Sunday, September 30, 2012

#776. Shine a Light (2008)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts

Trivia: This was the first documentary ever to open the Berlin Film Festival

Marking his second venture as director of a concert film (following 1978’s The Last Waltz, which covered the final live performance of the rock group, The Band), Scorsese mixes things up a bit with Shine a Light, a 2008 movie featuring those ageless warriors of rock and roll, The Rolling Stones.

Shine a Light was shot over the course of two nights at New York’s Beacon Theater, a performance that was attended by, among others, former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Joined on-stage by such guests as Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilera, The Rolling Stones belt out some of their greatest hits, including Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Sympathy for the Devil.

During the first dozen or so minutes of Shine a Light, we’re privy to several conversations between director Scorsese and his crew (one of which is an absolute classic: when Scorsese is advised that, if Mick Jagger stands too long in front of a high-powered light, he’ll burst into flame, the director replies, quite nonchalantly, “Well, we can’t do that. We want the effect, but we cannot burn Mick Jagger”). We also see the conflicts that arose at times between the filmmaker and the band, like when the Rolling Stones don’t deliver a finalized playlist until just before going on stage, leaving Scorsese and his crew completely in the dark as to where best to place their cameras, or when Mick Jagger tells Scorsese too many cameras zooming around will be a distraction for the audience as well as everyone on stage (a point on which the director refuses to give any ground). Though its obvious some of it was staged for the movie, these opening moments are, nonetheless, an insightful look at artist vs. artist, with each side defending their right to create.

Then the music starts, and the result of all the back and forth plays out before our eyes. Shine a Light is, indeed, informative, but when the chips are down, it’s the chronicle of an ass-kicking concert by one of the greatest bands in Rock history.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

#775. Kinsey (2004)

Directed By: Bill Condon

Starring: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Chris O'Donnell

Tag line: "Let's talk about sex"

Trivia: Laura Linney gained 20 pounds for this film, mainly by eating Krispy Kreme glazed donuts

Sexual behavior is a very touchy subject. There are rules for talking about such things, as defined by by both convention and good taste, and for many years, the line separating ‘normal’ sexuality from ‘deviancy’ was well established. Sexual therapist Alfred Kinsey wasn’t happy with simply erasing this line; he stomped it into the ground!

The son of a stern preacher (John Lithgow) who demanded that he attend engineering school, Kinsey (Liam Neeson) was instead drawn to the study of nature, and spent a large portion of his adult life teaching Biology at Indiana University. When some of his married students started asking him sexually related questions, and Kinsey himself faced sexual difficulties in his own marriage to wife Clara (Laura Linney), he petitioned the University to allow him to teach a specialized course, which would deal frankly with the topic of sexuality. Kinsey then took what he learned from that class, and, with the help of star pupil Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), toured the country conducting interviews and charting the sexual behavior of men and women from all walks of life. His research led to a best-selling novel, but more than that, it tore down the wall which ‘decent’ society had built to prevent open discussions about sex.

Kinsey offers a truthful, sometimes less-than-flattering account of its subject. Dr. Kinsey was not only a genius, but also an honest individual and a loving husband. Yet he could be callous, harsh, and a bit too forward when it came to his research, which often left those around him feeling very uncomfortable. At a dinner party hosted by his wife, Kinsey continually presses Alan Gregg (Dylan Baker), the head of the Rockefeller Foundation, for money to pursue his studies. Clara does her best to steer the conversation, discussing dinner and the weather, but Kinsey remains persistent, talking of homosexuality and masturbation while everyone else is eating pot roast. Liam Neeson gives yet another solid performance as Kinsey, showing us the man’s strengths as well as his weaknesses, and never emphasizing one over the other.

There were those who launched attacks against Kinsey when it was released in November of 2004, blaming its title character for the recent breakdown in morality. Robert Knight, of Concerned Women for America, blasted the movie as a “lionized” portrait of a man whose “proper place is with Nazi Dr. Joseph Mengele, or your average Hollywood horror flick mad scientist.” It’s as if people feel sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy and child molestation might have simply disappeared had Kinsey never made his research public. Yet these are not new issues; they’ve been with us, in some cases, for hundreds of years, and thanks to Kinsey, we can now address many of these problems out in the open. This, in my opinion, is Alfred Kinsey’s true legacy.

Friday, September 28, 2012

#774. The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Directed By: Cecil B. DeMille

Starring: Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Elissa Landi

Tag line: "A picture which will proudly lead all the entertainments the world has ever seen"

Trivia: Third film in Cecil B. DeMille's biblical trilogy, following The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings

Cecil B. DeMille was no stranger to controversy. Even though a good many of his early films had religious themes (The Ten Commandments, The King of Kings), the great director nonetheless crossed swords with the censors on a number of occasions, due in part to his obsession with the female form, which he usually liked to show in various stages of undress.

The Sign of the Cross, directed by DeMille in 1932, was itself a very solemn tale, detailing the torture and execution of early Christians in Imperial Rome. When a massive fire engulfs the city, The Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) looks to blame the disaster on a new religious sect known as the Christians. He orders the immediate arrest of all Christians in Rome, and assigns his most trusted Centurian, Marcus (Fredric March), to carry out his command. Marcus’ loyalty is tested, however, when he falls madly in love with a Christian named Mercia (Elissa Landi).

The Sign of the Cross is very much a Cecil B. DeMille epic in that it’s a lavish, huge production occasionally weighed down by a heavy-handed morality. Yet despite its central themes, which are, in equal parts, theological and ethical, The Sign of the Cross contained many scenes the MPAAD objected to. Along with a lengthy sequence that takes place in the arena, where violence of all sorts is inflicted on humans and animals alike, there’s the suggestive dance performed at an orgy by actress Joyzelle Joyner, meant to incite the passions of Mercia so that Marcus could more easily seduce her. Several Catholic groups complained about the eroticism on display in this scene, and demanded the MPAAD intercede to remove it from the film.

But their protests fell on deaf ears. In typical DeMille fashion, the director refused to alter a single frame. In fact, the story goes that when Will Hays, head of the MPAAD, contacted him, asking what he was going to do about the dance, DeMille’s reply was “Will, listen carefully, because you might want to quote me: Not a damn thing!"

