Saturday, September 28, 2013

What Ever Happened To The Great Movie Posters?

Think back to the last time you went to a theater to see a movie. What did the movie's poster look like? Did it make any impression on you at all? Do you even remember it? Chances are you can't even picture it in your mind. If the average feature film has gotten less memorable in recent years, then so has the average movie poster.

Now let's take a look at this poster. This isn't from a very great film--in fact, it's not even a great Vincent Price film. But look at that image! Have you seen any movie posters from the last couple years that can even match this?


Now here's a poster from a film that really is great. Once again, it visually blows away anything made recently. You can't go wrong showing Clint Eastwood holding a gun, but this has an iconic quality to it. It makes me want to go and put in my DVD of JOSEY WALES right now.


Here's a Japanese poster for INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER. The Japanese film industry is well-known for their unique and eclectic poster designs. Many times the posters for a kaiju movie are a lot more entertaining than the movies they represent.

In today's movie world a poster isn't as important as it was before. Because of the internet and the demise of print media, most viewers probably won't even see the poster for the very subject they happen to be watching.

There's nothing as cool as owning a great movie poster. It's also a major decorative statement for geeky single guys. Go to any speciality shop at just about any shopping mall and there's going to be reproductions of movie posters on sale. But...notice that those posters are usually from years ago. Certainly the nostalgia factor has something to do with that, but very, very few modern-day movie posters are worthy of being reproduced...or being hung in someone's den.

I did an image search for "Pacific Rim movie poster" and this is the most common entry I found. It's okay, but for a movie like PACIFIC RIM I think it's sort of lacking. If you try looking at it from a distance it kind of looks like a poster of an Iron Man movie--and I get the feeling that may have been intentional.

You would think a movie like PACIFIC RIM--which has so many things going on in it--would inspire a number of great movie poster designs. But no, this is the most common one. A fantastic summer blockbuster deserves far more than this.

I own about a half-dozen or so movie poster books--one on Clint Eastwood movies, one on Hammer Films--but my favorite is a volume published by Dorling Kindersley on the James Bond series. It's a massive tome, and in the beginning there are many different posters, from many different countries, for each Bond film. But when you get to QUANTUM OF SOLACE, it's the same generic image for each and every poster, no matter the size of the poster, or the country that it is meant for.

Today movie posters are not created in the normal sense--they're basically photoshopped. One standard image, or "theme" is used, and this image is not deviated from throughout the advertising. I've read that studios do this to make it easier for them to "sell" the movie--they don't want to confuse the audience with various examples of posters. And that's the main reason why the modern movie poster is so bland--it's been homogenized. It is generic advertising for a generic product, designed for a generic audience.

Back in the day, almost every movie poster was designed and created by an actual artist. That almost never happens anymore. I've read that studios don't use real artists now because it's cheaper to do it the photoshopped way. If that's true, it's amazing that an industry that will spend $250 million on a movie like THE LONE RANGER can't even cough up enough dough to have a person with creativity produce an arresting image.

If you really want to see great examples of modern movie poster art, check out the posters created by the internet fan community. It's ironic that so-called amateur geeks can make a better movie poster than million-dollar advertising companies can. Or is it that today's movies just don't inspire classic movie poster art?

Let's end this post with an all-time classic, courtesy of Saul Bass:


Monday, September 23, 2013


Yesterday I went and saw THE GRANDMASTER, a Chinese film produced, written, and directed by the acclaimed Wong Kar-wai. I became interested in this picture after seeing some trailers, and learning that it starred Zhang Ziyi, an actress I've followed since first seeing her in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

THE GRANDMASTER features Tony Leung as famed martial arts master Ip Man. Ip Man was a real historical figure (he's best known for training Bruce Lee), and a number of other kung fu films have been made about his life. In THE GRANDMASTER Ip Man is used more as a symbol than as a real human being. This is not a typical screen biography--the story highlights various incidents involving Ip Man, but the viewer won't really know that much more about Ip Man than they will when they came in the theater.

This is a movie where style, mood, and atmosphere are more important than a conventional storyline. There's very little dialogue (the movie is subtitled in English), and when characters do speak it's mostly in metaphors.

There are plenty of fight scenes--but the scenes are more like ballets than hard-hitting battles. Despite all the kung fu there's very little blood. Wong Kar-wai wasn't trying to make a violent action thriller....and that's going to disappoint some people. In the U. S. this movie is being marketed as a martial arts epic. Action fans are going to go to this film and be angry that it's more like an art film, and arthouse fans are going to go and be mad that there's a bunch of fight sequences. THE GRANDMASTER falls somewhere in between an art film and a kung fu story, and because of this probably won't get a lot of attention in America.

There are a number of exquisite visuals here, courtesy of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. The editing is excellent as well, and the fight scenes are handled by legendary stunt coordinator Yuen Woo-ping. THE GRANDMASTER has more technique than humanity. Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi both give fine performances, but in the end you still don't feel you know much about their characters.

The version of THE GRANDMASTER being shown in the U. S. right now is a shorter version than the original cut--which means that Americans are seeing an "incomplete" film. What I've just written pertains to the American cut--for all I know, the "complete" version could be a totally different film. I guess I'll never really know until the original version comes out on home video someday.

Is THE GRANDMASTER worth going to the cinema to see? If you enjoy watching movies that are out of the norm, and are used to a foreign style of storytelling, you may enjoy THE GRANDMASTER. No matter what, it is a beautifully made film. But if you are expecting something like RUSH HOUR 2, you'd better stay home. This is not a picture for those only used to ordinary American movie making.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Journalism In Classic Film Blogathon: THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG

When it comes to journalism in classic film, the horror or mystery/thriller movie is rarely discussed. But it should be, because the snoopy reporter is a major character type of several famous fantastic films. There's Glenda Farrell in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, Lee Tracy in DOCTOR X, Robert Armstrong in THE MAD GHOUL, Douglas Spencer in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, and many, many other examples.

