Category Archives: Movies

DVD Review The Set-Up (1949)

When I got my boxed set of film noir DVDs one of the pleasant surprises was discovering that one of the films had been directed by Robert Wise. Wise came up through the old school Hollywood. he was the editor on Wells’ Citizen Kane, became a director with the fantastic Val Lewton horror movie The Body Snatcher, and had a career that spanned just about every genre of movie. The Set-Up was the last picture he made while under contract for RKO and it is a bleak, tragic, and fantastic bit of gritty filmmaking.

The movie’s premise is simple; Stoker is a down and out boxer, thirty-five year olds his career, such as it is, is drawing to an end. His wife Julie wants him to give up boxing, the injuries and chance of serious harm or death have become too much for her but Stoker knows he’s just ‘one punch’ away from turning everything around. Unable to take it anymore she bails on attending his evening’s fight, a lousy bottom bill in a terrible dive. Stoker’s manager, Tiny, meanwhile is taking bribes from to local crime boss to make sure stoker goes down in the fight. Tiny doesn’t tell Stoker of the fix because there’s no need; Stoker always loses. Why share the bribe money?

What makes this movie work is the focus on characters. Not just the leading characters like Stoker, Julie, and Tiny, but the bit supporting characters bring this film to life and do so with a strong sense of theme. When the bout is going on Wise doesn’t focus all of his screen-time on the boxers, but with judicious cuts he plants us among the spectators and their bloodlust. In addition to a taunt story of a man whose dream is slipping away The Set-Up is also a sharp commentary on blood-sports without being a ‘message movie.’

The DVD has just one bonus feature but it’s a great one. The film’s commentary track is split between director Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese.

I have never been a particular fan of sporting movies but The Set-Up moved me, wringing out powerful emotions with it’s gut punch of an ending.

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New DVDs to my Library

The collection is not new, but they are new additions of my collection. Yesterday I received in the mail my latest eBay purchase, Film Noir Classics Vol 1. This is not one of those 50 collections of publica domain movies taken from questionable source material. The collection is five individual packaged DVDs, all from Warner Brothers the studio that specialized in street and crime cinema, in one boxed set. It was cool finding it a very affordable price. Of the five films I had seen only one, Gun Crazy, but I certainly wanted to add it to my library.

What made for a pleasant surprise was that one of the noirs, The Set-Up, was directed by Robert Wise, one of my favorite directors. Another benefit of these movies is that many of them were B-features. That means they were designed to play as the second feature in a double bill. Directors and writers were a little more experimental with the B movies and they were also shorter. There is something to be said for being about to watch an entire story in an hour and a quarter instead of 3 hours plus.

I am looking forward to a week of cool movies and bonus features.

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Sunday Night Movie Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Last night I was in the mood for something from yesteryear. Now some time ago Universal put out boxed set for their classic monsters until the branding of ‘Legacy Collections.’ I have many of the set including the one for Frankenstein. The Legacy Collections include the original film for each series, some decent bonus material about the classic horror film, and several of the sequels or associated films.

Ghost of Frankenstein is the fourth film is the series and it continues the story from the previous entry, Son of Frankenstein. Ghost is used metaphorically as the Frankenstein of this film is the second son of the original mad scientist but titling a movie Second Son of Frankenstein seems underwhelming.

The population of the village of Frankenstein, convinced that the area is under a curse dues the action of Henry and his son Wolf Frankenstein dynamite the standing castle where in the previous story the monster had fallen into bubbling sulfur pits. The explosions free the monster and aided my Ygor, who has somehow survived the hail of bullets from the last movie, escapes fleeing the town. Ygor takes the monster to Ludwig Frankenstein, Henry’s second son, in hopes that the creation might be healed and returned to full ability, allowing Ygor to manipulate it to continue his own evil schemes.

The creature kills of the Ludwig’s associates and this after much turmoil with the local populace, prompts Ludwig to plan to transfer the brain of his dead associated to the monster’s body as a way of undoing the crime and transforming the monster into a non-dangerous creation. Ygor, working on the ego of Ludwig’s disgraced mentor gets his brain placed into the monster without Ludwig’s knowledge. These villagers arrive, torches are barred, great manor houses are burned, and Ygor in the monster’s body goes blind because the great mentor hadn’t considered blood type mismatch.

