Back to the Future (1985)

Article 4927 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-13-2015
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Featuring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
Country: USA
What it is: Comic time travel story

A teenager accidentally travels back in time thirty years, and interferes in an event that caused his parents to meet for the first time. He now not only has to find a way to get back to his own time, but also has to bring about events to cause his parents to marry or else he will fade from existence.

As far as this movie-watching project of mine goes, the times when I feel the most uncomfortable with it is when I’m forced to revisit a movie I’ve seen before and for which the outlook I had from that viewing differs sharply from the current critical outlook of the movie. At this point of time, this movie has a very high reputation and is considered one of the great science fiction classics, whereas I came away from my first viewing with some disappointments. There’s a certain high-tech and slick cuteness to the proceedings that I didn’t care for, I didn’t find the performances of Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover in the 1985 incarnations of their characters convincing (though I had no problem with their 1955 incarnations, the ones in the present looked and felt too much like young people trying to pretend to be old people), and I was especially annoyed at the double climax; after resolving the issue involving his parents (which had both personal and existential impacts), I was ready for the movie to end, but the whole action sequence of him returning to the present felt to me like it was just jerking us around with the movie’s fairy dust.

However, watching the movie again does amend my feelings somewhat. My objections to the cuteness and the portrayal of the parents still stands, but I realize that I misunderstood the purpose of the second climax. Rather than being a mere diversion to extend the length of the movie, I realized that the real center of the second climax is the survival of the Christopher Lloyd character, and that added the extra level of dimension that I missed the first time. Actually, I’m surprised I missed this; for both viewings, my favorite thing about the movie was Christopher Lloyd and his performance as Dr. Emmett Brown. I’ve never been a big fan of Michael J. Fox, though I have no issues with his solid performance here. However, I did find it interesting to realize this; the movie initially takes place in 1985 and then shifts to 1955, thirty years earlier. This year is 2015, so I’m watching it thirty years later. That means that the present of this movie is just as distant in the past as the past of this movie is from this movie’s present. This being said, I couldn’t help but notice some of the elements in this movie that make it seem quaint; the Delorean time machine itself, the reference to Pepsi Free (the product placement here certainly didn’t help that drink), and the Fotomat at the mall; it immediately occurred to me that you don’t see any of those around anymore.

Swamp Thing (1982)

Article 4892 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-6-2015
Directed by Wes Craven
Featuring Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise
Country: USA
What it is: Comic book thriller

A brilliant scientist develops a formula for an aggressive form of plant life. When an evil genius tries to get the formula, the scientist becomes doused with the formula and turns into a powerful half man/half plant that roams the swamp.

This movie doesn’t have much of a reputation, but in terms of low-budget spectacle, it’s watchable; it managed to hold my attention throughout its running time. The swamp locations are the best thing about the movie; they’re colorful, atmospheric, and wonderful to look at. The Swamp Thing’s rubber suit looks like a rubber suit, but I can forgive that. The worst thing about the movie is the lazy and uninspired script; it’s full of bad pieces of dialogue, clumsy pieces of business and plot holes, and the story is a bit thin for its running time. As a result, we spend most of the middle of the movie having Adrienne Barbeau running around the swamp pursued by bad guys and being rescued by the Swamp Thing, with the occasional long-winded speech given by Louis Jourdan, who fancies himself a genius while not proving himself one. The climax of the movie is particularly weak, with Swamp Thing having an unmemorable battle with another monster. Ultimately, it’s the scenery that steals the movie (which includes Barbeau’s own natural assets). A sequel popped up several years later. I hope it had a better story.

Psycho III (1986)

Article 4883 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-27-2015
Directed by Anthony Perkins
Featuring Anthony Perkins, Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey
Country: USA
What it is: Another visit to the Bates Motel

Norman is running the Bates Motel again, and he encounters a drifter seeking temporary employment as well as a woman who bears a resemblance to Marion Crane. Then the murders start up again…

After watching this movie, I found myself asking what Alfred Hitchcock would have done if he’d directed a sequel to PSYCHO. My first answer is, of course, “he wouldn’t”. My second answer is “if he did, he certainly wouldn’t spend most of the movie referencing his scenes from the earlier movie”. Of course, none of the sequels had a director the calibre of Hitchcock, and for this one, I got tired of the way so many scenes were set up to remind us of scenes from the earlier movie (though it does throw in a VERTIGO reference for good measure). The best thing about this movie is Anthony Perkins the actor (as to differentiate from Anthony Perkins the director); he’s still fascinating to watch in the role of Norman Bates, though it’s starting to become clear that he’s treading ground he’s already covered before. The script has one good twist when the movie is referencing the shower scene, but I’m less impressed with the rest of it; some of the murders occur simply because it was a convenient time to shoehorn another murder into the story. By the time the ending rolled around, the whole thing was starting to feel rather silly. That didn’t keep another sequel from being produced, though reportedly that one’s a prequel.

