Saturday, April 30, 2011

#267. Love and Death (1975)


Directed By: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Harold Gould





Tag line: "The Comedy Sensation Of The Year!"

Trivia:  Woody Allen claims that, of all the movies he's done, this is his favorite and most personal.






Love and Death acts as a gateway between the two “careers” of Woody Allen, joining the early, madcap comedies that preceded it (Bananas, Sleeper) with the more analytical films (Annie Hall, Manhattan) that would soon follow. As such. Love and Death works on two levels; inviting us to ponder life’s more dramatic elements while, at the same time, making sure we have plenty to laugh about.

Boris (Woody Allen), a 19th century Russian peasant, is in love with his beautiful cousin, Sonja (Diane Keaton). But before Boris gets a chance to act on these feelings, he’s drafted into the army to fight for Mother Russia, which has been invaded by Napoleon's army. A coward at heart, Boris nonetheless (and quite accidentally) proves himself a hero in battle, and returns home a new man, intent on marrying Sonja. Unfortunately for him, cousin Sonja has other things on her mind, such as her plan to assassinate Napoleon, for which she's recruited the reluctant Boris to assist her.

Any fan of Allen’s zany style of humor will find enough of it in Love and Death to keep them laughing. While telling us about his family, Boris (who also acts as the film's narrator) relates the story of a piece of property his father owned, one the old man was very proud of. “True, it was a small piece”, Boris says over an image of his father holding a lump of sod, “but he carried it with him wherever he went”. Intertwined with the guffaws, Allen also manages to examine the more serious aspects of life, yet does so with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Along with love, romance and death, the writer/director sets his sights on the atrocities of war, taking direct aim at both the insanity of battle and the rigid codes inherent in a military system. During basic training, Boris often finds himself at odds with his intense drill sergeant (Frank Adu, who plays the part as is he were training troops on Parris Island). When the sergeant asks the unwilling Boris if he’s trying to get himself a dishonorable discharge, Boris replies, “Yes sir, either that or a furlough”. As you might expect from a film set in the Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, there are serious topics at play in Love and Death, yet every probing discussion is presented with Allen’s distinctly humorous touch.

In Love and Death, comedy and philosophy work in unison to create one of the most unique movies in Woody Allen’s filmography. Who else but he could deliver a debate on the subjectivity of morality, and a scene with a vendor selling hot dogs in the middle of a battlefield? With Love and Death, Allen has given us the best of both his worlds.
 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Friday, April 29, 2011

#266. Secretary (2002)


Directed By: Steven Shainberg

Starring: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies





Tag line: "Assume The Position"

Trivia:  Fwyneth Paltrow was originally cast in the role of Lee Holloway







Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg and based on a short story by Erin Cressida Wilson, was designed to provoke a reaction from its audience, yet despite the scandalous nature of the relationship it explores, the film is, first and foremost, a love story.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a troubled girl. Recently released from a mental facility, she's looking to get her life back on track. So, she signs up for a secretarial course, discovering along the way that she's an excellent typist. Ready to face the world, Lee applies for a position at the law office of Mr. E. Edward Grey (James Spader), who immediately hires her to be his personal secretary. After a few days on the job, however, Lee realizes that her new boss has a few quirks of his own. For one, Mr. Grey takes great pleasure in exercising his authority over Lee, chastising her unmercifully for the slightest of errors and even going so far as to correct her spelling mistakes with a red pen. It's more than any self-respecting employee should take, but Lee, who wants nothing more than to please her new boss, does take it. In fact, she discovers that she even kind of likes it.

From here on out, we watch (at times quite uncomfortably) as the boss/employee relationship devolves into one of master and servant, with Lee happily succumbing to Mr. Grey’s every whim. She begins delivering his mail while crawling on all fours, and at one point even allows him to put a saddle on her back, feeding her a carrot as he does so. Remarkably, through Mr. Grey's harsh treatment of her, Lee experiences a sexual awakening, a feeling unlike any she's ever felt before, and even the usually withdrawn Mr. Grey has a bit more bounce in his step these days.

I really admire the nerve of this movie, and while I admit Secretary is difficult to watch at times (especially the ‘spanking sessions’), I must also come to its defense by stating that every scene is handled in as tasteful a manner as the material will allow. Secretary takes the bold approach that its character's “relationship”, while very different from what most would consider normal, is nonetheless good for both of them. Through their role-playing and sado-masochistic games, each is filling a void in their respective lives, and the film refuses to judge them or make any ethical stands regarding their behavior. Any and all moral dilemmas inherent in such a bizarre tale are left for the audience to sort out, and in the end, you can either accept Lee and Mr. Grey’s love for what it has become, or turn away in utter disgust.

I myself never once turned away.
 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

#265. An American Haunting (2005)


Directed By: Courtney Solomon

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Hurd-Ward





Tag line: "Possession Knows No Bounds"

Trivia:  The film is based on the actual legend of the "Bell Witch", a ghost that future U.S. President Andrew Jackson supposedly had a run-in with during his days as a soldier.





One of the more famous ghosts stories in the annals of American history is that of the “Bell Witch” of Tennessee, a malevolent spirit that supposedly tormented a frontier family between the years of 1817 and 1821. According to period documents and eyewitness accounts, this particular spirit was quite powerful; so powerful, in fact, that it allegedly caused the death of that family's patriarch, one of the few times on record where a ghostly encounter led to a fatality. An American Haunting is writer/director Courtney Solomon's attempt to bring this classic tale of horror to the big screen. Unfortunately, the key word here is “attempt”, and while Solomon obviously did his homework when it came to recreating the time period, An American Haunting relies far too heavily on tired clichés, and in the end amounts to little more than your typical supernatural fare.

It's the early 19th century. Wealthy landowner John Bell (Donald Sutherland) lives in a small Tennessee community with his wife, Lucy (Sissy Spacek), and their children. Following a church hearing to settle a land dispute, neighbor Kathe Batts (Gaye Brown), who John Bell had cheated out of profits that were rightfully hers, places a curse on both Bell and his beloved daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Though the lady Batts is rumored to be a practicing witch, the Bells ignore her threats, and return home with little concern. But when Betsy is attacked during the night by an unseen entity, the Bells ask their close friend James Johnston (Matthew Marsh), as well as Betsy's schoolteacher, Mr. Richard Powell (James D'Arcy), for assistance. The two of them prove just as helpless against the intruding demon as the Bells, and over time, the attacks on Betsy intensify.

An American Haunting is certainly a beautiful film to look at, with lush scenery and an impressive recreation of early 19th century America. But this isn't a period drama; it's a horror movie, and no amount of spectacle will distract you from this film's total lack of imagination in the fright department. Many of the now-standard techniques are here for the taking: the shadow that moves quickly out of frame, the “ghost in the mirror” jump scare, doors slamming, windows exploding, and bodies contorting. I'm the first to admit that supernatural films usually get the best of me, but there wasn't a single moment in An American Haunting that caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. Not one. I've seen it all before, and what's more, I've seen it done much better.

