Monday, February 29, 2016
Shout Factory has come out with a follow-up to their first two well-regarded Vincent Price Blu-ray sets. It's a bit surprising that there is a VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION III, simply because so many Price movie titles have been released in the last year or so by Kino. None of the movies on this set are what I would call "must haves", but as usual Shout Factory gives each disc enough bells & whistles to make this set a worthy purchase for hard-core classic horror fans.
The set has four discs in all. Disc One features MASTER OF THE WORLD, a personal favorite of mine. MASTER OF THE WORLD is based on two Jules Verne novels about a Nemo-of-the-skies called Robur, who has built a magnificent aerial ship in the late 19th Century. Vincent Price brings a determined panache to the role of Robur, and if you have a lot of imagination and are willing to lose yourself in the story, the movie is entertaining fun. Unfortunately American-International didn't have the budget to truly do justice to Verne's vision. Viewers used to CGI-fueled spectacle might be disappointed by the special effects. (I think anyone watching this movie will have to admit that the model of Robur's airship, The Albatross, is quite impressive.) The story's hero is played by Charles Bronson! (No, he doesn't shoot Vincent Price.) The extras include an engaging audio commentary by actor David Frankham, who tells all sorts of great stories about what filming MASTER OF THE WORLD was like. There's a 72 minute interview with writer Richard Matheson, who talks about almost every movie he scripted for American-International, including MASTER OF THE WORLD. A photo gallery is provided, with pictures from David Frankham's personal collection. MASTER OF THE WORLD does not look as sharp as the rest of the films on this set, but that is probably due to the many matte effects used in the movie.
Disc Two contains the 1962 version of TOWER OF LONDON. Roger Corman directed this film for Admiral Pictures, with the company hoping to recreate the success Corman and Vincent Price had with their Poe team-ups. In Universal's 1939 version of TOWER OF LONDON, Price played the Duke of Clarence; here, he gets promoted to the lead role of Richard III. Price really lets it rip in this one--the movie's only about five minutes old when he starts killing people, and it's only a few minutes later that his Richard is ranting and raving. Maybe it's just as well that Price is so overwrought, because everything else about the production is rather lackluster. This is a film that appears to have been made in 1952 instead of 1962. The extras feature interviews with Roger Corman and his brother Gene (who was this film's producer), two episodes of the 1950s TV series SCIENCE FICTION THEATER which starred Price, and a photo gallery. The black & white TOWER looks sharp as a knife on Blu-ray.
Disc Three has DIARY OF A MADMAN, another production from Admiral Pictures. This tale, based on two stories written by Guy de Maupassant, has Price as a late 19th Century Parisian magistrate who is taken over by an evil being known as the Horla. The synopsis sounds promising, but producer-writer Robert Kent and director Reginald Le Borg fashion a lukewarm result out of it. The movie looks and feels like a typical episode from 1960s American television, and the only vitality that comes from it is brought by the gorgeous Nancy Kovack, who plays a conniving model that catches Price's eye. There's an audio commentary from Steve Haberman, and a photo gallery. This movie (which is in color) looks very fine on this Blu-ray.
Also on Disc Three is an hour long TV special called AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLAN POE. The special was shot on videotape in 1970, and has Price acting out four different Poe tales, all by himself. Price was quoted as saying that this was one of the best things he ever did, and he does give a spectacular overall performance. The special was the idea of Kenneth Johnson (who was also the man behind the popular V TV mini-series), and he gives an interesting interview about how the show came about, and how it was produced. The special is not in HD--it is in full-frame video, but that shouldn't detract from Price's ultimate presentation of Poe.
Disc Four contains two different versions of the 1970 American-International film CRY OF THE BANSHEE. One version is Gordon Hessler's director's cut, which runs about 91 minutes. The other is AIP's theatrical cut of the film, which runs 87 minutes. (If you really want to know all the differences between the two versions, read Tim Lucas' article on the subject in issue #98 of VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine.) Each cut has different title sequences, and each cut has a different music score (the AIP cut features a very below-average score from Les Baxter). CRY OF THE BANSHEE is set in 16th Century England, and it tries to be a take-off of WITCHFINDER GENERAL (with a little bit of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH thrown in). Instead of being thrilling or frightening, the movie is just unpleasant--in the first fifteen minutes of the director's cut, three different women are violently abused and have their breasts exposed. Price, as Lord Edward, is the head of the brutal Whitman family--a family so repellent that the viewer doesn't really care about what happens to them. The only character in the story that engages the audience in any way is the exquisite Hilary Dwyer as Price's daughter. The story is convoluted no matter what version of it you watch. Steve Haberman contributes an audio commentary, and there's an interview with director Gordon Hessler that originally appeared on the "Midnite Movies" DVD of this title. The director's cut looks a little bit better than the AIP version, but both are fine visually.
This set comes with a 12-page booklet featuring many of the stills used in the photo galleries.
All the movies on this set have been released on DVD before, and some of the extras have been on those DVDs as well. I would say that this set is more for the super Vincent Price fan, or the major geek film buff. The titles here are underwhelming, but Shout Factory has gone out of their way to still make the set palatable. I pre-ordered this from Amazon and my final price averaged out to about $12 per disc. I wouldn't call this set a must buy, like the first Price set...but if you have any interest in it chances are you'll probably get it anyway. I doubt that there will be a VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION IV--I mean, what else is left?? But then again, I didn't expect that there was going to be a VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION III.
