Friday, July 29, 2005

Entertainment for Cheapskates

While the Prelinger Collection has been pretty stagnant for almost a year, has recently pulled out all the stops in updating their feature film collection. Over the last few weeks, dozens of free PD features and shorts have been added to an already impressive list, further helping to take the sting out of not having the money to blow on satellite or cable TV. Here are a few of the most noteworthy recent additions.

A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor: Eddie Cantor, one of America's greatest comedians, is sadly neglected today despite the sizable legacy he left behind. The goggle-eyed, wispy-voiced Cantor, like most vaudeville comics of his era, dabbled in just about everything and was successful at most of it, enjoying a lengthy career in radio, TV, and film. A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor is a groudbreaker. It's Eddie's very first film, and it's also a De Forest Phonofilm, one of the very first sound-on-film talkies, produced years before Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer. I had been aching to see one of the De Forest films ever since I read Walter Kerr's comments on them in The Silent Clowns, and this, a genuine record of Eddie's song-and-patter vaudeville act, is no disappointment. His self-depreciating humor and perky songs still wear well today and De Forest's early optical soundtrack reproduces all of it with what sounds like higher fidelity than most talkies of 1929-1931 vintage. It's remarkable to think of the other performers whom we could have gotten a glimpse of in their prime if they had similarly signed with De Forest in 1923. The Four Marx Brothers had only recently begun to finalize their now-famous stage characters. John Barrymore was making waves with his legendary performance as Hamlet. How about W. C. Fields? Gallagher and Shean performing their signature song? A pre-Sennett Harry Langdon doing his famous chauffeur routine?

Now You're Talking: The Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, made this animated instructional short for Bell Telephone in 1927, an interesting and entertaining record of how pre-dial Western Electric candlestick phones were used (and abused). While such handy phone tips as "pick up the phone when it rings" and "use the phone book to look up numbers you can't remember" may seem rather obvious to we who live in the far-flung future, they may not have occurred to a people still terrified by steam power and chewing gum, and who thought automobiles were pulled by invisible horses. And who knew there was a late 20s fad for attaching useless gizmos to phones? Gizmos that made your phone explode, no less! Incidentally, this short was made the same year that Western Electric introduced the #202 desk phone, the first phone with both a dial and a proper handset, which ultimately made the old candlestick phone w/subset box obsolete.

The Fleischer Brothers' animation was easily the most engaging and attractive of the silent era, due in no small part to animator Dick Heumer's remarkable inking skills, and Now You're Talking is a beautifully preserved example of the studio at its pre-sound creative peak. also has a nice print of Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, a 1924 Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune also produced by the Fleischers. Although it's apparent that the Inkwell Studios used these "bouncing ball" shorts as budget-saving fillers (even the bouncing ball itself was live action), it's fun nonetheless. Strangely, there is absolutely no war imagery in this short.

The Golem and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (both 1920): Two cornerstones of silent German Expressionist horror cinema, both available in good prints with musical accompaniment. I think a Tim Burton remake of Dr. Caligari with Johnny Depp as Cesare the Somnambulist is something of an inevitability. The Golem isn't quite as much fun (in fact, it drags a bit), but is worth watching for the sets and Paul Wegener's performance as the Golem, cues from both being later taken by director James Whale for Frankenstein (1931). This was Wegener's third and final film appearance as the Golem, the first two films being The Golem (1914) and The Golem and the Dancer (1917).

War Babies (1932): A horror film of a different kind. War Babies was one of a series of "Baby Burlesks"; comedy shorts featuring infants and toddlers acting out parodies of contemporary hit films. This grotesque series was a close cousin to the MGM Dogville shorts which featured trained dogs acting out parodies of current MGM features, except the dogs got to walk away with their dignity intact. Shirley Temple started her film career in these things, playing.. god help us.. the Baby Burlesks' regular "femme fatale". Unfunny and obnoxious, exploitative in the extreme, and utterly excruciating in every conceivable way. In some states, I think you can get arrested for having a copy of this on your computer. Enjoy!