Throw in a ridiculous “reveal” at the end and two pointless modern-day sequences, and you have a film that doesn't just falter...it falls flat on its face!








Wednesday, April 27, 2011

#264. An American Werewolf in London (1981)


Directed By: John Landis


Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne



Tag line: "Beware The Moon"

Trivia:  All the songs in this film have the word "MOON" in their title







When first released in 1981, John Landis' An American Werewolf in London was hailed as a groundbreaking film, and it's creature effects, developed by legendary make-up artist Rick Baker, were enough to win the movie (and Baker) an Academy Award. Even by today's CGI-defined standards, the effects in An American Werewolf in London look pretty damn good, and remain an impressive part of what is still a highly entertaining film.

Two young Americans, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), are backpacking their way through Northern England when they're attacked by what appears to be a wild animal. The locals manage to kill the beast, but are too late to save Jack, who dies from his injuries. David, still barely alive, is rushed to a hospital in London, where he'll spend several weeks recovering from his injuries. While there, David catches the eye of one of his nurses, a pretty young woman named Alex (Jenny Agutter), and the two strike up a quick romance. But David has been having violent, disturbing nightmares that he cannot explain, and it isn't until Jack's corpse pays him a visit that he begins to realize the truth: he and Jack were attacked by a werewolf, which means that David, having survived a bite from the creature, is himself turning into one.

An American Werewolf in London's most famous sequence is undoubtedly David's first werewolf 'transformation', which occurs while he's staying in Alex's apartment. In a truly remarkable bit of film-making magic, David's entire body violently shifts and contorts until the "change" is complete (the effect of his face growing a snout is an image that'll awlays stay with me). Yet equally as impressive as this scene, and quite often overlooked, is the job Baker did on Griffin Dunne's “Dead Jack” character, who visits David several times from beyond the grave to warn him he's changing into a monster. Because he was killed by a werewolf, Jack must walk the earth as one of the undead until the last werewolf, in this case David, is destroyed. The first time David meets “Dead Jack” is when he's in the hospital, and Jack's appearance is truly horrifying. Though dead, he carries with him the scars inflicted by the werewolf: his face is torn to shreds on one side, and a large, gaping hole has taken the place of the left side of his neck (with only a few shards of dangling skin remaining). From that point on, whenever “Dead Jack” appears, he looks a little worse than the last time we saw him (when he visits David in Alex's apartment, he's turned green). Despite the humorous overtones present in each of Jack's appearances (when he first shows up in the hospital, Jack asks if he can have a piece of David's toast), he looks every bit as monstrous as the werewolf.

Rick Baker's tremendous work in An American Werewolf in London led to the first of his six Academy Awards for Make-up design, and it's thanks to him that this film became, and remains to this day, an awe-inspiring entry in the annals of cinematic history.








Tuesday, April 26, 2011

#263. The Funhouse (1981)


Directed By: Tobe Hooper

Starring: Elizabeth Berridge, Shawn Carson, Cooper Huckabee




Tag line: "Something is alive in the funhouse!"

Trivia:  Co-star Cooper Huckabee was a football star at Southern Mississippi University







If you're looking for a creepy, freaky setting for your horror film, you can't do much better than a roadside carnival. Like many Americans, I've visited a few over the years, and at each and every one, I found something to be afraid of (though, unlike the unfortunate characters in this film, my fears didn't extend much beyond that of contracting food poisoning at the snack stand). Based solely on its choice of locale, I had high hopes going into The Funhouse, and though there were a few hiccups along the way, I'd say it ultimately delivered the goods. 

Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) is going out on her first date with Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), and against her parents wishes, the two set off for a carnival that's just rolled into town. Double-dating with friends Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin), the quartet visit a fortune teller (Sylvia Miles), ride the amusements, and eat lots and lots of cotton candy. As closing time approaches, Buzz suggests that, as a prank, they all sneak into the funhouse and spend the night there. Once inside, the four settle down for what they hope will be a romantic evening, but when they inadvertently witness a murder, the friends find themselves hunted by a couple of carnies, including a monstrously deformed young man (Wayne Doba) with a knack for sneaking up on you when you least expect it. 

As a fan of old-time horror, I really loved the opening scene director Tobe Hooper concocted for The Funhouse. While getting ready for her date with Buzz, Amy climbs into the shower, and shortly after she does so, our attention shifts away from her to what's happening in the hallway, where a shadowy figure grabs a clown mask from off the wall. Our perspective next switches to the point of view of the mysterious stalker, giving us an eyeful of what he sees as he looks through this mask. The figure opens the bathroom door and slowly creeps forward, poising to strike at the unsuspecting Amy. The entire scene is an homage to both Halloween and Psycho, and I was very impressed at how well it was executed. Throw in the fact that, a few moments later, another character is watching 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein on television, and you have an opening sequence any true horror fan would go gaga over. 

Once the action switches to the carnival, however, The Funhouse becomes a bit more hit and miss, even a little boring at times. I did like the first 20 minutes or so, when the four were experiencing all the carnival had to offer. It's when they decide to stay in the funhouse that the story falls off the rail, so to speak, and I felt far too much time was devoted to both the first murder (not a particularly memorable kill scene) and it's immediate aftermath. But once the film's “Monster” removes his mask, revealing the impressive make-up work of Rick Baker, The Funhouse kicks into high gear, and stays there for the remainder of its running time. 

In the final round-up, I definitely enjoyed The Funhouse, and feel the positives far outweigh its weaknesses. If you haven't done so, spend an evening exploring The Funhouse. It may not be the best horror movie you'll ever see, but it's miles away from being the worst.








Monday, April 25, 2011

#262. Caddyshack (1980)


Directed By: Harold Ramis

Starring: Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Bill Murray



Tag line: "The Snobs Against The Slobs!"

Trivia:  Harold Ramis has stated that he originally wanted to score the film with Pink Floyd music, but this idea was rejected by the studio








Caddyshack is one of the most beloved comedies of my generation. Standing around the schoolyard at lunchtime, my friends and I would repeat line after line from this film, and even though we were considered too young for a movie as "raunchy" (by 1980 standards, anyway) as Caddyshack, we never let that stop us. Even if it meant stealing a few minutes with it late at night on cable TV, well after our parents were asleep, this was one movie we simply couldn't resist.

Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) works as a caddy at Bushwood, an exclusive Country Club catering to the rich and stuffy. In the hopes of winning Bushwood’s annual college scholarship, Danny (Michael O’Keefe) kisses up to the snobbish Judge Smails (Ted Knight), one of the founding directors of the club. Unfortunately for Danny, the Judge is a bit distracted these days. For starters, a gopher is tearing up Bushwood’s picturesque golf course, and assistant groundskeeper Carl Spackler (Bill Murray), in his attempt to destroy the furry little pest, is tearing the place apart. There's also an obnoxious newcomer to Bushwood named Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield), a self-made millionaire who can toss off insults at the rate of about a dozen per minute, who's turning the Judge’s leisure time into a living hell. Add to the mix a playboy golf pro (Chevy Chase) and the Judge’s sex-crazed niece (Cindy Morgan), and you have one hell of a situation.

