Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

ALL TOO HUMAN
2018 / Random Media / 96m / $14.95 / NR
I’m not certain I got the point (or that there was one) of writer/director Travis D. Brown’s and co-director Mandy Stockholm’s film but I was never less than engrossed and that was chiefly due to the performance of Jeffrey Arrington as Mark, a man who has determined to end his life. He’s suffered from years of depression, his girlfriend has taken up with his best friend and, to judge from the late notices on the bills piled up on his table, he’s currently without income. But his efforts to snuff it are in vain; in the course of the film his pistol jams, a passerby yanks him back onto the sidewalk when he tries to step in front of a bus and when he throws himself off a tenth story balcony he merely lands on the one below. Now this idea is rife with possibilities for black –stygian black – humor. But Brown is having none of that it would seem (though the ending might suggest otherwise – maybe I should give the film a second look). Rather as each of Mark’s attempts goes awry his savior expounds on the reason for living based on one faith or another (I kept expecting the film to resolve as Christian propaganda but thankfully that isn’t the case).

All Too Human | Indiegogo

What we have here strikes me as the cinematic equivalent of a term paper on comparative religions with the conclusion that none if them are worth a lick if your life sucks. (True believers in whatever credo they follow would of course disagree that faith is a comfort in times of trouble and if your life is woebegone your faith is weak.) That is voiced in Mark’s comment, “Human beings have no reason to live outside biological function. Anything beyond that is simply fabricated.” I was glad to discover, per IMDb that Arrington is a very busy performer because he’s the best thing in this movie; hopefully some fame and quality projects will come his way. Some of the other acting here is just plain awful and the best I can say for Brown’s directing is that he got it in the can. Given this is his debut effort (and he was probably working with a short schedule and a miniscule budget) that alone is an accomplishment. But maybe until he’s got that part down he should let other people do the writing.

FACELESS
2021 / Indican / 97m / NR
streaming on all major platforms
Back in what must have been 1963, based on when my parents started allowing me to go unsupervised to the movies (and when all the theatres were still downtown), a double bill of “The Manster” (an undeservedly neglected film) and “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus” arrived in town. Horror movie loving kid that I was I attended. I had probably already seen “Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Curse of the Werewolf” at that point but I was in no way prepared for the crucial scene in “Faustus”, a dubbed and slightly edited version of Georges Franju’s “Les yeux sans visage” (“Eyes Without a Face”). The story concerns a a surgeon who is trying to repair his daughter’s countenance, disfigured in an auto accident, by grafting the faces of kidnapped young women onto hers. Midway through, the surgery is depicted in a scene that was so graphic for the time (and remains quite startling) that some audience members fainted (for the record this 12 hear old did not and may have sat through the film for a second view). I mention this because Michael Sarmiento’s film owes something to Fanju’s (available from Critereon and worth seeking out); it even features a similar, but far grislier, face-lifting scene.

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His story involves a fellow named George (Brendon Sexton, III) who is on the run from gambling debts (there is a scene of dog fighting I found far more disturbing than the surgical procedure) and gets a new face. Theoretically these are from deceased donors (who no doubt signified their intentions when they renewed their driver’s license) but some doubts arise when, upon release from the hospital, George is stalked and ultimately assaulted by a hoodie-wearing man who has no face. George is also being pursued by men who want to collect the gambling debts, or exact some other payment. But George has no memory, only disorienting flashbacks, something he is told is sometimes a side effect of the procedure, though he’s promised his memory will return. He is given a few clues, such as that he had worked in a bar, but supposed former acquaintances shun him. He’s befriended by a mysterious woman named Sophie (Alex Essoe) who is his only – and only briefly – visitor in the hospital. This is a tight, well-acted little thriller whose ultimate revelation I doubt you’ll see coming (I didn’t). If you can get past the gruesome visuals, you’ll find it absorbing.

GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN
1958 / The Film Detective / 77m / $24.95 BR / NR
Perhaps the passage of years has given some sort of nostalgic gloss to the low budget horrors of the 1930s and 40s that those of the 1950s have yet to acquire. Or perhaps it’s time to admit that, with rare exceptions until the arrival of Hammer Studios, independent genre productions were mostly crap. Those of the preceding decade at least tried to emulate the look of major studio product by being shot primarily on soundstages; those of the 50s were a lot of outdoor affairs like the cheapo cowboy movies. Indeed they were sometimes referred to as “backyard” productions. Take this little opus about a depraved and gigantic resuscitated Spanish conquistador wreaking havoc in a small mountain town filmed entirely in a small mountain town. The only interior is a diner and it’s a real one. Now this is not the absolute worst of the decade’s indie genre flicks – it’s not even director Richard Cunha’s worst film – but it doesn’t transcend its budget limitations (it’s no “It! The Terror from Beyond Space”) and the script is a snore; commentator Tom Weaver has plenty of time to offer background info because nothing much is happening.

Giant From the Unknown (1958) - Rotten Tomatoes

It takes a good long time before our slumbering giant (Buddy Baer) awakens (a very effective moment) even though there’s been a horrible murder and cattle mutilations (could it have been… aliens?) before that happens. And there’s a surfeit of him merely lumbering about the mountains afterward, relieved by a couple (mostly offscreen) murders. The cast is good though you’ve likely never heard of most of them; the best known is Ed Kemmer who, at he time of filming, had played Commander Buzz Corry for five years on TV’s “Space Patrol”. He also starred in Bert I. Gordon’s “The Spider” the same year but his career was primarily in television and, ultimately, in soaps. Former oater star Bob Steele has a significant role and Morris Ankrum (you’ll know his face but odds are you’ve never known his name) has a meatier role than usual. Cunha directed four horror/sci-fi cheapies the same year but he was primarily a cinematographer and serves that function as well here so the film looks good… very good in fact. Speaking to its short shooting schedule is that cast and crew woke up to a surprise snowstorm on the final day and soldiered on anyway. It actually adds a nice touch to the finale.

THE INCREDIBLE 25TH YEAR OF MITZI BEARCLAW
2019 / Indican / 96m / NR
streaming on all major platforms
Incredible may be meant ironically because nothing – well not much anyway – out of the ordinary happens to the titular character (MorningStar Angeline) during the year that passes after her quarter century natal day. She’s in the big city (Toronto) and set on getting into a fashion design school so she can create hats that will “save the world.” A letter from her father (Billy Merasty) sends her home because it suggests her mother is dying. Once there – a fictional island reservation represented by the gorgeous Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation Reserve in Ontario – she discovers that mom (Gail Maurice), the nastiest, most unsupportive mother ever, may be ill and soon in need of dialysis but scarcely at death’s door. Still, dad is clearly overwhelmed and she discovers she’s needed more than she realized so she extends her stay, much to the bafflement of her aspiring photographer and boyfriend Ringo Leaves No-Shadow (Vance Banzo). She finds herself attracted to ferryman Honeyboy Yellowdog (Ajuawak Kapashesit) to the consternation of a childhood enemy who considers him her boyfriend.

