12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
The Sign of Four / directed by Peter Hammond (1987, VHS off-air). Jeremy Brett, Edward Hardwicke, John Thaw, Kiran Shah, Jenny Seagrove, Ronald Lacey, Emrys James. "There's something Devilish in this, Watson." In this feature-length special episode, we are treated with a weirder than usual cast of characters presented with a slightly macabre sense of humor. We also get to see some old faves, like Toby the Dog, the Baker Street Irregulars, and Holmes donning another disguise, giving him the opportunity to serve up an extra slice of ham. From personal choices of individuals to crooked British colonial officers in India, there is an undercurrent of being forever chained to corrupt decisions and facing the consequences. Dr. Watson starts to fall in love with a beautiful female client. Director Hammond did a fine job, but there are warnings he is about to go goofy on us, as he certainly did in the later The Golden Pince-Nez (1994). For one thing, he continually uses mirrors in his shots even though this device, as far as I can ascertain, adds nothing to the story or even serves as an allegory or symbol of anything. It just looks cool. Or so he thought. Parts of the soundtrack, by an unfortunate coincidence, sound very close to that of Disney's The Little Mermaid, which was released a couple years later in 1989. Worth viewing for the personalities alone.
Sleuth / directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1972, VHS). Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine. This 20-year old videocassette, a product of the old Video Treasures company, has finally bitten the Big One. Consequently, it gets tossed in the Biz Bag and there will be no review of this film. Well, that one was easy.
Jerks of All Trades / directed by George Cahan (1949, VHS). Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Shemp Howard, Emil Sitka, Symona Boniface, Joseph Kearns. A TV pilot for the Three Stooges that was never aired, chiefly due to contractual conflicts with Columbia Pictures. Filmed before a live audience, the boys are incompetent paperhangers and painters working for a hoit-de-la-toit household, hearkening back to their days in the early 1930s film shorts. The action has the feel of Vaudeville and considering the venue they have excellent timing-- no doubt helped by the veteran Stooge fellow sufferers Sitka and Boniface. It is strange to watch the mayhem without the accompanying sound effects. There is also a most unusual eyepoke Moe delivers to Shemp-- in backhand! Moe: "Wait a minute! Remember we are gentlemen first, and our feelings come second." Shemp: "Well, let's get out of first and shift into second." It is at this point Moe administers the backhanded eyepoke in a very elegant and professional manner. What an artist! For awhile the head konks and the face slaps were in a horse race as far as quantity goes, but in the end there is a plethora of craniums getting pounded. Violence count: Head konks 23, face slaps 15, hair pulled 4, two each of stomach hits, eye pokes, and pie in face. One foot stomped, one shin hit.
Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution (American Masters) / directed by Doug Hamilton (2003, VHS off-air). Alice Waters, Marion Cunningham, Jacques Pepin, Peter Sellars, Calvin Trillin. A documentary profile of Alice Waters, the Berkeley chef who was influential in the then-revolutionary concept of raising organic food, eating locally grown products, and using the culinary arts as a metaphor for how to approach life. Setting out with the modest goal of simply creating a nice restaurant, she was a major contributor in showing Americans a different way to grow and prepare our meals. Of all the talking heads who comment on Waters' work, my favorite is theater-opera director Peter Sellars when he compares an agri-biz tomato with an organic one as if he was casting Stallone or a fine actor for a Shakespeare play. I did find myself starting to nod off and dream about eating a cheeseburger-- that is to say my attention span was not strong enough to sustain me through this profile. This really says more about me than the quality of the documentary. Those of you who know me know vegetables are not my friends. Marmite on toast and a cheap cigar is my kind of breakfast. But I do admire Waters even if I choose not to follow that path.
Be Human / directed by Dave Fleischer (1936). Mae Questel (uncredited voice). A very dark and unsettling cartoon. Betty Boop calls on Grampy to teach a lesson to a sadistic farmer who is brutal to his animals. Far from funny, the violence here (by all characters involved) is outright disturbing. Not recommended for children-- or adults for that matter.
SCTV (1976-1984?, VHS off-air). Robin Duke. "Crazy Crafts with Molly Earl." As dotty old Molly Earl, the hostess of her own local craft TV show, Robin Duke created her most memorable character in the SCTV universe. In this installment Molly is a bit hungover and her guest is some guy she met in a bar the previous night who says his name is "Bob." A fun personality piece.
Elvira's Haunted Hills / directed by Sam Irvin (2001, DVD). Cassandra Peterson, Richard O'Brien, Mary Scheer, Scott Atkinson, Mary Jo Smith. Dedicated to Vincent Price, Elvira pays homage to Roger Corman's Poe cycle of the 1960s. Set in Carpathia in 1851, Cormanesque/Poe standbys are used: garish color, a "living" castle, a gallery of evil and twisted ancestors, the lord of the house pining for his dead wife, extreme overacting, a wild coach ride, a family curse, screaming in horror on a regular basis, catalepsy, dream sequences, being buried alive, torture chambers. In some cases, the dialogue is right out of Corman/Poe/Price films. In addition to Elvira's normal lowbrow humor, there are brief nods to other films such as The Shining ("Heeeeere's Johan!") and Titanic, as well as movie conventions like bad dubbing and an all too brief bit with Elvira snoring like Shemp Howard. You don't have to be a Corman aficionado to enjoy this, but it might be funnier on a more sophisticated level if you watched, say, House of Usher (1960) or Pit and the Pendulum (1961) first. This film is an improvement over Elvira's earlier Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988).
