Tuesday, December 7, 2021

#2,673. Jabberwocky (1977)


Terry Gilliam’s solo directorial debut (he co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail a few years before), Jabberwocky stars Michael Palin as Dennis Cooper, an eternally optimistic peasant who finds himself out of a job when his father (Paul Curran), a renowned barrel-maker, disowns him moments before dying of a heart attack.

Determined to make his way in the world - and thus win the hand of his beloved, Griselda (Annette Badland), daughter of local merchant Mr. Fishfinger (Warren Mitchell) - Dennis sets off for the big city, which is currently being terrorized by an enormous dragon (the Jabberwocky of the title).

Anxious to rid his kingdom of this horrible monster, King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) stages a tournament to find the greatest knight in the land. If the winner of this tournament manages to slay the dragon, he will be married to King Bruno’s daughter, The Princess (Deborah Fallender), and awarded half of the entire kingdom.

Dennis, whose only interest is landing a job, finds himself unwittingly swept up in the quest to destroy the dragon, and in the end may prove the only person capable of accomplishing this very dangerous task.

Sporting a look and feel reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jabberwocky gets off to a grand start; as the movie opens, a poacher (played by Terry Jones, who was Gilliam’s co-director on Holy Grail) is emptying his traps when he is suddenly attacked by the dragon. This opening is both shocking (though his head remains intact, the poacher’s body is stripped down to its bones) and hilarious (we never see the creature – the entire scene plays out from the dragon’s perspective, and we watch as he lifts the Poacher a hundred feet in the air before dropping him).

In fact, “shocking” and “hilarious” pretty much sum up the rest of the film as well, which features barbarity (the king’s tournament is particularly bloody) interspersed with side-splitting humor (the royal advisor Passelwe, played by John Le Mesurier, tries to convince the King that, instead of having the knights butcher one another, they stage a friendly game of hide-and-seek to determine the winner).

Unlike Holy Grail (which maintained the skit format that the Pythons had perfected in their BBC television program of the early ‘70s), Jabberwocky focuses more on a single narrative – i.e. the misadventures of Dennis Cooper. Still, a number of different characters and side-stories are introduced along the way, from the city merchants and their desire to keep the dragon around (business has never been better) to the Squire (Harry H. Corbett) who would rather bed another man’s wife than serve his master, the Knight known as Red Herring (voiced by Max Wall).

By “bridging the gap” between Terry Gilliam’s Python roots and his later fantasy adventures (Time Bandits, Brazil, etc), Jabberwocky provided the dark humor many had come to expect from a Monty Python alum while at the same time giving the world a glimpse into the mind of a highly imaginative filmmaker.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Sunday, December 5, 2021

#2,672. The Short History of the Long Road (2019)


Written and directed by Ani Simon-Kennedy, The Short History of the Long Road stars Sabrina Carpenter as Nola, a young girl whose father, Clint (Steven Ogg), dropped out of society years earlier, and is teaching his daughter how to survive on the open road.

Driving from town to town in an ‘80s era van, the duo bathes in public restrooms and survives on what little cash Clint earns from the odd fix-it job (a skill he’s passing on to Nola).

But when an unexpected tragedy occurs, Nola finds herself all alone.

Though she does her best to maintain an independent lifestyle, a frightened and confused Nola longs to reconnect with the mother she has never known, and does what she can to make this unlikely reunion a reality.

There are solid supporting performances throughout The Short History of the Long Road; Steven Ogg is likable as the erratic Clint, and Danny Trejo shines as Miguel, the auto mechanic who, in essence, becomes Nola’s father figure when Clint is no longer in the picture.

From start to finish, however, The Short History of the Long Road belongs to Sabrina Carpenter.

It is not a glamorous part; Nola never wears any make-up, and prefers to steal the things she wants or needs (everything from gasoline to library books), even when she has the money to pay. Yet it is Carpenter’s subtle portrayal of this lonely young woman - whose life is suddenly turned upside-down – that keeps us watching, and hoping beyond hope that everything will work out for her, no matter how unlikely a happy ending may seem at times (even a reunion with her mother, played by Maggie Siff, doesn’t provide the stability Nola so desperately needs).

A former Disney Channel star and current pop singer (her 2021 tune Skin reached as high as #48 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts), Carpenter has, with The Short History of the Long Road, also proven herself a fine dramatic actress, and I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the years to come.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Friday, December 3, 2021

#2,671. Bug (2006)


William Friedkin’s uber-creepy Bug stars Ashley Judd as Agnes, a waitress who lives in a rundown motel. One night, she is introduced to Peter (Michael Shannon), a drifter with no place to call home. The two immediately hit it off, and it isn’t long before Agnes is head-over-heels in love.

