Piranha (1978)

PIRANHA (1978)
Article 4343 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 10-21-2013
Directed by Joe Dante
Featuring Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy
Country: USA
What it is: JAWS-inspired thriller

A strain of genetically mutated piranha are accidentally released from an abandoned army site into a nearby river. Is there any way to stop them before they reach the ocean?

According to IMDB, Universal originally intended to sue New Line for this movie because of its similarities to JAWS; however, Spielberg saw an advance copy of this movie and loved it, so the suit was dropped. I’m not sure whether the suit would have stuck; though the movie does have some similarities (an underwater terror and an attempt by authorities to downplay the threat), it’s far from a slavish imitation of its source. This is the first movie I’ve covered from the oeuvre of Joe Dante, a director whose work I generally enjoy; his love of using actors from older genre movies and his references to those earlier films add a lot of fun to the proceedings. On top of the actors listed above, the movie also features Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Keenan Wynn, Paul Bartel and Richard Deacon. It also features the screenwriting debut of John Sayles. Overall, the movie is fairly uneven, and there are moments where the editing could be better, but there are a number of individual moments I really like; in particular, the scene inside the laboratory (which also features a little bit of stop-motion animation with a miniature monster running around) is very entertaining. One thing it certainly does is to up the fantastic content a bit; by making the piranha genetic mutations, there’s some science fiction added to the plot as well. I look forward to covering more of Dante’s films in the future.

The People that Time Forgot (1977)

Article 4342 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 10-20-2013
Directed by Kevin Connor
Featuring Patrick Wayne, Doug McClure, Sarah Douglas
Country: UK
What it is: Burroughsian sequel

A group of adventures arrive in the prehistoric land of Caprona to see if they can locate the hero of the previous movie.

Will they find him? Well, given that Doug McClure’s name is in the credits (though not as the lead) pretty much answers that question. You know, you really can’t blame them for making a sequel to THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT; after all, Edgar Rice Burroughs did as well, and this is based on that sequel. I really should read those books; I’m rather curious as to how closely this movie follows the book. It has the same fun-but-not-quite-convincing dinosaur action, various primitive tribes of people, and ample proof that they had hairdressers and Frederick’s of Hollywood in primitive lands. Now I know in an adventure movie of this sort, one is supposed to concentrate on the episodic action rather than dwell on the the whole story arc. However, when I do the latter, I can’t help but dwell on the fact that the ultimate purpose of this movie is to put in place the commonest “lost world” cliche of them all, a cliche that the previous movie overlooked (if it hadn’t, there would have been no sequel). The minute they mention the volcano, I should have seen it coming. Still, I did learn one thing here – there are no volcanoes in Nebraska. All in all, this is one is silly but passable, though not as much fun as the original.

Le petit soldat (1947)

aka The Little Soldier
Article 4335 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 10-13-2013
Directed by Paul Grimault
No cast
Country: France
What it is: Animated fairy tale

A wind-up toy acrobat is in love with a toy ballerina, but when war comes along, he is forced to join the troops, leaving her at the mercy of an evil jack-in-the-box.

I don’t know a lot about Paul Grimault, but it appears he was a highly-respected French animator with only a handful of films to his credit. This lyrical and touching adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen story shows how effective he could be, both as an animator as well as a storyteller. I couldn’t find a copy of this in English, but that’s no matter; outside of the credits and a poster that is placed on the window of the toy shop, there’s nothing that needs translating. The ending is quite exciting, and owes a bit to one of the most memorable moments from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”; I don’t know if it’s that way in the original story. I look forward to seeing more of this man’s work.

Porky’s Hero Agency (1937)

Article 4290 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-17-2013
Directed by Robert Clampett
Featuring the voices of Mel Blanc, Bernice Hansen, Tedd Pierce
Country: USA
What it is: Porky Pig cartoon

Porky dreams that he is an ancient Greek hero Porkykarkus, who is given a job to steal a potion from the Gorgon that can bring those turned to stone back to life.

This is one of the more amusing early Porky Pig cartoons. Outside of the “talking animals” motif, we have flying shoes and a monster (though the gorgon turns out to be an old woman with a camera stand with no snakes in her hair) with the ability to turn people into stone and back to provide the fantastic content. It has some fun with the concept, and some of the jokes are subtle; check out the hero’s pricing scheme and the identity of his phone holder, for example. It even manages to sneak in a few racy moments that got by the censors, one of which involves the statue of the discus thrower who is, of course, unclothed. There are references to both Popeye and the Three Stooges in the mix as well. I do question the credits on IMDB; though the voice cast is uncredited, IMDB says that Medusa is voiced by Bernice Hansen and the Gorgon by Tedd Pierce, but since Medusa IS the Gorgon, I’m not sure if this was a mistake or two different voices were used. Apparently, the “picket fence” features the faces of several of the animators on the project.

Playful Pan (1930)

Article 4288 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-15-2013
Director unknown
No voice cast
Country: USA
What it is: A Silly Symphony

A satyr plays his pipes for the benefit of the animals and the plants in the forest. Then a lightning storm sets the forest afire. Can the satyr deal with the crisis?

