Saturday, September 20, 2014

HOUDINI (2014- U.S.)

Our special guest reviewer Stephen M. Jones provides an emotional rant (slightly edited) and original illustration for the new HOUDINI movie.  A more sober review will follow shortly after the blu-ray release in October.  Enjoy.
D: Uli Edel.  History Channel's two-part HOUDINI mini-series is a mixed bag that is entertaining enough but will severely date within 10-15 years.The narrative and structure of both episodes is very over-the-top and slightly annoying- a typical production of the 21st century with a sprinkling of cheap SYFY channel-style CGI throughout. The editing and pacing, especially during the tense or suspenseful moments, is appropriate and more stylish than what you might expect of a cable production of this sort.

The flow and structure of Nicholas Meyer's (SEVEN-PERCENT SOLUTION, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS) script is superior to the complete work of fiction that was the 50's biopic starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Each scene is centered around a specific magic illusion (or a close representation of that trick) that triggers a flurry of flashbacks to an inspirational or emotional event.  While much of the plot is fact-based but melded with myth, only on a few occassions does Meyer completely make stuff up; like Harry' wife Bess (Kristen Connolly) puffing a joint, Houdini's seduction by Margery the medium (Megan Dodds), Houdini’s career falter after 1914 (a plot device to pump up the drama?) or the depiction of Harry and Bess’s relationship as increasingly rocky as his career soars. Their marital struggles are evident throughout both episodes but was supposedly quite the opposite according to real life accounts.

I’m disappointed that they didn’t spend more time on Houdini’s successful film career.  Instead it's conveyed that he hated movies and held a grudge against Charlie Chaplin.  His movie work is only briefly referenced via a newspaper headline. What really angers me is the program's “hidden” meaning behind Houdini’s death. His demise is depicted as the tragic result of a curse put on him by disgruntled mediums for his disbelief in the afterlife. A sort of revenge for his not believing in ghosts. To me that kind of pisses on his serious work to expose mediums as rightful frauds and basically concludes he was wrong. The first episode also got carried away with a recent conspiracy theory promoting the idea that Houdini was a WW1 spy who aided the U.S. in bringing down political regimes. This gives the entire first episode the feeling that you're watching a bizarre 007 spin off. The real tragedy is that most viewers will come away believing this spy scenario as fact. 

Adrien Brody wasn’t exactly a smart casting choice for Houdini. Brody seems to play the same character in all of his roles and is a very middle of the road kind of actor. His portrayal of Houdini is okay - he’s likable. But he looks physically nothing like Houdini who was short and stocky with a wide face. Brody is too tall with a boney narrow face and a long lanky body and more suitable for The Shadow than the famous escape artist. From all accounts,  people who met Houdini said he was a very intense personality and everything about him said he was an entertainer.  Brody doesn’t project this strongly enough with his monotone voice, plain emotions and gestures.

John Debney's (SIN CITY, IRON MAN 2) music is absolute garbage as it follows the “300 trend” of using contemporary styles to set the mood and tone of a story that takes place in the early 20th century. The horribly composed and arranged bombastic, sterile synthesizer-ladened techno score comes off real pretentious. Some cues are literally just electronic noises mixed too loud and often competing with the dialogue.  I don’t understand this new trend that utilizes trendy music for a period piece movie! It’s not cool, clever, or creative at all. Just because it’s “totally not what you’d expect” doesn't mean it works. If you’re going to go for this stupid “artistic license” at least use good music. Even the upcoming John Adams special, promoted during commercial breaks, has a Rolling Stones soundtrack.  That I can live with because the ‘Stones’ aren’t some 30 year-old messing around on a laptop trying to make “cool” and “edgy” computer music.  Although in this case it isn't the proverbial "young dude", it's a composer who has cranked out some great scores in his day.  HOUDINI would have been better served with a traditional orchestral score instead of this awful new direction that'll be the main cause for this production's soon to be out-dated style.

All in all, HOUDINI was handled oddly as far as cast, music and plot choices.  Although it could've been A LOT WORSE it nevertheless remains entertaining, suspenseful and worthy of a few repeat viewings.


