Thursday, August 17, 2006

Cool beans...

The other day I opined to someone that you don't see director/actor match-ups the way you used to, ala John Wayne and John Ford, or Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann or Alfred Hitchcock; or Hitchcock and Cary Grant. I attributed this (along with lots of modern Hollywood's other ills) to the fact that movies are cranked out the way they used to be. Old time stars in their prime used to make two or three movies for every one a modern star might make. Tom Cruise is a pretty busy actor, and he currently has 35 movie credits. Jimmy Stewart had nearly a 100, Henry Fonda more than a 100, and Cary Grant nearly 90. John Wayne had nearly 175. (Admittedly, a lot of those where quickie oaters he made before hitting the big time with Stagecoach, although he made 80 to 90 movies after that, as well.)

However, there was at least one modern, long-running director / actor collaboration I forgot, that of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. They are now preparing to make their sixth project together, an adaptation of (apparently) Steven Sondheim's musical Sweeny Todd, about a murderous barber who cut his customer's throats--in the musical, he's given a motive for this--and the woman who then disposes of the bodies by making them into meat pies and selling them to the locals.

Really, that sounds right up Burton and Depp's alley, assuming the musical part works out all right.

It Came from Netflix: The Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938)

This was the second of the eight-picture Mr. Moto series I watched, and part of a four-movie set recently released series DVD. (Hopefully the other films will follow soon.) After the first film (Think Fast, Mr. Moto), I kind of gave up on the idea of watching the films in order, since I doubted there was much continuity between them. The Mysterious Mr. Moto proved to be the fourth film in the series, per the IMDB, and there was indeed little to suggest that I had missed anything by not watching the second and third entries first.

The good news is that there is no evident deterioration in the series between the first and fourth film. If anything, it improves on the first film in many ways. The budget is still quite good, if not inappropriately extravagant, as indicated by the scenes in an English pub. This set is quite a bit more elaborate and far better stocked with extras than it would be in a cheapie movie (such as the later Charlie Chan movies). The Mysterious Mr. Moto might be the fourth Moto film churned out in less than two years, but obviously the people behind it were still interested in making good pictures.

By now, as I assumed after seeing the first film, Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre) has become a bit more standardized as a character. He is indeed at this point a cop with Interpol rather than a private citizen, and less prone to kill people left and right. Even so, it’s clear that even if Moto was created following the success of Charlie Chan, in both print and in film, the characters are much different.

Whereas Chan is basically a classic detective of the Sherlock Holmes / Ellery Queen mode, Moto is more of a spy-type character, working undercover, wearing disguises, and engaging in physical combat on a regular basis. Moto is really more of an action lead. And while he does the ‘quiet, sedate Oriental’ thing, much like Chan, it’s clear that in Moto’s case it is entirely an act, meant to make an advantage of the way whites tend to underestimate him because of his race. Whenever another character, especially a white, in on the screen with him, Moto is always smiling and obsequious. When he’s alone, however, the mask be can seen to slip, even if only briefly.

Running a lean 61 minutes (who lethargic modern movies seem when watching these old programmers!), the fourth entry in the series actually improves in several ways on the original. First, Moto is much more the focus of things, and conversely the obligatory romantic leads are given much less screentime than the couple in the first film. (I have to admit, the fact that I found the female lead quite attractive probably helped too.)

The film opens with the escape of two killers from Devil’s Island. However, one of the escapees is in fact the undercover Mr. Moto, who has helped convict Paul Brissac (familiar character actor Leon Ames) escape so as to get into his confidence. Back in London, Moto learns that Brissac is part of the League of Assassins (or something of the sort), and that they are targeting pacifist industrialist Anton Darvak. As usual, the ‘mystery,’ which in this case involves the secret identity of the group’s leader, is perfunctory at best, and easily figured out. (The way that the guy allows his identity to be learned is also just silly, as it involves him for no real reason revealing himself to his henchmen for the first time.)

The real reasons to watch the film are to see Moto in action, playing in the middle between the killers and the interfering local cops, dodging numerous attempts on his life, and as usual engaging in a pretty good judo scuffle at the end of the movie. Kudos again to the stunt work, as even with my practiced eye and intent to spot the change, I could usually just barely tell when stuntman Harvey Parry was substituted for Lorre.

