Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Report from Noir City 2014 - Part IV

Opening night of the festival, there was a rumor running through the crowd that Jack Black was there. His supposed presence made no sense to me, and no Jack Black was seen.

But tonight, I did spot a familiar face in the crowd before the first show. I wondered, "Is that..?"   

So I ventured over and said, "Johnny?" And sure enough, Johnny Legend it was. Johnny Legend...the inspiring rockabilly singer. Johnny Legend...the co-writer and director of the cult film My Breakfast with Blassie (1983) that starred Andy Kaufman and wrestler Freddy Blassie. Johnny Legend...whom you may have seen as "Skinny Corpse" in 1989's Bride of Re-Animator. Johnny Legend...all-around talented and offbeat guy, not to be confused with the boring singer John Legend. Yes, it was the real Johnny Legend standing there in the lobby of the Castro Theatre tonight. 

When I lived in San Francisco years ago, I saw Johnny and his Rockabilly Bastards play many, many times. The crowds would always dress in 1950s era clothes (much like many in the audience here are dressed in period clothes), and there would always be some truly acrobatic and talented dancers in attendance, hurling each other around. 

One of the best nights I ever had out was when Johnny Legend played the DNA Lounge. The evening started with a showing of the obscure 1968 movie, The Monster and the Stripper, which starred singer Sleepy LaBeef as "The Swamp Thing." Then a great local rockabilly group called the Honky Tonk Angels played. (I can still recall the song "Never No More.") Then Johnny acted as referee in a Mexican style monster wrestling match. And then, to cap the evening off, Johnny and his band played a smoking hot set (featuring special guest vocalist Tony Conn) with old sci-fi and monster movies clips projected behind them. Best of all, the entire evening was free, because the DNA was trying to compete with a sold-out Mudhoney show next door. 

So, it was nice to have an honest-to-goodness celebrity sighting at the film festival, and it was great to be able to personally thank Mr. Johnny Legend for the many times I've enjoyed his performances. He was gracious, we chatted for a minute, and then he hit the snack bar.

As for the movies tonight, one from Spain and one from Norway, they were both winners. As with the others, more to come in a few days...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Report from Noir City 2014 - Part III

File under general thoughts and observations...Overall I've enjoyed the films I've seen thus far, though I would say that not all of them are actually film noir. But they have been interesting and engaging, so I'm not complaining. 

Compensating for the lack of a full-on noir effect at the festival, we've had a nicely noir (is that possible?) trip to San Francisco. Given that films noir generally deal with crime and death in some way, we've been with the program from the start. We're staying with a friend who works in the morgue (I'm writing this while sitting in her living room underneath her embalmer's license from the State of California), and when we arrived at her place, the nearest intersecting street was blocked off by police cars. Ah, yes, we're getting in the spirit of things

Today, we're heading into day five of the festival here, and some patterns have emerged that I think should be noted. Maybe some of the folks putting on the festival will see these notes, and take them to heart. 

First and foremost among my observations, and annoyances, frankly, is the way the noir folks just let time slip away from them. Allow me to explain. Now, perhaps I'm being old-fashioned about seeing these old movies, but, in my world the published start time for a movie is meant to indicate the time the movie will start

But here it has meant that you still have five or ten minutes to wait for someone to come out to introduce the film. Said introductions have been running around 10 to 15 minutes each, with a lot of that time being eaten up by descriptions of, and come-ons for, the film we're just about to see. I mean, the shows have all been sold out, the theater is full, we're all here already. This means, noir folks, you don't need to waste our time trying to sell the film to us. We're here, we're ready, and you're actually standing between us and the movies. Less is more, people.

Saturday was the worst case of this, with a full five movies on the schedule. The last movie of the day was scheduled to start at 9:30PM, but didn't start until 10:15PM. Seeing five movies makes for a long day no matter what; adding nearly an hour to that doesn't add anything to the film festival experience except annoyance. Especially for those of us who start getting worried that we might miss the last bus back to our beds. 

Also, Eddie Muller, Mr. Noir, has displayed a disappointing casual sexism whenever this year's Miss Noir has shared the stage with him. Last night, he made at least two comments about her that clearly made her uncomfortable, and I think made members of the audience squirm a little, too. Yeah, Eddie, she's an attractive, (much) younger woman in a form-fitting dress - but that doesn't mean she's just an object. Grow up.

