Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tales from the Archives: The Movie Church Nov. 1928 Part 2

My finals are finished so its time to get back on track. This week we'll take a look at the films that were shown by this parish on November 11th and November 18th 1928.

The feature length film scheduled for November 11th was The Fortune Hunter (1927) starring Syd Chaplin. I've written about Syd Chaplin before as this Church showed several of his films. Syd was the half-brother of the much more famous Charlie Chaplin. Syd Chaplin is on the right of the above picture, which is a still from The Fortune Hunter. However, this appears to be a lost film. Like many of the films shown by this parish, The Fortune Hunter was a Warner Bros. Vitaphone Production. This means that although it was a silent film, The Fortune Hunter featured a musical score and sound effects on discs that were synched up to the movie. There were often problems with synching Vitaphone discs to film, which was spoofed in Singin' in the Rain (1952).

The next film shown was Raggedy Rose (1926) starring Mabel Normand. This film is 56 minutes long so it's either a long short or a short feature. Mabel Normand (pictured above in the aforementioned film) was a popular silent film actress from 1910 to 1927. Normand was one of the first females in the film industry to also be a screenwriter, director, and producer. Mabel Normand was linked to two scandals: the 1922 murder of film director William Desmond Taylor (which is still unsolved!) and the non-fatal shooting of oil tycoon Courtland S. Dines in 1924. Besides these scandals Normand had tuberculosis in 1923 which also contributed to the decline of her career. Raggedy Rose was one of five films Normand made in 1926 and 1927 as part of her comeback attempt. Sadly Normand's health never fully recovered and she died in 1930 at the age of 37. The character Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard (1950) is named after Mabel Normand and William Desmond Taylor. Raggedy Rose still survives and has been released on DVD. According to IMDB, actor Oliver Hardy was originally part of the cast for this film but had to leave the production after badly injuring and burning himself in a kitchen accident. The films screenplay was co-written by Stan Laurel so its interesting to note the involvement of one half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo with Raggedy Rose.
The second short for this week was Fun Afoot (1928) which was a Sport Pictorials production. Between 1921 and 1929 the company made over 200 short documentaries on various sports subjects. Judging from the title I am guessing this one was about soccer or football.

The first feature film shown on November 18th was One-Round Hogan (1927), a movie about boxing. Like The Fortune Hunter, this film was also a Warner Bros. Vitaphone production. The film starred Monte Blue (who I discussed in an earlier Tales from the Archives post) as well as actress Leila Hyams who is pictured above. Hyams was quite popular in the late silent and pre-code era. Her most famous films are The Big House (1930), Island of Lost Souls (1932), and Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). It seems that One-Round Hogan no longer survives.

The second film of the double feature was A Harp in Hock (1927). I could not find out much about this movie so I assume that it no longer exists. The film starred stage and film actor Rudolph Schildkraut who I discussed in an earlier Tales from the Archives post. A Harp in Hock featured actresses Bessie Love and May Robson who would both later receive Oscar nominations. Love acted in films from 1915 until 1983! Robson on the other hand was a stage actress who made the shift from stage acting to film. Robson acted until her death in 1942 at the age of 84. Robson is the third oldest actress  to receive an Oscar nomination for a leading role behind Edith Evans and Jessica Tandy (who won the award).

The short for this week was Happy Days (1926). Happy Days was part of the Winnie Winkle shorts series which was basically an Our Gang knock-off. You can probably see what I mean from the above picture. Luckily this short still survives and was restored, copyrighted, and distributed by Kino International Corporation in 2007.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tales from the Archives: The Movie Church Nov. 1928

Today's Tales from the Archives post will be shorter than usual since I just finished my final exams and didn't have much time to do research. This week we will look at the one feature and two short films shown on November 4th 1928.

The Leopard Lady (1928) appears to be a lost film. The movie was directed by Rupert Julian and starred Jacqueline Logan and Alan Hale, Sr. who is pictured above. I discussed actress Jacqueline Logan in my very first Tales from the Archives post.
Alan Hale, Sr. acted in films from 1911 until his death in 1950 at the age of 57. Hale appeared in classic films of both the silent and talkie eras such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and It Happened One Night (1934). Hale's most popular role was that of Little John, which he played in both Robin Hood (1922) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Of course Hale is best known today for being the father of Alan Hale, Jr. the actor who played the Skipper on Gilligan's Island!
Below is a comparison of father (left) and son (right).

Tired Business Men (1927) was an Our Gang comedy short while Coast to Coast (1928) was an Aesop's Fables cartoon short. As you may recall from my earlier posts, this Church showed many shorts from both of these series. Below is a picture from Tired Business Men.

There won't be a weekly wrap-up this Sunday. Next Thursday will be the next installment of Tales from the Archives.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Weekly Wrap-Up (12/4)

I have my final exams coming up this week so I'll keep this post a bit shorter than usual. This week I saw seven movies. One is a true classic, one is a true stinker and the rest are somewhere in between!

The Maltese Falcon
Somehow I had never seen this film before even though I love Casablanca which also has Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. Like in that film, the supporting cast here is fantastic and just as great as the leading actors. The story is good but it is the characters, dialogue, and acting that make this film great. The Maltese Falcon is important to film history, but it still holds up extremely well. The movie is always entertaining and it is easy to see why this film has made its mark on popular culture. The Maltese Falcon truly is the stuff dreams are made of!

