Wednesday, June 29, 2022

June Quick Picks and Pans

Filibus Poster

Filibus (1915) Demure Baroness Troixmonde moonlights as calculating master criminal Filibus. And if that’s not enough, she also appears as the dapper, mustachioed Count de la Brive. Valeria Creti’s triple-threat characters crosses genders and societal expectations as she stays one step ahead of Detective Kutt-Hendy (Giovanni Spano). While she hatches a scheme to pin Filibus’ recent thefts on the detective, she (under the guise of Count) woos his sister, Lady Leonora (Cristina Ruspoli). Troixmonde is assisted in her stealthy pursuits by a loyal team of henchmen, who keep her dirigible constantly at the ready. 

This immensely enjoyable tongue-in-cheek romp recalls the exploits of Arsène Lupin, and its DNA is seemingly embedded in the films of Karel Zeman and Hayao Miyazaki. The only bad thing is that it will definitely leave you wanting more, as it was the one and only filmed adventure for Filibus. 

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy


The French Sex Murders Poster

The French Sex Murders (1972) In director Ferdinando Merighi’s lively mystery/thriller, set in Paris, Inspector Fontaine (played by Bogart lookalike Robert Sacchi) investigates a series of murders in a brothel. After the prime suspect dies in a gruesome motorcycle accident, it’s anyone’s guess who the real killer is. The impressive cast includes Anita Ekberg as a madam, along with giallo mainstays Howard Vernon, Rosalbo Neri and Barbara Bouchet. Sure, the elements are nothing new, but it’s an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Tubi

Midnight Special Poster

Midnight Special (2016) Alton (Jaeden Martell), an eight-year-old with uncanny powers, becomes the unwitting object of a tug-of-war between his parents and unscrupulous parties who want to exploit him for their own ends. Roy (Michael Shannon) tries to protect his young son from harm while evading the FBI and members of a doomsday religious cult (Sam Shepard plays their charismatic leader). Midnight Special starts with an intriguing premise (which owes more than a little to Starman), but it suffers from uneven pacing and two-dimensional characters. At times, the story appears unpolished, raising many questions that remain frustratingly unanswered. The film boasts solid performances by Shannon, Kirsten Dunst (as his estranged wife Sarah), Joel Edgerton (as his best buddy Lucas), and Adam Driver as a government analyst with a soft spot, but it could have been something so much more. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Murder Mansion Poster

Murder Mansion (aka: La Mansion de la Niebla) (1972) This tepid Spanish mystery from director Francisco Lara Polop owes much to the haunted house movies of yesteryear. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a mismatched bunch of fog-bound travelers are forced to spend the night in an old mansion, but someone (or something) wants to kill them. It’s too talky for its own good, with a creaky plot that would have seemed old hat a half-century before. The big “surprise” is right out of any given Scooby Doo episode (if you added homicide), and there’s little to no chemistry between the dull and/or unlikeable leads. Do yourself a favor and see The Cat and the Canary (1927) instead.

Rating: **½. Available on Tubi 


Monday, June 13, 2022

Day of the Animals

Day of the Animals Poster

(1977) Directed by William Girdler; Written by William W. Norton and Eleanor E. Norton; Story by Edward L. Montoro; Starring: Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Lynda Day George, Richard Jaeckel, Michael Ansara, Ruth Roman, Jon Cedar and Paul Mantee; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ** 

An Artsy Shot

Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara): “Mr. Moore, he’s trying to tell you there is no answer. No fair, no unfair. We just accept.” 

Roy Moore (Paul Mantee): “Accept?” 

Professor MacGregor (Richard Jaeckel): “Accept.” 

Roy Moore: “Well, why don’t we just kill ourselves and be done with it then?” 

Professor MacGregor: “Maybe we will. Maybe we already have.”


Puma Watches the Hikers

Big thanks to Pale Writer and Dubsism for hosting the Second Disaster Blogathon, covering depictions of calamity in its myriad forms on the big screen. This week, I’m looking at the ecological disaster movie Day of the Animals (1977).

Director William Girdler is probably best known for the entertaining 1976 Jaws rip-off, Grizzly, and his befuddling swan-song The Manitou (1978), completed before his untimely death in 1980.* Smack-dab between these cinematic wonders, Girdler jumped on the bandwagon of seemingly endless environmental disaster flicks with Day of the Animals.** Forget about a rogue shark or a grizzly. Instead of one species with homicidal ideation, what if all the animals unanimously decided to kill us? With a kitchen-sink premise like that, how could you possibly go wrong? Well, let’s see…

* Not-So-Fun-Fact: Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash, while scouting locations in the Philippines for his next film, The Overlords.

