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Outward Bound (1930)
Extremely stagy early talkie
I stumbled across this film on Turner knowing nothing about the plot, so I didn't know where it was heading. (I'm fascinated by the early talkies, good or bad.) Unfortunately, I found this one very slow going. Like so many films of this era, everyone stands around and talks and then talks some more, and they do it in a scenery-chewing style that reminds me of the spoofs on "The Carol Burnett Show." The overplaying is combined with some very slow pacing and a script that repeats everything in case you missed it the first three times it was said. Leslie Howard's character, in particular, raves excessively about their fate as the other passengers repeatedly scoff at him. We get the point, already. Yes, I know this is Howard's first film, but I didn't believe for a second that he was panicked. His histrionics seemed very insincere to me, especially in the scene when he lunges at the reverend; Howard seems as limp as a wet towel, waving his arms in the general direction of the pastor. Regarding the cinematography, there are some very nice shots here and there, but mostly it's shot in the three-camera sitcom style with players occasionally walking in front of the person talking and unintentionally blocking them from view. By this time, they really could do a better job if the director has stepped up to the plate.
The Lash (1930)
Very well made early talkie
This film is very well crafted for an early talkie from 1930. Unlike so many stage-locked productions of this time, the film takes advantage of the rustic California settings of old California. There are few long static takes with people standing around the hidden microphone. Beautifully photographed, the shots change often and the camera movement is fluid throughout. (Makes you wonder what director Tod Browning's excuse was for painfully static "Dracua".) The outside scenes start the film out at a good pace. However, once the obligatory and talky love story kicks in, the story slows down to a crawl. Perhaps as off-putting is the poor quality of the print being shown on TMC. "The Lash" has clearly not been restored or cleaned, pock-marked throughout and with such deep contrast that some scenes are tough to make out. Towards the end of each reel, the film noise is so loud it almost drowns out dialog and music. This would be a film for a fan of early talkies to check out, but otherwise, it might be a tough go.
Early talkie with Shaw Talking Constantly
This short is simply George Bernard Shaw making his talking film debut before the American camera. And talk he does. Shot on the grounds of his home in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, Shaw walks towards the camera, feigns surprise at our visit, and proceeds to deliver a rambling monologue about Mussolini's grouchy look and other totally unrelated subjects. Supposedly Shaw agreed to do this film on the condition he could direct. That makes it all the odder that he seems to be rambling and ill prepared. The film is fascinating for it's historical value, and is included in the DVD set "More Treasures from American Film Archives".
Questi fantasmi (1967)
Unnecessarily re-dubbed bore
This is the kind of film that local TV stations used to program on Sunday afternoons: unfunny 60's comedies no one had ever heard of. The confused plot reads like one from a screwball comedy, but the necessary energy to pull it off are missing. Instead, there just a lot of poorly paced talking and ranting.
Totally sucking the life out of the film is the odd re-dubbing of every sound effect and line of dialog. Since everyone's mouths seem to match English perfectly, you have to wonder what the purpose of this was. Since everyone constantly sounds four inches from the microphone, whether they're running down the stairs or whispering across an alley, the film has a strange antiseptic quality, devoid of any room noise or natural ambiance. Sophia fans should simply watch her and mute the sound.
Rat Race (2001)
But its worth seeing for the Lovitz segment
The movie has a lot of bits that just don't work, and too much great talent with nothing funny to do. (That, however, doesn't excuse Whoopi Goldberg for sleepwalking through yet another paycheck.)
Having said that, "Rat Race" contains one of the funniest set pieces I've ever seen. I won't do a spoiler here, but it begins when Jon Lovitz's family mistakenly visits the Barbie museum. Barbie the doll? No, Klaus Barbie the Nazi! Their escape and the chase that follows is one of the funniest set pieces I've seen. It's perfectly constructed and executed. A real comedy gem, I thought. Release only the Lovitz family storyline and you'll have a classic comedy short.
