Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

FIND YOUR VOICE
2018 / Indican / 100m / NR
streaming on Apple TV, DirecTV, Google Play, Prime Video, Fandango NOW +
Young Maori musician Elvis (Adam Saunders – yes, Saunders, not Sanders) is trying to make a go of it in Sydney. The problem is he has no talent (for rap anyway) but such a huge ego that he bursts in on producers who have turned him down, insisting there’s been some mistake. (The character would be insufferable if played by an actor without Saunders’ adorably winning presence.) When he wins the lottery (the amount is never mentioned but it would seem to be millions – enough to fill a good-sized duffel bag) he heads back to New Zealand, along with his music shop employer, Roadie (Michael Long), to visit family. He’s also made a date with a recording studio. In Kiwi he re-encounters Princess (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who he’d clumsily and unsuccessfully tried to pick up back in Australia. She’s also packing cash (only a backpack full however) destined for delivery to a local thug. When her car breaks down she reluctantly accepts a ride in Elvis’ newly acquired RV. Any chance for romance vanishes when Elvis accidentally burns her backpack to ashes.

Find Your Voice Premiere - Auckland - Eventfinda

So, in between brief visits with relatives and hearing their music, plus sessions at the recording studio (where he’s clearly being ripped off by producers who think he’s awful but find ways to draw things out and milk him for more money), our trio also spends time running from the thug. It’s your basic finding-his-roots endeavor and co-writer/director Chris Herd has found little new to add to the idea. There is however the New Zealand scenery (gorgeously photographed) and the primarily indigenous cast, all of whom are excellent. Given the casting the film is sometimes more a celebration of culture than about Elvis’ journey and that’s when it’s at its best (I’m not entirely certain Elvis really finds his roots or a kind of music that’s true to him – or really loses his massive ego). Familiar set up notwithstanding, this is an effervescent film, sharply paced with solid writing and a delightful cast. It’s worth your time.

FROM NINE TO NINE
1936 / Alpha Home Entertainment / 62m / $6.98 / NR
I am an unabashed fan of director Edgar G. Ulmer who spent the majority of his career making silk purses out of Poverty Row projects. Maybe the scripts and the acting weren’t all they might be but the visuals were invariably impressive – all the more so as he was usually confined to a one week shooting schedule. Shortly after his exile from Hollywood for having fallen in love with the wrong woman, Ulmer and his wife-to-be Shirley (still using the name Sherle Castle) trudged off to Canada to take on his second assignment as a director for hire (the first was a western that I have yet to see but the very idea of an Ulmer western is intriguing). Accompanying them were actors Ruth Roland (star of silent serials whose career had withered with the arrival of sound), Roland Drew and Kenne Duncan (billed here as Kenneth and who would write the script from Ulmer and Castle’s story). It’s a murder mystery revolving around the theft of a diamond and Roland portrays a gem expert who may also be a jewel thief. Reportedly Roland hoped this production would jump-start her career. It didn’t however and her death the following year at the age of 45 is only partly the reason.

Edgar G. Ulmer
EDGAR G. ULMER

Much of the acting here is not terrific but then a better script might have elicited better work. There are a few witty lines scattered about, possibly by accident, because the majority of the dialogue is mediocre. But those who are obsessed with Ulmer, like me, or just fascinated by a filmmaker who could make something out of next to nothing should give this disc a spin. Ulmer was given a Montreal hotel for his filming location so the “sets” bely the miniscule budget and this is as much an Art Deco feast as the director’s “The Black Cat”. (Possibly a bit too much as even the police inspector’s office is in the same style as the victim’s lavish apartment, with curved white walls and chrome striping.) Ulmer’s visual syle is in full force, with long takes and a mobile camera punctuated by startling close-ups – very close close-ups in a sequence of police calls going out. Is it a great film? Well, no… it’s not even a very good one and certainly not amongst Ulmer’s best of his threadbare efforts; it’s on a par with his “Moon Over Harlem” in showing that, at least visually, he had a genius for making something arresting from the most uncompromising material.

GOLIATH AND THE SINS OF BABYLON / THE REBEL GLADIATOR
1983 / Alpha Home Entertainment / 172m total / $6.98 / NR
In the interest of full disclosure I should confess that I retain a fondness for Italian strongman films – or more properly peplum films, named for the miniskirt worn by the heroes. When I was a young gay lad in the early 1960s these (and Tarzan flicks) were as close as you could get to filmic appreciation of fit male bodies. I wonder if the Neopolitan filmmakers realized that a healthy portion of their audience was gay men? (I’m pretty sure some of the performers were; Richard Harrison. Ed Fury and others did a great deal of “physique” photography aimed at precisely that audience.) Of course the adventures of Hercules, Samson,Ursus, Maciste and, yes, Goliath were intended for juvenile males of all persuasions and the top-billed movie in this set is one of the best. The story has the country of Nefer forced to pay tribute to the conquering Babylonians by annually handing over 24 of their loveliest virgins. When one of the maidens tries to escape and is manhandled by a guard Goliath (Mark Forest) intervenes and as a result is recruited by the resistance. It’s a fairly simple plot but it’s realized on an epic scale with Goliath fighting all the guards (who conveniently come at him one or two at a time) and winning a chariot race; there’s a sea battle and ultimately there’s an assault on Babylon itself (the same assault as in “Intolerance”?). Action fans will find this one exciting sequence after another.

Maciste l'eroe più grande del mondo/Goliath and the Sins of Babylon (1963)  Chariot scene - YouTube

Director Michele Lupo manages a few nice touches along the way; my favorite is when a villain, skewered on Goliath’s sword caroms into a gong before falling dead. The film is gorgeously photographed and Alpha has located a stunning widescreen print. Such, however, is not the case with the “Bonus Feature”, which is from a faded (as only Eastmancolor can fade) pan-and-scan source. That’s not much of a loss as this Ursus (Dan Vadis) outing has been realized on a much thriftier (much!) scale. An uprising is being plotted against the cruel emperor of Rome (Alan Steele, who headlined more than a few peplums in his day, but rarely as the villain). There’s always some tyrant needing to be brought to heel in these flicks. The rebels are all gladiators, using their training to get buff for the eventual uprising. Ursus is at first reluctant to join them as he’s a Christian and being a gladiator means killing people, which he eschews. (And just what kind of uprising us it gonna be anyway when the members of your rebel band are regularly killing each other in the arena?) As peplums (pepla?) go this one is just average.

THE GOOD FIGHT, Season Four
2020 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 341m (2 discs) / $39.98 / NR
I’ve had no opportunity to view earlier seasons of this follow-up series to “The Good Wife”. I don’t usually opt to review TV series if I can’t get review copies of them from the first season (too much and sometimes impossible catching up) but in this case the reason I did so can be summed up in two words: Christine Baranski. I’ve adored her since I first saw her in “Cybill” and it’s about damn time she headlines a series rather than merely being a supporting cast member. The new series started when Diane Lockhart (Baranski) lost her senior partner position (and her savings) after a financial scam that also destroyed the reputation of her goddaughter Maia (Rose Leslie, returning from “Good Wife”). They joined Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo, also returning), Diane’s former employee, at a new law firm which, in this season has been bought by a multinational law firm (which wants a primarily AA firm amongst its holdings). This is of enormous personal financial benefit to the partners but also makes them subject to the caprices of their new bosses, one of whom, Gavin Firth (a surprisingly elfin John Laroquette) occupies a lavish suite a floor above the law offices.

The Good Fight Season 4 Is Improbably Perfect for Right Now

The show is quirkier and more comedic than I recall “The Good Wife” being (bearing in mind it must be five years since I reviewed that show). Firth is given to starting meetings with Zen parables that have no seeming relevance and there’s a season long quest (unresolved) regarding a mysterious memo that causes cases to “disappear” and woe be it to the judge who ignores it. The season opens with a “Twilight Zone”-like episode where Diane finds herself in a world where Hillary Clinton is president. Her delight (it’s a very left-leaning program – fair warning) is tarnished by finding other things are not so sweet – Harvey Weinstein is still a respected Hollywood producer for one thing. Another episode centers on a crudely salacious play, written by a former employee (Jon Michael Hall, late of “Elementary”), that satirizes the firm. Michael J. Fox returns as a not entirely competent lawyer who uses his disability to gain sympathy from judges and juries – and it’s always good to see Fox. I can’t help but wonder if the tone is due to Baranski (who’s an executive producer) even though the show’s creators, Robert and Michelle King, have been responsible for offbeat series in the past (such as the certifiable wackdoodle “BrainDead”). But Baranski’s performances have always been quirky and this is very much her show even though she’s part of an ensemble – and what an ensemble. I wish I’d seen the first three seasons.

THE SHADE SHEPHERD
2020 / Indican / 101m / NR
streaming on Apple TV, DirecTV, Google Play, Prime Video, Fandango NOW
Pike (Randy Spence) is beyond messed up in the opening scenes of this excellent indie production. I lost count of the substances (and couldn’t even identify some of them) he’s shown introducing into his system as he heads toward a blackout in the RV parked on the property of his psychiatrist brother, Jack (Jordan Hodges). Pike is clearly headed toward self destruction and he may have achieved it because during this blackout he is accused of getting into a bar fight and killing a man. Even though his wife, Stacy (Carolyn Newton, excellent in too brief a role) is imminently due to give birth to their first child, Jack undertakes to smuggle Pike across the border to Canada using back roads – and no roads at all for that matter as a good deal of the journey is through forests. Things go awry from the very start – they lose their tent and the hastily gathered provisions, then the map is lost… and all the time Pike is detoxing. Luck is sometimes with them as when they discover an untenanted house and have the chance to eat, bathe and sleep in beds (though the process of becoming clean and sober doesn’t allow Pike to get much benefit from the last).

Goshen native to regionally premiere 'The Shade Shepherd' Saturday | News |  goshennews.com

As they make their way uncertainly toward the border the brothers stumble onto their childhood home and prompt possibly the most interesting part of the film. We learn there was an abusive father who untimately abandoned the family and that Pike dropped out of school to support his mother and sibling. This does not quite rationalize Pike’s descent into addiction but it’s understandable how someone who sacrificed his youth would only want to party hearty once mom was gone and his brother was successful. As you’ve likely determined the bulk of the film is all Spence and Hodges and both men are excellent – as indeed they’d have to be to carry the film, one that’s heavily dramatic. Spence’s portrayal of a man going very cold turkey is inherently more showy and he makes it painful to watch. But Hodges (who co-wrote the script with director/photographer Chris Faulist) is no less intense in a quieter way as he strains to complete his mission in time to be with his wife as she delivers. The film is very much on their shoulders and the shoulders are equal to the load. Faulist has directed with a sure hand, setting the angst against magnificent and contrastingly tranquil scenery that’s gorgeously photographed. The handling of the landscapes through which the men move is inspired. I’m always tickled when independent – and invariably financially strapped – productions make a success of their limitations (in this case small cast and largely outdoor locations) and this is a case where the debits are assets. A terrific film. Don’t miss it.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

BLOOD QUANTUM
2019 / RLJE Films / 98m / $28.97 BR / NR
I am on record repeatedly that I am over – so very over – zombie films, a horror sub-genre that has been beaten to death. So when I state this Canadian effort is one of the best new horror films I’ve seen lately, you know it means something. (Don’t be deceived by the case art suggesting it’s another masked killer flick – another sub-genre of which I’m incalculably tired. I understand why filmmakers with limited funds are drawn to these two themes but if you’ve got nothing new to say maybe you should seriously question your career choice rather than crowding the video market with more of the same old crap.) The opening, beautifully photographed shows, a fisherman bringing in his catch and gutting them (the squeamish are alerted it’s a very graphic depiction). Then the dead salmon suddenly start flopping about. Later a dog that’s been put out of its misery comes back to ferocious life (oddly the film only deals with revived humans thereafter). Now horror fans known what is surely coming and yet writer/director Jeff Barnaby manages to imbue a sense of WTF mystery to the proceedings and takes time to establish his characters and their milieu. The setting is the village of Red Crow and the cast is largely (and refreshingly) Native American. The early scenes depict the racially based antagonism of the white population, who accuse the indigenous people of depriving them of a decent haul of fish.