The Lost City (1935): In 1913, Harry Revier and J. J. Burns converted a barn in Hollywood into the farming community's very first motion picture studio. Cecil B. DeMille directed The Squaw Man at the Burns and Revier Studio and Laboratory later that year before signing a long-term lease on the property. Harry Revier turned to directing himself by 1916, but was never much of a success in the town he had helped to create. In 1935, he directed this berserk 12-chapter serial to compete with the first wave of science fiction serials being released by Mascot, Republic, and Universal (specifically, Undersea Kingdom, The Phantom Empire, and Flash Gordon) and while The Lost City may not have the production values of those better-known serials, it makes up for it in sheer outrageousness. Among all of the shrieking natives, devious Arabs, and Noble White Men are some pretty fascinating performers, chief among them the out-of-control William "Stage" Boyd who drank himself to death after The Lost City was in the can. Silent comedians Milburn Moranti and Billy Bletcher also appear in sizable roles. Moranti was most famously teamed with comedienne Gale Henry in over a hundred shorts made between 1915 and 1920, but continued to appear in Westerns until 1951 (following a career path similar to that of Al St. John). The 5'2 Billy Bletcher, best remembered as the booming voice of The Big Bad Wolf, Peg-Leg Pete, The Pincushion Man, and dozens of other cartoon heavies at every animation studio in Hollywood, chews the scenery wonderfully as dwarf henchman Gorzo. Harry Revier wrapped up his directing career in 1938 with the unsettling Child Bride.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Return of the Son of, Episode II, Beyond Thunderdome

My site is back and in honor of the occasion, I've added a new no-frills page devoted to my "music", hidden cleverly under MISC. on the index page. All of the Christmas songs are there as well as the EVP-loaded Voices and the very upsetting Gloria Green. Hopefully, I'll have some new material in the near future as blues guitarist Josh Foster and I continue work on the new Society's End album. You won't never have not heard anything unlike it.. ever.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The downward spiral

I had a suspicion the day it was reported. On Friday, the London police chased a guy down at the Stockwell Tube and, apparently acting on a new "shoot to kill" policy, plugged five bullets into his head because he was wearing a "suspicious" parka and lived in the same building as someone currently under investigation for the recent bombings. Of course, almost inevitably, the guy was innocent; a 27 year old Brazilian named Jean Charles de Menezes. I have to wonder if even stopping and throwing his hands in the air would have prevented him from being gunned down by cops convinced his parka was stuffed with explosives. At the moment, I'm very eager to learn a) why, if Mr. de Menezes was a suspect in the bombings, he was allowed anywhere near the station in the first place and b) if he was a key suspect, why he hadn't been questioned earlier which would clearly have eliminated him from the cops' list of potential terrorists. As has been revealed, the London police are basing their counterterrorism tactics on advice from security forces from Israel and Sri Lanka. Naturally.

"This tragedy has added another victim to the toll of deaths for which the terrorists bear responsibility." says London Mayor Ken Livingston. I gather the same thing can be said for the Pakistani man beaten to death in the streets of Nottinghamshire last week. Or the Muslim teacher beaten in South London on Monday. It's all so easy once The Terrorists give you the go-ahead to act out your racial hatred. Right-wing extremists and football hooligans are now teaming up to "exact revenge" on Muslims and immigrants and we wonder why some dark-skinned guy feels the need to run from more than a dozen screaming, gun-wielding men in street clothes. But that's the way things work in our self-defined Age Of Terrorism. Oops. Our bad. Sorry we killed your son/husband/father/brother. But he did act funny. And it was all in a good cause, you know. Here's a check and some coupons.

Some eyewitnesses say the cop who shot de Menezes was holding him down at the time. Were any anglos living in that building similarly tracked by the police? Would they have been? At least the Metropolitan Police Service has admitted the mistake and I'm certain there will be a full investigation. I wish I could expect the same if this incident had occurred in NY or LA.

Terrorists kill innocent people. Cops kill innocent people because they may be terrorists. Soldiers kill innocent people because they may be terrorists or because they happen to stumble into the line of fire. Sounds like innocent people get shafted one way or the other. And, to the joy of the powers that be, the greedy, amoral politicians, the arms dealers, and the blood-hungry religious extremists, the rift grows wider...

And now another massive attack in Egypt. More than 90 dead. Around and around we go.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Uh-oh.. appears to be down. I'm looking into the causes now. Fortunately, I have backups for everything in case I have to switch hosts. Any recommendations would be highly appreciated, BTW.

