Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Initially I had little interest in covering movies like this, wanting to focus on movies I HAVEN'T seen, but it was on TBS the other day, and what the hell ...

Just about everyone has seen the Wizard. It has become part of our cultural language. It has been referenced, spoofed, and copied in more places than can be counted. The movie connections link on IMDB goes on and on, and I'm certain I can find references that were missed. But, for the benthic organisms in the audience, allow me to summarize the story.

Hot chick runs away from home and finds a lonely old con man and says she wants to run away with him. He, for reasons that escape me, convinces her to go home. During a tornado, no less. She returns home and cannot find her family. She gets knocked on the head and falls asleep. She wakes in the technicolor land of Oz. Midgets and a drag queen tell her that a lonely old con man might help her get home, so she goes looking for him after stealing the shoes of a woman she killed.

Along the way she meets up with three magical creatures, one that represents a heartless father figure, another a mindless sack of hay, and a third the courage to do the deed. After a pit stop in an opium den and an experience with some "snow", they arrive at the Emerald City to beg free gifts from the wizard. He asks for an old woman's broom in exchange.

Off they go to steal the broom from the sister of the murdered woman. After the hot chick is captured by flying monkeys, the magical creatures go in to save her. During the rescue the hot chick dumps acid on the old woman, killing her. The guards quickly realize that they aren't going to get paid anymore, so they let her plunder the castle.

The con man of Oz tries to renege on his agreement, so the magical creatures rough him up. They get their booty, but before the hot chick gets safe passage back to Kansas (seriously, she wants to go to Kansas), he makes his escape in a hot air balloon. Just then the drag queen from earlier arrives to tell her he's been jerking her around the whole time and she always could have gone home, phych! Meanwhile, the magical creatures take control of Oz and rule it with an iron fist.

I have a few observations from this viewing. While there are many elements that make this movie work, one I don't think gets enough attention is the work of Margaret Hamilton. As Elmira Gulch, she's a nasty bitch. As the Wicked Witch, she deliciously evil. An unattractive woman, even in complementary makeup, Hamilton was captivating in every scene she was in. If there could have been any acting awards (there weren't, let's be serious), it would have been for her. I would totally buy her crappy coffee. I will say, however, that the witch constantly calling Dorothy "pretty" made me uncomfortable.

One more thing. Early in the film, Glinda establishes that only bad witches are ugly. She then proceeds to ask Dorothy if she is a good witch or a bad witch. Hmmmm. Sounds to me like the old lady had an axe to grind.

AFI called it the number one fantasy film. I don't know about that. Premiere Magazine, however, rated it as one of the 20 most overrated films of all time. That may be so, but it's still a good movie. While watching it I wondered if the Wizard of Oz would have been the Wizard of Oz, if it weren't the Wizard of Oz. Something to think about. AMRU 4. You must see it again. You have no choice.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

This Island Earth (1955)

Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) is a hunky pilot and scientist. Working for the government, he receives parts from a mysterious source. Assembling them, he finds that it is a giant video phone with lasers. The mysterious Exeter recruits Dr. Meacham for a special, super secret project. Boarding a pilotless airplane, he lands at a remote research facility/Shangri-La where many noted scientists run around like frightened rabbits.

But not Meacham, no sir. He's far too hunky macho for that. He takes charge of the situation and with the aid of The Professor and the requisite hottie, he learns that Exeter and his high-brow bunch are really aliens getting the humans to build ... well, enough spoiling. Suffice to say that the Metalunians need our help and are just too shy to ask.

Are the Metalunians evil or can they be trusted? Funny thing is, if Meacham doesn't get on that plane, nothing happens. No consequence to him or the Earth. The story ends there. In fact, little difference to ANY of the characters in the story. Oh, well. Sometimes a hero needs a scenario to be heroic. Rex, tired of acting, turned his back on Hollywood at age 32. He's still alive and does autograph sessions from time to time.