Jeepers Creepers (1939)

Article 4611 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-24-2014
Directed by Robert Clampett
Featuring the voices of Mel Blanc and Pinto Colvig
Country: USA
What it is: Porky Pig cartoon

Porky is a cop who is ordered to investigate noises in a nearby haunted house. There he encounters a ghost.

This isn’t quite a top-of-the-line Warner Brother’s cartoon, but it is very solid and has a few really good gags. One of my favorite moments has Porky trying to slam the door on the ghost only to discover the door passes right through the ghost. The gag itself is a bit on the obvious side, I suppose, but it’s a wonderful example of the studio’s split-second timing; you’re given just enough time for the joke to happen and to register before the action moves on. Another gag involves the ghost sliding down a banister in a rush to answer a knock at the door; he gets almost all the way to the bottom, stops, slides back up, and informs the viewer that there’s someone at the door, the joke being, of course, that we already know that. It’s these types of gags and the exquisite timing that was already beginning to set Warner Brothers apart from their animated competition. I do have to wonder, though, why the ghost (which, being what he is, is scary enough) decides to concoct an elaborate gag involving frogs placed in empty shoes in order to scare Porky.

Looker (1981)

LOOKER (1981)
Article 4460 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-25-2014
Directed by Michael Crichton
Featuring Albert Finney, James Coburn, Susan Dey
Country: USA
What it is: High-tech thriller

When several of his patients die mysterious deaths, a plastic surgeon begins to suspect that something foul is afoot, as all of them were commercial actresses who worked with a company called Digital Matrix… and a fourth patient may be the next victim.

There’s an eerie prophetic quality to the science fiction aspects of this thriller; with a premise that involves the creation of fully controllable computer-generated images modeled off of beautiful actresses, it’s not hard to see a connection to recent CGI technology. There’s some stunning use of set design, and there’s some stylish direction as well, and the acting is very strong. The problem is that the story gets a little lost in the mix; it hints at several side issues (such as the use of the technology for political manipulation and the that the doctor is being framed for the deaths of the models) that remain undeveloped, certain plot developments don’t make much sense, and though there’s something fascinating about the gun that can be used to freeze someone’s mind so that they skip a few minutes of time, I’m not quite sure what it’s doing in this movie. Furthermore, the stylish qualities sometimes work against the movie; the entire climax of the movie may be fun to look at, but it’s also seems so distant that it generates virtually no suspense. In the end, I found the movie more interesting than exciting, and I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied; it’s more of a nice try than a success.

Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave (1982)

aka Yin Ji
Article 4459 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-24-2014
Directed by Chiu Lee
Featuring Billy Chong, Lieh Lo, Chin-Lai Sung
Country: Hong Kong
What it is: Martial arts of the macabre

A Kung Fu expert is called on by the ghost of his father to find his bones and take revenge on the man who killed him. However, the target for his revenge has the help of black magic on his side.

I’ve covered a lot of movies with outrageous titles over the years, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if the movie comes from the supernatural side of martial arts movies, they’re going to be even more outrageous and wilder than the title. The weirdness never lets up in this one, what with the ghosts, zombies, vampires (Dracula himself!) and black magicians all engaging in martial arts mayhem, which consists of (as usual) a frenetic combination of gymnastics, dance choreography and sound-enhanced gesturing. I suppose I could complain about the lack of coherence, but then, I never really expected it going in. As usual, all I can do is sit there and try to take it all in, and though I’m sometimes not sure whether I’m being entertained or just being overwhelmed, at least I’m not bored, and there’s plenty of laughs along the way. Still, I’m glad that these types of movies only come along sporadically in the series; things would get very tiresome if I watched too many of them at once.

Nazi S.S. (1966)

NAZI S.S. (1966)
aka Borman
Article 4457 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-21-2014
Directed by Bruno Paolinelli
Featuring Sandro Moretti, Liana Orfei, Dominique Boschero
Country: Italy / France
What it is: Spyghetti… sort of

Escaped Nazi Martin Borman hatches a plot designed to resurrect the Third Reich, and it’s up to an American agent to find him and stop him.

