Sunday, October 26, 2014

Budapest Times: 14th Annual Hungarian Film Festival

Here is a link for an article I wrote on the 14th annual Hungarian Film Festival in Los Angeles. It was published by the Budapest Times.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Film Review: The Outlaws Is Coming

"The Outlaws Is Coming"  ** (out of ****)

"The Outlaws Is Coming" (1965) is a comedy western starring the comedy team the Three Stooges, directed by Moe Howard's son-in-law Norman Maurer.

This is the first time I have reviewed a Three Stooges comedy. Previously I wrote about the comedy team in general and my reaction to their work overall. I have never described myself as a fan. Many people have tried to show me what I am missing when it comes to the Three Stooges' work, but, I've just never found them funny. Their comedies are just a battle royale to me. After I see Moe poke Larry in the eyes the first time it might be funny, but, when he does it 36 times in the same two reeler it ceases to be amusing.

I have always been a fan of the great comedians and comedy teams of the past. I have tried as best I can to review the work of comedy legends such as Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello and Harry Langdon among many, many others. I admit I still have a way to go, and I will correct that in the days and months to come, but my appreciation for comedy hopefully is known to my readers. So, it was a matter of time until I chose to write about the Three Stooges.

"The Outlaws Is Coming" marks the final feature length film the Three Stooges starred in and its setting, the old west, has always been a favorite for comedians. Comedians generally play cowards which creates a nice contrast to the masculine image of the old west with tough bandits, courageous sheriffs and gun fights. Buster Keaton was in "Go West" (1925), Bob Hope was in "The Paleface" (1948), Laurel & Hardy in "Way Out West" (1937) and Jack Benny in "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940). Even in more recent times you see comedians playing around with the western image as in "A Million Ways to Die in the West" (2014) which was as raunchy as Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" (1974).

This time around the Stooges play photographers for a Boston wildlife magazine, we start the movie off with them trying to take a picture of a skunk and not get sprayed. The editor of the magazine, Kenneth Cabot (Adam West, a year before he would play Batman) has been writing a series of editorials on troubling reports of buffalo killings in Wyoming and is sent there to investigate with his photographers.

The buffalo have been being killed in large numbers as part of Rance Roden's (Don Lamond) plan to start a war between the Indians and the U.S. Cavalry. Rance believes if his outlaws; Wyatt Earp (Bill Camfield), Billy the Kid (Johnny Ginger), Jesse James (Wayne Mack), Wild Bill Hickok (Paul Shannon) and Johnny Ringo (Hal Fryar) among them, kill all of the buffalo this will outrage the Indians and make them go on a war path to kill all the white people and destroy the U.S. Cavalry. Once the law and order of the Cavalry is out of the way, the outlaws can take control of all the cities.

"The Outlaws Is Coming" is essentially a "B" movie with "B" level acting, dialogue and production designs. The only performers that really seem natural on-screen are in fact the Stooges, which should be your first sign the movie is in trouble. When the Three Stooges are out acting everyone in the movie, trust me, that is a problem. That means everyone else is doing something wrong.

It should also be mentioned since this is an older film, this movie does not feature the classic line-up most fans of the Stooges love; Moe, Larry and Curly. Once the Stooges started making feature films, in the late 50s, the line-up was Moe, Larry and Joe DeRita, who is credited as Curly-Joe.

Joe DeRita was a comedian, starting off in burlesque, also at Columbia Pictures, where the Stooges made their famous comedy shorts, but never really caught on with the public by creating a comedy persona audiences could relate to.

Prior to DeRita joining the Stooges, Moe and Larry were working with Joe Besser (who is hated by Stooge fans) when Columbia Pictures stopped making shorts. The three were going to tour together but Besser left the group to take care of a sick wife. The Stooges were about to retire but when they were re-discovered by a younger generation thanks to television, Joe DeRita joined the team.

As had started with the Besser shorts, the Stooges engage in less hitting (Besser had it in his contract not to take too many face hits, one reason Stooge fans hate him so much) in these movies with DeRita. You also have to take into account their age. It just doesn't look right when one senior citizen is poking another senior citizen in the eyes. You are afraid if Moe hits Larry a little too hard there could be serious consequences. I approve of this change however the Stooges didn't make up for it. By that I mean, if the Stooges lessen the physical comedy they don't compensate for it by filling their comedy with more verbal gags. The Three Stooges were never witty. Moe could never deliver a one-liner the way Groucho Marx or Bob Hope could. So, instead the Stooges just become less funny.

One of the many reasons "The Outlaws Is Coming" fails is because the Stooges are not at the top of their game. You cannot honestly watch this movie and tell me it is as funny as the Marx Brothers or Laurel & Hardy comedies. Sure, the 1940 comedies Laurel & Hardy showed the team older and recycle gags, but, there was still something special about them. Their timing was still there, slipping a bit, but, they were watchable. Groucho was always funny. Period. But, watching the Stooges at this age, engage in this behavior just seems strange. And the reaction other characters have when watching them, which is no reaction, is also strange. You would expect someone to intervene.

The other problems with the movie has to do with everyone else's acting. Adam West is too stiff. He does not look comfortable on-screen. Is he embarrassed to be working with the Stooges? The movie makes the mistake of having his character also play a coward. It doesn't work. The Cabot character played by West should have been somewhat brave and the Stooges are the cowards. What is the point of having four cowards together? There is no contrast. This was suppose to feed into the stereotype of all Easterners are sissies.

Nancy Kovack, who plays Annie Oakley, is meant to be a potential love interest for Cabot but the movie doesn't fully establish either character and as a result we don't care about either one of them. The movie also doesn't show us these two being attracted to each other. But devotes no time to setting that aspect of the screenplay up. Both characters are almost throw-a-way characters which don't advance the plot at all.

The movie doesn't take full advantage of the western setting with the Stooges trying to fit in, coming from Boston. One good scene however shows them bullied into drinking a strong drink. This is what the movie needed more of. The cowardly Stooges mixing in with the rough west. This also creates a contrast with the Stooges as contemporary comedians in a historic setting giving them the chance to put in some anachronistic humor. In the process the movie could skewer the western stereotypes and culture but it becomes a missed opportunity. This is how you are going to get laughs though in a western comedy.

As the movie goes on Cabot is named sheriff of the town, after all the previous sheriffs have been killed. The outlaws and Rance want Cabot to be a puppet sheriff. Though he speaks of wanting to stop the buffalo massacre they don't see him as a threat. The problem is, the audience agrees. We never see Cabot as a man of action. What is his plan to stop the killings? We never see him report to Boston. We never see him rile the people of the town up. We never see anyone care about his cause. And this guy is suppose to be Batman!

Of course all of this is not necessarily the fault of the Stooges. You need to place blame at the feet of the screenwriter, Elwood Ullman, who worked at Columbia Pictures as a screenwriter on various shorts. He wrote the Buster Keaton sound comedy, "The Spook Speaks" (1940), which is very disappointing, and wrote Three Stooges shorts like "Yes, We Have No Bonanza" (1939) and would go on to write some of their feature films; "Snow White and the Three Stooges" (1961) and "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" (1962), maybe two of the best known feature films the Stooges were in.

The director, Maurer, directed one other feature film prior to this, also a Stooge comedy, "The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze" (1963), another disappointing but harmless comedy. He had more success as a writer, believe it or not, on Scooby-Doo cartoons. He wasn't much of a director, lacking a visual style, but, since he was a son-in-law of Moe Howard, was protective of the Stooge franchise and served as the team's manager.

"The Outlaws Is Coming" is a failure but a harmless failure. The movie doesn't reach the heights of great comedy, no one will mistake it for a comedy masterpiece, but I've seen worst. The Stooges have about two or three scenes that are good for a smile or two. One scenes involves drinking the strong drink, another scene involves them sneaking into a saloon, in an attempt to prevent the outlaws from killing Cabot in a showdown, at night to tamper with their guns but walk into the wrong room. And in maybe their most classic bit, Moe is accidentally glued to a chair and beats up Larry and Curly-Joe as they try to set him free.

