Tuesday, July 31, 2012

#715. Warlock (1989)

Directed By: Steve Miner

Starring: Julian Sands, Lori Singer, Richard E. Grant

Tag line: "He's come from the past to destroy the future"

Trivia: The film was originally completed in late 1988 and was one of the last films completed by distributor New World Pictures before they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Everything about 1989’s Warlock, from its plot to its trailer filled with ‘80s special effects, led me to believe I was in for a movie I’d probably enjoy, but more for the nostalgia it stirred than any real appreciation of the film itself. This makes Warlock a genuine surprise. Sure, the movie screams 1980s, yet it also relates an exciting tale of 17th century witchcraft set loose in modern-day America.

Boston, 1691. A dangerous warlock (Julian Sands) is imprisoned for performing witchcraft. But before his death sentence can be carried out, the warlock conjures up a vortex that helps him escape 300-odd years into the future. At the exact moment he leaps through time, his chief rival, a witchfinder named Giles Redferne (Richard E. Grant), tries to restrain him, thus inadvertently tagging along to the 20th Century. Rendered unconscious by his time jump, the warlock comes to in a house occupied by a young woman named Kassandra (Lori Singer), whose kindness is rewarded with a curse that makes her age 20 years in a single day! Promised he'd become Satan’s “Chosen One” if he re-assembled the pages of an ancient Satanic bible, the warlock sets to work tearing the modern world apart. But Redferne, assisted by the cursed Kassandra, is doing what he can to destroy his nemesis before he can complete his hellish task.

Right up front, let me state for the record that the effects in Warlock are painfully dated; the scene where the title character escapes from the 1600’s, with its storm clouds and spinning vortexes, doesn’t look nearly as impressive today as it might have in 1989. What does hold up, however, are the moments featuring Julian Sands’ warlock. Aside from a key sequence in which he visits a medium (Mary Woronov), there’s a truly creepy scene involving a young boy (Brandon Call) who has something the warlock desperately needs. While I did enjoy other aspects of Warlock (The rapid aging of Lori Singer’s Kassandra brought a sense of urgency to the film, and Grant is excellent as the holy man who follows his adversary into the future), it’s in the warlock’s quest for ungodly power that the meat of this story lies.

Warlock does try to generate a few laughs, centered mostly on Redferne’s experiences with the modern world. Shortly after his arrival in the 20th century, Redferne finds himself surrounded by the police, and when he attempts to intimidate them with a whip, he’s taken down by a taser gun. Such sequences aside, Warlock is a grim motion picture, with disturbing violence and a deliciously diabolical performance from Julian Sands. Far from the slice of ‘80s cheese I was expecting, Warlock proved an unsettling delicacy that left me entirely satisfied.

Monday, July 30, 2012

#714. The Lickerish Quartet (1970)

Directed By: Radley Metzger

Starring: Silvana Venturelli, Frank Wolff, Erika Remberg

Tag line: "Beyond the physical edge..."

Trivia: The working title of this film was Hide and Seek

As he did with 1975’s The Image, director Radley Metzger merges eroticism with an art-house mentality in The Lickerish Quartet, creating a motion picture that challenges our perceptions of what is real, and what's merely an illusion.

As the story opens, A Man (Frank Wolff), his Wife (Erika Remberg) and her Son (Paolo Turco) are in the main room of their 700-year-old castle, screening a black and white pornographic film. The Man and His Wife are enjoying the movie, but the Son is disgusted, and leaves. The Man and his Wife decide to go with him, and the three pay a visit to a small traveling carnival. While there, they spot a young woman (Silvana Venturelli) who looks identical to the actress in the adult film they were just watching. Intrigued, they invite her back to the castle, hoping to catch the embarrassment on her face when they start the film up again. But to their surprise, the movie has changed, and now features a different actress. Nevertheless, they ask the girl to spend the night, and the next day, she will seduce each member of the family, helping them live out their most intense sexual fantasies.

The Lickerish Quartet makes great use of its impressive locale by staging a number of memorable scenes throughout the castle (an actual 14th-century fortress situated in the mountains just outside of Rome). Each sexual encounter between the girl and one of the family members takes place in a different setting; the husband succumbs to her charms in the library, the son in the great outdoors, and the wife in the main room. Each rendezvous is gorgeously shot, which only adds to the sensuality of it all (the tryst with the wife is especially stimulating, alternating between color and black and white as it recreates many moments from the film they were watching the night before).

The Lickerish Quartet may come off as a bit too smug for some viewers. Metzger kicks things off with a quote from Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author” (“..all this present reality of yours – is fated to seem a mere illusion to you tomorrow…”), and there’s even a scene where the son puts on a magic show for the family’s honored guest, quipping that “Magic is easy; it’s reality that’s hard”. I can’t say I completely understand the movie, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying it, and even if, in the final scheme of things, his characters and their story remain somewhat elusive, there’s no denying Metzger has created what amounts to a beautiful soft-core film.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

#713. Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (1957)

Directed By: Roger Corman

Starring: Abby Dalton, Susan Cabot, Bradford Jackson

Tag line: "Fabulous! Spectacular! Terrifying! The raw courage of women without men lost in a fantastic Hell-on-Earth !"

Trivia: An alternate title for this film was Undersea Monster

The full name of this 1957 Roger Corman-directed cheapie is The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. What more is there to say about this movie that its ridiculously long title hasn’t already said?

Let’s see….umm….

Ok, we’ll start with the synopsis. In an effort to locate their men, who set sail years earlier and haven’t been heard from since, a group of Viking women, led by Desir (Abby Dalton), climb aboard a ship and set a course for the open sea. Traveling in no particular direction, the ladies soon fall victim to a powerful sea serpent, which destroys their boat and strands them on the shores of Grimolt, where they’re immediately captured by the evil King Stark (Richard Devon). When Desir and the others learn their men are also Stark’s prisoners, they begin making plans for an escape, but will a traitor in their midst doom them to a lifetime of slavery?

Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (I’ve no intention of typing out its full title again) is a film that, from its earliest stages, was destined to fail. With such a limited budget at their disposal, Corman and his crew were dealing with obstacles they simply couldn’t overcome, like convincing an audience the beaches of Southern California are an acceptable substitute for the Nordic hinterlands (silly me; I always thought that region was cold), or, more importantly, that the film’s buxom beauties were ever in any real danger during their voyage to the waters of the blah blah blah. For one, the boat is clearly studio-bound (even in the strongest storm, there’s nary a hair on the girls' pretty little heads blown out of place), and as far as the dreaded sea serpent is concerned, I wasn’t holding out any hope it would look impressive, yet even that didn’t prepare me for how truly laughable it was. I could continue picking Viking Women and the Sea Serpent apart, but really…what’s the point?

