Thursday, March 29, 2012

Movie Monsters! An A to Z Appreciation

The Andromeda Strain - Yes, they're the littlest "monsters" on this list, but let's not forget they wiped out a whole town. It could have been the world if not for the Project Wildfire team.

The Brainiac sticks out its tongue.
The Brainiac - Baron Vitelius can suck brains out of his victims with a long forked tongue. Yuck! A Mexican horror cult classic.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon - The Gill Man was popular enough to earn two sequels, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. Yeah, I felt a little sympathy for him, but he brought on his own problems with his infatuation with Julia Adams.

Dracula - Sorry, Twilight and True Blood fans, Drac is still the most famous vampire. Lugosi has his fans, but I think Christopher Lee--complete with dripping fangs and bloodshoot eyes--was the definitive Count.

Eegah! - I know what you're thinking...he was just a good-natured caveman with a crush. But he did scare a lot of people and, let's be frank, the movie was kinda scary...you know, the fact that it was made.

Frogs - Honestly, I can't remember if the frogs actually killed anyone in this Ray Milland pic about nature taking revenge on a group of humans for destroying the local ecology. At a minimum, though, the frogs were the masterminds behind the whole attack.

Godzilla - The big guy was certainly the most influential monster of the 1950s. Through the decades, he evolved from a destructive bad guy to Earth-saving superhero (Monster Zero) to caring father (Son of Godzilla). Honorable mention: The Graboids in Tremors.

The H-Man - The obvious choice for the letter "H," but it's too hard to resist listing this unique Japanese film noir/horror film.

The Invisible Man - With his bandage-wrapped head and sunglasses, the Invisible Man was (ironically) one of the most visually disturbing Universal monsters of the 1930s. The sequels were pretty good, too, and that includes the very funny Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.

Jabberwocky - Terry Gilliam's medieval black comedy was an all-around flop when initially released. After Brazil and 12 Monkeys, it became a cult classic--but not because of the title creature.

King Kong - Despite all the technological advances in special effects, watching Willis O'Brien's stop-motion giant ape is still a treat. Why? Because he infused Kong with such a remarkable personality (ditto for Little Kong in the rarely-shown sequel).

Big bunnies!
Lepus - Little bunnies aren't scary at all. Not until they grow into rampaging giants that terrorize Janet Leigh in Night of the Lepus.

Mothra - I know...she was a good monster! But she was a giant caterpillar that destroyed cities and their residents...so she still fits the definition of a monster. Plus, her popularity has spanned over five decades.

Naschy, Paul - Have you watched too many European dubbed horror films from the 1970s? If so, you know Spanish actor Naschy, who may have starred in more horror films than any other performer. He was most famous for playing a werewolf in a long-running series.

Octopus - Sure, giant squids were all the rage for years with memorable supporting performances in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Reap the Wild Wind. All that changed with this 1977 Italian film. It was pretty bad, but it starred Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters, John Huston, and--in a starring role--a giant octopus.

Pterodactyl - They have appeared in numerous sci fi films, but I most admire the one that carried off Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.

Q - The Winged Serpent - If your name was Quetzalcoatl, your friends would probably call you Q, too. Larry Cohen's 1982 low-budget, tongue-in-cheek horror tale featured an Aztec god--in the form of a dragon-like creature--terrorizing the residents of New York City.

Reptilicus - Quick, name a Danish film about a giant winged reptile that's totally unrelated to Q? Oh, you already knew about Reptilicus? You are so smart!

Shrews (of The Killer Shrews variety) - It was produced by and co-starred Festus (aka Ken Curtis) from Gunsmoke. That's enough to make this list...but it was creative, too. Killer shrews? Who would've thunk?

Tarantula - Leo G. Carroll as a mad scientist plus a giant, hairy spider and--if that's not enough--John Agar as the hero! 

The Uninvited - Hey, what's that smell? It's the scent of mimosa in my favorite ghost movie--which features good and bad spirits from beyond.

The Valley of Gwangi - Ray Harryhausen's Gwangi wasn't the first pairing of cowboys and dinosaurs (that dubious honor belongs to The Beast of Hollow Mountain). Still, the dinos looked good...plus James Franciscus as a rodeo star. Honorable mention: Vermithrax, my all-time favorite dragon who made a splash in Dragonslayer.

Winged Monkeys from The Wizard of Oz - Not monsters, you say? I thought they were incredibly creepy little creatures.

X the Unknown - Maybe it did look like a big glowing glob (not technically a Blob) when finally revealed....but X the Unknown somehow got Dean Jagger, Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey), and Anthony Newley in the same film!

The Ymir...after he grew up.
Ymir - Ray Harryhausen's Venusian creature from 20 Million Years to Earth started little, got big, and wound up with a showcase in the Rome Colosseum. What a show-off!

Zontar: The Thing from Venus - Sure, he had a cool name, but Zontar was not the Earth-friendly alien he initially seemed to be. Yes, you guessed it...his goal was to conquer the world!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Michael Powell and Me

In 1985, my wife and I organized a celebrity auction as a fundraising event for a non-profit film society we founded in Kentucky. Most celebrities don't contribute items for such auctions, which is understandable since they probably get thousands of requests each year. When you do receive an item, such as a Dennis the Menace sketch by Hank Ketcham, the response is typically from the celebrity's agent or assistant. However, once in a while, a famous person takes the time to write a personal note. I've always loved the letter and annotated photo below from Michael Powell, which accompanied an autographed paperback of The Red Shoes.
























