Thursday, May 31, 2012

#654. The Killing Gene (2007)

Directed By: Tom Shankland

Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Melissa George, Tom Hardy

Tag line: "Love doesn't hurt. It kills"

Trivia:  Though set in New York, a large portion of this film was shot in Belfast

How far would you go to save someone you loved? Would you allow yourself to be tortured? Killed? These are the difficult questions director Tom Shankland poses in his 2007 horror/thriller, The Killing Gene, a gritty, savage film about a serial killer with more on their mind than simple murder.

Veteran New York cop Eddie Argo (Stellan Skarsgård) and rookie Helen Westcott (Melissa George) are called in to investigate two badly mutilated bodies: a gang leader, and a pregnant woman with an equation carved into her belly. Before long, several other murders are reported, each following a similar pattern, yet what makes them so disturbing is the victims were given a choice: save their own lives, or the lives of a loved one. With little to go on, Eddie and Helen must hunt down a serial killer out to prove a theory, one that asserts human beings are basically selfish, and there is no true love in the world.

The Killing Gene is not a pretty film; it’s a brutal, twisted journey into the darkest regions of New York City. In fact, one of the movie’s strengths is the way it explores the vandalized neighborhoods and abandoned buildings of this great city, leading us into areas no law-abiding citizen would dare enter. After the discovery of the first victim, Eddie and Helen confront gang leader and possible suspect Pierre (Tom Brady) on his home turf: a desolate street in the middle of the seediest section of town. Which brings me around to another strength of The Killing Gene: its performances. As Helen, Melissa George has never been better. When Eddie sends her out alone to deal with Pierre, we see the conflict in her eyes, the fear for her own safety that soon gives way to the realization this is her job, and like it or not, it has to be done. Of course, it isn’t long before she loses control of the situation, at which point Eddie steps in. Skarsgård has always been a strong actor, and his turn as the grizzled Eddie is no exception. Pierre and his gang start to back down the moment they see him, as if his very presence signified something sinister. We realize early on Eddie is a guy with a lot of baggage, and more than a few skeletons hiding in his closet. Skarsgård does a fine job maintaining his character’s controlled chaos, making Eddie the perfect cop to tackle such a difficult task.

Then we have the violence, and trust me when I say there’s plenty to go around. The discovery of the bodies is bad enough; Wesley, the boyfriend of the pregnant girl, is found hanging in an abandoned building, sliced open in a number of places (including his genitals) with blood strewn everywhere. But where The Killing Gene excels is in showing us just how far the killer (whose identity is revealed early on) is willing to go, at one point even abducting a strung-out mother (Sally Hawkins) and her 3-year-old son (Joshua O'Gorman). This leads to a gruesome chain of events, but not nearly as gruesome as the sequences when we’re actually shown the killer's torture technique, moments guaranteed to leave you squirming in your seat.

A taut, gripping thriller and a horrifying look into the mind of a serial killer, The Killing Gene is well-acted, well-made and very well told.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

#653. Enter the Dragon (1973)

Directed By: Robert Clouse

Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly

Tag line: "The first American produced martial arts spectacular!"

Trivia:  The movie was filmed without sound. All of the dialogue and effects were dubbed in during post-production

Enter the Dragon would have been an above-average Kung-Fu film, with exciting action and a top-notch story, regardless of who starred in it. 

But it also featured Bruce Lee, the most charismatic performer the genre ever produced. As a showcase for Bruce Lee’s amazing skills, Enter the Dragon can’t be beat.

Lee (Bruce Lee), the V.I.P. of a prestigious Shaolin temple, is invited to participate in a martial arts tournament hosted by Han (Kien Shih), a wealthy landowner and himself a former student of the same temple. 

Before setting out, however, Lee is summoned by the British consulate, which recruits him to keep an eye on Han's activities. Believing he's involved in the manufacturing and distribution of opium, the British hope to gather enough evidence to put Han away for good. 

What the authorities don’t know is that Lee himself has a score to settle with his host, who not only disgraced the dignity of the Shaolin temple by abusing his powers, but was also responsible for the death of Lee’s beloved sister, Su Lin (Angela Mao). 

Joining them at the tournament are a handful of martial arts experts, including Roper (John Saxon), an American hoping to win enough money to pay off his debts, and Williams (Jim Kelly), an African-American who uses Kung-Fu as a means to combat racism. Yet the crafty Han knows Lee is the fighter to beat, and before the competition is over, he'll try to coerce Lee into joining his organization.

Bruce Lee, whose tragic death a few weeks before the premiere of Enter the Dragon shook the entertainment world to its core, was the most magnetic star the sport ever produced. His fighting abilities were a marvel to behold, and his strength and agility were second to none. 

But it wasn't just Lee's awesome physical skills that made him so much fun to watch; it was also his electric personality. Lee moves like a leopard in this movie, with a singular panache that makes its way into every one of his confrontations. In his first tournament showdown, Lee battles Han’s bodyguard, Oharra (Robert Wall), and to see him work his magic is truly something. Lee moves quickly, a permanent sneer affixed to his lips, angrily landing every blow aimed at Oharra with incredible force. So impressive was this particular sequence that I replayed it at least four times, and I still couldn’t believe how fast he was moving.

Even if you’re just a casual fan of the martial arts genre, you'll want to see its brightest star in his prime.  Enter the Dragon is a great action film that, in the hands of the late Bruce Lee, was transformed into a classic.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

#652. Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity (1987)

Directed By: Ken Dixon

Starring: Elizabeth Kaitan, Cindy Beal, Don Scribner

Tag line: "Big Movie. Big Production. Big Girls"

Trivia:  The film was specifically criticized on the floor of the U.S. Senate by Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) in 1992

We open on a bikini-clad girl running through a jungle, attempting to escape an alien hot on her trail. As the creature closes in for the kill, the girl is saved by a handsome stranger, who blasts the alien twice in the back with his laser. Aliens… lasers... bikinis? Hot damn! As I watched this initial scene from 1987's Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity, I was a horny adolescent again, and settled in for what I assumed would be an entertaining bit of ‘80s cheese. Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity was gonna be fun!