Both Corman and the movie’s female cast make a valiant effort to put something of substance together here, and Albert Glasser’s musical score is pretty damn sweet, but in the end, Viking Women and the Sea Serpent proved every bit as bad as its title.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

#712. Elf (2003)

Directed By: Jon Favreau

Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart

Tag line: "This holiday, discover your inner elf"

Trivia: Will Ferrell suffered from headaches throughout filming, as he had to actually eat all of the sugar infested foodstuffs in the Elf food pyramid on camera

I realize it’s a bit off-season to be watching Elf, but what the hell? If department stores can have Christmas in July, why can’t I?

Directed by Jon Favreau, Elf was a breath of fresh air, at least as far as Holiday films go. To begin with, in almost every Christmas special I’ve ever seen, Santa’s Elves are making toys I would have never played with as a kid. After loading my Christmas list with goodies like Stretch Armstrong, Star Wars and Atari 2600 games, I'd have been deeply depressed if all I found under the tree were wooden trains, marionettes, and tug boats painted red and white. This was one of the first smiles Elf gave me; in this version of a North Pole workshop, the elves are busy building Etch-a-Sketches and Bob the Builder plush dolls, while others push buggies filled with board games like Monopoly and Life.

Now that’s more like it!

With the look and feel of the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials I grew up on (right down to the North Pole set pieces and a snowman who's a dead ringer for Burl Ives’), Elf tells the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human who thinks he’s an elf. It all started one Christmas Eve as Santa (Ed Asner) was delivering toys to an orphanage. Distracted by a plateful of cookies, he didn’t notice baby Buddy crawling into his bag of toys. Inadvertently transported back to the North Pole, Buddy is turned over to Papa (Bob Newhart), who raises the young tyke as an elf. But as Buddy grew, he began to notice he was different from everybody else, at which point Papa told him the truth, of how Buddy’s mother died, and his real father, Walter (James Caan), doesn't even know he was born. Intent on reuniting with his dad, Buddy sets out to find Walter, who works for a publishing house in New York City that specializes in kid's books. To Buddy’s great dismay, Walter is on Santa’s naughty list, and has little time for Christmas. Hoping to change his father’s “naughty” ways, Buddy tracks Walter down, learning he's now married to Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and that he has another son named Michael (Daniel Tay). Emily invites Buddy to stay, so he moves in with them, determined to introduce some Christmas spirit into Walter’s life. As for Walter, he’s ready to have his newly-arrived offspring committed to an insane asylum.

Elf is an innocent bit of Christmas charm, one destined to become a Holiday tradition in the vein of A Christmas Story. The majority of the film’s appeal comes courtesy of Will Ferrell, who gives everything he’s got to the role of Buddy, playing the fish out of water to wonderful comic effect. His arrival in New York is hilarious; along with a few painful run-ins with some taxi cabs, Buddy thinks the discarded chewing gum he finds on railings is ‘free candy’, and pops some into his mouth. Ferrell conveys Buddy’s innocence perfectly, and we admire his genuine enthusiasm for life even as we're cringing whenever he has to deal with the real world.

Every year, Hollywood churns out all sorts of Holiday fluff in an attempt to cash in on those December family dollars, and I can only take so much Christmas spirit in one sitting. With Elf, I at least have something to laugh at, and for that I am truly grateful.

Friday, July 27, 2012

#711. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone

Tag line: "Only the rainbow can duplicate its brilliance!"

Trivia: Michael Curtiz took over from director William Keighley when the producers felt that the action scenes lacked impact

The casting of Errol Flynn as the title character in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood was a stroke of pure genius. After watching this classic adventure film, I came away with the distinct impression that, in a past life, Errol Flynn was Robin Hood.

With King Richard (Ian Hunter) off fighting the crusades, his younger brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), ascends to the throne of England, unlawfully seizing control of the Kingdom in Richard’s absence. Aided by Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), John imposes a round of crippling taxes, the money from which he uses to solidify his power. With the rich getting richer and the poor more destitute than ever, Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) decides enough is enough, and takes a stand against John and his henchmen. As a result, Sir Robin becomes a wanted man, now known throughout the kingdom as Robin Hood. Robin is joined in his rebellion by such faithful friends as Little John (Alan Hale), Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette) and Will Scarlet (Patric Knowles), and even gains the admiration of Maid Marion (Olivia de Havilland), a member of the Royal Court, with whom he falls in love. But Marion is also being wooed by the sinister Sir Guy, who was promised her hand in marriage by Prince John. Will Robin Hood save England from the tyrannical John and rescue Marion before she becomes Sir Guy’s wife? With the help of his Merry Men, he just might!

The Adventures of Robin Hood may be the perfect adventure film, from its rousing action scenes (at one point, Robin invites himself to Prince John’s banquet, only to fight his way out a few moments later when the Royal guards descend upon him) to its vibrant costumes and sets, which look absolutely stunning in Technicolor. Along with Flynn’s flawless portrayal of Robin Hood, the supporting cast also shines. As noble as she is alluring, it’s easy to see why Robin fell for Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marion, and Basil Rathbone is at his evil best as Sir Guy, delivering his lines as regally as any villain in motion picture history. As for Robin’s Merry Men, Alan Hale, who plays Little John, has always been a particular favorite of mine. Aside from his great performance in this film, he was also solid in movies like The Fighting 69th (with James Cagney) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (again with Flynn, as well as Bette Davis). Besides, I grew up watching Gilligan’s Island on TV, which co-starred Hale’s son, also named Alan, and he was the spitting image of his father. And where would The Adventures of Robin Hood have been without Claude Rains’ slimy Prince John? In nearly every role, the supporting cast of The Adventures of Robin Hood is as strong as could be expected.

But no more so than Flynn himself, and one of the great joys of The Adventures of Robin Hood is seeing him at the height of his abilities, taking on the role he seemed born to play. Whether battling it out with Sir Guy (the final showdown between the two remains one of the cinema’s finest swordfights) or winning the heart of his leading lady, Errol Flynn completely embodied the part of Robin Hood, and few actors have ever been as magnificently heroic as he was here. I've seen him in other movies, where he gave other fine performances, yet for me, Errol Flynn will always be Robin Hood.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

#710. Paper Moon (1973)

Directed By: Peter Bogdanovich

Starring: Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal, Madeline Kahn

Tag line: "As P.T. Barnum put it, 'There's a sucker born every minute'"

Trivia: Tatum O'Neal's role is regarded to be the most substantial role ever nominated as a supporting performance. She is on screen for nearly all of the film's running time

Despite being only ten years old at the time, Tatum O'Neal guided her character in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 comedy/drama, Paper Moon, far beyond the ‘cute little girl’ stereotype. In fact, her performance was strong enough to earn O'Neal an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the youngest Oscar recipient ever in an acting category.

At a time when most people are feeling the financial sting of the Great Depression, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) is doing pretty well for himself. A con man, he travels from town to town across the American Midwest, stopping just long enough to cheat the occasional widow out of a portion of her inheritance. While attending a former girlfriend’s funeral, Moses is introduced to Addie (Tatum O’Neal), the 9-year-old daughter of the deceased. With nobody to look after the young girl, Moses agrees to drive Addie to her Aunt’s house in Missouri, but when he discovers she's just as skilled a con artist as he is, Moses instead makes Addie part of his act. Posing as father and daughter, the two are soon bringing in more money than Moses ever dreamed possible.