Michael Powell was not only a great filmmaker, but--like Truffaut and Scorsese--he promoted the history and the craft of making films. When I hear people comment that "they don't make movies like they used to," I think of a Powell quote: "Seventy years ago, there were men like D.W. Griffith. And seventy years later, now, there are not many men like Martin Scorsese. But so long as there is one, there will be others, and the art of the cinema will survive."

As for Powell's love affair with the cinema, it began at an early age and ended only with his death in 1990. In the first of his two autobiographies, A Life in Movies (a must for any film buff), Powell describes when he was offered his first job in the industry, as an assistant to director Harry Lachman: "I didn't know what to say. I only knew that I stood on the threshold of a new and wonderful life, half in and half out, and that I must, must, cross that threshold."
Fortunately for us, Powll crossed that threshold and enjoyed an amazing career, making films alone and with his frequent collaborator Emeric Pressberger (they formed a production company called The Archers). Over the next four days, the Classic Film & TV Cafe is delighted to host A Tribute to The Archers: A Powell & Pressberger Movie Blogathon. Ten films will be reviewed by 14 classic movie bloggers. We encourage you to check them out and share your affection for some of the greatest films ever made.

Oh, and about that copy of The Red Shoes that Michael Powell sent for the celebrity auction. Even though we had items from Ray Bradbury, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the President, and even a dress worn by Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune, none matched the bidding war for that Red Shoes book. And, sadly, I didn't get it!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Tribute to The Archers: A Powell & Pressberger Movie Blogathon

The Classic Film & TV Cafe is hosting host a March 25-28 blogathon featuring the stellar films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger (known collectively as The Archers). Since their output was relatively modest, some of their films are being reviewed twice--all the more interesting to get two opinions on some of these unique classics!


Sunday, March 25th

Michael Powell and Me - Classic Film & TV Cafe
The Red Shoes - ClassicBecky's Brain Food
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing - Classicfilmboy's Movie Paradise
A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Monday, March 26th

I Know Where I'm Going - The Movie Projector
The 49th Parallel - Caftan Woman
Peeping TomTwenty Four Frames
Gone to Earth - The Foxling


Tuesday, March 27th

The Red Shoes - Silver Screen Modiste
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - portraitsbyjenni


Wednesday, March 28th

The Small Back Room - Distant Voices and Flickering Shadows
Black Narcissus - Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

Monday, March 19, 2012

Our Favorite Celebrity Autograph Collector Talks about His Fascinating Hobby

Hugh Jackman and Terry.
From Joan Fontaine to Liza Minnelli to Meryl Streep to Hugh Jackman, Terry has collected the autographs of--and has his photo snapped with--thousands of celebrities. Today, he visits the Cafe to talk about his amazing collection and share a few "trade secrets" for novice autograph collectors.


Cafe: How did you get started with collecting autographs?


Meryl Streep's autograph.
Terry:  My very first autograph, which I still have, came from actor Fess Parker. He was the headline act in a circus in Evansville, Indiana when I was 7 years old. My dad was connected to someone in the circus and we got to go back stage to meet Daniel Boone. The collecting bug hit me again when I was a junior at Indiana University in the mid-1970s. Many celebrities, politicians, actors, and musicians appeared on campus. I bought a blank, 100-page sketchbook—my take on the little autograph books that people used in Hollywood’s heyday--and my first autograph in the book is actor Vincent Price. I am now collecting autographs in my 14thsketchbook!

Cafe: What are some of your favorite autographs in your collection and why?

Terry: I love them all, in some manner, because they are from people I like or people that I’ve met. But some favorites are: Liberace (he drew his piano and candelabra); all the U. S. presidents I’ve met (Ford, Clinton, and Obama); composer John Williams (writing out a musical quotation for the Indy Jones theme); a map of the last voyage of the USS Indianapolis before it was sunk that is signed by 40 survivors; many, many autographs from actors who appeared as Munchkins of the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, and playbills signed by the casts of the shows I’ve seen on Broadway.

Cafe: I know you've also had your photograph taken with a host of celebrities. What are some of your favorite photos?

With Jennifer Garner.
Terry: In my office, I have pictures of me with Jennifer Garner and Liza Minnelli. I got to meet actress Jennifer Carpenter about a year ago and got my photo taken with her twice because she’s one of my favorites. I have a friend that describes that ideal celebrity autograph encounter as getting them to sign an autograph book, getting them to sign a picture, and getting a photo taken with them. I’d add to that getting the picture taken with them signed at a later meeting! So in that case, I like photos with Dan Wheldon (my favorite Indy car driver), Taylor Dayne, and Judith Light.

Cafe: What's your best guess on how many celebrity autographs and photos you've collected over the years?

Adrien Brody.
Terry: About 15,000? I’ve started a catalog. I’m less than halfway through my collection and I’ve got a list of 7,301. Plus I probably have another 2,500 books that are signed, too. It’s amazing how quickly a collection can grow. There are some events that will yield dozens in a short time period. Sometimes, days go by and I get none. During the recent Super Bowl in Indy, in a week’s time, I got 53.

Cafe: Have you ever paid for an autograph? How are autographs valued?

