Monday, February 28, 2011

#206. Silver Lode (1954)

Directed By: Allan Dwan

Starring: John Payne, Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea


Trivia: The character played by Dan Duryea is a veiled reference to U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

Directed by Allen Dwan in 1954, Silver Lode is a western that has all but slipped into obscurity. I myself only learned about it after watching the remarkable British Film Institute documentary, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. In it, Scorsese lauds Dwan for his stylish approach to directing this low-budget film, where he took what was essentially a B-movie and transformed it into something much more substantial.

Dan Ballard (John Payne), a well-respected citizen of the town of Silver Lode, was just about to marry his fiancé, Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott), when the wedding was interrupted by a U.S. Marshal bearing a warrant for his arrest. The Marshal, a shifty character named Ned McCarty (Dan Duryea), personally accused Ballard of murder and the theft of $20,000. Ballard denies the charges, and is convinced McCarty, whom he's had previous run-ins with, isn't a U.S Marshall at all. But with McCarty going around town telling more and more people about Ballard’s so-called shady ‘history’, Dan Ballard finds he’s not only going up against McCarty, but the good citizens of Silver Lode as well.

Along with being a well-crafted western, Silver Lode is also a thinly-veiled take on the McCarthy blacklist era of the 1950s, when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who preached of a “Communist infiltration” in the American media, ruined the careers of dozens of entertainers without any real proof to back it up. When McCarty (a not-so-subtle play on names) arrives in town and publicly charges Ballard with theft and murder, the townsfolk of Silver Lode begin to wonder if the man they’ve come to admire is, in fact, guilty of these crimes. After all, Dan Ballard only rode into Silver Lode two short years ago; who knows what he did before that time? By way of coincidence and gossip, McCarty stirs the entire town into a frenzy, and, soon enough, has them believing Ballard is a cold-blooded killer. In the span of a few short hours, Dan Ballard has become an outsider in the community he once called home, a direct correlation to those in Hollywood who, on account of Joe McCarthy, were shunned by former friends and colleagues for their ‘questionable‘ political affiliations.

With a career that spanned well over 300 feature-length and short films, and dated all the way back to the 1910s, it’s a safe assumption that director Allan Dwan, by the time he made Silver Lode, had honed his skills, and was an extremely gifted filmmaker who could work magic with the limited resources at his disposal. In the case of Silver Lode, however, it’s also possible Dwan realized he had an important story to tell. Perhaps...just perhaps...Silver Lode was a film the long-time director felt needed to be made, and he decided to give it everything he had in order to drive its point home.

Whatever the case, Silver Lode is an extraordinary movie, one that deserves to find a new audience among modern cinephiles.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

#205. The Raven (1935)

DVD Synopsis: Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's short story, this horror masterpiece features Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vollin, who has a fetish for instruments of torture. After saving the life of a beautiful young girl, the doctor becomes infatuated with her. When he teams with an escaped killer (Boris Karloff) who needs a new identity, the doctor gets more than he bargained for. Revenge, obsession, and manipulation blend together in this wicked Lugosi classic.

In 1934, Universal Studios teamed two of its hottest stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, in The Black Cat, a film “inspired” by one of Edgar Allan Poe's most renowned short stories. Despite the controversy stirred up by that film (it was banned in many areas), The Black Cat was a box-office smash, and went on to be the studio's biggest money-maker of the year. So, it was only a matter of time before audiences would once again be treated to a pairing of these two renowned thespians of horror. 

Which brings us to The Raven

When Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), the daughter of a wealthy Judge (Samuel S. Hinds), is badly injured in a car crash, a plea for help goes out to retired surgeon, Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). Vollin, a self-proclaimed Edgar Allan Poe aficionado, is at first reluctant to come out of retirement, but eventually does agree to operate. Not only does Vollin save Jean, he falls madly in love with her in the process.  Vollin becomes obsessed with possessing Jean, even though she's engaged to be married to Dr. Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews), and makes plans to kidnap the girl and keep her by his side forever. To this end, he enlists the help of Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), an escaped prisoner whose come to the doctor seeking plastic surgery to alter his face. Though he initially refuses to help the good doctor in his evil scheme, Vollin ensures Bateman's assistance by turning the poor man into a deformed monster, promising to restore his looks once Jean is finally his prisoner. 

Lugosi is clearly the star of The Raven, and he is given one hell of an introductory scene. When we first meet Vollin, he's sitting behind a desk, a large shadow of a Raven filling the wall next to him.  As the camera pulls back to reveal the entire room, Vollin is reciting lines from Poe's The Raven for a visitor, and let me tell you, you've not heard Poe until you've heard him recited by Bela Lugosi! As The Raven progresses, we come to learn that Vollin is both a gifted surgeon and an obsessed madman, one who will stop at nothing to possess what he desires. Vollin is the film's heavy, and Lugosi pulls out all the stops in ensuring we despise his character completely. It's yet another fine performance by the always flamboyant actor. 

As Bateman, Karloff is as much a victim of the good doctor as he is a patient. Seeking only to have his face altered, Vollin instead turns Bateman into a hideous creature (the film's best scene is when Bateman realizes what Vollin has done, and starts shooting out the mirrors in disgust). The part of Bateman resembles yet another Karloff role, that of the monster in 1931's Frankenstein. Like the creature in that film, Bateman is a man who simply wanted to fit in, yet his very presence is terrifying to all who encounter him. Throughout The Raven, we both sympathize with Bateman's plight and pity him his sad existence. 

