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Capsule Reviews (January 2006)

Avanti! (1972) Billy Wilder

From what I've seen so far, Billy Wilder, one of the most consistently great classic American directors always seemed a little of place in the modern era of colour. Nudity in his films seems as out of place as in those of Alfred Hitchcock. This is the best of the three colour Wilders I've seen though and is a classic, regardless of how much of Jack Lemmon we get to see. Lemmon and co-star Juliet Mills are superb but are outshone by Clive Revill as the Italian hotel owner who knows all and fixes everything he can.

The Producers (1968) Mel Brooks

My second time through The Producers proved it funnier than first time round. Zero Mostel is just perfect as Max Bialystock, who must romance old ladies to get funding for his plays, and Gene Wilder, in a starmaking role, is a superb counter as the meek accountant. Dick Shawn, who I'm sure I know from bad television shows, is awesomely over the top as the drugged out actor who plays Hitler in Bialystock's play. I'm not sure that I really want to see the new 2005 remake with Matthew Broderick but it's based on Mel Brooks's own Broadway version so you never know.

Within Our Gates (1920) Oscar Micheaux

The oldest surviving film directed by an African American. Blacks didn't get decent parts in Hollywood for years, so it's strange to see a silent movie featuring an almost entirely black cast. Parts are truly wonderful such as the black church with the crooked black preacher. What impressed me most, other than the fact that the general quality of the production is high, was that it wasn't a polemic. It would have been so easy to be racist against whites just as most white productions were racist against blacks, but there is one white character who is thoroughly decent and helps save the day. There are white crooks and lowlifes but also white philanthropists. Similarly, while the black race as a whole is treated positively, Micheaux doesn't try to whitewash us. He is happy to point out that there are black crooks and lowlifes as well as many decent folks. We see whites cheating whites, just as we see blacks cheating blacks. A fascinating and surprisingly excellent film.

Also surprising is just how solid films from 1920 seem to be, as if everyone making films earlier suddenly worked out what they were doing, and everyone starting then started at their peak. 1919 was a year of 4s and 5s and 1921 ranged from 4s to a 7, but 1920 is solidly classic. Micheaux isn't just fair and honest with his subject matter (far more than any white moviemakers ever were), he also gives us a complex plot and even mature moviemaking such as flashback scenes and dream sequences and even a reenactment from a different perspective. The cast are also consistently solid if not notably excellent. There's not a lot of overacting here, and for 1920 that's stunning. Another note to make is that many of the primary characters are female.

Vampires: The Turning (2004) Marty Weiss

By all standards this should have been stunningly awful: one kickboxer versus a bunch of vampires? Especially when the kickboxer is desperately trying to be Risky Business era Tom Cruise. Yeah, right. But this has far more going for it than it really had the right to have. It's not great, no, but it's far better than its IMDb rating would suggest. There are some very cool scenes, more depth than expected and a few solid characters too. The Thai setting is fresh too, as it really feels authentic. The closest US equivalent would have to be something like Blade but this is no ripoff.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) Nathan Juran

The chief reason to remember the 50s and 60s Sinbad is of course Ray Harryhausen's wonderful stop motion monsters: the Cyclops and the Roc are here, along with a dragon and the obligatory sword fighting skeleton. Outside of those effects, everyone tries hard enough but has to work with a really stupid script. Kerwin Mathews is a perfectly acceptable Sinbad (though not in the Douglas Fairbanks Jr class) but he is the most gullible hero I've ever seen anywhere in cinema. Torin Thatcher plays a twisted magician who is highly effective as the villainous foil. Then there's Kathryn Grant, a year after she'd married Bing Crosby, as a princess who spends most of the film a mere few inches tall. She reminds very much of Princess Leia, and not just when she has bagels on each ear. The Star Wars moments don't end there either: there are quite a few scenes and lines that remind. The score by Bernard Herrmann is great, the stop motion work is magical and for the rest, just try to switch off your logic circuits. The laws of physics, probability and just plain common sense don't seem to apply.

Zardoz (1974) John Boorman

Totally out there in the way films that overran the sixties could be. Sean Connery is more macho here than he's even. My only problem is that I know that a lot of it made astute sense because I got it, but there's a whole bunch more that I didn't get and I don't know whether that's because I should have done or because it was just out there. Did that make sense? I dunno.

The Blacksmith (1922) Buster Keaton & Mal St Clair

Excellent Buster Keaton short that didn't let up. So many of these shorts have slow bits that spoil them but this one is thankfully free.

Day Dreams (1922) Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline

A pretty good Keaton that doesn't quite have that spark to be something special.

Here Comes the Groom (1951) Frank Capra

It took a while to get going and there are too many songs that do nothing, but halfway through this turned into a gem and felt so much better than An American in Paris which swept the Oscars in 1951. Bing Crosby has all the presence that Gene Kelly doesn't have, even if he seems like a junior Robert Mitchum. He's still outshone by Jane Wyman who plays a very different role to the other stunning performance of hers that I've seen, in Johnny Belinda. Franchot Tone is also superb and is amazingly young for his years, a whole fourteen of them after his previous most recent performance of his that I've caught, in Quality Street. Alexis Smith also gets dolled up and ends up looking like a guy in drag playing alongside Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. Capra still had it.

Spooks Run Wild (1941) Phil Rosen

Here's Bela Lugosi demeaning himself again in a picture starring the East Side Kids who started out playing opposite Humphrey Bogart but ended up in a series of lesser adventures. This is poor stuff, not a high point in the careers of anyone involved, but it's hard not to like the East Side Kids even when the material they have to work with is not up to scratch. Lugosi, of course, is Lugosi, but while he can raise a terrible picture on his own, often he didn't seem to want to know. Here he doesn't really try until the end and then it's too late.

The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) Oscar Micheaux

After Within Our Gates I'm looking forward to anything and everything Oscar Micheaux did. This came out the same year and is also not entirely complete, but it's once again far more professional than it really has any rights to be. It also proclaims itself as a story of the Ku Klux Klan, which is dangerous territory for a black auteur to be getting involved in nowadays, let alone 1920! It also still seems strange to see black folks in a silent picture. Even the standard white actors of the time painted themselves more white for the camera and silent makeup has often dated terribly. With black actors you can't even see makeup and it's as strange to see a natural look as a black face. What makes this one even stranger is that it's something of a western. The strange is cool but the end result is just not in the same class as its predecessor. The driving percussion only soundtrack doesn't help, and neither is the fact that what promises to be the most distinctive and driving section of the film (the Klan attacks) is missing. Sigh.

Forsaking All Others (1934) W S Van Dyke

A great example of how you can tell whether a 1934 film was pre-code or not. If this had been made a few years earlier it would have been a lively and risque comedy. As it is, it's notable more for what didn't happen than what did. I've discovered that Clark Gable was an old reliable, even as a young actor, though he sometimes tries a little hard here. I've always had a bit of an aversion to Joan Crawford but she doesn't do badly. Robert Montgomery, who was so awful as Philip Marlowe in Lady in the Lake, was actually very good in this one, along with perennial favourite Billie Burke, who is always memorable, and whoever played Shep. And that makes me wonder why I'm appreciating supporting actors more than leads lately.

