Wednesday, October 31, 2012

#807. Rope (1948)


Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger





Tag line: "The guest who's dead on time"

Trivia: During filming, the cast had to avoid tripping on cables that laid over the floor, because of the moving cameras and lighting






Rope marked a number of “firsts” in the career of Alfred Hitchcock. Aside from being his first color movie, it was also the director’s first collaboration with Jimmy Stewart, who’d go on to appear in a couple of his finest pictures, Rear Window and Vertigo. Yet, despite all this, Rope is perhaps most notable for its daring experiment. Based on a 1929 play written by Patrick Hamilton, Hitchcock shot Rope as if it were being performed on-stage, with uninterrupted takes lasting as long as 10 minutes at a time. And while the movie does occasionally come across as “stage-bound”, the demands this experiment made on the actors (one mistake meant re-shooting the entire scene) resulted in an intensity that, at times, is all-consuming.

Inspired by the real-life Leopold-Loeb case, Rope stars John Dall and Farley Granger as a pair of friends who plan, then carry out, what they believe to be the perfect murder, perpetrated simply to experience the thrill of killing someone. Once the deed is done, the two stuff their victim, a classmate named David (Dick Hogan), into a trunk. Not content with mere murder, they then host a dinner party at their fancy New York apartment, invite several guests including the dead man’s father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and fiancé (Joan Chandler), and serve refreshments laid out on the very chest that contains the body! Also attending the party is Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), a University professor whose philosophy that murder could, and should, be used as a tool to weed out society’s undesirables inspired their deed. But what they didn’t bank on was Rupert’s keen eye for treachery, and it isn’t long before he's putting the pieces together.

With an entire story set in a single location, Hitchcock never attempts to hide the fact that Rope was based on a play; by the time the film ends, we’re as familiar with that apartment as we could ever hope to be. Yet while some might consider the limited setting a drawback, the performances more than make up for it. Dall and Granger are solid as the two killers, and play off one another perfectly, with Dall’s cocky self-assuredness countered at every turn by Granger’s anxiety, a bundle of nerves because he’s convinced, unlike Dall, that their deed will soon be discovered. Yet outshining them both is James Stewart as Rupert, the teacher whose beliefs have made him an unwitting accomplice to murder. Over the course of the film, Stewart brings his character full-circle, from preaching how systematic killings could benefit society to regretting those very words when he sees the effect they've had on his star pupils.

Though lacking many basic cinematic elements, Rope manages, with the help of its cast, to overcome its inherent staginess and relate a tale that oozes suspense. It may not be Hitchcock’s most artistic picture, but Rope is certainly one of his most fascinating.







Tuesday, October 30, 2012

#806. Yojimbo (1961)


Directed By: Akira Kurosawa

Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Eijirô Tôno, Tatsuya Nakadai






Trivia: The first entry in Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, was a remake of this film







Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo has been remade by such noted directors as Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars), Walter Hill (Last Man Standing) and even Takaski Miike (Sukiyaki Western Django), and while I’m a fan of all these remakes, for sheer entertainment, nothing can top the original.

Toshiro Mifune stars as a Ronin (a wandering Samuria with no master) who says his name is Sanjuro (which means “30 years old”, though he confesses to being 30 pushing 40). He’s just arrived in a small town that’s being torn apart by two rival warlords, Seibei (Seizaburo Kawaza), owner of the local brothel, and Ushitora (Kyu Sazanaka), who runs the casino. Both are using their wealth and power to try and gain control of the town, with its citizens trapped in the middle, afraid to leave their homes. After he’s informed of the situation by an old man (Eijiro Tono), Sanjuro decides to help the locals out by tricking the warring factions into finishing each other off once and for all, which he does by selling his services to both gangs, using their trust in him to stir up the malice between them.

Kurosawa successfully interjects moments of humor into Yojimbo, scenes that, despite their frivolity, never undermine the movie’s overall somber tone. In one particularly funny sequence, men from both sides are creeping slowly towards each other, showdown-style, only to shy away the closer they get to actually fighting. There’s plenty of action in Yojimbo as well, most of which is brought about as a result of Sanjuro’s grand scheme. As the lead character, Mifune remains subdued at all times, a big change from the near-manic performances he delivered in The Seven Samurai and Rashomon. In Yojimbo, the actor demonstrates his range by playing a warrior who relies as much on his wits as he does his sword.

Director Kurosawa freely admitted he was a fan of the American western, and you can see that genre’s influences throughout this movie, from its sweeping cinematography to the very layout of the town, a dusty, wind-swept place that looks as if it might have been lifted right out of John Ford picture. Far from a distraction, these elements mesh wonderfully with the film’s distinctly “Japanese” story. A brilliant example of east meets west, Yojimbo is also one of Kurosawa’s finest achievements, demonstrating yet again why he was a master of his craft.







Monday, October 29, 2012

#805. Shark Night (2011)


Directed By: David R. Ellis

Starring: Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan, Chris Carmack





Tag line: "Terror runs deep"

Trivia: This is the 2nd shark themed movie scored by composer Graeme Revell. His first was Open Water






Ever since Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster 1975 film, Jaws, taught us to fear the water, a number of killer fish movies have tried to do likewise. Most failed, but at least some of them (Piranha, Deep Blue Sea) were entertaining. A few of you might consider it sacrilege to even mention Jaws in the same paragraph as 2011’s Shark Night. Jaws is, after all, a classic, a thrilling masterwork of tension. Shark Night features characters with limited intelligence being attacked by a shark.

That’s it. End of story.

Six college students join their friend, Sara (Sara Paxton), at her family’s lakeside vacation home, situated on the Louisiana Bayou. While out waterskiing, one of their group (Sinqua Walls) is bitten by a shark. As the others are trying to decide what to do, the creature turns its attention to their boat, promptly destroying it and leaving them with very few options. Fortunately, Sara’s old beau, Dennis (Chris Carmack), swings by, and agrees to help them. That’s when things really start to go downhill.

It’s a simple story, and Shark Night is a simple film. Forget plot. Forget character development. I went in assuming there would be neither, and I was right. There’s a feeble attempt to explain how the sharks got into the lake in the first place, but seriously, who cares? Give me sharks attacking people, and I’m happy. This is the movie’s fatal flaw. Thinking only of box-office receipts, the “creative” minds behind Shark Night opted for a PG-13 rating instead of an R, so that teenagers could see it without having to take their parents along. Well, for this film to deliver what audiences expected, it needed gore. Lots and lots of gore. Gnashing teeth. Severed limbs. You know, the whole nine yards. And in Shark Night, there’s not nearly enough of it. So what are we left with? Imbeciles partying, having fun, and being eaten by CGI sharks…off-screen! Sorry, but that sucks.

