Friday, September 30, 2011

#420. The Vikings (1958)


Directed By: Richard Fleischer

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine



Tag line: "Mightiest Of Men... Mightiest Of Spectacles... Mightiest Of Motion Pictures!"

Trivia:  Ernest Borgnine plays the father of Kirk Douglas. In real life Borgnine is one and a half months younger than Douglas.







Despite the fact he was a month younger than him, Ernest Borgnine played Kirk Douglas' father in Richard Fleischer’s 1958 action epic, The Vikings. Yet as unusual as this sounds, it proved a stroke of casting genius. Borgnine is entirely convincing in the role of Viking Chieftain Ragnar, swaggering through The Vikings with both a marauder’s stature and a penchant for bloodshed, traits he shares with just about every other character in this film. 

Set in the Dark Ages, when raiders from the North were terrorizing all of Europe, The Vikings weaves a tale of two men who have more in common than they know. Einar (Kirk Douglas), a Viking prince, has captured Morgana (Janet Leigh), a Welsh Princess betrothed to be married to the English King, Aella (Frank Thring). Over time, Einar himself falls in love with Morgana, and makes his own plans to marry her. But she, in turn, has fallen in love with Eric (Tony Curtis), a hot-blooded slave who has made an enemy of Einar, insulting the Prince on several occasions. What neither Eric nor Einar realize is that they're half-brothers, each a son of the Viking chieftain Ragnar (Borgnine). Driven by their mutual love for Morgana and a deep hatred for one another, Eric and Einar prepare for their inevitable showdown, and to the victor will go the spoils. 

The ultimate goal of director Fleischer and star Kirk Douglas (who also served as the film’s producer) was to make The Vikings as realistic a motion picture as possible. Portions of the movie were shot on location in the Fjords of Norway, and Fleischer spent a considerable amount of time at a Viking museum in Oslo, researching, among other things, the design of the magnificent ships that appear throughout the film. But this realism would extend beyond mere settings and props, influencing the movie's characters as well. As Einar, Kirk Douglas is splendidly arrogant and physically intimidating, a Viking warrior in every respect; drinking heavily, carousing with women, and living for the thrill of battle. It is Einar who leads the expedition to capture Morgana, and upon boarding her ship, shows no mercy whatsoever, slaughtering the Princess’s escorts in quick and brutal fashion. Once triumphant, Einar brags that he’s decided to keep Morgana as his own, ignoring his father’s wishes that a ransom be demanded from the English King for her safe return. 

The role of Einar was certainly not a glamorous one, nor was it very sympathetic, yet Douglas delivers a performance that is bursting with gusto and personality. This, coupled with the movie’s painstakingly accurate portrayal of a Viking society, succeeds in carrying us back to the Dark Ages, which, if The Vikings is to be believed, was a truly dreadful time in mankind's history.







Thursday, September 29, 2011

#419. Lake Mungo (2008)


Directed By: Joel Anderson

Starring: Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe




Tag line: "If you've never seen a ghost... Look closer"









Presented as if it were a documentary, Lake Mungo tells the tragic story of Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker), a vibrant 16-year-old who mysteriously disappears one afternoon during a family outing. After several days of not knowing what happened to their daughter, Russell ( David Pledger) and June Palmer (Rosie Traynor) receive the distressing news that Alice's body was discovered at the bottom of a lake, where she apparently drowned. But her story doesn't end there. Over the course of the next several weeks, the Palmer family, which also includes a teenage son named Matthew (Martin Sharpe), start to question whether or not Alice is truly dead. A picture taken very near the area where her body was discovered seems to contain an image of Alice, and the family itself believes they've encountered her a number of times within the family home. But is Alice truly alive, or is it simply her spirit reaching out for help?

Within it's plethora of interviews and still photographs, Writer / Director Joel Anderson has crafted Lake Mungo into a motion picture that fits neatly into the horror genre, yet contains all the best elements of a family drama as well. From the hidden camera footage of what appears to be Alice's spirit roaming the halls of the Palmer house, there springs a mystery, one that initially presents more questions than it can answer. It's through their search for evidence of the supernatural that the Palmers slowly uncover details of their daughter's troubled life, revealing a young girl with a good many secrets, some of which may even help to explain her death. Each new twist in Alice's story adds another level to the enigma surrounding her, and her family is left to cope with not only the loss of a child, but one who might ultimately have been a stranger to them. 

The tale of Alice Palmer is full of twists and turns, most of which lead down some very dark roads. The Palmers, who must brave this darkness if they're to have any hope at all of piecing together their daughter's life, must also deal with the fact that these troubling avenues they now explore together are the same ones Alice traversed alone. It's very possible her spirit continues to visit them, all the while looking for a resolution she will never find. Hitting its mark continuously, Lake Mungo is a horror film that will unnerve you on many different levels.








Wednesday, September 28, 2011

#418. Sexy Battle Girls (1986)


Directed By: Mototsugu Watanabe

Starring: Saeko Fuji, Kyôko Hashimoto, Yukijirô Hotaru




Trivia:  This film was banned in Germany










Produced primarily over a 20-year period, from the mid 1960's to the 80's, Japanese Pink films were a genre unto themselves. Soft-core, yet undoubtedly erotic, these movies placed nudity and sex center-stage, often shrouded within bizarre, violent stories. I myself have very little experience with Pink films, but after watching 1986's Sexy Battle Girls, I plan to change all that. 

Young Mirai (Kyoko Hashimoto) has just transferred to a private all-girl’s school, one that instructs its students in much more than reading, writing and arithmetic.  Under the watchful eye of the headmaster (Yukijiro Hutaru), the girls in this school are being "sold" to local politicians, who use them to act out their most depraved sexual fantasies. More than a perverted criminal, the Headmaster is also the very man who tore Mirai's family apart.  To gain her revenge, Mirai will unleash her “special power” and teach the headmaster a lesson he won't soon forget. 

There's action aplenty jammed into Sexy Battle Girls' one-hour running time, but more to the point, there are no less than seven sex scenes, some of which evolve beyond simple soft core into more graphic, not to mention violent, displays of affection. The opening scene of Sexy Battle Girls has our heroine, Mirai, making love to Matt (Misaki Watanabe), one of the teachers from her old school. When their foreplay is taken to the next level, Mirai, through no fault of her own, mistakenly unleashes her “special ability” (one I think you'll be able to figure out from its name alone: The “Venus Crush”). When she returns home, her father (Yutaka Ikejima), the man who trained her since she was a child, chastises his daughter for having sex with an innocent man (“Doesn't he realize how dangerous your vagina is?”, he blurts out). Taught to master the “Venus Crush” from birth, Mirai's body is no longer her own; it is a weapon, one she will use to avenge the wrongs done to her family. The scene ends with Mirai once again testing her “special ability”, to ensure she hasn't damaged herself during the encounter with Matt. Turns out she's just as lethal as ever, which is obvious the moment she slices an apple into several pieces just by clenching her thighs. 

A film as provocative as it is strange, Sexy Battle Girls proved a wild introduction to the world of Japanese Pink, a world I will most definitely be revisiting in the very near future.











