Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Article 4317 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-25-2013
Directed by John Milius
Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow
Country: USA
What it is: Sword and sorcery

A slave trained in the art of war and freed from slavery embarks on a quest to seek vengeance against the evil sorcerer who killed his family.

To my mind, Arnold Schwarzenegger was not an actor of really great range, but during the eighties, I think he was very shrewd in the way that he was able to pick out parts that played to his strengths; he is certainly an ideal choice for the title character. James Earl Jones steals the movie as the villain, Thulsa Doom, and Max von Sydow has a memorable cameo as an old king desperate to recover his daughter from a snake cult. There are also a number of moments here that deliver on the kind of action and spectacle that you’d expect and hope for from this type of story. Nevertheless, I think the movie has a few problems. It’s overlong (the action really drags in the half hour after Conan is freed), overproduced (some of the spectacle seems unnecessary), and, what surprises me most, too civilized; there are times where I feel it’s trying to be lyrical and philosophical rather than barbaric. Personally, I feel the rousing symphonic soundtrack is a mistake, especially when they use it in scenes that would benefit from a much sparer sound; the scene where Conan and friends abduct the daughter from the temple is one that comes to mind. Still, this may be the best sword and sorcery movie I’ve seen, but I’ve not seen a whole lot of competition at this point.

Alone With the Devil (1914)

aka Expressens Mysterium
Article 4316 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-24-2013
Directed by Hjalmar Davidsen
Featuring Svend Aggerholm, Philip Bech, Moritz Bielawski
Country: Denmark
What it is: Weird melodrama

An industrialist finds himself a victim of the machinations of an arch-rival who will stop at nothing to destroy him… even if it costs the arch-rival his own life.

This movie ended up on my hunt list on the strength of the fact that the arch-rival was a hypnotist who kept the industrialist’s wife under his power. When I was unable to find the movie, it moved to my “ones that got away” list, but I’m happy to say that a copy finally showed up, and the person who passed it on to me was kind enough to add English intertitles to help me follow the story, which would have been impenetrable without them. I have to admit that the basic premise is intriguing; the fact that the arch-rival is so intent on destroying the industrialist that he’s willing to commit suicide in such a way that it looks like the industrialist committed murder makes for a fascinating obsession. Unfortunately, the story that surrounds the premise is badly contrived, and the climax of the movie (in which the industrialist’s chances of being cleared is dependent on the discovery of a missing ring) is handled so blandly and flatly that it fails to generate a modicum of suspense. The movie is interesting, but ultimately it’s unsatisfying.

Serebristaya pyl (1953)

aka Silver Dust
Article 4315 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-23-2013
Directed by Pavel Armand and Abram Room
Featuring Mikhail Bolduman, Sofiya Pilyavskaya, Valentina Ushakova
Country: U.S.S.R.
What it is: Satire

An American scientist develops a radioactive dust that he wants to test on human subjects. However, there are other parties interested in the dust as well…

To be perfectly honest, there’s no way I can give a fair review of this movie; the only copy I was able to find did not have English dubbing or subtitles. I’m not surprised I couldn’t find one in English. From the sources I checked, this movie was made by Abram Room to get back in the good graces of the Soviet government; some of his earlier movies made during WWII had a positive view of the United States, most likely because we were allies during the war. Once the cold war was fully underway, he had to redeem himself by making a movie in which the U.S. was portrayed as a menace, and this is the result. I don’t know if it ever got a release in this country, but I doubt it; its anti-American stance and its addressing of race issues would have made it unwelcome here. There’s not a whole lot I could get out of the film on my viewing under these circumstances; with the exception of a handful of scenes, the movie is extremely talky and conveys its story through dialogue rather than visuals. One reaction I did have was that it might have had a bit of trouble seeming real; the story takes place in the U.S., but despite the presence of English words and lettering on all of the sets, the locations never quite look authentic, and though this probably wouldn’t have bothered a Russian audience, I think it wouldn’t have passed muster with an American audience. Think of it as the Soviet flip side to the “Red Scare” movies made here in the fifties.

Battlestar Galactica (1978)

Article 4314 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-21-2013
Directed by Richard A. Colla
Featuring Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict, Lorne Greene
Country: USA
What it is: TV Pilot space opera

When the twelve colonies are destroyed by an attack of the Cylons, the lone surviving battlestar gathers together the survivors and sets out to find a new home for humanity – Earth, the planet of legend from which they came.

