Tuesday, August 31, 2010

#25. Excalibur (1981) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: John Boorman

Starring: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson

Tag line: "Forged by a god. Foretold by a wizard. Found by a king"

Trivia:  All the forests shown in this movie are a mile away from director John Boorman's home in Ireland

Aside from being the best filmed version of the story of King Arthur and his Knights, director John Boorman’s Excalibur also manages to deglamorize the tale, relating it in a brutal, honest fashion. 

As depicted in this film, the England of Arthur’s time was filled with deceitfulness, adultery and murder, and even the supernatural forces that controlled this world, the magical spells conjured up by wizards to assist the knights on their various quests, could, at times, be quite treacherous.

With Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur as a base, Excalibur recounts the legend of King Arthur (Nigel Terry) who, with the sword Excalibur at his side, united the kingdoms of England under a single rule. 

Many of the legend's high points are here, including the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) watching over Arthur to ensure he fulfills his destiny; the infamous round table that established chivalry in it’s day; and the doomed love affair between Arthur’s queen, Guenivere (Cherie Lunghi), and his most trusted knight, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). 

As darkness and dread move throughout the land, Arthur’s kingdom is threatened by a terrible evil. Having used witchcraft to seduce Arthur, the King’s half-sister, Morgana (Helen Mirren), bears him a son, the dangerous Mordred (Robert Addie). With Morgana’s magic to assist him, Mordred sets his sights on Arthur’s throne, and Arthur must wage war against his only son to protect the kingdom he struggled to unite.

The legend of King Arthur is steeped in honor, glory, and gallantry, yet Excalibur reminds us that Arthur’s reign occurred during the Dark Ages, when war and bloodshed were commonplace. 

Even Arthur’s conception and birth came about not through love, but the basest of human desires. The film opens with King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne, in his first movie role) at war with his rival, Cornwall (Colin Redgrave), for possession of the crown. When Merlin brings Uther the sword Excalibur, recognized as the sword of Kings, Cornwall is forced into a peace accord, and Uther is declared King. 

To celebrate this peace, Cornwall throws a feast at his castle, during which Uther first sets eyes on Cornwall’s wife, Igrayne (Catherine Boorman). Her beauty is overwhelming, and so arouses Uther's desires that it shatters the treaty, plunging the two factions back into a state of war. 

Driven by lust, Uther convinces Merlin to cast a spell that will allow him to take on the appearance of Cornwall, so that he may have Igrayne. As the real Cornwall meets his death on the battlefield, Uther in disguise rides into his castle and violently seduces Igrayne. 

Before casting the spell, however, Merlin made Uther swear an oath that he would turn over to him the issue of this lustful encounter, and that issue is Arthur, future king of England. Arthur’s life began by way of betrayal and war, the very conditions that would plague him the rest of his days.

Excalibur is a film of immense atmosphere, creating a kingdom in which darkness often prevails over light, drawing an obvious parallel to Arthur’s court, which strives, at all times, for perfection in their imperfect world. The cruel reality these Knights of the Round Table had to face was that chivalry and honor could not exist without evil; and in their kingdom, this evil was so powerful that it threatened to consume them all.

Monday, August 30, 2010

#24. She-Wolves of the Wasteland (1988)

DVD Synopsis: What do you get when you combine big hair, big guns, big, um…personalities! and a serious lack of wardrobe? She-Wolves of the Wasteland, a post-apocalyptic classic that features women—lots and lots of women—who leave little to the imagination as they battle each other in various junkyards and gravel pits to determine the fate of the entire world. Leave your brain behind for this shamelessly sinful sexploitation romp with a plot you won't remember…but plenty of eye candy you won't forget!

Warning: you will not be reading comments such as “excellent acting”, “slick action sequences”, or “engaging story” in the following. They are nowhere to be found. But then, who the hell would pop a movie like She-Wolves of the Wasteland into their DVD player if they wanted any of those things? Even the synopsis on the DVD case (see above) knows that. 

No, what you want is hot women fighting it out in the desert, wearing break-away clothing that breaks away often. You want boobage, and plenty of it, and while the film certainly delivers on its promise of beautiful ladies, I have to say I was underwhelmed by their display of flesh, which appears far less frequently than I would have anticipated (or, indeed, hoped for). 

But don’t let that stop you from checking out She-Wolves of the Wasteland. Trust me when I say this is one movie you’ll have to see to believe.

(Phoenix the Warrior is an alternate title)


Sunday, August 29, 2010

#23. Charley Varrick (1973)

DVD Synopsis: Charley Varrick is a small-time crook who outfoxes the Mob in this fast-paced offbeat thriller directed by Don Siegel. Charley robs small banks with small payrolls. That keeps him out of trouble until he stumbles onto the Mob's secret stash. The chase is on as the Big Boys go after the "Last of the Independents." It's a heart-pounding ride that builds to a fiery airborne climax as Charley makes his last desperate run for the Mexican border and safety.

