Monday, December 31, 2012

I've Got Spurs That Jingle Jingle Django

There's been a lot of people saying that Quentin Tarantino's new film, DJANGO UNCHAINED, is his attempt at a "Spaghetti Western". But when you think about it, every film that Tarantino has ever made is a spaghetti western. All the elements of the genre--the quirky & quotable dialogue, the larger-than-life characters, the over-the-top acting, and the exaggerated camera set-ups--are a huge part of Tarantino's cinematic world. He isn't doing anything different in DJANGO than he does in his other films, other than some of the characters ride horses.

It won't be a surprise to people that DJANGO is exceedingly violent and filled with crude language. It's also, in this blogger's opinion, very well made and very entertaining. Whether you like Tarantino or not, you have to admit the man puts on a show. He has a style and panache that millions of dollars worth of CGI can't match.

Jamie Foxx is surprisingly good in the title role, but this film is stolen by Christoph Waltz. Just like he did in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Waltz dominates every scene he's in. If there was any actor born to be in a Tarantino movie, it's Christoph Waltz. This is going to sound crazy, but Waltz reminds me of....Bela Lugosi. Just like Lugosi, Waltz has an off-center accent which enables him to take the most innocuous line of dialogue and make it sound like it has some grim portent. As Sidney Fox said of Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, Waltz is a show in himself.

As is typical in Tarantino's films, the rest of the cast is pretty eclectic: Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine, Lee Horsley, Jonah Hill (in a totally pointless cameo), and the original Django himself, Franco Nero. The soundtrack is just as eclectic--it includes Ennio Morricone (of course), the original DJANGO theme song, Jim Croce, and....Tupac.

As for the controversy surrounding the film's dealing with slavery, I honestly think Tarantino doesn't give a hoot about any political or social meanings. This is the guy who changed world history so he could have a great climax for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Movie critics absolutely adore Tarantino, so he's probably not going to get too much backlash. That being said, DJANGO UNCHAINED is not for everyone. If you think this is going to be a funny Western with Jamie Foxx, it's not. If you are a fan of Tarantino's you'll enjoy it. If you don't like extreme violence or language I would suggest you skip this one. I was impressed with DJANGO, except for one thing....not once during the entire movie does Django drag a coffin behind him, like the original Django did. How could have Tarantino missed putting that in?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Highlights Of 2012

In one of my earlier posts I mentioned meeting Svengoolie at the 2012 G-Fest held in Rosemont, IL. I met some other people of note at that convention as well--Akira Takarada (on the left) and Bin Furuya (on the right). Akira Takarada starred in the original GODZILLA, and appeared in a number of other Toho kaiju films, including INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER and KING KONG ESCAPES. Bin Furuya was the original Ultraman!
In August of this year I attended the Wizard Comic Con with my brother Robert, which was held right down the road from where G-Fest was. We got our picture taken with STAR WARS actors Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett).

Some pretty nerdy highlights, huh? Well, that's my life.

By the way, since it's the end of the year, I'd like to thank all of you who have taken time to read this blog. I must admit when I started doing this I wasn't too confident on how it would turn out, but I've gotten a number of nice comments and doing this blog has been very enjoyable for me. If any of you gracious readers out there have any suggestions, or have in mind any certain films, performers, or subjects you would like me to blog about, please feel free to let me know.

Happy New Year and Thank You

Dan Day, Jr.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Happy Birthday To Marlene Dietrich

You know all the Britneys, and Christinas, and Katys, and Taylors that inhabit today's cultural landscape? All of those women combined could never be as legendary as Marlene Dietrich.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Top Five DVD/Blu-rays Of 2012

I've been doing a top five DVD/Blu-ray list on my Facebook page for the last couple years. Most of the titles I pick are usually pretty obscure, because my list isn't about the best FILMS on DVD/Blu-ray, it's about the best DVD/Blu-rays themselves. There is a difference.

Most new movies released on home video are given the same generic treatment--the same usual featurettes, where the cast & crew go on about how "This is the best script I've ever read!" or "I've always wanted to work with this director!" If you want me to talk about some Will Ferrell movie, or THE AVENGERS, or BRAVE, I suggest you go to the "US Weekly" website.

