Die Insel der Seligen (1913)

aka Island of the Blessed
Article 4890 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-4-2015
Directed by Max Reinhardt
Featuring Paul Davidson, Erika De Planque, Wilhelm Diegelmann
Country: Germany
What it is: Odd fantasy

Two young women, two young men, two rotund fathers, and two weird suitors all visit an island inhabited by the Roman gods, who proceed to interfere with their lives.

The intertitles are in German on this silent film, so I couldn’t rely on them to help me with sorting out the plot. The basic premise is fairly clear, though; several mortals find their lives changed due to the interference of a gaggle of gods. It’s basically a variation on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with one crucial difference; by the end of the movie, the gods do not undo the damage and mischief they’ve done, and the ending is a bit grotesque. In fact, it’s not just the ending that is grotesque; some of the human characters seem a little bizarre and twisted, and though I suspect these are supposed to be comic touches, it’s rather hard to tell. The end result is a movie that, instead of coming across as comic, comes across as weird and unsettling. Incidentally, Max Reinhardt was a noted theatrical director who is primarily remembered for having helmed the 1935 version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.

It’s Alive (1974)

IT’S ALIVE (1974)
Article 4876 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-19-2015
Directed by Larry Cohen
Featuring John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell, James Dixon
Country: USA
What it is: Mutant killer baby movie

A mutant killer baby is born and terrorizes a town.

The idea of a mutant killer baby is one of those concepts that seems so outlandish that I’m a little surprised that they didn’t go the obvious route and play it for laughs. But writer/producer/director Larry Cohen goes the difficult route and plays it seriously, and I think for the most part he succeeds. He keeps the baby in the shadows for the most part and mostly plays the attack scenes out of the frame (probably because he knew they wouldn’t be very convincing), and instead concentrates on finding a good emotional thread by which to carry the story, and that emotional thread is that of the baby’s father’s attempt to come to terms with bizarre situation in which he’s thrown, one that ends up having a profound effect on his work, his relationships and his life. The script is even clever enough to see the parallels between his situation and that of Frankenstein’s, and when he speculates on the confusion between the man and the monster, we begin to wonder as to which one he will turn out to be. Still, the movie doesn’t quite transcend its campy reputation, and it you do have to laugh a bit when the baby attacks a milkman. Nevertheless, the script goes a long way towards making this movie more thoughtful than it might have been.

L’inconnu di Shandigor (1967)

aka The Unknown Man of Shandigor
Article 4817 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-9-2015
Directed by Jean-Louis Ray
Featuring Marie-France Boyer, Ben Carruthers, Jaques Dufilho
Country: Switzerland
What it is: Eurospy, arty comic style

A scientist creates a method of nullifying nuclear bombs, but goes into isolation with only his daughter and his assistant. He becomes the target of several groups of spies, all of which want the scientist’s secret for their own ends.

I was halfway through watching this movie before I realized that I had English subtitles to help me sort out the French dialogue, so I went back to the beginning and watched it with the subtitles. But I don’t consider my half-viewing the first time around to be wasted; having had a chance to concentrate on the visuals and the acting during that time, it made me realize just how comic the movie is, and that’s something I might have missed if I had been concentrating on the story. It’s a spy story shot like an art film, and feels like a sly parody of both. There’s at least five groups of spies in the movie, and in a sense, there’s no real hero, and one is left wondering which of the groups (if any) will prevail. At times the movie gets truly bizarre; the strangest scenes has one group of spies embalming a deceased member of their team while their leader plays and sings a weird ditty on the organ. There’s torture by psychedelic music, a massacre in a bowling alley, and an unseen aquatic monster kept by the scientist in a swimming pool. Howard Vernon is on hand as the closest the movie comes to a James Bond character, a man named Bobby Gun (who, incidentally, uses a knife). The weird-looking Daniel Emilfork almost steals the movie as the scientist. All in all, I was charmed and delighted by the movie, though it might take a couple more viewings to sort out some of the plot details.

