Monday, January 31, 2011

#178. Tenement (1985)

DVD Synopsis: This is the story of a South Bronx apartment building taken hostage by a gang of crazed, junkie punks.  After witnessing the miscreants shooting up heroin and lunching on rats they killed with loaded .357s, apartment dweller Hector gets fed up and turns in the band of basement squatting junkies. The police arrest them, but justice does not prevail. A few hours after their release, the gang returns with only one thing in mind: revenge! Their plan is simple: take over the building, terrorize, maim, torture and kill every tenant, one floor at a time.

As a way of setting the stage for what's to come, the opening credits of Tenement play out over a montage of rat-infested street corners, trash-filled alleys, and a gang of young hoodlums doing drugs in the basement of a tenement building. 

Based on these initial images, it's safe to assume that we're about to enter a bad area, and once the credits end, we learn just how bad it truly is (which, it turns out, is worse than we could have ever imagined). 

Tenement is a rough, raging exploitation film, filled with violent characters doing unspeakable things to one another. As the movie begins, the basement thugs from the opening credits are being hauled off to jail. The residents of the tenement celebrate the fact that these delinquents will no longer be around to terrorize them. 

But their celebration is short-lived. 

The police release the gang after holding them for only a few hours, and when their leader (Angel David) vows revenge on the building's tenants, it brings about a night of violence and murder that no one will soon forget. 

Tenement contains a number of shocking scenes, such as the rape of a young mother (Rhetta Hughes), who, after stabbing one of her attackers in the eye with a pair of scissors, is subsequently murdered in a very savage manner. She won't be the last tenant to meet a violent end, but with their backs pushed squarely against the wall, the remaining tenants eventually turn the tables on their attackers, and dispatch some bloody vengeance of their own. 

As I was watching Tenement, words like “intense”, “ferocious”, and “savage” kept popping into my head; this is as raw an exploitation film as I've ever seen. It's not a well-acted movie, nor is the dialogue particularly memorable, but what Tenement lacks in the finer points of filmmaking, it more than makes up for with some truly ballsy scenes.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

#177. Freaks (1932)

Directed By: Tod Browning

Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova

Tag line: "The Strangest... The Most Startling Human Story Ever Screened... Are You Afraid To Believe What Your Eyes See?"

Trivia:  Myrna Loy, originally slated for the Olga Baclanova role, turned down the part because she felt the script was offensive

Director Tod Browning, who at 16 ran away to join the circus, came to love the "Big Top" and all the excitement it had to offer. With his 1932 film Freaks, Browning wanted to show the world a slice of circus life few on the outside had ever seen: the camaraderie and close-knit relationships that formed among the sideshow attractions, sometimes referred to as "freaks". 

But the world as it existed in 1932 wasn’t ready for Browning’s film. Freaks was reviled by audiences and critics alike. 

Hans (Harry Earles), a circus performer who stands less than three feet tall, has fallen in love with trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is twice his size. Cleopatra initially laughs off Hans’ advances, but changes her tune when she hears that he's about to inherit a large fortune. 

It doesn't take long for Cleopatra to seduce Hans, and soon the two are married. With the help of her secret lover, Hercules the Strong Man (Henry Victor), Cleopatra plans to knock off her new husband and collect his inheritance. But when she humiliates Hans in public, Cleopatra incites the ire of the other circus ‘freaks’, who are only too happy to intercede on Hans' behalf. 

It’s easy to see why Freaks was a bit much for an audience in 1932. Along with the appearance of such sideshow performers as the bearded lady (Olga Roderick), the half-man/half-woman (Josephine Joseph) and the human skeleton (Peter Robinson), we also meet the Half-Boy (Johnny Eck) who was born without legs; and the ‘living torso’ (Prince Randian), who had no limbs whatsoever. There are other “oddities” as well, like "pinheads", conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) and a girl with no arms (Martha Morris) who has to eat every meal with her feet. 

Yet while these characters are certainly unusual, I don't believe it was Browning's intention to simply exploit their various deformities (a charge leveled against him by many of his contemporaries). On the contrary, I get the distinct impression that a mutual respect had developed between the director and his sideshow subjects, and I'm convinced that Browning's ultimate goal was to paint them in a sympathetic light. How did he do this? By making the ‘freaks’ the true heroes of his story, and the so-called ‘normal’ characters, who lie, cheat and steal their way through the film, the monsters. 

Upon its release in 1932, critics attacked Freaks unmercifully. The Atlanta Journal wrote that it “transcends the fascinatingly horrible, leaving the spectator appalled”, and its “shocking nature” resulted in the film being banned in many states. Ultimately, audiences could not accept Browning's vision, and I truly believe 'acceptance' is what the director was after. Browning set out to show us the inner decency, even the humanity of this special group of performers, men and women who were dealt a blow by life, yet were coping with it, eking out a living the only way possible. 

Browning was able to see past their deformities.  Alas, he was the only one who could.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

#176. Ivanhoe (1952)

DVD Synopsis: Stand and pledge loyalty – or prepare to lie cold beneath your shields. Chivalrous knight Wilfrid of Ivanhoe is determined to restore Richard the Lionhearted to England's throne.  Gallantry and costumed pageantry combine in this crowd-pleasing nominee for 3 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Robert Taylor plays the title role and Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine also star in a rousing adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's novel.

Written by Sir Walter Scott in 1819, Ivanhoe is widely regarded as a literary classic, and while no film could possibly encompass the multitude of events that Scott presented in telling his tale of chivalry in Medieval England, Richard Thorpe's 1952 film proves, at the very least, an amusing take on the story.

