Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Top Five DVD/Blu-rays of 2013




Here's my list of the best home video releases of 2013. Just remember, I'm picking only from the discs that I bought in the last year....and even I can't buy everything.

It seems now that most of the big movie home video news concerns product being upgraded to Blu-ray. Very little product now is being debuted on DVD or Blu-ray for the very first time--the studios are taking their most famous films and putting them in extra-special editions, or they are letting other companies like Shout Factory and Twilight Time do the work for them. I'll discuss this further in a future blog about one of the Criterion Blu-rays I have pre-ordered.


There were still plenty of opportunities for me to spend my hard-earned money in 2013. There were four movies on this list that I never actually owned before on DVD or Blu-ray (I never had the 1934 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH on DVD because all the versions of it were so lousy).


1. THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION (Blu-ray) from Shout Factory and MGM
I wrote a full blog about this in November. A jam-packed set, with six of Vincent Price's greatest films, all looking better than ever on Blu-ray. So many extras I still haven't gotten through them all yet.

2. THE BIG GUNDOWN (DVD/Blu-ray) from Grindhouse Releasing
I just wrote about this yesterday! Any home video release that includes a CD of a Ennio Morricone soundtrack deserves accolades. Grindhouse also brought out this year the DVD/Blu-ray of CORRUPTION, where the extras were far more impressive than the film.

3. THE BIG PARADE (Blu-ray) from Warner Home Video
One of the greatest silent films ever made, and one of the few worthy major studio home video releases of 2013. The Blu-ray format is starting to become the silent film's best friend (which is rather ironic, when you think about it). I wrote a full blog on this in October.

4. THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (Blu-ray) from Criterion
Of course there's going to be at least one Criterion title on this list. But even if you took away all the usual Criterion bells and whistles, this would still deserve high praise simply because it gives the home viewer a great-looking print of one of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous (and important) films. I wrote a full blog on it in January.

5. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (Blu-ray) from Cohen Media
Another legendary silent film gets an impressive Blu-ray release. Cohen also came out with a Blu-ray of D. W. Griffith's INTOLERANCE, which I've heard great things about. I wrote about this one in March.




MADE FOR EACH OTHER




Are there any New Year's Eve movie traditions? There's dozens and dozens of Christmas movies....but there doesn't seem to be a clear-cut genre known as the "New Year's Eve film". When I was a kid I remember local stations showing Marx Brothers movies on New Year's Eve, and some channels still do. I don't know where the idea of having the Marx Brothers on during the night of 12/31 came from (if anyone out there knows, please leave a post in the comments section).

There are of course a lot of movies that have New Year's Eve scenes. And it always seems that whenever a movie has such a scene, it means that something bad is about to happen (POSEIDON ADVENTURE, anyone?). For some reason the coming of the new year is a portent of doom in the world of the cinema.

A perfect example of this is MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939), produced by none other than David O. Selznick.

MADE FOR EACH OTHER is about the struggles of a young married couple, played by Carole Lombard and James Stewart. (The title sequence at the beginning of the film shows Lombard and Stewart signing their names on a wedding license, a nice touch.) Stewart plays John Mason, a young New York City lawyer who marries Jane (Lombard) after spending just one day with her. (If I had spent only one day with Carole Lombard, I'd have married her too.) The newlyweds have to deal with John's crusty boss (Charles Coburn), who doesn't give John a promotion, and John's overbearing mother (Lucile Watson), who winds up living with John & Jane in a small apartment. Jane has a baby boy, but soon John is distressed by all the bills coming in and his lack of success at the law firm.

I don't want to call MADE FOR EACH OTHER a "dramedy"--that's a 21st Century term and it really doesn't apply here. It attempts to be a slice-of-life melodrama. The real charm in watching this picture is seeing Carole Lombard and James Stewart. They work great together, and it's a shame they were never able to co-star in a real honest-to-goodness comedy.

So far MADE FOR EACH OTHER is a nice little story about an appealing married couple--but David O. Selznick didn't want to make nice little stories. As New Year's Eve approaches, the movie gets darker, and the script starts going off the rails.

On New Year's Eve John and Jane are all dressed up, but they have no place to go--John's rival co-worker promised to pick them up and take them to a party, but he doesn't show. Soon John, Jane, and John's mother start arguing (Jane finally tells her mom-in-law off, something the viewer has been wanting her to do for the whole movie). John angrily leaves, and Jane follows him. The couple wind up at a club, where during a raucous celebration John tells Jane he thinks the marriage has been a mistake. A sobbing Jane decides to call home to check on the baby--and she finds out the baby is terribly sick.

The baby has pneumonia--and only a special serum will cure him. Nobody in New York has any of the serum--it can only be found in Salt Lake, and it has to be flown in, but there's a major storm in that part of the country, and no pilot will take a chance on flying except for a lot of money, so John has to barge into his boss's house in the middle of the night, and beg him for help, and--you see how this movie is going? The nice little film has turned into a heavy-handed overwrought soap opera. But it gets even better--or worse.

A pilot finally does take up the offer to fly. He gets lost in the storm, and no one is able to make contact with him. I have to mention that while all of this is going on, William Cameron Menzies' production design gets more and more expressionistic--the Catholic hospital the baby is at resembles a haunted house instead of a place of healing. Jane goes into the hospital chapel to pray for her baby's life, in a scene that looks like it comes from a John Ford movie.

Just after Jane's prayer, the skies clear...but the pilot starts having engine trouble, and he has to bail out. When he hits the ground, he's knocked unconscious...but he soon wakes up and, although injured, crawls to a nearby farmhouse where the farmer phones the hospital.

The baby is saved....but after so much melodramatics I can't say the same for the movie. I don't know this for sure, but I suspect the memo-writing hand of David O. Selznick himself was involved in "improving" the third act of the story. Selznick always wanted something big, and MADE FOR EACH OTHER certainly ends in a big way.

The late 1930s was the period when Carole Lombard appeared in a number of films which were designed to show that she was more than just a "screwball girl". She handles the dramatics in MADE FOR EACH OTHER very well....but she didn't need the movie's contrived climax to prove she was an excellent actress. James Stewart is typically James Stewart....but his character is a bit too much of a nice guy, and Stewart doesn't really get the chance to use his nervous energy and take matters into his own hands.

MADE FOR EACH OTHER was not a box office hit, and it is not regarded as a great film by either Carole Lombard or Jimmy Stewart fans. It is well directed by James Cromwell, and of course being a Selznick picture it is well produced (maybe too well produced, considering that it's supposed to be about a struggling young married couple). The wild ending of MADE FOR EACH OTHER keeps it from being known as a classic. By the way, if you do want to purchase this movie on DVD, stay away from all the cheap public domain copies on the market. MGM home video has a version on DVD which has excellent picture and sound quality, and you can easily find it online.

As for New Year's Eve....that's a date where you don't want to be a movie character.



Monday, December 30, 2013

THE BIG GUNDOWN On Blu-ray





Grindhouse Releasing has just come out with a magnificent DVD/Blu-ray version of the cult spaghetti western THE BIG GUNDOWN (also know as LA RESA DEI CONTI).

THE BIG GUNDOWN was made before Sergio Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, but it was released after that seminal film. THE BIG GUNDOWN features a number of people who had worked with Leone in the past, including actor Lee Van Cleef, producer Alberto Grimaldi, screenwriter Sergio Donati, and composer Ennio Morricone.

This movie was obviously influenced by the Leone Euro-westerns (the title credits for THE BIG GUNDOWN are strikingly similar to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY), but it is not just a cheap ripoff. Director Sergio Sollima gives THE BIG GUNDOWN a very stylish, professional look--it could even pass as a American western. There's plenty of violence and some extreme elements, but this picture is nowhere near as outlandish as the usual spaghetti western would wind up being in a few years time.

The story concerns Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef), a legendary bounty hunter on the trail of the wily bandit Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), who is accused of the rape and murder of a young girl. Corbett eventually learns there's more to the story than meets the eye, leading to a showdown with the corrupt magnate (Walter Barnes) who was trying to convince Corbett to run for U. S. Senate.

THE BIG GUNDOWN is considered by many to be a "political" western (all the extras on this DVD/Blu-ray package refer to this time and time again). Personally I feel it's not as "revolutionary" as people say it is. The charismatic bandit being falsely accused of terrible crimes to cover up larger corruption is an old movie plot device (heck, it's the basis of the Robin Hood legend). There have always been evil rich guys in American western films--I think THE BIG GUNDOWN gets the political reputation more because it was made by Europeans in the 1960s.

