Friday, May 31, 2013

Five Underrated Clint Eastwood Movies

Last night Turner Classic Movies debuted a documentary on Clint Eastwood's movie directing career. It was made by film critic Richard Schickel, a biographer and personal friend of Eastwood. The documentary was okay, but I was kind of disappointed on how most of Eastwood's work in the 70s and 80s was sort of glossed over. There seems to be this idea that Eastwood didn't become a "real" director until UNFORGIVEN. That's a silly idea....Clint Eastwood had been directing films for twenty years by the time UNFORGIVEN came out, and just about all of them were financially successful.
Of course most of them at the time were not critically successful. When I was a kid movie critics judged Eastwood and his films rather harshly. Now he's become a film critic's darling--something I think he probably laughs at. He's always done things in his career that you wouldn't expect, even way back in the Seventies. The critics just didn't shower him with praise for it the way they do now.

Here's a personal list of what I think are five underrated Clint Eastwood movies. It's hard to brand anything Eastwood does as underrated, since he's a cultural icon, and his entire movie catalog is continuously being shown on television--and more than likely always will.

1. THE BEGUILED

This is a strange, haunting, and atmospheric Southern Gothic, directed by Don Siegel. Eastwood is a Union soldier wounded behind enemy lines in the Civil War. He's found by a young girl and brought to a ladies' school, where a psychological cat and mouse game develops. Eastwood tries to use his masculine wiles to charm the ladies, but it winds up backfiring on him. Geraldine Page plays the school's headmistress, and she and Eastwood match wits very well. A complex thriller, this is certainly no action film, but it's far more gripping than most of Eastwood's output. Clint is very conniving here...but if you were in the same situation, wouldn't you be as well?

2. WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART

This film is based on a novel by Peter Viertel. The novel was a fictional account of Viertel's experiences working on the script of THE AFRICAN QUEEN for famed director John Huston. Clint plays the Huston character, complete with accent. The pseudo-Huston is a narcissistic jerk, and Eastwood's performance is far beyond anything he ever did in a film. The movie is really an examination about macho posturing, and audiences didn't seem to get it (and they still don't). If you want to just see Eastwood shoot a bunch of people, don't watch this. But if you want to see a major star go against the grain, and capably succeed, give this movie a try. One more thing: it was made before UNFORGIVEN.

3. THE GAUNTLET

This movie is always looked at as an over-the-top silly action flick. But compared to the blockbusters of today, it's almost a mature piece of work. Some consider it to be unintentionally funny--but are we laughing at it, or is Eastwood laughing at us? Clint seems to be sending up the whole bad-ass cop genre that helped make him a legend. If it was a send-up, then Eastwood was way ahead of his time, since most movies of today are far more wild and wacky than this one. Sandra Locke steals the show--in fact, Eastwood almost always lets his leading lady get the better of him.

4. TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA

This movie has never been considered one of Eastwood's best. I've always liked it--Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine work very well together. (Once again, I have to point out that old fashioned conservative Eastwood continually lets his female co-stars outshine him.) This Don Siegel Western was based on a story by Budd Boetticher (one can only wonder how he would have directed this) and was originally supposed to star Elizabeth Taylor. There's a number of nice sequences, including one where MacLaine gets Clint drunk so she can pull an arrow out of him. This also features a great Ennio Morricone score.

5. BRONCO BILLY

Eastwood has been quoted as saying that this is his "Frank Capra" picture. It's a nice, charming little film, about a small-time traveling Wild West show. Just like Capra, Clint lets his supporting players shine, and just like a 1930s screwball comedy, the leading female character (Sandra Locke) is a runaway heiress. One could easily imagine this movie being made in 1935 with Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard. Eastwood gives a quietly disarming performance, and the movie is a lot more entertaining than some of his "bigger" projects.

Clint Eastwood has had an amazing career, and he continues to defy expectations. I've watched and enjoyed his movies most of my life. He is a true American cinematic legend.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Happy Birthday To Sir Christopher Lee

Sir Christopher Lee is 91 years old today. And you know what? He still has more screen presence than all of today's so-called leading men combined.

http://dandayjr35.blogspot.com/2012/10/sir-christopher-lee-greatest-hits.html?spref=tw

















Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Peter Cushing Centenary

On May 26, 1913, Peter Wilton Cushing was born in Kenley, Surrey, England. If you have been reading any of my posts, you're probably aware that Peter Cushing is my favorite actor of all time. There was something about the man, and his work in the cinema of the fantastic, that sparked my imagination. He was truly unique--you can never mistake Peter Cushing for another performer.

