Scream and Scream Again

You would think a film starring the holy trinity of ’60s horror icons for the first time would be, well, a horror movie.  But instead, AIP and Amicus brought Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing together for 1970’s Scream and Scream Again.

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Great Films to Watch: Don’t Look in the Basement

I love exploitation films. It’s like the junk food of cinema. While possibly bad for you, they are so much fun to watch. One of my favorite things about watching exploitation cinema is finding a hidden gem; a film that may not be a classic or a best picture winner, but has some quality that raises it above just a sleazy cash grab.

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The La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

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Asphalt Lake at La Brea Tar Pits

There is oil beneath the city of Los Angeles. It oozes out of the ground from the Salt Lake Oil Field and seeps up as asphalt at the city’s Hancock Park filling the air with the smell of burning tire rubber. This oil has created the only ice age fossil site in the world actively excavated in the middle of a city—Los Angeles’s La Brea Tar Pits. Besides being one of the city’s most unique tourist attractions. It also has immense scientific interest because it has trapped the bones of thousands of ice age animals.

Thousands of years ago, the Los Angeles Basin area was much cooler and wetter than today. Ice Age animals, such as wooly mammoths, roamed around Southern California. Tar from the underground oil fields would seep up and then be covered up by leaves, dirt and water. Unsuspecting animals would wander into the pits to drink and would become trapped by the sticky, warm asphalt. Trapped animals would usually die from starvation or dehydration. The rotting smell of decomposition would lure predators, who would then get trapped themselves. That would in turn attract more predators. While terrible for animals, it is great for paleontologists. The petroleum encased the bones and preserved them. The oldest animals preserved there are 38,000 years old.

Ice Age species from the last glacial period in North America found at La Brea include saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, bisons, ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons and American lions. The most numerous types of animals excavated from the pits include dire wolves, saber-toothed cats and coyotes. The preservation of other organic materials such as plants, pollen and microfossils give scientists an idea of what the ancient environment was like.

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Leaves, dirt and debris covering a tar pit

 

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Mastodon skeleton

Human remains have also been found including the bones of indigenous peoples. The Native Americans also used the tar to seal cracks in their boats from giant wood redwood trees.

When the land was under Mexican control, it was part of a land grant known as Rancho La Brea. It included 4,439 acres of prime Los Angeles real estate such as today’s Miracle mile, Hollywood and parts of West Hollywood. When California became part of the United States, the land grant was deeded to Henry Hancock who had tar pits dug up on the land. Humans dug the enormous lake of tar that people first see when they enter Hancock Park. It was part of an enormous asphalt mining operation. Methane bubbles ooze atop the black lake. George Hancock donated 23 acres, including the tar pits, as Hancock Park to the city.

Since 1906, over 100 fossil pits have been excavated and over one million bones have been recovered representing 231 species of vertebrates.

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The George C. Page Museum researches the pit and provides education to the public on the ice age fossils of the La Brea tar pits.

The pits are still there today so don’t slip.

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American lion skeleton

A visit to Walt Whitman’s Grave, Camden

 

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Entrance to Walt Whitman’s Tomb

“To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.”
—Walt Whitman Quote

No Walt Whitman was not buried in Springfield as the Simpsons would have you believe.

Walt Whitman has long been associated with Camden. In fact, when a bridge between Philadelphia and Camden opened in 1957, it was only natural to call it the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Born in 1819, Walt Whitman spent the last twenty years of his life in Camden. As Whitman himself described it, he came to the city accidentally. His mother was living in the city at the time before she passed away. Whitman stopped there from Washington, D.C., three days before she died. He ended up staying there until he passed away in 1892. His home, known as the Mickle Street House, was purchased in 1884 and is now a national historic landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Camden is also where Whitman was buried with his tomb at Harleigh Cemetery.

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Walt Whitman’s Grave Marker

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Inside the tomb

By the time Whitman had come to Camden, he was a relatively successful poet. He self-published his first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, but would revise it many times for the rest of his life. The Harleigh Cemetery Foundation gifted land for Whitman’s tomb because it wanted to build its brand by being his final resting place. Such a practice was common among cemeteries at the time. Whitman designed the granite tomb himself and checked its construction frequently until his death in 1892. The tomb is placed in a hillside with three granite sides about 18 inches thick. There are eight crypts in the vault, which includes the remains of Whitman’s mother, father, two brothers and sister.

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Celtic Cross monument

Laid out in 1885, Harleigh Cemetery is an example of a garden, or rural, cemetery. As churchyard cemeteries filled up, expansive cemeteries at the outskirts of the city started to gain prominence. Following Europe’s example, Americans began to build garden cemeteries. The first one was Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831. These large cemeteries spread out over acres of land providing a bucolic setting to bury and honor the dead. They also are considered by many to be America’s first parks; allowing anyone to enjoy their natural beauty.