Saturday, February 27, 2016
I've always though that the Academy Awards were overrated. Trying to pick the best film, or the best film performances, is like trying to pick the best painting of the year, or the best short story of the year. How does one even define best? What you and I may consider the best movie of the year will be totally different than from what millions of other people think.
Whenever I get a chance to diss the Oscars, I usually point out that the woman who is generally considered the greatest all-around film actress in cinema history, Barbara Stanwyck, never won a competitive Oscar. How relevant can the Academy Awards be if Stanwyck, of all people, never won one?
So when I was invited to participate in the Oscars Snubs Blogathon, I felt that Stanwyck's failure to win one of the little golden men would be a perfect subject to write about. I felt that I could really go to town on how silly and nearsighted the Oscars actually are.
Then I started to do some research on when Stanwyck was nominated for an Academy Award, and who she was up against...and I started to realize that this was going to be a lot more complicated than I expected. There's more to it than just declaring "The Oscars are stupid!!"
Before we analyze each of Stanwyck's nominations, let's do some background on her overall Hollywood career and the other actresses Stanwyck was annually competing against.
Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award exactly four times. No doubt many of you are thinking, "Only four times??" Stanwyck had a long career starring in theatrical films (roughly 1927 to 1964), and many of the movies she appeared in are well-regarded classics.
Consider, though, that Stanwyck's movie career coincided with the era now know as "The Golden Age of Hollywood". During Stanwyck's height as a movie actress, her contemporaries were some of the most iconic leading ladies of all time. Let's take a look at some of these women and how many Best Actress nominations (not wins) they each racked up during the time Stanwyck appeared in motion pictures:
Ingrid Bergman--5 nominations
Bette Davis--11 nominations
Olivia de Havilland--4 nominations
Irene Dunne--5 nominations
Greta Garbo--4 nominations
Greer Garson--7 nominations
Katherine Hepburn--9 nominations
As you can see, if you were a movie actress during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and you were not one of the women listed above, you would have been lucky to get any nomination, let alone a win. Barbara Stanwyck had to deal with some major competition during her Hollywood heyday. The term "Woman's Picture" may be politically incorrect, but the fact is that far more movies were tailored to leading actresses during Hollywood's Golden Age. A powerhouse performer like Stanwyck would have cleaned up come awards time in today's age....but in her own time Barbara had to match up with standout female roles year after year after year.
Being a film actress in the 30s, 40s, and 50s would have given you a lot better chance to play some great roles....but it also would have made it harder for you to get awarded for playing those roles.
STANWYCK'S FOUR NOMINATIONS
Now let's examine Barbara Stanwyck's Best Actress nominations, in chronological order.
Barbara garnered her first Oscar nomination for the 1937 movie year, in the title role of STELLA DALLAS. Here are the nominees she was up against:
Luise Rainer (winner) in THE GOOD EARTH
Irene Dunne in THE AWFUL TRUTH
Greta Garbo in CAMILLE
Janet Gaynor in A STAR IS BORN
Needless to say, 1937 was a tough year to win the Best Actress Oscar. You could easily make a case for any one of the nominees. The blue-collar Stella is one of Stanwyck's most well-known characterizations, and many of her fans consider it to be her best overall performance. According to Victoria Wilson's biography of the actress, Stanwyck at the time was looked on as the heavy favorite to win, and it was something of a shock when Luise Rainer took home the award. (Rainer had already won the Best Actress honor the year before for THE GREAT ZIEGFELD.) Rainer gave a soulful and sensitive performance as a Chinese peasant wife, but today she never would have been given a chance to play an Asian role. Dunne, Garbo, and Gaynor all gave great performances as well--if any of those three ladies had won, it would not be looked upon today as a disappointment. Stanwyck deserved the award just as much as the other nominees--but I can't honestly say she was so much better than the other women, or that she was "robbed".
Stanwyck's second Best Actress nomination came in the movie year of 1941, for her role in BALL OF FIRE. This time she was up against:
Joan Fontaine (winner) in SUSPICION
Bette Davis in THE LITTLE FOXES
Olivia de Havilland in HOLD BACK THE DAWN
Greer Garson in BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST
Out of all the times that Stanwyck was nominated, this is the year she probably should have won. The biggest competition that Barbara had, though, wasn't her fellow nominees--it was herself.
There were a couple of other films Stanwyck appeared in during the year of 1941: THE LADY EVE and MEET JOHN DOE. Stanwyck could have easily been nominated for her performances in those two movies instead of BALL OF FIRE. I'm sure there's a lot of movie buffs who would rank BALL OF FIRE behind THE LADY EVE and MEET JOHN DOE when it comes to showcasing Stanwyck. If the Best Actress award had been given out for overall talent instead of just a single specific role, Stanwyck would have won hands down. But the Oscars don't work that way--so even though Barbara gave three different award-caliber performances, and even though every one of them was better (in my opinion) than any of the other nominees, she came away with nothing.
Joan Fontaine was very good in SUSPICION, but I don't think she was superb; I've read that Fontaine's award was kind of a makeup for her not winning the year before for her role in REBECCA. In BALL OF FIRE Stanwyck runs the whole gamut--she sings, she dances, she's tough, she's sexy, she's funny, and she even gets to show her sensitive side. There's no way you can convince me that any of the other 1941 Best Actress nominees did a far superior job of acting than Stanwyck did.
