Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

2018 / Random Media / 108m / NR
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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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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”).

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.

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

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.”

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

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

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

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

MON MON MON MONSTERS (Guai guai guai guaiwu!)

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

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

1951 / Icarus Films / 96m / $29.98 / NR
Back in the day films were very, very subtle in any depiction of LGBTQ subjects. Even pre-Code Hollywood would only infer (as in Joyzelle’s notorious dance in “Sign of the Cross”) or smirk (as when Al Jolson quipped “Boys will be boys” as two men swept past his dance stand). Examples of minor characters having gay subtext or hints are rife throughout cinema (see the book and documentary “Celluloid Closet”) but for a U.S. film to tackle such a thing as its main topic just wasn’t done. Even “The Children’s Hour” (which author Lillian Hellman always insisted was about a lie not lesbianism even though the lie was about just that and turned out to be partially true) was altered to have the lie about a threesome and even had its title changed to “These Three” when it came to the screen in 1936. Europe was a bit bolder. In 1919, just before he ascended to stardom playing the contents of “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, Conrad Veidt tackled the subject head on in “Anders als die Andern / Different than the Others”. With changing political winds in Germany 1931’s “Mädchen in Uniform”, about a schoolgirl falling in love with her teacher, is somewhat more circumspect as is this French film, tackling the same subject – to the extent it’s nearly a remake – from two decades later. Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) arrives at an exclusive and very well-respected girl’s boarding school run by Mlle. Julie (the sublime Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Cara (Simone Simon) who is nigh perpetually suffering some illness or other and only rarely leaves her fainting couch.
The latter is annoyed that all the students favor the former – and given she’s a whiny, ill-tempered sort who almost never seems to teach a class it’s little wonder. Olivia also is soon enamored – and maybe somewhat more – of Mlle. Julie and in constant confusion as to whether being the teacher’s new favorite means her feeling are being reciprocated. There’s little more to the plot than that; Mlle. Julie sometimes seems more than a doting teacher to a promising student and other times cold and stern. Until a final revelatory speech from Julie the film is ambiguous as to whether the teacher is equally smitten and pulling back from a forbidden alliance not to mention just what her sexual preference might be. This is a quiet film with little in the way of overt drama save Cara’s outbutrsts and while its basic story may be about the relationship between Julie and Olivia it doesn’t neglect the supporting characters. There’s a wonderful running subplot involving the school’s cook and a math teacher who can never seem to get enough food, for instance. The supporting and minor characters are beautifully drawn and wonderfully acted, though the chief honors go to the exquisite Fuilliere in a graceful and nuanced performance. Exquisitely photographed (this restoration really deserves a BluRay release) and delicately directed by Jacqueline Audry and adapted by Colette Audry from Dorothy Bussy’s novel, this is a rich and vibrant film.

1923 / Alpha Video / 72m / $5.98
Harold Lloyd has been termed one of the big three of silent film comedy, grouped with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. (There really should be a big four that includes Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy if you ask me.) Of the trio I’d put Keaton at the top with Lloyd right behind – I realize I’m in a minority ranking Chaplin last (even behind Laurel and Hardy for that matter) but that’s my ranking and I’m sticking to it. Both Keaton and Lloyd specialized in building comedy from dangerous stunts; Keaton’s were sometimes the more intricate while Lloyd’s were more overtly daredevil. This may be Lloyd’s most famous film courtesy of the iconic image of him hanging from a clockface seemingly many stories above the ground. Reasearch a while back revealed that the Hal Roach studio, where Lloyd worked at the time, was on a hill overlooking the city and so the building edifice constructed there created a trick perspective of being very high up. Lloyd was still in some danger should he fall but it wouldn’t have been from the dizzying height that it seemed. (There is some footage of Lloyd’s character – billed simple as “The Boy” and called Harold throughout – climbing a real, very tall building but that’s most likely a stunt double.) More impressive to me is a sequence of Lloyd, attempting to get to work on time, leaping onto and off a variety of moving conveyances, much of it probably not choreographed in advance but created in real traffic. Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)
The plot is the basic one of The Boy doing what he must to win The Girl (Mildred Davis). He hies off to the big city to become a success but doesn’t progress much further than clerking in a store for $15.00 a week. His letters back home make him out to be a much bigger deal than he is however so when The Girl decides to make a surprise visit he has to go through an elaborate charade to make her think he’s the general manager of the store rather than a lowly employee (and one whose continued employment is in some danger). This is the least successful portion if the film because Harold just comes off as a jerk. When he overhears the manager offer $1000 for any scheme that will bring publicity to the store he offers to climb the building to its roof. His actual plan is to climb a single story and then be substituted by his roommate (Bill Strother), whose climbing abilities were revealed early on, but things of course go awry and he keeps having to climb “just one more story” before the transfer can be accomplished. The clock is the most famous of Harold’s challenges but he’s also beset by a flock of pigeons (something that again can’t have been rehearsed in advance) and a mouse traveling up his pant leg. Because the opening titles were so clean and sharp I was expecting a far better print than the grainy but acceptable presentation that followed. There are better ones out there but you’re going to pay more, especially if your pocketbook can handle Criterion price tags.