Over all this is pretty standard fare for a Universal monster sequel. It pays fair attention to continuity but hand-waves is way past anything that would actually kill the story, such as Ygor’s ability to survive the gunshot wounds without medical care. Dr. Frankenstein once again pays the price for meddling in things that ‘man was not to know.’ (Hmm we should really have a Lord of the Rings moment in some film like this where the female mad scientist proclaims she is no man.) In terms of the Universal classic monster cycle, which was the first cinematic universe, this is purely a middle-grade entry. The movie did not descend in unintentional farce as with Son of Dracula casting Lon Chaney jr as the Count,, but neither did the film come close to matching the atmospheric heights of Frankenstein.

As this film was from 1942 I did ponder a sequel in which Nazi’s took the castle and ended up dealing with mad scientists and the classic monster. Ah movies that were never even considered.

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Some Random Thoughts While Recovering

This week has been a rough week. Every single of the week I have suffered a migraine attack. Individually each one has been a mild to mid-grade headache, not enough to keep me home but severe enough to seriously reduced my productivity and enjoyment. This morning I awoke with another migraine and after yesterdays I decided to take the serious step to break the cluster. That means staying home from the day job and taking two does of my medications about four hours apart. This nearly always stops a cycle but leaves me fog-headed and a little unsteady. Right now, for the first time in a week, I do not feel like a headache is about to explode.

 

The Republicans have released the Senate’s bill for repealing and replacing the ACA with their own version. It is cheaper, skimpier, and will result in lots of people losing their coverage. If they pass it and Trump signs it, not a certainty as the man’s alignment is Chaotic Greedy, I think they this victory will serve them as well as Imperial Japan’s victory at Pearl Harbor. They will have won a battle but plunge into a war that looks far worse for them. This will have taught the Democratic party two very valuable lessons. First that it is futile to consider the conservative position on health care. The attempt at a mixed mode or public and private systems produced no benefits at all. Second that reconciliation is the method to achieve their goals; that there is no penalty paid for shutting out the other party. In addition to those lessons further making the ground worse for the conservatives the conversation on health care has changed in a very basic manner; the population in general believes that more people should have access to health care and that it’s a proper role of the Federal Government to make that happen. One of the few consistencies in the Trump campaign was his promise to make healthcare cheaper and covering more people. Trump is salesman and he was telling people what they wanted to hear. It is what they want and the GOP plan does the opposite of that. They might make that sale with a fast talk roll and a quick vote but once implements there’s no three-card monte way to hid the results. Let me close out the political thoughts with one more observations. Conservative positions are a package deal, they are all sailing on the same ship. If the GOP sinks the ship over healthcare it will take down everything else that conservatives might care for, tax cut, ‘pro-life’ policies, gun rights, all of this I think is imperiled in the long term. Is that a trade you really think is worthy? Is this the hill to kill your movement on?

 

I’ll wrap up with an artistic observation. I am quite happy with the releases of Mad Max: Black & Chrome and Logan Noir. After the advent of cheap and easy color film, remember The Wizard of Oz and The Adventures of Robin Hood were 1939 but common color films didn’t come about until the late 1960s, B&W film were for only art house releases and the odd film released wide in B&W generally did not do well. Seeing the special editions in the theaters give me hope that we are seeing a generation of general theatergoers who are more open and interested in artistic expressions that go beyond just the basic entertainment.

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A Cold War Movie Marathon

I have been considering hosting a ‘Cold War Movie’ marathon in the not too distant future. It would be a simple affair, a few friends, a few pizzas, and three films focused on the struggle between the USA and the Communist world. Here are the films I am considering, the order I’d play them, and why.

The Manchurian Candidate: This is a terrific movie and one that I think captures the sense of paranoia, otherness, and hidden dangers that helped fuel the tensions. As a movie, particularly for people who may not have lived through the Cold War it would help capture the feeling that the enemy is everywhere and vastly committed to our destruction.

The Eiger Sanction: Hailing from the mid 1970s this movie is about an assassin forced out of retirement in order to both protect a national secret and avenge the death of a friend. Starring and directed by Clint Eastwood tit is a movie steeped in cynicism with the lines between the good guys and the bad guys nearly invisible. I think it reflects the mood that the Cold War was corrupting and how adapting your enemy’s methods is at best problematic.

Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: One simple does not address the Cold War without speaking about the existential threat of all out nuclear war. I could go for something dark and depressing such as On The Beach, or I could metaphorical and play something that symbolizes that aspect of the war such as The Bedford Incident, I think lightening the mood with a comedy, made by one the masters, is the perfect way to end the marathon. Strangelove, which started out as a dramatic film, highlights the absurdity of nuclear war. Filled with memorable characters, three of which are played by the incredible Peter Sellers, quotable lines, “You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” and filmed in bleak black and white is a classic of cinema and of the Cold War.

