Wednesday, December 30, 2020

My Top Five Blu-rays Of 2020


There's no need for me to tell you that this year sucked. But this was a great year for home video product (that is, if you still had enough money to buy any of this stuff). 

Thankfully, I'm still working regularly, so, as usual, I spent plenty of money on Blu-rays and DVDs. And I still don't even have a multi-region player....could you imagine how much even more money I'd have spent if I did?? 

This year, the usual suspects--Criterion, Kino, Shout Factory, etc.--continued to release outstanding product. Shout Factory in particular deserves kudos for their series of Hammer Films releases. 

Warner Archive gets two slots on this list for their much-needed restorations of a couple of famed classic horror films, and Arrow Video gets the top slot for putting out one of the greatest home video sets of all time. 


An absolutely amazing eight-disc set, which contains every single Gamera film ever made, tons and tons of extras for each film, a book containing info on the series, a reprint of the 1990s Dark Horse Gamera comic books....I wrote a full blog post review of this in September. If a giant fire-breathing flying turtle doesn't deserve his own expensive Blu-ray set, who does???


Bruce Lee's action-adventure films from the 1970s have been released on home video in various incarnations over the years, but this is THE Bruce Lee collection you should get. Criterion pulled out all the stops in this 7-disc set, with numerous extras, multiple audio commentaries, and a special booklet. All the films look spectacular....the restorations on the Golden Harvest movies in particular are stunning. What puts this set over the top is the addition of ENTER THE DRAGON--there's actually two different versions of that film here. 

3. THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM from Warner Archive

One of my 50 favorite movies of all time, and one that sorely needed a complete restoration. Put away the memories of the faded two-color Technicolor print of this film--this Blu-ray is almost a resurrection. Warner Archive also saw fit to include valuable extras, including two excellent audio commentaries. I wrote a full post on this release in May. 


A must-needed set for the Region A crowd, with 5 of the greatest British war films on one Blu-ray set. The movies are WENT THE DAY WELL?, THE COLDITZ STORY, THE DAM BUSTERS, ICE COLD IN ALEX, and the 1958 version of DUNKIRK. All of the movies have been digitally restored, they look great, and they are all uncut and in their original aspect ratios. There's plenty of extras on this set too. 

5. THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN from Warner Archive

I just wrote a post on this a week ago. The true beginning of Hammer Gothic Horror gets the restoration it deserves, and extras to boot. This release barely beats out Shout Factory's Blu-ray of Hammer's THE BRIDES OF DRACULA. 

Saturday, December 26, 2020



Being this is the holiday season, the movie IT"S A WONDERFUL LIFE gets discussed often. What doesn't get discussed nearly enough is what happened to the career of that film's director, Frank Capra, after it was made. 

Capra is one of my favorite movie directors of all time, and in the 1930s he made an incredible string of hits, a series of comedic, touching stories about ordinary Americans and American life in general. One of those films was LADY FOR A DAY, which was written by Capra's frequent collaborator, Robert Riskin, and based on a story by Damon Runyon. LADY FOR A DAY concerns a Depression-era street peddler named Apple Annie (May Robson), who has been secretly using what money she has to raise her daughter in Europe. Annie finds out her daughter is going to marry into nobility, and the girl wants to come and visit her in New York. Annie is desperately afraid her daughter will find out what she really is, so she enlists the help of a gangster named Dave the Dude (Warren William) to help her out of her predicament. Dave and his streetwise friends turn Annie into a duchess, and they manage to get New York's most powerful people to pay homage to her and her daughter. 

LADY FOR A DAY is a great film, with plenty of sentimentality and humorous performances. Years later, Capra, who felt left out in 1950s Hollywood, decided to remake it, hoping it would put him back in the limelight. 

The result, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, made in 1961, would up being the last full-length theatrical film Capra would direct. The movie only showed how out of touch Capra was. 