2019 / CBS Home Entertainment, Paramount / 710m (4 discs) / $49.99 / NR
In the interest of full disclosure I’ve been a fan of “Star Trek” since its initial airing on NBC beginning in 1966 (even if I professed to having been a mere baby at the time I would still be that old). Got jazzed and then somewhat disappointed when it hit the big screen (the expanded version created for later TV showing is a major improvement) and didn’t really lose interest until partway through “Voyager” (too many series in too short a time led to a degree of overload). But aside from the recent film reboots (which I’ve enjoyed for the casts while having some issues with placing it in some alternate universe for no particularly good reason) there’s been no “Star Trek” for a long, long time so naturally I was interested in this new series. I requested the first season but I suppose interest was high and I was low on the totem pole because I didn’t receive a review copy so I had some major catching up to do – and I’m still uncertain I got fully up to speed with some of the characters (what’s up with the redheaded helmswoman who looks like early stage Borg?). The show is set ten years before the “classic” series so in this season it’s Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), still alive and not disfigured, in charge for most of the season. But the show really revolves around Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Saru (Doug Jones) who have continued from the first year. Jones is apparently a fan of being in prosthetics, particularly in the films of Guillermo delToro for whom he portrayed the faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the gill man in “The Shape of Water”. Here, as an alien species, he’s one again buried under makeup.Doug Jones, Anson Mount, David Benjamin Tomlinson, Rachael Ancheril, Sonequa Martin-Green, and Sean Connolly Affleck in Star Trek: Discovery (2017)
The conceit of the series is to do year-long story arca and this one involves the sighting of emergency beacons that cause Discovery to investigate and prevent various calamities. At most of them a winged humanoid is sighted (Mothman on “Star Trek”? Well, no; it’s not a spoiler to reveal that such is not the case.) In one episode a gigantic entity of some sort is encountered and it downloads all the knowledge from its millennias of travels through the universe (no it isn’t V’ger). An artificial intelligence known as Control wants that information so it can rule the universe – though as it apparently plans to eliminate all sentient life I’m not sure what’s left to rule. Naturally the beacons, the winged being and Control have intersecting plot lines and there are various character driven stories interwoven. My main concerns are the quick cutting and shaky camerawork sometimes employed for action scenes – it doesn’t make things more exciting, it makes them more confusing (in fact I barely followed the first episode at all) – and the design and technology of the Discovery and other Starfleet vessels. I know going back to the look of the original series would have been quaint if not downright corny but this ship makes the first Enterprise look like a Model T… or maybe a horse and buggy (and what’s with this spore drive that allows the ship to jump across the galaxy?). I do like the cast, which includes Michelle Yeoh as a character, working for some sort of Starfleet dark ops unit, whose loyalties are ambiguous. And let’s have a shout-out for the series finally having out gay and lesbian characters.