It just makes sense to have a reporter involved in the plot of a classic thriller. The average thriller contains murders, strange deaths, or other tabloid-like gruesome activity. The reporter character also serves the audience as a factual device--the reporter usually imparts information that the viewer otherwise would not have known. Sometimes the reporter doubles as the leading man (or leading lady), and even winds up solving the "crime" or bringing an end to whatever schemes the main villain may have planned.

Most low-budget or "Poverty Row" horrors had a reporter as a main character. The Poverty Row horrors didn't have the money to set their films in a long-ago or far away land, so they were typically set in contemporary times. The presence of a wise-cracking amateur sleuth makes perfect sense for a Poverty Row thriller.

THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG (1935) is about as Poverty Row as it gets. The movie was produced by Monogram, one of the "leading" low-budget Hollywood studios. This cheaply made pulp thriller stars Bela Lugosi as the terror of the Chinese underworld, Mr. Wong. But for our purposes it's Wallace Ford as Jason H. Barton that commands our attention.

Jason H. Barton is a newspaper reporter--and we assume he must be an important one, since the film shows the headline of one of his columns, and the story carries Barton's byline AND his picture. Barton is investigating a number of murders among New York's Chinese community. The murders are due to Bela Lugosi's Wong attempting to obtain "The Twelve Coins of Confucius".

Barton may be big enough to have a byline and a photo, but as movie journalists go, he's strictly run-of-the-mill. Wallace Ford's Barton is pushy, sarcastic, and obnoxious. He doesn't get along with his editor (has any movie reporter ever gotten along with their editor?), and his work habits are somewhat lacking. We never actually see him write anything--he spends most of his time blundering around Chinatown, being as annoying as possible.

THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG is a little over an hour long, but it seems every five minutes another poor Chinese victim winds up dead. The script makes light of this, and Barton spouts a number of racist insults. He really doesn't care too much about any of the murder victims--he's just interested in a story. Barton's investigative skills are more the product of dumb luck than ingenuity. If he's a big-time newspaper reporter, then being a member of the American media must have been an easy gig back in 1935.

Barton has a girlfriend--the newspaper's receptionist, Peg (Arline Judge). Barton treats Peg just like he does anyone else--in a smart aleck, high-handed manner. Why the cute Peg would want to have anything to do with this guy is never explained. For such a short film, Barton & Peg have a fair amount of scenes all by themselves, which must drive Bela Lugosi fans nuts.

Eventually Barton & Peg stumble into Mr. Wong's secret hideout, where they are caught by some of Wong's many henchmen (just about every denizen of Chinatown seems to work for Wong). Barton & Peg are tied up and left in Wong's basement torture chamber. Barton discovers a hidden working phone (why do you need an operational phone line in a torture chamber?), and he calls his newspaper, instead of the police. The newspaper staff comes to the rescue, and the film fades out as Barton, in his own inimitable way, asks Peg to marry him.

The role of Jason H. Barton contains just about every movie reporter cliche that one can think of. Barton wears a fedora, he smokes a cigar, he talks fast, and he's loud, pushy, and irritating. But the thing is, he's supposed to be the film's hero. One must surmise that Barton was supposed to be one of those "guy who's so annoying he's cute" type of roles that James Cagney so excelled at. The problem is that while Cagney could take an unlikable guy and make the audience like him through the force of his personality, Wallace Ford can't.

Wallace Ford had a very long and extremely varied career as a motion picture character actor. He did everything from being the leading man in pre-code films to being the old coot in widescreen westerns. His best asset was his versatility, and he worked for directors such as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Ford isn't bad in THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG--it's just that the character is a stereotype, and Ford plays it as it was written (even though Ford seems to be ad-libbing during the whole movie). The movie is just a low-budget thriller, and Ford is just doing what he's paid to do. He would play the snoopy reporter other times in the future--including another cheap Bela Lugosi pot-boiler, THE APE MAN, where he's Jason H. Barton in everything but name.

THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG is not a great movie, and it may not be a great example of journalism in classic film. But it does serve as an example of how important the archetypal movie reporter was to the Poverty Row thriller.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


The 1966 Hammer film DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS has been released on Region 1 Blu-ray from Millennium Entertainment in conjunction with the "new" Hammer. Earlier this year, Millennium came out with a DVD set consisting of DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, and THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES. You can still get this set at places like Target for about $9, and the picture quality is very good. So it's kind of strange that Millennium would choose PRINCE OF DARKNESS as their first Region 1 Hammer Blu-ray. But, being that this is a Dracula movie with Christopher Lee, Millennium more than likely figured that this would be a popular product.

DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS certainly isn't one of the best Hammer films ever made, but it seems to be one of the most well known. It's the one Hammer movie most people have seen, even those who are not monster fans. When I was a kid PRINCE OF DARKNESS played on TV fairly often--Svengoolie showed it more than a few times, and Channel 7 out of Chicago played it regularly. The still photos for PRINCE OF DARKNESS pop up everywhere--in monster movie magazines, books, etc. Chances are if you've seen a picture of Christopher Lee as Dracula, it was probably taken on the set of this film.

DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS was Christopher Lee's return to the role he had played so memorably in HORROR OF DRACULA (forgive the title, I'm an American). To this day no one really knows why it took so long for Lee to play Dracula for Hammer again (the featurette on the Blu-ray doesn't really discuss it). PRINCE OF DARKNESS is considered to be a disappointment compared to HORROR OF DRACULA (what vampire movie wouldn't be?), but like any other film directed by Terence Fisher, it has brilliant individual moments, such as Dracula's resurrection, the staking of Barbara Shelley's character, and the climax (even though said climax is a bit rushed). Lee doesn't show up until the movie's half over, and he has no dialogue (another Hammer "mystery"), but he proves once again when it comes to screen presence, almost no other actor can top him. Francis Matthews is very good in the thankless "David Manners" role (even though every decision his character makes is wrong), and Barbara Shelley gives the most iconic performance of her career as the doomed Helen. There's also fine work from Andrew Keir, Thorley Walters (as a Renfield surrogate), Phillip Latham (as the sinister Klove), and Suzan Farmer, one of the cutest Hammer hotties.

DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS should have everything going for it--Christopher Lee as Dracula, Terence Fisher, great cast, Bray Studio sets, location work at Black Park--but it just falls short of the very best of Hammer category. Maybe it's due to the simple story--English tourists wind up getting stuck at Dracula's castle--but PRINCE OF DARKNESS remains a representative Hammer film, instead of an outstanding one.

DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS was released on DVD by Anchor Bay in the late 90s. At the time the DVD was something of a revelation because it was in widescreen. Of course all those late-night TV showings of the film were in pan & scan. PRINCE OF DARKNESS was one of the few Hammer horror films to be shot in 2.35:1 widescreen, which gives it a unique quality. The Anchor Bay DVD was fine for it's time, but Millennium's anamorphic Blu-ray picture makes PRINCE OF DARKNESS seem like a different movie.

The folks at Millennium surely know that every Hammer fan has watched PRINCE OF DARKNESS about a dozen times, so they made sure to include a number of extras. There's a 30 minute featurette entitled BACK TO BLACK, with Hammer experts Jonathan Rigby, Marcus Hearn, and Mark Gattis. It also has appearances by actors Francis Matthews and Barbara Shelley. It's a nice look at the movie but one wishes it had been a little longer. There's also an episode of the "World of Hammer" series concerning Christopher Lee, a restoration comparison, a 5 minute stills gallery (backed by James Bernard's wonderful music score), and a restored original trailer for PRINCE OF DARKNESS and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (which shows absolutely no scenes from either film!).  Also included in the Blu-ray case are five collectible cards, designed to look like mini-lobby cards.

The most important extra on this Blu-ray is the audio commentary, which first appeared on the Anchor Bay DVD release. The commentary features Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer. This commentary is worthwhile just for historical value alone--due to the passage of time we will probably never have the chance to hear four major stars of a classic Hammer film on one commentary ever again. Lee dominates the proceedings, but at least here he's in a good mood, and he actually appears to be enjoying himself. It's too bad that Millennium wasn't able to create a new "Just the facts, Ma'am" commentary with a Hammer historian like Jonathan Rigby or Bruce Hallenbeck.

If you are a Hammer fan, you're more than likely complaining about buying this movie one more time....and you are more than likely going to go out it one more time. There are a number of Hammer films on Blu-ray in other parts of the world, but very few in North America. One assumes that Millennium will begin releasing other Hammers on a regular basis. I'm sure they expect all us crazy Hammer fans to snatch them up....but Millennium should at least come up with some interesting extras to seal the deal.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


I have a huge DVD collection, and I'm always on the lookout for movies I don't own, especially if I can get them at a low price. There's a company called Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers that I've ordered a lot of stuff from. They sell discounted books and DVDs, and some of their products are out of print or unavailable anywhere else. I've gotten the following things for about $5 or $6 each: Scott Eyman's biography of John Ford, a rare book on the films of Tod Browning, and Image Entertainment's DVD of THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF. (They do charge $3.50 S&H.)

Recently I ordered from the company a double feature DVD of DEAD MEN WALK and THE MONSTER MAKER. This DVD was produced by the Roan Group, which specializes in unusual public domain movie titles. What makes Roan DVDs stand out is that the quality is usually better than the typical run-of-the-mill public domain DVD. The Roan Group's version of WHITE ZOMBIE is a must-have for any classic horror film fan.

Both DEAD MEN WALK (1943) and THE MONSTER MAKER (1944) were produced by Producers Releasing Corporation, better known to movie buffs as PRC. PRC was one of the studios that made up Hollywood's "Poverty Row". A Poverty Row outfit such as PRC would churn out dozens and dozens of films per year, and their output was simple: cowboy pictures, crime & mystery films, and horror stories. You pretty much know what you're getting when you watch a PRC movie.

Classic horror film fans have a unique love for these pictures--they enjoy laughing at them, but still watch them over and over again just the same. I'm not one of those people who watch a movie just to make fun of it--to me I've always thought that was a waste of time. The main interest in seeing a Poverty Row horror film is that most of them featured real monster movie stars, such as Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, and George Zucco. The movies themselves are certainly not great, but the horror stars in them were given a better chance to shine than in some of their more renowned "high-class" roles.

DEAD MEN WALK is a great showcase for George Zucco. He gets to play twin brothers--the kindly Dr. Lloyd Clayton and the evil Elwyn Clayton. Lloyd has had to kill Elwyn to defend himself and protect his daughter, but Elwyn's diabolic research has enabled him to return as a vampire. The story is a very cut-rate version of DRACULA, and it gives Zucco the unique opportunity to play both a Van Helsing type of character and a Dracula type of character in the same picture. The vampiric Elwyn even has a Renfield-like helper named Zolarr, played by none other than the greatest Renfield of all, Dwight Frye. Frye steals the show, but it's kind of sad to see him doing his Renfield-Fritz act in such circumstances. (It's also sad to see how sick Frye looks, and it wasn't makeup; Frye would pass away not too long after making this film.) DEAD MEN WALK is a rather routine vampire thriller, but it is worthy of attention due to the presence of George Zucco and Dwight Frye.

