Indian Summer is genial and life-affirming. Writer-director Binder imbues it with an optimism and positivity–as long as you have the right support system, anything is possible. Given the film’s about a bunch of thirtysomethings who return to their childhood summer camp to find themselves, it’s a little weird Binder gives the best character arc to Kimberly Williams-Paisley. She’s the twenty-one year-old fiancée to the most obnoxious thirtysomethings (Matt Craven). Her arc, forecasted nowhere, propels the film into its third act, full of possibility. Shame Binder doesn’t do much with the momentum.
Diane Lane and Julie Warner get the biggest story arcs. Lane’s a recent widow–her husband was also a camper, because summer camp apparently decided everyone white’s life in the early seventies–and she needs to mourn. She’s got good friend Elizabeth Perkins there to support her, which she really needs when her husband’s childhood best friend returns a bit of a hunk (Bill Paxton). Meanwhile, Warner is married to Vincent Spano (who used to get busy with Perkins when they were in camp) and the marriage is rocky. Maybe because Spano wants to quit his business with cousin Kevin Pollak (also a camper), but can’t figure out how to tell him. So apparently Spano takes it out on Warner. Binder’s script isn’t great at scenes of angst and it’s downright terrified of getting too close to its characters.
They might be unlikable then and it’s such a pretty, pleasant cast (everyone has great, brown hair), who would want them to be unlikable? Except maybe Craven, who’s cut off from everyone else, hence having to bring Williams-Paisley along. Paxton’s arc is more with camp owner Alan Arkin, who has invited his favorite campers from over the years back for a week. Oddly, they’re all from the same year. Coincidences abound in Indian Summer.
Arkin’s really solid when he’s lead. Binder never really gets into how the campers coexist with him–they’re back to hang out with each other, leaving Arkin to mostly pal around with handyman Sam Raimi (who’s in this mystifyingly great slapstick part)–and it’s a missed opportunity. Especially since, unless you’ve got someone to kiss, Binder leaves you behind. Perkins and Pollak end up with almost nothing to do by the end, Perkins with even less. But Indian Summer’s got to be genial and life-affirming, it’s got to live up to the beautiful Newton Thomas Sigel photography, which turns the summer camp–in the late summer sun–into a golden Great Lakes paradise.
Still, it’s not like Indian Summer is always lazy. Binder does go somewhere with the Paxton and Arkin thing, he does go somewhere with Williams-Paisley. He’s just not willing to hinge the whole thing on being too thoughtful. There needs to be cheap payoff, albeit beautifully lighted cheap payoff. Until that payoff, however, Binder’s really just letting the actors develop their characters. The second act is pretty loose–there are set pieces, usually involving pot or pranks, but Binder’s in no rush. The present action changes pace fluidly in the tranquil setting, with its amiable cast and their not too serious, but sort of, grown-up problems.
So the performances matter a lot. Arkin’s always good, but he doesn’t get anywhere near enough to do. Binder’s just as set in an age group–the thirtysomethings–as if he were making a movie about teenagers at camp and barely had the counselors in it. Pollak and Perkins are great. They get to be great, because Binder doesn’t need them for anything structural. Lane and Paxton are fine. Lane should have more to do than Paxton but doesn’t. Warner’s good. She overshadows Spano, who tries to imply depth instead of convey it. Craven’s the weakest performance and he’s still perfectly solid. He provides a great springboard for Williams-Paisley to take off from.
And Raimi’s awesome.
Nice editing from Adam Weiss, okay if a little much music from Miles Goodman. Binder’s direction is good–he showcases that beautifully lighted scenery and moves his actors around in it well. Indian Summer is never trite, which is an accomplishment on its own, but Binder is way too safe with it. He denies Lane and Paxton a better story in particular. He writes caricatures then has his actors create people, so it’s a particular kind of disappointing.
Written and directed by Mike Binder; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Adam Weiss; music by Miles Goodman; production designer, Craig Stearns; produced by Jim Kouf, Lynn Kouf, Robert F. Newmyer, and Jeffrey Silver; released by Touchstone Pictures.
