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[Editor's note: the post below appeared yesterday at The Huffington Post.]

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By Jason Apuzzo. Sunny southern California rarely gets its due at the movies. Ever since the 1940s, when film noir classics like Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep depicted Los Angeles as a dark urban labyrinth, you might get the feeling that southern California has remained in a permanent Blade Runner nightfall of neon signs, wet streets and detectives pulling fedoras down over their eyes. A world of call girls and corrupt police, of murder and car crashes; a bleak landscape of paparazzi and Black Dahlias, of washed-up actresses and sleazy district attorneys who wear too much aftershave.

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It’s a shadowy, sexy and malevolent vision — except that it’s not really the day-to-day SoCal that longtime residents know and (mostly) love. Actually, the place is a lot brighter and more cheerful than that. And a lot goofier.

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From "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

For one thing, southern California is actually huge, wide-open and flat — with endless horizons, whether of the Palm Springs or Redondo Beach variety — instead of the cramped, angular spaces you typically find in crime thrillers. And it’s got color — lots of color, from the saturated blues of the ocean and sky, to the lurid red-and-gold Fatburger signs on Pacific Coast Highway. Whoever dreamt up southern California was clearly dreaming it in 65mm Ultra Panavision Technicolor.

And contrary to popular belief, most people in southern California don’t pack guns or talk like they just stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel, diverting as that would be. Most SoCal residents are sedate, middle-class people with just a hint of craziness to them — that quiet spark that drove them long ago to pack up and leave the East Coast/Midwest/Deep South to pursue their pot of gold right here in the Golden State.

And this brings us to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

The wonderful folks at Criterion, who are forever saving our cinematic heritage from the ravages of time and neglect, have recently outdone themselves in producing a five-disc set (two Blu-rays + three DVDs) of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, all built around a pristine 4K transfer of the film and a newly restored 197-minute ‘roadshow’ version of the movie not seen in 50 years. (See a video on the restoration at the bottom of this post.)

And this new, authoritative version of director Stanley Kramer’s beloved epic comedy makes one thing abundantly clear: that It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is the ultimate southern California movie.

For those unfamiliar with the film, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World depicts a pack of otherwise unremarkable southern Californians unleashed in a frenzy of greed when they learn that a stash of $350,000 in stolen money is waiting for them, ready to be dug-up in a park at Santa Rosita Beach (in real life, Portuguese Bend in Rancho Palos Verdes). Unable to come up with an equitable way of sharing the loot, the group breaks up into separate teams, frantically racing toward their hidden treasure by land and air — comedian Jonathan Winters even rides a girl’s bicycle for a while — all while the Santa Rosita Police, led by Spencer Tracy, tracks their progress.

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From "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

So it’s off to the races, as airplanes smash through billboards (and even a restaurant at one point), cars roar off cliffs and bridges, an entire gas station is demolished, cast members are flung through the air by an out-of-control fire ladder, and every major speed law in southern California is broken. And although the wild conclusion of the film — a Hitchcockian visual effects extravaganza filmed in downtown Long Beach — leaves none of the avaricious group satisfied with their financial arrangement, it does leave everyone with smiles on their faces. (You’ll have to see the movie to find out what that means.)

And that’s really it. The premise of Mad, Mad World — greed — couldn’t be simpler, but it’s enough to power a non-stop, three-plus-hour chase from Yucca Valley to Santa Clarita to Malibu, all filled with dangerous stunts and comic gags performed by the greatest comedians of their time: Milton Berle, the recently passed Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Ethel Merman, Peter Falk and Jim Backus, just to name a few. Mad, Mad World also features spot cameos from the likes of Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, The Three Stooges and more comedy talent than you can shake a stick at. Continue reading »

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By Joe Bendel. He has the looks of the Red Skull and the flamboyance of a Lucha Libre wrestler. The Golden Bat is Japan’s oldest superhero, dating back to at least 1930, nine years before Bruce Wayne repurposed his dungeon, so show some respect. This Thursday, Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater pays homage to the strange, caped avenger, who has constantly saved our butts in manga, anime, and motion pictures, with Hymns of the Golden Bat – a special one night only program of the Ōgon Batto’s greatest hits, culminating with Hajime Satô’s impossibly manic seventy-three minute live-action epic, The Golden Bat.