Thursday, September 27, 2012

#773. Treasure Island (1990)

Directed By: Fraser Clarke Heston

Starring: Charlton Heston, Christian Bale, Oliver Reed

Tag line: "Sail the high seas. Battle the pirates. Live the adventure"

Trivia: The ship used in the film is The Bounty from the 1962 production of Mutiny on the Bounty

Yet another adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's timeless adventure story, Treasure Island is told from the perspective of Jim Hawkins (Christian Bale), a young boy serving aboard the Hispaniola, a ship bound for a place known only as “Treasure Island”. 

According to a map that once belonged to the drunken "Captain" Billy Bones (Oliver Reed), this is where the late pirate Flint buried a fortune in gold and jewels. 

But aside from a few honest men, including Dr. Livesey (Julian Glover), Squire Trelawney (Richard Johnson) and Captain Smollett (Clive Wood), the entire crew of the Hispaniola is made up of pirates, all of whom are biding their time, waiting for their chance to take over the ship

Led by Long John Silver (Charlton Heston), the brigands plan to seize the Hispaniola the moment the treasure is on-board. But thanks to Jim, who has gained Long John’s trust, their devious plot is revealed, leading to a stand-off that neither the pirates nor the honest men are fully prepared for.

One can’t discuss this made-for-TV movie without mentioning its all-star cast. Oliver Reed seems the natural choice to portray Billy Bones, the gruff, hard-drinking former pirate who ultimately turns the treasure map over to young Jim Hawkins, and Christopher Lee has a brief but effective appearance as Blind Pew, one of Flint’s men who come looking for said map. 

Having grown accustomed to seeing Charlton Heston play the hero, which he did in a number of epic films (Ben-Hur, El-Cid, The Ten Commandments), his turn as the treacherous Long John Silver was a nice change of pace, and he's damn good in the part. While Heston does, at times, come across as a likable foe (due mostly to the friendship he forges with Jim), there’s enough of a scoundrel left in his Silver to make him a dangerous adversary. 

As for the good guys, Richard Johnson is at his best as the boisterous Squire who, on occasion, allows greed to cloud his judgment; and Julian Glover’s Livesey is, in every situation, the perfect gentleman. Then there’s the Dark Knight himself, Christian Bale, who, though only 15 when Treasure Island was produced, manages to hold his own alongside the film’s more experienced stars.

Directed by Heston’s son Fraser, Treasure Island makes great use of its various settings (aside from the scenes that take place at sea, portions of the movie were shot on-location in Cornwall and Jamaica). This, the convincing period costumes, and the tremendous performances all work in unison to bring Stevenson’s literary classic convincingly to life.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

#772. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Jonathan Ke Quan

Tag line: "If adventure has a name... it must be Indiana Jones"

Trivia: This was Kate Capshaw's second theatrical film

Initially, I was not a fan of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Like its predecessor, Raiders of the Lost Ark, this film was born of the love its makers, namely Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, had for the Saturday afternoon serials that were popular in their youth. Yet where Raiders of the Lost Ark spun a tale every bit as exciting as its most electrifying action scene, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom struck me as a rousing adventure with very little meat on it bones, offering nothing but one empty thrill after another. Revisiting it now, I see this was precisely the point, and found myself enjoying the movie more than I ever had.

Set several years before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has Indiana (Harrison Ford) teaming up with not one, but two sidekicks: nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and a young Asian boy named Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). When a plane crash leaves them stranded in India, the three are enlisted by the citizens of a small village to retrieve a sacred stone, which was stolen from its shrine by the followers of Mola Ram (Amrish Puri), High Priest of a religious cult known as the Thuggees, which still practices human sacrifice to appease its Gods. Can Indiana Jones complete this holy mission, or will evil win out in the end?

Where Raiders took a breath every now and again to further its story of Nazis in the desert and omnipotent artifacts, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is all about the adventure, peppered with a whole lot of whimsy (Kate Capshaw’s Willie is the comic relief in practically every scene). Following a showdown with some gangsters at a Shanghai nightclub, we join Indiana Jones and his companions as they leap from a doomed aircraft, escape a room with a collapsible ceiling, and race through an underground mine, usually one small step ahead of the bad guys.

None of its meant to be taken seriously, of course; the sight of our heroes jumping from the plane aboard an inflatable life raft told me that. But never mind. With elaborate set pieces and a story that alternates between impossible danger and amusing fantasy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is, start to finish, a high-energy delight.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

#771. Ju-On (2002)

Directed By: Takashi Shimizu

Starring: Megumi Okina, Misaki Itô, Misa Uehara

Trivia: This film was remade by the same director in 2004, as an American update

Nothing gets my heart pounding like a good, old-fashioned ghost story, and there have been some excellent films made on the subject over the years, such as The Haunting, The Shining, and Poltergeist

Yet I have to say that director Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On is easily the most frightening I’ve ever experienced. This movie flat-out scared the hell out of me!

The ghosts that make their presence known throughout Ju-On do so as the result of a curse which began with the murder of a mother and her young son, whose angry spirits hae taken shelter inside the house where they were killed. 

Rika (Megumi Okina), a social worker, is sent to the house to check on its current residents: an elderly woman and her family. What she finds instead is the boy’s ghost sitting in an upstairs closet, a discovery that kicks off a chain of events in which the dead mother and son, in a permanent state of rage, prey upon the living, traveling far and wide to spread their curse to those unfortunate few who have crossed their path.

What I found truly unsettling about Ju-On was its unpredictability. These ghosts can - and usually do - appear anywhere, at any given time. Aside from the closet, the spirit of the young boy, whose name is Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), materializes under a restaurant table, and his reflection is even seen in the front window of an office building. 
As if that’s not creepy enough, there’s a sequence where a ghost surprises someone by emerging from under their bedcovers! 

There are no safe havens in Ju-On, and this alone introduces an atmosphere that’s wholly unnerving. But the film’s most disturbing image, one I simply can’t shake, is that of a pissed-off specter crawling down the stairs, her face half-hidden behind her long, black hair, making an ungodly noise as she closes in on her victims. 

