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Doctober II #5 – The Great White Silence (1924)

the-great-white-silence-images-f58fc9a1-8e7a-4bde-bd6a-55ac4c79620The Great White Silence (1924)
Directed by: Herbert Ponting
Written by: Herbert Ponting
Starring: Captain Robert Falcon Scott

The history of the documentary stretches back as far as the dawn of film as a medium, giving audiences a look at everyday events, wars, medical breakthroughs, foreign cities and ways of life, and in the case of The Great White Silence, expeditions. Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary chronicles the infamous Terra Nova Expedition of Antarctica, which took place between 1910-1913, and led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott.  Ponting is thought to be the first man to shoot motion photography on the frozen continent, making him a pioneer of both the film and journalism industries. Along with key moments of the expedition, Ponting became one of the first men in history to shoot footage of seals, killer whales, and penguins in their natural habitats.  Without men like Herbert Ponting, we probably wouldn’t have somebody like Sir David Attenborough and documentaries as epic in scope as Planet Earth.

The goal of the Terra Nova Expedition was simple: Captain Scott and his English crew were to plant a Union Jack flag on the South Pole, sailing to Antarctica from New Zealand.  Scott and his crew were to race a team of Norwegian’s to the destination, with the goal of both groups being the planting of their respective flag.  Along the way, Ponting documents the animals brought aboard the ship for the expedition (more than a dozen ponies, dogs, and a cat with a heck of a name), the massive glaciers and ice shelves along the way, and we get to know our crew by watching them celebrate, receive haircuts, and just generally take in the breathtaking scenery at the end of the earth.  Ponting gives the audience a sneak peak of the antiquated technologies used to travel, including primitive snowmobiles, and dog and pony-led sledges.  He carefully and comically chronicles his time spent with a large group of penguins, detailing their mating rituals, nesting habits, and other characteristics of the arctic birds.  Eventually Robert Scott and his four-man expedition team leave base camp for their ill-fated trip to the South Pole, leaving behind Ponting and smaller support teams to plant supplies for the journey back, and to document Antarctic life.  Captain Scott and his four crew mates would never be seen alive again, and Herbert Ponting and the support crew would travel back to England, with the film eventually being pieced together and released to the public.

The tragic story of the Terra Nova Expedition is one of the most famous stories of exploration in modern history, and watching it happen through the lens of Herbert Ponting in The Great White Silence is nothing short of extraordinary. Ponting’s camera captures sights and wonders that had never been seen by the common man at the time, and his attention to detail and appreciation for Antarctica’s desolate beauty is what makes The Great White Silence stand apart from almost any other documentary I’ve ever seen.  He gives equal weight to wildlife and to the continents many massive natural ice formations and glaciers, giving insightful and often very humorous commentary through the use of title cards between these scenes.  Ponting’s playful storytelling style works perfectly for the first two acts of the film, and then he switches to a much more serious and fact-driven tone when chronicling the tragic adventure of Robert Scott and company.  Even though he wasn’t actually with the five men at the time of their demise, he perfectly tells their story.  We find out how long it took the men to reach the South Pole, what exactly went wrong, when certain crew members were lost to the elements, and what led to the demise of the entire party. Ponting goes from playfully sly to dreadfully serious in his tribute to the five brave explorers, and it couldn’t have possibly been done better in my mind.  The Great White Silence truly is one of the greatest pieces of movie history that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, almost entirely due to the creative choices of its director. Ponting has an eye for scenery, and a knack for storytelling, and he uses them to craft what I consider to be one of the most perfect documentary films ever created.
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What I Liked:

  • The pacing is consistent and break-neck, even in the film’s more playful first acts.
  • Ponting spends just the right amount of time with his subjects (seals, penguins, killer whales, the crew), never stopping on any one subject for too long.  His camera respects all forms of life equally, and sees the value in all of their stories.
  • The framing of several shots was astounding, particularly when the Terra Nova first comes into contact with mountainous glacial ice shelves.  Another highlight is a naturally formed ice cave on the frozen continent.
  • Ponting’s inter-titles are hilarious, especially in his dealings with the crew and the colony of penguins.  His storytelling is unique and at times intentionally misleading for comedic effect.  My favorite example of this is “Soon after we had started on our way, an epidemic broke out aboard…of HAIRCUTTING!”
  • The director clearly had a great deal of respect for Captain Robert Falcon Scott, as his story is told with the utmost sincerity and gravity.  Herbert Ponting quotes from Scott’s journal, giving us a first-hand recollection of the events and letting us picture it for ourselves, since no real footage of the events exists.  
  • The BFI’s 2011 restoration of The Great White Silence features a haunting score by Simon Fisher Turner.  It suits the film perfectly, and compliments the visual storytelling.  They have also touched up the surviving sources, creating an incredible presentation for a film nearly 100 years old – and featuring footage from 1910-1913.

What I Didn’t:

  • Having been released in 1924, The Great White Silence is dated in its social conventions and in its science.  If you can’t handle the fact that Ponting’s views don’t match those of contemporary society’s, this film probably isn’t for you.  The primary example being the aforementioned cat with the peculiar name – the poor black cat’s name was literally the “N” word.  Despite this, the film has age remarkably well in other respects.