Not even the reappearance of her abusive ex, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), or the memory of her child - who was kidnapped ten years earlier and has never been found - can damper Agnes’s feelings for Peter.

Then, one night, Peter is bitten by a bug…

and then another…

and then another.

At first, Agnes can’t even see these mysterious insects, and some people, including her friend and co-worker R.C. (Lynn Collins), believe that Peter might be insane. Peter, however, continues to insist that there are bugs, and Agnes eventually believes him. But how far are the two willing to go to rid themselves of these miniscule parasites?

Based on a play written by Tracy Letts (who also penned the screenplay), Bug is a deeply disturbing motion picture, with masterful performances by both Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon as the lovebirds slowly losing their grip on reality. Shannon is especially strong as Peter, whose shy demeanor early on gives way to all-out paranoia by the end of the movie (a Gulf War vet, Peter is convinced the military implanted the bugs in his mouth, and the scene where he pulls several of his own teeth to destroy the “egg sac” is horrifyingly brutal).

These two characters drag us screaming into their world of fear and obsession (the opening scene, which features a ringing phone, suggests that Agnes herself may be delusional from the outset), and the more bugs they “find”, the more precarious their grip on reality becomes, resulting in a final 20 minutes that is positively harrowing.

Expertly directed by Friedkin, Bug is an absolute shocker.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

#2,670. Waltz with Bashir (2008)


A stunning yet ultimately disturbing animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir is more than a war movie; it is a journey into the mind.

In 1982, when he was 19 years old, Ari Folman (the film’s writer / director) was in the Israeli military, and served as an infantryman during the war in Lebanon. For years, his memory of this time period has been hazy, but when his old friend Boaz (voiced by Miki Leon) relates the story of a recurring nightmare he’s had since serving in Lebanon, Folman himself experiences a dream about the war that he cannot explain, and wonders if it has something to do with the Sabra and Shatila Massacres, for which he was present, yet remembers nothing.

In an effort to trigger his memory, Folman visits with fellow veterans of that war, hoping their stories will somehow help him recall what his mind seemingly wants him to forget.

Though it paints a harrowing picture of warfare (the skirmishes can be tense and unflinchingly violent) Waltz With Bashir is more effective as a human drama, an exploration of how a soldier’s mind can alter, manipulate, even suppress painful memories as a means of coping with the trauma of battle. Shmuel Frenkel (voiced by himself) served in the same unit as Folman, and while talking with him one day, Folman is surprised to find that he has completely forgotten an incident involving a young Palestinian boy, who was shot dead after firing on them with an RPG.

All this, combined with a number of memorable sequences (the opening scene, a visual representation of Boaz’s dream in which 26 angry dogs run through the streets of Tel Aviv, is especially intense); an intriguing mystery at its center; and a (non-animated) ending that will shake you to your core, does its part to ensure that Waltz with Bashir will stay with you long after it is over.

It is unlike any animated film I have ever seen before.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Monday, November 29, 2021

#2,669. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)


The Cold War may be over, but the laughs in this 1966 Norman Jewison comedy are timeless!

A Russian submarine has accidentally run aground near a small Island in New England. The sub’s Captain (Theodore Bikel) sends nine of his men, including Lt. Yuri Rozanov (Alan Arkin) and sailor Alexei Kolchin (John Philip Law), on a reconnaissance mission to locate a powerboat big enough to tow them out to sea. Stopping first at the home of writer Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) and his wife Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint), the Russians then make their way into the nearby town.

Unfortunately, the Russian patrol next encounters postmistress Muriel Everett (Doro Merande), who alerts switchboard operator Alice Foss (Tessie O’Shea) that the Russians have invaded! Alice immediately calls police chief Link Matthews (Brian Keith), who, though skeptical, tells her to contact his deputy Norman (Jonathan Winters) and a couple of others.

Of course, being the town gossip, Alice can’t help but spread the news that the Russians have invaded, and before long everyone has gathered in the town center, determined to defend their homeland.

The cast assembled for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming may not be as star-studded as Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but it isn’t far behind. Along with those already mentioned, the movie features Paul Ford as a gung-ho ex-military officer who assumes control of the civilian “militia” and former silent star Ben Blue as the town drunk.

