Monday, August 30, 2010

If they managed to save Hitler's head, why
couldn't they get a brain for the director?

Madmen of Mandoras (1963)
Starring: Walter Stocker, Audrey Caire, Carlos Rivas, John Holland, Dani Lynn, and Pedro Regas
Director: David Bradley
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

After his future father-in-law, and inventor of the ultimate defense against chemical warfare and nerve agents (Holland), is kidnapped, crack government agent Phil Day (Stocker) tracks him to the Central American island nation of Mandoras. Here, Day discovers a monstrous plot to murder millions of people, a plot orchestrated by Hitler's bodiless head that had been saved in a jar by loyal Nazi scientists.

Someone with a hand in creating the animated show "Futurama" must have seen this movie, because the Hitler-head-in-a-jar is identical in appearance and function to the many preserved heads on that show. And it's almost as ridiculous, even if suspense and perhaps even horror is what the filmmakers were going for.

"Madmen of Madoras" is such a mess of a movie, so badly conceived and executed that it emerges as one of those films that truly is "so bad it's good." The rating I've assigned it reflects the fact that it wasn't intended to be funny, but the fact of the matter is that this film is a perfect addition to any Nazi- or Mad Science-themed Bad Movie Party.

The premise is a wonderful one--with Nazis in control of a small nation, led by Hitler's evil mind made immortal--but the extreme low budget and the haphazard way the film unfolds makes it more funny than suspenseful. From the government agent who not only lets his girlfriend tag along on a dangerous mission but also goes shopping with her, to hilariously inept Nazi bad guys and their equally inept peasant opposition with bad Spanish accents, and a mighty final showdown fought with grenades against badly edited stock footage, this film is a fast-paced romp of non-stop excursion.

Highlights of awfulness include a car chase where it seems to switch randomly between day and night; a prison cell set that looks so flimsy that you have the feeling all our heroes need to do is kick the wall really hard and they'll be free; the swingin' sixties teenager who is such a Blonde Bimbo that she doesn't seem to realize she's a hostage; and, last but far from least, the Hitler-head-in-a-jar that is so clumsily executed that the actor's shoulders are visible more than once. We can even add to the fact that this poster from its original theatrical run has absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens in the movie.

And the characters and the actors portraying them! Oh, what a perfect combination of stereotypes being portrayed by bit-players whose levels of talent is perfectly fine for roles involving standing around, or maybe delivering a line or two at best, but which fall short of being able to carry a more substantial part. No one is exactly bad, but everyone does seem to be in over their heads. (Well, except Pedro Regas, El Presidente of Mandoras... he is so bad it will make your teeth hurt to watch him fumble his way through his part.)

Now, in fairness to the filmmakers, I do need to point out that there are some very creative and evocative cinematography on display here, something that stands in sharp contrast to the ineptitude of just about everything else about this movie. The talent of cinematographer Stanley Cortez goes a long way to making watching it the pleasurable experience that it is. I suspect it would be far less fun if the visuals weren't so expert. (It's no surprise that this is the same guy who shot "The Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles.)

I feel bad that I only recently had a chance to see this movie. Either it, or its misshapen sibling "They Saved Hitler's Brain" deserved a spot in my book 150 Movies You (Should Die Before) See.

(Note: Despite what some reviewers would have you think, the film known as "They Saved Hitler's Brain" has some significant differences to this film. It is far more than a simple retitling of this film. "They Saved Hitler's Brain" features additional, badly matched footage that extends the film's length to one suitable for airing on American broadcast television while adding a couple of other characters. The additional footage transforms what was once a lean, well-paced and hilariously bad movie, into one that feels flabby, draggy, and just bad. What the producers did when trying to reshape this film for television is a perfect example of how to ruin a movie with padding and unnecessary bits. Look for my eventual expanded comments on "They Saved Hitler's Brain" here at some point.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

'Sound of Horror' brings little, not even fury

Sound of Horror (1964)
Starring: Auturo Fernandez, James Philbrook, Soledad Miranda, Ingrid Pitt, Lola Gaos, and Jose Bodalo
Director: Jose Antonio Nieves Conde
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A group of treasure hunters blast some openings in a series of caves and unleash invisible, flesh-eating dinosaurs that have been dormant for thousands of years.

"Sound of Horror" shows some degree of cleverness on the part of the filmmakers and their answer to the question, "How do you make a monster movie with you don't have a budget to create decent-looking creatures?" (Their answer wasn't "Don't do it", their answer was "Make the monsters invsible!")