Terry: I have. There are some celebrities that sell their autographs to augment their income, or at least offset the cost. For example, if you write to Joan Fontaine (PO Box 222600, Carmel, CA 93922) and ask for a signed photo, she’ll ask you for $5 to pay for it. If you send your own, she’ll sign it for free. At collector events, like the Horrorhound Weekend (http://www.horrorhoundweekend.com/), you can expect to pay a guest for each autograph they sign (usually $20 - $30 each); some even charge you to pose for a picture with them. I once saw horror film director George A. Romero at a convention. He was charging $25 per signature and he averaged 60 signatures an hour, based on my observation. He signed for 7 hours on each of the three-day convention and probably walked with $30,000+ for the show. It’s a big business.
Lily Tomlin poses with Terry.
Value is a real challenge sometimes. People have collected autographs for hundreds of years. The desire to have a personal memento from a famous and/or important person still drives the autograph collecting field. So value can be based on who it is, how rare it is, and supply/demand.

Think of an icon and their autograph is probably valuable. Babe Ruth's signature has strong and continually appreciating value, yet it is not rare. A large supply exists because he was a good signer for many years. James Dean's autograph has a similar demand but is in extremely small supply resulting from his premature passing.

But rarity isn’t based on whether or not the signer is dead. For example, David Ogden Stiers is popular with folks who collect M*A*S*H memorabilia and, as he voiced several characters in animated films, with Disney collectors. The demand for his signature is high and the supply is not great. Recently, an estimated 200 trading cards with his signature were featured in a Star Trek set released in late 2011. These cards now regularly sell for $100 or more on eBay.


Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin and Terry.
Value is also affected by the format it appears on. In ascending order of value, the base price of a person's autograph typically is on a small piece of paper or a small card. Next is a document — a legal agreement or contract, even a check — followed by a typed letter signed (TLS). After this comes a signed photograph (SP) and, at the top of the value chain, a handwritten and signed letter (ALS). Content and condition also play a role. In the end, it depends on how much you want it and what you are willing to pay.

Cafe:  OK, can you give up a tip on how to be a successful autograph collector--you know, a trade secret?


Terry: I mostly collect in person now so it helps to know who is coming to town and to plan going to a venue’s stage door before or after the event. Also, it helps to get an idea of where people might be staying, too. It’s not a hobby for someone who wants to walk right up and get a signature or a picture. You find yourself standing around a lot, watching and waiting. But once you’ve done it long enough, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is.

If you are going to collect TTM (or through the mail), it helps to send your own item to get signed and write a good, sincere letter. There are many websites that can help you with addresses; my favorite is http://www.startiger.com/. Familiarize yourself with someone’s autograph, too, as many stars use agencies or secretaries to sign for them. Before eBay, easy access to addresses online, and a more heightened sense of the value of a star’s autograph, collecting TTM was easier and you got more successes. In the end, write to people that you enjoy and want to collect—quality over quantity.

And if you are going to purchase an autograph, buy from someone you trust. Understand their return policy and ask where they got it. Again, the more research you can do before hand on an item will help you understand its value. A company that is good to check out is Autograph World (http://www.autographworld.com/).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Connie and Troy Find Love (Eventually) in "Susan Slade"

This third collaboration between writer-director Delmer Daves and teen heartthrob Troy Donahue lacks the youthful passion of A Summer Place and the entertaining subplots of Parrish. Still, it’s a diverting big-screen soap with all the elements of Daves’s polished formula: beautiful scenery (the Monterey coast line), first-time love, affluent people, well-developed relationships between young people and their parents, and a lovely music score by Max Steiner (though it’s not as memorable as the ones he did for the previous two films).

Connie Stevens (graduating from a supporting role in Parrish) plays the title character, a naïve young woman who has spent her teenage years in Chile with her parents. Her father, Roger Slade (Lloyd Nolan), has worked as a chief engineer for a mine company, earning his boss, Stanton Corbett, over $20 million. To show his gratitude, Corbett has bought a home along the Monterey coast for Roger’s family and provided a substantial pension.

On the ocean cruise to California, Susan falls in love with rich playboy Conn White (Grant Williams), who climbs mountains in lieu of a job. It’s hard to tell initially if Conn (I love that name) truly cares for Susan, but he is physically attracted to her. Believing that she has found her true love, Susan gives in to Conn’s desires. As is inevitable in any good soap, Susan becomes pregnant. When fate intervenes to keep Susan and Conn apart, Susan’s mother devises an unintentionally cruel plan to protect the family from scandal.

A strong cast puts their all into this melodrama, especially Connie Stevens who is winningly vulnerable and believable in her best film role. As her mother, the ever-elegant Dorothy McGuire gets the picture’s juiciest part—her Leah Slade is a well-meaning parent whose motives for helping her daughter ultimately become questionable. Surprisingly, Troy’s role is pretty much a supporting one, a slight variation of the chip-on-his-shoulder young man he played in Parrish. Still, as in that film, he and Connie share a natural chemistry that brings a sweetness to their scenes together.

TV fans can also take delight in seeing Natalie Schafer giving what amounts to a dress rehearsal for her most famous role—as Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. Almost as rewarding is the opportunity to see future game show host Bert Convy as Wells (another great name), Susan’s snobby, stinking-rich suitor (you just know that he doesn’t have a chance).

