Thursday, June 30, 2011

#328. Vacancy (2007)

Directed By: Nimród Antal

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley

Tag line: "Once you've checked in... The terror begins."

Trivia:  Sarah Jessica Parker was originally selected for the film, but dropped out and was replaced by Kate Beckinsale

The opening title sequence of 2007's Vacancy sports a very classical, almost Hitchcockian look, which I found appropriate seeing as this film reminded me of one of the great director's best works. And believe me, if Psycho didn't scare you away from lonely motels situated in the middle of nowhere, Vacancy sure as hell will! 

When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, David (Luke Wilson) and Amy (Kate Beckinsale), a married couple who aren't exactly on the best of terms as of late, check into a roadside motel. After getting the key to the “Honeymoon Suite” from the quirky motel manager (Frank Whaley), David and Amy kick back and prepare for what they hope will be a comfortable evening. To unwind, David turns on the television, and when he's unable to get any reception at all, he instead watches a videotape he found sitting on top of the TV. At first glance, the tape appears to contain a horror film, but as the two will soon learn, the horror on these particular videos is all too real. 

Vacancy is tense with a capital “T”, and even the opening scenes, where David and Amy are traveling down a dark back road, prove quite stressful. Though little time is spent on their backstory, Vacancy hints at the fact that the couple recently suffered the loss of a child. As a result, they're barely on speaking terms, and when they do talk, it's usually to cast an insult in the others direction. When David swerves to avoid hitting a raccoon, a startled Amy says, quite sarcastically, “Well, better to kill us then get road kill on the car, huh?”.  From exchanges such as these, it becomes painfully clear that David and Amy really don't want to be around each other right now, and there are times when we can cut the tension between the two with a knife. Naturally, things go from bad to worse when they check into the motel. First, the phone rings, and when Amy answers, there's nobody on the other end. Then, a loud bang comes from just outside. David investigates, but sees no one. These events repeat themselves almost instantly, a phone call followed by a knock at the door, only much more intensely the second time around. The film hadn't even kicked it into high gear yet, and I found myself on the edge of my seat. It's the start of what will be a very terrifying night for the young couple, one that gets a whole lot worse the minute David pops that tape into the VCR. 

The suspense in Vacancy is occasionally unbearable, especially once David and Amy are able to put two and two together. At times unrelenting in the sheer terror it generates, Vacancy will get under your skin, and in a big, big way.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

#327. The Wild Party (1975)

Directed By: James Ivory

Starring: James Coco, Raquel Welch, Perry King

Tag line: "Hollywood in the '20s...Gin, Sin and a Night they're still whispering about!"

Trivia:  During the shooting of the film, James Ivory called one of the takes of a scene with Raquel Welch "a bit dull" and asked for a retake. Because of this, Welch walked off the set and refused to return until Ivory apologized to her in front of the entire cast and crew

A title card (quite appropriate for the time period) lets us know the year is 1929. We open in St. Mark's hospital, where James Morrison (David Dukes), a “sometimes poet”, is resting comfortably, “alone with his thoughts”. 

A patient in the hospital, Morrison sits up in bed and, with pencil in hand, starts composing his latest poem. “It was a typical Hollywood party, I guess, except for the way it ended”. Hitting his stride, he continues, “I knew why they'd come, for easy pickings and bootleg rum”. He will act as narrator of The Wild Party, a tale of Hollywood vice, broken dreams and shattered lives. Utilizing his skills as a poet, Morrison will paint as vivid a picture as he can of just what happened that night at the home of Jolly Grimm (James Coco), a silent film star whose career has taken a nosedive in recent years. 

With the help of his live-in girlfriend, Queenie (Raquel Welch), Jolly hosts a party to celebrate the completion of his newest feature film, a comedy about an 18th century monk. Having financed the picture himself, Jolly's now hoping to impress the studio heads he's invited to attend (the “party” is, in fact, the premiere screening of his film) so that they'll buy his movie and get his career back on-track. But things don;t go nearly as well for Jolly as he would have liked. For one, his newest film is a silent, and most of the major studios are looking for sound pictures these days. Then, Queenie catches the eye of a handsome young star (Perry King), who is intent on getting to know her much better. With his comeback in jeopardy and the love of his life with another man, Jolly turns to the bottle, kicking off a series of events that will bring a tragic end to what was once a promising night. 

James Coco gives a boisterous performance as Jolly, a fading star with a larger-than-life personality. At one time considered a comic genius, Jolly isn't feeling very funny these days, and often takes his frustrations out on Queenie (at the breakfast table, as Jolly is reading the trade papers, Queenie creeps up behind and starts reading over his shoulder, only to be doused with Jolly's hot cup of coffee when she gets a little too close). He is a performer on the decline, and he's not taking it gracefully at all. As Queenie, Raquel Welch is solid enough, bringing grace and charm to the role of the “kept woman”, who loves her man in spite of the way he's been treating her. When Jimmy spots a scar on Queenie's cheek, one obviously given to her by Jolly, he asks why she continues to put up with him. She tells Jimmy the story of how Jolly found her working in vaudeville, and how he brought her home and fed her when she was starving. It was years ago, but Queenie remembers, and is still very much in love with Jolly. Yet love doesn't prevent her from standing up to him from time to time. Theirs is a tempestuous relationship, one that's always in danger of crossing the line into broad burlesque, yet Coco and Welch do what they can to make it all seem believable. 