It's an answer I can appreciate. Too many filmmakers have embarrassed themselves over the years by making movies that had concepts beyond the available budget. At least the filmmakers here had a keen enough understanding of their craft to know their limitations... and for that I applaud them. No one embarrasses themselves in this production... except perhaps Ingrid Pitt and Soledad Miranda with their back-to-back dance routines of questionable quality.

During its second half, with shocking gore effects and some real suspense once the characters realize they need to find a way to fend off what they can't see or be reduced to monster-chow, this film features some pretty effective moments. Unfortunately, the sound you'll be hearing during the film's first half isn't one of horror, but one of the guy next to you snoring because boredom has put him to sleep.

The overly slow pace of the early part of the film is bound to put off most viewers before the action gets going. And I'm not even sure it gets good enough to warrant sitting through the shots of an empty cave set (which, I suppose, are there to show us the... um... invisible monsters) and the aforementioned dance routines of Miranda and Pitt.

The only people I can recommend this film to is to hardcore fans of the film's two leading ladies--it's of particular note for Pitt's carreer as it is her film debut--but everyone else should probably take a pass on it. It might be entertaining to view if you have friends who are able to carry on a MSTK-3000 style banter, but otherwise the first half of the film almost unbearably dull.

Note: "Sound of Horror" is among the movies covered in my forthcoming book, 150 Movies You Should (Die Before You) See. If you've enjoyed my reviews on the Cinema Steve blogs, please check it out.

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You....

I have a book coming out in November of this year titled 150 Movies You Should (Die Before You) See. It covers a wide variety of movie failures in what I hope is an interesting and amusing manner. While many of the films covered are ones I've written about on the various Cinema Steve blogs, the approach is very different in the book, as is the content. For example, the book is chock-full of trivia about films and actors, something I generally stay away from on the blogs.

So, if you want to give a Christmas gift to the movie lover in your life--especially if he or she is into movies that are so bad their good (or just plain bad)--why don't you pre-order a copy of my book now and get some of your shopping done early? Christmas is less that four months away after all. :D

Thursday, August 26, 2010

'Ski Troop Attack' may leave you cold

Ski Troop Attack (1960)
Starring: Michael Forest, Frank Wolff, Wally Campo, Richard Sinatra, and Shiela Noonan
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

An American ski-borne scout patrol trapped behind enemy lines during the winter of 1944 find themselves hunted by their German counterparts while trying to blow up a strategic bridge.

This is a pretty straight-forward war movie that offers a little bit of something for those who like to think of American soldiers as heroes, as well as those who like to think of them as bad guys. It also stands as one of Corman's better, dramatic non-horror efforts, with decent pacing and fairly decent dialogue. But there is nothing here that really stands out, except that the film's environment and the dangers faced by the soldiers is unusual.

"Ski Troop Attack" is at its best when the Americans are playing cat-and-mouse with the German patrol tracking them--there are moments of suspense that measure up against some of the truly great war movies to be found there. It's at its worst when the Americans force themselves upon a German woman in a farm house they come across while looking for a way back across the enemy line--they behave like stupid brutes... although this is probably the scene the dozens of people who liked Brian De Palma's "Redacted" a few years ago will like the most. (It's not so much the soldiers suddenly behave like idiots who confirm every bit of Nazi propaganda in the mind of the German woman that bothers me, but rather the fact that the scene drags to the point where you'll be WANTING someone to get shot... which is the obvious outcome from the moment the Americans enter the farm house.)

Overall, however, this is not a bad little war movie. It's just not all that great, either.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Beautiful Horror from Estaban Maroto

If I made a list of my Top Twenty favorite artists, Estaban Maroto would be somewhere on it. Whether seeing his pen illustrating romance comics or horror comics, I've loved his style since I first encountered him. In case you haven't had the pleasure, here's an opportunity.

I've linked to several posts at Joe Bloke's excellent Grantbridge Street & Other Misadventures blog where you can read a couple Maroto-illustrated stories in their entirety. (I'm too lazy to do all that scanning, so we can thank Joe for his industriousness!)

Wolf Hunt (from Vampirella Magazine #14)
(The sexy werewolf on the title page on this bears a striking resemblence to the one onthis poster for "Werewolf Woman". I wonder who was swiping from whom.)

Gender Bender (from Vampirella Magazine #20)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

'The Werewolf' is decent Halloween fare

The Werewolf (1956)
Starring: Don Megowan, Steven Ritch, Harry Lauter, Joyce Holden, Ken Christy, S. John Launer and George Lynn
Director: Fred F. Sears
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of amoral scientists (Launer and Lynn) subject an accident victim with amnesia (Ritch) to radiation that causes him to turn into a werewolf when he is frightened, angered or in pain. When their test subject escape from the lab, and starts menacing a small mountain town, they set out to kill him before the local sheriff (Megowan) catches him.

