Monday, June 29, 2015

#1,778. Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)

Directed By: Michael A. Simpson

Starring: Pamela Springsteen, Renée Estevez, Tony Higgins

Tag line: "When you go camping just take the essentials"

Trivia: This movie was Shot back-to-back and at the very same location as its sequel, Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland. Both finished within six weeks

It’s late at night, and some campers are sitting around a fire in the middle of the woods. As you’d expect, a few scary stories are flying around, but it’s Phoebe (Heather Binion) who tells the scariest of them all, mostly because it’s true. As her friends sit silently, hanging on her every word, Phoebe reveals how, a few years back, a bunch of kids were murdered at Camp Arawak, which, according to her, is only 20 miles from where they’re currently sitting. The killer had been apprehended and thrown into a psychiatric ward, but has since been released. As Phoebe continues her story, camp counselor Angela (Pamela Springsteen) walks up behind her, telling Phoebe she shouldn’t be out of her cabin, and ordering her to return to camp. But poor Phoebe never does make it back. Thus begins Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, an entertaining, though not perfect, sequel to the 1983 cult classic, Sleepaway Camp.

Angela, it turns out, was at Camp Arawak when all hell broke loose, but she doesn’t let it bother her. In fact, she’s grown to love life at camp, which, for her, represents all that’s wholesome and pure. She’s so good at her job that the camp’s director, known as “Uncle John” (Walter Gotell), has just named her Counselor of the Week. Though not everyone is happy to have Angela around; aside from Molly (Renée Estevez), who’s a bit awkward herself, the rest of the campers, including Ally (Valerie Hartman), Sean (Tony Higgins), Mare (Susan Marie Snyder), and Rob (Terry Hobbs), think Angela’s a stick in the mud, a killjoy who ruins their fun (by not letting them have sex with each other). Even fellow counselor T.C. (Brian Patrick Clarke) has issues with Angela’s “zero-tolerance” approach to the job, which has caused her to send camper after camper home for breaking the rules. But are these banished teens actually making their way home, or are they suffering a worse fate?

More comedic than Sleepaway Camp, Unhappy Campers is a lot of fun to watch (the original was much darker in tone), and features some very effective kill scenes; sisters Brooke (Carol Chambers) and Jodi (Amy Fields) meet a grisly end over a fire pit, and there’s a sequence set in an outhouse that’s tough to sit through. The only problem I had with the film, actually, was the character of Angela, who went from a shy, withdrawn girl in the first film to an outgoing, goody-two-shoes in the sequel. For me, the change in her personality was far too drastic to be believable (even more ridiculous was the so-called “operation” Angela supposedly had), and while I felt Pamela Springsteen (real-life sister of rocker Bruce Springsteen) did a good job in the part, the character, as written, left something to be desired.

This slight issue aside, Unhappy Campers is a worthy sequel to the original, continuing the story while, at the same time, putting its own unique spin on things.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

#1,777. Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade (2004)

Directed By: Tom Thurman

Starring: Sam Peckinpah, Kris Kristofferson, Fern Lea Peter

Line from this film: "He left us a lasting body of orignial and haunting work and in the end, Sam Peckinpah entered his house justified"

Trivia: Won a Bronze Wrangler for Best Western Documentary at the 2005 Western Heritage Awards

Sam had two lives”, says Peckinpah’s longtime assistant, Katy Haber, at the start of this 2004 made-for-TV documentary (which was produced for the Starz cable network): “Movies that were a reality, and life that was an illusion”. A man who poured everything he had into his craft, Sam Peckinpah was an auteur, a writer / director who put something of himself in every single film. His past, his fears, his passions and his demons were up there on the screen for the whole world to see, and as narrator Kris Kristofferson, a good friend of its subject’s, points out, this particular aspect of Peckinpah’s work, the laying bare of his very soul, is what made him a true artist.

