Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In the Bleak Midwinter (a.k.a., A Midwinter's Tale) (1995).

Note: With this post, we'll be taking a short holiday break. See you in the new year!

The Scoop:
A sort of upper-crust version of "The Full Monty," this hilarious (though sometimes aggressively quirky) little film follows the travails a group of oddball actors who try to mount a Christmastime production of "Hamlet." It is, of course, a colossally ill-thought out idea because, really, who wants to be that depressed on Christmas? But, as written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, it makes for a great, intimate film and a touching tribute to the struggles and idiosyncrasies of community theaters, whether in Britain or the U.S.

The cast of British theater veterans seems to be having great fun in this back-to-basics production by the usually over-elaborate Branagh. It's easy to see Branagh's attraction to this material, considering the many parallels between his life and the character of the director in the film. In fact, Branagh used this as the warm up for his wonderful uncut film version of "Hamlet."

Best Line:
"Is this whole production going to be based on innuendo?"

Side Note:
Costars Michael Maloney, Richard Briers and Nicholas Farrell all went on to star in Branagh's "Hamlet," but in different roles than their characters play in this movie's production of the play.

Companion Viewing:
"The Full Monty" (1997) and "Hamlet" (1996).

Links:
IMDb.
Venice Film Festival press conference transcript.

Take a Look:
The opening monologue:


The auditions:


Opening night:

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Black Room (1935).

The Scoop:
Gather your torches and pitchforks! It's time to storm the castle!

This Columbia production does a good job of capturing vaguely old Eastern European milieu of the classic Universal horrors of the same period in this story aristocratic twin brothers battling an ancient family curse.

"The Black Room" stars an old Universal hand, Boris Karloff, who is at his best playing the twins -- diabolical Gregor and saintly, crippled Anton. We start with a brief prologue, in which the family castle's ancient torture chamber is walled off to prevent the fulfillment of a prophecy of the family's ruin -- namely that the younger twin will kill the older. Flash forward a few decades and Gregor, who has inherited the family's baronage, invites Anton, who has been living abroad for year, back home. Anton discovers that the villagers all hate Gregor since he's essentially a serial killer who has been abducting the young women of the village, raping them, then killing them in "the black room," for which he has discovered a secret entrance. From there, we get the obligatory double-crosses, twin role switching and eventual triumph of good over evil that we expect. And of course, the prophecy comes true in the most ironic way possible.

The plot is pretty predictable and formulaic. This was obviously an attempt by Columbia to steal some of Universal's thunder, and the trite screenplay by Arthur Strawn and Henry Myers, shows this. But "The Black Room" is worth watching, though, not just for Karloff's typically fine acting, but also for the direction of Roy William Neill and the cinematography of Allen G. Siegler. Together, they create a rich Gothic atmosphere, with plenty of oddball touches.

Especially fascinating is how heavily Catholicized this film is. Huge crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary abound, given prominence in many establishing shots. Even the many chases between the village and the castle (through landscape that, anachronistically, is straight out of an early Western) pass several Catholic icons.

It's an odd mix, but it works. Thanks to the efforts of Neill, Siegler and Karloff, the film rises above the banality of the genre programmers it was meant to join.

Best Bit:
The dog objects!

Side Note:
Two different dogs were used to play Anton's loyal hound -- one male and one female. The difference is obvious on screen, sometimes even from shot to shot.

Companion Viewing:
"The Black Cat" (1934).

Links:
IMDb.
Classic-Horror.com.

Take a Listen:
No clips right now (curse you, Internet!) but be sure to enjoy this little tidbit of dialogue.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Wizard of Oz (1925).

The Scoop:
It is best to check your expectations at the door with this silent screen adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novel. It is a very different creature than the classic Judy Garland version.

What it is, mainly, is a vanity project for popular silent film comedian Larry Semon. Not only did he star in the film as the Scarecrow, but he also directed and co-wrote (along with L. Frank Baum Jr. and Leon Lee). The result strays pretty far from both the novel and the 1939 film. There are no witches, no yellow brick road, no Muchkins, and no Toto. What plot is left is minimal -- Dorothy, who was born the princess of Oz and sent to Kansas as an infant (for reasons that are never adequately explained), is whisked off to her homeland with some friends (who merely dress up in the familiar parts of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion) and reclaims her throne with only token opposition.

The rest of the film's running time is filled, essentially, with Semon's ego, rendered in the form of seemingly endless, unfunny pratfall sequences and long, loving close-ups of Dorothy (played by his wife, Dorothy Dwan). The physical comedy is, frankly, a product of its time and, as such, does not hold up well today. It is well performed, particularly by Semon and the young, up-and-coming Oliver Hardy (as the Tin Woodsman), but isn't very inventive. Especially when compared to the work of Semon's contemporaries, Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin.

And then there's the Cowardly Lion, played as a mincing charicature by African-American actor Spencer Bell, who is also given the unfortunate screen name of G. Howe Black.