Three Amigos!
Last week I saw The Blues Brothers so here is another John Landis comedy. I actually liked this one a bit better and at the moment it is my favorite Landis comedy. The basic plot of actors being confused for the people they portray has been done before and since. For similar movies I still prefer Galaxy Quest but liked this one more than Tropic Thunder. Although the movie meanders at points (the singing cowboy parody parts for instance, especially since these are silent film actors and that fad happened later) it is consistently funny and there are few movies that have made me laugh as much as this one did.

Coming to America
Since I have liked pretty much every John Landis movie I have seen so far (Into the Night was mediocre and its hard to judge his work on Twilight Zone: The Movie because of the infamous helicopter accident and the fact that its an anthology film) I plan on eventually seeing all his 70s and 80s movies. It seems that Landis came down with John Carpenter syndrome and couldn't make a good film after the 80s ended.
The plot of Coming to America is that Prince Akeem defies his arranged marriage to find a woman who will arouse his intellect as well as his loins, to paraphrase a line from the movie. Akeem and his servant travel to Queens, NY disguised as poor goat herders to find Akeem's true love. While this basic story has been done many times before, Coming to America puts a new spin on the material and does its own thing. Prince Akeem may be Eddie Murphy's finest film role. Like Landis, Murphy also lost it after the 80s ended. Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, and John Amos steal every scene they are in. There are also early roles from Samuel L. Jackson and Louie Anderson. Murphy and Hall play several roles throughout the movie, including the hilarious barbers. Coming to America is quite funny, but it also has heart and makes you care about the characters.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996)
I just realized that I saw two movies with America in the title this week, I didn't plan on that, I swear!
As a fan of the Beavis and Butthead TV show (and the brand new episodes!) I had been meaning to see this movie for quite some time now. Besides Mike Judge who voices the titular characters (as well as several others), Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Robert Stack, and Cloris Leachman round out the cast. Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is pretty short as it clocks in at 81 minutes and there is some filler.
If you like the show you will enjoy the movie, but Beavis and Butthead still works better in small doses as a TV series. Beavis and Butthead don't get the chance to mock any music videos which make sense for the movie, but was a bit disappointing as it was always a major part of the show. It doesn't matter too much as these two dumb metal heads will always make me laugh.

Pretty in Pink
Although I liked every John Hughes movie I had seen so far, I didn't care for this one. To be fair Pretty in Pink was only written by Hughes and he didn't direct it. However, it is usually considered one of "his" films since he wrote it specifically for Molly Ringwald. I knew this movie probably wouldn't be my cup of tea coming into it, but was surprised that I didn't like any of the characters. Part of this may have been because there was some confusion during production as Robert Downey, Jr. was almost cast as Duckie which would have been pretty different. I won't go into spoilers, but the ending was also changed at the last minute. The plot is your basic poor girl falls in love with rich guy story and doesn't really bring anything new to the table. The movie is competently made and held my interest, but I'd say it is Hughes weakest movie (scripted or directed) that I have seen thus far. Harry Dean Stanton put in a solid performance as Ringwald's jobless single father and I enjoyed James Spader's role as a rich jerk who looks way too old to be in high school.

Identity (2003)
Identity is a creepy atmospheric thriller with some nice acting performances by John Cusack and Ray Liotta. It is hard to discuss this film further without spoilers so I'll just say that I liked the way it progressed even though I wasn't blown away or thought it should not have gone that direction like some people did. I was impressed with the directing by James Mangold who also made Girl, Interrupted, Walk the Line, and 3:10 to Yuma so I'll have to check out some of his other films when I get the chance.

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)
Bad movies come in all forms and genres. This piece of crap is a terrible Christmas movie and a bad kids movie. Bad children's films often get a pass as people say "but it was only made for kids!" as some sort of excuse for a bad movie that is usually incredibly dumbed down. I have seen some awful Christmas movies before like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Santa Claus (1959) but this one takes the cake.
This excuse for a movie starts out with Santa's elves then switches to Santa on his sleigh stuck in the sand at the beach. There is no explanation given for what happened to his reindeer or how the sleigh got stuck there. A bunch of children find out about this (I don't know how) and bring different kinds of animals, including a guy in a gorilla suit, to pull the sleigh but nothing works. Somehow Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn observe all that goes on with Santa and the children even though they are fictional characters and the movie takes place in the present day real world. Since the kids can't get the sleigh out of the sand, Santa tells the children a story. This is when the movie suddenly turns into another movie about Thumbelina from the same production company. We even see the opening credits for that movie as Santa begins to "tell" the story! And the worst part is that the Thumbelina movie has its own framing story since its being told at an amusement park called Pirates World.
So to summarize, what essentially happens is that Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn eavesdrop on Santa telling kids a story about some people going to an amusement park who go into a room and hear a story about Thumbelina on a loudspeaker. Yes folks, that is how bad this movie is. The Thumbelina story is just as bad as the Santa story, except much creepier thanks to the animal costumes which are pure nightmare fuel. After the Thumbelina story ends, a bunny driving an old fashioned fire engine comes by and Santa hitches a ride with the bunny as the kids wave goodbye to him. Santa just leaves his sleigh on the beach and despite the title there is never any connection between this bunny and ice cream. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is one of the worst movies ever made and despite my description I don't think I can do justice as to how bad this garbage really is. I can't believe people actually paid money to see this movie in theaters as it is 96 minutes of hell unleashed upon the Earth. Luckily I saw the RiffTrax version from Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy of MST3K fame which hilariously mocked the movie. Check out a sample here if you think you can stand it!
Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny deserves a 0/10, but I do my scoring system on a 1-10 scale to sync up with my votes on IMDB.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tales from the Archives: The Movie Church Oct. 1928 Part 2