Capra had spent most of his career as a powerful producer-director at Columbia Pictures. In his later years, Capra was not associated with any studio, and he had to get major help to get any movie made. For POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, Capra teamed up with actor Glenn Ford and his production company. Ford would play Dave the Dude in the remake. Capra wasn't happy with this casting, but Ford was the only star at the time willing to be involved in the project. 

In his autobiography, Capra mentions a number of actors he wanted to play the Dude, including Steve McQueen, who would have been an intriguing choice. Just about anyone would have been better than Glenn Ford, who is totally miscast as a 1930s bootlegger. Dave the Dude is supposed to have a rough attitude, but be a softy at heart--and Ford doesn't play him that way at all, he's just all bluster. 

What was worse about Ford for Capra is that the actor had as much say over the production as the director did--something Capra could not stand. Capra wanted Shirley Jones to play the pivotal role of Dave the Dude's girlfriend, but Ford demanded that Hope Lange, who he was having a relationship at the time, be cast instead. (Despite what they were in real life, Ford and Lange have no chemistry together in this movie.) 

Bette Davis, who at the time was as much of a Hollywood outsider as Capra, took on the role of Apple Annie, after several other actresses turned it down. May Robson was perfect as Apple Annie in LADY FOR A DAY, while Davis just hams it up. (It didn't help that Davis didn't get along with Capra either.)

For a time Capra considered setting the remake in contemporary times, but when actually making the film he kept it in the early Thirties timeline. He also had Robert Riskin's brilliant original script re-written (a big mistake). 

LADY FOR A DAY has a big advantage, in that it was made in 1933, so all the sets, costumes, and characters are true for the period. POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES is in widescreen, in color, and it has huge sets. Other than some old cars that the viewer sees, the movie doesn't look--or feel--like it is set in the 1930s at all. Dave the Dude and his cronies act like they're trying out for a mediocre version of GUYS AND DOLLS. 

LADY FOR A DAY runs about 96 minutes, while POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES runs 136 minutes....or should I say, drags. What's shocking is that Capra's sense of pace, timing, and rhythm are not in evidence here. Capra's masterful editing techniques are absent as well (the movie seems to be made up of master shots). There's plenty of great supporting actors here (as there are in every Capra movie), but none of the characters are very appealing, or all that funny. This is one of those movies where everyone shouts a lot at each other to try to get a cheap laugh. Spending over two hours watching Ford and Lange fail to be funny is not an enjoyable experience. 

Peter Falk, who played Dave the Dude's right-hand man, got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance, although I honestly can't see why. Ann-Margret made her big screen debut as Apple Annie's daughter, and she even gets to sing a little. She's by far the most likable person in the movie (Capra should have focused more on her). 

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES was released by United Artists before Christmas, 1961. The film had a large budget, but it went on the become a financial and critical disappointment. Frank Capra never made another film. 

In his autobiography Capra claimed that he had major, painful headaches during the making of POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (were these psychosomatic?). Considering the pressures of remaking one of his best films, his problems with Ford and Davis, his disillusionment with modern Hollywood, and his age (he was in his early 60s), one has to come to the conclusion that Capra's heart was not in the effort. All the ingredients for a great film are there in POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, but in my opinion it is flat and lifeless. It was a sad ending for one of America's greatest filmmakers. 

Friday, December 25, 2020



One good thing about 2020 was the second season of THE MANDALORIAN. 

The first season of the show was great--but it wound up being an appetizer for Season Two. This year the show expanded its horizons, giving more of an examination of the post-RETURN OF THE JEDI Star Wars Universe. The Mandalorian is no longer a mysterious loner--he's a man with firm friends and relationships, and he's fully entangled in the conflict between the New Republic and the remnants of the Galactic Empire. 

Season Two brought in all sorts of characters from throughout the various incarnations of the Star Wars Universe, including Boba Fett, Bo-Katan, Ahsoka Tano, and an appearance from a major character in the season finale. If a fan was unsure about this show's place in the Star Wars catalog before, there's no doubt it's an important part of the franchise now. 