Now that basic set-up might remind you of a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie where the young woman returns home from the big city to her wackily dysfunctional family and finds romance and all her dreams in the place she couldn’t wait to get away from (which is sort of the plot of the film of “The Wizard of Oz”, come to think of it). But the honesty of the writing by director Shelley Niro (with two story editors credited, something I’ve never seen before – but if it’s responsible for a film this clean, with no wasted moments there ought to be more use of them) as well as the inclusion of, for lack of a better term, dream sequences where Mitzi enters the spirit world. Despite the sometimes grim material (there are two deaths, one of a major and very likeable character) and the understated evidence of poverty, the tone is seriocomic. It’s an intimate film of small moments – some nigh non-events such as Mitzi bringing her father a sandwich so they can watch TV together – and tiny details acutely observed. You get to known these people and when one says, “I’m dying and it hurts”, it affects you. I don’t know that Mitzi’s year is incredible but her film surely is.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Season Two
2020 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 385m (3 discs) / $39.98 / NR
Some years back I was at a bar with friends and the subject of the original TWZ came up leading to a veritable orgy of remembering various episodes. Remember the one of the young woman getting plastic surgery?… Remember the one where the aliens had a book called “To Serve Man”?… Remember the one where the kid wished people into the cornfield?… and so on. I think an hour must have passed as we recalled episode after episode. And this gathering was a good 30 years after the show was broadcast. A week after sampling my way through the second season of this new incarnation I was hard pressed to remember anything except one of them starred Christopher Meloni. Not that some of the stories aren’t interesting. The one with Meloni had him and his wife packing up their late daughter’s things when an alien creature appeared in their basement and took on the likeness and memories of the young woman. Another is about a bank robber who suddenly is able to switch bodies with other people and thus avoid capture. The opener posits a man who starts to “hear” a woman’s thoughts in his head. He becomes obsessed with her and, on finding out she has an abusive husband, he determines to rescue her.

The Twilight Zone' Season 2 Episode 10 Review: “You Might Also Like” | The  Workprint

The main reason Rod Serling’s original is so memorable is because – at least in it’s first four seasons – of its half-hour format (half hour dramas were a thing back in the day). The twist endings were a real surprise (such as alien tome being a cookbook as you probably know). When CBS forced Serling to expand to an hour (because half hour dramas were no longer a thing) it faltered and the network soon wished it into the cornfield (and has ever since been trying to resurrect it). With an hour’s running time (including commercials of course) there’s plenty of time to suss out the resolution well before the show actually gets there and so the element of surprise – and memorability – is missing. There’s also an ironic slyness to Serling’s delivery that makes it clear no matter how philosophical his musings he’s also presenting a grand joke with the O’Henryesque resolutions. This is entirely missing in producer Jordan Peele’s commentary; maybe it’s just his deeper voice but the guy used to be a comedian for gosh sake. (I also am bothered in a way I can’t quite articulate that Peele takes an onscreen credit as The Narrator, something Serling didn’t deem necessary.) But why flog a defunct equine? CBS has decided once again to cancel TWZ.

LONG’S SHORT TAKES

~Harry H Long

AVIVA
2020 / Strand Releasing / 116m / $24.99 BR / NR
Boaz Yakin’s romantic musical drama strikes me as too many ideas in search of a point.
The story itself is not a new one. Aviva and Eden begin a transatlantic relationship through emails, she eventually comes from Paris to visit him in Manhattan and ultimately moves to the states; they marry, drift apart, try to reconcile, etc. The two lovers, however, are each portrayed by both a man and a woman (Zina Zinchenko and Or Schraiber portray Aviva while Eden is played by Bobbi Jean Smith and Tyler Phillips). All four are dancers (as are all the participants) because while the film, we are told, is not a musical, dance is so integral that it was determined dancers could handle the acting better than actors could handle the dancing. Yes, we are told that at the beginning by Zinchenko stretched entirely nude a cross a bed. In fact all the players are introduced nude (and all save one fully frontal). I suppose it also makes sense to use dancers if a film is going to require extensive nudity – in both dancing and lovemaking sequences – as they have splendid bodies. (Let’s be honest: Who wants to see ugly naked people?)

AVIVA (2020)

Now the double casting allows Yakin (who also scripted) the opportunity to dramatize the little arguments we have in our heads with ourselves – though I don’t buy that such discussions are our male and female halves. Actually I don’t even buy the discussions presented here because the writing is so unimpressive. And speaking of unimpressive there’s the choreography. Duets are uninteresting and ensemble efforts resemble an edited collection if dance moves rather than something that organically flows. None of the numbers builds to a climax but rather just ultimately stops. (Bear in mind I had the same problem with “La La Land”.) The execution is terrific but the material is not (and I’d rather not weigh in on the songs themselves). Now before you get the wrong impression, I didn’t hate this film but I certainly was not whelmed by it either. The disparate elements never gel but seem to interrupt each other But, hey, the film has an 84% rating with critics and 100% with viewers on Rotten Tomatoes so clearly I’m in the minority. And I promise I will give it another chance in the near future.

BETTY BOOP Cartoon Classics
1934-36 / Alpha Video / 130m / $6.98 / NR
Max and David Fleischer’s flapper remains the only cartoon character to run afoul of the Hays Office, the censorship board created to enforce the Production Code in the mid-1930s. She was somewhat underdressed, in a little black dress (well, I assume; all but one of her toons was in black and white) that clung to her breasts and the skirt was short enough to reveal a garter on her right thigh. But it was apparently her walk that the bluenoses found salacious; the lass just couldn’t keep still; even pausing on a streetcorner she was bouncing up and down to some jazz ditty playing in her head. But she really wasn’t bad, she… er… was just drawn that way. Intriguingly when she debuted (in “Bimbo’s Initiation”, a typically surreal production from the studio) she was a dog – or rather a pooch’s head on a human body and intended as a girlfriend to the Fleisher company’s Bimbo (also a humanized dog). But she was popular enough that her features were modified, her long, droopy ears becoming earrings and she soon surpassed her boyfriend in popularity. He, along with KoKo the Clown – another early Fleisher creation – were soon playing support in her adventures before they eventually disappeared. (A now human Betty having humanized dog Bimbo as a boyfriend is as kinky as her toons got.)