It is sad to say, but an evening watching this movie is just not time well spent.

Best Line:
"In spring, the young man's fancy turns to -- lollipops."

Side Note:
The androgynous Phantom of the Basket is played by Frederick Ko Vert, a well-known drag performer of the time. He had a handful of similar film roles throughout the 1920s, and also designed the costumes for "The Wizard of Oz."

Companion Viewing:
"The Wizard of Oz" (1939).

Links:
IMDb.
Verdoux.

Take a Look:
An abridged version of the first half of the film:

Friday, December 12, 2008

Anniversary Week, Part 2: Easter Eggs.

It was two years ago today that the Desuko Movie Spot was born. I'm happy that I've met my goal of keeping it going at least this long, and I hope it will be around even longer. I want to thank all of you who have been loyal readers, whether you've been here since day one, or you arrived just recently. And I especially want to thank those of you who have taken the time to leave comments; it's always fun to start a good film discussion, and I hope you lurkers will feel free to join in, too.

By way of celebration, I want to look back a little bit and flesh out some of what has come before. I guess you can consider this post an Easter egg or a collection of DVD bonus features. I like to include as many video clips as possible in my reviews, but by not being to extract and post clips on my own (for the time being), I've been relying on the vagaries of YouTube and other video sites -- some of which has been less than stellar. So, some of the reviews have either had no video content, or very little of significance. But in the time since they've been posted, some clips have turned up online, so here they are, along with links to the original reviews, to give you a fuller sample of each film.

The ending of "The Naked City" (1948):


Here is "The Day the Sky Exploded" (1958) in its entirety:


From "Targets" (1968) comes this kinda spoiler-y TV spot:


...and Boris Karloff spinning a classic scary tale:


This clip from "The Addiction" (1995) proves that white chicks are nothin' but trouble:


A TV spot for "The Gong Show Movie" (1980):


...and Phil Hartman's cameo from the same film:


The full version of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916):


The trailer for "Ghost Story" (1980):


More "Ghost Story." (Boo!):


A trailer for "Alice Through the Looking Glass" (1998):


The trailer for "Norma Jean and Marilyn" (1996):


The whipping scene from "Queen Kelly" (1929):


The trailer for "Werewolf of London" (1935):

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Anniversary Week, Part 1: The Movie Index.

This Friday marks the two-year anniversary of Desuko Movie Spot! I'll be posting a proper commemorative post then, but today is about giving you a road map to where we've been in the past two years. While the post tags are helpful in browsing the older reviews, there hasn't been a comprehensive index of every film covered here -- until now. These 166 films represent 93 years of movie history, from 1915 to 2008. I'll try to update this every year around anniversary time to make it easier to find what you're looking for. Happy browsing!

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).
1941 (1979).
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953).

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Ace in the Hole (a.k.a., The Big Carnival) (1951).
The Addiction (1995).
Airport '77 (1977).
Alice Through the Looking Glass (1998).
The Amazing Colossal Man (1957).
Angels and Insects (1995).
Any Given Sunday (1999).

The Bat (1959).
Batman: The Movie (1966).
The Beach Girls and the Monster (1966).
The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961).
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970).
The Big T.N.T. Show (1966).
The Black Scorpion (1957).
The Blob (1958).
Blood of Dracula (1957).
Blue in the Face (1995).
B. Monkey (1998).
The Body Snatcher (1945).
Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues (a.k.a., The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part II) (1985).
Bowery at Midnight (1942).
Bowling for Columbine (2002).
Braindead (a.k.a., Dead Alive) (1992).
The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962).
A Bridge Too Far (1977).
The Busher (1919).

Carnival of Souls (1962).
Cars (2006).
A Christmas Story (1983).
The Clash Live: Revolution Rock (2008).
The Cocaine Fiends (a.k.a., The Pace That Kills) (1935).
The Commies are Coming, The Commies are Coming (1962).
The Continental Twist (a.k.a., Twist All Night) (1961).
Cop Land (1997).
The Creeping Terror (1964).
The Crowd (1928).

Dante's Inferno (2007).
The Day of the Locust (1975).
The Day the Sky Exploded (1958).
Dead Men Walk (1943).
Don't Knock the Rock (1956).
Don't Knock the Twist (1962).
The Doom Generation (1995).
Dracula (1931).
Dracula (Spanish Version) (1931).
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965).
Driller Killer (1979).
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999).
Duck Soup (1933).

El Mundo de los Vampiros (1961).
Eraserhead (1977).

The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967).
F For Fake (1974).
First Man Into Space (1959).
First Spaceship on Venus (1960).
A Fool There Was (1915).
Forgotten Silver (1995).
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971).
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).
Freaks (1932).

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).
Ghost Story (1980).
The Giant Gila Monster (1959).
Gimme Shelter (1970).
The Girls on the Beach (1965).
The Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973).
The Gong Show Movie (1980).
The Gorgon (1964).
Greed (1924).

