Wednesday, April 15, 2020

3-D Rarities Volume II, including El corazón y la espada

Another bit of "let's not even let new stuff make it onto the shelf as the pre-order gets delivered a bit late, but it's no big deal. You are probably not buying this particular Blu-ray unless you already have a ton of stuff on the shelf that you can enjoy.

A part of me is a little curious about the format and contents of this disc, although I wonder if it's just a matter of what the 3-D Film Archive can do with its distributors. They and 3-D SPACE crowdfunded a restoration of El corazón y la espada last year, but I suspect that this Mexican adventure film might be a little too niche for either Kino or Flicker Alley, although a "rarities" disc with it and a couple other bits of content that didn't particularly make a lot of sense as special features on other discs might be better branding. Meanwhile, it seems like the didn't quite accumulate enough content for a second rarities disc without a feature (my review of Volume 1 from back in 2017 notes that a second disc was planned for 2018 at the time, but it came out in 2020 and there's only a few short films on it, all strung together, with 3D photo collections that are presented as slideshows with narration rather than as galleries as was the case on The Bubble, one of them part of the big compendium of shorts and one on its own. It's not the most straightforward way to do it.

The fun thing about the photos was how much the Kodak "Stereo-Realist" camera used to take most of them looks like the RETO camera I got from a different crowdfunding campaign which I've been playing with for the past few months:

Though I haven't been back to Hunt's to pick up the two or three rolls of film I shot in New Zealand, so I can't speak for those, I'm intensely jealous of the results shown. Part of it is just that the process - the Kodak camera these people (including silent film star Harold Lloyd) used was generally built for slide film and developed to slides, while I'm using regular film and having the lab scan it, then screwing around with software to put them together despite the RETO camera taking vertical photos while every viewing device I've got (aside from maybe making a wigglegram meant to be viewed on phones) is horizontal, meaning I lose resolution. They're also using Kodachrome film, which helps a lot.

The slide shows are kind of neat, but the narration is odd, and I imagine it would drive me nuts on the second or third time through, like when you're going through a museum and there's no way to turn the audio guide off. Also, Mr. Lloyd's granddaughter seemed a tiny bit uncomfortable talking about his fondness for photographing naked ladies (though I seem to remember there were many more pictures like that in the collection of 3D photos included with the box set New Line released.

It's still a very fun set for those of us that dig the format. I may wind up turning the sound off for some parts or wish there were a bit more of a direct path to the best bits the next time I put it on, but I still enjoyed seeing these oddities.

"A Day in the Country" (aka "Stereo Laffs")

* * (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

Speaking of narration that fills every second and leads as much to cringe as actual laughs, let's talk about - or, at least, quickly and regretfully acknowledge - Joe Besser talking all over "A Day in the Country". I don't know whether it was shot silently with the idea of adding narration, the soundtrack was degraded in the ten years it took for the thing to get released after being shot, or if filmmaker Jack Rieger just looked at the footage and decided it needed a little something more because it was just a bunch of shots without a strong story (and both editing and reshooting would be tricky). However it got to this point, the result is not great.

It does come across as something of a weird beast, though, because the subject matter as well as the staging feels a lot like a 1910s/1920s silent short, although still somewhat off - it's like Rieger is trying to capture the sort of goofy comic pastoral Lloyd or Keaton might have made but isn't quite getting the impersonation right, and the camera angles used to enhance the 3D effect as well as the things thrown at the camera break the illusion. That they often hit the camera and send the picture to black feels a bit like a growing pain that other 3D filmmakers learned from - the flinch as something zips past works better than the head-on collision.

For an half-experimental short film at a time when this just wasn't something filmmakers and theaters were working with on a regular basis, a lot of the work is impressive, and there are some funny gags in it. Find a way to do it without the voiceover, and maybe it's more than an interesting curiosity, both at the time and years later.

"The Black Swan" '52

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

The previews for various opera, ballet, and stage presentations in movie theaters seldom show 3D shows any more, and that feels like a real missed opportunity. Dance is a natural for the medium with how it uses three-dimensional space, and two of the more interesting 3D movies to come out during the current wave, Pina and Cunningham, were dance documentaries. It's no surprise, then, that "The Black Swan" is probably the most impressive thing on the disc, feeling very much like the spiritual ancestor to Cunningham, taken off a stage that needs to be built for an audience and into a somewhat more complex environment that that a camera can move around in it. It's still not realistic, but it's not quite stagebound.

The music and dancing are quite good to my decidedly inexpert eyes, although at 13 minutes it feels like something of a long short. I suspect that, to a certain extent, the way stereoscopic advisor Raymond Spottiswoode frames the shoot contributes to that - though the effect of a window seemingly floating in front of the screen is undoubtedly nifty and apparently erases flat bits at the edges, it tends to encourage one to lean forward and strain even when one doesn't need to. That is something common with a lot of 3D formats, which don't quite work as well as they should until one learns to relax while focusing.