I Yam What I Yam (1933)

Article 4803 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 4-21-2015
Directed by Dave Fleischer and Seymour Kneitel
Featuring the voices of William Costello, Charles Lawrence and William Pennell
Country: USA
What it is: Popeye cartoon

Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto are in a lifeboat at sea. They make it to shore and inhabit a log cabin prepared by Popeye, but are then set upon by Indians.

The series hadn’t quite hit its peak yet; Popeye’s hilarious muttering is not yet present, and the short doesn’t use Fleischer’s wonderful three dimensional backgrounds. But then, what do you expect from only the second one in the series? And if you consider that, this one is pretty impressive; there’s a real confidence with the characters on display here, and it’s energetic, full of gags, and fast-moving. In fact, it’s almost a surprise for Popeye to pull out the spinach in this one; he’s always in control of the situation, and both Olive and Wimpy seem to be doing a decent job of defending the cabin without him. The strangest gag involves a caricature of a famous Indian leader, and by Indian, I don’t mean “American Indian”; it’s one of the only times I’ve known a cinematic work to address the fact that the Native Americans were mistakenly titled as residents from an entirely different country. It’s easy to see why the Popeye series would become as popular as it did. Fantastic content includes Popeye’s super powers, and anthropomorphic lightning.

In Search of Bigfoot (1976)

Article 4749 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-4-2015
Directed by Lawrence Crowley and William F. Miller
Featuring Robert W. Morgan, Rene Dahinden, John Green
Country: USA
What it is: Bigfoot documentary

An expedition is made to the forests of the Pacific Northwest in order to locate Bigfoot.

Most of the recent documentaries that I’ve seen on the “strange creature/psychic phenomena/UFO” axis of the seventies have been muddled hodgepodges of outlandish theories that have been more likely to bring out the skeptic in me than the part of me that still has that “sense of wonder”. This one has the benefit of being at least focused; it tells the story of a single expedition to an area known for its Bigfoot sightings, and if it does manage to do one thing, it convinces me of the sincerity of the people involved. Though it does to some extent try to convince the audience of the existence of Bigfoot (the main reason given is the multitude of sightings), but it does seem more interested in the hunt for the creature than in trying to sell its existence to the audience. Granted, that doesn’t mean that the documentary is always effective; there’s a certain amount of dead time and unnecessary footage here, especially when the movie shifts focus to a skimpily-dressed female member of the expedition cavorting under waterfalls and swimming. You’ll probably figure out how the thing ends; after all, had the expedition been successful, it would probably be a much more famous documentary. As it is, believers will find the ending rather sad in that the plan to locate the creature is frustrated by an act of nature, while skeptics will find it all too convenient.

The Indian Sorcerer (1908)

aka Le fakir de Singapoure
Article 4714 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-21-2014
Directed by Georges Melies
Featuring Georges Melies
Country: France
What it is: Magic film

A wizard from Singapore performs tricks with a giant egg.

Melies made so many “magic trick” shorts (and they all seemed to come up at once in my viewing system) that sometimes I’m at a loss for anything to say about them. This one, however, made me realize that he was probably the best maker of this type of short. They were certainly about the tricks, but Melies paid quite a bit of attention to the other details, such as set design, movement, touches of dance and pantomime, visual presentation, and a certain visual wit. This one mostly consists of tricks involving a giant egg, and it uses a giant scale as one of its props, and both the egg and the scale have the advantage is that they’re interesting to look at, as well as the other aspects of the production. This makes the short watchable even if the tricks themselves aren’t particularly engaging. In short, there’s really only so much interest value in a “magic trick” short, but if I wanted to watch one, I’d prefer one from Melies.

The Imperceptible Transmutations (1904)

aka Les transmutations imperceptibles
Article 4711 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-17-2014
Directed by Georges Melies
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Magic trick short

A princely magician performs magic with a cardboard tube, making a dancing girl and a princess appear and disappear.

