Monday, August 19, 2019
Chinese director Zhang Yimou has made such films as HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. I'm particularly fond of those three titles. His latest film is SHADOW.
The movie is set in ancient China, and concerns two kingdoms, Pei and Yang, who are jockeying for control of Jing City. Pei's military commander has challenged the Yang commander to a duel--the winner will gain control of the city for the province he represents. The Pei commander is actually a servant in disguise, a man trained since boyhood to pose as the high-ranking officer, who he greatly resembles. The servant is basically the commander's "shadow". The real commander hides in the catacombs of Pei castle, secretly training his substitute and plotting to take over the kingdom if his twin is successful in winning the duel. The shadow just wants to fulfill his duty and be allowed to go home--but the machinations of the emotionally unstable Pei king may cause the scheme to fall apart, while the real commander's wife starts to have feelings for his twin...feelings that are reciprocated.
What I loved about movies like HERO and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER was their bold and unique use of color. In SHADOW, Zhang Yimou takes away all the color. Everything--the sets, the backgrounds, the wardrobes--are a combination of black, dark grey, or dull white. The only color comes from the skin tones of the characters. The effect is accentuated by the fact that it is constantly raining during the entire story. I'm no fan of desaturated color schemes, and this example is so pronounced I felt as if I was watching a Chinese version of SIN CITY. Instead of fake black & white, I wish that Yimou and his cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao had just went ahead and filmed in actual black & white--they do present some striking compositions. I got used to this minimalist color scheme after awhile, but personally I think the story would have worked just as well--or even better--with a regular color pattern.
As with most of Yimou's tales of historical court intrigue, the story is more concerned with themes like honor, betrayal, and deceit instead of super-charged action sequences. There are some martial arts battles, but not as many as one would think. When there are battles, Yimou and the movie's stunt team stage the action in an unusual and distinct manner, totally different from the Hollywood way.
SHADOW is also different from Western storytelling in that there are no typically "good" or "bad" characters--Yimou (who also co-wrote the screenplay) doesn't so much judge the characters as he observes them. The various double-dealings and interactions have a Shakespearean quality to them, and one can't help but feel a sense of doom hangs over all (mainly due to the bleak visual style). Deng Chao plays a dual role as the real commander and his shadow, and he does a magnificent job--I honestly thought that two separate actors played the roles. The film has a fair amount of dialogue, which means a fair amount of subtitles.
I wouldn't consider SHADOW as one of Zhang Yimou's best films, but maybe I'm focusing too much on the color scheme. It still remains as a intriguing adult historical drama, and it is a viable antidote to all the comic book and animated movies that are now flooding the market.
Saturday, August 17, 2019
The Sprocket Vault and Kit Parker Films present more rare product from the Hal Roach Studios with their CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES VOLUME TWO 1932-33 DVD set.
The set is made up of fifteen different short subjects on two discs. All of the shorts were made at Hal Roach Studios and star Charley Chase.
What made the first CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH DVD volume special is the fact that Thelma Todd appeared in nearly half the movies on the set. She only appears once in volume two--THE NICKEL NURSER, which sadly would be the very last time Charley and Thelma would appear onscreen together.
The shorts in this set seem to have more of a bizarre aspect to them than Charley Chase's usual work. There was a lot going on behind the scenes during the production of this group of shorts, as alluded to in Richard M. Roberts' audio commentaries. The Hal Roach Studios were undergoing a series of budget cuts, and at one point according to Roberts, Chase actually left Roach's employ. Charley also underwent various changes in directors and leading ladies. An actress named Muriel Evans would costar with Charley on the most of the films in this set, but she didn't have the comic expressiveness that Thelma Todd had (then again, not many actresses did). Chase would wind up directing the shorts himself. All of these factors combined may be one of the reasons many of the shorts have an uneven quality about them.
Nevertheless, there are some winners in this set, such as NATURE IN THE WRONG, a wild Tarzan spoof, and HIS SILENT RACKET, which features James Finlayson and Anita Garvin. LUNCHEON AT TWELVE is very reminiscent of the Three Stooges shorts Charley would direct at Columbia some years later.