Barbara Stanwyck in BALL OF FIRE
Stanwyck's third Best Actress nomination was for 1944's DOUBLE INDEMNITY. The other nominees:
Ingrid Bergman (winner) in GASLIGHT
Claudette Colbert in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY
Bette Davis in MR. SKEFFINGTON
Greer Garson in MRS. PARKINGTON
Barbara's role in DOUBLE INDEMNITY is considered the ultimate example of the cinematic femme fatale. The character she played continues to influence filmed entertainment to this day. Stanwyck may have been too intense as the bad girl--Ingrid Bergman won for her portrayal of the mentally tortured wife in GASLIGHT. At this time Bergman was looked upon as the screen's No. 1 good girl, and I wonder if that influenced the voters' decision. I'm a huge Ingrid fan, and her performance was worthy of being chosen--but how can you really pick between her and Stanwyck? Having to decide on either Ingrid or Barbara illustrates how frustrating the Oscars can be. Did Stanwyck deserve to win this year? Probably, but I wouldn't say she deserved to win by an overwhelming margin.
Barbara Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY
Barbara's fourth (and final) Best Actress nomination was for 1948's SORRY, WRONG NUMBER. Her competition that year:
Jane Wyman (winner) in JOHNNY BELINDA
Ingrid Bergman in JOAN OF ARC
Olivia de Havilland in THE SNAKE PIT
Irene Dunne in I REMEMBER MAMA
SORRY, WRONG NUMBER provided Barbara with a prime "Oscar Bait" role--that of a bedridden neurotic. Unfortunately for Stanwyck, Jane Wyman got one of the biggest "Oscar Bait" roles of all time--that of a poor deaf-mute girl who is raped. There was no way Stanwyck, or anyone else, was going to beat out Wyman this year.
Out of all four of Barbara Stanwyck's Best Actress nominations, I would have to say she truly to deserved to win for BALL OF FIRE, and she probably should have won for DOUBLE INDEMNITY. You could also make a very good case for her winning as STELLA DALLAS. I don't think Stanwyck's performance in SORRY, WRONG NUMBER was better than Jane Wyman's in JOHNNY BELINDA. From her nominations alone, I would have to conclude that Stanwyck should have won at least one Best Actress Oscar, and maybe even two.
NOMINATIONS STANWYCK SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN
There's plenty of other performances Stanwyck should have been nominated for--but picking these roles is rather tricky. The ones I have chosen merely reflect my own personal tastes. Because Stanwyck was such a consistently great actress, she could have easily been nominated for years on end.
THE MIRACLE WOMAN (1931)
This movie is a favorite of mine, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it. Some of Stanwyck's best film work came in the Pre-Code period....her roles in BABY FACE (1933) and THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933) were also Oscar worthy. But one has to remember that Stanwyck was very young in this period, and most of the potboilers she made at this time would not have been considered distinguished enough for awards distinction.
GOLDEN BOY (1939)
Even if Stanwyck had been nominated for this role, she wouldn't have had much of a chance of beating out Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND.
REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940)
This is one of Stanwyck's most underrated and under appreciated performances. She definitely should have at least been nominated for it, and I think it is far better than Ginger Rogers' 1940 Best Actress-winning role in KITTY FOYLE.
THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946)
THE FURIES (1950)
This is another great Stanwyck role that doesn't get much respect or attention. Unfortunately THE FURIES is a Western, and almost no one, male or female, got nominated back then for a performance in that particular genre.
OTHER FACTORS IN STANWYCK NOT WINNING AN OSCAR
For most of her acting career, Barbara Stanwyck was not associated or contracted to one particular studio--she was a freelance artist. This means that when she was nominated for a Best Actress award, she did not have any major studio's publicity departments boosting her case. She also didn't have one particular studio preparing standout roles for her.
Stanwyck was also known for treasuring her private life off the set, and for not having too much participation in the Hollywood social scene. I don't know if this had a major effect on her not winning an Oscar, but I think it might have had some influence.
One huge factor in Stanwyck not winning an Oscar was her not appearing in any theatrical films after 1964. If she had continued on the big screen, she would have no doubt had a chance at an Oscar, especially in a supporting role. Many performers have won Supporting Oscar awards during their later years--it is understood that the Oscar they have won is more of a "Career Appreciation" award. Stanwyck won a television Emmy at the age of 76 for her role in THE THORN BIRDS, so she certainly still could given an accomplished big-screen performance at that age. I've read that Barbara was up for the role that Katharine Hepburn played in ON GOLDEN POND--one can imagine her maybe copping an Oscar for that.
There's another factor that has to be discussed. I mentioned before how consistently great an actress Barbara Stanwyck was. She gave her all in every role, no matter what the part, and no matter how good (or bad) the movie was. Because of this, there really isn't one single Stanwyck performance that stands out above all the others. If you ask five different film buffs what Stanwyck's greatest role was, I'll bet you get five different answers. Many Oscar winners get the statue because they give an extraordinary performance that is far and away the best of their careers, such as Jane Wyman in JOHNNY BELINDA. Stanwyck wasn't just great in a couple movies--she was great in nearly everything she did. This year-in, year-out excellence may have caused Oscar voters to take Stanwyck for granted.
