pocca

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Reviews

Bullets Over Broadway
(1994)

A Woody Allen film for people who don't like Woody Allen
I've never been able to warm much to Woody Allen's works with a contemporary New York City setting, filled as they are with over privileged chatterboxes whose neuroses are far less involving than they—and perhaps Allen himself—would have us believe. His period pieces, however, tend to liberate Allen from navel gazing, and "Bullets Over Broadway" is one of his best efforts of this sort.

The central character and Woody stand-in is David Shayne (John Cusack), an earnest young playwright who is horrified to learn that his latest effort will only be produced if Olive Neal, a gangster's moll, is given a role (her boyfriend is providing funding). David agrees and promptly has a very funny "breakdown," melodramatically declaring himself a whore for selling out. (This scene has an added poignancy later on when it becomes clear that poor David never had much talent to betray in the first place). Initially it might seem as though the viewer has been set up for a Pygmalion story in which the thoroughly vulgar Olive will turn out to have genuine potential and will show up all the snobs who doubted her ability to act. But the brilliant twist of the film is that it turns out to be Olive's bodyguard Cheech (Chaz Palminteri) who has genius—previously a menacing background presence he suddenly becomes the center of the story when irritated by David's pompous dialogue he begins to rewrite and greatly improve the play.

The film veers somewhat off course towards the end when David reacts with horror after Cheech (who has become the brilliant obsessive artist David always imagined himself to be) shoots Olive because he can't tolerate her bad acting another second. Allen appears to want us to share David's shock and disgust. However, the film's gangsterism has been mostly played for laughs up until now, making it hard to treat this cartoonish situation as a serious conundrum. However by the time Cheech, fatally wounded himself, uses his final moments to make one last suggestion about the play and to quote the resident diva Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest) things are nicely back on track.

Highly recommended.

Prom Night
(1980)

Disco Death
"Prom Night" stole a lot from "Carrie," but it stands up as an above average feature from the "carve up the teenagers" school of horror, with some nice campy touches courtesy of the disco-themed prom.

One of the reasons "Prom Night" works fairly well is that it takes it time getting started so we get a chance to know the victims to be—shy Kelly, wallflower Jude, bitchy Wendy, geeky Slick—and actually feel some compassion for them when they are slaughtered (even for Wendy who whatever else you can say against her puts up one hell of a fight for her life). There are several genuinely frightening moments involving the female characters when they are alone in the school after classes have ended with a mentally impaired janitor who may or may not be the killer (I first saw this film when I was still in high school myself and never felt entirely comfortable in it after hours again) The movie is also suspenseful enough so that we remain uncertain about the identity of the murderer until the very end (the clues are there, however, for the careful viewer).

As is often the case with this sort of film, most of the teenaged characters look old enough to be playing the teachers. However, the cast is for the most part competent, with Jamie Lee Curtis standing out as the spunky decent heroine who ends the mayhem, although the would be lounge lizard Slick and the obnoxious but somehow hilarious Lou—look out for his yearbook picture—almost steal the film.

"Prom Night" is no masterpiece, but some genuine shocks and wonderfully schlocky disco dance routines make this an enjoyable 90 minutes worth of viewing.

Way Down East
(1920)

Melodramatic, but Gish makes it work
Lillian Gish once said that she got sick of playing "gaga-babies" for D.W. Griffith and longed to play women of the world rather than innocent naïfs. She then inadvertently paid herself a great compliment when she added that it was far harder to play this sort of role than a vamp because it was far harder to make such a character interesting. Through a combination of her talent and Grifftith's direction her gaga-babies, such as Anna Moore in "Way Down East" continue to compel audiences decades later, long after many of the great vamp roles (that, ironically, were once seen as a modern alternative to Griffith's good girl parts) have been forgotten.

In "Way Down East," Gish, in a story very reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" plays a naïve country girl who suffers, among offer things, the snobbery of rich cousins, a sham marriage, an illegitimate pregnancy and social ostracization. Such sagas of innocence abused are the sort of thing sophisticated audiences love to hate (forgetting perhaps in the real world there are plenty of cases of innocence abused), but Gish somehow makes the melodrama believable, from her joy on her wedding night (that even makes her caddish seducer feel momentarily guilty), to her grief over her dead baby and most famously her fleeing into a blizzard after a local gossip has revealed the truth of her past to the farm family that has employed her. This last part in particular could have become very contrived in the hands of a lesser actress (the ice flow scenes practically beg for snide comparisons with "Uncle Tom's Cabin"), but perhaps because Gish in general avoids over-emoting we don't get the feeling that our feelings are being milked for the sake of sensationalism but rather that we are seeing a woman whose circumstances have earned her the right to lose emotional control. Gish is also helped by a good supporting cast including Lowell Sherman as the cad and Richard Barthlemass as the decent farm boy who courts Anna ,but particularly memorable is the gossip whose open glee when she learns the truth about Anna is chilling (here as in "Intolerance" Griffith recognizes that the zeal of the righteous often has more to do with the pleasure of crucifying wrongdoers than anything else.)