Starring Alan Arkin (Unca Lou Handler), Diane Lane (Beth Warden), Bill Paxton (Jack Belston), Julie Warner (Kelly Berman), Vincent Spano (Matthew Berman), Elizabeth Perkins (Jennifer Morton), Kevin Pollak (Brad Berman), Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Gwen Daugherty), Matt Craven (Jamie Ross), and Sam Raimi (Stick Coder).
Even for a TV miniseries, Vanished feels like it runs too long. There are always tedious subplots, like folksy, pervy old man senator Robert Young plotting against President Richard Widmark. Widmark is up for re-election and he’s vulnerable. Even his own press secretary’s secretary (Skye Aubrey) thinks Widmark is “an evil man,” possibly because he’s going to end the world in nuclear war, possibly because he’s a secretive boss. It’s never clear. Aubrey, both her character and her performance, are the most tedious thing about Vanished until she, well, vanishes. A lot of characters just vanish. After meticulous plotting, Dean Riesner’s teleplay throws it all out after the resolution to the first part “cliffhanger.”
The setup for Vanished is probably the best stuff it has going for it. At the beginning, it all seems like it’s going to be about that press secretary–James Farentino–who’s new to job and dating his secretary (Aubrey). He’s got an FBI agent roommate (Robert Hooks) and spends his time at happening parties with friends while avoiding reporter William Shatner’s intrusive questions. There’s also a significant subplot involving Widmark’s best friend, civilian Arthur Hill, who’s an active older American. He and Eleanor Parker as his wife are great together. For their one scene. Because then Hill goes missing–he’s Vanished, you see–it’s up to Farentino and Hooks, unofficially working the case, to track him down.
While avoiding Shatner’s intrusions and Aubrey’s annoying behavior.
And Riesner–and director Kulik–manage to make Farentino’s a believable amateur detective. The plotting helps out with it, as does Widmark’s mysteriousness. Shatner’s not very good in Vanished, mostly just broadly thin, but he’s a decent enough adversary for Farentino. Eventually, Widmark’s part grows and he too gets an adversary. CIA head E.G. Marshall thinks Widmark’s keeping too much from him and gets involved with Young’s scheming senator.
Marshall’s so good at playing slime bag, especially the quiet, unassuming one here, those scenes pass fairly well. Farentino’s decent, Hooks’s good, Widmark’s fine. Aubrey’s bad. And no one is anywhere near as compelling as Hill and Parker, or even Farentino before he just becomes an exposition tool. Maybe if Vanished kept him around in the last hour, except for awful bickering scenes with Aubrey, it’d have finished better. Instead, after dragging out the first couple hours–including a pointless excursion to Brazil for Hooks–Farentino vanishes too. Parker goes somewhere towards the end of the first hour, Hooks somewhere towards the end of the second, Farentino in the third. At least in Hooks’s case, it’s so Reisner can perturb the plot. But Farentino just stops being interesting.
And the interesting thing is supposed to be the reveal, which is way too obvious towards the end of the first half of Vanished. Reisner doesn’t have anything to do with it (presumably) as he’s just adapting a novel. Instead of spreading it all out, however, Vanished would do much better, much shorter. It still wouldn’t fix the stupid resolution, which comes during a lot of reused footage for the “action” sequences, but at least shorter there’d be less time investment.
Because Reisner and Kulik don’t answer the most interesting questions. The film skips any number of good scenes to “go big” with stock footage of aircraft carrier take-offs. There’s also a lot of grand, “real world” spy technology in the second half, which is a waste of time. Well, unless Kulik had made it visually interesting, but he doesn’t.
Vanished is a disappointment, but one with mostly solid (or better) acting. Nice small turns from Murray Hamilton, Larry Hagman, Don Pedro Colley; plus a really funny single scene one from Neil Hamilton.
Maybe if Farentino and Hooks weren’t such appealing leads–or if Hill and Parker didn’t imply they’d be able to do great scenes together–Vanished wouldn’t disappoint so much. But it even fails Widmark; after intentionally obfuscating him for over two and a half hours, Vanished wants the viewer to rest their emotional weight on him.
Vanished is reasonably tolerable throughout, just not adding up to anything, until the bungled reveal sinks it.