There are a few scenes in The Raven that simply don't work. In particular, there's a sequence in which Jean, who is a professional dancer, performs a dance number as a fellow actor recites lines from Poe's The Raven. Meant as a tribute to the doctor who saved her life, I instead found the whole thing silly, almost to the point of being laughable. Such moments aside, however, The Raven is yet another fine entry in Universal's stable of horror films, as well as a top-notch vehicle for two of the genre's most time-honored performers.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

#204. Shuttle (2008)

Directed By: Edward Anderson

Starring: Tony Curran, Peyton List, Cameron Goodman

Tag line: "All they wanted was a ride home"

Trivia:  The Portuguese title of the film is PASSENGERS OF THE NIGHT

Horror movies - especially good horror movies - have a knack of making you think twice before doing things that, under normal circumstances, you would do without hesitation. Jaws kept millions out of the water, and Friday the 13th (as well as it's plethora of sequels) couldn't have been good for the camping industry. 

Now, we have Shuttle, and after watching this film, I think it's safe to say I'll be driving myself to and from the airport from now on! 

Jules (Cameron Goodman) and Mel (Peyton List) have just arrived back in town. Exhausted from their late-night flight, the two are trying to flag down a shuttle bus that will drive them home. As luck would have it, they not only find a shuttle, but the driver (Tony Curran) offers to transport them for half of what other services charge! 

Joining the girls on this bus are a shy accountant named Andy (Cullen Douglas) and two guys, Matt (Dave Power) and Seth (James Snyder), who are hoping to hook up with Jules and Mel before the evening is out. What starts as a simple ride home, however, quickly turns into a nightmare on 4 wheels when the driver kidnaps them all at gunpoint and demands that they turn over their money and valuables.  

Yet, as the evening progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious their captor has more on his mind than simple robbery. 

Shuttle succeeds on a number of levels. First, it's an effective mystery; like the characters trapped on the bus, we spend much of the film's runtime trying to figure out the driver's motives. He certainly wants something other than money, but what is it? The film is also a taut thriller, and contains a number of very tense scenes (not to mention a few surprises). 

Finally, Shuttle works as a horror movie, which kicks into full gear once we start putting the various pieces together, and realize the hell that's in store for Mel and Jules once that bus reaches its ultimate destination. 

Shuttle is an independently produced gem, a well-acted, fast-paced thriller that throws a number of shocking twists and turns our way. But more than this, like all good horror movies, Shuttle will stay with you for a long, long time. Watch this film, and I guarantee you'll never look at those airport buses in quite the same way again.

Friday, February 25, 2011

#203. Centurion (2010) - The Films of Neil Marshall

Directed By: Neil Marshall

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko

Tag line: "History is written in blood"

Trivia: Temperatures would frequently sink to below 0 degrees Celsius in the Inverness Mountains. Indeed the temperature was -5 degrees Celsius (along with a blizzard) on the first day of filming

Roman history fascinates me. I've read a bunch of books on the subject, and there was a time when I could recite the names of every Roman Emperor from Augustus to Septimius Severus. It's an interest that extends to movies and television as well (my favorite TV mini-series is the BBC's 1976 production of I, Claudius), so going in, Neil Marshall's Centurion had all the makings of a movie I would absolutely love.

Turns out I only like it.

The year is 117 A.D., the setting: Northern Britain. Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbinder), a Centurion in the Roman Army, is held prisoner by a Pict tribe, which captured him after massacring an entire Roman outpost. Rescued from his captivity by the army of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), Dias, who no longer has a legion of his own, joins the 9th under Virilus' command. As luck would have it, he's just in time to march with his new compatriots back into the Northern regions, where, guided by a mute native girl named Etain (Olga Kurylenko), they hope to squash, once and for all, the Pict “barbarians”. Alas, Etain turns out to be a traitor, and leads the 9th straight into an ambush. The entire Legion decimated, Dias, with a handful of survivors in tow, must make his way back to the Roman-controlled south before he, too, becomes a casualty of war.

There's quite a bit to like about Centurion, not the least of which is its stunning cinematography. There are a number of breathtaking aerial shots that show off the Scottish countryside, and even when the landscape is grim and gloomy (there's plenty of fog in this movie, and a whole lot of wintry weather), it's still a sight to behold. The cat-and-mouse chase, with Dias and his men only a few short steps ahead of the Picts at any given moment, is also a plus. These elements, combined with a handful of superior battle sequences, do their part to make Centurion an entertaining film.

Unfortunately, the movie has one huge drawback as well: it's reliance on CGI blood. As you'd expect from an action movie that takes place in Roman times, Centurion is a violent movie, with gore aplenty, but much of the effect is ruined by the filmmaker's decision to use CGI for several scenes of bloodletting. A sword severing a limb or an ax crashing down on someone's head occasionally sends out a spatter of CGI plasma, which looks every bit like computer-generated blood. I was honestly amazed at how awful it is, and there were times it proved a real distraction, often ruining what was an otherwise effective battle sequence.

Neil Marshall impressed the hell out of me with his first three films (Dog Soldiers in 2002, The Descent in 2005, and Doomsday in 2008), and I was genuinely thrilled when I heard he was making a movie set in Roman times.

Sure, Centurion is a good film, but dammit...I had my heart set on a great one!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

#202. Used Cars (1980)

Directed By: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Gerrit Graham

Tag line: "TRUST US"

Trivia:  This is Robert Zemeckis's only R rated movie to date

There’s an old joke that asks how can you tell when a car salesman is lying?  

His lips are moving.

Used Cars, Robert Zemeckis’ bawdy, outrageous comedy, succeeds in proving time and again, and always in hilarious fashion, that this joke’s punch line is 100% accurate. 

Used car salesman Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) believes his skills are being wasted, and decides it's time to pursue his real dream: running for public office.  Unfortunately, the “application fee” to enter the upcoming election is $10,000, and Rudy is a bit short on funds. His kindly boss, Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), agrees to front Rudy the money, but shortly after making that promise, Luke dies, a tragedy indirectly caused by Luke's manipulative twin brother, Roy (also played by Jack Warden).  

