Tuesday, November 30, 2010

#116. Death of a Snowman (1978)

DVD Synopsis: Master criminals meet violent death in Johannesburg, South Africa, a city wrought with organized crime.  Steve Chaka (Ken Gampu), an ambitious news reporter, learns that these deaths are from the hands of an all-black vigilante group known only as "War on Crime".  Teaming up with Lt. Ben Deel (Nigel Davenport, Chariots of Fire, A Man For All Seasons) of the local police department, Chaka investigates anonymous tips regarding future "hits" and ends up fighting for his life to uncover the truth behind the vigilante killings!

Death of a Snowman is interesting in that it's an exploitation movie from South Africa, with enough action and violence to match it's American counterparts blow-for-blow. 

Now, from a technical standpoint, the film is a bit rough around the edges; the editing is choppy, sometimes jarringly so, and the musical score is occasionally laughable. But what Death of a Snowman lacks in the technical department, it more than makes up for with an entertaining tale of vigilante justice, punctuated by a handful of pretty nifty sequences. A shoot-out between some Asian drug-runners and the vigilantes, posing as policemen, is both graphic and exciting, and there's a tense scene in which Nigel Davenport is chasing down another vigilante thug, a chase that ends in gunfire in a family's back yard (and interrupts a young girl's tea party). There certainly are times when the film's deficiencies act as a hindrance (a gun battle between the two leads and some drug traffickers at a small airport is all but ruined by sloppy editing), but not enough of a hindrance to spoil the fun. 

Death of a Snowman is an exciting 70's action film, and is a movie that fans of “Grindhouse” cinema should certainly check out.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

#115. Deep Blue Sea (1999)

DVD Synopsis: Researchers on the undersea laboratory Aquatica have genetically altered the brains of captive sharks to develop a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease. There is one unexpected side effect. The sharks are getting smarter. Which could mean trouble for the researchers. And lunch for the sharks.


I know the premise of this movie is as basic as they come, and that there isn't a whole lot to it, but even still...the sharks in Deep Blue Sea are kinda amazing. Kept in a tank of their own at a floating research facility, these sharks have been genetically enhanced so that they're five times smarter than any other member of their species (and about 10 times smarter than any character in this film). They can swim backwards, identify the danger of a spear gun before it's even fired, and what's more, they eat other sharks for breakfast!

Sure, Deep Blue Sea has a cast of characters (LL Cool J being the most entertaining of the bunch), not to mention a story of some sort concerning a cure for Alzheimer's, but that's not what I wanted to see when I popped this DVD into the player. What I wanted was sharks. What I got was super-sharks, and when they finally broke free, I sat back and enjoyed the carnage.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

#114. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

DVD Synopsis: They are convicts, psychos, lunkheads, losers – and champs at the box office and in movie lore. Lee Marvin portrays a tough-as-nails major volunteered in the Army way to command a squad of misfits on a suicide mission against Nazi brass. Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Trini Lopez, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Clint Walker are among the 12 jailbirds who will earn their freedom if they survive.

The Dirty Dozen is ultimately two movies in one; a “men in training” film and an action-packed war movie. 

In the opening scenes, we witness the intense training program that the prisoners are subjected to, and we begin to spot each man’s strengths and weaknesses as a result. Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) is a natural soldier, perhaps even a natural leader, and both Jefferson (Jim Brown) and Posey (Clint Walker) prove they’re more than capable of following orders. Even loud-mouthed Victor Franco (John Cassavetes) manages to unite the men under a common cause when he demands that they have hot water for shaving. Throughout this preparation, we see a group of criminals transform into a well-organized unit. 

Then, they're given a chance to put that training to the test.  When the story switches to the raid behind enemy lines, The Dirty Dozen changes gears and becomes an intense action film, culminating in one of the most exciting battle sequences to be found in any World War II movie.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

#113. Blazing Saddles (1974)

DVD Synopsis: Filmmaker, star and paddle-ball wiz Mel Brooks goes way out West and way out of his mind with a spiffy spoof set in an 1874 Old West where 1974 Hollywood is one soundstage away – and where nonstop fun blasts prejudices to the high comedy heavens. Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn and more join for horseplay and horselaughs, making Blazing Saddles the #6 choice among the American Film Institute's Top-100 Comedies.

I'm a Mel brooks fan, and for me, Blazing Saddles is his masterpiece. 

Irreverent, tasteless, and very, very funny, Blazing Saddles is both a send-up of the Hollywood Western and a bold statement on racial prejudice. It's also completely - even brilliantly - chaotic, with moments that occasionally veer as far from the film's central themes as they possibly can. 

Aside from the now-famous ending, where a street fight between outlaws and townsfolk spills onto a neighboring sound stage disrupting a Busby-Berkeley-style musical, several other examples of inspired lunacy can be found throughout Blazing Saddles. In the small, peaceful, and very racist town of town of Rock Ridge, everyone's last name is Johnson (there's even a Howard Johnson, who owns the local Ice Cream Parlor that bears a sign boasting “1 Flavor”). Later, at a gathering of outlaws, recruited to attack Rock Ridge, we find, mixed in with the usual assortment of western toughs, a few Nazis, two Klansmen, and even a gang of bikers.