Having said that, it is a very good and a very well made film. Van Cleef is re-doing his "Colonel Mortimer" role from FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and he's co-starring with a younger and more volatile actor (something Van Cleef did in just about every Euro-western he wound up making). Tomas Milian makes a big impression as Cuchillo (he's sort of like a younger version of Eli Wallach's Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY). Milian and Van Cleef play off of each other very well, and Milian would go on to star in many other spaghetti westerns by himself.

Grindhouse has pulled out all the stops for their home video version of THE BIG GUNDOWN. This package comes with four discs: the 95 minute American version of the film on DVD: the American version of the film on Blu-ray; the 110 minute Italian version (titled LA RESA DEI CONTI) on Blu-ray; and the original Ennio Morricone soundtrack on CD.

There's a ton of extras, including DVD-ROM content on the DVD; interviews with Sergio Sollima, Sergio Donati, and Tomas Milian; an audio commentary by film journalists C. Courtney Joyner and
Henry C. Parke; a booklet featuring liner notes by Joyner and Euro-music expert Gergely Hubai; and still galleries, trailers, and TV spots. The Blu-ray for the Italian version of the film has a music-only track featuring Morricone's score in stereo, and it also has a text commentary discussing Morricone and the score. (NOTE: The Italian cut of the film is not dubbed in English, but it does have English subtitles.)

That's an amazing amount of material for a spaghetti western--some might say that a movie like this doesn't deserve such coverage, but I think it's great that Grindhouse Releasing has put together a set like this. If you are wondering what the visual quality of the Blu-rays are, it is excellent. If you are any type of spaghetti western fan, this is definitely a must-have...I'm sure there will be some who will buy this just for the Morricone soundtrack CD alone. Without doubt one of the best DVD/Blu-ray releases of 2013.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas From The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog




I'd like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New 2014. Hopefully you woke up this morning to find Betty Grable playing with your new train set.




 

 
Christmas greetings from the set of METROPOLIS!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG




NOTE: I did not see this film in 3-D, or in 48 fps, or 96 rpms, or any of that stuff.




I really don't know why I'm even writing this post. Just go to my blogs timeline and scroll down to last December and read my thoughts on the first HOBBIT film. What I wrote then just about sums up THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG--a well-made production, but way overstuffed and overlong.

This time Peter Jackson & Co. make it all the way to page 233 of my paperback The Hobbit book. There's plenty of CGI-fuelled action sequences to spare, and just when you think that one of them is finally going to come to a climax....it goes on for about five more minutes. A perfect example of this is the part where Bilbo and the dwarves escape the Wood Elves through the use of barrels and a rapid waterway. It's one of the book's best moments, but Peter Jackson just can't leave well enough alone--he throws in a Orc-Elf battle, and so many crazy CGI stunts that it starts to border on the ridiculous.

Jackson also throws in a non-Tolkien created character--a hot female Elf (Evangeline Lilly), who serves as kind of a girlfriend for Orlando Bloom's Legolas. (If you can't remember what Legolas did in The Hobbit novel, that's because he wasn't IN the novel.) The hottie Elf was probably invented as a sop to all those critics who feel that Tolkien's Middle Earth doesn't have enough female characters (I guess political correctness is more important than great literature). The Elf chick even winds up having a mutual attraction to one of the dwarves (?????), at which point I started to wonder if Michael Bay had directed this film.

One thing I will say in this film's favor is that all the various locations of Middle Earth are superbly realized....the production design is fantastic. It's a great movie to look at....it might even work better as a silent film, with just Howard Shore's music on the soundtrack. (Yeah, like that's gonna happen.)

Eventually, the boys finally do get to Smaug. The dragon is certainly an impressive creature....but if you are any sort of film buff you've seen plenty of great cinematic dragons in your time. Just think about DRAGONSLAYER, and Ray Harryhausen, and heck, you can go all the way back to Fritz Lang's DIE NIBELUNGEN. What I'm trying to say is, with all the FX-laden movies being foisted on the public in the last decade, a creation like Smaug just can't have the same impact that it would have say, about fifteen years ago. Smaug is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, and he has almost as many lines of dialogue as anyone else in the cast.

Is THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG worth seeing? If you are a Tolkien fan, or a fan of the other movies, yeah, I think you should go see it on the big screen. If you are not a super-fan of these films, it's best if you stay home. SMAUG does has some nice moments mixed in with all the extra filling. But THE HOBBIT should have been really only one film, or maybe two. After the third HOBBIT entry comes out, Peter Jackson should go through the trilogy, throw out all the unnatural additives, and edit it down to one great movie. That's the version of THE HOBBIT that I am waiting for.







Friday, December 20, 2013

THE WHIP AND THE BODY On Blu-ray





I started getting interested in the film career of Christopher Lee as a teenager. At the time (the mid-1980s) there were still a number of Lee's movies that were just about impossible to see, or have any accurate information on. One title that I assumed had to have been one of the sleaziest Eurotrash films imaginable was THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963), directed by the legendary Mario Bava. The few details that I could glean about it were that it was supposedly steeped in sadomasochism, and it had been heavily censored wherever it played.

After finally seeing the film for the first time over a decade ago (thanks to VCI Home Video's DVD), I found THE WHIP AND THE BODY to be a well-mounted, dark, Gothic ghost/love story....highly unusual, but nowhere near as nasty as I had been lead to believe. THE WHIP AND THE BODY is now available on Blu-ray through Kino Lorber.

Christopher Lee plays Kurt Menliff, the disreputable son of an aristocratic family. At the beginning of the film Kurt returns to his family's ancestral castle, supposedly because of hearing about his brother's wedding. The brother has married Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), an old flame of Kurt's. Soon after his arrival Kurt finds Nevenka alone on a beach near the castle. Nevenka tries to ward him off with her riding crop, but Kurt grabs it and starts whipping her--and soon Nevenka shows pleasure at the act.

That night Kurt is killed by an unknown assailant. After a burial in the family crypt, Nevenka starts to see visions of Kurt...and soon the whip turns up again as well.....

THE WHIP AND THE BODY (also known as LA FRUSTA E IL CORPO and WHAT!, the title it was given in America) really has very little gore and violence in it at all (there are far worse things being shown on American prime time television). It doesn't have much of a plot either--this is a film that relies on mood and atmosphere. It's a perfect showcase for the rich visual style of Mario Bava. All the Gothic flourishes are present and accounted for. Some have called this tale Mario Bava's version of a AIP/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe movie--personally I think Bava is a way better stylist than Corman.

Christopher Lee gets killed off about twenty minutes in the story, but he remains a overwhelming presence throughout. The role of Kurt Menliff definitely calls for an actor of Lee's stature. In this straight guy's opinion, Lee never looked more dashing on screen--he and the exquisitely beautiful Daliah Lavi make one of the best looking (and most dysfunctional) screen couples of all time.

As for Lavi herself, she does very well in a extremely complex and challenging role. Nevenka is a woman who fears and desires Kurt all at the same time, a woman with some rather extraordinary issues. She isn't just the standard Gothic romantic heroine. If Bava had cast, say, Barbara Steele as Nevenka, the ending (which I won't reveal here) would have been rather obvious.

Now, as to the Blu-ray....Kino's print of THE WHIP AND THE BODY is taken from a French version of the film (the onscreen title is LE CORPS ET LE FOUET). The picture on this Blu-ray looks darker than on the VCI DVD. The VCI DVD was non-anamorphic, and the Blu-ray is a lot sharper....but I felt that the colors on the Blu-ray were not as vibrant as on the DVD.

Mind you, I'm not telling you what the movie should look like, or what the movie shouldn't look like. Only the late Mario Bava could have done that. I'm just telling you what the Blu-ray looks like to me, personally.

The only extra is carried over from the VCI release. It is the superlative audio commentary by VIDEO WATCHDOG editor (and Bava biographer) Tim Lucas. The Blu-ray has three dialogue tracks: English, Italian, and French (note that Christopher Lee's voice is not heard in any of them).

For those who already own the VCI DVD of this title and want to know if the Blu-ray is worth getting, I would say that it is, simply because it is in anamorphic widescreen. If you are not sure of purchasing this, you may just want to wait awhile--Kino usually has discounts on product that has been out after a period of time, and you may be able to catch a good price on it. I think Christopher Lee and Mario Bava fans will certainly want to pick this up, and for those of you who have never seen THE WHIP AND THE BODY, don't be put off by the exploitative title. It's worth viewing for any purveyor of weird cinema.





Thursday, December 19, 2013

GRAND DUEL




My latest purchase from Edward R. Hamilton Discount Booksellers is GRAND DUEL, an early Seventies spaghetti western starring the master of the genre, Lee Van Cleef.

