Saturday, April 25, 2015

#1,713. Pure 80's (2002)

Directed By: Various

Starring: The Buggles, ABC, Tears for Fears

Tag line: "14 Stylish Videos from the Decade of Excess"

Trivia: The music video for The Buggles' song "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first ever to be broadcast on cable network Mtv when the channel premiered in August of 1981

August 1, 1981. That was the day that Mtv, aka Music Television, debuted in America. As luck would have it, ‘81 was also the year my family finally got cable TV, and while I wasn’t around to witness the opening moments of Mtv, I did tune in (for the first time) a few days later. I can’t remember which music video was the first I ever saw, but I’m pretty sure it was either Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” or The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which was first, because I wound up seeing both of them dozens of times over the next few months, as well as videos for Robert Palmer’s “Looking for Clues”; “One Step Beyond” by Madness; David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”; and dozens of others. For a fair portion of the ‘80s, Mtv was a major force in my life; the moment I got home from school, I’d run upstairs to the television in the spare bedroom and turn on Mtv, which I then watched for hours on end. With “VeeJays” Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn introducing the videos and, on occasion, delivering the latest music news, I learned everything I needed to know about ‘80s music watching Mtv, and even today, when I hear a song from that era on the radio, the images from its video immediately dance through my head.

Pure ‘80s is, as the DVD cover says, a collection of “14 stylish videos from the decade of excess”. Interestingly enough, the first video presented in Pure 80’s was also the first ever broadcast on Mtv: “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles, a fun bit of ‘80s cheese drenched in silver, with a slew of bizarre moments (I never got why the woman / angel was stuck in a tube). Some of the videos have a comedic bent, like ABC’s “The Look of Love” (at one point, a band member seems to be painting a woman’s breast. When the girl steps forward, we see he’s actually several feet away from her, painting a sign), while others set out to tell a story. Who can forget Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, a short horror-themed film directed by John Landis that had Jackson portraying both a werewolf and a zombie? Well, “Thriller” isn’t included in Pure 80’s, but the video for “No More Words”, a tune by the group Berlin, is (set in the 1930s, “No More Words” has the band members portraying Bonnie and Clyde-style criminals, holding up banks in what appears the be the American Midwest). BTW, as a side note, some of the cinema’s best directors helmed music videos, including Sam Peckinpah (Julian Lennon’s “Too Late for Goodbyes”), Martin Scorsese (Michael Jackson’s “Bad”), and David Fincher (Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love”). Remember the video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancin’ in the Dark”, one of the many hits off his Born in the U.S.A. album? Most of you probably know that the “fan” he invited on-stage at the end was a young Courtney Cox (Scream), but did you know it was also directed by Mr. Brian De Palma (Carrie, Sisters)?

Watching the various videos in Pure 80’s (which also features “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger, and “Heat of the Moment” by Asia, among others) took me back to the early days of Mtv, when music and moving images merged to create something unique. And thanks to compilations like Pure 80’s, these wonderful music videos will live forever.

Friday, April 24, 2015

#1,712. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Directed By: James Algar, Clyde Geronimi

Starring: Bing Crosby, Basil Rathbone, Eric Blore

Tag line: "Two Tall Tales by the world's top story-tellers in one hilarious All-Cartoon Feature!"

Trivia: Brom Bones later became the inspiration for the character of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a 1949 animated Disney anthology featuring two short films: an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Wind in the Willows and a telling of Washington Irving’s classic story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Narrated by Basil Rathbone, The Wind in the Willows segment introduces us to J. Thaddeus Toad (voiced by Eric Blore), a wealthy eccentric whose wild ways have pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy. The situation is so dire, in fact, that his friend Angus MacBadger (Campbell Grant), who’s attempting to put Toad’s accounts in order, fears he may lose Toad Hall, the spacious estate that’s been in his family for generations. With the help of Rat (Claude Allister) and Mole (Colin Campbell), McaBadger tries to subdue the out-of-control Toad, who, along with his new horse Cyril Proudbottom (J. Pat O’Malley), is tearing up the countryside. Things go from bad to worse when Toad is arrested for stealing a motor car. During his trial, Toad (representing himself) sets out to prove that a pack of shifty weasels actually stole the car, which he then bought from them (having no cash, he instead signed the deed to Toad Hall over to the weasels). In spite of the evidence, Toad is found guilty and sentenced to many years in prison, but Rat, Mole, and Cyril refuse to take this injustice lying down, and hatch a scheme to both spring their friend from jail and, if possible, win back Toad Hall form the weasels.

