Friday, August 31, 2012


This week Criterion released to home video the 1928 film LONESOME, directed by Paul Fejos. The Blu-ray also contains two other features by the innovative director: BROADWAY and THE LAST PERFORMANCE.

I had never seen THE LAST PERFORMANCE(1929) but I had been aware of it. The film has been mentioned in a number of horror film books and magazines. Considering that it was made by Universal, and that it starred Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin, it seemed well worth seeing for any classic monster movie fan.

The actual movie isn't really a horror film, or all that much of a thriller. It's more of a backstage melodrama involving stage magician Erik the Great (Veidt) who is infatuated with his much younger assistant, Julie (Philbin). After Erik incorporates a new helper into the act, Julie and the new man fall in love. This sets the stage for a magic "trick" which becomes murder.

Paul Fejos isn't well known today, even among movie buffs. The Hungarian filmmaker made only a few features in America in the late 20s, before becoming disillusioned by Hollywood. He is known for his unusual camera techniques, which is why he is now getting the Criterion treatment. THE LAST PERFORMANCE has a number of sweeping visuals and interesting camera set-ups. Unfortunately there isn't really much to the story. Veidt is his usual creepy self. If there ever was an actor who was the living embodiment of German Expressionism, it's him. Veidt gets a number of dramatic extreme close-ups. One wishes that he had been given a bit more to do.

Mary Philbin had starred in the original THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with Lon Chaney and had already appeared with Veidt in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. She plays the same type of role in PERFORMANCE as she does in the earlier two--the sweet, innocent heroine. The audience knows there's just no way her character's going to wind up with a spooky magician.

THE LAST PERFORMANCE was released in two versions: silent & part-talkie. Criterion carries the silent one, from a Danish print. The picture quality isn't all that great, but the superb cinematography of Hal Mohr still shines through.

It's nice to finally see THE LAST PERFORMANCE. Some people might be disappointed. Those expecting a "lost" Universal horror classic need to know that this film is far from that. One's expectations are high, considering the studio and the cast involved. All Universal monster-movie junkies will want to see this at least once. And all hard-core movie buffs will want to get the LONESOME package. It's worth it just to see three hard-to-find films from an innovative cult director.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

LES VAMPIRES, FANTOMAS, and Louis Feuillade

I first became aware of the work of French film director Louis Feuillade after purchasing Kino's FANTOMAS set on DVD a couple years ago. The set contains five films, made in 1913-14, dealing with the adventures of master criminal Fantomas.

What amazed me about the films was even though they were somewhat primitive, just about every action or police story cliche is contained in them. The super-criminal Fantomas is an obvious predecessor to Dr. Mabuse, the James Bond villains, and even the superhero foes of today.

Fantomas is a master of disguise, and he can strike at any time, at any place. He seems to have an unlimited source of funds and equipment to carry out his bizarre schemes. But the viewer is never given any reason why Fantomas does what he does. He has no back story, no flashbacks explaining his character, or no scenes written to make him more "human". He exists, it seems, only for the chase. In some ways this makes him even more dangerous than the usual movie villain.

The five Fantomas films total about 330 minutes running time, and they contain as many unbelievable plot twists as any adventure serial from the 30's and 40's, or any Michael Bay movie of today. The Fantomas series was hugely popular, and Feuillade followed it up with LES VAMPIRES, filmed in 1915-16.

With LES VAMPIRES, Feuillade ups the ante by having not just one super-criminal, but an entire super-criminal group, the Vampires. Feuillade also gives the journalist hero an annoying comic sidekick (sound familiar?). LES VAMPIRES is made of ten episodes, and it clocks in at 7 1/2 hours. It's even wilder and more fantastic than FANTOMAS. But what really sets it apart is the inclusion of the Vampire's best agent, Irma Vep, played by Musidora.

Irma Vep is a tough, sexy, woman of action who at various times dresses in form-fitting black--nearly a century before Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Anne Hathaway's Catwoman. She has the ability to seduce and kill just about every man she meets. She's far and away the most interesting character in the series. When she's not on the screen, the story just doesn't have the same excitement. But just like Fantomas, she's a total mystery. In a 21st Century film, her character would be "explained" to the audience.

