Friday, August 22, 2014

#1,467. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Directed By: George Miller, George Ogilvie

Starring: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence

Tag line: "Two men enter. One man leaves"

Trivia: The sandstorm at the end of the film was real, and a camera plane actually did fly into it for some shots"

The third entry in the Mad Max series (after Mad Max and The Road Warrior), 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome feels like two movies in one: the first good, and the second… well, not “bad”, really. Just… strange!

When his camel-train is hijacked by a pilot named Jebediah (Bruce Spence, the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior) and his son (Jebediah Jr., played by Adam Cockburn), Max (Mel Gibson) wanders through the desert, eventually arriving at the settlement of Bartertown, a community that specializes in commerce. While there, Max is approached by Auntie Entity (Tina Turner), the self-appointed ruler of Bartertown, who wants the new arrival to help her eliminate The “Master-Blaster”, a highly intelligent little person (“Master”, played by Angelo Rossitto) and his hulking brute of a servant (“Blaster”, portrayed by Paul Larsson), both of whom have become far too cocky for their own good. But when Max has a change of heart, Auntie Entity banishes him to the desert, where, after roaming around for days, he’s miraculously rescued by a group of children, the last survivors of a plane crash that occurred years earlier. Despite the fact they live in a beautiful oasis, the kids, believing Max is the “savior” they’ve been waiting for, want him to lead them to the fabled “Tomorrow-Morrow Land”, aka civilization. Seeing as he’s the only one who knows what the world outside is like, Max refuses to do so. Unfortunately, some of the kids won’t take “no” for an answer.

The opening scene of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, where Max’s caravan is stolen, gets the movie off to a good start. I also enjoyed the early sequences set in Bartertown, a place filled with the kind of crooks and lowlifes you’d expect to find in a dystopian society. Tina Turner is effective as Aunty Entity, but the most interesting character at this point in the film is Master, a little person who happens to be an engineering genius. Arrogant at first because he’s the only one who knows how to keep the town’s power flowing (he designed a system by which pig shit is converted into electricity), Master is eventually put in his place, making him a much more sympathetic character. Throw in a kick-ass fight between Max and Master’s friend Blaster, which occurs in a caged arena known as the “Thunderdome”, and you have a first half brimming with promise.

That promise soon fades, however, when Max finds himself surrounded by dozens of kids, all living on their own. Ignoring for a moment the obvious questions (what happened to all the adults?), this entire sequence comes across as far too “cutesy” (along with asking Max to lead them to “Tomorrow-morrow land”, the children refer to their own oral history as the “Tell”). Later on, when the obligatory showdown between Max (who, while tracking some kids looking for “Tomorrow-Morrow land” on their own, ends up back at Bartertown) and Aunty Entity occurs, the children remain neatly in the background, rarely offering Max and his pals any type of assistance. So, aside from being goofy, the kids are also fairly useless, making their very existence in a film of this nature all the more inexplicable.

Even with the little urchins, this movie is worth checking out, but when compared to the series’ first two films, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome finishes a distant third.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

#1,466. Wolf Creek (2005)

Directed By: Greg Mclean

Starring: Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi

Tag line: "The Thrill Is In The Hunt"

Trivia: This is one of the only films critic Roger Ebert ever walked out on before finishing. He found the violence so disturbing that he refused to sit through it, and gave the film no rating

In its opening credits, Wolf Creek, a 2005 horror import from Australia, claims to be based on true events. After looking into it further, it appears the film actually draws from several real-life cases, including the notorious “Backpack Murders” of the 1990s, as well as a more recent episode in which a British tourist and his girlfriend were kidnapped in the Northern Territory. Truth be told, I was kinda happy to hear that no one incident inspired the movie. The thought that a guy like Mick Taylor is out there, roaming the Australian Outback, is enough to keep you awake at night.

