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The Tiger Makes Out (1967)
Brooklyn Blanket Bingo
He's a curmudgeonly mailman with a big vocabulary but no social skills or common sense. She's a bored suburban housewife with a bored husband and some children who may or may not actually exist. He hasn't yet figured out that his building was sold 6 years ago and his basement apartment is now being used for storage. She wants only to return to college to finish work on her baccalaureate.
The first half of this movie provides some wonderfully irreverent satire in its depiction of New York City as a benign dystopia. It has the feel of a 1960s beach movie turned into a sophisticated PG-rated urban sex romp. It occasionally falls flat in attempts to imitate the zaniness of Richard Lester films, but this doesn't detract from the clever humor.
The film weakens, however, after the inevitable meeting of the main characters. It's unfortunate that the writers had to resort to a plot device so ludicrous and offensive. The movie becomes mainly dialog driven beyond this point but the dialog just isn't good enough to support that and Eli Wallach's excellent Eric Von Zipper imitation eventually grows annoying. Nevertheless, the movie still has a few surprises to offer and the quick, merciful ending provides an oddly satisfying lack of conclusion.
Once Upon a Coffee House (1965)
Worst Movie Ever Made?
It may not be the worst movie ever made but you'll never know for sure unless you actually see it. My cat has a brain the size of pea and pays no attention to the TV but he was enthralled by this movie. The acting is way over the top and the attempts at humor will make you cringe. Much of the film consists of mediocre folk music, but at least you don't have to pay attention since it does nothing to advance the paper-thin plot. The ridiculous depiction of an early 1960's beatnik coffeehouse is particularly entertaining. The fact that it's been renamed "Hootenanny A Go-Go" for video release lends a special something to the "so bad it's funny" charm of this micro-budget embarrassment.
This movie is also known for being the first film appearance of Joan Rivers. You know how it is when you get to see a big star before they become famous and you can just tell from their talent, energy and focus that they were something special? This isn't one of those occasions.
FDR: American Badass! (2012)
Fun time for fans of camp
Gov. Roosevelt, a man's man of a badass if there ever was one, is stricken with polio after being bitten by a Nazi werewolf sent to eliminate him. The plan backfires. With his resolve strengthened by adversity, FDR goes on to become president and takes a hands-on approach to defeating the Axis werewolves in World War II.
This is an absurd film which intentionally shoots for a high level of camp. The mostly juvenile humor, which is not particularly clever or witty, relies heavily on the comic acting ability of the stars to make it work. It does work most of the time because Barry Bostwick is hilarious in his over-the-top performance as a Badass FDR and he gets excellent support from Bruce McGill playing his ever-present right-hand man.
As you might expect, this is a very hit-or-miss kind of humor. This isn't a problem if moving briskly from one gag to the next, but this movie chooses instead to draw out each gag as long as possible. It's fun when the gag is working but tedious on those many occasions when it isn't. The excessive make-up on the Axis werewolves makes it impossible for them to do any acting, which means that every scene with them in it falls completely flat. Several more scenes are weakened by supporting actors who try to out-emote Bostwick rather than playing straight-men for him. On the whole, however, it was a very fun movie to watch and is a must-see film for anyone who enjoys intentional camp.
Jour de fête (1949)
The Discreet Charm of Jacques Tati
The arrival of a carnival in a rural French town means a day of fun and adventure, as well as games of chance and skill. The town's bumbling postman, played by Tati, has always been a target for playful mocking by the town. The carnies, who quickly identify him as an easy mark, subject him to a slightly more cruel but still bearable teasing. To add to his troubles, the carnival is showing a short film featuring stunt pilots and drivers, but with a gag narration that describes the stunts as being the modern methods of the American Postal Service. The postman is determined that he will begin delivering mail in the American style, or at least as close as he can come on his old bicycle.
Like Tati's other films, this isn't so much a story as it is a set of thematically related gags and vignettes. It starts off slow and many of the gags are not as clever or well executed as in his other films, but the patient viewer will be well rewarded. As the film progresses, the collection of episodes and characters, along with an excellently chosen soundtrack, gradually build up a very rich and complex atmosphere. By the time Tati begins delivering the mail with "rapidité, rapidité!", the movie has subtly shifted into a faster pace and moves crisply towards its finish. The closing scene wonderfully ties all the elements together and it finally becomes clear that the movie was made as a love letter from Tati to this small rural town. A film critic could write an entire essay on the brilliance of the last shot, the memory of which still gives me pleasure long after having viewed the film.
