Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Once again it is time for me to list my top five personal DVD/Blu-rays of 2014. My choices are limited to those titles that I actually own, and as I've said several times before, I can't buy everything. I also don't have a region-free player, so all these entries are Region A.
1. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (Blu-ray) from Kino Lorber
This has to be number one simply because of how amazing the movie looks on this Blu-ray. CALIGARI is one of the most famous and important films ever made, and it finally has a home video release worthy of its reputation. I wrote a full blog post on this in November.
2. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (Blu-ray) from Kino Lorber
2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the legendary director Mario Bava, and this release was a fine tribute to him. Chock full of extras, including a magnificent audio commentary by Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas. I wrote a blog post on this in November.
3. IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (DVD/Blu-ray) from Criterion
Stanley Kramer's slapstick epic gets the full Criterion treatment, with two Blu-ray discs, three DVD discs, two different versions of the movie, and extras galore. I wrote about this one in February.
4. RED RIVER (DVD/Blu-ray) from Criterion
This one has two versions of Howard Hawks' Western classic, along with a paperback copy of the novel the movie was based on. My post on this was written in June.
5. BLACK SUNDAY/BLACK SABBATH (Blu-ray) from Kino Lorber
This is a double feature of the American versions of Mario Bava's horror classics. This disc was actually canceled....but when I was at the October Monster Bash, they had a couple copies of it for sale--so needless to say I snatched one up. If Kino Lorber finds out I have one of these, will I get in trouble?
Sunday, December 28, 2014
A company called Raro Video has recently released the 1964 Italian Gothic thriller THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH on Blu-ray. What makes this film noteworthy is the fact that it stars Barbara Steele and it was directed by Antonio Margheriti.
Antonio Margheriti is not as well known as fellow Italian filmmakers Mario Bava and Sergio Leone, but maybe he should be. Margheriti (who used the alias "Anthony Dawson" or "Anthony M. Dawson" on most of his works) made all sorts of movies familiar to those folks who like to stay up late. Some of his titles that might ring a bell include HORROR CASTLE (with Christopher Lee), CASTLE OF BLOOD (which also starred Barbara Steele), the bizarre science-fiction entries WAR OF THE PLANETS and WILD, WILD PLANET, and TAKE A HARD RIDE, a late European Western that featured Lee Van Cleef and Jim Brown.
Margheriti was far more prolific than his contemporaries Bava and Leone, and he worked in just about every genre of film imaginable. He may not have been a superb artist but he was an efficient director who turned out entertaining & interesting movies. He developed enough of a reputation to get his named used as an in-joke in Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.
As for Barbara Steele she needs no introduction. By 1964, the year THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH was made, Steele had already cemented her title as the Queen of Spaghetti Horror. Barbara Steele had something no other actress had--a face that could look alluring and creepy at the same time. THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH takes full advantage of Steele's iconic persona.
The movie's story is set in Europe during the late 15th Century. A woman is accused of murdering the head of the powerful Humboldt family, and is sentenced to be burned as a witch. The woman's oldest daughter Helen (Barbara Steele) begs the new Count Humboldt to save her mother. Helen gives herself to the Count, but her mother is burned to death regardless. Before her death the woman curses the entire village and the Humboldts. Helen is later killed by the Count, and years later Helen's younger sister Elisabeth (Halina Zalewska) is forced into marriage with the Count's dissolute son Kurt (George Ardisson).
Soon after the wedding the village is struck with plague. During a service in the Humboldt castle's chapel, a young woman who looks exactly like Helen wanders in. The woman, who calls herself Mary, is allowed to stay in the castle and Kurt becomes infatuated with her. Mary has her own special plans, however, and soon Kurt has to pay for his sins.
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH has almost all of the ingredients of a black & white Gothic tale. There's a curse, a noble family who ruins the lives of those around them, a large and imposing castle with an underground crypt, and a secret passageway behind a fireplace (shades of Mario Bava himself). The movie has several scenes of characters wandering around the castle in the middle of the night while holding candles (and of course the females are always wearing nightgowns while doing this). THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH has more atmosphere than pure horror--this movie could play on prime time TV with no problem. The plot is pretty thin for a 94-minute tale....if you've seen enough of these types of stories you can easily guess what is going to happen. Having said that, Margheriti's stylish direction draws the viewer into the film, and there's nothing wrong with spending a lot of time looking at the leading ladies. The bombastic music score was written by Carlo Rustichelli (who also worked with Mario Bava), and the composer lays it on rather thick.