I’m no stranger to horror movies, but I have to admit this scene led to a few lights being switched on in my living room!

Presented as a series of vignettes and featuring a number of different characters, it may take more than a single viewing to understand everything that’s going on in Ju-On, but this won’t prevent it from making the little hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Bringing a whole new meaning to the word “spooky”, Ju-On is, without a doubt, one of the most effective horror movies of the last 15 years.

Monday, September 24, 2012

#770. Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Directed By: Jack Conway

Starring: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone

Trivia: The screenplay submitted by F. Scott Fitzgerald was rejected by producer Irving Thalberg, who thought it took the story too seriously

Jean Harlow had been appearing in movies since 1927 (she played a small part in The Public Enemy as one of Tom Powers’ girlfriends), yet wouldn’t become a star until the release of 1932’s Red-Headed Woman, a sex farce that had the censors themselves seeing red.

Harlow is Lillian, called Lil by her friends and co-workers, a secretary who's set her sights on making it big in high society. To this end, she takes aim at winning the affections of her boss, Will Legender (Chester Morris), despite the fact Legender is very happily married to his childhood sweetheart, Irene (Leila Hyams). At first, Legender successfully resists Lil’s advances, yet it isn’t long before the two are breaking a few commandments. When Legender’s marriage falls apart as a result, he finds himself living with Lil on a full-time basis, but can he continue to satisfy her as she ascends the social ladder?

There’s some pretty racy dialogue in Red-Headed Woman, much of which would be pushing the envelope even by today’s standards. At one point, Lil, knowing Legender’s wife is out of town, steals some mail off of his desk so that she can deliver it personally to his house. “If I’m lucky”, Lil says to her friend, Sally (Una Merkel), “maybe he’ll give me some dictation”. Jean Harlow is near-flawless in her portrayal of the movie’s vixen, doing everything she can to ensure no audience member will feel the slightest bit of sympathy for her character. It’s her devious performance that makes Red-Headed Woman such a shocking motion picture.

With its strong subject matter and boundary-pushing dialogue, censors from various states had a field day cutting the hell out of Red-Headed Woman. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio paid special attention to the film’s climax (which was set in France), removing several scenes dealing with Lil’s continued infidelities. As for Great Britain, they banned Red-Headed Woman outright.

Though rumor has it King George V kept a private copy on-hand at Buckingham Palace… for his own "amusement"!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

#769. The Age of Innocence (1993)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder

Tag line: "In a world of tradition. In an age of innocence. They dared to break the rules"

Trivia: Originally to be released in fall of 1992, but was held back by over a year to allow director Martin Scorsese more time to edit

Like a good many movies directed by Martin Scorsese, the setting for The Age of Innocence is New York City. Yet this is not the New York we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in a Scorsese film. Set in the 1870s amidst the city’s upper classes, The Age of Innocence presents a story of sophistication, drama, and, yes, even innocence. It is a motion picture that proudly displays the varying personalities of its maker, featuring the talents of Scorsese the romantic, well supported in this rare public appearance by Scorsese the artist.

The romantic within him takes center stage by way of Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a prestigious lawyer and a man deeply engrained in high society. Yet despite his status, Archer loathes the artifice that goes hand-in-hand with being part of New York’s upper crust. He is engaged to be married to May Welland (Winona Ryder), a pretty, if somewhat bland, girl who travels in the same social circles as Archer and his family. But it’s Mary’s cousin, the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who captures his heart. An outcast due to her failed marriage, as well as the subject of much gossip and innuendo, the Countess represents for Archer the freedom from convention he so desires. But will he have the courage to break from his family, his fiancé, and his position to live a life of abandon which, in the end, can only guarantee an uncertain future?

Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer generate real passion in the scenes they share, and together form the backbone of the film. Scorsese the artist takes center stage by way of what he surrounds them with, namely some exquisite imagery, among the most elegant he has ever committed to celluloid. Many of its images; society banquets, dinner parties, even the beauty of the setting sun, are dazzling enough to adorn the walls of a gallery, offering their potential patrons some excellent reproductions of this period in history. And yet they serve a purpose; they do not overpower the narrative, but work in unison with it to weave a tale every bit as engaging as it is striking to behold.

The Age of Innocence is a stunning marriage of art and romance, conceived by a filmmaker who had to travel well outside his comfort zone to create it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

#768. Stevie (2002)

Directed By: Steve James

Starring: Steve James, Stephen Fielding, Tonya Gregory

Trivia: Stevie was the winner of numerous festival awards including the 2002 Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival's

In the mid-1980s, filmmaker Steve James worked as a volunteer in the Big Brother program, during which time he served as friend and counselor to an 11-year-old boy named Stephen Fielding, called "Stevie" by everyone who knew him. Stevie was a troubled child, drifting in and out of foster homes, sometimes facing crippling abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to be caring for him. After 10 years, James decided to track Stevie down, to see what had become of his former “little brother”. What he found formed the basis of Stevie, a fascinating, yet ultimately alarming, documentary.

We the audience are transformed from passive observer to active participant when, as the cameras continue to roll, a troubling revelation bubbles to the surface. We follow along as Stevie deals with the terrible consequences of his actions, and it’s to director James’ credit that, from start to finish, he paints as complete a picture of his subject as possible, in spite of his personal attachment to the story. Throughout Stevie, we’re introduced not only to those who love Stevie Fielding, but some who aren’t so fond of him as well, and it’s through this intensive exploration that we get a sense of who this young man is, and why he acts the way he does.

There are those who will immediately lose any sympathy they may have felt for Stevie Fielding the moment his transgression…strike that, his crime… is divulged. Yet this disconnect doesn’t entirely diminish one’s emotional response to the plight of this disturbed young man, who is clearly a victim himself. There have been volumes written on the fragility of youth, and how deep-seated traumas suffered as a child might severely alter an individual’s personality. With Stevie, director James reveals, sometimes painfully, just how accurate these theories are.

