Sunday, July 31, 2011

#359. Headspace (2005)

Directed By: Andrew van den Houten

Starring: Olivia Hussey, William Atherton and Christopher Denham

Tag line: "Fear. It's All In Your Head"

As you might expect from a film titled Headspace, this is a movie that will mess with your mind. But rest assured: even though it leans strongly in the direction of the psychological, there are a handful of scenes in Headspace the squeamish will definitely want to avoid. 

Alex Borden (Christopher Denham) is undergoing a change, one that's transforming him from an awkward 25-year-old into an ultra-intelligent dynamo, capable of memorizing entire books just by thumbing through them. Unfortunately, his new-found intelligence comes with a few minor side effects, such as crippling headaches and a series of gruesome visions, during which Alex witnesses brutal murders being committed. His personal search for answers into his changing condition intensifies when he realizes the dream-like visions are all too real, and people he's recently come into contact with are dying. With the help of specialist Dr. Karen Murphy (Olivia Hussey), Alex hopes to uncover some answers about his transformation, while at the same time putting a stop to the killings before his sanity slips away. 

In its very first sequence, Headspace establishes the tone it will maintain throughout; set years earlier, a young Alex (played as a child by Quinn Lujan) and his family are forced to deal with a sudden change in Alex's mother (Sean Young), whose seemingly simple nosebleed quickly escalates into all-out madness. Things get so bad that Alex's father (Larry Fessenden) gathers up Alex and his older brother, Harry (Daniel Manche), and scurries them away in the middle of the night, but not before blowing part of their mother's head off with a shotgun. This opening, both bizarre and unsettling, establishes the film's mysterious nature, as well as the sudden and graphic violence that will occasionally work its way into the mix. 

A handful of stars lend their talents to Headspace, most of whom appear only briefly. Along with Olivia Hussey and Sean Young, there's Dee Wallace (The Howling) as a doctor unable to help Alex, and Udo Kier (Suspiria, Andy Warhol's Dracula) as a priest whose abbreviated encounter with the ailing young man leads to one of the film's most violent scenes. But while some might get a kick out of these cameos, they're ultimately unnecessary. Headspace is a movie in which the mystery surrounding its main character grabs your attention, and like that opening scene with Alex's mother, keeps you guessing as to what's going on. The questions raised are themselves perplexing, and enough to ensure we stay in tune with the story, making the horror all the more intense, and the occasional moments of violence all the more jarring, as a result.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

#358. Owning Mahowny (2003)

Directed By: Richard Kwietniowski

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver, John Hurt

Tag line: "The true story of a mild mannered banker and his magnificent obsession"

Trivia:  The real person Dan Mahowny is based on is now a consultant for a company that investigates fraud

Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) works as an assistant manager for a large Toronto-based bank. With his low-key idiosyncrasies and professional work ethic, Mahowny is the consummate professional, a man who serves his customers while keeping a sharp eye on the bank’s bottom line. He's smart, well respected, and a person you can depend on to get the job done. Dan Mahowny is also a compulsive gambler, one who's embezzled over $10 million from his employers to feed a habit he can no longer control. Owning Mahowny, directed by Richard Kwietniowski, tells both sides of his story.

Based on an actual event that occurred in Toronto in the early 1980’s, Owning Mahowny is the detailed study of a man who lived two lives, until the day one finally took control of the other, bringing both crashing down around him. At the outset, Mahowny concealed his addiction from those closest to him, including his girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver), who never once suspected that the man she loved flew to Atlantic City every weekend, dropping tens of thousands of dollars before finally returning home to her. In fact, Mahowny became such a regular at one casino that its President, Victor Foss (John Hurt), started treating him as if he were a member of the royal family. Yet while Mahowny’s repitation as a gambler grew, so did the danger of his being discovered, and in the end, it proved more than he could handle. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a remarkably reserved performance as Mahowny, a man who has so perfected his “poker face” that he's able to wear it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He loves gambling as if it were a member of the family, and his overwhelming desire to “push the envelope” becomes so addicting that it soon extends beyond his personal life and into his professional. Mahowny slyly withdraws millions against the loan account of the bank’s biggest customer, claiming he's doing so on their behalf. Then, to get his hands on even more money, he opens a fictitious loan account, one he approved personally, and starts withdrawing heavily from it. Having made a career out of being a shrewd, careful administrator, Mahowny was now taking staggering risks. Dan Mahowny the professional was slowly disappearing, allowing Dan Mahowny the gambler to take up full-time residence. 

The chances taken by the title character in Owning Mahowny, both at and away from the gambling table, are mind-blowing. Yet while Dan Mahowny undoubtedly lost control of his life, we sense that, in the end, it was a sacrifice he was willing to make. For Mahowny, gambling was living, and every moment he spent away from his obsession was a moment wasted. 

So much so that, in the end, he wasn’t wasting any time at all.

Friday, July 29, 2011

#357. Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Directed By: Jean Cocteau

Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély

Trivia:  It took five hours for Jean Marais to put on his make-up as the Beast

La Belle ET la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) opens with a hand-written letter from the film’s director, Jean Cocteau. In it, Cocteau asks his audience to return to a time in their lives when they approached everything with a “childlike simplicity”, when the line separating fantasy and reality wasn't quite so well defined. In so doing, the director hoped we might remember what it was like to believe in fairy tales, in a world of magic and wonder, where a beautiful woman could, in fact, fall in love with a hideous beast. 

Beauty and the Beast is more or less faithful to Madame Le Prince de Beaumont’s classic fairy tale. Belle (Josette Day), a beautiful maiden, lives with her father (Marcel André), brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and her two overbearing sisters, Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon). One night, as Belle’s father is returning home from a business meeting, he mistakenly enters a strange castle in the woods, where he awakens a monster. This monster is the Beast (Jean Marais), a hideous creature upon whom a horrible spell has been cast, damning it to a life of isolation. The Beast agrees to spare the father, but only if one of the man’s daughters will take his place, and live with the Beast in his castle for the rest of her days. Belle, who cannot bear the thought of losing her father, agrees to the Beast’s terms. At first terrified of her new landlord, Belle will, over time, realize that the Beast is kind, gentle, and quite pitiful; in short, anything but the monster he appears to be. 

In Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau has created a wondrous world, filled with magic and fantasy. Candles, held in place by human arms that jut out of the wall, illuminate the hallways of the Beast’s castle; and statues come to life, with peering eyes that follow every motion. But not all of the special effects are quite so elaborate. One day, as Belle and the Beast are strolling the grounds of the castle, enjoying a nice afternoon together, a passing doe, frolicking in the woods, momentarily distracts the Beast. The Beast pauses, and his ears perk up, as if an animal alerted by his instincts of a possible kill. This effect, the raising of the Beast’s ears, is so simple, so brief, and yet it immediately caught my eye. It comes at a time when we have accepted that the Beast is not a monster, yet in that brief moment we realize he is, after all, still a Beast. 

Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast was not created for children per se, but for adults who could place themselves in a child’s frame of mind. While watching this movie, we are, for a short time, children once again, and our imaginations soar as they had years earlier, when we heard our parents utter those four words, “Once Upon a Time”.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

#356. Wicked Little Things (2006)

Directed By: J.S. Cardone

Starring: Lori Heuring, Scout Taylor-Compton, Chloe Moretz

Tag line: "Prey for them"

Trivia:  Tobe Hooper was initially attached to direct the film

Karen Tunny (Lori Heuring), a recent widow, and her two daughters; Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Emma (Chloe Moretz), have just inherited a house that's been in her late husband's family for generations. Located deep in the mountains of Pennsylvania, Karen's first inclination is to unload the property, but after paying it a visit, she realizes it may be a tough sell. Aside from the fact there's no running water, a family of rats has moved into the cupboards, and the front door is drenched in blood. 

Of course, the local flesh-eating zombies aren't doing much for property values, either. 

It all started back in 1913, when a group of impoverished children, forced to work in the coal mines, were trapped underground after an explosion triggered a cave-in. All were presumed dead, but the truth of the matter is they didn't really die that day...or any day since. Seeking their revenge on a town they feel deserted them, the youngsters crawl out of the now-abandoned mineshaft each and every night, feeding on rabbits, pigs, and the occasional human before finally returning from whence they came . Whereas Karen initially chalks these stories of flesh-eating tykes up to urban legend, she slowly starts to change her mind once Emma begins talking of a new friend she's made, a little girl named Mary (Helia Grekova), who, as luck would have it, lives in the old mine! 

Wicked Little Things doesn't make any attempt to hide its pint-sized carnivores from the audience, giving us a good look at them within the film's first 20 minutes (normal children by all appearances, save their jet-black eyes). As for the action, the first kill scene doesn't quite live up to expectations (a local handyman, played by Geoffrey Lewis, is beaten to death with a shovel), but things do improve from there on out as the kids step up their search for William Carlton (Martin McDougall), the only surviving descendant of the man who put them to work in the mines all those years ago. And though a few of the kills are damn near ruined by some truly awful CGI blood spurts (another weakness of the first kill sequence mentioned above), Wicked Little Things is a zombie movie that ultimately delivers the goods.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

#355. The Wild Angels (1966)

Directed By: Roger Corman

Starring: Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern

Tag line: "Their credo is violence... Their God is hate..."

Trivia:  The Hells Angels brought a $5-million defamation lawsuit against Roger Corman for what they perceived as a negative portrayal of their image

Directed by Roger Corman, The Wild Angels was a surprising success. Budgeted at only $360,000, the movie would take in millions at the box office, and was even selected as an official entry to the 1966 Venice Film Festival. Not bad for a movie about the a biker gang, is it? 

Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda), the leader of the local Hells Angels, guides his gang into the desert, where they hope to retrieve a stolen chopper that belongs to his best friend, Loser (Bruce Dern). When a run-in with the local authorities results in a shoot-out, Loser is critically injured, and taken by the police to a hospital for treatment. Refusing to abandon their friend in his time of need, Heavenly and his gang break Loser out of the hospital with the intention of mending his wounds themselves, an action that brings about a tragedy none of them were prepared to face. 

The Wild Angels is presented entirely from the point of view of the Hells Angels, which just about guarantees a film that's both shocking and controversial. For instance, the gang at the center of The Wild Angels loves to fight, but don’t always do so fairly. While retrieving Loser’s stolen bike, they get into a scrap with some Mexican mechanics, during which the Angels swing chains and beat on guys who've already fallen to the ground. When the cops arrive on the scene, the Angels scatter, and Loser sneaks around the side and steals a police motorcycle, resulting in a high-speed chase. Even when they aren’t fighting, the Angels are living up to their name, raising a little hell. While camped in the woods, waiting for Loser to return, the Angels throw a party that would make a college fraternity blush with embarrassment. The cops are always one step behind the Angels, watching their every move, but the Angels don’t seem to mind. “We got the power”, Heavenly Blues says to the gang at one point, “and it never pays to hassle the man who has the power”.

The Wild Angels struck a nerve with young audiences, who were looking for some sort of relief from the ever-growing war in Vietnam. The Wild Angels gave them an outlet for their pent-up frustrations, and its success would bring about the creation of a whole new sub-genre; the biker movie. Aside from such follow-up films as Devil’s Angels, Angel on Wheels and Hells Angels Unchained, this movie would also serve as an influence on 1969's Easy Rider, one of the most pivotal films of the decade. Without realizing it, director Roger Corman, who once called himself the “squarest guy in a hip crowd”, helped change the face of American film for years to come.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

#354. Carnival of Souls (1962)

Directed By: Herk Harvey

Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger

Tag line: "She Was A Stranger Among The Living"

Trivia:  The damage to the bridge in the opening scene cost its director $17

For 33 years, Herk Harvey worked as a filmmaker for the Centron Corporation, a company out of Lawrence, Kansas that produced a variety of industrial and educational films. During that time, he would direct exactly one feature-length motion picture: the atmospheric horror movie Carnival of Souls, which is still, to this day, considered a genre classic.

