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Definitely Watchable Griffith Despite Bizarre Last Half
29 September 2015
A spectacular, elaborate production covering the Civil War era of American history, with an unfortunate last half drawn from Thomas Dixon's fictional novel "The Clansman." Made in 1915, the film makes a sincere and documented attempt to recreate several signal events of the period including Lincoln's call for volunteers, battle scenes, Lincoln's assassination, and the signing of the end of the war by Grant and Lee.

Unfortunately, it's hard to believe that the last half of the film is in any way historically accurate with blacks shown taking over government, dispensing justice, and running amok all over the South. It was, in fact, their disenfranchisement and segregation that defines the real legacy of the Civil War.

With intertitles calling the Ku Klux Klan "the organization that saved the South from anarchy," from "towns given over to crazed negroes," the last fifteen minutes play like the cavalry charge to save the pioneers from the Indians. Very excitingly done, with Wagner's "Ride of the Valkeries" in the 1930 version soundtrack, with quick and exciting cross cutting. Griffith, of course had done this before, most notably in "The Battle of Elderbush Gulch" (1913), also with Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh. This type of final chase scene being done hundreds of times from then on, thanks to DWG!

Also of note, many of the 'lead' black characters were really white actors in black face. Mae Marsh was still doing her frenetic jumping jack shtick, apparently these gestures were meant to convey "youthful full of life innocence" since she carried this into "Intolerance" (1916). Lillian Gish, also given to some quick hand flaying gestures, did them her own way, and showed us how expressive she could be with just her face, later perfected in her magnificent performance in "Broken Blossoms" (1919).

The last half tends to drag; it plays like a 1920s western, so I'll give the film an 8,
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Baby Face (1933)
Now We Have the Great Uncensored "Pre-Release" Version!
5 July 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Now we have the great 'pre-release' version (1933), before the New York Censors dictated changes in script, editing and even the ending of this landmark film. Only made available since 2006, and in a fine, sharp new print, this is not the film that audiences saw in 1933 and after, even though the theme (and many of the innuendos) could not be totally changed or removed.

The film introduces its theme quickly and moves along at a rapid pace.It is the story of Lily Powers, a hardened teenager in Eire, Pennsylvania, who is used as a prostitute by her father (ever since she was 14) to protect his speakeasy from being closed by politicians and police. A German cobbler quotes and reads to her from Nietzsche's "Will to Power" that she must use her power over men to exploit them and get what she wants in life (but both endings of the film directly reject Nietzche's philosophy -- a slap at Hitler?) His speech to her is totally changed in the theatrical version to moralistic preaching: "There's a right way and a wrong way. Choose the right way."

But there's no hiding the movie's story-- even the trailer proclaims it-- a woman with no conscience using sex to get what she wants, no matter the cost (scandal, suicide, murder, embezzlement) to the men she uses.

After she watches her father die in a fire, cold and emotionless, she takes her maid in a box car (on a train to New York) where she seduces the train guard, the first of the seven men she will use in her rise to wealth and riches. Next is the personnel director ("Why don't we talk this over?") who gives her a job in the Gotham Bank. Then we see her rise from department to department (literally, since the camera is focused on the exterior of the skyscraper's windows), until by the end of the movie she lives in the penthouse at the top with the new bank president (George Brent) as her husband.

In other reviews you can read all the details of how she makes her climb. Some other pre-code films (from Warner Brothers, R.K.O. and Paramount) touched on such 'hot' topics as using sex for personal gain, or practicing free love, but this film is loaded to the max with innuendos and condenses a two hour epic into 76 minutes!

Oh those wonderful pre-code movies with strong, gritty, tough as nails heroines, many of whom were prostitutes. See, for example, Joan Crawford in "Rain" (1932), and Evelyn Brent in "The Silver Hoard" (1930). I'm now on track to watch many more of these 'forbidden' films.

Barbara Stanwyck does a great job being cold, calculating, tough, mean and lying. At first viewing, her transition to being capable of love at the end doesn't seem sufficiently set up, but on repeated viewings of the film (I've watched it three times, and the censored release version once for comparison)it works. I liked George Brent better when he was a young thin action hero as in "The Lightning Warrior" (1931) a Rin-Tin-Tin western serial.

The movie's pace slows down once Brent enters the film near the end, but I'll give it a 7 anyway for the strong acting by Barbara Stanwyck, the nasty, nasty script and all those innuendos!

Another one for the "Must See" list.
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A Spider and Fly Cartoon With a Warner Brothers Spin
8 August 2010
This is mostly like those typical 1930s cartoons in which the featured 'characters' consisted of ensembles of (usually dancing) flies, bugs or other insects, with the villain being an over-sized, black, and evil-cackling basso profundo spider.

The title tells you that this is clearly intented to be about Bing Crosby, although the character doesn't have Bing's face, as you would see in later Warner Brothers cartoons. The high point is the comic song "Bingo Crosbyana" that pokes fun at Bing's effect on women as a crooner.

Bing sued Warner Brothers over his portrayal in the cartoon as a coward. As others have noted, without his actual face being shown, Bing didn't have a case against them, despite his character singing a couple of bubba ba boos.

What makes the cartoon interesting is the comic spin that the 'hero' turns out to be a coward, and that the other male flies, emasculated by the crooner fly, become the heroes that defeat the spider. Contrast this with the countless other insect or spider and fly cartoons such as "The Cobweb Hotel" (1936) by Max Fleisher.

I'd give it a 5 for the song and the spin. Note: You can find this cartoon on the DVD of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film "Swing Time" (1936).
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Drum Taps (1933)
Ken Sure Can Ride a Horse!
10 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
For those of us here in the future far removed from 1933, Ken Maynard as a Western hero is primarily of interest because of the way he interacts with horses. He had been a trick rider before making movies, and his natural ease around horses, and his skill in mounting, riding and seemingly merging his body with that of a horse, set him far apart from the whole class of 'actors-on-a-horse' movie characters.

That's about it for the value of this movie. The story is wafer thin-- basically the capture and rescue of 'the prairie flower,' the cattleman's daughter, Eileen Carey (played by Dorothy Dix, with immense eye make up left over from epics of the teen years). Slow pace; poor direction by J.P. McGowan (veteran director of over 242 films) and an extreme low budget (a single room does triple duty set-wise as the homes of the cattleman, the villain and of 'Indian Joe'). What a sad come down after Ken's previous film, "Tombstone Canyon" (1932) with its exciting literal cliff hanging ending.

The other high points of the film include seeing 17-year-old Frank Coughlin, Jr. as Ken's nephew and a young Boy Scout. He has a few lines of dialogue; you can hear his unmistakable intonation, so much a part of his starring role (at 25) as Billy Batson in the wonderful serial "The Adventures of Captain Marvel" (1941). Kermit Maynard (Ken's real brother) plays Frank's father, the Scout leader, and Ken's brother. We get to see Boy Scout life of 1932, some interesting camera shots from the floor during two of Ken's fights, and one shot through a fence, but that's about it.

Ken is also noted for how much actors, directors and crew hated Ken off screen. You can check his IMDb bios for all the details, but there was nothing in evidence during this film of his obnoxious nature.