It occurred to me on viewing this how rarely Nazis popped up as villains in the Superspy genre, given how ubiquitous they have been as villains over the years. I suspect there are reasons for this, not the least of which is that the source for so many of the Bond-inspired movies was Italy, which was one of Germany’s allies during WWII; as a result, I suspect there might be a bit of cultural discomfort with the idea. This is one of the rare exceptions, and I do notice that the movie wavers a bit between being a more serious spy adventure and a superspy movie, as if it’s not quite sure which way it wants to go. Storywise, the movie is passable, but between the heavy use of stock footage and the scenes of people walking from one place to another (which serves the dual purpose of padding the film and showing off the location footage), it gets pretty dull on occasion. Easily the most memorable scene involves a crash landing on an aircraft carrier, which I suspect is a cleverly used piece of stock footage, but I might be wrong. As far as the fantastic content goes, it’s very slight here; there’s some minor gadgetry, and since the action involves a historical character involved in a world-changing event, it might qualify as political science fiction, but that feels like a real stretch.

Tarzan the Magnificent (1960)

Article 4385 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-5-2013
Directed by Robert Day
Featuring Gordon Scott, Jock Mahoney, Betta St. John
Country: USA
What it is: Tarzan movie

Tarzan captures a wanted criminal who killed a friend of his, and vows to have him taken through the jungle to a city where he can collect the reward for his capture and distribute the money to the dead friend’s family. But the criminal’s own family are out to rescue him, and they won’t let anyone stand in their way…

This Tarzan movie has no more fantastic content than the one I saw yesterday, but beyond that, there’s a world of distance between the two movies. Yesterday’s was a lazy, uninspired affair, unconvincingly shot in the studio and loaded with filler. This one focuses in on the story, the action and the characters. Jane and Boy are not in the picture, and after a token antic-free scene early in the movie, Cheta is left in the care of someone else and plays no subsequent role in the movie. This one is shot on location in Africa and it shows it. Gordon Scott is back as Tarzan, and Jock Mahoney (who would eventually take on the role of Tarzan himself) plays the main villain of the piece. Other names in the cast include Lionel Jeffries as a big-talking man who proves a coward when put to the test, and John Carradine as the criminal’s father. It’s well directed by Robert Day, and it manages to keep the suspense fairly high during the proceedings. For the most part, the movie is a chase film of sorts, with Tarzan and company trying to evade pursuit from the criminal’s family; it gets a little tiresome before it’s all over, but the final fight scene is memorable, and it’s such an improvement over the last Tarzan movie I saw that it’s like a breath of fresh air.

Spiritualist Photographer (1903)

aka Le portrait spirituel
Article 4265 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-15-2013
Directed by Georges Melies
Featuring Georges Melies
Country: France
What it is: Magic film

A magician turns a woman into a portrait of herself, and then back.

This is a pretty ordinary Melies trick film, and I’d probably be largely finished with this review if it weren’t for one interesting little touch. It opens with a man holding up two placards, one in French and one in English, which convey to the viewer the knowledge that a dissolve effect will be demonstrated in the short without the use of a black background, and that this is a novel effect, and, if the truth be told, I do remember that this particular trick was almost always done with a black background up to this point. I don’t know just how difficult it was to switch to a technique using a white background, but it must have been tricky enough for Melies to take the trouble to explain the change in the film itself. If anything, this does demonstrate that the purpose of some of these magic shorts was to experiment with new techniques, which makes this short at least a little more interesting historically.

Soviet Toys (1924)

aka Sovietski igrushki
Date: 7-14-2013
Directed by Dziga Vertov
No cast
Country: USSR
What it is: Animated Soviet propaganda

A greedy capitalist devours everything and gives nothing back. Can the worker and the peasant force him to put his excess funds into the state bank?

What we have here is another foray in Soviet propaganda; it’s basically an allegory about conditions that arose in USSR at the time that Lenin instituted a New Economic Policy that resulted in the rise of greedy entrepreneurs. Much of the imagery is grotesque, especially the sequence where the capitalist gorges himself, vomits into a barrel, and then drinks the contents of the barrel. It verges into fantasy several times, the most striking of which is the merging of the peasant and the worker into a single two-headed creature that was capable of extracting the funds from the capitalist. The animation has a vaguely Emile Cohl-ish quality to it, which makes it a bit primitive for the time. I found it somewhat interesting but also quite predictable at times, and it is best viewed as a product of its time and place.