** Fun Fact #1: Day of the Animals was shot on location in the mountainous Northern California towns of Murphys and Long Barn, treating us to some truly gorgeous scenery.

The Hikers Assemble

After human industry has dumped countless tons of fluorocarbons into the atmosphere for decades, Earth’s fauna have had enough. The ozone layer is compromised, admitting an increased emission of ultraviolet rays. This in turn upsets the natural balance, somehow causing animals to go haywire. What’s the science behind all this, you might ask? Who knows? Just when this environmental crisis has reached its apex, a group of unsuspecting tourists embark on an excursion to the mountains with minimal food and no weapons. Their peaceful hike soon turns into a trail of terror* when they realize they’re being stalked by the resident wildlife.

* Fun Fact #1: Poor Susan Backlinie (who plays beleaguered hiker Mandy Young) can’t catch a break in these rogue animal flicks. Before she was mauled by a wolf in Day of the Animals, she became the first victim in Jaws (1975).

Paul Jenson

The characters are a typical mixed bag of personalities, each with back stories that could probably be described in one sentence. Modern audiences accustomed to Leslie Nielsen’s amiable but bumbling comic persona, established in the ‘80s and ‘90s, might be in for a shock with his aggressively loathsome character, Paul Jenson. The combative, racist (and in one scene, rapey) New York ad executive bullies everyone around him, trying to tackle nature as if it were another business conquest. On the plus side, if you ever wanted to see a bare-chested Nielsen wrestling a grizzly, now’s your chance.

At the Campsite

 It's all fun and games until nature attacks.

The rest of the one-note cast includes Lynda Day George as TV news anchorwoman Terry Marsh. Her character’s main motivation seems to be deflecting the clumsy advances of the group’s rugged but ineffectual leader, Steve Buckner (played by her real-life husband Christopher George). This movie isn’t earning any diversity points for Michael Ansara’s stereotype-laden portrayal of Daniel Santee, a Native American guide.  Although he’s visibly irritated by Jenson’s racist barbs, he ends up making a joke about scalping someone in a later (cringeworthy) scene. Clueless, single, middle-aged mom Shirley Goodwyn (Ruth Roman) seemingly exists to whine and complain about roughing it in the wilderness. After his wife Mandy is killed, Frank Young (Jon Cedar) takes a traumatized little girl* under his wing (while alternately yelling at her). Of all the actors, Richard Jaeckel does the best with an underwritten role as Professor MacGregor, creating a surprisingly nuanced character. 

* Fun Fact #2: If the girl (Michelle Stacy, listed in the credits as “Little Girl”) looks familiar, she appeared a few years later in Airplane! (1980), as a precocious young passenger with this infamous line.

Mandy Young Meets Her Demise

You might reasonably ask why the environmental phenomenon only seems to affect animals and not humans. After all, we’re just fancy animals that have learned to walk erect, hold tea parties, and earn useless college degrees, right? Well, this is where the movie’s premise stretches to the breaking point. Apparently, some but not all people succumb to the effects. It’s established that the effect is greater at higher altitudes due to stronger exposure to ultraviolet radiation. If so, why do most of the animals seem to disappear, outside of a plot-convenient bear attack, when half of the hikers decide to hoof it to higher ground? Did the movie’s animal handlers take the day off?

Deadly Rattlers!

One of the cornerstones of genre films from the ‘60s and ‘70s was that there wasn’t always an explanation for everything. A little ambiguity added intrigue to the story, leaving the viewer to reach their own conclusions. In The Birds (1963) no cause is attributed to the avian onslaught. Likewise, in Phase IV (1974), no specific reason (other than some vague cosmic occurrence) was given for the consistent coordinated effort among insects. In both cases, however, the attacks are relentless and calculated. Alas, there’s no such luck in Day of the Animals.  

An Owl Watches Menacingly

 "Give a hoot. Watch Grizzly instead."

Of course, none of these quibbles are a deal-breaker, but the movie’s biggest infraction is that for most of Day of the Animals’ running time, it’s dreadfully boring. There’s nothing wrong with trying to build suspense, as long as it’s leading somewhere. Unfortunately, we’re treated to interminable shots of various critters giving our hapless adventurers the stink-eye, with little payoff. We spend an inordinate amount of time waiting around for animal attacks, and when they do occur, they’re nothing special. The first attack doesn’t occur until we’re almost 30 minutes into the picture, when a wolf mauls a woman in her sleeping bag, then inexplicably leaves. Instead of something that’s visceral and savage, she walks away with a few cuts and abrasions (hardly the opening scene from Jaws). We’re left with a movie that could have, at the very least, been 90 minutes of brainless fun. Instead, it’s merely yawn-inducing.