Before he agreed to star in Sergio Leone's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, Lee Van Cleef had spent most of his Hollywood career being killed on-screen by just about every leading man in the business--including the likes of Rock Hudson, Randolph Scott, and Kirk Douglas. Van Cleef also made appearances in such TV shows as "Bonanza" and "The Rifleman". Western fan Sergio Leone had remembered all these roles, and more importantly, remembered Van Cleef's presence. After FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE was released, Van Cleef's career underwent a revival, especially in Europe, where he became a huge star.

Van Cleef went on to play in a number of spaghetti westerns, and each role was almost always a variation of his "Colonel Mortimer" of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. The typical Van Cleef character was a taciturn bounty hunter (or former lawman), someone who was proficient with any type of firearm, and who usually acted as a sort of mentor to a younger, more emotive co-star. Throughout Van Cleef's Euro-western career he would even continue to wear his "Colonel Mortimer" costume--black Western suit, black hat, and black overcoat.

GRAND DUEL fits all the requirements for a Van Cleef spaghetti western--he's got the suit, he's a former sheriff that can outduel anybody, and he's paired with a younger actor (Alberto Dentice, billed here as "Peter O'Brien"). Dentice plays Philipp Wermeer, who is wanted for the murder of Old Man Saxon, the head of a corrupt and powerful family that runs--what else--Saxon City. Ex-Sheriff Clayton (Van Cleef) knows who really committed the crime, and most of the film is made up of Philipp and Clayton trying to outwit the Saxons.

GRAND DUEL is fairly straightforward for a spaghetti western. There's very little of the wildness and wackiness that makes the genre so entertaining. One of the Saxons does has some weird attributes--he's got a pockmarked face, he dresses entirely in white, and he wears a scarf. And, in the immortal words of Eddie Murphy....he ain't the most masculine guy in the world.

There are some very well-edited gun fights, but the violence quotient is pretty tame compared to most examples of this type of film. (There is, however, a massacre of innocent townspeople--what would a spaghetti western be without one?) GRAND DUEL is professionally done (it was directed by Giancarlo Santi, who worked with Sergio Leone) and worthy of a look, but it is not a great film, or even a great spaghetti western film.

This movie has gotten some notice in recent years due to Quentin Tarantino using the movie's title theme on the KILL BILL: VOLUME ONE soundtrack. On the KILL BILL soundtrack CD, this theme is credited to Luis Bacalov; on this DVD version of GRAND DUEL, the music score is credited to Sergio Bardotti. Trying to find "official" information on any non-Leone spaghetti western is like trying to find an honest person in Washington D. C.. Nearly every European oater has about five different titles, five different running times, five different cast & crew credits, etc.

This DVD of GRAND DUEL comes from Blue Underground, a company that has released numerous rare cult titles to home video over the years. The picture is in anamorphic 2:35 widescreen and looks great. The sound is excellent as well--of course the film is dubbed in English. The running time here is 94 minutes....who knows if it is the full version (see comment above). The extras are a commentary by Euro-western enthusiasts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, a theatrical trailer (in which the title is THE BIG SHOWDOWN instead of GRAND DUEL), and various trailers for other Blue Underground spaghetti westerns.



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole--1932-2013



Today marks the passing of another screen legend--the acclaimed Irish-British actor Peter O'Toole. O'Toole was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar eight different times, and he never won once.

O'Toole of course will always be remembered for his portrayal of T. E. Lawrence in director David Lean's monumental LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. It was the role that brought him world-wide renown, but in a way also defined the rest of his movie career. O'Toole took on a huge undertaking as Lawrence--he's on the screen for almost four hours, and he has to hold up a massively epic production. Yet despite this O'Toole's Lawrence is endlessly fascinating, a great historical figure who at the end of the film remains unreachable to the audience.

O'Toole would spend the rest of his time on the screen playing many Lawrence-like characters--powerfully charismatic men, men who have a bit of mystery about them, and seem bent on a path of self-destruction. O'Toole was more of a great actor than a great star. As an actor he had a quirky, unusual aspect about him. Even when he was playing a "normal" role (which wasn't very often), he didn't seem normal. O'Toole might have made a lot more famous films if he had been more "mainstream"....but then he wouldn't have been Peter O'Toole.

Peter O'Toole belonged to a group of actors from the United Kingdom who first gained attention in the late 1950s and early 1960s--a group that included Albert Finney, Laurence Harvey, Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Michael Caine, and Sean Connery. The accomplishments of that group are numerous and legendary. I highly doubt we will remember "The Brat Pack" in the same way.

If you spend any amount of time on the internet, you know that every single day, some one who has appeared in movies or TV passes away. It gets kind of depressing after awhile, but maybe if Peter O'Toole becomes a trending topic, a person who has never heard of him will go out of their way to find out more about the man and his work as an actor.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

MEET JOHN DOE





Having just read Victoria Wilson's new biography of Barbara Stanwyck, and this being the holiday season, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at Frank Capra's other Christmas movie, MEET JOHN DOE.

MEET JOHN DOE was Frank Capra's first film as an independent producer-director after he left Columbia Studios, his work home for more than ten years. Capra obviously wanted to show what he could do "by himself", so to speak, so he and partner-screenwriter Robert Riskin set out to make the ultimate Frank Capra movie. If you watch MEET JOHN DOE, and if you are familiar with Capra's other films, you'll notice right away that just about every scene in the picture is a variation of something that Capra had already filmed. Every element that one recognizes as "Capraesque" is included in MEET JOHN DOE--a naive, well-meaning leading man; a materialistic, hard-working, but also compassionate and soft-hearted leading lady; a rich, powerful, and arrogant villain; and of course a number of supporting characters who represent Capra's beloved "little people" and who usually wind up stealing the picture.

The movie begins with a big-city newspaper, The Bulletin, being bought out by a huge media conglomerate owned by D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold). The newspaper's motto, which includes the words "free people" and "free press", is literally jackhammered off the side of a building (not exactly a subtle touch from Capra). Most of the staff of the Bulletin is let go, including columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck). Ann decides to write her last column about a letter she supposedly received from a man who calls himself "John Doe". This John Doe claims that he will jump off the roof of City Hall on the night of Christmas Eve in protest against the state of modern society.

The column becomes a sensation, and Ann convinces the Bulletin's editor (James Gleason) to hire someone to fill the role of "John Doe". A drifter and ex-minor league ballplayer, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is hired--Ann is attracted to him straight off--and the Doe story gets even bigger. To stave off accusations that John Doe is a fake, Ann is personally hired by D. B. Norton to write a national radio speech for him. The speech is a huge hit, and soon John Doe Fan Clubs are springing up all over America. Ann and John go on a nation-wide tour (with Ann still writing everything John says), backed by Norton. The media baron decides to hold a John Doe convention, for the purpose of having Doe "nominate" Norton as a third-party candidate for President.

The basic plot of MEET JOHN DOE is a great one--John Doe, in a way, is a reality-show star. Just think about this--what if one of the Duck Dynasty people starting talking about politics? You could very easily make up a "John Doe" today, and he'd probably be as popular as Gary Cooper's in the first part of the film. And how about D. B. Norton? A hard-charging, powerful, wealthy businessman who wants to start his own political party and be President? Sound familiar?

MEET JOHN DOE is another one of those "old movies" that is just as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1941. Unfortunately it has one major problem, which we shall get to.

When Long John finds out about Norton's plans for the John Doe Convention, he confronts Norton and his fat-cat associates. Long John tells Norton he will tell the delegates that they are being used. Norton fights back by going to the convention, revealing that Long John is a fake, and having his own personal police force, the "D. B Norton Troopers" (black-clad guys who resemble the SS) cutting off the public address system when Long John tries to speak.

The attendees at the convention (all members of various John Doe Fan Clubs) turn on their hero, and Long John is disgraced. Soon it is Christmas Eve....and it is here where the movie falls short of being great.

There's really only one way MEET JOHN DOE should end...with Long John jumping off the top of City Hall. That's the only way he can prove he isn't a fake, the only way he can get back at Norton. The entire movie is really based around whether a man is going to commit suicide. Despite all the homespun Capra attributes, that's what it boils down to.

Capra and Riskin wrote themselves into a corner. They set up a situation where their leading man has to die by his own hand to prove his convictions. That's very unusual for a 1940s movie...heck, it's unusual for any movie. Capra and Riskin realized that they had a great situation....they just didn't know how to end it. They didn't want to show Gary Cooper killing himself....audiences back then wouldn't have liked it, and I'm sure the Production Code would have had something to say about it.