The Wild Party is a throwback to a time when Hollywood was in its infancy, and fame and fortune came a bit too quickly for some to handle (In part, this film was inspired by the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal. Arbuckle, a silent comedian, was tried for the rape and murder of a young starlet, which supposedly occurred at a wild Hollywood party). Yet despite the drugs, the orgies and the out-of-control egos it so vividly recreates, The Wild Party is, at its heart, a love letter to Hollywood of the past, a time and place that, while opulent and corrupt, could also be quite magical.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

#326. The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Directed By: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack

Starring: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks

Trivia:  The jungle sets used in the making of this film were also being used simultaneously for the shooting of KING KONG

Released in 1932, The Most Dangerous Game had quite a bit in common with another RKO Studios film, King Kong, which was released a year later in 1933. Aside from the fact that both were produced and directed by the same men (Meriac C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) and shared co-stars (Fay Wray and Robert C. Armstrong), The Most Dangerous Game was also shot simultaneously with King Kong, on many of the same jungle sets. But this is where all similarities end, for where King Kong is, in essence, a monster movie starring a giant ape, The Most Dangerous Game deals with a creature of a much more sinister nature. 

When the ship he's traveling in strikes a reef, big-game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrae), the only survivor of the disaster, must swim to the shore of a nearby, remote island. Making his way through the jungle terrain, he is surprised to find a large mansion, which belongs to a Russian Count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks), situated in the middle of nowhere. Like Rainsford, Zaroff is a hunter, one who's grown tired of pursuing big game, and has therefore set his sights on an entirely different prey: other human beings. Hoping to convince Rainsford to join him in the hunt, the Count is offended when his new guest refuses, and in a fit of anger decides to make Rainsford the object of his next expedition. Allowing him to take along a companion, a young woman named Eve (Fay Wray) who came to the island by way of an earlier shipwreck, Zaroff also hands Rainsford a hunting knife and gives him several hours head start, promising freedom if he and Eve can elude his pursuit until sun-up the next day. 

Like King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game contains a handful of spectacular scenes, including the opening shipwreck (done with miniatures, but nonetheless very convincing) and a shark attack, which quickly polishes off the only other survivor of the wreck, leaving Rainsford to deal with the island by himself. Yet the film's most famous, and most notorious, scene involves Zaroff's Trophy Room, where he displays the souvenirs of his past excursions. Kept under lock and key, Eve convinces Rainsford to break into the Trophy Room when her brother, Martin (Robert Armstrong), goes missing. What they find shocks them beyond belief, and even proved too intense for many audience members in 1932. Along with a mummified head hanging on the wall, the two discover a large jar, filled with clear liquid, that contains yet another human head. The Trophy Room scene was originally much longer, and featured other cryptic finds such as a near-skeletal sailor impaled with an arrow, but when test audiences started walking out in shock, the filmmakers decided to drastically trim the sequence, reducing what had been a 75 minute film to a mere 63. 

The Most Dangerous Game holds up extremely well, and, much like King Kong, even offers contemporary viewers a little something to think about. Where Kong explored the moral dilemma of invading the natural world and claiming a part of it as your own, The Most Dangerous Game asks us to look at the hunt from the other side of the gun. In the opening scene, just before the boat crashes and sinks, Rainsford is discussing the sport of hunting with a traveling companion (Landers Stevens), who asks how the great hunter would feel if the roles were reversed, and he were the hunted. Rainsford responds by saying, “This world's divided into two kinds of people; the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I'm the hunter. Nothing can change that”. 

It's at this precise moment the ship strikes a reef, an event that, we must assume, also marked the beginning of the end of Rainsford's career as a big-game hunter.

Monday, June 27, 2011

#325. Testament (1983)

Directed By: Lynne Littman

Starring: Jane Alexander, William Devane, Rossie Harris

Tag line: "Everything is perfectly normal... For the very last time."

Trivia:  Film debut of Lukas Haas.

To this day, I remember the hype that surrounded the network premiere of Nicholas Meyer's apocalyptic tragedy, The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie that pushed the threat of nuclear devastation into the foreground. There are scenes in The Day After that have stayed with me all these years: the missiles launching from their underground silos, the mushroom clouds blooming just over the horizon, the desolate city streets.  All powerful images, to be sure. 

Subtle? No...but still quite powerful.

Testament, also released in 1983, tells a very similar story, yet does so in an entirely different manner.  This is evident in the film's most dramatic scene, where Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexander), a housewife and mother of three, has just returned home from watching the rehearsals for her youngest son's (Lukas Haas) school play. After a short while, Carol listens to her phone messages, two of which were left by her husband, Tom (William Devane), one saying he's going to be working late, the next that he's had a change of plans, and will instead be coming home early. Her oldest son, Brad (Rossie Harris), is fiddling with the TV antennae, trying to improve the reception, when a newscaster (Clete Roberts) interrupts their program with a breaking story: a number of nuclear detonations have been detected along the East Coast of the United States, and the president has declared a state of emergency. The phone rings. It's Carol's mother calling from Chicago, but before they can say anything more than “hello” to one another, the line goes dead. Just then, a bright light bursts through the windows of the Wetherly house, and a panic-stricken Carol gathers her family on the floor.

Where The Day After relied on scenes of destruction to drive its point home, Testament is much more intimate, showing the devastation not on a grand scale, but a personal one, and as a husband and father, I can tell you I found Testament positively terrifying.

Fortunately, the town of Hamlin, California, where the Wetherlys reside, was left virtually unscathed by the blast. That night, most of the town gathers at the home of Henry (Leon Ames) and Rosemary Abhart (Lurene Tuttle). Henry has a short wave radio, and from what he can gather, the rest of the world is in chaos. Carol holds out hope that Tom, who works in San Francisco, got out of the city before the bombs hit, and is on his way home to them. As for Hamlin, it's a close-knit community, and everyone seems ready and willing to help each other out in this moment of crisis. But as weeks go by with no news from the outside, and illnesses start popping up in every corner of town, "neighborly concern" begins to wane.