Director Don Siegel made some pretty awesome action films throughout his career, movies that starred such notable tough guys as Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, and…Walter Matthau?!?
Charley Varrick proved to be a real surprise for me; one, because it’s such a breezy and entertaining movie, and two, because it stars a man whose mainly known as a film comedian. Matthau plays the title character, a crop-duster turned bank robber, and in the opening scene he’s given a chance to flex his action muscles by way of a very exciting bank robbery. To coincide with the action, the film also boasts an engaging game of cat-and-mouse, in which Matthau does everything he can to avoid the mob’s hired hit-man (played by the always enjoyable Joe Don Baker).
Charley Varrick has definitely piqued my curiosity. Going forward, I’ll have to make it a point to check out more of Matthau’s non-comedic films. If they’re half as entertaining as this one, I’ll be in for a treat.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

#22. American Swing (2008)

DVD Synopsis: The Seventies were sexy and sleazy. At the epicenter of it all was Plato's Retreat, the controversial, first-ever swingers club. In New York's conservative Upper West Side, Plato's embraced adventurous couples who came to dance, to swim, and... to swap. It was the start of a revolution. The brainchild of Larry Levenson, the self-proclaimed King of Swing, Plato's Retreat quickly emerged as the mainstay of public sex for the me generation, welcoming anyone and everyone. For only $35, couples checked their judgments and pedigrees at the door; debutantes got it on next to bus drivers, as movie stars gave secretaries the starlet treatment. For Levenson and others, Plato s was a utopia. However, this wild party did not last. American Swing brings this enigmatic epic of excess to the screen for the first time.

Some of the finest documentaries I’ve seen have centered on relatively obscure topics, and while I wouldn’t classify swinging, or wife swapping, or whatever you want to call it as an undiscovered phenomenon, it is, nonetheless, not often explored in popular culture. American Swing throws a spotlight on this lifestyle, taking us back to the late 70’s, when places like Plato’s Retreat provided a safe haven for swingers to gather.   Going in, I admit I knew very little about Plato’s, yet the film had me believing I should have known about it, offering up a complete exploration of its subject matter, spurred on by a strong conviction towards its own importance. 

Now, if you’re just looking for a few cheap thrills, you’ll find plenty here. The movie has a lot of nudity, some pretty frank sex talk and excerpts from a handful of vintage hard-core videos. But for those looking to know more, to delve deeper into an under-explored social reality, American Swing offers a thorough examination of a moment in history, and this is what ultimately makes it worth your time.


Friday, August 27, 2010

#21. One Crazy Summer (1986)

DVD Synopsis: Hoops McCain has the name but not the talent to carry on the family basketball tradition. He’d rather earn an art school scholarship by writing and illustrating a love story. This summer in Nantucket he’s going to get the necessary romantic experience.

One Crazy Summer is a goofy movie, and for every joke and sight gag that works, another falls flat on its face. The ones that do work, however, work well (in particular, there’s a pretty funny scene involving a Godzilla costume, and I liked the over-the-top performance of Mark Metcalf, best known as Niedermeyer in Animal House, who plays the film’s heavy). 

I hadn’t seen this in years, and remembered it being funnier than it actually is, but if you’re a fan of 80’s comedies then One Crazy Summer is a movie you’ll want to check out.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

#20. Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)

DVD Synopsis: A successful young executive, though happily married, finds himself fantasizing about every woman he passes on the street. He is really put to the test when Chloe, a bohemian drifter, re-enters his life. He seems to have the best of both worlds until the one day when Chloe confesses he’s the only man for her. Chloe in the Afternoon is a delightful comedy that explores the conflicts of moral and emotional commitment.

Chloe in the Afternoon is about the fear of commitment, which, as director Eric Rohmer successfully conveys, doesn’t diminish once the wedding rings are exchanged. The protagonist, a man with a young child at home and another on the way, has been married for some time, and is content. Yet he cannot shake the feeling that he’s missing out on something. Sure, he loves his wife, but there might just be another woman out there he could love more. 

It’s this distinctive approach to the question of fidelity and obligation that makes Chloe in the Afternoon so refreshing. Unlike most romantic films, this one doesn’t assume marriage is a resolute foundation on which a “happily ever after” existence is built. It is, instead, a continuation, a fork on the road of self discovery that's plagued by the same insecurities and fears life before marriage presented.

Chloe in the Afternoon is engaging, tasteful, and really quite honest.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

#19. Local Hero (1983)

Directed By: Bill Forsyth

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Fulton Mackay

Tag line: "The story of an ordinary man who cared enough to do something extraordinary"

Trivia:  After the movie came out, many people went in search of the village with the phone booth. Since it didn't exist, they were always disappointed. The village where the movie was filmed finally decided to put up a phone booth for the sake of the visitors

I absolutely love Local Hero, Bill Forsyth’s criminally underrated 1983 comedy about a man who has lost his way, only to find himself again in the most unlikely of places. 

Mac (Peter Riegert) is a junior executive with Knox Oil and Gas, a large petroleum company headquartered in Houston, Texas. Knox is planning to build a new refinery off the coast of Scotland, and Mac, an expert at closing deals, has been assigned to the project. So, it’s off to Ferness, a remote Scottish fishing village, where Mac hopes to reach a quick agreement with the locals to buy up their entire town. 

