Friday, November 27, 2020

CHESLEY BONESTELL: A BRUSH WITH THE FUTURE

 






Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) was a multifaceted and multi-talented individual. In his long life he was an illustrator, architect, matte painter, and a renowned graphic futurist. His drawings and conceptions of the solar system still inspire those working in the field of space exploration today. Bonestell is the subject of a 2018 documentary, CHESLEY BONESTELL: A BRUSH WITH THE FUTURE, which was written, produced, and directed by Douglass M. Stewart, Jr. I viewed it on the Tubi streaming channel. 

Bonestell had an amazing career. He was a talented artist at a young age, but his family wanted him to become an architect. Bonestell's designs would have influence on many famous structures in San Francisco and New York City, including the Chrysler Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. Bonestell would move to Hollywood in the late 1930s and work as a matte painter at several movie studios (one of the films he did paintings for was CITIZEN KANE). After World War II, Bonestell began to do artwork depicting outer space, and he worked with George Pal on many science fiction films such as WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. 

The documentary covers all of this, in a straightforward manner, with many renowned individuals shown on camera talking about how Bonestell has influenced them. Special effects artists such as Douglas Turnbull, Craig Barron, Ben Burtt, and Richard Edlund are interviewed, along with several scientists and other graphic artists. 

The main highlight in the documentary are the brilliant paintings Bonestell created depicting the environs of outer space. They have a 21st Century feel to them--it's hard to believe that most of them were painted some 70 years ago. Bonestell's epic vistas of various planets and moons are stunning. 

Bonestell's work is covered in great detail here, but the documentary only gives us a glimpse of the man himself. A few audio snippets and archival interviews with the man are shown, but very little of his personal side is revealed. The film does mention that Bonestell personally experienced the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and suggests that may have had an impact on his more apocalyptic artwork. Bonestell's collaborations with Wernher von Bruan are also mentioned. (The documentary does point out that Bonestell, ironically, was not a science fiction fan--he was more interested in science fact.) 

I had known who Chesley Bonestell was, and I had seen some examples of his artwork....but until watching this documentary I had no idea of the full scope and impact of his entire career in the arts. CHESLEY BONESTELL: A BRUSH WITH THE FUTURE is a fascinating documentary, especially for those who are interested in and inspired by true creativity. 



Thursday, November 26, 2020

DOWNHILL (1927)

 



The number of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock that I have not seen are in the single digits--and that total went down with my recent viewing of DOWNHILL, made in 1927. 

DOWNHILL was only Hitchcock's fourth film as a director, and it was his next feature after the highly successful THE LODGER. The star of THE LODGER, Ivor Novello, co-wrote the story for DOWNHILL, and he also plays the lead role. 

Roddy Berwick (Novello) is the big man on campus at his English boarding school. He comes from a wealthy family, he's athletic and handsome, and he's popular. His life comes crashing down after he's accused of an indiscretion by a working-class girl, and he is expelled from school. Roddy didn't do anything, but he keeps quiet for the sake of his best friend. Roddy's father kicks him out of the house, and with no means of support, he winds up being an extra in a stage review. Roddy is bequeathed 30,000 pounds by his godmother, and he marries the play's leading lady (Isabel Jeans). The conniving woman cheats on Roddy and spends all his money, and soon he's in France, making a living as a gigolo. The youth ends up in Marseilles, begging for a ship passage back home, where he is reunited with his family. 

DOWNHILL is nowhere near as exciting or inventive as THE LODGER. When Hitchcock would talk about DOWNHILL in later interviews, he would be somewhat dismissive about it. The movie has a very languid pace to it, and there isn't all that much to the plot--young rich guy gets into trouble, has to fend for himself, and has some bad experiences. Ivor Novello was quite good as the mysterious title character in THE LODGER, but his Roddy Berwick isn't captivating, and he's not the brightest bulb either. What hurts DOWNHILL the most is that Roddy's "degradation" doesn't seem all that degrading, especially for viewers that have actually had to do real work for a living. DOWNHILL does contain a theme that would crop up several times in Hitchcock's work--a well-to-do, attractive person being put through unusual and uncomfortable circumstances. 

Hitchcock works in plenty of visual flourishes when he can, but at times it feels as if he's straining to inject some life into a slight story line. Roddy is constantly shown going "down"--on a staircase, an escalator, and a elevator. There's a number of point of view shots, and the film gets more expressionistic near the climax, as Roddy starts to have visions. The director of photography on this was Claude McDonnell, and there are a number of atmospheric shot compositions. 

One major Hitchcockian moment is when we see a medium close-up of Roddy in a tuxedo. The camera moves back a bit to reveal that Roddy is actually a waiter, attending to a high-class couple....but then the point of view goes out even further, to show that all this is happening on a theater stage. 