Shark Night was originally presented in 3-D (when the title was Shark Night 3D…ingenious, isn’t it?). I myself wasn’t fortunate enough to catch this version of the movie, and I’m guessing I didn’t miss much. Sure, exploding boats might’ve looked nifty flying out at me, yet even that couldn’t have saved the film.

Shark Night was as stupid as I expected, and not nearly as bloody as I hoped. But never mind… I’m pretty sure I won’t remember it come morning







Sunday, October 28, 2012

#804. Pumpkinhead (1988)


Directed By: Stan Winston

Starring: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D'Aquino





Tag line: "For each of man's evils a special demon exists..."

Trivia: The horror punk band The Misfits released a song entitled "Pumpkin Head," which was featured on their album Famous Monsters, released in 1999





Make-up and special effects artist Stan Winston brought his unique talents to a wide range of projects, everything from the 1977 television mini-series, Roots, to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. His filmography reads like a genre fan’s wet dream: The Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Terminator 2 – Judgment Day, even 2008’s Iron Man, each benefitting from his exceptional skills. In 1988, Mr. Winston set aside his make-up brush and latex molds to try his hand at directing, and the resulting film, Pumpkinhead, is as spooky as it is fun, adding another memorable monster to his already impressive resume.

A group of teens, looking for some fun, head out to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, their good times lead to tragedy when Joel (John DiAquino), one of the teens, accidentally runs down a local boy named Billy Harley (Matthew Hurley) with his dirt bike. When Billy dies from his injuries, his father, Ed (Lance Henriksen), vows revenge, and seeks out a mysterious old witch (Florence Schauffler) who lives in the hills. With Ed’s help, she’s able to conjure up a demon, a bloodthirsty creature who’ll not stop killing until every one of the teens is dead. It isn’t long before Ed starts having second thoughts about the whole thing, but is he too late to stop it?

I’ve always been a fan of Lance Henriksen’s, from his early work in movies like Mansion of the Doomed and Damien: Omen II to his most notable role, that of Bishop, the synthetic life form in James Cameron’s Aliens. Usually limited to supporting roles, it was nice to see him play what’s essentially the lead in Pumpkinhead, and, as expected, he turns in an excellent performance as Ed Harley, the good-natured country bumpkin driven to revenge. The scene where he’s cradling the body of his son is truly heartbreaking, and Henriksen handles it wonderfully, conveying all the complex emotions rushing through his character’s mind. Ed may take things a bit too far later on, but at that moment, we feel his pain.

Along with Henriksen’s performance, Pumpkinhead is remembered for its creature, a tall, lanky demon with long fingers and incredible strength, able to lifts its victims up into the trees, or drag them off, kicking and screaming. A terrifying beast, Pumpkinhead is yet another feather in the cap of Stan Winston, who, having built a career out of making monsters for the movies, goes a step further with Pumpkinhead by building an entire film around one.







Saturday, October 27, 2012

#803. Les Carabiniers (1963)


Directed By: Jean-Luc Godard

Starring: Patrice Moullet, Marino Masé, Geneviève Galéa






Trivia: Director Barbet Schroeder makes a cameo appearance in this film, playing a car salesman







Les Carabiniers, director Jean-Luc Godard’s darkly comedic attempt to make an anti-war film, ultimately falls a bit short of the mark. Yet, despite its weaknesses, Les Carabiniers is still an interesting watch.

A pair of brothers: Michelangelo (Albert Juross) and Ulysses (Marino Mase), live a quiet life on a farm with the women in their lives, Venus (Genevieve Galea) and Cleopatre (Catherine Ribeiro). One day, they’re visited by two soldiers, who bring them a letter from the king asking for the brothers’ help in an upcoming war. Promised riches beyond their wildest dreams, and coerced into enlisting by Venus and Cleopatre, the men march off to battle.

As it turns out, Michelangelo and Ulysses are natural soldiers, fighting and killing (and occasionally looting and pillaging) for the glory of their king. They send numerous postcards to Venus and Cleopatre telling of their exploits, including the number of people they’ve killed and how they go about disposing of the bodies. When the brothers finally return home, the two girls are upset that they didn’t bring them any gifts, at which point Michelangelo and Ulysses pull out dozens of postcards showing lands and treasure they will surely receive as a reward for their excellent service. But the war is not going well for the king, and Michelangelo and Ulysses might have to answer for their questionable conduct during battle.

Les Carabiniers has some funny moments, like when Ulysses attempts to “purchase” a Maserati by showing the salesman (played by Barbet Schroeder) the king’s letter promising riches, only to discover he also needs money. My favorite sequence has Michelangelo visiting a movie theater for the very first time and watching a film in which a woman is about to take a bath. Unaware of the cinema’s spatial limitations, he tries to peek around the corner when she steps off-screen to remove her clothing. The scene where the main characters return home with their postcards is also a high point, a prolonged sequence that gets more entertaining as it progresses.

While the comedy in Les Carabiniers works, the anti-war message gets lost in the shuffle, and doesn’t really come across as Godard intended. The director tries to convey his contempt for war by showing contempt for Michelangelo and Ulysses, whose actions in combat are reprehensible. But the moral is somewhat muted by the poor performances of the four leads, all of whom were amateurs at the time, and as a result, Les Carabiniers never rises above the level of a simple comedy.







Friday, October 26, 2012

#802. Macbeth (1971)


Directed By: Roman Polanski

Starring: Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw





Trivia: Director Roman Polanski originally sought Tuesday Weld for the role of Lady Macbeth, but she refused to do the nude sleepwalking scene








Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, also known as The Tragedy of Macbeth, is an emotionally charged, grandiose production of Shakespeare’s timeless play.

The story of Macbeth (wonderfully portrayed by Jon Finch) is well-known. After a battle in which he bravely fought for King Duncan (Nicholas Selby), Macbeth and his good friend, Banquo (Martin Shaw), happen upon a trio of witches (Maise MacFarquhar, Elsie Taylor and Noelle Rimmington), who prophesize that Macbeth will one day be king, with Banquo’s descendants ruling after him. This bit of welcome news sets Macbeth’s mind to spinning, yet not nearly as quickly as that of his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis). One night, while Duncan is a guest at their castle, Lady Macbeth drugs his chamber guards, which allows Macbeth to enter Duncan’s room and kill the king. When Duncan’s body is discovered, the chamber guards are held accountable, and immediately executed, with Duncan’s only son, Malcolm (Stephen Chase), also implicated. Malcolm flees, and Macbeth is declared king.