"Way Down East" bears comparison with Gish's better known films, but avoid the cheap Alpha DVD whose score consists of a few mournful bars of music played over and over.

Of Human Bondage
(1934)

That anemic little witch!
The story is somewhat stilted, what with the main character's sudden reversals of fortune, but Leslie Howard and Bette Davis's portrayals of Philip Carey, the naïve obsessed lover and Mildred Rogers, the unworthy object of his affections, raise this film considerably above standard melodrama.

Sensitive, cultured Philip, who for most of the picture is in bondage to first his infatuation and then his pity for Mildred is not unlike a character Howard was to play a few years later--Ashley Wilkes, the Southern gentleman too refined and decent to make it in the rough Reconstruction era. Philip in fact seems resigned to disappointment even before Mildred enters the picture—he doesn't even seem particularly surprised when his art teacher tells him he'll never make it as a painter. It is perhaps this passivity, these lowered expectations that makes him put up with the selfish Cockney waitress for as long as he does.

Although Leslie Howard is memorable, today "Of Human Bondage" is mainly thought of as a Bette Davis picture, perhaps because of the well known story of how she had to fight Jack Warner to get the part of Mildred, and perhaps too because movie audiences tend to prefer characters with her sort of brash energy. Mildred may have a grating voice, but she also has the ethereal beauty of a stained glass angel, making it somewhat understandable why Philip let himself be strung along for as long as he did. Although man eating Mildred may at times seem one dimensional, she does evoke sympathy in the viewer from time to time as when she becomes ill and belatedly realizes that Philip is the only decent man who ever cared for her. One may also think she is on to something when she accuses Philip of looking down on her for not being "fine" enough. (The scene in which Philip and Norah dismiss romance magazines as trash for kitchen maids seems to confirm this).

Most of the supporting characters are also effective, particularly Norah the sensible romance writer who loves Philip but knows she can never compete with Mildred and Sally who has Mildred's beauty and Norah's decency and emerges as the deserving woman Philip is rewarded with in the end. The only character I found hollow was Sally's eccentric, ale slurping aristocratic father who seems like a stock character from an earlier era.

A classic that deserves it reputation.

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath
(1931)

Buster Keaton and Charlotte Greenwood make it worthwhile
The romantic leads, Jeffrey and Virginia aren't particularly interesting and their story—they can't marry until Virginia's abrasive older sister Angelica finds a mate—may have been too contrived even for Jane Austen (a tiresome subplot involving a pouty young wife who feels neglected by her husband adds to the tedium). But the film picks up considerably when meek Reginald (Buster Keaton) enters the picture and is bullied by Jeffrey into courting Angelica. Some of his slapstick may belong to another decade, as when several characters keep losing their balance on a wet floor in a hotel lobby, but it is well done and really the main point of interest in what would otherwise be a so-so early talkie. The highlight of the slapstick sequences doesn't occur until toward the end of the film, but it is well worth waiting for--the 5'6" Keaton, clad in slipping pajama bottoms is more or less attacked by one statuesque blonde after another who, determined to teach him to be more masterful, fling him about like a rag doll (the funniest of the amazons is the six foot tall Charlotte Greenwood who resembles a blonde Olive Oyl).

It's not "The General," but it's certainly worth a look.

The Extra Girl
(1923)

enjoyable Normand film
An entertaining little comedy starring Mabel Normand, the beautiful funny girl who in her heyday was as famous as Chaplin but who is sadly mostly remembered today as a footnote to the spate of sex and drug scandals that afflicted Hollywood in the early twenties. At nearly thirty she does looks a bit old to be playing an ingénue, but she's nevertheless quite appealing as the scrappy but naïve farm girl Sue with her old fashioned ringlets and homemade dresses who is determined to take Hollywood by storm. She doesn't, and the movie rather than being a rags to riches chronicle you might have been expecting becomes a relatively prosaic account of the fate of thousands of girls who tried to make it in Hollywood, failed but ended up happy enough with ordinary lives as wives and mothers. The movie doesn't dwell too much on its more realistic elements, however, and viewers are most likely to remember those amusing set pieces as when Sue's overbearing father attempts to force her to get out of bed and dress for her wedding or (the highlight of the film) when Mabel, now working as a lackadaisical prop girl, mistakes a lion for a dog dressed up in a shoddy lion's costume and nonchalantly leads it about the set on a leash to the horror of onlookers.

"The Extra Girl" is good introduction to the work of a talented comedienne who deserves to be better know today.