DOWNHILL will certainly be of interest to Hitchcock fans, but it is not the type of material that was best suited for him. The excellent print of the film that I saw courtesy of TCM ran almost two hours, and the entire tale could have easily been told in half that time. 


Ivor Novello in DOWNHILL



Monday, November 23, 2020

Book Review: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW

 







In 2017, Del Rey published STAR WARS--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW, a book that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the film by featuring 40 stories that looked at the story from a different perspective. Now THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK gets the same treatment. 40 stories by 40 writers, in roughly the same order as the timeline of the movie. 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW showcases various background characters and material. There's a chapter taken from the viewpoint of the wampa that attacked Luke in the beginning of the film, and also one featuring the "space slug" (the official Star Wars Universe name for the creature is exogorth). There are stories about General Veers and Admiral Ozzel, and we find out what Yoda was doing and thinking when Luke arrived on Dagobah. 

Remember the guy who is trying to escape from Cloud City while carrying what looks like an ice cream maker?? He gets a chapter too (and it explains what that device he's holding was). The best story, in my opinion, is about how Obi-Wan's spirit feels while Luke trains with Yoda. 

It appears to me that it was much harder to come up with 40 stories on EMPIRE than it was for STAR WARS. That may be due to the fact that the movie has a very focused plot--there's only three main locations, and most of the stories deal with two of them, Hoth and Bespin. 

Nevertheless, this is for the most part a fun and intriguing read. This is a perfect holiday gift for a hardcore Star Wars fan, and no matter how many times you may have seen EMPIRE, reading this book will make you want to see it again. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

PROXIMA

 





A NEW movie?? Well, relatively new....it's PROXIMA, a French film from 2019, starring Eva Green, and co-written and directed by Alice Winocour. 

Green plays Sarah Loreau, who has been picked as a replacement to go on a space flight to the International Space Station. This is something that Sarah has wanted her entire life, but she has mixed feelings about how it will effect her young daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant). Sarah struggles to keep up with the intense training while dealing with being separated from Stella. She also has to prove herself to the self-assured American astronaut on the mission (Matt Dillon). 

PROXIMA may be about astronauts, but this isn't a whiz-bang science-fiction tale with flashy technology. This is a quiet, intimate drama, about a woman's attempt to juggle a high-pressure complicated career with her family issues. Green gives a fine, strong performance as Sarah. The character is not a kick-ass super woman, she's a real person with real emotions. Green has great chemistry with the young actress playing her daughter--they really could pass as a parent and her child (which isn't always the case in movie families). What helps the film is that Zelie Boulant doesn't act like a "movie kid"--her reactions and interactions feel true to life. (Would this have held true if Stella was played by an American child?)

What's refreshing is that there isn't a romance tacked on to the story. Green's character has an ex-husband that takes care of their daughter while she's away, but he's not a major part of the film. Green is very much on her own here--at the beginning, she and Matt Dillon's character get off on the wrong foot, but they learn how to work together and respect each other....and no, there isn't any physical sparks between them. 

PROXIMA has a very fact based tone to it (some of it was filmed at the European Astronaut Center near Cologne, Germany). At least, it seems fact based to me. The even-mannered, realistic attitude may come off as boring to some. I wouldn't say the movie had me riveted, but it did hold my attention, mainly due to Eva Green in the lead role. 

(By the way....while looking for a image to attach to this blog, I saw one poster that had Matt Dillon's face as big as Eva Green's....this is an absolute misnomer, Green is the real star here, Dillon just has a supporting role.) 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

HAND OF DEATH

 





HAND OF DEATH is a 1962 sci-fi/horror film, released by 20th Century Fox. The movie stars John Agar, but instead of his usual act of fighting monsters, here Agar becomes one. 

Agar plays Alex Marsh, a scientist who is experimenting with nerve gases. Marsh is a hardworking, determined fellow, and he winds up exposing himself to a chemical agent. Marsh discovers that he literally has a hand of death--if he touches anyone, or if anyone touches him, that person instantly dies. Marsh tries to get the head of the research facility he works for to find an antidote, but his situation gets even worse--his entire body becomes bloated and swollen, and his skin becomes blackened and cracked. Needless to say, this causes his girlfriend (Paula Raymond) great concern. Marsh wanders about for a while, with the police on his trail, before things come to a head at his girlfriend's beachfront home. 

What's striking about HAND OF DEATH is that it was released by a major studio, and it was shot in Cinemascope--yet it is only an hour long, and looks and feels very much like the low-budget science fiction stories made in the mid-1950s. There's more talk than action, and even when John Agar finally gets into full monster mode, he doesn't really do all that much, except stumble about. (Apparently it really was Agar underneath the monster makeup.) 

