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The Girl from Mexico (1939)
The 'Spitfire' still has some fire!
When I was 9 or 10 I received a book, 'Immortals of the Screen,' which had photos and short bios of some 30 A-list and B-list stars and some major supporting actors from the 1920s through the 1950s. It was apparently done by a former Hollywood crew hand of some sort, picking and choosing either the stars he had actually worked with or those whose royalty fees he could afford to pay. In any case, I dug it out during the past year to see if there were still any actors I didn't know, my knowledge of classic cinema having grown exponentially during the past decade. One who captured my attention was Lupe Velez. It had stills from four or five of her "Mexican Spitfire" movies. I tried finding her on Netflix (usually a good source for older movies and TV shows), but came up empty. Recently I happened to find a four-DVD set on amazon.com with all eight Spitfire movies. This one, of course, is the film that launched the series. I opted to grab it, although I must admit I had some trepidation. I know Ms. Velez wasn't an A-list star and had no idea what level of acting, directing, writing, etc. her films might contain. Just like many movies today are dogs, films from Hollywood's golden age obviously had clinkers, too. I was absolutely delighted today when I watched the brief 71-minute 'The Girl From Mexico.' It is a totally charming little film. Ms. Velez is adorable and also quite enticing as "spitfire" Carmelita Fuentes, sort of a cross between Ricky and Lucy Ricardo. In this film she meets New York ad executive Dennis Lindsay (Donald Woods), who is in Mexico seeking singing talent. He takes her back to NYC, getting much more than he bargained for. She breaks up his impending marriage, nearly gets him fired and gets into all sorts of Lucy-like mischief with Lindsay's eccentric uncle Matt (Leon Errol), whom she quickly wraps around her little finger. In the end, Lindsay's wedding takes place as planned, only with Carmelita as the bride, thus setting up the next seven films. Obviously films' pacing were different in 1939 than they are today. Yet I never found the film to be dragging. It had a handful of laugh-out-loud (at least for me) moments and lots of wholesome cuteness. It was a very enjoyable little film and I look forward to viewing 'The Mexican Spitfire' (its sequel) and the rest of the series.
The Wolfman (2010)
Fine updating of a classic film
I am perplexed, after finally getting a chance to see The Wolfman, as to why its ratings are so mediocre. I was thoroughly engaged and entertained by it.
This was a film I had wanted to see since I first heard of its production. The 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. classic was a marvelous film and an icon of the Universal horror days. I personally never warmed to the new-wave werewolves of The Howling and more recent films, where werewolves change forms at will, any time of the day or night. Yes, I know this concept is more in keeping with the ancient legends. Despite that, I was weaned on old-time Hollywood werewolves and that is how I like my lycanthropes. I was thrilled that the story was going to be retold with modern cinematic techniques, but staying true to the old Universal story line.
I was certainly not disappointed! Director Joe Johnston and writers Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self weave a spine-tingly, creepy, very Gothic horror tale amidst the foggy, moonlit woods of rural England. Great care is taken to create the appropriate mood. It even opens with the awesome poem Siodnak created for the first movie, "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright." Of course the great Danny Elfman helps with his wonderful scores. Just over-the-top enough in certain spots, it perfectly builds the tension and helps tell the story.
Walker and Self take a few deviations from Curt Siodnak's screenplay for the 1941 film. Here Sir John Tolbert (Anthony Hopkins) is also a werewolf, who tries to welcome his son Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) into the fraternity. This makes for a memorable semi-climactic scene.
Del Toro and Emily Blunt are outstanding in the lead roles. Interestingly, in several key shots, the Puerto Rican native Del Toro actually bears a resemblance to Chaney Jr. At least his eyes manage to take on the same haunted, hopeless look that Chaney's emitted. To me this is what makes the Hollywood werewolf special a decent man is trapped into the life of a beast, against his will, just as the poem says.
Hopkins is great as Sir John, given a much meatier role than Claude Rains was in 1941. Nichalos Day, meanwhile, is excellent as Col. Montford of Scotland Yard. Johnston expertly uses establishing shots of Montford arriving on the scene to set up the building conflict between him and the Talbots. Geraldine Chaplin, by the way, actually bears a minimal resemblance to Maria Ouspenskaya as the elderly gypsy Maleva.
There is just enough gore a tad more in the unrated version that was included on the DVD to make it a legitimate horror film and some fine special effects. Lawrence transforming into the beast while strapped down behind the brutal asylum head, Dr. Lloyd (Michael Cronin) who is lecturing esteemed colleagues on how he is curing Lawrence of his werewolf delusions is worth the price of the rental itself. Scenes of the wolf switching from running on two legs to scampering on four legs while pursuing or being pursued adds a nice electric charge to the film.