Why Change Your Wife?
(1920)

Never underestimate the power of a dress
Today Cecil B. DeMille is probably best known for the overwrought (if thoroughly enjoyable) biblical epic "The Ten Commandments." But during the silent era he made several sophisticated comedies portraying the battle of the sexes such as "Why Change Your Wife," an engaging mixture of bizarre, over the top glamour (the negligee the husband buys his wife is so elaborately constructed I couldn't blame her for looking dismayed when she first saw it) and dead on day-to-day detail about married life—is there a couple who hasn't gotten in each other's way and on each other's nerves when sharing a bathroom? Gloria Swanson plays Beth Gordon, a young wife who cannot resist the temptation to improve her husband, scorning his fox trot records for something called "The Dying Poet." She loses him to the proverbial shop girl, Sally Clark—hilariously played by Bebe Daniels—a character so vulgar she owns a gyrating Kewpie Doll. (This film's frank endorsement of consumerism has often been remarked on, but it rightly acknowledges that what we chose to buy tells as much about our class and character as anything else). The husband soon realizes that he made a mistake, clearly finding Sally's baby talk even more tiresome than Beth's high minded nagging, but it isn't until Beth transforms herself into a sexy knockout wearing the height of pre-flapper fashion that the two reunite.

The movie isn't entirely cynical about romance—it is never really in doubt that Beth and her husband love each other—but it is shrewd enough to recognize that in holding the attention of your partner a little glamour and sophistication doesn't hurt (the husband isn't let off the hook though, and his naiveté in expecting the honeymoon phase to last forever is mocked in a bathroom scene when Sally repeatedly interrupts his attempts to shave just as Beth did earlier).

A side note: All the leading players are engaging, but the violinist (played by Theodore Kosloff) who seduces women by making love to their souls steals every scene he is in.

To sum up, this worldly comedy challenges the common assumption that silent film is little more than slapstick or melodrama.

Corpse Bride
(2005)

Death Becomes Her
Just your average boy meets girl, boy meets corpse, girl nearly loses boy to corpse story. The story begins in a vaguely Victorian London in which everyone and everything is in muted shades of grey, mauve and blue that suggest, well, a corpse. The wonderful irony underlying this film is that after Victor is spirited away by the vampish corpse bride, the land of dead turns out to be as full blooded and colourful as the land of the living is wan and repressed. The underworld is also the setting of a number of great sight gags that recall Beetlejuice—my favourites are the Napoleonic soldiers with cannon ball sized holes in their torsos (you can see the wine running down after it's been swallowed) and the jittery severed head (French, of course).

Considering how rollicking this underworld is, the ending in which Victor decides to return to the world above is inevitably a bit disappointing. There's a predictable conservatism to so many of these films in which an ordinary hero or heroine is offered a glimpse of some fantastic alternative world only to opt for everyday reality after all (Splash, the mermaid picture from the eighties with Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks, is the only exception I can think of offhand to this general rule). I also found Emily's fate (she metamorphoses into a flock of butterflies) somewhat of a letdown as its sentimentality doesn't really match up with the jazzy black comedy tone of the rest of the film. If Emily was in fact stranded in limbo until Victor came along, the company of her cheerfully decomposing pals made it a jolly sort of limbo—why not let Emily go back there if she couldn't have Victor?

Still, these are relatively minor objections, and on the whole The Corpse Bride is one of the most unexpected, interesting films of 2005.

Logan's Run
(1976)

The Last B Movie?
I know that "Logan's Run" was a major studio product and not technically a B movie at all, but with its pre-Star Wars special effects it inevitably comes across as one to twenty first century viewers. After the wizardry of George Lucas I imagine it is pretty much impossible to get people to pay to see movies like "Logan's Run"—that is, films whose special effects may not be particularly convincing, but whose story is compelling enough to get the viewers involved anyway.

And in fact, the premise of "Logan's Run" was compelling enough for it to become one of the best known science fiction dystopias ever—a world of nonstop pleasure in which, presumably in the interests of population control, everyone dies at thirty. One of this movie's brilliant strokes (or perhaps that of the original book) was to make this grim society a lush matriarchy, rather than a bleak Orwellian patriarchy—the soothing motherly voice of the master computer, the flowerlike uniforms worn by the inhabitants, the circusy spectacle of carousel that disguises execution as a kind of quasi-organic renewal are all enough to almost convince the viewers that these people would allow passively allow themselves to be killed decade after decade. A few "runners" who have their suspicions always try to flee, but they are taken care of by the Sandmen who in their black uniforms are the only ominous element of this society that looks like one giant shopping mall (and was in fact filmed in one).

The film is centred on Logan5—the characters' names oddly anticipated the online names of our own time—a Sandman with qualms(well played by Michael York who has the blue eyed, open faced look of a typical sci-fi hero). He is paired up with Jessica6 (Jenny Agutter) who is part of an underground movement to help runners escape and is in turn a typically tomboyish sci-fi heroine. The two end up fleeing the enclosed city for "sanctuary" a supposed safe haven for runners. First, though, they must deal with the sinister android Box (with his campy lines Box is both comic and creepy the way movie robots often are and is one of the highlights of "Logan's Run"). Logan and Jessica finally make it outdoors where instead of sanctuary they discover an elderly man (Peter Ustinov), evidently the last descendant of a community that managed to survive outside. After a relatively peaceful interval Logan and Jessica return to the enclosed city, an ill advised decision that recalls the horror movie cliché of the heroine running back into the haunted house, but they manage to destroy the dystopia and save the others. All ends on a rather sweetly naïve note with the pleasure loving party goers (who lives once included heavy drug use and orgies) clustering around the Peter Ustinov character like expectant children.

