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.

Blondine (1945)

Article 4307 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-10-2013
Directed by Henri Mahe
Featuring Georges Marchal, Nicole Maurey, Michele Philippe
Country: France
What it is: Fairy Tale

A beautiful woman sets out on a quest to save a handsome prince from an evil queen.

I’m guessing somewhat on the plot description above because my print of this is in unsubtitled French, so I may have certain plot details awry. Still, I’m not sure that it’s the plot that is the prime attraction here (though I will add that if my plot description is correct, it’s the reverse of the usual fairy tale subject). No, it’s the wonderful set design and art design that give this one its flavor; at one time or another, I found myself comparing the visual look to the work of any number of highly visual directors and artists, such as Melies, Cocteau, Capek, Dr. Seuss, Escher or Dali. Most of my sources list the giant (who only appears fleetingly as far as I can tell) as the fantastic content, but there are a number of dwarfs as well, a walk under the water, a group of flower people, and many other fantasy touches. I’m not sure why it only has a 5.0 rating on IMDB; you’d think that its visual sense alone would rate it a little higher. Nevertheless, I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to rescue this one from my “ones that got away” list and enjoy it as well as I did.

The Bridge (1929)

aka The Spy
Article 4269 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-19-2013
Directed by Charles Vidor
Featuring Nicholas Bela, Charles Darvas, Marbeth Wright
Country: USA
What it is: Thriller with a twist

A spy, sentenced to be hanged off the side of a bridge, makes an amazing escape when the rope breaks…. but there’s a catch.

For those who don’t recognize the story from the plot description, this is another adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s classic, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. I’ve seen the 1962 French version of the story (which ended up as an episode on “Twilight Zone”), and if this version doesn’t quite equal that one, it comes very close to doing so, and is a worthy effort. It’s also more efficient, as it’s less than half the length of the later one. Back when I covered the 1962 version, I commented on how the scarcity of dialogue made it an ideal choice for showing in other countries, and I couldn’t help but notice how the same factor also made it an ideal choice for a silent movie; not a single title card is used or needed here. My favorite moment in this one was when the spy hears the drum being beaten and hearkens back in his mind to his son playing a drum, a truly elegant visual moment. In fact, many of my reactions and thoughts about this movie were very similar to the ones I made when I reviewed the 1962 movie, including the fact that, despite the fact that the twist is rather horrific, it’s not quite a genre movie. At any rate, this version of the story is recommended as well.

Byaku fujin no yoren (1956)

aka Madame White Snake
Article 4245 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-7-2013
Directed by Shiro Toyoda
Featuring Ryo Ikebe, Shirley Yamaguchi, Kaoru Yachigusa
Country: Hong Kong / Japan
What it is: Chinese fairy tale

A lowly herb clerk is seduced and possessed by snake goddess in human form. A Taoist monk tries to help him see the woman for what she is. Who will prevail?

This co-production between the Shaw Brothers and Toho is actually Toho’s first color special effects movie, so it has a certain historical value. It’s based on Chinese legend, and despite certain horror elements, it’s more of a fantasy/fairy tale than anything else. In purely visual terms, it’s a lovely movie to look at, especially in the opening scenes. However, it’s also somewhat long-winded, and after the failed attempt at the exorcism in the middle of the movie, it starts to run out of gas. Interestingly, the snake goddess is played somewhat for sympathy; she is sincerely in love with the man and is devastated at the thought of losing him. You can see the hand of Eiji Tsuburaya in the movie’s main special-effects sequence, involving a storm summoned by the snake goddess to inundate a temple. All in all, though I can’t say I found the movie truly engaging, I do think it is quite interesting at times.

Butterflys (1906)

aka Le farfalle
Article 4184 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 3-22-2013
Director unknown
Cast unknown
Country: Italy
What it is: Early dance short

A butterfly is taken captive, and another butterfly undertakes to rescue it.

As anybody who has been following my series lately has no doubt noticed, I’m spending a lot of time on movies from the very early days of cinema. No doubt there are some people who wonder why I’m bothering to spend so much time with this era, and if anyone asks, I’m armed with an answer; since my project does aspire to be comprehensive and is somewhat geared toward emphasizing the early years first, I’m bound to cover this era extensively. My own problem with this answer is that it sounds a bit dismissive; it’s almost as if I was saying that if I had my druthers, I’d skip it and go on to later stuff. The truth of the matter is different; quite frankly, I love the silent era and I love covering these very early movies. Why? Because I think there’s something exciting about exploring the early years of any craft of this sort, before the rules and traditions were set and where people would experiment in a way that is hard to imagine them trying these days.

Just for example, I’ve become a bit fascinated with the whole phenomenon of hand-tinting. It seems to me that it was only in the very early days of movies that this approach was taken, and some of the stunning results I’ve seen make me regret that it’s something of a lost art. I thought about that while I was watching this short, in which a butterfly’s wings change colors throughout the movie. It’s the type of novel touch that seems natural to the art of hand-tinting. I do wonder what the original music for it sounded like; the copy I found featured a remix of Bjork’s song “Sacrifice” (an acquired taste, to be sure), but it looks to me like the short is fairly complete as it is. Outside of that, there’s really not much in the way of special effects; the anthropomorphic butterflies are the fantastic content, and the whole short emphasizes the use of dance; it looks like a short ballet. But it’s noticing the little touches here and there that makes exploring these early shorts an adventure of its own, and it’s one I’m glad I’ve undertaken.

La bruja negra (1907)

aka La sorciere noire, The Black Witch
Article 4167 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-26-2013
Director unknown
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Trick short

An Arabian couple invite a black witch up into their palace to perform tricks for them.

I’m not sure who’s responsible for this trick film (though the style looks roughly Segundo De Chomonish), but I was impressed by two things about it. One was the excellent quality of the hand-painted color, which not only brightens the scenes but also contributes to changes in mood; a magical change of location will result in a change of tint, which is a technique that I’ve seen in later silent movies, but rarely this early. The other is that the special effects are also fast moving and very smoothly done. There’s no real plot, but these other qualities hold the attention during this four minute short. I’ve seen so many of these silent shorts that they rarely impress me anymore, but this one does.

Beau Brummel (1924)

Article 4129 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-10-2013
Directed by Harry Beaumont
Featuring John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Willard Louis
Country: USA
What it is: Biopic

A military officer loses the woman he loves because he has no rank or fortune. He decides to take revenge by winnowing his way into the court, becoming a dandy and an avatar of fashion, and living a life of scandal. But things take a turn for the worse for him when he falls afoul of the Prince of Wales…

The last movie I saw from 1924 was HOT WATER, and like that one, this one saves all of its fantastic content for the last few minutes. But then, I didn’t really expect it to have much; after all, this is mostly a love story/biopic about George Bryan “Beau” Brummel, and with very few exceptions (movies about Rasputin, for example), these don’t really fall into genre territory. It’s an entertaining movie, though it gets a bit confusing and dull in the middle, but this may be partially due to the fact that my print isn’t complete; it runs only 80 minutes, whereas the full film ran two hours and fifteen minutes. It’s anchored by a solid performance by John Barrymore, and one thing I do admire about him as that even though he was considered one of the most handsome men in Hollywood, he wasn’t afraid to have himself made up to look decrepit; the final scenes where Brummel has become senile are played with real gusto and feeling by Barrymore. The last scene is also the most touching in the movie, especially when he is visited by his former manservant, who manages to break through the man’s senility at least for a few minutes. The fantastic content is that ghosts of several of the important characters appear in the last few moments; they may be part of someone’s imagination, but they are there in the movie nonetheless.