Right, the Earth is pretty much in for it. The planet Icarus (dig the mythological reference) is speeding towards us on a collision course, but the scientific establishment is too snobby to heed the warnings of Akira Kazahaya, a teenaged factory worker who dabbles in astronomy. Fortunately, the Pearl Research Institute has been on the case. Led by Dr. Yamatone, they too have tracked Icarus, developing a Dr. No-certified laser canyon to blow-up Icarus in the nick of time. They just need a lens strong enough to withstand the laser’s force, which is ironic, considering Pearle can usually craft your lenses in under an hour.

Seeking a natural lens, Dr. Yamatone and nearly the entire Pearl staff is lured to the long lost island of Atlantis, where the evil Nazo has the drop on them. Ah, but not so fast. Within the temple of Atlantis, they find the Golden Bat’s Egyptian sarcophagus, where his is re-animated by Emily Pearl, the granddaughter of the Institute’s founder. Good thing they thought to take a fourteen year old along on such a dangerous mission.

Needless to say, the Golden Bat pops-up and lays a proper beatdown on Nazo’s henchmen. Of course, they are not out of the woods yet. In fact, that is just the first ten minutes of Golden Bat’s mayhem. There will also be multiple doppelgangers to contend with and laser battles galore, accompanied by the Ōgon Batto’s ominous sounding laughter and big, brassy chorale theme music.

The Golden Bat is the kind of film that can make pedantic fussbudgets’ heads explode. You just have to toss logic to the wind and hang on as it careens from one spectacle to another, like a pinball. Where else will you find a super villain decked out in a fuzzy-wuzzy rat costume with four eyes? The plot rather defies description and the laws of science, but fortunately the title caped crusader constantly reappears to pummel bad guys with his Scepter of Justice.

Oddly enough, a young Sonny Chiba is present, but largely not a factor in the smack-downs as the Picard-esque Yamatone. Frankly, Emily Takami is much better than you would expect as her young namesake, hardly cloying or annoying at all as the teenaged world-saver. Whoever was sporting the Golden Bat costume was certainly physically energetic, while Osamu Kobayashi’s voice-overs are bizarrely distinctive.

Indeed, The Golden Bat is a thing of beauty to behold, from the trippy sets to the hyper action sequences. Satô, probably best known for helming the darker cult favorite Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, clearly was not one to do things by halfsies. There is something for everyone here, including fans of Ultraman, Kaiju movies, alien body snatcher films, and men in capes.The Spectacle should be the perfect venue to appreciate his charms with a like-minded audience of any of the above. Highly recommended to all fans of cult cinema, The Golden Bat should be a fitting capstone to a mind-expanding night this Thursday (10/24) at the Spectacle in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on October 21st, 2013 at 11:52am.

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By Joe Bendel. It is the first true martial arts film selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Bruce Lee’s first Hollywood star vehicle and his final fully completed film represents kung fu cinema at its most cross-overiest, yet it is still legit to the bone. In honor of Ip Man and Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, Bruce Lee & director Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon begins a week of restored DCP screenings today, as part of BAM Cinematek’s Wing Chun classic film series.

Lee’s namesake is a Hong Kong Shaolin standard bearer knocking on the door of complete martial arts enlightenment. While glory in the ring hardly interests him, he agrees to compete in the triannual martial arts tournament sponsored by Han, an international vice lord and general megalomaniac. Sent in by British Intelligence sans back-up, Lee is to reconnoiter around Han’s pleasure palace and hopefully fight his way out of any trouble he might encounter. It is not much of a plan, but it will suffice.

The stakes turn out to be unexpectedly personal for Lee. Shortly before embarking, he learns Han’s thugs were responsible for the death of his sister, Su Lin. As one might expect of Lee’s kin, she put up a heck of a fight. Han’s chief enforcer O’Hara still bears his scars from the encounter. He is due for some more pain. However, Lee will meet some friendly Americans en route, such as the well heeled Roper, who is looking to hustle some action to pay off his gambling debts, like a kung fu Fast Eddie Felson. In contrast, Roper’s former Army buddy Williams seems more interested in hedonistic pleasures supplied nightly to the fighters.