This week's parish monthly calendar is from September 1928 and shows us the films scheduled to be shown in October of that year.

The first film of the October 21st double feature was A Dog of the Regiment (1927). So far this is the third Rin Tin Tin movie shown at the Church. Like many of the other films the parishioners of this Church watched,  A Dog of the Regiment was a Warner Bros Vitaphone production. Sadly it appears that this is a lost film.

The second film of the double feature was The Night Flyer (1928). 
6/1/12 Edit: According to Art Pierce, executive director for the Capitol Theatre in Rome, New York the does indeed exist! A 35mm print of the film will be shown on August 10th 2012 accompanied by live music. More information about the showing can be found here.
The star of this movie was William Boyd, who I've discussed in earlier posts as this Church showed several of his films. His co-star in this movie was Jobyna Ralston, pictured below.

Ralston was a best known for being paired with silent film comedian Harold Lloyd. The duo made several films together, including the classic comedies Girl Shy (1924), The Freshman (1925), and The Kid Brother (1927). Ralston was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1923, which was an award given to the best young actresses of the year by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers from 1922 - 1934.  Ralston also had a supporting role in Wings (1927), the first movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Ralston married her Wings co-star actor Richard Arlen in 1927. In 1931 Ralston became a mother and decided to quit acting. Ralston did a couple of talkies before she ended her career, one of which was a Rin Tin Tin movie.

The full title of this week's short is Hunting for Germans in Berlin with Will Rogers (1927). Will Rogers was one of the most famous people of the 1920s and 30s. Rogers acted in films, vaudeville, and radio and also wrote a newspaper column. His popularity skyrocketed thanks to his cowboy image and humorous social commentary. Sadly Rogers died in a plane crash at the age of 55 in 1935.

On October 28th one feature was screened with two shorts. The full length film was Ham and Eggs at the Front (1927) starring Myrna Loy in an early role. Loy started her career in the silent film era but become famous in the 1930s. Loy's best known role is that of Nora Charles, one half of a husband and wife crime-solving team alongside actor William Powell, in The Thin Man film series. Loy regretted her role in Ham and Eggs at the Front because she put on blackface to play a black barmaid who was also a German spy. This movie was clearly a product of its time as "Ham" and "Eggs" were also black characters played by white actors. Loy referred to the film as a "tasteless slapstick comedy." We'll probably never know how tasteless it was since this appears to be a lost film.

The first of the two shorts this week was War Feathers (1926), a Hal Roach Our Gang comedy. War Feathers features the Our Gang kids playing Cowboys and Indians. The short still survives today.
The second short was A Jungle Triangle (1928) from the animated Aesop's Fables series. This Church must have really like the Aesop's Fables cartoons as they showed them quite often.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Weekly Wrap-Up (11/27)

I saw five films this week, the first two of which are on Roger Ebert's Great Movies List.

Groundhog Day (1993)
I had seen part of this film before on TV awhile ago but finally got around to seeing the entire movie.
Bill Murray is great as always as the egotistic weatherman Phil, who is inexplicably forced to relieve the same day over and over again. Andie MacDowell puts in a nice performance as the news show's producer, Rita. MacDowell used her actual Southern accent which was a great creative choice as it adds to her character as a down to earth and genuine person.
Although there is no explanation for why Phil has to live each day over again, I think the mystery works and wouldn't change it. Apparently early versions of the script included an answer (an ex-lover cursed him to teach him a lesson) but its unnecessary and would have been a time waster. The setting of Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is just an unique as the premise and I really have to hand it to the creative team for doing something different that at the same time isn't completely unconventional.
Director Harold Ramis has worked with Bill Murray before as an actor in Stripes and Ghostbusters and also directed him in Caddyshack. Ramis would later direct the fantasy-comedy Multiplicity which featured MacDowell as the female lead opposite Michael Keaton.
Groundhog Day felt sort of like a twisted version of It's a Wonderful Life, as it is certainly Capraesque while at the same time has modern day sensibilities. The film is truly cinematic with its cuts of the repeating day, which could not have been done as a book or play. The film's tone is perfect as it is funny but never silly, and has drama but is never too dark or serious. Groundhog Day has more substance than most comedies and at the same time is incredibly entertaining which is quite an accomplishment.