I watched this with my 13 year old and we both enjoyed it. I might see it again. Actually, we will because I plan on borrowing the MST3K movie (1996) which features it. I loved the series and my boy has never seen an episode. His final comment about This Island Earth is that the title is dumb. I agree. AMRU 3.5.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Killers From Space (1954)

Peter Graves is Dr. Martin, a young Air Force officer working on a project involving nuclear bomb testing. It's called Operation: Nuclear Bomb Test. He is flying around a test explosion taking readings, when he notices a flash of light on the ground. So, he abandons the project to have a look. On his way, the pilot loses control of the aircraft and crashes.

Later, Martin arrives back at the base without any memory of what happened from the time of the crash to when he arrived at the gate. Upon inspection, they find a mysterious scar that couldn't have happened in the accident. His behavior and loss of memory leads them to think he might be an impostor.

The first part of this movie is a mystery. What happened? Our only clues is that the title implies that someone or something from space mean to kill us. I'll ignore the obvious plot flaws and horrible visual effects, which are truly awful. This part of the movie actually works, at least a little. After Martin steals test information, he is captured and given truth serum. Then he relates the story.

Note: this is not a spoiler. I simply am retelling everything that happens in the film. This movie was spoiled the day it came out.

Bug-eyed aliens, resembling Retarded Blue Man Group, brought Martin back from the dead to use him to steal the test information. Their plan is to take over Earth by using close up images of lizards and bugs. Martin won't cooperate, so they brain wash us ... I mean him. Martin thinks to himself and figures if he cuts off power for ten seconds, it will overload their "resistors" and kill all the aliens. The feds aren't buying it, so he has to go to the power plant himself and cut the circuits. The only security guard was busy ticketing his illegally parked car.

Long story short, the aliens blow up and earth is saved. One word about the visual effects. (I call then visual effects because the only thing special about them is the note pinned to their sweater.) Without an effects budget, this movie should not have been made. Or at least made as a mystery rather than Sci-Fi. The alien's bug eyes were made from egg cartons, their outfits looked like sewen up bath robes, and much of the military and nuclear testing scenes were stock footage. When Martin's plane is circling the test site, you can see through it. And he appears to be circling with a diameter about three times the plane's length. Man, were the effects bad!

Now, remembering that the effects were stock footage, poorly dressed aliens in a cave, and close up of bugs, look again at the poster for the movie. The poster depicts exactly what this film was not. I'd sue for fraud. Hey, is that a topless chick in front? Even that wouldn't have saved this.

I like B Sci-Fi films, even bad ones, so I'm tempted to give this a higher rating that it'd otherwise would get, but I have to be realistic. The poor acting was the BEST part of this film. The dialog, story, and effects all sucked. AMRU 2. Wanna see it anyhow? Click here. The movie is free.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

M (1931)

Someone is abducting little girls and murdering them. Peter Lorre is Hans Beckert, a "rehabilitated" mental patient, who is frustrating the police. No material evidence is ever found and witnesses disagree on every detail. The police, in desperation, spend every night raiding every night club and harassing every two-bit crook.

The crooks have had enough. They band together to find the culprit so that they can get back to their businesses of picking pockets and other petty crimes. I'm going to stop right there. Anything more would be spoiling the film, and with M, I actually care.

I picked up M because in the category of Film-Noir, IMDB rates it number 3. 48th overall. I didn't know what to expect. M is a truly remarkable film.

Lorre's performance was nothing short of stunning. Earlier in the film, he'd be on screen and you'd say "oh, yea, totally a child molester". He just had that look. His big scene at the end is unbelievable. Truly out of this world.

I don't have anything sarcastic to say. I'm lost for snark! It's disorienting. Here's what I learned about Fritz Lang. Fritz was a German movie director principally remembered for Metropolis (1927). M, he felt, was his best work. When the Nazis took over in Germany, he fled. He continued to make movies in Hollywood, none matching the power and impact of M. He had the reputation of being demanding of actors, to the point of abuse. But, what did he look like? Think Colonel Klink, but more gay.