While watching THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH, I was reminded of Roger Corman's THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, and the climax reminded me of THE WICKER MAN. THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH is not on the same level as Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, or maybe even Margheriti's own CASTLE OF BLOOD, but it is a fine representation of Italian Gothic cinema, and a prime showcase for Barbara Steele. Once again Steele plays a dual role (or at least a role where she is pretending to be something she's not), and once again her incredible presence says more than a hundred lines of dialogue could.
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH has been available for years as a public domain title. This Blu-ray is way beyond any other versions. The picture quality is so sharp a viewer can make out what looks like a fine mist falling during a scene where Barbara Steele swears revenge next to her mother's ashes. The sound is full and clear. The movie is presented on this Blu-ray in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. There are two audio options--Italian and an English dub (the English dialogue matches almost exactly with the English subtitles).
The Blu-ray comes with an 8-page booklet featuring stills and a essay on the film by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander. Alexander is apparently the greatest THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH fan of all time--he simply rhapsodizes over the production, and Barbara Steele in particular. Alexander also is included on a short video featurette, where he basically repeats what he wrote in the booklet. He does get in a good phrase when he mentions Barbara Steele's "cruel beauty" (if anyone ever writes a biography of Steele, that's the title they should use for it). There's also a 10 minute interview with Antonio Margheriti's son Edoardo, in which he gives a brief overview of his father's career. Screen writer Antonio Tentori gives a short video essay where he also gushes about the film. A Italian trailer and a English trailer round out the extras.
I've never bought a disc from Raro Video before--I have to admit I had never even heard of the company before. But after this impressive Blu-ray, I'm certainly going to keep track of what they have in store for the future. For a rare, low-budget 1960s Italian horror film, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH looks terrific on this Blu-ray. Barbara Steele looks terrific here as well--she's pure Gothic eye candy. This Blu-ray is well worth seeking out, if you enjoy this type of film.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
One of the great things about attending the 2014 October Monster Bash with Josh Kennedy was being able to discuss movies with him. I can talk about movies all day long with plenty of people on the internet, but it's much more enjoyable to have a real dialogue with a person face-to-face. Josh and I talked about all sorts of films, not just horror and science-fiction entries. During one of our conversations the title THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE came up. This movie has a particular resonance for Josh, because he goes to school at New York's Pace University and he rides the New York City subway system often. I told him I had never seen that film (which he found hard to believe). He then decided right then and there that he was going to get me a copy of it for Christmas. So this week I got a DVD of it in the mail, and I now have finally seen it.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE was made in 1974, and it was directed by Joseph Sargent from a screenplay by Peter Stone, based on John Godey's novel. The story is about four mysterious men (Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman) who take over a New York subway commuter train. The men hold the passengers inside hostage, and demand that the city pay them a $1 million dollar ransom in an hour, or they will start killing off their captives one by one.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is about as representative a film of the 1970s as you can get. There's a almost documentary-like aspect to the production, no doubt due to the extensive New York City location shooting. The New York portrayed in this film is not a 21st Century tourist trap New York--it is a real, working class New York, filled with ordinary men and women who do ordinary jobs. All the supporting & background characters look and sound like real people instead of Hollywood extras.
The New York Transit Authority Police Officer who winds up dealing with the criminals is one Lt. Garber, played by the inimitable Walter Matthau. Matthau became a big star in the 1970s, but he was always a character actor at heart. He had the rare ability to believably play men who were working-class without seeming contrived. As Lt. Garber, Matthau is really playing another typical "Walter Matthau" role, but you would still swear he had been working for the Transit Authority almost all his life. Matthau's humanity makes Lt. Garber more than just the regular movie cop.
The head of the criminal gang is played by Robert Shaw. Like Matthau, Shaw was another character actor who reached mainstream stardom in the 1970s due to his roles in films like THE STING and especially JAWS. As an actor Shaw always had a quality of danger and menace about him (apparently he wasn't all that easy to get along with in real life, either). Shaw is perfect for the taciturn gang leader (the gang refers to each other by aliases based on colors--"Mr. Green", "Mr. Gray", etc.) because the actor could be intimidating without even saying a word (just watch his performance in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE). Shaw is a man who means business, and the audience knows that he will do whatever is necessary to achieve his goal of getting the ransom money.
We learn nothing about the gang until almost the end of the film, and even then it is just the most basic information. We don't find out what makes them tick, we don't get any flashback scenes, or scenes that "explain" each of the criminals. Because we know basically nothing about any of these men, they wind up appearing more dangerous, since a viewer can never assume what any of these men will do in any particular situation. The mistake of most 21st Century films is that they give out too much information, telling so much about the characters that they wind up being lifeless and predictable.