But the crown does not sit easily upon Macbeth’s head. For one, Banquo knows of the witches’ prophecy, and suspects Macbeth had something to do with Duncan’s death. To quiet his old comrade, Macbeth hires two assassins to kill Banquo and his son (Banquo is murdered, but his son escapes). As a result, the tormented Macbeth is haunted by visions of Banquo, while Lady Macbeth suffers fits of delirium, brought on by the evil deed she and her husband carried out. Looking for peace of mind, Macbeth again seeks out the witches, who inform him he will not be injured by anyone born of woman, a prediction that gives Macbeth a renewed sense of confidence. Even the news that Malcolm has raised an army of 10,000 strong doesn’t worry him, but is Macbeth truly as invincible as he believes?

Though not entirely faithful to the play (for the sake of the picture’s running time, several scenes were left out), Polanski’s Macbeth is nonetheless a gritty, unflinching, graphically violent motion picture. The performances are top-notch, especially Finch as the ruthless title character, yet what impressed me most about this version of Shakespeare’s classic story was the look of it, the well-realized settings (it was shot on-location at several castles in England and Wales) and costumes, which brought a realism to the film that effectively transported me back to the Middle Ages.

Macbeth has always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s works, and with 1971’s Macbeth, Polanski offers a magnificent retelling of this historical tragedy, creating a movie that does the Bard justice.






Thursday, October 25, 2012

#801. Wishcraft (2002)


Directed By: Danny Graves, Richard Wenk

Starring: Michael Weston, Alexandra Holden, Huntley Ritter





Tag line: "In this school, when you're marked absent, you won't be coming back"

Trivia: In Hungary, this film was released as Dangerous Wishes






Most of the actors who appeared in 2002’s Wishcraft were relative unknowns at the time, but there are two familiar faces in the bunch. The first belongs to Zelda Rubenstein, the petite actress who helped rescue Carol-Anne throughout the Poltergeist series, here playing what could be the strangest coroner ever committed to film. Then, we have rock star Meatloaf, as a detective investigating a string of bizarre killings. Celebrity appearances like these, which filmmakers throw in to lend a little legitimacy to their picture, are commonplace in low-budget horror. But this movie didn't need any stars to enhance it because, for most of its running time, Wishcraft is both a tense whodunit and a bloody slasher, telling a story that's a good diversion on its own.

Brett Bumpers (Michael Weston) is a model student, which doesn’t exactly make him the most popular guy in high school. He is secretly in love with Samantha (Alexandra Holden), a foxy cheerleader he’s tutoring in World History. Of course, Samantha is dating an arrogant jock named Cody (Huntley Ritter), who all the girls swoon over, so what kind of chance does a guy like Brett have? That question is answered when Brett receives a package in the mail, containing a totem (a severed bull’s penis wrapped in leather) and a note telling him he’s just been granted three wishes. At first skeptical, Brett eventually uses the totem and is shocked when his wish actually comes true. But at the same time Brett is attempting to change his life, a number of students at his school are being savagely butchered by an unknown killer. Does Brett’s new “toy” connect, in any way, to these murders? And if so, how?

The opening scenes of Wishcraft are dedicated to setting up the film’s high school environment, and while there’s nothing new here (jocks, cheerleaders, Goths, and our man, Brett, on the outside looking in), it’s certainly presented well. Then Brett receives the totem in the mail, and, prompted by his best friend, Howie (A.J. Buckley), he makes his first wish. Lo and behold, it comes true: Samantha asks him to a school dance. Naturally, the date doesn’t go as Brett would have liked it to, but at least he knows the totem works. Geared more towards the fantastic than the frightening early on, Wishcraft established an interesting premise, and I was anxious to see how it was going to evolve into a horror tale.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to wait very long. Right after the dance, we join Jimbo (Charlie Talbert), one of the jocks, and his date (Alexandra Breckenridge) as they’re making out on a blanket in the middle of a golf course. Unfortunately, the sprinklers go off, spoiling their romantic moment and sending the two scurrying in the direction of Jimbo’s car. In his hurry to escape the running water, Jimbo left his pants behind. So, he goes back to retrieve them, only to find they’re now hanging from a tree branch. Realizing someone is messing with him, Jimbo calls out, threatening to beat the hell out of whoever it might be. It’s then that he’s attacked by a cloaked figure with a deformed face, who slices Jimbo up with a knife before using a samurai sword to pin his torso to a tree. The kill itself isn’t all that shocking, but the gruesome discovery made by Jimbo’s girlfriend right afterwards is. More students will be polished off in a similarly violent fashion, including one who meets his end by way of a bowling ball!

Wishcraft doesn’t connect the dots between Brett’s Totem and the murders until late in the film, and I have to say I was surprised by the twist (because I didn’t see it coming), but also a bit disappointed when the killer was finally revealed (his motives were beyond weak). The movie then wraps up with a ridiculous fight sequence, a kung-fu style showdown that had me rolling my eyes in disbelief. 

It was a poor ending to what had otherwise been an engaging motion picture.








Wednesday, October 24, 2012

#800. Doctor X (1932)


Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy




Tag line: "Out-Thrills Them All!"

Trivia: For a time Warner Brothers did not have a print of the original Technicolor version and it was assumed to be lost. The Technicolor version was finally discovered and restored by the UCLA Archives







Hot on the trail of a big story, reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) has been shadowing the police for days as they investigate a string of killings known as the “Moon Killer Murders”, thus named because each one occurred under the light of a full moon. Eventually, the police determine that the weapon used in the slayings, a specialized scalpel, came from a nearby medical academy. Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), the head of this academy, is convinced the killer is most likely one of his colleagues, and tells the authorities he has a surefire method to figure out which one it is. Inviting the academy’s top scientists to his secluded mansion, where he lives with his daughter, Joan (Fay Wray), Xavier hooks each of them up to a machine of his own making and then reenacts the most recent murder, believing his equipment will identify the killer by analyzing his physical reaction to the violence playing out before their eyes. The plan goes awry, however, when an actual murder occurs during the experiment, thus intensifying the mystery and putting all of them in harm’s way.

Like 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X was shot in the two-color Technicolor process. Unlike its counterpart, however, which didn’t rely on the gimmick all that much, Doctor X uses color to great effect (a late scene, featuring both the killer and a lit candle, is especially shocking due to its vibrancy). Yet what makes Doctor X a notable motion picture is its introduction of Fay Wray to the genre, who not only made her horror debut in this film, but also got a chance to test the scream she’d put to good use a few years later in King Kong (and it’s a particularly shrill shriek at that, one guaranteed to send shivers up your spine).

