Monday, December 26, 2016

Film Review: The Robert Benchley Collection

"The Robert Benchley Collection"  Various Ratings

The name Robert Benchley means far too little to far too many people, including those that would described themselves as "movie lovers". Luckily Warner Brothers, as part of its Archive Collection has released "The Robert Benchley Miniatures Collection" (1935 - 1944), a three disc set featuring 30 comedy shorts made at MGM.

Mr. Benchley first gained fame as a writer, writing satirical pieces in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. He was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table (named so because they would meet at the Algonquin Hotel in New York) along with poet Dorothy Parker, movie critic and playwright Robert Emmet Sherwood and playwright George S. Kaufman.

He would later make the transition to film, initially appearing as the star of his own comedy shorts and would have co-starring, comic relief roles in various movies such as "I Married A Witch" (1942), Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940) and the Bob Hope / Bing Crosby road picture, "Road To Utopia" (1945).

It is within these shorts Mr. Benchley would fully develop his screen persona as an at times hapless everyman while also presenting himself as a foremost authority on any particular subject. These comedy shorts are often parodies on "how to" videos and or books. The humor arises when the lecturer (Mr. Benchley) slowly reveals his ignorance on a subject. He stumbles over his words, repeats himself, loses his train of thought and forget the message of his speech. Through this however the genius of Mr. Benchley's comedy comes through as he accurately depicts man's foibles and struggles of everyday existence. Mr. Benchley lampoons social customs and authority.

As with any artist, every attempt at comedy doesn't always work. Some subject matters lend themselves better to comedy than others. This is the case of this collection of 30 shorts. I do not intend to review all 30 instead focusing on a few which best highlight the collection and those which expose the weaknesses of the collection.

"How to Sleep" (1935; Dir. Nick Grande) - The first short of this collection is also the best and a contender for Mr. Benchley's most famous comedy. This Academy Award winner (Best Short Subject, nominated against the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Tit for Tat" (1935), one of two comedies the boys appeared in to be nominated) presents Mr. Benchley as an authority on sleeping methods. What makes the piece so funny and a prime example of Mr. Benchley at his best, is his ability to present universal truths and puncture holes in them. In one scene Mr. Benchley explains when we awake from a night's sleep for a drink of water or to use the bathroom, we want to do so in such a way as to not fully awake ourselves. Or how we inevitably eat a late snack when we had no intention of doing so. We describes various sleeping positions, in which we have all found ourselves in at one time or another. Mr. Benchley takes the simple act of sleeping and turns it on its head revealing even such a simple task as going to bed can challenge man. *** (out of ****)

"How to Behave" (1936; Dir. Arthur Ripley) - This time around Mr. Benchley is a newspaper columnist who writes an etiquette column. He is called upon by two city sewer workers who ask if a man has to stand up when a woman is present while he is eating. After this Mr. Benchley gives us a few more helpful tips. As with "How to Sleep", what makes this comedy funny is how we begin with a simple idea and stretch it to its logical breaking point. If a man must stand when a woman approaches his table while eating, what happens if the floor is slippery? Or what if the woman talks alot and never sits down first? Huh? Did you ever think about such things? Etiqutte tells us when introducing two people are the first time, you introduce the oldest to the youngest. But, what if it is a group of women? How is a man suppose to know how old the women are? What if you are polite and offend someone at the same time? Not as commercially successful as "How to Sleep", this comedy, directed by Arthur Ripley (who worked often with silent screen comedy legend Harry Langdon), has aged nicely and demonstrates the appeal of Mr. Benchley to a younger generation.  *** (out of ****)

"How to Vote" (1936; Dir. Felix E. Feist) - A political committee in the 8th district has gathered together to hear a political candidate's speech. Unfortunately the candidate is not available and has sent his assistant (Mr. Benchley) instead to speak on his behalf. "How to Vote" is a misleading title. Mr. Benchley does not explain how citizens should prepare to vote, which may have lent itself to some funny comments about politics. Instead the piece feels like a retread of Mr. Benchley's own "The Treasurer's Report" (1928), with some of the same dialogue. A better name for this would be how to speak in public, or something related. The humor stems from Mr. Benchley being nervous and fumbling his words. It can be funny and made me smile, at one point Mr. Benchley pulls out a map explaining a new damn project and money has been allocated under the heading of "for what" but not to worry, they will think of a way to spend it. The problem is, the short lacks focus and even at its running time of less than 10 minutes, feels long. "The Treasurer's Report" was short and had better context. "How to Vote" may have been a nice idea but lacks proper context.  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"A Night at the Movies" (1937; Dir. Roy Rowland) - If "How to Sleep" is my favorite of the Robert Benchley comedies than "A Night at the Movies" is my second favorite. Once again Mr. Benchley takes a relatively simple idea, going to the movies, and shows us the daily struggles we all must endure. Nothing in life is easy which makes it both miserable and funny (as long as it is happening to the other fella). First things start off with a married couple (Mr. Benchley and Betty Ross Clarke) deciding what to see, which is always a challenge. Once in the theater there is the horror of finding a good seat and the possibility someone will sit in front of you (and the law decrees it must be a large overweight person that will completely obstruct your view). Mr. Benchley again puts a comedic spin on universal events we can all relate to. *** (out of ****)

"An Evening Alone" (1938; Dir. Roy Rowland) - Mr. Benchley plays a husband who will have the house to himself for the evening when his wife goes out. She is concerned he will have nothing to do but as Mr. Benchley explains, as the narrator, men have a lot to do around the house when left alone. The piece really engages in gender stereotypes, taking the position men are dumb and should not be left alone. A sentiment sadly still exhibited today in various TV sitcoms. What makes the piece funny is its ability to accurately display what we all do when we have too much time on our hands and avoid doing necessary errands. How many times have you said to yourself, if I only had a free day to do everything I need to and when presented with the opportunity, sit down and watch TV instead? Although there was no television in 1938 that is the general commentary of the piece. You have to love the way Mr. Benchley knows us so well. *** (out of ****)

"An Hour for Lunch" (1939; Dir. Roy Rowland) - Somewhat an continuation of the theme of "time" as seen on "An Evening Alone", here Mr. Benchley proper explains time management to us and demonstrate how to make the most of your lunch hour. The first step is of course to make a list of what needs to be done and then it is off to the races. Here we learn no matter how prepared we are life always has other plans for us and will make every effort to ruin our day. Secondly, we could get a lot accomplished in a day if it weren't for other people, who have no reason to exist in the first place. Again, another fine example of finding the humor in the mundane. *** (out of ****)

"See Your Doctor" (1939; Dir. Basil Wrangell) - Mr. Benchley shows us how not to worry about a problem. Another comedy short with a misleading title. Good idea but poor execution. Mr. Benchley believes he has been stung by a bee but his brother-in-law (Hobart Cavanaugh) puts the idea in Benchley's head that it may have been a black widow spider and it requires immediate attention. The situation would have been funny if Benchley was a hypochondriac and thought the bee sting would be fatal and eliminate the brother-in-law character. It would have also been funnier if Mr. Benchley could provide more examples of people worrying over silly things.  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Overall a good collection of comedy shorts starring the great Robert Benchley. When you add all the shorts together, the viewer will have a great appreciation for Mr. Benchley's comedy and his witty observations on human behavior. The downfall is the short run roughly 9 - 10 minutes and seem to end abruptly. If you enjoy classic American comedy, you may enjoy this. If the names Bob Hope, W.C. Fields and Jack Benny mean nothing to you, watch them first and work your way to this. Also, you may want to read Mr. Benchley's writings as well.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Film Review: In Her Name

"In Her Name" *** (out of ****)

It is an experience no parent wishes to endure, having to encounter the death of a child, especially a death which may have resulted in a crime. It is what the lead character in the French drama “In Her Name” (Au nom de ma fille, 2016) must confront and ultimately becomes obsessed with.

The film, directed by Vincent Garenq, is based on a true story involving Kalinka Bamberski, a French teenager who died in 1982 in her mother and stepfather’s house. The stepfather, a German doctor, may have been involved in the girl’s death, which resulted in a near 30-year pursuit on the biological father’s part to have the doctor stand trial.