The lack of information about the hostage takers also holds for the main story. Information about the situation is revealed to the audience the same time it is revealed to the characters on the screen, making viewers feel as if they are experiencing events on a real-time basis. THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE has no "fluff" scenes or padding; everything revolves around the hostage standoff.
The reaction of various characters to the train hijacking is rather different than most movies of this type. The first reaction to those attached to the N.Y. subway system is anger (not over the hijacking, but over the fact that dozens of trains are being backed up), then disbelief, then chaos and confusion. 1970s New York City is shown to be one huge bureaucracy, in which it seems amazing that anything gets done at all. It is this bureaucracy that the hijackers are really up against--a viewer worries that the hijackers will start killing people not because they won't get the money, but because the workings of the city will screw the whole thing up.
As for the hostages, we don't get any "special" scenes with them....we don't even learn any of their names. They look and act like a cross-section of people from a mid-1970s urban setting. The script does not let them distract from the main story (which does not mean they are expendable--we certainly do not want to see any of them killed).
One major highlight of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is the music score by David Shire. The score's tough, gritty, driving rhythm matches the film perfectly.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is a well-made exciting thriller, and a movie I enjoyed very much. Movies like this just aren't made anymore. (Yes, I know that this one was remade, and no, I haven't seen the remake and I don't intend to.) If you haven't seen it, please do. I'm not going to give away the ending....but it is one of the best ways to end a movie that I've ever seen. And remember....don't step on the third rail.
Thursday, December 25, 2014
Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth saga finally lumbers to a halt in THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES.
More 21st Century generic film making than J.R.R. Tolkien, this movie isn't any worse--or better--than the first two HOBBIT entries. If you loved the other HOBBIT films, you'll love this one; if you were annoyed by certain things in the other HOBBIT films, you'll be annoyed by plenty here.
Peter Jackson's propensity to drag things out gets, if anything, even worse. A prime example is the fight between head dwarf Thorin and the main bad guy Orc. The fight goes on...and on...and on...and it looks like the Orc is killed....but no, it goes on even more.....It got to the point that I was saying to myself, "Can one of these guys just kill the other one and get it over with??"
The "love triangle" involving Legolas, a hot female elf, and one of the dwarves continues here, and it's just as unnecessary. Sir Christopher Lee does get a cameo (and so does his stunt double). Just like the other films in this series, there's so much extra stuffing and video game-like action that any emotional moments with the main characters just fall flat.
And that's the real difference between THE LORD OF THE RINGS series and THE HOBBIT series, at least for me. I felt no real connection with the characters in THE HOBBIT, and I wasn't all too concerned about what happened to them. During the entire HOBBIT series I kept being reminded of things that happened in THE LORD OF THE RINGS series--and THE HOBBIT films fell short in comparison.
The final battle in THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES bares a huge resemblance to the final battle in THE RETURN OF THE KING. THE RETURN OF THE KING is notorious for having a "never ending" ending. In THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, the ending is rather abrupt--the whole subplot of Bilbo's contract with the dwarves and his share of the treasure (a very important part of the book) gets forgotten. It's as if Peter Jackson spent so much time expanding on everything else he didn't have anything left for the ending.
I know I've spent a lot of time whining about THE HOBBIT films in my blog. These are not bad films--if I had seen them when I was ten years old, I'd think they were the greatest movies ever--it's just that I feel that Tolkien's book could have been adapted better. I remember when it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to be able to make THE HOBBIT. Geeks around the world rejoiced--including me. Now I believe that it would have been better if other writers & directors had been involved. THE HOBBIT should be separate from THE LORD OF THE RINGS. They share the same world and some of the same characters, but they shouldn't be treated if they are one big giant story.
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Last New Year's Eve I wrote a blog post about a movie which has a climax set during that holiday, MADE FOR EACH OTHER. That film starred Carole Lombard and James Stewart, and it was directed by John Cromwell. With Christmas coming up, this blog post is about a movie set during that holiday--and it also stars Carole Lombard and a major male star, and it was also directed by John Cromwell. The movie is IN NAME ONLY.
IN NAME ONLY was in fact Carole Lombard's next film after MADE FOR EACH OTHER. Produced by RKO and released in 1939, the movie teams up Carole with none other than Cary Grant. Lombard and Grant both appeared in two earlier films, SINNERS IN THE SUN and THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK, but IN NAME ONLY is the only real time they were an on-screen couple. If any two performers were made to be in a romantic comedy together, it was Lombard & Grant. Unfortunately IN NAME ONLY is a sluggish melodrama about marital problems.