BUY THIS MOVIE AT PINK EIGA

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

#417. Christine (1983)


Directed By: John Carpenter

Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul



Tag line: "Body by Plymouth. Soul by Satan"

Trivia:  Scott Baio was considered to play Arnie Cunningham and Brooke Shields was considered for Leigh Cabot







No matter how evil or demonic they may be, cars just don't scare me. Bottom line: their motion is far too limited. Being chased by a car? Here's an idea: jump off the road, or climb a tree. In every film I've ever seen where someone's running from a killer car (or a killer driving a car), the intended victims could have easily saved themselves by leaping left or right, as opposed to sprinting down the middle of the street. Fortunately John Carpenter's, Christine offers more than a monster on four wheels, and many of the movie's thrills come courtesy of its lead character, Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon). A confused teen who falls under the spell of a classic automobile, Arnie's transformation from geek to psychotic proves more intense than any high-speed pursuit could ever be. 

You see, Arnie has recently met the love of his life: a red 1958 Plymouth Fury, nicknamed Christine by its previous owner. Almost immediately after purchasing Christine, Arnie's personality starts to change. Gone is the kid who allowed himself to be bullied at school and pushed around by his parents. Now that Christine's entered the picture, Arnie's the one calling the shots. Confident to the point of cockiness, he even works up the courage to ask Leigh (Alexandra Paul), the most beautiful girl in school, out on a date. His best friend, Dennis (John Stockwell), is concerned about the sudden changes in Arnie's behavior, and senses Christine is somehow responsible for it all. Delving into the vehicle's history, Dennis learns that Christine shared a similar connection with her previous owner, one that ended in tragedy. But Arnie refuses to listen. With Christine, his life has improved tenfold, and he won't allow his friends, or even a few mysterious deaths, to stand in the way of their "relationship". 

As evil cars go, Christine is a doozy, getting down to business before she's even rolled off the assembly line (slamming her hood down on the hand of a quality control inspector, then finishing off another employee who had the audacity to flick his cigar ash onto her new upholstery). To his credit, Carpenter does build a handful of exciting kill scenes around Christine, but ultimately, it's Arnie Cunningham who stirs up the bulk of the film's tension. When first we meet him, Arnie's spilling garbage all over his driveway and being chastised by his domineering mother (Christine Belford). At school, he's ignored by the girls and pushed around by a gang of thugs, led by Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander), who, at one point, slices Arnie's lunch bag open with a switchblade. Christine changes all that.  In her, Arnie finds the self-confidence he sorely lacked.  But soon enough, that confidence will mutate into an obsession, and anyone attempting to separate him from his beloved car will pay dearly for it, possibly even with their lives. 

Gordon does a remarkable job as Arnie, conveying both nerd and psychotic without once taking either to an unbelievable extreme. It's in his growth, and ultimate downfall, that the real horror of Christine lies.









Monday, September 26, 2011

#416. Atlantic City (1980)


Directed By: Louis Malle

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid



Tag line: "Where dreamers can be winners"

Trivia:  At one point, Robert Mitchum was considered for the lead in this film









When it came to portraying intense, charismatic characters, Burt Lancaster was in a class by himself. In a career that spanned five decades, he took on such notable roles as Wyatt Earp in 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and J.J. Hunsecker, a columnist with an entire city under his thumb, in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success. So it stands to reason that an actor of Lancaster’s talent and standing would be the perfect choice to play Lou Pascal, the aging gangster at the center of Louis Malle’s 1980 film, Atlantic City. Only a performer of Lancaster’s strength could bring a character as weak and cowardly as Lou so convincingly to life. 

From what we can gather, Lou was once a big man in Atlantic City. That is, before the casinos came to town. Nowadays, he’s been reduced to acting as manservant for former beauty queen Grace (Kate Reid), who's also the widow of one of Lou’s former partners. Sally (Susan Sarandon) is a casino worker who lives in the same building as Lou, and Lou is smitten with her. When Sally’s estranged husband, Dave (Robert Joy), comes to down with some drugs he stole from the mob, it’s Lou who helps him find a dealer willing to buy them. The mob does eventually catch up with Dave, leaving Lou as the sole owner of a fortune in drugs. He will use the drug money to help out Sally, but when the mob connects Sally to Dave, Lou finds himself in the middle of a dangerous predicament, with no idea how to handle it. 

Lou Pascal remains an enigma through much of Atlantic City. He carries himself, at all times, with an air of respectability, yet lives in a run-down apartment building, just upstairs from Grace, who riddles him with insults as he fixes her supper and runs her errands. When the drugs enter the scene, Lou suddenly has more money, and more confidence, than he’s had in a long time, yet his newfound self-assurance goes right out the window when the mob starts hassling Sally. In a key scene, where Sally's being accosted by two thugs, all Lou can do is stand back and watch in abject fear, helpless as they slap her around. Throughout the entire movie, Lou Pascal is seeking a return to the glory of his younger days, yet as the movie progresses, we begin to wonder whether or not he ever even had any “glory” in the first place. 

Lancaster is one of the few actors who can swagger in one scene, cower in the next, and make both totally believable. With Atlantic City, he and director Malle have constructed a character who is a perplexing mystery, and we have a difficult time getting a handle on either Lou or his shadowy past. He is a relic in the modern world, and like most relics, it takes some digging to finally bring the truth to light. 

As for Lou himself, he has no problem living in the past, even if it is a past that never was.










Sunday, September 25, 2011

#415. Broken Blossoms (1919)


Directed By: D.W. Griffith

Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp




Trivia:  Donald Crisp's scenes were filmed at night because he was directing another film during the day








Broken Blossoms, D.W. Griffith’s tragic tale of love and brutality, opens with Chinese native Cheng Huan (played by Caucasian actor Richard Barthelmess) expressing his desire to travel to the land of the white man, where he will deliver the loving message of Buddha to the masses. Aghast at the behavior of white sailors stationed in China, Huan is convinced he can help these people, but his hopes are dashed shortly after his arrival in London, where people look upon him as little more than a meddlesome foreigner. Before long, Huan's reduced to running a Chinese trinkets store, and smoking opium to pass the time. 

Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is London’s boxing champion, yet his brutality isn't limited to the ring. He has a young daughter named Lucy (Lillian Gish), who we learn was “thrust into his arm by one of his girlfriends” 15 years earlier. Burrows abuses and torments Lucy, and the young girl is so distraught that she can’t even muster a smile without using her fingers to curl the corners of her mouth. Huan's been watching Lucy through his store window, and has fallen in love with her. Following a particularly savage beating from her father, Lucy staggers into Huan’s shop and collapses. Huan cares for her, showing Lucy an affection she has never before experienced. But as she’s recovering in Huan’s shop, one of Battling Burrows’ friends spots her, and rushes off to inform Burrows of his daughter's whereabouts. an enraged Burrows, who’s training for a match across the river, vows to return after his bout and take his daughter away from that “dirty chink”. The ensuing scenes of violence and despair have lost none of their potency, and will undoubtedly move even a modern, admittedly more jaded audience. 