The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)
The Audience Dies Yawning
Unconscious people peacefully slump over the controls of the trains, planes and automobiles they were piloting. This is naturally followed by the crashes of the aforementioned vehicles. A few lone survivors show up and band together as they try to figure things out. The screaming doesn't actually start until some strange space-suited creatures begin slowly lumbering around town and are eventually joined by those they've recently killed.
The movie perhaps tries a little harder than comparable films in trying to create a dramatic scenario of survivors dealing with the aftermath of a holocaust they don't understand, but not a lot harder. Plot, character development and dramatic tension are mostly absent and the film plods along nearly as slowly as the completely out-of-place zombies. This may be a low-budget sci-fi film with laughable special effects and an over-the-top title, but the camp value is almost non-existent. On the plus side, its short running time does take some mercy on fans of the genre who feel compelled to see this movie in spite of its limited entertainment potential.
Repo Chick (2009)
No salvation from the boiling blistering fires of eternal damnation
In the not too distant future of an alternate reality, a Paris Hilton-like celebrity cut off from her fortune discovers she has a knack for the repossession business after joining a firm which not only has cars in its holding yard but also factories, cruise ships and what might be a nuclear power plant. Enticed by a million dollar bounty on a vintage train, she ends up in the middle of a terrorist plot to force the President of the United States to outlaw golf and become a vegan.
This movie isn't so much a "Repo Man" sequel as it is a remake taken to ridiculous extremes at the expense of things like plot, character development and cinematography. It's loaded with references and parallels to "Repo Man" and at least 8 actors from the original (not including Cox) appear here as well. I got a big kick out of this, but it will obviously be lost on anyone who isn't a "Repo Man" fan and won't appeal to many of those who are, so we have a movie that by design has been made primarily for the benefit of a small subset of the small cult following of the original.
The movie is unique, however, in the way it creates the fantasy world in which the action takes place. A surreal environment is produced by being filmed entirely in green screen with the floors and backgrounds added later. Although the opening scenes are made to look almost realistic, the movie increasingly uses obvious toy models and cartoon animations as it progresses. Most of the film's entertainment value comes from accepting this alternate reality as a place which is at least possible in our imaginations even if completely implausible in the real world.
The point of the movie, of course, isn't the thin, absurd plot but the satire which gets leveled at many aspects of modern society. I would assume that the shallow and fictitious nature of the environment created in the film is supposed to represent those same qualities in the targets being satirized. Topics such as celebrity culture, heartless corporations, liberal activists and homeland security all get the Cox treatment. Unfortunately, it's done without the depth, coherence and brilliantly insightful dialog found throughout "Repo Man". Although I very much appreciate all the things Cox was trying to do, I would still find it hard to recommend this movie without attaching numerous qualifications to such a recommendation.
Too little, too late for W. C. Fields
The movie centers around W. C. Fields, playing a fictional version of himself, trying to pitch a script at Esoteric Studios. The purpose is presumably to provide a vehicle for Fields' young star-in-the-making niece, but it's actually an absurd story which features Fields himself. As we watch the film within the film, we're occasionally interrupted by producer Franklin Pangborn (an actor also using his real name here) telling us just how ridiculous the movie we're watching is.
With some nice behind-the-scenes shots and a completely irreverent attitude, this movie clearly had the potential to be a wonderful satire of the film industry, but it would've required much better dialog and a younger W. C. Fields to make that happen. Although it's a nice touch to have Pangborn telling us in the film itself just how bad the film is, there is nothing particularly insightful or witty about his remarks, nor is there any indication of satirical intent in the many clichéd and overworked gags seen throughout the film. The fact that there is no real effort to connect the final chase sequence to the plot is no doubt seen by many as part of this movie's charm, but there was no framework created which would let me see that as a positive. As far as Fields himself goes, it's hard to believe that only one year passed between making the "Bank Dick" and this film; he seems to have aged at least a decade. The Fields magic is missing through most of the movie, leaving him looking clumsy and tired.
In spite of these flaws, the movie is nevertheless a fun way to spend an hour and fifteen minutes. Many of the more absurd scenes are quite memorable, my favorite being Fields diving off the open-air observation deck of a luxury airplane in flight so as to retrieve a liquor bottle which fell from the railing. Some of the gags hit their mark, completely unexpected things keep popping up, and occasionally Fields is able to place himself in a situation where he can at least come close to conjuring up the mannerisms and expressions which made him such a brilliant comic actor in the past. The final sequence may have nothing to do with the rest of the film, but it's still an outstanding comic chase scene. To sum it up, this is an entertaining and somewhat memorable film which moves briskly from start to finish, but it's unfortunately not a particularly good one.