Executive producers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, along with various directors such as Robert Rodriguez, have given THE MANDALORIAN a feel and texture that perfectly matches that of the Original Star Wars Trilogy. Obviously there's a fair amount of CGI involved in the making of this series, but there's not a sense that the show is inundated with it. The special effects and action sequences have a physical reality to them. The show is more interested in good storytelling than in-your-face over the top spectacle. 

The series is helped tremendously by the streaming format. Because the episodes do not have to fit into a certain time frame, the stories can be 30, 40, or 50 minutes long....whatever length is necessary for a particular tale. They don't have to be lengthened or shortened to fit into any pre-arranged slot. This gives the creators behind each episode far more freedom than the staff of a typical network TV show. 

The Third Season will have some intriguing possibilities, even without fan favorite Grogu. Actually having the character leave the Mandalorian to undergo Jedi training was a smart idea--Grogu is so hot on social media right now that inevitably his popularity would start to wane eventually. Hopefully more of the post-ROJ society will be explored. 

As for the news that Disney is planning ten new Star Wars series....that's definitely overkill. Of course there's no guarantee that all of these shows will even wind up being made. And even if they are made....the chances are that only a few of them will turn out to be good. Did Disney learn anything by having a new Star Wars film come out five years in a row? 

I've said this before, and I'll say it again--anything connected to Star Wars should be special, like ice cream. No matter how much you love ice cream, if you had to eat it 10 times a day, over and over again, you'd get tired of it. Luckily, THE MANDALORIAN continues to feel special, and it gives Star Wars fans a true sense of hope. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN On Blu-ray From Warner Archive


Despite all the horrid things that happened in 2020, fans of Hammer Films couldn't complain about the many home video releases of the famed company's product. Shout Factory continued its Hammer series, and Mill Creek released a 20 film Blu-ray set of Hammer movies made for Columbia Pictures. The Warner Archive Collection, however, topped everyone this year with its two-disc special edition release of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. This is the first time the movie has appeared on a North American Blu-ray. 

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN should be quite familiar to readers of this blog. Its impact on the history of fantastic cinema cannot be underestimated. First color Gothic horror film made by Hammer....first true horror film directed by Terence Fisher....first "real" Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee movie...THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN should have been released on Region A Blu-ray a long time ago. 

Thankfully Warner Archive didn't just slap the movie on a disc and leave it at that. The WAC gave CURSE a release befitting its importance. The print used on this Blu-ray has been restored and remastered from 4K scans, and viewers get three aspect ratios to choose from. Disc One has the movie in either a 1.85:1 or 1.66:1 widescreen ratio, while Disc Two has a standard 1.37:1 "open matte" version. (Why include a standard frame version? The folks at Warner Archive point out that for many years, this was how the movie was seen on TV, and they're right--it's how I saw it for the first time on the "Son of Svengoolie" program in the mid-1980s.) 

And how does this spiffed-up CURSE look? I'd have to say it looks very well indeed. There are times when the print appears a bit soft in the early parts of the film, but it is brighter and more colorful, and I was able to discern much more background detail, including things I don't remember noticing before--and I've watched this movie dozens and dozens of times. What really stood out for me was the laboratory scenes and the outdoor sequences. There's a new sense of overall clarity and vitality to this film now, and the sound quality has been improved as well. 

Warner Archive also saw fit to include some pertinent extras. If the presentation of CURSE on this Blu-ray reminds you of the Shout Factory Hammer releases, it's no surprise--Constantine Nasr, who worked on the Shout Factory series, prepared the extras here. 

Four featurettes analyzing the film are on Disc Two. Hammer expert Richard Klemensen discusses the impact of CURSE, and how it changed the direction of Hammer Films. Another program has music composer Christopher Drake delving into James Bernard's original score for CURSE, and his other work on Hammer's Gothic horrors. 

Cinematographer David J. Miller gives an insightful talk on Jack Asher and his expert lighting techniques on CURSE and other Hammer productions. The best of the extras has the esteemed Sir Christopher Frayling discussing THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and the English Gothic tradition (one wishes that Frayling had been able to do an audio commentary for the film). The four programs run around 20 minutes each (my only complaint on them is that they weren't longer). 