Betty Boop - Wikipedia

But thanks to the censors Betty’s skirts got longer and eventually she became just another hausfrau in a suburban cottage with a pet dog or sometimes a baby (where’d that come from?), demurely dressed with no bare skin between the neck and the knees. Her adventures became less surreal (as in fact did all the studios’ work) and more sitcom, though anything involving the new character Grampy (a nutty inventor) were pretty outrageous. Several here involve elaborate domicile destruction as Betty brings home a new, and very naughty, kitten to play with her pup, Pudgy, or tries to kill a pesky fly. The earliest entry here is “Betty in Blunderland”, a crackpot reflection on Lewis Carroll (which was at about the same time being subject to an equally crackpot live action adaptation by Paramount, the studio that released the Fleischer product). The longer skirt is in place but there’s a flash or two of Betty’s garter. Betty is in Technicolor (and it turns out her hair is red, which suggests one of the inspirations for Betty was Paramount’s It Girl, Clara Bow) in a screwy version of Cinderella (though not nearly as loony as their Alice). This adaptation displays one (of many) of the Fleischer brothers’ innovations: three dimensional, forced perspective backgrounds built on a turntable which, when rotated behind the animation cells, gave the illusion the cartoon characters were moving through a landscape of real depth.

PRISONER OF ZENDA
1922 / Alpha Video / 115m / $6.98 / NR
Back in the silent era every studio had to have a Latin Lover of its own after Rudolph Valentino took the film world by storm. It didn’t even matter if – like Ricardo Cortez (nee Jacob Krantz) – they were manufactured (Hollywood after all is a land of illusion). Second to Valentino in popularity was MGM’s Ramon Novarro, an actual Mexican if you please, who in this third telling of Anthony Hope’s novel swiftly rose to stardom (a mere three years later he’d be playing the title role in “Ben Hur” for $10,000 a week instead of the $125 he banked here). Novarro is obviously not the title hero here nor even the chief antagonist (that would be Lewis Stone and Stuart Holmes respectively) but rather the villain’s chief thug, Rupert of Hentzau. It’s a role that allows the right performer to all but walk off with the movie (despite a superlative cast in the 1937 version – Ronald Coleman, Raymond Massey and Mary Astor for starters – it’s Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who is the most memorable). The lead here is taken by Lewis Stone who’s most familiar to film fans as such fatherly figures as Andy Hardy’s dad but was a leading man during the silent era and even into the early talkies with productions such as “The Mask of Fu Manchu” providing a transition.

Alice Terry and Lewis Stone in The Prisoner of Zenda (1922… | Flickr

Stone portrays British nobleman Rudolph Rassendyll who is on a hunting vacation in Ruritania when he has a chance encounter with members of the about-to-be king’s entourage who are gobsmacked by Rassendyll’s resemblance to the future monarch (also portrayed by Stone). When the king is drugged and unable to attend the coronation Rassendyll is persuaded to impersonate the monarch so the kingship doesn’t devolve onto wicked, scheming Duke Michael (Stuart Holmes). During the ceremony the duke’s thugs, led by Rupert, kidnap the insensate king and Rassendyll must continue the impersonation. This throws him into close contact with Princess Flavia (director Rex Ingram’s wife, Alice Terry), the king’s intended. And even though it’s clear both Flavia and the kingdom would be better off with Rassendyll than the oafish prince, an attempt to rescue the king from Michael’s castle is mounted. It’s a gorgeous looking production but a somewhat lethargic one – the ’37 production is far more efficient at introducing the characters and setting up the situation. This one doesn’t really get going until the raid on Zenda castle.

THE OTHER SIDE OF MADNESS (aka The Helter Skelter Murders)
1971 / The Film Detective / 81m / $29.95 BR with CD / NR
This cinematic rendition of Charles Manson’s cult and their homicidal spree has the distinction of being the very first attempt to get the story on screen It is likely also the cheapest and most undistinguished. Director Frank Howard had never before made a movie and has not done so since and this is the only credit for nearly all of the cast. Most of it appears to have been shot silent because dialogue is nearly always spoken by a character who’s not onscreen. Documentary footage is mixed with re-enactments (some staged in the actual locations) that seem patched together from footage made with little or no plan for assembling it. The first part bounces back and forth between Spahn ranch scenes and a depiction of the trial, then testimony prompting the reenactments. There are also sequences devoted to Sharon Tate, including the only color footage in the production supposedly representing her filming a movie scene.

The Other Side of Madness Blu-ray Release Date November 24, 2020 (Blu-ray +  CD)

I will grant that the long sequence depicting the murders is quite riveting; here the patchwork assembly works in favor of the nasty subject matter (and seems more preplanned as to its assembly). The brutality of the event is difficult to watch because of its intensity, not because of copious grue (and despite some godawful acting). But this represents only a third of the running time and the rest is a mess. Surprisingly we get very few glimpses of an actor purporting to be Manson and what little he has to say is dubbed over reaction shots of his followers. The film does utilize one of Manson’s songs (the dreadful “Mechanical Man” which is also included on the bonus CD). For that matter he is never referred to (and then only once or twice) as anything other than Charlie – no Manson… and for that matter the name Sharon Tate is never uttered nor are the names of, well, anyone involved. I guess because the film was being made even while the trial was occurring made for some caution. This is a prime example of exploitation filmmaking: shot quickly, cheaply and inexpertly directed and then tagged with a Don’t Do Drugs message at the end to give it faux social significance. It is very nicely photographed however

YOU GO TO MY HEAD
2017 / First Run Features / 116m / $24.95 / NR
Following an automobile accident in the Sahara a young woman (Delfine Bafort) wanders off and, practically on the verge of death, is discovered by Jake (Svetozar Cvetkovic), an architect who inexplicably spends lots of time driving about in the desert. He takes her to a medical facility where she is diagnosed with post traumatic amnesia and mistaken for Jake’s wife. The error is something Jake decides to maintain; he’s instantly besotted by her beauty and tells her that her name is Kitty and that they are married, hoping that her amnesia will be permanent – or perhaps that by the time she recovers her memory she will have fallen in love with him. Actually Jake’s motives are a tad murky, or maybe just not thought through, but however sleazy they may be he does help “Kitty” recover physically from the accident. (The actors may have invented inner lives for these two characters but they are not accessible to the viewer; Kitty is a blank, unable to recall even her name, and Jake is inventing a whole new life on the fly.) Naturally Kitty has endless questions about their life together, hoping to generate the memories she doesn’t possess, and Jake has to be endlessly inventive – such as explaining a lack of photos as due to a fire at their storage facility.

