Friday, December 31, 2010

#147. Duck Soup (1933)

DVD Synopsis: A pointed political satire, Duck Soup is the Marx Brothers' funniest and most insane film. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the hilarious dictator of mythical Freedonia. Harpo and Chico are commissioned as spies by Groucho's political rival, the calculating Trentino (Louis Calhern). The film contains many of the Brothers' famous sequences: the lemonade stand, a masterpiece of slow burn; the Paul Revere parody; the "We're Going To War" number, a beautiful spoof of 30's musicals; the hilarious mirror scene; and a final battle episode that has been copied by everyone from Woody Allen to Mad Magazine.

The first time actress Margaret Dumont ever worked with the Marx Brothers was in their highly popular stage production of the 1920's, The Cocoanuts

On that fateful night, the brothers were performing on-stage as Ms. Dumont, standing just off-stage, waited patiently for her cue to enter. 

She waited…and waited…and waited, for a cue that never came. 

As would happen many times over the years, the brothers had abandoned the script, unleashing instead their own brand of unrehearsed chaos. The Marx Brothers were renowned for their zany brand of humor, and no film captured their spirit of anarchy better than Duck Soup 

It’s hard to say which of the brothers gets the most laughs in Duck Soup (as with their earlier films, the youngest Marx, Zeppo, never gets in on the fun). Groucho fires off a slew of one-liners, most of which are aimed right at poor Margaret Dumont, who plays the wealthy widow, Mrs. Teasdale. At a party to announce Firefly as the new leader of Freedonia, Mrs. Teasdale, who was married to the former leader, says that she hopes Firefly will follow in her husband’s footsteps. When Firefly asks where her husband was, Mrs. Teasdale replies, “why, he’s dead”, to which Firefly retorts, “I bet he’s just using that as an excuse”. 

Chico also gets a few good one-liners in, like when his Chicolini is standing trial for spying on Freedonia. Firefly, who is serving as judge, says to Chicolini “I’ll bet you 8 to 1 we find you guilty”. “That’sa no good”, Chicolini shoots back in his thick Italian accent. “I can get 10 to 1 at the barber shop”. 

The ever-silent Harpo, with honking horns and a perpetual smile, earns some of the film's biggest laughs, like the scene in which he's working at a peanut stand, which happens to be right next to a lemonade stand operated by Edgar Kennedy. Harpo gives Kennedy nothing but trouble; picking his pockets, destroying his straw hat, and in one absolutely hilarious moment, spoiling an entire vat of lemonade!  

By the time she appeared in Duck Soup, Margaret Dumont had become an old pro.  She no longer waited for her cue; she simply stood there like a trooper, absorbing every insult launched her way. 

If the Academy ever gave out statues for being a good sport, Margaret Dumont would have had a closet full of them. 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

#146. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958)

DVD Synopsis: Cult director Ed Wood's "cinematic masterpiece" – and also regarded as one of the worst movies ever made! Plan Nine is so bad it's good. Alien invaders use their dreaded "Plan Nine" to re-animate dead earthlings. They wreak havoc and unleash a host of things bizarre, macabre, horrific, and just plain horrible. Using footage from a Bela Lugosi movie he was unable to finish (due to Lugosi's untimely death), Wood proved again he would and could make a film under any circumstances. Hubcaps on wires doubling for flying saucers, stumbling living dead, concrete visible beneath fake grass, and mattresses visible for actors to fall on are just a few of the unbelievable gaffes and goofs you'll see. The result is a comical and campy spoof of science fiction movies themselves. The cast includes TV horror queen Vampira, a host of zombies, military buffoons, and Lugosi in his last performance.

"Visits? That would indicate visitors"
        - Dialogue sample, Plan 9 From Outer Space

Long considered one of the worst movies ever made, writer / director Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space has nonetheless risen to cult status, a shining example of the art of film-making at its most hilariously incompetent.

I myself am not immune to it's charms; 2001: A Space Odyssey is my all-time favorite science fiction film, yet I'm positive that, over the years, I have seen Plan 9 From Outer Space at least twice as many times as Kubrick's masterpiece. 

Of course, the film's "popularity" raises the stakes a bit for anyone trying to review it; should one react to the movie based on the filmmaker’s initial intentions, by which it must surely be classified a total failure, or is it now apropos to address what Plan 9 From Outer Space has become, namely a beloved look at how movies can sometimes go very, very wrong?  

It's not even a film you can easily summarize because the storyline is so frantic and uneven that you're constantly asking yourself, "what the hell is going on?!?". The movie jumps from scene to scene with little regard for flow or continuity; one minute, the alien spacecraft is floating peacefully above the graveyard. The next, the military is opening fire on them, even though they've done nothing wrong

So as not to be outdone, Ed Wood's dialogue is equally cringe-inducing. In the opening monologue delivered by a man known only as Criswell (a third-rate fortune-teller), we’re informed that the movie we’re about to see will have a huge impact on mankind's future. This is a vital bit of information because, according to Criswell, “The future is where you and I will be spending the rest of our lives”. 

Make no mistake, Plan 9 from Outer Space is a bad film. However, its so wonderfully awful that it has earned a place in the hearts of movie fans everywhere, and because of this, I think it's one all serious film buffs should watch at least once...

