Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | Adiós, Sabata (1970)

Pax and I check out the sequel to 1969's Sabata (which we covered three years ago; how time does fly). Lee Van Cleef's character is played by Yul Brynner this time, so we talk about that and other changes between the films, and attempt to reconcile the two.

Also, I watch Errol Flynn play General Custer in They Died With Their Boots On.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Western History | Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981)

Who's in it?: George Hamilton (Love at First Bite), Lauren Hutton (Lassiter, Once Bitten), Donovan Scott (Police Academy), and Ron Leibman (Friends)

What's it about?: A comedy sequel in which the original Zorro has died and his two sons have to carry on the legend. The first tries to do it in a straightforward way, but injures himself, leaving the job to his flamboyantly gay twin.

How is it?: Very silly and often very funny. George Hamilton is always a pleasure and I appreciate that (some stereotypes and the villain's bigotry aside) the gay character is every bit as heroic and awesome as his straight brother. Actually, he's more awesome with his colorful variations of the traditional costume and his preference for the whip over the sword. He uses the whip to carve his full name - not just his initial - onto walls and he also doesn't hurt himself.

Donovan Scott is hilarious as Don Diego's deaf-and-mute servant. He's clearly riffing on Gene Sheldon's character from the Disney TV show, who would communicate with Don Diego through pantomime, but Scott takes the charades game to ridiculous levels.

Ron Leibman plays the evil mayor in need of overthrowing and it's a bit much when he screams all of his lines, but even that leads to some really funny stuff. Brenda Vaccaro (whom I recognize, but I don't where from) is also great as Leibman's wife. I'm surprised how much I enjoyed this.

Rating: Four out of five smooth operators.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Mystery Movie Night | Gaslight (1944), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Deathtrap (1982)

Dave, David, Erik, Evan, and I muse about manipulation, money, and manuscripts, but mostly... murder!

00:02:01 - Review of Gaslight (1944)
00:15:24 - Review of Dial M for Murder (1954)
00:32:22 - Review of Deathtrap (1982)
00:48:33 - Guessing the Connection

Friday, March 27, 2020

Western History | Zorro (1975)

Who's in it?: Alain Delon (Le Samouraï, Red Sun)

What's it about?: Zorro as a Spaghetti Western

How is it?: As great as I hoped as Spaghetti Western Zorro would be. It crosses over into slapstick and other general silliness a few more times than I'd like, but mostly it's very cool.

Alain Delon is an excellent, suave and dashing Zorro. This version of the story replaces the California West with a larger South American city called Nueva Aragón. (There's a current Nueva Aragón that's a suburb of Mexico City, but if I interpret the map in the movie correctly, the film version is not in Mexico.) Alain Delon's Don Diego is a friend of the new governor of Nueva Aragón, but when his pal is assassinated on the way to taking control of his post, Diego replaces him.

True to the mythology of Zorro, Diego pretends to be a frivolous fop while adopting the Zorro persona to fight the city's true power, the evil Colonel Huerta. This spices up the story with some cool variety while keeping true to the elements of Zorro that really matter. And Ottavia Piccolo is wonderful as an aristocratic woman who's much more than just a love interest for Zorro, but is also a badass revolutionary herself.

Rating: Four out of five bullwhips.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Filthy Horrors | Letters from Whitechapel

Would you like to play a game? Darla, Jessica, and I did and chose Fantasy Flight Games' Letters from Whitechapel. One player takes the role of Jack the Ripper as the other players' detectives attempt to catch him over a series of four nights.

We also talked about other horror-related and -adjacent things we've been watching and reading:
  • Harper's Island (2009 TV series)
  • A Christmas Carol (2019 TV mini-series)
  • Doctor Sleep (book and film)
  • Dracula (2020 TV mini-series)
  • Mindhunter (2017 TV series)
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
  • Marvel Comics Tomb of Dracula series
  • Sweetheart (2019)
  • Underwater (2020)
  • The Turning (2020)
And some things we've been looking forward to:
  • The Lodge (2019)
  • Run (2020)
  • The Invisible Man (2020)
  • The New Mutants (2020)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | Charro! (1969)

Pax and I discuss the world's prettiest cowboy, Elvis Presley in the Spaghetti-inspired Charro!.

