Monday, December 31, 2012

#868. Signs (2002)

Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin

Tag line: "The first sign you can't explain. The second sign you can't ignore. The third sign you won't believe"

Trivia: James Newton Howard started scoring the film before it had been shot, as he was able to work from M. Night Shyamalan's detailed storyboards

With Signs, director M. Night Shyamalan has crafted a tense, frightening motion picture in which a man who has lost his faith in God comes face-to-face with aliens from another world.

Mel Gibson is Graham Hess, a recent widower residing in a large farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Also living with them is Graham's younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). 

Merrill moved in following the death of Graham’s wife, who was struck by a car while out walking one evening (the driver, a neighbor named Ray, is played in a couple of scenes by director Shyamalan). For many years, Graham was an ordained minister, but gave it up after his wife's death. Now, he goes through life believing we’re all alone in this world, and that there is no God.

But something is amiss in Graham's small community. All of the animals have been acting strangely the past few days, and, while out playing one morning, Morgan and Bo stumble upon some crop circles in the middle of a corn field. Is this the work of beings from another planet? 

Of course not, says Graham and Merrill. That is, until similar circles start appearing by the hundreds, in all corners of the globe. And then there is the elusive intruder Graham and Merrill chase off one evening, who manages to escape by jumping onto the roof of the house… 10 feet off the ground! 

In nearly every town and neighborhood around the world, people are certain the end is coming, brought about by extra-terrestrials. Even Graham is suddenly convinced when he has a close encounter of his own, and like everybody else, wonders if mankind can survive an invasion from outer space.

Signs is a solidly entertaining science fiction film, offering up several memorable sequences that center on its otherworldly visitors. My favorite involves a news report from South America, featuring footage shot at a child’s birthday party, that gives the world (and the audience) its first glimpse of an alien creature. Moments such as this, combined with a handful of truly suspenseful scenes late in the film, do their part to make Signs a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat thriller. 

Yet, like Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Signs relates this amazing tale as a backdrop to its very touching human story, about a father whose loss of faith is tearing his family apart. Gibson is wonderfully understated as Graham, a man so deeply wounded by life that he has turned his back on his beliefs. Signs is as much about Graham’s personal dilemma as it is about aliens, and in my opinion, it tells both stories extremely well.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

#867. It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

Directed By: Stanley Kramer

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman

Tag line: "It's The Biggest Entertainment Ever To Rock The Screen With Laughter!"

Trivia: The roles of Melville and Monica Crump were originally larger roles and written with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in mind

Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a big, loud, extremely funny film with an all-star cast, dozens of great cameos, and plenty of property damage. With a running time of around three hours, it’s more than a gargantuan comedy; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a flat-out epic. 

It even has an intermission!

While running from the police, escaped convict “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) loses control of his car on a remote California highway. The vehicle careens off the road and ends up in pieces at the bottom of a steep cliff. 

A group of good Samaritans (all of whom Grogan flew past on the highway) pull over to lend a helping hand, including Russell Finch (Milton Berle), a businessman heading out of town with his wife (Dorothy Provine) and her loud-mouth mother (Ethel Merman); Dr. Melville Crump (Sid Caesar), a dentist, and his wife Monica (Edie Adams), on their way to a second honeymoon; Ding (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy (Buddy Hackett), two pals bound for Las Vegas; and Pike (Jonathan Winters), a truck driver scheduled to make a delivery in Yuma. 

Unable to help the badly injured Grogan, the group instead catches his dying words. Having spent 15 years in custody for his role in a tuna factory robbery, Grogan tells this motley crew that he’s buried $350,000 in cash in Santa Rosita State Park, and that anyone willing to drive down there and dig it up is welcome to it. 

This kicks off the race to end all races, with each vehicle breaking all sorts of traffic laws in an effort to beat the others to Santa Rosita. What none of these motorists realizes is that their every move is being tracked by the police, who, under the command of Santa Rosita’s Capt. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), plan to apprehend all of them the moment they’ve reached their destination.

Everything about It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is big, starting with its primary cast, many of whom were established stars when the movie was released in 1963. Along the way, a number of other characters join the race for the loot, including a British adventurer (Terry-Thomas), a con artist (Phil Silvers) and a lifeguard / mama’s boy (Dick Shawn). 

That’s a damned impressive collection of performers, if you ask me. But the numerous cameos are just as extraordinary, featuring everyone from Jack Benny and Jerry Lewis to Buster Keaton and The Three Stooges! 

Fortunately, there’s plenty going on in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to keep them all hopping, with not one, but two aerial sequences (the funniest involving Ding and Benjy, who convince millionaire Jim Backus to fly them to Santa Rosita, only to be left piloting the plane themselves when their drunken captain is knocked unconscious); a gas station that's torn to bits (courtesy of Jonathan Winters' Pike); and a hardware store that’s nearly burned to the ground (when Dr. and Mrs. Crump are inadvertently locked in the basement, and try to escape). 

All this, plus a death-defying finale set atop a condemned building, results in a madcap adventure that’s downright hilarious from start to finish.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

#866. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Directed By: Ruggero Deodato

Starring: Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen

Tag line: "The men you will see eaten alive, are the same who filmed these incredible sequences"

Trivia: The scene where an actor kills a monkey was shot twice, so two monkeys were killed for that scene

Cannibal Holocaust is an early entry in what has become known as the “found footage” subgenre, and thanks to several scenes featuring real-life animal violence, it’s also one of the most controversial horror movies ever made.

Soon after the disappearance of American filmmaker Alan Yates (Carl Gabriel Yorke) and his crew, who had traveled deep into the Amazon to capture footage of indigenous cannibal tribes, anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) leads another expedition into the area to find them.  Monroe eventually discovers that Yates and the others are dead, but is able to recover several canisters of film, containing all the material they shot. Once back in New York, Monroe views this footage and, in so doing, learns how - and why - Yates and his crew were killed.