Typically in a Capra film the hero is brought to the lowest point of despair, and then, through his own individual actions, fights back and wins the day. In MEET JOHN DOE, Long John tries to fight back by speaking at the convention....but this time this Capra hero is heckled and cut off. MEET JOHN DOE is a Frank Capra movie where the leading man loses.

There are all sorts of stories about how Capra filmed three, four, or five different endings to MEET JOHN DOE. According to Joseph McBride's biography of Frank Capra, most of these endings were really just various editing choices. The ending that exists now has Long John going up to the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve, intending to jump. He's met there but just about every other major cast member of the film, who beg him not to do it. When a sickened Ann collaspes in his arms, telling Long John she loves him, he decides not to go through with it. As he walks past the assembled group, cradling Ann in his arms, the Bulletin editor tells Norton, "There you are, Norton...the people. Try and lick that!" It's a nice line, but it rings somewhat hollow, considering it was "the people" who put Long John on a pedestal and tore him off of it.

The actual ending of MEET JOHN DOE doesn't really work. I'm not saying that suicide is a good thing, or that it's a solution to any problem; I'm merely saying that everything in the movie leads up to it. Long John may be alive, but he will still be considered a fake to most people. His romance with Ann doesn't seem promising; he's a washed-up minor league pitcher who's more than likely never held a real job, and she's a professional woman who early on in the film has admitted that she wants money (her excuse is that she has to take care of her mother and sisters, but it soon becomes apparent it's much more than that--as the story progresses, and Ann gets more and more "bonuses" from Norton for her John Doe speechwriting, her wardrobe and hairstyles become more and more elaborate). It's doubtful that Long John and Ann would live happily ever after.

Long John is a sacrificial figure--a Christ-like figure (Christmas Eve, remember?). During the ending Ann even tells Long John that the first John Doe died for mankind nearly 2000 years ago. If Long John did jump, the movie would have been a lot more powerful.


Despite all that, MEET JOHN DOE still has plenty of highlights. There's the imaginary baseball game in Long John's hotel suite--a great piece of comic timing, and a reminder that Capra used to work on silent comedy two-reelers in the 1920s. The John Doe convention sequence is Capra at his best--it was filmed in a real stadium, Gilmore Field in Los Angeles (NOT Wrigley Field in Chicago, despite what many have written and said). The convention looks real (Capra was brilliant at large crowd scenes), and has an almost newsreel-type quality to it. It is also staged during a driving rain (Capra loved rain scenes).

As is typical in a Capra production, there's a ton of great character actors on display, including Regis Toomey, Spring Byington, Gene Lockhart, Irving Bacon, Sterling Holloway, and especially Walter Brennan as Long John's hobo friend, "The Colonel". Brennan's speech about the "heellots" is truly a memorable moment.

Gary Cooper was the only actor who could have played Long John. (You're saying James Stewart? Well...Stewart had too much nervous energy...his John Doe definitely would have jumped off the building.) When it came to "naive honest integrity", no one could touch Gary Cooper. Barbara Stanwyck is great as always....but the character of Ann Mitchell has some problems. For one thing, I think Ann isn't really in love with Long John...she's in love with her creation of John Doe (in the movie Ann admits this). It's another reason a romance between Ann & Long John would not have worked. Ann is in love with a story she has created, her idea of the perfect man. Long John is just playing that role.

MEET JOHN DOE is a very good film, but it is not a great one. The ending is the main reason why, but in this film Capra and his long-time screenwriter Robert Riskin preach a bit too much (nearly every major character in the story gets a to perform a long speech). What MEET JOHN DOE does say about the media, the American political system, and the manipulation of the average citizen still holds up today. Sometimes a misfire by a great film director can be more interesting than one of his best efforts. The best thing about MEET JOHN DOE is that it makes the viewer think....and that's a rare thing these days.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Review: ELVIS' FAVORITE DIRECTOR




Author Michael A. Hoey happens to be the son of character actor Dennis Hoey, who is best known for portraying Inspector Lestrade in the Universal Pictures series of Sherlock Holmes films. Hoey's book on the Holmes series, SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE FABULOUS FACES, is a favorite of mine, and his new book covers the life of classic Hollywood film director Norman Taurog.

Norman Taurog may not be a famous name, even to most film buffs, but his resume certainly should be well known. Taurog won an Academy Award for Best Direction for the 1931 movie SKIPPY, starring his nephew by marriage, Jackie Cooper. He also directed Spencer Tracy in his Oscar-winning role as Father Flanagan in BOYS TOWN. It's easier to list who Taurog didn't work with instead of those he did. Among the stars who appeared under Taurog's direction: W. C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, Cary Grant, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, and many, many others.

Because of Taurog's success with SKIPPY, he gained a reputation for dealing with younger actors and for light comedy. Hoey documents that Taurog could handle just about any assignment, and his reliability and professionalism enabled the director to earn a contract with MGM during the studio's height.

Of course any book with the title ELVIS' FAVORITE DIRECTOR is going to involve the King. Taurog directed more Elvis Presley films than anyone else (nine in all, including such favorites as G. I. BLUES and BLUE HAWAII). Hoey (who worked on a number of the Taurog-Elvis features) presents Elvis as shy, hardworking, and polite....maybe too polite when it came to his manager, Col. Tom Parker. Hoey voices the opinion that it was Parker who was responsible for the mediocre features Elvis starred in during the mid-1960s.

One of the nice things about ELVIS' FAVORITE DIRECTOR is that it is not a "tell-all" book...there's very little wild gossip. Hoey discusses the somewhat difficult temperaments of stars such as Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis, and Mario Lanza, but only in the context of showing how patient Taurog was in dealing with them and still making sure the job got done.

 ELVIS' FAVORITE DIRECTOR: The Amazing 52-Year Career of Taurog is published by Bear Manor Media, an excellent company that publishes several great film-related books. Bear Manor is somewhat comparable to McFarland Books, except that Bear Manor's products are affordable enough for the working-class film fan.

Obviously the main selling point of ELVIS' FAVORITE DIRECTOR is.....Elvis Presley, but there's way more to the volume than that. Norman Taurog may not have been on the level of a John Ford or a Howard Hawks, but his long and varied Hollywood career should hold more than enough interest for any major film buff.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Book Review: A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK--STEEL-TRUE 1907-1940




When I first started getting into classic films, the list of women who were universally considered the "greatest actresses of all time" had names like Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn. In recent years Barbara Stanwyck's reputation has grown so much that now she is on that list as well. The increased attention to Stanwyck's career is due to the recent availability of most of her early screen work on home video, and constant showings of her films on TV stations such as Turner Classic Movies. Despite Stanwyck's legendary status, there's really hasn't been a lot of books written about her. Victoria Wilson's mammoth A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK--STEEL-TRUE 1907-1940 attempts to be the ultimate biography on the subject.

Wilson's work is over 1000 pages long. It contains a full Stanwyck movie chronology, as well as a stage, radio and TV chronology. It has over 80 pages of notes--it's obvious Wilson has done a voluminous amount of research--and it only covers the first 33 years of Stanwyck's life. There's also hundreds of photos, some of them very rare (unfortunately a number of images have very little to do with Stanwyck).

The book starts out with the ancestral history of Ruby Stevens (Stanwyck's birth name), goes on to document her tough childhood, her teenage years as a stage dancer and showgirl, her change of name and her success on Broadway, and her eventual move to motion pictures, where she soon became popular due to her work with directors Frank Capra and William Wellman (those two, more than anyone else, should be given credit for helping establish the Stanwyck screen persona).

Wilson also goes into Barbara's tempestuous relationship with her first husband, Frank Fay, and her adoption of a baby boy. Stanwyck is portrayed as a hard-working, determined professional, without pretense and not fitting in well with the glamour world of 1930s Hollywood. After Barbara finally divorces Fay, she meets up-and-coming young star Robert Taylor, and the two begin a romance. The book ends just as Stanwyck is getting ready to make MEET JOHN DOE with Frank Capra.

Wilson's book is certainly a major undertaking, and I have to give her credit for that. However, I have to say that, in my opinion, I don't think it is the definitive book on Stanwyck. The reason why is....there's almost more content in this book about other people than there is about Barbara Stanwyck.

Whenever a person of some renown happens to cross Stanwyck's orbit, Wilson gives that person a detailed backstory, usually with several anecdotes. And it's not just other performers Wilson does this for--she does it for directors, producers, studio heads, writers, Broadway players, etc.

