Friday, August 31, 2012

#746. The Big Bus (1976)


Directed By: James Frawley

Starring: Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck





Tag line: "AT LAST - THE FIRST DISASTER MOVIE WHERE EVERYBODY DIES (laughing)"

Trivia: In Portugal, this film was released as TROUBLE ON WHEELS





The Big Bus, a 1976 spoof of mega-budget disaster movies, was a cable-TV favorite of mine back in the day, when I thought it was one of the funniest films I’d ever seen. Of course, that was a number of years ago, and as we all know, time can be a picture’s worst enemy, especially if it’s a comedy. Would The Big Bus hold up, or was yet another treasured memory destined for the scrap heap?

The Cyclops is the world’s first nuclear-powered bus, a vehicle so huge that it houses its very own swimming pool. Under the supervision of Professor Baxter (Harold Gould) and his daughter, Kitty (Stockard Channing), the Cyclops is being prepared for its maiden voyage, a non-stop run from New York to Denver. Naturally, there are those who want to see the project fail, including the head of a large conglomerate (Jose Ferrer), who orders his dim-witted brother (Stuart Margolin) to plant a bomb which will destroy Cyclops before it ever hits the open road. While Cyclops is undamaged in the ensuing explosion, the same can’t be said for its drivers, leaving Kitty with no alternative but to contact her old flame, Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna), a skilled driver with a shady past who hasn’t worked in years. Ready to show he’s still got what it takes, Torrance accepts the gargantuan task, and, loaded with passengers, the Cyclops departs on schedule. What they don't know is another bomb has been planted on-board, scheduled to go off at some point during the long journey, putting the lives of everyone on board in the gravest of danger.

I can’t tell you how happy I was when, right from the get-go, The Big Bus proved as funny as I remember, with jokes and sight gags firing at a rapid pace. As for the cast, I’ve always liked Joseph Bologna, who showed he could handle comedic roles in movies such as Blame It on Rio and My Favorite Year. When we first meet Dan Torrance, he’s sheepishly walking into a dingy hangout for bus drivers. The room grows silent as he approaches the bar, at which point Goldie (Vic Tayback) tells him to get lost, reminding everyone in the place of the El Diablo tragedy, where a bus Torrance was driving crashed in the wilderness, stranding it there for weeks. While he was never charged with the crime, rumor has it that Torrance stayed alive by eating the passengers, 110 in all. He claims he’s innocent, saying it was his co-pilot who ate everybody, though he does admit to eating a human foot. “You eat one lousy foot”, Torrance laments, “and they call you a cannibal”. As for the supporting players, there are a lot of ‘em, including Ruth Gordon, Ned Beatty, Lynn Redgrave and Sally Kellerman. The Big Bus also has a number of hilarious scenes, like the one where they’re performing an open-road test on Cyclops to check its aerodynamics. The question of whether or not it can withstand strong wind resistance is soon answered, leading to the great line: “We’re breaking wind at 90!”

Designed to resemble the disaster films it’s poking fun at, from its overbearing musical score to the plethora of name actors in key roles, The Big Bus is Airplane! made four years earlier. And though it does lose some of its steam in the second half, The Big Bus never stops trying, ensuring we at least have something to smile about until the very end.







Thursday, August 30, 2012

#745. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)


Directed By: Sergio Leone

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef





Tag line: "For Three Men The Civil War Wasn't Hell. It Was Practice!"

Trivia: Clint Eastwood wore the same poncho through all three "Man with No Name" movies without replacement or cleaning





The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the third and final chapter in director Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy”, a series that included 1964s A Fistful of Dollars and ‘65s For a Few Dollars More, and in the opinion of fans and critics alike, this last entry is easily the best of the bunch.

As the American Civil War rages on, three gunslingers search for a hidden fortune in gold. Tuco (Eli Wallach) knows the money is buried in a graveyard, yet his old partner, Blondie (Clint Eastwood), whom Tuco tried to kill at one point, is the only person who knows which headstone it’s under. Their tenuous partnership carries the two miles in every direction, always one step ahead, or one behind, the violent war that’s devastating the territory. Before long, the duo discovers a third man, the tight-lipped assassin named Sentezza (Lee Van Cleef), is also after the gold, ready to kill whoever stands in his way. Blondie and Tuco must now beat Sentezza to the cemetery, all while looking for new and exciting ways to stab each other in the back. In fact, the only certainty in this whole fiasco is that before any one man can walk off with the loot, he’ll more than likely have to put a bullet in each of the other two.

I realize it’s a cliché to say a film is “chock full of action”, but in the case of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it’s the absolute truth. Within the first hour, there are twelve shootings, three failed hangings (and one that’s successful), four getaways, two paid bounties, a showdown and a robbery. What’s more, the Confederate Army pulls out of a town just before Union cannons reduce it to rubble, and a complex double-cross leads to a manhunt that brings about a brutal revenge under the hot desert sun. All of this in a single hour, or approximately one-third of the film’s running time. And rest assured, the remainder of the movie is every bit as thrilling, featuring further run-ins with both the Union and Confederate armies (in a humorous scene, Blondie and Tuco, disguised as Confederates, try to flag down what they believe is a small troop of southern cavalrymen, only to be taken prisoner when the soldiers dust off their grey uniforms to reveal they’re actually blue underneath), and a final showdown between the three main characters that might be the most dramatic in movie history, with plenty of extreme close-ups punctuated by the stirring score of Ennio Morricone.

While I’ll always be a fan of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is clearly his crowning achievement, an epic adventure that’s surprising, engaging, poignant, and electrifying.

And that’s just the first hour!







Wednesday, August 29, 2012

#744. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973)


Directed By: Terence Fisher

Starring: Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, Madeline Smith





Tag line: "His brain came from a genius. His body came from a killer. His soul came from hell!"

Trivia: The role of Sarah was first offered to Caroline Munro





Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was the final entry in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, which started way back in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, and while I’ve been less than impressed with some of the studio’s later films (1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula was downright awful), I’m happy to report that Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is a solid motion picture. 

We’re introduced once again to that renowned scientist, Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), who, for years, has been locked away in an asylum for the criminally insane (which is, ironically, the only place he can continue his ghastly experiments in peace). Still hoping to re-animate dead tissue, the Baron has just met the perfect assistant to aid him in his notorious research; Dr. Simon Helder (Shane Briant), himself an inmate, who was imprisoned for attempting to duplicate Frankenstein’s experiments. With Helder at his side, Frankenstein is hopeful that his latest ‘creation’, a Neanderthal-like creature (David Prowse, the man behind Darth Vader’s mask in Star Wars), will prove he’s not the lunatic everybody believes him to be. 

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell offers an interesting answer to the age-old question of what happens when the inmates take over the asylum. Frankenstein has been given free reign of the entire sanitarium by its oft-nervous director (John Stratton), and in return, the good Baron helps out from time to time, serving as the facility’s resident physician. Of course, he has his reasons for doing so. While paying a visit to a patient known as the Professor (Charles Lloyd Pack), the Baron warns the man, a brilliant mathematician, to stop writing out math problems on the wall because doing so will only “tax” his brain. Now, why is Frankenstein so keen to protect his highly advanced brain? Why, indeed! 

