Saturday, December 31, 2011

#502. Dressed to Kill (1980)


Directed By: Brian De Palma

Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen



Tag line: "Brian De Palma Master Of The Macabre, Invites You To A Showing Of The Latest Fashion...In Murder"

Trivia:  As a young man, De Palma, at his mother's urging, actually followed his father and used recording equipment to try and catch him with another woman. That incident inspired this film




Dressed to Kill opens with New York housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickenson) standing in the shower, watching her lover through the smoky glass as she soaps up.  The passion slowly builds within her, but this erotic moment is interrupted when another man grabs Kate from behind, covering her mouth as he rapes her right there in the shower. What started as a steamy dream sequence quickly devolves into a nightmare, and Dressed to Kill has revealed the first of its many surprises. 

Following a torrid sexual encounter with a complete stranger, Kate is murdered, and her body dumped in an elevator. Prostitute Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) is the only witness to the killing, and as a result, finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the police are pressuring Liz for more information, threatening to charge her with the murder if she doesn’t cooperate. Then there's the actual killer, who’s out to silence Liz permanently. With the help of Kate Miller’s son, Peter (Keith Gordon), Liz hopes to clear her name and track down the responsible party before she, too, ends up in the morgue. 

Director Brian De Palma flexes his cinematic muscles throughout Dressed to Kill, giving us everything from his patented split screens to the ever-popular dream sequence (which he springs on us a number of times, and usually when we least expect it). Along with his bag of tricks, the director makes excellent use of the film’s musical score, which accentuates both the passion and the suspense. Take the scene at the Art Museum, for example, where Kate meets the man with whom she’ll have her first and, as it turns out, last extra-marital affair. By this point in the film, De Palma's already established that Kate is sexually frustrated, having confessed as much to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), earlier in the morning. At the museum, Kate sits quietly in front of a portrait, glancing around occasionally to take in the various mating rituals the other patrons are engaged in; a young couple, embracing each other, are resisting the urge to grow even more amorous in such a public place, while beside them, a man hits on a pretty blonde. All this plays out in total silence. Then, as Kate is jotting something down in her day planner, a man sits next to her, at which point the music swells. She removes a glove, revealing her wedding ring. He sees it, and walks away. Kate pursues him, dropping her gloves as she stands. She follows him. He follows her. Soon, the chase turns tense; Kate begins to jog through the museum at a frantic pace, and we’re not sure if she’s running to, or from, this mysterious stranger. Thanks in large part to Pino Donnagio's score, the tone of this entire scene shifts, from soft and romantic one minute to quick and frightening the next, and without so much as a single line of dialogue. 

With sharp visuals and musical cues to drive the tempo, words would have just gotten in the way.








Friday, December 30, 2011

#501. Mystery Train (1989)


Directed By: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Masatoshi Nagase, Youki Kudoh, Screamin' Jay Hawkins





Trivia:  The hotel where the three stories converge is no longer standing, so many fans of the movie have made pilgrimages to the site only to find that it no longer exists.






Mystery Train is my favorite Jim Jarmusch film. I enjoy everything about this offbeat little movie, from the way it skillfully ties its three-part story together, to its down and dirty depiction of Memphis, long considered the birthplace of Rock and Blues music, yet presented here in a way it's never been seen before. This is not the Memphis made popular by Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison or Sun Records. In Mystery Train, we visit areas of the city its Tourism Council would sooner forget exist.

Named after a popular Elvis Presley song, Mystery Train relates three separate Memphis experiences. Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) have just arrived from Japan, armed with both an extensive knowledge of Rock Music and a burning desire to see where Elvis got his start. They're young and optimistic, and aren’t the least bit discouraged by the fact they don't speak a word of English. Luisa (Nicolette Braschi) just flew in from Italy to claim her late husband's remains. She ends up sharing a motel room with Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), an energetic young woman who recently walked out on her husband, Johnny (Joe Strummer). Nicknamed “Elvis” because of his resemblance to the King, Johnny is mired in a deep depression. Aside from losing Dee Dee, he was also laid off from his job, and both his friend, Will (Rick Aviles), and brother-in-law, Charlie (Steve Buscemi), do their best to help Johnny snap out of his funk. As luck would have it, all of these characters check into the same motel for the night, a third-rate joint with a portrait of Elvis in every room. Even in this rundown area of town, the spirit of Elvis Presley lives, and that spirit will touch the lives of some of them before the night is out. 

In a 1984 interview with Film Comment magazine, Jarmusch said he was fond of what he termed the ‘post-industrial landscape’, believing a study of urban decay evokes a natural sadness while, at the same time, creating something quite beautiful. In Mystery Train, we go “off the beaten path”, away from Memphis' various tourist attractions. As Jun and Mitsuko make their way to Sun Studios, they pass dilapidated houses, abandoned storefronts and walls decorated with graffiti. When Luisa leaves an all-night diner, two shady men, one of whom just bilked her out of twenty dollars, follow her. Johnny, depressed over losing his woman and his job in the same day, gets drunk at a local bar, the kind of place where you feel a fight's always about to break out. This is the Memphis Jim Jarmusch chose to explore, the Memphis that fascinated him, and the enthusiasm he showed for this neglected corner of town was catching; I, too, was captivated by it. 

Mystery Train has everything you'd expect to find in a Jim Jarmusch film: the subtle humor, the urban setting, and characters that exude a genuine innocence. It has all this, and even throws in a visit from Elvis’ ghost for good measure. But the King’s apparition doesn’t hang around very long. Late at night, in one of the motel rooms, the spirit of Elvis materializes out of thin air, looks around and says, “Sorry, I must be in the wrong place”. 

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, as amazing as it may sound, not even Elvis Presley recognized Jim Jarmusch’s Memphis!








Thursday, December 29, 2011

#500. Let The Right One In (2008)


Directed By: Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson and Per Ragnar



Tag line: "Eli is 12 years old. She's been 12 for over 200 years and, she just moved in next door"

Trivia:  Almost every scene in the movie contains the color red or red/orange







Let the Right One In, a 2008 Swedish Vampire film, is about the unique relationship that develops between two young people. Twelve-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) lives in Stockholm with a mother who barely notices him. Slight-of-frame, Oskar is bullied at school, and is in dire need of a friend. Enter Eli (Lina Leandersson), who recently moved into the same apartment complex. After meeting her one snowy night, Oskar feels a connection with this unusual girl, and is comfortable enough to reveal all the terrible realities of his life to her. But Eli has a secret of her own, one that, quite possibly, stretches back hundreds of years. You see, she's a vampire, and her arrival at the complex coincides with a string of grisly murders. An elderly companion (Per Ragnar) had been collecting fresh blood to keep her alive, but when he's suddenly out of the picture, Eli is left to fend for herself. Oskar does eventually uncover Eli's secret, and isn't bothered by it in the least. On the contrary, having a Vampire as a friend has certain advantages!