Friday, September 21, 2012

#767. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Directed By: Sam Peckinpah

Starring: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Jaeckel

Tag line: "Best of enemies. Deadliest of friends"

Trivia: Kris Kristofferson fell in love with on-screen love interest Rita Coolidge and the two were married shortly after filming

The key reason Sam Peckinpah is my favorite director is that his films were so very personal, reflecting, in equal parts, the varying components that made up the man’s personality. In life, Sam Peckinpah was a complex individual. A descendant of pioneers and settlers, he was taught as a boy to hunt, ride a horse and herd cattle, leading to a love of the western frontier he would carry with him the rest of his days.

He also had a creative side, which, apparently, was nurtured by his mother. In David Weddle’s excellent Peckinpah biography, If They Move, Kill ‘em, the director’s sister, Fern Lea, says she believes her brother’s creativity was a source of embarrassment for him, because, as she mockingly put it, “In our family, by God, the men were men!”.

Peckinpah struggled with these conflicting facets of his personality throughout his career. It was machismo vs. art, with both usually finding their way into his films.

Nowhere is this duality more evident than in 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a movie that, aside from being one of the director’s most interesting westerns, contains my all-time favorite scene, a sequence that, along with the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, reminds me why I fell in love with movies.

To set the scene up:

Pat Garrett (James Coburn) has been hired to hunt down his old friend Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). His search has taken him many places, and pitted him against former compatriots who both love and admire The Kid. Having just learned the whereabouts of Black Harris (played by Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones), a former member of The Kid’s gang, Garrett asks the local sheriff, Colin Baker (Slim Pickens), and Baker's wife (Katy Jurado), who serves as his deputy, for help.

Together, the three ride out to apprehend the dangerous fugitive, and, knowing Harris’ reputation, are convinced he won’t give up without a fight. Sure enough, a violent shoot-out ensues.

This scene has it all, evoking laughter (the sight of Katy Jurado bursting through a door with a shotgun is cinematic gold); generating plenty of excitement (the gunfight itself is expertly staged); and concluding with a moment of high drama that’s among the most heartbreaking I’ve ever witnessed. Aside from Bob Dylan’s mournful tune, "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door", which delicately fills the soundtrack, the ending of this scene plays out in silence, and when you see it, you’ll agree no dialogue was necessary. The looks in the characters' eyes, the realization that hits them like a ton of bricks, conveys a grief more devastating than words ever could.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid may not be a perfect film, but it does contain one perfect scene. Shifting from violence to deep emotion in about three and a half minutes, this sequence does more than carry its story forward. It echoes the persona of the man who created it, and does so brilliantly.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

#766. Barton Fink (1991)

Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis

Tag line: "Between Heaven and Hell There's Always Hollywood!"

Trivia: The parts played by John Turturro, John Goodman, Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi were all written with them in mind

At the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink walked off with the coveted Palme d’Or, the prize given to the festival’s best film. Joel Coen would also win for Best Director, while star John Turturro snatched up the acting award. This was a first in the history of Cannes: never before had a single motion picture won the festival’s top three prizes. Roman Polanski, who served as Jury President that year, said there was plenty of debate when it came time to decide the winners in many other categories, but the decision to name Barton Fink best film was unanimous.

It’s 1941, and Barton Fink (John Turturro), a successful New York playwright, travels to Los Angeles to accept a job writing for the movies. Hired by Capital Pictures, his first assignment is to pen a script for a wrestling picture that’ll star Wallace Beery. After meeting with studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), Fink returns to his tiny hotel room to begin writing. He sits down at his typewriter, composes an opening sentence…and freezes; the victim of a severe case of writer’s block. He spends days trying to break out of his rut, and, at one point, drops in on an alcoholic screenwriter (John Mahoney) and his girlfriend (Judy Davis), hoping they’ll provide the inspiration he so desperately needs. Alas, nothing seems to work, not even a chat with Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), the outgoing salesman staying in the room next door. In desperation, Fink makes one last ditch effort to set his muse free, a drastic measure that brings about an incredible turn of events. Before long, writer’s block is the least of Barton Fink’s problems.

John Turturro shines as the lead character, an intellectual writer who considers himself the voice of the common man, despite the fact he never actually listens to what anyone, including the ‘common man’, has to say. John Goodman continues his string of successes with the Coens by delivering a strong performance as Charlie Meadows, the always-upbeat insurance salesman whose friendly smile might be hiding a terrible secret. Michael Lerner was nominated for an Academy Award for his turn as Lipnick, the fast-talking studio head who doesn’t waste time worrying about the details, but it’s Tony Shalhoub, playing producer Ben Geisler, who practically steals the show, a man who remains a step ahead of everyone around him, even when they’re two steps behind.

With murders that go unexplained and hallways blazing with the fires of hell, the world of Barton Fink is, at times, a frightening place. Much like the product Hollywood turns out on a regular basis, nothing here is as it seems, and poor Barton Fink is nearly swallowed up by the chaos surrounding him. The film’s tagline is “Between Heaven and Hell, there’s always Hollywood”, and by the time Barton Fink is over, you’ll see this statement is more accurate than you would have ever imagined.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

#765. Super Fly (1972)

Directed By: Gordon Parks Jr.

Starring: Ron O'Neal, Carl Lee, Sheila Frazier

Tag line: "All He Needed Was One Last Deal..."

Trivia: The final script for this film was only 45 pages long

Known for their gritty realism, Blaxploitation movies often centered on strong individuals who fought, tooth and nail, for their piece of the American dream. Director Gordon Parks, Sr. helmed one of the earliest Blaxploitation flicks, Shaft, in 1971, and his son, Gordon Parks. Jr. would follow it up a year later with Super Fly. Only this time, instead of a tough-talking private detective, the “hero” was anything but heroic.

Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) is a Harlem drug lord who’s struck it rich in the “business”, driving around town in a flashy car and snorting as much cocaine as his nose can stand. Yet, in spite of his success, Priest is ready to leave it all behind, hoping for one last deal that’ll score him tons of cash so he can walk away for good. With the help of his partner, Eddie (Carl Lee), Priest plans to buy 30 kilos of coke, which they can then turn around and sell for a million dollars. In need of a connection that can handle their large order, the two pay a visit to Scatter (Julius Harris), a former dealer and Priest’s old mentor, who, despite the fact he’s already gone straight, puts them in touch with the right people. Standing in Priest’s way, however, is a corrupt police department, which, under the guise of fighting drug trafficking, is actually controlling it, making a fortune in kickback money. And as Priest will soon discover, they aren’t about to let him retire.

