Thursday, September 30, 2010

#55. The Fifth Element (1997)

Directed By: Luc Besson

Starring: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman

Tag line: "The Fifth is life"

Trivia: Luc Besson wrote the original screenplay for this movie when he was in high school

The inhabitants of 23rd century Earth find themselves in the greatest danger when an intergalactic Evil arrives on the outer reaches of our solar system. Fortunately, the only being in the entire universe able to defeat this force, an alien known only as the Fifth Element (Milla Jovovich), has just landed on Earth. Former Army Major and current cab driver Corben Dallas (Bruce Willis) does everything in his power to make sure the Fifth Element is permitted to carry out her mission and save the world. Their combined efforts are hampered, however, by the unscrupulous Mr. Zorg (Gary Oldman), a millionaire weapons dealer who plans to profit from the chaos that pure Evil will surely bring about.

Having created a mind-blowing vision of our planet in the 23rd century, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element then goes to great lengths to ensure that the action is equal to its setting. One great scene starts with Milla Jovovich (who plays the title character) crashing through the roof of Bruce Willis’ taxi to avoid being captured by the police. She convinces Willis to help her, and since, in the 23rd century, traffic flows in both horizontal and vertical directions, the result is an intense, pretty spectacular chase sequence. It’s but one of many thrilling sequences to be found throughout the movie.

In support of the action, all of the performances in The Fifth Element are exceptional, especially Jovovich, who gathers up tons of sympathy with her soulful eyes; and Gary Oldman as Zorg, a shifty businessman whose accent reminded me of an eloquent, yet obviously corrupt southern politician. And then there’s Chris Tucker as DJ Ruby Rhod, the flamboyantly arrogant host of a popular intergalactic radio show. DJ Ruby Rhod moves quickly, and his banter, rapid and witty, is the perfect match to his personality. Tucker is tremendous in this role, essentially stealing every scene he appears in. When DJ Ruby Rhod is on screen, the fast pace that The Fifth Element has already established becomes a bit quicker.

Crammed with so much action that its two hours seems to fly by in half that time, The Fifth Element is as entertaining a science fiction film as you’re likely to experience.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

#54. Boogie Nights (1997)

DVD Synopsis: An epic-size story about the adult film film business in the 1970s San Fernando Valley, Boogie Nights breaks convention and delivers sex, drugs, violence, and unexpected tenderness. It is a classic backstage tale told through the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler and an extended family of filmmakers, who try to elevate the porn film to artistic heights.

Take everything you thought you knew about the porn industry, and throw it out the window. Now, you’re ready to watch Boogie Nights

While at times unwavering in its frankness (especially the scenes where its characters are shooting a film), Boogie Nights isn’t about the sex. It’s about the people who work in the porn industry, the actors, directors and technicians who treat it as if it were just another job. 

Director Paul Thomas Anderson spends most of his time exploring the relationships that develop between these colorful characters, and building a family-like atmosphere around them. You enjoy the time you spend in their company, and feel more than a little melancholy when it’s all over, and you have to part ways with them. 

Anderson has pulled off a minor miracle with Boogie Nights, delivering a film about the porn industry that’s as tender and thoughtful as it is titillating.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#53. Pink Angels (1971)

DVD SynopsisSix rugged motorcyclists gather at the side of the highway to plan an excursion to Los Angeles. Although they appear to be the burliest band of bikers this side of the Hell’s Angels, they are actually cross-dressing madmen with an affinity for lipstick, high heels and braziers.

Pink Angels is the product of a different era, a window in time when the political and social climate allowed for a movie with openly gay main characters, yet hadn't advanced enough for said characters to be more than a source of campy humor. 

An exploitation comedy, Pink Angels isn’t a very good movie; it’s less a film than a series of comedy sketches, none of which blend together well. Also thrown into the mix are a handful of inexplicable scenes with an army general that go absolutely nowhere, and a bizarre folk soundtrack that seems way out of place in a comedy about gay bikers. Pink Angels is a curiosity, and not much more.


Monday, September 27, 2010

#52. La Femme Nikita (1990)

Directed By: Luc Besson

Starring: Anne Parillaud, Marc Duret, Patrick Fontana

Tag line: "A new kind of lethal weapon"

Trivia: This movie inspired the 1991 Hong Kong action flick Black Cat, which closely follows the same storyline

At first glance, Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita appears to be the story of a highly trained female assassin. In reality, it’s much more complex, weaving instead the dramatic tale of a deadly killer, one who ultimately discovers that she’s a woman after all.

Nikita (Anna Parillaud), a street junkie sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a police officer, is given a chance to redeem herself when she is ‘volunteered’ by the French government to train as an undercover assassin. Her instructor, Bob (Tcheky Karyo), is firm but fair with his newest pupil, and sees in her the makings of a great secret agent. After three years of preparation (and one very dangerous ‘real-time’ test), Nikita is released into the world with a new identity and the promise that she’ll soon be contacted with the details of her first mission. Suddenly forced into the uneasy role of homemaker, Nikita makes a trip to the local supermarket where she meets Marco (Jean-Hughes Anglade), a cashier. The two strike up a friendship that blossoms into romance, and Nikita falls deeply in love for the first time in her life. But will this new relationship be strong enough to survive the reality of her violent profession?