The Silence of the Lambs
Anthony Hopkins' role as Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter has been so firmly entrenched and parodied in popular culture that most people who haven't seen the film are familiar with the character. While I was worried that this would cause me to enjoy the film less, I was mistaken as his character and the movie itself still packed a hell of a punch. Hopkins was fantastic and certainly deserved his Oscar. Besides Hopkins the acting was strong by all the actors, including Jodie Foster who won an Oscar for her performance as the young FBI officer in training, Clarice Starling. The Silence of the Lambs also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), and Best adapted Screenplay.
The movie is based on Thomas Harris' book series. I haven't read the books so I don't know how it works as an adaptation. I know there are other films in the series which I might see eventually but what makes Lector's character work is the mystery around him and too much screen time (Hopkins is only in the film for just over 16 minutes!) would certainly hurt that.
Although Ted Levine doesn't have too much screen time, his creepy performance as Buffalo Bill is the cherry on top of an incredible film. The Silence of the Lambs is unsettling and disturbing which makes for an unforgettable movie that certainly deserves the praise it has received over the years.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
This was the first, and arguably best, movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi play Elwood and Jake Blues, two brothers who try to raise $5,000 to save the orphanage they were raised in from being closed by getting their band back together.
Chase scenes have been a staple of comedy films since the silent era. The Blues Brothers keeps this tradition alive with some great car chases: one inside(!) a mall and one all over the city of Chicago with Aykroyd and Belushi being pursued by both the police and Neo-Nazis!
It was nice to see Carrie Fisher in a movie that wasn't a Star Wars film, and she has a great role as a mysterious woman trying to kill the Blues Brothers. John Candy (who steals every scene he is in) and Paul Reubens have early roles. There are also appearances by many musicians such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Also, director Steven Spielberg makes an unexpected cameo!
It is usually a bad sign when a comedy is over two hours long, but it makes sense in this case since The Blues Brothers is also a musical.
I had a lot of fun with this movie and it was better than I has expected. I prefer it to Belushi's earlier film Animal House (also directed by John Landis), although I like both comedies.
"We're on a mission from God"

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
I am a big John Carpenter fan and finally got around to seeing this movie in my quest to watch all of his films. Like several other of Carpenter's movies, this one didn't do well critically or commercially upon its original release but has since gained a cult following.
In the Mouth of Madness is about an insurance investigator (Sam Neill) who looks into the disappearance of a horror novelist whose works are supposedly driving his readers insane. This meta concept is given a  Lovecraftian spin to make for an interesting and unique tale. The acting is a weak at times as Sam Neill goes in and out of his accent and Julie Carmen's performance leaves much to be desired. Charlton Heston and Jurgen Prochnow are good, but could have had more screen time.
While I haven't seen all of Carpenter's films yet, In the Mouth of Madness is his best post-1980s movie. It is not one of Carpenter's best films, and not as fun as other cult classics like Big Trouble in Little China or They Live (which makes sense because it is a horror flick after all), but its still a good film that Carpenter and horror fans should enjoy. I think the reason it didn't do well was because it came out a few months after Wes Craven's New Nightmare, also released by New Line Cinema. Although I haven't seen that film yet, it seems to have a similar concept except with the popular Freddy Krueger character.

Penn & Teller Get Killed
As a fan of Penn & Teller I had been meaning to see this movie for a while. However, the film is pretty obscure and did not get a DVD release until recently. Luckily it can be seen on YouTube in nine parts, which is where I watched it. Although I like Penn & Teller's work (see my last post which talked about the duo) I think they work better live or on TV than in movie form. That said, this is still a good dark comedy. Although the movie is episodic at times, there is a main narrative with plenty of twists and turns. I think all Penn & Teller fans would enjoy this movie as not only do we have a  younger and thinner Penn Jillette, but the usually silent Teller actually speaks! I had seen an interview with Teller talking on YouTube before but it was still strange to see and hear him speak even though his voice is quite normal.
David Patrick Kelly, Sully in Commando, plays the fan who is obsessed with Penn and Teller. Penn & Teller Get Killed was the final feature film directed by Arthur Penn, who also made The Miracle Worker and Bonnie & Clyde.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fall TV Round-Up

I am taking a break from my Tales from the Archives series this week to do a post on new Fall TV shows I have been watching. The weekly wrap-up will be Sunday as usual and Thursday (12/1) will be the next Tales from the Archives post.

South Park

As much as I love South Park I missed a good chunk of the first half of the season. However, I made up for this by watching the all seven episodes of the second half. While the last couple seasons haven't been quite up to par, the show is still very good. I liked every episode I saw but my favorite two from this season were "You're Getting Old" and "The Poor Kid."
South Park has been picked up through season 20, so it will stick around thru 2016!