Ron O’Neal delivers an unflinching performance as the film’s anti-hero, a lifetime criminal we can’t help but root for, mostly because the cops are ten times worse. Responding to a disturbance call, the police pick up one of Priest’s dealers, Fat Freddie (Charles McGregor), and beat a confession out of him. It’s through Freddie they learn about Priest and Eddie’s operation, and now they want a piece of the action. But the cops don’t stop at extortion, and cross a line that causes Priest to turn to yet another underworld organization, the mob, for satisfaction. Super Fly doesn’t go so far as to portray Priest as a valiant character (early in the film, he threatens to force Fat Freddie’s wife into prostitution if he doesn’t come up with the money he owes him). He’s simply the lesser of two evils.

Shot, guerrilla-style, on the streets of New York and featuring a vibrant musical score by Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly is a stylish, fierce motion picture, and one of the defining works of the Blaxploitation genre.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#764. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Directed By: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson

Tag line: "Just because you are a character doesn't mean you have character"

Trivia: Tri-Star Pictures passed on producing this film because their studio chief found the script "too demented"

Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece, consists of three interlocking stories that follow a select group of characters in modern-day Los Angeles. 

Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are hit men working for crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). One morning, Marsellus sends them to retrieve a stolen briefcase, a simple assignment for these two professionals, yet one that leads Jules to a life-altering realization. 

When Marsellus leaves town on business, he asks Vincent to keep an eye on his erratic wife, Mia (Uma Thurman). Vincent takes the alluring Mrs. Wallace out to dinner, and they even enter a dance contest. Still, despite Vincent's best efforts, the evening is destined to end badly. 

Then we have Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer in the twilight of his career. Marsellus offers Butch a large sum of money to throw his next bout, but when the aging fighter instead pulls a double-cross, he ignites a personal feud between himself and Mr. Wallace that, before it’s over, will put the two men at the mercy of a sadistic security guard named Zed (Peter Greene).

There are some great, great scenes in Pulp Fiction, providing equal doses of shocks and laughs, but the film owes the majority of its success to Tarantino’s sharp, snappy dialogue. Almost every give-and-take in Pulp Fiction is a classic. Aside from the now-famous ‘Royale with cheese’ exchange, where Vincent explains to Jules why the McDonald’s in France don’t sell Quarter Pounders, there’s the dinner discussion that begins with Vincent asking Mia why anyone would pay $5 for a milkshake. 

Each and every character gets in on the fun, but Samuel L. Jackson's Jules stands above them all. From his showdown with Brett (Frank Whaley) to the final scene with two would-be thieves (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), Jackson is a force to be reckoned with, and his performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Travolta was also nominated for Best Actor, while Thurman was up for Best Actress)  

As great as Samuel L. Jackson is, however, Pulp Fiction's finest sequence is actually a flashback, where a young Butch (played by Chandler Lindauer) receives a visit from Capt. Koons (Christopher Walken), a soldier who spent time with Butch’s late father in a Vietnamese Prisoner of War camp. Capt. Koons is there to give the boy a special wristwatch, one that has been in Butch's family for generations. The watch’s colorful history, as related by Capt. Koons, is both tender and riveting, yet you can’t help but chuckle at the incredible lengths to which the Captain went to hide this prized possession from the enemy. Walken is superb in this brief cameo, and despite his limited contribution, he leaves his mark on the picture… just like everybody else.

If Reservoir Dogs trumpeted Tarantino’s arrival, Pulp Fiction proved he was here to stay, winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and landing the writer/director his first Academy Award (for Best Original Screenplay, which he shared with Roger Avery). Not since Martin Scorsese in the ‘70s had a young filmmaker generated such excitement in the global cinematic community.

Perhaps most impressive of all, he was still just getting started.

Monday, September 17, 2012

#763. Braveheart (1995)

Directed By: Mel Gibson

Starring: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan

Tag line: "Every man dies, not every man really lives"

Trivia: Fearing an NC-17 from the MPAA, Mel Gibson cut out some of the film's most graphic scenes

Braveheart tells the story of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a 13th century Scottish rebel who led a ragtag army against the King of England to gain his country’s independence.

Taken in by his uncle (Brian Cox) after the death of his father (Sean Lawlor) and older brother (Sandy Nelson), the young Wallace grew to manhood studying art, literature, and the finer points of warfare. When he finally returns to the village of his youth, he does so as a cultured man, and takes Murron (Catherine McCormack), a girl he’s loved since childhood, as his wife. There are those in the village who speak of rebellion against their English overlords, yet Wallace wants only to work his farm and live the rest of his days with Murron in peace. But when a gang of British troops tries to rape Murron, Wallace acts quickly to save her, and in the process beats several soldiers into submission. As retribution for the attacks, the English murder Murron, yet far from breaking his spirit, the killing of his beloved wife drives Wallace to action. After he and a handful of his countrymen overthrow the local English Lords, Wallace declares war on Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan), the King of England. It’s Wallace’s hope that Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFayden), a descendant of the ancient rulers of Scotland, will one day ascend to the Scottish throne, thus uniting the country, for the first time in many years, under a banner of freedom.

Directed by Mel Gibson, Braveheart offers moments that range from the dramatic to the deeply romantic, yet the true spectacle lies in its incredibly staged battle sequences, which capture not only the intense emotions normally associated with hand-to-hand combat, but the ruthlessness as well. Wallace shows exceptional bravery when, following Murron’s murder, he defiantly challenges the English to open warfare. His courage arouses the entire village, inciting them to join the rebellion, and with his longtime friend, Hamish (Brendan Gleeson), fighting by his side, Wallace and his men easily defeat their foes. This is the first of several such skirmishes in Braveheart , setting the stage for the carnage to come by way of a great many severed limbs, not to mention the odd hammer that comes crashing down on someone’s skull.

From this scene on, the intensity of the battles, as well as the bloodshed, multiplies tenfold, making Braveheart one of the most violent, exciting movies ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

#762. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - David Lean Film Festival

Directed By: David Lean

Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins

Tag line: "It spans a whole new world of entertainment!"