Wilson also spends a great deal of time on issues involving American society in the 20s and 30s--she discusses the FDR administration, the growing Nazi threat, and the Hollywood union situation. These "side roads" are usually interesting and informative, but I as a reader began to suspect that the author would have rather discussed other issues than her main subject.

I think I understand what Wilson was trying to do by injecting so much social history--she was attempting to show the context of the times that Stanwyck lived and worked in. But there is so much extraneous material in the book that Stanwyck herself kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

The problem may have been that Barbara Stanwyck is not an easy person to write about. She was an intensely private individual with almost no "tabloid" moments (other than her relationship with Frank Fay). Stanwyck's idea of leisure was to stay at home and read a book, or attend to her horse farm. There are times where I felt the author was at a loss on how to deal with her subject.

A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK is not a bad book. It will obviously be of interest to film buffs and Stanwyck fans. It probably is the best resource on Stanwyck available till now. But I felt at the end that I still didn't know Barbara Stanwyck very well...and that's something I think Stanwyck herself would have been happy about. (I also think Stanwyck's personal reaction to the book would have been, "Some broad wrote a 1000 page book on me??!! Is she crazy??")

I assume that Victoria Wilson will be writing a sequel covering the rest of Barbara Stanwyck's life. If she does, I hope that the next volume includes more Stanwyck, and less cultural history. A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK is worthy enough for purchase, but some might want to wait until they get a good deal on it (I didn't pay list price--I got it on sale off of ebay), or wait until it is released in paperback.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Favorite Doctors Who




Today marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of the BBC television show "Doctor Who". I think it's safe to say that this program is the greatest cult TV show in history. What began as a children's science-fiction series has now become a major entertainment trending topic, and a huge part of 21st Century geek culture.

I first started watching Doctor Who on Chicago's Public Television Station Channel 11, WTTW. This was back in the mid-80s. The "classic" Doctor Who was produced from 1963 to 1988, and was very different than the "new" version of the show (which debuted in 2005). The classic Doctor was definitely an acquired taste--you had to be a real nerd back then to get into it. The best thing about the show was the Doctor himself--a 900 year old Time Lord who had the ability to travel through time and space. What made the Doctor fascinating was that no matter who played him, and no matter how much you might have learned about him through his adventures, he was still a mystery. As soon as you got used to a certain Doctor, he would "regenerate", and a new actor would take over--and then you would have to get used to him again. The regeneration idea was just the BBC's way to replace the lead actor, but it was a very clever concept, in that it kept the show from being stale and at the same time allowed it to continue for years and years.

The classic Doctor Who episodes are somewhat notorious for supposedly being cheap-looking and camp. There's a fair amount of "new" Doctor Who fans who just can't get into the classic series. In a way, they are two very different shows with very different approaches. The 21st Century Doctor Who is no longer a mysterious middle-aged eccentric--he's now a cute nerd, refashioned to be appealing to a younger, hipper audience. You can complain about the new show's direction, but you have to admit that it has worked--go to any shopping mall in America and you'll see tons of Doctor Who merchandise. The BBC has to be making a killing off this show. 

How do I feel about the new series as opposed to the classic one? Well, before I get to that, let me go ahead and list my favorite Doctors, in order...with a special bonus pick at the end of my list.


1. JON PERTWEE (The Third Doctor)
When I was watching "Doctor Who" on Channel 11 in the 1980s I was able to see Jon Pertwee's entire run as the Time Lord. For whatever reason, I loved the way he played the Doctor--he was dashing, adventurous, and dryly humorous. The stories he starred in were exciting and well-written, and filled with all sorts of weird creatures and great villains--including the best Doctor Who foe of all, the original Master (memorably played by Roger Delgado). Pertwee also had three very fine looking Companions (Caroline John, Katy Manning, and Elizabeth Sladen as the one and only Sarah Jane Smith). What I most liked about Pertwee was that, even though he had spent most of his career as a comic actor, he didn't play the Doctor for laughs--he made him into a larger-than-life galactic hero.



 
Jon Pertwee as the Doctor



2. DAVID TENNANT (The Tenth Doctor)
The Doctor Who series was revived by the BBC in 2005. The first "new" Doctor was Christopher Eccleston....and I have to admit I didn't like him very much. I just couldn't buy into him being Doctor Who--in my mind, he seemed like a guy who had just walked out of a pub. He wasn't my idea of what a true Doctor Who was supposed to be.
After Eccleston left the show David Tennant took over the role. Right away I liked him--this was definitely someone who was a "proper" Doctor. The new show's style and scripts still bugged me (I'll get to that later) but Tennant more than made up for it. Tennant had a dynamism and energy that I think Eccleston lacked--you could tell that Tennant enjoyed being the Doctor. It was Tennant who made the new series successful...I maintain that if Eccleston stayed on, the new series probably wouldn't have lasted too long.
Unlike earlier Doctors, Tennant's version could not be defined by only a few traits--he got to go through the gamut of emotions during his tenure, and he was a good enough actor to pull it off. I've got nothing against Matt Smith, but I don't really watch the show as closely as I used to, simply because David Tennant is no longer around.

3. TOM BAKER (The Fourth Doctor)
Tom Baker is the most famous and loved Doctor of all--saying Baker is your favorite Doctor is like saying HORROR OF DRACULA is your favorite Hammer film. He is great, and he's always interesting to watch...but I kind of feel that during his later years he got a bit too goofy (I don't think the Doctor should constantly be acting like a clown).

4. PETER DAVISON (The Fifth Doctor)
Peter Davison had the unenviable task of following Tom Baker, and because of that the Fifth Doctor doesn't have the reputation that he should have. At the time, Davison was the youngest actor to have portrayed the Doctor. The thing is, Davison's Doctor seemed to be the most mature. It's as if after all those years of Pertwee and Baker, the Doctor finally grew up. Davison had an earnestness about him, and he appeared to realize the consequences of his various actions throughout the Universe. Davison's unique approach to the character set the stage for the younger Doctors of today. (And he gets extra credit for being the only Doctor that I've actually met.)
 

 
Peter Davison and your humble blogger, Chicago, April 2013


.....and the bonus pick?

PETER CUSHING




Peter Cushing played the Doctor in two theatrical films: DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965), and DALEKS INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. (1966). To this day, debate rages whether Cushing is an "official" Doctor or not (the BBC does not recognize him as such). I look at it this way--Cushing plays a character named the Doctor, he has a TARDIS, and he fights the Daleks--if he isn't the Doctor, then who is he?
The thing that bugs me the most about this is that Paul McGann, who played the Doctor in a very mediocre 1996 American TV movie, is considered a "real" Doctor. Peter Cushing has just as much claim to the role, if not more.

Now that I've revealed my list....what do I think of the present day series?

It certainly isn't my type of Doctor Who show. I fully understand what producer Russell T. Davies had to do when he did the reboot in 2005. There was no way he could have made the show the way it was made in the old days. He had to totally re-invent it, which is why he cast someone like Christopher Eccleston in the beginning and have him act as unlike the Doctor as possible.

The 21st Century Doctors are designed to be more appealing to younger viewers. Whenever I've gone to a comic book or fantastic film convention lately, I'm amazed at how many young and attractive women are dressed in costumes relating to the new Doctor Who. The new series has struck a chord with today's type of TV viewer. The show now has a lot of things in common with present day popular television--overly complicated plots that can stretch out to a whole season, ancillary characters that get more screen time than the main lead, and a hip, trendy sensibility that seems rather forced.

The new show isn't so much about the Doctor than it is about how he affects the people around him. There are times it comes off as a sort of soap opera, especially when it comes to the Companions and their families. I think the whole "feelings & relationships" aspect of the new Doctor Who is a major reason why so many young females get into it. Back in the old days, if Sarah Jane Smith had tried to talk to the Third Doctor about her personal life, he would have given her a dirty look and said, "My dear, we have more important things to worry about!!"

The current Doctor, Matt Smith, is leaving the series and is being replaced by an actor named Peter Capaldi. I really don't know anything about him, other than he's in his fifties. I'm surprised that the BBC cast an older actor after the success of David Tennant and Smith. With all the 50th anniversary hoopla the show's popularity is at a huge level. I wonder if that will start to fall off if all the young Whovians do not respond well to Capaldi. Doctor Who will always exist in some shape or form--anything that has a half-century of history attached to it cannot simply fade away. But I wonder how long it will be until, just like every other superhot cult TV hit show, the new Doctor Who series reaches a plateau and stops being the main trending topic.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK




Today, as I'm sure most everyone is aware of, is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. I wasn't alive then, so you can't blame me on it. That also means that I'm not a baby boomer. I've noticed that many members of that generation worship the ground that any member of the Kennedy family walked on. I've even heard some say that if JFK and his brother Bobby had not been killed, we would all now be living in some sort of utopia. On the other hand, there are a number of esteemed historians who think that JFK was one of the most overrated Presidents of all time.