East Side Kids (1940) Robert F Hill

The first actual East Side Kids movie after many of the future kids appeared in Dead End with Bogie. The cast here isn't the one that worked on down the line, so there's no Leo Gorcey and no Huntz Hall and so on, but the kids hired here do a solid job in what is really a pretty damn good drama. And there's the kid who's a spitting image of the young Jimmy Cagney, and he's always fun. I wonder what happened to him.

Sahara (1943) Zoltan Korda

Every film I seem to watch from the early forties that starred Humphrey Bogart seems to be a classic. After finally being elevated to stardom after years supporting Eddie G and Jimmy Cagney and the rest of the Warner Brothers roster, he could do no wrong. This one is a war drama with no leading lady (hey, no women in the entire cast, just like Bad Taste). Bogie runs an American tank which survives on its own in the Sahara when its cohorts are wiped out. It picks up the remnants of a British field hospital and a couple of odd others and ends up fighting the odds in true heroic style. Nine men and one tank take on an entire German battalion and win! Obviously cheesy American wartime propaganda crap, right? No, for a change. This may be far fetched but it's entirely believable. Everything about it rings true and it isn't afraid to kill off the good guys.

Body and Soul (1925) Oscar Micheaux

This may be the debut of no less a talent than Paul Robeson, but this seems amateurish compared with early Oscar Micheaux films like Within Our Gates. Robeson is good enough as a silent screen villain, and a thoroughly despicable one at that, though he just isn't the same without that wonderfully deep and resonant voice to back him up. The rest of the cast aren't up to his standard, especially the lead girl playing Isabelle who seems to be sleepwalking through the whole film. She looks bored and depressed and unhappy to even be in the movie, though to be fair her situation in the movie calls for shellshock. Her huge mother is spirited enough but looks white in what must just be bad contrast, like a silent version of Divine. She overacts just as much as Isabelle underacts. Once certain things become clear in flashback halfway through, the movie makes a little more sense, but it's still not up to the admittedly high standards that Micheaux set himself five years earlier. The question is whether the powerful second half makes up entirely for the dismal first half. Oh and the continuity sucks: watch who's sitting where in church.

Just Rambling Along (1918) Hal Roach

Very early Stan Laurel that isn't much but quite enough. Pre-twenties comedy is a hit and miss affair but Laurel seems to have had a sense of timing that worked very well indeed.

The Stolen Jools (1931) William C McGann

This is a twenty minute short made to raise money for charity. Beyond the stunning faux pas that has a cigarette company sponsoring a film for medical relief, it has one thing going for it: a massive and unprecedented cast of stars. There's not much of a plot, merely a string of gags hung on the basic framework that Norma Shearer's jewels have been stolen from a Hollywood ball. The real fun is trying to identify who all these 1931 stars are. I recognised way more than I would have done a couple of years ago, but I'm still short. I'll definitely plan on watching again in a couple more years.

The Over-the-Hill Gang (1969) Jean Yarbrough

Even as a child I loved those films that saw a bunch of old guys acting as if they were young again and one-upping the youngsters in the process. I particularly remember Space Cowboys coming out around the same time as Armageddon and showing it up royally. Well this one was just as joyful, even if the substance wasn't that solid. It's a western that sees retired Texas ranger Pat O'Brien bring back together his old outfit to fight injustice. The principals are all old western character actors like Walter Brennan, Chill Wills, Edgar Buchanan, Andy Devine and Jack Elam. I'm still putting names to faces here but almost all these faces are very familiar.

The Bishop's Wife (1947) Henry Koster

I think I've had the wrong impression about Cary Grant for a long time. I always thought he was a serious dramatic actor who happened to do comedy. Now I'm coming to realise that he's a natural comedian who isn't anywhere near as good when he does straight roles. This one seems to be an old favourite for a lot of people and it's chief downfall is that it's somewhat overshadowed by It's a Wonderful Life from a year earlier. Cary Grant is possibly better here than I've seen him anywhere else and Elsa Lanchester is simply marvellous as the bishop's housekeeper. David Niven and Loretta Young are both solid and in fact nobody really lets the side down. James Gleason is a cab driver who gets to do a great skating sequence, and I'm beginning to notice him more and more. I remember him well from Here Comes Mr Jordan, yet another angel flick from the forties. There must have been a trend or something.

My Favorite Wife (1940) Garson Kanin

I've become a major fan of screwball comedies but this one seemed rather forced. Cary Grant was fine but Irene Dunne wasn't that great. I felt that rather than playing a particular character, she was playing Katharine Hepburn playing a particular character. The core idea of the story was great (man loses his wife who is presumed dead, but on the day he remarries, that first wife turns up again after spending seven years on a desert island), but stretching it to an hour and a half comedy just stretches credence too far. There were so many points in the film where the story could have ended, but of course it had to keep going. Now I'm looking forward to The Awful Truth, to which this was a follow-up (not a sequel), and which seems to be very highly regarded. Maybe Grant and Dunne did better there with presumably better material to work with. The only reason this is anything better than OK is that a couple of scenes were hilarious.

The Awful Truth (1937) Leo McCarey

Well it's definitely better than My Favorite Wife, but to my mind it's not the classic it's supposed to be. At least this one made much more sense and had a far more consistent storyline, but I guess I'm just not an Irene Dunne fan. Once again she comes off to me as a cheaper version of Kate Hepburn. I so want to like her and she has admittedly great comic timing but I still can't get into her work. She annoys me too much to be my idea of a leading lady or a heroine. Cary Grant proved here that he could be a leading man at the highest level and became a star in the process, thus unfortunately putting him out of the appropriate league for the Topper sequels. This is also the first film I've watched that completes a filmography for me: I've now seen all seven films featuring that well known movie star of the thirties and forties, Asta the dog, best known from the Thin Man series. It says plenty that this is my sixth favourite out of those seven films.

It's a Joke, Son! (1947) Benjamin Stoloff

Most obviously of interest because chief character Beauregard Claghorn was the basis for the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, this incredibly politically incorrect movie is actually not that bad. It pokes fun at the south, which of course is fine because it's the white south not the black south that's the target, and more gags hit than miss. Una Merkel is fine as Mrs Claghorn and there's a young June Lockhart way before Lost in Space.

Duel (1971) Steven Spielberg

Spielberg's debut on the big screen, it's way too long since I've seen this. Very sparse but very powerful. Dennis Weaver and a truck are about the only real characters, but that's enough. And this was a TV movie. Very classy way to start a major film career.

The Amazing Adventure (1936) Alfred Ziesler

Early rough around the edges pre-stardom Cary Grant who is by far the best thing about this tale very evocative of the much better Sullivan's Travels. This isn't bad though and Grant does his thing very well indeed. Unfortunately leading lady Mary Brian isn't as good as most of her supporting cast.

