Saturday, March 27, 2021

Bad Night: "Night of Terror" (1933)

Oh, it's a night of terror, alright. The script is a terror, the performances are a terror, but the running time is thankfully brief.

A crazed maniac (Edwin Maxwell) is skulking around the countryside, stabbing random people to death and leaving his calling card- newspaper clippings of his own murders. He begins stalking around the Rinehart mansion, where Arthur (George Meeker) has invented a fluid that renders oxygen unnecessary for life (after one hysterical near-attack by the maniac, he should have invented a potion to improve his peripheral vision). He plans to inject it into himself, be buried, and then dug up and brought back to life with a serum. Arthur's benefactor, Richard (Tully Marshall) has reservations about the young scientist. Arthur's fiancee Mary (Sally Blane) thinks he's dreamy if not a little distracted, as she fights off the romantic overtures of jerk reporter Tom (an always annoying Wallace Ford), who basically forces himself on her every chance he gets.

Arthur goes through with his experiment, despite Richard's eventual murder at the hands of the maniac. Richard's will splits his money evenly between his greedy brother John (Bryant Washburn), John's wife (Gertrude Michael), and the help- exotic Degar (Bela Lugosi in a turban) and his wife Sika (Mary Frey), who, as luck would have it, is capable of communicating with the dead. The bodies begin piling up when it's found out that when an heir dies, the money is then split between the other heirs.

First of all, the art direction and set decoration are awesome. The dark old house setting is flawless, and Joseph A. Valentine's cinematography is full of shadows and gray. Stoloff directs a simple but crowded film, with more than enough red herrings to fill the screen. The acting is alright across the board with the exception of the cast's only African-American, driver Martin (an uncredited Oscar Smith). Checking Smith's filmography, he was relegated to porter, shoeshine, and waiter roles through his entire career, and his scared servant shtick is embarrassing. Also embarrassing is Ford's character Tom, who was probably supposed to be flippant and fun, but comes off as a creepy lecher who keeps kissing Mary when she least expects it. I know Ford from a role he had on "The Andy Griffith Show" almost thirty years after this was made, and his demeanor rubbed me the wrong way in that episode as well. The screenplay is strictly on the level of Ed Wood, with Mary seemingly screaming every three minutes, in direct opposition to everyone else's lackadaisical reactions to the bloodshed, and there are a lot of murders here. The last names are similar to each other, confusing me as to who was who- the Rinehart family, reporter Tom Hartley, and professor Arthur Hornsby.

This was considered a lost film for a while, not receiving a home video release, and maybe it should have stayed that way. Definitely for Lugosi completists only, who may be disappointed that he might have top billing, but his role is only supporting.

-Directed by Benjamin Stoloff
-Screenplay by Beatrice Van & William Jacobs, based on a story by Willard Mack
-Cast: Bela Lugosi, Wallace Ford, Sally Blane, Bryant Washburn, Tully Marshall, Mary Frey, Gertrude Michael, George Meeker
Media: Streaming on Amazon Prime
Running Time: 62 minutes
Letterboxd rating: (* 1/2/* * * * *); IMDb rating: 3/10
Not Rated, contains physical violence, some adult situations, tobacco use

Sex Trafficking in the Digital Age: "Pornocracy" (2017)

This short but effective documentary follows a former porn star as she investigates how free pornography sites online are doing more than just killing her former profession.

Ovidie appeared in pornographic films for well over a decade. While not a pornographic film per se, I did recognize her from the 2001 French film "The Pornographer," where she did hardcore material onscreen in an otherwise okay fictional look at a former porn film maker in decline. Ovidie is now on a crusade, looking into how and why pornography has gone from a physical medium that could be viewed in the privacy of your own home (or murky theaters) to a multi-billion dollar business that caters to a humanity that only needs their smart phones and internet service. What she finds is a subculture of desperation. Young women are selling their bodies, and risking both disease and actual physical damage due to a demand for rougher and more harmful sexual acts in order to one up the competition. Behind the scenes, the women are not "empowered" by their appearances online, as hundreds of millions of dollars are being bounced around the world in a giant money laundering scheme, with some performers not even being paid for their "services."