This within itself would be enough plot for a feature-length movie, however, it is not the whole story. Andre Bamberski (Daniel Auteuil) was a married man with two children, Kalinka (Lila-Rose Gilberti, as a child and Emma Besson as a teenager) and Pierre (Timeo Bolland as a child, Antoine Milhaud as a teenager and Tom Hudson as an adult). Andre discovered his wife, Dany (Marie-Josee Croze) was having an affair with a German doctor, Dieter (Sebastian Koch), whose daughter was a friend of Kalinka’s. Initially, Andre and Dany tried to give their marriage a second chance but the love between Dany and Dieter was too strong to overcome.

“In Her Name” appeals to our basic instincts by placing us in the shoes of the parents, the father in particular, who believes justice has not been served. A child has died, possibly injected with drugs and raped, as her assailant may go free due to cracks in the legal system and political connections. How are the parents supposed to get closure? How would you react?

The movie, at times, attempts to question Andre’s motivations. Does Andre truly believe Dieter drugged and raped his daughter or does Andre want revenge on Dieter for breaking up his marriage?

Revenge, whether it is that of a jealous husband, or in the noble pursuit of justice, becomes one of the movie’s themes as Andre begins a descent into obsession. It all starts off innocent enough. At first Andre wants to see a copy of the autopsy report. When he receives it, it is in German. Having the report translated he learns of an injection Dieter gave his daughter. He also learns of a futile attempt Dieter made to resuscitate Kalinka and possible signs of sexual activity. None of which was disclosed to Andre by either Dieter or Dany. Dieter was even present during the autopsy.

With this, the seeds of doubt are firmly planted in Andre’s mind. Was Dieter responsible for the death of Kalinka? What should Andre do about it? How can he prove it? Andre dedicates the next 30 years of his life to seeing Dieter stand trial, even while Dany fully believes Dieter had nothing to do with Kalinka’s death.

Those familiar with French cinema will recognize Daniel Auteuil, who is arguably one of the greatest actors of his generation, since he gained international fame for his roles in Claude Berri’s epic masterpiece series, “Jean de Florette” (1987) and its sequel “Manon of the Spring” (1987). How you respond to Auteuil’s performance will ultimately decide your opinion of the movie. Auteuil dominates on-screen, giving a nuance performance which borders on sympathetic and obsessive. In Auteuil’s hands, the character is played as an intelligent gentleman focused on a single issue, who may or may not realize the world around him is slipping away.

In what may have been a missed opportunity, the movie neglects involving more scenes with Pierre. How does the son fit into his father’s life and his pursuit for justice? It would have been interesting as well if Dany had an internal conflict. Why does she so willingly and blindly believe Dieter?

But this is what happens when filming a movie with so much story. What do you leave in and what do you take out? There are times viewers may feel too much has been edited as the movie spans a 27 year period.

One of the best decisions by director Garenq is he never sentimentalizes the material, turning it into overblown melodrama. It primarily functions as a mystery, often building suspense while still allowing for dramatic moments. It is not difficult to imagine how this material could have been turned into a sappy tear-jerker.

Much of “In Her Name” will seem familiar to audiences, we have seen variations of this story before, parent / spouse, looking for justice after a loved one has died and dealing with a flawed legal system. There was another French drama, “In the Name of My Daughter” (2014) starring Catherine Deneuve and directed by Andre Techine with a similar story about a mother’s hunt for justice when her daughter disappears and is never found. But “In Her Name” has a lot of heart and a compelling performance by Daniel Auteuil. It isn’t quite the stuff of great drama but it comes awfully close.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Chicago News: Long Way North & The Brand New Testament Movie Reviews

The Chicago newspaper, Chicago News, published two movie reviews I wrote, in today's paper.

Opening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, the French animated movie, "Long Way North" (2016) click here to read my review.

Also, opening at the Music Box Theatre, the controversial Belgium comedy, "The Brand New Testament" (2016). Click here to read my review.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Film Review: Miss Sloane

"Miss Sloane"
**** (out ****)

It is small detail that may not catch anyone's attention in the opening moments of "Miss Sloane" (2016). In the right hand corner of the screen a date appears, April 18, but no year is given. We can assume this story takes place now or last year or even 5, 10 years ago. In the end, it does matter. "Miss Sloane" is a "timeless" movie.

The film is about the influence of the gun lobby, the issue of gun control, the role of lobbyist in our political system and their control over the politicians. As such it doesn't matter what year this story takes place. The issue of gun violence has dominated our media coverage for years due to mass public shootings and the asinine public dialogue we have over gun rights and the concept of universal background checks.

Because of the controversial nature of gun control the movie has also been subjected to mixed reviews, seemingly dividing audiences along political lines. For the movie's critics, it is one more example of Hollywood showing its left-leaning tendencies. On the other hand the film comes out a good time, politically speaking. In a year where there was a nasty, bitter presidential election in an environment where voters are in an anti-establishment mood, "Miss Sloane" shows us the system in place and why voters are in a populist mood.

Watching the first hour, hour and 15 minutes, I found myself thoroughly engaged in "Miss Sloane". I entertained the idea of calling the movie "the best film of the year". It was a rabble-rouser for me, much in the same way last year's "The Big Short" (2015) was, which I called the best film of last year. I enjoyed how "Miss Sloane" presented Washington, D.C., how it exposed the influence of lobbyist and comments on what motivates our politicians and how they make their decisions. THIS is what makes "Miss Sloane" worth watching for me. THIS is what is the most interesting aspect of the film. The fact that is it about gun control doesn't matter much to me. The movie could have focused on the tobacco lobby or abortion. The "issue" at play is merely a spring board to show us the larger context of how the national debate is controlled and dominated by lobbyist and big money in politics.

But then "Miss Sloane" slowly turns into something else and veers slightly off course becoming, in ways, what its detractors accuse it of, going off on a Liberal crusade and unfortunately tries to give audiences a psychological understanding of our lead, title character, explaining who she is and why this particular issue is important to her. These scenes are the most forced in the movie and the ones I responded least to. By the end of the movie, its strong anti-Washington sentiment slightly shifts, placing blame solely at the politicians and not so much at the feet of the lobbyist, after we have just watched a two-hour movie showing us how they control the issue. It settles on being a movie about a single individual taking on (or down) a system.

Miss Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a career driven, focused lobbyist, determine to win at all cost and has a reputation to prove it. When the head of an NRA-ish organization, Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata) approaches Sloane, he wants her to help his organization appeal to female voters. Women don't like guns he says. In order to stop a Brady bill, calling for universal background checks on all gun purchases, this demographic will be needed to prevent its passage. Sloane declines. Her boss (Sam Waterston) is furious. This will cost his firm a lot of money. Sloane however is taking a principle stance. She believes in universal background checks. She will not compromise herself and advocate for this issue to please her employer. So, she jumps ship and works for the opposition, headed by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). Their objective is to switch a handful of senators to vote in favor of the Brady bill.

Ms. Chastain dominates the movie with an icy exterior. For some it may be too icy, which is unfortunately why the movie attempts to humanize her character, trying to set-up why her character chooses to fight for this issue. Why now in her career does she take a stand? Ms. Chastain makes the character work when not giving us the inside dish on the character. Her demeanor and speech tells us what we need to know. We know people like this. People that love a challenge. People that are all business and lack social skills. People that put their career first above the personal life. They choose career over starting a family. Luckily the movie avoids gender cliches, presenting Sloane as a cut-throat and a word that rhymes with witch. Sloane may be those things, but, she is respected for it. It is not held against her.

The movie was directed by John Madden, best known for directing the Academy Award winner, "Shakespeare in Love" (1998) for which Mr. Madden was nominated for his directing. He was also the man behind "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (2011) and its sequel. One of my favorites of his movies was a lesser known drama, "Proof" (2005) with Anthony Hopkins and Gwyneth Paltrow. "Sloane" may be the most issue orientated movie Mr. Madden has directed. It would be nice if Mr. Madden picked up a second nomination for his directing. Mr. Madden gets the most out of Ms. Chastain, who is also due an Oscar nomination.

