Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#471. The Image (1975)



Directed By: Radley Metzger

Starring: Rebecca Brooke, Carl Parker. Marilyn Roberts




Tag line: "Beyond the Story of O"

Trivia:  This film was also released as THE PUNISHMENT OF ANNA






The setting is Paris, the "City of Light". One night at a party, Jean (Carl Parker), a writer, finds himself drawn to a young woman named Anne (Mary Mendum), a model and the protege of fashion photographer Claire (Marilyn Roberts). Jean is entranced by the beautiful Anne, and Claire, recognizing his obsession, invites Jean to join them for drinks afterwords. During the get-together, Jean realizes the bond between Claire and Anne goes well beyond the professional, beyond even friendship. In short, Anne is Claire's sexual slave, and is completely submissive to the desires of her “master”. Claire, an old friend of Jean's, offers to share Anne with him, but is Jean ready for such an arrangement? 

The Image is an erotic film with a touch of class, and the three-way relationship that develops between its main characters is a fascinating one. The day after the party, Jean meets up with the two ladies at the Bagatelle Gardens. As they're admiring the many hundreds of rose bushes on display, Claire orders Anne to fondle one of the flowers. “She likes doing this”, Claire says to Jean, adding that “at the slightest provocation, she gets all wet”. Claire next tells Anne to pick the rose from the bush and bring it to her, despite the fact doing so is strictly forbidden. Anne hesitates, but soon complies, yet for her momentary hesitation, Claire feels Anne must be punished. The three make their way to an obscure corner of the Gardens, where Claire orders the young girl to lift her skirt (revealing to Jean the fact she isn't wearing any underwear). Claire scratches Anne's thigh with a thorn from the stem of the rose, then gently kisses the wound, as if to soothe it. For his part, Jean can only watch, unsure what to make of this strange relationship, and far too excited by it to all to simply walk away. From that point on, the three are nearly inseparable. 

The Image has its share of hardcore sexuality (with scenes as explicit as any you'd find in a XXX film), and contains moments of humiliation (at the Gardens, just after the incident with the rose, Claire orders Anne to kneel down and urinate, which she does as Jean looks on) and even bondage (there's an extended sequence in a room Claire calls her “Gothic Chamber”, complete with whips and instruments of torture, that's pretty tough to watch). Yet it's all presented with sophistication and elegance, and as tastefully as a story of this nature could possibly be. This, combined with stunning cinematography that shows Paris in all its glory, carries The Image a step above the usual erotic fare.








Tuesday, November 29, 2011

#470. Suburban Mayhem (2006)


Directed By: Paul Goldman

Starring: Emily Barclay, Steve Bastoni, Laurence Breuls




Tag line: "There are some things in life you can't control. Fame. Lust. Murder . . . And Katrina"

Trivia:  Was nominated for 12 Awards by the Australian Film Institute, winning 3, including Best Actress





Katrina (Emily Barclay) is a real piece of work. During a televised interview, when asked how it felt to have been a suspect in her own father's murder, she shrugs and says it was “weird”, but adds that at least it got her on TV. Later, at her father's funeral, sitting in the front row of the chapel, Katrina gets a text message from one of her many boyfriends, asking if she's available to have sex with him. She laughs, momentarily disrupting the eulogy and drawing an angry stare from her neighbor, Dianne (Geneviève Lemon). But clearly, she doesn't care: Katrina will do whatever Katrina wants. 

A 19-year-old single mother, Katrina, called “Kat” by her family and friends, has turned manipulating men into an art form. For years, her father (Robert Morgan) thought she could do no wrong, and didn't learn the truth until it was much too late. Kat's boyfriend, Rusty (Michael Dorman) spends his days caring for her daughter, Bailee, even though Kat insists he's not Bailee's father. That's because Kat's had sex with dozens of guys, learning early in life it's the only way to get what she wants, and figures any one of them could be the real dad. The only man she truly cares about is her brother, Danny (Laurence Breuls), who's serving a life sentence for murder. Convinced money was all that was needed to get Danny out of jail, Kat became enraged when her father refused to cough up any. But when dear old dad decided she wasn't a fit mother, and tried to take Bailee away from her, he crossed a line that would ultimately cost him his life. 

Emily Barclay is terrific as Kat, time and again bringing out her character's natural mean streak, and doing so with real gusto. When Detective Andretti (Steve Bastoni) taunts Kat, saying Danny's going to spend the rest of his days in jail, she takes her revenge by visiting Andretti's wife (Susan Prior) and lying to the poor woman, telling her Andretti is Bailee's real father, and even dyeing the little girl's hair so it matches his. As anyone who spends a little time with Kat can tell you, she's not someone you want to piss off. 

Suburban Mayhem is a stylish film, and at times comes off as a bit too lighthearted, with snappy visuals and quick asides that feel out of place in a comedy this dark.  But then, Suburban Mayhem isn't nearly lighthearted enough to have you walking away from it smiling, and Emily Barclay is the reason why. Her Katrina is one nasty bitch.








Monday, November 28, 2011

#469. Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000)


Directed By: Anh Hung Tran

Starring: Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Nhu Quynh Nguyen, Le Khanh





Trivia:  The film was shot entirely in Vietnam, in Hanoi and Halong Bay








Director Ahn Hung Tran’s Vertical Ray of the Sun is both a beautiful film and a beautiful experience. 

In Hanoi, Vietnam, three sisters are preparing for a banquet in honor of their deceased parents. Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), the eldest sister, owns the small café where the memorial dinner will take place. Khanh (Le Khanh), the middle sister, has recently discovered she’s pregnant, and both she and her husband, Kien (Tran Manh Cuong), are thrilled at the prospect of becoming parents. Their younger sister, Lien (Tran Nu Yen-Khe), is unmarried, and shares an apartment with their brother, Hai (Ngo Quang Hai). All three are dealing with the recent discovery that, years earlier, their mother may have had an extra-marital affair. As they delve deeper into their parents past, each of the sisters finds themselves confronting varying levels of deceit in their own relationships as well. 

Every character in Vertical Ray of the Sun is wonderfully expressive, and none more so than the sisters at the center of it all. In one very touching scene, the three of them are lounging in the café, debating whether or not their mother's supposed affair was simply a schoolgirl’s crush. After all, the only evidence pointing to an affair was the fact she uttered another man’s name on her deathbed. Lien, lying with her head on Khan’s lap, believes it was all very innocent. Their parents were too perfectly matched, and there was magic in their relationship. The mood of this scene is one of casual familiarity, enhanced by soft piano music playing just underneath, and conveying both a gentle tone and a mood that is overwhelming. In conjuncture with its well-established characterizations, Vertical Ray of the Sun also boasts an incredible artistic achievement by way of the cinematography of Pin Bing Lee. The film’s exquisite use of imagery, perfectly married to its story of love and deception, brings about a sense of tranquility that is almost hypnotic. 