After being challenged to a drag race, a car carrying three young women accidentally drives off a bridge and sinks into the river below. As authorities are searching for the missing vehicle, one of the woman, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), makes her way to shore, in shock but relatively unharmed. 

Shortly after this harrowing incident, Mary heads out of town, having already accepted a job as an organist for a small church in Utah. Yet she cannot shake the feeling that something is very wrong with her, and wonders why she is being followed by a strange man (played by director Harvey) whose pale features are more than a little unsettling. 

Upon her arrival in Utah, Mary checks into a boarding house run by Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist), yet, for some unknown reason, finds herself drawn to the abandoned carnival grounds situated just outside of town. After a few more visits from the stranger with the white face, Mary begins to wonder if she's losing her mind, yet even this cannot prepare her for the shocking revelation that awaits her on those carnival grounds.

Shot in black and white, Carnival of Souls clearly benefited from Harvey's extensive film making experience; one of the things that struck me was the film's unusually large number of wide shots, with Harvey positioning his camera a great distance from the on-screen action. There are plenty of examples early on, like the scene where Mary crawls out of the water, but it's also employed at other points throughout the movie. By keeping Mary at such a great distance from his audience, Harvey establishes that his main character is very much alone, an isolation he'll explore in greater detail as the story progresses.

This visual style, combined with a handful of memorable scenes (while walking through a department store, Mary realizes she has suddenly gone deaf, and that no one can see or hear her), bring an intensely disturbing air to Carnival of Souls, a feeling of dread that continues to grow right up to the film's creepy conclusion.

Monday, July 25, 2011

#353. Annie Hall (1977)

Directed By: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts

Tag line: "A Nervous Romance"

Trivia:  Woody Allen originally envisioned this film as a murder mystery with a romantic sub-plot.

Woody Allen, the writer/director/star of Annie Hall, once described this Award-winning film as “a romantic comedy with a contemporary urban neurotic”. It is certainly this, and a whole lot more besides. 

Annie Hall is an account of the on-again, off-again romance between New York Jewish comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), an uptight WASP from Wisconsin. Over time, Alvy and Annie form a deep bond with one another, and manage to fall in love. 

During the course of their relationship, the two discuss everything under the sun, from foreign films to their very unique experiences with therapy (Alvy is amazed when, on Annie's first visit to a therapist, she breaks down and cries. “I have never cried", he says, enviously, “I whine. I sit and I whine”). Alvy and Annie will spend several years together, surviving a handful of break-ups and reconciliations along the way. But a trip to California, where wannabe-singer Annie meets established show-biz personality Tony Lacey (played by singer/songwriter Paul Simon), may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of their tempestuous love affair. 

Annie Hall was a semi-autobiographical work for Allen, one in a series of movies (along with 1980's Stardust Memories, and Radio Days in 1987) that would delve into his past and - occasionally - the recesses of his soul. In addition, Annie Hall offers up an honest look at relationships, and the ups and downs that define them. 

Yet the movie even goes a bit further than that, taking us deep inside the lives and personalities of its lead characters. Alvy spends a great deal of time reflecting on events from his childhood, like when he and his family lived under the roller coaster at Coney Island. There are occasional visits to Annie’s past as well, along with a trip to her family's home in Chippawa Falls, Wisconsin, where her well-to-do parents (Donald Symington and Colleen Dewhurst) live with her anti-semetic grandmother (Helen Ludlam). Allen even finds time to squeeze a brief animated sequence into Annie Hall, in which a cartoon Alvy asks the Witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (who sounds exactly like Annie) if she’s upset because she’s getting her period. 

Yet despite its varying personal and psychological attributes, Annie Hall is most definitely a love story. Allen and Keaton were former lovers in real-life (Keaton's real name is Diane Hall), and we sense that much of what transpires in the film isn’t so far removed from what really went down between them. It’s a relationship Allen obviously held dear to his heart, perhaps even the most important one in his life. 

After all, it did inspire him to create this masterpiece.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

#352. The Baby (1973)

Directed By: Ted Post

Starring: Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill

Tag line: "Horror is his formula!"

Trivia:  The producer's son played the part of the baby

A word of warning: The Baby is one weird-ass motion picture!

Released in 1973, The Baby tells the story of the Wadsworth family. Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman), whose husband walked out on her years earlier, has been raising three children on her own: two adult daughters, Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Susanne Zenor), and one baby (David Mooney). What makes this particular household so unusual is that “Baby” is actually 21 years old! 

Mrs. Wadsworth claims that Baby, who still wears diapers and sleeps in a crib, is mentally backwards, but the family's new social worker, Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer), is convinced he could lead a perfectly normal life if his mother and sisters would allow him to do so. 

Hoping to prove criminal negligence, Ann becomes a regular fixture at the Wadsworth home, and spends a great deal of time trying to teach Baby to walk and talk. But as Ann will learn, Mrs. Wadsworth is a very protective mother, and is willing to go to extreme lengths to defend her family and its secrets. 

Now, I did read up on The Baby before sitting down to watch it, and frankly, it all seemed very bizarre. So, if just reading about the movie left me scratching my head, imagine my shock the moment I saw Baby for the first time. No synopsis or description could have prepared me for the sight of a grown man in a diaper who spends his days in an over-sized playpen. Baby, played as well as can be expected by David Mooney, was a sight to behold, but like Ann, I got the sense there was more to this story than the Wadsworth family was letting on. 

Sure enough, when Ann experiences a breakthrough of sorts with Baby - getting him to stand for a short time on his own - Mrs. Wadsworth is none too pleased (staring at a terrified Baby, she quietly damns him for showing signs of progress). We then cut immediately to Baby's room, where Alba is torturing the "youngster" with a cattle prod, repeating over and over “Baby doesn't walk, Baby doesn't talk”. Mrs. Wadsworth's motherly instincts do eventually kick in and she puts a stop to the chaos... then turns to Germaine and tells her to lock Baby in the closet!

