Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Marecek, Pass Me the Pen! (1976)

An industrial factory is getting an overhaul, and present supervisor Kroupek must retake his high school exams and graduate in order to keep his job. Having just been critical of his son for not doing well in his studies, Kroupek must now put his money where his mouth is, and either show how well he remembers his old classes, or else the factory will be in the hands of a scheming coworker...

The amusingly titled Marecek, Pass Me the Pen! is a gem of Czechoslovakian comedy. It has a great concept, and one ripe for potential stories and gags. I'd say if this has any big problem, it's mainly that there could've been more. I could imagine this as a tv series, like Mind Your Language, where each week is a new amusing situation.

The message here is an effective one, and there is a goodhearted conclusion.

The characters are a nice bunch. It's amusing seeing how these middle aged folk all revert to classroom hijinx, such as playing pranks on one another, messing with the teacher, trying to get out of studying, passing around notes, and developing schoolyard crushes (despite all being married!). The villain of the piece is Hujer, a smarmy and incompetent scrub who is in danger of becoming the new factory's foreman, if Kroupek is unable to graduate.

I especially liked the relationship between father and son. Jiří starts off like an underachiever, before you realise not only is he doing better in his studies than his brow-beating father realises, but he actually ends up being the one capable of tutoring him. Though Kroupa is too stubborn to admit it till it's almost too late.

The comedy here is successful, getting lots of material out of its setting and characters, paired together nicely. These range from trouble and misunderstandings over classroom notes, to a confusion when one student reads about a parent teacher conference and wonders if this means he has to get his elderly parents from a few villages over.

My favourite parts were the discussions of what Hubris means, and the ineffectual sowing machine. The Romanian scene also made me crack up. Some of the dialogue and wordplay might go over the heads of foreigners, but the majority of it you'll get the gist of easily enough.

There was one joke at the very start that I was expecting a payoff for though, and it never came. I wish I'd known, because I was eager to see what damage would be wrought because of the lazy builder's chalk line over feet.

This is never a bad movie, and I don't really have any complaints. The ending however was a real disappointment. There isn't one, really! The way the plot is paced, it feels like there's still got to be a fair amount of time left, yet there's only 5 minutes. So how is the movie going to resolve all of this? The answer is it doesn't. Kroupek does poorly in his latest test, he asks his son for help and they study, then the movie skips ahead to the completed factory. It just leaves us to assume he graduated. It's disappointing, not only because I actually wanted to see that, but also the successess of the other students. I wanted to see Hujer get his full comeuppance, and Mrs. Týfová learn a lesson about propriety (although her last scene is an amusingly fitting one).

The actors all give fun performances, and each have their own unique charms. A couple did blend together a little, but overall they still amused. Jiří Sovák is a fine lead, while his real life son Jiří Schmitzer is nice, and shares good chemistry with those around him. The teachers are lots of fun, even if I sometimes wished there were more of them, or they appeared more consistently.

The music here is nice enough, with a particularly neat piece being a medley of what sounds like classic Tinpan Alley songs over the end. They're a bit random and abrupt sometimes, but it's still a fun treat, and does make you leave the film in a reasonably positive mood even if you have been left disappointed by the ending.

While not my favourite Czech comedy, Marecek, Pass Me the Pen! is still a nice fun time. It's a very casual movie to just pop on and enjoy, especially for European aficionados...

Lajanje na Zvezde-Barking at the Stars (1998)

Yugoslavia in the 90s wasn't exactly the most cuddly of times, as a few slight disagreements led to a spot of bother. Despite these troubles, and the subsequent impact on the movie industry, it still managed to not only remain alive, but delivered a few genuine classics. Not just in spite of the chaos going around them, but serving in many ways as an antithesis. 

A high schooler is ready for [graduation] prom night, and as he prepares [himself], his parents regale him the story of how their romance began. Back in the 60s, cheeky youth Philosopher makes it his quest to woo the beautiful but seemingly uninterested Danica, amidst various other schoolyard shenanigans, sports contests, and day to day events as their last year of school comes to an end...