Herbert Ponting’s visual diary of the Terra Nova Expedition is truly something that must be seen to be believed.  It’s breathtaking in its beauty, incredibly funny and playful in some of its storytelling, and ultimately tragic and heartbreaking in the end.  The Great White Silence stands as one of the greatest achievements in documentary history, and has instantly become one of my all-time favorite films. The fact that it exists to this day is a blessing to moviegoers around the world.  I urge you to see this film at some point during your lifetime, there’s almost no chance you won’t be blown away.  The Great White Silence is a masterpiece, and gets my highest recommendation.

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Doctober II #3 – Hearts and Minds (1974)

heartsandmindsdvdHearts and Minds (1974)
Directed by: Peter Davis
Written by: n/a
Starring: n/a

The Vietnam War has been said to be one of the United States’ most fatal mistakes in modern history, and no matter what your politics are, it’s likely that you agree with this notion.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds takes a good hard look at how America got into this mess of a war, how it affected their soldiers and the people of Vietnam, and points fingers at the people responsible.  We travel to Vietnam to view the destruction of villages, to speak to wounded and mourning Vietnamese, and get up close and person with US soldiers still on the ground. Back home in the United States, Davis manages to capture revealing interviews with high-ranking officials who either supported or opposed the war, with soldiers whose lives have been drastically altered from their time in the jungle, and anti-war protesters who knew it was a mistake from the word go.

Hearts and Minds undoubtedly has a bias, but it’s hard not to when dealing with one of the darkest, most pointless wastes of human life in modern history.  Peter Davis captures a great deal of anger, confusion, and disenfranchisement, felt by everybody from politicians to civilians.  It’s tragic to see such a large number of people lose faith and patriotism due to something that could have been so easily avoided.  It’s a feeling that has persisted in American people ever since the Vietnam War, and one that was exacerbated by later wars in the Middle East. Many of those interviewed attempt to frame the war in different ways that fit their personal narrative, and yet none of them manage to justify the horrific actions and decisions that took place over a period of nearly two decades.  This is the brilliance of Hearts and Minds, nobody makes it out looking saintly or evil – everybody realizes that mistakes were made and corrective measures should have been taken.

Peter Davis captures many intimate and heartbreaking moments throughout Hearts and Minds that it’s difficult to pick out highlights.  Some of the moments that touched me the most were an interview with a Vietnamese man building coffins for young children killed in bombing runs, a scene in an American classroom where an army official explains to young students that they will most likely have to go to war someday, and an interview with an American soldier who was accidentally hit by a US napalm run, burning his pants clean off.  He remarks about how hard it is to fight a battle when you’re not wearing drawers, almost making the viewer forget about the horrific loss of human life going around all around him.  Memorable moments like these would lead to Hearts and Minds winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975.  My only substantive complaint about the film is that it can at times be very heavy-handed, trading subtlety and honesty for something that comes off as less genuine, but included in the film only to get a point across.  These heavy-handed moments just aren’t necessary, as anybody viewing the film is intelligent enough to put two and two together themselves.
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What I Liked:

  • Interviews with Vietnamese and American soldiers are very well-balanced, both of whom are given a great deal of respect.
  • People from all walks of life are featured: Vietnamese farmers, soldiers, prostitutes, US soldiers and protesters, high-ranking politicians and military officials.  
  • The film is edited to be told in a completely non-linear way, which works very well for what is effectively a look back at a period of nearly two decades.  We’re not burdened with dull stories of the politics that led to the war, we just dive in head-first.  
  • Some of the footage captured is horrifying, including US soldiers burning down Vietnamese villages, children and civilians retreating from napalm and bombing runs, soldiers in the middle of firefights defending their positions, etc.  We’re thrown right into numerous battle scenes and left wondering how the footage was obtained.
  • Both Democratic and Republican politicians are heavily criticised, with nobody escaping from the line of fire.  Even the US President’s involved in the two decades are heavily implicated.
  • Peter Davis goes a great length to human the Vietnamese people after two decades of blatant hatred and racism against them.  When soldiers refer to them using racial slurs or about how inhuman they are, Davis makes you feel guilty because you know that things aren’t black and white, and that these soldiers have essentially been brainwashed to hate something they don’t understand.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film becomes unironically heavy-handed and sentimental in its last act, the most notorious example being: overlapping the words of General William Westmoreland talking about how life is not important to the Vietnamese, coming immediately after a scene in a Vietnamese cemetery, featuring grieving children and parents.  Instead of being touching and genuine, it feels like too much, and that Davis is going too far to push his viewpoint – which is already shared by the majority of viewers.
  • I would have appreciated the use of subtitles for the Vietnamese instead of narrated translation, as certain things can be lost in translation or skipped over in this manner.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is an incredibly effective anti-war documentary, and perhaps one of the most all-encompassing and important views of how so many Americans became disenfranchised with their own society and government.  It’s a difficult look at one of the most regretful periods in modern American history, and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing fingers and showing the audience why it was such a tragic period.  It’s expertly crafted and edited, capturing many memorable and heartbreaking moments that never would have been witnessed otherwise.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is recommended, but may not be for the faint of heart.

