Friday, June 30, 2017

Beautiful Stranger (1952)

Beautiful Stranger, aka Twist of Fate, is an early 50s crime film starring Ginger Rogers and Herbert Lom. Not that's a description to get my attention!...

Young socialite and former actress Johnny is engaged to the wealthy Louis Galt, and living in the lush French Riviera. When her old friend Emile arrives asking for money, she gives it willingly, not realizing the money isn't intended for his sick wife, but for paying off a debt with a violent gang. Meanwhile, when Johnny finds out her would-be husband's divorce isn't quite as final as she'd prefer, she goes and in a huff and nearly crashes her car, meeting a dashing young sculptor when recovering. They fall in love, but things are complicated by Louis' underground dealings, especially when it turns out he's the mob boss Emile owes money too. The desperate Emile steals a precious bracelet of Johnny's, not realizing he's paying his debt with the very gift Louis got for Johnny. Coming to the correct conclusion via the wrong evidence, he discovers his fiancee is having an affair, thinking it's with Emile, and intends to do something about it...

I didn't get off on the right foot with Beautiful Stranger, as it broke its promise of starring Herbert Lom by not letting him show up until nearly half an hour in, then vanish for nearly just as long. That's enough of a problem that it understandably necessitates mentioning before anything else!

This movie is often described as a noir, but it doesn't really feel like one. It's more a romantic drama, with crime elements. I found it to be quite unenjoyable . It's plodding, listless, and I never felt it amounted to much.

The character of Emile isn't fleshed out as much as he could've, with multiple plot holes as a result. Why does he owe money? Why's he in the French Riviera instead of with his sick wife in America? Why does he gamble the money he borrows from Johnny instead of just giving it to the mobsters? And the list goes on. It's quite annoying! Meanwhile, the rest of the characters are either uninteresting and get the most screentime, or just the opposite.

Ultimately, Beautiful Stranger's biggest problem is that the story feels awfully overcomplicated for what amounts to a pretty simple plot.

The dialogue overall isn't that great, but "I stole it. I'm innocent!" is a line so hilarious it feels rather out of place, and I'm glad it's here. I needed a laugh with this film!

I think what impressed me least about Beautiful Stranger is the acting. I expected better out of some of these people! Onto the positives, Stanley Baker is good when being normal, and effectively villainous when need be. Herbert Lom delivers an interesting performance as the nervous wreck Emile, which some have compared positively to Peter Lorre. It's just a shame he doesn't get enough screentime to really sink his teeth fully into the role. As for the negatives, Ginger Rogers starts out fine enough, but becomes hopelessly dramatic, as does Jacques Bergerac. The duo's attempts at a romance end up cheapening the entire production.

Attached to the movie in the role of Louis before dropping out a few weeks in was Walter Rilla. There are rumours that he clashed with Rogers, and was pissed at his screentime compared to Bergerac. I don't know about the former, but the latter sounds false, as Stanley Baker gets plenty of time in the film, while Bergerac not only gets markedly less, he also doesn't show up until just about the halfway point.

Despite her age, and the role being intended for a 24 year old, Rogers does look young enough for the role. I mean, she ain't 24, but she also doesn't look older than her 30's, so this isn't too egregious of an issue. And hey, if male celebrities can keep playing younger roles well into their older years, then so can Ginger Rogers!

Finally, the French Riviera is a pretty location to be set in, even if the black-and-white nature hampers it a bit.

Beautiful Stranger isn't really worth watching, even for the actors. One the other hand, you have to watch this for the actors! Quite a paradox. How about this. If you're trying to watch the entire filmographies of both Ginger Rogers and Herbert Lom (good luck!), save this for last, or close to last, depending on your levels of tolerance/tolerance levels regarding the latter Pink Panther sequels...

Super Xuxa Against the Down Mood (1988)

Xuxa, popular celebrity and friend to all children, is going around Brazil spreading joy and merriment, which the villainous Down Spirit cannot abide, sending his monstrous henchmen to kidnap her talking pet dog Xuxo. Tasked by her sentient bed to go to the land of dreams, Xuxa ends up on a strange odyssey, going through various bizarre landscapes and meeting their kooky denizens, and acquiring a sidekick in the form of a Gypsy caterpillar, all while questing to find the lost Xuxo...