Despite The Baby's outlandish story, the filmmakers play it entirely straight, adding no superfluous humor whatsoever (the sight of a grown man in a diaper is unintentionally hilarious). But even if The Baby isn't the funniest film you've ever seen, I'll bet money it'll be one of the strangest.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

#351. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón

Starring: Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Ana López Mercado

Trivia:  The film grossed $2.2 million in its first week, the biggest opening ever for a Mexican film

Recent high school graduates Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) are a couple of best friends who know how to have a good time. With their girlfriends off touring Italy, the two are planning the summer of a lifetime, rife with drugs, booze, and all the women they can handle. For them, these next few months are gonna be a real blast.

But one woman will change all that, and the bond between the young men will be tested as it's never been before.

In their search for a little fun, Tenoch and Julio embark on a road trip with a beautiful older woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú), who's married to Tenoch's cousin, Esteban (Arturo Rios). Along the way, Luisa will open many doors for the friends, forcing them to face issues they were only too happy to ignore. In fact, that inner conflict we all experience, which creeps up on us somewhere between the exuberance of youth and the responsibility of adulthood, is a central theme of Y Tu Mamá También. At the start of the film, Tenoch and Julio are no longer in high school, yet they're also a long ways off from acting like grown-ups. For them, life is still one big party. 

Director Alfonso Cuaron explores this idea of frivolity versus obligation throughout Y Tu Mamá También, even going so far as to interject, from time to time, a narrator into the story (voiced by Daniel Gimenez Chaco), whose chief duty is to keep us in tune with the here and now, something the young protagonists dismiss on a regular basis. At one point, Tenoch and Julio are stuck in traffic, and pass the time clowning around in Tenoch's car, waiting for it to clear. Never once do they wonder what might have caused the jam-up in the first place. But the narrator fills us in, explaining that the traffic jam comes courtesy of Marcelino Escutia, a migrant bricklayer who was just struck and killed by a speeding bus. Moments like this make director Cuaron's central message ring out loud and clear: in spite of the fun his main characters are having, the world around them, full of tragedy and sadness, continues on.

Luna and Bernal are exceptional as the immature buddies, yet it's Maribel Verdú who delivers the film's finest performance. After receiving a tragic bit of news, Luisa finds herself in dire need of a diversion, and so joins the boys on their cross-country expedition. Yet instead of Tenoch and Julio taking her mind off her troubles, it's Luisa who has a much greater impact on her two companions. With Luisa as their guide, the boys will experience significant emotional growth out on the open road, and before their journey of self-discovery is complete, Tenoch and Julio will have traveled hundreds of miles across Mexico, and a million miles from the good times they once shared.

Friday, July 22, 2011

#350. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Directed By: Otto Preminger

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker

Trivia:  Marlon Brando was offered the role of Frankie Machine, but Frank Sinatra jumped at the opportunity and was signed before Brando could accept

Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm deals candidly with the subject of drug addiction.  A bit too candidly for some, in fact, seeing as the film, upon its initial release, was denied the Production Code’s Seal of Approval. The year was 1955, and the Code (which had been the moral watchdog and official censor of Hollywood since the early 1930's) still viewed drug addiction as a taboo subject for feature films. 

Surprisingly, the Code stood alone on this one; even the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency gave The Man with the Golden Arm a passing grade. Bolstered by the Legion’s support, the producers decided to go ahead and distribute the movie, marking the first time a major studio film was released nationally without the Production Code’s Seal. 

Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra), a former heroin addict, has just returned home from a stint in rehab. Having beaten his addiction, Frankie is determined to get his life back on track, and maybe even realize his dreams of becoming a jazz drummer. 

But the pressures put on Frankie by those around him, including his wheelchair-bound wife Zosch (Eleanor Parker), are more than he can bear, and he soon finds himself in need of a fix. Only Molly (Kim Novak), a former sweetheart, supports Frankie through this tough time, and works hard to keep him on the straight and narrow. 

I’ve always been a fan of Frank Sinatra's work in front of the camera. He was excellent in such studio-produced classics as From Here to EternityThe Manchurian Candidate, and Von Ryan's Express, but also managed to shine in a handful of smaller movies as well, like 1954’s Suddenly. What struck me as I watched Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm was how he never rushed his performance. Frankie’s fall happens very methodically, so much so that, when things first spiral out of control, it’s difficult to spot the difference in his behavior. Ultimately, the only way to tell Frankie is back on drugs is the look in his eyes. Several times throughout the film, director Preminger focuses his camera squarely on Frankie’s eyes, giving us an up-close look at the debilitating effects the drugs are having on him. 

Once Frankie's addictions take control of him again, it isn't long before he is completely hooked. All at once, he changes from a former addict who felt he could handle the occasional fix to an out-of-control junkie whose life is once again slipping away from him. 

Due in part to their experience with The Man with the Golden Arm, the Production Code updated their regulations the following year, approving changes that would allow the “sensible depiction” of - among other things - drug addiction and prostitution. It took some time for the Code to realize that Post-War America was struggling to find its identity, and as a result, a multitude of social problems had found their way into the public's consciousness. Times were tough, and audiences wanted motion pictures to reflect this reality. 

With The Man with the Golden Arm leading the way, Hollywood would never be the same again.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

#349. Two Evil Eyes (1990)

Directed By: George Romero, Dario Argento

Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Harvey Keitel, Ramy Zada

Tag line: "When I Wake You...You'll Be Dead"

Trivia:  Dario Argento originally wanted the film to be a collaboration between four directors: himself, George A. Romero, John Carpenter and Wes Craven

Talk about a pedigree! Just look at some of the big names associated with Two Evil Eyes. For starters, it was directed by not one, but two legends of horror, George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) and Dario Argento (Suspiria), each directing a short film based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. As for stars, how do Harvey Keitel, Adrienne Barbeau, Martin Balsam, and even The Fog's Tom Atkins sound? Finally, for the icing on the cake: all special make-up effects were handled by none other than Tom Savini (Friday the 13th). With this many talented people involved in its production, Two Evil Eyes just had to be something special.

