Saturday, June 29, 2019
In the past year Shout Factory has released a number of Blu-rays covering various eras of classic fantastic cinema--Universal science-fiction movies from the 1950s, Hammer Films titles from the 1960s, and some of the Val Lewton-RKO series from the 1940s. Now the company delves into the 1930s with the release of "The Universal Horror Collection, Vol. 1". All four films in the set feature Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
For years I've been complaining that Universal hasn't done a lot with much of the classic horror titles in their catalog. Yes, they've constantly been re-releasing the main ones such as FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, and they have restored and remastered them...but they haven't updated any of the extras on them, and most film buffs have bought the major horror titles several times over already.
With this release it appears that Shout Factory intends to pick up the slack (this set is labeled "Volume 1", after all). The four titles in this set--the 1934 THE BLACK CAT, the 1935 THE RAVEN, THE INVISIBLE RAY, and BLACK FRIDAY--have never been put on Blu-ray in America, and they have never been presented on home video with so many choice extras.
The 1934 THE BLACK CAT was the very first Karloff-Lugosi pairing, and many say it's their best overall. It's a wild Pre-Code tale of devil worship, necrophilia, and madness. The 1935 THE RAVEN gives Lugosi one of his best showcases, and in some ways the movie is even loonier than THE BLACK CAT. The 1936 THE INVISIBLE RAY isn't put on the same level as the first two Karloff-Lugosi titles, but it's quite underrated, and it has more of a budget and a more expansive script. BLACK FRIDAY is harbinger of what the Universal Silver Age of horror films would be--it's fast paced and full of incident, but it lacks atmosphere and those special moments that dominate the Universal thrillers of the 1930s.
Each film gets its own disc in this set (remember those notorious Universal DVD sets which would cram as many films as possible on each side of one disc??). All four films do look better than usual, but I wouldn't say they look exemplary. It does have to be pointed out that these films are all over or around 80 years old, and in black & white, so...how much better can you really make them look? According to the packaging, the prints of THE RAVEN, THE INVISIBLE RAY, and BLACK FRIDAY all come from a new 2K scan of the original film elements. In my opinion THE INVISIBLE RAY looks the best of all, while the blacks on BLACK FRIDAY are very, very black (and no, I'm not making a silly joke about that film's title). The sound quality is excellent on all four features.
All four films get plenty of extras. All together, there are six new audio commentaries, featuring such horror film history heavy hitters like Greg Mank, Tom Weaver, and Gary Rhodes. THE BLACK CAT and THE RAVEN get two commentaries each, while the other two films in the set receive one. I have to admit that the only commentary I have been able to listen to yet is Greg Mank's for THE BLACK CAT, but he was magnificent as always.
Running through the entire set is a worthy four-part documentary entitled A GOOD GAME: KARLOFF & LUGOSI AT UNIVERSAL. Each part is about 20 minutes long and focuses on a particular movie in the set. Gary Rhodes and Greg Mank are the talking heads in the documentary--Rhodes focuses on Lugosi, and Mank on Karloff. Both men are experts on the duo, and they downplay all the fanboy legends about a supposed Karloff-Lugosi rivalry.
Each movie gets a lengthy still gallery, and sprinkled throughout the set are trailers and radio appearances by Lugosi and Karloff. The disc for THE BLACK CAT also has an hour-long documentary examining the history of Poe adaptations on the screen entitled DREAMS WITHIN A DREAM: THE CLASSIC CINEMA OF EDGAR ALLAN POE. It's a fine program, and it was written by Steve Haberman and directed by Constantine Nasr. The set also comes with a booklet containing stills and advertising artwork from the four movies.
I really don't have as many of the classic Universal horror movies on Blu-ray as one might think. For one thing, I've bought these things way too many times over already, and the same old extras get slapped on them. There's also the fact that Svengoolie features the Universal monster classics on his program constantly. But this Shout Factory set did get my hard-earned money, due to the many extras and the people that were behind them. The titles on the second Shout Factory Universal set are...okay, nothing spectacular, and the just-announced extras for them are a little thin, so I don't know if I'll get that one. But I do recommend this first Universal Horror Collection. This set is important for classic monster movie fans, since it showcases Karloff & Lugosi.
Tuesday, June 18, 2019
Yesterday TCM showed FOOLS FOR SCANDAL, a 1938 romantic comedy made by Warner Bros. which starred Carole Lombard.