By 1973, Ryan O’Neal was already a bankable movie star, whereas Paper Moon was his daughter, Tatum's, very first film. Yet in spite of her inexperience, the younger O'Neal not only keeps up with her famous dad, but upstages him on a number of occasions. When Moses runs into some trouble with a local sheriff while bilking the recently widowed Mrs. Bates (Yvonne Harrison) out of a few dollars, Addie comes to his rescue, and even succeeds in getting more money from Mrs. Bates than Moses would have. Being a natural grifter also gives Addie the edge in recognizing a swindle. Believing he's fallen in love, Moses invites his new girlfriend, exotic dancer Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn), to tag along with them. Addie senses almost immediately that Trixie is after Moses’ money, and is so astute that Trixie, who's already pulled the wool over Moses' eyes, doesn’t even attempt to fool Addie. She knows this little girl can see right through her. Fortunately for Moses, Addie can see through most anybody.

Addie appears in nearly every scene in Paper Moon, and Tatum O’Neal never once falters in her performance. Much like her character, who swindled countless dollars from a good many people, young Tatum herself managed to steal an entire motion picture.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

#709. Run Silent Run Deep (1958)

Directed By: Robert Wise

Starring: Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Jack Warden

Tag line: "Gable and Lancaster make the seas boil in the battle adventure that hits like a torpedo!"

Trivia: Producers Hill and Burt Lancaster had the film re-edited after director Robert Wise finished his cut. Wise left the film after this point for the rest of post-production

Run Silent Run Deep, a WWII action film set primarily on a U.S. Naval submarine, has several tense battle scenes that were designed to keep its audience on the edge of their seats. But for the men of the U.S.S. Nerka, the animosity that exists between their commanding officers is the real threat, proving just as dangerous to their well-being as the entire Japanese fleet.

When his sub is sunk by a Japanese destroyer, Commander 'Rich' Richardson (Clark Gable) finds himself reassigned to a desk job in Pearl Harbor. But after learning 3 more subs have also been lost in the Bungo Straits, the same area where his vessel was destroyed, Richardson petitions the top brass for command of the U.S.S. Nerka, which he plans to take to the Straits to exact a little revenge. The only problem is Lt. Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster), who, for years, has served as the Nerka's Executive Officer. Assuming he’d be promoted to Captain and given command of the Nerka, Bledsoe’s none too pleased to hear he’s been passed over, leading to some tension between him and his new superior that could threaten not only the mission, but the very lives of everyone on board.

Rumor has it Gable and Lancaster didn’t get along while making Run Silent Run Deep. Lancaster, who was also one of the film’s producers, supposedly objected to Gable’s insistence on a strict 9-to-5 schedule during the shoot, whereas Gable didn't appreciate the jokes his younger co-star was making about his age. Whether this behind-the-scenes drama is true or merely Hollywood legend, the two are nonetheless convincing as a pair of officers who rarely see eye-to-eye. Shortly after leaving port, the Nerka’s lookouts spot a Japanese sub on the horizon. Instead of attacking, Richardson orders his crew to remain on course. Bledsoe gently reminds him the Nerka is a fast vessel, and can easily outmaneuver the enemy, adding it also “hates to show its backside to a Jap sub”. This failure to act doesn’t sit well with the men, but when Bledsoe realizes their new Commander is defying orders to lead them on an Ahab-like mission of revenge, he throws protocol out the window, dragging the Nerka and its crew to the brink of mutiny.

Run Silent Run Deep strikes the perfect balance between realism (its depiction of life on a sub) and drama (Richardson and Bledsoe's conflict). With superior performances by its leads and Robert Wise's solid direction, Run Silent Run Deep packs plenty of wallop into its surprisingly brief, yet excellently paced 90 minutes.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

#708. Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Directed By: Irvin Kershner

Starring: Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif

Tag line: "She saw all life through the camera's eye. Then suddenly she saw death!"

Trivia: The Laura Mars character is mentioned in Tori Amos' song 'Gold Dust' released on the 2002 album "Scarlet's Walk"

Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) is New York City’s hottest, and most controversial, fashion photographer. Her photos, featuring scantily-clad women set against ultra-violent backdrops, have simultaneously stirred the admiration and incited the fury of the New York elite. But for Laura Mars, the violence in her photos is more than mere sensationalism. Laura possesses a unique psychic power, one that allows her to witness, in her mind’s eye, actual slayings as they're taking place, seeing every terrifying detail from the perspective of the murderer himself. Recently, these killings have been of people close to her, and police detective John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) is trying to find the connection. As the bodies pile up, Laura begins to suspect the killer is someone she knows, and that she herself may be the ultimate target of his murderous spree.

Eyes Of Laura Mars is based on a script written by John Carpenter, and was originally going to star Barbra Streisand (Carpenter was even asked to alter the title character to better suit Streisand, a task he found extremely difficult). Following a number of re-writes (made by several different writers), the lead was given to Faye Dunaway, a casting move I believe hurt the film. In the right part, Dunaway has shown she's a tremendous actress (shining in both Bonnie & Clyde and Network), but in Eyes Of Laura Mars, her performance never strays from a single note, best described as total despair for her situation. Weak and feeble, her Laura Mars was the least interesting character in the movie, and some potentially intriguing aspects of her personality (after all, she's a an accomplished artist, a scorned wife, and even a potential love interest) were under-explored. As for the supporting players, most are exceptional, especially Brad Dourif as the chauffeur with a troubled past. But let’s face it: The film is going to sink or swim based solely on Laura Mars, and with that being the case, Eyes Of Laura Mars sinks pretty quickly.

Dunaway’s performance wasn't the only problem I had with Eyes Of Laura Mars. There were also inconsistencies in the way Laura’s visions affected her. In one scene, where she’s ‘watching’ the killer stalk 2 victims, Laura is left temporarily blinded, stumbling around her apartment looking for a phone. Then, during another vision, she's driving a car, which she navigates well enough through the streets until the moment the murder is complete, when she crashes into a wall. Finally, there’s the identity of the killer himself, which was certainly a surprise, but raised many more questions than it answered.

Eyes Of Laura Mars contains moments of suspense that are mildly effective, yet not enough of them to lift it beyond a level of mediocrity. As it stands, the legacy of Eyes Of Laura Mars is one of a fascinating concept, an interesting story, and a missed opportunity.

Monday, July 23, 2012

#707. Titanic (1997)

Directed By: James Cameron

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane

Tag line: "Nothing On Earth Could Come Between Them"

Trivia: After filming, the remains of the full-size set were sold as scrap metal

Titanic is one of the highest grossing motion pictures in box-office history, but when it was first released back in 1997, I completely avoided it. It’s not that I wasn’t interested; I’d read quite a bit over the years about the Titanic, and caught nearly every PBS or National Geographic special dealing with the disaster. My decision to give James Cameron’s version of events a miss stemmed from all the hype surrounding the movie. I'm always hesitant to check out the “hot, new” anything, whether it be on TV or at the cinema. Maybe it has to do with expectations, and the belief nothing can ever be as good as its hype might suggest.