2019 / First Run Features / 88m / $24.95 /NR
When we think of service animals the first thing that probably comes to mind are seeing eye dogs. But dogs – amazing creatures that they are – are capable of much more in the way of assistance. I once met a fellow whose canine was capable of detecting when his blood sugar would spike or plummet. And over the past several years we’ve all been hearing more and more about dogs (and other critters) as emotional support animals. Anyone who has pets knows just how much they give us emotionally. This documentary focuses on emotional service dogs for service men and women. A half million American veterans suffer from PTSD. The affliction is not a new one though the designation is; in WWI it was called shell shock and following WWII it was called battle fatigue. The Lakota term for it was “the spirits left” and during the Civil War it was termed the Soldier’s Heart; many vets are fond of that sobriquet because it signifies that the heart has been broken. After years of disappointing outcomes from VA treatments, usually involving a raft of drugs (some of the vets here are shown to be taking dozens of medications a day) service dogs are having positive results. One reason is obvious: If you have a pet you’ve got something to concern you other than yourself. And service dogs need not only the usual stuff – feeding, grooming, walkies – they need constant reinforcement of their training as well. The bond is – and has to be – even stronger than the usual human/canine one. In fact the first step of the process has the dog essentially choose its human.Image result for to be of service movie
Some VA doctors recommend service dogs but the VA will not cover the cost, which can be several thousand dollars. The dogs have to get extensive training (and not just in “Heel” and “Sit”) and a determination of whether they inherently posses such special skills as detecting such things as changes in blood sugar levels. Vets must either raise the funds themselves or go on a long waiting list for dogs funded by private donors. While all the vets interviewed for this documentary attest to how much better they’re coping with their PTSD since acquiring their service dogs the film is at its best with the few it follows from before they are matched with their canine and we can see the improvement. (It’s possible the same could occur if just any pooch was picked up from the ASPCA but there would be limitations on where an uncertified four-legged companion could be taken.) One touching scene has a vet unpacking the half dozen or so Amazon boxes of things he’s ordered for his new furry friend – food and water bowls, toys and grooming items. We have had 220 years of armed conflict since our nation was founded 244 years ago. Here’s a few statistics about where we are today:
15 – 20% returning vets have PTSD… even more have psychological problems (and while it’s not dwelt on here, some have addiction issues both from self-medicating and as a result of the various drugs they are prescribed).
82% have fewer PTSD symptoms after getting service dog. 40% reduce their meds. A multi-year study by the VA has not yet determined benefits of service dogs and it continues to reject the cost even while vets are given an astonishing amount of pharmaceuticals that have to cost a pretty penny.
And one final sobering fact:
22 veterans kill themselves every day. Every. Day.

2019 / RLJE Film / 101m / $28.9 BR / NR
I will make no claims as to this film being great – except to fans of slasher films (and I confess I am mostly not) – but it brings enough new twists to that subgenre to make it worthwhile for all horror and thriller aficionados. The Trick of the title is the nickname for Patrick (Thom Niemann) a previously affable enough fellow who abruptly and inexplicably goes on a killing rampage at a Halloween party, taking out an astonishing number of his fellow students before meeting up with the business end of a fireplace poker. (The final revelation of the film gives a secondary meaning to the title.) He escapes from the hospital, diving from a high window and apparently plunges into an icy river after being riddled with bullets by Thom Niemann (Omar Epps) and Sheriff Lisa Jayne (Ellen Adair). He must be most sincerely dead… but is he? The following year, in a town directly downriver another massacre occurs and a year later, further down, there’s another. Neimann and Jayne are posed with the puzzle of whether Trick has somehow survived or if a copycat is in play; in either case the killer is playing a cat and mouse game with them, deliberately challenging them to stop the serial mass murders before Cheryl (Kristina Reyes), the young woman who gored him becomes a victim.
Okay, the logic here may be a tad lacking and the ultimate twist a bit of a stretch but there’s a lot of good here, particularly for a film with a tight budget. Whatever the financial limitations were, they are only obvious from the cast of mostly unknowns. Epps, Kennedy and Tom Atkins (who’s always a pleasure to watch) are the only names here – and they possibly only for genre fans. The performances, however, are pluperfect down to the smallest roles. Technically the film is flawless; photography and editing are excellent as is the direction by Patrick Lussier (who has a history of B level horror on his resume, with “Scream 2” and “Scream 3” being the best known to the general public); the tension never lags. The gore is explicit and abundant but not dwelt on to gross-out extremes. He and Todd Farmer (“Drive Angry” and the remake of “My Bloody Valentine”) have crafted a screenplay with smart, naturalistic dialogue. This is also the rare slasher that works even better on a second viewing, after you know the surprise (which is frightening in its implications). As with any good genre outing the goods are delivered while new ideas are presented. Horror fans should have a blast with this one.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