Penn & Teller Tell a Lie
As a fan of Penn & Teller I was disappointed when their Showtime series got canceled last year. However, I got excited when I heard they were getting a new show on the Discovery Channel. Penn & Teller Tell a Lie is only a six episode series, and I'm not sure if they plan on making anymore. The show has actually already finished its run, in which it aired following new episodes of Mythbusters. The premise of this show is that Penn & Teller host seven outlandish stories, of which one is a fabrication and the rest are true. The viewers must try to guess which segment is a lie before it is revealed at the end. The show is basically a cross between Mythbusters, Ripley's Believe it or Not, and Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction. It is also similar to the show Urban Legends which I discuss later in this post. Penn & Teller Tell a Lie is fun, but it feels drawn out for an hour length show and the basic idea of the show has been done before. If you like Penn & Teller (or those other shows I mentioned) check this out, but if you are new to the magic duo start somewhere else.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold

I started watching Batman: The Brave and the Bold this fall. Unfortunately it was a little late to get into the show as this was its final season. The show was only intended to last three seasons and got canceled to make room for the more serious upcoming show, Beware the Batman.
I really like this Cartoon Network show as it can be hilarious, but at the same time have some great serious episodes like "Chill of the Night." Some people might not like a Batman show with a lighter, tongue-in-cheek tone, but it works as a great nod to the Silver Age comics and the Adam West Batman of the 60s. Each episode features Batman teaming up with other characters from the DC Universe so its more than just Batman. You never know who will make an appearance as some pretty obscure characters have been featured in this series. Any show that makes Aquaman cool is... Outrageous!
The series finale was fantastic. It demolished the fourth wall, made fun of jumping the shark, and even featured Ted McGinley as a guest star! The show had a nice run and this was the perfect way for it to go out in a blaze of glory.

Last Man Standing
I loved Tim Allen on Home Improvement (and in the movie Galaxy Quest) so when I heard he was making a return to TV I had to check it out. So far ABC's Last Man Standing is okay, but has the potential to be better. While Tim Allen is great on this show, his boss and wife are not as interesting or funny as Al or Tim's wife on Home Improvement. We also don't have a breakout character like Wilson. Allen's character is pretty similar to the one he played on his previous show. The formula is also pretty similar, just instead of having three sons, he has three daughters. So far the Halloween episode was my favorite, which incidentally were always great on Home Improvement. I hope the show gets picked up for another season as I think it can improve, but the other characters are going to have to get better if this show wants to last.

Urban Legends
This series is similar to shows like Beyond Belief: Fact of Fiction, Mostly True Stories, and the aforementioned Penn & Teller Tell a Lie. Although Urban Legends is not a great show, its still a fun way to kill half an hour. The format is that three unbelievable stories are shown, and we have to guess which segments are true and which ones are false. This is the third season and new episodes are still airing on the Syfy Channel.

Beavis and Butt-Head

I had seen re-runs of this show and always liked it, especially the segments with the two making fun of music videos. Personally I think that the spin-off show Daria and creator Mike Judge's other show King of the Hill are both better than Beavis and Butt-Head. However, when I heard that MTV was bringing back Judge to make new Beavis and Butt-Head episodes I had to check it out. So far I have been impressed. The animation is cleaner than before (although they use of the old couch footage when Beavis and Butt-Head watch TV for some reason). Beavis and Butt-Head still watch music videos, but also now watch and mock MTV shows like Jersey Shore. The show hasn't missed a beat and it feels like the show never stopped airing. My only complaint is that MTV follows Beavis and Butt-Head with a show called Good Vibes. I only watched the first episode out of morbid curiosity and it is probably the worst TV show I have ever seen. Beavis and Butt-Head deserves to be partnered with a better show. Bring back Daria!

Batman: The Animated Series
Technically Batman: The Animated Series doesn't count since unlike the other shows I have been watching this is not a new series. However, I have been watching the series in order on the Hub TV Channel on a regular basis so I feel it is only fair to include it here. At the moment I have seen all of season 1 and 2, so I only have the third season (15 episodes) left. I remember seeing this show as a kid, but re-watching it I have been blown away with how amazing this series is. It holds up incredibly well and while I haven't quite seen all the episodes yet it is one of the best animated series ever and perhaps the greatest TV or movie version of Batman. I need to buy the DVDs!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Weekly Wrap-Up (11/20)

This week I saw four films. Two of them were fantastic and two were bad. I'm a firm believer that one cannot truly appreciate great cinema without watching terrible movies as well!

Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction is the second Quentin Tarantino movie I've seen. I had watched Reservoir Dogs before and really liked it, so I was looking forward to this film and luckily it did not disappoint. Although Pulp Fiction has been heavily ingrained in popular culture to the extent that I was already familiar with some lines and and scenes, I was completely engrossed and found this to be an amazing film.
The weakest part of the film are the scenes featuring Bruce Willis' character talking to his wife as the movie's pace slows down to a near halt. I understand that the scenes in the hotel room were necessary and the pay-off was certainly worth the slow set-up. Although Tarantino managed to pull off a dialogue heavy movie where even conversations about a five dollar milkshake were fascinating, the chemistry between Butch and Fabienne just wasn't there.
It is hard for me to pick a favorite moment as I loved the entire movie but Christopher Walken's cameo and the scenes with Harvey Kitel were pure gold. Now I need to see more Tarantino movies!