Pride of the Bowery (1940) Joseph H Lewis

Not the greatest East Side Kids movie, not that their movies were awesome pieces of art anyway. This one has some vague plot about Muggs being a boxer and the gang signing up at some sort of boot camp while pretending it's a training camp for him. It's very strained and the boxing sequences are just awful, but Leo Gorcey is on top form as Muggs and there's enough emotional content to bring it back up to an OK rating.

Smart Alecks (1942) Wallace Fox

Another East Side Kids movie. How many of these things did they make? The thing is that a few of them work well and the characters are cool enough to enjoy for a while, but there's a point at which we have to wonder whether working through all of them will demonstrate more than about two or three basic plots. This one is at least better than the last couple I've seen. For a change the storyline is pretty solid and we can get caught up in it without having to rely on Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall for a few laughs.

The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937) George Fitzmaurice

William Powell is fast becoming one of my favourite actors. While he never changed his style much, that style fits so many different genres. He's great in screwball comedies with Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow; he's great in more serious detective tales like The Kennel Murder Case; and here he gets to play the dashing adventurer. It's a Baroness Orczy historical romance (in the old meaning of the word) about a mixed up pair of candlesticks both containing important letters. It has plenty of romance (in both the old and new meanings), adventure, passion, sacrifice, honour, in short all the great feelings that should be stirred up in a film like this. Luise Rainer is a great leading lady and I'm looking forward to seeing more of her. Not a classic but a great success.

Shallow Grave (1994) Danny Boyle

The predecessor to Trainspotting, again starring Ewan MacGregor. Here he gets to work with Kerry Fox and Christopher Ecclestone as three flatmates who find themselves in a hot situation. A new fourth flatmate has died in his room and left a massive amount of money in a suitcase under the bed. They succumb to temptation and our film follows their downward spiral in a very stylish manner. Not as good as Trainspotting, nevertheless this has plenty of both style and substance and has some notably powerful sound effects.

Doomed to Die (1940) William Nigh

The last of the Mr Wong movies is a good one. The more I see Karloff, the more I appreciate his acting skill and his admirable talent for avoiding typecasting. As much as we all know him today as Frankenstein's monster, there are so many other diverse roles of his that we can discover today. The same just cannot be said for Bela Lugosi, the name that tends to crop up most next to his. I'm a huge fan of Lugosi's style and talent, but he must have had less business sense than anyone else in the history of Hollywood. Here he's detective James Lee Wong once more and it's notable how he can dominate a scene even when faced with someone even taller than he was. The story is a pretty decent detective case that kept me thinking.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1982) Hayao Miyazaki

Miyazaki's first film for his own studio is one that I've looked forward to for ages while not really wanting to watch it. I know that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense but I'm a big fan of Miyazaki's own manga that he condensed into this film. The sheer scope of the manga is magnificent and there's absolutely no way that all of it could be crammed into a two hour movie. In other words I wanted to see how Miyazaki would translate his manga into anime but didn't want to see a bastardised shrunken replica. The good news is that while the scope is out of necessity much decreased, it remains a powerful and thoroughly different movie. Miyazaki's vision is totally intact and his characterisations and depth of plot remain powerful and admirable. This isn't up to the manga but it's magic nonetheless and far better than anything other animators can come up with. I may even prefer this one to Princess Mononoke and that's a massive recommendation.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) Rex Ingram

Supposedly starring Ramon Novarro, this is really a Lewis Stone film. Novarro shows what he can do and it's no surprise that he would soon be a huge star, but playing the role that Douglas Fairbanks Jr would take in the 1937 version, he isn't really in it much and when he is he's mostly trying to act with his eyeballs. Stone (the earliest I've ever seen him) does a solid job in dual roles, but the film itself doesn't measure up. It takes seventy minutes before we see any action, which is ridiculous, and the romance is hardly present either, at least until the end of the film. Without action or romance all that's left is political intrigue and even that doesn't have much zip. Notably inferior to the 1937 Ronald Colman version in all regards.

Another Woman (1988) Woody Allen

Supposedly highly influenced by Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, which I'll get to see at some point as part of the IMDb Project. Bergman was always a massive influence on Allen and here he even used Bergman's frequent collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist. How much work he had to do is up for question because it's a very static film. Most of the film really takes place on the face of Marion Post, the character played superbly by Gena Rowlands.

I'm enjoying discovering Woody Allen's work, but when he gets really serious I tend to get really bored. There's depth to Interiors but I couldn't care less; I loved the look and feel of Shadows and Fog but couldn't care less; and while I was more interested here, I was more interested in situation than meaning. Gena Rowlands starts off great and gets better, giving a truly magnificent performance, but it seems that the entire rest of the film is only there to give her background for her role. And I couldn't care less.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953) Roy Rowland

Here's something I couldn't resist: a 1950s piano teacher super villain story set up by Dr Seuss. And yes, it looks very strange in exactly the sort of way you'd expect a Dr Seuss story to look strange, especially when it starts with a freaky dream sequence and then spends most of its time in another one. When you look at it, Dr Seuss was the most deliciously subversive writer the US ever produced. The Unabomber really didn't have his sense of humour. Seuss looked at life and saw not just the happy fluffy surface but the bizarre skewed reality underneath.

As far as the movie goes, it looks like they spent weeks building the sets and costumes and props and a couple of days actually filming the thing. And as in all Dr Seuss stories, the kid carries his own, the rhyme schemes are insane and there are so many dubious double entendres (that probably weren't at the time but are now) that it's a flip of a coin whether this is wholesome family entertainment or banned in fifty countries.

Castle in the Sky (1986) Hayao Miyazaki

Pure magic. The best animated film I've ever seen. I'm speechless.

Shaolin Soccer (2001) Stephen Chow

I don't remember the last time I laughed this hard. And this is the English dubbed full screen version with 23 minutes cut out of the film that swept the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2002. Awesome.

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) Bernard L Kowalski

This one surprised me. A Roger Corman production, though he didn't direct, this rates right up there at the top of the drive in exploitation movies of the fifties. Sure, not all the acting is great and the giant leeches are unintentionally hilarious because they're so awful, but there's really so much here to enjoy. There's a huge amount of local flavour that most of these films don't have. We really feel like we're there in the swamp with real local poachers and lowlifes. It isn't really the sets, it's the script. It's exactly right. There's Yvette Vickers, the Playboy centrefold of July 1959 and a regular of these Z-grade movies for a while, including a turn as the 50 Foot Woman. She's as sleazy a swamp woman as ever there was, just sizzling off the screen. Her first appearance is a peach. The portly husband that she's cheating on is Bruno VeSota, another Corman regular, who even directed a few such films himself, including the previous year's The Brain Eaters. All in all, it's about as great as a no budget, no stars, Z-grade drive in movie is going to get.