After Susan Slade, Delmer Daves and Troy Donahue would pair up one last time. However, the travelogue romance Rome Adventure broke from the successful soap formula and, perhaps as a result, its boxoffice failed to match A Summer Place, Parrish, and Susan Slade. It could also be that—as always happens with teen heartthrobs—Troy’s popularity was beginning to fade. Still, Rome Adventure had one positive result for Troy: It introduced him to his wife Suzanne Pleshette.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fighting Skeletons, Winged Harpies, and the Metallic Talos Highlight Ray Harryhausen's "Jason and the Argonauts"

In his delightful Film Fantasy Scrapbook, Ray Harryhausen wrote: "Of the 15 fantasy features I have been connected with, Jason and the Argonauts pleases me the most." And as a long-time Harryhausen fan, I confess that it's my favorite among his incredibly imaginative works (with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad a close second).

Based on the tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece, the films opens with Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) about to launch an attack on Aristo, the king of Thessaly. On the eve of the battle, an oracle warns Pelias: "It is also foretold that although you will win the throne of Aristo, you will--when Zeus ordains--lose it to one of Aristo's children." That night, Pelias decides to take the lives of Aristo's children to prevent the prophecy. However, the baby Jason is taken to safety and Aristo's daughter Briseis seeks the protection of the goddess Hera. Despite the risk of incurring Hera's wrath, Pelias kills Briseis. A shadowy figure in the temple tells Pelias that a one-sandaled man will prove his undoing.

Todd Armstrong as Jason.
Twenty years later, while searching the countryside for Jason, Pelias falls in a river and nearly drowns. He is rescued by a young man, who emerges from the water with only one sandal. Pelias realizes immediately that Jason (Todd Armstrong) has arrived to reclaim his father's throne. However, Jason has never seen Pelias and doesn't know that he has saved--and now befriended--the man that murdered his family. Fearing Hera's wrath, Pelias knows he cannot kill Jason outright, so he suggests that the young man rally the downtrodden people of Thessaly with an inspiring act of heroism: retrieving the Golden Fleece from the edge of world.

Jason stages a competition to select the bravest, strongest (e.g., Hercules), and smartest men (e.g., Hylas) for his crew. Unfortunately, Pelias' son (Gene Raymond) joins the ranks, too, and his goal is to ensure Jason never returns. With five wishes from Hera to assist him, Jason sets sail aboard his ship the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece.

One of the two Harpies.
What I have just described is essentially a 45-minute build-up to an incredible hour of thrills and chills courtesy of Harryhausen's amazing stop-motion special effects. Jason and the Argonauts encounter the metallic god Talos, the pesky winged Harpies, Triton and the Clashing Rocks, the seven-headed hydra, and the "hydra's teeth", which sprout into an army of mean-looking skeleton warriors. Every fan has his or her favorite creature and, while the Harpies and the Hydra always amaze me, I've got to go with the skeleton warriors. Even with today's digital special effects, I cannot imagine the climactic skeleton fight looking any better.

Jason and the Argonauts was filmed in a small coastal village south of Naples. The production took two years to complete, with most of the time devoted to Harryhausen's special effects. In his Scrapbook, Harryhausen describes the skeleton sequence: "There were seven skeletons fighting three men, with each skeleton having seven appendages to move in each frame of film, this meant an unprecedented 35 animated movements had to be synchronized with three live actors' movements; so one can readily see why it took four and a half months to record the sequence for the screen."

Harryhausen notes that one of the most difficult effects to achieve was the herky-jerky movement of the giant metallic Talos. The irony is that Harryhausen spent his career trying to make his creatures move in a smooth, lifelike manner.

Aside from Harryhausen's impressive contributions, Jason and the Argonauts remains an entertaining adventure yarn. It takes a while to get going, but once it does, director Don Chaffey maintains a lively pace. Bernard Herrmann, who collaborated with Harryhausen on three other films, provides a rousing score.

As for the cast, Todd Armstrong makes a solid hero, though he's not as charismatic as Kerwin Matthews from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Niall MacGinnis (from Curse of the Demon) and Honor Blackman (Goldfinger) are fun as Zeus and Hera. The best performance, though, comes from Nigel Green, who makes a brief but memorable appearance as a very different Hercules. In contrast to Steve Reeves' portrait, Green's Hercules is a middle-aged man well aware of his celebrity, whose greed and guilt limit his involvement in Jason's quest.

Jason and the Argonauts is not "the greatest film ever made," as Tom Hanks said when awarding Ray Harryhausen a Special Oscar in 1992. But it may be the best fantasy action film and Harryhausen's marvelous creatures are a wonder to behold time and time again. In my opinion, it was the pinnacle of Harryhausen's incredible career. There were still good films to come, such as 1974's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, but nothing worthy of comparison to Jason and the Argonauts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

All About Wuxia: An Interview with Sark on the Popular Asian Film Genre

Today, we're sharing a corner in the Cafe with Sark, our resident expert on Asian cinema, to chat about Wuxia films.

Cafe:  Sark, let's start at the very beginning. What is a wuxia film?

An example: Zu Warriors from 
the Magic Mountain.
Sark:  Wuxia is a genre of Chinese films. It began in literature, but in movies, as we know them here in the West, it’s typically associated with period action pieces. An easy way to define it is to compare it to martial arts films with such stars as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Michelle Yeoh. While martial arts movies tend to focus on hand-to-hand combat, wuxia most often highlights sword-wielding heroes in a fantastical setting, e.g. flying through the air in battle.

Cafe:  What was your first introduction to the wuxia genre?

Sark:  I can’t recall a specific film that introduced me to the wuxia genre. But I do remember a group of wuxia films that I watched while I was in college, such as Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair (1993) and Ching Siu-Tung’s Swordsman II (1991). I had seen similar movies prior to these, but it was during this time that I grew accustomed to watching characters in the air just as much as on the ground.

