Tuesday, January 31, 2012

#533. Mother's Red Dress (2011)

Directed By: Edgar Michael Bravo

Starring: Timothy Driscoll, Alexandra Swarens, Alisha Seaton

Tag line: "The First Step In Healing Yourself Is To Accept The Truth"

Something happened here

This line is repeated several times by the main character in director Edgar Michael Bravo's 2011 film, Mother's Red Dress, the story of a young man trying to escape the demons of his past, even if he can't quite remember who, or what, those demons might be. 

After watching his mother (Alisha Seaton) murder her boyfriend in cold blood, a distraught Paul (Timothy Driscoll) leaves home, vowing never to return. His travels take him to a small town, where he meets Brenda (Amanda Reed) and Ashley (Alexandra Swarens), both of whom work at a local coffee shop. Brenda is immediately attracted to Paul, yet he finds himself drawn to Ashley, despite the fact she shows very little interest in him. That changes, however, when Paul asks Ashley to give him a tour of the local college, where he plans to enroll before the upcoming semester. But try as he might to get on with his life, there are issues from Paul's past he has yet to come to terms with, including a particularly tragic event he's only now starting to remember. 

Director Bravo structures Mother's Red Dress as if it were a puzzle, inviting us to splice together the mystery surrounding Paul one piece at a time. Most of the clues we're presented with come courtesy of Paul himself, whose vivid dreams haunt him nightly. During one such nightmare, we catch a brief glimpses of a man, presumably Paul's father, lying in a hammock, while Paul's mother, dressed in red, stands nearby. The next night, He'll again have this same dream, only this time, he himself, as a young boy, is a part of it, staring at the hammock until his mother coerces him to look away. I enjoyed the subtle manner in which Paul's story unfolded, and was genuinely interested to see how it would all play out. 

Ultimately, I did find myself more in tune with the story than the characters; the snippets of Paul's past were always more interesting than the scenes of his new life, or his interactions with Brenda and Ashley. Still, there are enough twists and turns in Mother's Red Dress to keep you guessing throughout, and the final reveal (which is suitably startling) makes the entire journey worthwhile.

Monday, January 30, 2012

#532. The Shining (1980)

Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd

Tag line: "He Came As The Caretaker, But This Hotel Had Its Own Guardians - Who'd Been There A Long Time"

Trivia: During filming, Stanley Kubrick made the cast watch Eraserhead, Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist to put them in the right frame of mind

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a horror masterpiece, a visually spectacular ghost story that is also a chilling account of one man’s journey into madness. 

Aspiring writer Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) accepts a job as the off-season caretaker for the Overlook hotel, a remote Colorado resort that closes its doors during the harsh winter months. With his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), in tow, Jack moves into the abandoned hotel, convinced the extended isolation will be just what he needs to complete his novel. 

But young Danny, who has a special “gift” that allows him to sense what others cannot, knows that evil lurks in these hallways, and over the course of several weeks he will experience an onslaught of terrible visions, providing a glimpse into the dark forces surrounding them all. 

Yet it’s Jack who ultimately falls under the hotel's spell, and his family watches in horror as his sanity slips away. 

Like every Kubrick film, The Shining features a number of striking images. Before the family even sets out for the Overlook, Danny, whose psychic powers are already tuned in to the hotel’s sinister past, can “see”, in his mind’s eye, a river of blood pouring from an elevator shaft, and the bodies of two young girls - horribly butchered - lying dead on the floor. 

Equally as engaging are the film's two main characters, Jack and Danny, both of whom are susceptible to the Overlook's intense energy, yet each in a very different way. Jack, who doesn't fully realize the powers at play, is manipulated so severely that his mind becomes a jumbled mess, unable to differentiate between reality and illusion. The energy enveloping Jack, is, at the same time, warning Danny. He sees the aftermath of the grisly murders that occurred there years earlier, and knows to avoid room 237, even if he's not sure why. Danny’s unique abilities, frightening though they may be, are, in the end, all that's keeping him alive. 

Perhaps most effective of all is the Overlook itself, certainly one of the most ominous settings in the long history of horror movies. On more than one occasion, Kubrick takes us on a grand tour of the place, exploring its spacious corridors and vacant rooms by way of long, continuous shots, allowing us to see for ourselves just how enormous, how cold and empty, it really is.  By containing the terror almost exclusively within the Overlook, Kubrick hangs a pall over the entire building, and while many might look at the hotel and call it beautiful, we never see it as such. 

Its luxurious appearance masks a disturbing nature, and even if Jack and Wendy did, at first, find it the ideal setting, Danny wasn’t fooled for a second.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

#531. Super Size Me (2004)

Directed By: Morgan Spurlock

Starring: Morgan Spurlock, Daryl Isaacs, Lisa Ganjhu

Tag line: "A film of epic portions"

Trivia:  When the movie opened in Australia, it had the highest opening gross ever for a documentary. It grossed just over AUS$1 million (over US$800,000) in the first two weeks of release

Super Size Me is the award-winning documentary by Morgan Spurlock, a man who woke up one morning and decided to spend an entire month, 30 full days, eating nothing but fast food from McDonalds for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. What effect would such a diet have on his body, he wondered? Gee, let's see if we can't figure that one out! 

But what elevates Super Size Me to the level of a superior documentary is it takes the story one step further. Spurlock does more than present a video diary of his journey towards self-destruction. Through interviews and with plenty of statistics to back him up, he carries us far beyond the golden arches to reveal a deeper level of greed, showing why it's in the best interest of many corporations to keep large quantities of junk food flowing into our mouths, all at the expense of our waistlines. 

While Morgan Spurlock's personal experiment is indeed a fascinating tale, related here in an entertaining, often humorous way, Super Size Me tackles other disturbing stories as well, all relating to the "fattening up" of America. For example, there's John Robbins, one of the heirs to the Baskin Robbins Ice Cream fortune. Over time, Robbins turned his back on the family business, a direct result of years of poor health stemming from a steady diet of ice cream. Then we have the tragic story of Bruce Howlett, whom we first meet as he's lying on a hospital gurney, preparing to undergo gastric bypass surgery, a procedure that will shrink his stomach to the size of a small apple. Howlett is just one of many obese people who've turned to surgery to help control their weight. What brought him to this desperate state? Well, maybe it was the 2 gallons of cola he used to drink...every single day. 

So how did Super Size Me affect me personally? I can sum it up with the following story: 

Several days after seeing this film, I drove my wife and kids to the local YMCA, where my two sons were taking swimming lessons. Once their classes had ended, both asked if we could stop off for some ice cream sundaes. I suppose so, I said. After all, it was the middle of the summer, and they'd just had a pretty good workout. But as I was standing in line to buy my sundae, I remembered this film. I remembered John Robbins, and poor Bruce Howlett.  The employee behind the counter asked me what I wanted. 