Cat Ballou (1965) Elliot Silverstein

Well, Lee Marvin was great. We know that. And so was his horse. And Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole made a bizarre couple of wandering minstrels. And Jane Fonda was cute. Rewatching this for the first time since I was a kid showed me that a bunch of other people were superb too, especially John Marley as Cat's father and Michael Callan as an outlaw who had never shot at anyone. But there's not as much humour as I remembered. I vaguely remembered this as a great comedy, but it's really nothing special. It's cool for those same things we all know: Lee Marvin, and his horse, and the Stubby Kaye/Nat King Cole matchup. Otherwise shrug. Watch Blazing Saddles. Again.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Anatole Litvak

Invalid Barbara Stanwyck accidentally gets connected in to a phone call between killers and can't get anyone to take her seriously. This was originally a radio drama and that certainly makes good sense, but Stanwyck gives one of her finest performances as the woman coming steadily to the realisation that she's the planned victim. Burt Lancaster, as her husband, is very young and not up to the standards he would later achieve, but the film succeeds nonetheless.

The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) Coleman Francis

Absolutely the worst film I have ever seen. Seriously. It's much worse than anything Ed Wood ever did, for a start. Admittedly I haven't seen Manos, the Hands of Fate yet, but it's hard to imagine anything worse than this. I've seen some truly awful films, but movies like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Reptilicus and The Ninja Squad look like serious art compared to this. Coleman Francis shot the film silent and dubbed a very small amount of dialogue in later. The thing is that to ensure it didn't look really dumb, he made his actors turn away from the camera or hide behind something so that we don't actually see them speak. Thus they can't look really dumb if the dialogue doesn't quite lip synch. Except they look really dumb anyway. The star of the show is Tor Johnson who does nothing except growl a bit and strangle a few people in the most unrealistic way possible. There is an overdone narration that is simply and unintentionally hilarious, a bunch of situations that make no sense at all and some acting that beggars belief. I often joke that I could walk outside with a cheap videocamera and improvise something with passersby that would end up better than the film I just saw. It sounds cool to say but it really isn't true. Until now. This time it's absolutely true.

Dodsworth (1936) William Wyler

This was a strange one. It came very highly rated but didn't seem to justify it for a while. But every acting performance is masterful and the story really sucked me in to the point where I was trying to actively participate myself. That's the mark of a great story. Walter Huston is the lead and he does very well indeed but it's the women who steal the show: the fascinating and very alive Mary Astor who portrays possibly the most seductive character I've ever seen who really isn't trying to be seductive, and Ruth Chatterton is a wonderfully bitchy wife who you just want to strangle.

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) Roger Corman

Call this a horror film and it would be truly awful. Call it an action thriller and it's worse. But call it a comedy and it's hilarious. Not always deliberately, but it's hilarious. Corman and crew threw in everything they possibly could and it's hard to imagine much that they missed. It's a political satire, a spy thriller, a monster movie, a comedy... it has a musical number, underwater sequences, conversation in Spanish with subtitles, layers of plot, the works. The monster is awful but it doesn't really matter. As a serious film this would be pathetic, but the humour, deliberate or otherwise, makes up for a lot and it never tires. It's also always fun watching Corman films for early appearances of modern stars, and here it's Robert Towne who stars as an inept spy. He would go on to produce and direct but especially write movies, including such powerful fare as Chinatown and Shampoo.

House of Usher (1960) Roger Corman

The first of the eight Roger Corman Poe pictures has a slow building menace that is admirable and bode very well for the future Poes. It also has a very creepy Vincent Price, underacting for a change. In fact the film as a whole is very underdone, courtesy of renowned novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson and that grants much of the power, along with a solid score from exotica legend Les Baxter. There's a incredibly cool dream sequence too.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964) Roger Corman

Dark and madly depressing in House of Usher, here Vincent Price is at his deliciously evil best. The opening scenes exhibit powerful cruelty that seems out of place in a low budget film. This just doesn't seem like a low budget film at all, with great acting and leftover sets from the British production Becket, but it's a low budget camp classic at heart. There's talent here, quite apart from Vincent Price who relishes every line and rules supreme over such other major names as Hazel Court, Patrick Magee and Jane Asher. The colours are vivid, and they are used quite magnificently by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, the future star here. He would go on to direct such classics as Walkabout, Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. The catch is that while House of Usher builds as the film rolls on, The Masque of the Red Death loses its legs about halfway through and doesn't really recover.

The Killer Shrews (1959) Ray Kellogg

Another bad fifties monster movie that is far better than it really ought to be. It's not great, don't misunderstand me, but it should have been far worse. Look at the face of it: the tough lead is James Best, better known to one and all as Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. The lead scientist is Baruch Lumet, whose chief contribution to the history of cinema was his son Sidney who had made 12 Angry Men two years earlier at the other end of the quality spectrum. His assistant is the Texas millionaire who financed the entire film, along with The Giant Gila Monster, shot back to back; and his Swedish daughter was Miss Universe in 1957. So it's really going to suck, right? Well, no. It's surprisingly decent. I'm amazed at how good James Best was, for a start: he does as well here as Steve McQueen did in The Blob. Baruch Lumet is also surprisingly good and the script almost makes up for the killer shrews, which are nothing more than collies in suits. Almost.

Jewel Robbery (1932) William Dieterle

Awesome pre-code that is a real epitome of what couldn't be done two years later when the Production Code began to be enforced. In Jewel Robbery, our hero is a jewel thief who gets away at the end. So crime pays and that's fine. Our heroine is a golddigger who marries her older husband for his money and then proceeds to have affairs with about every other man she meets, and that's fine. Powell hands out cigarettes at various points in the story that are not merely cigarettes. The word marijuana is never mentioned, just as adultery isn't, but it's patently obvious that this is what's going on. But hey, that's fine. Back in the pre-codes morality wasn't enforced. It was merely depicted, and here there's a very different morality to what we'd see only two years later. This has all the life you'd expect from a fine pre-code, strong female characters, no end of subversion, a zippy script that is only partly due to the 68 minute running time and a bunch of actors at their finest. I'm fast becoming a huge fan of William Powell and he is on top form here, but Wavishing Kay Fwancis is superb too, along with newcomer Helen Vinson, who I recognise from so many other movies.

Mr Wise Guy (1942) William Nigh

One of the better East Side Kids movies, mostly because there's a plot and the jokes mostly work. On the flipside this is the most racist East Side Kids movie I've yet seen. Back in the day, when the Production Code forced all sorts of perceived immorality out of the movies, racism was never on that list. In these movies there are always plenty of jokes about the colour of the black kid (I never remember his name), but it's always perceived as fine, because hey he's one of the gang. But this time round it seemed like every time he appeared, it was to be the butt of a racist joke. Now I'm not going to get up on my high horse about it, because I realise that it was the product of a time, but there was just so much of it here that it got embarrassing.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Hayao Miyazaki

Miyazaki seems to get better and better with every film of his that I see. First I saw Kiki's Delivery Service, which I really enjoyed but I didn't feel that it was the undying classic people had led me to believe it was. Then Princess Mononoke stunned me, and I totally accepted his place in the Top 250. But Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was even better, and then Castle in the Sky became possibly my favourite animated feature of all time. Now My Neighbor Totoro comes along and it's even closer to perfect celluloid magic than even Castle in the Sky. I'm deliberately leaving his supposed masterpiece, Spirited Away, until last, but I still have Porco Rosso and Whisper of the Heart to go before then, as well as a couple of Isao Takahata movies that Miyazaki was involved in.