... with a group of friends and a six pack of beer.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

#145. The Truman Show (1998)

DVD Synopsis: He's the star of the show — but he doesn't know. Jim Carrey wowed critics and audiences alike as unwitting Truman Burbank in this marvel of a movie from director Peter Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society) about a man whose life is a nonstop TV show. Truman doesn't realize that his quaint hometown is a giant studio set run by a visionary producer/director/creator (Ed Harris), that folks living and working there are Hollywood actors, that even his incessantly bubbly wife is a contract player. Gradually, Truman gets wise. And what he does about his discovery will have you laughing, crying and cheering like few film stories ever have.

It is an absolute high to watch a film that is completely unique! 

This is the feeling I get every time I see The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s satirical look at the pitfalls of reality television. Everything that happens to Truman (Jim Carrey), each new moment in his TV-produced life, is like a revelation, a reminder of what film can be when approached with imagination. 

The key to understanding the appeal of The Truman Show is to know its director. From his earlier films like Picnic at Hanging Rock to recent endeavors such as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir has tackled vast, extraordinary stories.  Yet, despite their enormous scope, never once has he allowed any of his film’s grand events to overshadow it's characters, and The Truman Show is no exception. 

At first, we’re drawn into the film by the novelty of Truman’s world, which features a saccharine-sweet community surrounded on all sides by malfunctioning equipment, incessantly happy neighbors and some not-so subtle product placements

By the time the movie ends, though, we realize our attention was given not so much to the spectacle of this sanitized television environment, but the battle of wills that developed between Truman and the show’s creator, Christof (Ed Harris).   It is in the clashing of these two personalities that the heart of this story lies; everything else is just window-dressing.

While Jim Carrey’s performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may be his best, I have to say that his turn in The Truman Show is my favorite. I smiled throughout this movie, and I’m smiling now just thinking about it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

#144. Wanted: Dead or Alive (1986)

DVD Synopsis: Nick Randall (Rutger Hauer) is an urban bounty hunter, a lethal professional who collects society's garbage for a living. Malak Al Rahim (Gene Simmons) is an international terrorist with a plan to turn Los Angeles into a bloody battlefield. But when the CIA uses Randall as bait to trap the madman, the hunter becomes the hunted. And when the violence hits Randall's home, the bounty becomes a mission of very personal vengeance. Robert Guillaume, William Russ and Mel Harris co-star in this action-packed thriller which features a final showdown that critics and fans alike called one of the most explosive climaxes of the decade.

Thus far, during this little experiment of mine, I've watched two films directed by Gary Sherman, Dead & Buried and Vice Squad, and was impressed enough by each of them to want to delve into some more of this clearly talented filmmaker's work.  With Wanted: Dead or Alive, Sherman once again delivers the goods.

A crime thriller with plenty of action. Wanted: Dead or Alive co-stars Gene Simmons, a founder and guitarist of the rock band KISS, who's very convincing as the middle-eastern terrorist who brings his deadly game of cat-and-mouse to U.S. soil.  But make no mistake; this movie belongs to Rutger Hauer, an absolute bad-ass in the role of bounty hunter Nick Randall (a supposed descendant of the character Steve McQueen played in the 50's television western of the same name). Hauer has always been an actor of exceptional abilities, especially when playing slimy criminals. In Wanted: Dead or Alive, he's on the right side of the law, but you'd never know it by watching him; he chases down some pretty rough scumbags in this film, yet none are as tough as he is (at one point, after getting the jump on a cop-killer wanted by the FBI, Randall puts the cuffs on the guy, breaks his arm, and throws him in the trunk of his car). 

If you ever get a chance to do so, I strongly recommend setting aside a weekend afternoon to watch this trilogy of Gary Sherman films: Dead & Buried, Vice Squad and Wanted: Dead or Alive. I guarantee you won't be sorry you did.

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Monday, December 27, 2010

#143. Mega Piranha (2010)

DVD Synopsis: After a boat carrying diplomats disappears on Venezuela's Orinoco River, Navy Seal Jason Fitch is called in to investigate an assumed assassination plot. But something much bigger and deadlier is the culprit: a mutant strain of giant, ferocious piranha.

The first time I saw Mega Piranha, I honestly thought I was watching a comedy. 

I mean, it had to be, right? It was just too crazy to be taken as anything else. The camera dramatically climbs and swoops from shot to shot, even when revealing nothing more than a new character or setting, and the score is turned up to a ten on the intensity meter...all the time. The piranha themselves are pathetically bad CGI, and the powers they've developed are beyond insane (not only do these particular piranha eat us, but they eat boats, buildings, nuclear subs, each other...oh, and they can fly, too). And who the hell talks like the people in this movie? 

Well, regardless of whether it was intended to be a comedy or not, this movie is damn funny all the same. So get some good friends together, break out the beer and pop Mega Piranha into the DVD'll have an absolute blast with it.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

#142. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

DVD Synopsis: Stanley Kubrick's dazzling, Academy Award-winning achievement, a compelling drama of man vs. machine, a stunning meld of music and motion. Kubrick (who co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur C. Clarke) first visits our prehistoric ape-ancestry past, then leaps millennia (via one of the most mind-blowing jump cuts ever) into colonized space, and ultimately whisks astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) into uncharted realms of space, perhaps even into immortality. "Open the pod bay doors, HAL." Let an awesome journey unlike any other begin.