Not having read other reviews, I am at a loss as to what many people disliked about it. I suspect that some in today's audience might have found the pace slow. To me it was ideal, as the haunted woods, ruined churches and ancient Talbot estate -- not to mention the characters -- were given time to grow on the viewer.
I find the feel of the film perfect. Johnston's work actually makes me think of Tim Burton's wonderful Sleepy Hollow on several occasions. He sets up a similar community of worried, frightened locals, dreading the sun going down (and, in this case, the moon coming up), with a similarly creepy backdrop. The only difference is Johnston imbibes his film with much of Sleepy Hallow's panache, but very little of its tongue-in-cheek feel.
If you like your werewolves traditional, a moderate amount of gore, a little doomed romance and fine Gothic atmosphere, you will love The Wolfman.
Tortilla Soup (2001)
Enjoy while the soup's hot!
Some movies just make you feel good. 'Tortilla Soup' is certainly one of those.
It is the story of a widowed master chef living with his three grown daughters (The premise made me think of the classic Charles Laughton film 'Hobson's Choice.') A fun film, with good dialogue, a sparkling cast and a sweet spirit, it is both hilarious and touching.
Hector Elzondo plays Martin Naranjo, a master chef who has lost most of his sense of smell and taste. (I'm still not sure if he still owns his restaurant, or if he now only helps out there.) He is still living with his daughters, who appear to range in age from about 18 to 30.
Leticia (Elizabeth Pena) is the oldest, an old-maid chemistry teacher who is devoutly devoted to God, her dad and her teaching. Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) is the middle daughter, who loves to cook, but whom her father has pressed to get an MBA and pursue a career in big business. Maribel (Tamara Mello) has apparently just graduated from high school and is expected to start college soon.
The family is wonderful together. Martin insists on family dinners being respected. He prepares huge restraint-style Mexican meals and expects everyone to be on time and pleasant. With three women under one roof for too many years, though, that isn't often possible.
As the story progresses, everyone finds romance, including Martin. The sisters are fantastic together and each one is fun to watch individually. Stand-up comic Paul Rodriguez is perfect as the high school baseball coach who steals Letty's heart, while Nikolai Kinski is very good as Maribel's Brazilian heartthrob. Former bombshell Raquel Welsh, meanwhile, shows guts at age 60 in playing an over-the-hill near-floozy to perfection. (I am reminded of 1930s love goddess Dorothy Lamour's similar role in 'Donovan's Reef.') Constance Marie, meanwhile, is totally lovable as her daughter Yolando.
Director Maria Ripoll, who has only directed a handful of films, showed an amazingly deft touch both in the dramatic scenes and especially in the comedic sequences. There are some wonderful moments, including the final dinner together, when Letty and Orlando (Rodriguez) attempt to explain their situation. Elzondo's expression is simply priceless. The same can be said each time he waits to give the 'amen' to Letty's ever-longer blessings before meals.
This is another fine little film that went under the radar. Like 'Off the Map,' 'Eulogy,' 'The Shipping News,' 'An Unfinished Life' and a handful of other little-seen gems of the past decade, this is a delight for anyone who stumbles across it. I recommend at least one large helping of 'Tortilla Soup.'
Great film ... where's Clancy?
When I first discovered Eulogy at a video store three or four years ago, it quickly became one of my favorite newer films. In fact, I would have sworn I had reviewed it here long ago.
Michael Clancy, who must have a heck of a day job, showed potential to possibly be another Lasse Hallstrom, Wes Anderson or Jean-Pierre Jeunet in this little gem, then disappeared as quickly as he had come. Other than a highly touted short film in 1996, this has been Clancy's only film. This is a true pity. One aches to see whether or not he could have followed Hallstrom and Anderson's footsteps and made the transition from small indie success to studio success. He certainly seemed to have a deft hand in writing and directing Eulogy.
Eulogy is a quirky little dark comedy in the Royal Tenenbaums, Amelie, Garden State, Gilbert Grape family. It combines some very subtle humor with some relatively course slapstick laughs. This, combined with the bizarre but lovable family, makes a satisfying whole.
The lovely Zooey Deschanel is the solid glue that holds the frantic elements of the movie together, just as her character, Katie, performs the same duty for the dysfunctional family. She is actually the story's narrator and her attempt to carry out her late grandfather's wishes and pass on the news of his passing and how this effort pans out provides the basis of the story and an extra slice of irony.