Trivia: At one point during filming, David Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by a river current

David Lean’s WWII epic The Bridge on the River Kwai shies away from the traditional skirmishes you'd find in most war films to instead focus on a psychological battle waged by two men.

Deep within the jungles of Siam lies a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. The vindictive Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is in command. Col. Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness), the ranking officer among the prisoners, initiates a battle of wills when Saito orders that every P.O.W. - regardless of rank - must work to complete the construction of a railroad bridge across the river Kwai. It's a project that's vital to the Japanese war effort, but Nicholson argues it is against the Geneva Convention to force officers to work alongside enlisted men, and refuses to obey. 

Days pass without either man backing down. Knowing the bridge must be finished on time, Saito eventually agrees to a compromise. With Nicholson now overseeing the project, the prisoners build the bridge, even putting in extra shifts to ensure it will be completed on schedule. 

Meanwhile, American POW Shears (William Holden), who managed to escape from the camp, makes his way back to headquarters, where he is ordered to take part in an allied operation that, if successful, will destroy the bridge built by the prisoners. 

Will Nicholson allow his "creation" to be demolished, or will pride win out over his duty as a British officer?

The differences between Col. Nicholson and his Japanese counterpart, Saito, are established early in the film. Nicholson is, at all times, confident he will win the stand-off, and the measures taken by Saito to break him, slapping Nicholson’s face and forcing he and his men to stand in formation for an entire day under the hot sun, are never enough to force the British Commander to yield. Nicholson knows his objections are supported by the Geneva Convention. Saito, on the other hand, feels honor is more important than rules and regulations, and since he is the "winner", and Nicholson the "loser" (the British, after all, are his prisoners), he believes his orders must be obeyed. 

Among other things, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a fascinating clash of cultures: the prim and proper British officer and the Japanese warrior, each clinging tightly to the values they hold dear. When the two men finally hammer out an agreement, there’s a subtle shift in power, with Nicholson assuming the role of the vanquisher and Saito that of the defeated. The bridge will be built, but for Saito, who had no choice but to capitulate, the wounds to his pride will never heal. As for Nicholson, he sees the bridge as a great accomplishment, a monument to British engineering, and is proud of it. The fact that it will ultimately be used by the enemy in its fight against his countrymen is of little consequence. 

As a contrast to both Nicholson and Saito, we have Shears (William Holden, in a typically excellent performance), whose actions are driven by the simple desire to survive. We the audience feel a strong connection to Shears, the only one of the three who sees the full picture, and is prepared to act accordingly, not for glory, but because it is his duty.

Large in scope and with an intensely exciting climactic scene, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a rare war film in that honor, as opposed to victory, is the ultimate prize. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

#761. Wholly Moses! (1980)

Directed By: Gary Weis

Starring: Dudley Moore, Laraine Newman, James Coco

Tag line: "The story of Herschel. He wanted to be Moses...but he didn't have the right connections"

Trivia: Was originally titled The Book of Herschel

Wholly Moses! was the very first movie we bought after getting a VCR, back when pre-recorded videotapes could run you damn near $100 (as I recall, it cost $89.95). So, as you can imagine, we tried to squeeze our money’s worth out of it, watching Wholly Moses! over and over and over again. Even at the time, I knew it wasn’t the funniest comedy ever made, but at least it had its moments. Seeing it now, I found those “moments” were fewer, and farther apart, than I remember them being.

During a tour of the Holy Land, Harvey (Dudley Moore), a languages professor, and Zoey (Laraine Newman), who Harvey just met on the bus, break from the group to chase Zoey’s hat after its blown away by a strong wind. Their search leads them to a hidden cave, where they discover a lost biblical scroll detailing the exploits of an unknown prophet named Herschel. Having lived during the time of Moses, Herschel (also played by Moore) was destined to remain in the shadow of his famous counterpart. Whereas the infant Moses was raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Herschel, also sent down the river in a basket by his father, the slave Hyssop (James Coco), ended up the adopted son of a sculptor, one who specialized in images of pagan Gods. Things didn’t get much better for Herschel when he was old enough to strike out on his own. His brief stint as the Pharaoh’s advisor ended badly, and while he did meet and fall in love with Zerelda (played by Newman), a shepherd’s daughter who became his wife, he was further disappointed to learn that the “Message from God” he thought was for him was actually meant for his brother-in-law, Moses. So when Herschel set out to free the slaves in Egypt, he found Moses had already beaten him to the punch!

Wholly Moses! contains a slew of star cameos, including the likes of Madeline Kahn, Jack Gilford, John Ritter (as the Devil), John Houseman (as an Archangel), Richard Pryor (as the Pharaoh) and Dom DeLuise. Pryor’s turn as the manic ruler of Egypt is probably the film’s most memorable cameo (at one point, he seems to be arguing with his hand), while Houseman’s Archangel (planning the destruction of a corrupt desert town named “New Sodom”) and Ritter’s Satan (waiting for the damned souls of New Sodom after said destruction) fare the best. These brief segments, plus the occasionally funny give-and-take between Moore and Coco, give Wholly Moses! what little shine it has. But for the most part, the comedy is stale. In a later scene, Herschel is fighting a goliath-sized adversary, and, much like King David before him, he picks up a rock and slings it at the giant, only to hit his foe squarely in the groin. Yeah, it’s that level of humor you can expect to find throughout the entire movie.

Dudley Moore tries his damnedest in the dual role of Harvey and Herschel, but the material doesn’t meet him halfway, relying on bad sight gags, and even worse slapstick, to carry the film. This, coupled with the uninspired direction of Gary Weis, have me wondering what the hell possessed us to spend $90 on Wholly Moses!?

Maybe if I find the receipt, I can…

Nah, probably not!

Friday, September 14, 2012

#760. Fingerprints (2006)

Directed By: Harry Basil

Starring: Leah Pipes, Kristin Cavallari, Josh Henderson

Tag line: "Even the dead leave them"

Trivia: The story was inspired by a famous urban legend about an allegedly haunted railroad track in San Antonio, Texas

The year: 1957. The location: The small town of Emerald. A school bus makes its way down the road in a rainstorm, loaded with children who pass the time by singing. Up ahead, their parents are parked on the other side of a railroad crossing, waiting for them to arrive. The bus approaches just as a train is speeding down the tracks. But the crossing malfunctions, leaving the driver oblivious of the danger she’s heading into. The parents, of course, see it, and scream for the bus to stop, but thanks to the heavy rain, their cries aren’t heard until it’s much too late, and the ensuing accident kills everyone on board.