Hamlet (1996).
Headin' Home (1920).
He Knows You're Alone (1980).
Helter Skelter (1976).
Hercules (1958).
Hey, Let's Twist! (1962).
High School Confidential (1958).
The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929).
Horror Hotel (a.k.a., The City of the Dead) (1960).
Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).

Instrument (1998).
In the Company of Men (1997).
Intolerance (1916).
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
I Was a Male War Bride (1949).

Lady Frankenstein (1971).
La Jetée (1962).
Last Days of Planet Earth (1974).
Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974).
Let's Rock (1958).
The Lively Set (1964).
Lobster Man From Mars (1987).
Logan's Run (1976).
Love is News (1937).
Love Object (2003).

The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957).
The Mask (1961).
The Monster of Camp Sunshine (1964).
Monster on the Campus (1958).
Moulin Rouge! (2001).
Murder By Death (1976).
The Mysterious Doctor (1943).

The Naked City (1948).
Norma Jean and Marilyn (1996).

The Old Dark House (1932).
Orgy of the Dead (1965).
Outrage (1950).

Pecker (1998).
The Phantom Planet (1961).
Pi (1998).
Pretty Poison (1968).
Psycho (1960).
Psycho (1998).
Psych-Out (1968).
The Puma Man (1980).

Queen Kelly (1929).
Queen of Outer Space (1958).

Return of the LIving Dead 3 (1993).
Rio Bravo (1959).
Rocketship X-M (1950).
Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979).
Rock! Rock! Rock! (1956).
Rollerball (1975).
Rush Hour (1998).

Safe at Home! (1962).
The Scarlet Empress (1934).
The Scarlet Letter (1926).
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).
Shadow of the Vampire (2000).
Slacker Uprising (2008).
Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity (1987).
Sleep With Me (1994).
The Snow Devils (1967).
Something Wild (1986).
The Song Remains the Same (1976).
Soylent Green (1973).
The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (2004).
Stargate (1994).
Star Trek: Generations (1994).
Summer of Sam (1999).
Surf Party (1963).
Surf's Up (2007).

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).
Targets (1968).
The Ten Commandments (1923).
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994).
Thank God It's Friday (1978).
T.N.T. Jackson (1975).
Topaz (1969).
Twist Around the Clock (1961).
Two Girls and a Guy (1997).

The Undying Monster (1942).
The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006).

The Valley of Gwangi (1969).
Volcano (1997).

The Walking Dead (1936).
Werewolf of London (1935).
When We Were Kings (1996).
William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999).
Wizards (1977).
Woodstock (1970).

Zombies of Mora Tau (1957).
Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952).

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Amazing Colossal Man (1957).

The Scoop:
This is yet another crappy Bert I. Gordon special effects spectacular about oversized terrors.

The colossal man in question of army officer Glenn Manning (Glenn Lanagan), who accidentally gets caught in a nuclear explosion, which causes him to become 65 feet tall and surly. He loses his mind and goes on a rampage through downtown Las Vegas, only to be killed in a fall from the Hoover Dam. Or so it seems, because he eventually returns for a sequel, "The War of the Colossal Beast."

This film is respected in some circles, but don't believe them. It's only good for a laugh.

Best Line:
"How many sins must a man commit in a single lifetime?"

Side Note:
Contrary to the scientific explanation given for Manning's growth, the human heart is actually made up of millions of cells, not just one.

Companion Viewing:
"The War of the Colossal Beast" (1958).

Links:
IMDb.
1,000 Misspent Hours.

Take a Look:
The scientists try to inject Glenn with a giant hypodermic needle. Watch the hilarity (and bad FX) ensue:

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Love is News (1937).

The Scoop:
The screwball comedy featuring the fast-talking reporter and the madcap heiress was a genre that was done to the death in the 1930s, and unfortunately "Love is News" was one of the murder suspects.

Maybe I'm being a little too hard on this movie, since its heart seems to be in the right place, and it does have its amusing moments. In fact, it's mostly charming. But there are also a lot of bland screwball clichés on parade, as well as a needlessly convoluted plot.

The story, in a nutshell, involves a cynical, amoral newspaper man (Tyrone Power) who scams his way into an exclusive interview with a celebrity heiress (Loretta Young), who in turn gets back at him by starting a media frenzy by saying they are engaged. This upends the reporter's life and he must tangle with his cantankerous editor (Don Ameche), the heiress' ex-fiancé (George Sanders) and a whole host of cloying stock characters to set the record straight, before true love finally wins out in the end.

"Love is News" was not the best screwball comedy produced in the era, but it was also far from being the worst. Power and Young have a good chemistry on screen, but they were no Hepburn/Tracy or Grant/Russell. This film had the potential to be a whole lot better, but just wasn't. In all, it's a good light entertainment, but not the place you want to start in exploring the screwball comedy genre.

Best Bit:
Either the booze checkers game, or the George Sanders photo flipbook.