These are technically Pre-Code films, but there's not as many risque elements as one would expect. There is plenty of singing and comic dancing, and it is at these times when Charley seems to be enjoying himself the most.
The shorts are all in decent condition. I wouldn't call the visual or sound quality superlative, but the most important thing is that these shorts are on official home video, period.
Classic film expert Richard M. Roberts provides an audio commentary for every single short. His knowledge of movie comedies and comedians of the silent and early sound era is inexhaustible--I marvel at how he had the time and the opportunity to see the numerous obscure comedy films he constantly refers to. Roberts discusses what was going on at the Hal Roach studios at the time these shorts were made, and he analyses how Charley Chase's onscreen persona affected the company's overall style. A poster and stills gallery is included, as well as a bonus short. This is UNA CANA AL AIRE, a Spanish version of Charley's LOOSER THAN LOOSE. This is basically a curio--at about forty minutes it goes on too long, and it's not as funny as the original.
This set of rare Charley Chase short films from the early 1930s might seem made just for hardcore movie geeks, but overall they are enjoyable, especially for those used to classic early film comedy. The Sprocket Vault and Kit Parker Films deserve a huge round of applause in making these shorts available on home video, and I sincerely hope there are more Hal Roach sets planned for the future.
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
I've seen almost every British horror film from the 1960s.....but DEVIL DOLL (1964) has until recently eluded me. The movie is not to be confused with MGM's 1936 THE DEVIL DOLL directed by Tod Browning. DEVIL DOLL is about a stage hypnotist and ventriloquist called the Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday) who has a very unique way of giving "life" to his dummy. The story in some ways comes off as a full-scale redoing of the ventriloquist tale in the British chiller classic DEAD OF NIGHT. Both DEVIL DOLL and DEAD OF NIGHT feature a unnerving dummy named Hugo, and in the former film the puppet actually gets up and walks around--a major highlight of the nightmare sequence in the latter film.
I purchased the Image DVD of DEVIL DOLL for a low price, and the disc has two versions of the film--the standard cut and a "continental" edit that has brief bits of nudity.
Set in contemporary times, DEVIL DOLL has reporter Mark English (William Sylvester) trying to write an expose on the Great Vorelli and his fantastic act. Mark convinces his heiress girlfriend Marianne (Yvonne Romain) to allow herself to be hypnotized by Vorelli. The mesmerist becomes obsessed with Marianne, and puts her into a trance. Mark must try to break the spell that forces Marianne to be helpless and bedridden, while at the same time figure out exactly how a simple dummy can walk and talk on his own.
DEVIL DOLL was produced by Richard Gordon and directed by Lindsay Shonteff. The low-budget black & white production has no gore--it's more suspenseful than horrific. Shonteff and cinematographer Gerald Gibbs implement a very quirky visual style that involves several close-ups (too many in my opinion).
The most notable thing about the movie is how adult it is. Vorelli is something of a horndog....at one point he mesmerizes Marianne into visiting his room in the middle of the night (of course the woman is wearing a nightgown.) Vorelli embraces her as the scene discreetly fades away--but it's pretty obvious what happened next. (It's also obvious that this is basically a sexual assault.) Vorelli also favors using buxom female stage assistants and having them dress in scanty showgirl costumes. In the continental version of the film, Vorelli hypnotizes a female volunteer into doing a striptease (the male and female members of the audience find this highly amusing). There's a scene where Mark and Marianne engage in some heavy petting themselves, and it's way more than most leading couples in horror films of this type get to do.
As for the thriller aspects of the tale, Hugo the dummy does gives off a creepy vibe (I'm sure there are as many people who are freaked out by ventriloquist dummies as there are folks who are scared of clowns). Hugo becomes even more disquieting when he gets up and starts walking around (there was an actual person inside the costume during these moments). One complaint I have is that I felt Hugo's voice wasn't strange enough. Hugo's talents are due to Vorelli's ability to transfer souls--but after watching the TWILIGHT ZONE-style twist ending, one realizes that the mesmerist hasn't mastered that task properly.