Also funny are the scenes involving the Indians, who don't speak in the silly cliche way we always associate with them, but, instead are hip to modern lingo. The Indian chief's son is played by Henry Gibson known for his work on the classic television show "Laugh-In".

Obviously if you are a fan of the Three Stooges, you are not going to think this is among their best work. If you are a true fan, you will say, while it is not great it is still watchable and sometimes funny. If you have never watched the Three Stooges, this really is not the place to start. If this is your introduction in the comedy of the Three Stooges you will never be able to understand what made them famous. I guess this is for the devoted fans of the comedy team. Everyone else that watches it will be too harsh against it, harsher than I am, and I don't think I've been harsh.

"The Outlaws Is Coming" could have been much better instead it is a weak, borderline boring comedy. There is nothing memorable about this movie.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Film Review: Piranha 3-D

"Piranha 3-D"  ** (out of ****)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water comes along "Piranha 3-D" (2010).

You don't expect much from a movie called "Piranha 3-D" (released in theatres in 3-D but is now referred to as "Piranha" since its DVD release), which works in its favor. Because the expectations are so low, all "Piranha 3-D" has to do is not be an embarrassment and a career low point for everyone involved. It is not an embarrassment but it is a career low point for everyone in this movie. This is a movie in 20 years from now people will look back on it (if they even remember it) and say "I can't believe so-and-so was in that movie"!

The most amazing thing about "Piranha 3-D" is the people that were involved in this. The movie was directed by Alexandre Aja, who directed the brilliant French horror film, "High Tension" (2003). He also directed the remake of Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes" (2006) and wrote the thriller "P2" (2007). The movie stars Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Jerry O' Connell, Adam Scott, Christopher Lloyd, Jessica Szohr and a cameo by Richard Dreyfuss(!). The Weinstein Brothers produced it, the cinematography was done by John R. Leonetti, who directed the recent "Annabelle" (2014) and was the cinematographer on "The Conjuring" (2013) and "Insidious" (2010). How did this happen?! How were all of these talented people able to combine together and give us a final product like this? It is mystifying. All of these individuals are capable of making a better movie. They must have known this is trashy "B" quality material. Why did they even bother to waste their talents on sub-standard material?

Of course on the other side of the coin, because these talented people were behind this movie it does have its defenders. The sheep (movie critics) actually wrote positive reviews for it. The appearance of Elisabeth Shue and being released by the Weinstein Brothers...ect gave the movie an air of "respectability". The sheep or audiences could say they liked the movie as campy fun and not have a strong backlash against them because they could point to the talent involved and say, how bad could it be with them in it? Their involvement adds to the movie and makes it rise above the material.

"Piranha 3-D" is a remake of a 1978  "B" movie of the same title directed by Joe Dante and starred Kevin McCarthy (best known for his role in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956), Keenan Wynn and Richard Deacon (from "The Dick Van Dyke" show) which was an attempt to cash in on the success of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975), hence why Richard Dreyfuss has a cameo in this movie. He starred in "Jaws" and his appearance here is suppose to serve as a reference point and be a movie "in joke".

The movie takes place in Lake Havasu when an earthquake hits splitting the lake floor revealing a lake within a lake. This earthquake has now released prehistoric piranhas which going on a killing spree just in time for spring break, when hundreds of drunk kids will be out in the water.

There is a lot of nudity, with busty young women taking their tops off, scenes with teenagers excessively drinking and lots of mutilation when the piranhas attack, as we see characters losing limbs and having their eyeballs eaten. Basically the movie becomes a blood bath. A slasher movie with piranhas instead of an ax murderer.

And like all slasher movies and horror pictures, it is the sinful young teenagers that get killed for the drinking and sexual behavior and must die gruesome deaths as retaliation. It is an old horror cliche, only the virgin lives, the good girl, the one without sin.

I don't mind the nudity, the silly story or even some of the death scenes, but after a while it becomes too much. It is an onslaught of disgusting mutilating scenes; faces getting ripped off, bodies slashed in two, eyeballs taken out of the sockets and one ridiculous sequences when we see a penis eaten. What's the point? None of this is scary. It is just disgusting. And like the piranhas, the movie doesn't let up. It tries to up the ante, going further and further with the kills. Each one a bit more extreme than the last one. What is pleasurable about seeing this? I'm not going on a moral crusade but I've seen better horror movies with less violence and better story lines. I've seen better campy horror movies. Watch Dario Argento's "Dracula 3-D" (2013) instead. But this movie has nowhere to go. It had one idea, lets show piranhas eating naked girls alive and after that the movie ran out of ideas.

Spring break is a very important time for the locals at Lake Havasu, thanks to all the tourism dollars it brings in but it is also a headache for the town's sheriff, Julie Forester (Shue) who needs to make sure that everything runs smoothly and no unwanted publicity comes to the town. But this year that is especially difficult as Julie and her deputy, Fallon (Ving Rhames) have been called to investigate a local who has gone missing. The remains of his body have been found in the lake. The sheriff and the deputy would like to have the lake closed by the town's council would never allow that when this is their most busy season.

Meanwhile, Julie's children; Jake (Steven R. McQueen), Laura (Brooklynn Proulx) and Zane (Sage Ryan)  do everything possible to get into trouble. Jake, the oldest son and quite possibly one of the most unlikable characters in the movie, because of all the destruction he causes due to his behavior, gets mixed up in a "Girls Gone Wild" type production directed by Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell) and Dani (Kelly Brook) one of the models for the shoot.

Jake was supposed to be babysitting his two younger siblings, but, not wanting to take responsibility, prefers to go out and mingle while all the drunk and half naked girls are around for spring break. So, he pays his brother and sister off, leaves them unattended to, but, does make them promise to stay out of trouble, and heads off to meet Derrick.

Jake's behavior upsets his younger brother Zane, who had planned to go fishing. So Zane and Laura decided to leave their home and head into the deeper end of the lake where the fish will be biting. Jake on the other hand, leads Derrick and his crew to a remote area of the lake to do their photo shoot and film the models naked.

As this goes on as the sheriff with the help of a team of seismologist, headed by Novak (Adam Scott), who have come to study the earthquake, slowly begin to discover the piranhas are behind the attacks and need to evacuate the lake and figure out how to kill all of the piranhas.

At this point the movie becomes a blood bath and engages in graphic death scenes involving bodily mutilation and becomes an excuse to see half naked girls in something other than soft-core pornography.

"Piranha" is neither scary or suspenseful and instead becomes a by the numbers production. We know who will survive this massacre and who won't. We know when the movie is trying to play on our emotions in an attempt to create suspense.

Watching "Piranha" you have to ask yourself, why? Why was this movie made? Why did people go and see it, it grossed more than 86 million dollars. Why are audiences so attracted to graphic violence? It is not campy enough where is it playful and harmless. It is not really what I would call a midnight movie. We are dealing with a level of filmmaking which is in the same league as "Lake Placid" (1999) and "Anaconda" (1997). If that sounds interesting to you, enjoy, the fish are biting.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Film Review: A Nightmare On Elm Street

"A Nightmare On Elm Street"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Your dreams will be the death of you in Wes Craven's popular horror movie, "A Nightmare On Elm Street" (1984).

A group of teenagers discover they are all being haunted by the same man in their nightmares; a man with a burnt face and knives for fingers named Fred Krueger (Robert Englund).

Celebrating its 30th anniversary "A Nightmare On Elm Street" spawned several sequels, seven by my count, and a remake in 2010.

"A Nightmare On Elm Street" is a movie centered on an interesting premise, the power of our dreams. The scariest things in life are probably the things we imagine to be true. The often repeated tidbit by the sheep (movie critics) is Craven was inspired to make this movie after reading an article in the LA Times about a group of Cambodian refugees who died in their sleep after experiencing nightmares.

Unfortunately for however interesting the idea maybe the biggest problem I had with the movie lies with the villain. Looking back on "A Nightmare On Elm Street" I'm struck by how terrible a movie villain Fred Krueger is. The ultimate failure of the picture is the make-up used to create the character. Fred Krueger simply doesn't look scary. There is nothing to fear looking at this individual. All we can do when we see him is sit and wonder to ourselves, why didn't anyone notice this character doesn't look scary. This person haunting their dreams isn't much of a threat visually.