I know...I know...this is the part where you're expecting either a “however” or an “unfortunately”, right? Well, you won't find one. The truth is, I did enjoy Two Evil Eyes, a film that pulled off a minor miracle: it actually lived up to its own potential.

Split down the middle, with each director tackling one section, Two Evil Eyes kicks off with Romero's take on Poe's The Facts In The Case of Mr. Valdemar. Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley), a wealthy old man, is dying, and his much younger wife, Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau), teams with her husband's doctor (and her lover), Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), to gather up as much of Valdemar's money as they can before he kicks the bucket. To move things along, Hoffman hypnotizes Valdemar, and, by the power of suggestion, gets him to sign a large portion of his estate over to his conniving wife. But when Valdemar dies while still under hypnosis, his consciousness is trapped between this world and the next, unable to fully exist in either one. Argento's The Black Cat is the story of a crime scene photographer named Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) whose girlfriend, Anabelle (Madeleine Potter), brings home a stray black cat, which she immediately falls in love with. But Rod and the cat don't exactly get along, so, while Anabelle is away, Rod strangles the cat and immediately disposes of its body. Sensing he's killed her new pet, Anabelle makes plans to leave Rod and move to New York, once again pushing her unhinged boyfriend to the brink of insanity.

Two Evil Eyes presents a pair of very different, yet equally engaging tales of the macabre. With The Facts In The Case of Mr. Valdemar, Romero is back in “living dead” territory, only this time he's dealing with a corpse that's very much aware of its own situation. The chills begin to creep up the spine the moment we hear Valdemar's agonizing moans emanating from the basement (which is where his wife and doctor have stored his body), and while the bloodshed is kept to a minimum, the look of the undead Valdemar (thank you, Tom Savini) more than makes up for it. Where Romero's tale shied away from gore, Argento's embraces it, kicking off The Black Cat by showing us the body of a naked woman, sliced in half by, of all things, a pendulum with a blade on the end of it. Argento's film is, without question, the more stylish of the two, in both structure (there are moments when we get a “cat's-eye” view of the action, with the camera scampering around on the ground) and story (such as the elaborate dream sequence that takes place in Medieval times), marking a definite shift in the film's overall tone.

Two Evil Eyes is a rarity, a collaboration of ultra-talented individuals that actually surpasses even your loftiest expectations.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

#348. Mystery Men (1999)

Directed By: Kinka Usher

Starring: Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, William H. Macy

Tag line: "We're not your classic heroes, we're the other guys"

Trivia:  At one time, Danny DeVito was set to direct as well as star as The Shoveller

Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), the most famous superhero in all of Champion City, is in danger of losing his corporate sponsors. Sure, he's brought peace and order to the fair city, but unfortunately for him, happiness doesn't sell nearly as well as mayhem does. So, to appease his financiers, Captain Amazing arranges for the premature release of his arch-enemy, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), who's been rotting away in a Champion City mental facility for 20 years. But when Casanova Frankenstein gets the upper hand on Captain Amazing, it's up to a trio of lesser-known superheroes, Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler (William H. Macy) and The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), to save the day. 

The colorful characters who populate the world of Mystery Men are an interesting crew, to say the least. In the film's opening scene, the arrogant and self-serving Captain Amazing (played wonderfully by Greg Kinnear) must come to the aid of Mr. Furious, The Shoveler and the Blue Raja, who bit off more than they could chew when they took on Red Eye (Artie Lange), a baddie who crashed a party at the Champion City retirement home. As we soon discover, this trio of bottom-tier do-gooders isn't exactly the most talented bunch you'll ever meet. Hank Azaria's Blue Raja, who wears a turban and speaks with a British accent, flings his mother's (Louise Lasser) cutlery at his enemies, but only the forks and spoons (he's morally opposed to throwing knives). The Shoveler usually gets one or two good whacks in with his shovel, but very rarely does he get three, while Mr. Furious has no discernible skills whatsoever. So, when it comes time to rescue Captain Amazing, they're gonna need all the help they can get. Looking to sign up some new recruits, they turn to a handful of other so-called "heroes", like the teenage boy (Kel Mitchell) who claims he has the power to make himself invisible, but only when nobody's looking. Then there's Spleen (Paul Reubens), whose noxious flatulence, launched at his enemies whenever someone pulls his finger, is effectively disgusting, and The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who wields a magic bowling ball that houses the skull of her deceased father. Throw in a gun-toting disco henchman (Eddie Izzard), a weapons dealer who deals only the "non-lethal" variety (Tom Waits) and a German arch-criminal with gold fingernails (Geoffrey Rush, in a tour-de-force performance), and you have a movie packed tight with a slew of fascinating characters. 

Mystery Men does have its weaknesses; many of the jokes fall flat, and a scene where the three main heroes host a barbeque to recruit some new talent was a real missed opportunity (not one of the 'recruits' was even remotely interesting). But with so many intriguing “heroes” to command your attention, my guess is you'll barely notice these shortcomings. Watching the entire cast interact with one another, in all their inept glory, makes the film's nearly 2 hour run time seem to fly by.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

#347. Wrong Turn (2003)

Directed By: Rob Schmidt

Starring: Eliza Dushku, Jeremy Sisto, Desmond Harrington

Tag line: "It's the last one you'll ever take"

Trivia:  Eliza Dushku did a lot of her own stunts for the movie

For the life of me, I'll never understand why some movie characters insist on exploring decrepit old cabins they find in the middle of the woods. Don't these people watch horror films? Wrong Turn, a 2003 movie directed by Rob Schmidt, contains such a scene, though, in its defense, one character, named Scott (Jeremy Sisto), does speak up, saying to the others before they walk into said cabin, “I need to remind you of a little movie called Deliverance”. Unlike his companions, Scott spotted the danger right away, and of course, nobody listened to him. But, man...they really should have! 

