Wednesday, January 28, 2015

#1,626. Die Hard 2 (1990)

Directed By: Renny Harlin

Starring: Bruce Willis, William Atherton, Bonnie Bedelia

Tag line: "They say lightning never strikes twice... They were wrong"

Trivia: The scenes filmed in Denver had to have snow machines brought from a local ski resort with truck loads of ice every night (during the day it would all melt)

I’ll be the first to admit that Die Hard 2 is not as good a movie as Die Hard. But for some reason, I like it anyway! In fact, I find it almost as entertaining as the now-classic original.

It’s Christmas Eve, and L.A. cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), a few years removed from his adventure at the Nakatomi building, is at Washington D.C.’s Dulles International Airport to pick up his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), whose plane is set to land in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, her flight (as well as dozens of others) is about to be delayed indefinitely. That’s because Dulles’s air traffic center has been commandeered by Col. Stuart (William Sadler) and his top-notch army of mercenaries, who’ve tapped into the airport’s mainframe computer and set up their own command post, which they’ve hidden inside a nearby abandoned church.

A respected officer in the U.S. military, Stuart intends to free Gen. Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a devout anti-Communist and the former leader of a Central American nation who’s being extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking. With the plane carrying Esperanza on its way to Dulles, Stuart requests both the General’s immediate release once he lands and a fully-fueled 747 to fly them all to safety. If his demands aren’t met, he’ll keep the planes circling overhead until they run out of fuel. On paper, it may have looked like the perfect plan, but one thing Stuart didn’t count on was John McClane. With his wife’s life in jeopardy, McClane does everything he can to find Stuart and bring him down, knowing full well that if he fails hundreds won’t live to see Christmas morning.

As it was with the 1988 original, John McClane tends to rub some people the wrong way in Die Hard 2, chief among them being Capt. Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), the short-sighted head of airport security who sees our hero as nothing more than a nuisance. Franz, who yells a lot in this movie, is the quintessential pain-in-the-ass, and the scenes where he and Willis butt heads bring an added level of tension to the film. Die Hard 2 also benefits from its airport setting, which it exploits to its fullest (McClane first realizes something is wrong when he sees one of Stuart’s men entering the baggage area, which then leads to the movie’s first action-packed sequence). Willis once again delivers a charismatic performance as the hard-nosed McClane, and even sneaks a few self-referential jokes in from time to time (“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he asks himself). Though not as interesting as Hans Gruber, William Sadler’s Col. Stuart nonetheless makes for a ruthless adversary; in the film’s most heartbreaking scene, he puts on a show of strength that leads to a tragedy on the ground. And as McClane will soon learn, even those purporting to be friends can turn into enemies.

Of course, what makes Die Hard 2 so much fun is its action sequences. Featuring shootouts in the airport, a high-speed chase on snowmobiles, and a death-defying fistfight on the wing of a 747, Die Hard 2 may push the envelope a bit too far at times (the scene where McClane is trapped in the cockpit of a plane surrounded by 9 live grenades is a prime example), but when it comes to thrills and excitement, this film, like its predecessor, has plenty to spare.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

#1,625. The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

Directed By: Wallace Fox

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters, Tristram Coffin

Tag line: "Keeper of the Grotto of Torture!"

Trivia: This film bears some resemblance to the real-life story of Elizabeth Báthory, a 16th-century Hungarian countess / serial killer who was said to preserve her beauty by bathing in the blood of virginal young women

The Corpse Vanishes, a 1942 horror / sci fi flick starring Bela Lugosi, is a bad movie. In fact, I’d say it’s worse than an Ed Wood film; if nothing else, Wood’s pictures provide a few laughs with their over-the-top dialogue and cardboard set pieces. The Corpse Vanishes doesn’t even offer that much. It just kinda sits there, lifeless and dull, challenging you to give a damn about what’s going on (SPOILER ALERT: you won’t).