Interesting as an early talkie
I'm fascinated by early sound films and by how some directors are stopped dead in their tracks by the new unweildly technology. It's amazing that 1930 gave us such a fluid, masterful sound film as "All Quiet on the Western Front" and such a point-and-click snooze as "Dracula" (filmed the same year). Hitch's "Murder" falls somewhere between the two. He's really trying to avoid the camera-never-moves trap of most earlier talkies, but it's obvious he's having a fight. For example, there's an interesting montage of the individual jurors' faces, but the momentum is distroyed by the distracting glue edits and audio clicks caused by the editing. In another jury scene, hiding the microphone must have be a task as a lot of the dialog is hard to hear. Honestly, a better story would have helped a lot, but at least Hitchcock is trying to keep the film moving.
Imagine the excitement if the Grand Ole Opry tour bus broke down at the Shady Rest Hotel in Hooterville. Yep, country music song after song with nothing happening in between. It's not much of a movie, but rather a parade of singers across a one-set soundstage in Nashville. Even as a songfest its a sad project, sporting marginal camerawork and no imagination.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Start engraving Mitchell's awards
It's incredible how many tough feats John Cameron Mitchell and crew have pulled off beautifully in this film! Firstly, it's never wreaks of being an "adapted from stage" movie; "Hedwig" is a fully realized cinematic project told in ways that only a film could. Mitchell doesn't settle for traditional A-to-B-to-C storytelling. Instead, he uses sometimes ingenious camerawork and styles to bring the story and characters to life. As a musical, "Hedwig" rocks. The songs are first-rate and critically important to the story and mood. Making it all come to life is John Cameron Mitchell's incredible performance. In the club/restaurant scene, when Hedwig is performing live for an audience, Mitchell just about jumps off the screen. Elvis never worked as hard in ALL of his movies combined as he does in one song. And he SELLS the songs; you can not take your eyes off of him. In the non-singing scenes, he also shines. Never do you feel you're watching an actor doing the usual drag queen impression. Hedwig is a totally real, convincing transgendered woman--free from the cliched sassy, finger-snapping behavior crossdressers usually have in films. That's why we care about Hedwig, and that may be Mitchell's most important achievement. He gives a break-out performance that must not be overlooked when the awards season comes around!
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Can't get it out of my Mind
This film has taken up far more space in my head than it should have. After seeing it on MST3K, I'm left with nothing but questions that continue to nag me:
-Did this thing really get a theatrical release? If so, who would have agreed to do it? Assuming even the filmmakers, much less a 'distributor', actually watched the darned thing, don't you think someone--anyone--might have pointed out that the footage shot from the window of a moving car could be trimmed by, say, ten minutes? -Who thought it would be OK to film in silent and dub dialogue later. It's a tough enough task for a major Hollywood facility to do properly. Godzilla, anyone? -What provolked someone to make this story, or lack thereof, into a movie? A dare? A bar-bet? Shades of "The Producers" if you ask me. -Is the cast's acting style a salute to German expressionism of the 20's? Or was everyone simply fatigued from their day-jobs and lacked the energy to move at normal human speeds? -What's the deal with Torgo? Knock-knees is an affliction that is neither frightening nor sympathy inducing. If it's such a chore for him to move, as evidenced by the incredibly long sequences of him loading and un-loading luggage, shouldn't he sit down and rest those weary limbs from time to time? -Isn't that tiny two room shack a little small to be housing all that evilness? Wouldn't the mean old Master have a bigger place?
The questions go on and on--and I continue to be baffled by the whole project. So many "why's" and no good answers.
Early Technicolor a treat
Eddie Cantor's a legend name of showbiz, but he's been lost to time, unlike, say, Laurel and Hardy or Jack Benny. Mainly, we've just heard his name. Whoopee! is a chance to finally see his act and--well, uh--he was quite energetic. The film's really just an excuse for Cantor to strut his stuff, so your loving of the film will depend mostly of your love of Eddie.