 To be sure, I found Broken Blossoms a bit difficult to watch at times, due mostly to its constant stream of racist remarks (upon its release in 1919, the film had the alternate title in some western areas of “The Chink and the Child”). Even Lucy, as she[s being tended to by Huan, asks “What makes you so kind to me, chinky?” However, Griffith (no stranger to controversy thanks to his earlier Birth of a Nation) took what I must believe was a great chance in making this film. Despite the above slurs, the famed director successfully portrays Huan in a very positive light, and even gets a few jabs in at Western hypocrisies along the way (When a priest friend greets Huan on the streets of London, he informs Huan that his brother, also a priest, is traveling to China to convert the “heathen”, a clear contradiction to everything we’ve experienced of both cultures thus far). Taking into account the film was released in 1919, Griffith must be commended for presenting a love story that crossed cultural and racial boundaries, and while the film falls short of taking this love to a physical level, the deeper feelings are perfectly conveyed in the eyes of the performers. Lillian Gish, perhaps the top silent actress at that time, was 23 when this film was made. Despite her age, she is extremely effective in portraying a shy 15-year-old girl who has found kindness and love in the most unlikely of places.









Saturday, September 24, 2011

#414. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)


Directed By: James Foley

Starring: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin



Tag line: "Lie. Cheat. Steal. All In A Day's Work"

Trivia:  Co-star Jack Lemmon said the cast was the greatest acting ensemble he had ever been part of









Glengarry Glen Ross is a movie about salesmen. More to the point, it’s about real estate salesmen. Sounds pretty boring, right? Well, it's far from that. In fact, Glengarry Glen Ross is an electrifying film. Based on a David Mamet stage play, the dialogue always sizzles, sometimes smolders, and usually burns whoever might be on the receiving end of it. With a tense script and a cast to die for, Glengarry Glen Ross is more than a film about salesmen; it’s a blistering expose of an entire profession. 

After getting a tongue lashing from a corporate big shot named Blake (Alec Baldwin), an entire office of under-performing Real Estate salesmen starts lying, cheating and stealing in the hopes of keeping their jobs. Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon), the senior salesman, has been in a personal rut for months, a slump further complicated by the fact his daughter is in the hospital. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) complains, often loudly, that the sales leads they’re given are old, and demands that Branch Manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) turn over a few of the newly arrived Glengarry leads so they can all start selling again. Unfortunately, headquarters has ordered that the Glengarry leads be given only to the best salesmen, and in this particular office that happens to be Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), a go-getter who thrives on the thrill of the sale. Each of these men have been around the block enough times to realize the Glengarry leads are their only hope for a return to prosperity, and a few are ready to do whatever it takes to get their hands on them. 

As I said, the dialogue in Glengarry Glen Ross sizzles, but the scene with Alec Baldwin’s Blake, a corporate representative sent in by the higher-ups to throw a scare into the slacking salesmen, is a marvel to behold. If the rest of the film sizzles, then his sequence is white hot. Claiming to be there on a 'mission of mercy', Blake comes in like a lion, then goes out like a damned Tyrannosaurs Rex. While still introducing himself to the group, he pauses to chastise Shelley, who’s gotten out of his chair to pour himself a cup of coffee. “Put that coffee down!” Blake shouts, shocking Shelley to the point that he can't even move. “Coffee is for closers only”. Blake, the top salesman at the company for years running, then launches into a tirade of profanity-laden insults that would make a Marine blush. If nothing else, it’s certainly the most abusive business meeting ever captured on film. In his brief appearance, Alec Baldwin sends a surge of energy coursing through the film. You really have to see it to believe it. 

If I took one thing away from Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s that I would never make it as a salesman. In fact, based on this film, I can’t imagine a worse profession. Put in a position day in and day out where it’s you or them, pushing yourself on honest, hard-working people to sell them something they just don’t need, and opening yourself up to all sorts of abuse and rejection in the process? No, thank you. I realize most sales jobs aren’t as brutal as what we see in Glengarry Glen Ross, but even if this movie's only 10% accurate, it looks like a hell of a way to make a living.

Besides, I’d hate to run into Blake by the water cooler.









Friday, September 23, 2011

#413. Spellbound (1945)


Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov



Tag line: "The Maddest Love that ever possessed a woman"

Trivia:  This movie was one of the first Hollywood films to deal with psychoanalysis







Going in, Spellbound had all the makings of a cinematic classic. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, easily one of the most recognizable filmmakers in motion picture history, and starring both established screen legend Ingrid Bergman and a brash newcomer named Gregory Peck, it was a movie that seemed destined for greatness. Yet remarkably, the combined efforts of its director and stars could not overshadow Spellbound’s most famous scene; a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, arguably the most prolific surrealist of the 20th century. 

Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) has just taken over as the director of the Green Manors mental asylum, replacing the very popular Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). But it isn't long before resident psychiatrist Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) senses something is very wrong with the facility's new administrator. After doing a bit of research, she discovers that the man calling himself Edwardes is not only an imposter, but one who suffers from amnesia as well. On top of that, this man freely admits he may have killed the real Dr. Edwardes, though he can’t actually remember doing so. For assistance, Dr. Peterson takes the imposter to meet her mentor, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), who warns his former protégé that she might just be aiding and abetting a killer. But Dr. Peterson has fallen in love with the mysterious stranger. Believing him innocent of any crime, she'll now do everything in her power to prove it.

I was determined to break with the traditional way of handling dream sequences”, Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in 1962. “I wanted Dali because of the architectural sharpness of his work”. As was usually the case, the great director made a very wise decision. The entire dream is a breathtaking collection of images and movements, both strange and strangely compelling. Rarely had such bizarre visuals been produced for the screen; tables and chairs held in place by human legs, large curtains emblazoned with staring eyeballs, and a faceless man, pushing a skier off a high roof as he holds what appears to be a wheel. With Dali's flair for the extravagant and Hitchcock's incredibly perceptive eye joining forces, the scene proved a marvelous bit of fantasy, years ahead of its time. 

 An entertaining look at the field of psychiatry (one of the earliest to delve deeply into the profession) that featured solid performances from its entire cast, Spellbound nonetheless owes its notoriety to a sequence that lasts approximately two minutes and 40 seconds, one you simply have to see to believe.







Thursday, September 22, 2011

#412. The Mummy's Hand (1940)


Directed By: Christy Cabanne

Starring: Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford



Tag line: "The tomb of a thousand terrors!"

Trivia:  During a flashback sequence, scenes from the 1932's The Mummy were used to tell the new story, which closely resembles the back story used in the first film







Though sometimes mistaken as a sequel to the 1932 classic, The Mummy's Hand is, in reality, a “re-imagining” of the original. Along with expanding the story to include a network of assassins and High Priests, The Mummy's Hand also introduced the world to a brand new mummy named Kharis, who, though lacking the grace and intelligence of Karloff's creation, remains a monster you wouldn't want to meet up with in a dark tomb. 

Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) are a a pair of Americans whose plans to strike it rich in Egypt have thus far fallen flat. Their luck changes, however, when Banning purchases an ancient piece of pottery from a Cairo street vendor, one that reveals the location of the tomb of Princess Ananka, believed to house a treasure trove of jewels. After convincing a down-on-his-luck magician (Cecil Kellaway) and his beautiful daughter, Marta (Peggy Moran), to fund their expedition, the small group sets off into the desert, seeking fame and fortune. But it won't come easy; the Princess's tomb has been guarded for centuries by a society of Egyptian High Priests, sworn to protect it with their very lives. Now headed by the highly-intelligent Andoheb (George Zucco), the priests also have at their disposal a powerful 3000-year-old mummy named Kharis (Tom Tyler), a creature being kept alive for one purpose: to defend Ananka's tomb from all intruders. 

The opening scene of The Mummy's Hand, when Andoheb relates the history of Kharis to a young priest, is told in flashback, and contains a number of scenes lifted directly from the 1932 original. Aside from this, there's very little to connect the two films. For one, The Mummy's Hand features a larger number of characters than its predecessor. Along with the usual avid explorer (Banning) and archaeologist to assist him (Dr. Petrie, played by Charles Trowbridge), there's Banning's friend and partner, Babe Jensen, who serves as the film's comic relief, cracking jokes from start to finish (with admittedly mixed results). Cecil Kellaway's magician, known as Solvani the Great, is also good for a laugh now and again, and Peggy Moran's Marta fills the role of Banning's romantic interest quite nicely. But the most drastic difference between The Mummy's Hand and the '32 classic is the addition of an entire secret society. Zucco does a fine job as Andoheb, the often unscrupulous High Priest who also poses as the curator of the Cairo museum, and at his disposal is an entire network of spies, many of whom are able to infiltrate Banning's group, posing as workers. In fact, the film often leaves you wondering who can be trusted, and who can't, introducing an added level of intrigue not present in the 1932 movie. As for the title character, Kharis is more along the lines of the “traditional” creature: a lumbering mute that exists solely to destroy, certainly a far cry from Karloff's Imhotep, who relied as much on his wits as he did brute strength. 

Though not nearly as well-known as the original, The Mummy's Hand spawned three sequels, all of which tracked the further exploits of the mummy, Kharis. Along with being a solid remake, The Mummy's Hand was also a nice jumping-off point for the entire series.







Wednesday, September 21, 2011

#411. Teenage Mother (1967)


Directed By: Jerry Gross

Starring: Arlene Farber, Frederick Riccio, Julie Ange




Tag line: "Teenage Mother - Means 9 Months of Trouble!"

Trivia:  Director Jerry Gross paid a hospital $50 for the graphic footage of a baby being born that's featured at the climax of the movie





Despite what the film's advertisements might suggest, Teenage Mother is little more than a '60s educational picture, addressing the then-controversial topic of teaching sex ed to high school students. In fact, aside from a short film that shows, in sometimes nauseatingly graphic detail, the birth of a newborn, there aren't many shocks in Teenage Mother at all.

Ms. Peterson (Julie Ange) is a recent arrival at the local high school, brought in by the principal to teach a course on the finer points of sex education. As you might expect, not everyone is pleased with the added curriculum, but Ms. Peterson soon discovers she couldn't have come at a more crucial time. Arlene Taylor (Arlene Farber), a beautiful, outgoing girl in her senior year, is in love with Tony (Howard Le May), a star athlete who, after graduation, plans to attend medical school. Arlene has been desperately trying to convince Tony to marry her, even going so far as to flirt with Duke Markell (Frederick Riccio), a drug-dealing bully, in the hopes of making Tony jealous. When all else fails, Arlene resorts to lies, telling everyone she's pregnant with Tony's child (despite the fact a medical examination has determined she's not pregnant at all). Convinced her sex education course had something to do with his daughter's pregnancy, Arlene's father (George Peters) calls a special meeting of the town council to discuss Ms. Peterson's future. It's Mr. Taylor's hope that this gathering will expose the new teacher as little more than a well-educated pornographer, thus leaving the school with no alternative but to remove sex ed from the curriculum altogether. 

Far from exciting us with scenes of teen debauchery and the occasional glimpse of firm female flesh, Teenage Mother is more intent on preaching at us. Ms. Peterson is not so much a teacher as she is a crusader, spouting off historical precedent and gobs of statistics to justify the need for a class on sex education. When she's informed that the school's librarian has refused to carry a copy of Male and Female because of its sexual content, Ms. Peterson takes matters into her own hands, confronting the librarian and outright demanding that she add the text to her shelves. While the majority of the film follows the troubled romance of Arlene and Tony, occasionally spruced up by the illegal activities of Duke (more than a drug dealer, Duke also works as the front man for a local pornographer, who makes a killing selling nudie pics to horny teens), Teenage Mother is a movie driven by its agenda, and it's certainly not a subtle one!

Still, Teenage Mother is an interesting time capsule of a movie. Along with a few painfully dated '60s dance sequences (I almost bust a gut watching Duke strut his stuff at the local hang-out) and some out-of-place stock footage taken at a racetrack, Teenage Mother also offers the first screen appearance of funnyman Fred Willard, here playing the school's straight-laced athletic director and one of Ms. Peterson's few supporters. But if its the typical exploitation fare you're after, then steer clear of this one; the most exploitative thing about Teenage Mother is its title.












Tuesday, September 20, 2011

#410. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 (1987)


Directed By: Bruce Pittman

Starring: Lisa Schrage, Michael Ironside, Wendy Lyon,




Tag line: "Vengeance Never Rests in Peace!"

Trivia:  Almost every character in this film shares a last name with a cult film director







I first came across Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 on cable TV in the late 80's, and would sit and watch it whenever it was on. So, I can't help but see this film through a nostalgic eye, one I freely admit may have clouded my judgment. But what can I say? I think this movie's a hoot. 

Prom night, 1957. Mary Lou Maloney (Lisa Schrage) is the odds-on favorite to win the coveted crown, and be named that year's Prom Queen. But Mary Lou isn't exactly a model teenager. During the prom, she dumps her wealthy, though somewhat shy boyfriend, Billy Nordham (Steve Atkinson), and hooks up with over-sexed Buddy Cooper (Robert Lewis) instead. Billy will get his revenge, dropping a stink bomb onto the stage just before Mary Lou's crowned Queen.  But things go very wrong, and Mary Lou's dress catches fire, engulfing her in flames and burning her to death. Jump ahead 30 years to 1987. Bill Nordham (Michael Ironside) is now the school's principal. His son, Craig (Justin Louis), is getting ready for his own Senior Prom, as is Craig's girlfriend, Vicki (Wendy Lyon). When her over-zealous mother (Judy Mahbey) forbids her from buying a new dress, Vicki roots through some of the old gowns in the school's basement, where she discovers a mysterious chest filled with photos from the 1957 prom, as well as the Queen's crown. This discovery kicks off a supernatural chain of events, and before anyone knows what's hit them, the spirit of Mary Lou Maloney has taken control of Vicki, seeking the crown she never got a chance to wear. And God help anyone who stands in her way. 

