Monday, September 29, 2014

#1,505. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Directed By: Don Taylor

Starring: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman

Tag line: "A New Generation Of Incredible Apes In The Most Exciting Suspense Film Of Them All"

Trivia: One of the earlier scripts has the three ape-o-nauts viewing the dying Earth from their space capsule before going back in time

After exploring the Simian home world in Planet of the Apes, then destroying it in the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the filmmakers had no choice but to switch things up a bit. So, for 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the setting is 20th century America, where the apes themselves are the outsiders, and man is the dominant species.

Just before earth was destroyed by a nuclear blast, ape scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), along with Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), hopped into the spaceship that Taylor arrived in and take off into space. During their journey, the three are inexplicably thrown back in time, coming to rest in modern day America, when man can speak and apes cannot. Not knowing what to make of their new visitors, the military sends them to the Los Angeles Zoo, where Drs. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) will conduct a series of experiments designed to test their intelligence. To the good Drs. surprise, the apes can speak, but before this information is released to the world, Dr. Milo is killed by a captive gorilla. Following a government hearing ordered by the President of the United States (William Windom), Cornelius and Zira become instant celebrities, and are treated as VIPs. But when Zira inadvertently reveals the truth about earth’s future, in which apes rule over man, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) decides to take matters into his own hands, making it his personal mission to destroy the ape visitors and, in doing so, save mankind from its eventual demise.

Having taken the original story as far as they could in both Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, this 3rd entry provided the filmmakers with an opportunity to move things in a very different, yet altogether exciting, direction. For one, Escape has plenty of humor, most of which revolves around Cornelius and Zira as they attempt to “blend in”, trying on the latest in ‘70s fashion and watching TV for the first time (when a news anchor wraps up his telecast by wishing everyone a good night, Zira, who’s watching on the television in her cage, responds by wishing him one as well). These early scenes of levity soon give way to something much more serious, pitting the two apes against a government that fears the unusual. In the first two entries, mankind was the victim. This time around, they’re the aggressors, and thus the film’s villains.

Tackling such hot-button topics as animal testing and government interference, Escape from the Planet of the Apes has plenty to say about the state of things in the 20th century, allowing us to view our world through the eyes of two outsiders. And what we see is none too flattering.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

#1,504. Hangover Square (1945)

Directed By: John Brahm

Starring: Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, George Sanders


Trivia: This film is cited by Stephen Sondheim as inspiration for writing "Sweeney Todd"

Having already teamed up for 1944’s The Lodger, director John Brahm and star Laird Cregar joined forces once again in 1945 for Hangover Street, a brilliant psychological thriller about a classical composer in turn-of-the-century London who suffers from bouts of amnesia. But it’s what he does during these lapses in memory that’s caused Scotland Yard to sit up and notice him.

Encouraged by his neighbor Barbara Chapman (Faye Marlowe), musician George Henry Bone (Cregar) has been working on a new symphony, one that’s sure to be his masterpiece. But George also has a rare condition that strikes from time to time, causing him to wander about in a trance-like state, sometimes for hours, after which he remembers nothing of what transpired. His latest incident lasted for an entire day, leaving George to wonder if he was the party responsible for a murder committed in a nearby neighborhood. Frightened and confused, he visits Dr. Middleton (George Sanders) of Scotland Yard, who, after looking into the matter, says there’s no evidence to suggest George is a killer.

During an evening at a local dance hall, George is introduced to singer Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell), for whom he writes a song. To Netta’s surprise, this song proves popular enough to earn her some much-needed cash. Hoping to convince him to continue writing for her, the manipulative Netta cozies up to George, pretending to be in love with him. Before long, George proposes to Netta, only to discover she’s already engaged to promoter Eddie Carstairs (Glenn Langan). This realization is too much for him to handle, and George slips into another of his trances. The next day, the newspaper headlines scream that Netta is missing, and presumed murdered. Did George have anything to do with Netta’s disappearance, and if so, why can’t he remember it?

Hangover Square is a tense motion picture, with director Brahm pulling out all the stops to tell the story in a visually spectacular manner. In the film’s opening scene, we witness the murder of a shop owner from the killer’s perspective, watching as the man, who struggles to break free, is stabbed repeatedly. A later sequence, which takes place on Guy Fawkes Day, is equally as impressive, following a character as he carries a corpse, dressed to resemble Guy Fawkes, through the streets of London before tossing his victim into a bonfire. Even the film’s finale, during which the camera move freely around the room as Stone’s symphony is being performed, succeeds in building a great deal of tension, leading to a climax as dramatic as anything that went before it.

