Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Seventh Victim (1943)

A young woman (Kim Hunter) must leave school because her sister disappeared and stopped paying the tuition. Setting out to look for her, she finds her sister's friends don't always tell the truth, and that she has gotten herself involved in something nefarious.

Perhaps two parts Noir mystery and one part Horror, but I'm inclined to overlook that. Finally I have seen all nine of Val Lewton's horror-esque films. He did five others completely outside the genre before dropping dead. Eventually I'll hit those as well.

Here's something curious. Tom Conway played the same character as in Cat People, curiouser still if you saw Cat People. Jean Brooks and he were in nine films together. Her other Lewton film, The Leopard Man, was not one of them. She would die at my age. Booze is short on nutrition.

Let's talk of Vallie, shall we? Born in Crimea back when it was illegally occupied by Russian forces, his family moved to America looking for a better life. RKO was reeling financially and needed someone who could churn out economically successful films on a tight budget and schedule. Showing the great decision making skills that got them into this mess, they chose a young man who never before produced a film. Oddly, it worked.

Seldom do I focus on producers. Ok, never do I focus on producers. But Val Lewton was not your average producer. He had a much larger hand in the creation of his films than usual. He personally worked on the scripts, was involved with the art direction, carefully chose who he wanted to work with, and his films all had his signature style whether they were directed by Jacques Tourneur or Robert Wise. The films have great atmosphere, are well crafted, and by and large very enjoyable. Avid readers may remember the one I gave a failing grade to.

One of my objectives when starting this blog (I had several) was to find these forgotten gems. Great, nuanced films I had never heard of. Here exactly is what I was looking for.

The Seventh Victim has some thrilling parts, lots of mystery, and that Lewton atmosphere. While it is as well crafted as Lewton's other works, I will say the film could have made use of some more horror elements. I will say no more because I did enjoy it. Maybe fifth best of his nine and AMRU 3.5. I just wish the devil worshipers were more satan-y.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

Loopy doll maker hires a new secretary. She isn't interested because he seems to think his dolls are real people. He begs her to take the job because ... it's the fifties.

She confesses her suspicions to a salesman who laughs in her face. They date (because that makes sense) and shortly after he proposes, he mysteriously disappears. Just like a bunch of other people. After she accuses her boss of turning people into dolls, he shrinks her and adds her to his collection. See, he wasn't crazy. Just lonely.

Well crafted, well paced, predictable, unimaginative, uninspired, watchable. You know what would have made this better? If the puppet people actually attacked something. Or if the scene in the poster took place. Or threw a hint of sexual perversion, or cold war fear, or drama, or action. A well crafted baloney on white is still a baloney on white. Hey, sometimes I get hungry.

A key element in any Sci-Fi film is the hardware. Sounds harsh, but for the most part that's true. Puppet People has hardware, but it's barely described. There was the analogy to how a projector makes images larger, but Willie Wonka did a better job on the exposition.

Director Bert Gordon took a break from making giant-people movies to make a little-person movie, but has our protagonists go to the drive-in to see one of his films. Anything else interesting here? Nope. Maybe I'd say John Agar deserved a better movie, but let's face facts. This was right in his wheelhouse. AMRU 3.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The General (1926)

Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is a train engineer at the onset of the War of Northern Aggression. Wishing to win the favor of his love, he is first in line at the recruitment office. Because he is more valuable as an engineer, they refuse to enlist him. But they don't tell him why.

When he tells his love they wouldn't enlist him, she doesn't believe him, having been told he never got in line. She won't see him again. A year later Johnnie's train (The General) is captured by Northern scalawags, the pretty Annabelle Lee along with it. Johnnie pursues them alone.

A silent comedy where the star's trademark is to not change his expression. Hmm. How's that going to work. Surprisingly well it turns out. Frequently I found myself chuckling to the slapstick comedy. It totally won me over. It is interesting to note that the setting for this film was more recent to the filmmakers than the end of World War II is for us.

In addition to Keaton's comic genius, this is a fascinating movie to watch. The action sequences were well shot, the pacing was good, and some of the stunts were ... well, I'm surprised Keaton didn't break his fool head ten times over. No lawyer today would allow anything close to this. You can start with the scene of the train rolling directly into town without any kind of barrier. From there, you have Keaton falling down repeatedly on the tracks, jumping from car to car, rolling down a rocky slide directly into the path of an oncoming train, and sitting on the connecting rod while the engine is in motion.

