Saturday, March 31, 2012

#593. Life of Brian (1979)


Directed By: Terry Jones

Starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin



Tag line: "He wasn't the messiah. He was a very naughty boy"

Trivia:  The only character to appear in all four Python films (And Now for Something Completely Different, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life and this one) is God






Soon after its release in 1979, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was accused by some religious leaders of being “blasphemous”, and, as a result, was banned outright in both Ireland and Norway. Even before they started making it, Life of Brian had its problems; EMI, the company that originally agreed to finance the picture, pulled out after deeming the final script too risque. 

I find this all very interesting, especially when you consider Life of Brian isn't so much a film about Jesus as it is a comedy that happens to take place at the same time he walked the earth. William Wyler did the same thing in 1959 with Ben-Hur, only without the jokes. 

Brian (Graham Chapman), whose mother is an unmarried peasant (director Terry Jones, in drag), was born in a manger. No, not that manger...the one across the street from it. 

Brian grows to manhood in Roman-occupied Judea, and dreams of the day the Romans will be driven from his homeland. To this end, he joins the People’s Front of Judea, a rebel organization led by a talkative militant named Reg (John Cleese), whose ultimate goal is to dispose of the Romans before a rival group, the Judean People’s Front, beats them to it. It’s here Brian meets Judith (Sue Jones-Davies), a fellow rebel who instantly captures his heart. 

But even with a new love to brighten his days, things don’t go well for Brian. First, he’s captured by the Romans and brought before Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin) for sentencing. Then, after escaping that fate, he's mistaken for the Messiah by a pack of persistent followers who refuse to leave him alone! 

Life of Brian takes humorous potshots at everything from speech impediments to sci-fi, but for my money its funniest scene centers on a poorly-organized public stoning, with women in beards posing as men and a Jewish Official (John Cleese) who doesn't realize until its much too late that uttering the word “Jehovah” can be hazardous to your health. 

But along with the comedy, Monty Python’s Life of Brian also conveys a very intriguing message, one that was most certainly at the root of the problems it experienced. When Brian is erroneously declared the new Messiah by a rowdy gang of rabble, he does his best to convince them there’s nothing “divine” about him, that he's just as ordinary as they are. He says (in no uncertain terms) that his followers should learn to stand on their own two feet, that they don’t need anybody telling them what to do. 

Is this message anti-religious? Perhaps. Yet one could argue it’s also anti-government, anti-establishment, and a few other “antis” I can’t even think of right now. The Python’s aren’t so much lampooning organized religion (at least not exclusively) as they are addressing the fundamental desire to latch on, to be led through life instead of setting out on one's own path. It's a sticky subject, to be sure, but to their credit, the Pythons don't shy away from it; they tackle it head-on.

Oh, and Life of Brian is also flat-out hilarious. Can't forget that.







Friday, March 30, 2012

#592. Band of Outsiders (1964)


Directed By: Jean-Luc Godard

Starring: Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur,Danièle Girard




Trivia:  The voice-over narrations in the film were provided by director Jean-Luc Godard









Jean-Luc Godard was one of the founding members of the French New Wave, a cinematic revolution that began in the late 1950s when a group of movie critics, tired of the cookie-cutter mentality of contemporary French films, put down their pens and picked up a movie camera. Perhaps the most vocal member of the New Wave movement, Godard’s best works have a refreshing breeziness about them, as well as a raw edge that's really quite engaging.

Two friends, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), spend their days wandering aimlessly through the streets of Paris in search of some excitement. They soon find what they’re looking for when they attend an English language class, where they meet the beautiful and bubbly Odile (Anna Karina). Before long, Odile becomes their constant companion, and naively lets it slip that a gentleman in the building where she lives has a large stash of money hidden in his room. Though Franz and Arthur are both in love with Odile, it doesn’t stop them from trying to steal this money, thus putting Odile firmly in the middle of a serious situation.

In making Band of Outsiders, Godard took the approach that nothing was off-limits, and no rules existed to restrict his vision of what the film should be (a basic philosophy of the New Wave in general, but especially prevalent in Godard's output). Not much in Band of Outsiders can be categorized as cinema in the traditional sense; it is alive, always moving forward, with both a beating heart and a soul. Franz and Arthur re-enact the gunfight between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in the middle of a Paris street, and in one of the film’s most memorable sequences, the three companions make a mad dash through the halls of the Louvre museum, hoping to set a record for the shortest visit in the art house’s illustrious history. For the story at hand...a theft and a betrayal of confidence...these scenes mean very little. But for the notion that movies are a living entity which promote, by their very nature, freedom of expression, such asides are positively vital.

In displaying a talent for understanding the autonomy of film, Godard has managed, over the years, to make his own contribution to the art, and Band of Outsiders is the cinema in its most liberated form.








Thursday, March 29, 2012

#591. Son of Frankenstein (1939)


Directed By: Rowland V. Lee

Starring: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi




Tag line: "The black shadows of the past bred this half-man . . . half-demon ! . . . creating a new and terrible juggernaut of destruction !"

Trivia:  Boris Karloff became a father for the first time while filming this movie






1939's Son of Frankenstein opens with the image of Castle Frankenstein, dark and desolate, sitting high atop a hill. The camera closes in to reveal a lone silhouette in the window, that of Ygor (Bela Lugosi), a former criminal who's been living in the abandoned castle for years. A cart, pulled by several peasants, rushes by, hoping to get past this accursed place as quickly as possible, but a couple of young boys remain behind, eager to throw a rock through one of the old castle’s windows. The two freeze in their tracks, however, when they spot Ygor looking down at them, and immediately run off. I can’t say as I blame them; if there’s one thing that would cause me to make a hasty retreat, it’s Bela Lugosi staring back at me! 

Having inherited his late father's estate, Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) travels to Europe from America, where, along with his wife, Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson), and son, Peter (Donnie Dunagan), he takes up residence in the long-dormant Castle Frankenstein. Unfortunately, the locals, remembering all too well the horrors that the last Baron unleashed upon their village, don't exactly welcome him with open arms. Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), the town constable who himself had a tragic run-in with the Monster (Boris Karloff) years earlier, promises Frankenstein he and his family will be protected, and Frankenstein, in turn, assures the Inspector he has no plans to carry on with his father's work. But when Ygor leads him to the crypt where the monster's body lies, the young Baron decides its time to clear his father's name, and attempts to revive the creature so that it can be studied. Ygor, however, has other plans. 

Like Bride of Frankenstein before it, which introduced us to two of the series’ most iconic characters in Dr. Pretorius and the Bride, Son of Frankenstein has its own pair to add to the mix. Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh had a childhood encounter with the monster that cost him his right arm. Now forced to go through life with a prosthetic limb, Krogh hopes to ensure such a tragedy will never be repeated. During Krogh's first visits to Castle Frankenstein, the newly-arrived Baron argues that the stories surrounding the Monster have surely been exaggerated, and asks the Inspector, who he just met, “Do you honestly know of one criminal act this poor creature committed?”. Krogh pushes up his artificial limb, wipes off his monocle, and recalls how his experience with the Monster changed his life forever. “One doesn’t easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots”. Unlike many of the villagers, who live in fear of the creature, Krogh remains a bitter man, and will stand and fight should the occasion arise. 