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Classic Musicals #1 – Top Hat (1935)

TopHatORGITop Hat (1935)
Directed by: Mark Sandrich
Written by: Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes, Ralph Spence, Karoly Noti (based on Scandal in Budapest by Sandor Farago, A Girl Who Dares by Aladar Laszlo)|
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are perhaps the most famous early Hollywood on-screen duo, charming American audiences with their unique song and dance productions.  The two Hollywood stars made ten famous musicals together in the period of about a decade, starring in multiple Oscar-nominated pictures, setting box-office records, and creating an untouchable legacy in the process.  1935’s Top Hat is the pair’s fourth, and arguably most successful, collaboration.  Musical numbers like “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”, “Cheek to Cheek”, and “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” have made Top Hat the most iconic and memorable Astaire and Rogers film, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of 1935, and even earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.  Director Mark Sandrich had previously worked with Astaire and Rogers in their highly successful 1934 film The Gay Divorcee.  Sandrich would continue working with the two throughout his stay at RKO Pictures, directing films like Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance, and Carefree.  Sandrich’s most iconic picture would come after his departure from RKO, in the form of Holiday Inn, starring Astaire and Bing Crosby, and introducing “White Christmas” to the world.  Top Hat has also been praised for its elaborate and marvelously choreographed tap dancing sequences, elegant set design, and its lighthearted screwball nature.  While many cite Top Hat as the most successful pairing of Astaire and Rogers, historians and critics have noted the superior choreography of the dance numbers in the slightly less appreciated Swing Time (released a year later in 1936).  Top Hat remains beloved by fans of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and studied for its impeccable choreography and musical numbers.  It currently resides in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, where it will continue to charm audiences for generations to come.

The story of Top Hat is a relatively simple one: We follow the famous American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) in London for latest new show.  The new musical hit is being produced by the esteemed, but bumbling, Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton).  While in his London hotel room, Jerry meets a young woman named Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), who has become annoyed at the sounds of Jerry’s late-night tap dancing on the floor above her.  The American dancer falls in love with Dale at first sight, and immediately sets his sights on charming the young woman, pursuing her all around the city.  He eventually follows her all the way to Venice after his show premieres to rave reviews.  Dale is in Venice visiting her friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick), and modelling the fashions of renowned designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes).  After a series of mix ups and a bad case of mistaken identity, Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace Hardwick, who just happens to be married to her friend Madge.  After being outraged by Jerry’s marriage proposal (and still believing him to be the husband of her dear friend), Dale instead agrees to marry the Italian designer Alberto Beddini.  Can Jerry and Horace clear things up with the women who have won their hearts, or will this case of mistaken identity prove too much to handle? Find out the answer to that question – and see some wonderful musical numbers in the process – in Mark Sandrich’s 1935 film Top Hat!

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Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire doing what they do best in 1935’s Top Hat.

I’ll start with a major confession right off the bat: It took more than three viewings of Astaire and Rogers’ Top Hat for me to fully appreciate and understand the praise leveled at the film.  On my initial viewings I was charmed by the opening act of the film, but ultimately lost interest in the messy story of mistaken identity and all the zaniness that it brings to the table for all characters involved.  Determined to see this one through to the end, this amateur reviewer let the film digest in my mind over the course of a week, re-watching the film and individual scenes, until I finally came to appreciate more than Top Hat’s incredible musical numbers.  The biggest struggle I encountered with Top Hat was the sparse musical numbers coupled with the incredibly dry wit of the film’s screenplay.  Whereas many modern day musicals are rather over-the-top in their comedic and emotional delivery, Top Hat maintains a good-natured and subtle sense of humor throughout, never pandering to an audience looking only to be thrilled by song and dance set pieces.  For this, I can only applaud the four credited (and one uncredited) writers of the script for creating a picture that charms not only in its music, but also in its story and character development. What could very well have been nothing more than a showcase for the dancing and singing abilities of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers instead is turned into a genuinely charming, funny, and witty screwball comedy.

The surprisingly smart script is paired with incredible music by Irving Berlin and Max Steiner, who together wrote some of Astaire and Rogers’ most iconic numbers.  These include “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” – where Astaire proudly declares that he doesn’t need a woman in his life, and famously lulls Ginger Rogers to sleep by being her personal “sandman”, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” – where a madly in love Astaire tries to charm Rogers in a park on a rainy night, “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” – which sees Astaire mockingly and playfully guns down a chorus of men with his cane, and finally “Cheek to Cheek” – the musical number that has become one of the most famous songs shared by the two actors, which sees Astaire once again try to woo the hesitant and rather confused Ginger Rogers.  This being my first ever exposure to the work of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, one can’t help but immediately notice the incredible on-screen chemistry shared by the two actors.  They play incredibly well off each other comedically, and compliment one another perfect in their musical sequences – Astaire playing the role of the cocksure famous dancer, and Rogers playing the strong, but hesitant woman who suspects his intentions may not be entirely noble.  Complimenting their chemistry is the energetic, but patient, direction of Mark Sandrich.  His camera perfectly follows the fluid movements of both dancers, and also isn’t afraid to sit and observe a scene if it calls for it.  Quick edits and unique high angle shots are wonderfully employed to capture the film’s more elaborate dance numbers, creating a sense of wonder seen in many of Hollywood’s early musicals.  If I have one minor complaint about Top Hat, it would be that the madcap and zany nature of its middle act stands out awkwardly when sandwiched between the incredibly charming and romantic first and last acts.  This isn’t a major issue, nor does it completely ruin the film’s flow; the transitions between these acts just stands out as being slightly abrupt and awkward.

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Fred Astaire’s famed “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” dance number.