Canadian Zombie Thriller Blood Quantum Is An Important Step for Native  Filmmaking | Film Review | Consequence of Sound


The title refers to a colonial measurement of how indigenous a person is and the film is absorbed in the racial theme because the peoples of the Mi’gmaq community are immune to the zombie plague. They create a barricaded enclave (very “The Walking Dead”) to which whites from surrounding areas flee for shelter (the analogy to natives being overrun by settlers is clear). The tribe must decide whether to let them in and risk admitting some who might be infected, for if they die they will revive. I won’t say more about the scenario but I must note I can’t recall ever seeing a film with an ending simultaneously so bleak and so hopeful. The writing is extraordinary; these are real people having real conversations. Yes, the set-up is impossible (or at any rate improbable) but the writing, the direction and the acting make it believable. The cast, all unknowns and as I noted primarily Native American, is superb. Hollywood take note and get with the damn program! In the final analysis this is yet another zombie film with all of the familiar tropes – and it doesn’t skimp on the gore, including a gruesome scene where a mother eats her baby – but the setting of an indigenous tribe (played by actual Native Americans) and the racial divide message raises it far above the average. Horror fans will be the obvious audience but just maybe the rest of you should take a gander.

THE GREAT DECEIVER
2020 / Random Media / 83m / NR (an R is suggested)
streaming on all major platforms
While genre films have often been vehicles for message things generally work best when the message is a subtext. Overt delivery just gets in the way and in Riz Story’s second feature as writer/director, ruminating on God and Satan hijacks the story incessantly. But maybe that’s not a bad thing with a plot that’s this messed up. What starts out as an apparent kidnapping of a young woman turns out to be part of a plot by her father to liberate a million dollars from his own bank account (I’m not certain I grasped how this benefits him but it’s the least WTF of the movie). Much time is taken up with dad’s attempts to get to the bank before it closes. First his car won’t start, then he discovers his dog, which has been barking non-stop, run over and dead in the street. He hitches a ride with a creepy old woman and discovers Fido’s corpse in her back seat; she announces she’s driving the dog to Hell before unceremoniously dumping dad out of the car. The next hitch is with an almost as creepy guy who wants to know if dad has found Jesus. At the bank he’s told by a white-gloved administrator that he can’t just withdraw a million smackers from his account minutes before closing.

The Great Deceiver - YouTube


At the rendezvous with the abductor he is himself taken hostage but it turns out he’s in cahoots with the guy. A telephone call is made to the wife instructing her to go the the bank next morning. Meanwhile there’s eerie noises coming from the garage where the young woman is tied up; seems she’s become demonically possessed… but not constantly. I won’t go on except to say that each double cross is trumped by yet another one until things get ludicrous and the possession angle never goes anywhere. Ultimately a fellow who looks like the previous Most Interesting Man in the World (but per the press release is purportedly Old Nick himself) shows up to inform us that Satan created the idea of God to give humans false hope and this our tortures in Hades will be all the more excruciating. I’d like to find something good here but the closest I can come is that the spirit of Edward Wood, Jr., has possessed Riz Story. Unbelievable dialogue is spouted by actors who may not be as bad as they seem had they been given something better to say. The staging and camerawork are mediocre. This may not be quite on the level with “Manos, Hand of Fate” or “The Corpse Grinders” but it’s close.

IN THE LIFE OF MUSIC
2020 / Indican / 91m / NR
streaming on all major platforms
To fully appreciate this Cambodian film you have to know at least a little bit about the country’s history and culture. The film itself makes no attempt to explain things that may not be understood by non-Cambodians, something some will find offputting, along with the combination of English and subtitled Cambodian dialogue. I confess I was a bit vague on some aspects of Cambodian history aside from knowing our military illegally pursued Viet Cong forces across the border during the Vietnam conflict and the country for years suffered under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Even my vague grasp of some of the history that informs this film did not prevent me from finding it startlingly good, anchored by a remarkable performance by Ellen Wong who portrays Hope, a young woman from the US, visiting her Cambodian relatives for the first time and videoing everything for her mother, dying from cancer, back in the states. It’s not clear if she’s prepared for the nation’s extreme poverty, subtly conveyed by everything from children selling her homemade car air fresheners to her relative’s car breaking down, which brings about the need for a stay in a hotel that can’t process plastic transactions.

IN THE LIFE OF MUSIC – CAAMFest 2019


It is at this point the film has its first flashback, this one to 1968 (it seems Hope dreams it while overnighting in the hotel but that’s not clear). What at first seems as though it’s going to be one of those culture clash, visiting Westerner stories turns out to be a look at the country’s recent history by following Hope’s parents, Phally (Sryean Chea) and Chy (Vandarith Phem), as they first meet at a concert (where the song, Champa Battabang, which plays an important part in the story, is introduced). Subsequent flashbacks are to war-torn 1976, where the couple are part of a forced labor crew, and finally to 2007 under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. While the camerawork is not exactly flashy, it is impressive, not the least in how it establishes a distinctly different look for each of the time periods involved. The emphasis is on the performers – and what a cast of which you’ve never heard. Wong exquisitely anchors the proceedings while Chea and Phem leave no doubt of their love for each other and their fierce determination to survive for their child. Hope’s uncle and aunt (Sovuthy Ker and Kimkhorn Kuch) are beautifully delineated and watch for a scary turn from child actor Ratanak Ben as Little Comrade given the “honor” of carrying out his first execution. This film may start out seeming bland but it will suck you in.

IRRESISTIBLE
2020 / Universal / 102m / $34.98 BR / R
Given it was written and directed by Jon Stewart you might be expecting a comedy (I know I was) – and indeed it was marketed as such. But I’m not so sure. Can there be such a thing as satirical drama? If so Stewart is breaking new ground because the observations of the political process are so acid – and Steve Carell’s character is such an jerk – that laughs are far and few between. When farmer Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) makes an impassioned speech against a racist law being enacted by his city council, video of the event goes viral and comes to the attention of Democratic strategist Gary Zimmer (Carrell). Seeing Hastings as “like a Bill Clinton with impulse control. Like a church-going Bernie Sanders with better bone density”, Zimmer heads to the rural town to convince him to run against the mayor (Brent Sexton) in the upcoming election. So what is he’s currently a Republican? He can switch affiliation and make it part of his selling point. Things get heated enough to draw national attention and soon Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), a longtime foe of Zimmer’s and every bit as much a jerk, arrives to manage the mayor’s campaign and then Super Pacs and big donors become involved because it seems that this race – in a small town where most of the businesses have closed (in other words the kind of spot neither party usually pays a lick of attention to) – may decide whether the whole state remains red or flips blue.

Watch Trailer for Jon Stewart's Irresistible Starring Steve Carell |  Consequence of Sound


It’s also very much a grudge match between Zimmer and Brewster who have managed opposing candidates before and who also clearly don’t understand the people of the community in which they’re waging political war. And while it might seem Stewart is giving us yet another of those “wise” city slickers meets the “simple” country folk deals, he has a very good reveal in store for the end that’s both a surprise and a lesson on today’s politics. My main problem with the film is that Zimmer and Brewster are both such unpleasant people. Back in the day performers such as Bob Hope could play scoundrels – or at best deeply flawed individuals – and make them likeable. These two are just raging egos with no apparent redeeming qualities. That’s less a problem with Byrne’s character as she’s not onscreen all that much but Carrell is rarely absent. And I know the guy is capable of portraying sympathetic characters so it’s clearly a deliberate choice by the actor and director to make him a Will Ferrell substitute. (Bear in mind I’m just not a fan of the assholes-are-funny school of comedy, possibly because I’ve encountered too many in my seven decades.) The townspeople on the other hand are a thoroughly charming lot – even the venal mayor – and played with expert comic timing (loved the woman with the coffee and baked goods shop!). In the end this is a cogent political satire that just isn’t as funny as it ought to have been. Oh, what Preston Sturges could have done with this idea.

LOST IN AMERICA
2018 / Indican Pictures / 95m / $19.98 / NR
This is an enlightening documentary but also a very sobering one. It may also be the most difficult film I’ve ever written about. For a long time the estimate of homeless youth was said to be anywhere from 48,000 to 2.8 million. No one knew for sure because there was never any funding for an accurate count (even though there’s grant money to be had to find out things such as what happens to a monkey when you hit it very hard and repeatedly on the head). There was funding in The Leahy-Collins Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 2015 (yes, Susan Collins once had a soul) but it didn’t pass because language included LGBTQ youth. Finally, in 2017 the University of Chicago undertook the first national count and determined that there are four million teens and young adults on the streets. On. The. Streets. This nation has 5000 shelters for animals (and I’m all in favor of that) but only 400 for kids. Every day 13 of them die, some by their own hands. Most of them fled abusive situations or were kicked out for drug use or because they are queer (40% are LGBTQ). Of those who age out of the foster system almost half become homeless. Homeless youth are at risk of becoming involved in sex trafficking; one third of them will be lured into it within two days of leaving home. The average age of sex victims is 12.

The 2018 Nashville Film Festival: Part 2 - Discovering The Documentary "Lost  In America"


Homelessness used to be almost unknown in the US from the end of the Great Depression to the 1980s. Then President Ronald Reagan, continuing a policy he’d instituted as governor of California, closed mental institutions to shave money from the budget for social programs. The new mantra was Self Determination (basically meaning you have then right to run your own life – even if you’re batshit crazy – so long as you’re not a danger to others or yourself) and the former residents of those institutions ended up on the streets. (Public housing and Section 8 funds were slashed at the same time, going from $32 billion to 7.5 billion.) Reagan pronounced in an interview that most of those who were homeless were in that situation by choice. (He didn’t say whose choice.) The director and interviewer is Rotini Rainwater who himself experienced being homeless as a young man (he set up a screening of his earlier documentary on homelessness for congress; no one from either party showed up – this is obviously a bipartisan nonissue). Experts on the issue and concerned celebrities (Jon Bon Jovi, Halle Berry and Jewel, who also executive produced) are interviewed. But it’s the youngsters who are the real stars here. If you can come away from this film without your heart broken, you don’t have one.

SKINNED ALIVE
1990 / Tempe Digital / 78m / $14.99 BR / NR
In a clear homage (if not a downright rip-off) of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, this direct to video cheapie presents a family that tours to various county fairs and similar venues selling leather goods. Said goods are made from human flesh they flay from hitchhikers and stranded motorists and any other luckless souls they happen to come across. After two such victims are dispatched (one before the opening credits roll) to set up the situation – this thing can’t really be said to have a plot – our trio of wheelchair-bound Crawldaddy (Mary Jackson), son Phink (Scott Spiegel) and daughter Violet (Susan Rothacker) end up in a small community when their van breaks down. I should note that even though played by a woman it’s not entirely clear whether Crawldaddy is supposed to be female or trans, given she corrects her offspring to call her dad whenever they refer to her as mom. In any event while overnight guests of the local mechanic they off a delivery boy and a Jehovah’s Witness who come calling and soon their hosts as well, setting up a final confrontation with neighbor Tom (Lester Clark), a drunken and divorced former cop who was fired for shooting a Mexican woman 15 times “for no apparent reason”. If you’re confused as to who you’re supposed to root for… well, you’re not alone. Pretty much everyone here is just awful.