Despite what you may assume, its various action sequences (which are, truth be told, thrilling as all hell) are not the most impressive aspect of La Femme Nikita. Instead, what I found myself drawn to while watching the movie was the story of Nikita’s transformation, in which a rugged, violent tomboy changed into a gorgeous, elegant lady right before my eyes. Anne Parillaud is pitch perfect as Nikita, equally convincing as a cold-hearted killer and a woman in love. The hate that fills her eyes at the beginning of La Femme Nikita (during an interrogation, she lashes out at a police inspector, stabbing him in the hand with a pen) slowly melts away, replaced by gazes of passion, wonderment, and, eventually, despair. So astonishing was this change that, at first, I thought two different actresses had played the role. It’s a truly remarkable performance.

By the time Nikita’s story reaches its climax, we have witnessed an incredible metamorphosis, but don’t let her new demeanor fool you. The fact remains that, no matter how refined she may appear, Nikita is not someone you’d want to cross. La Femme Nikita is an extraordinary film that works on every level; it is at once exciting, tense, touching and beautiful.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

#51. Amelie (2001)

DVD Synopsis: Nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay, this magical comedy met overwhelming acclaim nationwide! A painfully shy waitress working at a Paris café, Amélie makes a surprising discovery and sees her life drastically changed for the better! From then on, Amélie dedicates herself to helping others find the most delightfully unexpected ways! But will she have the courage to do for herself what she has done for others?

Amelie is the perfect incantation of every happy thought, moment or situation you could ever dream possible. It is a work of art, an explosion of style that owes a great deal to the technical inventiveness and high-spirited approach that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet brings to the film. 

The cinematography is radiant; some of what is on-screen is jaw-droppingly brilliant, with the camera moving in ways I had not seen before. In one scene, Amelie is skipping stones at St. Martin’s Canal. The camera begins from above and behind, slowly moving overhead and then down in front, all the time keeping Amelie as the central image. Finally, it stops just above the canal, as if floating on the water, and Amelie throws a stone that skips right past. It is truly an amazing visual moment, yet its just one of many. In fact, every scene is beautiful, and I waited with a sort of anxious energy for the payoff of each one. 

I was absolutely blown away by Amelie, and could sit down and watch it again right now.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

#50. The Seventh Seal (1957)

DVD Synopsis: Disillusioned and exhausted after a decade of battling in the Crusades, a knight (Max von Sydow) encounters Death on a desolate beach and challenges him to a fateful game of chess. Much studied, imitated, even parodied, but never outdone, The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), Ingmar Bergman's stunning allegory of man's search for meaning, was one of the benchmark imports of America's 1950s art-house heyday, pushing cinema's boundaries and ushering in a new era of moviegoing.

Director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal features one of the most iconic sequences in cinematic history, that of a knight challenging Death to a game of chess. The fact that these images remain just as powerful today is a tribute to Bergman’s skills as a visual filmmaker, yet the director’s true magic lies in his ability to couple this visual prowess with strong characterizations, presented here in a world that exists somewhere between dreams and reality. 

With The Seventh Seal, Bergman takes on the age-old question of mortality. The Knight (Max Vov Sydow), returning from the Crusades, has witnessed 10 years of death and destruction carried out in the name of God. Now, he finds himself doubting God’s existence. 

A key scene in the film has the Knight meeting up with an execution party, which is taking a condemned girl to her death. She has been accused of having had a “carnal encounter” with Satan. The Knight asks the girl if the accusations are true, and she replies that they are, but the Knight can see in her eyes that the poor girl has gone mad. More than likely innocent of any crime, she has been tortured to the point that her mind has failed her, and is now convinced that the charges against her are true. 

The Knight had hoped that this girl might hold the answers (after all, wouldn’t the existence of Satan, by default, prove the existence of God?), but his search has instead hit another dead end. 

It’s a question mankind has been asking for thousands of years: is there life after death? In the end, we - like the Knight - must accept that this is an unsolvable riddle for the living. With The Seventh SealBergman has created a masterpiece from a puzzle he does not piece together, structuring the film in such a way that the answers themselves aren’t nearly as important as the quest to uncover them.

Friday, September 24, 2010

#49. Chungking Express (1994)

Directed By: Wong Kar-Wai

Starring: Brigitte Lin, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung Chiu Wai

Tag line: "If my memory of her has an expiration date, let it be 10,000 years..."

Trivia:  Wong Kar-Wai modeled Brigitte Lin's character after Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes's Gloria, as well as actress Greta Garbo

There’s a lot to admire about Chungking Express, from it’s pulsating cinematic style to the performances of the film’s four leads, yet what I found most fascinating was how it took what were essentially two similar stories (the love lives - or lack thereof - of a pair of Hong Kong policemen) and told each in a completely unique manner, going so far as to delve into different genres from one to the next.

Each of the policemen in question was recently dumped by a long-time girlfriend. The first, Cop #223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), can’t bring himself to forget the woman he loves, and calls her family from time to time just to stay “in the loop”. 