Side Note:
Director Tay Garnett must have gotten on famously with Young. This was the first of three films they made together, and he also later directed several episodes of her TV show.

Companion Viewing:
"His Girl Friday" (1941), "Woman of the Year" (1942) and "Bringing Up Baby" (1938).

Links:
IMDb.
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.

Take a Look:
The bickering lovebirds square off against the cranky country judge (Slim Summerville):

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Note: Desuko Movie Spot is going on a brief Thanksgiving break. Check back next week for new reviews.

The Scoop:

The late 1940s was a bad time for monster movies. Maybe there was too much postwar optimism going around, or maybe the horror cycle had just grown tired from being around too long. Whatever the case, by this time the classic monsters of the early '30s were reduced to cheesy characatures bordering on self-parody.

Witness this movie, in which the classic Universal monsters (Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster, played for the most part by the original actors -- Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange) are nothing but straight men for Abbott and Costello's zany antics. As an Abbott and Costello film, this is worthwhile; it the duo at their peak, with some of their best gags. But as a monster movie it is abysmal. The classic creatures that once frightened and thrilled a generation are reduced to toothless caricatures -- and not by parodists, but by the very studio that created them, which was now desperate to exploit them for the sake of making a quick buck. The Universal monsters were already on their way down that slippery slope, thanks to the World War II-era "team up" films ("Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man," "House of Dracula," etc.), but this production finally put the last nails in the coffin.

But the exploitation worked, and "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" turned out being a huge box office hit when it was released. What's more, the film's popularity helped launch the comic "monster mash" craze of the '50s and early '60s, which provided great nostalgia for the kids of the era, but which also kept American horror film dead as a genre for two decades.

Horror wouldn't live again on American screens until a group of young maverick filmmakers from the indie underground came along in the late '60s and early '70s with such films as "Night of the Living Dead" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." But by then, the boogeymen of the American imagination would be very different monsters indeed. Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man -- they all would just seem like distant jokes by then, thanks in no small part to "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."

Best Line:
"What we need tonight is young blood -- and brains!"

Side Note:
Vincent Price has an uncredited cameo as the voice of the Invisible Man at the end. Also, Mary Shelley got a writing credit on this one, ostensibly because it's based on her novel. (Um, yeah...)

Companion Viewing:
"Mad Monster Party" (1966).

Links:
IMDb.
Stomp Tokyo.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Friday, November 21, 2008

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).

The Scoop:
This film from Nathan Juran (working from a script by Christopher Knopf and Robert Creighton Williams, and a story by Charlotte Knight) is basically a space age update of the familiar "King Kong" story, and it works very well.

This time, instead of an ape, the innocent, misunderstood creature is a large sulphur-eating reptile, called the Ymir. The creature unknowingly hitches a ride to Earth on the first spaceship to travel to Venus, then gets loose, grows to immense size and rampages around Rome before finally being brought down.

Ray Harryhausen's special effects work on the monster represents the peak of his career -- the viewer winds up caring more for the ill-fated creature than any of the underwritten human characters. Those human characters come from the '50s sci-fi tropes we all know so well -- square-jawed hero (William Hopper), bland love interest (Joan Taylor) and various concerned scientists and gung ho military commanders (including Frank Puglia, John Zaremba and Thomas Browne Henry). The writing and directing are solid, if unspectacular. All of these elements are merely in service of generating sympathy for the Ymir anyway, and it succeeds admirably.

While computer technology may have made stop-motion animation obsolete, the old style was by no means without charm of it's own. This movie is perhaps the best example of that lost art.

Best Line:
"Why is it always -- always -- so painful for man to move into the future?"

Side Note:
Some versions cut out the scene in which the monster kills an elephant, because it was considered too graphic. However, that battle is probably the highlight of the film.

Companion Viewing:
"King Kong" (1933) and "Mighty Joe Young" (1949).

Links:
IMDb.
BadMovies.org.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


Let's all stand around and watch the monster attack a farmer!


Ymir busts out of the makeshift science lab:


The entire film is available in installments beginning here:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bowery at Midnight (1942).

The Scoop:
More cut-rate, bargain basement shenanigans from Bela Lugosi, who apparently spent World War II hiding from the Nazis by making crappy movies no one would ever want to see.

In "Bowery at Midnight" Lugosi plays another criminal mastermind -- kindly university professor/soup kitchen proprietor Frederick Brenner, who moonlights as sadistic underworld kingpin Karl Wagner. The plot finds Brenner/Wagner and his gang committing daring robberies, usually followed by the double-cross murder of one of the accomplices. These accomplices then wind up buried in the basement of the gang's hideout (which features smudgy walls and a ridiculously huge map of Australia). There, they are eventually resurrected as zombies. Finally, there is a poorly choreographed gunfight and good triumphs over evil.

It's all pretty standard Poverty Row stuff, although the plot features a few more absurdist twists and turns than usual. As this sort of films go, this is probably a cut above the rest -- although that's not saying much.

