Friday, November 07, 2008

I haven't posted any DVD reviews in a while, so here are some of my recent columns.

Each week the bulk of my movie-watching time is spent reviewing DVDs for this column. This past week I did something fairly rare for me I didn't watch a single thing that I was supposed to watch.

Instead I took the time to watch DVDs in the growing pile of films that I've purchased for my collection. So what does a reviewer watch when he doesn't have to slog through new releases? Read on.

The first DVD I grabbed was a two-disc set that contains the two films "The Tiger of Eschnapur" and "The Indian Tomb." I'm a big fan of the work of director Fritz Lang and have wanted to see these films for years. American audiences had only seen these 1959 productions in a highly edited drive-in movie version called "Journey to the Lost City." The small DVD company Fantoma ( has released them in their original form.

Lang was one of Germany's top directors, having made such films as "Metropolis" and "M," but didn't agree with the Nazi philosophy and came to the United States in the early 1930s where he became a citizen and made an impressive group of films for Hollywood studios including the film noir classics "The Woman in the Window" and "Scarlet Street." He also made one of my favorite journalism films, "While the City Sleeps."

In the late 1950s he returned to Germany to make a film of a script he had intended to film the 1920s an adventure film about an architect in India who falls in love with a temple dancer who is also sought after by the local maharajah.

The films are fabulous. Lang cleverly made sure there was no particularly modern technology shown, such as cars, which would set a firm date for the story. Instead you have a dream-like fantasy filmed on location in India with beautiful settings and in lush color. The films were Lang's last big productions. He would do only one more film also worth seeing, "The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse" before ill health forced him to retire.

Debra Paget played the temple dancer and was the lone American in the cast. Paget had appeared in many films in the 1950s, but didn't rise to the level of stardom that she deserved in my opinion. She is absolutely stunning in this role.

I recently purchased a group of films from Alpha Home Entertainment, which is sold on the company's Web site, Alpha specializes in older films that have fallen in the public domain. What that means is you do take a chance the print from which the DVD was mastered may not be of the highest quality. I have to say that I've been pleased for the Alpha releases I've purchased over the years.

Among the films I bought were "Tarzan and the Golden Lion," a 1927 silent Tarzan adventure starring actor and football player James Pierce. I interviewed Pierce back in 1970s about his career in film. He had costarred with the Marx Brothers in "Horse Feathers," was the King of Lion Men in the first "Flash Gordon" serial with Buster Crabbe and appeared in B-Westerns and other serials. He was also Edgar Rice Burroughs' son-in-law, having met his wife on the set of the Tarzan movie.

When I spoke to Pierce he said his Tarzan film was "lost," having been made by FBO, a studio that was dissolved at the beginning of the sound era. Few FBO films have survived. I don't know if Pierce lived to see his star turn recovered, but I'm glad I saw it.

Let's face it, all Tarzan films are just a little goofy and this one has plenty of incredulous moments, but I liked it.

I also bought an Alpha animation compilation called "Cartoon Rarities of the 1930s." Regular readers of this column might recall my interest in animation my book, "Escape! How Animation Went Mainstream in the 1990s" is available at all on-line booksellers and this 108-minute DVD is chock full of oddities from Warner Brothers, Ub Iwerks, the Van Beuren Studios and the Fleischer Brothers, among others. The prints vary in quality the black and white cartoons fare better but I relished the chance to see cartoons that I hadn't seen before.

Finally from Alpha, I bought a Tom Tyler double feature. Tyler was a B-Western star who had a fascinating career. Besides starring in low-budget Westerns, Tyler was among the very few of his peers who pursued an acting career out of his genre. He had prominent character roles in "Gone With the Wind," "Talk of the Town" and other "A" productions. He also starred in a number of serials, including the one that many fans believe is the single best serial ever made, "The Adventures of Captain Marvel."

It's difficult to explain my affection for B-Westerns as many of them feature repetitive plots with threadbare production values and hokey performances. Tyler, though, has proven always to be interesting to watch and "Trigger Tom" actually was fun with a plot and a setting that was a cut above the usual oater.

I still have a pretty big pile of unwatched DVDs including a group of Chinese productions I love Hong Kong cinema but next week my nose will be back at the cinematic grindstone.

I first discovered "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (MST3K) during a Thanksgiving marathon on Comedy Central in 1991. The movie the guys were taunting was the Roger Corman science fiction film "It Conquered the World," and all I could think was "This is the best print I've ever seen of this movie and these guys are ruining it."

How little I understood. It didn't take long for my wife and I to become big MST3K fans.

Created by stand-up comic Joel Hodgeson, MST3K had a great premise of poking fun of bad movies making some of the most unwatchable films actually enjoyable. Set on the "Satellite of Love," Hodgeson played a man marooned on the spacecraft by a pair of evil scientists who force him to watch bad movies as part of their experiments. Aided by two smart aleck robots he created from spare parts on the satellite, Hodgeson is able to wisecrack his way to mental health.

Shout Factory is now celebrating the 20th anniversary of the start of the show with a lavish boxed set that includes four MST3K programs, prints of the new cover art for the four films, a three part documentary on the history of the show, footage of the cast reunion at this year's San Diego Comic Con and a statue of Crow T. Robot.

What is amazing to me about MST3K is that even with cast changes for instance, Hodgeson left his own show and was replaced on camera by the program's head writer Michael J. Nelson the show remained consistently hilarious.

In the documentary, Nelson said the writers, who were all stand-up comics, had an affinity for the Monty Python style of humor of mixing both the silly and the cerebral. With hundreds of jokes in each show, the pop culture and literary references came so fast that repeat viewings were needed just to hear all of the gags. It's little wonder the program won a prestigious Peabody Award for its writing.

In many ways the MST3K shows were mini-film classes on what not to do. When I taught film classes at a local college I always showed a truly horrible film in order to provide a comparison for a good production. The MST3K cast frequently pointed out continuity mistakes, bad camera works, as well as bad performances and putrid plot points.

The four movies in this set are great examples of the kind of film dregs with which the cast and writers had to work. "Future War," which the cast points out is neither about the future or a war, involves dinosaurs trained to track escaped slaves. "Laser Blast" is about a troubled teen his mother is always leaving him to go to parties in Mexico who finds an alien ray gun and starts shooting everything. "The First Spaceship on Venus" is a deadly earnest science fiction film showing international cooperation. "Werewolf" may be the dumbest movie of its kind ever made and it is a very satisfying MST3K experience,

All of the films are making their DVD debut in this set.

The films are cheesy, the writing is sharp and this set made me wish the show was still on the air. MST3K is still in production, though, in a way. Hodgeson and a number of cast members are involved with Cinema Titanic ( and are producing MST3K-like DVDs ridiculing bad movies.

Nelson and two other cast members are the brains behind Riff Trax (, at which folks can download their commentaries onto their mp3 devices to play along and skewer the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

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