 One night at a bar, he meets an attractive woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin). What he doesn’t know is she’s a drug trafficker, and her most recent shipment has just disappeared without a trace. On the run from her suppliers, this woman must now fight to stay alive, and Cop #223 may prove her only chance for survival. 

Next, we’re introduced to Cop #663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), whose stewardess girlfriend (Valerie Chow) is about to leave him. One night, she stops by the Chungking Express, a local restaurant that Cop #663 frequents, to leave a goodbye note, and return her key to his apartment. 

But the young girl working behind the counter, whose name is Faye (Faye Wong), has herself fallen for Cop #663. So, she keeps the letter hidden, and, from time to time, uses the key to sneak into his apartment, not to steal anything or root through Cop #663's underwear drawer, but to clean the place from top to bottom!

Chungking Express is a wonderful marriage of genres, creating a work that's among the most unique I’ve ever seen. The first part, which concerns the story of Cop #223, boasts exciting action, and is very fast-paced. The second (the longer of the two), about Cop #663 and his flighty secret admirer, has the look and feel of a romantic comedy, and is more lighthearted than its predecessor. Surprisingly, these two very different sequences blend together perfectly, styled in such a way that there’s no mistaking they belong to the same film, despite their conflicting personalities.

I fell in love with Chungking Express the very first time I saw it, and love it even more today.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

#48. Snatch (2000) - The Films of Guy Ritchie

DVD Synopsis: When jewel thief, Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro), takes a slight detour to London on route to delivering a huge stolen diamond to his boss in New York, he unwittingly sets off an avalanche of sinister and comic events that wind their way through the rough and tumble worlds of bare-knuckle boxing, Irish gypsies, pawn shops, pig farming and... a stray dog. Snatch, Guy Ritchie's brilliant follow up to his critically acclaimed Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, exposes us to his hip and helter-skelter view of London's gangster underbelly. Ritchie's characteristic fast-paced and constantly twisting story features a madcap ensemble cast of larger-than-life characters, including Jason Statham, an unlicensed boxing promoter; Stephen Graham, his bumbling Sidekick; Alan Ford, the local underworld kingpin; Dennis Farina, Franky's no-nonsense boss; Vinnie Jones, a legendary thug; Rade Sherbedgia, a psycho double-crossing Russian; and Brad Pitt, in a hilarious turn as a fast-talking gypsy bare-knuckle boxer.

Featuring a few carry-overs from director Guy Ritchie’s debut film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Alan Ford, Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones) mixed in with some bigger names like Benicio Del Toro and Brad Pitt, Snatch is filled to its absolute breaking point with one fabulous performance after another

I’ve seen Snatch something like six or seven times, and every character is so well fleshed-out, so thoroughly entertaining that I still can’t decide which of them is my absolute favorite. 

Hell, I don’t think I could even come up with a top-five list because I’d be leaving some great characters off. With a story that twists and turns in about a dozen directions, every performer is given ample opportunity to shine, and they all take advantage of it. 

If you haven’t seen Snatch, then definitely check it out and (if you can) let me know which character is your favorite. Trust me when I tell you there are plenty to choose from!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

#47. Britannia Hospital (1982)

DVD Synopsis: Welcome to Britannia Hospital, an esteemed English institution marking its gala anniversary with a visit by the Queen Mother herself. But when investigative reporter Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) arrives to cover the celebration, he finds the hospital under siege by striking workers, ruthless unions, violent demonstrators, racist aristocrats, an African cannibal dictator and sinister human experiments financed by the Japanese. Can Mick survive one very strange day in these unhealthy halls or is the entire British Empire in critical condition?

Britannia Hospital is a biting satire of, well…a lot of things, really. In fact, by the time the film is over, nobody, regardless of class or occupation, has escaped unscathed. 

There are some funny scenes (the royal representatives advising the hospital staff how to address “HRM” during her visit to the hospital is priceless), one or two that are difficult to watch (like the experimental “operation” that turns surprisingly gory), and a wrap-up to the entire story, delivered by the film’s mad scientist, Professor Miller (Graham Crowden), which leaves you with plenty to think about. By taking aim at so many segments of society, from union leaders to the upper-class to the overly-invasive press, I’m guessing Britannia Hospital pissed a lot of people off. 


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

#46. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

DVD Synopsis: A thousand years after a global war, a seaside kingdom known as the Valley of the Wind remains one of only a few areas still populated. Led by the courageous Princess Nausicaä, the people of the Valley are engaged in a constant struggle with powerful insects called Ohmu, who guard a poisonous jungle that is spreading across the Earth. Nausicaä and her brave companions, together with the people of the Valley, strive to restore the bond between humanity and the Earth.

Like many of director Hayao Miayazaki’s films, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is at its most exquisite when the action takes to the skies.  The scene where Nausicaa is flying through the air on her glider, saving a traveler who has wandered too close to the toxic jungle, is breathtakingly beautiful. 

The magic of flight has always been a trademark of Miyazaki’s best work, and he uses it to wonderful effect in most of his films. Whenever a Miyazaki character is soaring through the air, the excitement swells, the tension builds, and something quite extraordinary usually follows. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is no exception.