Great DVD/Blu-ray releases are becoming fewer and fewer, because just about all the studios now release their older product on DVD-R. While that means a number of films that probably would never see the light of day are now being released, it also means no more special features, or audio commentaries, or remastered editions. It's way cheaper to slap an old movie on DVD-R than it is to do all the work needed to prepare a "special edition". There are still some companies who take the time and trouble to make a DVD/Blu-ray release a worthy purchase--companies such as Kino, Criterion, and a few others.

But don't worry--if you are a film buff and like spending all your hard-earned money on this stuff, there are still plenty of things available for you. Here, in my extremely humble opinion, are the best DVD/Blu-rays of 2012:

1. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Blu-ray) from Universal
The reason I picked this number one is because of the incredible restoration that was done on this title. ALL QUIET was made in 1930, and the Blu-ray version looks like it was made yesterday. The silent version of ALL QUIET is included as well, and a nice little booklet about the production is part of the packaging.

2. TWINS OF EVIL (Blu-ray) from Synapse
Of course, I have to pick a Hammer film starring Peter Cushing. TWINS had not been available in any Region One format until this release, and Synapse has done this film up right, with a number of special features. There's an all-new documentary, THE FLESH AND THE FURY: X-POSING TWINS OF EVIL, which is almost as long as the actual film, and is one of the best extras put on a DVD in years. There's also a look at the Hammer Props collection of studio historian Wayne Kinsey. I'm sure a lot of people will think it's crazy to go to all this effort for a vampire film that isn't really one of Hammer's best efforts (some of my Facebook friends won't like me saying that), but I think Synapse should commended, especially in an age where most "big name" movies don't get a home video showcase like this.

3. LONESOME (Blu-ray) from Criterion
This is actually a set of films from experimental Hungarian filmmaker Paul Fejos, made during his time at Universal Studios in the late 1920s. LONESOME is kind of like a version of SUNRISE set in urban America. The other two movies included here are THE LAST PERFORMANCE, starring Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin, and the early talkie-part musical BROADWAY. I didn't really know much about Fejos until I bought this. This set is filled with documentaries and a audio commentary which tell about the man. Only Criterion would put out something like this--and it's a good thing that there is a company which does that.

I wrote a blog about this earlier. Hopefully this release will be popular enough to induce Sony to finally put out all the other Frank Capra movies still unavailable on home video.

5. WINGS (Blu-ray) from Paramount
WINGS is of course the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie's restoration looks great, and among the features are a re-recording of the film's original score, and a special effects track prepared by Ben Burtt (the man behind the sound of the STAR WARS series).

NOTE: I chose the films for this list from my own collection. The fact that I work for a living means I can't buy everything, so if you are wondering why, say, something like the Universal Blu-ray box set of their monster movies is not on here, it's because I don't own it. However, if anyone out there would like to send me money to buy any products that you feel should be on this list......

Saturday, December 22, 2012


One of the most obscure World War One movies is I WAS A SPY, which was produced by Gaumont-British in 1933. The story is based on the real-life adventures of Belgian Marthe Cnockaert, who passed information to Allied agents while working as a nurse in a German military hospital during World War One. The film was released on DVD a couple years ago by VCI Home Entertainment.

The movie stars the exquisitely lovely Madeleine Carroll as Marthe and Conrad Veidt as the German Town Commandant. The cast also includes a number of well-known British talent from the era: Herbert Marshall, Edmund Gwenn, Donald Calthorp, Nigel Bruce, Eva Moore, and Anthony Bushell.

I WAS A SPY is very different from most WWI films in that the setting is a occupied Belgian town instead of the usual trenches or airfields. The incidents involving the Belgian citizens and their relationship with the German Army seems more akin to a movie about WWII. A number of scenes dealing with espionage would be pretty cliche about ten years later, but they seem original when placed in a WWI drama. This is not strictly a "war" film, due to the fact that there are no major battles staged, but the conflict is never very far away--in just about every scene there are German soldiers somewhere in the background.