Caddyshack boasts a number of memorable characters, starting with Chevy Chase's Ty Webb, the millionaire wise-ass with impressive golf skills. Ted Knight bellows and huffs as the arrogant Judge Smails, a man whose uptight attitude towards the rest of the Bushwood community is a never-ending source of hilarity. At one point, Danny is trying to get on the Judge’s good side, and laments the fact that his parents won't have the money to send him to college. “Well”, Judge Smails replies abruptly, “the world needs ditch diggers too”. Bill Murray shines in an early film role as Carl Spackler, the mentally deranged groundskeeper who's constantly being outwitted by a gopher. But the real showstopper in Caddyshack is longtime stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who rattles off one-liners so quickly that you can barely keep up with them. The first time we meet Al Czervik, he’s walking through the lobby of Bushwood with his Asian friend, Mr. Wang (Dr. Dow). “I hear this place is restricted, Wang”, he tells his companion, “so don’t tell them you’re Jewish, okay?” With his rapid-fire delivery and sharp tongue, Dangerfield never falls short of comedic brilliance, and in the final round up, it’s clearly Rodney who walks away with the majority of the film’s laughs.

There's an entire generation of us who grew up with Caddyshack, and love the film without reserve. We're easy enough to spot; just bring the movie up in conversation, and we'll soon be regaling you with all of its best lines. For us select few, the sight of a Baby Ruth candy bar floating in a pool will always be funny, and regardless of how many years fall off the calendar, Caddyshack will never, ever grow old.







Sunday, April 24, 2011

#261. Village of the Damned (1960)


Directed By: Wolf Rilla



Starring: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Martin Stephens



Tag line: "What Demonic Force Lurks Behind Those Eyes?"

Trivia:  Ronald Colman was originally supposed to star in this film, but he passed away in 1958.






Village of the Damned is only 75 minutes long, and I admit to being utterly amazed by this fact. Over the years, I've seen this film probably a half-dozen or so times, and I still can't believe how much the filmmakers were able to squeeze into such a relatively short running time.

It's an ordinary day in the small English village of Midwich, with one minor exception: each and every one of the townspeople has suddenly and mysteriously fallen into a deep, deep sleep. They awaken several hours later, slightly groggy but none the worse for wear. That is, until a month or so later when it's discovered that all of the town's women of child-bearing age are now pregnant. Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders), whose wife, Anthea (played by Barbara Shelley) is one of the pregnant women, teams up with the town's doctor (Laurence Naismith) and the military to try and solve this very strange mystery. However, before anyone can agree on what's causing the phenomenon, the women deliver their babies, all on the same day, and all sharing the exact same size and general appearance. As the children grow and mature at an alarmingly rapid rate, Zellaby and the others continue to search for answers as to why they were born, and why they all have such piercing, cold eyes.

Village of the Damned kicks off with an intriguing mystery when everybody in town falls asleep at the exact same moment. The opening minutes of the film are filled with chaotic scenes of cars that have run off the road, and tractors that continue to move forward with their drivers asleep at the wheel. There's even one house where a faucet has been left open, resulting in gallons of water spilling out onto the floor. The military, which was in the area on maneuvers, starts to investigate this strange occurrence, yet before they or anyone else can figure out what's happening, everybody wakes up, almost as suddenly as they fell asleep. The mystery that surrounds this film, which is always engaging, continues with the unexplained pregnancies, but once the babies are born, the time for questions is over. Each and every one of these youngsters proves to be super intelligent (when you teach one something, the others all learn it as well), a fact that, at first, is treated as little more than a curiosity. But when the children grow, their powers grow as well, and before long these kids are holding the entire town of Midwich hostage.

Village of the Damned is packed to the absolute breaking point with mysteries, thrills and chills, all squeezed into a very brisk, very breezy hour and fifteen minutes.






Saturday, April 23, 2011

#260. Demonlover (2002)


Directed By: Olivier Assayas

Starring: Connie Nielson, Gina Gershon, Chloë Sevigny





Trivia:  This movie was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival








If you blinked, you missed Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover, a film that slipped under the radar of pretty much the entire American movie-going public. Opening quietly in September of 2003, Demonlover pulled in a meager $231,000 in the U.S. before disappearing from the scene. To watch it is to realize how tragic this box-office tally truly is. Packed with thrills and plenty of sexual energy, Demonlover deserved much better.

Diane de Monx (Connie Nielson) is a corporate spy posing as an executive for a large French company, where she uses her position to gather secrets for the corporation’s chief competitor. Through conniving and espionage, she arranges the theft of some important documents from her immediate superior, Karen (Dominique Reymond), which detail the company’s plan to merge with a pornographic animation studio based in Japan. The documents are successfully intercepted, and with Karen out of the picture as a result, Diane is appointed the enviable task of heading up the merger talks. But when a seedy American firm also enters the negotiations, Diane finds she must go deeper than she ever imagined into the world of pornography, which includes a visit to an underground sadomasochistic society that, in the end, may just destroy her.

What makes Demonlover so intoxicating is its well-established correlation between business and sexuality, where takeovers are little more than the corporate equivalent of physical rape. When her files are stolen, Karen tells her assistant, Elise (Chloe Sevigny) that she feels as if she’s been physically violated. It’s a feeling others will share before this film is over, yet, from a business perspective, Demonlover adopts the stance that the end results justify any and all means used to obtain them. With pornography being such a huge cash generator, the corporate entity at the heart of the movie is ready to do whatever is necessary to get their piece of that multimillion-dollar pie. So, when Diane, having already experienced corporate backstabbing, deceit, and even murder, finally descends into the dark recesses of violent sexuality, the experience is little more than a natural extension of the world she already knows. As Demonlover sees it, money is the ultimate corporate gratification, and chief executives are little more than the pimps, prostitutes and rapists fighting to get their hands on it.

Demonlover hit me from out of the blue. Knowing so little about this film prior to seeing it, I was blindsided by both its engaging style and intensely dramatic story. While the vices of big business certainly aren’t new to the cinema, I’ve never experienced a reaction quite the same as I did to this movie. Demonlover is yet another of those discoveries that make being a film fan so rewarding.







Friday, April 22, 2011

#259. Ratcatcher (1999)


Directed By: Lynne Ramsay

Starring: Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews, William Eadie





Trivia:  For this movie, director Lynne Ramsay won the .Carl Foreman award at the BAFTAs, which is awarded to the "Best Newcomer" in British film







Director Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature, Ratcatcher is the story of James (William Eadie), a twelve-year-old boy from Glasgow whose brief life has already seen its share of problems. To start with, the streets of his neighborhood are littered with trash, the result of a garbage strike that’s crippling the entire city. His father (Tommy Flanagan) occasionally drinks too much, which usually leads to some unpleasant confrontations between the two, and the apartment complex his family lives in is located in the dirtiest part of town. To make matter worse, James has the added pressure of knowing he was personally responsible for the death of a friend.