Monday, September 20, 2010

#45. Time Bandits (1981) - The Films of Terry Gilliam

Directed By: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, John Cleese

Tag line: "All the dreams you've ever had and not just the good ones"

Trivia:  49-year-old Ian Holm plays the 26-year-old Napoléon Bonaparte

Released in 1981, Time Bandits was my introduction to the wonderful world of Terry Gilliam, which, over the years. has been an intensely imaginative place, a land where the impossible is commonplace, and nothing can be predicted.

While lying in bed one evening, young Kevin (Craig Warnock) is startled by a gang of little people emerging from his bedroom closet. Employees of the Supreme Being, they've just stolen a valuable map from their boss, and are running for their lives. 

The map is a special one, revealing the exact locations of a series of time portals, which the diminutive thieves plan to use to plunder the riches of past civilizations. Led by Randall (David Rappaport), the group inadvertently pulls Kevin into their adventure, allowing the starstruck boy to meet some of history’s most influential people, including Napoleon (Ian Holm), King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and Robin Hood (John Cleese). 

But what Kevin and his new friends don’t realize is someone else also wants the map: the Supreme Being’s arch-enemy, Pure Evil (David Warner), who will stop at nothing to snatch it away from them. 

The exploration of centuries past, from Ancient Greece to Napoleonic Europe, is impressive enough, but it’s the worlds Gilliam creates from scratch: the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness where pure evil resides; and the house boat belonging to the ogre (Peter Vaughan) and his wife (Katherine Helmond), that reveal his true creative genius. 

Even Gilliam’s version of the “real” world is a bit surreal, or, at the very least, highly exaggerated. Kevin’s parents (David Daker and Sheila Fearn) spend hours discussing appliances, all the while watching an insipid game show titled Your Money or Your Life, with a host (Jim Broadbent) who takes pleasure in inflicting pain. 

Time Bandits is more than a fun movie; it’s an exercise in originality.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

#44. Ghostbusters (1984)

DVD Synopsis: Suit up for classic comedy! When kooky, spooky college profs Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) lose their university jobs, they decide to go freelance, de-haunting houses in a new ghost removal service. As soon as they open their doors, their first order of business becomes saving beautiful cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) and nerdy Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), who've inadvertently opened the gates of hell... right in their own apartment building!

The first time I saw Ghostbusters was during its initial run in the summer of 1984, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. 

I was crammed into a packed movie house, and every joke, sly comment, and spectral showdown had this particular audience howling. There was a real energy rumbling through the crowd that night, and it never seemed to pique; with each new scene, the intensity grew stronger. 

The combination of comedy and frights that made Ghostbusters such an enjoyable film was enough to blow people’s minds that summer evening, and I myself was so swept up by it that I begged my parents to take me back the next weekend so I could see it again. 

They did, and Ghostbusters was just as amazing the second time around!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

#43. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

DVD Synopsis: It has been called "grisly," "sick," and "perverse," as well as "raw," "unshakeable," and "the movie that redefined horror." It was attacked by churches, banned by governments, and acclaimed by only the bravest of critics. It stunned audiences worldwide and set a new standard in movie terror forever. In 1974, writer-producer-director Tobe Hooper unleashed this dark, visionary tale about a group of five young friends who face a nightmare of torment at the hands of a depraved Texas clan. Today it remains unequaled as a landmark of outlaw filmmaking and unparalleled in its impact as perhaps the most frightening motion picture ever made.

Directed in 1974 by Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is, hands down, my all-time favorite horror film.

When a cemetery in rural Texas is desecrated by grave robbers, Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) - along with their three friends Jerry (Allan Danziger), Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Terry McMinn) - drive down there to check on the grave of their grandfather.

From there, things get downright crazy.

After picking up a deranged hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) and making a brief stop at a gas station run by a strange BBQ chef (Jim Siedow), the group visits the abandoned home that once belonged to Sally and Franklin’s grandfather.

When Kirk, Pam, and Jerry disappear without a trace into the woods surrounding this house, Sally and Franklin set out to find them, only to come face-to-face with a chainsaw-wielding maniac (Gunnar Hansen).

A film that is impossible to predict, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre does, by way of it's opening images, provide a glimpse of the insanity to follow: portions of a mangled corpse, recently exhumed by a madman, are illuminated (albeit briefly) by the flash from a Polaroid camera.

This opening is both grisly and bizarre, yet it opens the door just a crack, providing the tiniest inkling of what’s to come.

And what does follow is chaos of the highest order.

That’s why I love The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; it pushes the envelope continuously, taking us on a wild, freaked-out ride that gets wilder and freakier with each passing moment, culminating in a ‘dinner party’ finale that is absolute, bat-shit insanity.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has quite a bit in common with another low-budget horror flick made a few years earlier; George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Both were produced independently, cost less than $150,000 to make, and featured a cast of unknowns. In addition, both were hugely successful, grossing more than $50 million worldwide at the box office. More than this, though, Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were trend-setting motion pictures, and would change the face of horror for many years to come.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a masterpiece of the macabre, and I love it a little more each time I see it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

#42. Step Into Liquid (2003)

DVD Synopsis: From the makers of The Endless Summer, Step Into Liquid takes us from the terrifying monstrous waves of Oahu's North Shore to the Texas waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of Ireland and Rapa Nui. Told through the voices of legends, pros and everyday surfers alike, it is not just a film for surfers, but for anyone with an appreciation for sport and an inkling of what it means to be "stoked."

