Thursday, February 28, 2013

#927. Joe (1970)

Directed By: John G. Avildsen

Starring: Peter Boyle, Dennis Patrick, Susan Sarandon

Tag line: "Keep America Beautiful"

Trivia: Reaction to this film disturbed actor Peter Boyle for years. He refused the lead role in The French Connection and other roles that glamorized violence after people cheered his role in this project

Joe, a 1970 film directed by John G Avildsen, is an unflinching look at American society in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, taking shots at both the hippie movement and the conservative right that criticized them.

When his daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon) nearly dies from a drug overdose, advertising executive Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick) takes matters into his own hands and, in a fit of rage, kills her drug-dealing boyfriend, Frank (Patrick McDermott). 

Shaken by the murder he has just committed, Compton walks into a neighborhood bar to get a drink and ends up telling factory worker Joe Curran (Peter Boyle) that he just killed a “hippie”. At first, Joe doesn’t believe him, but when he hears about Frank’s murder on the news a few days later, he seeks out Compton… to offer him his congratulations! 

See, Joe can’t stand the younger generation, and admires Compton for having the guts to take one of them out. Fearing his new pal might eventually try to blackmail him, Compton buddies up to Joe, and the two become fast friends. 

So when Melissa, who has learned the truth about Frank's death, checks out of the hospital and disappears, Compton knows he can rely on Joe to help track her down.

In some ways, Joe feels like a right-wing attack on the love generation. For one, Melissa’s boyfriend, Frank, is portrayed as a real scumbag, a drug dealer who puts her life in serious jeopardy, and even though it’s a tough scene to watch [Compton repeatedly bashes Frank’s head into a wall], we fully believe Frank got what was coming to him. 
On top of this, the film also tackles the era’s sexual promiscuity, as well as its rampant drug abuse.

Though, to be fair, Joe doesn’t exactly paint Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” in a good light, either. Joe, played superbly by Peter Boyle, is both a racist and a male chauvinist, and definitely more than a little rough around the edges; the night the Comptons pay him and his wife a visit, Joe raises a few eyebrows when he innocently pats Compton’s wife, Joan (Audrey Caire), on the ass. Still, despite his numerous shortcomings, we sorta pity Joe, whose anger we believe stems from his fear that the “American Dream” is slowly slipping through his fingers.

But our empathy ends the moment Joe turns his harsh words into actions. Without going into spoilers, let's just say the final scene of this movie will hit you like a ton of bricks, and all at once, you’ll regret having ever felt sorry for Joe Cullen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

#926. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Directed By: Hal Needham

Starring: Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed

Tag line: "What We Have Here Is a Total Lack of Respect for the Law!"

Trivia:  Buford T. Justice was the name of a real Florida Highway Patrolman known to Burt Reynolds' father, who was once Chief of Police of Jupiter, Florida

For years, Hal Needham (one of the recipients of the Governor’s Award at the other night’s Oscar ceremony) worked as a Hollywood stunt man, risking life and limb in movies ranging from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. In 1977, he tried his hand at directing, and over the next two decades would helm 20+ films, with mixed results. I am a fan of 1981’s The Cannonball Run, a cable favorite of mine that was savaged by the critics, but it’s sequel, 1984’s Cannonball Run II, is damn near unwatchable. 

Yet even in Needham's worst outings (I couldn’t stand Stroker Ace), there were plenty of thrills, as well as a strong sense of fun that was hard to resist. This was certainly the case with his debut feature, Smokey and the Bandit

The Bandit (Burt Reynolds), a semi-retired trucker, accepts a challenge from millionaire Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick) and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams), who will pay him $80,000 if he successfully smuggles a few hundred cases of Coors Beer into Georgia (which, at the time, was considered bootlegging). 

Naturally, the Bandit is gonna need some help pulling this off, so he asks his good friend, truck driver Cletus (Jerry Reed), to give him a hand. Driving a souped-up Trans Am, the Bandit races down the highway, drawing the attention of every state trooper he comes across, which then clears the way for Cletus, who is following just behind in a truck full of beer. 