Super Xuxa Contra Baixo Astral is a real gem of a fantasy film as far as I'm concerned! It's known more commonly in English under its bootleg title of Super Xuxa Versus Satan. As admittedly awesome as that title is, the original is better, as the last word in Super Xuxa Against the Down Mood can possibly alternatively be translated to Spirit, which is a great double meaning. You know I'm always down for puns! Not sure if it's intentional, but fortuitous and unintended English puns in foreign movies get extra points!

The film has been compared with Labyrinth quite a bit, with some deeming it a ripoff, but really it's not that much like Labyrinth. It's about a female lead on a quest to reclaim a kidnapped loved one in a bizarre land, and there's an advice-giving creature living in a wall (in this case a caterpillar, not a worm), as well as an optical illusion involving said wall, and a 'things aren't always what they seem' type line (in a song, not as dialogue,) but besides that, the movies differ greatly, and if taken to court, you could totally see a case of plagiarism being tossed out.

Super Xuxa Against the Down Mood is uniquely both a goofy  kids movie, while also being somewhat messed up in that wonderful way kids media from the 80s could be, ala Return from Oz, or The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story, etc. It's highly imaginative, for sure!

While being childlike, the film also doesn't talk down to kids, and makes it quite clear how horrid adult things like heartless corporations, bureaucracy, and sensationalistic news programs can be. It has a good message come the end, and one that absolutely still applies today. This is a VERY relevant movie!

In-between all of this, there's a child character in the form of Rafa, and thankfully he's not annoying or cumbersome in the slightest! He may have been picked by Baixo Astral due to his potential for meanness, but not once does the kid ever side with the villain, so we're saved the awkwardness of seeing him commit horrid acts, and this also serves to make him a likeable addition, counter to all the movies where the child supporting character is annoying and unproactive.

The villains are an entertaining bunch, and we see plenty of them as the film goes on. Baixo Astral is equal parts goofy, and intimidating and creepy, given his looks and demeanor. One small gripe I have though is that it's a little annoying how Xuxa never interacts with the villains until the last half hour, when she reaches their domain.

There's plenty of great dialogue here, from "The next images are inappropriate to children, but we will show them anyhow", to "That cursed caterpillar ruined everything!", and "Goodbye, infamous monsters! Until never again!". I swear I will use that someday!

The movie's musical numbers are numerous, not too long, and well-paced from each-other. Some are a little too short, seeming to be very nearly cut off (one also going into fast-motion before sort-of petering out), but they're all nice tunes. Some possess lyrics that interestingly focus on subjects like environmental degradation, big businesses, and more. A few of the songs present have a bit of a Kim Wilde/Toni Basil sound to them, and you better believe that's a good thing in my book!

This is in Portuguese, so once again I can't fully judge regarding the acting, but it seems fine, with exaggerated and fun performances. Xuxa's reaction upon discovering Xuxo's kidnapping is pretty bad, but that may well have been intentionally over-the-top]. Speaking of, she's an entertaining lead, possessing charisma, and a nice singing voice. Also, for someone who wanted to hide her past as a nude model (because Brazil apparently wasn't as liberal as its reputation has suggested), Xuxa sure likes showing off her legs, and I am very grateful!

Guilherme Karan gives a delightfully schizophrenic as the lead antagonist, going from grinning and cackling one second, to pissed off and raving the next. I especially loved how the actor has the ability to not just mug for the camera, but to come across as genuinely manipulatively malevolent in places, and can be creepy based on what he's saying, and not just in how he looks.

Super Xuxa looks super neat! Regarding its look, cheap isn't the right word, as this production looks like some money was spent. Unconvincing is a more appropriate descriptor, but in a deliberate and endearing sort-of way. The effects and locations are creative and stylish, with never a dull moment visually. The only one that didn't impress was the first bird man in the treetops, who's just wearing a fake nose and a leotard rather than a proper costume. The animatronic puppet for the caterpillar Xixa (confusing names!) is good, as is the one for Xuxo, which is also simply adorable! My favourite effect in the movie is the great Labyrinth logic scene, which is like that movie, but doesn't copy it, instead coming up with an original eye-bending maze trick, much to my delight.