He’s met at the airport by Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), an employee of Knox in Abberdine, and together, Mac and Danny descend on the small coastal community, bracing themselves for what they assume will be some tough negotiations. 

While dealing with the town's appointed representative Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), however, Mac and Danny discover something they never expected: the citizens of Ferness are actually quite eager to sell!

A funny, touching film, Local Hero is, more than anything, a first-hand account of one man's spiritual transformation. At the outset, Mac is completely caught up in his modern existence. His job as a negotiator rarely gives him reason to travel far from his Houston-based office, where he can close a deal with a few afternoon telephone calls. His world is quick, convenient, and completely impersonal. 

Once in Ferness, he has no choice but to meet face-to-face with the locals, and as he discovers, life moves pretty slowly there. So, as the townsfolk take their time discussing matters, Mac strolls on the beach and stares out at the sea. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, he notices how beautiful it is. He then looks up at the sky, an assignment given to him by his boss, Mr. Happer (Burt Lancaster), who is on the lookout for a new comet. Mac is amazed by the brilliant light show of the Aurora Borealis and for the first time in a long time, his eyes have been opened to the world around him.

At one point, Mac even takes an afternoon off to collect seashells, an event that leads to what is perhaps the film’s most memorable image; as Mac is crawling along the rocks hunting for shells, he removes his expensive watch, the one that sounds an alarm whenever it’s conference time in Houston, and places it on the ground next to him. Before long, Mac becomes so preoccupied with his shells that he completely forgets about this watch. The last we see of it, it’s submerged in a puddle of water, its alarm sounding in a faded, muffled tone. Conference time in Houston, and Mac couldn’t care less. 

I, for one, fully bought into this tale of Mac's conversion from active player to passive observer, mostly because, in the end, I, too, fell in love with the town of Ferness. It’s a love I renew each and every time I watch this marvelous film.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#18. The Lion in Winter (1968) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Anthony Harvey

Starring: Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins

Tag line: "The most significant reserved seat attraction of the year!"

Trivia:  Although Peter O'Toole plays the father of Anthony Hopkins, John Castle and Nigel Terry, he is only five, seven and thirteen years older than them respectively.

Mention Peter O’Toole, and I think King Henry II. 

Mention Katherine Hepburn, and I think Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

These two powerhouse performers managed 20 Academy Award nominations between them, and yet, for me, their work in The Lion in Winter stands above all others. 

The story is set in the days leading up to Christmas, 1183. England’s King Henry II (O’Toole) has decided to release his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn), from her castle prison in Salisbury (where she's been for the last 10 years for treason) so that she may be with him for the Holidays. 

Joining the "happy" couple for the festivities are their three surviving sons, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry). 

Holidays aside, Henry has another reason for bringing them all together; he must decide which of his sons will succeed him. Eleanor is pushing for Richard, while Henry has been priming young John for the crown. As old wounds are reopened and old arguments reignited, Henry and Eleanor hatch plot after plot against one another, and yet, through it all, realize there's still a spark that burns between them. 

Nearly every line of dialogue in The Lion in Winter is sharp and memorable. O’Toole, bellowing and abusive, gets the ball rolling early. “I’ve snapped and plotted my whole life”, he confesses at one point, adding, “There’s no other way to be a king, alive, and 50 all at once”. His Henry II is a strong man, perhaps even the perfect king, despite the fact he’s far from the perfect father, and farther still from the perfect husband. 

Soon after Hepburn’s Eleanor makes her grand entrance, the venomous tongues really start wagging. “How nice of you to let me out of jail”, she says with a sarcastic smile as Henry greets her. “It’s only for the Holidays”, he quickly reassures her. 

Hepburn matches O’Toole barb for barb and jab for jab throughout the entire film, never once backing down. “You’ve led too many civil wars against me”, Henry says to his wife shortly after her arrival. “I damn near won the last one”, the queen retorts with a grin and a giggle. 

These abrasive mannerisms didn’t even skip a generation, and are just as prevalent in their three sons: the angry and determined Richard, (played by Anthony Hopkins in his first major screen role); Geoffrey, the calculating middle child, and the arrogant but dim-witted John. All of Henry’s sons plot against him, each hoping to be his successor, yet despite the constant threat to his crown, Henry admits that he wouldn’t want it any other way. Having scratched and clawed for everything in life, Henry is happy to see his boys ready to do the same. 

The Lion in Winter is like a cauldron, spilling over with one marvelous performance after another, yet none as great as those delivered by the film’s two leads. As the bickering king and queen who made as much history as they saw, O’Toole and Hepburn are absolutely superb.

Monday, August 23, 2010

#17. Day For Night (1973)

DVD Synopsis: The leading lady is recovering from a nervous breakdown, another performer is soused on the set, unions threaten to walk, shooting must somehow finish before the insurance lapses and a cat needed for a scene can't hit its mark. Is this any way to make a film? Mais Oui!

If you love movies, then Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night is a must-see. For one, the film provides a behind-the-scenes look at life on a movie set, and the lengths to which a filmmaker will go to ensure everything is just right (at one point, the director, played by Truffaut himself, authorizes the theft of a vase from their hotel’s lobby because it’ll look perfect in the dining room scene).   But more than this, Day for Night is, at its heart, a respectful homage to the art of making movies. 