Cafe:  Who are some of the most famous wuxia stars?

Wang Yu in Beach of the War Gods.
Sark:  Jimmy Wang Yu starred in many films of the genre, including Beach of the War Gods (1973) and Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976/aka One-Armed Boxer 2), both of which Wang also directed. Ti Lung, though more familiar to American audiences as a star of John Woo’s contemporary bullet ballet, A Better Tomorrow (1986), with Chow Yun Fat, had leading roles in his share of wuxia, perhaps his most famous being Chang Cheh’s King Eagle (1970). It’s hard to watch later wuxia movies and not see Brigitte Lin, who starred in the aforementioned The Bride with White Hair and Swordsman II. She was also in sequels to both of those, The Bride with White Hair 2 and The East is Red (1992/aka Swordsman III), both in 1993, Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time (1994), and Deadful Melody (1994/the mistranslated English title is generally accepted, though I have seen at least one DVD release as Deadly Melody). She unfortunately retired from movies in 1994. All three of these actors deftly handle roles in wuxia movies. They play the parts with credibility and sincerity, and make it easy to accept the fantasy as pure reality.

Brigitte Lin as The Bride with White Hair.

Cafe:  If I wanted to sample some representative films, what would you recommend?

Cheng Pei-Pei in Come Drink with Me.
Sark:  Wuxia films that I think are significant: 1979’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry (an early film from John Woo); King Hu’s 1966 Come Drink with Me (a prime example of the genre, and the fact that leading lady Cheng Pei-Pei started as a ballet dancer says much about wuxia’s visual style); most films with Brigitte Lin, but definitely The Bride with White Hair, Swordsman II and an earlier one directed by Tsui Hark, 1983’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain; and another movie from Ching Siu-Tung, Duel to the Death (1983), with Damian Lau, who, as it happens, also starred in Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain.

Cafe:  What is your favorite wuxia film and why?

Swordsman II.
Sark:  My favorite wuxia film is Swordsman II. I think the visual bravura of Ching, who’s also a choreographer, is amazing, often including tracking shots that frame two or more characters clanging swords in lithe, graceful movement. The cast is outstanding; in addition to Lin, there’s Jet Li, Michelle Reis, Rosamund Kwan and Waise Lee (who co-starred with Ti Lung in A Better Tomorrow). The film is even interesting historically: It’s a sequel to a 1990 movie, and though many characters return, nearly everyone was recast – Lin replaced a male actor because she’s playing a man slowly turning himself into a woman.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Miguel Rodriguez of Monster Island Resort Chats with the Cafe About Kaijueiga Cinema

Miguel Rodriguez hosts the "online radio show that goes bump in the night!" at Monster Island Resort. You can also follow him on Twitter as @MnstrIsleResort. Today, Miguel talks with Rick about his passion for Kaijueiga films.

Rick: I suspect many Cafe readers are unfamiliar with the term "Kaijueiga." What does it mean and what is its origin?

Miguel: In Japanese, that would be loosely translated as “monster film,” “Kaiju” essentially meaning “monster” and “eiga”essentially meaning “film.” In the case of Godzilla and his ilk, there is also the term “Daikaijueiga,” which means “Giant monster film.”

Rick: I've heard about the different "eras" of Kaijueiga films. Can you define them for a novice like me?

Miguel: The names of the eras actually come from the reigning emperors of Japan, even if the years don’t completely fit. The Showa Era, or the reign of Emperor Hirohito, is used to describe the first 16 Godzilla films from Gojira in 1954 to Terror of MechaGodzilla in 1975. These are the films most Americans seem to remember when they think about Godzilla, since many of them were brought to the USA, care of American International Pictures. After the somber and metaphorical original film, the rest of this series increasingly became marketed to children.

Hirohito’s son Akihito succeeded the throne in 1989, thus beginning the Heisei Era of Japan. Although the first of the reboot Godzilla movies began in 1984, they are referred to as the Heisei Era for purposes of convenience, and only one of these seven films was released before 1989 anyway. The original 1954 Gojira is always the first film, but this series continues from there, completely ignoring the rest of the Showa Era. The Heisei Era has the most continuity, with recurring characters and references to events in previous films. This era began with Godzilla 1984 and ended with Godzilla Vs. Destroyah.

Finally, after the disastrous American Godzilla, the Millenium Series reboot began with Godzilla 2000and ended (so far) with Godzilla Final Wars in 2004. These six films (with only a couple of exceptions) reboot the series from the first film with almost every new release. Other than Godzilla Final Wars, this is probably the least tongue-in-cheek of the Godzilla Eras. Now, there is talk of a new American Godzilla film (cue me quaking in my boots).

Rick: If I wanted to see one representative film from each era, what would you recommend?

Miguel: The 1954 Gojira, in its true uncut Japanese form, is a must for any era. After that, I would say Mothra Vs. Godzilla for the Showa Era, Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah for the Heisei Era, and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack for the Millenium Era.

Rick: What was your first introduction to Kaijueiga films?

Miguel: My dad took me to see Godzilla 1985 (as it was called in the US) when it was theatrically released. I’ve been hooked ever since, getting my fix as a kid from daytime reruns and library rentals. Of course, this means growing up with butchered American versions dubbed in English. When I was old enough to get my first job, I started hunting down rare VHS copies of the films. Believe it or not, the Heisei movies are still some of the hardest to find!