"The Werewolf" is a surprisingly effective low-budget horror film that brings the werewolf legend into the 1950s era where radiation was the answer to everything, good and bad. The pseudo-scientific explanation for the werewolf in this film is pretty much the same origin that Stan Lee's Incredible Hulk would have some ten years later, but it's used with greater effect here.

Although it has many monster movie standards--the rugged sheriff who saves the day, the evil scientists, the hapless unwilling monster that is doomed to be hunted to death despite himself--they are deployed with greater effect than one might expect from a film of this caliber. The complete amorality and naked evil of the two scientists in the film is of a nature that I don't think has been seen in a film since the mid-1940s, and the sympathetic nature of the monster/victim is more complete than any other werewolf film I think I've ever seen. There's even a (for this kind of movie) very unusual scene whee he gets to say his final goodbyes to his wife and son.

Whether you're looking for a funky monster movie to show at a Halloween party, or whether you're a fan of werewolf movies or the Science Gone Bad themed films of the 1950s, this will staged and well-acted little film will fit your needs.

"The Werewolf" is available on DVD as part of the "Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman", together with three equally offbeat low-budget sci-fi/horror-hybrids from the late 1950s. All of the movies included in the set make great Halloween viewing you can enjoy with the entire family.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

'Number 17' is weak early Hitchcock

Number 17 (1932)
Starring: Leon Lion, John Stuart, Donald Calthrop, Ann Casson, and Anne Grey
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A vagrant (Lion) becomes involved with a diverse group of suspicious characters who are drawn to an empty house because of their ties to a jewel robbery.

"Number 17" is an early Hitchcock film, and as far as I know, it's the only time he ventured into the very popular "dark old house" thriller subgenre. It deploys all the standard elements for that genre--the aforementioned old house, plenty of shadows, vanishing corpses, and lots of mysterious characters with devious agendas. However, it's the weakest of his films I've seen so far. It's got those fabulous, graceful, frequent moves from comedy to suspense that mark his early pictures, but it also has a very chaotic story that takes too long to bring to light who the various characters are and what they're up to. (And the confusion isn't helped any by some characters not being who they first appear to be.)

This film is of interest to those who are students of the 1930s "dark old house" genre, and those who feel they want to see every movie Hitchcock made. Everyone else can probably pass on this one. It really has little value beyond being a historical artifact.

'Marlene' is a top-notch horror comic book

Marlene (Slave Labor Graphics, 2005)
Story and Art: Peter Snejbjerg
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

One sveltering Danish summer, police detective Michael Joergendsen is assigned to investigate the murder of a peeping tom. As the case progresses, he discovers the woman being peeped at--a radiantly beautiful model named Marlene--seems to be the center of many strange events and dissapearances. As his obsession with both the case and Marlene grows, the main mystery becomes: Is Marlene the target of a stalker, or is she herself something more sinister?

Slave Labor Graphics may be small publisher, but they put out some seriously high-quality comics--"Halo and Sprocket", "Skeleton Key", "Private Beach", "What's Up Sugar Kat?", and "Street Angel, just to name a very few. With the English-language release of "Marlene", they added yet another fabulous comic book to their catalog.

"Marlene" is a 48-page one-shot that if it wasn't saddle-stitched would deserve to be called a graphic novel. And, frankly, it's of high enough quality that it would warrant a more durable format with a spine and cardstock covers.

Snejbjerg's tale is a perfectly paced horror tale, from the first shadowy appearance of a monstrous killer, to the final stand-off between Michael and his quarry. Snejbjerg also manages to swiftly establish his main characters as fully realized, three-dimensional personalities, and, like any good example of this kind of story, keeps some of their natures in doubt until almost the end.

Snejbjerg also shows himself to be a master of the craft of a comc book artist, something that distressingly few artists that have emerged in the past 15-20 years have been. His layouts are clean and easy to follow, his linework is crisp, and he has a great command of shadow and light. What's more, he seems to have a clear sense of the finer points of pacing a comic book story. (Hint to aspiring comcs artists and writers: Pay attention to what happens between the last panel on one page and the first panel on the following page. Get that sort of rhythm going in your work, and you'll be on your way to producing a decent comic.)