Der Dibuk (1937)
Weak story but fascinating rituals
Sometime in the past, perhaps in the late 19th century, two best friends make a pledge that their children will marry if they should have a son and daughter. A mysterious messenger warns them against pledging the lives of the unborn, but he's ignored with the observation that Jews have always done this. The two men do have a son and daughter, but not without tragedy falling upon both their generation and the next.
This movie is very difficult to follow at the start, with each scene being little more than a one line synopsis of the events eventually leading up to the main story, the ill-fated romance between the son and daughter. The story has an unusual twist not found elsewhere, that of the son becoming a Dybbuk, but there otherwise isn't all that much of interest in the plot or the way it's told as it slowly plods along to its predictable conclusion.
What is interesting, of course, is watching the unique look and feel of a Yiddish movie made by Polish Jews in the 1930s. Much of the imagery is very striking and it's a rare chance to hear a full dose of authentic religious Jewish singing, something which never makes it into American films because of its lack of commercial appeal. The film definitely provides a rewarding experience to viewers who don't necessarily need the entertainment of a good story to keep them interested in the intriguing sights and sounds found in this film.
General Custard Pie in the Face
Several tribes of Native Americans have taken up residence in a large excavation in the center of modern day Paris. Meeting nearby in an ornate domed room, some wealthy industrialists decide that the savages are impeding progress and must be exterminated. After successfully bribing the head of the army, General Custer is brought in to lead the effort. A portrait of their President, Richard Nixon, seems to watch over them from everywhere.
Made in the early 1970s, this surreal black comedy is usually interpreted as a scathing commentary on America's involvement in Vietnam, but I didn't see it that way. There is nothing in the film which significantly corresponds to the Vietnam conflict, and the few American symbols which show up are so awkwardly out of place and the characters exaggerated in such a ludicrous manner that it had the effect of constantly reminding me that this wasn't really about Americans. I can't claim to know how the European audience for which it was intended would have viewed it, but I saw it as a satirical look at European racism and colonialism (which, of course, would ultimately include both the genocide of Native Americans and the conflict in Vietnam) and a left-wing allegory of capitalism in which the Native Americans represent the oppressed working classes.
As a social/political satire, it achieves it's greatest success in depicting an absolute and brutal racism without being didactic or calling unnecessary attention to it. The most interesting character is Custer's Indian scout. Moving freely among both European and Native American societies, he is detested by both groups and detests both of them in return. The title of the film comes from Custer's constant reminders of the many things which the scout, being an Indian, is not allowed to do. When asked by another Native American why he hates Custer so much, the scout replies "because he treats me like... an Indian". The pause in delivering the line and the comic reaction of both characters afterward is handled exceptionally well.
All in all, the film's success as a left-wing critique of capitalism/colonialism is limited because so many of its clever subtleties get lost in the comedic noise. As a satire on American imperialism it fares much more poorly, coming dangerously close to being little more than a partisan screed. It does, however, achieve moderate success at being an entertaining absurdist farce with excellent comedic performances by the lead actors.
My Name Is Bruce (2007)
How not to Succeed at Self-Deprecating Humor
Although I'm only a moderate Bruce Campbell fan, the synopsis of this film sounded so hilarious that I could barely contain my excitement when the chance to see it finally arrived. Although I did have a lot of fun watching, I was also very disappointed. Hoping for the intelligent and good-natured satirical humor of Campbell's books "Chins" and "Make Love", what I got instead was a rather crude and mostly unremarkable parody of modern low budget horror films.
The biggest problem, I believe, lies in the way that the Bruce Campbell character is so ridiculously exaggerated as a raging egomaniac and out-of-control alcoholic. It was nearly impossible to generate any sympathy or liking for the character and even more difficult to imagine this character containing any of the real Bruce Campbell. Not only did this completely eliminate the self-deprecating humor which would normally be one of Campbell's strongest comic assets, it also undermined the entire point of the film. Failing to accept the main character as being a real but comically fictionalized version of the actual Bruce Campbell means that the fundamental premise of the film is completely wasted.
A Bruce Campbell fan with the proper attitude can still have a great time watching this movie. Anyone willing to cooperate with the film by ignoring the flaws and pretending to see some of the real Bruce Campbell in his character will be rewarded with many amusing Campbell references, some passable B-movie satire and the occasional well-executed gag. I think it should be obvious, however, that the less willing you are to cooperate in this manner the more likely you are to find this movie a complete waste of time.