Rick: What are your three favorite Kaijueiga films and why?

Biollante.
Miguel: I will leave off the original Gojira because that goes without saying. I actually mentioned my favorites from each era in the above question, so I will give special mentions here. Destroy All Monsters (1968) is a must-see for any fans of DaikaijuEiga. They brought out almost every monster in the gallery for this one. It’s also where I get the name for my podcast The Monster Island Resort! Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (1974) was one of the first I saw on television. I thought it was so exciting, and I still remember watching it fondly. It has some really cool monster battle moments! It is firmly in the Godzilla-is-a-superhero camp of films, and should be watched like one would watch the 60s Batman TV show. Finally, I will mention Godzilla Vs. Biollante (1989), which was an attempt to introduce an unfamiliar monster in the Heisei Era. I really love this monster, but unfortunately it was a box office disappointment so they rehashed familiar monsters for most of the series.

Thank you so much for the interview. I obviously love talking about giant monsters from Japan!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Best B-Movies…oops, I mean, Bee Movies

I originally wrote this post in 2009 to generate some buzz. After considering several possibilities, I seized on a honey of an idea and decided to do one on bees in the cinema (no, not bees in movie theatres, but rather bees depicted on film). Since the number of quality bee films is limited, I dipped into television, too. Here are my top five:

1. Mysterious Island (1961). Bees hit the big time, or rather they were big in this lively adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. Castaways on the title island battle giant bees, courtesy of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Bottom line: Harryhausen + giant bees = cool scene.

2. The Outer Limits episode “Zzzzz” (1964). An entomologist studying bees needs a new lab assistant. A queen bee who can transform herself into human form needs a new mate. The entomologist is married. We now have a conflict. This entertaining episode benefits mightily from Joanna Frank, who scores as the exotic bee queen determined to get her way.

3. The Deadly Bees (1966). OK, it’s not a great movie, but it didn't deserve to be spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was directed by famed cinematographer Freddie Francis, so it looks good. Plus, it earns its spot on this list just for including a plotline about liquidizing the “smell of fear” and for featuring great a tag line: “Hives of Horror!”

4. Ulee’s Gold (1997). Too recent to qualify as a classic film, but we’ll toss it in here as an example of a serious bee movie. Actually, the bees are strictly supporting players in this low-key tale of a beekeeper and his family in northern Florida. Still, it earned Peter Fonda his best reviews in years.

5. The Swarm (1978). Irwin Allen made other big-budget films after this one, but Swarm marked the beginning of the end for the Disaster Movie King. Still, if you’re going to have an all-star cast fight hordes of bees, you could do worse than Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Olivia de Havilland, and Fred MacMurray. Plus, it was nominated for an Oscar! For Best Costume Design (?).

Honorable Mentions: The Savage Bees, The Bees (1978), Terror Out of the Sky, and Invasion of the Bee Girls (a Roger Ebert favorite). I don’t remember bees in The Hellstrom Chronicle, but surely they were some. I omitted recent films like Bee Movie and The Secret Life of Bees.

What other bee films are there? I’m hoping someone can up with a humdinger! Or at least one that buzzworthy!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Victim: John Coldstream's New Book about the Landmark 1961 Film

The latest book in the British Film Institute's BFI Film and TV Classics series is Victim, a 115-page paperback reference volume devoted to the controversial 1961 film starring Dirk Bogarde. Author John Coldstream discusses the film's production history, describes the film in depth, and addresses critical reaction when it was first released. Coldstream concludes with a short essay about Victim's significance in cinema history.

For those unfamiliar with Victim (plot spoilers ahead), it tells the story of Melville Farr (Bogarde), a successful, married London barrister who was "seeing" Jack Barrett, a young homosexual man. In the film's most potent scene, Farr tells his wife that he never engaged in a physical relationship with Barrett, but he eventually admits: "I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Do you understand?" A photograph of Farr consoling a crying Barrett falls into the hands of blackmailers, who threaten to ruin Farr's life (a homosexual relationship between two men was still a criminal act in England in 1961). When Barrett commits suicide to protect Farr, the barrister sets out to expose the blackmail ring.

In his book, Coldstream provides a compelling history of the many obstacles that had to be overcome to bring Boy Barrett, as Victim was known in pre-production, to the screen. Coldstream notes that the financial and critical success of Sapphire (1959), a mystery with strong racial themes, paved the way for Victim. In fact, Victim reunited the writer (Janet Green), director (Basil Dearden), and producer (Michael Relph) from Sapphire. Yet, despite their pedigree, they faced an uphill battle in getting Victim through the censors. Coldstream writes that John Trevelyan, head of the British Board of Censors and considered a moderate, "warned Relph to be aware of present-day public opinion in balancing attitudes toward homosexuality and not to give ideas to potential blackmailers by having the detective say it 'offered unrivaled opportunities to any extortionist.'"

Alas, Coldstream's lengthy description of the film is not as interesting for anyone who has seen it. He includes key lines of dialogue, a plethora of outstanding stills, and portions of the annotated script.

The author's discussion of Victim's critical reception and historical significance is much more engrossing. Coldstream plays fair by presenting a diverse number of critical opinions about Victim. One of the more interesting ones came from James Breen of The Observer: "With a few plot changes (none of them vital), the film could have been made at any time during the last fifteen years --for it is not primarily about homosexuality at all, but about blackmail, and it is shaped not as a social study, either compassionate or critical, but as a mild thriller." For this film buff, I would certainly never label Victim a "mild thriller", but Breen may have have a point in regard to the importance of the blackmail angle.