And when it comes time to send these assorted criminals off to destroy Rock Ridge, their leader, Hedley Lamaar (Harvey Korman), gives a pep talk in which he declares, “You will only be risking your lives, whereas I will be risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor”. 

Whatever his ultimate goal was, whether it be to plunge a dagger into the heart of Western mythos, shine a light on the insanity of racial prejudice, or simply shake up the world, with Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks has crafted a singular comedy classic.

Friday, November 26, 2010

#112. The Heroin Busters (1977)

DVD Synopsis: Fabio Testi (The Big Racket, Contraband) stars as a cold-blooded cop gone deep undercover to take down an international drug syndicate. But when a hair-trigger Interpol agent (David Hemmings of Blow-Up, Deep Red and Gladiator fame) joins the investigation, the case takes a deadly detour into sexual depravity and sudden violence. Can two tough detectives trapped in a criminal underworld now stay alive long enough to ignite a citywide massacre?

There's a scene in The Heroin Busters that's so insane I couldn't stop thinking about it. Late in the movie, the hero, played by Fabio Testi, is shooting it out with members of the local drug cartel when he loses his gun. To avoid being killed, he runs into an abandoned warehouse, where he's able to get the jump on one of the baddies and knock him unconscious. Unfortunately, this guy's gun also falls just out of Testi's reach, and bullets are flying all around him. How does he retrieve the gun without getting shot? Simple: he uses the unconscious drug dealer lying next to him, tossing his limp body out into the line of fire so it lands on the gun, and then pulls him back in by the legs, dragging the weapon along with him!  Maybe this isn't the first time a body's been used as a grappling hook in a movie, but if it happened before, I sure don't remember seeing it!  

As for the movie, The Heroin Busters stretches itself way too thin early on, introducing a bunch of superfluous characters that are gone before the film's half over. But once the action gets rolling, The Heroin Busters never slows down again; the last half is non-stop action, all building up to one hell of a thrilling ending.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

#111. Morvern Callar (2002)

DVD Synopsis: Academy Award nominee Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report) is the mysterious Morvern Callar. Waking up Christmas morning, Morvern is greeted with a startling surprise; her boyfriend has inexplicably committed suicide. He has left her a cryptic short message on his computer screen – "I love you. Be brave." He has also left her the manuscript for a new novel. Impulsively, Morvern changes the authors name to her own and sends the novel out to publishers. This then begins a rebirth of a character free for self discovery.

Morvern Callar works on the assumption that an audience will accept its title character’s behavior after she finds her boyfriend dead on the floor, which is, admittedly, quite difficult to do. 

Take that first night, for instance, when Morvern made the gruesome discovery; instead of calling the authorities, Morvern (played by Samantha Morton) dresses up and goes clubbing with her friends, leaving the body lying right where she found it on the kitchen floor!

And yet, thanks to Morton, who I rank as one of today’s finest actresses, we do learn to tolerate - maybe even admire - Morvern Callar. 

Morton and director Lynne Ramsey both succeed in taking us past this character’s questionable actions, exploring instead the root of her motivations. Ultimately, Morvern is a young woman who wants to break free, to leave her old life behind. And she goes about doing so the only way she knows how. 

It’s easy to sit back and judge Morvern Callar (especially when she uses the money her boyfriend set aside for his funeral to pay for a vacation on the Spanish Coast), but it’s something else altogether to recognize why she acts this way. Morton and Ramsay work at building a base for this character, and then branch out in multiple directions, affording us the enviable opportunity of acting as co-pilots on Morvern’s occasionally selfish journey of discovery.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

#110. Shane (1953)

DVD Synopsis: Acclaimed director George Stevens' legendary rendition of the quintessential Western myth earned six Academy Award nominations, and made Shane one of the classics of the American cinema. The story brings Alan Ladd, a drifter and retired gunfighter, to the assistance of a homestead family terrorized by a wealthy cattleman and his hired gun (Jack Palance). In fighting the last decisive battle, Shane sees the end of his own way of life. Mysterious, moody and atmospheric, the film is enhanced by the intense performances of its splendid cast.

The story of Shane is simple enough; good guys on one side fighting bad guys on the other, with a stranger named Shane (Alan Ladd) caught in the middle. This simplicity even extends to the overall tone of the film, yet when it came to Shane's visual style, 'simple' was exactly what director George Stevens had in mind from the start. 

Throughout Shane, Stevens will hold a single shot for a long period of time, keeping his camera perfectly still and never once cutting away from the action. When discussing the film in a 1974 interview with writers Patrick McGilligan and Joseph McBride, Stevens addressed his use of sustained shots in Shane, and the effect he was hoping to achieve with them. 

In one of those long takes”, Stevens said, “the camera gets rooted in one place almost as if it has discovered something of extraordinary importance. It doesn’t move in to examine it closely; it draws the audience in to make an effort to see more. The audience must explore it, discover why there is this muted telling of some significant point”. 