And then there's Ygor, played to perfection by Bela Lugosi. Walking around with a broken neck (condemned to death, he somehow survived his hanging, and the protruding bone jutting up from his neck is a gruesome reminder of it), Ygor is every bit the oddity the Monster is, which might explain why he has such a fondness for the creature. Though subservient to Frankenstein, Ygor exists solely to help the Monster. “He is my friend”, he tells the Baron, and even refers to the creature as Frankenstein’s brother (“but his mother was lightning”). Not to be upstaged in his own series, Karloff has a few strong moments of his own (though somewhere between the events of Bride of Frankenstein and this film, he once again lost his power to speak). A late scene, where the Monster discovers a wounded Ygor lying on the ground, is both powerful and chilling. 

Son of Frankenstein marked the final appearance of Boris Karloff as the Monster, and he certainly went out with a bang. Like Bride, Son managed to put a new spin on an old story, and in so doing kept the series not only interesting, but fresh and alive.







Wednesday, March 28, 2012

#590. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)


Directed By: Michel Gondry

Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson




Tag line: "You can erase someone from your mind. Getting them out of your heart is another story"

Trivia:  Features Kate Winslet's own favorite performance. She mentions this in EMPIRE Magazine






Given the chance, would you erase every bad memory, every unsettling recollection, every embarrassing moment from your conscious mind? 

Dr. Howard Mierzewak (Tom Wilkinson), founder of Lacuna Enterprises, has developed a revolutionary new technique which allows him to do just that: erase people's unwanted memories. Joel (Jim Carrey) is devastated to learn that, following one of their many fights, his longtime girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), underwent Dr. Merzewak's procedure, and had him erased from her memory. Now, as far as she’s concerned, Joel's just another stranger in the crowd. Angry and depressed, Joel visits Lacuna and asks them to clear his mind as well, purging his memories of Clementine. Once the procedure begins, however, Joel, trapped within his own subconscious, finds he still has feelings for Clementine, and decides he doesn’t want to forget their good times together. But is he too late to stop the process? 

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the man behind the extraordinary Being John Malkovich, injects plenty of personality into this small group of people. As played by Jim Carrey, Joel is a withdrawn, needlessly tentative boyfriend who worries about every little aspect of his relationship with Clementine ( Is he outgoing enough for her? Is she getting bored?). Having made a career out of playing energetic characters, the part of Joel was kind of a stretch for Carrey, yet he pulls it off without a hitch. Kate Winslet’s Clementine is the exact opposite of Joel; a wildly flamboyant free spirit who dyes her hair orange and dances in the middle of the street. It’s easy to see what keeps them together; Joel feeds off of Clementine’s spontaneity, while she finds security in Joel’s level-headed approach to life. Unfortunately, these drastic differences in their personalities also lead to a bit of friction, resulting in total memory erasure. 

The various supporting players in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are just as well-rounded. Tom Wilkinson’s Dr. Mierzewak is the genius behind this new procedure, yet we come to discover he may have developed it more out of necessity than in the name of science. Kirsten Dunst is at her bubbly best as Mary, the nurse who's head-over-heels in love with the boss. Stan (Mark Ruffalo), the technician, is, in turn, in love with Mary, while Patrick (Elijah Wood), the most unscrupulous employee of Lacuna Enterprises, fell for Clementine while they were cleaning out her memory, and is now using information from her confidential file to win her over. Every character is so wonderfully fleshed out that each could, in essence, be the lead in their own film. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a joy to watch because of how vibrant it is. The journey through Joel's mind while he's undergoing the procedure is a trippy, surrealistic adventure.  Introducing us to a world of faceless beings and disappearing book shelves, director Michel Gondry pulls out all the stops for this one, marrying visual excitement with Kaufman's brilliantly rich screenplay, and creating a truly colorful film in the process. Yet, despite all the eye candy, the movie remains, from start to finish, a character piece. As pleasing to the senses as it is to the psyche, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best of both worlds.







Tuesday, March 27, 2012

#589. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)


Directed By: James Whale

Starring: Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive




Tag line: "Warning! The Monster Demands a Mate!"

Trivia:  Boris Karloff sweated off 20 lbs. in his heavy costume and make-up while shooting this film





Using the events of his 1931 classic, Frankenstein, as a starting point, director James Whale let his imagination run wild with its 1935 follow-up, The Bride of Frankenstein, taking what could have easily been a mindless sequel and transforming it into something much more significant.

Having barely escaped with his life following his run-in with the monster (Boris Karloff), Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is visited one evening by the strange Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), a former philosophy professor who's undertaking his own re-animation experiment, and is in need of assistance. When Frankenstein refuses to help him, Pretorius instructs the monster, who survived the fire at the windmill, to kidnap Frankenstein's new bride, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). Left with no alternative, a nervous Frankenstein helps Pretorius construct a mate for the monster, but will its creation result in the shedding of even more innocent blood?

In its opening scene, The Bride of Frankenstein travels back to 1816, where Mary Godwin (Elsa Lanchester), the author of the original Frankenstein novel, is explaining to her two companions, Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), that her story did not end with the monster's death at the old windmill. It's a clever start, cluing us in on just how different this film will be from its predecessor. Those differences continue with the introduction of the crazed Dr. Pretorius. With Henry Frankenstein realizing the error of his ways early on, The Bride of Frankenstein found itself in dire need of a mad scientist, and Dr. Pretorius filled that role nicely. Flamboyantly portrayed by Ernest Thesinger, Pretorius is actually madder than Frankenstein ever was. “Let us probe the mysteries of life and death, to reach a goal undreamed of”, he says to Frankenstein upon their first meeting, and while Henry Frankenstein may have lost his desire to play God, Pretorius seems only too eager to do so. Even Karloff's Monster evolves beyond the silent brute he was in the original. After escaping from an angry mob, the creature flees into the woods, and is drawn to a small cottage by the sound of beautiful music. Here he meets a blind hermit (O.P Heggie), who, instead of cowering in fear like all the others, invites the creature inside. Over time, the Hermit will even teach his mute guest how to talk. Karloff shows excellent range in this sequence, bringing a humanity to his Monster that's sorely lacking in many of his so-called “human” counterparts. Then, of course, there's the Bride herself (Elsa Lanchester appearing for a second time), a character every bit as iconic as Karloff's. From the moment she opens her eyes, the Bride is more than a mindless being, and her initial reaction to her new “mate” kicks off the film's heartbreaking conclusion. 

The Bride of Frankenstein isn't without its problems. Actress Una O'Connor, who I found annoying in Whale's The Invisible Man, is downright unbearable here as the servant, Minnie. Her over-the-top responses to every little situation got on my nerves in a big way. Also distracting was the scene where Pretorius shows Frankenstein the results of his initial "experiments”: a collection of miniature-sized people he keeps hidden away in glass jars. Dressed to resemble a King, a Queen, a ballerina, and so on, their inclusion was obviously intended to be humorous (the King, smitten with the Queen, tries to climb out of his jar to get into hers), yet the silliness of it all took me right out of the movie. 