On a related note, every single time - and I do mean every single time - that someone from the Film Noir Foundation has been on the stage to speak, they've made jokes about drinking, comments to encourage the audience to drink, etc. Yeah, I know I sound like a real prude but, come on. For one thing, it shows a lack of creativity, and gets old really fast. For another, I have no doubt that there are film noir fans in the audience who are struggling with addictions and/or recovery and who don't appreciate this kind of would-be hipster "humor."

Anyway, please don't take these comments to mean that the actual celluloid content of the festival hasn't been good - it has. And I will expound on that later in detail. But I just felt I needed to give a little taste of the off screen portion of the festival as well. As stated above, I'd hope that the festival folks will rein in some of these...issues next time, to make for a smoother, more enjoyable experience for everyone attending. (It would also help if they could add about a dozen restrooms to the Castro, but...)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Report from Noir City 2014 - Part II

Day two of the festival was a south of the border whirlwind consisting of five films - four of which were shot in and/or set in Mexico. The two films from Mexico - In the Palm of Your Hand (1951) and Victims of Sin (also 1951) - were noteworthy and then some, and both contained some audacious moments that I will attempt to do justice to in a later, longer posting. 

But perhaps the big event of the day was the public debut of the newly restored, hasn't-been-seen-in-decades version of 1949's Too Late for Tears, starring those film noir royals Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea. This too warrants a longer, more in-depth write up, one that will have to wait until later, as we're still in the thick of the festival, and time is at a premium. 

One quick story though...We wound up having a young woman who was visiting San Francisco from China sit next to us during Too Late for Tears. She was just in the city for a day, and, somehow, happened to wander into the Castro to see the evening show. In talking to her, she explained that in China, they don't ever show old movies, and she has never seen any old American films either. So her first exposure to any sort of classic film was watching Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott lie, cross and double-cross each other for nearly two hours. 

After that, I guess she'd absorbed all the new-old media she could take. Though she had said that she was planning to stay for the evening's second feature, a new, restored print of The Hitch-Hiker (1953), she excused herself after Too Late for Tears and headed back to her hotel. 

Maybe Dan Duryea doesn't make such a good international ambassador? 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Report from Noir City 2014

The first night of the Noir City 2014 film festival in San Francisco...And our visit is off to a pretty good start.

Spent the day wandering around Chinatown, where I found some very interesting DVDs that I'm excited about (more on those later, I'm sure). Went by Lucky Creation Restaurant, a place I've been going for something like 25 years, though it's been years since I've been there. Still, just walking by, one of the waitresses there recognized me through the door, and came to say hello and shake my hand, which was pretty heartwarming and unprecedented. She looks like she's aged about six months in the last 25 years - amazing.

We also went by the three - former - movie theaters in Chinatown. The Great Star, which was the main stem of Hong Kong movie viewing back in the 90s, is still closed, but at least there's now a sign out front with a phone number so if someone wants to rent the theater...Of the other two former Chinese theaters, one is still closed, and the other has been torn down. It's always sad to see a closed movie theater. Given the use-specific design of them, they're hard to repurpose, so they either sit vacant or get torn down. 

Anyway, we got to the very much thriving and alive Castro Theater a little after 6PM, and there was already a line up the block of people hoping to buy tickets. Since we had a pass, we went right in, and got our seats - dead center - right away. The Castro is such a beautiful theater. It's always a real treat to be there, and last night it was especially abuzz with energy and excitement - much of it coming from guys in period suits and dames all dolled up. 

Around 6:30PM, the entertainment started when the Fly Right Sisters, a vocal trio, came out to sing songs from the 40s and 50s. What was cute and charming for 3 or 4 songs got to be a real drag after 30 or 40 minutes. Oh well. 

Then, my favorite part of seeing films at the Castro kicked in, when organist David Hegarty came rising up out of the pit playing the mighty Castro organ. More than a sound you hear, the Castro organ literally vibrates your whole body, and, at least in me, produces something close to a euphoric feeling. Hegarty played four or five songs, finishing with a spirited version of San Francisco, and got everyone clapping and, being that it was 7:30PM - showtime! - ready for the movies to roll. 

But no movies rolled. Instead, San Francisco's Mr. Noir, Eddie Muller rolled out onto stage and talked for 20 minutes. He also introduced Ms. Noir 2014, who was lovely, but then just had to stand there while Eddie gabbed. It could have been a lot shorter, a lot cleaner, Eddie. 
And so, finally, at 7:50PM, the lights went down and Journey Into Fear (1943) started. It's a slight, short film, with a troubled pedigree, but it's fast and fun. I would argue that it's not even film noir, and the way the sell-out crowd was laughing at parts, it played more like comedy. 