Now, this wasn't always the case. When I was a child and first saw this character, I was four years old, I did find the image of Fred Krueger's face scary but watching this movie again and being confronted by this character again, the effect and suspense was gone. The simple image of the white mask worn by Michael Myers in "Halloween" (1978) is much more frightening and intimidating, even after repeated viewings. "A Nightmare On Elm Street" now looks like a low budget, cheesy slasher movie.

And that leads to my second problem with "A Nightmare On Elm Street", there is too much screen time for Fred Krueger. Within the first 40 minutes of this picture we constantly see his face, chasing after these teenagers. I would have preferred the approach Steven Spielberg used in "Jaws" (1975). Use the villain sparingly. We see a hand now and then, a foot, the glove with knives, maybe even the sound of his voice, instead Craven shows us Fred Krueger face to face with his victims even when he doesn't kill them. For me this lessened the effect of the movie and the character. Now Fred Krueger didn't seem like some supernatural figure or some ominous being, instead he now seemed no different than your run of the mill mad man. Just a guy with an ugly face. And that's not scary.

The best scenes in "A Nightmare On Elm Street" are when we don't see Krueger or when characters aren't dying. The most intriguing element of the movie for me was when our hero, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) slowly discovers who Krueger is, how he is able to attack her and what she must do to fight him. Everything else in the picture is your standard, by the numbers, horror routine.

Some. who enjoy this movie, will say, I am completely off. Don't I understand "A Nightmare On Elm Street" revolutionized the horror genre? Don't I understand the inventiveness of this movie? All I can say is, don't you understand it does nothing new and you're wrong? "Halloween" existed before this movie. "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) existed before this movie. "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) all existed before this movie. The formula had been established long before and done much better. The interesting thing about "A Nightmare On Elm Street" is everything happens in dreams, that sets it apart, but, everything else it does, had been done already.

The final thing which bothers me about "A Nightmare On Elm Street" is its ending. It doesn't answer any questions. In fact all it does is raise some. Is what we watched a dream? Was the entire movie a dream? Was it real? Were parts of it real? Supposedly four alternate ending were filmed due to clash between the director and the producer. The ending we see now was suppose to be the compromise. It may be a compromise but it is also a disappointment. It almost makes the viewer they just watched this movie for absolutely no reason at all. What was resolved? How could anyone say this is a satisfactory ending?

Filmmaker Wes Craven was a humanities professor before turning to movies, by the time this movie has been made Craven was not a box-office name. He made made his directorial debut with "The Last House On the Left" (1972), which is extremely disappointing with it amateurish qualities and poor acting and dialogue. He also directed "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977). He would re-introduce himself to audiences with "Scream" (1996) which started off as a low budget horror movie and turned into a box-office smash and three sequels. It changed the direction of horror films adding in more pop culture references and featured characters that knew the horror cliches and had actually watched movies.

The movie has it defenders and at its time of release grossed more than $25 million, making it a commercial success. Some believe it is the best of the series.

"A Nightmare On Elm Street" plays around with an interesting concept unfortunately the execution is off. The villain is not scary, he has too much screen time and a confusing ending hurts the movie.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Film Review: Annabelle

"Annabelle"  **** (out of ****)

To make a truly effective horror film seems so difficult nowadays. Audiences have seen it all before. We know the horror movie cliches; scary music, POV shots of the killer, as suspiciously no one sees them, figures appearing in the background, loud noises at night. Audiences have become so jaded most horror movies feel like they are playing it by the numbers.

Some of that changed last year with the release of "The Conjuring" (2013) which proved to be a box-office and critical success. I enjoyed the movie so much I even placed it on my "top ten films of 2013" list. It was a throw back to classic horror films of the 1970s.

It was in "The Conjuring", which was based on a true story, we first learned of a doll named Annabelle. Annabelle we are told is possessed by a powerful demonic force, a force which still remains inside the doll. To contain it, a priest blesses the doll on a regular basis.

"Annabelle" is something of a semi-prequel giving us the background story of how the doll became possessed and how it eventually ended up in the hands of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormal investigators in "The Conjuring".

It would seem "Annabelle" was just an attempt to cash in on the success of the previous movie. People enjoyed that movie, thought it was scary, they will hear about this movie, associate with "The Conjuring" and go see it. Not a new marketing ploy but an obvious one.

Walking into "Annabelle" I thought the same thing however, I am happy to say I was wrong. "Annabelle" is just as effective as "The Conjuring". Although this movie uses some tie-ins to "The Conjuring" by showing clips of that movie, it could have existed on its own without any reference to any other movie.

My opinion though is a minority opinion. The critics (sheep) have all decided to unite against the movie, feeling it doesn't compare to the "The Conjuring" and isn't scary. The movie has done well at the box-office, so far, I would assume largely because it has been released in October and because of Halloween, audiences are in the mood for a good scare.

"Annabelle", which in part is based on a true story, strangely the movie is not marketing itself as such, takes place in 1968 and centers around a young married couple; John and Mia Gordon (played by Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis). Some have suggested the reason for the names of these characters has to do with John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow, who starred in the classic Roman Polanski film "Rosemary's Baby" (1968).

The young couple is about to expect their first child when one night Mia notices, through her bedroom window, her neighbors are attacked by a cult gang, a la Charles Manson. The cultist find their way in John and Mia's home as one of them takes hold of a doll John bought Mia. The police kill the cultist and when a drop of blood lands on the doll, an evil spirit possesses it.

The reason I feel "Annabelle" works so well is because the movie takes its time setting up this story and keeps the audience in anticipation of the frights. It is the exact reason the movie has quite a few detractors. They say the movie doesn't offer enough scares. I will confess the movie does not have a scare per minute. Long periods of time go between scares, but, the anticipation of something about to happen grips you. You pay attention to what is going on on-screen. And because the suspension is building, when a scare doesn't happen you aren't disappointed, you are almost relieved because you say to yourself, thank goodness something didn't happen, I don't know if I could have taken a scare.

I like horror movies that take their time telling their story. That are deliberate in their scares. I like horror films that work on a psychological level. And I like horror movies that are about characters first and frights second. The older I get, I am no longer interested in slasher, blood and guts movies. Seeing characters mutilated on-screen by a serial killer are not scary to me, they are just disgusting. "Annabelle" is not a disgusting blood and guts movie and I appreciate that.

As the picture goes on the intensity builds. It is in the last act of the movie when "Annabelle" goes for broke and goes into full fright mode. When "Annabelle" goes for a scare the scares hit their mark. It is careful to make sure their is no missed opportunity. Some feel the missed opportunity is that Annabelle the doll is not active enough. Again, I go back to my statement, it is the anticipation of something about to happen, the gradually build up of tension which makes the movie work.

If you require a great deal of violence to scare you, "Annabelle" is not a movie for you. But, if bumps in the night scare you, if you believe the mind can play tricks on you then "Annabelle" is a movie for you.

"Annabelle" also feature some very good performances. Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis are presented as real people. We can relate to them. They are a little slow to realize the dangers of the doll, but, they respond to it the way others would.

The movie also does a good job establishing the time period. The filmmaker, John R. Leonetti, has a good eye for detail, which shouldn't be a surprise since he is also a cinematographer. He shoot "The Conjuring", "Insidious" (2010), which I also thought was very effective, and "Child's Play 3" (1991).

This Halloween "Annabelle" delivers a good amount of scares. It is a carefully crafted story with some very good performances and a wonderful visual eye. I wish we would get more horror films like "Annabelle" and "The Conjuring" in the future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Film Review: Sleepless

"Sleepless"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Italian horror maestro Dario Argento proves he still has a few tricks up his sleeve in "Sleepless" (2001), the last truly effective movie he has made, so far.