Monday, September 8, 2014

THE LONG HAUL (1957- U.K.) Columbia Classics DVD-R


D: Ken Hughes.  Harry Miller (Victor Mature) is an American serviceman stationed in Europe who is eager to get back to his home turf.   When his transfer is granted, he joyously informs his spouse and son only to be dismayed at his Brit wife‘s wildy negative reaction.  The couple reach a compromise that requires a month's delay so she can visit the her parents in Liverpool.  In true noir fashion, this proves to be a bad move that triggers a series of spiraling tragic events.  Harry’s misfortune begins when he takes a temporary trucking (hauling) gig that gets him entangled with local gangsters guided by the corrupt cigar chomping contractor, Mr. Easy (Patrick Allen).  His first day on the job spells doom when Harry witnesses an act of theft, gets nicely bruised up and bumps into Mr. Easy’s bosomy platinum coiffed mistress, Lynn (Diana Dors). Things only get worse for Harry when Lynne is publicly humiliated by the boss and seeks solace in Harry’s truck. Events snowball from there as Harry gets more and more entangled in Mr. Easy’s sticky web.


THE LONG HAUL unloads a truck-full of  adultery, marriage on the rocks, juvenile brain hemorrhage, copious cleavage, stray puppy adoption, dark rain-slicked highways, seedy truck stops, bleak blue-collar dockyards, theft and murder. The film peaks with a treacherous mountain trek, a harrowing river crossing and a fatal fist fight that creates palpable tension that conjures comparison to other two-fisted, four-wheeled fare such as THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), HELL DRIVERS (1957) and Clouzot's WAGES OF FEAR (1953).  Who needs nitroglycerin when you have the equally volatile DD on board?  Thankfully, there is a downbeat but hopeful denouement for the emotionally invested
.

This well-paced British noir presents Mature at his stoic best, facing an endless, devestating array of physical and psychological hurdles.  Dors (her curvaceous wax figure graced the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover- NOT Marilyn Monroe‘s as is sometimes mistaken) shows a startling dramatic range that was out of reach by most of the era's over-hyped studio sex bombs.  Dors does justice to the part of Lynn, playing the abused, misunderstood and sympathetic gangster’s moll to perfection.  In later years, Dors put on extra pounds and was pretty much relegated to character parts where she still managed to proved memorable. Up until her tragic early death, she racked up a slew of credits in the horror and softcore genres and occasionally appeared alongside horror icons Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.  Patrick Allen is familiar to Brit horror hounds for his parts in Hammer’s NIGHT CREATURES (aka CAPTAIN CLEGG) and Terence Fisher’s NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT (aka ISLAND OF THE BURNING DOOMED)- both recently released on U.K. blu-ray.  The sturdy supporting cast includes Gene Anderson (DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE), Peter Reynolds (DALEKS INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D.), Liam Redmond (CURSE OF THE DEMON), John Welsh (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK) and a quickie cameo by Norman Rossington (A HARD DAY’S NIGHT).  Hammer horror fans will recognize a certain forest location.


Trevor Duncan’s powerful, emotion-wrought music is accented with tingly harp glissandi, utilized to similar effect by Bernard Herrmann for his classic TAXI DRIVER score.  One of Duncan's pulse-pounding cues will be instantly familiar to fans of Ed Wood’s PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE.  Director Hughes helmed two Ian Fleming screen adaptations- CASINO ROYALE (1967) and CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968).  The anamorphic DVD is matted at 1.85 and boasts a robust fine grain transfer that showcases Basil Emott’s (CURSE OF THE FLY) crisp monochrome photography.  Some of the dynamic, razor sharp close ups are breath-taking when up converted on a blu-ray player.  This Columbia Classics made-to-order DVD-R includes the original, lurid trailer as the sole extra.


MYSTIC CIRCLE MURDER (1938- U.S.) Alpha DVD


D: Frank O’Connor.  A fraudulent medium (is there any other kind?) and master of disguise known as The Great LaGagge (Robert Fiske) is milking rich women by conducting sham séances to contact their dead loved ones.  A young woman distraught over her mother’s death is awed by the swami’s occult skills and almost hustled out of some precious loot but for the heroic efforts of an ace reporter.  A romance  ensues and LaGagge’s sarcastic sidekick provides the comic relief and a dose of clever skepticism.


This is a much maligned but surprisingly tight,  moody, atmospheric bargain basement mystery with a few effective set pieces.  This poverty row potboiler is notable for the only screen appearance by Mrs. Harry, Houdini, credited here as Madame Houdini, and clearly playing herself.  Ms. Houdini, returns from another failed séance attempt to reach her dead escape artist spouse and concludes once and for all that spiritualism is bunk.  There’s also some disturbing stock footage of India’s faithful, fanatical masses washing their sins away in the river Ganges.  After LaGagge’s debunking, the print ends abruptly during the predictable happy ending with a final cameo by Bess Houdini.