Still, what's the difference? We were in a grand movie theater, part of a huge, excited crowd, seeing a classic film on the big screen. What's not to like? 

We ended the evening tired, but happy. And now, we're off to see five more movies today and tonight. It should be a great day. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

For a variety of reasons, American movie goers in the 1960s got to be very familiar with characters like Hercules and Maciste. The number of films produced by American studios dropped greatly after the (for the movie business) boom years of World War II. But the number of theaters in the U.S. didn’t drop in similar numbers, which left many theaters, especially smaller and second-run theaters, scrambling for product to show.

At the same time, several European countries, trying to rebuild their film and other economies, put limits on the amounts of money American studios could take out of their countries. This led to an increase in American dollars being invested in producing and/or distributing films from those countries – it was one method, in a roundabout way, to try and get your money back to the U.S.

Also, some of those same countries were offering big tax breaks to encourage domestic film production, so in many European countries it became very inexpensive to produce films – films that would still have high production values. One of those countries was Italy, which, at the time, was also one of the four or five biggest film markets in the world.

With all these factors twining together, by the early 60s the floodgates had opened, and it was “Hello, Hercules!” at a great many American theaters. (There was also a corresponding flood of similar movies going straight to TV in the U.S. in the same period, which tells you how many of these type of movies were being produced.)

And so we come to Hercules Against the Moon Men. I tried to watch this as though I was a kid in the 60s seeing it in a theater, all hopped up on soda and candy. (Full disclosure: No candy or soda was actually consumed while I watched this.) From that perspective, I think that this film, more so than a lot of similar films from the same period, delivered the goods.

Does Hercules engage in feats of great strength? Yes he does. He hefts and tosses dead trees, smashes through walls, and bends iron bars. Does Hercules face certain death? Yes he does. There are numerous hand-to-Herc combats, and one awesome spiked death trap. Are there monsters? Yes there are. There are giant (and slow and stilted) rock monsters, and a sabre-toothed ape creature.
Cutting to the chase, are there Moon Men? Well, yes, technically. The real villain of the film is the evil Queen Samara (Jany Clair), who is exploiting her own people and working in cahoots with the Moon Men, who have a base inside the Mountain of Death. Still, there are Moon Men, so…

Poor Hercules (played by Sergio Ciani, but billed As “Alan Steel” in the U.S.) is kept busy pretty much from the moment he arrives in the city of Samar. After a certain point, it became humorous how much the terrorized locals were depending on Hercules. There’s scene after scene of them going to him for help, and, being the good guy he is, Hercules is always ready to lend a hand. At one point he even seems to be helping the evil Queen Samara, but of course, he’s just pretending to get information he needs to help the people of Samar.

On the other hand, there’s not much that can help the functional-but-that’s-all dubbed dialogue. It consists mostly of lines like, “Come on! Let’s storm the palace!” or “Hurry! To the Mountain of Death!” Not inspiring, but it keeps things moving for the most part.

Though this may not be the most intellectual of entertainments, it does seem to contain something for almost everyone. As explained above, there are monsters and battles for the kids. If Dad had happened to come along for the show, he’d probably enjoy the shapely female residents of Samar. If Mom came along, well, there were at least three or four tight close-ups of Ciani/Steel’s shapely and always well-oiled pecs, not to mention his biceps, etc.

It may not be a “real” piece of mythology, but as a piece of flashy, fun cinematic history, I personally think this Hercules is pretty good. And I’m sure it’d be even better with some candy and soda.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

HIGH SCHOOL BIG SHOT (1959) – A Review

My wife and I have been getting ready to go to the Film Noir Festival in San Francisco by watching movies set and shot in San Francisco – including Dirty Harry (1971), The Conversation (1974) and Zodiac (2004). Without even including The Sniper (1952) and The Lineup (1958), it sure seems like SF is a great city to get murdered in, eh?

Anyway, we’ve also been taking some controlled, appetizer-like doses of noir films, so I introduced my wife to a rough little gem she had never seen. Said gem is High School Big Shot, a film that, thankfully, does not live up to its title. Unlike films with remarkably similar titles from that period – like High School Confidential! (1958), High School Hellcats (1958), High School Caesar (1960), etc. – HSBS tells a story that doesn’t focus on school at all, though the lead character, Marv Grant (Tom Pittman) is a high school student. But the majority of the film takes place away from the school, and it’s really a fairly tight little crime picture with a somewhat misleading title.