Testament is a moving film, a motion picture that ignores spectacle in favor of personal drama. Throughout the movie, we learn very little of what's happening to the rest of the world, and nothing whatsoever of why the bombs went off in the first place. The film takes the rather bold stance that the world outside is already dead. Hamlin, on the other hand, is alive, but slowly dying, and to watch as it struggles for life proves much more heartbreaking than a thousand mushroom clouds in the distance.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

#324. The Changeling (1980)

Directed By: Peter Medak

Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas

Tag line: " experience beyond total fear"

Trivia:  The movie is based on events which supposedly took place at a house in Denver, Colorado, in the 1960s

There are certain characteristics that all haunted house movies share, regardless of when or where they were made: strange noises emanating from another room, doors that open and close by themselves, a central mystery the main character or characters must piece together, etc., etc. 

What separates the classics (The Haunting) from the ridiculous (The House Where Evil Dwells) is the “extra something” they bring to the table, an intangible element that makes them unique, and 1980's The Changeling has a lot more going for it than the routine monotony. 

Following the tragic death of his wife (Jean Marsh) and daughter (Michelle Martin), classical pianist John Russell (George C. Scott) relocates from New York to Seattle, where he has accepted a teaching job with a local University. Once there, he settles into an old house secured for him by the town's Historical Society. 

But this house has a history of its own, which John is made all too aware of when the spirit of a young boy (Voldi Way) attempts to contact him. With the help of a medium (Helen Burns) and a volunteer from the Historical Society named Claire (Trish Van Devere), John learns that the young boy's name was Joseph, and he was killed in the attic by his father nearly 70 years ago. 

Having experienced loss himself, John wants to help Joseph finally rest in peace, even if it means taking on Joe Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), a powerful politician and the key element in what proves to be a very chilling mystery. 

As I stated above, all good haunted house films offer their viewers something beyond the normal parlor tricks, and in the case of The Changeling, that “something” is George C. Scott.  As played by Scott, John Russell is a strong man, one who remains calm and collected even when dealing with the supernatural. Shortly after moving into the house, Russell hears noises coming from upstairs, and decides to investigate. Making his way to the bathroom, he finds the water has been left on, and is slowly filling the bathtub. He leans over and shuts it off, but when he looks into the tub, John sees the apparition of a small boy, completely submerged in the water, staring up at him! 

Startled and confused, he backs away from the tub, yet his eyes remain affixed to the boy. He doesn't cower or scream in terror, because that's not how this character would react. Within John Russell lies the pain of a man who has lost so much, and the strength of one who has no intention of running away. 

Of course, there's more to The Changeling than this; along with a creepy scene involving a bouncing ball, the movie also has one of the most fascinating séances ever committed to film. Moments like these, combined with Scott's steadfast performance, elevate The Changeling high above the standard fare.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

#323. Quest for Fire (1981)

Directed By: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Starring: Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi

Tag line: "A Science Fantasy Adventure."

Trivia:  The movie was originally intended to be completely filmed in Iceland

A good movie draws you into the world it creates. That Quest for Fire achieves this does not, in itself, make it a unique motion picture.  The fact it’s set eighty thousand years in the past does

Quest for Fire is the story of a prehistoric tribe that, like all others in its primitive society, needs fire to survive. When their only source is accidentally extinguished, three members of the tribe (Everett McGill, Ron Perlman and Nameer El-Kadi) embark on a journey to bring back more. On their travels, they meet up with a strange woman named Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), a member of an advanced tribe that's already mastered fire. With her as their guide, the three discover the secret of fire, and much more besides. 

The most basic of human emotions, i.e: fear, anger, and desire, have their roots in man's primitive past, and Quest for Fire effectively exhibits each of them. Yet there are deeper things at play here as well. In essence, Quest for Fire provides a glimpse into the beginnings of mankind as a sentient being, slowly becoming aware of its own possibilities. At one point, we even bear witness to what might be history's first instance of self-defined morality. After going days without food, the three main characters stumble upon the remains of another tribe’s feast, and begin gnawing on the bones left behind. Suddenly, one of them lifts up a human skull, and all three realize the “feast” they’re scavenging from is the leftovers of cannibals.  They spit the “food” onto the ground in disgust. In that moment, the primary urge of hunger was overtaken by their values, their personal feelings of right and wrong. Obviously the tribe that was there earlier had no qualms about eating human flesh, thus giving us an early example of conflicting societal mores. With moments such as these (which also extend to the exploration of love in a monogamous form), Quest for Fire takes on a deeper purpose, far beyond that of a simple tale of early man. It reveals mankind at a crossroads, uncovering the social and emotional struggles that will hamper its existence for thousands of years. 

I admit I was skeptical going into Quest for Fire; despite the critical praise it received over the years, I didn’t see how a film on prehistoric man could possibly work, especially one that took a narrative, as opposed to a documentary, approach. Even films that relied heavily on their visuals, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least had dialogue (however limited) to fall back on. With Quest for Fire, no words would be possible because the film is set thousands of years before the advent of language, or at least language as it's existed for centuries. I wondered: would I even know what’s going on? As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded, and, admittedly, a little naive. With masterful performances from all the principles, and perfectly paced direction that never falters, Quest for Fire kept me in tune with its story, and did so in a way that was entirely satisfying. 

Quest for Fire is a remarkable achievement; it is a film to watch in stunned silence.

Friday, June 24, 2011

#322. Black Caesar (1973)

Directed By: Larry Cohen

Starring: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Art Lund

Tag line: "Hail Caesar, Godfather of Harlem...The Cat with the .45-Caliber Claws!"

Trivia:  The name Caesar is never spoken in the movie

The appeal of Black Caesar, a 1973 crime/drama directed by Larry Cohen, can be summed up in two words: Star Power.  Or, to be more specific, these two words: Fred Williamson.  As Tommy, the up-and-coming gangster who lets his gun do the talking, Williamson is undeniably magnetic, creating a character whose violent temperament is matched only by his driving ambition. 