Along with Brahm’s striking visual style, Hangover Square features a tremendous performance by Laird Cregar, who expertly conveys his character’s inner turmoil, often doing so without the use of dialogue. Tragically, this would be Cregar’s final film; he died of a heart attack in December of 1944 at the age of 31, two months before the premiere of Hangover Square. In both his films with John Brahm, The Lodger and Hangover Square, Cregar proved himself an actor of immense talent, leaving us to ponder what else he might have accomplished had he lived a full life.

To many film enthusiasts, the names John Brahm and Laird Cregar won’t mean anything. If that’s the case, do yourself a favor and watch both The Lodger and Hangover Square immediately. Odds are they’ll make as strong an impression on you as they made on me.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

#1,503. Octopussy (1983)

Directed By: John Glen

Starring: Roger Moore, Maud Adams, Louis Jourdan

Tag line: "Nobody does it better...thirteen times"

Trivia: James Brolin was almost given the role of James Bond when at the last minute, Roger Moore agreed to play Bond again

Comedy was a major component of Roger Moore’s 7-film tenure as James Bond, yet no movie during this period featured as much humor as 1983’s Octopussy, which relies so heavily on one-liners and witty asides that, at times, it’s a real distraction.

Working undercover at a New Delhi circus, secret agent 009 (Andy Bradford), disguised as a clown, manages to steal an exact replica of an invaluable Fabergè egg, which he delivers to the British Embassy just before dying (he was stabbed in the back). With the real egg going up for auction at Sotheby’s, MI6 sends its best man, James Bond (Moore), to root out whoever was responsible for the forgery (more than likely, with their copy now gone, this person or persons will want to re-acquire the original). After a brief bidding war, the egg is won by Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), who, along with his accomplice Madga (Kristin Wayborn), flies home to India with it. What they don’t know is that, during the auction, Bond replaced the real egg with the phony one. With the actual Fabergè in tow, 007 heads to India, where he hopes to discover why Khan is so interested in such a priceless item. What he finds is that Khan, who’s somehow linked to an all-female organization led by the mysterious Octopussy (Maud Adams), has been working for General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a Soviet officer who’s raising money to launch an attack against the west, one he’s convinced will prove to the world the military might of the Soviet army. With the General’s plan already in motion, 007 must move quickly to prevent a catastrophe that, if carried out, will kill thousands of innocent people.

Despite the seriousness of its story (which involves nuclear weapons, a hot topic back in the 1980s), Octopussy is chock full of humor, with Moore’s Bond rattling off one-liners at a breakneck pace, and doing so throughout much of the film. While in India, Bond pays a visit to “Q” (Desmond Llewellyn), who’s testing his latest invention: a remote controlled Indian rope trick, which, unfortunately, snaps in half before reaching the top. Without missing a beat, Bond quips “Having a hard time keeping it up, Q?” Even the action scenes have their share of jokes (during a street fight with Khan’s henchmen, Bond pulls a sword out of a sword swallowers mouth, then tosses one poor guy onto a bed of nails), and some of the humor is downright ridiculous, like when Bond is in the jungle, trying to escape from Khan and his men. Climbing a tree, he grabs hold of a vine and jumps, and as he swings through the air, the Tarzan yell fills the soundtrack!

That’s not to say Octopussy is devoid of those elements that make a good Bond picture. For one, the women are gorgeous, especially Wayborn’s Madga, who isn’t shy about using her body to get what she wants. Louis Jourdan, always a sold actor, does a fine job as this film’s villain, as does Berkoff, whose General Orlov is particularly deplorable. Partially shot in Rajasthan, the Indian locale is used to great effect, and series regulars Llewellyn and Lois Maxwell (as Moneypenny) also turn up briefly (Llewellyn’s “Q”, who gets more screen time than usual, even joins in on the final battle). And while most of the movie features mediocre action, the entire finale, which begins with Bond trying to catch a train and ends with the traditional shoot-out, is absolutely exhilarating.

Unlike some, I don’t rank Octopussy among the worst Bond films; its thrilling climax manages to salvage much of the silliness that went before it. But with such a heavy emphasis on humor, it’s hard to deny that, at times, Octopussy comes across as one of the series’ minor efforts.