While Ovidie proceeds through her investigation, following the money, I was never sure how she wanted things to turn out. Did she miss her glory days in front of the camera, or was she an anti-porn activist altogether? Watching what some of these young women go through was tough, shattering the illusion that they were raking in tons of money and living the high life. As of this writing, most of the footage is close to five years old, and I hope the people here are no longer in the industry since a career in this business is very short. When you view porn online, or in any form, you're feeding a giant shady corporate monster. You may not be paying any money on a free site, but that view and traffic you trigger is then bought and sold, and the beast runs on those hits and eventual memberships on other sites. Women from poor countries are debasing themselves for the watching pleasure of men, who ask them to do the most horrendous things imaginable onscreen, including sexual acts that they never have done before in the privacy of a monogamous relationship. We learn one Chinese live webcam model literally ingests human waste if the customer wants her to, and still may not make any money for an eight or ten hour day of work. These women are being trafficked, but not on the streets. They live in a fantasy facade (the webcam house in Romania is gross), with handlers at the ready to cater to their sense of importance before they come to their senses, or get too old, and are released back into the real world to have a normal life again. One model talks about opening a business, and starting a family, and it's sad to think her future children might stumble upon this someday. Another woman has five siblings at home, her mother is a cook, and she has only laid eyes on her father once in her life...the thought that he might someday be watching his own flesh and blood humiliate themselves like this is creepy.

If you are a purveyor of pornography, wondering "what harm can it do?," then Ovidie's documentary is the answer. She doesn't even go into how viewing this can have a detrimental effect on the patron's relationships, but that is a conclusion you can draw on your own. Turn off your screens, and think for yourself. When you punch up a streaming site or look at the latest "hacked" pics of your favorite celebrity, you are damaging more lives than just your own. I used to review older adult films like I would regular films, and always marvelled at a lot of the cast's early deaths through suicide and drug overdoses. Maybe it's time we stop contributing to this industry and let it die out? Just a suggestion. This is a slightly flawed but still powerful documentary.

-Directed by Ovidie
-Cast: Ovidie, Roy Klabin, Nate Glass, Gregory Dorcel, Arwen Gold, Lars-Marten Nagel, Mike South
Media: Streaming on Amazon Prime
Running Time: 77 minutes
Letterboxd rating: (* * * */* * * * *); IMDb rating: 8/10
Not Rated, contains female nudity, sexual content, very strong sexual references, very strong adult situations, tobacco use

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Most Terrifying Thing Here is the Title: "Blood Bath" (1966)

This nicely shot film is completely ridiculous when it comes to its screenplay.

Sordi (William Campbell, resembling Liberace) is a semi-successful artist in an unnamed European locale. Local beatniks look up to him as his popular, gory paintings sell. What his admiring fans don't know is that Sordi may (or may not) be possessed by an ancestor who was executed for being in league with the devil. Sordi himself turns into a vampire at night, and kills various women, when he's not painting their portraits. He encases their bodies in what looks like wax, and keeps them scattered around his bell tower studio. New love Dorean (Lori Saunders, better known for her role in "Petticoat Junction") becomes suspicious of Sordi's behavior, and unfortunately almost becomes another victim.

The film, which barely runs an hour, makes no sense. From the vampire angle, to the possession angle- the viewer is never sure what exactly is wrong with Sordi. The beatnik artists (which includes Sid Haig in a very early role) are played for laughs, with their minds blown over the silliest of artistic technique. While I could watch Saunders prance around in a bikini on a beach for a full hour, her desperate love affair with Sordi is also nonsensical, as the film makers barely spend any time developing their relationship. While the cinematography and exterior locales are very nice to look at, the film also suffers from some obvious padding, like the tower bell ringers footage that is repeated over and over again without any variety in the shots.

I decided to treat this film as a lark after the first few minutes, and that certainly helped in my enjoyment of it. If it can't take itself very seriously (considering the screenplay, how could it?), then I didn't need to take it seriously either. No scares here, but a passable way to blow an hour.

-Written and Directed by Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman
-Cast: William Campbell, Marissa Mathes, Lori Saunders, Sandra Knight, Sid Haig, Karl Schanzer, Biff Elliot, Jonathan Haze
Media: Streaming on Amazon Prime
Running Time: 62 minutes
Letterboxd rating: (* * 1/2/* * * * *); IMDb rating: 5/10
Not Rated, contains physical violence, some gore, female semi-nudity, adult situations, alcohol use

Monday, March 8, 2021

Sweet Croods: "The Croods: A New Age" (2020)

Audiences were finally (after seven long years) treated to a sequel to the original film about a family of cavemen, and while not as good as "The Croods," we'll take what we can get.

After all the events of the first film, which was a fantastic combination of action and comedy, the Croods are still looking for their perfect "Tomorrow" to call home. Dad Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) remains a brute, with understanding wife Ugga (voiced by Catherine Keener) in tow. Gran (voiced by the late Cloris Leachman) hasn't changed much, and neither have the kids Thunk (voiced by Clark Duke) and Sandy (voiced by Kailey Crawford). However, Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and Eep (voiced by Emma Stone, who brings so much to her character) are in the throes of teenage love, being overly cutesy and annoying under the watchful eye of Grug.

