Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

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

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

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

MON MON MON MONSTERS (Guai guai guai guaiwu!)

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

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

OLIVIA
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.

SAFETY LAST
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.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, Season Two
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.

TO BE OF SERVICE
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.

TRICK
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

ADOPT A HIGHWAY
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.

ECHOES OF FEAR
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.

EEGAH!
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

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

DEADLINE (When Reporters Were Heroes): The Complete Series
1959-61 / Film Chest Media Group / 1006m (3 discs) / $19.98 / NR
To the best of my knowledge this old syndicate series is unique. While shows such as “Law & Order” may take their cues from stories in the news and fictionalize them to some extent this show dramatized the news stories, only altering the names of all save the reporter who broke the story and who becomes the central character in the episodes (the newspaper that published the story is credited onscreen). It was a time when reporters were considered admirable, not unprincipled purveyors of “fake news”; they were even the heroes of such movies as “Deadline U.S.A.” (Humphrey Bogart) and “Foreign Correspondent” (Joel McCrea), to name just two. They did what it took to get expose killers or corruption (one reporter in this anthology has acid thrown in his face and is blinded for digging too deeply into mob control of a labor union). The stories are varied; the crimes investigated, exposed and solved range from major fraud to murder with diligence on the part of reporters being responsible. For variety there’s a Christmas episode where a young woman from the country, struggling to make good in the big city, has her dashed hopes restored when the Scrooges in her life are made to confront their stinginess. It’s the only heartwarming entry unless your cockles are heated by justice served.
The series seems to have been broadcast only once and never gone into reruns; the film cans lay forgotten in a garage until discovered recently. Is the retrieval an important addition to television history? Well, to be honest, no. It’s a good enough series if a low budget one (it’s obvious a few times when actors fumble with props that second takes were eschewed). While some of the guest players include Peter Falk, Diane Ladd, Robert Lansing and Telly Savalas (with hair… though not much) fans of a certain genre will spot Herb Evers and John Karlen. As fascinating to me was seeing the names of directors just starting their careers (Stuart Rosenberg, “Cool Hand Luke”) or ending them (Peter Godfrey, “The Two Mrs. Carrolls”). As host, offscreen narrator, often playing the reporter and sometimes as director, the producers chose Paul Stewart, best known for portraying the butler in “Citizen Kane.” He’s the weak link here – only a so-so actor and lacking the charisma to give a potent intro to the stories. The writing for the episodes is decent but given Stewart’s bland set-ups and filmmaking that’s strictly from Monogram the show doesn’t quite compare with such other half-hour dramas of the time, such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or “The Twilight Zone”. It’s good – and at this price certainly worth a look – but not one of the classics.Robert Morris in Deadline (1959)

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 91m / $26.98 / PG-13
I think it’s fair to call Mike Wallace a journalism legend but, in case you didn‘t know, that’s not where he started. To get into broadcasting – and to figure out just what it was he wanted to be – he hosted a game show and was a commercial pitchman. Resultantly he was not highly regarded by the Edward R. Murrow crowd at CBS when he joined the network even though one of the things he had done was an interview program for one of its affiliate stations. He took no prisoners in these encounters done in a set that screamed “serious” – two chairs in a pitch black void reminiscent of Charlie Rose’s show (who aped who I cannot say). His low standing at the network ended up working in his favor when an experimental show was tried -–a news magazine yclept “60 Minutes”. Such shows are everywhere today but it was a brand new and risky idea at the time and other CBS reporters wanted nothing to do with it so Wallace ended up co-hosting with Harry Reasoner when it premiered. Wallace states here that they were making it up as they went along and one of the things he pioneered was a kind of ambush journalism where subjects would be surreptitiously filmed committing sleazy and even criminal acts. When enough evidence of malfeasance had been collected Wallace would barge in on them – sometimes without warning – and confront them with the evidence of their misdeeds. He also continued his ruthless interviews with celebrity and political figures – so unremitting that Barbra Streisand is seen here calling him a “son of a bitch”. Wallace himself gets interviewed here by colleagues Ed Bradley and Morley Safer and the latter asks him why he’s “such a prick”. These sessions are as probing as his own and he admits he doesn’t like it when he’s on the receiving end of being questioned about his personal life, which can best be described as troubled. The filmmakers have constructed this warts-and-all portrait (which also serves as an analysis of our current news landscape) entirely from archival footage so, alas, we get no interview with son Chris Wallace. Still as a look at one of our most famous newsman and how broadcast news has evolved, Avi Belkin’s film is a superior effort.