Director Ruggero Deodato brings a documentary feel to Cannibal Holocaust, which adds to the overall shock value when the movie turns violent. Shortly after its release, there were even rumors Deodato had made a snuff film (the scenes in which Yates and his team are slaughtered seem very real).

Yet what makes Cannibal Holocaust so notorious is the on-screen killing of a handful of animals, scenes all the more upsetting when you consider the violence is very real. Along with the slaying of a monkey and a pig, Cannibal Holocaust also shows, in brutal detail, the beheading and subsequent butchering of a sea turtle, a sequence so graphic that it turned my stomach (and from the looks of it, actress Francesca Ciardi, who plays Yates’ girlfriend in the movie, couldn’t stomach it either. She stumbles away and vomits soon after the turtle’s head is cut off). When it came to murdering wildlife on screen, Deodato was certainly no novice; his earlier picture, Jungle Holocaust, also featured the deaths of several animals, including a crocodile. But as disturbing as Jungle Holocaust is, it pales in comparison to Cannibal Holocaust. In the slaughter department, this film is second to none.

Lost amid all the controversy, though, is Cannibal Holocaust’s very effective message regarding the lengths some artists will go to for their art. In the footage discovered by Dr. Monroe, we learn just how far Yates and his crew went in stirring up the natives, ignoring decency, and even the law, in their attempt to get the “perfect shot”. Not content with merely observing, they instead tried to “control” the story, using any and all means at their disposal. Well before the final credits roll on Cannibal Holocaust, it becomes painfully clear that Yates and the others got exactly what they deserved!

Friday, December 28, 2012

#865. Stagecoach (1939) - The Films of John Ford

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine

Tag line: "A Powerful Story of 9 Strange People!"

Trivia: Orson Welles privately watched this film about 40 times while he was making Citizen Kane

John Ford may not have invented the Western, but he did more to define it than most other filmmakers. Starting with Stagecoach in 1939, and continuing with movies like 1946’s My Darling Clementine, The Searchers in 1956, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, Ford took the genre in a number of daring new directions while, at the same time, focusing on greater issues such as bigotry, familial bonds, the encroachment of civilization, and the changing face of the country itself.

Several people in the small town of Tonto, Arizona board a stagecoach bound for Lordsburg, New Mexico. Among them are Dallas (Claire Trevor), who is being run out of town for her “immoral” behavior (we’re led to believe she’s a prostitute); the drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell); Southern gambler Hatfield (John Carradine); Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer; and Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a banker who seems in a great hurry to get out of Tonto. 

Before departing, the driver (Andy Devine) is warned that the Apaches, led by Geronimo, are on the warpath, and that everyone, including the passengers, should keep an eye out for trouble. Fortunately, a bit further up the trail, the coach also picks up The Ringo Kid (John Wayne), a fugitive from justice who is mighty handy with a gun. Out in the middle of nowhere, this rag-tag group must find a way to work together if they’re to have any chance of surviving the long journey.

Inevitably, the Apaches do attack, leading to a number of exciting scenes that are set in Utah’s picturesque Monument Valley, a location Ford would return to in many later films. But the Apaches aren’t the only ones stirring up trouble in this movie. By introducing such a wide variety of characters, all representing different cross-sections of society, Stagecoach also afforded its director the opportunity to explore the topic of social prejudice. From the outset, Dallas and Doc Boone are treated as outcasts, scorned by such “upper-class” passengers as Gatewood and Mrs. Mallory. And despite the fact his shooting skills saved them during the initial battle, even The Ringo Kid is looked down on by some of the others. Yet as we’ll soon learn, a few of the so-called “respectable” characters in Stagecoach are anything but that.

Stagecoach is a thrilling adventure, and like many of Ford’s westerns, it brings more to the table as well, showing us how a group made up of very different people might react when tossed into a dangerous situation. Furthermore, by separating his characters along social lines, Ford ensures that, even when there isn’t a battle going on, there’s plenty of bickering and in-fighting to keep his audience riveted.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

#864. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Bob Dylan, B.J. Rolfzen, Dick Kangas

Trivia: Columbia/SME Records, Sony Music, and Bob Dylan's management gave Martin Scorsese access to its vaults, something Dylan has never given to any documentary filmmaker

Aired in 2005 as an episode of the American Masters PBS Television series, this documentary, directed by Martin Scorsese, provides insight into the early career of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. Spanning the years 1961 to 1966, No Direction Home covers his rise as an icon in the folk community all the way through to the moment his fan base turned on him, accusing the entertainer of going ‘commercial’ with the release of his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, which featured Dylan performing with an electric band. This was a crucial period in Dylan’s history, one that merited closer examination, and No Direction Home delivers, giving us as in-depth an expose on the subject as we’re likely to see.

Over the years (and by way of various interviews), Dylan has firmly established himself as one of the most elusive personalities in the music industry, which is why No Direction Home proved such a pleasant surprise. It’s all here, from those who influenced his earliest work, like Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger, to his own successful career in folk music, and culminating in the mid-1960’s, when songs like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” hit the Billboard charts, while at the same time alienating a large portion of Dylan’s most fervent admirers, who would forever view their hero as a traitor, a singer who turned his back on the music that made him famous just so he could sell more records. While playing a concert in Great Britain, he’s booed by the crowd, with one person going so far as to call him “Judas”. Dylan’s response? He told his band to play the next number “fucking loud”.