See, Roy owns the competing car lot just across the street, and by getting rid of Luke, he stands to inherit his brother’s worthless property, which may yet become lucrative once the new highway is constructed. 

Faced with the reality of losing their jobs, Rudy and his co-workers (played by Gerrit Graham and Frank McRae) hide Luke’s body, telling everyone he’s alive and well, but vacationing in Florida. Things go from bad to worse, however, when Luke’s estranged daughter, Barbara (Deborah Harmon), shows up out of the blue, and inquires how she might go about getting in touch with her ‘vacationing’ father. 

Kurt Russell is at his slimy best as Rudy, whose dishonesty is established in the film’s opening scene when he rolls back the mileage on a recent arrival, then places a “like new” sign on the car's windshield. Jack Warden is also excellent in a dual role, playing both the kind but sickly Luke Fuchs and his mean and nasty brother, Roy. As a cheat, Roy can match Rudy lie-for-lie.  When the bribe money he’s been paying to the Mayor fails to bring about results, Roy laments, “In the old days, when you bought a politician, the son of a bitch stayed bought!” 

Every new scene in Used Cars promises to be more shocking, and more uproarious, than the last. In a stunt that would have had the FCC pulling their hair out, Rudy and his co-workers interrupt the broadcast of a professional football game to air an illegal commercial, which features both foul language and sudden nudity. 

And how did a shocked American public react to this tasteless display of commercialism? The next day, their lot was full of potential customers!

If you ever thought of becoming a used car salesman, then I strongly recommend you sit down and watch Used Cars. Then, if you still want to sell cars for a living, well… I hope to hell I never walk onto your lot!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

#201. Mirrors (2008)

Directed By: Alexandre Aja

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Amy Smart

Tag line: "There Is Evil........On The Other Side"

Trivia: Famed make-up artist Greg Nicotero appears briefly in a background of a scene in this film, playing pool

This is the kind of movie that really unnerves me.

Mirrors is the story of Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland), a New York detective who, while serving out a suspension, accepts a job as the night watchman for an abandoned department store that, five years earlier, was ravaged by a deadly fire. But as Ben will soon discover, there's more to this building than smoke-damaged mannequins and desolate hallways. During his nightly patrols, Ben notices there's something very strange about the hundreds of mirrors that line the walls, which seem to have a life of their own. Over time, Ben learns that the mirrors are, in fact, inhabited by an evil presence, one threatening not only his life, but the lives of his wife (Paula Patton) and kids as well. 

There's just something about the supernatural that creeps me the hell out. Maybe it has to do with my 12 years in Catholic school, where the spiritual was drilled into my head on a daily basis, or it could simply be the notion that someone I can't see might be standing next to me as I write this. Whatever the reason, the cinematic world of ghosts and spirits is one that sets my skin to crawling, and that's exactly what happened while I was watching Mirrors.

For one, the movie has a number of effective jump scares, limited, at first, to the fire-damaged department store, but which soon follow Ben into the outside world as well (you cringe every time a character looks into a bathroom mirror). Then there are the horrific visions reflected in the mirrors, which include victims of the fire screaming for help, their bodies fully engulfed in flames. Along with the horror, Mirrors also proves an effective mystery; at one point, the mirrors scratch out a name, “Esseker”, sending Ben off on a frantic search for the connection between that name and the evil that hounds his every waking moment.

Though the movie does fall apart towards the end (when it's story becomes a bit sillier), its various scares, combined with the dramatic tale of a man trying to win back the trust of his family, helped make Mirrors a better-than-average horror film.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

#200. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Directed By: Don Coscarelli

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce

Tag line: "You know the legends... Now learn the truth"

Trivia: Despite the fact that Elvis Presley is the main character, not one piece of Elvis's music is heard in the film

Elvis Presley living in a Texas rest home? John F. Kennedy as an elderly black man? A 3,000-year-old mummy walking around in a cowboy hat? What's not to love about Bubba Ho-Tep?

Bubba Ho-Tep gives hope to all those who could never accept that the King of Rock and Roll was dead. As it turns out, he isn't. Elvis (Bruce Campbell) is indeed alive...but just barely. In failing health, the King spends most of his time lying in bed at the rest home, thinking back on the “glory days”, when he was on top of the world.  Far removed from those happier times, the King laments how god-awful boring his life has become. Then suddenly, as if on queue, people at the rest home start dying. With the help of his good friend, former President John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis), who apparently survived the assassination and is living out his days as a black man, Elvis investigates these seemingly ‘random’ deaths. It doesn't take long for them to conclude that an ancient Egyptian mummy is sucking the life force from the seniors in residence, and the only way to stop the killings is to face the powerful creature themselves.

Bubba Ho-Tep spends much of it's running time walking a fine line between comedy and horror, methodically merging the two into an entertaining whole. The screams that Bubba Ho-Tep generates are genuine: for starters, there are Elvis' disturbing dreams, which include erratic visions of the murders being committed. To coincide with these images, there’s also a frightfully chilling hallway running through the rest home, which at night takes on supernatural qualities all its own. A deep hum rattles through these halls, broken occasionally by low-level chanting or the sharp echoes of footsteps.

As these elements build up the dread, the character of Elvis, played perfectly by Bruce Campbell, is busy getting a few laughs. Reduced to a resident in a third-rate home for the aged, Elvis has become a bitter old man that everyone assumes is insane. Years earlier, Elvis, wanting to live a life of obscurity, changed places with one of his many impersonators, a guy named Sebastian Haff (also played by Campbell), who, while living as the King, developed a drug habit and dropped dead of a heart attack (of course, nobody believes this story).