While it may have taken me longer than most to find something to sink my teeth into, Top Hat managed to win my appreciation – and a place in my heart – after multiple viewings.  The pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are still unrivaled as a musical duo, and the chemistry, passion, and charm they bring to the big screen has to be seen to be believed.  While I may not be an expert of song or dance, I can certainly appreciate that the onscreen pair are some of the very best to ever appear on film.  Top Hat brings with it a solid and truly funny screenplay, incredibly memorable and well-choreographed dance numbers, and high-energy direction that suits the tone of the film perfectly.  Whether you’re a fan of dance or not, Top Hat is a film you should see in order to fully appreciate the evolution of music and dance in the movies.  Top Hat is highly recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #6 – The Blob (1958)

c2399714c67c31cf8024534d98bd2d5dThe Blob (1958)
Directed by: Irvin Yeaworth
Written by: Kay Linaker, Theodore Simonson (Story by Irving H. Millgate)
Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland, Stephen Chase

When you hear the description “characterless, personalityless ball of red slime terrorizes a small Pennsylvania town”, do you get excited for the nearly 90 minute journey that is 1958’s The Blob?  Contrary to what my disappointed sarcasm may convey, The Blob was the film I was most excited to see during our epic 50’s Sci-Fi marathon. Boy, did I set myself up for one of the bigger disappointments of my tenure as an amateur movie blogger.  Originally paired with a similarly low budget science fiction effort entitled I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Blob eventually proved to be too successful to only serve as a drive-in B-flick.  Directed by the virtually unknown Irvin Yeaworth, who made a career out of directing and producing lower budget sci-fi fare like 4D Man and Dinosaurus!, as well as hundreds of short religious and educational films and videos, it’s a wonder how The Blob was nearly as successful and memorable as it eventually became.  More notable than its director, the film stars one of Hollywood’s greatest early action stars in Steve McQueen.  With an unestablished cast and crew, The Blob is something of an oddity when compared to the five other films we’ve had the pleasure of covering.  The script features none of the smart subtext or social commentary found in many of those previous films, and the film brings few original ideas or set pieces to the table.  So why is it that we’re still talking about the movie more than fifty years after its release?  That’s a great question, maybe somebody reading this review will be able to answer it for me, because I’m all out of ideas.  Made on a meager budget of just over $100,000, The Blob was a tremendous financial success, grossing more than $4 million at the box office. The most notable thing about the film (apart from its surprising financial success), is the fact that it helped to launch the career of future mega star Steve McQueen.  The Blob served as McQueen’s major motion picture debut, and the film’s success likely aided him in scoring bigger projects like The Magnificent Seven.  In his debut, the nearly 30-year old future star of Bullitt unconvincingly plays a teenager who tries to save the town from the slow-moving alien gloopy gloop.  Irvin Yeaworth’s classic film was remade thirty years later under the same title, taking a slightly darker crack at the story.  While 1988’s reimagining of The Blob has managed to accrue a rabid cult following, that film somehow managed to be an even bigger flop both critically and financially.  Studios have been looking at re-launching the premise for a third attempt for decades now, so it’s only a matter of time before The Blob hits the big screen once again.

The Blob begins with teenagers lovers Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) doing what young people in love do best down at the ol’ lovers’ lane.  The pair are soon interrupted by a nosy meteor that crashes nearby, so they decide to chase after it.  We cut to an old man who finds the meteor before the young couple can, and discovers that it is filled with a jelly-like substance.  In the blink of an, the substance latches itself onto the man’s hand. Unable to remove it from his skin, the old man runs into the road where Steve and Jane nearly hit him.  Finding the man in a state of shock, the young couple decides to bring him to the local doctor in order to have it checked out.  Once at his office, Doctor Hallen (Stephen Chase) takes the patient in and asks Steve and Jane to go back out and find the crashed meteor.  Almost as soon as our lead characters have left the doctor’s office, the blob fully consumes the old man and goes after the doctor and his nurse.  By the time Steve and Jane make it back, it’s too late.  By now, the blob has become even greater in size and speed, and is quickly making its way through every living thing in the rural Pennsylvania town. Our two teenage (you’re still a teen at 27, right?) heroes manage to amass a small band of friends to track down the blob and stop it at any cost.  They manage to track the blob to Steve’s father’s grocery store, but are overpowered and cornered by the strange mass.  When they emerge, the two realize that the blob has made its way to the local movie theater, where hundreds of unsuspecting townspeople have no idea that the horrific and certain death is slowly creeping towards them.  Can Steve and Jane save their friends and family from the creeping terror, or will the blob of unknown origins prove to be too much for humans to stop?  Find out in 1958’s The Blob!

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Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) as our two lead characters in 1958’s The Blob.