It is too bad the screenplay by Jonathan Perera isn't a bit more cynical. A bit more threatening. By the end of the picture it is the story of one person fighting against the corrupt system. Kind of like Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" (1939). Not much has changed since that time. It actually reminds me of a forgotten Kevin Spacey vehicle, "The Life of David Gale" (2003) - revolving around highly moral characters taking a stand in the most drastic ways possible. And it all gets resolved in one of those standard Washington Senate hearings sequences with the big speech given by the character exposing the charade of the system.

Still, despite these flaws there is no denying the craft that went into making this movie. The acting is stellar, with Ms. Chastain giving one of her best performances since landing in the spotlight. The round of supporting players are all very good including Mr. Waterston, Mr. Strong and John Lithgow as a U.S. Senator. The screenplay makes some strong points and mostly stays on message. I may no longer feel this is the best movie of the year, it is certainly among the top ten.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Chicago News: Dont Call Me Son - Movie Review

Opening today in Chicago, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is the Brazilian drama, Don't Call Me Son.

Here is my review published in the newspaper Chicago News. Click here

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Film Review: Diamonds Are Forever

"Diamonds Are Forever"  *** (out of ****)

Sean Connery and the diamonds sparkle in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971).

"Diamonds Are Forever" was the seventh feature-film James Bond adventure and the sixth to star Sean Connery as the 007 British secret agent. Mr. Connery had decided to walk away from the role after "You Only Live Twice" (1967). The next actor to be cast as James Bond was George Lazenby in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969). There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet (who would have thought?) regarding the circumstances as to why Mr. Lazenby did not return. Some suggest he too walked away from the role while others indicate the audience didn't accept him as the character.

That is where we find ourselves with "Diamonds Are Forever" and Mr. Connery's return to the character he made famous and in turn made Mr. Connery a superstar. There seems to be a mixed reaction to the movie. Some movie fans believe the story is too campy in a pre - Roger Moore era. Others, I have read, suggest this is one of the best Bond adventures and belongs side by side as one of Mr. Connery's best portrayals of the character.

The first hour of this two hour movie, works nearly flawless but it is not the Bond audiences had come to expect, the suave socialite with a martini in his hand, a double entendre on his lips and a pretty girl in his sights. Our introduction to Bond (pre-credits) shows an aggressive Bond looking for SPECTRE agent Blofeld (Charles Gray), as Bond beats henchmen after henchmen for Blofeld's whereabouts. It could in some ways serve as a pre-cursor for the Daniel Craig interpretation of the character. Many believe this sequence was meant to be a direct consequence of the events in which "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" ends on.

There are sequences which support the theory "Diamonds Are Forever" has a comical tone. A police chase scene with five police cars after Bond and Bond interrupting what looks like a moon landing re-enactment. However the overall tone of the movie doesn't feel comical. Instead it comes across as a tough cop movie with a detective looking for smuggled diamonds. If "Goldfinger" (1964) is the archetype of the Bond franchise, "Diamonds Are Forever" falls short as it deviates from the formula in terms of both structure and character. Your enjoyment of the movie will depend on how much of a "purist" you are. If you enjoy Daniel Craig in the role, "Diamonds Are Forever" may suite you fine. If you believe only the early Connery Bond movies are worth watching, you'll have a difficult time accepting this movie.

The plot to "Diamonds Are Forever" has been described as "complicated". It really isn't. Bond (Connery) is sent on an assignment to break-up a diamond smuggling ring, by impersonating a noted smuggler himself, which leads him to Tiffany Case (Jill St. John). Bond is to smuggle the diamonds out of Amsterdam to Las Vegas. The bad guys sense a double-cross when the diamonds are discovered to be fake. Have they figured out Bond's identity or is he working for someone else? Bond needs to find the head of the operation while Tiffany seeks leniency for her cooperation, as she has discovered who Bond is. The villain's ultimate goal is to destroy all government nuclear weapons.

If the plot doesn't seem to demand a secret agent of the stature of James Bond, Sean Connery's performance doesn't suggest it. Mr. Connery plays the character quite serious, which is a contrast to the way people seem to remember Mr. Connery's interpretation. With Mr. Connery at the helm, he is able to balance exaggerated sequences with a wry smile on his face while giving serious action scenes their due weight. One would imagine that is why Mr. Connery is the preferred James Bond of so many. He knew when to wink at the camera and when to bring the audience in and could often do it in the same scene.

There is one element to the story which feels largely out of place. Two hitmen known as Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (Bruce Glover and Putter Smith) who kill everyone that comes into contact with the diamonds, while usually engaging in puns after the death of their victims. There is also a slight homosexual implication between the characters as in one scene they walk away holding hands. 

When I was growing up if you were to ask me to name my favorite James Bond movie, I may have said "Diamonds Are Forever". Watching it again, after countless viewings, I no longer feel that way but do greatly admire the first hour of the movie which creates a strong sense of danger for Bond, placing him in deadly situations. In one sequence Bond has been locked in a casket and is about to be cremated. How on earth will he escape? 

But, I now see the movie doesn't perfectly fit into the cannon of Bond films. There is an absence of what audiences like to see in the Bond movies; gadgets, expensive cars, exotic locations (one would think the Las Vegas location with temptation might have created some fun situations for Bond) and a strong Bond girl. It does however have one of my all-time favorite Bond theme songs, sung by Shirley Bassey, marking her second time performing a Bond theme. Ms. Bassey would be asked to sing one more theme.

If "Diamonds Are Forever" works at all for viewers it will be because of Sean Connery's performance. The actor takes full command of the movie with its silly and underdeveloped plot. Unfortunately Ms. St. John isn't memorable as a Bond girl. She is used mostly for comic relief and struts around in a bra and panties or bikini in scenes but isn't active enough in the plot and disappears for chunks of the movie.

Still the movie works. Not necessarily as a "James Bond" movie but as a good action movie which keeps its audience involved. Mr. Connery is very good in the lead role in his last "official" outing as Bond. After this movie we would begin the Roger Moore era for the remainder of the 1970s and into the mid-80s. "Diamonds Are Forever" is worth watching. A rewrite of the second half of the movie could have made this one of the best.

Film Review: Son of Kong

"Son of Kong"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

It is not difficult to understand why Hollywood would have made a movie called "Son of Kong" (1933) but one wonders why did they settle on this story.

The original "King Kong" (1933) is considered by most movie lovers as something of a masterpiece. An exciting movie with dazzling special effects which helped define the creature feature genre. It was filled with memorable visuals, including the famous climax on top of the Empire State Building. "Son of Kong" however hasn't secured a strong reputation. Most people have not seen it and fewer have heard of it. We all know the countless remakes that have been made, the most recent example was Peter Jackson's 2005 version starring Naomi Watts (with a new version set to come out next year) but Hollywood actually decided to make an official sequel to the original film.

"Son of Kong" is an example, one of many, of movie sequels that never should have been made. First of all, did "King Kong" end in an ambiguous way? Did viewers wonder if he actually fell down the Empire State Building? Secondly, hearing a movie title such as "Son of Kong" and looking at the art work for the poster, viewers may feel they have the story all figured out. You don't! Trust me. You don't!

That's the problem with "Son of Kong", it doesn't give the audience what they want. Some might argue, but Alex, what did you want this movie to do? Merely be a retread of everything that happened in the first movie? Don't you know sequels never do that. No sequel has ever simply copied the original story. To which I would reply, "are you kidding?" As it stands now "Son of Kong" at best is misleading and at worst is meaningless.

"Son of Kong" takes place nearly immediately after "King Kong" as filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is being held responsible for all the damage Kong caused as he roamed the streets of New York. Now he is being hit with lawsuit after lawsuit. Broke and desperate to get away, Carl takes a job working a cargo ship with friend, Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher). Each man, without saying it, seems to be intrigued by going back to the island where Kong was found. Neither man however is willing to say it, as they chart a course near the island.

Stopping at a port in Dakang, the two men meet Captain Nils Helstrom (John Marston), who lost his last ship at sea. Now he is mostly a drunk and may be responsible for the death of a man, whose daughter, Hilda (Helen Mack) may turn him in. Helstrom would love to leave Dakang and lures Carl and Englehorn to leaving and head to Kong's Island, where there is a lost treasure. Carl and Englehorn don't need much convincing and soon the three men and Hilda, who has taken a liking to Carl, head to the island.