It's rather hard for someone like me to get an accurate viewpoint on JFK and his death. I've read several books on JFK's life and about the assassination, but most of them wind up veering into tabloid territory. I honestly can't say for sure what happened at Dealey Plaza on 11/22/63. The older I get, the less inclined I am toward conspiracy theories, simply because the average American can't keep his or her mouth shut for more than five minutes, and the average American government agency can't seem to run a two-car parade, let alone manage a secret military coup.

The ultimate one-stop Kennedy conspiracy showcase is Oliver Stone's JFK (1991).

Let me start this by saying that, no matter what you think about his politics, you cannot deny that Oliver Stone is a master film director. His films are brilliantly made, and unlike a lot of his contemporaries in the movie world, Stone pulls no punches. His stories are confrontational and upsetting, and his characters are never watered down for a mainstream audience. He has a certain viewpoint on modern American history, and he does not apologize for it.

But.....that does not mean Oliver Stone is necessarily always correct.

You can admire an artist for his/her work, but that does not mean you have to follow their opinions or their personal lifestyle. I have a lot of friends who can't believe a guy like me would admire Stone's films, but appreciating their technique does not mean I buy into the director's politics.

JFK is based on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's investigation into the events surrounding President Kennedy's assassination. My DVD copy of JFK runs a David Lean-like 205 minutes. Yet even at that length the movie is never boring. Stone gives the story a rhythm and pacing that draws the viewer in. Stone also uses every film trick in the book up to that time--slow-motion, time compression, different film grains, black & white, flash-forwards, flashbacks, and dozens of others. The editing (credited to Joe Hutshing & Pietro Scalia) is simply superb (the sound editing is as well). Robert Richardson's cinematography and John Williams' musical score are first-class. You can quibble with Stone's version of events, but the movie itself is magnificently made.

The cast of JFK matches the behind-the-camera talent. Kevin Costner plays the role of Jim Garrison. The real life Garrison was a creepy-looking guy who stood about six feet six. If Stone had cast an actor who really resembled Garrison, the audience would have considered the guy a nut after about five minutes. Stone's casting of the lead role was a clever move. At the time Costner was one of the biggest leading men in Hollywood--he was even being called "the new Jimmy Stewart". Having a handsome, likable, and popular leading man spouting Stone's conspiracy "facts" helps convince the average viewer that there might actually be something to it.

Stone peppered JFK with all sorts of big-name cameos (Jack Lemmon, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, etc.). The reason was simple. Stone hoped that by having so many distinguished actors attached to JFK, the audience would be persuaded that it had to be taken seriously. Ironically, the one performance that stands out the most is that of Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald (you kind of wind up feeling sorry for him...is that what Stone really intended?).

Stone did a couple other things to put over his view of history. The director constantly mixes up historical footage with that shot for the film (to the point that those not aware will assume that certain scenes are "real"). Stone also went to the actual Dealey Plaza in Dallas and several more real-life locations connected with the historical events. If it looks real....then some will believe it's real.

The famous (or infamous) Zapruder film of the assassination is also shown (when I saw JFK in a theater, I vividly remember that the audience I was sitting with was genuinely shocked by it). Once again, it's another way to give the project "legitimacy".

The film's biggest flaw, in my opinion, is not that Stone doesn't adequately give out enough information to prove a conspiracy...he gives out too much. There are so many theories thrown out, and the movie goes off on so many tangents, that one gets the feeling that just about every other human being that was alive in 1963 had to be involved. Stone links it all to Cuba, Vietnam, and the CIA (at least, I think he does). It's the evil military-industrial complex...the "beast" that Stone refers to in some of his other films. The "beast" was not happy that Kennedy was supposedly intending to pull out of Vietnam.

My problem with that is.....John F. Kennedy was a Cold Warrior. He was also someone that did not like to lose, and someone who would use every trick he had to make sure he won (see the 1960 U. S. Presidential election). I find it hard to believe that Kennedy would have walked away from Vietnam.

If JFK makes a person want to find out more about the Kennedy assassination, to the point of reading a book, that's fine. But one must remember that the film is Oliver Stone's interpretation of real-life events. Too many folks take what they see on the screen as gospel, and that's the last thing anyone should do, especially in this day and age. You can appreciate Oliver Stone's JFK for it's technical virtuosity, but in the end....it's still just a movie.




Saturday, November 16, 2013

Samuel L. Jackson: The Ultimate 21st Century Movie Actor




While I was watching TV last night, I saw a credit card commercial featuring Samuel L. Jackson. It suddenly occurred to me that Jackson is the true face of cinematic "geek culture". If you haven't realized it yet, geek culture is the most important facet of today's entertainment industry, whether it be movies, TV shows, books, or even music (are not all those skanky pop princesses merely real-life anime girls?).

Jackson's big breakout role was in Tarantino's PULP FICTION (1994). Most people don't bother to make the connection, but PULP FICTION is a geek movie. Everything that happens in the movie is calculated to a certain extent to draw attention to itself....call it self-referential, or self-indulgent, or whatever, that's a major part of geek culture. Tarantino has had a huge impact on the way motion pictures are now made, a lot bigger impact than is realized. I'll give you an example--remember the end credits scene in THE AVENGERS where the heroes are eating after the climatic battle? That's basically a Tarantino scene. And I'll take it even further....Uma Thurman's character in the KILL BILL movies is to all intents and purposes a superhero (David Carradine even discusses superhero mythology in a KILL BILL VOLUME TWO dialogue scene).

Samuel L. Jackson of course has been associated with just about every Tarantino film since PULP FICTION. But even before that he had made a place for himself in geek history with his supporting role in JURASSIC PARK, where he got to recite one of the greatest lines in modern movie times ("HOLD ON TO YOUR BUTTS!!!"). Jackson went on to appear in a Die Hard movie, and the three Star Wars prequels. He also starred in UNBREAKABLE, a movie some swear is one of the best comic book stories ever, and he had the lead role in SNAKES ON A PLANE, a title that had more popularity and attention on the internet than it did when it actually was shown in theaters (you can't get more geek than that).

Jackson lent his voice talents to the highly successful computer-animated THE INCREDIBLES. The modern animated feature has a huge role in geek culture. And now Jackson stars as Nick Fury in the Marvel movie series. Is there any other actor now that has a resume like that?

There's more to just Jackson than picking the right projects--he has a overwhelming screen presence, and audiences like him a lot. Jackson also doesn't take himself too seriously, and he genuinely seems to enjoy his public image. Whatever project he's in gets a injection of coolness to it. And let's not forget the fact that he is a very talented actor. His role in DJANGO UNCHAINED hasn't been discussed much because it is far too politically incorrect, but he was brilliant in it. Playing a black man who uses the Southern slave society for his own personal advantage, Jackson perfectly exemplified a type of individual that has existed throughout history--the collaborator.

According to a number of internet sources, Samuel L. Jackson is the highest-grossing movie actor of all time. That's an extraordinary record, considering that he is a middle-aged African-American and, despite Hollywood's left wing posturing, the movie industry still favors young white performers. Like it or not, for better or worse, the geeks rule the entertainment world, and that's why Samuel L. Jackson is in his present position.

Monday, November 11, 2013

My Favorite World War II Movies




In honor of Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day), I'd just like to thank all the men & women who have served in America's armed forces. I realize that's the very least I can do....if it wasn't for the sacrifices of our Veterans, I wouldn't have the freedom to write this goofy blog.

Being a history buff, I've always been fascinated by World War II. It is without doubt the most important event in modern human history. I've read hundreds of books and magazines on WWII, and I still learn new things about it. It is an incredibly broad and complex subject, and any book (or movie) that attempts to cover it can only hope to scratch the surface.

Nevertheless there are some worthy films that deal with the WWII experience. Of course there's no way a movie can accurately recreate what an ordinary soldier goes through in a combat situation, no matter how many special effects and explosives are used. But an outstanding film can give the viewer a sense and appreciation of the conditions and situations that a member of the military has to deal with. Here then are my five favorite World War II films.