But what I really liked about Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was the introduction of Dr. Simon Helder as Frankenstein’s assistant, a man who shares his interest in reanimation and has the will and determination to see the project through to the end. As played by Briant, Dr. Helder is no mindless Igor; he’s a scientist with great intelligence and skill. In the opening scene, the soft-spoken Helder takes delivery of a corpse that’s just been stolen from its grave, only to be apprehended shortly after removing the dead man’s eye (going so far as to chastise the constable, played by Norman Mitchell, for dropping a jar of eyeballs, thus ruining some perfectly good specimens). Watching Frankenstein and Helder play off one another, each equal in their desire to create life, was a nice addition to the Frankenstein story, taking it in a fresh and exciting direction.






Tuesday, August 28, 2012

#743. Grave Encounters (2011)


Directed By: The Vicious Brothers

Starring: Sean Rogerson, Juan Riedinger, Ashleigh Gryzko





Tag line: "They were searching for proof... they found it"

Trivia: The working title for this film was Cold Spots






The box-office success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and, more recently, the Paranormal Activity franchise paved the way for a new genre of horror movies, commonly referred to as “found footage”, films shot primarily on video that, by all appearances, are based in reality (they aren't, of course). The problem is, most of the found footage movies I’ve seen, especially those centering on the supernatural, follow the same formula, and what’s more, the scares aren’t particularly effective. For at least half its running time, 2011’s Grave Encounters struck me as yet another disappointment, when suddenly, out of the blue, it kicked the horror into high gear. As someone who’s typically frightened of ghost stories, Grave Encounters managed to hook me, and then skillfully reel me in.

Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) is the host of Grave Encounters, a reality-based ghost-hunting television show, and he and his crew are shooting their next episode inside the long-abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, to explore and, if possible, expose the unexplained phenomena that’s allegedly plagued the location for years. To this end, Lance and his associates agree to lock themselves inside the building for an entire night, setting up cameras all around the facility in the hopes of capturing a paranormal event. Whether or not they actually find anything isn’t really important; for Lance, it’s all about putting on a good show. But as he’ll soon discover, the stories about Collingwood aren’t mere legends, and the spirits who haunt its halls are very, very real.

At first, Grave Encounters felt like every other found footage ghost movie, a la The St. Francisville Experiment, with little more than the occasional door swinging closed or rustling of someone’s hair to get our pulses racing. I wasn’t just indifferent to these initial scenes; I was flat-out annoyed! From the looks of it, Grave Encounters was navigating the road most traveled, and would present us with absolutely nothing new. I nearly checked out of the movie altogether when the characters break down a door they think will lead to freedom, only to find themselves inexplicably trapped (The Blair Witch Project, anyone?). But then, as Lance and his crew are making their way through the building, they spot a figure running in the background. Upon investigation, they discover a young girl, in hospital clothing, standing in a corner...

From that moment on, Grave Encounters is no longer the “same old thing”, giving us a final act that’s undeniably fascinating and pretty damned creepy. If you’re a fan of the supernatural, Grave Encounters is one you won’t want to miss.

Well, the second half of it, anyway.







Monday, August 27, 2012

#742. The Evil Dead (1981)


Directed By: Sam Raimi


Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor





Tag line: "Can They Be Stopped?"


Trivia:  The zombie guts in this movie consisted of creamed corn dyed green





I love the opening scene of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, which follows three separate actions at the same time. First, the camera glides through a forest, providing the point of view of someone, or something, flying along the ground at a rapid pace. We then join our main characters, driving down the road towards what they hope will be a quaint, out-of-the-way vacation spot. Suddenly, the scene cuts away to reveal a truck is just ahead of them, on the other side of the road, traveling in the opposite direction. As the vehicles approach one another, the car’s steering wheel jerks to the left, seemingly by itself, thus putting our heroes on a collision course that threatens to end their getaway before it begins. What do we learn from these initial moments? 1. Something’s lurking in the woods, and 2. things will happen that are beyond anyone’s control. Based on this early sequence alone, one might conclude that The Evil Dead is going to be a visually spectacular low-budget horror film.

And “one” would be absolutely right!

As already established, The Evil Dead is about a group of friends vacationing at a cozy cabin in the woods. Shortly after their arrival, the five: Ash (Bruce Campbell), Linda (Betsy Baker), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scott (Hal Delrich) and Shelly (Sarah York), stumble upon a strange book decorated with ancient hieroglyphics, as well as an audiotape, recorded by a professor of archaeology and containing readings from the Sumerian Book of the Dead. For laughs, the group plays the tape, and, in so doing, release several demonic spirits into the surrounding woods, specters powerful enough to possess the body of whomever they choose. The spirits then take turns inhabiting the five, and according to the tape, the only way to defeat them is to dismember the body of the possessed. Can these friends summon up the courage to murder one another, or will wickedness win out in the end?

The Evil Dead features a slew of camera tricks; yet even more impressive is how director Raimi can generate terror using much simpler methods, occasionally scaring the hell out of us with common, everyday items. When the friends arrive at the cabin, Scott walks to the front door to look for the key. Next to the door is a porch swing, swaying in the breeze and crashing into the side of the cabin. Once Scott reaches the porch, the swing stops moving, as if it suddenly became aware somebody was nearby. I don’t know how much of the film’s reported budget of $350 thousand went into shooting this modest sequence, but when that swing stops dead in its tracks, it sent a million dollar chill down my spine.

If there’s one complaint I have, it’s that the movie is a bit too stylized at times, to the point it becomes a distraction. Yet, despite such missteps, The Evil Dead remains an ultra-entertaining motion picture, with a number of well-conceived segments that have helped make it a favorite among genre fans.

Yes, even the “tree rape” scene!






Sunday, August 26, 2012

#741. Carrie (1976)


Directed By: Brian De Palma



Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving




Tag line: "Take Carrie to the Prom.  I Dare You!"

Trivia:  Amy Irving was originally cast as Carrie, but was given the smaller role of Sue once Spacek came on board





Carrie, Brian de Palma’s 1976 film based on Stephen King’s best-selling novel, contains a number of classic scenes, some of which border on the iconic. But its status as one of the greatest horror pictures of the 1970s has more to do with its remarkable cast than anything else.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a shy, introverted teenager, is ridiculed on a daily basis by her classmates, a tortured existence that’s further complicated by her religious mother (Piper Laurie), who subjects Carrie to the harsh judgment of her twisted puritanical beliefs. Ms. Collins (Betty Buckley), the gym teacher at Carrie’s school, tries to ease Carrie out of her shell, yet her attentions only intensify the venomous hatred some have for Carrie, especially Chris (Nancy Allen), who humiliates the poor girl every chance she gets. But what nobody realizes is Carrie’s inhibitions are masking a dark secret: she possesses telekinetic powers, which make their way to the surface whenever she’s upset. Which of Carrie’s peers will be the first to step over the line, thus unleashing her terrible wrath?