What amazed me most was how real everything in My Neighbor Totoro was. I mean, here's a film about giant sprites or whatever they are doing all sorts of fantastic things, but it's more believable than most of the documentaries I watch. Miyazaki gets into the souls of his characters and brings them individually to life. It's great to watch how the two daughters run around doing exactly the same thing, but looking totally different. It's great to see how the animals can confer mood and emotion just by moving an eye or a mouth or even the way that they run. It's great to see how adults can not even be the focus of the movie but still have plenty of character and depth. In short, it's great. And the only improvement I can think of would be to make it twice as long.

The Mark of Zorro (1920) Fred Niblo

Douglas Fairbanks, the father of all action heroes, in The Mark of Zorro, the grandfather of all action films. How could we go wrong? Well, amazingly enough, this is my first Fairbanks and I'm surprised. The film rocks, so full of action and menace and swashbuckling humour, and that's not what I'm surprised at. I'm surprised at Fairbanks himself. We see him first not as Zorro but as Don Diego the fop. Obviously he's not supposed to be dashing and romantic but he just looks old to me. This is the great swashbuckler, this old man with the receding hairline? Surely there's been some mistake here.

But then we see him as Zorro and, without a stunt double, he is dynamic to a degree I wouldn't have thought possible. He just bounces around, leaping and diving and acting like a human dynamo. Fairbanks may have looked old but he moves very young indeed, like an acrobat with ADHD. The problem is that Noah Beery and Walt Whitman can't hold a candle to Basil Rathbone and Eugene Pallette. There have been a whole slew of Zorro films over the years, and the peach is the 1940 version but this runs a reasonably close second. Certainly nothing since has lived up to the standard set here, even when the star (such as Antonio Banderas) brings something new to the role.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996) Woody Allen

Here's another Woody Allen movie with an unbelievably awesome cast. Recent Allen movies seem to mean famous actors get to do all the bit parts as well as the leads because you have to go through a waiting list to get onto the cast list. Sometimes watching these films feels like watching Celebrity Fear Factor: both are crammed full of people I recognise doing really strange and stupid things but neither are actually that much fun. I mean, a production number version of a Nina Simone song done by Edward Norton is painful enough to start with, but when you add a skipping solo it almost beggars belief. The only thing stranger is the later production number where the dancers are transparent ghosts or vague conglomerations of ashes. But while I can stare at them in sheer amazement and happily use them as conversation pieces, I didn't actually enjoy them in the slightest.

Anyway, there's Alan Alda and Goldie Hawn and a very sexy Julia Roberts all doing their thing; along with a whole host of future stars, recognisable but still very young: Drew Barrymore, Edward Norton, Natalie Portman, Lukas Haas. There's Billy Crudup trying to be Johnny Depp and Tim Roth trying to be Tim Roth, and of course there's Woody Allen himself. Anyway, what's it like? Well Edward Norton is annoying and frankly trying to be Woody Allen himself. I wanted him to shave his head, paint on a few swastikas and stomp his own head on the curb this time. Drew Barrymore isn't quite as annoying, which is surprising for her, even though her nipples take over at one point. Woody Allen is annoying because he's Woody Allen and he's meant to be annoying.

And then there are all the songs. Eek. They're really annoying. Painfully annoying. OK, I generally hate musicals, but this is exactly why I hate musicals. The entire film actually works a lot better if you fast forward through all the production numbers. All of them. Not just the ones where Edward Norton or Julia Roberts attempt to sing, or the one where the singers are kids in Hallowe'en costumes, or the one with a crowd of Groucho Marx impersonators singing in French, or the one where Woody Allen isn't singing at all because he's obviously dubbed. No, I'm not kidding. Take those out and there are even some really funny bits, notably funny bits. So is this really just my phobia about musicals kicking in, or is it truly a great comedy film with a bunch of annoying musical intermissions? Even if it had a slightly different take on things, if it tried to be a satire on musicals as a whole, then it could really rock. If John Waters had made it with former pop culture icons, it might just work. But no, it tried to be too serious about being a musical comedy and so it sucks instead. Sorry.

Porco Rosso (1992) Hayao Miyazaki

It's become very plain that Miyazaki is an unparalleled talent in the world of film today. Every film he makes is full of magic and joy and wonder and so it comes as no surprise when this one is too. But I'm noticing more. We see a lot of landscapes in Porco Rosso and they are simply beautiful. There is a lot of detail, presumably accurate and certainly realistic, but it never swamps an image. Our eyes never leave what we're supposed to be looking at, but we appreciate the little things too. I'm also noticing the still shots that always have one little moving object to show us simple beauty but always have a focus. And Miyazaki can draw a grin better than anyone on the planet!

The Double Life of Veronique (1991) Krzysztof Kieslowski

It's been a good month for magic. Not only have I been introduced to a massive amount of Miyazaki, but I've seen my first Kieslowski, the noted director of Polish/French productions that include The Decalogue and the Three Colours trilogy. On the basis of this one, I'm really looking forward to seeing more of his work. I'm sure I didn't catch everything first time round here and while I did see a subtitled version, it was unfortunately in full screen.

What struck me most was the cinematography and the music, along with a truly stunning performance in the dual title role by Irene Jacob, as both a Polish girl called Weronika and a French girl called Veronique. They look identical, share the same name as well as their musical talent and heart conditions, but they only once almost meet. That almost meeting was a wonderfully shot sequence, with the camera swirling around its focus, yet always showing us more than its focus. There are other great cinematographic moments too, including many unconventional shots from strange perspectives. The music is by Zbigniew Preisner and mostly sung by Elzbieta Towarnicka, and is elegantly beautiful. There's also a deep use of sound that works very nicely indeed. The only problem is that it's really not a one-time movie and I've only seen it once.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Howard Hawks

It's obvious from the very beginning that Marilyn Monroe could move about a billion times better than anyone else on the planet. Her acting ability, or lack of such, doesn't have that much to do with it. She just had it, whatever it is, and it was obvious that she had a lot more of it than even other legendary sex symbols like Jane Russell who happened to be dancing next to her. She didn't walk, she undulated. She didn't speak, she smouldered. She didn't act, she just exuded. Jane Russell outacted her here to a scary degree and did a fair deal of smouldering herself, yet I kept forgetting to look at her when both of them were on the screen.

As to the film itself, it's one of those rare musicals that I actually enjoyed as a musical. The comedic plot was cool but I didn't find myself wanting to fast forward through the songs. I even appreciated a few of them, especially the Parisian cafe number. For me to enjoy the musical bits of a musical means that it really must have succeeded. I even bought into Monroe's really dumb blonde persona while simultaneously being as sharp as a whip when dealing with the opposite sex. I wonder if in a few years time I'll be able to find an expert on musicals who can look at my ratings and explain to me just what it is that makes me thoroughly enjoy a few of them yet hate all the rest.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) Monte Hellman

This one looks pretty strange from the outset. It's a film based around street drag racing starring a bunch of both very likely and very unlikely stars playing characters without names. The most unlikely are the two leads: the driver is James Taylor, he of the mellow singer songwriting and the mechanic is Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys. More likely are cult mainstays Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton, who both never fail to entertain. The girl is Laurie Bird, who committed suicide eight years later in Art Garfunkel's apartment that she was sharing at the time. Her filmography is a cult dream: three movies over seven years, starting with this one and following up with Cockfighter, another Monte Hellman movie with Oates and Stanton which was banned all over the place, and finally Woody Allen's breakthrough, Annie Hall. I bet she has some stories to tell, wherever she is now.