Super Xuxa Against the Down Spirit is a super fun, sweet all-ages fantasy romp, and it deserved its long-standing position of Brazil's highest-grossing movie. I highly recommend it...

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Ape Man (1943): A Review and Facetious Character Study

Dr. Jim Brewster is a famed scientist, noted for his research into glandular medicine, but his latest experiment has left him changed. Now partly primate, and victim to periods of instability, he needs the spinal fluid of the living to return to normal. Standing in his way is his old partner, but aiding him is his sister Agatha, and his ape sidekick, while a plucky reporter and his photographer investigate the strange goings-on at the Brewster estate...

The Ape Man is a typical example of the kinds of movies poor Bela Lugosi had found himself in after his period of fame had waned. Big name studios didn't really want anything to do with him, while smaller scale ones were all too happy to take on a well known name to fill as many seats as possible for their cheapie horror films.

The story here is pretty lacklustre, and quite simple, though the hour long runtime makes that a bit less annoying. I do with there was a little more to the plot, but I fear that's asking too much of something like this.

Dr. Jim Brewster (Jim?!) is a tormented and desperate lead, and by focusing so much time on him while in a sound(ish) state of mind, we get plenty of time to explore his inner turmoil and develop his character, before he goes ape-crazy. Unfortunately, the film ends up veering a bit in the other direction. Sure, the doc is villainous for much of the movie, killing people, but he's doing so for their spinal fluid, and rarely has the ape-crazy freakouts he feared so much, and nothing really comes from the possibility of him losing his senses.

One thing I dug is Agatha's personal and professional fascination with ghosts, which isn't of any importance to the plot, but fleshes her out. I like that the writer felt the need to give this supporting character such a distinctive hobby, and it helps her have a bit more personality than she otherwise would have. Funnily enough, the ghostly record scene is probably the spookiest thing in the movie!

The reporter and the dame are your typical heroes in a story like this, and they work as audience surrogates, even if we know far more than they do about the proceedings. I actually found it a little fun watching them play catch-up, realizing what was going on.

The whole movie we see a bizarre man watching on, and bugging the players, and his appearances culminate in a truly bizarre ending! I would've loved to see theatrical screenings of this film back in the day. Either the audiences were laughing, or they would've been pissed! Maybe throwing popcorn at the screen even, though it's not that bad.

The effects are ok. There's not a whole lot done to Bela's face besides having fake hair glued to the sides, but he looks the part of a part ape-part man.

It seems there are three methods to showing apes on the silver screen. Either you get real ones and run the risk of them not doing what you want and/or tearing the crew to shreds, or you go the old timey route and get a guy in a costume, or the modern route and use all computers. This film goes the second one, and is all the more chuckleworthy for it. It's a pretty unconvincing outfit, but it brings a smile to the face, so it's ok-ish by me.

William 'One Shot' Beaudine handled the direction in The Ape Man, and he does a fine job. The movie's framed well, and the scenes done in all one take show an extremely confident director! Sometimes it can come across as cheap, and god knows Beaudine didn't do it for artistic reasons, but there are worse ways to cut costs than to leave the camera running as long as possible.

The score is pretty decent, though one track in particular sees far too much use in the final act, being played on repeat constantly.

Bela Lugosi is always worth watching, even if the movie isn't, and this is no exception, though he's not exactly the pinnacle of fun either. He's amusing to watch, but the script isn't quite strong enough to give him anything really good to do, though it is amusing seeing him make gorilla noises, and it's heartening seeing how seriously he took proceedings even when slathered in silly ape-man make-up. The rest of the acting is fine, with performers Wallace Ford and Louise Curry being serviceable, if stereotypical. The American Minerva Urecal is decent as the sister to Lugosi's titular character, though no effort is made to give her a Hungarian accent, and the whole movie you're liable to wonder how and where these siblings were raised! Emil Van Horn is apey as the ape, Henry Hall does ok, while Ralph Littlefield is a bit weird. Apropos of nothing, one last thing to note is-Why isn't Barney A. Sarecky in this movie?...