"Sleepless", upon its initial release was something of a comeback for Dario Argento. His previous film was "Phantom of the Opera" (1998), a movie in which even the most ardent Argento fan will find it difficult to sing the praises of. Some have even gone as far as to call that movie an "embarrassment". It was the beginning of a new, campy direction his work would begin to take. So it was a welcome return when Argento released "Sleepless". Here was a movie which seemed worthy of this great filmmaker's talents.

Dario Argento is often credited as one of the greatest Italian horror filmmakers of all time. He is counted among the most influential, some would say the most influential filmmaker in a sub-genre of horror films known as "giallo" (which means yellow in Italian, and is pronounced the same way).

Giallo describes mystery novels that had yellow covers, which Italians would read. The stories would have horror and supernatural elements to them. They were cheap, in price, and easily accessible to the public.

Argento's films are known for their lavish and devilish death scenes of pretty young women, many have called his work misogynistic. He has an almost fetish for blood. The movies are considered gory and brutally violent, though I never feel that is a fitting description of his work. His movies are made on such a limited budget, the blood in the movies never looks real. I find an "unreal" quality in the fatal death scenes of his movies. I am much more bothered by the American slasher films made which are all blood and guts.

"Sleepless" stars Max von Sydow, the great Swedish actor best known for his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, as Detective Moretti. Seventeen years ago he believes he solved the Dwarf Murders, a rampant string of murders which plagued the street of Turin. The murderer was suspected to be a dwarf novelist named Vincenzo Fabritiis, who turns up dead during the investigation. For Detective Moretti the case is closed and he has fulfilled a promise he made to the son of one of the victims, Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), who saw his mother died right before his eyes.

Jump to 17 years later and the murders are starting again. It is in the same style of the Dwarf Murders. Was Detective Moretti, now retired, wrong? Did he let the killer escape and now after all these years is at it again? Moretti and Giacomo slowly get brought back into investigating these murders once again.

"Sleepless" isn't exactly an original story. It has elements which link it to previous Argento films such as "The Stendhal Syndrome" (1996) also a police procedural picture, "Deep Red" (1975) about an amateur trying to solve a murder he witnessed and even one of his more recent movies, "Giallo" (2009) also about a cop chasing after a serial killer. But it is not the story which makes "Sleepless" so entertaining, it is the way Argento tells the story, his visuals and his energy. It is a throwback to his earlier films like "Deep Red" or "Suspiria" (1977).

One of the best sequences in the film takes place at the beginning of the movie on a train. A woman is afraid the killer is after her. It is late at night. The train is empty. She receives a threatening phone call. There is no place to run. Argento shoots the scene in darkness, an effective musical score plays in the background by the Goblins (a band Argento discovered and used in "Suspiria"), the audience is kept on edge. We can't see clearly. We are in anticipation. What will happen next? Is the killer after her? Is he on the train? Will anyone help her?

Though Argento keeps the violence on screen, he never shows the murderer. By doing that, the audience never knows when the killer will attack. There is no such thing as a insignificant character in this movie or an important character. Each and every one of them is a possible victim. Argento plays around with this concept by introducing characters to the story, characters we think we be the focal point, and then he kills them off. No one is safe. When you do that, the audience doesn't know what to expect. We are on constant alert. It is a thrilling roller coaster ride.

Usually Argento does not get an actor the caliber of Max von Sydow in one of his movies. He is truly one of the great actors in cinema. His range of films include Bergman's "Seventh Seal" (1957), where he plays a knight that has returned from the crusades and now learns Death has come for him, "A Passion of Anna" (1970), another Bergman classic to American films such as "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) where he played Jesus, "The Exorcist" (1973) as an aging priest, and Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" (2010).

One would imagine the appearance of Sydow adds respectability to "Sleepless". I can see how it worked in Argento's favor, to say such a great actor was in his movie, but, what did Sydow get in return? They couldn't have paid him that much money. That is not to say "Sleepless" is a bad movie, is it great entertainment, but, Sydow is an awarding winning actor, he is not in these type of movies.

Sydow does what the movie asks of him and he does it well, though, it doesn't require that much of him. For Argento the value of his movies is not in individual performances but, the mood and tone of his stories and how creative he can get with his death scenes. We don't watch Argento movies looking for Academy Award winning acting.

Watching "Sleepless" is sad in a sense, sad because Dario Argento no longer makes movies like this. He makes pure camp now. The movies are no longer suspenseful, energetic, skillful or interesting. He lives on his reputation. We remember what was. He used to be compared to Alfred Hitcock when he began. Critics said he was a filmmaker that understood horror. Back in those days his movies weren't graphic. All the violence was off screen. Later on with "Deep Red" his films changed and became more gory, but there was art to it. Like Sam Peckinpah he was accused for glorifying violence. Making beauty out it.

"Sleepless" should be able to rattle audiences. It should be able to give you a good scare or two. It is Argento near the top of his game and the best movie he has made in the last ten years.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Film Review: Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla

"Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla"
** (out of ****)

"Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla" (1952) has achieved something along the lines of cult classic status. Some say it is the king of "B" pictures, in a class with the work of Ed Wood. I say the movie is an insult to Bela Lugosi and it isn't too kind to gorillas either.

The movie stars Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo (in their only screen appearance together). They were an imitation Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis team with Mitchell in the Martin role and Petrillo as Lewis. While Duke Mitchell is a talent less, lifeless performer and a lousy singer, most would admit Petrillo does a spot on Jerry Lewis impression. The impersonation is so good, some say, even though the movie is acknowledged as a less than stellar picture, it is worth watching if only to see Petrillo's performance.

The story goes Mitchell and Petrillo were a nightclub act, both aware of their similarity to Martin and Lewis. Younger audiences must remember in the 1950s Martin and Lewis were the comedy team. The act was a huge success. Their popularity matched The Beatles or Elvis. It might seem hard to believe for some, that a comedy team could enjoy such fame, but, it was true. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that there were some that would try to capitalize on their success and imitate them.

Mitchell and Petrillo's manager wanted to further exploit his team and cash in on the Martin and Lewis craze, so he pitched around the idea of his team starring in a comedy. None of the major studios would bite. It wasn't until Realart Pictures came along that a deal was made.

The concept was to create a comedy-horror film, which had a hint of the "Road to" pictures Bob Hope and Bing Crosby starred in a decade earlier. Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo would play a variation of themselves. To reinforce the "horror" angle it was suggested to cast Bela Lugosi, who was best known to movie audiences as Dracula. Lugosi had fallen on hard times and was no longer a box-office draw. He accepted the role. In order to get people to see their picture a goofy title was created, "Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla". You hear a title like that and you think to yourself, what could a movie with a title like that be about?

Mitchell and Petrillo are nightclub performers who get lost from an entertainment troupe, after falling out of a parachute, and are stranded on an island called "Kola Kola". They meet natives who take a liking to them, especially the tribal chief's daughter, Nola (Charlita, who looks a lot like Dorothy Lamour) to Mitchell.

Still, Mitchell and Petrillo want to get off the island and back to civilization. Nola informs the boys there is a doctor on the island named Dr. Zabor (Lugosi) who may be able to help them. The doctor is in love with Nola and becomes jealous of Mitchell when he begins to realize the two love each other. In order to prevent Mitchell and Nola from seeing each other Dr. Zabor wants to turn Mitchell into a gorilla.

"Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla" suffers from the problems you'd expect a "B" movie to suffer from. The acting is weak, the dialogue is poor, the jokes don't work, the production design is cheap, the directing is uninspired and the plot is lacking development. The only reason to watch the movie is for curiosity's sake. You expect one of those movies that is so bad its good. It's not. It's just bad. Not offensively bad. Just boring and dull bad. Uninspired bad. Corny bad. It lives up (or down) to its reputation. How good could a movie with this title be? You walk into it not expecting much.

The movie creates no suspense. There is never an element of danger. We never fear the natives will harm Mitchell and Petrillo. We never fear Dr. Zabor. He doesn't project a mad scientist. He doesn't seem evil.