Life Between Frames: Film Appreciation - "Make Something As Offensive As  Possible"


But then this is also clearly supposed to be a comedy, though it veers wildly between being witty and either lame or just plain sophomoric. The performances don’t help; only Jackson and Spiegel are consistently amusing – and not surprisingly the only ones with any kind of CV beyond this endeavor (Jackson was one of the elderly bootlegging sisters on “The Waltons” and Spiegel is a Sam Raimi favorite, appearing in the first two “Evil Dead” films and others by that director). The production hails from the heyday of direct-to-VHS horror when all sorts of crappy budget-challenged product choked the shelves at Blockbuster and neighborhood video stores (it was a period when I very nearly gave up on horror). Some was not only direct to video but even shot directly on video. Judging by the sharpness of the picture here writer/director (and first victim) Jon Killough used actual film – and if I’m citing that it’s apparent I’m straining for something positive to say. But Killough was (maybe still is) a horror fan who wanted to make a movie and rather than just talking about it did so… just like Ed Wood. And like Wood’s films it isn’t very good… but it’s surprisingly entertaining.

THE SIN OF NORA MORAN
1933 / The Film Detective / 63m / $24.99 BR / NR
The exotically named Zita Johann is essentially a postscript in film history, remembered – when she is remembered at all – for her turn as the heroine in Karl Freund’s “The Mummy” with Boris Karloff. Her Hollywood career was brief, only seven films before she happily abandoned Tinseltown for the stage and teaching. She famously once asked MGM producer Irving Thalberg why he made such crap (she may have used a different word) as “The Sin of Madelon Claudet”, a weepie that was part of a brief attempt to make Helen Hayes a Hollywood star (his answer of course was that said crap made money). She may have appreciated the irony that two years later she’d make her own Sin, the second last of her Hollywood baker’s half dozen films. Nora Moran’s transgression is the murder of the abusive lion tamer (John Miljan) with whom she had once been romantically involved. She’s about to be executed and through flashbacks of her memories – dreams as she fades in and out of sleep – her history is told. Some of these flashbacks are prompted by the irate wife (Claire Du Brey) of the governor (Paul Cavanaugh) to the district attorney (Alan Dineheart) who pushed the governor into politics, Seems she has discovered a packet of love letters written by Ms. Moran to said governor. If the story is not surprising the telling of it certainly is.

The Sin of Nora Moran. 1933. Directed by Phil Goldstone | MoMA


The production hails from a tiny studio yvlept Majestic, one of many that were launched at the beginning of the sound era – and surprisingly at the height of the Great Depression. Like most of them it had a short life and was absorbed into what became Republic Pictures when its debts for optical work were foreclosed on. I’m primarily familiar with the studio’s horror output such as “The Vampire Bat” and had no idea they attempted more serious fare (most of the Poverty Row studios concentrated on genre fare such as mysteries or westerns – give early Monogram credit for tackling such classics as “Oliver Twist” and “Jane Eyre”, though with a running time of about an hour the results were not exactly memorable). Majestic kept its costs in line by renting existing sets at major studios such as Universal and RKO, allowing them to hire performers who may not have been A list but were at least B+ or even A- (“Vampire Bat”, for instance stars Melvyn Douglas, Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill). But the surprises start with the experimental (for the time) approach in Frances Hyland’s script, weaving in and out of Nora’s dreams and back and forth through time and the assured visual grasp of director Phil Goldstone (more often a producer than a director) and the startling use of optical wipes. Fans of classic movies need to acquaint themselves with this forgotten and impressive work.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

ADRIFT IN SOHO
2018 / Random Media / 108m / NR
streaming on itunes, Amazon, Roku, xbox, Playstation, Fandango and other major services
If your taste runs to offbeat, smaller films then you’ll want to check out this independent effort inspired by Colin Wilson’s novel of London’s Beat scene of then 1950s that’s not so much an adaptation as it is a jazz riff on the source material. While I’ve read the late author’s Lovecraftian horror fiction and some of his nonfiction on the paranormal and Jack the Ripper, I haven’t read this work, so I’m relying on the Wikipedia synopsis. Characters have been added as well as episodes to what is essentially a collection of vignettes leading to an ambiguous ending (the film insists on tying up everything). Set in 1955, the story – more a picaresque really – revolves around young Harry Preston (Owen Drake) a naif writer wannabe who takes up residence in London’s unfashionable Soho district (at the time it was much like Greenwich Village, a cheap place to live and thus an area that attracted painters, poets, musicians and counter-culture types). He meets up with James Compton Street (Chris Wellington), who introduces him to the bohemian lifestyle and becomes his close pal and sometime roommate. Through their adventures and the people he meets – including Doreen (Caitlin Harris), with whom he becomes romantically involved – Harry comes of age and matures as a writer, rejecting the bohemian way of life.

Adrift In Soho Movie Show Time in Bangalore | Adrift In Soho in Bangalore  Theaters | eTimes


In the novel Harry is on a search for freedom and it is implied he’s found a solution, though that conclusion is not stated. Pablo Behren’s film (he wrote the screenplay as well as directed) ties up all the knots is a series of printed postscripts. It also provides a gruesome resolution for James that seems out of place (I frequently got the impression Behrens was trying for a Beat version of “The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart”). Two documentary filmmakers (who support their efforts by making commercials and naughty films) are added to Wilson’s novel; their interviews allow for the introduction of the cast of characters (and other Soho types) as well as a re-enactment of the 1959 anti-nuke March to Aldermaston (where the now famous peace symbol made its first appearance). Their interpolated storyline diffuses the film’s focus and makes a disjointed narrative less compelling (much as I liked the film and admired its challenging, unconventional approach I did begin to lose interest about three quarters of the way through). On the plus side is solid acting, spot-on period detail and ravishing photography with colors often so saturated they’re downright psychedelic. It may not be completely successful but its bravery is admirable.

BELZEBUTH
2017 / RLJE Films / 114m / $27.97 / NR
As a long-time horror fan I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that the genre is not going to come up with anything new; I’m jiggy with films that are simply effective. I’m not referring to shock moments, which after all are not startling after a first viewing, but rather to weaving a creepy and unsettling mood. This Mexican offering (in both English and subtitled Spanish) manages the latter while supplying some shocks that will retain much of their frisson on repeated viewings. The squeamish among you are warned that said shocks involve violence against children, which is, of course, what makes them shocking. The first comes early when a hospital nurse stabs a roomful of newborns to death. This is not gross-out stuff; the actual carnage is below the frame, which doesn’t make it any less uncomfortably nasty. A later attack has a poolful of kids electrocuted (except for a lifeguard who tries to stop the assailant, this is offscreen). The lack of gore and graphic violence is a refreshing change (though I should note that “Brahms: The Boy II”, reviewed here recently, also eschewed blood and guts – mayhap there’s a change afoot). Investigating the swimming pool incident is sheriff Emmanuel Ritter (Joaquin Cosio), whose infant son was amongst the victims in the hospital some years earlier. He reluctantly accepts the assistance of Vatican employee Ivan Franco (Tate Ellington).

Belzebuth (2020) Cast, Release Date, Plot, Trailer


It seems the murderers were all demonically possessed and the killings were perpetuated to prevent the rebirth of the Messiah (of whom Ritter’s son would have been one attempted reincarnation). Things culminate in a claustrophobic trip across, or rather under the border, through a drug smugglers tunnel to the US to save mother and child, guided by the mysterious Vasilio Canetti (Tobin Bell of “Saw” fame). Mexico has a rich history (though not so much lately) of horror going back to the early sound era. Things reached a zenith in the late 1950s and 60s with number of films that mixed comic book, Republic serial and Universal horror tropes (and sometimes masked wretlers… beause, hell,why not?) in one gloriously nutty package (that one has a title that translates as “Robot versus the Aztec Mummy” should give you an idea). I find them irresistible but this is a very different animal indeed. There’s nothing risible here; things are played straight and serious with not even a smidge of intentional humor. The cast is up to the task of keeping things believable – though aside from Bell they’re not exactly high profile. Director/co-writer Emilio Portes is primarily known for his horror comedies – though as noted there’s nothing funny happening here; he does a terrific job of keeping the tension ratcheted up. This is an great film for horror buffs.

COSSACKS IN EXILE
1939 / Alpha Video / 89m / $6.98 / NR
I have a fascination for Edgar G. Ulmer, the only Poverty Row director to be justifiably deemed an auteur. Ulmer started out as an art director in Germany in the early 1920s and, after emigrating directed “The Black Cat” – one of the gems of Universal’s pre-Code horrors and one of the films for which he is best known. His affair with the wife of a studio executive caused him to be blackballed in Tinseltown and he spent the next several years scrounging for work with the most independent of independent producers, working with microscopic budgets and miniscule shooting schedules. Eventually he would find himself back at a Hollywood studio but it would be PRC, the lowliest and lowest regarded of the minor studios. The initials stood for Producers Releasing Company but some insisted they meant Pretty Rotten Crap. Much of their product was pretty dire in terms of scripting and acting (if in some cases it could really be called that) but in terms of sets often looked pretty good. Ulmer may well have been at least partly responsible – he certainly took credit for it in an interview – but he can safely be given credit for directing some gems during his tenure at the studio. Most would cite that bleakest of noirs, “Detour” (one of the first 100 films deemed worthy of preservation by the Library of Congress) and “Bluebeard” of his PRC seven day wonders, but I’d also point the way toward “Club Havana”, his “Grand Hotel” on a shoestring, and “Strange Illusion”, his modern take on “Hamlet” (both are on YouTube).

L. Biberowich – Movies, Bio and Lists on MUBI


This film is from his time in the wilderness, quite literally as it was lensed in the farmlands of New Jersey, back to back with another ethnic film, the Yiddish “The Light Ahead”. It’s an adaptation of the famous Ukrainian comic opera – well, famous if you’re Ukrainian anyway – “Zaporozhets za Dunayem” (Zaporozhian [Cossack] Beyond the Danube) with spoken dialogue, music and libretto by Semen Hulak-Artemovsky (1813–1873). The story is based on the historical destruction of the Zaporizhian Cossacks’ island fortress by the Tsar’s troops who sent them packing off to the Ottoman Empire (now part of Romania). Comedy arises from the refugee clan’s struggles to adapt to their new home and the chance encounter of an old Cossack, Ivan Karas, and a Sultan who’s traveling incognito (it just isn’t an opera unless someone is in disguise). Aside from stunning close-ups and startling edits, viewers will find little of Ulmer’s stylistic stamp here (he was probably hard-pressed just to get the thing in the can). Curiously the subtitles come and go; several arias (I counted at least four) are completely without them, but it doesn’t seriously affect following the story. (I should note this is how the film went out and not some lack on Alpha’s part.) The print is a bit soft but it’s nice for us Ulmer completists to have it available again.