That friend, a neighbor boy named Ryan (Thomas McTaggart), was also twelve years old, and the tragedy occurred as the two were playing on the banks of a dirty canal. While jostling back and forth with one another, James gives Ryan a little shove and Ryan falls into the canal...never to emerge. Scared and confused, James runs off, and doesn't tell anyone what's happened. Ryan’s lifeless body is eventually pulled from the canal, but when no witnesses come forward, James decides to keep silent about the whole affair. Alive and well, he will spend the next few weeks hanging out with older kids, falling in love with a fourteen-year-old named Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), and dreaming of the day he and his family will move out of the slums into a beautiful house in the suburbs.

Based on the above synopsis, you might assume that Ratcatcher is a real downer, a collection of grim events that play out against a backdrop of abject poverty. Yet for all its morose trappings, Ratcatcher is really about seeing the world through the eyes of a child. In one sequence, James, having already caused Ryan’s death, catches a bus that he takes to the end of the line, well beyond the Glasgow city limits. The last stop is right next to a suburban construction sight, where James explores the partially built houses, imagining all the while what it would be like to live in such a lovely place. From the window of one house, James can see an open field, a sight that, being a city dweller, is entirely new to him. He runs into this field and lies down, staring up at the sky, basking in the warm sunshine. At the tender age of twelve, James is already familiar with hardship and tragedy, yet they do not control him. Whenever life tries to drag him, kicking and screaming, into the adult world, James fights back by delving deeper into his own imagination, where nothing can destroy his innocence. Before long, even something as terrible as Ryan’s death will become water under the bridge.

Like Ramsay’s sophomore effort, Morvern Callar, Ratcatcher opens with a tragedy. Yet where Morvern Callar was a study of how misfortune changed one woman’s life forever, Ratcatcher is a tale of overcoming, of moving beyond reality to a place where dreams run wild.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

#258. Razorback (1984)


Directed By: Russell Mulcahy

Starring: Gregory Harrison, Arkie Whiteley, Bill Kerr




Tag line: "It Has Two States of Being...Dangerous Or Dead!"

Trivia:  A full-sized, fully animatronic Razorback model built for this film, at a cost of around $250,000, is seen in the film for exactly one second.







The opening moments of Razorback leave little doubt as to where its story is set. Deep in the Australian outback, the dust is kicking up as a storm approaches. There are shots of swings blowing in the wind and a rocking horse bouncing up and down, all set to the sound of a creaking windmill, the “creak” getting faster and more pronounced as the scene progresses. An old man smiles as he lays his young grandson down in his crib, but all the while he senses there's something lurking outside...something not human...something dangerous. He grabs his shotgun and steps out onto the porch.

And then it strikes!

Razorback is an insane, kick-ass movie about a humongous wild boar (a species referred to as a a “razorback” by the locals) who can tear an entire house apart just by running through it. At least that's what happens to the old man, whose name is Jake (Bill Kerr), and what's more, the creature also ran off with his grandson! When nobody believes his story about the monster Razorback, Jake is arrested and put on trial for kidnapping and murder. He's eventually acquitted due to a lack of evidence, but the damage has been done; Jake is a shattered man, and now, the only thing that gets him through the day is to hunt down and kill as many Razorbacks as he can find, all the while hoping to once again run into the creature that ruined his life.

Several years later, an American wildlife reporter named Beth Winters (Judy Morris) travels to the outback to do a piece on the mass slaughter of kangaroos. After running afoul of several locals, Beth has her own unfortunate encounter with the giant Razorback, and when she's reported missing by the authorities, her husband, Carl (Gregory Harrison), flies to Australia in an attempt to find her. With the help of Jake and his assistant, Sarah (Arkie Whiteley), Carl holds out hope that he'll yet find Beth alive, a hope that's all but shattered the moment the three discover that the giant Razorback has returned.

For a movie about a monster pig (OK...boar!), Razorback is a very stylish film; director Russell Mulcahy, regardless of whether its an action scene or simply two people chatting, always finds the most interesting place to set his camera. But the lifeblood of Razorback is its various attack scenes, which grow in intensity as the movie progresses. Beth Winters is on the road the night she's attacked.  Having just captured some damning footage of what really goes on inside a meat-packing plant, she's heading back to file her report when her car is chased down by two local goons (Chris Haywood and David Argue). After running her off the road, the two drag Beth from her front seat and attempt to rape her, but before they get a chance to do anything, the razorback attacks. The goons race off, leaving Beth to fend for herself. Bruised and weary, she climbs back into her car and shuts the door, only to have the razorback respond by ripping off one entire side of the car before it chomps down hard on her legs. We don't get a real good view of the creature in this scene; just a few quick glances through the car door window and the occasional fang popping into view. But rest assured...it'll be back!

Razorback is a wild, crazy film about wild, crazy people in a (yep, you guessed it) wild, crazy place. It's a heap of hell-raising fun, and if you like your monster movies teetering on the edge of insanity, don't waste another minute before checking out Razorback.








Wednesday, April 20, 2011

#257. Lost in La Mancha (2002)


Directed By: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe

Starring: Terry Gilliam, Jeff Bridges, Tony Grisoni




Tag line: "They've Got a Story...But Have Lost The Plot"

Trivia:  This film was never intended to be anything more than a :making-of" documentary.







I've always felt that, for a director, the film making process must be like a double edged sword, where vibrant creativity and unbridled ambition could be stifled at any moment by angry producers and ever-tightening budgets. With the documentary Lost in La Mancha, we watch a movie’s production fall apart in its earliest stages, and because the cameras were on-hand for every disaster that befell it, we’re left with a fascinating account of what ultimately brought the would-be film to its knees.

Lost in La Mancha was intended to serve as a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of a Terry Gilliam film titled The Man who Killed Don Quixote, which itself was based loosely on the classic tale of the eccentric Spanish knight Don Quixote, an aged warrior who fought windmills because he believed they were giants. Instead of a DVD extra feature, however, the documentary’s directors, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, captured the all-out collapse of the entire project. 


Things started badly for director Gilliam right out of the gate, when the European assistants he hired to find him a studio instead rented what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse (with poor acoustics). Then, once location shooting began, Gilliam was further frustrated to learn that the extras appearing in a key scene haven’t even been rehearsed. Shortly after this frustration, the rain started to fall, washing away equipment and water logging the entire production. the final nail in the coffin was the discovery that star Jean Rochefort, who was cast to play Don Quixote, was suffering from an incredibly painful prostate, a condition that made riding a horse nearly impossible. As the disasters mounted, the question of “whenThe Man who Killed Don Quixote would finally be completed quickly turned into an “if”.

Terry Gilliam is one of my favorite filmmakers. His movies, which have always boasted elaborate sets and outrageous costumes, usually possess a level of imagination rarely equaled in today’s cinema. In bringing his unique vision to the screen, Gilliam has gained the reputation of being a notoriously meticulous director, one who fights openly with studio heads when he feels he's in the right (His battles with producer Sidney Sheinberg over the final cut of 1984’s Brazil have become legendary). It’s because of my respect for both the man and his devotion to his craft that I view the events of Lost in La Mancha not so much a behind-the-scenes documentary as they are the chronicle of a true artistic tragedy.