Let The Right One In is a dark film, and only a portion of its darkness can be attributed to Eli's "condition". At the outset, Oskar is a deeply troubled young man, a loner who fantasizes of exacting revenge against those who've wronged him. He acts out scenarios, practicing what he would do to the bullies at school if only he had the strength to stand up to them (in one scene, he tosses threats at a tree, pretending it's a classmate, then stabs it repeatedly with a pocket knife). What's more, he clips articles out of the newspaper pertaining to war, or brutal slayings, which he then pastes into a scrapbook. Oskar is an angry kid on a very desperate path, and if he doesn't find a friend soon, his life will undoubtedly take a disturbing turn. 

This is where Eli, the strange young girl who only comes out at night and “smells funny”, enters the picture. When they first meet on the playground, Eli hasn't “eaten” for days, and is looking poorly, yet she doesn't kill Oskar, even though he would have made for an easy victim. Trapped in a girl's body, it's possible Eli longs for somebody she can relate to, who will afford her the opportunity to live as a child.  But there's more besides. Having overheard Oskar when he was “practicing” his revenge, Eli also believes he might be able to accept her unique nature, as well as the fact she has to kill to survive. Eli encourages Oskar to stick up for himself, to fight back against those tormenting him, and soon after, he has a run-in with Conny (Patrik Rydmark), the classmate who continually picks on him. By giving Oskar the courage to stand up for himself, Eli has provided him with some much-needed inner strength, thus clearing the way for the two of them to become friends. 

The performances given by the film's young stars are nothing short of amazing, each bringing a vulnerability to their character that is, at times, quite heartbreaking. The movie opens with Oskar gazing out of his apartment window, his reflection staring back at him. He reaches up and touches the glass, as if placing his hand on that of his reflection's, and without a word spoken, we feel his loneliness.  We see it in Eli as well when Oskar asks how old she is. “Twelve – more or less”, she says, to which a baffled Oskar responds, “Don't you celebrate your birthday? Your parents... they've got to know”. From the sadness in her eyes, it's clear Eli doesn't remember her parents, either. 

Make no mistake: there's plenty of horror in this movie (Along with an early scene where Eli's companion murders a man and drains his blood, there's a chilling moment under a bridge, during which we get a glimpse of Eli's monstrous side). But its the bond between Eli and Oskar, a couple of children forgotten by the world, that will stay with you once the credits have rolled. Let The Right One In is their story, and it is told brilliantly.









Wednesday, December 28, 2011

#499. Dark Command (1940)


Directed By: Raoul Walsh

Starring: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Walter Pidgeon




Tag line: "A drama of undying love"

Trivia:  The character of Will Cantrell is loosely based on the real life Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill







One of the more intriguing tales to come out of the American Civil War was that of Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of renegades led by former Ohio Schoolteacher, William Clarke Quantrill. Under the guise of fighting for the Confederacy, Quantrill and his men spent much of the war raiding and pillaging, and on August 21, 1863, burned the entire town of Lawrence, Kansas, to the ground, killing some 150 residents in the process. Dark Command, a 1940 film directed by Raoul Walsh, is a dramatized account of both Quantrill and his infamous ‘army’. 

In the days just prior to the hostilities between the States, Bob Seton (John Wayne) travels from Texas to Lawrence, Kansas.  Once there, he makes plans to run for town marshal, his sole opponent being local school teacher, Will Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon). Seton not only wins the election, but also steals the heart of Cantrell’s girl, Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor). Left bitter by this recent turn of events, Cantrell takes advantage of the outbreak of war by organizing a small army, consisting mostly of criminals, that terrorizes the entire state of Kansas, looting and killing in the name of the Confederacy. Now on opposite sides of the law, both Cantrell and Seton know it's just a matter of time before they meet again, setting the stage for a nasty showdown from which only one will walk away. 

I put everybody in (Dark Command)”, director Raoul Walsh once said, and this star-studded picture went on to become a huge hit for Republic Studios. Aside from veritable newcomer John Wayne and perennial western star, Gabby Hayes (who plays Andrew Grunch, Wayne’s sidekick and the town's dentist), Dark Command also had Claire Trevor, fresh off her star-making performance in John Ford’s Stagecoach, as well as a very young Roy Rogers, playing Trevor’s hot-tempered younger brother, Fletch. Yet even with this impressive list of names, Dark Command belonged to one man: Walter Pidgeon. His turn as Cantrell perfectly captured the complex nature of this bitterly emotional man. Despite his intelligence, Cantrell was haunted by a checkered family history, one he and his mother (Marjorie Main) hoped to escape by moving to Kansas. Yet neither his schooling nor the respected position he held could fend off the fiery ambition burning deep within him, and when Cantrell was unable to gain power by legal means, he took matters into his own hands.

Dark Command has some exciting action sequences jammed into its hour and a half run time, but ultimately, the film works best as a moment in history, exploring a time period rich in colorful characters. And William Clarke Quantrill, in spite of his criminal ways, was one of the most colorful of the bunch.








Tuesday, December 27, 2011

#498. Dark City (1998)


Directed By: Alex Proyas

Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly



Tag line: "They built the city to see what makes us tick. Last night one of us went off"

Trivia: New Line Cinema forced Alex Proyas to include the opening narration by Kiefer Sutherland, which Proyas objected to, saying it was unnecessary






Drector Alex Proyas' Dark City is a marriage of genres: the harsh reality of film noir and the fantasy of science fiction. Yet despite its pairing of these conflicting styles, the movie works. In fact, I'd say Dark City does more than just “work”...it flourishes.

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes one evening in a state of utter confusion. Suffering from a sudden bout of amnesia, he doesn’t remember anything; not who he is, how he ended up in a seedy motel room, or that he has a wife named Emma (Jennifer Connelly), from whom he was recently separated. More importantly, Murdoch can’t recall whether or not he’s the one committing a series of grisly murders. Yet it seems there’s more than memory loss and homicide afoot in this particular part of town. After meeting the bizarre Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), Murdoch discovers the city he and his fellow citizens call home is being controlled by an alien race, which, for some time, has been conducting experiments on the human population. These beings are so advanced that they can alter the layout of an entire city block just by using their minds, a power they call “tuning”. When Murdoch finds he also possesses this unique ability, he and Dr. Schraber concoct a plan to beat the aliens at their own game. 