Alec Walker (Cary Grant), a man stuck in an unloving marriage, happens to meet widow Julie Eden (Carole Lombard). (Alec just happens to be riding a horse and sees Julie fishing....typical, huh?) Alec and Julie are attracted to each other right away, but Alec's wife Maida (Kay Francis) married Alec because of his rich family, and she's not about to let her comfy lifestyle and social position go away easily.
One complication follows another, but eventually Alec convinces Maida to grant him a divorce....or so he thinks. Maida tells Alec that she will give him one after she goes on a trip to Europe with Alec's snooty parents. Alec and Julie make plans, but as the weeks go by Alec continues to be put off by Maida who is still abroad. On Christmas Eve Alec and Julie get set to celebrate with Julie's young daughter, but Maida and Mr. and Mrs. Walker arrive without warning. What follows is a confrontation between Alec, Julie, and Maida, in which Maida announces she will never go for a divorce. Maida also threatens to sue Julie for alienation of affection, and she says she will even force Julie's daughter to testify during any trial.
After this Alec and Julie are devastated. Alec gets drunk, and winds up spending the night at a cheap hotel where he (gasp!) leaves the window open. In one of those old movie complications that people who don't like old movies like to make fun of, Alec winds up getting deathly sick. Now in the hospital on Christmas Day, Alec seems to have lost the will to live, and Julie is brought in to see him. In another of those old movie complications, everything gets wrapped up in literally the last two minutes, due to Alec's parents overhearing Maida telling Julie how much she wants the Walker family money.
IN NAME ONLY does not hold up very well today due to 21st Century attitudes toward relationships. Today Alec and Julie would just do whatever the heck they wanted....but they certainly couldn't do that in a movie made in 1939. The script bends over backward to make the audience like Alec and Julie and despise Maida...so much so that all three characters wind up somewhat one-dimensional. Alec and Julie are too straight-arrow--Alec is a rich guy who works in his family's New York office (even though we are never told, and we never see, what he exactly does), and Julie is a successful fashion designer who appears not to be affected one bit by being widowed with a young child. (As a matter of fact, Julie only mentions her late husband once, when she first meets Alec. She never refers to the poor guy again for the rest of the film--if I ever get married and kick the bucket, I hope my widow will have stronger memories of me.) It would be more interesting if Alec and Julie had some complexity to them, such as maybe not being so well-off financially. But one has to remember that in 1939 divorce was still considered a bad thing, and if Alec or Julie had been more working class audiences of the time might not have been too sympathetic to them.
Kay Francis is very believable as the venal Maida--maybe the reason she's so mean is because Francis used to be a bigger star than Carole Lombard (if the movie had been made in 1933, Francis would have played Carole's role). Charles Coburn plays Alec's disapproving father, and the role is almost the same as the one Coburn played in MADE FOR EACH OTHER--James Stewart's disapproving boss.
Carole Lombard and Cary Grant work very well together, but this is the wrong type of film for them to be co-stars. Lombard spends a lot of time crying here, and Grant spends most of his time looking pensive--and that's before he's stuck sick in bed for the last twenty minutes of the story. If Lombard and Grant had not been in this picture, it would be very difficult to watch--even at only 94 minutes, the movie has a tendency to drag.
IN NAME ONLY has a lot in common with MADE FOR EACH OTHER--female lead, director, a holiday setting, and a miraculous (and far-fetched) ending. Carole Lombard and Cary Grant were two of the most appealing personalities to ever grace the silver screen--but IN NAME ONLY does not take advantage of those personalities. That's definitely not in the holiday spirit.
Saturday, December 20, 2014
"I fancy that he's nobody's son or heir now!!"
Spoken by Michael Caine as Lt. Bromhead
"Well, hooray for the Bulldog!"
Spoken by Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane
From CITIZEN KANE
"Who do you think this man is--God??"
"No..God would have mercy."
Spoken by Marc de Jonge as Col. Zaysen and Richard Crenna as Col. Trautman
From RAMBO III
"I ain't got time to bleed."
Spoken by Jesse Ventura as Blain
"Hold on to your butts..."
Spoken by Samuel L. Jackson as Ray Arnold
From JURASSIC PARK
"Nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot."
Spoken by Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan
From MAGNUM FORCE
"For you, my friend, they are the angels of death."
Spoken by Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre
From WHITE ZOMBIE
"Keep the change, Bob."
Spoken by Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid
From PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID
"Dyin' ain't much of a livin', boy."
Spoken by Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales
From THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
"My master died without issue, sir....in the accepted sense of the term."