The entire cast gets in on the fun; Reiner generates his share of laughs as Walt Whittaker, the first to encounter the Russians and the only one who realizes they aren’t a threat, while Alan Arkin shines as the Soviet officer besieged on all sides by panicky Americans. There’s also a sweet romantic subplot, in which John Philip Law’s Alexei falls for the Whittaker’s babysitter, Alison (played by newcomer Andrea Dromm), and the final showdown between the submarine and the townsfolk has a surprising - albeit very satisfying - conclusion.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, November 27, 2021

#2,668. Sweet Charity (1969)


Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity is a grand and glorious musical / comedy, a supreme piece of entertainment starring Shirley MacLaine as the title character, a New York dance hall girl named Charity Hope Valentine.

Poor Charity has never been lucky in love; in the opening scene she is mugged by her boyfriend Charlie (Dante D'Paulo), who grabs her purse and then pushes Charity into a lake in Central Park. Still, Charity’s life is never dull. At one point, she even spends an evening hanging out with Italian movie star Vittorio (Ricardo Montalban).

Charity’s best friends Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly), who work alongside her at the dance hall, tell Charity that she needs to keep her head out of the clouds. But Charity believes strongly in the power of positive thinking, and is convinced Mr. Right is out there, just waiting to be found.

“Mr. Right” does eventually materialize in the form of an incredibly nervous insurance adjuster named Oscar (John McMartin). After a few weeks together, Oscar tells Charity that he can’t live without her, but will his opinion of his new girlfriend change once he realizes what she does for a living?

Bob Fosse infuses Sweet Charity with style to spare; damn near every scene offers something fresh and exciting (the entire sequence with Vittorio - which includes a late dinner inside his luxury apartment - is a visual feast). In addition, the musical sequences in Sweet Charity are out of this world. MacLaine’s rendition of “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, which she sings throughout her platonic date with Vittorio, is wonderful, yet my favorite number is “Hey Big Spender”, in which Charity’s co-workers at the dance hall try to entice a new customer.

Shirley MacLaine is bubbly as all hell in the lead role, and you can’t help but root for this oft-naïve character as she scours the city in search of her soulmate. Also strong are Rivera and Kelly as the down-to-earth pals, while McMartin is quirky and likable as Charity’s significant other. Yet as good as the main cast is, it's Sammy Davis Jr., appearing briefly as an incredibly hip Reverend, who steals the show.

Based on Fosse’s own hit Broadway play (which was, in turn, inspired by the screenplay for Federico Fellini’s classic movie Nights of Cabiria), Sweet Charity is very much a product of the 1960’s (from the costumes right down to the lingo), yet its entertainment value is timeless. Give Sweet Charity a chance, and I bet you’ll love it as much as I do!
Rating: 10 out of 10

Thursday, November 25, 2021

#2,667. Unhinged (2020)


The very idea of road rage makes me uneasy; the fact is you never know who is driving the car next to you, or what they’re capable of, so it’s never a good idea to intentionally piss any driver off, for any reason.

And as we discover in director Derrick Borte’s intense 2020 thriller Unhinged, it might not take much to push that other driver over the edge.

Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is having a bad day. For starters, her lawyer and best friend Andy (Jimmi Simpson) has informed Rachel that her ex-husband Richard (voiced by Andrew Morgado) wants sole ownership of the house they once shared. If that isn’t bad enough, she’s late getting out the door, which - along with making her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) late for school a third time - results in her being fired by her most important client. Then, to top it off, she has an altercation with another driver (Russell Crowe) at a red light, who is none too happy when she refuses to apologize for her actions.

And if this man has anything to say about it, Rachel’s day is about to get a whole lot worse!

We know from the opening scene that Crowe’s character is out of control; also recently divorced, he breaks into his former house, murders his ex-wife and her lover, then burns it to the ground. Unfortunately, Rachel doesn’t know this, and by the time she realizes she has crossed the wrong person, it’s already too late. The lengths to which this guy goes to get back at Rachel will have you on the edge of your seat (as if the opening sequence wasn’t enough to clue us in on his state of mind, there’s a crazy scene at a gas station that proves he’s lost all control).

Unhinged never lets up; both director Borte and the film’s writer, Carl Ellsworth, keep the tension at a fever pitch throughout, filling the movie with one W-T-F moment after another (there’s an insane sequence involving Crowe’s psychopath and Rachel’s brother Fred, played by Austin P. McKenzie, yet even this is merely a precursor for what’s to come). Pistorius is strong as the frenzied Rachel, yet it’s Russell Crowe who delivers the film’s most intense performance, playing what is easily the darkest character he’s portrayed since 1992’s Romper Stomper.

And it’s because of him that Unhinged is guaranteed to shake you.
Rating: 9 out of 10