My Favorite Movies by Era

Here's a blogmeme I can dig, courtesy of Bill Sherman. I may not have a memory for such trivialities as birthdays, anniversaries, business appointments, funerals and such, but I can damn well remember what my favorite movies were when I was a high school sophomore.

early 80s - War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

late 80s - The Haunting, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Playtime, Dr. Strangelove

early 90s - Brazil, Monty Python's Meaning Of Life, A Clockwork Orange, Duck Soup, Delicatessen, The Fisher King, Richard III (w/ Sir Ian McKellen), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

late 90s - Diplomaniacs, Munchhausen (1943 UFA), Paths of Glory, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Traffic, Jimmy the Boy Wonder, Soup To Nuts, The City of Lost Children

early 00s - The Mothman Chronicles, The Beatniks, Psyched by the 4D Witch, Waiting for Guffman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Kiss Me Deadly

Monday, July 18, 2005

Let's Do the Time-Warp Again!

click on thumbnails

Here's short and sweet Abbott and Costello 2-pager from the 1955 Film Fun Annual drawn, it appears, by the same hand responsible for the 1938 Wheeler and Woolsey strip I posted here earlier. The editors of Film Fun were remarkable for their conservative doggedness, only dropping comedians and comedy teams from their pages after they died or formally split. Joe E. Brown, for instance, was featured in his own Film Fun strip for almost thirty years, disappearing in the late 50s, eons after his film career had fizzled. 1956-57 must have been hell for the permanently time-warped FF. Regulars Oliver Hardy and Frank Randle died and Abbott and Costello went their separate ways after Dance With Me Henry. While Martin and Lewis received their own FF comic in 1956, the last five years of the UK weekly saw a resurgence of home grown talent with Terry-Thomas, Tony Hancock, and Tommy Cooper taking pride of place... all drawn to the end in the same antique style you see here .

Monday, July 11, 2005

War is Hell

Anthony Piana entertains co-star Susan Goforth with his Snub Pollard impression. Believe it or not, this is a night scene.

It has always struck me as extremely strange that a novel as cinematic and iconic as The War of the Worlds had only been filmed once, and in a manner designed to drain it of any significance (or, at least, the significance Wells intended it to have). Well, now we have two more versions and, frankly, the novel still has yet to be committed to film. Steven Spielberg respectfully ignores the source material while, at the other end of the spectrum, Anthony Hines films the novel without respect or understanding. Heaven knows I wanted to like this. I've been eagerly awaiting Hines' authentic period version of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds for about three years now, ever since Pendragon Pictures decided to drop their original intention to stage the story in the present day and shoot the 1898 novel instead. PP claims this decision was made in the wake of 9/11, fearing a modern day alien invasion story would be in poor taste in a post-9/11 world. This is, of course, a bunch of crap. It's more likely that the decision was made after it became clear that Spielberg's version would be set in the here and now and PP felt that going head to head directly with Spielberg would invite unfavorable comparisons. It didn't bode well that the decision to film the novel was Pendragon Pictures' "Plan B", but I held out hope. Pendragon Pictures then announced that while they wouldn't be able to cast "names", they would be casting actors with "Shakespearian" training. Sounded good, especially as I was laboring under the assumption that this was being shot in the UK where it wouldn't have been too unlikely to hire a moonlighting member of the Royal Shakespeare Company without busting your budget (and where you can't throw a rock without hitting photogenic scenery). And then came the surprising news that "The Little Guy" had won; Pendragon had filmed WOTW in secret (why?) and it was now complete, beating Spielberg's version to, well, DVD. PP's spit and bailing wire website announced a theatrical release date which came and went before they announced that it would appear on DVD and at "select theaters". That didn't bode well either, but the price at was right ($10.49) and my curiosity was peaked so I plunked down my cash.

Pendragon's clunky tagline for H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is "The first authentic movie adaptation of the 1898 H.G. Wells classic novel" and, after a fashion, this is true. But I could film a dozen ten year olds beating the hell out of a tripod-shaped pinata and claim authenticity as long as they recite a few lines from the book. Having sat through every last one of the berserk and unwarranted 180 MINUTES of Hines' "film" (or, rather, digital video with obnoxious, eye-damaging shutter-frame), it is now clear that the authenticity claim is virtually the only thing Hines has to hang his hat on.

