Wednesday, July 30, 2014

#1,444. Night Key (1937)

Directed By: Lloyd Corrigan

Starring: Boris Karloff, Warren Hull, Jean Rogers

Trivia: Character actor Lloyd Corrigan, an inexperienced director, was hired to replace the previous director when he left the project

You wouldn’t think a movie about burglar alarms would be exciting, would you? Well, 1937’s Night Key is just that: a suspenseful crime / drama centered on alarm systems that also gives star Boris Karloff a chance to play one of the more sympathetic characters of his career.

Inventor Dave Mallory (Karloff) has created a new burglar alarm, a wireless device that, if implemented, will revolutionize the entire industry. Fearing he may take this invention to a competitor, Steve Ranger (Samuel S. Hinds), owner of the Ranger Protection Service and Mallory’s former business partner, arranges to “buy” Mallory’s newest creation. Despite the fact Ranger swindled him out of a small fortune 20 years earlier (it was Mallory who designed Ranger’s current system, yet when the time came to patent the idea, Steve Ranger’s name was the only one listed on the paperwork), Mallory agrees to the deal, signing a contract that gives Ranger the exclusive rights to his wireless system. But when Ranger again tries to swindle him (he bought the device not to produce it, but to keep it from seeing the light of day), Mallory decides to take matters into his own hands. Using another invention of his, a contraption he calls the “Night Key”, Mallory is able to neutralize Ranger’s system, and with the help of career crook Petty Louie (Hobart Cavanaugh), proceeds to make a fool out of his former partner by breaking into buildings his company is protecting. The problem is, the Night Key works a little too well, and before long, the criminal underworld is after Mallory and his device, hoping it will give them access to the biggest businesses in town.

With its smart script (penned by John C. Moffitt and Tristram Topper), Night Key brings some excitement to the world of burglar alarms, first by taking us inside an alarm company to show us how it all works (considering this was the late ‘30s, the technology involved was damn impressive), then by focusing on a man who’s found a way to bypass these alarms, who just so happens to be the guy that designed them in the first place! As Mallory, the great Karloff plays to his strengths, providing the movie with a likable lead we always root for, no matter what he’s mixed up in. Even when he’s using the Night Key to sneak into businesses, we sympathize with Mallory, mostly because he never once steals anything (though his accomplice, Petty Louie, does lift a few items along the way). Mallory’s sole purpose in committing these “crimes” is to embarrass Steve Ranger, who’s just as crooked as Petty Louie except that he hides his crimes in contracts and back-room deals, which he then passes off as “good business”. Actor Samuel Hinds turns in a strong performance as the deplorable Steve Ranger, and I smiled every time Mallory and his Night Key made a fool out of him.

Yet as engaging as Night Key is early on, it becomes twice as thrilling the moment Karloff is abducted by a crime lord known as “The Kid” (Alan Baxter, turning in what is undoubtedly the film’s weakest performance), who forces him to use the Night Key device to commit actual crimes. And even though some of these later scenes adhere to the standard formulas, like when The Kid and his goons threaten Mallory’s daughter Joan (Jean Rogers) to get the inventor to cooperate, Night Key remains, at all times, a surprisingly intense motion picture.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

#1,443. The ChubbChubbs! (2002)

Directed By: Eric Armstrong

Starring: Bradford Simonsen, Mortonette Jenkins, Jeff Wolverton

Tag line: "Deciding to be a hero is the easy part..."

Trivia: Won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Short

Winner of the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Short, The ChubbChubbs is a sci-fi / comedy that squeezes at least a dozen references to classic science fiction movies into its sparse 6-minute run time.

In the middle of a remote planet lies a night club called the “Ale-E-Inn”. Meeper (voiced by Brad Simonsen) works as the facility’s janitor, but dreams of becoming a featured singer. When he accidentally electrocutes the on-stage performer, Meeper is fired and tossed out of the club, where he encounters an alien (one that looks a lot like Jar-Jar Binks) who warns him the ChubbChubbs are coming, at which point he spots an alien army in the distance, running at top-speed in the direction of the club. Once alerted to the impending danger, all of the patrons inside the Ale-E-Inn take off for safety, leaving Meeper and a quartet of cute, cuddly creatures to fend for themselves.

Part of the fun of watching The ChubbChubbs is trying to identify the various sci-fi films it pays homage to, whether directly (early in the movie, we see the creature from Ridley Scott’s Alien sitting at the bar, enjoying a drink) or indirectly (as Meeper makes his way through the crowded lounge, we overhear a portion of a conversation, during which someone says “stay so low, Han”). Among the movie characters I recognized (along with those mentioned above) were Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet; Darth Vader and Yoda (who were arm-wrestling at one of the tables) from the Star Wars series; and the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still (though, admittedly, it took me a few viewings to find him). In addition, when everyone is fleeing the club, there are nods to War of the Worlds (a spaceship looks exactly like the ones used by the Martians in this film) and E.T The Extra Terrestrial (the famous “bike-flying” scene). Its movie references aside, The ChubbChubbs is also an amusing comedy with a little bit of music (Meeper sings his own special rendition of Aretha Franklin’s "Respect") and a twist that will catch you off-guard.