Sissy Spacek is both sensitive and creepy as the title character, bringing us into Carrie’s world of loneliness and torment from the get-go. Even by high school standards, Carrie’s situation is, to put it mildly, unusual, yet thanks to Spacek, we buy into her predicament and sympathize with her almost immediately. Countering Spacek’s angst is Piper Laurie as the God-loving mother from hell, a woman so obsessed with her own interpretations of biblical right and wrong that, for years, she’s ignored her daughter’s basic needs (while showering after gym class, Carrie gets her first ever period, and not knowing what it is, believes she’s bleeding to death). The scenes these two share are easily the picture’s most intense. Amy Irving is well cast as Sue, the callous girl who has a change of heart and tries to befriend Carrie, and William Katt turns on the charm as the boy who eventually asks Carrie to the prom. But a film like Carrie must have a good nemesis, and we get that in the form of Chris Hargensen, played to perfection by Nancy Allen. The only one to hold onto her hatred long after the others moved beyond it, Chris is downright ruthless, embarrassing Carrie at every turn, and usually with the help of her dim-witted boyfriend, Billy (John Travolta). Even as things improve for Carrie, we’re never truly comfortable because we know Chris is probably lurking nearby, ready to snatch any happiness away without a moment’s notice.

As with any Brian DePalma film, Carrie has plenty of style; the opening sequence, which begins with an aerial shot of a volleyball game, is a visual treat. Yet what makes this a memorable motion picture is its cast. Thanks to them, Carrie remains, to this day, one hell of an eerie horror movie.







Saturday, August 25, 2012

#740. Spider Man 2 (2004)


Directed By: Sam Raimi

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina





Tag line: "This summer a man will face his destiny. A hero will be revealed"

Trivia: When it was released in 2004, it was the second widest release of all time with 4,152 theaters right behind Shrek 2




Spider Man 2 is one of the best superhero movies I’ve ever seen, a fast, furious, spectacular motion picture that fuses high drama with the thrill of gliding through the air.

Life for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has been anything but easy since he’s adopted the alter-ego of Spider Man, and the various demands of his new-found “profession” are wreaking havoc on his personal life. Not only was he just fired from his job as a pizza delivery boy, but he’s failing all his courses at the University, and to top it off, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), whom he’s secretly loved for years, has grown tired of waiting for him to make a move, and is now engaged to be married to a handsome astronaut. Even his time spent donning the mask has its difficulties, what with his good friend, Harry Osborne (James Franco), hunting the webslinger for supposedly murdering his father, and the local gossip rag, the Daily Bugle, claiming Spider Man is little more than a criminal in a goofy disguise. Honestly, it’s enough to make a superhero want to hang up his tights!

But New York is about to face another serious threat to its security, this time from noted scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) when his latest experiment to generate a continuous energy source goes haywire, fusing four large, robotic arms to his spinal column. Under the control of his new mechanical appendages, Octavius hits the streets, stealing money and parts in order to continue his research. And when Spider Man tries to stop him, Octavius, now known around the city as Dr. Octopus, takes it upon himself to end the reign of our friendly neighborhood hero once and for all.

The action sequences in Spider Man 2 are astounding, and director Sam Raimi keeps the tension between Spider Man and Dr. Octopus flowing at a fever pitch; one particular showdown between the two, which plays out aboard a runaway train, is so exciting that it’ll challenge your natural reflex to blink. Yet just as impressive as the thrills is the way Spider Man 2 presents the continuing story of Peter Parker. Sure, swinging around town helping people may have been fun at the beginning, but now poor Peter is suffering because of it. He has no life, very few friends, and learned pretty quickly that doing good deeds while hiding behind a mask wasn’t gonna be a great source of income. As the movie progressed, and Peter Parker’s troubles multiplied, I actually wanted to see him throw in the towel.

It’s not often that a sequel outclasses an original film, rarer still when it sets the bar higher for an entire genre. Spider Man 2 is a wonderful exception. With laughs, excitement, drama and romance, Spider Man 2 will take your breath away.







Friday, August 24, 2012

#739. Apocalypse Now (1979)


Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall





Tag line: "The Horror. . . The Horror. . ."

Trivia: Francis Ford Coppola spent days reading Joseph Conrad's source novel "Heart of Darkness" out loud to Marlon Brando on the set.





By exploring the duality of war, the physical terror it brings about and the mental anguish that results from it, Apocalypse Now sets its sights on the fine line between warfare and madness, a line that, at times, is almost too thin to measure.

A highly decorated American Colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has disappeared into the jungles of Cambodia, and High Command assigns Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) of Special Forces to track him down. According to reports, Kurtz has raised an army in Cambodia, consisting mostly of primitive indigenous tribesmen, and is engaging in a unique brand of warfare. During the long voyage up-river, Willard reviews Kurtz’s dossier, searching for the reasons why this career military man suddenly took leave of his senses. Meanwhile, the swift boat Willard’s traveling on encounters its own share of danger, from a run-in with a crazy Colonel named Kilgore (Robert Duvall) to a USO show that ends in chaos. Yet the closer he gets to his destination, the more Willard reflects on his own traumatic wartime experiences, which have him questioning his sanity. If a soldier as honored as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz can lose his mind in a place like this, what’s to prevent him from doing the same?

Apocalypse Now takes us inside Willard’s head by way of some crisp, thought-provoking narration, delivered wonderfully by Martin Sheen. Having served for years as a trained assassin, Willard is none too happy with his new assignment, which brings him up against a fellow American, and a war hero to boot. “I took the mission”, Willard says, “but I really didn’t know what I’d do when I found him”. During his initial briefing, General Corman (G.D. Spradlin), an old friend of Kurtz’s, tells Willard that the Colonel’s methods have become “unsound”. Yet Willard questions the military’s definition of unsound following his encounter with Colonel Kilgore, a gung-ho commander whose flamboyance leads to a particularly bizarre skirmish. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, Kilgore’s Air Command storms a Vietnamese village situated well behind enemy lines. And what was his reason for launching such a dangerous attack? To gain the only section of beach within miles that boasts six-foot swells, so he and his men could do a little surfing. Willard has been ordered to take out a man who’s supposedly lost his mind, but what about the obviously insane Kilgore? The only difference between the two is that Kurtz’s “war” has gone beyond acceptable military parameters, while Kilgore still operates within the “rules”, yet in a life or death situation, Willard would much rather align himself with the renegade Colonel he’s being sent to kill than the flashy Kilgore.

I remember when my father, a Vietnam veteran, first saw Apocalypse Now back in 1979. I asked him what he thought of it, and he categorized the movie as realistic in some parts, and flat-out weird in others. I suppose it’s an understandable reaction; the film does spend a great deal of time building its war story, only to abruptly undercut it with a descent into the dark recesses of a madman’s psyche, a military leader who’s set himself up as a jungle God. But Apocalypse Now is more than the tale of one man, one journey, or even one war. It’s an exposé of the very nature of warfare, and how a steady diet of violence can lead even the bravest, most intelligent among us to fall victim to our personal demons.

But above all, Apocalypse Now leaves us questioning where ‘weird’ begins and sanity ends.







Thursday, August 23, 2012

#738. Zoom In: Sex Apartments (1980)


Directed By: Naosuke Kurosawa

Starring: Erina Miyai, Yôko Azusa, Yuuko Ohzaki






Trivia: This film's Japanese title more closely translates to Rape Apartments







Zoom in: Sex Apartments is a Japanese Pink film belonging to the “Roman Porno” era, when the country’s major studios threw their hats into the exploitation ring by producing a number of erotically-themed motion pictures. Spearheaded by Nikkatsu, a studio formed way back in 1912, Roman Pornos were notorious for both their high production values and stories jam-packed with nudity and sex. But Zoom in: Sex Apartments goes a step further, paying homage to the Italian Giallos of the ‘70s by featuring an unknown killer in black whose victims meet a particularly gruesome end.