Bryant Haliday (THE PROJECTED MAN) is very intense as Vorelli, and he makes a very capable menace....but while watching him I couldn't help but think that his role would have been perfect for Christopher Lee. Gorgeous Yvonne Romain (THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) makes one easily understand why Vorelli would set his sights on her (actually the guy is more interested in her money, believe it or not). William Sylvester (GORGO) brings a realistic interpretation to what is usually a thankless role in a horror film. The supporting cast includes such Hammer veterans as Francis de Wolff and Phillip Ray.
There's someone else in the cast I have to mention. He's an actor by the name of Alan Gifford, and, like William Sylvester, he appeared in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY....which makes me wonder--did Stanley Kubrick see DEVIL DOLL??
I wouldn't call DEVIL DOLL a fantastic film--it's more like an elongated episode of a 1960s TV anthology show. But it does have a few intriguing moments and an interesting cast, especially if you are familiar with British fantastic films from the 1950s and 60s.
Saturday, August 10, 2019
This main disc cover of this Shout Factory Blu-ray presents the movie's title as QUATERMASS II. The reverse of the disc cover sleeve displays the American release title of the film: ENEMY FROM SPACE. The actual on-screen title of the movie is QUATERMASS 2. Whatever you want to call it, this production is one of the best science fiction features of the 1950s.
QUATERMASS 2 (1957) doesn't seem to get the appreciation, or the coverage, that the other two Hammer Quatermass films receive. QUATERMASS 2, at least in my experience, never gets shown on television as much as THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT do. Hopefully this new Blu-ray will gain the film some new devotees.
QUATERMASS 2 (the title refers to a rocket, not the fact that it's a sequel) is a moody, fast-moving conspiracy thriller that if anything holds up better now than when it was made. The plot involves alien beings from outer space infiltrating the British power structure by building a processing plant that is supposedly producing synthetic food. The human workers that actually run the plant are given high-paying jobs, housing, and other amenities--as long as they keep absolute loyalty to the "company" in charge. It's not hard to compare the aliens in this film to the giant faceless corporations that run so much of everything these days. Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy, returning as the character from THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT) stumbles upon this scheme and determines to stop it.
QUATERMASS 2 may be a science fiction tale, but it has as many disquieting moments as any Hammer Gothic horror. (It also has a zombie story aspect to it due to the number of people under the aliens' control.) As he did in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, director Val Guest uses a black & white matter-of-fact style to keep things riveting. An actual oil refinery was used as the location for the processing plant, and Guest and his cinematographer Gerald Gibbs make the place look cold and foreboding. Several other outdoor locations are used throughout to give the story a sense of reality. The mood of the film is enhanced greatly by James Bernard's frantic music score.
The major highlight in the film is when Quatermass and a brazen Parliament member take part in a tour of the processing plant. The unusually affable tour "guide" (John Van Eyssen) is one of the creepiest characters in Hammer history, and the Parliament member's horrific fate is a rather shocking moment. The climax reveals alien creatures that are giant slimy amorphous blobs...and these creations are still more unsettling than any 21st Century CGI.
I must admit that I have never seen any of the original Quatermass serials that were shown on BBC television and which the Hammer films are based on. Nigel Kneale, who created the character and wrote the original Quatermass teleplays, didn't like Brian Donlevy's interpretation of the Professor, but I have no problem with his performance. Donlevy wasn't exactly a British scientist type, but his no-nonsense, get to the point style fits perfectly with the vibe Val Guest was trying to create. I find the urban legends about Donlevy being drunk and having to use cue cards on the Quatermass films hard to believe--here, as in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, he appears totally focused on what's happening around him, and invested in the story. There's plenty of Hammer veterans in the supporting cast, such as Michael Ripper, Charles Lloyd Pack, and Percy Herbert. CARRY ON star Sid James plays a reporter who tries to help Quatermass.
QUATERMASS 2 was one of the titles included among Anchor Bay's Hammer home video releases in the 1990s. Shout Factory claims that they have used a new 2K scan of the only surviving film print for this Region A Blu-ray. According to the DVD Drive-In website, the aspect ratio is 1.75:1. It's a nice transfer, very sharp in some areas, but there are times when the picture appears overly dark. The DTS-HD mono audio sounds very well.
