Monday, April 30, 2012

#623. King Solomon's Mines (1950)


Directed By: Compton Bennett, Andrew Marton

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Stewart Granger, Richard Carlson






Trivia:  This film has no musical score whatsoever, save the drums of several native African tribes







As I mentioned in my write-up of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was the film that inspired my love of movies, stirring my impressionable imagination like no motion picture had done before. As I sat watching King Solomon’s Mines, I couldn’t help but wonder how many youngsters in 1950 shared a similar experience with this film. Like Raiders, King Solomon’s Mines is the kind of movie kids with a penchant for adventure will easily enjoy.

Famous explorer Alan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) is hired by Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) to track down her husband, an adventurer who, months earlier, undertook an expedition to locate the fabled King Solomon’s Mines and hasn’t been heard from since. Rumored to contain treasure beyond your wildest dreams, King Solomon’s Mines supposedly lies in the deepest jungles of Africa, which Quatermain and Elizabeth must now brave if they're to complete this rescue operation. Along the way, the small party encounters many obstacles, including angry tribesmen and a variety of vicious animals. As if these perils weren't bad enough, Quatermain also finds himself falling in love with Elizabeth, leaving him to wrestle with the fact that, if their mission is a success, he will lose her forever.

King Solomon’s Mines was undoubtedly geared towards kids, offering enough adventure to keep their eyes glued to the screen for the duration. First off, the film features an assortment of wild animals. As the story opens, Quatermain is acting as guide to two big-game hunters, who've traveled to Africa for the express purpose of shooting an elephant (a scene that reveals, in no uncertain terms, how man is often the less noble beast). King Solomon’s Mines has it all, from crocodiles to monkeys, and everything in between. It is also beautifully shot, making ample use of the lush African landscape that serves as its backdrop. Filmed on location in Kenya, Tanzania and the Congo, King Solomon’s Mines works as a sort of travelogue, giving us the Dark Continent at its most majestic. Then, of course, the movie boasts plenty of adventure, with Quatermain and his party facing new dangers at every turn. 

With action, beauty and drama filling the screen from start to finish, King Solomon’s Mines is Tarzan, National Geographic, and The Travel Channel all rolled into one.







Sunday, April 29, 2012

#622. Jaws (1975)


Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss




Tag line: "You yell shark, and we got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July"

Trivia:  Charlton Heston was so annoyed with being rejected for the role of Brody that he later made disparaging comments about Steven Spielberg and vowed never to work with him




Steven Spielberg’s 1975 horror/thriller, Jaws, has gone down in history as the cinema's very first summer blockbuster. Released in June of that year, this now-classic tale of a man-eating shark took in over $100 million at the box office in just under 2 months, a feat unheard of at the time. Amazingly, several decades and hundreds of summer blockbusters later, Jaws would still make many Top-5 lists of the finest summer movies ever produced. In fact, for a whole lot of us, it's still number one.

When the remains of a young girl (Susan Backlinie), the victim of a shark attack, wash up on the beaches of Amity Island, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) takes it upon himself to close the beach until further notice. Neither the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) nor the town council are happy with his decision, arguing that such an action, on the eve of the July 4th weekend, will cost their community thousands in revenue. Against Brody’s better judgment, and ignoring the advice of Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an ichthyologist sent in to investigate the attack, the town re-opens the beaches, resulting in even more bloodshed once the shark returns. To destroy the creature (and thus salvage the rest of their summer season), Amity hires rugged fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt down the beast. With Brody and Hooper in tow, Quint sets out to destroy what is quickly becoming a man-eating monster.

The shark in Jaws is as mysterious as it is terrifying, and generates tension by the mere fact we have no idea where or when it will strike next. For the majority of the film, we barely see the creature; it's presence is noted by way of underwater shots (seen from the shark's point of view) punctuated by John Williams' brilliant score. Even the attacks are kept at a minimum early on, making each one all the more horrifying when it occurs. It isn't until the last 1/3 of the movie that Spielberg finally rolls out his monster, cluing us in on just how fearsome a beast it truly is.

Of course, none of the on-screen carnage would amount to much if we didn't care about the good citizens of Amity Island, and like many of Spielberg's best works, Jaws forges a bond between audience and characters that remains strong throughout. In the case of Robert Shaw's Quint, however, such a connection wasn't as easy to come by. Like Brody and Hooper, we approach Quint with a degree of caution; his mannerisms are often abrasive, and his motivations somewhat suspect. Then, in what is perhaps the film's most poignant sequence, we're given all we need to know about the man. Following a tense day of shark hunting, Brody, Hooper and Quint are unwinding in the cabin of Quint’s boat, sharing a few drinks. Quint, slightly drunk, relates a story from his days in the U.S. Navy. It was June of 1945, and the ship Quint was serving on, the U.S.S. Indianapolis, was struck by a Japanese torpedo, sinking to the bottom of the sea in under 12 minutes. Quint was one of around 900 men left floating in the shark-infested waters, watching as the swarming creatures dragged his shipmates into the dark water, one by one. He and the others waited five days to be rescued, and by the time a ship finally arrived, more than 2/3's of their number had been devoured. Shaw's delivery of this story is masterful, and all at once we know what it is that drives his character. Brody wants to kill the beast, Hooper's out to study it, whereas Quint is chasing the demons of his past.

Since 1975, Hollywood has released a plethora of big-budget, special-effects-laden movies during the summer months, each hoping to be crowned that year's box-office champ. Most of these films set out to impress the masses with gobs of special effects and loud, booming soundtracks. Someday, we may even get one that approaches the same level of perfection as Spielberg's Jaws, providing a movie-going experience which will resonate with audiences for many years to come.

Perhaps someday…







Saturday, April 28, 2012

#621. The Princess Bride (1987)


Directed By: Rob Reiner

Starring: Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright




Tag line: "Heroes, giants, villains, wizards, true love"

Trivia:  Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin performed all of their own sword-fighting after many hours of training







A grandfather (Peter Falk) sits down to read his sickly grandson (Fred Savage) a bedtime story titled The Princess Bride, an epic tale of high adventure and love everlasting. In it, a beautiful young maiden named Buttercup (Robin Wright) falls in love with her servant, Westley (Cary Elwes). But instead of living happily ever after, Westley sets out to seek his fortune, only to be captured and killed by a bloodthirsty pirate. At first devastated by the loss of her true love, Buttercup eventually agrees to marry the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon).  Yet shortly before the wedding is to take place, Buttercup is kidnapped, then saved by a mysterious stranger in a mask, who bears a striking resemblance to the deceased Westley. With the help of swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and a gentle giant named Fezzik (Andre the Giant), this stranger hopes to prevent Buttercup from marrying the deceitful Prince, thus giving this tale the "happily ever after" ending it so richly deserves.

The Princess Bride is both funny and exciting, but above all, it's a film about love.  Cary Elwes and Robin Wright are a winning pair; sure, they look great together, but the two also convey a tenderness that's downright essential to the movie's central theme. Right from the get-go, when Westley is working as Buttercup’s farmhand, you feel the warmth and affection flowing between them, and I bought their relationship hook, line and sinker. The action is thrilling (especially the sword fight between Westley and Inigo Montoya, a sequence as wonderfully staged as any you'd find in an Errol Flynn spectacle), and the humor is spot-on (Wallace Shawn , who plays the criminal mastermind, Vizzini, is hilariously full of himself), yet it’s the romance that ultimately makes The Princess Bride such an uplifting motion picture.