Lombard happens to be my favorite actress of all time, and FOOLS FOR SCANDAL was a film that I had never seen. I own a number of books about Lombard, and every single one of them refers to the film as one of the actress' worst. Even Vincent Paterno's excellent blog dedicated to Lombard, "Carole and Co." (carole-and-co.livejournal.com) has almost nothing positive to say about it.
Having finally seen the film myself, I wouldn't call it unwatchable...but I certainly can say it's not very funny.
Lombard plays movie star Kay Winters, who has taken a quick trip to Paris while making a film in London. While in Paris Kay encounters Rene (Fernand Gravet), a penniless nobleman. The two are attracted to one another, despite not knowing their respective backgrounds. Kay goes back to London, and Rene, having found out who she really is, follows her there and crashes a party she is having. Rene decides to become Kay's personal chef as a way to stay near here, while Kay is afraid of the publicity that might ensue due to such a relationship. The two predictably wind up with each other at the end.
FOOLS FOR SCANDAL can best be described as a movie that attempts to be a comedy. The problem is that it just isn't funny. It lacks some essential ingredients, such as style, wit, and pace. There's plenty of exaggerated acting, and characters wildly rushing about and yelling dialogue, but it takes more than that to make a successful screwball comedy.
The main problem is the script, but having an underwhelming leading man doesn't help much. If you've never heard of Fernand Gravet, don't feel bad--he didn't have much of an American film career. Gravet was a Belgian actor who had starred in European productions, and I assume he was brought over to Hollywood to be another Charles Boyer. Gravet must have shown something to be able to costar with Carole Lombard, but from my viewpoint now I can't figure out what it was. In FOOLS FOR SCANDAL Gravet comes off as silly and annoying. He doesn't have much chemistry with Lombard, and one can't believe that she'd fall for the guy under any circumstances. The script tries to have it both ways with Rene--he's out of money, so supposedly regular folks can identify with him, but he also has a title, which the script suggests makes him a "proper" match for Lombard. To me, he seemed an elitist fellow who didn't want to go out and get a real job.
In fairness to Gravet it has to be said that his character is written quite badly. Rene is one of those romantic leading men who feel that the best way to a lady's heart is to exasperate her as much as possible. Sadly the audience winds up being exasperated as well. There's a long sequence during which Kay and Rene's rival (played by Ralph Bellamy...who else?) are trying to have dinner, and Rene, in his guise as Kay's servant, interrupts them constantly. This sequence is so drawn out that one just wants Rene to get punched in the face by Bellamy, or, better yet, Lombard.
As for Carole, she does the best she can under the circumstances, but even she can't make this tale enjoyable. She makes the lame quips work far better than they should, but she also seems a bit more strident than usual. She does get to wear a very fashionable wardrobe (her character is a famous movie actress, after all), and it doesn't need to be said that she looks fantastic.
I've mentioned that Ralph Bellamy plays another of his "poor sap who is pathetically in love with the leading lady even though he has no chance" roles. Here he's really pathetic, so much so you start to feel sorry for the actor. It's always welcome to see character actor Allen Jenkins, who plays Rene's con-artist buddy, but you find it hard to believe that these two men would actually want to spend time together.
Nearly all of the supposed funny business in the movie falls flat, or feels weird, such as a scene where Lombard and Gravet talk-sing in rhyme (thankfully this doesn't last too long). FOOLS FOR SCANDAL had a unfavorable box-office and critical reaction, and Carole Lombard didn't make another pure comedy for almost three years. One wonders why the usually astute Lombard allowed herself to get involved in such a dud. This was her only acting role for Warner Bros., and one wishes that the studio had paired her with James Cagney as a spunky working-class couple. FOOLS FOR SCANDAL is even more disappointing when one considers that it was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who had a history of making far better films.
There's plenty of Carole Lombard films that I have not seen, so I hesitate to call FOOLS FOR SCANDAL her worst. But it is quite lackluster. It's the equivalent of being trapped in a room with a bunch of annoying people and watching them trying too hard to be amusing.
Monday, June 17, 2019
The 1964 Italian production THE VAMPIRE OF THE OPERA forms a rough trilogy with THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA and THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE. All three films were made in Italy, all of them are black & white, and they all feature a group of young, beautiful women being preyed upon by an undead fiend.
Out of the three films THE VAMPIRE OF THE OPERA is the most underwhelming. Director and co-writer Renato Polselli also had the same chores on THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA, which is a much more imaginative film.