Alive with poetry and the energy of performance, Vertical Ray of the Sun is pure beauty played out over 112 minutes.








Sunday, November 27, 2011

#468. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)


Directed By: Stanley Kramer

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark




Tag line: "The event the world will never forget"

Trivia:  Laurence Olivier was originally cast as Ernst Janning







Whenever a movie shifts its action into a courtroom, I immediately move to the edge of my seat. I love everything about courtroom dramas: the intense questioning and cross-examinations, the emotional outbursts, the last-minute revelations that break the case wide open. Simply brilliant. There have been some classic ones over the years, like Inherit the Wind, Witness for the Prosecution, Paths of Glory, The Verdict and To Kill a Mockingbird, just to name a few. None, however, had quite as powerful a subject matter as Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, a fictionalized account of the 1948 Nuremberg trials, during which former Nazi officials, many directly responsible for the Genocide carried out under their regime, stood accused of crimes against humanity. 

Judgment at Nuremberg centers on the trial of four German judges, the most notable of whom is renowned author and scholar Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). All four have been charged with sentencing innocent men, women and children to the death camps. American judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) presides, with U.S. Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) acting as prosecutor. Defense lawyer Hans Rolfe (Maximillian Schell) argues that the accused were merely enforcing the laws established by a totalitarian regime, and that failure to do so would have surely cost them their lives. But does fear and self-preservation excuse the deaths of countless innocents? 

What makes Judgment at Nuremberg so interesting is that it’s a trial not of the leaders of Nazi Germany, but lower-level officials, all of whom had no direct influence on Nazi policy. Yet as far as Col. Lawson, who was personally present at the liberation of the Dachau Concentration camp, is concerned, these four are as guilty as any who may have actually pulled the trigger or worked the gas chamber. In his opening statement, Lawson admits the case before the court is an unusual one. After all, at the time these judges made their rulings, they were adhering to the laws laid down by Hitler’s Nazi party. The basic question Lawson presents is; did these four have a higher obligation to the laws of humanity, even if they contradicted ones they'd sworn to uphold? Defense attorney Rolfe believes his clients were also victims, men who had no choice but to follow orders, while Lawson contends they did have a choice, not to mention an obligation, to enforce natural justice, a justice he believes they callously ignored. 

By the end of most courtroom dramas, I pretty much know how I'd rule if I were judge or jury. In presenting both sides so convincingly, Judgment at Nuremberg had me perplexed. Yet this confusion didn’t prevent my being fascinated with the story at hand. Judgment at Nuremberg is one of the most engrossing 3+ hour film I've ever sat through.








Saturday, November 26, 2011

#467. Dawn of the Dead (2004)


Directed By: Zack Snyder

Starring: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer




Tag line: "When the undead rise, civilization will fall"

Trivia:  Most of the zombie makeup was modeled after actual forensic photos








For me, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead isn't just one of the best horror movies ever made, it's one of the greatest films, period, a rare motion picture that actually improves with age. So it might come as a surprise to learn that, even though I adore the original, I'm quite a fan of Zack Snyder's 2004 remake as well. 

This time out, the setting is Wisconsin. Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse, awakens one morning to find herself in the midst of a living nightmare: the recently deceased have started to walk again, and are making a main course out of the living. Barely escaping with her life, Ana teams up with Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a cop, and, together with a trio of survivors they meet along the way, heads to a local shopping mall for safety. Once there, the five are attacked by a couple of hungry zombies, then taken into custody by an over-zealous security guard (Michael Kelly). All the while, the living dead are surrounding the mall, ensuring nobody inside will be leaving anytime soon. 

Snyder's Dawn of the Dead shares a handful of similarities with its predecessor. Aside from the premise of hiding out in a shopping mall, there's a series of cameos sure to bring a smile to the face of any zombie fan. Make-up artist Tom Savini, who worked closely with Romero to develop the look of the creatures in the '78 version, here plays a sheriff charged with hunting down the walking dead, and Ken Foree, who was the cop way back when, is a televangelist preaching of the end of days. But there are several notable differences between the films as well, chief among them being the overall number of survivors. Where Romero chose a scant four to shack up in his suburban Pennsylvania mall, Snyder kicks things off with five (along with Ana and Kenneth, there's Jake Weber's Michael, a natural leader, and Mekhi Pfifer's Andre, a former criminal trying to turn his life around by caring for his pregnant girlfriend, Luda, played by Inna Korobkina). The total soon grows to eight when the mall security guards, led by Michael Kelly's TJ, enter the picture, but we're still not done.  After a day or two, a whole truckload of survivors crash the party, including the arrogant Steve (Ty Burrell), the luscious Monica (Kim Poirier), and one or two others who prove a danger to them all. Then there's Andy (Bruce Bohne), the owner of the gun shop across the street. Stuck living on his roof, the group communicates with Andy by way of a message board, and, after impressing them with his marksmanship, he quickly becomes part of their extended family (in what's certainly the film's funniest scene, Kenneth, Steve and a few others challenge Andy to pick off celebrity look-alikes from the crowd of zombies gathered below). 

But the biggest difference between this Dawn of the Dead and Romero's is the dead themselves. On the slow side in the '78 original, Snyder's zombies are a lot quicker on their feet. Some genre purists refuse to accept that the recently dead would have the stamina to sprint after a potential victim (there's even a blog out there titled Zombies Don't Run). Regardless of whether its feasible or not, let me tell you, the first time one of Dawn of the Dead's creatures took off running, it scared the holy Bejesus out of me!








Friday, November 25, 2011

#466. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)


Directed By: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher




Trivia:  The role of Ann was originally written for Elizabeth McGovern, and was later offered to Brooke Shields, who turned it down








Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh’s award-winning independent film, is a deeply erotic experience. Yet its eroticism exists on a level much more intense, much more complicated than the physical act of love could ever hope to be.

Ann (Andie MacDowell) has lost her sex drive, pushing her husband, John (Peter Gallagher) into the arms of another woman; namely Ann’s tempestuous sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Graham (James Spader), an old college buddy of John’s, has just moved into the area. Graham has a very unusual hobby: he videotapes women as they discuss their sexual history. The lives of all four are thrown into chaos when Ann agrees to become Graham’s next subject, revealing a frightening truth that ultimately awakens something within them all.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape returns its characters to a time in their lives when sexuality was fresh and unexplored. Along with Ann, Cynthia also ends up making a videotape for Graham, and, like her sister, finds the very act of talking about her sexual past to be a a life-altering experience. By reliving such escapades, each of the women is brought to a heightened state of awareness, one that had long lied dormant amidst the treachery and deceit of their actual sex lives. All at once, the two siblings remember that sexuality can, in fact, be quite rewarding.