 

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Sunday Night Movie The Babadook

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, this past weekend presented me with more writing work than I normally engage in during this blissful days away from the day-job. When I finished editing a potential piece for submission to Viable Paradise I rewarded myself with a movie, The Babadook.

Hailing from down-under this 2014 horror film is about a widowed mother and her young son, still scarred by the traumatic death of their husband and father, being tormented by a malicious spirit.

Horror often works via isolation. In lesser quality stories and films that isolation is achieved by the creators via hard barriers to prevent the characters from escaping the threat. The car has broken down in the middle of nowhere, the bridge has washed out, the ghost can fill the doors and windows with red bricks at will, there are no bars on your cell phone, so on and so on. With better-crafted material the isolation is psychological, for example in the novel and film The Exorcist in addition to the fact that the demon is within the child, the fact that no one outside of that home could possibly accept the reality of its events isolates the characters. The Babadook successfully employs the psychological isolation.

In terms of visual style the film reminded me of both David Lynch and the American version of The Ring. The images are not straightforward literal monsters, but more subjective and impressionistic interpretations. Much of the dread, unease, and horror is created by the stylistic and unusual visuals.

The movie did not work 100 percent for me however. I had a difficult time get engaged with the material at the start because the emotionally troubled young son was very difficult to bear. This is by design as we are meant to emotionally connect with the mother who is struggling to manage with a son who has serious emotional issues while having not yet processed her own grief. Once I managed to get past the establishing acts of the story I did find myself more engaged and invested in the outcome.

It is interesting that one valid interpretation of the film is that, like with The Haunting, there is no spirit and that the mother is suffering from a mental breakdown. While Shirley Jackson has made it clear that Hill House is haunted and evil, I have no knowledge about the intent for The Babadook so it is up to you if the evil spirit has a reality or if it’s a tale of madness. While this film had a difficult opening for me, holding me at a distance, in the end I am glad I watched it. Creepy, atmospheric, and ultimately about the power of grief The Babadook is a worthy film in the horror genre.

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Craftsmanship Takes Time

So today Universal, the people who originated the shared cinematic universe, released The Mummy, an attempt to launch a new cinematic universe to drink from the fire hose of money that Marvel discovered.

But the reviews are saying that The Mummy sucks.

And Marvel did not discover that fire hose of money, Marvel laid the pipes, installed the plugs, corrected defects, and the opened the valves.

Oh, and Iron Man did not suck.

In 2008’s Iron Man there are hints of the hopes for a Cinematic Universe, but those hints never upend the storytelling of Tony Stark’s journey to self-discovery. During the play of the film the biggest hint is SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson, a part that looks utterly forgettable on the page but brought to fantastic and sardonic life by Clark Greg. Hell, they don’t even call it SHIELD until the end of the movie, making the long, cumbersome full name a jibe for characters to play off and a hidden bonus for fans of the property. The most famous hint of the wider universe Marvel hoped to bring to life didn’t even happen until after all the credits had finished  when Stark met Fury.

If you never watched another Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in your life, Iron Man would remain a self-contained and fully satisfying film. This is putting the story and the movie first, ahead of corporate plans, but more importantly it is understanding that quality can rarely be rushed.

Warner Brothers, with the suits meddling in the productions, has tried to rush to their big shared universe and to date the movies of that cycle have produced one watchable film, and it just came out last weekend. (The Christopher Nolan Batman movies are lovely but were not designed as part of the DCEU and they do not graft well onto the larger framework because they are best viewed as a stand-alone series.) Mind you, WB/DC has a rich history and mythology to draw from, half the work is done, and still they are botching the project. Universal seems to think you can just slap together any series of movies, force linkages, and that will make people line up at the box office.

The Mummy, classically, is a horror story. (In fact the original film was mainly a rip-off of Universal’s big hit Dracula.) Later, as the Universal’s horror movies stressed the monsters over the horror they began having their creations battle each other, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-man, and so on, but these films played more and more to children. This incarnation of The Mummy seems to have lost all elements of being a horror story and is instead an action movie. One, if reviews are to be believed, that spends considerable amounts of time delivery poorly written exposition that does not even explain this movie but hopes to establish their ‘Dark Universe.’