He directed 14 films over his 25+ year career, but Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade focuses on only 8 of them, namely the westerns that were so close to Peckinpah’s heart. Having grown up on a 25-acre ranch in California, Sam Peckinpah grew to love the untamed frontier, a fondness he would explore first on television (writing and directing episodes of Gunsmoke and The Rifleman), then in feature films. The low-budget oater The Deadly Companions, released in 1961, was his fist directorial effort, but it was 1962’s Ride the High Country that made critics and audiences alike sit up and take notice. Based on the success of this incredibly moving film, the studio gave him a chance to direct Major Dundee, a large-scale picture starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris that was a bust at the box office. Still, his experience on Dundee prepared him for his next project, The Wild Bunch, a beautiful, violent motion picture about the dying west that some called trash (the blood flows freely in The Wild Bunch, more freely than most were accustomed to seeing at that time) and others declared a masterpiece (critic Roger Ebert was one the film’s staunchest defenders in its early days).

Peckinpah followed this up with 1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (which he often said was his favorite of all his films) and Junior Bonner, a 1972 family drama set against the backdrop of a professional rodeo. Neither Cable Hogue nor Junior Bonner made much money, a fact that wasn’t lost on their director, who for years had to answer questions about why the violence in his movies was so visceral (“I made a movie where nobody got shot”, Peckinpah said of Junior Bonner, “and nobody went to see it”). Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid marked another high-point in his career, and has what I consider the finest sequence ever committed to film (for more on that, check out my review of the movie), while his final “western”, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, defied genre, and was roundly panned by most critics upon its release (Peckinpah biographer David Weddle called the film “A genuine work of art and a demented movie”). In these 8 films, Sam Peckinpah presented a vision of the west that was simultaneously romantic and brutal, lamenting the loss of a simpler time while showing us that the line separating its heroes from its villains wasn’t as clear-cut as the Westerns of Hollywood’s heyday led us to believe.

Featuring interviews with those who knew him intimately (his sister Fern Lea, son Matthew, and frequent collaborators L.Q Jones and James Coburn), and those who drew inspiration from his films (actors Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Madsen, writer/director Paul Schrader), Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade delves into the professional and personal lives of its subject. We learn how Peckinpah’s mother influenced him early in life, only to alienate him later on when she abruptly sold the family ranch (his grandfather wanted Sam and his older brother Denny to inherit it); and hear first-hand how alcohol and drugs eventually got the best of him, cutting short both his career and his life (Peckinpah died in 1984 at age of 59). And, of course, we’re treated to clips from his movies, which only seem to get better with age. For more than 3 decades, Sam Peckinpah’s star shined brightly, but burned out far too quickly.

When you think of those directors who defined the western genre, names like John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers), Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur), Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now, The Tall T), and Sergio Leone (The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West) leap immediately to mind. So, too, does the name Sam Peckinpah, whose love of the frontier was evident in every frame of the movies listed above, but who, in the end, proved his own worst enemy. Filmmaker and scoundrel, Sam Peckinpah was a child of the American west, and we will never see the likes of him again.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

#1,776. I'll Wait for the Next One... (2002)

Directed By: Philippe Orreindy

Starring: Sophie Forte, Thomas Gaudin, Pascal Casanova

Line from this film: "I read in a magazine there are 5 million single women in France. Where are they?"

Trivia: Won the award for Bets Short at the 2004 European Film Awards

Finding love can be pretty tricky, and, as we see in Philippe Orreindy’s 2002 Academy-Award nominated short I’ll Wait for the Next One…. (J'attendrai le suivant... in its native France), you can’t even trust it when it seemingly falls into your lap.