Growing up in a New Yok City ghetto, Tommy Gibbs (Williamson) learned early on just how cruel the world could be.  Hoping to improve his situation, Tommy sets his sights on becoming a top man in the criminal underworld, a dream fueled by a childhood incident in which his leg was broken by a racist cop (Art Lund).  Bent on revenge, Tommy gathers up as much power in the neighborhood as he possibly can, impressing a mobster named Cardoza (Val Avery), the head of a crime family, with his determination and zeal.  Soon, Tommy's accepted into the rank and file of the New York mafia, yet try as he might, he can't resist lashing out at the hatred and intolerance all around him. 

Despite Tommy's volatile nature, which we bear witness to time and again throughout Black Caesar, he remains, at all times, a very sympathetic character, mostly because we know what it took for him to get to the top.  In the film's early scenes, Tommy is subjected to plenty of verbal and physical abuse, which he's only too willing to absorb if it means getting his foot in the proverbial door.  The mob first learns of Tommy when he shoots a man named Grossfield (Patrick McAllister), who had recently crossed Cardoza (this shooting leads to my favorite scene in the film, where Tommy, to prove he's done the job, throws Grossfield's severed ear onto a plate of spaghetti).  As a reward, Tommy is given his own territory.  From here, he works tirelessly, building up enough power to finally exact his revenge on the cop (now chief of police) who injured him all those years earlier.  Having spent the better part of his life being kicked by crooks and cops alike, Tommy's finally ready to start kicking back. 

In Black Caesar, Fred Williamson displays both a natural charisma and a commanding screen pesence, creating a criminal who's much more than a common thug.  His Tommy is clearly a very angry man, yet his hostility is masked by an engagingly sarcastic wit, which adds something more to the characterization.  By crafting such a well-defined hoodlum, Williamson has brought to the screen one of the most memorable movie gangsters I've seen in a long while.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

#321. Penny Dreadful (2006)

Directed By: Richard Brandes

Starring: Rachel Miner, Mimi Rogers, Chad Todhunter

Tag line: "Don't forget to breathe..."

Trivia:  Plagued with horrible weather, the cast and crew had to work through a sandstorm and several inches of snow in order to finish production

Directed by Richard Brandes, Penny Dreadful is a taut thriller that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat for the better part of an hour. Unfortunately, the film runs for an hour and a half. 

As a young girl, Penny (Rachel Miner) was involved in a tragic auto accident, one that claimed the lives of both her parents, and since that time, she's not been able to so much as ride in a car without becoming violently ill. To overcome her fear, she agrees to accompany her therapist, Orianna (Mimi Rogers), on a road trip that will take her back to the scene of the tragedy. But when the two offer a ride to a stranger (Liz Davies) they meet on a dark road, their trip takes a sudden and terrifying turn towards danger, leading Penny to confront her phobia in ways she never dreamed possible. 

Rachel Miner does a fine job as Penny, elevating the film's tension to what at times is an almost unbearable level. Shortly after picking up the stranger, both Penny and Orianna begin to suspect that something is very wrong with their new passenger. Their worst fears are realized when the stranger, who seems unable to talk above a whisper, produces a skewer of raw meat, offering Penny and Orianna a bite before tearing into it. Though Penny tries to maintain a casual demeanor through it all, attempting to make small-talk with the stranger, we can tell the poor girl is absolutely terrified of this new riding companion; she grasps at the blanket in her lap more tightly with each passing moment, and her eyes betray the many thoughts that are racing through her head. Throughout the film, her character will be subjected to many frightening ordeals, and Miner hits the perfect note with her performance in each and every one of them, never once taking things to a level beyond believability, even when hysterics set in. 

Where the film derails is in the final act, the psychological cat-and-mouse game begins to lose some of its steam, and several 'extra' characters, who had been introduced earlier, contribute nothing at all to the story. While there are still strengths to be found in these later scenes (Miner remains effective, as does Rogers in a more limited capacity), the filmmakers could have easily trimmed 10-15 minutes without losing anything of substance. That aside, I would still recommend Penny Dreadful; it's an exceptional film for two-thirds of its running time, and the weaknesses in the back end do not detract from the strengths at the beginning.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

#320. The Deep End (2001)

Directed By: Scott McGehee, David Siegel

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker

Trivia:  Margaret's date of birth is November 5, 1960. That's also Tilda Swinton's date of birth

Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) is a very busy woman. 

Her husband, a naval aviator, is away from home months at a time, so it’s up to Margaret to take care of their three children as well as her live-in father-in-law (Peter Donat), all while trying to maintain a beautiful Lake Tahoe home. 

Recently, things have gotten pretty chaotic for poor Margaret. Along with helping her youngest son (Jordan Dorrance) track down his lost baseball mitt and talking with the dry cleaners about her father-in-law’s pants, she’s trying to raise $50,000 to pay off a pair of blackmailers and keep her eldest son Beau (Jonathan Tucker) out of jail. 

Where does she find the time? 

The Deep End, a thriller by co-writers / directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is the story of one woman’s struggle to maintain a degree of normalcy under incredibly abnormal circumstances. As played by Tilda Swinson, Margaret is a courageous, intelligent woman who will stop at nothing to protect her family, even if it means breaking the law. 

It all began when seventeen-year-old Beau, a closet homosexual, had an affair with nightclub owner Darby Reese (Josh Lucas). Margaret, who disapproved of Darby’s lifestyle, told him, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from her son. 

Ignoring this warning, Darby drives out to the house one night to meet secretly with Beau, which leads to a violent argument between the two. A few punches are exchanged, and Beau storms off. Darby, exhausted from the fracas, leans against a fence post on the family's dock, which breaks and sends him plummeting to his death. 

The next morning, while out on a stroll, Margaret finds Darby's corpse and - fearing her son may have murdered him - spends the next few hours disposing of the body. She never breathes a word of this to anyone, nor does she ask Beau any questions. 

Darby's remains are eventually discovered by the authorities (miles away from the Hall residence), at which point Margaret receives a visit from Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic), a one-time business partner of Darby's. Alek shows Margaret a video of Darby and Beau having sex, and says that he and his partner, Charlie Nagel (Raymond Barry), know that Darby spent his final night in Beau’s company. 