Film fans are sure to enjoy The ChubbChubbs, and will likely return to it numerous times to try and spot all of its cinematic Easter eggs. But even if you aren’t a sci-fi geek, odds are the movie’s innocent humor will, at the very least, bring a smile to your face.

Monday, July 28, 2014

#1,442. Scream 2 (1997)

Directed By: Wes Craven

Starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette

Tag line: "Someone has taken their love of sequels one step too far"

Trivia: The cast were not informed of the identity of the killer until the last day of principal photography

It’s been two years since the tragic Woodsboro murders, and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is trying to move on with her life. Now in college, she and fellow survivor Randy (Jamie Kennedy) hope to put the past behind them. This is easier said than done, however, seeing as a new movie inspired by the killings and based on the best-selling novel by Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) has just hit theaters, and is a box-office hit. To make matters worse, a copycat killer (right down to the Ghostface mask) is on the loose, and has already murdered several students at the college. Worried about Sidney’s safety, Officer Dewey (David Arquette) turns up at the school, and, along with Sidney’s boyfriend Derek (Jerry O’Connell) does what he can to keep her safe. But as the body count rises, it becomes clear that, if Sidney is to survive this latest onslaught, she’ll have to take matters into her own hands.

Whereas Scream laid out the rules for surviving a horror film, Scream 2 reveals the standard practices of a sequel (and as you can imagine, the film adheres to them perfectly). According to Jaime Kennedy’s Randy, a successful horror sequel requires: 

1. A higher body count. While the opening sequence of the original Scream is certainly unforgettable, Scream 2 ups the ante by beginning with not one, but two kills, taking out college students Phil (Omar Epps) and Maureen (Jada Pinkett Smith) as they’re attending an advance screening of the movie-within-a-movie (appropriately titled Stab). In fact, if you include what’s happening on the big screen when these murders take place, Scream 2 opens with three killings.

2. More elaborate death scenes, with more blood and gore – Along with the two kills at the movie theater, which have their fair share of blood (Phil’s death is particularly tough to watch), a later victim (one of Sidney’s sorority sisters) isn’t just stabbed; she’s thrown from a balcony!

3. Never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead – In what is easily the movie’s most intense scene, Sidney and her good friend Hallie (Elise Neal) are trapped in a police car with Ghostface, who, after crashing the vehicle, is lying unconscious in the driver’s seat. To escape, they have to crawl over the killer’s limp body. But is he dead, or temporarily knocked out?

Its self-referential tendencies aside, Scream 2 features a number of fine performances, from both the returning cast and its new additions (Timothy Olyphant is superb as Mickey, Sidney’s movie-obsessed college chum, and Liev Schrieber’s Cotton Wehry, who was wrongly accused of murdering Sidney’s mother, has more screen time than he did in the first). With all of these key elements in place, Scream 2 proves itself an excellent sequel, and a movie that’s every bit as entertaining as the original

Sunday, July 27, 2014

#1,441. Kansas Pacific (1953)

Directed By: Ray Nazarro

Starring: Sterling Hayden, Eve Miller, Barton MacLane

Tag line: "Built by bullets, dynamite, and blood-stained spikes!"

Trivia: The movie was filmed at the Iverson Movie Ranch and the Sierra Railroad in what is now Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Jamestown, California

Every now and again, I stumble across a movie I’ve never heard of before that proves to be a hidden gem, and 1953’s Kansas Pacific is surely one. Set in the days leading up to the U.S. Civil War, Kansas Pacific is a western that tells a good story while also offering its audience some rousing action scenes.

Construction on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, considered a vital transportation link for the United States military, has been disrupted time and again by those loyal to the Confederacy. Led by Bill Quantrill (Reed Hadley), the rebels have done everything from destroying the track to threatening workers, forcing them to quit. With the likelihood of a Civil War looming, the U.S. army sends Capt. John Nelson (Sterling Hayden) to assist with the railroad’s construction and ensure that it’s completed on time. Working as an assistant to the current boss, Cal Bruce (Barton MacLane), Nelson hires guards to protect the railroad and its workers, making it more difficult for Quantrill’s agents to sabotage the line. But as Nelson will soon discover Quantrill isn’t a man who gives up easily.