A lonely woman (Sophie Forte) boards the Paris Metro. Shortly after the train is under way, a man named Antoine (Thomas Gaudin) begins to address the passengers. For three years, he says, he’s been looking for someone to share his life with, a girl who is as open to romance as he is. Antoine tells the crowd a few things about himself (including his age, profession, and how much money he makes in a month), and, after a brief back-and-forth with a married guy (Pascal Casanova), says any woman interested in taking a chance on him should hop off the train at the next station. The woman is intrigued by Antoine’s request, and within a moment or two of him finishing his speech, the train comes to a stop, and the doors open…

A drama in the guise of a romance, I’ll Wait for the Next One… features hope and heartbreak in equal doses, all conveyed in less than 5 minutes, and with characters as well-rounded as any you’d find in a full-length film. Though she never speaks a word, we know almost immediately that the woman is both alone and looking for love (while riding the escalator down to the platform, a young couple, making out with one another, pass her on their way up, at which point we see the longing, as well as a hint of sadness, in the woman’s eyes). As for Antoine, he appears to be in the same boat, and has decided to do something about it. His speech, though awkward, strikes a chord with the woman, who smiles the entire time he’s delivering it. There’s a brief bit of comedy that comes courtesy of the married guy, who offers to give Antoine his wife’s phone number in the hopes he’ll take her off his hands, but the laughter quickly fades when the woman makes her choice.

With I’ll Wait for the Next One…, director Orriendy has pulled off a minor miracle, squeezing drama, laughs, and pathos into an abbreviated run time to tell a story with the power to break your heart.

Friday, June 26, 2015

#1,775. Of Time and the City (2008)

Directed By: Terence Davies

Starring: Terence Davies

Line from this film: "If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented"

Trivia: Won for Best Documentary at the 2009 Australian Film Critics Association Awards

The trailer for Terence Davies’ 2008 documentary Of Time and the City refers to the film as “A love song and a eulogy for the city of Liverpool”. This sums the movie up perfectly. it’s a love song in that it pays tribute to the town its director grew up in, showing images from a time when he called this UK city his home; and it’s a memorial to an age that now exists solely in one’s nostalgic recollections, a time that has vanished, never to return.

Narrated by Davies himself, who helmed such films as 2000’s The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea in 2011, Of Time and the City combines still photographs, home movies, and modern-day footage of the city’s landscapes (including St. George’s Hall and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King) to compose what is, in the end, a very personal journey through Liverpool’s past, with the director focusing almost exclusively on the era of his youth, the 1950’s and ‘60s. “Here was my whole world”, he says over pictures from that period, which, for him, was all about “Home, school, the movies, and God”. He was 15 when he fell in love with the cinema, a time he says was also taken up by wrestling matches at Liverpool Stadium (alongside shots of stars like Gregory Peck, Of Time and the City treats us to a black and white wrestling bout). To coincide with its stunning imagery, the movie offers literary and historical quotes from the likes of Carl Jung and James Joyce (which Davies mixes in with his narration), and music ranging from classical (Gustav Mahler) to pop (Peggy Lee), all blended together to make Of Time and the City as much a work of art as it is a document of the past.

Yet not even nostalgia can wipe the slate completely clean. As Davies reveals, this era had its share of problems as well, including the strict, often oppressive doctrine of the Catholic church (“As far as I knew”, Davies says at one point, “Mother Church still wanted me, but I no longer wanted her”); the Korean War (scenes of which play over The Hollies’ 1969 hit, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”); and, perhaps most troubling of all, the discrimination that disguised itself as the law of the land (Davies recalls the arrest of 2 gay men in London, who, during their trial, were chastised by the Judge for committing “an act of gross indecency”, which was made worse, he said, because it occurred under one of the city’s “most beautiful bridges”). Still, the filmmaker harbors fond memories of this period, and focuses on those things that were vital to him and his upbringing, often at the expense of what history tells us is important (no movie about Liverpool would be complete without The Beatles, but Davies dedicates no more than a minute or two to the band, leading us to believe their impact on pop culture was much stronger than their influence on him personally).