The head of a theatrical troupe (Marco Mariani) discovers a long-abandoned opera house, and believes that it will be the perfect setting for his latest production. The grouchy old caretaker of the place tries to warn the troupe to stay away, but (of course) they don't listen. The troupe's leading lady (Vittoria Prado) feels as if she has a connection to the opera house. Eventually a foreboding middle-aged man in white tie and tails (Giuseppe Addobbati) shows up, and yes, he's a vampire--apparently he's resided in the opera house for years, and the caretaker is under his power. The vampire, whose name is Stefano, believes that the leading lady is the reincarnation of the woman who cursed him into becoming a member of the undead in the first place, and he wants revenge.
THE VAMPIRE OF THE OPERA stars out very well, with a striking sequence involving the leading lady (clad in a nightgown) being chased by the vampire, who threatens her with a giant pitchfork. It turns out to be a nightmare, but it does wind up serving as a mini-trailer of what is to come. The rest of the film, though, doesn't live up to the beginning--there's more dance numbers than vampire attacks. As in THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA and THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, the young beauties in the story are given plenty of opportunity to bump and grind. Much of the story is taken up by the romantic dalliances of the theatrical troupe, who act like overgrown teenagers. Just about the entire film is set within the opera house, and while there are some atmospheric settings within it, director Polselli doesn't take full advantage of them.
Giuseppe Addobbati as Stefano makes a quite noticeable vampire, mainly because he spends a lot of time grimacing and showing off his large fangs. The sub-plot of how Stefano became a vampire is rather unusual for a movie of this time period (it wouldn't be until the 1970s that the long ago love affairs of the undead would be a major feature of vampire films). There's even a scene presenting Stefano before he became a vampire, seemingly set in the Middle Ages. Stefano keeps a number of nightgown wearing female vampires chained in a dungeon-like room, he prefers using that giant pitchfork, and his greatest fear is fire. These elements do give some visual interest to the tale, but Polselli doesn't use them enough.
One sequence that does stand out, whether for good or bad, is when Stefano seems to put the entire troupe in a trance and forces them to dance maniacally. At least that's how I understood it (some sources say that the troupe is dancing to ward off the vampire). For all of Stefano's power, he winds up being defeated rather easily.
The version of THE VAMPIRE OF THE OPERA that I viewed on YouTube was 80 minutes long, and it had the onscreen title of L'ORGIE DES VAMPIRES. The movie is also known as IL MOSTRO DELL'OPERA and IL VAMPIRO DELL'OPERA. The print was okay, nothing special.
Would I have liked THE VAMPIRE OF THE OPERA better if I had seen it uncut, and in a more exemplary format? Maybe. Too much of the story is taken up by backstage shenanigans, and the movie isn't nearly as exploitative as one would expect--there's no gore or nudity. At one point it's hinted at that some of the female dancers are attracted to each other, but this is never carried all the way through. I'm sure that if this film was produced in the 1970s, it would have been much more explicit...but would that have made it more enjoyable? If you've seen THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA and THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, you might as well check out THE VAMPIRE AND THE OPERA. In my opinion it's not as good as the other two, but it is perfect viewing for a late night when you can't get to sleep.
Friday, June 14, 2019
Shout Factory's new series of Hammer Blu-ray releases continues with FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, the fourth film starring Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein.
FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN has been on home video several times. It was released on A region Blu-ray by Millennium in 2014. That version featured a number of extras and a set of collectible cards as well.
This Shout Factory edition also has new extras, and a fabulous cover design by Mark Maddox. But where it really ups the ante is in the picture quality. FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, in its earlier home video releases, has always had a pale look to it. This Shout Factory release has richer, deeper colors, and much more detail. I know it's generic to say "It's the best I've ever seen it look"--but it all honesty it is.
Shout Factory's extras include a brand new commentary with Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. It's an excellent one, as the duo spend a lot of time analyzing director Terence Fisher's cinematic style. They also use a copy of the original script to gain insight on the production. There's a short interview with actor Robert Morris, who played Hans, and another brief talk with crew members Eddie Collins and Joe Marks. I wish both programs were longer--the one with Collins and Marks in particular is informative, as it gives a true behind-the-scenes look at Hammer Films.