But still, I admire Whale for including this scene, and many others besides. The mere fact he brought so much originality, so much diversity to the sequel of a successful film was a gutsy move, and a gamble that definitely paid off. Deficiencies and all, The Bride of Frankenstein stands as one of the greatest horror films of the 1930s.







Monday, March 26, 2012

#588. Hard Eight (1996)


Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow




Tag line: "If you stay in the game long enough, you'll see everything, win everything, and lose everything"

Trivia:  The release of the film was held up for 2 years when the distributor went bankrupt






Looks can be deceiving. Take Paul Thomas Anderson’s directorial debut, Hard Eight. At first glance, you'd think it was a movie about gambling. The title alone might have you believing that. Set amid the glitz of Las Vegas and Reno, Hard Eight is also known in some circles as Sydney, the title Anderson originally chose for the film, but which the studio ultimately rejected. Of course, Sydney would have been more appropriate, seeing as its not so much a movie about gambling as it is the story of a guy who just happens to live in a casino. 

Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) has been like a second father to John (John C. Rielly). He was the one who picked John up and dusted him off when John lost all his money gambling, teaching the young man how to make a life for himself in Las Vegas without going broke in the process. Sydney even had a hand in setting John up with Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a cocktail waitress he had his eye on for some time. Sydney does his best to help John any way he can, and has grown to love him as if he were his own son. But their happiness is threatened when John’s friend, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), uncovers a terrible secret from Sydney’s past. His back against the wall, Sydney must now do everything in his power to see that Jimmy keeps his mouth shut, even if it means shutting it for him. 

Sydney is a fascinating character. He lives in a room at the casino, and passes himself off as a seasoned card shark, yet, in reality, he's not a very good gambler. He regularly plays Kino, betting only $2 at a time, and when Sydney does gamble big, he loses, dropping $2,000 on a single throw of the dice. Yet, despite these shortcomings in games of chance, Sydney is clearly street wise, and has figured out a way to survive in a city that's destroyed many a weaker man. 

Philip Baker Hall is excellent in the lead role, surrounding the character with an air of respectability, all the while living under a shroud of mystery. We're never really sure what motivates Sydney to help John, but then we don't really need to know. Like John, we learn to trust Sydney's advice, and are happy just to have him around. In Hall’s capable hands, Sydney is gruff yet decent, and maintains, at all times, a high level of refinement. It isn't until Jimmy, with his rough mannerisms and foul language, enters the picture that the normally reserved Sydney starts to lose his cool, and as Jimmy will learn, when Sydney gets upset, he can be a very dangerous man.







Sunday, March 25, 2012

#587. Election (1999)


Directed By: Alexander Payne

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein




Tag line: "Reading, Writing, Revenge"

Trivia:  The film was produced in the fall and a freak snowstorm interrupted filming







Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the brightest student at Carver High, is running unopposed for class president. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a teacher at the school, holds a grudge against Tracy because she was personally responsible for the dismissal of his best friend, fellow teacher Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), who was fired when Tracy admitted to having had a sexual relationship with him. In the hopes of wiping the ever-irritating smirk off of Tracy’s face, Mr. McAllister convinces Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), the popular quarterback of the school’s football team, to join the race for President, a move that sends Tracy off the deep end. Before long, this hotly contested election begins to take its toll on both Tracy and Mr. McAllister, with each stooping to new political lows in the hopes of bringing the other to their knees. 

The dynamic energy of Election owes everything to the strained relationship that develops between Tracy and Mr. McAllister, flawlessly portrayed by Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, respectively. It's clear early on Tracy is a determined young woman. When first we meet her, she’s giving away free sticks of gum in an effort to sway voters, despite the fact she was the only one running. The moment Paul enters the race, he becomes the odds-on favorite, leaving Tracy to wrestle with the reality that her unworthy opponent is probably going to win. Suddenly, Tracy, who had been so chipper and perky, turns cold, calculating, and downright nasty. Her frustration is so great that, at one point, she tears all of Paul’s campaign posters off the walls, then allows someone else to take the blame for it. But Tracy isn’t alone in her downward spiral. At the outset, Mr. McAllister was a dedicated teacher who loved his job, the lone adult at Carver High every student could come to for advice. Yet something changes his outlook in a hurry, and that “something” is Tracy Flick. Not only does Mr. McAllister cross a line by encouraging the candidacy of a slow, unqualified jock for the position of class president, but his feud with Tracy will also lead him to betray a good many principles he previously held dear. Realizing the ambitious Tracy has the potential for greatness, while he himself will never be more than a high-school teacher, proves a bitter pill for Mr. McAllister to swallow, and he's made it his life's mission to knock her down a peg or two.  In a movie that demanded strong performances from its leads, both Witherspoon and Broderick get the job done. 

Election has all the elements of an intelligent teen comedy, yet I wouldn't necessarily place it in that category. Most of your typical teen comedies feature moronic adolescents who always find a way to screw things up, but as Election is quick to point out, teens haven’t cornered the market on acting like an ass.








Saturday, March 24, 2012

#586. Oversexed Rugsuckers from Mars (1989)


Directed By: Michael Paul Girard

Starring: Dick Monda, Jean Stewart, Billybob Rhoads




Tagline:  "You'll never trust your vacuum cleaner again!"











OK, I've already said that the only reason I watched 1972's Blood Orgy of the She-Devils was its title. So there's no way I was gonna let a movie called Oversexed Rugsuckers from Mars slip by!

After millions of years away, a race of miniature martians returns to earth to check on the progress of their “human” experiment, and from what they can see it's been a total disaster. Having left humanity in charge of the planet, the aliens are disappointed to find it in such an untidy state, and decide to change things up a bit by mating humans with vacuum cleaners, so that future generations can clean the mess their forefathers left behind. 

Unfortunately, the vacuum they choose as their prototype malfunctions, and becomes a sex-starved maniac! With this horny Hoover on the loose, no earthling, male or female, is safe from bodily penetration.

Imagine a bunch of flat-broke college buddies getting together to make a sci-fi movie, and you have Oversexed Rugsuckers from Mars. There's nothing particularly "special" about any of the effects; the aliens are made of clay, and brought to life by way of stop-motion, yet never look like anything more than messy globs sloshing about. As for the humor, it aims low, and even then often misses the mark. When the alien “ship” first arrives on earth, it lands next to a vagrant named Vernon (Dick Monda), who is asleep on the pavement. One of the aliens, an anatomically correct male, climbs out of the ship and urinates into Vernon’s empty gin bottle. Shortly after the martians fly off, Vernon wakes up, and not to be outdone, rolls over and lets loose a fart. 

From there, things get downright childish, with highlights including a peeping tom, whose name actually is Tom (Billybob Rhoads), masturbating as he watches his naked neighbor, Rana (Jean Stewart), through her bathroom window; and another scene where Tom gets his comeuppance when he's raped...by the vacuum cleaner! 

Crass dialogue and tasteless humor run rampant throughout Oversexed Rugsuckers from Mars, none of which is particularly funny. I myself never laughed once, though I must admit I did smile a few times, like when the vacuum first comes to “life”, and is framed against the rising sun, a la the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (they even play Also Sprach Zarathustra).