2019 / RLJE Films / 81m / $29.97 BR / NR
If your taste runs to quiet, character driven films you will be hard pressed to find them at your local cinema (Scorcese is right). That’s why this production – starring the criminally underrated Ethan Hawke – bypassed the multiplexes entirely and went straight to home video. There’s really no other explanation for its DTV status because it’s excellent, perceptive and will quite likely break your heart even while it uplifts you. Hawke portrays the adult version of Russell, a teenager sent to jail for “possession with intent to distribute” an ounce of marijuana. Twenty some years later he’s finally paroled back into the world, socially inept and unversed in such things as the internet. He gains a job washing dishes at a diner and one night, when taking out the trash he discovers a baby girl abandoned in the dumpster. Uncertain what to do he takes her back to his motel room but after a day he realizes he is completely clueless what to do with her (he feeds her from condiment packets left over from his fast food take-homes). But then he only just about knows how to care for himself. He turns baby Ella in to Children and Youth but this opens him to police investigation because of his criminal background, which causes him to lose his job. No good deed goes unpunished. Telling you much more would do a disservice to your enjoyment of a beautifully crafted production but I’ll note that Russell’s discovery of the baby is only the first step of his rediscovering social interaction and Hawkes’ interactions with the baby (not CGI or animatronic) are lovely – and given babies are unpredictable I’m betting there was a good deal of improvisation.
Now I do have a few problems with the film. Russell has not been in solitary confinement during his two plus decades behind bars, he has been able to interact with other inmates, so his social clumsiness stretches credulity – and as that is the basis for the story, marking the beginning of the man’s journey, that is no small problem. Beyond that I’m pretty sure there’s internet in the jug (how else did Paul Manafort stay in touch with his lawyers?) and I find it unlikely he would not have been informed of his father’s death or that, before he was locked up in his late teens he never experienced an amusement park. Those caveats aside the film works thanks to an amazing performance from Hawke giving his everything to flesh out a minimalist script That’s not a criticism; it details everything it needs to – and there’s much to be said for writing that allows the actors and the viewer to fill in the blanks – and because Russell’s dialogue is so sparse there’s impact when he starts communicating to Ella and later has halting conversation with a somewhat goofy fellow bus passenger (Elaine Hendrix). Ultimately however the reason you need to see this movie is because of Hawkes. I don’t know why this man isn’t A-list but perhaps we should be glad he’s not because he’d probably be part of the Marvel Universe instead of taking on quiet small scale projects such as this that stick with you and say something about humankind and humanity. You will ache at his awkwardness and his poverty level existence and when he weeps on having to give up the child you may lose it yourself. I did.