Age has also thrown a few physical problems the King’s way, including a broken hip that won’t heal properly and a rather bothersome lump in an uncomfortable place (“How could I have gone from the King of Rock and Roll to this”, he wonders, “An old guy in a rest home in East Texas with a growth on his pecker?”). Throughout Bubba Ho-Tep, the humor never strays far from the horror; the mummy is a truly frightening creation, but it’s hard to get too scared when he's facing off against a battle-ready Elvis, who wears his patented sequined jumpsuit to the final showdown.

Those who still worship Elvis Aaron Presley as a cultural deity may have a hard time watching this movie, but for everyone else, Bubba Ho-Tep will undoubtedly leave you in stitches.

Monday, February 21, 2011

#199. Special Effects (1984)

DVD Synopsis: She was young. She was beautiful. She was primed to be a star. But now she's dead, and the morally bankrupt director who strangled her is intent on covering up his crime by shrouding its details in the plot of his next movie! By convincing the homicide investigators to "consult" on his film, director Chris Neville (Eric Bogosian) successfully alters the course of the investigation. But when the movie make-believe becomes too hauntingly similar to reality, Neville finds his plot unraveling in the final reel.

A quick glimpse at director Larry Cohen's filmography reveals a handful of memorable titles, such as Black Caesar, It's Alive and Q: The Winged Serpent. Unfortunately, Special Effects does not fit in this category; it's not one you're going to remember. 

That is, if you're lucky. 

Eric Bogosian plays a struggling filmmaker who likes to film himself having sex.  After luring an aspiring actress (Zoe Lund) into his bed, the two of them get into an argument, and the filmmaker, in a fit of rage, ends up killing the girl. Having captured the entire murder on film, the filmmaker quickly disposes of the body, which the police eventually find sitting in an abandoned car. The police immediately suspect the girl's estranged husband (Brad Rijn), whose only recently arrived in town. The husband is arrested and charged with the killing, and the filmmaker, sensing there's a hit movie somewhere in this story, posts bail for the husband and, with his assistance, starts shooting a film based on the life of the murdered girl, all the while intending to use the actual footage of her killing as his ending scene. 

The story itself has potential, but the problem with Special Effects is the execution. This movie is downright sloppy, and spends no time whatsoever building up any credibility for these characters or their story. Even the murder scene, which should have been the pivotal moment of the film, is mishandled. The actress (who's voice is obviously dubbed) shows up unannounced at the filmmaker's mansion, and proceeds to throw herself at him. But when the action switches to the bedroom, the actress, who can hear the hidden camera rolling, grows indignant (I guess she found it morally acceptable to sleep with a complete stranger to further her career, but draws the line at having the act committed to film) and starts shouting insults at the filmmaker until he's finally had enough, and strangles her. This is the big scene, the key moment in the entire film, but there's no heart to it, no cohesive flow; the whole thing feels rushed, and plays out like an emotionless reading of the first draft of the script. 

At one point, Bogosian's filmmaker, who's ultimate goal in making his movie was to bring authenticity back to the cinema, says “I want to make it real as I can get it”. Ironic, seeing as the film about his attempt to do so is as phony as they come.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

#198. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

Directed By: Joseph Zito

Starring: Erich Anderson, Judie Aronson, Kimberly Beck

Tag line: "Friday April 13th is Jason's Unlucky Day"

Trivia:  Of all the films in the series, this one has the most nudity

This film, the 4th in the series, is titled The Final Chapter, and yet at least six more would follow it, with Part 5 (appropriately called A New Beginning) arriving in theaters a mere 11 months after this “final chapter” was released. 

Yet another feather in the cap of Jason Voorhees: not even the damn filmmakers could kill him off! 

Friday the 13th The Final Chapter opens moments after the events that ended Part 3, with Jason lying on the floor of a barn, a machete buried in his skull. 

But you didn't really think he was dead, did you? 

After escaping from the hospital morgue, Jason returns to a Camp Crystal Lake that thinks he's finally gone. So, as expected, a group of teens descends on the area, having rented a house for the summer that's situated across the street from a single mother (Joan Freeman) and her two kids; teenage daughter Trish (Kimberly Beck) and young son Tommy (Corey Feldman). 

Of course, Jason is very much alive, and soon makes his presence known. This time, however, our favorite mass murderer has someone gunning for him, the brother (played by E. Erich Anderson) of one of Jason's many victims, who is out to give Jason a taste of his own medicine. 

At this point in the franchise, it would be oh so easy to start getting smug, pointing out just how ridiculous this series, which falls back on the same tired formula time and time again, has become. However, I can't quite do that with Friday the 13th The Final Chapter...because I really, really love it! 

For starters, the cast was exceptional, perhaps the best ensemble of young actors since the series began. Corey Feldman is excellent as Tommy, a kid who is prematurely catapulted into puberty when a bevvy of hot babes moves in across the street (there's one hilarious scene where Feldman is looking out his window, watching one of the teens, played by Judy Aronson, as she undresses. The young actor handles it brilliantly, getting as giddy as a kid that age would without overplaying it). 

There were also some talented players in the ranks of the doomed teens. Crispen Glover is Jimmy, a young man whose fear of sexual inadequacy soon becomes the least of his worries, and Barbara Howard is also effective as Sara, the shy one of the gang who has her own memorable run-in with Jason. Together, they create a likable group, and you really do want to see them make it out alive (I know, I know...wishful thinking, right?). 

But then Friday the 13th The Final Chapter isn't all character development; this entry also has some of the series' most grisly kills to date (thanks, once again, to the talents of make-up artist Tom Savini). During his escape from the hospital, Jason finishes off an oversexed male nurse (Bruce Mahler) with a hacksaw to the throat, and once back in Crystal Lake, takes out an innocent hitchhiker (Bonnie Hellman), who he stabs through the neck as she's standing on the side of the road, eating a banana. 

