Category Archives: ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

The Great Monster Varan (1958, Honda Ishirô)

The only thing more tedious and lethargic than the first half of Varan is the second half of Varan. The first half has a motley crew of lepidopterologists awakening a giant monster. The second half has these lepidopterologists consulting with the military to destroy said monster.

Not sure why the military thinks a bunch of butterfly scientists will have good ideas about how to kill a giant monster. Eventually Hirata Akihiko shows up with the solution. Hirata killed the original Godzilla, which is only appropriate in Varan, since the monster has the exact same roar as Godzilla. Varan is done on the cheap. The real cheap.

The film has its share of behind-the-scenes drama. It was originally for television–a coproduction between Toho and an American company, but then the American company went bankrupt. So the two-part TV movie became a single eighty-six minute feature, in “TohoPanScope,” which had them cropping the television framing. I suppose that cropping is why a lot of director Honda’s shots are so bad. Even still, it doesn’t explain away the bad acting or godawful pace.

Or the lousy giant monster suit, which always seems in danger of coming apart onscreen.

There are numerous… well, they’re not exactly plot holes but narrative skips. Like when there’s a forest fire all of a sudden, or how–in the second half–the military attacks have nothing to do with what the Secretary of Defense orders. It makes sense as the Secretary of Defense (Yamada Minosuke) is utterly out of his depth. Yamada’s acting is bad, the script is bad, but even so, when he listens intently to the ideas of chief lepidopterologist Senda Koreya, there’s no plausible reason for Yamada to be listening to Senda. Senda’s writing is probably better, but his performance is so much worse. It’s a risible performance amid some decidedly unimpressive ones. Senda comes up with the solution at the last minute for saving the day, which is another of the film’s narrative skips. He all of a sudden remembers something–which the film doesn’t actually show, but should’ve–as the deus ex.

The first half makes Nomura Kôzô the hero for a while. He’s the intrepid lepidopterologist who dares to return to the giant monster’s territory after it kills two of his colleagues. He brings along Sonoda Ayumi; she’s a reporter and sister of one of the dead lepidopterologists. Varan has so little character establishing, her job is never important. There’s some stuff with newspapers reporting the monster, but it’s before she even shows up.

Bad editing from Taira Kazuji, piddly photography from Koizumi Hajime–though, really, who knows how Varan is really supposed to look (Toho apparently destroyed the original aspect ratio version of the film). But what remains isn’t adequately, much less impressively, photographed. The constant use of stock footage makes the experience even worse.

Ifukube Akira’s score is bad. Though he revised some of the music for later Toho kaiju movies to far better effect. Taira doesn’t really cut with the music in mind. Or sound. Maybe it’s because there are supposed to be commercial breaks. Seeing Varan cut into with commercials might help the overall viewing experience.

It’s an awful film. Especially when it refuses to end; the second half just goes on and on and on. There’s one single good miniature effects shot–and one good composite shot–but otherwise all the effects are bad. I suppose some of the matte backgrounds at the beginning are good. They aren’t godawful at least.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Honda Ishirô; screenplay by Sekizawa Shin’ichi, based on a story by Kuronuma Ken; director of photography, Koizumi Hajime; edited by Taira Kazuji; music by Ifukube Akira; production designer, Shimizu Kiyoshi; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Nomura Kôzô (Kenji), Sonoda Ayumi (Yuriko), Senda Koreya (Dr. Sugimoto), Matsuo Fumindo (Horiguchi), Hirata Akihiko (Dr. Fujimora), Murakami Fuyuki (Dr. Majima), Tsuchiya Yoshio (Katsumoto), Yamada Minosuke (Secretary of Defense), and Sera Akira (High Priest).


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Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman and Robin is fifteen chapters; all together, it’s just under four and a half hours. It is not a rewarding four and a half hours. Not at all.