If you haven’t been able to tell up to this point, I have to break the news and let you know that I didn’t get a whole lot out of The Blob.  Maybe my expectations were too high going into the film, or maybe my previous viewing of the 1988 remake gave me more of a lust for blood and horror, or maybe it simply isn’t a great film worthy of decades of praise and analysis.  Whatever the reason, I’m at the very least glad that I’ve finally crossed it off the never ending list of films to see.  While The Blob isn’t the worst film I’ve ever sat through (I watched it twice, for what it’s worth), it’s riddled with too many problems for me to consider it worthy of the amount of praise it’s received in the 58 years since its release.  The premise of the film is incredibly unique and full of potential, but the screenplay and uninspired direction neuters most of what could have been so great about a killer alien blob.  Instead of taking an exciting and thrilling approach to the looming terror of the blob, the film spends a LOT of time just kind of…idle.  Even though we spend a lot of time with Steve and Jane, we never really get to know who they are.  Most of their key character traits are delivered to the audience through laborious expository scenes, making them infinitely less interesting or compelling than if the script had taken a subtle, natural approach.  With no assistance from the script, lead actor Steve McQueen displays almost none of the charisma or charm that would make him a Hollywood icon later in his career. Nobody in The Blob feels remotely believable in the roles they’ve been given.  I suppose it doesn’t help the immersion factor when we’re given a cast of people in their mid-late 20’s playing kids in their late teens.  When things finally get exciting and the film is reaching its boiling point, I found myself not caring anymore because the buildup left too much to be desired.  Instead of building to a reveal of the blob, we see the creature (?) immediately, and see everything it’s capable of doing within the first thirty minutes of the film.  By giving us everything we could possibly want upfront and leaving few questions unanswered, the filmmakers give viewers very little to grasp onto for the last hour or so.  The blob itself is a great idea in theory, but the film’s special effects just look silly and cheap when the camera lingers too long – which it often does. On the plus side, The Blob features some incredibly vivid and bright colour photography courtesy of De Luxe color and cinematographer Thomas E. Spalding.  The photography makes watching the film incredibly easy, as it constantly looks interesting despite featuring bland (sometimes almost non-existent) direction.  Luckily, director Irvin Yeaworth manages to get a few scenes right.  Specifically, the famous movie theatre set piece is something that just has to be seen by horror or sci-fi fans.  The tension in these scenes is palpable, and feels unlike anything else found in The Blob.  The creeping horror brings a great deal of real dread with it, and makes it without a doubt the most memorable thing about the film.  The shots of the blob oozing through the movie theatre’s ventilation system is horrifying and subtle, and as a viewer you feel for every single person unknowingly sitting in the dark with the thing.  If only the movie as a whole was as great as these moments.

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The culmination of The Blob‘s famous movie theater set piece.

The amount of love and praise given to The Blob over the years is something I just can’t wrap my mind around.  While I see a lot about the film to enjoy or appreciate, the project as a whole is far too problematic for me to look past all of its flaws.  The film looks great and has one of the greatest set pieces found in any film during our 50’s Sci-Fi marathon, but it’s not enough to offset the sloppy and flat out dull writing, the uninspired and amateurish direction, and the miscasting of most of the principal cast.  The Blob is deserving of a truly memorable and grotesque big screen adaptation, as the idea is terrific despite its inherent goofiness.  Unfortunately, the 1958 original isn’t the memorable or fun thrill ride it could and very well should have been.  The Blob is not recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #5 – The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

IncredibleShrinkingMan-posterThe Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: Richard Matheson (based on The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson)
Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton, Billy Curtis

The Incredible Shrinking Man might be the most horrifying and surreal of any film we’ve taken a look at during our 50’s Sci-Fi marathon.  The 1957 classic may come off as pulpy, completely unbelievable, and hackneyed, but what we have here is a genuinely original and interesting picture.  Based on acclaimed writer Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man and produced by Universal Pictures, it’s no wonder Jack Arnold’s film had endured the test of time and stands as a classic all these decades later.  Rather than capitalizing on the paranoia and distrust of Western culture of the time, Shrinking Man explores themes of masculinity and what happens when a man can go no longer be a traditional man.  Director Jack Arnold made an entire career out of directing cult science fiction fare that would grow to be hailed as classics by modern historians and critics.  His filmography includes sci-fi classics like It Came From Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, and the Peter Sellers comedy vehicle The Mouse That Roared.  The film stars Grant Williams as Scott Carey, and Randy Stuart as Louise Carey, Scott’s wife.  While Grant Williams was never quite able to relive the success of The Incredible Shrinking Man, his co-star Randy Stuart had an impressive career that saw her work side by side with established leading actors like Clifton Webb, William Holden, and Cary Grant, as well as being featured on many acclaimed television shows.  Despite its relative lack of star power or budget, The Incredible Shrinking Man was both a critical and financial success, doubling its budget at the box office and earning acclaim for its intelligent script and incredibly exciting action set pieces.  The film is also notable for winning the first official Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, one of the highest annual honors for science fiction, horror, and fantasy films.  Like many of the other films covered during our 50’s Sci-Fi marathon, The Incredible Shrinking Man has the honour of sitting in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The film begins with Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) alone on a boat one evening.  While Louise is below deck, a strange cloud touches down upon the boat and coats Scott’s exposed skin in an odd mist-like substance.  Thinking nothing of the incident, the couple go back to their California home and everything continues on in a perfectly normal manner.  That is, until six months later when Scott notices that his normally perfectly tailored clothes have become too big for him.  After his clothing situation continues to get worse and worse, Scott sees his family physician who assures him that he’s in perfect health and shouldn’t worry about anything.  After Louise notices a significant decrease in her husband’s height (she no longer needs to stand on her tiptoes to kiss him), the two seek out an x-ray for proof.  Scott learns from an investigative medical team that the mist he was exposed to what radioactive, and his molecular structure has been rearranged as a result.  Scott continues to shrink in size and must quit his work as a result.  He can no longer do simple things he has been doing for his entire life, and relies on Louise and his brother Charlie (Paul Langton) for support.  Eventually a supposed cure is found, which arrests Scott’s shrinking problem, but does not return him to his former height.  After a period of stabilization, Scott realizes that he is once again rapidly shrinking. Soon, Scott is small enough to live inside a dollhouse.  His relationship with Louise rapidly disintegrates, and his own household cat soon becomes a danger to Scott’s life.  After a particularly close call with the cat, Scott becomes trapped in the basement of his home, from which he can find no escape.  Louise and Charlie assume that the cat has killed and eaten Scott, and the two mourn the loss of their beloved Scott.  Now a widow, Louise arranges to move from the house she shared with her husband.  Can Scott find his way out of his own dangerous basement before it’s too late, or will the mysterious radiation side effect take his life before he can reach his wife?  Find out the answer in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man!