There's a new audio commentary, and if you've bought any Hammer Blu-rays recently, you can probably guess who does it....yes, it's Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman. The two had access to earlier versions of CURSE's script, and they compare these versions with what actually wound up in the film. There's also a very tacky-looking trailer (which I'm sure most Hammer fans have seen plenty of times). 

Warner Archive deserves credit for realizing how important THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is, and how it needed a restoration and proper extras to accompany it. Now, film geeks are wondering.....will the other Hammer Films controlled by Warners also be given the special edition treatment?? Their recent Blu-ray release of HORROR OF DRACULA featured a very dark looking print, and absolutely no extras whatsoever--that one certainly should get an updated release, along with the 1959 THE MUMMY and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. 

Whether or not the WAC puts out any more special editions of Hammer films, their release of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is a must-buy, and it is one of the best Blu-ray packages of the year. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020



POSTMAN'S KNOCK is a 1962 British comedy starring Spike Milligan, about--what else--a hapless postman. The main reason I watched the film was that the major female role was played by one of the leading ladies of English Gothic cinema, Barbara Shelley. (It was no less than Veronica Carlson who made me aware of this movie.) 

Spike Milligan plays Harold Petts, who is quite content with his job running the mail service in a small English country village. Petts gets transferred to London, however, and things change mightily for him. The well-meaning fellow gets involved in one fracas after another, and his superiors don't know what to do with him. Petts proves his worth by stopping a gang of bumbling mail thieves. 

Spike Milligan is best known for being part of the famed creative comedy team The Goons, but there's nothing very inventive about POSTMAN'S KNOCK. (Milligan is given credit for "additional dialogue", but one wonders how much real input he had on the production.) POSTMAN'S KNOCK has a very generic story line: goofy but decent-minded lead character screws up constantly, and annoys everybody, but he proves his worth in the end, and he winds up with a beautiful girl as well. It's the type of comedy story that has been used hundreds of times, by such people as Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis, and Adam Sandler (and no doubt will be used many times in the future). 

This type of story can be funny, depending on how the situation is set up and how fresh the approach is. In POSTMAN'S KNOCK the approach comes off as labored. The lead character is so dopey at times that one wonders how he's been able to be a fully functioning adult all along. The rest of the cast (except for Barbara Shelley) acts as silly and broadly as possible, in an effort to be funny. The movie isn't helped by Ron Goodwin's too-obvious music score, which sounds like it should be backing a Tom & Jerry cartoon. 

Spike Milligan and Barbara Shelley in POSTMAN'S KNOCK

Barbara Shelley's character is not just the only major female role in the film, she's also the most normal-acting person in it as well. She plays an unsuccessful artist who encounters Petts, and takes him on as a boarder in her flat. At first she's annoyed by him, then she feels sorry for him, and by the end of the film she feels affection toward him (why doesn't that work in real life for guys like me?). Shelley seems to have wandered in from the set of another picture, and one senses she wasn't too happy dealing with all the silly antics going on around her. She's still as attractive as always, although she isn't able to show off her gorgeous red hair, due to the movie being in black & white. 

POSTMAN'S KNOCK was filmed at the MGM Borehamwood Studios (apparently the company was hoping that Milligan would become a star like fellow Goon member Peter Sellers). Film buffs who watch this will notice many eccentric English character actors such as Warren Mitchell and Miles Malleson. 

I'm a big slapstick fan, but the attempt at it in POSTMAN'S KNOCK lacks pace, rhythm, and characterization. It was interesting, though, to see Barbara Shelley in modern clothes, and her playing a regular person. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020



The big thing trending movie-wise now is MANK, an exaggerated biopic of 1930s Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. 

The film purports to tell how Mankiewicz, suffering the after-effects of a car crash and holed up in a desert retreat, wrote what would become the basis of CITIZEN KANE. While writing, Mankiewicz has flashbacks to earlier in his Hollywood career, where he worked for--and battled--some of the most famous names in the industry. 