Starring Robert Taylor (an American who, quite wisely, doesn't even attempt a British accent), Ivanhoe is a veritable feast for the eyes. For starters, it's a very pretty film to look at, with vibrantly colored costumes set against the scenic English countryside (not to mention the fact that it co-stars Elizabeth Taylor, who, in 1952, was at the height of her beauty). In unison with the splendor, there's plenty of excitement as well, such as the jousting tournament, where Ivanhoe takes on five of King John's best knights, and the lengthy siege of Torquilstone Castle, with it's rapid cuts and non-stop action, is a positively thrilling segment. 

Crisply directed and excellently paced, I believe Richard Thorpe's Ivanhoe is a film that even the most ardent purists of Scott's classic novel would find entertaining.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

#175. Wild Riders (1971)

DVD Synopsis: What starts out as an evening with a pair of bad-boy bikers turns into several days of torment for a pair of unsuspecting women in this suspense-filled thriller.

The two main protagonists of Wild Riders, a pair of bikers named Pete (Arell Blanton) and Stick (Alex Rocco), are some pretty rough characters.  In fact, we're shown just how rough they can be in the film's opening scene, when they torture and kill Pete's girlfriend for allegedly cheating on him with a black man. Fearing heat from the police as a result of this murder, the gang that Pete and Stick rides with asks them to leave. Out on their own and in need of some quick cash, Pete and Stick make a move on a couple of upper-class ladies named Rona (Elizabeth Knowles) and Laure (Shery Bain), who are home alone.  But what starts out as a pleasant afternoon get-together quickly descends into a nightmare of violence. 

Wild Riders is not an easy film to watch; aside from it's intense opening, the movie contains a pretty brutal rape sequence, not to mention a few more murders thrown in along the way. But what's even more disturbing than the violence is how it occasionally crosses the line into sadism, even masochism (despite the fact he's beaten her and taken over her home, Rona remains sexually attracted to Pete throughout the film, and even tries to help him on a number of occasions). Alex Rocco is over-the-top, yet at the same time quite effective as the none-too-bright Stick, but the truly menacing turn is delivered by newcomer Arell Blanton, who's Pete, due to his complete unpredictability, proves the more dangerous of the two. 

As I said, Wild Riders is never easy to watch, and while I can't recommend it to everyone, I will say that it does offer up some fine performances, and the film, however cruel it may be, is never, ever boring.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

#174. Tremors (1990)

DVD Synopsis: Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star as two country handymen who lead a cast of zany characters to safety in this exciting sci-fi creature comedy.  Just as Val McKee (Bacon) and Earl Basset (Ward) decide to leave Perfection, Nevada, strange rumblings prevent their departure. With the help of a shapely seismology student (Finn Carter), they discover their desolate town is infested with gigantic man-eating creatures that live below the ground.  The race is on to overcome these slimy subterraneans and find a way to higher ground, in this enjoyable thriller co-starring Michael Gross and Reba McEntire.

Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) work as handymen for the residents of the small Nevada desert town of Perfection. Tired of picking up trash and cleaning out septic tanks, the two quit their jobs and set out for the big city, to seek their fame and fortune. 

But as Val himself will observe at one point, their decision to leave Perfection came one day too late: giant carnivorous worms, which live and move underground, have cut off all the exits, and are preparing to devour everyone in town. 

The population of Perfection, Nevada, is a mere 14 people; a small but diverse group of society rejects with absolutely nothing in common, yet who, together, somehow form the perfect monster-fighting team. 

Val and Earl maintain a great, often humorous rapport throughout the film, trying in vain to harness their limited brain power to concoct the perfect plan of action. They are assisted - from time to time - by Rhonda (Finn Carter), a geology intern who is clearly the smartest of the bunch (probably because she’s from out of town). Throw in an Asian shopkeeper named Walter (Victor Wong) and a teenage slacker (Bobby Jacoby), and you have a bevy of colorful characters. 

Yet none are quite as colorful as Burt and Heather, the survivalists whose drop from society landed them in the middle of a catastrophe. 

Played superbly by Michael Gross and Reba McIntire, this particular husband-and-wife team is armed to the teeth, and ready for whatever may come their way (in the film's best scene, Burt and Heather battle it out with a monstrous worm that has broken through the wall in their basement). More often than not, survivalist characters are used as comedy fodder; intense individuals who talk of the end of the world, yet are just as ill-prepared as everyone else when an actual threat arises. Not Burt and Heather. For them, the arrival of these underground creatures means war, and they have spent years training for just such an emergency. Sure, they’re a bit too gung-ho at times, but Val, Earl and the others are damn happy to have them on their side. 

As for the creatures...well, what can I say? They defy logic, and applying rational thought to their existence will bring the film’s credibility to its knees. Like the monster movies it pays homage to, Tremors demands that we suspend disbelief, and refrain from asking questions like "Where did these giant, burrowing, meat-eating worms come from?" "Are they the result of nuclear fallout?" " Did they fly in from Outer Space?" "Maybe they're prehistoric?" 

Val, Earl, and Rhonda try to figure it out at one point, only to agree that none of their theories makes a lick of sense. 

But then it really doesn’t matter, does it? 

The creatures - illogical though they may be - are there...and the residents of Perfection - unprepared though they may be - have no choice but to deal with them. 

So, when you sit down to watch Tremors, do yourself a favor and check reason at the door. If you can do that, you'll have yourself one hell of a good time!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

#173. The Plague Dogs (1982) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Martin Rosen

Starring: John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam

Trivia:  The second animated feature to be based on a Richard Adams novel, and the second to feature the voices of John Hurt and Nigel Hawthorne. The first was Watership Down

The Plague Dogs is the animated adventure of...well...a couple of dogs!