As with any reference book dedicated to a single movie, Victim has limited appeal. Still, John Coldstream has written a well-researched history of the film, especially in regard to censorship in Britain in the early 1960s. Victim is recommended for the film's admirers and for libraries with large film reference collections.


Palgrave Macmillan provided a review copy of this book.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Toto Talks with the Cafe about Her Oz Memoriabilia Collection

Toto, one of our regular contributors at the Cafe, is a long-time collector of Wizard of Oz memorabilia. Today, she sits down with Rick to discuss her passion for all things Ozian.

The one that started it all.
Rick:  Toto, what inspired you to start collecting Oz memorabilia.

Toto:  I have always loved the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz. A dear friend found a copy of the book The Scarecrow of Oz for me and I was delighted to learn about this entire Oz world captured in literature and on film. From this point on, collecting and learning about Oz became a wonderful passion .

Rick:  Do you focus mostly on the 1939 movie or do your interests also include the books, other films, plays, etc.?
Even Frank Jr. wrote an Oz book.
Toto:  That is an excellent question because there are indeed some folks who collect only 1939 film memorabilia and others  collect only L. Frank Baum works and some only Oz literature, etc. My collection includes all of these things and more. Most people are surprised to learn that Baum wrote 14 Oz books and several other authors, most notably Ruth Plumly Thompson, added over 100 more titles to the library. Baum also wrote a host of other non-Oz works, many under pseudonyms. I love children's literature and have many books in my home.
Rick:  What are some of your favorite items in your collection?

Toto:  The set of eight Knowles plates made to commemorate the 1939 film were quite fun to find. I did most of my collecting pre-internet so finding treasures at antique stores and flea markets and bookstores was very fun.
I found an adorable cloth doll that has Dorothy holding Toto, while under her dress is hiding a cowering Cowardly Lion. Then, when you flip Dorothy over, it reveals two sets of legs and you see the Scarecrow on one side and the Tin Man on the other.
One of my favorite collector's pieces was a gift from my husband that looks like someone opened a red volume of The Wizard of Oz and, spilling forth from its pages, are a snow globe which encases Dorothy seated on a bench with her basket and looking at Toto, while outside are the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion looking in at them, and in the back are Glinda and the Wizard standing next to the Emerald City while the Wicked Witch of the West flies above them on her broomstick. This lovely book also plays "Over the Rainbow."
Rick:  What are some of the most unusual items in your collection?

Toto: I have another friend who looks for interesting additions for me and gave me an awesome set of the eight main Oz characters as Pez dispensers. The Wizard one is the giant green head. Toto is the same size as all the other characters, too.
One of my least expensive treasures is a small green metal pail that says "I'm melting, melting . . ." with  pictures of a black hat and a broomstick that cost me $2.

I have some fun pewter figures that include a Tin Man with a pretty red heart on his chest standing on a heart shaped base, a winged monkey, Miss Gulch riding her bicycle with a basket containing Toto and a hot air balloon with colorful Swarovski crystals.
Rick:  I've heard about conventions for Oz fans and collectors. Have you attended any of them?

Toto: I have been to three conventions and had a hoot at all of them! I met some of the Munchkins and listened to them share their stories and heard some contemporary Oz authors speak. I also learned a lot about collecting at the conventions.
Rick:  It's been delightful to learn about your Oz collection, Toto. Thanks so much for talking with me. I have one last question. What advice would you give to someone just starting an Oz collection?

Toto:  One of the things I had to learn was how and when to limit collecting. Some items feature multiple pieces and one can only display so many things (not to mention the expense!) so I learned to decide which pieces I liked best in certain collections and limit acquisitions that way. There is an organization called The International Wizard of Oz Club that is accessible at www.ozclub.org that can provide some very helpful information, too.  And never underestimate the value of the internet.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

This superior science fiction outing pits four dedicated scientists against a microscopic menace capable of destroying all life on Earth. Its critics have labeled it slow-moving and overlong, but I find it intellectually exciting. Its thrills come not from action sequences (though there’s doozy at the climax), but from the time-sensitive need to determine: What is the Andromeda Strain? How can it be destroyed? Why did a 69-year-old man and a six-month baby survive when Andromeda wiped out a New Mexico town of 68 people?

The scientists converge on Wildfire, a biological threat containment lab in Nevada, when a satellite returns to Earth with an unknown (alien?) organism. The Wildfire team consists of: Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), the leader; Ruth Levitt (Kate Reid), the cynic; Mark Hall (James Olson), the passionate physician; and Charlie Dutton (David Wayne), the skeptic who wonders if their goal should be destroying Andromeda. You could say that there’s a fifth member of the team and that’s the Wildfire lab itself. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a virtual tour of the five-level, underground facility as the team goes through decontamination and immunization procedures.

Director Robert Wise divides the film into two parts. The first half details the recovery of the satellite and the discovery of what it has done to Piedmont, New Mexico. There’s a chilling scene in which Stone and Hall explore the ghost town of dead bodies. As Hall cuts a vein on one of the corpses, powdered blood pours out—an indication of what Andromeda does to its victims. The second half of the film shifts the action to Wildfire, where the scientists turn detective and try to solve the mystery of why the old man and the baby survived.