Writing this post has made me realize that winning an Oscar has more to do with timing, competition, and opportunity than just great acting. Every time Stanwyck was nominated as Best Actress, she was up against women just as talented and famous as she was. Put a young Stanwyck in the late 20th-early 21st Century, and she might have been nominated as many times as Meryl Streep.
Barbara Stanwyck did receive an honorary Oscar in 1982. I'm sure she appreciated it, but I've always felt that honorary Oscars should be renamed the "You're getting very old, so we're going to do something nice for you" award. She should have won a Best Actress Oscar, during her prime Hollywood years. The fact that she didn't shows that you can't judge any performer--or any films--based on the awards they have or haven't won.
Barbara Stanwyck with her honorary Oscar
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Earlier this week I took the opportunity to attend a screening of the 2015 documentary HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT. The film was shown at the Browning Cinema on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.
HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT is also the name of one of the most famous books ever published concerning cinema. The book was based on a series of interviews between Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock that were held in 1962. Truffaut was one of the most renowned members of the French "New Wave" of writers and filmmakers who felt that certain elements of popular Hollywood cinema were not given enough critical respect. Truffaut hoped that the book would help elevate Hitchcock to the status of a true artist instead of just a famous movie director.
I personally own several books on Hitchcock and his films, but I have to admit I do not have a copy of HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (I did, however, order one off of Ebay after seeing this film). I feel that I am still familiar with it, because ever other Hitchcock book quotes from it extensively, and the extras and commentaries for any Hitchcock film on DVD or Blu-ray refer to it as well.
The documentary starts out with some personal background on Hitchcock's early life (with footage from the director's own home movies), and contrasts this with Truffaut's background. The origins of Truffaut's idea to interview Hitchcock are explored, and much audio from the actual tapes of the interviews are used. (While listening to these audio snippets, I couldn't help but think that Hitchcock was still "being Hitchcock"--in other words the director was still playing the carefully crafted public role he had created for himself.)
The documentary is enlivened by numerous scenes from Hitchcock's films. Many of these moments will no doubt be familiar to film buffs and fans of the director, but a few of Hitchcock's lesser-known works are thankfully spotlighted as well. An extended part of the documentary focuses on VERTIGO, but for those who are obsessed with that movie such as myself, that is not a problem.
A number of today's most acclaimed filmmakers are given a chance to discuss and analyze Hitchcock's oeuvre, including Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and David Fincher. Their opinions are fascinating and thought-provoking, and their appreciation for Hitchcock reinforces the fact that the Master of Suspense still affects film making to this very day.
The fact that this is a film about a book about a film director proves just how influential the collaboration between Truffaut and Hitchcock really was. One would think that by now, there was nothing new or enlightening to say about Alfred Hitchcock and his films. One of the definitions of a great artist, I believe, is that the artist's work can always seem fresh and interesting, and it can always be interpreted and looked at in new and various ways. Alfred Hitchcock certainly fits that definition, and Francois Truffaut was absolutely right in recognizing Hitchcock as a great artist. I own most of Hitchcock's films on home video, and I've seen most of them dozens of times, but after seeing this documentary I felt compelled to see them all again. That alone proves the merit of HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT. If you have any interest in Alfred Hitchcock whatsoever, you owe it to yourself to see this film.
HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT was produced by the Cohen Media Group, and was co-written and directed by Kent Jones. The film is narrated by Bob Balaban.
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Those wishing to participate in the Movie Scientist Blogathon were given three groups of movie scientists to write about--the good, the mad, and the lonely. Due to my classic horror film leanings I had no choice but to pick the mad--and how could I not write a post about Lionel Atwill, the maddest Hollywood Scientist of them all?
Atwill played a number of mad doctor roles, and he was dementedly glorious in every single one of them. Whenever Atwill was expounding on one of his crackpot theories, or whenever he was threatening a pretty ingenue, the actor's eyes seemed to expand and light up with an unearthly glow. Atwill positively reveled in his mad doctor roles--his dark men of science may have used the excuse that they were trying to help humanity, but there was something more sinister, more personal, behind their unholy doings.
Atwill's first real Mad Scientist role was that of Dr. Von Niemann in the 1933 film THE VAMPIRE BAT. For most of the story Von Niemann is looked upon by the villagers of the Central European town of Kleinschloss as a kindly respected research doctor. But it is Von Niemann who is really responsible for the onslaught of local murders--murders which appear to have been committed by a vampire.
Von Niemann is draining the blood of the victims and using it to feed his "creation", a lump of living tissue. (It has to be admitted that the tissue looks like a sponge lying in a fish tank.) The villagers are convinced that the murders are supernatural, and pin the crimes on local simpleton Herman (played by Dwight Frye--who else?). Young Inspector Karl (Melvyn Douglas)--who happens to be sweet on Von Niemann's pretty assistant Ruth (Fay Wray)--scoffs at the thought of vampiric happenings.
Von Niemann has hypnotic control of another assistant, Emil (Robert Frazer). It is Emil, under the orders of Von Niemann, who kills and takes the victims to the doctor's laboratory. Ruth inadvertently finds out about this, and she is confronted by Von Niemann, in the film's best sequence.
Lionel Atwill threatens Fay Wray in THE VAMPIRE BAT
Von Niemann grabs Ruth's arm and lets rip with some of the greatest mad doctor dialogue ever. "Mad? Is one who has solved the secret of life to be considered mad??"
"Life...created in the laboratory. No mere crystalline growth, but tissue, living growing tissue!"