Any movie can be made well. Even a movie such as this. And, who knows, it could have even starred Sammy Petrillo. The problem is the movie doesn't take advantage of its setting. Why not create atmosphere? Why not do something creative with the jungle setting? Why not film the movie in shadows? Use an effective musical score. Create more believable characters. Make the science halfheartedly realistic. Make us fear the doctor. Make us believe the love story. You could have even gotten a semi-serious horror story from this material. But, it would take imagination. Something this movie doesn't have.

A movie such as "Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla" should make audiences appreciate just how difficult it is to create a good comedy-horror picture. This is no "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) or even the Ritz Brothers in "The Gorilla" (1939). This movie is in a class with "Zombies on Broadway" (1945) with the team Brown & Carney, which also had Bela Lugosi in the cast.

It is said when Jerry Lewis heard of this movie he was going to sue the producers. He did not want Sammy Petrillo stealing his act. From Lewis' perspective you can understand why he would do that. Why have another him roaming around, stealing his thunder? But from a public relations stand point, it sure puts Lewis in a bad light. It makes it seem like he saw Petrillo as a threat. It seems like Lewis "killed" this young man's career. That's too bad. Petrillo could have been a great impersonator, if he could imitate other people. His Jerry Lewis is quite striking.

"Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla" is a movie without any ideas. They couldn't even come up with a way to end the picture and give us a cop out ending instead. There was nowhere to go with this material. The background story involving the lives of the people in the movie and the aftermath of this picture on their careers is much, much more interesting than anything you will see in the 74 minutes of this movie.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Film Review: Bram Stoker's Dracula

"Bram Stoker's Dracula"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Francis Ford Coppola sinks his teeth into the vampire legend with "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992).

When Francis Ford Coppola released "Bram Stoker's Dracula" late in 1992, the buzz surrounding the picture was Coppola's adaptation was going to be much more faithful to the original novel. Most movie fans are familiar with the 1931 film version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. If that is your only reference source to Stoker's Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola's version is going to feel wrong to you. It will be an almost completely different movie.

Hence why Coppola, rather smartly, in my opinion, chose to title this movie, "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and not just "Dracula" or "Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula" this is Bram Stoker's story. Because when people watch this movie who have only seen the 1931 movie, they are going to ask themselves, "what did Coppola do to this story"? Coppola wanted the audience to immediately understand this is not his story. This is Stoker's material. Still, despite this effort on Coppola's part, there are those who claim the movie is not a faithful adaptation and the title is misleading. I have never read Stoker's novel so I can't comment on this, however, my review is for the movie not the novel. Whether or not this movie is faithful to Stoker's story, is quite frankly, immaterial to me.

In this version of "Dracula", a young man named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is a solicitor sent to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) who has purchased property in London including Carfax Abby.

Coppola's Dracula is not a man who does not age and has found eternal youth. The Dracula that meets Harker is a distinguished, wrinkled gentleman. He has a bee-hive hairdo and doesn't walk around with a black cape. His cape is red. This may upset "traditionalist" who will feel Coppola has tarnished the iconic image we all have of the famed vampire.

Harker was a replacement for R.M. Renfield (Tom Waits), who has gone insane after his visit to Transylvania. Renfield, now locked in a sanitarium run by Dr. Seward (Richard E. Grant), preaches about "his master" returning and how he will be granted eternal life. The character resembles someone standing on a street corner who shouts about the coming of Jesus and warns us of the impending doom that will follow if we do not accept Jesus in our hearts. So too Renfield warns us of the coming of Dracula.

What Harker does not know is this was all a rouse prepared by Dracula in order to draw himself closer and closer to Harker's fiancee Mina (Winona Ryder), whom Dracula believes is the reincarnation of his wife, Elisabeta. It is because of Elisabeta Dracula has become the undead.

Dracula was once a member of the Order of the Dragon and went into battle against the Turks, who were waging a war against Christendom and about to invade Romania. Dracula bravely fought off the Turks with his men but the Turks delivered news to Elisabeta that her husband was killed in battle. Elisabeta, believing the word of the Turks, committed suicide, not wanting to face the world without her beloved. When Dracula learns of her fate, he rejects God and vows he will return from his own grave to avenge her death. Now, four centuries later, he believes he has found her spirit in Mina.

This element of Dracula is new to the traditional story we all know from movies, though, whether or not it appeared in the book I don't know, however, it is based on fact. There was a man known as Vlad Tepes, who was a member of the Order of the Dragon. He did impale his enemies on spikes (this is shown in the movie) and fought against the Ottoman Empire. He served as the basis for the Dracula (Vlad was a member of the House of Draculesti) character in Stoker's novel.

When Dracula arrives in London his appearance takes on many forms. One of them is as a much younger man who catches the eye of Mina, when he arranges for them to meet on a crowded street. At first she is put off by his advances but later is drawn to him. Are they kindred spirits? Does she know who she really is?

As in other adaptations; Dracula turns Mina's friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost) into a vampire by biting her on the neck and haunting her in dreams. Lucy's husband, Sir. Arthur Holwood (Cary Elwes) and Dr. Seward are mystified by Lucy's condition. Feeling he is unable to help, Seward sends for the assistance of his old teacher and mentor, Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins).

Watching Coppola's film one of the first things you will notice is the sexual, erotic nature of the movie. This was missing from the 1931 version because of the time period it was released, though, there has always been a sexual nature to this story. Dracula is usually presented as a suave man in public. He seduces his victims, who are always women. The mere image of a man biting a woman on her neck, getting that close to her, caressing her, is sexual and can't be neither ignored or denied.

In this story Mina has her sexual desire awaken because of Dracula. In the first scene with Mina, we see a woman in a struggle. She wants to be a prim and proper lady yet is curious about sex. She sees a copy of the novel "Arabian Nights" on a desk and at first glance denounces the sexual photos she sees in the book yet cannot help herself from staring at them once or twice more.

This is a contrast to her friend Lucy, who says she is "pure" yet is more playful and flirtatious around men. She is able to get all of their attention at parties, yet, as she comments, never receives a marriage proposal.

I find I am very conflicted about this movie. There is much to admire about it yet at the same time there is an equal amount to reject.

What works best about the movie is the visuals. Technically the movie is well made and is the work of an absolute craftsman. The cinematography resembles a fevered dream. It creates a torturous atmosphere. The movie has a voyeuristic and predatorial quality to it. One of the reoccurring images in the film is eyes. Someone is always watching these characters, hunting them down like prey. Once Dracula arrives in London he is able to disguise himself as a wolf, a perfect symbol for a predator.

The costume design (which won an Academy Award) and production designs (which were nominated) are lavish and really help distinguish the film by creating a proper time setting.

I also admire the musical score by Wojciech Kilar which is tender, romantic, threatening and sensual all at once.

Gary Oldman's portrayal of Dracula is able to play homage to Bela Lugosi, delivering famous lines such as "I never" and after hearing wolves howl, "Listen to them; the children of the night. What sweet music they make" all while doing a Hungarian accent but also separate himself.  To me the performance is not a caricature. Oldman is able to make the character his own by bringing in new elements and a different interpretation of the character. You cannot make justified comparisons to what Oldman is doing and what Lugosi did. Oldman is one of the few actors that has really distinguished himself in the role. Some have called the performance campy and over the top. But, what are they comparing it to? Why do these people feel they know how a vampire should act? Is there something these individuals would like the rest of us to know about them? Oldman should have been nominated for an Academy Award.

For as good as Oldman is in the role, the rest of the cast fails. And that leads to one of the problems with the movie. Oldman is memorable. When you think of this movie, you will also think of Oldman's performance. But none of the other actors are able to do much with their characters. Each and every one of them is unable to flesh out these people. Anthony Hopkins as Prof. Helsing, merely saw the character as an opportunity to go over the top. Does Prof. Helsing seem like a professor to you? Does he resemble a human being at all? He shouts and screams but almost has no personality.

Winona Ryder has traits which make her a character but the movie doesn't complete her. It doesn't make her an activate person. She is a victim of the plot not a participant. And the same can be said of Keanu Reeves. In fact, much worse has been said about his performance. Where did that accent come from for example. Why was he chosen for this role? All I can think of was for commercial appeal. Prior to this movie Reeves was in the popular "Bill & Ted" movies and "My Own Private Idaho" (1991). After roughly the first 45 minutes of the movie, which I actually enjoyed most, he practically disappears.