Just great horsemanship! For that, the movie gets a 3.
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Boris Karloff's Richest and Fullest Leading Role!
8 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This a great movie, but it's also Boris Karloff's richest and fullest performance in a leading role. He plays Cabman John Grey in 1830s Edinburgh, who works nights as a graverobber (and later murderer) to supply cadavers to the anatomist Dr. Wolfe 'Toddy' MacFarlane (played by Henry Daniell in his greatest leading role) who runs a medical school.

For those interested in the film career of Boris Karloff, this is a must see; it's his biggest and best role as an actor, and will clear your mind and put in perspective the klunky mad doctors, lumbering stiffs and horror parts that seem to cloud his resume. In his first scene, as we see Boris helping a handicapped girl out of his coach, he displays the love and charm that the real Karloff was well known for. (Of course, his portrayal of the Frankenstein monster was full of sympathy and pathos.) Then almost immediately, we begin to get a glimpse of his evil side, the richly complex character who goes on to form the core of the film in his moral and personal conflict with Dr. MacFarlane.

The amazing 'natural born story teller' Val Lewton was the producer of the great RKO horror films of the 1940s, now all collected in the Val Lewton DVD boxed set. Although listed as producer, he wrote all their final shooting scripts either credited (as 'Carlos Keith') or uncredited and was the visionary behind their creation. Here we have his carefully crafted, well written and intelligent script that allows both Karloff and Daniell to showcase the full range of their abilities, separately and in several dynamite scenes together (what chemistry!). The film begins at what turns out to be the end of Grey's and MacFarlane's mysterious friendship, careers and lives. The backstory is not told chronologically, but is revealed gradually in bits and pieces over the course of the movie.

This is an outstanding film and story telling device, because it requires the viewer (reader) to become actively engaged in following and putting together the historical puzzle, as well as heightening interest in watching each scene unfold. The film is actually based on the true story of the graverobbers Burke and Hare who supplied a Dr. Knox with fresh cadavers. When they couldn't be taken from graves, the pair started killing women, to keep their income flowing. All three are mentioned several times in the film, as we discover that Grey and MacFarlane were carousing friends in youth who were involved in grave robbing, having connections with Dr. Knox, and that the doctor's housekeeper is actually his wife, who was 'introduced' to him by Grey (who may have been her pimp).

Henry Daniell, famous for a life time of playing suave villains, has the lead as the 'noir' hero -- a highly principled physician / teacher who must compromise and self-justify his values to obtain cadavers to advance medical research. Part of the film has him perform an operation that saves a young child's life, after having first practiced on a freshly murdered corpse obtained by his assistant and Grey. His scenes with Grey are all fantastic, and he does an excellent job in his biggest, and probably only, leading role.

What a great film. Budgeted as a 'B' picture, it's totally A quality! Directed by Oscar winner Robert Wise (who went on to his own strong career) who had already been nominated for Best Editing for his work on 'Citizen Kane' (1941). We get fantastic atmospheric and well composed photography -- we even get the 'inside the fireplace looking out' shot first used by Gregg Toland / Orson Welles; tight pacing; slow fades; and how can you forget the masterful scene where Grey kills the blind street singer (you check it out).

This is top of the line film making. I'll give it an 8.

Side notes: Burke and Hare's story is told in the film 'The Flesh and the Fiends' (1960) which is also making the rounds as 'The Fiendish Ghouls' and 'Mania.' It stars Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox, and features Donald Pleasance. It's probably not in the same league as this fine RKO feature.

Boris scores again for Val Lewton in 'Isle of the Dead' (1945) and 'Bedlam' (1946). Also noteworthy in his 40s work is 'Black Friday' (1940).

For contrast, catch Henry Daniell's wonderful villainy on display in three Basil / Nigel films: 'Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror' (1942), 'Sherlock Holmes in Washington' (1943) and as Moriarity in 'The Woman in Green' (1945). He also appears in five episodes of TV's 'Thriller' (1960-1961).

Robert Wise also directed 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' (1951), got great performances out of Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte in 'Odds Against Tomorrow' (1959) and did 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' (1979), in addition to his multiple Oscar winning musicals. His star on the Walk of Fame is at 6338 Hollywood Boulevard.

Bela Lugosi's minor role is best sadly ignored. His major works are what he should be remembered for (as Dracula and Ygor). In addition there are 'White Zombie' (1932) -- ooh! those eyes and hands! -- the serial 'The Return of Chandu' (1934) (in which he is the hero and kisses the girl at the end), 'The Black Cat' (the 1934 version only), 'The Invisible Ghost' (1941), 'The Corpse Vanishes' (1941), 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' (1948) and Ed Wood's masterpiece, 'Glen or Glenda' (1953).
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William K. Everson Was Right
24 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
In one of his final books, William K. Everson, the film historian, wrote that you'd be disappointed watching this film for the first time, but that it would get better with every viewing. Yes. It's the first of many 'stranded strangers staying overnight in an old dark house on a rainy night' movies. But it's not a horror film, it's not even a comedy, and nothing 'scary' ever really goes on. The fourth time was when I began to enjoy it--after watching the original and then the two audio commentaries; maybe having had a few beers helped.

For whatever reason, now I could finally focus on the sheer artistry of auteur director James Whale's film: the sets, the lighting and amazing photography, the atmosphere, the direction and the great ensemble cast, with shining moments from Charles Laughton, Brember Wills and Melvyn Douglas, Eva Mann and scene stealer Ernest Thesiger. Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff add to the colorful cast that keeps the film moving right along.

If you don't believe me, try watching Melvyn Douglas's next film 'The Vampire Bat' (1933) and then this one and then you'll see how 'The Old Dark House' is an Oscar winner by comparison; its superior crafting raises it up as a quality film even though it lacks horrific, science fictional or supernatural content.

I'll give it a 7.

NOTE: Gloria Stuart, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 'Titanic' (1997). Raymond Massey had a full career of famous roles, but noteworthy for us genre fans are his roles in 'Things to Come' (1936), his Karloff imitation in 'Arsenic and Old Lace' (1944), his role as James Dean's father in 'East of Eden' (1955) and the rifle shooting Colonel in 'Night Gallery' (1971).

Charles Laughton was Dr. Moreau in the first 'Island of Lost Souls' (1932), and was amazing as Quasimodo in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1939). Ernest "Have a po-tay-to" Thesiger was Karloff's butler in 'The Ghoul' (1933), in addition to his immortal Dr. Pretorius in 'The Bride of Frankenstein' (1935). We all know Boris's films, but 'The Mask of Fu Manchu' (1932), 'The Body Snatcher' (1945) and 'Targets' (1967) need to be seen.
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Blood Feast (1963)
This Exploitation 'First' Can Never Be More Than a 1
12 October 2009
Hershell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman made this tedious first exploitation flick to feature gore as 'something new,' since the nudie flicks were starting to lose money. The trailer for 'Blood Feast' shows every gore sequence in the film as a blatant promotional attempt to hook an audience.

I was one. In 1963, I watched the trailer play in my hometown theater, the State Theater in Petaluma, California. That year it definitely was shocking !! to see this type of stuff on the screen; it fact, it was revolting. I had no wish to see the film, and it was never shown in conservative Petaluma.

In 1967, however, it was part of what we called "The Ghouly Trilogy" which also included 'Two Thousand Maniacs' (1964) and 'Color Me Blood Red' (1965) playing on downtown Market Street in San Francisco at a $1.00 theater. These I went to see with other refugees from the Haight Ashbury. 'Blood Feast' as a film was entirely tedious, and the moments of gore did little to make the film more enjoyable. It was too totally killed by the feeble acting, slow and dreary editing, dull scenes and camera work, poor script, well, you can read the other reviews. Everything about it as a film was just terrible.

