Lonesome (1928)

LonesomeLonesome (1928) is part silent, part talkie, and all movie, in that the inquisitive, restless camera of director Pal Fejos is almost always in motion. Bold in its naked simplicity and uncompromising in its determination to reveal story and character through detail and incident, the movie (despite three brief sound sequences shoehorned in at the last minute) is one of the final examples of what silent films were capable of achieving.

The movie’s tissue-thin story is the most literal take imaginable on the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” plot. Part 1: Jim and Mary (living in adjacent apartments, unaware of one another) go through their morning activities and then put in a day at work, Mary as a telephone operator and Jim as a punch press operator. Part 2: Jim and Mary go to the beach after work, meet each other, and fall in love. Part 3: Jim and Mary are separated at an amusement park. They search for one another without success, return alone to their apartments, but ultimately are reunited.

Lonesome shares a number of thematic and visual similarities with both The Crowd and Sunrise (films to which it is invariably compared), but it differs in its presentation of the couple at the center of the story. Refusing to reduce Jim and Mary to symbols in the service of a larger message or to pump up their story with melodramatic action, director Fejos accepts the simple plot and everyday characters, employing a kind of anything-goes visual strategy to bring them to life on the screen.

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The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942)

edgarEdgar Allan Poe is best known as a writer of macabre tales, but in the film The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, a different Poe is revealed, and the viewer is confronted with a personality even stranger than the one revealed in the pages of high school literature books.

With a running time of only 67 minutes,the film is forced to quickly sketch in or cover in voice-over narration large portions of Poe’s life.  The troubled existence of a tortured writer; the dark, paranoid wellspring of Poe’s creativity; even his struggle with and eventual surrender to alcohol, these fascinating, even disturbing, aspects of his life are all de-emphasized in an effort to tell the larger story of Poe’s two great loves, which, surprisingly, turn out to be himself and—you guessed it—copyright law.

Eddie (as he is improbably known to family members) is more than ready to buttonhole anyone he meets and give them an earful about what a brilliant writer he is, but if his assessment isn’t met with immediate approval, the thin-skinned self-promoter storms off in a huff. The opinions of other characters in the film range from Thomas Jefferson’s “you show promise” to a unanimous thumbs-down from a group of printers who decide the publishing fate of The Raven. But there’s only one opinion Eddie truly cares about, and that opinion is his.

If you’ve ever wondered what two renowned writers like Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe would talk about if they met, this film has the answer. They’d talk about copyright law, of course! At length. And in great detail. As might be expected, Poe doesn’t restrict his analysis of copyright infringement to the famous; he’s more than willing to talk to anyone about it—particularly publishers who, understandably, don’t share his passion for the subject. Unable to hold down a job, Poe ends up discussing copyright law with grocers and landladies, a group that would much rather “discuss” when he’s going to pay his bills.

If Poe was alive today, he’d tell you himself just how terrific this movie is, and if you tried to record it, he’d give you a good tongue-lashing about copyright infringement.

House In The Middle

house 1In the midfifties, a civil defense short was created to address what can only be called the Tidiness Gap. Clearly, extensive human intel, backed up by U-2 flyover photos, was collected and analyzed before a single, inescapable conclusion was reached. And while, admittedly, no transcript exists of a presidential cabinet meeting in which this urgent matter was taken up, rumors and off-the-record comments seem to validate the following account:

Top General: So what are these Bolshevik bastards up to?

CIA Agent: General. Mr. President. I’m not going to soft-pedal this. I’m going to give it to you straight. They’re painting their houses.

Shocked silence.

CIA Agent: Not only that, they’re raking up the leaves in their yards.

A gasp from the back of the room.

The President (shaking his head): My god. It’s worse than we feared.

CIA Agent: Yes it is, sir. They’re also tidying up in their homes. Vacuuming. Dusting. Do you want me to go on?

The President: No. I’ve heard more than enough (long pause before rising and addressing the cabinet members). Gentlemen, this is unacceptable. We cannot allow a Tidiness Gap!

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The Spirit Movie

spirit 1To paraphrase Charles Dickens . . .

It was the best of comics. It was the worst of films.

