January Movie Marathon – 2023 Edition

January 26, 2023

Another year, another January movie marathon! For this year’s marathon in which I try to watch as many movies as I can in the month-long period between December 25th and January 25th I also added another incentive to my viewing. While a few obscure and public domain films have always been available to view on YouTube I have noticed that there are more and more available lately. To be clear, I’m not talking about the streaming movies that YouTube charges for viewing, but films uploaded by users in their own channels and that are freely viewable.

While the lion’s share of the films as older as expected there are a few surprising titles that are not so old as to have ‘aged’ into the public domain and I can only assume are there because the rights have lapsed for one reason or another – circumstance such as the copyright misstep that allowed Night of the Living Dead to be orphaned upon release.

The quality of the videos on YouTube are as varied as the entertainment quality of the movies themselves so your mileage may vary, but I tried to find good quality for both aspects. Of the 39 movies I managed to watch this year 23 are on YouTube and I have provided those links here.

Here are this year’s movies.

1 – The Monster from Piedras Blancas (1958)

This is one of those ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ rip-offs featuring a monster that looked good enough to be pictured in many of the monster magazines and books of the time yet was produced from a low budget studio which made the film obscure and hard to find. The plot has the rubber-suited creature that likes to decapitate his victims terrorize a small coastal town but has the lighthouse keeper as a friend of sorts.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYKl4PtdPUA

2 – The Clouded Yellow (1950)

A neat psychological thriller in which a counter espionage spy suddenly finds himself without a job after botching an operation. With few marketable skills he ends up taking a short term job as an aide to an entomologist cataloging butterflies. Instead of having the tranquil rest he hoped the job would bring he suddenly finds himself involved in a murder mystery with a family caring for a mentally unstable young woman. In order to save the woman he finds his old contacts and intelligence savvy coming in handy. Nice bit of extra twist at the end.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YKH_1KGD6U

3 – Sudden Fear (1952)

A famous playwright (Joan Crawford) finds a burgeoning actor (Jack Palance) unsuitable for one of her plays and must dismiss him. But the two soon meet again, striking up a romance. That is until she finds out that his love was all a sham and she suddenly finds herself targeted for murder. Not the best film noir but a fine thriller nonetheless.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aB2w51F0t74

4 – Phone Call from a Stranger (1952)

A man escapes marital problems by hopping on a plane where he befriends three strangers as the passengers storm the weather. The four form a pact of sorts and after the plane crashes the man, who has learned a lot about the other three, takes it upon himself to visit the families of the three departed. I needed no more than the star billing of Shelley Winters and Bette Davis to entice me but Gary Merrill, Micheal Rennie and even Keenan Wynn are all  rock solid. A bit of a strange film but a good one.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pD593Gd-pY

5 – Help! (1965)

The Beatles were so popular (and remain so) that they did not even bother specifically naming John, Paul, George and Ringo in the credits in this film in which the fab four have to deal with with an East Indian sect trying to reclaim a sacrificial ring stuck on Ringo’s finger needed for a spiritual congregation. The comedy is beyond corny but let face it this is all about the music and that alone along with watching the boys is more than enough reason to watch.

6 – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

Sidney Pollack adaptation of the novel of a dance marathon during the great depression. Jane Fonda is but one of the many contestants trying to outlast all the others in the dehumanizing endurance contest which unveils the darkest traits of mankind. Michael Sarrazin plays her on again, off again, dance partner is probably the only sane character. 

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsKQiVJkEvI

7 – Miracle on 34th Street (1973)

Decided to try this Made -for-TV remake of the classic film. Sebastian Cabot in the lead as Santa and Roddy McDowall as the wicked psychiatrist are the only credible actors in this far inferior film with a dreadful script. Not sure why people keep on making different versions of the film when the original 1947 is so perfect. Ape fans will also enjoy seeing James Gregory as the opposing lawyer.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isQ8ZnkuwNU

8 – The Irishman (2019)

I finally got around to watching director Martin Scorsese’s last feature film, the biopic of the legendary Teamster union boss, Jimmy Hoffa and his ‘alleged’ (cough-cough) involvement with the rival mob families. Starring the triumvirate of Pacino, De Niro and Pesci (no first names needed) it was a near guarantee slam dunk from the get go. Based on a book documenting the claimed confession of a hitman who befriended Hoffa everything has to be taken with a bit of salt.

The film does have its share of problems but those get ironed out as it progresses and by the end I was satisfied. 

9 – Of Human Bondage (1934)

A very early Bette Davis film but her talent was clearly a force even then. A quiet and reserved, sympathetic man (Leslie Howard) falls for the glamorous gal who does not return the love. Instead she dismissively takes advantage of him, manipulating him over and over. Fantastic film as long as you can get over Davis’ Cockney accent which I found a little jarring at first.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Qhrz_u-97Y

10 – Dead & Breakfast (2004)

I am thankful of the fact that this is NOT on YouTube thus sparing unsuspecting viewers. Even the inclusion of David Carradine can’t save this one. Stale story of a bunch of young travelers stumbling in a small town B&B and then the creeps start appearing. The B&B I refer to here is Bad and Boring.

11 – Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Over-the-Top takes on special significance in this blockbuster sequel to Top Gun from way back in 1986. But being over the top is kinda the point here and this movie delivers in spades with top-notch aerial sequences and over-the-top acting, to say nothing about a whole bunch of one-in-a-million odds events that make up about half the film. If you really care for more, yes, the plot ties into the events of the first film but you really don’t need to have seen (or remember) the original.