You Go To My Head | Film Threat

But things, as they must, unravel. The maintenance man tells Kitty that despite the supposed length of her marriage he has never seen her before and, inevitably, shards of her memory return unbidden. The ending delivers a twist that I hadn’t expected and which I will not reveal here. If I have any qualms it’s that it may take a mite too long to get there. “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” would have delivered up this scenario in 45 minutes (plus commercials); at nigh unto two hours the film often feels padded – and much of that padding involves Bafort gratuitously nude. But I’m aware that cutting might also destroy the carefully wrought rhythms of scenes that go nowhere on their own but that do add up emotionally. The film is gorgeously photographed by Stijn Grupping and cowriter-director Dimitri de Clercq (in his feature debut) has a feeling for using landscape and architecture that’s downright poetic. The minimalist approach may have caused others to read more into the film than I think is there but it’s very impressive nonetheless. Be aware you must surrender to its laconic rhythms and let it flow over you. This is not a thriller in the normal sense.

ZOMBIE BRO
2020 / Indican / 83m / NR
streaming on all major platforms
I dislike giving bad reviews and I suspect that is true of most critics. Oh, there may be a few wretched types out there who crave any opportunity to trot out their nastiest snark but I suspect most are like me, hoping every time they sit down to a film it will be in some way a rewarding experience they can’t wait to alert others about. That said, this home movie aspiring to be a feature for the younger folk is about as hopeless a production as I’ve encountered. Ineptitude – not merely mediocrity, mind you – abounds on every level. It actually is painful to write this review – in no small part because that entails remembering the movie. Young Francine has a younger brother, Teddy, who’s become a zombie though her parents are oblivious to the fact and even dote on him even though he only emits a kind of growl instead of speaking. If mom is a dimwit dad is also, as well as abusive – Francine is regularly locked in the garage for minor infractions and for trying to point out that Teddy is trying to snack on his parents. Nonetheless Francine dotes on her pop. She’s also bullied at school – this young woman clearly has a future of abusive relationships. That dad ultimately comes around and adores her sends a seriously wrong message.

Zombie Bro': Film Review

I’m not sure just who thought there was a need for a kid-friendly zombie film (writer/director May Grehan I suppose). I’m pretty sure if there are young fry who like zombie films the blood and guts aspect is part of the attraction (horror films were my gateway to film appreciation and I obviously kept watching them because I liked being scared when I was still a pre-teenager). Grehan has eschewed any grue – in fact when Teddy’s arm comes off at one point the detached limb is a pathetic stuffed white tube ending in a sort of Mickey Mouse hand. Surely something more realistic that didn’t involve spurting blood and protruding arteries might have been used – say a department store dummy’s extremity? Maybe this was supposed to be funny because the more obvious attempts (repeat “attempts”) are really lame, such as a bit first played in the bathroom where Francine and Teddy struggle over an item. They tug one way then the other then fall on the floor out of frame. Grehan apparently thought this is hilarious – and maybe it is if you’re six – because the bit is repeated twice. It gives me no joy in saying this because this is a tyro effort probably put together with friends and limited funds and in the clips intersperced with the credits it appears as if they had fun making it, but you will not experience the same level of enjoyment.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

Only one title this time but it took me a while to wade through seven years of this show.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the original TV series
1966-73 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 8625m (46 discs) / $144.99 BR / NR
Back in the 1960s, following the surprise success of a little film yclept “Dr. No”, spies were suddenly everywhere in print, film and television, hoping for a ride on the Bond bandwagon. The frenzy wasn’t just limited to the US; Britain – from whence Ian Fleming’s, original and its adaptation hailed – was big on espionage adventures and France and Italy contributed their fair share of movies. But US TV seemed absolutely overrun with counterespionage. One of the cleverest was (and frankly remains) this Bruce Geller creation for Desilu Productions – and before we go further perhaps a few words about Desilu are in order. Created in the early 1950s by Lucille Ball and her then husband Desi Arnaz for their sitcom “I Love Lucy” the company expanded its physical holdings to include a facility called the Motion Picture Center and then the RKO Studios lot and the RKO-Pathe lot (where King Kong once terrorized a native village and David O. Selznick once burnt down Atlanta). This gave the company 33 sound stages (more than either MGM or 20th Century Fox had) and an extensive backlot. In addition to its own productions, which included “The Untouchables”, the company rented space to other shows, such as Andy Griffith’s and Dick van Dyke’s sitcoms.
But by the late 1960s the company was losing prestige as a creator; most of its business was the rentals with Ball’s current show being its only production. A man named Herb Solow was brought in as head of production and he midwifed this show, “Star Trek” and, a year later, “Mannix” into production. While “Trek” struggled in the ratings (only to ultimately become one of the most successful big and small screen franchises ever), “M:I” and “Mannix” were big hits and all three established Desilu as being capable of major, expensive and complex projects. Ball, about halfway into the first season of “Mannix”, sold the studio to Paramount for a tidy sum.

Mission: Impossible: The Original TV Series' Blu-Ray Review - Beloved Series  Gets A Wonderful HD Upgrade In 46-Disc Set

While “M:I” may have been unique to television it owed a little something to Jules Dassin’s “Topkapi”, wherein a team of specialists each contributes his or her particular talent to executing a complex heist. Here the team is an ultra-secret organization (or maybe just a loose collection of agents) whose actions will be disavowed by “the Secretary” (are we to assume a cabinet member?) if they are discovered, caught and/or killed. Apparently as initially conceived only the team leader would have been an ongoing cast member but I guess it was determined that having a core group for every episode was more economical and less of a casting nightmare. In the first season the team was headed up by Dan Briggs (Steven Hill), with fashion model Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) – who initially served as little more than a sexy distraction while the guys did their stuff (lots of lingering shots of her legs in the first season) – technical whiz Barney Collier (Greg Morris) and bodybuilder Willie Armitage (Peter Lupus) forming the basic team. (Bain’s and Lupus’ roles would be expanded beyond sex object and muscle as time went on.) Magician and “Man of a Thousand Faces” Rollin Hand was played by Guest Star Martin Landau in the pilot and after the initial few episodes became a regular, though he continued being billed as a Guest Star until the second season.

Mission: Impossible: The Original! — Jane Voigts

Hill was gone by the second season – one reason was that he was an observant Jew and the producers were finding it difficult to film around holidays and his need to depart late Friday afternoon to be home by sundown. (In one instance Bain even replaced him as the agent receiving the instructions at the beginning if the show; the only time anyone other than the team leader would do so.) Enter Peter Graves as Jim Phelps who would remain with the show until the end of its run and even repeat the role when the series was briefly revived in 1988. The decision must have been made late in then day because in the first episode of the second year Phelps is using Briggs’ apartment (he also inherited Briggs’ car, or an identical one, which he’d drive for the rest of the show).

