the western star’s growl;  Cooper’s self-effacing performance – which of course makes Gaga’s star shine brighter – makes this hard to endure since his alcoholic demise is hard-wired into our cultural DNA and sometimes it’s quite impossible to understand what he’s trying to say – ironically, since, his message here is, you need to make your voice heard. It’s well played because the pair are playing off each other’s inspiring talent albeit the vampirism quickly feels one-sided.  Still, it’s quite a double act, no matter how you feel about them. An imperfect but striking piece of work. Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (who says he was inspired by what happened to Kurt Cobain), adapted from Moss Hart’s 1954 screenplay which was an inspiration for the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson.  The 1937 screenplay was by William Wellman and Robert Carson while the original screenplay about star-crossed lovers colliding, What Price Hollywood?, was written by Adela Rogers St Johns and Louis Stevens. Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

The Boy With Green Hair (1948)

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I’m here to remind you that war is bad for children. I want you to tell the world. Peter Fry (Dean Stockwell), a boy with a shaved head, is found by the police who ask a psychologist Dr Brand (Robert Ryan) to try to get him to talk. He regales the man with his life story … He is adopted by retired actor Gramp (Pat O’Brien) after he’s been passed like a parcel from one relative to another.  He finally feels safe with his new caretaker, but when he is taunted at school for being an orphan, he gets demoralised as his teacher Miss Brand (Barbara Hale) and Gramp now have to reveal the truth:  his parents were killed doing war relief work. The next day he wakes up with green hair. Embarrassed and further ridiculed, Peter seeks solace in a nearby forest where he finds other orphans in the woods and realises he is not alone. They encourage him to spread news of the injustices of war… This post-war pacifist propaganda allegory caused its writers, producer and director a whole lot of trouble:  writers Ben Barzman and Alfred Lewis Levitt, producer Adrian Scott and debut director Joseph Losey were blacklisted following the HUAC hearings, with Losey taking permanent refuge in England. It’s a curious film, though Stockwell, who was such a beautiful child, is certainly worth viewing for his paradoxically mature performance in his sixteenth film.  This is also notable for its extraordinary theme song, Nature Boy, by eden ahbez aka George Alexander Aberle, which was made famous by Nat King Cole and ahbez was apparently found living under the first L of the Hollywood sign. An oddity of a film that had such strange consequences for all concerned with RKO’s owner Howard Hughes demanding the removal of more material outwardly requesting tolerance.

See No Evil (1971)

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Aka Blind TerrorHelp! Sarah Rexton (Mia Farrow) has recently been blinded in a horse riding accident.  She  moves in with her uncle George (Robin Alison), his wife Betty (Dorothy Alison) and her cousin Sandy (Diane Grayson), who live in a big house in the English countryside.  She adjusts to her new condition, unaware that a killer stalks the family. After her former boyfriend Steve (Norman Eshley) presents her with a new horse and suggests they resume their romance, she returns home after their date and doesn’t realise that her family’s bodies are left in various locations around the house. She gradually discovers her murdered relatives. A cat and mouse game commences as the sightless woman evades the killer while trying to learn his identity and she flees the house on her chestnut horse, the man’s bracelet in her grasp… Brian Clemens’ screenplay was written on spec and once Farrow liked it, it got the greenlight. It’s an enormously effective psychological thriller because the dice are so loaded against the heroine and we can see what she cannot – albeit the killer isn’t revealed until the last possible moment:  we just see low angle shots of his distinctive boots. Confining our knowledge of the scene evens up the odds somewhat for Farrow’s performing of her role which is relentlessly realistic and you might even find yourself squirming as Sarah deals so ably with the limitations of her new life and outmanoeuvres the killer in the one way she knows how – using a horse. Farrow is vastly impressive as the part requires her to be both visually impaired and physically resourceful and doing both without seeking pity.  Director Richard Fleischer paradoxically creates an uncanny physical and narrative structure which requires that we remember which door leads where in the house – compensating for Sarah’s lack of vision. We are also restricted in what we are shown and how the gruesome situation is revealed in the middle third is particularly impressive. We were here before to an extent in Wait Until Dark but the setting, the use of landscape and the relentless grip of the pacy storytelling all combine to make this a compelling suspenser.

Tully (2018)