Of the fourteen credited actors, one gives a good performance. Don C. Harvey. He gets to be chief henchman for a while. But not even half of the serial. After Harvey, uncredited Lee Roberts becomes chief henchman; Roberts is terrible. Though he’s less awful once he becomes lab assistant to the mysterious, masked serial villain, The Wizard. The Wizard is stealing technology to remote control moving objects and, eventually, turn himself invisible. The invisible thing is a lot more amusing. Shame it’s only in the last few chapters.

Besides Harvey, the best performances are from George Offerman Jr. and Eric Wilton, both uncredited. They both have rather significant parts–Offerman is leading lady (and literally only lady in Batman and Robin) Jane Adams’s good-for-nothing crook brother while Wilton is faithful butler Alfred. Wilton gets some decent comic relief, Offerman actually has subtext in his performance; they’re all-stars in Batman and Robin.

Because besides those three, the acting in the serial is quite bad. Leads Lowery and Duncan are terrible. The perverse thrill of watching Lowery try to steal scenes while he’s in costume–chirping the thin, exposition-heavy dialogue–runs out somewhere around the halfway point. It’s a very, very, very long fifteen chapters. Most of the chapters’ “plots” relate to the Wizard and his gang wanting to steal something and Lowery and Duncan trying to stop them or something involving discovering the Wizard’s identity. Lowery and Duncan always screw something up–or just get beat up–and then Lowery bosses everyone around like he shouldn’t have egg on his face.

When Lowery’s not in costume, he’s much worse. For a while, Lowery–as Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy and fop–is advising police commissioner Lyle Tablot (who’s usually tolerable) on important matters. Most of these scenes happen in the first half of the serial, when Adams is still in it more regularly; she spends most of her scenes complaining about Lowery being such a lazy good-for-nothing. Who apparently is a police consultant, which she never notices. Because her character is terribly written. As her brother, Offerman gets more to do–unbilled and in a handful of chapters–than Adams ever does. It’s not like there’s any chemistry between Adams and Lowery. He seems stuck up and she seems to loathe him.

Duncan probably ought to loathe Lowery too since Duncan basically just spends his days in the Batcave trying to science things but being too stupid and having to wait for Lowery. But Lowery’s too busy teasing Adams about something. Batman and Robin’s first chapter does most of the Batman setup–the Batcave, stately Wayne Manor (or just a suburban house), the Batmobile (Lowery and Duncan just drive around Bruce Wayne’s car, telling people they have permission). It starts dumb. It starts a train wreck. Then it just keeps going and going and going and going.

When Harvey’s still lead thug, there’s a certain fun to the serial. The bad guys all walk around in sync; it’s visually amusing. Of course, they’re usually walking around the same handful of locations–Batman and Robin has at least two lengthy chase sequences in the same office building hallway sets, maybe three. But Harvey makes it seem fun.

Since it’s a serial with a masked, mysterious villain, there are a bunch of suspects. There’s radio newscaster Rick Vallin. He broadcasts out of his living room, presumably in a house down the street from Batman’s. Michael Whalen is a private investigator who never really figures in but the script talks about all the time for a few chapters. William Fawcett’s mad scientist, who’s wheelchair-bound but zaps himself in a special chair to walk. Fawcett’s the prime suspect. For most of the serial, whenever he has a scene secretly zapping himself, it cuts to the Wizard entering his cave lair. His cave lair, incidentally, is much cooler than Lowery and Duncan’s. Probably because it’s a converted suburban basement.

The serial doesn’t do much with the suspects. They’re just suspicious as needed, particularly Vallin. While Fawcett’s certainly acting suspiciously, no one ever finds out about the walking zapping, so he’s only a suspect for the audience. In fact, Fawcett’s walking is such a nonstarter the serial eventually just drops the wheelchair. Instead, Fawcett walks around with no one acknowledging a difference. It’s not even a fun stupid, it’s just stupid.