There's an extensive still gallery, trailers, and TV and radio spots, two "World of Hammer" episodes on the Frankenstein series and Peter Cushing, and the "Hammer Glamour" documentary is trotted out again. The audio commentary which was featured on the Millennium Blu-ray of this title is included, and it is still worth listening to, as it involves actors Robert Morris, Derek Fowlds, and Hammer expert Jonathan Rigby.
This Blu-ray also has reversible cover art, featuring a poster design from the movie's original release, and those who pre-ordered the disc directly from Shout Factory received a 18 x 24 poster of the Mark Maddox cover design.
I don't like buying movies over and over again on home video--it seems as if I've been doing that way too much lately. But the visual quality alone makes it a worthy purchase, along with the Mark Maddox poster. At least Shout Factory is giving fans major reasons to buy these movies over again, and they've got plenty of Hammer product on the way in the future.
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT is one of my favorite movies of all time. It made a huge amount of money when it was released in 1977, and despite its low-brow reputation, it is now considered an American classic.
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II, on the other hand....
Even as a kid back in the early 80s I knew that SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II was nowhere near as good as the original. I didn't automatically hate it...back then it didn't make much of an impression on me. Over the years I would see parts of it on occasion shown on TV, but I never went out of my way to see the entire film again.
The other night, I was bored, and going through the list of all the free movies available to me on my Xfinity cable. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II was on the list, and I thought, "I've got nothing else going on...why not give it a shot and see how it holds up now??" (Needless to say, I don't live a very exciting life.)
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II doesn't come off any better now--as a matter of fact, I may now have to choose it as one of the worst sequels ever.
The original SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT had a lot of dopeyness about it--but there's a difference between dopey and just plain stupid. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II starts out with a scene showing Big & Little Enos having cow manure dumped on them from vintage airplanes....and most of the other gags in the film are not much more intelligent.
This sequel has the Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and Snowman (Jerry Reed) attempting to deliver an elephant from Miami to the GOP convention in Dallas. The problem is that the Bandit has become a drunken has-been due to his breakup with Frog (Sally Field). The Snowman convinces Frog to walk out on another wedding to the son of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) so she can help whip the Bandit into shape. The trio learn that the elephant they are transporting is pregnant, and shouldn't be jostled around...but the egotistical Bandit is determined to collect the money on delivering the animal. Hilarity ensues (well....not really.)
A generic description of the plot can in no way present how truly inept the script of this movie is. There's so many problems with this script I don't even know where to begin. Should I start with the fact that the Bandit, one of the most popular movie characters of the 1970s, has been turned into a shallow jerk? Burt Reynolds always had a bit of cocky swagger to him, but he also had the Clark Gable-like ability to play such characters and still make them palatable to the audience. Here the Bandit starts out as a funny drunk, except he's not funny. He then spends the rest of the movie putting a large pregnant animal in danger so he can get some fast cash. He also spends a fair amount of time musing over his downfall. Exactly how are we supposed to enjoy watching this person??
The original SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was far-fetched...but it the story still fit into the realm of possibility. It could potentially have happened. The sequel is almost as fantastic as a Star Wars story. I'm not expecting documentary-like realism from a Smokey and the Bandit film, but even goofy action comedies have to have some sort of internal logic. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II has none.
For example, no one in the film ever considers that putting a large elephant into a semi-trailer without access to food, water, or ventilation for hours upon hours might be a bad idea. Bandit and company shanghai an Italian gynecologist (played by Dom DeLuise with a Chico Marx accent) to take care of the beast, but he doesn't do much for it, other than somehow divine that she's with child.
And there's the stunt-laden climax, which pits the Bandit against dozens and dozens of police cars. The vehicles are courtesy of Buford T. Justice's brothers, who the Sheriff has called for help in apprehending the Bandit. Jackie Gleason plays the brothers--one is named Reggie, and he's a Mountie from Canada (??). The other is a flamboyant fellow named Gaylord (GAYlord....get it??). Apparently the Justice brothers were an excuse to get more of Jackie Gleason on the screen, but it winds up being flat-out weird. How the brothers are able to simply show up in Texas with about a hundred police cars is never explained, and neither is the response of the Snowman--he shows up with about 50 big rigs behind him. The various crashes are well done, but there's no point to them. All of the vehicular mayhem in the first SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was the result of the main storyline--here, it just seems to happen out of thin air.