The Princess Bride continues to impress audiences to this day, and is one of those rare films the entire family can enjoy. I’m sure it will prove as timeless as the fairy tales that inspired its creation, and will pass from generation to generation, guiding both children and parents to a place where, once upon a time, love was all that really mattered.








Friday, April 27, 2012

#620. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)


Directed By: Jay Roach

Starring: Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Michael York




Tag line: "Frozen in the 60's... thawing spring '97, baby!"

Trivia:  The marching band in the opening sequence is the band from Riverside Community College in California





Austin Powers (Mike Myers), a self-proclaimed super spy with a hyperactive libido, was a sensation when he debuted in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Yet, despite the character's popularity, it was his arch-enemy, Dr. Evil (also played by Myers), who got all the best lines.

A fashion photographer in 1960s London, Austin is also the grooviest agent in her Majesty’s Secret Service. When his nemesis, Dr. Evil, has himself cryogenically frozen, Austin decides to do likewise, leaving instructions that he's to be awakened only when Dr. Evil returns. Thirty years later, Dr. Evil is once again at the helm of his criminal organization. So Austin is thawed out as well, and, with the help of Special Agent Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), he's back on the job in no time. A '90s woman, Vanessa finds Austin’s sixties mentality more than a little annoying. In fact, thanks to all the changes that have taken place over the last thirty years, Austin's more of a relic than he is a spy. But while Austin struggles to find his place in the modern world, Dr. Evil is busy swiping a nuclear warhead, which he threatens to detonate unless the United Nations pays him "$100 billion dollars". Can Austin regain his “mojo” in time to save humanity?

Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery features a number of hilarious scenes, many of which are the direct result of its title character transporting from the free-love '60s to the more reserved '90s. Austin watches a video (provided by Vanessa) showing him everything he’s missed over the last three decades, including the lunar landing and the fall of the Berlin Wall. What single newsworthy event had the biggest impact on him? “I can’t believe Liberace was gay”, he says to Vanessa, “I never saw that coming”. But as I said, the film’s funniest moments aren't courtesy of Austin Powers; they belong to Dr. Evil, the effeminate criminal mastermind who wants to rule the world. Dr. Evil also has his problems adjusting to modern society, especially the realization he now has a teenage son named Scott (Seth Green). Conceived by way of a sperm sample left behind before his deep freeze, Scott and his father don’t really hit it off, and at one point attempt to strengthen their relationship by attending a support group for fathers and sons. During one meeting, Scott reveals to the group that he dreams of one day opening a petting zoo. Dr. Evil, whose only wish is to have a son to carry on the family business, asks, “Will it be an evil petting zoo?” The question sends Scott off the deep end.

Austin Powers International Man of Mystery was a big hit upon its release in 1997, and was followed by two equally successful sequels. Yet as funny as these two movies (The Spy Who Shagged Me in 1999 and Goldmember in 2002) were, it was International Man of Mystery that set the tone for the entire series.








Thursday, April 26, 2012

#619. Desperado (1995)


Directed By: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida




Tag line: "He came back to settle the score with someone. Anyone. EVERYONE"

Trivia:  Steve Buscemi's character's name is "Buscemi" because the part was written with him in mind





A follow-up to director Robert Rodriguez's independent hit, El Mariachi, Desperado continues the exploits of Mexico’s most notorious mariachi player (Antonio Bandaras), who is seeking revenge for the murder of his girlfriend. The man responsible for her killing, a drug kingpin named Bucho (Joaquim DeAlmeida), is very powerful, and controls an entire border town. With an impressive arsenal, and a bad-ass attitude to go with it, El Mariachi makes his presence known in this town, never hiding the fact he intends to put Bucho out of business once and for all. With the aid of a local bookstore owner (Salma Hayek), and his trusty sidekick (Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi is convinced his thirst for vengeance will finally be quenched.

Rodriguez flexes his cinematic muscles throughout Desperado, and gets the action off to a quick start with the help of an exciting pre-title sequence. In it, El Mariachi’s sidekick walks into a Mexican bar full of unsavory characters, and asks the bartender (Cheech Marin) for a beer. He then proceeds to tell the bartender, and anyone else who'll listen, about what happened in the last bar he visited, when “the biggest Mexican” he'd ever seen walked in and caused a ruckus simply by mentioning the name “Bucho”. Shown in flashback, we watch as this “big” Mexican, who's actually El Mariachi, shoots it out with every single person in that bar. It’s obvious Buscemi’s character was spinning a tall tale (or at least embellishing what really went down) in order to get a rise out of the patrons (who, it just so happens, were also Bucho’s henchmen). Keeping in tune with this elaboration, Rodriguez constructs the flashback as if it were a dream, complete with well-placed shadows and gobs of cartoon violence. From there on out, Desperado treats us to action, laughs, a cameo appearance by Quentin Tarantino (playing a pick-up man with a warped sense of humor), and some expertly choreographed shootouts that are as “high-octane” as they come.

Holding it all together is Antonio Bandaras, who brings out El Mariachi’s charm, while mixing in equal doses of strength and charisma. His tough-as-nails approach, combined with the actor's amazing physical skills, make him the perfect fit for the role, and the reason we buy all the anarchy exploding onscreen.







Wednesday, April 25, 2012

#618. Identity (2003)


Directed By: James Mangold

Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet




Tag line: "Identity is a secret. Identity is a mystery. Identity is a killer"

Trivia:  The book seen in Ed's car as he picks up Paris is "Being and Nothingness" by Jean-Paul Sartre






Eleven people are stranded in a remote Nevada motel during a torrential rainstorm. Included among them are Ed (John Cusack), a former L.A. cop turned chauffeur who now works for a fading television star (Rebecca De Mornay), and Paris (Amanda Peet), a prostitute looking to make a fresh start. A policeman named Rhodes (Ray Liotta), who's transporting a dangerous prisoner (Jake Busey), turns up as well, as does the York family; George (John McGinley), Alice (Leila Kenzle) and Timmy (Bret Loehr), who were about to begin their family vacation when tragedy sent them scrambling to the motel. Ginny (Clea Duvall) and Lou (William Lee Scott) are newlyweds who don't seem to like each other very much, and the hotel manager, Larry (John Hawkes), is hiding a dark secret. Soon after this motley crew has been assembled, people begin to die, each murdered in a grisly fashion.

Then there's the seemingly separate story of a condemned killer named Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince). The day before he's to be executed, Rivers' attorneys learn that a key piece of evidence had been withheld from them during the trial, prompting the judge (Holmes Osborne) to call a midnight hearing in his chambers. Supported by the testimony of a psychiatrist named Malick (Alfred Molina), the defense hopes to have the death sentence overturned on the grounds that Rivers is mentally disturbed. They believe their client has no memory of the crimes he's committed, and if they can prove it to the judge's satisfaction, a stay of execution will be issued.