Hey, my first Buster Keaton! Yea, he was in Sunset Blvd, but as a cameo. The writer, director, star of this movie gave himself tenth billing. I read once that Michael Keaton took his sir name out of respect. Can't find a reference to that now. Michael's real last name is Douglas.

The General shows that sound, while a useful tool in storytelling, is not essential. The Netflix copy is crisp but after a brief inspection, it appears the Amazon Prime copy is slightly better, if four minutes shorter. Skip the public domain copies haunting the internet. The subtle nuances, the acrobatics, the action sequences, and the big battle pay-off deserve a quality copy. AMRU 4. Look for the most expensive single scene in the silent film era.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Young German students are urged to enlist for honor and glory, then find out the true meaning of trench warfare.

I had not seriously considered this movie because I mistakenly presumed it was either German with subtitles or, even worse, silent. I also thought it was very long. TCM aired it recently and because it sparked an interest with my 17 year old anti-war military buff son, we watched it together. It's 2 hours fifteenish run time was reasonable for this short-attention-span viewer.

I expect modern HD movies to wow me away visually, what with their CGI and other tricks, but this low-def, 4:3 aspect, black and white movie was impressive. Now when a crane shot spins 360 around someones head, goes up their butt crack, then pans back into outer space, we know a fat guy on a million dollar computer worked the weekend. Here, when soldiers march out of a building that then explodes, we know that the friggin' building the actors walked out of friggin' blew up! This added touch of reality makes all the difference.

The principle message of this story is that nobody wants war, nobody needs it, and the empty headed motormouths back home spouting patriotic clap-trap need to spend an evening stringing barbed wire during a down pour while the enemy strafed them with gunfire. And that message was delivered crystal.

Being an early talkie (the first sound Best Picture winner), the acting styles were clearly influenced by the pantomime era. As such, it is easy to typify the acting as terrible. Mostly because much of it was ... terrible. But these were style choices of the time and later in the film there are nuanced scenes and quiet transformations that are quite remarkable. When the main character goes home on leave and hears the bravado from his father and others in a bar, the restraint in Lew Ayres' performance was wonderful.

The gruff but lovable Sargent Kat (Louis Wolheim) would die a year later from stomach cancer. Uncredited student Arthur Gardner who went on to fame as a TV producer, is a hundred and three. The director looked around the Los Angeles area for real German war veterans to insure uniform and tactic accuracy and found so many he hired some as extras.

The anti-war message was preaching to the choir in my household, but it was a fantastic film. Had it a clearer soundtrack it's impact might even be greater. It's unflinching look at the realities of war, pre-code gore, and surprising performances make this a triumph. AMRU 4.
"I think it's more a kind of fever. Nobody wants it in particular, and then all at once, there it is. We didn't want it. The English didn't want it. And here we are fighting."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Mouse that Roared (1959)

The tiny and impoverished nation of Fenwick declares war on America in order to lose and reap the benefit of war reparations. When they happen upon the only working prototype of the Q-Bomb (way more powerful than that wimpy H-Bomb), they accidentally win.

The real story here is Peter Sellers playing three rolls. The surprising thing is that he played them rather well. The ditsy Grand Duchess, the conniving prime minister, and the simple and good-hearted Tully Bascombe. Each character very different and well developed. This is his first foray into multiple screen personae (he was emulating Alec Guinness), and would make it something of a trademark. His real talent, in my opinion, was doing nuanced yet over the top characters in virtually every role. Sometimes very understated, sometimes Clouseau. He was a troubled comic genius whos art was built for longevity, if not his lifestyle.

Anything else of interest? Cutie Jean Seberg would take her own life twenty years later. Or was murdered by Nazi ninja alien bigfoots. The jury is still out on that one. She lived a life of drug abuse and infidelity. That's all I got this time. Amusing and well made, but no real LOL moments. Worth the time spent watching. AMRU 3. They made a sequel, but without Sellers, is it really worth watching?
"I warn you, madam - I know the entire Geneva Convention by heart!"
"Oh, how nice! You must recite it for me some evening; I play the harpsichord."

Friday, January 17, 2014

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

The Navy brings researchers to an island with an abandoned research facility. The previous occupants disappeared with no trace. What could have happened to them? Spoiler alert: they were eaten by crab monsters.

Well, the island experiences strange earth quakes, giant holes in the ground open up, and they start to hear the ghostly voices of their departed colleagues. It seems that when the crabs eat people, they gain their knowledge. How did they get so mutated? Atomic radiation. Oh, yea. That old chestnut.