I recommend "Marlene" highly to lovers of good comic books and horror stories.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Karloff slays 'em dead when
meeting Abbott and Costello

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer (aka "Bud Abbott & Lou Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff") (1949)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Boris Karloff and Lénore Aubert
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Freddy (Costello), a dim-witted but harmless bellhop, is suspected of murdering a high-powered attorney, the arrogant hotel detective at the Lost Cavern Hotel, Casey (Abbott) decides to help him clear his name by prove that one of the other guests--many of whom were about to be ruined by the tell-all memoirs the attorney was about to publish. As evidence against Freddy starts to plie up (along with more bodies), a mysterious masked figure targets him for death as well... and wacky hi-jinx ensue.

"Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer" is a fast-paced, hilarious comedy that mixes the Bud and Lou's fast patter with a who-dunnit spoof. There are plenty of sinister suspects (with Boris Karloff leading the pack as a murderous swami), but the mystery isn't truly over until the final punchline (which is, literally, a punch line in this film).

Although the mystery elements of the script are weakened by virtue of having too many red-herring suspects, so virtually none of them are given any real development or screentime (with Karloff and Aubert being the only exeptions), the comedy aspects of the film are grand. The sequence where it's proven that some people truly are too dumb to die, and Freddy whiling away the time while waiting for the killer to arrive in the caverns from which the hotel draws its name, are priceless.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
The First Action Movie Stars!

It was 1915, and the Keystone Cops left their mark on the world of cinema as the original action movie heroes.

Forget all the current hype surrounding "The Expendables", including my own effort The Expendables Week at Watching the Detectives. When the mothers of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwartznegger, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, and Jason Statham were barely gleams in the eyes of their mothers, the Keystone Cops were beating up bad guys, getting into car chases, and generally being men of action, adventure, and bad-assery!

And there can be little doubt that the Keystone Cops invented the cinematic car-chase, as automobiles were coming into wide use as their films were being made.

You can watch one of their pulse-pounding adventures in these videos from YouTube. (Of course, I'm partly kidding. While it's true that the "Keystone Cops" films in all likelihood did invent the car chase, I don't think they can seriously be considered the first action heroes. It is interesting to note, though, that the storyline for "Love, Loot, and Crash" could be transferred into a modern action film with no changes.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Peter Cushing goes in search of Yeti!

The Abominable Snowman (1954)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Forrest Tucker, and Maureen Connell
Director: Val Guest
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

English botanist John Rollson (Cushing) joins an expedition led by American explorer Tom Friend (Tucker) to find proof of the existence of Yeti, the Abominable Snowmen of the title. Once the expedition is deep within the frozen wastes of the Himalyas, Rollson and his fellow explorers learn that they aren't hunting some subhuman primate, but are instead tracking what seems to be highly intelligent creatures with supernatural abilities. What's worse... the hunters eventually become the hunted.

"The Abominable Snowman" is an average thriller with great sets, great performances from all the featured actors, and a tense, suspenseful finale. Unfortunately, it moves a bit too slowly, but when it does get to the action or the drama, the pay-off is worth it.

The greatest weakness of the movie is the fact that it doesn't just wear its message on its sleeve, it shoves it down the viewers throat with a number of long speeches delivered in turn by Tucker and Cushing. Yes... man is a destroyer, and man is but a guest on this planet, and life is precious and nature is precious.... The viewer gets the message just from the way the various characters behave, and the way the Yeti behave. The speechifying gets dull after the first run-through, despite the fact that the lines are delivered with great skill and fervor by the actors.

Despite this flaw, I enjoyed the film for the great performances by its actors and the sets. The story also has a numer of chilling moments. In balance, it's worth seeing.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

'Green Eyes' not worth looking into

Green Eyes (1934)
Starring: John Wray, Charles Starrett, Alden Chase, and Shirley Grey
Director: Richard Thorpe
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A millionaire is murdered during his own costume party, and a police inspector (Wray) sorts through the motives and deceptions of his staff and house guests to figure out who did. He is helped (and annoyed) by a mystery novelist (Starrett) who was in attendence.

"Green Eyes" could have been a slightly-below-average mystery movie if the writers and producers had even possessed the slightest sense of how a mystery like this is supposed to work. The movie goes off the tracks in the vvery first scene, because it starts too late.

Basically, a movie like this is either supposed to start AFTER the detectives arrive on scene, or its supposed to start with a set-up introducing the suspects and the victim, while providing a couple of hints and clues as to who did it and why. Here, we get something that's a little bit of both, but not enough of either to really make the movie satisfying... and as the clues are uncovered, they don't make much sense to the viewers, because the movie left out the piece of information that would have let us "play along" with the detectives as they solve the crime.