Things go well for a while, but when the Bandit stops to pick up Carrie (Sally Field), a hitchhiker wearing a wedding dress, he inadvertently lands himself in a boatload of trouble. See, the guy Carrie was about to marry - and who she is now running away from - is Junior (Mike Henry), the son of Texas lawman Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Determined to track down the runaway bride, Sheriff Justice hits the open road, and before long is hot on the Bandit’s trail. 

To say Reynolds was the perfect actor to play the Bandit is technically incorrect, seeing as he never once gives the impression he’s acting. The role of the Bandit was tailor-made for him, and he spends most of the film just being himself. There’s even a scene where, after outwitting a pursuing cop car, the Bandit breaks the fourth wall and smiles directly into the camera, something that would have felt out of place in any movie other than this one. 

As for the supporting cast, country music star Jerry Reed makes for a great sidekick, and even provides some music for the film, including the catchy “East Bound and Down”. Sally Field is cute and bubbly as the fleeing bride and eventual love interest, and while they don’t appear in many scenes, Pat McCormick and Paul Williams are memorable as Big and Little Enos (especially Williams, who is hilarious). 

Yet it’s Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice who almost walks off with the movie, occasionally pausing his dogged pursuit of the Bandit to toss a few side-splitting insults in the direction of his dim-witted son, Junior (“There is no way…NO WAY…that you come from my loins!”). 

One of the things I always liked about Smokey and the Bandit was how carefree it feels, and how it doesn’t take itself seriously for a single moment; even the scene where Cletus gets his ass kicked by some bikers ends with a smile. Throughout his directorial career, Hal Needham showed he had a knack for keeping things light, and that’s exactly what he does in this film. Filled with high-speed car chases and ‘70s C.B. lingo, Smokey and the Bandit may not be art, but it’s definitely a good time!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

#925. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Directed By: Jack Arnold

Starring: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning

Tag line: "Centuries of passion pent up in his savage heart!"

Trivia: The physical appearance of the Creature was modeled after a likeness of the Oscar, the figurine awarded annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Creature from the Black Lagoon is both a throwback to the early days of horror, providing Universal Studios with yet another iconic monster to add to its collection, and a fine example of the science fiction genre, which would come into its own in the '50s.

During an expedition to the Amazon, Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) uncovers an amazing fossil - a skeletal hand with webbed fingers - that he brings with him to a Marine Laboratory for further examination. 
His good friend, Ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), is fascinated by the discovery, and persuades his sponsor, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), to fund a second expedition to the site so that they can find the rest of the skeleton. 

Joined by Reed’s girlfriend, Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), the team eventually makes its way to an area of the Amazon known as the Black Lagoon, which, unbeknownst to them, is home to an amphibious creature - part man and part fish - that isn't exactly happy to see them. 

Things get even more dangerous when the creature spots Kay, and falls instantly in love with her!

Directed by Jack Arnold, Creature from the Black Lagoon relates a harrowing tale of man’s intrusion into the natural world. Much like the giant ape in King Kong, we end up feeling sorry for the Creature (the locals nicknamed him the “Gill-Man”), and we want Reed and the others to leave him in peace (many of the Creature’s so-called acts of terror are retaliatory in nature; his initial attack is the result of a glass bottle being thrown at him). 

Yet the fact that we sympathize with the monster doesn’t make him any less frightening. The sequence where the Creature spies on Kay while she's swimming - matching her speed and, at times, gliding only a few feet below her - is incredibly suspenseful, as is the scene where the monster is captured (its gasps for air while trying to escape from its cage sent a chill up my spine). 

Two separate performers played the Gill-Man: Olympic swimming champion Ricou Browning handled the underwater scenes, while actor Ben Chapman donned the suit on dry land. Through their combined efforts, one of the cinema’s best-known monsters was brought convincingly to life. 

Along with its renowned title character, Creature from the Black Lagoon also boasts stunning underwater photography, a number of inspired set pieces (the monster’s subterranean lair is wonderfully realized), and, in Julie Adams, one of the most alluring actresses ever to appear in a Universal horror picture.