"Games in Depth"

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

The liner notes indicate that this was apparently created for Expo 1967 before being replaced with something else, which seems like a good call - it's a random-seeming montage of various play-related scenes melded with an often atonal soundtrack, but it never becomes hypnotic in the way this sort of installation can. There are nifty moments - shots of a high-school football game briefly give an idea of how 3D can be used in a sportscast - but by the time this was shot, its 3D effects weren't spectacular, and the imagery and music doesn't seem like something that will make people stop, put on glasses, and watch an entire loop as they walk through the American pavilion.

Prologue to La marca del Hombre Lobo

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

It's listed as a "prologue" but feels more like a pitch reel; I'd need to see the actual movie (either the original Spanish La marca del Hombre Lobo or the American Frankenstein's Bloody Terror) to have some idea of how it actually works at its intended function. You can at least get a sense of how this thing would have looked, enough that I'd be interested if the film itself were part of "3-D Rarities Volume III".

Preview for The 3-D Movie

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

Okay, I guess. The film, which never got made, would apparently have been a bunch of 3-D footage from various other films stitched together as a sort of documentary, and this is definitely a trailer for that. It's got that slow, early-1980s trailer feel where it goes on a bit too long,nothing ever seems the right length, and the voiceover sounds like it's over-promising but in actuality is just saying what you can see in front of you.

El corazón y la espada (Sword of Granada)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

El corazón y la espada (aka Sword of Granada) is the first 3-D film to be produced in Mexico and there's no missing that the third dimension was near the fore of everybody's mind as they made it; the new restoration by the 3-D Film Archive highlights every way in which someone making such a movie can push into and out of the screen. There's no other single piece of it showing the same sort of ambition, but despite that, it's a surprisingly entertaining film. This film knows what it is and has all of its parts pulling in the same direction.

As it opens, Pedro (Cesar Romero) and Ponce (Tito Junco) are sneaking across a Moor-occupied castle's courtyard, aiming to kill the Khalifa within (Fernando Casanova) and bring forth a revolution. They, it turns out, are not the only ones with that idea - they run into swordswoman Lolita (Katy Jurado) in the chambers of a captured priest (Miguel Ángel Ferriz). Aside from the Khalifa, the castle is rumored to contain a rose that confers eternal life and an alchemist who knows how to transmute base elements into gold - but though Pedro has a map to the various secret passages that litter the castle, every path seems to lead through the chambers of Princesa Esme (Rebeca Iturbide).

Secret passages are the sort of adventure-story trope that lies precariously balanced between being tremendously fun and being a tacky cliché - it's kind of like quicksand or swinging on ropes and vines that way - and this film is so full of hidden doors and tunnels and secret spaces behind walls that it's almost impossible for it not to be overkill. And while there are certainly times when the amount of sneaking around stone passageways that seem a bit too well-illuminated seems like it would be overkill, that never quite happens. The filmmakers build fake-stone sets that look like the platonic ideal of hidden staircases, and they turn out to be fun things to shoot and project in stereo - it creates a box for the characters to occupy behind the screen, staircases lead up and back, and tight spaces are suggested by foreground pieces that are clearly not in the same plane. It's never busy enough that it wouldn't work in 2-D, and the crisp black-and-white photography looks very nice even as it highlights that this is obviously a film set.

It creates an atmosphere of larger-than-life, admittedly simplified legends, and though there are plenty of moments when the filmmakers are more than a bit heavy-handed in creating a sanitized fifteenth century suitable to an audience of all ages in the 1950s, they're pretty good at setting things up so that's the path of least resistance rather than something that's ever jarring. They mostly do a good job in having enough action going on that the pace never particularly flags even when the raiders are captured and Esme is figuring out where she stands. The sword-fighting will likely not make anybody's list of the most technically-proficient and well-choreographed screen duels - there's a lot of swinging wildly at two guards at a time - but it's energetic and makes good use of the three-dimensional stage (even if the attempt to have blades push out of the screen shows you really shouldn't shoot that sort of thing head-on).

The cast is willing to throw themselves into this with enthusiasm as well, and it's a fairly impressive group. Star Cesar Romero was imported from America and seems right at home as the confident aristocrat, blustery but charming and comfortably occupying the center of the movie without anyone else appearing slighted. Co-star Katy Jurado would also crossover to some Hollywood success and has probably played a lot of roles like Lolita - firey and not afraid to make the likes of Don Pedro come to her - but she can make that familiarity funny without making it a joke. The writers seem to do the least amount possible to make their inevitable pairing-off happen, but the two of them know how to turn on the charm to the point where they sell it. They've got a brace of good character actors behind them, with everyone knowing their job - Miguel Ángel Ferriz's priest is the wise advisor, Victor Alcocer's Khalifa is cruel but not quite scary, Rebeca Iturbide's princess is ignorant but basically good - and making sure they entertain rather than just fill slots.

It doesn't exactly make for a classic - it's not entirely unjust that this movie fell into obscurity and was restored for a "3-D Rarities" disc rather than something with a broader audience. It's still a trim, entertaining swashbuckler even in two dimensions, worth stumbling upon even for those who can't view it as intended.

Also on EFilmCritic

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