In a wonderful flashback segment, the director, as a young boy, is shown stealing a handful of still photos from the classic film Citizen Kane, which were on display at his neighborhood movie house. To most people, such a theft would seem like little more than a precocious kid stirring up trouble. For the boy, these stills signified his passion, his strong desire to possess a piece of something that had touched him deeply. Movies were undoubtedly Truffaut’s passion, and Day for Night stands as his testament to that obsession. 

How fitting that this love letter to the cinema, so wonderfully realized, would be regarded a classic in its own right.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

#16. The French Connection (1971)

DVD Synopsis: New York City Detectives “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) hope to break a narcotics smuggling ring and ultimately uncover The French Connection. But when one of the criminals tries to kill Doyle, he begins a deadly pursuit that takes him far outside the city limits. Based on a true story, this action-filled thriller, with its renowned chase scene, won five Academy Awards in 1971, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Friendkin) and Best Actor for Hackman.

The French Connection will always be remembered for its nerve-racking car chase through the streets of New York, easily one of the most exciting sequences ever committed to film. 

It is a time-honored action scene, during which there are plenty of close calls (I still don’t know how the car missed that woman with the baby carriage), and it retains such a high level of intensity from start to finish that I found myself more than a bit relieved when the chase finally ended. 

However, as great as this sequence is, I was equally impressed by how well the film works during its quieter moments, when focusing on police procedures. We follow ‘Popeye’ and Buddy as they tail suspects, listen in on wiretaps and spend hours on end sitting in their car during overnight stakeouts. 

I liked the way these various processes were shown in detail, and, despite being much more serene than other sequences, they were nonetheless equally as fascinating.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

#15. The Man With Bogart's Face (1980)

Directed By: Robert Day

Starring: Robert Sacchi, Franco Nero, Michelle Phillips

Tag line: "The face may be familiar. The mystery is brand new"

Trivia:  This was the final film role for George Raft

After undergoing plastic surgery to make him look like his idol, Humphrey Bogart, Sam Marlow (Robert Sacchi) follows in his hero's footsteps by opening his own detective agency. 

His first client is Elsa (Olivia Hussey), a young woman whose father was recently murdered. Simply put, she wants to know why. 

During the course of his investigation, Marlow meets a variety of characters who are also "interested" in her old man's demise, including Commodore Anastas (Victor Buono) and his daughter Gena (Michelle Phillips), as well as a Turkish tycoon named Hakim (Franco Nero). Rounding out the motley crew of suspects are Mr. Zebra (Herbert Lom), and Wolf (Jay Robinson), two shady characters who are "partners" in more ways than one. 

But what this group is really after are the "Eyes of Alexander", a pair of priceless sapphires that Elsa's father had in his possession at the time of his death. Caught in an ever-growing web of intrigue and murder, Marlow does his best to sort it all out, resulting in an adventure that would have made the real Bogart green with envy.

The Man With Bogart’s Face was a cable-TV favorite of mine in the early 80’s, and having not seen the film in over 25 years, I was prepared for the inevitable disappointment that was sure to follow a fresh viewing.  

It’s happens all the time; a treasured movie from my past becomes an embarrassment in the present, and I figured if any film was going to shatter my childhood memories of it, The Man With Bogart’s Face would be the one.  Robert Sacchi’s Bogart impression would probably get on my nerves after a while, and the convoluted story, which borrows from a number of Bogie classics, was going to stretch itself way too thin.

To my surprise, none of that happened.  

Far from grating, Sacchi fully embodies the late, great actor, so much so that, after a while, you start to believe you’re actually watching Humphrey Bogart, and the story, though a bit clumsy at times, never fails to engage. 

In a refreshing twist. I actually enjoy The Man With Bogart’s Face as much today as I did all those years ago.

Chalk one up for childhood memories!

Friday, August 20, 2010

#14. 1776 (1972)

DVD Synopsis: 1776 is a delightful musical celebration of the framing of the United States of America based on the award-winning Broadway production. The story centers around the familiar historical characters as they organize a movement for independence from Mother England: the tough, unyielding John Adams (William Daniels); the charming and pragmatic Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva); the brilliant young Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), who is chosen to write the Declaration of Independence even as he longs for the company of his new bride Martha (Blythe Danner), and the rest of the Continental Congress. All events lead up to that most significant date, July 4, 1776, when the Declaration was signed.

1776 is a rarity; a film adaptation of a Broadway musical that flows much more smoothly when nobody is singing. 

The story itself, the decision by Congress to rebel against Great Britain and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, is as great a topic as any film can have, and despite the many historical inaccuracies I had fun with it. I enjoyed the relationship that developed between William Daniels’ acerbic John Adams and Howard Da Silva’s humorous Ben Franklin, and there are some truly funny moments that occur when Congress is assembled. 