That's the stuff! In striking contrast to every other movie I've gotten from the library, this one was perfect. Not only was the restoration flawless, the disk itself was pristine. No skips! I must see this movie again. AMRU 4.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dark Victory (1939)

Back in my early teens, Kim Carnes sang of a woman with Bette Davis eyes. There were two things that I didn't know back then: what the hell that meant, and that Kim Carnes sucked.

Bette Davis overacts as rich Long Island socialite Judith Traherne, who has been having headaches and dizzy spells. Dr. Frederick Steele, played by a cardboard cut out of George Brent, is the dashing brain surgeon who convinces her she needs surgery, and fast!

Humphry Bogart get third billing (third billing!?!?) as a horse trainer with an Irish accent (an Irish accent!?!?!?) He wants to nail Judith but doesn't get to (he doesn't get to?!?!?!?) This was before Casablanca, so Bogie wasn't calling the shots just yet.

Ronald Reagan played a rich, shallow playboy (a rich, shallow ... no, that's about right) who doesn't have much to say. He got forth billing.

Well, the surgery is a complete success and Judith can go back to being the happy-go-lucky socialite without distractions. She falls in love with Dashing Doctor, Dashing Doctor falls in love with her, then she finds out what "Prognosis Negative" means. Spoiler alert: she's gonna die anyhow. After a brief hissy fit (Bogie's best chance, just missed) she goes running back apologetically to Dashing Doctor. They marry, move to Vermont ("What do you do there in between yawns?") to live out her life without regret. Then she gets what every young lady ever really wants: a 45 minute death scene.

Not my cup of tea. It was nominated for best picture, but this was the year of The Wizard of Oz and some costume drama about the civil war, I forget. It's not a bad film, and better than most of the movies I've rated a 3, but I really don't need to see it again.

One final word about Bette's eyes. There were two of them, mostly the same size and evenly spaced, and used to collect visual information. Except towards the end there. Kim Carnes sucks.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

Back in the day I would come home from school and turn on channel 56 (WLVI Boston) to watch Creature Double Feature. This is where I got my love of old B horror movies. There is where I learned to love Godzilla. This is the film that started it all, in America, at least.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is an edited version of the 1954 film Gojira. Ok, go ahead. I know you want to. Take a moment and point at the crown molding and say "Gojira" in an accelerated, fake Japanese accent. I'll wait.

Are we done? Good. So, we're all familiar with the giant, long-armed, fire breathing tyrannosaurus with a penchant for noshing on Tokyo. For it's American release, they edited out the parts blaming us for the monster (that's right, it's all our fault) and inserts an American as a witness/narrator.

Raymond Burr is Steve Martin, a decidedly unwild and non-crazy newspaper reporter who just happens to be in Tokyo. Despite not speaking the language and having no official status, he leads Japanese officials around to witness first hand each plot point. There he watches with detached concern as toy trains and cardboard buildings are chomped, squashed, and set ablaze.

The Japanese characters are a white-hair scientist, his hot daughter, his enigmatic, one-eyed assistant who is engaged to the hot daughter by arrangement, and another guy who the hot daughter actually loves. Their story may have been interesting, but it was radically watered down for the American release. US audiences apparently would rather see Burr relight his pipe and look on with vague disinterest than watch a love-triangle sub plot.

It wasn't hard to determine which scenes came from Japan and which were added later. The Japanese film was rather thin with poor contrast and noticeably more scratches. The American parts had much sharper detail. Using the visual clues, you can see where when Burr/Martin talks to a major character it's with their back to the camera. When they do face the camera, Burr is not in view.