As a fan of Dylan’s, I thoroughly enjoyed No Direction Home; it brought into focus a performer I have always admired, revealing his accomplishments as well as his trials and tribulations. An artist who’s never invited analysis of his own work, I liked learning as much as I did about Bob Dylan from this all-encompassing documentary.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

#863. History of the World: Part 1 (1981)

Directed By: Mel Brooks

Starring: Mel Brooks, Gregory Hines, Dom DeLuise

Tag line: "IN MEL WE TRVST"

Trivia: Richard Pryor was originally cast but had to pull out of the picture

Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part 1 has a few things in common with another movie I reviewed recently, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

1. They are ‘80s comedies that never deliver on their title’s lofty promise (this is no more a “history of the world” than the Python’s outing was a dissertation on the greater purpose of life) 


2. Both are absolutely hilarious

While not an extensive journey through the history of civilization, History of the World: Part 1 does touch on several high points, starting with a trip back to the days of the Neanderthals, where we follow the exploits of a caveman played by the great Sid Caesar. 

Then, after a brief layover in Old Testament times, where Moses (Brooks himself) delivers God’s fifteen… er, make that Ten Commandments to the masses, the film journeys to Imperial Rome, which is under the rule of a slovenly Emperor (Dom DeLuise). 

It’s here that we’re introduced to Comicus (Brooks again), a stand-up philosopher (read “Bullshit Artist”) who has been invited to perform at the palace. 

Unfortunately, his act doesn’t go over too well, and before he knows what’s hit him, Comicus is being hunted by the Emperor’s Praetorian Guard, and must join forces with an Ethiopian slave named Josephus (Gregory Hines), who is also on the run. 

History of the World: Part 1 then treats us to a musical interpretation of the Spanish Inquisition before whisking us off to 18th century France, where King Louis XVI (Brooks... yet again) is in danger of losing his crown - as well as his head - to an angry mob of peasants.

History of the World: Part 1 even takes a moment to drop in on the Last Supper, with Jesus (John Hurt) delivering his message to the apostles, then pausing to give artist Leonardo Da Vinci (Art Metrano) a chance to paint this monumental event.

Having already taken on a number of genres (westerns, horror, silent movies, and even Alfred Hitchcock), History of the World: Part 1 sees Brooks spoofing the epics of the ‘50s and ‘60s, movies like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and The Fall of the Roman Empire

The humor is often crude (the opening shot features early man standing upright for the first time, then proceeding to jerk off), yet even the film's occasional lapses into bad taste are hilarious, like the way Brooks portrays King Louis XVI as if he were a sexual deviant (“It’s good to be the King!”). 

Many of the writer / director’s normal stock players are on-hand, including DeLuise, Caesar, Madeline Kahn (as the oversexed Empress Nympho), Harvey Korman (as the French Aristocrat Count de Monet, a name every bit as confusing as his Hedley Lamaar’s was in Blazing Saddles) and Cloris Leachman (as a rather disgusting French peasant). 

Yet the most memorable of the supporting characters is Hines’ Josephus, who has a number of great scenes (my favorite being the one where he’s pretending to be a Eunuch). Surrounded by comedy legends, Hines manages to outshine them all on several occasions.

I saw History of the World: Part 1 when it was first released to theaters in 1981, a time when I was certainly too young to be seeing it. Being only 11 years old, I could tell it was a funny movie, but, admittedly, some of the jokes went right over my head. 

Well, I get them all now, which makes the movie funnier than it's ever been!

So when do you think Mel will be making Part 2?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

#862. Intolerance (1916)

Directed By: D.W. Griffith

Starring: Lillian Gish, Spottiswoode Aitken, Mary Alden

Tag line: "D.W. Griffith's Colossal Spectacle"

Trivia: The massive life-size set of the Great Wall of Babylon, seen in the fourth story, was placed at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard (in Hollywood, California) when the movie was completed

D.W. Griffith’s monumental epic, Intolerance, would be quite an undertaking even if it were made today. The fact it was produced in 1916, when motion pictures were still in their infancy, is downright remarkable.

Intolerance is broken into four sections, each telling a tale from a different period in history. The majority of the film is dedicated to the modern-day story, about a young girl (Mae Marsh) who marries a boy (Robert Harron) without realizing he works for a criminal they call the Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long). Things take a troubling turn when the Boy is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and sent to prison. The second tale, set in Ancient Babylon, concerns a Mountain Girl (Constance Talmedge) who’s fallen in love with Prince Belshezzar (Alfred Paget), the ruler of Babylonia. Worship of the God Ishtar is spreading in Babylonia, much to the dismay of the high priest of the God Bel (Tully Marshall). In an effort to return the country to the “true faith”, the High Priest conspires with King Cyrus of Persia, who plans to invade. The third section involves Catherine de Medici (Josephine Cromwell) and her attempt to have every Hugueonot murdered, including the recently-engaged Brown-Eyed Girl (Margery Wilson). All three of these segments are then tied in with the story of Christ (Howard Gaye) and his eventual crucifixion.

Intolerance is a gargantuan film, what with its huge set pieces and thousands of extras, but what made it revolutionary was the manner in which Griffith designed it, splicing together four distinct stories and guiding us from one tale to the next, then back again, until all had reached their conclusion. In an era when people were still unaccustomed to seeing pictures move on a screen, this experiment, challenging audiences to follow four separate narratives at the same time, was certainly a bold one. This, combined with the techniques Griffith had spent his career perfecting (extreme close-ups, sweeping camera movements, etc), resulted in a motion picture for the ages.

After directing hundreds of short films for Biograph, D.W. Griffith had, by 1916, firmly established himself as a master of his craft. With Intolerance, he showed the world he was also one of the cinema’s first true artists.

Monday, December 24, 2012

#861. Antwone Fisher (2002)

Directed By: Denzel Washington

Starring: Denzel Washington, Derek Luke, Joy Bryant

Tag line: "Antwone Fisher is at war... with himself"

Trivia: Many extras in the film were active duty U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel from various commands within the Southern California area

Denzel Washington's directorial debut, Antwone Fisher is very successful at accomplishing what it sets out to do.