A killer is on the loose, one who murders brides on their wedding day, then steals their bodies before the guys from the morgue show up. Determined to get to the bottom of this bizarre case, reporter Pat Hunter (Luann Walters) gathers up several clues (chief among them being an orchid that emits a mysterious odor), all of which lead her to a spooky mansion owned by the strange scientist, Dr. Lorenz (Bela Lugosi). In an effort to keep his beloved wife (played by Elizabeth Russell) from aging, Dr. Lorenz has been abducting the brides (who, it turns out, aren’t really dead) so he can extract fluid from their glands, which he then injects into his wife, thus giving her a youthful glow. When a storm forces her to spend the night at the mansion, Pat, with the help of Mrs. Lorenz’s personal physician, Dr. Foster (Tristram Coffin), sets to work looking for more incriminating evidence, but will she live long enough to write her story?

Luann Walters turns in a lackluster performance as the plucky reporter, and the character’s somewhat callous attitude early on makes it hard to root for her as the movie progresses (at one wedding, the bride’s body is stolen within minutes of her dropping dead, causing Pat to rush out of the chapel, barely able to contain her glee as she shouts “What a story!”). Not faring much better is Tristram Coffin, whose Dr. Foster is something of a bore; he and Pat function as the film’s heroes / love interests, yet they have no chemistry whatsoever. Also quite weak is the flimsy dialogue, which occasionally approaches Ed Wood-like territory; at one wedding, the Bride’s mother (Gladys Faye) expresses concern over the recent rash of killings, to which her daughter (Joan Barclay) replies “You should forget all that silly nonsense about those brides dropping dead”. Silly, indeed!

Bela Lugosi, always the consummate professional, plays it as straight as he can, and diminutive actor Angelo Rossitto (Freaks, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), who stands just under 3 ft. tall, is also interesting in his brief appearance as Dr. Lorenz’s henchman, Toby. Yet try as they might, neither of them can rescue this movie. The Corpse Vanishes is a true stinker in every sense of the word.

Monday, January 26, 2015

#1,624. The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (1974)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Walter Steiner, Werner Herzog

Trivia: This film was made as part of a series for a German television station

Walter Steiner, a champion ski flyer (a sport similar to ski jumping except that it involves a much bigger hill), is the subject of Werner Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, a 1974 documentary produced for German television. While the film does spend some time with Steiner away from the slopes (aside from a series of interviews conducted while he’s ice fishing, Herzog visits the athlete in his woodworking shop, where we see a few of his creations), it’s the scenes in which he’s doing what he loves (i.e. flying through the air) that make this movie such a rewarding experience.

Narrated and hosted by Herzog (in an unusual move, the director stands in front of the camera as well, as if he were a reporter covering an event), the bulk of The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner takes place at a 1974 competition in Planica, a region that at the time was situated in Yugoslavia (today, it’s part of Slovenia). With many of his jumps (as well as those of his competitors) presented in slow motion, Steiner, considered the odds-on favorite to win, sets a new course record during his first trial run. Still, he’s more concerned than pleased; convinced the track is too fast, he fears that, if the judges don’t shorten the run, a wipe-out of tragic proportions will likely occur. Sure enough, his second run takes him even further down the slope than the first, but shortly after he lands, Steiner crashes to the ground, opening up a gash on his forehead. Luckily, he’s able to continue, but wonders if it’s worth the risk. “I feel I’m in the arena”, Steiner says, “with 50,000 people waiting to see me crash”. If he does compete, odds are he’ll break a few more records before he’s through, yet his chances of suffering a career-ending injury are also great. How will he handle this dilemma?

It’s the stuff that great sports stories are made of: the thrill of the competition; the athlete struggling with both the conditions of the course and his own psyche; all playing out before our eyes. With The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, Werner Herzog has crafted a superior documentary that, at the same time, is an excellent sports drama.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

#1,623. Return of the Fly (1959)

Directed By: Edward L. Bernds

Starring: Vincent Price, Brett Halsey, David Frankham

Tag line: "All new and more horrific than before!"

Trivia: The script was written specifically to use the standing sets from The Fly

Taking a page out of Universal’s Frankenstein series, Return of the Fly, a sequel to the 1958 classic The Fly, features a son who follows in his father’s footsteps, continuing an experiment that would have best been left alone.