RAISE HELL: The Life & Times of Molly Ivens
2018 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 93m / $26.98 / NR
Molly Ivens, who passed away 12 years ago, may be all but forgotten today save by those who remember reading her thrice weekly columns. She exposed corruption in both her home state of Texas and on the national stage, excoriating her targets with a pithy style that combined a firm grasp of the English language combined with what I can only dub Texasisms (terming someone all hat and no cattle might be a good example). Her viewpoint was liberal but she took on both Bill Clinton (who she described as “weaker than bus station chili”) and George W. Bush (the latter – who Ivens is credited with having nicknamed “Dubya” and “Shrub” – held no grudge and on her death he issued the statement, “I respected her convictions, her passionate belief in the power of words. She fought her illness with that same passion. Her quick wit and commitment will be missed.”) Her writing was acutely perceptive, tackling serious matters in a way that was often riotously funny such as when she said of Pat Buchanan’s “Culture War” speech, it “probably sounded better in the original German”. Of a Texas politician she wrote, “If his IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.” Possibly her most prescient observation – she clearly saw our current landscape looming – was, “Polarizing people is a good way to win an election and a good way to wreck a country.” Her approach was so outrageous that her newspaper took out billboards asking, “Molly Ivens can’t say that, can she?” Janice Engel’s documentary traces Iven’s life from her childhood to her various newspaper jobs, eventually hired by the New York Times who wanted her because it was feared their writing was just a tad too staid. Ivens’ style was a bit too lively however and after describing an annual chicken-killing event as a “gang-pluck” she was let go. Shortly after she was hired by the Dallas Herald Times to write a column about anything she wanted and she was on her way to media stardom. The film doesn’t gloss over her alcoholism, which she struggled with to the end but is still a celebration of one of the great social humorists of all time. We could use her now.Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins (2019)

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

900 DAYS (900 Dagen)
2011 / Icarus Films Home Video / 77m / 29.98 / NR
This documentary, which interviews survivors of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, is compelling stuff but might be difficult for some to take. The Third Reich forces surrounded the town – renamed St. Petersburg following the collapse of the Soviet state – for nearly three years, bombarding it but never quite able to take it. The German’s first act was to bomb the warehouses containing food reserves (however did the Germans acquire the intelligence to know which buildings those were?) – and thus, with no one able to enter or leave, the citizenry were deprived of food. The interviewees tell of killing domestic animals, primarily cats and dogs, to survive (one old woman even displays a painting she made memorializing chopping off her pet’s head). Since that particular time was astonishingly cold, corpses could not be buried and also were harvested from the churchyard for the meat (one woman tells, as if she’s relating someone else’s situation, of keeping a sister’s body on the windowsill and slicing off bits now and then). Plump children simply disappeared and it was suspected they became the meat sold in the marketplace. (The extras, by the way, have extended interviews that are somewhat more graphic in detailing the cannibalism and pet consumption than what is in the film itself.) In the end – though not mentioned within the documentary – the city was liberated as much, or likely more, by the fact that the German troops were inadequately clothed for the harsh Russian winter and perished in large numbers from exposure. Hitler was ultimately forced to withdraw rather than being beaten back by Stalin’s generals. While some of the aged Leningrad populace may embrace being hailed as heroes and feted in an annual celebration, perhaps that knowledge is why many others see themselves as victims… or merely those who managed not to die.Image result for 900 days film