Technically, the serial doesn’t impress much. It does a little–Ira H. Morgan, so long as there’s not much action, shoots day-for-night rather well. It gives some character to the otherwise boring backlot-shot city scenes. It’s not like director Bennet brings anything to them. He’s thoroughly competent but never interested in anything. It might be contempt. Contempt for Batman and Robin is, frankly, a perfectly good excuse for not doing your job on it. Why bother.

There are some okay special effects; they usually come off better when Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s picked some good music for them. There’s no original music for Batman and Robin, but musical director Bakaleinikoff utilizes some more than adequate stock music themes. Certainly more adequate selections than the serial deserves (or needs).

The costumes are bad. Batman and Robin’s anyway. The Wizard’s costume ends up looking all right in the exterior action scenes. Not so much Batman or Robin. Sometimes Duncan has an obvious stunt double for Robin. Lowery at least has the mask, which doesn’t fit right so he’s always peering down his nose, head tilted back. Combined with the way Lowery folds his forearms (does he think bats hold things like squirrels or something), it leads to some silly visuals. Especially when Lowery tries to be authoritative. He’s not, the dialogue’s not just bad but factually ludicrous, and he looks like a jackass. He’s a bore.

But neither Lowery or Duncan are ever good. They’re terrible. Duncan’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a little more unlikable because he teases Adams whenever he gets the chance, costumed or not. It’s obnoxious. Even if Adams isn’t any good.

I’m sure Batman and Robin could be worse–I’m sure someone involved actually improved what the cast and crew were doing (I mean, probably they did)–but I can’t imagine how it could be any more boring. Somehow the chapters manage to move well–the plots are stupid but the pacing is competent–while still being exasperatingly insipid and dull.

It doesn’t help the opening titles for each chapter have Lowery and Duncan, in costume, running around in front of black backdrop and getting confused. Of course they’re confused, they’re jackasses. Each chapter starts with a threat of their inevitable stupidity.

Actually, wait, I did think of a way to improve Batman and Robin. A laugh track.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Robert Lowery (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Johnny Duncan (Robin / Dick Grayson), Jane Adams (Vicki Vale), Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Jim Gordon), Don C. Harvey (Henchman Nolan), Lee Roberts (Henchman Neal), William Fawcett (Prof. Hammil), Leonard Penn (Carter), Rick Vallin (Barry Brown), Michael Whalen (Private Investigator Dunne), George Offerman Jr. (Henchman Jimmy), and Eric Wilton (Alfred Beagle).


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The Sin of Nora Moran (1933, Phil Goldstone)

It’s hard to have worse written characters than dialogue. Like, how can character motivation be worse than what the characters speak to show their motivation.

The Sin of Nora Moran shows what it’s like to have worse characterizations than dialogue. It’s not pretty. What’s sort of frustrating is the occasional bursts of interest. They seem to be accidential or just further attempts at manipulating the audience while not providing the actors any possible explanation for their motivations. Because Sin of Nora Moran turns out to be all about its reveal.

And not the reveal it promises from the first few minutes or from the title. It has a second big reveal, which negates the first big reveal, but also casts a shadow back on the entire film. Sure, it’s only an hour and change, but it’s a long shadow. Or, more aptly, it’s one of the terrible filters director Goldstone and editor Otis Garrett use to show characters suffering internal turmoil. The performance and the narration (and the performance of the narration) isn’t enough. Nora Moran has to cloud everything over to make sure audience gets it.

But it doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing to get because the whole thing’s based on a twist and none of the characters seem aware of that twist. And they really, really, really should be aware of the twist. And, no, Bruce Willis isn’t a ghost. If only.

Here’s the movie. Governor’s wife Claire Du Brey confronts her brother, Alan Dinehart, about her husband having an affair. Dinehart is a political fixer; they’re both blue bloods, the husband (Paul Cavanagh) isn’t, but they both fund Cavanagh for their own ambitions. W. Maxwell Goodhue and Frances Hyland’s script falls over itself to remind the viewer Du Brey is an evil rich woman who shouldn’t be upset Cavanagh’s stepping out.