"Just bottled water", I replied.

"I'm sorry, sir, we're all out of bottled water". 

So, as my family sat in an air-conditioned dining room enjoying their ice cream sundaes, I was walking 150 yards across the hot pavement of a strip mall parking lot, all in the hopes of purchasing a bottle of water from the pharmacy across the way. As I cut my way across, baking in the summer sun, one thought was racing through my head: 

"Thanks a lot, Morgan Spurlock

No, really...Thank you.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

#530. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - The Films of Wes Anderson

Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston

Tag line: "Family Isn't A Word...It's A Sentence"

Trivia:  Danny Glover, Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson all turned down parts in Ocean's Eleven to appear in this film

The first time I saw Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, I had mixed feelings about it. I thought it was amusing, but couldn't relate to the characters, many of whom were a bit too quirky for my taste.

A second viewing changed that, and what once seemed ‘quirky’ instead took on a bizarre sort of energy, as if everyone in this movie existed in a fascinating alternate reality.

Having seen The Royal Tenenbaums somewhere around a dozen or so times at this point, I now rank it among my favorite films of all time.

Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and his wife Etheline (Angelica Huston) have been separated for the last 22 years. With her husband out of the picture, Etheline took control of both the family home at 111 Archer Avenue and the job of raising their three children, Chas, Richie, and adopted daughter Margot.

With Etheline’s guidance and support, all of the Tenenbaum offspring became child prodigies, but their success was short-lived. Chas (Ben Stiller), who had launched several lucrative business ventures by the time he was a teenager, is today a widowed father obsessed with the safety and well-being of his two sons, Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson). Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a former award-winning playwright, is unhappily married to noted author and neurologist, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), while Richie (Luke Wilson), once a tennis superstar, has spent the last year living at sea, reeling from his emotional breakdown one afternoon on the tennis court.

And then there's Royal himself, who was recently locked out of his hotel room.  Having remained close friends with Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), a servant in the Tenenbaum household, Royal learns that Etheline is about to embark on a new romance with her accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). To prevent this courtship from happening, Royal decides to reclaim his position as head of the family. Unfortunately, he goes about doing so by way of deception, faking a terminal illness and telling Etheline he has only six weeks to live.X Once again under the same roof as his estranged family, Royal may not be the most popular member of the household, but does attempt to share some worldly wisdom with his children, advice that, in the end, might be exactly what they need to sort out their troubled lives.

There's no shortage of eccentric characters in The Royal Tenenbaums, yet Hackman damn near steals the show as Royal, the abrasively dishonest patriarch who worms his way back into the family fold. Yet, despite his obvious shortcomings, Royal is basically a likable guy. In one of the film’s best scenes, he invites his two sheltered grandsons, Ari and Uzi, out for an afternoon on the town. To the beat of Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard", Royal and the boys embark on an escapade of hi-jinks as dangerous as they are illegal (he even teaches them how to shoplift cookies and a half-gallon of milk from a corner convenience store).

Sure, Royal is a horrible role model, arguably the worst young Ari and Uzi could possibly have, but he's the perfect counterweight to their father's stifling over-protectiveness, and shows the boys it's OK to live a little.

Everything about The Royal Tenenbaums, from its astute visual style to the expert narration of Alec Baldwin (often overlooked, but extremely effective) is spot-on, and I came to love this oddball collection of characters, whose lives always seemed to be teetering on the brink of disaster.

Enter Royal Tenenbaum, con-man, liar, and crook extraordinaire, who showed up just in time to save them all.

Friday, January 27, 2012

#529. The Verdict (1982)

Directed By: Sidney Lumet

Starring: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden

Trivia:  Among the people in the courtroom during the dramatic closing speech is a young Bruce Willis.

Anyone who reads film reviews on a regular basis will have surely come across phrases like “one of his/her best performances”, “a role unlike any he/she has ever played before”, and “one of the finest actors/actresses ever to grace the screen” more times than they can possibly count (I know I myself have even used them on occasion). By now, such statements are, of course, total cliches, but every so often, a performance comes along that is simply staggering in its brilliance, and worthy of every bit of praise thrown its way. Paul Newman in The Verdict is definitely one of those times.

Alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin (Newman) was running out of chances to save his deteriorating career when the case of a lifetime fell into his lap. His good friend, Mickey (Jack Warden), put him in touch with Sally Doneghy (Roxanne Hart), who was bringing a medical malpractice suit against a Catholic-run hospital, claiming their negligence brought about her sister's irreversible coma. After accepting the case, Frank prepares for what he hopes will be a sizable settlement offer from the Archdiocese. But a visit to the young woman at the center of it all causes Frank to do something he hasn't done in a long time: get emotionally involved. He rejects all settlement offers and brings his case to court, where he finds himself up against Ed Concannon (James Mason), the hospital’s top lawyer and a man determined to win at all costs. 

Throughout The Verdict, Newman maneuvers his character from scene to scene with absolute perfection . At the start, Frank Galvin is little more than an ambulance chaser, a man callous enough to show up at a wake pretending to be a friend of the deceased, then slyly slipping his business card to the grieving widow. The lowly state of his legal career is what's turned Frank into an alcoholic, an obvious case of self loathing over the depths to which he’s sunk. He no longer seems to care about anyone or anything, including himself. Then, he meets the girl who, because of negligence, will have to live as a vegetable the rest of her life. Seeing her causes something inside him to click, and all at once, the case becomes more than dollars and cents; it's his shot at redemption. Newman reveals every layer of this complex character in his usual nonchalant manner, refusing to overplay the dramatic or overstate the obvious. Much like his Cool Hand Luke, we see the depths of Frank Galvin’s soul simply by staring into Newman's eyes. There's anguish in them when he turns down the first settlement offer, but at the same time, we know accepting it would've been just as unbearable. 

After watching Paul Newman in The Verdict, I have to say he delivered one of his best performances, playing a character unlike any he had played before, and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt he was one of the finest actors ever to grace the screen. 

Hey, sometimes the cliches work!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

#528. Australia After Dark (1975) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: John D. Lamond

Starring: Gina Allen, Count Copernicus, Hayes Gordon

Tag line: "At Last! The Australia you've always wanted to see but until now ... have never DARED!"

Trivia:  This film was heavily censored upon its release in the UK, running 12 minutes shorter than the R-rated Australian version

Featured in 2008's Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, Australia After Dark is a mondo-style documentary that (like all good mondo-style documentaries) occasionally devolves into an exposé of sex, masochism and oddities galore. It's an eccentric motion picture, to be sure, but boy, do I love it!