THE PERFECT NANNY (Chanson Douce / Lullaby)
2019 / Icarus Films / 99m / $26.98 / NR
If a film is entitled “The Perfect Nanny” you can safely bet the woman in question will be anything but. What have we learned, after all, from movies such as “The Nanny” and “The Omen”? This French production is more in line with the former in being a slow-burn thriller with no supernatural content. Myriam (Leïla Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz) have a lovely Paris apartment and two children, five year old Mila and toddler Adam. Miriam, who’s a lawyer, wants to go back to work so the two interview potential caregivers and select Louise (Karin Viard) not noticing – or perhaps chalking it up to interview nervousness – that there’s something slightly off about this woman (of course we, as viewers, are looking for signs of why Louise may not be perfect). She arrives early and then earlier getting breakfast ready, stays late (she all but moves in), cleans and takes over much of the cooking and, as Miriam states, “The children dote on her.” She’s a disciplinarian but one who’s also willing to chase the kiddies about the apartment impersonating a scary monster. There are things we see that the couple doesn’t – such as when Louise moves into the apartment while the couple takes a vacation – but Myriam and Paul are willfully blind to much else; he’s involved in a new album he’s producing and she closes herself in the bedroom with her laptop during Mila’s birthday party.

Perfect Nanny


It’s briefly established that Louise has had a difficult life, widowed, with a grown daughter who has cut off communication with her and is living is a shabby apartment (though just how shabby we don’t realize until late in the film) but the psychology seems a little too shallow to justify her final descent into madness and any trigger seems lacking. But then Leila Slimani’s novel on which then film is based is in turn inspired by a real-life 2012 Manhattan case and maybe such horrendous events are ultimately unfathomable. Still, despite such things as Louise choosing to urinate in a training potty signifying her losing it and increasing reliance on such standard horror schtick as the nanny suddenly being there, the finale seems to come out of nowhere. In the novel the horrific action is placed at the beginning with the rest of the story being a flashback. Perhaps the film should have considered that approach rather than a more standard narrative? But part of why I think the ending, which if course ought to be shocking (and you’ll notice I am carefully not spelling it out), seems so out of the blue is that the film has unreeled for quite a long time with very little happening that’s actually menacing and then blam! There’s just no real build. The acting is excellent, particularly Viard who’s rarely offscreen and is as fragile as she is unnerving. But despite having its basis in a real-life tragedy and a prize-winning novel the film doesn’t convince.

PLANET OUTLAWS
1939-53 / Alpha Video / 89m / $6.98 /NR
First a word about serials – or chapterplays or cliffhangers as they were also called. They date back to the earliest days of the cinema and were long-form stories told in weekly installments that each ended with the hero or heroine (or both) in deadly, seemingly inescapable peril. By the sound era – at which time they were part of a long evening at the flickers that included a newsreel, a cartoon and maybe even a second (lower budgeted) feature – they were losing some of their allure. Then Universal in 1936 opted to adapt the newspaper comic strip “Flash Gordon” and popularity of the format with adult audiences returned. It was reputed to be their most expensive serial ever, costing a reported $390,000 (though signs of thrift are everywhere, including playing much of the action in front of draperies). While it has been cited by the Library of Congress as deserving preservation it isn’t a patch (particularly in its unspecial effects) to the serials made at the same time by the tiny Republic studios. It owes much to the inspired casting of Larry “Buster” Crabbe who, once his hair had been bleached, was a dead ringer for artist Alex Raymond’s hero; while not much of an actor the former Olympic swimming champion was one of the most beautiful men in 1930s Hollywood and the most underdressed Tarzan ever. Naturally there was a follow-up and while Universal for some reason delayed exercising their third option they turned to another science fiction comic strip, “Buck Rogers”.

Buck Rogers Chapter 3 1939 | This abridgement of Universal's… | Flickr


That strip predated “Flash” (debuting in 1929) and had Buck exposed to a radioactive gas and go into suspended animation for five centuries (the serial adds a zeppelin crash at the arctic and a youthful sidekick named Buddy). Awakened he joins Dr. Huer (C. Montague Shaw) and Wilma Deering (Constance Moore) in the Hidden City, opposing the world rule of Killer Kane (Anthony Shaw), who electronically lobotomizes any who oppose him. Both sides seek the aid of the residents of Saturn as allies in the struggle. There isn’t much more than that to the plot. Even so, reducing its nearly four hours to just 87 minutes seems cruel. Yet that is precisely what notorious independent producer Sherman Krellburg had Harry Revier – his director on the wildly racist serial “The Lost City” – do. And bear in mind that some of the running time is taken up with opening credits and a pointless prologue and epilogue regarding UFOs! “Buck Rogers” was no great shakes to begin with –Universal apparently spared every expense on it from reusing existing sets (and even part of Buck’s costume) from “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars” and props from other films (sharp eyes will spot Henry Frankenstein’s heart monitor and Wilfred Glendon’s moon lamp for starters). Its most notable element might be that Wilma is no Dale Arden, screaming and fainting and in constant need of being rescued, but a part of the action. That makes it curiously modern… but still not very good.

Apocalypse Later Film Reviews: Buck Rogers (1939)

Think maybe George Lucas saw Buck at some point?

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

BRAHMS: THE BOY II
2020 / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment / 87m / $19.98 / PG-13
If I can judge by the number of scary movies involving insidious dolls we have a love/fear relationship with these diminutive mannequins. Creepy, sometimes possessed, ventriloquist dummies and dolls have been a feature of films and television since at least the British “Dead of Night” (1945). An extension of it’s ventriloquist segment, “Devil Doll” (1964) is one of the most unsettling horror films of its period. Now I haven’t seen 2016’s film to which this serves as a sequel so I know only vaguely it’s plot; it’s possible familiarity with that film would enhance this one (online comments suggest that is not the case). In that one a nanny hired by an elderly couple discovers that her charge is actually a doll. It’s to be treated as if it’s alive and soon the nanny comes to believe that might in fact be true. Here we have a couple, Liza and Shawn (Katie Holmes and Owain Yeoman), who move to the guest house of an English estate (the same one as in the first film) after a home invasion has left her brutalized and their son, Jude (Christopher Convery) so traumatized he’s become mute, communicating by writing and drawing. In the woods surrounding his new home Jude discovers a doll – the same one from the previous entry of course – and Liza painstakingly repairs it. Brahms: The Boy 2 Trailer Reveals A New Friend For The Scary Doll ...
You’d think that would cut her a little slack, but no, she is one of Brahms’ (as Jude names the doll, unknowingly giving it the same cognomen as before) main targets. Now this is a very subtle exercise and I give it credit for that. Too many modern horror films are unnecessarily and abundantly graphic. Brahms’ acts are mostly offscreen so it’s never clear if the doll commits them or coerces Jude. When it speaks, the voice is heard from behind a closed door so, is it the doll or is it Jude? It’s movements are so small we’re not sure we’ve we’ve seen them at all but where the twist in the first one was that a human agency was at work, here there’s definitely a supernatural one. Alas this subtlety is not accompanied by any atmosphere and the plot proceeds by exactly the numbers you expect (i.e.: if an animal is introduced early you know it will be the first victim; that’s Horror 101). The creepiest thing here is the doll – and that’s left over from the previous film! In it’s bland prettiness it looks precisely like Jared Kushner and that, let me tell you is creepy indeed. Despite the same writing directing team this is not the scarefest the first entry is reputed to be. Only the acting keeps the whole enterprise from collapsing into Who Cares territory.

DR. JACK
1922 / Alpha Home Entertainment / 110m total / $6.98 / NR
Harold Lloyd remains best known for his feature “Safety Last” (reviewed here a while back) but it’s not entirely representative of all of his work even if Lloyd hanging from a clock, seemingly many stories above the ground (in reality a shot achieved with clever camera positioning) is one of the most iconic images of silent US film. True, there were stunts and chases but Lloyd’s films were not as reliant on them for comic effect as Buster Keaton’s (and unlike The Great Stone Face Lloyd used a double for the more dangerous efforts). Lloyd broke from the pack of silent comedians in 1918 when he created his Everyman character whom he referred to as “Glass” or “Specs”. That was the result of his producer, Hal Roach, commenting that Lloyd was too handsome to play comedy (tell that to Cary Grant) so the hornrims were adopted to tone down his looks to guy next door level, not too attractive and not too outrageously disguised for audiences to care about. Lloyd moved on from Roach and formed his own production company in 1924; this film is one of his last for Roach; Lloyd’s career lasted into sound, though he was never as successful in the talkies as he had been (with Charlie Chaplin and Keaton he was one of the top solo comic stars of the silent period). Some have theorized that his can-do character just didn’t resonate with Depression audiences but it’s also true that his rate of production slowed – as did Chaplin’s. dr. jack | Nitrate Diva
Here Lloyd essays the eponymous character, a country doctor who believes more in sunshine and fresh air than medicines, which puts him in confrontation with Dr. Ludwig von Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne) who has been keeping The Sick-Little-Well-Girl in the dark and on a plethora of pharmaceuticals (Mildred Davis, who was Lloyd’s costar in most of his silent features from 1919 on and eventually his wife). Jack has met the never-named “girl” (actually an obviously full-grown woman) on one of her rare vetures utside her bedroom, so he’s tickled he gets a chance to pursue her romantically, as well as make her healthy, when he is introduced into the household by the family lawyer (C. Norman Hammond). von Saulsbourg, who desperately wants to retain his profitable arrangement opposes him at every turn, pulling closed the curtains that Jack has opened (which Jack promptly pulls back open), for instance. Jack also prescribes excitement instead of quiet tedium and takes advantage of the news of an escaped, dangerous lunatic to don a disguise and dash about terrorizing the household. This is a gag-driven comedy, neither as contemplative as the previous, “Grandma’s Boy”, nor with the thrill content of his next, “Safety Last”. Filling out the disc (“Dr. Jack” is a mere five reels, not an uncommon length for features in the early 1920s) are two of Lloyd’s two-reelers: “His Royal Slyness” (where he is the spitting image of a European prince – shades of “The Prisoner of Zenda”) and “High and Dizzy” (which features some skyscraper activity that anticipates “Safety Last”).

ONCE WERE BROTHERS
2020 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 101m / $29.98 BR / R
Martin Scorcese directed the concert film of The Band’s final comcert, “The Last
Waltz,” so it’s only natural he’s a producer and one of the talking heads in this documentary of Robbie Robertson and the musicians who ultimately became The Band. The film is very much from Robertson’s point of view (only he and one other member survive) so take that into consideration. One deceased member accused him in a memoir of taking full credit for writing songs that were shared creations but Robertson is full of praise for the musicianship of all and wistful about the group’s early days. Robertson seems to be the key player here, nabbing a spot with Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band The Hawks, later performing under that name without him (apparently with his blessing – he appears in the documentary and uis effusive in his praise for Robertson). That group went on to be the anonymous backup group for Bob Dylan on his disastrous (at the time) non-acoustic tour of 1965-66 before adopting the simple and appropriate cognomen The Band. A-Ron's Film Reviews - Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & The ...
The group was only mildly successful with the public (moreso with the critics) – I recall back in the day it was a rare college mate who was into the group – and fellow musicians; Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison all show up to praise them. More unusual is the appearance of Dominique Bourgeois, a French-Canadian journalist and Robertson’s ex-wife, who relates tales of the group’s communal living arrangement in a Woodstock house they dubbed Big Pink (a fairly hideous rancher painted just that color). The appearance of a woman in a rock doc is quite unusual and she details the descent into drugs (not by Robertson apparently) that ultimately led to the group’s dissolution. Fans of The Band (a little too bluegrass for my taste) will get the most good out of Daniel Roher’s documentary.