Step Into Liquid is the movie that Hi-Definition flat-screens and Blu-Ray players were made for, a surfing documentary that travels around the world, bringing the beauty of the oceans straight to your living room. 

It is wondrous, yes, but these grand visuals serve a purpose: to give the viewer a rough idea of just how addicting the sport of surfing can be. Step Into Liquid takes us to the beaches of Hawaii, Costa Rica, Ireland, Australia, Vietnam and Chile, where we follow one surfer after another into the water, witnessing amazing feats of skill matched only by the spectacular wipeouts. It’s more than a sport for these people.  Each and every surfer interviewed talks as if surfing were a spiritual endeavor. It brings them such joy, such pleasure that we're convinced catching a wave is as close to a religious experience as these people are ever going to get. 

While the rest of the world may view surfing as a hobby, a sport, or even a waste of time, those who dedicate themselves to it believe life just isn’t worth living without their boards, and a set of excellent swells to sail her by.

Please leave a comment below... I'd love to hear from you


Thursday, September 16, 2010

#41. The Beast That Killed Women (1965)

DVD Synopsis: Poor Delores Carlos. Unable to get an even tan, she and hubby Byron Mabe scurry off to a Miami nudist camp at precisely the same moment the camp is invaded by The Beast That Killed Women, a goofy-looking gorilla with an appetite for the ladies! Murder and panic quickly spread through the camp: "She said he was big and hairy!" Worse, the hardened police even march right through a game of nude volleyball with a corpse on a stretcher! Finally, after Miss Carlos is chased by the big monkey, a pretty policewoman volunteers to enter the camp as ape bait...

Let’s see…how do I relate my thoughts on the 1965 nudist horror film, The Beast That Killed Women? Well, here are the notes I took while I was watching the movie:
  1. low-budget nudie cutie” – Nudie Cuties were films from the late 50’s into the 60’s that were mostly set in a Nudist Colony. For more on Nudie Cuties, consult your local library or Wikipedia
  2. Bad Acting” – Really? I actually put that down? Well, no shit.
  3. She looked into the camera!” – Yeah, the lead character’s wife did this when she was walking out of the bathroom. It was pretty obvious.
  4. Above average nudist chicks” – At least the ones that didn’t have beehive hairdos.
  5. Everyone sucks at volleyball” – They were just throwing the ball back and forth (which means no jumping!)
  6. Half these nudists are fully dressed” – including the ones playing volleyball
  7. The Beast is a guy in an ape suit” – Well, this is pretty self-explanatory
  8. He’s gonna drop her!” – You’d think that a beast that killed women for a living would know how to carry their bodies.
  9. "Where the hell are these people from?” – Seriously, I couldn’t figure out half of these accents
  10. These women can’t scream” – Not one of them! Absolutely terrible screamers
  11. So bad, it’s Good?” – Absolutely! I had a hell of a time! (Beer helped)


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

#40. Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

DVD Synopsis: Director Howard Hawks, who worked brilliantly in practically every movie genre, shows his mastery of the large-scale epic with this gigantic production filmed on location in Egypt. Thousands of extras (9,787 in one scene alone!), magnificently detailed sets (including the pyramid's inner labyrinth, booby-trapped so no one can learn its secrets and live) and vast desert vistas fill the screen and astonish the eye. There are also human-scale stories. Of the Pharaoh (Jack Hawkins) who orders the pyramid as his tomb, dooming untold numbers to unending toil. Of the architect (James Robertson Justice) designing it to earn his people's freedom. Of the slaves constructing it of blood and sinew. And of a beautiful queen (Joan Collins) whose greed leads to murder – and a stunning revenge!

Land of the Pharaohs is the kind of film Hollywood excelled in during the 1950’s and 60’s; a big, sweeping epic in which countless historical inaccuracies are hidden behind grand spectacle. 

Directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, Land of the Pharaohs has several things going for it. For starters, this is one of the few epics from this era that doesn’t assume “historical” is synonymous with “biblical”. With a setting thousands of years before the onset of Christianity, Land of the Pharaohs avoids the pontification and air of self-importance that plagued so many other studio epics. But more than this, the film tells one hell of a story, the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza! Doubtless the filmmakers get a lot of the details wrong, but there’s no denying that this is magnificent subject matter. 

Overall, I’d say Land of the Pharaohs is a big, boisterous movie that gets bogged down halfway through by the inclusion of a trite love triangle, but with such a grand story to tell, and so many great sets and locations to tell it on, Land of the Pharaohs proves a real treat for the eyes, even if it isn’t exactly stimulating for the mind.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

#39. Escape From New York (1981)

Directed By: John Carpenter

Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine

Tag line: "The world's greatest leader is a hostage in the most dangerous place on Earth. Now only the deadliest man alive can save him"

Trivia:  The studio wanted Tommy Lee Jones for the role of Snake Plissken. Due to his prior work, they didn't think Kurt Russell was right for the role

Escape from New York was the first John Carpenter movie I ever saw. Released in 1981, I caught the film about a year later, when it made its way to cable television. Needless to say, I loved it. I loved the action... loved the story... hell, I loved pretty much everything about this movie. 