Through simplicity, George Stevens challenged his audience as opposed to leading them from one moment to the next, and his approach worked. I know, because I myself was watching quite intently, caught up in the action. In the case of Shane, less amounted to much, much more.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

#109. Three Colors: Red (1994)

DVD Synopsis: Red is a seductive story of forbidden love – and the unknowable mystery of coincidence. The final chapter in Krzysztof Kieslowski's acclaimed "Three Colors" trilogy, Red stars sexy Irène Jacob (Victory, My Life So Far) as a young model whose chance meeting with an unusual stranger leads her down a path of intrigue and secrecy. As her knowledge of the man deepens, she discovers an astonishing link between his past... and her destiny!

By combining romance with intrigue, Red , the final film in director Krystof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy, demonstrates that sometimes love, and even heartache, are a simple twist of fate away. 

While watching Red, I was struck by the realization that its characters, in all likelihood, were destined to meet each other, doing so at the exact moment, and in the precise manner, that fate had intended. Valentine (Irene Jacob) meets the judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) when she inadvertently runs over his dog. This meeting leads Valentine to the discovery that the judge has been eavesdropping on his neighbor’s telephone calls for years, and her obvious disgust for his actions shames the judge into turning himself in to the police. But Valentine herself would also benefit from this meeting; when the cynical judge, in trying to defend his actions, professes his belief that man’s most primitive nature will show its ugly face in almost any situation, it awakens Valentine to the reality of her long-distance love affair with Michel, which has grown stagnant. Suddenly, Valentine is asking Michel the tough questions (when she asks Michel during one of their many phone conversations if he loves her, the voice on the other end of the phone replies, quite unconvincingly, “I think so”). It's a meeting of chance that leads two characters to ponder their lives at that moment in time, and it won't be the last coincidence to be found in Red.

With Red, director Kieslowski brings his trilogy to a close, and does so in excellent fashion. When delving into the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in these three films, Kieslowski did not tell grand stories; it’s quite common to think of these principles as they pertain to governments, societies, or even historically important uprisings. Instead, we’re shown how the three might affect life on a much more personal level, altering not thousands of lives, but one or two. In this trilogy, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are whittled down to life-size, and as a result, we are treated to three unique, poignant and moving films of the spirit.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

#108. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

Directed By: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, José Ferrer

Tag line: "Six characters in search of love"

Trivia: Woody Allen once said that this film and September were his "two biggest financial disasters"

Years ago, when school would let out for the summer, I always made it a point to watch Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy at the beginning of my first week of vacation. For me, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy was the perfect embodiment of the season: the days and nights are captured so vividly in this film that you can actually feel the warmth in the air.

Based loosely on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is set in the early days of the 20th century. Andrew (Woody Allen) and his wife, Adrien (Mary Steenburgen), have invited two other couples to spend the weekend at their summer cottage in upstate New York: Dr. Maxwell Jordan (Tony Roberts), a general practitioner and notorious womanizer, accompanied by his nurse, Dulcy (Julie Hagerty); and Adrien’s cousin, Leopold (Jose Ferrer), a professor of philosophy, who’s joined by his fiancé, Ariel (Mia Farrow). As it turns out, Andrew dated Ariel years earlier, and fears her presence will only complicate his already faltering marriage. Things get even more confused when Maxwell falls in love with Ariel, and tells Andrew he can’t live another day without her, while Leopold, looking for one final fling before he ties the knot, sets his sights on nurse Dulcy.

Romantic entanglements aside, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is a gorgeous film, with a handful of stunning scenes set in the great outdoors. Allen explores the natural beauty of the area (the movie was shot primarily in New York's Pocancito Hills) by way of a series of montages, all of which are set to the music of Mendelssohn. There are meals served outdoors in the shadow of the setting sun, and strolls through the woods that lead to debates on the poisonous nature of mushrooms. This is not your typical angst-ridden Woody Allen comedy, but a movie of incredible optimism, intensified by the inspiring splendor of a beautiful summer’s day. If you’re ever looking for a pick-me-up on those cold winter evenings, you can’t do much better than this film.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

#107. Vice Squad (1982)

DVD Synopsis: Season Hubley (Hardcore) stars as Princess, a loving single mom turned Hollywood hooker who can provide any depraved pleasure for the right price. But when a volatile cop (Gary Swanson) uses her to trap a sadistic killer, Princess becomes the prey of a psychotic pimp known as Ramrod (a mind-blowing, take-no-prisoners performance by Wings Hauser). Tonight, the neon jungle of Los Angeles will explode in an orgy of vengeance and violence. And the only outlaws more desperate than the hustlers, whores and freaks that rule the streets are the Vice Squad.

Vice Squad takes place on a single night along Hollywood Boulevard, where the cops battle it out with pimps, prostitutes, pushers and freaks of all kind. A thrilling crime / action / drama, Vice Squad is well-paced, well directed (by Gary Sherman, who also was at the helm of the entertaining Dead & Buried), and very well-acted. 

Season Hubley turns in an impressive performance as a mother forced to work the streets to get by, but it's Wings Hauser who delivers Vice Squad's juiciest turn, playing her psychotic pimp, Ramrod. Ramrod is a real terror; he beats up women for kicks, and has absolutely no fear when confronting the cops (at one point, he even manages to escape custody while handcuffed and sitting in the back of a police car). Ramrod is one of the all-time great movie villains, and Hauser's wild-eyed performance is the reason why. 