Marv, whose father is a no-good drunk, is hooked on Betty (Virginia Aldridge). But Betty has her sights set on landing a guy with lots of dough, which leaves poor Marv on the outs. Marv thinks he hears opportunity knocking when he overhears his boss at the warehouse planning a big buy of heroin, with said deal requiring a million bucks to be – briefly – placed in the safe in the warehouse. So Marv finds some help to crack the safe and score the cash. Meanwhile, Marv’s told Betty his plans, and she in turn tells her caveman boyfriend about the deal – and he and his pals plan to rob the robbers after they empty out the safe. It all ends with a lot of gunfire and more characters dying than not.
So yeah, the title isn’t so accurate, and yeah, the actors playing high school students are well past their teens. But, other than that, I think this is a solid little crime picture that should satisfy crime and noir fans quite well. The plot is simple, but engaging. There are some familiar character actors sprinkled throughout the cast (Byron Foulger, Malcolm Atterbury, Stanley Adams). The lead, Tom Pittman, is a suitable noir-type fall guy undone by a dame. And the ending is certainly pretty bleak. What’s not to like?

Postscript: In a sadly noir-like ending in real life, Pittman, who some were touting as the “next” James Dean, died in a car crash on Halloween in 1958. So this film, his first leading role, was released posthumously not quite a year later. He was 26 years old.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

BLUES BUSTERS (1950) – A Review

Full (and possibly shameful) disclosure: I have seen every single Bowery Boys movie made – all 48 of ‘em. So, with each film running a little over an hour, that’s at least two full days of my life given over to the Boys. Given, mind you, though most of their movies are, to be kind, pretty terrible.

But this entry in the series may well be their shining hour, or, more accurately, their shining 67 minutes. (Thus it’s one of a handful I’ve seen more than once.) The plot - one of the few they didn’t endlessly recycle – goes like this: Sach (Huntz Hall) has his tonsils removed, and after the operation, he can “sing like Bing” (courtesy of John Laurenz, who dubbed Hall’s singing voice). His pal Slip (Leo Gorcey) sees dollar signs at this development, and sets out to exploit the situation, promoting Sach as “The Bowery Thrush.” Comedy ensues – and for once, it’s often actually funny.

Though Hall was often the focal point of various plots in various Bowery Boys movies (remember, there were 48 of them), this is one of the few chances he had to really and truly shine as a comic performer. Despite the totally accidental nature of his new talent, it doesn’t take long for The Bowery Thrush to become an insufferable prima donna, which allows Hall to fuss, preen and pose to good effect. The short running time is his best friend in this, in that the slim plot is over and done before it has a chance to run out of steam.

Though many of the usual Bowery Boys suspects are in place here (director William “One Shot” Beaudine, screenwriter Charles R. Marion, producer Jan Grippo), for whatever reason the stars aligned in favor of this particular episode. I well realize that the juvenile antics and low-budget bonhomie of the Bowery Boys will not appeal to everyone. But, if you’re a fan, or are just looking for a fun way to kill an hour (well, 67 minutes), then you could do a lot worse than this.

Related notes: After making his film debut with Gorcey and Hall in Dead End (1937), and continuing on with “the gang” in some fashion through various incarnations as the Dead End Kids, the Little Tough Guys, the Junior G-Men, the East Side Kids, and finally the Bowery Boys, this was Gabriel Dell’s final film with them. William “Billy” benedict, on the other hand, had several more Bowery Boys outings to go before he left, but here he already looks old enough to be collecting his pension. (All the “boys” were in their 30s by this point…)

Final personal disclosure: I am at a loss to fully explain my fondness for the Bowery Boys. I just accept that it is part of who I am.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

ALL IS LOST (2013) – A Review

A remarkably simple yet engaging story: An old man (Robert Redford) alone on a boat in the Indian Ocean awakens to find that his vessel has collided with a stray shipping container. Said collision has put a sizable hole in the side of his boat. Troubles follow.

This simple-yet-radical film is one that can be taken or interpreted several different ways…

The Monster Movie: This is terror in a truly elemental form. In All is Lost, the monster is the biggest one ever seen on screen – an ocean. As Redford’s troubles mount, so does the tension. Very, very few full-on horror films have ever achieved the sustained level of tension that this film does. As a straight ahead thriller, All is Lost more than holds its own.

The Metaphor, Part 1: The old man is America, adrift on the world economy. The shipping container is China, which fatally damages America’s ability to stay afloat.

The Metaphor, Part 2: It’s the environment, stupid. Our tiny little boat (civilization), afloat on the ocean (the natural world) is finally sunk by the weight of pollution our disposable culture produces (symbolized by a shipping container full of Chinese-made shoes).