Originally shot in 3-D, Creature from the Black Lagoon is equal parts jungle adventure and monster movie, with a dash of Beauty and the Beast thrown in for good measure. 

It is also one of the greatest horror films ever made.

Monday, February 25, 2013

#924. Harper (1966)

Directed By: Jack Smight

Starring: Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris

Tag line: "Paul Newman is 'Harper' and Harper is just not to be believed !!! "

Trivia: The opening credits sequence was written and shot after the first cut of the film had already been delivered to the studio

Harper, a 1966 whodunit directed by Jack Smight, features Paul Newman in a very different kind of role, that of Lew Harper, a private eye hired to investigate the disappearance of a millionaire.

With the help of his friend, attorney Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), Harper is put in touch with Mrs. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), whose wealthy husband has gone missing. What makes the case so interesting is that Mrs. Sampson doesn’t really care if Harper finds her husband dead or alive. In fact, she might be happier if he were dead, seeing as the two haven’t been on speaking terms for quite some time. Armed with a picture, Harper sets out to locate the missing tycoon and, if all goes well, collect his much-needed salary.

But like all good detective yarns, there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye. For one, the Sampson’s spoiled daughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) is having an affair with Allan (Robert Wagner), the pilot of the family’s private jet. And before Harper can figure out how these two might fit into the case, he’s introduced to several other shady characters, including former actress (and current alcoholic) Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), Fay’s husband, Dwight (Robert Webber), and a strung out nightclub singer named Betty Fraley (Julie Harris). All of these people are at least somewhat familiar with the missing Mr. Sampson, and it’s up to Harper to determine how much they know about his disappearance. He even has a run-in with a wacky religious cult, which, under the leadership of High Priest Claude (Strother Martin), doubles as a smuggling operation for illegal immigrants.

With so many twists and turns, Harper resembles such ‘40s mysteries as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, with Newman taking on the part of the cynical, cocky sleuth Humphrey Bogart played to perfection in these two Hollywood classics. What’s even more fascinating than the fact Paul Newman portrays such a character in Harper is how well he does it, bringing a smarmy confidence to Harper that fits the character to a T. And though he would reprise the role once again in 1975’s The Drowning Pool, I would have loved to see the actor play a wise-ass private eye a few more times. Apparently, he had a real knack for it.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

#923. Rome, Open City (1945)

Directed By: Roberto Rossellini

Starring: Anna Magnani, Aldo Fabrizi, Marcello Pagliero

Trivia: Was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 19th Academy Awards

Produced in the days immediately after WWII, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City is primarily fictional, yet because it was shot on-location and features a number of non-professionals in the cast, the movie also conveys an authenticity that results in an almost documentary feel.

The story is set during the latter days of the war, a time when the Nazis were actively pursuing members of the Italian resistance. The area’s Gestapo officer, Major Bergman (Harry Feist), has set his sights on apprehending local engineer Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), a well-known leader of the rebel movement. Finding him, however, may prove difficult, seeing as Manfredi has many friends who are willing to hide him, including Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) and Pina (Anna Magnani), a young couple engaged to be married, and Father Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), a catholic priest secretly working for the resistance. Together, these three do what they can to keep Manfredi safe, but in a city torn apart by war, information is a valuable commodity, and if Bergman can’t locate Manfredi on his own, he might find someone who, for a price, will gladly point him in the right direction.

The gritty sense of realism that Rossellini brings to the film owes a lot to the city of Rome itself, its desolate streets and cramped apartments serving as a sad reminder that the opulent glory of its past was but a distant memory. As for the performances, two stand out; Anna Magnani is wonderful as Pina, the fiancé and mother (she has a young son named Marcello, played by Vito Annicchiarico) who makes the ultimate sacrifice for love, and Aldo Fabrizi shines as Father Pietro, the priest who fully believes God is on his side. The scenes involving their characters are easily the film’s most poignant.