We also watch Don Knotts in The Shakiest Gun in the West, a 1968 remake of The Paleface.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Emma. (2020)

Who's in it?: Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split, Marrowbone), Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness, Marrowbone, Suspiria), Bill Nighy (Underworld, Love Actually, Pirates of the Caribbean), Rupert Graves (A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Sherlock, The White Queen), and Miranda Hart (Spy)

What's it about?: An adaptation of Jane Austen's novel about a well-meaning rich girl in need of humility and learning to mind her own business.

How is it?: Dee. Lightful.

I went in a little concerned that it would take too lighthearted an approach to the story, but while it's quite funny (Bill Nighy's hypochondria and his long-suffering servants being especially hilarious), it also values the emotional pieces and themes that make this my favorite Austen story. Of all of Austen's characters, Emma Woodhouse is the one I relate to most. She has good intentions, but thinks she knows best what's good for people and can be controlling about their welfare. She needs taking down a peg or two, but to do it requires someone who loves her enough to risk their relationship with her by challenging her to change. I might have gotten a bit misty there a couple of times.

It deserves to be seen on the big screen for Taylor-Joy's eyes alone, both in terms of sheer beauty and how she uses them in her acting. It's a lovely, captivating performance.

Mia Goth is also wonderful as the current object of Emma's efforts. Rupert Graves plays the beneficiary of one of her past schemes. And Miranda Hart is pricelessly buffoonish as an irritating neighbor who adores Emma, but rubs her the wrong way.

Rating: Five out of five scheming socialites.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Western History | The Mark of Zorro (1974)

Who's in it?: Frank Langella (Dracula), Ricardo Montalban (Fantasy Island, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), Anne Archer (Patriot Games), and Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters).

What's it about?: A TV remake of the 1940 Tyrone Power version.

How is it?: Poor Frank Langella can't catch a break on costumes. Between Dracula and this, he's a captivating romantic lead, but keeps getting stuck in outfits pulled off the Halloween aisle at K-Mart.

This is a very close remake of the 1940 Mark of Zorro. It feels weird that that's the one they went to, but by the '70s it was the definitive film version, not the old Douglas Fairbanks silent. The Disney show was also iconic at that point, but it a) would have been harder to adapt to a feature length and b) was already readily available on a lot of TV stations in reruns.

The production quality on the Langella version drops a lot from the original, being made for TV, but it tries to make up for that by putting Don Diego in costume as Zorro a lot more than Power's version ever was, including during the final sword fight.

And it's got some cool actors in the cast. Ricardo Montalban is the main villain (played by Basil Rathbone in the original), Anne Archer plays Diego's love interest, and Yvonne De Carlo is his mom.

It's not a classic by any stretch, but I enjoyed comparing it to the Power version and Montalban is especially enjoyable. I recommend it for fans of his.

Rating: Three out of five really sad masks.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Fourth Chair Army Invasion | The Expendables of Spy Movies

If you’re bummed about No Time to Die getting pushed back to November, have no fear. William Bruce West, Doug Frye, Evan Hanson, Rob Graham, and I have created the best spy movie in the world and you can enjoy it right this very second in your imagination.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Greystoked | Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948)

Noel and I are back to wrap up the Johnny Weissmuller era the same way we began it, with guest Ron Marz, who'd just returned from South Africa with stories of an actual safari . It's mermaids in Mexico and memoirs about mammals in this very special episode.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Presence of Mind (1999)

Who's in it?: Sadie Frost (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo), Harvey Keitel (The Piano, Pulp Fiction), and Jude Law (Enemy at the Gates, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Sherlock Holmes)

What's it about?: A pretty faithful adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

How is it?: I read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw a couple of years ago and was fascinated by it. I hated it for most of the time I was reading it, but started warming to it by the end. And then after I had a chance to sit with it for a while, I liked it quite a bit, realizing that there are multiple ways to read it and that the most frightening ones are the least supernatural.