Tell this story, tell this story really really well, and lay foundations for future expansions, that’s the thing you needed to do Universal. All you have done this outing is waste money and the audience’s good will.

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Movie Review Wonder Woman

Perhaps more than any other review I have written this needs to the be said up front; Your Mileage May Vary & No Honest Feedback Can be Wrong. These ideas form the basis for my thoughts when I talk about and receive feedback on my writing. The Wonder Woman film has carried a lot of expectations and cultural dynamite, generating strong, passionate responses from people.

My overall all grade for this movie is somewhere between a C+ and a B-. Wonder Woman is solid film. It makes no gross mistakes of plotting, pacing, or character. It has been well cast and everyone fits well into their roles. Some reveals work rather well while others seemed telegraphed.

This is an origin story. We meet Diana as a child, we learn just enough of her background and story to connect with her as a person and to her wider culture before she leaves her island paradise to stop World War I. (Just as with Captain America: The First Avenger the less you think about the actual war the better the film will play for you, though Captain America played closer to history than Wonder Woman.)

Along the way she collects a band of ragtag teammates including her love interest Steve Trevor. Diana enters the war naive about humanity and its ability to be evil, she loses that childlike worldview and gains a deeper and fuller understanding by the story’s end. Over all the arc works well and it would seem the writers and the director have a better understanding of their character and her history than those who made the most recent Batman and Superman movies.

This film is worth seeing in the theaters and it should be fun for most and inspiring to many.

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Sunday Night Movie: Big Trouble in Little China

After spending the afternoon watching The Godfather on the big screen yesterday afternoon I decided that for my Sunday Night Movie feature I wanted something lighter, something more fun.

Big Trouble in Little China is an 80’s martial arts/comedy directed by John Carpenter, written by the director W.D. Richter, and starring Kurt Russell. It concerns Jack Burton (Russell) as he gets involved in supernatural affairs hiding in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. What starts out as kidnapping by a street gang transforms into a battle of good and evil against a two thousand year old wizard.

This movie did poorly when it was released, panned by critic and ignored by fans, but over the years and through the sorcery of home video it has gained a devoted following of fan.

Despite Russell leading credit and having a majority of the lines, his character of jack Burton I think can best be understood as the sidekick to Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi and that this film is really a story told from the point of view of a sidekick who thinks he is the hero.

Big Trouble in Little China has many elements that are never explained and several that are used for convenient comedic effect but it is a fun romp with sharp funny characters.

 

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On Horror and Un-credited Horror Directors

Horror is a mood, and when we speak of horror in the arts we speaks of an artist’s intent to create that mood. With words, and sounds, and images the artists seeks to undermine the viewer/readers comfort, replacing it with a sense of dread, danger, and unreality.

That unreality is not to the same as a sense of something being unreal, but rather the knowledge that reality is not what you thought it was. The idea that the world does not work along the laws and principals that you thought it did is one of the core elements of horror. When you walk onto a stair, expecting the first step but instead it is missing and your foot falls an extra four inches for that moment when you fall you are in a brief state of horror. You knew that the step was there, in darkness you plunged forward fully confident of its existence, but the instant your foot plummets past the step your world is suddenly rendered wrong.

The moment passes quickly and the horror vanishes with the firm feel of the very next step. The explanation destroys the horror. If excellent horror fiction that return to ‘normal’ reality never arrives and the new unfamiliar reality goes on forever,

I think that David Lynch is one of our greatest horror directors. Not everything he makes is horror, certainly Dune is not, but a lot more is horror than is conventionally recognized.

Lynch’s world are often very much like our own, but quickly he leads the audience into a nightmare where nothing is what it seems, where images and sounds unsettle, where identity crumbles, and sane rational explanations never arrive. In Twin Peaks, now returning for its 3rd season after a break of 25 years, there is unquestioningly super natural elements, but even with demons and doppelgangers Lynch finds horror to unsettle and unnerve us. But in other works, Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Earserhead, these same very powerful sensation are invoked and rational explanations are withheld. Though the critics, devoid of thee usual easy identifiers or aliens, monsters, and bloody deaths, rarely labeled these films as horror, to me that is exactly what they are.

The only question is intent. Lynch is famous for never explaining the purpose or meaning of his films. Part of any art is the viewer/reader’s interpretation and for Lynch that means you don’t impose, in any way. your won view as artist, but rather you leave the viewer fully empowered to experience it on their own terms. This is challenging and Lynch has never and will never find easy commercial success but we would be poorer without his visions disturbing and unsettling us.

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