There's plenty of extras, including a vintage interview with Val Guest, which covers not just the Quatermass movies but much of his overall Hammer career. There's very short interviews with Brian Johnson and Hugh Harlow, who both worked on the film, and a still gallery and a American trailer. Another episode of "The World of Hammer" is here, focusing on the company's science fiction output.
There's three different commentaries. If you've been getting these recent Shout Factory Hammer releases, you can probably guess that one involves Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman, and the other involves Ted Newsom. An older talk with Nigel Kneale and Val Guest is included as well.
QUATERMASS 2 is a film that has long needed a special edition Blu-ray, especially for Region A. It is a finely crafted science fiction classic that deserves more attention.
Friday, August 9, 2019
Shout Factory continues its series of Region A Blu-ray Hammer releases with THE REPTILE (1966).
THE REPTILE was made by Hammer immediately after THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES. The latter film has the better reputation, but THE REPTILE is a nice little movie in its own right. Directed by John Gilling and using the same sets as PLAGUE, it may not have Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee but it still features an effective cast. Ray Barrett is one of the best Hammer leading men, and the lovely Jennifer Daniel basically reprises her role in THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE as his kindly and appealing wife. Noel Willman is haughtily intense as the mysterious Dr. Franklyn, and Jacqueline Pearce gains sympathy as the title character (I think it's safe to say that she periodically turns into a snake creature--the film's advertising and trailers give it away). THE REPTILE also gives veteran supporting actors Michael Ripper and Marne Maitland a welcome opportunity to shine.
THE REPTILE has some slow spots, and the film's "mystery" is pretty easy to figure out, but it holds up very well compared to a number of other Hammer features.
When it comes to THE REPTILE being released on any home video format, the first thing one has to ask is, "What is the visual quality??" In my experience, THE REPTILE has always looked bad. The last time I saw it on Turner Classic Movies, it was presented in pan & scan!! The print used on the old Anchor Bay DVD was in bad shape--it made you think the entire movie was shot day for night (in all honesty, a number of sequences in it were actually shot that way).
Shout Factory's Blu-ray is a major improvement. There are times when the image is a bit soft, and there's a few scenes where it looks subpar (particularly the main title sequence). But overall the picture is much brighter and colorful, with increased detail. What comes across from watching this Blu-ray is how the dominant color of the film is decidedly green--the grass and leaves at the outdoor locations are quite healthy, and the hue is most noticeable in the production design and the costumes. Was this done on purpose due to the title character?
The sound quality is a major improvement as well, showcasing Don Banks' spirited score.
This Blu-ray presents the film in two different aspect ratios: 1.66:1 and 1.85:1 (honestly, they look almost exactly the same). The extras include a short interview with the movie's assistant director William P. Cartlidge, and a brief documentary on the making of THE REPTILE. There's also a "World of Hammer" episode on villainous female characters, trailers, TV spots, a still gallery, and reversible cover sleeve art.
This movie gets only one audio commentary, featuring Steve Haberman, Ted Newsom, and Constantine Nasr. It's okay, but I hope that in their future Hammer releases Shout Factory tries to get more variety in the voices used for these talks.
THE REPTILE isn't top-level Hammer, but it may get more appreciation due to the way it looks on this disc.
Sunday, August 4, 2019
THE KEY is a 1934 drama produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Michael Curtiz. The movie is set in 1920 Dublin, during the Irish "troubles", and it stars William Powell and Colin Clive.
Powell plays British Army officer Captain Bill Tennant, who, at the beginning of the story, has just been assigned to Dublin posting. While inspecting his new lodgings Tennant discovers that his upstairs neighbor is an old army chum, Andrew Kerr (Colin Clive), who now works as an intelligence officer. Tennant also finds out that Kerr's wife, Norah, (Edna Best), is an old flame--something Andrew does not know. Both Tennant and Kerr are on the hunt for a major Irish rebel named Conlan (Donald Crisp). While on a night patrol Kerr tracks down Conlan and apprehends him. Returning home very late, he finds Tennant at his apartment with Norah. Kerr is so crestfallen by this situation he starts to roam about Dublin, not caring that most of the populace would love to get revenge on him for capturing Conlan. Kerr is kidnapped, and the perpetrators declare they will return him when Conlan is released from jail. After finding out that Norah really loves her husband after all, Tennant decides to make a rather large sacrifice to save his old friend.