2018 / Avenet Images Productions / 89m / available on DirecTV, Teles (Canada), Vudu, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo on Demand and YouTube Movies. / NR
I was once – in another life it sometimes seems – involved in theater and as such a judge in a high school play competition. One of the entries was a ghost story and it occurred to me while watching it (and I made the observation in my comments) that the key to making genre work is not so much providing new twists but in delivering on expectations. Ghost stories are a subset of the horror genre of course and they’re not easy to pull off. The best ones, such as “The Innocents”, “The Univited” or “The Haunting of Hill House” (the original) have spectres that are barely glimpsed or go completely unseen. This is how it is with real life ghosts (if there really are such things); they’re spotted only out of the corner of your eye or their presence is merely felt (yes, I have on occasion shared living quarters with such things, whatever they are). So, is there anything new here? Precious little, in fact the plot owes a great deal to ”Stir of Echoes” – one of the greatest haunting films ever made – even referencing its title. Placing it in a very modern (and georgeous) house rather than a creepy old mansion is different but Edgar G. Ulmer got there first with his 1934 “The Black Cat”. Does it deliver on expectations? I’d say definitely yes and if it’s not a great ghost story it’s a cracking good one that goes in a different direction than you might expect from its premise.Image result for echoes of fear 2019
Following the death of her grandfather Alisa (Trista Robinson) returns to the house in which she grew to prepare for its sale (she wouldn’t be able to afford the taxes on it). Grandpa’s death is chalked up to a heart attack but we see in a prologue that an invisible something wrapped him up in the shower curtain and apparently frightened him to death. That conditions us to suspect that whatever is inhabiting the house might be inimical to good fellowship. Initially alone save for when her significant other Brandon (Paul Chirico) – a guy too controlling not to signal an abusive personality – visits on weekends, she experiences odd things, such as her bath water turning inky black. Things get odder, less easy to explain, and a (too solid for my liking) ghost attacks Alisa, giving her visions that only start to make sense as she discovers oddities amongst her defunct ancestor’s belongings. The film is too brightly lit to be truly creepy and the ghost’s appearances are more jump-scare than chilling – it’s always easier to introduce something abruptly a la William Castle than to create a real feeling of dread. Some unease is created because the house’s eccentric geography is never clear but I suspect that’s accidental. The dialogue by Brian Avenet-Bradley, who co-directed with his spouse Laurence Avenet-Bradley (and whose house provided the location) is naturalistic and the performances follow suit. There’s an ultimate resolution and a final twist you will probably not see coming. This will never make my top ten of ghost stories but it’s a solid effort.

1962 / The Film Detective / 90m / $24.99 BR / NR
Let’s be clear from the start that this is an awful film. Arch Hall, Sr., fancied himself a screenwriter and in the first half of the 1960s he created a number of films that starred his son, Arch Hall, Jr. Here Hall pere directs (under a pseudonym to hide the nepotism) as well as directs and the results are not salubrious (he also appears in the film using the name William Watters). The hour and a half running time has at least a third devoted to extended footage anytime anyone gets into any kind of vehicle, stock footage from nature films of desert critters, lots of aimless roaming about mountain areas and Hall fils performing mediocre songs in his best imitation Elvis style (one of Arch Jr’s. handful of films was “Wild Guitar,” by the way, where he portrays an aspiring rock singer). What plot there is involves Richard Keil as the titular caveman leaving his cave for the first time ever (no explanation of why provided) and encountering Hall the younger’s girlfriend and Hall the elder’s daughter, Roxy (Marilyn Manning), and developing a jones for her. Eventually he gets both her and pops in his cave and the two enter into a series of strategies to deflect his amorous advances while boyfriend Tom wanders the mountainside yelling “Roxy”. Some footage is devoted to Kiel grunting gibberish to the mummified bodies of his ancestors. I suspect he made it up which gives me more respect for his abilities than I previously had.
The script is aimless and can never quite decide if it’s a thriller or a comedy or a WTF? (It becomes the latter by default as it’s nbever very thrilling and the comedy is cringe inducing.) I’m certain I lost more than 90 minutes I’ll never regain while watching it; it felt endless.The acting seems downright awful but with the lines this script provides I’ll reserve judgement and note that Arch Jr. is downright terrifying as the title character in “The Sadist”, so given the right role he can excel. He’s a tad too peculiar looking for romantic leads however. Amongst the extras on this disc is the “MST3K”… er… salute to the film. While I know this show is wildly popular let me just rant this about that: No film, no matter how bad deserves that treatment. It is one thing to make something (and we can include theater, art and music here) that from lack of talent or finance – and “Eegah” lacks both – just isn’t good. It is quite another to make a living by deriding the efforts of those who had the courage to actually make something and put it out before the public. To paraphrase an old adage: Those who can’t do, ridicule. There is something strangely endearing about “Eegah’s” ineptitude and it does have its fans who are, perhaps charmed by that. It may not entertain me but if you’re one of its devotees you’ll welcome this release which at least does justice to its excellent cinematography by Vilis Lapeneicks. And on a final note I should point out that whoever made the mummies did a fine job.