Daria (Elizabeth Kaitan) and Tisa (Cindy Beal) are a couple of buxom prisoners locked in the brig of an intergalactic slave ship. They manage to break free by overpowering their guards, and soon after commandeer a shuttle. But some unknown force causes their getaway craft to crash on a small planet, where they meet Zed (Don Scribner), the lone humanoid inhabitant of what proves to be an exotic paradise, complete with a jungle and beautiful, sandy beaches. Welcomed to stay as Zed's guests, the girls are soon introduced to Shala (Brinke Stevens) and her brother, Rik (Carl Horner), a pair of travelers also stranded on this unusual planet. But as they're enjoying Zed’s gracious hospitality, the four slowly realize their host is not who he appears to be. What's more, if they don't find a way off this little world soon, they may never leave.

Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity sure doesn't waste any time; soon after the opening credits are over, we're thrown head-first into the action, watching as our shapely heroines make a daring escape from their floating prison. Occasionally, the movie does slow down to take a breath, usually just long enough to allow Daria and Tisa to carry on a conversation. Unfortunately, this is when Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity suffers, because not only is the dialogue poor, but the girls deliver it badly; as their stolen shuttle is about to crash, Daria turns to Tisa and says “This isn’t exactly how I hoped things would turn out”. But all is forgiven a few moments later when Daria wakes up on a beach and wanders into the jungle to investigate, the camera slyly focusing on her posterior as she does so (and it’s an..."inspiring" bottom, to say the least).

From there, Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity changes gears, easing its way into a babe-laden rendition of The Most Dangerous Game, which, alas, means the filmmakers had to take even more time out to set up their story. But… surprise! They do an admirable job of it, weaving together what proves to be a very engaging tale. Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity might initially have you thinking it's a standard low-budget ‘80s sci-fi picture hoping to skate by on its action and exposed skin, but ultimately, it delivers much more than that.

Call me crazy (odds are, you will): I really liked Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity.

Monday, May 28, 2012

#651. Chariots of Fire (1981)

Directed By: Hugh Hudson

Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nicholas Farrell

Tag line: "With Wings on their Heels and Hope in their Hearts"

Trivia: Brad Davis and Dennis Christopher appeared as a favor to producer David Puttnam, waiving their fees, in order to attract finance from backers who wanted "marquee names."

Based on a true story, Chariots of Fire is the account of two runners who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics. College student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), the son of a Lithuanian Jew, is subjected to racial prejudice while attending Cambridge University, despite the fact he’s the school’s star sprinter. Scotsman Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a deeply religious man who is also a gifted athlete. After an impressive performance at the Highland games, his friend, Sandy McGrath (Struan Rodger), encourages Liddell to train for the Olympics, while Liddell’s beloved sister, Jennie (Cheryl Campbell), tries to talk him out of it, hoping instead to convince her brother to become a missionary. With one man running for God, the other for respect, each feels they have something to prove, not only to the world, but to themselves as well.

Aside from the sweeping score of Vangelis, which it still, to this day, one of the most recognizable pieces of music in cinematic history, the overall scale of Chariots of Fire is strengthened by the respect it gives its characters and their individual quests for glory. The title sequence alone, which shows the Olympic team jogging on a beach in slow motion, is an early sign that we're about to witness something special. In fact, many of the film’s races, from the Highland games to the Olympic showdowns, are shot at least partially in slow motion, thus bringing an air of reverence to both the athletes and their competitions. In taking on this epic sensibility, the filmmakers were convinced this seemingly small tale was an important one, and by the time the ending credits rolled, they had me believing it too.

Chariots of Fire lends credence to the assertion that big stories can be found in nearly every facet of life. Kudos to director Hugh Hudson, Producer David Puttnam, screenwriter Colin Welland and Cinematographer David Watkin; they found the grand tale itching to break free in Chariots of Fire, then told it very well.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

#650. Grand Canyon (1991)

Directed By: Lawrence Kasdan

Starring: Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Steve Martin

Tag line: "In the 1980's, director Lawrence Kasdan brought you The Big Chill. Welcome to the 90's"

Trivia:  The scene where Mack is nearly killed by a bus, was taken from writer/director Lawrence Kasdan's own life

In 1991 I was a college student majoring in Communications, and every few weeks the department would receive a press kit from 20th Century Fox - complete with a trailer and video interviews with cast and crew - for one of that studio’s upcoming releases. 

One particular press kit we received was for Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, and at that point in my life, if the movie wasn't action, horror or sci-fi, I simply wasn’t interested. I did eventually check out the trailer for Grand Canyon, and even a few of the interviews, but they didn't make an impression.

My, how times change!

Set in Los Angeles, Grand Canyon focuses on a series of chance encounters, some miraculous, others quite tragic. Mack (Kevin Kline) takes a shortcut home one evening and turns down the wrong street. When his mercedes breaks down in a rough neighborhood, he is threatened by some thugs, and it's only through the quick actions of Simon (Danny Glover), a tow-truck driver, that a potentially violent confrontation is averted. 

Claire (Mary McDonnell), Mack’s wife, is out jogging when she discovers an abandoned baby hidden behind some bushes. She instantly falls in love with the child, and is convinced a miracle brought the two of them together. 

Davis (Steve Martin), a movie producer who makes gory action pictures, promises to never again turn out another blood-dripping film when he's shot in the leg during a robbery.

The strength of Grand Canyon lies in its sincerity, and no character embodies this sincerity better than Danny Glover’s Simon. Much of what Simon says in this film, from his conversation with the street thugs (“The world ain’t supposed to work like this”) to the story of his first visit to the Grand Canyon, would have seemed preachy in the hands of a lesser actor. Glover, however, remains very convincing throughout, keeping it all realistically low-key, and because he's understated we buy everything he has to say. His Simon acts as the conscience for this small group of people, and is their guide towards a better future.

The fact that I passed over Grand Canyon all those years ago was a mistake of youth, and yet I’m not sure I would have appreciated it then the way I do now. Lacking any viable worldly experience in 1991, the underlying message of Grand Canyon might have gone over my head. 

Today, it has settled comfortably in my mind.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

#649. Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks (1974)

Directed By: Dick Randall

Starring: Rossano Brazzi, Michael Dunn, Edmund Purdom

Tag line: "Weird creatures return to life in..."

Trivia:  Actor Rossano Brazzi, who played Count Frankenstein in this film, was arrested in 1984 on arms smuggling charges

Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks begins as any good monster movie, or indeed any movie period, should: with a group of villagers battling it out with a caveman!

