Red Hot Tires (1935)

Race cars useConstructed with the logic of Ping-pong balls imprinted with plot points and picked at random from a bingo cage, Red Hot Tires doesn’t waste any time and launches right into the action. Midget race cars roar forward in process shots, the peculiar aerodynamics of rear screen projection slightly diminishing the dramatic effect, the autos appearing to drift back and forth across frame like hovercraft. A perfectly acceptable opening for a B movie about car racing, it hardly prepares an audience for the story that follows, which doesn’t so much have a plot as a series of narrative non-sequiturs.

The race ends, and it’s disconcerting to learn that Johnny (Frankie Darro), the winner of the race, isn’t the hero of the movie but rather the young kid who wants to be like the hero, Wallace Storm (Lawrence Talbot), who has been standing “heroically” at the edge of the track…not doing much of anything. A dictionary definition of the word “hero” might read “a man of exceptional courage, nobility, and strength, who is celebrated for bold exploits,” but in Red Hot Tires, a hero is someone who drives a car—and that’s it.

Storm drivingGiven the constraints of Storm’s character, it’s surprising how little driving he does. His heroics behind the wheel are restricted to a race at the beginning of the movie, which goes unfinished because of an accident, and part of one at the end. He is seen racing one other time, autos crashing and burning all around him, a crazy smile on his face as he threads his way through a montage of stock footage and newspaper headlines depicting his meteoric rise as a racer south of the border.

Despite being released in 1935 (two years after midget car racing became a sport), Red Hot Tires plays like the final entry in an extended series of films, doing its best to put a new spin on an old idea. But with decades of racing movies still to come, the basic story beats of the genre were far from played out. What seems more likely is that even in 1935, the fatal flaw in racecar movies was apparent.

A not unlikely story conference:

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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 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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