The problem however also lies in the screenplay by James V. Hart. Not only did he not give the actors enough to work with he also wrote a screenplay which lacks logic and doesn't define character motivation clearly enough. The biggest example being, once Dracula arrives in London, why does he make Lucy his first victim? Here is a "thing" that has waited four centuries to meet the reincarnated spirit of his wife. She has been his motivation. It is because of her he has been damned to lead the life of a vampire. Now, he finally has his chance to reunite with her, traveling from Transylvania to England and wouldn't you know it, he goes after her best friend instead! Does that make any sense?


In another scene Dracula and Mina are alone together and Dracula confesses, he cannot turn her into a vampire. He loves her too much to condemn her to the life of the undead. If that is true, then that is the end of the picture. But the movie doesn't end there. It goes on for another 30-40 minutes.


Once I felt the characters were not being clearly defined I began to lose interest in the story. And for as much as I enjoyed the visuals they needed a story to support them. Otherwise it becomes a case of style over substance.

"Bram Stoker's Dracula" came along at a good time for Coppola. The 1980s weren't too friendly to him. He went into bankruptcy and had a series of box-office bombs, though now, years later, some of the movies have been re-discovered. By the time this movie was made, Coppola had released "The Godfather Part III" (1990) completing the "Godfather Trilogy". The movie was nominated for a best picture Academy Award and Coppola was nominated as best director and it did very well at the box-office. So now, Coppola was following a hit film and not just any hit film. We are taking about "The Godfather" after all. So, there was some interest in what Coppola would do next. Unfortunately, nothing Coppola did after this movie matched it in popularity, even though in my opinion, some of the movies that followed were better movies.

This movie opened to positive reviews, grossed more than $200 million world-wide and was nominated for four Academy Awards and four BAFTA Awards.

In the end the movie could have used a re-write to add more logic to its story and give certain characters more motivation. This movie had the potential not just to be a "good movie" but a masterpiece, one of the great additions to the vampire genre. It does so many things which the viewer can admire that it makes it all the more disappointing that it fails. Still, I suppose even a failure can be admired for at least it tried. It attempted to do something great.

Budapest Times: The Notebook Movie Review

Here is my movie review for the Hungarian film "The Notebook (A Nagy Fuzet)".

It was published in the Budapest Times newspaper. Here is the link.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Film Review: The Gorilla

"The Gorilla"  *** (out of ****)

The Ritz Brothers get mixed up in a lot of monkey business in "The Gorilla" (1939).

"The Gorilla" has been howled at for years by some movie fans as being worthless, campy and unfunny. I completely disagree.

I think one explanation for this terrible reputation the movie has accumulated over the years is largely in part to the Ritz Brothers starring in it.

A lot of people don't like the comedy team. To be fair, even I must admit, initially I didn't like them either. The rap against them was they were a cheap knock-off of another much more famous comedy team of brothers; the Marx Brothers.

Many people also believed the Ritz Brothers didn't have distinctive characters. Each brothers was zany and wanted to tell jokes. It was as if each character wanted to be Groucho and because of that, the characters cancel each other out and none of them became memorable.

That was exactly what I thought the first time I saw them in their debut, a two-reeler comedy short called "Hotel Anchovy" (1934). It would be years until I would give them a second chance. When I did give them a second chance it was by watching "The Gorilla". They won me over. Why? It's true the brothers didn't have distinctive personalities but it is also true only one of them is the star; Harry Ritz (the other brothers were Al and Jimmy). The majority of the comedy and dance routines the team did rested on the shoulders of Harry Ritz. Al and Jimmy are wallpaper. By that I mean, they are part of the surrounding, something in the background. Audiences have greatly exaggerated their antics. All three weren't the funny man. Al and Jimmy clearly are the straight men of the team supporting Harry. Once I started viewing the team this way I enjoyed watching them.

At first the Ritz Brothers were used as a novelty act in musical comedies starring Alice Faye or Sonja Henie doing comedic song and dances a la Danny Kaye and impressions. Later they were given more prominent roles in movies such as "The Three Musketeers" (1939) with Don Ameche, widely considered the finest picture they were in, and "Straight Place and Show" (1938).

"The Gorilla" is a good example of a sub-genre in horror movies that has always been popular, comedy-horror. Over the years many of the great comedians and comedy teams of the era would test the waters in this genre. Abbott & Costello may be the best example starring in "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) and "Hold That Ghost" (1941). But, there was also Bob Hope in "The Cat & The Canary" (1939) with Paulette Godard and "The Ghost Breakers" (1940), the comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey starred in "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and Olsen & Johnson in "The Ghost Catchers" (1944).

Lionel Atwill is Walter Stevens, a man who may be the next victim of a serial killer known as "the gorilla". So far the police have not been able to determine if it is really a gorilla committing the murders or a man. Five people have died by the time Walter receives a note informing him he is next. The only people who know about the note are Walter's servants; Peters (Bela Lugosi) and Kitty (Patsy Kelly). Although Walter never informs the police, he does call a detective agency and investigators Harrigan (Harry Ritz), Garrity (Jimmy Ritz) and Mulligan (Al Ritz) are sent, though it is debatable if they will provide much protection, since they seem more scared of the prospect of "the gorilla" showing up than Walter does!

All of these characters along with Walter's niece; Norma (Anita Louise) and her fiance Jack (Edward Norris), will be in Walter's house awaiting to see if anything will happen to him at the stroke of midnight.

What I like best about "The Gorilla" is it establishes itself as a horror /mystery film first and a comedy second. I believe this important because it is the only way this particular genre will work. If the horror portion of the story is not scary and the movie focuses only on the comedic aspects all you have is a straight comedy. Horror/comedy needs to have the perfect balance. It needs to walk on a tightrope. Your horror scenes need to be scary and your jokes need to be funny. For me, "The Gorilla" does a good job succeeding in this area.

One reason the movie does a good job between the comedic and horror scenes has to do with the casting. Audiences, even younger movie fans, are probably familiar with the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. He is undoubtedly best known for his performance in the title role of the movie "Dracula" (1931) but also appeared in other horror films in the 1930s & 40s such as "White Zombie" (1932), "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) and "The Body Snatcher" (1945).

Lionel Atwill may not be a familiar name to casual movie fans, especially if you don't appreciate classic Hollywood movies of the 30s and 40s. He never played a character as iconic as Dracula, though like Lugosi, was closely associated with the horror genre after appearing in "The Vampire Bat" (1933), "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933), which was remade with Vincent Price as "House of Wax" (1953), both are worth watching, as well as "Son of Frankenstein" and the God awful "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942).

These two actors help establish the horror credentials for the movie. Audiences see their names in the movie and suspect a horror movie then you contrast that with the Ritz Brothers and Patsy Kelly and now audiences don't know what to expect. How can these different actors be in the same movie? For some that is a receipt for disaster but that's what gives the movie its appeal. This goes back to my idea for horror/comedy to work you must have the right balance. Atwill and Lugosi know what to do in a horror movie. Their characters don't tell jokes. They aren't taking pratfalls, dishing out one-liners, doing impressions. If that was your concern, you needn't worry.

For the comedy, again, if you don't like the Ritz Brothers that is going to be a problem. Their characters however are in the standard, classic persona a majority of comedians used. They are brave in their words, cowardly in their actions. They are clumsy and fail at the most basic of actions such as properly opening a door. The brothers don't get to do a song and dance and don't do impressions. So, it is not typical of their other pictures, but, that may be because this is based on a stage play which the Ritz Brothers had nothing to do with.

Patsy Kelly used to work for comedy producer Hal Roach, who teamed her up with Thelma Todd in the hopes he would have a female Laurel & Hardy comedy team. It didn't quite work out as planned, though, if you ever get the chance to see their comedy shorts I'd recommend it. My local library used to have a VHS of their work. Kelly usually played street smart, wise cracking ladies that made fun of the upper class and their stuffy demeanor. She was also in Roman Polanski's masterpiece "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) which some younger movie fans may recognize her from. Here she plays Walter's maid and is not afraid to talk back to her boss or tell the investigators how dumb they are.