Exactly how do these two stories connect? You'll have to find out for yourself. I may have said too much already.

I've seen Identity twice now, and a funny thing happened when I watched it the second time. On my initial viewing, I was so wrapped up in the film's mystery, the twists and turns driving its story, that I didn't much notice anything else. Now, logic would dictate a follow-up viewing would be a major let-down, simply because all its secrets will have been revealed. Strangely enough, the opposite is true. Concentrating on the subtle clues director James Mangold scattered throughout the movie, I suddenly realized Identity was just as much an in-depth psychological study into the mind of a serial killer as it was an edgy thriller. I recommend watching Identity, then watching it again. I'm sure you'll find, as I did, that two entirely distinct, but equally engaging personalities will emerge from this one film.

Now, when watching it a second time, pay close attention to the very beginning, where...

OK, I'll shut up.

Just watch it.

Twice.







Tuesday, April 24, 2012

#617. Matchstick Men (2003)


Directed By: Ridley Scott

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell




Tag line: "lie cheat steal rinse repeat"

Trivia:  Alison Lohman went to the audition dressed and acted like a 14-year-old girl. Ridley Scott only realized her real age when she told him. She was 22 at the time





What is it about con men that movie audiences find so exciting? For me, it comes down to charisma; most cinematic con artists have charisma to spare, as well as intelligence, cockiness, and the ability to think on their feet.

And then there’s Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage).

He's the lead character in Matchstick Men, director Ridley Scott’s remarkable entry in the grifter genre. Along with his partner, Frank (Sam Rockwell), Roy's made a boatload of cash bilking middle-class couples out of their nest eggs. Yet despite his success, he isn’t very happy in his work. In fact, his career choice has turned him into a neurotic wreck. Roy suffers from facial ticks and a variety of nervous disorders, for which his psychiatrist has prescribed medication. What's more, he's obsessive compulsive, freaking out when people walk on his carpet with their shoes on or use his telephone without washing their hands. Obviously, being a swindler doesn’t agree with Roy, but he’s making a lot of money doing it. A lot of money. So how can he justify giving it up?

And then life throws him a curve. With the help of his new psychiatrist, Dr. Klien (Bruce Altman), Roy discovers he has a teenage daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman), the product of a failed marriage many years earlier. Before he has time to process this shocking bit of news, Angela has moved in with him, and what's more, she doesn’t adhere to his stringent house rules. Yet despite the initial friction, Angela's presence has an unexpected effect on Roy: she makes him happy. With a new lease on life, Roy tells Frank he wants out of the con game, promising to assist in one last score before hanging it up for good. Together, and with Angela’s help, Roy and Frank dupe wealthy businessman Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill) out of big bucks. But when this last job goes bad, Roy, Frank, and Angela are forced into a confrontation none of them are prepared for.

Nicolas Cage delivers a solid performance as Roy, accomplishing something no movie grifter before him had even attempted. In Roy, Cage has taken the usually fast-paced, exhilarating life of a con man and turned it into something mundane. What’s unique about this character is he's a thief who hates stealing. While most swindlers have a certain love, or at the very least an acceptance, of what it is they do, Roy's buckling under the pressure of self-loathing. Never mind he’s brilliant at what he does (the all-time best, if Frank's to be believed). For Roy, being a chiseler makes him no better than the majority of today’s workforce: he hates his job, and has no idea how to go about changing it.

As we see in Matchstick Men, running a scam on someone can sometimes be hard work, but shutting off your conscience while doing so? For Roy Waller, that just wasn't possible.







Monday, April 23, 2012

#616. Badlands (1973)


Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates




Tag line: "He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. For a while they lived together in a tree house. In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people"

Trivia: Don Johnson auditioned for the part of Kit




Through the unlikely combination of poetry and random violence, Terence Malick’s Badlands weaves a singular tale of two young lovers who, as the film's tag line states, set out to kill a little time, and ended up killing innocent people instead. 

Based on the 1958 Starkweather homicides and set against the backdrop of the American Midwest, Badlands introduces us to Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a 25-year-old drifter who bears a striking resemblance to James Dean. One day, Kit meets Holly (Sissy Spacek), a baton-twirling teenager, with whom he falls instantly in love. When Holly’s widowed father (Warren Oates) objects to the relationship, Kit shoots him dead, then lights the house on fire to conceal all traces of the crime. At first horrified by Kit’s actions, Holly nonetheless agrees to go with him, and the two set off on a cross-country killing spree, leaving a string of corpses in their wake. 

At the outset, Kit and Holly appeared to be kindred spirits. He was a loner who had trouble holding onto a job, while she wasn’t very popular in school. “Our time together was limited”, Holly says in her dual role as the film's narrator, “and each lived for the precious hours when he or she could be with the other, away from all the cares of the world”. Yet what these initial days of their affair also made painfully clear was Kit and Holly had little in common. They played cards and took walks, but hardly spoke a word to each other while doing so, and even their first sexual encounter was less than fulfilling. It isn’t until Kit guns down Holly’s father that their relationship finally comes alive. Excitement and danger became their constant companions the moment Kit pulled that trigger, and all at once, life in each others company seemed a lot more promising. 

I can’t say I was immediately impressed with Badlands the 1st time I saw it, and the reason why is the movie's narration. To me, it felt out of place, colliding rather abruptly, even clumsily, with the story at hand. At one point, as she and Kit are hiding out in in the woods, Holly fills her days by waxing poetic about the surrounding wilderness. “I grew to love the forest, “ she says, “the cooin’ of the doves and the hum of dragonflies in the air made it always lonesome, like everybody’s dead and gone”. Certainly not the reflections you'd expect to hear from a girl on the run, let alone one in the company of a murderer. These asides of Holly's felt too detached to me , yet I came to appreciate it's this very detachment that gives Badlands it’s center; creating a world where violence and beauty exist in perfect unison. Through bloodshed, Kit was leaving his mark, while Holly, by way of her observations, created the utopia in which they both would live, if not physically, then spiritually. 

Kit and Holly spent most of their lives as outsiders, looking for a place to call home. In the end, they found that place in each other.







Sunday, April 22, 2012

#615. Year of the Dragon (1985)


Directed By: Michael Cimino


Starring: Mickey Rourke, John Lone, Ariane, Raymond J. Barry



Tag line: "It isn't the Bronx or Brooklyn.  It isn't even New York.  It's Chinatown...and it's about to explode"

Trivia:  The exterior shots of New York City were actually sets built in North Carolina






There’s a new Marshal in town”. These words are spoken by New York City Detective Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) after he’s assigned the gargantuan task of cleaning up Chinatown, which, in recent months, has been plagued by gang violence. Like Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood’s renegade cop from the Dirty Harry series, White occasionally operates outside the law to ensure justice is carried out. But as we learn early on in Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon, Stanley isn’t exactly a hero. In fact, sometimes he’s a downright bastard.

White’s investigation centers on the activities of Joey Tai (John Lone), an ambitious young gangster who’s recently taken control of his family’s vast criminal empire. With the help of reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane), the ever-persistent White disrupts Tai’s entire operation, initiating a battle of wills between the two men that, before it’s over, will cost a number of people their lives. 