Misunderstood, Under-appreciated, and Overrated
A steady stream of very attractive and nearly identical manikins come to life and march starry-eyed around the block and up the stairs to a flat where they briefly meet the object of their desire before dutifully signing his guest book on the way out. The man they came to see is the suave Lothario who will try to mentor the socially awkward teacher living downstairs in the "knack" of seducing women. As so often happens in situations like this, they will eventually end up competing for the affections of the same intriguing ingénue.
This may sound like an overused cliché likely to result in a formulaic romantic comedy, but director Richard Lester gives us something very different as he presents the story through a combination of exaggerated caricatures, fantasy sequences and zany metaphors. The result is that we are not so much interested in the details of the story as we are in the fun we have reaching the inevitable conclusion and the social commentary we encounter along the way.
Created in 1965, Lester makes a hefty contribution to the creation of a frenetic visual style of comedy which will be imitated with great commercial success throughout the rest of the decade (think "Laugh-In"). With its mod styling, rapid-fire editing, non sequiturs and wacky antics, Lester effectively uses this style to provide some wickedly clever parody of early 1960s sexism, conformity and consumerism.
The film is unfortunately not without some serious flaws. The comic style which may have seemed fresh and exciting at the time has not aged well. The good-natured mood of the film robs the social commentary of any punch or staying power, as does the failure to integrate it into a unifying framework. Also, the four main characters may be wonderfully portrayed with excellent comic acting, but only one of them is scripted such that he ever becomes human enough for us to care what happens to him, something which is essential in a story that is entirely about the relationships between the main characters.
One may find this to be a very enjoyable and memorable film in spite of these flaws, but it clearly requires that you recognize how to accept what it attempts to offer rather than criticizing it for what it doesn't deliver. I'd also think that it's a valuable film for anyone interested in the 1960s mass media image of a mostly mythical swinging London and in the trends influencing popular entertainment during that time period.
The Son of Kong (1933)
A chip off the old block
It's one month after the King Kong fiasco and Carl Denham can't get a break from the relentless stream of reporters and lawsuits hounding him. Kong might have caused a lot of damage and killed a few people, but don't you think that Denham is awfully sorry about it all? And was it really his fault that the chains weren't strong enough? Well, actually it was, and with a grand jury about to rule against him, Denham decides it's time for a long ocean voyage.
Poor Denham must've done something to insult Poseidon, though, because no matter how much he wants to avoid it, he gets blown right back to Skull Island. This time he's looking for a treasure, but when the ungrateful natives force him to land on a remote part of the island, he immediately stumbles upon the orphaned Son of Kong. He knows this because of the obvious family resemblance. We never do find out what happened to Mrs. Kong.
The original was the greatest special effects film ever made, and for reasons more than just the outstanding effects. Any attempt to duplicate this, particularly in a quickly made sequel, could not possibly have come close and would have been nothing more than a shameless attempt to make some quick cash. In other words, a typical Hollywood sequel. The creators of Son wisely do not make this attempt. Instead, using the original's subtle satire of the film industry as its starting point, "Son of Kong" becomes a broad parody of Hollywood movies in general and of the original "King Kong" itself.
At one hour and 10 minutes, this movie is exactly the right length of time. No gag or idea is drawn out for even a moment longer than it is capable of sustaining. The special effects are still excellent, but are now secondary to the antics of the characters, including the comic mugging of Kong Jr. himself. Make no doubt about it, this film is no "King Kong" - but it's not a typical Hollywood sequel either.
Sing Your Worries Away (1942)
Are you the doorman? Well, here's a door for ya...
The NYPD get no answers after pulling up in front of the swank Boathouse Inn to investigate a possible homicide, but Tommy (Buddy Ebsen), a friend of the presumed victim, decides to stay and take a look around. He quickly falls for the cigarette girl, who along with her cousin Chow Brewster (Bert Lahr) is going to inherit millions, but only if the missing person can bring them the news before mobsters give them the business.