Director David Fincher, working from a script written by his father, filmed MANK in black & white, and he also chose to ape CITIZEN KANE's style, with many flashbacks and flashforwards. The cinematography (by Erik Messerschmidt) is excellent, but Fincher's visual and editing tricks I felt got in the way of the story. 

Certainly MANK will get the attention of film geeks, but this is not a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Studio bigwigs such as Mayer, Thalberg, and Selznick are portrayed as greedy louts, and Mankiewicz and his fellow screenwriter drinking buddies have plenty of self-loathing in them. 

Gary Oldman gives another tour de force performance as Mankiewicz. Once again Oldman seems not to act, but to become an entirely different person. Oldman's Mank is an acerbic alcoholic who goes out of his way to annoy and offend everyone around him. The irony is--and I assume that this irony was intended by the filmmakers--is that for all of Mankiewicz's cynical wit and biting of the hands that feed him, he's still nothing more than an employee, and reliant upon, the studio system he disparages. 

Mankiewicz's closest relationship isn't with his wife--it's his friendship with movie star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who was also media baron William Randolph Hearst's mistress. (Hearst is cleverly played in this movie by Charles Dance.) Davies winds up being the only person in the film who is truly honest and self-aware, but Mank winds up upsetting her as well. The major reason Mankiewicz doesn't come off as totally unlikable is due to the force of Oldman's performance. 

The movie bogs down in the middle due to a sub-plot involving the 1934 California gubernatorial race, in which author Upton Sinclair ran as a socialist. MANK suggests that Mankiewicz's despondency over how Hollywood bigwigs worked to make sure Sinclair was defeated was a major impetus toward his writing the KANE script. My internet research revealed that the real-life Mankiewicz wasn't particularly interested in Sinclair's campaign. It seemed to me that this subplot was the story that Fincher really wanted to tell. 

As for the movie's depiction of how the KANE script was written, and how much of it by who, there's plenty of historical evidence either way. I will say that Tom Burke, who plays Orson Welles, has the man down cold. 

MANK contains another magnificent performance from Gary Oldman, and it has plenty of references and famous person cameos for film buffs. But it's more interesting than enjoyable, and one shouldn't take all the incidents in it at face value. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020



Boris Karloff had plenty of movies on release in 1940. That year he starred in films from Universal, Columbia, Monogram, and Warner Bros. The last movie on his Warner contract was BRITISH INTELLIGENCE, a very convoluted, very low-budget espionage tale set during World War One. 

Karloff plays Valdar, a spy who has obtained a position as a butler in the London home of a British cabinet minister (Holmes Herbert). Valdar pretends to be a French refugee....but is he really spying for the Germans? Or is he a double-agent for the British? Or is he a triple-agent? The same could be asked for the character played by Margaret Lindsay, who is ordered by her German contacts to make contact with Valdar. 

The hour-long film has plenty of plot--nearly every character in it is a spy--but it winds up being a confusing affair, and all the action comes from a lot of stock footage. Karloff's Valdar has a nasty-looking bayonet scar (Warners must have felt that Boris had to have some kind of facial makeup), and he pretends to have a limp and a French accent. Or is he pretending? Karloff and Lindsay's characters shift allegiances and attitudes so many times it's hard to figure out exactly who they really are. 

Considering that this film was released in 1940, it's surprising that the story is set during WWI. Despite that there's plenty of dialogue foreshadowing WWII, and a German officer who goes off on a rant about how the Fatherland will one day in the future rule the world. This gives the picture a weird "We're going to comment on current events, but we're going to pretend we're in the past" feel. 

Among the supporting cast are three actors who would appear in other Karloff films--Holmes Herbert, Lawrence Grant, and Lester Matthews. The movie does have nice cinematography by Sid Hickox, but stylistically it's not much different than the Mr. Wong features Karloff was starring in for Monogram. The director was Terry Morse, who ironically would be the man who handled the American version of the first Godzilla film. 

