Monday, March 23, 2020

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die


The Brain That Wouldn’t Die
YouTube viewing

I think it’s a shame the superstar actors and filmmakers of the Golden Age of Hollywood—the Bogarts, the Hepburns, the Wilders—rarely, if ever, made sci-fi or fantasy or horror movies while in their prime. Genre material such as that wasn’t taken as seriously back then. What kinds of films might we have gotten if it had been? Who knows.

Movies like Frankenstein or House of Wax really stand out amidst the mountain of schlock, but they also made stars out of the actors in them—Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, respectively, as opposed to stars coming to such movies. That’s not a bad thing, though, and it’s something we still see today, as Daniel Radcliffe and Kristin Stewart, for example, will attest.

Also, with so many old movies being rediscovered and reappraised by younger generations, “stars” are created retroactively by film nerds like us. In googling about the SF/horror flick The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, I noticed one of the movie’s stars, Virginia Leith, died last year. I didn’t think she was big enough to warrant an obit in The Hollywood Reporter, much less one that would use this movie as a selling point—I had certainly never heard of her. (She was in Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire, and had smaller parts in TV and film.)

Friday, March 20, 2020

The WSW 25 for the 2010s


I was going to save this for August, when the tenth anniversary of WSW will come around, but I think I’ll put it up now instead. These are the 25 movies that, to me, best represent the previous decade in film, culled from my annual Top 10 lists. You’ll notice this list isn’t ranked; there’s no way I could decide which of these is the “best,” and it doesn’t matter much. Agree? Disagree? Let’s talk about it.



Thursday, March 19, 2020

Queens World FF goes online and streams movies for free!


I don’t have to describe the situation we’re all facing now. While we wait for a resolution (and may it come soon), there’s good news to be had: the Queens World Film Festival, the annual event I’ve blogged about here on WSW, has arranged to stream online many of this year’s crop of movies. I’ve told you about this festival for years and this year, QWFF’s tenth anniversary, you can see it for yourself beginning tonight at 7PM EST, and continuing through March 29, absolutely FREE, on Discovered.tv.

I gotta say, I’m not very surprised that Don & Katha Cato found a way to keep the festival going, because if you knew them and understood their commitment to independent film and their ability to get things done even in the face of great challenges, you’d know that not even a worldwide virus could stop them from putting on the show. I’m glad to be reminded.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Borderline

Borderline
YouTube viewing

Recently there was a blogathon devoted to Claire Trevor and I wanted to take part in it so bad because I really dig her. I haven’t seen her in much, but her bad-girl characters were so memorable and she was so believable and sympathetic as them. I’m glad Crystal and Virginie put her back in the spotlight. Alas, I had too many other blogathons too close together to add another one, but I still wanna talk about her.

Sister Celluloid did a post about a Trevor movie called Borderline, a comedic crime picture with Fred MacMurray, and once again she was kind enough to embed the YouTube video. Borderline is It Happened One Night meets Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, and while it’s more funny-amusing than funny-ha ha, it was worth watching to see Trevor as a good girl!

The Brooklyn native graduated from Columbia and did a lot of stage work on and off Broadway before heading west to Hollywood. You probably knew she was a three-time Oscar nominee, winning for Key Largo in Supporting Actress, but did you know she also won an Emmy for a TV remake of Dodsworth? I’d love to see it if it’s available.


In the 80s, after retiring from acting, she took up mentoring young performing artists at the University of California-Irvine, to the point where after her death in 2000, the School of the Arts was renamed in her honor. From the Claire Trevor School of the Arts website:
Ms. Trevor was a frequent visitor to the School, sitting in on rehearsals and interacting with student actors and faculty. She liked getting to know the drama students and seeing their work, according to those who knew her at that time. She often spoke of the important role the Arts had played in her life, and she believed that using one’s imagination to its fullest is necessary in order to live a happy life. She was thrilled to be able to help the School’s students achieve their goals and assist them, in some small way, according to her friends.
Borderline, like I said, has a slight, gentle comedic touch to it, though it’s mostly a dramatic crime pic. It made me think of the kinds of movies Lucille Ball made in the 40s, before she came to television, and Trevor does feel like she’s channeling Lucy in places. It’s also an unusual role for a woman of the late-40s/early-50s in that she plays a undercover cop, one who was an intelligence agent during the war and speaks fluent Spanish. I would’ve loved to have seen a little more of this life than we do in the movie.


Trevor goes south of the border to infiltrate a drug-running racket in Mexico and expose boss Raymond Burr, once again playing the heavy, and at first it seems as if this will be her movie. Then she crosses paths with MacMurray, a G-man who’s also undercover, and suddenly they’re both on the run and it becomes a buddy road movie, where neither of them know each other’s true identities. Of course, they fall in love.

In the final reel, MacMurray is the one who does the heavy lifting and catches the bad guys while Trevor watches, which was disappointing, but seeing the two of them together is fun. They both come across as mature adults, and the humor is never over-the-top or inappropriate. The location shooting is good as well.


Trevor subverts her bad-girl image at first by having her character pretend to be one. We see her dancing as a chorus girl in a Mexican cafe, trying (and failing) to attract Burr’s attention, then turning to one of his henchmen, wearing a tight blouse off the shoulders and getting him drunk so he can take her to Burr’s hotel room. Trevor would’ve been 40 when she made Borderline, yet she still got to be sexy and seductive and brave, sneaking around Burr’s room looking for evidence of his illicit activities and surviving a shootout between Burr and MacMurray.