Best Bit:
At first I though it was the fainting jeweler, immediately followed by the police chief's ridiculous pep talk to his officers. But then I saw the basement graveyard, where each grave features a little white cross with the henchman's name.

Side Note:
One of Lugosi's co-stars is the ubiquitous Tom Neal, who worked in lots of cheapies at the time, from the brilliant ("Detour") to the pathetic ("Radar Secret Service").

Companion Viewing:
"The Corpse Vanishes" (1942), "The Devil Bat" (1941) and "The Human Monster" (1939).

Links:
IMDb.
Apollo Guide.
1,000 Misspent Hours.

Take a Look:
There's plenty of soup!


The full movie:

Friday, November 14, 2008

Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).

The Scoop:
It's a vampire movie! It's a kung fu flick! It's two bad '70s films in one!

What a shame it is when great movie franchises die -- and even a greater shame when the movies keep getting released after all the creative breath goes out of the franchise. This was the last film in Hammer Studios' great Dracula series (which started with "The Horror of Dracula" in 1958). In an attempt to come up with new ideas, the studio teamed up with legendary Hong Kong producers the Shaw Brothers and moved the action to China, where Dracula hooks up with an ancient band of ninjas. So, Van Helsing hires his own band of fearless kung fu fighters to oppose them.

The legendary Christopher Lee wisely opted out of playing Dracula this one last time (John Forbes-Robertson does the dishonors instead), but his long-time screen nemesis Peter Cushing wasn't so lucky.

While this may be a co-production of two legendary genre studios, the problem with "Legend of the Seven Golden Vampries" is that it doesn't even approximate the best work of either one of them. The combination of half-hearted Gothic horror and cheesy kung fu theatrics (complete with poor dubbing!) make this one of the strangest movies you'll ever see.

Best Line:
"In Europe the vampire walks in dread of the crucifix. Here it will be the image of the Lord Buddha."

Side Note:
The film was heavily re-edited and released to the American grindhouse circuit under the title "The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula." Many Hammer purists swear that this ruined the pristine artistic vision of the original, but really, this thing was doomed creatively from the start.

Companion Viewing:
"The Horror of Dracula" (1958) and just about any Hong Kong film you can find that has "Shaolin" in the title.

Links:
IMDb.
BadMovies.org.
British Horror Films.
E-Splatter.

Take a Look:
The grindhouse trailer:


Good thing the fight scene is taking place near a bunch of convenient wooden spikes!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Surf Party (1963).

The Scoop:
Maybe you like your surf movies to be set mostly indoors. Maybe you think Bobby Vinton makes a good swingin' teen surf idol. Maybe you're not a big fan of plot resolution. In that case, this is the film for you.

From director Maury Dexter and writer Harry Spalding, "Surf Party" represents 20th Century Fox's half-hearted attempt to jump on the bandwagon of AIP's success with the "Beach Party" movies.

This film is the story of three Phoenix girls -- Terry (Patricia Morrow), Junior (Jackie DeShannon) and Sylvia (Lory Patrick) -- who head to the California beaches in search of Terry's brother Skeet (Jerry Summers). They promptly get hassled by Sgt. Neal (Richard Crane), a Joe Friday-wannabe beach cop, and find out that Skeet has become the local ne'er-do-well. There's no time to worry about that, though, as the girls immediately pair up with some local boys -- Terry gets lessons from hunky surf pro Len (Vinton), Junior gets strangely clingy with pathetic gremmie Milo (Ken Miller), and Skeet sets his sights on Sylvia.

Milo wastes no time in breaking his shoulder by being stupid, while Len spends a lot of time giving Terry vague warnings about Skeet's shady activities. Meanwhile, Skeets spends his time throwing tame house parties, mooning over an old football trophy and setting the sedue-o-meter to 11 with Sylvia. Finally, Skeet's secret comes out when his sugar mama (played by Martha Stewart... no, not that Martha Stewart) shows up like a MILF ex machina to kick everyone out of the house. Skeet slinks out of town in shame (Sgt. Neal gives him a lift to the -- *gasp!* -- bus station) and then the movie just ends. What to know what happens with Len, Milo and the girls? I guess you're stuck waiting for the sequel that will never come.

And that plot seemingly takes more time to describe than it actually does to play out on screen. "Surf Party" checks in at a brisk 67 minutes, with most of that devoted to musical performances. There are two actual, real-life surf bands on hand (the Routers and the always-awesome Astronauts), but the rest of the songs consist of some of most un-surflike music you've ever heard. Vinton sings two of his signature syrupy ballads (one of them twice), DeShannon belts out a county-blues-gospel stomper called "Glory Wave," and Miller even gets in the act with some lame thing about seashells.

So, why watch all this silliness? Well, for one, because it is silliness, with more unintentional humor than most movies deserve. Also, there are those killer tunes from the Astronauts and the Routers. Just listen to those and imagine what a real surf movie looks like.