The concept behind Oversexed Rugsuckers from Mars far outshines its execution, yet I was left with the distinct impression that everyone making this film (cast and crew) had a great time doing so. Oversexed Rugsuckers from Mars may not be a good movie (in fact, it isn’t much of a movie at all; it feels more like a class project), but it has a sense of fun about it, and though it probably deserves a failing grade, I’ll give it an “E” for effort.

With maybe a little extra credit thrown in for the title.







Friday, March 23, 2012

#585. In the Name of the Father (1993)


Directed By: Jim Sheridan

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, Emma Thompson




Tag line: "Falsely accused. Wrongly imprisoned. He fought for justice to clear his father's name"

Trivia:  Daniel Day-Lewis kept his Northern Irish accent on and off the set for the entire shooting schedule





One night in 1974, an IRA bomb exploded without warning in a pub in Guildford, England, killing five people and injuring over 100 more. One year later, Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill and several others, including Conlon’s father, Giuseppe, were imprisoned for that bombing, despite the fact they were completely innocent. Director Jim Sheridan’s 1993 award-winning film, In the Name of the Father, brings us inside both of these tragedies. 

It's the 1970's, and Belfast is rife with violence. When Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis), a young man with a history of stirring up mischief, has a run-in with the IRA, his father, Giuseppe (Peter Postlethwaite), puts him on a boat bound for England, to live with relatives until things calm down. On the ride over, Gerry runs into his old friend, Paul Hill (John Lynch), and instead of moving in with Aunt Annie (Britta Smith) as planned, Gerry follows Paul to a hippie commune in the heart of London. Yet they're not entirely welcome, and after a falling-out with some of their new flatmates, the two blow off steam by spending an evening wandering the streets. Unfortunately, this all happened the same night as the Guildford pub tragedy.  Unable to provide an alibi for their whereabouts, Gerry and Paul are arrested, along with old friend Paddy Armstrong (Mark Sheppard) and fellow hippie Carole Richardson (Beatie Edney), and charged with the bombing. Giuseppe travels to London to hire a lawyer for his son, and is himself picked up by the police, accused of being a co-conspirator. When they're found guilty on all counts, father and son are shipped off to the same prison, and after being at odds with each other for so many years, must now work together to gain their freedom.  They hire English lawyer Gareth Pierce (Emma Thompson) to try and get the case re-opened, but as the months drag on, Giuseppe's health deteriorates, and Gerry realizes that, if freedom doesn't come soon, his father will die behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. 

In the Name of the Father is a powerful film, and much of the credit for this must go to Daniel Day-Lewis and Peter Postlethwaite. Though centering on a horrendous miscarriage of justice, the glue holding In the Name of the Father together is the torrid relationship the exists between their two characters. Day-Lewis is predictably excellent as the unlucky young Irishman from Belfast. His Gerry gets into a fair share of scrapes (as the film begins, he’s stealing sheet metal from the rooftops of Belfast, and when British troops mistake him for a sniper and open fire, it leads to an all-out riot in the streets), yet in portraying his character's deficiencies so effectively, Day-Lewis ensures Gerry's evolution from common punk to human rights advocate will be all the more dramatic as a result. Matching him step for step is Postlethwaite, whose Giuseppe is a physically weak and feeble man, yet stronger in faith and conviction than his healthy, somewhat troubled son. 

The Guildford Four, as they were called, are now free, but nothing will change the fact a flawed, corrupt system cost them 15 years of their lives. In the Name of the Father asks us to reflect on that reality. Tough and unflinching, it is a motion picture that will stay with you for days.







Thursday, March 22, 2012

#584. City of the Living Dead (1980)


Directed By: Lucio Fulci

Starring: Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Carlo De Mejo




Tag line: "The Dead Shall Rise And Walk The Earth"

Trivia:  Future director Michele Soavi was originally up for the role of Bob






Fresh off the success of 1979's Zombie, director Lucio Fulci returns to the genre with 1980's City of the Living Dead, and while this entry isn't quite the classic the earlier film was, it's a solid effort nonetheless. 

The small town of Dunwich is situated above one of the Gates of Hell, and when a parish priest (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself in the church cemetery, he inadvertently opens the Gate, causing the recently deceased to rise and attack the living. Having experienced visions of the impending chaos, psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) teams with investigative reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) to try and close the Gate before midnight on All Souls Day. Failure to do so will result in the total destruction of mankind. 

This is a rather simplistic synopsis for City of the Living Dead, and much more happens than what I've described above. Far too much, actually. In fact, I'd say things get downright confusing. We see the priest's suicide through Mary's eyes, the vision of which comes to her as she's conducting a séance. Along with the priest's death, Mary can clearly see one of the tombstones in the graveyard, which reads “The soul that pines for eternity shall outspan death. You dweller of the twilight void come, Dunwich” (whoever carved this inscription was just asking for trouble). These images prove too shocking for Mary to bear. She stands, cries out “City of the Dead!”, then falls to the floor. She's pronounced dead (prematurely, I might add), and shortly after the police show up to investigate, a fireball leaps from the corner of the room, disappearing almost as quickly as it came. If this all sounds puzzling to you, join the club; I didn't have a clue what was going on in these early scenes. But then, Fulci himself stated that, at this point in his career, he favored imagery over story, and in that particular area, City of the Living Dead doesn't disappoint. 

There are a handful of genuinely creepy sequences in City of the Living Dead (the scene where Mary wakes up in her coffin is positively chilling), but as you might expect from a Lucio Fulci film, the gore is second to none. As Tommy (Michele Soavi) and Rose (Daniela Doria) are making out in Tommy's truck, the spirit of the priest appears to them, and begins wreaking havoc. Rose starts bleeding from her eyes, then proceeds to cough up all of her vital organs (and I mean all of them). She then turns to Tommy, grabs him by the back of his head, and crushes the brains right out of his skull. 

An ominous mood takes hold of you as you watch this movie, a sense of doom which will soon have you forgetting the story makes little sense.  City of the Living Dead is a prime example of style over substance, but oh...what style it has!







Wednesday, March 21, 2012

#583. 8 1/2 (1963)


Directed By: Federico Fellini

Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Claudia Cardinale




Tag line: "A picture that goes beyond what men think about - because no man ever thought about it in quite this way!"

Trivia:  In 2002, named by "Positif" (France) as one of the 50 best films of the last 50 years





When the great Italian director, Federico Fellini, found himself at a difficult crossroads in his career, having suddenly, and without reason, lost his desire to make films, he did what any brilliant filmmaker would do in his place: he made a movie about a director who’d lost his desire to make films! 

More than a little autobiographical, Fellini's 8 ½ follows Guido Anselam (Marcello Mastroianni), a revered movie director whose passion for the art has inexplicably abandoned him. What's worse, his next picture has already been financed! In the hopes of regaining his muse, Guido steals away to a health spa, and invites both his mistress (Sandra Milo) and wife (Anouk Aimée) to join him. Yet even here, he doesn’t get a moments peace, bothered at all hours by angry producers, frustrated actresses and confused assistants, all of whom are demanding Guido begin work on what will surely be his newest cinematic masterpiece. 