I always liked the opening sequence of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2, where we're introduced to Mary Lou in all her bitchy glory. Played wonderfully by Lisa Schrage, Mary Lou is a real beauty, with long, brunette hair and a beaming smile. But this exterior masks a very, very bad person. The film begins with her visiting a confessional, shocking the parish priest with tales of fornication and vice. As the priest is about to assign her penance, Mary Lou adds, with a smile, “and you know what, father? I loved every minute of it!”. She then blows him a kiss and walks out, but not before scribbling For a good time, call Mary Lou in lipstick on the confessional wall. As villains go, Mary Lou is a doozy, and the fact she returns in search of vengeance is what makes Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 so much fun. 

Now, even through my rose-colored glasses, I can spot a few problems. For one, the personality shift that Wendy Lyon's Vicki experiences, as Mary Lou's spirit slowly takes control of her, isn't convincing until the very end. Also, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 is yet another horror film that feels the need to toss around genre references. Vicki's mother is an obvious rip-off of Piper Laurie's character in Carrie, though without the menace, and others named Carpenter, Romero, and Craven will pop up from time to time. To top it off, several of the dream / fantasy sequences are far too dark for such a bouncy film, and the less said about the possessed rocking horse, the better!
 
Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 is undoubtedly goofy, but I like it. I won't even call it a guilty pleasure, because I'm not the slightest bit guilty about it. 

I'm a fan of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2. So sue me.









Monday, September 19, 2011

#409. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)


Directed By: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson





Trivia:  In the scene where Willie and Eddie pick up Eva from the Hot Dog stand, director Jim Jarmusch can be seen eating a hot dog while wearing a beanie in the background







Not much happens in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. Not much at all. We follow three people who spend a lot of time indoors, either watching television or playing cards. They live in New York City, visit Cleveland and eventually take a trip to Florida, yet in none of these places do they ever venture outside for any extended length of time. Technically, I suppose it’s not even accurate for me to say that they ‘live’ in New York. They exist in New York. They don’t ‘live’ anywhere. 

Eva (Eszter Balint) has just flown in from Budapest, and will stay a few days with her cousin, Willie (John Lurie), before moving on to Cleveland to live with their Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark). Willie, who desperately wants to distance himself from his Hungarian roots, is, at first, resentfu of Eva’s presence, and leaves her to fend for herself while he and his friend, Eddie (Richard Edson), go to the movies. But after ten days together, the two cousins form a bond, with Willie even buying Eva her first American dress. When Eva leaves for Cleveland, life returns to normal for Willie and Eddie, which can be a tad depressing when you don't really have a life, so. on a whim, they drive to Cleveland to visit Eva, then decide a trip to Florida is exactly what the three of them need. 

Stranger Than Paradise is a study in alienation. Eva is an outsider, a foreigner to America who doesn’t understand our customs. Willie tries to explain things to her, but to no avail, and even has a bit of fun at her expense (he tells Eva that vacuuming the floor is referred to as ‘choking the crocodile’ in America). But then Willie is also an outsider, despite the fact he’s lived in this country for ten years. He never ventures far from his small apartment, and doesn’t seem to hold a job of any kind. His days are spent playing solitaire at his kitchen table, going to the movies with Eddie, and watching a lot of television. Not even a visit to Cleveland can shake this routine. In Florida, they do visit a racetrack, but lose all of their money on a single race. Not that money means much to them, anyway; Willie and Eddie took $600 dollars with them to Cleveland, and after almost a week there, spent exactly $50 of it. 

The first time I watched Stranger Than Paradise, I was sure the trip Willie, Eddie and Eva took to Florida was their way of breaking free, of finding their own slice of heaven on earth, perhaps even a place where they'd finally fit in. But I now see I was wrong. These three are destined to exist on the outside looking in, which doesn’t seem to bother a single one of them. For Willie, Eddie and Eva, life will always be little more than playing cards, watching television, and going to the movies. 

So why the trip to Florida? I don’t know…maybe they wanted to watch television in a warmer climate?









Sunday, September 18, 2011

#408. The Exterminator (1980)


Directed By: James Glickenhaus

Starring: Robert Ginty, Samantha Eggar, Christopher George



Tag line: "In war you have to kill to stay alive ... on the streets of New York, it's often the same"

Trivia:  An entire animated body with graphic facial expressions was built for one of this film's most infamous scenes






The Exterminator opens with all hell breaking loose in Vietnam, but as battle scenes go, it's not very convincing. The locale is obviously man-made, and most of the explosions lighting up the landscape are of the typical Hollywood variety: bright flashes that don't amount to very much. But there's one moment mixed in, when a captured American soldier is beheaded by the enemy, that looks real enough to send shivers down your spine. The Exterminator doesn't get everything right, but man oh man, can it bring the pain! This is one violent motion picture. 

Following their escape from a Vietnamese POW camp, John Eastland (Robert Ginty) and his buddy, Michael Jefferson (Steve James), make their way back to friendly territory, and to safety. When next we meet them, several years have passed, and both are working on the loading docks for a New York beer distributor. When Eastland spots some gang members stealing cases of beer, he approaches them, only to be knocked down and held at knife point by their leader. Jefferson shows up on the scene and saves Eastland, but the thugs return the next day and cripple Jefferson while he's on his way to work. Eastland comforts Jefferson’s wife, Maria (Michele Harrell), while at the same time plotting out his revenge. He tracks down and eliminates the gang members who badly injured his friend, but he doesn't stop there. Soon, he's taking on every criminal he comes across, from mob bosses to common thieves. Eastland's vigilante style of justice doesn't sit well with the local police, who assign detective Dalton (Christopher George) to track him down. But neither Dalton nor the CIA seem able to stop the man the local media has started calling The Exterminator. 

The Exterminator is, first and foremost, an action film, and as such doesn't spend a lot of time delving into the reasons behind John Eastland's transformation from law-abiding citizen to bloodthirsty vigilante. There's the occasional Vietnam flashback, of course, that hints at a much deeper psychological wound, but it's not fully explored, and we never know why he continues on as “The Exterminator” well after the punks who attacked Jefferson have been dealt with. Another area the film comes up short in is the local police's pursuit of Eastland. Though n charge of the investigation, Dalton seems much more interested in wooing a nurse (Samantha Egger) than in apprehending the vigilante, and it isn't until the very end that he's able to piece two clues together (and only then thanks to a stroke of dumb luck). 

The Exterminator doesn't explore these aspects of its story because it's just not that kind of film. This a a movie about one man's quest to bring an end to crime, and to punish the guilty in as violent a manner as he possibly can. When he learns a local mobster (Dick Boccelli) has been shaking down his company for protection money, Eastland kidnaps him and threatens to drop him into a meat grinder if he doesn't give it all back. A local pimp (Tony DiBennedetto), who secures underage boys for his upper-class clientele, meets an even worse fate, as does one of the pimp's best customers (David Lipman). 

Forget about the reasons why: The Exterminator is all about delivering bloody justice, and on that level, it's a smashing success.