MADAM SECRETARY: Season Five
2018-19 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 863m (5 discs) / $49.99 / NR
Because I am reluctant to tackle TV series unless I’ve seen them from the beginning I put aside this set – which I didn’t request for review but arrived with something I did – not certain whether I’d review it or not. I’m glad curiosity finally got the better of me because it’s excellent TV. You can judge just how excellent by the fact that while I generally review TV shows based on sampling my way through (it takes a whole lotta time to wade through an entire season of a show) I was caught up from the very first episode and watched every single one. It was surprisingly easy to get up to speed on the characters and their relationships – and it’s a huge cast what with Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord’s (Tia Leoni) family (chiefly Tim Daly as her husband) and staff (I particularly liked Erich Bergen, Patina Miller, Geoffrey Arend and Sara Ramirez) and the residents of the Oval Office (Keith Carradine as President Dalton and a wonderfully droll Željko Ivanek as his Chief of Staff). Credit the writers who don’t forget about the supporting cast and see to it that all get a healthy dollop of screen time (and sometimes some very juicy scenes) in nearly every episode. In that it reminded me very much of “The West Wing,” which also served its entire cast well in addition to having a similar D.C. setting (and also the re-use of the expensive Oval Office set built for “The American President”). If you were a fan of “West Wing” – as I was – it’s safe to say you’ll love this show. It addresses current issues and features outstanding writing and acting.Téa Leoni, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and Madeleine Albright in Madam Secretary (2014)
The storylines take current events and twist them around. The two-parter on family separation, for instance, has a border state governor initiate the policy, not the White House. This allows for exploration and discussion of topics without turning the show into a cable news offering and muddling things with the baggage of commenting directly on actual national and international figures (McCord interacts with their likes throughout the show as when she is in tricky negotiation with a Chinese ambassador over sweatshops). An exception occurs in the first episode when Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright guest as themselves in a confab with McCord. Aside from single-episode issues the topic of Nationalism resurfaces again and again; the first episode even begins with a missile attack on the White House by an extremist white nationalist group (see how I resisted the urge to say the season started out with a bang?). There are some impressive names behind the camera as well; Morgan Freeman and Eric Stoltz are amongst the producers (the latter also frequently directing and appearing in a recurring role) and creator Barbara Hall was a writer for such series as “I’ll Fly Away,” “Judging Amy” and “Northern Exposure”. The show has one more season to go, a limited one of only 10 episodes presumably dealing with McCord’s run for the presidency. For quality writing that actually deals with issues in our country and a terrific cast, you can’t go wrong with this one.

MARY
2018 /RLJE Films / 85m / $29.9 BR / NR
Given Gary Oldman has the lead role in this ghost story set at sea I was expecting something out of the ordinary. Alas I was mistaken. (And what’s up with his participation in a direct-to-home-video production, anyway? Only a couple years ago he was portraying Winston Churchill in a mainstream theatrical film.) David (Oldman) captains someone else’s boat for fishing trips and has long hankered to own his own craft for charter voyages. His chance, he thinks, comes when a sailing vessel is found adrift and somewhat the worse for wear and he’s able to purchase it at a bargain price (but one that drains his finances and puts him in hock). He considers it a sign that the ship shares his younger daughter’s name. With the aid of his wife Sarah (Emily Mortimer), daughters (Stephanie Scott and Chloe Perrin), the elder daughter’s boyfriend (Owen Teague) and friend Mike (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) – who it seems has had an extramarital fling with Sarah – they get the wreck looking spiffy in remarkably short order and set sail for a shakedown cruise. But David should have checked out the yacht’s history; seems that one who ever owned her – or anyone who accompanied them to sea – was ever seen again. Mary is just found drifting, damaged and empty. Uh oh.
There is really nothing here genre fans haven’t seen before except Oldman in a DTV release. I don’t wish to demean DTVs; I’ve seen some fine productions that for whatever reason didn’t manage a theatrical release, sometimes because they just weren’t stuffed with enough CGI, explosions and superheroes. Quiet, provocative, character-driven stories generally don’t fare well in today’s market. Michael Goi’s film, scripted by Anthony Jaswinski, is neither. It’s an attempt to tell a ghost story in the confines of a modestly sized yacht (something Vernon Sewell once did far better way back when). As the ghost goes mostly unseen – possessing the various characters one at a time – this could have been a shuddery Lewtonesque mood piece in a confined setting. Alas creepiness and claustrophobia – despite tight camera compositions in cramped settings – elude Goi, who has a raft of TV directing and cinematography credits but only one previous feature (20 years ago!). Jaswinski has somewhat more feature credits, notable “The Shallows” and “Satanic” (I’ve seen neither but the former has received some acclaim). Part of the problem is that it’s all too predictable in what order those onboard will succumb to the ghost, go crazy and threaten the other passengers and/or the vessel. Working far better are shots of the ship looking tiny in the vase sea; you can always flee a haunted house but with a boat there’s nowhere to go. There are a few effective moments here but for the most part “Mary” isn’t yar.