Despite her usual patrician manner, Madeleine Carroll is excellent as Marthe. What makes her character unusual is that while Marthe is spying on the Germans, she's still also doing her best as a nurse. Marthe is even awarded the Iron Cross (as did the real Cnockaert). Her beauty and grace attract the attentions of the Town Commandant, played by Conrad Veidt at his villainous best. Veidt gives off an almost reptilian quality--one wants to cringe when he tries to seduce Marthe. But at the same time, Veidt never overacts and keeps the Commandant from becoming an over-the-top caricature.

Herbert Marshall's character works in the same hospital as Marthe, and he is a spy as well. Marthe falls for him, which leads to the familiar "duty before love" subplot. It is nice that Carroll does not act like a Mata Hara, and Marshall is nowhere near the typical dashing espionage agent.

Director Victor Saville keeps things going at a fast pace throughout the 86-minute running time. This is not a very well-known production--I had never heard of it until I saw it listed on Amazon. But it is certainly of interest for those who are WWI and history buffs. I WAS A SPY will also appeal to those who enjoy classic British Cinema, and classic British film performers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Concerning THE HOBBIT

My paperback copy of J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is 306 pages long. Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, is about three hours long.....and there's still two more parts to go. So when I say that my first impression of the film is that it's "overstuffed", I think you can understand what I mean.

I am a huge fan of THE LORD OF THE RINGS film trilogy. Seeing those films in a theater was one of the last times I had the feeling of experiencing cinema history right in front of me. I have to say that I didn't have that feeling while watching THE HOBBIT. It's very well made, it has some great moments, and it's certainly worth going to see, but so far, it just doesn't have the majesty that the RINGS trilogy had.

One of the problems is that THE LORD OF THE RINGS dealt with the entire fate of Middle Earth, while THE HOBBIT is really about a bunch of dwarves trying to get their gold back. The stakes just aren't as high. Jackson includes a backstory about the lost dwarf kingdom to try to alleviate this. Unfortunately the audience is predisposed to look at the dwarves as comic figures because of the way Gimli was portrayed in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. There are 13 dwarves in THE HOBBIT, and some of then are designed so outlandishly that it's hard to really be concerned about them. Richard Armitage is pretty good as Thorin, the Alpha Male Dwarf Prince. The rest of the dwarves are almost interchangeable (if you asked me to look at stills of them all and name them I couldn't do it).

For a movie called THE HOBBIT, the actual Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, kind of gets lost in the shuffle. The charm of Tolkien's book is that the reader sees the story through Bilbo's eyes. Jackson has put so much extra material in the film that sometimes you forget Bilbo's even there. THE LORD OF THE RINGS did have some silly humor and large-scale action sequences, but in THE HOBBIT those elements are amped way, way up--it's as if Jackson & Co. felt the material wasn't strong enough. THE HOBBIT has way more of a video game feel than the RINGS trilogy did. The battle against the mountain goblins just goes on and on, and gets crazier and Jackson was doing a bad imitation of the Mines of Moria sequence from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. There are some other scenes that give off a kind of "I've been here before" type of feeling.

Among the extra stuffing that Jackson serves up is an appearance by the wizard Rastagan the Brown, played by former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy. Rastagan literally stops the show, and not really in a good way. There are also a number of cameos from veterans of the RINGS trilogy. It's always great to see Sir Christopher Lee on the big screen, no matter how brief.

As I mentioned, there are some worthy moments. The legendary game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum is probably the best thing in the movie. Sir Ian McKellen is once again dead perfect as Gandalf. McKellen is the backbone of the entire series--without him these films would have never worked. During one of the wild action set-pieces there's a fight between stone giants that approaches a Ray Harryhausen-like quality. The dwarves singing in Bilbo's house before the start of their journey is a hauntingly powerful scene that reminds one of the best parts of the RINGS trilogy.