Rowf (voiced by Christopher Benjamin) and Snitter (John Hurt) have escaped an animal testing lab, where they were subjected to a series of brutal experiments. Each day, Rowf was thrown into a pool of water to see how long he could survive without drowning, and Snitter had recently undergone brain surgery. Finally free of this nightmare existence, the dogs set out to rid themselves of the memories of their past. 

Unfortunately, life inside the lab has left them ill-equipped to survive in the outside world. Following a disastrous encounter with some sheepdogs, the two join forces with a wily fox (James Bolam), who shows them how to live off the land. 

But survival in this area of Britain requires that they kill sheep for food, and before long, the entire community is in an uproar. Hunted and hungry, the dogs struggle to pull through, all the while wondering if death would be a welcome release from their troubles. 

Despite the fact that much of the film's action takes place in the picturesque highlands of Great Britain, the animation style of The Plague Dogs remains muted and drab, with a distinct lack of color. This, coupled with the tragic twists that befall the two dogs on their adventures, works towards building - and then maintaining - a dark, dispirited tone. Even when the dogs escape the hell of their clinic, there's no sunshine to greet them, no natural beauty welcoming them with open arms. The world outside is just as fierce and dangerous as the one they are fleeing, and they are as out of place in this reality as they were in the last.

A dramatically intense motion picture, The Plague Dogs is not an easy watch, but it's a movie I recommend all the same.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

#172. An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1972)

DVD Synopsis: Brace yourself for a fearsome fright fest...times four! Maestro of Mayhem Vincent Price narrates this quivering quartet of Edgar Allan Poe's most spine-tingling classics, including: "The Tell Tale Heart," "The Sphinx,"  and "The Pit and the Pendulum." Dripping with gruesome torture, live burials, monsters, madness and murder most foul, An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe will chill you to your very marrow!

Made for television in 1972, An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe is little more than a filmed one-man show, featuring dramatic readings of four of Poe's classic, and most chilling, tales. What makes this particular show so enticing, however, is that all of the readings are performed by that master of horror, Mr. Vincent Price! 

Price does an excellent job with these four stories, bringing his personal brand of the macabre to each and every one. His wild-eyed flamboyance in “The Tell-Tale Heart” will send shivers up your spine, and he adds a hint of humor to the brief, yet engaging “The Sphinx”. With “The Cask of Amontillado”, my personal favorite of Poe's short stories, Price plays both of the tale's major roles (the murderour Montressor and the doomed Fortunato) with real gusto. Finally, we have “The Pit and the Pendulum”, which formed the basis of a film of the same title that Price starred in in 1961. 

Clocking in at just under an hour, An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe is a highly engaging stage show, offering four short stories penned by an American legend, and told by a true icon of Hollywood horror.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

#171. 25th Hour (2002)

DVD Synopsis: In 24 short hours Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, Primal Fear) goes to prison for seven long years. Once a king of Manhattan, Monty is about to say goodbye to the life he knew--a life that opened doors to New York's swankest clubs but also alienated him from the people closest to him. In his last day on the outside, Monty tries to reconnect with his father (Brian Cox, The Bourne Identity), and gets together with two old friends, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Almost Famous) and Slaughtery (Barry Pepper, The Green Mile). And then there's his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson, Men In Black II), who might (or might not) have been the one who tipped off the cops. Monty's not sure of much these days, but with time running out, there are choices to be made as he struggles to redeem himself in the 25th Hour.

Nighttime in the City that never sleeps.

The spotlights at Ground Zero slice their way into the sky, marking the area that was once occupied by the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

This is post-9/11 New York. This is Spike Lee's 25th Hour. More to the point, this is a remarkable film by an extraordinary talent; a movie - and a director - attempting to define the emotions of a wounded city, and doing so brilliantly.

Drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) has just one day of freedom remaining before he begins a seven year prison sentence. He will spend this last evening in the company of his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and his closest childhood friends, Wall Street broker Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and high-school English teacher Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Before the night is out, many deep-rooted feelings will make their way to the surface, and all four companions will come face-to-face with a reality that could change their friendship forever.

25th Hour was the first major motion picture set in New York City following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Was Spike Lee the right filmmaker to tackle such a project?

Hell yes.

Without a doubt.

Lee's cinematic resume is chock full of movies that pull no punches. Never a filmmaker to duck or weave when faced with a challenge, Lee's credentials speak for themselves: School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Summer of Sam. Throughout his career, Lee has generated his share of raw emotion, tension, and controversy. New York, battered and bullied, didn't need a flag-waving spectacular, or a vapid, feel-good extravaganza. This particular New York needed Spike Lee.

The horrific events of 9/11 are always present in 25th Hour, taking control of not just the setting, but the film's overall tone as well. When Jacob meets with Frank at the latter's apartment, which has a bird's-eye view of Ground Zero, we are quickly reminded of the time and place in which this story occurs. As the two sit in front of a window, through which we see the remains of the World Trade Center lit brightly below, they discuss the possible futures of their good friend, Monty. Frank tells Jacob that he believes this prison sentence marks the end of the Monty Brogan they know, that there's no coming back from the hell he's sure to encounter over these next seven years. The significance of this scene, in relation to the setting in which it occurs, is obvious. Like New York, Monty has been beaten down, and even his friends are counting him out.

Despite the film's desperate story, there are glimmers of hope that make their way through in 25th Hour. These characters, like the city they reside in, are moving towards a healing of their open wounds. It has been a bitter challenge, an emotional journey for all of them, and it isn't over yet. Not for Monty or Naturelle. Not for Jacob or Frank. Not for New York City.