As the movie's title reveals, the group encounters another giant gorilla, who happens to be the son of Kong. This son of Kong is a bit smaller and as luck would have it, more friendly as Hilda and Carl treat the gorilla as a friend. Carl even feels a sense of responsibility to be nice to the son as Carl blames himself for what happened to Kong, leaving the son fatherless.

If a lot of this is beginning to sound ridiculous to you that's only because it is. If your imagination starts to get the best of you and you start to think oh yes, Carl will want to take the son back to New York to recoup his losses. This son of Kong is more manageable. It won't cause the same level of terror the father did, thus greed influences Carl to make the same mistakes all over again. It is a nice idea and quite frankly what "Son of Kong" should have been. Instead the move has a lighter tone, sometimes looking for humor.

For my cinematic taste buds humor and King Kong doesn't blend nicely together. If Hollywood screenwriters were concerned about repeating their story the answer to that problem was simple. Don't make a sequel. But this idea of turning "Son of Kong" into a light-hearted humorous tale of adventure doesn't work and doesn't do enough to sustain my interest even at 69 minutes. There is not enough conflict, not enough motivation for the characters. The fact that not one character even suggest bringing the son back to New York is astonishing.

In "King Kong" the movie wasn't really about the characters. The star attraction was of course Kong. That may have been the one flaw of the movie. In "Son of Kong" there is more emphasis on the human characters, supplying the viewer with more motivation for why they all end up on the island but once on the island the movie runs out of ideas. It basically has a lot of fight scenes between the son and dinosaurs, which should make audiences think of the classic silent movie "The Lost World" (1925).

That may be the bright spot of the movie; the creatures. The visual effects resemble what Willis H. O'Brien did on the original Kong and "The Lost World" with his stop-motion animation technique. Mr. O'Brien is not given screen credit however as he may have had limited involvement with this movie.

"Son of Kong" was a misguided movie. It didn't need to be made as it does not to further advance the story-line of the original movie, which was complete as it. Having said that, this final product doesn't give audiences what they would have expected a "King Kong" sequel to be. The movie runs out of ideas once the characters reach the island, after doing a more than decent job establishing characters.

The movie was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, who would direct a "King Kong" - esque rip-off "Mighty Joe Young" (1949), which is also a bit disappointing. The script was by Ruth Rose, whose first writing credit was "King Kong", she would also go on to write "Mighty Joe Young", the woman has gorillas on her mind and the adventure movie "She" (1935).

"Son of Kong" lack innovation, plot-wise. It doesn't add anything to the Kong brand. It serves more as a curiosity piece for those that enjoyed the original film. Under no circumstances should you see this movie before seeing the original.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Film Review: The Lost World

"The Lost World"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Worlds collide in the silent, science-fiction adventure movie, "The Lost World" (1925).

Based on a novel written by Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle (perhaps best known for his Sherlock Holmes stories) here is an example of true sensationalist, Hollywood escapism in its earliest form. The term "Summer blockbuster" hadn't been coined in 1925 but "The Lost World" in many ways was the precursor to such future films as "King Kong" (1933), "Godzilla" (1954), "Jaws" (1975) and most obviously "Jurassic Park" (1993).

Despite the genre this movie essentially created, one doesn't hear enough about its significance in the history of cinema. Most movie fans may be more familiar with "King Kong" and cite that as an influential movie because of its special effects. But, "The Lost World" beat it to the punch. In fact, the man responsible for the stop-motion effects in the movie, Willis H. O'Brien, also worked on "King Kong" and one of its knock-offs, "Mighty Joe Young" (1949). Without question "The Lost World" was a movie years ahead of its time. But, where's the love? Where's the Criterion Collection DVD? The movie has fallen into the public domain and as a result multiple prints of the movie exist, each with different running times. One version I saw runs approximately 63 minutes however my review is based on a 92 minute version, which combined eight known prints, creating the most complete version known, since the movie first premiered, with a running time of 106 minutes. It was also given a full orchestra score conducted by Robert Israel, whose work is always impressive.

Our adventure takes place in London, where reporter Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes) has hopes of asking his sweetheart, Gladys (Alma Bennett) to marry him. She rejects him before he can ask, stating, "I will only marry a man of great deeds and strange experiences - a man who can look death in the face without flinching." In order to win Gladys' love Ed seeks a dangerous assignment.

Within this sequence we have a theme found in so many movies of the 1920s, 30s & 40s, that of masculinity and the efforts men must go through to prove themselves in the eyes of women, who seek adventurous, muscular men. The scenario is one which usually is the making of slapstick comedies but here the theme lends itself, quite naturally, to an action / adventure story.

In pursuit of his dangerous assignment Ed learns of a Professor Challenger (Wallace Berry) who proclaims he has discovered a land in the Amazon where dinosaurs still roam. The professor becomes the laughing stock not only of the scientific community but society at large. How could dinosaurs still exist? We all know they have been extinct for millions of years. But, Prof. Challenger must save his reputation and demands a small group of brave souls join him on a trip back to the Amazon. Those brave enough to join him are big game hunter Sir. John Roxton (Lewis Stone) and Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father, also a scientist, first discovered this lost world, but was abandoned by his crew and left to possibly die on the Tepui and of course Ed, who sees this as his perfect opportunity to demonstrate his bravery to Gladys.

As was common during the time period, "The Lost World" is skeptical of science, a theme which would progress in horror films of the 1930s and science-fiction films of the 1950s. The Professor Challenger character is initially presented as a "mad scientist" who dares to threaten society by exploring the "unknown", thus meddling in the affairs of nature. It is a theme not unlike the one found in "Creature of the Black Lagoon" (1954). Bad things happen when people are curious. They might actually find something.

And so our characters set off on their adventure, where the usual stereotypes and situations are established. There will be a love story angle developed between Ed and Paula. Roxton will secretly be in love with Paula, but will understand Paula sees him as a father figure and not a possible romantic interest. "The Lost World" will then be a story about young, romantic love, unrequited love and adventure. All the makings of today's standard Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie doesn't create much doubt in the mind of the viewer that such an island exist and doesn't delay the presence of dinosaurs in an attempt to create suspense. When the dinosaurs are seen there is not much of a sense of awe and disbelief. Much of that may have to do with the fact the movie is more than 90 years old. Instead the viewer marvels at the special effects. That is quite the accomplishment for a movie as old as this. Further proof of the movie's significance.

The flaws of the movie is a lack of character development, which doesn't explore the love interest between Ed and Paula enough. It also doesn't do enough to establish Ed as a man afraid on danger, which would create more of a character arc by the end of the movie. Once the characters are on the island, there seems to be little for them to do. The action is mainly comprised of them running away or hiding from the dinosaurs. What was the objective? No one even has a camera with them to take photos for proof.

Still, the movie does everything else we'd expect from the genre today. For better or worse, not much has changed. Watch "Jurassic World" (2015) and you will find similarities. "The Lost World" does a good job of heightening the action and always finding moments to blend adventure with humor.

Of all the performances in the movie it may, oddly enough, be Lewis Stone who comes out looking the best. His character Roxton is the most grounded character in the movie which makes him to most relatable. Contrast this character to Professor Challenger, who is much more animated. Mr. Berry doesn't seem to set any limitations for himself. Paula unfortunately nothing more than a brooding young woman. The movie doesn't even have the decency to make her a damsel in distress.

The real stars of "The Lost World" are of course the dinosaurs. Filmmaker Harry O. Hoyt and special effects artist, Mr. O'Brien, create a unique film world for audiences with thrilling action sequences. The world of cinema owes much to "The Lost World". All serious movie fans should make an effort to see it.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Film Review: Ghost Catchers

"Ghost Catchers"  ** (out of ****)

Olsen & Johnson prove they ain't 'fraid of no ghost in the comedy / horror picture "Ghost Catchers" (1944).

"Ghost Catchers" was the second to last movie the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson starred in and of all the comedies featuring the team this may, unfortunately, be the worst. That is saying quite a lot. Olsen & Johnson are not well remembered today. A majority of audiences may find their humor dated and corny. It isn't really a fair assessment of the team and their work should not be forgotten but it says something that the studio that released the team's last movies together, Universal, sees no market to release their comedies on DVD. Unlike other forgotten comedians and comedy teams, Olsen & Johnson have not yet been "rediscovered" by younger movie fans.

