Saturday, March 28, 2015

#1,685. The Goat (1921)

Directed By: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts

Trivia: Malcolm St. Clair, who played Dead Shot Dan in this film, would go on to direct some of Laurel and Hardy's later films

A master of physical comedy whose timing was impeccable, Buster Keaton would often wow audiences with his acrobatic feats and perfectly staged gags. In 1921’s The Goat, he gives all of these talents, and a few more besides, a damn good workout.

Hoping to improve his luck, a vagrant (Keaton) tosses a horseshoe over his shoulder. Unfortunately, it hits a policeman square in the head, leading to a chase that sees the vagrant running for his life for a trio of cops. Things go from bad to worse for our downtrodden hero when he’s mistakenly identified as wanted murderer Dead Shot Dan (Malcolm St. Clair). With a determined Police Chief (Joe Roberts) hot on his trail, the poor guy tries desperately to stay out of sight. But when he accepts a dinner invitation from a pretty girl (Virginia Fox), he soon finds himself in more trouble than he ever imagined.

The Goat is a madcap comedy in every sense of the word, with plenty of stunts and pratfalls to keep things moving along at a solid pace. After inadvertently hitting the cop with the horseshoe, Keaton’s character (referred to as “The Goat” in the film’s credits) is chased through the streets, narrowly avoiding capture at every turn (He even lures the 3 policemen into the back of a delivery truck, which he then locks up tight. But as he quickly learns, not even this can protect him from the long arm of the law). Along with the action, The Goat provides a few inspired comedy routines, like when Keaton, in line for a free loaf of bread, accidentally stands behind two mannequins, then wonders why the line isn’t moving.

Like most silent comedians, Buster Keaton made a slew of short movies early in his career, most of which I’ve never seen. But if they’re anywhere near as frantic as The Goat, it’s a miracle he survived long enough to make feature films!

Friday, March 27, 2015

#1,684. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Directed By: Amy Heckerling

Starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold

Tag line: "Fast Cars, Fast Girls, Fast Carrots...Fast Carrots?"

Trivia: Jennifer Jason Leigh's real life father, Vic Morrow, died in a helicopter accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie about 3 weeks before the US release of this film

During the opening credits sequence of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which features a few scenes set inside Ridgemont Mall, I immediately flashed back to my teenage years, when my friends and I would spend our Friday nights hanging out at the local shopping malls (there were two in my area), which looked like the one in this film (the Sherman Oaks Galleria stood in for the fictional Ridgemont). I’m talking exactly like it, from the arcade, food court, and movie theater right down to the staircases and glass elevator. It was the first of several memories that came rushing back as I sat watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High, chief among them being how much I love this film.

15-year-old Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sophomore at Ridgemont High, is desperate to find a boyfriend. Following the advice of her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), Stacy dates several guys, including classmate Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), who has a crush on her, and Mark’s pal, Mike Damone (Richard Romanus), a con man who has a way with the ladies. Stacy’s older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold), in his senior year at Ridgemont, decides to break it off with his longtime girlfriend Lisa (Amanda Wyss) so that he can ‘play the field’, but is fired from his job before he can do so. As Stacy, Brad, and the others try to deal with the problems that plague most kids their age, classmate Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is having fun surfing waves, smoking dope with his buddies (Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards), and tormenting his history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) every chance he gets.

Written by Cameron Crowe, whose experiences posing as a high school student formed the basis of a novel that shares its name with this film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High captured teen life in the ‘80s much better than some critics gave it credit for at the time. Roger Ebert was especially harsh in his 1-star write-up, calling Fast Timesa scuz-pit of a movie” in which “the humor comes from raunchy situations and dialogue”. Sure, the movie is raunchy; along with a couple of sex scenes and a very memorable dream sequence, there’s a moment in the lunchroom (involving carrots) that fueled the imagination of an entire generation of young men. But it also offers some genuine insight into the teenage experience, including fear of responsibility (despite his cool demeanor, Mike Damone proves he’s just as scared as everyone else when the chips are down, leaving Stacy to face a difficult situation on her own), awkward first dates (Mark’s and Stacy’s night on the town ends rather abruptly), and, most traumatic of all, high school biology class, the curriculum for which was clearly devised by sadists (having attended Catholic school, I never went on a class trip to the hospital, but we did dissect a few of nature’s more disgusting creatures). So while the humor in Fast Times at Ridgemont High does occasionally aim low, it also reaches higher than many other teen comedies of this era.