This is the first, but far from the last scene in Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks that will have you scratching your head and wondering “What the hell am I watching here?”

Once the caveman is subdued, the villagers go to work on him, beating the poor neanderthal to death. His body is then dragged off to the castle of Count Frankenstein (Rossano Brazzi), who uses it to conduct yet another experiment in his quest to bring the dead back to life. As luck would have it, Frankenstein finally realizes his goal, and the caveman, whom he names Goliath (Loren Ewing), rejoins the ranks of the living. Yet the Count's celebration is interrupted when he's forced to banish his assistant, a dwarf named Genz (Michael Dunn), from the castle for, among other infractions, “having his way” with a few of the more shapely female corpses. Yet Genz will get his revenge, teaming up with another Caveman (played by the strategically named Boris Lugosi) and setting his sights on Frankenstein’s beautiful daughter Maria (Simone Blondell) and her equally gorgeous friend, Krista (Christiane Royce), transforming the girls’ weekend visit into a nightmare from which they cannot escape.

Moments of pure hilarity, mostly of the unintentional sort, are to be found throughout Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks. In an early scene, we get a glimpse of Genz's treacherous behavior when he cops a feel off a nubile young corpse who's just been pulled from her grave. However, Ganz isn't the only one getting a little action. A hunchbacked servant named Kreegin (Xiro Papas) is locked in a relationship with the cook, Valda (Laura de Benedittis), who just happens to be the wife of Hans (Alan Collins), Frankenstein's most trusted assistant (During one of Kreegin and Valda's liaisons in the wood shed, we learn Valda likes it kinda rough). Not to be outdone, the castle's visitors don't keep their clothes on for very long, either. Her first night there, Krista strips down and takes a milk bath, a precursor to a later sequence where she and Maria are out exploring a cave and come across a pool of natural spring water, which they promptly jump into, smearing mud on each others naked bodies as they bathe.

Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is certainly not be the best monster movie ever made, but the sheer lunacy that takes place within its 90 minutes at least ensures it’s never a boring one.

Friday, May 25, 2012

#648. Men in Black (1997)

Directed By: Barry Sonnenfeld

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino

Tag line: "Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe"

Trivia:  Will Smith, after reading the script, did not want to accept the role, but his wife Jada Pinkett Smith convinced him to take the part

Rick Baker is one of the most prolific makeup artists in the history of the cinema, a man whose name is synonymous with quality. In a career spanning five decades, Baker created more than his share of bizarre cinematic creatures, yet few were stranger than the ones he concocted for Barry Sonnefeld’s 1997 blockbuster Men in Black.

New York cop James Edwards (Will Smith) chases down a suspected criminal, only to find the “man” he is after isn’t even human! 

Enter "K" (Tommy Lee Jones), an agent for a top-secret organization known as the Men in Black, a covert branch of the United States government responsible for policing the activities of extraterrestrial life on this planet. 

It seems an alien insect recently landed on earth, intent on stealing a small trinket that houses an incredible energy. Hiding out in the body of an ignorant redneck (Vincent D’Onofrio), this bug's ultimate goal is to start an intergalactic war, one that would certainly result in the destruction of planet Earth. 

To find this bug, "K" teams up with the wily Edwards, who he recruits to be the Men in Black's newest agent.

Men in Black is a slick, entertaining movie that's equal parts comedy and sci-fi. Aside from Rick Baker’s deformed alien monsters - some so freakish that they defy logic - Men in Black boasts a plethora of cool gadgetry and high-tech weaponry, most of which we see in action. 

Yet more rewarding than its impressive effects or latex creations is the teaming of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as the agents on a top-secret mission. Whether playing the overconfident cop or the confused newbie, Smith’s skills as a comedic actor shine through. His first time out with “K”, Edwards (who is given the designation “J” when he joins the Men in Black) not only confronts an alien and his pregnant wife, but must help with the delivery of their new child, an infant sporting some very long tentacles (“Congratulations”, "K" says to the baby’s father, played by Patrick Breen, “it’s a squid”.). 

Where Smith’s character is the classic fish out of water, Jones’ "K" is the grizzled veteran, with more than a hint of cynicism in his approach to the job. Posing as FBI agents, he and "J" drop in on Beatrice (Siobhan Fallon), the wife of the man whose body now belongs to the bug. Having already been ridiculed by the local police for her take on what happened, Beatrice is at first reluctant to talk. 

Are you here to make fun of me too?” she asks "K" with a scowl. 

No ma’am”, "K" replies curtly, “we at the FBI do not have a sense of humor that we’re aware of”. 

Where “J”’s experiences as the new guy are a constant source of comedy, "K" gets his laughs by knowing exactly what to say in any given situation.

Men in Black was a huge success; released in 1997, the film went on to earn over $250 million at the U.S. box office alone. With so many entertaining variables wrapped together in one neat package, it's easy to see why.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

#647. The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)

Directed By: Joseph Green

Starring: Herb Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniels

Tag line: "Alive... without a body... fed by an unspeakable horror from hell!"

Trivia:  Filmed in 1959 but, due to various legal and censorship problems, the movie was not released until 1962

Movie patrons in 1962 who paid their way into The Brain That Wouldn't Die sure got their money's worth, though how they reacted to the film is another matter. Never hiding the fact it’s an exploitation picture, The Brain That Wouldn't Die contains scenes that might have rattled a few nerves in the early '60s.

Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) is a surgeon who's been working on a serum which, once administered, will revive dead tissue, thus clearing the way for the limbs and organs of the deceased to be transplanted to live patients. When his fiancé, Jan (Virginia Leith), is decapitated in an auto accident, Dr. Cortner uses every means at his disposal to keep her head alive, with the intention of grafting it onto the body of another woman. But as Dr. Cortner scurries to find a new body for his beloved, Jan's head regains consciousness, and starts making plans to end this devilish “experiment” once and for all.

Considering the time period in which it was made (among the films setting the Box Office ablaze in 1962 were To Kill a Mockingbird, The Music Man and Lawrence of Arabia), The Brain That Wouldn't Die doesn't pull any punches, offering its contemporary audience a handful of images they weren't used to seeing on the big screen. Immediately after the crash, Dr. Cortner, who’d been thrown from the vehicle, stumbles over to the burning wreckage to survey the damage. With a look of horror on his face, he reaches into the car and pulls out what could only be Jan’s head! Wrapping it in his sports coat, he takes off running, anxious to get to work on it as soon as possible. For that matter, the sight of Jan’s head resting in a metal pan and being kept alive by tubes is enough to generate a few gasps even today. And where does Dr. Cortner choose to look for her "new" body? In bars and strip clubs, figuring if he’s gonna give his future wife a fresh look, why not make it a sexy one?