Cut to modern day: Melanie (Leah Pipes) and Crystal (Kristen Cavallari), two teenage sisters, are driving along the same stretch of road. Their family moved to Emerald a short time ago, but for Melanie, who's just been released from a drug rehab clinic, it’s her first day in town. Crystal tells Melanie all about the tragedy from years ago, as well as the urban legend that, if you park your car on the spot where the accident occurred and throw it into neutral, the spirits of the dead children will push you off the tracks, sometimes leaving fingerprints on the back of your car as they do so. The sisters laugh at how ludicrous it all sounds, with Crystal adding, “I hate to say it, but that accident is the only thing this town has going for it”. Yet, as they reach the crossing, Melanie notices a young girl (Sydnee Harlan), wearing a name tag that reads “Julie”, playing on the tracks. There’s something unusual about the way this girl is dressed, leaving a perplexed Melanie to wonder if the legend is true. Soon, her encounter with young Julie leads Melanie to start asking questions, including "What really happened on that rainy night in 1957"?

The opening scene of Fingerprints, which shows the accident that sets up this story, is skillfully constructed, and while we never actually see the impact, or witness the bloody carnage that followed, we at least experience it by way of rapid cuts, topsy-turvy camera angles, and the odd splash of blood hitting a window. It’s a solid sequence, as is a later one in which Melanie and Crystal are riding in a car with classmates Mitch (Andrew Lawrence) and Penn (Josh Henderson). Having just left a wild parry, a drunk Mitch decides to test the urban legend, and parks on the railroad tracks, going so far as to pour baby powder on his bumper so he can see the fingerprints after they've been pushed to safety. Things get hairy, however, when a train appears in the distance, and even though the others are screaming for him to start up the car and drive off, Mitch wants to wait for the ghosts to save them. As this is happening, Melanie sees Julie once again, standing on the tracks, and staring directly at her. Future run-ins with Julie only add to the film’s overall creepiness, a feeling that intensifies with each new encounter. Throw in a masked killer who’s going around town butchering people (in sometimes gory fashion), and you have the makings of an intense, fascinating thriller.

With a story that combines the supernatural with elements of the slasher genre, and a strong performance by Leah Pipes holding it all together, Fingerprints proves an above-average indie horror film.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

#759. Safety Last! (1923)

Directed By: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor

Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother

Trivia: Harold Lloyd got the idea for this film when he saw Bill Strother climbing the Brockman Building in Los Angeles as a stunt one day

In a scene from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film, The Dreamers, Matthew (Michael Pitt) and Theo (Louis Garrel) argue over who was the better screen comedian: Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. To be sure, those two legendary performers are, to this day, considered the kings of silent comedy. But there were others as well, including Harold Lloyd, a Nebraska native whose horn-rimmed glasses were as familiar to audiences in the 1920s as Chaplin’s mustache.

Lloyd’s 1923 classic, Safety Last!, is about a country boy (played by Lloyd) who heads to the big city to seek fame and fortune, promising his sweetheart (Mildred Davis) he’ll send for her the moment he’s a success. Unfortunately, the best job he can land is a clerk in a department store, working at the ladies fabric counter for a meager wage. Refusing to admit he’s a lowly employee, the Boy writes his girl telling her he’s the store’s manager, and showering her with expensive gifts he can’t really afford. Unable to wait any longer, the Girl travels to the city to surprise the Boy, dropping by unexpectedly at his workplace. Realizing he’s got to make some quick cash to keep his ruse going, the Boy undertakes a publicity stunt for the store that will pay him $1,000. The only requirement: that he perform the death-defying feat of scaling the outside of the building, all 12 floors, from the street up to the roof!

Safety Last! proved the perfect showcase for Lloyd’s talents, displaying, above all else, his character’s extreme optimism, a trademark the actor would carry with him throughout his career. Brimming with confidence, the Boy lets his excitement get the best of him almost immediately as he attempts to board the train to the city, hopping instead onto the back of a horse-drawn carriage while enthusiastically waving goodbye. Of course, his cheery outlook is put to the ultimate test in the film’s most famous sequence, and indeed one of silent cinema’s most recognizable images: that of Lloyd dangling from the side of the department store building. It’s a tremendously staged scene, a wonderful combination of thrills and guffaws that contributed to Lloyd’s reputation as the “Daredevil comedian”. There’s even a run-in with a weather vane that’ll have you laughing from the edge of your seat.

Lloyd would appear in some 200 movies between 1913 and 1947, with the height of his popularity coming in the 1920s, a time when he was the screen’s most popular comic. His films would out-gross those of Buster Keaton, and, on occasion, Charlie Chaplin’s as well. Today, Lloyd’s career may be little more than a footnote in cinematic history, but there’s no denying his contribution to the medium. And Safety Last! was his crowning achievement.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

#758. Eegah (1962)

Directed By: Arch Hall Sr.

Starring: Arch Hall Jr., Marilyn Manning, Richard Kiel

Tag line: "The Crazed Love of a Prehistoric Giant for a Ravishing Teenage Girl!"

Trivia: Arch Hall Sr. claimed that he came up with the idea for this film after meeting 7'2" Richard Kiel

Eegah is believed by many to be one of the worst films ever made, and to be sure, it’s a miserable failure as both an adventure and a teen romance. But as an unintentional comedy, Eegah is a laugh-out-loud riot.

One night, while driving down a secluded stretch of highway, Roxy Miller (Marilyn Manning) nearly runs over a giant (Richard Kiel), dressed in caveman garb and standing in the middle of the road. She tells her father (Arch Hall, Sr.) about the incident, and the old guy sets off on his own to investigate it, only to be captured by the giant and dragged to his cave. Worried about her father, Roxy and her boyfriend, wannabe rock star Tom (Arch Hall, Jr.), head out to the desert to conduct their own investigation. But before long, Roxy herself is also taken prisoner by the primitive behemoth, who’s so enamored with the young girl that he plans to keep her locked away in his cave forever.