I was amazed at the high degree of sensuality present in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, especially since the film has no real sexual content to speak of (the traditional kind, that is). For these four individuals, sex had become a destructive force in their lives, and the remedy was a simple trip down memory lane. At the very least, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is proof positive the most powerful erogenous zone in the human body can be found well north of the waistline.








Thursday, November 24, 2011

#465. OT: Our Town (2003)


Directed By: Scott Hamilton Kennedy

Starring: Catherine Borek, Karen Greene, Ebony Starr Norwood-Brown




Tag line: "A famous American play, in an infamous American town"

Trivia:  This movie won the Audience Award at the Plam Springs International Film Festival






Our Town, a play written by Thornton Wilder in 1938, is set in the early 20th century in the small village of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. As the Narrator says, nobody spectacular ever came from Grover’s Corners, at least as far as anyone knows. The characters who populate this fictitious town lead small-town lives, and have names like Wally, George, Emily, and Howie.

Compton, a community in Los Angeles County, California, is known for its poverty and the occasional drive-by shooting. The people who live in Compton have accepted danger and hardship as part of their everyday lives, and have names like Ebony, Jose, and Armia. 

Miguel Dominguez High School, located in Compton, is a reflection of the town. The walls are covered with graffiti, and the students complain that race riots, between Blacks and Hispanics, are as much a part of their school as Homecoming or Graduation. 

OT: Our Town, a documentary by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, tells the story of two teachers and 24 students at Dominguez High, who, with no money (and not even a theater), plan to put on a production of Our Town, the first play to be performed at their school in nearly 20 years. 

The film opens one month and 13 days before opening night. Catherine Borek, the teacher behind the project, is busy selecting a cast, and by the time she’s done, she has who she believes will be the best person for each part. There’s Ebony, aged 16, who'll play the Stage Manager, essentially the narrator of the story. Archy, 16, and Armia, 17, will be the young lovers George and Emily. Jackie, an aspiring actress and fan of N’Sync, will be town gossip Mrs. Soames, and Jose is chosen to be Simon Stimson, Grover’s Corners choirmaster and town drunk (while I can’t say for sure, I believe it's probably the first time Simon Stimson will have been played by someone with a stud in their tongue).

There's a lot to like about Scott Hamilton Kennedy OT: Our Town. For one, this is a true story, captured as it was happening, with no preconceptions on how it would end. At the film’s outset, through interviews, observations, and even tagging along with the students outside of school, I was convinced Our Town would never see the light of day. In contrast to the many Hollywood fabrications on this theme, where a fairy-tale ending has you believing “No mountain is too high”, there were complications involved with OT: Our Town that were the equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest. Even up to the moment of the final rehearsal, I didn’t know what to expect, and the film never led me one way or another. It just followed along. 

Second, the realities of these kid’s lives outside school made their participation in the play all the more amazing. Director Kennedy took his camera everywhere, and in so doing reveals a great deal about his subjects. Ebony is being raised by a woman who was her babysitter. At five months old, her real mother, a prostitute, dropped her off and never returned to pick her up. Jose has attempted suicide, and though he failed, he tells of a friend who successfully ended his own life. At one point, the film crew is conducting an interview with several students in the parking lot when shots ring out. A car speeds by, and you know something very bad has just happened. This is the reality these kids must face on a daily basis. To try and remove yourself from these situations is difficult enough, but to do so by playing characters from long ago, with dialogue that may sound hollow and unconvincing to a modern audience, is something else altogether. 

What took place at Dominguez High in that one month and 13 days was more than a transformation; it was an awakening for many (if not all) of those 24 students. And what is the legacy of this small school production of Our Town? Well, for two years after the play was performed, there wasn’t a single riot at Dominguez High. 

Let’s see Hollywood top that.








Wednesday, November 23, 2011

#464. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)


Directed By: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones

Starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle




Tag line: "And now! At Last! Another film completely different from some of the other films which aren't quite the same as this one is."

Trivia:  Michael Palin, at an even dozen, plays the most characters in the film






I grew up watching reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on public television (which, in the Philadelphia area, was broadcast every Saturday night at 11 p.m). While in many ways an extension of the skit format that made their show a smash, Monty Python and the Holy Grail also gave the boys a chance to narrow their comedy by exploring a single topic, making it the best of both worlds for Python fans. 

Oh yeah…it’s damn funny, too. 

King Arthur (Graham Chapman) is searching for the bravest knights in the land to join his court at Camelot. On his journeys, he encounters many noble knights, including Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin), Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), and Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle), all of whom swear their undying allegiance to him. Once assembled, Arthur and his knights are given a divine task, assigned by God himself: seek out the Holy Grail. The search for the Grail is a perilous one, and the knights must outwit, among others, the gruesome knights who say ‘Ni’, a wizard named Tim (Cleese), and a ferocious, man-eating rabbit that might just bite their heads off. 

Though it does follow a specific narrative, Monty Python and the Holy Grail relates its story by way of some very funny vignettes, seemingly unrelated parts that. when merged, form a hilarious whole. In an obvious spoof of the Middle Ages' low mortality rate, a man (Eric Idle) follows a cart through the streets and, banging a pot, exclaims “Bring out your dead”, at which point people start dragging deceased family members from their homes, as if it were trash collection day. Even Arthur himself isn’t above reproach, and is afforded none of the honors normally bestowed upon a king. To begin with, he doesn’t own a horse; instead, his manservant, Patsy (Terry Gilliam), follows him around, striking two coconuts together to make it sound as if Arthur were trotting along on horseback. Then, he has to deal with a couple of peasants (Michael Palin and Terry Jones) who argue with him over the proper way to appoint a national leader (“King eh? Very nice. And how'd you get that? By exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma”). From there, it's off to a castle, where he's ridiculed and taunted by a particularly rude French knight, played by John Cleese (“I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction”). As if all this weren’t enough, Arthur finds he must battle the dreaded Black Knight (Cleese again), a valiant warrior who never gives up…even after losing a limb or two. 

By the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the boys will have added more than a few rough edges to Arthur’s legendary Round Table.