The jokes may be old and stale, but Buddy and Bert still manage to pull them off. Ebsen is wonderfully engaging as a good-natured not-quite country bumpkin; Lahr is the standard Bert Lahr persona. They may not seem like the logical choices to pair off in a buddy film, but they share enough good-natured energy to make it seem completely natural. The music swings, the song and dance is a pleasure, and the movie is just plain fun. Definitely worth watching if you get the chance.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
SPOILER ALERT: The Final Scene
Personally, I don't much understand the high level of praise being given this movie. I don't find any of the actors to be convincing in their roles. The weak script and direction doesn't help, nor do the painful repetitions of the "Gilded Cage" song. What the movie does successfully, however, is to brilliantly stage the final unveiling of the portrait, and this alone makes the movie worth watching.
To set us up for this final scene, the movie creates a progression which directs our expectations for the next step in that progression, but then exceeds those expectations in a shocking manner. I don't know if there is a name to describe this, but the textbook example is when Tippi Hedren is waiting outside of the schoolhouse while "The Birds" amass in the playground behind here. In Dorian Gray, the progression is an extremely minimal one. First we see the angelic looking portrait of the angelic looking Gray. After his first act of cruelty, we see the portrait again. Dorian Gray the person still looks perfect, but the portrait now has the very slightest of sneers. It is not until many years later that we will see the portrait again.
When we arrive at that scene, we expect that the portrait is going to have to be very ugly. Nothing can prepare us, however, for just how ugly it has become. When the portrait is finally sprung upon us in full living color (the rest of the film being black and white), it has become horrible beyond anything we could have imagined.
What really works about this scene, however, is not that initial shock, but the slow realization that the unprecedented grotesqueness of the portrait is in fact a mirror of the grotesqueness of the soul of Dorian Gray. Today's films would make somebody look evil by graphically showing us in detail all of his evil acts, but doing so only turns the person into a psychotic comic-book caricature. In Dorian Gray, we are given a depiction of the extremes of evil which might actually exist in anyone who might otherwise appear as a fine, upstanding member of our community. If the rest of the movie had matched the quality of this final scene, then Dorian Gray could well have been the most realistically evil character in film history.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
SPOILER ALERT: The Real Story
Film buffs are quick to point out that the Falcon is nothing but a McGuffin (a device that appears in the film and seems to drive the logic of the plot, but which actually serves no further purpose), but nobody seems to be interested in discussing what the plot is really about. The story of "The Maltese Falcon" is the one of Sam Spade solving the murder of his partner. It's an excellently crafted story and one which obeys the basic rules of mystery in that it gives the viewer all of the information available to the detective who solves it (or nearly all of it).
When we see Miles Archer being shot, he is standing calmly with his hands in his pockets. He seems surprised as a gun is raised by an unseen assailant to shoot him, but not alarmed or afraid. At the scene of the crime, the police inform Spade that Archer has his gun tucked away in his hip and his overcoat buttoned. Spade informs the police that Archer had been tailing a guy named Thursby. Later, when Thursby is found shot, the police suggest that Spade had the motivation to kill a guy who had murdered his partner, but Spade does not respond. He only states that he has never seen Thursby, dead or alive. The only vital piece of information we haven't been given is Spade's opinion that "Mile's hadn't many brains, but he'd had too many years of experience as a detective to be caught like that..."
At this point the movie goes off on the Falcon sub-plot, completely taking our mind off of the Archer murder. Spade has never said anything to suggest that he believes Thursby to be the murderer, but we, and the police, fill in that detail for ourselves. We forget about it and move on. It isn't until the final scene that this main plot of the movie re-emerges and we realize that solving the murder of his partner was Spade's motivation all along. "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner, and you're supposed to do something about it." If there is any flaw in this nearly perfect film, it's that the Falcon diversion is so effective that we still leave the movie not fully realizing what the story was actually about.
Weak and sappy spoof
The Colossal Movie Studio is heading for bankruptcy, largely due to the efforts of the leading star and director who are secretly in the employ of the nefarious Ivor Nassau, a financier who wants to shut the studio down. Wall Street analytical genius and male ingenue Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) knows something is wrong and decides he has to go to Hollywood to find out what. The fact that he knows nothing about movies doesn't deter him; his confidence in mathematical analysis knows no bounds. Fortunately for him, he meets up with aspiring actress Lester Plum (Joan Blondell) who eventually manages to convince him of the importance of the human element.
The movie starts off with the promise of being a humorously cynical look at the workings of Hollywood, but it fails to deliver anything but a weak and predictable satire. Humphrey Bogart is unconvincing in his role as a tough producer still in love with the star he created. His talents are wasted here, with the exception of one drunk scene which very briefly gives him the chance to demonstrate his considerable comic acting ability. The very talented and likable Leslie Howard and Joan Blondell make the movie watchable, but not anything to go out of your way for. There is also some social commentary on corporate executives and Wall Street mavens who would enrich themselves without concern for workers or shareholders, but there isn't much meat to it.