In the small beachside resort of Broome, Western Australia, British pals Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) team up local boy Ben (Nathan Phillips), who’s agreed to drive them to Queensland. Along the way, the three decide to stop off at Wolf Creek, where, tens of thousands of years ago, a giant meteor crashed to earth, leaving one hell of a crater behind. After taking in the sights, they return to their car, only to find that it won’t start. Afraid they’ll have to spend the night in the middle of nowhere, the trio is relieved when Mick Taylor (John Jarrett) shows up on the scene and agrees to tow them back to his place, where he has the necessary part to fix their car. But as the friends will soon discover, Mick has more on his mind than simple auto repair.

While its claim to be based on true events may be a bit suspect, there really is a place in Western Australia called Wolf Creek (though it’s spelled “Wolfe Creek”), a National Park that’s home to one of the largest meteor craters in the world (the filmmakers took full advantage of this natural wonder, which is as picturesque as it is impressive). But as beautiful as it is, this crater isn’t what you’re going to remember when thinking back on Wolf Creek. What stays with you is the character of Mick Taylor, the boisterous Aussie with a thing for rape and torture. The moments when Mick is doing what he does best are gruesome, to say the least (the “head on a stick” scene always makes me cringe), yet what stuck with me was how friendly and affable he seemed at the outset, when he offered to tow the friends car and fix it for free. Whenever I see this sequence, I can’t help but put myself in the three young people’s shoes. And every single time, I come to the same conclusion: I, too, would have gone with Mick Taylor. I’d have gladly let him tow my car, and would have thanked him when he offered me a drink of water once we got there, which, of course, means I would have become his next victim, and more than likely would be dead by now.

This is what makes Wolf Creek such an effective horror film. Over the years, movies have made us think twice about doing many things, including getting into the water (Jaws), picking up hitchhikers (The Hitcher), or strolling into an unfamiliar house (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). As we see in Wolf Creek, not even a Good Samaritan can always be trusted.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

#1,465. Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Directed By: Herbert Ross

Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper

Tag line: "There's a world on both sides of the rainbow where songs come true and every time it rains, it rains..."

Trivia: During principal photography, actor Steve Martin refused to grant media interviews as he was too absorbed in the part he was playing

Pennies from Heaven, a 1981 movie directed by Herbert Ross, is a very unusual musical in that none of its actors actually sing. Set in the Depression, the film utilizes the music of the 1930s (actual period recordings are used, with the actors lip-synching to make it look as if they’re belting out the tunes). What’s more, the music in Pennies from Heaven serves a very specific purpose, reflecting the hopes and dreams of its main characters while also offering them an escape of sorts from the crushing reality of their everyday lives.

The year is 1934. Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is a Chicago-based salesman who specializes in sheet music. Unfortunately, like most suffering through the Great Depression, Arthur is having some difficulties making ends meet. His wife, Joan (Jessica Harper), is supportive, but cold, and the bank refuses to give him a loan to expand his business. Not to worry, though, because when things don’t go his way, Arthur simply escapes into his fantasies, all of which resemble a big-budget Hollywood musical number. While on the road hoping to stir up some business, Arthur meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a shy, withdrawn schoolteacher with whom he has an affair. Trying to juggle two women while, at the same time, opening his own record store, Arthur‘s life becomes more difficult than ever, yet through it all, he has his music, and his imagination, to carry him through.

There are moments when Pennies from Heaven comes across as humorous; the first time Steve Martin’s Arthur opens his mouth to “sing”, he does so with a woman’s voice (Connee Boswell’s, to be precise. The song is 1932’s “I’ll Never Have to Dream Again”), but make no mistake: this is a straight-up drama, often delving into serious, even dark, territory (a minor character, a blind girl played by Eliska Krupka, is raped and killed, a murder that, while committed by a vagrant accordion player portrayed by Vernel Bagnaris, will come back to haunt Arthur later in the film). In fact, Pennies from Heaven can best be described as having a split personality. At times dealing with such real-life issues as deception, rejection, infidelity, and failure, the movie also features sequences of unbridled enthusiasm, musical numbers that emphasize the positive, where all is right with the world. In an early scene, Arthur is trying to secure a bank loan, yet has no collateral. The Bank Officer (Jay Garner) naturally denies his application, at which point the film bursts into song, a wild and flashy fantasy sequence featuring The Carlyle Cousin’s 1931 tune “Yes, Yes!” in which Arthur imagines that his request for capital has been approved.