Binge Watchin' TV Review: Mission Impossible

The cast continued to fluctuate during its run. Bain and Landau (who were married at the time) left just before the start of the fourth year over a dispute; Bain’s role was taken by a series of guest stars (only Lee Merriweather would make more than a single appearance) while the new magician and master of disguise was the mono-cognomened Paris (Leonard Nimoy fresh off the cancellation of “Star Trek”). Lesley Anne Warren –still billed without her middle name – took over the distaff agent duties in season five (the producers missed a bet not retaining Merriweather but I guess they thought a hippie chick was needed for the youth demographic). In another surprising move a very young Sam Elliott was brought in to replace Lupus. The actor would show up periodically through the fifth and sixth year but Lupus was quickly brought back when it was realized how popular Willie was (no wise cracks now). Linda Day George took over for Warren – and to an extent for Nimoy as she was also a makeup artist – in the sixth and seventh season, occasionally spelled by Barbara Anderson, late of ”Ironside”, in the sixth. Phew! I wonder if any other TV series has gone through as many cast permutations in its run. Only Morris and Lupus remained of the original cast by the end.

John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV: Mission  Impossible Intro (1966-1973)

The opening of the show is iconic. A hand (Geller’s own until the final year) lights a match and touches it to a fuse; there’s a rapid montage of scenes from the episode underscored with Lalo Schiffrin’s hot, hot jazz theme (the very best music for driving on a highway – trust me on this). No other shows at the time – and few ever – were as dominated by their music as this one (only Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” comes to mind – also excellent driving music, by the way). There are long, dialogue-free sequences of Barney and Willie setting up their gizmos with Schifftin’s music (and that of others such as Gerald Fried) in support. The actual episode would open with the team leader going to some often odd locale (a merry-go-round in one instance) where he would receive a packet of photographs and recorded instructions for the impossible mission ahead (should he choose to accept it – which of course he always did).

US military funds 'Mission: Impossible' vanishing devices | Jordan Times

The show is most famous for the reel-to-reel tapes (remember those?) that went up in smoke but in some instances the tapes had to be “disposed of in the usual manner” (which in one case was being dropped in a water cooler full of acid!). And in the first season LP records (remember those?) conveyed the information; these, by the way, would “decompose in five seconds” rather than “self-destruct”, which I just think is a way niftier phrase even if the latter apparently was coined here and has since become omnipresent. Next the team leader sifted through a briefcase of photos to select his agents (by the last couple years this was often dropped because, hell, he always picked the same people). Then there was the briefing of the crew in a set that was primarily black, white and gray (with some light browns) and the cast similarly attired.

beyond star trek: Leonard Nimoy in 'Mission: Impossible' – coffee,  classics, and craziness

Then the assignment itself which had to be accomplished with split-second timing and often a race against the clock (in at least one episode a mere 24 hours from when the recorded instructions were delivered). While Barney and Willy beavered away in sewers or other unattractive locales, rigging electronics or the like the other agents carried out an elaborate con involving impersonations – sometimes of their very target – in order to topple some banana republic wannabe dictator or drug kingpin or free a political prisoner (in later years, with budget cuts they concentrated on domestic baddies to save on building exotic sets). Strangely while the likes of Cinnamon, Rollin and Paris are supposed to be quite famous they go unrecognized in their assumed personas. My favorite episodes, all from the first three years, include the crew impersonating a circus (with a surreal ending where the crew drives off with Barney in clown get-up playing a calliope hooked to the rear of the truck) and another where Cinnamon in Marlene Dietrich mode and Rollin as a red-masked MC doing avant-garde monologues put on a cabaret.

Mission: Impossible - Barbara Bain nightclub number - YouTube

The series remains fun and exciting to the end even if then formula starts wearing thin, despite efforts to modify it, such as starting with an assignment already in progress or having it personally involve one of the team members. It’s also worth watching for the guest stars; some such as Anthony Zerbe and Sid Haig showing up with frequency and holy cow! that’s Cicely Tyson as Barney’s girlfriend! Still my feeling is that the recurring cast never recaptured the chemistry of the original lineup after Landau and Bain departed (certainly having it change every year couldn’t have helped). It may have improved with Graves’ arrival (I find in revisiting the series that I’m less keen on Hill than I was back during the original broadcasts). If you’re thinking of revisiting the series it’s worth your time and investment; it’s held up very well. And if you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat.

Paramount: Mission Impossible The Original TV Series Heading to Blu-ray  (UPDATED)

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

LUCREZIA BORGIA
1922 / Alpha Video / 129m / $6.98 / NR
The Borgias are the most infamous family of the Renaissance; papa Rodrigo became Pope
Alexander VI despite keeping several mistresses and having sired multiple children – hardly the celibate prelate. It’s difficult to ascertain what is truthful about him and his kiddies and what has been invented by his enemies (including the radical priest Savonarola, who was eventually burnt for heresy), some of whom hated him merely for being a Spaniard on the papal throne. Historians seem to agree that the charges of having poisoned his enemies are groundless. But the salacious legend is so much more dramatically interesting and that’s where Richard Oswald’s silent German film locates its scenario. Alexander, as wily and adept a politician as ever was, is scarcely present however. Things focus mostly on his famous children, Cesare and Lucrezia, and despite the title the focus is much on the former, thanks in no small part to a riveting performance by Conrad Veidt (his sister is portrayed by Liane Haid, another silent film performer whose name has passed into the mists of history). Veidt may be best remembered as the Nazi Maj. Strasser in “Casabalanca”, the wizard Jaffar in “Thief of Bagdad” or the somnambulist in “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari” but he was a versatile performer who could also essay sympathetic roles – but he was so danged good as unpleasant types.

Lucrezia Borgia (1922) – Conrad Veidt Forever

Veidt is in full throttle deranged evil mode here, lusting after his own sister (which appears to have some historical validity) and even after his brother Juan’s beloved (there was no Juan Borgia by the way – the character seems modeled on Giovanni). When she rejects him he has her tossed to the lions in the coliseum (were they still doing that during papal times?) but she is rescued by Juan, whom Cesare later has murdered (it has been surmised but never proven Cesare was responsible). He also kills off one of Lucreia’s former husbands and a spouse-to-be. Director Richard Oswald, one of the less well-remembered leading lights of German silent cinema turned out several horror films – and in the lighting and camerawork of this production things are very reminiscent of a horror film – but also some big budget spectaculars, such as an adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”. And in the battle scene that climaxes the film things reach epic proportions, rivaling the seige of Babylon in “Intolerance”. That other German horror actor Paul Wegener also appears, hamming shamelessly as one of Cesare’s thugs and future director William Dieterle (still billed as Wilhelm) has a minor role. The film was seen as an attack on the Catholic church and so went unseen in the US for several years, and then in a severely truncated form. Alpha’s print (a very nice one, too) is the full, original version.