OCTAV
2017 / First Run Features / 100m / $24.95 / NR
The titular, and symbolically named, Prince Octav (Marcel Iures) is a Romanian noble whose family’s property was seized by the Communist government after the USSR took over the country. With that political situation no longer in play he has spent years in the courts trying to have it restored. Finally successful in his 80s he is ironically now so broke he must sell it. He travels back to the estate to arrange the sale; although seized the mansion appears never have been used as all the furnishings and possessions are still in place. Even his mother’s painting studio is just as it was left when she died. Memories of his childhood come flooding back along with more substantial interactions. The latter is with caretaker Spiridon (Victor Rebenguic, whose work is just as impressive as Iures’) who was his confidant when both were boys and hiss father filled the same caretaking function. The other may be the ghost of his childhood sweetheart Ana (Alessia Tofan). She seems very substantial but she cannot be real and certainly isn’t a memory as signified by Octav’s interaction with her and that their scenes together are photographed in a different\ style than the flashbacks (and while I’m on that subject I should note that Blasco Giurato’s cinematography is ravishing). She also turns up unexpectedly for the elderly gent as a kind of Greek chorus who prods him to confront elements of his past – and in her dress and being often found on a swing she seems a deliberate nod to Mario Bava’s ghost in “Operazione paura”.
There are also unavoidable comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s “Smultronstället” (“Wild Strawberries”) but where in Bergman’s film the memories forced the protagonist to own up to the emotional barrenness of his life here they are just memories (but very telling ones) of what once was. The question arises as to why the life of this man is being explored except as a stand-in for what the comfortably well-off lost with the Communist take-over. This lack of any seeming point – after all we know nothing of the years in between 10 and 80, so what is the relevance of these childhood memories? – and a pace that defines leisurely will be an impediment to some. Others (including me) will surrender to the subdued approach, finding it, in the words of one online scribe, “beautiful, emotional and almost painful”, thanks to sublime performances, the lush production design (those are sets, not a real house, for the interiors; the real house on which they are based made too much noise) and the gorgeous photography – even while wishing, perhaps, for a tad more there there. In a cinematic world crammed with superhero flicks (this too shall pass) and noisy action outings (which it seems will not go away) it’s reassuring and refreshing to encounter a quiet, poetic, contemplative work. Of course you won’t find anything like this coming from Hollywood.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