The musical outbursts are another matter, acting like an anchor that drags the entire production to a screeching halt. Sure, one or two numbers aren’t bad, but you certainly won’t be humming any of these tunes the next day (or an hour later, for that matter). Believe me, you’ll have a much better time watching 1776 if you take full advantage of your DVD player’s chapter forward button and skip the music.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

#13. The Thing (1982)

Directed By: John Carpenter

Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David

Tag line: "Man is The Warmest Place to Hide"

Trivia:  Donald Pleasence was the original choice for the character of Blair, but was unable to perform the role due to a scheduling conflict

More a re-telling of John W. Campbell’s short story, Who Goes There, than a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks-produced film, John Carpenter's The Thing whisks us to Antarctica, where twelve strung-out Americans are manning a Research Station and preparing for the hard winter ahead. 

These preparations are temporarily interrupted by the arrival of a stray dog, which, as the men will eventually discover, is an alien creature in the “shape” of a dog. 

Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) destroys the alien with a flamethrower, but this doesn't bring an end to their troubles. The creature, able to take on the appearance of any living being it comes into contact with, may have already ‘infected’ other members of the crew, meaning some - or all - of MacReady's twelve compatriots may not be what they appear. 

With such a threat hanging over them, hostilities rise and suspicions mount, but to survive the ordeal, MacReady and the others must band together to locate the impostor (or impostirs) among them. 

Failure to do so may mean more than their own demise; it could trigger the destruction of all mankind. 

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one hell of a monster movie.  For starters, the monster itself, in all its manifestations, has rightly become an icon of the horror genre. The first time we see the creature in its true form, it is changing from a dog into a bloody mess of limbs and tentacles right before our eyes.  This gives us a taste of just how creepy the intruder can be, yet it is only the beginning.  Once the alien begins to "mimic" members of the crew, it becomes even more terrifying, raising the movie's tension to a nearly unbearable level. 

But then tension seems to be a way of life for these twelve men; it was with them even before the danger arrived. Carpenter gives shape to his characters early on, leaving us with the distinct impression we are watching a dozen guys ready to tear each other apart. 

Our introduction to Kurt Russell’s MacReady has him playing a video chess game against the computer, which he eventually loses. Far from taking his defeat gracefully, MacReady pours his drink into the computer's CPU. 

Discipline among the men has all but broken down by the time the monster arrives; Nauls (T.K. Carter) plays his music too loud, and Palmer (David Clennon) smokes pot right out in the open. The combination of harsh weather and isolation has already taken its toll on these men. Throwing an alien into the mix only intensifies the situation. 

Add to this the fact that any one of them might also be that alien, and you have a bomb ready to blow any second.

With all due respect to Halloween, The Thing is my favorite John Carpenter film, and one of the greatest horror movies ever made.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

#12. Raging Bull (1980)

DVD Synopsis: Nomintaed for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, and winner of two including Best Actor for Robert DeNiro, this “tough, compelling, powerfully made” film (Halliwell’s Film Guide) is a “brilliantly photographed film of extraordinary power and rare distinction” (The Wall Street Journal). DeNiro gives a tour-de-force performance as Jake LaMotta, a boxer whose psychological and sexual complexities erupt into violence both in and out of the ring.

In August of 2003, Sports Illustrated published a list of the best sports movies ever made, and this film, quite deservedly, was right at the top of it. Yet it is unlike any other sports film. 

Shot in black and white, Raging Bull captures the power of Jake La Motta the boxer, the raw strength and determination that drove him to succeed in a sport known for its brutality, yet his strengths as a fighter could not mask his failings as a human being. Jake La Motta was an angry man, and in the ring, La Motta was able to channel this anger. His problem was he couldn’t shut it off when the bell sounded; that anger stayed with him everywhere he went. In Raging Bull, we witness time and again the self-destructive nature of the man, and watch as, one by one, those closest to him slip away. 

The Sports Illustrated list contained a number of great films, including such uplifting stories as Rocky, Chariots of Fire, and Phar Lap, movies that display the higher qualities of competitive sports, the ‘never say die’ mentality and dogged determination that define a true sports hero. Raging Bull stands alone among them, a serrated edge in a community of clean-cut legends. Where most sports films will indeed lift your spirits, Raging Bull drags you down to hell with it.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

#11. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

DVD Synopsis: Driven by a deep sense of duty and a love for his country, Damien (Cillian Murphy) abandons his burgeoning career as a doctor and joins his brother, Teddy in a dangerous and violent fight for freedom. As the Irish freedom fighters bold tactics bring the British to a breaking point, both sides finally agree to a treaty to end the bloodshed. But, despite the apparent victory, civil war erupts and families who fought side by side, find themselves pitted against one another, putting their loyalties to the ultimate test.

Over the years, I’ve read a few books about the Irish Rebellion, and spent a good deal of time trying to imagine what it must have been like to have been a part of it. Well, I don’t have to imagine anymore.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a tremendous accomplishment, a work that successfully presents the vast tale that is Ireland’s quest for independence. In the capable hands of director Ken Loach, the film never over-extends itself, managing to condense the entire story, from the revolt against the rule of Great Britain to the Civil War that followed independence, into a taut, brisk tour-de-force of just over two hours, leaving its audience wanting for nothing in the end.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a masterpiece.