The Experimental Film: How many films are there that you can think of that feature just one person, and essentially no dialogue? I can’t think of any. But that’s what you get here. With CGI and special effects extravaganzas having become almost the only thing Hollywood produces, we’ve gotten used to thinking of films as a visual medium more than ever. But the absence of any dialogue in All is Lost shows just how ubiquitous and important the spoken word has become in films. Not that the film suffers from the lack of it – not at all. It’s just that the lack of language is so novel at this point. This could easily have been a silent film – three or four title cards would take care of all the speaking you’ll hear.

It was an oddly circular week of films for my wife and me. We started off on Monday with a digital projection of an actual silent film (The Golem) from 1920. Though The Golem was a digital print, the image was a little soft, due to the age of the original materials.

Then, on Friday, when silent-but-with-sound All is Lost started up, I could hear the familiar soft whirr of the 35mm projector in the booth behind us. It was a pleasant surprise. The print of the film had a few lines and scratches, but the images, free from the weaknesses of digital imagery, were sharp and clear. As we watched, and the projector whirred behind us, I thought that the film’s title, All is Lost, was appropriate for what will probably be the last new, mainstream movie I see in 35mm. That is a technology now essentially lost to the digital era – an era that does not, in my opinion, live up to its hype. Digital is cheaper, and easier, and too often looks it.

But I digress. All is Lost is a film I think would appeal to many different film goers, many different perspectives. While fully engaging you as a viewer, it also allows you a great deal more room to ponder and interpret for yourself than most films do. If the film is indeed a kind of experiment, I think it is a successful one. Sadly, we now know that success does not include any real recognition from Oscar voters, but the Oscars have never really been about quality anyway.

All is Lost is a film of quality. It deserves your attention. You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

When I was growing up in the 1970s, Russell Johnson was one of those character actors who seemed to be in everything from the 1950s, both movies and TV shows. Even in small parts, his sharp, handsome features and pleasant voice always stood out. Though he had a nondescript name, and was rarely a leading player, I always recognized him and welcomed his presence. He projected a quiet authority that, for me, sort of made him the acting equivalent of comfort food.
With his passing, almost all the focus has been on his (admittedly iconic) role on that stupid show, so I will gratefully bypass any further mention of that. As you’ll see, Russell Johnson was someone well worth remembering for the entirety of his career, not just one role on one show.
Johnson started his acting career the hard way: After being in a plane that was shot down in the Philippines during World War II (earning him a Purple Heart), he used his G.I. Bill benefits to enroll in acting school. He obviously picked the right career path, because by 1950 he was making his acting debut on the TV series Fireside Theatre. In 1952, he made his motion picture debut in For Men Only, a B drama starring and directed by Paul Henreid.
And from then on, Russell was off and running, most often appearing in science fiction stories, crime dramas, or westerns. On TV he was seen in Adventures of Superman, Wonder Woman, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Lone Ranger, Route 66, Ben Casey, The F.B.I., Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, Wagon Train and both Lassie and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.

In the movies, he was seen in the crime picture, Loan Shark (1952), the car racing drama Johnny Dark (1954), and westerns such as The Stand at Apache River (1953), Tumbleweed (1953) and Ride Clear of Diablo (1954). In 1957 he co-starred with fellow character actor Dick Miller in Roger Corman’s Rock All Night.
And then there were the science fiction films: It Came from Outer Space (1953), which was part of the first 3-D craze. Then there’s the big budget This Island Earth (1955). And the no budget but wonderful Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), again for Roger Corman. As a kid growing up and discovering the magic of movies, busy character actors like Russell Johnson were like part of an extended (perhaps very extended) family. Of course, you didn’t actually know them, but they were always around. 
I can still vividly remember sitting in the Craterian Theater in Medford, Oregon, as a kid, watching a 3-D revival of It Came from Outer Space, with the distracting red and blue glasses perched on the bridge of my nose. The scene where the space monster meets and gobbles up Russell Johnson is one that reverses the usual 3-D protocol of things coming out at the audience. But in this scene, the audience sees things from the perspective of the alien, as it moves in towards a terrified Johnson. Even if he had never acted again after that film, that image would always be seared into my memory.
Of course, Russell Johnson did act again – and again, and again. And that’s why he’s worth remembering.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

THE GOLEM (1920) - A Review
Last night we had the pleasure of going downtown to the Whiteside Theatre (still in the process of being restored, but looking great) to see the silent German film, The Golem, with a new piano score performed live by its composer, Beth Karp. My wife and I got to the theater just as the outside lights came on, and there were already a few other people there. By the time the doors opened there was a good sized crowd waiting to get in, and, by the time the film actually started, I'd guess the crowd had grown to something like 500 people. Who knew that German films from the 1920s were such a draw?