THE KEY is a rather unusual film for a major Hollywood studio to make in the early 1930s. One would assume that the politically charged backdrop of the story might have scared Warners away from it. The movie takes great pains to avoid taking any type of side between the British and the Irish.
Despite being filmed on studio sets, Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller bring a lot of black & white expressionistic atmosphere to the foggy make-believe Dublin streets. The movie is only 71 minutes long, and it mostly focuses on the love triangle between the characters played by Powell, Clive, and Best.
William Powell is his usually smooth self as Tennant. He gives the Captain plenty of dash and vigor (when he reports to headquarters for his new assignment, he struts into the place like he owns it). One can understand why Norah would still have feelings for him. But Edna Best as Norah doesn't seem like the type of woman the fast-living Tennant might be interested in. Best (who was the female lead in the Hitchcock's 1934 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) comes off as prim and proper here, and somewhat fragile.
Colin Clive, with his somewhat dour personality, makes a great opposite to William Powell. Clive's Kerr is resolute and fixated on doing his job. It's a bit of a surprise to see Clive engage in gunfights and chases, but he handles himself well as a man of action. Once he finds out about his wife's past relationship with Tennant, he changes into a disconsolate mope. Despite the two actor's different approaches, Powell and Clive are very good on screen together (they actually come off better together than any one of them do with Edna Best). According to Greg Mank in his fantastic biography of Clive, the character of Kerr was originally supposed to be played by Warren William. In my mind William would have been far too much like Powell.
William Powell, Edna Best, and Halliwell Hobbes in THE KEY
The supporting cast is filled with the type of fine character actors one expects to see in a movie made during this time period in Hollywood, such as Donald Crisp, Halliwell Hobbes, and J.M. Kerrigan.
THE KEY is a well-made, decent film, but it is not spectacular. The major part of the story is taken up with the romantic triangle, while the historical situation gets put to the side. The leading players and the director do make it notable, and the short running time prevents it from overstaying its welcome.
Monday, July 29, 2019
Quentin Tarantino's latest film, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, is a hard movie to review. For one thing, I don't want to reveal the ending for those who haven't seen it--and the climax really deserves its own separate discussion anyway.
There's also the fact that you can't really compare the film with anything else in theaters right now. It's a near-three hour trip through Tarantino's personal flashback fantasy. Set in 1969 Hollywood, the movie is saturated with the music and pop culture of the period. When it does come out on home video, it would help if there is a text commentary which points out and explains all the references.
Tarantino, due to his celebrity filmmaker status, has been allowed to create (note that I didn't say recreate) a time and place that he definitely wants to spend as much time in as possible. The main characters in this film, Leonardo DiCaprio as struggling actor Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as his stuntman/gopher/best friend Cliff Booth, are the type of guys I think Tarantino would have wanted to have been. A long, long time is spent covering the minutiae of the duo's everyday life, and one can't help but think that Tarantino might have spent even more hours doing nothing but showing the men meandering around Hollywood. DiCaprio and Pitt do have excellent chemistry together.
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate
Rick and Cliff's misadventures alternate with the activities of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who just so happens to be Rick's neighbor. While Rick and Cliff are figments of Tarantino's imagination, Sharon Tate most certainly did exist. Here, she's not so much a character as she is a mini-skirted symbol of late 60s free-spirited glamour. Sharon's ultimate real-life fate hangs over the entire movie, and gives it an underlying tension.
How Tarantino resolves to deal with that fate has already spawned much internet discussion. It is up to the individual viewer to decide whether the director is honoring the late actress or trivializing her demise.
I liked ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, but one has to realize that I am a person that would much rather watch a movie or TV show from 1969 than those made in 2019. I'm also the type of person that will get references to people like Andrew V. McLaglen and Antonio Margheriti, and appreciate "appearances" in the film by Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen. For those who have very little knowledge of 1960s American entertainment, the movie may be a confusing drag.
One thing I do have to give Tarantino credit for--he's put himself into a position where he can tell the stories he wants to tell, exactly the way he wants to tell them. You may not like the man, or his movies--but in the end he makes the films he wants to make, regardless of mainstream tastes.