Adaptation. (2002)
I usually don't give a movie a perfect score upon my first viewing but had to make an exception here. Adaptation is proof that films can be incredibly entertaining as well as great works of art with something to say at the same time.
Nicolas Cage was amazing in a dual role as the Kaufman twins, Charlie and Donald. I have only seen a few of his movies but Cage seems to be an actor who is only as good as his director and script. To be fair this is the case for most actors (with guys like Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price being exceptions) but Cage played down to the material in The Wicker Man (2006) so much that I could barely believe this is the same actor. Although I had never heard of Chris Cooper before, he won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as John Laroche.
I though it was pretty clever how Being John Malkovich, made by the same director (Spike Jonze) and writer (Charlie Kaufman), was incorporated into this movie. The reason for this was because Charlie Kaufman not only wrote the script, but is also main character in Adaptation. Spike Jonze has only directed three feature films thus far so once I see Where the Wild Things Are I'll have seen all his movies. Hopefully he will make some more! While Kaufman has written more movies than Jonze, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation the only films he has done that I have seen so far.
While all aspects of this movie were great I was most impressed by the writing. The title itself, "adaptation," has a double meaning as it refers to adapting material to another medium as well as how people adapt to life. In the film, Kaufman is trying to write a screenplay adaption of the book The Orchid Thief and then writes himself into the script. The book is a real book and Kaufman wrote Adaptation under similar circumstances! The movie is incredibly meta and even deconstructs how screenplays are written. Kaufman use of himself as a character in his own movie reminded me of how Philip K. Dick did the same in his VALIS novels, which isn't surprising since Kaufman is a PKD fan.
It is worth noting that although Adaptation is credited as being written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman, in real life Charlie does not have a twin and Donald does not exist. That didn't stop Donald from also being nominated with Charlie for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay!

Cyborg was directed by Albert Pyun, who has made tons of low-budget B-movies and direct-to-video films. Pyun is the guy who directed the 1990 Captain America movie as well as Alien from L.A., which was featured on MST3K.
Cyborg stars Jean-Claude Van Damme in one of his earliest film roles. Van Damme's character, Gibson Rickenbacker, must help a cyborg get to a group of scientists in Atlanta as she is carrying the cure for a deadly virus which has ravaged mankind. However, an evil gang leader kidnaps the cyborg to use the cure for themselves. As you could probably guess, this movie rips off Escape from New York and The Road Warrior on its way to being a generic post-apocalyptic film. The only real difference is that Rickenbacker is a martial artist. But if I wanted to see that I would just watch Bloodsport again. Although this is a bad movie it is still watchable. The fights and special effects (such as explosions and the robotics on the cyborg) were actually pretty good. I was able to see this in High Definition and was amazed with how good it looked, especially considering it was a low-budget movie made over 20 years ago. The outside scenes looked like they could have been filmed today!
What really made this movie bad was the acting and writing. While there isn't too much dialogue the acting is over the top, even for a movie like this. The basic story makes sense but I still don't understand how Rickenbacker and the girl caught up to (and actually got ahead of) the gang. The gang traveled to Atlanta on a boat while Rickenbacker followed them by foot! Rickenbacker's back-story was interesting although derivative, but had jerky editing that made the flashbacks confusing at first.
If you like bad cinema, post-apocalyptic movies, or are a hardcore Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, you will enjoy this. Otherwise just watch Escape from New York and the Mad Max movies instead.

Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe
Jesse "The Body" Ventura is an interesting person. The man was a Navy SEAL, pro wrestler, actor (I enjoyed his role as Blain in Predator), governor of Minnesota, television host, and author. During Ventura's film career he made the mistake of "starring" in this truly terrible film.
Pretty much everything that can go wrong in a movie went wrong in Abraxas. The acting is awful and the dialogue is repetitive and silly. The film's story is incomprehensible, but I'll try to explain it.
An alien cop named Secundus (who has Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent) comes to Earth and rapes a woman with his hand who then gives birth to the child five minutes later. Another alien cop (these cops are called "Finders" although I don't know why) named Abraxas (Jesse Ventura) sends Secundus to space jail. These space cops can live for thousands of years but it is never explained how this is possible (are they androids?) and has no relevance to the plot. Five years later, Secundus somehow escapes to Earth so that the child (called a "comater" though again, never explained why) can give him the "anti-life Equation," a concept stolen from Jack Kirby's comics. Abraxas must stop Secundus with help from his "VD box," a rip-off of Ziggy from Quantum Leap, that is attached to his arm. Confused? Join the club.
The "VD box" is just unfortunately named. You would think that somebody would have realized that when most people hear "VD" they think "venereal disease." In this movie VD is supposed to stand for "vibrational detection," which is almost as bad now that I think about it! At least lines such as "My box has VD, trust me" and "Members of our force were taught to avoid VD" are unintentionally hilarious.
Abraxas features random music that never fits the scene and always feels out of place. The head-scratching camera work, editing, and directing make you wonder if the crew rushed the production or simply showed up on set drunk everyday. This movie is incredibly dark, and I mean that literally. Lighting is almost non-existent except for some outdoor scenes. Usually it is so dark that it is hard to see anything! James Belushi has a cameo as a school principal which he did as a favor for his wife at the time who was in Abraxas as Sonia. Despite Belushi being in this movie there is no intentional humor in this movie at all and the tone is always serious. Many B-movies realize how ridiculous they are and try to have some fun with it but Abraxas takes itself way too seriously. Oh, and while I'm at it, Abraxas liberally rips off The Terminator and shamelessly uses the word "terminate" many times. This movie failed in every way possible.
Luckily I watched the RiffTrax version which features a hilarious commentary by Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Tom Servo of MST3K fame. RiffTrax usually makes fun of recent good movies so its nice to see the RiffTrax crew go back to some classic MST3K material. Although this movie is terrible, I do recommend the RiffTrax for some great laughs. Check out the RiffTrax sample for Abraxas here.
Abraxas is not a well-known bad movie like Plan Nine from Outer Space, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Troll 2, or The Room but it should be up there (or more appropriately "down there") as a craptastic classic of truly awful cinema.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tales from the Archives: The Movie Church Oct. 1928

This week's parish monthly calendar is from September 1928 and shows us the films scheduled to be shown in October of that year.