Film noir (a French term, which, translated literally, means ‘black film’) is a genre that caters to the darkness, not only in mood, but subject matter as well. By opening the movie with the storyline of a homicidal maniac, one who gets their kicks carving up prostitutes, Dark City aptly earns the ‘dark’ of its title. Moreover, Proyas successfully recreates the noir atmosphere made popular in the films of the 40’s and 50’s, and builds a bleak, sinister world in the process. 

But this world is a lie, thus ushering in the science fiction of Dark City, and as sci-fi tales go, this one's a beauty. The gloomy surroundings Murdoch and the others believe to be real are actually manufactured by a race of creepy aliens, who've secretly imprisoned the population in order to study them. Wielding incredible powers, the aliens can stop time, psychically modify the landscape, and, with the help of the unwilling Dr. Schreber, alter an individual’s memory. Skyscrapers spring from the earth like trees, and the lives and personalities of an entire family can be changed in a matter of minutes. I was impressed with Dark City's noirish ambiance, but it's the sci-fi that makes it so damned engaging. 

Gaining points for originality and style, Dark City is essentially two movies in one; as crafted by Proyas, either of the film’s genre manifestations could function as their own feature-length motion picture. But just wait 'til you see what happens when they get together!









Monday, December 26, 2011

#497. Pretty Poison (1968)


Directed By: Noel Black

Starring: Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, Beverly Garland




Tag line: "She's such a sweet girl. He's such a nice boy. They'll scare the hell out of you"

Trivia:  Tuesday Weld hated working with director Noel Black and told film critic Rex Reed that she thought she gave her "worst performance" in the film





Movies often rely on fantasy to create a world for their audience. Pretty Poison does the opposite; showing us, in no uncertain terms, how little time the real world has for make-believe. In fact, some fantasies can lead straight to disaster. 

Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), a born liar who often confused fantasy with reality, has just been released from a mental institution, which declared him fit to face the outside world. Looking for a fresh start, Dennis moves to a new town and accepts a job at the local factory. But when he attracts the attention of Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld), a High School cheerleader with an outgoing personality, he immediately reverts back to his old ways, spinning one lie after another in order to impress her. By telling Sue Ann he's a CIA operative on a secret mission, Dennis wins the young girl's affections, but is Sue Ann truly as naive as she appears, or is Dennis heading for more trouble than he’s ever known before? 

Anthony Perkins is quite good as Dennis, the mentally disturbed lover in way over his head, yet it's Tuesday Weld who steals the show, giving us a seemingly average girl entertaining some less-than-average, not to mention very disturbing, thoughts. At first, Dennis believes he's won her over with his tall tales, even going so far as to ask Sue Ann to assist him on his most recent ‘mission’ for the CIA. But it isn’t long before events spiral out of Dennis’ control, only to be scooped up by the deceptively sweet Sue Ann. Their relationship may have started on Dennis’ terms, yet it's Sue Ann who ultimately pulls the strings. 

Dennis’ case worker, Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), had advised him before his release that he was entering a world which had little time for fantasy. It was advice he wished he’d taken.








Sunday, December 25, 2011

#496. Patton (1970)


Directed By: Franklin J. Schaffner

Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young





Trivia:  George C. Scott won the Academy Award for best actor and famously refused to accept it, claiming that competition between actors was unfair and a "meat parade"






Through a career riddled with controversy, George S. Patton became one of World War II's most proficient military leaders, and Franklin Schaeffer’s award-winning 1970 film, Patton, gives us a taste of the man’s triumphs, recreating the battles that proved him a tactical genius. But then, this is all a matter of public record. What Patton does (and does brilliantly, I might add) is take us deeper, uncovering the rugged determination, all-consuming desire for victory, and unwavering personal beliefs that made the General such a fascinating man. Patton is, indeed, a great war film, but it's an even better biopic.

A born leader, U.S. General George Patton (George C. Scott) guided his troops to victory in North Africa, defeating Germany’s top tank commander, Field Marshall Rommel (Karl Michael Volger), at every turn. As a reward, he was given command of the U.S. 5th Army in Sicily, where his combat skills would again serve him well. Yet his success on the field of battle was often overshadowed by his behavior off of it. The proud Patton quarreled openly with his peers, including British General Montgomery (Michael Bates), and once, while touring a field hospital, slapped a soldier (Tim Considine) suffering from Battle Fatigue, a condition the General equated to little more than cowardice. Yet, despite his setbacks, many of which brought him official reprimands from high command, Patton continued to press on, and was a key figure in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

As seen in Patton, the General possessed a singularly classical spirit; a man who not only believed in reincarnation, but was convinced he himself had lived many lives, and always as a soldier. Shortly after arriving in North Africa, Patton and his second-in-command, General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), are traveling by jeep to tour the scene of a recent skirmish when Patton abruptly orders the driver to turn right. Both the driver and General Bradley inform Patton a right turn will take them in the wrong direction, yet he insists they do so. What they find is not the area they set out to inspect, but ancient ruins, a place Patton assures them was the scene of a conflict over two thousand years ago. He knows, because he was there.

History was a strong influence on both the man and his military tactics. Patton felt out of place in the present, where warfare had become too political for his tastes. While standing in the deserts of North Africa, talking to his assistant, Capt. Richard Jenson (Morgan Paull), Patton concocts a plan in which he and Field Marshall Rommel would fight it out mono-e-mono, him in one tank and Rommel in another, with the winner deciding the outcome of the war. “Too bad jousting has gone out of style”, Jenson replies, adding that Patton’s philosophies just don’t fit in with the 20th century. The General reluctantly agrees, sighs softly, and utters, with much melancholy, “God, how I hate the 20th Century”.

In Patton, we meet an individual whose notions of chivalry and honor, though passé, unleashed the warrior within. By finding a role for himself in the present, George S. Patton forged a link to the past he so loved, while at the same time ensuring future generations would forever remember his name.








Saturday, December 24, 2011

#495. Fertile Ground (2011)


Directed By: Adam Gierasch

Starring: Gale Harold, Leisha Hailey, Chelcie Ross




Tag line: "From Cradle To Grave."

Trivia:  The New York apartment scenes were actually shot in Des Moines, Iowa








Fertile Ground practically wastes the terrific performance delivered by its lead, placing her in a completely uninspired, ho-hum haunted house tale that will undoubtedly have fans of the genre experiencing deja-vu. 

Following a miscarriage, Emily Weaver (Leisha Hailey) and her artist husband, Nate (Gale Harold), leave the city and move to a house in the country, which has been in Nate's family for 150 years. While carrying boxes down to the basement, Emily comes across a mysterious, old trunk which belonged to Nate's great-great uncle, William Weaver. Later on, when a human skull is unearthed on the property, she begins looking into the house's history, finding that a series of murders have been committed there over the years. With Nate spending more and more time away from home, Emily's left to deal with the strange goings-on inside the house, and is convinced the old place is haunted. 