It's the story of a governess who goes to watch over a couple of orphan kids at an isolated, huge English estate. She starts to see ghosts. Or think she does. And she thinks the kids see them too, but they deny it. The question is: Is she seeing what she thinks she's seeing or is it all in her head?

I put it away for a while, but was reminded of it earlier this year when a new adaptation was released to theaters. I was curious about how Floria Sigismondi's The Turning would interpret the novel: Straight-up ghost story or psychological horror? Sadly, that movie tried to have it both ways, but not in a subtle, ambiguous way. I ended up mostly liking it, but eager to see a more straightforward adaptation, which is what Presence of Mind is.

Presence of Mind keeps James' ambiguity about whether the ghosts are real or imagined, but unlike The Turning, it understands that it doesn't really matter either way. The ghosts are actually a metaphor for something else that I won't spoil with speculation, but would be open for discussion even if I did. It's a good introduction to the ideas of the novel.

The Spanish estate that it was shot on isn't as gothic as I'd prefer, but it's gorgeous. And there's a familiar Hammer-esque quality to the setting and the costumes and even that so much of it is filmed in the bright light of day. Ghostly appearances in full daylight somehow make it more unsettling, not less.

And the cast is especially fun. Sadie Frost plays the governess and I like her subtle sensuality. She was also Lucy in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula where she was much more overt. In Presence of Mind, she's repressed, but always about to bubble over. It's also clear that she has secrets which may be affecting her experiences at the estate.

Lauren Bacall is the estate's chief domestic whose relationship with the kids sometimes interferes with the governess'. And Harvey Keitel has what's almost a cameo as the mostly absent master of the house. Jude Law is also in it as Keitel's secretary, but it's an early bit part for him that I actually missed for blinking.

The kids, played by Nilo Zimmerman and Ella Jones, are also great. Finn Wolfhard plays the brother in The Turning and brings menace to the role that Zimmerman doesn't have. I like Zimmerman's take more, because it puts the spotlight back on Frost's character where it should be. She needs to be responsible for her actions, where Mackenzie Davis' governess in The Turning is more of a victim. (Brooklynn Prince plays the sister in The Turning with a similar vibe to Jones' version in Presence of Mind: a mixture of adorable and troubled that ultimately makes the character unreliable.)

I wish that Presence of Mind were more atmospheric than it is. That's what keeps me from loving it. But it makes me want to put the novel back on my reading list and also watch some other adaptations.

Rating: Three out of five touched tutors.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Western History | Zorro (1957-61)

Who's in it?: Guy Williams (I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Captain Sindbad, Lost in Space).

What's it about?: Walt Disney adapts Zorro as a TV series.

How is it?: Williams is the definition of swashbuckling and perfectly plays the balance between dashing Zorro and passive Don Diego. Gene Sheldon is also delightful as Diego's mute manservant Bernardo and Henry Calvin is a joy as the good-hearted, but wrong-sided Sgt. Garcia

I expected most of that, having watched an episode or two as a kid, but what I'd totally forgotten was the amazing sets and matte paintings. Disney threw some real money at the show and created a wonderful fantasy landscape for southern California with all kinds of great cliffs and passes and skull-shaped mountains.

And I had no idea that the storytelling was so 21st Century. Each episode is more or less self-contained, but they also connect and build on each other to tell longer stories. In fact, the first eight episodes were packaged together to become a feature film release in 1960, The Sign of Zorro. And that's not even the entire saga of the ruthless Captain Monastario. The evil officer takes 13 episodes to bring down and I was actually shocked when Zorro eventually succeeded and the story line ended.

Then, just as Zorro's thinking of retiring, a new enemy shows up in the form of a secret society that uses eagle feathers to communicate. The group's leader, the mysterious Eagle, lurks in the background for a while, pulling strings behind a variety of other villains and plots as he works toward a takeover of the entire state of California. And while Zorro competently overcomes every individual threat, a growing sense develops that he's getting in over his head when it comes to the Eagle's larger organization. The stakes are raised nicely as the show heads toward the first season finale. And while Zorro manages to pull out some kind of victory each episode, the wins get smaller and smaller as the Eagle gains more and more power, even taking over Don Diego's home.