Part of the appeal for me is that The Andromeda Strain includes one of my favorite plot devices: the forming of a team in which each member is introduced to the audience (I call this the Robin Hood theme since that’s the first film I can remember that used it). I also admire how Wise uses scrolls at the bottom of the screen to convey the time and locale. It’s an obvious device now, but The Andromeda Strain may have been one of the first films to use it.

Surprisingly, Wise was not a science fiction specialist, though he also directed the splendid The Day the Earth Stood. He was equally at home with musicals (The Sound of Music, West Side Story),  horror (The Body Snatcher), and psychological drama (The Haunting). He spent the early 1940s as a editor, working on films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane, and My Favorite Wife. I think that experience provided him with insight into the pacing of a film narrative. In The Andromeda Strain, he takes a documentary-like, scientific drama and turns it into an exiting, time-driven mystery--that's no easy feat.

The lack of well-known stars also works to the film's advantage. The nominal star, Arthur Hill, forged his career in television, guest starring series such as The Fugitive, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Defenders. In the 1970s,  he finally got his show as Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, an above-average legal drama that ran on ABC for three seasons. On the big screen, Hill's most significant role prior to Andromeda was as Paul Newman's friend in Harper.

I first saw The Andromeda Strain as a teenager with my sister and best friend. I remember liking it, especially the ending. However, it wasn’t until I saw it on television many years later that it became one of my favorite movies.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

tobeo

Director Ernst Lubitsch made many great films in his distinguished career, but if I had to pick just one to call my favorite it would be To Be or Not to Be (followed very closely by Ninotchka [1939]) from 1942.  Released on March 6, 1942, almost 3 months to the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the movie was not well-received by critics or moviegoers. People didn’t think it was funny to make light of the Nazis when they were on the brink of world domination.  To that, I say, “Ah, nuts!”  What better time was there to make the vilest group of ideologues look completely ridiculous?  If you can laugh at them, then you most certainly can beat them!

Born to Jewish parents in Berlin, Germany, Lubitsch was Lubitschwell aware of the dangers of Nazism. While he came to Hollywood long before the Nazis took power in 1933, Lubitsch had friends and family back home who weren’t so lucky.  Still, some American film critics were either oblivious to the Nazis’ complete hatred of Jews or just plain idiotic when they cried foul about a Berlin-born director making a film about the Nazi invasion of Poland. Did they really think he thought people should laugh at that tragic event?  Lubitsch found the critiques to be asinine and tried to explain that he had satirized the “Nazis and their ridiculous ideology” not what happened to the Polish people. 

The one thing that critics did like about the film was leading lady Carole Lombard.  Tragically, Lombard was killed in a plane crash two months prior to the film’s release.  caroleToday, her portrayal of Maria Tura in To Be or Not to Be is considered the finest of her career.  Yet, she almost didn’t play the part, as Miriam Hopkins was Lubitsch’s first choice. Having worked with Lubitsch on three of her best films, Hopkins was experiencing a downturn in her career when her old friend decided she was ready for a comeback. Unfortunately, at least for Hopkins but most certainly not for me or Lombard, Hopkins and lead actor Jack Benny didn’t get along from the start of production. 

The story, penned by writers Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer, is about a Warsaw acting troupe who find themselves accidentally emRobertStack_CaroleLombard_in_Tobeorbroiled in the Polish resistance against the Nazis following the 1939 invasion.  Josef Tura (Benny) and his wife Maria are renowned Warsaw actors.  He is a self-absorbed ham who happens to love playing Hamlet; while she is an incorrigible flirt who upstages her husband without even being on stage by having her male admirers come to her dressing room when Josef begins Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be…” One of those admirers, Lt. Slobinski (a very young Robert Stack), is a Polish pilot who brings the entire acting troupe into his mission to intercept a double agent before vital information can be given to the Nazis.  What transpires is an outrageously funny shell game between trained killers and trained actors.

jack-bennyI love black comedies, and this is one of the best.  There are so many layers of ironic humor that it might take multiple viewings before you catch everything Lubitsch and his screenwriters were trying to get across. For example, while the audience finds it funny when Josef has his soliloquy—his big moment to shine—constantly interrupted by Maria’s suitors, there is another element to this as well.  While we never get to hear the whole thing, the beginning goes something like this:

To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them

These words truly resonate when you apply them to the Nazi peril.  In a way, it’s almost a war cry, if you think about it.  The world was most definitely facing a sea of troubles with the Nazis!

The other shining ironic moment is when Josef, Greenberg (Felix Bressart), Bronski (Tom Dugan) and the rest of the male actors pretend to be Nazis in order to infiltrate a theater event attended by Hitler. Once safely inside, they ernstcreate a disturbance which allows Bronski to impersonate Hitler himself without the Nazis knowing.  For someone so revered by his underlings, and so unmistakable to the German psyche, this seems brazenly irreverent to me.  What better statement could you make about demagoguery than this?  Is there really a difference between the Führer and a Betrüger (imposter)?  According to Lubitsch and this film, not really.

Packed with sophisticated dialogue and impeccably placed double entendres, To Be or Not to Be is a comedy for the ages.  I can also appreciate the risk that Lubitsch and Alexander Korda took in releasing this film when they did.  Perhaps the American public and film critics weren’t ready for it, but it was just the type of film that the world needed to see in the Spring of 1942.  No one is invincible, and anyone who thinks that they are deserves to be heartily laughed at.