But the healing has started. At least that's something.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

#170. Massacre in Dinosaur Valley (1985)

DVD Synopsis: Action star Michael Sopkiw (2019: After the Fall of New York, Blast Fighter) is Kevin Hall, a handsome, young paleontologist, in search of the mythical "Valley of the Dinosaur" which the locals swear is cursed! When his plane crash-lands, Kevin wages a single-handed battle against the Amazon's most evil elements - treacherous quick sand, man-eating beasts, flesh hungry cannibals, and sadistic slave traders.  Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio with all the gore and bloody entrail-rending, bullet hits, human sacrifice and impaling intact!

When you sit down and watch a movie like Massacre in Dinosaur Valley, you run the risk that a few of the story's elements may be relegated to secondary status, so that the filmmakers can squeeze scenes of graphic violence and gratuitous sex into the mix. The problem with Massacre in Dinosaur Valley, however, is there's no story for the filmmakers to even ignore. 

What we have in place of a coherent plot is a flimsy set-up, in which a scientist has hired a plane to take him to Dinosaur Valley, a dangerous stretch of South American jungle, so he can do some research on the area. Of course, others tag along, many of whom have no business whatsoever being on that plane (a fashion photographer and his two models, for example). This leads to the obligatory crash-landing that strands all of them in the dangerous jungle.  The expendable characters are finished off in good time by piranha and quicksand, leaving only a handful to deal with the real danger: namely cannibals and over-zealous diamond-miners. 

I'll be the first to admit that I'm pretty lenient in my judgment of films like Massacre in Dinosaur Valley; if a movie is ballsy enough to wear it's intentions right on it's sleeve, which in the case of this movie is sex and violence in a jungle setting, I'm willing to overlook a few structural imperfections. 

But come least meet me half-way!

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

#169. Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Directed By: Mike Nichols

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret

Trivia: Writer Jules Feiffer originally pitched the concept to director Mike Nichols as a theatre project. After listening to Feiffer's ideas, Nichols said, "I see it as a movie."

Released in 1971, Carnal Knowledge proved to be a very controversial film. Attacked as ‘obscene’ by a number of groups, several of the film's exhibitors were even arrested and brought to trial on charges of public indecency. As is the case with many such “moral crusades”, those who attacked Carnal Knowledge never bothered to look beyond the surface, condemning the film for what it showed while ignoring what it was trying to say. Far from glamorizing promiscuous sexuality, Carnal Knowledge actually attacks that very lifestyle, relating with extraordinary skill the tale of a man torn apart by his inability to connect with women on any level other than a physical one.

Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are college roommates, and spend a lot of time talking about woman. While they agree on many things, when it comes to actual matters of the heart, Jonathan and Sandy couldn’t be more different. Jonathan is extremely confident, and doesn’t hesitate in going after as many women as he possibly can, while Sandy is shy and uneasy in the company of the opposite sex. Spurred on by Jonathan, Sandy musters up the courage to talk with Susan (Candice Bergen), whom he spots one night across the room at a campus party. With this as a starting point, Carnal Knowledge follows the two friends as they experience a variety of relationships over the course of the next 20 years

Far from the rallying cry of free love the moral pundits professed it to be, Carnal Knowledge is, in fact, the tale of one man’s descent into the dark recesses of his own sexuality. Jonathan can easily attract women, yet fails to relate to any of them on an emotional level. As Sandy’s romance with Susan blossoms, he fills Jonathan in on all the details, including the intimate conversations they engage in, but it isn’t until Sandy reveals the details of their first sexual encounter that Jonathan finds he’s also attracted to Susan, and begins pursuing her for himself. Before long, Susan is dating both men, and having sex with each one as well. Sandy, who knows nothing of Susan and Jonathan’s relationship, continues telling Jonathan about how well he and Susan get along, leaving Jonathan perplexed. He can’t understand why Sandy and Susan are sharing so much, whereas he and Susan have found nothing in common aside from the sex. Jonathan longs to connect with Susan on a deeper level, yet is unable to do so.

The Supreme Court would eventually rule that Carnal Knowledge was not obscene, with Justice William Rehnquist delivering the unanimous decision that “(The Court’s) own viewing of the film satisfies us that Carnal Knowledge could not be found…to depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive way”. I absolutely agree with them. The sexuality depicted in Carnal Knowledge is far from offensive, and farther still from sensual.

If anything, I’d say it’s downright destructive.

Friday, January 21, 2011

#168. Hidden Agenda (1990)

DVD Synopsis: American activists Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif) and his fiancée Ingrid Jessner (Frances McDormand) journey to Belfast to probe allegations of brutal human rights abuses by British security forces. When Paul is killed under mysterious circumstances, the official reports list him as an I.R.A. accomplice. But Ingrid and British policeman Paul Kerrigan (Brian Cox) question the findings and begin to uncover a shocking high-level conspiracy. Now, with their safety in jeopardy, they must decide whether to risk everything to reveal the truth.

Weaving a tale of murder and political conspiracy, Hidden Agenda is a searing thriller set against the backdrop of strife-torn Northern Ireland. 

Director Ken Loach, who also helmed the brilliant The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006, takes a very specific approach to his construction of Hidden Agenda, one in which the camera “hangs back”, keeping, at all times, a slight distance from the action; close enough to pick up what's going on, yet at the same time far enough back to take everything in. Conversations, no matter how personal or dramatic they may be, are almost never shown in close-up.  In the film's opening scene, two young Irishmen are testifying as to how they were tortured by their British interrogators, yet despite the intensity of their individual stories, the camera spends as much time examining the reactions of those in the room as it does focusing on the two young men. It's a technique that Loach employs time and again throughout Hidden Agenda, one that brings a real documentary feel to the film. 