I never got caught up in the hype surrounding the TV series when it debuted in 1978, probably because I watched very little TV at all at the time. I do remember that the critical reception to the show (and to this theatrical release of the pilot episode) was not good, with the most common accusation leveled at it being that it was ripping off STAR WARS. Without having seen it, my response to that criticism at the time would have been that the similarity was the whole point of making the thing in the first place.

Watching it here and now for the first time, I can understand the criticism; it looks like practically every element of the production of this pilot was doing double time in trying to imitate STAR WARS as much as it possibly could; there are quite a few moments here which directly reference similar moments in the earlier movie. However, there is one crucial difference; the plot itself is very different, and that’s the movie’s biggest saving grace.

Overall, this one is a mixed bag. The premise itself is interesting enough that I can see how it might make for a compelling series (and I can appreciate why, after the original series foundered, it would be remade many years later to great success). The plot gets a bit muddled at times, and because the movie places its biggest scenes near the beginning, it really drags in the middle. I also don’t care for the fact that the movie chooses to emphasize the adventures of the three fighter pilots (who I find rather dull and uninteresting) rather than the adventures of Commander Adama (who is played by a much better actor). I don’t care much for the subplot about the kid who misses his dog, but at least the dog robot that results from it isn’t annoying. Overall, the movie does entertain well enough, though some of the dialogue could use some work. And the movie has at least one moment that really wins me over, and that’s when it gives one of the Cylons a laugh line; I certainly never expected that.

The Alchemist (1983)

Article 4313 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-20-2013
Directed by Charles Band
Featuring Robert Ginty, Lucinda Dooling, John Sanderford
Country: USA
What it is: Low budget demonic horror movie

A woman and a man she picked up hitchhiking get embroiled in the fate of a man who has been cursed by an alchemist. Things get complicated when the woman turns out to look exactly like the cursed man’s former wife… and the woman the alchemist loved.

Well, I will give the movie at least some credit for the basic story, which is offbeat enough that it isn’t a total waste of time making your way to the ending. Granted, the movie needs all the help it can get; it’s cursed with a badly written script and some very weak acting. Even worse is the lethargic pacing, which is probably due to the fact that there’s too little story stretched out over too much running time. The opening encounter between the woman and the hitchhiker may be one of the most atrocious meet-cutes ever committed to celluloid, and when the movie gets around to unleashing the horde of demons, you’ll be disappointed that there’s only three of them and they’re absurdly easy to kill. Despite all this, the movie does manage to keep from being unwatchable, and there’s the occasional moment that works.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913)

aka Le avventure straordinarissime di Saturnino Farandola, Zingo, Son of the Sea
Article 4312 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-18-2013
Directed by Marcel Perez
Featuring Marcel Perez, Nilde Baracchi, Alfredo Bertone
Country: Italy
What it is: Whimsical action movie

A man who was raised by monkeys as a baby is rescued and has adventures all around the world.

For some reason, this movie really stands out in the era that it came from; I’ve gotten the impression that most full-length silent movies from this time frame aspired to a certain degree of seriousness, and this one is pretty light-hearted. So I’m not entirely surprised to find out that it was originally shown as four shorts (which I”m guessing were each about thirty minutes long), and that this feature was edited together from them, though it appears that a third of the footage was left out in the process. There are four distinct segments here; the first is in Oceania where our hero has to save the woman he loves from an evil oceanographer, the second is in the Orient and involves the recovery of a sacred white elephant, the third is in Africa and appears to involve the rescue of two princesses from cannibals (this sequence is missing quite a bit of footage), and the fourth is in America where the hero gets embroiled in the Civil war and faces off with a character from a Jules Verne novel who has gone evil. Weird elements abound; there’s a sequence involving a woman swallowed by a giant fish, scenes involving monkeys and men in diving suits marching off to war, a battle in the sky involving hot air balloons, and, unless I’m very much mistaken, there’s a hint of a plot to steal Niagara Falls (which, since it never is addressed again, may be me hallucinating). The monkey and gorilla suits are certainly nothing to write home about, and the movie is often hard to follow (possibly due to the missing footage), but the whole thing is so charmingly bizarre that I’m tempted to hunt up the novel that inspired this. There are fantasy and science fiction touches to the story as well. This may well be one of the most entertaining of the early silent features.