Tuesday, November 22, 2011

#463. The Crazies (1973)


Directed By: George A. Romero

Starring: Lane Carroll, Will MacMillan, Harold Wayne Jones




Tag line: "A Lethal Terror Snowballs Into Hell!"

Trivia:  Many of the movie's bit players were locals from Evans City, Pennsylvania, which is where the film was shot






Produced for around $250k, The Crazies is yet another low-budget feather in the cap of director George A. Romero. Focusing squarely on how those in authority deal with a crisis, The Crazies is an action-packed thriller, an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter, and an eye-opening experience. 

A plane carrying a biological weapon crashes near the small town of Evans City, Pennsylvania, releasing a deadly agent (known as the “Trixie” virus) into the local water supply. Hoping to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease, the military, under the command of Major Ryder (Harry Spillman), is sent in to quarantine the area. Troops slowly make their way through town, rounding up citizens and shuffling them off to the local high school for safe keeping. But with no idea what's going on, many residents aren't exactly willing to cooperate, including Judy (Lane Carroll) a nurse, and her fiancé David (Will MacMillan), a fireman. Judy's pregnant, and David has no intention of allowing the army to control their destiny.  Determined to make it to the safety of the next town over, David, Judy, and a handful of others head for the hills.  But with the military under strict orders to shoot whoever is not cooperating, how good are their chances at making it? 

The Trixie is a nasty virus, and we're shown first-hand just how terrible it can be (in the opening scene, an infected father of two murders his wife and sets his house on fire, his two young children still inside). But like many of Romero's best films, The Crazies is about more than a biological agent; it also takes aim at military intelligence. When troops are given orders to round up the citizens of Evans City, and to use whatever means necessary to do so, it leads to a number of chaotic shootouts, resulting in the deaths of townsfolk and soldiers alike. The personnel in the field are as much in the dark as the good people of Evans City, and have no clue why they're being asked to lay their lives on the line. Initially, the operation is led by Maj. Ryder, who's been in town since the crash was first reported. Once the order comes through to seal off the entire community, Ryder has neither the resources nor the manpower to pull it off. What's more, he doesn't have all the information. Initially told Trixie was a benign antibiotic, Ryder gets the real story from his replacement, Col. Peckem (Lloyd Hollar); that they're dealing with a virus designed for biological warfare. What neither Ryder nor Peckam know is the big boys in Washington, fearing the quarantine won't contain the virus, have ordered a bomber, packed with a nuclear warhead, into the air. If things get out of control, all of Evans City and everyone in it, including 1,500 military personnel, are to be obliterated. 

Along with its very tense story of a viral outbreak, The Crazies dares to challenge our faith in authority. Do the people whom we put our faith in have any idea what they're doing? As Romero shows us time and again throughout The Crazies, our willingness to question authority may mean the difference between life and death.








Monday, November 21, 2011

#462. The Furies (1950)


Directed By: Anthony Mann

Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Walter Huston





Trivia:  This was Walter Huston's final film









The Furies was shot entirely in black and white; but then it couldn’t have been done any other way. With a brooding story, populated by dark, complex characters, there wasn't a color in the spectrum that could have possibly penetrated this film. 

The year is 1870, the setting, New Mexico. T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston, in his final screen appearance) is a former cattle baron who used his wealth to construct an enormous ranch, which he named the Furies. His daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), has a lot in common with her father, including a love of the Furies. T.C., who's fallen on hard times and owes money all over the territory, has promised to turn the ranch over to Vance one day, convinced she's the only person capable of running it the way it needs to be run. But a love of the Furies isn’t the only thing father and daughter share; both are headstrong, and clash openly over everything from potential husbands for Vance to how to handle the squatters that have, for years, been trespassing on their land. When T.C. openly rejects a series of suitors for Vance, the stage is set for a face-off, one that ultimately threatens to destroy not only their relationship, but the Furies as well. 

Huston and Stanwyck are stellar as T.C. and Vance, two individuals so incredibly alike, sharing the same boisterous, egotistical personality, that their eventual clash was inevitable. At the wedding reception of T.C’s son, Clay (John Bromfield), who's always taken a back seat to his more ambitious sister, a rival of T.C.’s named Darrow (Wendell Corey) unexpectedly turns up. T.C, who had shot and killed Darrow’s father years earlier, insults Darrow and orders him to leave. At that, Vance turns to their unwanted ‘guest’ and asks him to join her in a dance. Before long, Darrow and Vance are seeing each other regularly, and even talking of marriage. It’s an open challenge to T.C., who earlier had presented Vance with a dowry of $50,000, which he promised to turn over only if he approved of her choice of husband. Less a courtship than a showdown between father and daughter, it’s the first in what will become a series of standoffs between them. 

There are very few likeable characters in The Furies, and while we do feel a certain degree of sympathy for T.C. and Vance, it shifts back and forth between the two of them, never once coming to rest on both at the same time. These two are like a dark cloud hanging over the film, in much the same way they hang over the Furies ranch and everyone who resides in it. From the moment we meet T.C. and Vance, it's obvious a storm is brewing, and heaven help anyone who gets caught in the middle of it.








Sunday, November 20, 2011

#461. Visions of Light (1992)


Directed By: Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, Stuart Samuels

Starring: Conrad L. Hall, John Bailey, Vilmos Zsigmond


Trivia:  Director Todd McCarthy had hoped to include an interview with legendary cinematographer, John Alton, but could not locate him. Alton had quit the movie business, and for many years, even close friends didn't even know if he was still alive. In 1992, McCarthy received a phone call from the now 91-year-old Alton, who had heard about Visions of Light, and wanted to attend the premiere.




In the beginning, there was a guy with a camera. 

This is one of the first observations made in Visions of Light, a documentary produced by the American Film Institute, which focuses on the cinematographer's contribution to the art of motion pictures. It is a contribution that stretches back to film’s earliest days. Before there were actors or directors, before there were sets or costumes, before there was any commerce at all attached to the medium, there was a guy with a camera, capturing images he felt were important. From these humble beginnings, the greatest art form of the 20th century was born. 

Visions of Light is as complete a documentary on the subject as could possibly be produced. It begins in the days of the silents, when cameras, unencumbered by sound equipment, could roam freely, and carries us through to modern times, with today’s experts recalling the precise moment they fell in love with images on film. Visions of Light reviews the work of the pioneers, men like Gregg Toland, whose genius was the driving force behind the technical innovations of Citizen Kane. Director Orson Welles was so indebted to Toland that he paid his cameraman the highest compliment, listing Toland's name in the closing credits alongside his own. Of course, directors aren’t the only ones who relied on the skill of the cinematographer; the performers had their favorites as well. Greta Garbo arguably one of the biggest stars in motion picture history, demanded that William Daniels work the camera on all her films (Daniels would shoot 21 of the 24 she made between 1926 and 1939). 