Along with Crowe’s script, Fast Times has an outstanding young cast, many of whom would go on to bigger and better things. Jennifer Jason Leigh convincingly portrays Stacy as a confused young woman so eager to lose her virginity that she doesn’t stop to consider the consequences, and the stunning Phoebe Cates is exceptional as the worldly best friend who, it turns out, doesn’t have all the answers. In addition to these two, the movie features Judge Reinhold as Stacy’s older brother Brad, who has trouble holding onto a job; and Forest Whitaker as football star Charles Jefferson, an often-angry guy who singlehandedly wins a big game for the home team (though he did have a little extra motivation to spur him on). Then there’s Sean Penn as the oft-stoned Jeff Spicoli, a surfer whose sole purpose in life is to have a good time. Despite its ensemble cast, some of whom get considerably more screen time, Penn’s Spicoli is the character that immediately pops to mind when you think of this film (his various run-ins with Ray Walston’s Mr. Hand are arguably the movie’s most hilarious scenes).

While the years have altered my perspective a bit (back in the day, I agreed with Spicoli when he called Mr, Hand a “dick”. Now, I see the poor guy as more patient than I ever gave him credit for), they haven’t changed how much I enjoy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Every time I watch it, I’m a teenager again, and that’s a feeling I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

#1,683. Gothic (1987)

Directed By: Ken Russell

Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson

Tag line: "Conjure up your deepest, darkest fear... now call that fear to life"

Trivia: Gabriel Byrne walks with a limp and carries a cane because the real Lord Byron had a club foot

I have no idea what to make of Ken Russell’s Gothic. A movie that takes us back to the very night that Mary Godwin Shelley was inspired to write her classic novel Frankenstein, the film has a lot going for it (performances, story, etc), yet is constructed in such a way that suggests the style of the telling was more important than the tale itself.

Set in the summer of 1816, Gothic introduces us to Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), who, accompanied by his lover Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson) and her stepsister Claire (Miriam Cyr), visits Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) at the Villa Deodati on Lake Geneva, where he resides with his personal physician Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall). One night, as a storm rages outside, the five pass the time by reading from a book of ghost tales, at which point Lord Byron suggests they all try their hand at writing a horror story. But when, thanks to a steady stream of wine and laudanum, they instead come face-to-face with their greatest fears, their evening of frivolity descends into a nightmare from which they cannot escape.

Gabriel Byrne shines as the devious Byron, whose constant prodding convinces the others to confront their demons (whether they want to or not), and Natasha Richardson (in an early role) brings warmth to the part of the reserved Mary Godwin, a woman so inspired by the traumas of that fateful evening that she wrote one of the all-time great horror novels, Frankenstein. These same events would be explored again a year or so later in Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer, but where the latter film focused more on the dramatic, Gothic was interested in weaving a supernatural tale, which, truth be told, fit the subject matter quite nicely (the characters are tormented throughout by the personification of their fears, which at times takes the form of a monster, creeping in the nearby shadows and watching every move they make).

Where Gothic lost me, though, was in its execution. Ken Russell, whose style has always leaned towards the flamboyant, fills the movie with one bizarre image after another, from life-size mechanical puppets that dance to a pair of female breasts with eyes where the nipples should be. It’s not that these sequences don’t work; on the contrary, there are times when they convey the dread that haunts these characters (whether brought on by the laudanum or a force they cannot comprehend). Unfortunately, Russell’s lack of restraint undermines the effectiveness of these scenes, bombarding us with the strange and unusual on such a regular basis that we become numb to it all. Whereas he would have been better off using the approach he took to Altered States (where the imagery supported the story), Russell instead takes Gothic in the direction of Tommy (where the imagery was the story), and the movie suffers as a result.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

#1,682. Cabiria (1914)