I enjoyed THE HOBBIT, and I'll probably go see it again...heck, I might even like it better the second time. It's a very good production, but I just didn't get the same feeling of greatness I got from THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Some people have made PHANTOM MENACE comparisons--it's nowhere near that disappointing--but I kind of wanted to be a bit more awed and impressed. There's still two films to go, so maybe the end will justify the means.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


I've seen so many movies that it isn't very often now that I get to see a notable film for the first time. Yesterday Turner Classic Movies ran THE DEADLY COMPANIONS, whose main claim to fame is it was the first feature film to be directed by Sam Peckinpah. This film is not widely available on home video and is almost never shown on TV.....which is why I had not caught up to yet.

Just about everything Sam Peckinpah directed or had a hand in has been analyzed and dissected a thousand ways. THE DEADLY COMPANIONS doesn't get much coverage, even from Peckinpah scholars. Some fans of the director believe that it's not a "real" Peckinpah film, because he didn't have control of the script or the final edit. Nevertheless, it foreshadows several well-known elements that would appear in Peckinpah's later work.

The story concerns mysterious ex-Union soldier Yellowlegs (Brian Keith), who happens upon cocky gunfighter Billy (Steve Cochran) and Rebel deserter and card cheat Turk (Chill Wills). Yellowlegs has a personal reason to keep close to these men, and he suggests that they rob a bank in a small town called Gila City. The three ride there only to have other bandits attempt to rob the bank first. In the shoot-out that follows Yellowlegs accidentally kills the young son of saloon hostess Kit (Maureen O'Hara). Kit is considered a "bad woman" by the townspeople, so she decides to bury her son next to his father....but her late husband is laid to rest in a ghost town deep into Apache territory. Yellowlegs, feeling guilty, coerces Billy and Turk to join him in accompanying Kit on the journey.

Sam Peckinpah is best known for orchestrating frenetic and extremely violent action set-pieces, but you won't find any of those in THE DEADLY COMPANIONS. This is a slow, bitter, elegiac film--it feels like the work of an older man instead of the feature film debut of someone who was at the age of 35. Despite the fact that the cinematographer was the famed William Clothier, there are no sweeping vistas or panoramic scenes of natural beauty here--the country that the Companions ride through is barren and desolate.

There are several connections to Peckinpah's more famous films. Yellowlegs has a lot in common with many other Peckinpah characters like Major Dundee, Pike Bishop, Cable Hogue, Junior Bonner, and Pat Garrett--he's determined to see a job through, even though completion of the task may mean his physical (and personal) destruction. Billy and Turk are the first of the "prairie scum" that would always inhabit the rest of Peckinpah's Western output. Strother Martin has a small role as a preacher, which is somewhat ironic considering the roles he would play for Peckinpah in the future.

Maureen O'Hara was, of course, an incredibly beautiful woman, and her looks have somewhat overshadowed her acting talent. The "dance hall girl" is one of the biggest cliches of the Western, but O'Hara makes Kit into a three-dimensional person, a single mother who, despite suffering extreme hardship, has not lost her pride or her spirit. Very few actresses at the time could have played this role. Brian Keith was one of the most underrated of American actors--he wasn't known as a superstar, but he made a lot of so-called superstars look pretty good. Keith was never showy, or flashy, but he brought a realness and a solid foundation to every part he undertook. Yellowlegs is a character who always keeps everything close to the vest (we never even find out his real name) and the audience never really knows what Yellowlegs is going to do or how he is going to act. Keith, though, has an inner strength that he is able to project which makes the viewer like and trust him. O'Hara and Keith had just appeared together in THE PARENT TRAP, and they have excellent chemistry-- almost as good as the chemistry O'Hara had with John Wayne, but in a very different way. Steve Cochran and Chill Wills, in this movie at least, act like the type of guys you want to see get punched in the face.

The reason Sam Peckinpah was given a chance to direct THE DEADLY COMPANIONS was because of the recommendation of Brian Keith, who had worked with Peckinpah in American television. The man who hired Peckinpah was producer Charles Fitzsimons--who happened to be Maureen O'Hara's brother. The ultra-professional O'Hara and Peckinpah didn't get along too well--a sign of things to come for the rest of "Bloody Sam's" career. One can be sure that Peckinpah was jealous over the family relationship between producer and lead actress. (By the way, it really is Maureen singing the song during the beginning & end credits.)