And then there's the poor guy who gets a spear right in the...

Well, better to leave that one alone. It's really gruesome! 

I had a great time watching Friday the 13th The Final Chapter, and as far as entertainment value goes, I would easily rank it right up there with Part 1.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

#197. Grand Hotel (1932)

Directed By: Edmund Goulding

Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford

Tag line: "Thank The Stars For A Great Entertainment !"

Trivia:  This was the only Best Picture Oscar winner not to be nominated for any other Academy Awards

There was something magical about the movies of the 1930s, when films told big stories and required even bigger stars to tell them. Classics like Boys Town, Captain Blood, My Man Godfrey, It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, and many others did their part to put Hollywood on the map in these early years, yet no film was quite as elaborate, quite as magnificent as 1932's Grand Hotel

The setting is Berlin's finest lodgings, aptly named the Grand Hotel. Baron von Geigern (John Barrymore) has both the title and bearing of an aristocrat, yet is, in reality, a notorious jewel thief. He has checked in to steal a pearl necklace that belongs to world-famous ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), who is in an the adjoining room. The Baron will ultimately fail to obtain the necklace, but succeed in stealing the temperamental dancer's heart. 

A few doors down is Mr. Preysing (Wallace Beery), an executive with a nasty disposition, who has hired Ms. Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), a secretary, to accompany him so that he can catch up on his correspondences. While there, Preysing runs into Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a sad, sickly man who works in the accounting department of Preysing's firm. Kringelein is terminally ill, and has spent his entire life's savings on a room at the hotel, in the hope of experiencing a little of the high life before reaching the end of the line. 

Grand Hotel was the first bona-fide 'star-studded extravaganza' ever produced in Hollywood, and its stars certainly did their part to make it a memorable one. Wallace Beery bellows and huffs as the egotistical Mr. Preysing, a man who is used to getting his own way.  His arrogant demeanor will bring about a tragic turn of events. Joan Crawford is sexy in the role of Ms. Flaemmchen, perhaps a bit sexier than I would have thought possible for a film in 1932. Her Ms. Flaemmchen is alluring enough to capture any man's heart, and she damn near captures them all. John Barrymore and Greta Garbo generate a great deal of passion as star-crossed lovers who throw caution to the wind, undertaking an intense love affair despite the fact they've only just met. 

Then there's Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Kringelein, the everyman who longs to live like a king. Like us, Kringelein is an outsider to this world of opulence, which essentially makes him our guide through the film. In a lively barroom scene, Kringelein lives out the dream of every employee when he stands up to his boss, Mr. Preysing, and tells the self-important executive exactly what he thinks of him. Lionel Barrymore, who became well-known years later for his role as the villainous Mr. Potter in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, is Grand Hotel's lone heroic figure, a man who maintains his moral bearing to the very end. 

If you're looking for the one film that exemplifies the movies of the '30s, then I would recommend a short stay at Grand Hotel. Chock full of romance, drama, humor and tragedy, Grand Hotel is grand, indeed.

Friday, February 18, 2011

#196. Jungle Holocaust (1977)

Directed By: Ruggero Deodato

Starring: Massimo Foschi, Me Me Lai, Ivan Rassimov

Tag line: "A stone-age world of horrors ... ONLY ONE SURVIVED"

Trivia:  Although the UK cinema version was heavily cut, the pre-certification video release featured the uncut print, which was regularly seized by police during the video nasty scare.

Shot in the jungles of Malaysia and the Philippines, Jungle Holocaust (aka The Last Survivor) is, at times, breathtakingly beautiful, but odds are you won't find it so. Filled to it breaking point with carnage and death, Jungle Holocaust is a nasty bit of exploitation, a tale of horrors set against the backdrop of a majestic jungle setting. 

Oil entrepreneur Robert Harper (Massimo Foschi) and his partner Ralph (Ivan Rossimov) board a small plane bound for the middle of nowhere to check on the progress of a jungle prospecting camp. With them are the pilot, Charlie (Sheik Razak Shikur), and the pilot's girlfriend, Swan (Judy Rosly). During the landing, their plane is slightly damaged, yet more troubling than this is the discovery that the entire camp is empty, with all evidence suggesting the workers were carried off by a tribe of cannibals. During the night, Swan is also kidnapped by natives, and when Harper and the others set out to locate her, he himself is taken prisoner and hauled off to the cannibal's village. Realizing his time is limited, Harper tries desperately to find a way out of his predicament, but will he escape before his captors turn him into their next main course?

The shock level is cranked up as high as it can get in Jungle Holocaust; soon after he's been abducted by the cannibals and dragged to their "village" (which, in reality, is a bat-infested cave), Harper is tied to a rock and stripped naked, with several natives grabbing at his exposed genitals. Shortly after this ordeal, he's tossed into a deep cavern, where his only companions are a toucan and an eagle, both bound by the legs. Harper is continuously mocked and beaten by his captors (at one point, young children urinate on him from above), not to mention systematically starved (they don't even give him water to drink). 

Yet as bad as Harper is treated, he fares better than many of his animal co-stars. According to director Ruggero Deodato, scenes of animal mutilations were added against his will by the film's producer, and after seeing the footage you'll understand why he didn't want them. Aside from the on-screen killing of a snake and a life-and-death struggle between a bat and a python, there's a stomach-turning sequence in which a captured crocodile is clubbed over the head and cut to pieces while still alive! I've seen my share of repulsive images over the years, but this was so gruesome that I had to look away a few times.