Anyway, for those who don't know the legend of the Golem, it's a defender of the Jewish people that's made of clay or other materials, and brought to life by invoking a secret magic word. In any case, that's the Golem we see in the film, and though he is a welcome defender at first, eventually he strikes out - literally - on his own, and then must be destroyed. In the Golem, we can see the roots of many a man-made monster and cautionary tale, perhaps the most obvious being Frankenstein. (When we got home, my wife asked, "Is Gort a Golem?" I think Gort is indeed a Golem.)
Silent films are so far removed from what we are used to today, such a completely different cinematic animal, that it's difficult to "judge" them fairly. Some of the acting in this film should really be called over-acting, or wild emoting. The gestures are so broad, the style so out-of-touch with modern expectations, that some of it is, unfortunately, humorous.

But...The Golem itself, as played by the six-foot-six Paul Wegener (who also directed and co-wrote the film), is a figure of imposing presence. Playing a character that does not speak, Wegener is not hindered by the film's silence, and he manages the create a creature that is visually striking and often quite menacing. When the Golem finally goes on a rampage, and the streets are filled with hundreds of extras fleeing, and flames are ripping across the red-tinted screen, The Golem creates a majesty and sense of menace that stands the test of time. (Again, my wife commented, "People at the time this came out must have been terrified." I think she's right about that, too.)
The new score by Beth Karp was just fine, and helped to move the film along. I don't know if you'll ever get to hear her score - who knows what the market is for an updated DVD of The Golem - but it was nice to have her there to make the evening that much more special. It all took me right back to being a kid, hiding behind the couch at the house of one of my mom's friends as the adults watched a 16mm print of Nosferatu (1922). Silence isn't just golden - it can be pretty damned spooky, too.

Friday, January 10, 2014


One of many westerns featuring the ever mysterious character of Sartana, played here by Gianni Garko. In this one, which falls somewhere in the middle of his numerous film appearances, the plot is the familiar “bad guy wants your land (for gold/oil/a railroad) and will do anything (lie/cheat/steal/kill) to get it.” Sartana – did I mention he’s ever mysterious? – winds up in the middle of things, helping the lovely young Abigail Benson hold on to the land left to her by her uncle against the depredations of, well, of pretty much everybody in the movie, actually.

While not as stylish as some of the better known Italian westerns, nor as realistic as others (too many clean people and streets here), this movie offers a lot to enjoy for those who aren’t expecting things to conform too closely to reality.

Sartana Will Pay is actually fairly light on gunplay for a western; Sartana seems to favor a small, dainty pistol in many cases, though he’s no slouch with a rifle, either. He also knocks some heavies around with his pocket watch and fob, and uses playing cards as weapons on several occasions. As I watched the many unusual weapons used in this film, and some of the odd fights, I kept being reminded of Jackie Chan. So it was only appropriate, I guess, that at the end of the film Sartana has a kung fu fight with the evil Chinese owner of a casino. Something for everyone, right?

This last touch may have been courtesy of screenwriter Giovanni Simonelli, who a few years later would help bring Mr. Hercules Against Karate (1973) to the screen. The other screenwriter here, Roberto Gianviti, would go on to work on a number of interesting films directed by Lucio Fulci, including A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and The Psychic (1977). Given the breadth and (weird) depth of these writer’s credits, it’s not surprising that their take on the western would be a little off kilter. Frankly, I admired the way they melded the cliché (see plot synopsis above) with the offbeat. I don’t know if it was meant to be tongue in cheek or campy, but I do know it was a lot of fun.

As for the title…It’s literally true. As Sartana goes about dispatching various bad guys, and collecting the bounties on their heads, he always follows up by paying for their funerals. Well, except for Colorado Joe, who winds up being blown up in a mining tunnel. Still, technically, Sartana does see that he’s buried, so…

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

THE LAST DAYS ON MARS (2013) – A Review

This is one of those films that just kind of gets dumped into a handful of theaters on its way to a DVD release, generating more questions than excitement. Why was it made? It’s not a terrible film, so why didn’t it get a wider release and/or more of a promotional push? Lord knows worse films than this have gotten full-blown releases and ad campaigns. But, does the fact that at least five versions of the poster for the film exist speak to an uncertainty of how to market it? And, on a more local level, why did our local independent theater book this? (Not that I’m complaining, mind you, it just seems a little out of character.)