Listed below are various links to some of my Cushing-related blogs.

http://dandayjr35.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-vampire-lovers-on-blu-ray.html?spref=tw

http://dandayjr35.blogspot.com/2013/04/book-review-peter-cushing-life-in-film.html?spref=tw

http://dandayjr35.blogspot.com/2012/10/peter-cushing-greatest-hits.html?spref=tw






 


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why Do You Watch All Those Dumb Old Movies?

The question that is the title of this post has been asked of me numerous times. It is usually followed by something like "Aren't you too young to get into that stuff?"

First of all, the idea that age, or economic background, or social status, precludes you from involving yourself in a certain activity is ridiculous. If you think that idea is true, then there's a whole bunch of stuff you're going to be missing out on in life.

Yeah, most of the movies I enjoy were made before I was born. So what? Most of the greatest books ever written were created hundreds of years ago. Does that mean that they cannot be enjoyed by new generations? Same thing with movies.

When I was a wee little kid, in the late 1970s, there wasn't any cable or satellite TV. You had a few local stations, and a couple independent ones that you might be able to pick up. Living in South Bend, Indiana, my family was able to get a few Chicago stations, including WGN and WFLD.

Back in those days, all the TV stations, even the network affiliates, would run old movies. So even as a little kid I was exposed to them. If you got a chance to stay up late at night, about the only thing that was on was--old movies.

One of the South Bend channels, Channel 46, ran Three Stooges, Our Gang, and Laurel & Hardy shorts every afternoon. Because of this I was exposed to classic film comedy at a very early age--and I'm thankful for it. I saw plenty of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd when I was a kid.

Of course WFLD 32 out of Chicago was the home of Svengoolie, where I saw just about every classic horror film for the first time. Channel 32 showed tons of classic films, as did Channel 9. I watched them not because I was supposed to--I watched them because they genuinely interested me. I don't think young people get that type of exposure to classic film today. Yes, there's Turner Classic Movies--but because TCM is branded as "the old movie channel" I have a feeling a lot of people may avoid it.

In today's world, you have cable, satellite, dish, etc. You have hundreds and hundreds of channels--and choices. You also have the internet, YouTube, Redbox, Netflix...if you want to see a certain movie, you are now just about able to access it instantly. And with Amazon and ebay and dozens of other sites, you can order just about any movie you want on home video.

All that stuff is great, especially for a film buff like me. But all these choices makes it easier for someone to miss out on a lot of material. We are now our own network programmers. If you want to sit around and do nothing but watch THE WALKING DEAD 24 hours a day, you can do that. There's nothing wrong with have your own choices in entertainment. But it's kind of like ice cream--wouldn't you get kind of bored eating it every single meal?

One of the cool things about being a kid was those times when you were able to stay up late. It seemed like whenever I did, I was always watching some old movie I had never heard of before. The element of discovery is a wonderful thing. Those nights of staying up and being introduced to a great film, or a great actor or actress--those experiences stay with you forever. That's how I developed my love of classic cinema. It wasn't through a class, or through somebody telling me "Watch this!" I kind of feel jealous when someone mentions that they are going to see a great movie for the first time, because there's no other feeling like it.

I honestly don't know if kids feel the way that I did whenever they watch films. We are so inundated with media that I think most people take entertainment for granted. I think that's one of the reasons why today's entertainment, in my opinion, is so underwhelming. What amazes me the most about all those "old movies" is the fact that so many of them were made under so many restrictions. They couldn't show certain things, they couldn't cover certain subjects, they couldn't use certain language, they couldn't address certain issues--yet those "old movies" are far more meaningful to me than the movies I'm "supposed" to watch.

The makers of classic films were literally put into a box--and yet they made movies which stand the test of time. The makers of today's films can do literally anything--yet their work winds up forgotten just about five minutes after you've watched it. (I'm not advocating censorship, by the way...I'm just making a point.)

So I'm always going to love all those dumb old movies. Am I weird? I've been called that plenty of times, and far worse things as well. One thing I do know....I'm never going to change, not for anyone or anything.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

THE DAM BUSTERS

Seventy years ago today, May 16, nineteen modified Avro Lancaster bombers took off from England on a mission code-named Operation Chastise. Their target was three giant dams located in Western Germany. Each plane carried specifically designed "bouncing" bombs that were created for the purpose of breaching these dams, with the expected result being major damage to Germany's Ruhr manufacturing district. This World War II mission became one of the most famous in the conflict's history, and in 1954 a film was put into production dramatizing the event. The result was THE DAM BUSTERS.