Fifteen years after the untimely death of his father, Philippe Delambre (Brett Halsey) lays his mother to rest as well. Hoping he can shed some light on his family’s tumultuous past, Philippe implores his uncle, Francois (Vincent Price), to tell him what really happened to his father. Against his better judgment, Francois takes the young man to the remains of Andre Delambre’s laboratory, showing him the transporter chambers and explaining to Philippe how a tragic accident caused Andre to turn into a human fly. Anxious to prove to the world that his father was on the right track, Philippe decides to continue his research, aided at all times by his friend Alan (David Frankham), a British scientist who’s as eager as Philippe is to duplicate Andre Delambre’s experiments.

Unfortunately, Alan (whose real name is Ronald Holmes) has plans of his own for the transportation technology, and makes arrangements to sell the blueprints for the device, as well as all the research, to the highest bidder. When Philippe discovers what Alan is up to, the two men get into a fight, during which Philippe is knocked unconscious and placed in one of the transporter chambers. Hoping to make a quick exit, Alan switches the machine on, causing Philippe to disappear. Soon after, Francois, who was contacted by Philippe’s girlfriend Cecile (Danielle De Metz), shows up on the scene, and, realizing what’s happened, starts up the transporter in order to re-materialize his nephew. To Francois's horror, he finds that history has repeated itself: a fly ended up in the chamber with Philippe, and as a result, he and the insect have exchanged body parts (Philippe’s head, arm, and leg have been replaced with those of the fly)! As Francois works diligently to remedy the situation, Philippe sets out to exact revenge on the man he once called his friend.

Return of the Fly was obviously produced on a much smaller budget than the original; aside from being shot in black and white (The Fly was in color), the special effects aren’t nearly as good this time around (especially the lead character’s “fly-like” features, which are larger and more ungainly). On the plus side, the movie weaves an interesting tale, one that ties in nicely with the events from the first film while also bringing something new to the table (the deceitful Alan adds a bit of intrigue to the proceedings). On the acting front, Vincent Price does an admirable job as the over-protective uncle, and Brett Halsey is convincing as the brilliant but naïve Philippe.

In the end, Return of the Fly may not look as good as its predecessor, but what it lacks in production values, it makes up for in story.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

#1,622. Licence to Kill (1989)

Directed By: John Glen

Starring: Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi, Carey Lowell

Tag line: "His bad side is a dangerous place to be"

Trivia: A scene in this film was shot at a Key West, Florida house that formerly belonged to writer Ernest Hemingway

1989’s Licence to Kill, the 16th entry in the James Bond series and the second to feature Timothy Dalton as Agent 007, continues the trend set forth in the previous film, The Living Daylights, in that it favors action and high drama over romance and comedy. The result is a hard-hitting, occasionally brutal motion picture featuring a determined lead character, who doesn’t allow anything (or anyone) to keep from completing his mission.

While on his way to his wedding, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) receives word that a plane carrying Mexican drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) has just landed in nearby Key West, Florida. With the help of his Best Man, British agent James Bond (Dalton), Leiter and his team make a quick detour to capture Sanchez, then hurry to the church, arriving in plenty of time to finish the wedding. Unfortunately, the wealthy Sanchez spread enough money around in advance to buy his freedom, and before heading south of the border, sends Dario (Benicio Del Toro), his most trusted henchman, to kill Leiter’s new bride (Priscilla Barnes), then feed Leiter himself to a hungry shark (he loses his leg and part of his arm in the attack).