Spoken by Phillip Latham as Klove
From DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS
Monday, December 15, 2014
On this day exactly 75 years ago, the movie GONE WITH THE WIND had its gala premiere in the city of Atlanta, Georgia. GONE WITH THE WIND is probably the most famous American movie ever made. Even folks who don't like "old movies" have seen it, or are at least well aware of it. The movie's reputation has continued to grow over the years. Right now you can go out and get a brand new Blu-ray GONE WITH THE WIND box set, or go down to your local supermarket and buy a special Time-Life magazine concerning the film.
If you ask someone who is not a major movie buff what is the greatest movie ever made, chances are that person will say GONE WITH THE WIND. I think the reason for that has to do with how Ted Turner and his minions promoted the film in the 1980s and 90s. Whenever GWTW was shown on either TBS, TNT, or TCM back then, it was always hyped up as a major event, and it was always referred to as the greatest film ever--so much so that most of the general public starting assuming it was the greatest film ever made.
GWTW is a great film....but I believe it is more of a great film achievement. David O. Selznick pulled out all the stops to produce an adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Civil War-era novel. (I have not read Mitchell's book, by the way.) You can't helped but be impressed when watching GWTW...it is a story told on a massive scale, clocking in at nearly four hours long. Multiple directors and screenwriters were used, and what saves the final product from being a convoluted mess is the production design of William Cameron Menzies, a man who does not get enough credit for the overall success of GWTW.
Having said all that, I'm kind of amazed that GWTW still has such a major following. The story is about as politically incorrect as you can get. We live in an age where every five minutes someone is going all over social media complaining about something that offends them--and GWTW features a group of characters from the mid-19th Century slave-holding American South. The movie's supposed status as the presumed "greatest movie ever made" has seemed to deflect any major cultural backlash. I'm not offended by the movie personally....but every time I watch it I'm thankful that my ancestors fought for the Union.
The other major reason I'm surprised that GWTW endures is that it's what used to be called a "woman's picture". (How that's for political incorrectness?) GWTW is a soap opera, plain and simple--especially in the film's second half. Most big-time money making epic films appeal to 10 to 60 year old males. GWTW is the most majestic chick flick ever made. Yes, it is set during the Civil War, but there are no battle scenes--we see the effect and the aftermath of war. The most violent thing we see is Scarlett O'Hara shooting a Union straggler in the face.
And here's something else about GONE WITH THE WIND: the lead character is a spoiled narcissist. Scarlett O'Hara is the type of woman that I would have no interest in whatsoever in real life. I find Olivia de Havilland as Melanie to be far more appealing...when Rhett Butler tells Melanie that she's one of the bravest women he's ever known, he's absolutely right. (One of my pet theories about GWTW is that Rhett has a secret crush on Melanie.)
Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking Vivien Leigh's performance as Scarlett. She's magnificent in the role, and it is to her credit that she can take someone as unlikable as Scarlett and make the audience interested in her for nearly four hours. One of the many legends of GWTW is David O. Selznick's search for the right actress to play Scarlett. Looking back from today, it seems unthinkable that any other woman could play Scarlett O'Hara other than Vivien Leigh.
I've actually seen GONE WITH THE WIND in a real theater. The showing was in the late 1980s at the Morris Civic Auditorium in downtown South Bend, Indiana. The biggest memory I have of that is the crowd's reaction of Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes. As soon as Howard came onscreen for the first time, there was a low grumble among the audience....a grumble that got worse and worse for the rest of the film whenever Ashley appeared. Ashley Wilkes has to be the most disliked character in American movie history. That's not the fault of Leslie Howard....no actor could make the insipid Ashley look good--heck, Clark Gable couldn't have made Ashley look good. Poor Leslie Howard was a fine actor in his own right, and he died as a result of the plane he was in being shot down by the Luftwaffe--but he will forever be remembered as the "honorable" Ashley Wilkes. Howard deserves better than that.
Most people have the general impression that Clark Gable won the Best Actor Oscar for GWTW (he didn't...Robert Donat won it for GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS). Clark Gable and Rhett Butler are about as perfect a match as you can get between actor and role. Gable and Leigh are one of the all-time movie romantic couples, but let's not forget the supporting cast. The fact that GWTW is almost four hours long allows many of the minor players a chance to shine. One of classic Hollywood's major assets is the wealth of talented character actors that worked in the industry. GWTW is filled with them--Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neil, Harry Davenport, and of course Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen. For my money it is Ona Munson as Belle Watling that steals the show--her closeup as Rhett tells her about his problems with Scarlett is one of the movie's best moments.
