Sunday, September 14, 2014

#1,490. Hauntings (1997)

Directed By: Stacy Twilley

Starring: Loyd Auerbach, Robert Baker, Bernyce Barlow

Trivia: Was originally broadcast on The History Channel as an episode of their The Unexplained TV series

Over a year ago, while at a church flea market, I came across the DVD for a TV program titled Hauntings, and ever since then it’s been sitting on a bookshelf in my office, tempting me to pop it into the player. Well, today I finally gave in.

An episode of The Unexplained, a series broadcast on A&E’s The History Channel between 1996 and 2000, Hauntings relates the stories of three supposedly authentic supernatural events. The night that Tom and Linda Brown moved into a small home in East Peoria, IL, they started hearing noises in the basement, as if someone was down there throwing boxes to the ground. Tom went to investigate, yet found nothing unusual. Things grew stranger as the weeks wore on, with doors slamming shut and phantom footsteps making their way across the kitchen floor at night. When Tom spoke with a neighbor of theirs, whose parents built the house, he learned the woman’s father, Stuart Walls, killed himself in the closet of one of the rooms and died before he could utter his final words. According to Rob Conover, a paranormal investigator the Browns called in, Stuart never did leave that house.

Even more terrifying is what happened to Beth Batzel, who, after remarrying, relocated to a home in New Jersey with her husband and 3-year-old-daughter from a previous marriage. Once there, she was tormented by an unknown entity (during a séance, the spirit identified himself as George Baxter, who bought the house in 1872 and wants to be left alone, telling the Batzels “It’s my land, and you get out”). After 4 years of hell, which included threats written on the wall in red lipstick, the Batzels moved to an apartment in Clinton, NJ. Only the haunting didn’t stop. From 1972 to 1985, the family moved 11 times, and in every instance they were plagued by ghosts. Before long, Beth Batzel came to the horrifying conclusion that she was a “magnet”, drawing spirits to her from the other side. Many hauntings revolve around a building, but in her case, she was the one who was haunted.

These two tales, as well as the story of Steve Lee, a single father of three boys whose log cabin may have been built over top of a portal to the spirit world, make up the bulk of Hauntings, which offers authentic photographs and, in a few instances, actual audio and video recordings some believe are proof positive these events were supernatural in nature. To the filmmaker’s credit, they also include expert analysis from those who support the claims of ghostly presences, and those who refute them. Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, doesn’t think spirits are real, calling them the delusions of either “gullible people or dishonest people” and adding, quite emphatically, that “science has no room for ghosts”. Not true, says psychologist Karl Schlotterbeck, who worked with Beth Batzel and came to believe her. He’s absolutely convinced Beth was attracting malevolent spirits (though he concurs science can’t actually prove this theory). By including testimony from both sides, Hauntings does more than just tell a few good ghost stories; it gives us something to think about.

In the end, there’s nothing in Hauntings we haven’t seen before, and odds are it won’t change anyone’s mind. Believers will walk away still believing, and skeptics will continue to doubt. As for me, I believe, but only because I experienced my own brush with the supernatural in a house my wife and I lived in for six years. Mind you, I never actually saw a ghost, yet every now and again, someone or something would make its presence known, as if to tell us it was there... watching….

But that’s a story for another day.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

#1,489. It Happened One Night (1934)

Directed By: Frank Capra

Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly

Tag line: "Two great lovers of the screen in the grandest of romantic comedies"

Trivia: Clark Gable gave his Oscar for It Happened One Night (1934) to a child who admired it, telling him it was the winning of the statue that had mattered, not owning it. The child returned the Oscar to the Gable family after Clark's death

A few days ago, I was watching a video interview with Frank Capra Jr., during which he discussed his father’s 1934 film, It Happened One Night. According to Capra Jr, leading lady Claudette Colbert was less than enthusiastic about the movie, and even told her friends that she thought it was the worst picture she’d ever made. Obviously, the Academy disagreed with her. Not only did It Happened One Night capture the Oscar for Best Picture, but it also won awards for its director (Capra), lead actor (Clark Gable), writer (Robert Riskin), and, yes, Ms. Colbert, who took home the Oscar as that year’s Best Actress. In fact, It Happened One Night was the first movie to win all five of the Academy’s top honors, a feat that wasn’t duplicated until 40+ years later (by 1975’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Watching it today, I can see why voters fell in love with it; It Happened One Night is a charmingly whimsical romance.