Enter might not sound earthshakingly original, but that is partly a function of how widely imitated it has been, especially the iconic hall of mirrors climax. Scores of movies have copied its general template of the ostensibly upright kumite going on above ground, while armies of henchmen in color-coded gis labor towards nefarious ends below. Without it, there is no way we would have guilty pleasures like the Steve Chase beatdown, Kill and Kill Again, which is a thoroughly depressing thought to contemplate.

All the elements come together, but there is still no question this is Lee’s show. Almost supernaturally intense and charismatic, Lee was clearly at the peak of his powers throughout Enter. It is a massively physical performance (featuring some impressive acrobatic feats), yet Lee still takes care to convey the philosophical side of Wing Chun. The restored print includes more scenes of Lee as a spiritual teacher that work quite well.

Even with Lee’s overpowering presence, Enter is the film that really put Jim “Black Belt Jones” Kelly on the map. As Williams, he contributes attitude and energy that further distinguished Enter from its genre predecessors. In fact, the cast is loaded with notables, including John Saxon, hamming it up with relish as Roper. Fans often wonder why so little was subsequently heard of Betty Chung, but she has some nice rapport with Lee as Mei Ling, a fellow undercover operative.

There are also plenty of established and future action stars, most notably Angela Mao absolutely crushing Su Lin’s brief but pivotal flashback scene. Bolo Yeung also appears in exactly the sort of role that would make him famous. Sammo Hung has a briefer turn as a Shaolin martial artist who fairs poorly against Lee—but not nearly as badly as blink-and-you-missed-him Jackie Chan, whose meat-for-the-grinder henchman gets his neck snapped by our hero.

But wait there’s more, including a classic funky eastern fusion soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin that opened up a lot of ears up to the Argentinean composer and former Dizzy Gillespie sideman. Without question, this is a historically and culturally significant film, well worthy of being selected for the National Film Registry. Logically, it anchors BAM’s Wing Chun series in honor of Lee’s revered master, Ip Man. Highly recommended beyond martial arts enthusiasts, Enter the Dragon begins a week long run (8/30-9/5) today at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on August 30th, 2013 at 1:24pm.

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For you classic movie lovers out there: Klara Tavakoli Goesche of the blog Retro Active Critiques recently put together this wonderful short video walking tour of the San Francisco locations of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a video which recently debuted at Turner Classic Movies’ Movie Morlocks blog, together with an interview with Goesche conducted by classic movie blogger Kimberly Lindbergs. Check the video out above.

Posted on May 16th, 2012 at 11:57am.

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[Editor's Note: We want to wish everyone a Happy Easter & Passover. Below is a re-posting of LFM's Blu-ray review of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), from March 27th, 2011. Also: Turner Classic Movies is showing Easter- and Passover-themed films all day today. Check the TCM website for details.]

By Jason Apuzzo. The new Ten Commandments Blu-ray comes out this Tuesday, March 29th (see the trailer for the Blu-ray at the bottom of this post). Paramount will be releasing a 2-disc Blu-ray set of the classic film, and also a Limited Edition 6-disc DVD/Blu-ray Combo set, that features both Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 and 1923 versions of the film – and a host of goodies, including a handsome archival booklet that may be worth the price of the set on its own.

The Ten Commandments is a special favorite of mine. Not only is the film one of Hollywood’s greatest epics of the 1950s, the film is also a timeless and enduring ode to human freedom – and one which seems to grow only more timely and urgent as the years go by. The Ten Commandments is a film that will always remain powerful and ‘relevant’ so long as there are souls yearning for freedom – even, as we’ve seen recently, in contemporary Egypt and North Africa where so much of The Ten Commandments was filmed.

We had the pleasure of showing what was then the best existing print of The Ten Commandments at our first Liberty Film Festival in 2004, when we invited cast member Lisa Mitchell to talk about her recollections of Mr. DeMille – and how influential he was in her life. Several years later Govindini and I spent time with Cecilia DeMille Presley, granddaughter of Cecil DeMille and a caretaker of his legacy – who shared some wonderful memories of her grandfather with us. Most special, however, was the opportunity Govindini and I had years ago to meet Charlton Heston himself at The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, when he introduced a special screening of The Ten Commandments. (We actually sat right behind him during the screening – and watched his reactions to the film, which he still seemed to take great delight in so many years later.) It was an extraordinary thrill to meet him; even late in life, he was still handsome and rugged, with a biting wit – but also a warm and generous spirit. He was the consummate gentleman.

Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments."

The Ten Commandments is without a doubt one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced, and a carrier of important ideas about freedom, so I thought we’d take a little look back at it today. It also happens to be a magnificent showpiece for the Blu-ray medium – with the film’s rich, saturated colors, beautiful costumes and production design, endless desert vistas, and iconic visual effects sequences. To put it mildly, The Ten Commandments is not only an emotional spectacle of the heart … it’s also an eyeful.

Interestingly,The Ten Commandments happens to be the fifth highest-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation. When the film was released in 1956, theater tickets cost about 50 cents – and the film still grossed over $65 million. What this means is that at today’s ticket prices, The Ten Commandments would have grossed over $1 billion at the domestic box office. In the history of American moviemaking, only Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, The Sound of Music and E.T. have fared better at the box office than did DeMille’s extraordinary film.

I don’t mention The Ten Commandments‘ box office success because that denotes anything in particular about the film’s merits – success at the box office can always be misleading – but to suggest the kind of powerful bond this film has with the public. The Ten Commandments is, as it turns out, a beautifully written, directed, acted, photographed and scored film – a majestic and emotional voyage into one of the primary myths of Western religious life. It’s also the crowning achievement of one of America’s greatest moviemakers. At the same time, The Ten Commandments is something else: it’s a part of American popular mythology, as important to America’s filmic conversation about freedom and individual dignity as Casablanca, Gone With the Wind or On the Waterfront. Continue reading »

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From the downtown LA battle of "Transformers" (2007).

[Editor's Note: The post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone.]

By Jason Apuzzo. Celebrities will invade Los Angeles this weekend for the 84th Academy Awards ceremony. Searchlights will blaze and flashbulbs will pop as Hollywood stars will descend from the heavens — or maybe just the Malibu hills — to touch the ground that regular Angelenos walk on each day.

They’ll smile and snarl our traffic. They’ll toss their hair and forget to thank their husbands. They’ll praise each other for their bravery, while collecting $75,000 gift bags.

L.A. is accustomed to such strange invasions, of course. If you’re a movie fan, you already know that L.A. has been invaded over the years by everything from giant atomic ants (Them), to buff cyborgs (The Terminator), to rampaging 3D zombies (Resident Evil: Afterlife). So Angelenos take invasions from movie stars in stride.

But this weekend marks an anniversary of an invasion you might not know about: L.A.’s first alien invasion.

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A surviving image from The Battle of Los Angeles.

This February 24th-25th is the 70th anniversary of The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as The Great Los Angeles Air Raid, one of the most mysterious incidents of World War II — and also one of the key, oddball events in U.F.O. lore that’s still inspiring movies and TV shows to this day.

Between the late evening of February 24th, 1942 and the early morning hours of February 25th, the City of Angels flew into a panic as what were initially believed to be Japanese enemy aircraft were spotted over the city. This suspected Japanese raid — coming soon after the Pearl Harbor bombing, and just one day after a confirmed Japanese submarine attack off the Santa Barbara coast — touched off a massive barrage of anti-aircraft fire, with some 1400 shells shot into the skies over Los Angeles during the frantic evening.

Oddly, however, the anti-aircraft shells hit nothing. Despite the intense barrage, no aircraft wreckage was ever recovered.

Indeed, once the smoke had cleared and Angelenos calmed down (the public hysteria over the raid was mercilessly satirized by Steven Spielberg in 1941), no one really knew what had been seen in the sky or on radar. Were they weather balloons? German Zeppelins? Trick kites designed by Orson Welles?

Many people believed the aircraft they’d seen were extraterrestrial – one eyewitness even described an object he’d seen as looking like an enormous flying ‘lozenge’ – and some accused the government of a cover-up. Conflicting accounts of the incident from the Navy and War Departments didn’t help clarify matters.

As if to confirm public fears of extraterrestrial attack, one famous photograph emerged (see above) from the incident showing an ominous, saucer-like object hovering over the city. This much-debated photograph, which even appeared in some trailers for Battle: Los Angeles last year, inspired America’s first major U.F.O. controversy — a full five years before Roswell.