Directed by Buzz Kulik; teleplay by Dean Riesner, based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel; director of photography, Lionel Lindon; edited by Robert Watts; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by David J. O’Connell; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.
Starring James Farentino (Gene Culligan), Richard Widmark (President Paul Roudebush), E.G. Marshall (Arthur Ingram), Robert Hooks (Larry Storm), Eleanor Parker (Sue Greer), Arthur Hill (Arnold Greer), Skye Aubrey (Jill Nichols), William Shatner (Dave Paulick), Murray Hamilton (Nick McCann), Tom Bosley (Johnny Cavanaugh), Larry Hagman (Jerry Freytag), Denny Miller (Big Bubba Toubo), Don Pedro Colley (Mercurio), and Robert Young (Senator Earl Gannon).
Since its first installment in 1934 and in the eighty years since, The Thin Man series has stood apart from other film series and franchises. Its six films always delivered a “twist” mystery and the wonderful chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Much of the series’s most memorable features came straight from the Dashiell Hammett source novel. Nick and Nora Charles were rich and glamorous during the Depression, though extremely grounded thanks to Nick being a former private detective. Asta the dog, the New York setting, the martinis, the Thin Man mystery itself–they were all from the novel. Powell and Loy just brought it all to life.
Although MGM budgeted and produced the first entry more like a B picture, by the time of its release, the studio knew they had something special with The Thin Man and, in particular, its stars: William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two were recent MGM contract additions; both had been bouncing around Hollywood since the mid-twenties and had come to MGM after unfulfilling Warner contracts. They weren’t big time movie stars yet, but Loy and Powell had become familiar faces to moviegoers. And then The Thin Man turned them into mega-stars, both individually and as a pair. Loy and Powell appeared in fourteen movies altogether, almost always playing a couple. The Thin Man isn’t even their first film together. That first film, Manhattan Melodrama, opened a few weeks before The Thin Man. It too was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who would frequently work with Loy and Powell–as a pair–after The Thin Man, including the first three Thin Man sequels. Van Dyke had directed Loy (alone) in a number of reasonably successful films the year before, also in collaboration with Thin Man producer Hunt Stromberg.
So, the first Thin Man wasn’t so much a happy accident as every right piece coming into the right place at just the right time.
The Thin Man is the second-shortest picture in the series, running ninety-three minutes. There won’t be a Thin Man picture running under that time until the last one. Director Van Dyke has to convey a lot of information in very little time. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s dialogue needs to be expository–it’s a mystery after all–so they weave it though conversation and characters’ personalities.
Nat Pendleton and Maureen O’Sullivan lead the supporting cast. Pendleton is an intrusive but competent copper and O’Sullivan is Nick’s “client.” Quotation marks because Nick never works for money; he’s just a big softy. The supporting cast is great. A good supporting cast can make or break a Thin Man movie.
Since its theatrical release, The Thin Man has enjoyed continuous popularity; eighty plus years without losing its appeal. The Thin Man has been available on every home video format–VHS, LaserDisc, DVD–never going out of print. And now it’s always available streaming.
The sequel came out two years later, on Christmas Day 1936. After the Thin Man closed one of the busiest years of Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke’s careers. They had all become MGM A-listers, though Loy was a tad beyond Powell and Van Dyke. In fact, she was actually just about to be voted the studio’s “Queen of Hollywood.”
MGM spared no expense on After the Thin Man. It’s the longest film in the series–twenty minutes longer than the first entry–with a lot of time and money spent setting up Nick and Nora as a couple in their natural habitat, ritzy San Francisco. There’s location shooting (a big deal for the sequel to a B picture) and a first-rate supporting cast. James Stewart in it–After the Thin Man is also known as “The One With Young Jimmy Stewart”–Joseph Calleia, Sam Levene, George Zucco, Paul Fix. Asta the dog even gets his own a subplot. It’s a big deal sequel.
And it’s a good one. After the Thin Man has another great script from Hackett and Goodrich–with Hammett contributing a short story to base it on. It’s a cross of hardboiled gum shoe and sublime screwball. Lots of smart, funny scenes for Powell and Loy–and Asta too–all alongside the doozy of a mystery. Awesome supporting cast. It’s nearly as perfect as the original.