Some viewers may feel the movie's humor is dated, but, since this picture was made in 1939 I don't feel that is a valid criticism. Yes, the humor's movie is dated. It is dated 1939 to be exact. Some examples of the jokes are, Harrigan telling his associates "follow me" then always pushes the other two in front of him when he is afraid to walk into a dark room or a basement. In one scene, when in a basement, Harrigan asks "anybody here", to which one of the brother's reply, "Yeah. Us." Did you find that funny? I hope so because those are the jokes. I grew up on these type of movies because I watched them with my grandparents, so I laugh because I am used to this style of humor. It is difficult to determine how someone else may react.

"The Gorilla" was directed by Allan Dwan, whose career goes back to the silent era. I never thought much of Dwan as a director and really only noticed who he was thanks to fellow filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote about him as being an important figure in the history of early cinema. Because of Bogdanovich's appreciate for his work, I assumed Dwan should be a director on my radar. The reason I am not impressed by Dwan is because he has no visual style. Watch a Dwan picture like "Look Who's Laughing" (1941) or watch the Shirley Temple vehicle "Heidi" (1937) then watch "Around the World" (1943). Tell me if you are able to tell the same man directed these pictures. Dwan has no distinguish traits as a filmmaker. No voice. If I had to guess why Bogdanovich would chose him as a subject to write about, it would be because he was around during the early days of cinema. His first movie credit as director goes back to 1911. Bogdanovich has always been someone who appreciated the history of cinema. Dwan probably had some good stories to tell. But, as a filmmaker, I'm sorry, Dwan is not one of the greats.

Still "The Gorilla" is a funny movie which showcases the Ritz Brothers in fine form. It is not the embarrassment so many have warned us it is. It is a good example of the horror/comedy genre and could serve as a good introduction into the works of the Ritz Brothers, who should not be dismissed by movie lovers.

If you are looking for a good laugh this Halloween season I would recommend seeing "The Gorilla".

Thursday, October 2, 2014

ChicagoTalks: Silent Film Society of Chicago

 Just in time for Halloween!

Here is an article I wrote on the Silent Film Society of Chicago. We discuss their upcoming Silent Horror Film Festival, the art of silent films and the society itself.

The article was published by ChicagoTalks. Here is the link

Film Review: The Mummy

"The Mummy"  *** (out of ****)

The living dead just want to be loved in the Universal Studio's classic horror film "The Mummy" (1932).

"The Mummy" was produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., the same man who gave us "Dracula" (1931) and "Frankenstein" (1931). Universal Studios, at this time, was creating the horror films and characters they would forever be associated with. Also in 1932 Laemmle would produce "The Old Dark House" also with Boris Karloff. It too is a classic horror film. The following year Laemmle would present "The Invisible Man" (1933) with Claude Rains.

It is difficult not to believe these movies had an influence on one another. For example both "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" have a similar visual style. They were inspired by German Expressionism. But "The Mummy" feels like a bridge between "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" borrowing heavily from both movies' plots. And when we look at all three of them closely, they seem to be making a commentary for society.

As the movie's opening credits play we hear Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, which will immediately make some viewers think of "Dracula", which also used Swan Lake over its credits, in fact, that was all the music you heard in that movie. It had no musical score.

But the similarities don't stop there. "The Mummy" starts off in 1921 when the British Museum finances an archaeological expedition, led by Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) in Cairo. Assisting Whemple is his friend, Dr. Muller (Edward Von Sloan) an occultist and Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher). The men believe they have discovered an ancient scroll known as the Scroll of Thoth, which Egyptians believed could bring back the dead. They have also discovered the tomb of Imhotep (Karloff). Whemple and Norton are eager to examine the tomb and read the scroll but Dr. Muller warns them of a curse written on a box which the scroll has been buried in. Anyone who opens it will die. Muller advises the men not to take these words lightly but Whemple declares, in the name of science, they are obligated to examine the tomb and the scroll. And so they do, causing Imhotep to come to life and take the scroll with him.

The event proves to be so dramatic, Norton, who has alone when the mummy came to life, is driven insane and shortly afterwards dies. Whemple vows to never go on a expedition again.

Ten years later, Whemple's son Frank (David Manners) has become an archaeologist and finds himself in Cairo on an expedition, searching for artifacts of ancient Egypt. What seems to be an unsuccessful expedition turns into one of the greatest discoveries Frank could have ever dreamed of, when a local Egyptian, Ardath Bey (Karloff), shows Frank where the tomb of a Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon is buried.

Bey isn't exactly innocent and has his own motivate of showing Frank where the princess was buried. He wants to reunite with her and bring her back to life. His plans change however when he meets Helen (Zita Johann), whom he believes is the reincarnated spirit of the princess, whom Bey loved and was buried alive for.

Both "The Mummy" and "Dracula" are the story of the undead. Creatures roaming around in modern times preying on the living. Both Bey and Dracula are able to put women in a trance. In both movies Edward Von Sloan plays the same type of character. In "Dracula" he was Professor Van Helsing. In both movies he has an understanding of the occult and is the only person that can help all the other characters defeat the creature they face.

The difference between the movies is, Dracula is a scarier character. Bela Lugosi played him as a suave, deceitful murderer. Karloff plays Bey rather stiff, as if he is still playing The Monster in "Frankenstein". He is not charming and suave.

"The Mummy" also lacks a visual flair. There really isn't much interesting in the aesthetic of the picture. It is shot rather conventionally, which is a surprise because the movie was directed by Karl Freund. Freund was a cinematographer and shot "Dracula" and "Metropolis" (1927). You would think he had a good eye and could create an effective shot. But, perhaps the directors of those two films had a lot to do with the look and visual style.

Visually the most interesting scenes are flashbacks showing Imhotep and Princess Akh-es-en-Amon and the mummification process of Imhotep being buried alive for angering the Gods by trying to bring the princess back to life. These scenes are shot like a silent movie. It sets itself apart from the rest of the picture.

But I would say it is the commentary of "The Mummy" that caught my attention most. As we look at "Dracula", "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" we see a consistent anti-science message being propagated in all three movies. Each film warns of the dangers of science and its far reaching effects. Science is meddling with nature, playing God. Science has no respect for tradition. It simply won't leave well enough alone. Society is far too curious for its own good. People believe through science they can create a human, they disregard tradition and read ancient scrolls and do business deals with vampires.

This theme has been fairly common in horror films and science fiction movies, particularly in the 1950s with movies such as "The Fly" (1958) with Vincent Price or "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954). It was mostly a result of World War II and the atomic bomb. People now noticed just how far science had taken us and the destruction it was capable of. It is difficult for me however to determine what caused this suspicion of science in the 1930s. It is also interesting since these movies were released so closely together, really enforcing this concept. "The Invisible Man" would be another example a year later.

However "The Mummy" does do a good job of creating an eerie atmosphere. Each character knows who Bey really is and feels threatened by him, this results in a constant level of suspense. We never know when Bey will attack.

I also like the production designs of the movie. A lot of the sets are big and lavish almost like a Cecil B. Demille movie.

Between "Dracula", "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" I'm not sure which is really the scariest. I believe Dracula is the scariest character because he is pure evil. The Monster was almost an innocent child that is misunderstood. Bey is driven by love and goes to great lengths to reunite with his lover, still he has a sinister side to him. In the end, all three are worth watching this Halloween.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Film Review: Premature Burial

"Premature Burial"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Roger Corman's "Premature Burial" (1962) starring Ray Milland is a one note movie. It has an interesting idea but doesn't know what to do with it.

The film was part of Corman's "Poe Series", a collection of movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories Corman directed. These movies rank among Corman's most acclaimed works and are the only movies by Roger Corman that I have reviewed. Other adaptations included "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961) and "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964).