From the moment she appears on-screen, staring at her pregnant belly in the mirror and beaming a smile, we connect with Emily, and Leisha Hailey is the reason why. The actress gives a breezy, effortless performance, and when Emily suffers her miscarriage, we're as devastated by it as she is. She remains a strong, likeable character from start ro finish, and any tension the film generates is due solely to the fact we care about Emily, and fear for her safety. Gale Harold is fine as the artistic husband, but its Ms. Hailey who steals the show. 

As a ghost story, however, Fertile Ground fizzles pretty quickly, tossing out one cliche after another. As Emily is unpacking, she notices a handprint on the window. She wipes it off, but the print returns the minute she leaves the room. If that's not tired enough for you, how about the mysterious trunk in the basement? I'm not sure how many haunted house films have fallen back on that one, but I'm guessing it's more than a few. There's even a hidden compartment at the bottom of the trunk, which contains old photos of the house's original owners, and (surprise!) the man in the picture looks exactly like Nate! After the skull's found buried in the front yard, and Emily starts looking into the house's past, she discovers (I hope you're sitting down for this) it has a long history of suicides, bizarre disappearances and unexplained murders connected to it. Leisha Hailey's excellent turn aside, If you've any experience whatsoever with movies of this nature, you'll have seen all this before. 

The ground may, indeed, be fertile, but it sure ain't fresh!








Friday, December 23, 2011

#494. Floating Weeds (1959)


Directed By: Yasujirô Ozu

Starring: Ganjiro Nakamura, Machiko Kyô, Haruko Sugimura





Trivia:  Critic Roger Ebert has listed this as one of his 10 favorite films










The later films of Yasujiro Ozu are a window into the world of Post-War Japan, revealing in great detail that society's customs and traditions, and his 1959 classic, Floating Weeds, is one of the finest of the bunch. 

Floating Weeds tells the story of a traveling troupe of actors who, under the leadership of longtime performer Kimajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), have just arrived at a quiet fishing village, where they will stage their next performance. As members of his troupe are posting notices around town, advertising the upcoming show, Kimajuro pays a visit to Oyoshi (Haruka Sugimura), a former love who now owns a sake bar. Years earlier, Oyoshi bore Kimajuro's child, a now-teenage son named Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). Fearful that the truth will lead to unnecessary heartache, Kimajiro has decided his son must never know he's the father. This secret is threatened, however, when Kimajuro’s current lover, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), a fellow performer, learns of the boy’s existence, and jealously seeks to expose the truth to the unsuspecting Kiyoshi. 

Floating Weeds takes the time to delve into the lives and personalities of a fair number of characters, including several members of the acting troupe and even a handful of villagers. Yet it’s the film’s one-on-one exchanges, most of which involve the proud Kimajuro, that stand out as it’s most memorable moments. When Sumiko first confronts Kimajiro after learning of the existence of his son, it leads to an outdoor argument between the two, with Kimajiro standing on one side of an empty street, and Sumiko on the other. The two toss insults and accusations at one another, taking no notice of the driving rain pounding the road between them. A scene such as this, set in a vacant street in the middle of a rainstorm, offered a fair number of visual possibilities for Ozu to explore. But Sumiko and Kimajiro carry this sequence by themselves, their words, their explosive emotions, standing above all else that's going on around them. 

As was Ozu’s style, Floating Weeds is a very straightforward film. The camera rarely moves from a still position, and the actors, when speaking, occasionally look directly at the audience, placing us at the point of view of the person they're addressing. Even the troupe's colorful stage shows are presented with little pomp or fanfare. For Ozu, the camera was simply a means by which he could capture conversations, and two characters with something interesting to say to one another was all the action he would ever require.








Thursday, December 22, 2011

#493. Safe (1995)


Directed By: Todd Haynes

Starring: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Dean Norris




Tag line: "SIn the 21st century nobody will be...Safe"

Trivia:  In an outdoor restaurant scene, one of the people sitting in the background is the father of the director Todd Haynes. His sister Wendy is also in that scene




In Todd Haynes’ Safe, we meet a woman who's suddenly become allergic to the world around her, who can no longer tolerate the pollutants in the air, or the cologne her husband wears. Her condition may be psychological, as the doctors suggest, but even if it is, how exactly does one go about treating it? 

The woman in question is Carol White (Julianne Moore), a housewife who grows violently ill when exposed to common household chemicals, perfumes, and, before long, even the air she breathes. Her husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley), has a hard time understanding her condition, and the doctors can't decide what to do with her. With nowhere else to turn, Carol retreats to a desert community run by a man named Peter (Peter Friedman), who promises a very holistic cure, one he believes is capable of treating any disease, no matter how severe it might be. 

I liked the way director Haynes utilized sound throughout Safe, and his choices, though sometimes quite intense, do succeed in bringing us into Carol’s world of chemical upheaval. As she's getting a perm at her local beauty salon, we're treated to a variety of sound effects, including a rather sinister gurgling, as if some mad scientist were hard at work developing a new poison to unleash on the world. To coincide with the background noise, Safe also boasts a tonal musical score, one that aptly defines Carol’s experiences in suburbia and its “contaminated” atmosphere. What's interesting is this ominous score doesn’t subside once Carol moves to the desert; it continues on, signifying she hasn’t yet found the remedy for her situation. The sounds of suburbia, the traffic jams and passing helicopters, have simply been replaced by chirping crickets, and the droning on of insipid folk music. 

With Safe, Haynes asks more questions than he answers, mostly because there are no easy solutions to Carol’s dilemma. As ridiculous as it is to throw toxins into the air or pour pollutants into streams, it's equally as bizarre to believe in a completely holistic lifestyle. Both worlds have their share of poisons, and, as the film suggests, one's not necessarily a solid replacement for the other.








Wednesday, December 21, 2011

#492. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)


Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre




Tag line: "Public Enemy No. 1 of all the world"

Trivia:  The film's producer, C.M. Woolf, hated the film and only allowed it to be released as the bottom half of a double bill. Nevertheless, it won rave reviews







My first experience with 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much occurred right around the time I was getting serious about film. I rescued a videotape copy of it from the bargain bin at K-Mart, and certain I'd heard its director's name before, immediately went home and popped it into the VCR. While many will argue Hitchcock's 1956 remake is the superior work, I'll always hold a special place in my heart for this particular version of the story. 

Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), along with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), are vacationing in Switzerland, enjoying all the wintry locale has to offer. While there, they befriend a skier named Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), not realizing he's actually a secret agent. One evening, as he and Jill are dancing, Louis is shot in the chest, but before dying, whispers to Jill the details of an intended political assassination, to be carried out in London in a few days time. Unfortunately, the conspirators, led by a man named Abbott (Peter Lorre), witness the exchange, and to ensure Jill remains silent, kidnap Betty and whisk her off to London. Fearing for their daughter's safety, the Lawrences frantically pursue the kidnappers, revealing nothing of what they know to the authorities. 

The Man Who Knew Too Much was Peter Lorre's first English-speaking role, and he does a fine job playing the heavy, almost identical to the kind of villain that would make him a fixture in Hollywood for years to come. Yet what makes this movie such a fascinating watch is its an early example of a “Hitchcock“ film, the type that would soon earn its director the title “The Master of Suspense”. A taut thriller (clocking in at a mere 75 minutes) The Man Who Knew Too Much is the archetype Hitchcock story: an innocent man (or, in this case, family) pulled into a desperate situation by a string of coincidences. There's a generous portion of humor as well, not to mention plenty of excitement, culminating in a tense scene at the Royal Albert Hall, where the assassination is to take place. 

Hitchcock himself preferred his 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much to the original, telling Francois Truffaut, “The first version was the work of a talented amateur, and the second was made by a professional”. Be that as it may, this earlier interpretation offers a rare opportunity to check out the “Master” at the beginning of his career, while he was still cutting his teeth. The fact that it's a fun film to boot is a nice little bonus.








Tuesday, December 20, 2011

#491. Tourist Trap (1979)


Directed By: David Schmoeller

Starring: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness




Tag line: "Every year young people disappear"

Trivia:  Tourist Trap was actually based on David Schmoeller's senior film project at film school







I know some people get pretty creeped out around mannequins, unable to get past their staring eyes, or the fact they look so life-like. I've never been one of these people...until now. 

While driving through a secluded area, five friends experience car troubles, and end up stranded along the side of the road. One of the group, named Woody (Keith McDermott), sets out for help, and stumbles upon a gas station filled with mannequins, which, apart from being very much alive, are also extremely nasty. As this is happening, the remaining friends are being assisted by a strange, yet pleasant local named Mr. Slausen (Chuck Conners). Years ago, before the new highway took travelers in a different direction, Slausen operated a wax museum that drew a fair number of tourists.  Nowadays, the building lies in a state of disrepair, and, aside from the wax figurines, is completely abandoned. Slausen invites the four in and tells them to kick back and relax, but a mysterious masked stranger has other plans for the museum's newest visitors. 

The mannequins in Tourist Trap go well beyond your run-of-the-mill retail dummies. When Woody first arrives at the gas station, he sees no one, but hears a faint voice coming from the back room. He walks in, and approaches what appears to be a woman lying on a cot, fast asleep. Only it isn't a woman; it's a very animated mannequin, with a mouth like one you'd find on a ventriloquist's dummy (which, in my opinion, makes it all the more unsettling). After springing up and scaring the poor boy half to death, the mannequin starts to laugh, at which point the door slams shut, trapping Woody inside. Before long, two more mannequins, equally as animated and just as evil, join the fracas, and though none of the three are directly responsible for the eventual harm that befalls Woody, the sequence is still plenty unnerving, and they're the reason why. 

Chuck Connors does a fine job as Mr. Slausen, a character that reminded me of Rory Calhoun's Vincent from Motel Hell. Like Vincent, Connors' Slausen is a kindly, somewhat reserved older gentleman whose outward friendliness masks a sinister personality. Then there's the cryptic stalker lurking in the old house behind the museum. Every time this figure, which wore a doll's mask, appeared suddenly in the background, it sent a shiver up my spine. But for me, it's the mannequins that bring the real terror to Tourist Trap. Thanks to them. I'll be walking a bit more briskly past those department store displays the next time I visit the mall.








Monday, December 19, 2011

#490. Northfork (2003)


Directed By: Michael Polish

Starring: James Woods, Nick Nolte, Anthony Edwards





Trivia:  The film was nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2004 Independent Spirit Awards







Written and directed by brothers Mark and Michael Polish, Northfork is the kind of movie I adore; a film that introduces fantasy into a realistic setting while simultaneously balancing elements of comedy and drama. Whether you want to laugh, cry, or simply be amazed, you’ll find what you’re looking for in this film.

It’s 1955, and the good citizens of Northfork are being asked to abandon their homes to make way for a new hydroelectric dam, which, once operational, will flood the entire area. Yet, despite repeated warnings, not everyone has left town. So, it's up to a small group of men (all dressed in black) to clear out Northfork before the waters arrive. Among those trying to convince the stragglers to leave are Walter O’Brien (James Woods) and his son, Willis (Mark Polish), who volunteer their time in exchange for a prime tract of land in a new community. But the job won't be an easy one, seeing as many of those remaining are determined to stay put. Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) is one such resident, still in Northfork because he's caring for a dying boy named Irwin (Duel Farnes). But as Father Harlan discovered a while back, Irwin is a very special child, one worthy of such a sacrifice. As he lapses in and out of consciousness, young Irwin experiences visions which have him convinced he’s the long-lost Angel of Northfork. In fact, a small band of real angels has just arrived in town, tasked with investigating whether or not Irwin’s ‘divine’ revelations are the real deal. 

Northfork weaves plenty of drama into the mix, both on a grand scale (the death of the town) and a more personal one (the illness of young Irwin), elements that, by themselves, make it an unforgettable motion picture. But there are laughs as well, generated by the men in black during their run-ins with the most stubborn of Northfork’s population. Mr. Stalling (Marshall Bell) feels he’s prepared himself for the coming flood waters by turning his house into an Ark, and while he didn’t have time to gather 2 giraffes, 2 tigers, or even 2 chickens, he was able to rustle himself up two wives (Saralyn Sebern and Ginny Watts). Yet what I found most impressive about Northfork were its moments of pure fantasy, as related in the story of Irwin and his four angelic visitors. One of the four, an angel named Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah), believes Irwin is telling the truth, while her accomplices, Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs) and Happy (Anthony Edwards), still have their doubts (the fourth, played by Ben Foster, never speaks). The imagery found in these sequences is nothing short of astounding, challenging us to accept the incredible, even when presented within the context of a very real world. 

With Northfork, the brothers Polish have successfully merged the fantastic with the everyday, often leaving us guessing where one ends and the other begins. With the possibility of something marvelous lurking around every corner, Northfork is a film to savor from start to finish, and I, for one, loved it.