8 ½ is stockpiled with fantastic scenes, and perhaps the greatest is the dream sequence that opens it, in which Guido is behind the wheel of his car, stuck in an endless traffic jam. While sitting there, motionless, he notices the car filling up with smoke, and as he struggles to get out, the motorists in the vehicles surrounding him stare on, neither offering assistance nor showing the slightest concern for his well-being. He manages to escape, then suddenly takes to the air, floating above the other cars and away from the traffic. Soon, he’s flying over the open sea, but his freedom is to be short lived, because before he can fly off, he's pulled back to earth by several of his assistants, yanking a rope that's appeared around his leg. The sequence ends with Guido falling towards the water, waking up just before he hits it. It’s a marvelously surreal beginning to a marvelously surreal film, and all at once, we understand Guido’s mindset, his longing to break away from the producers, actors and costume designers who hound him hourly. We’re already in tune with Guido’s plight, and things are just getting started. 

I’m a sucker for films like 8 ½, movies that walk a fine line between fantasy and reality, shifting from one to the other with inspired ease. While I both admire and enjoy his earlier, "realistic" pictures (Nights of Cabiria, La Strada), I find Fellini's later works (Roma, La Dolce Vita, Amarcord) much more exciting. With their visual expression, the director pushes film making to its extreme, creating carnival-like images presented within a highly personal narrative. There is a story here, that of a man struggling with his art (In the world of 8 ½, the director is not merely a technician, but an artist, and even a celebrity), yet Fellini realizes motion pictures are more than just plot; they're a medium for the senses.  And with 8 ½, he does a fine job of exciting them.







Tuesday, March 20, 2012

#582. Three Kings (1999)


Directed By: David O. Russell

Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube





Tag line: "It's good to be kings"

Trivia:  Both Matt Damon and Matthew McConaughey turned down the role that went to Mark Wahlberg





Set in Iraq during the final days of the Gulf War, Three Kings is the story of four U.S. soldiers who happen upon a map showing them the whereabouts of a huge stash of gold, which the Iraqi army had stolen from Kuwait. Taking advantage of the cease-fire, Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) leads an unauthorized expedition, made up of Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), and Pfc. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), to find it. Unfortunately, their trek into the desert isn't the grand adventure they'd hoped it would be. 

Though the conflict has all but ended by the time Three Kings gets underway, Gates and his crew still manage to find a few remnants of it in the form of Iraqi troops terrorizing a small town. By the terms of the cease-fire, Americans are permitted to come and go as they please anywhere in the country, and without fear of reprisal. But the same courtesy isn't extended to the ‘rebellious’ civilian population, who are being systematically rounded up and slaughtered by soldiers loyal to Saddam Hussein. As for the U.S. Military, its policy is to honor the terms of the cease-fire, which means they must keep out of Iraq’s internal affairs. Gates and the others do find the gold, but as they're loading it onto a truck, they witness first hand just how severely the Iraqi ‘uprising’ is being suppressed, and it’s too much to bear. During the war, these four saw very little combat. Now that it's over, they’re faced with a dilemma: do nothing, and permit the outright murder of men, women and children, or get involved, and risk open combat, with nobody around to back them up. The war has ended, but for these men, it might be starting up all over again. 

The basic premise of Three Kings, stealing a large sum of gold from the enemy during a time of war, was also the theme of Kelly’s Heroes, a 1970 film starring Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas. Set in WWII, that movie featured a band of American soldiers after a secret cache of Nazi bullion, but where Kelly's Heroes was, first and foremost, a comedy, Three Kings has something more compelling to say about the effects of war, and time and again, puts its characters in harms way. If these men want the gold, they’re going to have to fight for it, and in the end, each one realizes they may be willing to fight for a whole lot more besides.








Monday, March 19, 2012

#581. Analyze This (1999)


Directed By: Harold Ramis

Starring: Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow




Tag line: "New York's most powerful gangster is about to get in touch with his feelings"

Trivia:  Robert De Niro suggested Chazz Palminteri for the role of Primo Sidone, having worked together on A Bronx Tale






What impressed me immediately about Harold Ramis’ 1999 comedy, Analyze This, was how it didn't shy away from the criminal lifestyle. During the opening scene, mobster Paul Vitti (Robert DeNiro) launches into a colorful narration about a failed 1957 meeting between the heads of all the “families”, and the sequence is so well-handled, it might have you wondering, albeit only for a moment, if you're watching Analyze This or The Sopranos

Dr. Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal) has it all. Along with his thriving psychiatric practice, he's about to be married to the charming and beautiful Laura (Lisa Kudrow). But his newest patient, gangland boss Paul Vitti, threatens to turn his world upside down. Vitti is feeling the pressure of heading up a criminal empire, and it’s become more than he can handle. That’s where Dr. Sobel comes in. With the good doctor’s help, Vitti hopes to regain the confidence that made him a top man in the organization, but can Dr. Sobel ignore the pangs of his own conscience and treat a noted mobster? 

As good as Billy Crystal is, playing a mild-mannered suburbanite thrust unexpectedly into the world of organized crime, Analyze This would be nothing without Robert DeNiro. His Vitti is a basket case with a bad temper, a man prone to violent outbursts, many of which are hilarious (during one therapy session, Dr. Sobel tells Vitti to hit a pillow, as a means of releasing his anger. Instead, he pulls a gun and blows the pillow away). Now, we’ve seen DeNiro play this type of character before in some of the greatest gangster movies ever made (The Untouchables, Goodfellas), and occasionally, we've even chuckled a bit at his exploits, yet always nervously, as a release of sorts from the violence and high drama filling the screen. In Analyze This, it’s all done for laughs, and DeNiro’s experience with this kind of role brings a level of credibility to the film. When Paul Vitti is nearly gunned down while leaving a restaurant, a shooting that claimed the life of his trusted friend, Dominic (Joseph Rigano), he begins having a nervous breakdown. Vitti realizes he doesn’t want to die, but can’t just walk away from ‘the life’ either, especially since his old rival, Primo Sidone (Chazz Plaminteri), is the one moving against him. It’s under these circumstances that his sessions with Dr. Sobel begin, and the various doctor/patient exchanges the two have are a riot (my favorite being Vitti’s reaction to Sobel's theory he might be suffering from an “oedipal complex”). 

An effective marriage of comedy and La Cosa Nostra, Analyze This is a very entertaining movie.







Sunday, March 18, 2012

#580. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)


Directed By: John Frankenheimer

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury




Tag line: "When you've seen it all, you'll swear there's never been anything like it!"

Trivia:  Angela Lansbury was thirty-six at the time of filming, only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who played her son






It's a terrible thing to hate your mother. But I didn't always hate her. When I was a child, I only kind of disliked her

This is how Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), the tragic figure at the center of John Frankenheimer's 1962 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, describes his relationship with his mother, Eleanor Iselin, played by Angela Lansbury. In the '80s, my mom watched Ms. Lansbury every Sunday night in Murder, She Wrote, the award-winning TV mystery series in which she was the kindly author, and novice sleuth, Jessica Fletcher. Having grown up with this squeaky-clean image of her, I couldn't imagine Lansbury as a villain. But after The Manchurian Candidate, I'm thinking Murder, She Wrote was the real stretch; she does evil too damn well for it to be an act! 