Narrated by Hayes Gordon, Australia After Dark takes us on a whirlwind tour of Australia, journeying from one end of the continent to the other and exploring the customs, beliefs, and, unusual “practices” of its diverse population. Australia After Dark has it all, from exotic restaurants and outdoor festivals to strip clubs and fetish palaces, revealing a side of Australia you've never seen in a travel brochure.

How strange is Australia After Dark? Well, here's a summation of the first dozen or so minutes of the film:

We open with a picturesque shot of the Outback, over which Mr. Gordon, the narrator, warns us that what we're about to see “won't be all beautiful, but it will be true”. After about 30 seconds spent discussing the plight of the Aborigines, we're whisked to King's Cross in Sydney, a “sleazy, grubby, neon-lit” section of town filled to the breaking point with prostitutes, pimps and strippers. There's a brief scene with a naked woman lying on a bed, then it's right back to the streets and into an S&M “salon” where two leather-bound men wrestle around a bit before one is led upstairs and tied to a rack (“look at that rack”, Hayes Gordon says, “you don't see craftsmanship like that these days”).

Cut to a riverboat restaurant, where the chef is preparing such tasty morsels as shrimp, snake, and fried grubs. Then, it's off to an art studio, where, for a small fee, patrons get to “decorate” the body of a naked woman. But we're not done yet. We still have ancient cave drawings to examine, and three nude ladies rolling around on the floor... before we've hit that 12-minute mark!

Seriously, I don't think “bizarre” is a strong enough word to describe Australia After Dark!

There are smatterings of a legitimate documentary to be found here. We visit a museum in Melbourne that was once a gallows, and now features a variety of death masks molded from those executed there. There is also straight-up exploitation, by way of nude beaches on the Barrier Reef, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a porn film, and the ravings of a sexual prophet (and sometimes drag queen) named Count Copernicus.. Both blend together into what I found to be an extremely provoking, sometimes shocking, always fascinating motion picture. 

Trust me...Australia After Dark is one movie you won't want to miss!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

#527. The Graveyard (2006)

Directed By: Michael Feifer

Starring: Christopher Stewart, Sam Bologna, Trish Coren

Tag line: "Fear is buried here..."

The Graveyard is a 2006 horror film that goes through the motions of trying to scare you, but ultimately, its heart just isn't in it. 

What starts as an evening of fun in a local cemetery quickly turns to tragedy for a group of friends when one of their number, Eric (Mark Salling), is accidentally killed, the victim of a practical joke gone very wrong. Five years later, another of the friends, Bobby (Patrick Scott Lewis), is paroled after serving time for his part in Eric's death. To help Bobby come to terms with his new-found freedom, and to bring a sense of closure for the rest of them, the gang heads to a campsite for a weekend getaway. But somebody else has tagged along, a masked maniac who has no intention of allowing any of them to forget the past. 

The Graveyard opens on the night of Eric's death, and we're introduced to the characters by way of Jack (Leif Lillehaugen), the leader of the group, who stands inside the cemetery and calls each of them by name as they make their way in. Designed to establish what good buddies they all are, the scene instead comes across as forced and phony. Of course, once the killer gets down to business, this early transgression might have been forgiven, but unfortunately, those moments don't fare any better. Take, for example, the scene where Veronica (Eva Derrek), Jack's girlfriend, has her run-in with the masked psychotic. Looking to wash off after she and Jack had done the nasty, we watch as Veronica walks to the showers, and as she makes her way inside, the killer pops into view in the background. Once Veronica's started her shower, he walks through the front door, pulls down the curtain from another stall, and sneaks towards her. We even get shots of him waiting for her to finish, the camera shifting back and forth between Veronica bathing and him standing still. We know he's going to kill her, and thanks to him yanking down that curtain, we know how he'll do it. There's not even a jump scare; when Veronica finally does walk out, the killer just sorta strolls up to her. In this scene, and others, the filmmakers give us way too much information on the killer's activities, thus sabotaging any suspense there might have been in his various kills.  

Aside from one interesting twist about halfway through the film, there aren't many surprises to be found in The Graveyard. A slasher with no tension and zero scares, odds are you'll forget this movie shortly after you see it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

#526. A Man For All Seasons (1966)

Directed By: Fred Zinnemannn

Starring: Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw

Tag line: "...a motion picture for all times!"

Trivia:  Richard Burton turned down the role of Sir Thomas More

England's King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) has divorced his queen so that he may marry Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave), whom he hopes will bear him the son he so eagerly desires. Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is the Country's Lord High Chancellor, and has always been the King's loyal subject. However, Sir Thomas is also a man of God, and when the divorce causes a rift between the Church of England and the Roman Papacy, he resigns his position. What's more, Sir Thomas refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to the new Church of the land, despite the best efforts of the King’s ministers, Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) and The Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport), to convince him otherwise. A man of principle, Sir Thomas is unwilling to yield, and may just be forced to carry his moral stance with him to the grave. 

Based on Robert Bolt's award-winning play, A Man For All Seasons succeeds in capturing the visual grandeur of 16th-Century England, but its the script (also penned by Bolt) that really stands out. In one scene, Sir Thomas, who's locked away in the Tower for refusing to take the Oath of Loyalty, is visited by his family. His daughter, Margaret (Susannah York) had, up to that point, supported her father’s position, yet now begs him to reconsider. His wife, Alice (Wendy Hiller), also pleads with Sir Thomas to concede the point of the marriage and return home. Scofield handles it all brilliantly, evoking the anguish the real Thomas More would have undoubtedly felt in this same situation. The joy of seeing his loved ones for the first time in years is all but shattered when, one by one, they ask him to do what he simply cannot. Thomas More’s family had been his strength throughout this entire ordeal, and now they've turned on him as well.  As you can imagine, the sequence is incredibly moving. 

As portrayed in A Man For All Seasons, Sir Thomas More was a firm believer in honoring ones values, whatever the cost. I was impressed with his stance, his almost stubborn adherence to what he believed was right, and I did come to respect the man. It's because of him that I hold A Man for All Seasons in such high regard. Its lessons of faith and determination are timeless. 

Through incredible adversity, Sir Thomas More remained a man true to himself and his philosophies. He was a rare breed if ever there was one

Monday, January 23, 2012

#525. My Darling Clementine (1946) - The Films of John Ford

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature

Tag line: "She was everything the West was - young, fiery, exciting!"

Trivia:  Vincent Price was considered for the role of Doc Holliday.