Expert monster movie historians Greg Mank and Tom Weaver have both wondered if Warners had just wanted to end their contract with Karloff as soon as possible, since BRITISH INTELLIGENCE is such an underwhelming affair. One would think after the success of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN the studio would have given Karloff a much better role in a much better story. BRITISH INTELLIGENCE doesn't even give Karloff all that much screen time, and he spends most of it just skulking around and acting suspicious. Sadly, there were plenty of movies to come in which Karloff would essentially be only doing the same thing. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020



In his essential book ENGLISH GOTHIC, Jonathan Rigby declares, "....THE TELL-TALE HEART is something of a lost classic, albeit a minor one, of British horror." Having seen the film for the first time over the weekend, I wouldn't exactly call it a classic. This Edgar Allan Poe adaptation from 1960 was made in England, produced by the Danziger brothers, and directed by Ernest Morris. In black & white, and the recipient of a very low budget, THE TELL-TALE HEART makes the Hammer horrors and the Roger Corman Poe films made during the same period look like multi-million dollar productions. 

Like most other movies based on the works of Poe, the script makes vast changes to the author's original tale. This version is set in the 19th Century, apparently in Paris--I say apparently because even though all the street signs one sees on screen are in French, all of the characters act English, and they all have English names. 

Laurence Payne plays Edgar Marsh, a morose fellow who has almost no social skills. Edgar lives a lonely existence in an old domicile, until one day he notices a beautiful woman entering the boarding house across the street. The woman is named Betty (Adrienne Corri), and Edgar makes several embarrassing attempts to gain her affection. The worst mistake Edgar makes is introducing Betty to his only friend, the dashing Carl (Dermot Walsh). As soon as Carl and Betty look at one another, one knows that Edgar will be shunted aside fairly quickly. The pathetic guy still thinks that Betty is his, until he finds out the truth the hard way. Edgar gets Carl to come over to his house, and he kills him by savagely beating him with a poker. Edgar buries his former friend underneath the floor in one of his rooms, and tries to carry on as if nothing had happened...but the murderer keeps hearing the beating of a human heart, and Betty decides to do some investigating on her own. 

Poe's original story "The Tell-Tale Heart" was very short, and it has very little material for a full-length film. This version fills things out by adding a love triangle (which, ironically, many of the Roger Corman Poe movies feature). But even that aspect is pretty thin for a 78 minute film. It's fairly obvious that Carl and Betty are going to get together, and one just waits for Edgar to exact his revenge. The murder sequence is quite grisly for the period, as is the scene where Edgar, driven crazy by the "beating" of Carl's heart, actually cuts the organ out and buries it outside. There's also a nice effect when the floorboards, and the lawn outside, appear to be "breathing" in rhythm to the supposedly beating heart. There's a lot to put up with, though, before and after these sequences. 

The big problem is the character of Edgar. He's such a forlorn loser that one wonders how he's been able to function in society (he looks like he's about 40). The idea that a man about town like Carl would be his close friend seems hard to believe. It's also hard to believe that such a milquetoast as Edgar would be able to commit such a violent murder. These problems might not have been as notable if this had been a short subject instead of a full-length feature. 

Genre veteran Adrienne Corri easily makes the biggest impression here, even though this is one of the most normal characters she ever played onscreen! Corri makes the audience's sympathy go to Betty--she tries to be kind to Edgar and not hurt him, but the dope just doesn't get it. At one point Betty sneaks into Edgar's house to do some snooping to find out what really happened to Edgar--and of course he comes back home, and Betty has to hide and sneak away from him, This sequence, and the various times that Edgar spies upon Betty as she's in her upper-floor apartment call to mind REAR WINDOW--even though this movie is nowhere near Hitchcock's class. 

THE TELL-TALE HEART has a double-twist ending that calls to mind numerous episodes of classic TV anthology shows. It might have been better if this movie were cut down to about 30 minutes and shown on THE TWILIGHT ZONE or ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. It doesn't have the flair or style of the Hammer or AIP Gothics.