Stanley Kubrick directed some of the greatest motion pictures ever to appear on the big screen. From Paths Of Glory to Eyes Wide Shut, his career achievements read like a cinematic honor roll, and yet I believe 2001: A Space Odyssey is his finest work, a film of breathtaking beauty and grandeur. 

Of course, not everybody agrees. As the film's detractors are quick to point out, the pace of 2001: A Space Odyssey is slow (one contemporary reviewer described the film as “a monumental bore”). Yet far from holding Kubrick accountable for his choice of tempo, I praise him for moving events along slowly. In doing so, we the audience are given a chance to absorb everything that this view of the universe has to offer. We are the wide-eyed children, gazing up in wonder at the mysteries of the cosmos. 

If you think about it, with all the marvels that undoubtedly exist within the known universe, is it even reasonable to assume they can be adequately explored by way of a few rapid montages set to kitschy new-age music? Far from sharing in the belief that 2001: A Space Odyssey is too long, I always find myself wishing that, once it's over, there was just a little bit more.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

#141. Krull (1983)

DVD Synopsis: Journey into a mystical time and place that belongs to neither the past nor the present, where extraordinary creatures of myth work their incredible magic, and where a horrific, omnipotent Beast is the ruler. This is the planet of Krull! Prince Colwyn sets out on a daring mission to rescue his young bride who is held captive by the Beast. But slayers and alien beings under the command of the Beast oppose him at every turn. Colwyn must first reach a faraway cavern to recover the legendary Glaive, a flying blade capable of phenomenal powers.

Krull is a combination of fantasy and sci-fi, where knights on horseback wielding swords mix it up with aliens from another world (who don't fight fair, seeing as they use lasers). 

The story, concerning a young king who sets out to rescue his new bride from the clutches of an evil overlord, is as basic as they come, and there are times when the film definitely drags (About 4 or 5 minutes are dedicated to simply watching the hero climb a mountain). But the various wonders present in this magical world more than make up for any of the film's shortcomings, and the special effects are especially impressive.  There's a giant glass spider in one scene that looks convincingly ominous, but my favorite effect occurs whenever the Slayers, the army created by the evil lord to do his bidding, are killed: before they fall over, a giant bug crawls out of their head and burrows it's way into the ground. 

A battle between past and future, good and evil, chivalry and technology, Krull is an adventure that's been billed, in previous home video releases, as “Excalibur meets Star Wars”, and it's a label that fits the film to a T.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

#140. Tidal Wave (2009)

DVD Synopsis: A deep-sea earthquake occurs creating a tidal wave that is headed straight for Haeundae, a popular vacation spot on the south coast of Korea, which draws visitors from all over the world. During its peak season, more than a million vacationers pack onto its narrow one-mile strip of sand. While tracking offshore seismic activity, Professor Kim, a marine geologist, recognizes the impending danger of a mega tsunami. He desperately attempts to warn authorities and alert the unknowing vacationers of the 500 MPH destructive force of nature headed their direction.

Tidal Wave is a disaster movie that spends most of its running time building up to the tragedy, filling it's first 2/3's not with chaos and CGI, but character development.  In fact, following a dramatic pre-title rescue at sea (which occurs on Dec. 26, 2004, the same day a real Tsunami crashed into Southeast Asia, killing hundreds of thousands of people), the film slips into comedy mode for a while, with plenty of insults, pratfalls and general mayhem, before settling down into more melodramatic territory.  

Far from growing impatient with Tidal Wave, I realized, once the action took hold, that the time dedicated to exploring the various back stories was time well spent; I found myself caring about these characters, and when the wall of water finally did arrive (an event that’s simultaneously spectacular and horrifying), there was an added layer to the tragedy because of how invested I'd become in these characters.  

Did the payoff justify all the time spent building up to it?  Well, it certainly did for me.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

#139. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

DVD Synopsis: His talent made him a legend. His courage made him a hero. Gary Cooper is "nothing short of wonderful" (The Motion Picture Guide) in this moving true story of Lou Gehrig, the Hall-of-Fame ballplayer who reached the heights of stardom...only to face tragedy with a dignity that inspired a nation. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Pride of the Yankees is a "glorious [and] inspiring" (The Hollywood Reporter) sports classic.

The Pride of the Yankees ranks as one of the finest sports movies ever made, but I actually think it’s much more than that. In my opinion, it’s, first and foremost, a great biopic, a film about a good man who happened to be one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. 

In unison with the exciting scenes that take place on the baseball diamond, The Pride of the Yankees gives us an in-depth look into the private life of Lou Gehrig, including his devotion to his mother (Elsa Janssen) and the love he had for his wife, Eleanor (Teresa Wright).  The movie spends as much time off the baseball field as it does on, making sure to paint as complete a picture of this shy, personable man as possible. 