It's a strange movie, not that that's any surprise, but it serves best as a very effective slice of time. It's a film that ostensibly is about fast cars but it's really about the inside of people's heads and the quest for something else, right at the point where America was reevaluating what it was and what it meant. There's a lot of space in the movie: we see as much about what's happening by what isn't there as what is. We don't know people's names, where they've come from, where they're going. The point is that it doesn't matter: the slice of time comes from the journey not the destination. After all, freedom's just another word for nothing to left to lose, right? This was a unique time in American history and Two-Lane Blacktop captures a different side of it very well indeed.

I couldn't help but notice that there's a huge amount of music in this film, though none of it gets heard for long. It's really a definitive lesson on how music should be used effectively and with no regard to legal rights, rather than the Forrest Gump/The Big Chill concept of throwing in everything possible in order to sell a few billion copies of the soundtrack.

You'd need whole essays to describe just why this film is awesome because it really shouldn't be: Wilson and Taylor can't really act and don't really try; Warren Oates is the only defined character in the entire film; Harry Dean Stanton is only in the film briefly; there's no real plot, no real anything and what there is doesn't really make that much sense. But it's a true unadulterated classic, and not just as the original slacker movie. I can see myself picking this up on DVD and watching it again and again over the years.

Polyester (1981) John Waters

I don't think there's another filmmaker in the entire history of cinema who obviously had so much fun making movies as John Waters. I'm amazed that he hasn't made more of them but I'm glad for the ones he has made. This one is the last of his early films, marked by notable bad acting and every extreme situation possible. The catch here is that once he'd debuted with Pink Flamingos there was no way to outdo himself. This is the closest of the four old ones to mainstream which makes it a little strange but it still has plenty of merit. After this there was a seven year gap and then a bunch of far more professional films.

The key old regulars are here: Divine of course, looking very much like Alice Cooper would if he would only put on an extra 300 pounds; Mink Stole in a Bo Derek haircut; and the Egg Lady herself, Edith Massey, who is having more fun than anyone else as one of the nouveau riche. It's the worst John Waters film I've seen yet, but it's still better than what most independent filmmakers have ever come up with.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) Roger Corman

I'm really getting lucky with Roger Corman films this month. Just as I'm working through the monster movies in the Treeline Horror Classics box, Turner Classic Movies decide to show a couple of the Corman Poes as part of a Vincent Price night. And, by a quirk of programming the very same night saw one of the Encore channels screen this one. So I'm adding up my Vincent Prices and my Cormans all at the same time. Here he looks cool in a top hat and side paneled sunglasses, definitely turning this into style over substance. Elizabeth Shepherd is a perfectly delectable heroine and the characters are a delight, but it's Price's show all the way. Once again the future name to spot is Robert Towne, who this time wrote the screenplay.

She Gods of Shark Reef (1958) Roger Corman

Nothing much of substance this time round in the last film Corman made before the wonderful and inventive A Bucket of Blood. There's a couple of hunks in swimming trunks, a bevy of Hawaiian beauties on a deserted island and a four foot shark that serves as their god. There are shreds of plot hanging in tatters off this basic description but who cares? Really it's just more proof that even when Corman sucks he's still better than most of his peers.

The Caine Mutiny (1954) Edward Dmytryk

What's most surprising about The Caine Mutiny is that the most powerful scene comes when it's all over. Sure, there are great moments on the Caine as Humphrey Bogart's Captain Queeg gets more and more paranoid, and there are plenty more at Lt Maryk's trial for mutiny, but the peach comes when we think it's all over. Maryk wins his trial and the mutineers all celebrate, but then the winning lawyer comes in, drunk as a skunk, and treats them (and us) to a whole slew of perspective. This performance by Warner Anderson, along with that of Van Johnson as Maryk made me wonder why Tom Tully got the nomination for Best Supporting Actor that year, alongside Bogart's well deserved nod for Best Actor.

The Lost Jungle (1934) David Howard & Armand Schaefer

Early action film that really doesn't have much of a plot, just the standard lost city in lost jungle fare. However this has an added bonus that lifts it way above the mean. The star is Clyde Beatty who plays himself and he's a high profile animal trainer. The scenes in the hidden city are so few and so underplayed that it's patently obvious that it's entirely unimportant. All that matters is that we get to see Beatty get up close and personal with lions, tigers, bears, panthers, leopards, hyenas and whatnot. And those scenes rock. Really rock. Nowadays, they would all be done with CGI and this is the antidote. Beatty really is up close and personal and the tension is palpable. Now I want to track down the serial that this was condensed from.

Souls for Sale (1923) Rupert Hughes

Interesting film that delves inside Hollywood earlier than any other similar film I've seen. We get to see brief glimpses of Erich von Stroheim shooting Greed, Charlie Chaplin making A Woman of Paris and Fred Niblo doing some film I've never heard of, but they're only brief glimpses, much shorter than the extended scenes of Cecil B De Mille in Sunset Boulevard. There are also many (thirty-five say the opening credits) other stars, only a few of which I recognise. Either I'm still way behind on my silent education or the Goldwyn studio (pre MGM) hadn't amounted to much by 1923. I did notice William Haines in a tiny role early on in his career. I recognised lead actor Richard Dix with his chiselled face, even eight years before Cimarron, but he's really only another supporting actor here. The lead is really Eleanor Boardman who transforms wonderfully as the film progresses, both logically and eventually into nonsensical melodrama. Oh, and the impressive death count is both varied and surprising for anything outside the slasher genre. There's certainly spectacle here in 1923 and drama on top of the Hollywood background, and the finale is nothing short of epic. Death by wind machine!

Robot Monster (1953) Phil Tucker

I surprised myself again. Here's one of those films often listed as the worst of all time and yet I find merit in it. It's surely not my standards as I've graded a bunch of really awful films with an Abysmal lately, but this one just doesn't seem to be as bad. As awful as this is, it looks like an Oscar winner compared to The Beast from Yucca Flats, for instance. And there's a single saving grace. Almost the entire film, which covers the entire real plot, is a dream sequence and a dream sequence dreamed by a young boy who plays spaceman. On that front (and only on that front) do all the logic holes and dumb costumes and the rest of it not matter any more. As far as I'm concerned it's totally consistent with what a kid would imagine.

Now, if you don't buy that then it sucks, pure and simple, and even if you do buy into it it's still not very good. I mean any film whose star is a a robot monster is dubious anyway, but when that robot monster is a guy in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on his head and a TV antenna on the diving helmet it becomes incredibly dubious. When he's called Ro-Man and he lives in a cave and surrounds himself with soap bubbles then we've crossed some artistic line somewhere. But this isn't even the worst film of the year, as far as I'm concerned: Mesa of Lost Women was definitely worse.