There are a million tales surrounding Northern Ireland, from it's rich cultural history to the bloody conflicts that have plagued the area for the better part of the 20th century. Hidden Agenda tells one of these stories, and tells it very, very well.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

#167. From Hell (2001)

DVD Synopsis: While Jack the Ripper ruled the streets of London, terror reigned. His crimes were unspeakable. His blood lust, unquenchable. His identity, unknown...until now! Johnny Depp and Heather Graham are riveting in this "engrossing, stylish thriller" (People Magazine). Directed by the Hughes Brothers (Dead Presidents, Menace II Society), From Hell "grips tighter than a chokehold and cuts as deep as a knife." (The Washington Post)

With it's graphic depictions of Jack the Ripper's various murders, From Hell certainly lives up to its name, and each fresh kill is a bit more gruesome than the last. However, the most compelling aspect of the film is not its blood and gore, but the way it recreates the world of the Ripper, namely the Whitechapel district of London, circa 1888. 

Production designer Martin Childs teamed once again with set decorator Jill Quertier, both of whom won an Academy Award for their work on 1998's Shakespeare in Love, to reconstruct this historic area of London. Thanks to their meticulous focus on every detail, from the costumes to the fog that filters through the streets, Whitechapel was once again, and quite convincingly, brought to life. As if in a state of perpetual awe, the camera spends a great deal of time exploring this world (the opening shot is one long walk through the streets of Whitechapel), and goes to even greater lengths to ensure that none of the design crew's hard work goes unnoticed. 

With From Hell, the Hughes brothers have successfully crafted the most artistic, most entertaining account to date of the story of Jack the Ripper. While the legend of the Ripper may have emerged from hell, this film is from an entirely different place altogether.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

#166. Cries and Whispers (1972)

DVD Synopsis: Legendary director Ingmar Bergman creates a testament to the strength of the soul – and a film of absolute power. Karin and Maria come to the aid of their dying sister, Agnes, but jealousy, manipulation, and selfishness come before empathy. Agnes, torch red by cancer, transcends the pettiness of her sisters' concerns to remember moments of being – moments that Bergman, with the help of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Sven Nykvist, translates into pictures of staggering beauty and unfathomable horror.

Ingmar Bergman’s immensely dramatic tale of life and death, Cries and Whispers is filled to its breaking point with devastating revelations. 

Appropriately titled, it's the story of four women (three of whom are sisters) whose shattered souls long to cry out, yet, in the end, can only muster soft, ineffective whispers. 

Bergman, who always had a penchant for directing women, generates performances from his leads that are nothing short of remarkable. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Karin (Ingrid Thulin), the eldest sister, believes herself incapable of experiencing emotions of any kind, and as a result is direct and unflinching in her approach to everything. Maria (Liv Ullmann), the youngest of the three siblings, is the exact opposite, an outgoing and vibrant woman, yet one whose carefree personality masks a deeply selfish, closed existence. 

As good as Thulin and Ullmann are, however, it's Harriet Andersson who delivers the films most powerful performance as Agnes, the middle sister who is rapidly dying. Her pain is often devastating, and her cries of agony emanate throughout this entire film. 

Yet, in true Bergman fashion, it's slowly revealed that Agnes' suffering has not been entirely in vain. In fact, it has provided her the opportunity to reflect on her life, helping her to mature emotionally in ways her sisters never have. 

Kari Sylwan’s Anna, the house servant who lost her own young daughter to illness years earlier, is Agnes’ sister in spirit, if not blood. Through it all, Anna maintains a strong faith in both God and life, even when surrounded on all sides by death and decay. 

Cries and Whispers is stunningly photographed by longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, who floods the screen - from start to finish - with bright red, meant to signify (in my opinion, anyway) a bleeding of sorts. The color serves as the symbolic torment that these characters must endure, not the result of any physical affliction, mind you, but a wounding of the soul. 

Anna has loved and lost, whereas Karin and Maria have lost without ever knowing true love. Perhaps most tragically of all, Agnes, now at the end of her life, has only just experienced both.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

#165. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Directed By: Steve Miner

Starring: Betsy Palmer, Amy Steel, John Furey

Tag line: "ust when you thought it was safe to go back to camp"

Trivia:  This film has one of the longest pre-credit sequences in cinematic history, nearly 15 minutes in some versions

It's not often that a sequel proves as groundbreaking as the original, but that's exactly the case with Friday the 13th Part 2. Where Friday the 13th introduced us to the legend, Part 2 gives us Jason, arguably the most iconic killer in horror movie history. 

It's been five years since the grisly events at Camp Crystal Lake, which is apparently just long enough for people to forget about them. Paul (John Furey) has opened up a training camp for counselors, situated only a stone's throw from the Crystal Lake campsite, or as it's now known almost exclusively, “Camp Blood”. With a large number of teens in residence, the locals have warned Paul that he's inviting trouble by setting up so close to Camp Blood, especially since the body of Jason Voorhees, the boy who drowned there many years earlier, has never been found. 