The Gunfight at the OK Corral is, arguably, the single most famous showdown in the history of the American West. So, it stands to reason that John Ford, Hollywood’s most prolific director of western films, would eventually bring it to the silver screen. Shot in beautiful black and white, My Darling Clementine features many of the director’s trademarks: the wide-open spaces of Monument Valley, the frontier folk music, exciting battles, some humor, and engaging high drama. He even manages to toss in a square dance for good measure! 

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James (Don Garner) are driving a herd of cattle through the territory. One night, Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil ride into the nearby town of Tombstone for a shave, leaving James behind to look after things. But when they return, their entire herd is missing, and James is face down in the mud, dead, a bullet in his back. 

Convinced it was the work of the Clantons, a vicious band of cattle rustlers led by Pop Clanton (Walter Brennan), Wyatt accepts the vacant position of sheriff of Tombstone, deputizes his brothers, and vows to stay on the job until he has brought James' killers to justice. 

But the Clantons aren’t Wyatt's only concern; as sheriff, he also has to face off against the drunken Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), a former surgeon with a quick temper who is mighty quick with a sidearm. After a while, Earp realizes there's still good in Holliday, and that he could prove a valuable ally.  

When a trinket that belonged to James leads Wyatt to his brother’s murderers, it kicks off one of the most famous skirmishes in American history: the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral! 

Fonda is decidedly low-key as Wyatt Earp, and much of the film is spent watching him perform the duties of his office. His Earp has a quiet strength about him, a calm determination to keep the peace, which he values above all else. He never backs down from a confrontation, either with the Clantons or Doc Holliday, and even tosses Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), a saloon dancer and Doc Holliday’s girl, into a horse trough when he catches her spying on his poker hand. Yet Fonda’s Earp remains a peaceful man throughout My Darling Clementine, drawing his gun only when circumstances demand it. 

On the other side of the coin is Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday, a risk-taker always ready for a fight. At one time a respected physician , Doc is now content to live out his days playing poker and drinking whiskey. But his past catches up with him when Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) rides into town. Clementine was close to Doc in the old days, and has come to ask him to return home. See, aside from being a gambler and a drunk, Doc also has tuberculosis, and is dying. Not ready to face Clementine, his past, or his illness, Doc jumps on a horse and hightails it out of town. The contrast between Wyatt Earp, who never backs down, and Doc Holliday, who has been running for years, brings a sense of irony to both their tumultuous friendship and the films climactic scene. 

The climax, of course, being the Gunfight at the OK Corral, which happens suddenly, and is over almost as quickly as it started. In fact, there’s a whole lot more sneaking around and getting set than there is actual gun play, and when the bullets start flying, they don’t do so for very long. Ford went to great lengths to ensure his interpretation was historically accurate; in laying out the particulars of the showdown, he relied heavily on a book written by Stuart Lake titled Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, as well as a first-hand account of what transpired, which he heard from Wyatt Earp himself, who the director met in his younger days. 

Ultimately, though, My Darling Clementine isn’t so much a chronicle of this important event in American history as it is the tale of two men thrown together by circumstance. That their story is more interesting than such a legendary gunfight is a credit to both Ford and his talented cast.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

#524. The End (1978)

Directed By: Burt Reynolds

Starring: Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Dom DeLuise

Tag line: "A comedy for you and your next of kin"

Trivia:  This script was originally written for Woody Allen

Burt Reynolds both stars in and directs 1978's The End, a comedy about death, and though he does a fine job in the lead role, its the film's supporting cast that truly stands out. 

Sonny Lawson (Reynolds) is dying. Infected with a rare blood disease, his doctor (Norman Fell) says he has less than a year to live, but Sonny refuses to wait around for the Grim Reaper to arrive. To avoid the inevitable pain and suffering he's sure to endure, Sonny's decided to kill himself. His first attempt involves swallowing a bottle of pills, but it doesn't get the job done. Instead, when he comes to, Sonny finds he's been committed to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. It's here he meets Marlon (Dom DeLuise), a fellow patient he enlists to help him end it all. Yet as each successive suicide attempt fizzles, Sonny slowly realizes that, though this days are numbered, he may just have a little more living to do before his time is up. 

Reynolds is solid as Sonny, and generates his fair share of laughs (In the opening scene, he tells the doctor he had no idea he was sick. “I thought I discovered some new way of losing weight.”, he says, “Throwing up”). But the moments from The End that will stick with you feature the supporting cast, many of whom appear in a single scene. Norman Fell is Sonny's low-key doctor, a man who only perks up when offering to remove Sonny's spleen. Sally Field is funny as Mary Ellen, the bubbly girlfriend, though she doesn't do much for Sonny's self esteem, claiming to have never once in her life experienced an orgasm. Two screen legends, Pat O'Brien and Myrna Loy, make a brief appearance as Sonny's slightly senile parents, and Kristy McNichol shines as Julie, Sonny's daughter and the only person in the world he feels he can trust. My two favorites, however, are a young Robby Benson as the priest who hears Sonny's last confession (when Sonny feels uneasy calling someone so much younger than himself "Father”, Benson suggests he instead use his first name, Dave, leading to the hilarious line “Bless me, Dave, for I have sinned”) and Dom DeLuise, Sonny's partner-in-crime and a man determined to help his new best friend “cross over” to the other side. 

Despite its bleak subject matter, The End benefits from a party-like atmosphere, as if Reynolds simply got together with a group of his closest pals and filmed the whole affair. Fortunately, the audience is let in on the fun, and a good time is definitely had by all.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

#523. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Directed By: Richard Brooks

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives

Tag line: "Just one pillow on her bed...and just one desire in her heart!"

Trivia:  Playwright Tennessee Williams so disliked this adaptation that he told people in the queue "This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!"

Both Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor rank among my favorite performers of all-time, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the reason why. Throughout their long and impressive careers, each would deliver dozens of solid performances, but their pairing in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof proved cinematic gold. 

Everyone has gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives), head of a wealthy southern family. His dutiful son Gooper (Jack Carson) and Gooper's wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), are in attendance, as is Big Daddy's better half for the last 40 years, affectionately known to everyone as Big Momma (Judith Anderson). Yet what makes this particular birthday special is the unexpected arrival of Big Daddy's favorite son Brick (Newman) and his wife Maggie (Taylor). 

Alas, the reunion will not be a happy one. 

A recent physical exam has revealed that Big Daddy is dying, and doesn't have long to live. To add to the turmoil, Brick, a former star athlete, is now a raging alcoholic who has come to despise his beautiful yet overbearing wife. 

The trouble between Brick and Maggie started years earlier, when Brick's closest friend Skipper killed himself. Brick believes Skipper's suicide was caused by the guilt the deceased experienced following a sexual encounter with Maggie. Maggie, however, denies that she cheated on her husband, and, in spite of Brick's harsh treatment of her she is still very much in love with him. 