Best Bit:
Sgt. Neal visiting Len's surf shop to rant about the thin blue line separating law-abiding folks from total surf-induced anarchy.

Side Note:
This is the movie that was playing in the drive-in scene in "Brokeback Mountain."

Companion Viewing:
"Ski Party" (1964) and "Beach Party" (1963).

Links:
IMDb.
Jackie DeShannon: Music and Memories.

Take a Look:
The Astronauts rock the stodgiest house party you'll ever see, doing their song "Firewater":

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Body Snatcher (1945).

The Scoop:
Boris Karloff is at his best in this Val Lewton chiller (directed by the great Robert Wise), which also features a good performance from Bela Lugosi.

Based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, this is a loose adaptation of the Burke and Hare murders, in which a 19th century Scottish doctor (played by Henry Daniell) must turn to the unscrupulous grave robber Cabman Gray to complete his medical research. As is usually the case, things quickly get out of hand when the local graveyard runs short of corpses and bodies must be obtained by more nefarious means.

Karloff has never been more menacing, and he does more than anyone to carry the film to its exciting climax. Like all of Lewton's best work, "The Body Snatcher" is a humble masterpiece.

Best Bit:
That edge-of-your-seat ending.

Side Note:
This was the last of Karloff and Lugosi's eight screen pairings, and one of the best.

Companion Viewing:
"The Black Cat" (1934).

Links:
IMDb.
1,000 Misspent Hours.
American Film Institute.
The screenplay.

Take a Look:
The trailer (as seen on TCM):


Gray is a bad, bad man. (Warning: Not safe for dog lovers):

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Slacker Uprising (2008).

The Scoop:
Typically, new releases are outside the scope of the Movie Spot, but because today is election day in the U.S., we're making an exception.

Michael Moore's new film "Slacker Uprising" documents his national college tour in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, trying to register new voters and raise awareness off the issues at stake. To get the college kids involved, he offers a number of slacker enticements, such as free Ramen noodles, clean underwear and musical performances from the likes of Eddie Vedder, Tom Morello and Steve Earle. In his speeches, Moore offers the same viewpoints and passion we've come to expect from him, along with some stumping for John Kerry. (Of course, Kerry's campaign was ultimately futile and poorly-run, something Moore was able to admit in hindsight in the editing process.) The tour took place in the wake of the release of "Fahrenheit 9/11" so there is also plenty of reaction to that film, and to Moore's credit he includes plenty of conservative criticism as well.

But at 97 minutes, the message begins to wear thin after a while. The terrific musical performances help the time go by, but there isn't much diversity in the storyline otherwise. Still, the message is important, and there are certainly worse ways to spend 97 minutes of your life.

Now get out there and vote!

Best Bit:
Moore's promises to a group of Republican hecklers about the fair treatment they can expect from a Democratic administration.

Side Note:
Not only is the film available as a free download, Moore has also given anyone permission to stage public showings of the film, free of copyright.

Companion Viewing:
"Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004) and "The Big One" (1997).

Links:
IMDb.
The official site, where you can download it for free for a limited time, or order a DVD copy.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


The full film:

Friday, October 31, 2008

Dracula (1931).

The Scoop:
What would Halloween be without the king of the vampires?

An iconic milestone of horror cinema, "Dracula" made Bela Lugosi a star, made Universal Studios a mint and established the archetypes for all vampire movies to follow.

The script, by Garrett Fort, is a loose adaptation of the immensely popular Hamilton Deane/John L. Balderson play, which in turn was a loose adaptation of the classic Bram Stoker novel. The end result bares little relation to the source material, but that's beside the point. What makes this film a legend is Lugosi's threatening, sexually-charged performance as the undead Transylvanian count who wants to move to London to continue his bloodthirsty ways. Lugosi reprises his performance from the play here, as does Edward Van Sloan, who plays Dr. Van Helsing.

This film marked the high point of Lugosi's career (in only his first American movie) and would dominate his psyche for the rest of his life. It also (along with Boris Karloff's performance in "Frankenstein" that same year) firmly injected the horror genre into the modern consciousness.

Despite its legendary reputation, though, "Dracula" has sequences that are as stagey and talkative as any creaky melodrama of the period. It is considered the crowning achievement of director Tod Browning's career, although it is reported that his drinking problem got so out of hand during the shoot that cinematographer Karl Freund had to step in to do much of the direction. This is evinced best by the contrasts in quality between the moody, gothic atmospherics of the Transylvanian scenes (attributed to Freund) and the stodginess of the London scenes (attributed to Browning). By this point, all of Browning's best work was behind him, left behind in the silent film era, while Freund would go on to be a successful genre director in his own right.

Despite its flaws (armadillos, anyone?), "Dracula" remains a landmark of the genre and a must-see for any serious film fan.

Best Line:
Either "I never drink... wine," or, "The children of the night -- what music they make!"