Of course, Cavanagh doesn’t tell his girlfriend he’s married, which should be a thing but isn’t. Zita Johann is the girlfriend. She’s Nora Moran. Is her sin having the affair with Cavanagh? No. Is her sin killing the man who raped her (John Miljan)? No. Is her sin covering up the murder with Dinehart’s help? No.

Sorry. I got distracted. So Dinehart tells Du Brey the story of Johann. He starts it with the revelation Johann is dead; she was executed for that murder she committed. It takes a while for victim reveal, but it’s sort of obvious. There aren’t very many characters in Sin of Nora Moran. It’s low budget. The filmmakers do a lot to try to draw attention away from those budget issues, but Gladstone’s direction of the actors is so bad and the script is so thin… well, it’s hard not to long for the stock footage montages when compared to the unrewarding narrative.

Because Nora Moran never delivers on anything. Dinehart’s narrating the story, but then it goes into Johann on the night of the execution doped up and remembering what got her there. What could be awesome layered narrative is instead muddled crap; Goodhue and Hyland’s script isn’t there; Gladstone’s direction isn’t there. Johann’s even aware she’s in the memory and able to change minor details–like she’s free to break from the scene to comment on it–which the film later forgets. Nora Moran seems like it had some behind the scenes disasters, anything to explain the slapdash narrative, but apparently not.

The overbearing music from Heinz Roemheld doesn’t help things, though I think it quiets down after a while. It’s sort of a blur. The music probably settles once Garrett starts with the filters. The movie always has bad swipes, but they’re nothing compared to that nonsensical filter the second half.

The acting is uniformly unimpressive. Zohann, Dinehart, and Du Brey come out best, but Zohann’s material is terrible and Dinehart and Du Brey are both fairly bad through the entire first act. It’s when they’ve got the most to do. They’re better at sitting around talking about the movie’s plot than acting it out.

Paul Cavanagh makes very little impression until he makes a lot of impression and it’s a bad one. He gets the big final acting scene and he’s lousy. It’s not his fault–the direction’s bad, the writing’s bad–but he’s still lousy.

Miljan’s barely in it, which is fine. He plays a drunken rapist. His performance is adequate, but his presence unpleasant.

Told straight, The Sin of Nora Moran might be a decent soap melodrama. Could be. With a better script, better direction, no filters. Some different actors. A lot more money. See, the movie’s got a lot going against it and nothing really going for it. It relies entirely on tricking the audience, with zero reward.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Phil Goldstone; screenplay by Willis M. Goodhue and Frances Hyland, based on a story by Goodhue; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Otis Garrett; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Majestic Pictures.

Starring Zita Johann (Nora Moran), Paul Cavanagh (Gov. Dick Crawford), Claire Du Brey (Mrs. Edith Crawford), Alan Dinehart (District Attorney John Grant), Sarah Padden (Mrs. Watts), John Miljan (Paulino), and Henry B. Walthall (Father Ryan).


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Shadow of the Vampire (2000, E. Elias Merhige)

Shadow of the Vampire opens with some title cards explaining the setup. Well, it opens with some title cards explaining the setup after what feels like nine minute opening titles. In reality… it’s six. Vampire ostensibly runs ninety-five minutes.

Anyway. The title cards setup the making of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s highly influential 1922 vampire film. The cards end saying Nosferatu is going to establish Murnau as one of “the greatest directors of all time,” which would imply Vampire’s going to be very positive about Nosferatu and Murnau.

Not so much as it turns out. John Malkovich plays Murnau. The movie presents him as a pretentious dick, which you’d think Malkovich could easily play, but not so much. Steven Katz’s script is particularly wanting in the Murnau characterization department. Besides a visit to a sex club and drug use, there’s nothing to Malkovich’s character. He gets the least character development of anyone in the film. Except Eddie Izzard, who gets ingloriously chucked at some point. Anyway. Murnau’s direction is always played for laughs in one way or another. Sometimes it’s in how Izzard (as the human lead in Nosferatu) acts, sometimes it’s in how Malkovich directs, but there’s always a bit of a joke. Sometimes there’s a lot of one. Shadow of the Vampire has some good laughs.