As mentioned before, THE DEADLY COMPANIONS has nowhere near the reputation of other Peckinpah films such as RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and THE WILD BUNCH. It's not a bad film by any's well made, with great performances by O'Hara and Keith. But it's very depressing, and it makes one wonder....if you took away all the violence of Peckinpah's more famous work, what would you have left? Something like THE DEADLY COMPANIONS.

NOTE: This film is going to be released on DVD by VCI Entertainment in February 2013.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


I own a number of what I call "film location" books. These books show the actual locations, or buildings, or streets, that were used for filming certain movie productions. I have one on Hammer Films which just came out this year, and I have a couple written by John Bengtson and published by Santa Monica Press, concerning Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. It's fascinating to know that what is now an old building is something Harold Lloyd performed on top of. The idea that an ordinary street corner is a place where Buster Keaton ran away from some movie cops is the type of stuff I love to read about.

So when I saw on Amazon that THE THREE STOOGES: HOLLYWOOD FILMING LOCATIONS was up for pre-order, I was pretty excited. I haven't talked about the Stooges yet on any of my posts, but I've been watching them almost my entire life. I have every Three Stooges Columbia short subject on DVD. If there is one thing in the world that makes me laugh no matter what the circumstances, it's The Three Stooges.

I actually pre-ordered this book back in 2011, and it just came out this month! But it is definitely worth the wait. Written by Stooge expert Jim Pauley, this volume is somewhat different than other film location books in that most of the Stooges' work at Columbia was filmed at the studio lots. In fact this book is somewhat of a mini-history of Columbia Studios. There are tons of pictures of Columbia's sets and infrastructure. There are also maps of Columbia's lots as well. I think it's safe to say that Columbia has never been covered this extensively anywhere else. Compared to companies such as MGM, Warner Brothers, and Universal, Columbia hasn't had much historical light shown on it.

Of course this book is about The Three Stooges, and about 70 of their short films for Columbia are featured. The films are listed in alphabetical order. I wish that the films had been listed chronologically, so that the reader would have a better understanding of how the series changed and developed over time, but that's a minor quibble. I like the fact that Pauley has included some of the Shemp and Joe Besser shorts--I love Curly, but Stooge history involves far more than him.

There are a number of behind-the-scenes photos of the Stooges at work, most I've never seen before. There are great "then and now" pictures of the few real locations the Stooges did use--the highlight of any film location book. The famous steps used in the Stooge short AN ACHE IN EVERY STAKE are showcased (contrary to urban legend, these are NOT the same steps used in Laurel & Hardy's THE MUSIC BOX). My favorite photo is a full two-page spread of a Columbia Pictures studio banquet with about a hundred (all male) guests. The poor Stooges are seated about as far away from Columbia chief Harry Cohn as they can possibly be!

It's obvious that if you are a Three Stooges fan, you should get this book (or get someone to get it for you). But if you happen to love seeing photos of the backlots and sets from Hollywood's Golden Age, you might want to check this book out. Jim Pauley needs to be commended not just for his painstaking research, but for providing new insight on one of the most popular film comedy teams of all time, and the studio they worked for.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Barbara Stanwyck

This weekend, a Barbara Stanwyck blogathon is being hosted by I wrote this post last year, but it best reflects my feelings for one of my favorite movie performers.

I honestly think that Barbara Stanwyck was the greatest film actress of all time. She could play just about any role. She could be warm and kind, or bitter and dangerous. She could be attractive and alluring, or she could be plain and unlikeable. She could play a working class girl, and play a woman to the manor born. Stanwyck appeared in musicals, comedies, soap opera style dramas, film noirs, historical epics, westerns.....she worked in just about every genre of film, and she fit right in with all of them.