That makeup is the most memorable thing about the film (see picture below). Why Agar turns into such a creature--or why he has a touch of death to begin with--isn't really explained. In my research on this movie, many have commented on the makeup's resemblance to the Marvel comic book character The Thing, which was debuted around the time this film was being made. It's ironic that the makeup looks like The Thing, since Agar's transformation due to a series of strange gases is very much like the origin story of a number of comic book heroes and villains. 



John Agar in HAND OF DEATH

The makeup is effective from a visual standpoint, but it doesn't allow Agar to express himself in any way, thus lessening any sympathy the viewer might have for him. Director Gene Nelson also has all the scenes with Agar in Thing mode take place in bright daylight, which makes the creature at times look silly when he shuffles about in everyday surroundings. A scene where Agar in his full makeup gets into the back of a cab and starts grunting at the driver comes off as unintentionally funny. 

One wonders if the writer and producer of HAND OF DEATH, Eugene Ling, was influenced by THE FLY, which had come out a few years earlier. The relationship between workaholic Agar and his worried girlfriend Paula Raymond (who had appeared in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS) is reminiscent of that between David Hedison and Patricia Owens in THE FLY. Agar also tries to write a note asking for help while in full makeup, much like Hedison did in the earlier film. There's also a hint of the Karloff-Lugosi THE INVISIBLE RAY here, with the death touch, but a mention about Agar's jealousy over his girlfriend and a fellow scientist doesn't lead anywhere. 

Among the supporting cast of HAND OF DEATH are Joe Besser, who acts as if he's still in a Three Stooges short, and the future Eddie Munster, Butch Patrick, who takes part in the old "innocent child inadvertently meets up with a monster" scene. Agar's lab assistant is played by John Alonzo, who would go on to become a distinguished cinematographer. Speaking of cinematography, the man who did it for HAND OF DEATH was Floyd Crosby, who makes the drab black and white settings look much better than they should have. 

HAND OF DEATH has a intriguing-looking monster, but the script doesn't give him much to do, and the hour long story doesn't have enough time to develop any of the main characters. John Agar does his best (the scenes where he is angry over his plight reminded me of his performance in THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS), but he's hindered by a monster makeup that doesn't give him a chance to show any emotion. 


Saturday, November 14, 2020

WHITE TIGER (1923)

 





Earlier this month I covered DRIFTING, the main feature on a Kino Blu-ray that contains two silent films directed by Tod Browning. Today I'll look at the other movie on the disc, WHITE TIGER, which was made before DRIFTING but released after. 

WHITE TIGER is very much a precursor to Browning's THE UNHOLY THREE. A trio of con artists, who have issues with one another, use a strange and unique gimmick to gain access to the houses of the wealthy in order to rob them. The trio then winds up at a remote cabin in the woods. The three crooks in WHITE TIGER are played by Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith, and Wallace Beery. 

Raymond Griffith plays Roy, who runs a sideshow act involving a mechanical chess player. (It is Roy that gets inside the device and actually controls it.) Wallace Beery's shifty con man comes up with the idea of using the chess player as a way to steal from the rich, and Roy joins up with him and his "protegee", Sylvia (Priscilla Dean). Sylvia and Roy seem to have a special connection to one another--as well they should, since they are actually brother and sister (it was Beery's character that caused the death of their father and their separation from each other as young children). After a robbery, the three hole up in a remote cabin, where they are joined by a mysterious fellow (Matt Moore) who has an interest in Sylvia. All the characters' real identities are finally revealed, as is their fates. 

Tod Browning himself came up with the scenario for WHITE TIGER, and it contains many elements the director would use throughout the rest of his career. Raymond Griffith is now known as a silent movie comedian, but here he's the leading man, and with his mustache and striped shirt, he greatly resembles other Browning characters played by John Gilbert in THE SHOW and Norman Kerry in THE UNKNOWN. Priscilla Dean doesn't get much of a chance to shine here--she plays yet another female criminal who is rethinking her life. Wallace Beery and Matt Moore play the same type of characters they portrayed in DRIFTING. 

The most intriguing aspect of WHITE TIGER is the mechanical chess player, but it is only dealt with in the first half of the story. The second half consists of all the main characters stuck in the cabin, eyeing each other suspiciously. The movie bogs down quite a bit here, and the climax is somewhat disappointing. 

The version of WHITE TIGER featured on this Blu-ray is from a 16mm print, and it is not in the best of condition--but one is able to now at least see it on official home video, and that's the important thing. WHITE TIGER has been given a new audio commentary, by silent film historian Bret Wood. It is an excellent one, with Wood analyzing Browning's penchant for using the same situations and elements over and over again. The music score provided here for WHITE TIGER is by Andrew Earle Simpson. 