Another problem with the film is the mystery novelist amateur detective. That character has got to be the most annoying and obnoxious iteration of that type to ever appear on screen. (His never-ending obfuscation of facts and disturbing of evidence should at least get him arrested on 'interferring with police business.')

Although decently acted and well-paced, the fact this movie gets off on a bad track from the get-go, and it's got a "hero" who's so obnoxious that it's amazing the police detective doesn't just arrest him for the murder and call it a day, degrades "Green Eyes" from 'classic' to just plain 'old.'

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sub's secret mission is 'Destination Tokyo'

Today, it's exactly 65 years ago that the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, bringing an end to World War II. This post is my way of marking that anniversary.

Destination Tokyo (1943)
Starring: Cary Grant, John Garfield, John Ridgely, Alan Hale, Robert Hutton, William Prince, Tom Tully, and Warner Anderson
Director: Delmer Daves
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A veteran submarine crew have all their skills and loyalty to their captain and country tested when they are sent on a covert mission to scout the defenses surrounding Tokyo in preparation for an air strike on the Japanese capitol during World War II.

"Destination Tokyo" is an expertly paced war story that features great performances from all cast members while providing an (admittedly idealized) look into life aboard a submarine in WWII. Viewers are walked through the entire command structure and almost every position on the ship, starting first with sailor on his first tour-of-duty as our stand-in character, and later through a reserve officer who comes aboard to help with the boat's covert mission. Exchanges between officers and crew further bring to light unique aspects of Navy life, and the battle scenes stress the unique dangers and advantages to sailing under instead of upon the sea. Using a mixture of decently done miniature special effects and real battle- and harbor-footage provided by the War Department, the film draws viewers into this suspenseful wartime tale of danger and heroism.

Sadly, this is the kind of movie they just don't make anymore. It's a suspenseful adventure tale as well as a story that highlights the real and substantive differences between the American outlook and the outlook of the oppresive and evil governments that we go to war against. A key moment in the film comes shortly after a grizzled old veteran sailor is stabbed to death by a downed Japanese pilot the submarine diverted to rescue; they didn't have to try to save the pilot, yet they did... and they were repaid with their mercy by savagery. Just like the U.S. military is rewarded for fighting humanely and decently today. A bit of dialogue spoken by Grant after the death of the sailor further highlights the fact that America doesn't indoctrinate its children into a culture of death and savage murder, like our enemies. We likewise don't target civilans nor force them into being meat-shields for soldiers, as do our enemies... we, just like we did in WWII hope instead to destroy governments that encourage such behavior. As Grant says in the film, "There's lots of Mikes dying right now. And a lot more Mikes will die. Until we wipe out a system that puts daggers in the hands of five-year-old children."

Today's Hollywood filmmakers are too busy trying to paint the U.S. military as the bad guys while trying their best to paint those who "put daggers in the hands of five-year-old children" as heroic freedom fighters. The various fascist Muslim terrorist movements around the world, the government of Iran, the government of North Korea... they're no different than Imperial Japan during World War II, and the men and women serving in the United States military are no different than the those who served 65 years ago. All that has changed is the creative community, who, for some inexplicable reason, feel sympathy toward those who would happily murder them all (and have murdered some of them, like Mustapha Akkad).

"Destination Tokyo" is also a far better crafted movie than the vast majority of what is being made today, especially those that contain propaganda elements like this one. Films like "Lions for Lambs" and even the somewhat more evenhanded "The Kingdom" grind to a halt when characters start their earnest soap-boxing. Today's writers and directors, are either so deficient in talent, or so desperate to shove their twisted and wrong-headed messages down the throats of viewers that they don't understand that such messages are best received when they grow naturally out of the film's events, so characters can deliver the message points in what seems like natural conversation.

I supposed we can count ourselves lucky that those who try their hands at war movies today don't have the talent and skill of those working during the 1940s. Otherwise, their lies wouldn't be so transparent and the truths of classics like "Destination: Tokyo" wouldn't shine so brightly.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A trip back to the roots of cinematography

Lumiere & Company (1995)
Starring: The Lumiere Camera (and a whole bunch of actors and directors)
Directors: Sarah Moon (and 40 different filmakers from around the world)
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the invention of the motion picture camera by the Lumiere Brothers, 40 diffferent directors (of wildly different level of international fame and wildly different degrees of creativity and apparent talent) were taksed with creating 52-second shorts filmed using restored Lumiere camera, just like the pioneers did 100 years ago.

