My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.


Rifkin’s Festival (2022)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

The good news is that Woody’s latest is a lot better than his previous release, the misguided and nearly unwatchable A Rainy Day in New York. Here, Allen returns to the kinds of characters he is more at home with than millennials. Of course, the film recycles the filmmaker’s familiar themes but at this point, if that surprises or disappoints you, I’d ask why you’re still watching Woody Allen movies?

Rifkin’s Festival is not in the top tier of Allen’s films nor does it belong at the bottom. It’s an enjoyable, sometimes insightful late career effort. The highlight is the recreation and riffs on a number of scenes from Woody’s favorite filmmakers including Welles, Fellini, Truffaut, Gordard, Bunuel, and of course Bergman. These B&W interludes are the film’s backbone as it hits and misses in the color sequences. Speaking of color, I enjoyed Storaro’s cinematography here more than I have in their recent collaborations. His mix of warm and cool textures seems less forced in this atmosphere. If nothing else, the film is worth watching for the visuals and the epic Spanish vistas.

I wouldn’t describe Rifkin’s Festival as a comedy, at least not the kind that is supposed to evoke a lot of laughter. The film is more of an amusing exploration of existence and relationships, two of Allen’s pre-occupations. I’m sympathetic to those topics and amazed that on his 49th film, the great filmmaker continues to be able to capture the truth of human experience and even shed some light on our bullshit! I just hope he gets a chance to make a 50th film.

Watched on Amazon.


Trancers 4: Jack of Swords (1994)

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

I knew it was inevitable that the Trancers films, a series I’ve fallen in love with, would start a serious downhill slide in quality as I reached the end. After two solid sequels and a fun short film, this fourth installment feels more like the first episode of a 90s Sci-Fi Channel series, like Jack Deth meets Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules.

Still, it’s Tim Thomerson as Deth who makes this fun and worth watching. Truth be told, I think he could have made Trancers movies the rest of his career and they would have remained worthwhile because of his incredible screen presence. This is now a performer at the top of my list to work with.

I’m not crazy about the direction this film takes the mythology of the movie series but at least it tries to do something different when it could have just recycled a previous plot. The whole thing is worth sitting through just for the scene where Deth tries to use his watch. It might be one of the best moments of physical comedy since Chaplin and Keaton.

Watched on Full Moon Features.


Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s “Island of Dr. Moreau” (2014)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

The stories from this disastrous production have always fascinated me, though I hate to admit I’ve never actually seen the finished film. Watching this documentary has convinced me that I’ll need to rectify that in the near future.

This is a fun inside look at so much of what went wrong on Dr. Moreau and another reminder of why Hollywood should not hire renegade directors like Richard Stanley unless they’re willing to fully back them up. It’s funny that he was replaced with Frankenheimer, a director I like but who couldn’t be more opposite from Stanley. The whole thing reminds me of the recent fiasco with the Solo movie. When will Hollywood learn? The answer is never.

I wish the film spent a little more time with Stanley at the end, talking about his infiltration on set. That’s the part I was most interested in and it gets squeezed into the final ten to fifteen minutes. Also, it’s too bad Val Kilmer wasn’t able/willing to comment and that Brando isn’t alive to spin his own yarn. Still, this is a fun look behind the scenes of a doomed movie adventure.

Watched on Shudder.


Doctor Bull (1933)

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Of the three films Will Rogers and John Ford made together, all of which I watched for the first time this past week, Doctor Bull is my favorite. Though the digital transfer is in the worst shape compared to the other two and the sound was bad enough that I had to turn on closed captions, this charming story prevails.

One reason this film is the strongest of the trilogy goes back to the material and setting. Ford feels at home here with this small town story, exploring a community much the way he would later do in the masterpiece How Green was my Valley. These feel like his people whereas in Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend, he’s forcing it a little. Ford is far more comfortable in this snowy environment with an all caucasian cast and the shows in the power of the picture. It not only amusing, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but also brought me to tears more than once. Ford has that effect on me, often touching on my sentimental side more than any other filmmaker. Maybe it’s our shared Irish heritage.

One other thing strikes me about this film in relation to his other work. Scholars often point to Ford’s focus on traditions and community rituals. I see their point however he seems just as interested in those who buck at traditions. Doctor Bull is all about individualism and it’s the conventional society that ends up being his enemy. When I think about Ford’s incredible career, I see countless examples of protagonists who are revolting against the status quo and that element is just as important in his work as tradition.

As for Will Rogers, he is an incredible performer to watch. His folksy wit and odd mannerisms grew on me and by the end, I couldn’t get enough of him, hence the reason I continued to watch the other two films this week.

Watched on Criterion Channel.


Judge Priest (1934)

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Though it is the most talked about of their three collaborations, Judge Priest is my least favorite of the Rogers/Ford trilogy.

It is an uneven work: sometimes brilliant, sometimes funny, and also filled with ineffective, awkward moments. I will refrain from commenting about political correctness but in terms of storytelling alone, the Stepin Fetchit scenes are the weakest. They just feel forced and they aren’t very funny. The best moments involve Rogers with his nephew and the attempts to matchmake him with the neighbor.

There’s that old saying that advises creators to “write what you know”. Back to my soapbox about representations of the South in cinema, Ford is really out of his element with this material. In many ways, this pro-Confederate depiction of Southern culture is just as off-base as the modern liberal exaggerations we see these days. The South is a complicated place and I’ve yet to see an honest portrayal of its history and people.

Unlike Doctor Bull, Judge Priest does not feel like familiar territory for the great director and therefore turns out to be a mediocre work. He would improve on his depiction of this region in Steamboat Round the Bend.

Watched on Criterion Channel.


Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

The last of Rogers and Ford’s three collaborations is certainly the most fun and an improvement on Judge Priest but it’s still an uneven picture.

What puzzled me most is the narrative structure. These three pictures have some interesting similarities. Though only one of them focuses on a judicial character, all three revolve around a trial of sorts. Whereas Doctor Bull and Judge Priest place this dramatic event in the latter half of their runtime, Steamboat Round the Bend chooses another route. We’re almost immediately presented with the crime, Rogers’ nephew killing a man in self-defense. Soon after, the trial happens off screen and the young man is sentenced to hang. This is no spoiler since it happens in the first 20-30 minutes of the movie. What bothered me is what happens next. Though their loved one is in serious danger, the characters seem to forget all about his plight for the middle section of the film, going on about their steamboat business with a series of episodic encounters. Yes, they’re technically looking for the preacher man but there’s no urgency to any of it until the final third of the movie! For this filmmaker, that was huge flaw in the script that prevents this film from achieving greatness.

It’s a shame too because the last twenty minutes of chaotic comedy might be some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. It’s an incredible, edge-of-your-seat climax and reaches the brilliant combination of action and humor that only Buster Keaton was otherwise capable of. I could watch the ending of this movie over and over and it should be studied by more filmmakers.

On a final note, I want to say two things: 1. Anne Shirley is so wonderful in this film. She is the only performer in the trilogy who steals scenes from Rogers. 2. As for him, the final shot is such a touching image for this iconic performer who sadly passed away before the release of this picture. It brought tears to my eyes.

Watched on Criterion Channel.