Shortly after her husband leaves to take part in a two-week long bicycle race, Saeko (Erina Miyai) is attacked and raped in a deserted field by a man wearing a black coat. Taking a moment to collect herself, she then proceeds to the apartment of a former lover to return a key he recently gave her, only to find she still has feelings for this man, who works as a professional piano tuner. So, the torrid romance they once shared is rekindled. But when the rapist sets his sights on the residents of her lover’s apartment building, most of whom end up dead as a result, Saeko slowly pieces together the attacker’s true identity, growing more and more convinced it’s someone very close to her.

Along with its killer dressed in black, Zoom In: Sex Apartments also borrows the dream-like ambiance present in many Giallo films, creating a world that straddles a fine line between fantasy and reality. And if you thought Giallos were hard to follow, just wait until you try and figure this movie out! The story that makes up Zoom In: Sex Apartments serves as little more than a means to string together the “money” shots of debauchery and murder, and after a lackluster opening sex scene, in which Saeko reluctantly gives in to her husband’s carnal demands, the film descends to a more dangerous level of depravity, where it will remain for the duration (not satisfied with simply assaulting his victims, the rapist also has a peculiar habit of setting their genitals on fire, and the first to suffer such a fate is an unfortunate schoolgirl).

Zoom In: Sex Apartments was my introduction to Roman Pornos, and while certainly an extreme motion picture, it left me with a longing to explore this particular era of Japanese filmmaking a bit further. How far I take my curiosity remains to be seen, but at the very least, Zoom In: Sex Apartments piqued my interest enough to ensure this first venture into the sub-genre won’t be my last.







Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#737. Rest Stop (2006)


Directed By: John Shiban

Starring: Jaimie Alexander, Joey Mendicino, Deanna Russo





Tag line: "The First Stop on the Road to Hell"

Trivia: This film had the added title Dead Ahead







Director John Shiban’s 2006 film, Rest Stop, tells the tale of a young couple, Jesse (Joey Mendicino) and Nicole (Jaimie Alexander), who are on their way to California. We’re given the impression (thanks to Nicole’s opening narration) that the two are leaving Texas behind to escape a bad situation, yet as they’ll soon discover, the open road can be even more hazardous to their health. Shortly after crossing the border into California, Nicole asks Jesse to pull over at a secluded rest stop, but when she emerges from the bathroom, Jesse and his car are nowhere to be found. This kicks off a deadly game of cat and mouse as Nicole, alone and confused, finds herself tormented by the driver of a yellow pick-up truck, who’s bound and determined to make her life a living hell. Pitted in a life-and-death struggle against a madman, Nicole quickly realizes that if she can’t summon up the strength to fight back, she’ll surely die.

Rest Stop is a hit-and-miss affair. There’s genuine tension in the story of Nicole’s battle for survival, and her run-ins with the yellow pick-up are heightened by the fact we never see the driver, who remains an enigma throughout the picture. Without delving too deeply into spoiler territory, I also liked how the movie took an occasional turn towards the supernatural, leading to some surprises, as well as a scare or two along the way. Where the film falters, unfortunately, is an area in which it needed to excel, and that’s the character of Nicole. The problem has nothing to do with Ms. Alexander, who delivers a fine performance, but instead lies with her character’s general inconsistencies, especially the way she reacts to danger, fighting her attacker off one minute, breaking down and crying the next, and often doing one when it would seem more appropriate she do the other. I also had a mixed reaction to a scene involving an RV and the very bizarre family living inside it. I smiled at how strange they all were, with a religious zealot for a father (Michael Childers), an oversexed mother (Diane Salinger), and a mutated dwarf in a wheelchair (Mikey Post), yet was left scratching my head once their brief appearance had ended, wondering why the filmmakers went to such lengths to build up their personalities, only to leave them woefully under-explored.

With a number of nail-biting sequences, Rest Stop effectively overcomes its various flaws, and while I’m certain you won’t count it among the elite of the new millennium’s horror offerings, it’s not a complete waste of your time, either.






Tuesday, August 21, 2012

#736. Jackie Brown (1997)


Directed By: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster





Tag line: "This Christmas, Santa's got a brand new bag"

Trivia: It was Samuel L. Jackson's idea to give his character the long hair and the braided goatee





Throughout the 70’s, many of the characters Pam Grier played, from Coffy to Foxy Brown, had one thing in common: they were bad-ass women who used their strength and tenacity to get the job done. In Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Ms. Grier is still getting the job done; only this time, she’s relying on brains over brawn to do so.

Based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, Jackie Brown stars Pam Grier as the title character, a flight attendant who occasionally smuggles cash into the country for an L.A. gunrunner named Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson). Everything runs smoothly until the day Jackie’s taken into custody by agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) of the FBI’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division, who offers to reduce the charges against her in exchange for her cooperation in bringing Ordell to justice. Jackie eventually agrees, but only because she thinks she’s figured out a way to pocket some of Ordell’s money before sending him off to prison. Assisted by her bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster), Jackie sets her highly detailed plan in motion, and even though there’s only a slim chance she’ll succeed, for the aging Jackie, the potential payoff is definitely worth the risk.

With movies like Coffy and Foxy Brown, Pam Grier shot to stardom playing strong, passionate, sexy woman. Thanks to her turn in Jackie Brown, we can now add ‘brilliant’ to her long list of credentials. That’s not to suggest Grier’s earlier characters weren’t intelligent, just that they were coming from a different place. In those pictures, her primary motivation was revenge. With Jackie Brown, the stakes are survival. When Ordell pays Jackie a visit after posting her bail, she knows he’s there to kill her. Her arrest was yet another shot fired by the FBI against Ordell and his organization, and Ordell knows it, so, to keep her quiet, he intends to put a bullet in Jackie’s head. What Ordell didn’t bank on, however, was that Jackie would be ready for him. It’s an interesting contrast to an earlier scene, in which another ‘associate’ of Ordell’s, a young loudmouth named Beaumont (Chris Tucker), also got himself arrested, and was also bailed out by Ordell. Unfortunately for Beaumont, he didn’t figure things out as quickly as Jackie did, and his ignorance cost him.

Despite the star power on display in this movie, including the likes of Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton, Jackie Brown is, first and foremost, a Pam Grier vehicle, and after having had so much fun watching her kick ass in the 70’s, it was nice to see the actress take on a role that required more than grit to make her dreams come true.

But for all those Pam Grier fans out there, don’t worry…she still kicks some ass!







Monday, August 20, 2012

#735. The Hills Run Red (2009)


Directed By: Dave Parker

Starring: Sophie Monk, Tad Hilgenbrink, William Sadler






Trivia: Director Dave Parker wanted to use the song "Babyface" in the opening credits, but couldn't get the rights to it






The Hills Run Red is an above-average modern slasher, taking the simple tale of a young filmmaker’s attempt to track down a legendary motion picture, and turning it into something brilliantly twisted.

