Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Western History | The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Who's in it?: Tyrone Power (Jesse James, Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake, The Black Swan), Linda Darnell (Blackbeard the Pirate, Black Spurs) Basil Rathbone (Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Son of Frankenstein, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), Eugene Pallette (The Adventures of Robin Hood)

What's it about?: The origin of Zorro

How is it?: Since Johnston McCulley's novel jumps in after Don Diego has already become Zorro, creating an origin story means deviating from the book in big ways.

This version opens in Spain to show Diego's (Power) prowess at swordplay and horsemanship, then has him called back to California by his father. He expects (and dreads) a life of relaxation and comfort instead of the carousing and adventure that he's experienced in Spain. But he quickly learns that his father has been deposed as mayor and replaced with a tyrant whose rule is enforced by a ruthless captain (Rathbone). Diego knows that his parents will be in danger if Diego rebels openly, so he creates the identity of Zorro to put pressure on the new mayor.

It's a cool strategy, actually. While Zorro interferes with the mayor's cash flow, Diego befriends the mayor's wife and plants suggestions that she'd be much happier back in Spain. The plan is to get the mayor to leave voluntarily, but Rathbone's character is a bigger problem than Diego anticipated. He's actually the power behind the mayor and he won't be intimidated so easily.

Adding a romantic complication to the story is the mayor's niece (Darnell).

As you may or may not be able to tell from that description, the 1940 Mark of Zorro is very focused on Diego and there's actually very little Zorro in it. When Diego does put on the costume it's exciting, but it kind of reminds me of superhero shows from the '70s where 90% of the show is the secret identity and then you'd get a couple of big scenes with the hero to make it worth watching. Not that the Diego stuff is boring. There's a lot of drama and intrigue and some great character stuff. And the swords fights are extremely good, even when no one in them is wearing black.

There are some nods to Douglas Fairbanks' version that are worth pointing out. Fairbanks' handkerchief tricks are replaced by Power's having a general love for magic and sleight-of-hand, but he actually says, "Have you seen this one?" at least once. And Power's Diego also has Fairbanks' tendency to embed his sword in the ceiling until circumstances demand that he need it again.

Except for those details and a couple of scenes with Diego in costume, though, this is a great swashbuckler, but not a great Zorro film. In other versions, the character of Fray Felipe is a quiet man who nobly endures the oppression of the government, but here he's played with blustery gusto by Eugene Pallette, who's pretty much just redoing his Friar Tuck performance from Adventures of Robin Hood a couple of years before. There's also no deaf and/or mute servant and no Zorro cave under his estate (though there are secret passages in the mayor's house that Diego makes good use of). Really like the movie. Wish it had more Zorro.

Rating: Four out of five rapiers

Friday, February 21, 2020

La Forêt (2017)

Who's in it?: A bunch of extremely talented actors whom I didn't know before this.

What's it about?: When a teenage girl goes missing from a small town in France, the investigation uncovers all of the community's secrets. [French language with English subtitles]

How is it?: Wow.

I started watching La Forêt (listed as The Forest on Netflix) just because of its setting. I've always been into stories about small towns and even more so when they're located near huge, dark, old forests.

I'm not as into stories about child abduction or serial killers (I don't necessarily avoid them, but I don't seek them out, either), but it was clear from the first episode that this wasn't just a procedural about the hunt for a particular criminal. As the police and other members of the community start looking for clues, a lot of metaphorical logs get turned over and a lot of metaphorical bugs come pouring out all over everything.

The missing girl is named Jennifer and it quickly comes to light that she had some conflicts with a couple of her friends named Maya and Océane. Those girls are now behaving strangely which especially concerns Maya's mother, a police detective named Virginie who's taken lead on the case. And Virginie becomes even more invested when Maya and Océane also go missing.

The town is full of characters with secrets. Virginie's husband is clearly hiding something as is Océane's father. And one of my favorite characters in the six-episode series is Eve Mendel, a teacher at the girls' school whose past is so mysterious that even she doesn't know what it is. But details from Jennifer's case start triggering memories for Eve.