As a kid, I must have seen The Pride of the Yankees twenty times. My brother and I were big baseball fans in those days, and it’s because of this movie that Lou Gehrig became my brother’s favorite ballplayer. I don’t even think I knew who Gary Cooper was when I first saw The Pride of the Yankees. A little later, when I finally saw High Noon, I wondered what Lou Gehrig was doing in the old west.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

#138. Vampire Circus (1972) - Hammer Horror Movies

DVD Synopsis: A little girl is brutally slain by a vampire in a tiny 19th century Austrian village. Seeking revenge, the townspeople invade the foreboding castle of Count Mitterhaus and kill him for the crime. As the Count dies, he curses the villagers and vows that their children will all die so that he may someday return to life. Fifteen years later, as the village is ravaged by the plague, a traveling circus comes to town and distracts the villagers from their current hardships.

Vampire Circus is yet another movie that caught me by surprise, a film I knew next to nothing about prior to watching it, but which was so well-made that I found myself completely drawn in. But then, I really shouldn't have been that surprised by Vampire Circus; it is, after all, a Hammer Film. 

It's the 19th century, and The citizens of a small Austrian town have had enough of their local vampire (Robert Tayman). So, they rise against him and finish him off with a well-placed stake to the heart. But before dying, the vampire puts a curse on the town, and vows that the blood of their children will one day be spilled so that he might live again. Fifteen years pass, and the town (which has never been the same since that fateful day) finds itself in the midst of dealing with a deadly plague. Cut off from the surrounding villages as a result of the disease, the townsfolk are pleasantly surprised when a traveling circus comes rolling in one day, offering a much-needed diversion from their daily misery. But these particular circus performers are interested in more than the town's money, and it isn't long before the residents learn the truth about their new "visitors". 

One of the things I've always admired about Hammer's horror films is the way they look, the perfectly realized set pieces and authentic costumes that really bring their worlds to life. With Vampire Circus, the designers took full advantage of the film's 19th century setting to produce an absolute masterpiece of set design, but like most good Hammer films, the beautiful world created for Vampire Circus is a sharp contrast to the bloody mayhem that occurs within it. The film's opening scenes take place in the vampire's exquisitely decorated castle, yet what transpires here is far from elegant; a young girl is lured in and murdered by the vampire, an action that leads to the initial bloody confrontation with the townsfolk. In the best Hammer films, such conflicting juxtapositions (unspeakable savagery played out against refined backdrops) are commonplace. 

And make no mistake, Vampire Circus is one of the studio's best.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

#137. JFK (1991)

DVD Synopsis: Oliver Stone's powerful chronicle of the shots heard around the world and the mystery enshrouding them is one of the most provocative films of our time. In addition to its box-office success, critical acclaim and awards, it played a major role in the national debate leading to passage of the 1992 Assassination Materials Disclosure Act. This controversial winner of two Academy Awards - nominated for a total of eight Oscars including Best Picture - features 17 added minutes not shown theatrically that enrich the mosaic of the turbulent investigation by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) of President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination. An all-star cast and a top-notch production join Stone in crafting an electrifying screen experience.

Fact or fiction? 

Truth or lies? 

These are the questions that have plagued director Oliver Stone's JFK since it's premiere in 1991. By dealing directly with the possibility that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a conspiracy, JFK challenges the U.S. government's official position that his murder was the act of a lone gunman

And does so brilliantly. 

The man at the center of JFK is Louisiana District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), who in 1967 became the first prosecutor to bring an individual to trial for their alleged participation in the conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. 

The defendant, respected New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), was rumored to have had connections with the CIA in 1963, and may even have socialized with Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman), the man the government claims was the lone assassin. 

Despite mounting adversity, Garrison and his case sparks the interest of the entire country, and for the first time, America realizes just how deep the cover-up of those tragic events of Nov. 22, 1963, truly ran. 

JFK is a textbook example of perfect cinematic pacing; a chain of events weaved together so flawlessly - and with such amazing flair - that it's nearly impossible to look away. Something is always happening, from shocking revelations piled one on top of the other to back room gossip that occasionally proves more reliable than recorded fact. 

For a motion picture that has very few action scenes, JFK is nevertheless an exciting ride, a thriller as exhilarating as any I've ever seen. Through sharp editing and an extensive use of flashbacks, Oliver Stone has succeeded in keeping us on the edge of our seats for the better part of three and a half hours. 

Yet, despite the film's artistic triumphs, we always return to the question of what truly happened. The facts as presented in JFK have been attacked on several fronts, with Oliver Stone standing accused by some of perpetrating outright lies in order to make his film more intriguing. 

But then, many of the so-called "facts" presented in the Warren Commission report, which, to this day, remains the U.S. Government's official account of what happened in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, are themselves pretty outlandish (chief among them the “Single Bullet Theory”, which established that a solitary bullet, found in nearly perfect condition on a stretcher at Dallas' Parkland Hospital, defied gravity by inflicting seven different wounds, not only to President Kennedy, but Texas Governor John Connelly as well). 

In Oliver Stone's defense, he has provided us with an entertaining, exciting, star-studded, thought-provoking account of what might have happened, and all these years later, we have yet to see or read anything on this topic that does any better than that.

Monday, December 20, 2010

#136. Modern Times (1936)

DVD Synopsis: The Little Tramp punches in and wigs out inside a factory where gizmos like an employee-feeding machine may someday make the lunch hour last just 15 minutes. Bounced into the ranks of the unemployed, he teams with a street waif (Paulette Goddard) to pursue bliss and a paycheck, finding misadventures as a roller-skating night watchman, a singing waiter whose hilarious song is gibberish, a jailbird and more. In the end, as Tramp and waif walk arm and arm into an insecure future, we know they've found neither bliss nor a paycheck but, more importantly, each other.