THE DAM BUSTERS is considered one of the best war films ever made, and some say it is one of the best British films ever made overall. Today most viewers would probably think the movie is somewhat quaint. It has almost none of the Hollywood-style elements one usually finds in a WWII film. There's no major female role, there's no goofy comic relief, and the film stays very close to the facts.

The first part of the story deals with the creation of the special bombs to be used in the raid. The bombs were the brainchild of British inventor and designer Barnes Wallis, who is played by Michael Redgrave. Redgrave portrays Wallis as a eccentric Englishman--he almost acts as if he's making a new toy instead of a destructive device. The middle section of the story deals with the training and planning of the mission. Real Avro Lancasters were used for THE DAM BUSTERS, and real RAF pilots were used to fly them. The RAF also allowed the film makers to shoot on actual RAF bases, giving the movie a huge sense of authenticity.

Richard Todd (who actually served in WWII--he was part of the D-Day invasion) plays Guy Gibson, who was picked to lead the newly-formed secret 617 Squadron. Todd plays Gibson as a quiet, determined professional--he doesn't give any rousing speeches or make any grand heroic gestures. The rest of the pilots are played by British character actors, and unlike most American war films, there is little attempt made to individualize them. They are men called upon to do a job to the best of their ability.

The climax of THE DAM BUSTERS covers the actual raid, and it still holds up today as a suspenseful sequence, despite the limitations of the special effects of the time. The attack on the dams was a huge inspiration to George Lucas, who used it as a model for the Death Star attack in the first STAR WARS film. If you do watch THE DAM BUSTERS, you'll notice Lucas even used some of that movie's dialogue!

THE DAM BUSTERS is a prime example of the difference between the British war film and the American one. Director Michael Anderson stages everything in a realistic, almost documentary-like manner. There's no showy camera angles or attempts to make things more exciting. There's an incident in the film where Guy Gibson's dog is killed in an accident the day before the mission. This wasn't added by the scriptwriters--it actually happened for real. One must remember that THE DAM BUSTERS was made less than 10 years after World War II ended, and several of the participants were still alive. There would have been a lot of criticism if the movie was far-fetched, especially since the RAF helped in the production.

In the actual Operation Chastise, two of the three dams targeted were breached, causing severe (but temporary) disruption to the German war effort. Eight of the nineteen Lancaster bombers flown in the raid failed to return, and 53 of their crew were killed. Wing Commander Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross, and numerous other pilots and crew members received various medals and commendations. To this day, military historians debate on how important the Dam Busters mission really was. Because of the flooding that resulted from the breaching of the dams, nearly 1300 people lost their lives (mostly civilians). Some experts believe that the mission did not damage German industry enough, and the cost of so many RAF personnel was not worth the results. The ending of the movie reflects this somewhat. After the mission, Barnes Wallis tells Guy Gibson that if he had known how many men would not have come back, he probably wouldn't have started it. Gibson then says that he has some letters to write (to the families of the men killed in action), and the last thing we see in the film is Richard Todd walking slowly away from the camera into the distance. It's a rather ambiguous and thoughtful ending to a patriotic war film.

There have been rumors that THE DAM BUSTERS will be remade. I certainly hope not. The movie is a product of it's time....a remake today would just be a 21st Century outlook on a 20th Century subject. THE DAM BUSTERS is perfect just as it is.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

EL MONSTRUO RESUCITADO

One of the great things about being a film buff is that you are always making discoveries. No one can watch EVERY movie ever made (unless you're independently wealthy and you've got nothing else better to do). I've seen plenty of old monster movies, but there's still a few I haven't gotten to yet.

One of the websites I visit regularly is Glenn Erickson's DVD SAVANT. Recently he reviewed a DVD of a Mexican horror thriller titled MONSTER. I was so intrigued by his description of the movie that I went to Amazon and ordered it myself. (A prime example of why I'm not rich.)

MONSTER is actually a 1953 Mexican film originally titled EL MONSTRUO RESUCITADO. The story centers on a Dr. Herrmann Ling, a disfigured plastic surgeon who is so desperate for companionship that he places a mysterious ad in the local newspaper. A beautiful journalist, Nora, is encouraged to answer the ad by her editor (who thinks there might be an interesting story behind it). Nora is taken by Dr. Ling to his seaside castle, where he reveals his feelings of loneliness and self-disgust. He also reveals his hideous face. Nora plays upon the Doctor's torment, hoping to write a series of articles on him. But when the Dr. Ling finds out that Nora is using him, he plots a hideous revenge.