The first film of the double feature on October 7th was a comedy called The Missing Link (1927). There is a typo in this listing as the film starred Syd Chaplin (not "Chapman"), a half-brother of the much more famous actor Charlie Chaplin. I wrote about Syd Chaplin in an earlier entry as the Church saw another film starring Syd Chaplin called The Better 'Ole (1926). According to IMDB this film had music and sound effects through Vitaphone discs and was the fourth ever feature length Vitaphone production. The Church had shown a couple other Vitaphone films so I am guessing that they did have the capability to make use of the added music and sound effects that went along with these otherwise silent films. It appears that The Missing Link is a lost film.
I could not find any information about the second film, Football Sense. The listing does not explicitly say that this is a double feature so perhaps Football Sense was a short. That said, I have had pretty good luck finding information on shorts so far and still couldn't turn up anything so it looks like this will remain a mystery.

The short A Battling Duet (1928) was a silent cartoon from the Aesop's Fables series. The Church had shown several shorts from this animated series before and they were quite popular in the 1920s. The listing calls it "The Battling Duet" but the correct title is A Battling Duet. This typo is not as big as "Syd Chapman" but whoever wrote this schedule was getting sloppy!

The Yankee Clipper (1927), a high seas adventure about the naval rivalry between America and England in the mid-1800s, was the first film shown on October 14. The Yankee Clipper still exists and has even been released on DVD. The film stars William Boyd who was in several films shown by this Church. Boyd would later become famous for playing the title role in the Hopalong Cassidy film series. The Yankee Clipper was directed by Rupert Julian, who also directed the 1925 Lon Chaney classic, The Phantom of the Opera. The Yankee Clipper was produced by Cecil B. DeMille and featured his mistress, Julia Faye (who I mentioned last week when discussing The Main Event). The female lead in The Yankee Clipper was played by actress Elinor Fair, the real life wife of William Boyd. Boyd proposed to Fair while filming The Volga Boatman in 1926. His character was supposed to propose to Fair's character so Boyd decided to use the moment to actually propose to Elinor! Luckily Fair accepted both in character and for real. Since this was a silent film the scene of Boyd really proposing was kept in the movie! Fair and Boyd are pictured together in the above screenshot from The Yankee Clipper.

Like Football Sense, I was unable to find any information on the second film, "An Oriental Album." I'm guessing it was a short and a travel feature like I assumed with "Holland" from last week.
The Flying Age (1928) was another Aesop's Fables short cartoon.

The weekly wrap-up will be Sunday as usual. On Tuesday 11/22 I will make a special post on Fall TV shows I have been watching. There will not be a Tales from the Archives post next Thursday due to Thanksgiving but it will be back on schedule for Thursday 11/29.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Weekly Wrap-Up (11/13)

Anybody who has read this blog can figure out that I have a pretty eclectic taste in movies. To be fair this is partially due to the fact that many I watch many popular movies I normally wouldn't seek out just to say that I've seen them and keep up with references to them. This week I watched five films and they are all pretty different so I'll just post my thoughts in the order I saw each movie!

The Invisible Man
After watching The Mummy (1932) this summer I wanted to see more Universal horror movies and finally got around to seeing another. The Invisible Man features groundbreaking special effects that hold up shockingly well for a film that is almost 80 years old. Claude Rains plays Griffin, our invisible man. I was impressed with his performance since we get to know this character quite well even though we never really see him. I had seen Rains before in Casablanca as Captain Renault. Griffin's lover Flora is played by Gloria Stuart, who is best known to modern audiences as old Rose in Titanic (1997). Having already seen that movie it was quite fascinating to see her at such a young age! The Invisible Man was directed by James Whale who also directed Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
While the film's pace is a bit slow by today's standards, there is still more going on than in The Mummy (the only other movie of its time and genre I have seen to compare it to). In 2008 The Invisible Man was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

While I was expecting this movie to be cheesy fluff, the tone is actually quite serious. However, the plot of a new guy in town who doesn't fit in and then gets in trouble because of it is pretty derivative. The movie tries to put a new spin on things with the strict local regulations on music and dance but it doesn't really work and still feels like I have seen it a million times before. Footloose is competently made and John Lithgow puts in a solid performance as the town minister, but at the end of the day the movie isn't anything special.
I knew that Lithgow and Kevin Bacon were in this movie but I was surprised to see Chris Penn and Sarah Jessica Parker in early roles. Ariel, the love interest of Kevin Bacon's character, was played by Lori Singer who is also a dancer in real life. I enjoyed the 80s soundtrack but think that this movie could have been better if it was a straight up musical instead of just featuring several montage scenes. Maybe the remake which came out earlier this year went in that direction? I don't know and frankly have no desire to see it.