The family runs across a walled Eden run by the Bettermans, Phil (voiced by an absolutely fantastic Peter Dinklage), his wife Hope (voiced by Leslie Mann), and their teenage daughter Dawn (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran). The Bettermans have built their own oasis with amazing inventions like elevators and indoor plumbing, and all the Croods, with the exception of Grug, are enamored with the place. The Bettermans were the best friends of Guy's now deceased parents, and have designs on the lad for their own Dawn. All is not what it seems behind the walled Utopia, and as the two families clash, there's something outside the wall that will eventually bring them together.

This sequel falls a little shy of the first film, but not due to the voice talent. Peter Dinklage's Phil had me laughing the hardest. His New Age-ish approach to fathering and relationships with his family and the Croods had me rolling. The screen is so full of vibrant colors, they almost singe the retinas. I'm not kidding, the neon colors are nearly blinding. The overall look of the Croods has changed as well, maybe thanks to newer technology? Facial features seem smoother, but once in a while director Crawford (or the SIX credited writers involved) add a touch that we didn't see before- the film makers contort the facial features of the cast in a few scenes that are a little unsettling, and a lot creepy. Some new running gags work (Gran sleeping with her eyes open), and some don't (Gran's hair), but the action-packed climax falls well short of any of the action set pieces of the first film. Younger kids might be bored with a lot of the social commentary humor, not getting the bromance or empowered women gags. The screenplay doesn't play it as "woke" as some other recent films, but it does try some stuff here and there that doesn't work. I did like the couple of musical choices, with some fun Jack Black/Tenacious D songs over the end credits.

Throw in a rather startling amount of violence (the constant sticks in eyes had my own eyes watering), and I appreciated this film for what it tried to do but it falls on the lower end of "good" in the grand scheme of things. I hope we don't have to wait another seven years for a sequel, I would love to see the Croods and Bettermans a lot sooner than that.

-Directed by Joel Crawford
-Screenplay by Kevin Hageman & Dan Hageman and Paul Fisher & Bob Logan, Story by Kirk DeMicco & Chris Sanders
-Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Cloris Leachman, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Kelly Marie Tran, Kailey Crawford
Media: Digital Copy
Running Time: 95 minutes
Letterboxd rating: (* * * 1/2/* * * * *); IMDb rating: 7/10
MPAA Rated (PG), contains physical violence, adult situations

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Clint Eastwood Gets His Richard Donner On: "The Rookie" (1990)

Coming at the end of the cop-buddy-action-film tidal wave that invaded the 1980's, Clint Eastwood seems to be the only actor having fun in this insanely long two hour cliche.

Aging detective Nick Pulovski (Clint Eastwood) works the auto theft unit with his aging partner Powell (Hal Williams, channeling Danny Glover from "Lethal Weapon"). The two swoop in to arrest Strom (a miscast Raul Julia) and his henchmen, who are loading up a car carrying big rig full of stolen luxury automobiles. Powell is killed, and the bad guys get away after a nicely done car chase down a Los Angeles highway. Pulovski is not only taken off the case since it is given to Homicide, he is saddled with a new partner- titular rookie David Ackerman (a terrible Charlie Sheen). Ackerman, comically told in flashback and bad dreams, feels responsible for his brother's death when they were kids. His father (Tom Skerritt) is an unfeeling millionaire, and his main squeeze Sarah (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a headstrong law student who must consistently tell David how wonderful he is. Pulovski, with Ackerman tagging along, goes against department brass (where have you heard this one before?) and tails Strom and his own psychotic main squeeze Liesl (a quietly menacing Sonia Braga), ruining the criminals' plans at every turn until they suddenly hit too close to home with the also comical kidnapping of Pulovski during a casino heist gone wrong. Suddenly, Ackerman must get his hands dirty to rescue his partner.

So much about this film could have worked. Eastwood directs a very action-heavy story, full of explosions and car chases. The credited stuntmen outnumber the credited cast. While the action scenes work for the most part, aside from some violent gunplay that puts a damper on the "fun," casting Sheen as a main character does not work at all. I was a fan of squandered talent Sheen's for a while before he became a national embarrassment, but I sometimes forgot he was in the film, even when he's onscreen. This isn't a low energy performance, it's a NO energy performance, as he sleepwalks through his role. It's more noticeable because Eastwood seems to have fun as Nick. He makes sure we forget Dirty Harry Callahan as he mugs and quips his way through, always trying to find a light for his ever-present cigar, which gets real old real quick. Casting Julia as a German was a dumb move and with a name like Liesl, I thing Braga was supposed to be German too. Julia's fine as the villain until he remembers he's supposed to be German and tries a different accent. The cast of familiar faces go through the motions, but this gets very draggy after Nick is kidnapped, while the plot careens forward without making much sense. A half hour could have been shaved off of this very easily, two hours was much too long to have to deal with these characters.