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A shrinking Scott Carey (Grant Williams) in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man is without a doubt the biggest surprise I’ve had watching a film for quite some time.  I went into it fully expecting to laugh at the schlocky story and to poke fun at its dated ideas and special effects, but I did none of these things.  Instead, I found myself constantly being challenged by the challenging ideas regarding masculinity and what it means to be a man – specifically a man in an era when women were still held down on such a wide scale.  While the idea of a man shrinking to a size so small that he’s forced to live in a dollhouse (and eventually fight to the death with a spider) may seem silly at first glance, the ideas presented in The Incredible Shrinking Man are horrifying.  Everything that defined Scott Carey as a modern American man is taken away from him in a matter of months.  He loses his wife, his job, his friends, his hopes and ambitions, and even his very own identity. Those are incredibly high stakes no matter who you ask, and none of them are played for cheap laughs in the film, nor are they are handled clumsily by the filmmakers.  Jack Arnold’s direction of the film is quite wonderful, presenting a believable case of a man shrinking and being unable to stop it.  His serious handling of a subject matter that could so easily be played in a comedic way deserves a great deal of praise.  Instead of laughing at or rolling my eyes at the ever-changing life of Scott Carey, I was genuinely drawn into the story and found myself sympathizing for this poor man.  I suppose it helps that the screenplay was adapted by the author of the original story, the great Richard Matheson.  Matheson’s handling of his own adaptation is subtle and delicate, perfectly bringing to life an almost impossible concept – radiation poisoning that leads to shrinking.  While the subject matter found in The Incredible Shrinking Man is different than most sci-fi films of the era, it still manages to tap into the general fear of atomic power.  The nature of Scott’s sickness is completely unique and has never been seen before, and the entire thing is chalked up to being a side effect of prolonged exposure to radiation.  The fear of the unknown powers held by atomic energy can very much be felt in the early moments of the film.  These themes help Shrinking Man stay relevant in the same ways as its more paranoid contemporaries, and is probably one of the many reasons this picture still holds up today.  While the performance of Grant Williams’ performance doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, his presence in the film is just emotional enough to make the audience feel for Scott Carey.  The incredible special effects that seemingly shrink Williams down to the size of a spider hold up incredibly well for what is essentially just Grant Williams playing with life-sized props.  The film takes a dramatic shift in tone once Scott has been lost in his basement, turning into a much quieter, desperate film.  We see Scott struggle to find sources of food, battle with nature, and struggle for survival amongst things that were once simple household objects to him.  The tone here is much darker than the first two acts of the film, and helps really elevate the stakes to a truly remarkable level.  The last act of the film is where The Incredible Shrinking Man truly shines, as we get to marvel at the film’s incredible set pieces and special effects.  This all builds to the film’s incredibly sudden and pitch black ending, giving the audience a simultaneous sense of hope and doom.  No matter how you interpret the film’s bleak ending, it’s one that will no doubt resonate with you long after the credits have rolled.

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One of the most famous set pieces in Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The Incredible Shrinking Man continues a long streak of incredibly impressive and timeless science fiction tales that have managed to stand the often brutal Hollywood test of time.  By handling its subject matter in an evenhanded and mature way, Richard Matheson’s already terrific subject matter is elevated to a whole new level.  What should be a completely forgettable and schlocky B-movie is instead an incredibly memorable experience that takes a good hard look at masculinity in 1950’s America, the uprising of women in the workforce, and of the unknown nature of atomic energy.  The film soars above many of its contemporaries by featuring tremendous and believable special effects, a solid lead performance, and some great effort from a veteran director and writer.  The Incredible Shrinking Man is highly recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #4 – Forbidden Planet (1956)

ForbiddenplanetposterForbidden Planet (1956)
Directed by: Fred M. Wilcox
Written by: Cyril Hume (story by Irving Block, Allen Adler)
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Robby the Robot

Forbidden Planet’s oddball send-up to the likes of Sigmund Freud and William Shakespeare is far and away the most fantastic of the 50’s Sci-Fi features we’ve taken a look at thus far during our marathon.  Taking place light years away from the planet earth and featuring a very small cast of characters, the science fiction extravaganza paved the way for future massive franchises like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Doctor Who.  Forbidden Planet was a trailblazer in a variety of ways, being one of the first motion pictures to take place outside of the planet Earth, showing humans travelling faster than light speed, featuring a believable talking robot as a fully-fledged supporting character, and scored entirely electronically for the first time in film history. These features may not seem like much in 2016, but they all had a part in making science fiction and fantasy film-making what it is today.  Director Fred M. Wilcox’s ambitious loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is without a doubt the most successful film in the filmmaker’s short filmography, elevating him from being a mere footnote in film history.  Forbidden Planet stars Academy Award nominee Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Edward Morbius, the lone human inhabitant of the planet Altair IV.  Alongside the veteran Pidgeon are television star Anne Francis as Dr. Morbius’ daughter Alta, eventual comedic legend Leslie Nielsen as Commander John Adams, leader of the expedition to Altair IV, and Robby the Robot, Dr. Morbius’ highly advanced robot.  Production of the film took place for a little over a month in the Spring of 1955, and believing that Forbidden Planet would have mass appeal, the filmmakers were given a budget of nearly $2 million to work with.  The “Robby the Robot” prop itself cost more than $100,000, and continued to be used for decades in television and films in various capacities.  Upon its initial release in March of 1956, Forbidden Planet was a modest box office success, earning more than $2.7 million from general audiences.  Though the film’s box office performance didn’t exactly change the game or set the film world ablaze, its success ultimately led to the mass production of space-set science fiction movies for decades to come.  Its critical success saw it nominated for an Oscar, and today Forbidden Planet sits in the prestigious National Film Registry.  It is remembered by audiences to this day for being a truly daring and visionary picture that dared to explore the outer reaches of the universe.