The story revolves around U.S. Navy non-com Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke), who’s gotten into a number of fights with his shipmates. As a result, he’s ordered to undergo psychiatric analysis, and the doctor assigned to examine him, Officer Jerome Davenport (Washington, taking on the dual role of actor and director), reaches out to Fisher, trying to understand why he’s such an angry young man. At first unwilling to discuss himself, Fisher does eventually open up about his turbulent past, of how his father was killed before he was born, and his mother gave birth to him while she was in prison. So, he ended up living in a foster home, where he was watched over by the Tates. Not only did Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson) abuse him both physically and emotionally, but he was also molested at an early age by the Tates’ housekeeper. Fisher is desperate to overcome his problems, mostly because he doesn't want them to affect his budding romance with fellow Cadet, Cheryl Smolley (Joy Bryant). Davenport does what he can to help, yet at the same time informs Fisher that, to be totally free of his past, he must seek out his real mother, and confront, head-on, the wrongs done to him. If he doesn't, Davenport tells him, he’ll never be able to move on.

Antwone Fisher is no great technical achievement, and while this statement may sound like a criticism, it isn’t. For a first-time director, Washington shows a good deal of patience, avoiding the flash of camera trickery and fast-paced editing to instead allow the story of Antwone Fisher to take center stage. The movie also managed to pull me in emotionally, and Derek Luke was a big reason why. Antwone Fisher was his debut film as well, and he superbly captured the character’s pent-up frustrations, as well as the turmoil eating away at his soul.

A deeply dramatic, often heart-wrenching motion picture, Antwone Fisher relates a powerful tale, and does so very, very well.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

#860. The Meaning of Life (1983) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam

Starring: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle

Tagline: It took God six days to create the earth, and Monty Python just 90 minutes to screw it up"

Trivia: Michael Palin's line, "Hey, but I didn't eat the mousse," is a rare Python ad-lib and was not in the script

Having already taken on the legend of King Arthur (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and religion (Life of Brian), Monty Python clearly felt they were ready to tackle something a bit larger in scope, and for my money, it doesn't get much bigger than trying to define The Meaning of Life!

Returning once again to the sketch formula made popular in their Flying Circus television program, the Pythons (or Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric idle and Terry Gilliam) present the story of life in skit format, from birth and early education up to and including death. 

The lads do make a few detours along the way, delving into such topics as sex, Christianity and war, and even have time for a musical number or two, yet ultimately, The Meaning of Life is about just that, explaining why mankind is here on earth, and what the true purpose of life is.

On second thought… no, it isn’t about that at all!

The Meaning of Life is yet another triumph for the Pythons. Among the highlights are a classroom sequence, set at an all-boys prep school, where the Headmaster (John Cleese) is instructing his pupils on the finer points of sex by way of a live demonstration, and a late scene in which a dinner party is interrupted when Death (Cleese again) comes knocking at the door. 

Of course, the group occasionally crosses the line into hilarious bad taste, including the “organ donor” skit and, even worse, a sequence set in a classy restaurant, where the incredibly wealthy Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones), who also happens to be the world’s most obese man, wreaks havoc with his rather nasty habit of vomiting all over the place. The movie also boasts a handful of memorable musical numbers, like the not-so-subtle jab at Catholicism, “Every Sperm is Sacred”, and the Busby Berkeley-inspired “Christmas in Heaven” grand finale.

The Meaning of Life has all this, and some fish too!

For those of you wondering if, during all the chaos laid out above, the Pythons ever do get around to enlightening us on the meaning of life, I can assure you they do. 

But if it’s an earth-shattering revelation you’re after, well… you'll probably be disappointed!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

#859. 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982)

Directed By: Enzo G. Castellari

Starring: Mark Gregory, Vic Morrow, Fred Williamson

Tag line: "A Heavy Metal Journey Into An Urban Hell Where Everything Was Done Wrong!

Trivia: Vic Morrow's last completed performance before his unfortunate on-set death while filming 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie

Directed by Enzo Castellari, 1990: The Bronx Warriors combines aspects of Escape from New York (a dystopian future in which a portion of New York has been turned over to criminals) with Walter Hill’s The Warriors (by way of its flamboyant gangs, vying for control of the borough). And in spite of a few rough spots, 1990: The Bronx Warriors does a fine enough job blending the two.

The year is 1990, and the Bronx, one of the 5 boroughs of New York City, has become a breeding ground for criminals and lowlifes. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that the authorities have given up on restoring law and order, essentially turning the entire area over to the gangs roaming its streets. Things get a bit complicated, however, when Anne (Stefania Giorlami Goodwin), a young girl in line to become the next President of the world’s largest arms manufacturer, decides to abandon her life of privilege and seeks refuge in the Bronx. Shortly after her arrival, Anne is attacked by a gang calling themselves The Zombies, then saved at the last minute by a biker named Trash (Mark Gregory), the leader of a rival gang known as The Riders. Trash takes it upon himself to watch over Anne, but when the Corporation hires Hammer (Vic Morrow), a vicious bounty hunter, to go in and retrieve her, it could spell the end for both Trash and The Riders.

1990: The Bronx Warriors has a few things going for it. First off, it was shot on-location in New York, which added to the film's overall grittiness, and even though the production lacked the funds to shut down an entire city block while they were shooting (meaning we sometimes see traffic flowing normally in the background), it doesn't really matter… New York is New York, and brings with it a flavor all its own. The supporting cast is also a plus, and features a couple of legendary performers. Fred Williamson is smooth as Ogre, a gang leader with a whole lot of flash, and when it came to playing bad-ass pricks, few were better than Vic Morrow, who’s menacing enough as Hammer to raise the tension several notches whenever he’s on-screen.