In structure, this Walt Disney Silly Symphony is standard issue for animated shorts in this period of time; the first half is mostly music, with a crisis only rearing its head at the halfway mark and then being resolved. Still, Disney was in the animation forefront at this time and there’s a real confidence at work here, especially in the ways that the music and the action are juxtaposed. I also like the way the jokes are sometimes handled subtly; it took me a moment or two to realize that in the scene where we see the rabbits running away from the fire, the turtles are also running as well… and faster than the rabbits. It ends with an amusing variation on the “Pied Piper” story, which is a fitting reference to make when your main character is Pan. It’s not one of Disney’s finest moments, but it’s amusing enough.

Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909)

Article 4247 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-10-2013
Director unknown
Featuring Paul Panzer and Gladys Hulette
Country: USA
What it is: Weird tobacco fantasy

A tobacco enthusiast discovers fairies living in his tobacco box.

I have to admit I’m not sure what to make of this odd little trick short. It’s a hodgepodge of special effects that includes stop-motion, giant props, and miniaturization via mirrors (as in opposition to double exposure) among its tricks. It really doesn’t seem to have a story per se; it’s basically the smoker and the fairies playing tricks on each other. It will leave you wondering if someone has been smoking something other than tobacco, though.

La posada sangrienta (1943)

aka The Bloody Inn
Article 4244 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-6-2013
Directed by Fernando A. Rivero
Featuring Julio Ahuet, Carolina Barret, Alfonso Carillo
Country: Mexico
What it is: An “old dark inn” movie, in Spanish

A young couple’s car breaks down, and they find themselves at an inn where several murders have taken place… and they find themselves under suspicion.

Given that my copy of the movie is in unsubtitled Spanish, I’m making a few guesses as to the plot line, but I don’t think I’m that far off the mark. It’s definitely an “old dark house” variation, though not a particularly inspired one; quite frankly, the whole movie has the air of having been slapped together without much inspiration or thought. The biggest giveaway in this regard is the score, which appears to be a compendium of stock classical music pieces that are at times quite distracting and inappropriate. The comic relief character is one of those types who gets most of his laughs by reacting to everything with cowering cowardice. Outside of that, the two most striking things about this one are the opening scenes involving people listening to a radio show, and the fact that the police detective bears an uncanny resemblance to Bob Hope. There may be some fun to had in the dialogue, but since I couldn’t understand it, that did me no good; as it is, I found this one pretty forgettable.

Plongeur fantastique (1906)

aka The Fantastic Diver
Article 4241 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-3-2013
Directed by Segundo de Chomon
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Trick film

A swimmer shows off his unique diving styles.

The fantastic content here is that not only does the diver jump into the water; he also jumps out of the water back onto the diving board in an impossible way (through the magic of running the footage backwards). So we have a series of dives juxtaposed with a series of returns to the diving board, and I will credit the movie with having the foresight to not use the same backwards footage that they just ran forwards, so each scene is a little bit different. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the trick gets old pretty quick; the initial gag is the best in that his first dive is fully clothed, but he returns wearing a swimsuit, but from there, even with the short’s slight running time of about three minutes, it gets tiresome. The Walt Lee book credits Gaston Velle as the director, but IMDB gives it as Chomon, which I assume may be the result that it’s often hard to figure out who actually directed these shorts.

Plane Daffy (1940)

Article 4240 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-2-2013
Directed by Frank Tashlin
Featuring the voices of Sara Berner, Mel Blanc, Robert C. Bruce
Country: USA
What it is: Wartime Warner Brothers cartoon

Secret message couriers are falling prey to the irresistible spy, Hatta Mari. In order to defeat her, they send out their resident woman-hater, Daffy Duck.

You know, after sampling some of the cartoons from the other studios, it really is a treat to return to the Warner Brothers studio during their classic period, and here they’re in top form. This one features Daffy in his manic loose cannon period (before he became the all-too-human antihero in the hands of Chuck Jones), and one thing you can say about him during this era is that you never really know what he’s going to do next. That, combined with the exaggerated speed, split-second comic timing, out-of-left-field gags, superb score (Carl Stalling as always) and voice work (Mel Blanc and others), you barely have time to breathe as this one goes through its paces. Though he’s not as famous as Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin was one of the masters of the animated cartoon.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

Article 4235 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-25-2013
Directed by J. Farrell MacDonald
Featuring Violet MacMillan, Frank Moore, Raymond Russell
Country: USA
What it is: Fantasy adventure

When a magician uses a powder to bring a patchwork girl to life, his new creation ends up using a petrification powder on several people. In order to restore their friends to life, a quest is undertaken to find the items that will make a magic potion to restore the petrified ones.

It looks like L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wizard of Oz” as well as several sequels, became a movie producer at one point and produced a few Oz movies based on his books. I’ve seen a few of them, and though I wouldn’t exactly call them great, I do think it’s interesting to see how the world of Oz was envisioned before the famous 1939 movie version of the first novel became a nearly insurmountable cultural artifact; any Oz movie made afterwards is under that one’s shadow, while these earlier ones were made outside of it. I do like the sense I get that Oz is a much larger place than envisioned in the 1939 movie, and even though several of the characters from “The Wizard of Oz” reappear here, they are minor characters and aren’t part of the main story. I like some of the strange creatures, especially the part cat-part box creature called the Woozy, and we get to meet a few of the other races of Oz, such as the one-legged hoppers. The story meanders at times, especially in scenes involving a mule-like creature and one of those flying monkeys. Still, the costumes are fun and the acting is energetic, and though it’s a bit of a mess, there is some fun to be had here. The movie isn’t complete; there’s a reel missing near the beginning, but you’ll figure out what happened.