Monday, August 16, 2010

#10. Suburbia (1983)

DVD Synopsis: When family problems and a sense of worthlessness overcome Evan, he finds escape with the orphans of a throwaway society. Calling themselves T.R. ("The Rejected"), these runaways hold on to one another like family, living in abandoned houses away from the society that despises them. Suburbia is THE punk rock movie, depicting with unbridled realism the lives, loves, and misfortunes of a discarded youth.

Yet another Roger Corman B-movie extravaganza, Suburbia boasts a cast of amateurs, and to be sure, the performances seldom rise beyond that amateur level, and yet, despite this, the film continually strikes the right chord. For this, I give full credit to director Penelope Spheeris, who has created with Suburbia a believable reality in which teens, most of whom are runaways or outcasts, have built a home for themselves, and are living life by their rules. 

A teenager’s fantasy, Suburbia was obviously designed to exploit the teen market, and even though I’m years beyond being a member of said audience, the film definitely worked for me.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

#9. Bloody Mama (1970)

DVD Synopsis: Shelley Winters, Robert DeNiro and Bruce Dern take on the Great Depression the only way they know how in this “engrossing” (Entertainment World) psychological gangster film! Also starring Pat Hingle, Don Stroud, Diane Varsi and Robert Walden, this saga based on the lives of the Ma Barker gang is shocking, explosive and fully loaded with raw intesnsity!

I go back about 25 years with Bloody Mama, when I first saw it sitting on the shelf at my local video "palace". I rented it solely because it contained an early Robert DeNiro performance, and I had no expectations that the movie itself would be anything more than a curiosity. However, Bloody Mama quickly became a favorite of mine, and I would go on to rent that video about 6-8 more times over the next few months. 

This is Roger Corman low-budget filmmaking at its best; a movie with plenty of action, violence, and drama, not to mention some damn fine performances from an impressive cast. It’s a film that deserves a bigger following than it’s gotten, and by all rights should sit alongside Bonnie and Clyde and John Milius’ Dillinger as an example of a Depression-era gangster film done right.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

#8. Coffy (1973)

Directed By: Jack Hill

Starring: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert DoQui

Tag line: "No one sleeps when they mess with Coffy!"

Trivia:  Vitroni's home was actually that of western movie legend Roy Rogers

Coffy was one of Pam Grier’s first starring roles, and her performance was proof positive that she could carry an entire film by herself. 

Coffy (Grier) is a night nurse whose eleven-year-old sister is addicted to heroin. When contaminated drugs cause the girl to suffer irreparable brain damage, Coffy takes to the streets for revenge, declaring war on every dope dealer in the city. 

But Coffy soon realizes that pimps and pushers are small time; if she wants to end drug trafficking one and for all, she’ll have to bring down the syndicate’s top men, and that’s a war she may not be able to win. 

Grier plays Coffy as both tough and sexy, often switching from one to the other within the same scene. As the movie opens, she's trying to trap a dealer named Sugarman (Morris Buchanan) by pretending to be a strung-out junkie, one who will do anything for a fix. Sugarman can’t resist Coffy’s intense sexual energy, and is only too happy to take her up on her offer. Once she’s lured Sugarman into the bedroom, Coffy pulls out a shotgun and blows his head clean off. 

In scenes such as these, Grier is as tough as they come, but in Coffy she proves that she's just as effective when playing sexy. Her charisma is on full display in the scenes where she’s posing as Mystique, a Jamaican prostitute working for a pimp known as King George (Robert DoQui). Grier is absolutely mesmerizing in these sequences. 

Coffy is a harsh, dramatic film, and director Jack Hill - himself a legend of exploitation cinema - certainly had a great deal to do with its success. But a large portion of the credit must ultimately go to the dynamic Ms. Grier. It was her performance that lifted the movie to a higher level, and her power and charm burned brightly throughout the entire movie. 

It's thanks to Pam Grier that Coffy was much more than the standard grindhouse fare.

Friday, August 13, 2010

#7. Horrors of War (2006)

DVD Synopsis: Hitler’s determination to win World War II at all costs, combined with his obsession with science and the paranormal give rise to a deadly type of warfare. Hitler unleashes his secret weapons – unstoppable Nazi super-soldiers – onto the advancing Allied army. After suffering great losses the American army reassigns soldiers to a mission to destroy Hitler’s weapons lab. After they are shot down in occupied France, the soldiers find themselves caught between the German army and a creature that can not be described.

Horrors of War is an ultra-low budget horror movie, yet what it lacks in technical wizardry it makes up for in engaging it’s audience (to the filmmakers credit, let me point out that a lack of funds didn’t hamper either the handiwork of the make-up artists, who create some pretty disturbing creatures, or the opening credit sequence, which is really pretty sharp). 

Your enjoyment of Horrors of War, as it is with any micro-budget film, depends entirely on how you approach it. Personally, I had a pretty good time.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

#6. Welcome to Nollywood (2007)

DVD Synopsis: Welcome to Nollywood provides a fascinating look into the newly emerging Nigerian Film Industry, exploring the inner workings and introducing viewers to Nollywood’s passionate auteurs. Through clips and on-set visits, we meet Chico Ejiro, aka “Mr. Prolific”, a filmmaker who has made over a hundred films. We follow the production of an epic war film by Izu Ojukwu, a young Nollywood director who is known for his high intensity action films. Both directors battle limited budgets, frequent power outages, mutinous casts, and none of the infrastructure that supports other national cinemas. Welcome to Nollywood takes a celebratory and often humorous look at this unique phenomenon that is transforming cinema in Africa and worldwide.