This movie has just about everything for the classic horror film fan. There's a mad scientist who wears a black cloak and a wide brimmed hat, and hides his face with wrappings and dark glasses. He lives in a creepy castle next to a graveyard (of course), and he even has a half-witted servant. He has a full laboratory in his basement (where else would it be?) and he even keeps a half-man/half-ape creature in a cage. And...Dr. Ling makes bizarre-looking female wax statues.

The monster makeup for Dr. Ling isn't all that impressive (it certainly isn't on the Jack Pierce level). It looks as if the Doctor has a bad case of acromegaly. The makeup does have a passing resemblance to Lon Chaney's Phantom, especially when the Doctor is wearing his cloak and hat. The Doctor's emotional pain also resembles most of Chaney's characters. At one point in the film Nora, out of pity, kisses Ling on the forehead and the man is so overcome with joy he starts ranting and raving. In a way the viewer kind of feels sorry for Dr. Ling--Nora is basically planning to use him to get a sensational story. (I say...never trust the media.)

Ling's plan of revenge involves his reviving a recently deceased handsome man, turning him into a zombie, and having him go after Nora. That's a lot of trouble to go to, considering there's a number of times in the film where the Doctor could just go ahead and kill Nora by himself. Like most Mexican monster movies, there are enough plot holes to drive a truck through. For example...nobody seems to bother to go up to the castle and see what's going on until the very end of the movie. But for all that, the movie is certainly entertaining, especially for classic monster movie fans. It has a nice B & W atmosphere, and it has just about every horror film cliche in the book--but there's also a off-kilter aspect to everything that makes the movie seem familiar and brand new at the same time.

One would automatically think that MONSTER was influenced by the Universal thrillers of the 1930s...but the movie reminds me of the cheap 1940s horror films made by Monogram and PRC. If this story had been made in America, the role of Dr. Ling would have been perfect for someone like Bela Lugosi or Lionel Atwill.

The MONSTER DVD was released by a company called One 7 Movies. The disc is region free, and runs 80 minutes. The print appears to be from Italy--the main credits are Italian, and the actual title on the film is IL MONSTRUOSO DOTTOR CRIMEN. The film is in Spanish, with removable English subtitles. Because this was made in 1953, it is in black & white and full frame. The picture quality is not great, but it's serviceable.
One bit of trivia: the director, Chano Urueta, later had a role in THE WILD BUNCH as a Mexican village elder.

If you are a classic horror film fan and you think you've seen everything, chances are you haven't come across EL MONSTRUO RESUCITADO. I would recommend it as a rare piece of Gothic cinema. Just remember, if you plan to buy it look for the DVD title MONSTER.



Saturday, May 11, 2013

RETURN OF THE JEDI--30th Anniversary

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the theatrical release of RETURN OF THE JEDI. Out of the three original Star Wars films, JEDI is considered by nearly everyone to be the least. The biggest reason is the Ewok factor, but even if you take away the outer space teddy bears Star Wars fans will still find plenty of reasons to complain about this film.

RETURN OF THE JEDI is the longest of the first three Star Wars movies in running time, but it feels like the shortest. Everything in the story seems rushed to get to the big climax. There isn't much of a plot--the heroes get together to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, then they go on a mission to help destroy another Death Star. And that's it. That's almost thirty minutes worth of a Christopher Nolan film.

JEDI in reality is a remake of STAR WARS. George Lucas never liked the Mos Eisley/cantina scenes in the first film, so we get a far more elaborate Tatooine sequence this time around. Lucas was also never satisfied with the first Death Star battle....so we get a even bigger space battle, with more impressive special effects. The scene where Mon Mothma lectures the Rebels on the plan to destroy the new Death Star is almost an exact remake of a similar scene in the first film. People who complain that the only thing George Lucas does now is mess with his own stuff don't seem to realize that Lucas was doing it during the original trilogy.

Why would the Empire even build another Death Star? Was it already under construction when the first one blew up, and they decided to go ahead and finish it? Or is the Empire run by American politicians, who enjoy wasting blood & treasure? The new Death Star idea is pretty lazing plotting. You really can't say that about the second lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, simply because they had to have some sort of confrontation at the end. But Luke & Vader's duel is nowhere near as iconic as the one in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

And there's the Ewoks. Apparently Lucas originally wanted a giant battle involving Wookies, but he decided it would be better if a less-powerful race of indigenous beings defeated the Empire. (Does this mean the Ewoks are equivalent to the Viet Cong?) The Ewok battle is very well done, and it has a lot of neat gimmicks...but it once again underscores how the average Imperial Stormtrooper couldn't guard a three-legged dog. When the Emperor says "a legion of my best troops" is stationed on Endor, you have to ask yourself, "What are his worst troops like?"