In Visions of Light, we learn a great deal about the men and women whose names are not entirely foreign to film fans, yet not entirely familiar, either. Cinematographers such as James Wong Howe (Picnic, Sweet Smell of Success, Hud), Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, American Beauty), Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Black Dahlia) and Gordon Willis (The Godfather, All the President’s Men, Manhattan), whose profession seldom allowed them to step into the spotlight, but whose contribution to the art form is immeasurable. 

Visions of Light is a must for film fans, whether they be obsessive or merely casual. It is a chronicle of the men and women who guide our line of sight, focus our attention in the exact spot it must be focused, and ultimately capture the images we have grown to love. Visions of Light reminds us of this, and all that the cinema owes to these individuals. It's a debt so large, I fear it could never be repaid.








Saturday, November 19, 2011

#460. Barbarian Queen (1985)


Directed By: Héctor Olivera

Starring: Lana Clarkson, Katt Shea, Frank Zagarino





Tag line: "No man can touch her naked steel"

Trivia:  This movie was shot in Argentina








Barbarian Queen sure doesn't waste any time. Before 45 seconds have ticked off the clock, we're watching the sexual assault of a young maiden (Dawn Dunlap), whose clothes are torn off by a couple of goons as she's picking flowers in the forest. This first minute or so pretty much sets the stage for the entire film, in which gratuitous nudity is employed time and again to draw attention away from a series of lackluster battle scenes and some truly laughable dialogue. 

The girl attacked in the woods is the sister of Amathea (Lana Clarkson), a respected warrior who's engaged to be married to Prince Argan (Frank Zagarino), the leader of their village. The wedding is set to take place in a few hours time, but the preparations are interrupted by the raiding army of King Zohar (Tony Middleton), which burns the village to the ground and carries off its citizens, including Prince Argan, to be used as slaves. With the help of her trusty sword, Amathea manages to escape capture, and vows revenge against Zohar and all who follow him. 

There's no shortage of nudity in Barbarian Queen; even Amathea gets her top ripped off once or twice, and with a large cast of gorgeous beauties in attendance, such moments are certainly a pleasant diversion. Too bad there isn't much more besides. The battle sequences, whether it be two armies slugging it out or a mono-et-mono showdown, are borderline pathetic. The initial raid on the village is shot almost entirely from a distance, generating more confusion than excitement, and though beautiful, Lana Clarkson and her army of bad-ass babes aren't the least bit convincing with a sword. In fact, the only good thing about the battle scenes is nobody's talking during them. Even for a low-budget fantasy film, the dialogue in Barbarian Queen is both painful and hilarious. For a while, I was trying to make a game of it, writing down each and every line that caused me to chuckle. I think I finally stopped somewhere around the half-hour mark, not because the dialogue improved, but because I couldn't keep up with it any longer. My poor hand was throbbing. After raping Amathea's sister, one of the assailants blurts out “Nothing like a virgin to brighten a man's morning”. Then, as they're marching Argan and the others out of the village, another goon shouts “Move faster or we'll cut your legs off!”. But it's Amathea who gets all the best lines. Through clenched teeth, she tells one of her maidens, “Today was my wedding day. Now the only thing I have left is what might have been. I'm going to get it back!” This is seriously funny stuff. 

Ultimately, I'm torn on Barbarian Queen. Make no mistake; it's a bad film, but there's an earnestness about it as well, a sort of innocent charm that, at times, kinda got to me. At the very least, I was hoping to recommend it as another “so bad, it's good” sort of movie, but I don't know if I can even go that far. Barbarian Queen has the “bad” down pat; it's the “good” I'm having a hard time justifying.








Friday, November 18, 2011

#459. Ed Wood (1994)


Directed By: Tim Burton

Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker




Tag line: "Movies were his passion. Women were his inspiration. Angora sweaters were his weakness"

Trivia:  This film cost more to produce than all of Edward D. Wood Jr.'s films put together






Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is arguably one of the worst films ever made, directed by (just as arguably) one of the worst filmmakers of all time. But after watching Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, I now see the infamous director in a much different light. As played by Johnny Depp, Wood was a man who loved movies, and was absolutely thrilled to be working in the medium, even if the medium didn't exactly reciprocate that joy. 

From a young age, Ed Wood (Depp) dreamed of becoming a Hollywood director. When Georgie Weiss (Mike Starr), a producer of B-movies, announces he's making a film about a sex change operation, Ed is convinced he’s the most qualified person to direct it, not because he's a gifted filmmaker, but because he is secretly a transvestite. Ed uses this morsel of personal information to land the job, despite the fact he hasn't even told his live-in girlfriend, actress Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), the truth about his peculiar 'habit'. Thus begins one of the strangest careers in the annals of motion picture history. Over the years, Ed would befriend a variety of bizarre characters, including screen legend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), the star of Universal Studios’ 1931 horror classic, Dracula, who, by the '50s, was a poverty-stricken drug addict. Lugosi appeared in a number of Wood’s films alongside other Hollywood misfits, including Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), a hokey psychic named Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), and a former T.V. horror queen known to the world as Vampira (Lisa Marie). With his loyal cast and crew at his side, Ed Wood directed a handful of movies over his nearly 20-year career, even though he had absolutely no talent for it whatsoever. 

The true charm of Ed Wood lies in the performances of both Johnny Depp and Martin Landau. Depp plays Wood as an eternal optimist, someone who can find a bright side to every tragedy. It's an enthusiasm he carries with him to the director's chair. Martin Landau won an Academy Award for his turn as Bela Lugosi, and rightly so. Landau's Lugosi is a complex character, a former movie star who realizes his best days are behind him, yet still insists on being treated like a big shot everywhere he goes. When an admiring stagehand asks Lugosi for his autograph, telling the aging actor he loved him in the one where he played “Karloff’s sidekick”, Lugosi launches into an angry tirade, claiming Karloff wasn’t half the actor he himself was. Humorous moments aside, Bela Lugosi is Ed Wood's most tragic figure, a penniless heroin addict clinging to a past that has completely abandoned him. In portraying this Hollywood icon, Landau milks a full range of emotions, causing us to laugh as we’re choking back tears. 

If determination itself could be transformed into actual talent, Ed Wood might have had a brilliant career. But then, even with his sub-par output, we still remember Ed Wood, don’t we? To this day, his movies continue to play. 

Maybe Ed Wood got the last laugh after all.








Thursday, November 17, 2011

#458. George Washington (2000)


Directed By: David Gordon Green

Starring: Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Damian Jewan Lee




Tag line: "down this twisted road, please watch over my soul and lift me up so gently so as not to touch the ground"

Trivia:  Nearly all of the actors in the film were non-professionals that had been hand-picked by David Gordon Green through random circumstances




It opens with a slow-motion montage of children frolicking on a summer's day. As a piano plays softly in the background, the narrator of the story, a young girl named Nasia (Candace Evanofski), introduces us to the world we’re about to explore. In this initial scene, director David Gordon Green establishes a soft, melancholy tone that will resonate throughout the film, transforming George Washington from your run-of-the-mill adolescent drama into a truly unique cinematic experience. 

One of the local kids, a boy named George (Donald Holden), is considered dim-witted by many who live in his peaceful southern town . Yet despite his mental deficiencies, George believes he’s better than most, and is convinced he’s destined for greatness. It’s this attitude that first impresses Nasia, who has just broken off a romance with George's friend, Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) in order to pursue a relationship with George. Unfortunately for Nasia, George is too busy searching for his place in the world to take any notice of her. 

George Washington follows its characters and their exploits with an observant eye. One day, as George, Buddy, and their two friends, Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and Sonya (Rachael Handy), are roughhousing in the bathroom of an abandoned building, a tragedy occurs (one I refuse to spoil for you here). Now, in almost any other drama, this event would influence every action and reaction, every single situation from that point on. In short, it would become the focal point of the entire picture. However, George Washington is not your typical film; as time marches on, even something as awful as what occurred in that bathroom becomes little more than a side story in the lives of its characters. For director Green, no situation is more important than the individuals who inhabit them, and he never once takes the focus off of his characters to follow narrative plot lines, regardless of how horrific the event might be.








Wednesday, November 16, 2011

#457. The Terminator (1984)


Directed By: James Cameron

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn



Tag line: "The thing that won't die, in the nightmare that won't end"

Trivia:  O.J. Simpson was considered for the role of the Terminator, but the producers feared he was "too nice" to be taken seriously as a cold-blooded killer





James Cameron’s 1984 Sci-Fi blockbuster, The Terminator, is the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger an action star. The Austrian-born bodybuilder would go on to dominate the genre for the better part of a decade, appearing in some of the most exciting films ever to emerge from Hollywood. 

The year is 2029, and the world as we know it has been destroyed.  A brutal war between man and machines has killed millions of people, making the machines the planet's dominant species. Only a small pocket of resistance fighters remain, who, despite limited numbers, have successfully disrupted their enemies at every turn.  In an effort to stop the rebellion before it starts, the machines send a highly developed cyborg, called a Terminator (Schwarzenegger), back in time to Los Angeles, 1984. His mission: kill Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), the woman who gave birth to the future leader of the resistance, John Conner. With Sarah Conner dead, John Conner will never be born. To protect Sarah, the resistance sends one of their own, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), back to the same time period. Heavily armed, Kyle does what he can to shield Sarah from the ruthless Terminator, which will never stop until its mission is completed. 

Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is a cyborg of very few words, speaking only a handful of times throughout the film, and when it does, it's usually short and to the point (like the actor’s now-patented catch-phrase, “I’ll be back”, a line he uttered for the very first time in this movie). But then, this is a machine that doesn’t need words; it may speak softly, but it carries a big arsenal. Upon its arrival in the past, the Terminator gets right down to business, murdering one punk rocker (a young Bill Paxton) before stealing the clothes of another. From there, its off to a small gun shop, where it has the proprietor (Dick Miller) pull all his best weapons off the shelf, then shoots the man with his own merchandise. To ensure the success of his mission, the Terminator next turns his attention to killing every Sarah Conner in the phone book, taking out the first one (Marianne Muellerleile) by pumping six rounds into her as she stood defenseless in her living room. The Terminator is a killing machine, programmed with a single goal and a driving determination to see it through. Reese fills Sarah in on just what they’re up against when he says, “it can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and it absolutely will not stop…ever”. We’ve seen Schwarzenegger play tough before, but in The Terminator he’s also damn scary. 

His role in The Terminator transformed Arnold Schwarzenegger into box-office gold, and films like Predator, The Running Man, Total Recall, and the first Terminator sequel further established his ranking as the #1 action hero of his time, a man with no fear who always got the job done. This is the very attitude that steered his character in The Terminator

Only here, he was working for the other side.








Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#456. Killer Nun (1979)


Directed By: Giulio Berruti

Starring: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, Alida Valli





Trivia:  The entire film was shot on-location in Brussels, Belgium









Having spent 12 years in Catholic schools, the very concept of a killer nun isn't entirely foreign to me. That's not to say I've known any who've actually committed a murder, but there were days I was convinced some of them had it in 'em. 

Sure enough, Giulio Berruti's Killer Nun kicks off with the following disclaimer: “This film is based on actual events that took place in a Central European country not many years ago”. Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) is an assistant at a psychiatric hospital, a facility for the sick, the wounded, and the elderly. A while back, Sister had a tumor removed from her brain, an event directly responsible for her current addiction to morphine. Complaining of headaches and fainting spells, Gertrude has started taking her frustrations out on the patients under her care. Her roommate and close friend, Sister Mattheiu (Paola Morra), does what she can to cover up for Sister Gertrude, but her odd behavior has been noticed by both the resident physician (Massimo Serato) and the Mother Superior (Alida Valli). With Gertrude's sanity slowly slipping away, it isn't long before the patients themselves rally against her, making her the prime suspect when several turn up dead. But is Sister Gertrude really a killer, or is she being framed by someone else? 

As I said, I've known some strange nuns in my time, but none were ever quite as twisted as Sister Gertrude. One night, as the patients are eating their supper, Sister Gertrude notices that Josephine (Nerina Montagnani), who's quite elderly, is soaking her false teeth in a glass of water. In a fit of rage, Gertrude throws the teeth onto the floor and smashes them to bits. Already suffering from a weak heart, this whole ordeal proves more than Josephine can handle, and later that night, she dies of a heart attack. Far from mourning for Josephine, Gertrude roots through the recently deceased's dresser drawer, swiping a valuable diamond ring that she hopes to sell or, at the very least, trade for morphine. The next day, Gertrude, wearing street clothes, makes a trip into town, where she pawns the ring, scores some morphine, and even has sex with a businessman in a hotel hallway. In these scenes, and many others, Sister Gertrude bears more of a resemblance to Attila the Hun than she does Mother Theresa. 