Like the first film, Friday the 13th Part 2 kicks off with a blood-soaked pre-title sequence, this time revisiting the only survivor from Part 1 (seems Jason doesn't like leaving any loose threads hanging around). It's a nice nod to the original, and gets the film off to a flying start. From there, it's back to the woods with a fresh group of teens, thus setting the stage for the continuation of another "tradition" set forth in Part 1: creative kill sequences. With Jason on the prowl, we're treated to swinging machetes, spears, even a nasty-looking pitchfork, and this time around not even the locals are safe; when a Deputy (Jack Marks) stumbles upon Jason's forest hideaway, he's welcomed by the claw end of a hammer...buried in his skull. 

There's plenty to tie Part 2 in with the original, from horny teens gathered together in the woods to Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), who's once again there to warn everyone that they're in terrible danger. Yet it's not the tribute to the old that makes Part 2 such a memorable film; but the new addition it brings to the table in the form of Jason Voorhees. 

And thus, a legend is born.

Monday, January 17, 2011

#164. The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984)

Directed By: Stuart Rosenberg

Starring: Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, Daryl Hannah

Tag line: "Charlie and Paulie. Two dreamers fighting to get luck"

Trivia:  Michael Cimino was asked to direct this film but didn't think it was a good film for him

On paper, The Pope of Greenwich Village is a crime/drama in which two cousins concoct a plan to steal $150,000 from a local mob boss. It's a good story, executed skillfully enough to carry the entire film by itself. 

But what makes The Pope of Greenwich Village such an interesting movie is what director Stuart Rosenberg and screenwriter Vincent Patrick use to "fill in the margins", telling a handful of smaller tales that prove just as engaging as the main narrative. 

The cousins are Charlie, played by Mickey Rourke (who is phenomenal), and Paulie, aka Eric Roberts (who hams it up in a few scenes, but is nonetheless pretty solid). Each has his reasons for wanting the money.  Charlie's goal is to open a restaurant and settle down in the country with his girlfriend (played by Daryl Hannah). Paulie needs cash to buy into a racehorse that's a guaranteed champion. 

Along the way, the cousins get into a few minor scrapes (in one hilarious scene, Paulie gets back at the traffic cop who had his convertible towed the day before by lacing the cop's whiskey with a horse laxative), and there are lighter moments as well, which feature street-corner stick-ball games and visits to the country. These moments - and a lot more - are geared towards building the characters, as opposed to forwarding the plot. 

Then there are the secondary characters, almost all of whom are just as fleshed-out as the leads. There's Bunky (Jack Kehoe), the crooked cop who lives with his mother (an extraordinary performance by Geraldine Page); and Barney (Kenneth McMillan), the safecracker in need of money to support his mentally-backward son. None of these side characters receives much screen time (Page, who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her work here, is on screen all of 8 minutes), but are given just enough exposure to drive their individual stories home. 

In the '80s, I was a Mickey Rourke fan, and his performances in The Pope of Greenwich Village and Angel Heart were big reasons why. 

Yet as good as Rourke is - and as exciting as the heist sequence proves to be - the really great thing about The Pope of Greenwich Village is how much more it is besides.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

#163. The Black Cat (1934)

DVD Synopsis: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff star in this shocking horror classic of Satanism and murder. Honeymooners Joan and Peter Allison are stranded and forced to spend the night at the home of sinister Herr Poelzig (Karloff). They soon learn they are being held captive in the mausoleum and that Poelzig is the high priest at Black Mass. He has chosen Joan to be the Devil's bride. David races to save his wife from Poelzig's unspeakable treachery in the unforgettable climax.

Karloff and Lugosi: you get them both in 1934's The Black Cat

But what's even better... what makes this match-up of two of horror's most iconic performers truly noteworthy... is that, with it's tale of lost love and revenge, The Black Cat ultimately delivers Karloff vs. Lugosi! 

Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a former soldier recently released from a 15 year prison stint (he was captured by the enemy during World War I). 

Karloff is Hjalmar Poelzig, an architect who was not only directly responsible for Werdegast's incarceration, but who also seduced the good doctor's wife and, eventually, his daughter. 

The two square off in Poelzig's spacious, creepy mansion, built on the site of one of the war's bloodiest battles. The story is an engaging one, and provides the two legendary stars with everything they need to make The Black Cat a memorable horror film. 

Lugosi always displayed a flair for the spectacular, and I love watching him perform. In The Black Cat, he's his usual hypnotic self, delivering his lines as if every single one was of the greatest importance (When relating the story of his time in Kurgaal prison, Werdegast says, ever so dramatically, “Many men have died there” (dramatic pause) “Few have returned” (slightly longer dramatic pause) “I have returned”). His theatrical approach to the role extends well beyond the delivery of his lines; in one scene, Lugosi shrinks in horror at the sight of a black cat, falling backwards and covering his face, as if the animal had cut him to his very soul. 

Karloff is more subdued in his performance, yet is - at the same time - much more diabolical than his famous colleague. In fact, I'd categorize Hjalmar Poelzig as evil personified. Along with his penchant for black cats, Poelzig also collects the bodies of deceased women, preserving them and putting them on display in glass cabinets so he can forever admire their beauty. 

 And if that's not enough to chill your blood, Poelzig is also the high priest of a devil-worshiping cult! 

Whereas Lugosi is the more flamboyant of the two, it's Karloff who brings the true terror of this story to the surface. 

There are other characters that pop up from time to time throughout The Black Cat, including a pair of newlyweds (played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) who are along for the ride. But they remain neatly in the background. The Black Cat belongs to two legends, and it's perfectly twisting story provides both with ample opportunities to shine.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

#162. Dead Man (1995)

DVD Synopsis: A young man in search of a fresh start, William Blake (Johnny Depp), embarks on an exciting journey to a new town…never realizing the danger that lies ahead. But when a heated love triangle ends in double murder, Blake finds himself a wanted man, running scared - until a mysterious loner (Gary Farmer) teaches him to face the dangers that follow a "dead man." With an outstanding supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne (End Of Days, Stigmata) and Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear), and a sizzling soundtrack by Neil Young, Dead Man is another motion picture triumph from filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

Dead Man is not your typical western, but then I get the feeling it’s the only western director Jim Jarmusch could have possibly made. 