This film was probably controversial for its time and possibly offensive to some today, for its strong criticism of the naive faithful and mysticism in general.  The film is still relevant and provides timeless commentary on con men and religious scams.  In that sense, the film continues in the tradition of Houdini’s life work.


Overall, this is a painless crime thriller that runs little over an hour (imdb lists 90 minutes but poverty row quickies rarely ever clocked in at those lengths!) .  The budget-priced Alpha disc is very murky from a dupey VHS source but watchable nonetheless.  It’s sure to please die hard b-movie and Houdini fanatics.  The film‘s suitably alternate title was RELIGIOUS RACKETEERS and can be viewed here with that title card at:  https://archive.org/details/Religious_Racketeers_1938



Sunday, August 31, 2014

LAS MUJER MURCIELAGO (A.K.A. BATWOMAN 1968 - Mexico) VCI DVD

D: Rene Cardona.  Maura Monti is a busty, big-haired Italian beauty who became popular in the spicy wild world of Mexican genre films.  Monti stars as the curvy crime fighter/wrestler known as the Batwoman who is called in to solve the mystery of dead wrestlers washing up on the usually pristine Acapulco beaches.  In no time at all, Batwoman traces the beached hombres to a mad scientist with the less than sinister name of Dr. Williams, and his goofy lackey Igor, in the grisly quest for glands to create a super race of radio-controlled, red bug-eyed gill men.  Nothing, it seems, is too big and bad for Batwoman to handle except her single phobia- mice!


Among the film’s many exploitable elements, you’ll notice more than a nod to the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, gratuitous acid disfigurement, karate, judo, lucha libre, wet lingerie, bikinis, big hairdos, a laboratory and a snappy twist jazz score.  The underwater photography is surprising effective and the colorful locations are a visual plus.  A stand out sequence is the underwater fight scene where  Batwoman wards off the attack of an amorous gill man that culminates in a gasoline-fueled water fire!  It's well-done and predates the memorable deep sea zombie attack in Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBI (1979).


Monti added some wholesome sex appeal to muchas peliculas in the wrestling, spy, sci-fi and horror genres during the 60s and 70s where she shared the screen with such legends as El Santo, Mil Mascaras, Blue Demon and even Boris Karloff!  It’s odd that this fast-paced actioner was never snatched up for U.S. distribution.  An enterprising distributor like K. Gordon Murray could have made a box office killing with some cheap dubbing and lurid advertising.  The VCI DVD is 4x3, in the Spanish language un-subbed with a soft but colorful image.  You can watch BAT WOMAN in its entirety on YouTube with decent fan subs.  Cardona’s son, Rene Jr., went on to become a prolific director in his own right.


MEN IN WAR (1957- U.S.) Olive Films Blu-Ray


D: Anthony Mann.  A bleak, hard-boiled Korean war drama starring the always interesting Robert Ryan (ON DANGEROUS GROUND) as Lt. Benson leading a rag-tag battle-fatigued team of platoon survivors through enemy territory. All the men are paranoid and irritable as hell while traveling sniper infested terrain when they encounter a shell shocked, speechless colonel (Robert Keith) and his trigger-happy aid, Montana (Aldo Ray).  As the men continue on, the enemy  is rarely seen  and each man must wage battle with both the snipers and their own personal demons.  Post WWII  Hollywood films, starting with the Korean conflict and continuing with Viet Nam, became increasingly disillusioned, morally vague and apocalyptic.  Filmmakers like Mann and Fuller would further explore the darker psychological aspects as opposed to the triumphant, heroic and strategic victories of previous war movies. The film ends on a suitably strong but ambiguous note.

Originally released through United Artists, MEN IN WAR showcases a solid ensemble cast of rugged, weary faces including Vic Morrow (THE LAST SHARK), Aldo Ray (THE NAKED AND THE DEAD), James Edward (Kubrick’s THE KILLING), L.Q. Jones (THE WILD BUNCH) and Victor Sen Yung among others.  Ray is a stand out as a brute survivor who knows how the enemy thinks (“you shoot or you die“) much to Ryan’s horror.  Morrow was just a few years away from starring in TV’s COMBAT.  The Chinese actor Yung plays a Korean sniper and is best remembered as Charlie Chan’s son in the Sydney Toler run of the detective series.  Stark and psychologically grim, Mann creates a quiet, dusty and desolate vision of hell expertly aided by the dynamic monochrome compositions of veteran cinematographer Ernest Haller (GONE WITH THE WIND) and a sparse but powerful score by Elmer Bernstein (MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, ROBOT MONSTER).