Also keep an eye out for Nina Blackwood, one of the original Veejays on MTv when the channel launched in 1981. In her big screen debut, Blackwood plays Ginger, the first of Ramrod's many victims.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

#106. The Street Fighter (1974)

DVD Synopsis: This action-packed, violent martial arts film stars Sonny Chiba as Terry Tsuguri, a mercenary hireed by the Yakuza and Mafia to spring a convicted killer from prison. When Terry (Sonny Chiba) completes his task, the mobs refuse to pay him for his services. Big mistake! All hell breaks loose as Terry changes sides and seeks revenge for the double-cross.

The Street Fighter is a very violent film, a fact that initially earned it an X rating from the MPAA. Now, obviously when you take into account that this is a martial arts film from the 70’s, you go in expecting a certain amount of violence. Hell, the movie’s title might even give that away. Even still, I believe The Street Fighter is one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen, and what makes it so shocking is that the majority of the bloodshed comes courtesy of the film’s title character. the "hero" of the story. 

Sonny Chiba’s Terry Tsurugi is incredibly powerful, and has no qualms about showing off this power every chance he gets. He knocks out the teeth of one guy the mob sends to kill him, uses his fingertips to pop the eyeballs of another baddie, and even breaks an enemies skull into dozens of pieces (for this particular kill, the director chose to get as graphic as he could, showing what went down by way of an X-ray of the doomed guy’s head, in which we see Terry’s fist crashing down, shattering the bone).  This is just a sampling of what you can expect from The Street Fighter. Honestly, I don’t even think I covered the worst of it.

The bottom line is I did enjoy The Street Fighter; it's an action-packed film featuring a very charismatic performance by Sonny Chiba. But I have to be honest: parts of it turned my stomach.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

#105. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

DVD Synopsis: Join the legendary hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in one of the greatest screen adventures of all time now on DVD. Accompanied by his feisty, independent ex-flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the two-fisted archaeologist embarks on a thrilling quest to locate the mystical Ark of the Covenant. Indy must discover the Ark before the Nazis do, and he has to survive poison, traps, snakes and treachery to do so. Explore the darkest jungles of South America, the bustling marketplaces of Cairo, and a top-secret submarine base with Indiana Jones as your guide to adventure.

Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark holds a special place in my heart, and to explain why that is, I offer the following, which is part of a separate article I wrote about five years ago:

It was June of 1981, my brother's 10th birthday, and a group of us decided to celebrate it at the movies. After some minor debate, the film we settled on was Dragonslayer, a sword and sorcery adventure many of us were dying to see. We piled into my father's car and spent the entire trip talking about how great Dragonslayer was going to be. 

But fate intervened. 

As my father pulled up to the theater, he looked at the huge marquee hanging out front and muttered something underneath his breath, which then caused the rest of us to look as well, and what we didn't see was Dragonslayer in big, bold letters. 

We were at the wrong theater.

Sensing my father's desperation to get us out of his car as quickly as possible (I guess we were being kinda loud), I begrudgingly suggested that we change our plans and instead see the movie that was playing at this theater, which happened to be Raiders of the Lost Ark

None of us knew much about it. In fact, all I'd seen was a 15-second commercial for it on TV, most of which featured a giant boulder rolling down a hill. After some more debate, and even a few tears, the others reluctantly agreed. So into the theater we went, somewhat sullenly, with no idea what was in store for us.

Looking back now, I admit I would have loved to see the expression on our faces when Raiders of the Lost Ark began. The entire opening sequence, where Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) makes his way through the jungles of South America in search of a lost idol, held our undivided attention. 

I don't think we so much as blinked. I know I didn't. Never before had I seen anything so exciting, so perfectly engrossing, on the big screen. It was more than a great opening to a classic adventure film; it was the moment I fell in love with the movies, and I've been hooked ever since.

Simply put, it's because of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the effect it had on me that I'm undertaking this challenge of mine.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

#104. Virus (1980)

Directed By: Kinji Fukasaku

Starring: Masao Kusakari, Tsunehiko Watase, Isao Natsuyagi

Tag line: "The entire world is a graveyard"

Trivia: The production of this film gained some norotiety when a Swedish ship, the MS Lindblad Explorer, transporting a production unit to Antartica for location shooting, struck a submerged reef and almost sank

I first saw director Kinji Fukasaku's Virus (aka Day of Resurrection) one autumn afternoon in the early 80's, when it played on cable TV. And I was totally blown away by it. Its story, though admittedly bleak, pulled me in immediately, as did its post-apocalyptic settings. I couldn't wait for the movie to re-broadcast so I could videotape it.

Alas, it never played again; that afternoon was the final scheduled airing for the month, and then the movie was gone for good. 

I can't tell you how exciting it is to finally see Virus again (and in it's uncut, 155-minute version to boot).

A plane carrying a genetically-engineered chemical weapon crashes, releasing what turns out to be a terrible virus into the air. This deadly germ soon sweeps the globe, killing everyone in its wake. 