The movie has its problems. The shift from the enclosed city to the outdoors is rather jolting with regard to tone—we move from the city's sexy, seventies styles hedonism to a far more innocent B movie landscape (the relationship of the hero and heroine is similarly chaste, non-withstanding the nudity and implied lovemaking). There is also a lot of earnest, clunky dialog between Logan and Jessica as they express surprise at the concepts of aging and marriage. And, of course, like all movies about the future, "Logan's Run" is very much a product of its times. This doesn't merely apply to styles (apparently in the 23rd century everyone wears shags); rather, in our post AIDS, "just say no" era the rampant sex and drug use that characterize life in the city also seem dated.

Nevertheless, on the whole, "Logan's Run" is an enjoyable film if the viewer can get beyond its relatively unsophisticated special effects.

Night of the Living Dead
(1968)

Still disturbing
Nihilistic horror film that both looks back to the horror films of the fifties with their anxieties about radiation (which here have resurrected the dead) but even more strongly anticipates the extreme gore of those of the seventies. The horrors of "Night of the Living Dead" may have lost some of their punch owing to nearly forty years worth of even more gruesome films, but they're still deeply unsettling—for me, one of the creepiest scenes is the one in which the female zombie walks into a tree and starts gnawing on the bark as mechanically and relentlessly as a relentless great white shark chomping on whatever chance refuse comes in its path.

The film also anticipates the essential pessimism of many of the more memorable seventies horror films such as "Last House on the Left" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." In the fifties pictures, whatever havoc might have been caused by the mutant horrors there was always a clear return to normalcy, usually courtesy of a earnest, strong jawed hero. Heroics prove as futile as cowardice in "The Night of the Living Dead"—Ben's attempts to barricade the house are admirable, but in the end, before the onset of hundreds of ghouls prove just as ineffective as the obnoxious Harry said they would. Perhaps the bleakest and most cynical feature of this film is the suggestion at the end that only the actions of a brutal, trigger-happy militia may possibly end the zombie threat.

(As for the slow versus fast moving ghoul debate: I prefer the slow ones—as the sheriff says, they're dead and messed up after all!)

The Bat
(1926)

Character of the Bat steals the film
"The Bat" is often described as one of the first haunted house movies, but it also brings to mind those action films that specialize in droll, stylish villains for whom the art of the crime is just as important as whatever material gains can be had from it. The villain of "The Bat," who chooses to disguise his identity with an elaborate bat costume and takes the time to leave taunting notes to the police and his victims, is akin to those witty nemeses of Superman and James Bond—the sort of highly imaginative evil genius who was spoofed in the Austin Powers series. The best sequence occurs at the beginning of the film when the Bat steals some priceless emeralds after telling the police exactly when and where he will strike —swiping them almost literally from under the owner's nose. The rest of the movie features an ensemble cast (an ingénue, a detective, a doctor, a gardener…) gathered at a mansion where 20 000 stolen dollars are hidden and the Bat is due to show up next, all trying to find the money and figure out which one of them is the original thief. The storyline drags now and then, but the antics of the high strung maid and the dry quips of the elderly eccentric millionaires who's forever knitting keep the viewer's attention whenever the pace flags.

Recommended, but avoid the Alpha version which features a monotonous, mournful musical score (that I'm certain was also used with their version of "Way Down East") that is completely at odds with the film's humorous tone.

The Last House on the Left
(1972)

Those kooky killers!
The first and hopefully last film to combine graphic torture, slapstick and kazoo music. If the characters and situation had been just a little more over the top (and the rape and torture sequences less prolonged), the film might have worked as a sick John Waters-type comedy; if the heavy handed attempts at humour had been dropped it could have been a very effective slasher film. What we have, however, is an incongruous mixture of jokes and brutality. Some of the cruelest moments are accompanied by bouncy country tunes; when the police frantically try to flag down a car so they can save the kidnapped girls they are first refused assistance by a car full of hippies who give them the finger and later by a folksy chicken farmer who is casually amused by their pleading (was the counter-culture audience meant to find all this pig baiting hilarious?)

And yet, the film has its moments. The matter of fact way in which the girls are humiliated gets under your skin and stays there. Wes Craven also manages to give his bumbling, loser psychos some degree of humanity. And the final thirty kazoo-less minutes in which the parents of one of the murdered girls turn on the killers are genuinely suspenseful and disturbing.

A black comedy that doesn't really work, albeit one of some interest.