Borderline is not perfect, but it’s a nice showcase for Trevor, older but not having lost a thing, playing a rare kind of woman in the Old Hollywood era.

Friday, March 13, 2020

5 Minutes to Live

The Pop Stars Moonlighting Blogathon is an event devoted to singers who act, hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

5 Minutes to Live (AKA Door-to-Door Maniac)
YouTube viewing

He was a musician in the fields of not only country music, but rock, folk, and gospel, a pioneer whose influence continues to be felt today. He had a roguish reputation, fueled by his addictions to alcohol and drugs. He was a deeply spiritual man who wrote songs about the plight of Native Americans and other disenfranchised people. They called him the Man in Black—but his name was Johnny Cash.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Those dancing feet of Ruby Keeler

The 2020 O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.


Ruby Keeler was an established Broadway dancer, the child bride of the legendary hoofer Al Jolson, when in 1933, film producer Darryl Zanuck, then with Warner Brothers, came to her with a role in a movie. It was a musical about Broadway called 42nd Street.

Keeler, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and raised in New York City, had been a professional dancer since the age of 14, in shows produced by, among others, Florenz Ziegfeld—and other than a brief cameo in a talkie in 1930, had no film experience. As a member of Zanuck’s production, Keeler would meet a man who would prove influential to her career, both as an ingenue in film and an veteran many years later back on Broadway: choreographer Busby Berkeley.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Piranha II: The Spawning

The Out to Sea Blogathon is an event devoted to films set on the ocean or any body of water, hosted by Moon in Gemini. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Piranha II: The Spawning (AKA Piranha II: Flying Killers)
YouTube viewing

James Cameron loves being on or under water. When he made The Abyss, he filled up an abandoned nuclear power plant with 7.5 million gallons of water just so he could control the environment in which he would shoot—which, by the way, required new equipment designed by his production crew. On Titanic, he got his studio, Fox, to give him $2 million just to travel to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and record footage of the actual ship. Much of the forthcoming Avatar 2 will require shooting motion capture scenes underwater, and the goal is a look of total realism.

Actors in James Cameron films set on or under water... well, some of them are just plain lucky to have survived. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a nervous breakdown on the Abyss set due to the stress of working such long hours, and Ed Harris allegedly punched Cameron because the director supposedly kept filming when Harris was on the verge of drowning. Kate Winslet told the Los Angeles Times that after principal photography on Titanic had ended, she “looked like a battered wife.”

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Cameron, the first human to explore the Mariana Trench alone, has made water a big theme in his filmmaking. He has made two 3D documentaries underwater: one, Ghosts of the Abyss, incorporated his footage of the real Titanic and delved into the ship’s history; the other, Aliens of the Deep, was a collaboration with NASA in which he filmed previously-unknown life forms within the Mid-Ocean Ridge.

Long before all of this, however, Cameron cut his directing teeth by making a B-grade horror movie, also using underwater footage, about killer mutant fish.


Cameron, like a number of top filmmakers and actors, got his “bachelor’s degree” in film from working under Roger Corman—first making miniature models, then working as a production assistant, art director and production designer and FX man. Among his early credits include Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Escape From New York.

At first, Cameron was the special effects man on P2 before stepping into the director’s chair at the request of Italian executive producer Ovidio G. Assonitis, who wasn’t satisfied with the previous director. Cameron also did a rewrite of the screenplay under a pseudonym. Assonitis considered him little more than a hired hand; Cameron was not only uninvolved in the editing process, he didn’t even get to see the footage while he shot the film. At one point Cameron was himself fired as director by Assonitis, who did his own rewrite of the screenplay, but had to return because of contract reasons. Cameron was able to make a cut of the film on his own, but Assonitis re-cut it, and his version was the one that was released to theaters. Though his name is on P2, Cameron has all but disowned it.

P2 was shot in Rome and Jamaica, and most of the underwater scenes were shot in Grand Cayman, the largest of the Cayman Islands, in the Caribbean. Like Jaws, the way-better film P2 tries (and fails) to emulate, there are lots of POV shots of the critters as they’re about to attack, but when we do see the flying fish, the special effects are decent for 1981. The actual species of fish used are grunions, commonly found along the California coastline.


The movie is crap, but elements of the Cameron influence can be found, even here. Tricia O’Neil’s character isn’t too far removed from the Ellen Ripley/Sarah Connor mold, and I thought her relationship with Lance Henriksen was reminiscent of that between Harris and MEM in The Abyss. The injections of humor in the script, though, are corny and don’t feel at all like something Cameron would write (for instance, the cougar who pursues male lead Steve Marachuk at the resort).

According to IMDB, Cameron came down with a fever in post-production, and one night he had a dream “about a metallic torso emerging from an explosion, and dragging itself over the floor with kitchen knives.” This initial image would lead to the creation, three years later, of The Terminator... but that is another story.

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Other movies involving bodies of water (a partial list):
The Shape of Water
Jaws
The African Queen
Noah
Captain Phillips
It Came From Beneath the Sea
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid/Splash
Life of Pi