Rome, Open City was an early entry in what would become known as the Italian Neorealist movement, a style of filmmaking born more out of necessity than art. By the end of the war, the Italian motion picture industry was practically non-existent. With no studios to shoot in or money to hire professionals, filmmakers took their cameras to the streets, telling stories about the common man that, because of the circumstances, also starred the common man, people with little or no acting background. And since government officials weren’t peering over their shoulders any longer, directors were finally able to shoot pictures that reflected the world they lived in, tackling such social issues as poverty and oppression. A number of talented individuals would come into their own during this period, including Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti (whose 1942 movie, Ossessione, is considered the first true Neorealist work), and Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves).

And, of course, Roberto Rossellini, who, with movies like Rome, Open City, brought a reality to the screen the likes of which cinema fans had never seen before.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

#922. M (1931)

Directed By: Fritz Lang

Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut

Trivia: Chosen by the Association of German Cinémathèques as the most important German film of all times

Fritz Lang’s 1931 film, M, is the story of a Berlin child murderer (Peter Lorre) who, thus far, has managed to elude capture. The authorities have no idea who this killer is, or why he’s targeting children, but are doing everything in their power to bring him to justice. What they don’t realize is the city’s criminal element, whose “business’ is suffering as a result of the police crackdown, have also joined in the search for this elusive killer. Determined to find the culprit before the cops do, a collection of Berlin’s less nefarious lawbreakers, from pickpockets to petty thieves, have banded together to come up with a plan of their own, during which the “Union of Beggars” will shadow as many kids as they can in the hopes the murderer will eventually turn up.

Director Fritz Lang tackles this material head-on, opening the film with the killer approaching young Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut) and gaining her confidence by buying her a balloon. Of course, Lang never shows the actual murder taking place (we’re clued in that Elsie is dead by way of a series of images, like her new balloon flying off), but then, he doesn't have to; the very thought of a girl that young meeting such a fate is powerful enough. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of M, however, is the way the movie isolates its lead character, whose heinous crimes have made him a pariah not only in respectable society, but the criminal underworld as well. Throughout M, Lang cuts back and forth between police conferences and a makeshift gathering of crooks, each hard at work trying to track down this predator and end his reign of terror (interestingly enough, the crooks have more success than the authorities).

Peter Lorre is superb as the killer, a menacing presence early on with his seemingly calm approach to murder (whistling Krieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whenever he’s on the prowl for a new victim), then arousing our sympathies when he’s finally cornered, revealing to his captors that he’s unable to stop himself from killing and referring to his urge to do so as “the evil thing inside me”. Having spent most of M hoping he would be captured, we feel pity for the character once he finally is, and considering the horrible nature of his crimes, the fact that Lorre pulls this off is simply amazing.

Friday, February 22, 2013

#921. Gymkata (1985)

Directed By: Robert Clouse

Starring: Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton

Tag line: "The skill of gymnastics, the kill of karate"

Trivia: The film debut of Kurt Thomas, a former World Champion gymnast and his only starring role in his career

Robert Clouse, the man who directed Bruce Lee in the Kung-Fu classic, Enter the Dragon, also helmed 1985’s Gymkata, which starred former gymnastics champion Kurt Thomas as a world-class athlete fighting against the forces of evil. Interestingly enough, Bruce Lee fought a similar battle in Enter the Dragon, but as far as these two actors go, this is where the similarities end. One of the biggest stars of the ‘70s, Bruce Lee was a master of Jeet Kun Do, a martial art he himself devised. Kurt Thomas could swing from a pole. Bruce Lee was an action icon with lightning-quick reflexes. Kurt Thomas… could swing from a pole. When Bruce Lee squared off against an opponent, odds are that guy was going down. For Kurt Thomas to do likewise, his enemies had to run directly into his feet while he was twirling above them; if they took a few steps backwards, he was pretty much helpless.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, Gymkata was a feeble attempt to create a new kind of martial arts film, starring an actor who has all the personality of a Pommel Horse. Where Bruce Lee oozed charisma, Kurt Thomas seemed allergic to it, but it wouldn’t be fair to single poor Kurt out as the sole reason Gymkata is an embarrassing mess. The truth is there’s plenty of blame to go around.