To this day, no one knows for sure what flew over Los Angeles that night and evaded the city’s air defenses. (The raid itself is recreated each year at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro.) But since it’s more fun to assume that it was aliens than weather balloons, we’ve decided to honor The Battle of Los Angeles by ranking the Top 10 movies in which aliens attack L.A. (See below.)

To make this list, a film must feature aliens on the warpath — no cuddly E.T.’s here — and their attacks must take place in L.A. proper, rather than out in the suburbs or desert (eliminating films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

As the list demonstrates, no city — other than perhaps Tokyo — has suffered more on-screen calamity at the hands of extraterrestrials than Los Angeles. At the same time, there’s no apparently no other city that’s easier for aliens to hide in.

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From George Pal's "War of the Worlds."

1) The War of the Worlds (1953)

Producer George Pal’s adaptation of the H.G. Wells’ novel is the granddaddy of ‘em all, and still the best L.A.-based film about alien attack. Gene Barry plays Dr. Clayton Forrester, a natty scientist at ‘Pacific Tech,’ who along with his girlfriend Sylvia van Buren (a perky USC coed, played by Ann Robinson) struggles to prevent Martian invaders from destroying human civilization. Highlights of the film include a boffo attack on downtown L.A. (which Pal initially wanted to film in 3D) by the graceful, swan-like Martian ships, and an Air Force flying wing dropping a nuclear bomb on the Martians. Filmed in vivid Technicolor, The War of the Worlds was a huge hit, broke new ground in visual effects technology, and helped kick off the 1950s sci-fi craze.

Best exchange of the film: “What do we say to them [the aliens]?” “Welcome to California.”

2) Independence Day (1996)

Director Roland Emmerich’s funny, exhilarating and patriotic summer hit from 1996 borrows key elements from The War of the Worlds, but adds a few of its own: 15-mile-wide flying saucers, a president who flies fighter jets … and Will Smith. In the role that made him a megastar, Smith plays a trash-talking Marine fighter pilot paired with an MIT-trained computer wiz (played by Jeff Goldblum, channeling Gene Barry) who fights an alien saucer armada out to demolish humanity. ID4 is easily the best of Emmerich’s apocalyptic films, largely due to its tongue-in-cheek humor. Watch as ditzy Angelenos atop the Library Tower cheerfully greet an alien saucer, only to be zapped into oblivion a moment later. Only in L.A.

Best line of the film: “Welcome to Earth.”

3) Transformers (2007)

There’s mayhem, and then there’s Bayhem. Michael Bay’s Transformers redefined sci-fi action cinema in 2007, featuring a spectacular climax in downtown Los Angeles — a riot of colossal urban warfare and aerial strikes as the U.S. military and Autobot robots unite to fight Decepticon robots out to enslave Earth. A key sequence showcased Autobots and Decepticons ‘transforming’ at 80 mph on a busy L.A. freeway, swatting aside cars and buses while fighting each other — living out the fantasy of every aggressive L.A. driver. Unlike the stately saucers of ID4, or the graceful war machines of War of the Worlds, Bay’s Decepticon robots are fast-moving, anthropomorphic and nasty. Like certain Hollywood celebrities, they trash talk, strut and propagandize as they smash through buildings and otherwise inflict as much collateral damage as possible. The film that made stars out of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, Transformers delivers heaping doses of humor, curvy women and robot carnage; it’s Bayhem at its best.

Best line: “You didn’t think that the United States military might need to know that you’re keeping a hostile alien robot frozen in the basement?!”

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From the NBC miniseries "V" (1983).

4) V (1983)

These alien ‘Visitors’ look just like us, and they come in peace … except that underneath their false skins they’re actually lizards and want to eat us. That’s the premise of Kenneth Johnson’s apocalyptic NBC miniseries from 1983, a show that leans heavily on references to Nazism, communism and other pernicious forms of group-behavior. V is also the show that first gave us gigantic motherships hovering over major cities, years before ID4. The best part of V, however, is the scene-chewing performance by Jane Badler as the alien leader Diana; somebody should put that woman in charge of GM. Otherwise, in V the human resistance movement against the aliens centers around Los Angeles — possibly because it’s hard to cop a tan while saucers are blocking the sun.

Best line [about the alien leader Diana]: “That damn dragon lady can bend people’s minds around. What the hell does she need a blowtorch for?!” Continue reading »

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