And it’s a good thing 1990: The Bronx Warriors had Williamson and Morrow, too, because Gregory is downright awful as Trash. Actually, I’d go so far as to say he’s the single worst cinematic gang leader I’ve ever seen, from his stone-faced delivery of each and every line to the awkward way he struts around, looking as if he’s suffering from a perpetually stiff back. Along with its terrible lead performance, 1990: The Bronx Warriors also has a handful of lackluster fight scenes; the opening confrontation between the Riders and the Zombies feels more like a practice exercise than a battle.

Still, even with its flaws, 1990: The Bronx Warriors is a lot of fun, and when it comes to low-budget post-apocalyptic fare such as this, that’s really all you can ask for!

Friday, December 21, 2012

#858. A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson

Starring: Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow, Frank Capra

Trivia: This documentary was originally shown in 3 parts on the UK's Channel 4

This documentary is a must-see for all serious fans of the cinema. A trek through the history of American film, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies takes us from the days of the silents right up to the mid-1960s.

Hosted by the director himself, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies was produced by the British Film Institute in 1995, as part of their Century in Cinema series. Running for nearly four hours, this retrospective takes us on a guided tour through the annals of American film, from directors Hal Roach and D.W. Griffith onwards, paying special attention to those genres Scorsese feels are distinctly “American”, namely crime (one of the earliest of which was Griffith’s 1912 short, The Musketeers of Pig Alley), westerns, and the Broadway musicals (a la 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933). But there's so much more to this documentary besides, including dozens of film clips and a number of archived interviews with legends like Frank Capra and Nicholas Ray. For people who love movies, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese is pure gold.

But as Scorsese, who also acts as narrator, points out at the beginning of this wonderful odyssey, the entire presentation is a very personal affair. In short, these are the movies that inspired him, that drove him to become a director, and their influence helped transform Scorsese into the filmmaker he is today. As you can imagine, what with this being a ‘personal journey’, Scorsese doesn’t limit himself to mainstream films. In fact, he says the lesser-known movies sometimes had a much bigger impact on his career. So, while we do take the occasional stroll along Main Street, Hollywood, hearing tales and recollections of D.W. Griffith, John Ford, Citizen Kane and Murnau’s Sunrise, we also walk with Scorsese down the side roads and back alleys, where we uncover the likes of Jacques Tourneur, Allan Dwan, Silver Lode and The Phenix City Story.

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies is a brilliant combination of the known and the virtually undiscovered, making this cinematic expedition one fascinating ride.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

#857. The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) - Hammer Horror Movies

Directed By: Terence Fisher

Starring: Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson

Tag line: "New And Greatest Frankenstein Monsterpiece!!"

Trivia: This movie marked actor Michael Ripper's first appearance in a Hammer Horror film

Following the success of Hammer’s 1957 film, The Curse of Frankenstein, the studio would, over the course of the next 16 years, produce half a dozen sequels to the movie, the first of which was 1958’s The Revenge of Frankenstein. And though some of the subsequent pictures would fall short of the mark, The Revenge of Frankenstein is pretty darn entertaining.

Picking up where Curse left off, we join Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) on his way to the guillotine, ready to face the ultimate punishment for his crimes. But with the help of his deformed assistant, Karl (Oscar Quitak), the Baron manages to elude death and flee to the small town of Carlsbruck, where, living under the assumed name of “Dr. Stein”, he sets himself up as a first-class surgeon. After three years, Frankenstein has built quite a practice for himself, seeing to the needs of his upper-class clientele during the day while spending his nights tending to the poor and destitute, at a hospital he himself founded (which, as it turns out, is where he obtains the body parts required to continue his reanimation experiments). Assisted by an eager young doctor named Hans (Francis Matthews), Frankenstein also attempts to transplant Karl’s brain into a brand new “person” he’s created from scratch (Michael Gwynn). Unfortunately, the procedure doesn’t go according to plan, leaving Frankenstein to deal with yet another messy situation.

After delivering a stellar performance in The Curse of Frankenstein, Cushing once again shines in Revenge, only this time out we get to see two distinct sides of Baron Frankenstein’s complex personality. Having established himself in Carlsbruck, “Dr. Stein” proves an able physician who takes a keen interest in the well-being of his patients. He even uses the money he earns from his practice to set up a hospital for the needy and downtrodden. Of course, this facility is nothing more than a front, a place where he can harvest body parts for his research, sometimes going so far as to amputate a perfectly healthy limb just so he can use it for his newest “creation”.

In Curse, Baron Frankenstein came across as an arrogant genius whose sole purpose was to bring his ghastly experiment to life. Revenge allows us, albeit briefly, to see the Baron in a different light, namely a skilled doctor who has fallen, quite tragically, under the spell of his own ambitious goals.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

#856. Midnight in Paris (2011)

Directed By: Woody Allen

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard

Trivia: This was the opening film at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the second of Woody Allen's movies to be given this honor (following Hollywood Ending in 2002)

The opening shots of Midnight in Paris, a montage presenting some of the old town’s most interesting sights, reminded me of another Woody Allen film: 1979’s Manhattan, which also began with images of a great city. And while Manhattan was Allen’s tribute to the place of his birth, Midnight in Paris is his ode to the City of Lights, only, in the case of this movie, it’s both a locale and a period in history that’s fueled his imagination.