World class gymnast John Cabot (Thomas) has just been told his father (Eric Lawson) is missing, having disappeared while on a secret mission in Parmistan, a small country situated near the Caspian Sea. Considered a prime location for a missile defense system, the U.S. government convinces young Cabot it’s his duty to complete his father’s mission. So, accompanied by Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani), the estranged daughter of the Kahn of Parmistan (Buck Kartalian), Cabot makes his way into the country and, once there, signs up to compete in “The Game”, a life or death contest all foreign visitors are encouraged to enter. If Cabot wins, the Kahn will gladly permit the U.S. to build their missile base there. But the Khan’s shady right-hand man, Zamir (Richard Norton), has no intention of allowing Cabot, or any other foreigner, to finish “The Game”, and has instructed his personal guards to use whatever means necessary to take Cabot out.

Some scenes in Gymkata are hilariously awful, like the training sequences at the beginning of the movie, in which our hero learns how to climb a flight of stairs while upside-down, walking on his hands (which I assume is not a skill every U.S. operative is expected to master). Yet while the film’s high level of incompetence results in plenty of belly laughs, there are just as many moments in Gymkata where you’ll be scratching your head, wondering what’s going on. Perhaps the most confusing scenes are the various chases through the streets of Parmistan, where Cabot is running for his life from gunmen, sword-wielding martial arts experts, and, at one point, even the criminally insane (don’t ask). These sequences, which should have been among the most exciting in the film, are pieced together so arbitrarily that, as they play out, we lose all track of what’s happening on-screen. How far is Cabot ahead of his enemies? Why don’t they ever catch up to him? Didn’t Cabot already run down this same street twice before? Because we’re never given any point of reference (meaning we rarely see Cabot and his pursuers on-screen at the same time), many of these questions go unanswered. Yes, Gymkata is an amusingly dreadful motion picture, but it’s also a damned frustrating one.

Fortunately, I was able to see Gymkata with a good friend of mine who, over the years, has watched a number of horrible movies with me, both in theaters (such as Superman IV: Quest for Peace) and on home video (everything from 1966’s Curse of the Swamp Creature to No Retreat, No Surrender). Usually, he and I have a great time picking bad films apart, but because Gymkata was so hard to follow, it wasn’t as side-splittingly funny as we’d hoped it would be. Still, if you plan to watch Gymkata, I recommend doing so with a friend; in between the laughter, you’re gonna need someone to explain what the hell’s going on!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

#920. The Prowler (1981)

Directed By: Joseph Zito

Starring: Vicky Dawson, Christopher Goutman, Lawrence Tierney

Tag line: "The Human Exterminator"

Trivia: The movie was filmed in the city of Cape May, New Jersey, and included the use of some of the city's Victorian buildings

Throughout the ‘80s, make-up artist and special effects guru Tom Savini lent his talents to a number of genre classics, and in the process created some of the most unforgettable screen kills of all time: the Kevin Bacon throat stab in the original Friday the 13th; the shotgun blast to the head in Maniac; the raft scene in The Burning, and many, many more. 

As far as I’m concerned, though, the on-screen slayings he concocted for 1981’s The Prowler are the most impressive of his career.

We open with a flashback to 1945. An American G.I., on his way home to Avalon Bay, New Jersey after serving in World War II, receives a “Dear John” letter from his best gal, Rosemary (Joy Glaccum), saying she can’t wait for him any longer. This doesn’t sit well with the soldier, and on the night of the graduation dance he murders Rosemary and her new boyfriend (Timothy Wahrer) with a pitchfork.  

As a result of this tragedy, Avalon Bay hasn’t held the graduation dance in over 35 years. But the powers-that-be, feeling enough time has passed, decide the town's youngsters should start dancing again. Some locals fear that the return of the dance will bring the killer (who has never been caught) out of hiding, and, sure enough, that’s exactly what happens. 