One of the things I always notice whenever I watch JEDI is how there is almost no real conversations between any of the characters about anything. Lucas accelerated the pace so much in this movie that no one gets a chance to make any real comment about what's going on. Nobody goes to see a Star Wars movie for the dialogue...but in EMPIRE, there were actual conversations, and the characters were allowed to play off one another. In JEDI 99% of the dialogue in the script is expository.

The generic dialogue hurts especially during the scene where Luke reveals to Leia that not only is Darth Vader his father, but Leia is his sister. This is one of the most important moments in Star Wars history, and it falls flat. It's not the fault of actors Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher--the scene is staged and scripted in a desultory fashion. Contrast this scene with the Han and Leia farewell in the carbon freezing chamber in EMPIRE. There you have the difference between JEDI and the other two films.

Another character thought: Han forgives Lando pretty darn easily (there should have been some type of discussion between them on what happened at Cloud City). There was a sequence shot, but not put into the final edit, of the main cast talking to one another before leaving Tatooine. The sequence was cut because it was staged during a sandstorm, and all the fake wind, sand, and sound drowned out the actors. (Why would you stage an important dialogue exchange during a sandstorm?)

We can't talk about JEDI without mentioning the waste of Boba Fett. We finally get to see him in a major fight scene, and he winds up taking more pratfalls than Shemp Howard. George Lucas' sense of humor (or lack of) shows up all too frequently in this picture.

There is, however, a lot of good things about RETURN OF THE JEDI. There's a number of new creatures (and of course all of them were available at your local Kmart or toy store in the summer of 1983). The Rancor scene is cool, mainly because of the stop-motion animation involved. The second Death Star battle is simply spectacular. Ian McDiarmid has been accused of being too over the top as the Emperor, but he had to be...he's the boss of Darth Vader. I always liked the Ewok song at the end--George should have never removed it. And you might have noticed that Carrie Fisher wears a certain costume in the early part of the film, and that Admiral Ackbar says a certain line during the Death Star battle.

My favorite scenes in JEDI? One of them is when Luke turns himself in to the Imperial base on Endor. Luke and Darth Vader confront one another, and this is the only scene in JEDI where there's a real meaningful conversation. The mood is dark and foreboding, and Hamill does a great job here--it's always been popular to make fun of Hamill's acting, but in JEDI I think he gives his best performance. When Luke says that Vader won't take him to the Emperor, and he turns his back, at that moment Vader turns on Luke's lightsaber...and the sound of it made me jump out of my seat when I saw it at the theater in 1983. (I thought Vader was going to take him down right then and there!)

The other scene is when Luke, having escaped the Death Star with Vader's body, lands on Endor and places his late father on a funeral pyre. Backed by John Williams' music, it's one of the greatest moments in Star Wars history.

I first saw RETURN OF THE JEDI at the now-demolished Forum Theater on Old U.S. 31 in South Bend, Indiana. It's hard to define the excitement of seeing what was then considered the very last Star Wars film. It's one of those movie moments I'll always treasure....and those moments are coming fewer and fewer. RETURN OF THE JEDI may be considered the red-headed stepchild of the original Star Wars trilogy, but it now has a permanent place in the iconography of popular culture.

And look at it this way--it ain't THE PHANTOM MENACE.









Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My Five Favorite Comic Book/Superhero Films

The Comic Book/Superhero film has now become the leading big-budget spectacular of choice for the 21st Century entertainment industry. It wasn't that long ago that the idea of spending a huge amount of money and hiring A-list talent to make a movie based on a comic book would have been considered absurd. Now, it's all too common.

There have been so many superhero movies made recently that they are all starting to run together. It's getting to the point where if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all. But with all the money that IRON MAN 3 is raking in, this genre is going to keep on going for a while. There's literally hundreds of costumed characters that haven't even been touched yet by either movies or TV.

A movie based on a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer) doesn't have to have a superhero in it. Just look at films like GHOST WORLD, 300, or THE ROAD TO PERDITION. Some comic book writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore create work far more interesting, and far more entertaining, than the average Hollywood screenwriter. The film industry loves adapting comic books because it's the ultimate in high concept, but for the most part they fall far short in properly dramatizing the comic world.