1. PATTON (1970)
Not just a great WWII film--it may be the most accomplished example of a cinematic biography ever. George C. Scott didn't look like George Patton, and he certainly didn't sound like Patton--but for all intents and purposes, he IS Patton. Scott didn't just do an imitation of a historical character (a mistake that a lot of modern actors make), he gave an actual performance. And what a performance it is. Scott explodes off the screen, with an intensity and conviction matched by very few actors. Director Franklin J. Schaffner gives the film an epic scope to match Patton's larger-than-life personality, helped by Jerry Goldsmith's legendary music score. And don't forget Karl Malden as Omar Bradley, the perfect complement to Scott's Patton. I think the reason PATTON works so well is that people on all sides of the political spectrum can watch it--some will look at Patton as a true American hero (like me), others will look at him as a kook. A brilliant film all around.

2. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
John Sturges' All-Star extravaganza based on an actual incident that happened in a POW camp. The screenplay does take some liberties with the real event, but this movie is so well-made and so riveting that I don't think it is that big of a deal. A rousing & exciting action-adventure, THE GREAT ESCAPE is still thrilling even after you've watched it a dozen times. Steve McQueen (as usual) makes the biggest impression--not the easiest thing to do with the acting ensemble that is featured here. This is definitely a "classic" type of war film (no overt gore, no messages or sarcasm) but it still holds up just the same. Special mention must be given to Elmer Bernstein's score.

3. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
An epic film from an epic director (David Lean), this movie is so powerful that most people are convinced that everything in it actually happened. It didn't (the screenplay is based on a novel by Pierre Boulle), but KWAI is still far more convincing than most films that are based on wartime fact. British POWs build a bridge for the Japanese....but are they helping the enemy or maintaining their morale and respect? Is the British Colonel determined to finish the bridge (Alec Guinness) mad or honorable?
KWAI doesn't have any easy answers...Lean's films usually don't. The nominal "hero" (William Holden) is unlikable and self-serving, and those who want to destroy the bridge seem just as unstable as those who want to build it. This is one of the few films which deal with the experience of POWs in the Pacific Theater of WWII. (I think that there hasn't been more due to political correctness.) Alec Guinness deservedly won an Oscar for his amazing performance. His quiet observation about a man being closer to the end of his life instead of the beginning is the real highlight of KWAI. Simply a must-see film.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)
Famed producer Darryl F. Zanuck's dream project--a massive retelling of the Allied invasion of Normandy, based on Cornelius Ryan's book. This one always stuck out for me, even when I was a kid, because it was one of the few WWII films where the Germans actually speak German. There's dozens of memorable scenes, but the main one continues to be Red Buttons stuck on the church steeple. An incredible cast....but after awhile, the endless line of famous faces does get to be a bit distracting.

5. DOWNFALL (2005)
A stunning picture which deals with the last days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. There have been other films which have dealt with this subject (and they always seem to have a British actor as Hitler), but DOWNFALL has an edge in that it was made in Germany, with a native cast. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel shows the Fuhrer and his entourage as human beings instead of out-and-out monsters....which makes them all the more monstrous. Bruno Ganz is mesmerizing as Hitler--he's easily the best cinematic Hitler of them all.
Unfortunately DOWNFALL is now famous for all the YouTube parodies which have sprung up using the "Hitler starts raving" sequence. This movie deserves to be known for more than that. A WWII buff's DVD collection is not complete without this film.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Vincent Price Collection On Blu-ray






I usually don't write a blog on a DVD or Blu-ray set until I've seen every one of the extras and listened to all the commentaries, but The Vincent Price Collection from Shout Factory is so filled with various goodies that it would be a long time before I got a chance to tell you about it. So I've decided to take the opportunity to go ahead and tell you how great it is.

The set includes six films starring Vincent Price: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, THE HAUNTED PALACE, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, and WITCHFINDER GENERAL (also known as THE CONQUEROR WORM). I have watched all the Blu-rays of these movies, and they look spectacular, especially THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. I do have to admit that THE HAUNTED PALACE looks a tad bit too dark.

All of these titles had already been released on DVD as part of the legendary "Midnite Movies" collection. Shout Factory was smart enough to include the extras on the original DVDs as part of this Blu-ray set. But there's a ton of new extra features as well. For those who own all these films on DVD, the increased picture & sound quality and the new added extra features of the Blu-ray set should be more than enough for you to spring for an upgrade.

This truly is a "greatest hits" collection for Vincent Price. Most everyone will agree that these six films are among Price's best showcases (I believe that THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is Price's best performance ever). The six productions on this set are so esteemed that any fantastic film fan will want to purchase it, let alone Vincent Price admirers.

I have managed to watch some of the set's extras, such as the new interview with Vincent Price's daughter, Victoria. This runs about 45 minutes, and it gives a unique insight into what Price was really like away from the camera. (By the way, I highly recommend reading Victoria Price's biography of her father.) Another extra I viewed was David Del Valle's talk with Vincent Price for the "Sinister Image" show. This runs about 60 minutes, and it covers the length of Price's career in horror and fantastic films. I haven't delved into any of the new audio commentaries yet. The one I'm really looking forward to hearing is from director Robert Fuest for THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. Fuest recently passed away, and he had a reputation for being as unusual as the films he directed, so his commentary should be interesting.

Each movie gets an extensive still & poster gallery, and every film except THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES has a special introduction from Vincent Price (these were taped for a Iowa PBS station in the 1980s). The Vincent Price Collection also includes a 24-page booklet with an essay by David Del Valle. The booklet contains photos from the movies in the set.

Here's a quick rundown of the four discs in the set:

DISC ONE
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM with an audio commentary by Producer/Director Roger Corman

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH with audio commentaries by Roger Corman and Steve Haberman

DISC TWO
THE HAUNTED PALACE with audio commentaries by Lucy Chase Williams and Tom Weaver

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER with audio commentary by Roger Corman, an audio interview with Vincent Price conducted by David Del Valle, and a commentary by Lucy Chase Williams

DISC THREE
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES with audio commentaries by director Robert Fuest and Justin Humphreys

DISC FOUR
WITCHFINDER GENERAL with commentary by Philip Waddilove and Ian Ogilvy
Vincent Price interview with David Del Valle
Victoria Price interview
Separate titles and credits featuring the American name of the film THE CONQUEROR WORM

Shout Factory has released some outstanding home video products, and The Vincent Price Collection is a perfect example. It's definitely going to make my list as one of the best DVD/Blu-rays of 2013.







Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fritz Lang's A PRINCESS OF MARS (1928)




If you are wondering why you've never heard of Fritz Lang's film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel, it's because the movie never existed. This is my contribution to "The Great Silent Recasting", a blogathon hosted by Carole & Co. (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com). The idea behind this blogathon is to take a modern movie and recast it as if it were a silent film made before 1929. That's a challenge I certainly have to take.

I had dozens of ideas running through my head, but I decided upon dealing with one of my favorite genres--the German Expressionist picture. After all, it was METROPOLIS that made me interested in silent movies in the first place. So, as an homage to that monumental film, and the cast & crew that worked on it, I "created" another silent German science-fiction fantasy.

I've written an earlier post about my appreciation for Disney's JOHN CARTER (http://dandayjr35.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-case-for-john-carter.html?spref=tw). I mentioned in the post how the film would have been received a lot better if it had been made in an earlier time. What if it had been made as a silent feature--with the backing and production values of the great UFA studios of Germany?

Say that after METROPOLIS, Fritz Lang informs UFA executives that his next project is about a trip to the moon. The UFA brass, worried about the underwhelming response of METROPOLIS, proposes to Lang that if he wants to make something with an outer space setting, he should base the project on a popular story. UFA and Lang decide to adapt the first book in the John Carter series of works written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

To make the project more popular, UFA and Lang come to the decision to cast an American actor as John Carter. They choose George O'Brien, already well known for his leading roles in THE IRON HORSE and F. W. Murnau's SUNRISE. The beefy O'Brien is perfect as the adventurous and noble John Carter.




 
George O'Brien as John Carter



The role of John Carter's great love, the Martian Princess Dejah Thoris, is filled by Brigitte Helm, who so memorably starred in METROPOLIS.





 

 
Brigitte Helm as Dejah Thoris



As Tars Tarkas, the Martian warrior chief who first captures, and then allies with John Carter, Lang favorite Rudolf Klein-Rogge is chosen. Emil Jannings (THE LAST LAUGH) gets the role of the evil Sab Than, the villain of the piece, and Paul Wegener (THE GOLEM) plays Mors Kajak, Dejah Thoris' father. The duplicitous female Sarkoja, who betrays John Carter during the story, is reserved for screen vamp Lya De Putti.