Yet where the production of The Man who Killed Don Quixote was ultimately a failure, the documentary of its making, Lost in La Mancha, must be viewed as a rousing success. Even here, I would give at least some credit to Terry Gilliam, who gave the filmmakers full access not only to all of his meetings, but every shooting location as well. We watch as Gilliam wonders aloud why the film’s stars, Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp, are late in turning up, and witness first-hand the devastation that occurs when the drenching rains fall. We recognize the intense pain on the face of Jean Rochefort as he sits on the horse he must mount each and every day, and ultimately, we see Gilliam, tired and defeated, lamenting the fact that the film to which he has dedicated so much time and energy may never make it to the big screen.

Terry Gilliam will continue to make films, and knowing his track record, they will undoubtedly be as difficult to make as they are fantastic to behold. Perhaps one day, The Man who Killed Don Quixote will be one of them. What we are left with in its absence, however, is a wonderful documentary on the downfall of a movie’s production. 


Perhaps Lost in La Mancha will be the final word on Don Quixote. Like his main character, it’s quite possible that Gilliam himself was trying to conquer giants, but in the end was taken down by some pesky, damned windmills.








Tuesday, April 19, 2011

#256. Damien: Omen II (1978)



Directed By: Don Taylor

Starring: William Holden, Lee Grant, Jonathan Scott-Taylor



Tag line: "The First Time was only a Warning"

Trivia:  William Holden had turned down the part in THE OMEN that went to Gregory Peck, a move he regretted once that film became a hit.  This time out, he accepted quickly






Damien: Omen 2 continues the story of Damien Thorn, the young boy nearly murdered by his father because he believed his son was the Antichrist. Seven years have passed since that tragic turn of events, and Damien (now played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is living in Chicago with his uncle, Richard Thorn (William Holden), his aunt Ann (Lee Grant) and cousin, Mark (Lucas Donat). The family resides on a vast estate, and during the week Damien and Mark are fellow cadets at a military academy. They're a close-knit family who love each other very much, and Damien is very, very happy.

Yet there are some who sense evil in Damien. Aunt Marion (Sylvia Sidney) is cold towards the boy, and, though her will stipulates Richard stands to inherit her vast fortune, she threatens to leave it all to charity unless Richard pulls the boys out of the academy and split them up. Then there's Joan Hart (Elizabeth Shepherd), a colleague of Keith Jennings' (the photographer from the first film played by David Warner, who had a nasty run-in with a pane of glass). She, too, tries to convince Richard Thorn that his nephew is not what he appears to be. Yet the Thorns will have none of it. They love Damien as if he were their own, and refuse to believe any of the wild stories about his so-called "sinister qualities". They are determined to live a normal life with Damien, and to love and care for him the rest of their days. All that changes, however, the moment Damien himself discovers his true nature, thus unleashing a new evil on the world, one that threatens not only the Thorn's happy existence, but mankind's as well.

Damien: Omen 2 proves a solid sequel to the first film in that it continues to develop the character of Damien Thorn, who at the start of the movie has absolutely no idea he's the spawn of Satan. There are pleasant scenes of snowball fights and birthday parties on the Thorn estate, all of which work towards building a connection between the audience and Damien. When Aunt Marion tries to drive a wedge between Damien and his adoptive parents, we find ourselves siding with Richard and Ann, who have come to the conclusion that the old girl has lost her mind. Of course, we know she hasn't; in fact, she's 100% correct in her suspicions, yet that doesn't mean we have to like it, or even her, for that matter. Damien: Omen 2 allows us to get up close and personal with a monster, and because it so successfully conveys the love and affection these characters feel for one another, we don't mind a single bit.

Damien: Omen 2 is much more character driven than the original film. There aren't as many scares in this chapter as in the first film, and even the kill scenes (with the exceptions of a roadside attack by a demonic raven and a pretty gruesome death in an elevator) don't measure up to the original. If you're looking for thrills and chills, then odds are you'll be disappointed with Damien: Omen 2. But if you're at all interested in seeing how a young boy, one who has, for the past seven years, led a completely normal life, will react to the news that he's the embodiment of evil on earth, then this is the movie for you.








Monday, April 18, 2011

#255. Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2003)


Directed By: Peter Weir

Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd





Tag line: "The Courage To Do The Impossible Lies In The Hearts Of Men"

Trivia:  Director Weir shot footage of an actual typhoon to be used in this movie






Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a throwback to a time when epic films were intelligent, characters were interesting, and a filmmaker’s imagination could take you places you never anticipated. 

The year is 1805, and the war between Napoleon’s France and the British Empire rages on. Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), the commander of the HMS Surprise, has been ordered to pursue the French ship Acheron, which has been disrupting the British whaling industry. Knowing full well that the Acheron is faster, stronger and more agile that his ship, Aubrey nonetheless accepts the assignment and sets sail for the enemy ship’s last known position. But it's the Acheron that strikes first, catching the Surprise, as well as its Captain, completely off-guard. With his vessel heavily damaged, and against the advice of ship’s doctor (and Aubrey’s best friend) Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), Aubrey orders his crew to give chase to the Acheron, following it all the way to the South Seas. Hoping to live up to his nickname of “Lucky Jack”, Aubrey is determined to complete his mission and bring honor to his gallant crew, regardless of the costs. 

Everything about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, from the performances to its detailed recreation of the time period, is exceptional. Russell Crowe is inspired in his portrayal of “Lucky Jack” Aubrey, exuding strength, courage, and just the right hint of uncontrollable ego to make this character believable. As Dr. Maturin, Paul Bettany is also superb. His Doctor is a cynical character, one who fails to see the point in honor if it means risking life and limb in a hopeless cause. Keeping his eye on Jack Aubrey every step of the way, Dr. Maturin is the perfect foil, and perfect friend, for the brave and illustrious Captain. 

Of course, these two fine performances would have been for naught if the scenes at sea weren’t realistically portrayed, Director Peter Wier and his crew spent a great deal of time and energy recreating this period of British history, and their efforts paid off (when commenting on the cannons that were designed for both the Surprise and Acheron, 18th century weaponry expert Martin Bribbings stated that, “no one in film has ever made weapons to this degree of accuracy.”) 

Much like the brave men of the Surprise, who band together in an effort to carry out their mission, every aspect of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World comes together perfectly, resulting in a movie that is as technically stunning as it is immensely entertaining.