Mickey Rourke was one of my favorite actors back in the ‘80s, and in Year of the Dragon he effectively snarls his way through the role of Stanley White. There are moments when we’re definitely on his side (like when the Mayor, refusing to risk the thousands of dollars in campaign contributions he gets from Joey Tai, tries to reign in the investigation). Ultimately, though, Stanley White is a hard character to like. Aside from his shocking disregard for procedure (at one point arresting hundreds of Chinese just to send Joey Tai a message), he also allows personal feelings to interfere with his job. A Vietnam war vet, Stanley often lets his distaste for all things Chinese get the better of him, and isn’t above tossing out the occasional racist remark. He ignores his long-suffering wife, Connie (Caroline Kava), and instead woos Tracy Tzu, even going so far as to force himself on her when she refuses to have sex with him. So outlandish is his behavior at times that we wonder why he wasn’t thrown off the force long ago. On the other side of the fight is Joey Tai, smoothly portrayed by John Lone. At the outset, it appears Tai’s primary interest is business. Following an attack on a restaurant owned by his uncle, Harry Jung (Victor Wong), Tai calls for retaliation, mostly because there’s very little money coming in, and they can’t afford to risk future revenue by losing face. But underneath his white suit and business savvy, Joey Tai is every bit the cold-blooded criminal, one who isn't afraid to take an active role in the killings from time to time. 

There are action scenes in Year of the Dragon that will blow your mind (the attack by two masked gunmen on Harry Jung’s restaurant is one of the film’s strongest scenes), and Cimino never shies away from the violence, which he shows in all its crimson-stained glory. But Year of the Dragon is also uneven; the love affair between Stanley and Tracy Tzu isn’t given enough time to explain itself (we have no idea what she sees in him), and there’s an extended sequence with Joey Tai in Thailand that's entirely unnecessary. These elements, combined with a lead character who’ll rub a good many people the wrong way, result in a very hit and miss film.







Saturday, April 21, 2012

#614. Tokyo Story (1953)


Directed By: Yasujirô Ozu

Starring: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama. Sô Yamamura





Trivia:  Voted #7 in Total Film's 100 Greatest Movies Of All Time list








In Tokyo Story, director Yasujiro Ozu takes an in-depth look at the family unit, focusing on the conflict that occasionally arises between parents and their children. 

Shukishi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) and his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), an elderly couple living in a small Japanese community, travel to the overcrowded streets of Tokyo to visit two of their kids. Son Koichi (So Yamamura) is a doctor, while married daughter Shige (Haruka Sugimura) owns and operates a beauty salon. Also in Tokyo is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the couple’s daughter-in-law, widowed when their son (and her husband) was killed in the war. Expecting to find them enjoying the high life, the couple quickly learns their offspring aren't as successful as they’d hoped. The situation becomes even more complex when Koichi and Shige, who outwardly claim they're happy to have their parents around, complain amongst themselves that the whole visit is nothing more than an unwelcome distraction from the daily routine. 

Tokyo Story delves into serious issues, like the expectations of parents and the callous manner in which adult children sometimes treat their aging mother and father. Yet Ozu approaches it all with his patented straightforward, almost simplistic style. Never once do these characters resort to emotional outbursts; even at their angriest, they don't shout at one another, or raise their voices in anger. What makes this simple little movie about generational differences so appealing is the fact it's just that: a simple film, filled with subtle, yet poignantly moving moments, never once falling back on the overtly dramatic to drive the point across. There’s not a shred of artificiality in Tokyo Story; every scene rings absolutely true. 

Tokyo Story ends with a tragedy, one that's all the more compelling when viewed within the context of what preceded it. And yet, in the midst of such heartbreak and drama, the movie is just as restrained in its finale as it was the very first scene. From start to finish, Tokyo Story is an honest film.







Friday, April 20, 2012

#613. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)


Directed By: Erle C. Kenton

Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Lon Chaney Jr., Ralph Bellamy




Tag line: "You've waited years for these NEW Terrifying adventures, more Thrilling than ever before!"

Trivia:  Lon Chaney Jr. was cast while he was still filming The Wolf Man






After three solid entries in a row, the Universal Frankenstein series hits a snag with 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, the first to feature a Monster not played by Boris Karloff.

The villagers, tired of the so-called “Frankenstein Curse”, take matters into their own hands and blow up Castle Frankenstein, thus ridding themselves of it once and for all. But the dynamite does more than destroy a dusty old building, and when the smoke finally clears, the Monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) is again among the living. Delighted to see his old friend up and about, Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who somehow survived the bullets fired into his torso in Son of Frankenstein, leads the Monster to the village of Vasaria, where Frankenstein’s second son, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), works as a psychiatrist. Threatening to reveal his family's dark secret, Ygor blackmails Ludwig into repairing the damaged creature. Convinced he can cure the Monster, and thus restore his family's good name (sound familiar?), Ludwig will replace the beast's criminal brain with a normal one. What he doesn't know is Ygor , with the help of Frankenstein's colleague, Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), plans to give the creature a different brain altogether...namely his own!

What Karloff meant to the role of the Monster is evident in Lon Chaney’s stoic interpretation of the creature, playing him more as a mindless brute than a being aware of his own situation. Upon his arrival in Vasaria, the Monster spots a young girl (Janet Ann Gallow) being taunted by some older boys, who kick the ball she’s playing with onto a nearby rooftop. Lumbering over to assist her, the Monster picks up the girl and carries her to the roof to retrieve the toy, all as nervous townsfolk, including the girl’s father (Olaf Hytten), look on below. Yet there’s no feeling, no sympathy in his eyes for the little girl's plight, leaving us puzzled as to why he’s even helping her in the first place (other than the flimsy notion he remembers a similar child from his past). Even after he's apprehended by the police and dragged to their station, where he’s immediately chained to a chair, the Monster doesn’t struggle to free himself, as he’s done so often in the past. Instead, he sits motionless, looking on quietly as curious onlookers surround him, staring at the oddity that’s just invaded their village. Chaney’s performance is a regrettable miscalculation, and does nothing but stir up a longing for Karloff’s emotionally charged portrayals.

By no means is The Ghost of Frankenstein a bad movie; its production value is still substantial (Ludwig Frankenstein’s laboratory boasts as many cool gadgets as his father’s and brother’s), and the story, which featured more action than the previous three films, managed to hold my attention. The cardinal sin committed by The Ghost of Frankenstein isn’t that it’s terrible; just mediocre. And with a trio of classic movies preceding it, that’s enough to make its shortcomings really stand out.







Thursday, April 19, 2012

#612. Critters (1986)


Directed By: Stephen Herek

Starring: Dee Wallace, M. Emmet Walsh, Billy Green Bush




Tag line: "They eat so fast, you don't have time to scream"

Trivia:  This film was New Line's answer to 1984's Gremlins






Released two years after Joe Dante's runaway hit, Gremlins, Critters was an obvious attempt to cash in on the former's success. But that doesn't make it any less entertaining.