A Sergeant in the United States Army, Shaw (Harvey) returns from Korea a decorated war hero, receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery. The men who served under him hold Shaw in the highest regard, and every one, including his superior officer, Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), believes he is the best of men. Shaw’s mother (Lansbury) and her second husband, the ambitious Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), take advantage of their son’s popularity, using it to fuel Iselin’s re-election campaign. But recently, Capt. Marco, now a Major, has been haunted by a fuzzy memory, one suggesting Shaw is not the hero he appears to be. In truth, he, Shaw, and the entire platoon were kidnapped while in Korea, and brainwashed by Communist agents. The same hypnosis that convinced Marco and the others Shaw was a great guy also transformed Shaw into a deadly assassin, who doesn't realize he's been conditioned to act against his country. Now back in the U.S., Shaw is at the mercy of his American contact, and will carry out his covert mission without any memory of having done so. Will Marco learn the truth in time to stop Shaw, or is he already too late? 

Frankenheimer couldn't have done a better job casting The Manchurian Candidate. Frank Sinatra hits all the right notes as Marco, a tortured individual whose mind is crying out for relief, even as it fights him every step of the way. Laurence Harvey is cold as the hypnotized killer, yet colder still when portraying the “real” Shaw, a foul-tempered, abrasive man who argues with absolutely everybody. If anything, his hypnotic conditioning is an improvement on his character, sending him into a dream state that makes him much more sedate. James Gregory plays the idiotic Sen. Iselin with a McCarthy-esque flair, declaring time and again, and usually when the cameras are rolling, that Communists are taking over the Defense Department. But it's Iselin's wife who pulls the strings. As Eleanor, Lansbury is the perfect embodiment of concentrated evil, wielding a terrible power over the men in her life and casting insults and accusations at anyone who stands against her. It's truly a performance for the ages. And you won't want to miss Janet Leigh in a small role as Marco's “girlfriend”, whose dialogue suggests she may be a bit more involved in the intrigue than she's letting on (“Maryland is a beautiful state” she says to Marco when they first meet on a train. He replies “This is Delaware”, to which she retorts, “Yes, I know.  I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. Nevertheless, Maryland is a beautiful state”. Yeah...pretty strange stuff!)

The Manchurian Candidate is an intense motion picture, with memories that are always just out of reach, and a false reality greeting its characters at every turn. You can spot the tension in their eyes as the camera closes in on them, revealing the crippling anguish in control of their minds. With incredible suspense that only grows stronger as the movie progresses, The Manchurian Candidate is, without a doubt, one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever put to film.








Saturday, March 17, 2012

#579. The Undying Monster (1942)


Directed By: John Brahm

Starring: James Ellison, Heather Angel, John Howard




Tag line: "HORROR to make you GASP!"

Trivia:  Film debut of American tough guy Charles McGraw who ironically plays a British horse groom here







The Undying Monster, a 1942 horror/mystery released by 20th Century Fox, is a scant 63 minutes long. But its director, John Brahm, makes excellent use of each and every one of those minutes, spinning a tale that's visually vibrant, and with plenty of atmosphere to boot. 

The story concerns the Hammonds, a well-respected British family that, for centuries, has been living under a curse. Legend has it an immortal monster, supposedly an ancient ancestor of the Hammonds, roams the land surrounding their vast estate, murdering anyone foolish enough to wander out on a chilly, moon-lit night. Helga Hammond (Heather Angel) is convinced this curse is a myth, and when her brother, Oliver (John Howard) and a neighbor girl named Kate O'Malley (Virginia Traxler) are attacked one evening by an unknown assailant, she goes straight to the authorities. Enlisting the help of Robert Curtis (James Ellison), a scientist working for Scotland Yard, Helga hopes to prove there was nothing supernatural about the attacks, yet as both she and Mr. Curtis will soon discover, there are things even science can't explain. 

Thanks to some well-placed shadows and creative camera angles, director Brahm establishes the film's forbidding ambiance in the very first scene. Late at night, Helga is talking with Walton (Halliwell Hobbes), the family butler, who fully believes the curse is real. Standing with her in a dimly-lit room, he recites a poem that's been passed down for generations: “ When the stars are bright on a frosty night, beware thy bane on the rocky lane”. Sure enough, the two hear what sounds like a wolf howling just outside the door, and when Helga investigates, she finds Oliver lying unconscious, and Kate O'Malley, beaten and bruised, at the bottom of a crevice. From there, the movie shifts gears a bit, transforming into a police procedural as Curtis and his assistant, Ms. Christy (Heather Thatcher), carry out their investigation (including a tour of an eerie family crypt). But rest assured, we haven't seen the last of the so-called “Hammond Curse”. 

With its tales of creatures and curses, set against the backdrop of an ominous manor situated high on top of a hill, The Undying Monster rivals some of the best of what Universal Studios was turning out in the early 1930s, when movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy were setting the standard by which most later horror films would be measured. The Undying Monster more than measures up to these classics; it stands beside them, taking its place among the elite of the genre.







Friday, March 16, 2012

#578. Arthur (1981)


Directed By: Steve Gordon

Starring: Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, John Gielgud




Tag line: "The most fun money can buy"

Trivia:  Bud Cort was originally suggested for the role of Arthur. Apparently, Cort was actually cast in the part but withdrew prior to principal photography.







The laughs in Arthur never get old. All these years later, this movie still cracks me up. 

Dudley Moore is Arthur Bach, a millionaire playboy with a drinking problem who's never had to grow up. Life's been good to Arthur so far, but it seems the good times are about to come to an end. His father (Thomas Barbour) and grandmother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) are insisting he marry Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry), a beautiful, yet terminally boring, heiress. Arthur doesn't want to get hitched to anyone, least of all a woman like Susan, but has a change of heart when his father threatens to cut him off without a cent. Hobson (Sir John Gielgud), Arthur’s sarcastic butler and most trusted friend, advises him to marry and live the rest of his life a very wealthy man. Wedded bliss with Susan becomes even more unthinkable, however, when Arthur meets Linda Marolla (Liza Minelli), a penniless waitress who captures his heart. Will he turn his back on $750 million for love? 

Arthur gets off to a quick start, firing jokes and one-liners at us from all directions. The opening scene has an intoxicated Arthur, out on the prowl in his Rolls Royce, pulling up next to a couple of prostitutes and hiring one of them for the evening. So drunk he can barely stand, Arthur takes his “date”, Gloria (Anne DeSalvo), to dinner at the prestigious Plaza Hotel, where he proceeds to make a spectacle of himself (at one point, he asks Gloria about her past. “You mean, why am I a hooker?” she asks. “Are you a hooker?” he shouts out, drawing every eye in the restaurant his way, “Jesus, I forgot. I just thought I was doing great with you!”). The scene ends, and we cut to the next morning, where Arthur and Gloria are waking up in Arthur’s incredibly spacious bedroom. But just when it looks as if the fun is settling down, here comes Hobson, John Gielgud’s sardonic butler. With his sharp wit and deadpan delivery, Hobson gets the laughs rolling all over again. The film continues on at a brisk pace, with Moore and Gielgud playing off one another perfectly. Then, suddenly, Liza Minelli enters the picture. Her Linda Marolla, full of humor and charm, eases her way into the mix, and all at once, the hilarious duo of Moore and Geilgud has become a trio, assembling what amounts to a comedic dream team. 