Watching a comedy like "The Ghost Catchers" isn't going to help matters. Olsen & Johnson were a comedy team that thrived on chaos. They achieved their greatest success on the stage and in nightclub appearances, where they were given more room to improvise and could "feed" off an audience. Think Martin & Lewis. Movies were too restrictive for them. "Ghost Catchers", like a few of their other comedies, attempts to present itself as a revue. There is comedy, romance, singing and dance and in the case of this movie, scares. The problem is Olsen & Johnson. Their comedy doesn't lend itself easily to a genre. As such it doesn't compliment the horror genre.

As I have written repeatedly in order for comedy / horror to work you must think of it as two movies in one. You must take the horror portion of your story serious and create a good background story, atmosphere and genuine scares. When you do that the humor should naturally come from the situations created. The characters should be placed in the well known, cliche horror movie scenarios and their reactions should make the audience laugh. It might sound difficult to some readers but prime examples include "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) and Bob Hope in "The Cat & the Canary" (1939).

None of that happens in "Ghost Catchers" because that's not what Olsen & Johnson do. The movie has the team appear as "themselves", nightclub performers who engage in wild antics centered on heavy audience participation. That makes "Ghost Catchers" half Olsen & Johnson revue and half comedy / horror instead of half comedy, half horror movie.

The plot is supposed to revolve around Colonel Marshall (Walter Catlett) and his two daughters; Melinda (Gloria Jean) and Susanna (Martha O' Driscoll) renting out a New York apartment, which may be haunted by a ghost from 1900. The two women are singers are are getting ready to make their debut at Carnegie Hall. This actually has nothing to do with the rest of the picture other than provide an explanation for more songs to be sung in the movie. The family is frightened and in their despair seek help at a next door nightclub where the headliners are Olsen & Johnson.

At first no one believes the family's story of a ghost haunting a house but, against their better judgement Olsen & Johnson decided to check on their neighbors. They immediately become scared themselves upon entering the house as soft-shoe tap dancing is heard and a horse galloping. The sequence is actually the best in the movie as it is the only time "Ghost Catchers" actually places the comedy team in the confines of the horror genre and builds laughs in the process.
As the two men begin to get ready for bed Mr. Johnson's clothes are being removed for him by a ghost. He is too involved in his conversation with Mr. Olsen to notice. The boys even mention how the set-up is similar to an Abbott & Costello movie, "Hold That Ghost" (1941), and reference a famous comedy routine where a candle moves by itself gliding side to side. As they say it, their candle begins to do it.

This gag, along with an opening credit animated sequence "borrowed" from "Hold That Ghost", does a few things. One, it makes us think of "Hold That Ghost", which is a far superior comedy. Two it makes for a comparison between the two comedy teams. Many have felt Olsen & Johnson were a low rent Abbott & Costello due to the physical characteristics shared by both teams; one short man, one tall man. One slender, one, rotund we'll say. And third, it brings into question what does "Ghost Catchers" hope to accomplish?

Ever since the team filmed their most popular screen comedy, "Hellzapoppin'" (1941), based on their successful Broadway show, practically every movie was the same, regardless of the "plot". They were all musical-comedy revues which often reduced Olsen & Johnson's screen time to allow for musical acts and sometimes spotlight other comedians. They are a bit more involved in this movie but as I say, it isn't really a comedy / horror movie. What then was the point of the movie?

Olsen & Johnson can be quite funny, in the right movie, "Hellzapoppin'" is an example, but when the team does do genre spoofs, that isn't their strength. Their strength is in allowing them to goof around and make wise-cracks and sexual innuendos. A specific genre will only constrict them. They can't play by the rules. Could "Ghost Catchers" have been a good comedy? Sure. It would require a lot of re-writing and casting a different comedy team though.

"Ghost Catchers" does have a laugh or two but this doesn't feel like a "complete" movie. Yes, we see the boys engage in their wild brand of humor but it doesn't compliment or advance the movie's plot. If you are interested in discovering the work of Olsen & Johnson, don't start here.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Film Review: The Cat O' Nine Tails

"The Cat O' Nine Tails"  **** (out of ****)

Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento was once referred to as "the Italian Hitchcock". The films of Alfred Hitchcock were a big influence on Mr. Argento but if I were to point you in the direction of some of his films, such as "Deep Red" (1975) or "Suspiria" (1977) you may not be able to see exactly how the two filmmakers are comparable. However "The Cat O' Nine Tails" (1971) does show glimpses of the Hitchcock influence.

The Hitchcock comparison came early in Mr. Argento's career and it was because of his first three pictures American critics made the reference. "The Cat O' Nine Tails" was Mr. Argento's second motion picture as a director, "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" (1970) was his debut but for me it all begins with "The Cat O' Nine Tails".

Following his third picture, "Four Flies on Grey Valvet" (1972), another exceptional film, Mr. Argento would take a distinctive turn in his career and gain a reputation as a filmmaker with an obsession for blood. His films would feature grisly, ultra-violent death scenes. His camera was like an animal going after its prey and would linger on the dead bodies and the images of blood. In the days of "The Cat O' Nine Tails" Mr. Argento keeps the violence either largely off-screen or non-gory. It is with this film however we see hints of what was to come.

Mr. Argento's influence in the history of Italian horror cannot be overstated. He may have had the greatest cross-over success, compared to his contemporaries, in reaching American movie fans. Some of his movies are considered prime examples of the horror sub-genre known as "giallo" (yellow in English) which combines supernatural plot elements with murder mystery. The genre received its name from the color of book covers that features such stories. For many American audiences giallo means Argento. The two go hand and hand. I would not be surprised to learn Mr. Argento's films are the only examples of giallo films some American audiences have seen. And if you like the watch a filmmaker's work at the beginning and see how they grow as an artist, "The Cat O' Nine Tails" is a good place to start.

Karl Malden stars as Franco Arno, a retired newspaper man, who due to an accident is now blind. One day, while walking home with his niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), the two overhear a suspicious conversation only to discover the next morning a break in occurred in the same location at a pharmaceutical company, that is doing top secret genetic research. Later that same day, one of the doctors at the company, Dr. Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), believes he has discovered the identity of the person responsible for the break in. He agrees to meet someone at a train station, only to be pushed onto the track as the train approaches and suffers a violent death (foreshadowing the Argento to come). These two incidents can't be a coincidence, can they? Franco doesn't believe so and decides to tell his story to a news reporter, Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus).

Naturally the suspense comes from the fact Franco is blind, and therefore may not be able to tell when danger is nearby or if the killer knows his identity. If we chose to continue the Hitchcock comparison, this would be one of those movies with ordinary people acting like would-be detectives a la "Rear Window" (1954). In that movie the lead character is confined to one area, due to a leg injury, but can see everything and may have witnessed a murder. In this movie the character has mobility but can't see.

"The Cat O' Nine Tails" also has moments of humor, often found in Mr. Hitchcock's movies. In this picture there is a police officer repeatedly talking about his wife's cooking recipes. Alfred Hitchcock may have seen this movie because the following year in his "Frenzy" (1972) there is a detective character who hates his wife's cooking. There is also a high speed chase scene which cuts to two elderly people wanting to cross the street. As they begin walking one car zooms by and the couple takes a step back. Quickly the second car passes and the couple gives up on the idea of crossing the street.

Another sequence involves Franco and Carlo going to a cemetery to steal some jewelry off a dead body which may have a hidden note with the killer's identity. The sequence walks a delicate line and balances suspense with humor. The two men are afraid to be in the cemetery at night and each is afraid to walk in a family crept where the body is. However the killer may be watching them and attacks Franco on the far right frame of the screen, which locks Carlo inside the crept.

The distinctive visual trait of the movie is it takes a first person approach to keeping the identity of the killer a secret whereby the camera becomes the killer as the audience sees everything from their point of view as the murders pile up of each character that may have been able to solve the case. The victims are usually strangled, again a deliberate attempt by Mr. Argento to keep away from excessive violence on-screen.

Also interesting about the violence is the gender of the victims. Horror movies have been considered by many as misogynist. The movies generally feature young pretty women being killed by a male, which for some is meant to be interrupted as sexual. But, the majority of victims in "The Cat O' Nine Tails" are men.