Barking at the Stars is a much-loved entry in Serbia's film history, as well as the Balkans as a whole. It's admired, because contrary to many other movies, foreign and domestic, it maintains a clean image throughout. Swearing and boobies are all well and good, but when it's all you get it can be a bit tiring, especially in schoolyard settings. Those kind of elements often leave you disliking everyone involved.

Making the film better/more impactful is that the teens still have an unruly edge to them, rather than being cookie cutter boy scouts. It captures that sweet spot where they're typically energetic and undisciplined youths, but not so much that they're unlikeable, crass, or cruising for a bruising. They're also not nymphomaniacs either! Romantic, yes, girl-crazy, of course, but they're not openly banging in the hallways.

The tone is lighthearted, with minimal drama and a focus on the general lives and loves as these kids go through their last year of school. The film is free from any politics too. This is helped by being set in the past, but I think it'd be the same if it was in the 90s (as evidenced by the pretty casual present day segments). Barking at the Stars is a story that could be set in any country, any time.

This isn't to say the film isn't Serbian, however. It's proud of its home, and is full of humour designed to appeal to locals most of all.

Barking at the Stars is a funny move, with clever wordplay, great dialogue, and frequently amusing interactions. Some of the best scenes are in the classroom, from the impromptu workouts, showing off, to the animal pranks, and the teacher who doesn't realise all the chairs are empty. There's a level of intelligence here too that I appreciated. Where else can you get teenagers who know who Sisyphus is, and apply his struggles in real life by carting boulders around?

The cast here is a highlight. Philosopher, as he's nicknamed, is a fun main character. He's a tenacious and clever guy, always quick with wit and charm, and while he might border on being a pushy kind of Casanova to some viewers, he handles everything well. The romance between he and Danica is sweet, and funny.

Danica meanwhile is a good love interest. She's likeable, and she's clearly into Philosopher, despite a rocky beginning. Their romance is benefited from seeing the present day sections, where they're absolutely lovey dovey. It gets you curious to see how this couple turns from frosty to adoring.

The rest of the cast is full of distinctive characters. The students are  The most memorable is Tupa, a somewhat crazy sportsman, who gets experience by boxing on train tracks. Typical Serbian youth. When you have no kangaroos to box, you spar with trains instead! Philosopher's brother probably coulda appeared more, but it's not bad. Overall there aren't really any weak links among the cast, and they look distinct enough to never get mixed up.

The teachers/adults are a great bunch too. There's the strict and militant sports coach, a surprisingly young newcomer, much to the amazement of the boys, a [nervous] principal, and more. They each get their moments, even if some appear less than others. A resident policeman gets a few funny moments too.

The cast do great jobs, inhabiting their characters well. Some standout performances are Dragan Mićanović and Nataša Tapušković as Philosopher and Danica, Nikola Đuričko as the = boxer Tupa, and Dragan Jovanović as the kooky coach. Serbian acting veteran Nikola Simić doesn't appear as much as I would've liked, but still makes the most of his screentime, and is always visually distinctive. The same goes for Mihajlo Paskaljević as the local bartender Belmondo.

The soundtrack to Barking at the Stars is great, regardless of time period. It evokes the romantic drive-in of the 1950s, in the way movies like Grease are often going for. It succeeds brilliantly, and whether these are archive tunes or composed for the film, they all sound good, and complement the story perfectly. They give a genuine air of nostalgia.

Barking at the Stars has remained a classic for good reason. It's the perfect mix of funny, nostalgic, and sweet, and serves as a perfect introduction to Serbian cinema. If you're nervous about all of the weirder movies] that might abound, this is a great spot to dip your toe into.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Son of Ingagi (1940)

Spencer Williams was what we call in Australia a top bloke. He started out in the theatre, soon became an actor, and moved on to directing. Despite being known for humourous roles, and despite having no more than two pennies to rub together, he still managed to produce mature content that's still appreciated today. He never let himself be ted down to any one genre, as he went from comedy, to drama, 'juke' musicals, and horror...