Over the course of the evening, all the suspicions and resentments that have plagued this family for decades will rise to the surface, causing a rift between father and son, husband and wife, brother and brother that may prove irreparable. 

Burl Ives holds his own against the film's two stars, giving a boisterous performance as the gruff and cynical patriarch. His Big Daddy is never afraid to say what's on his mind; he asks Maggie why she and Brick decided to honor them all with a visit. Maggie assures him they came for his birthday, but Big Daddy points out he also had a birthday last year, and the year before that, neither of which Brick attended. “Maybe”, Big Daddy says, “he thought he was coming to a funeral instead”. Despite his character's illness, Ives brings life and vitality to Big Daddy, as well as a commanding presence whenever he's on-screen. 

Ives' excellent work aside, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof belongs to both Newman and Taylor, whose scenes together are positively explosive. Elizabeth Taylor's Maggie is an outgoing Southern Belle who isn't above a bit of gold-digging from time to time. At one point, she pushes Brick to challenge his brother for control of Big Daddy's business empire. And yet, Maggie genuinely loves her husband, and is deeply wounded every time he rejects her, a rejection that also extends to the bedroom. Maggie does her best to arouse Brick's passion, but Brick has none to give. He looks at her with total apathy in his eyes, and this drives Maggie to despair. “If I thought you'd never make love to me again”, she says, “I'd find the longest, sharpest knife I could and stick it straight into my heart”. Brick can't even bring himself to respond. 

With its blunt depiction of frustrated sexuality and family strife, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof certainly raised a few eyebrows back in the day. But it was Taylor's raw sensuality and Newman's rugged callousness that made it a classic.

Friday, January 20, 2012

#522. Zombie 4: After Death (1989)

Directed By: Claudio Fragasso

Starring: Jeff Stryker, Candice Daly, Massimo Vanni

Trivia:  In Germany, this film was released as The Evil is Back

I knew my luck with Italian zombie movies would run out sooner or later. Seeing as I enjoyed pretty much all of them up to this point, I figured I was due for a stinker. And man...did I find one! 

After the death of his daughter, the voodoo High Priest (James Sampson) of a small island first transforms his wife (Geretta Geretta) into a bloodthirsty demon, then proceeds to open the third gate of hell, thus unleashing an entire army of the walking dead. The first to fall victim to the freshly-risen corpses are a team of scientists, who've been living on the island for several months. All are killed but one, a young child named Jenny, whose mother gave her a special talisman to protect her from all harm. We next jump twenty years into the future, where Jenny (Candace Daly), now an adult, is out boating with a pack of mercenaries. Naturally, the boat breaks down just as they're passing the very island Jenny escaped, forcing them to go ashore for repairs. At the same time, a trio of researchers, already on the island, are busy looking for the “Eye of the Volcano”. When one of the three reads from the Book of the Dead (which he found lying on the ground), it re-awakens the zombies, who attack the researchers and leave only one of them, a guy named Chuck (Jeff Stryker), alive. Chuck eventually makes his way to Jenny and her friends, and together they attempt to hold off the approaching horde of undead. But how long can they hold out? 

If you think this story sounds convoluted and confusing, join the club. It's never explained why the Voodoo priest needed to turn his wife into a demonic killer, especially since he was planning to raise the dead immediately afterwords, anyway. I have no idea how young Jenny got off the island all those years ago, seeing as her parents, and everyone else she knew, were dead, and what are the odds she'd hook up with a group of dirty army rejects who go cruising in a motor boat and end up back on that same damn island? Come to think of it, what is the “Eye of the volcano”? On this island, not even the zombies follow any set rules. Some run, while others barely walk, and there are a select few that can leap through windows. A handful can even talk, and fire automatic weapons. And the dialogue? Whoa, is that terrible! As Jenny and her heavily-armed friends are on the boat, circling the island, Jenny starts to feel uneasy, and says she can't wait to get back to the open sea. “Don't you like it here?” Mad (Jim Moss) asks her, to which she replies “ No, it’s weird. There’s something strange about it, as if it were haunted”. She then tells them all about her traumatic childhood experience. “I wouldn't worry about it”, Mad says, “We're headed for the harbor”. “I still hate it”, Jenny replies, “But maybe it's fate”. Huh? 

Devoid of excitement, intelligence, or thrills of any kind, Zombie 4: After Death is one movie you'll definitely want to pass by.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

#521. Female Animal (1970)

Directed By: Jerry Gross

Starring: Arlene Farber, Vassili Lambrinos, Andre Landzaat

Tag line: "Totally female! Totally animal!"

Trivia:  The Spanish language credits, as well as the names of the foreign production companies, were fictitious

Female Animal has the look and feel of an erotic European import, which is exactly what its director, Jerry Gross, was shooting for. Having made a tidy sum of money distributing the Swedish sex film, Inga, through his New-York-based production company, Gross was inspired to create his own “foreign” movie, complete with a tropical setting and Spanish language credits (he himself worked under the pseudonym Juan Carlo Grinella). In a nutshell, Female Animal is American exploitation presented with a touch of old world class 

Angelique (Arlene Farber, aka “Arlene Tiger”) is a shapely peasant girl living in the poverty-stricken village of Santa Felicia. One afternoon, as she and her cousin ride their bikes along the side of the road, a car belonging to Count Orestes Medici (Vassili Lambrinos) accidentally strikes Angelique, knocking her to the ground. Smitten with the young girl, the Count does more than buy Angelique a new bike; he offers her a job as well. Working as a maid at a luxurious country estate, Angelique finds herself torn between the wealthy Count, who showers her with attention, and the Count's playboy son, Alain (Andre Landzaat), a reckless young man who's set his sights on his father's pretty new employee. Despite the Count's warning not to get involved with Alain, Angelique can't resist the boy's charms, causing yet another ripple in the already tempestuous relationship between father and son. 

Shot on location in Puerto Rico, Female Animal is a beautiful film, with director Gross taking full advantage of the island's striking locales. In a particularly gorgeous scene, we follow Alain and his girlfriend, Carla (Joanne Sopko), as they run along the beach, silhouetted against the setting sun.  Equally as striking is the film's star, Arlene Farber. A stunning brunette, Ms. Farber also starred in Gross's 1967 movie, Teenage Mother. With Female Animal, she's given the challenging role of a Latin temptress, and while she's definitely not the most gifted actress, she's certainly one of the most alluring. 