Hoping to collect on money that the late Darby owed them, Alek and Charlie demand that Margaret turn over $50,000 by 5 p.m. the following day, or they'll make sure the video ends up in the hands of the Tahoe police department. 

The Deep End convincingly blends Middle-American melodrama with the seedy world of film noir, telling the tale of a normal housewife who has no alternative but to deal with some very shady characters. 

Yet when it comes to the welfare of her family, Margaret is prepared to do just that, and more besides. Even Alek, who instigated the blackmail, comes to respect Margaret as she tries to balance his attempt at extortion with the unending demands of everyday life. Thanks to a superior performance by Tilda Swinton, Margaret is both strong and believable, a woman doing her best under impossible circumstances. 

Margaret Hall is a woman who goes the distance, and is ready to defend her children at all costs. For her, it's nothing out of the ordinary... it’s just what being a mother is all about.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

#319. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Directed By: John McNaughton

Starring: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles

Tag line: "Yeah, I Killed My Mama..."

Trivia:  At the time he auditioned for the lead in this film, Michael Rooker was working as a janitor

Henry Lee Lucas was, at one time, considered the most prolific serial killer in American history. Convicted of murdering eleven people over the course of several decades, Lucas actually confessed to hundreds of killings, many of which the authorities could never connect back to him. His first known victim, for whom he served 10 years in prison, was his alcoholic mother, a prostitute who allegedly made her young son watch as she had sex with dozens of men. His is a truly terrifying story, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a 1986 film based loosely on the life and killings of Henry Lee Lucas, matches that terror bloody step by bloody step. 

Released on parole for the murder of his mother, Henry (Rooker) is now living in Chicago, where he shares an apartment with his friend and former prison cellmate, Otis (Tom Towles). By all accounts, Henry is just a regular guy, but his casual behavior masks a dark secret; Henry is a serial killer, one who picks his victims entirely at random. Before long, he's teamed up with Otis, teaching him the finer points of murder, including how to get away with it (“if”, Henry explains to Otis, “you strangle one, stab another, and one you cut up, and one you don't, then the police don't know what to do”). What complicates the situation is the arrival of Otis' kid sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who moves in with the two on a temporary basis. Becky takes an instant liking to Henry, and Henry, in turn, goes out of his way to make Becky feel at home, knowing all the while he may, at some point, have to kill her to protect his secret. 

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a nerve-wracking film, made all the more so by the low-key performance of Michael Rooker, who has the look, the demeanor, the very presence of an everyman. In the film's first scene, Henry is sitting in a restaurant, finishing up a meal. He compliments the waitress' smile as he pays his bill, walks out the door, then hops into his car and drives off. We follow along with Henry on his drive, during which we're also treated to a montage of grisly images; a woman (Mary Demas), naked and bloody, lying dead in the middle of a forest, a husband (Ted Kaden) and wife (Elizabeth Kaden) murdered in their place of business, and another nude young lady (Denise Sullivan) whose corpse is floating face-down in a shallow creek. We have only just met Henry, yet his connection to these killings is obvious, and when, in the next scene, he stalks a woman (Monica Anne O'Malley) to see where she lives, we know full well the fate that awaits her. As played by Rooker, Henry is the worst kind of monster, a murderer who blends seamlessly into the background at diners and coffee shops, all the while sizing you up for the kill. 

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the frightening tale of a murderer you never see coming. It is a film that will get into your head, under your skin, and have you looking over your shoulder from time to time to make sure nobody's following. With a magnificent turn by Michael Rooker and a gritty, documentary-like flavor, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has earned a place among the elite of the horror genre.

Monday, June 20, 2011

#318. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Directed By: Robert Wise

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley

Tag line: "The Human Adventure is Just Beginning"

Trivia:  Originally, this film was to serve as a Two-Hour premiere for a new Star Trek TB series called "Star Trek Phase II"

For the record, I'm not a Star Trek groupie; I’ve never attended a convention wearing pointy ears, nor can I recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Klingon. Having said that, I must also add that I’ve yet to see an episode of the show that didn’t utterly fascinate me. Star Trek may have become a way of life for some, but for the rest of us, it's simply a great bit of entertainment. 

Having abandoned the Captain’s chair for a loftier position at Starfleet Headquarters, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) now finds himself itching to return to active duty, and when a crisis threatens the safety of the entire planet, he gets his chance to do so. Kirk must take command of his former ship, the Enterprise, which has just undergone a complete overhaul, and lead her to the edge of the solar system to head off a large energy cloud, which is on a collision course with earth. Along with this external threat, Kirk must deal with a few internal ones as well, namely his strained relationship with the current captain of the Enterprise, William Decker (Stephen Collins), who was relegated to second in command when Kirk re-entered the picture. Decker feels Kirk’s lack of experience with the newly updated vessel is a detriment to the mission, but with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) also along for the ride, most believe the Enterprise is back in very capable hands. 

Originally intended as a 2-hour pilot for a new Star Trek television series, Star Trek the Motion Picture instead launched the cinematic phase of the popular 60's sci-fi show. A successful combination of old and new, Star Trek the Motion Picture maintains the energy and close-knit relationships established during the show's 3-year run on NBC, while simultaneously updating the technology for a modern (thus more demanding) audience. This particular journey begins with a great bit of nostalgia, as Admiral Kirk, accompanied by his former chief engineer, Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), travels by way of shuttlecraft to the Enterprise, which is in dock. As the shuttle slowly ascends into the docking bay, we’re greeted by the familiar sight of the great ship, looking much the same as it did when Kirk was in the captain's chair. But the nostalgia ends once we step on board, because this Enterprise has been enhanced in every way imaginable, so much so that Kirk, who commanded the ship for five years, has to ask for directions to get from one end to the other. This new Enterprise belongs to Decker, who oversaw the enhancements that took the better part of 18 months to complete. Bitter at losing his command, Decker goes so far as to openly challenge Kirk, believing his inexperience with the new Enterprise could place the mission in jeopardy. Sure enough, Kirk’s unfamiliarity does lead to a few close calls, but Decker is there each and every time to bail him out. It’s this joining of old and new that separates Star Trek the Motion Picture from the television series that inspired it; on this particular voyage, the Enterprise needed both Kirk’s expertise and Decker’s technological skills. One without the other would have surely led to disaster. 