This alone makes Doctor X a movie worth your time, but to its credit, the film offers more besides, including a deformed killer, a creepy laboratory, the odd reference to cannibalism, and even plenty of humor (courtesy of Lee Tracy’s bumbling reporter). All this, plus the legendary Lionel Atwill in the lead role, transforms Doctor X into an early horror picture that still packs a pretty good wallop.







Tuesday, October 23, 2012

#799. The Godfather Part III (1990)


Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia




Tag line: "All the power on earth can't change destiny"

Trivia:  The first of only two trilogies to have all three films nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture







Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III is more a reunion than a sequel. While it never rises to the same level of artistry as its predecessors, The Godfather Part III is nonetheless an interesting conclusion to the Corleone family story, and as a fan of the first two films, this alone makes it a worthwhile experience.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is closer than ever to realizing his dream of bringing the Corleone family into the world of legitimate business. With the backing of Vatican Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), Michael makes a bid to take control of an age-old European conglomerate known as International Immobiliare. Such a bold move would not only solidify the family’s assets, but also, in one fell swoop, wipe clean the Corleone name, as if its violent history never happened. Unfortunately for Michael, the old ways of conducting business aren’t through with him just yet. First off, flashy gangster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) is making a move to gain power within the organization, and will happily step over Michael’s corpse to get it. Then, to add insult to injury, Michael discovers through his dealings with the director of Immobiliare, Don Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), that the “legitimate” business world is just as corrupt, just as dangerous as the one he’s trying to leave behind. Having grown weary of it all, Michael strongly considers turning the family business over to someone else, namely Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of his late brother, Sonny, who’s proven he has the stamina to get the job done. But will Vincent’s fiery temper ultimately cloud his judgment, thus leading the Corleone clan down the path to ruin?

With The Godfather Part III, director Francis Ford Coppola brings his larger-than-life story of crime and power full circle. As in the first Godfather, we watch an aging Don step aside so that a younger man can take his place. Tired of the violence, Michael does his best to avoid gangsters like Joey Zasa, who he sees as little more than a throwback to the old days. Yet Michael’s in too deeply, and escaping the “organization” he’s belonged to for so long is simply not an option. Coppola gives us a good sense of Michael’s disillusionment throughout the film, a big change from the Michael Corleone of Parts I and II, the cold, manipulative, ruthless mafioso who single-handedly guided the family into a new era of prosperity. By The Godfather Part III, he can't bear the pressure any longer.

To be sure, The Godfather Part III has its problems. Michael’s daughter, Mary, is played by Sofia Coppola, whose performance is feeble, to say the least, and as a result, an entire side story concerning her love affair with Vincent never gathers any steam. Yet the film’s deficiencies don’t hinder the overall experience. Watching this movie was like catching up with old friends and meeting some new ones, characters as wonderfully fleshed-out as any from the previous two entries (Eli Wallach gives a bravado performance as Don Altobello, an old acquaintance of Michael’s who might also be an enemy).

The epic tale of the Corleone family is perhaps the most intriguing in American cinematic history, and The Godfather Part III brings their story to a fitting end.











Monday, October 22, 2012

#798. The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)


Directed By: Oliver Parker

Starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O'Connor




Tag line: "Everybody Loves Ernest... But Nobody's Quite Sure Who He Really Is"

Trivia:  While Reese Witherspoon was learning her English accent for this movie, her husband, Ryan Phillippe was learning a Scottish accent for his role in Gosford Park





Oscar Wilde’s whimsical 1895 play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is brought to the screen yet again in this 2002 film directed by Oliver Parker, featuring a well-known cast who, from the looks of it, were having the time of their lives.

It’s the 19th century. Jack (Colin Firth), an aristocratic English gentleman, resides in a large country estate with his young ward, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon). On occasion, Jack is summoned to London to deal with his rogue of a younger brother, Ernest, who lives in the city and gets into all sorts of mischief. What nobody realizes is that Jack himself is Ernest, a pseudonym he adopts whenever he’s in town. As Ernest, the straight-laced Jack can drop his prim and proper personality to become the perfect cad, skipping out on restaurant bills and causing mayhem throughout all of London. His friend, Algy (Rupert Everett), has been filled in on Jack’s double life (though, to that point, he’d only known him as Ernest), while Algy’s cousin, Gwendolyn (Frances O’Conner), is the apple of Jack/Ernest’s eye. The problem is that Gwendolyn’s mother, Lady Bracknell (Dame Judi Dench) is none too impressed with ‘Ernest’, and refuses to allow him to court her daughter. Things are further complicated when Algy, intent on meeting the pretty Cecily, shows up at Jack’s estate in the country and announces that he’s Jack’s oft-troubled brother, Ernest. With Jack dating Gwendolyn, Algy wooing Cecily, and both women convinced their significant other is named Ernest, the whole situation quickly becomes a very messy affair.

The entire cast of The Importance of Being Earnest is superb, with Dame Judi Dench (at her most unreasonable) stealing the show whenever she’s on-screen. Upon learning that Jack/Ernest’s parents died when he was an infant, her Lady Bracknell, unmoved by this tale of woe, says “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness”. Along with the five leads, The Importance of Being Earnest co-stars Anna Massey as Miss Prism, Cecily’s over-stuffed language teacher, and Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Chasuble, a minister who has the hots for Miss Prism, both of whom are equally as notable.

With a story that twists and turns in a number of directions, The Importance of Being Earnest is never boring, and remains, at all times, a lighthearted bit of fun.







Sunday, October 21, 2012

#797. Dummy (2002)


Directed By: Greg Pritikin

Starring: Adrien Brody, Milla Jovovich, Illeana Douglas




Tag line: "Sometimes you need a little help finding yourself"

Trivia:  Jessica Walter and Ron Leibman, who play Adrien Brody's character's parents, are married in real life






Before Adrien Brody turned in his Academy Award-winning performance in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, he explored a different kind of character altogether in 2002’s Dummy. Written and directed by Greg Pritikin, Dummy is a harmless, entertaining film about a man who deals with his anxieties in a most unusual way.

Steven (Brody) lacks confidence. His parents barely acknowledge his existence, and his older sister, Heidi (Ileana Douglas), insults him every chance she gets. When Steven’s fired from his dead-end job, he takes advantage of this new-found freedom to follow his childhood dream of becoming a ventriloquist. His best friend, Fangora (Milla Jovovich), the lead singer of a punk rock band, is supportive, and Lorena (Vera Farmiga), the pretty girl who works at the employment agency, even helps Steven find an agent to represent him. While mastering the art of ventriloquism, Steven gradually discovers the self-assurance he never knew he had, even going so far as to ask Lorena out on a date. Did Steven initiate this amazing transformation on his own, or does he owe it all to his dummy?