But I must admit that, at the time I did have a slight problem with the casting. As amazing as it may sound today, Kurt Russell in an action film was not something most people were accustomed to seeing in the early 80’s. 

It’s 1997. The entire island of Manhattan has been transformed into a heavily guarded prison, where the worst criminals known to man are being kept. Security is air-tight, and nobody has ever escaped.

But when Air Force One is hijacked and flown into the island’s airspace, police find they have a serious problem on their hands. The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence), carrying a very important briefcase (which is hand-cuffed to his wrist), escapes by way of a secret pod hidden within Air Force One. Unfortunately, the pod lands smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan, and the leader of the free world is immediately taken prisoner by the inmates. 

To rescue the President, authorities send in Snake Plissken (Russell), a one-eyed mercenary who has just been sentenced to life in prison. Promised a pardon if he’s successful, Snake is given 24 hours to rescue the President and bring him to safety. But failure to do so may cost Snake more than his freedom…it might cost him his life! 

In the previous decade, Kurt Russell had been a fixture in Disney-produced family films, and I can’t tell you how strange it was to see the guy from movies I grew up with, like Superdad, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Barefoot Executive, walking around with long hair, an eye patch, and a tattoo of a cobra on his chest. 

All my apprehensions quickly faded, however, when Snake Plissken landed his one-man glider on top of the World Trade Center. At that precise moment, Escape from New York ceased to be a John Carpenter film. From there on out, it belonged to Kurt Russell. 

A man of few words (and when he does speak, it’s usually through clenched teeth), Snake Plissken is a former war hero, the youngest man ever decorated by the President of the United States for valor. 

But that’s ancient history. 

Nowadays, Snake is a criminal, a common thug who attempted to rob the Federal Reserve, and was handed a life sentence for his troubles. Simultaneously functioning as hero and anti-hero, Snake is the perfect lead for a movie like Escape from New York

Despised by both the cops (Commissioner Hauk, played by veteran actor Lee van Cleef, is himself a former military man, and hates the fact Plissken tarnished his illustrious combat record) and the inmates (they have no intention of turning the President over to their new ‘comrade’), Snake is a true loner, making him all the more dangerous. Russell plays Plissken as the perennial bad-ass, a guy who doesn’t give a damn about anything. He has no time for authority, for rules, or for anyone trying to make him submit to either. 

Watching Kurt Russell in this role was an eye-opening experience, and I’ve never seen The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes quite the same way since!

Monday, September 13, 2010

#38. Piranha (1978)

DVD Synopsis: While searching for missing teenagers, novice skip tracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) and local town boozer Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) stumble upon a top-secret Army laboratory conducting genetic research on piranha fish for the purpose of developing biological warfare. When the deadly eating machines are accidently released from the compound, they're soon headed downstream and consuming everything, and anything, in their path.

Produced in 1978 by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, Piranha was to be little more than a low-budget thriller that would capitalize on the success of Steven Spielberg's Jaws, which broke box-office records a few years earlier. 

But with the likes of Joe Dante directing and John Sayles penning its script, Piranha would go far beyond simple exploitation to become a thrilling bit of entertainment in its own right. 

Like Jaws before it, the tension in Piranha is generated primarily by the film's attack scenes. However, since the title characters spend all of their time under water - thus almost entirely out of sight - the filmmakers had to develop a signal to let the audience know that these deadly creatures had arrived. 

Spielberg addressed this same problem in Jaws with the help of composer John Williams, whose sinister score is still one of the most recognizable in cinematic history. 

In Piranha, the warning system was much less... subtle. 

Instead of music, Piranha relies on the sound of gnashing teeth, as if the title creatures' lethal mouths were in a constant state of motion. While It may not be as memorable as the Williams score, that foreboding, ravenous chomping generates just the right amount of anxiety. 

Piranha had no business being this entertaining; the reason it existed in the first place was the quest for the almighty dollar. Fortunately for us, there were too many talented people involved with the making of Piranha for it to have been anything less than a hell of a lot of fun.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

#37. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

DVD Synopsis: On a hot Brooklyn afternoon, two optimistic nobodies set out to rob a bank. Sonny (Al Pacino) is the mastermind, Sal (John Cazale) is the follower and disaster is the result. Because the cops, crowds, TV cameras and even the pizza man have arrived. Pacino and director Sidney Lumet (collaborators on Serpico) reteam for this boisterous comedy thriller - based on a true incident - that earned six Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and won an Oscar for Frank Pierson's streetwise screenplay.

Al Pacino is easily one of the finest actors of the last 50 years, and many of his films are now considered classics thanks in large part to his performances in them. 

In Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino delivers not only the best performance of his career, but one I rank among the top ten of all time. 

His Sonny is a lightning rod of emotions, an angry, confused man who has gotten himself into something much more dangerous than he ever imagined. Pacino is absolutely stellar from start to finish, taking Sonny from high to low and back again very convincingly. 