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I’m here to take care of you.  Suburban New Yorker Marlo (Charlie Theron) is about to give birth to her third child. Her husband and best friend, Ron (Ron Livingston) is loving and works hard, but remains clueless about the demands that motherhood puts on her. Their son is autistic and is thrown out of kindergarten because he’s such a freak nobody can handle him. Their daughter is… ugly. When the baby is born, Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) hires a nighttime nanny named Tully to help his sister handle the workload. She resists initially and succumbs to the horrendous 24/7 grind of feeding, nappy-changing, washing, feeding, nappy-changing, washing… and looking after the other problem children. And her husband. Who comes home at night and after cursory contact with his family retreats to the bedroom to play videogames. Hesitant at first to hire someone else have contact with her newborn daughter, Marlo soon learns to appreciate all that Tully (Mackenzie Davis) does – forming a special bond with her new, lifesaving friend, a free-spirited 26-year old … Mom what happened your body? In director Jason Reitman’s fourth collaboration with screenwriter Diablo Cody and their second together with Theron after the superb Young Adult, the grisly subject of motherhood and post-partum depression is confronted head-on. Sort of. There is (eventually) a spectacular reversal which doesn’t completely undo the point of the story but it contributes to negating its effect.  Marlo is a capable woman who is mortified by meeting someone in a cafe that she used to know from way back – because right now she’s a huge, grotesque looking, shuffling, sweaty lump in her ninth month and her friend is clearly the same as before:  unmarried, svelte, pleasant but rather disturbed to meet a woman she regarded as her equal in her worst possible situation. The friend runs away, embarrassed. The loneliness of motherhood, the disgusting physical aspects and the sheer mind-numbing boredom of being at home with a puking screaming crapping baby are well caught while her body turns into a milking machine. Her brother asks if she is going to go the same way as she did following her son’s birth, which hints at the story outcome. He’s married to a tiny Asian and their children are … perfect. And they used a night nanny. Like all parents, Marlo and Ron are in denial about their son’s psychological peculiarity which they and everyone else insist on calling quirky rather than the blooming obvious. The torture of childbirth is pretty much avoided, which is surprising given how much skin is on display.  On the other hand, motherhood is pathologised as a mental illness – and with good reason:  I can’t remember the last time I slept like that.  I can see colour now, muses Marlo the first time after the night nanny has been in the house. As she explains to Tully about how women the world over are, We’re covered in concealer. On the one hand this is about saying goodbye to your youth and realising that a marriage going for the long haul is hard, thankless work that drains body and soul and is the end of everything you ever enjoyed about your husband particularly one who is literally blind to what is wife is going through all day.  And all night. When he’s asleep. On the other it’s about the sheer misery of having children which is not a message you’ll see or hear from too many in real or reel life. Its entire message can be encapsulated in one image: a gross, stained, unwashed, filthy, sleepless, brain-dead and dishevelled Theron sitting at the dining table with a salad she’s emptied from a bag to accompany store pizza and ignoring the two awful children playing with mobile phones opposite her. Ron comes in after a wonderful day at the office and asks, So you’re letting them have screen time now? As good an ad for contraception as you will ever see. Yes, there’s a trick played on the audience which some find unforgivable and in common with the rather disappointing endings to Cody’s other screenplays, it’s to do with succumbing to female biology, pathology and psychology whether you want to or not. But motherhood (and the lies surrounding it) is the biggest trick of all and it’s very clear about that subject. It’s a hell from which there is no return:  kiss your twenties goodbye, permanently. And a lot more besides. Needless to say, Theron is just great. My body looks like a relief map for a war-torn country

Rent-a-Cop (1987)

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Sometimes you have to go through a hell of a lot to find out what you’re really good at. A drug bust is about to go down and Chicago street cop Tony Church (Burt Reynolds) is on the case. Things go horribly wrong, though. His fellow officers get slaughtered at the hotel venue and Church takes the blame, getting fired from the force. Della (Liza Minnelli) a high-priced hooker, happened to be in a neighbouring room at the time and got a good look at the killer’s face. Now she’s scared and needs protection. She tracks down Church, who can’t find employment other than as a security guard and he’s playing Santa Claus at a big downtown store. Della offers him a fee and implores him to be her bodyguard until the killer is caught. The lunatic everyone’s after is called Dancer (James Remar) partly because he likes to bust a move in front of a mirror whenever he gets the chance. A colleague of Church’s, Roger (Richard Masur) is around to give Church advice and assistance, at least until it’s revealed that Roger is now totally corrupt and was the reason all his colleagues were killed. Della brings Church to her madam Beth (Dionne Warwick) who provides them with information about police officers on her client list. Church manages to keep Della alive but Dancer is taking out anyone who has crossed him and everything is leading to drugs bigwig Alexander (John Stanton)…. Hit me with your nightstick/Show me what you know! What a lyric! With nice support from former NFL star Bernie Casey (back from Sharky’s Machine) as Lemar and Robby Benson as rookie Pitts, the police colleagues staking out Tony’s place, there’s something to look at in every scene in a film which is hardly breaking the back of corruption in the constabulary – we saw that with street cop masterpiece Serpico. Michael Blodgett and Dennis Shryack’s script more or less keeps the difficult balance between the relationship angle and the psycho murderer story.  It’s held together by Burt and Liza who have some terrific repartee delivered in the anticipated fashion – him droll, her breathless, in keeping with his dry wit/good cop role and hers as a hooker with a heart of gold and a paradoxical fear of kindness. It was their third time performing together after Silent Movie and Lucky Lady and their timing is perfect even if you feel Reynolds isn’t wholly committed. The tone only slides for one sequence about 48 minutes in when Dancer attempts to kill Della and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is badly misjudged:  sometimes tragedy comes from action comedy plus bad music. 46. Is that the year or your number? However it’s hard not to like a movie where Burt gets to dress up as Santa and those photos of him playing college football are all him. Directed by Jerry London. Don’t you have anybody who’s alive?