"Premature Burial" is about taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive. Ray Milland plays Guy Carrell, a man who firmly believes his father was buried alive and fears the same thing will happen to him. The fear has followed Guy ever since he was a child and says he would hear his father's voice screaming for help after being buried in the family's crypt, which is in the basement of Carrell's mansion. This was actually a running gag in Corman's Poe films. There is always a dead body buried in the basement of the home.

Guy lives with his sister, Kate (Heather Angel), who has tried to help her brother over come his fears. This fear affects his relationship with Emily (Hazel Court), whom he says he loves but refuses to marry, eventually telling her of his fear, which now has turned into an obsession, and informing her they could never live a happy life together. She persist and Guy relents.

The problem with "Premature Burial" is it immediately sets up Guy's fear in the very first scene. After it does that, it has no place to go. There is nothing to lead up to. The movie is 80 minutes and only has one idea going for it.

What would have made "Premature Burial" a better movie is starting at the beginning, showing Guy as a child, showing the incident with his father and the trauma that followed from that experience. Show Guy as a child hearing his father's screams at night and then show Guy as an adult, as a man with secrets. A man who begins to court Emily but soon realizes it can never be and stops seeing her. She persist and they marry and then he tells her his secret. And we slowly learn of his plan to prevent it from happening to him. Don't throw everything at us in the first scene. Let the story develop naturally. Give it time. Now you have a first, second and third act. The first scene of this movie should have been the second act.

There may be some who will protest but that is not the way the Poe story is. I will admit I never read "Premature Burial", but even if I did, it doesn't matter. Even if this movie is a faithful adaptation you have to understand this is a movie. Different rules apply for a novel and a feature film. Perhaps as a piece of fiction Poe's story worked but cinematically it is weak.

Next there is the issue of Ray Milland's performance. Milland was a very good actor. He won an Academy Award for best actor for his performance in Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend" (1945), it won the Academy Award for best picture as well. Milland was also in a good horror/supernatural story, "The Uninvited" (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M For Murder" (1954). He brings "respectability" to the role. In another movie that would have been a good thing but this is a Roger Corman movie. Corman's film had a bit of camp to them. Corman worked with Vincent Price often, who was a better actor for these kind of movies. Price wasn't afraid to go over the top and try to "one up" the material. Milland is much more grounded. He doesn't project a man dealing with demons. We don't sense a tortured soul. The screenplay by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell doesn't allow the actor to take that direction. This isn't a character study, which normally would have suited Milland better though I don't think it worked well in Corman and Milland's next picture together, "X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes" (1963) either.

The other performances in the movie are acceptable. Hazel Court appeared in a few other Corman movies such as "The Raven" (1963) and does a nice job portraying herself as a sweet, innocent, young, understanding woman who loves this disturbed man and will do what she can to help him. Heather Angel, who may be known to some audiences for her role in "The Undying Monster" (1942), plays the protective sister, who wants to keep her brother's secret hidden. Though, the movie never makes us suspect her as a villain. Alan Napier (best known as Alfred on the TV show "Batman") plays Emily's father. Quite frankly, he is the weakest of the bunch. He has a few scenes and does nothing with him. And finally there is Richard Ney as Miles, a man who knew Emily before she met Guy and loved her. He is now a doctor and at Emily's request attempts to help Guy over come his fear. Ney doesn't have leading man qualities in my opinion and gives a neutral performance. It didn't make much of an impression on me either way. He says his lines adequately but isn't memorable.

Corman is a competent filmmaker. The movie looks good. Corman knew how to get the most out of the budget he was working with and knew how to get the most from his hectic shooting schedule. "Premature Burial" was shot in 15 days, which is actually a longer shooting schedule than Corman usually worked with. On the technical side the movie is okay but the plot development is weak and you get the feeling Ray Milland is almost "too good" for a movie like this.

Film Review: The Undying Monster

"The Undying Monster"  *** (out of ****)

Someone or something is out to get the townspeople in John Brahm's "The Undying Monster" (1942).

This 20th Century Fox release directed by German filmmaker Brahm, based on a 1922 novel written by Jessie Douglas Kerruish, starring James Ellison is a somewhat forgotten horror/mystery film, though its lack of popularity has nothing to do with the quality of the movie itself. In fact, I'm not quite sure why the movie never found a larger audience.

The movie takes place on a frosty night in the English countryside. The first image we see is of one of those old English mansions. The house belongs to the Hammond family. The only two family members left alive are Helga (Heather Angel) and her brother Oliver (John Howard). They live together in the house along with their servants; Walton (Halliwell Hobbes) and his wife (Eily Malyon).

Their is an old legend surrounding the Hammond family dating back to the time of the crusades. The Hammond's have been hunted down by a monster. Once members of the family have seen the monster either it has killed them or the experience of the attack has driven them to suicide. These occurrences only happen on a frosty night, just like the kind of night the movie begins with.

Helga and Oliver, being the modern, sophisticated people they are, do not believe in the legend. While they can't explain it and don't like talking about it, they are convinced there is no such thing as a monster. Science wouldn't allow for such a creature to exist for hundreds of years.

Still, on this frosty night, Walton is worried. Master Oliver hasn't made his way home yet and the clock has struck midnight. Helga isn't worried but Walton's panic quietly builds on her imagination. And before you know it, the creature has struck. A young woman (Virginia Traxler) has been attacked and put in a comma. The last person to see her alive was Oliver. Suspiciously the attack happened in a notorious spot where other sighting have occurred, at the edge of a cliff on the Hammon estate. The creature also managed to attack Oliver, badly scratching him.

Completely stumped, Inspector Craig (Aubrey Mather) reaches out to investigator Robert Curtis (James Ellison) and his female sidekick, Christy (Heather Thatcher) to rule out the possibility of any supernatural element. The two are kind of myth or ghost busters.

Upon their arrival the Hammond family treats them coldly. They don't want outsiders prying into their family history. Even Dr. Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher) is suspicious of Robert and Christy.

"The Undying Monster" is a combination of horror film, murder mystery, suspense film, and werewolf legend. For me that is the problem. It has elements of too many different things and could so easily slip into different genres that it doesn't completely become as effective as it could have been.

More than anything the movie is a mystery, a bit of a Sherlock Holmes story. If you've ever seen the first Sherlock Holmes movie with Basil Rathbone, "The Hound of Baskervilles" (1939), you'll know that movie also dealt with a beast attacking a family.

But I believe this material would have worked better as a horror film. "The Undying Monster" does a lot of things right. It makes wonderful use of shadows. It has a nice musical score. It builds suspense and keeps the violence off the screen, playing more on the audience's imagination of what the creature may look like.

When I first heard of this movie and after seeing it, I feel convinced 20th Century Fox should not have made this movie. Instead RKO should have and Val Lewton should have produced it with Jacques Tourneur directing it. The two men worked on "The Cat People" (1942), "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943) and "The Leopard Man" (1943). Like "The Undying Monster" those were highly inventive "B" movies which made fantastic use of lighting, casting characters in shadows and keeping the violence off screen. "The Undying Monster" like "The Cat People" also hints at psychological undertones, much like "The Wolf Man" (1941). Both "The Wolf Man" and "The Undying Monster" use noir films as visual inspiration.

When I reviewed "The Wolf Man" I said it is about something far scarier than ghost and goblins, it is about the mind, the animal and violent instinct in humans. "The Wolf Man" left open the idea of whether or not the werewolf actually existed. "The Undying Monster" doesn't work at that same level.

As I said I believe the horror elements of the movie were stronger since we are dealing with hidden family secrets, murder, creatures roaming in the night, a possible haunted mansion and the remote countryside setting. Imagine if the movie had had a few more killings, more of an element of danger with Helga and Oliver slowly starting to believe the legend is true. What if there had been more "bumps in the night"? Figures lurking around corners and such.

Director Brahm made a few more films at Fox. The best among them may be "The Lodger" (1944), based on a novel which Alfred Hitchcock also filmed as a silent movie, and "Hangover Square" (1945).

I wouldn't consider "The Undying Monster" a classic horror film but it is good enough that it should not be forgotten either.