Sunday, December 18, 2011

#489. Day of the Panther (1988)


Directed By: Brian Trenchard-Smith

Starring: Edward John Stazak, John Stanton, Jim Richards





Trivia:  In West Germany, this film was released as White Panther








Brian Trenchard-Smith's Day of the Panther is a veritable time machine. The moment the opening title, complete with techno music and video graphics, flashed on the screen, I was transported back to the 1980s. 

Jason Blade (Edward John Stazak), a member of the martial arts organization “The Order of the Panther”, works as an undercover detective. Together with his partner, Linda (Linda Megier), Blade is gathering evidence to use against Australian-businessman and underworld kingpin, Damien Zukor (Michael Carman), a major distributor of illegal narcotics. But during a stake-out at one of Zukor's warehouses, Linda's cover is blown, and she's murdered by the mobster's right-hand man, a muscle-bound thug named Baxter (Jim Richards). Seeking revenge for his partner's death, Jason infiltrates Zukor’s gang and, together with Linda’s cousin Gemma (Paris Jefferson), concocts a plan to bring down his entire operation from the inside. 

Day of the Panther is jam-packed with action, and while the martial arts showdowns fall a bit short of believability, they're definitely fun. Take, for example, the scene at the warehouse, where Linda's discovered lurking in the shadows by Zukor's men. Running for her life from a machete-wielding henchman in a mask (a pig's mask, no less), she ducks into a back room and hides, just in time to see two more masked goons join the chase (and these guys are talented. They can do backflips off the roof, drop three stories, and land perfectly on their feet). After the four of them have covered just about every square inch of that warehouse, Linda finally gets the better of her attackers with a few king-fu moves, only to find Baxter waiting for her when she gets outside. The entire sequence, which goes on for something like 10 minutes, was as over-the-top as you can get, and brought a big 'ole smile to my face. 

Sure, Day of the Panther is 100% cheese, but for someone like me, who grew up in the '80s, I gotta say it tasted pretty damn good.








Saturday, December 17, 2011

#488. Being John Malkovich (1999)


Directed By: Spike Jonze

Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener



Tag line: "Ever wanted to be someone else? Now you can"

Trivia:  Charlie Kaufman sent the screenplay to Francis Ford Coppola after he wrote it. Coppola liked it very much and showed it to his daughter's husband, Spike Jonze.





I can state with total confidence that you've never seen anything quite like Being John Malkovich before. 

Out-of-work puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is married to Lotte (Cameron Diaz), who works at a veterinarian's office and brings sick chimpanzees home to live with them. In need of money, Craig gets a job as a file clerk on the 7th and ½ floor of New York's Mertin-Flemmer building, where he reports to a lecherous old man named Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), who claims to be 105 years old. It’s here Craig meets Maxine (Catherine Keener), an abrasive co-worker he falls desperately in love with, despite the fact she barely even notices him. One day, Craig discovers a small door hidden behind a filing cabinet in his office. Behind this door is a portal that leads directly into the mind of renowned actor John Malkovich (played by Malkovich himself). Anyone entering this portal essentially “becomes” John Malkovich for 15 minutes, seeing the world through his eyes, and feeling everything he feels. Once the 15 minutes are up, the portal ejects you from Malkovich's head and dumps you on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Sensing an opportunity to make big money, Craig teams up with Maxine and starts charging 'admission' to the Malkovich portal, promising all who enter an experience they won't soon forget.

Believe it or not, this is just the beginning; things actually get weirder. Eventually, Craig tells Lotte about the Malkovich portal, and she insists on taking a trip inside. At the end of her 15 minutes, Lotte is convinced she’s a man, trapped inside a woman’s body, and even falls in love with Maxine, putting her in direct competition with Craig. Then there's the scene where Malkovich, having learned of the portal's existence, takes a trip inside himself! It’s as if screenwriter Charlie Kaufman poured every ounce of his creativity into this film, leaving absolutely nothing out. What's more amazing than the movie's various twists and turns is the fact we buy it all hook, line and sinker.

Originality...dead? No, I don;t think so. If Being John Malkovich has taught us anything, it’s that there are literally thousands of ideas left to be explored, including many we would have never dreamed possible.








Friday, December 16, 2011

#487. Jeepers Creepers (2001)


Directed By: Victor Salva

Starring: Gina Philips, Justin Long, Jonathan Breck




Tag line: "Fear takes a road trip."

Trivia:  The original truck from the film is owned by a private collector in Maryland, who keeps it in storage awaiting the filming of Jeepers Creepers 3







Jeepers Creepers starts off with a bang. There are scenes at the beginning of this film that crank the tension up as high as it can go, and while the movie does eventually fizzle a bit, these early moments drag you so deeply into the story that you can't wait to see how it all ends. 

While driving home from college, Trish (Gina Philips) and her brother Darry (Justin Long) are nearly run off the road by a rusty, old truck. A few miles down the highway, they spot this very same vehicle parked next to an abandoned church, where a strange, masked man is throwing bundles, shaped exactly like human remains, into a sewer drainpipe. The siblings decide to investigate, but what they find chills them to the bone. Now running for their lives, it isn't long before Trish and Darry discover the masked killer hot on their trail is not entirely human. 

Poor Trish and Darry were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. We first spot the stranger's truck flying towards them through their car's rear windshield. We see it, but they don't, and when the damn thing pulls right behind them and hits the horn, it scares them both half to death. Once it darts by, the siblings shake off the unsettling experience, yet the calm doesn't last for long. When they next see the truck, its driver's dumping what looks like human remains down a sewer pipe, and the two can't help but wonder what's going on. Unfortunately, the driver also sees them, and it leads to a high-speed pursuit, with Trish and Darry barely escaping with their lives. Yet this is nothing compared to what happens when they return to find out what, or who, is at the bottom of that pipe. Believe me, “tense” isn't a strong enough word to describe this scene! 

Where Jeepers Creepers falters is the later sequences, when Trish and Darry learn more about the stranger. They even meet up with a medium (Patricia Belcher) who fills them in on the man (or should I say creature) that now wants them dead. As the stranger's bizarre identity is slowly revealed, he loses some of his menace, and the film's intensity, so prominent early on, leaves right along with it. Still, Jeepers Creepers, is a hell of a ride, and may just have you glancing nervously at your rear view mirror the next time you're alone on a country road.








Thursday, December 15, 2011

#486. American Splendor (2003)


Directed By: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar




Tag line: "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff"

Trivia:  NBC would not lease out the actual Late Night with David Letterman footage where Harvey Pekar finally lashed out at David Letterman, so the scene had to be recreated with actors






I laughed my ass off the first time I saw American Splendor. I was so completely taken in by the film’s distinctive approach that every witty line, every humorous moment struck the perfect cord. And when I wasn't laughing, I found I couldn’t stop smiling. 