So, I didn't see Titanic until years later on DVD, and it blew me away. The H.M.S. Titanic and its ultimate demise are recreated in stunning detail, but it was the film's romantic subplot that really impressed me.

Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) is convinced it's his lucky day; in a poker game, he won 2 boarding passes for the maiden voyage of a brand new luxury liner, bound for America. Unfortunately, the name of the ship is the H.M.S. Titanic. Also on Titanic’s passenger list is Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet), a frustrated young socialite who’s engaged to be married to upper-class snob, Cal Huckley (Billy Zane). Rose’s mother (Frances Fisher) is pushing her daughter into the marriage for financial reasons, and as a result, Rose feels trapped, so much so that she even attempts suicide. But a chance encounter with Jack changes her outlook on life, and what begins as friendship soon becomes more. With Cal's bodyguard (David Warner) watching Rose's every move, she and Jack go to great lengths to hide their affair, but fate forces their hand when Titanic strikes an iceberg, dooming the ship, and many of its passengers, to a watery grave.

From their first meeting on the stern of the Titanic, where Rose was about to end it all by leaping into the frigid Atlantic, it was obvious DiCaprio’s Jack and Winslet’s Rose were destined to become one of the screen’s most memorable romantic pairings. As Rose hangs over the edge of the ship, Jack tries to dissuade her from jumping by regaling her with the story of when, as a young boy, he went ice fishing in Wisconsin and fell through the ice. He tells Rose water that cold is like “a thousand knives stabbing you at once”, and he wasn’t looking forward to experiencing it again. Yet, he assured her, if she did, indeed, jump, he’d have no choice but to dive in after her. At that moment, we sense a spark between them, and by the end of the film, this "spark" is an all-out bonfire. In these characters, Titanic builds more than a great romance; it provides an emotional connection to the tragedy. Suddenly, the sinking of the Titanic is more than something that occurred many years ago. By introducing us to Jack, Rose, and a few others who were doomed the moment the ship departed England, Titanic becomes a disaster story we feel very, very deeply.

Cameron and his crew did a tremendous job recreating both the time period and the tragedy, yet Titanic is also a touching romance, and it’s for this reason that I believe it justly earned every single dollar it's ever made.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

#706. Bound (1996)

Directed By: Andy and Lana Wachowski

Starring: Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano

Tag line: "Violet and Corky are making laundry day a very big deal"

Trivia: Marcia Gay Harden auditioned for one of the lead roles

The directorial debut of Andy and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski, Bound exposed an unsuspecting public to the sibling's unique style of film making, one they would perfect three years later in their follow-up movie, The Matrix.

Ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon) is hired to renovate a vacant apartment, which is situated right next door to one owned by a mobster named Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and his sultry girlfriend, Violet (Jennifer Tilly). When they first meet, Violet flirts openly with Corky, and before long, the two women are embroiled in a passionate affair. Violet tells Corky about an incident she recently witnessed, where Shelly (Barry Kivel), the money man for the “family” Caesar belongs to, was brutally tortured. Left shaken by the ordeal, Violet confesses she wants out of the mob life for good. Of course, to get out, she’ll need plenty of cash, so they devise a plan to steal $2 million dollars, which head mobster Gino Marzzone (Richard C. Sarafian) recently turned over to Caesar for safe keeping. The heist goes off without a hitch, but when an enraged Caesar discovers the money is missing, a chain of events transpires that may just spell the end for all of them.

All three leads turn in impressive performances, but it’s Joe Pantoliano who truly stands out. His Caesar is a man who's usually in control, of both himself and any situation, and the moment he loses that control, bad things begin to happen. Yet the real star of Bound is its style. The Wachowskis pull a lot of tricks out of their bag for this film, like the scene where Gino comes to collect the money he gave Caesar (which Caesar no longer has). Things heat up when Caesar confronts Gino’s son, Johnnie (Christopher Meloni). Johnnie's never liked Caesar, and Caesar is now convinced it was Johnnie who stole the money, simply to make him look ridiculous. Tempers flare, then escalate to the point that Caesar pulls a gun. The moment he does so, the remainder of the scene plays out from Caesar’s emotional point of view. He goes into a state of shock, as if he can’t believe what’s happening, and through the Wachowskis' employment of high-angles, slow motion, and a dull, muffled soundtrack, we experience it just as Caesar does. When the smoke clears, and everything returns to normal, we, like him, are left to deal with a very messy situation. 

After Bound, the Wachowskis would tackle a much more ambitious project, the sci-fi/action thriller, The Matrix, easily one of the most excitingly original films to emerge from the late 90’s. Filled with all sorts of special effects bells and whistles, The Matrix shows the siblings at the height of their creativity, and Bound was the millstone on which those skills were sharpened.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

#705. Ben-Hur (1959)

Directed By: William Wyler

Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd

Tag line: "The World's Most Honored Motion Picture"

Trivia: For several sequences in the chariot race, some of the chariots had three horses instead of four. This enabled the camera car to move in closer

Made at a time when historical epics were commonplace, William Wyler's Ben-Hur nonetheless remains the greatest of them all. Along with its moments of spectacle (including a battle at sea and a fiercely exciting chariot race), Ben-Hur tells the gripping story of a man tortured by conflicting loyalties, searching for answers in a world that is equal parts splendor and barbarity.

What should have been a fond reunion between childhood friends proves anything but when Messala (Stephen Boyd), a newly appointed Roman Tribune, asks boyhood pal Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish nobleman, to help him squash a rebellion against Rome, which has been gaining strength in Judea. Unwilling to assist his people's conquerors, Ben-Hur refuses Messala's request, leading to a fissure between the two that results in Judah's imprisonment. 

Sentenced to serve in the galley of a Roman warship, Judah eventually saves the life of the vessel's commander, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who is so grateful that he adopts Judah as his own son. Now a free man, Judah returns home to confront Messala, and to learn the fate of his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O'Donnell), both of whom were also imprisoned. 

Despite the pleas of his former servant, Esther (Haya Harareet), Judah cannot put aside his anger, going so far as to face off against Messala in a highly-dangerous chariot race. But times are changing in Judea, and the teachings of one man might just convince Judah Ben-Hur that it's time to quell the hatred in his heart.

The most famous sequence in Ben-Hur is undoubtedly the chariot race, in which Judah Ben-Hur and his team of four white horses challenges Messala, whose black steeds have guided him to victory on many occasions. Shot on location in Rome's Cinecetta Studios, the outdoor sets alone were, at the time, the largest ever constructed, and the sheer magnificence of this locale remains impressive even to this day. As for the race itself, I would easily rank it as one of the most thrilling moments in cinematic history. To even attempt to do it justice by way of a few measly words is an act of futility; the chariot race must be seen to be believed.