Saturday, September 17, 2011

#407. Executive Decision (1996)


Directed By: Stuart Baird

Starring: Kurt Russell, Halle Berry, Steven Seagal




Tag line: "Fasten your seat belts"

Trivia:  According to John Leguizamo in his autobiography, Steven Seagal physically attacked him during filming in an effort to scare the cast and crew






Executive Decision is a crazy movie, one that only gets crazier as it goes along. It's also a heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping action film, featuring a motley crew of unlikely heroes. 

To secure the release of their leader, who was recently taken into custody by the CIA, Arab terrorists hijack a plane heading from London to Washington, DC. But David Grant (Kurt Russell), an analyst for the Pentagon, believes the hijackers have a much more deadly agenda.  Grant is convinced that a stolen shipment of Russian nerve toxin is also on board the plane, enough to wipe out all of Washington, and that the terrorists plan to release it by crashing the plane once its over United States soil. To prevent this from happening, Grant will join forces with a team of commandos, led by Col. Austin Travis (Steven Seagal), who'll secretly dock with the in-flight aircraft, secure the toxin and eliminate the terrorists. Though the docking doesn't go according to plan, some of the team, including Grant, do manage to board the plane, and must enlist the help of one of the flight's stewardesses (Halle Berry) to gain the upper hand on the terrorists. 

Kurt Russell's Grant is the central hero of Executive Decision, but its a heroism thrust upon him by circumstance. An analyst who spends the majority of his day thumbing through reports, Grant joins the mission against his will, and is none too comfortable with the prospect of risking his life. In fact, you might say he's a bit of a coward. But when fate intervenes, he'll rise to the occasion. Also along for the ride is Dennis Cahill (Oliver Platt), the engineer who designed the technology for in-flight docking. Cahill also wasn't supposed to be on the plane, and even tries to convince the others to surrender to the terrorists when their initial plan goes south, but in the end, he'll also dig deep, taking on a particularly dangerous assignment. In contrast, Halle Berry's stewardess (whose name is Jean) does everything she can to disrupt the hijackers, even before she knows the commandos are on board. To protect the identity of an armed federal Marshall (Richard Riehle) posing as a passenger, she hides the plane's manifest, knowing full well that doing so may cost her her life. 

Yes, Executive Decision is outlandish, and sometimes hard to swallow, but you'll get so wrapped up in its story that, odds are, you won't even notice how silly it all is. Bursting at the seams with action and thrills, as well as a few twists you honestly won't see coming, I think you'll be surprised at how entertaining Executive Decision can be.








Friday, September 16, 2011

#406. Casablanca (1942)


Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid




Tag line: "They had a date with fate in Casablanca!"

Trivia:  Was named the best screenplay of all time by the Writers Guild of America








Casablanca is a perfect storm of a movie, a motion picture in which all the elements blend together wonderfully, creating a cinematic masterpiece that has withstood the test of time. 

Rick’s Café, owned and operated by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), is the most popular hangout in all of Casablanca, but there's more to Rick's than fine food and gambling. With the war raging in Europe, scores of people flock to the Café in the hopes of acquiring letters of transit, which would grant them safe passage to America. The local Vichy commander, Capt. Renault (Claude Rains), whose job is to prevent the sale of such documents, has an understanding with Rick, and is only too happy to look the other way. 

One evening, a French underground leader named Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who is wanted by the Nazis, shows up at the café in search of letters of transit for both himself and his wife. Things get a bit complicated, however, when Rick learns that Mrs. Laszlo is his old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), a woman he had fallen in love with years earlier in Paris. Still not over the heartbreak of their whirlwind romance, Rick is reluctant to help either one of them, leading to a showdown that may prove costly for everyone involved. 

Scholars and fans alike have spent countless hours dissecting Casablanca over the years, with the general consensus being it's one of the finest films ever made. In compiling a list of the 100 greatest movies of all time in 1999, Entertainment Weekly ranked Casablanca at #3, adding, “Say what you will about today’s trendy cinematic nihilism. We’ll always have Casablanca”. Even today, some 70 years after its initial run, Casablanca continues to win over audiences (In his book Ain't It Cool, Harry Knowles, film geek extraordinaire and founder of the online movie web site Ain’t it Cool News, writes that he watches Casablanca every New Years Eve because, as he puts it, it's “the perfect movie, pure gold”). 

As for myself, I love Casablanca just as much as the rest of film fandom.  The performances are excellent (especially Peter Lorre as the somewhat shifty Ugarte, a character as slimy as he is sympathetic), the dialogue is incredible, and the story is the kind of stuff that put Southern California on the cinematic map. Casablanca is now, and forever will be, a shining example of Hollywood at its most magical. 

Here's looking at Casablanca...again and again!








Thursday, September 15, 2011

#405. Dogs (1976)


Directed By: Burt Brickerhoff

Starring: David McCallum, Sandra McCabe, George Wyner






Trivia:  There was to be a sequel, appropriately entitled "Cats". But when "Dogs" failed at the box office, production was canceled






I know why they call this movie Dogs: because none of the people in it are worth a damn. 

Harlan Thompson (David McCallum), a professor at Southwestern University, has been assisting the local authorities in their investigation of a series of animal attacks, which have resulted in the deaths of several heads of cattle. Baffled by the evidence he's gathered thus far, Thompson asks the University's newest arrival, Dr. Mike Fitzgerald (George Wyner), for some help. What they discover is that the local dog population, gentle and loving pets when on their own, are growing vicious once the sun goes down, roaming the streets in wild packs and attacking whatever, or whooever, they come across. It isn't long before the dogs turn their attention away from cattle, and towards the good citizens of the town, putting everyone, including the students and faculty of Southwestern, in harm's way. 

For a movie about the darker side of man's best friend, Dogs spends an awful lot of time in the company of its two-legged characters, which wouldn't be so bad if they had something interesting to say. The first half hour or so introduces us to the faculty of Southwestern university, easily the dullest groups of professors and educators I've ever come across in a feature film. Whenever these people get together, whether it be at a dinner party or the local pub, they discuss theory. Even McCallum's character, the “rebel” of the bunch, is dry and boring. There was so much talk of pheromones, hive mentality, etc., etc., that I got the distinct impression the film's screenplay was written by a college professor, and a tedious one at that. Then, following an incident at a Kindergarten Dog Show, we finally start hearing from the town locals, which drastically changed my initial hypothesis. These people are so damn stupid, their dialogue could only have been the work of under-achieving preschoolers. Indignant when they learn that Thompson knew about the attacks on the cattle for days and said nothing, the locals decide to take matters into their own hands, and hunt down the ravenous canines. “Let's form a posse!”, one of them shouts out. Well, OK, Marshall Moron! 

I will say that, when Dogs finally gets around to it, the attack scenes are pretty impressive, many of which are preceded by a bone-chilling sound of what I'm guessing is howling dogs (though it also sounded a lot like a warning siren). Once the title creatures take over, Dogs gets interesting, which I'm betting has something to do with the fact they weren't able to talk.

Seriously, I was rooting hard for the dogs in this one.