Before I reveal my list, I have to admit that I stopped reading comics regularly in the late nineties. I am certainly not a comics expert. And I have to admit that I am a DC fan. The criterion for the list is simple: all the entries on it have to be based on comic book material.

1. BATMAN BEGINS

Batman is my favorite superhero, and this is the best Batman movie, so it gets the top spot. Christopher Nolan saved the Batman movie franchise (and made Warners a crapload of money) by taking a "real" look at the classic character. It does have to be said that Nolan was obviously influenced by Frank Miller's seminal BATMAN: YEAR ONE. Liam Neeson steals the film, and Gary Oldman is perfect as Lt. (future Commissioner) Gordon. The only downbeat note: Christian Bale's uninspiring portrayal of the Caped Crusader.

2. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE

This was made so long ago, it's kind of been forgotten. But it was the first major big-budget movie to be based on a superhero, and it's still an influence on comic book movies today. The scene where Glenn Ford as Pa Kent explains to young Clark how great power comes with great responsibility has been reworked in just about every superhero movie ever since. The scene may have been copied, but it's never been topped. The first part of the movie, featuring Krypton and Clark Kent's youth, is absolutely sublime--Krypton is eerie, fascinating, and chilling (the Forbidden Zone scared me as a kid), and the young Clark sequence has an almost John Ford-like feel.
The reason this movie doesn't get the top spot is the second half, where the dopey comedy kicks in. This change in tone caused director Richard Donner to quit before SUPERMAN II was finished. Overall, though, the first major superhero film is far better than most of it's modern counterparts.

3. WATCHMEN

It's amazing that Zach Snyder's film of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' acclaimed comics series even got made. WATCHMEN is not mainstream movie material--it's dark, realistically (as opposed to movie) violent, and if you haven't read the source material, it's almost impossible to follow. Nevertheless, it did get made--and for all those people who complain about writers & directors changing things, it follows the original about 99% of the time. (And what happened? Critics complained that the film was too close of an adaptation!)
This is not a movie for everyone, especially kids. WATCHMEN didn't do the kind of box office most superhero flicks do, and many consider it a bomb--but it's one of the best visualizations of a legendary comic book ever made.

4. X-MEN

This movie is really the beginning of the 21st Century Comic Book Film Era. If it hadn't been successful, there might not have been any other big-budget Marvel adaptations. Bryan Singer makes an exciting, realistic, and accessible story--not a mean feat considering all the X-Men history he had to deal with. The X-Men are mutants, and Singer equates mutation with being an outsider, making the audience relate to the core cast. Singer was helped by a number of fine actors such as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. But it's Hugh Jackman, in a breakout performance, who makes the biggest impression as fan favorite Wolverine. One of the most important of all the comic book films.

5. DANGER: DIABOLIK

This is based on an Italian Fumetti (comic book) on a master thief named Diabolik. (And please don't tell me that it "shouldn't count".) Cult director Mario Bava makes one of the ultimate cult films. It's filled with more wild action and inventive style than a dozen major Hollywood productions combined. John Phillip Law plays the mysterious Diabolik (nothing in this movie is explained--Diabolik doesn't even have a backstory) and Marisa Mell is his super-hot girlfriend. DIABOLIK also features a fantastic score by Ennio Morricone. This is one of those 1960s films that Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas has referred to as "Continental Op". How cool is this movie? The Beastie Boys' "Body Movin" video is an homage to it.


 
John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell in DANGER: DIABOLIK

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)

Stop-motion animation wizard Ray Harryhausen has died at his home in London, England. If you don't know who Ray Harryhausen is, you shouldn't be reading this blog. The best way I can explain the man's incredible cinematic legacy is by naming some movie titles....titles such as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. All of these films, and many more, were enlivened by Ray's magnificent creations.

The best way I can pay tribute to Ray is by saying that when I was a little kid, and I first watched the movies he worked on when they were being shown on TV, I thought they were REAL. I believed in all the things he created. The giant bee/giant honeycomb sequence in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND absolutely sacred the crap out of me back in the day. That was the creative power of Ray Harryhausen.

Hundreds and hundreds of movie directors, writers, performers, and special effects technicians have been influenced by Ray Harryhausen. (And about a hundred more have ripped off his stuff.)

Ray Harryhausen was one of the most important figures in the history of fantastic cinema. If movies are supposed to give you "a sense of wonder", no one was better at it than him.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

May The Fourth Be With You

Today is May 4. Many have started to refer to this day as "Star Wars Day" (may the fourth be with you...get it?). I'm surprised that George Lucas didn't try to copyright the entire 24-hour period.