Without giving away the ending, let us just say that things just keep getting more bizarre as the story moves along. Edmund Collins (Rip Torn) has just died apparently via suicide and his estranged children Daniel (Hank Azaria), Lucy (Kelly Preston), Skip (Ray Ramano) and Alice (Debra Winger) return home to help their mother, Charlotte (Piper Laurie) tend to the arrangements.
The reunion is memorable. Lesbianism, wise-guy kids, some romances, suicide attempts and a very bizarre funeral service are just a few of the events that will keep most viewers laughing. It is a dark comedy and not one for everyone. Generally speaking, most anyone who loved The Royal Tenenbaums, Garden State or Amalie will probably love Eulogy. Anyone who didn't get those films need not bother watching this one either.
Laurie is very good as the depressed widow, while Azaria, Ramano, Winger and Preston are hilarious as the maladjusted siblings who have to come to terms with their late father's frequent absences during their childhoods. Jesse Bradford is solid as Katie's unlucky love interest, while Famke Janssen and Glenne Headly are great as Lucy's lesbian life partner and a helpful nurse respectively. Mark Harelik, Matthew Feder, Allisyn Ashley Arm and Jordan Moen are fun as Alice's silently suffering family, while Rene Auberjonois is tremendous in a brief appearance as a local clergyman. Brian Posehn makes a nice addition as the video store clerk. Real-life twins Curtis and Keith Garcia, meanwhile, nearly steal the show as wise-guy twins Ted and Fred.
This is an enjoyable dark comedy with a little bit of everything, including a good soundtrack. I hope Clancy gives up his day job again soon and tries another movie. He definitely made this one a keeper.
Oliver tops even Fields
Having always heard of David Copperfield, but never having read the novel nor seen the movie, I finally decided to check out the DVD. I found it quite enjoyable with an all-star cast and good Dickensian backdrops.
I have always loved W.C. Fields, but have to disagree with those who say he steals the show. Although he is perfect as Mcawber, to me it is Edna May Oliver who steals the picture. She is delightful as the dotty aunt especially standing up to Mr. and Miss Murdstone with the loony backing of Mr. Dick (a charming Lennox Pawle).
Of course Lionel Barrymore always makes the most of a part and does so as the gruff fisherman Dan Peggotty. Freddie Bartholomew is excellent as the young David. Elizabeth Allen is gorgeous and delightful as David's mother, while Basil Rathbone and Violet Kemble Cooper are cold and devious as the step-father and his housekeeper sister.
The entire cast is excellent, including Jessie Ralph as Peggotty and Herbert Mundin as the 'willing' Barkis. My only complaint and this is from one who hasn't read the book is that the miscellaneous characters get a bit confusing. A guy who apparently had been nice to David in school runs off with and abandons the adopted daughter of Peggotty's brother. Then two men fight during a shipwreck and David sees his school friend dead. Perhaps things were better spelled out in the book.
In any event, it is a quite charming film. Oliver and Field are delightful, along with the rest of the talented cast. I doubt that as better adaptation could be done today.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Can't quite capture 'Blair' magic
Ten years ago a couple of guys with a camera and a handful of unknown actors turned the cinematic world on its collective ear. They produced a bizarre gem of a thriller for less than $25,000. Ignoring the somewhat questionable marketing of The Blair Witch Project, the cast and crew showed that a hand-held camera could serve as narrator and that CGI, monster costumes, blood, gore, etc., were not absolutely necessary to provoke fright.
That technique in and of itself, however, is no guarantee of producing a legitimately scary film. Owen Peli has followed the same formula in the much-anticipated Paranormal Activity. It is a cross between The Haunting and The Blair Witch Project, we were told for months. Well the plot, perhaps, is a combination of those two, plus Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror. The quality doesn't quite match most of those others.
Overall, I think Paranormal Activity is OK. Rookies Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat turn in stellar work. However, I don't think PA captures the raw emotion and terror of Blair Witch. Chained to the camera-as-narrator device, meanwhile, it fails to evoke Haunting or Poltergeist-like chills, either.
I almost wonder if a film ABOUT the couple trying to capture the occurrences on camera might not have worked better, such as in Poltergeist. In the Blair Witch type films, there is always an awkward moment where there is danger, yet someone takes time to grab the camera, ignoring the others' remonstrations to put the camera down. Of course, if they didn't grab it, there wouldn't be a film. Therefore the quest of 'realism' actually brings about a LOSS of realism. (Would it have cost much more money to have one stable camera recording the events as the couple makes their own video?) The film has its moments. It does gradually build up tension as events escalate and both endings are creepy. Still, there just isn't enough going on throughout the film to really keep an audience on the edge of its seat. Maybe if it were filmed in a more eerie, Gothic setting, where the house had some history, as well as the girl, it might hold tension better.