After the Thin Man was another hit and one with some very confident sequel building. The film ends with a big reveal setting up the next outing to leave everyone wanting to know what’s next for Nick and Nora. Serial cliffhanger adapted for A list picture. After the Thin Man being excellent locks it in. More than the first film, After the Thin Man proves the cast, the filmmakers, the studio, can do these big and on purpose and on a regular basis. It’s a little showy in its confidence.
When Warner released the first Thin Man on DVD, they didn’t put out any of the sequels. They the first one was bait and didn’t sell well enough. After the Thin Man–and the rest of the sequels–had been VHS mainstays. MGM/UA had put out a great LaserDisc box set too. Their DVD absence was conspicuous. It took five years before Warner got After the Thin Man out and then it was in a box set. The eventual collection was success. So successful Warner split the series for budget catalog release. And now, of course, the entire series is available streaming.
The third film, Another Thin Man, was not just a special event as a Thin Man sequel but also because it put William Powell and Myrna Loy back on screen in grand fasion. Powell had been engaged to Jean Harlow, another MGM star; she died of kidney failure in 1937. Powell, understandably devastated, then found out he had cancer. So he took a big break for treatment. Loy had slowed down too, doing half as many pictures a year as she had pre-“royalty.” Her interests were changing from Hollywood stardom; in fact, she was newly home from England when shooting started.
Screenwriters Hackett and Goodrich were also changing their pace. They had almost stopped working in Hollywood entirely. Another Thin Man would be their last Thin Man and their last screenplay for five years. It’s also Hammett’s last work on the series.
Van Dyke and Stromberg had been staying busy, however.
Another Thin Man fulfills the previous entry’s cliffhanger–Nick and (mostly) Nora make baby, Nicky Jr. An apparently divorced Asta is back too. The action takes the Charles family to New York, where they happen into another mystery to solve.
It’s an ostensibly less mysterious one–there’s a supernatural angle instead. It’s Nick and Nora vs. evil mentalist Sheldon Leonard. Well, for some of it, anyway. Leonard’s making threats to rich old guy C. Aubrey Smith, who knows the Charleses and so they get involved. Smith’s got a daughter (Virginia Grey) with multiple suitors (Patric Knowles and Tom Neal), there’s a Long Island DA–Otto Kurger, and Nat Pendleton is back as the New York detective.
Much more than the first sequel–or the original–Another Thin Man relies on William Powell and Myrna Loy; in the script, in Van Dyke’s direction, in their performances. New mom Loy sits out a lot of the mystery so she and Powell’s scenes have the majority of the film’s personality, just not the mystery. It results in the film lacking any standouts in the supporting cast. The script just doesn’t have parts for them. For example, Pendleton’s character is now played for laughs, instead of having some ability. But it’s an excellent production. Van Dyke has definitely got Thin Man movies down now–it’s all about Powell and Loy.
As far the Thin Man sequels go, Another Thin Man enjoys a fine enough reputation. I mean, it’s got the first appearance of Nicky Jr., how can it not enjoy a fine enough reputation. Still, the baby is the thing, not the supporting cast, not the mystery itself. It’s also the point where Loy starts teetotaling big time.
Now back to a two year schedule, Powell, Loy, Van Dyke, and Stromberg returned in 1941 with the fourth film in the series, Shadow of the Thin Man. Instead of Hackett and Goodrich writing, the film has Irving Brecher and Harry Kurnitz on the script. Kurnitz worked on the screenplay for the previous year’s I Love You Again, a non-Thin Man screwball outing from Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke.
Shadow focuses on bringing Nicky Jr. into the comedy dynamic. It goes so far as to age him an extra four or five years. He’s now played by seven-year-old Dickie Hall. Sure, there’s a race track murder mystery, with Sam Levene returning as the San Francisco detective, but the most memorable moments involve Hall and Loy domesticating Powell. They’ve got him off the martinis and on to the milk. Yuck. But Powell leads Hall around on a shared leash with Asta and sneaks gin. It’s amazing comedy.