Because the virus slows down in colder temperatures, those military personnel stationed in Antarctica (as well as the crew of a British nuclear submarine) make up the majority of the world's survivors. Led by U.S. Admiral Conway (George Kennedy), this multi-national group decides to start anew, and form their own society. 

But the revelation that another secret weapon exists, one that could potentially destroy all of Antarctica if it is unleashed, forces Japanese scientist Yoshizumi (Masao Kusakari) and U.S. Army Major Carter (Bo Svenson) to brave the virus and head south,  to Washington D.C., to shut it down.

The scope of Virus is just incredible; over the course of the film, we visit damn near every corner of the globe, from East Germany and Italy to Tokyo, Washington D.C., Antarctica and South America. 

And the cast is gargantuan: Bo Svenson, Glenn Ford, Sonny Chiba, Olivia Hussey, Masao Kusakari, George Kennedy, Chuck Conners (attempting - and failing at - a British accent), Edward James Olmos, Robert Vaughn, Henry Silva, and dozens more. 

There's something for everyone in Virus, with drama, romance, tragedy, adventure, horror and sci-fi mixed into it's tale of post-apocalyptic survival.  

And yet, despite its various attributes, the most impressive thing about Virus is that it is never overwhelming; all of its elements work in perfect unison, blending together beautifully despite the many directions in which its story branches off. 

Virus was a global effort in every possible sense, and the filmmakers bit off a lot when putting this movie together, but as it turns out, never more than they could actually chew.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

#103. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Directed By: Mike Figgis

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands

Trivia:  Nicolas Cage researched his character by binge drinking and visiting many hospitalized career alcoholics. Elisabeth Shue associated with prostitutes and interviewed them on the strip in Las Vegas

No matter how many times I watch Mike Figgis’ award-winning 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas, I always have the same reaction to it: this movie depresses the hell out of me! 

Nicolas Cage is Ben Sanderson, and Ben is an alcoholic. When Ben is laid off from his job, he packs up and moves to Las Vegas. We're led to believe there was a time when Ben had a normal life: a wife, a child, and a house in the suburbs. But we’re never quite sure how things played out. Does Ben drink because he lost his family, or did he lose his family as a result of his drinking? 

We don't know, and it doesn't really matter…not even to Ben. 

Once in Vegas, Ben meets a prostitute named Sera (Elizabeth Shue). Initially, Sera sees Ben as an easy mark, but the two eventually connect on a personal level, and before long are sharing an apartment together. 

It's an arrangement that is mutually beneficial. Living with Ben, Sera can steer clear of Yuri (Julian Sands), her abusive pimp / boyfriend. For his part, Ben finally has someone to talk to; even if he never remembers anything they might have said to one another. 

Both go into the relationship with their eyes open. Sera will not give up her profession; a high-priced call girl can bank a small fortune in Las Vegas. As for Ben, he makes it very clear that he will never put the bottle down, vowing to continue drinking until the day it finally kills him. 

Cage and Shue deliver masterful performances, and in the process make their pathetic characters seem a little less pathetic. Still, in spite of any compassion I may have felt towards them, and no matter how much I admire the movie, the nearly two hours I spent in the company of Ben Sanderson was more than enough, thank you very much. 

I know there are people out there like Ben, living bottle to bottle, and as true as that is, I also know the events depicted in Leaving Las Vegas are as close as I ever want to get to the Ben Sandersons of this world. Ben is more than an alcoholic. He ingests booze the way the rest of us take in oxygen. Self-destruction is one thing; Ben has moved beyond self-destruction to all-out self-loathing, and that's more difficult to watch than a drunk stumbling around, knocking over glasses.

Leaving Las Vegas is a tremendous film, but it is far from a joyous experience.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

#102. Three Colors: White (1994)

DVD Synopsis: A seductive story of love and obsession, White won nationwide critical acclaim for its intoxicating blend of eroticism and intrigue. Directed by acclaimed director Krzyzstof Kieslowski and featuring sexy Julie Delpy , White is the mysterious tale of a man whose life disintegrates when his beautiful wife of six months deserts him. Forced to begin anew, he rebuilds his life, only to plan a dangerous scheme of vengeance against her!

Three Colors: White is the comedic entry in Kieslowski’s trilogy, but its humor remains in perfect tune with the philosophies laid out by the director in the first installment, Blue. As such, the comedy in White is very dark, and the emotions behind the laughs are quite powerful. 

Of the three films, White is often dismissed as the ‘lesser’ of the trilogy, which may have something to do with it’s comedic moments (which are, at times, quite broad). Yet the humor of White is no more or less effective than the tragedy of Blue, or the romance of Red. Here, laughter is utilized to expose the deepest of human emotions, the longing for a lost love, and guided by Kieslowski’s steady hand, the comedy in White serves a much greater purpose than simply getting a few laughs.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

#101. When a Stranger Calls (1979)

DVD Synopsis: A terrified young baby-sitter... an incessantly ringing phone... and whispered threats set the stage for one of the most suspenseful chillers ever filmed. Carol Kane stars as the baby-sitter who is tormented by a series of ominous phone calls until a compulsive cop (Charles Durning) is brought on the scene to apprehend the psychotic killer. Seven years later, however, the nightmare begins again when the madman returns to mercilessly haunt Kane, now a wife and mother. No longer a naïve girl - though still terrified, but prepared - she moves boldly to thwart the maniac's attack in scenes that culminate in a nerve-shattering conclusion.