Yet more disturbing than the film's depictions of body parts and sleaze are the scenes where Jan's severed head quietly cries out for death. “Let me die”, she says, her barely audible voice slightly distorted, wanting only for her personal horror to end. Even if modern viewers choose to laugh off the movie's clunky dialogue, overly-intrusive musical score and sloppy editing (the car crash, with quick shots of street signs, guard rails and winding roads, is particularly roughshod), I guarantee these moments will still send a cold chill racing up their spine.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

#646. Gladiator (2000)

Directed By: Ridley Scott

Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen

Tag line: "A general who became a slave. A slave who became a gladiator. A gladiator who defied an emperor."

Trivia:  Antonio Banderas was also considered for the role of Maximus

The Roman Empire was one of the mightiest civilizations the world has ever known, but its foundation was stained with the blood of millions. As its detractors have pointed out, Ridley Scott's Gladiator is dark, violent and vicious; David Edelstein of Slate wrote that the movie's "Grim sanctimony and drenching, Dolby-ized dismemberments left me appalled". Yet no film about Imperial Rome would have been accurate without copious amounts of bloodshed.

It’s the height of the Empire, and General Maximus (Russell Crowe) is the most popular military leader in the Roman army. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) looks upon Maximus as a son, and has chosen him to be his successor. When the Emperor’s actual son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), hears of his father’s plans for the succession, he murders Marcus and sentences Maximus to death. 

Maximus escapes the executioner and rushes home, only to find he is too late to save his wife (Giannina Facio) and child (Giorgio Cantarini), who were also condemned by the new Emperor. His spirit shattered, Maximus is taken captive by a passing slave trader and sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed), who trains gladiators for the arena. A skilled swordsman, Maximus quickly becomes the most powerful gladiator in all of Rome, yet his triumphs are fueled not by a lust for glory, but a desire to exact revenge on the man who destroyed his former life.

In speaking of the look of the film, Production Designer Arthur Max said, “We tried to bring... a sense of the grandeur of the Roman Empire, and at the same time its corruption and its decay”. As a result, Gladiator is simultaneously brutal and beautiful, awe-inspiring in its magnificence, yet harsh and violent in its execution. The city of Rome, awash in brilliantly polished marble, houses artistic and architectural wonders the likes of which the world has not seen since. These depictions of the splendor of Rome, its statues, temples, and the ever-impressive Coliseum, are amazing. 

Before Gladiator reveals the spectacle, however, we experience the brutality that defined this era of history. The opening scene, a battle between Maximus’ highly trained legions and a barbarian Germanic tribe, takes place amidst the muck and filth of Vindobona, with limbs and severed heads littering the ground. The Roman Empire was a civilization of extremes, and Gladiator superbly weaves them together.

While Gladiator is primarily fiction, it's story is at least partially based on fact. There was an Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and his son, Commodus, did succeed him. History tells us the real Commodus ascended to the Imperial throne in 180 A.D. at the very young age of 18. Throughout his twelve-year reign, Commodus saw several attempts on his life, one of which was initiated by his sister, Lucilla (played in this movie by Connie Nielson), whom he promptly executed. 

Towards the end of his dozen years as Emperor, Commodus started to believe he was a God, and ordered statues built that placed his head on the body of Hercules. He further shocked the Senate and aristocracy of Rome by personally taking part in Gladiator contests. Dressed as Hercules, Commodus would slaughter exotic animals, then stroll around the arena with their severed heads, taunting the Senators seated nearby with promises they would be the next to feel the sting of his sword. 

Commodus was finally assassinated on Dec. 31, 192 A.D., first by poison and, when he vomited that up in the night, by strangulation. Buried immediately in secret, an angry Senate called for Commodus’ body to be exhumed, tied to a chariot, and dragged through the streets like that of a common criminal.

Ridley Scott's Gladiator is certainly grisly, but look at the history it is recreating. Far from being an over-the-top depiction of violence, I’d say Scott and his crew just about nailed it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

#645. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Directed By: Lewis Gilbert

Starring: Roger Moore, Barbara Bach, Curt Jürgens

Tag line: "It's the BIGGEST. It's the BEST. It's BOND. And B-E-Y-O-N-D"

Trivia:  Albert R. Broccoli once named this film along with From Russia with Love and Goldfinger as his three favorite James Bond movies

You gotta hand it to James Bond; his uncanny ability to escape danger of any kind is ...well ...unbelievable. Who else could outrun four armed assassins while skiing down a treacherous Austrian slope, do a reverse somersault off the edge of a cliff, and then glide to safety with the help of his trusty parachute, emblazoned with the Union Jack? As Carly Simon says in the theme song to 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, nobody does it better!

James Bond (Roger Moore) is back again to save us all, this time assisted by sexy Russian agent, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), who goes by the designation XXX. Together, the two must stop eccentric millionaire Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), who has stolen a pair of nuclear submarines with the intent of using them to hold the entire planet hostage. As usual, Bond confronts a plethora of dangers, including a hazardous ski course and an even more hazardous villain in the form of Stromberg’s seven-foot-tall henchman, Jaws (Richard Kiel). Making his way in and out of trouble with the greatest of ease, it’s no wonder James Bond is Britain’s go-to agent whenever the world is in peril.

The Spy Who Loved Me has all the trimmings of an awesome 007 picture: cool gadgetry, tremendous adventure, and a madman bent on global domination. But, like all good Bond films, The Spy Who Loved Me couples this excitement with a high degree of refinement. No stranger to life-and-death struggles, James Bond is equally at home in the civilized world. He schmoozes agent XXX at the exclusive Mujave club in Cairo, where he orders his patented martini (shaken, not stirred), and keeps his wits about him when confronted by Jaws, perhaps the most notorious henchman in the history of Bond films. Even the villain in The Spy Who Loved Me is refined. Stromberg enjoys only the finest wines (as Bond himself observes, anyone who drinks Dom Perignon ’52 can’t be all bad), and surrounds himself with as many luxuries as his incredible wealth will afford him. Even his revenge against dishonest employees is exacted in a stylish manner; dropping the guilty party into a shark tank and watching the carnage play out on closed circuit television.