The Spirit Movie: A Tale of Two Storytellers

Early in The Spirit, there’s a no-holds-barred, over-the-top slug fest between the Spirit and his long-time nemesis, the Octopus. As they pound on each other with toilets and ridiculously oversized wrenches, it’s impossible not to notice the industrial sludge they are covered with, which disturbingly looks like some kind of excrement. Sadly, this would be entirely appropriate since the one thing Frank Miller’s film succeeds in doing is taking a giant dump on Will Eisner’s creation.

spirit 2

Frank Miller, the comic book artist, had nothing but respect for Will Eisner’s genius as a graphic storyteller (the two men were actually good friends), but Frank Miller, the film director, seems to have little or no faith in Eisner’s innovative and influential comic. The humor, humanity, and sheer joy of visual storytelling have all been stripped away, and Miller, in a desperate attempt to give The Spirit movie a kind of “edge cred,” has retrofitted the comic with a contemporary “attitude,” pumped it up with exaggerated, over-the-top action, and injected it with a terminal dose of “irony” steroids. Continue reading

Curse of the Faceless Man (Plus Audio Review of The Lost Missile)

Curse 1A mummy movie is never a good idea. Why? Because there’s only one way to make a mummy threatening and that’s by having him lumber after a woman who appears to suffer from an inner-ear disorder. Incapable of sustained equilibrium, the woman stumbles and falls for no apparent reason. Not only that, she runs in a blind panic, when even a brisk walk could easily outdistance her bandaged assailant.

When faced with the prospect of making a mummy movie, there are really only two choices: either (a) go the Stephen Sommers route and completely jettison the idea of a slow-moving, ancient Egyptian prince wrapped in bandages or (b) don’t make the movie at all. Really. This should always be the default choice.

Curse of the Faceless Man, however, chooses to go down Curse 2the cinematic road less traveled—and by less traveled, I mean gone down once and only once. It’s bad enough that the “faceless man” of the title is ancient and slow, but he’s also made of stone! This not only makes him the slowest mummy in film history, but for the first half of the film, even when he does manage to move, he is only capable of modest, sustained activity for minutes at a time.

Later in Curse of the Faceless Man, three doctors sum up the situation this way:

1st doctor (referring to stone mummy): It cannot be alive.

2nd doctor: Not the way we know life.

3rd doctor: It is not dead. Not dead as we know it.

Unexpressed by anyone, but probably occurring to all of them, is the following:

1st doctor: But it is slow.

2nd doctor: Yes. Slow as we know slow.

3rd doctor: Old-lady-with-a-bad-hip-using-a-walker slow.

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Spaceflight IC-1

AC-1 1Unpublished Playboy interview with Stanley Kubrick/Bernard Knowles.

Interview by Anonymous.

Early in 1968, Playboy magazine contacted me about the possibility of interviewing Stanley Kubrick. It was an offer I eagerly accepted. 2001: A Space Odyssey had just opened, and critics, whether they loved the film or hated it, were united on one point: nothing like it had ever been seen on a movie screen before.

But was that true?

In 1965, with little or no fanfare, a movie containing many of the same elements as 2001 had been released. I was in complete ignorance of this film, but by the end of my interview with “Mr. Kubrick,” I would learn more about it and the film’s director, Bernard Knowles, than I ever cared to know.

For reasons that will soon become apparent, the interview was never published. One editor at Playboy explained the situation to me this way: “The god damned interview isn’t even with Stanley Kubrick! And, oh yeah, if we publish it, he’s going to fucking sue us!”

It’s been many years since the interview took place, and, sadly, Mr. Kubrick is no longer with us. The time seems right, however, to finally share this bit of cinematic history with the general public. If nothing else, the interview might help explain Mr. Kubrick’s reclusive habits in later years.

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X-Files: I Want to Believe

x 1An expanse of flat, snow-covered land bisected by a two-lane highway. A car has veered off the road and plowed into the snow. The police inspect the area, looking for clues that might explain the accident. This is either (a) a scene from early in Fargo or (b) toward the end of X-Files: I Want to Believe. If you chose (a) and (b), you’re correct!

The two films are remarkably similar, except for small differences like Fargo is funny and has surprising, interesting characters, while X-Files: I Want to Believe is deadly serious, with an established cast that’s dull and predictable. The two films also feature female characters in law enforcement. And there’s lots of snow . . . in both films. Actually, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

x 2

Surprising absence of aliens in X-Files: I Want to Believe.

But forget about Fargo. X-Files: I Want to Believe doesn’t even have that much in common with X-Files: The TV Series or X-Files: The Previous Movie. If you’re looking for government cover-ups, ETs, implants, and alien hybrids—you know, X-Files kinds of stuff—this might not be the movie for you.

The TV series featured two kinds of stories: mythology and stand-alone. The ongoing mythology stories involved sinister aliens, and the stand-alones could be about anything from bionic werewolves to government AI programs run amuck. It’s disappointing the alien invasion isn’t wrapped up or even advanced in X-Files: I Want to Believe, but since a karmic vampire or sentient virus are always only a clue or unexpected revelation away, the absence of an extraterrestrial threat can be forgiven. Continue reading

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

Godzilla mothra1 At the beginning of Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, Godzilla has been absent from the Tokyo-leveling scene for something like fifty years. Judging by his appearance, he wasn’t hibernating during that time, but instead pursued a strict regimen of eating donuts and drinking beer. Seen in profile stomping through the wreckage of a burning city, all Godzilla needs is a wife-beater t-shirt and you’ve got a giant reptilian Jake Lamotta, gone to seed and lashing out at everything around him.