One of Charlie Chaplin’s most beloved films, Modern Times is also among his funniest, with moments guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. 

In what might be the film's most hilarious scenes, Chaplin's Tramp, working tirelessly on an assembly line, is used as a guinea pig to test a gizmo that will keep hungry employees on the job by feeding them as they work. Things go smoothly at first, but before long the machine malfunctions, launching a hot bowl of soup onto the Tramp’s shirt! 

Along with the comedy, Modern Times relies heavily on Chaplin’s incredible pantomime. Hired as a night watchman for a department store, the Tramp invites a young lady he's befriended (Paulette Goddard) to join him for the evening, and the two spend some quality time together in the store’s 4th floor toy department. While there, they decide to try out some roller skates. The Tramp, showing off his skating ability, fails to notice that he’s entered an area where the guard rail has been removed, meaning one wrong turn will send him plummeting four stories to the ground below. The tension becomes unbearable as the Tramp, unaware of the danger, skates blindfolded, coming closer and closer to the edge each time around. 

Chaplin's precision is spot-on in this scene, making us laugh as he brings us to the edge of our seats.

Which he does over and over throughout Modern TimesCity Lights may be Chaplin's masterpiece, but this film is not far behind!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

#135. Black Christmas (1974)

Directed By: Bob Clark

Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder

Tag line: "If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl... It's On Too Tight!"

Trivia:  The role of Mrs. Mac, the house mother, was first offered to Bette Davis

While John Carpenter's Halloween is widely accepted as the film that inspired the 80's slasher craze, there are a few who feel the sub-genre's roots go back a few years earlier, to another holiday-themed horror film: director Bob Clark's Black Christmas

Regardless of whether or not this is the case, one indisputable fact remains: Black Christmas is a very creepy, very effective horror film.

In the college town of Bedford, a local sorotity is preparing for the upcoming Christmas break. With most of the girls already gone, the few who remain behind, including Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder) and Phyl (Andrea Martin), do their best to cope with a frightening situation. 

For the past several days, the sorority has been terrorized by a mysterious caller, who rants uncontrollably about blood and murder. When Clare (Lynne Griffin), one of their sorority sisters, mysteriously disappears, the remaining few go straight to the police. 

The case is eventually turned over to Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), who senses there might be a connection between this disappearance and that of a local girl, which has just been reported. 

But what nobody knows is that Clare never left the house: she was murdered by a psychopath hiding out in the sorority's attic!

Despite its story of an enigmatic killer knocking off young girls one at a time, Black Christmas is not a particularly bloody film. What it is, however, is ultra-suspenseful, and it's the sheer anticipation of the inevitable that makes the kills in Black Christmas seem all the more disturbing. 

Director Clark builds incredible tension throughout the film, sometimes to an almost-unbearable level. In the very first scene, he clues us in on one important piece of information: the killer has set up shop right above his potential victims, in the attic of their sorority house.  Just knowing he's there introduces an air of impending doom, which settles over the entire film. 

Added to this is the fact that the killer likes to taunt the girls with obscenely creepy phone calls (made from a separate line inside the house). These calls range in intensity from mildly perverted to downright chilling. 

Then there are the point-of-view shots Clark throws in from time to time, where we're looking through the eyes of the killer. Used as a device to show us where he is in the house, these shots are often distorted, sometimes jarringly so, as if we're not just peering through his eyes, but into his warped psyche as well. 

All of these elements come together brilliantly, working in unison to transform Black Christmas into one of the most imaginative - and most frightening - films of the 70's. 

As for the debate on which movie actually started the slasher frenzy, I don't think you can argue against Carpenter's Halloween. While both films do share plot and structural similarities (young people stalked by a deranged killer, POV shots, etc), one thing Halloween had that Black Christmas did not was a big box-office return, and no film, regardless of how well-made or effective it is, can spawn an entire sub-genre unless it's a proven moneymaker. 

But while Black Christmas may not be the granddaddy of slashers, it still deserves a place alongside Halloween as one of the elite, that rare breed of horror movie that combines shocks and suspense to deliver a very memorable experience.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

#134. The Pianist (2002)

DVD Synopsis: Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and winner of 3, The Pianist stars Oscar winner Adrien Brody in the true-life story of brilliant pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, the most acclaimed young musician of his time until his promising career was interrupted by the onset of World War II. This powerful, ultimately triumphant film follows Szpilman´s heroic and inspirational journey of survival with the unlikely help from a sympathetic German officer. A truly unforgettable epic, testifying to both the power of hope and the resiliency of the human spirit, The Pianist is a miraculous tale of survival masterfully brought to life by visionary filmmaker Roman Polanski in his most personal movie ever.

With the Holocaust as its subject matter, comparisons between The Pianist and Steven Spielberg’s classic 1993 film, Schindler's List, were inevitable. Yet despite the similarities in their stories, each relates the tragedy in an entirely different manner. 