The Spy Who Loved Me is textbook James Bond, a joining of breakneck thrills with an air of sophistication. The basic plot of good vs. evil, the raw intensity of the action sequences, the breathtaking locales (this scenes set in Egypt are amazing), and the romantic interludes with countless beautiful women, would be nothing without the panache, accentuated by the impeccable taste of Agent 007 himself. Action and class…with Bond, you simply can’t have one without the other.

Monday, May 21, 2012

#644. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Directed By: Sergio Leone

Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern

Tag line: "As boys, they said they would die for each other. As men, they did"

Trivia:  The U.S. distributor reportedly failed to file the proper paperwork so that Ennio Morricone's score, regarded as one of his best, could be put up for nomination for an Academy Award

There was a stretch of about six months in the late '80s when I watched Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America every single week, which had my family and friends questioning my sanity. 

How could I repeatedly sit through a 229-minute movie, they asked, especially one that no longer held any surprises for me? 

Of course, those posing such questions had never seen the film, so...

Once Upon a Time in America is the story of a group of street-wise kids who went after their share of the American Dream the only way they could. Starting at an early age, running errands for local New York crime bosses in the 1920s, David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro) and his friends, Max (James Woods), Patsy (James Hayden) and Cockeye (William Forsythe), soon blazed a trail into the world of organized crime. 

Aside from owning and operating a successful nightclub, where the booze continued to flow during the dark days of prohibition, the four also hired themselves out as hit men, usually handling jobs set up by gangster Frankie Minaldi (Joe Pesci). But when Max plans a daring, incredibly dangerous robbery, Noodles gets nervous, setting in motion a chain of events that will alter their lives forever.

Once Upon a Time in America is an extraordinary motion picture, from the way Leone follows his characters' meteoric rise in the criminal underworld to its stunning re-creation of early 20th century America, captured so vividly by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. In addition, the score composed by Ennio Morricone is among his finest ever, often relying on the gentle sound of a solitary flute to speak for the wounded souls of the film's protagonists. 

There are quiet, special moments, like when a young Noodles (played by Scott Tiler) peers at Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) through a peephole as she practices her dancing, or when Max meets Noodles outside the prison gates, a light rain adding a sense of melancholy to an otherwise happy reunion. There’s even magic in the violence, which Leone handles with his usual gusto. Once Upon a Time in America is a movie to cherish, a true work of art, and to dedicate nearly four hours to such a film is, in my opinion, a small sacrifice to make.

I think it was Roger Ebert who once said “No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough”. Check out Once Upon a Time in America, and you'll know exactly what he means.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

#643. Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)

Directed By: Joe Dante, John Landis, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, Robert K. Weiss

Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Michelle Pfeiffer, Arsenio Hall

Tag line: "Shameless!"

Trivia:  Scenes featuring two veteran character actors, Lyle Talbot and Dan Seymour, were cut from the finished film

Here's yet another example of "deceptive memory".

The first time I saw Amazon Women on the Moon, which has to be over 20 years ago, I thought it was one of the funniest movies I'd ever seen. Revisiting it all these years later, I still found quite a bit of it funny, but was surprised by how many of the gags fall flat, and in a big way.

With five different directors at the helm, including the likes of John Landis and Joe Dante, Amazon Women on the Moon presents a series of short skits that center on the problems a late-night TV station is having with their broadcast of a cheesy sci-fi film.  As the technical difficulties mount, the station breaks away to a variety of commercials, public service announcements, and coming attractions, all designed to tickle your funny bone.

I still laughed as I watched Amazon Women on the Moon. Lou Jacobi, playing a frustrated husband who ends up trapped in his television set, is hilarious, and I had a blast whenever the movie cut back to the 'feature film', a send-up of 50's sci-fi fare.  But a number of sketches are real clunkers.  There's a hospital skit with Michelle Pfieffer and Griffin Dunne that's downright painful to sit through, as is a black-and-white segment with Ed Begley Jr., playing the son of the Invisible Man, which stretches on well after its single joke has already been beaten into the ground.

By no means is Amazon Women on the Moon a waste of time. Overall, I'd say there are more laughs than groans. Fair warning, though: be prepared to sit through a few duds along the way!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

#642. Secret Agent (1936)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Young

Tag line: "Mystery - Intrigue - Romance, burn a flaming trail among the gay capitals of Europe"

Trivia:  John Gielgud filmed this during the day while appearing on stage in "Romeo and Juliet" opposite Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft and Laurence Olivier in the evening

As World War One rages on, British novelist and soldier Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud) is recruited by the London High Command to serve as their newest spy. Assigned the identity of Richard Ashenden, Brodie travels to Switzerland where he's to track down and kill a German operative who's stolen information vital to the British war effort. Once in Switzerland, he's met by both Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), a beautiful secret agent who will pose as his wife, and a Mexican known as “The General” (Peter Lorre). Together, these three must determine the whereabouts of the enemy spy and eliminate him before he crosses the border into Turkey. The difficulty, however, lies not in identifying their target, but disposing of him, since the prospect of offing someone is less than appealing to the normally docile Brodie.

Along with the suspense and intrigue we've come to expect in a Hitchcock movie, the director’s fascination with strange locales, often utilized to place his characters in even stranger situations, is on full display in Secret Agent, resulting in a few of the film's lighter moments. While tracking down a lead who promises to reveal the identity of the spy they're after, both Brodie and The General pay a visit to a small Swiss church. When the two hear footsteps approaching, they climb into the church's bell tower to hide, only to find the footsteps are those of the bell ringer, which becomes all too apparent once the bells start chiming all around them!

Though Secret Agent contains several definitive Hitchcockian elements, the film is nonetheless a bit of a departure from the director’s norm, and in some ways, a disappointment as well. Many of the performances are strong (Lorre plays a Mexican better than I would have ever thought possible), but I found John Gielgud noticeably flat as the lead, and at times, far from heroic. In his defense, however, Secret Agent seems intent on stripping away the glamor one normally associates with the life of a spy, focusing less on the excitement and more on the difficulties. Neither Geilgud's Brodie nor Carroll's Elsa particularly enjoy being spies. They dislike hiding in dark corners, pretending to be somebody else, and aren’t very fond of the fact they're expected to murder someone.