Barry Nelson and Donna Reed are desperate young lovers who need help from Powell and Loy. Another Thin Man skipped the young lovers in need characters, but the first two films hinged on them. The screenwriters try really hard to do a Thin Man movie with all the familiar trappings, but also moving things forward.
Apropos of nothing, it’s also the only Thin Man to end in a police station.
Powell, Loy, and Hall are all delightful together. The emphasis on “Great Detective as parent” works out. Van Dyke directs it well, smoothing the occasional script bump; he also helps imply depth for the thin supporting characters. Shadow of the Thin Man is a successful application of talent and chemistry to a mediocre script.
And Shadow was another hit, another good Thin Man sequel. It’s maybe a footnote in Donna Reed’s career too, though her performance doesn’t stand out .
Big events and small changed the series’s trajectory. Shadow of the Thin Man came out just before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. Loy immediately took leave from her contract at MGM to join the war effort. While Powell continued to work, he still mostly kept to a movie a year. Van Dyke died of cancer in 1943. Stromberg left MGM soon after Shadow‘s release, breaking his contract under cloudy, unpleasant circumstances. The Thin Man series made Powell and Loy movie stars, it had been a big hit for Van Dyke and Stromberg, for Hackett and Goodrich. The series kept going through a lot changes in the principals’ lives, but Loy leaving Hollywood had to mean no more Nick and Nora.
Or so one would have thought, but then MGM tried replacing Loy with Irene Dunne for the next sequel. Turns out no one–not the fans, not Powell–wanted anyone but Loy playing Nora. It’s unclear how far along that attempt got, but when Powell and Loy did return to the series in 1945, it was a far different kind of Thin Man.
The Thin Man Goes Home opens by putting Powell and Loy on a train out of an unseen New York City to visit Powell’s upstate hometown. Totally new production team, different crew too; David Snell is the only holdover. He composed the scores for the final three films. Richard Thorpe directed, Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor wrote the screenplay. Recent MGM addition, Everett Riskin–Robert’s brother–produced.
Starting on with that train ride, Thin Man Goes Home sets out to immediately establish some wholesome, patriotic credentials. Rationing was going on, after all. It’s not just no more hotel suites, it’s no more drinking for Nick and Nora. Nicky Jr. is off at boarding school and they’re staying with Nick’s parents–Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport–in a regular house, not a fancy hotel.
Riskin and Taylor’s script meanders through the mystery–though it does give Loy a lot more to do on her own than she usually gets in a Thin Man movie. Director Thorpe keeps it all together. The Thin Man Goes Home is well-produced and fairly well-acted. Then the third act is a mess and the final joke is bizarrely goofy.
The Thin Man Goes Home is perfectly titled (if canonically inaccurate) and fun–Nick and Nora in a small town, Nick’s parents, Donald Meek in the supporting cast, foreign espionage. Director Thorpe, producer Riskin, and the screenwriters deserve some credit for maintaining its accessibility. They were taking over an existing and beloved franchise without much help. It’s not like composer Snell had a “Thin Man” theme to tie the films together. The filmmakers’ safe, unambitious moves make Thin Man Goes Home an extremely affable entry. It plays rather well, though it’s generally agreed to be one of the lesser entries.
In fall 1947, MGM released the final Thin Man film, Song of the Thin Man. With the exception of composer Snell, it’s again an all-new the entire production team and crew. Edward Buzzell directs from a Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin script. Perrin also produced.
Powell and Loy are back in New York, living glamorously but a little more like restrained. They’ve got Nick Jr., after all, this time played by eleven year-old Dean Stockwell. The mystery involves missing jazz wunderkind Don Taylor and his stable of femme fatales. Keenan Wynn is third lead–a sidekick to show the now square Powell and Loy around the New York City jazz spots.
Song is a little cheap, but Powell and Loy get along fine integrating Stockwell into the family dynamic. And Wynn’s cravenly functional character works great; Powell and Loy (and Nick and Nora) have never had a similar sidekick.
Unfortunately, not being a bad go at a disinterested Thin Man sequel doesn’t make Song a hidden gem. Buzzell’s an okay enough director, he just doesn’t have any personality. Without a big gimmick like Goes Home used, Song needs all the personality it can get. It gets a long way on goodw ill and general competence. But it’s Powell and Loy who hold this one together.