Eleanor and Robert Lindsay are a newly married couple, ready to settle down in their new home. They make the acquaintance of Dr. Jackson, who turns out to be a friend of the family. Despite having a spooky reputation among the neighbourhood, Eleanor is warm and inviting, knowing all the good she's done with her studies. What she doesn't know is that in Dr. Jackson's home contains a deadly man ape, that may soon cause havoc...

Son of Ingagi starts off pretty sweetly, showing a wedding between two cute newlyweds, all the while building up a suspicious character and situation. It's only at the half hour mark (also the halfway mark) where spooky stuff starts happening proper. This never feels like it's late, and the set-up is all good.

When I first went into this film, I was expecting a broad comedy, since a lot of African-American genre cinema of the time was deeply humorous (be they westerns, horrors, or crime, you could often expect to have a good laugh with the characters), and the lighthearted opening had me wondering, but for the most part Son of Ingagi is a pretty serious affair. Not too serious, of course. It strikes a good balance. The tense scenes are tense, and there's a good atmosphere built up.

Then there's the comedy. It mainly takes the form of funny dialogue, and succeeds, without ever spoiling the moment. One highlight is "Well his neck was broken, and two ribs caved in, back twisted. I was thinkin' maybe he committed suicide, until I found out both his arms were busted, then I couldn't figure it out!"

I can't really say I have many outright problems with this film, though there were a few little things that annoyed or confused me. First and foremost is a frustrating moment where Doctor Baker gloriously proclaims that she's finally found a formula that can singlehandedly cure all of mans ills!...Before it's immediately drunk by N'Gina, who goes crazy and destroys the lab, killing his mistress. Maybe she spoke too soon, and the fact that N'Gina went crazy at all means she buggered the formula, but it's still a nuisance to watch.

The confusing elements of the film are to do with Doctor Baker, and how she managed to smuggle a ton of gold and a giant man-ape all the way from Africa! On that note, the mentions of her gold seem to almost take Son of Ingagi into comic book territory, when we have scenes such as the doctor's greedy/unscrupulous brother going "Gimme your gold! I want your gold!".

Something I especially admire about Son of Ingagi is how progressive it is! First and foremost it's a race film, but we also have a great portrayal of not only a female doctor, but mad scientist too! The movie never makes anything of this, simply showing it as is, working wonderfully.

Daisy Bufford and Alfred Grant make for good leads. They're sweet, endearing, and you always support them. Multitasking Spencer Williams does a very good job here as the comic relief policeman. He gets some of the funniest scenes, and adds extra life to the proceedings. Laura Bowman is sinister at first as the suspicious Doctor, but soon shows a sensitive side, which fleshes her character out considerably. Then we see her more maternal facet with N'Gina, adding another layer of depth for the actress to work with, which she manages well. The movie loses some talent when her character dies. And lastly, Zack Williams does very well as N'Gina, who gets both sensitive and animalistic moments. I would've liked to see him in more roles like this, and become an African-American Karloff or Chaney.

The effects for the titular monster are pretty well realised. It's not the most expensive of make-up, but it never looks bad, and its design makes for a neat antagonist.

Spencer Williams would continue making movies, before eventually getting a lead role in Amos 'n Andy, becoming cemented as a cultural institution among both races, which I find to be a touching capstone to his storied career. And with Son of Ingagi, he shares a great milestone with all who worked on this film, one of the first black horrors. It may not be the greatest movie out there, but as far as beginnings go, you could do far worse...

The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935)

The Black Cat

Peter and Joan Alison are newlyweds going via train though Hungary, where they meet the mysterious Dr. Vitus Werdegast. A veteran of World War I, Vitus has only recently been released from a brutal prison camp, and is eager to find what's left of his family. They accompany him on a cab ride into the village, and after a near-lethal crash, the party are taken to the home of the sinister Hjalmar Poelzig. Vitus remembers the man very well, the one who betrayed their battalion to the enemy, and cost him his freedom. The two rivals begin a game of death, where the fate of the newlyweds is at stake, and the loser will face untold torture...