12 – Sleep, My Love (1948)

This is one of those forgotten true gems you can find on YouTube. It begins with a woman (Claudette Colbert) waking up on a train but not remembering getting on at all. This is but the latest of mental slips she has been experiencing but one that could have been deadly to her husband (Don Ameche). While this film was clearly riding the ‘gaslighting’ wave of the success of Gaslight it stands on its own. While she only has a small part I was taken in by Hazel Brooks and even searched for more films in which she appeared (see Body and Soul below).

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCHAgCINofg

13 – Catlow (1971)

Based on a Louis L’Amour novel, this Western stars Yul Brunner, Richard Crenna, and everyone’s favorite Vulcan, Leonard Nimoy. Frankly this one was disappointing. Unlike other films in which Yul is nothing short of menacing, he didn’t exactly have the chops to carry a comedy role which he tries here. Crenna overdoes his southern drawl at times and Nimoy does not have enough screen time. (But when he does there are a few butt shots if that is what you’re looking for). It does get a bit better towards the end.

14 – Body and Soul (1947)

The ‘kid who grew up in a tough neighborhood who goes on to become a championship boxer’ is a well worn movie staple almost as old as films themselves. This one has John Garfield in the role of the pugilist who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd, mistaking money and fame for honour and pleasure. Lilli Palmer is the gal who first encourages him before trying to straighten him out and Hazel Brooks (see Sleep, My Love above) is the ringside vixen looking to get a piece of the action. Those who remember the 70’s private eye series will enjoy seeing William Conrad as part of the boxer entourage.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHVU8m4StNg

15 – Pushover (1954)

Most lists of the best Film Noir movies inevitably list Double Indemnity as a prime classic of the genre. This one not only stars Fred MacMurray who starred in the latter, but the plots are eerily similar. Instead of a luring an honest insurance adjuster to commit fraud this one has Fred as a cop on a stakeout of a bank robber’s gal (Kim Novak) who has him throwing everything away for the loot from a heist and her of course.s Just as riveting and heart wrenching as Double Indemnity and deserving of equal praise.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKU8kMSAZRs 

16 – The Day of the Locust (1975)

A young man working as a Studio artist in Hollywood becomes infatuated with a woman who has dreams of becoming a star, crumbling relationships along the way. The lineup alone makes this one worth watching. Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, and Donald Sutherland (whose character name is Homer Simpson!) are all superb. Even Billy Barty gets a chance to really act instead of a comedic presence at the expense of his stature. The film exposed the decadent underbelly of Depression era tinseltown and the toll on fame and fortune seekers. A great film yet it doesn’t achieve its full potential either. Cinephiles will appreciate a young Jackie Early Haley and even a William Castle cameo.

17 – Dolemite (1975)

When Eddie Murphy got rave reviews for Dolemite is My Name a few years ago (A movie I have yet to catch up on) I was reminded that I never saw the original.  The movie was a vehicle for Rudy Ray Moore who first created the character to use in his comedy and music gigs. Dolemite is a convict let loose on the streets so that he can clean up the old ‘hood, namely his nemesis Willie Green.  While notable as a Blaxploitation film of the era, I was underwhelmed by the entire production. The script is terrible even by the genre standards, the acting is painful and the ‘action’ sequences are laughable. With so many other superior polyester pants and chrome caddies movies available, don’t bother with this one.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkIzwKlSU04

18 – Dark Skies (2013)

I’m starting to get tired of producer Jason  Blum (Blumhouse films) movies which feature families torn apart because of strange things happening in the house. The only really interesting part is when they consult with J.K. Simmons who tells them all they have been experiencing has been going on with other families for a long time. The buildup of these new ‘aliens’ is cool but then the film goes nowhere with a very disappointing end.

19 – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)

Robert Morse is J. Pierpont Finch, a skyscraper window washer with lofty business ambitions in this musical comedy staged by Bob Fosse. When he comes across a how-to paperback that claims to provide a step-by-step, sure fire path to the top of the executive boardroom he voraciously reads each successive chapter and follows it’s guidance to a tee. He manages to overcome a competing, brown-nosing CEO’s nephew, the successive bosses he replaces and the overtures of a lovestruck secretary.

20 – Gilbert (2017)

[see full review here]

21 – Three Came Home (1950)

The film is an adaptation of the memoirs of Agnes Newton Keith and her internment by the Japanese in World War II Borneo. Claudette Colbert plays Agnes as she and her son are imprisoned in camps while her husband and all the men are held in an adjoining one. Enduring malnutrition, disease and punishment she and the other women do engage in some rebellious activities which spice the narrative. While I enjoyed the drama of the internment ordeal the highlights are the scenes with Sessue Hayakawa who plays an honorable and sympathetic Japanese Colonel.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgGvFPB8_yI

22 – The Intern (2015)

The awkward pairing of veteran Robert De Niro with Anne Hathaway comes off as odd as it sounds in this comedy. De Niro plays an older, gentlemanly widower trying to keep himself busy after losing his job as manager for an obsolete phone book publisher. When he comes across an ad for intern positions at a burgeoning new company founded by Hathaway he jumps at the chance and not only secures a spot but is assigned to be her very own aide. Of course his sage advice and deeds result not only in helping out the company but her personal affairs as well. The maudlin comedy suffers from some strange directing and editing that results in a film as awkward as the premise. Recommended only for De Niro and Hathaway devotees but then again I’m one of them so I enjoyed some of it more than it deserves.