In Dummy, Brody effectively portrays a man suffering from very low self-esteem, one who expresses himself almost exclusively through the mouth of a ventriloquist’s best friend. The fact that Brody performed his own ventriloquism and puppetry in Dummy is no small feat, but it’s the passivity he brings to the role, and how he slowly sheds it as the story progresses, that’s truly impressive. The evolution of Steven from self-conscious loser to assertive ventriloquist occurs quite subtly; so subtly that it’ll hardly show up on your radar. Even by the end of the movie, Steven remains a bit awkward, yet there’s a slight difference in his demeanor. While not the smoothest of lovers, he grows more at-ease whenever Lorena is around, the nervousness he displayed early on gently dwindling over time. His emotional growth is methodical, and Brody successfully conveys Steven’s maturation without ever losing sight of the character’s basic insecurities.












Saturday, October 20, 2012

#796. Close-Up (1990)


Directed By: Abbas Kiarostami

Starring: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hossain Sabzian, Abolfazl Ahankhah







Trivia: Chosen by Les Cahiers du cinéma as one of the 10 Best Pictures of 1991






Close-Up, director Abbas Kiarostami’s documentary / drama, tells the true-life tale of an ordinary man who convinced a prosperous family in Tehran that he was a famous filmmaker, and wanted to shoot a movie in their house.

The man in question, Hossein Sabzian, met Mahrokh Ahankhah, wife of Abolfazi, while riding on a bus. He was reading a copy of The Cyclist, a novel based on an Iranian film of the same name, and Mahrokh asked him about it. It was at that point Sabzian claimed to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the noted director of The Cyclist. During the course of their conversation, Sabzian was able to obtain her phone number, and soon after called to set up a visit to their home, posing as Makhmalbaf the entire time. The family’s youngest son, Mehrdad, was a patron of the arts, and therefore very interested in meeting the legendary filmmaker. But it wasn’t long before he and the rest of the Ahankhahs realized something was wrong, a suspicion confirmed by a reporter named Farazmand, who had met Makhmalbaf previously. Once his deception was revealed, Sabzian was immediately arrested.

Close-Up combines a series of reenactments with actual footage of Sabzian’s trial to tell this very unusual tale. When questioned by the court, Sabzian freely admits to impersonating Makhmalbaf. As we soon learn, he’s extremely poor, with a child to support (he and his wife were divorced), yet categorically denies he did all this to steal money from the Ahankhahs (though he did borrow some). Suffering from low self-esteem, he relished the attention heaped upon him by the family, which, he says, meant more to him at that stage in his life than anything. The movie ends with a touching scene, where Sabzian gets to meet the man he was impersonating, director Moshen Makhmalbaf.

The story presented in Close-Up is admittedly simplistic (even the judge asks why the cameras were filming this particular trial, when he had more interesting cases on his docket). Yet it is also quite endearing. The film’s participants (I hesitate to call them “actors”, seeing as they all play themselves) draw us in to the point that we’re fascinated by the entire, strange affair, and we come to care not only for Sabzian, but the Ahankhah family as well. By the time Close-Up ends, we can’t help but regret that they didn’t meet under different circumstances. They most certainly could have become the best of friends.











Friday, October 19, 2012

#795. Zulu (1964)


Directed By: Cy Endfield

Starring: Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson



Tag line: "The epic story of courage, honour and pride"

Trivia: Stanley Baker purchased John Chard's Victoria Cross in 1972, but thought it was probably a replica. After Baker's death it was sold to a collector at a low price. It turned out to be the actual medal






Zulu is an account of one of the most brutal battles in British military history, a fight between some 100-odd Welsh foot soldiers and over 4,000 Zulu warriors that took place in Natal, Africa, on January 22, 1879. It is also a thrilling motion picture.

Stanley Baker stars as Lt. John Chard, an engineer who was sent to the tiny outpost of Rorke’s Drift to erect a bridge, yet ended up serving as the regiment’s commanding officer. His second-in-command is Bromhead (a very young Michael Caine), a smug Lieutenant who spends his free time hunting down some of Africa’s more exotic wildlife. Having been warned of the impending attack by Rev. Witt (Jack Hawkins), a missionary who’s on friendly terms with the natives, Chard, Bromhead and the others, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable odds they face, decide to make a stand. The fighting is intense, with both sides taking heavy casualties, and a number of British soldiers distinguish themselves in battle, including Pvt. Henry Hook (James Booth), who, just before the melee, had been lying in a hospital bed. He would become one of eleven in the regiment to be awarded the Victorian Cross for valor.

The battle that rages through much of Zulu is not constant; instead, the Zulus come in waves, throwing as many men as they can against their foe, then retreating once British artillery has drastically reduced their numbers. There are periods of silence between the attacks, giving Lt. Chard and his subordinates time to survey the damage. Then the Zulus advance again… and again… and again, chanting as they bang their spears against their shields, getting closer and closer with each successive assault. As for the remaining British troops, they’ve accepted that they’re probably going to die, and fight back with the determination of men who have nothing left to lose.

Zulu is a tense, often electrifying reenactment of this bloody day in history, yet what I found most interesting was how the filmmakers refused to demonize the Zulu warriors. In fact, the movie, at times, salutes their bravery as well, and in one of the film’s final shots we’re shown the battlefield, littered with hundreds upon hundreds of bodies, revealing that, though the British went through hell, it was the Zulus who paid the ultimate price.










Thursday, October 18, 2012

#794. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)


Directed By: Roy William Neill

Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill





Tag line: "A Death Fight . . . Between Two Beasts !"

Trivia: The very first time we see the Frankenstein Monster, it is not Bela Lugosi in the makeup. Stuntman Eddie Parker also made appearances as the Monster






A direct sequel to The Wolf Man, 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man also served as the 5th installment in Universal’s Frankenstein series. After watching it, however, I can’t help but wonder why the studio even bothered pairing these two classic creatures. Despite being mentioned in the title, Frankenstein’s monster (played by Bela Lugosi) is essentially reduced to the role of a secondary character.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man opens in a cemetery in Wales, where two grave robbers are breaking into the crypt that houses the remains of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), better known as The Wolf Man. When Talbot’s body is exposed to the light of a full moon, he returns to life, forced to once again endure the curse of being a werewolf. Hoping to die (and this time stay dead), Talbot visits the gypsy woman, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), for advice, and, at Maleva’s prompting, she and Talbot set out for the castle of Baron Frankenstein, the one man who wields power over life and death. But upon their arrival, Talbot and Maleva learn the Baron is dead, and only his daughter, Elsa (Ilona Massey), remains. To further complicate things, Talbot, after yet another transformation, inadvertently reawakens Frankenstein’s monster (Lugosi), which was trapped in the ice underneath the castle. Yet all is not lost, because Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles), who had been tracking Talbot ever since he left Wales, believes he can interpret the late Baron’s notebooks, and perhaps find a way, with the help of the monster, to end Talbot’s misery once and for all.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man can be broken into two parts. The first half, where we follow a freshly resurrected Talbot as he searches for a way to die, is excellent, boasting plenty of atmosphere (especially the opening scene in the graveyard, a tense sequence that starts the film off on the right foot). I also enjoyed seeing Ouspenskaya back as Maleva, who has a slightly bigger role this time around. Unfortunately, the movie falls apart when the action shifts to Frankenstein’s castle, and the reason why is Bela Lugosi. As the creature, Lugosi does nothing more than stumble about with his arms outstretched, reducing the monster to a caricature of its former self (though, in Lugosi’s defense, it’s rumored he was instructed to play the part as if the character were blind, a plot point that was allegedly scrapped in post-production). Thankfully, the monster was given a minimal amount of screen time; so little, in fact, that his presence felt unnecessary.