Directed By: Giovanni Pastrone

Starring: Italia Almirante-Manzini, Lidia Quaranta, Bartolomeo Pagano

Tag line: "The Master Work Of A Master Mind"

Trivia: Was the first film to use a dolly-track system, the effects of which were pegged "Cabiria movements" in the industry

Years before D.W. Griffith directed Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Italy was already making movies on a grand scale. Films like The Last Days of Pompeii (1908), Lucrezia Borgia (1910) and Quo Vadis? (1912) set the standard by which many later historical epics, both in Hollywood and abroad, would be measured. Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria, one of the last produced during this era, was yet another impressive achievement, a motion picture so enormous in scope that its images are as awe-inspiring today as when it was first released over a century ago.

Set in the period of the Second Punic War (around 200 B.C.), Cabiria opens on the island of Sicily, where Roman aristocrat Batto (Émile Vardannes) resides with his wife and adolescent daughter Cabiria (Carolina Catena), who is cared for by a slave named Croessa (Gina Marangoni). When nearby Mt. Etna erupts, Croessa and Cabiria head for the safety of the countryside, where they’re kidnapped by Phoenician pirates, who sail to Carthage and sell the two to Kartholo (Dante Testa), a High priest of the God Moloch. Kartholo announces plans to sacrifice young Cabiria during an upcoming ceremony, causing a desperate Croessa to turn to Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato), a Roman spy operating undercover in Carthage, for help. Along with his slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano), Fulvius rescues the girl, then heads to a local inn, where the Innkeeper Bodosteret (Raffaele di Napoli) agrees to hide them from the throng of worshipers hot on their trail. Thus begins a decade-long adventure during which our heroes encounter everyone from the famed Carthaginian General Hannibal (also played by Émile Vardannes, who appears as Cabriia’s father) to Princess Sophonisba (Italia Almirante-Manzini) of Numidia, all the while hoping to one day reunite Cabiria with the mother and father she left behind.

Aided by its striking set design and remarkable costumes, Cabiria presents several gargantuan scenes, from the eruption of Mt. Etna that kicks the story off to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps (complete with elephants). With the Punic Wars as a backdrop, we watch as the Roman Fleet is nearly destroyed in Syracuse thanks to the mathematician / inventor Archimedes (Enrico Gemelli), who, aided by humongous mirrors, was able to sink a number of ships; and marvel at the film’s various battle sequences, each more extravagant than the last Though the story’s focus never dwells far from its central characters or their plight (Fulvius makes his way back to Rome, joining the army in their fight against Carthage, while Cabiria, played as an adult by Lidia Quaranta, becomes a handmaiden for the Princess Sophonisba), Cabiria is, first and foremost, a movie spectacular, recreating a time in history when adventure was commonplace, then staging it all in as exciting a manner as possible..

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

#1,681. The ABCs of Death (2012)

Directed By: Kaare Andrews, Angela Bettis, et al

Starring: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Iván González, Kyra Zagorsky

Tag line: "26 Directors, 26 Ways to Die"

Trivia: The opening shot of each of the 26 short films features the camera panning away from something red

It’s a hell of a concept, isn’t it? A horror anthology featuring 26 shorts by 26 filmmakers, each dedicated to a different letter of the alphabet?

Yeah, it’s a hell of a concept, and with more hits than misses, The ABCs of Death is a hell of a movie, too.

Released in 2012, The ABCs of Death was a true global effort, with short films produced in countries like France, Canada, Mexico, Surinam, and Japan, just to name a few. How it worked was: 26 young directors, most specializing in genre cinema, were assigned a letter of the alphabet and then given a small amount of money (somewhere around $5,000) to produce a short that, in some way, relates back to that letter. The stories themselves were left entirely up to the filmmakers, who had the freedom to do whatever tickled their fancies. Some of those chosen, such as Ti West (The Innkeepers) Noboru Iguchi (Mutant Girls Squad) and Andrew Traucki (Black Water), were established directors, while others were relative newcomers (known more for her work in front of the camera, actress Angela Bettis directed “E is for Exterminate”, a short about a spider that takes its revenge on the man who attempted to kill it).