Sunday, April 17, 2011

#254. Encounter With the Unknown (1973)


Directed By: Harry Thomason

Starring: Rod Serling, Robert Ginnaven, Gary Brockette




Tag line: "An Incredible Journey Into the Supernatural"

Trivia:  All three of the stories related in this movie are supposedly based on actual events







There's one memory I have that stretches back to when I was a little kid. I was sitting in the front room of our house with my parents, who at the time were watching a movie on TV. While most of it was a blur, there was one scene from that movie that etched itself onto my brain; a woman, standing by the grave of her son, putting a curse on the three teens who were responsible for his death. It was a pretty intense thing for a six-year-old to digest, and I would think about it every so often since that time. There was even a brief period in the 80's when I tried to seek out the name of the film (being pre-internet, my search was, of course, doomed to failure). Imagine my surprise as I sat watching Encounter With The Unknown when this very same scene popped up out of the blue! I couldn't believe it. I had to call my kids over, and told them the whole story as I replayed the scene for them. It must be 35 years since I first saw it, and just like that, a mystery that's been scratching at the back of my head for damn near my entire life has been solved. In the scheme of things, I guess it's not exactly “Ripley's Believe It Or Not” material, but, on a personal level, it's a pretty incredible find. 

Narrated by Rod Serling, Encounter With The Unknown relates three separate tales of the supernatural, all of which are supposedly true. In the first, three college students (Gary Brockette, John Leslie and Tom Haywood) are attending the funeral of a classmate whose death was the direct result of a practical joke they played on him. At the conclusion of the funeral, the dead boy's mother (Fran Franklin) places a curse on the three, telling them they, too, will meet with violent ends, all to occur exactly seven days apart from one another. The friends think nothing of it until seven days later, when one is struck and killed by a speeding car. Next, we travel to Missouri in the year 1906, where a young boy (Kevin Bieberly) is searching for his lost dog. While out looking, the boy comes across a mysterious hole in the ground, one that's emitting a very strange noise. The boy's father (Robert Holton) alerts the sheriff (Bob Glenn), who, accompanied by a group of men from town, sets out to investigate. In the third and final story, a Senator (Michael Harvey) and his wife (Judith Fields) are on their way to dinner when they encounter a young girl (Rosie Holotik) standing in the middle of the road. She appears to be lost, and the Senator offers to give her her a lift home. But there's more to this girl's story than the unsuspecting couple could ever have imagined. 

Encounter With The Unknown is very similar in its look and feel to another low-budget horror film that's allegedly based on a “true” story, 1972's The Legend of Boggy Creek. Released a year before this film, The Legend of Boggy Creek was a huge hit on the drive-in circuit, and it's safe to say the makers of Encounter With The Unknown were likewise hoping for a big payoff. But while Encounter With The Unknown matches The Legend of Boggy Creek in many respects (low-grade film stock, amateur performers, etc.), it lacks the down-home appeal of its predecessor, which probably has something to do with the way each film approached its story (or stories). Where The Legend of Boggy Creek was presented as a documentary, Encounter With The Unknown adapted a straight-forward, narrative approach, one I feel hurt it in the end (for example, several of the performers in this movie seem uncomfortable in front of the camera, something much easier to overlook if the film was a documentary). 

Encounter With The Unknown also makes a fatal error by offering its audience an ending summation (NOT narrated by Rod Serling), in which it attempts to 'explain' what had previously been presented as unexplainable. This entire segment, which talks of witchcraft and the power of suggestion as possible causes for the phenomenons presented in the film, was entirely unnecessary, and the so-called "solutions" it puts forward, which may or may not have been compelling in the early 70's, are today laughably outdated. 

I can understand why this film stuck with me as a child, but even the draw of nostalgia isn't strong enough to make me watch Encounter With The Unknown over and over again. Silly and obsolete, I would recommend this film only to die-hard fans of low budget 70's fare. All others will probably want to steer clear.








Saturday, April 16, 2011

#253. East of Eden (1955)


Directed By: Elia Kazan

Starring: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris



Tag line: "The Searing Classic of Paradise Lost!"

Trivia:  James Dean and Paul Newman screen tested together for the roles of the siblings in this film.  Only Dean was cast.








One of the first film-related books I ever bought was titled “Rating the Movie Stars”, published by the editors of Consumer Guide in 1983. In a nutshell, this book reviewed the careers of hundreds of Hollywood personalities by assigning star ratings, ranging fro zero to four, to each of their performances, then totaling them up to get an overall average. I agreed with some of their scores (James Cagney’s overall rating of 3.51 ranked him among the top 25 performers of all-time), disagreed with others (Marlon Brando, one of my favorite actors, received a paltry 2.55). Amazingly, there were three who scored a perfect 4.0. The first was Eddie Murphy, who, at the time the book was published, had made only two films, 48 Hrs and Trading Places. The same can be said for the second perfect performer, Ben Kinglsey, who by 1983 had appeared in Gandhi and Betrayal. The third to achieve perfection was James Dean, whose tragic death in 1955 at the age of 24 assured he would never appear in more than three. East of Eden was his first. 

California farmer Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) has two sons: Aron (Richard Davalos) and Cal (James Dean). Aron is obedient, and does everything in his power to ease his father’s burdens, whereas Cal seems to find nothing but trouble everywhere he goes. There are those who see goodness in Cal, including the town's sheriff (Burl Ives) and Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris), but, knowing his second son’s history, Adam is reluctant to trust Cal. Feeling he may never measure up to his brother, Cal drifts through life as a loner, and along the way makes a startling discovery that, if revealed, will shake his family to its very foundation. 

To see his performance in East of Eden is to know why James Dean is still considered a master of the craft. As the story opens, Dean’s Cal is quietly following a woman named Kate (Jo Van Fleet) through the streets of Monterrey. We will eventually learn that Cal believes Kate, who manages a local brothel, is really his mother, a woman his father claimed died when he and Aron were babies. After Kate disappears into a house, Cal continues to hang around outside, practicing to himself what he would say to her should he ever get the chance. Wanting to approach her, yet unsure how to do so, the pressure soon becomes too much for the young man to bear. Angry and confused, Cal picks up a rock and throws it at the house, breaking a window. Considered the ‘bad son’ by his father, Cal can't help but wonder if his mother might hold the secret as to why he acts as he does. Both wanting to know the truth and fearing the answer, the turmoil in Cal’s soul runs deep, and Dean never once falters in bringing this conflict to the surface. 

Over the years, James Dean’s legacy has risen to a level befitting an American icon. With such a short yet explosive career in films (along with East of Eden, he appeared in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and George Steven’s Giant), Dean’s death has led to decades of questions. Would a performance in a 4th film have been as powerful as his first three? How about his 10th film? His 20th? Obviously, these are questions that can never be answered. Yet with the brilliance he did manage to leave behind, I feel it's less fitting to pose such questions than it is to mourn the fact we will never know.



THE ATTACHED VIDEO IS A B&W SCREEN TEST FOR EAST OF EDEN WITH JAMES DEAN AND PAUL NEWMAN.  CLIPS FROM THE FILM ARE NOT AVAILABLE TO POST.





Friday, April 15, 2011

#252. The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)


Directed By: Michael Pressman

Starring: Claudia Jennings, Jocelyn Jones, Tara Strohmeier




Tag line: "They'll Steal Your Heart...and Rob Your Bank!"

Trivia:  The film was also released under the alternate title DYNAMITE WOMEN







From the title alone, you know The Great Texas Dynamite Chase is going to be a movie you can't take seriously. The story of two beautiful women who rob banks using only a stick of dynamite, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase abandons common sense in favor of good, old-fashioned fun, and on that level it does not disappoint.