I Eat Your Skin aka Voodoo Blood Bath aka Zombies (1964)
Despite the outrageous title there is no actually flesh eating in this movie. What a rip-off! This movie did not get released until six years after it was produced and was re-titled so it could be shown as a double feature with the unrelated film I Drink Your Blood. I had extremely low expectations coming into this movie and was actually pleasantly surprised. Now don't get me wrong, this is certainly an awful film, but its watchable and entertaining enough for a shlocky low budget flick. While watching this with some friends I remarked that it feels like a movie the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have featured. It turns out that I was pretty close since MST3K did riff the movie The Horror of Party Beach which was also directed by Del Tenney! This movie would have made great material for Joel/Mike and the bots to make fun. However, even if the MST3K crew were aware of this movie I bet they passed on it due to the unfortunate stereotypical portrayal of the island natives. If you like bad, campy old movies check this one out. Just be aware that it is a product of its time and doesn't feature zombies chomping on people.

Black Dynamite (2009)
While there are some great spoof movies out there (any Mel Brooks movie, Airplane) recently most of them have been historically bad (Date Movie, Epic Movie). The trailer for Black Dynamite is hilarious so I had to give it a shot. I am proud to say that Black Dynamite is up there as one of the best spoof movies of all time! This film parodies 1970s Blaxploitation films, and does it so well that it is arguably still part of the genre. While I haven't seen many Blaxploitation movies, that is not a requirement as long as one has a general familiarity of the genre and low budget flicks. Many of the jokes are intentional goofs. Some of these are humorously obvious while others are subtle but just as funny. The film stars Michael Jai White as the title character and he was also one of the screenwriters. Clearly White and those involved with making this movie love Blaxploitation (and B-movies in general) as Black Dynamite is as much a spoof as it is a loving homage. Although this movie is a silly comedy, it was painstakingly made to look, feel, and sound like it came straight of the 1970s and would probably fool people not in on the joke. If you have a sense of humor please do yourself a favor and watch this movie now! There is an animated Black Dynamite TV series featuring most of the film's cast in the works set to air in the summer of 2012 on Adult Swim. DYNOMITE! DYNOMITE!

Police Academy (1984)
Comedy is the most subjective genre of any medium, and film is certainly not an exception. I found this movie to be quite funny and wonder if its reputation has been tarnished a bit by the fact that there are seven movies in the series, with most of them said to be terrible. The plot is a mix of Stripes and Revenge of the Nerds but the reason the movie works is because the characters are fun to watch and we want them to succeed. Police Academy was Steve Guttenberg's breakthrough role and while I haven't seen him in too many movies, its ashame his career took a nosedive in the 90s. Shia LaBeouf reminds me of Guttenberg, but he is far more annoying and much less likeable than the Gutt! Former NFL player (a lot of football players became actors in the 1970s and 80s for some reason) Bubba Smith shines as Moses Hightower, while veteran actor George Gaynes plays the Commandant. The talented Michael Winslow essentially plays himself since his character Larvelle Jones can use only his mouth to create amazing sound effects with hilarious results. As much as I liked this movie I think I'll pass on the sequels.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tales from the Archives: The Movie Church Sept. 1928 Part 2

This parish monthly calendar dates from September 1928. The listing also includes movies to be shown in October which I will get to in next week's installment of Tales from the Archives: The Movie Church.

The listing for September 23rd was also in the parish monthly calendar for August and I covered it in my last Tales from the Archives post. This time the title of the comedy is shown in the schedule, but I couldn't find any information on a short called Holland, which I'm guessing was a travel feature.

The first movie of the September 30th double feature was called The Sailor's Sweetheart, but I failed to turn up anything about this film either. The second film this week was The Main Event (1927) which was a DeMille Pictures Corporation production. This movie starred Vera Reynolds who was in a couple of other movies shown by this Church: Steel Preferred (1925) and Silence (1926). Reynolds frequently worked with famous director Cecil B. DeMille. In 1927 Reynolds was involved in a controversial incident when police discovered her unconscious on the floor of her home. At first it was believed she was poisoned but the doctor was unable to find any trace of poison in her body. Reynolds survived and denied she had tried to kill herself and it is assumed she became ill from acute indigestion or food poisoning. Her career continued into the early 1930s and she died in 1962. Vera Reynolds is pictured below on the right.

Actress Julia Faye was also in the film and is on the left in the above picture. Faye was in more films directed by Cecil B. DeMille than any other actress, including all of his films from 1939 on. Faye was DeMille's mistress and he kept her employed with roles in his films even after their relationship was over. Faye has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The Main Event also features famous stage and film actor Rudolph Schildkraut (1862 - 1930). Schildkraut acted in the theater and motion pictures in Germany until moving to America in 1920. Schildkraut's best known film appearance was as the high priest Caiaphas in Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927). His son, Joseph Schildkraut, also became an actor and appeared with his father in The King of Kings as Judas Iscariot.

The short for this week was Fundamental Football, a documentary produced by the Sports Pictorials company.
Next Thursday we'll look at the films shown by this Church in October of 1928.