RICORDI? (Remember?)
2019 / Icarus Films Home Video / 107m / $26.98 / NR
This is director Valerio Mieli’s second film and his first in nearly a decade. It’s an intricate confection that skips about through the past and the present and not always trustworthy memories in a love affair between the two protagonists (Luca Marinelli and Linda Caridi) who are never named, thus projecting a universality upon them. That may be a bit much to thrust on Him and Her and even on the film itself as there’s nothing particularly absorbing about their on-again-off-again love affair – at least not that I found; others have been far more wowed by the film than I was. Much of it is typical rom-com stuff; only the approach is offbeat. Maybe viewers will recognize incidents from their own lives, or similar ones, but maybe not. How many have moved into their family’s old apartment years later? – and how many have gone through a long term affair that involved breaking up and making up as opposed to a consistently involved relationship? Ricordi?' Review | Hollywood Reporter
Without going into details of my personal romantic history maybe I should just admit this film doesn’t speak to me or my experience and so maybe it just isn’t for me. Others may well find more resonance here but I kept thinking that Woody Allen would have done it better – or Maybe Terrence Mallick or Wes Anderson. Marinelli and Caridi are attractive and engaging performers and I did care about them but found nothing about their characters that deserved a movie. Along with the acting it was the technical aspects I found most admirable; it has been meticulously (and beautifully) photographed and edited to suggest the flowing nature of time and the undependabilty of memory. It’s a lovely package but I didn’t find much in it.

STAR TREK: SHORT TREKS
2020 / Paramount, CBS DVD / 118m / $22.98 / NR
You may wonder, as I did, just what point there is to 10 to 20 minute “Star Trek” adventures. The answer lies amongst the extras. “Star Trek: Discovery” has been such a success for CBS’s streaming service that they wanted more Trek pronto. (They also have a series based on Capt. Picard returning to service and there’s one in the works for Capt. Pike… they seem determined to drain the well dry,) The producers in charge of all the new series couldn’t supply a new “Discovery series as quickly as CBS wanted but they reasoned they could come up with a batch of short subjects… so there you have it: these brief adventures were not borne out of some inspired idea but rather of necessity. REVIEW] Star Trek: Short Treks: "Ephraim and Dot": Just Enjoy the ...
The results are variable. The bulk of the episodes utilize the standing “Discovery” sets and one or two of its cast members but rarely more (that Spock and Number One spend one installment stuck in a turbolift should give you an idea). Invasion of the ship by an alien species gets rather overworked but it does result in one of the most engaging episodes, an animated one where a being is looking for a safe place to lay her eggs and is pursued by a maintenance bot. In a variation (and possibly the absolute best of the lot) Discovery has held a position for a millenia, its entire crew having departed and never returned. The computer has become sentient in the meantime and rescues an escape pod only to fall in love with its occupant. The finale is surprisingly moving (kudos to writer Michael Chabon – who concocted the story with Sean Cochran and whose name I was surprised to see here). Less successful is an installment involving Tribbles that really adds nothing to David Gerrold’s original and a backstory for Saru that simply shows us what has been spoken of previously (but any appearance by Doug Jones and Michelle Yeoh is welcome). But in the final tally what we have here is Trek Lite, a placeholder till “Picard” goes to disc.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

ADAMA
2015 / Icarus Films Home Video / 82m / $26.98 / NR
When you think of animated films the first thing that likely comes to mind are the Hollywood productions mostly created with the small fry in mind. Then there’s what the rest of the world is producing, films that even adults can appreciate. Family films in the truest sense as opposed to movies deemed safe for the kiddies in terms of language and graphic depictions of naughty stuff. (As to some of the values contained I’ll refrain for now.) The titular character is a 12 year old living in a remote African village, walled by cliffs and unknown to the outside world. When his older brother, Samba, takes off for “the land of breaths” to join the WWI French army after a disagreement with the village elders, Adama follows, determined to bring his brother back home. First on a European bound steamship and ultimately at the front lines of battle in Verdun he searches for his sibling, joined by Abdou, a griot* who functions as a spiritual guide, the soldier Djo and the street urchin Maximin. It’s an imaginative and epic journey cum coming-of-age story inspired by the real-life stories of West Africans who were recruited by the French army to fight in Europe during World War I and one with allegorical subtext to be plumbed on later viewings (first time just sit back and enjoy its invention). Adama | NW Film Center
Simon Rouby has used CGI animation to achieve a painterly look resembling watercolor illustrations for a picture book – a style that’s just a bit misleading given that film is anything but simple or simplistic (though the ending is a tad cliché) and is even just a tad too disturbing and intense in its portrait of trench warfare for really young viewers. The realism is tinged with fantasy (but no talking animals or fantastic creatures), a nexus that few directors – save perhaps Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (some aspects reminded me of his “A Very Long Engagement”) – could manage in live action. Rouby has created a very stylish film but not one where the style overwhelms the whole, sidetracking the story and message or its believable characters (not the colorful but one-dimensional – literally as well as figuratively – figures of most US offerings). But the last is true of most European and many Japanese features that I’ve had the pleasure to review. Do track down some none Hollywood animated films – try ”Spirited Away”, “Perfect Blue”, “The Illusionist” and “Louise by the Shore” for starters – and definitely make time for this film.
* Griot – a term for which there is no clear translation. “A member of a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa.”

MADAM SECRETARY: The Final Season
2019 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 432m (3 discs) / $39.98 / NR
At the end of the fifth season Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord resigned her office to begin a campaign for the presidency of the US. That was intended to be the end of things (even while it was somewhat of a cliffhanger) but the show was so popular that CBS prevailed on the producers to make yet one more season, though a limited one of only 10 episodes (as they had with “Elementary,” another series where they were loathe to lose the advertising dollars a popular show brings in). This final clutch of episodes jumps right into the McCord presidency though flashbacks deal with the campaign – courtesy a investigation led by Senator Hanson (out actor Wentworth Miller, who’s scarier than hell apparently channeling Gym Jordan). As you might gather from that, the show takes current events – in this case the impeachment proceedings of earlier this year – and reconfigures them so as to examine them as a civics lesson in how government works – or should work. There are also wholly fictional scenarios – such as a standoff with the Chinese navy – that again portrays the functioning of a sane, intelligent administration.Madam Secretary' season 6 episode 8: Fans want show's writers to ...
This series is so excellent in every aspect that it’s difficult to know where to start praising it. The cast – headed up by Tea Leoni as McCord and Tim Daly as her First Husband – is uniformly excellent. I paricularly liked the work of Zeljko Ivanek, Patina Miller and Erich Bergen as members of McCord’s staff. (The last, who’s done a lot of musical theatre, even gets a chance to sing in the final episode.) And amongst the guest stars watch for Tyne Daly – Tim’s real life sister – as a congressperson who opposes McCord’s intention to revive the ERA. Her scene with her brother is practically a master class in acting. But none of them – and others I haven’t space to cite – would be able to shine without the superior writing of creator Barbara Hall and her team of scripters. The dialogue is intelligent whether dealing with political or private matters – it is not neglected that family life goes on in the multi-offspring First Household even when mom is trying to avert a confrontation that could lead to nuclear war. If for some reason you haven’t caught up with this show (and there is a box set of the entire run) you really owe it to yourself to do so.

POLICE SQUAD! (In Color) The Complete Series
1982 / CBS Blu Ray, Paramount / 150m / $14.99 BR / NR
Fresh off the theatrical success of “Airplane!” the creative team of David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams were encouraged to create a TV series in a similar wacky vein. One does wonder if the suits even saw the movie or if it was a case of “These guys are hot; get ‘em!” because ABC was apparently dismayed by what resulted. The show was cancelled after a mere half dozen episodes had been filmed and the network put out a bizarre press release stating that the reason for termination was because “the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it… ” meaning it had to be watched carefully to catch all the gags. Viewers in the early 1980s apparently weren’t prepared for that – or at any rate were presumed not to be (“The Simpsons” rapid fire delivery of gags would later put the lie to that presumption). The jokes here fly fast and furious; some are subtle (pay attention to signage and action in the background), all are just silly. None are remotely intellectual. If you’ve seen “Airplane” you have an idea what to expect. As for the barrage of them I suppose the Zuckers and Abrahams operated on the premise that if any particular joke misfired, never mind, another would be along soon.Police Squad! (1982)
A number of running jokes are a feature of the series. Every week Det. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen, late of stoic leading man roles, creating a whole new career for himself) would knock over trashcans while parking his car; a Quinn Martin-esque narrator would intone the episode’s title while a very different title appeared onscreen; Drebin and his superior officer would converse in an elevator that took on ludicrous passengers; and invitably Drebin would offer a pack of smokes to someone saying, “Cigarette?” engendering the reply, “Yes, I know;” and the special guest star who’s offed as soon as his or her name is announced. These could have gotten very tired eventually – though who knows? Other series launched catchphrases and gags that ran for their entire runs and were keenly anticipated by fans (such at “Get Smart’s” Cone of Silence and “Would you believe?”). The bit with the trashcans – their number matching the episode number would likely have had to be retired; imagine how many Drebin would have been crashing into if the show had run for years. I’m not a fan of this kind of humor – I lean toward the surrealist schools of the Marx Brothers, “The Goon Show” and Monty Python – but I found myself enjoying this more than I’d anticipated.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

LITTLE JOE
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 105m / $26.98 / NR
Melding arthouse and genre is a tricky thing, particularly when the genre is horror. The Germans managed it in the silent era but with the arrival of sound and horror becoming a more rigid set of tropes only a handful of directors have managed to pull it off: Edgar Ulmer with “The Black Cat”, Jean Cocteau with “La belle et la bete” (in the guise of a fairy tale) and Georges Franju with “Les yeux sans visage” come to mind… and maybe Alfred Hitchcock with “The Birds”. Co-writer/director Jessica Hausner’s film isn’t close to being in the same league with those but that isn’t to say it doesn’t try. Plant breeder Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) has developed a lovely flowering plant whose enticing aroma makes the recipient happy. Knowing this will make it a best-seller her company is naturally eager to rush it to market. Some of her fellow breeders are a bit cautious as long-term effects haven’t been studied; Emily, against company policy, takes one home to her teenage son, Joe (Kit Conner), for some unofficial observation. One fellow breeder (Kerry Fox) starts insisting that her dog, which has been exposed to the pollen is no longer her dog and Emily becomes of the opinion that her son (and the new girlfriend with whom he’s shared “Little Joe”) are beyond happy; they’re spaced out like cult members and over-protective of the plant, which also seems to possess telekinetic abilities. Emily Beecham in Little Joe (2019)
Methodically paced and with a refusal to indulge for the most part in shock this film is not for the average horror fan or even the average movie fan. The closest analogy I can think of is Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” which similarly has low key, nigh minimal performances and not very much happening for a long, long time. But the subtle differences don’t pay off in as unsettling a way as they do in the Russian director’s surreal work. Hausner’s film actually works best when it’s not being so restrained, such as when one breeder is trapped inside the greenhouse, inexplicably locked in, so that she is exposed without the usual protective gear to the new plant’s pollen. (And thus falls victim to the personality change.) Otherwise there’s a lot of lethargic pacing, lingering shots of the flower beds with nothing happening or at most some breeders watering the plants. There’s a potent finale but it loses some impact by being too long in coming. It’s admirable that there’s a message here about rushing products to market and that it isn’t pounded home with a sledgehammer). It isn’t just an artsy remake of “Invasion if the Body Snatchers”, either, even if it does revisit some of that film’s themes. But the film is just too restrained (which some will find laudable) and a tad too long for its own good.