A species of petite, furry carnivores known as the Crites have escaped from an asteroid penal colony, and are on their way to earth in a stolen spaceship. Hot on their trail are two shape-shifting bounty hunters, with instructions to either return the Crites to prison or bring back evidence they've all been destroyed. Both arrive at their destination in the middle of the night, coming in for a landing just outside Grover's Bend, Kansas, and before the evening's out, this small farming community will be transformed into an intergalactic battleground.

All of Critter's earth-bound characters are laid out, nice and neat, at the beginning of the film. We have the Brown family: father Jay (Billy Green Bush), mother Helen (Dee Walace), daughter April (Nadine Van der Velde) and son Brad (Scott Grimes), whose farm serves as Ground Zero in the fight between the Crites and the bounty hunters. Then there's your typical small-town sheriff (M. Emmet Walsh) and his dim-witted deputy, Jeff (Ethan Phillips), and even a town drunk named Charlie (Don Keith Opper), who goes around telling everyone his teeth can pick up alien transmissions. The only one worth a damn is young Brad Brown, the lone human not injured, confused or scared when the chaos erupts, and it's he who figures out the Crites get bigger after they eat, making them all the more dangerous.

But the characters we're most interested in are the Crites themselves, the so-called "critters" of the title, and within the movie's first half-hour, they land on earth and set off in search of food (we know this because subtitles fill us in on what their back-and-forth snarls mean). The first victim is one of Farmer Brown's cattle, but next on the menu is Deputy Jeff, who swerves his police car when a furry creature rolls across the road in front of him. Thinking it's a dog, he pulls over to investigate, and is soon surrounded by Crites, which fire a poisonous quill into his leg, then drag him under his car. We don't see much of Deputy Jeff's death, yet do get a full glimpse of the Crites when they attack Jay Brown in his basement (despite being small and fluffy, their razor-sharp teeth make them anything but cute). As in Gremlins, some of the Crites on-screen antics are played for laughs (like when one swallows a lit M-80 firecracker, only to belch up smoke a few moments later), but humor aside, the Crites' nasty disposition, combined with their ravenous appetite, makes for a handful of tense moments.

The alien bounty hunters were a cool addition to the story, and the film's best effect occurs when they tap into a television signal and one of them alters his appearance to look exactly like rock superstar Johnny Steele (Terrence Mann), who he saw in a music video. In a nice twist, the other doesn't assume human identity until arriving on earth, then selects the first person he comes across: the mutilated remains of Deputy Jeff! These two add another dimension to the story, and prove just as much a nuisance as the Crites, shooting up a church gathering and doing damage to the local bowling alley.

Critters is more fun than a Gremlins rip-off has any right being, and was enough of a hit to warrant three sequels (released in 1988, 1991 and 1992). Interestingly enough, Gremlins only had one!







Wednesday, April 18, 2012

#611. High Fidelity (2000)



Directed By: Stephen Frears

Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso






Tag line: "A comedy about fear of commitment, hating your job, falling in love and other pop favorites"

Trivia:  Artie Lange auditioned for the role of Barry




In the late '80s, I had a pretty sweet audio system in my room; nothing state-of-the-art, but it afforded me the opportunity to mix dozens upon dozens of compilation tapes, which I created from the plethora of albums, cassettes and CDs in my collection. I spent many hours in front of that set-up, all in the hopes of stumbling upon the perfect musical mix. At one point, my turnout had reached well over 150 tapes, and the only thing they had in common was I never listened to a single one. How could I? I was too busy making them. This is the key reason I find Stephen Frear’s High Fidelity so appealing; by relating the tale of a man whose entire life revolves around music, It showed me that, at the very least, I wasn’t alone in my obsession. 

Rob Gordon (John Cusack) owns a struggling record store in downtown Chicago, one that still offers vinyl albums for sale. He passes the time between customers by discussing pop culture, and everything relating to it, with his two employees; the shy and unassuming Dick (Todd Louiso), and the loud and obnoxious Barry (Jack Black). Unfortunately, Rob’s vast knowledge of popular music hasn’t helped him accomplish much in life, and his current girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hiejle), fed up with Rob’s stagnant existence, has just left him for a guy named Ian (Tim Robbins). Faced with the heartbreak of losing Laura, Rob searches for the answer to a question that’s been hounding him for years: why do girls always dump him? 

John Cusack shines as Rob, a likeable but clueless guy who narrates his own story, breaking down the fourth wall and demonstrating how he equates everything in life to music. Right after Laura leaves him, Rob concocts a ‘top five’ list of his all-time most painful breakups, running through his entire romantic history to find the five women who broke his heart. Thinking back on each one, he remembers “important” details like which recording artists were their favorites, yet has no idea why they ultimately rejected him. When at his store, Rob often grows impatient with Dick and Barry, and we sense it's because he realizes they’re just like him. The three spend most of the day coming up with ‘top five’ lists. When Laura’s father dies, Dick and Barry compile a ‘top five songs about death’ list in his honor (my personal favorite was Dick's addition of Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald). Music is their retreat from the real world, and Rob's growing weary of the fantasy. “People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos ”, Rob says, “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss”. 

As we learn in High Fidelity, those poor souls need our help as much as anyone.







Tuesday, April 17, 2012

#610. Minority Report (2002)


Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton




Tag line: "The system is perfect until it comes after you"

Trivia:  This is the first movie Steven Spielberg ever directed for 20th Century Fox






In the year 2054, there exists a law enforcement agency known as Precrime, an organization that actually stops killers before they've had a chance to kill. With the help of three “Precogs”, beings with the ability to see into the future, Precrime has eliminated murder in Washington D.C.. In fact, the program’s such a success that it's about to be implemented nation-wide. But when the chief of the Precrime squad, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), himself becomes a suspect in a killing that hasn't yet happened, the entire agency is thrown into disarray. A well-respected cop haunted by the tragic loss of his son years earlier, Anderton finds himself on the run from his former unit, which is placed under the temporary command of Agent Danny Witner (Colin Farrell). With the clock ticking, Anderton must determine why the Precogs have predicted that, in less than 18 hours, he’ll murder a man he’s never even met.

The futuristic gadgetry on display in Minority Report is damned impressive (the Precrime lab, which features an interactive video screen that monitors the Precog's visions, is fascinating). But as Minority Report is quick to point out, such advanced technology, even when implemented for all the right reasons, can have its drawbacks. The level of control this society requires to maintain its firm grip on law and order is all-encompassing, and demands the population of Washington D.C. surrender a few of their basic human rights. Retinal scanners have been installed throughout the city, identifying people as they enter subway cars or shop at the mall. Cars travel on an advanced tracking system that allows the police, if necessary, to override its navigation system and take control of the vehicle. Then there are the spiders, small electronic devices that, when released into a building, crawl under locked doors to scan the retinal patterns of every occupant, thus identifying any criminals who may be hiding there. Along with the technology, there are the ethical ramifications of Precrime, a law enforcement unit which apprehends and incarcerates criminals before a crime's been committed. Minority Report creates an amazingly advanced society, but a cold, impersonal one, where privacy has been sacrificed for the greater good. Yes, the city is murder-free...but at what cost?