Back in 1982, a director named Wilson Wyler Concannon (William Sadler) released a movie titled The Hills Run Red, a horror film so graphic and depraved that it was pulled from theaters almost immediately. Soon after, every print vanished without a trace, as did Concannon and his entire cast. Twenty-five years later, the movie’s very existence is considered little more than a myth, yet for budding director Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrinck), locating a complete print of The Hills Run Red has become an obsession. With the help of Concannon’s drug-addicted daughter, Alexa (Sophie Monk), as well as his own girlfriend, Serina (Janet Montgomery), and closest buddy, Lalo (Alex Wyndham), Tyler slowly unravels the mystery behind this infamous motion picture. But is he ready for the truth?

The Hills Run Red is every bit as grisly as its title suggests, and we get to glimpse its viciousness in the opening moments, when a young boy cuts his face to shreds with a pair of scissors (I was especially shaken by the shot of him slicing off his lower lip). From there, The Hills Run Red settles into a mystery of sorts, which lasts for approximately its first half, and while the story was told well enough, the horror was kept to a noticeable minimum (excluding the film clips that sometimes play in the background, like when Serina and Lalo are watching the Vincent Price classic, The House on Haunted Hill). The performances at this stage are a mixed bag; Hilgenbrinck comes off a little too eager as Tyler, beating us over the head with his “aw, shucks” enthusiasm, while Sophie Monk shines as Alexa, sultry and alluring one minute, out of control the next. There’s even a hint of cynicism towards the genre, a la Scream, as the characters occasionally have a laugh at how stupid the teens in horror movies are, and how they ignore obvious warning signs, therefore paying the ultimate price. But as their investigation intensifies, The Hills Run Red takes a sharp turn towards the bizarre, tossing out a number of thrills and chills, and an even greater amount of gore.

Amidst all the carnage are several homages to the slasher films of the ‘80s. Early on, Tyler watches a trailer for The Hills Run Red, the only proof there is the movie existed, and it’s filled with plenty of nods to that era (a masked killer roaming the woods, taking out every teen he comes across). Even Tyler and his gang, in their search for answers, end up putting themselves in the same kind of peril their counterparts in the ‘80s faced. Along with being a solid horror entry in its own right, The Hills Run Red pays tribute to the films that inspired it, making it doubly rewarding to fans, who’ll surely smile at the odd reference to yesteryear, all as they’re being terrified anew by the slaughter playing out before their eyes.







Sunday, August 19, 2012

#734. Ator, The Fighting Eagle (1982)


Directed By: Joe D'Amato

Starring: Miles O'Keeffe, Sabrina Siani, Ritza Brown




Tag line: "A magical power was destined to fight at his side"

Trivia: The film was hastily shot, edited, and released in an attempt to cash in on the success of Conan the Barbarian





It’s no secret I occasionally enjoy the odd pile of cinematic crap, especially when it borders on the idiotic, something that, at the very least, makes it a fun watch (The Crater Lake Monster leaps immediately to mind). Joe D’Amato’s 1982 fantasy flick, Ator, the Fighting Eagle, had the potential to be such a film. But it isn’t. It’s just….bad!

Ator, the Fighting Eagle takes place during the Age of Darkness, a 1,000-year period when “The Shadow of the Spider” is the law. But according to an age-old prophecy, the “seed of Torin” is destined to free the land from the spider’s oppression. Sure enough, the film kicks off with the birth of Ator, son of Torin, who is so feared by the High Priest (Dakar) of the spider’s tomb that he attempts to kill the infant Ator, a plan that fails when the child is rescued by the warrior Griba (Edmund Purdum). Ator (Miles O’Keefe) grows to be a strong and able man, yet when his sister/wife Sunya (Ritza Brown) is kidnapped (and his village destroyed) by the soldiers of the spider, he sets out to exact revenge. Joined in his quest by a beautiful bad-ass (Sabrina Siani) and a baby black bear, Ator comes face-to-face with the Ancient One, hoping to fulfill his destiny and end the spider’s centuries-long reign of terror.

With several scenes set among ancient ruins, Ator, the Fighting Eagle isn’t a bad-looking film, and the legend of Torin and his heir is palpable enough to keep hope alive early on. Yet even by fantasy standards, Ator is pretty ridiculous. For one, the High Priest, played by Dakar, gets a bit too much pleasure out of having tarantulas crawl around on his bald head. By the menacing score, I assumed this was designed to show how evil he was, but instead, he looks like a pervert with an arachnid fixation. And the dialogue? A guard rushes in to tell the High Priest that Torin’s son has been born, nervously exclaiming, “The sign is in the sky! The earth trembles like a virgin being drawn to the nuptial bed!” Aside from this unintentional hilarity, Ator also suffers from a number of weak battle scenes, a preposterous twist at the end, and a creature (the aforementioned “Ancient One”) that’s so pathetic, it’ll have you rolling on the floor. Director D’Amato freely admitted Ator, the Fighting Eagle was a low-budget rip-off of John Milius’ 1982 action/fantasy blockbuster, Conan the Barbarian, yet there were a few obstacles he simply couldn’t overcome: 1. Miles O’Keefe is no Schwarzenegger, 2. Dakar is no James Earl Jones, and 3. a spider is a poor substitute for a giant snake.

Did I mention Ator, the Fighting Eagle is bad? Well, it bears repeating.






Saturday, August 18, 2012

#733. The Matrix (1999)


Directed By: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss




Tag line: "The Fight for the Future Begins"

Trivia: Will Smith was approached to play Neo, but turned down the offer in order to star in Wild Wild West






The Matrix is a groundbreaking, earth shaking, special effects laden extravaganza. Directed by the Wachowskis, it features cinematic bells and whistles of every kind, each working in service of a unique, fascinating sci-fi tale.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a corporate employee by day and a notorious computer hacker by night, known in the technological underworld as “Neo”. He’s eventually tracked down by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a mysterious cyber terrorist who offers to reveal a shocking truth to Neo if he agrees to meet with him. Curiosity gets the better of Neo, yet nothing could have prepared him for what Morpheus had to say. In a nutshell, Neo learns his entire life has been a lie, that what he believes to be real is merely an illusion, and that mankind has been enslaved by a race of supercomputers and trapped in a virtual reality known as The Matrix. With the help of the multi-talented Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) and several others, Morpheus is waging a war against the Matrix, and now he wants Neo to join the fight.

The Matrix is loaded with special effects, yet knowing this in advance will in no way prepare you for just how stunning they really are. Sure, many have been duplicated over the years (including countless variations of Neo’s slow-motion bullet dodge), but this is the movie that started it all. Before we even realize what’s going on, our jaws are scraping the floor in utter amazement as we watch Trinity, surrounded by about a half-dozen cops with guns drawn, proceed to kick a whole lot of ass. She moves fast, climbing walls and leaping off furniture, using her knowledge of the Matrix to sharpen her senses, and we get to see her every movement in astonishing detail. When Trinity jumps to attack a policeman, the action slows to a standstill, leaving her frozen in mid-air, and we’re given a full 360-degree view of her hanging there, waiting to strike. As opening sequences go, this one is beyond belief.

It’s easy to impress an audience with a slew of special effects; Hollywood has spent countless millions trying to do just that. But in the end, many of those films offer spectacular imagery and little else besides. What makes The Matrix a great motion picture is the fact that its incredible stunts and startling visuals are presented in unison with a very hip, very challenging tale of man vs. machine. Strip the effects away from most blockbusters, and you’re left with the opening and closing credits. Take them out of The Matrix, and you still have a story that will blow your mind.