After Jungle Holocaust, Deodato moved on to yet another controversial picture, 1980's Cannibal Holocaust, a motion picture every bit as disturbing as this one (with even more animal mutilations, which has me questioning his true stance on the issue). Cannibal Holocaust would stun the world, and lead to Deodato's arrest on charges of obscenity and, believe it or not, murder (the on-screen deaths were so convincing that the director had to present his actors, alive and well, to the court before the murder charge was dropped). 

Cannibal Holocaust is, indeed, a rough film to watch, but had more people seen Jungle Holocaust, they would have at least known what to expect.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

#195. Winged Migration (2001)

DVD Synopsis: Witness as five film crews follow a rich variety of bird migrations through 40 countries and each of the seven continents. With teams totaling more than 450 people, 17 pilots, and 14 cinematographers used planes, gliders, helicopters and balloons to fly alongside, above, below, and in front of their subjects. The result is a film of staggering beauty that Entertainment Weekly hailed as "Mesmerizing!" and the Los Angeles Times applauded as "Breathtaking! As lofty as it is exhilarating!"

Despite our best efforts, it's a rare occurrence when we take a moment out of our hectic lives to observe the natural world. We’ve all looked in wonder at the setting sun, but think closely: how long do you actually watch it? A few moments perhaps, at the most a minute or two? In other words, just long enough to take in the beauty and then get back to whatever it was you were doing before you happened to look up. How many times, if ever, have you watched an entire sunset, until the sun disappeared? Well, there’s not much along the lines of sunsets in Winged Migration, but we are treated to 89 minutes of another natural marvel: the beauty and grace of birds in flight. and unlike those quick glances towards the sky, we’re a captive audience for the entire ride. 

With its entire focus on the migration patterns of birds, Winged Migration takes on the role of a passive observer, which it accomplishes by taking its cameras to the sky and quietly following along with dozens upon dozens of species of birds, spanning all seven continents in the process. The cinematography is stunning, but then it had to be; by keeping such a keen eye on its subjects at all times, Winged Migration had no choice but to rely on startlingly beautiful imagery to get its point across, and on that level it certainly does not disappoint. 

By way of its splendor, Winged Migration succeeds in focusing our attention on a very specific aspect of nature, and I can’t help but wonder after watching this movie that, if so much astonishment can be found in observing birds in flight, what other delights lie in the natural world for the taking? It’s enough to stagger the imagination.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

#194. The Devil's Rain (1975)

Directed By: Robert Fuest

Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino

Tag line: "Absolutely the most incredible ending of any motion picture"

Trivia:  The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films awarded Ida Lupino it's Golden Scroll Award as Best Supporting Actress for her work in this film

The "technical adviser" on 1975's The Devil's Rain was none other than Anton LaVey, Founder of the Church of Satan, the first official Satanic church in the United States. Listed in the credits as Anton Szandor LaVey, which also grant him the exalted title of 'High Priest of the Church of Satan'. I mention this solely on the off-chance you're not quite sure what to expect from a film titled The Devil's Rain!

Satanic High Priest John Corbis (Ernest Borgnine) is searching for a book that holds the key to unlocking great power, a power he longs to control. For centuries, this book has been guarded by the Preston family, who are determined to keep it from falling into Corbis' hands.

Corbis manages to kill Steve Preston (George Sawaya), the current patriarch of the family, and kidnap his wife (Ida Lupino) in the process.  But Preston's son, Mark (William Shatner), escapes with the book, vowing to avenge his father's death by destroying Corbis and all of his followers.

The Devil's Rain boasts an impressive cast. Ida Lupino is solid as the eternally worried wife and mother who eventually falls under Corbis' spell, and even though he was years removed from the command deck of the Starship Enterprise, William Shatner is in full 'Captain Kirk' mode as Steve Preston, delivering his lines as if every single one were a matter of life or death. Steve Corbett's brother, Tom, who is also pulled into the fight with Corbis, is played by Tom Skerritt (like Shatner, Skerritt would leave his mark on the world of Sci-Fi as the captain of a spaceship, playing Dallas in Ridley Scott's Alien). There's even an appearance by a very young John Travolta (in his feature film debut) as one of Corbis' minions.

Then we have the man himself, Mr. Ernest Borgnine. Just seeing Borgnine's name in the credits is usually enough to pique my interest, and in The Devil's Rain, he does not disappoint. As Corbis, Borgnine is at times reserved, yet you sense he can unleash chaos at any given moment. He even gets to wear some pretty sharp make-up in a couple of scenes, donning devil's horns and a goatee. Having tackled a variety of supporting roles throughout his career, Borgnine was rarely afforded the opportunity to take center-stage, so it was nice to see him play what was essentially the lead in The Devil's Rain.

Unfortunately, and despite such a talented group of performers, The Devil's Rain is only partially successful. It does have it's moments; the opening 20 to 30 minutes that lead up to Steve Preston's showdown with Corbis are action-packed, and the final scene is one you'll remember for a long time. The problem is what lies in-between, where the story gets bogged down with flashbacks, rituals and a handful of plot twists that never really click. While certainly not a bad movie, The Devil's Rain does occasionally falter, and no higher power, or indeed high-powered cast, was strong enough to save it entirely from the throes of mediocrity.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

#193. Street Trash (1987)

Directed By: J. Michael Muro

Starring: Mike Lackey, Bill Chepil, Vic Noto

Tag line: "Things in New York are about to go down the toilet..."

Trivia:  Bryan Singer worked as a production assistant on this film

The opening sequence of Street Trash is really quite impressive: we follow a hobo named Freddy (Mike Lackey), who is on the run from a number of people  (including a guy from whom he stole a bottle of booze). The camera tracks along as Freddy runs through the streets of New York, dodging danger at every turn until finally eluding capture by jumping into the back of a garbage truck. 