Unfortunately, the beauty of Female Animal can only take us so far, and doesn't entirely mask the film's various weaknesses. The combative relationship between the Count and his son, Alain, is waaayyy overdone, and a yacht-bound orgy, where Angelique “experiments” with LSD, is just plain bizarre. But perhaps the biggest problem of all is the eroticism, which falls far short of what could be found in most European counterparts of the day (the authentic ones, that is). And yet I would gladly recommend Female Animal to anyone, not because it's a great movie, or even a very good one, but because it strives to be something more. It's the earnestness to rise above its own material that makes Female Animal such an oddly appealing film.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

#520. The Naked Gun (1988)

Directed By: David Zucker

Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, O.J. Simpson

Tag line: "You've read the ad, now see the movie!"

Trivia:  The studio insisted on the casting of an Oscar winner in one of the major roles. This led to the casting of George Kennedy, who had been actively campaigning for the role of Ed Hocken for months

I was a big fan of Police Squad!, a television comedy that hit the U.S. airwaves in 1982, and was promptly canceled after only six measly episodes. Made by the same people who brought us Airplane!, Police Squad! was a laugh-riot, an all-out assault on the funny bone that never stopped to take a breath. So, when The Naked Gun, a movie based on this very same show, was released in 1988, I was more than a little anxious to see it. 

When his partner, Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), is gunned down during a stake-out, Inspector Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielson) hits the streets to find those responsible. His investigation leads him to wealthy businessman Victor Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban), a respected member of the community and the man chosen by the Mayor (Nancy Marchand) to act as escort for Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles) during her upcoming visit. Dreben is convinced Ludwig's up to no good, and soon uncovers a plot to assassinate the Queen, a plot concocted by none other than Ludwig himself. To complicate matters, Dreben's fallen in love with Ludwig's assistant, Jane (Priscilla Presley), who may or may not be trying to disrupt his investigation. Things come to a head when Dreben learns the attempt on the Queen's life will be made during her appearance at a Major League Baseball game, and that one of the players, under Ludwig's hypnotic control, is to be the assassin! 

Of course, the above synopsis is little more than an excuse for The Naked Gun to bombard us with a plethora of jokes and sight gags, some of which are painfully dated. Take, for example, the entire pre-title sequence, where Dreben goes undercover to foil a terrorist plot hatched by a number of America's "enemies", including the Ayatollah Khomeini (Charles Gherardi), Yassar Arafat (David Katz) and Mikhail Gorbachev (David Lloyd Austin). I was watching the film with my sons, and had to explain to them who these people were (it even took me a minute or two to realize one was Idi Amin). But there are plenty of laughs to be found in The Naked Gun as well. When Dreben and his Lieutenant, Ed (George Kennedy) are on their way to the hospital to check in on the comatose Nordbert, Ed fills Dreben in on his partner's chances of pulling through. “The doctor's give Nordbert a 50 / 50 chance of living”, he says, “but there's only a 10% shot of that”. There's also a pretty funny scene in Ludwig's office, where Dreben has a violent run-in with a $20,000 fighting fish, and keep an eye out for the legendary John Houseman in his final screen appearance, playing a driving instructor whose vehicle is commandeered by Dreben in a clever take on the old “follow that car” routine. But the highlight of The Naked Gun occurs during the Major League Baseball game, when Dreben is forced to impersonate both a world-famous Opera singer and a home-plate umpire. 

I definitely laughed throughout The Naked Gun, yet I couldn't shake the feeling the film was little more than an episode of Police Squad! padded out to feature film length, and though a fair number of the movie's jokes hit the mark, it's never as much fun as the show was.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

#519. Mean Streets (1973)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval, Amy Robinson

Tag line: "You Don't Make Up Your Sins in Church.  You Do It In The Streets"

Trivia:  Despite it's New York setting, many of the scenes in this film were shot in Los Angeles

Just off the main drag of the town I grew up in was a small video rental store, one that was different from all the others. While its competitors were dedicating the majority of their shelf space to the “hot new releases”, this particular store offered titles like Midnight Cowboy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Straw Dogs, and A Clockwork Orange, films that - to this day - I consider some of the finest ever made. 

It was here I first found Mean Streets

Tough and unflinching, Mean Streets was like a punch to the gut for a teenager from the suburbs. A marriage of violence and chaos the likes of which I had never seen before, Mean Streets offered a glimpse into a lifestyle I found all too real, and more than a little frightening. 

With street-wise characters in a New York setting, this film also signaled the start of an era for director Martin Scorsese, and provided a glimpse into the style he'd perfect over the course of the next several decades. 

Yet what truly stands out isn’t its exceptional design, or its gritty depiction of urban life. What stays with you is the character of Johnny Boy, as played by a young Robert De Niro. 

Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a small-time New York gangster, is a deeply religious man, and can’t shake the feeling he should be doing more with his life. Riddled with guilt, Charlie decides to “do penance” by watching over Johnny Boy (De Niro), a wildly unbalanced hoodlum who owes money all over town. 

Charlie, who is secretly dating Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), does what he can to make sure Johnny pays back what he owes, especially to Michael (Richard Romanus), a local loan shark who’s growing impatient with Johnny's excuses. But Johnny Boy may just be too wild to tame, forcing Charlie to take sides in what quickly becomes a very tense situation. 

With a wise-ass attitude that drives Charlie to despair, De Niro’s Johnny Boy is a loose cannon: a thug with a sharp sense of humor and a violent temper to match. The first time we see him, Johnny drops a package into a street corner mailbox, then turns and quickly walks away, as if nervously waiting for something to happen. A few moments later, the mailbox explodes into a hundred pieces. 

Yet, despite his anarchistic tendencies, Johnny Boy has plenty of character, and can tell a good story. When explaining to Charlie how a card game left him with no money to pay back Michael, Charlie is understandably frustrated, yet also more than a little amused by Johnny Boy’s witty account of what went down. Still, Charlie knows better than anyone that Johnny is a selfish punk, one capable of turning on anyone - even him - without a moment’s notice. It’s this very aspect of Johnny's personality that Charlie hopes to change before it’s too late. 

Together, Scorsese and De Niro have made some of the greatest films in motion picture history. From Taxi Driver to Goodfellas, from Raging Bull to Casino, their collaborations read like an honor role of the Cinematic Hall of Fame. 

And each one of those masterpieces owes a little something to Mean Streets.

Monday, January 16, 2012

#518. I Sell The Dead (2008)

Directed By: Glenn McQuaid

Starring: Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman, Larry Fessenden

Tag line: "Never Trust A Corpse"

Trivia:  A graphic novel of the film has been released, with Glenn McQuaid writing and illustrations by Brahm Revel

It's not a particularly good time to be a grave robber. Willy Grimes (Larry Fessenden), a man who has dedicated most of his life to snatching corpses, just had his head lopped off for his troubles, and Willy's longtime partner, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), is sitting in a jail cell, awaiting his own date with the executioner. 