STAR WARS is my favorite movie of all time. I'm talking about the original, the REAL version of the film....the one that opened in theaters in May, 1977. The Star Wars franchise has now become so popular and so well-known that the greatness of the first movie is kind of taken for granted.

I saw STAR WARS at the age of eight, a perfect age to experience it for the first time. Of course at that time I hadn't seen a lot of movies, and I certainly didn't know how to judge a film or articulate how I felt about it. All I knew back then was how cool STAR WARS was. Even before I got to actually see the movie (at a drive-in, no less), I knew all about it, due to Marvel Comics' fantastic adaptation of it and through the Topps Star Wars trading cards. This was a canny piece of marketing on George Lucas' part. Today major movie marketing is pretty much the norm (even so-called "independent" movies are marketed to a specific base), but back then most movies, even popular ones, didn't do the things that Lucas did with STAR WARS.

By presenting his film in a number of different advertising venues and markets, Lucas was able to get kids like me (and a lot of adults) interested in the project. All the Star Wars stuff intrigued the heck out of me as a kid. Most of the science-fiction stuff I had seen involved a bunch of people wearing togas and existing in futuristic cities and spaceships that didn't have a speck of dirt on them. STAR WARS presents a working universe. It all looked real to me....the spaceships, the costumes, the sets...they look like things that had actually been used and had actually worked. There's a reality to this universe, a texture to it. Just looking at stills from STAR WARS in various magazines at the time got me intrigued. That movie kick started my creative brain, so to speak. I've never had such a feeling about a movie since. STAR WARS was the one....the one that made me be a film buff to this day.

One thing that people don't consider about STAR WARS is how important it was in the development of modern cinema. The modern movie industry really can be traced to STAR WARS. The way movies are marketed, shot, developed, written....the type of movies that are chosen to be produced in the first place....the entire special effects industry of today....it all goes back to the original STAR WARS. I know some will debate this, and others will dismiss this, but that's because STAR WARS isn't considered "arty" or "sophisticated" enough. The idea that a silly science-fiction movie can have such an impact on the entire entertainment industry, or the world for that matter, makes some uncomfortable. Like it or not, STAR WARS is now modern mythology.

But let's not forget, STAR WARS is really a great film. It moves like lightning, and Lucas makes the characters and situations simple enough that the audience can follow the story easily. You have to remember that back then, even with all the marketing, audiences were not aware of all the details of STAR WARS the way everyone is now. No one knew the backstory of Darth Vader, or the Jedi, or Luke and Leia. Today every single facet of the Star Wars universe is more familiar than to the average person than the lives of their relatives. It wasn't so back then--which made it all the more interesting, because you had to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. (Modern-day film makers...are you reading this?)

The sad thing is, if a young George Lucas came along today and tried to make STAR WARS, it wouldn't happen. A sci-fi movie...not based on any existing material? And it's not a sequel...or a remake? Sorry, kid. Lucas had actually wanted to make a new version of the Flash Gordon story, but he couldn't obtain the rights. Today, the studios would insist that Lucas do a remake instead of an original concept.

The studios also wouldn't like the fact that George Lucas starts the movie in the middle of an important battle, without showing the main hero, without even naming or explaining any of the characters he does show, or even telling the audience what is going on. Yes, there is the opening crawl, but that just explains the general situation. Lucas drops the viewer into a totally new universe, and you just have to go along for the ride. In the movie world of today, every character has to have a backstory, every plot point has to be explained, and every leading role has to have a "defining moment". Looking back, it's amazing how little information the STAR WARS script gives the audience. No movie producer in the world would allow that to happen today. Even George Lucas himself wound up trying to explain everything in the STAR WARS prequels--look how that worked out.

The greatest thing, by far, that George Lucas did in STAR WARS was writing this line: "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away." By doing that, Lucas set up a situation where he didn't have to follow any scientific rules, or historical rules, or really any rules at all. He could now have a blank sheet in front of him, and he could do whatever he wished. I think that was absolutely brilliant.

Yes, I'm well aware that George Lucas was influenced by several other movies, and yes, I've seen THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and THE DAM BUSTERS, and THE SEA HAWK....but when you're eight years old you don't care about that stuff. I thought it was the greatest movie I had ever seen, and I still think so to this day.

I love STAR WARS. I make no excuses for it. The films that I love the most are the ones that put you in a time and a place that you couldn't possibly experience on your own, along with a situation you would probably never be in. STAR WARS is the ultimate example of what I love about cinema.