And then there's the police captain Gaspard Decker, who's new enough in town not to have secrets, but still plenty of drama. He has to decide how much room to give Virginie who isn't objective about the case for obvious reasons. He also has a teenage daughter whom he's concerned about considering all of these disappearances. And is that romantic interest between him and Eve?

All of these relationships and mysteries build to exciting revelations all throughout the series, culminating in a conclusion that ties up all the plot threads while also satisfying emotionally.

Rating: Five out of five priceless pedagogues with perplexing pasts.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Western History | The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Who's in it?: Douglas Fairbanks (The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad, Don Q Son of Zorro, The Black Pirate, The Iron Mask)

What's it about?: When the Spanish governor of California becomes oppressive, a seemingly foppish nobleman puts on a mask to protect the persecuted.

How is it?: I've seen this a few times by now and it's a very faithful adaptation of Johnston McCulley's novel, The Curse of Capistrano, in which Zorro first appeared. There are a couple of big differences though.

The first is Zorro's assistant Bernardo, a character who's barely in the novel. McCulley's version is deaf and mute, but The Mark of Zorro allows him to hear and gives him a lot more to do. He's not a major character, but the sense is that he's a clever and capable helper in Zorro's subterfuge.

Another difference is how Mark of Zorro handles Zorror's secret identity. The novel surprisingly saves the reveal until the very end, so the reader finds out who he is at the same time as everyone else. Mark of Zorro lets viewers in on the deception right away.

That's cool because it means we get to peek at parts of Zorro's life that the book keeps hidden. Like how Zorro comes in and out of his house. Underneath his mansion, he's got a cave with a couple of hidden entrances. There's a shrub covered, horse-sized outer passage, and in the house there's a secret door disguised as a grandfather clock. Everyone knows that Batman was inspired by Zorro, but sometimes we forget how much. It's all based on this Fairbanks movie though, not the novel.

Batman could take some more lessons from Fairbanks' Zorro on playing the idle playboy, though. Fairbanks' performance as Don Diego is brilliant. He always looks exhausted and bored, only perking up when he's irritating someone with an unwanted handkerchief trick. Christopher Reeve rightly gets a lot of praise for creating separate performances when he's playing Superman or Clark Kent, but he wasn't the first to do that. Fairbanks does the same thing as Don Diego and Zorro and I totally see why people are fooled.

That impressive bit of acting is nothing compared to the unbelievable acrobatic work that Fairbanks pulls off in Zorro mode, though. He leaps around and climbs over sets like he's inventing parkour. The final chase between him and the Spanish soldiers is a stunning showcase for Fairbanks athleticism as well as just plain hilarious.

Rating: Five out of five rapiers.

Western History Project

I'm starting a new viewing project that I think I'll keep track of here. It was inspired by Stephen Ives' documentary series The West. I watched the first episode again recently and since the series takes a chronological approach to the history of the American West, I decided that in between episodes I would watch movies that take place during the time periods covered by the previous episode.

So, Episode 1 is titled "The People" and is mostly about the indigenous folk who lived in North America prior to the European invasion. I'm not aware of films that cover that, except perhaps The Daughter of Dawn (1920), which is a silent film with an entirely American Indian cast and features only American Indian characters. I like the movie, but it's not specific about its time period, so while I could use it as a starting point, it could also be a movie that fits later in the timeline.

In talking about European colonizers though, "The People" brings up a couple of periods that have been more definitively adapted by Hollywood. The first is the Spanish takeover of the California coast, in part to secure it against Russian settlers who were coming in from the North. The Spanish expanded from their hold in Mexico to build forts and missions all up and down California. And of course this is the period covered by the Zorro stories. So I'll be starting there. I'm not going to watch every single Zorro movie I can get my hands on, but I'll hit the big ones and that's what this project will be about for a while.

The other major European invasion covered in the "The People" is the Lewis and Clark expedition. There aren't as many Lewis and Clark movies as Zorro ones, but I plan to at least watch The Far Horizons (1955) starring Fred MacMurray as Meriwether Lewis, Charlton Heston as William Clark, and Donna Reed as Sacajawea. It'll be a while before I get to that one though. I've got about a dozen Zorro movies to watch first.