In the 1930’s, when the Great Depression was in full swing, people turned to popular culture, the cinema included, to take their minds off their troubles, and one of the more popular film genres at the time was the musical. Movies like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, and Top Hat whisked audiences to wonderful new places where, for an hour or two, they could forget their worries. While paying tribute to this era’s musical films (there are a handful of stylized dance sequences that would have impressed Busby Berkeley himself), Pennies from Heaven is also an homage to the escapism these movies offered, creating a world where happiness is but a pleasant thought away. Equal parts ecstasy and despair, Pennies from Heaven is a wild ride, and when all is said and done, you’ll be happy you climbed on board.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

#1,464. Geri's Game (1997)

Directed By: Jan Pinkava

Starring: Bob Peterson

Trivia: This short film took roughly one and a half years to make

In its early days, Pixar turned out a number of short subjects, each of which helped them not only perfect their animation style, but also learn how to tell a good story. To this day, the studio continues to turn out short subjects, some of which play just before their feature films, and the one they showcased prior to 1998’s A Bug’s Life, an ingenious little gem titled Geri’s Game, remains my favorite of the bunch.

It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon, and an elderly man named Geri (voiced by Bob Peterson) is in the park, preparing to play a game of chess. Of course, he doesn’t actually have an opponent, but that won’t be a problem for Geri because he’s perfectly happy controlling both sides of the chess board! Moving from one side of the table to the other, Geri plays a rousing game, and in the end snatches victory from the jaws of defeat by making a very clever, yet highly illegal move.

Geri’s Game marked the first time Pixar attempted a film, short or otherwise, that featured a human character, and the animation is superb. Geri’s movements at the start of the short are methodical; he walks, ever so slowly, from chair to chair, sometimes leaning on the table to help support him. To appear as if he’s two different people, Geri even removes his glasses after making the first move, then puts them back on whenever he’s in that particular chair. Before long, the editing tightens up, and instead of watching Geri shuffle around the table, we see only his chess moves, making it look as if there really are two of him taking part in the match.

Story-wise, Geri’s Game is as simple as it gets. What makes it unique are the intricacies Pixar brings to the table (such as giving Geri two distinct personalities), taking the film to a whole new level. Movies like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc showed the world Pixar’s uncanny ability to weave a fascinating tale, and as Geri’s Game proves, the studio didn’t need 90 minutes to do so.

In fact, they can sometimes get the job done in less than five minutes.

Monday, August 18, 2014

#1,463. The World's End (2013)

Directed By: Edgar Wright

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman

Tag line: "One Night. Six Friends. Twelve Pubs. Total Annihilation"

Trivia: The movie began as a screenplay titled Crawl about a group of teenagers on a pub crawl (Edgar Wright wrote it when he was 21 years old)

The final chapter in director Edgar Wright’s unofficial “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy (following 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz), The World’s End closes out the "series" in spectacular fashion.

It was June of 1990, the last day of school, when a teenage Gary King and his four best friends tried to tackle Newton Haven’s “Golden Mile”, drinking 12 pints of beer in 12 different pubs before the sun came up the next morning. Despite having had the time of their lives, the pals never made it as far as the final pub, “The World’s End”. Over twenty years have passed since that fateful night, and Gary King (played as an adult by Simon Pegg) hasn’t forgotten that they failed to complete their mission. To put everything right, Gary (who remains stuck in the past) pays a visit to his former buddies Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Andy (Nick Frost), to convince them to once again attempt to conquer the Golden Mile. Despite the fact they’ve all moved on with their lives, the four agree to tag along, and set out to finish what they started so many years ago. But as the evening drags on, the five pals can’t shake the feeling that something very strange is going on in their old hometown. It isn’t until they hit the fourth pub, however, that they realize just how “different” things are. All at once, finishing their pub crawl means much more than simply completing their journey; it’s become a matter of life and death!

The World’s End changes things up a bit by making Simon Pegg’s character, Gary King, the loud, obnoxious loser, while Nick Frost, who played a lovable buffoon in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, is a well-respected lawyer, a professional who, unlike his childhood best friend, has left the past behind him. It’s to the credit of both actors that they make this role reversal as seamless and believable as it is (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi tried the same thing in 1981’s Neighbors, with less-than-stellar results). On top of this, the movie also features strong performers in key supporting roles. Freeman (who appeared in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series as Bilbo Baggins), Considine (among many other fine performances, he shined in director Jim Sheridan’s 2003 drama In America), and Marsan (every time I see him, I’m reminded of his extraordinary turn in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky) have a great rapport with each other as well as Pegg and Frost, giving us characters so well-rounded that any one of them could be the lead in their own film. Rosamond Pike, who plays Oliver’s sister Sam, shows up halfway through, yet still makes her presence known, and ex-Bond Pierce Brosnan has a small but memorable role as the pals’ former teacher, Mr. Shepherd. I so enjoyed watching these characters interact with one another at the start of the movie that, for a while, I completely forgot The World’s End is also a sci-fi / action flick!

My reminder came by way of an awesome scene set in a barroom lavatory, where the five face off against a particularly bizarre gang of youths, a sequence so unusual that it leaves us as stunned and confused as Gary and his compatriots. It isn’t long before we realize the citizens of Newton Haven aren’t exactly “normal”, and that many of them are intently watching the friends as they make their way around town. To avoid drawing attention to themselves, Gary and the others decide to continue their pub crawl, during which they (and we) figure out just how dire the situation has become in Newton Haven. Watching these five buddies try to deal with it all is a hell of a lot of fun (the laughs come even quicker later on, at which point the majority of them are stinking drunk). The special effects in The World’s End are solid, and never once overpower the story (unlike most movies released in the summer months, this one remains character driven at all times), and there are moments when the “people” following the boys around look pretty damn creepy. Topping it all off is a grand finale that, while certainly not upbeat, is entirely satisfying.

Being a big fan of both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, I was glad to see Wright and Pegg (who, as he did with the previous two movies, also co-wrote the script) close the trilogy out with a film that’s every bit as entertaining as its predecessors.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

#1,462. Dumbo (1941)

Directed By: Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, et al

Starring: Sterling Holloway, Edward Brophy, James Baskett

Tag line: "Walt Disney's Latest . . . Most Lovable . . . Funable Characters !"

Trivia: In December 1941, Time magazine planned to have Dumbo (1941) on its cover to commemorate its success, an idea that was dropped due to the attack on Pearl Harbor

Strangely enough, my first experience with Disney’s Dumbo came courtesy of Steven Spielberg’s 1979 World War 2-era comedy, 1941. Set in Los Angeles a short time after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when many southern Californians were convinced Japan would be attacking them next, 1941 featured an impressive cast, including Robert Stack as Major General Stillwell of the U.S. Army. In a late scene, Gen. Stillwell decides to take in a movie, and the film he and several of his aides check out is Dumbo. He cries when Dumbo and his mother reunite after she’s been locked away, and smiles when Jim Crow (voiced by Cliff Edwards) and his buddies make fun of the little elephant with their song “When I See an Elephant Fly”. Though played entirely for laughs, this sequence made me want to see Dumbo, and when I finally had the chance to do so, the movie quickly became one of my favorite Disney offerings.

As the film opens, a stork (Sterling Holloway) delivers a little bundle of joy to Jumbo (Verna Felton), a circus elephant. But when the other elephants catch a glimpse of her new son, they can’t help but laugh at his enormous ears, leading them to give the youngster the rather cruel nickname “Dumbo”. When a group of kids also taunt poor Dumbo, Jumbo intervenes, and as a result is placed in a cage, separating her from her new son. Now all alone, Dumbo is quickly befriended by Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy), who tries his best to cheer the little tyke up. But it isn’t until the two have an unfortunate run-in with a bucket of water (which, unbeknownst to them, had been laced with champagne) that Timothy discovers Dumbo’s true talent, a gift so wonderful that it could make Dumbo the star of the entire circus!

Part of the magic of Dumbo is its simplicity, from the story itself (an outcast who discovers he has something to offer the world) right down to the title character. Throughout the entire film, Dumbo never utters a word, relying instead on facial expressions and gestures to convey his emotions, and thanks to the wonderful work of the animators, we know, at all times, how the little elephant is feeling. We see the hurt in his eyes when the other elephants ridicule his big ears, and we cry right along with him when he and his mother, who’s been chained inside a cage, interlock trunks, the only way she can show her young son that she’s still there for him. Other aspects of the film stand out as well, including the music (the above-mentioned “When I See an Elephant Fly” is very entertaining, as is the opening number “Look Out for Mr. Stork”) and a few key scenes (the most memorable being the dreamlike “Pink Elephants on Parade”), but in the end, it’s the movie’s ability to stir our emotions that makes Dumbo a time-honored classic.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

#1,461. Wanderlust (2006)

Directed By: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Starring: Allison Anders, Jeanine Basinger, Robert Benton

Tag line: "On the Road with American Road Movies"

Trivia: This documentary was produced for IFC, the Independent Film Channel

Produced in 2006 for the Independent Film Channel, Wanderlust is yet another of those documentaries that I love, a cinema-centric movie that focuses its attention on a specific aspect of film. In the case of Wanderlust, the topic is the American road.

From as far back as the 1930s, Hollywood has had a love affair with the vast expanse of the American landscape as seen from the country’s roads and highways. In movies like Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, characters hit the open road, sometimes with hilarious results. But it wasn’t all fun and games; as John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath showed us, some people had no alternative but to drive, hoping to reach paradise just over the next horizon, only to find more heartache, more lost souls seeking the same relief. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, film noir classics such as Detour and Gun Crazy cast a shadow over the American road movie, giving us characters that, instead of searching for something, were on the run, trying to evade both the law and their own turbulent pasts. Then, in the late ‘60s, a revolution took hold of the American film industry, forcing the old guard (the studio system) from its comfortable perch and turning out pictures aimed at a younger audience. Yet even here, the road played an integral part, especially in two of the era’s seminal works: Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Through the ‘70s (Two-Lane Blacktop, Badlands, Smokey and the Bandit), ‘80s (The Cannonball Run, Paris Texas, Something Wild) and ‘90s (Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers, The Straight Story), movies continued to evolve, reflecting the values of each new generation, and through it all, the American road remained as vital as ever.

While its presentation of the above material is definitely familiar (talking head interviews, film clips, etc), the topic explored gives Wanderlust an almost epic feel, taking us from one end of this country to the other as it examines the cinema’s fascination with cars and driving, whether feeding a desire for speed (a key component in practically every movie directed by Hal Needham) or a quest to find comfort, both at home (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) and someplace new (Spike Lee’s underrated 1996 film Get on the Bus centers on a group of guys traveling to the Million Man March in Washington D.C.). In addition, the filmmakers include several excerpts lifted from the works of such authors as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, read by the likes of Matt Dillon, Gary Sinese, and Lily Taylor. Aside from simply linking the documentary’s segments together, these brief bits of narration also give the movie a mystical quality, as if the road was as much a religion to some as it is a route for transportation.

Even if you’ve already seen most of the movies that Wanderlust covers, you haven’t experienced them the way they’re presented here, and odds are, the next time you sit down to watch them, you’ll see these films in an entirely different light.