Director J. Michael Muro utilizes a number of exciting shots to keep up with Freddy on his survival run, and it's a wonderful introduction to the world of this film. But be warned: Street Trash is not a movie you'll remember for it's innovative camera tricks or snappy direction. Simply put, no amount of creativity can draw your attention away from a street person melting into a pile of bubbling goo.

Centering on a group of homeless who reside in a New York City auto wrecking yard, Street Trash will quickly have you squirming in your seat. The carnage begins when a Manhattan liquor store owner (M. D'Jango Crunch) stumbles upon a case of “Viper”, a liquor he found hidden beneath the stairs of his storeroom. Sensing an opportunity to make some fast cash, he starts selling his new-found wares to the local street bums for $1 a bottle. Unfortunately, 'Viper' does have one rather unfortunate side effect: anyone who drinks it starts to melt. 

And it's a slow, agonizing death, too. The first poor guy to take a sip of 'Viper' actually stole his bottle from Freddy (who himself stole it from the liquor store only moments earlier). Sneaking away to a corner of the junkyard, the doomed hobo takes a seat on a discarded toilet, then downs his first gulp of the toxic elixer. First, blue liquid oozes from his mouth, which soon changes to red when it starts seeping through his skin. His outer layers melt away and his leg bones snap, separating his feet from the rest of his body. Soon, he's a quivering mass of jelly, slowly slipping into the toilet. As on-screen deaths go, this one is pretty original in how gross it gets, and it won't be the last (or even the grossest) we'll witness. 

Prior to directing Street Trash, J. Michael Muro had spent most of his career working as a cameraman, and his visual prowess serves him well in this film. The various camera tricks he throws in from time to time bring a real excitement to the movie, not to mention a genuine sense of fun. 

At least as much fun as you can possibly have watching street people melt in front of your eyes.

Monday, February 14, 2011

#192. Exotica (1994)

Directed By: Atom Egoyan

Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Mia Kirshner

Tag line: "In a world of temptation, obsession is the deadliest desire"

Trivia:  The director's wife, Arsinée Khanjian, was seven months pregnant when her parts in the movie were filmed

"I wanted to structure the film like a striptease". 

This is how director Atom Egoyan described his stylistic approach to 1994's Exotica, a movie in which the main setting is a high-end gentleman's club, where women strip for the pleasure of their wealthy clientele. 

Like a striptease, director Egoyan moves Exotica along slowly, peeling away the layers of its emotionally charged story one at a time, all the while luring us in with a singularly enticing tone. 

The Club Exotica caters to the sophisticated, offering adult entertainment to men of 'discerning tastes'. 

Francis (Bruce Greenwood), an accountant with a tragic past, is one of the Club's many regulars. Each night, Francis requests that the same dancer perform at his table: Christina (Mia Kirshner), a beautiful young woman whose act sees her dress like a schoolgirl. 

At one time, Christina was romantically involved with Eric (Elias Koteas), the club's DJ, and Eric has grown increasingly jealous of the 'professional' relationship that has developed between Francis and Christina. 

What none of them realizes, however, is that they all share a very special bond, and when this bond is finally revealed, each will be forced to re-examine their lives. 

At the heart of Exotica lies a complex tale of betrayal and loss, yet the film is in no particular hurry to reveal it's true intentions. Exotica circles around the outermost boundaries of its story in wide, sweeping motions, shielding it's mystery with a uniquely cerebral tone. As the film progresses, this tone becomes almost hypnotic, teasing and tantalizing us in much the same way the dancers work on their patrons at the Club Exotica. 

Because Exotica was so engaging, I found myself completely wrapped up in it's story, and because it's style was so thoroughly addictive, I was more than happy to wait around for the payoff.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

#191. The Ghoul (1933)

DVD Synopsis: On his deathbed, famed Egyptologist Professor Morlant (Karloff) instructs his assistant to bury him with an ancient jewel he believes will grant him eternal life. But soon after he’s entombed, the sacred treasure is ripped from his hand by a mysterious grave robber. Now, filled with fury, Morlant rises from his crypt as a grotesquely decaying mummy determined to avenge the theft...and destroy everything in his path!

Released in 1933, The Ghoul was the first British horror film of the sound era, and to make it an especially memorable one, the producers brought in a fellow countryman of theirs, one who had recently risen to superstar status in Hollywood, to serve as the film's star. The countryman of whom I speak is none other than “The Monster” himself, Mr. Boris Karloff! 

Karloff plays Professor Moriant, a dying man who is obsessed with all things Egyptian. Knowing the end is near, Moriant spends a large amount of money on an Egyptian jewel known as The Eternal Light, which he believes will allow him to rise from his grave when the moon is full. He orders his servant, Laing (Ernst Thesiger), to bury the jewel with him, and warns of dire consequences if his wishes are not carried out. Moriant dies shortly after, and is buried in a lavish tomb decked out with Egyptian artifacts, but Laing, who believes his master had gone insane, keeps the priceless jewel and hides it away. Unbeknownst to him, there are others who also want the Eternal Light, and will stop at nothing to possess it. But when the first full moon rises, Laing and all the others experience the surprise of their lives. 

With The Ghoul, director T. Hayes Hunter and his cameraman, Gunther Krampf, went to great lengths to capture the look and feel of Universal's recent string of horror successes (Both Dracula and Frankenstein had been released 2 years earlier). The set pieces are both lavish and large (Moriant's house, where most of the film takes place, seems incredibly huge), not to mention dimly lit, so as to strengthen the film's supernatural aura. I was also impressed with how the filmmakers utilized music in key scenes; "Siegfried's Funeral March" from Wagner's Gotterdammerung plays as Moriant's body is being placed in his tomb, and is used sporadically throughout the movie from that moment on. It is a somber piece, and fits the story quite nicely. 