The format works, as we have seen, but has its built-in flaws. Blair Witch never seemed to suffer for those flaws. That cannot truthfully be said of Paranormal Activity. Somehow PA misses matching Blair Witch's intensity and frightfulness by half a step.
Search for the Beast (1997)
Oh my goodness
Oh my! I decided to take a chance and rent a DVD from Netflix with this one, Legend of Bigfoot, Capture of Bigfoot and Shriek of the Mutilated. I'm not sure which one was worse. Well, no, that's not true. Legend of Bigfoot (1976, not to be confused with Capture of Bigfoot -- 1979, which also went by that title) was so bad I couldn't finish it. The other three merely left me scratching my head, amazed that I grew up in the 1970s and somehow turned out normal.
SPOILERS AHEAD After seeing one film, in which the Yeti was faked to cover a satanic cannibalistic cult, I didn't think a Bigfoot plot could get any more bizarre. I was wrong. A hillbilly and a Bigfoot capturing women for each other to share has to edge out the cannibals for weirdest plot.
At least this was the most passable Yeti costume of the four films. (Mind you, that's not saying MUCH!) Long scenes of totally irrelevant sex, a long sequence of interesting but totally irrelevant folk music and some characters whose actions defy logic make this a somewhat typical 1970s B horror flick. Add the asthmatic-sounding heavy breathing whenever Bigfoot is apparently getting reasonably close to anyone, a one-scene appearance by a sheriff who looks more like a Silver Dollar City blacksmith, the annoying habit of the prof and a couple of the bad guys either talking to themselves or thinking out loud to narrate the action and a Bigfoot who is somehow impervious to automatic weapons, and you get a 1.6-rated film.
Should I waste ink pointing out plot holes in such a film? Well, maybe. Let's see
the grad student throwing herself at the middle aged professor is a bit much and her 'you saved my life' remark made no sense at the time. (It would have, had it happened at the end of the film, I suppose.) The prof is being chased by men with a pack of hounds, yet somewhere along the way they disappear. The rich guy funding the expedition is a tad unbelievable. Sure, he wants the creature dead
but he is apparently willing to let his goons kill the prof and the girl to get it? I've seen worse films even some with much bigger budgets. If one likes B horror with the obligatory semi-nude scenes, flimsy plots and a little gore, this might be worth your while. If you're looking for The Shining
or even Lady Frankensatein, this isn't it!
The Demons of Ludlow (1983)
Surprisingly solid little film
Although the first one/third is a little slow, 'The Demons of Ludlow' winds up being a surprisingly decent little B horror flick.
The premise is very good, with a 200-year-old New England town in which the history has mysteriously disappeared and those who know about it refuse to talk. A pair of apparent siblings, supposedly on some sort of journalistic assignment are in town, checking into its history, when a historic piano, belonging to the town's founder, is returned to the town by the founders' ancestors. As soon as the apparently generous gift is received, locals begin dying grizzly deaths.
There are a few plot holes and one gets a bit tired of the preacher's alcoholic wife constantly calling, "Chris, is that YOU?" The DVD I have (part of a collection of 50 B thrillers) is a bit dark and in a few cases it is hard to tell one female from another not to mention one figure running through the snow in the distance from another. Plus, about the second and third/eighths of the film seems to bog down a little, and the colonial ghosts somehow all resemble pirates. Still, it manages to capture a creepy mood that works pretty well. For a 26-year-old low-budget film, it has some pretty good special effects and the unknown cast does decent enough work. Overall, it's one of the better ones I've found so far on this super collection of B and C horror flicks. If you like B horror, this is well worth watching.
Off the Map (2003)
Perfection in simplicity
Some big films leave one dissatisfied and some little films leave one feeling very satisfied. 'Off the Map,' while living up to its title by easing onto DVD with no fanfare at all (Was it ever in mainstream theaters?), is certainly one of the latter.
I doubt that it will connect with many 16-25-year-old males at least not the ones who need sex, several explosions and characters morphing into super humans to be entertained. It is one of those quiet films where very little actually 'happens.' Of course, many of the better films in history, from Carl Theodor Dreyer's awesome Le Passion de Jeanne d'Arc to All About Eve and 12 Angry Men to The Big Chill and the Royal Tenenbaums, are essentially about people sitting around, talking, when one gets right down to it. Each tells a significant tale and tells it extraordinarily well. So does this little gem.