Like other garden cemeteries of the time period, Harleigh stretches over a large expanse for a total of 130 acres. It includes a rolling landscape, beautiful monuments and man-made lakes. Besides Whitman, other famous people buried here include senators, judges, civil war officers, and Jazz drummer Charlie Rice.

However, Walt Whitman is the cemetery’s most famous resident. His tomb has now become an LGBT site.

Great Films to Watch: Reign of Terror (1949)

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Original Movie Poster for the Black Book (also known as the Reign of Terror)

A good film director will always stand out. Reign of Terror (also known as the Black Book) was a cheap period film made in 1949 for a total of $40,000. However, it stands out because it incorporates many of the elements of film noir, such as close-ups, lighting, and sinister character development, to create a dark and foreboding atmosphere.

The film is set during the Reign of Terror and follows a group of French patriots working to stop Maximilien Robespierre from becoming dictator of France. The central character pretends to be a torturer from Strausbourg known as Duval in order to gain Robespierre’s confidence and find his black book. The book contains details of his plans to become dictator and the men he plans to kill once in power. If found and release, it will ruin him. While the plot is thin, the film stands out due to the directing and acting. Especially notable is Arnold Moss, who gives a devilishly fun performance as Fouché, a confidant of Robspierre and a man of very loose scruples who fits in well with the changing alliances of the time.

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Richard Basehart as Robespierre

But the real star of the movie is directory Anthony Mann. Mann started directing a whole slew of low-budget noir movies in the late ‘40s before moving on to A pictures in the 1950s. He is most notable for directing James Stewart in westerns like Winchester ’73 and the Naked Spur. He ended his career in the ‘60s helming historical epics such as El Cid and the Fall of the Roman Empire. Those films had much larger budgets than Reign of Terror so it’s remarkable that he was able to make a convincing historical film with limited budget resources. For one thing, he didn’t go for grandeur. Instead, he chose to create a claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia making this film stylistically similar to film noir.  His use of lighting, shadows and close-ups mixed with high camera angles helps to overcome budget limitations and create a sinister atmosphere full of treachery.

It’s a triumph of style over substance and makes this movie still feel fresh 70 years later.

Best 20 Criterion Films (I just watched)

Recently I fractured my foot and was immobilized for about nine weeks. So I decided to watch some Crtierion movies available on Hulu Plus. I watched 20. Here they are ranked from the best to the worst.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon — I would say this is the best film I saw, because it is an excellent genre picture. It’s a well-acted, well-made psychological thriller with a hint of the supernatural. The tension just keeps building as you watch a kidnapping scheme go terribly wrong. I would put a well-made genre picture above an art house film like Ali because, while Ali was greatly acted and written, the direction and the cinematography were not noticeably special. But to make a picture in a genre that everyone knows very well, you have to have excellent everything…more than just acting and writing. All facets of the filmmaking process have to be top-notch, which is why it’s a much more difficult endeavor. But this movie delivers on all fronts and is a great movie.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul — One of the best things about this endeavor is that I discovered the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A German director from the 70s and early 80s, it’s hard to think of any other director I’ve seen recently whose films create such real and sympathetic characters. Even if you don’t like everything they do, as a director, he makes you understand them so fully (in a completely unpretentious style) that you forgive them and like them. This is a very simple, touching story about a May-December romance. The characters stayed with me long after the movie.

Viridiana –I think the humor helps in what is really a dark film that has a cynical view of humanity. This is the funniest film I saw though. About the futility of sainthood, It’s still a bit shocking by today’s standards.

Diabolique — This is one of the more famous films I saw. It’s a great murder mystery that still holds up more than 60 years later with some great plot twists and some moments of great cinematic technique; such as the heroine’s breakdown at the end. If the ending is predictable, it’s only because this movie has been hugely influential and has been copied so many times.

Marriage of Maria Braun — Another Fassbinder film. It’s more ambitious than Ali and is meant to be an allegory of Post-War Germany (which will not resonate so strongly with an American audience). But still, it’s a great film about a heroine who sacrifices all and sells her soul for a man she loves but barely knows. To reiterate what I wrote, I can’t think of another director who can so easily communicate a character’s motivations and inner thoughts and makes you like them no matter what they do and treats his characters so sympathetically.

Kanal–The first half of this film about resistance fighters in the Warsaw uprising is well-made but standard war movie you’ve probably seen in other movies. However, the last fifty minutes, where the fighters have to escape from the Germans through the city sewers, is still powerful and disturbing.