I watched this for one reason only. On my way home from work I heard of the death of Russell Johnson, the great Professor from Gilligan's Island. Dedicated readers will also remember him from This Island Earth and It Came from Outer Space. He was a hard working actor, all around nice guy, and a bone fide war hero, earning the purple heart during World War II. But enough about Russ, back to the movie.

If goofs are your thing, then you are in luck, because goofs are this movie's thing. It would be tedious to mention them all (IMDB lists only seven). Let's take an early scene as an example. Within a yard and a half of shore, one of the Navy doofs falls out of the boat into very deep water. There he sees a giant crab monster and swims frantically to the surface. When the other doofs bring the obvious mannequin back on board, they discover it has no head. Forgetting for the moment that it should have been his feet that got chopped, the rest of the cast act as if this was a regrettable accident and don't find his decapitation all that shocking. Maybe the crabs get stupider as they eat them.

Typical Roger Corman material. Mediocre acting, terrible accents, clumsy scenes, substandard script, forgettable story, but otherwise watchable. Corman is famous for spending $100,000 and grossing a million. But if he could spend $110,000, still earn that million, and make something worth remembering, he wouldn't hesitate to pocket the ten grand. I have a hard time respecting that. Still, maybe because of my fondness for Johnson's Professor, I enjoyed Crab Monsters. Foreshadowing his later role, Johnson even makes a radio out of the unlikeliest of materials: radio parts. Go figure!

Watchable, short, and dumb. Today I give it an AMRU of 3. Rest in peace, Russ.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2013: My Film Blog Year in Review

I missed doing a year-end wrap up last year and I didn't want that again. Let's start with the movies I actually saw in a theater: Star Trek Into Darkness and Jurassic Park in iMax 3D. Yup, that's about it. Not bad. Laura Dern is a terrible actress. Maybe I saw The Hobbit. Not sure if it was in December or January. 30 minutes shorter would have been 30 minutes better. Now onto the state of the blog.

The 45 posts represent 44 movies. While I might be disappointed at the low number, I'm not. I think I hit a relatively good quality of movies. While only seven were rated at 4.0 (and none higher), only six got failing grades. I completed the original Universal Horror collection (with the exception of The Mummy series - can't find a copy of The Mummy's Tomb), I explored my interest in Val Lewton, Russ Meyer, and William Castle, Ray Harryhausen, Lon Chaney, and the Marx Brothers. I did good work on the 50's rocket and saucer sub-genre, and saw Jane Fonda's ta-tas back when that was a good thing. Not a bad bunch of films, if not exactly a film student's dream list.

29 of the 44 were either Sci-Fi or Horror, two were musicals (although I didn't initially classify Duck Soup as such), and the three silent films fared way better than the three exploitation films. I think I'll do more of the former and less of the latter. Musicals will continue to be sparse.

Many of the year's winners were flawed gems: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Carnival of Souls, The Leopard Man, and Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Good, enjoyable, and imperfect. The best movie, from the traditional viewpoint, was The Bridge on the River Kwai, the year's only Best Picture. The biggest surprise may be Valley of the Dragons. Not that it was all that great, I just had rather low expectations. Daughter and Son of Dracula were also better than I expected. Son of particularly because Creighton the Crappy was in the lead. Biggest disappointment was Things to Come. It wasn't the worst, but I had heard of it and it's an H.G. Wells film for cryin' out loud!

I've taken to hitting documentaries whenever the mood strikes me. Girl 27 was a complete fraud and a total disappointment. Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies was an overly glowing portrait of the actress. I don't know much about her and not sure that changed any. I watched Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask and learned nothing of the man. TCM ran a Bio and I learned loads. I forget what, however. I've mentioned The Story of Film: An Odyssey and still recommend it greatly. Watch it quick before Netflix pulls it. The Celluloid Closet is a great look into gays in film. I saw it years ago and made a point of seeing it again. TCM is great for that stuff. I've seen more, I'm sure, but nothing else comes to mind.

When I began this journey all I really had was the local library and hand-me-down tube televisions. Now I have Netflix, Amazon Prime, TCM (my best source), and a TV that does YouTube. I have a Roku in the bedroom that has many channels for public domain films, though I don't frequent there often. I seldom hit the library at this point. Not much room for improvement there.

My expectations for 2014 (as far as the movie blog is concerned) is to get back to the 50 post plateau. I hope to hit more "classics" and go lighter on Sci-Fi/Horror. Let's see how that goes. After my Halloween Horror fest, my plan was to hit some classic romantic comedies, but I found it hard to get excited about that topic. I think I'll be opportunistic and grab what tickles my fancy for the time being.