PAPICHA
2019 / Icarus Films / 108m / $26.98 / NR
This Algerian film is set in the late 1990s when fundamentalist Islamic terrorists were seeking to establish a state based on religion. Women in particular were oppressed; vicious – sometimes murderous – mobs would attempt to force the wearing of hijabs and being subservient to men. Nejma, aka Papicha (Lyna Khoudri), is an aspiring dress designer and creates frocks for her fellow students to wear when they go clubbing (they slip out of the dormitory in more drab attire and don her creations in the rest room). She seems both aware and yet oddly unconcerned about the threat of the fundies, even when one shoots her sister to death in front of their mother’s house or when a group of them barge into her dorm room because they hear laughing and singing (this is one entitled bunch who think they have a perfect right to impose their values on everyone else – remind you of anyone?). One of her clubbing friends is beaten by her boyfriend when she expresses an inclination toward freedom – ironically it is the most devout of the young women who becomes pregnant out of wedlock… and to a man who has not been chosen to be her husband.

Cannes Film Festival 2019 - Day Three - Kouhi Films

Papicha is the only one of her group who doesn’t see Algeria as a “waiting room” that everyone is itching to get out of; she wants to help create a new dream for the country, starting by holding a fashion show of dresses created, without cutting, from the enormous swaths of cloth in which women are supposed to drape themselves. It’s unclear if she realizes this makes her results a political statement and not just a creative challenge, but that others do is demonstrated in a horrific denouement. It seems she doesn’t fully realize the growing threat to freedom represented by such things as the posters increasingly appearing on the walls of her city and her school. Mounia Meddour’s feature debut is less a plotted story than an accumulation of small details, made of such small things as props that recur such as a bracelet initially worn to the club and a bowl used to bathe her sister’s corpse (preparing the body for burial is women’s work). This is one closely observed world and the director is aided by sensitive cinematography by Léo Lefèvre and a magnetic turn by Khoudri. The final act may be a tad overloaded with incident to be fully effective but this is still an impressive film.

RESCUE ME
2020 / Random Media / 63m / NR
ME, MY DOG AND I
2020 / Random Media / 63m / NR (PG is suggested for both)
streaming on all major platforms
For lighter documentary fare you can’t beat these two documentaries unless of course you’re totally phobic about canines. The meatier of the two – which actually isn’t saying very much – Is “Rescue Me”, which deals with individuals and organizations that rescue dogs and the people who have adopted rescue dogs. Some of the organizations also deal in cat rescue – indeed one was founded for that very purpose – but feline presence is scarce. The stories of the adoptive dog parents (let’s be very clear: you do not OWN animals; they are your companions) are all positive, though I’m sure there must be fails – and some of the fails might be very instructive – but you won’t find a hint of them here. “Who rescued who?” is the operative phrase. “Me, My Dog and I” is a collection of interviews with dog people. They all love their canine housemates. That’s really about all there is to it; the phrase “unconditional love” gets a heckuva workout. And in both you get to see a lot of adorable pooches. Well, what could be better than that?

Me, My Dog, and I (2019) - IMDb

STAR TREK: PICARD – Season One
2020 / CBS Home Entertainment, Paramount / 388m (3 discs) / $39.99 / NR
Oh, I have been looking forwards to watching this series. Sir Patrick Stewart’s Picard is my favorite “Star Trek” captain and having him revisit the role many moons later was something that seemed intriguing (Stewart has been making excellent choices post “Next Generation” so it seemed unlikely that a disaster was possible), When I found out Alison Pill (who I’ve adored since first encountering her in “Scott Pilgrim vs the World”) would have a recurring role in the show I knew I had to see it. This new series, in keeping with the times I suppose, is far darker than “Next Gen”. Picard has resigned from Star Fleet some years prior after it reneged on the promise to rescue the Romulans from a star that was going nova. (What is it about the reboots that insist on wiping out large swaths of characters from the original series? The big screen reboot destroyed the Vulcan home world – and don’t get me started on the new “Dr Who” and Gallifrey.) This new series also mostly eliminates androids as there has been a ban on synthetic life after a group of them wiped out a relocated Romulan colony on Mars. And then there’s the release into the vacuum of space of a cube full of Borg who are being reclaimed from their semi-mechanical status. Lots of genocide here.

Star Trek: Picard Review | TV Show - Empire

Stewart is excellent (when is he not?) as the now 90 year old admiral who is made aware by his doctor that a certain medical condition is going to prove fatal probably sooner rather than later. He discovers that synthetic twins have been made from elements of Data’s positronic brain (Brent Spiner returns in what he states will be his absolutely final turn in the role and Jeri Ryan, Martina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes – who also directed a pair of episodes – also put in appearances). Having failed to save one from destruction by a vigilante Romulan group, Picard makes it his mission to save the other before she is found. He engages Rios (Santiago Cabrera), a former Starfleet officer and his ship to follow the clues to her location. Joining are Dr. Agnes Jirati (Pill), an expert in artificial life, Raffi (Michelle Hurd), another former Starfleet officer, Elnor (Evan Evagora), a Romulan refugee Picard was forced to abandon when a boy and eventually Seven of Nine. The cast is terrific but a special shout-out needs to go to Cabrera who also portrays a clutch of holographic staff on Rios’ ship. A late episode has all of them gathered is a scene that’s comic gold. The pacing is a tad slow but the writing is top-notch. I’m too much of a Trekker to know whether this will appeal to the general public but sci-fi buffs shouldn’t pass it up.