Seven and a half hours might seem way too much for a silent adventure serial, but LES VAMPIRES is packed with booby traps, poison gasses, bombs, portable cannons, incredible coincidences, secret identities, amazing stunts, fantastic escapes, car chases, gunfights, etc. Feuillade filmed on a number of actual locations around Paris. While watching this, the viewer comes to the unnerving realization that this isn't some production designer's version of 1915 Paris--it's the real thing. There's also an even more unnerving realization...when LES VAMPIRES was being filmed, not too many miles away, thousands and thousands of Feuillade's fellow countrymen were dying on the battlefields of World War I.

That war has no bearing on FANTOMAS or LES VAMPIRES. Feuillade's world doesn't have time for it. The labyrinthine plots that Feuillade's villains set into motion are so complicated, that one wonders why they just don't do a simple bank robbery. Fantomas and the Vampires are always posing as someone else. They lead double--and sometimes even triple--lives. They are obviously greedy, but with all the time they spend on their scheming, how in the heck can they spend the money that they steal?  It seems that every other person in Paris works for the bad guys. Feuillade uses the City of Light as a giant playset for his outlandish stories.

LES VAMPIRES has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Video. The picture quality is pretty decent, considering that it's 97 years old. It was restored under the supervision of Feuillade's grandson, Jacques Champreux. When it comes to silent movies on home video, Kino can't be beat. I have spent a ton of money on their product.

I know that most people won't touch a silent movie when a ten-foot pole. One of the things I have learned from watching silents is that most of the "brilliant" film techniques that we assume originated in the "modern age" were actually there all along. Louis Feuillade isn't just some obscure name--he's the original Jerry Bruckheimer. All the "cool" action and adventure films and TV shows are really not that far advanced from the work of Louis Feuillade.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I Never Joined The Breakfast Club

This year marked the 25th anniversary of my high school graduation. I certainly didn't celebrate it in any way--heck, I wasn't even invited to any reunion. But it got me thinking the other day about how I really started getting interested in films as a teenager.
The time period was the mid-80s, when the so-called "Brat Pack" films--usually directed or written by John Hughes--were all the rage. Critics back then talked about how "real" those movies were, and how much they influenced an entire generation of America's youth. Now those films are considered classics, and a window into how teenagers of that era looked, acted, thought, and communicated.
So what influence did the "Brat Pack" movies have on me?

Absolutely none.

Truth is, I hated being a teenager. I wasn't popular in high school, and my family didn't have a lot of money. All the stuff I was supposed to watch--or the stuff that critics assumed I wanted to watch--held no interest for me. I didn't want to spend two hours seeing beautiful fake teenagers deal with their fake problems. Did I have the hots for Molly Ringworm or Ally Sheedy? Uhhh, no.
It wasn't the work of John Hughes that spoke to me. It was directors like Sergio Leone, Terence Fisher, Alfred Hitchcock, and James Whale. My Brat Pack had members named Chaney, Karloff, Lugosi, Price, Cushing, Lee, Atwill, and Zucco. Tom Cruise? No thanks...I was too busy watching every Clint Eastwood movie ever made about 10 times.

I know that a lot of people my age have a fond regard for the Brat Pack films. I've got buddies who think FERRIS BUELLER is right up there with CITIZEN KANE. But they never were all that important to me. Looking back on them, they seem even more contrived and phoney then I thought they did 25 years ago. With all due respect to Mr. Hughes (whose greatest film was PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES, in my opinion), TV horror movie host Svengoolie did more to get me through high school than he did.

And if that doesn't explain how screwed up I am, I don't know what does.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Blast From The Past: THE ROCKETEER

With the summer of 2012 being dominated by superhero films at the box-office, maybe it's time to take a look back at a comic-book adaptation that didn't hit it big: 1991's THE ROCKETEER, released by Disney and directed by Joe Johnston.

THE ROCKETEER, compared to the "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality inherent in most of today's genre spectaculars, seems almost quaint and understated. That may be one of the reasons the movie did not reach the blockbuster status that Disney was hoping for. Despite the fact that it was given a huge ad campaign, it didn't do all that great money-wise, and today it's barely remembered.