AROUND INDIA WITH A MOVIE CAMERA
2017 / Icarus Films Home Video / 72m / $29.98 / NR
This documentary – or more accurately assemblage of bits and pieces – is more fascinating than its unimaginative title suggests. Culled from both professional and amateur efforts from the dawn of cinema to 1947, it presents a portrait of India during the period of British colonial rule. The presentation is chronological but a tad haphazard. I was especially frustrated that lush Technicolor footage of a Shiva dancer was interrupted every so often and never shown in its entirety and I still don’t quite understand what home movies of a Brit official playing in the garden with his daughter had to do with the India, save possibly to illustrate further the privileged life of the occupiers; certainly we can see in various government and social gatherings that well-off indigenous peoples are in short supply. There is no narration beyond what may have originally been part of the films and explanation subtitles are limited to describing who made them. Still the visuals and the condescending tone toward the country’s religious and social traditions is telling. One heartbreaking sequence has a Salvation Army lass convincing a native she must shed her numerous bracelets and necklaces – traditional accessories – to become… oh, I don’t know… civilized or a good Christian or something (the footage is silent so we don’t hear what the SA lady is saying). Newsreels of Mahatma Ghandi – now universally seen as one of history’s greatest men – treat him as a dangerous radical. Well, so was Christ.    Around India with a Movie Camera (2018)
Except for one film all the work here is from Caucasians and by and large the perspective is that their cultural values are superior and must be imposed on the ignorant brown Indians. There are looks at traditional ceremonies – usually with an “Isn’t it quaint” attitude and architecture (forget about the Egyptian and Meso-American pyramids – if there’s evidence of long ago alien builders it’s in these magnificent ancient temples), Also of interest is early documentary color footage lensed by master British cinematographer Jack Cardiff who went on to film “The Red Shoes” amongst other classics. And there’s a short subject (presented in it entirety as one of the exras – pity the Shiva dance wasn’t) of the adorable Sabu taking the viewer on a tour of such landmarks as the Taj Mahal and pointing out in almost a postcript that the British tradition of tea drinking is owed to India (more accurately that part of the world but never mind). If you’re sensitive to the nuances here there’s some pretty uncomfortable, even offensively racist, material. Some might wish for a stronger narrative but director Sandhya Suri chose instead to work with composer Soumik Dutta (whose score is excellent by the way) the create a poetic flow to the disparate elements. This low key approach may not do it hard enough for some but it does assuredly hit the proverbial nail on its head.

GWEN
2019 / RLJE Films / 98m / $28.97 BR / NR
It goes without saying – or at least it should – that the phrase “not for all tastes” should be retired. No film – or art or music for that matter – is for all tastes. This production can best be termed arthouse horror and that designation will alert horror fans as to whether this murky, moody, deliberately paced exercise is their cuppa. The production is not without its shocks – or buses to appropriate a term applied to Val Lewton’s exercises in suggestive horror. And as with Lewton what appears to be supernatural doesn’t necessarily turn out to be. Set on the Welsh moors in consistently brooding weather the film deals with Elen (Maxine Peake) and her two daughters, Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) being the eldest, struggling to keep the family farm going while dad is off at war (the time period is never quite defined but it seems to be in the latter half of the 19th century). Things are not going well. The family’s herd of sheep is mysteriously slaughtered overnight (a neighboring family suffered a similar experience before being murdered themselves) and the farm’s horse, crucial for transporting vegetables to market, bolts and breaks its leg (“At least we’ll have meat,” observes Elen before cutting its throat). Mom suffers from epilepsy and there isn’t the money to procure the medicine that eases her suffering. A wealthy man in the village wants to procure the farm to expand his mining interests but Elen stubbornly refuses to sell her home.
Those are the driving elements of a film that is more about menacing mood and character than plot; it is also about Gwen’s coming of age, with life presenting her with situations that force her to cast childhood aside. The film’s arc traverses from an opening where Elen upbraids Gwen for being off frolicking with her young sister, causing all the chores to devolve on mom to a shocking finale that guarantees she will be a little girl no more. I probably should say no more so as not to spoil the revelations except that this is a film of natural horrors – mostly of inhumanity and environment a la the Brontes – so don’t approach it expecting banshees wailing their way out of the forest. Savor the grim mood created and sustained by writer/director William McGregor in his feature debut (but with lots of shorts and TV work behind him), his use of landscape and sound design to create an intangible sense of menace (that ultimately becomes all too horrifyingly tangible) and the sublime, natural performances he has elicited from his cast. You may, as I did, find yourself initially underwhelemed by the film only to be haunted by it in the days to follow.