At times, Kansas Pacific looks as authentic as a John Ford western, taking full advantage of such historic locations as California’s Railtown 1897 State Historical Park, a functioning railway system that’s been around for well over a hundred years, where portions of the movie were shot. Along with its sense of realism, the film benefits from a fine cast, led by the oft-underrated Sterling Hayden, who portrays Capt, Nelson as a heroic, yet very level-headed individual (when he first arrives in Kansas, Nelson jumps into a fight to protect, of all people, Bill Quantrill, mostly because the rebel leader was outnumbered three to one). The action sequences are also well-staged, and include everything from the usual (a chase on horseback, with Nelson trying to track down a trio of men who stole the railroad’s dynamite) to the extreme (one scene actually features an all-out cannon fight). Supporting the action at all times is the film’s tense atmosphere, with Nelson, Bruce and the others never quite sure when or where the rebels will strike (a few work to disrupt the construction from within, posing as railway workers). Not even the standard love story, which has Capt. Nelson falling head-over-heels for Cal Bruce’s daughter, Barbara (Eve Miller), can slow Kansas Pacific down.

Seeing as there were literally hundreds of Hollywood westerns produced in the ‘40s and ‘50s, odds are a few more hidden gems are out there just waiting to be discovered. And if they’re half as entertaining as Kansas Pacific, I can’t wait to find them!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

#1,440. Cult of the Cobra (1955)

Directed By: Francis D. Lyon

Starring: Faith Domergue, Richard Long, Marshall Thompson

Tag line: "Can a woman's beauty be changed to a thing of terror?"

Trivia: All five of this movie's leading men later starred in at least one successful TV series

The year is 1946, and some American G.I.’s, only days before they head home, are touring a marketplace in Asia. While there, the six buddies: Tom (Marshall Thompson); Paul (Richard Long); Carl (Jack Kelly); Pete (William Reynolds); Rico (David Janssen); and Nick (James Dobson), encounter a snake charmer named Daru (Leonard Strong), who promises to sneak them into a religious ceremony no westerner has ever seen before, where a woman will supposedly transform herself into a cobra! Shortly after the ceremony begins, Nick snaps a picture, thus exposing the fact that foreigners are attending this sacred event. As the pals fight their way out, the High Priest (John Halloran) puts a curse on them, promising the Snake Goddess will take her revenge by killing each of the intruders, one at a time. Sure enough, Nick dies the next morning, the victim of a snake bite. The remaining five head back to the States, returning to civilian life and forgetting all about the curse. That is, until Tom begins dating Lisa (Faith Domergue), who only recently moved to the U.S. All at once, the ex-G.I’s start dying under mysterious circumstances, and only Paul suspects the elusive Lisa might have something to do with it.

Released in 1955, Cult of the Cobra gets off to a good start, with its best scene being the religious ceremony, during which a woman, decked out in scales and moving like a snake, slithers out of a basket and attacks one of the faithful. It’s at this point Nick makes the fatal error of trying to take a picture (despite the warning Daru gave them earlier that cameras were not allowed), Their escape from the temple is also well handled, and the mystery surrounding Nick’s death keeps things interesting for a while (he was originally bitten right after the ceremony, and Tom saved his life by sucking the poison from the wound. Later that night, as an injured yet fully alert Nick lies in a hospital bed, he’s again bitten by a snake that crawled through the window, this time finishing the job). I even liked how the attacks were shown from the snake’s point of view, and Faith Domergue reminded me of Simone Simon in 1942’s Cat People, playing Lisa as a somewhat vulnerable woman who may or may not be hiding a terrible secret.

Unfortunately, Cult of the Cobra begins to lose steam at its halfway point, spending more time on the romantic entanglement that develops between Lisa and Tom than was necessary. Another issue is the attacks themselves, which become less effective as the film progresses (we never do see anyone being chased by a snake). Things pick up again in the final moments, but between its promising start and tense finale are about 40-45 minutes that bog the story down. While not a bad movie, Cult of the Cobra does prove to be a disappointing one.

Friday, July 25, 2014

#1,439. He Died with a Felafel in his Hand (2001)

Directed By: Richard Lowenstein

Starring: Noah Taylor, Emily Hamilton, Romane Bohringer

Tag line: "Some people will do anything to get out of paying the rent"

Trivia: This film is based on a novel by Australian author John Birmingham, first published in 1994

Some of you may already be familiar with an organization called Film Movement (located online at ), but for those of you who aren’t, Film Movement is, among other things, a DVD-of-the-month club that offers subscribers a chance to own independent movies from all over the world, films they would have otherwise never seen. I was fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of this amazing service when it launched in 2003, and the movies released during the company’s first year are among the best they’ve put out. I’ve already covered a few of them (Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Inch’Allah Dimanche, and OT: Our Town), but before this challenge is over, I intend to re-watch every one of the 12 pictures that made up Film Movement’s debut year. He Died with a Felafel in his Hand, a 2001 Australian import, was the second movie the company ever released, and as dark comedies go, it’s a damn good one!