I can transcribe Atwill's lines, but I cannot recreate the way that he says them--or the trance-like look of orgasmic pleasure on the man's face during this scene. Von Niemann may be angry that Ruth has found out his secret, but at the same time he's exuberant over the fact that he can tell someone what he has accomplished. (Especially that the someone is a attractive female in his power.) What else can Von Niemann do but tie up Ruth to a chair and have her watch his latest experiment? (One gets the feeling that Von Niemann may have wanted to tie up Ruth in any case.) Von Niemann has sent out Emil to kill and bring back Kurt, but the young man turns the tables on them--it is Kurt who brings back a dazed Emil. Von Niemann tries to fight it out with Kurt, but Emil demands that the doctor be left to him--so Kurt leaves with Ruth, while Emil and Von Niemann kill each other off-screen, in a rather limp climax.
For most of its running time, THE VAMPIRE BAT is set up in the same manner as the Universal horrors of the same period. The movie's art director was Charles D. Hall, who worked on several of the Universal monster entries, and Lionel Blemore plays the same type of Burgomaster as he did in the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN. Dwight Frye's Herman is of course a variation on his Fritz and Renfield roles for Universal, and when the torch-wielding villagers chase after Herman, you can't help but be reminded of James Whale's work.
Where THE VAMPIRE BAT differs from the Universal thrillers of the period is that the supposed un-dead occurrences are all a feint--but if anything, the revelation of Von Niemann's activities makes the movie even wilder than its contemporaries. THE VAMPIRE BAT was produced by an independent low-budget studio called Majestic, and one wonders how truly great the movie might have been if it had a major studio budget.
Melvyn Douglas brings some much needed dry humor to the "David Manners" role, even though I'm sure an actor of his standing probably didn't think very much of it. (Remember that Douglas too, had been in a Universal horror--James Whale's THE OLD DARK HOUSE.) Maude Eburne, as Ruth's Aunt Gussie, is incredibly annoying as the comic relief (one wishes that Von Niemann had gotten rid of her).
It doesn't need to be said that Fay Wray is one of the greatest screen scream queens of all. Her collaborations with Lionel Atwill--DOCTOR X, THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, and THE VAMPIRE BAT, are legendary in the annals of classic movie horror. Whenever Wray was asked about the actor in interviews, she didn't appear all that impressed with Atwill, but the fact remains that the two will forever be associated with each other in the minds of movie buffs. The really didn't share all that much screen time together, but Wray was Atwill's most famous "partner". Wray's innocent screen persona contrasted well with the dubious nature of Atwill's characters--no one could leer at a woman the way Atwill could. The differences in the ages of Atwill and Wray also helped the contrast. There was just something unseemly about Atwill's feelings for Wray when they appeared in a movie together--even in DOCTOR X, when they played father and daughter!
THE VAMPIRE BAT is in the public domain, and can easily be accessed on YouTube. When the VHS boom hit in the 1980s, you could find cheap tapes of THE VAMPIRE BAT almost everywhere. It would be nice if someone like Kino came out with a remastered and restored version of this film--I've never seen a copy of it that looks good. The Alpha DVD I have of it appears too dark during several scenes, and there's a question of how long the movie is supposed to be--there are several different running times listed. Nevertheless it is an important title for monster movie fans, just for the fact that it is the very first time the maddest doctor of them all plays an actual mad doctor.
Lionel Atwill would go on to carve a very fine career as an accomplished Hollywood character actor in many acclaimed films. But his reputation today rests mainly in the horror thrillers he starred in. Atwill would go on to play even madder doctors than Von Niemann, in such movies as THE SUN NEVER SETS, MAN MADE MONSTER, and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. But his role in THE VAMPIRE BAT set the template for a career in thrillers that still entertains audiences to this day. There have been many extraordinary Mad Scientists in movie history--Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine--but in my opinion Lionel Atwill was the truly maddest of them all, the one man that is the ultimate representation of everything a movie Mad Scientist is supposed to be--over-the-top, nutty, dangerous, perverted, and devilishly brilliant.
Saturday, February 13, 2016
Now that SPECTRE is out on home video, I feel it is time to discuss the movie in more detail, as I promised I would when I wrote a post on it during its theatrical release. (WARNING: Yes, there are spoilers ahead.)
I have every single official James Bond film on home video, so of course I bought SPECTRE. Seeing it again didn't make me change my mind about it--if anything it reiterated many of my original thoughts.
The opening sequence of the film (which lasts about fifteen minutes) is spectacular....maybe too spectacular, because it overwhelms almost everything that happens in the rest of the story. And I have to say I was disappointed in how the sequence ended--Bond should have flown the helicopter right outside the hotel room where he left the girl, and he should have said something like, "Need a lift?" (That's what Roger Moore would have done.)
The car chase in Rome between Bond and Dave Bautista's character doesn't match up to other Bond movie chase scenes--there's a perfunctory tone to it. (And what about taking a brand spanking new Aston Martin sports car and dumping it in a river?) It's reminiscent of a car commercial--as a matter of fact, the whole movie kind of looks like a car commercial. Is it fair to say that SPECTRE was over-produced? Is there such a thing as a movie looking over-produced? I guess what I'm trying to say is that I feel there should have been less concern on making the movie look fabulous and more concern on putting some verve and vitality to the plot.