Just as strong as the film's larger-than-life sequences is the character of Ben-Hur, played so well by Charlton Heston. At the outset, Judah is a proud member of the Jewish nobility, a kind man who feels he has no choice but to turn his back on his closest friend. The scenes with Messala at the film's outset are a sharp contrast to what happens later on, when Judah saves Quintus Arrius, a man he initially despises, and becomes Arrius' adopted son. Having earlier refused his friend, Judah now embraces his enemy, and for a short time lives as if he were a Roman. Yet his journey is not finished; Judah Ben-Hur will face many more obstacles, ask many more questions in the search for his own identity.

Ben-Hur is a film that is impossible to overpraise. From the magnificent performances of its supporting cast to Miklos Rozaa's stirring score, it is the movie by which all other Hollywood epics are measured.

And as far as I'm concerned, none have come close to it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

#704. The Unknown (1927)

Directed By: Tod Browning

Starring: Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford

Trivia: Joan Crawford always considered The Unknown a big turning point for her. She said it wasn't until working with Lon Chaney in this film that she learned the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting in front of one

Of the 10 films director Tod Browning made with silent screen legend Lon Chaney, 1927's The Unknown is considered by many the best of the bunch. To be sure, the movie boasts one of Chaney’s strongest performances, portraying a character equal parts hopeless romantic and dangerous psychopath.

Alonzo (Chaney), an armless knife thrower who performs with his feet, is the star attraction of the Zanzi traveling circus, and is secretly in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the circus owner’s daughter. Nanon, who has a strong aversion to being touched (she pulls away whenever a man tries to embrace her), in turn feels she can trust Alonzo because he has no arms. Yet Alonzo is not what he appears to be.  Wanted by the police, he is a killer who actually has arms, but conceals them beneath his shirt. Fearing he may lose Nanon to Malabar the Strongman (Norman Kerry), who is also trying to win her affections, Alonzo resorts to blackmail and even murder to ensure that he, and nobody else, will possess the love of his life.

Alonzo is a character of extremes, in both action and emotion, and it’s Chaney’s facial expressions that convey these extremes so convincingly. When Nanon, who's just rebuffed Malabar's advances, breaks down in Alonzo’s cabin, Alonzo cries right along with her, moved by her pain, but also by the tenderness he feels for her. Moments later, when Nanon’s father, Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz), bursts in and confronts Alonzo for “putting crazy ideas” into his daughter’s head, the love in Alonzo’s eyes immediately drains away, and is replaced by hostility and rage. His feelings grow more sinister over time, and as jealousy, coupled with the realization he may never win Nanon’s heart, get the better of him, Alonzo becomes a shell of a man, his sanity slowly slipping away. The Unknown is a fine film for many reasons, from its realistic circus setting (which Browning would return to in his 1932 movie, Freaks) to Joan Crawford’s heartfelt turn as Nanon. But it’s Chaney who will command your attention. When he's on-screen, you won’t want to look away.

Who else but Lon Chaney could evoke our deepest sympathies one moment, send a chill running up our spines the next, and accomplish both with nothing more than the look in his eyes? A master of pantomime, Chaney once again demonstrates in The Unknown why he so deserved the moniker "The Man of a Thousand Faces".

Thursday, July 19, 2012

#703. Teenage Caveman (1958)

Directed By: Roger Corman

Starring: Robert Vaughn, Darah Marshall, Leslie Bradley

Tag line: "Prehistoric Lovers Against Primitive Beasts!"

Trivia: This film was shot under the title Prehistoric World

Right out of the gate, where we’re treated to some biblically-inspired voice-over narration explaining how the world was created, I started having my doubts about Teenage Caveman. Was director Roger Corman really going to aim that high, I wondered? Was he actually attempting a “thinking man’s” teenage caveman film? Well, yes and no. While Corman’s low-budget sensibilities do shine through on more than one occasion, Teenage Caveman isn’t nearly as bad as its title might lead you to believe. It even has a pretty clever twist ending.

In a primitive society that strictly adheres to the laws passed down by its ancestors, one young man (Robert Vaughn) dares to challenge the status quo. His father, who serves as the tribe’s Symbol Maker (Leslie Bradley), warns his son not to break the law by venturing into the forbidden territory, where death and destruction surely await him. But the young man wants to see for himself what the world has to offer, and sets out to explore the unknown, where he’ll encounter wild dogs, fearsome creatures, and a shocking truth neither he nor his people are prepared to face.

On a technical level, Teenage Caveman has its issues, beginning with the costumes (which, on the women and children, look more like form-fitting skirts than they do animal skins). The special effects are also less than impressive, many clearly lifted from other films. I chuckled a little in an early scene where the young man is talking to his father about the forbidden land. As the two argue over the law that keeps them from visiting the open plains, Corman cuts to a few brief glimpses of the surrounding area, including a quick shot of these plains (an obvious miniature) where a dinosaur (played by a lizard) jumps off a rock as three wooly mammoths (also miniatures, because they never move) look on. Not five minutes in, and I knew that, for me to accept Teenage Caveman’s primordial setting, my imagination was gonna have to put in a little overtime.

Once it got going, however, Teenage Caveman drew me in. Sure, the dialogue’s way too verbose for its own good, but I liked the central story of a young man refusing to conform to the restrictive beliefs of his elders. OK, OK…maybe it doesn't sound like much on paper, but for a movie with plastic dinosaurs and clean-shaven cavemen, it’s a surprisingly strong narrative, all leading up to an ending that took me completely by surprise.

Teenage Caveman may look like your average low-budget fare, yet it’s ultimately more than you’d have ever expected it to be.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

#702. Flesh + Blood (1985)

Directed By: Paul Verhoeven

Starring: Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Burlinson

Tag line: "Betrayed by power. Corrupted by love. Bound by honor"

Trivia: The movie was awarded two prizes at the Dutch Film Festival (Best Picture and Best Director), but several jury members publicly attacked this decision afterwards, stating that the vote had not been unanimous

Set just after the Middle Ages, Flesh + Blood is unflinching in its depiction of what was a chaotic era in human history, and reminded me, in a way, of John Boorman’s Excalibur, another movie steeped in the darkness of its time period. Yet where Excalibur was, first and foremost, a fantasy film, Flesh + Blood is all too real, exploring a society cursed with plague, where battlefields were routinely drenched in blood, and women treated as little more than the spoils of war.

The year is 1501. Martin (Rutger Hauer), the leader of a band of mercenaries, has just been cheated out of his share of treasure by a nobleman named Arnolfini (Fernando Hillbeck). Seeking revenge, Martin and his men surprise Arnolfini on the open road and kidnap Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young girl recently betrothed to Arnolfini’s only son, Steven (Tom Burlinson). Shortly after her capture, Agnes is raped by Martin, yet far from despising her attacker, she willingly gives herself to him, and spends every waking moment in his company. But is Agnes truly falling in love with Martin, or simply biding her time until she’s rescued?