THE MONSTER MAKER is quite different than most Poverty Row horror flicks. A shady scientist (J. Carrol Naish) becomes infatuated with the daughter of a famed concert pianist (Frank Morgan). The scientist injects the pianist with acromegaly, and tries to blackmail him for his daughter's hand in exchange for a cure.

THE MONSTER MAKER stands out for the plot's use of acromegaly, a rare subject for any horror film. The makeup job on Ralph Morgan is creepily effective. THE MONSTER MAKER has some similarities to films such as the 1935 version of THE RAVEN (brilliant scientist obsessed with a young woman who doesn't reciprocate) and MAD LOVE (brilliant scientist using his patient's condition for his own ends). What THE MONSTER MAKER does not have is a top-line horror star, even though J. Carrol Naish would appear in a monster movie from time to time, such as his role in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. There is a small role for future Frankenstein monster Glenn Strange. Ralph Morgan was the brother of better-known character actor Frank Morgan.
One more thing about THE MONSTER MAKER: J. Carrol Naish keeps a giant ape in his laboratory (most movie mad scientists of the 1940s did). The script seems to set up the ape for a big role in the climax--I expected that the ape would go crazy and kill the mad doctor--but the ape never really winds up doing anything. As is typical in most Poverty Row horror films, the expectations never match what's actually in the movie.

The Roan Group DVD is two-sided. The only extras are a cast list for each film, and some on-screen liner notes by horror film expert Tom Weaver. The visual quality for both films is okay, but I've seen them look a lot worse.

For those who are into collecting DVDs and movie books, you might want to check out the Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller Company.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


I've been making snarky comments about this movie all summer, despite the fact that I hadn't actually seen it. The film recently became available on Xfinity On Demand, so I figured the least I could do was watch it and give it a chance. Besides, I've seen every Star Trek movie, so I figured I might as well see this one at least once.


INTO DARKNESS is certainly not a badly made film...but I think it's a wrongly made one.


The movie starts out with a big, expansive action sequence detailing how Kirk (Chris Pine) saves Spock's (Zachary Quinto) life on an alien planet, and violates Starfleet's Prime Directive in the process. Kirk gets busted by Starfleet Command, and has the Enterprise taken away from him. But a terror campaign against Starfleet leads to the death of Kirk's father figure, Admiral Pike, and Kirk winds up regaining his ship in an effort to track down the culprit responsible.

I'm sure most people know by now that the culprit turns out to be none other than Khan Noonian Singh, the 20th Century genetically engineered superman so memorably portrayed by Ricardo Montalban in the Star Trek TV series and in the STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN feature film. Benedict Cumberbatch plays this Khan, and there's just no way he can match the pop culture identity of Montalban's Khan.

We soon learn that it was the head of Starfleet (played by ol' RoboCop himself, Peter Weller) who was responsible for Khan's ultimate actions. This sets up a "the people who fight terrorists are just as bad as the terrorists" subplot, which doesn't really fit well in the context of this movie. At one point it looks like Kirk and Khan are going to wind up working together (!)....but it turns out Khan really is a bad, bad guy after all....and that brings us to the ending.

Now, most people know how WRATH OF KHAN ends....even those who are not Star Trek fans are aware what happens. Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise and her crew. In INTO DARKNESS, the situation is reversed--Kirk sacrifices himself to save the ship.

The famous scene of Kirk and Spock saying goodbye to one another is recreated...but this time it's Kirk dying. The scene uses some of the same dialogue, and I have to admit I was cringing hearing some of science-fiction's most famous lines being re-booted.

Before I discuss that scene, though, there's still more plot to go through. Khan crashes a secret spaceship into Starfleet's San Francisco headquarters (J. J. Abrams is the guy who blew up Vulcan, remember) and he survives (because he's a genetic superman, I guess). Spock goes after him, which involves another big action scene. Because of Kirk's "death", Spock wants to kill Khan....but Dr. McCoy has found out that Khan's super blood has regenerative properties, so Spock spares Khan, enabling the Enterprise crew to use Khan to revive Kirk.

Now...where do I begin?

First of all....Khan. I've been railing and railing about re-boots/remakes/re-imaginings/re-workings forever, so you know how I feel about that. The point I want to make is this: It makes no sense for the "new" Kirk & Spock to go through the WRATH OF KHAN ending this early in their relationship.

The reason the climax of WRATH OF KHAN worked so well is because of the friendship of the original Kirk & Spock, which developed over a number of years. The new Kirk & Spock have only been together for two movies, and in those movies they've spent most of their time arguing with one another...heck, they barely know one another. When the new Kirk & Spock start reciting the lines from the WRATH OF KHAN death scene, it feels's like watching a high school drama club doing a play you know backwards & forwards. You know how the play should be done, but they don't.

As I've stated before, even viewers who don't care about Star Trek know about WRATH OF KHAN and can probably even quote most of the dialogue. Why would J. J. Abrams (and his many writers) want to riff off of something that is so well known? And especially something that is going to tick off all the classic Star Trek fans that Abrams hadn't already ticked off? Was Abrams (and Paramount) so unsure of the success of the second new Star Trek film that they decided that some controversy would help spur interest? If that was so, then why did they try to keep the whole Khan plot a secret for so long before the film came out?