HOLOCAUST
1978 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 452m (2 discs) / $20.44 BR / NR
Time has not been kind to this groundbreaking mini-series but it still deserves pride of place as the first television docudrama (possibly the first film period) to deal with the plight of the Jews and other “undesirables” during the years of Nazi domination of Germany. By focusing on the Weiss family – Dr. Joseph (Fritz Weaver), his wife Berta (Rosemary Harris), their sons Karl and Rudi (James Woods and Joseph Bottoms) and daughter Anna (Blanche Baker) – who between them manage to intersect with the entire trajectory of the Third Reich’s solution to the “Jewish problem”. The doctor’s practice is limited to Jewish patients early on and then Karl is arrested – for reasons never quite explained but possibly because he has married an Aryan (Meryl Streep as Inga) – and whisked off to a model camp (a place that looks like a quaint European village and serves as a subterfuge for Red Cross inspections). Inga pulls strings with her National Socialist parents’ friends to be allowed to join him. Rudi runs off and joins the resistance holed up in a forest. Joseph, Berta and Anna are deported to Poland where they end up participating in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and eventually wind up in Auschwitz… as do Karl and Inga. A parallel plot has struggling lawyer Erik Dorf (Michael Moriarty) take a job with SS officer Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner), initially just to support his family. At his wife’s urging to gain advancement by giving advice to his superior – which eventually leads to his discovery of Zyklon B and the inspiration for the “delousing showers” – he gradually becomes the consummate Nazi.Joseph Bottoms and Tovah Feldshuh in Holocaust
Gerald Green’s script is at pains to include everything, sometimes going to nigh ludicrous lengths to do so. At least four concentration camps are visited and all the others are at least mentioned. At one camp lengths of cloth are being cut into triangles to be sewn onto prisoners’ striped uniforms to designate their “crimes”: the yellow ones are overlapped to create the Jewish star while green are for Gypsies, pink for homosexuals, and so on; thus brief note is made that Jews weren’t the only people who were murdered by the Third Reich. The cast is exceptional with solid and underrated performances from Weaver and Harris and pre-stardom turns from Streep, Woods and Moriarty. Chief honors go to Warner as the amoral Heydrich (one of several nonfictional Nazis woven into the narrative); it’s a compelling portrait and the film loses much when he’s assassinated. For the most part I was underwhelmed by Moriarty but I finally decided that portraying the blandness of evil might have been the point. The major shortcoming is that the miniseries looks like the standard TV offering of its era; it’s overlit and director Marvin J. Chomsky’s camerawork is unadventurous. The dormitories of the death camps look amazingly neat and clean compared to photos we have of the real thing. You might also ponder how Inga has managed to smuggle lipsick into the place or how a group of people taking refuge in the woods just manages to have all the necessary accoutrements for a traditional Hebrew wedding. The show has both its adherents and its detractors – in the latter case most famously Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who wrote in The New York Times that it was: “Untrue, offensive, cheap… the film is an insult to those who perished and to those who survived.” I won’t go that far. Certainly the production was well-intentioned and is not completely without merit but it has undeniably been surpassed by later efforts.
NB: I would be remiss not to note I had issues with the first disc. Somewhere around chapter 12 of episode one there were freeze-ups that ultimately made it go to black before reverting to the main menu. Episode two refused to play at all. (There were no problems with the second disc.) Whether this situation exists only with my set or a few I cannot say but Caveat emptor.