Directed by industry great Edward G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is a fairly loose adaption (i.e. it has literally nothing to do with Poe, besides a cat that probably isn't even black). Despite this annoyance, it manages to live up to the author's spirit in tone and content. Made during the pre-code era, this is regarded as one of the most extreme horror films of the era, with themes of insanity, satanism, torture, incest (sort-of), and necrophilia (some say implied, though I didn't pick up on that).

The story is an engaging one. With a short runtime of just over an hour, we are introduced to the cast in quick succession, and all the dominoes fall into place nice and quickly. The young couple soon realise things at this house are off, and this fear grows when their repeated attempts to eave are conveniently thwarted, either by a malfunctioning car, a dead phone line, and other 'misfortunes'.

The best parts of the movie involve Vitus and Poelzig, whose mutual hatred is barely concealed. Vitus makes a few attempts on his enemy's life, all unsuccessful, leading him to plan a long game, and hope the cunning villain doesn't see it coming.

There are a few twists and turns here, not all of which felt necessary. Vitus knows his wife is long dead, but wants to find his daughter. Poelzig says she died too, but we soon see she's not only alive and well, but married to the creep! This could've worked well for the story, but I felt it was a bit pointless. She seems remarkably well-adjusted for someone romanced and married by her step-father, and her end feels random and unsatisfying. I wonder what it would've been like if Joan was actually Vitus's long lost daughter. It would've been cheesy and contrived, yes, but at least it'd be better than the nothing we get instead.

The climax is a great one, with a few contrivances, but it makes up for this in pure enjoyment. We get a great final battle with the two rivals, leading to a chilling final encounter. It's great stuff!

Where the ending disappointed me most was the role of the young couple. Joan is to be sacrificed to the cult, until an unexplained trick helps free her. But her husband is nowhere in sight! He was imprisoned earlier, and is busy taking his sweet time getting free, while the rest of the movie happens without him.

When he does finally show up he only makes things worse. When Joan needs to get free, Werdegast says "Let me help you", very nobly interrupting his torture of Poelzig to aid this lady in distress, and Peter busts in and immediately shoots the poor doctor in cold blood! Murder! If Peter had've come across Werdegast right in the act of flaying Poelzig and shot him then and there out of shock, that would be more understandable, even if he totally owes the man a bouquet at his funeral. But the hero comes across badly here, especially considering he'd done literally nothing else during the climax, leaving Werdegast to do everything.

Bela Lugosi plays the hero for a change here, and does a great job. He's just unhinged enough, but not so much that you can't accept him as the good guy. But since the 1930s era was probably contractually obligated to star someone handsome, David Manners is technically the lead. But we know who the real stars are! Boris Karloff, meanwhile, is at his best. There's a real sinister edge to his performance, and he plays the role with a calm malevolence, his eyes expressing pure hatred. He's also made-up in a very interesting way, looking the opposite of Frankenstein.

When it comes to effects, The Black Cat is pretty light. The violence is all offscreen, so squeamish people might not be too traumatised. But then again, the suggestion of violence can often hold a greater impact than just seeing it right there.

The set design here is standout. Poelzig's house has strange architecture, and it's a creative location for such a movie. Everything down to the windows, and the altars, is designed with an eye for detail. The direction is equally great, with clever uses of shadows and silhouettes, often heightening the tension, and introducing characters strikingly.

The music here is predominately made up of classical pieces, and thankfully they mesh quite well, never feeling like a cheap excuse to not score a real soundtrack (even though it probably was).

The Black Cat is one of the 1930s' most intense horror films, and well worth a watch! If anyone tries to tell you that old horror movies can't hold a candle to newer stuff, just show 'em this and watch them shiver...

The Raven

Dr. Richard Vollin is a brilliant but eccentric surgeon. Though retired from practice, he is convinced to perform a delicate operation to save the life of young Jean Thatcher, daughter of a noted judge. He becomes infatuated with the girl, and conspires to win her for himself. When her father objects, Vollin intends on using his morbid fascination with Edgar Allan Poe, and a desperate convict, to sweep away all his obstacles...