J. J. Abrams is a talented individual....he wouldn't be in the position that he is if he wasn't. So why do a knock-off alternate version of WRATH OF KHAN? That's not a proper story, that's just a self-reflective exercise in fanboy geekdom. It's like saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if Peter Cushing were Dracula and Christopher Lee played Van Helsing?" Or saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if Sean Connery was a James Bond villain?" You can play the "what if" game all day long, and most fans like me do. The difference is...we don't have the power to make a $200 million dollar film involving a beloved franchise with millions of fans, and J. J. Abrams does. When you work in the genre of science-fiction, you have the ability to do just about anything you want. Why take the easy way out and rip-off someone else's stuff?

As for the actual movie's filled with slam-bang action sequences and impressive visual imagery...there's more things going on in INTO DARKNESS than in the first 10 Star Trek movies combined. After a while, though, the gee-whiz pyrotechnics start to become generic. Just about every major action scene involves some sort of cliffhanger-type countdown, usually involving a member of the main cast. By the time you get to the fifth or sixth one of these things, the effect is a bit diluted.

One thing I've noticed about the Abrams version of Star Trek is that the Enterprise crew is always arguing among themselves. I've mentioned before about the new Kirk & Spock sniping at each other, and it's not just them; Kirk argues with Scotty, Scotty argues Kirk, Kirk argues with McCoy, Spock and Uhura argue.....all this "humorous byplay" gets real old real fast. It's supposed to make the crew more real to the audience, but it just makes you wonder how any of these people get anything done.

If you are bored by CGI visuals and space battles, you can try to count how many lens flares there are (I'd say about 200) or you can try and keep track of how many times Karl Urban's Southern accent keeps slipping during his scenes as Dr. McCoy.

I'm really the wrong person to give an opinion on INTO DARKNESS. If you are someone that doesn't care about Star Trek, or the history of the franchise, you'll more than likely enjoy this film. It is made with a 21st Century sensibility. Is it up to you, gentle reader, to decide if that is a compliment or an insult.

Monday, September 16, 2013


It's not often I get the chance to say that I've seen an Alfred Hitchcock film for the first time. But that was exactly the case last night as the Turner Classic Movies channel showed THE FARMER'S WIFE (1928).

THE FARMER'S WIFE is one of Hitchcock's earliest features as a director, made well before he earned his sobriquet as "The Master of Suspense". The story details the attempts of a lonely widower (Jameson Thomas) to find a new wife. It's a simple tale, and at 97 minutes the movie is a bit too long for such slight material. But even here Hitchcock is already accomplished enough as a director to make the plot interesting.

Because this is a silent film, Hitchcock has to tell everything visually, which he does with a dexterity that enlivens what most would consider one of his minor works. The opening sequence, for example, shows the passing of the farmer's first wife. Hitchcock does it almost entirely without titles--the expression on the actors faces, and their body language, tells us just about all we need to know. In fact Hitchcock uses very few titles in the movie at all--the characters are introduced by their actions instead of words on a screen.

In several instances Hitchcock has the camera follow the actors as they go down a hall or across a room--and because of this we see bits of business that another director would have missed. These scenes have a natural quality to them, and they're somewhat surprising given Hitchcock's reputation for planning everything in the most minute detail. There's a lot of extra "business" that the actors perform while the camera lingers on them--an example of Hitchcock letting his players add detail to the story.

Since this movie deals with a farmer living in the English countryside, we also get a number of outdoor pastoral scenes. Most viewers would not expect this from a Hitchcock movie, but in fact most of his silent films have a few scenes like this. There's a quiet beauty in these scenes which proves that Hitchcock's visual intuitiveness would have been effective in any type of setting.

The actual story is best described as a light comedy. The middle-aged farmer assumes he can get any woman he chooses, and he winds up being made a fool of. Hitchcock gets a fair amount of humor out of the widower's way with women, but the director makes sure the character doesn't come off as totally unlikable. Most of the comedy revolves around the farmer's rustic handyman, especially during a disastrous tea party. All's right in the end, though, as the farmer finally realizes what the audience has known all along--the real match for him is his devoted housekeeper.

THE FARMER'S WIFE is certainly far from the typical Alfred Hitchcock picture that most people have come to expect. But it does show that if Hitchcock had not become the Master of Suspense, he still would have gotten some renown. Hitchcock's visual inventiveness was already in full force here, and any director who has a creative gift like that can make just about any type of film he or she wants to.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

DVD Review: Movies 4 You--More Sci-Fi Classics

Just like the other Movies 4 You collection of low-budget science-fiction films, I bought this off of Amazon for $5. There's no way in the world anyone can call the selections in this second collection classics, unless you're an expert in false advertising. Let's take a look at the films:

Cult director Edgar G. Ulmer is back with another underwhelming feature. An expert safecracker is sprung from jail by an international spy who intends to turn the thief invisible so he can steal atomic material. There's nothing "amazing" here, and the only thing transparent is the dull script. The movie's only 57 minutes long, but it takes 32 minutes before the main character is turned invisible. The main reason for having someone invisible in a movie is to include fancy FX sequences--this movie has very little scenes where anyone is transparent, and when they are, the effects are pretty lame. It doesn't help that the leading man (Douglas Kennedy) acts like a jerk from the get-go--it's hard for the viewer to care about his situation. The movie does, however, end with a really big bang.