URSULA VON RYDINGSVARD: INTO HER OWN
2019 / Icarus Films Home Video / 57m / $26.98 / NR
Perhaps I should begin by disclosing that I have little appreciation for modern art, painting and sculpture in particular (though I find some of the music interesting) and so while I don’t get the point of what Ms. Von Rydingsvard is about in her mammoth pieces I can certainly admire the amount of labor that goes into creating them. Most of them – at least the ones this documentary focuses on – are enormous circular creations that taper outward toward the top and are referred to as “bowls”. These are created from blocks of cedar (more recently she is having the result cast in bronze) and stand – at a guess – 20 feet high or so. She seems obsessed with creating essentially the same piece over and over; whatever it is she’s trying to communicate it seems she has to repeat herself and say it over and over. Per one critique her work evokes her experiences growing up in a Nazi labor camp. As the war ended when she was three I find that a stretch. I just find them intriguing formations of shape and texture but they don’t convey anything more than that to me. The smaller works, shown here in passing I find more interesting. Still, as one of the few women working in monumental sculpture – ironically built up out of relatively small wooden blocks – she’s a fascinating figure, as is the documentary.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own' is a movie you want to reach out and  touch | Features | yoursun.com

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

ALBERT EINSTEIN: STILL A REVOLUTIONARY
2020 / First Run Features / 80m / $17.99 / NR
Even for those almost old enough to remember when he was still alive (I was very, very young) the image that is conjured of Albert Einstein is that of the rumpled genius, so absent minded he’s forgotten to comb his hair. If we strain we might recall something about the Theory of Special Relativity (most of us forget the Special) and E=MC2 (I’m sure there’s a way to make Word do that squared thing but damned if I know how). That breakthrough, scorned at first, led to Quantum Physics, which no one really understands and which I once read caused Einstein to state he wished he’d become a plumber. An anti-war pacifist from the time he was young (and a draft dodger), he came to believe that the monstrous evil of Adolph Hitler’s fascist Germany needed to be opposed with force but was saddened that his work in physics led to the creation of the atomic bomb. But in his spare time (and how is it he had any?) he was a tireless crusader for social progressiveness.

Learn the rules of the game: Famous quotes by Albert Einstein on his  birthday to inspire and instruct

His anti-war convictions led him to depart Germany for relatives in Italy during World War One and, having returned to his homeland he emigrated to the USA when the Nazis rose to power (he’d become a Swiss citizen in 1896 and remained so throughout his life). Having experienced anti-Semitism as a youth he was vocal in his support of equal rights for women and people of color (he once hosted Marion Anderson overnight when no hotel would accommodate her after a concert appearance). Through a few too many talking heads, rare archival film footage and (best of all) excerpts from his letters we get a fuller picture of the man than most of us had (I was certainly unaware of the social activism). But the biggest takeaway for me was the film of Einstein arriving in New York, greeted at the docks by a crowd that rivaled what would greet The Beatles decades later. Yes, there was once a time when we not only listened to the scientists and other experts but revered them. Quite a difference from today’s (to paraphrase Isaac Asimov) “My ignorance is equal to your knowledge” attitude.

THE BAT
1960 / Alpha Video / 60m / $6.98 / NR
Mary Roberts Rhinehart’s classic mystery has been filmed three times, first as a silent and then (as “The Bat Whispers”) as a very early talkie, both times by director Roland West and both times boasting enough visual panache for several movies (West deserves to be better remembered than he is). It was visited again in 1959 in a pinchpenny production that is a bit of a snore despite featuring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorhead (in a rare starring role). And then a year later this severely reduced (in terms of running time) version was broadcast as the opening entry in a series yclept “The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries”. Curiously the show was hosted by Joseph N. Welch, notable for confronting Joseph McCarthy, asking if he had “at long last no shame.” (And how he went from the law to TV host must be quite a story. Dow considered him so essential to the show that it ended when he died.) The story involves mystery writer Cornelia van Gorder (Helen Hayes) and her maid Lizzie (Margaret Hamilton) spending the summer in the mansion of John Fleming, a bank executive who has pinched a million dollars of securities and then shuffled off his mortal coil whilst on a hunting trip with his doctor (Shepperd Strudwick).

The Bat (1960) | Silver in a Haystack

He is presumed to have hidden them somewhere in the house and amongst those wanting to get hold of them is the daring criminal, The Bat… so called because he dresses like one and once left one nailed to the wall at the scene of one of his crimes. A take-charge detective (Jason Robards) arrives in response to reports of someone trying to break into the mansion but Cornelia is determined to solve the mystery – both of where the securities are stashed and who The Bat is – herself. Despite a running time half that of the play and apparently being shot live on video Rhinehart’s script with its secret panels, lights going out and masked criminal suffers not in this adaptation. And what a cast. Hayes was considered the queen of Broadway and any TV appearance was considered an event. I’m not as keen on her acting as some are but snagging her for any show that wasn’t “Hallmark Hall of Fame” was quite a coup. Hamilton is a joy as always and Robards (still being billed as Jason Robards, Jr., so as not to be confused with his father) is impressive, as is Strudwick (a rather underrated performer). Nothing compares to the 1926 and ‘30 films (and if you haven’t seen them, you must) but I’ll take this over the 1959 film any day.

Penny Dreadful: CITY OF ANGELS
2020 / Showtime, Paramount, CDS DVD / 569m (4 discs) / $39.98 / NR
I was glad I had the opportunity to give this series a second look. I was very impressed with the first “Penny Dreadful” series – which took a premise that seemed absurd and spun gothic gold from it – and creator John Logan’s work in general. My initial problem was that it started by presenting two supernatural sisters, Santa Muerte and Magda; the first conveys the spirits of the dead to heaven while the other thrives on chaos and destruction. They are not exactly opposites; Santa Muerte seems powerless to intervene in human events while Magda actively creates carnage (in the very first sequence she starts a brush fire that claims the life of the paterfamilias of the central family. Where the initial series was full-out supernatural this one didn’t seem to have much of it despite the opening. What I didn’t catch first time round was that the same actress who portrays Magda (Natalie Dormer) also essays three other characters, all of whom balefully propel the plotlines; Magda is a shape-shifter (and able to be in multiple locales simultaneously) who can also extrude a malevolent boy when the occasion demands.

Is there such a thing as cultural appropriationism? The golden rule of an  award-winning film writer | AL DÍA News

The profusion of storylines and characters commences with the murder and groteque mutilation of a wealthy family that is investigated by homicide detectives Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) and Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), the latter being the first Latino on the LA police force (the series is set in 1938) and on his first day on the job. Vega’s family is at the core of the series with his two brothers each involved in different kinds of activism, a sister who joins the “church” of an Aimee Semple McPherson-like radio preacher, Sister Mollie, (Kerry Bishe) and a mother (Adriana Barraza) who works as the housekeeper to wealthy doctor Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear). The latter is seduced by Magda in one of her guises and goes from a Bund leader preaching America First isolationism to full blown Nazi. Vega embarks on an affair with Sister Mollie while Michener, in his spare time, is keeping tabs on a wealthy German businessman who’s actually a high-ranking Nazi. And there’s a city councilman (whose assistant is another of Magda’s personas) pushing a freeway project that will run right through the Chicano community. Phew! All these subplots – fictional but historically accurate – intersect and all too frequently reflect our current sociopolitical landscape. It’s a fascinating and intricate series, not easily digested on first viewing. It will also remain unresolved as Showtime, without explanation, declined to renew the show despite critical praise and high ratings.