That's Right - You're Wrong (1939)
A short course in the Kollege of Musical Knowledge
The head of a big Hollywood studio is tired of making movies which are artistic successes but commercial flops, so he comes up with the idea of filming the nation's hottest live act - Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge. One of his producers just happens to have 2 writers working on a script about a bandleader, so Kay Kyser and band are brought to Hollywood to become movie stars. Unfortunately, the script calls for the bandleader to be a romantic lead, which Kay Kyser obviously isn't. After a few humorous twists and turns, Kyser and band are back on the radio where they belong.
The movie within the movie which never gets made is actually the movie you're watching, and it is obviously little more than an excuse to get Kay Kyser's act on film. The highlight, however, is Kyser's screen test in which he's a romantic gondolier playing opposite studio star Sandra Sand (Lucille Ball). You have to be familiar with his stage personality to appreciate the absurdity of it, and you will be by the time this comic gem of a scene appears. There are some other good comic moments, but the production is otherwise pretty weak. The musical act itself is dated and not likely to appeal to a modern audience unless they happen to have nostalgic yearnings for pre-television radio shows. Nevertheless, Kay Kyser and his movie have a good-natured attitude and whimsical touch which can certainly lift your spirits if you give them the chance.
The Last Hunt (1956)
A Family Affair
Some time in the late 19th century, somewhere in the American West, several cowboys in need of money go on a buffalo hunt. The group's leader believes that buffaloes are too numerous for the hunting to have any impact, but the more experienced hunter has seen how quickly the population can collapse, and he isn't so sure. Featuring buffalo herds living in South Dakota and showing film of actual hunting (the movie's introduction explains it as necessary thinning of the herd), the movie does an excellent job of presenting us with the plight of the buffalo and its effect on Native Americans without ever getting preachy about it.
The real story, however, is about the dysfunctional family which is created by the small group formed to do the hunting. The father figure is Charlie, a violent man with a short fuse. Sandy, his "brother", is the experienced hunter who is tired of killing but needs the job after losing his cattle. A half-Indian boy, who hates the fact that he looks entirely Caucasian, takes the role of adopted son. The grandfather (and moral compass) is an alcoholic buffalo skinner; Charlie's "wife" is an Indian woman whose companions he killed after they stole his horses.
Charlie is clearly the most interesting figure. He is mean and insulting towards everyone around him, yet at the same time he knows that they are the only family and friends that he has. He expects the abducted Indian women to hate him, then accept him, but he doesn't know how to react when she refuses to do either. He's the one who put the family together in the first place, but he's also the one who is fated to ultimately destroy it.
This is all very similar to the classic "Red River", which also features a family of sorts being torn apart by the increasingly violent and alienated father figure. As one might expect, this movie suffers by comparison. The plot is not as focused on developing the characters and family dynamics, and the direction fails to keep all of the scenes working towards this common goal. Charlie is so thoroughly unlikable from the very beginning that we never have any reason to care about what happens to him or his family. On the positive side, however, the message surrounding the buffalo slaughter adds an extra dimension to the film and its conclusion is far superior to the Hollywood ending which was tacked on to the end of "Red River". As a result, "The Last Hunt" is an interesting and entertaining film, very well made, but falling short of what would be needed to consider it a classic.
The Man from Texas (1915)
One small step in the history of film Westerns
A cowboy hero known only as "Texas" (Tom Mix) goes to Montana to find the man who done his sister wrong. After neatly dispatching the villain, he falls for a local girl and decides to stick around, becoming involved in several adventures with stage robbers, rustlers, and kidnappers.
How can you possibly try to rate a low-budget western from 1915? If you're watching this film, you're probably watching it as a lesson in the history of film making, and in that context it does provide some interest. Every scene is shot in a single take from a single fixed camera. There are neither close-ups nor the extreme long shots which will become one of the defining characteristics of the Hollywood western. It's filmed using the natural overhead sunlight, so the faces are constantly in shadow from all the 10-gallon cowboy hats. This basically means that the characters are little more than bodies acting out the motions described in the title cards.
The plot itself contains all the elements which Hollywood will re-use countless times, although here we see them in a very abbreviated form. No doubt these were taken directly from the dime novels and horse operas of the late 19th century. From a stylistic point of view, however, this film doesn't appear to have added anything to the Western genre which hadn't already been seen in "The Great Train Robbery" filmed more than 10 years earlier. Nevertheless, since most films this old which we have the chance to see are those preserved as classics, it's fun to be able to watch a 1915 film which was nothing but run-of-the-mill entertainment.