23 – Torture Garden (1967)

Just a step down from the illustrious Hammer studios was Amicus films who were even better at making horror anthology films such as the case with this one with a cast that includes Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith, and Peter Cushing. Written by Robert Bloch are four tales of terror that have a wraparound setup centered on the Shears of Fate sideshow in a travelling carnival’s horror tent. The first is a story in which a greedy nephew can’t wait until his uncle dies so that he can get his hands on gold hidden in the house. In the second a wannabe movie star will do anything to be in movies but chooses the wrong producers to hitch her ride with. The third features a sentient and jealous piano and the last has an Edgar Alan Poe fanatic collector get a hold of the ultimate collection piece. Hammer fans will also enjoy the underrated Michael Ripper in the wraparound. I sorely miss this format of films.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0aumPGi9iM

24 – Man in the Attic (1953)

One of many takes on the Jack the Ripper mythos, this one has Jack Palance playing the notorious serial killer. This one didn’t quite work for me and believe it or not inexplicably has musical numbers peppered in a few places. Jack rents a room and attic in an older couple’s house as he sidesteps the authorities. Things get interesting when the homeowner’s niece, a singer/actress also takes up residence in the home, and then befriends both Jack and the inspector working on the case.  Based on the novel “The Lodger” this tale has supposedly been filmed five times, one an early silent by Hitchcock. At least I can be sure that one did not have any singing in it.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31jonmoh9Yk

25 – Mumford (1999)

The Munford in the title refers to the name of the small town and the surprise arrival of a psychologist with the same name who in just a few short years seems to successfully treat and heal just about every resident. Only “Mumford” is not a licensed practitioner at all but just someone with a knack of figuring out other people’s problems. I have to admit that one of the reasons I looked forward to watching this film was the participation of Hope Davis, a respected but underrated actor who plays the patient love interest here. But everyone in the cast is just brilliant making this lovely ‘feel good’ romantic comedy.

26 – Rider on the Rain (1970)

There are some parts to this film that play out like some avant garde art film which is at odds with star Charles Bronson but not surprising as it is a French movie that was filmed in both French and English. After a woman kills a mysterious man who raped her Bronson suddenly shows up in her life and knows everything she did that day despite her not telling anyone. A fair thriller all about a bag the assailant carried with him that day.

27 – Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

While this is a bank heist movie at heart, the real story is about the lead up and the varied circumstances that drive people to crime. Even better are the racial tensions and diverse characters that make up the trio of robbers which are played by Robert Ryan, Harry Belafonte and Ed Begley. Just as good are the smaller roles featuring Gloria Graham and Shelley Winters. While the digitized version has a few hiccups, this is another YouTube gem that is worth watching. 

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSzDfNn3kYc

28 – Patterns (1956)

While writer/creator Rod Serling‘s name will forever be associated with his groundbreaking Twilight Zone (deservedly so I might add) his writing talents shone through various televised broadcasts long before that. One of those highly lauded earlier efforts was the made for TV movie Patterns, a story which tells the tale of a newly recruited senior employee who discovers that he was hired in order to oust an elder beloved founder of the company. A riveting drama pitting morals, honor and respect against the cutthroat callousness of business interests. A superlative script with equally moving acting by Van Heflin and Ed Begley (senior). I can’t recommend this one highly enough. 

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMnU4faUMUY

29 – The Big Lebowski (1998)

Anyone familiar with the Coen brothers films will feel right at home with the crazy antics that laid-back Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) must endure after a case of mistaken identity which results in someone peeing on his carpet (and stealing a replacement), acting as the drop off man for a kidnapped wife, and making out with an sex-obsessed avant garde artist (Julianne Moore) all while preparing for a bowling championship tournament. Steve Buscemi is The Dude’s dimwitted friend but rounding out the trio of buddies is John Goodman as the hot headed self-righteous fanatic who steals the show.  John Turturro also earns praise as the loathed stylish bowling nemesis. Chillax to the max with this one.

30 – The Screaming Mimi (1958)

After being assailed by an insane asylum escapee a young woman (Anita Ekberg) herself becomes institutionalized. Her psychiatric treatment and recovery comes at the hands of her devoted doctor (Harry Townes) who both falls in love with her and maintains a steady hand in all her affairs. With alluring dancing skills to match her ravishing beauty she soon becomes the headline star as a nightclub entertainer. After two women who all had the same physical attributes as the dancer are murdered, an intrepid reporter (Philip Carey) remarks that the only other connection seems to be a small statue. The statue was not only found at the scene of the murders, but the figurine looks exactly like the dancer in the throes of a scream. Making matters even more interesting is that the reporter noted that the dancer, who happens to have a protective dog named Devil, also had an exact copy of the statue in her possession. Tie it all up and you have the answer to the murders. As a huge fan of science fiction and mystery writer Fredric Brown I read the novel The Screaming Mimi so many years ago I had forgotten the premise of this psychological thriller. Well worth the watch and you get to enjoy acclaimed former burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee in a fairly prominent role.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dxWmCpK5oY

31 – Legal Eagles (1986)

I seem to recall this Ivan Reitman directed movie being a lot better than my impression was with this recent viewing. Robert Redford is the aspiring DA butting heads with renegade lawyer Debra Winger. They are forced to collaborate working on a perplexing case of misappropriated art that Daryl Hannah is trying to reclaim, a gift from her father who died when she was just a child. Some of it works, some of it is a tad too corny and some of it is just weird.