I love films about film, documentaries that take us behind the scenes to detail the struggles and hardships filmmakers must endure to get their vision to the big screen. 

What’s amazing about Welcome to Nollywood is that it throws a spotlight on a national cinema that's still in its infancy; the Nigerian Film Industry. Sure, the movies they’re making (almost all of which are released direct to video in Nigeria) look as if they may be a little rough around the edges, but I'd love the chance to check a few of them out. The filmmakers’ determination to see every project through, regardless of how many times the power goes out, or that the catering service hasn’t shown up to feed their hungry crew, is inspiring, and I’m absolutely convinced, without having ever seen one of these movies, that this sense of determination will have a profound effect on each and every one of their finished films.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

#5. Short Cuts (1993)

DVD Synopsis: The visions of two great American artists merge in Short Cuts, maverick director Robert Altman's kaleidoscopic adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories. Epic in scale yet meticulously observed, the film interweaves the lives of twenty-two characters struggling to find solace and meaning in contemporary Los Angeles. The extraordinary ensemble cast includes Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Lemmon, and Jennifer Jason Leigh--all giving fearless performances in one of Altman's most compassionate creations.

Give Robert Altman a huge cast of characters, and he could perform miracles. He did so many times throughout his career, and after watching Short Cuts, I can say without hesitation that he’s done it again. 

As with many of Altman’s star-studded efforts, no synopsis could possibly do this movie justice, seeing as it presents, in explicit detail, the lives of 22 Los Angeles residents, all of whose paths cross, in one way or another, over the course of a few days. It is a tremendous achievement, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that nobody was Altman’s equal when it came to juggling jam-packed stories. In the hands of another director, things would have probably gotten downright confusing. Not with Altman; in typical fashion, the director leaves no stone unturned, and no matter how many twists Short Cuts ultimately takes, he ensures that none of his characters gets left behind.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

#4. American Graffiti (1973)

DVD Synopsis: This Academy-Award nominated classic, voted one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films of All Time, features the coming of age of four teenagers on their last summer night before college. Rediscover drag racing, Inspiration Point and drive-ins all over again in this nostalgic look back at the early 60’s. The incredible soundtrack brings you the most memorable Rock ‘n’ Roll hits of the era. Directed by George Lucas and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, this classic stars Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Suzanne Somers, Cindy Williams, Wolfman Jack and Mackenzie Phillips. Capture the heart of America’s last age of innocence with American Graffiti.

Director George Lucas went to great lengths to bring the era of the early 60’s to life in this film, from vintage cars and sock hops right down to the leather jackets and slicked-back hair. Yet all this attention to detail would have amounted to nothing without the music. There are 42 classic songs from Rock’s earliest years blasting on the soundtrack (“Little Darlin” by the Diamonds is a personal favorite), adding life and vibrancy to the intricate, and impressive, details on display. 

The year 1962 is now almost 50 years in the past, but watching American Graffiti makes it all seem much more recent. The film resonates as a sort of time capsule, capturing the sights and sounds of an era long gone, and thanks to both George Lucas and some great music, it is a time, a place, and an experience that will live forever.


Monday, August 9, 2010

#3. Pinocchio (1940)

 DVD Synopsis: Celebrate the 70th anniversary of Walt Disney's Pinocchio! Join Geppetto's beloved puppet with Jiminy Cricket as his guide on a thrilling quest that tests Pinocchio's bravery, loyalty and honesty, virtues he must learn to become a real boy. The one and only Pinocchio will live on forever in the heart of anyone who has wished upon a star.

Pinocchio must have been an amazing sight to behold in 1940. At that time, feature-length animation was still relatively fresh (it was Disney’s second feature film, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938), and Pinocchio, with it’s brilliant use of color and stunning detail, was undoubtedly awe-inspiring for a pre-WWII movie-going public. 

This is what made Pinocchio memorable, but not what made it a classic. It is, and remains, timeless thanks to its well-told story of youth, friendship and responsibility, a trait that separates films like Pinocchio from later Disney animated fare, such as 2002’s Treasure Planet; the animation, brilliant as it is, serves the story, and not the other way around. Make a great film like Pinocchio, and the excitement generated by its novelty will naturally follow.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

#2. eXistenZ (1999)

DVD Synopsis: Exciting stars Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dolores Claiborne), Jude Law (Gattaca), and Willem Dafoe (Speed 2, Affliction) challenge the boundaries of reality in this futuristic, critically acclaimed adventure thriller! During the first closed-door demonstration of an amazing new virtual reality game called eXistenZ, the system's brilliant designer, Allegra Geller (Leigh), is violently attacked by a crazed assassin intent on killing her and destroying her creation! Forced to flee into hiding, Allegra enlists a young assistant (Law) to help her in testing the damaged system ... by convincing him to join her inside eXistenZ! The action then explodes as their world's real-life dangers begin to merge with the fantasy of the game! If you're ready to play, it's now your turn to plug into this powerfully entertaining hit!