It is a film of reflective ideology, where the destinies of each of its characters are laid out on an entirely different plane of existence from our own, one influenced - in equal parts - by literature and mysticism. 

Though shot entirely in black and white, the characters that inhabit the world of Dead Man are nonetheless very colorful. Gary Farmer’s Nobody is equally versed in both Native American tradition and English poetry. John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) is a nasty old guy who spends most of his time talking to the stuffed bear in his office, and the three men whom he hires to track down William Blake (Johnny Depp) are a peculiar crew, to say the least. There is Cole Wilson (Lance Henrikson), a cold-blooded killer who seldom speaks, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), a gunslinger who never shuts up, and a young man by the name of Johnny Pickett (Eugene Byrd), also known as ‘The Kid’, who doesn’t know what to make of either of his two companions. 

Jarmusch has given every character in this film a distinctive, engaging personality, and at one point or another all of them put forth their own view of the world around them.

As the real William Blake once said, “When the doors of perception are cleansed, man will see things as they truly are, infinite”. With Dead Man, director Jarmusch does more than just cleanse these doors: he pushes us straight through them.

Friday, January 14, 2011

#161. Shogun Assassin (1980)

Directed By: Robert Houston

Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Kayo Matsuo, Minoru Oki

Tag line: "He whips out his sword and relieves his victims of their heads!"

Trivia: Mark Lindsay, former lead singer of Paul Revere and the Raiders, co-wrote the film's music with W. Michael Lewis

Released in 1980, Shogun Assassin is an edited, English-dubbed version of two films from the Lone Wolf and Cub series produced in Japan in the early 70s. I've seen the original movies that make up Shogun Assassin (namely Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx), and even though I'm a fan of both, I have to admit Shogun Assassin is just as exciting, just as bloody, and definitely just as entertaining as they are.

It's excellent fight scenes aside, I always felt the most interesting aspect of the Lone Wolf and Cub Series (and thus, by default, Shogun Assassin) was it's lead character: Ogami Itto. At first a loyal executioner of the Shogun (Kayo Matsuo), Itto breaks his vow of servitude when his master, who is becoming increasingly more paranoid, sends a group of men to kill him. Unfortunately for the Shogun, they kill Itto's wife instead. Left alone to care for his infant son, Itto swears vengeance against the Shogun and his men. He spends his days traveling across Japan, pushing his son in a wooden baby cart (which has been outfitted with some pretty awesome samurai weapons), all the while keeping an eye out for the Shogun's men, who are apparently everywhere.

After the first few scenes of Shogun Assassin, it's clear Ogami Itto is the last person you'd want to face off against in a swordfight. More than a skilled warrior, he's a man who believes he now has nothing to lose. Having broken his oath of loyalty to the Shogun, Itto sees himself as a lost soul, whose disloyalty has damned him to an eternity in hell. The actor playing Itto, Tomisaburo Wakayama, does a fine job conveying the doom his character feels will follow him the rest of his days. He seldom speaks, but we see in his eyes the hatred he harbors for the men who've forced him into this position. Because he has opposed his master, Itto is convinced he's become a demon, one pissed enough to take as many of the Shogun's men to hell with him as he can.

I usually loathe “Americanized” versions of films, and I especially can't stand it when foreign movies are dubbed into English. Shogun Assassin is one of the very few exceptions I've come across: a westernized version of a classic Asian series that loses absolutely nothing in the translation.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

#160. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)

DVD Synopsis: In the mid-16th century, after annihilating the Incan empire Gonzalo Pizarro (Allejandro Repulles) leads his army of conquistadors over the Andes into the heart of the most savage environment on earth in search of the fabled City of Gold, El Dorado. As the soldiers battle starvation, Indians, the forces of nature, and each other, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), "The Wrath of God," is consumed with visions of conquering all of South America and revolts, leading his own army down a treacherous river on a doomed quest into oblivion.

The opening scene of Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God looks as if it was lifted directly from a dream, or perhaps even a nightmare: Spanish Conquistadors, with nothing but a crude dirt path and some jagged rocks to guide them, make their way down a mountainside. Slowly... methodically... they descend from the clouds, wondering what perils await them around each and every turn. 

And thus, the tone of Aguirre: The Wrath of God is established, its world created. 

With the famous Peruvian expedition of 16th Century explorer Gonzalo Pizarro serving as the subplot, Herzog weaves Aguirre Wrath of God into a mystical tale of greed and power. Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) is determined to track down the fabled city of El Dorado, which legend says is made entirely of gold. 

Pizarro’s men, however, are exhausted from their long journey, so the explorer decides to send a smaller delegation ahead to locate the golden city. This expedition, which will travel by river on hastily constructed rafts, is to be led by Pedro de Ursua (Ray Guerra), with Lope de Aguiire (Klaus Kinski) serving as his second in command. 

But shortly after the expedition is underway, a conflict between Aguirre and Ursua leads to a violent mutiny, resulting in Aguirre, a man driven by greed and a thirst for glory, taking control of this doomed excursion.