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is in Paris with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. A Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of becoming a serious novelist, Gil instantly falls in love with Paris, and talks of settling down there, though Inez isn’t the least bit interested in doing so. One night, when Inez goes dancing with her friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, Gil decides to pass the time by strolling around the city, and it’s during his travels that something amazing happens. At the stroke of midnight, a 1920’s-style car pulls up next to Gil, with its occupants beckoning him to come along. When he takes them up on their offer, Gil finds himself magically transported back in time to the Paris of the 1920s, where he hobnobs with a variety of that period’s most fascinating personalities, including Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and Cole Porter (Yves Heck). Much to his dismay, however, this sojourn to the past doesn’t last as long as he’d like it to, and after several hours, he’s once again in the 21st century. Excited and amazed, Gil spends each and every night from that moment on visiting the ‘20s, and even begins to question whether or not he should marry Inez when he falls for Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful woman living with Picasso as his mistress.

Midnight in Paris is the kind of fantasy that only Woody Allen could create, paying homage to a place, and an era, that has clearly captured his heart, and like his main character, we find ourselves swept up in the thrill of experiencing Paris during the Jazz Age. His first night there, Gil meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife, Zelda (Alison Pill), who whisk him away to a club where Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland) is performing. Soon after, Gil is introduced to Hemingway, who suggests he hand his novel over to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Baker) for her to review. A good many of the era’s prominent celebrities make their way in and out of the picture, like Salvador Dali (Adrian Brody, in a very funny performance), Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van) and T.S. Eliot (David Lowe), all of whom do their part to turn Midnight in Paris into an unforgettable film.

Having worked exclusively in America most of his career, Woody Allen has spent the better part of the last decade making movies abroad, including Match Point (set in London) in 2004 and Vicky Christina Barcelona (shot primarily in Spain) in 2008, both of which are excellent. Now we can add Midnight in Paris to that list, a wonderfully creative motion picture and, quite possibly, Allen’s best in 15 years.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

#855. A Christmas Carol (1984) - 1980s Made for Television

Directed By: Clive Donner

Starring: George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, Angela Pleasence

Tag line: "A new powerful presentation of the most loved ghost story of all time!"

Trivia: Scrooge's grave can still be visited at St Chad's Church graveyard, Shrewsbury, where the churchyard sequence was shot - the production team left the gravestone in place once filming was completed

There have been several film versions of Charles Dickens’ classic 19th century holiday tale, A Christmas Carol, from the Thomas Edison-produced adaptation in 1908 all the way up to Disney’s 2009 animated offering. 

One of the most beloved cinematic takes on the story came in 1951, with Alistair Sim playing the part of Scrooge, but for me, this U.S. made-for-TV rendition of A Christmas Carol, starring George G. Scott, will always be my favorite. I watched it the night it debuted on CBS in 1984, and since that time, It’s become a staple in my Holiday rotation.

Ebenezer Scrooge (Scott) is the nastiest, stingiest man in all of London. As the city happily prepares for the upcoming Christmas season, old Scrooge is tending to business inside his tiny office with his assistant, Bob Cratchit (David Warner), who works long hours for very little pay. 

As far as family is concerned, the only person Scrooge has is his nephew, Fred (Roger Rees), who, every year, invites his uncle over for Christmas Dinner, an invitation that Scrooge regularly declines.

On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is haunted by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley (Frank Finlay), who warns his old colleague that he must accept Christmas into his heart. To help him see the error of his ways, Marley tells Scrooge he’ll be visited that evening by three spirits: the ghosts of Christmas Past (Angela Pleasance), Christmas Present (Edward Woodward) and Christmas Yet to Come. With these spirits to guide him, Scrooge will hopefully discover the true meaning of Christmas, and live by its standards not only in December, but all year long.

Having made a career out of playing gruff characters, George C. Scott seemed the natural choice to portray the mean-spirited Scrooge, and true to form, he’s a real son-of-a-bitch at the film’s outset, angrily pushing street carolers out of his way and refusing to contribute money to assist the poor. He even tries to drive off Tiny Tim Cratchit (Anthony Walters), who is standing on the corner, waiting for his father to finish work. 

Yet what’s truly remarkable about Scott's turn in A Christmas Carol is how he pulls off the later scenes, when Scrooge, after glimpsing his sad future, becomes a changed man. Having so convincingly portrayed a bastard for most of the movie, Scott’s transformation into a kind, caring individual is just as believable. The scene where the actor is giddily jumping up and down on his bed, overjoyed that he hasn’t missed Christmas, is itself reason enough to see it.

Directed by Clive Donner, A Christmas Carol is awash in period costumes and settings, all of which look wonderful, and there are plenty of memorable moments as well, from Jacob Marley’s creepy visit to the boisterous sequences featuring Edward Woodward’s Ghost of Christmas Present. A mostly faithful adaptation of the classic Dickens tale, 1984’s A Christmas Carol is also a beautiful motion picture, with George C. Scott delivering one hell of a performance.

Monday, December 17, 2012

#854. Burial Ground (1981)

Directed By: Andrea Bianchi

Starring: Karin Well, Gianluigi Chirizzi, Simone Mattioli

Tag line: "The earth shall tremble.... graves shall open.... they shall come among the living as messengers of death and there shall be the nights of terror.... "Profecy of the Black Spider""

Trivia: The workshop seen in the film's climax was also used in Dario Argento's Inferno

When it comes to zombie movies, it’s usually a safe assumption that their most shocking scenes will, in one way or another, involve the undead. Well, 1981’s Burial Ground bucks that trend in a big way, giving us a mother-son relationship that’s far more outrageous than anything the walking dead can muster up!

Also knows as The Nights of Terror, Burial Ground tells the tale of three couples who check into a remote mansion for a romantic getaway, only to have their good times ruined when the dead come back to life. In fact, the group barely has a chance to unpack before they’re fighting for their lives, barricading themselves inside the mansion in the hopes it will keep them safe from the zombies outside. But as the walking dead go, this particular horde is pretty smart, and the frightened revelers won’t stay hidden for very long.

Burial Ground is one of those movies you enjoy in spite of itself. The acting, as a whole, is bad, and there’s not much story here, either (the group visits the mansion to meet up with its owner, a professor played by Raimondo Barbieri, yet aren’t the least bit concerned when he’s not there to greet them). On the plus side, things happen pretty fast, with the undead making their presence known almost immediately, and the overall look of the zombies is, for the most part, impressive. And, of course, Burial Ground has plenty of nudity and gore, two staples of Italian horror films produced during this era. While not the best of the bunch, Burial Ground is, indeed, good enough.

And then we have “the scene”, a moment in the film where I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing. To set it up, Evelyn (Maria Angelo Diordano), one of the six unfortunates who visited the mansion that day, also brought her young son, Michael, along. Now, Michael is played by Peter Bart, a petite actor who was in his 20s when Burial Ground was made, and while Mr. Bart didn’t look as if he was twenty-year-old at the time, he sure as hell couldn’t pass for 11 or 12, either, which was supposedly the age of his character. 

Anyway, while the zombies are trying to break in, Evelyn and Michael, all alone, lock themselves in one of the rooms.  In an effort to comfort each other, they embrace. This is where Michael makes his move, telling Evelyn (remember, she’s his mother) that he loves and admires her breasts. He then shows his appreciation for them by feeling her up! 

That’s right, folks: in the middle of a zombie attack, with little or no hope of survival, young Michael tries to get it on with his own mother!

I’ve seen many things over the years that made my jaw hit the floor, but this brief aside in Burial Ground takes the cake!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

#853. Lords of Dogtown (2005)

Directed By: Catherine Hardwicke

Starring: Heath Ledger, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk

Tag line: "Based on the True Story of the Legendary Z-Boys"

Trivia: To prepare for his role as young Jay Adams, Emile Hirsch flew to Hawaii to spend time with Jay Adams who had just been released from jail for assault and drug charges and had just gotten married

Former skateboard legend turned filmmaker Stacey Peralta wowed audiences with his 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z Boys, a movie that chronicled the skate culture of the 1970s as influenced by the tiny California neighborhood known as Dogtown. 

Based on a script written by Peralta, Lords of Dogtown is a dramatization of these same events, spinning a story about a group of kids who turned their passion for skating into a worldwide phenomenon.

It’s the mid-1970s, and a revolution is about to go down in Ocean Park, an area of Santa Monica the locals call Dogtown. Soon, this impoverished beachside community, known for its prime surfing spots, will become the focal point of a sport that will take the world by storm: skateboarding! 

With wheels made of polyurethane, which allows boards to “grip” the streets, skaters are suddenly able to make moves that previously could only be done on a surfboard. Looking to cash in, Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger), who owns the Zephyr Surf Shop, recruits a group of local kids, including Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), and (eventually) Stacey Peralta (John Robinson), making them the nucleus of a skate team known as the “Z Boys”. 

With their talent and “win-at-all-costs” attitude, the Z Boys quickly become national - and before long international - celebrities. But as their popularity grows, so does the likelihood that they’ll be lured away by million-dollar sporting goods companies, who promise to make the Z Boys rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Where Dogtown and Z Boys gave us the “meat and bones” of the story, Lords of Dogtown delves a little deeper into the personalities behind it. Emile Hirsch is excellent as Jay Adams, arguably the most talented of the Z Boys, who looks at professional skating as a way to help out his single mother (Rebecca De Mornay), while Victor Rasuk’s Tony Alva is a cocky, determined kid who wants to win so he can impress his workaholic father (Julio Oscar Mechoso). 

All of the young actors in Lords of Dogtown are effective, but the best performance is delivered by Heath Ledger, whose Skip Engblom is a spaced-out opportunist who stumbles upon a good thing, then fights like hell to keep it together. Those who saw the interviews with the real-life Engblom in Dogtown and Z Boys will be impressed with how well Ledger duplicates Skip's distinctive voice, yet what’s truly remarkable is that he also adds enough depth to the character to make him totally believable (a late scene, where Skip is walking through the burned-out remains of a pier that once meant the world to him, is both poignant and moving). In lesser hands, Skip Engblom might have been little more than a throwaway character, an over-the-top bit of comic relief. Thanks to Heath Ledger's multilayered portrayal, he’s everything but that.

Lords of Dogtown does stagger some in its final act; the scenes showing the Z Boys at the pinnacle of their popularity, competing in tournaments all over the world, feel rushed, and never provide a true sense of just how famous these kids became. This aside, Lords of Dogtown is a good companion piece to Dogtown and Z Boys, and, more importantly, offers audiences yet another opportunity to watch the late Heath Ledger light up the screen.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

#852. Spellbound (2003)

Directed By: Jeffrey Blitz

Starring: Angela Arenivar, Nupur Lala, Ted Brigham

Tag line: "Everyone Wants the Last Word"

Trivia: This film was nominated for several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary

Who would have thought that following a group of ultra-bright adolescents preparing for the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., would be both exciting and entertaining? I sure didn’t. But “exciting and entertaining” only begins to describe this movie, which also explores a wide range of emotions, all flowing from the film’s young spellers.

Directed by Jeffrey Blitz, Spellbound manages to breathe life into its subject, doing so by focusing on eight kids, some rich, some poor, but all very intelligent, as they prepare for the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, a competition held annually in Washington, D.C. Among the eight are Angela Arenivar of Texas, the daughter of a farm laborer who doesn’t speak a word of English; April DeGideo, a girl from Ambler, Pennsylvania, who, despite her talents, seems unsure of herself; and Harry Altman, an energetic youngster from New York who clearly isn’t the least bit camera shy (at one point, he tries to impersonate a robot). We spend the first half of Spellbound meeting the eight contestants, and observing them as they practice for the big day. Then it’s off to Washington, where we sit in on the competition and watch as, one by one, the field of several hundred is whittled down to a select few, who continue to battle it out, spelling words I’ve never heard before, until, finally, a winner is crowned.