The strength of the movie lies in its story and the interaction between the characters. Visually this is not a striking movie. For those who come to this movie later in their Argento film going experience, may consider this a letdown because of that. But again, I must point out this was Mr. Argento's second directorial picture. He was still developing a style. As such we see the work of someone with talent. The acting is also a little stronger than usual for an Argento movie. Perhaps because of the genre Mr. Argento is working in, major stars never really appeared in his movies. There were some distinguished actors that did like Max Von Sydow, in one of Mr. Argento's later pictures and Anthony Franciosa. Having Mr. Malden in the movie definitely gives it some weight. Mr. Malden was an Academy Award winning actor, nominated twice in his career. "The Cat O' Nine Tails" was the first movie Mr. Malden appeared in after "Patton" (1970), the best picture Oscar winner.

The movie works best when Franco and Carlo are on-screen together and falters a bit when Franco disappears from the story for a while. At nearly two hours the movie also lags a bit and could have been edited down. The final revelation of the killer feels a bit anti-climax. A love scene between Carlo and a beautiful woman, who is the adopted daughter of the pharmaceutical company's owner comes out of left field and feels forced. It also brings up themes of incest which are completely unnecessary and aren't properly explored.

"The Cat O' Nine Tails" also touches on the theme of is violence genetic. It may be an interesting theme, which was better explored in "The Bad Seed" (1958) but here the movie seems to use this information as a MacGuffin (another Hitchcock reference).

Yet I fully recommend "The Cat O' Nine Tails". On the scale of Mr. Argento's films it is one of his most accomplished, despite his supposed negative feelings of the movie. The acting is among some of the most accomplished to be found in one of his movies with Mr. Malden coming out looking the best. Mr. Franciscus also does a good job in the leading man role.

You can't guarantee any movie will please everyone but "The Cat O' Nine Tails" certainly has qualities worth recommending and should please a majority of fans even with its flaws. Here we see the beginning of a breakthrough for Mr. Argento as he seems more confident in his material and developing a distinctive style.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Film Review: Equinox

** 1\2 (out of ****)

The battle between good and evil is astronomical in the science-fiction horror movie "Equinox" (1970).

There is a somewhat good chance you have heard of "Equinox" if you like "B" midnight movies (is there any other kind?). "Equinox" has gained a reputation over the years as a clever student film, made on a budget of $6,500, and makes pretty good use of stop-motion special effects, recalling the work of Ray Harryhausen and films like "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958), with its other worldly creatures.

As as student film, you have to give filmmakers Dennis Muren and Jack Woods credit. But as an actual motion picture, to be seen by a wide audience, in which people must pay to see this, there is no denying the movie lacks in writing, directing, acting and production values. The student filmmaker in me (I studied film in college) admires what was done here but the movie critic in me can't turn a blind eye to the movie's flaws. The movie was not ready for prime time so to speak. However, I would rather watch this again than the original "Blair Witch Project" (1999).

The plot follows four college students; David (Edward Connell), Susan (Barbara Hewitt), Jim (Frank Bonner Jr.) and Vicki (Robin Christopher) who travel to the woods to find a professor, Dr. Waterman (Fritz Leiber). When they arrive they notice Dr. Waterman's cabin has been destroyed and the doctor is missing. A strangle castle appears and disappears, noises are heard coming from a cave, and a weird cop (Jack Woods) turns up at the oddest moments, checking in on the kids. Where did Dr. Waterman go? What is causing the noise in the cave? What destroyed the cabin? The answers may be found in a book the students discover about the occult. Is there a demonic spirit nearby?

"Equinox" (what a terrible title. Equinox is an astronomic term) has good intentions and means to be a movie to be taken serious yet the poor writing, which leads to lackluster performances, borderlines on campy with its awkward 1970s gender stereotypes, making it more of a time capsule.

At the same time you'd hate to be too critical of the movie, given the circumstances concerning the budget and the fact it was made outside the Hollywood system. However, no matter how generous I'd like to be the movie doesn't quite succeed as either complete science-fiction or horror. There are not enough scares in the movie to qualify as a true horror film.

Acting, screenplay and directing aside, the real star of "Equinox" is the special effects. That is what the majority of movie goers will be responding to after they have seen this movie and what will remain the most memorable. Many may say the effects look cheap and unrealistic. That may be true but it may also be missing the point. What does a monster realistically look like? The creatures seen hear will make viewers either think of Ray Harryhausen or if they don't recognize the name it will make them think of "King Kong" (1933). While it may not look realistic it adds to the fantasy quality of the movie.

But the effects may not be enough to save the movie. The human performances lack in emotion and sometimes motive. These aren't believable characters. We have an acting style here that I have always referred to as "normal people pretending to act normal in a way they believe other normal people think is normal". At least that is the technical term. Translation - the actors want to behave in a naturalistic way, retaining a sense of realism to their performances, yet, the characters don't speak or behave like anyone I know. All I see when watching the movie are actors giving a performance not a slice of life.

There was plenty of potential for "Equinox" and forgive me for saying this, but a Hollywood remake wouldn't entirely be a bad idea. I wouldn't care if they left the special effects as they were but better actors and better dialogue would greatly improve the movie.

"Equinox" may please fan movie fans but I can't imagine it would be a large majority. The rest may notice a few good points but come away feeling the movie feels more like a draft than a completed project.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Film Review: Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy

"Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy"
** (out of ****)

"Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" (1955) breaks the cardinal rule of comedy / horror, it doesn't take its horror half serious and as such the movie ultimately fails.

In order for any comedy / horror movie to work you must understand you basically have two movies in one. The horror portion of the movie must be dealth with as you would any horror movie. Create atmosphere and give audiences the usual cliches one expects watching any horror movie. You then have your comedy, which serves as a direct result of the horror. The jokes should come naturally from the situations created and not be forced  comedy sequences.

The comedy team of Abbott & Costello, thanks to working at Universal Pictures, appeared in several comedies where they "meet" the classic monsters of the Universal vault. The best example would be "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), where the boys meet Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's Monster. That movie took its time setting up the story involving the monsters, especially the Wolf Man. Of course the one monster missing from that movie was the Mummy. Instead the Mummy gets his own movie, in this, the second to last comedy Abbott & Costello appeared in together as a team.

Not so much a spoof of the Boris Karloff 1932 version, "Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" instead feels like a comedy version of Universal's reboot of the Mummy franchise, "The Mummy's Hand" (1940), which itself had too much comedy, which hurt it as a horror movie.

For those that think Abbott & Costello were the originators of comedy / horror, you'll be surprised to know this comedy concept of finding humor in a mummy story, had already been done, nearly twenty years prior, in the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Mummy's Boys" (1936), which is also a second-rate comedy. I suppose if you like to watch bad comedies, both of these movies would make a nice double-bill.

In a sign of just how far off the track "Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" goes, the screenwriters actually incorporate the Mummy (Eddie Parker) into comedy routines. You don't do that! You want to keep the Mummy as a frightening figure, scaring Abbott & Costello. The laughs come from the boys being scared to death. Once you make the Mummy part of the comedy act, what's the point? Where do you take the character from there? Astonishingly the movie's screenwriter was John Grant, who wrote all of the team's Universal monster comedies, including "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein".

"Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" is essentially an Abbott & Costello comedy first, horror spoof last. The movie does have some good comedy routines for the team to engage in. So good that we've seen them perform the same routine in other movies. One has both men trying to pass a cursed medallion secretly to each other into their hamburgers. As each tries to distract the other long enough to make the switch, the sound of their plates hitting the table, alerts the other to what has happened. Another routine deals with Bud explaining to Lou what a "mummy" is. It gives the boys a chance to have some fun with word play, that they are best known for. Lou thinks Bud is talking about a "mommy". When Bud plays "some mummies are men and some are women", well, you can imagine Lou's response.

But ultimately the movie doesn't have the big laughs we expect from the team. As I mentioned, this was the second to last movie the team made together, could their hearts just not have been in this? Was it time to close shop? Did the boys simply lose some of the magic that made them so special in the 1940s, when they appeared in multiple movies in the same year. Maybe.

Abbott & Costello have always had a hit or miss track record with me, moreso than any of their contemporaries whose work has lived on, You can always find something funny in any of their pictures but some work better than others. "Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" is on the lower end of their scale. It is not recommended anyone see this movie as their introduction into the work of this comedy team, who really were quite the sensation a decade earlier.