While "The Rookie" was reminiscent of those big actioners of the 1980's (it was written for Sean Connery, and at one point Gene Hackman and Matthew Modine were attached), it suffers from some lousy plotting and casting choices. Eastwood's losing streak from the late 1970's and later Dirty Harry films continues.

-Directed by Clint Eastwood
-Written by Boaz Yakin & Scott Spiegel
-Cast: Clint Eastwood, Charlie Sheen, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, Lara Flynn Boyle, Tom Skerritt, Pepe Serna, Xander Berkeley, Tony Plana, Kyle Eastwood
Media: DVD
Running Time: 120 minutes
Letterboxd rating: (* */* * * * *); IMDb rating: 4/10
MPAA Rated (R), contains physical violence, strong gun violence, some sexual violence, gore, strong profanity, brief female nudity, adult situations, drug use, alcohol and tobacco use

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Hill People Don't Take No Handouts!: "Bonanza {Episode 5.3}: Rain From Heaven" (1963)

Another misstep in the season finds the Cartwrights hosting a rainmaker during a terrible drought.

Tulsa Weems (John Anderson) and his family arrive in Virginia City, and for a couple of hundred dollars, will make it rain again. In tow are his wife ('60's TV mainstay Claudia Bryar), uppity son Jube (Mickey Sholdar), and his sick daughter Mary Beth (Eileen Chesis). Ben (Lorne Greene) is the only person in town who doesn't kick in money for Weems' services, and Tulsa is infuriated with him since rainmaking is doing the Lord's work (in many an embarrassing scene). Ben offers the family his home after Tulsa is locked up for a half-hearted attack on Ben, but they don't take charity. They eventually break into the Cartwright barn, sure, they don't take charity, but they do what they need to to survive.

As the family waits outside, still not taking charity, Hoss (Dan Blocker) brings Mary Beth into the house and locks her up in a bedroom. She has typhoid fever, and Hoss believes that some itchy cold compresses will cure her of the disease. Tulsa begins his rainmaking ceremony as his family still won't take charity, and his actions may or may not work. Oh, and his family don't take charity.

This misfire is very padded, with repetitious lines and situations. I was sick to death of hearing the family's justification for not taking charity, despite Anderson's good performance. Pernell Roberts has just one line and ducks out of the episode after the first two minutes. Another mistake made is dubbing in Mary Beth's moaning, which is unintentionally hilarious. Tulsa's rainmaking efforts, involving a teeny cannon and stock footage of fireworks, also runs too long. Hoss locking himself in a bedroom with a ten year old girl is a little weird, as well. The episode feels forced and padded, and the abrupt conclusion wraps everything up in a couple of minutes, with no consequences, or word from Roberts' Adam.

A definite letdown, I hope the rest of the season improves from this.

-Directed by Lewis Allen
-Written by Robert Vincent Wright
Cast: Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Pernell Roberts, Michael Landon, John Anderson, Ray Teal, Claudia Bryar, Mickey Sholdar, Eileen Chesis
Media: DVD
Running Time: 56 minutes
(* */* * * * *); IMDb rating: 4/10
Contains very mild physical violence, very mild gun violence, alcohol use

Book Review: Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films by Kalton C. Lahue and Terry Brewer

"Kops and Custards" is a history of Mack Sennett's Keystone Films. It recounts a little bit of Sennett's background and how he founded Keystone Pictures, and how he eventually lost his fun factory through shady financial dealings. While the book is effective in recounting how Sennett had to work hard to convince others that his comedy theories would work on film, it does tend to confuse the reader by throwing in too many facts and figures concerning the finances of Keystone Corporation.

Half of the book concerns who bought what, financed this, then sold it for less to others. The amount of names brought up is dizzying, and not very enlightening. The other half of the book concerns the daily running of the studio, and the many comedians who passed in and out of Keystone's doors. Sennett's relationship with Mabel Normand is touched upon, although no explored thoroughly. Charlie Chaplin is not mentioned as often as he should have been. He is treated as just another actor who left the studio for broader horizons. One interesting fact that came out of the book was the rising film career of Charlie's brother, Sydney Chaplin, at Keystone. Sydney's career could have been very successful if he hadn't turned his sights on his brother.

Another problem with the book is the arrogant attitude it takes toward its subjects. Authors Lahue and Brewer constantly discount stories Sennett and Chaplin told in their autobiographies. The authors make many of the major players of that era as simple-minded buffoons whose only concern was money. I do not think I can recommend this book. For studying Charlie Chaplin, it doesn't cover any new ground. If you are interested in the financial goings-on of Keystone, then this book would be helpful. The book's text is just 134 pages. The book features a very impressive appendix listing all the known Keystone comedies from September 1912 through September 1917. Also listed is a bibliography, titles index, and a general index.