While the images on display in Of Time and the City are, indeed, gorgeous, the city itself, as seen in the film, is far from elegant. An industrial town brimming with poverty, its streets lined with decaying buildings and graffiti-filled walls, Liverpool clearly wasn’t the ideal place to grow up, yet it was the only home Davies knew. It may not have been perfect, but if Of Time and the City is to be believed, he cherishes the experience of his youth, and that’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

#1,774. Adventure in Sahara (1938)

Directed By: D. Ross Lederman

Starring: Paul Kelly, C. Henry Gordon, Lorna Gray

Tag line: "A Yankee Daredevil Hits The Foreign Legion... To Bring You Breath-Taking Thrills!"

Trivia: Based on a story by future director Samuel Fuller

Based on a story written by Samuel Fuller (who also penned the tale that inspired 1943’s Power of the Press), Adventure in Sahara is a passable, if unspectacular drama / adventure about mutiny in the French Foreign Legion.

When his brother, a legionnaire, dies while on duty, American Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) joins the Foreign Legion in the hopes of getting his revenge on Captain Savatt (C. Henry Gordon), who he believes was responsible for his brother’s demise. At his request, Wilson is stationed at the Agadez Outpost in the Sahara, where Savatt serves as commanding officer, and before long has rallied his fellow troops against the tyrannical Captain. Ignoring the pleas of Lt. Dumond (Robert Fiske), Savatt’s second-in-command, as well as those of his girlfriend Carla (Lorna Gray), who ended up at Agadez when the plane she was flying crashed in the desert, Wilson goes ahead with his mutiny, taking control of the entire outpost. Yet as he’ll soon discover, his problems are far from over.

Adventure in Sahara isn’t without its charms. Along with a handful of well-staged (though not particularly exciting) battle sequences in which the Legion faces off against some Arabs on horseback, the film does a good job establishing Captain Savatt as a stern disciplinarian who occasionally crosses the line into cruelty. While on sentry duty, new recruit René Malreaux (Stanley Brown) tries to piece together a photo of his fiancé, which Savatt had torn into pieces earlier in the day. When Savatt happens by, he has Malreaux arrested for neglecting his responsibilities, and then sentences him to serve as lookout on the wall for 48 hours straight (a punishment that ends in tragedy). On top of this, Adventure in Sahara also features a cameo appearance by actor Dwight Frye (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Vampire Bat), who pops up briefly in the role of Gravet, Capt. Savatt’s right hand man.

Yet, despite its stronger elements, Adventure in Sahara fails to generate any lasting thrills, and will fade from memory soon after the final credits roll.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

#1,773. Even Pigeons Go to Heaven (2007)

Directed By: Samuel Tourneux

Writers: Karine Binaux, Olivier Gilbert, Samuel Tourneux

Trivia: Won the 2007 Junior Jury Award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival

After picking up a radio signal from an unknown source, a Priest races to the house of the elderly Mister Moulin, arriving just in time to save his life (Mister Moulin was trying to retrieve a sock filled with money from the top shelf of a very tall bookcase when he slipped and fell. Luckily, the Priest was able to catch him before he hit the ground). Using his near-death experience as a jumping-off point, the Priest attempts to chisel Mister Moulin out of his life savings by selling him the XV-750, a state-of-the-art one-man vessel that’s guaranteed to shuttle him safely to the Pearly Gates of Heaven (it seems Mister Moulin is something of a miser, and, according to the Priest, has a long list of sins. In short, if he doesn’t purchase the XV-750, he’ll surely end up in hell). After giving the old man a “free demonstration” of what the XV-750 can do, Mister Moulin agrees to buy it, but the transaction is interrupted by a knock at the door…

Nominated for Best Animated Short in 2008 (alongside the excellent Madame Tutli-Putli, though the winner was Peter & The Wolf), Even Pigeons Go To Heaven is a computer animated comedy that delivers the laughs (during the demonstration of the XV-750, Mister Moulin fully believes he’s visiting the Stairway to Heaven, though some quick shots of what the Priest is doing outside the ship reveal that it’s all a hoax). In addition, there’s a clever twist at the end that, along with explaining things a bit better (answering the question: where did the radio signal the Priest intercepted originate from?), delivers a satisfying conclusion.