The Ape Man isn't great, and nowhere near a classic, but for a low-budget B-Movie coasting on its star's name, it's not that bad, and is worth at least a watch. It's guaranteed to not cause a run in your stockings!...


The fabulous Emma (of Little Gothic Horrors), and lovely Magaly (of her self-titled blog) have organised the Beautiful Creatures blogathon, and I was eager to take part in it, particularly due to the sad lack of May Monster Madness this year. The occasion is a celebration of monsters either tragic, misunderstood, good at heart, and everything in-between. I wasn't sure what to cover, but a glance through my not unsubstantial DVD collection led me to a neat pick...


The Ape Man offers us a character that is as layered and complex as one could hope for. A good and pure scientist at heart, he foolishly tampered in nature's domain by trying to figure out a way to tun humans into apes. Unbeknownst to him, this process is quite permanent, and the only way to change himself back is through cold-blooded murder! Though prone to fits of animalism, Brewster still holds love for his sister, and entreats her to help him get the spinal fluid of the innocent in order to survive as a true man. The sister, arguably the real monster of the piece, exploits her brother in a way by helping and encouraging his now warped desires, rather than trying to make him see reason. Brewster's old partner, Dr. Randall, is similar, having had the poor sense to assist his friend in his disastrous experiment, but having the morals to know when enough is enough. However, Brewster wanted himself locked up in a cage to manage his condition, while Dr. Randall invites Agatha over, resulting in her brother's 'freedom'. Couple this with the fact that Brewster could only afford the one cage and has to bunk with a gorilla shows Randall's true colours, and they're far from shining. He's clearly orchestrating events to occur in a way suited to him. What could his ulterior motive be?? Perhaps he's trying to steal Brewster's research for himself, and is using the poor doctor as a hapless guinea pig in a grand experiment. There's one thing the bad Dr. Randall didn't count on though, and that's Brewster using his newfound ape-strength, plus his cowed gorilla, to fight back, killing the diabolical mastermind. It's sadly too late for Brewster though, as he succumbs to madness, and has to be stopped. A sad story I know, but the best stories about men (or women) being turned into apes are often the sad ones...

Say, I'm not reading too much into this, do you think?...

Friday, June 9, 2017

Sh! The Octopus (1937)

What a title! Sh! The Octopus. Sounds great, right? Well not to me it doesn't! If you're going to have punctuation in your title, surely you should go all the way? It should be Sh! The Octopus!. The title feels naked without the second exclamation mark!...

Paul Morgan has just purchased an out-of-order lighthouse, built on a small rocky island. Soon enough, he discovers weird things afoot. Meanwhile, two bumbling police officers, Dempsey and Kelly, run into a terrified woman, bringing news of her father having been murdered, by the crime lord known only as The Octopus. Seeing this as their big break, as well as a way of getting fast cash thanks to the standing reward for the arch-fiend's capture, the duo make their way to the lighthouse the lady escaped from. Upon arrival, they run into several other people, each with shifty backgrounds and potentially shady motivations, but they're all soon on the run when the lighthouse is attacked from all sides...but only by one adversary. It turns out the crime lord Octopus is also an actual giant mutant octopus! How ever will this band of unlikely characters get out of this mess? And who is The Octopus? Could it be one of them?...

Sh! The Octopus is a very brisk mystery, running at only 54 minutes long! I wish it would've been longer, but there's no telling how that'd affect the movie. Given its rather small plot, it might've ended up running too long.

The plot here is a goofy little mystery, with an interesting setting, and a few twists and turns. Things progress pretty smoothly at first, but there's a bit of a lull in the last act, with more of characters bumbling around in dark grottos than discovery of clues and furthering of the plot.

I'll say nothing of the ending, except that I saw it coming exactly 10 seconds before it happened, thinking "Man, wouldn't it be funny if it turned out XXXXXXX". It's for that reason that the surprise doesn't piss me off. It's very tricky having this kind of conclusion, so I'm glad the movie pulled it off. It also made me pleased with previous revelations regarding pretty much all the characters (other than Kelly, Dempsey, and the villain), that I didn't like at that point. That contrivance ends up making total sense! And so do all the other little things that don't make much sense.