As the story begins, wealthy heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) is being held captive aboard a yacht by her father (Walter Connolly), who objects to her recent marriage to famous aviator Westley (Jameson Thomas), and is doing everything he can to keep the newlyweds apart. Determined to see her betrothed, Ellie escapes and heads to the nearest bus station, hopping aboard one bound for New York. It’s here that she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a no-nonsense reporter who, in a drunken stupor, just quit his job with a big city newspaper. Hoping he can still get it back, Peter agrees to accompany Ellie on her journey in exchange for an exclusive on her story. But as their trip drags on, these two traveling companions, who have nothing in common, begin to fall in love with each other.

If Claudette Colbert did indeed have doubts about It Happened One Night, she didn’t let them affect her performance. Her character’s transition from naïve rich girl to love-struck young woman comes across as 100% genuine, and Colbert (who, despite the fact she wears the same outfit through much of the movie, looks radiant) is the reason why. Her co-star, Clark Gable, also shines, playing Peter as a thick-skinned newspaperman who knows how the world works. It’s his fast-thinking that keeps them a step ahead of the detectives hired to find Ellie, and some of his streetwise wisdom even manages to rub off on his pretty companion. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Peter is teaching Ellie the art of hitching a ride, yet fails to wave a single car down. So, Ellie gives it a try, but instead of holding out her thumb, she lifts her skirt and shows a little leg, at which point a car screeches to a halt.

As for Capra, he injects enough warmth and humanity into these characters to turn what might have been a predictable story into something much more appealing. My favorite scene takes place on the bus, and has Peter and Ellie (as well as the other passengers) being entertained by a small musical group, which, to pass the time, is belting out an impromptu version of “The Flying Trapeze”. Eventually, other passengers join in, each singing a different verse. It’s a boisterous bit of fun, but just as the scene draws to a close, Capra tosses some drama into the mix by introducing a young boy who starts to cry when his mother passes out. Peter, who rushes over to help, learns that neither the boy nor his mother have eaten anything in days (they spent all their money on bus fare). This subtle combination of frivolity and pathos would become a Capra trademark, with many of his best films tickling our funny bones while they also tug at our heartstrings.

Along with its sweep of the Academy Awards, the National Board of Review selected It Happened One Night as the best movie of 1934, and it continues to wow audiences even today (in 2006, the Online Film & Television Society voted it into its Hall of Fame, an honor it shared with Nashville, Rashomon, The Rules of the Game and The Third Man). A smart comedy with plenty of heart, It Happened One Night deserved every award it won.

Friday, September 12, 2014

#1,488. Child's Play 2 (1990)

Directed By: John Lafia

Starring: Alex Vincent, Jenny Agutter, Gerrit Graham

Tag line: "Sorry Jack... Chucky's back!"

Trivia: Chucky appeared in a tuxedo at the 1990 Hall of Fame Awards to advertise the theatrical release of the film. He was introduced by Robert Englund

Chucky, the evil doll that wreaked havoc in 1988’s Child’s Play, is back, and much like the first film, he’s the best thing about Child’s Play 2.

As a result of their encounter with Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif), Andy’s mom is deemed mentally unstable and placed in a psychiatric ward, while Andy himself (Alex Vincent) is sent to live in a foster home. Taken in by Phil Simpson (Gerrit Graham) and his wife Joanne (Jenny Agutter), Andy tries to lead a normal life. Unfortunately, Chucky, who was rebuilt by the Good Guy Doll Company, has other plans for the young boy, which includes stealing his soul. Aided only by Kyle (Christine Elise), Phil and Joanne’s teenage foster child, Andy sets out to kill Chucky once and for all, leading to a showdown between the two that only one of them will survive.