Right out of the gate, The ABCs of Death gets the adrenaline pumping with “A is for Apocalypse”, a violent story about a man (Miguel Insua) and his wife (Eva LLorach) directed by Nacho Vigalondo, who also helmed the wonderful 2007 sci-fi / thriller Timecrimes. This is followed by “B is for Bigfoot”, Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s unique take on the Yeti mythology in which a horny couple (Harold Torres and Alejandra Urdiaín) tries to get the guy’s younger sister (Greta Martinez) to stay in bed by telling her a Yeti will eat her heart if she doesn’t. Both movies are extremely effective, as is “D is for Dogfight”, a stylish short by Marcel Sarmiento about a boxer (Steve Berens) forced to fight a savage dog. Other films worth noting are Ben Wheatley’s “U is for Unearthed”, a first-person perspective in which the audience watches events unfold through the eyes of a hunted vampire; “Q is for Quack”, a self-referential comedy by Adam Wingard (You’re Next) where he and his writer, Simon Barrett, lament the fact they’ve been saddled with the difficult letter “Q”, and try to come up with an idea to make it work; and Thomas Cappelen Malling’s “H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion”, a cartoon-like fantasy set in World War II about a dog in uniform who’s seduced by a sultry night-club dancer (and she’s a real fox. No, I mean it… an actual fox!). Speaking of cartoons, we’re also treated to the animated short “K is for Klutz”, about a woman who, after using the bathroom, is tormented by her own turd; and, along those same lines, “T is for Toilet”, a Claymation flick centering on a young boy’s fear of the toilet, which has thus far hindered his parents’ attempts to potty-train him.

Of course, there are some duds as well. Noboru Iguchi’s “F is for Fart” is an overly-bizarre “comedy” featuring a teenage girl (Arisa Nakamura) who longs to smell the farts of her pretty teacher (Yui Murata); and after getting off to a strong start, The ABCs of Death ends with the disappointing “Z is for Zetsumetsu”, director Yoshihiro Nishimura’s nudity-infused crapfest that wants to insult as many people as possible (it even makes references to tragedies like 9/11). While not bad, per-se, Timo Tjahjanto’s “L is for Libido”, about a sex-centric contest in which the loser is viciously murdered, definitely crosses the line into poor taste (including child molestation). That said, the worst offenders were, quite surprisingly, from a pair of directors I usually admire. Andrew Traucki’s “G is for Gravity” is a (very) short film about suicide that left me scratching my head, but even this wasn’t as bad as Ti West’s “M is for Miscarriage”, a movie so incredibly minimalistic that it was almost embarrassing.

On the whole, however, I’d say The ABCs of Death was a worthwhile experience, and I can’t wait to check out its sequel, last year’s The ABCs of Death 2. With the likes of the Soska Sisters (American Mary), Vincenzo Natali (Nothing, Haunter), and Julien Maury (director of the excellent 2007 French horror film Inside) tossing their hats into the ring, I’m betting this second installment will be as much fun as the first.

Monday, March 23, 2015

#1,680. Mean Johnny Barrows (1976)

Directed By: Fred Williamson

Starring: Fred Williamson, Roddy McDowall, Stuart Whitman

Tag line: "Brutal!..Blasting!..Blazing!"

Trivia: Co-star Elliott Gould came in for a half-hour's work to help out his MASH co-star, improvising his part on the spot

Actor Fred Williamson, who starred in movies like Black Caesar and Bucktown, has also worked behind the scenes on a number of films. And while I was lukewarm on Joshua, a 1976 western based on a screenplay he penned, his directorial debut, the action / crime flick Mean Johnny Barrows, was, at all times, an entertaining watch.

After receiving a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. army for striking his superior officer, Johnny Barrows (Williamson) returns home to Los Angeles. Once there, he’s approached by mobster Mario Racconi (Stuart Whitman), who wants to pay Johnny to rub out his family’s competition, namely Don Da Vince (Anthony Caruso) and his two sons Carlo (Mike Henry) and Tony (Roddy McDowall), who’ve been trying to peddle drugs in nearby neighborhoods. Hoping to live a normal life, Johnny turns down Racconi’s offer and goes to work at a local gas station. Unfortunately, his boss, Richard (R.G. Armstrong), is a cheapskate, and following an argument over his meager paycheck, Johnny finds himself unemployed and in desperate need of cash. Convinced by a pretty blonde (Jenny Sherman) to give Racconi another chance, Johnny throws on a slick white suit and sets out to eliminate the Da Vince family. What he doesn’t know is there’s a traitor in the Racconi organization, one who's setting Johnny up to take a very big fall.