32 – Hot Spell (1958)

The title does in fact refer to a heat wave during the proceedings of the film but more so to the blazing temperaments and scorching arguments among all the members of a fractured family. The main culprit is the free wheeling father (Anthony Quinn) who openly courts a mistress, castigates the elder son’s business ambitions, and foils his daughter’s matrimonial aspirations. But caught in the middle of it all is the doting wife (Shirley Booth) who vainly tries to feign ignorance of her husband’s indiscretions and other failings. The two of the three kids are a very young Shirley MacLaine and Earl Holliman

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVK2EmEU7ag

33 – The Desert Fox : The Story of Rommel (1951)

[see full review here]

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAIstbuCosI

34 – John Dies at the End (2012)

Based on the horror-comedy novel of the same name, those already familiar with director Don Coscarelli’s screwball films will be right at home with this one in which a man meets a reporter at diner to explain how he is a spiritual exorcist, convincing him of the existence of alternate timelines, aliens, and his uncanny ability to foretell events. It starts off crazy and goes insane from there. The only thing slightly hampering my enjoyment was the breakneck pace that made it hard to digest it all at once. One of those rare films in which we actually get to see what Doug Jones looks like without a costume or makeup. The only thing I can guarantee is that everything will be a surprise, in a good way.

35 – The Disappearance of Aimee (1976)

This Made -for-TV film documents the real-life court case of a popular 1920’s celebrity spiritual “healer” (Faye Dunaway) who mysteriously went missing for a month just as the law was closing in and was declared dead by her mother and other followers only to turn up in Mexico with a tale of being kidnapped. How the great Bette Davis got caught up in this mess of a movie is the biggest mystery as is its ridiculously high 7.6 IMDB rating. Even the YouTube video has issues with fading colors, grain, and actually ‘warbles’ a few frames near the beginning. Good beer drinking game every time you hear them singing “Rock of Ages”.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kir1KUwngX8

36 – Le Mans (1971)

I loved the recent racing films “Ford V Ferrari” and the Nikki Lauda story “Rush” so I was looking forward to watching Le Mans, the end result of Steve McQueen‘s quest to make a racing movie. Depicting a fictitious running of the famed motosport 24 hours of Le Mans race (celebrating its centennial this very year) the film is part drama but plays like a documentary as well to the point that it is only near the 40 minute mark that we get to hear actual dialogue other than race announcers. McQueen (who hoped to participate in the actual race that year) plays a driver returning after being involved in a crash the  previous year, one in which another driver died and whose wife unexpectedly returns to the track. With tons of footage from the actual races both cinephiles and race enthusiasts will be entertained, but temper your expectations.

37 – Mirage (1965)

This is another great YouTube find of a great classic. Gregory Peck stars as a corporate employee descending the stairwell in a New York highrise during a power outage when his world suddenly turns upside down. After descending stairwells he later finds do not exist people are either confusing him for someone else or welcoming him back from some unknown two year absence. The clincher comes when he is confronted by a gun-toting stranger in his own apartment who demands information he knows nothing about with a threat to kidnap him for a visit to “the Major”. Convinced he has experiences some amnestic episode visits to both the police and a psychiatrist prove fruitless. Only after he hires a novice detective (Walter Matthau) do the pieces of the puzzle slowly tie-in his memory lapse with a suicide the morning of the blackout and a mysterious organization seeking world peace. A great thriller even if the final premise is a bit hokey.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTY-L-l3KN8

38 – The Bigamist (1953)

I thought this was just going to be a film in which the bigamist was a low-down dirty lout but was surprised to find that he comes off somewhat sympathetical due to some of the circumstances that led to his predicament. Ida Lupino both directed and starred in this drama where the ‘other woman’ (Joan Fountaine) and hubby Edmond O’Brien are in the midst of an adoption when the _ starts to unravel. The adoption agency investigator’s voice alone immediately clued me that it was none other than Santa Claus himself (Edmund Gwenn) from the original Miracle on 34th Street (not the version I review above) and the film makes a reference to that a number of times. A great drama although the guilty party (and we the audience) are spared the final outcome with the open ending.

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YifNTjlZeD0

39 – The Brink’s Job (1978)

Only a small portion of the loot from the famed Boston Brink’s robbery of 1950 was ever recouped which is but one reason for its notoriety and, inevitably, a bunch of movie adaptations. Since three movies had already been made before this version producer Dino De Laurentiis needed it to be a bit different so he decided to make it a comedy and hired maverick director William Friedkin. Peter Falk plays the ringleader as the deft safecracker who rounds up an equally bumbling gang that includes Peter Boyle and Paul Sorvino. Not the funniest of films but what makes it amazing is the fact that aside from a few details it is a fairly accurate account of what really happened. 

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-OsXh3HodM

Movie Reviews 542 – The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951)

January 20, 2023

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was not only a shrewd tactician when it came to warfare, but an honourable one that respected the enemy while defying Hitler and the chain of command whenever faced with illegal, inhumane or cowardly orders. Winston Churchill himself praised Rommel in stating “May I say across the havoc of war, a great general”. So perhaps it’s not shocking to discover that Hollywood put out The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel, a film that positively reflected on the man, a mere six years after World War two.