When word of what happened reaches Bond, he decides to take matters into his own hands and hunt down Sanchez. Fearing their top agent is allowing his emotions to cloud his judgment, MI6 sends “M” (Robert Brown) to convince Bond to abandon his personal vendetta against Sanchez. When he refuses, “M” suspends Bond’s licence to kill and attempts to take him into custody, at which point 007 escapes. Declared a rogue agent, Bond sneaks his way into Mexico and, with the help of CIA operative Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), heads to Isthmus, a small republic controlled by Sanchez, where he intends to infiltrate the drug lord’s operation. Aided by both “Q” (Desmond Llewellyn), who’s on holiday and sympathetic to Bond’s cause; and Sanchez’s oft-battered girlfriend Lupe (Talisa Soto), an undercover Bond soon gains access to Sanchez’s inner circle, but will he exact his revenge before his true intentions are revealed?

As it was with The Living Daylights, Bond spends little time in Licence to Kill wooing the opposite sex (unlike previous entries starring both Connery and Moore, Dalton’s 007 is too focused on the task at hand to engage in a series of frivolous romances). As a result, the movie is packed with one exciting scene after another, beginning with the pre-title sequence (following a shoot-out, Leiter and Bond capture Sanchez, then parachute to the church where the wedding ceremony is to be held) and finishing as all Bond films do, with an extended action scene (which, in the case of this picture, involves a fleet of big rigs, a few Stinger missiles, and a whole mess of explosions). Dalton once again turns in a solid performance as Her Majesty’s top secret agent, playing the part far more seriously than any of his predecessors (there’s even mention made of Bond’s brief marriage, featured in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which ended in tragedy, feelings that most certainly come rushing back when he discovers Leiter’s new bride lying murdered on her wedding bed). As the Bond girls, Lowell and Soto are appropriately beautiful, and 007 does spend some quality alone time with both, but in each case the romantic tryst is short lived, and doesn’t interfere with the story at hand.

Along with the two ladies, the rest of the supporting cast is also superb. Robert Davi’s Sanchez is the perfect Bond foil, suave and elegant one minute, ruthless the next (one particular underling finds himself on the wrong end of a pressure chamber, resulting in the movie’s bloodiest sequence), and a very young Benicio Del Toro, despite his limited screen time, makes for a great henchman (in the few scenes in which his character appears, he’s almost as sadistic as Sanchez). In addition, singer Wayne Newton makes a brief appearance as a slimy televangelist working for Sanchez, while Desmond Llewellyn’s “Q” has an even bigger presence in this film than he had in Octopussy, providing Bond with a few awesome gadgets (including a movie camera that emits a laser ray), then sticking around to assist with the mission (sometimes without Bond himself knowing about it).

As with The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill’s central story branches off in a couple of unnecessary directions (the subplot featuring the stinger missiles felt like a late addition, as if it were added simply to explain why they turn up in the grand finale), but as a whole, it’s a strong entry in the series, and left me feeling a little sad that Timothy Dalton didn’t return for another outing. With all due respect to Pierce Brosnan (who was himself tailor-made for the role), I’d have liked to see Dalton play the part at least one more time.

Friday, January 23, 2015

#1,621. One Million Years B.C. (1966)

Directed By: Don Chaffey

Starring: Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Percy Herbert

Tag line: "This is the way it was"

Trivia: The publicity photograph of Welch from the movie became a best-selling pinup poster, and something of a cultural phenomenon

Under normal circumstances, it takes a hell of a lot to upstage the work of Ray Harryhausen, the sage of stop-motion whose creations have graced such fantasy films as Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Clash of the Titans. But in the case of 1966’s One Million Years B.C., all it took to push him into the background was an animal-skin bikini!

Set “long, long ago, when the world was just beginning” (to quote the film’s narrator, Vic Perrin), One Million Years B.C. kicks things off with a visit to a prehistoric tribe known as the Rock People, a violent bunch of hunters led by Anhoba (Robert Brown), whose two sons, Tumak (John Richardson) and Sakana (Percy Herbert), are constantly at each others' throats. As the result of a family squabble (which begins when Anhoba steals food from Tumak), Tumak is banished from the tribe (the moment he’s gone, Sakana lays claim to Tumak’s woman, Nupondi, played by Martine Beswick). Wandering the desert alone, Tumak encounters a number of creatures (including a giant iguana that nearly devours him) before meeting up with the lovely Loana (Raquel Welch), a member of the peaceful Shell tribe. At first accepted by the Shell people as one of their own, Tumak’s temper soon gets the better of him, and he is once again banished. Having fallen in love with the outsider, Loana leaves her people and joins Tumak on his journey, which will eventually lead him back to his own tribe, now ruled by his brother Sakana. Will Tumak return to his violent ways, or has Loana finally tamed his savage heart?

