Monday, November 30, 2015

#1,932. My Week with Marilyn (2011)

Directed By: Simon Curtis

Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh

Line from the film: "Little girls should be told how pretty they are. They should grow up knowing how much their mother loves them"

Trivia: Catherine Zeta-Jones was approached to play Vivien Leigh, but declined in favor to spend time with ailing husband Michael Douglas

I’m a sucker for movies like My Week with Marilyn, a supposed real-life account of what transpired when Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe teamed up to make the 1957 romantic comedy The Prince and the Showgirl. I’ve covered that film on the blog, and while I wouldn’t say it’s the best work either performer ever did, Monroe does manage to shine as the dancer thrust unexpectedly into the role of a royal escort. But it wasn’t long into My Week with Marilyn that I completely forgot it was a behind-the-scenes exposé. Not only does Michelle Williams look every bit as radiant as the actress she portrayed, she also commands the screen in much the same way Monroe did, making it easy to see why Colin Clark (the film’s protagonist) and everyone else fell madly in love with Marilyn during those long weeks of production.

Eager to break into the movies, young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) ignores the advice of his upper-class parents and heads to London, where, by chance, he encounters family friend Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and his wife, Vivien Leigh (Julie Ormond). At Leigh’s insistence, Colin is hired to work as 3rd director on Olivier’s upcoming picture The Prince and the Showgirl, which will co-star American sex goddess Marilyn Monroe (Williams). It was the first time the acclaimed actress traveled outside the United States to make a film, and the experience would not be a good one for either Monroe or her esteemed director. Turning up late to the set every day, Marilyn also had difficulty memorizing her lines, and insisted that her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) be always at her side, which frustrated Olivier to the point of distraction.

At Sir Laurence’s request, Colin is assigned the thankless task of keeping an eye on the troubled actress, who, aside from her unhappy marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), is taking a steady stream of drugs to help her “relax”. But over the course of the week he spends with her, Colin, like so many others, falls in love with Monroe, who, in turn, sees him as one of the few members of the crew she can actually trust. With his assistance, Marilyn completes the movie, but is there room for him in her already crowded life, or was this simply a week-long tryst that he will remember forever?

Based on the memoirs of the real Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn features an all-star cast, including Dame Judi Dench as renowned actress Sybil Thorndike, the only co-star who defended Monroe; and Emma Watson as Lucy, the girl Colin was dating during that very tumultuous period. As Olivier, Kenneth Branagh gives one of his finest performances in years, playing the famed actor/director as an artist who, though initially smitten with her, regrets his decision to cast Marilyn in his movie, while recent Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) is near-flawless as the naive young man in love with a world-famous beauty.

But like Marilyn Monroe before her, it’s Michelle Williams who demands your attention, bringing to life an icon who, deep down, was an insecure little girl, anxious to please those around her. At several points throughout the movie, Williams perfectly conveys the actress’s famous sex appeal (while touring Windsor Castle, she struts her stuff for the royal servants that have gathered at the bottom of a staircase to see her), yet is equally as good playing Monroe as a wounded soul, bursting into tears when the pressure closes in on her (in what may be the film’s most poignant scene, Colin, fearing Marilyn might have overdosed on pills, climbs through her bedroom window, at which point she, clearly under the influence, asks him to lie beside her in bed, making him promise he won’t leave until morning). Williams’ performance was so convincing, in fact, that it garnered her numerous award nominations, including an Oscar (which she lost to Meryl Streep for The Iron Horse) and a Golden Globe (which she won).

To say My Week with Marilyn is better than The Prince and the Showgirl is an understatement (again, I did enjoy that 1957 movie, mostly because Monroe’s spirited turn makes up for its shortcomings). But after seeing this film, I want to watch The Prince and the Showgirl one more time, if for no other reason than to marvel at what Marilyn Monroe was able to accomplish in spite of it all.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

#1,931. Preservation (2014)

Directed By: Christopher Denham

Starring: Wrenn Schmidt, Pablo Schreiber, Aaron Staton

Tag line: "Man is the only animal that kills for fun ..."

Trivia: The eldest of the killers is wearing a MGTOW symbol on his mask

Whether it be snakes, bears, or other woodland creatures, there are plenty of things lurking in the forest to keep you on your toes, but in 2014’s Preservation we’re introduced to a threat of a much different, and altogether more frightening, variety.

To reconnect with one another, Mike (Aaron Staton) and his brother Sean (Pablo Schreiber), who recently returned from a tour of duty overseas, head into the woods for a weekend of hunting, camping, and general mayhem. Tagging along is Mike’s wife, Wit (Wrenn Schmidt), who has a secret she’s been hiding from her workaholic husband for some time now, and hopes this getaway will provide her with an opportunity to reveal it. Undeterred by posted signs stating the area has been closed to the public, the three hike deep into the woods, settling down in what they believe is the ideal camping spot.

When the trio awake the next morning, however, they find their perfect weekend has quickly become a nightmare; not only were they robbed during the night (the thieves made off with everything, including their tent), but they also have been branded (each has an “X” drawn on their forehead). It isn’t long before they realize they’re being hunted, and with no idea where they are or what direction to go in, Mike, Sean, and Wit must fight for their very survival against a mysterious group of predators that, at every turn, seems to be one step ahead of them.

The second half of Preservation is a nerve-wracking horror / thriller, the kind of movie best described as a “heart-stopper”, yet what makes it so is the time writer / director Christopher Denham spends in the first half developing his three main characters. In the film’s opening scene, the brothers reminisce about their younger days, and there are hints throughout that Sean has feelings for Wit (something Mike blows off at first, but which eats away at him as the day drags on). As for Wit, she has some important news for Mike, yet his devotion to his work (which continues thanks to his cell phone) makes it impossible for the two to communicate. In the film’s first half hour or so, we get to know these characters, so when they find themselves suddenly in danger, we’re rooting hard for them to make it out alive. In contrast, we spend very little time with the group that’s tormenting them: not nearly enough to understand why they’re doing all this, and just enough to make them even more unsettling than they were a moment before.

A terrifying fight for survival, Preservation, like Friday the 13th, The Burning, and The Blair Witch Project before it, gives you one more good reason to stay out of the woods.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

#1,930. Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)

Directed By: Don Hahn

Starring: Roy Edward Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner

Tag line: "From 1984 to 1994 a perfect storm of people and circumstances changed the face of animation forever"

Trivia: Don Hahn wanted to avoid making what he called a "talking heads documentary" where people sit in front of the camera and talk. This is why none of the interviewees appear onscreen

From 1984 to 1994, a perfect storm of people and circumstances changed the face of animation forever.

The above title screen appears early on in the 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, a movie about one of the most lucrative eras for Walt Disney’s Animation department, when a group of executives and artists joined forces to create some of the finest movies the studio has ever produced.

By the early 1980s, Disney’s animation unit was floundering, turning out one dud after another (millions were poured into ambitious projects like The Black Cauldron, which failed miserably at the box office). The studio was ready for a change, which began when Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew and one of the company’s top executives, fended off a possible takeover, then hired Michael Eisner and Frank Wells (former execs with Paramount and Warner Bros., respectively) to serve as CEO and President. Eisner, in turn, brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg to head the film division (one of Katzenberg’s first decisions was to move the faltering animation unit from the building it occupied for decades to an off-lot site in Glendale).

Others were hired as well, including Peter Schneider, who, as President of Walt Disney’s Feature animation division, oversaw the production of movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (for which they teamed up with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment) and a little film initially titled Basil of Baker Street, which would be released as The Great Mouse Detective. Both were moneymakers, and the mood around the animation department slowly improved. Songwriter Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken also joined the company, and the music they created for The Little Mermaid helped push that film to the top of the U.S. Box Office. Next on the docket was Beauty and the Beast, and from that point on, the studio and its employees never looked back…

Directed by Don Hahn, Waking Sleeping Beauty takes us behind-the-scenes during this incredibly fruitful period; it’s fun to see footage of guys like Tim Burton and John Lasseter early in their careers, and at times we even witness history in the making (like the sequence where Howard Ashman acts out, mostly with his hands, the musical number that would become “Under the Sea”, arguably the most entertaining tune in The Little Mermaid). But what Waking Sleeping Beauty does best is recapture the thrill of it all, bringing us along on an unprecedented journey of creativity that helped save Disney’s animation unit, not to mention the company’s cinematic reputation. Through interviews playing underneath archival footage, we hear from those who were there, all of whom reveal, in amazing detail, how magical an era it truly was.

Toy Story. The Nightmare Before Christmas. Computer animation (though it was deemed a failure, The Rescuers Down Under was the studio’s first foray into digital animation); these, and many other innovations sprang from this team, this period, and this studio, and even though it was all over by 1994 (Soon after the release of The Lion King, Katzenberg, feeling left out in the cold when he wasn’t named President following the untimely death of Frank Wells, resigned from Disney and, together with Steven Spielberg, formed Dreamworks), what they had accomplished will live on forever.

It was Alexander Payne who said in the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession that “You just never know when you're living in a golden age”. Well, the men and women who contributed to Disney’s success during these years knew it, and that makes what they achieved all the more impressive.

Friday, November 27, 2015

#1,929. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)

Directed By: Tom Shadyac

Starring: Jim Carrey, Courteney Cox, Sean Young

Tag line: "He's the best there is! (Actually, he's the only one there is.)"

Trivia: Carrie-Anne Moss and Téa Leoni were considered for the role of Melissa Robinson

The opening scene of 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective tells you everything you need to know about the movie. In it, the title character, posing as a delivery man, is shaking, dropping, kicking, and otherwise mishandling a package clearly marked “Fragile” (with each step he takes, you hear the broken glass rattling around inside). It’s a familiar joke, done before in a number of screen comedies, yet star Jim Carrey’s exaggerated mannerisms (from his bizarre walk to the way he contorts his face) brings a fresh energy to it. Without Carrey, this would have been a tired old routine. With him, it’s pretty damn funny.

Carrey is Ace Ventura, a private detective who specializes in finding lost or stolen animals (“I don’t do people”, he says at one point). His approach to his job is… shall we say… unusual, and over time he’s managed to piss off the entire Miami police force, especially Lt. Lois Einhorn (Sean Young), who’s barred him from the station. Still, Ventura’s unique skills make him the perfect person to investigate the recent kidnapping of Snowflake the dolphin, the mascot for the Miami Dolphins football team, which is days away from playing in the Super Bowl. Hired by the team’s chief publicist, Melissa Robinson (Courtney Cox), Ventura discovers that the kidnapper was most likely a former player, one who was part of the team that won the AFC Championship in 1984, only to lose the Super Bowl by a single point when kicker Ray Finkle blew a last-second field goal. The case intensifies when Miami’s star quarterback, Dan Marino (playing himself), is also kidnapped, and right before the big game. Are the Dolphins destined to lose yet another Super Bowl, or will Ace Ventura save the day?

Story-wise, there’s not a lot to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and the supporting cast is woefully underdeveloped; Courtney Cox’s character, Melissa Robinson, is reduced to a sidekick / love interest, standing in the background of practically every scene. And while I thought rapper Tone Lōc was an interesting choice to play Emelio, Ace’s only friend on the force, he’s given nothing to do. The sole standout, in fact, is Sean Young as the belligerent police Lieutenant, the lone supporting character with a few memorable scenes of her own.

But then, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is Carrey’s show, and it’s his strange behavior throughout that gives the film its vitality. After rising to stardom as part of the cast of In Living Color, a TV sketch comedy (a la Saturday Night Live) that was a hit for the Fox Network in the early ‘90s, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was Carrey’s first lead role in a motion picture, and he did his best to make it an unforgettable one. In what might be the film’s funniest sequence, Ventura poses as a crazy person (in a tutu) in order to infiltrate a mental hospital, which houses some records that are vital to the case (the scene where he meets the facility’s director, played by David Margulies, reveals just how talented a physical comedian Carrey can be). Even moments that seem entirely out of place are a source of laughter; while checking out the empty tank that housed Snowflake the dolphin, Carrey imitates several Star Trek characters (his Captain Kirk is spot-on), at times getting as close to the camera as he possibly can. These impersonations don’t really belong in the movie, and are nothing more than Jim Carrey showing off yet another of his talents, but they’re hilarious all the same.

Jim Carrey would go on to make better films (The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and better comedies (Dumb and Dumber, The Cable Guy), but if it’s mindless fun you’re after, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is a sure bet.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

#1,928. Learning Hebrew (A Gothsploitation Movie) (2013)

Directed By: Louis Joon

Starring: Zoe Dorman, Dave Disaster, Frederick William Park

Tag line: "If you could e-mail the dead"

Trivia: In The UK, this film had the alternate title Atheist Killer Goths

I love movies that bring something fresh to the table, which is exactly what director Louis Joon’s Learning Hebrew does. Subtitled A Gothsploitation Movie (making it the first of its kind), Learning Hebrew takes shots at religion, war, and philosophy, doing so in a smart, often abrasive manner that hits you like a punch to the gut. And while it may, at times, be a bit confusing, this 2013 film is guaranteed to hold your attention from start to finish.

The lead character / narrator of Learning Hebrew is Bella (Zoe Dorman), an atheistic gothgirl who, along with her best friend / bodyguard StudD (Dave Disaster), pushes Darwinism door-to-door. Among those in her inner circle (aside from StudD) are Magdalena (Annie Ososova), a goth who may not share Bella’s hatred of all things religious; and Pilot (played by director Louis Joon), an Iraqi war veteran whose PTSD is so severe that it’s got him believing he’s Pontius Pilot, the Roman Governor of Judea during the time of Christ. To make matters worse, Bella’s former guardian, Miss Jon (Frederick William Park), a transvestite who raised her from the time she was a little girl, is trying desperately to convince Bella to return home, something the pretty young Goth has thus far refused to do.

Throw in a vagrant / philosopher named Phil (Mike Barrington), who may be more than he seems, and a couple of violent militants (Glenn Walbridge and Emma Joon Dyer) calling themselves the Atheist Revolutionary Army, and you have one of the most unusual collection of characters you’re likely to ever come across.

Stylish and uncompromising, Learning Hebrew crams a lot into its 65-minute run time, including:

1. A direct assault on organized religion (Bella and her friends read books like “The God Delusion”, and the Atheist Revolutionary Army, in its attempt to enlighten the world, blows up a series of subway trains)

2. Flashbacks to the Gulf War (Pilot, flying an Apache helicopter, is ordered to wipe out a group of civilians) and ancient Roman times (when a thief named Barabbas was put to death)

3. Some well-executed, high-energy club scenes (in one, Phil the vagrant shows off his dancing / light stick skills)

4. Moments of both violence (most of which is directed at Pilot, who', along with being beaten up, is the target of an assassination attempt) and sex (at one point, StudD visits a dominatrix played by Juliana Reed who is willing to do anything and everything to keep her clientele happy).

In addition, Learning Hebrew has an excellent soundtrack, and its occasional nod to the 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius definitely brought a smile to my face.

Filled to its breaking point with Goth / underground references, and featuring diatribes on everything from the existence of God to the true nature of martyrdom, Learning Hebrew is one hell of an intense experience, and a movie that demands to be seen more than once.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

#1,927. Rita (2003)

Directed By: Elaina Archer

Starring: Kim Basinger, Robert Board, Eduardo Cansino

Tag line: "The real story of Hollywood's Love Goddess"

Trivia: Playboy's Hugh Hefner was ane of the Executive Producers of this film

On-screen, Rita Hayworth was a force to be reckoned with, a talented dancer and, thanks to her role in 1946’s Gilda, a femme fatale who would steal your heart, then chew it up and spit it out. She was considered by many the most beautiful actress of her time, and was a favorite of servicemen during World War II (a photo of her in black negligee was a popular pin-up for soldiers serving overseas). Alluring, provocative, sexy… these are a few of the words people used to describe Rita Hayworth, who, in the 1940s and ‘50s, was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

That was her public persona, but as we learn in 2003’s Rita, a documentary produced by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, she was a different person in private; a shy, withdrawn woman who often let the men in her life walk all over her. At the age of 13, she was her father’s dance partner, working several shows a night to help support her family during the depression, and her move to the big screen drew the attention of Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn, who, as punishment for rebuking his sexual advances, assigned Hayworth to a series of small films.

But he couldn’t keep her down for long, and after dancing alongside Gene Kelly in Cover Girl, she got her big break with Gilda, and became a star. She was married several times, though her various husbands, including Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan, could never give her what she truly desired: a stable home and time away from the spotlight. A devoted mother to her two daughters, she continued to make movies through the 1950s and ‘60s, appearing with Frank Sinatra (Pal Joey), Burt Lancaster (Separate Tables), and Gary Cooper (They Came to Cordura), and despite a few more disastrous marriages and a growing alcohol dependency, she pressed on, always ready to make her next big comeback.

Then, in 1980, Hayworth’s life was thrown into chaos when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and those who loved her watched as, over the next seven years, she slowly forgot who they were.

Narrated by Kim Basinger, Rita tells the story of both Rita Hayworths: the public beauty and the private wallflower. Featuring clips from many of her films (like 1948’s The Lady From Shanghai, which she made with soon-to-be ex-husband Orson Welles) and some home movies, as well as interviews with family members (such as daughter Princess Yasmin Khan), friends (like Ann Miller and Tab Hunter, both of whom had worked with her before), and a few admirers (Nicole Kidman speaks highly of Hayworth, who has been an influence on her own career), Rita delves deeply into the starlet’s often tumultuous life, taking us right up to the bitter end.

Informative and heartbreaking, Rita is a biopic as much as it is a tribute to a remarkable artist, and like all good documentaries of this ilk (including Stardust: The Bette Davis Story), you leave with a new respect for its main subject, and a renewed vigor to see as many of her movies as you possibly can.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

#1,926. Nightmare Castle (1965)

Directed By: Mario Caiano

Starring: Barbara Steele, Paul Muller, Helga Liné

Tag line: "So weird! ...So shocking! Do YOU dare see it!"

Trivia: The director's father Carlo was the producer of the film

Written and directed by Mario Cauiano, 1965’s Nightmare Castle would have been your standard, run-of-the-mill gothic horror tale had it not been for the presence of Barbara Steele. An actress with the uncanny ability to look both radiant and frightening at the same time, Steele made a name for herself in the early ‘60s by appearing in such films such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum. And in Nightmare Castle, we get two Barbara Steeles for the price of one!

To punish his unfaithful wife Miriam (Steele), scientist Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Peter Muller) ties both her and her lover, David (Rik Battaglia), up in the basement of their spacious mansion, torturing the two before finally finishing them off. Prior to her death, however, the wealthy Miriam informs Stephen that she altered her last will and testament, cutting him out completely and leaving her fortune to her estranged stepsister Jenny (Steele again), who, for years, has been residing in a mental institution. Eager to get his hands on the money, Stephen seduces Jenny and, before long, makes her the new Mrs. Arrowsmith. Then, aided by his maid Solange (Helga Line), he tries to break his new wife’s delicate psyche, convincing her that Miriam’s ghost is attempting to contact her. Hoping to have her declared insane, Stephen invites Jenny’s her longtime doctor, Derek Joyce (Marino Mase), to spend the weekend with them. But is Jenny truly losing her mind, or does the spirit of Miriam actually wander the hallways, waiting for an opportunity to strike back at her gold digging husband?

Much like she did in Black Sunday, Steele plays two separate characters in Nightmare Castle: the heavy (the adulterous Miriam) and the innocent victim (Jenny). What’s more, she’s excellent in both roles, perfectly conveying the passion and hatred of Miriam (despite being close to death, she has a smile on her face when telling Stephen she’s cut him out of her will) and the confusion, as well as the fear, that grips Jenny the moment she sets foot in her new home (her first night there, she has a terrifying encounter with what she believes is Miriam’s ghost). The remaining cast is also effective, especially Paul Muller as the sly Stephen, but Nightmare Castle comes alive whenever Steele is on-screen, and loses some of its pizazz when she isn’t.

Like many of these early gothic films, the set itself (i.e. the mansion) is a very important piece of the puzzle, as is the lighting and director’s use of shadows (all of which come into play late in the movie). And while the story itself is nothing new (conniving husband resorting to murder, then trickery to gain access to a large sum of money), these elements, along with Barbara Steele’s exceptional performance, help make Nightmare Castle an above-average horror flick.