Cobra
(1925)

Valentino compels in an otherwise disappointing film
In "Cobra," Rudolph Valentino once again plays a lady killer, but one who is miles away from the nostril flaring bodice ripper of "The Sheik." Rodrigo Torriani, a suave Italian nobleman dressed in the latest fashions, is a far cooler sort of Casanova, one who seems more amused than stimulated by his seductions. Valentino, although often accused of overacting, modulates his delivery to suit this more detached character and for the most part plays Rodrigo is a subtle, understated manner. The film openly very strongly, with Rodrigo deftly outmaneuvering the enraged father of his latest conquest and an entertaining flashback to Rodrigo's womanizing Renaissance fore-bearer, also played by Valentino (even though the film is set in modern times, it looks like the screenwriters couldn't resist putting Valentino in a costume). The title refers to the femme fatale lead, but Rodrigo is the true cobra of this film.

Unfortunately, the film falters once Rodrigo is convinced by a rich American tourist, Jack Dorning, to come work for him as an antique dealer. Aside from an amusing bit in which a screeching floozy tries to blackmail Rodrigo, most of the middle part of the film is taken up with a meant to be torrid, but unconvincing affair between Rodrigo and Elise Van Zile, played by Nita Naldi. Valentino's scenes with Naldi in "Blood and Sand" had real heat, but Naldi seems a tad matronly here, and even more seriously there is not enough interaction between Rodrigo and Elise to convince us that they find each other irresistible. When Rodrigo meets Elise for the first time (who seems more shy than seductive), he almost immediately passes her off to Jack even though he is supposedly smitten with her (as suggested by an unintentionally funny bit in an which an Art Nouveau knickknack portraying a snake suddenly morphs into Elise). The next thing we know, Jack and Elise are a married couple. However, we are meant to believe that all along there has been a smoldering attraction between Rodrigo and Elise, until finally Elise cannot stand it any longer and pleads with him to make love to her. Because we really haven't been prepared for this moment Elise simply comes across as a stalker for much of this scene.

Another problem (perhaps more so for modern audiences) is Rodrigo's noble sacrifice of yet another woman to his good pal Jack, in this case his pretty but bland secretary, out of guilt for his supposed role in the death of Elise. This well meaning gesture, typical of silent films, doesn't bear much scrutiny. It doesn't take the woman's feelings into consideration at all (she loves Rodrigo, not Jack) and is at heart condescending--is Jack so incapable of finding his own women? Plus, one might cynically ask, hasn't Rodrigo learned from recent experience that such forced, one-sided relationships tend to end badly? Valentino does do a good job emoting the pain his sacrifice is causing him, though.

A good role for Valentino, but otherwise a disappointing movie.

Kinsey
(2004)

Even gall wasps do it
The subject matter is bold; the pleas for openness instead of censorship are commendable. However, it is disappointing that much of "Kinsey" argues its points via the very predictable route of pandering to the audience's sense of superiority--in this case by inviting it to laugh at and condescend to the past. The film opens with a preacher in the early years of the twentieth century ranting about corrupting modern influences such as the radio and the telephone (how quaint!); later, Kinsey's opponents gasp and shake their wobbling jowls at Kinsey's preposterous notions about masturbation, premarital sex and homosexuality (and as in most movies of this sort the conservative opposition consists almost entirely of older white men; the older women, like cast members of "The Golden Girls," are more likely to twinkle about how frequently they make love).

Still, on the whole this is an engaging portrait of Alfred Kinsey, the first scientist to study human sexuality in a systematic, data based manner, mainly due to the very likable performance of Liam Neesom as the earnest, nebbishy Kinsey (although Laura Linney, drabbed down almost to unrecognizability, contributes a lot as Mac, his incredibly patient wife). Even though the film uses the sassy tagline "let's talk about sex" and contains plenty of explicit scenes, it is not particularly erotic. This is probably because despite clearly having a very satisfying marital relationship with Mac (and at least one liaison with his attractive male assistant) Kinsey is presented first and foremost a scientist who sees his human subjects as a sort of giant species of gall wasp--he seems so dedicated to his studies that I think it's safe to take his word for it when he claims to have pierced his foreskin merely because as a researcher he was interested in whether it would create any pleasurable sensations.

Definitely worth a look.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
(1975)

An Absolute Pleasure
If you're able to give yourself over to the schlocky pleasures of old sci fi and horror pictures, you'll probably love "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," a tongue-in-cheek, cross-dressing valentine to the type of features once shown on the late show or at drive-ins (and what better way to send up the camp of B-movies than through the camp of drag?) While seeing this movie in a theatre with a participating audience is a lot of fun, I disagree that this is the only way to really enjoy it: in fact you'd be well advised to watch it at home first, because otherwise you'll find it hard to follow the story with a noisy audience throwing rice and toast at the screen. Even without such distractions, the plot can be a bit hard to follow at times, what with the (wonderful) distractions of songs such as "The Time Warp" and "Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?" but in a nutshell it involves a sweet but uptight young couple who learn to loosen up one rainy night when they end up at the castle of a Transylvanian, transvestite scientist and his kinky entourage of servants, old and new lovers and hangers-on. To say as others have suggested that the film is a celebration of bisexuality seems accurate enough, but it also makes the film seem more earnest than it is—besides, half of the happily bisexual cast ends up dead! If I had to chose stand-out moments, besides the aforementioned songs I'd pick Frankenfurter's near simultaneous seductions of Brad and Janet, Dr. Scott's first enraptured gaze at his fishnet stocking-clad leg, and Richard O'Brien's sly, sexy turn as the butler Riff Raff (perhaps because everyone else is so over the top, the scenes in which he subtly flirts with his lover--and sister--Magenta are among the most genuinely erotic in the film).