The night before he's to be put to death, Arthur is visited by Father Duffy (Ron Perlman), who asks Arthur to recount for him his days as a grave robber. It turns out poor Arthjur has plenty to say about his experiences with the dead, but it's his few unforgettable run-ins with the not-entirely dead that made his "job" a harrowing one. 

In fact, Arthur tells Father Murphy that pilfering graves has taught him one very important lesson: you should never trust a corpse!

Written and directed by Glenn McQuaid, I Sell The Dead is a horror / comedy that succeeds on a number of levels. First off, it's a very convincing period piece, perfectly capturing the look and feel of 19th century England. The performances are also top-notch. Dominic Monaghan does a fine job as the occasionally naive Arthur, and Ron Perlman's thick Irish brogue is a definite highlight. The film's best turn, however, is delivered by Larry Fessenden. His Willy Grimes may be a slime ball, but at least he' a likable one, and even though you're never quite sure whether or not you can trust old Willy, his prowess as a thief gets him and Arthur out of more than one sticky situation. 

Yet as good as the performances and the set design are, its the individual scenes of Arthur and Willy doing what they do best - stealing corpses - that make I Sell The Dead such an entertaining ride. Late one night, the two are digging up a grave that, for some unknown reason, is situated just outside the cemetery. When the two finally pull the coffin out of the ground, they find the body of a beautiful woman inside, who was buried with a string of garlic around her neck and a stake through her heart. Figuring that their benefactor, Dr. Quint (the always interesting Angus Scrimm), wouldn't pay much for a corpse in that condition, Arthur and Willy remove the garlic and the stake. As they're preparing the cart to haul her away, the woman rises out of the coffin and wanders off, leading to what is easily the film's most frightening - as well as its funniest - scene. 

With vampires, zombies, and one or two surprises thrown in for good measure, I Sell The Dead is a fun, stylish look at a “profession” that was obviously not for the faint of heart!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

#517. The Chinese Connection (1972)

Directed By: Wei Lo

Starring: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, James Tien

Tag line: "Bruce Lee claims his revenge through death and beyond"

Trivia:  Because of the movie's racial content and personal disagreements, Bruce Lee quit working with Lo Wei after this movie

What's there to say about Bruce Lee that hasn't already been said? More than an action star, more even than an icon, Lee was a legend, and the handful of movies he made prior to his untimely death in 1973 remain, to this day, the standard by which all other kung-fu films are measured. 

Chen (Lee) pays a visit to his former martial arts school in Shanghai, only to learn his beloved master has died. Left devastated by the sudden loss of his mentor, Chen suspects foul play, and turns his attention towards a rival Japanese school situated nearby. Sure enough, a contingency from the Japanese school, accompanied by their interpreter, Wu (Ping-Ao Wei), shows up shortly after the master's funeral to challenge the Chinese to a fight. To add insult to injury, the Japanese also come bearing a gift: a demeaning sign that reads “Sick Men of Asia”. Remembering their master's teachings, the Chinese refuse to be drawn into a ruckus, but Chen will not allow this insult to go unpunished. A champion fighter, Chen visits the Japanese school to give back the sign, and proceeds to single-handedly beat down every student there. Suzuki (Riki Hashimoto), the master of the Japanese school, orders his students to torment the Chinese until they turn Chen over to them. But capturing Chen may prove difficult, seeing as he's vowed to seek out those responsible for his master's death, and won't rest until he can exact a little punishment of his own. 

The martial arts sequences scattered throughout The Chinese Connection (aka Fist of Fury) are explosive, and Bruce Lee is the reason why. After strolling into the Japanese school to return their insulting sign, Lee's Chen issues a challenge of his own, offering to fight anyone willing to face him. He easily defeats his first two opponents, only to find he's suddenly surrounded on all sides. Far from panicking, Lee slowly removes his shirt and, with determination in his eyes, proceeds to kick a whole lot of ass. He moves quick as lightning throughout this entire scene, polishing off one foe after another with the greatest of ease, but there's more to the character he plays in The Chinese Connection than his skills as a fighter. Lee's Chen also exudes a self-confidence that borders on cockiness, and whenever he's on-screen, it's damn near impossible to look away. 

To realize what Bruce Lee means to The Chinese Connection, one need look no further than a scene that occurs shortly after the one above, a scene that 
Lee himself doesn't even appear in. The Japanese, still smarting from the beating they've been dealt, show up at the Chinese school looking for Chen, and when they don't find him, it kicks off an all-out brawl between the students of each school. The fight's a good one, with plenty of action, but the sequence is missing Lee's energy, his personality, and instead feels like a melee you'd find in any other kung-fu film. It's Lee's very presence that lifts The Chinese Connection to a higher level, and his charisma that carries it far beyond the standard fare.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

#516. Dark Remains (2005)

Directed By: Brian Avenet-Bradley

Starring: Cheri Christian, Greg Thompson, Scott Hodges

Tag line: "Pain never dies"

Trivia:  Was named Best Feature at the 2005 Rhode Island Int'l Horror Film Festival

The creative minds behind 2006's Dark Remains set out with a single goal: to make you leap out of your seat as often as possible. The film features one jump scare after another, and little else besides. But the scares do, indeed, work. 

Following an initial sequence in which a husband (Doug Hammond) and wife (Rachael Rollings) commit suicide, we're introduced to the Pykes: Allen (Greg Thompson) and Julie (Cheri Christian), whose young daughter, Emma (Rachel Jordon), was recently murdered. To escape the probing questions of the police, who consider them the prime suspects in their daughter's death, the Pykes rent a cabin in the woods, hoping the peace and tranquility will allow them to get on with their lives. Once there, Allen starts writing again, but Julie, a photographer by trade, finds it difficult to move past Emma's death, and only begrudgingly picks up her camera.  Yet what Julie sees in the few photos she does take changes her attitude, because when they're developed, the spirit of Emma is in every single one, staring back at her. To add to the mystery, the cabin they've rented has an eerie feel to it, as if the ghosts of all who lived, and died, there were watching them. Little do they realize, true evil hides behind every tree in the forest, and if they don't get out soon, their lives are in the gravest danger. 