Have you ever wondered what would it be like if a kaiju movie where made in Denmark instead of Japan? Well, this is it. The movie actually has a interesting beginning--a group drilling for minerals in Lapland strikes bits of flesh & tissue, and discovers what appears to be the frozen remains of an unknown prehistoric animal. A large tail-like piece is taken to Copenhagen for study, where it is accidentally thawed out. The piece starts regenerating, and grows into a gigantic monster, which (of course) wreaks havoc on the city.
The big problem here is that Reptilicus is represented by what appears to be a cheap rubber toy. It's one of the worst movie monsters of all time. The good idea of a giant monster being able to regenerate itself--and therefore being impervious to normal weapons--is ruined by said monsters' goofy looks. The visual aspect of Reptilicus overwhelms anything else in the picture. And it's not like the non-monster scenes are all that great. There's the typical military meetings to discuss the situation, the typical scenes of people running away in terror, the typical use of stock footage, etc. At one point some of the main characters decide to go out on the town, and we are treated to a mini-travelogue of Copenhagen--the last thing a person wants to see in a giant monster movie. (Well, at least I don't.) Other than the unusual aspect of being a Danish kaiju film, REPTILICUS has almost nothing else going for it.

In California's High Sierra mountains, a professor (Robert Shayne) has discovered a serum which regresses animals--and humans--to their primitive state. To prove his theories to the scientific community, the mad prof injects himself with the serum--and we all know what happens next.
The most notable thing about THE NEANDERTHAL MAN is it's director, E. A. Dupont. The German Dupont had directed some acclaimed silent films such as VARIETY and PICCADILLY. One can only imagine how he must have felt working on something like this. (It makes me wonder--did one of the crew go up to Dupont during the shooting and ask him, "Mr. Dupont...what was Emil Jannings REALLY like?")
The story takes forever to get going. Most of the first part of the film involves the search for a saber-toothed tiger (a product of the professor's experiments). When the professor finally does become the creature of the title, he looks like a guy running around wearing a Halloween mask. There's an attempt to bring a kind of DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE/WOLF MAN sensibility to the picture--but it doesn't work because the professor is so unlikable in the first place, due to Robert Shayne's over-the-top performance.
There is one standout scene--it's the discovery of a set of photos showing the "progress" of the professor's experiments on his maid. And mention must be made of a young Beverly Garland, who has a minor role here but manages to out-shine everyone else in the cast.

This is the most notable title in the set. A surgeon who is involved in some out-of-the-box experiments crashes his car driving back to his laboratory. His fiancee is decapitated in the crash, but the doctor restores the head to life and goes in search of a replacement body.
This one has a sleazy, grimy quality to it--it feels like it should have been made in the 70s or 80s instead of 1962. The surgeon's quest for his fiancee's new body takes him to a cheap nightclub, a beauty contest, and finally to a disfigured model. Apparently the surgeon needs more from a woman than just brains. While his search is going on, the fiancee's mental power grows stronger and stronger--she's even able to communicate with the hideous thing locked up in the laboratory's side room, a result of the surgeon's previous experiments. When the surgeon brings the disfigured model back to the laboratory, the fiancee commands the "thing" to break out, and all hell breaks loose.
For a black & white movie made in 1962, and set in contemporary times, there's a ton of gore on display. This contributes to the movies's grindhouse feel. A lot of people consider THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE to be a camp classic because of the many "talking head" scenes, but it's too grotesque to be looked upon as kitsch. The overly-dramatic soap-opera style dialogue might cause a few chuckles.
Because of the gore it contains, this movie has almost always been cut. The running time here is 81 minutes, and it looks to be the full version. There's even a bonus scene from the international prints, which shows the disfigured model posing topless.

There's not a great or noteworthy selection of movies here, but for $5, it's fine for people who collect old monster movies on DVD. If you are not one of those people, there's really no reason to buy this, unless you like to laugh at bad movies. The visual quality is pretty good on all the films, and as in the first set there is a still gallery with photos from all four titles.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Favorite Films Of All Time: #11-#20

11. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK Directed by Irvin Kershner

12. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA Directed by David Lean

13. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK Directed by Steven Spielberg

14. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA Directed by Terence Fisher

15. PATTON Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

16. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY Directed by Stanley Kubrick

17. THE WILD BUNCH Directed by Sam Peckinpah

18. THE GODFATHER Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

19. NOTORIOUS Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

20. THE BAD NEWS BEARS Directed by Michael Ritchie

Monday, September 9, 2013

DVD Review: Movies 4 You--Sci-Fi Classics

I recently bought this DVD from Amazon for $5. It contains four different low-budget science-fiction films from the 1950s and 60s. Calling them "Sci-Fi Classics" is a very big stretch....there's certainly no FORBIDDEN PLANET or DESTINATION MOON here. However, each film does have various items of interest.

Let's take a look at the four movies:

This movie is one of the very first "Alien from another planet visits Earth" stories, along with the original THE THING and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. But this entry is a very poor cousin to those other features. A reporter travels to Scotland to cover the story of a newly discovered planet. Soon, a resident of Planet "X" lands nearby. The alien attempts to communicate, but humans, as usual, screw things up.
This movie was directed by cult film maker Edgar G. Ulmer (1934's THE BLACK CAT, BLUEBEARD, DETOUR). Ulmer uses the Scottish setting as an excuse to pump in tons of fog, and he even throws in a spooky castle, where most of the story takes place. This Gothic atmosphere gives PLANET X an extra advantage compared to most movies of it's type (the cinematographer for PLANET X was John L. Russell, who would later work for Alfred Hitchcock on his TV show and PSYCHO). Unfortunately, the pace is as brooding as the atmosphere, and the story moves really slow, even at only 70 minutes. At least the design of the alien and it's spaceship is intriguing.
The cast includes Margaret Field, who was the mother of Sally Field, and William Schallert, well-remembered by Baby Boomers for his many TV and movie appearances.