LONE STAR DECEPTION
2019 / Tricast Entertainment / 106m /NR
streaming on Amazon, FlixFling, Vimeo on Demand, Vudu, In Demand and Fandango
Mostly in the time since I’ve been reviewing DVDs for this column, any title I receive that purports to star (or prominently bill) Eric Roberts turns out to have the actor onscreen for very few minutes (sometimes always within the same set) and obviously only buying his marquee value for a day or two of work. It was refreshing therefore that while he doesn’t have the lead role here – that would be Anthony Ray Parker – he does have a substantial one as Bill Sagle, the behind-the-scenes power in Texas Republican politics. When Sagle’s nephew, running for governor, is blackmailed after having his liaison with a black hooker video recorded he’s forced to drop out of the race. He also commits suicide. Sagle decides to substitute one of his employees, Tim Bayh (Parker) and – as a Republican candidate is a nigh sure win in that state – have the first black governor of Texas. (That Bayh has to switch parties is makes no nevermind.) But the blackmailer (who is also the hooker’s pimp and apparently a drug dealer behind the façade of his restaurant) isn’t giving up on his expectations of a financial windfall that easily. REVIEW: Lone Star Deception - Backseat Directors
Co-directors Robert Peters and Don Okolo (the latter co-scripting) don’t spend much time on the social issues here. Sagle presents Bayh to the circle of power brokers who very quickly get past their racism and say okayfine to a black, former Democrat as their gubernatorial candidate, After that things move into tried and true action mode. Sagle gives Bayh a glock and send him off to intimidate the blackmailer (isn’t that the sort of thing you should send a thug to do?). The blackmailer responds by kidnapping Bayh’s daughter and Bayh goes out single-handed to rescue her… and burn down the restaurant while he’s at it. There’s gunfire aplenty and an exploding car and by the time Bayh’s x-military buddy joins him in a climactic shoot-out pretty much all believability is gone – just in time for a jaw-dropping final reveal. Now I’m not suggesting then film should have abandoned its action hero stuff for political thrills but the territory was ripe for more exploration than what’s presented. Saving everything is a solid turn by Parker in the lead role, the supporting one by Roberts, as sly and untrustworthy as a panther, and Brian Thornton as Bayh’s buddy. Technical aspects are mostly good; this film just needed a better script. And perhaps it’s best not to judge too harshly a film that took two years to complete with multiple directors, producers and writers coming and going as production was suspended several times. That it exists at all is pretty amazing.

SHERLOCK JR.
1924 / Alpha Video / 110m total / $6.98 / NR
This may not be one of Keaton’s masterpieces (if you watch no other Keaton in your lifetime see “The General,” the greatest silent comedy ever made), but it’s fun and, as with all Keaton, it features at least one moment of sheer brilliance within its sublime slapstick. Buster is a movie projectionist but he is desirous of becoming a detective. So when his sweetie’s (Kathryn McGuire) poppa’s watch goes missing and he is framed for the theft, he puts himself on the case. That’s the entire slender plot on which Keaton builds his gags as he shadows his rival in romance (Ward Crane) –the cad really is the culprit, having pawned the watch to buy an expensive box of candy. Not getting anywhere – except having misadventures involving a train (Keaton loved trains) – he returns to his job and drifts off to sleep; in a dream he steps into the movie screen (an idea Woody Allen would lift for “The Purple Rose of Cairo”) of a melodrama involving the theft of a pearl necklace. The actors in the film are replaced by the people in Buster’s real – or should that be reel? – life and he becomes Sherlock, Jr., the World’s Greatest Detective. The cad (or The Shiek as he is referred to) has stolen the necklace with the butler as his accomplice and the two attempt to murder “Sherlock” with elaborate traps – including an exploding pool ball – all of which go humorously awry. The film ends with the slyest of all its jokes: the girl and her father solve the mystery of the watch theft while Buster slept.
The film had bad previews so Keaton edited it way down to 45 minutes, making it a lean collection of one joke or visual trick – such as when he packs himself into an improbably small suitcase – after another. Not a frame of film is wasted here. Because the feature is so short three of Keaton’s two-reelers are included: “The Paleface”, “The Playhouse” and “The Frozen North”. The first has some content that was typical of the time but is un-PC now, yet it has Buster helping a Native American tribe thwart a robber baron’s scheme to take their land so maybe the less than informed content can be overlooked. The second has one of the comedian’s most famous gags as, through camera trickery, he becomes everyone onstage, everyone in the orchestra pit and everyone in the audience (“This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show,” remarks attendee Keaton). “The Frozen North” has Keaton uncharacteristically playing a total jerk – though he would sometimes essay a clueless, entitled rich boy – as he terrorizes a Canadian town, parodying William S. Hart and Erich von Stoheim (the only time he would tweak other stars though he would sometimes guy other movies). It contains one of my favorite Keaton jokes when, at the film’s beginning he emerges from a subway station… in the far north. Image quality is variable but mostly acceptable. Sharper prints are available from other companies but for a much higher price.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

THE AFFAIR, The Complete Series
2014-19 / Showtime Entertainment, Paramount, CBS DVD / 3117m (19 discs) / $46.69 / NR
This sheries ran for five years on Showtime – which axed the extraordinary “The Borgias” after three seasons of its planned four for low ratings – so it obviously had a following (and was certainly more economical than the really, really expensive Italian period piece starring Jeremy Irons). My opinion therefore is a contrarian one because I was not much taken with it. That said there is a lot of good here; the cast is excellent, for a start, with the likes of Richard Schiff, Michael Gross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham and Brendan Fraser (nigh unrecognizable at what must be 300 pounds) showing up in recurring guest roles. Of the regulars I particularly liked Joshua Jackson as the cuckolded husband who is capable of perceptive observations but also of being a complete a-hole and Kathleen Chalfant as the most monstrous of mothers. The dialogue writing is superb with realistic sounding shorter exchanges and longer monologues that are perhaps as eloquent as we would wish we were than strictly true to life. Maura Tierney and Dominic West in The Affair (2014)
The titular liaison begins when schoolteacher – and writer with one mostly ignored novel to his credit – Noah Solloway (Dominic West) takes his family to Montauk to spend the summer with his wealthy and ghastly in-laws. There he keeps running into waitress Allison Bailey (Ruth Wilson) and eventually the chemistry and hormones cannot be denied. By the end of the season both their marriages are kaput. Season two deals with divorce proceedings for both and their subsequent marriage to each other – but that also frays partly because Noah’s life changes when his second novel is a big success. By season three – which jumps ahead three years to Noah’s release from jail (I’m not telling more and risk spoilers) he and Allison are moving apart (in fact this series could be tersely broken down as “Who’s Noah boning this year?”). I can’t escape the feeling that no thought was initially given as to what to do with the characters if it was renewed after year one and they started making it up as they went along (with many storylines left unresolved).                     Brendan Fraser and Dominic West in The Affair (2014)
For all its artiness (about which more in a bit) this is basically soap opera with all the characters switching to new partners every season or so. Current issues, such as MeToo, show up but they’re not so much explored as exploited for plot purposes. Now I’m not entirely averse to soap but for it to work you have to care about the characters and I found that this group of people is a rather dreary lot for whom I didn’t give a fig. It doesn’t help that the series takes a “Rashomon” approach, breaking each episode into segments that present the same events from different characters’ perspectives – sometimes radically different as to details of the conversation, attire and even locale. With so many unreliable “narrators” how can you trust what is actually going on throughout the series? And thus how can you form an attachment to any of them? (In soap you need to know who to cheer and who to hiss.) But, as I noted before this show lasted for five seasons so clearly I’m missing something.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE, The First Season
2019 / Paramount, CBS Television Studios / 437m (4 discs) / $49.98 / NR
I should begin by noting that the original “The Twilight Zone” was part of my childhood. For some reason my parents – who were not particularly fond of fantastique – were devoted to the show. Maybe they were just tickled by the ironic surprise endings. (I should point out they also liked “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Thriller,” though they’d never let me stay up to watch the latter – it took me something like five decades to finally catch up with that show.) Thanks to reruns and review copies it’s been part of my adulthood as well. As a result I probably have some unshakeable ideas of what TWZ ought to be, so bear that in mind. Jordan Peele in The Twilight Zone (2019)
This is the third attempt to resurrect the series; the first revival (1985–89) ran on CBS, while the second was on UPN for a a single season (2002–2003). I did see a few episodes of the first but I have no memory of it; that and that I only watched a few installments suggests much of my reaction. I didn’t see any of the next incarnation; that it lasted only a year means it was likely not a success with viewers. There have also been books, comic books, graphic novels and two films, one a theatrical feature and the other made for TV. Truly Rod Serling’s creation is part of our cultural landscape. It has been consistently ranked as one of the best television shows ever and when FCC chairman, Newton N. Minow, called television a “vast wasteland” he claimed “The Twilight Zone” was one of the few exceptions. TWZ was always about something; its fantasy and science fiction trappings explored social and emotional ground in allegorical fashion – or perhaps fable would be a better analogy as the show always concluded with Serling offering an onscreen moral.                                                                                         Ginnifer Goodwin in The Twilight Zone (2019)
Now I realize that as 60 years have passed and times are different you can’t just resurrect TWZ as it was even if that were possible – both Serling and the writers he most relied on are long gone for starters. But the hour-long slot of the new series isn’t a boon. When the concept is to present a situation and then have a twist ending it’s better to keep things brief so the viewer doesn’t get to the surprise before the show does. Serling realized this and protested against CBS’s insistence on expanding the show for its fourth season because half hour dramas – not to mention anthology series – were becoming a thing of the past (ratings dropped and TWZ returned to a half hour for its final year). When Serling developed “Night Gallery” he wisely designed it to have multiple tales fill the hour.                                                                                Ike Barinholtz in The Twilight Zone (2019)
The original series was also essentially a collection of shaggy dog stories with ironic – and sometimes blackly humorous – punchlines. No matter how profound his musings Serling always had a twinkle in his eye that kept them from being too heavy. (Consider this gem without Serling’s droll delivery: “The barrier of loneliness: The palpable, desperate need of the human animal to be with his fellow man. Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting… in ‘The Twilight Zone’”.) This new series is pretty grim for the most part – to see just how grim check out the rethinking of Richard Matheson’s “The Terror at 20000 Feet” – the social message is laid on with a trowel (with abundant profanity) and producer Jordan Peele’s narration is po-faced. (Maybe he’s just such an imposing presence that it can’t be helped.) To my thinking only the season’s final episode – where a writer for the show investigates a blurry figure seen in the background somewhere of every episode – rivaled the original’s quirky stories. The production values are high, it’s beautifully photographed and acted but it didn’t grab me.

Long’s Short Takes

The Film Detective Brings the Comfort of Classic Film to Uncertain Times With Movie Marathons

Dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, Roger Corman’s 94th Birthday & April Fools’ Day!

Step Into Spring on the Lighter Side With an Entire Month Dedicated to Classic Comedy

 ROCKPORT, Mass. — April 1, 2020 — The Film Detective (TFD), a classic media streaming network and film archive which restores classic films for today’s cordcutters, is offering a brief escape from these challenging times with the light-hearted side of classic film and television.