The whole point of the first SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was that the main characters had to accomplish a challenge in a certain amount of time, while avoiding the law along the way. The point of the sequel is a challenge that the viewer doesn't want to see accomplished, because we're supposed to feel sorry for the elephant. Because of this, one isn't really interested in whether the Bandit gets to where he is going on not. And maybe that's a good thing, since Bandit and his friends spend a lot of time meandering around--the story moves at a snail's pace compared to the first Bandit movie.
While the first Bandit film was set in a relatively believable universe, this one goes out of its way to show that it's just a movie. There's four different cameos from country music stars (Brenda Lee, the Statler Brothers, Mel Tillis, and Don Williams), and while they are all on the original soundtrack, they don't contribute much on-screen. There's also cameos from three different NFL players--Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Green, and Joe Klecko. Bradshaw's scene is a hoot--the Bandit literally drives up to him while he's practicing for a Steelers-Dolphins game, and asks for his help in avoiding Buford Justice. (Bradshaw reacts as if this is an everyday occurrence.) The kids I went to school with thought it was a big deal that TB was in this movie, but looking at it now it feels like something that you would see in a mediocre TV variety show.
I guess what amazes me most about the script for SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II is that it got filmed, period. This was a sequel for one of the most successful movies of the 1970s, it was produced by a major studio (Universal), and it featured one of the biggest movie stars of the time. And this was the script they chose to make a movie out of?? They couldn't get anything better than this? (Remember at the end of the first Bandit movie, when Big Enos challenges Bandit to go to Boston to pick up some clam chowder? That would have been a far more interesting tale.)
I can only assume that Universal was so set on another Bandit film that they didn't really care how good or bad the script was. Maybe they figured that Burt Reynolds in a new Smokey and the Bandit movie would make money no matter what. I'm sure in 1980 they were plenty of yes men at Universal, and in Burt's entourage....but I find hard to believe that nobody went out of their way to say how lousy the script was. Somebody had to have said something.
Some movies are so bad they are...well, not good, but at least entertaining. Some movies are so bad they will put you to sleep. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II is one of those bad movies that just make you sit there in wonderment. The bad kind of wonderment, as in...."I wonder how the entire cast and crew of this movie actually were able to complete it???"
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK was a film that I was quite impressed with--so much so that I named it as my favorite movie of 2017. A few days ago I was able to view the 1958 film of DUNKIRK. This movie doesn't have the technical or editing virtuosity that the 2017 film has, but it is impressive in its own understated way. The '58 DUNKIRK was made by Ealing Studios, and it was produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Leslie Norman.
The 1958 DUNKIRK opens in Spring, 1940, and depicts an England that has seemingly grown comfortable with what was called the "Phoney War". Bernard Lee plays a cynical reporter who is convinced that the U.K. is not ready for what is to come. Richard Attenborough is a small businessman whose garage has been converted to make belt buckles for the army, enabling him to make more money. Lee's character is a bit disdainful of Attenborough's acceptance of the situation.
Meanwhile in France, an ordinary corporal played by John Mills is eager to find out what is really going on. The Wehrmacht soon begins to overrun the country, causing the Allies to fall back. During the retreat, Mills' corporal is unexpectedly thrust into a leadership role when the small group of men he is with are cut off from their unit after losing their commanding officer. Mills tries to get his men back to friendly lines, despite having no information on the current situation, while Lee and Attenborough's characters find themselves taking their private boats across the English Channel to help evacuate the British Expeditionary Force from the port city of Dunkirk.
The 1958 DUNKIRK is very much a British type of World War II film. It's in black & white, it sticks for the most part to the actual facts, and it avoids bold heroics. The three main characters are ordinary men trying to do their best in a difficult situation. Lee's reporter starts out as a gruff, dour fellow who becomes eager to go to Dunkirk, despite the danger involved. Attenborough's mild-mannered, bespectacled married man doesn't want to leave his business or his family--he's recently become a father. It would be easy to define this man as a milquetoast, but the movie doesn't take that obvious route. Attenborough's character rises to the occasion and travels to Dunkirk as well, while still maintaining his quiet demeanor.
John Mills in the 1958 DUNKIRK
John Mills plays a role that he inhabited several times in his acting career--a regular English bloke serving in the armed forces. It has to be said that Mills was an expert at it. His corporal is at all times believable. He constantly mentions how he never even wanted to be a corporal, yet he deals with the situation as best he can. If this were a Hollywood film, the three main characters would each have a "big" moment, or a scene where they do something incredibly brave. Here the three men are shown as heroes without resorting to overt (and unbelievable) dramatics. The trio are not larger than life warriors--they are representatives of what common English citizens had to go through during the Second World War. All three men wind up together on the Dunkirk beaches during the climax.