SPECTRE is the longest official Bond film to date, clocking in at almost two and a half hours. I give director Sam Mendes credit for laying off the now par-for-the-course hand-held camera shots and ADD-style editing, but I think here the pacing was too lugubrious. The movie has too much style in it and not enough fun.
The revelation that Christoph Waltz's character was actually Blofeld wasn't much of a secret--it would have been more of a shock if Waltz hadn't been Blofeld. Waltz is given all the typical Blofeld accouterments--he wears an off-shoot of the Nehru jacket, he has a white cat, and he gets to preside at a meeting of Spectre big-wigs where someone gets killed. (This Blofeld is not bald, but I think the reason for that is the Broccolis didn't want younger viewers to be reminded of Michael Myers' Dr. Evil.) Later in the story Waltz's Blofeld winds up with a scar that is very much like the one that Donald Pleasence's Blofeld had in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. But Waltz, at least to me, doesn't make the major impression that I thought he would. And I believe the reason for that is the film's biggest revelation--according to this story Bond was the equivalent of Blofeld's foster brother.
The idea that Bond and Blofeld had a personal history does not come from the Ian Fleming novels (which I have all read, by the way). In Fleming's work Bond's only personal connection to Blofeld is the fact that the villain is responsible for the death of the agent's wife. Fleming's Blofeld sees Bond as an annoyance.
Now, in the 21st Century series of Bond movies, Blofeld is part of Bond's origin story. I assume that the main reason this was done was to make Bond's battle with Blofeld to be "personal"--that this raises the stakes, so to speak.
But in my opinion, this lessens Blofeld as a villain. In the Bond films of the past, Blofeld was a mysterious larger-than-life figure, and the head of the world's greatest criminal organization. In SPECTRE he's just a goofy guy with serious Daddy issues (Waltz's Blofeld hates Bond because the young 007 was close to Blofeld's father). A lot of modern movies--including a number of superhero features--have gone out of there way to make it so the main hero and villain have a personal connection. I don't think this makes things more dramatic--what it does is that it sends a message that having a hero fight evil because he feels he has to (or, in the case of Bond, because it's his job as a government agent) is not enough. A good guy can't just choose to be a good guy anymore--he has to have a special motivation, and it has to be wrapped up in an origin story.
Anyway....the "new" Blofeld also has a classic super-duper secret hideout....and Bond's escape from it is way too easy. (Apparently the Spectre minions working at the place have learned marksmanship skills from the Imperial Stormtroopers of the Galactic Empire.) Here's what should have happened--as Bond was being tortured by Blofeld, Ralph Fiennes' M should have showed up, with a group of SAS soldiers, and we would have been treated to an old fashioned climatic grand battle, in the same manner as the endings of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. Instead Bond gets out of the place in about a couple of minutes, and then (in the real climax) he shoots down Blofeld's helicopter with...a pistol?
I'm assuming that Spectre and Blofeld will figure in any future Bond adventures. Is it too much to ask that Blofeld be totally rebooted in the next Bond film? (This idea isn't as crazy as it sounds. In the three classic official Bond films where Blofeld was a major character, the role was played by three very different actors who had very different personalities.) The present-day Bond series really, really needs to move away from the CASINO ROYALE storyline and cut Daniel Craig loose from it. I mean, SPECTRE is the fourth Craig Bond film, and they're still under the shadow of CASINO ROYALE. Recently I read on the internet a quote that said the Craig Bond films form the longest origin story in movie history, and there's a lot of truth to that. Instead of continuously learning about Bond in these movies, it's time to let Bond just be Bond.
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
I started a series of posts on the Star Wars Prequel trilogy in December, and I never got around to the last chapter. I realize this post is a tad late (heck, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS isn't even the No. 1 movie at the box office anymore), but hey, what can you do?
Does REVENGE OF THE SITH serve as a validation of the Star Wars Prequel trilogy? Ummm....not really. Just like ATTACK OF THE CLONES was better than THE PHANTOM MENACE, REVENGE OF THE SITH is better than ATTACK OF THE CLONES. But it is still nowhere near the high standard set by the Original Trilogy.
This one begins with a huge battle in space--the type of battle George Lucas always wanted to show on screen--between the Separatists and the Republic's Clone Army, led by the Jedi Knights. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are on a rescue mission to save Chancellor Palpatine, who has been "kidnapped" by Separatist leader Count Dooku. Of course Palpatine is really the Sith Lord behind the whole Galactic Civil War. This opening sequence is impressively mounted, but it is so hopped up on CGI that, as usual when it comes to the prequels, one doesn't get much of a thrill out of it. The two Jedi find Palpatine on the Separatists flagship, where they duel once again with Count Dooku. Obi-Wan is knocked out during the fight, but Anakin defeats Dooku, and, goaded on by Palpatine, kills the Count.
Let me say here that if you like lightsaber duels (and who doesn't?), you'll love REVENGE OF THE SITH. There's more lightsaber action in this film that just about all of the other Star Wars features combined. That's nothing to complain about, is it? Welllll.....to me, a lightsaber duel should be something special--it should be a treat, like ice cream. Like lightsaber duels, everybody likes ice cream. But what if you had to eat ice cream 5 or 6 times a day? All of a sudden it's not that much of a special treat anymore. There's so much lightsaber action that the final duel--the duel that is supposed to be the most important lightsaber duel in Star Wars history--kind of loses impact.