San Quentin (1937) Lloyd Bacon

Here's Bogart looking about a billion years younger than he did in The Caine Mutiny. He has one of those faces that just doesn't look right when it's young and only looked right when he grew into it. He was a baby in Three on a Match and not much older in The Petrified Forest. Here he's starting to become the Bogie we know and love and he does a great job, supporting Pat O'Brien in a tough but not too gritty prison drama. O'Brien's the captain of the yard, of course, and Bogie's an upstart prisoner that may or may not come good. Like all the other Warner Brothers films of the thirties, this one's a lot more realistic than anything MGM ever piped out of their dream factory, but it still stretches credulity at points. But the tough bits are tough, the chases are thrilling and the stunts spot on. We also get involved with the characters even though the film is only seventy minutes long. Definitely another success.

Queen of the Amazons (1947) Edward Finney

While this was bad, it wasn't that bad. If it hadn't included about 50% stock footage that wasn't always well integrated, it would reach OK status. There's no logic, as the trek to find a missing man on safari takes the leads from India to Africa, where they find natives talking about amazons practising voodoo. Yeah. But Amira Moustafa is a beautiful queen with a seductive voice and there's enough zip to keep us interested.

The Beast of the City (1932) Charles Brabin

Hard hitting cop drama from MGM for a change rather than Warner Brothers. This one doesn't hold back, with Walter Huston mounting a drive to clean up the city as chief of police. Jean Hersholt is the bad guy but he's trying a little too hard to be Edward G Robinson, and his henchman J Carroll Naish is trying a little too hard to be Humphrey Bogart. Anyway, they are outshone by Huston and Jean Harlow who plays up her charms superbly. I realise that she wasn't the most talented actress that ever graced the screen but I'm finding that I've become a real fan. Watch hard and you'll catch Nat Pendleton and a very young Mickey Rooney. The real star though is the script, which highlights that Warner Brothers weren't the only studio who could make real drama. It's harsh and bitter and powerfully realistic in the way only pre-codes could be and the ending is a peach.

The Incredible Petrified World (1957) Jerry Warren

Here's one of those movies like Battlefield Earth that fail, totally fail, because everything in the entire film goes against every form of logic known to man. John Carradine has built a revolutionary diving bell that will go further under the sea than ever before, but the cable snaps and his four divers are stuck there. But even though they're 1,700 feet down, they're also a couple of miles down and I don't even want to know how that adds up. They swim out of the diving bell, because hey, the crushing pressure that would destroy them instantly just isn't there. And hey, it's light a couple of miles under the sea because there's this cave full of phosphorus, even though it doesn't shine when they're in it. And this cave system is amazingly not underwater either, two miles down, because water doesn't fill empty spaces.

Nothing here makes sense, not a thing. This is as stupid as the cavemen suddenly flying fighter jets in Battlefield Earth. The fact that the plot doesn't make sense and the acting fails to ignite any enthusiasm and the scary guy isn't scary and... well, none of it helps. I guess there's a reason why Jerry Warren is so noted as a bad director. I'd only seen one previously, another John Carradine movie called Frankenstein Island. It was bad, but it wasn't really bad. I've probably seen a dozen films this month that were worse. This one fits the mould much better.

I Married a Witch (1942) Rene Clair

The popular TV series Bewitched had a serious heritage in film. Aunt Endora was played by Agnes Moorehead, who I now know as one of the greatest character actors of all time. Elizabeth Montgomery who played the lead witch was the daughter of Robert Montgomery, who was a notable actor himself. And the entire concept came from a film called I Married a Witch, starring no lesser Hollywood heavyweights than Fredric March and Veronica Lake. Yet I'd never heard of it until now and couldn't resist.

The obvious initial difference is that the witches are evil and were burned and locked up underneath an oak tree back in the puritan era. They're hardly the innocent and charming good witch wrinkling her nose in Bewitched, sanitised for television. When lightning strikes the tree they escape to cause more mischief, and they want to cause that mischief to the Wooleys, who caused their demise in the first place.

Today's Wooley is Fredric March, who works well in the role as he always does, being one of the most versatile actors to ever appear on screen. The catch is that he's always memorable as the character, not the actor. I somehow have trouble remembering what he looks like, from scene to scene or film to film, though never forget the roles themselves. No witch ever looked more delectable and seductive than Veronica Lake. I've seen her a couple of times now and there's something in her that speaks of both complete innocence and utter experience, all at the same time. Her father, in the mischevious Aunt Endora role, is Cecil Kellaway and he is just perfect, deliciously evil. And yes, by the end of the film, we're set up nicely for the series.

Nightwing (1979)

Now here's a misunderstood movie. As a horror film or thriller it sucks (very little tension and very few scares or thrills), though to be fair it's about a billion times better than the sucky TV movie Vampire Bats from last year. As a southwestern drama, though, it really isn't that bad at all. The problem is that it's known as a horror film and that's a shame. People like Nick Mancuso, Stephen Macht, David Warner and Strother Martin, that are generally known for guest appearances on TV or as character actors in movies, do a pretty good job. The direction is capable, the cinematography and music are solid and the script is insightful. Like the source novel, it really works best as a glimpse into the life and beliefs of southwestern Indians.

Whisper of the Heart (1995) Yoshi Fumakado

A Studio Ghibli anime feature that wasn't directed by Hayao Miyazaki, this time he only wrote it and left the direction to his prot�g� Yoshi Fumakado, who sadly died shortly afterwards. It's a little different from what we usually expect from Miyazaki, being firmly rooted in the real world with the centrepiece a love story. A schoolgirl discovers that a boy has read before her all the books she checks out from the library, so she becomes fascinated by him. This all starts pretty slowly, even though it looks great, and only picks up pace when she follows a cat from the train to a fanciful antique store. From there it doesn't flag for a second. The sweep of the story is magnificent and it sucks is in so deep that we really care about the characters and feel alive in them.

River's Edge (1987) Tim Hunter

We start off the way we mean to go on here, with Crispin Glover's name first on the credits. We just know it's going to be weird. And then we see a kid drowning a doll and discovering someone with a naked dead body. There's metal and dope and video games and Dennis Hopper and blow up dolls and crutches and false legs and guns, well this is one you'll just have to experience yourself. Is it good enough to bear Keanu Reeves in the cast? Good question, but at least he's not trying too hard.

River's Edge is a sort of flipside version of Stand By Me. Only a year earlier that film had a group of young kids embarking on a quest to find a dead body, but on the way they find themselves instead and the dead body doesn't really mean much on its own. It's the journey not the destination. Here the destination is the beginning: we see the dead body right at the beginning of the film, and the story is about how a group of older kids deal with the knowledge of the body in a nihilistic late eighties world. The whole point is that nobody cares about anything, but they have this vague sense that they should. It's like a statement saying, sure, we get the message of Stand By Me, but this is 1987, man, and what comes next? We dunno. We don't care. Tell us. Maybe we'll listen if we can be bothered. The strongest emotion we can stir up after killing someone is 'she was ok'. We can't even be bothered to wear our T-shirts the right way out.