The best shorts in this anthology package of the cinematic equivalent of haikus are very, VERY good. They give us some very interesting visuals and a number of them even manage to provide engaging or amusing storylines in just 52 seconds. David Lynch (who gives us a bizarre mini sci-fi thriller), Youssef Chahine and Merzak Allouache (who shine lights on the negative and retrograde aspects of Muslim culture a decade before it became a fashionable topic), Claude Miller (who tells the tale of a little girl trying to weigh herself), Idrissa Quedraogo (who captures some Africans playing and working on a river bank), Claude Lelouch (who shows us how cinema is at once never-changing and ever-evolving), and Zhang Yimou (who captures the march of time and change of cultures effectively with a surprising film made atop the Great Wall of China).

The mediocre ones are by filmmakers who failed to take the opportunity to allow the Lumere camera to live in the modern day but merely used their 52 seconds to ape Lumiere's style of film... a style that is entirely too basic in the modern age where simple motion isn't enough to make the time spent on even the shortest film worthwhile. (Some of these are quite beautiful visually, but they still needed more.) The best of these is John Boorman's documentation of activity on a movie set and Jacques Rivette's strange film involving a girl playing hopscotch, a man reading a newspaper, and a young woman rollerblading while carrying a lamp.

The worst of the batch barely have any motion in them and they are so boring that they make 52 seconds seem like forever. The worst of these is Spike Lee's eternal close-up of a baby doing nothing but smiling or looking akward. Whatever he got paid for his participation in this project was too much. (It's a prime and very distilled example of why I've always felt Spike Lee is overrated.)

The film is also hampered by some truly asinine interviews with the featured directors (which record their answers to lame questions like "why do you film?" and "is cinema immortal?"--although they do manage to show a few of the directors to be so pretentious that one feels embarrassed for them) and hit-and-miss mini-documentaries that capture the fimmakers setting up their mini-movies while marveling at simple beauty of Lumiere's creation (which even dissasembles into serving as its own movie projector).

At its best, "Lumiere and Company" gives the viewers some bite-sized samples of what talented and creative directors can do with even the simplest of filmmaking tools and those segments make this worthwhile viewing for lovers of movies. As for the rest of this effort (much of which is noteworthy only because it demonstrates how the emperor is indeed naked when it comes to some of these "leading directors")... well, it's why God gave us the Lumiere camera, followed in short order by the shuttle button on the remote and DVD chaptering.

Monday, August 9, 2010

'The War Game' is chilling look at consequences of nuclear war

Today is the 65th anniversary of the A-bomb being dropped on Nagasaki, the second such weapon to so far ever be used in war. This is perhaps one of the most appropriate reviews I could post on this day.

The War Game (1964)
Starring: Michael Aspel and Peter Graham
Director: Peter Watkins
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

"The War Game" is an extremely well-done docu-drama depicting what a Soviet nuclear strike might have done to a small British town located between two targets for enemy missiles. It is perhaps the most real-seeming film I've ever seen of this kind.

Originally produced for TV but eventually only released in movie theaters because the British censors thought the film too intense, this is a bone-chilling exploration of the hell that those who survive a nuclear strike will suffer.

While the filmmakers annoyingly show their political leanings during the course of the film ("by jove, those peace-loving Soviets won't have a choice but to fire nukes at heavily populated areas if those eeeevil Americans and their NATO allies use a small-scale nuke on the battlefield") the vast majority of the film is gut-wrenching and very difficult to watch.

Because this film is difficult to watch, it's tempting to turn it off and dismiss it with the thought that it's outdated--a historical artifact that now can only serve as a time-capsule to give us a glimpse into the attitudes of people during first decades of the Cold War. Unfortunately, this is untrue. We still live under the threat of suffering the sorts of horrors that this movie depicts. Equally unfortunate, though, is that an increasing number of people who control nuclear weapons would actually desire to inflict the horrors in this movie upon the world... they might even see it as their divine duty. It's imperative that the civilized peoples of the world do what they can to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, so we may avoid scenes like those in "The War Game" becoming reality.

Or, for that matter, have a repeat of what happened 65 years ago today in Nagasaki.

Oh, another reason to watch this film is that it won the Best Documentary Oscar for 1964. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" is therefore not the only work of fiction to win in the wrong category.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

'The War That Time Forgot' is the weirdest
of the Weird War Tales.

It's sixty-five years this month since the United States dropped two atom bombs on Japan, bringing the Empire of the Rising Sun to its knees and bringing an end to World War II. This post is part of my marking of that occasion.