Wednesday, September 14, 2011

#404. The Long Riders (1980)


Directed By: Walter Hill


Starring: David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, James Keach, Stacy Keach




Tag line: "'All The World Likes an Outlaw.  For Some Damn Reason, They Remember 'em' - Jesse James"

Trivia:  The film stars four sets of actual brothers: The Carradines, The Keachs, The Quaids and the Guests





About 20 years ago, The Long Riders ranked right up there as one of my favorite films. Every few months, I'd pop the tape into the VCR and kick back with director Walter Hill's tale of familial loyalties, punctuated by a handful of thrilling actions scenes. These days, I can spot a few imperfections that escaped my notice back then, but that's not to say I don't still adore the damn thing.

The Long Riders follows the exploits of the James / Younger gang, an infamous band of outlaws who raised a whole lot of hell in the years following the Civil War. Led by Jesse James (James Keach), the gang of six, including Jesse's brother, Frank (Stacy Keach), the three Youngers (David, Keith and Robert Carradine) and Clell Miller (Randy Quaid), robbed everything from banks to stage coaches, always one step ahead of the Pinkerton agents trying to bring them to justice. Blazing a trail that stretched across several state lines, their reputations as outlaws transformed them into legends... until the day they walked into the wrong bank. 

The film's casting, with four sets of actual brothers playing on-screen siblings (along with the Carradines and Keachs, Dennis Quaid plays Ed Miller, Clell's brother, and Christopher and Nicholas Guest appear as Bob and Charlie Ford), may seem like a gimmick to some, but for me, it's a gimmick that works. I liked the chemistry the various brothers brought to the film, which only served to strengthen the central theme of family loyalty. That said, The Long Riders does have a tendency to over-sanctify it's lead characters. As portrayed by James Keach, Jesse James isn't so much a criminal as he is a freedom fighter, Missouri's answer to Robin Hood, delivering the down-trodden from their Northern oppressors. I understand that's how many in the south viewed Jesse James in those days, but I would have liked to see a more honest portrayal of the outlaw, one that, at the very least, let the halo slip off his head from time to time. In fact, most members of the James / Younger gang remain honest and forthright throughout, even when they're robbing banks (when Ed Miller, who was part of the gang at the outset, murders a teller in cold blood, Jesse tosses him out on his ear). On the other side of the fight, the Pinkerton agents, under the leadership of Mr. Rixley (James Whitmore Jr.), are bumblers who manage to kill a handful of innocent people (including Jesse and Frank's 15-year-old half-brother, Archie, played by R.B. Thrift). Their pursuit of the gang never generates any real tension because it's obvious early on they don't have a snowball's chance in hell of catching them!

But The Long Riders has its strengths also. Along with a fine cast (highlighted by David Carradine, whose rough and rugged Cole Younger is the closest the film gets to an anti-hero), the cinematography is, at times, stunning, and the final shoot-out in Northfield, chock full of blood and awesome slow-motion, is one of the most thrilling ever committed to film. Even with its flaws, The Long Riders remains a movie I can't help but love.








Tuesday, September 13, 2011

#403. The Dead Next Door (1989)


Directed By: J.R. Bookwalter

Starring: Pete Ferry, Bogdan Pecic, Michael Grossi




Tag line: "How do you kill something that won't die? Where do you run when they're everywhere?"

Trivia:  The executive producer credited as "The Master Cylinder" is actually Sam Raimi







The Dead Next Door has the look and feel of a school project, a horror movie made on the cheap, with more than the occasional nod to the films (and filmmakers) that inspired it. It's also jam-packed with excitement, and one hell of a lot of blood. 

Large pockets of society have succumbed to a virus that brings the dead back to life, and it's up to a small band of commandos, called The Zombie Squad, to find a cure. Led by Raimi (Pete Ferry), The Zombie Squad sets out from their base in Washington, DC and travels to Akron, Ohio, where it's believed the virus originated. Well-armed but short on manpower, the commandos must fight off hordes of zombies, as well as an overzealous cult, under the leadership of one Rev. Jones (Robert Kokai), that's determined to “protect” the rights of the walking dead. 

The Dead Next Door winks at its audience continually, acknowledging horror's great history by way of its characters (apart from the lead zombie hunter, Raimi, there's Dr. Savini, Commander Carpenter, and a handful of others) and situations (the living dead walk into a video store, where one tries to check out a copy of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead). Though they did often bring a smile to my face, some of these fan-boy references were a bit of a distraction. But not to worry: The Dead Next Door doesn't dwell on them for very long. 
Right out of the chute, The Dead Next Door is in full zombie mode, delivering plenty of carnage before its story even has a chance to kick into gear. And when things do finally start rolling, the film only gets crazier. Early on, the Zombie Squad is checking out a house for signs of the living dead. Richards (Scott Spiegel) follows a trail of blood up some stairs and into a room, where he finds a zombie chewing on a young boy's remains. He's able to cut the creature's head off, but even that doesn't kill it, and before Richards knows what's hit him, the thrashing head has bitten off several of his fingers (leading to an impressive effect when the head swallows them, and the fingers pass through its throat and fall onto the floor). But this is nothing compared to what happens later on. Where else but The Dead Next Door are you going to be treated to a zombie, his vocal cords attached to a synthesizer, belting out a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner"? 

The Dead Next Door does have a few rough edges, but if you can look past the misplaced humor and poor acting, you'll find an entertaining film with a number of good ideas. I liked it a lot.









Monday, September 12, 2011

#402. Touch of Evil (1958)


Directed By: Orson Welles

Starring: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh



Tag line: "The Strangest Vengeance Ever Planned!"

Trivia:  Welles shot most of the movie at night, to avoid intrusion by studio reps








A raw depiction of a town on the U.S./Mexican border, where crime and punishment both serve as tools for the corrupt, Touch of Evil proved to be the last film Orson Welles would ever direct for a major Hollywood studio. After deeming the finished movie ‘non-commercial’, Universal fired Welles, then ordered a number of edits and re-shoots, abandoning many elements the director felt were essential to the story. In response to these changes, Welles composed a passionate, 58-page memo addressed to the studio's executives, all in the hopes of convincing them to revert back to his initial vision. Yet despite the controversy surrounding it, Touch of Evil remains a marvelous motion picture, perhaps one of the greatest ever made. 

Touch of Evil begins with a bang…literally. A bomb is planted in the trunk of an American diplomat's car, exploding just as he crosses the border from Mexico into the U.S.. The blast is witnessed by Mexican detective Ramon Vargas (Charlton Heston), a newlywed who's recently gained some notoriety in his country for putting the leader of the ruthless Grandi gang behind bars. Since the bomb originated on the Mexican side of the border, Vargas feels he must remain involved in the investigation, if for no other reason than to avoid an international incident. On the American side, the case is turned over to Capt. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a gruff, ill-tempered cop with a bum leg who doesn’t much care for Mexicans. Quinlan believes the bomb was the work of one Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan), a young man romantically linked to the murdered diplomat’s daughter. When a 2nd search of Sanchez’s house turns up two sticks of dynamite that weren't there a few minutes earlier, Vargas suspects foul play, and accuses Quinlan of tampering with a potential crime scene in order to gain an easy conviction. As Vargas starts delving deeper into Quinlan’s past arrests, searching for clues of further corruption, a nervous Quinlan makes preparations of his own to discredit his Mexican counterpart, including a plot that may put the new Mrs. Vargas (Janet Liegh) in the gravest of danger. 