At the very least, painting characters as reluctant heroes makes for a unique espionage tale, and while Secret Agent may not rank among Hitchcock's best works, it does present an interesting point of view.

Friday, May 18, 2012

#641. Pursued (1947)

Directed By: Raoul Walsh

Starring: Teresa Wright, Robert Mitchum, Judith Anderson

Trivia: This was the movie Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, watched the night he died

Pursued is a complex psychological western starring Robert Mitchum, who plays a man searching for answers, and not finding them anywhere.

Jeb Rand (Mitchum) is a war hero whose childhood was marred by tragedy. The only survivor of a massacre that claimed the lives of his family, Jeb’s lone memory of the ordeal is that of a mysterious man in spurs. Raised by the kindly Ma Callum (Judith Anderson), Jeb became a step-brother to her children, Thorley (Teresa Wright) and Adam (John Rodney). Once adults, Jeb and Thorley fall in love with one another, and it looks as if Jeb has finally found the inner peace he's been searching for his whole life. But a one-armed stranger named Grant (Dean Jagger) soon rolls into town, intent on making sure Jeb never forgets his tumultuous past.

Mitchum has portrayed his share of tormented men, many of whom end up on the wrong side of the law. He was just about perfect as the murderous preacher in Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic, The Night of the Hunter, and set the screen ablaze as the ex-con out for revenge in 1962’s Cape Fear. In Pursued, the actor is given a chance to play a more sympathetic character, yet that doesn't make him any less disturbed. What's more, his Jeb has absolutely no idea why the past is haunting him so. He vividly remembers the man in spurs, as well as a few bright flashes of light, but can't piece anything together to determine what it all means. Where Mitchum's Jeb is looking to solve the puzzle that is his life, Grant seems to have all the pieces, making several references to Jeb's real family and saying anyone bearing the name Rand is unfit to live. It’s only a matter of time, Grant tells Ma Callum, before Jeb meets the same fate as the rest of his family, and Jeb wants to know why.

I always liked a picture that had some roughness and toughness to it”, director Raoul Walsh once said. “I figured it woke the audience up”. Well, Pursued, which has all the rugged intensity of an old-time western, definitely kept me awake. But it was the mystery surrounding its central character that really grabbed my attention.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

#640. Infernal Affairs (2002)

Directed By: Wai-Keung Lau, Alan Mak

Starring: Andy Lau, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang

Tag line: "Loyalty. Honor. Betrayal"

Trivia:  When referencing this film as the inspiration for the Best Picture-winning The Departed, the announcer at the 79th Academy Awards mistakenly identified the Hong Kong production as Japanese

Infernal Affairs, a well-told tale of corruption and intrigue on the streets of Hong Kong, was the inspiration behind Martin Scorsese's 2006 Oscar-winning film, The Departed. Two men; a cop posing as a criminal and a criminal posing as a cop, have spent years living a lie, pretending to be someone they aren't in order to carry out their missions.

Yan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is a policeman who’s been working undercover for the better part of a decade, posing as a member of a Hong Kong criminal organization under the control of the treacherous Sam (Eric Tsang), and gathering as much information as he can on their activities. Lau (Tony Lau), a longtime member of said organization, has, in turn, infiltrated the Hong Kong police department, rising through the ranks to become a trusted leader on the force. Before long, the two learn of each others existence, and the race is on to see which will be the first to uncover the traitor in their midst.

Both Yan and Lau have accepted dangerous jobs in the line of what they see as their duty, subsequently putting not only their lives in jeopardy, but their identities as well, which are slowly disappearing as they get deeper into their respective roles. At one point, Yan is reprimanded by his superior, Lt. Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), for being arrested three times for assault. He orders Yan to visit the Departmental psychiatrist, Dr. Lee (Kelly Chen), and accuses him of becoming “much too involved” in his role as a criminal. “Have you forgotten that you’re a cop?” Wong asks, at which point Yan reminds him his undercover assignment was supposed to last for three years. That was ten years ago. Yan’s learned a major drug deal is about to go down, and Lt. Wong expects him to provide info on its whereabouts. But Yan is growing restless, and his attitude shows it. Lau, on the other hand, has been a model cop for years. He’s engaged to be married to the beautiful Mary (Sammi Cheng), and knows how to manipulate the law to his full advantage. He even manages to coerce vital information out of a suspect by pretending to be the man’s lawyer. Yet when he’s selected as part of the team that will break up the drug deal, he immediately goes to work for his real “boss”, tipping Sam off that the cops are onto him. It’s a precarious situation for both men, one that becomes nearly unbearable when each side starts looking for the double-agent within their ranks.

Infernal Affairs is a film defined by the tension it creates. The sequence in which both Yan and Lau work the drug deal, each betraying the side that has trusted them for years, is incredibly nerve-wracking. There are many other scenes equally as intense, where either might be found out at any moment, and it keeps us riveted. We sit and wonder who will be the first to fold under the strain, knowing the deeper they immerse themselves in their roles, the more difficult it’ll be for either one to get out alive.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

#639. Final Exam (1981)

Directed By: Jimmy Huston

Starring: Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, Ralph Brown

Tag line: "Some pass the test...God Help The Rest!!!"

Trivia:  Much of the films crew were friends and students of director Jimmy Huston

A variety of slasher films emerged from the '80s, each adhering to the basic formula (teens or young adults threatened by a homicidal maniac) while at the same time attempting to bring something new to the table. Unfortunately, 1981's Final Exam tries a little too hard to distinguish itself, and in the process loses its way.

Lanier College kicks off final exam week with a practical joke perpetrated by the Gamma Delta Fraternity, in which several of its members pose as terrorists and “shoot up” the campus. But as the fun and games go on at Lanier, an actual murder is occurring at another nearby school, where a knife-wielding madman (Timothy L. Raynor) slices up a couple (Carol Capka and Shannon Norfleet) making out in their car. 

Soon, this killer has found his way to Lanier, where students are so busy preparing for their finals that they hardly even notice him...until it's much too late.

But then, the killer in Final Exam isn't hard to miss, really. Other than standing around and staring at his prey, or driving slowly behind them as they walk around campus, he doesn't do much for the majority of the movie. Even when he decides to strike, it’s never as tense or frightening as it should be; the two murders that open the film take a while to occur, giving the young lovers more time to talk than most victims are ever afforded in a slasher. What’s worse, they don’t have anything interesting to say, a problem which extends to the Lanier campus as well. 