Spellbound was definitely a revelation for me. Not only do we learn how intense the National Spelling Bee is, but also the drama associated with it, which director Blitz was able to generate simply by focusing on the faces of these kids. We sense the tension as they stand in front of that microphone, struggling to spell their word, then waiting for the judges to determine their fate. It’s an experience I can pretty much guarantee will have you biting your nails in nervous anticipation.

So, for those who roll their eyes at the thought of sitting through a film about the National Spelling Bee, I implore you to give Spellbound a chance. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I know I was.

Friday, December 14, 2012

#851. The Last Picture Show (1971)

Directed By: Peter Bogdanovich

Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd

Tag line: "Anarene, Texas, 1951. Nothing much has changed..."

Trivia: Ben Johnson was persuaded to accept the role of Sam the Lion by his friend John Ford

A soulful slice of Americana, Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show explores the sometimes turbulent lives of the citizens of Anarene, a tiny, barren 1950s Texas town where everyone is on the lookout for something to relieve the boredom.

Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Moore (Jeff Bridges) are the best of friends. Both are on the High School Football Team, and spend their free time hanging out at the pool hall owned and operated by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson, in an Academy- Award winning performance). In fact, Sam owns pretty much all of downtown Anarene, from the movie house to the diner where Genevieve (Eileen Brennan) works. 

On the social front, Duane is dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), the prettiest girl in town. But Jacy does have one teensy little problem: she’s still a virgin, a condition her mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn), recommends she correct as quickly as possible. See, Lois thinks Duane isn’t the right man for her daughter, and believes that, once Jacy sleeps with him, she will realize it as well. 

Unfortunately, Duane's and Jacy’s first sexual encounter doesn’t set the world on fire. So, the self-centered Jacy dumps Duane and hooks up with Bobby (Gary Brockette), the wealthiest boy in neighboring Wichita Falls.

As for Sonny, his love life is a bit more... complicated. 

One day, the football coach (Bill Thurman) asks Sonny to drive his wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman), into town. As it turns out, Ruth is incredibly bored with her marriage. To add some spice to her monotonous routine, she initiates an affair with Sonny, just one of many scandals that, over the years, has rocked this sleepy little community.

The small town at the center of The Last Picture Show is nothing like those ideal communities found in 1950s television (a la The Andy Griffith Show). It’s a place where apathy runs wild, where a complete lack of privacy is to be expected, and where the stark reality that few will escape this dreary, impoverished area looms heavy. Bogdanovich’s decision to shoot The Last Picture Show in black and white was practically a necessity; nothing else could have captured the feel of Anarene quite as well. It is a dusty, bleak dot on the map where tedium and despair are the norm.

An honest, sometimes depressing account of life in a small-town, The Last Picture Show is a true American classic.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

#850. Death Watch (1980)

Directed By: Bertrand Tavernier

Starring: Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton

Tag line: "She's the target of every eye... including eyes only science could create"

Trivia: This is Robbie Coltrane's first motion picture

Though he surely didn’t know it at the time, director Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch provided audiences with a glimpse into the future of television. This fictitious tale, about a dying woman hounded by TV networks wanting to make a series out of her final days, had all the makings of a fascinating sci-fi story in 1980. Were it produced today, with reality television as prevalent as it is, Death Watch would have almost certainly been a documentary.

Set in a future where illness has been nearly eradicated, romance writer Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schnieder) has somehow contracted a rare disease, and is dying. Though devastated by the news, Katherine also becomes an instant celebrity, with various media outlets vying for the opportunity to broadcast her death. One television network in particular, NTV, which is headed up by executive Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton), offers Katherine a huge sum of money for the exclusive rights to her last hours on earth. At first, Katherine agrees to sell her “story”, but then changes her mind and goes into hiding, determined to spend the little time she has left in seclusion. Soon after, she meets Roddy (Harvey Keitel), and the two become fast friends. What Katherine doesn’t know – and the rest of the world does – is that Roddy’s actually an employee of NTV. What’s more, he recently underwent an experimental procedure to implant a camera behind his eyes, allowing him to record images of Katherine on the sly, which are then transmitted to the network. But what begins as an assignment soon gets much more complicated when Roddy finds himself falling in love with Katherine. As Roddy struggles with his conscience, Katherine discovers a shocking secret about the true nature of her illness, one that threatens to tear both their worlds apart.

Death Watch is not a high-tempo movie; on the contrary, it plays out at a leisurely pace, giving director Tavernier enough time to toss in some beautiful imagery. Roddy, unable to sleep because of his implants (any prolonged period of darkness will cause the camera in his head to switch off, thus leaving him blind), spends his nights walking through Glasgow (where the film was made), leading to some breathtaking shots of the city. Along with its pacing, Death Watch is an unusual sci-fi entry in that its scientific aspects often take a back seat to the “human factor”. When Roddy pays a visit to his ex-wife, Tracey (Therese Liotard), the two attempt to rekindle the passion they once shared. Yet just before they’re about to make love, Roddy pulls away. Never quite sure when his implants are transmitting images, he’s unwilling to “put on a show” of that nature for his pals at NTV (who were, indeed, watching). Despite the fact he’s part of a system that thrives on public exhibition, even Roddy seems to agree some things are better left in private.

Movies like Death Watch and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show predicted a future where mankind, in an effort to better understand the human condition, turned their television cameras back on themselves. What the viewing public got, however, wasn’t "reality" at all, but an artificially concocted version of it, created by networks that exploited and manipulated people, all in an attempt to boost ratings.

Sound familiar?

As effective a sci-fi morality tale as Death Watch is, it also served as a chilling portend of things to come.