With Minority Report, director Steven Spielberg allowed his imagination to run wild, producing a world of gizmos and gadgets that, in the end, is a slave to the machinery controlling it. It’s to Spielberg’s credit we sit in awe of his vision of the future, while at the same time quite relieved not to be a part of it.







Monday, April 16, 2012

#609. Humongous (1982)


Directed By: Paul Lynch

Starring: Janet Julian, David Wallace, John Wildman




Tag line: "It's loose... It's angry... And it's getting hungry!"

Trivia:  Writer William Gray got the idea for having Joy Boushel put the blueberries in her blouse from his girlfriend






Humongous gets off to a quick, albeit vicious start. Flashback to the year 1946, where we join an outdoor party being held at a swanky lakeside mansion. Ida (Mary Sullivan), whose father's hosting the shindig, is down by the kennel tending to her dogs when Tom (Page Fletcher), obviously drunk, stumbles towards her. He wants to talk, but Ida will have none of it, and darts into the woods to get away from him. Tom is persistent, and, after catching up with her, pins Ida to a tree. A struggle ensues, and soon they're rolling around on the ground, at which point Tom tears off Ida's clothes and rapes her. Tom gets his comeuppance a few seconds later, however, when the dogs escape from their kennel and jump him. Tom is left badly injured by the attack, but it's Ida, with the help of a large rock, who finally finishes him off. 

We then leap 36 years into the future, where five twenty-somethings: Eric (David Wallace) and his girlfriend, Sandy (Janet Julian), Eric's arrogant brother, Nick (John Wildman), and Nick's grilfriend Donna (Joy Boushel) and Carla (Janit Baldwin), Nick and Eric's younger sister, set off in a boat for a fun-filled weekend cruising the lake. Their first evening out, they meet up with a fisherman named Bert (Lane Coleman), who warns them to stay away from the jagged rocks surrounding “Dog Island”, which got its name because it's supposedly populated by an unknown number of wild canines. The five heed Bert's advice and drop anchor for the night. But when Nick has an argument with Donna, he angrily takes control of the ship and tries to navigate the treacherous waters. Naturally, the boat crashes and explodes, stranding them all on “Dog Island”.  But it isn't long before they realize the island's inhabited by more than just dogs; there's also a seven-foot tall cannibal residing there.  And what's more, he hasn't eaten for days!

The creature in Humongous, a hulking beast who staggers around and lets out the occasional blood-curdling roar, makes for an imposing monster, yet the most disturbing moment in the entire film is undoubtedly the opening rape. Other than a brief shot of her clothes being ripped off, the scene plays out from Ida's point-of-view, focusing on Tom's face as he commits this heinous crime. The dog attack is equally as savage, and when the smoke settles, Tom's leg has been stripped to the bone and there's a large gash in his neck, oozing blood. Unfortunately, this pre-title sequence sets a standard for ferocity the rest of the film never quite lives up to. There are moments when it comes close (like the scene where Nick is chased by one of the island’s dogs, which is itself grabbed by the Humongous and strangled to death), but as a whole, the movie falls well short of its initial brutality. 

That said, Humongous is still a decent enough horror flick, with the odd moment or two of genuine suspense. At the very least, I'd say it's worth a watch.







Sunday, April 15, 2012

#608. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)


Directed By: Arthur Penn

Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard




Tag line: "They're young... they're in love... and they kill people"

Trivia:  Thousand of berets were sold worldwide after Faye Dunaway wore them in this film






It's a lazy Texas afternoon, and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) is in her bedroom, putting on her makeup. Bored and frustrated, she strolls over to the window, peering out just in time to catch Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) in the process of stealing her mother’s car. “Hey boy”, Bonnie yells down, “what are you doing with my mama’s car?” Clyde turns and looks up at her. Their eyes lock, and he smiles. “Wait there”, Bonnie shouts out, unable to contain her excitement.  From that moment on, they would be inseparable. 

In an America ravaged by the Depression, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow pulled off a series of daring bank robberies on their way to becoming two of the most notorious outlaws in American history. With the help of Clyde’s boisterous brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), Buck’s prissy wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), and their steady getaway driver, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Bonnie and Clyde blazed a trail that ran across the American Southwest, leaving empty banks, and a few dead bodies, in their wake. 

With a depiction of violence that was no less than groundbreaking in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde set the standard for how killings would be shown on screen for decades to come. Never before had blood spilled quite as freely in a Hollywood film, and many were shocked by the movie’s brutality. Yet, despite its various shootouts and the thrill of the odd car chase, Bonnie and Clyde is, at its heart, the story of a love forged under the most severe of circumstances. Within hours of meeting each other, Clyde robs a small corner store, and Bonnie, weary of her quiet, humdrum life, is turned on by the excitement of it all. It was an unusual relationship in that sexuality rarely entered into it (Bonnie was willing, but Clyde was impotent). No, what ignited the spark in Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow's tempestuous romance was robbing banks. 

All the chaos, all the bloodshed started the afternoon their eyes met, and it was Bonnie and Clyde’s destiny to go out in much the same way. The final scene of Bonnie and Clyde is among the most celebrated in film history.  Meticulously edited, it ups the ante by taking the violence to another level, but along with its cinematic achievements, the sequence also proved the perfect ending for this very unorthodox couple.  When fate came knocking amid a maelstrom of bullets, Bonnie and Clyde answered the door together.







Saturday, April 14, 2012

#607. Unforgiven (1992)


Directed By: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman





Trivia:  To maintain the authentic atmosphere, no motor vehicles were allowed on the Big Whiskey set








In 1959's Rio Bravo, there’s a scene where four gunmen get the drop on Sheriff Chance, played by John Wayne. In fact, if it weren’t for the quick thinking of Ricky Nelson's character, Colorado Ryan, Chance would've surely been dead. Shots ring out, and when the dust settles, all four of the baddies are lying face-down in the dirt. 

It’s a scene you'll find in hundreds of westerns; the good guys shoot the bad guys dead, end of trouble and end of story. But what exactly does it take to shoot a man? How many do you have kill before it comes as easy to you as it did Chance and Colorado? Are they haunted by the faces of those they’ve killed over the years?

Rio Bravo isn't the type of movie that will ask these questions. In Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the director spends the better part of two hours trying to answer them. 

Early in life, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) was a violent outlaw, a ruthless killer who'd shoot you just because he felt like it. Now, he spends his days as a quiet widower, working his farm and raising his two young children. Munny comes out of retirement, however, when he hears some prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey have posted a $1,000 reward; it seems two cowhands went a little crazy and cut up a whore's face. So, along with his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a young gunslinger named the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), Munny sets out to do the job and collect the reward. But Big Whiskey’s Sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), has no intention of allowing any murders to occur in his town, and plans to exact some ‘justice’ of his own on anyone foolhardy enough to try. 

Violence touches the lives of each and every character in Unforgiven. First and foremost, we have Will Munny, played to perfection by Clint Eastwood. At one time a real hell raiser, Munny never thought twice about drawing his gun in anger. Nowadays, retired and with kids to look after, he has time to reflect on all the men he's killed. “You remember that Drover I shot through the mouth whose teeth came out the back of his head?” Munny asks Ned one night. “He didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot…at least nothing I could remember when I sobered up”. 