The film is set in the distant 23rd century, and takes place entirely on the planet of Altair IV, where a mission is underway to discover the fate of an expedition from two decades earlier.  Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) is seemingly the only expedition member still in contact with the ship, and he warns the ship not to set down, as he cannot guarantee their safety.  Throwing caution to the wind, Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) decides to land on Altair IV to investigate the situation.  The crew is greeted by Robby the Robot (Marvin Miller), a technical marvel built by Morbius.  Robby the Robot has been programmed to never harm human beings, more or less following the Three Laws of Robotics established by famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.  The advanced robot leads the crew of the ship to Dr. Morbius, who shows tells them the fate of his crew from 20 years earlier, and shows off his technical prowess by explaining Robby the Robot’s programming to never harm human beings.  Morbius’ daughter Alta (Anne Francis) is soon introduced to the ship’s crew.  It is immediately apparent that there’s something very peculiar about the way Dr. Morbius and his young daughter have managed to survive and thrive on the apparently hostile Altair IV.  Overnight, the crew’s ship is sabotaged by an unknown force, and Dr. Morbius is confronted by Commander Adams.  He denies any involvement and shows Adams ancient technology discovered by the former inhabitants of Altair IV.  The next night, a crew member is killed by the unknown force, and further alarms are raised by Adams and his crew.  Can Commander Adams convince Dr. Morbius to let them take highly important ancient technology back to earth for study, or will the lone inhabitant of Altair IV do what he can to maintain his intergalactic paradise?  Find out in 1956’s game changing Forbidden Planet!

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Robby the Robot and Cook (Earl Holliman) in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.

Having heard little about Forbidden Planet before seeing it, I had always assumed it was an early ultra low budget, Roger Corman-esque production.  This assumption proved very wrong indeed, as I quickly found out that Forbidden Planet has a lot more to offer than just being a schlocky and disposable science fiction flick.  What it brings to the table is genuine intelligence and charm, more so than I ever could have expected from such an early Hollywood venture into outer space.  From the very first minute of the film, Forbidden Planet is colorful and visually interesting in almost every frame.  Though the planet of Altair IV feels very earth-like in many ways, the planet still manages to be different enough to be constantly intriguing.  Despite his relative lack of big budget experience, the film’s journeyman director (Fred M. Wilcox) manages to make the film visually interesting with tight framing and a wandering camera.  It helps that Wilcox is working with a solid screenplay by writer Cyril Hume, who effortlessly blends hard science fiction concepts with expository scenes.  Hume’s script never sacrifices its quality to explain concepts directly to the audience, instead going for a more subtle approach using elements of traditional sci-fi and horror films, mixed with dry wit and a Shakespeare inspired story structure.  Forbidden Planet’s script is partially inspired by The Tempest, following the same general story arc and hitting many of the same milestones along the way.  This inspiration helps to elevate Forbidden Planet’s story from silly science fiction fantasy to a legitimately unique and inspired tale.  The story never pauses long enough to become dull or overstay its welcome, instead constantly introducing new ideas to the audience.  As soon as you think you know a character like Dr. Morbius or Commander Adams, their characters are turned upside down and new elements of their personalities are uncovered.  I found myself actually caring about the three principle characters in Forbidden Planet, something that hasn’t happened during the course of our ongoing 50’s Sci-Fi marathon.  The pacing of the story alone is a sign of how strong Cyril Hume’s writing is, and helps the movie remain engaging even six decades after its release.  While I wouldn’t exactly call it the perfect science fiction film, I very much appreciated everything it was able to bring to the table, and the tremendous influence it had on the medium.  The introduction of Robby the Robot alone was very forward-thinking and progressive for the time, giving an artificial life-form a degree of autonomy, as well as a somewhat human personality.  By the end of Forbidden Planet, you can’t help but wonder what science fiction would look like today if the film had never been released.