The film (based on the comic-book series by Dave Stevens) tells the story of Cliff Secord, a 1930s struggling stunt pilot who by chance comes into the possession of a top-secret jetpack. Secord's adventures get him involved with gangsters, G-Men, Nazis, and the Hollywood film community. Instead of the slam-bang action romp that audiences may have been expecting, THE ROCKETEER is more of a family-oriented period piece. It does have some nice action sequences, but one gets the feeling that the kids of today wouldn't be all that excited about it.

One reason for a lack of excitement is the film's hero. Bill Campbell is okay as Secord, but the character isn't really all that dynamic. He's portrayed as well-meaning but a bit disorganized--he has problems making a living, he takes his drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend to a cheap burger joint, and he almost causes said girlfriend to get fired from her job. Secord is pleasant and likeable enough, but just about everything that happens to him involves dumb luck--you come away thinking that the jetpack is the hero, not Cliff. The script should have done more to make Cliff more interesting, or given more background on him. At the end of the film, it appears that Secord hasn't changed, or "grown" in any way.

It doesn't help Bill Campbell that he's surrounded by actors who are a lot better than he is. Alan Arkin plays the typical "older mentor" role (comic-book movies always seem to have one). Paul Sorvino is the head gangster (there's a surprise), and Timothy Dalton plays an arrogant movie star who is actually the real villian of the piece. (The role is based on a famous Hollywood urban legend about a well-known film swashbuckler supposedly being a fascist.) The very underrated Terry O'Quinn plays probably the most normal Howard Hughes in movie and TV history.
Jennifer Connelly looks fantastic as Cliff's girlfriend Jenny (the 30s wardrobe more than does her justice). But there isn't really a lot to her character either. As stated before, it's the jetpack--and the Rocketeer suit--that one tends to remember instead of the leading couple.

The film is very well made, and it does have a great 30s atmosphere. This was Joe Johnston's second directorial effort (after HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS) and he handles things very well. The finale involving a Nazi airship is excellent. Johnston was an expert FX technician before he turned to directing so THE ROCKETEER was right up his alley. Unfortunately the screenplay (credited to Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo) doesn't seem to have the qualities to put THE ROCKETEER into classic status. One wonders if the suits at Disney wanted a more "family" type of story. The film was rated PG and does not have any overt violence or bloodshed. The only somewhat "dark" moments the film has involves Timothy Dalton's massive henchman, who is made-up to resemble cult 1940s B movie actor Rondo Hatton. (It's somewhat ironic that an actor was "made-up" as Hatton. Rondo suffered from acromegaly, and didn't NEED monster make-up.)

All in all, THE ROCKETEER is not a bad film. It's certainly worth watching again, or buying on blu-ray. But comparing it to comic-book/action movies made today--even those type of movies made in the same year--one can easily see why it failed to be a huge success, or spawn any sequels (not yet, anyway). The director and the leading couple all went on to bigger and better things--but THE ROCKETEER seems stuck in a limbo. It wasn't grand or overwhelming enough to get major attention, and it wasn't terrible enough to be considered a major bomb. Look at it again sometime and see what you think.

Friday, August 10, 2012


When they tell me that I am the father of the Italian Western, I have to ask, "How many sons of bitches do you think I've spawned?"
--Sergio Leone