Candy Morgan (Claudia Jennings) has just escaped from prison, and the first thing she does as a free woman is... rob a bank! Hoping to get enough money to save her family's farm, Candy storms into a small-town bank wielding only a lit stick of dynamite and demands that they turn over all their money. Fortunately for her, teller Ellie-Jo Turner (Jocelyn Jones) had just been fired for turning up late for work, and is only too happy to help Candy rip off her former place of employment. This kicks off a partnership that will see the two beauties steal thousands of dollars from dozens of banks, thus getting the attention of every law enforcement official in the state of Texas.

Early on, you realize exactly what kind of movie The Great Texas Dynamite Chase is going to be; namely a fast-paced comedy that asks you to check your brain at the door. After Candy robs that first bank, she rushes home to turn the money over to her father (Tom Rosqui), so he can pay off the mortgage (which, we assume, he's fallen severely behind on). He asks her where she got the money, and Candy has no qualms whatsoever about telling her father the truth. Far from criticizing his daughter (again, remember...she JUST ESCAPED FROM PRISON), the old man betrays a smile curling up on his lips, and says “I never wanted you to do a thing like this, but in a crazy way I'm proud. I know your ma would have been proud, too”. But the real fun kicks in when Candy teams up with Ellie Jo. After their first attempt at robbing a bank as a duo fails (thanks to some faulty dynamite), the two are chased by the police. Following a high-speed pursuit, and thanks to Candy's fancy driving, they escape, but just when it looks like they're in the clear, a cop car appears out of nowhere and orders them to pull over. So, the two girls up the ante a bit by tossing a stick of dynamite out the window, which lands inside the police car. I don't have to tell you what happens after that, do I?

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase features good-looking women (who aren't shy about taking their clothes off), car chases, and plenty of explosions. So what if it doesn't offer much more besides? It doesn't have to. The Great Texas Dynamite Chase won't stay with you long after you see it, but it's a blast (pun intended) while it lasts!













Thursday, April 14, 2011

#251. I Drink Your Blood (1970)


Directed By: David E. Durston


Starring: Bjaskar Roy Chowdhury, Jadin Wong, Rhonda Fultz





Trivia:  This film has yet to receive a UK certificate, and was rated X by the MPAA







Our introduction to the world of I Drink Your Blood is by way of a Satanic ritual, and let me tell you, as rituals go, this is a strange one. In the middle of the woods, a long-haired, naked hippie named Horace (Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury) is preaching to his disciples (also naked) about the power of Satan. He passes around a chalice that's been laced with LSD (“Let it be known”, he says, “that Satan was an acid-head”), and has everyone drink from it. A chicken's throat is cut (definitely NOT special effects...that sucker's head is damn near severed), and the blood drips all over the body of another naked follower, who's been tied to the ground. Just then, Horace spots a young girl (Iris Brooks) spying on them through the trees, and orders her stripped and beaten.  The poor girl, whose name is Sylvia, barely escapes with her life.

From that point on, things get downright crazy!

When their van breaks down, the cult members, eight in all, find themselves stranded in a small, nearly-deserted town. Looking for shelter, Horace and the others ask Mildred Nash (Elizabeth Marner Brooks), who runs the local bakery, where they might find a hotel.  When she tells them the only one in town's been closed for months, the eight, hoping to take advantage of the isolation, break into the abandoned building and take up "temporary residence" there. What they don't know is Sylvia, the girl they assaulted the night before, lives in this town, and her grandfather (Richard Bowler) has decided to exact a little revenge on Horace and his followers. But when the cult members beat and drug the old man, his grandson, Pete (Riley Mills), Sylvia's little brother, takes matters into his own hands. Having just shot and killed a rabid dog, Pete draws blood from the animal's carcass and injects it into some of Mildred Nash's freshly-baked meat pies, which he then gives to the Satanists. Unfortunately, Pete's plan to infect them with the deadly disease works a little too well, and it isn't long before an outbreak of rabies has engulfed the entire town.

One of the things I enjoy most about extreme movies like I Drink Your Blood is seeing how far the filmmakers are willing to push the envelope; exactly how crazy will they let things get? In the case of I Drink Your Blood, it looks as if the sky was the limit. Shortly after “moving in” to the old hotel, the eight Satanists partake in a rat hunt, to see which of them can find and kill the most rats. Once they've gathered up enough of the furry little creatures, they move the party outside, where the rats are cooked, shish kebab style, over an open flame. Naturally, things get much worse after they've been infected with rabies. Rollo (George Patterson) is the first of the group to lose his mind, stabbing fellow Satanist Shelley (Alex Mann) ten times with a butcher's knife before cutting off part of Shelley's leg with an ax.


And if you think that's bad, just wait 'til you see what the pregnant girl does with the wooden stake!

I Drink Your Blood was one of the first films to receive an X rating from the MPAA for violence, and it earned every bit of it. But don't let this frighten you off; I Drink Your Blood may be a nasty little film, but it's also a fascinating one, and I can guarantee you'll never be bored watching it.











Wednesday, April 13, 2011

#250. Far From Heaven (2002)


Directed By: Todd Haynes

Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert



Tag line: "It's Time To Stop Hiding From The Truth"

Trivia:  Julianne Moore was pregnant throughout the filming of this movie.








Far From Heaven derives its look and feel from the movies of director Douglas Sirk, considered by many to be the master of Hollywood melodrama in the 1950’s. With Far From Heaven, director Todd Haynes wanted to match both the mood and style of a Sirk film while at the same time updating the story for a more modern audience. Where Sirk concerned himself with social issues prevalent to the 1950’s (romance across societal classes, alcoholism, racial prejudice), Far From Heaven delves into closeted homosexuality and inter-racial relationships, topics Sirk could never have tackled in his day.

The story takes place in the 1950's. Kathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), are an upper-middle class couple with two small children who live in a beautiful, New England suburb. By all appearances, they're the perfect family, but Haynes, like Sirk before him, wastes little time in pointing out that appearances can be deceiving. One night, Kathy decides to surprise Frank, who’s working late, by driving his dinner down to him. As Kathy opens the door to Frank’s office, she finds him in the arms of another man. Horrified, Kathy runs from the building, and when Frank returns home later that night, the two agree that he must seek counseling for his ‘illness’ (Far From Heaven treats homosexuality exactly as it would have been treated in the 1950’s – as a disease).

In conjuncture with Frank's homosexuality, Far From Heaven also focuses on the relationship that develops between Kathy and the family's African American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Despite the societal “norms” of the time, which frowned upon the “mixture” of races, Kathy and Raymond find that they genuinely enjoy each others company, and go out of their way to spend time together. While attending a modern art show one afternoon, Kathy spots Raymond among the patrons, and the two decide to walk together, sharing their opinions of the artwork on display. It's all very innocent, yet their interaction causes discomfort among the other art patrons, who quietly object to this inter-racial friendship. Kathy’s neighbor and best friend, Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson), tries to warn Kathy that she’s causing a scandal, but Kathy simply shrugs it off. Unfortunately, she will learn the hard way that even an innocent friendship can have far-reaching effects on her standing in the community.