Delving into it further may reveal a message or two, including how organized religion has made a practice of exploiting people’s fears in order to make a profit, though, ultimately, I think the creative minds behind Even Pigeons Go To Heaven had but a single goal: to put a smile on our faces. And on that level, it’s a rousing success.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

#1,772. Dead Alive (1992)

Directed By: Jesse Hibbs

Starring: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody

Tag line: "You'll laugh yourself sick!"

Trivia: Famed collector Forrest J. Ackerman makes a cameo appearance in this film, playing a tourist at the zoo

There are a number of effective ways to mutilate the human body, and director Peter Jackson covers damn near all of them in his 1992 gorefest, Dead Alive.

Released as Braindead in its native New Zealand, Dead Alive takes us back to 1957, when Wellington’s own Lionel Cosgrove (Tim Balme) first met and fell in love with shop girl Paquita (Diana Peñalver). For Paquita, Lionel was her knight in shining armor, the man that her grandmother (Davina Whitehouse) saw in her tarot cards. Lionel, it is foretold, will protect Paquita from all dangers great and small, but nobody could predict just how dangerous things were about to become!

It all begins when Lionel’s overbearing mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody), follows the two lovers to the zoo. While spying on them from behind a bush, Vera is bitten by a Rat Monkey, a rare creature found only in Sumatra. What at first appears to be a simple bite, however, soon has Vera on death’s door, and despite the best efforts of Lionel and Nurse McTavish (Brenda Kendall), the old girl passes away rather quickly. But she doesn’t stay dead for long; moments after expiring, Vera is up and walking again, only now she has a craving for human flesh! With his mother a zombie, a confused Lionel does what he can to keep her locked up, but within a day or two, she and the others she’s infected are on the loose, attacking everyone in their path. Will Lionel fulfill his destiny and keep his beloved Paquita safe, or will she, too, join the ranks of the walking dead?

Dead Alive is considered by many to be one of the bloodiest motion pictures ever made (do an online search for the top-10 goriest movies of all-time, and I’ll bet this title appears on just about every list), but the red stuff doesn’t start flowing right away. The opening scene, in which explorer Stewart McAlden (Bill Ralston) captures the Rat Monkey on the island of Sumatra, has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark than it does a horror film (there’s a chase involving natives with spears, who are bound and determined to prevent McAden from leaving the island with his prize). From there, the story shifts to Wellington, where we’re introduced to the love-starved Paquita, desperate to find her Prince Charming; and the shy, somewhat clumsy Lionel, whose mother keeps him on a short leash (several flashbacks hint at a family tragedy that Lionel believes was his fault). Aside from an alarming moment or two (the morning after she’s bitten, Vera’s skin starts peeling off), Dead Alive focuses on it characters early on, and isn't yet interested in turning our stomachs.

That all changes, however, when a deathly sick Vera insists on entertaining the Mathesons (Lewis Rowe and Glenis Levestam), who’ve come to make her the new head of the local women’s auxiliary. The bloody puss that Vera inadvertently squirts into Mr. Matheson’s custard is bad enough, but it’s the way she reacts to her ear falling off that will really shock you. From then on, Dead Alive is nothing short of insane, with a brutal scene involving Vera and Nurse MacTavish; a priest who uses kung-fu to subdue some zombies in a church graveyard (“I kick ass for the Lord!”); and a blood-drenched house party that doesn't end until Lionel starts up his trusty lawnmower (arguably the film’s most violent sequence).

By spending time with the characters before the carnage begins, Jackson ensures that his audience will care about the leads and their plight, and will pull for them to survive what amounts to a very messy apocalypse. But Dead Alive is at its best when the guts are oozing and the limbs are popping off. As horror / comedies go, Dead Alive is easily the grossest of the bunch, and I loved every minute of it.