  While the theaters may be closed and many confined at home, one thing that offers a bit of respite in times of overwhelming news is the nostalgia of classic film and television.

  Beginning April 1, TFD is featuring a collection of classic comics on its live channel and adding more than a dozen comedies to its streaming library of over 1,000 classic film and television titles—and a variety of movie marathons.

 April Fools’ Day will showcase the Golden Age’s favorite goofs—including The Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Abbott and Costello—for 24 hours of laughs on Sling, STIRR and DistroTV.

 It wouldn’t be a month of classic comedy without Charlie Chaplin, so TFD is honoring the anniversary of The Tramp’s birthday on April 16! Favorites including The Kid (1921) and The Adventurer (1917) will be featured, as well as the tale of Chaplin’s rise to fame in Chaplin’s Art of Comedy (1966), from legendary independent filmmaker Sam Sherman. Chaplin’s birthday will be followed by a weekend-long marathon of comedy, from Friday, April 17, to Sunday, April 19. In times when everyone could use a laugh, no one fits the bill quite like Chaplin and his comedic peers of yesteryear.

 Comedy marathons are only part of the events on TFD this month. To celebrate the 94th birthday of iconic film legend, Roger Corman, Sunday, April 5, TFD is featuring a Roger Cor-Marathon from 3:30 p.m.-midnight ET. A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and more will be featured to the delight of fans. Viewers can also enjoy exclusive commentary on Corman’s classics from director Joe Dante and Roger Corman himself in Trailers from Hell videos, available on the TFD app.

 Additionally, in honor of Easter on April 12, TFD will be stocking its streaming app with religious titles from The Cathedral Films Collection and The Loyola Films Collection, courtesy of Vision Video.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

LAST CHRISTMAS
2019 / Universal / 103m / $29.78 BR / NR
There are a few – very few – Christmas movies that are too good to be seen only during the holidays and this is one of them. Itmisn’t one of those gooey, formulaic Hallmark Channel romantic comedies where the girl from the country isn’t successful in the Big City and returns to her dysfunctional family and finds (or rediscovers) true love and that “There’s no place like home.” Spare me the stay-where-you-are messages from folks who transplanted to Hollywood and did well (and yes, I’m looking at you “The Wizard of Oz”). The heroine of this movie, Kate (Emilia Clarke), isn’t doing all that well in the Big City (in this case London made to look so scrumptious you’ll experience an intense desire to move there instantly). She’s a wannabe actress who’s working in a year-round Christmas store for a demanding boss who goes by the pseudonym of Santa (the wonderful Michelle Yeoh doing her patented Dragon Lady schtick – at least in the early scenes). Kate is homeless – self-estranged from her family – and given to picking up men at the bar so she has a place to spend the night or crashing with a dwindling number of friends given her tendency to wreak havoc wherever she goes. She meets-cute Tom (Henry Golding), a handsome stranger whose goofy love of life gets this selfish young woman to start looking beyond herself.Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding in Last Christmas (2019)
Now obviously there is a rom-com element to this story but it’s a veneer over what is a traditional English Christmas story where a self-absorbed character learns to look outward and realize her connectedness with her fellow human beings. And there is an ultimate reveal that I found devastating. Based so loosely on the titular George Michael song that I think “inspired by” would be more accurate, the film has a delicious screenplay co-written by Emma Thompson (who also served as one of the producers and has a supporting role as Kate’s overbearing mother, complete with eastern European accent). When I saw Thompson’s name in the opening credits I knew this was not going to be the same old same old. Paul Feig has adroitly directed a multi-layered script and made it seamless; none of its disparate elements and moods seems out of place. His work here is just phenomenally good. And he’s assembled a brilliant cast; Thompson and Yeoh (who gets to play comedy for a change) provide terrific support for Clarke and Goldman who are so engaging and so drop dead cute you want to eat them with a spoon. And good as they are individually they have terrific chemistry with each other. I can’t say enough good things about this film. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll love it.

MON MON MON MONSTERS (Guai guai guai guaiwu!)

2017 / RLJE Films / 112m / $27.97 / NR
This art film disguised as a horror flick just might not be to all tastes. Not consistently scary enough for most genre fans while too splattery for the arthouse crowd and probably too nihilistic for the general public, it will be appreciated only by the very few. I’m not entirely convinced I’m part of that crowd. The production begins with two creatures – they seem to be vampires but are never specifically identified as such – stalking and chowing down on a homeless person. These sister monsters are in the homeless category themselves, sleeping in cardboard boxes to shield themselves from the sun’s rays. The film then jarringly shifts to a high school where Shu-Wei (Yu-Kai Teng) is being humiliated for stealing school funds and sentenced to community service with the very gang of school bullies who framed him. The mild student finds that adopting their ways is the only way to minimize further abuse; during a robbery they capture the younger creature and take her back to the school basement where they torture it. Whatever could go wrong? How about that the older sister is tracking down the whereabouts of the miscreants and is not pleasantly disposed to them?
The behavior of the bullies, particularly that of their leader, Ren-hao (Kent Tsai), is more psychotic than bullying. At one point a student sits on a chair that’s been rigged to collapse and Ren-hao beats the kid with a chair leg, laughing insanely. The teacher lets this go on for a while before intervening; this same teacher also tells Shu-Wei he needs to examine what he does to incur the bullying and satisfyingly gets hers when her water bottle is doctored with blood from the creature and she bursts into flames upon stepping into sunlight. When a targeted kid adopts bullying ways, even as refuge, and a teacher is an enabler the line blurs as to who is a bully and who isn’t, just as the torture of a homicidal creature makes us question who are the real monsters. This is a vicious social satire in which there are ultimately no likeable characters and the ending is so nihilistic that it’s a little hard to take. I’d say of this film, as I have of “Taxi Driver” – another uncompromisingly downbeat social commentary – that it’s one I might admire but can never love. It may offer thought provoking material but not of the uplifting kind.

OUT OF THE INKWELL
1919-26 / Alpha Video / 64m / $6.98 / NR
Max Fleischer is an all but forgotten figure in animation; less cosy than Disney (waaay less) and even quirkier than the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes. His chief characters, Betty Boop (an original… and the only cartoon character to run afoul of the censors) and Popeye (adapted from a newspaper comic strip) are better remembered than the studio that produced them. The flapper and the spinach chewing sailor are the more audience friendly of his output, which often got downright surreal. (Imagine ghosts or skeletons dancing and lip-syncing to such Cab Calloway recordings as :Minnie the Moocher”.) But even Betty had her start in a weird entry where the humanized dog, Bimbo – a recurring Fleischer character – is pursued around a sort of funhouse and quizzed “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” He always shouts “No!” until he runs into a voluptuous lady dog who pops the same question. Her face modified slightly and her long ears transformed into earrings the pooch became Betty. Fleischer also engaged in some odd experiments such as building scale models of backgrounds that were placed on a turntable. Rotated incrementally behind the cell drawings they gave the illusion of 2D characters walking through a 3D environment. And no one who has seen them can forget his studio’s stunning Superman shorts.Image result for out of the inkwell
His early efforts were during the silent days and the Out of the Inkwell series blended live action of Fleischer and his staff interacting with the animated Koko the Clown (who would also be a recurring character but never again the star after talkies arrived). The initital entries are little more than excuses to show off the animation as Koko jumps up and down, walks about, rambles into the distance and back again – all seemingly on plain white paper. Later ones have a bit more plot after Fleischer is shown painting Koko but the first ones are just demonstrations of how fluid the cartooning is. (Unfortunately the disc doesn’t contain my favorite Inkwell where Koko’s mischievous pet dog insists on pulling the End of theWorld lever in a power station.) The condition of the Inkwell offerings is variable (the first one is really badly faded). In far better, in fact very good condition, are the three Boop shorts that fill out the disc.

SCANDALOUS: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 97m / $26.98 / NR
The blurb on the DVD case, “Sex, Drugs and UFOs”, would have made an even better title for this documentary about that tabloid that of course you never buy but can’t help sneaking a peek at while you’re waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. (Actually the lettering is so large that I initially thought it was the title.) Begun in 1926 as The New York Enquirer it was acquired in 1952 by Generoso Pope Jr (per Wikipedia, “It has been alleged that Mafia boss Frank Costello provided Pope the money for the purchase in exchange for the Enquirer’s promise to list lottery numbers and to refrain from any mention of Mafia activities.”), who altered its title and focused its contents on gory photos of murders and accidents. Pope shifted the focus again when he realized that blood and guts limited where his rag would be offered for sale. Celebrity gossip and scandal (often true) and stories of the occult and alien contact (often not) were a better fit for supermarkets. (Pope also owned the truly wacky and much missed World Weekly News, which was even more outrageously fake and was considered a satire of tabloids by its editors and those who wrote for it. I know a couple of them.) Image result for scandalous the untold story of the national enquirer
Ownership has changed hands several times mover the years; the most recent owner was David Pecker (who has recently sold it yet again) and it is under his leadership that the publication started its notorious catch-and-kill policy. That involved buying and burying a juicy story if the subject was a friend of Pecker’s or if the subject gave something in return. The first object of this quid pro quo seems to have been Arnold Schwartzenegger at the time he was governor. The Enquirer withheld its information on his extramarital activities in exchange for his contributing to the muscle mags Pecker also owned. More famously the Enquirer buried exclusives from women with whom our President had dalliances. More outrageously the publication has printed salacious stories about his political rivals; their veracity can be judged by the paper claiming Hillary Clinton has been at death’s door for years (even if she is I doubt she’d give the Prez the satisfaction of kicking off first). It also alleged that the father of Ted Cruz, then running in the Republican presidential primaries, was involved with Lee Harvey Oswald in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There is much here that I learned in a 60 Minutes piece years ago but that expose was done before the catch-and-kill practice was known about so there is also much new for those who saw that piece. This doc should be fascinating to everyone because, after all, “Enquiring minds want to know.”