While I don't think GONE WITH THE WIND is the greatest movie ever made, I have to say it is a stupendous achievement on the part of David O. Selznick. I watched the movie again over the weekend in preparation for this blog, and the thing about GWTW is that once you start watching it, you have to watch it the whole way through....even if you've seen it dozens of times. GONE WITH THE WIND, the film, is an American treasure.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Picking five favorite movie sequences is a lot different than picking five favorite movies--even though all of these choices happen to come from some of my favorite films. There's dozens of movies that have standout individual scenes, but I wouldn't necessarily call the movies themselves great. Every so often I'll be channel-surfing and I'll stumble across a certain movie....and watch it because I know a good sequence is coming up....and then turn the channel after said sequence is over.
An outstanding movie sequence doesn't have to be one involving action or violence. Great filmmakers can make a riveting sequence out of two people just sitting in a room talking to one another. I'll admit you are not going to find any of those talking head scenes on this list. Some my find my choices a bit generic, but I'm not a person with a Film Studies degree--I'm just a dumb guy from Indiana.
21st Century films have so many quick-edited action showcases that they have become almost par for the course. Showing people shooting at one another and explosions going off is easy....but putting a sequence like that together and making the audience care or be thrilled about what is going on requires expert direction, camera movement, and film & sound editing.
Here's my five favorite movie sequences:
1. The lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
The STAR WARS prequels featured plenty of lightsaber fights, but none of them still comes close to this one. The next time you watch this notice how it is NOT cut very quickly--staging and the characters are more important than how fast the duel goes. The duel is sort of a mini-movie in itself--the fight has different stages to it, and each time Skywalker and Vader enter another room, we see another set with another atmosphere. It all leads up to the biggest revelation in movie history. Brilliant cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (EMPIRE is still the best-looking of all the Star Wars films) and editing by Paul Hirsch. Bob Anderson performed most of Darth Vader's lightsaber scenes.
2. The final gunfight in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
What has to be pointed out about this is that the actual gunfight lasts only about 30 seconds. It is the lead-up to the gunfight that makes this sequence a standout. Sergio Leone, composer Ennio Morricone, and editors Eugenio Alabiso & Nino Baragli take a few minutes of footage consisting of three men just standing still and staring at one another and turn it into one of the most iconic moments of cinema.
3. The truck chase in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
Indiana Jones and Marion escape from the Well of Souls--only to learn that the Ark of the Covenant is being loaded on a truck! What happens next is in my opinion the greatest action sequence of all time. This is about as perfect as film making gets. Most of the sequence was overseen by second unit director Michael Moore, and the stunts were arranged & performed by Vic Armstrong, Terry Leonard, and Glenn Randall, with many others. Editing by Michael Kahn.
4. Van Helsing faces off against Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA
The greatest moment in Hammer Films history, and maybe the greatest moment in Gothic Horror film history. Director Terence Fisher wisely heeded Peter Cushing's advice that this sequence needed some "swashbuckling" elements added to it. Magnificently edited by Bill Lenny.
5. Buster Keaton being pursued by dozens of Brides in SEVEN CHANCES
In this movie Buster finds out he'll inherit millions if he marries by the end of the day. His friend decides to help Buster out by running an item in the newspaper explaining the situation--and soon Buster has more would-be Brides than he can handle. The Brides chase him through the streets of Los Angeles, through a football game, across a beekeepers' field--and eventually down a slope, where Buster starts a giant rockslide. Personally prepared by Keaton himself, this sequence is the apex of silent film comedy.
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
In the book FIVE CAME BACK, author Mark Harris examines how the American movie industry dealt with World War II through the experiences of five legendary Hollywood directors--John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, some of the Hollywood studios had already taken some tentative steps to make films that referenced what was happening overseas. But the film industry was just as disorganized and unsure how to proceed on a wartime footing as the rest of America was. Eventually the United States government and the country's Armed Forces realized that Hollywood's filmmakers could best be used in the production of training & propaganda movies.
All five of the directors featured in this book wanted to serve in the War, and Harris chronicles the sometimes chaotic process that each man went through to be involved in the conflict. The relationship between Hollywood and Washington D.C. was an uneasy one, and filled with a byzantine menagerie of committees, sub-committees, different levels of command, and conflicting orders. Today we take for granted the final results of World War II, and with such phrases as "The Greatest Generation" and "The Good War" thrown around, we assume that all Americans were fully united and smoothly working toward the same goal. Harris shows that in reality this was far from the case--each director covered in this volume had major disagreements with military & political higher-ups at various times.