This time around Bud & Lou play two Americans stuck in Egypt, looking for a way back home. They learn of an opportunity to assist a scientist in bringing the mummy Klaris back to the states. Unfortunately, the scientist is murdered when members of a cult, headed by Semu (Richard Deacon, best known for his role on the television show, "The Dick Van Dyke Show") want to protect the mummy and keep it in Egypt. Soon however, the boys are suspected of the death of the scientist, while Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) is after the treasure of Princess Ara, whom legend has it, Klaris protects.

The movie does nothing to create suspense of the mummy storyline and instead spends a lot of time on Abbott & Costello. In another movie that would be fine, however, as already explained, that's not how you make a proper comedy / horror movie. The viewer gets no sense of danger from the mummy or see the cult seen as sinister. The movie is brightly shot, killing any chance of creating an eerie mood.

The movie was directed by Charles Lamont, who had directed a few Abbott & Costello comedies ranging in quality from "Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man" (1951) and "Hit the Ice" (1943) to "Abbott & Costello Go To Mars" (1953). Mr. Lamont also directed Ma & Pa Kettle comedies.

You may be able to do worst than "Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" but why try? Comedy / horror is very difficult to pull off correctly. Luckily you have better options than this Abbott & Costello comedy. In fact, some of the better comedy / horror movies star the team, such as "Hold That Ghost" (1941) and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein".

Monday, October 10, 2016

Film Review: Kill, Baby, Kill

"Kill, Baby, Kill"
*** (out of ****)

Italian filmmaking maestro Mario Bava was a key figure in the giallo sub-genre of horror films along with Dario Argento. With the passing years Mr. Bava's name hasn't lived on as well. Only adventurous film goers, with an appetite for a little blood and gore and "B" level production values, may be familiar with the work of Mr. Bava. That is too bad.

Mr. Bava may be best known for titles such as "Blood and Black Lace" (1964) and "Black Sunday" (1960) but for some film buffs and historians it is "Kill, Baby, Kill" (1966) that just might be his crowning achievement with its giallo story elements and Gothic inspired visuals. It is a good contender, though I do remember enjoying "Black Sunday" quite a bit, which also has Gothic elements to it.

Over the years I have always wanted to review some of Mr. Bava's movies in the month of October, as I celebrate Halloween. I would watch some of his movies and then decide against it, because I simply didn't know what I could add to the conversation (that is actually my ultimate determination on which classic films I review). Instead I would review the films of Mr. Argento, who is still with us today, making movies. Mr. Bava died in 1980.

I am not sure what I can add to the national conversation regarding "Kill, Baby, Kill" however, I couldn't let another year go by and not review something by this filmmaker. While I may not offer any new insights into Mr. Bava's work, at the very least I hope someone who reads my reviews, may not have heard of this director or this film, and I, in some small part, can help introduce people to it.

For American audiences "giallo" generally refers to horror movies that have supernatural elements to them as well as murder mystery. Giallo was originally a genre in literature, the covers would usually be yellow, hence why they were called giallo (yellow in Italian). The films, in particular, usually feature very gruesome death sequences and in the case of Mr. Argento, an almost fetish for blood.

"Kill, Baby, Kill" nicely fits into this genre, although I believe the violence is tame. The camera doesn't linger on dead bodies and blood. The death sequences are not as elaborate as I have seen in other movies. What makes "Kill, Baby, Kill" work for me is the atmosphere. I find this to be the number one reason why so many horror movies don't work. There is no atmosphere. No sense of dread. Too many of today's movies rely on serial killers cutting up their victims and wanting to gross out the audience. That isn't scary to me. It is simply disgusting. I like a movie to play around with lighting, camera angles and effective music. You may not find the Universal monster movies of the 1930s scary but what great production values they had. There was real craft which went into those movies. That is what I like. "Kill, Baby, Kill" has a touch of that to it.

Plot descriptions I have read over the Internet claim the movie's setting is either in the Carpathians or Transylvania (Romania is in the Eastern and Southern part of the Carpathians). However, I do not recall anyone stating a location nor do I remember a caption appearing on-screen stating a setting. Regardless, the movie begins with Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) arriving in a small town via horse and carriage. The driver will not take Dr. Eswai any further and makes the doctor walk to the town's inn, where he is expected. The set-up immediately recalls "Dracula" when Reinfeld arrives to a Transylvanian town and is told of various superstitions by the villagers, encouraging him not to continue any further. Which may explain why some believe "Kill, Baby, Kill" also takes place in Transylvania.

Waiting for Dr. Eswai is police inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), who would like the doctor to perform an autopsy on the body of a young woman found dead the night before. Was it murder? Suicide? The villagers believe recent deaths are the cause of a curse placed on the town by the Graps family, after one of Baroness Graps' (Giana Vivaldi) childern, a daughter, was killed, when a horse and carriage rode over the girl and no one would come to the girl's aide. Since then sightings have been reported of the girl. Who ever sees the child is usually found dead. Is the ghost of the child getting revenge on the town? That's what the villagers believe.

The set-up is not unlike several classic horror movies centered around a character presented as a man of science who must either fight an evil force or prove to the town a conspiracy is at hand and there is a perfectly good explanation for the supernatural activities the villagers encounter. "Kill, Baby, Kill" is a bit of much with a mystery element thrown in.

Although the plot may be predictable or at a minimum familiar, there are some good moments of suspense. The acting is far from memorable, as some performances are barely better than amateurish, the visuals are the real star of the movie and make "Kill, Baby, Kill" a watchable, which is arguably the reason why the movie enjoys such a positive reputation among both movie goers and critics. One memorable sequence involves a spiral staircase as one character chases after another. Some have compared the color scheme to another giallo movie, Dario Argento's "Suspiria" (1977), suggesting Mr. Argento may have been influenced by this movie. Many have commented on the heavy use of the color red (disclosure, I am color blind and did not notice this) as another common element found in both movies, although, since giallo movies are known for graphic violence, the use of red (meaning blood) is quite common.

Another star of the movie is the Graps' mansion, with hanging cobwebs, dark hallways and ghostly sightings. An entire movie could have easily been made exclusively in the mansion alone, as these sequences borrow from the haunted house genre.

Those not familiar with Mr. Bavo's movies may want to start here as those not familiar with giallo may as well. The title suggest sensationalism but the movie has, for the most part, a classic structure. It has its flaws, weak acting and clumsy dialogue, but the visuals and overall atmosphere make this one worth watching.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Film Review: Mark of the Vampire

"Mark of the Vampire"  *** (out of ****)

"Mark of the Vampire" (1935) has the characteristics associated with a good-to-great Hollywood horror movie. It stars Bela Lugosi as a vampire and it is directed by Tod Browning, the man behind "Dracula" (1931), "Freaks" (1932) and the movie which "Mark of the Vampire" is based on, the silent Lon Chaney vehicle, "London After Midnight" (1927), which unfortunately is considered a "lost film".

But, something about "Mark of the Vampire" is a bit off. Movie lovers debate its quality because of a general agreement that the ending comes out of left field and discredits much of what was seen prior. I used to belong to that camp. I thoroughly enjoyed "Mark of the Vampire" right up until the final few minutes, which sets the movie in a different direction. Watching the movie again, I changed my mind. It is not that the ending doesn't bother me but, I simply enjoy so much of what it does before hand to not recommend it.

If you haven't seen "Mark of the Vampire" before, you are most likely wondering what the heck am I talking about. What is this ending? I cannot reveal it. It is one of those twist endings that only a bad friend would spoil. Yet, for movie lovers, its reputation proceeds it and its ending is well known.

The setting would seem to be Prague (the original suggested title of the movie was "Vampires of Prague") though a city is never mention however anywhere in Eastern Europe would do. The movie begins much the same way "Dracula" does. We learn the town is superstitious and afraid to go out after dark. Vampires are believed to have been cited. The local doctor, Dr. Doskil (Donald Meek) won't admit it, since he is a man of science, but he too is a believer. The villagers hang bat thorn (the equivalent of wolfsbane) on their windows to protect themselves.