Anyway, The Last Days on Mars stars Liev Schreiber as a somewhat nervous astronaut who is part of a scientific team exploring Mars. Another member of the team discovers a bacterial life form in the most personal of ways: It infects him, turning him into a bloodthirsty proto-zombie who can survive both in the oxygen of the scientist’s base, and in the airless Martian atmosphere. It is probably unnecessary to explain that other members of the team become infected, and bad things happen.

Let me do the very simple movie math for you on this one: 28 Days Later (2002) divided by Ghosts of Mars (2001) plus the ending from Alien (1979) equals The Last Days on Mars.

So, is it derivative? Yeah. Is the plot (zombies…on Mars!) simple? Yeah. Did I enjoy it? Yeah. I liked the fact that they didn’t spend an unseemly amount of money to make this. The small budget also means that the CGI effects were kept to a minimum. And the film did manage to generate some moments of dread that were enjoyable. If there’d been just a little more light in a few scenes, and a little less herky-jerky camera work (to allow you to actually see what was going on), this would have been a lot more effective. Still, it did the job. My wife, who is a fan of both sci-fi and zombies, enjoyed it very much. When we saw it in the theater last night, there was only one other person there.

Which brings me back to the questions in the first paragraph…Still, if you’re like my wife, and are a fan of sci-fi and/or zombies, you could do a lot worse than this.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941) – A Review
This well-known noirish crime drama has a very interesting cast, and a somewhat involved plot. To sum up, when beautiful model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) is found murdered, sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is doggedly pursued by creepy police lieutenant Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), who insists Frankie is the killer. Meanwhile, Lynn’s sister, Jill (Betty Grable), who is involved with Christopher, is also drawn into the search for the real killer.

Liberally sprinkled with flashbacks, some inappropriate musical choices, and a strong supporting cast (Alan Mowbray, Elisha Cook, Jr., Frank Orth), I Wake Up Screaming is, overall, a fairly passable if pedestrian crime drama of its time. Though perhaps of interest as an early, non-musical leading role for Betty Grable, it’s not very notable for any other reason…
…except for one remarkable thing: Laird Cregar.
To say that Laird Cregar transcends the mediocrity of this film is a huge understatement. He simply towers over the entire cast, the entire film, looming large as a malignant presence throughout the story. Even the dialogue for his character seems to be beamed in from some other, better movie. He is astonishing here. By turns menacing and pathetic, and always obsessive, you’ll not soon forget Lt. Ed Cornell.
In one scene, Frankie Christopher awakens in the middle of the night, and can see Cornell sitting silently in a chair in his bedroom, illuminated by the flashing neon light outside. It’s a simple, yet highly effective scene, and extremely unnerving.
In another scene, Cregar manages to imbue the simple line, “It can be done” with everything you’ll ever need to know about his character. Simple though the line is, in the context of the scene, it’s one of the spookiest pieces of dialogue I’ve ever heard.
Were it not for Laird Cregar’s performance, I would describe this as a very average, take it or leave it picture. But given his performance, I Wake Up Screaming is a must-see film for anyone who loves movies, or appreciates great acting. He really is that compelling. (And, to be fair, fans of the other stars here will not be disappointed with them.) When I first saw this film, I was so taken with his performance that I immediately watched it a second time, and have sought out all his other work since. Which leads to...
...the tragic postscripts for this movie. After his stellar work here, and in This Gun for Hire the next year, Cregar’s star was on the rise. In 1944, he was given the lead role in a remake of The Lodger, and the year after that, he was again the lead in what turned out to be his final film, Hangover Square. In an effort to move more in the direction of a leading man, the large actor (6’3” and 300 pounds) crash dieted down considerably. Apparently the dieting put some sort of strain on his stomach, and, days after a surgery to deal with that problem, he died of heart failure on December 9th, 1944 at 31 years of age.
As for Carole Landis…Despite the good notices she got for this film, Landis soon found her career slipping. She also went through a number of short-lived marriages. It all came to an end on July 5th, 1948, when she killed herself with an overdose of sedatives. She was just 29 years old.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A BAND CALLED DEATH (2012) – A Review

The story this documentary tells sounds straight out of an issue of What If…As in, what if it turned out there was an all-black band out of Detroit in the early 1970s whose sound was, as a New York Times headline later put it, punk before punk was punk? What if it wasn’t until 35 long years after they recorded that their music finally got a wide release, and the band got both the credit and acclaim they were due?