As the voice of Chucky, Brad Dourif again unleashes his evil side, making us laugh one minute (the scene where he’s posing as the Good Guy doll at Phil’s and Joanne’s house and momentarily forgets its name is “Tommy” is hilarious) and scream the next (he loses his temper more than once throughout the film, yet is at his most menacing in the grand finale, when he’s chasing Andy and Kyle through the doll factory). But as fine a job as Dourif does, the real masterminds behind Chucky are the men and women that brought him so convincingly to life, chief among them engineer Kevin Yagher, who not only matched the work he did in Child’s Play, but at times surpasses it (Chucky’s facial expressions alone will amaze you).

Chucky aside, Child’s Play 2 is a hit and miss affair. I was impressed with the film’s kill scenes (especially creepy is an early sequence involving a plastic bag), but the relationship between Andy and his foster parents never really develops (we can’t understand why Phil is always so hostile towards Andy). Still, if you’re a fan of the original movie, odds are you’ll enjoy this sequel, if for no other reason than to see Chucky in action one more time.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

#1,487. His Girl Friday (1940)

Directed By: Howard Hawks

Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy

Tag line: "The Year's Wildest, Wittiest Whirlwind of a Love Battle..."

Trivia: Ginger Rogers wrote that she was offered the role of Hildy Johnson, but after reading the script turned the part down. When she learned that Cary Grant was cast as Walter, she regretted her decision

Over the course of his career, Howard Hawks directed some of the best American movies of all time, covering a wide range of genres including crime (Scarface), film noir (The Big Sleep), war (Sergeant York), horror (The Thing from Another World), action / adventure (Hatari!) and the western (Rio Bravo). He even helmed a musical (1948’s A Song is Born), as well as a historical epic (Land of the Pharaohs), but of all the genres he contributed to, the one he had the biggest impact on was comedy, thanks in part to such wonderful pictures as Bringing Up Baby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and, of course, 1940’s His Girl Friday.

Former beat writer Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) swings by the office of her former boss (and ex-husband), newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), to inform him she’s marrying Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), an insurance salesman from Albany. Unwilling to lose his best reporter (as well as the woman he still loves), Walter conspires to break the happy couple up by luring Hildy back to her typewriter, offering her a chance to cover the execution of convicted murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man many people believe is innocent. With the promise of quick cash, which she’ll use to start her new life with Bruce off on the right foot, Hildy agrees to stick around for a while. But will the excitement of covering the biggest story of her career prove to be more than she can handle?

A bona-fide classic, His Girl Friday features lots of rapid-fire dialogue, flawlessly delivered by Grant and Russell, which generates plenty of laughs. When Hildy first stops by to see Walter, he tells her he wishes she never divorced him. “Makes a fella lose faith in himself”, he says, somewhat dejectedly, “almost gives him a feeling he wasn’t wanted”. Grant gives one of the best performances of his career as the unscrupulous Walter, with Russell matching him every step of the way, bringing a street-wise sensibility to Hildy that prevents her from falling for Walter’s lies. Though pushed into the background by his two hyper co-stars, Bellamy does a fine job as Hildy’s kindly but dim fiancé Bruce, a guy who’s no match for the quick-thinking Walter (at one point, he even takes Walter’s side, and tries to convince the reluctant Hildy to stay and write the story). Along with its fast-paced humor, His Girl Friday tackles some seriously dark subject matter (public execution), and on a few occasions tugs at the ‘ole heartstrings; the scenes featuring Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), a woman of questionable morals who’s doing everything she can to save Earl Williams from the gallows, have a hint of tragedy to them.

A movie that Quentin Tarantino regularly lists among his all-time favorites (supposedly, he showed it to Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer prior to shooting the diner scene for Pulp Fiction, hoping it would inspire them to talk more quickly), His Girl Friday is a true American masterpiece, and one of the finest comedies ever made.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

#1,486. The Departed (2006)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson

Tag line: "Cops or Criminals. When you're facing a loaded gun what's the difference?"