Both films successfully recreate the horrific conditions of the ghettoes, yet The Pianist goes beyond the horror, providing us with details of everyday life in the Ghetto, where Jewish prisoners did the best they could to carry on with their lives under the most miserable of circumstances. Szpilman (played excellently by Adrian Brody) even manages to find work as a musician, playing piano for patrons at a Jews-only restaurant, occasionally pausing so that black marketeers can carry out business transactions at a nearby table. Where Schindler's List masterfully captured the horror, The Pianist provides the determination, the will to carry on and maintain a sense of dignity, even as all shreds of it are being systematically stripped away. 

Director Roman Polanski, who as a boy in Nazi-occupied Poland witnessed the deportation of his mother to Auschwitz, constructed The Pianist from the viewpoint of a survivor, giving us more than a mere documentation of a human tragedy. The Pianist captures the desire to endure, a desire that Polanski himself could certainly relate to.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

#133. Dillinger (1973)

DVD Synopsis: Bank robber John Dillinger (Warren Oates) has becomes a folk hero to the people of depression-era America, capturing their imaginations with the exploits of his outlaw "super-gang." But time may be running out for Dillinger's violent band of fugitives; the FBI's finest agent (Ben Johnson) is on the case, and his pursuit won't end until every member of the gang is behind bars…or dead!

At the center of John Milius' Dillinger are two fascinating characters, John Dillinger (Warren Oates) and Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), and thanks to the wonderful performances delivered by the two leads, we get to see, in great detail, what makes each one of them tick. 

During the depression, bank robbers were more than just criminals; they were celebrities, and John Dillinger considered himself the best of the bunch. He was completely aware of his own notoriety, and even boasted when he held up a bank, “You’re being robbed by the John Dillinger  gang" he shouts out during one robbery, "and that’s the best there is. These dollars you spend here today will buy you stories to tell you’re grandkids and great-grandkids”. 

On the other side of the coin, Melvin Purvis, who was a personal friend of several agents killed by Dillinger and his men, has sworn that he will smoke a cigar over Dillinger’s dead body. As we see time and again throughout the film, Purvis is just as ruthless as the gangster he’s chasing, an ‘ends-justifies-the-means’ officer of the law, which makes him the perfect man for the job. 

If you want to bring a mad dog like John Dillinger to justice, it's best to send an even madder one to do it.  

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

#132. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

DVD Synopsis: Presbyterian Church is a small mining town in the turn-of-the century Pacific Northwest - and a perfect place where gambler John Q. McCabe and bordello madam Constance Miller can do business. Robert Altman's dazzlingly original McCabe & Mrs. Miller, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie (a 1971 Best Actress Academy Award nominee for her work here), stands the mythology of the Old West on its ear. Shot on beautiful Vancouver wilderness locations, it captures the essence of a long-ago time, coupled with the edgy modern sensibility Altman brought to his other '70s masterworks M*A*S*H and Nashville. The spellbinding result, critic Pauline Kael wrote, is "a modern classic.

The wind howls through the rough terrain of the Pacific Northwest. A lone horseman, bundled against the harsh weather, makes his way along a crude dirt path. Leonard Cohen's haunting ballad, "The Stranger," picks up where the winds leave off, and the opening credits crawl along the bottom of the screen from right to left, as if the horseman, traveling left to right, is riding right past them.

Just describing this brilliant title sequence from Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller has given me goosebumps!

I love everything about this movie, but I think what first impressed me was its perfectly realized setting. The entire town of Presbyterian Church as it appears in the movie was built from scratch by the film's crew, with the Canadian wilderness standing in for the untamed Pacific Northwest. The result is a western town so authentic, it takes on a life of its own. 

We get to know every nook and cranny of Presbyterian Church, from the low-hanging bridge leading to Sheehan’s (Rene Auberjonois) bar, to the church itself, a building that’s not quite finished, but which the good Reverend, Mr. Elliot (Corey Fischer), is diligently constructing piece by piece. 

Never before had I felt such a oneness with a film’s setting as I did in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This town has personality to spare.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

#131. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

DVD Synopsis: Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, an aging silent film queen, and William Holden as the struggling writer who is held in thrall by her madness, created two of the screen's most memorable characters in Sunset Boulevard. Winner of three Academy Awards, director Billy Wilder's orchestration of the bizarre tale is a true cinematic classic. From the unforgettable opening sequence through the inevitable unfolding of tragic destiny, the film is the definitive statement on the dark and desperate side of Hollywood. Erich von Stroheim as Desmond's discoverer, ex-husband and butler, and Nancy Olson as the bright spot in unrelenting ominousness, are equally celebrated for their masterful performances.

Sunset Boulevard is a tremendous film noir, crisply directed by Billy Wilder, with memorable dialogue and a stellar performance by star William Holden. Yet all of these impressive strengths must be content to rest comfortably in the background, because Sunset Boulevard is also the movie that introduced Norma Desmond to the world.