The two Jedi and the Chancellor try to escape the Bad Guy spaceship, but they are caught by those pesky Trade Federation droids and brought to General Grievous. With Dooku dead, Grievous takes his place as lead enemy. Grievous is a cyborg--"He's more machine than man"--and he also happens to be a fully-CGI rendered character. In other words, he's basically a cartoon--and, since he is a Star Wars prequel baddie, he has the now-obligatory "Foreign Bad Guy" voice. Grievous is supposed to be looked on by the audience as a major threat, but he's more dud than fireworks.
Anakin and Obi-Wan manage to fend off Grievous (who basically runs away), and the Jedi successfully land the damaged Separatist spaceship on Coruscant. After the landing Anakin is reunited with his secret wife, Senator Padme Amidala. (Okay....Anakin is constantly surrounded by Jedi Knights--and every single one of them can sense the thoughts of others. None of them have figured out Anakin and Padme's relationship?) Padme informs Anakin that she is pregnant. (Is she sure the midi-chlorians didn't have something to do with her condition?)
While on Coruscant Anakin stays at Padme's luxurious high-rise apartment (none of the billions and billions of Coruscant citizens have noticed a Senator and a Jedi Knight shacking up together?). Anakin starts to have nightmares about Padme dying in childbirth, just like he had visions of his mother in pain on Tatooine. Anakin's determination to stop his wife from dying becomes the main reason for his turning to the dark side of the Force.
And in my opinion, it is not reason enough. As I wrote in my post on ATTACK OF THE CLONES, if you don't buy the relationship between Anakin and Padme, then you're not going to buy into Anakin's turn to the dark side (which is what the whole Star Wars Universe revolves around). You can understand why Anakin would want to save his wife, but is he so desperate he would destroy the entire Republic to do it? Obviously when Palpatine tells Anakin a legend about a powerful Sith Lord being able to stop beings from dying, he's stretching the truth....but shouldn't a Jedi as powerful as Anakin sense that?
There should be more to Anakin's turn to the dark side than pining for Padme. Lucas drops hints that Anakin is unhappy with the Jedi Council--in the story Palpatine personally names Anakin to the Council so Anakin can inform on them, but the Council turns around and asks Anakin to spy on Palpatine. It would have been more effective if Anakin's decision was based on his frustration over the Jedi being arrogant hypocrites, instead of his faith in a fairy tale.
While Palpatine works to take advantage of Anakin, Obi-Wan is set off to Utapau where General Grievous is hiding. Despite Grievous' reputation, Obi-Wan handles him fairly easily (their lightsaber battle fizzles out and turns into a goofy CGI-drenched chase). It is at this point that Palpatine reveals to Anakin that he is a Sith Lord. Anakin goes to the permanently grumpy Jedi Master, Mace Windu, and informs him of the Chancellor's true nature. Windu decides to arrest the Chancellor (the Jedi have the power to just go into the Chancellor's office and slap the cuffs on him?), and he takes three top Jedi with him. Needless to say, Palpatine chooses not to go quietly, and within seconds, the Chancellor takes out Mace's buddies in (you guessed it) a lightsaber duel. A number of Star Wars fans, such as my friend Paul G. Lyzun, found the idea of Palpatine taking out three major Jedi in an instant ridiculous (yeah, I know he's a powerful Dark Lord, but...).
Anakin shows up just in time to see Mace Windu getting ready to put the kabosh on Palpatine. Anakin doesn't want Palpatine killed, because he thinks the Chancellor can tell him the secret of how to stop people dying. Anakin turns on Windu and cuts his hand off (AGAIN with the hands!), and the now disfigured Palpatine zaps Mace to death with a batch of Force lightning.
After all this, Anakin's listless "What have I done?" fails to have the same effect as Alec Guinness' recitation of the same line at the end of THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Anakin bows down to Palpatine and swears loyalty to him. Hayden Christensen's line readings during this scene are decidedly half-hearted....was the actor trying to put over the idea that Anakin was being controlled by Palpatine? (That idea should have been played up by Lucas, because it also would have made Anakin's decision more believable.) Palpatine names Anakin "Darth Vader" and tells him to go to the Jedi Temple and destroy the rest of his former brethren.
Palpatine then orders the Clone Troopers throughout the galaxy to execute "Order 66"--the immediate destruction of all Jedi Knights. What follows is probably the best sequence in the entire prequel trilogy. Backed by John Williams' poignant music, we are shown a number of Jedi shot down in cold blood. Order 66 also affects Obi-Wan on Utapau and Yoda, who happens to be on the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk. Obi-Wan manages to survive and escape, and Yoda gets away with help from the Wookies, including good old Chewbacca. Nothing against the big guy, but the revelation that Chewbacca and Yoda are on a first name basis is one of the most egregious examples of contrived connections to the Original Trilogy.
Obi-wan and Yoda meet up on Senator Bail Organa's personal ship (better known as "The Blockade Runner" or, the first thing we see in the first Star Wars film), and decide to go back to the Jedi Temple--not exactly the best idea in the galaxy. There the surviving Jedi discover Anakin's betrayal. Obi-Wan goes off to find Anakin, while Yoda confronts the now Emperor Palpatine in the Senate Chamber.
