Quote: Stanley Kubrick on Plot

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A very good plot is a minor miracle; it's like a hit tune in music.

-Stanley Kubrick


Book Review--When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals

When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals
Edited by Vanessa Morgan, B.L. Daniels
Moonlight Creek Publishing, 2016

In search of a light read, I came across When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals on NetGalley and decided to give it a try. It’s a collection of brief essays by an international array of authors with highly variable skills. This unusual read was often hard to put down, though not always easy going.

When Animals Attack covers flicks from the forties to the present day, but for the most part the essays are about films from the 70s through the 90s. The coverage hits where it should: classics like Them!(1954) get attention and the best of the 1970s nature’s revenge heyday is well represented. You get a good sense of the arc of angry creature features, as they evolved from paranoia to parody.

This is not a consistent read where quality is concerned. The writers run the gamut from student bloggers to award winning authors and filmmakers. Gems can be found along that whole range of experience, in addition to much lesser works.

For the most part it doesn’t seem meant to be terribly deep and the generally casual tone of many of the reviews is playful and much like a friend describing a good time at the movies. Still, several of these essays could have used a more thorough edit. There are also some unusual format choices here. My heart was racing by the time I got through the review in which every other sentence was punctuated with an explanation point.

The best of the essays are fascinating though. Among my favorites are those that share the films through a personal, nostalgic lens. I loved Erich Kuersten’s childhood memories of the TV movie Day of the Animals (1977), where he describes simmering with frustration in bed, not allowed to stay up as late as he wishes to watch the films he is curious to see. Warren Fahy shares amusing memories of his many times watching Jaws (1977) in the theater, including one viewing on vacation in Mexico where a theater employee frustrated him by putting a piece of cardboard over the screen during the gory parts in an awkward bit of DIY censorship. A few industry insiders also share their experiences. Beverly Gray worked for Roger Corman for several years, and her insights into of the production of Piranha (1978) provide great perspective on this unique filmmaker and the way he worked.

Ultimately I got the mixed bag I expected from When Animals Attack. There is a bit of wading through less than polished writing, but when the essays connect, they are immensely enjoyable. I was also satisfied to come away with a long list of films to see. In that respect the book is most successful.

Many thanks to Moonlight Creek Publishing for providing a copy of the book for review.

On DVD: Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell in Kansas City Princess (1934)

Throughout decades of movie fandom I’ve seen astonishing sights and transcendent works of art, and yet, if you asked me what I want to see at any given moment, I would probably ask to watch Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell doing stuff. Whatever production they are in, they never let you down, whether individually or as a team. Pure charisma wins every time. I thought this as I settled down to watch Kansas City Princess (1934), which is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

This is one of five comedies that Farrell and Blondell headlined together for Warner Bros. In it they follow the familiar plotline of two dames on the make. This time they are manicurists with gold digging ambitions. Blondell loses the diamond engagement ring thrust upon her by a volatile gangster (appropriately named “Dynamite”, played by Robert Armstrong) and so she and Farrell hop a cruise ship to Paris to escape his wrath. They hook up with a millionaire to retroactively fund their trip.

It’s not the best of the Blondell/Farrell pairings; I think that honor goes to Havanna Widows (1933), which was more solidly pre-code, but it’s fun to watch them banter as they slide in and out of trouble. You’ve never any doubt that these ladies could talk any man into anything.

Fans of 1930s Warner Bros. flicks are familiar with the amazing players the studio rotated in and out of productions like a community theater group. Aside from the leads though, the cast is not as typically fantastic here. The exception is Hugh Herbert who is game as the easily manipulated millionaire Junior Ashcroft.

The disc image is essentially clear, though with a fair number of specks. The sound has a bit of crackle and pop, but does the job. There are no special features on the disc.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Quote: Fellini Describes Ingrid Bergman's Arrival in Rome

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For us in Italy, it was as if the Virgin Mary had just descended upon us from Disneyland.