Next up is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, as told by Bing Crosby (who sings a few songs along the way). Teacher Ichabod Crane rides into the small New England town of Sleepy Hollow, where he’s to serve as the schoolmaster. Shortly after his arrival, he meets Katrina van Tassel, the beautiful daughter of a rich landowner, with whom he immediately falls in love. This incites the wrath of local bully Brom Bones, who also has a thing for Katrina. During a Halloween party thrown by the van Tassels, Bones tries to frighten his romantic rival by telling him the story of the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a soldier that rises from the grave every Halloween to search for a new head. After the party, as the overly-superstitious Ichabod is on his way home, he encounters the dreaded Horseman, who pursues the schoolteacher through the dark woods, determined to make him his latest victim.

Though I’d never seen the movie before, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad wasn’t an entirely new experience for me; years ago, I was able to check out The Legend of Sleepy Hollow when it played on TV. That said, I was very impressed by Disney’s take on The Wind in the Willows, which is a lively tale with likable characters and a few exciting situations (a late sequence, where the four friends try to get the deed back from the weasels, is a lot of fun). The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand, doesn’t hold up quite as well. The middle portion of the short drags terribly, and not even the smooth sounds of Bing Crosby singing tunes like “The Headless Horseman” ("Now, ghosts are bad, but the one that's cursed is the Headless Horseman, he's the worst") can save it. The moment Ichabod Crane rides into that forest at night, however, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow springs to life in a big way, providing more thrills (and scares) than we’re used to seeing in a Disney film. This sequence alone makes The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad a worthwhile experience, but combine it with the breezy entertainment of The Wind in the Willows and you have a lesser-known Disney effort that deserves a much wider audience.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

#1,711. Starry Eyes (2014)

Directed By: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Starring: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan

Tag line: "She would kill to be famous"

Trivia: Nick Simmons, who plays Ginko in the film, is the son of Gene Simmons from the band KISS

How far would you go to make your wildest dreams come true? What would you be willing to sacrifice? Anything? Everything? These are the questions that Sarah (Alex Essoe), a struggling actress trying to make a name for herself in L.A., must answer. You see, someone has just presented her with the opportunity of a lifetime, but before she can snatch it up she’s gonna have to do a little soul searching. And depending on which direction she goes, it may be the last time Sarah has a soul to search.

Like thousands of young women looking to break into movies, Sarah can’t get her foot in the door. She spends her days working at a quirky restaurant (in a uniform that’s skin-tight), then dedicates her free time to furthering her “career”, going from one audition to another and sending her resume and headshot to every producer in town. One day, she gets a call to read for a part in a new horror film titled The Silent Scream, a movie being produced by Astraeus Pictures, which, over the years, has turned its share of young hopefuls into stars. But after pouring her heart into the audition, the casting director (Maria Olsen) and her associate (Marc Senter) send Sarah on her way with a dismissive “We’ll get back to you”. Believing she blew it, Sarah runs to the restroom and, in a fit of anger (at herself), starts pulling her own hair. What she doesn’t know is that the casting director is just outside the bathroom stall, listening to her tantrum. When Sarah walks out, the casting director immediately brings her back into the office, and all at once, Sarah is the frontrunner for the part. Following another very strange audition, she’s invited to the producer’s house (Louis Dezseran), but when she realizes she’s expected to have sex with him, Sarah decides enough is enough and storms out, ending any chance she has at landing the role.

Her friends, including roommate Tracy (Amanda Fuller) and director wannabe Danny (Noah Segan), tell Sarah that she did the right thing, and that her dignity is more important than any role, no matter how big it might be. Even the overly-competitive Erin (Fabianne Therese), who undermines Sarah’s confidence every chance she gets, is behind her on this one. Her dreams shattered, Sarah agrees to play a role in a movie that Danny is making on his own, one that will also feature Tracy, Erin, and the rest of their friends. Yet through it all, Sarah can’t shake the feeling that she might have made a mistake. Maybe she should have given in and let the producer have his way with her. If that’s what it takes to make it big in Hollywood, why not? After all, isn’t fame and fortune the ultimate goal? Isn’t that what everyone wants? What Sarah does next will change her life in ways she never imagined.

Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, Starry Eyes feels a lot like a David Lynch film, especially the scenes where Sarah is “auditioning” for the lead role in The Silent Scream (her first callback, where she enters the room and, with a spotlight trained on her, is told to disrobe, had a vibe reminiscent of Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.). Such moments are further enhanced by Alex Essoe, whose performance strikes the perfect balance between ambition and despair. After rejecting the producer’s sexual advances, Sarah finds herself back among her friends. Yet, for some reason, she sees them in a much different light this time around. Before, Tracy, Danny, and the others used to act as Sarah’s support group, picking her up when she fell and offering the words of encouragement she desperately needed. Having come so close to achieving the success the rest of them could only dream of, Sarah suddenly views them all as anchors weighing her down, life’s losers spinning their wheels on the road to nowhere. Not wanting to end up like Tracy and the rest, Sarah knows what she has to do, and the remainder of Starry Eyes shows us the consequences of her actions. While we don’t always agree with Sarah’s decisions, Ms. Essoe’s stunning performance ensures that, at the very least, we understand why she made them in the first place.

As much as exposé of the Hollywood star system as it is the story of one girl’s quest for fame, Starry Eyes features a number of disturbing scenes, most of which occur late in the movie, after Sarah has decided what course of action she’s going to take. It’s in these moments that the film’s true horror shines through, shaking us to our core as we watch Sarah deal with a bizarre turn of events. Combining practical effects with often shocking imagery, Starry Eyes is a terrifying glimpse into an actress’s psyche, not to mention one hell of a potent horror movie.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

#1,710. Black Dynamite (2009)

Directed By: Scott Sanders

Starring: Michael Jai White, Salli Richardson, Byron Minns

Tag line: "He's a powder keg of black fury that's about to explode!"

Trivia: Michael Jai White first had the idea for the movie while filming Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing in Bulgaria

He’s a powder keg of black fury that’s about to explode!” cries the tagline for 2009’s Black Dynamite, an action / comedy that takes aim at ‘70s blaxploitation films, and with Michael Jai White in the title role, Black Dynamite does explode in just about every scene (and believe me, you do not want to be in his way when he does).

When his brother Jimmy (Baron Vaughn) is killed by “the man”, Black Dynamite (White), a former Vietnam vet / CIA agent who’s also an expert at kung fu, vows to track down those responsible and make them pay. As the clues build up, Black Dynamite discovers that Jimmy’s death was linked to a new drug called “smack”, which is sending kids (including orphans) to the hospital. Joining forces with a group of militants led by Saheed (Phil Morris) and aided by his soul brothers Bullhorn (Byron Minns) and Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson), Black Dynamite takes the fight to the streets, facing off against pimps, gangsters, martial arts masters and corrupt politicians, all the while cozying up to a fine fox named Gloria Gray (Salli Richardson). Before long, Black Dynamite and his friends have cleaned up the neighborhood, but a covert operation known as “Code Kansas” soon rears its ugly head. What is “Code Kansas”, and how will it affect the black community? If anybody can find the answers to these questions, it’s Black Dynamite!

Shot on Super 16mm film stock, Black Dynamite looks like the movies it’s satirizing (right down to their over-saturated colors). What’s more, the film pokes fun at the low production values that plagued the era’s blaxploitation offerings, with boom mics making their way into the shot and cameras going out of focus at exactly the wrong time. Many of the staged goofs are hilarious, like the rear projection we see through the car windows as Black Dynamite gives chase to Chicago Wind (Mykelti Williamson), or the “roaming teardrop” on the cheek of Honey Bee (Kym Whitley) that appears and disappears continuously throughout the scene. As for the acting, Michael Jai White is as boisterous as he can be, delivering each line as if it was the most important one in the film. More often than not, his over-the-top mannerisms will have you laughing out loud; the scene where he’s telling his wartime buddy, CIA agent O’Leary (Kevin Chapman), about his most traumatic experience in Vietnam is as good as it gets. As for the supporting cast, Byron Minns does a great Dolemite impression, and both Phil Morris and Tommy Davidson have their moments as they help Black Dynamite take down the city’s drug lords. And keep an eye out for Arsenio Hall, who makes a brief but very funny appearance as a pimp named Tasty Freeze.

In addition to its comedic moments, Black Dynamite is also a fine action film, thanks in no small part to star Michael Jai White’s martial arts expertise (he holds black belts in seven different styles). As fun as some of the shootouts are, it’s the hand-to-hand skirmishes between White and the bad guys that’ll keep you in stitches (an early scene where he’s “practicing” his kung-fu with a few Asian pals is a definite highlight). This, along with its barrage of sidesplitting sequences, makes Black Dynamite a movie you won’t want to miss. See it once, and then immediately see it again.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

#1,709. The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Directed By: George Marshall

Starring: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson

Tag line: "The two stars of The Cat and the Canary find love and laughter in a haunted house!"