Karloff was not particularly fond of The Ghoul (for decades, The Ghoul was considered a "lost" film, with no prints or negatives known to be in existence. Upon hearing this, Karloff stated that he hoped it stayed lost forever), and in all honestly, I can't understand why. While his role was admittedly less than demanding (Moriant has very few lines), the legendary actor still made the best of it, creeping through dark hallways and corridors, and scaring the living hell out of everyone he meets. His performance, in conjuncture with the film's impressive use of music, space and shadows, transforms The Ghoul from what otherwise might have been a standard horror film into something truly noteworthy.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

#190. The Dreamers (2003)

DVD Synopsis: When Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green, Louis Garrel) invite Matthew (Michael Pitt) to stay with them, what begins as a casual friendship ripens into a sensual voyage of discovery and desire in which nothing is off limits and anything is possible. Featuring an engaging, seductive cast, The Dreamers is an unforgettable tale of sexual awakening that will "make you fall in love or lust." (Chicago Tribune)

To love the cinema is to love Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, a movie that encapsulates all the delight, all the joy of being a film geek. If I see this one a thousand times, it will never fail to move me. 

Paris, 1968. Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American studying abroad, is a devoted film buff who spends his free time at the Paris Cinematheque, considered by many the royal palace of movie houses. 

While standing outside the Cinematheque one day, Matthew meets Isabelle (Eva Green) and her brother, Theo (Louis Garrel), both of whom share his deep passion for movies. The siblings take an immediate liking to their new American friend, and invite Matthew to move in with them while their parents are away on a month-long vacation. 

For the next several weeks, Matthew’s days and nights will be filled with bizarre realizations, sexual awakenings, and deep, meaningful discussions about the greater purpose of film. Comfortable in their self-imposed exile, the three fail to notice that chaos has hit the streets of Paris, and violent clashes between protesting students and the police have become an almost daily occurrence. 

Suddenly thrust back into the real world, the trio is forced to confront a situation that may bring their sheltered existence crashing down around them. 

Many of the early scenes in The Dreamers are pure eye candy for film buffs like myself. When Matthew asks Isabelle if she was born in Paris, she replies that she was born in 1959 on the Champs Elysees, and her first words were “New York Herald Trubune”, a reference to the famous scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film, Breathless, where Jean Seberg walks the Champs Elysees, selling that particular newspaper. 

In another tribute to Godard, Theo and Isabelle recruit Matthew as the third in their reenactment of the “Louvre Run”, as depicted in Godard’s 1964 film Band of Outsiders. In that movie, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey and Anna Karina attempt to break the record of running through the Louvre museum in 9 minutes and 45 seconds (a time that Theo, Isabelle and Matthew manage to beat, but with only seconds to spare). 

The Dreamers boasts not one, but three incredible performances. Louis Garrel brings an instinctive confidence to the role of Theo, the idealistic young man who fantasizes about a socialist France, yet who is himself stagnant and selfish. Theo offers up many strong opinions, yet lacks the motivation to carry them any further than the confines of his bedroom. 

As Isabelle, Eva Green is simultaneously sexy and innocent, and has the bearing of a natural performer (all the more amazing when you consider that The Dreamers was her first major film). 

On the flip side, Michael Pitt had built an impressive resume for himself prior to taking the role of Matthew, from Tommy Gnosis, the rock star/musical thief of John Cameron Mitchell’s boisterous Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Donny Semenec, perhaps the dumbest teen in Larry Clark's Bully. In The Dreamers, Pitt sets the perfect tone as a ‘fish-out-of-water’, an innocent bystander tossed head-first into the chaotic, sometimes frightening world of sexuality and violence. 

Great performances aside, it’s the veneration of the cinema that has landed The Dreamers firmly in my heart to stay. In an early scene at the Cinematheque, Matthew, as narrator, is describing for us his reaction to Samuel Fuller’s 1963 cult film, Shock Corridor, stating that it contained “images so powerful, it was like being hypnotized”. This is exactly how The Dreamers affected me. By approaching the cinema with an almost religious reverence, The Dreamers brings me to a state of hypnotic bliss each and every time I see it. 

It is - and always will be - a film fan’s utopia.

Friday, February 11, 2011

#189. The 39 Steps (1935)

DVD Synopsis: The best known of Hitchcock's British films, this civilized spy yarn follows the escapades of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), who stumbles into a conspiracy that involves him in a hectic chase across the Scottish moors—a chase in which he is both the pursuer and the pursued. Adapted from John Buchan's novel, this classic Hitchcock "wrong man" thriller encapsulates themes that anticipate the director's biggest American films (especially North by Northwest), and is a standout among his early works.

Years before he came to Hollywood and assumed the title Master of Suspense, director Alfred Hitchcock was already a highly respected filmmaker in his native England. With movies like the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock perfected a style that would soon bring him plenty of notoriety. Yet no movie from this period was quite as entertaining as 1935's The 39 Steps, considered by many to be the finest of Hitch’s early works. 

Even at this early stage, the great master’s trademark style was well on display. For starters, The 39 Steps employs one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes: the wrongly accused man on the run, who has to work to prove his innocence. Then there are those clever little touches that Hitchcock adds from time to time, to keep us on our toes. When Smith (Lucie Mannheim) tells Hanney (Robert Donat) to be on the lookout for a spy missing the top of his little finger, we know this spy will eventually pop up, and most likely when our hero is least prepared to face him. 

With its thrilling story and breakneck pace, it’s easy to see why The 39 Steps was one of the most successful films of England’s pre-war era. Just after its release, Alfred Hitchcock became something of a star in the British Film Industry. It was a ranking he would eventually claim on the other side of the Atlantic as well.