The Movie That Insulted our Intelligence
This movie is a mixed bag for those who seek out entertainment in low-budget horror films of the 1950s. It's greatest strength is the cinematography, which is very visually appealing even if it doesn't do much to re-enforce the story. The acting is also much more competent than one would have expected. The greatest weakness of the movie is the monster, a gigantic bug-eyed caddisfly larva. Except for one hilariously improbable scene entrance, it's way too silly to be frightening, too ordinary to be amusing, and too inanimate to be interesting.
The real wild-card here, however, is the script, which works in some ways but is terrible in others. The script usually handles the details quite well, particularly in it's limited but straight-to-the-point dialog. Looking at the big picture, however, it seems to lack any clear, consistent goals, and many parts of it seem to have been written without any thought at all. You know there's trouble ahead when the movie starts with some stock footage and a voice-over describing the Salton Sea as a quirk of nature (the Salton Sea as it currently exists was accidentally created in 1905 as a result of some canal projects gone wrong). In one scene, our ever capable scientist informs the military that the egg he's keeping alive can't possibly hatch because of the temperature at which it's being kept. How he can know this is a complete mystery since no-one has ever seen eggs anything like it. This is very typical of films of this genre, but it becomes ludicrous when the scientist points to the temperature control unit and states positively that nothing can go wrong as long as one particular knob stays in its proper position. Naturally, it doesn't.
The production values aren't too terrible for such a low budget film, and the good pacing and terse but effective dialog keep it from ever getting boring. It would actually be a quite watchable movie if, in fact, there actually were any reason to watch it. Perhaps in the 1950s the movie might have provided a good scare or at least some interesting novelty for a Saturday afternoon matinee audience, but there is little reason to recommend it today.
Repo Man (1984)
Lonely is the man without a car
Repo Man is a movie created to wake you from the slumber of everyday routine and leave you looking at the world a little differently then you had before. Repo Man is also the only film which I can watch over and over again yet never find even a single moment of it to have become mundane or tedious through the repetition. But having to try to describe what makes Repo Man so good, or even what it's really about, is extremely difficult because the things Repo Man does can only be done through the medium of film - and this, of course, is part of what makes it such an outstanding accomplishment.
Repo Man is basically a post-modern urban-setting western. Repo Men are cowboys, rugged individualists with a code of honor. They work hard and they play harder. The desolate landscape they ride in is not the American West, but a modern society which has been completely dumbed down by the irresistible lure of the least common denominator. Ordinary people, like Otto's parents, are just inanimate objects in that landscape. They cling to whichever leader provides a simplistic faith or belief that promises to give meaning and purpose to their existence. The Repo Men are a vanishing breed of rugged individualists in a world increasingly dedicated to instant gratification and mass consumption, or perhaps they're the pioneers of a new frontier, trying to discover how to maintain their spiritual independence in this harsh new landscape.
All of this is made possible because the film achieves such a high level of excellence in all aspects of film-making. The landscape, so important a part of any western, is brilliantly depicted through the integration of sight, sound, music, and action. Attention and creativity are lavished on even the smallest details. Don't be fooled, however, by the comfort of having a code to live by. The honor and integrity of these cowboys is just a shallow illusion, and you're missing the point if you believe that salvation lies with the Repo Men or in a whacked-out homeless man developing a special rapport with aliens. There is no salvation other than just staying awake and trying to see things for what they really might be.
Callaway Went Thataway (1951)
Wichaway went Callaway?
A cowboy hero dressed in white is chasing down a group of dastardly villains. Pull back to reveal that what we are seeing is on television. Now cut to scenes across the country to show children from all walks of life glued to their sets watching wichaway Callaway went. Meanwhile, back in the offices of the creative team behind the TV series, it seems that they've got a problem on their hands. The show has been pieced together from old movies, but it's such a success that now the public is demanding to see the real deal and nobody actually knows where Callaway is. Enter a perfect double, an honest-to-goodness aw-shucks cowboy, and you can guess the rest.
This is a predictable comedy which does little to distinguish itself, but it isn't without its charms. The lead actors are very appealing and occasionally have some snappy dialog to work with. Howard Keel is particularly entertaining in the dual roles of "Stretch" Barnes and "Smoky" Callaway. Anyone who enjoys comedies from this time period should get a kick out of this film.