The moment we’re shown the opening titles, which are sprawled across the mummified corpses of the giant’s long-dead relatives, we know Eegah is gonna be a treat. And the laughs don’t let up, from the nail-biting sequence where our heroes flee in Tom’s dune buggy (sometimes driving towards the pursuing caveman, who’s following on foot), to the mysterious line of dialogue, “Watch out for snakes”, which we hear despite the fact nobody was talking at the time. Even the film’s basic premise, that a caveman has been wandering the desert of Southern California since the prehistoric age without being seen, is hilariously inept, as are the musical interludes, performed by co-star Arch Hall Jr., who at one point belts out a sappy love song titled Vickie (even though his girlfriend’s name is Roxy).

What started life as a piss-poor fantasy/adventure has, over the years, slowly transformed into comedic gold. On par with Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, Eegah is an uproarious example of how total incompetence can occasionally lead to something very special.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

#757. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore

Tag line: "Times like these call for a Big Lebowski"

Trivia: A lot of the Dude's clothes in the movie were Jeff Bridges's own clothes, including his Jellies sandals

I have to admit that my initial viewing of The Big Lebowski, which happened a couple of years after its release, left me lukewarm. “It’s got its moments”, I thought to myself, “but isn’t anything spectacular”. 

A second watch impressed me a little more, and suddenly I was laughing out loud. 

Now, with about a dozen viewings under my belt, I can say, without hesitation, that this is the funniest movie I have ever seen. The Big Lebowski is my all-time favorite comedy.

Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Bridges) is the victim of mistaken identity. A pair of thugs, believing he’s a famous millionaire who, quite coincidentally, is also named Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), break into The Dude’s house and demand payment for his wife’s outstanding debts. But The Dude has never been married, and tries to convince them they have the wrong guy. The two thugs eventually come to that same conclusion, but not before one of them urinates on The Dude’s favorite living room rug. 

Spurred on by his best friend and bowling partner, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), The Dude pays a visit to the millionaire Lebowski, whose wife Bunny (Tara Ried) caused all the trouble in the first place, and demands that his soiled rug be replaced. Instead, The Dude finds himself tangled up in a kidnapping incident when Bunny is abducted by some Nihilists, who want a million dollars in exchange for her safe return. 

Recruited by the ‘other’ Lebowski’s personal assistant, Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), The Dude - accompanied by Walter - sets out to deliver the ransom money and bring Mrs. Lebowski home. But when his good buddy starts taking control of the situation, it isn't long before The Dude is in some serious hot water.

The casting of Jeff Bridges as The Dude - a laid-back stoner with no job - was a stroke of genius. Bridges himself once said he was born to play The Dude, going so far as to admit he might have actually been the character had his life taken a few wrong turns. Bridges maintains The Dude’s easygoing attitude throughout the movie, even when things come crashing down around him. 

As for the role of his best friend Walter, it was tailor-made for John Goodman. The Coens had previously worked with Goodman on both Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, and were fully aware of what the actor could bring to a film. In direct contrast to The Dude, Walter Sobchak is an angry man, the kind of guy who draws a loaded gun during a bowling match. He is the exact opposite of The Dude, and is also the reason The Dude gets into so much trouble. Walter certainly means well, but there’s no denying that The Dude’s life would have been much quieter had he not told Walter about his wet rug. John Goodman is an actor who knows how to shake the comedy out of every scene, and he never fails to do so here.

Practically every sequence in The Big Lebowski is comedy gold, and the supporting cast (which includes Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Sam Elliott and Ben Gazzara) is just about perfect. It may have taken a while to sink in, but now that it has, I’m hooked on The Big Lebowski. I love this movie!

Monday, September 10, 2012

#756. The Twelve Chairs (1970)

Directed By: Mel Brooks

Starring: Ron Moody, Frank Langella, Dom DeLuise

Tag line: "A wild and hilarious chase for a fortune in jewels"

Trivia: This film featured the screen debut of Frank Langella

Mel Brooks’ second directorial effort is also one of his most overlooked, and differs from such later works as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety in that it’s not a direct spoof of a film genre. Shot on location in Yugoslavia and featuring a wonderfully over-the-top performance by Dom DeLuise, The Twelve Chairs is, nonetheless, a very funny movie.

Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) was once a nobleman in Czarist Russia, but lost everything he owned as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. Among his former belongings are twelve dining room chairs, which have since been packed up and scattered, far and wide, across the Soviet Union. On her deathbed, Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law makes a startling confession: fearing the loss of her beloved jewels, which are worth a small fortune, the old gal sewed them into one of the chairs just prior to the revolution. Determined to track down those jewels, Vorobyaninov teams up with Ostap (Frank Langella), an experienced con man, and spends the next several months traveling around the country, searching high and low for each of the chairs. But someone else has also joined the quest: Father Fyodor (DeLuise), the priest of Vorobyaninov’s village, who learned about the jewels during the mother-in-law’s final confession, and has set aside his spiritual duties to indulge in a little worldly greed. Who will be the first to find the chair that will make their dreams come true?

Ron Moody is hilarious as Vorobyaninov, walking a fine line between sophistication and insanity (with insanity usually winning out in the end), while Langella gets the job done as his partner, Ostap, the swindler who teaches Vorobyaninov how to survive on the streets. Yet it’s Dom DeLuise’s manic portrayal of Father Fyodor that steals the show. A Holy man who occasionally communicates directly with God (after a disappointing discovery, he looks up and wails “Oh, God…you’re so strict!”), Fyodor veers back and forth between greedy exuberance and suicidal depression. One of the film’s laugh-out-loud scenes has the good Father, upon realizing he’s once again located the wrong chair, attempting to finish himself off with a knife, only to writhe around in excruciating pain the moment the tip of the blade touches his stomach.

The Twelve Chairs was the first of six Brooks movies DeLuise would appear in, and as great as he was in some of them (his effeminate director in Blazing Saddles was a howl, as was his gluttonous Emperor in History of the World, Part 1), Father Fyodor may be his crowning achievement.