Sources: Jon Cedar interview (2011), “Day of the Humans: Paul Mantee” (2011)


Sunday, June 5, 2022

Short Take: Tears of the Black Tiger


Tears of the Black Tiger Poster

(2000) Written and directed by Wisit Sasanatieng; Starring: Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucchi, Supakorn Kitsuwon, Suwinit Panjamawat, Arawat Ruangvuth and Sombat Metanee; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

The following review is part of the Foreign Western Blogathon, hosted by Debbie V. from Moon in Gemini, looking at a traditionally American genre through a different lens.


Dum and Mahesuan

“The movie harks back to traditional knowledge, like old herbs we used to boil and drink, which now come in capsules. Like our film, we mixed it with modern film language for a current audience. If it was just an old movie, nobody would be interested. We just borrowed its form, techniques, and combined it with contemporary film language.” – Wisit Sasanatieng 

Over the years, many talented foreign filmmakers have tinkered with a genre that was once regarded as the exclusive domain of Hollywood, to create something simultaneously familiar and completely new. A successful reinterpretation of the Western requires more than simply changing the location or shuffling the actors, but changing the cultural perspective, by utilizing familiar conventions as a launching point rather than a destination. One such example is the Thai Western mash-up, Tears of the Black Tiger, a melodrama about star-crossed lovers that infuses the familiar tropes of American Westerns with Thai sensibilities. Setting his film in post-WW II Thailand, writer/director Wisit Sasanatieng blends old-fashioned and contemporary elements, resulting in something uniquely classic and post-modern.


Dum, aka “Black Tiger” (Chartchai Ngamsan), the film’s antihero protagonist, lives outside the law yet adheres to a strict internal moral code. He works as an enforcer for the ruthless crime boss, Fai (Sombat Metanee), becoming his right-hand man (much to the irritation of fellow outlaw Mahesuan, played by Supakorn Kitsuwon, who formerly occupied that vaunted position). In a flashback, we witness how he meets the love of his life, Rumpoey, the high-born daughter of a local governor. The young girl goads peasant boy Dum into taking her out on a boat, where they discover a sala (a sort of Thai gazebo) floating amidst the lily pads. At that moment, they vow to make this their meeting place. Events take a near-tragic turn when they encounter a trio of bullies, and she nearly drowns in the ensuing scuffle. When he eventually returns home with her near-lifeless body, he’s severely punished by his father (who works for her father). Flash forward 10 years, and the adult Rumpoey (played by Italian-Colombian actress Stella Malucchi) is betrothed to Police Captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth). Instead of sharing his joy, she only feels empty, as her heart belongs to Dum.

Dum vs. Mahesuan

Contrasting the rather conventional story of lovers separated by rigid class roles, is a delightfully unconventional pastiche of styles. Sasanatieng draws as much upon glossy Technicolor Hollywood cowboy dramas as gritty “spaghetti” Westerns to play in his cinematic sandbox. One scene illustrates via instant replay how Dum is the quickest gun in Thailand. He’s so skillful that he intentionally aims his pistol, so the bullet ricochets off the interior of a cabin to hit his mark. In another scene, he squares off against a rival gunfighter, accompanied by a surreal painted background.  

Dum and Rumpoey

Tears of the Black Tiger owes much of its distinctive look to post-production visual trickery. The footage was initially shot on 35 mm black-and-white film, transferred to tape for digital editing (including the addition of color), and finally transferred back to film. Many of the colorful scenes feature vivid pinks, reds and greens, while in one sequence, set at a train station, the hues are purposely muted, with digital scratches applied to mimic archival footage. In another scene, when Rumpoey and Dum are seated in the back seat of her chauffeur-driven car, the foreground remains in color, while the projected background through the car windows is in black and white.

Rumpoey and Dum

Sasanatieng frequently plays with the artifice of motion pictures, favoring striking visual compositions and willfully anachronistic depictions over any pretense of realism. While the bandits ride horses and dress in traditional (albeit stylized) cowboy garb, the film remains firmly rooted in the mid-20th century, as they fight the police with machine guns, bazookas and hand grenades. The soundtrack is also a mix of old and new, filled with musical interludes (consisting of vintage Thai pop songs alongside new interpretations by contemporary artists). Tears of the Black Tiger at once celebrates the joy of filmmaking while a streak of a melancholic fatalism runs throughout. According to Sasanatieng, “Thais believe that destiny leads us down the right path,” which ultimately informs the inevitable path the plot must follow. It’s a self-aware exercise in style steeped in Eastern and Western tradition, making this an unforgettable experience. 


Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Space Month II Quick Picks and Pans

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun Poster

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) In this intriguing live-action venture from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (of Supermarionation fame), scientists discover another planet on the opposite side of the sun, which has remained undetected until now. The U.S. and Europe launch an arduous joint mission, only to discover a duplicate Earth (with everything reversed). The movie has a funky ‘60s future aesthetic, and features some excellent miniature model/effects work by longtime Anderson-collaborator Derek Meddings. It has a solid cast, but it’s hampered by an unsympathetic lead (played by Roy Thinnes). Also, not exploiting the possibilities of a second Earth seems like a missed opportunity (Even if it was populated by duplicate people, why wouldn’t the events unfold in a divergent manner?). It’s still a fascinating concept, though, well worth a look.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Solaris Poster

Solaris (2002) Writer/director Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film (adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel) is a brooding drama, short on spectacle but long on introspection. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a psychologist, sent to a deep space station orbiting a planet with unusual properties. He soon discovers how unusual Solaris is, when his dead wife suddenly returns. But is it really her, or only a simulacrum, based on his skewed memories? It’s a slow-moving, somber experience that could have benefited from some humor, as well as science fiction elements that were more than window dressing. Soderbergh does a respectable job with the material, but the overall effort seems restrained to the point where it doesn’t embrace the genre as much as tolerate it.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD

Life Poster

Life (2017) A soil sample containing a living organism from Mars is brought on board the International Space Station, with predictable results. The crew members (supposedly the best and the brightest) make stupid mistakes, as they’re picked off one by one. If you can get past the less than original premise, it’s entertaining enough, and the alien creature is pretty cool – just don’t think about it too much. If nothing else, I have to give the filmmakers credit for the gutsy ending. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Meteor Poster

Meteor (1979) America and the Soviet Union reluctantly combine forces to stave off certain destruction from a five-mile-wide chunk of rock, hurtling towards the Earth. Sean Connery and Natalie Wood lead an all-star cast of actors who are more talented than this by-the-numbers effort deserves. Released at the tail-end of a glut of ‘70s disaster movies, Meteor was a notorious flop for Samuel Z. Arkoff and American International Pictures.* The $16 million investment was the most expensive production to date for the low-budget film company, but it’s hard to see where the money went. Compared to the high standards set by its contemporaries (Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), the special effects aren’t very special. Yawn.

* Fun Fact: The filmmakers used an avalanche sequence (borrowed from the eponymous 1978 film), which was produced by rival (and former business partner) Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. According to Corman, one review that criticized the overall quality of the effects, lauded the avalanche as the one high point. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Ice Pirates

The Ice Pirates (1985) Robert Urich stars as Jason, the leader of a ragtag bunch of space pirates who plunder freighters for their payload of water – which has become a precious commodity in the galaxy. Things get complicated when Jason falls for a beautiful princess (Mary Crosby), while his crew try to stay one step ahead of an evil empire. It’s not a bad premise, but the execution is clumsy, and the jokes never rise above sophomoric levels (“Space herpes,” anyone?). It’s notable for the supporting cast, including Angelica Huston and Ron Perlman, who went on to bigger and better things. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


The Creature Wasn’t Nice (aka: Spaceship; aka: Naked Space) (1981) Writer/director/star Bruce Kimmel probably shouldn’t have juggled so many roles for this unfunny Alien-influenced spoof. The bored crew of a deep-space mission, led by Captain Jamieson (Leslie Nielsen), pick up some goop on an alien planet, which turns into a voracious monster. Despite a talented cast (featuring Cindy Williams as the ship’s morale officer, Patrick Macnee as a scientist with divided loyalties, and Gerrit Graham as an oversexed crewmember) Kimmel can’t save his film from itself, with limp gags and bad songs galore. It’s not the easiest movie to find, which is probably a good thing.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Creature Poster

Creature (1985) In space, no one can hear you sigh. American and German teams race to an alien planet to plunder untold riches at an ancient archeological site. Unfortunately for them, a nasty extraterrestrial has other ideas. The only saving grace is the presence of Klaus Kinski (for maybe five minutes of screen time), to liven things up a bit in this otherwise pedestrian Alien rip-off.  

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

Mars Needs Women

Mars Needs Women (1968) Tommy Kirk plays Dop, the leader of a Martian expedition to bring back five young women to help repopulate the species. How hard could it possibly be to fulfill their mission? Apparently, it’s a Herculean task for the inept extraterrestrials, who wander about aimlessly, stumbling around a strip club, ogling a flight attendant, and bumbling into a hotel. Yvonne Craig (who apparently had nothing better to do at this point in her career) stars as a biologist, and unfathomably falls in love with Dop. The “Martians” walk around in wetsuits, and carry a speargun for a weapon (I’m guessing writer/director/producer Larry Buchanan had some old scuba gear lying around). The goofy premise should have been played for laughs. Instead, it’s all deadpan, which only makes the proceedings more unbearable. 

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime