Sunday, May 24, 2015

#1,742. The Cathedral (2002)

Directed By: Tomasz Baginski

Starring: Jola Rzebuska, Maria Kucharska, Marcin Jaskowski

Trivia: The film won the the award for Best Animated Short at Siggraph 2002 in San Antonio

A while back, I sang the praises of Ryan, a 2004 short film by Chris Landreth, which blew me away with its imagery and style. The Cathedral, an award-winning 2002 animated short written and directed by Tomasz Baginski, falls into this same category. A wondrous blend of science fiction and fantasy, The Cathedral is a visual tour de force.

Story-wise, there isn’t much to it: In the dark of night, a lone explorer enters an abandoned Gothic Cathedral, which seemingly springs to life as he makes his way around it. But it’s the manner in which it presents this simple tale that gives The Cathedral its singular flavor, employing images that are both picturesque and haunting. As if they were in hiding, the statues scattered throughout the Cathedral show signs of life only after the lead passes them by, some opening their eyes, others smiling slyly, like they know something the explorer does not. Sure enough, when daylight arrives, the building finally reveals its true nature in what proves to be a surprising finale.

Whereas the extraordinary visuals in Ryan gave shape (for want of a better term) to its characters, thus enhancing their personalities, writer / director Tomasz Baginski pours his energy into creating an entire world, one so vibrant and rich that we wish we had more time to discover its various nuances. Bold and beautiful, The Cathedral is a unique work of art.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

#1,741. Mondo Cane (1962)

Directed By: Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, Gualtiero Jacopetti

Starring: Rossano Brazzi, Yves Klein, Stefano Sibaldi

Tag line: "Never Never Never A Motion Picture Like It"

Trivia: Was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 15th Cannes Film Festival, losing to the Brazilian drama The Payer of Promises

An exploitation film posing as a documentary, 1962’s Mondo Cane was an international hit, spawning a number of similarly-themed films made by the same directors (Africa Blood and Guts, Goodbye Uncle Tom) and inspiring a few others (supposedly, it was a big influence on the Faces of Death series). And while the movie does have something to say about the world we live in, the ultimate goal of Mondo Cane is to shock and disgust, which, on occasion, it does quite well.

Shot on-location in Europe, Asia, America, Australia, and places in-between, Mondo Cane is a veritable barrage of random sequences, some funny (in Hamburg, Germany, we watch as drunks stumble out of a beer hall), some sad (we join a funeral already in-progress at a Los Angeles area pet cemetery), and some incredibly bizarre (off the coast on New Guinea lies Kiriwina Island, where, apparently, its customary for gangs of topless women to chase down every man they encounter). Exploring how different cultures handle birth, love, feasting, and death, Mondo Cane brings the entire world into focus, and more often than not, it isn’t a pretty sight.

Despite being a documentary, some of the scenes in Mondo Cane were clearly staged, including one that features Italian actor Rossano Brazzi (while sitting in a department store in New York City, he’s accosted by at least 3 dozen women who, in a fit of passion, tear his shirt to shreds). Such fabrications aside, Mondo Cane goes to great lengths to show us that truth is often stranger than fiction. Some scenes are mildly entertaining, like the spa in Japan where scantily-clad ladies pamper executives who had a bit too much to drink the night before, while others will hit you over the head with their barbarity (along with a segment in Portugal where several men are gorged during a running of the bulls, there’s a particularly horrific segment shot in New Guinea, where a tribe ends its fasting period by killing hundreds of pigs and cooking them over makeshift fire pits. Animal lovers beware: the filmmakers don’t shy away from showing the slaughter, which is carried out with wooden clubs).

Mondo Cane does occasionally attempt to draw parallels between the various cultures, showing how men and women from all corners of the globe are basically the same (a scene in Tabar, New Guinea in which two women in a cage are being fattened up before they marry the local dictator, is immediately followed by a trip to an L.A. gym, where women do what they can to look appealing to the opposite sex). But those seeking a deep, meaningful dissertation on the human experience would be better suited looking elsewhere. At its core, Mondo Cane is pure exploitation. Anything else is gravy.

Friday, May 22, 2015

#1,740. Little Caesar (1931)

Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell

Line from this film: "I don't want no dancin'... I figure in makin' other people dance"

Trivia: Warner Brothers' head of production, Darryl F. Zanuck, decided to make this film after one of his close friends was killed by a bootlegger

Though not the first American gangster movie ever made (most agree that honor belongs to D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley), Little Caesar kicked off a series of films that focused on the anti-hero, a criminal whose fearlessness and fortitude carried him to the top, making him king of the underworld. Usually lumped together with The Public Enemy (released later that same year) and Scarface (1932), Little Caesar made a lot of people sit up and take notice, and not everyone liked what they were seeing.

Two petty hoods, Cesare Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), tired of working in the sticks for chump change, head to the city, where they hope to make a name for themselves. For Massara, that means leaving the criminal life behind and becoming a professional dancer. Paired with the lovely Olga (Glenda Farrell), Joe headlines at a posh nightclub, and before long is a big star. As for his pal, Cesare Enrico (who likes to be called “Rico” for short), he wants one thing and one thing only: power! Starting out as the muscle in a gang headed by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), Rico’s blinding ambition and tough-as-nails mentality (as well as his knack for knocking off the competition) helps him rise through the ranks. But along with the power comes notoriety, and before long police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson), who’s sworn to take down the city’s criminal element, comes gunning for Rico. Will the pugnacious hood remain on top, or is this the end of Cesare Enrico Bandello?

Aside from initiating the Hollywood gangster craze, Little Caesar is the film that made Edward G. Robinson a star. A diminutive actor hailing from Bucharest, Romania, Robinson brought a calculated determination, as well as the feistiness of a rabid dog, to the role of Rico, and in so doing made him the most charismatic character in the entire film (even an actor as experienced as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. seems boring when compared to Robinson’s portrayal of Rico). From the get-go, we know exactly what Rico is after, and never once does he veer from that path. It isn’t even the money he wants; he tells Joe early on that it’s the power he’s after, the knowledge that he’s on top, and people will obey his every command. This is what drives Rico to kill and steal, and watching his meteoric rise is what makes Little Caesar such a fascinating motion picture.

As it was with Cagney in The Public Enemy and Paul Muni in Scarface, Robinson’s performance ensured that the lawless Rico was the focal point of Little Caesar, a fact that didn’t sit well with either the censors or the moral majority (at one point, the American Legion, fearing their influence, threatened to boycott all gangster films). But try as they might to change the tide of public opinion, American audiences connected with these anti-heroes, who used tenacity alone to climb the ladder of success. It didn’t even matter if Johnny Law won out in the end; for a while, Little Caesar’s Rico, The Public Enemy’s Tom Powers, and Scarface’s Tony Camonte were on top of the world looking down on the rest of us, and for audience members still dealing with Great Depression, this taste of victory, however brief, was surely better than what the world was offering them.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

#1,739. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

Directed By: John Harrison

Starring: Deborah Harry, Matthew Lawrence, Christian Slater

Tag line: "Four Ghoulish Fables in One Modern Nightmare"

Trivia: Laurel Productions initially announced a sequel to this film in October 1990, but it never came to fruition

I was a fan of the Tales from the Darkside television series, though admittedly I came to it a bit late (it launched in 1984, but I didn’t start watching until ‘87, at which point it was on its last legs). But even if I’d never seen the show, I’d have wanted to check out 1990’s Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. A horror anthology featuring segments written by Michael McDowell (who penned Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas) and George A. Romero (the Living Dead series), one of which was based on a short story by Stephen King (Creepshow, Pet Sematary), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie already had enough going for it, but throw in makeup effects by Robert Kurtzman (Predator, From Dusk Till Dawn), Howard Berger (Drag Me to Hell, This is the End), and Greg Nicotero (Day of the Dead, Wishmaster), and you have a film sure to pique the interest of most red-blooded genre fans.

Betty (Debbie Harry), a witch living in a posh suburban neighborhood, is preparing a dinner party for eight, and the main course is going to be her paperboy, Timmy (Matthew Lawrence), who she has chained up in a small dungeon that’s adjacent to the kitchen. Hoping to stall his imminent demise, Timmy relates his three favorite stories from the horror-themed book that Betty gave him to pass the time. The first, titled Lot 249, is about a nerdy college student named Bellingham (Steve Buscemi) who’s been cheated out of a fellowship award by classmates Lee (Robert Sedgwick) and Susan (Julianne Moore). An antiquity major, Bellingham takes his revenge by bringing an ancient Egyptian mummy (Michael Deak) to life, then ordering it to kill his two adversaries. But will Bellingham’s neighbor Andy (Christian Slater), who also happens to be Susan’s brother, thwart his plans before they come to fruition? Story #2, aka Cat from Hell, tells the tale of an elderly rich man (William Hickey) who offers a professional assassin (David Johansen) $100,000 to kill the black cat that’s been hanging around his mansion. Yet what at first appears to be an easy hit takes a terrifying turn when the cat starts fighting back. Finally, there’s Lover’s Vow, in which Preston (James Remar), a struggling New York artist, witnesses a murder committed by a gargoyle. Instead of finishing Preston off as well, the gargoyle makes him promise never to tell anyone about what he’s just seen. Preston agrees, and over the course of the next 10 years, his career takes off. What’s more, he marries a beautiful woman named Carola (Rae Dawn Chong), the love of his life and the eventual mother of his two children. For Preston, it’s the realization of all his wildest dreams, but some dreams have a way of turning into nightmares.

With decent performances from both Debbie Harry and Matthew Lawrence, the framing story gets the job done, but it’s the three segments that truly stand out. Aside from featuring a sexy Julianne Moore (in what would be her big-screen debut), Lot 249 (which McDowell adapted from a short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is also a nod to the classic monsters of Universal’s heyday, a reminder that even a mummy can give you the shivers . Written by Romero and based on a work by Stephen King, Cat from Hell is the film’s funniest sequence (thanks in large part to William Hickey, whose over-the-top portrayal of a drug-addicted millionaire had me laughing out loud), but it also has one of the movie’s best special effects, a moment that will have you laughing and cringing all at the same time. And even though the final twist in Lover’s Vow is a tad predictable, it’s still an effectively romantic tale (and the gargoyle is awesome as hell).

With the crisp storytelling of the TV series combined with plenty of R-rated gore, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is the best of both worlds, and that alone is something to celebrate. Whether you’re a fan of the show or not, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is definitely worth a watch.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

#1,738. Revenge of the Creature (1955)

Directed By: Jack Arnold

Starring: John Agar, Lori Nelson, John Bromfield

Tag line: "Weird Monster Escapes! Terror Seizes City!"

Trivia: Reported to be the highest-grossing film of the "Creature" trilogy

I was one of the many people who tuned in to the televised 3-D broadcast of Revenge of the Creature in 1982, which played on a local UHF stations here in Philadelphia (the glasses were the old red-and-blue style, and came courtesy of The Philadelphia Inquirer). Well, the 3-D, as I remember it, was shit; the only time it actually worked was during one of the underwater scenes (when a glob of seaweed floated by), yet the film itself still kept my attention. In fact, I took the glasses off around the halfway point, then watched the movie straight through to the end.

A direct sequel to 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature picks up shortly after the events of that film, with the scientific world all abuzz over the possible existence of a prehistoric sea monster (aka the “Gill Man”). Hoping to make history, Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) of Florida’s Ocean Harbor Oceanarium leads an expedition to the Black Lagoon, where, following a close encounter with the creature, he manages to subdue it. Once back at Ocean Harbor, Joe, aided by animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson), sets to work studying the Gill man in the hopes they’ll be able to communicate with him. During the course of their experiments, Clete falls in love with Helen, but what he doesn’t realize is that the creature also has feeling for her. After escaping from the Oceanarium, the Gill Man begins to stalk Helen, and, before long, kidnap her. With no idea whether she’s alive or dead, Clete searches frantically for Helen, but will he find her in time to save her from a watery grave?

Revenge of the Creature gets things rolling pretty quickly; within the first 10 minutes or so, we’re treated to both the Gill Man (looking every bit as good as he did in the original) and a handful of intense scenes (the most thrilling of which is an underwater fight between the creature & Joe Hayes). From there, the movie barely stops to take a breath, giving us one dramatic sequence after another, including the monster’s escape (during which he turns a car over) and his abduction of Helen (grabbing her while she and Clete enjoy an evening at a seaside restaurant). In addition to the excitement, Revenge of the Creature has some great underwater photography, an impressive cast (along with John Agar, who’s suitably heroic, and the beautiful Lori Nelson, the film marks the screen debut of actor Clint Eastwood, playing an absent-minded scientist), and a finale that’s positively nerve-racking.

While it never quite reaches the level of the iconic original, Revenge of the Creature is both a solid sequel and a ‘10” on the fun meter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

#1,737. 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years (1997)

Directed By: Kevin Burns

Starring: James Coburn, Julie Andrews, Roddy McDowall

Tag line: "Step Inside a Hollywood Dream Factory"

Trivia: The fifty years covered are 1915 through 1965

Director Kevin Burns’ 1997 documentary 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years is a veritable feast for cinephiles; an intensive documentary about one of the major Hollywood studios that, over the course of 2+ hours, shows us how it got so big in the first place.

Narrated by James Coburn, 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years shuttles us back to the beginning, when Hungarian immigrant William Fox, toiling in New York’s garment district, decided to take a chance on the brand-spanking new motion picture industry. Selling everything he owned, Fox opened a chain of theaters, and before long was producing his own movies (his first being Life’s Shop Window in 1914). Hoping to expand, he eventually moved his fledgling company, Fox Films Corp., to the west coast, settling in the up-and-coming town of Hollywood, California. With the help of actress Theda Bara (who, in films like 1917’s Cleopatra and The She-Devil in 1918, gave birth to the Hollywood “Vamp”) and a series of popular westerns (including John Ford’s The Iron Horse), Fox was soon a major force in the industry, and even though he lost the race for introducing sound to movies (Warner Bros. beat him to the punch with 1927’s The Jazz Singer), Fox’s sound-on-film system would become the standard for decades to come (among the earliest pictures to feature this new technology was F.W. Murnau’s brilliant award-winning masterpiece, 1927’s Sunrise).

Soon after the stock market crash of 1929, a nearly bankrupt Fox was forced out of the studio he founded, clearing the way for Darryl Zanuck to take the helm. Merging Fox with his own company, 20th Century Pictures, Zanuck would lead this new powerhouse (aptly named 20th Century Fox) into Hollywood’s Golden age, introducing future stars like Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart to movie audiences (both actors made their feature film debut in 1930’s Up the River) and producing some of John Ford’s most beloved classics (Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley). During World War II, Zanuck, who volunteered with the Signal Corps, instructed his studio to concentrate on flag-waving war films (Winged Victory, Guadalcanal Diary) and lighthearted musicals (most starring Betty Grable, who’d become the most popular pin-up girl for G.I’s serving overseas), which gave Americans hope, and something to smile about, during this difficult time.

Oddly enough, the above only brings us to the halfway point of 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years. And believe it or not, the second half is every bit as extensive, covering the turbulent 1950s, when TV forced movie screens to get bigger (with Fox leading the way with 1953’s The Robe, the first film presented in the Cinemascope widescreen process) and a young starlet named Marilyn Monroe (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch) took Hollywood by storm. From social consciousness (Gentleman’s Agreement, The Snake Pit) to Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals (Oklahoma, The King and I), and from Sci-Fi ( The Fly, The Day the Earth Stood Still) to Elvis Presley (Love Me Tender), 20th Century Fox remained on the cutting edge. Hell, they even found a way to survive the debacle that was the production of 1963’s Cleopatra, which ran years over schedule and millions of dollars over budget. The good times and the bad, the classics and the box office duds, are all there for the taking in this exhaustive, highly informative documentary.

There are brief interviews with some former stars (Roddy McDowall, Debbie Reynolds), but for the most part, 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years is all about the movies, told by way of clips from over a hundred of the studio’s films. This, coupled with Coburn’s narration, makes 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years much more than a history lesson; it’s an homage to Hollywood’s illustrious past, and a celebration of all the cinema has to offer.

Monday, May 18, 2015

#1,736. The Bat (1959)

Directed By: Crane Wilbur

Starring: Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, Gavin Gordon

Tag line: "When it flies, someone dies!"

Trivia: former RKO studio head C. J. Tevlin purchased the remake rights for The Bat from Mary Pickford, who first produced a film adaptation of the play in 1926

A film starring Vincent Price titled The Bat? Surely, it’s a horror movie, right? Actually, no; while there are definitely horror elements scattered throughout, The Bat is a mystery through and through (and a pretty nifty one at that).

John Fleming (Harvey Stephens) has embezzled a million dollars in securities from the bank he himself founded, and while vacationing at his cabin getaway, he offers his friend, Dr. Wells (Price), half of that money in exchange for helping him fake his own death. Meanwhile, famed mystery writer Cornelia van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead) and her assistant, Lizzie Allen (Lenita Lane), who are renting Fleming’s house while he’s away, are being tormented by a masked killer known only as “The Bat”. Wearing a black mask and a glove with razor-sharp claws, The Bat breaks into the Fleming house on a nightly basis, and if the two women can’t figure out who he is or what he wants, odds are they’re going to become his next victims.

It made sense to list Vincent Price as the #1 star of The Bat; by 1959, he’d appeared in House of Wax (1953), The Fly (’58), and a pair of William Castle movies, House of Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both ’59), all of which were fairly popular with audiences. Still, this billing is misleading, because Price’s Dr. Wells is a supporting character (an important one, mind you, but secondary nonetheless). The real star of The Bat is Agnes Moorehead, whose Cornelia van Gorder reminded me of a quirky version of Jessica Fletcher, the author / sleuth played by Angela Lansburty in the ‘80s TV series Murder, She Wrote. Joined at all times by her trusty assistant, Lizzie, Ms. Van Gorder puts her detective skills to the test by trying to solve the mystery of The Bat, trading witty asides with Lizzie as she does so (while reading a newspaper article about the Bat’s latest killing, Lizzie blurts out “It says here that the Bat never leaves no fingerprints”. “That's understandable”, Cornelia replies, “Having no face he probably has no fingers either”). Even in his supporting role, Price manages to shine, bringing a sinister edge to Dr. Wells that rears its ugly head early on (a scene I won’t spoil for you here). But despite the horror icon’s solid performance, it’s Moorehead and Lane who steal this particular show.

The Bat is, at times, downright creepy (especially in the scenes where the killer is inside the house, tormenting Ms. Van Gorder and Lizzie), and with its tale of masked killers and corporate greed, it also proved to be an intriguing mystery, one that, thanks in part to the spirited give-and-take of Moorehead and Lane, you’re sure to enjoy.