THE LAST MILE
1932 / Alpha Video / 69m / $6.98 / NR
They’re hardly part of the cinematic landscape any more but the sub-genre of stories set inside the big house were common offerings in the 1930s and continued up to at least the 1950s. In fact this production, adapted from John Wexley’s play, was remade in that decade starring – Cthulhu help us – Mickey Rooney (at least I’ve been spared from reviewing that incarnation – there are few things worse than then Mickster going all dramatic). The tale involves Richard Walters (Howard Phillips), falsely convicted of murder and consigned to death row to await his date with in the electric chair. On the night of his scheduled execution Killer Mears (Preston Foster) manages a jail break, holding a priest and several guards hostage and killing several. As it happens this is also the same night that Walters is cleared of killing his business partner – though he’d have been fried by the time his pardon came through if not for the revolt. The plot is pretty slender; what was likely the first act of the play is mostly taken up with the impending electrocution of a prisoner (George E. Stone) and his Last Mile walk. Stone is primarily known to me for his comedic playing of The Runt in the Boston Blackie films (though of course I’ve seen him in other roles) and he gets a chance to go full-out dramatic here (maybe a tad too full-out). There’s also a flashback to the actual events of Walters’ business partner being murdered by stick-up men. Act II is taken up with conversations between the condemned men while the final act is the riot.
Top-billed Phillips didn’t have much of a career – he debuted a year earlier in William Cameron Menzies’ “The Spider” (where’s the DVD release of that anyway?) and was gone from films by 1938 – so you’ll be forgiven for asking “Who?” He was a handsome man and a decent actor but he’s blown off the screen by Foster (who admittedly has the showier role) whose career would stretch out another three decades – this film was bracketed by appearances in “Doctor X” and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” but he was equally accomplished at comedy and played heroes as well. That he’s not better remembered is baffling. Movie buffs will also get a kick out of bit appearances by the likes of Paul Fix amd Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing as a rabbi!) and the distinctly pre-Code racial mix of the cast. Director Sam (aka Samuel) Bischoff’s only directorial credit is this production; he spent his entire forty year career as a producer (and he seems to have acted as such for all of independent Astor Pictures, which produced this as well as the Bela Lugosi vehicle “The Death Kiss” and the ambitious “Deluge” – whose footage of Manhattan destroyed by a tidal wave would be recycled into several Republic serials – in its short existence). In concert with cinematographer Arthur Edeson he has made a textbook example of how a potentially static set-up – with each prisoner in his individual cell in a long line – and make a visual feast. Fortunately Alpha has gotten hold of an excellent print of this public domain film and their work can be appreciated to the fullest.

THE SILENT REVOLUTION (Das schweigende Klassenzimmer)
2018 / Icarus Films Home Video / 111m / $29.98 / NR
Thanks to a plethora of formulaicTV movies – generally about abusive/homicidal boyfriends/husbands – the state of films “based on actual events” has become seriously degraded to the extent that I groan audibly whenever I see that phrase in a press release or on screen. The dramatic subgenre used to bring forth such ripped-from-the-headlines efforts as “Scarface” (the Howard Hawks original) and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and biopics such as George Arliss’ and Paul Muni’s vehicles. This riveting effort stands as proof that reality-inspired productions can make for engrossing cinema. The film is set in 1956, before the Berlin Wall was erected, and two students cross into the west ostensibly to visit the grave one one’s father. While there they attend a movie and see a newsreel regarding the Hungarian uprising (information about it was nonexistent in the state controlled media of East Germany). They glean more details from the illegal radio owned by an uncle and talk their fellow senior classmates into observing two minutes of silence at the start of the first class of the day in solidarity. They convince the reluctant pupils by informing them a popular soccer star was among the casualties. Their refusal to break silence to explain what they’re doing sends their infuriated teacher to the principal.
This apparently simple act turns out to have serious repercussions as first the principal and then a school official and then higher-ups in the Soviet controlled government grill the students. Expulsion of the originator (no university for you) and his (or her) parents’ livelihood is threatened. The iron fist of the Soviets under Stalin is portrayed in this microcosm in scenes that are sometimes difficult to watch (as they should be given the subject). Lars Kraume has directed – and adapted the book by Dietrich Garstka) with nary a false step, though a few details that strain credultiy – such as a priest surmonising on Judas at just the time that the student who informs enters the cathedral and the I am Spartacus moment – are likely straight out of the book. The look of the period, the clothes, the cars, is perfection. And the performances from a mostly young cast you’ve likely never heard of (you’ve probably never heard of the adults either for that matter) is excellent. This isn’t exactly a feel-good flick but the students’ ultimate triumph, while bittersweet, is uplifting. There’s a debate raging on social media following comments by Martin Scorcese about the current glut of superheroes movies. I’m in agreement with the director that they’re the cinematic equivalent of junk food (and while I admire the technical accomplishments I think they cost an obscene amount of money). If your taste runs to more substantial fare then this is a meal to savor.