Leading man Robert Clarke (who also was the lead in THE MAN FROM PLANET X) produced this film on a (very) shoestring budget. He hired his PLANET X director Edgar Ulmer to helm this tale of a U.S. Air Force test pilot who breaks the time barrier instead of the sound barrier. He lands in the year 2024, and finds out that Earth has suffered from a world-wide plague. He finds the typical movie post-apocalyptic set-up--normal looking people banding together against bald, vicious mutants. The normals live underground in a fortress-like place called a "citadel", where most of the women wear short skirts and black stockings. (In most science-fiction movies of the 50s and the 60s, no matter what the circumstances, the women almost always have nice legs.) There's more talk than action in this movie, until the mutants are let loose and battle the normals during the climax. The Air Force major does get back to his own time, but his ultimate fate is a surprising revelation.
Of interest here is the involvement of legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce. Pierce of course is known for all the great monster makeups for the Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s. What Pierce actually did on this project is a bit unclear--hopefully he wasn't in charge of the mutants, because they all are wearing some rather ill-fitting and obvious bald caps.
BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER has a few decent moments--such as when Robert Clarke lands in the future and finds his air base is now a deserted wreck. But other than the Twilight Zone-type ending, this movie has very little to distinguish it from the dozens of sci-fi features made around the same time. Edgar Ulmer has a huge reputation, but I've found his films to not be as brilliant as critics make them out to be.

This movie is the best in the collection. A group of scientists create a "time portal" and wind up 107 years in the future, where (guess what?) the remnants of normal civilization live in caves and fight off bald-headed vicious mutants. This one's in color, and it was photographed by famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. What makes this one special is the various interesting and unique special effects incorporated in the story. There's an android factory, which is highlight, and there's also a very nice miniature rocketship and launchpad. The movie looks bigger than the budget. And it has a wildly fantastic ending.
The cast includes old timers Preston Foster and John Hoyt, and there's a cameo by the original fanboy, Forrest J. Ackerman. THE TIME TRAVELERS was directed by Ib Melchoir, who had a hand in a number of sci-fi features during this period.

This one deals with a mission to Mars that goes totally berserk. The problem is....the movie is about 36 minutes old before anyone even steps on Mars' surface. (I sure that kids watching this movie in a theater back in 1960 were squirming in their seats, waiting for something to happen.) The Martian sequences are highlighted by a FX process called "Cinemagic", which involves a deep red tinting and some very effective Martian creatures. If most of the movie had been presented in Cinemagic, it may have been a lot better (although the red tinting might have drove a number of people crazy). The story suggests that the entire planet is rising up against the Earthlings, a good idea which isn't really developed properly. Ib Melchoir directed this one (his story for the later JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET also contains a world vs. astronauts plot). The co-producer, and creator of Cinemagic, was Norman Maurer....Moe Howard's son-in-law!

All four films are on one disc. I did not have any playback problems, and the visual quality is okay, but it would have been a lot better if each movie had it's own disc (but then, it wouldn't have cost $5).
There are no trailers, and the only extra is a 5 minute photo gallery, which contains stills and posters from all four films. It's a nice bonus to have on here, but I wish there had been some captions to go along with it. I did some internet research, and as far as I can tell, each film is uncut and seems to have the proper running time and aspect ratio. I say "seems" because with low-budget films of this kind you can never be 100% sure about such things. As an old monster movie aficionado and collector, this DVD is a steal considering the price I paid for it. But I certainly wouldn't call these titles "Sci-Fi Classics".

Friday, September 6, 2013


Criterion's latest classic film release is Ernst Lubitsch's TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942). It is considered to be one of director Lubitsch's greatest works, and comedian Jack Benny's best big screen role. It is also the last film ever made by Carole Lombard.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a very hard film to define. On the surface it's a World War II-era satire--but it also has elements of sophisticated romantic comedy (which Ernst Lubitsch was a master of) and suspenseful spy thriller. It's also a story about acting, about really "being" or not "being". One of the wonderful things about this film is that it can be approached from a number of different ways.

It's amazing that TO BE OR NOT TO BE works well at all. Consider that the film's two lead characters are a married Polish couple who are stage actors. Playing the couple are Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, two people who are as American as you can get. Jack Benny at the time was one of the most famous entertainers in the country, due to his popularity on radio. He did not have a very successful film career, yet Ernst Lubitsch wrote the part of Joseph Tura ("that great, great Polish actor") with Benny in mind. The genius of Lubitsch was that he was able to meld Benny's radio persona into the story, instead of having the story revolve around Benny.

At the time of it's release TO BE OR NOT TO BE was looked upon by some film critics as being tasteless. This is a movie that does not shy away from the events of the German invasion of Poland. Today a movie audience can watch TO BE OR NOT TO BE safe and secure in the knowledge that the Allies won World War II. But back in early 1942, when the movie first came out, the Wehrmacht was still not that far away from Moscow, the British didn't seem to be able to defeat Rommel in North Africa, and the Japanese were running roughshod over Southeast Asia. Pearl Harbor had been bombed very recently, and the average American was dealing with a very uncertain future. It looked very likely that the Axis might actually win. Add in the fact that the leading lady of TO BE OR NOT TO BE had died in a plane crash before the film's premiere (coming back from a war bond rally, no less), it's hard to believe this film got any popularity whatsoever.