Matching Douglas Sirk’s expressionistic style was no easy task, yet Haynes and his crew went to great lengths to do just that. The vibrant colors of Far From Heaven are very similar to those employed by Sirk, and the film’s various set pieces are noticeably artificial, thus tearing down the “illusion” of reality in this stoic, cold society. The camera movements are also very expressionistic; as Kathy runs from the building after discovering Frank with a man, the camera follows her, shooting from above yet tilted at strong angles, as if to convey Kathy’s ‘perfect’ world has just been thrown into chaos.

I’m a huge fan of Douglas Sirk, and I consider his 1955 classic, All That Heaven Allows, to be one of the greatest films ever made. Sirk’s pacing and technique were perfectly matched to his subject matter, telling stories that dealt mostly with the suppression of freedom within the jaded society of 1950’s America. With Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes continues along this same theme, and does so in a way that would have surely made the old master smile.









Tuesday, April 12, 2011

#249. 30 Days of Night (2007)


Directed By: David Slade


Starring: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster





Tag line: "They're Coming!"


Trivia:  Sam Raimi was originally going to direct this film, but decided to produce it instead.





I admit I was intrigued when I first heard the premise for 30 Days of Night. Based on a series of graphic novels published in 2002, 30 Days of Night tells the story of an Alaskan town besieged by a band of vampires just as the sun goes down. Unfortunately, being so far north and in the middle of winter, this particular town won't see the sun rise again for another 30 days, giving their new visitors plenty of time to drain the blood from every man, woman and child they come across. As I said, it's an intriguing premise, and in the hands of director David Slade, what was a solid idea for a comic book transforms into an exceptionally entertaining horror film.

Barrow, a small town situated near the Arctic circle, is preparing for its annual “30 Days of Night”, during which time the sun will disappear from the sky for a solid month. Many who are unable to handle the prolonged darkness will leave town before sunset, but this year, those who remain behind have more to contend with than a longing for the sun. Once darkness descends on Barrow, so does a band of ancient vampires, intent on feasting upon anyone they encounter. The leader of the vampires (Danny Huston) instructs his followers to kill everybody, but Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the sheriff of Barrow, has other plans. With the help of his estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George), Eben leads a small band of survivors to an attic in an isolated house, where they hope to remain hidden until the sun returns again in 30 days.

The feeling of isolation that director Slade introduces early on in 30 Days of Night is unsettling, to say the least (at one point, we're given a birds-eye view of Barrow, where we see for ourselves the nothingness surrounding it on all sides), yet it pales in comparison to the sheer terror generated by the vampires themselves. These creatures are a far cry from the regal Count created by Bela Lugosi for 1931's Dracula. Unable to talk, the vampires in 30 Days of Night shriek instead, and take great pleasure not only in drinking blood, but spilling it as violently as possible. In an early scene, three pipeline workers (Amber Sainsbury, Jared Turner and Kelson Henderson) have just finished their shift, and are trying to decide whose house to go back to for the evening. Before they can make up their minds, one is snatched away into the darkness, and as the other two are trying to figure out what happened, their friend's body drops out of the sky, his neck sliced completely open. The leader of the vampires, played wonderfully by the oft-underrated Danny Huston, does speak, but in an archaic language, leading us to believe these monsters have been around for a very, very long time. Even still, they're giddy with excitement over the smorgasbord about to be served up in Barrow, which is surely more impressive than any they've encountered before. “We should have come here ages ago”, the lead vampire says to his minions, and from the smiles on their faces it's obvious they agree with him.

This line is about as close to a humorous moment as you're going to find in 30 Days of Night. There are no facetious asides or witty one-liners like those you find in many modern horror movies, nothing at all thrown in to relieve the audience's tension. From star to finish, 30 Days of Night is a bleak film, loaded with lots of darkness, lots of blood, and a hell of a lot of screams.









Monday, April 11, 2011

#248. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)


Directed By: John Carpenter

Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Josten, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West



Tag line: "L.A.'s Deadliest Street Gang Just Declared War on the Cops"


Trivia:  Co-star Darwin Josten was director Carpenter's next-door neighbor at the time this film was shot







Some have called it an homage to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, while others have cited the obvious influences of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Whatever its initial inspirations may have been, however, one thing is now certain: John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 stands on its own; a masterwork of action with a power to shock and entertain that's just as strong today as when it was first released. 

Division 13 of Los Angeles’ 9th precinct is being phased out of existence. Most of the cops have moved on to other precincts, and only a token few, under the command of new Chief Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), remain behind to hold down the fort. But division 13 isn’t about to go quietly into the night. For starters, the nearly abandoned precinct finds itself the unwitting host to ruthless murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), whose trip to Death Row has been temporarily diverted to their holding cell.  Then, shortly after this turn of events, a man stumbles through the precinct doors, looking for refuge. The man is Lawson (Martin Wells), whose daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) was just killed in a gang shooting. In a fit of rage, Lawson himself killed one of the gang members (Frank Doubleday), and, as a result, was chased by the rest of them into the poorly-defended precinct. Having also vowed revenge against the police for an earlier shooting, the heavily armed gang, which goes by the name of Street Thunder, assembles just outside division 13 in the hopes of settling all their scores in one night. Now, with no electricity, no phones, and very few weapons at their disposal, Ethan Bishop must join forces with some of the most hardened criminals ever to occupy division 13 if he’s to have any chance at all of surviving the night. 

The performances in Assault on Precinct 13 range from good to merely competent, but no matter: the real star of the movie is John Carpenter, whose talents are given a full workout. Functioning as writer, director, editor (a task he performed under the pseudonym John T. Chance) and even composer, Carpenter flexes each and every one of his creative muscles, all to wonderful effect. The dialogue, especially that of killer Napoleon Wilson, is sharp and to the point, with Carpenter showing an early penchant for giving the bad-asses all the great lines (when asked why he killed, Wilson answers, “The first time I ever saw a preacher, he said ‘Son, there’s something strange about you. You got something to do with death’. Being real young, I believed him”). When not impressing us with his dialogue, Carpenter lets his brooding score do the talking, which always sets the perfect tone (light and observant when Ethan Bishop first walks into precinct 13; sharp and powerful when the gang members set out to exact their revenge). 

Then, of course, there’s the action, and before we’re introduced to a single character, we witness a shoot-out in which some of the members of Street Thunder are ambushed by the police. This is immediately followed by the disturbing, brutal murder of young Kathy, whose only crime was she wanted to buy ice cream in a bad part of town. With these two exciting scenes as a starting point, the stage is set for what will prove to be an electrifying motion picture. 

Assault on Precinct 13 was made on a nearly invisible budget (it was produced by J. Stein Kaplan and Joseph Kaufman, two friends of Carpenter’s who financed the film with money borrowed from their fathers), yet Carpenter took full advantage of everything at his disposal, assembling a film as skillfully constructed as it is thrilling to behold.