The first 20 minutes of When a Stranger Calls, when babysitter Carol Kane is being harassed by a crazy man on the phone, are absolutely nerve-wracking. It's as intense an opening sequence to a film as I've ever experienced. After that, the story changes gears a bit and becomes a game of cat-and-mouse, with private investigator Charles Durning doing everything he can to track down the mad caller (superbly played by Tony Beckley), culminating in a finale that ratchets the tension right back up to the level of the opening scene. 

There's a lot to like about When a Stranger Calls, from it's engrossing story to the performances of it's leads. But what really caught my attention was the musical score of Dana Kaproff, which was especially effective in the opening sequence. Even without much happening on-screen (the music drums its way through shots of the telephone sitting on the table, the empty stairwell, and the locked door), the tension remains at a fevered pitch thanks in large part to this nail-biting score. It proves a vital element in a sequence that will stay with you for a long, long time.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

#100. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Directed By: Sergio Leone

Starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale

Tag line: "There were three men in her life. One to take her... one to love her... and one to kill her"

Trivia:  Future director John Landis was one of the stunt men on this film

The opening sequence of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in The West, which features a showdown between Harmonica (played by Charles Bronson) and three trench-coated gunmen (Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock), is a brilliantly paced, suspenseful bit of film making, punctuated by sharp, snappy dialogue. 

It's undoubtedly the most entertaining opening to a western I've ever seen - perhaps even the best ever committed to film, period - and was the perfect introduction to what proved a truly memorable experience. 

As the railroad pushes its way west, there are men pushing right along with it, draining as much money as they can from its rails. 

Frank (Henry Fonda) is one such man, a ruthless killer who won’t allow anything - or anybody - to stand in the way of profit. To obtain a valuable piece of property, Frank murders the current landowner (Frank Wolff) and his family in cold blood, then lays the blame for it at the feet of another notorious gunslinger named Cheyenne (Jason Robards). 

But it isn’t Frank’s lucky day. First, the landowner’s new wife, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who the recently deceased married in a secret ceremony in New Orleans a month earlier, has just arrived by train, making her the legal heir to the dead man’s estate. Then there's the mysterious stranger, known only as Harmonica (Bronson), who has also rolled into town. Harmonica has an old score to settle, and won't rest until he shoots Frank dead. 

Throughout it’s entire 165 minutes, Once Upon a Time in the West remains just as intense, just as witty, and just as exciting as its first scene. But a funny thing happens as the movie progresses; while you’re sitting there, smiling at the unrestrained volatility of it all, you begin to notice that Once Upon a Time in the West is also a very beautiful film, with sweeping panoramas that vividly capture everything it's western setting has to offer. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli framed the movie as if every shot, every locale, every detail was of the utmost importance, and before long, he has us believing it as well. 

As a rule, I usually watch a movie at least three or four times before I rank it among my favorites. Through the years, I’ve only made two exceptions, adding a film after a single viewing, and only because it was so staggeringly excellent that keeping it off the list would've constituted a crime. 

The first was Chungking Express

The second, Once Upon a Time in the West

It was love at first sight.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

#99. Foxy Brown (1974)

DVD Synopsis: Foxy Brown (Pam Grier) has found her soul mate in an undercover narcotics investigator, but when he is brutally murdered, she swears vengeance against the crime ring responsible. Posing as a call girl to gain access to the ring's inner circle, Foxy discovers just how high the corruption extends, igniting a blistering war that takes her from the city streets to a remote drug laboratory to a breathtaking mid-air battle behind the controls of an airplane! But the most startling confrontations are yet to come, as she schemes to bring down her boyfriend's killers in ways they never could have imagined.

Foxy Brown was originally written as a sequel to the enormously popular Coffy (according to director Jack Hill, the original script was titled Burn, Coffy, Burn), that is until American International decided sequels weren’t making enough money. So, the script was re-written to introduce a new character named Foxy Brown, and despite a number of similarities to Coffy, Foxy Brown gave Pam Grier plenty of opportunities to broaden her range as an actress. For example, in Coffy, with her drug-addicted sister already in the hospital , Grier’s character is in revenge mode from the opening scene. In Foxy Brown, we’re first-hand witnesses to the event that sends Foxy over the edge, and spend some time with her before the shit hits the fan. Grier is convincing early on as a woman in love and tough as nails once the bullets start flying. In one scene, Foxy even holds a gun on her brother, Link (Antonio Fargas), who knows more about her boyfriend’s murder than he’s letting on. This confrontation is pretty powerful stuff, and Grier proves she’s equal to the challenge.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

#98. Battleship Potemkin (1925) - Spotlight on Russia

Directed By: Sergei Eisenstein

Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov

Trivia:  Charlie Chaplin has called this his favorite film

Sergei Eisenstein was one of the most brilliant minds in the history of cinema. Aside from writing a number of books on film theory, Eisenstein is also considered by many to be the father of montage, where sharp, sometimes contradicting images are edited together to tell a specific story.

Eisenstein's theories and love of montage blend together perfectly in his 1925 masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin.

It’s 1905, and life aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin, pride of the Czarist fleet, has become unbearable. The food is spoiled, the duty hard, and the officers corrupt, beating the men for the smallest of infractions. Fed up with these shoddy conditions, the sailors stage a mutiny and take control of the ship.

The citizens of the nearby town of Odessa, who also suffer at the hands of the Czar's officials, greet the news of Potemkin’s rebellion with cheers of support. Their joy turns to horror the moment the Cossacks arrive, who, to head off any further chaos, slaughter the citizens who have gathered in the streets.

Eisenstein’s skills as a director and, especially, an editor are on full display in Battleship Potemkin’s most famous sequence, where the Cossacks fire upon a crowd of unarmed civilians on the steps of Odessa. It’s more than a great scene; it’s one of the most spectacular in motion picture history. Yet as thrilling as it is, the Odessa Steps massacre is but one such moment in a movie that, time and again, stirs our emotions.

Earlier in the film, Eisenstein took us below decks, where Potemkin’s sailors sleep on hammocks strung to all sides of the ship, turning the entire area into a web of ropes and exhausted crewmen. An officer, making his way through this mess, stops abruptly when his arm gets tangled in one of the hammocks. In a fit of rage, the officer turns and strikes the closest sleeping sailor, inflicting a painful wound. The sailor jumps up and stares at the officer, who, now free from the tangle, continues on his way.

Though not nearly as renowned as the Odessa steps sequence, this scene works exactly as Eisenstein intended, conveying the brutality inherent in Czarist Russia.

Today, we see Battleship Potemkin for what it was: an Anti-Czarist propaganda film. Yet the strength of its story remains just as potent, and the images just as stirring, as they were in 1925. Political agenda aside, Battleship Potemkin is still a work of moving intensity.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

#97. Spirited Away (2001)

DVD Synopsis: Spirited Away is a wondrous fantasy about a young girl, Chihiro, trapped in a strange new world of spirits. When her parents undergo a mysterious transformation, she must call upon the courage she never knew she had to free herself and return her family to the outside world.

Spirited Away is the only animated film I've ever seen that is perfect. It is the best of its kind. 

Director Hayao Miyazaki, who personally oversees every aspect of his films, is one of the few auteurs remaining in the world of animation. Each of his creations is a wonder in its own right, yet Spirited Away is his masterpiece. 

Every character is infused with personality to spare, and Miyazaki never allows any of them - not even his villains - to be written on a single note. Yubaba, the temperamental witch who manages the bathhouse, antagonizes Chihiro unmercifully throughout the film, yet she is not entirely evil. Yubaba is mean, yes, and very domineering, but shows that she's also capable of kindness when she praises Chihiro for the young girl's excellent work in cleaning up a particularly dirty water spirit. 

The fact that his characters are never pigeonholed into the normal personality traits so often associated with animated films is an important aspect of Miyazaki's unique touch, one that consistently sets him apart from his peers. 

A film that permeates with every shred of Miyazaki’s talent and creativity, Spirited Away succeeded in spiriting me away. I did not want this film to end!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

#96. Three Colors: Blue (1993)

DVD Synopsis: Praised as one of the top films of the year by critics and audiences alike, this stylish and provocative mystery delivers captivating performances and stunning imagery! Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche (The English Patient, Chocolat) is a young woman left devastated by the unexpected death of her husband and child. She retreats from the world around her, but is soon reluctantly drawn into an ever-widening web of lies and passion as the dark, secret life of her husband begins to unravel. With each startling discovery and heart-stopping surprise, Blue is sure to entertain you from beginning to end!

The Three Colors Trilogy, co-written and directed by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, explores in turn the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, ideals which grew to prominence in France during the Age of Enlightenment, and which remain an integral part of that country’s basic philosophies. Each film in the trilogy is named after a color of the French flag, and the first film, 1993’s Blue, is Kieslowski’s take on the quest for liberty, relating the story of a woman who, when left devastated by the sudden loss of her family, attempts to free herself from the world around her. 

While 1994’s Red is considered by many to be the strongest of the trilogy, Blue is my favorite entry. Aside from a masterful performance by Juliette Binoche, Blue also succeeds in exposing the most painful of human conditions, the tragic loss of loved ones, and then weaves this pain into a tale of one woman’s search for personal freedom, her “liberty” from the memories of her past. With a remarkable visual style and a story that hits at our most basic of fears, Blue is a film of singular power.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

#95. The Untouchables (1987)

DVD Synopsis: The critics and public agree. Brain De Palma's The Untouchables is a must-see masterpiece - a glorious, fierce, larger-than-life depiction of the mob warlord who rules Prohibition-era Chicago…and the law enforcer who vowed to bring him down.  This classic confrontation between good and evil stars Kevin Costner as federal agent Eliot Ness, Robert DeNiro as gangland kingpin Al Capone and Sean Connery as Malone, the cop who teaches Ness how to beat the mob: shoot fast and shoot first.