Showcase Presents: The War That Time Forgot, Vol. 1 (DC Comics, 2006)
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Artists: Ross Andru, Mike Espisito, Joe Kubert, Gene Colan, and Russ Heath
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

"Showcase Presents: The War That Time Forgot" is 500+ pages of the strangest war comics that DC Comics put out during the 1960s, most of them culled from the appropriately named "Weird War Tales" comic book series.

"The War That Time Forgot" pits the U.S. Navy and Army against dinosaurs on uncharted islands in the Pacific during WW2, showing that giant monsters were running rampant even before the atom bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Toss in a few recurring characters--such as the G.I. circus acrobats, The Flying Boots, and their manager-turned-drill sargeant Zig-Zag; the mechanical G.I. Robot; and the Suicide Squad ("the only soldiers who hated each other more than the enemy")--and you've got some entertaining, fast-paced, and quite bizarre war stories.

I won't say the work here is the best that any of the creators involved produced. Andru and Colan both went onto to better work at Marvel during the 1970s, and while Kanigher is as creative as ever here, the flaws that were almost constantly present throughout his work are very clearly on display... and amplified as you read the stories in this book back-to-back.

Kanigher had a habit of enfusing stories with a theme that ran heavy-handed through the events of the story and ultimately played an equally heavy part in the resolution or moral. He also had a habit of having things happen in threes--such as the soldier testing the G.I. Robot criticising it three times for being an unfeeling, unthinking machine... before it strangely breaks programming and rescues him from certain doom without being ordered to do so.

The weaknesses, however, in this book are outweighed by its strengths--fun stories and decent (if not spectacular) artwork.

"Showcase Presents: The War That Time Forgot" is available from for less that $12. I think it's a book that a young boy that you want to encourage to read will enjoy... it's got soldiers, guns, robots, and dinosaurs. What more could a 2nd or 3rd-grader ask for between two covers? For the adult reader, I think these stories get old fast, but I think a kid will enjoy them immensely.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Japanese occupiers menace
the 'Lady From Chungking'

Today, it's exactly 65 years since the United States of America dropped an atom bomb on Japan, setting into motion the events that finally ended World War II, as well as Japan's vicious empire in the Pacific. This post is one of several I've made that mark occasion.

Lady From Chungking (1942)
Starring: Anna May Wong, Harold Huber, Ted Hecht, Ludwig Donath, Mae Clarke, Rick Vallin, and Paul Bryer
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A Chinese aristocrat, Kwan Mei (Wong), who has been reduced to working in the rice fields along side the peasants by the Japanese invaders of China during World War 2. She continues to lead her people by convertly organizing her fellow laborers into a guerrilla fighting force, but when she is picked by a slimey Japanese officer (Hecht) to serve as mistress to General Kaimura (Huber) she must convince the peasants she hasn't betrayed them, or they won't be in a position to stop the arrival of massive Japanese reinforcements that will assure Japanese dominance over the whole of China.

"Lady From Chungking" is a fairly standard WW2 resistance fighter tale, although the fact it deals with the Chinese resistance against the Japanese occupation of their land sets it apart from the typical partisan films. (They still manage to work in a bit of Nazi flotsam in the form of the German owner of a hotel that serves as the headquarters for the Japanese forces, home to the general leading them, and prison for a captured American fighter pilot (Vallin).)

Something else that sets this film apart from many others of its kind (especially if they were released by PRC like this one) is the well-crafted story and superior acting.

Aside from the plotline with a pair of downed American Flying Tigers that have to released and returned to their base so they can give the guerillas air support when they attack the arriving troop transport trains, which feels a little like filler, despite the tie-in with the film's climax, the script is a tightly written one, with nary of moment of wasted screen-time and a set of characters that makes the nameless German-run hotel feel a little like Rick's American Cafe from Casablanca (only without the money for sets and extras). The ending is also very strong and somewhat unexpected.

The superior acting of all players--from a child playing a Chinese boy cowed by the Japanese oppressors, through star Anna May Wong--brings a collection of stock characters to full life as the story unfolds. Although Caucasian actor Harold Huber looks more like a Mexican gardner that's stolen some Japanese general's uniform, he nonetheless gives a fine performance as the vicious, wholly self-absorbed Kaimura. Star Wong also shines very brightly as Kaimura's opposite in all things, the noble and utterly selfless Kwan Mei.

I suppose one can't complain too much about White actors like Huber and Ted Hecht (who plays Kaimura's unfortunate aide-de-camp, Shimoto) being made up as Japanese with limited success. This is a William Nigh film, and he seems to have been the guy to call when you were casting a Caucasian as an Asian in the lead. At least here, he had an honest-to-God Asian as his star, which, as far as I know, is the one and only time this was the case.

