Manfish and Primer, and 5 or 6 more movies

The Case against Brooklyn (1958)

In the 1950s, Time magazine broke the news that dozens, perhaps hundreds of Brooklyn cops were on the take, protecting a gambling syndicate. Hard to imagine Time doing journalism, but it was a different era.

Police departments in any and every American city are corrupt, of course, but back then the corruption was news, and it was considered a problem.

Based on Time's report, this movie is about crooked cops and shady characters, as a few rookie cops are sent undercover to catch the corrupt veteran cops. One of the rookies is played by Darren McGavin, young but already expert at his cynical tough guy act, which he milks to the max.

There's an awful song in a nightclub ("introducing Bobby Helms, a Decca recording artist, singing 'Jacqueline'"), but the story is tense, the photography is shadowy noir, and it's all heightened by a popping score and believable performances. The Case against Brooklyn is not a great movie, but it's a very watchable hour and twenty minutes.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Neverending
Film Festival

The Fake (1953)

Filmed on location at the famous Tate Gallery, this is a crime drama about an art theft and the forgery of a masterpiece, investigated by an insurance company. We're supposed to root for the insurance company, but have you ever rooted for an insurance company? Not me. I'm rooting for the heisters and forgers.

Philosophically, if the difference between an original artwork and a fake is so slight only an 'expert' can detect it, then you have two works of art. The difference is moot, and what's fake is only the inflated value of the original. Certainly nobody's injured, same as nobody was injured when I 'stole' a torrented copy of this movie.

That said, it's a competent entertainment. There's some witty dialogue, the cat-and-mouse banter is playful if paint-by-numbers, and the script offers a few fleeting snickers at the moneyed class and art expertise. At least, I hope the slight humor that seemed aimed at the snooterati was intentional. 

Verdict: MAYBE. 

♦ ♦ ♦

The Head (1959)

"I have followed your recent experiments with great interest, Professor, especially that in which you succeeded in removing the head from a dog's body and keeping it alive for four months."

If you've seen enough horror movies, or more than enough, you'll know the plot of this one as soon as you've heard that line. At least one human head is going to be surgically removed and kept alive in a lab, or transplanted to someone else's neck.

This was filmed in German, dubbed into English, so The Head offers some European flourishes on the standard recipe — it's a little less grisly, maybe more cerebral than your basic snip-and-sew-at-the-neck screamer.

Verdict: MAYBE, but it's a YES for the head transplant aficionado.

♦ ♦ ♦

Madonna of the Desert (1958)

This one takes place in a house with the most ghastly mid-century wallpaper I've ever seen. The wallpaper isn't pertinent to the story, but it could haunt your nightmares.

As for the movie, the first 2/3 of it is a comedy of characters, crime, and romance, with maybe a miracle. The religious overtones are subtle but not subtle enough for me, and I only laughed out loud once, but there was the hint of a smile on my face and I was having a good time. The movie was pretty good, wallpaper notwithstanding, until everything became rather typical toward the end — car chase, fist fight, gunshot, etc.

Oh, the story?

In a small California town, there's an ivory-carved statue of the Madonna (the virgin Mary, says Google) and it may or may not be a near-priceless piece of renaissance art. It's owned by an ancient wisecracking curmudgeon and a handsome mustachioed Hispanic gent, but there are four swindlers, maybe five, all plotting separately and together to get their mitts on the Madonna.

One of the swindlers, of course, is a dame called Legs, who says, "A girl has to eat and dress these days, and I'm down to my last dozen nylons."

Verdict: Falls to MAYBE, but it's a definite YES for the first hour or so.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Manfish (1956)

With a title like Manfish, I was sure as heck disappointed when this movie opened with a guy scuba diving. Scuba is cool, sure — "If I can't scuba, then what's this all been about?" — but it doesn't make a man into a fish. Manfish, it turns out, is the name of the boat where most of the story takes place.

Set in the Caribbean and based on two stories by Edgar Allen Poe, this stars an aged Lon Chaney in his "I'll do anything for a paycheck" phase, though he doesn't have much to do with the story. He's rented his boat to a full-of-himself Yankee who's looking for treasure at the bottom of the ocean, supposedly guarded by a dead man.

The movie wants to be a waterlogged Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but the first half is an extended yawn, and it takes a loong time before it finally starts simmering.

Kudos 66 years later to Victor Jory, who plays "The Professor," an older scoundrel who's also trying to find whatever's hidden under the water. Jory is marvelously evil, and single-handedly makes the movie interesting, at least while he's on screen. 

Verdict: YES, but it took its time getting there.

♦ ♦ ♦

Primer (2004) 

"Are you hungry? I haven't eaten since later this afternoon."