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

SEVEN SAMURAI just moved up two spots in the USA Today Coaches Poll

A week or so ago the internet was all abuzz about the latest edition of a poll which Sight & Sound magazine does every 10 years. The subject of the poll is, "What is the greatest movie of all time?" The latest poll declares that VERTIGO is the "new" greatest movie of all time, replacing CITIZEN KANE, the film which held the top spot in the poll before.
The idea of rating movies as if they were college football teams is pretty silly. This latest poll is a perfect example. If CITIZEN KANE was supposedly already the greatest film of all time, how can another movie made over fifty years ago be better? What happened in the last ten years? Was there some new footage found? Did KANE have points taken off because Orson Welles cheated? Or did the magazine put another movie in the top spot so they could get some cheap publicity?
What's really bothersome about these polls is that a lot of people think that they are somehow "official". How can anyone say with absolute total certainty what is the "greatest" film of all time? Having an individual opinion on your favorite films is one thing. But to have a group of so-called experts declare a certain film the greatest, and to have the media pick up on it and act like it should be set in stone (typical headline: VERTIGO NEW GREATEST FILM EVER) is somewhat arrogant.
By the way, I love VERTIGO. It's one of my favorite movies of all time. But I love it not because a film "expert" told me to love it, or a book or an article did....I love it for my own personal reasons.
A film is only as great as the person who is watching it thinks it is. An appreciation for a film (or any other work of art) shouldn't be influenced by critics, "experts", or bloggers. Don't develop a connection to a film through another person's labeling system. Experience a film with your own eyes...not someone else's.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Dark Knight Has Not Yet Risen

My favorite superhero is Batman. I watched the TV show when I was a little kid, and I read most of the Batman comics fairly regularly in the 80s and 90s. Because of this, people are always asking me, "What's your favorite Batman movie?"
The answer is easy. My favorite Batman movie hasn't been made yet.

Beginning with the 1966 feature film adaptation of the "Batman" TV series, there have been 9 Batman films released starring 6 different actors as the character. (By the way, I am counting the animated film BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM. For those that say it shouldn't count...why not?) I think it's safe to say that none of the six actors are considered to be the "ultimate" Batman. If there is an actor that comes to mind when the Caped Crusader is mentioned, it's probably Adam West, like it or not.
Kevin Conroy has actually portrayed Batman more times than anyone. He voiced the character during the entire run of the Batman Animated TV series in the 90s, and he's continued to do so since then in several animated shows based on the DC Comics universe. Of course, the average person doesn't think of Conroy as Batman...but for me, he's about as close as you can get to MY version of the Dark Knight.
But what about the movies? Well...they have their individual moments, and certainly the last three Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan come closer to the "real" comic-book version than the others. Nolan is a very talented director, and he puts together some excellent action set-pieces. If there is a "greatest" Batman film, it would have to be BATMAN BEGINS. Unfortunately Nolan's next two films got longer and longer, with the plots more and more complex. The longer and more complex they got, the more they moved away from the "real" Batman.
The problem with a Batman fan like me is that none of the films seem to hit the total mark. I realize that a film has to be made for a general audience, and not for a bunch of geeky fanboys, but a screenwriter doesn't really need to change a lot of things when given a compelling figure like Batman. The character is almost fool-proof. But that doesn't stop the directors, writers, and producers involved from "re-inventing", or "revamping", or "re-imagining" the Dark Knight's world. Instead of going to the actual comics....or getting someone like Denny O'Neill as an adviser...the films rework just about everything. I know it's the Hollywood Way, but it's frustrating to see a great fictional character with over 70 years of material to work with treated in such a manner.
Having someone like Christian Bale playing the title role doesn't exactly help, either. I've always found Bale to be sort of a dull actor. When I'm watching the recent films, I don't think of Bale AS Batman, I just think of him as a guy PLAYING Batman.
Having said all this, I know that the Nolan/Bale movies have made a ton of money, and despite Nolan and Bale supposedly leaving the series, there will be more Batman films made. It would be nice to see a Batman movie with an unknown actor in the leading role, instead of a "star" leading man who isn't suited to the job. It would be nice to see a Batman movie in which BATMAN is the actual main character, instead of the villians. It would be nice to see a Batman movie without a tacked-on useless romantic subplot (is Warner Bros afraid that if Bruce Wayne doesn't have a girlfriend in every movie, people will think he is gay?) It would be nice to see a Batman movie in which most of the cast DOES NOT find out that Bruce Wayne is Batman....

But what's really nice is having the complete BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES on DVD.
That's MY Batman.

Monday, August 6, 2012

An Introduction

Hi, my name is Dan and at the behest of a number of family members and friends, I have decided to start my own movie blog. I am not going to limit this blog to a certain type of film or a certain era of film...whatever happens to come into my warped brain will decide the subject matter. The great thing about being a film buff is that one is always making discoveries--you can never see EVERY movie ever made. Hopefully I will encourage some of you to make some discoveries of your own.