A few years back, I spent a couple of weeks delving into the films of David Cronenberg, a director whose body of work I was hopelessly unfamiliar with at the time. Of the six or seven Cronenberg movies I watched, eXistenZ stayed with me the longest. 

I think the reason why had something to do with those game packs that the film’s characters used to “enter” the game. In an intriguing twist, Cronenberg created gaming systems that were as alive as the players playing them; constructed from organic tissue, twitching and breathing as they themselves responded to the game play (at one point, Ian Holm attempts to repair Jennifer Jason Leigh’s damaged system using a scalpel and sutures). 

It was a fascinating gimmick, one that added another layer to an already slick and engaging story (which, I’m happy to report, loses none of its magic on a second viewing).

Saturday, August 7, 2010

#1. Armageddon (1998)

DVD Synopsis: When NASA's executive director, Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), realizes the Earth has 18 days before it's obliterated by a meteor the size of Texas, he has only one option -- land a ragtag team of roughneck oil drillers on the asteroid and drop a nuclear warhead into its core. Spectacular special effects, laugh-out-loud humor, great characters, riveting storytelling, and heartfelt emotion make Armageddon an exhilarating thrill ride you'll want to experience like there's no tomorrow.

So, why, of all films, did I choose Michael Bay’s Armageddon as the movie to kick off this little mega-fest of mine? 

Honestly, I’m not sure. 

It’s hard to argue with those critics who, upon its release in 1998, called Armageddondumb”, “loud”, “jingoistic”, and “an all-out assault on the senses” (and those were the ones who liked it. No joke…I’m dead serious). I guess it’s because I’ve always had a soft spot for disaster films, no matter how outlandish their premise might be, and besides, even the most jaded individual is sure to crack at least a dozen smiles watching insane characters undertake hopeless missions in the loudest possible environments. I know my smiles numbered at least 3X that many.


Friday, August 6, 2010

From the Desk of a Film Fanatic

My name is Dave, and I’m a film geek.

No, this isn’t a cry for help, or a sad, pathetic attempt to gather up sympathy. I’m not looking for a comforting hug, or a support group that meets once a week in the local community center. I crave no condolences, invite no pity, nor desire any reassurances that my condition will improve. Truth be told, I don’t want this so-called ‘condition’ of mine to change in the least. I wear the label of ‘film geek’ as if it were a badge of honor.

I love movies with an almost frightening passion (I know it frightens my family, anyway). I am forever watching films, and when I’m not busy watching them, I’m usually reading about them, whether it be a history of the French New Wave or a biography on B-Movie aficionado Roger Corman. What’s more, in my quest to further expand this cinematic palette of mine, I spend a large amount of time on-line, visiting film sites such as imdb.com, aintitcool.com, rogerebert.com, and so on. It seems I can never escape the draw of the cinema. When I lie down in my bed at night, I drift off to sleep with the gentle sounds of Turner Classic Movies playing softly in the background.

Ingmar Bergman once said, “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls”. I believe this. What’s more, I believe film to be the perfect art form, one that challenges a variety of senses while simultaneously altering our perceptions of the world around us. Film is the doorway to many lands, laid out through the combined efforts of technicians, artisans and entertainers. As an entertainment, film is an escape from the everyday. As art, it is a conduit for emotions, thoughts and ideas, many as challenging as they are persuasive. This is what film means to me; it is this, and so much more besides.

Now, it’s time to take this infatuation of mine to the next level.

I am about to embark on a cinematic journey, one that will surely take me many months, even years, to complete: I plan to view exactly 2500 movies, either on DVD or Blu-Ray, and encompassing as many genres and styles of film as I can muster; in short, a smorgasbord of all that the cinema, past and present, national and global, has to offer.

Let me reiterate once again, at the outset, that this will be a journey through the world of film, and as a journey, there’s no telling what I’ll be encountering along the way. I will be imposing no rules upon myself as to which films I will watch, or in what order they will appear. For example, I could follow up a viewing of John Carpenter’s Halloween by watching the 1982 Henry Fonda / Katherine Hepburn drama, On Golden Pond. Furthermore, watching Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope doesn’t necessarily mean Episodes V and VI will follow in suit; they could appear months, maybe even a whole year, after Episode IV, if they appear at all (though I will promise this much: if I choose to watch a series of films such as the original STAR WARS trilogy, I won’t watch them out of order). A love of film is what led me to this journey, and it’s the unpredictability of it all that has me excited to be making it.

I welcome all of you to follow along, tracking my progress as I make my way through 2,500 examples of what the cinema has to offer. I’ll be presenting each movie here, in order. It will include a brief synopsis (lifted directly from the DVD cover) as well as a paragraph or two on my reaction to the film. Also, I’ll place a link to amazon.com, through which you can purchase the DVD or Blu-Ray (and please do so…I can use the money!), and finally, I welcome each and every comment.

Well, not much more to say, I suppose, except Let the journey begin!