As if on cue, the remainder of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man becomes a trite, somewhat predictable affair once Lugosi makes his grand entrance, and the last half of the movie is a far cry from the promise on display at the beginning.






Wednesday, October 17, 2012

#793. A Woman is a Woman (1961)


Directed By: Jean-Luc Godard

Starring: Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo






Trivia: This was Jean-Luc Godard's first film in color







Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman is a Woman serves as the French New Wave’s answer to a romantic comedy, with a dash of music tossed in for good measure. Yet what makes it such a winning film is its star, Anna Karina, whose beaming smile and bubbly personality bring the movie to life.

Exotic dancer Angela (Karina) is a free spirit who loves to sing (which she does a few times throughout the film, resulting in a handful of musical interludes). She’s also madly in love with her boyfriend, Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy), while Emile’s good friend, Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), is madly in love with her. Angela’s deepest desire is to have a baby, but Emile doesn’t believe he’s ready to be a father. This leads to a number of arguments between the two, some of which are quite unique (one night, they refuse to talk to each other, and instead toss insults back and forth by pointing at words on the covers of books). Alfred takes advantage of the couple’s domestic problems to try and lure Angela away from Emile, and for the first time, Angela’s dropping hints that she might be ready for a change.

A Woman is a Woman is very much a product of the New Wave in that it tells a basic story, and does so on the cheap (the bar where Angela works looks like a sound stage with some tables scattered around it). But then, you won’t be focusing on the production values (or lack thereof) because you won’t be able to take your eyes off Anna Karina, whose effervescent personality is downright infectious. Whether she’s dancing for the dregs at the strip club or simply walking through the apartment in her pajamas, you’ll follow her every step of the way. Brialy and Belmondo are fine as the men in Angela’s life, but the movie would be nothing without its vivacious leading lady. A Woman is a Woman is a close to a one-man, or, in this case, one-woman show as you can get.








Tuesday, October 16, 2012

#792. Woyzeck (1979)


Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Klaus Kinski, Eva Mattes, Wolfgang Reichmann






Trivia: The production of this film was finished in just 18 days







Every person has their breaking point. Very few of us ever reach it, but what would we be capable of if we did? This is the question posed by director Werner Herzog in his 1979 film, Woyzeck.

The always volatile Klaus Kinski stars as the title character, Franz Woyzeck, a 19th century soldier in the Bavarian army. Woyzeck is a timid man who allows himself to be bullied by his commanding officer (Wolfgang Reichmann), as well as the local doctor (Willy Semmelrogge) who’s conducting medical experiments on him. Each of these two men revel in the amount of torture they can inflict on Woyzeck, who never so much as raises his voice to them.

Woyzeck’s live-in mistress, Maria (Eve Mettes), is mother to his son, yet she’s been having an affair with a Drum Major (Josef Bierbichler) in Woyzeck’s company. Upon learning the truth, Woyzeck confronts the Drum Major, only to be humiliated when his romantic rival pummels him in front of several witnesses. Unable to take it any longer, Woyzeck runs into an open field, lies down, and presses his ear to the ground. “Stab”, he says, as if responding to a voice he’s now hearing in his head. His psyche broken, he has come to the disturbing conclusion that Maria must die!

As it is with many of his films, Herzog brings a documentary-like feel to Woyzeck, relying on long, uninterrupted takes to present this story of a man who’s been pushed too far. Kinski is tremendous in the role of the troubled main character. Having grown accustomed to seeing him out-of-control in movies like Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo, I was amazed at how convincingly meek and fragile he was early on. Of course, once the tables are turned, he’s back to being as uncontrollably manic as ever.

While Woyzeck is not nearly as well-known as some of their other collaborations, Herzog and Kinski do their part to make it a successful one.






Monday, October 15, 2012

#791. Kundun (1997)


Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin




Tag line: "The amazing story of the fourteenth Dalai Lama"

Trivia: Martin Scorsese dedicated this film to his mother, Catherine, who had died during the pre-production





Kundun is a beautiful motion picture that, despite its impressive imagery, is a case study in emotion over style. This is not to imply there’s an absence of style. On the contrary: Scorsese’s prowess as a visual filmmaker is as alive in Kundun as in any of his movies. But due to the obvious reverence with which he approaches this film's subject, the 14th Dalai Lama, the great director never permits his patented cinematic flair to overshadow his main character.

Based on actual incidents, Kundun relates the early life and struggles of the 14th Dalai Lama, a Tibetan religious leader who’s lived in exile since 1959, when an uprising in his country resulted in direct conflict with China. Believed the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, he was “discovered” at the age of two, then, through the remainder of his childhood, was groomed for the high position. Aided by his trusted adviser, Reting (Sonom Phuntsok), the 14th Dalai Lama grows to manhood (played as an adult by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong), at which point he must deal with the greatest threat facing his country: the Chinese occupation. Taking an active role, he attempts to meet with China’s Chairman, Mao Zedong (Robert Lin), to prevent further bloodshed. But when the Chinese plot to assassinate him, the 14th Dalai Lama has no choice but to leave his beloved Tibet behind and establish a government in exile in India.

Faces are important in Kundun. At several points throughout the film, the camera focuses on the face of the young Dalai Lama, a life of responsibility thrust upon him at an early age. We also get to know, quite intimately, the faces of those around him, who realize, before he himself does, that, if the Dalai Lama is to lead his people, he will have to do so abroad, hundreds of miles from the place of his birth. There is pain in these faces, the pain of dealing with a changing world, and Scorsese makes sure we feel every bit of it.