Sunday, August 24, 2014

MAN HUNT (1941 - U.S) Twilight Time blu-ray

D: Fritz Lang.  A big game hunter named Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, the movie) has the leader of the Third Reich in his rifle scope's cross-hairs and is about to pull the trigger!  This is the startling opening sequence to one of Lang's lesser known pre-WWII noir thrillers.  Soon the hunter becomes the hunted in a riveting thrill ride obstacle course through war torn London that echoes elements of Richard Connell's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.  The story was probably innovative for its time and the plot twists and turns are still captivating due to the dynamic visuals.  Joan Bennett (SUSPIRIA), soon to become a noir femme fatale, co-stars as Jerry, a street-wise young woman, who romantically falls for the safari hunter and takes great risks to aid and hide him from his ruthless pursuers.
Producer Daryl Zanuck and the Fox studio brass tried to reign in the German refugee director's strong anti-Nazi sentiments since the U.S. was not yet at war with the Fuehrer.  Bennett's character was also toned down to be more vague and appear less blatantly streetwalker. Although this would change by the time Bennett returned to the same on-screen occupation in Lang's WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944) and SCARLET STREET (1945).  Bennett would work with Lang again in 1947's SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR.  The top-notch supporting cast includes George Sanders (PSYCHOMANIA), Roddy McDowall (PLANET OF THE APES), John Carradine (BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA), Lester Matthews (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) and Ludwig Stossel (HOUSE OF DRACULA).  Pidgeon and the young Roddy would co-star together the same year in Zanuck's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.  The archtypal Germanic character actor Stossel would appear in at least two other Hitler related movies- HITLER'S MADMEN and THE STRANGE DEATH OF ADOLF HITLER, both in 1943.

The Twilight Time BD is a limited pressing (3,000 copies) and is a monochrome wonder to behold.  The film's grain is very fine with deep black levels, a rich gray scale and razor sharp focus.  The package, including scholarly extras and a booklet, make this a good value for serious noir connoisseurs and Lang completists.





Available here: http://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/27569/MAN-HUNT-1941/

DEEP END (1970- U.K./Germany) BFI blu-ray

D: Jerzy Skolimowski.  An under-appreciated, little known art house oddity from Polanski 's script collaborator on KNIFE IN THE WATER.  John Moulder-Brown (VAMPIRE CIRCUS) is gangling, hormone-wracked Michael, a freakish puberty-impaired boy who gets a job at the local bath house where he is relentlessly teased by his slightly-older mod, mini-skirted, flame-haired co-worker, Susan (Jane Asher of MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH).  Abused by the middle-aged female clientele and driven to delirious desire and jealously over Susan's two unworthy boyfriends, Michael tries to get a grip on his raging sexual urges.  One of the film's many highlights includes Michael funny, trippy and infernal trip through the sleazy Soho subculture of strip clubs, hookers and hustlers. A series of erotically bizarre, humorous and disturbing events leads to a sexually dark climax that will challenge your emotions in a revealing way, although many initial viewers were not so pleased.  If you give yourself up to Skolimowski's vision, you will have a great time wallowing in the DEEP END.
All the performances are stellar.  Also features Christopher Sanford (DIE SCREAMING MARIANNE), Dieter Eppler (SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES) and a stand out, mostly improvised ,cameo by bloated ex-sex bomb, Diana Dors.  Keep an eye out for Burt Kwouk (Cato of the original Pink Panther series) as a hot dog salesman.  The score consists of a Cat Stevens main theme and contributions by kraut-rock band CAN and Richard Wagner.
The quality of this U.K. 1.85, all-zone/region BFI restored blu-ray/DVD combo is excellent as well as the generous extras and profusely illustrated booklet.  An odd bit of trivia is revealed in the featurette is that art director Anthony Pratt is the nephew of Boris Karloff and proves it by proudly displaying an autographed photo!  The Paramount print has been shown uncut a few times on Turner Classics but has never had an official U.S. video release.  Asher was probably more famous for her long-time romance with Paul McCartney than her rather extensive film, TV and modeling career.  Moulder-Brown dialed up the freak factor in Skolimowski's more overtly comical follow-up, KING, QUEEN, KNAVE (1972) with David Niven and Gina Lollobrigida and currently not on DVD.