Friday, May 3, 2013

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS On Blu-ray

Shout Factory has just released on Region A Blu-ray one of the most famous Hammer horror films of all time, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. This is the 91 minute British version of the film, which had already been released on DVD as part of MGM's legendary "Midnite Movies" series in 2003.

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is a fairly close adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's classic 19th Century Gothic novella "Carmilla". Hammer co-produced the movie with American-International and Fantale Films. It was Fantale producers Michael Style & Harry Fine, along with writer Tudor Gates, who offered the project to Hammer. The film was made in 1970, and by this time Hammer was able to incorporate the scenes of nudity and vampiric lesbianism that were involved in the script.

Those scenes (which are kind of tame by today's standards) have given THE VAMPIRE LOVERS it's lofty reputation, especially among Hammer fanboys. Ingrid Pitt (who played Carmilla Karnstein) became a horror film legend, despite the fact she was never able to find another role as great as this one.

Ingrid Pitt, even by Hammer's high standards, was a truly stunning woman. But she wasn't the only one featured in the story....there's a full starting rotation of Hammer Glamour girls on display. You get Madeline Smith, Kate O' Mara, Pippa Steele, Kirsten Betts....after seeing all these lovelies being seduced by Ingrid, you can understand why so many classic monster movie fans admire this production.

As for the lesbian angle....personally, I think a vampire is beyond any exact definition of human sexuality. A vampire will seduce (and feed upon) anyone at anytime, if the circumstances permit. And as for Hammer breaking "new ground"....if you want to, you can find a lesbian angle all the way back to 1936 in Universal's DRACULA'S DAUGHTER. Hammer was interested in box office, not social relevancy.

 
Ingrid Pitt
 


THE VAMPIRE LOVERS also has a distinguished male cast, including Douglas Wilmer, Jon Finch, George Cole, Ferdy Mayne, and of course the one and only Peter Cushing in a small but pivotal role. All together this is one of the best casts that Hammer ever assembled.

Shout Factory's Blu-ray of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS looks very good...but I wouldn't say it looks spectacular. Sometimes it even looks too good....such as in the early scenes where we see shots of Peter Cushing's manor. With the sharpness of Blu-ray we can see what looks like modern chain-link fencing out past the manor. (The place was actually the Moor Park golf course clubhouse in Hertfordshire.) The extra sharpness also makes some of the set backdrops look even more tatty. The biggest improvement is in the quality of the sound, which is far better than the DVD.

The extras from the MGM DVD are carried over to the Blu-ray. They include a commentary with director Roy Ward Baker, Ingrid Pitt, and writer Tudor Gates. This is certainly worthy of posterity, as unfortunately all three participants have since passed on. But the commentary is a letdown--Pitt was obviously sick when it was being recorded (there are times when she is barely audible) and it is somewhat unfocused. It's too bad Shout Factory didn't try to record a new commentary with someone like Jonathon Rigby...or Kim Newman, or Bruce Hallenbeck, or Ted Newsom, or a dozen other Hammer experts I could name. The other "old" extra is audio of Ingrid Pitt reading passages from the "Carmilla" novella. This has been improved by a showing of stills and scenes from the movie during Pitt's reading.

The Blu-ray does have some new extras. FEMME FANTASTIQUE: RESURRECTING THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is a 9 minute featurette from Ballyhoo Productions, and it covers the film's production history adequately...but as legendary as THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is, the featurette should have been a lot longer. There's also a 20 minute interview with Madeline Smith, who is interesting, informative, and entertaining. (I wish this had been a lot longer as well.) There is also a nice photo gallery backed by musical cues from THE VAMPIRE LOVERS soundtrack, a trailer, and a radio advertising spot for the movie.

There's one thing that really bugs me about the Blu-ray...the case cover art (see above). That's a reproduction of American-International's U. S. movie poster, and it's one of the most insipid promotional designs for any Hammer film. It has nothing to do with the movie...and how can you put THE VAMPIRE LOVERS out on Blu-ray and not put Ingrid Pitt's picture on the front of the case?

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is one of my all time favorite Hammer films, and I think it may have been Hammer's last truly great film. (And yes, I'm sure all the well-endowed beautiful women in-and not in-nightgowns has something to do with it.) If you have the Midnite Movies DVD, do you have to buy the Blu-ray? I happened to get this Blu-ray for a decent price on Amazon (about the same price I bought the original DVD), so I think it's worth it. Just remember: this film is not for the mentally immature.