On the flip side, we have Little Bill, the sheriff of Big Whiskey and a role that won Gene Hackman the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Bill is a law and order man through and through, yet his brand of justice is as cold-blooded as the criminals he hunts down. When the reward money lures English Bob (Richard Harris), a British gunslinger, to town, Little Bill and his deputies stop him in the streets and beat him unmercifully. For Bill, the beating is a warning to anyone who may come to collect this blood money, but he's as much a part of the problem as he is the solution, and his tactics will lead to an unexpected showdown. 

Unforgiven even looks at the violence from an outsider's perspective. W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) is English Bob's companion, a writer from the East who’s penned a book titled The Duke of Death, in which he romanticized Bob's exploits, casting him as a sort of “Robin Hood” of the West. Beauchamp himself never once held a gun, so when Little Bill’s deputies point theirs directly at him, it’s an eye-opening experience. All at once, the romance that Beauchamp had associated with gunslingers started to melt away. 

It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man”, Will Munny says. “You take all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have”. In Unforgiven, Eastwood shows us, in a deeply dramatic way, just what that means. Not a single shooting in this film goes unnoticed, and no character fires a gun and laughs about it. Each time one of these men pulls the trigger, it’s as if a part of their soul abandons them. 

It really must be a hell of a thing...killing a man.







Friday, April 13, 2012

#606. Rio Bravo (1959)


Directed By: Howard Hawks

Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson




Tag line: "The fought back to back...No quarter given...No quarter asked...No way in...No way out...of Rio Bravo"

Trivia:  The last movie in which John Wayne wore the hat he had worn since Stagecoach






As I mentioned in my write-up of High Noon, director Howard Hawks was no fan of Fred Zinnemann’s award-winning western. Hawks decried High Noon as “phony”, and wondered why any self-respecting sheriff would scurry around town begging for help. He turned the movie over and over in his head, picking out the bits and pieces that annoyed him the most, and before long, came up with a few ideas of how he'd have handled the story. The result of all this second-guessing was Rio Bravo

John Chance (John Wayne), a Sheriff in Presidio County, Texas, has just arrested Joe Burdette (Claude Aikins) for the murder of an unarmed man, inciting the anger of Burdette’s brother, Nathan (John Russell), a wealthy and powerful landowner. To break Joe out of jail, Nathan Burdette hires a gang of outlaws and sends them riding into town fully-armed, thus putting Sheriff Chance in a difficult spot. You see, Chance has to hold onto the prisoner for six days, at which time a U.S. Marshal will finally arrive to take him away. What's more, he has only two deputies to assist him; the usually-drunk Dude (Dean Martin) and a bad tempered old man they call Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Even with the addition of a young gunslinger named Colorado (Ricky Nelson), Chance knows he and his men have a tough six days ahead of them.

Rio Bravo boasts a number of thrilling gun battles, as well as a toe-tapping musical duet performed by Messrs. Nelson and Martin. But its the characters that make Rio Bravo such a great motion picture. A no-nonsense lawman, John Chance refuses to accept help form anyone unless it’s on his terms. It was a role tailor-made for John Wayne, and he’s terrific in the part, yet as good as Wayne is, Rio Bravo belongs to Dean Martin. At the outset, Martin's Dude is the town drunk, the guy nobody pays attention to except to step over him on their way to the bar. With Chance's help, Dude gets back on his feet and becomes a sober, hard-working sidekick. When he and Chance chase the killer into a bar that's stacked high with Burdette’s men, it's Dude who takes control of the situation, to prove he can handle himself when things get dicey. Thanks to some sharp thinking and a quick draw, he doesn’t disappoint. If building strong western heroes was what Hawks set out to do, then he pulled it off in a big way. 

As for High Noon, I'm on record as being a fan of the film, and consider it a well-crafted morality tale. Now, I have another reason to like that movie, because if it hadn’t been for High Noon, we wouldn’t have gotten Rio Bravo.

I’m sure glad Howard Hawks didn’t see things my way!







Thursday, April 12, 2012

#605. High Noon (1952)


Directed By: Fred Zinnemann

Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell




Tag line: "When these hands point straight up...the excitement starts!"

Trivia:  In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #27 Greatest Movie of All Time







Of every ballad that ever opened a western film, none is more memorable than High Noon’s Do Not Forsake Me O My Darlin, a somber tune in which a man asks his new bride to understand why he cannot run from someone who wants him dead. It's a theme that resonates throughout High Noon, and this song sets the perfect mood for all that follows.

Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who, for years, served as Marshal of a small town, hangs up his guns the day he marries Amy (Grace Kelly), a beautiful young Quaker. But shortly after turning in his badge, Kane's informed Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a savage criminal he sent away for murder 5 years ago, is returning on the noon train. Miller vowed to get his revenge by shooting Kane dead, and everyone in town is telling the former Marshal to get out while he can. But Kane refuses to run, deciding instead to stay and fight it out. When his hot-headed deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), abruptly quits, Kane tries to put together a posse of townsfolk to help with the upcoming showdown, yet can't find anyone willing to assist him. Alone and confused, Kane can only sit and watch as the clock's hands draw ever closer to noon, and his date with a killer.

In a bit of casting brilliance, the part of Will Kane went to veteran actor Gary Cooper, who, at the time, was old enough to play the aging marshal, yet still agile enough to handle the physical demands of the role. More than this, Cooper's mannerisms were flawless, exuding at all times an air of dignity even as his character went around asking others for help. There’s never a moment in High Noon where we don’t sympathize with Kane, where we don’t share his feelings of betrayal as, one after another, his supposed friends turn their backs on him. When Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan), who stood beside Kane at his wedding only moments earlier, won't even meet with him, it was the equivalent of plunging a knife into Kane’s heart. Abandoned by the community he faithfully served for years, Will Kane wonders if his entire life’s work had been for nothing.

There were those in Hollywood who reacted strongly to High Noon, including legendary director, Howard Hawks. “It’s phony”, Hawks said of the film, questioning the logic of having a hero who walked through town begging like a “wet chicken”. But then, I don’t think High Noon was ever meant to be a typical western. Its screenwriter, Carl Foreman, a former Communist, had been targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and just before the release of High Noon, was forced to flee the country. Watching as old friends sold out other old friends, Foreman sought to address this new way of thinking in America, where personal liberties were being sacrificed for the “greater good”. High Noon was designed to hold a mirror up to Hollywood, and judging from the reactions it drew, a lot of people didn't like what they saw peering back at them.







Wednesday, April 11, 2012

#604. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)


Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr




Tag line: "We Are Not Alone"

Trivia:  SFX man Douglas Trumbull created the cloud effects by injecting white paint into tanks of salt and fresh water






There you are, alone in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, and without warning, you're face-to-face (face-to-headlight?) with an unidentified flying object.  A UFO.  Visitors from another planet.  What thoughts race through your mind?  Are you afraid?  Curious?  Excited?  In one thrilling sequence from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where repairman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), sitting in his work truck, has an encounter he cannot explain, we learn the typical reaction may be all of the above. 