The Devil's Disciple (1959)
Unfortunate waste of talent
Laurence Olivier is a British general surrounded by mediocrity and outnumbered by rebel forces who won't give him a fair fight. Burt Lancaster is a pacifist minister trying to protect his innocent parishioners, most of whom haven't yet taken any side in the Revolutionary War. Kirk Douglas is a bright-eyed ne'er-do-well, interested only in himself. Put three great actors like this together and you're bound to get great results, right?
Wrong. I completely fail to see how this movie can get such good reviews here. The first 50 minutes of the movie just barely avoid being downright awful. Olivier and Lancaster do next to nothing, while Douglas hams it up so bad that even the audience should feel embarrassed. Janette Scott, as Lancaster's wife, is forced to play a character with no discernible intelligence or personality whatsoever.
Have some patience, however, and you will eventually be rewarded. Lancaster and Douglas both experience sudden character changes. Lancaster gets a chance to be entertaining while Douglas' performance becomes excellent once he tones it down a bit. Allowed finally to interact with these two, Olivier becomes a valuable asset. The resulting 30 minutes is a high-spirited action adventure film with a light comedic touch and occasional witty dialogue. With the handicap of the terrible start, however, this is still nothing more than a pleasant but unremarkable diversion.
Beat the Devil (1953)
Film-noir twisted into a unique and witty comedy
I'm surprised at the lack of positive reviews written here for this witty film-noir spoof. The movie is certainly conceived in standard noir fashion, based on a story about colonial exploitation which is ripe with opportunity for double-dealing and triple-crossing, and populated with a cast of stereotypical film-noir characters. But then something strange happens. It's as if the characters are given self-awareness. Because these would all be boring and mundane people in real life, they live out their fantasies by embracing the limited nature of their scripted alter-egos and playing them to the extreme. This is how superficial, cardboard-thin film-noir characters might behave if forced to live in the real world without a script to guide them.
The story is about several travelers who meet in port while waiting for a ship to take them to Africa. Three unlikely criminals - "the committee" - are on their way to pull off a uranium swindle. Their hired agent, Dannreuther, is the reluctant but ever capable leading man, married to a beautiful young Italian who dreams of being English. Harry Chelm is English to the point of absurdity. He is every bit the exaggerated epitome of a British aristocrat, except that he lacks the wealth and title to actually be one. His wife, a charming mythomaniac, manages to convince everyone else otherwise.
Complications arise when this group is confined to a small port and then to an even smaller ship. The three criminals scurry about like a pack of mismatched meerkats. Robert Morley is absolutely hilarious as the criminal mastermind cursed with a face and body completely incapable of hiding even the smallest emotion. Peter Lorre has some wonderful scenes playing an unflappable, philosophical German named O'Hara. Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, and Edward Underdown deliver outstanding comedic performances while Bogart effortlessly cycles through every leading character he's ever portrayed.
I don't think it will spoil the film to point out that the uranium deal is nothing but a MacGuffin. The real value of this movie is the understated comic situations and mannerisms which arise when the characters are allowed to break free from the restraints of standard film-noir style. They do so in a totally natural manner using their own self-awareness but still restricted by the limited personalities and abilities of the stereotypes they represent. The results are unique, unpredictable, and completely charming.
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Not necessarily what you might have expected
Nikolas "Watchdog" Pherides (Boris Karloff), a Greek general fighting in the Balkan wars, is known for the unbending vigilance with which he fights for what he believes in. His motivations seem sincere but his methods can be extreme. During a break in battle, he and a journalist cross to a small island to visit his wife's tomb. While there, he is convinced to spend the night in the relative luxury of the island's only household. In the morning, one of the guests is found dead from the plague. The general imposes a quarantine on the island and calls for the doctor. When a rational, scientific approach to attacking the plague seems to make no difference at all, myth and superstition take over, turning the island's residents against one another.
Although "Boris Karloff in Isle of the Dead" certainly sounds like a typical low-budget monster/horror film of the 30s and 40s, this turns out instead to be more of a suspense/mystery in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. As the movie progresses, it does begin to throw in a few contrived horror elements, particularly near the end. It isn't nearly enough to turn this into the typical horror film which some may have expected, but it is enough to damage an already weak script which fails to do justice to the story. Karloff is quite memorable in his roll and gets competent support from the direction and the rest of the cast, but the production itself does not appear to have ever set its sights very high. The result is an eerie and interesting film, but one which is not nearly as gripping and disturbing as it should be.