The DVD for this film, again available (as of now) only as part of the first Mr. Moto set, also features a short documentary on director Norman Foster, who directed and scripted six of the eight Motos. Foster had a long career as a director, including a lot of TV works on very popular shows like Batman, The Green Hornet and Disney’s manic fad-creating Davy Crockett. This was a well put together piece, although I was disappointed at the way it sped past his involvement with the Moto series.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Equinox (1967 / 1970)

Art house DVD specialists Criterion have occasionally dipped their toe into low budget genre films in the past, putting out highly nifty editions of films like Fiend Without a Face and the original The Blob. Recently they returned to those waters with a great two-disc edition of the drive-in classic Equinox.

Equinox was no doubt deemed worthy of the Criterion touch for two reasons. First, the original version of the movie, a basically homemade affair (that obviously inspired Sam Raimi’s similarly scraped together The Evil Dead) was the work of several young men who went to have impressive Hollywood careers. The film’s director Dennis Muren does visual effects work on films like The Hulk and War of the Worlds, and has been nominated for many an Oscar for his work, and has taken home the award an astounding seven times.

Second, the theatrical version of the movie was shepherded by producer Jack H. Harris, who also did The Blob and did a commentary for Criterion’s DVD of that film. Since they obviously have a good relationship with the guy, it’s kind of a no-brainer to showcase other of his films.

Aside from Muren, helping with original Equinox’s impressive special effects were Dave Allen and Jim Danforth. Both are well known to genre buffs today, especially as some of the last practitioners of stop-frame animation, which is heavily featured in this movie.

The guys were fittingly brought together through Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (Uncle Forry does an intro on the DVD), and decided to make a movie. The result was Equinox…A Journey Into the Supernatural. In this, four friends, two men and two women, go to the remote mountain cabin of a college professor, only to find that he’s been messing around with things Man Was Not Meant to Know.

Aside from eye-popping monster f/x, especially from guys who were basically amateurs, the film presages the sort of fatalism that really gripped the horror film generally following the next year’s Night of the Living Dead. The end result was an amazingly ambitious effort for a bunch of youngsters working with a $6,500 budget.

The film lay about for a while, before producer Harris scooped it up and had it reworked for a theatrical release. Marvelously, the Criterion set features both films, so that you can contrast them. When I started watching Harris’ version, I was at first upset to see another director credited for what I assumed would be but a gloss on Muren’s original.

However, it is in fact a completely different film. 95% of what was kept from the original version was the special effects scenes. Otherwise, the original small cast was rounded back up, and the rest of the movie was completely reshot. The major change is that the supernatural forces now have a malign personification, in the form of a sinister forest ranger named Asmodeus. That alteration really helps give the film some narrative momentum, although some of the scripting and character motivations were tightened as well.

In the end, both versions are pretty good and well worth watching, but Harris’ is, in fact, more professional. It is kind of funny how the actors (including a young Frank Bonner, who went on to sitcom immortality as the crass Herb Tarlek on WKRP in Cincinnati) look obviously older, despite returning for Harris’ version only two or three years later.

I haven’t rented the second disc yet, which features a bunch of documentaries and other bonus materials. However, the first disc has both versions of the movie, and also commentaries for each. Muren, scripter Mark McGee Danforth comment on the original, while Harris (a hilariously bluff old school showman with a plumy Don Pardo-like voice) and Jack Woods, who wrote and directed the theatrical version, reminisce about that movie.

Those interested in buying the set will also get a thick booklet about the movie(s). This is essential stuff for any monster movie buff, and again especially important due to the obvious influence on Raimi’s Evil Dead movies.

Snakes on a Plane!

This is a testament to the power of Snakes on a Plane. I talked two of my fuddy-duddy friends, Tech Master Paul and his wife Holly (and she was an especial coup) into napping Friday after work and then hitting the 12:30 AM showing at our local Woodfield theater. I figure the sort of retards that would stay up until 12:30 to see Snakes on a Plane on opening night constitute exactly the sort of audience I want to see the movie with.

[I also opined that probably the purest way to experience the film would be to buy your ticket, get there early and grab good seats, wait until the title appeared on the screen, stand up, applaud, and leave. Because really, the rest of the film after that point it largely superflous.]