In a career that has seen its share of notable roles, Dog Day Afternoon represents the absolute cream of the Pacino crop.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

#36. Clash of the Titans (1981)

Directed By: Desmond Davis

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Harry Hamlin, Claire Bloom

Tag line: "An Epic Entertainment Spectacular!"

Trivia:  This big budget 1981 release became the last feature film for which Ray Harryhausen created the special effects

Knighted in 1947 for his contributions to stage and screen, Laurence Olivier was a performer of impeccable taste and charm, having conquered Shakespeare time and again with his portrayal of such legendary characters as Hamlet, King Richard III, Othello and Shylock just to name a few. 

But for someone who was a kid in the '80s, Sir Laurence will always be Zeus, the ruler of Olympus and chief of the Greek Gods. It's a role he took on in 1981’s Clash of the Titans, a film also notable for its special effects, created by that master of stop-motion, Ray Harryhausen. 

Clash of the Titans transports us to the days of Ancient Greece, a time when the Gods ruled the world from atop Mount Olympus. Perseus (Harry Hamlin), a noble warrior and the son of Zeus (Olivier), falls in love with Andromeda (Judi Bowker), a beautiful princess who is being tormented by her former love, Calibos (Neil McCarthy), a thief and murderer physically deformed by Zeus as punishment for his crimes. 

Perseus defeats Calibos in battle, yet spares his life in exchange for the Princess’s freedom. But Calibos is also the son of an Olympian; the Goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith), and as revenge for her son's humiliation, she commands that Andromeda be sacrificed to the Kraken, a powerful sea monster, in 30 days time. Only the head of the Gorgon, Medusa, which can turn a man to stone with a single glance, can save Andromeda from a watery grave, and only a hero as mighty as Perseus can deliver it.

Clash of the Titans features some of Harryhausen's most impressive creations, like the Kraken, which destroys the city of Argos in the film's opening scene, and the winged horse Pegasus, which assists Perseus on his adventures. 

As amazing as these creatures are, however, Harryhausen’s most stunning bit of animation has to be Medusa, the Gorgon with the granite-inducing stare. Having read Greek mythology as a kid, I was familiar with the legend of Medusa, and went into the film with a preconception of what she might look like. Harryhausen's Medusa encompassed everything I had imagined, and much more besides. In his hands, Medusa became a snake-like monster that slithered along the ground, had live asps for hair, and blood so lethal that one drop could burn a hole through solid metal. 

Being eleven years old when I first saw this movie, I found Harryhausen's depiction of Medusa unsettling and thoroughly fascinating.


Friday, September 10, 2010

#35. Storm Warning (2007)

DVD Synopsis: From the director of Urban Legend come this terrifying trip into the depths of human depravity. When a storm forces a couple to land their sailboat far ashore, they stumble upon a remote island inhabited by a demented father and his psychotic sons. Captured, beaten and sexually enslaved, the couple turns the tables in a bloody fight for survival. Featuring some of the most intensely brutal scenes imaginable, Storm Warning never lets up as it builds toward a shocking finish.

Right from the get-go, director Jamie Blanks gets some serious tension brewing in Storm Warning when the two main characters decide to go “exploring” in their fishing boat. With shots of approaching storm clouds punctuated by a menacing score, it becomes obvious that, with every ill-advised turn down a narrower passageway their boat makes, these two are heading for serious trouble. By the time they walked into that farmhouse that they should have run from, I was already on the edge of my seat. Then all sorts of wild hell broke loose. 

With ample amounts of blood, spilled in some pretty creative ways, Storm Warning proves a nice entry in the revenge sub-genre.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

#34. Alligator (1980)

DVD Synopsis: Twelve years ago, two incidents occurred that bore no similarity until now. The Kendal family decided their pet baby alligator was a nuisance and flushed him down the toilet. At the same time, Slade Laboratories was conducting secret hormonal experiments with dogs and the dead dogs were disposed of in the city sewer. As the baby alligator fed on the dead dogs, its body chemistry took on grotesque mutations. When several brutal murders are discovered, David Madison (Robert Forster) is put on the case. But this is no human psychopath - it is a ravaging animal-turned-monster bent on destroying everything in its wake.

Who’d have thought that flushing a baby alligator down the toilet could lead to such mayhem…and such fun? 

Robert Forster, Michael Gazzo and Henry Silva lead a pretty solid cast, and what Alligator lacks in special effects wizardry (in some scenes, I swear it looks as if the filmmakers took a page from 1950’s Sci-Fi and shot an iguana in makeup walking across a model of a New York Street), it makes up for in fast-paced action. A low-budget horror movie done right, Alligator is a great time.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

#33. The Dresser (1983)

DVD Synopsis: The lives and relationships of those within a British traditional touring stage company provide the backdrop for the five-time 1983 Oscar nominee, The Dresser (Best Picture; Best Actor; Best Supporting Actor; Best Director; Best Screenplay Adaptation). The Dresser is a compelling study of the intense relationship between the leader of the company and his dresser. Sir (Albert Finney), a grandiloquent old man of the theater, has given his soul to his career, but his tyrannical rule over the company is now beginning to crack under the strain of age and illness as he prepares for his two-hundred-twenty-seventh performance of King Lear. Sir's fastidious and fiercely dedicated dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay), submits to Sir's frequently unreasonable demands, tends to his health, and reminds him of what role he is currently playing. The two men are essential to each other's life.