The world created by Star Trek is a very appealing one, preaching of a future where hatred and poverty have all but been eliminated, and humans exist solely to further their knowledge of the universe. It is a veritable utopia, and while I've made clear the fact that I'm no Trekkie, or Trekker, or whatever the correct moniker may be, I certainly understand how others could be. After all, with violence and hostility leaping from our TV screens each night on the evening news, is it really so strange that fans of the show keep their heads in the stars, dreaming of a bright future?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

#317. Session 9 (2001)

Directed By: Brad Anderson

Starring: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon

Tag line: "Fear Is A Place."

Trivia:  The movie is mentioned in the book Project 17 by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Psychological Horror is (in my opinion, anyway) among the most frustrating of film sub-genres. Whereas most horror movies provide, at the very least, a definable external threat, psychological horror turns the attention inward, focusing on terrors of the mind, which, when left unchecked, can (and often do) transform into more tangible dangers. Yet you can never trust what psychological horror throws your way; is it real, or merely a figment of a character's imagination? The human mind is complex, and this complexity extends, as well, to films dealing with its darker natures. Session 9 is, most definitely, a psychological horror movie, and while I did find quite a bit to like about the film, it ultimately proved no less puzzling than others of its ilk. 

The Danvers State Hospital, which has been closed for 15 years, must be cleared of asbestos and other hazardous materials before undergoing some much-needed renovations. Enter Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan), the owner of Hazmat Elimination, who has promised to rid the entire facility of asbestos in one week's time. His partner, Phil (David Caruso), and their employees, Mike (Stephen Gavcdon), Hank (Josh Lucas) and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), worry that a week isn't enough time, but the promise of a $10,000 bonus for completing the job on-schedule quickly changes their mind. As the work commences, Gordon begins acting more and more agitated, as if the building's history were affecting him on a personal level. Things go from bad to worse when Mike stumbles upon several discarded audio tapes from the institution's past, which contain the therapy sessions of a disturbed young woman. Mike listens to the tapes in secret, yet they nonetheless seem to be affecting the morale of his co-workers, who are ready to jump down each others throats at the slightest provocation. 

As I stated above, there's plenty to like about Session 9, starting with the mental institution that serves as the film's setting. Shot on-location at the abandoned Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts (a building that, at one point in its long history, was called The Danvers Lunatic Asylum), Session 9 takes full advantage of the structure's dilapidated state, bringing an eerie atmosphere to every scene set within its walls. Along with the effective setting, the performances in Session 9 are top-notch, especially that of Peter Mullan, whose distanced demeanor as Gordon masks a dark secret his character can't keep hidden for very long. But the best moments in Session 9 center around the audio tapes, recorded therapy sessions of a young woman who suffered from multiple personality disorder. At the start of each recording, the woman, named Mary Hobbes (voiced by Jurian Hughes), can be heard weeping, and avoids the questions put to her by the doctors. Then, quite suddenly, a different voice is heard on the tape, sometimes that of a child, other times a young man, yet all emanating from Mary Hobbes. These sessions are truly disturbing, and leave us to wonder, as they're sending shivers up our collective spines, how they connect to the story at hand. 

Herein lies my main issue with Session 9: its climax is a bit of a let-down. As is the case with many psychological horror films, too much time is dedicated to “muddying the mental waters” in order to confuse the audience, then too little in clearing them up again. Not wanting to spoil the movie for anyone, I'll just say I found the ending far too simplistic, especially when you consider all that went before it. 

Yet I still say there's a lot to like about Session 9. It's a slow burn, and takes a while to get rolling, but the combination of characters and setting proves enough to keep your attention through the slower periods, and even if you're as disappointed by the finale as I was, the journey getting there is entertaining enough, and makes the entire trip worthwhile.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

#316. The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Directed By: John Sturges

Starring: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson

Tag line: "They were seven - And they fought like seven hundred!"

Trivia:  A young Gene Wilder auditioned for the role of Vin

The moment you hear Elmer Bernstein’s booming musical score - certainly one of the most recognizable in motion picture history - you’re ready to ride with The Magnificent Seven

This is a movie that knows what fun is all about! 

The vicious bandit, Calvera (Eli Wallach), leader of a group of criminals and cutthroats, has been terrorizing the citizens of a small Mexican farming village for years, forcing them to turn over their food so he and his men will have something to eat during the winter months. 

To end Calvera’s dominance over them, the villagers ask Chris (Yul Brynner), a professional gunman, to run Calvera and his men off for good. Realizing he can't do it alone, Chris rounds up six more hired guns, including the quiet but effective Vin (Steve McQueen), the proud and determined Bernardo (Charles Bronson), and a brash newcomer named Chico (Horst Buchholz). 

With seven experienced gunmen backing them up, the villagers face off against Calvera; leading to a showdown the bandit won't soon forget. 

The Magnificent Seven is a Hollywood remake of Akira Kurosawa’s renowned classic, The Seven Samurai, a film produced in Japan six years earlier. Aside from duplicating the fast-paced adventure of the original, The Magnificent Seven also copies its predecessor's success in building a number of well-rounded characters. Eli Wallach’s Calvera has a venomous humor about him, always stealing with a smile plastered on his face (that is, until the villagers rise up against him, at which point his condescending grin all but disappears). 