I have no idea how many times I’ve watched Arthur over the years, but if I were to guess, I’d say it’s at least a couple dozen. And yet, despite my complete familiarity with every aspect of this film, it hasn’t lost its edge. Arthur always makes me smile, and more than likely always will.







Thursday, March 15, 2012

#577. Killer's Moon (1978)


Directed By: Alan Birkinshaw

Starring: Anthony Forrest, David Jackson. Tom Marshall




Tag line: "One endless night of terror!"

Trivia:  Although this film takes place in the summer, it was actually shot during winter







Killer's Moon gets off to a pleasant enough start: a bus, loaded with schoolgirls on their way to a choir competition in Edinburgh, makes its way along the back roads of the picturesque English countryside. It's all so serene, so very tranquil. But you know it won't last...don't you? 

Sure enough, the bus breaks down, and the girls, under the supervision of their choirmaster, Mrs. Hargreaves (Jean Reeve), set out in search of lodgings for the night. As this is happening, Pete (Anthony Forrest) and Mike (Tom Marshall), a couple of camping buddies, are settling into their tent for the evening, looking forward to a little peace and quiet. Unfortunately, neither “peace” nor “quiet” are in the cards for any of them. That's because four psychotics, all of whom were locked away for committing sex crimes, have just escaped from a psychiatric research facility, where they were being used as guinea pigs to test a new experimental drug. Convinced they're dreaming, these four descend upon the village in search of a little “fun”, leading to a night of terror none will soon forget. 

Our first hint that all's not well is the sudden appearance of a three-legged dog, blood dripping from its side, which surprises Mike as he's sitting in the tent with Julie (Jane Hayden), a girl from the village. Then, people start dying, first the bus driver (Chubby Oates), then a kindly gamekeeper (Charles Stewart) and his wife (Edwina Wray). But the real terror is reserved for the schoolgirls, and this is where Killer's Moon gets downright nasty. Three of the escaped inmates break into the hotel where the girls are staying, surprising Ms. Lilac (Elizabeth Counsell), the assistant teacher, who faints almost immediately. One of the girls appears at the top of the staircase, and is coaxed by the inmate named Smith (Nigel Gregory) to come downstairs and help Ms. Lilac. When she tries to run away, she's grabbed by Smith, who throws her onto a sofa, tears off her nightgown, and rapes her. It's a very unsettling scene, to say the least, and sadly, she won't be the last of the girls to suffer such a fate. 

Some have compared Killer's Moon to Stanley Kubrick's 1971 classic, A Clockwork Orange, and to be sure, there are several similarities between the two, from their stories (psychopaths, experimental drugs, rape, etc.) right down to the way the inmates dress (like Alex and his “droogs”, all are wearing white). But where A Clockwork Orange had something to say about society tampering with free will to serve the “greater good”, Killer's Moon wants only to shock you with scenes of senseless brutality. Aside from some weak performances and a few holes in its story, I wouldn't call Killer's Moon a bad film. But be warned: it is an unpleasant one.








Wednesday, March 14, 2012

#576. Jules and Jim (1962)


Directed By: François Truffaut

Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre




Trivia:  Jean Renoir was a fan of this film, and wrote Truffaut a letter saying how much he liked it. Truffaut carried that letter around for years afterward








Jules and Jim is the chronicle of a failed experiment, undertaken by three people who loved each other very much, yet were done in by their inability to separate friendship from romance. 

Jules (Oskar Werner), a shy German living in Paris, is good friends with Jim (Henri Serre), an outgoing Frenchman. Their relationship blossoms in the days leading up to World War I, and together, they experience all the Parisian single life has to offer. When Jules’ friend, Albert (Boris Bassiak), shows the two a picture of an ancient statue, one that depicts a beautiful woman, both Jules and Jim fall instantly in love with it, and agree that, if they ever found a girl whose features resembled this work of art, they'd immediately claim her as their own. This quest for the perfect mate ends the day they’re introduced to Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who has every quality, every ounce of beauty Jules and Jim have been searching for. Before long, each one is deeply in love with her, and Catherine, herself a free spirit, cares equally for both Jules and Jim. Through the years, the friends will take turns loving her, yet ultimately, the unpredictable Catherine is a treasure neither can truly possess. 

At first, Catherine appears to be the physical embodiment of the statue Jules and Jim had become enamored with, and Truffaut frames her as such at their first meeting, capturing Moreau’s facial features by employing the same camera angles presented in Albert’s photos. But Catherine proves much more complex than this idealized image of her, and her feelings for both dooms any chance of a relationship with either. This, in turn, leads to an unsettling exposition of Jules’ and Jim’s friendship. They consent to share Catherine, convincing themselves such an unusual situation, where romance and camaraderie are treated as one, may present the perfect condition for love to blossom. Yet the arrangement leaves them feeling unsatisfied, unfulfilled. Werner and Serre are strong in their respective roles, but Jules and Jim belongs to Moreau. As Catherine, she's the picture of beauty, and despite her character's flightiness, we have no problem believing a pair of friends would do whatever they could to have her, even if it meant sharing. 

Neither Jules nor Jim were prepared for this so-called ‘perfect’ union, and one might argue Catherine, in spite of her apparent worldliness, was also out of her league. These three truly believed they were standing on the threshold of a wonderful new way of life, which would forever replace the notion that two is the ideal romantic number. In the end, it blew up in their faces.







Tuesday, March 13, 2012

#575. Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1972)


Directed By: Ted V. Mikels

Starring: Lila Zaborin, Victor Izay, Tom Pace




Tag line: "A terrifying, screaming plunge to the depths of hell!"

Trivia:  An alternate title for this film is Female Plasma Suckers







Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. The name alone commands your attention. Now, being somewhat familiar with this sort of ‘70s fare, I knew going in there was little chance the movie would live up to its title. I’ve been burned before (The trailer for the 1971 film, Chain Gang Women, had all the makings of a women-in-prison flick. Turns out there were only two girls in the entire picture, who: A. weren't in prison, and B. had about 10 minutes of screen time between them). Yet even with my expectations set to low, Blood Orgy of the She-Devils proved a disappointment. 

Mara (Lila Zaborin) is the high priestess of a Satanic cult, with a number of beautiful women as her followers. Lorraine (Ledlie McRay), one of Mara's newest disciples, convinces her boyfriend, Mark (Tom Pace), to accompany her to a séance, but when things get out of hand, they ask Dr. Helsford (Victor Izay) to look into the matter. Though he's seen many phonies in his day, Helsford believes Mara is the real deal, a true harbinger of evil determined to unleash her powers on an unsuspecting world. He asks several of his colleagues to assist him in defeating Mara, but is she too powerful to be stopped? 