And, thanks to them, Song of the Thin Man is far from an inglorious end to the series. In addition to inherently hilarious idea of Dean Stockwell once being eleven, much less Nick Charles Jr., the film has early performances from noir fatales Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor. It’s a distinctive footnote, if a generally dismissed sequel. It’s readily availability probably hasn’t helped its reputation; Song of the Thin Man gets a lot more goodwill when you’re just happy to have found a Thin Man movie playing on TV.
Because for a long time, people only discovered The Thin Man and its sequels playing on TV. And they they discovered them on VHS, AMC, TCM, DVD, streaming. People have been discovering these films for eighty years and there’s never been a better time to do so than right now.
The Thin Man series was a rarity on release and is still one. There aren’t any other six picture franchises with big-time classic movie stars like Loy and Powell, they’ve also remained popular since their original release, most of the entries are good. Not many eighty year old film series have that pedigree, certainly not to six films.
There’s nothing else like The Thin Man and it’s all because of Powell and Loy and Van Dyke and Hammett and Stromberg and Goodrich and Hackett. And Asta too, of course.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the story of a burnt-out, desolate man who learns to live again. Sort of. It’s more the story of a burnt-out, desolate man who finds himself babysitting sixty feral children who think he’s a messiah. But not really that story either, because Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome doesn’t put much thought into story. Once writers Terry Hayes and co-director Miller, get Mad Max (Mel Gibson) beyond the Thunderdome portion of the film, it’s just a variety on nonsense until the grand action finale.
Only that grand action finale isn’t particularly grand. There’s impressive stunt work and practical car effects, but there’s no animosity between the pursuers and the pursued. While Tina Turner is mad at Gibson, it’s a general anger without much intensity. Directors Miller and Ogilvie, along with Hayes, do nothing to emphasize any of the character relationships in the film. There are always adorable feral kids cloying at Gibson and none make much of an impression. Even Helen Buday, who should be Gibson’s sidekick or dramatic foil, just ends up in the background. Making the feral kids either non-verbal or blathering nonsense means Thunderdome just gets to imply character development without ever having to commit time or energy to it.
Gibson does better with the implied character development than anyone else. Even though the film’s indifferent to his character’s presence, Gibson’s not. He’s kind of blah with hair extensions growl-bantering with Turner, but he does get in a couple good moments with the kids. A lot of the other scenes with the kids are terrible, but there are a couple of good ones.
In addition to the troubled script and direction, Beyond Thunderdome is always lacking in some technical department at some time or another. Half of Dean Semler’s photography is subpar. Even though there’s clearly this elaboration exterior set for Turner’s “Bartertown,” the nighttime scenes in specific locations are always obvious on a soundstage. The film’s got the right grain, but not the right light.
Robert Francis-Bruce’s editing never impresses. Maurice Jarre’s score is overly melodramatic, trying to buy into the film’s goofy feral kid logic.
As far as the acting goes, it’s all fine. The stuff with the kids–the Disney version of a post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies–is a complete misfire (though it does feature some of Semler and Jarre’s best work in the film, when Ogilvie shoots white sands like a resort commercial). So when the kids are annoying, it’s not their fault. It’s Ogilvie, Miller, and Hayes’s fault. And Buday is fine. It’s too bad she doesn’t get better material.
But all through Beyond Thunderdome, Ogilvie and Miller never let the film get too long or too unpleasant or too precious. It’s tedious, but there’s a building intensity. That intensity fizzles out completely in the third act and stops Thunderdome fast. There’s no attempt to recover, just the transition into a bad epilogue sequence.
The whole thing feels like a forfeit.
Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie; written by Terry Hayes and Miller; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker; produced by Miller; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Mel Gibson (Mad Max Rockatansky), Tina Turner (Aunty Entity), Angelo Rossitto (The Master), Helen Buday (Savannah Nix), Robert Grubb (Pig Killer), Angry Anderson (Ironbar), Tom Jennings (Slake), Paul Larsson (The Blaster), Frank Thring (The Collector), and Bruce Spence (Jedediah the Pilot).