Friday, August 17, 2012

#732. Run, Man, Run (1968)


Directed By: Sergio Sollima

Starring: Tomas Milian, Donald O'Brien, John Ireland





Trivia: Director Sergio Sollima has said that Ennio Morricone actually wrote the score for this film, but was under contract at another studio at the time, and therefore gave credit for it to his conductor, Bruno Nicolai






Having worked with actor Tomas Milian in a limited capacity on both The Big Gundown and Face to Face, director Sergio Sollima wanted to make a movie that would showcase the actor’s particular talents. After seeing his performance in the resulting film, the 1968 Western Run, Man, Run, I can say Sollima’s confidence in Milian’s abilities was very well placed.

Cuchillo (Milian), an outlaw handy with a knife, is on the run. In fact, running has become a way of life for Cuchillo, who’s constantly being chased by opposing bandits, his feisty girlfriend Delores (Chelo Alonso), or a bounty hunter (Donal O’Brien) hot on his trail. But when Cuchillo learns a fortune in gold has been hidden somewhere nearby, a stash totaling nearly three million dollars, he stops running long enough to try and track it down.

Run, Man, Run contains plenty of action, but it’s also funny. While walking through the desert on his search for the gold, Cuchillo comes across Penny (Linda Veras), a Salvation Army commander, who’s digging a grave to bury her recently departed assistant. As Cuchillo helps her with the burial, he asks who it was that killed the man. “Nobody”, Penny replies, “he died of an illness”. Cuchillo pauses for a moment, nods his head, and says, “Yes, I suppose it can happen that way too”. While humor is usually part of any good Spaghetti Western, the comedy in Run, Man, Run is much more pronounced.

The heroes in Spaghetti Westerns aren’t always heroic, and this is certainly true of Cuchillo, a womanizer who doesn’t hesitate to kill when the circumstances demand it. And yet, in the end, he ultimately does the right thing, which is rather ironic because the first time the character Cuchillo appeared in a movie was in Sollima’s 1966 picture, The Big Gundown. In that film, Cuchillo, still played by Milian, was being hunted by lawman John Corbett (fan favorite Lee Van Cleef) for his role in the rape and murder a twelve-year-old girl.

Isn’t it amazing what a few years can do for a character’s reputation (though, to be fair, he may have been framed in The Big Gundown; you gotta watch it to find out)?







Thursday, August 16, 2012

#731. Superdad (1973)


Directed By: Vincent McEveety

Starring: Bob Crane, Kurt Russell, Barbara Rush



Tag line: "Young love is making waves...and Dad's about to get beached!"

Trivia:  This movie sat on the shelf for a year before Disney decided to release it








I was amazed at how well I remembered Disney’s Superdad, a movie I caught in the theater back in 1975 (which is when the studio finally got around to releasing this 1973 picture). I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old at the time, but it obviously made a lasting impression. I was sure it starred the guy from Hogan’s Heroes (Bob Crane), and also featured the guy from McHale’s Navy (Joe Flynn, in a small role, playing his usual bad-tempered character). I vividly recalled the water-skiing scene, knew Bob Crane was gonna fall down the stairs at one point, and even remembered the showdown between the dad and the beatnik, which took place on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

In fact, there was only one thing that slipped my mind, and that's how badly Superdad sucks.

 And it does…it really, really does!

Charlie McCready (Crane) loves his daughter, Wendy (Kathleen Cody), a recent high-school graduate, and wants to see her go far in life. But Charlie believes the lazy, unambitious group of kids she hangs around with are holding her back, and the worst among them is Wendy’s boyfriend, Bart (Kurt Russell). So, he arranges for Wendy to receive a scholarship from his old Alma Mater, which takes her a long away from home. But his plan backfires when Wendy falls in with an even worse crowd in college, landing her in more trouble than she’s ever known before.

Let’s set aside for a moment the problems that lie on the surface of Superdad, like the fact it’s a sloppy film, with scenes thrown in that simply don’t fit (there’s an absolutely painful sequence where Charlie, after watching a family therapist on TV, decides he needs to spend more time with Wendy. So he tags along with her and her friends to the beach, setting up some of the most pathetic slapstick I’ve ever seen). The main issue I had with Superdad has to do with its basic premise, namely that we never once understand why Charlie is so against Wendy’s high-school chums. Populated by such future stars as Kurt Russell, Bruno Kirby and Ed Begley Jr, they’re a polite, fun-loving group of teens, a far cry from the negative influence Charlie believes them to be. His reservations make no sense whatsoever, and as a result, there’s not a moment we’re on Charlie’s side, which is problematic when you consider he’s the focal point of this movie. Forget about contrived scenes; this entire film is contrived!

Disney put out some impressive live-action family fare in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a few of which are still considered classics (Swiss Family Robinson, Mary Poppins), while others remain at least passable entertainment for kids and parents alike (The World's Greatest Athlete, The North Avenue Irregulars). Why they bothered with Superdad is beyond me. This movie’s damn near unwatchable.







Wednesday, August 15, 2012

#730. Colin (2008)


Directed By: Marc Price

Starring: Alastair Kirton, Daisy Aitkens, Kate Alderman




Trivia:  Over 100 actors and friends worked for free playing multiple roles to increase the number of on-screen zombies and humans








Nearly every zombie apocalypse ever committed to film has been told from the survivor’s perspective, showing mankind’s (sometimes futile) attempts to evade the flesh-eaters and remain among the living for at least another day. Colin, an ultra-low budget 2008 movie from the UK, provides a different point-of-view, following a young man who has recently “turned”, and telling us his story.

Colin opens with the title character, played by Alastair Kirton, arriving home after making his way through what we assume was all hell breaking loose in the city. Unfortunately, he’s been bitten on the arm, and to make matters worse, his roommate Damien (Leigh Crocombe), already one of the walking dead, attacks Colin from behind, tearing a chunk out of his neck. Badly injured, Colin dies from his wounds, but as you can guess, he doesn’t stay that way for long. We spend the rest of the movie tagging along with our zombie hero as he staggers around town, occasionally recognizing buildings and street signs, yet completely unaware of what’s happened to him.

One of the best scenes in Colin is when the title character dies, only to return a short time later. After being bitten on the neck by Damien, Colin sits on his kitchen floor, weak from having lost so much blood. The action then fades to a series of shots showing him waiting to die. Things go out of focus as he struggles for life, and though we can faintly hear the chaos outside, it grows quiet in Colin’s flat. Then, he dies, and eventually, the camera closes in on his remains, revealing his fingers as they start to once again show signs of life. He stands up and looks at his reflection in the glass with a vacant stare. Colin doesn’t wake up hungry for flesh, like so many other cinematic zombies, yet as the night turns to day, and he still can’t figure out how to leave his house, he becomes more aggressive, finally freeing himself by accidentally stumbling backwards and falling out a window.

I was concerned going in to Colin that it might not be able to maintain such a one-sided story over its entire length, but each time there was a lull, something happened to pull me back in (my favorite sequence involves an overrun “safe house”, where the residents were in the process of making a zombie film when the apocalypse reached their front door). In the end, Colin proved a unique motion picture, and I enjoyed the view it gave me from the “other side of the fence”.