A must-see for anyone who likes offbeat films.

The Lost World
(1925)

The Original Creature Feature
Before King Kong scaled the Empire State Building, Godzilla stalked the streets of Tokyo and Spielberg's T-Rex gobbled up that lawyer, a brontosaurus in "The Lost World" swam down the Thames river. As well as containing the prototypes of the over-sized beasties that would come to populate other movies of this sort, "The Lost World" features other characters typical of this genre, including a scientist committed to the point of madness in his quest for some mysterious creature, a reporter or writer who tags along out of curiosity and a plucky young woman (often searching for a father who went missing on a similar excursion). Of course the human beings in such movies are usually of secondary interest (with the exception of the great Fay Wray), so the real question here is, how well do "The Lost World"'s dinosaurs and the twenties stop motion special effects hold up? The answer is, surprisingly well. Perhaps the animals would have looked fake in Technicolor, but they are quite impressive in black and white, especially the predatory allosauruses (although they are rather cute in close up when they fastidiously lick their digits after a particularly juicy chunk of flesh or snarl like Elvis Presley.)

The only complaint I had about this movie was the abrupt jumping from one plot point to another—the young male and female leads who seem barely acquainted are all of a sudden engaged by the middle of the movie. After reading other comments, however, I realized that these problems were probably due to my viewing a shortened version, 63 minute version of this film. If possible, try to find the full 93 minute version.

College
(1927)

Enjoyable Keaton film
In "College" Buster Keaton has the sort of role that Woody Allen played 50 years later—a nebbishy intellectual whose pluck and decency eventually wins over the beautiful leading lady. Keaton's famous stone-faced demeanor is particularly well suited to the self serious Ronald who at his high school graduation makes an ill advised speech about how athletics are a waste of time. Naturally, he is then compelled to spend the rest of the film trying to become accomplished at various sports, from baseball to jumping hurtles (interspersed with occasional, equally awkward attempts at restaurant work). The various sports training sessions seem episodic at first but all come together very nicely at the end when Keaton is called upon to save the female lead from her lecherous dumb jock of a boyfriend.

On a side note—although students in college movies of the 1920's are far better dressed than their modern counterparts, they seem to spend just as little time in the classroom.

The Conquering Power
(1921)

Effective, if unfaithful, adaptation of Balzac's novel
Even though Rudolph Valentino is billed as the lead (in the version I saw, anyway) he is not on screen all that much and is more of a supporting character. It is really the story of Pere Grandet (well played by Ralph Lewis) and how his life has been, figuratively and literally, crushed by gold (the final scenes in which he is trapped in his cellar with the ghosts of people his greed has destroyed and is taunted by a snake-armed, leering golden demon are very disturbing). Still, even though his role was comparatively small, Valentino makes a strong impression as Charles Grandet, the spoilt son of a rich man whose essential decency, like that of Julio Desnoyer, is brought out by adversity and the love of a good woman . At the beginning of the movie he is hosting a wild birthday party for himself, but twenty minutes into the picture his father has committed suicide and Charles has become dependent on his wealthy but miserly uncle, Pere Grandet . At his uncle's home he meets and falls in love with his beautiful country mouse of a cousin, Eugenie, played by Alice Terry whose ethereal blondeness contrasts well with Valentino's dark good looks and who with the possible exception of Vilma Banky was his most memorable leading lady.

Objections have been sometimes raised to the liberties the screenwriter, June Mathis, took with Balzac's novel. A title card at the beginning of the picture tells the audience that "commercialization" has told the producers that it dislike costume pictures; evidently commercialism also told them that audiences don't like unhappy endings or unlikable leads, hence the sentimentalizing of the original story in which Charles Grandet and Eugenie are happily reunited at the end of the film. In the novel, Charles wastes Eugenie's gold and quickly forgets about her (making her gift seem more rash than romantic), and the conquering power does indeed turn out to be greed, not love as the movie would have it. If one is able to accept the movie on its own term (which of course can be difficult if you're familiar with the original source), Mathis's changes work well enough, however. Other complaints about the movie have involved the disorienting change of setting from Paris to the countryside--in the Paris scenes the people are dressed in modern (1920's) fashions, but the clothing and lifestyles of the country people has a very nineteenth century look to them. It is conceivable, however, that in the days before modern media had permeated everywhere fashions in isolated villages would change more slowly.

On the whole, this is one Valentino's stronger movies—it was a shame that irreconcilable professional and personal differences between Rex Ingram and Valentino led to the latter's departure from Metro shortly afterwards as there he was being offered the sort of quality scripts he would spent the rest of his short career trying to find.

Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told
(1967)

It's mad all right
The film opens with one of the most horrific murders ever shown on film; the rest of the movie is never again quite this frightening or startling, but is enjoyable nonetheless as a horror-comedy of the same ilk as "House on Haunted Hill" or "Bucket of Blood." The story concerns a family of inbred Southern degenerates who were once proud and powerful but whom years of inbreeding have reduced not only to childlike idiocy but savagery; some distant relatives out for money decide to meddle with dire, predictable results. The movie, complete with a loyal retainer, cute but deadly kids, and some even deadlier aunties and uncles kept tucked away in the cellar is essentially an extended version of an Addams family episode (the drawn out dinner scene is a bit too sitcomish). However, there are enough funny-scary moments to keep things moving along: the more memorable of these being when bitchy ice queen Emily succumbs to brother Ralph's caveman charms and when sister Virginia, the spider baby of the title, gives her long dead father a good night kiss—a scene with a weirdly poetic quality like something out of Poe. Perhaps the best part of the movie is Lon Chaney Jr. in his touching portrayal of Bruno, the kindly chauffeur who is genuinely devoted to his savage and hopeless surrogate family.

A cult film that deserves its status.

A Bucket of Blood
(1959)

When Beatniks Go Bad
Very funny B movie by Roger Corman about a hapless busboy who works in a fifties coffee shop and wants more than anything to be accepted by the beatnik in-crowd. He is prevented from doing so, however, by his complete lack of artistic talent (not that most of the regulars are particularly gifted either). After accidentally killing his landlady's cat (rigor mortis setting in immediately, apparently), he decides the best way to cover up his crime is to cover the critter with clay and pass it off as avant-garde art. His hep cat customers are blown away; Walter is delighted to be accepted at last; only to hold their interest he has to keep making sculptures…

The film is not particularly scary (and probably wasn't meant to be), but it works very well as a horror spoof and amusing, if occasionally heavy handed, satire on beatnik culture and the modern art scene (although considering that today rotten meat and crucifixes immersed in urine are taken seriously as art it's as though reality has caught up with and outdone satire). The bearded poet Maxwell who writes of cotton gongs and the sour cream of circumstance is, as others have commented, a dead-on parody of the type of writer who to this day can be found at café readings. (He is strangely likable, though, maybe because he is so genuinely enthusiastic about his pretentious poetry). And for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, I thought the final scene where Maxwell leads a bunch of other earnest beatniks in a chase after a now completely crazed Walter one of the funniest episodes I've ever seen in a movie.

If you've never seen a Corman film before, this is a good place to start.

The Married Virgin
(1918)

interesting supporting characters
A typical pre-twenties silent melodrama centered around a main character who must sacrifice her own happiness for Duty. Here we have Mary (Vera Sisson), an ingénue who, to save her father from disgrace, gives up the man she loves to marry a blackmailing gigolo, Count Roberto (Rudolph Valentino, playing a more developed version of the "cabaret parasite" from "The Eyes of Youth"). As often happens with this sort of movie, the wicked supporting characters of the gigolo and the sly, sexy stepmother (Kathleen Kirkham)—with whom he is in cahoots and having an affair—are far more interesting than the virtuous leads. Perhaps Lillian Gish could have made prissy Mary's dilemma affecting , but as played by Sisson she comes off as a gormless twit who cannot even wade into ankle deep seawater to retrieve a rambunctious toddler. As the teaser title implies, the marriage between the gigolo and the prig stays unconsummated, everything leading up to the moment when a frustrated Roberto breaks down Mary's bedroom door (surely what the original audience went in hopes of seeing rather than Mary's noble sacrifices). She doesn't seem worth the effort, but this scene is excitingly filmed and is an interesting precursor to a similar event in "The Son of the Sheik."

Valentino and Kirhham make this film worthwhile (there's a real spark between them), but try to find the restored DVD version, rather than sloppily made video production.

The Terror
(1963)

Disappointing Corman film
A viewer unfamiliar with Roger Corman would be justified after watching "The Terror" in concluding that he is the most overrated director ever. The listless story involves Jack Nicholson playing a Napoleonic officer following around a mysterious young woman until he reaches a mysterious castle. She may or may be the ghost of Baron Von Leppe's murdered wife , but the pace is so slow and most of the actors so apparently uninvolved that it's hard to for the viewers to work up any interest. Boris Karloff isn't bad as the debonair baron (although his purple smoking jacket makes him seem like he's living in 1906, not 1806), but Nicholson's delivery of his lines is so wooden it sounds as though he's reading them for the first time--which could very well have been the case if this movie, as legend has it, was made in a few days while the sets from Corman's previous movie "The Raven were being torn down. (Nicholson makes a far stronger impression in his brief role as the masochistic dental patient in another Corman film, "The Little Shop of Horrors.")

Unless you're a Corman fan, skip this movie and watch one of his Poe adaptations or black comedies such as "A Bucket of Blood" or "The Little Shop of Horrors" instead.