Maybe we'll find out after ninety minutes of River's Edge. Maybe America found out too after hearing about the true story that inspired it. That's the scariest thing about the whole film: it's true. And what does it say about me that I don't even care that Keanu Reeves was in the movie? That's scary too, but I'm more interested in Dennis Hopper's character. There's a lot of depth in most of what he says, connecting the counterculture of the sixties to the nihilism of the eighties and wondering just what the hell happened.

The Scarlet Letter (1926) Victor Seastrom

Very much a Lillian Gish project, it was made purely because she wanted to do it. Louis B Mayer was worried about church groups, but they were happy if she was happy. Victor Seastrom, the important Swedish director who had come to Hollywood only a few years earlier, directed at her request. Co-star Lars Hanson, also Swedish and who didn't speak a word of English, was also picked by her, and she picked right. He definitely fits the part, as does she. She's a tiny china doll who looks more like a child than Mary Pickford, but who can speak volumes with body language.

Now I've read the source novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne so know the real story, but had previously only seen the Demi Moore/Gary Oldman version on screen. It was obvious at the time that it was really not that good (and not just because Demi Moore brought in an entirely unwarranted happy ending) but now I can see all this from the perspective of a much better version. It feels authentic. Maybe it's because it's silent; maybe because it's in black and white; maybe because, while I have seen both elsewhere, I don't know Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson anywhere near as well as I do Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. Maybe it's because Lillian Gish can act better with her eyes than Demi Moore can do with her entire body and all the possibilities of sound. Maybe it's because there's strong use of the laws of the colonies at the time, that seem highly quaint today and thus help to place us in a different mindset.

Anyway, Gish is incredible, never overacting yet making us more than aware of her emotions, as she has been in everything I've seen her in, which is far too little. I wonder how much of her work has been lost to us. This is certainly Oscar worthy stuff and I'm only unhappy that I can't award her one of my own because they don't start until a year later. Lars Hanson is also superb and it is truly sad that he is almost forgotten today as a screen actor. He is the epitome of righteousness yet is entirely believable in carrying a dread secret. The pair of them connect so wonderfully as actors in this film yet they shared no language and could not converse.

Joyce Coad is an effective Pearl, though she doesn't have a huge part, and Henry B Walthall is excellent as her lost husband. It would have been so easy for him to overact this role but if anything he underacted it, and it's all the more effective for it. Only Karl Dane overacts and is little more than poor comic relief. He's fun but inconsequential and a little out of place in a film as serious as this one. The only thing left is to wonder what was in the seventeen minutes missing from the restored version.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) Mervyn LeRoy

Definitely an unwieldy title, but is this really any good? It surely comes highly recommended: it's in the Home Theater Forum's list of their Top 100 films of the 1930s, which I'm finding is a really solid guide to the decade. There's Paul Muni in the lead, and he's certainly a heavyweight, albeit not that well remembered today. He was great in the original Scarface and in The Story of Emile Zola. Then again, he was way over-the-top in Black Fury, though the film was not up to his usual standards. There are other members of the supporting cast that I've become quite a fan of: people like Glenda Farrell (who was a lot more than just Torchy Blane), Helen Vinson (who was much better in the pre-code era than later) and Allen Jenkins (who I first experienced as the voice behind Office Dibble in the Top Cat cartoons, but then discovered as a real life actor in wonderful support slots for Warners films, working under Cagney, Robinson or whoever). So surely I was going to enjoy it, but is it any good?

Well Muni is back on form under serious pressure, which is the sort of thing that brings out his talent. He's a soldier returning from war restless to find a better life than just work in an office. He rides the rails honestly looking for work, but gets unwittingly and unwillingly caught up in a robbery and ends up on the chain gang. There he experiences the brutality of the southern prison system, something that this film did a lot to help rectify. Because of its content it was apparently banned in Georgia which says a lot for its effect. It is damning in its subject matter and while we may look back at this sort of inhumanity as a historical footnote, it wasn't in 1932 when Paul Muni made this film. Justifiably one of the top hundred of the decade. Muni was justifiably nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, and when there were only three on the shortlist too. Glenda Farrell is usually a good girl but she's a real bitch here and worthy of note on her own. I wonder why she didn't play more bad roles or maybe I've just not caught them yet.

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) Edgar G Ulmer

Surprisingly decent, this is a solid thriller from Edgar G Ulmer, who certainly had a good eye for a number of different genres. I know him from The Black Cat, another good thriller with the rare pairing of Lugosi and Karloff together. I'm looking forward to Detour, which is apparently a great film noir. There's nothing much different from the masses here, but it's done with a touch of class. The acting is good, the script is good, the cinematography is better than good. Mostly it's a good surprise to find another decent film in this SciFi Classics box set, that is great fun but hardly full of classics.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933) Michael Curtiz

I'm gradually creeping backwards in time. This is my 21st Michael Curtiz but I've only seen one older. I've only seen Bette Davis a year younger and I've never seen Spencer Tracy this young in anything. In fact this is the youngest I've seen him by two years and he's the bad guy too. Definitely strange. He's not entirely believable as the tough gangster being gradually reformed by a decent warden, but he's fun to watch. The film is based on the memoirs of a real Sing Sing governor so you know how it's going to go even before it starts. The only real surprise is the very cool dance of numbers at the beginning, where each man's sentence appears in front of him, stretching out in long lines and looking like something out of the Twilight Zone. Tracy and Davis are both solid, as they always are, but the best show comes from the warden himself, played by Arthur Byron.

Squirm (1976) Jeff Lieberman

There's surprising restraint here for a seventies horror film called Squirm. We get to see a little bit of nipple action courtesy of a delectable southern young lady played by Patricia Pearcy, and every now again we see the worms going at it, squirming up under a face or coiled up inside a ribcage. But mostly we get plot building, which is surprising but admirable. The acting is solid, once you get used to the Georgia accents, and the direction and the script are just as good. No, it's not great, but Squirm was deemed so bad as to merit MST3K treatment, and that's highly undeserved. Maybe Joel and the bots were just running out of bad material.

Petticoat Fever (1936) George Fitzmaurice

Robert Montgomery is a lonely radio operator in the middle of nowhere on the Labrador peninsula. He hasn't seen a woman in five months, a white woman in seven and a beautiful one in two years. And out of the sky comes Myrna Loy, in the company of her fiance Reginald Owen, and naturally he's rather happy about it. Now I'm a confirmed Myrna Loy fan. I'm very happily catching as many of her films as possible and it's rare that she doesn't sparkle. This isn't one of her greatest performances, but even her lesser ones are well worth watching. By comparison Robert Montgomery was often great but often not, and it's hard to guess which of his roles are going to be which. Happily this is a great one. He's a joy to watch in a slightly, but only slightly, crazy part, and he's a great counter to the very stuffy Reginald Owen.


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