I wouldn't even classify Blood Orgy of the She-Devils as a “near-miss”; this movie falls way short of the mark. The opening scene involves a ritual in which a coven of beautiful, sword-wielding witches parade around a half-naked man tied to the ground. Mara is there, as is Toruqe (William Bagdad), her assistant, who wears a funny hat lined with animal skins. After the women do a bit of dancing, Toruqe lets out a yell, and the bevvy of beauties descend on the man, stabbing him to death. Not a bad way to start a film about Satanists, right? Except that the scene has no life to it. It’s all so very bland in its execution, and what might have been an interesting opening serves instead as an omen of the drudgery to come. Even Mara, the supposed Black Witch, doesn't do much except perform a few parlor tricks, and utter a whole lot of philosophical claptrap (“Power is something you cannot see, but are aware of in many ways”). She does undergo a physical transformation of sorts halfway through the film, yet it doesn’t improve her abilities one lick; she's just as unimpressive as ever. As for her female followers, they're definitely easy on the eyes. I just wish they were given more to do than sit around and watch Mara make an ass out of herself. 

You have to give writer/producer/director Ted. V. Mikels some credit: as misleading as this film's title is, it got my attention, and was the sole reason I wanted to see it. But don’t you make the same mistake I did. Blood Orgy of the She-Devils is an utter waste of time.







Monday, March 12, 2012

#574. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)


Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman






Trivia:  Director Martin Scorsese provides the voice of the male dispatcher







Bringing Out the Dead is the story of Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a burned-out paramedic who's haunted by the ghosts of those he was unable to save. We follow Frank as he hits the streets with three different partners: Larry (John Goodman), who's more interested in his next meal than he is saving lives; Marcus (Ving Rhames), a religious zealot who's part medic / part faith healer; and Tom (Tom Sizemore), an out-and-out psychopath. One night, while responding to a call, Frank meets Mary (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a heart attack victim. Frank feels an instant connection with Mary, and believes she may be the one who'll bring a little order to his mixed-up life, while also helping him exorcise the spirits of those who died on his watch. 

Bringing out the Dead has given me a better understanding of how emotionally difficult life as a paramedic must be. You often hear about doctors “shutting off” their feelings while on the job, which they do in order to maintain their sanity. As a philosophy, this makes perfect sense, and I certainly don't begrudge anyone their sanity, especially when the work they perform is so vital. Doctors, however, have one advantage that paramedics do not; whereas a physician will usually deal with the sick in a neutral location, like their office or even a hospital, a paramedic must occasionally enter their patient’s home, and I would imagine performing CPR on a cardiac arrest victim while surrounded by that person’s loved ones, all the while staring at family photographs hanging on the wall, would make a level of emotional detachment extremely difficult to sustain. How, exactly, do you turn off your feelings when forced to function under these conditions? Frank couldn’t, and, as a result, he's coming apart at the seams. 

One of the makings of a good film is how successful it is at bringing you into its world, forcing you to think about what it is you're seeing. Bringing Out the Dead caused me to do this very thing. So, putting aside for a moment the excellent performances (Nicolas Cage conveys his character's angst perfectly) and predictably solid direction of Martin Scorsese, I must conclude that Bringing Out the Dead is, indeed, a very good film.








Sunday, March 11, 2012

#573. Spider Baby (1968)


Directed By: Jack Hill

Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker




Tag line: "Spider Baby will give you nightmares forever!"

Trivia:  The film was shot in seven days, between Aug. and Sept. of 1964






The moment the animated credits kick in, which play over a bizarre theme sung by Lon Chaney Jr., you know Jack Hill's Spider Baby is going to be one strange motion picture. And it only gets stranger from there on out.

The three Merrye children: Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Ralph (Sid Haig), suffer from a most unusual malady: as their bodies grow older, their minds get younger, regressing to a child-like state which will eventually result in total madness. Since the death of their father, the three have been living in the family's decrepit old mansion under the watchful eye of Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), the chauffeur, who's gone to great lengths to hide the children, knowing full well they'd be placed in a psychiatric hospital if their true “nature” were ever revealed. This well-guarded secret is in danger of being uncovered, however, when cousins Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) pay them a surprise visit. Joined by their lawyer (Karl Schanzer), these two distant relatives have set their sights on the vast Merrye fortune, and, to strengthen their claim to it, are determined to prove the children should be locked away. But as they'll soon learn, the Merrye siblings aren't about to go down without a fight. 

I really like Spider Baby; it has a unique energy to it, a sort of sitcom mentality (think The Addams Family, only weirder) that I found very appealing. Lon Chaney Jr. was fast approaching the end of his career when he made Spider Baby, but does a fine job as the kindly, if slightly misguided, Bruno. On the flip-side, a very young Sid Haig, in one of his first film roles, plays Ralph, the most peculiar of the Merrye children. Acting as if he were about three years old, Haig wanders through the picture without uttering a single word. Of Ralph's two sisters, Virginia is clearly the most disturbed, believing herself a spider and attacking anyone she catches in her “web” (a messenger, played by Mantan Moreland, is an early victim of Virginia's, meeting his end in the film's opening sequence). Throughout the movie, we learn there are other members of the Merrye clan also residing in the huge mansion, including a pair of Aunts and an Uncle in the final stages of the illness, who've been locked away in the basement, as well as the rotting corpse of dear old dad, still lying in his bed. 

Spider Baby is, without a doubt, one of the oddest films I've ever seen, yet every eccentric character, every outlandish moment director Hill crams into its 81 minutes only adds to the movie's unusual charms.







Saturday, March 10, 2012

#572. Shaun of the Dead (2004)


Directed By: Edgar Wright

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield




Tag line: "This September, aim for the head"

Trivia:  Because of the similarity of their titles, distributors were forced to hold this film back until two weeks after the Dawn of the Dead remake was released in the UK






In most zombie films, the media is usually right on top of the situation, transmitting images of the walking dead to a shocked and horrified public almost as quickly as they happen. With Shaun of the Dead, writer / director Edgar Wright answers a question I always asked myself as I watched those other movies: what about those poor devils who never watch the evening news? 

Shaun (Simon Pegg) is having a really bad day. For starters, his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), just dumped him, saying she's fed up spending night after night at the local pub with him and his obnoxious best friend, Ed (Nick Frost). Then, Shaun remembers he promised to pay his mother (Penelope Wilton) a visit, despite the fact he can't stand being in the same room as her second husband, Philip (Bill Nighy). As if all this weren't bad enough, the dead have risen from their graves, and are feasting on the flesh of the living. Along with everything else, Shaun must now devise a plan to save both Liz and his beloved mother from the sudden onslaught of bloodthirsty zombies. 

Talk about a full plate! 

Besides being ignorant of current events, Shaun isn't very observant in general, and fails to notice time and again that all hell has broken loose around him. In one of the film's cleverest sequences, we follow Shaun as he walks to the corner store early one morning to pick up a soda. Now, we made this exact same trip with our hero the previous day, when the most hazardous obstacle he encountered was a flying soccer ball. This time, however, the journey is a tad more perilous. Aside from the blood splattered everywhere, we notice car windows have been shattered, front doors broken down, and those who are out walking the streets are doing so much more methodically than they had 24 hours earlier. We see this...but Shaun doesn't. When he finally arrives at his destination, he strolls over to the refrigerated section, grabs his usual drink, and lays his money on the counter, oblivious to the body parts strewn around him. He then shuffles out the door and heads for home, always one incredibly lucky step ahead of the slow-moving zombies. 

A funny story that never shies away from the bloodshed, Shaun of the Dead strikes the perfect balance between horror and comedy, bringing them together in a way that will undoubtedly satisfy fans of both genres.