Shot primarily in Morocco, Kundun is stunning, with its gifted director making full use of the striking landscapes at his disposal. His camera, too, is always moving, free of constraints and gliding in a manner we’ve come to expect in a Martin Scorsese picture. Yet the visuals serve the movie. They do not divert from the film’s ultimate goal, which is to tell one man's story as best it can. The cinematic panache of a Scorsese work is there for the taking in Kundun; it’s just that the spotlight is never cast upon it.







Sunday, October 14, 2012

#790. Rushmore (1998)


Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams





Tag line: "Love. Expulsion. Revolution"

Trivia: Bill Murray's character wears the same suit throughout the entire film. He just changes his shirt and tie, which are always the same color as each other




Director Wes Anderson's films feel as if they take place in some sort of alternate reality, a world that looks very much like ours, yet is populated by bizarre, curiously interesting characters. His 1998 picture, Rushmore, is an early example of the quirky style he would perfect over the course of his career. It's also a very funny movie.

Tenth grader Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is the most enthusiastic student at Rushmore Academy, and takes part in dozens of the school’s extracurricular activities, everything from amateur theatrics to beekeeping. Unfortunately, he’s also Rushmore’s worst pupil, and is failing all of his courses. He doesn’t have many friends, but does manage to make a good impression on Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a Rushmore alumnus and self-made millionaire who’s almost as much a social outcast as Max. One day, Max notices a hand-written quote jotted down in a library book, and his search for the person who wrote it leads him to Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a young widow who teaches 1st grade at Rushmore. Max instantly falls in love with Ms. Cross, and does everything he can to impress her, including a stunt that gets him expelled from Rushmore. Things go from bad to worse for our hero when he learns Ms. Cross has been secretly dating his mentor and close friend, Herman Blume, kicking off a war between the two former pals that will undoubtedly end very badly.

Over the course of Rushmore, we watch as the film’s two main characters become, at first, the closest of friends, and then, as events unfold, the worst of enemies. My favorite scene occurs just after Max discovers the romance between Ms. Cross and the married Mr. Blume. Looking to hurt his ex-pal, Max informs Blume’s wife (Kim Terry) of her husband’s infidelity. When Blume is thrown out of his house as a result, he checks into a fancy hotel suite, only to be attacked the next morning by a swarm of angry bees (released into the room by Max, who, as mentioned above, has some experience as a beekeeper). Set to the tune of The Who’s A Quick One While He’s Away, we’re then treated to a montage of revenge, with each character trying to out-do the other, culminating in Blume having Max arrested for tampering with the brakes on his car. It’s a funny sequence, but with a hint of sadness running underneath it as we watch two very lonely people take their frustrations out on one another.

For me, Wes Anderson’s masterpiece is 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, which took his odd view of the world and spun it into an amusing, heartwarming tale of a family that’s fallen on hard times. If I had to pick a 2nd favorite from his impressive filmography, it would be Rushmore, a movie chock full of humor and pathos, with a keen sense of its own warped reality.







Saturday, October 13, 2012

#789. Misery (1990)


Directed By: Rob Reiner

Starring: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth





Tag line: "The Tide Has Come"

Trivia: One of Stephen King's first typewriters had a malfunctioning "N" key, just like the one used by James Caan in the movie






Based on a book by Stephen King, Misery stars James Caan as Paul Sheldon, a world-renowned author of romance novels who’s grown tired of writing the same old nonsense. So, he informs his editor, Marcia (Lauren Bacall), that he’s ending his popular Misery series, chronicling the romantic adventures of a young woman named Misery Chastaine, to instead tackle a personal project, one he’s been planning to write for years. After several weeks at his favorite retreat in Colorado, Paul heads to Los Angeles with a completed manuscript he hopes will usher in the next era of his career. Unfortunately, his trip comes to an abrupt end when, during a snowstorm, his car spins out of control and careens down a steep hill. Badly injured and trapped in the middle of nowhere, things look pretty bleak for Paul until a local resident named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) happens upon the wreck, dragging him to the safety of her cabin. As it turns out, Annie is a huge fan of Paul’s Misery novels, and for a while, is also the perfect host, nursing Paul back to health and tending to his every need. But it isn’t long before Paul realizes Annie has no intention of ever letting him leave. Crippled and in constant pain, he must nevertheless find a way to escape the clutches of his ‘number one fan’.

Kathy Bates is positively demonic in the role of Annie, a performance that won her both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Able to shift from ‘aw, shucks' fan worship to full-fledged psychotic at the drop of a hat, her Annie is one of the most unnerving characters you’re ever going to encounter. She’s completely unpredictable; there’s no way of knowing how she’ll react in any given situation, which makes every moment spent in Annie’s company unbearably tense. And man, was it tough to sit through that scene with the sledgehammer!

Director Rob Reiner has explored a number of different genres throughout his career, from madcap comedy (This is Spinal Tap) to fantasy (The Princess Bride), coming-of-age (Stand By Me) to courtroom mystery (A Few Good Men), romantic comedy (When Harry Met Sally) to historical drama (Ghosts of Mississippi). With Misery, we can add “Thriller” to that list, and thanks to the performance of his lead actress, it’s a thriller you won’t soon forget.







Friday, October 12, 2012

#788. The Bodyguard (1976)


Directed By: Ryuichi Takamori, Simon Nuchtern

Starring: Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi, Aaron Banks





Tag line: "Sonny Chiba, hired to kill... If his kick doesn't get you... his fatal fist will!"

Trivia: This film was also released under the title Karate Kiba





Sonny Chiba’s The Bodyguard (a.k.a. Karate Kiba) opens with a biblical quote, chosen by the filmmakers to establish their main character’s strength and tenacity. This quote, allegedly from the Book of Ezekial, happens to be the same one uttered by Jules, Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction, whenever he’s about to blow somebody’s head off.

How’s that for a useless bit of trivia?

In The Bodyguard, Sonny Chiba stars as, well… Sonny Chiba! At a press conference, Chiba announces his intentions to take down Japan’s powerful drug lords, and offers his protective services to anyone brave enough to come forward with information on their illegal activities. A young woman, who claims to have connections in the underworld, takes him up on this offer, and Chiba, as promised, serves as her bodyguard. But as Chiba soon discovers, this woman may have an ulterior motive for selling out the mob, leaving him to wonder where her true loyalties lie.

While The Bodyguard is nowhere near as violent as Chiba’s 1974 movie, The Street Fighter, the actor still gets plenty of chances to kick some serious ass. One night, while Chiba is on the job, the woman he’s protecting is attacked. He reacts quickly, and manages to wound one of the attackers…by pulling the man’s right arm off (in a humorous follow-up, Chiba holds the severed limb, and, looking down at it, says, “This sure as hell was a bloody show”). No matter what Chiba’s role might be, whether he’s in control or being controlled by someone else, he always can, and always will, take down his enemies, anytime, anywhere.