The '58 DUNKIRK has plenty of fine English character actors in it, including many who will be familiar to Hammer Films buffs, such as Robert Urquhart, Eddie Byrne, Michael Gwynn, and Phillip Ray. Sharp-eyed viewers may see Lionel Jeffries and Patrick Allen in very small roles. The lack of any major stars makes the film seem more realistic--and it also contributes to the sense that the evacuation of the British Army from France was a collective effort.
Ironically the '58 DUNKIRK, at 135 minutes, is longer than the 2017 version. The movie was filmed entirely in England, though it doesn't show. At times actual war footage is spliced into the scenes, and while this can be disruptive, thankfully it doesn't happen too much. None of the main characters actually arrive at Dunkirk until about 90 minutes into to the film, but the extended sequence of what the men on the beaches had to endure is very effectively handled. The crisp, no-nonsense black & white cinematography was by Paul Beeson. There's no overt gore or bloodshed, but the movie is still able to give one a sense of how dangerous things are.
One thing that struck me was how the '58 DUNKIRK uses--and does not use--sound. The last movie I saw in a theater, the latest Godzilla film, was filled with all sorts of loud sound effects, emphatic music, and characters shouting at each other. DUNKIRK has a very restrained sound mix--Malcolm Arnold's score is only used at very particular moments. The result is that when one does hear gunshots or bombs in this film, it has more of an impact. It could be said that the entire film has an English manner to it--a look or a glance from a character means more than an explosion. The only sequence that could be called Hollywood-like happens near the end, where a religious service held on the beaches is disrupted by a German bombing run--but it winds up being terse and dramatic instead of emotionally over-the-top.
If you are a World War II buff, and you appreciate well-made and historically accurate movies made about that conflict, I suggest that you view the 1958 DUNKIRK when you get a chance. Instead of being overshadowed by the 2017 DUNKIRK, it should be defined as a fine film in its own right.
Tuesday, June 4, 2019
The real reason I went to see GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is that the film features classic Toho kaiju such as King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra. All three monsters are expertly realized here--but the rest of the movie isn't.
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is a follow-up to the 2014 GODZILLA and 2017's KONG: SKULL ISLAND. The three movies are part of a cinematic universe that I refer to as the "Monarch Series", after the organization that all the plots of the films are based around. Monarch is a powerful, vaguely threatening corporation that has been investigating and identifying giant monsters all over the Earth for years (though why the company is doing this is never really explained).
In this tale an employee of Monarch has developed a device that will wake up various monsters (referred to in this movie as "titans") from hibernation. The device is used by eco-terrorists to cause the titans to collectively rise up and lay waste to the planet. (It's the old "mankind is inherently evil and nature must be restored" plot.) Mankind's only hope lies in whether Godzilla can truly wind up being the king of the monsters.
I wasn't that big of a fan of either the 2014 GODZILLA or KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and this new entry isn't all that much better. I guess it all comes down to a question of style.
The Godzilla films made by Toho in the 1960s were colorful, fantastic adventures. I know many folks consider those type of films phony, but they fail to realize that the movies were not meant to be realistic, any more than, say, THE WIZARD OF OZ. They were meant to amaze and entertain.
In the new GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, nearly every scene takes place in a driving rain, or a snowstorm, or under dark clouds and smoke. I'm sure the main reason this was done was to help all the CGI look better, but the result is that sometimes it's hard to see what is going on. The monster battles would have been far more impressive if one could have properly appreciated them visually. It's hard to have fun watching a movie when everything is so dark and murky looking.
Just like the other two entries in the Monarch series, this movie has a number of notable actors who play characters that are not all that interesting. I understand you can't have a giant monster movie without some main human characters (although I'd love to see someone try and pull that off). It would have been nice, though, to make these people somewhat interesting--the human cast spends most of their time staring in wild-eyed amazement.
The movie does have a few inside references to the classic Toho kaiju films that geeks will notice (and it even gets Ghidorah's proper origin correct). Bear McCreary's music score uses Akira Ifukube's original themes for Godzilla and Mothra, and that's very welcome--unfortunately the sound effects are so loud that the score gets drowned out too many times.
I found it very hard to get into this film, and I'm sure that has mostly to do with me and my view of things. GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is very much a 21st Century film--it's too murky looking, too loud, and too long (over two hours).