It all began when Chris (Desmond Harrington), a medical student driving through West Virginia, was forced to make a detour down a back country road, where he accidentally crashes his car into an SUV belonging to five hikers on a weekend retreat. Miles from the nearest gas station and unable to get any reception on his cell phone, Chris and 3 of the hikers, Jessie (Eliza Dushku), Scott, and Carly (Emmanuelle Chriqui), head off to look for help, leaving Evan (Kevin Zegers) and Francine (Lindy Booth) behind to watch over the vehicles. What they don't know is their wreck couldn't have happened at a worse spot, as all of them are now being hunted by a trio of cannibalistic hillbillies, hungry for a little fresh meat. 

Wrong Turn is a mostly by-the-numbers “Cannibal Stalker” film (think The Hills Have Eyes set in the backwoods of West Virginia), but that's not to say it isn't entertaining. In fact, the film consistently strikes a nice balance between nail-biting suspense and over-the-top gore. Right after the accident that stranded the six main characters in the deep, dark, West Virginia woods, director Schmidt introduces a feeling of uneasiness by keeping his camera at a distance from the action, obscured occasionally by leaves and branches, as if someone was watching from the forest. The tension this creates soon gives way to a more tangible horror, when Francine sets off to look for Evan, who's mysteriously disappeared. What she finds, and what immediately follows that discovery, signifies the start of the bloody mayhem, which will pop up from time to time throughout the remainder of Wrong Turn (and often when you least expect it). The back-and-forth shifts between suspense and graphic violence are effective, punctuated, at all times, by the truly disturbing ugliness of the three hillbillies (courtesy of Stan Winston's make-up studio). 

Easily the film's best scene, one that demonstrates all of the strengths outlined above, takes place inside that cabin, where Chris and the others are forced to hide when the hillbillies return unexpectedly. What they see from those hiding places will shock them, and their attempt to sneak out unnoticed will have you on the edge of your seat. 

Of course, had they listened to Scott in the first place, they wouldn't have even been in that predicament. If films like Wrong Turn have taught us anything, it's that, sometimes, it's better to just keep walking! 

Monday, July 18, 2011

#346. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Directed By: Nathan Juran

Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Kathryn Grant, Richard Eyer

Tag line: "8th Wonder of the Screen!"

Trivia:  This was the first feature using stop-motion animation effects to be completely shot in color.

The legend of Sinbad, a sailor who, in his tireless search for treasure and glory, relied on his courage and quick wit to carry him around the world, is one of the most popular folk tales to spring from the Middle East. If it weren't for the fact they were written hundreds of years ago, I'd have sworn this mythical hero's exploits were penned with stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen in mind. 

Per the terms of a peace treaty, Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews), the noblest man in all Baghdad, is to be married to the beautiful Parisa (Kathryn Grant), princess of the nearby kingdom of Chandra. Sinbad, who has taken personal responsibility for the princess's safety, is sailing back to Baghdad with his bride-to-be when his ship makes an unexpected detour to the small island of Colossa, where it is attacked by a humongous cyclops. 

Fortunately for Sinbad and his crew, the mysterious magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), who lives on this island, comes to their rescue, fending off the creature with his impressive powers. The cyclops flees, but while battling the creature, Sokurah loses his magical lamp. 

This lamp, which houses a genie (Richard Eyer) able to grant your every wish, is eventually recovered by the cyclops, and Sokurah begs first Sinbad, then the Caliph of Baghdad (Alec Mango) to help him retrieve it. But when both men refuse to risk any further loss of life on such folly, Sokurah resorts to drastic measures to secure the help he so desperately needs. 

Many of Harryhausen’s finest creations have sprung from the sea, stretching all the way back to his early work on films like It Came From Beneath the Sea, right through to the deadly Kraken, which ascended from the ocean floor to wreak havoc in 1981’s Clash of the Titans. With the legend of Sinbad, Harryhausen was handed the perfect vehicle with which to show off his animation skills, creating a string of unique monsters both in and out of the water. 

The most amazing of the creatures in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the Cyclops, a one-eyed terror standing several stories high that, by plundering ships which sail too close to his cove, has amassed a great deal of treasure. Along with the cyclops, Sinbad faces off against other monsters in 7th Voyage, including a dragon, a skeleton soldier, and an enormous 2-headed bird. These and many other hazardous perils would both challenge Sinbad's courage while, at the same time, giving Ray Harryhausen a chance to let his imagination run wild. 

Harryhausen would tackle the legend of Sinbad twice more, in 1973’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, furthering the exploits of the Persian sailor in spectacular fashion. This merging of a legendary character with an animator of impeccable skills proved a match made in heaven, and together, Sinbad and Harryhausen would produce three of the finest fantasy films in motion picture history.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

#345. Leviathan (1989)

Directed By: George P. Cosmatos

Starring: Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern

Tag line: "The True Meaning of Fear"

Trivia:  Very few scenes in this film were actually shot underwater

Leviathan borrows heavily from a pair of Sci-Fi / Horror classics: 1979's Alien (A motley crew of miners, miles from civilization, are hunted by a strange life form) and 1982's The Thing (Without going too heavily into spoilers, let's just say the “strange life form” I'm referring to has a lot in common with John Carpenter's snow-bound alien). To say Leviathan doesn't measure up to the films that “inspired” it isn't exactly fair; truth is, most fall short when compared with these two. The problem with Leviathan is that it only mimics Alien and The Thing up to a certain point, adopting similar ideas and situations, but failing to infuse them with the raw tension necessary to bring it all to life. 

Miles below the ocean's surface, a team of miners are days away from completing their 3-month assignment when they make a startling discovery. Hidden deep within a chasm, two of the miners: Six-Pack (Daniel Stern) and Williams (Amanda Pays) stumble upon the remains of a Russian ship named Leviathan, which, from the looks of the wreckage, was intentionally sunk. When the two return with a safe they found hidden on-board the Leviathan, they also bring with them a dangerous organism, one that threatens the safety of the entire group, and neither their boss, Beck (Peter Weller), nor the doctor (Richard Crenna) know how to stop it. 