Based on a posthumous biography compiled by a British Brigadier – a former war prisoner himself taken in by Rommel’s own brigade – the biopic starring James Mason paints the man as a heroic figure who believed in military command but at the same time came to despise the Nazi regime to which he was beholden. With Jessica Tandy playing his worrisome wife the film also takes pains to emphasize the family man behind the lapel decorations.

The narrative documents a number of warfare maneuvers from both Rommel’s and the Allied forces’ disposition and logic behind them. As the war progresses we taste his victories as well as his defeats often compounded or created by the führer or high command. Along with his growing resentment of Hitler are the stirrings of the cabal that would eventually end up as the von Stauffenberg assassination attempt. In the end the repercussions of the failed attempt led to sweeping arrests and the execution of thousands and Rommel, though not fully implicated, was given the dire choice of a mock trial with no provisions of safety for his family, or to die honourably. He chose the latter.

I must say that I was surprised to see a film with what seems to be a fair and bipartisan view of such a high ranking German commander. The veracity of this positive personification as explained in the film itself was based on postwar interviews on both sides of the divide and the virtuous appraisal of the man presented here seems to remain intact today.

Other standouts include Leo G.Caroll as Rommel’s superior, who comes off as adversarial to him but quickly becomes a sympathetic character and Cedric Hardwicke as Dr. Karl Strölin who fosters the dissent against Hitler.

A wonderful and even refreshing ‘war’ film for historians or those just looking for a good film. 

Movie Reviews 541 – Gilbert (2017)

January 13, 2023

Gilbert Gottfried died last year and I miss him dearly.

Up until just a few years ago Gilbert was just another comedian to me. One who I only occasionally saw here and there in movies, TV shows and other celebrity affairs. Aside from his very distinct voice and laugh he was in my opinion no better or worse than any other successful comedian. Certainly one of the more quirky comics on the circuit but always good for a few laughs.

Then about two years ago I somehow stumbled upon his “Amazing Colossal Podcast” – probably while searching for information on an old movie or forgotten star – and a whole new world opened up. While the voice was the same, this was a whole new Gilbert. The old wisecracking and sometimes crude Gilbert I previously knew was there but at the same time there was a different and indeed “Amazing” side to his character. Gilbert along with his equally amazing co-host Frank Santopadre were bona fide Hollywood historians, knowledgeable on vintage films and, more importantly, the people behind them.

The podcast catered to both young and old guests to reminisce, revel and reveal all there was about the goings on from the most celebrated film to the most obscure ones. To be sure, some of it was gossip and lore, even some stories that Gilbert himself embellished, perhaps based on a grain of truth. But as I listened to more and more episodes of the podcast it became clear that some of these long lost stories and anecdotes were increasingly confirmed by more and more cinema and entertainment veterans. This was not just a podcast to have fun, but one that strove to ensure these stories are told and retold from an archival perspective. Even as the podcast was being aired there was a concerted effort to get some of the more elderly guests lined up before they had passed on. Indeed many have since passed on since these recordings and we can be thankful for at least those that were able to tell at least a part of their days of yore.

But let me get back on track to the review of the documentary Gilbert filmed while he was still alive and with his active participation.

While the podcast is mentioned in some spots, even capturing some of the guests as they participated, this documentary is all about Gilbert’s decidedly atypical character and the unconventional life and career he had. There are plenty of tantalizing bits from his doomed year on SNL to his stints on the Problem Child series of films among other notable appearances.

As these things usually go, we get to meet his family and friends, and see the highlights and low points of his career. Fun is made of his penny-pinching reputation and in this particular case some of the idiosyncratic habits that reinforce that miserly mindset.  Of said ‘low points’, the film beautifully captures his bold comeback to his post-911 joke, turning a silencing heckle to an enlivening rebound that reinvigorated a still shell shocked NYC audience with his daring and daunting telling of “The Aristocrats”.

As for the family, while his parents and siblings are duly discussed and presented, most would of course be curious about his wife Dara, truly exceptional herself to have fallen for such an exceptional man. Both she and their children reveal a lot about Gilbert, often in hilarious but heartwarming ways. Perhaps not totally surprising, as is the case of a few other comics, when not in the spotlight Gilbert is shown to be much more reserved, introspective and secluded.

Highly recommended even if (perhaps especially so) you did not know much of the man. 

Murder on the Merry‐go-round – Josephine Bell (1965)

January 6, 2023

Those who have been following this blog will have noted that I’ve been reading more vintage mysteries of late, partially due to my rekindled love of Film Noir. A recent visit to a used book shop in search of just such titles unearthed Josephine Bell’s Murder on the Merry‐go-round. An author I had never heard of before, I quickly looked up the title on Goodreads to see what exactly I had just picked up. While I was not hesitant to read the book as it sounded interesting enough, I did note that what few reviews it had were not overwhelmingly positive. On the other hand, Bell seems to have been both a prolific writer and a number of her other books are well received, giving me a bit more hope.

The first thing to clear up is that the titular ‘Merry‐go-round’ is not a full sized amusement ride, but rather a decorative piece of fine china, the original British title of the novel being The China Roundabout. The second thing to clear up is that the title should be murders, plural, as more than one character gets the proverbial ‘thrill kill’.