While "Lady From Chungking" is a superior WW2-era low-budget quickie, it is one of the few of its kind that time hasn't passed by completely. It's a well-made film, with good acting and an uplifting message that speaks to audiences even today. It's not quite what I'd call a classic, but it's timeless (despite being a clear product of its time) and still very much worth watching.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was the first movie star of Chinese-American extraction, achieving international fame in a time when Asian characters in American-made movies were almost always played by Caucasian actors in heavy make-up.

Wong began her career in silent movies and easily made the transition to Talkies where many of her contemporaries saw their careers shrivel up and vanish. While the naked racism of early Hollywood kept her from the highest reaches of celebrity, she was still an extremely popular actress with the movie going public.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

An airplane drama that's too earthbound

Robot Pilot (aka "Emergency Landing") (1941)
Starring: Forrest Tucker, Emmett Vogan, Carol Hughes, Evelyn Brent, and William Halligan
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A test pilot (Tucker) and a weather man/bush-pilot-turned-inventor (Vogan) have developed a prototype for a new kind of autopilot they believe will permit flawless remote-controlling of aircraft, thus allowing for bombing raids against the Nazis and Japanese without endanggering pilots. However, interference from enemy spies and an aircraft manufacturing mogul's ditzy, self-important daugther (Hughes) may well spell doom for their project before it ever gets off the ground.

"Robot Pilot" is an avation/sci-fi film with of heavy doses of coy, cute romancing and goofy comedy. Unfortunately, much of the comedy falls completely flat, partly because of changes in society in the 65 years since the film was made, and party because it just isn't very funny. (There's a "simple-minded Mexican" comic relief character whose scenes drag on and on and on. His stchick is actually somewhat more amusing when Evelyn Brant mimics him in a later scene. If fact, the funniest scenes in the film usually involve Brent, who is definately the most talented actress in the film.)

The simple story moves fast enough for the viewer to not get bored, nor to have time contemplate the implausibility of some of the plot developments. This may be damning with faint praise, but "Robot Pilot" is one of the best films William Beaudine films I've seen. If there had been less ethnic humor and more intrigue and drama, it might have ennded up with a Five or Six rating.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bulldog Drummond goes out with a bang

Bulldog Drummond's Bride (1939)
Starring: John Howard, Heather Angel, Reginald Denny, Eduardo Ciannelli, H.B. Warner, E.E. Clive, John Sutton, Gerald Hamer, Louise Mercier, and Louise Patterson
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Phyllis (Angel) gives adventurer Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (Howard) one final chance to marry her, forcing the matter to the point where she has promised to marry another suitor on the day immediately following their scheduled wedding should the date be missed again. But, despite the efforts of their friends and families (regular returning cast-members Clive, Denny, Patterson, and Warner), a small-town French mayor with a deeply romantic soul (Mercier), this wedding plan may be foiled by the deadliest obsticle yet: A murderous, bomb-happy bank robber (Cianelli) in search of revenge and the 10,000 pounds of loot that he hid inside Phyllis' portable radio and which Hugh shipped to France.

Whether or not Hugh Drummond and his fiancee Phyllis actually manage to complete their nuptuials, "Bulldog Drummond's Bride" ends the Paramount-produced series with a bang! It features one of the series' most sinister villains--second only to the opponent that almost fed Colonel Nielsen and Hugh to a lion in "Bulldog Drummond in Africa"--and a weddding ceremony that's exactlyl the sort of pay-off that's called for, given how long it's been in coming.

It's a little dissapointing that the characters of Tenny (Clive) and Colonel Nielsen (Warner) are reduced to playing very small parts, but the trade-off of John Sutton's character (Colonel Nielsen's assistant in four of the films, referred to mostly as "Inspector Tredennis", but called "Jennings" in "Bulldog Drummond's Revenge") getting to play a larger role, and to even manage to be the one to make sure Drummond stays put long enough to give his final hope of marriage even the slightest chance of happening; and the hilarious, pompous small-town mayor/chief of police character portrayed by Louis Mercier more than make up for it.

Although this final step of Bulldog Drummond's Road to the Wedding is a little short of hi-jinx (the only truly funny bit is bank-robber Henri Armides tormenting of a confused Algy (Denny)--the wild energy of the film's final minutes brings this series to a close at a very high point of quality.

For a well-written and comprehensive article about the novels that inspired the "Bulldog Drummond" films, click here.