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

THE CELLIST: The Legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky
2017 / BBP Films / 103m / $24/.95 / NR
Lovers of classical music will have a feast with this biography of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. I confess I’d never heard of him before but he was quite renowned and even dubbed by many as the greatest string player of all time – it bears noting that a plethora of string performers lived before recordings could be made so “of all time” can scarcely be considered a definitive conclusion. He was certainly an exceptional musician even at an early age. Born 1903 into an impoverished Ukrainian family he was encouraged to take up music by his father and settled on the cello because he liked the look of it. He was playing with a group called the Beethoven Quartet when the revolution occurred (he was 13 at the time) and the group was forced to rename itself the Lenin Quartet (supposedly Lenin himself told Piatigorsky that Beethoven was more appropriate but the new designation stuck). Two years later he auditioned for and was chosen as the principal cellist of the Bolshoi Ballet. He wanted to study in Berlin but was forbidden to leave Russia so he smuggled himself out. Playing in a café to earn money he was heard by Wilhelm Furtwängler who hired him to be the principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic (he was still a teenager!).Image result for the cellist the legacy of gregor piatigorsky
With the Nazis taking over Europe he and his second wife took off from France for the USA where his career continued to be exceptional. He performed with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra and formed a group with Arthur Rubinstein (piano) and Jasha Heifitz (violin) that was referred to as “the millon dollar trio” and toured extensively. Composers, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, William Walton, Vernon Duke, and Igor Stravinsky created cello works for him. (How is it I’d never heard of the man? Maybe because died in 1976 – the same year he gave his last performance – which is about the same time I was becoming immersed in classical music?) He lived an amazing life which is lovingly documented here. His musicianship is attested to by the likes of cellist Yo Yo Ma and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. There are abundant clips of Piatigorsky performing (and teaching) and my only complaint is that they are all too brief. Fortunately there’s a wealth of his performances on YouTube. Luscious stuff. I suggest you check them out after watching this film.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS
1932 / Alpha Video / 88m / $6.98 / NR
Frank Borzage is one of the great Hollywood Golden Age directors of whom you’ve likely never heard. But I’m guessing if you checked out his IMDb page you’d spot a number of titles that prompt an “Oh, I love that film!” amongst his 107 credits from 1913 to 1961 (when he was replaced by Edgar G. Ulmer on “Journey Beneath the Desert”). He may be Hollywood’s only true romantic and his lush, eclectic style resulted in films you don’t so much watch as sink into. There’s “7th Heaven” from the silent years and “Little Man What Now”, “History is Made at Night”, “Strange Cargo” and “The Mortal Storm” and so much more from the 1930s and 40s. He was the first director to win the Oscar. Reportedly his heavy drinking resulted in his bouncing from studio to studio in the sound era and his career was in tatters by the 1950s (following a stay at Republic Pictures – quite a fall from Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros. and MGM). This adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel was made for Paramount at a time when Gary Cooper was not yet craggy and was often found in a tuxedo (hence the line in Cole Porter’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz”). Here he’s in uniform as Frederic, a World War I ambulance driver who meets and promptly falls in love with English nurse Catherine (Helen Hayes). Frederic’s superior, Rinaldi (Adolph Menjou, slimy as always), who also has the hots for Catherine, has him reassigned but he’s injured and ends up in her care. She becomes pregnant and goes off to Switzerland to have the baby; Frederic goes AWOL to find her and, well, love doesn’t exactly conquer all.Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in A Farewell to Arms (1932)
Borzage was an odd choice to direct Hemingway’s cynical work and he transformed the story into one about the imperishability of love. Hemingway reportedly disliked the results (purists may want to steer clear). Visually the film is lush – as much a compliment to the production design (by Roland Anderson and Hans Drier) and camerawork (Charles Lang) as it is to Borzage whose innovative approach to camerawork and lighting make this film look unlike any other Paramount production of the period (except maybe those of Josef von Sternberg) . You can tell the director learned his craft in the silent era; the compositions are arresting, often Expressionist, and advance the story as well as being striking – there’s almost no need for spoken dialogue. Borzage was one of the great visual stylists of Hollywood and his films were often spiritual as well as romantic – see especially “Strange Cargo”. (Thank goodness Alpha has a gorgeous print so the visuals can be fully appreciated.) But Borzage isn’t loathe to get gritty as in the montage depicting Frederic’s harrowing journey through war-torn Europe. If there is a weak spot it is the vapid performance of Hayes who’s simply vapid (it’s clear why her early attempt mat a Hollywood career went nowhere). Cooper may have had a limited range but he could do sincere like nobody’s business and that’s essentially what’s required of him here, And Menjou is… well… Menjou. If you need an introduction to the director this is a fine, economical place to start.

ROJO
2018 / Icarus Films / 109m / $26.98 /NR
Prepare for a verrrry sloooow burn – not to mention an initially puzzling one – if you decide to tackle this Argentine thriller. The opening long shot is of a house from which people emerge carrying household goods; this continues for awhile and a man enters the place. The next scene takes place in a restaurant where lawyer Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) waits for his wife. A rude younger man (Diego Cremonesi) insists he should get the table because he is ready to order, not waiting. Claudio finally gives up the table but lectures the man on his bad manners until the man responds violently and is escorted from the place. When Claudio and his wife leave the establishment they again encounter the man who shoots at them but then puts a bullet through his head. Claudio tells his wife he’s going to take the man to a specialist but instead dumps him (dead? dying?) in the desert. Some months later Claudio is approached by a friend to act as a straw man in a slightly shady real estate deal involving the house from the prologue. Said friend also reveals he has hired a detective to try locating his wife’s brother who went missing a little while ago. Guess who?Darío Grandinetti and Diego Cremonesi in Rojo (2018)
The tension only begins at about the halfway point with the detectives’ (Alfredo Castro) visits to Claudio. They seem low key but his questions clearly infer he strongly suspects the lawyer’s culpability. But even in this portion of the film writer / director Benjamín Naishtat retains a dispassionate approach, saving all for the final confrontation between the two men. It’s a helluva scene though I’m not certain it quite compensates for a film whose sense of menace is ever present but well below the surface – just as the lawyer and his friend (and others) keep their corruption hidden under the veneer of respectability. That’s hardly a new message either but it is one that bears repeating. And here it’s set in the last days of the Peron regime when people simply disappeared frequently (the owners of that empty house were simply gone one day) – and would continue to do so under the equally corrupt regime that followed the coup. Disappearing is a leitmotif here, from a cheesy magician’s act to a sequence involving a solar eclipse. The political climate of the time is only mentioned in passing throughout but the information in the final scene – that the coup is rumored to happen that night – sets up a highly ambiguous ending. There is much to admire here but the pacing might make it a rough slog for some.

TIM HEIDECKER: MISTER AMERICA
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 88m / $26.98 / R
Not all political campaigns are successful and you can be 95% certain from the very first few minutes of this film that Tim Heidecker’s is going to bomb spectacularly. The candidate is also his own staff as he goes door to door collecting signatures to get on the ballot running for district attorney of San Bernardino county. He’s never studied law but he did represent himself in a trial for the murder of several people from tainted marijuana vape (a hung jury set him free) and his sole reason for running is revenge against the D.A. who prosecuted him. The judge who presided is interviewed and declares that Heidecker turned the courtroom into a circus with his bizarre behavior and video footage of the trial bears this out. His behavior as a candidate is no less outre and on occasion even illegal (a camera put down but not turned off reveals he and his campaign manager forging signatures to the petition). He’s too stupid to grasp how stupid he is (when the election supervisors spot the chicanery and refuse to put him on the ballot he asks if the election can be delayed until he corrects things). Image result for TIM HEIDECKER: MISTER AMERICA
You might feel sorry for this schlub until more and more xenophobic garbage comes out of his mouth (his attempts to connect with voters of color are hilarious and cringe inducing) and his displays of anger non-management display his lack of fitness for being a public servant. He comes completely unglued when his co-host of On Cinema at the Cinema shows up at his sparsely attended town hall and peppers him with questions about the vapes. (Said co-host insists Heidecker’s campaign is a virtual remake of “The Shaggy D.A.”) By the time he gets to his congratulations phone call to his opponent, which transforms into a vicious, profanity-laden rant against the man, I was glad we had one less moron in office. Which thankfully could never have been the case because this is a goof – a satirical mockumetary played so straight – and so realistically close to its obvious character inspiration – you’ll be suckered in if you don’t know that in advance because it’s more WTF? than LOL.

WRINKLES THE CLOWN
2018 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 70m / $26.98 / NR
I don’t know quite what to make of this documentary – or is it a mockumentary? – and the only way to explain why necessitates SPOILERS, so you might not wish to proceed with this review. Some few years before this two year old documentary was made a video went viral depicting a ghastly looking clown emerging from the drawer under the bed of a sleeping little girl. Now I’m not one who suffers from Coulrophobia – the fear of clowns (yes I Googled it; I didn’t know that word off the top of my head) – but it’s a pretty creepy bit of footage supposedly captured by a security camera. This was followed in time by more videos of Wrinkles stalking through back yards, peering in windows and so forth, freaking out the occupants. This much at least is fact as is the appearance in Florida and some other southern states of stickers with a photo of Wrinkles and a phone number. Word spread that this hideous clown – purportedly a retired gent bored by having too much time on his hands – was for hire to scare naughty children into good behavior. And Wrinkles apparently doesn’t even have to make a personal appearance; we are treated to voicemails of parents calling the clown’s cell with the sound of their tots wailing in protest. (A psychologist shows up briefly to assert that, yes, this is child abuse.)Image result for wrinkles the clown movie
Wrinkles was tracked down and agreed to be interviewed so long as his face was blurred out. He lives out of his RV – the better I assume to travel throughout the south fulfilling his mission. Except it isn’t Wrinkles at all but an actor impersonating Wrinkles. (I had my suspicions while watching “Wrinkles” smearing some sort of red substance on a wall and on his mask that some persiflage was afoot.) Something like 10 minutes before the end the real Wrinkles (supposedly) shows up, backlit in silhouette to explain all the videos were just that and, no, he doesn’t get hired out by parents. So is the reason for this documentary to school us not to trust everything on the world wide web? (We do after all know about the activities of those Russian troll farms.) It could explain the footage of young people doing the Bloody Mary thing with Wrinkles’ name and the extensive footage of overweight children and their fascination with Wrinkles. There’s more of this than seems necessary, especially since neither child is very interesting (and how much of this was staged for the cameras?). It feels like padding to take about 30 minutes of subject to over an hour. And if the point is not to take everything on the internet at face value – and possibly not even what’s presented in this documentary – what we may have is a filmmaker with a subject and no idea what to do with it. I confess I don’t know which conclusion to make.

KING KONG (1933)
Early warning: The original 1933 “King Kong” is roaring and rampaging its way back to movie screens across the country this March. Fathom Events and the TCM Big Screen Classics series are giving the legendary adventure its first nationwide theatrical release since the early 1970s when it was presented for the first time since its original run with its censored scenes restored. More than 600 movie theaters across the country will play King Kong for one day only: Sunday, March 15.
“Kong” is perhaps not a great movie but its technical achievements were groundbreaking and still look mighty impressive. It’s still the greatest stop-motion movie ever made. For those of you who don’t understand the term it refers to taking jointed, scale model models (the Kong puppet was about 18 inches in height), placing them in scale model sets (and/or melding them with live action footage) and animating them by moving the models slightly and shooting a single frame of film – and then moving them a bit again and exposing another frame. Lather, rinse, repeat. Tedious, time consuming work that can give the illusion of life. Just how successful an illusion depends on the skill of the animator and few can rival the great Willis O’Brien. Admittedly he did not personally do all the animating but even his assistants, when working for others or on their own, didn’t accomplish the sense of life achieved here. You believe Kong and the various dinosaurs are living creatures.Fay Wray and King Kong in King Kong (1933)
And supporting the astonishing technical work is Max Steiner’s magnificent score – rivaled only by his “She” and one of the earliest full scores for a talkie (producers initially scorned them because they fear audiences would wonder where the music was coming from). Thundering and Stravinskiesque it caused Oscar Levant to claim the film was a Steiner concert… with pictures.
The cast is B-list – though Fay Wray was having a good run at the time; “Kong” was one of 11 films she made in 1933. Robert Armstrong was more often a supporting player and often a villainous one (his Carl Denham is no choirboy) and Bruce Cabot – whose heavy drinking would scuttle his career – was making his film debut. The script by Ruth Rose is admirable for its economy in setting things up without lengthy exposition. The first line has a character inquire “Is this the moving picture ship?” and within a few more lines we find out that it contains the filmmaker known for walking up to a lion and telling it to smile pretty for the camera. Denham’s occupation and character are fully sketched out in a brief exchange. The writing may seem bare bones but achieving such simplicity is no easy task.
You’ve probably seen “King Kong”, possibly multiple times. But you haven’t really seen it until you’ve seen it on the big screen where its spectacle can be properly appreciated. Don’t pass up the opportunity.