After the overnight success of 'Blood Feast' in Philadelphia (where ECW also spent its gory glory years), Lewis said to Friedman, "What if we tried to make a good movie?" The result was '2000 Maniacs,' a much better film, which also became the subject of one of my hit songs, 'Pleasant Valley,' that I can send you over the internet.

'Blood Feast' is not Ed Wood movie making. Ed Wood was an auteur compared to this type of exploitation film which was cobbled together to make some fast money. Wood's masterpiece, 'Glen or Glenda' (1953) and 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' (1959) were artistic statements from an enthusiastic director / writer whose reach sadly exceeded his grasp. Hence the wonderful homage by Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, 'Ed Wood' (1994).

As for 'Blood Feast' as the first gore flick, let it lie next to other historical cinematic firsts -- the first porno loop, the first animated scene, the first western, the first... well, all of those are more interesting than this non film. It deserves the worst possible treatment by Mystery Science Theater 3000.

But, if you think about it, the first slasher flick was 'Psycho' (1960). Just compare its genius shower scene (worth a 10 all by itself) with the motel killing of the girl, or anything else in 'Blood Feast' and this clunker's rating has to go down to a minus 10.

It can never get, or be, more than a one.
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Dreary and Disappointing
11 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
It's the nature of businesses to try to capitalize on others' success. Here we have a movie taking elements from the earlier 'Dracula' (1931) and 'Frankenstein' (1931) -- in a Germanic town the village leaders believe that vampires (in the shape of bats) have been the cause of recent deaths of bloodless victims. Even though shot at Universal (and at the Bronson caves!) it's a Poverty Row feature; it's not fair to compare it with those earlier, more expensively made and superior films.

From the familiar and exciting, chilling music of the main titles (which must have been by Mischa Bakalienikoff), through the talky but well done opening sequence, we anticipate the arrival of Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Dwight Frye to give us a good 30s mystery film. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen. That's the disappointment.

We get little more than the formulaic elements of such films but with slow pacing, low budget, not enough of Dwight Frye, the overdone presence of Maude Eburne (Aunt Gussie), and the premise for Lionel Atwill (Dr. von Niemann) to require human blood or how he exhibits mind control over his servant Emil (Robert Frazier) never made very clear.

Do not watch the technicolor 'Dr. X' (1932) -- which also stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray but as father and daughter -- before watching this the way I did; it's an Oscar winner by comparison. So watch this one first. Structurally, 'The Vampire Bat' still isn't that good. It plods along with too much talking or unnecessary comic relief, without focusing strongly on the vampiric villainy.

Besides 'Dr. X' and 'Mystery of the Wax Museum' (both 1932 and co starring Fay Wray), Lionel Atwill's most famous appearances are as the one armed gendarme in 'Son of Frankenstein' (1939) and as Moriarity in 'Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon' (1943). Dwight Frye steals all his manic scenes in 'Dracula' (1931). As the 'young lovers,' Melvin Douglas and Fay Wray have a nice kissing scene, but that's about it. He can be seen in 'The Old Dark House' (1932), and Fay gets dragged around by Joel McCrea in 'The Most Dangerous Game' (1930). Then there's her 1933 classic 'screamer.' Too bad more time, money and rewrites weren't available for this film to better showcase the talents and chemistry of Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Dwight Frye. Sadly, then, this drearily disappointing film only gets a 4.
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A Well Photographed Message of Playing the Cards You're Dealt
26 September 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Movies are illusions. You never know how much of a documentary, whether about peoples or animal life, is really spontaneous, actual or authentically true-to-life, because in most cases, a stationary camera has already been set up (with an accompanying bank of bright lights) to film what takes place in front of it; in addition, careful editing and juxtapositioning of scenes may falsify a real time progression of events. Finally, what is shown is dictated by the purposes of the film makers and hence may be very subjective in terms of what is being displayed and what is omitted, leaving potential questions about whether it is a balanced or full view of what is presented.

Here we have one of the first full length documentaries, which is about the lives of Eskimos living in the frozen wastes of the Hudson Bay region of Canada in the early 1920s. The film has the dual reputation of being both amazing in its photography and depiction of typical Eskimo life, and also of its having been totally staged. I come down on the side of it being a great film whether staged or not.

To some, certain elements of fakery may be unforgivable: the fact that Nanook used only 'primitive' weapons (knife, harpoon and spear) to catch fish, seals and walrus, when he in fact had knowledge of (or may have used) rifles; or the fact that the person presented as his 'wife' is played by someone not his wife, while his real wife (recognizeable as a woman only due to the baring of her breasts) is present in the film but identified simply as the person 'Cunayou.' A real precedent for Disney's 'True Life' Adventure films of the 50s!

None of this matters. All movies are staged anyway in varying degrees. The important parts of any film are its construction and its delivery of content. This film is exceedingly well edited and photographed, such as the vista shots and those of the wind sweeping over the snow after the seal kill. As for the content, let's say Flaherty's purpose was to tell a detailed story of how Eskimos traditonally lived. This is very clearly an excellent document of that.

We get great details of how more than one person can fit in a kayak, how to use the force of the tide to reel in a captured walrus, how to build an igloo with an ice window, how Eskimos protect puppies from being eaten by sled dogs, how salmon and seal under the ice can be caught, how Eskimos dress, how they eat raw flesh and cooked meat, how fathers start teaching their young sons from the time they first can stand to learn the art of hunting... well the list goes on and on.

Thank for having documented these things, Mr. Flaherty! I watched my rented copy four times. Watching the entire film at one viewing you clearly get the message -- where ever you have born, where ever you are in life, whatever gifts you've been given from your moment of birth, make the most of your environment and what you have --play the hand you've been dealt the best way you can. See the Eskimos ply their skills and make the most of their environment? Can we do no less?

I'll give it a 10.

Note: On what is another amazing 'Criterion Collection' DVD, there is the super bonus of a full gallery of Flaherty's photographs (these aren't faked!). It has also a great new score (1998) by Timothy Brock and the Olympia Chamber Orchestra which includes appropriately 'chilly wind' type eerie violins during the wind swept overland travel sequence.
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The Proposal (I) (2009)
The Audience Laughed All Through the Movie!
30 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
When I saw this at the local multi-plex with my wife of 27 years, the audience was continually laughing throughout the entire film. This tells you that here is a romantic comedy without any dead spots. And for good reason.

First, the cast. Sandra Bullock plays a tougher than nails book editor, Margaret Tate, who is forcing her secretary, Andrew Paxton (effectively played by Ryan Reynolds) into a quickie marriage-divorce so that she can avoid being deported back to Canada. That she is actually 12 years older than Reynolds only adds to the chemistry between them, as they try to fool his entire family in Alaska. Much of the humor derives from Margaret refusing to display (or to awkwardly show or painfully fake) real human emotion, making her enjoyable to watch throughout the film. This helped Sandra the actress avoid the cloying, saccharine sentimentality she displayed in 'While You Were Sleeping' (1995). Good move, producer Sandra!