-Federico Fellini about Ingrid Bergman's arrival in Rome


On DVD: Dick Miller in Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood (1959)

A Bucket of Blood (1959) perfectly illustrates why producer Roger Corman never lost a dime on a film. Produced in five days, with a budget of $50,000, this dark comedy took a playful swipe at beatnik and art culture with thrift and efficiency, relying on sensational content and bizarre characters for impact. I recently revisited this darkly quirky film on a new DVD release from Olive Films.

It saddens me to live in a world where an intriguing face like Dick Miller’s isn’t considered matinee idol material, but sometimes life gets things right. Often a supporting player in Corman productions, A Bucket of Blood was one of a few films in which the actor starred.

Miller is Walter Paisley, a busboy in an arty beatnik café who aspires to be a sculptor, despite the mocking of his workplace patrons. After struggling hopelessly with a lump of clay, Paisley discovers a novel way to make art when he mistakenly stabs a cat to death and decides to cover it in clay. The resulting sculpture is a hit at the café and, much to his horror, he soon finds himself following up with human subjects. As his reputation as an artist blooms, the hapless busboy suffers guilt and fear of discovery.

In this twist on the House of Wax concept, the villain is neither imposing or outwardly horrific. He’s just a weak, unlucky, and untalented man. The horror is in what he is willing to do in order to escape being ordinary.

This is one of the best films Roger Corman directed, primarily due to the one-two punch of Miller as lead and Charles Griffith as screenwriter. Griffith was expert at creating oddball characters who would never dream that the strange things they do are unusual in the least. He creates a ridiculous world, made all the more wild by the fact that these people are actually quite familiar.

A year later, Corman would direct The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) under much the same conditions, with Dick Miller in a small, but memorable role as a man who eats flowers, Charles Griffith as screenwriter, and a soundtrack which recycled much of Fred Katz’s jazzy Bucket score. The formula worked again.

The Olive disc has good sound and a clean, slightly soft image. It’s great to have this film available in a high quality release.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

Quote: Marlon Brando on Stardom

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It grated on me that movie stars were elevated into icons; Hollywood was simply a place where people, including me, made money, like a mill town in New England or an oil field in Texas.

-Marlon Brando


On Blu-ray: Les Girls (1957)

Les Girls (1957) was Gene Kelly’s last contracted MGM musical. It’s a curious film, modern in some respects, old-fashioned in others. In this Rashomon-like story of a successful dancer, and his various entanglements with the trio of women who form his troop, elation and tedium rest side-by-side. I recently had the opportunity to watch this intriguing film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The film begins in a courtroom. Retired dancer Lady Sybil Wren (Kay Kendall) is being sued by her former troop mate Angèle Ducros (Taina Elg) for claiming in her memoir that she once attempted suicide because of her lover Barry Nichols (Kelly). Most of the rest of the film is in flashback, as the two women, and the third dancer in their group Joy Henderson (Mitzi Gaynor) share their widely differing perspectives on the situation. This drama is juxtaposed with a series of saucy song and dance numbers, written by Cole Porter (this would be his final film score).

Les Girls starts out with a boisterous feeling: colorful, alive, and showing great promise. However, as the songs gradually take a backseat to the drama, it becomes less engaging. No one wants to see a long scene with Kay Kendall and Gene Kelly discussing their relationship difficulties. It’s better when she gets drunk and wheels around her apartment singing at the top of her lungs, or really does anything that showcases her ability to show complete faith in absurd behavior.

The five Porter numbers are the highlight of the film, combining a modern sensuality with more dated elements like the back-up dancers in brown face. Kelly could get pretentious in his ambition to be arty; a number in which he tangles with a metallic rope is more silly than avant garde. There are some intriguing numbers though, the best of them partnering Gaynor wit Kelly, a wise choice, because she is more suited to the choreography than ballet-trained Elg and non-dancer Kendall.

Elg and Gaynor are engaging in their roles, but as she often did, Kendall steals the film. I doubt the humanity of anyone who is able to resist the charms of this astoundingly charismatic woman. Everything about her sparkles. That she would die of cancer only two years later is one of the great losses of cinema.

The disc image is sharp and clean, as is the sound. Special features include the interesting short Cole Porter: Ca C’est L’Amour, hosted by Taina Elg, which is actually more of a general overview the production. There’s also a theatrical trailer and the vintage cartoon Flea Circus.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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