In the director's typical fashion, Aguirre: Wrath of God's jungle setting becomes as much a character in the film as any portrayed by its actors. Herzog has stated many times in interviews that he never selects a film’s setting simply for its beauty, or to “dress up” the background; it must take on “almost human qualities”, and the jungles of Aguirre: The Wrath of God do just that. It is a fierce, unforgiving place, an untamed wilderness as dangerous as it is beautiful. The rafts are tossed from side to side by the river’s raging current, and the jungle itself, dark and ominous, seems to mock the explorers as their journey stretches from days into weeks, with no end in sight. 

While making Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Herzog himself would suffer a great many setbacks, caused by the perils of filming in the jungle and the notorious temper of his leading man, Klaus Kinski. Yet, as was the case time and again throughout his career, his pain never goes unrewarded. As a result of Herzog's “method”, each one of his films exudes a total sense of period and place, as if they had actually found a way to travel backwards in time, physically inhabiting the world they sought merely to recreate. Aguirre: The Wrath of God is a perfect example of the "Herzog style", not to mention the director's finest achievement. It is so alive, so organically progressive, that it doesn’t even seem like a film. 

It is, as I said, like a dream

…or, yes, perhaps even a nightmare.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

#159. Key Largo (1948)

Directed By: John Huston

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall

Tag line: "A cast as explosive as its story!"

Trivia: In honor of its connection to Humphrey Bogart with this film, Key Largo, FL hosts a Humphrey Bogart film festival every year

The first time I saw John Huston’s Key Largo was back in 1984, on a day I was home sick from school. As I sat watching the film, I found myself so caught up in its energy and feisty dialogue that I completely forget how bad I was feeling. Clearly, Key Largo was the perfect remedy for whatever it was that was ailing me that day!

Former Army Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), a veteran of World War II, travels to Key Largo, Florida, to visit the relatives of a buddy who was killed in battle. 

James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), his friend’s wheelchair-bound father, operates a first-class hotel on the Keys, and his daughter-in-law, Nora (Lauren Bacall), helps him run it. Mr. Temple invites Frank to stay for the night, but unbeknownst to the three of them, some shifty strangers have also checked into the hotel; a gang of thugs whose leader is none other than the notorious mobster, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). 

A lifelong crook, Rocco had been banned from ever returning to the U.S. mainland, and now plans to rejuvenate his criminal empire south of the border in Cuba, far from the U.S. Government’s jurisdiction. 

But his scheme is put on hold when a violent hurricane paralyzes the Keys, trapping Rocco and his men, as well as McCloud and the others, in the hotel as the raging wind howls outside.

Aside from being the fourth and final pairing of Bogie and Bacall (after To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Dark Passage), Key Largo also marked the fifth film in which Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson appeared together, which might explain why the banter between the two is so sharp. At one point, McCloud is filling the Temple’s in on Rocco’s criminal history, telling them how big Rocco was in the rackets back in the days of prohibition. McCloud then looks at Rocco and says he knows exactly what the gangster wants out of life: "more". Upon hearing this, Rocco’s eyes light up. He does indeed want more, and realizes that "more" is all he ever wanted. A bit taken aback by McCloud’s accurate description of his past, Rocco responds, “OK, smart guy, what is it you want out of life?” to which McCloud replies, “To live in a world where there’s no room for Johnny Rocco”.

Key Largo is chock full of spirited give-and-takes such as this, and thanks to its veteran cast the clever dialogue never misses its mark.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

#158. The Thing With Two Heads (1972)

DVD Synopsis: You'll laugh your head off at this "fantastic tale" (Leonard Maltin) with "excellent effects" (Variety), tongue-in-cheek humor and the "combined" performances of Ray Milland and "Rosey" Grier as the ultimate odd couple! When a bigoted transplant surgeon learns that he's dying, he figures he'll just attach his brilliant head to another man's body. Unfortunately, his search uncovers only one suitable donor, Jack Moss (Grier)...a black convict!

Back in the 70's, there was a local program in the Philadelphia area known as Dr. Shock's Mad Theater (or, depending on the time of day, the alternate title of Dr. Shock's Horror Theater), which was essentially a Saturday afternoon UHF Creature Feature movie show. Dr. Shock, played by Joe Zawislak, would dress up as a vampire (or zombie, or...something) and do a few bits of magic (such as eating fire) before introducing that afternoon's horror / creature film. I bring up Dr. Shock only because I'm 100% positive it was on his show that I first saw The Thing With Two Heads, so going in, this film already held a certain nostalgic appeal for me. But never mind all that...even without the nostalgia factor, The Thing With Two Heads is a fun, fun movie. 

Ray Milland is very good as the terminally ill, and terminally bigoted, surgeon whose figured out a way to transplant a human head from one body to another, and football great “Rosey” Grier is also solid as the doctor's eventual body "donor". The film's opening scenes are played for full dramatic effect, and the operation sequence, where Milland's head is removed from his body, is really quite shocking. But then, once his head is attached to Grier (I don't consider the revelation of this plot twist as much of a spoiler. I mean, the movie is titled The Thing With Two Heads!), the film kicks into full comedy mode (especially prevalent in a chase scene between Grier/Milland and the police, which goes on WAAAYYY too long). All of this makes for an entertaining film.

But truth be told, the film's effective mixture of comedy and drama wasn't what ultimately held my attention.  Once the head transplant was complete, I just couldn't take my eyes off of the Grier/Milland “creature”, and really marveled at how very close the two actors had to get to each other to pull it off. I mean, they both must have been uncomfortable as hell throughout the entire shoot! 

The Thing With Two Heads is a really good time: it's strange, it's shocking, it's funny, and it was the perfect movie for Dr. Shock's Mad Theater.

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

And, just for the hell of it, here are a few of the 'openings' for Dr. Shock's Mad/Horror Theater