The characters are fleshed out, the film is well written and directed. For me, the only low point was the scene in the woods where Margaret joins Grandma Annie (Betty White) in a silly chant and dance to 'give praise to the universe,' culminating in Margaret's uninhibited hip shaking frenzy. Though other reviewers didn't like it either, in the theater this was where the audience went wild with laughter, clapping and applauding! I'm sure everyone felt that finally she was relaxing, letting her human side come out, and was going to really fall in love with Andrew. But no. Since it's a romantic comedy, we expect this to happen sometime during the film, but when Andrew sees her, she puts the wall back up, and to the film's credit, keeps it there until the final moments of the movie, when showing her feelings she frankly admits, "I'm scared."

Great bonus casting of Mary Steenbergen and Craig T. Nelson as Andrew's parents, and for the wonderful presence of the highly skilled TV veteran performer Betty White, whom I first started watching in 'Life With Elizabeth' (1952)-- that's right, 59 years ago!-- and for the comic punctuations of Oscar Nunez doing a deliberately absurd and silly male stripper dance, as well as playing four other 'roles' in the film.

Although not totally a screw ball comedy, the somewhat thin premise is well played for laughs, and the movie is carried along by the fine efforts of its skilled actors.

I'll give it a 7.

Note: I'll also watch these Sandra Bullock films anytime: the amazing 'Demolition Man' (1993), 'Speed' (1994) and the ultra-jeopardy film 'The Net' (1995).
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The Wrestler (2008)
One of the Best Sports Movies Ever Made!
29 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is one of the best sports movies ever made. But 'Rocky' (1976) it's not. It's a graphic, realistic film shot in documentary style about an aging wrestler confronting his mortality and his failed life at the end of his career ("20 Years Later"), and near his own end.

As a long time wrestling fan, when I received the DVD, I clicked on selected scenes first-- awfully graphic and depressing. I didn't think I'd want to sit and watch the whole movie, but the next day I made the time to view it, and was rewarded for having done so. It's an expertly crafted film with outstanding performances, and an intelligent, respectful treatment of its themes.

First of all, it doesn't seem like a movie, because it's shot like a documentary-- the use of hand held cameras that show or follow behind Mickey Roarke (as Robin who wrestles as 'Randy the Ram'); the fast paced editing and jumps in time and place; and hardly any music at all (hints of 'Dogma 95'), so that many of the silences, (including Ram's continual heavy exhaling) can speak volumes about isolation, loneliness, and having to live with who you are and what you've become. For over 90% of the movie, it's a real suspension of disbelief -- we think we're watching the real thing!

Thankfully, we didn't have Nicholas Cage in the part, then we'd know it's a movie, seeing him doing his pained acting schtick, so wonderfully parodied by John Travolta as him in 'Face/Off' (1997). Totally unrecognizable as 'Mickey Roarke, the Actor', Roarke stole the movie 'Sin City' (2005), and he's even better here. You believe he is Ram because he looks so appropriately old, puffy and wasted, and he's clearly speaking from the heart. This is not the sweet faced actor Mickey Roarke from the 80s and 90s; here he looks and is the real deal. A great acting job.

The film is about getting old. We see this throughout the film. Marissa Tomei plays Pam, who uses the 'stage name' Cassidy as an almost too old pole and lap dancer ("You're as old as my mother!" one customer yells) who's confronting her own choices about aging. Although we know it's her acting in a movie, her character is reality based and convincing, as she tries to follow the number one rule of the sex trade: "Don't get personally involved with customers!" Their two lives parallel all during the film, with both of them choosing a different path at the end.

The film is so intelligently and respectfully constructed. We see images of time passed by every where-- Ram's trailer is full of audio cassettes; he plays an ancient Nintendo game (specially made for the movie!) with a young boy who says, "This game is so old!"; he sells old VHS tapes at wrestling events; he even drives an old Dodge Ram; and in a fantastic and poignant scene he talks, walks and dances with his daughter in an old, empty, deserted amusement park, and of course, there's Randy's 20 Years Later rematch with 'The Ayatollah,' a symbol of anti-Iran feelings of the 1980s.

And why does the scene with Randy's daughter, Stephanie, (Evan Rachel Wood in a great mini performance) angrily banishing him from her life seem so familiar? As noted in IMDb, it clearly parallels, and in fact is taken from, Jake 'The Snake' Roberts' painful meetings with the daughter he forgot in the wrestling documentary 'Beyond the Mat' (1999).

The reality of the professional 'kayfabe' wrestling world is shown in fast paced documentary style, (and even includes the garbage wrestling of CZW) with Randy the Ram, actually Mickey Roarke (!), being a combination of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage (both 80s icons).

And what does it all mean? After having suffered a near fatal heart attack, Randy retires and gets a job working in a deli. He tries to repair his personal life with Cassidy and Stephanie, but fails. Tired of being a mousy deli clerk, even denying who he is to a customer, he decides to do the Ayatollah rematch, even at the risk of a fatal heart attack. Having lost everything else, in the ring he declares how his life in the ring constituted the real meaning of who and what he is. As he feels and hears the piercing whine that signalled the first heart attack, he decides to go for it anyway, and performs his Ram Jam dive off the top rope to------ oops! the movie ends there! It's not just as you sow so shall ye reap; or what goes around comes around. As Dylan Thomas said, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light!" You've got to boldly be who you are.

I give this movie a 9 and 1/2. One of the greatest sports movies ever made!
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Another PRC Dud
20 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is an Alexander-Stern production released by PRC and it's a dud. 'Texas Rangers' Tex (Tex Ritter) and Dave (Dave O'Brien) are seemingly on the trail of 'The Whispering Skull,' a night riding robber and killer who wears a skull mask.

The major problem with this movie? The focus of the film is to talk about, rather than to strongly feature The Whispering Skull. We get scene after scene of characters talking about The Skull, and trying, or at least hoping, to uncover his identity; but the Skull is barely even in the movie (except for the beginning and the end) and does not have a featured presence in it. The characters talk about him more than we see the Skull do anything.

Also bad are the tedious photography of characters constantly walking around in and out of the frame, Dave O' Brien's dull and inflectionless delivery, the tendency to explain off stage action (no wonder it's only 56 minutes), and the non sequiter sequences -- take, for example, Tex and Dave walking separately to their horses at night to spooky music, and riding out of town to a cabin which Tex enters and sits down to (finally) sing a song. Then Dave comes in, explains more of the plot, and they ride back to town. Or take the too many close ups of Tex and Dave just staring. In one of them, with Dave bored and spinning rocks on a desk, Panhandle (Guy Wilkerson) says, "How long are we gonna sit around waiting for the judge?" Too much of this film is standing around, walking around, going in and out of rooms, etc. You'll never see so many openings and closings of doors until the director Elmer Clifton's door mania in 'Seven Doors to Death' (1944).

Not especially an action packed western. I'm a Tex Ritter fan, but he really doesn't do much here. The same for the dastardly I. Stanford Jolley as the town villain. So I have to give it a 2. Seeing this film makes you wonder if Ed Wood learned his film making craft by watching this and other PRC clunkers.
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For Jack Holt and Evelyn Brent Fans Only
29 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is a 15 chapter Columbia serial that is for Jack Holt fans (if there are any) and Evelyn Brent fans (I'm one) only.