I first saw The Untouchables at a late-night screening in 1987. The movie didn’t let out until nearly 1 a.m, but, looking at the faces of the audience that night, you’d have never known how late it was. 

Everyone was totally energized by this movie, myself included. 

Energized, hell...I was blown away! The tense confrontations between Eliot Ness and Al Capone, handled so wonderfully by director Brian DePalma, were as exciting as anything I’d ever seen on the big screen. 

A near-perfect marriage of action and drama, supported by to magnificent performances of Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Robert De Niro, The Untouchables remains, to this day, an absolute favorite of mine.

Monday, November 8, 2010

#94. Dead Calm (1989)

DVD Synopsis: Thriller specialist Philip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Saint) directs three splendid actors – Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut) and Billy Zane (Titanic) – in riveting performances. Joe and Rae Ingram (Neill and Kidman) do the right thing and rescue the half-delirious sole survivor (Zane) of a crippled schooner. But soon the stranger will plunge the unwary pair into an intense battle of cat and mouse. And life or death.

You can cut the tension in Dead Calm with a knife.  The scenes between Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane are positively nail-biting, thanks in large part to Zane himself.  As Hughie, the deeply disturbed kidnapper who walks a fine line between docility and insanity, Zane is equal parts charming and terrifying.  With Hughie, you don’t know what you’re going to get; one moment, he’s dancing up on deck, the next he’s got his hands around Kidman’s throat, yet regardless of which extreme is in control at any given moment, Zane himself never loses control of the character.  He brings a sort of grounding to Hughie, a sense of stability to a completely unstable character, where the nice guy who likes music is never far from the potential killer.  

Both Kidman and Sam Neill do a fine job as the husband and wife in peril, but it’s Zane who ultimately commands our attention, and it’s because of him that the events of Dead Calm will stay with you for days afterwords.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

#93. Fritz the Cat (1972)

DVD Synopsis: It's the age of awakening and Fritz, one way-cool cat and NYU student, loves to embrace every experimental experience that crosses his path. Embarking on a fantastic journey of self-discovery, he indulges in everything from multiple bedroom follies to a wild joy ride through a dangerous Harlem. But when Fritz joins a group of radically aggressive hippies, he finds himself holding the dynamite that will detonate the ultimate 60s statement...one that could cost him his life!

Based on a character created by underground cartoonist R. Crumb, Fritz the Cat was the first animated feature to receive an X rating, and with all the breasts and penises that pop out during it's scant 78 minute run time, it's easy to see why (in the opening scene, a Rhinoceros construction worker, sitting high atop a scaffold, rises to his feet, whips it out, and proceeds to piss on the head of a poor hippie walking below). 

Yet despite it's moments of sex and vulgarity, Fritz the Cat works well as social commentary, throwing a critical light on such late-60's issues as free love, white guilt, police brutality, race riots, drug experimentation and, as we see time and again in Fritz himself, intellectual hypocrisy.  At one point, Fritz is hanging out in a pool hall frequented by black crows.  While talking to one of the crows, Fritz starts to pontificate on how he feels guilt over the way 'his people' have treated the crow minorities, but when the crow offers to buy him a drink, Fritz turns to the crow bartender and shouts out, “Hey, boy, how about pouring me a drink?”. 

The animation style is harsh and gritty, and there are more than a few scenes depicting frank sexuality, yet within the confines of it's shocks and thrills, Fritz the Cat had something very definite to say about American society at the time, and in my opinion, it says it very well.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

#92. MASH (1970)

DVD Synopsis: Starring Donald Sutherland, Tom Skeritt and Elliott Gould, MASH focuses on three American army surgeons stationed in Korea during the war. Though highly skilled and dedicated, they adopt a hilarious, lunatic lifestyle as an antidote to the tragedies surrounding them in their Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Robert Duvall, Gary Burghoff and Sally Kellerman also star as a sanctimonious major, a strangely prescient corporal and a self-righteous yet lusty nurse.

What a gloriously crazy film MASH is! 

What a wonderful bit of anarchy! 

Essentially a series of sketches centering on the same group of characters, MASH is mayhem to the third power. 

As an example, I offer you the sad story of Painless the dentist (John Schuck). One night, Painless fails to “perform” while in bed with a woman, and is convinced that this failure means he’s turned into a ‘fairy’. 

When Painless - unable to deal with this revelation - announces he’s going to kill himself, the camp gives him a well-staged sendoff, complete with a coffin, a deadly black tablet, and a dinner table set up to resemble yet another famous Last Supper. 

This is but one example of the disorder you can expect to find throughout the film, and because of its heightened level of hysteria - accentuated at all times by Robert Altman's signature style of directing - I’ve never once seen MASH without noticing something new, something I had never picked up on before. 

This time out, that discovery was a loudspeaker announcement about the movie playing for the camp later that evening, in which it's revealed, quite causally, that “Col. Blake has secured for us The Halls of Montezuma”.