As it turns out, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds was shot in Seattle, not the UK, and I find about as much Shakespearian training in evidence as I do authentic Brits. The performances range from good to unbelievably, teeth-gratingly bad, with a emphasis on the latter. The lead, Anthony Piana wearing a patently phoney Snub Pollard-ish mustache, is good in his dual role as The Writer and The Writer's Brother, and Jack Clay turns the rather thankless role of Ogilvy, the Astronomer and Well-Known Martian Victim, into a charming and all too brief gem. John Kaufman's performance as the crazed Curate indicates a serious lack of rehearsal but is far from the embarrassment that most of the performances are. James Lathrop gives the Artilleryman a truly bizarre Scots/Cockney/Hungarian/Texan twang which renders a lot of his dialogue unintelligible. The woman who plays Mrs. Elphinstone's sister-in-law keeps her lips firmly puckered at all times, giving her an Elmer Fudd-like lisp. And co-screenwriter and producer Susan Goforth wins the Loretta King Award for shamelessly giving herself the plum role of The Writer's Wife when it should have been apparent that she couldn't act. Goforth twitches and fumbles her way through the first twenty minutes of the movie, delivering lines that she doesn't seem to comprehend and acting far more alien than the CGI Martians do. Other showy roles are essayed by people who affect English accents by simply dropping the H's from their dialogue. This is amusing in a bad way for about forty minutes. Past that, it's an endurance contest.

It's needless to relate the story here. Suffice to say that the book is in there, more or less, but with most of Wells' crucial subtext removed or ignored, seemingly by design in some scenes and often due to overeagerness and a lack of respect for the intelligence of the audience. For some reason, Hines' got cold feet over the scene where the Writer murders the hysterical Curate, atheist Wells' poster child for the weaknesses of dogma, in order to prevent his being discovered by the Martians. Hines lets the Curate survive the beating only long enough to allow the Martians to kill him, saving the Writer from the moral consequences of his actions (or, rather, preventing the audience from judging his actions) and also letting the air out of a scene written to show the lengths civilized people will go in order to ensure their personal survival. Hines refuses to even show the weapon the Writer used (the butt end of a meat chopper in the novel). Later, screenwriters Hines and Goforth gut the Artilleryman's grandiose (and social Darwinist) speech about his plans for human survival under the Martians and then arbitrarily drop the scene in which the Writer abandons the Artilleryman after he realizes he's more content to play cards and drink champagne than work. It's one of the most important and telling chapters in the book and Hines jettisoned it, a decision made even more perverse in light of the fact that he pads out the film elsewhere beyond reason with endless scenes of the Writer, or the Artilleryman, or the Writer and the Artilleryman, or sometimes the Curate and the Writer, wandering aimlessly around fields in Washington. Sure, people did walk more in the 19th Century, but the beauty of film (or digital video posing as film) is that it can be edited. Hines' WOTW would lose almost an hour without those scenes.

What's so frustrating about H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is that, although the novel is tailor-made for film treatment, Hines habitually sabotages those elements of the book most suitable for film. In an overzealous fit, for instance, he reveals the first Martian tripods about twelve times in cutaway shots before finally revealing them in full, killing, with one blow, both the suspense and surprise in what should have been a surefire scene if simply filmed as written. "Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground?" asks Wells' narrator in the novel, describing the tripods. Clearly the CGI modelers and animators couldn't. "Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body." This isn't what Hines delivers in the slightest, and that's a let-down because there's a lot of footage (arguably too much) of the tripods. They're a clear holdover from Pendragon's planned modern-day version of the book. Sleek and bug-like, with four stiff mechanical tentacles (usually held aloft because it would have taken more time to animate them as described in the novel), the tripods are also wildly overdesigned in the manner of a comic book artist eagerly trying to display his or her craft. Compare these to Spielberg's version or even the un-Wells-like but effectively eerie.. and simple.. manta ray machines from the George Pal movie. Frankly, I'm a strong believer in integrated production design. If I were to suddenly shift gears and set my movie in Edwardian England rather than present day New York City, I'd feel obligated to ditch what I had and come up with completely new tripod designs, perhaps something with an appropriately steampunk feel to it. But that's just me. On a side note, the Martian tripods in Hines' movie also display a propensity for deliberately stepping on young women, resulting in bathtubs worth of CGI blood. It's very silly and wholly uncharacteristic for Wells' impersonal war machines.

The Heat Ray, another one of Wells' surefire cinematic conceits, also goes AWOL. The Martians don't use a heat ray here, despite what the characters may call it. The CGI crew felt it would be more interesting if the Martians used a device that creates a kind of general "heat malaise" throughout the air. This weapon can cause its victims to burn, vaporize, explode, or skeletonize, depending on the whims of the animator. When we first see it in use, the victims' skeletons continue to writhe on the ground for some time. I'm not sure what that's about. The Martian's other WMD, the Black Smoke, is almost completely absent, probably because of the inability of the CGI crew to animate it. What little Black Smoke we see emerges from the tips of a tripod's metal tentacles rather than from the novel's capsule shot from a gun. The tripod goes out of its way to kill a small throng with the stuff rather than use it to wipe out entire villages, as in the novel. Maybe it was just bored.