The Witch’s Revenge (1903)

aka Le sorcier
Article 4311 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-15-2013
Directed by Georges Melies
Cast unknown
Country: France
What is it: Trick film with a plot

An old man arrested for practicing witchcraft pleads for his freedom to the king, who finally relents when the old man offers to perform tricks for the king’s pleasure.

Apparently, the use of the word “witch” in the English title is meant to be sex-independent, as our magician is male. It’s basically a trick film with a plot attached to it, and, given the fact that the tricks aren’t particularly novel this time round, that’s a good thing; the plot adds some interest to the proceedings. I notice that Melies resists the desire to feature dancing girls in this one; except for the ending where almost all of the characters cake-walk off the screen, there is no dancing. This makes for a mildly amusing three minutes.

Sedmi kontinent (1966)

aka The Seventh Continent
Article 4310 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-14-2013
Directed by Dusan Vukotic
Featuring Demeter Bitenc, Karla Chadimova, Vanja Drach
Country: Yugoslavia / Czechoslovakia
What it is: Allegorical fantasy

Two children adrift on the ocean find their way to a magical land. When a third shows up, they build a paradise and summon the rest of the children in the world to the land as well. But how will the adults react?

Quite personally, I’m not a big advocate of the idea that children are naturally icons of angelic innocence who would create a paradise if taken away from the corrupting influence of the adults. Still, my application of that doubt to this film would be making the same mistake that the adults in this film make when they try to scientifically establish whether a chair with a girl sitting on it would float on water; it’s trying to add an absurd dose of reality to a world that is ruled by magic. And it is magic that infuses this film, so much so that in some ways it hardly matters that my copy of the movie is in Czech and has no English subtitles; I can sense the magic coming out of every frame and I respond to it. This is a truly astonishing fantasy; it’s whimsical and quite moving at times. It includes two flying birds made of paper, a forest grown from figures cut out of paper, a map with a hole in it that can be used to communicate with people across the world, a marching band of circus performers, and so on. No, I can’t say I understand it in its entirety, but I was hypnotized and charmed by this one. I’m beginning to believe that there’s something truly special about Czech fantasy cinema; I’ve seen so much great work from the country.

The Whispering Chorus (1918)

Article 4309 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-12-2013
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Featuring Raymond Hatton, Kathlyn Williams, Edythe Chapman
Country: USA
What it is: Drama

A clerk guilty of embezzlement at his place of employment ends up faking his own murder in order to clear himself. Unfortunately, he is believed to be guilty of his own murder and finds himself on the run from the law.

Let’s deal with the fantastic content first. The Walt Lee guide from which I culled this title for my project says the fantastic content consists of the way this movie handles the metaphor of having voices in your head leading you on into temptation; the movie does this by having those voices personified by individual heads that speak to the main character. As fantastic content, I must admit that it is somewhat marginal, but the movie has a couple of other fantastic touches as well; one character has premonitions at one point, and a ghost appears at the end of the movie (albeit one that is only seen by the audience).

As for the movie itself, I was actually quite impressed by the first twenty minutes of the movie; its illustration of a basically decent man who is trying to cope the best he can with the troubles in his life makes for a compelling cinematic portrait that is quite moving, because you end up really caring about the character. Had the movie remained in this vein, it would have made for a great drama. However, once the main character conveniently finds a dead body that he can use to fake his own death, the movie begins to crumble under the weight of its plot contrivances and its overly manipulative story. Still, DeMille proves to be a creative enough director (who even has touches of brilliance at times) that he manages to keep the movie interesting even when the story threatens to become laughable. I can only wonder what the movie might have been like if it had managed to maintain the power of its first twenty minutes.

Les lunatiques (1908)

aka The Whimsical People
Article 4308 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-11-2013
Directed by Segundo de Chomon
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Bizarre trick film

A woman on the moon plucks stars out of the skies to create clowns, but when she overloads the moon, they fall to earth and turn into dancing girls… and then things start to get weird.

Here’s another of Segundo de Chomon’s forays into the world of the surreal, though its extensive use of blackface in the final scenes renders it politically incorrect by today’s tastes. It’s also a bit reminiscent of Melies’s OFF TO BLOOMINGDALE ASYLUM in some ways, but it’s not the first time Chomon has borrowed from Melies. It’s only mildly amusing, but I do have to admit I was surprised to discover that when I checked the the French title in a translator online, it was identical to the English title; I would have expected it to translate as THE MADMEN.