Produced by Britain’s Hammer Studios (Michael Carreras, a top executive with the company, is credited with penning the screenplay), One Million Years B.C. features a handful of Ray Harryhausen’s amazing animated sequences, including an unforgettable fight between the Shell people and an Allosaurus, as well as a pterodactyl that flies off with one of the film’s main characters. In fact, the only special effect segments that don’t work are those the master animator had nothing to do with, where real animals were shot in close-up to make them appear larger than normal (the above-mentioned showdown between Tumak and the Iguana is one such sequence). But no matter, because as thrilling as Harryhausen’s giant creatures are, they don’t get our pulses pounding nearly as much as Raquel Welch does. With her dyed-blonde hair and skimpy costume, Ms. Welch commands our undivided attention the moment she takes the screen, and then holds it until the story’s exciting climax. Her features were so striking that she ended up dominating the film’s advertising campaign (the posters put her front and center, much larger even than the movie’s dinosaurs).

For One Million Years B.C., Ray Harryhausen conjured up monsters as extraordinary as any he’d animated before, yet the image that’s forever linked with this movie is that of a 25-year-old beauty, wearing next to nothing as she gazes into the distance. Poor Ray may have put in the time, but it was Raquel Welch who walked off with the picture.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

#1,620. La Soufriere (1977)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Werner Herzog

Trivia: This movie won the award for Best Short at the 1978 German Film Awards

Throughout his career, Werner Herzog has been as much an adventurer as a filmmaker. For Aguirre Wrath of God, he traveled to the remote regions of Peru, an area he would return to for 1982’s Fitzcaraldo (in which he dragged a 340-ton steamship over a mountain using nothing but ropes and a tractor). Even at this late stage of his career, he continues to challenge himself (2007’s Encounter at the End of the World was shot on-location in Antarctica), yet his most dangerous undertaking came in 1977 for the movie La Soufriere, a film named after an active volcano on the Caribbean island of Guadalupe that, at the time, was about to erupt.

Hoping to capture footage of the expected destruction, Herzog and two cameramen made their way to the island, which by the time they arrived had been evacuated (in most cases, the only signs of life were dogs and other animals left behind by their owners, forced to scavenge for food in order to survive). As smoke and fumes bellowed from the nearby volcano, Herzog toured the abandoned streets, and on occasion dragged his camera as close to the mountain as he could (due to a number of tremors that had shaken the area, many of the roads were impassable, littered with fallen rocks and debris). During their travels, Herzog and his crew stumbled upon a trio of local men who didn’t leave with the others, all of whom said they were fully prepared to die. But how long would it be before the volcano finished them off? Along with his experiences on Guadalupe, Herzog (who also acts as the film’s narrator) gives us a brief history lesson about a similar catastrophe that occurred on the island of Martinique in 1902, when Mount Pelee erupted, killing some 30,000 people (ironically, the only survivor of that tragedy was a prisoner who had been locked away in solitary confinement).

With its images of lonely streets and vacant homes, La Soufriere takes on a chilling quality, giving the impression that Herzog and his crew are the only people left on earth. This creepy vibe only grows stronger when the director focuses his camera on the volcano, which looks more menacing with each passing scene. Yet as intriguing as La Soufriere is (I was riveted from start to finish), never once do we lose sight of the fact that Herzog put both himself and his assistants in harm’s way; with the volcano predicted to blow at any minute, he seems in no rush to wrap things up, and at times actually ventures closer to the simmering mountain. Yes, it made for a fascinating documentary, but at what risk?

When he encounters the villagers who refused to leave, Herzog asks them why they’ve purposely put their lives in such jeopardy. It’s a question we could easily pose to the filmmaker himself.