Jack Holt's famous granite jawed face (the model for both the cartoon strip character 'Dick Tracy' as well as Al Capp's 'Fearless Fosdick' in his strip 'Li'l Abner,') and ultra gruff voice with super tough guy dialogue to boot make him believable as a hard as nails Secret Service agent who can knock out four men at a time. Pretty good, considering he looks like he's in his fifties!

Here he passes himself off as an ex-convict, Nick Farrel, so that he can infiltrate a gang of counterfeiters for almost the entire serial. While written by the usual gang of serial writing suspects (Basil Dickey, George Plympton and Wyndham Gittens), this one is not very interesting, has weak and uninteresting villains, and poor chapter ending cliffhangers.

It's about possessing plates to make counterfeit money. Each writer must have done five chapters, since there are three major settings where the action takes place: the counterfeiters' hidden valley camp and mine, their gambling ship, and an uncharted tropical island. In his final film, badly cast John Ward plays the gang leader Adams; previously he was known for playing foppish Brits as he did as Mala's sidekick in 'Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island' (1936). In the island chapters, the blustery and loud voiced Stanley Blystone (veteran of over 500 mostly uncredited parts) has what is probably his biggest role as the island's villainous boss, Garrity. Too bad he wasn't in all of the serial! Tristram Coffin plays the chief henchman Valdin for ten chapters, but he isn't very tough, and is gullible easy prey for agent Holt.

The interesting part of the serial is the casting of second billed costar Evelyn Brent as Kay Drew, a Secret Service agent from Chicago, who also doubles as Ferrel's 'wife,' a tough talking, gun toting moll. Brent made a career of playing tough talking ("My dogs are really barkin'!") or evil women. Her amazing portrayal of the prostitute Cherry Malotte in 'The Silver Horde' (1930) is better than Joan Crawford's Sadie Thompson in 'Rain' (1930). Kay and Farrel trade insults in front of the evil gang for several early chapters, where she holds her own against his ultra tough guy bravado. Except for their great scenes in the first five chapters, her toughness is underutilized in the rest of the serial.

The back and forth nature of chasing after, possessing and repossessing the counterfeit plates puts the serial up fairly high on the tedium scale, especially given the weak nature of the villains and chapter endings.

But it's a one of a kind serial because of Jack Holt's presence and delivery (both physical and verbal), and the interplay between him and Evelyn Brent. I'll give it a four.

Note: Not to be missed is 'The Silver Horde' (1930), but also check out Evelyn in 'The Seventh Victim' (1943), and Jack Holt in 'The Arizona Ranger' (1948) with his son Tim Holt, and 'The Strawbery Roan' (1948) with Gene Autry.
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Too Short!
24 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This film is too short (only 57 minutes) -- leaving the potential for its story telling unfulfilled. Tex Ritter plays Tex Wallace, a scout helping a stagecoach passing through trail lines terrorized by the Red Greer (Reed Howes) gang. This is one western where the title actually refers to the plot!

On the way to the city of Carson, Tex stops to see his cousin, Jim (Kenne Duncan), who is a captain in the army. The first part of the film devotes a lot of time to characters standing and talking, explaining details and backstory to set the scene for the action to come. This lengthy (and somewhat repetitious) exposition is something you would expect in a film of major length (90 minutes), but in this Monogram quickie the rich potential for character development and interplay is short changed.

While Sgt. Lane (Nolan Willis) leads some of the soldiers off on a night hunt for Greer, Greer's gang ambushes the army encampment and Jim is killed. Remorseful, Lane becomes a deserter, asking his troops to blame him at their court martial. Tex plans to escort a stage heavily laden with money as a trap for Greer. Now the movie switches to a 'Stagecoach' (1939) journey type film, as the various passengers on the stage are introduced, and take their seats for the 36 hour trip -- the dandyish lawyer, the pretty 'prairie flower', two of Greer's henchmen, a Chinese laundryman, and Lane, hoping to redeem himself. Too bad the dramatic potential between all of these characters is not developed.

Then follows a scene at the overnight relay station, but any kind of dramatic interplay barely takes place. The next day, when Greer's gang finally attacks the stage, the credibility of the film abruptly disappears. Although easily outnumbered by Greer and his men, Tex has the stage take refuge in a cave, while both sides set themselves up for a shoot out in the rocks. Even though Tex had sent his sidekick to get the army the day before, Tex decides he has to go get the army to help them. "But that'll take two hours!" exclaims the girl. "The boys'll hold them off til then," explains Tex calmly.

Well, bang zip, Tex reaches the army post, brings the soldiers, the gang is captured, Tex chases down Greer on horseback, and the to-be-court martialed soldiers are forgiven. In fact, it looks like Mabel had a thing for Lane, not Tex, who goes riding off on his horse into the sunset.

A story with dramatic potential sacrificed to fomulaic elements and short production. I'll give it a 4.

High points: Tex singing the peppy 'On the Trail to Mexico', which is also featured on the soundtrack with 'hillbilly' banjo, concertina and guitar, and the presence of Kenne Duncan and Reed Howes in the same film. They reunite in 'The Sinister Urge' (1960), Ed Wood's famous anti-porn talkathon, as policemen endlessly chatting with each other in Kenne Duncan's office. With over 275 credits, Howes can be seen in the serials 'Custer's Last Stand' (1936), as the evil Blade, as the hero in 'Queen of the Jungle' (1935), and as the good brother in 'Zorro Rides Again' (1939). As the lead villain, Howes' part is too small and uninteresting here.

Also of note is besides Tex Ritter's pleasant and easy going manner, he displayed and showed a warmth for other races in his westerns. Here, Charlie the Chinese laundryman (Chester Gan) secretly works as Tex's sidekick (Oops! That's the spoiler!), and Tex delivers a speech on racial tolerance before launching into 'The Boll Weevil Song,' with Mantan Moreland in 'Riders of the Frontier' (1939).
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The Bravados (1958)
A Fine Example of the 50s Adult Western
16 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is a fine example of the 50s 'adult' Western. It's in the 'trackdown' category-- Gregory Peck plays a glum, single minded blindly revengeful rancher tracking down the four villains who raped and killed his wife. It's a character driven Western, with a good script and a key performance by Peck with minor ones by Henry Silva, Lee Van Cleef, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, and Andrew Duggan. It's a big scale production filmed entirely in the outdoors and the mountains of Mexico, with sumptuous Cinemascope photography, awesome Deluxe color, a sometimes stirring musical score, and even a couple of scenes entirely in Spanish with no subtitles. Great!

Supposedly an anti-McCarythism film, the screen play was by Philip Yordan, who acted as a front for other screen writers who were blacklisted during the 50s and 60s. Although seemingly in the mode of 'statute' like stoic actors (Rod Cameron, Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott come to mind), Gregory Peck does a masterful job in silently expressing the feelings and attitudes of his character, rancher Jim Douglass. Watch carefully or you'll miss it; his discomfort at being in a church in an early scene, his flaring eyes and heaving chest as he kills Van Cleef and Boyd, his confusion and guilt when he realizes he has killed three men for the wrong reason, and his confession to the priest (Andrew Duggan) at the end. This is not Gregory Peck playing Ahab in 'Moby Dick' (1956) all over again!

Oh, if only McCarthy had been conscience stricken for trying to destroy the innocent and the wrongfully accused! The only disappointment in this film comes after Douglass's painful, heart wrenching, guilt ridden confession in the church, when he is (and we are, too) jarringly greeted by the entire town applauding and cheering his actions: he does not deliver a severe rebuke to them for their own blind retribution and lack of Christian feeling. The other bit of oddness is having British accented Joan Collins supposedly playing a lily white faced Latina ('Josefa').