Sadly, the Season One finale isn't entirely satisfying. Zorro pulls out a decisive victory, but it's also apparent that it wouldn't have been as decisive if the Eagle hadn't grown impatient and tried to stage a final coup before he was ready. His allies knew it was a bad idea and withdrew, but he insisted on moving ahead alone, which was a bone-headed play and led to his downfall more than Zorro's skill did.

Still, the first season is a strong run of almost 40 episodes, even if it doesn't perfectly stick the landing. One of the MVPs of the series is Don Diamond as a late addition to the cast. He's brought in as a foil for Sgt Garcia; someone for Garcia to boss around, but who doesn't follow orders so well. The two of them are hilarious together and bring a needed, lighter touch to the show just as it's starting to look rather grim.

Season Two features a major change in location. Instead of taking place in Los Angeles, the action moves to Monterey where a patriotic trader is trying to gather money for a massive supply shipment. Spain is at war, so the Spanish citizens of California see it as their duty to support their homeland by keeping up business. The trouble is that shipments of investment capital from all over California are being intercepted by bandits, so Don Diego has traveled to Monterey to oversee delivery of the money from LA.

He's accompanied by Bernardo and is eventually joined by Sgt Garcia and Diamond's Cpl Reyes as well, so the best characters from the first season are still there. But the locations were such an important part of Season One and I wasn't ready to let them go. Happily, the relocation isn't permanent, but it takes a while to get Zorro home. Unlike the original novel and some other adaptations, the Californian government in the Disney show isn't depicted as completely corrupt. But the governor isn't as wise or careful as he should be either, so his underlings are often able to get away with cruel activities. When that starts to happen in Monterey, Zorro has to smother the oppression or occasionally deal with other rebels who are just as brutal as their oppressors. These are interesting conflicts, but they go on too long for me.

My interest was renewed though with the introduction of some cool guest stars. Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man) became a recurring foil for Don Diego. The two characters are old rivals and things get complicated when both men fall for a woman named Señorita Verdugo. I'm not usually crazy about these kinds of romance triangles where two people both like the third and the object of their affection refuses to make a choice. But it works in this case, because I feel like Verdugo actually makes a choice, but one of the men isn't paying attention. Whatever the case, Anderson adds a lot of fun to the cast and the plot wraps up in a really lovely way.

After that, Season Two abruptly and unceremoniously returns the main cast to Los Angeles in time for a few episodes with Cesar Romero as Don Diego's shifty, gold-digging uncle. There are still multi-episode story lines from there, but they don't flow from one to another the way earlier episodes did and there are a few that are just completely standalone.

The series never returns to the 13-episode arcs of the first season, but one of the best multi-part story lines stars Annette Funicello, who was given the role as a 16th Birthday present by Walt Disney. She plays a young woman who's come to Los Angeles to meet her estranged father. She's convinced that he lives there and she's even received letters from him postmarked Los Angeles, but no one has heard of the man. It's a cool mystery and Funicello brings a lot of conviction and spunk to her role.

Season Two ended in 1959, but Disney kept Guy Williams on salary and made four more episodes (hour-long this time) to run on the anthology series Walt Disney Presents. The first two ran in Autumn 1960 and formed a single story about a group of Mexican bandits who show up in Los Angeles to challenge Zorro's supremacy as local outlaw.

The next episode ran in January 1961, featuring Annette Funicello, who was back as a different character: a family friend of Diego's who's trying to elope with the wrong fella. And saving the best for last, an April 1961 episode had Ricardo Montalban and Wild Wild West's wonderful Ross Martin as a pair of scoundrels who know enough about Diego's past to suspect that he's Zorro. It's a great finale and makes me wish that there'd been a whole series just about those two characters.

Rating: Four out of five rapiers

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | The Paleface (1948)

Pax and I break down this Bob Hope brew co-starring Jane Russell as super spy Calamity Jane. Pax also talks about the 1952 sequel, Son of Paleface, while I reconsider Joan Crawford as a contemporary cowgirl in 1930's Montana Moon.


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