Side Note:
In spite of being a runaway success and matinee idol for starring in the stage version, Lugosi was the last choice to play the role of the bloodsucking count on film. The producers and other studio executives thought Lugosi did not have the star quality to carry the movie and went through several alternatives, thoroughly ignoring Lugosi's active petitioning for the role. The actor who was finally chosen to play Dracula was Browning's frequent collaborator, the great Lon Chaney, who died just before filming began. When the other contenders weren't available on such short notice, Lugosi was finally given the role simply to keep the production on schedule. Despite playing the title character, Universal wound up paying him only half of what they paid the other principal actors.

Companion Viewing:
"Dracula (Spanish Version)" (1931) and "Frankenstein" (1931).

Links:
IMDb.
The Broadway production, from the Internet Broadway Database.
Bram Stoker's novel.

Take a Look:
Dracula's entrance -- keep your eyes peeled for those famously anachronistic armadillos:


Dracula vs. Van Helsing:


Some scenes that feature the reissue score by Philip Glass:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Undying Monster (1942).

The Scoop:
Excellent photography highlights this bite-size British thriller, which moves briskly through its too-short 60 minutes.

Scotland Yard investigators use modern forensic techniques to examine the legends of centuries worth of supernatural killings at an isolated English manor, which may or may not be caused by an ancient family curse. In addition to the creepy atmosphere, there are strong performances from the entire cast (led by James Ellison, Heather Angel and John Howard) and the odd burst of dry humor. John Brahm's direction is brisk and tight, working from a script by Lillie Hayward and Michael Jacoby, who adapted the novel by Jessie Douglas Kerriush. Although some of the plot elements owe an obvious debt to "The Wolf Man" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles," they are not merely derivative and are used here to good effect.

Highly recommended, this is an A-list film in B-movie clothing.

Best Line:
The last line -- I won't spoil it for you.

Side Note:
Brahm became more commercially successful after coming to Hollywood and working in television. He's best known for working on episodes of "The Twilight Zone," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and "The Outer Limits."

Companion Viewing:
"The Wolf Man" (1941) and "Sleepy Hollow" (2000).

Links:
IMDb.
The Missing Link.
Horror-Wood.
The Grim Cellar.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Friday, October 24, 2008

Summer of Sam (1999).

The Scoop:
Spike Lee's take on the Son of Sam killings in New York during 1976 and 1977 is a welcome stretch for him, but ultimately a let-down.

It's an interesting concept -- a study of how the lives of a young Bronx couple, Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Dionna (Mira Sorvino), and their neighbors are affected by David Berkowitz's notorious killing spree, as well as the other noteworthy events in New York during the summer of '77 (including the popularity of disco, the emergence of punk rock, the record-setting heatwave and the great blackout). Lee commits his usual sin of over-reaching here, including so many different plot elements that the film becomes long and tedious. The core story, though, has potential and Leguizamo and Sorvino both give first-rate performances.

To Lee's credit, he tried to move out of his usual urban African-American milieu here. It does not always work to great effect, though, particularly in his treatment of the punk rock scene, which he obviously doesn't quite understand. His biggest flop, though, is the scene in which he tries to get into Berkowitz's head -- resulting in a talking dog on screen. Talk about a misstep.

Still, Lee is the type of visionary director whose missteps are interesting missteps, and be working outside of his comfort zone here he was able to flex his creative muscles for later projects like "25th Hour" and "Miracle at St. Anna" that show more maturity.

Best Line:
For pure camp value, how can you beat a dog chanting, "Kill! Kill! Kill!"?

Side Note:
David Berkowitz is still serving his life term in prison, but has since become a born-again Christian. He now has a personal website to share his ministry.

Companion Viewing:
"NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell" (2007), "Last Days of Disco" (1998) and "Clockers" (1995).

Links:
IMDb.
LazyDork drinking game.

Take a Look:
Just another night in the life of Vinny and Dionna:


"Saturday Night Fever," this ain't:


The fucking short version:


An episode of "Charlie Rose" featuring interviews with Lee and some of the stars:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Safe at Home! (1962).

The Scoop:
It's World Series time again, which is an ideal time for dusting off this little curio. The New York Yankees may not have made the playoffs this year, but with the Tampa Bay Rays going on their remarkable run, Florida baseball is getting its due. And the Florida locations (shot in and around Fort Lauderdale) provide a strong background for "Safe at Home!"

Wooden acting abounds in this little morality play about a Florida boy (Bryan Russell) who deals with the arrival of his widowed father's new girlfriend by lying to his Little League teammates about knowing New York Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. So, he has to travel to the Yankees' spring training camp to get the guys to back him up.

Roger and the Mick are better ballplayers than actors, of course, but at least they (along with teammate Whitey Ford and manager Ralph Houk) manage not to embarrass themselves too much. Along the way, we learn that lying is bad and that the power of baseball can conquer just about everything.

This is a modest, cheesy little film that has a lot to love, even in its inadequacies.

Best Line:
"There's that kid again! He's followin' us! He must be a spook!"