This extraordinary run-in with beings from another world occurred while Roy was out one evening making emergency repairs. His wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr) doesn't believe his story, and begins to worry when Roy's behavior shifts from merely confused to highly erratic. There were others who saw it, like single mother Julian (Melinda Dillon), who's just as perplexed as Roy is. What neither of them realizes is the U.S. Government has also gotten involved, and, with the help of French researcher Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), are trying to determine the meaning of this visitation. While the bureaucrats keep busy by denying everything, Roy and Julian’s fascination grows, leading them to think and act in ways they would have never dreamed possible.

There’s certainly excitement in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, including one of the most unusual chases ever committed to film, not to mention intrigue, with government cover-ups and military operations designed to pull the wool over an unsuspecting public's eyes. Then, of course, there’s the drama, the families torn apart by events they can't understand. Yet, above all, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about the wonder, and how regular, everyday people like you and I might react when faced with the unbelievable. Before his encounter, Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy was an everyman. He planned family outings, argued with his wife, and had a hard time getting his kids to go to bed. In a single night, Roy became a different person, and the experience stirred within him, whether consciously or subconsciously, a desire to know more. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is his journey, and all the turmoil, all the special effects wizardry, even the magnificent musical score of John Williams, is there to tell his story. He is the common man who will, for all intents and purposes, never be common again. 

Astonishment, confusion, elation; these are a few of the endearing characteristics of Steven Spielberg's films. Whether taking us through the air on a boy’s bicycle, opening the Lost Ark of the Covenant, or walking with dinosaurs, Spielberg has shown us, time and again, that not only is the amazing possible, but it can happen to just about anybody.







Tuesday, April 10, 2012

#603. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)


Directed By: Charles Crichton

Starring: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline




Tag line: "A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood"

Trivia:  John Cleese's character is called Archie Leach, which is Cary Grant's real name







A Fish Called Wanda, a 1988 film directed by Charles Crichton, not only starred two members of England's funniest sextet, Monty Python (Michael Palin and John Cleese), but was also penned by Cleese, arguably the troupe’s most famous alumnus. So imagine my surprise when, after seeing A Fish Called Wanda, a British comedy through and through, I walked away feeling the best part was played by an American. 

Professional thief George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) has just stolen a fortune in jewels. His girlfriend and accomplice in crime, Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), wants them all to herself. So, she seduces yet another accomplice, a dim-witted American crook named Otto (Kevin Kline), and together they makes plans to double-cross George and run off with the loot. An anonymous call (made by Otto) leads to George’s arrest, but to Wanda’s dismay, George hid the diamonds before being picked up, and only his stuttering sidekick, Ken (Michael Palin), knows where they are. Assuming George might divulge the location of the jewels to his lawyer, Wanda sets her sights on Barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese), who's unable to resist her charms. Unfortunately for Wanda, she falls for Archie as well, leaving her to deal with both a crumbling scheme and a half-crazed Yank. 

A Fish Called Wanda works for a number of reasons. For starters, the script, co-written by Cleese and director Charles Crichton, is superbly witty, with a multitude of twists and turns that tie together nicely in the end. Delivering on the story’s humor is an all-star cast, not the least of whom is Cleese himself as Archie Leach, the nervous barrister who finds he needs more out of life than his pleasant, upper-class existence affords him. Jamie Lee Curtis’ Wanda, by far the cleverest character in the story, provides Archie with his avenue of escape, but wants something in return. Michael Palin has long been my favorite member of the Python troupe, and here plays Ken, the stuttering errand boy who's very fond of animals. 

Each of these performances is top-notch, yet heads and shoulders above them all is Kevin Kline as the insanely jealous Otto. As played by Kline, Otto isn’t just stupid; he’s downright nasty, heaping abuse on every Englishman he sees. When Wanda announces her plans to entice Archie in order to locate the diamonds, a confused Otto replies, “I thought Englishmen didn’t like women”. He reads philosophy, yet can’t remember that, in England, you drive on the other side of the road. Kline's also the catalyst for the film’s funniest sequence. Having followed Archie and Wanda to their secret rendezvous, Otto bursts in, locks Wanda in the closet, then turns to Archie demanding an apology. The pay-off for this scene is hilarious. 

Kline would win the 1989 Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Otto, an award he certainly deserved. In A Fish Called Wanda, Kline did more than outshine two of England’s finest comedy minds; he did it on their home turf!







Monday, April 9, 2012

#602. X-Men (2000)


Directed By: Bryan Singer

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen




Tag line: "Join the Evolution"

Trivia:  28 drafts of the screenplay were written by several different writers







Bryan Singer’s X-Men, based on the popular Marvel Comics series, opens in a German concentration camp during World War II, where the Nazis are dragging a young boy (Brett Morris) away from his mother and father. He cries out for his parents, who are also fighting to reach him, and as this emotional scene intensifies, something amazing happens; the chain link fence separating the boy from his parents begins to bend and warp, as if a powerful magnet were suddenly pulling at it. But it's not a magnet causing this.  It's the boy himself. He is a mutant, and will one day become Magneto, the chief nemesis of Dr. Xavier and his X-Men. 

Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is the headmaster of a school for ‘gifted’ students, yet those Dr. Xavier calls gifted, which includes children who can walk through walls and read minds, everyone else has classified as mutants. While many would rather forget they exist, Dr. Xavier, also considered a mutant due to his telepathic powers, is determined to find a way for his kind to peacefully co-exist with the human population. Unfortunately, fellow mutant Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellan), who goes by the name Magneto, has other plans. When an overzealous United States Senator named Kelly (Bruce Davison) tries to enact legislation that will segregate mutants from the rest of society, Magneto declares war on mankind. To protect the earth from Magneto’s wrath, Xavier forms a team of his best and brightest, each with their own unique abilities. Among them are Storm (Halle Berry), who can control the weather, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a new arrival to the facility whose entire skeleton is metallic. Together, this team, now known as the X-Men, will do everything in their power to stop Magneto from carrying out his diabolical plan. 

X-Men is both a taut action film and an entertaining introduction to a most unusual world. Dr. Xavier is aware humans don’t yet trust his kind, but is encouraged enough by what he sees at his school to hope that, one day, society will also recognize their potential. Magneto, on the other hand, is as distrustful of humans as they are of him. With his small band of followers, including the shape shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romjin) and Toad (Ray Park), Magneto intends to take what man will not give. 

Which brings me back to the opening scene in the concentration camp, and the reason I believe this movie, indeed the whole series, is a step above the standard superhero fare. In recreating this terrible event, X-Men helps us to understand its villain, and the emotions driving his actions. Forcibly taken from his family by the Nazis, Magneto will no longer willingly submit to injustice.  So when society attempts to isolate mutants, he fights back. Even if we prefer the nonviolent methods of Dr. Xavier, we're nonetheless in tune with Magneto’s motivations. By providing insight into both sides of the argument, X-Men blurs the line between right and wrong. It's a nuance apparently present in the myth itself (admittedly, I'm not an avid reader of the comic), and one that director Singer has captured perfectly in his film. Regardless of how many cinematic chapters there ultimately are in the X-Men saga (thus far, there have been five), this first entry insured its characters would never be as simple as black and white.