A big star in the days of silent films, Norma (played by Gloria Swanson) has since faded into obscurity. Deep within the walls of her once-mighty Sunset Boulevard mansion, sheltered from a world that has forgotten her, Norma still considers herself a star, and cannot - or perhaps I should say will not - accept that life outside goes on without her. When he first meets Norma, Holden's character, Joe, is certain he’s heard her name before. “You used to be big”, Joe says. “I am big”, Norma replies, “It’s the pictures that got small

Swanson, who had not appeared in a feature film for nearly two decades prior to Sunset Boulevard, delivers a stellar performance as Norma. With her over-the-top ego and delusions of grandeur, Norma Desmond could have easily been little more than a caricature, a cliché. But Swanson occasionally allows a little personality to seep through the artifice, bringing life and depth to a very difficult character. In what may be the film’s most poignant scene, Norma finds herself back at Paramount studios for the first time in years, paying a visit to her old friend and director, Cecil B. DeMille (appearing as himself). As Norma sits waiting for DeMille, who is hard at work shooting his next film, a few members of the crew recognize her, and word quickly spreads that Norma Desmond has finally come home. Dozens of admirers gather around her, and at this sudden outburst of unexpected affection, Norma begins to cry. 

Now, we’ve seen Norma cry before, usually when she’s trying to emotionally manipulate Joe. This time, though, the tears are genuine. It had been years since Norma truly felt the admiration of her fans, and to experience it once again has moved her deeply. Through much of the film, Norma Desmond is tyrannical, manipulative, and downright mean. Yet I couldn’t help but smile for her during these brief minutes of adoration. For the first time, we're clued in on just how popular, how big a star, Norma really was.

Of course, we know this moment won’t last forever. The true tragedy of Sunset Boulevard is that, in Norma's world, moments like this have never stopped. She is now, and always has been, a shining star, and it's high time the rest of the world figured that out.

And heaven help those who don't!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

#130. The Searchers (1956) - The Films of John Ford

DVD Synopsis: Working together for the 12th time, John Wayne and director John Ford forged The Searchers into a landmark Western offering an indelible image of the frontier and the men and women who challenged it. Wayne plays an ex-Confederate soldier seeking his niece, captured by Comanches who massacred his family. He won't surrender to hunger, thirst, the elements or loneliness. And in his five-year search, he encounters something unexpected: his own humanity.

John Wayne is remarkable in The Searchers. His Ethan Edwards is a man with deep-rooted prejudices and a threatening personality, driven to find his kidnapped niece not by love, but hatred. 

Ethan and his adopted nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), spend several years tracking the Comanche tribe that took Debbie (played first by Lana Wood, then her elder sister, Natalie), all the while hoping to uncover some clue that the girl is still alive. 

But as time drags on, Ethan begins to accept the fact that his niece, if she has survived, will have been assimilated into the Comanche tribe, a fate Ethan believes is worse than death itself. 

In fact, the thought of Debbie becoming a Comanche squaw is so upsetting to him that, if he does find her alive, Ethan will kill the girl himself.  

Ethan is the quintessential anti-hero, a character who simultaneously invokes our sympathies, and our wrath.  The Searchers never fully explores all of the nuances of Ethan Edwards, and spends absolutely no time whatsoever on his back story (a veteran of the Confederate Army, there is one scene that suggests he may have committed a robbery, and more than a few hints that Ethan and his sister-in-law, played by Dorothy Jordan, had been romantically involved at one point). 

But then, everything we really need to know about Ethan Edwards can be found in Wayne’s magnificent performance, which, assisted by Ford's solid direction and the picturesque landscape of Monument Valley, transforms The Searchers into one of the finest Westerns ever made.

Monday, December 13, 2010

#129. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) - Spotlight on England

DVD Synopsis: Sir Alec Guinness received his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor for his delightful performance as Henry Holland, a meek clerk who devises an ingenious plan to rob a fortune in gold bullion from his own bank. But when Henry and his odd accomplice (Stanley Holloway of My Fair Lady fame) melt the gold into souvenir Eiffel Towers to smuggle into France, their perfect crime becomes a disastrous caper of Cockney crooks, customs chaos and an ill-timed group of British schoolgirls, all leading to some of the most hilarious and unexpected surprises in criminal history.

The Lavender Hill Mob centers on two honest, hard-working men: Henry Holland (Alec Guinness), a shy, unassuming bank transfer agent; and Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), a manufacturer of souvenirs. Both have spent their lives playing by the rules. That is, until the day they stole the bullion deposit from Henry's bank, melted it down, and, with the help of Pendlebury’s Eiffel Tower molds, transformed it into dozens of souvenir paperweights. 

All at once, their lives became more intense, and even a little frightening... not to mention exciting as hell! 

In one of the movie’s best scenes, Holland and Pendlebury make a trip across the channel to ensure that the golden paperweights (painted black to match the appearance of a standard souvenir tower) have arrived safely at their destination; a gift shop situated at the top of the Eiffel Tower, where they will remain hidden until the smoke clears in England. Unfortunately, upon their arrival, the two discover that something very bad has happened; it seems the gift shop failed to follow instructions, and sold six of their "special" Eiffel Towers to a group of British schoolchildren, who have just piled into the elevator and are heading for ground level. 

To salvage their grand conspiracy, both men must now reach the ground before that elevator, which means they have to descend the tower’s winding staircase, and fast! 

As Holland and Pendlebury are running full-barrel down these stairs, they suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, begin to laugh. Their carefully laid plan was falling apart, but these two were having the time of their lives, and couldn’t help but laugh about it. Regardless of what the future holds for them, Holland and Pendlebury got a shot at building a better life. 