Therefore, I'll only give it an 8. This is the kind of movie you watch color Westerns for: one of the best in the modern era of adult Westerns.

Note: For fun, check out some of these performances by some of the cast members. Henry Silva showing his impressive strengths as an actor in 'The Outer Limits' episode 'The Mice' (1964), and 'A Hatful of Rain' (1957). Albert Salmi as the psychic Peter Horkos in the two-part 'The Peter Hurkos Story,' in 'One Step Beyond' (1961) and of course, his three great episodes of the original 'Twilight Zone' (1960-1963). While Lee Van Cleef is immortalized as 'Angel Eyes' in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' (1966) and in 'The Big Gundown' (1968) not to be missed is his starring role as an altruistic scientist who, out of misplaced idealism, becomes the Ultimate Collaborationist by delivering humanity over to an alien invasion in the amazing 'It! Conquered the World' (1956).

Gregory Peck has a well known and vast body of work, but let's focus on the films, besides this one, where he was making a strong personal statement: 'Gentlemen's Agreement' (1948), 'The Gunfighters' (1950), 'On the Beach' (1959), 'The Guns of Navarone' (1961) and of course, his mythic characterization in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962).
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Tex Sings a Duet with Mantan Moreland and More!
9 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The high points of this film are in the extensive cattle drive campfire scene that Tex Ritter has with Mantan Moreland. In this remake of Jesse Duffy's story for 'The Cattle Thief' (1936) with Ken Maynard, Tex is Tex Lowery, a lawman, posing as Ed Carter, a despicable villain and escaped murderer. He infiltrates the evil foreman Bart Lane's ranch to prove that Lane (Jack Rutherford) is a cattle thief and the killer of ten previous deputies that had been sent there.

Mantan Moreland plays Chappie the cook, and his pairing with Tex Ritter is a magical moment in film history for genre fans. On his return from 'nighthawking' the steers during a cattle drive, Tex settles in at the campfire site with the other drovers. He picks up Chappie's "good lookin' gi-tar," and they begin their immortal scene together. As one villain tells Chappie, "Make his coffee yella!" Tex tells Chappie "Color don't make any difference. Take you for example..." and then begins his speech on the commonality of human nature regardless of skin color, after which Chappie says, "You sure know the human race..." Tex then plays straight man for Moreland, and afterwards launches into 'The Boll Weevil Song' with Moreland himself singing three verses solo and the chorus in duet with Tex Ritter! (In a perfect world, Mantan Moreland should have been Tex's side kick instead of Snub Poland and Horace Murphy.)

Moreland also sings in one of the non-racial buddy films he made with Frankie Darro, 'Let's Go Collegiate' (1941); in another, 'Up in the Air' (1940) he is given a lengthy spot to do a dance solo. He shouldn't just be remembered for the dozen or so 'Charlie Chan' films he appeared in, but also for his hilarious actual star turn in 'King of the Zombies' (1941), in which he has third billing.

As for the rest of the movie, as expected the real Ed Carter finally shows up, and it's nicely evil sounding and looking Roy Barcroft in a brief role. Tex has the sheriff stampede the cattle back to the ranch, as they all engage in a shoot out behind boulders and rocks. Having captured Lane and his chief henchman, Tex turns them over to the sheriff, who says "We've rounded up all that wasn't flat permanent." Tex then enters the ranch house to have Chappie's dinner with the prairie flower, Martha (a small part played by Jean Joyce), the ranch owner and Chappie as the film ends.

Typically standard B western fare, except for the inspired pairing of Tex Ritter and Mantan Moreland. Their campfire scene gets a 10, but the film overall is a 5.
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One of Tex's Weaker Efforts
25 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is one of Tex Ritter's weaker efforts for Monogram. He sings only two songs. No real fist fights. No climactic battle between Tex and the evil villain. The potentially interesting part of the story is subordinated to the question of getting cattle through 'the short cut' on their way to market. We're left with a fairly weak western.

Tex plays a secret trouble shooter for 'the railroad' as he becomes involved in a ranch war (he pronounces it 'rainch') between the villain Hall's Circle H, and the good guy 'Speed' Dennison's cattle ranch. 'The Shooting Kid' (played by Chuck Woods in his second and last film) is introduced in the opening as the 'bad' son that Tex has promised the Kid's dying mother to guide to the path of good. Very quickly, the Kid becomes the hired gun for Hall, as Tex goes to work for Dennison. The Kid has to walk a tightrope whenever, with Hall's other henchmen, he has an opportunity to kill Dennison or Tex and has to weasel out of doing it. This dramatic thread is the most interesting part of the film but it never becomes the main focus.

As expected, the Kid finally joins up with Tex as he and Dennison's hands, and the sheriff's deputies, take the cattle through the short cut while shooting it out with Hall and his henchmen.

Kenne Duncan has a few scenes as Dennison. The female 'prairie flower' Laddie (Ruth Rogers) has a virtually non existent part. Ms. Rogers appeared in 34 mostly uncredited roles. Tom London, veteran of almost 600 westerns has a brief scene. As for Chuck Wood, two six guns and a fringed Hoot Gibson / 'Range Rider' jacket do not an actor make.

Nothing really going on here except for listening to Tex Ritter's fantastic drawl and easy going twinkling manner. The movie isn't more than a 3.
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Phase IV (1974)
The Greatest Ant Movie Ever Made!
4 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is a true work of science fiction, as two researchers try to stop the 'biological imbalance' caused by ant species unifying and eliminating their predators, an apparent result of 'Phase I' (an eclipse caused by the alignment of three planets). It obviously draws on several elements, including the main theme, from '2001: A Space Odyssey,'(1969) (as did many other science fiction films influenced by Kubrick's and Clarke's genius).

This is a suspenseful, claustrophobic well made film with an outstanding musical score, and amazing, amazing photography of ants. It's unbelievable the way the director and cinematographer have the ants tell their own story! Using micro photography of the ants in their own habitat, the director shows us how they have increased their ability to communicate with each other and work together as cells following 'a single thought.' They are the Borg. Particularly amazing is the sequence in which the soldier ants die willingly to carry the yellow poison to the queen ant, so that she can create a new species of ant immune to it! The ant colony photography is beautiful, majestic, and scary.

Most of the film is 'Phase II': the attempts of the scientists to communicate with the ants and contain them, and of the ants' attacks on humans and the research dome. Nigel Davenport as the 'pure scientist' Dr. Hubbs only gets excited in the objective wonder of his science. We know that a character like this will surely meet his doom. Michael Murphy, as James Lesko, the cryptographer, is the one who displays human warmth for others, as represented by Kendra, the shocked farm girl (Lynne Frederick). As he is the narrator of the film, we expect him to survive.

'Phase III' is the last part of the film. I don't have to spoil it more than by stating that it ends with another lifted element from '2001.' Then the film leaves us to guess what 'Phase IV' will be! In fact, the original film had a psychedelic ending like the 'Stargate' sequence in '2001', but that was dropped when the film was released, for the betterment of 'Phase IV.'

Some of the greatest science fiction films take place in closed environments. This is one. We get an ecological message in addition to mind boggling ant photography. The greatest ant film ever made!