Friday, September 26, 2014

#1,502. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Directed By: Howard Hawks

Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles

Tag line: "And so begins the hilarious adventure of Professor David Huxley and Miss Susan Vance, a flutter-brained vixen with love in her heart!"

Trivia: Christopher Reeve based his performance as Clark Kent in Superman (1978) on Cary Grant's performance as David Huxley in this film

Of all the screwball comedies to emerge from the ‘30s and ‘40s, Bringing Up Baby, a 1938 film directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, is easily the screwiest (which, in turn, makes it one of the sub-genres funniest entries).

Things are looking up for Dr. David Huxley (Grant), a paleontologist working for a prestigious museum in New York City. For one, he’s about to marry his longtime assistant, Alice (Virginia Walker), and on top of that he’s just received word from an overseas expedition that they’ve uncovered a rare intercostal clavicle, the last bone needed to complete the brontosaurus skeleton he’s been reconstructing for the past 4 years. What’s more, socialite Elizabeth Random (Mary Robson) is looking to donate a million dollars to a worthy organization, and the museum is at the top of her list! To seal the deal, Huxley heads to the local country club to play a round of golf with Ms. Random’s lawyer, Alexander Peabody (George Irving). It’s here that he has an unfortunate run-in with heiress Susan Vance (Hepburn), and all at once his life is turned upside-down.

After accidentally playing his ball while on the golf course, Ms. Vance then steals (albeit by mistake) Dr. Huxley’s car, causing him to take off after her and leave poor Mr. Peabody alone on the links. To try and explain what happened, Huxley makes arrangements to meet Peabody at the club restaurant later that evening, only to once again run into Ms. Vance, resulting in yet another disaster (both Huxley and Ms. Vance end up tearing their clothes and are forced to make a hasty exit). From then on, Dr. Huxley finds he’s unable to shake the flighty Ms Vance, who’s taken a liking to him, and before he knows it he’s in her car, heading to Connecticut to drop off a pet leopard named Baby, which Ms. Huxley’s brother sent from Brazil as a gift for their aunt. As crazy as all this seems, it’s nothing compared to what happens when the mismatched couple reaches Connecticut!

The cast of Bringing Up Baby is superb. Cary Grant is pitch-perfect as Dr. David Huxley, the once-stable scientist who becomes an unwitting accomplice to Ms. Huxley’s flights of fancy, and as a result slowly begins to unravel. Along with Grant’s controlled hysterics, Bringing up Baby gives us Katherine Hepburn as you’ve never seen her before, playing Ms Vance as a ditzy, love struck girl who can’t stay out of trouble (While driving to Connecticut with Dr. Huxley and Baby the Leopard, she crashes into a truck hauling chickens and ducks. As the birds flutter around on the road, a hungry Baby licks its lips and jumps out the back of the car. When the smoke clears, several chickens and ducks are missing, leaving Dr. Huxley to pay for the damages). But what really makes Bringing Up Baby an unforgettable experience are the insane situations these two characters get themselves into, some of which amount to petty crimes (after accidentally stealing a purse at the club restaurant, Ms. Huixley purposefully swipes a car on the road to Connecticut). With its fast, overlapping dialogue and frenzied pace, Bringing up Baby is a wild motion picture (what other ‘30s movie has a fight between a docile leopard and an angry Scottish terrier?)

Featuring stellar performances and enough anarchy to make the Marx Brothers proud, Bringing up Baby is cinematic insanity at its absolute best, a cauldron of craziness that gets loonier with each passing minute. It is also one of the greatest screen comedies ever made.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

#1,501. Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Directed By: Preston Sturges

Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick

Tag line: "A Happy-Go Lucky Hitch-Hiker on the Highway to happiness! He wanted to see the world . . . but wound up in Lover's Lane!"

Trivia: Veronica Lake was six months pregnant at the beginning of production, a fact she didn't tell Sturges until filming began. Sturges was so furious when he learned that, according to Lake, he had to be physically restrained

Preston Sturges’ 1941 comedy with a conscience, Sullivan’s Travels stars Joel McCrea as movie director John Lloyd Sullivan, whose films (such as Ants in Your Plants of 1939) are among the most popular in the country. Yet despite his success, Sullivan longs to make a movie that’s more socially relevant, reflecting the poverty and despair currently gripping the nation. To research his latest project, a human drama titled O Brother, Where art Thou, Sullivan dresses up like a hobo and, with only $0.10 in his pocket, sets out to experience what it means to be hungry and out of work. Along the way, he meets up with a would-be actress (Veronica Lake) who, after treating him to a meal, joins Sullivan on his grand adventure. Together, the two spend time among the poor and destitute, sleeping on mission floors and eating in soup kitchens. Convinced he’s now ready to tackle O Brother, Where Art Thou, Sullivan returns to the Hollywood fold, but it isn’t until he tries to reward the needy who aided in his research that he learns what true suffering is.