Palpatine's ascendancy to ultimate power is the scene that gets what may be the prequel trilogy's most famous (as opposed to infamous) line of dialogue: "So this is how democracy ends...with thunderous applause." Every so often this line gets used on the internet in conjunction with current political events. The irony of the line is that the Galactic Republic didn't seem all that democratic. Anyway, Obi-Wan goes to Padme to find out where Anakin is at. Of course, she doesn't tell him, but she rushes right away in her shiny spaceship to where Anakin is--the volcanic planet of Mustafar. Anakin--excuse me, "Darth"--was sent there by the Emperor to kill the remaining Separatist leaders. Obi-Wan stows away on Padme's ship.
In the ATTACK OF THE CLONES blog, I mentioned that Padme had about thirty different costumes and about thirty different hairstyles. But at least in that movie she got to take part in the climatic battle. In REVENGE OF THE SITH, Natalie Portman really has nothing to do but look glamorously pregnant--or is that pregnantly glamorous? Padme is reduced to being the outer space equivalent of Kate Middleton. (In fairness, I have to point out that in one of the movie's deleted scenes, Padme is seen discussing the shaky status of the Republic with other senators, including Mon Mothma.) When Padme does get to talk, she's given dialogue that makes her sound as whiny as Anakin. Padme's confrontation with Anakin on Mustafar reminds one of two teenagers arguing over a misunderstood text. Obi-Wan shows himself, and.....we're all set up for the lightsaber battle of all time.
Anakin and Obi-Wan's ultimate duel is very well done....but, it doesn't move me the way Luke and Vader's battle on Cloud City did. Maybe it's because we all know how it will end--Anakin falls into lava, gets burnt real bad, gets turned into cyborg--or maybe it's because the battle is too drawn out, or maybe it's because Yoda's lightsaber battle with the Emperor is going on at the same time. (Remember what I said about ice cream?) Once again Lucas uses CGI to take a nifty sequence on paper and turn it into something way over the top--and he does this with both battles. Anakin and Obi-wan not only have to deal with each other, they have to deal with giant machines that appear to be refining the lava, and the Yoda/Emperor match goes totally off the rails. (I have to interject here that once Palpatine becomes the Emperor, Ian McDiarmid totally goes off the rails as well--just listen to how he says the line, "My little green friend!!!")
Yoda cannot defeat the Emperor, so he gets away with help from Senator Organa, who appears to be driving the Coruscant version of a '57 Chevy (these "Servants of the Republic" sure are livin' the high life). Obi-Wan takes down Anakin, and while the new Dark Lord lies a'burning, the two former friends scream at each other like a couple of yuppies who just broke up over the weekend. The Emperor takes Anakin's charred carcass and fixes him up into the Darth Vader we know and love. (Here's something that has come to my mind while writing this. Who chose Vader's outfit & helmet? I mean....was it all set to go? Did the Emperor have it lying around, in case someone close to him happened to fall into a lava pit?)
This is another very momentous occasion in Star Wars history--the exact time when Darth Vader becomes Darth Vader. And what do we remember of this? Vader acting like the Frankenstein Monster....and yelling "NNNNOOOOOOOO".....Too, too obvious. If George Lucas wanted to rip off Frankenstein, he should have taken a page from James Whale and done it this way--cut to a scene of the Emperor looking worriedly offscreen, and asking, "Lord Vader--are you ready?" Then we hear the familiar breathing....then a silhouette of Vader's form....then three successive close-ups of Vader's helmet, and Vader saying, "Yes, Master..."
The one good thing about the "Vader becoming Vader" sequence is that it coincides with Padme giving birth and then dying, which is fitting and ironic at the same time. (I'm sorry, but I've always wondered, how did Padme come up with the names Luke & Leia so fast?) Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Senator Organa discuss what to do, and the Senator volunteers to raise Leia, while Obi-Wan says he will take Luke to Tatooine and give him to the Lars family. (I'm no fan of Jon Stewart, but I'll give him credit for publicly asking what all Star Wars wanted to know: If you wanted to hide the children of Anakin Skywalker, why take one of them back to Anakin's home planet and give him to people Anakin personally knows? And allow the kid to carry the last name of Skywalker?)
And finally we come to the end of the prequels. (And I'm sure some of you may be thinking, the end of this series of blog posts.)
If many of you out there are thinking I've been far more sarcastic and nit-picky than usual, I'll plead guilty to that. It was my weak attempt to bring some levity to a subject that, as I wrote at the beginning of all this, has already been done to death. The prequels are what they are, and we all have to live with them. I seriously doubt that the prequel era will be "rebooted" by Disney--but when it comes to any major film franchise, never say never about any future money-making opportunity.
The thing that needs to be pointed out is--the prequels could have been mounted more successfully. The animated series STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS is proof of that. That series is set during the prequel era, and it is far truer to the spirit of Star Wars than any of the prequel features. Not only did the series adequately portray Anakin as a non-annoying character, it also created Ahsoka Tano, a new figure who has been embraced by Star Wars fans. I've suggested that the prequels may have been doomed to be unpopular no matter what--but I have to say now that isn't necessarily so.
I also have to point out that even though the prequels have an undesirable reputation, all three of them made tons and tons of money--and they are still making money. Calling the prequels "bombs" is a bit unfair--to me a definition of a movie bomb is a title that is lousy and doesn't perform at the box office.
What annoys people most about the prequels is that they are official chapters of Star Wars--but it's not the Star Wars we want it to be. Is STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS the Star Wars we all want? It would seem so, at least for now....but only time will tell. One day we may be complaining about the Disney Star Wars movies the way we complain about the prequels.