Another extra on this disc is the only surviving reel of the 1919 Browning film THE EXQUISITE THIEF. It stars Priscilla Dean as--you guessed it--a criminal, and the small amount of footage shows her robbing a swanky dinner party at gunpoint, and a night-time car chase. What is shown is enticing enough for one to wish the entire movie had survived. 

I've stated several times in the past on this blog how exemplary Kino's silent movie video releases are. This one is no exception, with two rare films from a famous cult director. Kino has plans to continue to work with Universal in releasing more of that studio's silent movie catalog. 



Tuesday, November 10, 2020

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA On Blu-ray From Shout Factory

 





I have often been asked, "What is your favorite all-time Hammer film??" The answer might surprise you--it is by far THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, the 1960 vampire adventure released in the United States by Universal. 

I realize that Christopher Lee is not in this film--heck, Dracula isn't even in it period. With all due respect to Mr. Lee, that doesn't matter here. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is the ultimate Hammer film, a colorful Gothic fairy tale directed to the hilt by Terence Fisher. The sumptuous lighting by Jack Asher, the magnificent production design by Bernard Robinson, the costumes, the sets....all combine to make this one of the greatest examples of English fantastic cinema. And to top it all off, Peter Cushing gives my personal favorite performance in any of his movies as the great and courageous fighter of evil, Dr. Van Helsing. Throw in a lovely damsel in distress in the form of Yvonne Monlaur (who I met in 2014), and striking supporting performances by Martita Hunt, Freda Jackson, and David Peel as the undead Baron Meinster, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA represents Hammer at the height of its power. There are a few plot inconsistencies, but once one is swept up in the the dark storybook aspects of the film, these are not that important. 

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA has long deserved a Region A Blu-ray special edition release. The movie was released as part of a Universal Hammer Blu-ray set a few years ago, but in a very strange 2.00:1 widescreen aspect ratio that didn't due the shot compositions any favors. Now Shout Factory has come along and set things right. 

First of all, Shout Factory presents THE BRIDES OF DRACULA in two different aspect ratios--a 1.85:1 version and a 1.66:1 version. Both transfers look stunning, showcasing the color photography and the wardrobes worn by the cast. The sound quality seems beefed up as well, even though it is in DTS-HD Mono. 

Shout Factory also provides some very worthy extras. The most important ones are two more episodes of "The Men Who Made Hammer" series. There's one on acclaimed cinematographer Jack Asher, whose virtues are extolled by Hammer historian and expert Richard Klemensen. Klemensen points out that even though Asher's painstaking efforts were considered too "slow" for a low-budget company like Hammer, none of the films that the man worked on for them ever went wildly over budget or over schedule. Klemensen also points out the various difficulties Asher faced while working at Bray Studios. 

The other "The Men Who Made Hammer" program covers Terence Fisher, and, as befitting its subject, is nearly an hour in length. Richard Klemensen was not only a huge fan of Fisher's work, he got to meet him and know him personally. Klemensen's talk on the director is the best and most insightful analysis of the man and his work I've ever experienced. 

A half-hour program, which was made a few years ago, about the making of the movie is included, and it features interviews with some of the cast & crew. There's a new discussion on Malcolm Williamson's score for the film by David Huckvale. (Williamson's music for BRIDES has never gotten a lot of appreciation, mostly due to the fact that he wasn't James Bernard.) Also on this disc is "The Haunting of Oakley Court", in which the Buckingham Palace of British horror films is visited and examined (ironically this extra is on the Severin Blu-ray of Amicus' AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS!). 

There's a brand-new audio commentary with--you guessed it--Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. They go through the various earlier incarnations of the script, and examine the overall fairy tale aspect of the film. They both agree with me that THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is one of the finest films Hammer ever produced. An extensive still gallery is here, along with a vintage radio spot for the film and a couple trailers. 

Last but not least, those (like me) who ordered this Blu-ray direct from Shout Factory received a 18 x 24 poster of the disc sleeve artwork by Mark Maddox. I love all the Maddox posters for the Shout Factory Hammer Blu-ray series, but this one is my favorite of them all--it's as if Jack Asher himself did the lighting for it (see below). The disc cover is reversible, and the other side has original American advertising artwork for the film (see above). 

When I started getting into Hammer films in the 1980s, and reading whatever was available at the time about the company, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA was barely covered. It was usually dismissed as "a Dracula film without Dracula", and the absence of Christopher Lee was mentioned more than anything actually pertaining about the film. The perception of the film has changed greatly since then--it is now generally looked upon as not only one of Hammer's best, but one of the best English Gothic films, period. This Blu-ray from Shout Factory gives THE BRIDES OF DRACULA the showcase it deserves.