After The Far Horizons, I'll watch Episode 2 of The West and see where that leads me next. And that's how this project will go. Please feel free to recommend movies to me and I'll add them to my list. Especially if you know of other Lewis and Clark movies that I should watch.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Nerd Lunch | The Final Star Wars Panel

I'd feel more sad about the final Nerd Lunch Star Wars panel if every member on it hadn't become such a valuable part of my life that I don't for a second imagine that this is any kind of parting of the ways.

But it is the last time we'll get together to talk about Star Wars in this format and that's a sad thing. In this episode, we clear away the table with a discussion of our favorite and least favorite contributions of the Disney Star Wars movies, both saga and anthology films, as well as where we expect / hope the series will go from here.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Vampyr (1932)

Who's in it?: Mostly amateur actors. The lead actor was also the chief financer of the film, so that's the kind of production this was. Sybille Schmitz (Diary of a Lost Girl) has a small role as one of the vampire's victims.

What's it about?: An amateur monster hunter wanders into a haunted village and is drawn into the battle to save a couple of sisters from a vampire.

How is it?: I've seen the movie three times now and one of those was with Tony Rayns' commentary on the Criterion disc, so I feel like I finally have a pretty good handle on what director Carl Dreyer is trying to do and how well he actually does it.

It's a disconcerting movie the first time. Dreyer's deliberately trying to throw off the audience with his narrative and editing choices. He creates an atmosphere that makes it tough to connect with the film, much less fully understand what's going on. The film says right at the beginning that its main character, Allan Grey, is a guy who wants to believe in the supernatural and goes looking for spooky stuff. Since he's not an objective witness, we in the audience are meant to wonder if what we're seeing is actually happening or if it's all in Grey's head.

For myself, I think the ghosts and vampires have to be real. There are too many scenes that take place when Grey isn't around, although those could be imagined as well if you like the idea that he's making all of this up. Personally, I'm prejudiced against a vampire movie that doesn't actually have any vampires in it, so I prefer to read it as straightforward. Even so, there are parts where Dreyer is too many steps ahead of me and leaving clues that are too subtle for me to pick up even after a couple of viewings. It rewards coming back to, though, and I'm considering buying a copy for myself.

Regardless of your interpretation about the reality of its monsters, Vampyr is really effective at creating a mood and feels ahead of its time. The special effects, especially the use of shadows to depict ghosts, still look unique and feel fresh 90 years later. And I love that the vampire is a woman who looks like William Hartnell's version of Doctor Who. It came out the year after Tod Browning's Dracula, but feels more like low-budget, black-and-white '60s horror like Night Tide, Night of the Living Dead, or especially the also-dreamlike Carnival of Souls. It's innovative and creepy with very little dialogue (its way of managing the very new-at-the-time technology of incorporating sound into films).

Rating: Four out of five Minas (or Gisèles, as the case may be).

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Thudarr Road | Master of the Stolen Sunsword

Thundarr Road is back, but Thundarr, Ariel, and Ookla have not yet moved on from the Los Angeles area. They're in Beverly Hills, dealing with a wizard named Yando as well as Thundarr's diminished connection to the Sunsword.

FCA Invasion | The Mandalorian

The Nerd Lunch Star Wars panel is back to talk about The Mandalorian, Cara Dune, and the cuteness of The Baby That's the Same Species as Yoda.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Pinocchio (1940)

Who's in it?: Mostly voice actors whom I don't know, but Mel Blanc was apparently responsible for the hiccuping of the otherwise silent Gideon the Cat.

What's it about?: A superior adaptation of the classic Carlo Collodi novel.

How is it?: I usually remember Pinocchio as an episodic story about an unlikable kid, but that's every other version ever that's clouding my perception. Disney's adaptation manages a pretty stable throughline to pull the episodes together and makes the title character charmingly naive rather than outright mischievous. And of course he's totally heroic by the end.

And don't even get me started on how awesome the world looks with its casual inclusion of anthropomorphic animals, extremely attractive fairies, and all that amazing wood carving. I want to live there.