Trivia: Leonardo DiCaprio was cast in the title role in The Good Shepherd (2006), but he dropped out to play Billy Costigan in this movie

On the evening of February 25, 2007, when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences presented their awards to the previous year’s best and brightest, one of the most egregious oversights in their history was finally corrected when Martin Scorsese received the Oscar for Best Director. The fact that the film he won for, 2006’s The Departed, was a crime movie seemed fitting, seeing as the great director has, over the years, proven himself one of the finest in that particular genre. And unlike most artists who receive an Oscar late in their career, this was no “pity win” (a la John Wayne’s Best Actor nod for 1969’s True Grit). The Academy does, on occasion, make mistakes, but in this case, the award went to the right person.

A remake of the 2002 Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs, The Departed stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan, a detective with the Boston police force who’s chosen for a very dangerous assignment: pose as a criminal in order to infiltrate a gang of thieves headed by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), perhaps the most lethal crime boss in the entire city. With only two people, Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Lt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), aware of his missiorecein, Costigan goes deep undercover and eventually wins the confidence of both Costello and his second-in-command, Frenchy (Ray Winstone). Soon, he’s a trusted member of their gang, but what Costigan and his superiors don’t know is Costello has his own man inside the Boston PD: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who, by all appearances, is a solid member of the force (he moves into a posh neighborhood and begins dating Madolyn, a beautiful police therapist played by Vera Farmiga). However, Sullivan works solely for Costello, passing along information and tipping him off on every move the cops make. It isn’t long before both organizations realize they have a rat in their midst, putting both Costigan and Sullivan in a very precarious position.

Having directed one of the best crime movies of all-time (Goodfellas) as well as a few others that border on greatness (Mean Streets, Casino, Gangs of New York), Scorsese was the perfect choice to helm The Departed, and was definitely up to the challenge. One of the things that impressed me most about the film was its solid pacing; The Departed flows brilliantly, with its 151 minutes flying by in what seems like half that time. Much of this is thanks to Scorsese’s patented style, making excellent use of the quick edits and roaming cameras he’s come to rely on over the years, but he also succeeded in drawing out the best his actors had to offer; Nicholson, DiCaprio, Damon, Sheen, Farmiga and Baldwin are all in top form, while Mark Wahlberg has never been better (his turn as the smart-ass Dignam is a definite high point). The violence, though often jarring, has an almost lyrical feel to it, and Scorsese even manages to bring us to the edge of our seats on a few occasions (a chase through the streets at night, with Costigan trying to catch a glimpse of Sullivan’s face while remaining hidden himself, is incredibly tense). As he’s done countless times in the past, Scorsese even picked the perfect songs to accompany the on-screen action (Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, performed by Van Morrison, adds depth to an intimate scene between Costigan and his therapist, Madolyn, who also happens to be Sullivan’s girlfriend). With The Departed, Martin Scorsese was firing on all cylinders, showing once again why he ranks among the finest directors of the past 50 years.

Personally, I think Scorsese should have won at least one Academy Award in each of the last four decades: along with 2006’s The Departed, he deserved the Oscar for 1976’s Taxi Driver (though the man he lost to, John G. Avildsen, did turn out a classic with Rocky); 1980’s Raging Bull (Robert Redford took the Oscar that year for Ordinary People); and 1990’s Goodfellas (when he was beaten by Kevin Costner and Dances with Wolves). And I wouldn’t count Scorsese out of the current decade, either. As he proved with 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, he can still “wow” an audience. But even if the Academy again turns its back on him, at least Scorsese won it once.

And for a movie that’s every bit as good as some of his best.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

#1,485. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)

Directed By: Bill Melendez

Starring: Peter Robbins, Christopher Shea, Sally Dryer

Tag line: "Peanuts, pumpkins, and pleasure for the whole family!"

Trivia: When the show ran briefly on NBC, the scene of Snoopy and Schroeder was cut out

After the runaway success of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, TV execs started clamoring for another half-hour show featuring cartoonist Charles M. Schultz’s precocious Peanuts gang. So, director Bill Melendez got together with Schultz to hammer out the details of yet another special, and less than a year later, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown hit the airwaves.