But Vampire’s not a biopic or non-fiction. It’s about how Malkovich has hired a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play the vampire in the movie. Two big problems. One, Dafoe’s a vampire who wants to kill people. Two, he’s not an actor. There’s some real funny stuff with Dafoe. It’s just not particularly good funny stuff. Vampire’s not a comedy. Director Merhige manages to get into the third act without ever fully committing to a tone. He eventually does pick one and, wow, it’s a bad choice.

But Dafoe. Let’s just get it out of the way. He’s phenomenal. His performance gets the humor in the situation, but never at the expense of being scary. Katz and Merhige never take advantage of that aspect of Dafoe’s performance–the spontaneity of it. Because they’re not doing particularly good work.

At no point does Vampire show much potential. Malkovich is chemistry-free with everyone, which is a problem when it comes to leading lady (barely in the movie, completely “harpy,” ultimate damsel-in-distress Catherine McCormack) who he’s apparently been intimate with. Kinky sex implication intimate. He uses it to control McCormack. But she’s barely in the movie–three scenes, maybe four.

He’s also no good with Udo Kier as Nosferatu’s producer, or Cary Elwes as the ladies man cameraman. Or Izzard, but he and Malkovich don’t actually share the screen much. Malkovich is usually directing Izzard in Nosferatu, not acting opposite him. Malkovich also doesn’t have any chemistry with Aden Gillett, who plays the Nosferatu screenwriter. Gillett’s got no purpose except suspect Dafoe and play well opposite Kier. So Merhige does get these actors need to play well off one another, he just doesn’t do anything to facilitate it. Kier and Gillett have one of the film’s best scenes, if not the best. They bond with Dafoe.

So while often amusing–and quick-paced, at the expense of logic and character development and narrative gestures–Vampire doesn’t have much heft. Then it tries to get some and it doesn’t work out. At all.

The third act’s a bust, with Merhige, Katz, and Malkovich the prime offenders. But mostly Katz. There’s nothing you can do with the third act as written. Then Malkovich, then Merhige. Merhige needed to figure out how to cover for Malkovich’s broad performance.

Kier and Elwes are all right. Same goes for McCormack and Izzard. After Dafoe, Gillett gives the best performance. No one gets enough to do, not even Dafoe. Kind of especially not Dafoe.

Technically it’s a little dull, but still colorful. Lou Bogue’s photography doesn’t do crisp. Chris Wyatt’s editing is good. He knows how to cut for the comedy. Dan Jones’s music isn’t memorable.

Merhige’s composition is a little too tight, his narrative impulses aren’t good–somehow he still keeps a nice, brisk pace–he’s indifferent to actors’ performances. Lots, but nothing to really suggest how bad the movie’s going to close.

It’s worth seeing for Dafoe’s performance. And maybe Malkovich’s if you don’t like him. Vampire pretends Malkovich is giving a great performance–one where he has chemistry with Dafoe and whatnot–but Malkovich doesn’t even put in enough effort to pretend anything similar. It’s a problem.

Vampire’s got too many problems.

BOMB

CREDITS

Directed by E. Elias Merhige; written by Steven Katz; director of photography, Lou Bogue; edited by Chris Wyatt; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Assheton Gorton; produced by Nicolas Cage and Jeff Levine; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring John Malkovich (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau), Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck), Udo Kier (Albin Grau), Eddie Izzard (Gustav von Wangenheim), Aden Gillett (Henrik Galeen), Cary Elwes (Fritz Arno Wagner), Ronan Vibert (Wolfgang Müller), and Catherine McCormack (Greta Schröder).


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