"Bev's Boyfriend" (I Married Joan) / directed by Ezra Stone (1953, VHS). Joan Davis, Jim Backus, Beverly Wills. Joan attempts to play matachmaker between her little sister, Bev, and hotrod-infatuated Tom. But as she tries to steer (ha!) Tom toward Bev, the plan backfires (ha! ha!) and Tom falls in love with Joan. Now that crazy Joan has real trouble to deal with. Prehistoric, man. Jim Backus is particularly good in this one.
"The Eligible Bachelor" (The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes) / directed by Peter Hammond (1993, VHS off-air). Jeremy Brett, Edward Hardwicke, Paris Jefferson, Bob Sessions, Simon Williams. Ok, so I can only review half of this. When this originally aired, the first part was taped on a Memorex videocassette, the second on a Konica. The Konica "Super SR High Performance" tape konked out and was refused by the player. Eject. Eject. Eject. No big loss, actually. This is a very weird and weak Holmes episode. Themes of madness weave through the plot. Dr. Watson serves more as a psychiatrist than companion as Holmes attempts to decipher the badly filmed dream sequences invading his head. The Great Detective's mental breakdown in a very cruel way seems to mirror the same sort of anquish actor Jeremy Brett was suffering at the time. Director Peter Hammond (who turns 85 today, as I review this), has started his dive into the deep end. He begins to toss images and sounds into the story that have no bearing on the plot. Almost as if he is experimenting with some stew. His earlier efforts in this series were masterful, but the guy just sort of went McCain on us. In spite of this, I do like the images of a wedding being held with the participants in funeral garb, and also the suggestion that Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson are partners in enabling an emotionally unhealthy, if gifted, man. Holmes is bored. And he rationalizes this sin by his defeat of the ultimate evil villain, Dr. Moriarty: "Without him, I have to deal with distressed children, cat owners-- pygmies! Pygmies of triviality! You see, Moriarty combined science with evil. Organization with precision. Vision with perception. I know of only one person he misjudged. Me." Brett's deterioriating condition is evident here right from his first scene, although he does have his moments. This episode is not one of the better products in the series.
Zatoichi sakate giri = Zatoichi and the Doomed Man / directed by Kazuo Mori (1965, DVD). Shintarô Katsu, Kanbi Fujiyama. The Blind Swordsman sets out to clear the name of a man wrongfully sentenced to be executed. As usual, the lone stranger who cleans up Dodge meets up with a beautiful woman and a gang of thugs. The plot is more disjointed than others in this series, but the visuals are well worth the time. A con artist monk provides some comic relief, including a very good Z-Man impersonation. Remember when Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle would at first come across as a twangy hick and then shock everyone with an amazing baritone singing voice? Zatoichi is sort of like that. A fumbling blind man, easy to underestimate, suddenly transforms into a whirling force of death! The final fight scene ("I have no desire to kill anyone else. Kindly step aside.") is one of the more complex action sequences in the Zatoichi films. Very nice concluding and contemplative shots of the lone antihero on the beach.
The Last Way Out / directed by Mark Steensland (1997, VHS). Kurt Johnson, Katie Brown, Karyn Casl, Kevin Reed. Several years ago my friend Jim showed up at the door excitedly waving this videocassette around declaring he had found the worst film ever made. As much as I respect Jim's opinion, I must say I don't agree. Far from it. For openers, Zardoz still holds that special distinction in the almost 400 movies reviewed in this column thus far. Steensland's work is sort of like Raising Arizona except it is filmed in black and white, and is presented as a film noir drama, and has a cast you never heard of. OK, it is nothing like Raising Arizona, except that the main character is a reformed criminal who gets a visit from the old gang. Kurt Johnson, the star, could be Bill Pullman's brother. This film has the look and feel of a very well made college cinema project. Kind of like a rough draft. Considering the probable limited resources of the filmmakers, this isn't really so bad. Interesting to watch just as an obscure oddity. The twist ending is a clever bit of writing.
Project Reject / directed by Paul J. Smith (1969, VHS off-air). Daws Butler (voice). A Walter Lantz animation from the era of crappy cartoons. Chilly Willy the penguin engages in anti-colonial warfare with a U.S. military base in Antarctica. A cheaply produced, unfunny bit of junk. And of course I don't have to tell you that penguins are not the most trustworthy of animals. There is one brief moment where Willy develops a Satanic expression, complete with horns, but it passes quickly. Those few seconds are the only interesting moments in the story.