Joel McCrae is utterly believable as the well-meaning but naïve title character, and the early scenes depicting his journey to poverty row are played almost entirely for laughs. After ditching the “land yacht”, a large bus hired by the studio to follow closely behind and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble, Sullivan visits a farm owned and operated by an elderly widow (Almira Sessions) and her sister (Esther Howard), who offer him room and board in exchange for his services (chopping wood, etc). When the widow takes a liking to him, Sullivan sneaks out in the middle of the night and hitches a ride, only to end up back in Hollywood! Even his budding relationship with the struggling actress (Lake’s character is never given a name), who, disguised as a boy, accompanies him into the great unknown, plays out like a romantic comedy (in a very funny scene, the two learn that leaping from a moving train is twice as difficult as hopping onto one).

Then, at about the halfway mark, director Sturges throws his audience a curve by changing the entire tone of the picture, taking what had been a lively comedy and transforming it into a drama ripe with social commentary. The trouble begins when Sullivan, feeling he’s completed his mission, again visits the poor, this time to give out $5 bills as a “thank you” for opening his eyes to their plight. Performing this task alone, he’s jumped by a vagrant and knocked unconscious. After dragging Sullivan’s limp body into an abandoned railway car and stealing his shoes, the vagrant runs away, only to be struck and killed by a passing train. This kicks off a chain of events that takes Sullivan's Travels in a very dark direction, with Sullivan tossed head-first into a living nightmare. After giving us plenty to laugh about early on, Sturges, with these later scenes, stirs our emotions in a much different, yet equally as satisfying way.

Wonderfully acted and expertly directed, Sullivan’s Travels is a marvelous motion picture.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

#1,500. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Directed By: Tommy Lee Wallace

Starring: Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin, Dan O'Herlihy

Tag line: "Witchcraft enters the computer age, and a different terror begins"

Trivia: A milk factory was used for the setting of the Silver Shamrock factory

Many of the fans of Halloween and Halloween II never warmed up to 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The reason, of course, is that, unlike the previous films, soulless killer Michael Myers is nowhere to be found. With Halloween III: Season of the Witch, executive producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill were hoping to launch what would have become an anthology of sorts, with a new Halloween movie, each telling a different story, released every year around the holiday. It was a great concept, and I kinda wish they’d had a chance to expand upon it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.

Several days before Halloween, Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) is pulled into a bizarre mystery when an elderly patient, who was brought into the hospital clutching a Halloween mask, is murdered while still under his care. Joined by the dead man’s daughter, Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), Dr. Challis heads to the small California town of Santa Mira, the headquarters of the Silver Shamrock Company, producers of the hottest Halloween mask on the planet. Thanks to their intensive marketing campaign (which includes a jingle you won’t soon forget), Silver Shamrock has sold millions of masks all across the United States. What’s more, they’re telling kids to tune in to a special Halloween night program, which they should watch while still in costume. But as Dr. Challis and Ellie probe deeper into the matter, they discover the CEO of Silver Shamrock, Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), is plotting something that, if successful, will result in the deaths of thousands, possibly even millions, of innocent people.

Aside from a few brief scenes where the original Halloween is playing on TV, Halloween III has no tie-in whatsoever with Michael Myers, Dr. Loomis, Laurie Strode or Haddonfield, Illinois. Yet, despite its differences from the first two entries, Halloween III is a fun film in its own right. Sure, it’s not perfect (there’s a link to Stonehenge that doesn’t make much sense), but the movie boasts a handful of noteworthy scenes, the best of which is a sequence where Cochran tests his “plan” on the family of Buddy Kupfer (Ralph Strait), a salesman who, because he sold so many masks, was given a V.I.P. tour of the plant. After being placed in a small room, Buddy’s son Little Buddy (Brad Schacter) puts on his Silver Shamrock mask and watches the program scheduled to air on Halloween night. Needless to say, things get a bit out of hand, and the resulting carnage is something you won’t soon forget. Also memorable is Conal Cochran’s history lesson of sorts, where he discusses the true origin of Halloween (flawlessly delivered by O’Herlihy, it proves a fascinating monologue).

Admittedly, I’m a fan of the Halloween series, including the movies that followed Halloween III, all of which once again featured Michael Myers (Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers and Halloween V: The Revenge of Michel Myers are both solid horror films). That said, I can’t help but wonder what stories might have been told had Carpenter and Hill had a chance to continue their initial plan for the series. I don’t blame the fans, really, for not embracing Halloween III: Season of the Witch. For me, the fault lies with whoever decided to add the number “3” to this film (which led people to believe it was yet another sequel to the classic original). It’s all water under the bridge now, of course, but the fact that I enjoyed Halloween III: Season of the Witch makes the failure of Carpenter and Hill’s concept a little harder to bear.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

#1,499. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Directed By: Rich Moore

Starring: John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch

Tag line: "This holiday season comes a story for everyone who ever needed a restart on life"

Trivia: Jennifer Lee, one of the film's two screenwriters, became the first woman to write a screenplay for a full-length Disney animated feature film since Noni White for 1999's Tarzan

Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph does for video games what Toy Story did for toys; creating a world filled with wonder, where the characters and games we grew up with are given a life of their own.

For 30 years, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) has been the villain in the popular arcade game “Fix-It Felix”, spending every waking minute destroying an apartment building that the “hero”, Felix (Jack McBrayer), then repairs. Even at the end of the day, when the players have gone home and the arcade shuts its doors, poor Ralph can’t get any respect (he isn’t invited to the game’s 30th Anniversary celebration, watching it instead from the garbage dump he calls home). Hoping to change his luck, Ralph leaves his own game and ventures into the high-tech, battle-oriented world of “Hero’s Duty”, where he joins an elite team of warriors, led by the beautiful but tough Calhoun (Jane Lynch), tasked with fighting thousands of alien bugs, all in the hopes of winning a medal that Ralph believes will prove, once and for all, he can be a “good guy”.

Ralph does win his medal, but a mishap with an escape pod launches him (as well as a killer bug) out of “Hero’s Duty” and into “Sugar Rush”, a race cart game in which the entire world is made of candy. It’s here that he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a bratty little girl who, because she’s considered a programming “glitch”, has been shunned by her peers. Hoping to show she isn’t just a “glitch”, Vanellope steals Ralph’s medal and uses it to pay the entry fee for an upcoming race. At first upset with Vanellope, Ralph (who understands what it’s like to be an outcast) eventually agrees to help her, angering the King of “Sugar Rush” (Alan Tudyk), who insists there’s no place for a “Glitch” in his kingdom. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix (who, without Ralph, has nothing to fix) has teamed up with Calhoun to try and locate both Ralph and the bug from “Hero’s Duty”, which, if loose in “Sugar Rush”, will destroy everything in its path.

Right off the bat, I was blown away by the world the filmmakers created for Wreck-It Ralph, where characters from one game can travel by tram car through the wiring and into another (in the opening scene, Ralph is attending a villain’s support group hosted by one of the ghosts from “Pac-Man”). What’s more, the surge protectors act as a sort of train station, complete with a Customs Officer who checks to make sure you aren’t bringing fruits and vegetables from one game into another. While some of the games in this particular arcade are fictitious, and used to represent actual games (“Fix-It Felix” is clearly “Donkey Kong”, and “Sugar Rush” has a lot in common with “Mario Kart”), others are the real deal (along with “Pac-Man”, Ralph has a run-in with Q-Bert, who’s homeless now because his game was disconnected). As someone who spent a good deal of time hanging around arcades, I immediately fell in love with this incredibly detailed world.

But like Toy Story, there’s more to Wreck-It Ralph than mere spectacle. In fact, one of the film’s major strengths is its characters. A big, lumbering oaf who only wants to fit in, Ralph is someone most people can identify with, and John C. Reilly (who doesn’t bother disguising his voice) brings just the right mix of pathos and determination to the character, making him sympathetic, but strong. I also liked Vanellope, who, despite being an obnoxious brat early on, wins us over with her enthusiasm (the scene where she and Ralph break into the car factory is a lot of fun). In a nice twist, the filmmakers even portrayed Felix, Ralph’s in-game foe, in a positive light, giving him an “Aw Shucks” personality yet still allowing him to be more than your typical game hero (in a brilliantly bizarre romantic subplot, Felix falls in love with Calhoun).

Like many of Disney’s best films, you’ll adore the visual splendor of Wreck-It Ralph, but it’s the characters that will stay with you.