To coincide with his skills as a fighter, Sonny Chiba also oozes charisma, displaying a confidence throughout The Bodyguard that never once wavers. I mean, who else would have the balls to not only take on the entire Japanese mob, but announce his plans to do so at a press conference? As it is with most of his films, Sonny Chiba never backs away from a fight in The Bodyguard, and actually says at one point that he’s not afraid of death.

The fact is, Sonny Chiba probably isn’t afraid of anything!







Thursday, October 11, 2012

#787. Documenting the Grey Man (2011)


Directed By: Wayne Capps

Starring: Patrick Hussion, Kelly Coulter, Jillian Walzer





Tag line: "What they encounter will terrify you"

Trivia: This film was shot entirely in South Carolina






Documenting the Grey Man, yet another entry in the found footage sub-genre, kicks off in much the same way many of these films do: with a graphic informing us what we’re about to see is real. But thanks, in large part, to the movie’s poor performances, not a single scene in Documenting the Grey Man feels even remotely genuine.

Five amateur filmmakers: Mitch (Patrick Hussion), Lisa (Kelly Coulter), Jessica (Jillian Walzer), Chad (Wayne Capps) and Larry (William Covington), pose as paranormal investigators to look into claims made by a young family, who believe they’re new house is haunted. What’s more, the ghost that’s supposedly haunting them is none other than “The Grey Man”, a spirit which, until recently, had only been spotted roaming the beaches of South Carolina. Hoping to prove that paranormal research is nothing more than a hoax, the five are instead flung head-first into a nightmare when the ghost they didn’t believe in turns out to be all too real.

The very nature of paranormal research, where a team of experts sets up cameras throughout a so-called “haunted” building in an attempt to capture otherworldly phenomenon, makes it a perfect candidate for a found footage-style movie. Of course, for it to work, audiences have to believe what they’re watching could actually occur. While I had issues with the first half of Grave Encounters, a picture with the same kind of set-up as this one, the performances were at least strong enough to convince me it might have been real. This is not the case with Documenting the Grey Man. From the opening scene, where the film making pals are sitting in a restaurant laying out their plans, there wasn’t a moment I believed they were legitimate filmmakers. Or, for that matter, even friends. Their give-and-take was completely unnatural, and it only gets worse when the group drives out to the house to begin their “investigation”. In one particularly painful sequence, Mitch is interviewing Joe Simms (Richard L. Fister), the owner of said house. Joe doesn’t have much time for ghosts, and tells Mitch he’s more interested in fixing the place up than talking about the supernatural. Yet far from appearing agitated, or even slightly miffed by Mitch’s barrage of questions, Joe comes across as indifferent, and maybe a little bored. The only convincing character in the bunch was Joe’s wife, Katie, played by Payton Morelli. Too bad she didn’t get a lot of support from her co-stars.

Yes, I know Documenting the Grey Man is a low-budget film (it cost around $35,000 to make), and in most circumstances, low budgets don’t usually equate to solid performances. That’s all well and good, but Documenting the Grey Man expects us to buy that what we’re seeing is real, that these events actually happened, which requires players who, at the very least, come across as real people. The actors in Documenting the Grey Man fall well short of that mark.







Wednesday, October 10, 2012

#786. The Godfather Part II (1974)


Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall






Trivia: Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro are the only two actors to ever win separate Oscars for playing the same character. Brando won Best Actor for The Godfather and De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for this movie, both in the role of Vito Corleone





In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola directed The Godfather, a masterpiece that I consider the greatest movie ever made. How did he follow up this success? By directing The Godfather Part II, easily the greatest sequel ever made.

In fact, The Godfather Part II serves as both prequel and sequel to the original work. In picking up where The Godfather left off, we once again join Michael (Al Pacino), now the head of the Corleone crime family. It’s the 1950s, and Michael has moved the family’s base of operations from New York to Nevada, to focus on the Corleone’s casino holdings. One night, after hosting a lavish party for his son Anthony’s (James Gounaris) first communion, two unknown assailants open fire on Michael and his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), as they relax in their bedroom. Though uninjured, Michael is left angry and confused, and must now try to determine who wanted him dead; was it Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), his father’s old business partner who’s attempting to convince Michael to invest heavily in Cuba, or Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), the new head of the Corleone’s interests on the East Coast, who is himself locked in a bitter blood feud with a rival family? Which of the two would benefit most from getting Michael out of the way?

Along with the above, The Godfather Part II also doubles back on itself, relating the origins of Michael’s father, Vito Corleone, who, as a young boy, was forced to flee his hometown in Sicily when the local crime lord, Don Ciccio (Guiseppe Sillato), murdered his family. Growing to manhood in America, the future Don Corleone (Robert DeNiro) slowly works his way up to the top of the criminal underworld, first by ridding his neighborhood of an arrogant mafia strong arm named Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), then by setting himself up as the area’s new protector.

For years, I found myself going back and forth as to which of The Godfather Part II’s segments was its best: the prequel, in which a young Don Vito rises to power in the early days of the 20th Century, or the sequel, where we follow his son, Michael, as the dynasty he inherited from his father is threatened from all sides. To be sure, both sequences have their flashes of brilliance. In the prequel, there’s the extraordinary performance of Robert DeNiro as well as an incredibly realized turn-of-the-century New York, so realistically reproduced that it breathes with an energy all its own. The portions of The Godfather Part II that are set in the ‘50s have Al Pacino back playing the role that made him a star, though in this installment, his Michael is a colder, more dangerous man, much darker than he ever was in The Godfather. These sequences also contain a fascinating plotline that ties in with the Cuban uprising of 1959, with Michael and a good many other Americans fleeing the country when the rebel army invades Havana. Having now seen the film an unknown number of times (I’m guessing it’s at least a dozen), I find it both impossible to choose between these two, and foolhardy to even try. Both segments have elements similar to those that made the first Godfather a great motion picture, only this time around we’re treated to a pair of wonderful stories, each working to further what has become an ambitious tale of crime and glory.

Prior to making it, director Francis Ford Coppola said, “The only way The Godfather Part II can be an excellent film is if, when it is done and seen, the audience, including myself, looks at it and says that it was essential that it was made, and that it wasn’t (merely) an appendix that came after the first”. I believe he got his wish. As a follow-up, The Godfather Part II is the rarest of creations; a film which recaptures the magic of the original while at the same time standing on its own as a truly unique work of fiction. In laying out two distinct stories, then intertwining them to form a single, epic masterpiece, The Godfather Part II is more than just a terrific sequel; like its predecessor, it was, and is, one of the greatest movies of all time.