And what surprised them both was they actually took it!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

#128. Vertigo (1958)

DVD Synopsis: Set in San Francisco, James Stewart portrays an acrophobic detective hired to trail a friend's suicidal wife (Kim Novak). After he successfully rescues her from a leap into the bay, he finds himself becoming obsessed with the beautifully troubled woman.

From the opening title sequence alone - which is punctuated by Bernard Herrmann’s haunting, powerful score - it’s obvious that Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is going to be an intense experience. 

Yet even this harrowing start fails to adequately prepare us for what's to come. 

With burning desire bubbling just below the surface at all times, Vertigo proves an all-consuming motion picture, a film that probes deeply into the psychological obsessions of a man torn apart by love. 

Scotty (James Stewart), a retired San Francisco detective with an extreme fear of heights, is contacted by old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants to hire Scotty to spy on his wife. 

Far from being a jealous husband, Elster has come to believe that his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been ‘possessed’ by the spirit of one of her ancestors, a woman named Carlotta, who died tragically many years ago. 

Elster now fears that Madeleine may attempt to harm herself as she unwittingly relives events from the past. During the course of following Madeleine around town, however, Scotty finds that he himself is falling in love with her, a love that eventually takes full control of his good senses.

Vertigo is a passionate movie, yet it’s passion is not solely of a romantic nature. More than merely falling in love with Madeleine, Scotty becomes obsessed with her, and Hitchcock captures this obsession by way of several impressive camera tricks. The first time Scotty sees Madeleine, she’s dining in an exclusive restaurant. Scotty watches as Madeleine gets up from her table and walks through a doorway, and as she does so a bright light envelops her, throwing everything in the background into darkness; Scotty can see nothing but Madeline’s radiant beauty, and from that moment on, whenever we see her, everything surrounding her is slightly out of focus. Like Scotty, we are meant to see only Madeline.

I’ve been a fan of Hitchcock’s for many years, and I rank several of his films among the best I’ve ever seen. Vertigo, though, is his masterpiece.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

#127. National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

DVD Synopsis: Everything is planned, packed – and about to go hilariously wrong. The Griswolds are going on vacation. In the driver's seat is Clark Griswold Chevy Chase), and Everyman eager to share the open road and the wonders of family togetherness. Myriad mishaps, crude kin (Randy Quaid), encounters with a temptress (Christie Brinkley), financial woes, Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) on the roof, one security guard (John Candy) and 2,460 miles later, it's a wonder the Griswolds are together. There's never been a family vacation like it. Except maybe yours. And that helps explain why National Lampoon's Vacation remains so popular... and so very funny.

With all due respect to his work in Caddyshack and Fletch, I believe Clark Griswold is the role Chevy Chase was born to play. 

Clark is a family man; he loves his wife and kids, and wants to spend as much time with them on this vacation as he possibly can (which is why they’re driving to the West Coast instead of flying there). Clark is also a bubbling cauldron of anger and frustration, a guy who’s not just disappointed with his status in life…he’s pissed off about it. Behind Clark’s effervescent smile and happy-go-lucky demeanor lies a time bomb of repressed emotions, just waiting to explode. Chevy Chase captures Clark’s duality to a tee.  You buy his cheery optimism in the early scenes, when he happily drives hundreds of miles out of the way to show his family the world’s third largest ball of twine, and you can see the “crazies” creeping in behind his eyes when his ‘perfect’ vacation encounters one hilariously tragic twist after another.  

Following National Lampoon’s Vacation in 1983, Chase would further explore Clark’s opposing nuances in three sequels, with mixed results.  But there’s nothing mixed about the original.  National Lampoon’s Vacation is a funny, funny film

…and a teeny bit disturbing as well.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

#126. 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983)

DVD Synopsis: After the nuclear holocaust, society breaks down into two groups, the evil Euraks and the rebel Federation. A mercenary named Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw) is hired by the Federation to infiltrate New York City and rescue the only fertile woman left on Earth. But with all the obstacles ahead, he will need to count on Big Ape (George Eastman), and the mysterious Ratchet (Romano Puppo) to accomplish the mission, and save the human race from extinction.

Heavily influenced by John Carpenter's Escape From New York, 2019: After the Fall of New York is amusing enough, but only if you're willing to overlook a few things. 

Now, the special effects are definitely on the cheap side (the opening credits play over a panoramic view of a bombed-out New York City, which is obviously a model), but they aren't so bad that they detract from the movie as a whole.  What does detract, however, is the dialogue, which ranges from bad one minute to downright pathetic the next (the exchange between the hero and his girl towards the end of the film, where they try to wrap everything up in a nice, neat “all you need is love” package, is particularly cringe-inducing). 

Yet I wouldn't quite place 2019: After the Fall of New York in the 'so bad it's good' category, mostly because some aspects of the film are legitimately good. For one, the post-apocalyptic set pieces are very well-done; the streets and buildings look convincingly dilapidated, and the handful of scenes that take place in the rat-infested sewers are very effective. Also impressive are some of the film's action scenes (I especially liked the battle in the bus depot), and there are enough of them to keep things moving along at a decent pace. 

Given a chance, 2019: After the Fall of New York proves to be a good, though not great, bit of escapist entertainment.

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