I really dig the concept of Sh! The Octopus, of a bunch of characters stuck in a small confined location run by a powerful villain who can watch and spy from all angles, having the metaphorical higher ground (or indeed, higher water).

Moving onto the comedy, some of the dialogue is a bit cringey, akin to a double act trying and failing to be like Abbott and Costello, but other lines are great, like when everyone's stuck in the cave system below the lighthouse and Dempsey says "C'mon, Kelly, on your feet, we've got work to do", leading the snarky Polly to respond with "You've got a nice place to do it in". Polly is full of snappy retorts. There's also a fabulous line involving world domination that I simply can't spoil!

While the writing may be at times subpar, the creators of Sh! The Octopus spared no expense when it came to the effects, and they look great! Given its B-Movie nature, and obscurity, chances are it was a low-budget affair, and if so, the money must've gone to very good use. The story is mostly confined to the one location, leaving the production team to focus on key moments, which works greatly to their advantage.

The effects on display that I can reveal include quite convincing octopus tentacles, which writhe quite convincingly. The octopus itself is decent in the one scene we see the whole thing. There's a phenomenally great piece of work in the climax, which has enthralled many on the internet, and is the reason this movie came to my attention in the first place! Probably the only effect I felt didn't impress was one at the very end, which was just...weird!

Finally, there's some wildlife cuteness present, from candle-wielding turtles (or tortoises?), seals, and frogs. Awwww!

The direction in Sh! The Octopus is surprisingly good for a film of its type! This isn't a point-and-shoot production by any means, and is staged very well! The discovery of the body hanging in the lighthouse has got to be the best directed moment in the movie. It's genuine horror movie material.

The performances here are decent. The main duo of Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins can get a little annoying here and there, but nothing majorly bad. My favourite actor in the movie is definitely Margaret Irving, whose sassy and sarcastic delivery is a delight. Marcia Ralston in entertaining too, particularly with her Australian/Trans-Atlantic accent. The actor/actress playing The Octopus is also a lot of fun. Sure, they may be overdoing it a tad, but they seem like they're enjoying themselves, in a role they probably didn't normally get.

One last thing of note is that this film is a loose adaption of 1920s stage play The Gorilla, which itself was adapted three other times, with those productions actually bearing that name. I'm not very familiar with any of those, so I'm not sure how Sh! The Octopus compares. They certainly sound different! I'll have to check them out at some point (the ones that aren't lost, anyway).

Sh! The Octopus is exactly what you think it is based on that amazing title, and it's all the better for it, as it's a pretty good time! Not great, but certainly an entertaining viewing experience, as well as a showcase for some truly impressive effects work. May you stretch out your tentacles to find it, just like I did!...

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Death of Yazdgerd (1982)

Persian theatre has a long and interesting history. Noted local director Bahram Beyzai, having written a book on the subject, has also penned many plays of his own, including 1979's Death of Yazdgerd, which he adapted to the big screen only three years later...

It's the middle of the Arab invasion of Persia. The fleeing King Yazdgerd is dead, and the Iranian millennium has concluded with his sudden and violent demise. He was seemingly murdered by a poor miller who desired the king's gold, but under threat of the brutal torture and execution of not only himself but his wife and daughter, the miller and his family concoct various accounts of what really happened, in the hopes of saving themselves. Will they succeed, or will their machinations backfire?...

Death of Yazdgerd is quite a mixed bag of a film. It starts off with dialogue that feels like it's trying to fill up as much time as possible without really saying anything, but as it goes on, we get fascinating themes, with examinations on loyalty, duty, doubt, and the illusion of truth. Quite a list of interesting things for a movie I found merely annoying and somewhat pretentious to begin with!