I'll give it a 7.
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It's Desperation Time!
22 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
If you are going to watch this movie, or read this review you must be pretty desperate. So why am I writing it? As a spoiler.

Compared with other Hercules films, this one has almost nothing going on, except for the fact that Peter Lupus (credited as 'Mark Stevens') of 'Mission Impossible' and 'Police Squad' the TV show, is Hercules. What an upper body!

It's basically infighting and intrigue between kings and a queen, none of whom are very interesting or distinctive acting wise. The film makers have loaded it up with tedious dialogue ("No contractions allowed!"), stilted stiff acting (the actors mostly stand around like statues), a pompous music track with bombast substituting for dramatic interaction between characters, and a a final chain pulling scene that seems to go on forever.

The best part is seeing over a thousand soldiers on horseback, but that scene may have been taken from another film.

This is really bottom of the barrel. I'll give it a 2, just for Peter Lupus.
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Like Watching a Weak Mid Level 'X-Files' TV Episode
21 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
As a movie, this seems more like a weak mid-level episode of the TV 'X-Files' expanded to feature length with a larger cast and budget, but without all the flashlights!

Fox and Mulder are reunited to track down a missing FBI agent with the help of a psychic pedophilic Catholic priest. On the plus side, the mystery unravels in typical 'X-Files' fashion, and the major focus is on Fox and Scully's relationship and interactions. On the minus side, well, there are too many minuses. The real mystery here is why this story required feature film treatment.

First, the premise that brings them together is too minor and does not seem very important. It's almost a throwaway, so that their continued interest in the case doesn't seem very convincing. Second, we then expect something big to happen or be revealed, but it never is. Finally at the end, when the Frankensteinian body transplant operations are uncovered, we discover that it's only one old man whose head has been transplanted, supposedly, onto different bodies. Is that all there is?

Given the cosmic scale of the first film 'The X-Files: Fight the Future' (1998), the evil 'conspiracy' that is uncovered does not seem very consequential in its scope, nor does it convey, as did the stronger TV episodes, any foreboding sense of menace to life on earth the way that a deadly virus, plague, or alien invasion would.

Hardly any of the plot points are explained. What we have instead is a 'little' film that is really mostly about Mulder and Scully's search for faith, belief, and a way to disengage themselves from their separate careers that are keeping them apart.

We really should judge a film, openly, on its own terms, and not by our preconceived ideas, or by what it isn't. Maybe in ten or twenty years, for those who never heard of or saw 'The X-Files' on TV, this film may find its audience. But for me, it just played like so many weak episodes of the television series.

I'll give it a four.
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Great German Expressionist Film That is Slowly Paced
14 March 2009
Flirting with a (then) science fictional theme of body part transplantation, the film explores the feelings of a concert pianist, who having lost his hands in a train wreck, receives a new pair of hands that belonged to an executed murderer. Austrian director Robert Weine, who created the landmark 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1919) here reunites with and directs its star, Conrad Veidt, as the tormented pianist Paul Orlac.

The camera focuses on Veidt's many moods and reactions to his plight -- his hands are not capable of his concert abilities, and he feels that they are taking him over with thoughts and deeds of crime and murder. He does an outstanding job, but too much of the film is slowly paced. From the beginning extended train crash rescue, on through scene after scene of Orlac's, his wife's and the maid's over the top Expressionistic gesturing, the scenes seem to go on too long.

This slow pace is exaggerated by the lack of camera movement (everything is mostly wide shots with little tracking), the wonderfully and effectively spooky new musical score (on the KINO 2008 version), that sometimes lacks verve and variety, as well as the extensive time spent on the actors' Expressionist movements.

The film certainly has its high points. It's great to see an entire film shot in shadows and low light, all with Gothic sets. This is great German Expressionism. If you can relax and just go with the pace of the film, you can really enjoy the acting of Conrad Veidt-- whose hands keep getting creepier and scarier.

If it were cut to about sixty minutes to pick up the pace, it would be easier to enjoy and to see the great care that went into its creation and execution.

I'll have to give it a six.
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A Real Ed Wood Stinker!
9 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The best of Ed Wood's films-- his love song to Bela Lugosi, 'The Bride of the Monster' (1955), the amazing Wood-de-force, 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' (1959) and his masterpiece 'Glen or Glenda' (1953)--all contain the elements of his classic 'film making' style. These include poor direction, stilted acting, fakey looking action, monologues and dialogs ranging from the poor and sit-at-the-desk pedantic to the surreal and bizarre, non sequiter sequences, mistakes not edited out, non matching inserts of stock and original footage, lack of camera movement, cheap post production overdubbing -- oh, the list could go on forever if I had a film making degree from USC.

This film shares these elements, but somehow, for me they just didn't 'click' this time. Too many boring sequences of Kenne Duncan (as Lt. Matt Carson) sitting at his desk talking to Duke Moore (Sgt. Stone) either about the relationship between pornography and crime, or to explain the developing action of the story that is mostly not shown. Here is the ultimate crime of visual or print story telling-- don't tell what happens, show what happens (don't say a man is evil, to make your point describe or show him kicking a cat or squashing a lizard with his foot).

We finally do get a visual story: a mix of a serial killer (a well cast Dino Fantini) knifing models in the park after looking at their 'smut' photos; a small town girl, eager to make it in Hollywood, getting tricked into the porno racket, and the battles of the 'smut' merchants Johnny Ryde (Carl Anthony) and Gloria (the bizarrely dressed hoarse voiced Jean Fontaine) with the police, their customers and 'the syndicate'.

This description makes the film sound better than it is. Little that goes on is of note, except for its unintentional humor (another great part of Ed Wood's 'style'). This is why it's best to watch the 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' 1994 version (available on DVD) that not only glorifies the humorous high points ("You're filming your shirt!" etc.), but also helps us wade thru the tedious dead spots, of which there are many.

We know why Ed Wood relied so much on explaining off stage action rather than showing it: it was a simple lack of budget and time (but also skill). This does not put him up on the level of doing the best with the least. That honor properly goes to the great Edgar G. Ulmer whose landmark Poverty Row films 'Detour' (1945) and 'Man From Planet X' (1951) are master classes in film making technique in working on virtually no budget or time.

Ed Wood can never be considered in the same rank as other film makers, but occupies his own unique and special place: The Top of the Bottom. The MST3K version helps it a lot, but still I'll have to give it a 2.
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Adventures of Superman (1952–1958)
The Best Episodes of the Great First 'Noir' Season!
20 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The first season was originally broadcast in the evenings, not in the afternoons for children. 1952 was not that far away from the 'film noir' style of film making from the 1940s that we love, even though much of it was developed in low budget films to save on costs.

What does this have to do with "The Adventures of Superman"? Most of the episodes of the first season are suggestively, or deliberately noir: darkly lit stories peppered with deviant characters and low life villains with dire situations for our heroes to be trapped in. Others have commented on how the series degenerated into silliness later on, but here in the first season we have well photographed, written and acted and often suspenseful episodes.