On this night, Sir. Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is found dead. Nearly all are under the impression it was a vampire that killed him, as two marks were found on his neck and the body was drained of blood. The only person who refuses to believe this is Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwil). He decides to bring Professor Zelan (Lionel Barrymore) on the case, because of his knowledge of the occult and to help prevent another murder, as Borotyn's daughter, Irena (Elizabeth Allan) may be in danger as well. Zelan immediately confirms the suspicion of all, as it was a vampire that killed Borotyn. The vampires are suspected to be Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter, Luna (Carroll Borland). Now it is up to all, including Irena's guardian, Baron Otto von Zinden (Jean Hersholt) to protect her from the vampires, while trying to find a way to kill them.

As I had mentioned, much of the movie will resemble "Dracula" and the appearance of Mr. Lugosi as a vampire will only further cement that opinion. However this time around the vampires does not speak. Count Mora and Luna are only seen as threatening figures, seen walking down hallways or peeking through windows.

Mr. Browning and "Mark of the Vampire" do a lot to keep up the suspense and create a good amount of atmosphere. The vampires enter frame out of nowhere, the visual aesthetic of the old castle and fog that fills the air, all help to keep us involved in the movie. Which is what makes the ending a bit if a disappointment, shifting in its tone. Mr. Barrymore's exaggerated performance doesn't help much either, as these two things combine give the viewer the impression "Mark of the Vampire" is a comedy, lampooning the horror genre and vampire movies in particular. The movie didn't need humor. As a vampire movie it worked well and one could forgive Mr. Barrymore's performance if not for the ending, If you have ever seen "Dracula" you'll know the Van Helsing character, which is essentially what the Prof. Zelan character is, was played serious. Mr. Barrymore, or Mr. Browning, for some reason saw fit to add humor to the character, which is in direct contrast to the other actors, who mostly play their roles in more dramatic fashion.

Still it is difficult to say who gives the best performance in the movie. Mr. Lugosi's role doesn't require an emotional range, and as such, it doesn't feel like much of a character. The same would go go for Ms. Borland. Ms. Allan is your typical damsel in distress, playing a role similar to Mina, in "Dracula". It is an average performance that in another movie may not have stood out but here becomes somewhat memorable. Mr. Atwill is his usual stiff self playing a role not unlike the many he would go on to play in various other horror movies, several at Universal as part of the Frankenstein franchise. Mr. Hersholt may be playing the most "complete" character.

But it is not the acting that would make me come back to this movie. It would be for the suspense and atmosphere. Though I hate to keep comparing it to "Dracula", which is a much better movie, it is along the same lines and must have been some sort of inspiration. Mr. Browning uses many of the same techniques for both pictures in the way he fills a frame and camera angles.

"Mark of the Vampire" may be difficult for some viewers to accept on first viewing but the movie does have its defenders, many stronger than me. If you are able to give the movie a chance and go in with an open mind, the movie will be enjoyable. Even if the logic of the ending doesn't make much sense to you, you have to admit the movie does so many things right. For me, not one of the great vampire movies but a good effort. If you've never seen "Dracula" I would start their first and then see this one.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Film Review: The Bad Seed

"The Bad Seed"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

There's something peculiar about eight year old Rhoda (Patty McCormack, making her film debut). Oh, she's well behaved, says please and thank you. Always has a smile on her face. Never gives her mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly) and father, Colonel Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper) any trouble. But, could Rhoda be just a bit too perfect?

"The Bad Seed" (1956) is an interesting examination concerning what is evil? More specifically, what makes a person evil? Is evil the result of environment or is it genetics? It is a question which strikes at the very nature of mankind. Are people inherently good or evil? Can a person simply be a "bad seed"? Someone that is just no good, nonredeemable. They were born that way.

It is one of the questions asked and answered in "The Bad Seed". But it is its subject matter which makes the movie frightening and for my money, one of the underappreciated horror films. Can an eight year old girl be a murderer?

Horror movies generally focus on deranged adult serial killers or evil spirits but to think of a child as evil sets us up for an entirely different psychological and emotional experience. Children are sweet and innocent, not capable for such violence, right? No mother or father would ever accuse their child of killing someone. And yet "The Bad Seed" presents us with such a dilemma for one mother. Can she bring herself to believe her child is evil? And, if so, how did she get that way? Was the child not loved and nurtured enough? Or was it bad genes? And whose genes at that?

"The Bad Seed" was based on a novel, of the same title, written by William March (his last novel), published in 1954 (the year of Mr. March's death) and was turned into a play that same year by the great playwright, Maxwell Anderson. The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, a successful studio director at Warner Brothers, whose worked crossed over many different genres. He received an Academy Award nomination for "Random Harvest" (1943). The film also starred many of the original stage cast including Ms. Kelly, who won a Tony Award for her performance, and Ms. McCormack, who was nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award, one of the movie's four nominations.

The movie deals with psychoanalysis, philosophy and paranoia. Though the main theme of the movie is nature versus nurture. Part of me can't help but think there is some political undertone to the movie, commenting on the Cold War. You can never tell who the enemy is or what they will look like. Though supposedly the movie was inspired by a rise in "troubled youths". It is interesting to note "The Bad Seed" was released one year after "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955) and three years after "The Wild One" (1953).

The main focus of the movie revolves around Rhoda, who is upset she did not win a class prize for best penmanship. Instead a boy named Claude won. Rhoda firmly believes she should have won and as a result resents Claude. Why did he have to win? On this day there will be a school picnic which ends tragically as Claude will be found dead, with his special prize missing. How did the boy die? Where did the prize go? Was Rhoda involved? She was seen with Claude and her teacher knew of her disappointment in not winning the penmanship prize. Slowly Christine learns more and more from others about the events leading up to the boy's death and about Rhoda's reputation in school.

Besides school we see how Rhoda interacts with those that live in her apartment building. Rhoda plays innocent with the landlady (Evelyn Varden), who thinks of Rhoda as her own child, but is much more harsh with the groundskeeper (Henry Jones), who antagonizes the girl, but is the only character that really understands who she is.

As I watched "The Bad Seed" again I paid more attention to Rhoda and the performance given by Patty McCormack than I normally have. There is something fascinating about Ms. McCormack. Listen to her voice and the emphasis she places on certain words. It is meant to sound sweet yet there is something phony about it. She says all the right words but they lack sincerity. And pay attention to her eyes. She's thinking. Always trying to stay one step ahead of everyone. Yet, there is a simplistic nature to her. Is she a child after all. But, we know all isn't what it seems. Because of the insincerity in her voice, some viewers may believe Ms. McCormack is giving a bad performance. It's not. That phoniness is deliberate. The character couldn't be too shrewd and cunning. That would frighten the audience a bit too much. Rhoda needed to be overtly diabolical, so parents wouldn't fear their own children. You have to give Ms. McCormack her due credit. Her Oscar nomination was well deserved.

I suppose though it is the Christine character we are meant to pay more attention to and side with as we watch the movie. Christine is facing the dilemma. Her turmoil is the stuff of great drama but at times the character appears repetitive in her struggle. Constantly debating the same points with herself but never taking a step forward. The character is too weak in numerous scenes. Between the two characters, I find Rhoda to be far more interesting and better written.

Because it was based on a play, much of the movie feels theatrical, primarily taking place in one setting, Christine's apartment. The movie doesn't do much with lighting or various camera angles. It is all shot rather conventionally. What carries the movie is the weight of the story and the performances given by all of the actors. This is truly an acting ensemble piece. Every character serves a purpose. Each line of dialogue is necessary.

However that leaves filmmaker, Mr. LeRoy off the hook. The actors knew the material, after playing the characters on stage. Mr. LeRoy wouldn't need to start from scratch, his actors were comfortable with the characters. His main job would be to make this story "filmable". And he does that, without taking many chances. Mr. LeRoy didn't have much experience directing horror films. It is the one genre lacking in his resume. It may be the only flaw with the movie in that visually there is not much here.

But, one cannot allow that to stop them from seeing this movie. "The Bad Seed" is largely successful thanks to the wonderful performances given by Ms. Kelly and Ms. McCormack. Each lady received an Academy Award nomination and it was well deserved, a rarity for the Academy, they made two good choices.

"The Bad Seed" may not keep you up at night but you'll never look at children the same way again.