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Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen in the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet laid the groundwork for the next sixty years of science fiction films, and captured the imaginations of generations of moviegoers.  The colorful and interesting visuals, solid direction, and excellent script form an incredibly engaging tale of interstellar exploration, thirst for power and knowledge, and the search for answers.  The film was far ahead of its time, and its influence on the genre simply cannot be underestimated by viewers.  While some elements don’t hold up to today’s standards, it remains an interesting case study for what science fiction films can be, and a reminder of how simple the genre was before the film’s release.  Forbidden Planet comes highly recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #3 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Film1956-InvasionOfTheBodySnatchers-OriginalPosterInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Directed by: Don Siegel
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring (based on The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney)
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones

As previously mentioned in my review of 1954’s Them!, science fiction and horror films of the time were chock full of political and social allegory that resonated with audiences for decades.  Much of this can be credited to the burgeoning Cold War: the imminent threat of nuclear extermination, the ongoing Red Scare, and the subsequent inability of American’s to trust their fellow man.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the most famous and subtle example of this paranoia, creating a hell of a legacy for itself in the process.  The film is based on writer Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which has been the basis for nearly every remake and re-imagining to be released since 1956.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by cult movie master Don Siegel came out at the perfect time to resonate with audiences who felt they could relate with its subject matter.  It was filmed in just 23 days, and with a budget that had been cut significantly which restricted the use of big name actors that Siegel initially wanted to use.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers starred Golden Globe nominee Kevin McCarthy and television star Dana Wynter, though the Oscar winning Anne Bancroft had been considered by Siegel before the film’s budget slash.  After a re-shoot to lessen the harshness of the film’s original ending and numerous poorly received pre-screenings, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was ready for a successful countrywide release.  Despite being largely ignored by critics upon its original release, the film still managed to earn more than six times its meager budget of slightly over $400,000.  The paranoid adaptation of Jack Finney’s influential novel is now seen as an all-time classic of the science fiction genre, has spawned countless remakes, send-ups, and tributes, and currently sits in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The film begins with a paranoid and clearly disturbed man being detained in a California hospital.  He introduces himself as a doctor, and begs for the acting doctor to hear out his story.  The doctor in custody begins to tell his story, which leads directly into a feature-length flashback sequence.  We learn the crazed doctor is Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who we see meeting with multiple patients.  All of Bennell’s patients suffer from “Capgras delusion”, or the belief that a loved one has been replaced by an identical looking impostor.  His former girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) has recently returned to town, and she soon finds out that her cousin Wilma fears that her Uncle Ira may also be an impostor.  A psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) assures Dr. Bennell that they’re merely experiencing an epidemic of paranoid hysteria.  Later that night, Dr. Bennell’s friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) discovers an undeveloped body identical to his, and then another is quickly found in Becky’s basement.  Before they can call for help and arrange for more witnesses, the bodies mysteriously (and conveniently) vanish.  Bennell and friends eventually come to the conclusion that the entire town is being replaced with doppelgangers when they fall asleep.  The gang splits up, half to go to the next town over in order to seek help, and Dr. Bennell and Becky seek shelter and avoid falling asleep until backup arrives.  Soon, Bennell and Becky realize that they’re alone in this fight against what they call “pod people”, as even their closest friends and family members succumb to the invaders.  Can humankind prevail against a force they have no idea is coming, or will the invading pod people wipe out humankind, starting with the town of Santa Mira, California?  Find out in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers!

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Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter on the run in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Having seen and loved Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I was incredibly excited coming into Siegel’s original take on the source novel.  While I have to report that I prefer Kaufman’s darker and schlockier take on the story, I’m also happy to say that say that this film is so far the best I’ve seen during my feature on 1950’s sci-fi.  The film has an incredibly tight run-time at just barely over 80 minutes long, and hits every important note needed of an effective thriller without creating unnecessary filler.  The characters and their interactions with each other all have a purpose, and the story clips along at a brilliantly fast pace.  One of the things I appreciated most about Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the setting in the small California town of Santa Mira.  Don Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks do an incredible job of mapping out the town, especially its most notable and relevant locations like Becky’s apartment, Dr. Bennell’s office, and the highway leading out of town.  All this mapping and world-building is done in less than 90 minutes, a feat that most science fiction or horror films couldn’t do even with more than two hours at their disposal.  Don Siegel progressively ratchets up the tension as the film chugs along, creating a palpable sense of dread and paranoia.  Not only do our lead characters not know who to trust or where they can seek refuge, but the audience is constantly kept guessing as well.  When you’re not even sure whether or not your two main characters are still human, you can rest assured that the film is doing an incredible job at keeping you on your paranoid, irrational toes.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a genuinely scary film in a lot of ways, because more often than not what you aren’t seeing is infinitely scarier than what you are.  The images of the townspeople slowly being consumed by the pod people swimming through your head as Dr. Bennell and Becky struggle to stay awake and alive are undeniable, and help the film to feel highly effective.  Along with incredible atmosphere and world-building, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very well acted film considering its lack of major star power and budget.  Kevin McCarthy shows us that he can flip the proverbial switch and play both crazed and paranoid in one moment, and a strong, confident leader in others.  Dana Wynter’s Becky is very competently played as well, but she doesn’t get nearly as much important screen-time as McCarthy does.  Supporting our lead players is a tremendous script, never wasting a moment of precious screen-time as previously mentioned.  The paranoia of McCarthyism and the fears of imminent Red invasion are weaved into subtle allegory that never overpowers, but is also very clearly there to anybody looking for it.  I can’t imagine growing up in an era where North American’s could not trust anybody they don’t directly know, but this film gives a great (if exaggerated) sense of what it must have been like for some.

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Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) taking it to a potential pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In short, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of classic horror and science fiction.  Tight direction, a terrific script with little exposition, good lead performances, and an undeniable sense of dread, paranoia, and fear help to make an experience that goes mostly unmatched all these years later.  Don Siegel’s film may have been topped by later efforts, but the film stands as a fantastic example of anti-McCarthyist art that will and should be analyzed for years to come.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets my highest recommendation for all sci-fi or horror fans.

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