Throughout his career, director Paul Verhoeven has never shied away from violence (his initial cut of Robocop was deemed too bloody by the MPAA, and assigned an X rating) or sex (1974's Turkish Delight also starred Rutger Hauer, who played an artist / sex addict), both of which are amply displayed in Flesh + Blood. In the film’s opening scene, Martin and his small army have broken through the gates of a walled city, leaving the remains of many enemy soldiers in their wake. Once victory is achieved, his troops turn to looting, and the city’s female population begs their conquerors not to rape them. But in these times, women were as much a prize as gold, and even members of the nobility, like Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s Agnes, weren’t above such treatment. When we’re first introduced to Agnes, she’s on her way to be married to Steven, and is so naïve that she has to ask her maid, Kathleen (Nancy Cartwright), how to behave when alone with a man. This innocence is shattered the moment she’s abducted, and it’s while being raped by Martin that Agnes learns the true power of her sexuality, which she uses from then on as a means of ensuring her safety.

Amidst all the gloom and depravity, Flesh + Blood is a very well-made period film, filled with action and featuring solid performances from its talented cast. Those easily offended by gratuitous violence (including rape) may want to think twice before seeing this movie, but if you have the stomach for it, Flesh + Blood is sure to entertain.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#701. Anzio (1968)

Directed By: Edward Dmytryk, Duilio Coletti

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Peter Falk, Robert Ryan

Tag line: "One of the most realistic and spectacular war films ever made!"

Trivia: Peter Falk thought that the script he read was clichéd and wanted off the film. At the last minute, Dino DeLaurentiis put Falk's name above the title billing and gave him his choice of writer for his character's dialogue. Falk stayed and wrote his lines himself

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and centering on one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, Anzio stars Robert Mitchum as Dick Ennis, an American war correspondent who tags along with the Allies during their January, 1944 landing at the Italian port city of Anzio. Once the troops are safely ashore, Ennis, accompanied by Corporal Rabinoff (Peter Falk) and Pvt. Movie (Reni Santoni), takes a jeep out to inspect the area, only to find the road to Rome is clear, with no German opposition anywhere in sight. He reports his findings to General Lesley (Arthur Kennedy), who, fearing a trap, decides not to press forward, but instead stay put in Anzio and fortify the beachhead. His hesitation will give the enemy time to regroup, leading to a showdown which will ultimately cost the Allies thousands of men.

Anzio has its weaknesses, one of which rears its ugly head in the opening moments of the film. I’m talking about the ballad that plays during the credits, an upbeat little number titled “This World is Yours”, sung by Jack Jones. Honestly, I felt this tune, despite its lyrics about soldiers and battle, would have been more at home in a ‘60s spy spoof than a war movie, but never mind; it’s a minor quibble, and is over fairly quickly. Another flaw that continually haunts the film, however, is its anti-war slant, which occasionally peeks through in the form of preachy dialogue that never feels genuine. While discussing the objectives of war with General Lesley, Ennis reveals the reason he continues on as a correspondent. “I have to answer a question that’s been asked of me ever since I saw my first dead face. Why do we do it? How can people kill each other?” Mitchum does his best to deliver these lines as naturally as possible, but the whole exchange is mawkish and cringe-inducing.

Anzio makes up for its faults by way of some exciting battle scenes, often accompanied by composer Riz Ortolani's rousing score. There's a tense sequence in which American troops stroll right into a German ambush, as well as a particularly nerve-wracking run-in with some Nazi snipers that are definite highlights. These moments, along with the beautiful Italian landscape and a solid performance from Peter Falk (who, allegedly, was so unhappy with the script he ended up writing his own dialogue), make Anzio a movie that, while not perfect, is entertaining enough to be worth a watch, as well as a recommendation.

Monday, July 16, 2012

#700. Citizen Kane (1941)

Directed By: Orson Welles

Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore

Tag line: "The classic story of power and the press"

Trivia: It was RKO head George Schaefer who suggested the title change from American to Citizen Kane. Orson Welles had also wanted to call the film John Q.

Considered one of the finest motion pictures ever made, Citizen Kane has been the subject of hundreds of books, articles, essays, reviews, and even the odd term paper. 

With so many pages already dedicated to this great film, what more is there to say about it?

Well, there’s my take on it, I guess.

Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), the millionaire newspaper magnate, is dead. Before passing on, he whispered one final word: “Rosebud”. 

To solve the mystery of his last utterance, a reporter working for a newsreel organization visits the people who knew Kane best, including Kane’s oldest friends, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) and Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), and his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). 

Through them, this reporter puts together the pieces of a life riddled with chaos and overindulgence, lived by a man who had the world at his fingertips, yet always desired more.

I align myself with the majority in declaring Citizen Kane a true American classic, but what is it about this extraordinary movie that appeals to me? Perhaps it's the groundbreaking camerawork of Gregg Toland, whose contributions were considered invaluable by Welles himself? Or maybe it's the film's stunning use of deep focus, an innovation at the time that has since become commonplace? Either of these would be reason enough to proclaim it a masterpiece, yet in the end I decided that, for me, the strongest element of Citizen Kane was Kane himself.

With passion and a touch of audacity, Orson Welles transforms Charles Foster Kane from a brash young newspaperman waging a war against corruption into an aged, battle-weary shell of a man, secluded in a fortress of excess and done in by a strong belief in his own mythology. I get chills when I recall the scene where Kane is chasing after Jim Gettys (Ray Collins), his opponent in the campaign for Governor, who has threatened to reveal Kane’s extra-marital affair with Susan Alexander if he doesn’t immediately drop out of the race. Refusing to buckle under, Kane lashes out with defiance and anger. “I’m Charles Foster Kane!” he screams at Gettys. “I’ll see you in Sing-Sing, Gettys! Sing Sing!” 

Everyone around him, including his estranged wife Emily (Ruth Warrick) and even Susan Alexander, believe it would be best for Kane to gracefully withdraw, but his descent into megalomania has already begun, and he will not permit anyone, or anything, to stand in his way. Though occasionally flashy and over-the-top, Welles' performance remains a highlight of the film.

For the dramatic thrust of Citizen Kane to have been effective, It was essential that the character of Charles Foster Kane come across as larger than life. In Orson Welles’ capable hands, Kane was larger than many lives put together.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

#699. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette

Tag line: "There are ghosts walking among us, looking for help... They have found it"

Trivia: This was the first of two movies that Bruce Willis owed Disney after he caused another production, "The Broadway Brawler", to be shut down due to him firing the director. He also was paid $10 million, half of his usual salary at the time

After he and his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) return home from a night out, Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is attacked in his bedroom by former patient Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), who suffers from a complex disorder Crowe was unable to treat during their sessions together. One year later, with Vincent still fresh in his mind, Crowe begins counseling a young boy named Cole (Haley Jole Osment), whose symptoms are similar to those that plagued Vincent, and though his dedication to Cole is causing his marriage to fall apart, Crowe won’t allow himself to turn his back on another patient. Yet he starts to wonder if he’s in over his head when Cole finally reveals the nature of his unusual problem: he sees ghosts everywhere, some of whom even talk to him!