Veronika Voss–This is the best-looking and most stylish of the Fassbinder films I watched; very similar to Sunset Boulevard and a bit of the Third Man. Its stylish approach made me feel more distant from the characters than his other films. Still excellent, but depressing.

Walkabout—Strange film. Hard to know what to make of it. It’s very uneven with some great moments and some silly,pointless ones. However, the film stayed with me afterwards. I would definitely recommend watching it at least once.

Tunes of Glory–Very British and somewhat dated, but it shows what a great actor Alec Guinness was. The unexpected, dark ending also still packs a punch.

Mamma Roma — I enjoyed this film by Pasolini; especially the performance of the lead actress. But it feels unnecessarily depressing.

Hanzo the Razor (Sword of Justice) — This is a very entertaining Samurai film that throws in a lot of ’70s exploitive sex. Never boring,but I would only recommend it to those who like that genre.

Wise Blood — Interesting, if odd, film by John Houston. It picks up once you get past the unlikeable lead character and the clunky dialogue (which was probably taken straight out of the source novel and doesn’t translate very well to film). It also has a great Southern feel to it.

The Naked Kiss — Strange, but engrossing, noir film that has some startling scenes.

Ballad of Narayama — Interesting movie. It’s a Japanese folk tale filmed like a kabuki play. The set design and the colors on the Criterion restoration are beautiful.

Woman of the Dunes — A film that is highly rated (8.0 on IMDB), but I don’t get what the appeal is. It’s an artsy Japanese version of the Prisoner. Really intriguing premise that has some great cinematography. It has some great moments and some really dull parts. It would have worked better if it had been handled more conventionally with 30 to 45 minutes cut out.

Simon of the Desert — Like Exterminating Angel (also directed by Bunel), it has an intriguing premise. Plus, it’s helped that it is a short film kept to only 45 minutes. The ending is also funny. But in the end, feels a bit pointless.

Exterminating Angel — Movie is based on an intriguing idea, but it’s sort of a one-joke plot that get stretches over two hours. So it could have made a better short film or been cut by 40 minutes.

Alice in the Cities — Rambling and a bit boring; especially since no one acts in a real manner except for the little girl. She gives the best performance in the movie.

Cars That Ate Paris–Intriguing idea that is hampered by low budget. It could have been much better. This is the type of movie Hollywood should remake and fix up what could have been a great, exploitation film.

Claire’s Knee–The one film I truly hated. Talky, pretenscious arthouse drivel. It’s about some French guy who’s obsessed with a 16-year-old girl’s knee.

The Presbyterian Beginnings of Fundamentalism

Millions of Americans identify themselves as Christian fundamentalists. The size of the fundamentalist movement and the participatory zeal of many of its adherents allow it to shape national conversations over issues such as marriage, education, and foreign affairs. Fundamentalists exert huge power in nominating and electing public officials, including presidents.

Fundamentalism has shaped American Presbyterianism as well, and been shaped in turn by American Presbyterians. As David O. Beale writes in In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism since 1850, “From the earliest days of American Fundamentalism, Presbyterians have contributed significantly to the vitality of the movement.”

The term “fundamentalism” entered the American lexicon thanks to two Presbyterian brothers from Titusville, Pennsylvania: Milton and Lyman Stewart. Lyman Stewart helped found the Hardison and Stewart Oil Company, which later became the Union Oil Company of California. The oil business made Lyman and Milton millionaires during the late nineteenth century.

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1910 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Atlantic City

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Best Movies in 2014

Below is a list of the best movies that I saw in 2014. Tthis is not a list of the best movies of the year. I don’t think I have seen enough of 2014’s movies to create such a list. Instead, this is a list of the best and most interesting movies that I saw in 2014. Some of the movies on this list are from 2014 and others are from the ’60s, ’70s, etc. I think you get the point. The list is in no particular order:

1. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

MV5BMTYwMTA4MzgyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjEyMjE0MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_    The main reason to see this movie is for the performances. I believe McConaughey and Leto both deserved the Oscar for their performances. Both of their performances are even more amazing when you consider how much weight each had to lose for their roles.

 

 

 

 

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Current Book: Cosmos by Carl Sagan

cosmosEver since i saw Interstellar last year, my interest in astronomy has been rekindled. It has led me to watch the new Cosmos series on TV with Dr. Tyson and to buy this book. I am about half-way through now. Fascinating read although it can be a bit dense at times. However, it has some fascinating parts such as when Sagan describes how organisms could potentially live in the atmosphere of Jupiter and how Ancient Greeks discovered that the circumference of the earth was 40,000 miles.