The Dresser is certainly an impressive film, from its World War II setting right down to the supporting cast. Ultimately, though, The Dresser is the story of two men. 

As an aging Shakespearian actor who’s losing his grasp on reality, Albert Finney delivers a booming performance, perhaps the finest of his career, and Tom Courtenay, as his effeminate dresser, is equally as tremendous. When together, these two can bring dramatic flair to something as ordinary as applying theatrical make-up. For their performances alone, The Dresser is a film worthy of your time.



Tuesday, September 7, 2010

#32. The Filth and the Fury (2000)

DVD Synopsis: The Sex Pistols were in existence for only 26 months and recorded only one album, yet they changed the music forever. The Filth and the Fury, a film by Julien Temple, is a shocking portrait of arguably the most influential and certainly the most notorious rock group of all time. It documents the story of The Sex Pistols, charting their rise from the litter-stacked back-streets of '70s London through their crucifixion by the British tabloids and ultimate implosion on tour in America.

As a casual Sex Pistols fan, I was anxious to check out The Filth and the Fury. Having already familiarized myself with the tragic tale of Sid Vicious (as told in Alex Cox’s masterful film, Sid and Nancy); it was the ‘rest of the story’ I was now interested in. 

Narrated by the band members themselves, The Filth and the Fury goes beyond a simple rockumentary by exposing the social and political climate present in 70’s Britain, an explosive time that gave birth to the Sex Pistols, and, in turn, the entire punk rock movement. The Filth and The Fury provided me with everything I wanted to know about the band, and then some, painting a vivid picture of the lives and scandalous musical careers of Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones and the others. 

It is a fascinating, and ultimately tragic, tale, and The Filth and the Fury tells it all.



Monday, September 6, 2010

#31. Ghosts of the Abyss (2003)

Directed By: James Cameron

Starring: Bill Paxton, James Cameron, Lewis Abernathy

Tag line: "The legend no one can forget has become the greatest 3D adventure ever filmed"

Trivia: The two robotic submarines in the film are named Jake and Elwood, a reference to The Blues Brothers

It’s been resting on the ocean floor for nearly a century. Through two World Wars, the rise and fall of Nazism and Communism, and incredible breakthroughs in medicine and technology, it has remained perfectly still, oblivious to the march of time. 

So why, after all these years, are we still fascinated by the wreck of the RMS Titanic?

Maybe it’s because Titanic was billed in 1912 as the new Queen of the sea, a vessel that was virtually indestructible, yet she never completed her maiden voyage. 

Perhaps its lasting appeal owes a debt to the individual feats of gallantry, from the legendary Molly Brown, a woman recognized for her bravery in helping others board the life rafts, to the band that continued to play as Titanic slowly sank, doing their part to bring an air of calm to the ever-growing sense of despair. 

Ultimately, the lure may simply lie in the fact that she still sits at the bottom of the ocean, jealously guarding the secrets of her last few hours. Whatever the attraction, Titanic remains, to this day, a fascinating topic of discussion.

Ghosts of the Abyss, a documentary by filmmaker James Cameron (and hosted by his frequent collaborator, actor Bill Paxton), travels to the bottom of the Atlantic to visit the great ship in the hopes of uncovering a few of its more elusive mysteries, and as someone who is continually fascinated by the tales of Titanic’s demise, I admit this is a documentary I couldn’t wait to see.

More than an outstanding documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss is a film that needed to be made. Technology has grown rapidly over the past 100 or so years, perhaps a bit too rapidly for some; there are those who believe our dependence on computers and machines will eventually lead to the “dehumanization” of society. In Ghosts of the Abyss, incredibly advanced devices (like the two robotic submersibles nicknamed "Jake" and "Elwood", which are sent into Titanic to explore its remains) are used to shed light on the individual stories behind the catastrophe. In this case, the human element is enhanced, not destroyed, by technology, taking it much further than would have been possible had such equipment never existed. 

Thanks to the vision of James Cameron and the dedicated work of his entire crew, we understand more clearly the horrible tragedy that occurred on that terrible night. Ghosts of the Abyss is a documentary worthy of the grand ship itself.

And what of Titanic? After breaking apart and sinking many years ago, carrying with it the lives of 1,500 passengers and crew, what’s to be its legacy? 

I believe it is best summed up by a remarkable discovery that Cameron and his team made deep within Titanic’s remains, where a washstand was found sitting perfectly upright, a drinking glass and carafe resting comfortably upon it. In the middle of all the destruction and chaos, this find was one of the few bastions of order, a reminder of a time when Titanic sailed across the sea, carrying with it the promise of a bright new future. 

During one ill-fated night a century ago, Titanic sank to the ocean floor amidst a scene of unspeakable horror, and yet, this steel graveyard now serves as home to countless sea creatures. Like that washstand, undisturbed by the events of April 15, 1912, a sense of order now surrounds Titanic, which has become part of the natural ecosystem, many fathoms below the ocean’s surface.

The tragedy is over, and the great ship rests in peace.