Director M. Night Shyamalan manages to generate a great deal of tension in The Sixth Sense by letting us see what many of his other characters can't, namely the spirits that haunt Cole on a regular basis. One night, during a trip to the bathroom, Cole notices a light on in the kitchen. Assuming it’s his mother, he walks down the hallway to investigate, and finds himself confronted by the ghost of a woman (Janis Dardaris) who'd taken her own life. She shouts at Cole, and shows him her mangled, bloodied wrists, sending the terrified boy scrambling back to his room for safety. By revealing to his audience the nightmare Cole is dealing with, which not even his mother (played so well by Toni Collette) understands, Shyamalan brings us inside Cole's world of isolation and despair. The only person he can confide in is Dr. Crowe, who he hopes will somehow make these apparitions go away. As was the case with Vincent, Crowe is at a loss, but this time, he's going to stick it out. Perhaps he'll help the boy break free of the curse that's haunting him. Maybe, with Crowe's assistance, Cole might even discover it isn’t a “curse” after all.

Initially, I felt a bit short-changed by The Sixth Sense. With a topic as potentially limitless as communicating with the dead, the film could have easily veered off into many different, fascinating directions, and I found myself wishing it took the time to explore its own reality a little more closely. But much like his later works (including Unbreakable and Signs), Shyamalan uses the grand scope of his subject matter to relate a single tale, never once stretching beyond its borders. I soon realized this is what made The Sixth Sense such an engaging motion picture, and despite all the discussion and analysis dedicated to its twist ending (which, admittedly, caught me off-guard when I first saw the movie), it was the story of a troubled young boy, and the doctor trying to help him, that impressed me most.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

#698. Caged Heat (1974)

Directed By: Jonathan Demme

Starring: Juanita Brown, Erica Gavin, Roberta Collins

Tag line: "Women's prison U.S.A. - Rape Riot and Revenge! White Hot Desires melting cold prison steel!"

Trivia:  To stay in character, Barbara Steele kept her distance from the rest of the cast

Caged Heat, a 1974 Roger Corman film, marked the directorial debut of future Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme. This bit of trivia aside, however, Caged Heat is also a damned entertaining exploitation flick, a movie that spawned a number of sequels and imitators, yet stands alone as a shining example of the women in prison sub-genre.

Following her arrest and subsequent trial, petty thief Jackie (Erica Gavin) is transported to the Connorville correctional facility, where she and the other prisoners are subjected to all sorts of physical and mental abuse by the wheelchair-bound warden (Barbara Steele) and her guards. So bad are the conditions at Connorville that, before long, Jackie must team up with Maggie (Juanita Brown) and Pandora (Ella Reid) to stage a daring rescue of fellow inmate Belle (Roberta Collins), who’s scheduled to undergo experimental brain surgery to “correct” her so-called violent tendencies.

If catfights, coupled with gobs of nudity, are your thing, then Caged Heat is the movie for you. Shortly after Jackie is sentenced to 10-40 years for drug possession and being an accessory to attempted murder (In the opening scene, while trying to escape the cops, one of her male accomplices shoots an officer in the throat), she’s taken to Connorville and introduced to the rigors of prison life. Upon her arrival, Jackie and two others are led into a small room and ordered to strip by a pipe-smoking doctor (Warren Miller), who then tells the three to do deep-knee bends so he can “inspect” them for possible contraband. Things go from bad to worse for our heroine when she’s confronted by Maggie in the shower, who hassles Jackie for asking too many personal questions. This, of course, leads to the obligatory shower fight, and won’t be the last time one of the girls gets into a scrap (with or without clothes on). But for most of the inmates at Connorville, a hard-as-nails attitude is simply a way to conceal their sexual frustration. Even the warden, played by the always-interesting Barbara Steele, comes across as sexually stunted. In any other film, the topic of repressed sexuality might have served as fodder for exploring the psychological harm caused by prolonged incarceration, but I never got the feeling Caged Heat cared one lick about this. Leaving the problems of society for another movie to tackle, Caged Heat uses its setting as an excuse to show plenty of T&A, with the odd masturbatory scene thrown in to spice things up a little.

An exploitation classic, Caged Heat is a must for any fan of the grindhouse era.

Friday, July 13, 2012

#697. Jackson County Jail (1976)

Directed By: Michael Miller

Starring: Yvette Mimieux, Tommy Lee Jones, Lisa Copeland

Tag line: "The cops are there to protect her... but who will protect her from the cops?"

Trivia: This film was selected by Quentin Tarantino for his first Quentin Tarantino Film Fest in Austin, Texas in 1996

Normally, when I sit down to watch a Roger Corman film, I anticipate a fun movie, with a whole lot of exploitation goodness and maybe even a small slice of cheese on the side. This was not the case with Jackson County Jail, a tough, unflinching motion picture that hits you square in the jaw with some pretty nasty stuff.

Hoping to leave California behind her, ad executive Dinah Hunter (Yvette Mimieux) accepts a job in New York City. Her plan to drive cross-country takes a dangerous turn, however, when she picks up a couple of hitch-hikers (Robert Carradine and Nancy Noble) who hold her at gunpoint, then steal her car. Things go from bad to worse for Dinah when a misunderstanding leads to her being thrown in the Jackson County jail, where she’s raped by a policeman. After losing control and murdering her attacker, Dinah joins forces with Coley Blake (Tommy Lee Jones), a criminal in the cell next to hers, to try and escape this nightmare situation.

The term “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” takes on a whole new meaning in Jackson County Jail. At the beginning of the film, Dinah, played wonderfully by Mimieux, is a confident professional who quits her job when her boss insults her, then walks out on her husband (Howard Hesseman) after coming home to find him with another woman. In these scenes, it’s quite clear Mimieux’s Dinah is not a lady to be trifled with, and is more than capable of standing on her own two feet. But as events on the open road start to spiral out of control, this self-assurance, so prevalent early on, is systematically stripped away, finally abandoning Dinah the moment she’s raped by a police officer. Rape scenes are always difficult to watch, yet this one is particularly devastating because it reveals not only the physical damage associated with such an attack, but the mental anguish as well, which is strong enough to make this calm, logical woman beat a man to death with a foot stool. So shattered is her psyche that Dinah turns to a convicted felon for help, an eventuality she’d have never believed possible just 24 hours earlier. As effective as Mimieux is at the start of the movie, the second half of Jackson County Jail belongs to Tommy Lee Jones, demonstrating, even at this stage of his career, how good he is at playing a bad-ass. Their characters, thrown together by circumstance, make a formidable team, and I was rooting for them every step of the way.

Jackson County Jail might be a far cry from the fun-filled entertainment Roger Corman turns out on a regular basis, but it's also one of his finest achievements. Hard-nosed and gritty, Jackson County Jail is Corman with an edge.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

#696. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Directed By: Rouben Mamoulian

Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart

Tag line: "Put yourself in her place! The dreaded night when her lover became a madman!"