Moran of the Lady Letty
(1922)

Little known but worthwhile Valentino film
A fast paced seafaring tale featuring Rudolph Valentino as Ramon Laredo, a bored socialite who finds his manhood and a sense of purpose only after being shanghaied. Initially he is such a coddled dude that he drinks something called a "Mild Manhattan", but soon after being forced to serve as a deckhand he transforms into an extremely capable sailor( looking quite contemporary in jeans and a dark pullover) and earns the respect of the rugged crewmen who once dismissed him as a "soft thing." Eventually his path crosses with that of Letty Moran (Dorothy Dalton), a tomboyish captain's daughter. The two actually met briefly before, on land, where she was as almost as contemptuous of the city slicker in his yachting outfit as the crewmen once were. However, although she is initially as tough as Ramon is effete, the situation reverses itself once Ramon rescues her from her father's ship whose hold has caught fire. Although Ramon is impressed by her strength of body and purpose, Letty, in tandem with Ramon's growing masculinity, becomes more and more womanly as the film progresses, allowing herself to be assisted out of boats (perhaps not so much because she's suddenly helpless as that she's glad someone is finally recognizing her as female) and becoming clothes conscious enough to replace her trousers with a dress, albeit a rather plain and no-nonsense one. (In contrast, Ramon indifferently allows his swanky white bell bottoms to become muddier and muddier.) These character changes culminate when Ramon saves Letty from his nemesis Captain Kitchell, played by Walter Long (who costarred in The Sheik and once again plays a character with unsavoury designs on Rudy's woman).

Entertaining, but in retrospect a bit depressing in that the ridicule Ramon undergoes as a ballroom dancing, tea sipping dandy mirrors all too closely the vicious powder puff slurs the real life Valentino tried to refute practically until the end of his short life.

Monsieur Beaucaire
(1924)

Not a classic, but it has its moments
Everyone involved had very high expectations for this film—in particular it was hoped that it would allow Valentino to rise above his pulpy success in melodramas such as The Sheik and be regarded as a serious actor. Sadly, however, today Monsieur Beaucaire is largely remembered as an ill conceived project that helped to ruin Valentino's marriage (he and his wife saw themselves as artistic collaborators, but unfairly or not almost everyone else on the set saw her as a meddling nuisance) and nearly wrecked his career. This is also the role that supposedly confirms Valentino's so-called effeminacy, a charge that seems unjust—many critics seem to overlook, perhaps deliberately, that although Valentino as Chartes does wear a lot of brocade, lace and face paint at times (quite in keeping with the eighteenth century, aristocratic setting), he spends a large portion of the film rejecting this dandified persona—as in "Moran of the Lady Letty" he affirms that he is at his happiest when he has left behind his upper class milieu and is allowed be a regular Joe (a barber in this case). Valentino or the scriptwriter also has enough of a sense of humour to apparently spoof his off screen image as a great lover; as a droll title card points out, one of the advantages of being a common barber is that no one expects you to make love to her. Monsieur Beaucaire in fact allows Valentino many opportunities to display his flair for comedy, particularly in the middle part of the film when he can't wait for his first duel.

That said, it can't be denied that much of the film, particularly the beginning, is slow moving and static: sumptuous costumes and sets seem to have replaced dramatic action (The Sheik may have been inauthentic and schlocky, but at least it moved). I believe the film also suffers from its lack of a strong, or at least charismatic and likable leading lady for Valentino to spar with and court—a serious flaw in a romance. Princess Henriette (Bebe Daniels has been far more appealing elsewhere) and Lady Mary are virtually indistinguishable: spoiled and sullen, they recall the upper class fiancé Valentino was only too happy to be rid of in "Moran of the Lady Letty" far more than the memorable female leads of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," "Blood and Sand," "The Eagle" and the sheik movies.

Not an unmitigated disaster by any means, but Valentino has certainly done better work elsewhere.

Tillie's Punctured Romance
(1914)

uneven but entertaining
A series of amusing scenarios that as a feature film don't quite gel: as others have commented here, seeing the same slapstick gags over and over again can get monotonous. Still, some of the set pieces are quite amusing, the one featuring Marie Dressler (who looks like a cross between Mrs. Potato Head and Fatty Arbuckle in drag here) getting tipsy on a sip of alcohol, the movie within a movie and the spoof of exhibition dancing being among the highlights. Although modern viewers may come to this film expecting it to be a Chaplin feature (who atypically plays a villain), it is in fact very much Marie Dressler's film—most of the film's comedy comes from watching the sometimes aggravating but essentially innocent Tillie flailing about like a giant, goggle eyed baby as she tries to cope with her unscrupulous gigolo lover and life in the big city. The film also does a sly take on that hoary leftover Victorian cliché, the distant wealthy uncle who conveniently dies: here the uncle rather inconveniently comes back to life ("not so darn dead after all" as a title card dryly observes). The film also features Mabel Normand as Chaplins' moll girlfriend (her petite beauty makes her a good foil for Dressler), and the Keystone Cops.

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