Killer Nun does offer a few tense moments, and, at times, is an eye-opening experience (I never knew some nuns slept in the nude), but overall, the movie is bland an uninspired. None of the murders are particularly memorable (save one involving some acupuncture needles), and the central mystery, once revealed, turns out to be anything but a surprise. As someone with a little experience in the area, believe me when I say the filmmakers could have done a whole lot more with a movie titled Killer Nun.








Monday, November 14, 2011

#455. L'Avventura (1960)


Directed By: Michelangelo Antonioni

Starring: Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti, Lea Massari




Trivia:  At its premiere at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, this was booed so much to the extent that Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti fled the theater. However, after the second screening there was a complete turn around in how it was perceived and it was awarded the Special Jury Prize




For many, the acquisition of wealth is a life-long goal. But what is it that steers the dreams and ambitions of those who are already wealthy? Having attained a level of comfort most of us will never know, what drives their hopes, their desires? For those few that inhabit the world of L’Avventura, the answer to these questions is both simple and disturbing: they haven’t the foggiest idea. 

The boredom and complacency of the upper class is pushed to the forefront in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 classic, the winner of a special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film festival that same year. While on a yachting trip, a group of Italian socialites decide to tour a small volcanic island, where one of their number, the beautiful Anna (Lea Masseri), vanishes without a trace. Her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), begin a frantic search for her, wondering as they go what could have become of their beloved Anna. When a sweep of the island turns up nothing, Sandro and Claudia widen their investigation to include several towns in the outlying area, yet as their probe wears on, the two grow unexpectedly closer to one another, so much so that, after a few days, they no longer care if they find Anna at all. 

In the guise of a love story, L’Avventura is, in fact, an indictment of the total absence of feelings. Early on, Sandro is, by all appearances, deeply in love with Anna. Before leaving for the yachting trip, they make love in Anna's apartment as Claudia stands waiting in the street below (clearly, at this point, Claudia is little more than the proverbial ‘third wheel'). Then, Anna disappears, and Sandro and Claudia must join forces to find her. When their initial search of the island turns up nothing, Sandro shocks Claudia by making a pass at her. Over time, we learn that Sandro’s sudden interest in Claudia has nothing whatsoever to do with love; it is an affection born of self-interest. For Sandro to have remained concerned about Anna’s whereabouts any longer would've required a selflessness he simply did not possess. After spending an entire evening on the windy, desolate island with Claudia and their friend, Corrado (James Addams) in the hopes Anna might return, Sandro has grown weary of the whole affair. As far as he’s concerned, Anna is gone, and he must now turn his attention to fulfilling his own needs. What's even more shocking than Sandro's behavior is that he's not at all unusual; each and every character in this circle of “friends” acts in much the same way. 

The lone exception to this sorry state of affairs was Anna; from the opening scene, it's obvious she was feeling restless, confused, even bored, though she couldn't explain why. Her disappearance may have signaled an awakening of sorts, a sudden and jarring realization of the futility of her empty life. When Anna vanishes from L’Avventura, the light of perception goes with her, and the lost souls she leaves behind have little choice but to continue to wallow in their self-imposed darkness. 

Without knowing what happened to her, I found myself respecting Anna. I wanted to believe she simply walked away. Watching the other characters interact though the remainder of L’Avventura, I could see quite clearly that “walking away” would've been the right thing to do.








Sunday, November 13, 2011

#454. Maniac (1980)


Directed By: William Lustig

Starring: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Abigail Clayton




Tag line: "It will tear the life out of you"

Trivia:  In order to keep costs down, porn actresses were hired to play several of the minor female roles







Maniac, a 1980 slasher movie about a killer stalking the streets of New York City, is sick, brutal, and perverted beyond belief. It's also a damned fine horror film. 

Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a serial killer. Haunted by the abuse he suffered as a child, Frank now takes out his aggression on the women of New York, whom he murders in grisly fashion before cutting off their scalps (which he then adds to his 'collection'). With an entire city on the hunt for him, Frank strikes up an unlikely relationship with Anna (Caroline Munro), a fashion photographer. Whenever he's with her, Frank is able to control his dark desires, but how long will it be before his sanity once again slips away? 

Maniac is a violent movie, at times appallingly so. Frank's first two victims, a young couple (James Brewster and Linda Lee Walker) relaxing on the beach, are finished off in typical slasher fashion, but from that point on, the bloodshed escalates. A prostitute (Rita Montone) who promises to show Frank a good time is instead strangled to death, after which Frank pulls out a straight razor and removes her scalp, a particularly gruesome effect courtesy of master make-up artist, Tom Savini. Yet even this is merely a prelude to the carnage that's to follow. In what is unquestionably one of Savini's greatest individual effects, Frank, stalking a pair of lovers making out in a parked vehicle, jumps onto the hood of their car and, brandishing a shotgun, blows the guy's head almost completely apart (the victim is played by Savini himself). Having seen some of Tom Savini's best work (Friday the 13th, The Prowler, Dawn of the Dead), I'm hard pressed to come up with a single effect from any of his other films that tops this. 

Joe Spinell delivers a chilling performance as Frank Zito, a man who never recovered from the physical and emotional torment of his youth. He has long, rambling conversations with himself (“Why do you let me do that? You have to be careful. You have to listen to me”), moans and grunts incessantly whenever he's on the prowl, and chooses his victims entirely at random, leaving the police with very few clues to follow up on. With Frank, Spinell has crafted a killer every bit as dangerous as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, and a whole lot more frightening. 

Even by the standards established in such classic slasher movies as Halloween, Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, Maniac is a disturbingly gory film. You won't soon forget it.








Saturday, November 12, 2011

#453. Fargo (1996)


Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi




Tag line: "A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere"

Trivia:  Jerry Lundegaard's last name comes from Bob Lundegaard, movie critic for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune from 1973-1986






Put Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), with her thick Minnesota accent and imposingly pregnant physique, in any other film, and she’s the comic relief. In Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 award-winning tale of extortion and brutality, Marge is much more substantial; a professional who pieces together clues as meticulously as Sherlock Holmes, and a beacon of hope in what quickly becomes a hopeless situation. 

Car Salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is bogged down by some hefty financial troubles. He would ask his wealthy father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell), for help, but Wade doesn’t think all that highly of Jerry as it is. So, he does what any sensible man in his position would do; hire two out-of-state goons to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd) and demand a ransom of $80,000 for her safe return, an amount Jerry is sure Wade will cough up to save his beloved daughter. Intent on splitting the $80k with his cohorts, Jerry is relieved when the abduction goes off without a hitch, but as the kidnappers, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), are driving the panic-stricken Mrs. Lundegaard through Brainard, Minnesota, the unthinkable happens: people start dying. Enter Brainard’s Chief of Police, Marge Gunderson, a woman as incredibly sharp as she is incredibly pregnant. With Marge on the case, Jerry Lundegaard has little choice but to sit back and watch his entire plan unravel before his eyes. 