When an uncle who seemed to live beyond his means dies suddenly Eileen and her mother, the sole heirs, not only take over the house he had converted into rental units, but also inherit the small Merry‐go-round family heirloom. Originally received by her great grandfather as a gift from an Indian prince, the porcelain ornament, while cherished, received no more attention than any other decorative bauble . However upon uncle Monty’s death all of the tenants seem to have taken a keen interest in the artifact. Before long, people are dying, and there is an ever growing list of suspects all who have some link to the tenants.

The mystery expands from one in which the only question is why someone or group is trying to get their hands on the Merry‐go-round, (there is never any question of foul play in the death of the uncle) to what may have been concealed in it or on it. It’s only when the aspiring thieves get more aggressive that murder enters the scene. While the investigation begins with Eileen and her mother, it is later taken up by a doctor who in turn brings in Scotland Yard. Ironically even the first murder is not a clear cut case so there is little done on an official level until more bodies show up.

I can see why the novel gets modest reviews from many readers. The characters, while interesting, are just barely so for the most part and the array of suspects is a bit too widespread resulting in ‘thin’ investigations. While it was a valiant effort in having so many seemingly disparate characters ending up being linked to one another as the probing delved deeper it also became unrealistic despite some of them being purposefully assembled.

That is not to say this is a bad book. If a solid mystery is what you want then your brain will have fun trying to piece things out. The ending, while dramatic, somewhat poignant and with some surprises also seemed a bit ‘rushed’ and not fully satisfying. I’m not going to recommend this one as there are so many more books that do the job better, presumably even other books from the same author.

Movie Reviews 540 – Twelve O’clock High (1949)

December 23, 2022

There are a number of great World War II movies and almost all of them broach the psychological toll it took to face the ravages of war to one degree or another. The central drama of many of those features are directed in a number of areas such as specific wartime events both combat (“Midway“) and non-combat (“The Dirty Dozen“), tactical and planning initiatives (“The Dam Busters“), strongholds (“The Guns of Navarone“), POW camp incarceration (“The Great Escape“), romantic love stories (“From Here to Eternity“), and even particular vehicles (“Sink the Bismarck!“). All this to say that the mindset of those enveloped in combat is often secondary to the story and action if present at all. Twelve O’clock High is one of the few films which specifically addresses the toil on the mind and the repercussions of decision making, both deliberate and subconsciously.

Gregory Peck stars as General Frank Savage of Bomber Command who learns that the commander of the 918th Bomb Group, one of the units under his charge, has been reporting particularly disappointing results. Colonel Davenport (Gary Merrill) the commander of the unit, has been lenient on his charges, persuading himself that all the excuses are valid while he himself is distressed at putting the men’s lives on the dangerous missions. Worse is that the men themselves have become despondent with the war and have lost both faith in the cause and their participation in it.

Savage convinces the brass that Davenport must be replaced only to find himself taking on the role. His arrival elicits the expected backlash and disfavor from the men especially as his approach to solving the problem by maintaining the strictest adherence to rule and regulations. Further alienating his men is him creating the “Leper Colony” among the unit, singling out the worst offenders.

Not entirely unexpected, all of the men put in requests for transfer to other squads. Such a drastic response will likely result in Savage being removed from the unit but he has a bit of time to allow the men to reconsider on their own, a ploy which gets much harder when the men are asked to fly even more dangerous missions that have immediate repercussions to the outcome of the war.

This film started going in the direction I expected but then went beyond it in a way with a surprise twist to the end that I don’t want to spoil. There are a number of great characters making up the unit and one is singled out, appearing in bookends to the film which itself is presented as a flashback. While the film suffers from an oversimplified ‘solution’ and is as much patriotic rhetoric and propaganda (despite being made after the end of the war) it remains a standout and what I would consider a minor classic.

Movie Reviews 539 – El Cid (1961)

December 16, 2022

No sooner than the development of celluloid film enabled the emergence of movies, producers realized that ‘bigger was better’ in terms of filling theater seats and the ‘epic’ format was born. Predating even the advent of sound, Cecille B DeMille filled grandiose sets with a cast of thousands to make his first version of The Ten Commandments which became the highest grossing film of 1923. (You can watch it here for free.) The format, while still around, reached a zenith during the 60s with films like Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, and even DeMille’s own reprise of The Ten Commandments, my personal favourite.

When it came to casting actors to lead the lavish productions the prevailing idol was Charleton Heston who seemed to be as comfortable in sandals as in suits. While two of the aforementioned films earned him global fame and praise a not so distant third was El Cid, the highly dramatized biopic of the Spanish medieval hero Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar.

Enroute to his wedding to Doña Ximena (Sophia Loren) Rodrigo (Heston) intercedes in the capture of two Moor leaders among the various battles across Spain. He releases the prisoners on their swearing never to attack again and to live together in peace but upon arriving at his destination finds that his altruistic deed has led to an accusation of treason. One of those supporting the accusation is none other than Ximena’s father, the champion fighter of the realm, and in a battle of honor Rodrigo is forced to slay him. As her father lays dying his last words to Doña are to not let him die unavenged. Instead of a honeymoon Rodrigo now has his beloved vowing to kill him.

But Rodrigo still loves her. As the king needs someone to replace the slain champion he opts for a jousting competition to see who will lead his troops to regain the allegiance of a city within the realm ignoring his command. Rodrigo wins the competition and as a reward should he prevail in his mission asks the king for Ximena upon his return which the king so decrees. 