Getting to the negatives, the first couple of acts are rather interminable. We're subjected to the Miller and his family telling various disjointed and contradictory stories of what happened, random flowery yelling, and various excuses from "He's not the king!" to "He's not really dead!", 'We didn't really kill him.' and 'We killed him because thought he was a thief. How were we to know he was king?'. They're so overly theatrical and obsessed with semantics, as if that's going to make an impression on the authorities. "Yes, we killed the king, but is death really the end, or is it just the start of a new beginning in life? Therefore we didn't murder him, but freed his soul to embark on a grand journey of enlighten...urk!". It's at that last point where I would stab them to death, and was hoping the authorities would too, if only to save me two hours of their inane nattering.

It's around the 40/45 minute mark when things start getting interesting. The story the family start telling at that point is actually a plausible one, and thus doesn't feel like it's wasting our time as well as the guards', and following that is when the prosecuting officials start to wonder if what they previously believed to be true is really a misconception.

Unfortunately problems once again arise, as the movie feels like it goes for to long, dashing its chance to conclude the story in a fitting matter in order to continue its yelling screed. I myself yelled at the screen to the characters, saying 'Will you performance artists shut up already?!'. I swear, they missed their calling by becoming a milling family rather than opening their own playhouse.

I didn't mind the ending, as it eventually comes to the conclusion it would have if not for the needless extension, but then the Arab army shows up, and it once again feels like the movie's extended itself past its natural endpoint. Then, after introducing all this new stuff, the movie has the balls to just abruptly end, without concluding any of this newly brought up story. Granted, this type of an ambiguous ending could absolutely be effective, but it's not here. Perhaps that's solely down to the movie already having felt like it naturally ended twice before, and without that issue, this would be a fine ending. I'm not sure. I'm also curious how the movie would go if it was trimmed down to about 45 minutes (preferably by removing the first 45), had a new section added, bumping it back up to at least 90 minutes, and was divided into two halves-The judgement by the Persian officials, and judgement by the invading Arabs. That's just me randomly speculating though.

The writing on display in this movie is sometimes subpar, sometimes very good! Its presentation though leaves much to be desired. Perhaps if this story was to be adapted to the medium of film, it would've worked better as a flashback-heavy tale, like Rashamon, where we see multiple accounts, at odds with each-other. But then again, if no performances of the original play were ever filmed, then it's perhaps a nice treat seeing the equivalent of a filmed recreation.

One last thing to note regarding the plot is how much of an impression King Yazdgerd has over the events for a character we never actually see, besides a covered-up body. Speaking of that, assuming they didn't just use a mannequin to play the king, it must've been quite an easy acting job for that guy! Though less so on stage, I imagine. I hope the guy didn't get an itch!

The acting here is...strange. Stage acting is different from the movies, for various reasons, given the different medium. What's considered normal for a theatrical production can feel overdone and/or unnatural in a cinema setting. Such an issue befalls Death of Yazdgerd. The performers are definitely passionate (with Soosan Taslimi being the best in my opinion), and they probably work great in a play, but come across a bit overly theatrical in a movie, like they're aiming for a back row that doesn't exist.

The direction starts out a bit lacklustre and point-and-shoot, but it perks up in the final forty or so minutes, with more interestingly staged visuals. As for the location itself, it looks quite good. The majority of the film is set in a rundown old building rather than an opulent ancient city, so I imagine it wasn't too hard on the set designers/location scouters.

The lack of much music at all definitely hurts the experience of watching this film. Many of the scenes could've been aided by some scoring, at least a little.

One surprising moment was seeing an abacus! Seeing such a recognizable object still in use in the modern day in a film set over a thousand years ago, looking relatively unchanged at that, is weird!

Finally, the original Death of Yazdgerd play has history stretching beyond the movie. It was revived in 2005 for a Canadian production, and again in 2014 in India, for Bengali audiences. Nice to see it's still enduring even to this day. The movie was sadly never released in its home country from what I hear, having been banned by the censors for not shaping up in their eyes. God only knows what problem they had with a PG film like this! Apparently the sole reason was that its actresses' heads weren't covered up.

Death of Yazdgerd is a film I hesitate to recommend. It's got just as many good qualities as bad, and if you want an example of great Iranian cinema you could certainly go elsewhere, but if you believe in sampling all areas of a country's cinema before forming an opinion, then this comes hesitantly recommended...