However, there are several things for a film buff to enjoy. The early two-strip Technicolor is quite nice and the print I've seen on TV is really quite gorgeous. (It seems strange that this, of all early talkies, would have been so well preserved.) Outside of Cantor's vaudeville style, Whoopee! feel nearly it's age. The camerawork can be quite clunky at times, like the jiggly attempt at an overhead shot during a dance number, but generally its acceptable for a simple musical. Additionally, the dances were the work of a young Busbey Berkley and you can tell it's his handiwork. Oddly, the dancers seem to have a problem dancing in-sync with one another, which seems to be a hallmark of every early musical I've ever seen.
Soup to Nuts (1930)
Just to see the Stooges
The only appeal of this film is to see the Stooges in their earliest film appearance--and to get a glimpse of the now-reviled Ted Healey. I can see why the Boys parted ways with Healey. His treatment of them comes off as brutal and mean-spirited (even by Stooge standards!) A curiosity piece.
St. Louis Blues (1929)
Only film record of Bessie Smith
If you've ever wanted to see the great Bessie Smith perform, this is your one chance--her only film appearance is in this short.
For an early talkie, a lot of things were done right. The wrap-around plot involving the 'no-good boyfriend who done her wrong' is really quite effective, and unnerving, in it's violence. The camerawork in the big bar scene is generally well done, with people passing in front of the camera going about their business. It's obviously a one-take deal, with several cameras recording the action at the same time as three-camera sitcoms do.
But you're left wondering about the stupidity of the director who obviously hid Bessie's mic on the bar, but failed to set up a camera behind the bar! Yes she sings, but we're treated to her backside mostly, with only an occasional glimpse of her profile. You can't really blame that poor thinking on early sound technology.
Hollywood Cavalcade (1939)
Fun look behind the scenes of Hollywood
What makes this one better than most "movie movies" is that it doesn't feel phony. The film the story of the hot-headed director and his rise and fall and rise, by using real recognizable names and events during the silent and early sound eras. Instead of the generic "sound will put us out of business" business, they actually SHOW Jolson and "The Jazz Singer". The acting is really quite good, with believeable performances from Don Ameche, Alice Faye and J. Edward Bromberg in particular.
White Zombie (1932)
This is definitely a slow film, but I don't think that can totally be blamed on its age; it feels like it was meant to move with the pace of a pack of glassy-eyed zombies. Many images are lingered on longer than you would expect, even for 1932. For me, that's what's special about this movie. The cinematography is outstanding, making for nightmare images that have stuck in my mind, though I've since forgotten the specifics of the plot. Images like: the zombies turning the gears in the sugar mill, Bela clenching his hands together when imposing his will, the zoom-in on Bela's superimposed eyes as the carriage travels into the night, and the previously-mentioned pack of zombies approaching the camera. Time has probably been unintentionally kind to "White Zombie", since it's grainy, ancient look actually contributes to the eerie feel.
Still the standard
Few will disagree that "Bride of Frankenstein" is in so many ways a better picture than the original. But since they both involve the same director and primary cast, I consider them as two parts of the same movie.
I have no complaints at all about "Bride". It certainly benefits from a more deeply thought-out script and an adequately bankrolled sense of delight in the macabre. The unarguable "improvements" in the sequel are often, for me, the very things that makes the original so special.
The major technical improvements during the short years between the original and sequel have made "Frankenstein" seem perhaps older than it is. The lack of a score and less showy camerawork give it almost a documentary quality, not unlike the famous Hindenberg newsreel footage. "Frankenstein" feels like this is an actual record of exactly how it looked and felt the day Dr. Frankenstein did his evil deed!
I'm not saying that "Frankenstein" seems primitive in a bad way--unlike '31's "Dracula" with it's "point the camera at the stage because we can't move the camera" lack of technique. The oldness adds to it's greatness. The graininess of the picture, the shrill sound effects and James Whale's unusual cutting style of deliberate jump-cuts (especially in the scene when the Creature makes his big entrance and, moments later, reaches longingly for the sunlight)contribute to the realness of the story and the film.
It gave me nightmares as a kid; only now, I know why.