Rating: Five out of five Blue Fairies

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Mystery Movie Night | 36 Hours (1964), Dark City (1998), and Paycheck (2003)

Evan, Dave, David, Erik, and I are joined by blogger and podcaster extraordinaire Siskoid to pontificate on paper cuts, police detectives, postage stamps, and what could possibly connect them.

00:02:56 - Review of 36 Hours (1964)
00:19:36 - Review of Dark City (1998)
00:36:01 - Review of Paycheck (2003)
00:54:46 - Guessing the Connection

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | Third Birthday and State of the Camp 2020

On a special, smaller episode Pax and I celebrate Hellbent's third birthday with a look back at what we covered in 2019, what we'd like to see on the show in 2020, and what we think of the films on the AFI Top 10 Westerns list.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Avenue 5

Another show I've given up on this year is Avenue 5 on HBO. I'm a big fan of Hugh Laurie, spaceships, The Love Boat, and disaster movies, so Avenue 5 sounded pretty good. It's about a luxury space cruiser captained by Laurie that's thrown off course and is going to take years longer than expected to get back to Earth. There's a lot of potential drama in that premise, especially when you consider the anxiety-heightened family turmoil and the unprepared crew's trying to keep everything together. And if it's also funny, so much the better.

Sadly, it's the humor that turns me off. Or the specific kind of humor. The show wants laughs mostly from people being exasperated with each other. There's a lot of yelling. A lot of just being unreasonable. And while some of it is funny (Laurie is delightfully wry, as expected), I get tired of everyone's just generally being irritable with each other. I watched two episodes to make sure it wasn't just the pilot that had that tone and that's all I want to do.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Gretel & Hansel (2020)

Who's in it?: Sophia Lillis (It, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase), Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact, Deadwood), Jessica De Gouw (Arrow, Underground), and Charles Babalola (The Legend of Tarzan, Mary Magdalene)

What's it about?: The story of Hansel and Gretel retold to focus on Gretel's coming of age.

How is it?Gretel & Hansel is a cool idea. Rather than have the kids be twins and more or less the same age, Gretel is a teenager and Hansel is her little brother, probably around eight-years-old. When they're kicked out of their home by their widowed mother, that puts Gretel in the position of making sure that she and her brother survive. Hearing about a community on the other side of the forest, Gretel leads Hansel in that direction, hoping that they can find work and a new life.

Just on a superficial level, I'm not in love with the production design on the film. The art department is clearly going for something in particular, but the simple costumes and clean lines of the architecture aren't my preferred aesthetic. Especially for a story based on a fairy tale, and a dark fairy tale like this one, I would have loved to see creepier, more ornate designs: baroque or gothic. I'd feel differently if I could tell what this specific design does for the story, but I can't. Maybe I just haven't figured it out yet. That's possible, because there are definitely thematic elements that I haven't quite put together either.

The forest locations look great though. I love every second that the characters are in the woods.

But even though the look of the film doesn't always connect with me, I appreciate the thought that's gone into the story and what themes can be coaxed out of it. I said "coming of Age" in the summary above, but that doesn't satisfactorily summarize it. Gretel & Hansel sees growing up as a dark, violent process and not just because of the loss of Innocence. Growing up inherently means severing ties with family. Not necessarily completely, but it's still a process that involves some pain. There's a lot that Gretel & Hansel wants to say about that and I wasn't able to follow it every step of the way. I'm not sure if that's my fault or the film's, but I'd enjoy revisiting it at some point to see.

Certainly the cast is perfect for me from Borg Queen Alice Krige as one aspect of the Witch, Jessica De Gouw (whom I loved in Underground) as another, and Nancy Drew / It Girl Sophia Lillis as Gretel. Charles Babalola plays a huntsman they meet early on. I didn't recognize him, but he's been in some stuff I love and deserves mentioning.