American Splendor is the story of Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), a file clerk working at a Veterans Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio who became something of a star in the world of underground comics. Shortly after divorcing his second wife (Vivienne Benesch), Harvey meets Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), one of the creative forces behind the underground movement. With Crumb’s help, Harvey creates his own comic book, titled American Splendor, which, issue after issue, does little more than examine the rather ordinary life of its author, Harvey Pekar. Aside from landing him a handful of appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, American Splendor doesn't bring Harvey the fame and fortune he dreamed it would. But it does deliver one bit of good luck in the form of Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), who works at a comic book store in Delaware and is a big fan of American Splendor. After exchanging several letters, Harvey invites Joyce to visit him in Cleveland, thus clearing the way for her to become the next Mrs. Harvey Pekar. 

The style on display in American Splendor is as unique as its protagonist. Along with Paul Giamatti's excellent performance as the 'fictional' Harvey Pekar, we catch the occasional glimpse of the real Harvey, who acts as the film's narrator and even shows up in several documentary-like scenes. But if two Harveys aren't enough for you, we also meet a number of animated Harveys, as he's appeared in American Splendor over the years. Since the comic’s inception, a variety of artists have drawn Harvey, each putting their own spin on his physique. When Harvey is trying to persuade Joyce to visit him, she admits she's a bit reluctant to do so, mostly because she doesn't know what to expect. In one issue, Harvey’s drawn to look like Marlon Brando, while other times he’s a “gorilla with a lot of stink lines around him” (Harvey's quick to point out to Joyce that these are, in fact, motion lines, and not stink lines). Like the comic that inspired it, American Splendor gives us a plethora of Harvey Pekars. 

If you think about it, Harvey Pekar’s notoriety, regardless of how minor it may have been, was something of a miracle . How often does a man with limited artistic ability (he illustrated his initial drafts of American Splendor with stick people) successfully launch his own comic book? For that matter, who among us would have the chutzpah to create an entire series of comics with ourselves as the main subject? Throughout the film, Harvey says that “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”. In American Splendor, he examined his “ordinary life” on a grand scale, and took us along for the ride.








Wednesday, December 14, 2011

#485. Gunga Din (1939)


Directed By: George Stevens

Starring: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Victor McLaglen




Tag line: "Barbaric Splendor - Gasping Magnitude - Adventure !"

Trivia:  The battle between the Thuggees and the British Indian army was added when RKO considered the original ending too bland.





When director George Stevens first read the script for Gunga Din, he was shocked to learn the majority of the movie, which centered on a famous 19th century battle in British India, was slated to be shot indoors. Relying on his instincts, Stevens went to the execs at RKO and said “I need a half million dollars to take this story outside”. The studio agreed, and Stevens brought in some additional writers to make the necessary script adjustments. It proved to be a masterstroke. With action and excitement at every turn, there wasn’t a sound stage in all of Hollywood that could have contained this movie.

Sgts. Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are loyal British soldiers stationed in India. All three are willing to lay down their lives for Queen and Country…as long as they can have a little fun while doing so. When Ballantine announces he’s leaving the service to marry Ms. Emaline Stebens (Joan Fontaine), his comrades convince him to sign on for one last mission, one final adventure before packing it in. So, it’s off to Tantrupar, where a Hindu cult known as the Thuggees are planning an uprising against the colonial English government. The regimental water carrier, a native known to the men as Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), has always wanted to be a British soldier, and before the battle with the Thuggees is out, he may just get his chance. 

Gunga Din’s action scenes, as staged by director Stevens, are spectacular. In one early battle, the three sergeants, despite being heavily outnumbered, decide to take on the opposing forces all by themselves. They start out with a little hand-to-hand combat before moving to the rooftops, where they exchange gunfire with the army below. While on this roof, the three discover a cache of dynamite, and it isn't long before they’re tossing it into the enemy ranks, taking out large pockets of their forces while blowing up half the town in the process. Once they’ve done all they can, Cutter, McChesney and Ballantine make their escape by jumping off a huge cliff and landing in the river below, thus guaranteeing that, in spite of the odds, they'd live to fight another day. 

Effective as an action story, a buddy movie, and a humorous look at military life, Gunga Din is still, all these years later, an extremely entertaining film.








Tuesday, December 13, 2011

#484. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)


Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Alfred Lutter III




Tag line: "A picture for anyone who has ever dreamed of a second chance!"

Trivia:  Barbra Streisand was originally offered the lead role, but turned it down because she thought she was too young at the time





Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is an early film from director Martin Scorsese. With this movie, the director found himself far removed from his native New York, yet even in “foreign” territory, he doesn’t miss a beat. 

The recently widowed Alice (Ellen Burstyn, in an Oscar-winning performance) lives in New Mexico with her son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter III). Seeking a fresh start, Alice loads up her car and heads with Tommy to Monterey, California, the town where she grew up. But on the trip westward, the pair become sidetracked in Arizona, where Alice is forced to accept a job as a waitress. Here, she meets and falls in love with David (Kris Kristofferson), a man who may just prevent her from ever reaching that California destination. 

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore has a good deal going for it, including a fine performance from Ellen Burstyn as Alice, who captures the daily struggles of being a single mother while generating a good bit of humor along the way. The real star, however, is Scorsese, who demonstrates, even at this early stage of his career, why he’s considered one of the most talented filmmakers of all-time. A respected film historian, Scorsese's love of movies is evident in the very first scene, where a young Alice (played by Mia Bendixson) is walking home for supper, silhouetted against a backdrop that looks as if it were lifted straight out of Gone With the Wind (actually, I found out later he was paying homage to The Wizard of Oz. Hey, at least I got the year right). Then, suddenly, and without warning, we jump 27 years into the future, the soundtrack pulsating to the energy of Mott the Hoople. In one long shot, the camera descends from on high, flies towards a small house, glides through an open window and settles in front of an adult Alice, hard at work at her sewing machine. Not five minutes has elapsed, and Scorsese's already given us plenty to get excited about. 

Deep in the desert southwest, making a film about a widowed mother and her son, Martin Scorsese's creative cylinders still managed to fire in perfect unison.








Monday, December 12, 2011

#483. Zombie 3 (1988)


Directed By: Lucio Fulci, Bruno Mattei

Starring: Deran Sarafian, Beatrice Ring, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua





Trivia:  Second Director Bruno Mattei and writer Claudio Fragasso have brief cameos as soldiers in the crematorium scene







Director Lucio Fulci once made the rather bold statement that “Violence is Italian Art”. Well, if that's the case, then his 1988 movie, Zombie 3, is a very artistic film. 

When a terrorist swipes an experimental virus from a research facility in the Philippines, he inadvertently kicks off a deadly epidemic, one that causes the local population to mutate into carnivorous monsters. A small band of survivors, including three American army personnel and a group of friends on vacation, barricade themselves inside an abandoned hotel, but as they soon learn, there's no place to hide from the onslaught of bloodthirsty zombies.

Zombie 3, Fulci's follow-up to his 1979 classic, Zombie (which was released as Zombi 2 in his native Italy), has its share of problems, most caused by the legendary director himself. When Fulci wrapped production on Zombie 3, it was discovered he'd tossed out a large portion of the script, resulting in a finished film that clocked in at a mere 50-minutes long. Fulci then became ill, leaving the producers with no alternative but to bring back the writer (Claudio Fragasso) and hire another director (Bruno Mattei) to salvage their movie. Working with a different set of actors (the original ones had moved on to other projects), 40 additional minutes were shot, which, when spliced together with Fulci's scenes, resulted in a film that ultimately worked, yet suffered a distinctive shift in style from one moment to the next. This aside, Zombie 3 is still a fine (not to mention gory) horror film. For one, the “infected” are pretty damn gross, covered in festering sores that occasionally spew green liquid. Along with its disgusting side effects, the virus spreads very quickly. Early on, the terrorist who started it all checks into a hotel to avoid capture. Once there, he infects a waiter by way of a broken glass, then mauls the poor maid when she tries to fix up his room. But my favorite scene (and one Fulci was undoubtedly behind) involves a young lady named Carole (Marina Loi), who, while investigating a dilapidated building, is pushed (by a zombie) into a man-made lake. A mass of bubbles surrounds her, and she screams for help. Her companion, an American soldier (Massimo Vanni), leaps into the lake and drags her to safety, only to discover her legs have been gnawed off, and that she herself is now a zombie! 

Another famous quote with an artistic bent goes something like “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like”. Well, Zombie 3, even with its faults, is definitely a movie I like.








Sunday, December 11, 2011

#482. Amarcord (1973)


Directed By: Federico Fellini

Starring: Magali Noël, Bruno Zanin, Pupella Maggio



Tag line: "The Fantastic World of Fellini!"

Trivia:  Director Federico Fellini has denied that the movie is autobiographical, but agreed that there are similarities with his own childhood








Filled with tales inspired by director Federico Fellini’s childhood in 1930’s provincial Italy, Amarcord constructs a surreal universe in which characters are caricatures, events play out at a fevered pitch, and the only words that come close to describing the atmosphere of it all are “carnival-like exuberance” Told with imagination and wit, Amarcord is a true delight. 

Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin) is a young boy growing to manhood in Fascist Italy. His father, Aurelio (Armando Brancia), can be very strict, and is harsh on Titta, but Titta's mother, Miranda (Pupella Maggio) is usually there to protect him. We follow Titta and a group of friends over the course of one full year, tagging along as they walk on the beach, frolic in the snow, and ogle Gradisca (Magali Noël), the local hairdresser, with whom Titta has fallen desperately in love. 

It’s obvious these ‘memories’ from Fellini’s past, as presented in Amarcord, are more along the lines of reminiscences, where one recalls personalities and emotions much more clearly than the actual details. Titta’s deranged uncle, Pataca (Nando Orfei), climbs a tree and refuses to come down until someone finds him a woman. The teachers at Titta’s school extol the virtues of Fascism in one class, and the power of God in another. We watch as bonfires welcome in the spring season, and snow falls so heavily that it buries the entire town. Amarcord plays out like a series of related anecdotes, stories that have been told and retold through the years until embellishment has confused fact with fiction. The main ingredient of Amarcord is undoubtedly humor, but mixed with just the right amount of melancholy, and a smidgen of anarchy thrown in for good measure. 

These are the kinds of yarns Federico Fellini loved to spin, and you sense the director genuinely enjoyed this little walk down memory lane. Now, thanks to Amarcord, Fellini’s childhood is recorded for posterity, with everything exactly as he remembers it

…even if it didn’t really happen that way.








Saturday, December 10, 2011

#481. Absolution (1978)


Directed By: Anthony Page

Starring: Richard Burton, Dominic Guard, David Bradley



Tag line: "Boyhood innocence. Deadly secrets. Burning truths"

Trivia:  Richard Burton turned down an offer to play King Lear on stage in Canada in order to make this film






I went into Absolution, a 1978 film written by Anthony Shaffer, entirely fresh, with no idea what the movie was about. After the first few scenes, which take place at a proper British boarding school, I figured I was in for a coming-of-age drama, centering on a confused young man searching for his place in the world. But I had no idea how confused he truly was, and when the story took a turn towards murder, this peaceful little drama transformed into a tense mystery/thriller right before my very eyes. 

Father Goddard (Richard Burton) is the Latin instructor at a Catholic boarding school, and his best pupil is Benjie Stanfield (Dominic Guard). Believing the young man has the makings of a great priest, Father Goddard is disappointed to learn Benjie has been hanging around with Blakey (Billy Connolly), a derelict wanderer and known thief living in the forest that surrounds the school. Father Goddard forbids Benjie from ever seeing Blakey again, angering the young student to the point that he plays a practical joke on the good Father, making a false confession to a grievous sin. Knowing full well the elder priest can reveal nothing without violating the sanctity of the confessional, Benjie then ups the ante by further confessing to killing Blakey and burying his body in the woods. But is Benjie just telling tales, or did he really do Blakey in? What's most frustrating to Father Goddard is that, either way, there's not a thing he can do about it. 

Richard Burton delivers a solid (though occasionally hammy) performance as Father Goddard, a no-nonsense priest who commands the respect of everyone, from the students right up to the school's headmaster (Andrew Keir). Burton's Father Goddard is a highly intelligent man, and is always in control of every situation. The students have taken to calling him “God”, partly to mock him, but also because he rules his particular dormitory with an iron fist. When Benjie confesses to murder, the usually stoic priest begins to crack. Realizing his hands are tied by the confidentiality of the confessional, Father Goddard personally investigates the matter, and doesn't much like what he discovers. 

As you might imagine, not all is as it seems in Absolution, and the story takes a few surprising twists along the way, most of which are effective (one might argue the final reveal is a bit of a stretch). If you're like me, and had never heard of this film before, then you'll want to check it out. Absolution may be the most nerve-wracking hidden gem you'll ever come across.