Now wedded but without reciprocal love, Rodrigo is faced with saving Spain all the while embroiled in a feud of princes posturing for power with the death of king Ferdinand. While exiled yet always maintaining allegiance to his country Rodrigo’s reputation as a loyal lord , fair arbiter and skilled warrior grows as does the legend of “El Cid”, the name bestowed upon him.

While there is a fair amount of clashing warriors and majestic sets expected in such epic films the drama overshadows most of it with the engaging plot and intricate relationships among the cast. That is not to say the script doesn’t have a few rough edges and stretches credulity on occasion (I have no idea how much of the story was embellished and not historically accurate). As a cinematic presentation it exceeded my expectations and I’m amiss at how I seemed to have missed this one all these years, viewing it for the first time only now.

Of course I could not miss the parallels with the current state of warring ideologies that still resonate today. It’s a stark reminder that the nonsensical Islamophobia has been around since recorded history and even then the villains were not representative of the religious dogma they falsely claim as a reason for what are pure power struggles.

Viva El-Cid!

Movie Reviews 538 – Matinee (1993)

December 9, 2022

The history of cinema has had more than its share of eccentric producers and directors. I’m not talking about the conscientious creators like Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman or the Coen brothers who make daringly original movies that push the boundaries of traditional filmmaking. I mean men who tested the confines of rationality like Ed Wood whose productions employed cardboard sets (and wrote matching scripts), schlockmeister John Waters challenging good taste, and Werner Herzog who continually put his cast and crews in insanely dangerous situations.

While the antics of the aforementioned were either philosophical or economically inspired, when it came down to purely pragmatic matters and putting audiences in theater seats the unabashed king was William Castle. The legendary producer and director was a consummate showman that loved to employ contrivances that stimulated audiences beyond the onscreen visual and audio presentations. These stunts could be minor such as having fake nurses appear at screenings to imply medical assistance would be required for patrons to more tactical ones such as having buzzers installed under seats to deliver ‘jolts’ to unsuspecting patrons, which Castle did for the The Tingler. While these effects were only done at a few limited screenings, the literal buzz they created made for some of the great (and cheap) nationwide advertising.

While not a true William Castle biopic, Matinee is a film that captures the essence of the man, and more importantly his famous gimmicks. The ‘Castle’ role here is one Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) who comes rolling into a small California town to screen and promote his latest feature, a horror film called Mant! in which a dental X-ray radiation overexposure creates a Man-Ant symbiote.

Unfortunately while Woosley plays a prominent role the main character of the film is a young boy infatuated with movies as means of coping with teen issues such as family burdens, fitting in with the other kids and of course girls. The film takes advantage of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a pretext for a bit of added tension and comedy backdrops. While I always give younger actors a lot of slack, some unfortunate casting choices for the kids who take up the majority of screen time left a lot to be desired. The interest only peaks when the adults, Woosley, his belle in tow (Cathy Moriarty) and the fall guy theater manager (Robert Picardo) are onscreen. 

I really wish I could recommend this film but this will only get love from creature feature aficionados and Castle fans. Ironically, perhaps fittingly, the tongue-in-cheek, film-in-a-film Mant! of which we get to see in many hilarious snippets outshone the main feature. That was the movie I wanted to see!

Movie Reviews 537 – The Black Cat (1934)

December 2, 2022

The Black Cat (1934)

When one hears the names Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi what immediately springs to mind are Frankenstein and Dracula. Well, perhaps in the case of Karloff that may include How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (rightly so, I might add). Their roles in the Universal films which brought the literary classics to movie audiences, both amazingly released in the same year of 1931, were sensations and made them both instant Hollywood stars.

Needless to say, both actors had resumes which cite many other fine films but cultural association being what it is, the two were forever typecast and branded to those particular roles. While the branding and fame allowed the studio to capitalize on their names in the following years, future generations only sought the films that made them famous and automatically relegated the rest as second rate works. This unfortunate circumstance meant that some very good films are often overlooked. Case in point, The Black Cat.

The film not only allowed Bela to shed his cape and nocturnal living restrictions but actually pits him as the hero, which as far as I can tell was the only time he was able to be the protagonist during his entire career, serials included. Boris takes on the role of a familiar evil scientist of sorts but his experiments are purely aligned with romantic interests. The most surprising element of the film is the political and patriotic foundation on which the story is built upon.

Lugosi takes on the role of Dr. Vitus Werdegast returning to his ancestral Hungarian home after years of Siberian incarceration as a WWI prisoner. He not only wants to avenge the wartime betrayal of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) which resulted in the death of thousands of compatriots but to find out what happened to his wife and daughter (both very confusingly named Karen). 

Joining Werdegast for his unannounced arrival are a newlywed couple on their honeymoon, who bear witness to the two rivals playing chess as well as a much more serious game of Cat and mouse with dire consequences. Not to be confused with the 1941 film of the same name this film is credited as being suggested by the Edgar Allan Poe (which you can read here) short story but as is often the case when adapting stories based on classic literature, the film real has nothing in common and even the entire ‘cat’ angle is shoehorned as a mere phobia for Bela’s character.

The plot includes a cult element to Poelzig’s stature and some extraordinary set pieces to elevate the film beyond mere celebrity cash in.  Like many such Universal monster films of the era the ending has the two adversaries battling it out in a clutched fight to the finish and a cliché dynamite ending but don’t let that dissuade. In more ways than one this film represents some of the best acting from both stars and deserves to be recognized for that.