It isn't long before Leviathan starts showing the cracks in its armor. In the opening moments of the film, the entire mining team is hard at work on the ocean floor when one of them, a young guy named DeJesus (Michael Carmine), suffers a malfunction in his protective suit. To make matters worse, the doctor, who's supposed to be manning mission control with Beck, is nowhere to be found. With time running out, Beck, who has little command experience and no medical training whatsoever, must act quickly if he's to have any hope at all of saving DeJesus. Sounds pretty exciting, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. In fact, this entire sequence is paced far too methodically to generate even the slightest bit of suspense. It's a problem that will plague Leviathan for the bulk of it's running time, and even when the creature is finally loose inside the base, knocking off miners one-by-one in the most gruesome ways imaginable, it's hard to give a damn about any of it. 

The few scenes that do work in Leviathan (the film's best moment involves the premature disposal of two dead “bodies”) aren't enough to make it a worthwhile experience. Instead of this film, I'd recommend going straight to the source by watching either Alien or The Thing; you'll essentially get the same story, but with these two, at least you know it'll be done right.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

#344. All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Directed By: Douglas Sirk

Starring: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead

Tag line: "How much does Heaven Allow a Woman in Love?"

Trivia:  The house Jane Wyman's character lives in is the same one the Cleaver family lived in for TV's LEAVE IT TO BEAVER

With All That Heaven Allows, director Douglas Sirk paints a disturbing mural of small-town America, revealing a side of suburbia often ignored by his contemporaries. By examining, in great detail, a closed-minded society, where unwritten rules are firmly adhered to and deviations from the norm are not tolerated, Sirk successfully de-glamorized what many, at the time, believed to be an ideal way of life. 

Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a recently widowed middle-aged mother of two, falls in love with landscaper Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), who also happens to be much younger. Cary is very happy with Ron, despite the fact that her children (Gloria Talbott, William Reynolds) and the rest of her upper-class society disapprove of the match. Before long, Cary is pressured to end the affair, and finds she must decide between remaining true to herself or sacrificing her own happiness for social stability. 

Throughout All That Heaven Allows, Sirk, with his observant camera and sharp color palette, pushes nonconformity over convention, the individual over the hive mentality. At first, Cary is just another member of a community in which everyone has their role to play. Hers is the kind but lonely widow who, without a husband to accompany her, doesn’t go out much anymore. Her neighbor and good friend, Sara (Agnes Moorehead), has made it her personal mission to set Cary up with the right man, meaning one who travels in the same social circles as themselves. 

Before Sara can settle on who this “Mr. Right” might be, Ron Kirby enters the picture. A free spirited man of nature, Ron introduces Cary to a much different world than the one she knows, and even brings her along to a party thrown by his good friends Mick (Charles Drake) and Alida (Virginia Grey). This scene contrasts an earlier sequence when Cary attended a soiree at her country club, during which she seemed stiff and uncomfortable around her “friends”. Thanks to Ron, she has a wonderful time at Mick's and Alida's party, and doesn't want the evening to end. 

It's clear that Cary has developed strong feelings for Ron, but because he’s not part of her society, she is forced to deal with a number of rumors circulating about the two of them. One particularly nasty bit of gossip even suggests that Cary's affair with Ron started prior to her husband's death. These rumors soon take their toll on Cary's children, who beg her to break it off with Ron. All at once, Cary's eyes are opened, and she realizes just how cruel this ‘polite society’ of hers can be. The town that has been her home for most of her adult life suddenly feels like a prison, from which there seems to be no escape. 

On the outside, Cary's community looks picture-perfect, with large houses lining the streets and perfectly manicured lawns as far as the eye can see. But, like everything else in this close-minded society, such appearances are merely artifice, an inferred perfection that masks a contempt for individuality. At its most basic, All That Heaven Allows is a story of the soul, a spirit that longs to break free of its invisible bonds.  

Regardless of the outcome, Cary’s eyes have been opened to the truth, and nothing will shut them again.

Friday, July 15, 2011

#343. Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000)

Directed By: Nabil Ayouch

Starring: Mounïm Kbab, Mustapha Hansali, Hicham Moussoune

Trivia:  This film won the grand prize at the Cologne Mediterranean Film Festival

Over the years, many films have dealt with the dreams and aspirations of children, but Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, a Moroccan movie directed by Nabil Ayouch, takes a singularly unique approach to this subject. 

The children at the center of Ali Zaoua are alone, abandoned by their families, and suffering a sad, poverty-stricken existence on the streets of Casablanca. For them, dreams aren't a luxury; they are a means of survival, providing hope where none exists, and promising better days ahead, no matter how empty that promise might ultimately be. 

Ali (Abdelhak Zhayra) is one such child. Having just quit a local street gang, Ali now wants to travel across the sea and live out his days on a tropical island. In fact, he had planned to set sail for his island within the next few days, but fate intervened. 

As Ali and his three friends, Kwita (Mounim Kbab), Omar (Mustapha Hansali) and Boubker (Hicham Moussoune) were whittling away the hours in an abandoned construction site, they were confronted by a gang of kids led by a deaf-mute named Dib (Saïd Taghmaoui), the same gang that Ali belonged to, but left in order to pursue his dreams. Dib ordered Ali to return to the fold, and when Ali refused, another kid threw a rock that struck Ali in the head and knocked him unconscious, leaving Kwita, Omar and Boubkar to care for their wounded companion. 

While being dragged by the three of them through the streets on a makeshift stretcher, Ali dies, and the friends agree that he deserves a first-class funeral. Each will do what they can to raise money for a burial at sea, certainly a fitting ceremony for a ‘prince’ such as Ali.