The Martians, unlike the tripods, are well designed and faithful to Wells' description. Unfortunately, they are hardly the book's sluggish fish out of water. They dart about nimbly, making liars of most of the characters who describe them and weakening the point behind their reliance on machinery. In the novel, the Martians are vampires who have evolved sharp proboscises to drain the blood from the frail, humanoid creatures which are their native cuisine. This makes humans an obvious substitute. But Wells' creative musings on evolution are weakened when Hines' Martians use technology to suck their victims dry (and I mean completely). They even seem to toy with one woman before draining her body, making their feeding habits seem unnecessarily cruel rather than a simple biological function. In all, it indicates a serious misunderstanding of the central thrust of Wells novel which is, after all, a creative extrapolation of evolutionary theory. Wells' Martians impassively and calculatedly take advantage of an evolutionary gap in the Earth's chain of life only to find themselves fall victim to Earthly bacteria which, naturally, take advantage of the Martian's own evolutionary weakness. Hines' repeatedly portrays the Martians as cruel and vindictive sci-fi baddies rather than cold opportunists, hurting Wells' point and making the Martians far less frightening in the process.

Overall, the film's look is the insult following the injury. If all of Pendragon's cut-rate production techniques were backed up by believable performances, perhaps this wouldn't have mattered quite as much as it does. There's no reason whatsoever why all of the endless Premiere filters and chromakey footage and cheap sub-video game CGI on display in WOTW couldn't be put to good use. But their clumsy mishandling just makes everything that much worse. It's difficult enough to suspend disbelief with the kinds of performances we're treated to here. It becomes impossible thanks to the poorly handled CGI and composite video images that litter 98% of the film. Every now and again, these strangely unreal composite images seem on the verge of coalescing into a style unto themselves, rather like the films of Karel Zeman or a Max Ernst collage, but all of that is wrecked when the same bit of bad animation is recycled for the umpteenth time, or when the chromakeyed footage is sandwiched together without care resulting in shots of people standing in front of walls of water or background footage that's completely out of scale for the actors standing in front of it. It's just artless bungling at that point. The chromakey compositing, the editing, and the CGI all completely collapse during the interminable Thunder Child/ Tripods v. Battleships sequence. Scale and perspective go out the window as poorly designed CGI boats glide about sideways over video footage of a lake. The action is nearly impossible to follow. One of the book's climactic moments (Britain's, and thus the world's, most advanced weaponry is shown conclusively useless in this battle) is a total abortion in Hines' film. And, again, the scene seems to last an eternity.

As it turned out, Pendragon amply proved a rule of thumb of independent filmmaking; if you can't afford to show it, don't show it. But Hines holds nothing back. Everything is shown. Nothing is implied. It's as if Hines couldn't bear to cut corners or scale back what he wanted onscreen, so he used every effect he could, no matter how crummy or unconvincing, to achieve some semblance of what he had in his head. This useless tail chasing only serves to further destroy whatever intentions he might have had and the results would tax the patience of a saint. And the truly sad part is that even if Hines had ILM-grade effects, genuine English settings, and performers from the Royal Shakespeare Company, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds would still be an extremely bad movie. The screenplay, direction, and editing are all sub-par, and those are things that only talent, not money, could help.

At the end of the credits (even the credits seem run on forever), there's a little tag inviting the audience to see Pendragon Pictures' next film, Chrome. Now that's chutzpah.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

"She has the terrorize!"

Found this nifty poster on Ebay for Cathy's Curse (aka Cauchemares (1977)), one of my favorite PD dollar DVD titles. It's very representative of the film it's promoting in the budget-minded approach to color, unimaginative layout, and half-assed tagline. Incidentally, there is no butler in this peculiar Canadian horror flick, which is a shame. Cathy's Curse does, however, contain the most bizarre false-scare in the history of horror cinema. Blood is found dribbled all over the sleeve of a coat in a closet and, after a bit of panic, Cathy's dad, The Voice of Reason, reaches up onto a shelf above the clothes and pulls down two bottles of blood! "One tipped over." he says with relief. They belonged to his late father, he explains, who "used the stuff like a tonic. He was always afraid he would run out of his own!" And everyone has a good laugh. So his dad used to drink blood? Like a tonic? And kept it unrefrigerated in a closet? And it never congealed? Moments like that make me wonder if Cathy's Curse was perhaps made by extraterrestrials.