As for the seven title characters, each one evolves beyond the caricature of a simple gunfighter to become something more substantial. Lee (Robert Vaughn) signs on to help, yet has his own reasons for doing so, namely the desire to find a safe hiding place from his enemies, who are hot on his trail. At the outset, Chico is little more than a cocky kid (one villager comments that Chico is very young, and very proud, to which Chris replies, “The graveyard is full of men who were very young and very proud”), and while his arrogance serves him well early on, he will learn the value of discipline and restraint from his more experienced cohorts. 

Rounding out the seven are Britt (James Coburn), who is as quick with a knife as he is with a gun, and Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), an old friend of Chris’s who joins up because he believes there’s gold hidden somewhere nearby. Even the villagers themselves undergo a transformation of sorts, and in so doing take on a personality of their own. Unable to so much as fire a gun at the outset, they will learn to fight in ways they never imagined. 

Make no mistake: The Magnificent Seven is, first and foremost, an action film, and on that level it is a rousing success; any one of its shoot-outs is enough to get your pulse pounding. 

But while the various thrills ensure that The Magnificent Seven will be an exciting film, its the characters that make it a memorable one.

Friday, June 17, 2011

#315. The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Bruno S., Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira

Trivia:  Werner Herzog discovered the lead actor, Bruno S., in a documentary about street musicians

The setting is a small village in 19th century Germany. A young man named Kasper Hauser (Bruno S.) is found one morning standing in the middle of town, unable to speak and barely able to walk properly. 

Prior to this particular morning, Kasper had spent his entire life locked away in a basement, where a strange benefactor (Hans Musaeus) fed him regularly, yet never bothered to teach the boy how to communicate with others. Released suddenly into the outside world, Kasper must rely on the kindness of strangers to help him adapt. 

With the help of Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast), Kasper learns the intricacies of village life, and is soon considered an upstanding member of the community. Yet as Kasper becomes more astute, he finds society to be as cold and empty as the small cell he once called home, and wonders aloud if he will ever find fulfillment in a world such as this. 

As a means of having art imitate life, director Werner Herzog chose Bruno S. - himself an enigma with a tragic past - to play the title role. The son of a prostitute, Bruno was beaten so severely as a child that he lost hearing in one ear, causing his mother to ship him off to a mental institution, where he lived for the better part of two decades. 

In casting Bruno (who was in his early 40s, yet playing a teenager in this film), Herzog must have believed the actor's own sheltered upbringing would make him perfect for the part, especially since he was one of the few available who, like his character, could look upon the mechanisms of society with an outsider’s point of view. 

The effect works exactly as Herzog intended, and we can see the chaos raging in Kasper’s mind through Bruno’s tempered performance. At one point, Kasper is speaking with Pastor Fuhrmann (Enno Patalas) about the existence of God. Kasper states, in no uncertain terms, that he cannot fathom how God could create everything out of nothing. The Pastor replies that Kasper should cease asking such questions, and rely on faith above all else in spiritual matters. Having just started to grasp reality, how can Kasper commit to faith? How can both possibly exist within him on an equal level? 

As the title character, Bruno exudes the innocence of a man re-born into a world that is foreign to him, and yet his innocence, at times, also breeds a simple logic, one that occasionally proves much more effective than the learned opinions of the men instructing him. 

In The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, Herzog takes a long, hard look at society from the outside, seeing it through the eyes of a man who is as inspired by its intricacies as he is frustrated by its structure. According to Kasper, the world as defined by professors and theologians is much more complex than it need be. Locked away for many years, Kasper Hauser nonetheless saw things more clearly than most others. 

Even if he was the only one who knew it.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

#314. The Being (1983)

Directed By: Jackie Kong

Starring: Martin Landau, Marianne Gordon, Bill Osco, Josè Ferrer

Tag line: "The Ultimate Terror Has Taken Form"

Trivia:  The film was made in 1980 as EASTER SUNDAY, but sat on the shelf for 3 years before being released as THE BEING.

The Being, a 1983 horror/sci-fi film directed by Jackie Kong, gets off to a very mediocre start. 

The sound of a morning radio show fills the air as we're introduced to Pottsville, Idaho, which, by all appearances, is a typical small American town. Suddenly a narrator chimes in, and after once again telling us the name of the town (the radio host already covered this less than a minute earlier), the narrator continues: 

A small town, not much different from any other Main Street, USA, where strange and unexplained events are occurring”. 

Apparently, a young child is missing, and Pottsville is in the grips of the - and I quote - “ultimate terror”. It doesn't take a genius to realize this entire narration sequence is as uselessl as they come; it reveals nothing of value, and is an odd beginning to what would, in time, prove to be an unintentionally hilarious motion picture. 

As if the "Ultimate Terror" wasn't bad enough, a massage parlor is also coming to Pottsville, and the entire town, led by the mayor's wife (Ruth Buzzi), is trying to prevent it from ever opening its doors. Unfortunately, this moral crusade has only succeeded in drawing everyone's attention away from the real issue at hand: the dumping of nuclear waste next to the town's water supply. 

Though the dump has been declared safe by local environmental expert Garson Jones (Martin Landau), detective Mortimer Lutz (played by Bill Osco, who's credited as Rexx Coltrane) believes the toxic material might somehow be linked to the mysterious disappearances that have been plaguing Pottsville in recent days. Yet even the detective doesn't realize just how dangerous the situation has become, that is until he comes face-to-face with a mutated creature whose sole aim is the destruction of the entire town!

The Being hints at its “so bad it's good” tendencies right out of the gate. Shortly after the opening narration concludes, we cut to a young boy (Brad Ginther) running from someone (or something). Making his way to a junkyard, he hops into a car, starts it up, and hightails it out of there as quickly as he can. But just when it looks as if he's going to get away, a creature tears through the roof of the car and pulls the boy's head clean off his body. Fortunately for him (but much to the chagrin of whoever was in charge of continuity), the very next shot reveals that the boy's head has miraculously grown back, which we notice moments before the car slams into a building! 