The opening scenes of Dark Remains aren't really “scenes” at all; they're brief glimpses of events, held together by the flimsiest of stories. For example, the way the movie handles the daughter's murder is beyond bizarre. Julie, who just put Emma to bed, thinks she hears something. So, she peeks into the girl's room, only to find her daughter's been brutalized, her throat and wrists slashed open. The film makes no further attempt to explain Emma's murder, or solve the mystery surrounding it. Her death was merely a device to get the two main characters up to the cabin, and while such shoddy storytelling would normally get under my skin, Dark Remains had something else going for it.  This movie was designed to frighten the hell out of its audience, which it does quite well. The first night at the cabin, Julie takes a shower, and when she steps out to dry herself, we see the ghost of a woman, standing exactly where Julie had been just seconds before. It's a jarring moment, but isn't nearly as creepy as what happens to their house guest, Steve (Jason Turner), who makes the mistake of getting up in the middle of the night to take a stroll. 

With performances ranging from mediocre to pathetic, and a story that makes little sense (including the "big twist" at the end, which is so dumb it isn't even worth spoiling), the only thing Dark Remains offers are its horrific surprises lurking around every corner, and for the most part, they work well. If it's a thrill you're after, and nothing more, then Dark Remains is the film for you.

Friday, January 13, 2012

#515. Kes (1969)

Directed By: Ken Loach

Starring: David Bradley, Brian Glover, Freddie Fletcher

Tag line: "They beat him. They deprived him. They ridiculed him. They broke his heart. But they couldn't break his spirit"

Trivia:  The child actors who were caned on the hand by the character of the school headmaster were paid an additional 50 pence for their trouble

Kes, a 1969 film directed by Ken Loach, tells the story of Billy Casper (David Bradley), a 15-year-old boy with very few friends, and an older brother (Freddie Fletcher) who bullies him.  Life for Billy is rather mundane, what with school and his job as a paper boy, but all that changes the day he takes a walk through the woods and spots a kestrel flying through the air. Determined to train the young bird, Billy steals a book on falconry from the local book store, captures the kestrel, and sets up a perch for it in the tool shed behind his house . Amidst the turmoil of unpleasant teachers and a family completely indifferent to him, Billy forms a strong bond with his new, feathered companion, one which allows his imagination to run wild. 

Kes was shot on location in the Yorkshire town of Barnsley, and Loach spends a fair amount of the film exploring this working-class community, visiting the coal mines where Billy's brother works, and tagging along with him to the local pub, which on Friday night is packed with patrons looking to drink their troubles away. But there's no true escape from the daily routine for anybody in this town.  Not even the children.  In Barnsley, there are very few occupations available; either the coal mines or some other dead-end job, and because of this, the teachers at Billy's school spend more time berating the kids then they do mentoring them. Why pass along knowledge when there's little chance anyone will ever actually use it? In one humorous sequence, the school's gym teacher (Brian Glover) drags Billy and the other boys out to the football field, where, as opposed to teaching the finer points of the game, he uses them all to act out a personal fantasy in which he's a professional player, battling for the championship (at one point, he even cheats to score a goal). The headmaster (Bob Bowes) at Billy's school is a particularly nasty fellow, ordering Billy to his office after the young man, tired from staying up late with his kestrel, falls asleep during the morning assembly. Lined against the wall with a number of other boys, Billy is forced to listen as the headmaster belittles their entire generation, reciting a speech he's undoubtedly spouted off dozens of times before. He offers no solutions, nor words of encouragement, because he has neither to give, and punctuates his tirade by striking each boys hands with a cane before sending them on their way. 

And yet, even with apathy surrounding him on all sides, Billy manages to inspire himself, and won't permit anything to stand between him and his new-found passion. Looking for a book on how to train kestrels, he first visits the public library, where he's told he cannot take a book out unless he's a member, and he can't become a member until his mother (Lynne Perrie) signs his application. He tries negotiating with the librarian (Zoe Sutherland), hoping to convince her he's responsible enough to take care of one simple book, but to no avail. It's she who sends him off to the used book store, where, due to the fact he has no money, Billy hides the book he needs under his jacket and walks out the front door. The moral dilemma of having stolen the book never enters the picture; Billy wanted it, and was resolved to have it by any means necessary. 

Beautifully shot and expertly constructed, Kes is a story of hope set against the backdrop of hopelessness, of a boy forgotten by the world who challenges himself when nobody else will. With his kestrel, Billy has shown he's capable of more than anyone's given him credit for, and that alone has taken him places most of the adults in town will never know.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

#514. Jack the Giant Killer (1962)

Directed By: Nathan Juran

Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Judi Meredith, Torin Thatcher

Tag line: "Now...the fable of the ages is here for all to see!"

Trivia:  Producer Edward Small re-released this film as a musical

Released in 1962, Jack the Giant Killer may not be the most impressive fantasy film ever made, but it does have a certain appeal.

Pendragon (Torin Thatcher), an evil sorcerer who was banished by the King of Cornwall (Dayton Lummis), plans to abduct the King's daughter, Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith), and force her to marry him, thus securing the throne for himself. Posing as a nobleman, Pendragon delivers a special gift to the Princess on her birthday: a doll that, by all appearances, is very much alive. Later that night, this doll transforms into an enormous giant, and carries the Princess off.  But before the creature can escape, it's killed by a simple farmboy named Jack (Kerwin Mathews). In gratitude for rescuing his beloved daughter, the King makes Jack a knight, and entrusts him with the task of guarding the Princess during her upcoming voyage to a remote island convent, where she's to be kept safe until Pendragon is finally defeated. But the sorcerer isn't foiled yet. He sends his assistants, a coven of witches, to intercept the ship and kidnap the Princess, leaving Jack with little choice but to storm Pendragon's fortress and rescue the Princess all over again. 

Jack the Giant Killer is an ambitious film, one that sets out to reach the same lofty heights as other fantasy movies (like the Sinbad series) prevalent at the time.  Ultimately, it falls a bit short of the mark, which is not to say Jack the Giant Killer is without its moments. The scene where the Princess's doll grows into a giant, breaking through her bedroom ceiling in the process, was impressive, as was the ensuing battle to defeat it (the monster is attacked on all sides by the King's guards, whose spears have little effect on the gargantuan creature). This giant, which closely resembles the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, is brought to life by way of stop-motion animation, which is adequate, but lacks the finesse of Ray Harryhausen's creations, not only physically (the movements are a bit jerky in places); but in personality as well (I was never able to get past the artifice of it all, or believe, for a single moment, I was watching a living creature). The real actors don't fare much better, and are no more authentic then their clay counterparts. Even the sorcerer, Pendragon, is one-dimensional, and never comes across as much of a threat. 

Still, minor fantasy, even if coupled with sub-par animation, can be hard to resist, and while Jack the Giant Killer won’t stay with you very long after it’s over, it's pleasant enough while it lasts to keep you entertained.