From the looks of it, Lanier is a pretty dull place, with a student body to match. All except Radish, that is, the token nerd who finds mass murderers fascinating. One day, in chemistry class, the teacher (Don Hepner) makes a reference to Charles Whitman, who, in 1966, killed 16 people during a shooting spree at the University of Texas in Austin. Upon hearing his name, Radish just about swoons, saying how impressed he was with Whitman's “work”. Joel S. Rice, who plays Radish, doesn’t exactly deliver a stellar performance, but at least we remember him, unlike many of the potential victims in this film.

Some scenes are impressive. The practical joke, where students in masks pose as armed gunmen, blowing away several kids on their way to class (who are also in on the prank) creates some tension early on, relieved only when Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) and a few others notice a Gamma sticker on the van the shooters were driving (could you imagine a fraternity pulling a stunt like that nowadays?) 

And when the killer finally does strike at Lanier, the film's intensity definitely picks up. But by that time, I had already started to lose patience with it. Ultimately, Final Exam is a slasher without enough slashing, and a horror movie with only a smattering of scares.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

#638. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey

Trivia: The Jews have American accents while the Romans have British accents

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was at the center of a great deal of controversy back in 1988. Morality in Media declared the film “an attack on Christianity”, and the government of Chile, calling it “blasphemous”, banned the movie outright. 

But the story at the heart of The Last Temptation of Christ is far from blasphemous, unless it’s now considered blasphemy to believe what the church has taught for centuries: that Jesus, though divine, was also very mortal. It’s his dual nature that the film explores, and does so in a most compelling manner.

Placing a different spin on the life of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ is based not on scripture, but a novel penned by Nikos Kazantzaki. Beginning with his days as a carpenter, we meet a Jesus (Willem Dafoe) who is regarded as a traitor by his fellow countrymen, due to the fact he makes crosses for the Romans, which are used to put Jews to death. His sharpest critic is his friend, Judas (Harvey Keitel), a militant bent on driving said Romans out of Judea. 

Along with a barrage of insults constantly tossed his way, Jesus also suffers internal strife, haunted by visions he cannot understand. Before long, he discovers these "visions" are the handiwork of God.  So, he turns to preaching, traveling the land and drawing many followers as he goes. 

With a select group of men to assist him, including Judas, Peter (Victor Argo) and John (Michael Been), Jesus performs miracles and brings the word of God to the people. But along the way, he manages to incur the wrath of both religious leaders and the militants, who, led by Paul (Harry Dean Stanton), see Jesus’ good deeds as little more than a diversion from the task at hand: ridding Judea of the Romans. 

Arrested and sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), Jesus accepts his fate as God’s will, yet there's one more temptation he must face before his suffering will be at an end.

The Last Temptation of Christ brings to the story of Jesus a rare human quality. Like most men, Jesus is at first unsure of his purpose in life, and despises the weaknesses that cause him to sin. Many of today’s religious leaders preach solely of Jesus’ divinity, yet isn’t the true miracle of his life the fact he was as much flesh and blood as he was the son of God? 

Far from the rallying cry of atheists and non-believers it’s purported to be, The Last Temptation of Christ kicks off several years before the scriptures, at a time when Jesus hadn't yet realized his true purpose. He hears voices, but doesn’t understand them.  He has headaches, but can’t say why.  And he knows God has a plan for him, yet isn’t sure if he even wants to know what it is. We see a Jesus both searching for answers and frightened of finding them. “God loves me”, he says, “but I can’t take the pain. I want him to hate me”. God eventually reveals his grand scheme, yet does so slowly, and it’s more than flesh and bone can stand.

Scripture tells us Jesus lived as man, that he faced temptations and suffered excruciating torture. The Last Temptation of Christ takes the story a step further, showing us Jesus’ very human reaction to it all. It's this preference for the earthly over the divine that stirred up all the controversy, but did this humanity truly diminish the power of Jesus’ divinity? 

If believers are willing to accept that Jesus lived among us as a man, why is it heresy to assume there were times when he acted like one, experiencing the same hardships and uncertainties that affect us all? Wouldn’t this make his ultimate sacrifice all the more potent?

Christians believe Jesus gave his life for our sins. I believe The Last Temptation of Christ is the first film to show us just how great a sacrifice that truly was.

Monday, May 14, 2012

#637. American Beauty (1999)

Directed By: Sam Mendes

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch

Tag line: "... look closer"

Trivia:  Terry Gilliam turned down the chance to direct the film

Of all the dramatic, life-affirming scenes in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, which did I find the most moving? 

Believe it or not, it’s a short video of a plastic bag fluttering in the wind. 

Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who shot this particular video, caught the moment quite unexpectedly, as if the bag had all of a sudden started dancing just for him. In fact, Ricky finds it so exquisite that it moves him to tears. “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world”, he says, “that I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in”. 

This is the premise of American Beauty in a nutshell; spending a lifetime searching for a little magic, only to realize it’s been right in front of you all along.

Middle-aged office worker Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) has given up on happiness. Existing in a typical American nightmare, he spends his days working a nowhere job, and his nights wondering how his life got so far off-track. Lester's wife, Caroline (Annette Bening), is an ambitious real-estate agent who’s completely caught up in her material world, and daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is so disgusted with her dad’s mawkishness that she can’t stand the sight of him. 

But Lester is about to experience a change. First, he meets his daughter’s incredibly attractive teenage friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), who invades his fantasies morning, noon and night. Then, he has a chance encounter with drug-dealing next-door neighbor Ricky Fitts, whose approach to everything can best be described as “hostile, yet observant”. 

Inspired by the feelings these two young people stir within him, Lester starts taking life by the horns.

American Beauty is a thought-provoking account of one man's reawakening to the potential that life holds. When Lester first spots Angela in her cheerleader's uniform, something stirs inside of him. “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for 20 years”, he says, “and I’m just now waking up”. He fantasizes about her constantly, seeing her in his minds eye surrounded by rose petals. 

But there's more to Lester's resurgence than mere infatuation, as we witness in his initial meeting with Ricky Fitts. Working as a waiter at a local Real Estate Agents' function, Ricky introduces himself to Lester by asking if he'd like to get high with him in the parking lot. So, the two retreat to the back and light up. 