Trivia: Bob Hope is said to have enjoyed this role since it was a total change of pace for him. In most of his films he portrays a coward while, in this one, he is heroic

A year after they made The Cat and the Canary, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard reunited for the horror / comedy The Ghost Breakers, and while the laughs are as plentiful here as they were in the earlier film, the horror elements are even more intense this time around, resulting in a movie that, on occasion, is more frightening than it is funny.

New York socialite Mary Carter (Goddard) has just inherited the “Castillo Maltido”, a spacious mansion on a remote island off the coast of Cuba that’s been in her family for generations. Ignoring the warnings of the Cuban solicitor, Mr. Parada (Paul Lukas), who tells her the old estate is haunted, Mary books passage on a ship bound for Cuba to check it out for herself. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, radio personality Lawrence “Larry” Lawrence (Hope) is up to his usual tricks, revealing all the secrets of the city’s organized crime syndicate to his loyal listeners. Alas, his latest story has hit a bit too close to home for mob boss Frenchy Duval (Paul Fix), who tells Lawrence he got it all wrong and asks him to swing by his hotel suite so that he can “give it to him straight”.

Believing there’s going to be trouble, Lawrence’s valet, Alex (Willie Best), hands his boss a gun just before he enters the hotel, but as Larry approaches Frenchy’s room, shots ring out behind him (a showdown between Mr. Parada and a Cuban informant named Meredes, played by none other than Anthony Quinn, that somehow relates to the Castillo Maltido). Out of fear, Larry fires his gun, and in the confusion thinks he’s the one who shot Meredes dead (it was actually Parada). In a panic, he seeks shelter in the first suite he happens upon, which, as luck would have it, belongs to Mary Carter! Convinced of his innocence, she agrees to hide Larry from the police. Not taking any chances, Larry climbs into the only place the cops won’t search: a large trunk Mary is packing for her trip to Cuba. Sure enough, Larry evades the police, but before anyone knows what’s happened, the trunk is taken from the room and loaded onto the ship. With Larry and Alex on board, the boat leaves dock, and during the long trip to Cuba Mary tells Larry all about her inheritance, and how she feels someone is trying to scare her away from it. So, Larry agrees to accompany her to the Castillo Maltido, but are the rumors that ghosts reside there simply tall tales to frighten visitors, or do Mary’s ancestors haunt the halls of her new estate, bringing death to those who venture inside?

Early on, The Ghost Breakers puts the emphasis squarely on comedy, with Hope’s “Larry” Lawrence tossing out a slew of one-liners, most of which hit their mark (when Mary first meets him, she has a hard time believing his name is Lawrence Lawrence. “My middle name is Lawrence, too”, he replies. “My folks had no imagination”). Once they’re on the boat, however, the movie shifts gears and becomes an intriguing mystery, with Mary being hounded by an unknown person intent on keeping her from her inheritance (after a day out with Larry, she returns to her room and finds a sinister voodoo trinket stuck to her door). But where The Ghost Breakers truly excels is in its final act, during which Larry and Alex, along with Mary and her friend Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson), who she ran into on the boat, make their way to the small island where the Castillo Maltido is located. Aside from the various spirits that haunt the old place (we actually meet one of them), the group also must contend with a voodoo priestess (Virginia Brissac) and her zombie son (Noble Johnson, looking pretty damn creepy), both of whom live nearby. Aided by the impressive set pieces, including a tomb where many of Mary’s relatives are preserved under glass, these scenes are sure to have you poised on the edge of your seat.

Not all of the humor translates well to modern times; Larry’s valet, Alex, played by black actor Wilie Best, is occasionally the butt of jokes that today seem a lot more insensitive than they did in 1940 (when the lights in Larry’s hotel room are knocked out by an electrical storm, he calls for Alex, only to find he’s standing right next to him in the darkness. “You look like a blackout in a blackout”, Larry snorts, adding “If this keeps up, I’ll have to paint you white”). These unfortunate moments aside, The Ghost Breakers is a funny, spooky flick that, more often than not, will have you laughing while you’re covering your eyes.

Monday, April 20, 2015

#1,708. Mabel's Wilful Way (1915)

Directed By: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Mack Sennett

Starring: Mabel Normand, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Edgar Kennedy

Trivia: This movie was shot on-location in Oakland's Idora Park

Filmmaker Mack Sennett (who, if the Internet Movie Database is to be believed, produced 1,115 movies, mostly shorts, between the years 1911 and 1949) was responsible for giving a number of the silent era’s most notable screen comics, such as Marie Dressler (Dinner at Eight), Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!), W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick), and even the great Charlie Chaplin (City Lights), their first big break. Nicknamed “The King of Comedy”, Sennett is considered the founding father of slapstick, a comedy style prevalent in many of his earliest shorts, including Mabel’s Wilful Way, a 1915 movie he co-directed along with its two stars, Mabel Norman and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (both of whom were also “discovered” by Sennett).