For me, the best episodes of the first season are: 'Superman on Earth', the noirish 'The Haunted Lighthouse', 'The Monkey Mystery' (many of these early episodes actually were mysteries), 'Night of Terror' with the feisty Phyllis Coates, the great science fictional 'The Mind Machine', 'Rescue' with Phyllis Coates in a kind of 'Ace in the Hole' (1951) episode, 'The Secret of Superman', 'The Stolen Costume', the two ultra-noirish episodes 'Mystery in Wax' (with a great performance by Myra McKinney) and 'The Evil Three' and finally 'Crime Wave'.

What is noteworthy about this first year is the demonstrated craft of the lead actors in taking their roles seriously. Of course, they had no idea of how actors in their far future would play the same and other comic book characters and be respected and lauded for their efforts --in the year 2009 Heath Ledger was nominated for an Academy Award for playing DC's 'The Joker,' and Christopher Reeve played Superman in four successful films that also featured Marlon Brando, Gene Hackett, Susanna York, Terence Stamp, Jackie Cooper, Robert Vaughn and Richard Pryor among many stars.

The first season has well done ensemble acting. The episodes featured different pairings of the four leads. You get Clark and Jimmy in 'The Haunted Lighthouse,' Perry and Jimmy in 'The Evil Three,' and other episodes featuring Clark, Lois and Jimmy, or Clark and Perry, Clark and Lois, Clark, Jimmy and Perry, and even Clark and Inspector Henderson. Although Noel Neill was fine in the two 'Superman' serials, Phyllis Coates is strong and feisty in this, her only year. Kudos to 'method' actor (and James Dean's friend) Jack Larson as Jimmy--an adult playing a teenager with such lines as "Jeepers!" "Golly! (he says it "Gah-lee"), "Gleeps!" and "Gosh, Mr. Kent!"

24 first season episodes in all, actually 26. The others were the two-part 'The Unknown People,' which was actually a short 1951 theatrical film, 'Superman and the Mole People,' which just features Lois and Clark. In it, George Reeves plays Clark Kent as not mild mannered, but a tough, two fisted fighter of small town prejudice directed against those who are different (in this case, mole men from inside the Earth). Clark even assists in a surgery to save a mole man's life! Reeves continues to play Clark as smart and tough throughout the series. (The feautre film is also highly recommended.)

A thoroughly enjoyable first year of a television series. I'll give it an 8.
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F.B.I. Girl (1951)
Raymond Burr and a Good Cast Make This Clunker Passable
18 January 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Is it because of watching so much 'Perry Mason' (1957-1966) that when Raymond Burr, who plays the lead villain, Blake, is on screen we are riveted to his words, inflections, movements and gestures? For those of us who watched him as the bad guy in so many movies when we were children, such as 'Tarzan and the She Devil' (1953), the answer is no. He had real charisma and great screen presence whatever he did. Just check out his other evil performances of the era in such films as 'Rear Window' (1954), 'His Kind of Woman' (1951), 'Bride of the Gorilla' (1951), or his classic pyromaniac gangster in 'Raw Deal' (1948).

So it's no wonder that the best part of this film is watching him. The movie is helped by other fine performances by Cesar "The King of Lippert Pictures" Romero, as FBI chief Glen Stedman, the nice looking but strong Audrey Totter as Shirley Wayne the FBI clerk, and Tom Drake as her fiancée.

The problem is that the plot has holes bigger than swiss cheese, and too many of the scenes focus on the backs of people's heads. A state governor seeks Blake's aid in retrieving his fingerprint card, under his real name 'John Williams,' from the FBI in Washington, D.C. He's afraid his past criminal record as a convicted murderer will come out, destroying his chances in running for the Senate. The movie revolves around Blake's attempts to retrieve the fingerprint card, and the FBI's attempts to connect the murders of those FBI staff Blake uses to get the card with, to them, the unknown killers-at-large.

The first clerk, Natalie Craig (played by Margie Dean), takes the fingerprint card, but is killed in an auto accident. Even though later in the film when agent Donley (George Brent) and Stedman know they are looking for John Williams's fingerprint card, Donley says, "There must be 10,000 John Williams's!" and they both hopelessly give up the quest in looking for it in the files. Well, Natalie had had no trouble finding it, and neither does file clerk Shirley who later takes it to Blake. As a police procedural, this is no 'Dragnet' (1951-1959).

The governor is relieved it is over after Blake burns the card in a fireplace. As if there were only one copy of his real fingerprints in the country! What about where he was convicted? And where were any witnesses or evidence to connect him to his past life? This whole McGuffin is preposterous, but Burr has us almost believing in it in spite of all these improbables.

For too many scenes, the director and cinematographer have the characters moving from stage left to stage right where the camera is, and we see much of the dialog coming from the back of someone's head. No cut to a second camera to see their faces. The director was obviously not bothered by these shots. Jack Greenhalgh, the cinematographer, did over 200 films (mostly for Poverty Row studios like PRC and Lippert), including the classic 'Tell Your Children' (1936), which we know and love as 'Reefer Madness,' and then went on to do his other masterpiece, 'Robot Monster' (1953).

Oh, if only Ed Wood had been involved in this film! He would have added dialog to raise it to even more absurd heights, and would have overseen even worse photography, juxtaposing bizarre stock footage and a feebly weird soundtrack. Oh, wait! He did just that in his masterwork 'Glen or Glenda' (1953) featuring Bela Lugosi.

The quality seasoned acting skills of the principal players beguile you into accepting the film's premise, at least until the ending when you realize the plot hasn't made any sense. The performance of Burr, and those of Romero, Totter and Drake help the film, but ultimately it's only a 4.
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Mary Pickford 'Mends Nets' in a Poignant Short Film
14 January 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Back in 1912, Mabel Normand, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith were making pictures for the Biograph Company. Talk about cranking them out -- between 1908-1916, Biograph made 1204 films! This is one of its better shorts. In just 17 briskly edited minutes Griffith provides us with a brief capsulated soap opera with a poignant ending that stays with you.

On the Santa Monica coast, Mary has a routine job where she works mending fishing nets for her father. A young fisherman who has been admiring her finally professes his love for her and proposes. She ecstatically accepts. In her face and gestures we can feel the rush of joy she feels, anticipating the great changes to come in her life.

Unfortunately, the man has a prior girlfriend, played by Mabel Normand, who was watching the proposal from a hill, and feels spurned and apparently damaged and used by the young fisherman. She goes to his cabin apparently pleading with him to 'honor' her (had he 'had his way' with her?) by marrying her and making their relationship respectable. Mary's brother, having seen Mabel enter the cabin, goes there with a gun to shoot the young two-timing fisherman. Mary sees this and rushes to protect her fiancée by stopping the shooting.

Griffith builds the tension through quick cutting from interiors to exteriors and some fast paced action. The brother can't get off a clear shot, and as they both rush into the cabin---Mary sees the other woman! She tells all to Mary, who having come there for one purpose, now has another choice to make. Mary decides there is more at stake than just her own personal feelings, so she takes her fiancée's hand and places it on Mabel, probably saying that you loved each other before, and probably still do, so you should be, and stay, together. Here she is literally mending human nets.

She goes back outside, returns to her job of mending fishing nets, looking briefly and wistfully off into the what could have been and the what might have been. Then, head down, she starts mending her nets. Could you, or I, sacrifice our own happiness for that of others?

Pretty good for 1912, during the teen era when histrionics and melodramatic poising were still the norm for many pictures. A short slice of life moment economically and concisely fit into its brief length. Too bad the other 1203 couldn't have been this good! I'll give this one a 7.
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