Tuesday, August 14, 2012

#729. Repo Man (1984)


Directed By: Alex Cox

Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter




Tag line: "A repo man is always intense... but only a fool gets killed for a car"

Trivia: Lance Henriksen was a front runner for the part of the lobotomized driver of the Chevy Malibu






Alex Cox’s Repo Man defies explanation. It’s a wild, chaotic film that throws out one surprise after another, with no way of predicting what will happen next.

Otto (Emilio Estevez) is a suburban punk who recently lost his job stocking shelves at the local supermarket. One day, he has a run-in with a middle-aged repo man named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who convinces Otto to come work with him. But the young man gets more than he bargained for with his new position, embarking on a series of adventures involving government agents, aliens from outer space, a girl named Leila (Olivia Barash), and a ’64 Chevy Malibu that promises a small fortune to the first repo man lucky enough to bring it in.

Repo Man borders on insanity, creating an alternate reality that resembles our world in every way, yet follows none of its rules. As the movie opens, the ’64 Chevy is making its way down a desert road, driven by a guy wearing a pair of sunglasses with one of the lenses missing. At first, he doesn’t notice the motorcycle cop trying to pull him over, but eventually brings the car to a casual stop along the side of the road. The cop asks what he’s got in the trunk. “Oh, you don’t wanna look in there”, the driver says matter-of-factly, at which point the cop snatches the keys and has a gander inside. Suddenly, a bright light emanates from the back of the car, vaporizing the cop and leaving only his boots standing in the middle of the road. Later, a government agent (Susan Barnes) joins the investigation into this cop’s death, telling the other officers “People just explode sometimes”, and chalking his demise up to natural causes. Of course, she has an ulterior motive for wanting to throw the police off the trail of the ’64 Chevy, and one of the joys of Repo Man is trying to figure out who knows what, who’s working with who, and, most of all, what the hell is going on at any given moment.

It might not be an easy movie to crack, but I can guarantee you’ll have fun trying. Repo Man is anarchy to the infinite power, and I loved every twisted second of it!







Monday, August 13, 2012

#728. The Lodger (1944)


Directed By: John Brahm

Starring: Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon, George Sanders




Tag line: "PROBING EYES that marked the woman he loved for death!"

Trivia: The sequence involving the killing of Annie Rowley was judged to be so well done that studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck ordered it placed at the beginning of the picture




The Lodger is a stylish take on the Jack the Ripper story, that most famous of serial killers who murdered five prostitutes in the Whitchapel district of London in 1888. Of course, being as this film was released in 1944, the killer’s focus is altered slightly, taking out his frustrations on chorus girls as opposed to the more traditional “ladies of the evening”, but it’s a minor adjustment, and doesn’t deter one bit from what is ultimately a chilling look inside the mind of a psychopath.

The setting is London, during the height of the murders. Robert and Ellen Bonting (Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood) have just rented a room in their spacious London flat to a strange man named Slade (Laird Cregar). From the moment he moves in, Slade behaves in a peculiar manner, like his penchant for taking long walks at night and bringing his black medical bag along with him. Putting the clues together, Mrs. Bonting begins to wonder if their new tenant is, in reality, the killer known as Jack the Ripper, who in recent months has butchered several young women. Augmenting her concern is the fact Slade has become infatuated with the Bonting’s niece, Kitty (Merle Oberon), herself a showgirl. But is Slade really the dreaded Ripper, or simply an innocent man with a few bizarre idiosyncrasies?

Laird Cregar delivers a brilliant performance as Slade, raising suspicions almost from the start that his character is a little touched in the head. When Mrs. Bonting leads him upstairs to show him his new room, Slade walks in and immediately turns all the pictures around so that they’re facing the wall, as if he couldn’t stand to look at them for a second longer. More than actions, though, it’s his disturbed mannerisms, like the distant gaze suggesting his thoughts are miles away at any given time, or his obsession with his deceased brother, that get our attention. Adding to his menace is the way in which director John Brahm shoots his title character, keeping the camera close to ground level so it’s always peering up at Slade, making it appear as if he’s towering over everything, and everyone.

This winning combination of director and star works in unison to make The Lodger an incredibly satisfying motion picture, and quite possibly the finest Jack the Ripper movie ever made.







Sunday, August 12, 2012

#727. Sabotage (1936)


Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, Desmond Tester




Tag line: "...A Bomb Plot ...A Killing ...Justice"

Trivia: Robert Donat was originally slated to play Ted Spencer, but a prolonged illness prevented him from playing the role






As was the case with 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much, I go way back with Hitchcock’s 1936 film, Sabotage, another title I found resting in the bargain bin at my local K-Mart in the mid ‘80s. The story of an anarchist hell-bent on destroying London, Sabotage has a scene so shocking that even Hitchcock himself would come to regret it.

Verloc (Oskar Homolka), a professional saboteur, operates a movie house in the center of London, which he uses as his cover. Living with him in the small apartment behind the cinema are his unsuspecting wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her young brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester). Yet try as he might to keep his covert activities under wraps, the police are on to Verloc, and have stationed an undercover policeman (John Loder), posing as a grocery clerk named Ted, in the store across the street to monitor his activities. Just as Verloc is about to launch his next terrorist act, he realizes he’s being watched, and instead asks Stevie to deliver a package for him. What the boy doesn’t know is this package contains a powerful bomb, set to detonate at a specific time, and if he’s delayed on his way to dropping it off, he won’t live to explain what kept him.

I usually try to avoid spoilers in these write-ups, but with Sabotage, I’ll have to divulge one, so consider this a spoiler warning; if you haven’t seen the film and want to go in fresh, please skip the remainder of this paragraph. The time bomb scene I described in the above synopsis is the single most suspenseful sequence in Sabotage, with tensions mounting every time young Stevie gets distracted on his journey. Unfortunately, the boy’s short attention span will lead to tragedy, and the bomb will explode before its delivered, killing Stevie and a number of innocent people who happened to be on the same city bus as him. Aside from killing a child, which he admitted was a “grave error”, Hitchcock regretted the fact he built up such suspense, only to have it all end badly. Realizing this made his audience “resentful”, Hitchcock would carry the lessons learned from Sabotage with him through the rest of his career. And while I tend to agree having the bomb go off was a mistake, the entire sequence, up to that point, was handled masterfully, with Hitchcock dragging us to the edge of our seats, watching nervously as it played out. It may have been, as he said, a grave error, but it was a skillfully crafted one.

Even if you take the above scene out of the equation, Sabotage is a taut motion picture, with some exceptional “Hitchcockian” moments (including one involving a kitchen knife). While Hitchcock himself may have looked back on this film with remorse, it remains an early example of the Master of Suspense doing what he did best.







Saturday, August 11, 2012

#726. The Giant of Marathon (1959)


Directed By: Jacques Tourneur, Mario Bava

Starring: Steve Reeves, Mylène Demongeot, Sergio Fantoni




Tag line: "Neither Persian swords nor a beautiful traitor could stop him from defeating his enemies!"

Trivia: This became yet another film in which director of photography Mario Bava had to step in as director






The Giant of Marathon had not one, but two prestigious directors at the helm. Started by Jacques Tourneur, the man behind such Val Lewton classics as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, it was completed (when Tourneur left) by none other than Mario Bava, who had been working as its cinematographer. In fact, the studio was so impressed with the way Bava handled the production that they green-lighted his first solo directorial effort, a little gem titled Black Sunday!