Any film with Sam Elliott in it has a certain element of class. (He even lent a smidge of dignity to Ghost Rider.) He is magnificent here as the depressed Charley Braden. He is a man who has built his life and family on a survivalist creed that a man wastes time working for an employer. Instead, he should be learning skills he can put to use. He can fix anything, his family brags, and presumably this skill is bartered, along with firewood, plant care and other services. The family survives on virtually no money and home schools the narrator daughter, 11 or 12-year old Bo (Valentina de Angelis).
The film depicts a summer (apparently during the 1970s or 1980s) when Charley somehow plummets into depression. His lovely and sturdy wife Arlene (Joan Allen) is pushed almost to the breaking point dealing with his condition. Meanwhile, Bo dreams of a "normal" life with all the trappings of the adult commercial world, briefcases, appointment books and credit cards, not to mention public school.
Their world is transformed that summer when depressed IRS man William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) shows up for an audit. He winds up staying almost indefinitely, taken in by the awe inspiring landscape and by the simple family especially Arlene.
The cast is outstanding. Elliott and Allen are perfect as the minimalist couple, who apparently have been happy and productive for years in their chosen lifestyle. As others have said, Allen's solid foundation holds the film together, just as her character does the fictional family. True-Frost does marvelous work as the displaced agent, who finds himself as a painter and becomes a family member. DeAngelis is perky and enjoyable as the precocious Bo. I can certainly see such a bright young kid who lacks some of the social graces of regular social intercourse with others saying and doing the slightly bizarre things that Bo comes up with. J.K. Simmons is also very good as Charley's loyal buddy, George.
For a "talking" film to work it takes good cinematography and believable characters one cares about. This film has these in spades. The landscape shots are spectacular. (It's too bad almost nobody got to see it on the big screen.) The characters, meanwhile, are quirky and likable, and the acting is first-rate. Director Scott Campbell succeeds in telling a rewarding story of love, individuality and determination.
I came away with a very satisfied feeling after watching Off the Map. It's certainly the best new film I've seen in 2009. For anyone who can appreciate a skillful and deep, yet simple film, this is a real winner.
The Old Dark House (1932)
Wonderful, fun film
Always a pleasure to watch, 'The Old Dark House' is a brilliant piece of work. Other than expecting a pure horror film, I cannot understand why anyone would be disappointed with it.
So much of what became cliché both in pure horror films and in the 'scary/funny' sub-genre, got its start in this film. (In a way, it's like watching 'Stagecoach.' It may seem clichéd at first, until one realizes that this is only because every following western followed ITS pattern.) The creepy black and white cinematography, eerie sound effects and wonderfully decrepit old mansion combine with a dream cast and an incredible group of bizarre characters to form a classic. Of course the dialog is also outstanding, with just enough tongue-in-cheek effect to lend the film a delightfully campiness three quarters of a century later.
Gloria Stuart, 65 years before 'Titanic,' was a hottie and a very young Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey were great as always. Of course Charles Laughton was NEVER less than superb and is outstanding here. (I think I may actually like him even better in comedic roles than in dramatic ones. If you haven't seen him in 1954's 'Hobson's Choice,' you should seek it out!) Lilian Bond, another looker, was especially good interacting with both Laughton and Douglas.
The stars of the show, though, were the Addams Family-like inhabitants of the manor. Brutish mute butler Morgan, an interesting if not especially challenging role for Boris Karloff, is the first the travelers meet. He, however, is dull in comparison to the members of the Femm family! Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore are absolutely delightful as aging siblings Horace and Rebecca Femm. She is pious, but curt and suspicious and he is charming and hospitable, but mocking and frightened. (It is hard to imagine such opposites living together for years; yet isn't that how it often happens in families?) I just love these two. They add to the dark humor element as well as the eeriness. So many lines keep popping into my mind: 'No beds! No beds!' 'Laughter and sin! Laughter and sin!' 'Have a potato?' Thesiger is a favorite of mine. He was outstanding in so many great films: Karloff's frightened butler in 'The Ghoul,' Dr. Pretorius in 'Bride of Frankenstein' and the undertaker in the Alastair Sim version of 'Scrooge,' to name a few.
Even stranger family members await upstairs and one cannot help wondering about some of the back story. Why, for instance, is Horace wanted by the law? Was Saul lying about the others murdering the dead sister? Had Horace always lived at home, or had he fairly recently returned, following whatever brush with the law he may have had? It is interesting to contemplate. Of course, if it were made today and made any money, a sequel and quite possibly a prequel would be forthcoming. Sometimes I think it is just as well to let these questions lie unanswered and left to the imagination.
That, of course, is what films of this era did. They left much to the viewers' imagination and the results were frequently much more satisfying. 'The old, Dark house' certainly is.