Primer is a homemade sci-fi movie, concocted with minimal money but maximal brains by its writer/director/star, Shane Carruth.

The movie is smarter than me, certainly. I've seen it half a dozen times, and every time I've been mesmerized, but the story is complicated, and gets more and more complicated as it goes, and eventually I get lost.

It's about a pair of tech bros working out of their garage, who discover a new branch of science that allows them to travel some few hours forward and back in time.

I don't have much experience being even remotely smart, but the movie is true to what little I remember from being occasionally bright decades ago — how ideas bubble up, especially in cooperative competition with other people and ideas. It's fascinating to watch, as the main characters reveal and explain their breakthroughs to each other. "I can imagine no way in which this thing would be considered anywhere remotely close to safe."

The first half of Primer is so well-written, smart and plausible, I'm certain the second half makes sense, too. Same as the first five times I've seen it, though, never yet have I understood what's going on toward the end of it. It took three viewings before I understood what's going on toward the start.

I'm giving up, same as last time, same as every time, but I loved it and I'll watch this movie again in another year, and maybe then I can figure out what's going on.

If you haven't seen Primer, I recommend it, especially if you have brains. If you've seen it and understand it, please explain it to me, especially the second half.

Verdict: YES, every time.

♦ ♦ ♦

Thunder in the City (1937)

Daniel Armstrong (Edward G Robinson) is a car company's marketing manager, and he's arranged for a series of blimps to fly over New York City, with acrobats doing flips on swings dangling from the blimps, as a publicity stunt. Certainly that's wacky, and Armstrong thinks he's "the last of the go-getters," but the CEO thinks the blimps and acrobats lack dignity, so our leading man is suddenly out of work.

Unemployed, Armstrong travels to England, where he visits with some distant relatives, flirts with a woman who's maybe a cousin, and suddenly he's a millionaire intent on teaching the Brits his American style of braggadocio capitalism. Toward this goal, he buys an African mine for big British pounds, a purchase made while riding a London merry-go-round, but soon we learn that he's not rich after all, and in fact has no money.

Does it sound like a screwball comedy? Well, it's certainly screwball, but it makes little sense and offers no laughs. I clicked it off before the last half-hour, because I had no idea nor interest in whatever the heck was happening.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

This last item is not really a review of the movie Elizabethtown (2005), starring Orlando Bloom and Kirstin Dunst. I watched it, and it was without a doubt the worst mainstream big-star motion picture I have ever seen, with shallow characters in a story that made no sense, but maybe that's not the movie's fault.

I watched it with my brother Dick, from his DVR capture of the movie as broadcast on a channel called Laff. This is my review of Laff:

Laff sucks. Don't watch Laff.

To cram in more commercials, Laff chopped up Elizabethtown like making a novel into a short story and then making the short story shorter.

It's a romantic comedy, and the basic rule of romantic comedies is that the lovebirds have to "meet cute." Bloom and Dunst first meet on the phone, when she returns his call — but he hadn't called. Or if he had called, Laff chopped that scene in favor of more ads.

In the middle of the movie, Bloom's character confesses a big secret, that he'd run a shoe company into great financial peril, costing the business many millions of dollars. Shoes, however, hadn't been mentioned before that. We'd been given no hint that the dude was even employed.

In the next scene, a magazine's headline hollers about this sudden shoe scandal, and as Bloom flips through the magazine's coverage, we briefly see a photo of Alec Baldwin on a page in the magazine. The caption under the picture says Baldwin had been Bloom's boss, but other than the photo, Baldwin isn't in this movie. At least, he's not in the version Laff showed.

Then there's a long road trip with Bloom and his dead dad in an urn. They visit famous sites across several Southern states, while Dunst, who isn't there, narrates via notes and voiceovers. Bloom cries a lot, but it's unclear why. Then it was over, and soon, I hope, it'll be forgotten.

So is Elizabethtown a decent movie? Well, I saw it, but hell if I know. Laff is a shitty TV channel, though. That much is certain. Laff has no respect for the movies they show, and no respect for the audience watching.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  


  1. Elizabethtown is a terrible movie. All movies, not named Say Anything, directed by Cameron Crowe suck. They are superficial and settle for obvious, trite laughs. His best work was writing Fast Times At Ridgemont High. He did not direct it.

    1. Elizabethtown may suck loudly, but Almost Famous is still terrific. My wife said it was "a male fantasy" but as I 'splained to her, I'm male.

  2. I could not agree more with your "philosophically" comment on The Fake. You might enjoy a movie called There Is No Fake.

    1. There Are No Fakes seems to be the movie you're referencing, and now it's on my list -- thanks.


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