THE GOLEM, LEGEND OF PRAGUE (Le Golem aka Man of Stone)
1936 /Alpha Video / 95m / $5.98 / NR
I’ve waited a long time to see this film. Some years ago I was collecting Golem films for an article in a magazine I edited. This is one that eluded me. (Heck, I even tracked down “The Golem and the Emperor’s Baker / Císaruv pekar – Pekaruv císar”.) Golems are, according to Jewish tradition creatures sculpted from dust, mud or clay; per the Talmud Adam, formed from dust and imbued with life, is a golem. I suspect most of you are at least familiar with the Paul Wegener film that – in his third portrayal of the character – recounts the legend of how Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague sculpted a figure of clay and brought it to life to act as a protector of his people from the oppression of Rudolph II. (As the legend first emerged a couple centuries after Loew’s death it is unlikely there ever was a Golem, which has not stopped some from trying to locate it; that the attic of the synagogue where Loew allegedly stashed it till needed again is strictly off-limits to the public only bolsters their fervor.) Julien Duvivier’s French production serves as a sequel to Wegener’s film, set some years after Loew’s death but with Rudolph (Harry Bauer) still alive and kicking and still given to mercurial mood swings regarding just about everything because he’s quite crazy. He even keeps caged lions in case he has the urge to toss someone who displeases him to them – and of course he’s back to his old habit of oppressing the Jews.
He’s encouraged in this by a malignant chancellor who wants to destroy the Golem to eliminate its threat and there is much discussion amongst the residents of the Prague ghetto as to whether Rabbi Jacob (Charles Dorat) – the only one who knows just where the clay man is hidden – should reanimate the thing. The Golem is stolen before Rudolph can get his hands on it as a result of his mistress getting miffed over his impending marriage. She convinces a young man enamored of her, and who has ended up in Jacob’s household after an injury and therefore able to suss out the statue’s whereabouts, to perform the robbery (it’s a very complicated plot and, yes, so was that sentenc). Eventually the magic word is inscribed on the Golem’s forehead by Jacob’s wife Rachel (Jany Holt), primarily to free her husband, imprisoned and slated to become big cat chow. The Golem goes on its ususal, expected rampage, causing much destruction to the architecture and freeing the lions which make kitty treats of the courtiers. For most of its running time this film is a court intrigue drama and given the year in which it was made it’s difficult not to see it as a commentary on Hitler’s solution to “the Jewish problem”. I wish it was more interesting but it’s a bit of a slog to wade through before the exiting climax. Possibly wisely Duvivier accepted an offer from MGM in 1938 and, while he did return to France for a few more films, he spent most of the war years in Hollywood safely away from the Nazi occupation of his birth country. Not so lucky was Bauer, who frequently appeared in Duvivier’s film, who was imprisoned not because he was Jewish but because he so often portrayed sympathetic Jewish characters and appeared in films, such as this one, that were sympathetic to the Jews. His health was broken by his imprisonment and he passed away shortly after release.
I’m going on at somewhat longer than usual with “Le Golem” because it is such a rare film and also because I think Duvivier is a criminally underrated director to whom attention should be directed. Jean Renoir termed him, a “great technician” and “a poet”. He was eclectic in his choice of subject matter and several times turned his attention to fantastic subjects. “La Charrette fantôme”, a horror film adapted from a novel by Selma Lagerlof – and a remake of Victor Seasrom’s silent “The Phantom Cariage” – was made during his brief return to France and “Flesh and Fantasy” during his longer U.S. sojourn. He also directed “Pepe Le Moko,” which was remade in the states as “Algiers”, and a version of “Anna Karenina,: which starred Vivien Leigh in a performance I find superior to Garbo’s (if you seek it out try to find the complete 139m cut – there are many edited versions out there). “Le Golem”, is a lavish production, filmed in Prague, with magnificent looking sets (the synagogue exterior is clearly modeled on the Alt-Neu Synagogue in Prague, supposedly where the Golem was stashed) and the camerawork is fluid and marked with more German Expressionistic lighting and compositions than you can shake a stick at. More’s the pity then that Alpha’s print seems derived from a VHS tape – and not a first generation one either. The image is blurry and so light it’s often difficult to read the subtitles. The Kino version of Wegener’s “Golem” has an extra of the Golem’s climactic rampage that is exquisite, so obviously a restored print – or at least a very good one – exists somewhere. This release is the only one available on disc in the US however.Image result for le golem 1936