I wouldn’t exactly call the transmutations on hand here imperceptible, but I imagine Melies had to work hard to come up with a real variety of titles for all of the magic trick shorts he’s done. This one is fairly minor; it mostly consists of making the characters appear and disappear in the tube or making the dancing girl and the princess appear in each other’s place. It moves quickly and is very typical of Melies’s magic shorts.

I Love to Singa (1936)

Article 4709 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-15-2014
Directed by Tex Avery
Featuring the voices of Billy Bletcher, Tommy Bond, Johnnie Davis
Country: USA
What it is: Warner Brothers cartoon

A jazz-hating music-teaching owl discovers that one of his sons has an ear for jazz. He throws the child out, much to the distress of his mother. The child decides to audition for a spot on “The Jack Bunny Show”.

During the thirties, the Warner Brothers cartoon unit was still mostly in its formative phase, and there really aren’t a lot of memorable cartoons from the studio during this time. This is one of the most noteworthy exceptions, and I’m willing to bet a lot of you out there already have the title song running through your head. I think the sheer catchiness of the song is one of the reasons it works so well, as well as the fact that it’s a perfect choice for the story of this cartoon, which is a parody of THE JAZZ SINGER (the young owl’s name is Owl Jolson). I’m also willing to bet that when the title song stops running through your mind, you’ll also find yourself remembering the painfully shrill rendition of “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” that serves as the musical counterpoint to the main song. It’s only with this viewing that I realized that the cartoon was directed by Tex Avery, who was still developing as an animator himself; there’s a couple of gags here that hint at the later Avery style, but it’s one of his least wild cartoons. The only fantastic content is the talking/singing animals. Nonetheless, this is one of Warner Brothers’ true classics of this era.

I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935)

Article 4707 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-13-2014
Directed by Friz Freleng
Featuring the voices of Billy Bletcher, Joe Dougherty, Bernice Hansen
Country: USA
What it is: Cartoon

Several students perform for recital day in school.

The fantastic content here is the bare-bones cartoon one, in that the cartoon is full of talking and anthropomorphic animals. The cartoon was conceived as being something of an animated “Our Gang” series; as such, it only lasted a few cartoons before it was abandoned. It is, however, a watershed cartoon in the history of the Warner Brothers studio, in that it was the debut of the studio’s first real cartoon star, Porky Pig, here trying to recite “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. The other acts included a nervous kitten reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, a pair of twin puppies singing the title song, and an owl giving a piano recital that is undermined by a prank caused by Beans the Cat (the character the studio thought would be the break-out star). The cartoon isn’t bad, but it’s pretty ordinary, and it’s typical of their cartoons of the era. It’s the presence of Porky that makes it of historical interest.

The Infernal Cake-Walk (1903)

aka Le cake-walk infernal
Article 4619 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-1-2014
Directed by Georges Melies
Featuring Georges Melies
Country: France
What it is: Comic dance short

In the flaming world where the demons and devils live, the cake-walk becomes the dance of the day.

It appears that I haven’t reached the end of covering the oeuvre of Georges Melies; here’s another one. The cake-walk was a dance that became very popular in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century; it’s popped up in several Melies shorts. Here it takes center stage, only in a milieu that lent itself to Melies’s love for special effect. More than any other of the shorts I’ve seen, this one seems to be intended as a comic dance short; though dances have popped up many times in those shorts, they were generally side items to the action. Fortunately, it’s a fun dance to watch; it’s energetic, somewhat weird-looking, and it looks like it’s rather difficult to do. Things get especially weird when a demon with twisted legs attempts to do the dance, though his limbs keep separating themselves from his body. It’s one of his shorts that really needs the proper musical accompaniment to appreciate; fortunately, the print on the Melies boxed set has some very appropriate music. This is fun, if minor, Melies.