Movie Reviews 536 – Baskin (2015)

November 25, 2022

You would think that being a horror film coming out of Turkey, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, would be shocking enough but Baskin manages to ruffle more than a few feathers, daring to push boundaries beyond ideological ones. The film tackles the authoritarian police state, power abuse and a slew of other social injustices along the way, and does so with some stunning imagery, a layered storyline, buckets of gore and … frogs. OK, I’m still scratching my head on that last one.

The story centers on a small, tightly knit police squad who are chatting away one evening in a small restaurant awaiting supper. As they trade insults and stories their young waiter makes the mistake of laughing along with them which leads to a heated exchange. While the outcome of the disruption is never explicitly relayed, the presumption is clear and case for what is to follow.

Upon leaving the restaurant the radio dispatch requests backup and assistance for some trouble in a nearby town. The unit radios in that they will respond but already have a queasy feeling as the town in question has an ominous reputation and troubled history. Even before they arrive at their destination things start getting weird including strange apparitions along the road and an accident that has them crashing and nearly drowning in a lake before being rescued by a vagrant family.

Once they do arrive at the address the true horrors begin. The dilapidated building is inhabited by a cult of squatters exhibiting violent, frenzied behavior, torturing and molesting one another as well as other victims. The newly arrived unit, having hallucinations of their own, end up captured and at the mercy of the cult. As the men go ever deeper into the building they find themselves in an almost ethereal world, one which holds their destiny.

This film begins with a fairly linear narrative but quickly shifts to peculiar territory before transforming into an utter supernatural nightmare. I loved the former but was not as engaged with the progression. On the positive side the main characters comprising the police unit are solid and well developed, especially that of the rookie Arda (Gorkem Kasal) and the “Boss” Remzi (Ergun Kuyucu) who is protective of the young man, and as we later find out, has more than a working relationship. The cult leader Baba /Father (Mehmet Cerrahoglu), an non-actor who like the renown Micheal Berryman has distinct facial features which factored on him being cast, does a remarkable job delivering his performance, but at the same time speaks in riddles and obscure logic.

While not nearly as baffling as a film from say Alejandro Jodorowsky (but with the same inclination for naked bodies) or Panos Cosmatos, this one had me scratching my head a number of times. I’d hoped to have some of my questions answered by the Extra Features on my Raven Banner DVD (which does include the 12 minute short that was expanded to feature length here) but the behind the scenes discussions proved that some of the actors were as confused as myself and the explanation of some aspects by director Can Evrenol (those damned frogs everywhere) proved to be as far fetched as I expected.

Perhaps deliberately being such a rebellious movie I was a bit disappointed with how little Turkish elements were present, aside from requisite few framed pictures of the revered statesman Atatürk. It’s an interesting film to be sure but for violent religious reflection films like Hellraiser and Martyrs do a better job.

Movie Reviews 535 – Quiz Show (1994)

November 18, 2022

Throughout its history television has gone through the cycles of popular genres that overtake that airways for a time. There were the westerns of the ‘60s, the variety shows and police dramas of the ‘70s to name but a few. These formats, while always present to a degree, dominated the network slots at their peak and faded after a few years once they had saturated the viewing audience’s tastes. But one format above all others took center stage at the dawn of broadcasting and has remained a constant presence ever since; the quiz shows.

Stimulating on their own, quiz shows not only allow audiences to play along but are one of the few ways in which average citizens can appear on television themselves. Aside from being a means for starry eyed, wannabe actors to get exposure hoping for a career, any successful contestants get to distinguish themselves and earn a few bragging rights for a brief time.

There have been classic shows like “The $64,000 Question” and “So You Want to be a Millionaire?” that captured mass audiences for a few years as well as staples that lingered for decades such as “Hollywood Squares” and my personal favorite “Jeopardy”. The format, while fluctuating in popularity over the years, remains ever-present. 

Like the history these shows used as fodder, quiz show history itself has had a number of black marks to its name. None have been seedier than the infamous ‘50s cheating scandal regarding the game Twenty-One which made national headlines. If the cheating itself were not enough the added disgrace of implicating a scion of an established famous family made the saga all the more salacious.

Directed by Robert Redford the docu-drama Quiz Show is one of those films I watch over and over again every few years. The story unfolds when hapless but popular player Herb Stempel (John Turturro), who has not only been given the answers but coaching on how to react, loses favor with the show’s sponsor and the showrunners. To end Stempel’s streak another spirited contestant would be needed. As luck would have it Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the son of a Pulitzer prize winning writer father and a novelist mother wants to try his hand at a game show as a lark. The producers pounce on the opportunity to have a suave and famous contestant, enticing him to ‘play along’ with the ruse. The plan works, only too well. Doren becomes a sensation much to the chagrin of Stempel who tries to sound the alarm. Eventually an inquisitive federal investigator (Rob Morrow) unravels the ruse. But there is another game afoot, this one a political football, and in that arena rules are made to be broken as well. 

While artistic license changed some aspects of the story, the major points fairly captured the real life events that unfolded, concentrating on the contrasting off-air impact on the lives of Charles and Herb. The casting is superb including smaller roles such as Paul Scofield playing Charles’ father Mark Van Doren and, surprisingly, director Martin Scorcese putting himself in front of the camera for a change.

A fascinating tale that surpasses the excitement of the show itself, even the climactic Twenty-One episode that you can watch yourself thanks to YouTube.

Do I recommend this film?  You bet your life. But you may want take a dose of Geritol (Twenty-One’s sponsor) to get the full effect.

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