There really isn't anything tasteless about TO BE OR NOT TO BE. It's probably more realistic than most "official" war movies of the time. The plot about Joseph and Maria Tura's theatrical troupe helping the Polish Resistance outwit the Nazis could easily be remade as a serious thriller (not that I'm advocating that in any way). The Nazis are not portrayed as total buffoons--Lubitsch doesn't resort to slapstick or obvious comedy. The humor is more sly than fall-down laugh out loud funny.

There is one scene that I think is one of the funniest moments in the entire history of classic cinema. It's when Jack Benny, playing Joseph Tura playing Hamlet, starts reciting the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Benny gets flustered by someone in the audience getting up and leaving. The look on Benny's face is priceless, and even when the gag is repeated twice more in the film, it still is hilarious. If you want to know how true movie comedy should be performed, just watch Jack Benny in this scene (especially if your name is Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell).

Just as good as Benny, maybe even better, is the legendary Carole Lombard. In a way, Lombard has the hardest role. She can't be as obvious or as one-note as most of the supporting cast. Her Maria Tura is always acting, even when she's not on stage. She acts one way toward her husband, one way toward her young admirer (a very, very young Robert Stack), and another way toward the various Nazi functionaries she winds up dealing with. Maria Tura is the real brains behind the Resistance operation--she's the one who sets things in motion, the one character who keeps the plot together. Lombard always looked magnificent, but in this film, because of the tragic circumstances to come, she's hauntingly beautiful. She certainly isn't a screwball girl in this picture--she projects an almost regal quality throughout the story. (Was Carole trying to be less American in this role?)

As usual for a Lubitsch picture, there's an entire supporting cast of noteworthy performers, including Sig Ruman, Stanley Ridges, Tom Dugan, and the one and only Lionel Atwill. Special mention must be made of Felix Bressart, who plays the role of Greenberg, a minor actor who dreams of appearing as Shylock in front of a major audience (a dream which comes true, in a way). The part of Greenberg was obviously symbolic for the Jewish Lubitsch.

Criterion's version of TO BE OR NOT TO BE is just what one would expect from this company. The Blu-ray picture quality is superb--Rudolph Mate's black & white cinematography is as sharp as a knife. The Blu-ray really brings out Vincent Korda's excellent production design--just like in every other Lubitsch movie, nothing looks cheap. The extras include a superlative audio commentary from David Kalat. Kalat has done several fine commentaries, but this one is one of his best, and I highly recommend listening to it. There's also a 53-minute French documentary on Ernst Lubitsch entitled LUBITSCH LE PATRON (the documentary has English subtitles). A 1916 short film directed & starring Lubitsch, PINKUS'S SHOE PALACE, is here as well, along with two radio programs from the 1940s involving Lubitsch. The supplements are rounded out by a booklet featuring a essay from critic Geoffrey O' Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed piece written by Lubitsch in which the director defends TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

I have a feeling that this edition of TO BE OR NOT TO BE will wind up being one of Criterion's best sellers.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Ten Favorite Alfred Hitchcock Films

This month the Turner Classic Movies cable channel will be showing numerous films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I own just about every Hitchcock movie on DVD, so this tribute doesn't excite me as much as it would have when I was just starting out as a movie buff. But it did get me thinking about what my favorite Hitchcock movies are. It's not as easy a list to put together as one would think. Nearly all of Hitchcock's films are considered classics, and some of them are listed as among the greatest films ever made. Even the lesser-known Hitchcock titles are worthy of study and attention. I would pick THE WRONG MAN, MARNIE and FRENZY as examples of Hitchcock's work that should be viewed by those not too familiar with them.

My number one favorite Hitchcock film is a no doubter, but after that I could have easily re-done this list in a dozen ways.

One of my favorite overall movies of all time. I compare VERTIGO to a kaleidoscope--you see or notice something different every time you look at it.

An absolutely brilliant film, with three fantastic performances by Cary Grant (his best ever, in my opinion), Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains.

Probably the most entertaining of Hitchcock's films. Cary Grant's Roger O. Thornhill may be the ultimate Hitchcock hero. And don't forget the magnificent music score by Bernard Herrmann.

The original template for the "wrongly accused man" thriller, a subject Hitchcock would return to time and time again. Robert Donat and the ethereally beautiful Madeleine Carroll are perfect as the mis-matched couple on the run. The best overall film of Hitchcock's "British Period".

This may be the definitive Hitchcock work--it's a movie about someone watching someone else. In Hitchcock's world, everybody watches everybody.....and we (the audience) watch them. James Stewart is so good in this we take him for granted (as usual). How many other actors could play an entire film in a wheelchair...and use it to their advantage?

Another fine piece of cinema from the British Period. A top-notch movie all the way around--exciting, funny, and suspenseful.

I know some are going to wonder why this doesn't have a higher place on the list. PSYCHO is so well-known, and has been discussed and dissected so many times by now, that it almost has become too familiar. I still think the first part of the film--before Janet Leigh gets killed off--is more interesting than most give it credit for.

I have to admit that my admiration for Ingrid Bergman plays a huge role in this movie being placed on this list. Nevertheless it is a somewhat underrated and offbeat entry in the Hitchcock ledger, worthy of another look.

A great movie with a great idea (the idea being that two people with no connection with one another would be able to "swap" murders). Robert Walker gives an unnerving performance--it's one of the very few times an actor actually steals the film from Hitchcock.

This one definitely gets very little respect, even from Hitchcock fans. Made during World War II, the story concerns the surviving passengers of a ship sunk by a German U-Boat. The entire film takes place on the lifeboat of the title. Some regard this as a "gimmick" film--but it's much more than that. Hitchcock handles the set-up in a realistic and efficient manner.