Whereas Marge Gunderson shows off her intelligence early on, piecing together exactly what transpired at the first murder scene right down to the last detail, the remaining characters in Fargo go to great lengths to display just how stupid they really are. First, there’s Jerry Lundegaard, who not only trusts two complete strangers to kidnap his wife, but also expects his abrasive father-in-law to hand over the ransom money with no questions asked. Obviously, thinking things through isn’t Jerry’s strong suit. Then there's Carl and Gaear, two guys who, in less than 24 hours, turn a pre-arranged kidnapping into a triple homicide. With all three failing to adequately cover their tracks, solving this particular case will be as close to child’s play as murder can get for Marge Gunderson. 

As the events of Fargo roll along, spiraling into a quagmire of confusion and violence, Marge Gunderson remains in perfect control, drifting in and out of the film like a morning breeze, and keeping her head about her while all around are losing theirs. Humorous mannerisms aside, Marge Gunderson is the only character in Fargo that’s worth a damn.








Friday, November 11, 2011

#452. The Usual Suspects (1995)


Directed By: Bryan Singer

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri




Tag line: "The truth is always in the last place you look"

Trivia:  Christopher McQuarrie's inspiration for the character of Keyser Soze was a real-life murderer by the name of John List, who murdered his family and then disappeared for 17 years




In 1995’s The Usual Suspects, director Bryan Singer pulls off a minor miracle, creating a character so ruthless that the mere mention of his name causes hardened criminals to break out in a cold sweat. The character in question, Keyser Soze, hangs heavy over the entire picture, despite the fact not a single person in the movie has actually seen him. There’s even an outside chance that Keyser Soze doesn’t exist at all. 

Petty thief Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) is the sole survivor of a Los Angeles dockside explosion, the scene of a massive drug deal gone very wrong. He’s arrested and taken in for questioning, which leads to a rather harsh interrogation at the hands of detective Dave Cujan (Chazz Palminteri). 

Verbal tells Cujan it all started five days earlier, when he was picked up by the cops and placed in a lineup with four other criminals; Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak). All five were then approached by a lawyer named Kobayashi (Peter Postlethwaite), who claimed to represent Keyser Soze, the most notorious name in the underworld. According to Verbal, it was the elusive Soze who ordered them to carry out the job on the docks, but is he telling the truth, or simply feeding the cops a fairy tale? 

Keyser Soze will go down as one of the great movie villains of all time, though we never see him in action. Then again, who needs visual proof when you have a legend this awesome to back you up? The police have heard the name Keyser Soze before, but believe he's little more than a thief’s version of the boogeyman. Yet for the five main characters at the heart of The Usual Suspects, Keyser Soze is all too real. He knows who they are, and has threatened their nearest and dearest if they don’t do exactly as he says. Director Singer builds an aura of mystery around Keyser Soze, providing dreamlike flashbacks of his life, including a very tense, violent showdown with the Hungarian mob, after which Soze allegedly disappeared, never to be heard from again. That is, until now. 

Crime films heavy on violence are rarely singled out at awards time, but The Usual Suspects had something special going for it: Kevin Spacey, who plays the character of motor mouth Verbal Kint to perfection (the performance won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). The entire story is told from Kint's perspective, and though he claims it's all the Gospel truth, there's really no way to be sure. Verbal even delivers the film’s greatest line, one of those bits of dialogue destined to be remembered for years to come. When Cujan tells Verbal he doesn't think Keyser Soze is real, Verbal assures the detective he is. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled”, he says, “is convincing the world he doesn’t exist”. 

That’s a great line. And The Usual Suspects is a great movie.






Thursday, November 10, 2011

#451. The Philadelphia Story (1940)


Directed By: George Cukor

Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart




Tag line: "Broadway's howling year-run comedy hit of the snooty society beauty who slipped and fell - IN LOVE!"

Trivia:  Although George Cukor was not usually a very physical director, Katharine Hepburn incorporated some of his mannerisms into her performance




Philadelphia socialite C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) learns that his ex-wife, the headstrong and arrogant Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), is about to marry the eternally nice but extremely boring George Kitteridge (John Howard). To make matters worse, a local Philadelphia magazine is, at the same time, set to publish an expose on Tracy’s womanizing father (John Halliday). In an effort to squash the potentially scandalous story, C.K. makes a deal with the magazine’s editor, promising to sneak reporter Macauley Conner (James Stewart) and a photographer (Ruth Hussey) into his ex-wife's wedding, thus giving the magazine an exclusive scoop on the society event of the year. But C.K. has his own motives for doing so, namely that he's hoping to foul up the wedding and win Tracy back for himself. Of course, things get a bit complicated when the reporter, Conner, also falls in love with Tracy, even though she stands for everything he detests. 

Despite its many characters and situations, The Philadelphia Story is ultimately the tale of Tracy Lord, the snide socialite who abhors imperfection. As a matter of principle, she refuses to invite her estranged father to her wedding, even though her mother (Mary Nash) is still in love with him. Tracy also maintains a contemptuous relationship with C.K., who, rumor has it, slugged her the day their marriage ended (actually, he just shoved her to the ground). Hepburn's Tracy is tough as nails and won’t stand for a man’s indiscretions, which explains her impending marriage to Kitteridge. In him, she's found a mate who'll adore her, obey her, and bend over backwards if she so desires. Enter Macauley Conner, the tabloid columnist and aspiring poet, who, with his strong opinions, is able to open the young woman’s eyes. Whereas Tracy can’t abide imperfection, Conner loathes high society and all the phony prestige that goes with it. He is the perfect counterweight to Tracy, and his very manner stirs something inside of her. 

Saying Katherine Hepburn was born to play the part of Tracy Lord is not the cliché it appears to be. Fact is, playwright Philip Barry, who wrote the original stage version of The Philadelphia Story, supposedly based the character on Ms. Hepburn, who at the time was suffering from a rather poor public image. Seen as aloof and even arrogant by an unforgiving public, Hepburn’s movie career was on the rocks. Her performance in The Philadelphia Story, first on stage and then screen, changed all that. It was as if Hepburn herself had transformed from the upper-class snob the public believed her to be into a gentle, vulnerable woman. Because of the success of The Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn was no longer deemed box-office poison, and would go on to appear in some of the greatest motion pictures ever made. 

I wonder if there’s a better example of life imitating art?