For a fair portion of its running time, Mean Johnny Barrows is an exciting grindhouse-era crime film; one scene in particular, where Williamson jumps out of a van brandishing a pair of shotguns, is exploitation gold. In addition to the action, Mean Johnny Barrows features a strong supporting cast, including Stuart Whitman (quite good as a Mafioso), R.G. Armstrong (who made a career out of playing bastards like the one he portrays here), and Anthony Caruso. Even Roddy McDowall, who at first seems like an odd choice to play an Italian crime boss’s son, holds his own as the shifty Tony, and keep an eye out for Elliot Gould, who pops up briefly as a street bum (appearing as a favor to Williamson, his co-star in Robert Altman’s MASH, Gould ad-libbed his single scene, resulting in one of the film’s funniest segments).

With plenty of thrills and some blood-drenched shoot-outs, Mean Johnny Barrows was the perfect vehicle for Fred Williamson, who, this time around, gets the job done on both sides of the camera.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

#1,679. Psychomania (1973)

Directed By: Don Sharp

Starring: Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Ann Michelle

Tag line: "Motorcycle Maniacs on Wheels"

Trivia: During a BBC interview, Nicky Henson said that he has always thought the film was terrible and only decided to be in it because he thought no one would ever see it

A movie about undead bikers? Sounds a little unusual, doesn’t it? Well, that’s just scratching the surface; directed by Don Sharp, 1973’s Psychomania is, from start to finish, an intensely strange motion picture.

Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is the leader of a biker gang, a group of hell raisers known as “The Living Dead”. His gang’s name proves prophetic, actually, because Tom has just stumbled upon something both his mother (Beryl Reid) and his family’s faithful servant, Shadwell (George Sanders), were hiding from him: the secret to eternal life. Of course, like most secrets, there’s a catch: if you want to live forever, you must, 1. kill yourself, and 2. have total confidence that you will return (even the slightest hesitation when taking your own life will put you in the grave for good). So, the next day, while he and his buddies are running from the cops, Tom decides to end it all by driving his bike off a bridge. With his mother’s permission, Tom’s girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin) and the rest of “The Living Dead” bury Tom along with his beloved bike. Shortly after, someone claiming to be Tom is spotted at a roadside rest stop, where 5 innocent people are murdered. What’s more, his body is no longer in its grave! As the gang soon discovers, their fearless leader has conquered death, and it isn’t long before they want to do the same. With an undead army of vicious bikers at his disposal, Tom plans to take over the city, something his mother simply cannot allow. But then... how is she going to stop him?

Psychomania is a decent biker flick, profiling a gang that stirs up all kinds of trouble. After causing an accident that claims the life of a motorist (Roy Evans), “The Living Dead” descends upon a crowded section of town, where they chase mothers pushing baby carriages and knock a painter off a ladder. The police pursue them several times, leading to some exciting action scenes, but it’s the film’s supernatural elements that will truly blow you away. Following an odd sequence in which he visits the room where his father died (the door to which had been locked for 18 years), Tom goes through with his suicide bid, and is buried, along with his bike, in a remote area known as the “Seven Witches”. Soon after, we’re treated to a nifty scene where Tom rides his bike right out of the grave. When the others realize what’s happened to Tom, they, too, start committing suicide, doing so in very creative ways (one guy leaps from a plane and refuses to open his parachute).

From its unique storyline and bizarre casting choices (George Sanders, as regal as ever, portrays a butler with an astute knowledge of the occult) to its folksy theme song (“Riding Free”, performed by Harvey Andrews, is reminiscent of the music of Donovan or Peter, Paul and Mary), Psychomania is a gloriously peculiar movie, and I loved every minute of it!