Side Note:
The script was co-written by Robert Dillon – the auteur behind "Muscle Beach Party" (1964) and "X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes" (1963) – and Steven Ritch, a veteran actor in many TV Westerns.

Companion Viewing:
"Headin' Home" (1920) and "Kill the Umpire" (1950).

Links:
IMDb.
IFC.com.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Metapost: Desuko World Domination Continues.

I'm pleased to announce that I've been accepted as a contributor over at the PCL LinkDump. Head on over there to see what great stuff everyone on the PCL crew has to offer. I'll be making regular posts over there, but don't worry -- my posting schedule here won't change. Pretty soon you'll have more Desuko than you can handle!

Rush Hour (1998).

The Scoop:
It may be saddled with a predictable plot, silly fish-out-of-water jokes and a tone overly reminiscent of the "Lethal Weapon" movies (particularly the fourth one), but "Rush Hour" still manages to slide by on the combined charm of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Chan's incredible stunt work and Tucker's hilarious motor mouth have both been put to better use in other movies, but they still work well together and have fun showing off what they do best.

Basically, the plot (courtesy of director Brett Ratner and screenwriters Ross LaManna and Jim Kouf) is this -- a fast-talking LAPD cop teams up with a Hong Kong detective to find the kidnapped daughter of the Chinese consulate. The rest is filler and fluff and gags, but at least they are kept light and entertaining.

There are far, far worse ways to spend an hour and a half. Like watching any of the useless sequels, for instance.

Best Bit:
The in-car singalong by Julia Hsu, who plays the little girl who gets kidnapped. I don't know why I love it so much, but I do.

Side Note:
Jeff Nathanson, the screenwriter extraordinaire behind the turdbucket "Speed 2: Cruise Control" (1997) is also an uncredited writer here.

Companion Viewing:
"Lethal Weapon 4" (1998) and "Rush Hour 2" (2001).

Links:
IMDb.

Take a Look:
Sing it, girl!


Hey, guess what? One's black! One's Asian! It's wacky!


And of course, the obligatory fight scene:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Shadow of the Vampire (2000).

The Scoop:
Director E. Elias Merhige's and writer Steven Katz's film is a provocative, yet highly fictionalized, account of the creation of the landmark horror classic "Nosferatu."

John Malkovich plays German director F.W. Murnau as a tempermental, single-minded genuis and Willem Dafoe is his mysterious star Max Schreck. The script's conceit is that Schreck was a real vampire, not just an actor lost in his role (as was the case in real life). There are faithful recreations of several of the sequences and settings of "Nosferatu," with many given an extra supernatural twist by the fact of Schreck's vampirism.

All this makes "Shadow of the Vampire" a hard film to categorize -- too fanciful for a biopic and too grounded in reality for a supernatural thriller -- but an enjoyment nonetheless.

There are good performances all around from a cast that includes Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes and Eddie Izzard. And extra kudos go to the gang of Pauline Fowler, Jamie Iovine, Amber Sibley, David Stoneman and Julian Murray for their Oscar-nominated makeup job on Dafoe.

Best Line:
"If it's not in frame, it doesn't exist!"

Side Note:
The real life Max Schreck was a veteran German stage actor and although "Nosferatu" was his film debut, he went on to make more than 20 other movies before his all-too-human death by heart attack in 1936, at the age of 57.

Companion Viewing:
"Nosferatu" (1921) and "Gods and Monsters" (1997).

Links:
IMDb.
Official site.
Dave's Other Movie Log.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


Filming the ship sequence:

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Phantom Planet (1961).

The Scoop:
In the fantastically futuristic world of 1980, a miniature planet roams the Solar System at will, capturing Earth's exploratory rockets. The studly Capt. Chapman (Dean Fredericks) is sent to investigate, and winds up on the planet, shrunk down in size to visit with its tiny inhabitants. Turns out they're at war with a race of dog-faced aliens, who are also very small. Chapman helps them win their war, and along the way cures a mute girl (Colleen Gray). All in a day's work!

This bit of B-movie fluff from director William Marshall (and a large posse of screenwriters and producers) is certainly odd, but the novelty value alone isn't enough to make its 82 minutes exactly fly by. "The Phantom Planet" is best in small doses. (And yes, this is where that crappy band got its name.)

Best Line:
"You know, Captain, every year of my life I grow more and more convinced that the wisest and the best is to fix our attention on the good and the beautiful. If you just take the time to look at it."

Side Note:
Under the mask of the captured dog alien is none other than Richard Kiel, best known as Bond villain Jaws. As if that wasn't enough, the leader of the tiny aliens is played by aging silent film star Francis X. Bushman, who is a long way from his "Ben Hur" days.

Companion Viewing:
"Fire Maidens From Outer Space" (1956).

Links:
IMDb.
Music from the Monster Movies, 1950-1969.
io9.

Take a Look:
The hilariously overwrought trailer:


The full movie, courtesy of the Internet Archive: