Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Vacation DVD Viewing

I had planned to spend much of my vacation getting my Christmas shopping out of the way, but a week’s worth of inclement weather altered those plans. So I watched more DVDs than I thought which is bad for me because right now its December 21 and I am woefully behind on my shopping.

Anyway, in no particular order here are some capsule reviews of my vacation movie-going. Because I’m late in updating, I’ve included a few titles I watched this week as well.

“St Ives” (1976). I’m a big fan of Charles Bronson movies from the 1970s. “St. Ives” is a pretty tame PG-rated Bronson vehicle, with a low body count, but I was still entertained. Bronson plays a down on his luck mystery writer who gets involved in murder and mayhem. Bronson may not be the most expressive actor in the world, but he possesses screen charisma that most actors can only dream of having. Good support here too, including Jacqueline Bisset, John Houseman, Maximilian Schell, Harry Guardino, Harris Yulin, Dana Elcar, Michael Lerner and Elisha Cook Jr. You may not know the names of some of the above, but you’d recognize the faces in an instant. There are also very early appearances by Daniel J. Travanti and as two thugs, Robert Englund and Jeff Goldblum. I remember the coming attractions trailer for this, which highlights the scene where the thugs throw Bronson down an open elevator shaft and he grabs the elevator cables to prevent from falling. It’s a terrific stunt in a modest, but enjoyable thriller. Rating: Two and a half stars.

“The Werewolf” (1956). The final title in the Sam Katzman DVD box set is probably the best film in the series. El Cheapo producer Katzman spent a little bit more money than usual on this, with location shooting in the California mountains. Steven Ritch is very effective as the title creature, delivering a nice sense of pathos. I don’t think his career ever took off, which is too bad because he was a good actor. Rating: Three stars.

“Night Monster” (1942). Good Universal horror/mystery movie about a series of killings at an estate. A most agreeable cast, including Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Ralph Morgan, Nils Asther and Irene Hervey. Unfortunately, Lionel Atwill is the first victim. It’s too bad he wasn’t saved for last, as he’s always a delight to watch. Compared to other Universal horror movies of the period, this is a masterpiece. Rating: Two and a half stars.

“The Dead Zone” (1983). One of the best Stephen King adaptations ever, director David Cronenberg stresses the love story here as much as the thriller elements. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) acquires second sight when he awakes from a five-year coma following a near fatal automobile accident. Walken and Brooke Adams make a most appealing couple, and Martin Sheen plays, to the hilt, a slimy politician. Another first-rate supporting cast includes the great Herbert Lom and the equally great Anthony Zerbe. The bleakness of a New England winter is the backdrop. Haunting and poetic in equal measures. Rating: Three and a half stars.

“The Lady Eve” (1941). Classic comedy from writer/director Preston Sturges, with con artist Barbara Stanwyck setting her sights on millionaire Henry Fonda, who is more interested in the study of snakes. They play beautifully off against each other, and who knew Henry Fonda could do such great pratfalls? One of the keys to the success of the Sturges comedies is he’s very fond of his characters, even those of a larcenous bent. Another marvelous supporting cast, including Charles Coburn, Eric Blore, William Demarest, Melville Cooper and Eugene Pallette. The sight of Pallette banging on his dishes to get his breakfast is classic. Rating: Three and a half stars.

“Nothing But Trouble” (1944). Very minor latter-day Laurel and Hardy comedy with them becoming involved in a boy king, or prince, or prime minister, or regent or something. I don’t remember and the film is not worth the effort to look it up. The laughs are few and far between, but L&H are always a welcome presence. Rating: A very generous two stars.

“Edgar G. Ulmer The Man Off Screen.” Documentary about the director who did wonders with the smallest budgets. He’s probably best known for “The Black Cat” (1934) that historic first teaming of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for Universal. He later wound up on Poverty Row churning out titles like the grimy film noir classic “Detour” (1945) which looks like it has come from a film universe from another dimension. Rating: Three stars.

On the same disc as the documentary is the bonus film, “Isle of Forgotten Sins” (1943). A South Seas drama, PRC-style, which means the budget appears to be a dollar and a half. John Carradine and Sidney Toler, taking a break from Charlie Chan, star and Ulmer directs a monsoon sequence at the end which isn’t bad for PRC. I’ve seen worse. Rating: Two stars.

“Hairspray” (2007). To date, my favorite movie of 2007, the most enjoyable and exuberant time I’ve had at the movies in a long time. It’s not perfect. I still think the final number is botched, with the emphasis taken away from Tracy Turnblad, and perhaps the cutting is too frantic in spots, but this is still movie musical magic at its finest. I’ve seen it four times now and have yet to grow tired of it. Rating: Three and a half stars.

“The Yakuza” (1975). Good thriller with Robert Mitchum returning to Japan to help an old Army buddy whose daughter has been kidnapped by the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia). A little slow to get started, but this is an ultimately moving film about male relationships and honor and duty. And Mitchum is a god. Rating: Three stars.

“Magic” (1978). Anthony Hopkins is a ventriloquist who hits the big time with his dummy Fats. Hopkins takes up with an old high school girlfriend (Ann-Margaret, in a terrific performance) and begins thinking about retirement. Fats is not happy with this. Good psychological thriller, Hopkins is terrific, there’s a good, low-key score by Jerry Goldsmith, and there’s something about dummies that just freaks me out. Rating: Three stars.

“They Made Me A Criminal” (1939). Warner Bros. was the studio to go to for crime and urban dramas and this is a good one, though most of it takes place in the country. John Garfield plays a boxer who is unjustly accused of murder, who takes it on the lam to the country where he runs into the Dead End Kids. Garfield is criminally unrepresented on DVD, so it’s always good to see him in anything. Ann Sheridan is very effective in her too brief scenes as his girlfriend. What a marvelous actress she was, one of the most underrated from that era. There’s also a very suspenseful sequence where Garfield and the Dead End Kids are swimming in a water tank and an unsuspecting farmer releases the water to irrigate his crops. Claude Rains plays a detective on the trail of Garfield and he’s miscast, but this is still a very enjoyable film. This title is in the public domain and there’s a lot of crummy copies floating around, but the version on the Roan disc is probably the best out there. Rating: Three stars.

“Lady Gangster (1942). A co-feature on the Roan disc is this grade B gangster flick from Warner Bros. a remake of their earlier, and much better, “Ladies They Talk About” (1933) which starred Barbara Stanwyck. This version stars Faye Emerson and its more of women’s prison movie than a gangster flick. Pretty weak, I’m afraid. Rating: Two stars.

“Texas Cyclone” (1932). B western from Columbia which stars Tim McCoy and an early John Wayne. McCoy was an authentic cowboy and an Indian scout for the U.S. Army. In the teens and 1920s he enjoyed a reputation for being one of the best translators in the Army when dealing with the Indians. He was later made a colonel in the U.S. Army. He’s likeable and wears what is probably the biggest 10-gallon hat I’ve ever seen. There’s some good stunt riding in this, and a nice little twist at the end. And only 58 minutes long. McCoy and Wayne starred that same year in another Columbia oater “Two Fisted Law”. I suspect something happened on the sets of these films because Wayne expressed a hatred for Columbia studio head Harry Cohn that lasted throughout his career. Wayne never made another movie for Columbia, the only major studio he did not work at as a star. Rating: Two and a half stars.

“Michael Shayne Private Detective” (1940). The first in this popular series of B mysteries starring Lloyd Nolan. Unfortunately this title is considered one of the weakest ones in the series and that’s correct. The proceedings are pretty dull, but the series would get better as it went along. Watching Lloyd Nolan in anything is always worthwhile though. Rating: Two stars.

“Sins of Rome” (1954). The Thracian slave Spartacus incites a slave revolt against Rome. Italian made, but on a more lavish scale than the latter interchangeable peplums featuring Hercules, Goliath, Samson, Machiste, Sons of Hercules, etc. Good action scenes, especially a scene on a barge with runaway lions. Rating: Two and a half stars.

“That Midnight Kiss” (1949). M-G-M musical introducing Mario Lanza as a singing truck driver from Philadelphia who becomes an opera star. Also starring Kathryn Grayson, Jose Iturbi and Ethel Barrymore. Grayson’s character is annoying in this, so much so that you can’t blame Lanza for telling her off. Would that he had done it sooner. The music is pleasant. Rating: Two and a half stars.

“The Devil’s Sword” (1983): Lord, where do I begin. How to talk about one of the worst movies ever made? This “Conan the Barbarian” ripoff from Indonesia features god-awful acting, a hero and a villain who look so much alike its hard to tell them apart, beyond cheap special effects, actors in monster suits that Edgar Ulmer and PRC would have rejected, and martial arts fighting scenes where the slaps and hits are so ludicrously overdubbed it seems like a parody. There’s an evil queen who collects men from the surrounding villages for stud services. It goes on…and on…and on…and on…for 101 minutes. It’s not even so bad it’s good, it’s truly awful on every conceivable level. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, the climax of the movie has the evil queen throwing up her arm to reveal a huge tuft of unkempt underarm hair. I almost hurled. Rating: Zero stars.

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