Danny (Noah Taylor), an aspiring writer, has lived in 49 shared-accommodation houses, each with its own set of bizarre roommates. He Died with a Felafel in his Hand covers the time he spent in three different dwellings. The first, a one-story building located in Brisbane, was also home to Sam (Emily Hamilton), a pretty English girl; Flip (Brett Stewart), Danny’s good friend and a drug addict; Anya (Romane Bohringer), a vegetarian who adheres to ancient Celtic traditions; and Satomi (Sanyuri Tanoue), a girl from Japan who speaks very little English. When the house is torn apart by skinheads, Danny packs up and moves to a place in Melbourne, where he listens to the constant ramblings of his socialist housemate, Iain (Ian Hughes). Before long, both Flip and Taylor (Alex Menglet), who were with Danny in Brisbane, also move in, as does Sam, whose failed romance with Anya has driven her to the brink of suicide. When Taylor steals his credit card and uses it to run up an $8,000 casino bill, Danny is forced to relocate, landing in a Seaside flat in Sydney owned by high-strung actress Nina (Sophie Lee). His past once again catches up with him when both Anya and Sam turn up, joined soon after by Flip, fresh off his recent stint in a drug rehab. Worried that he’ll never become a professional writer, Danny falls into a deep depression, and locks himself away in his room for days at a time. It isn’t until Taylor makes a startling discovery while flipping through the pages of Penthouse magazine that Danny’s life finally begins to straighten itself out. But how long will his new-found happiness last?

He Died with a Felafel in his Hand feels a lot like a Wes Anderson film in that it creates a world resembling our own, then fills it with a string of peculiar characters. And as strange as things sometimes get in both Melbourne and Sydney, its Danny’s experiences in Brisbane that truly stand out. Among the unusual goings-on is Flip’s tendency to tan himself by moonlight and Taylor getting his frustrations out by knocking toads into the side of the house with his golf clubs. The film’s most outlandish scene, however, occurs when Anya organizes a wiccan-like ceremony to usher in the next lunar cycle, during which she plans to carry out an actual human sacrifice! While the characters themselves are occasionally fascinating (especially Danny, played to perfection by Noah Taylor), it’s the chaos they stir up that makes He Died with a Felafel in his Hand so entertaining.

So do yourself a favor and check out some of the movies available over at the Film Movement website. Odds are you’ll find a new favorite among its featured titles, and even if He Died with a Felafel in his Hand doesn’t crack your personal top-10 list, it’s a quirky, well-acted, beautifully shot motion picture that brings a lot more to the table than your average comedy ever would.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

#1,438. Taken (2008)

Directed By: Pierre Morel

Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen

Tag line: "His daughter was taken. He has 96 hours to get her back"

Trivia: According to Liam Neeson, he agreed to take this role because he believed that the film was going to be a straight-to-DVD release

The award-winning star of such movies as Schindler’s List, Rob Roy, and Kinsey, Liam Neeson kicked off a second career as an action hero in 2008’s Taken, a film about a former CIA agent named Bryan Mills (Neeson) who comes out of retirement to save his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who, while vacationing in Europe, is kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers. With little information to go on, Mills makes his way to Paris, where he does everything in his power to track down those responsible and, in the process, inflict his own brand of justice on the guilty.

Despite its somewhat simple premise, Taken is a top-notch action flick with a number of tense showdowns, yet the film’s most impressive aspect is its bad-ass hero. As portrayed by Neeson, Bryan Mills is a no-nonsense guy who focuses all of his energy on the task at hand. In one particularly intense sequence, Mills is on the phone with his daughter when the kidnappers show up. Shortly after she’s been taken, one of the kidnappers picks up her cell phone, at which point Mills issues him a very specific warning: “If you are looking for ransom”, he says to the kidnapper, “I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you”. From that moment on, Mills is a one-man wrecking crew, relying first on his abilities as an investigator (he’s able to identify a key suspect by analyzing a digital picture and finding a miniscule image of the man’s reflection), and, later on, some of his other “skills” (in one exciting scene, he faces off against an entire room full of baddies, finishing them off before he even breaks a sweat). True to his word, Bryan Mills is, indeed, a nightmare for his enemies, and Neeson does an excellent job conveying his character’s single-mindedness.

Co-written by Luc Besson, who in recent years was also responsible for such high-energy motion pictures as The Transporter and 2005’s Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog), Taken features all sorts of great action, but it’s the film’s main character, as well as its star, that makes it a memorable experience.