Sunday, June 2, 2019
Last night Turner Classic Movies showed another film which contains an obscure Peter Cushing performance: VIOLENT PLAYGROUND, a 1957 juvenile delinquency drama starring Stanley Baker and directed by Basil Dearden.
VIOLENT PLAYGROUND was produced right before Cushing portrayed Van Helsing for the first time in HORROR OF DRACULA. Here the actor plays a priest, Father Laidlaw--which is rather ironic, considering how many times Cushing encountered men of the cloth during his many horror films.
VIOLENT PLAYGROUND tries to be a British answer to American disaffected youth films such as THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. The story is set in a grimy, dingy, post-war Liverpool, where police detective Truman (Stanley Baker) has been transferred, against his wishes, to the department of juvenile liaison. His new job is to try and prevent young offenders from growing into hardened criminals, but the bachelor Truman is not used to dealing with children. The detective gets involved with the Murphy family, which includes two young twins and older sister Cathie (Anne Heywood) and teen brother Johnnie (David McCallum). Truman develops an interest in Cathie, despite her mistrust of him. He also begins to suspect that Johnnie is behind a series of fires. Due to his investigations Truman is able to send the police to Johnnie's latest arson, but the boy escapes, runs over and kills a confederate with a truck, and holes up in the local school, where he holds a entire class of youngsters hostage with a machine gun. Truman and the authorities now have to figure out how to stop Johnnie from causing a massacre.
VIOLENT PLAYGROUND is a very well made film, with director Dearden and cinematographer Reg Wyer making excellent use of real-life Liverpool locations. The movie ably presents a lower-class, bleak-looking Liverpool that is filled with all sorts of children and teens that seemingly have nothing to do but get into trouble. The Murphys live in a large and noisy overcrowded housing complex that offers very little privacy. The movie was made before the rise of Beatlemania, and its black & white, matter-of-fact attitude doesn't make Liverpool very inviting.
Nearly every juvenile delinquency film features a handsome, sullen, and troubled young man, and David McCallum fills that role here. McCallum is very good, and the story tries to "explain" Johnnie's behavior (his parents are not around, and he has no guidance or direction). It's hard to feel for the character's plight, though, when he's threatening a roomful of kids with a machine gun (especially when one considers what is going on in the world right now). Johnnie has his own gang of toughs, and of course they like to listen to rock and roll (here the musical genre is represented by a very generic-sounding song called "Play Rough").
Stanley Baker is his usual strong, resilient self as Detective Truman. He comes to care and understand about the kids he is dealing with, but he still remains someone you don't want to mess around with. His best scene is at the end, where he vehemently explains to Cathie that as a police officer his main job is to uphold the law. Despite the fact that in the main credits he gets second billing, Peter Cushing has a small role as the kindly priest. His Father Laidlaw is a very soft-spoken man, but he has enough strength to try and confront Johnnie during the hostage situation. It's not one of Cushing's more memorable roles, but it's notable due to the fact that it came in between his first portrayals of Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing.
Peter Cushing and David McCallum
Like just about every British film made in the 1950s and 1960s, the supporting cast of VIOLENT PLAYGROUND has all sorts of film geek connections. Hammer veterans Clifford Evans and George Cooper appear here, and I'm pretty sure I recognized Phillip Ray, although he's not listed in the cast on IMDB. Melvyn Hayes, who had played the young Victor in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, plays one of Johnnie's gang, and Tsai Chin, who would go on to play Christopher Lee's daughter in the 1960s Fu Manchu series of films, has a brief but important part.
One thing a viewer will notice while watching VIOLENT PLAYGROUND is that none of the main characters in the movie speaks with a Liverpool accent. This might seem strange now, but Veronica Carlson (who watched the movie last night as well) mentioned to me a very good point: the reason local accents were not used was probably due to the fact that the producers wanted audiences to understand what the characters were saying. If this movie had been made after 1963 and the rise of the Beatles, no doubt the cast would have sounded very different.
VIOLENT PLAYGROUND is an effective story dealing with real-life issues, even though some of the elements have dated a bit. The tense climax, dealing with a emotionally disturbed teen holding a gun on a group of schoolchildren, is certainly disconcerting, maybe even more so now. Thankfully the movie does not use this situation as an excuse to be exploitative and vulgar.