While having lunch at a posh restaurant with her parents (Glen Cavender and Alice Davenport), Mabel (Normand) grows weary of the ambiance and decides to sneak away. Stumbling upon an amusement park, she crosses paths with Fatty (Arbuckle), who, along with his pal (Edgar Kennedy), is enjoying a nice day out. After spotting the pretty Mabel, the friends argue over which of them will act as her escort for the afternoon (with Fatty winning out in the end). While this is going on, Mabel’s parents, realizing she’s gone, begin a frantic search for her, and in the process have their own memorable “encounters” with their daughter’s two gentleman suitors!

Shot on-location at Oakland’s Idora Park, an outdoor amusement park that, at the time, was considered the finest in the San Francisco Bay area, Mabel’s Wilful Way features plenty of slapstick comedy, ranging from a fight between Mabel’s father and Edgar Kennedy (which spills onto a Merry-Go-Round) to a scene in which Fatty, having lost control at the bottom of a humongous sliding board, inadvertently pushes a pie into the face of a policeman (played by Joe Bordeaux). As with many of Sennett’s Keystone comedies (named after the studio he himself founded in 1912), the humor in Mabel’s Wilful Way is broad, perhaps a bit too broad for modern audiences. But if you’re at all interested in the early days of screen comedy, then Mack Sennett should be one of your first stops, and Mabel’s Wilful Way is as good a place as any to start.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

#1,707. Dames (1934)

Directed By: Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley

Starring: Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler

Line from the film: "I'm free, white, and 21. I love to dance AND I'm going to dance"

Trivia: Jean Rogers, who later played Dale Arden, Flash Gordon's girlfriend in 30s serials, is a member of this film's chorus

It takes a while for 1934’s Dames to get down to business. But once it does, this Busby Berkeley musical is guaranteed to “wow” you.

Horace P. Hemingway (Hugh Herbert) and his wife Mathilda (Zasu Pitts) stand to inherit $10 million dollars from Mathilda’s peculiar cousin, Ezra Ounce (Guy Kibbee). But before he agrees to turn it over to them, the couple, as well as their daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler), must prove to Ezra that they are morally upright. This won’t be a problem for Mathilda, who leads a quiet, unassuming life. However, things get a bit dicier when it comes to the remaining members of the Hemingway clan. Barbara has fallen in love with song and dance man Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell), a distant cousin who Ezra considers the “black sheep” of the family; while Horace had an unfortunate (albeit innocent) run-in with showgirl Mabel Anderson (Joan Blondell) on a train. In an effort to secure the cash needed to stage Jimmy’s newest musical, Mabel blackmails Horace, threatening to tell Mathilda and cousin Ezra about their railway “experience” if he doesn’t cough up $20,000. Once he has the money, Jimmy is able to make his Broadway dreams come true. But will cousin Ezra’s moral crusade ruin his opening night?

The first hour or so of Dames is dedicated to both cousin Ezra’s “inspection” of the Hemingways (to ensure they’re worthy, Ezra moves in with them for a month) and the budding romance between Jimmy and Barbara. While these two tales have their moments (the scenes with Jimmy are particularly entertaining thanks to Powell’s charismatic performance), neither are as good as the framing stories of either 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933, a pair of earlier Berkeley efforts that, for the most part, put the focus squarely on the Broadway experience. The cast of Dames does what it can to keep things moving along, but after a while I was ready for the comedy / romance to end, and for the music to begin.

The movie comes alive in a big way during its last act, which takes us to the opening night of Jimmy’s show. All three of the featured musical numbers are superb, each enhanced by Berkeley’s unique vision. The first song, “The Girl at the Ironing Board”, has Joan Blondell working at a laundromat and dancing with various men’s garments that spring to life while hanging on a clothesline. Next, we’re treated to what is undoubtedly the movie’s finest sequence: “I Only Have Eyes for You”, which sees Keeler and Powell riding a subway car to the end of the line. Some of the routines Berkeley created for this scene rival his best work, including the title number for 42nd Street and the “Forgotten Man” sequence of Gold Diggers of 1933. Things wrap up nicely with “Dames”, which features a handful of clever camera tricks. This final half hour of Dames makes up for the 60+ minutes of mediocrity that preceded it, bringing the film to a very satisfying end.