THE GIRL WITH A BRACELET (La fille au bracelet)
2019 / Icarus Films Home Video / 96m / $26.98 / NR
The bracelet of the title isn’t jewelry but one of those monitoring devices worn on the ankle and the girl is Lise, a teenager on home arrest, awaiting trial for the brutal stabbing murder of her friend. Or maybe the young woman was a former friend after having posted a video of Lise performing fellatio on social media. This is a low key affair that leaves much unresolved as it focuses on the strained relationships at home and Lise’s trial. Much as in real life drama never comes to a head; confrontations are broken off or simply abandoned. In the courtroom scenes the attorneys stay by their chairs; they don’t get up clpse with witnesses as in TV shows and movies. (And I was fascinated to see that in French jurisprudence it is the judge who asks the preponderance of questions before turning things over to the prosecution and the defense.) While we learn the outcome of the trial we never know with certainty if Lise is guilty or not (she was the last to leave the party but, possessing no keys to the house, could not lock the door – thus anyone could have committed the murder). And yet, if you pay very close attention, there are clues scattered throughout that point to a suspect.

The Girl with a Bracelet (2019) – MUBI

In keeping with the documentary-like approach of snippets of life the camerawork and editing are prosaic. This is not a venue for bravura camera angles and flashy cutting; the emphasis is on the actors and the camera is unflinchingly focused on them. Now these thespians may be very well known in France for all I know but I’m quite sure I’ve never seen them before (nor have you, probably). That and the quiet intensity of their performances let me believe in them in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had the cast been populated with familiar faces. That the drama never boils over, that the accused is oddly silent during questioning, that we never are delivered a concrete answer as to the killer’s identity may all lead some to boredom and a “So what?” reaction. But I was riveted. If this sounds like your cuppa you will be too. If a mystery where the viewer is left to determine the answer is not, then you’d better steer clear.

OCCURRENCE AT MILLS CREEK
2020 / Spruce Films / 84m / NR
streaming on Apple TV, DirecTV, Google Play, Prime Video, Fandango NOW
When a filmmaker in essentially the middle of nowhere turns out a reasonably impressive feature debut it’s time to take notice. The locale in this case is fairly close Altoona, a town for which I have some fondness, having served on the jury there in a Mafia-related arson trial some decades ago (but that is another story for another time). Not that the film is perfect – in fact I had quite a few problems with it – but there’s more good than mediocre here and if IMDb is correct about the budget the result is astonishing. The story shifts about through several time periods and between reality and dreams, sometimes jarringly – there is a moment when Carla (Ava Psoras) is futilely trying to wake her roommate (or lover, I was never quite sure) and the scene cuts to a funeral. There’s a lot of dying going on here so I thought the young woman had bit the dust, but, no, it was someone else. First to go is mom, which leads to a brief visit from dad, who abandoned the family some time ago. Then adopted sister Cassie perishes in an accident, then dad shuffles off his mortal coil and finally an elderly aunt (Psoras’ real-life mom Betsy Lynn George returning to the screen after a several decades absence). This character also shows up several other times, some of which are dream sequences (or appearances of ghosts?), to warn Carla she is “not ready”.

Occurrence at Mills Creek | Film Threat

So… not ready for what? It may have something to do with a family “curse” – more like madness that gallops in Carla’s family – that apparently is a legend known to all the small townfolk and to which Carla is at risk of succumbing. Or something like that. Director and chief writer Don Swanson seems to have been at pains to make things as vague and opaque as possible. The hopscotching about in time and reality strikes me as the kind of student or experimental filmmaking that aspires to artsiness by presenting a puzzle for the viewer to ponder. I think I got the What of this film but am uncertain about the Why or if there even is a Why. (Bear in mind I’m still not sure there’s a Why to “Cloud Atlas” – maybe this kind of filmmaking isn’t my cup of tea… or maybe I’m just dim.) Technically the film is pretty solid. While the lighting sometimes isn’t all it should be the photography is mostly impressive (Swanson serving as his own cameraman); there are some ravishing landscapes throughout and the composition of shots is always admirable. The dialogue is good – I’m particularly fond of Carla’s advice to Cassie about a young man who’s been hitting on her: “There’s a difference between being into you and wanting to be in you.” A few of the performances are weak but mostly the acting is satisfactory. Swanson just might be the George Romero of Altoona.

SPREE
2020 / RLJE Films / 92m / $27.97 / NR
I really should give this effort a second viewing because I haven’t decided if it’s a sharp satire of social media or a sophomoric one. It may well be a bit of both but I must say I enjoyed it immensely. Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery) is a driver for Spree (think Uber) who has a negligibly followed online streamed show, Kurt’s World. That Kurt is extremely awkward and has an unexceptional life (think those FaceBook people who assume you care what they had for lunch) explains much of why he has a limited audience. But Kurt finally cons to an idea that will surely go viral: he outfits his car with multiple cameras and broadcasts the murders of his passengers. Poisoned water is one way – and he even streams a tutorial on how to introduce poison undetectably into bottled water. He’s one gleeful sociopath with nary a thought as to anything but creating his own celebrity. Some of his victims detect the funny taste and don’t drink enough to pass on, leading Kurt to dispose of them in increasingly crazy ways (one involves ferocious dogs, but I’ll say no more). By chance one of his rides is standup comic Jesse Adams (Shasheer Zamata) who has been crowned The Queen of Social Media. Kurt decides she must teem up with him; failing that he’ll achieve fame by killing her.

Stranger Things' Joe Keery Stars as a Ridshare Murderer in Spree |  PEOPLE.com

It’s a wild ride if a bit of a shallow one because Kurt’s progression of kills resembles one of those one-note slasher films (though there’s no gore here). It could also be a depressing one except that Keery only hints at what a pathetic loser Kurt is, playing his manic side to the hilt and soft-peddling how dangerous he is – at least until late in the proceedings. That Kurt’s victims all just horrible people also keeps the film from being “Taxi Driver” meets “Halloween” – you actually look forward to seeing them get offed. That is until the film’s final act when Kurt relentlessly tries to murder Jesse and Keery’s performance goes full-blown maniac. (And as good as Keery is he’s matched by an equally fine performance from Zamata.) This may not be the most psychologically perceptive portrait of the Look-at-me types who use social media to puff themselves up – that would be a much darker movie and even in its final section it never loses its comedic tone. And that just might make it message easier to take.

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.