At one point, Ricky’s boss (Joel McCrary) interrupts them and orders Ricky back to work. Instead of complying, Ricky quits on the spot, leaving Lester, who’s having troubles of his own at the office, completely stunned. He admires the young man's spirit, and is more than a little impressed with the freedom Ricky displays. The next day, Lester not only sabotages his own dead-end job, but also blackmails the company hatchet man, Brad (Barry Del Sherman) into giving him a year’s severance with full benefits. 

Lester walks out of that office a new man, rejuvenated, and back among the living. “It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself”, Lester says. “It makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about”. Before the film is over, Lester will have uncovered a great many surprises.

The theme of American Beauty is that life is meant to be experienced, not merely lived. This concept is marvelously conveyed by the actions of it’s characters, many of whom are inspired by the realization that, sometimes, the most powerful muse the world has to offer is lurking just outside their front door.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

#636. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) - The Films of Guy Ritchie

Directed By: Guy Ritchie

Starring: Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran

Tag line: "They lost half a million at cards but they've still got a few tricks up their sleeve"

Trivia:  The movie was dedicated to Lenny McLean, who played Barry the Baptist. He died of cancer exactly one month before the movie's debut in England

I have no idea how director Guy Ritchie kept track of things in his cockney masterpiece, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; along with juggling a number of stories at once, he also found a way to tie them all together in the end, wrapping the movie up in a nice, neat package. 

I’m amazed by his concentration. Just sitting here trying to figure out how I’m going to organize this synopsis is giving me a headache! goes nothing.

Eddy (Nick Moran), a novice card shark, asks his pals to front him some money so he can get in on the hottest poker game in town. This game, operated by local gangster Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), requires a minimum of a hundred thousand pounds just to walk through the door. 

So, Bacon (Jason Statham), Tom (Jason Flemyng) and Soap (Dexter Fletcher) gather up all the moolah they can and send Eddy to the table with a small fortune, which they hope will grow into a larger one. 

What they don’t know is Harry has his heart set on taking over a popular neighborhood bar, which happens to belong to Eddy’s father, J.D. (played by rock star, Sting). So, Harry does more than cheat Eddy out of his money; he drives the poor boy hundreds of thousands into debt, giving him one week to pay what he owes. It's Harry's hope that Eddy will run to his father for help. But the four friends concoct a number of schemes on their own to raise the cash, each more dangerous than the last.

Around this tale of gambling debts, many other stories unfold, with characters making their way in and out of the mix at a regular clip. Nick the Greek (Stephen Marcus) is a wheeler and dealer who can buy and sell anything. Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean) got his name because he likes to drown people. He's Hatchet Harry’s right-hand man, and at Harry’s request, Barry arranges for the theft of two antique rifles, hiring Dean (Jake Abraham) and Gary (Victor McGuire), a pair of bungling crooks, to handle the job. 

Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) also works for Harry, collecting money from the deadbeats who refuse to pay up. Dog (Frank Harper) lives in the flat right next to Eddy's, and steals drugs for a living. Plank (Steve Sweeney), a member of Dog’s gang, tells Dog about an easy job that promises to net them large quantities of both ganja and cash. 

The victims of this particular heist will be a quartet of college students named J (Nicholas Rowe), Winston (Steven Mackintosh), Charles (Nick Marcq) and Willie (Charles Forbes), who grow marijuana by the bushel in their apartment. What Dog doesn’t realize is these four actually work for Rory Breaker (Vas Blackwood), a half-crazed pusher nobody ever crosses twice.

Confusing? Might seem so on paper. But the movie itself isn't the least bit hard to follow because even though director Ritchie keeps things flowing along at a breakneck pace, he also takes the time to ensure his audience is perfectly in tune with what's happening on-screen. We sit in awe of how seamlessly he melds these stories together, as if each were a natural extension of the other. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is fast, funny, satisfying, and quite brilliant.

Watch Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and you'll see just how much fun complexity can be.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

#635. Magnolia (1999)

Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore

Tag line: "Things fall down. People look up. And when it rains, it pours"

Trivia:  Almost every location contains at least one picture or painting of a magnolia flower

In my opinion, Magnolia is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest film. Exploring emotional distress like few movies have before, Magnolia weaves a multi-layered tale of torment and betrayal while simultaneously exhibiting a style that can only be described as exhilarating.

At the heart of Magnolia is a long-running television quiz show titled “What Do Kids Know?”, which pits 3 brainy preteens against 3 equally intelligent adults. The current champions, a team of kids led by super-smart Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), are close to breaking the all-time record for winnings. 

Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who currently holds the record, is grown up now, and is having some difficulty dealing with his status as a forgotten child prodigy. 

The show’s longtime host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), recently discovered that he’s dying of cancer. Jimmy’s adult daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), holds a grudge against her father, refusing to talk to him even after he informs her of his condition. 

Also on death's door is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a cantankerous old television producer whose estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise, in what might be his best performance), works as a self-help guru for men, teaching them the ‘secrets’ of how to get any woman they desire into bed. 

Add to the mix Earl’s volatile wife (Julianne Moore), a kindhearted cop (John C. Reilly) and a well-meaning hospice nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and you have a motion picture bulging at the seams with fascinating characters.

It might all sound like your run-of-the-mill soap opera fare, but where Magnolia distinguishes itself is in the telling. First, Anderson kicks things off with a trio of bizarre, seemingly inexplicable tales (including one of the most unusual suicides ever), completely unrelated to the film's narrative, which are there to establish that strange things do, indeed, happen (something to remember when this movie's final scene plays out). 

As for the individual story lines that make up the bulk of Magnolia, each one builds upon the other, one gut-wrenching twist at a time, until all have reached an almost unbearable emotional plateau. 

Then, just when everyone seems to have hit rock bottom, director Anderson changes gears by throwing in a musical sequence, during which his characters take a turn singing a line from Aimee Mann’s beautiful ballad, Wise Up. This brief interlude is extremely effective at conveying each person's heartache, as if all their shattered feelings, all their sorrows, are contained within the lyrics of that song. No matter how many times I watch Magnolia, this scene never fails to move me.

Magnolia is a marvelous film, and I always look forward to the time I spend watching it. Intelligently written and expertly acted, Magnolia is an angst-ridden tour de force.