The Raven is another delightfully spooky turn from horror's greatest pair. Despite its title, this isn't an adaption of The Raven, but then again it never really attempts to be, instead telling an original story drawing inspiration from Poe's work in general. This creates an ooky atmosphere full of shadows and poetry, with a highlight being the ballet dance during a recital of the titular poem.

The story is set up well. Vollin is the first character introduced to us, and seems like a nice enough fellow, until obsession gets the better of him, and either twists his mind, or exposes it for what it really is. 

The escaped convict Bateman is also introduced relatively quickly, busting his way into Vollin's study, insisting at gunpoint that the doctor change his face. Vollin is unfazed by the surprise entrance. It's fantastic how he so effortlessly turns the tables, without Bateman or you realising it's happened until it's too late, and suddenly the man who was being forced into a criminal's demands is now the one giving instructions. 

Vollin does indeed change Bateman's face, but instead of hiding his identity, he cruelly disfigures the man, in order to force him to do his bidding, or else he won't reverse the process. One of the film's big scares is the reveal of Bateman's face after the operation. The music slowly builds up as he realises something terrible is the matter, and we gradually zoom out, 

While Vollin is undoubtedly the villain of the piece, the two do share a great game of wits, like when the man doctor is demonstrating one of his torture devices, and arrogantly lies down right where the shackles can spring up, and Bateman sends a sharp pendulum slowly descending, until an increasingly worried Vollin reminds him he's the only one who can restore the convict's old face. This works, but Bateman soon realises he probably should've let the pendulum just do its work, once he comes to the conclusion that Vollin is hardly a man of his word. This all culminates in a great last battle.

With the villains as the true stars of the film, the actual protagonists don't command our attention nearly as much, but they are decent. Jean and her fiancee Jerry are decent enough. Her father is a reasonable authority figure, who can see what's going on and tries his best to ward Vollin away, earning him a spot on a rack. The family also have a few friends, including [an older couple, and a slightly older couple]. They're primarily for comic relief, and do the job well. I'm glad they don't get killed, because they were fun. Most amusing is how the older couple manages to sleep through the entire events of the climax! Lucky bastards.

The last act is mixed. On one hand it's great, full of cool deathtraps and last-minute rescues. On the other hand it only makes up the last 10 minutes of the film! Granted it's only an hour long anyway, but still. The pacing is never off, but I do wish there was a longer climax, and more time spent on the torture devices (not to mention a juicy victim or two!). Though it is good that we don't get too much, and have the lustre worn off.

The overall tone of The Raven is a good one. It manages to be spooky and funny, in equal measure. There's a good balance, so while the movie always could've been more ghoulish, the atmosphere is never spoiled by the humour. The dialogue can get pretty amusing in places, like the blase "See here Vollin, things like this just can't be done". The 1930s was a time when you could give people a politely worded telling-off for putting others in deadly traps. A much more respectful time.

Onto the acting. Bela Lugosi delivers a standout performance here. He plays calm and well-adjusted, and maniacal, cackling like a true madman. He manages to outshine Boris Karloff, whose role is comparatively more mundane, though he still makes the most of it. He, brings a level of humanity and brutality to his role.

The rest of the cast is fine. Irene Ware is always a welcome treat, and Lester Matthews is satisfactory. Inez Courtney and Ian Wolfe are a hoot, and I enjoyed every scene they're in. Spencer Charters and Maidel Turner are fine too, as is Samuel S. Hinds.

The sets in The Raven are great. The house looks fantastic, and its spooky basement would be a treasure trove for enthusiasts of the macabre (raises my hand). The effects are good too. The make-up Boris gets on his face might not be as memorable or intricate as Frankenstein or the Mummy, but it still looks good, and satisfies.

The Raven is an enjoyable example of classic horror, and gives just enough to treat any fans of the genre...

These two icons of horror worked together many times over the years, always to great effect. Interestingly enough, both The Raven and The Black Cat would each receive two new versions over the years, the former starring Karloff once again, and the other...ahem, 'featuring' Bela. And both films are linked in that neither have the slightest connection with Edgar Allan Poe...