Whether or not they're successful in their mission, this ordeal has, at the very least, taught Kwita and the others the necessity of experiencing what life has to offer. The confident exuberance that drew them to Ali has, in turn, given each of them a new appreciation for life. Ali was the outlet for all of their aspirations, the one who showed them that dreams were not impossible. He came close to fulfilling his, and now, Ali's hopes for a better tomorrow have been transferred to his friends. 

Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets is a fascinating cross between drama and documentary; the children who star in this film are not actors, but actual Casablancan street kids, and their performances are nothing short of amazing. Director Ayouch shows great compassion for their plight, infusing the film with a tone that is never strained or artificial, and always observant. 

These kids, forgotten by their families, suffer through life’s pitfalls on a daily basis, and the only thing that gets them through it all is their dreams, their hopes for a better tomorrow. Ali Zaoua is a film you won’t soon forget; an account of the exuberance of youth played out on a stage decorated with society’s most abhorrent contempt.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

#342. Ginger Snaps: Unleashed (2004)

Directed By: Brett Sullivan

Starring: Emily Perkins, Brendan Fletcher, Katharine Isabelle

Tag line: "It Only Dies If You Do"

Trivia:  The dilapidated hospital that appears in this film was, in fact, an abandoned mental institution

Set shortly after the events of 2000's Ginger Snaps, Ginger Snaps: Unleashed follows the exploits of the only remaining Fitzgerald sister, Brigitte (Emily Perkins), who you'll recall infected herself with werewolf blood in an unsuccessful attempt to save her sister (who was already a werewolf), Ginger (Katharine Isabelle). Now alone in the world, Brigitte searches for a cure to her condition, all the while pumping Monkshood, a drug that slows the canine transformation process, into her veins. After losing consciousness following a close encounter with another werewolf (one that's been following her everywhere she goes), Brigitte awakens to find herself in a drug rehabilitation clinic (the authorities assume her Monkshood is a stimulant of some sort, and that she's addicted to it). Cut off from the only thing that prevents her from changing into a bloodthirsty monster, Brigitte befriends a young girl named Ghost (Tatiana Maslany), also a patient, who promises not only to get Brigitte her Monkshood back, but to help her escape as well. 

I definitely had a few concerns going into Ginger Snaps: Unleashed, chief among them being the direction in which the filmmakers were going to have to take their story. For me, one of the strongest elements of the original Ginger Snaps was the relationship that existed between the two sisters, the strong bond they shared that both assumed would last forever. Well, it didn't (nothing like a werewolf transformation to break up a happy family). Aside from reducing the duo to a solo act, I also had a few apprehensions about which sister's story was going to be the one that continues on. For me, Ginger was always the more interesting of the two, and while Perkins was absolutely fine as Brigitte in the first film, she seemed to quietly fade into the background whenever Isabelle's Ginger was on-screen. Needless to say, I was worried. 

One of the biggest, and most pleasant, surprises surrounding Ginger Snaps: Unleashed was how it took these worries of mine and turned them into positives. With the spotlight set squarely on her character this time out, Perkins delivers a superior performance, conveying all the impatience and frustration one would expect from a girl who knows she's a danger to society, yet is, at the same time, cut off from the one thing that will prevent her from becoming so. With a much more pronounced edge to the character than we experienced in Ginger Snaps, Brigitte is no longer content with remaining quietly in the background, and as much as Isabelle's Ginger commanded our attentions in the first film, Perkins' Brigitte downright demands it in the sequel. 

Of course, not everything has changed. The werewolf attacks in Ginger Snaps: Unleashed , like in the oiginal, pack a pretty strong wallop, as one poor librarian named Jeremy (Brendan Fletcher) learns all too quickly. However, I'm not recommending Ginger Snaps: Unleashed for what it successfully duplicated from the first film. I'm recommending it for taking what was essentially a unique concept only 4 short years earlier, and putting a fascinating new spin on it. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#341. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Directed By: Charles Laughton

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

Tag line: "The wedding night, the anticipation, the kiss, the knife, BUT ABOVE ALL... THE SUSPENSE!"

Trivia:  Charles Laughton originally offered the role of Harry Powell to Gary Cooper, who turned it down as being possibly detrimental to his career

An actor of immense talent, Charles Laughton is best remembered for his many notable performances, giving his all in films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Private Life of Henry VIII and Witness for the Prosecution, just to name a few. Throughout his lengthy career, Laughton would make only one film sitting on the other side of the camera, helming the 1955 thriller The Night of the Hunter, and after watching it, you'll wish, as I do, that he had taken the director’s chair more often! 

While in prison, condemned murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) tells his cellmate, self-proclaimed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), of how he stole $10,000 in cash, then hid the money somewhere in his house. 

Shortly after Harper is executed, Powell is released, and, in the hopes of getting his hands on the $10,000, heads directly to Harper’s house, where he seduces his widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and tries to cozy up to the couple's suspicious children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Under the pretense of doing the lord’s work, the murderous Powell first marries, then kills Willa, causing the children, the only two who know the whereabouts of the stolen money, to flee in horror. 

Much of the success of The Night of the Hunter must be attributed to Robert Mitchum, who plays a man of God unlike any you've ever seen. Rattling off quotes from the good book in a voice that cracks with venom and hatred, it is a performance for the ages. 

The true stars of this picture, however, are Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who also lent his talents to such classic films as Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor. With The Night of the Hunter, Cortez and Laughton conjure up moments as powerful as any the cinema has ever produced. One such image, arguably the film's most potent, is the abhorrent yet beautiful shot of the murdered Willa, her lifeless body resting in the front seat of a car sitting at the bottom of a lake. Showing her hair flowing gently in the calm and peaceful current, Laughton and Cortez have brought exquisiteness to the horrific, revealing the darkest, most repulsive recesses of the human soul, and doing so with unbridled majesty. 

Though Laughton would never direct another film, we can take solace in the fact that we at least have The Night of the Hunter. A taut, gripping thriller filled to its breaking point with incredible visuals, The Night of the Hunter is more than one of the most impressive directorial debuts in movie history; it is one of the finest films ever made.