In 490 B.C., the very first Olympic Games were held in Greece, and were dominated by one man, an Athenian named Phillipides (Steve Reeves). Returning home a champion, Philippides is made the Commander of an Elite city guard, and treated as if he were a king, provoking the jealousy of Theocrates (Sergio Fantoni), also a prominent citizen of Athens. Philippides further antagonizes Theocrates when he falls in love with the beautiful Andromeda (Mylène Demongeot), who Theocrates himself intends to marry. The animosity between the two grows even stronger when Philippides discovers Theocrates supports the return of Hippias, a former dictator of Athens and a known ally of the Persian king Darius (Daniele Vargas). Determined to prevent his beloved Athens from falling into the hands of Persian invaders, Philippides single-handedly makes his way to Sparta to ask for their support in a war that appears to be inevitable.

By the time The Giant of Marathon went into production, American-born actor Steve Reeves was a box-office sensation in Europe, having risen to super-stardom by way of such Sword and Sandal epics as Hercules in 1958 and its sequel, Hercules Unchained, released a year later. And while Reeves may not have been the finest actor ever to grace the silver screen, he certainly had the build to play heroic characters. The opening scene in The Giant of Marathon is of Reeves’ Philippides tossing a javelin during the Olympic games, and his physique is often placed front and center throughout the movie (in a cleverly-framed shot, he ascends from a swimming pool after winning yet another event, standing between the statues of two Greek Gods). While his performance is noticeably wooden (his love scenes with Andromeda are almost laughable), he did have a bearing that made him a natural hero, and the perfect man to play Hercules, Goliath (as he did in 1959’s Goliath and the Barbarians) and Philippides.

As for The Giant of Marathon, it gets off to a very slow start, dedicating its first half to character development, and as I already mentioned, developing his character wasn’t one of Reeves’ strong points. I found my attention waning during these early scenes, and even a brief scuffle between Philippides and a wrestler he called a “brute” wasn’t enough to pull me back into the picture. Things do improve once the war between Greece and Persia gets underway, which includes some well-shot underwater sequences, and while I can’t go so far as to say this makes The Giant of Marathon worth an hour and a half of your time, it does succeed in saving it from the throes of mediocrity.







Friday, August 10, 2012

#725. Donnie Darko (2001)


Directed By: Richard Kelly

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell




Tag line: "Life is one long insane trip. Some people just have better directions"

Trivia: Drew Barrymore's character Karen Pomeroy is named for sex researcher Wardell Pomeroy of the Kinsey Institute





Donnie Darko is an engaging sci-fi mystery that’s littered with clues to help decipher its hidden messages, and yet it also tends to guard its secrets quite jealously. There’s a lot going on here, from talk of time travel to hints of an alternate reality, and every event, occurrence and exchange contained within its 113 minutes is open to interpretation.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is not your average teenager. For one, he sleepwalks, often waking up far from home, and he’s also in therapy, meeting with his counselor (Katherine Ross) on a weekly basis. But fate has something more in store for Donnie, something much stranger than he’s ever experienced before. While out on one of his typical sleepwalking jaunts, a jet engine falls from the sky and crash-lands in Donnie’s bedroom. Had he been home, he would have surely been killed, yet soon after this near-tragedy, Donnie begins having visions of a giant rabbit, or, to be more precise, a man in a rabbit suit. The first time he meets this new friend, who goes by the name of Frank (James Duval), he tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Further encounters with Frank result in Donnie committing criminal acts, including vandalism and even arson, usually while in a near somnambulistic state. Realizing his life is spiraling out of control, Donnie spends many hours searching for the answers to two very important questions; why is Frank saying the world is going to end, and what exactly does it have to do with him?

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an excellent performance as Donnie, a young man who, though troubled, is much smarter than anyone in his school, smarter even than some of his teachers. Gyllenhaal effectively captures the exasperation of an advanced teenager dealing with what he perceives is the ignorance of others, yet whose probe into his own condition is proving a fruitless endeavor. It seems Donnie is more intelligent than almost everyone he knows, but not intelligent enough to solve his own issues, and his frustration is growing stronger with each passing day.

Donnie Darko was writer/director Richard Kelly’s first feature film, and it’s an extraordinary debut, to say the least. From its opening sequence, in which Donnie wakes up one morning in the middle of a mountain road, Kelly starts dropping hints that all is not right in this particular corner of the universe. Scenes occasionally move in slow motion for no apparent reason, and camera angles twist and warp, as if to indicate there’s a distortion in the world surrounding young Donnie. The problem is he’s the only one who seems to notice.

Don’t sweat it if you fail to solve the mysteries of Donnie Darko on your first viewing. I’ve seen it a number of times and I’m still not sure I have it all figured out. But it doesn’t matter, because thanks to Gyllenhaal’s performance and the film’s always-impressive style, there’s enough happening in Donnie Darko to keep you entertained through all the confusion.







Thursday, August 9, 2012

#724. Jeepers Creepers II (2003)


Directed By: Victor Salva

Starring: Jonathan Breck, Ray Wise, Nicki Aycox





Tag line: "Every 23rd Spring, for 23 days, it gets to eat. Welcome to day 23"

Trivia: On the set, Victor Salva referred to the school bus as the "Creepers Lunch Box"






Jeepers Creepers II not only continues the story from Jeepers Creepers (picking up a few days after the events of that film), it carries it in a couple of new directions.

Following an opening scene in which a young boy named Johnny (Shaun Fleming) is abducted by the Creeper, an ancient winged creature that returns to life every 23 years, then feeds for exactly 23 days, we join a busload of High School basketball players, on their way home from a championship game. Suddenly, one of the bus’s tires blows out, and the driver (Diane Delano) discovers it was hit by a weapon of some sort, made entirely of bones. After a short delay, the bus continues on its journey, only to lose a second tire, leaving it stranded on a back road in the middle of nowhere. And when the driver, as well as the team’s two coaches (Thom Gossam Jr. and Tom Tarantini), mysteriously disappear, the teens panic, locking themselves inside the vehicle. It isn’t until the Creeper returns for another “visit” that they begin to grasp the severity of their situation, and realize they have little choice but to make a run for it.

The beginning sequence, in which Johnny is kidnapped by the Creeper from right under the noses of his father (Ray Wise) and older brother (Luke Edwards), is strong, yet pales in comparison to the film’s best scene, where the driver and coaches meet their doom. With another tire gone and no spare to fix it, one of the coaches starts setting flares along the road, while the other gets the kids off the bus, trying to calm them down. As he does so, we see the Creeper snatch up the first coach in the background. Then, once the driver goes looking for him, she’s taken in much the same way, leaving the remaining coach to rush everyone back onto the bus. He himself nearly makes it on as well, but at the last minute, something grabs him, dragging him kicking and screaming into the night. The effects are impressive, but more than that, this sequence sets a desperate tone the movie will adhere to from there on out, as the teens, with no authority figures left to watch over them, start fighting amongst themselves.

I liked how Jeepers Creepers II switched back and forth between the family from the opening (the father, played so well by Ray Wise, decides to track down his son’s killer) and the stranded bus. Eventually, these two stories will merge, increasing the film’s tension while also offering a number of exciting thrills, as the characters team up against what seems to be an invincible foe.

Jeepers Creepers was an excellent horror movie, and unlike many sequels, Jeepers Creepers II is every bit as good.