IMDB tells me that Burr's scenes were shot in a 24 marathon session because he could only work on the film for one day, per some contract. No, that doesn't make sense to me either. Also, the beast was supposed to be 400 feet tall. I suppose that means the high tension wires in Tokyo are about 400 feet high. I understand Gojira was much shorter in the Japanese version.

I won't be watching this film again, but I would consider the Japanese version. It was clear that a lot more was going on with the Japanese characters than we were led to know. I had the boys watch, but they weren't very interested when the monster wasn't on screen. And it wasn't on screen much. The movie makers were masters of not showing the action. Many times we saw lengthy reaction shots before we saw what they were looking at. Man, that was annoying. AMRU 3.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Another Thin Man (1939)

Nick and Nora are back with all of the booze and sarcasm intact. This time the executor of Nora's estate is convinced someone is out to kill him. Well, guess what ...

Anyhow, with the loving encouragement of Nora, Nick is on the case. Is the murderer Phil Church, who the victim suspected? One of his accomplices? The adopted daughter or her nere-do-well fiance? The Charles' nanny (they have a baby now, you know)? The housekeeper? Lots of suspects and like the previous two, you are kept guessing.

Not much to say without spoiling the story. Shemp Howard had a small, uncredited role as a thug. The nanny was from Providence, RI. The actor who played the Charles' baby died at age 35. This was his only acting role. I saw about two thirds of the movie before my player in my bedroom stopped reading the disk. I finished off the film in the living room in the morning. Part of one chapter was skipped because of damage. The disk didn't look in too bad compared to some I get from the library.

I love the police work in these old movies. I know this is before the Miranda law, but come on. They shoot at every opportunity, contaminate every crime scene, allow witnesses to walk away without questioning them. Best thing I can say is I didn't notice them drinking while on duty.

The mystery was mysterious. The dialog was sharp and witty. Loy is still hot. The liquor still flowed. I noticed that the Thin Man movies have decreasing IMDB ratings, but I was not disappointed. The first is still my favorite, but this may be better than the second. AMRU 3.5.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Once while perusing the IMDB top 250 list I noticed a movie called il buono, il brutto, il cattivo very near the top. Number four, in fact. I learned that this movie is in fact The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966). Of course I'm familiar with the Eastwood spaghetti western, but I never cared for the genre. I knew it was popular with those who liked them, but forth best movie all time? Sounds like a stretch.

Doing a little research, I learned that it was the third in a trilogy. First came A Fistful of Dollars, then A Few Dollars More. Few Dollars more lands at 123 on IMDB's list while Fistful just misses it. I had seen part of a couple Eastwood westerns, and I got a hankering. I picked up Fistful from the library. Let's see what the hullabaloo is all about.

It is the story of a man with no name, named Joe. He wanders into a small Mexican town we presume he once lived in. He discovers that two families, The Baxters and the Rojos, are vying for control of the weapons trade. Joe decides to put himself in the middle and play them off of each other.

Eastwood plays a few clever games to outsmart both families, each time getting paid. There's a woman who is held captive by a Rojo brother that we know 'oll Clint will simply have to rescue. There's also this gold. Well, Clint/Joe/No Name does such a great job that everyone lives happily ever after and there is no come-uppance. That's right, none at all. Not even when the Rojos find out that Joey has been playing them for patsies and beats the living crap out of him. Or the town and the townspeople. All hunky-dory.

This movie made Clint Eastwood's career. The role was first offered to James Coburn, then Charles Bronson, then Richard Harrison, then Eric Fleming, then our man Clint. Henry Fonda and Steve Reeves were also thought for the roll. It was released in Italy in 1964 and became a big hit. It wasn't released in America until 1967. The story was stolen from the Japanese Samurai movie Yojimbo (1961).

Liked it, didn't love it. Certainly glad I watched it but I'm unsure if I'll watch it again. The audio track was a little iffy, what with half the characters speaking in Italian and being dubbed into English. Few Dollars More will end up on my list eventually, but I'm in no hurry. AMRU 3.5.