Godzilla Mothra 2The first in a trio of monsters to go up against Godzilla is Baragona, a ridiculous-looking creature with floppy ears and a horn for a nose. Apart from the ability to burrow underground there’s not much that separates him from any other giant monster. Playing Joey Lamotta to Godzilla’s Jake, Baragon gets the crap beaten out of him and disappears from the film, never to be seen again.

King Ghidorah, on the othGodzilla Mothra 3er hand, is a monster of legendary proportions. His terrible wrath is recorded in ancient lore and his return foreseen in prophecies of doom. Just the same, when Ghidorah finally makes his big entrance, he finds himself in the tricky position of having to live up to a possibly over-hyped reputation.

Still, there’s no denying that Ghidorah is gigantic! And can fly! And has three heads! Energy bolts crackling from each mouth!

And he’s a Guardian Monster! Not every behemoth can lay claim to that title. Actually, only three monsters come to mind. And now that I think about it, Baragon and Mothra are the other two.

Maybe it isn’t such a big deal after all. Forget I mentioned it.

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Never Weaken

Lloyud 5In the silent movie Never Weaken, Harold Lloyd plays a peculiar kind of protagonist. By turns duplicitous, suicidal, and cowardly, there is little about his character that endears him to the audience. He doesn’t confront his disastrous fate with the stoic optimism of a Keaton, the charming aplomb of a Chaplin, or even the boyish all-American spirit of…well, a Lloyd. All he does is survive until the end of the movie.

However, at the start, even if his methods are questionable, Lloyd has nothing but the best intentions. Determined to help his fiancée (a receptionist for an osteopath who will soon find herself unemployed if business doesn’t pick up), Lloyd takes to the streets, accompanied by an acrobat who has agreed to fake a series of spectacular, bone-shattering falls. After each staged accident, Lloyd administers violently bizarre twists and stretches to the limbs and torso of his accomplice. When the acrobat springs up and walks away good as new, Lloyd hands out the business cards of the osteopathic specialist, an impressed crowd of onlookers snapping them up.

Later in the film, convinced his fiancée no longer wants to marry him, Lloyd attempts to take his life. When poisoning, stabbing, gassing, and jumping out a window don’t work, he decides to shoot himself, tying one end of a length of string to the trigger of a gun–propped up on a desk and pointed at his chair–and attaching the other end to a doorknob. A blindfold tied over his eyes, he calls the janitor on the phone and tells him to coLloyd 1me “Quick!”—unaware that a light bulb is teetering on the edge of a nearby bookcase. It tumbles to the floor, explodes, and Lloyd melodramatically grabs his chest. Simultaneously, a girder swings through the open French windows behind him, under his chair, and then out again, taking him with it.

Clueless, suspended above the city, Lloyd hears heavenly harp music (coming from a nearby window where a music teacher instructs a student) and removes his blindfold.  He is amazed to find himself face to face with an angel (actually a winged statue on the side of a building), and for a moment, not only accepts his fate but seems to embrace it. Then he looks down and sees the street—thirty stories below. His life in imminent danger, all thought of suicide vanishes, and Lloyd clings to the girder for dear life.

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10,000 BC or 10,000 Blah, Blah, Blahs

10 1Unwilling to pause even for opening credits, 10,000 BC gets right down to what it does best and just keeps on doing it.

AERIAL SHOT of men wearing animal furs, walking, making their way across rocky snow-covered mountain tops. VOICE-OVER, a narrator tells of a legend about a girl with blue eyes. He follows this up with the observation that the details of a legend can become hazy or lost over time.

On this point, I tend to agree with him since what he has to say is already becoming a little hazy for me. He did say blue eyes, right? Is the narrator really still talking?

In the first few minutes of 10,000 BC, the film boldly establish two main themes: people walking — and stupid dialogue. Old Mother, the wise woman of a caveman tribe, picks up where the narrator leaves off and pads out the legend/prophecy with some mumbo-jumbo of her own.

Old Mother: Four-legged demons will arrive one day and put an end to our world. But a hero, a warrior will rise and lead us to a new land.

Marauders on horses (the four-legged demons foretold in prophecy) eventually do turn up. The village is burnt to the ground, the young and healthy are taken captive, and the surviving cavemen are force-marched to the marauders’ homeland and made slaves.

In an effort to give credibility to the standard-issue bad guy dialogue, the marauders don’t speak caveman (which sounds a lot like belabored, broken English). Instead, they have their own language, which, unfortunately, means it must be read in subtitles.

The following is a close approximation of marauder-speak and its translation:

Marauder: Kash-nook noodock nic tay!

Translation: Blah blah blah blah blah.

While admittedly not a word-for-word translation, it captures the spirit of what’s being said.

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