There's a lot of information in this book I did not know. For example, I had read several times in other books and articles that Frank Capra's WHY WE FIGHT documentary series was an overwhelming success. According to Harris, Capra had to work hard just to get the films even finished--most of them were not even released in any form until the war was almost over--and most episodes did not receive major plaudits. I had also been lead to believe that John Huston's THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO was one of the greatest war documentaries ever made, but Harris discloses that most of the film was re-enacted. I also didn't know that William Wyler had his hearing severely damaged while filming footage on board a B-25.
What makes FIVE CAME BACK a great tale are "The Five"--each man a talented and complex individual in his own right. Each of these men could have chosen to stay in Hollywood, but they all went out of their way to give up lucrative and famous careers and serve their country. Each man was forever affected by the war, and after you get to the end of Harris' story you will admire these men for more than just being great movie directors.
Mark Harris did a huge amount of research for this book--the notes section is about 40 pages long, and the bibliography lists dozens of sources. As a movie and World War II buff, I couldn't help but be fascinated by FIVE CAME BACK. The story goes from the boardrooms of Hollywood to the corridors of America's capital and just about every place on the globe there was a major battle.
FIVE CAME BACK is one of the best movie books I have read in a while, and it will make a great holiday gift for anyone interested in history or classic film.
Sunday, December 7, 2014
THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (known as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN in the U.S.) is one of the most important science fiction/horror films ever made. It is the true beginning of Hammer Horror, and the movie's plot about a space traveler returning to earth suffering from alien contamination has been "borrowed" by various films and TV shows ever since.
THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT is based on a popular BBC TV serial written by Nigel Kneale. Britain's Hammer Films had already adapted a number of radio shows to film, and Kneale's story seemed promising enough to make into a feature. Director Val Guest was tapped to make the movie in 1954, and despite its low budget THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT became a huge success, inspiring Hammer to make other science fiction projects, which would soon lead to the company taking on the genre of Gothic Horror.
The main reason THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT is still effective today is due to Guest's documentary-like style in covering the events in the script. The low-key black & white photography, aided by filming on several outdoor locations, gives QUATERMASS a different look to most science fiction films of the same period. The story plays out more like a detective tale instead of a far-out thriller. Clocking in at 82 minutes, Guest keeps the pace up throughout and doesn't waste time on any filler.
Brian Donlevy, the actor who plays the role of Professor Quatermass, perfectly suits the mood Val Guest was aiming for. Most "good guy" scientists of early 1950s cinema were either kindly elderly types or stalwart leading men. Donlevy's Quatermass is a no-nonsense, blue-collar type of Professor. Dead serious and with no sense of humor, Donlevy's attitude somewhat anticipates how Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein would act in future Hammer productions. Quatermass continually berates and interrupts people, demands to have his way at all times, and has no respect for any type of authority (even though he himself is trying to assert authority over everybody else). THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT is made all the more believable due to Donlevy's performance--he acts so determined that you totally buy into the plot. I've never seen the original BBC TV production of this story, but I know from numerous sources that Prof. Quatermass was played very differently on television. Author Nigel Kneale was horrified by Donlevy's portrayal (which is understandable, since he created Quatermass), but I like it a lot (most American viewers appreciate Donlevy's Quatermass more than most British viewers do).
The other actor who makes a huge impression in this picture is Richard Wordsworth as Victor Caroon. The only one of three astronauts who come back alive from the space mission masterminded by Quatermass, Wordsworth's gaunt face and staring eyes make Caroon an unearthly figure. Even though Caroon has lost the ability to speak, Wordsworth is able to transmit to the audience the man's pain and suffering. Wordsworth is both pitiful and frightening--many have compared his performance to that of Boris Karloff's in the 1931 version of FRANKENSTEIN. An encounter that the on-the-run Caroon has with a little girl (played by a very young Jane Asher) accentuates the comparison. I've always though that the best movie monsters need to have a recognizably human element in them, and Richard Wordsworth memorably defines this idea.
There are many other highlights in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, such as the opening scenes, which depict the aftermath of Quatermass' rocket crashing in a field. In these scenes Hammer fans will get several glimpses of the village of Bray, and the area surrounding Bray Studios. A Val Lewton-esque sequence set in a zoo is very well done, and the film's climax features a now-totally transformed Caroon/creature trapped inside Westminster Abbey. After the story's resolution, Quatermass strides purposely out of the Abbey, tells an assistant that he's going to start on a new rocket project, and walks away down the street, not even bothering to look back. Sure enough, film audiences would see Donlevy again in Hammer's QUATERMASS 2, which many monster movie fans think is even better than XPERIMENT.
I have to mention James Bernard's music score. This was the composer's first work for Hammer, and you would think after watching the film that Bernard had been writing soundtracks for sci-fi and horror films for years. Bernard's score gives the movie a suspenseful tone right from the beginning of the main titles. James Bernard would go on to be one of the most important figures in the Hammer Films production team.
THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT was released on a bare-bones DVD-R by MGM a couple years ago. This new Kino Region A Blu-ray is in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the picture quality is fine, if a bit grainy. The Blu-ray has various extras--most of them were prepared a decade ago for a planned DVD release of the film as part of MGM's "Midnite Movies" series. The newest extra is a ten-minute interview with John Carpenter in which the filmmaker discusses his admiration for QUATERMASS. There's two short featurettes--one goes into the making of the film, and the other compares the differences between the British and American versions of QUATERMASS. (This Blu-ray has the full 82 minute British version). There's a short interview of Val Guest by Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn, and both men participate in an audio commentary. A "Trailers From Hell" episode with Ernest Dickerson, an original American trailer, and the alternate American main title sequence round out the package. (The title of this movie was changed for America mainly because the name "Quatermass" didn't mean anything in the U. S. at the time.)
The inside of the disc case features images of posters for the film....but look at the top right picture--it's a foreign poster for QUATERMASS 2!!
It's good that Kino has released THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT on Region A Blu-ray...but one wishes that some brand new commentaries and featurettes were created to fully explain this film's importance in the history of fantastic cinema.
Monday, December 1, 2014
My favorite movie of all time is the original STAR WARS, and my favorite actor of all time is Peter Cushing--so of course I'm going to buy a book in which the main character is Imperial Governor Wilhuff Tarkin--the role Peter Cushing played in STAR WARS.
Before I get into the novel, I'd like to explain my viewpoint on the whole Star Wars "Expanded Universe". The "Expanded Universe" refers to all Star Wars material outside of the actual feature films--novels, video & role-playing games, etc. I've never really gotten into the Expanded Universe, simply because I've always had my own impressions on the things that were never covered in the Star Wars films. The Expanded Universe material, in my opinion, just doesn't seem to live up to my imagination, or to the way I see the Star Wars Universe (and this is one of the several reasons why the Star Wars prequels were disappointing to me).
Disney/Lucasfilm have announced that from now on, any new Star Wars novels or non-movie material will be considered "official" Star Wars history. There's always been a debate among Star Wars fans on how important the Expanded Universe is to the franchise, and I think this is Disney's way of controlling the product and giving fans a reason to buy more merchandise--if it's "official" it's worth spending money on, right?
The novel TARKIN was written by James Luceno, a veteran of other Star Wars books. The novel begins five years after the end of REVENGE OF THE SITH. Outer Rim Territories Governor Tarkin is busy overseeing construction efforts on the new Imperial Mobile Battle Station (the future Death Star). A mysterious cache of communication devices has turned up, and the find is of such importance that Emperor Palpatine sends Tarkin and Darth Vader to investigate the matter. Tarkin and Vader wind up dealing with a group of dissidents who manage to steal Tarkin's personal spaceship.
Intermixed with the main story are several flashbacks detailing Tarkin's experiences growing up on his home planet of Eriadu. Tarkin is taken on numerous survival outings by his relatives in the wilds of Eriadu, and writer Luceno attempts to show how these outings have shaped Tarkin's forceful, cold-blooded manner. Luceno tries very hard to portray Tarkin as a hardened, rough type of man....a far cry from the somewhat fussy bureaucrat we saw in the first STAR WARS film.
One of the flashbacks concerns a sequence where Count Dooku tries to convince Tarkin to bring Eriadu into the Separatist fold during the Clone Wars, which could be defined as a Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee scene (Luceno had to have written this part with Cushing & Lee in mind). The book features numerous exchanges between Tarkin and Darth Vader, but their personal relationship isn't really explored all that much, other than they seem to have a grudging respect for one another.
What makes the TARKIN novel different is that it is written from the Empire's point of view. This also makes it harder for a reader to get into it--Tarkin certainly is not an easy guy to root for. The story isn't a thrilling page-turner, either--the main plot doesn't really make any big impression on the Star Wars Universe as a whole, other than showing what may be the beginning of the Rebel Alliance. The book has a ton of techno-jargon which might bewilder those readers who are not hardcore Star Wars or science-fiction fans.
The thing I took away most from this book is....at the end of it, I still didn't know much about the main character. Yes, he's shown as a cold-blooded guy from a cold-blooded family, but he still remains a mystery. While I was reading TARKIN I tried to imagine a younger Peter Cushing doing the things the character is described as doing, but that picture just didn't come together. As a Star Wars and science-fiction novel, I would rate TARKIN as about average. I don't think it is a book that Star Wars or Peter Cushing fans have to read.