Well, that is exactly what really did happen. Long-story-short: In the early 70s in Detroit, headquarters of Motown, the three Hackney brothers – David (guitar), Bobby (bass and vocals) and Dannis (drums) – formed a hard rock band called Death. And yes, they played fast and they played loud, embracing a sound that had yet to go public or be given a name. They found a supportive producer, shopped a demo reel literally around the world, and found no takers. After pressing and releasing 500 copies of a 45-rpm single on their own, the band dissolved. Then, decades later, that same (now highly sought after and valuable 45) went viral as a MP3, generating intense interest in Death. The two surviving Hackney brothers, Bobby and Dannis, were tracked down, and their music finally released to the world.

Though this bare outline has the arc of fictional drama, it’s all true, with the context of the times and some of the details provided here giving even more depth to the remarkable nature of this story.

Three young black men, the sons of a Baptist minister, no less, forming a hard rock band in Detroit during the tail-end of the Motown era is unusual enough, to be sure. But then there’s that name…One that apparently caused no end of concern. When the Hackney brothers were recording in the same building as Gladys Knight, and she heard the name of their band, she locked the door to her studio. Producer Don Davis, who took the band on as a client, still apparently can’t bring himself to say the name, instead spelling it out “D-E-A-T-H” while talking on camera.

But the name clearly meant something to band leader David Hackney, and he absolutely refused to change it. His vision was to try to turn something negative into something positive, and he clearly understood that life and death are part of an interlocked cycle. David was also steadfast in his belief, since proven correct, that someday the world would come looking for the band’s music. His vision turned out to be true, but sadly, not until after he had died of lung cancer. But his songs, his children as he called them, have now finally flown the nest and taken on lives of their own.

The Hollywood Reporter described this film as “a moving testament to the enduring power of family ties and groundbreaking music,” and that’s a pretty good summation. The bonds between the Hackney brothers, and their extended family, are clearly strong, and Bobby and Dannis are also clearly proud to be carrying their brother David’s legacy forward. Though this film touches on lots of cultural and musical changes, it’s the Hackney family that is very much at the center of things. Their affection for each other, their faith, and their sense of purpose are all moving and inspiring.

Even though the story in this film is about “lost” music being rediscovered, it’s easy enough to imagine the same story being played out in any of the arts – the “lost” genius novel, the brilliant and undiscovered painter, etc. Another of my favorite music documentaries, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1994) has this quality – with inventor Leon Theremin, long thought to be dead, being found by the documentary crew just before he actually did die, allowing him to ponder his legacy on camera. One of the emotional rewards of A Band Called Death is not only seeing the surviving Hackney brothers enjoying their music being released after so many years, but also seeing them, with guitarist Bobbie Duncan, getting to play the songs before audiences for the first time ever.

I don’t think it’s necessary to like punk, or even rock music, to enjoy this engaging and well-crafted film. To paraphrase the quote above, as a testament to the power of family and the arts in individual lives, A Band Called Death delivers the goods. My wife and I laughed, cried, and shook our heads in wonder. Though it starts to drag just a little near the end, both the band and the filmmakers can be proud of this piece of work. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

If you really love movies, the best place to see them is in a theater. But if you really love obscure movies, old movies, outright weird movies, you probably won’t find those playing at your local cinema - you’ll have to seek them out on video. This being the case, those people in the world who devote their time and energy to making the obscure and the outre available on video for all of us are vitally important, and should be greatly appreciated.

Mike Vraney, who founded Something Weird Video in Seattle, was one of those vitally important people. This makes his recent death (at age 56) something worth noting.

Over the past couple of decades, Something Weird has made a great deal of weird somethings available for the hardcore film fans of the world. The films they released on video covered numerous genres – from early drug scare films to 1950s “nudie cuties” to the groundbreaking gore flicks of Herschell Gordon Lewis and much, much more.

Beyond that, as a collector and cinema historian, Vraney also proved to be an invaluable resource to those researching and writing about the underground and back alley aspects of American cinematic history. A book that I just finished reading, Eric Schaefer’s Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919 – 1959, cites him as being a major source of original materials used to put the book together. In the acknowledgements, Schaefer also says, “I am also grateful for the efforts that Mike has made to find and preserve this unique slice of American culture…”

We should all be grateful for that, very grateful. Thank you, Mike. Your efforts are appreciated.
And, by the way…If you’ve never seen the 1967 Herschell Gordon Lewis movie (Something Weird) that Vraney took as his company name, you’re missing out on one of the most incredible, insane and audacious low-budget whatisits ever made. The “bedding attack” scene alone is worth the price of admission. Amazing!