In all fairness, though, I shouldn't single out the continuity; heads growing back are the least of this film's problems, especially when you consider the utter stupidity of its central characters. The first time we meet Garson Jones, he's on a local television news program, defending the decision to put a toxic waste dump next to the town's only supply of fresh water. After drinking some of the water himself to prove its OK, then running a Geiger counter over the pitcher to show there's no radioactivity, Mr. Jones says, “One must conclude that dumping nuclear waste does not, and will not, affect the water supply”. I half expected the editor to scroll a “Famous Last Words” graphic across the bottom of the screen as he said this (though one saying "Moron" may have been more appropriate). 

The unplanned hilarity continues as the story unfolds, culminating in the numerous appearances of the so-called “creature”, which inexplicably seems to be everywhere...all the time (if this movie is to be believed, it can travel several miles in the blink of an eye)! 

Ultimately, I did have fun watching The Being, though not for the reasons the filmmakers intended. It's an unbridled mess of a movie that gets sillier with each passing scene, and despite its solid cast (with the exception of Bill Osco, who is jaw-droppingly awful as the heroic detective Lutz), The Being has far too many goofy moments for us to take any of it seriously.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

#313. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Directed By: John Cassavetes

Starring: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Fred Draper

Trivia:  To help fund the film, John Cassavetes remortgaged his home. Peter Falk also chipped in with some of his earnings from "Columbo"

According to director John Cassavetes, his 1974 film, A Woman Under the Influence, is the story of two people who go to great emotional lengths for the sake of love. Now, that may sound a bit simplistic, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the ‘emotional lengths’ he speaks of are anything but elementary. 

Mabel (Gena Rowlands) has been acting strangely. Nick (Peter Falk), who's obviously noticed his wife’s bizarre behavior, decides to overlook it at first for the sake of the family, but when Mabel crosses the line into madness, he knows something must be done. At the insistence of both his mother (Katherine Cassavetes) and their family doctor (Eddie Shaw), Nick has Mabel committed to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Nick, who loves his wife dearly, longs for his life to return to normal, but at the same time worries that the long confinement may ultimately destroy Mabel’s already fragile psyche. 

For me, the experience of watching A Woman Under the Influence felt similar to spying on one's neighbors through an open window, which undoubtedly was the effect director Cassavetes hoped to achieve. The scene where the doctor arrives to take Mabel away is as intensely emotional a moment as you’re likely to ever see. It begins with Mabel arguing bitterly with her mother-in-law. Then, once she realizes why the doctor has made this particular house call, Mabel tries to avoid him by running behind the couch in the living room. Essentially, Mabel has what amounts to a nervous breakdown right before our eyes, and it’s more than Nick can bear. He continuously mutters “I love you” at an almost inaudible level, and can’t even bring himself to follow Mabel up the stairs when she runs to their children for comfort. This is man and wife at their lowest point, and witnessing the outburst left me feeling like an unwelcome intruder who'd just eavesdropped on what was obviously a traumatic moment for a very distraught couple. 

A Woman Under the Influence is, as Cassavetes said, a bitter reminder of the true cost of love. Yet, as we see in this film, no matter what that cost may be, love will always collect in the end. Nick and Mabel go through hell together, yet what remains important to them is that they are together. They'll more than likely face even tougher times in the days ahead, but at least they know they’re willing to pay their dues for each other. In spite of everything love threw at them, the alternative to “paying up” was far too depressing for them to even consider.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

#312. Automaton Transfusion (2006)

Directed By: Steven C. Miller

Starring: Garrett Jones, Juliet Reeves, William Howard Bowman

Tag line: "Blood...Will...Run"

Trivia:  Automaton was first made as only a Trailer by Steven C Miller while still in school

Automaton Transfusion is a zombie flick that was shot in 9 days for somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000, and, at times, the film suffers from many of the same problems that plague your typical indie horror fare. One thing that certainly isn't a problem, however, is the gore. With some truly impressive splatter effects, Automaton Transfusion is a low-budget film that offers a slew of big-time thrills 

The movie follows a group of high-school students whose classes are abruptly ended when one of them (Timothy Miller) attacks a professor (played by director Steven C. Miller). Three friends: Chris (Garrett Jones), Scott (William Howard Bowman) and Tim (Rowan Bousaid), take advantage of the early dismissal to check out one of their favorite bands, which is appearing at a small bar in the city. At the same time, Chris' girlfriend, Jackie (Juliet Reeves), heads off with her friends to a neighborhood party. Before the night is out, however, they'll all be running for their lives, with an ever-growing army of bloodthirsty zombies hot on their trail. 

The makers of Automaton Transfusion definitely got their $50,000 worth in the bloodshed department, pulling off some amazing gore sequences that get underway almost immediately. During a pre-title scene, a hospital orderly named Charles (Chrish Shepardson) is sweeping out the morgue when he hears a series of loud thuds coming from inside one of the drawers, where the remains of a recent murder victim (Kyle Safieh) reside. Frightened out of his mind, Charles slowly makes his way over to the drawer, then cautiously opens it, revealing ( guessed it), a zombie lying inside, just waiting for a fresh throat to chomp down on. But this zombie does more than simply tear at Charles' neck; it snaps him in half at the waist! It's the first of many well-executed, not to mention over-the-top, kill scenes, and it isn't even the craziest (that distinction must go to the zombie who attacks a pregnant girl. For fear of spoilers, I won't say anything more, but trust'll know the scene I'm talking about when you see it). 

To be sure, there are moments when Automaton Transfusion stumbles: the story is rushed along, never really giving us a sense of where the zombie outbreak started, and the number of 'infected' seems to multiply with no real rhyme or reason, growing from a handful to hundreds in a very short period of time. Probably most frustrating of all is the ending, which is basically no ending at all, just a lead-in to a proposed sequel. Now, admittedly, these are some serious issues, any one of which might cripple a film on its own. But with Automaton Transfusion, the kill scenes are just too damn creative to allow little things like structure and flow to get the better of it.