I think what made Stanwyck so versatile was her hardscrabble background. She always referred to her career as "work", and that's why she was able to play so many different roles in so many types of films. She didn't think of herself as a star, and she took on parts that very few of her contemporaries would have done (or done well if they had). Her outstanding work ethic enabled her to approach every movie with real emotional intensity. When you watch Stanwyck, no matter what the circumstances, you never feel she's being "fake".

Of course, there are those famous "Stanwyck Moments" (like the beginning of THE MIRACLE WOMAN) where she just absolutely lets rip, and you can almost feel the paint peeling off the walls. But her acting ability was more than just yelling and screaming--Stanwyck could get across more with one look than several other actresses would with a dozen pages of dialogue.

My favorite Barbara Stanwyck performance is BALL OF FIRE, but I have to admit that my favorite Stanwyck scene is the ending of STELLA DALLAS. Stanwyck is standing outside a window, in the rain, watching her daughter's high-class wedding. She doesn't break down sobbing, and she doesn't move away listlessly.....she walks briskly away, head held high, with a satisfied smile on her lips. Stella Dallas isn't a loser...she's a winner.

THAT'S what always comes to my mind when I think of Barbara Stanwyck.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Five Favorite Film-Related Books

I'm a voracious reader. I've found that most film buffs are. Before the Internet and the home video revolution, the only way you could find out about a number of films was through movie history books. Now, because of the Internet and cable movie channels, more and more films are being rediscovered or looked at in a new way. There are a number of publishers who specialize in topics related to the cinema. Some of the best are Bear Manor Media, Titan Books, and of course McFarland (unfortunately their books are pretty expensive).

I own dozens and dozens of movie books, including some from the Citadel Film Actors Series (I really wish somebody would start that line up again). What makes a film-related book great, in my opinion, is not just the information involved, but the way it is presented. Does it give you a new perspective on a movie you've seen a dozen times? Does it make you want to see a movie you probably had no interest in? Does it make a famous performer into a real human being, instead of a tabloid subject?

I found it very hard to limit myself to just five books. Each book I mention I actually own. These are my favorites because they made me better informed as a film fan, and increased my love for the subject.

I first discovered this book at the South Bend Public Library back in the Eighties. Greg Mank is the ultimate historian of the Golden Age of Classic Cinema Horror. His love and respect for the men and women involved in making these productions, and his uniquely entertaining writing style make his work a must-read for film buffs. Even though this was written 30 years ago, it is still the masterwork on Universal's Frankenstein series. It gives you all the relative "making-of" facts.....but it reads like a historical novel about a extended, eccentric family instead of a movie history book. There have been rumors that a revised edition is in the can only hope so.

Anybody who knows me knows how much I love British horror films. Rigby's work is the definitive volume on the subject. He doesn't just deal with the Hammer period--the book starts in the silent era and goes up to the present day, covering about a hundred films. Rigby gives each one an informative take, and each movie is placed within the context of British cinema (and social) history. Not just a good "monster movie" book--it's a game changing view of British contemporary culture in the late 20th Century.

3. THE GENIUS OF THE SYSTEM by Thomas Schatz
I bought this book in the nineties, and it is the most concise, complete history of the Golden Age of Hollywood that I have ever read. When most people think of Classic Hollywood, they think of individuals actors, or directors, or personalities. This book reminds us it was the studios that made the Golden Age happen, whether film buffs want to admit it or not. All the major Hollywood studios are discussed, along with their house style and their business practices. Schatz goes all the way to the TV era, when the studio system began to decline. This is a great gift for anyone who is just beginning to learn about classic cinema.

This was released in 2007 to coincide with STAR WARS' 30th anniversary. It's a huge book, detailing all facets of the film's production, with tons of rare photos and images. STAR WARS (the original theatrical version) is my favorite movie of all time, so you can see why I would have this book on my list. Rinzler's THE MAKING OF THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is excellent as well.

This is another "making-of" book about one of my all time favorite movies. It's an incredibly meticulous work concerning an incredibly meticulous film director. There have been hundreds of books written about Alfred Hitchcock (and I own a number of them), but this stands out due to it's insight on how the man went about his craft. It also steers away from gossiping about Hitchcock's personal life (which a lot of the other books seem to wallow in).