Lien Deyers, fresh off of making an impact in Lang's SPIES, gets the sympathetic part of Sola, daughter of Tars Tarkas and friend to John Carter. Gustav Froelich is Kantos Kan, who also fights alongside Carter, and Conrad Veidt (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) has a special cameo as the High Priest of Issus.

How would any 1920s-era film studio have been able to make something like A PRINCESS OF MARS? Well, UFA and Fritz Lang had not only already made METROPOLIS, they also filmed DIE NIBELUNGEN, which was sort of the LORD OF THE RINGS of silent cinema. UFA would have certainly been able to handle all the various techniques involved to bring the Martian world of John Carter to the screen.

As for the various alien races depicted in the John Carter books, I assume that Lang and his then-wife screenwriter Thea von Harbou would have made them humanoid (but with enough facial makeup to make them "different"). I also think von Harbou would have enjoyed working on a tale in which a white hero becomes ruler and uniter of a group of strange tribes.

The other reason I think that the Martians would be humanized somewhat is simply because if you had hired a cast like the one I've listed, you definitely would want to see their faces. Performers like Klein-Rogge, Jannings, Wegener, and Veidt wouldn't need a lot of special prosthetics to appear strange and unusual. If all those men were really involved in the same production, I could only imagine the overacting that would have been going on. I could also imagine that all those egos thrown together with a temperamental director like Lang would have made for a very tumultuous set.

I also believe that Lang might have used a major amount of red tinitng during the Martian sequences. Even without the use of color Lang and the technicians working under him would have found a way to make the settings unique and unearthly.

The John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs would have been a perfect fit for the outlandish nature of German Expressionist cinema. Unfortunately the 1928 version of A PRINCESS OF MARS exists only in my warped mind. It would have been fantastic to see a movie like this....just for the cast alone.






 
Fritz Lang







Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Greatest Monster Fighters In Movie History




For this Halloween post I've decided to do something a little different. Instead of listing the greatest monsters, what about a list of those that battle the monsters? To qualify, a performer has to have fought monsters in more than one feature film. Surprisingly, there's not very many actors who have done that. I realize that this list is skewed more toward classic cinema, but if I concentrated on modern films, I'd wind up listing people like Brendan Fraser.

I'm not ranking my choices....but I think we can all agree who belongs on top.


PETER CUSHING

THE greatest monster fighter of all time....certainly the greatest vampire hunter of all time, hands down. He also fought the Mummy, the Daleks, the Blood Beast Terror, a race of Abominable Snowmen, the Hound of the Baskervilles, and a couple of werewolves. Faced off against extra-terrestrial enemies in NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT and HORROR EXPRESS. Dealt with subterranean creatures in AT THE EARTH'S CORE. And don't forget, whenever he played Baron Frankenstein, he usually wound up fighting the very monsters he created.


JOHN AGAR

The greatest American monster fighter of all time. Battled the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the giant spider of TARANTULA. Faced off against the Mole People and the Brain from Planet Arous. Dealt with the Daughter of Dr. Jekyll and the Invisible Invaders. Encountered a "giant" in ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE and an alien intelligence in JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET.

KENNETH TOBEY

Will always be remembered for his iconic role in the original THE THING. Also came up against a giant octopus in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and a dinosaur in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Tobey was the ultimate example of a monster-fighting military man. Whenever I see him in a movie or a TV show, and he's not wearing a uniform, he looks strange.

EDWARD VAN SLOAN

The original Dr. Van Helsing. He faced off against Karloff in THE MUMMY and FRANKENSTEIN. The silver screen's classic archetype of a monster fighter.

BUD ABBOTT & LOU COSTELLO

Yes, Abbott and Costello. They battled Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and the Mummy. They dealt with a giant in JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. And they get extra credit for opposing Lionel Atwill in PARDON MY SARONG, Lon Chaney Jr. in HERE COME THE CO-EDS, and Boris Karloff in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF.

EL SANTO

Masked Mexican luchador El Santo fought all sorts of supernatural creatures including vampires, mummies, werewolves, zombies, etc., during his second career as a movie star.

BRUCE CAMPBELL







No explanation necessary.




Honorable Mention: Akira Takarada, Kerwin Mathews, Rod Taylor, Charlton Heston, Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, the Bowery Boys, Nick Adams.

Guys you do NOT want helping you fight a monster: Norman Kerry, David Manners.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

NECESSARY EVIL: SUPER-VILLAINS OF DC COMICS




NECESSARY EVIL: SUPER-VILLAINS OF DC COMICS is a new documentary from Warner Home Video focusing on the bad guys of the DC Comics Universe. Why is this being discussed on a movie blog? Well, like it or not, comic book characters are now one of the most popular subjects on which to base a major feature film on.

NECESSARY EVIL plays up to the comics-movie connection in a number of ways. The most obvious one is the choice of narrator--it's none other than one of the greatest living screen legends, the redoubtable Sir Christopher Lee. Whether Mr. Lee has ever opened up a single issue of any DC comic is subject to debate, but he does a very fine job here (then again Lee could read from the phone book and make it interesting).

Among the talking heads featured in the documentary are comic book legends Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and Neal Adams; actors Clancy Brown, Kevin Conroy, and Michael Shannon; and film directors Guillermo Del Toro, Zach Snyder, and Richard Donner. There are, however, very, very few clips from feature films based on DC product--it's almost as if the company is admitting that their universe has not been represented well in the world of movies.

Most of the clips are actually from the numerous DC/Warners animated series made in the last decade. There's also a lot of stunning artwork displayed. The most famous villains, such as the Joker and Lex Luthor, are discussed extensively but the documentary takes care in not focusing on just a few certain characters (heck, Batman's Rogues Gallery is worthy of a whole feature alone).

NECESSARY EVIL clocks in at a whopping 99 minutes. It would have been very easy for DC and Warners to just slap something together and put it out to serve as a giant commercial, but that's not the case here. There's been some time and effort put into this. Many aspects of comic-book villainy are discussed, without the documentary becoming too pretentious. Even though there are some bits of comic-book mythology included here that some might consider a bit too obscure, NECESSARY EVIL is still accessible to the non-geek audience.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again--the people who are responsible for this documentary, and the people working on the DC/Warners animated product--those are the people that should be making feature films about the DC Universe.

NOTE: I purchased the DVD version of NECESSARY EVIL, which has no extras.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

What Ever Happened To Robert De Niro?



I'm sure most of you have seen commercials for a new film called LAST VEGAS, which seems to be an old man's version of THE HANGOVER. LAST VEGAS stars none other than Robert De Niro, an actor extending his streak of appearing in films not worthy of his talent.

I've also recently watched a trailer for a movie about two boxers who fought each other years and years ago, and are now attempting a rematch. One of the boxers is played by Sylvester Stallone--but the guy is not Rocky--and the other is played by.....Robert De Niro. I can't even remember what the name of this movie is....and it's probably just as well.

When I was younger, Robert De Niro only made a couple movies a year, and whenever he did appear on screen, it signified that the production involved was high quality. Before I started to write this blog I went to IMDB and checked some of the titles De Niro has starred in during the last 5 to 10 years. Most of them I don't even have any memory of--do you remember that buddy cop movie De Niro made with Eddie Murphy? No, I don't either.

At one time Robert De Niro was one of the most compelling actors in the world of cinema. He was gifted with the ability to make even the most pathetic characters interesting and watchable. A case in point is the role of Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER. Even though it is a brilliant film, TAXI DRIVER is sordid and unpleasant--you feel like taking a shower after you see it. But De Niro is mesmerizing--you keep watching just to see what he's going to do. Same thing with RAGING BULL....De Niro's Jake LaMotta is the type of person you don't want to see walking down the same street you are on, but you are still drawn into his world.





 
Classic De Niro. As Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER



Now De Niro has become a parody of himself, just like William Shatner and Alec Baldwin. He's been reduced to appearing in lame comedies, trading on his "angry guy" persona. I can't honestly think which was the last great movie De Niro did....was it RONIN?

I'm sure one major reason for the turn in De Niro's career is his age (he's now 70 years old!). Maybe it's the fact that the average movie just isn't that good anymore, and it is hard for him to find decent parts. Or maybe he's just decided to take it easy. If a bunch of producers kept offering me acting jobs where all I had to do was make fun of my screen image, and the pay was good, I'd probably do the same thing.

But to me it just seems a big waste. De Niro was a major, major force in the 70s and 80s. There's now an entire generation of film goers who don't even realize that. There's still time left for De Niro to have a chance to create more memorable performances. At least he hasn't wound up in a comic book movie....at least, not yet.


NOTE: I am fully aware that if Mr. De Niro ever reads this, he will come to my house and beat me with a baseball bat.