Touch of Evil is a dirty film, not in content, but in the mood it sets, it's very look and feel. Welles uses this border setting to awesome effect, exposing both the sleazy sex joints one normally associates with such areas, and the lowlifes that inhabit them, men who occasionally hide behind a lawman’s badge. To adequately convey the dirt and dishonesty, Welles allows his camera full access; no room is too dark, no corner too obscure. With a bevy of low angles, long tracks and fairly revealing close-ups, the camera is as much a free observer of these events as we are, bound by neither tradition nor the laws of gravity. Far from undermining the film by way of cinematic trickery, these techniques instead are employed to lay its characters bare. Many of the close-ups in Touch of Evil are reserved for Welles’ Hank Quinlan, and are less than flattering.  By taking such a long, hard look at the character, Welles divulges a lot about Quinlan, from his obese, mangy appearance right down to his bigoted personality. The camera goes to great lengths to uncover this man’s true nature, inviting us to follow along as Quinlan lurks in the shadows, associating with people no honest cop would ever be seen with, like ‘Little Joe’ Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the younger brother of the imprisoned crime boss and new leader of the Grandi drug gang. Unfortunately for Quinlan, no matter how many dark rooms or back alleys he slips into, we still see him.  We hear his every conversation, witness his every action. In Touch of Evil, the camera sees all, and knows all. 

A brilliant film noir and a tense, down-and-dirty thriller, Touch of Evil doesn’t shy away from the darkness; it revels in it, transforming shadows from mere reflections to active participants, and its to Orson Welles' credit that we see each and every one of them.








Sunday, September 11, 2011

#401. Uncle Sam (1997)


Directed By: William Lustig

Starring: William Smith, David 'Shark' Fralick, Christopher Ogden




Tag line: "Uncle Sam wants you... DEAD!"

Trivia:  A lenticular 3-D poster was produced for Uncle Sam. Reportedly, only 10 of the 3-D posters were issued






Soldier Sam Harper (David Shark Fralick) is killed when his helicopter's shot down during Operation Desert Storm, and the only one upset by his passing seems to be his young nephew, Jody (Christopher Pgden). That's probably because Jody never knew him.  Prior to enlisting, Sam wasn't a very good person' a drunk who got a kick out of abusing his wife, Louise (Anne Tremko), he also spent the majority of his adolescence molesting his younger sister, Sally (Leslie Neale), Jody's mother. But Jody refuses to believe such stories, keeping alive the memory of his beloved Uncle Sam, an American Hero who died for his country. What Jody doesn't know is that his Uncle Sam isn't entirely dead, and on the 4th of July, he'll rise again, taking out his anger on the unpatriotic citizens of their home town. 

I was impressed by the cast director William Lustig assembled for Uncle Sam, many playing characters not particularly proud to be Americans. Timothy Bottoms is Mr. Crandall, Jody's teacher, who, years earlier, headed north to avoid serving in Vietnam. Bo Hopkins, on the other hand, is Sgt. Twining, a man quite happy to be in the military. After delivering the sad news of her husband's passing, he immediately puts the moves on Louise, later bragging that he's “batting .750” when it comes to scoring with bereaved widows. Congressman Cummings (Robert Forster) views the town's 4th of July celebration as little more than a way to schmooze voters, while Mrs. Cronin (P.J. Soles) has hated the holiday ever since her only son, Barry (Zachary McLemore), was badly injured by a faulty fireworks display. Even Jed Crowley (Isaac Hayes), a veteran who lost his leg fighting in the Korean War, tries to convince young Jody not to enlist in the military, claiming modern warfare doesn't have much of a purpose. Many of them will pay the ultimate price for their disloyalty once Sam shows up on the scene. 

That's because Sam can't abide a lack of patriotism, and ensures that anyone he catches disrespecting their country will never do so again. His first victim, a peeping tom in an Uncle Sam costume, learns the hard way that he shouldn't have sullied the good name of an American icon, and a few teens who burn the flag don't live long enough to brag about it (one is strung up by the neck...on a flagpole). Throughout Uncle Sam, the killer stalks the Un-American at the town's 4th of July picnic, culminating in a fireworks display nobody will soon forget. 

After Halloween, Black Christmas, even Mother's Day, it was only a matter of time before the slasher genre got around to the glorious 4th, and Uncle Sam does not disappoint. Bringing gore to the birthday of the good 'ole USA, Uncle Sam is an all-American blood bath, not to mention a flag-waving good time.








Saturday, September 10, 2011

#400. The Blue Max (1966)


Directed By: John Guillerman

Starring: George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress




Tag line: "The Raiding Squadrons of the Red Baron..."

Trivia:  One of the stunt pilots for this film was Joan Hughes, who became Britain's youngest female pilot at 17.  She would also go on to become one of that country's first female test pilots.



The Western Front, 1916. A German soldier, seeking shelter during an attack, leaps into a nearby trench. At that moment, he hears the sound of planes flying overhead. He peers upwards, his eyes filled with wonder, and knows immediately that's where he wants to be. 

The soldier in the trench is Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), and when next we meet him (two years later), he's fulfilled his dream of joining the German Air Corps. Things are a bit shaky for Bruno at first, due mostly to his own feelings of inadequacy (many in his squadron are members of the aristocracy, while Bruno hails from a working-class background), and he finds himself at odds with both his commanding officer (Karl Michael Volger) and fellow pilot Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp), who holds the squadron record for most enemy planes shot down. To prove he's as skilled a pilot as Willi, Bruno makes it known that he plans to down at least 20 planes, a feat that would earn him the coveted Blue Max, the highest award the Air Corps has to offer. With the support of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason), Bruno moves ever closer to his goal, and not even an illicit affair with the General's wife (Ursula Andress) can slow him down. 

Bruno is the lead character of The Blue Max, but he's far from one we can identify with, often allowing his resolve to get the better of him. During his first aerial mission, Bruno gives chase to, and successfully shoots down, a British SE-5, but because the army is unable to locate any wreckage, he doesn't receive credit for it. Unwilling to accept this, Bruno sets out to find the downed plane himself, dragging Corporal Rupp (Peter Woodthorpe) along to assist him. This doesn't sit well with his comrades, who are mourning the loss of a fellow pilot killed earlier in the day. By showing concern only for his personal achievements, Bruno has lost their respect, and will continue to lose it as the war progresses. Peppard does a fine job as Bruno, taking him from determined novice to cocky veteran, and leaving us shaking our heads at the depths to which he'll sink to secure the Blue Max. 

While The Blue Max does occasionally stagger (like many war movies of the '60s, it strives for an epic grandness that's always just out of reach) and fall (the entire love affair between Bruno and the Countess is unnecessary, even distracting), the film's saved time and again by its brilliant battle sequences, thrilling aerial photography, and Peppard's top-notch performance. These, along with a very dramatic final scene, make The Blue Max well worth two and a half hours of your time.