Halloween has arrived, a holiday most kids associate with dressing up in costumes and going trick-or-treating for candy. But for Linus van Pelt (voiced by Chris Shea), it’s another chance to meet the Great Pumpkin, who, according to legend, visits one pumpkin patch each and every Halloween, delivering toys to all the good boys and girls. Joined by Sally (Kathy Steinberg), the sister of Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins), Linus spends the evening perched in a nearby pumpkin patch, fully convinced his idol will indeed make an appearance there. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang, including Charlie Brown, Lucy (Sally Dryer), Pigpen (Gail DeFaria), and the others throw on their costumes and go door-to-door, gathering up gobs of candy in the process (all except poor Charlie Brown, whose bag is filled with nothing but rocks). As the night drags on, Sally regrets her decision to skip Halloween in favor of waiting for a giant pumpkin to arrive, yet Linus remains confident the Great Pumpkin will reward his patience and turn up, thus proving to the entire world that he does exist.

With its vibrant backgrounds and detailed animation, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown looks much better than A Charlie Brown Christmas (though, to be fair, Melendez and crew were given only a few weeks to throw together the Christmas special, and had more time to produce Great Pumpkin). What’s more, Great Pumpkin features a number of different storylines; along with Linus’ preoccupation with the Great Pumpkin and Charlie Brown’s failed attempt to get some candy, we spend time with Snoopy, who, dressed as a World War I flying ace, engages in an aerial dogfight with his arch-nemesis, The Red Baron. There’s even a brief sequence in which Schroder (Glenn Mendelson), sitting at his piano, plays a selection of WWI-era tunes, reducing Snoopy to tears (this segment would be edited out of several broadcast versions), and who can forget Charlie Brown trying to kick that football, and ending up flat on his back when Lucy yanks it away at the last minute?

The Peanuts crew would, over the years, tackle a number of other holidays, including Thanksgiving (1973’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving), Easter (It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown), Valentine’s Day (Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown), and even Arbor Day (1976’s It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown), yet none would match the popularity of their Christmas and Halloween outings, which, despite being almost 50 years old, are still very entertaining. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has become a holiday tradition.

Monday, September 8, 2014

#1,484. Modern Problems (1981)

Directed By: Ken Shapiro

Starring: Chevy Chase, Patti D'Arbanville, Dabney Coleman

Tag line: "A broken-hearted man + amazing moving powers = Out-of-control fun"

Trivia: Contains Dabney Coleman's only on-screen nude scene

There was a time (about 30 years ago) when I thought 1981’s Modern Problems was a funny movie. Well, I was wrong. The truth of the matter is it’s a comedy that, aside from a few good scenes, fails to generate any laughs.

Max (Chevy Chase), who works as an air traffic controller, slips into a depression when his girlfriend Darcy (Patti D’Arbanville) walks out on him. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because while Max is out driving one night, a truck carrying nuclear waste accidentally releases some of its toxic cargo, which splashes onto his car. This may prove fatal for most people, but not for Max, who, thanks to the poisonous sludge, has developed telekinetic powers! Will his new abilities help Max win back the girl of his dreams, or will they simply cause him to lose his mind?

Modern Problems gets off to a good start with a scene featuring Max at work, where he and his fellow air traffic controllers focus on everything but their jobs (one controller tries to pass an incoming flight off on a co-worker when he learns the pilot just dropped dead). The movie also boasts a couple of solid supporting performances, delivered by Brian Doyle-Murray (playing Max’s old high school chum, Brian, who, due to a tragic accident in Vietnam, is now confined to a wheelchair) and Dabney Coleman (as the egotistical self-help author Mark Winslow, who’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is). One of the film’s funnier sequences has Max and Darcy (who, by this point, have reconciled) visiting Brian’s beach house for the weekend, only to raise all sorts of hell when Max’s powers finally get the better of him.

For the majority of its runtime, however, Modern Problems is a lifeless comedy. The early scenes, where sad sack Max spends his days pining for Darcy, are more depressing than humorous, and the mischief Max gets into once he has his powers is surprisingly tame (save the sequence where he uses telekinesis to give Darcy the best orgasm she’s ever experienced). In movies such as Caddyshack, Seems like Old Times, and Fletch, Chevy Chase showed the world that, with the right material, he could make people laugh. In Modern Problems, he doesn’t show us much of anything at all.