Trivia: This is the only film version where Jekyll's name is pronounced correctly as "Jee-kall"

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been adapted for the screen a number of times, including the well-respected 1941 film starring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, and 1996’s Mary Reilly, with John Malkovich taking on the role of the identity-challenged physician. 

Yet for me, 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, crisply directed by Rouben Mamoulian and featuring a terrific performance by Fredric March, will always be the definitive cinematic version of this story.

Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), respected surgeon and teacher as well as one of the most admired men in Victorian England, is engaged to be married to Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), a woman with whom he is deeply in love. 

His happiness is threatened, however, when Jekyll undertakes an experiment to prove mankind’s nature consists of equal parts good and evil. Having perfected an elixir that will unleash his basest instincts, Jekyll is transformed into a monstrous creature which he names Mr. Hyde, who spends his nights roaming the seedier sections of London and cozying up to Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), a promiscuous dance hall girl. 

But it isn’t long before Jekyll can no longer control Hyde, leaving him to wonder if this alter ego represents his true personality.

Mamoulian gets his creative juices flowing early in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with an opening that plays out entirely from Jekyll’s point of view. There’s even a clever moment when the camera, standing in for Jekyll, stops briefly in front of a mirror, showing us the doctor’s “reflection” as he prepares to go outside (it’s easy enough to figure out how this effect was achieved, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive). 

Matching the visual prowess of his director is Fredric March, convincing as both the brilliant Jekyll and the animalistic Hyde. In his scenes with Rose Hobart, March’s Jekyll is very much the classic romantic, peering into his beloved’s eyes and promising that they will be together forever. 

This is a sharp contrast to Hyde's encounters with Miriam Hopkins’ sexy showgirl, who is continually terrorized by the beast (repulsed by his looks and fearful of his violent temperament, she becomes his unwilling love slave). 

In fact, these separate “halves” of the same person are so incredibly different that one can scarcely believe its March portraying both characters! 

As for the vital transformation scene, where we watch Jekyll drink the concoction that will let loose his primitive nature, Mamoulian and March work in unison to make it truly memorable, not to mention quite disturbing (March’s distorted features and guttural groans are enhanced by Mamoulian’s spinning camera and quick-cut flashbacks, successfully conveying a mind - and a man - being torn in two).

Dealing directly with the separation of good and evil while at the same time suggesting every living soul is capable of both, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic bit of literature.  Thanks to the combined efforts of its director and star, 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a motion picture that does its source material justice.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

#695. Airplane! (1980)

Directed By: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker

Starring: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen

Tag line: "The craziest flight you'll ever take!"

Trivia: Universal threatened to sue when they found out that the directors were trying to get Helen Reddy to repeat her role as the singing nun from Airport 1975

In the summer of 1980, my father took me and my brother to see Airplane! Five minutes in, we were all laughing so hard that we were crying. The jokes never let up, and by the time it was over, the three of us were exhausted. Airplane! was so funny, it plum wore us out!

The first picture from the team of Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, the comedic minds behind such later films as Top Secret! and The Naked Gun, Airplane! is an hilarious spoof of the disaster genre. We follow former Army flying ace Ted Striker (Robert Hays) as he boards a plane to try and patch up his relationship with stewardess girlfriend, Elanie (Julie Hagerty). Ted, who was traumatized by the action he saw in the war, is now deathly afraid of flying, but when the flight crew passes out from food poisoning, he must take the controls and attempt to land the aircraft safely. Will his crippling fear work against him, or can Ted Striker conquer his phobias and become the hero of the day?

A variety of well-known actors get their share of guffaws in Airplane!  This was the movie that launched Leslie Nielson's second career in comedy, leading to a string of film and television roles that would carry him through the better part of two decades. Other Hollywood legends also make an appearance, including Peter Graves as Captain Oveur, the plane's somewhat confused pilot (when chatting with a young passenger visiting the cockpit, Captain Oveur asks the boy, among other inappropriate questions, if he watches movies about gladiators), Lloyd Bridges as a high-strung air traffic controller (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines”) and Robert Stack as the hot-shot pilot who tries to talk the doomed craft down (“Flying a plane is just like riding a bicycle, only it’s a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes”). But as far as I'm concerned, the true comedic genius of Airplane! was a supporting character by the name of Johnny (Stephen Stucker), a less-than-helpful airport employee who plays practical jokes at the most inopportune times, and shows a real penchant for paper art.

Airplane! was the first of its kind, a motion picture that paved the way for a number of imitators over the years (including its own inferior 1982 sequel, aptly titled Airplane II: The Sequel). For me, this movie will always represent a special moment from my youth, the wonderful memory of a comedy so unique it managed to keep me laughing.

…and laughing… and laughing…

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

#694. Aliens (1986)

Directed By: James Cameron

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn

Tag line: "This time it's war"

Trivia: One of the alien eggs used in this film is now exhibited in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

As I mentioned in my review, 1979's Alien owed a lot to the dark, brooding atmosphere created by its director, Ridley Scott. 

Aliens, James Cameron’s follow-up to Scott's film, is a different matter altogether. This time out, its the aliens themselves that get your pulse pounding.

After surviving her run-in with the creature that invaded the Nostromo, Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) hopped into an escape pod, set a course for earth, then placed herself in suspended animation for the extended journey home. 

Unfortunately, her trip would be much longer than she ever anticipated.  At some point, her pod drifted off course, floating through space for 57 years before being spotted by a passing freighter. 

While still getting over the shock that she has been asleep for nearly six decades, Ripley discovers that a colony has been established on the planet where she and her crew first encountered the deadly life form.  When all communications with that colony are abruptly cut off, a team of specially trained marines is sent in to investigate, with Ripley tagging along as an adviser. 

Under the command of Lt. Gorman (William Hope) and Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews), the marines believe they're ready to face any eventuality, but Ripley knows that, if the aliens have indeed returned, this mission was doomed before it ever had a chance to begin.

Cameron does manage to duplicate the intense mood that made Alien such a hair-raising experience, yet in this entry, the aliens overshadow all other aspects of the film. Not only are these creatures just as strong and intelligent as the one that attacked the Nostromo, but this time, they have the humans outnumbered. As the marines prepare for their assault on the colony’s main facility, Ripley knows (as do we) they have no idea what they’re going up against. Sure, these highly-trained soldiers are armed to the teeth. However, they’re also facing an adversary that cannot be taken for granted, something the squad doesn’t realize until it’s much too late. This initial battle is absolutely spine-tingling, the first of many such thrills Aliens will ultimately throw our way.

In Alien, we got to know the monster; how it grows to maturity inside an unwilling host, how it bleeds acid, and how damned difficult it is to kill once it's loose. In that film, we watched a single one of these life forms tear an entire ship out from under its crew, and no matter what steps were taken to defeat it, the alien simply would not die. 

In Aliens, James Cameron shows us what an army of them is capable of, and in so doing transforms his movie into more than a mere sequel; by ratcheting the story up a notch, Aliens also becomes the natural progression of the creature’s mythology, and on this level - as well as every other it aspires to - Aliens does not disappoint.