By the way, we went to see Pirates 2 last night, and in the lobby the theater had a standee ad for SoaP that was in the cartoon style of an airplane emergency manual: "If bitten by a poisonous snake, please alert the nearest flight attendent." If the movie is half as hilarious as that ad, it will be awesome. I stared at that thing for a good five straight minutes, and think I was literally crying at how funny it was. Then, when we left after the movie later, we saw a bunch of 16 year-olds spot it and have the exact same reaction (like Paul, one girl immediately took a cell phone picture of it). If kids that age are excited about the movie, too, it's going to make huge money.

And really, is *anyone* a better match for this movie than Samuel L. Jackson? I think not.

Two more days.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)

Mr. Moto initially was more or less a Japanese knock-off of Charlie Chan, whose print adventures were hugely popular in The Saturday Evening Post. Author John Marquand helped feed the appetite for inscrutable oriental adventurers by creating Mr. Moto, originally a civilian crime fighter and later an international police officer.

In time, a gigantic number of Chan movies began to be churned out, starring several actors and produced at several studios (with shoestring poverty row company Monogram taking over the series after it lost most of its box office luster). In the end, I think there were something like 42 Chan movies made over a roughly twenty-year span.

Naturally, several knock-off characters followed, resulting in such sights as Boris Karloff (!) playing the Oxford educated Mr. Wong in five cheapie movies. A somewhat more upscale series, however, featured German émigré Peter Lorre as Marquand’s Mr. Moto. Lorre at first was pleased to play a good guy, rather than his trademark sinister characters, but tired of the increasingly perfunctory entries as he was forced to grind out eight Moto movies over the next two years. Nor were things helped by Lorre’s then chronic efforts to kick his morphine addiction. On a later picture, a director asked Lorre how he managed to keep churning out the (to him) desultory Motos. “I was on dope,” Lorre replied. He wasn’t kidding.

Think Fast, Mr. Moto was the first Moto movie, however, and Lorre was still in a good humor about it. The German actor, with his lisping European accent, was an odd choice to play the Nipponese Moto (although Warner Oland, the best of the Chans, was Swedish), and probably was mostly cast because of his diminutive size. Lorre forwent make-up such as fake eye-folds, moreover, and relied on his size, performance and a pair of wire rim glasses to sell his character’s ethnicity.

The first movie plays Moto a bit mysteriously, and it’s not until the end that his good guy status is confirmed. I assume later on in the series he became a more standard sort of cop, ala Chan. However, if Chan was a fox in the Columbo mold (or vice versa, actually), Moto is more of a cobra, waiting passively and then suddenly striking with deadly effect. Moto probably kills more people in this movie than the gentle Chan did in his 40 movies put together, assuming he ever actually killed anyone. Indeed, at least once Moto more or less just murders a guy, even if the latter had it coming. Moto certainly brawls more, being a master of Judo, and is apt to don elaborates disguises and going undercover.

Another difference is that while Moto assume assumes a Chan-like humbleness, he seems (perhaps due to Lorre, who knew what it was like to find himself surrounded by Americans) to be more playing at it than Chan did, and seems alternately amused and annoyed at how his race has him treated by blustering whites.

The plot, about a smuggling ring, is the normal piffle, and way too much time is spent on a typically boring romance between two typically callow leads. An odder note is that the villains are played by actors at least now more associated with comedy. The ringleader is played by Sig Ruman, who played a foil for the Marx Brothers in several of their comedies. His chief henchman, meanwhile, was played by an actor best known for his comic mugs. Sharp-eyed viewers, meanwhile, will spot J. Carrol Naish (House of Frankenstein) as a shopkeeper early on.

The first Mr. Moto, at least, is a fun way to kill an hour, and indeed the eight pictures all clocked in at around 60 to 70 minutes. Viewers with a horror of exaggerated ethnic characters obviously might want to give these a pass, but if you can get past that aspect and enjoy old detective movies, you might want to give these a look.

A first box set of Motos, with the initial four films, has just come out on DVD. They have been extensively cleaned up, and look pretty good for ‘B’ flicks from this period. The DVD for Think Fast, Mr. Moto also features a documentary on Harvey Parry, the stuntman who did all the rough stuff in lieu of the delicate, awkward Lorre. For what it’s worth, he was a great stand-in for Lorre. Despite looking for the insertion of a stuntman (and in a near crystal clear digital picture) during the fight scenes, I couldn’t always tell when one was being used.