Rating: Three out of five woodland witches

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector

I have Goodreads to log my reading and Letterboxd to record my movie watching, but there's not a great site that I know to record thoughts on TV shows. I can and do keep track of what I watch on IMDb, but I'm not interested in jotting down actual reviews there. It's too big and covers too many other things. If there's a great site dedicated to logging and talking about just TV, someone please let me know. In the meantime, I'm thinking I'll use the ol' blog to record thoughts about TV shows that I'm trying out.

A few years back, we talked about the 1999 movie The Bone Collector on an episode of Mystery Movie Night. I'd forgotten all about it, but Erik Johnson recently reminded me that in that conversation he made the observation that the movie felt like the pilot to a TV series. And the reason he brought it up was because someone else clearly thought so, too.

I like the movie. I'm not sure the story holds up to close scrutiny - either the plot or some of the characters' motivations - but Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie are both really watchable and it's fun to follow them as they solve the serial killer's puzzles. I also like the concept of a super smart, but housebound detective working with an also capable, but definitely more mobile partner to solve crimes. The Bone Collector novel by Jeffery Deaver was published in 1997, just about a year after DC Comics published Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey by Chuck Dixon and Gary Frank featuring wheelchair-bound Barbara "Oracle" Gordon and Black Canary.

But we probably shouldn't give too much credit to Dixon and Frank, because the concept goes back at least as far as 1934 when Rex Stout's Fer-de-Lance was published. That's the first appearance of Nero Wolfe, an obese, possibly agoraphobic detective who never leaves home, but solves mysteries with the help of his assistant Archie Goodwin. I've always liked those stories too, especially as adapted in the '80s TV series starring William Conrad and Lee Horsley.

Deaver's Bone Collector novel has had over a dozen sequels, so there's plenty of material to adapt for further adventures of Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs (renamed Donaghy in the movie, for some reason). Again, I like the concept, so I decided to give the new series Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector a try when it premiered last month on NBC.

After all that background information, it's a shame to say that I didn't like the show. Arielle Kebbel is fine as Sachs, but Russell Hornsby's version of Rhyme lacks the instant charisma of Denzel Washington. I root for Washington even when he's being stubborn and cranky. If I were to stick with the show, I'd need more time to warm up to Hornsby.

But the biggest barrier for me is the subject matter. I enjoyed the pilot, because it adapted the plot of the novel differently from the movie and kept me guessing even while it reminded me of what I like about these characters. What I didn't like was that it kept the Bone Collector serial killer at large at the end, hence the series' subtitle. And I didn't like the Bone Collector's motivation for killing, which I won't spoil, but I thought was ridiculous and makes Rhyme even more unlikable.

But even with all that, I felt like I could deal if the series kind of followed the format of The Mentalist and was mostly a criminal of the week with the Bone Collector occasionally popping in for sweeps week and season finales. I wouldn't love it, but I thought maybe I could take it.

I tried watching the second episode though and the Bone Collector character is right there out in front, torturing and killing and planning how he's going to keep sticking it to Rhyme. And in the meantime there's a whole new serial killer with an especially harrowing MO and I gave up ten minutes in. I can handle some pretty dark stuff if I'm super invested in some other aspect of the story, but with this, it felt like the darkness is meant to be the draw.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Nerd Lunch | Rise of Skywalker Drill Down

It was bittersweet to record the last Nerd Lunch drill-down about a Star Wars movie. The end of that show is becoming very real. And even though these friends of mine aren't going away, our time getting together in this particular format for these particular discussions is coming to a close.

I'm so pleased with how all of these episodes have gone. Five people of various ages and levels of fandom aren't always going to agree about what makes a good Star Wars movie and that's what's made these discussions so valuable to me. And not just the varying opinions, but the way in which those opinions have been expressed and accepted, even when we don't share them.

Happily, though this is the last Star Wars movie we're likely to discuss together in this format, it's not the last time we'll be getting together to talk about the galaxy far far away. But you can tune in to the episode to get those details.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | River of No Return (1954)

Pax and I come back from Hellbent's winter break with Otto Preminger's River of No Return starring Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, and Rory Calhoun.

Also: I watch Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the Range and Pax discusses his family's recent trip to New Mexico and the short story "Jacob and the Indians" by Stephen Vincent Benét.


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