Saturday, June 1, 2019
I had seen every single one of the films Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee appeared in--except for one: ARABIAN ADVENTURE, a 1979 fantasy adventure set in the long-ago Middle East. Kino Lorber has just released the film on home video, and of course I bought it on Blu-ray.
While it's technically accurate to call ARABIAN ADVENTURE a Cushing-Lee movie, the fact is the two have no scenes together in it. Lee stars as the villainous Caliph Alquazar, and Cushing only has two scenes as Wazir al Wuzara. The two actors were available on the set at the same time, and took publicity photos together (see below), so why the filmmakers couldn't figure out a way to get them onscreen at the same time, even if for only a moment, is a head-scratching mystery.
ARABIAN ADVENTURE was directed by Kevin Connor and produced by John Dark. The duo had been behind such Amicus family adventures as THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and AT THE EARTH'S CORE, and ARABIAN ADVENTURE is very much in the same vein. It's pleasant, lighthearted entertainment--the movie is rated G, and there's no gore or extreme violence. The movie feels like something made in the 1940s or 50s instead of 1979.
In the far-away city of Jadur, the Caliph Alquazar rules with an iron fist--but he desires even more power. He wishes to obtain the sacred Rose of Mercy, but only a person who is pure at heart can retrieve it. Alquazar promises the kindly Prince Hassan (Oliver Tobias) the hand of his beautiful stepdaughter Princess Zuleira (Emma Samms) if he brings the Rose to him. Alquazar intends to kill Hassan after he has obtained the treasure, but a clever orphan boy named Majeed (Puneet Sira) intervenes. Together with the citizens of Jadur, Hassan and Majeed defeat the evil wizard and restore freedom to the area.
The storyline of ARABIAN ADVENTURE isn't complicated--it's a very generic and old fashioned fairy tale. But it is presented in a very earnest way, and the movie is very colorful and imaginative. ARABIAN ADVENTURE is filled with all sorts of practical effects that were used very heavily in the 1970s--front and back projection, miniatures, matte paintings, etc. Some viewers now might find these effects quaint, but I for one appreciate seeing a fantasy film that doesn't look like a video game. Yes, some of the effects hold up better than others, but if one is willing to get into the spirit of the enterprise, you won't be distracted by them.
There's no doubt that a fair amount of effort and ingenuity went into this production--it doesn't appear cheap. The production design and art direction come off very well, and the costumes (prepared by Hammer veteran Rosemary Burrows) are quite striking. The climax features a dogfight between squadrons of flying carpets, and it actually works better than one would assume.
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing on the set of ARABIAN ADVENTURE
The character of Alquazar is one that Christopher Lee could play in his sleep. but he doesn't--he brings his usual commanding intensity to the role. It may have been just another bad guy role for him, but it gave Lee a far better showcase than most of the other theatrical films he appeared in around this time. Oliver Tobias is okay as the lead hero, but the role really needed someone with a more dynamic personality. Emma Samms fills out the part of the beautiful Princess very well, while young Puneet Sira is quite impressive in a very Sabu-like role. The movie also features Shane Rimmer, the ubiquitous Milton Reid, and John Ratzenberger!
As mentioned before, Peter Cushing's role is virtually a cameo, and French actress Capucine is barely seen as a genie inside a small jewel. Out of all the guest stars Mickey Rooney gets the most to do. He's the strange fellow who operates the three giant mechanical monsters that guard the way to the Rose of Mercy. The monsters are effectively realized, and Rooney hams it up outrageously (although in a movie like this I guess you can't blame him).
Kino's Blu-ray of ARABIAN ADVENTURE looks magnificent, with bright colors and sharp detail. The sound is vibrant, and it shows off Ken Thorne's atmospheric music score.
The main extra on the disc is a new audio commentary with director Kevin Connor, moderated by C. Courtney Joyner. Connor is proud of the movie (as he well should be), and he still remembers plenty of inside info about it. Joyner also asks Connor about various aspects of his overall film making career.
Most of what I had read about ARABIAN ADVENTURE was not very complimentary. Having finally seen the picture, I must said it was better than I expected. It's not a great or groundbreaking film by any means, and the fact that it came out after STAR WARS certainly didn't help it. But it's a well-done story for the young at heart. How one approaches ARABIAN ADVENTURE will determine how one winds up feeling about it--it's not a movie designed for the snarky or the cynical. It's also a film that may now be considered by some to be politically incorrect, since there's not one single member of the main cast that is a native of the Middle East. I found it to be a fun, lighthearted adventure.