Decked out in his old Army uniform, the killer re-emerges to once again take his frustrations out on the young people of Avalon Bay. With Sheriff Fraser (Farley Granger) off on vacation, the task of bringing this mass murderer to justice falls on the shoulders of his deputy, Mark London (Christopher Goutman), whose girlfriend, Pam (Vicky Dawson), is one of the many graduates attending the dance. 

Will Mark figure out who this elusive madman is in time to save Pam, or will she become yet another victim of the dreaded Prowler?

Many of the kill scenes in The Prowler are mind-blowingly realistic. Two particularly gruesome murders happen early on, and in quick succession, as Sherry (Lisa Dunsheath), one of Pam’s friends, is getting ready for the dance. While she’s in the shower, Sherry's boyfriend, Carl (David Sederholm), turns up. Figuring they can have a little fun before heading out, Sherry invites Carl to join her. Carl rushes into the bedroom to remove his clothes, but as soon as he sits down on the bed, the killer comes up from behind, grabs his head, and plunges a long knife into the top of his skull, penetrating so deep that it pops out the bottom of his chin (to add to the effect, Carl’s eyes roll backwards, making for an extremely disturbing image). 

Once Carl is dead, the killer heads into the bathroom, where he impales the unsuspecting Sherry with his patented pitchfork. These are just two of the kills Savini designed for The Prowler, and all the deaths that follow them are equally grisly.

Directed by Joseph Zito (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), The Prowler is a good slasher film, with moments of high tension (the scene where Pam doesn’t realize she’s in the same room as the Prowler is a nail-biter) and a memorable killer to boot. 

What carries the movie a step above “good” - bringing it closer to “great” - is the work of Tom Savini. The gore effects he created for The Prowler are second to none.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

#919. The Lodger (1927)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Ivor Novello, Marie Ault, June Tripp

Trivia: This is the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock in which he makes one of his trademark cameo appearances

Despite the fact he had already helmed two other pictures (The Pleasure Garden in 1925 and The Mountain Eagle in 1926), Alfred Hitchcock once told Francois Truffaut that he considered 1927’s The Lodger his first “true” film. Loosely based on the Jack the Ripper murders, The Lodger marks the director's introduction to suspense, which he builds to a fever pitch as we try to determine whether or not the tenant (Ivor Novello) who’s recently moved into a London flat is the elusive killer known as “The Avenger”, who, for the past several months, has brutally murdered a number of blonde-haired women.

To be sure, this new lodger has been acting a bit peculiar. The night he moved in, he asked that all the pictures, most of which were of pretty ladies with blonde hair, be removed from his room, and his strange habit of pacing the floor for hours at a time has become a real nuisance. Still, he’s paid his landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Bunting (Arthur Chesney and Marie Ault) a month’s rent in advance, and has even taken a liking to the Bunting’s daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), which doesn’t sit well with her steady boyfriend, Joe (Malcolm Keen), a police inspector recently assigned to the “Avenger” case. By following the trail of bodies left behind by “The Avenger”, Joe and his fellow officers have determined the murderer is somewhere in the vicinity of the Buntings’ neighborhood. This, combined with the lodger’s bizarre behavior, has Joe and many others convinced he's the psychopath they’ve been searching for. But is the lodger truly a cold-blooded killer, or simply a victim of coincidence?

Along with the suspense, The Lodger also features several other Hitchcock trademarks, including the possibility that an innocent man has been wrongly accused of a crime, something he would return to throughout his career in pictures like The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man and North by Northwest. In unison with this soon-to-be-familiar theme, the famed director also gets an early chance to flex his creative muscles, resulting in a number of memorable images. In one scene, the lodger is pacing the floor of his upstairs dwelling as the Buntings sit in the room directly below, anxiously staring up at the ceiling. Seeing as it was a silent film, the only way Hitchcock could convey the lodger’s agitation as he nervously walked back and forth was to show him doing so, which was accomplished by replacing the floor in the lodger's room with plate-glass and shooting the scene from the perspective of the Buntings, who, at this point, are convinced they’re unwittingly harboring a killer. A clever way to build tension, this was also one of the first examples of the “Master of Suspense” doing what he does best: utilizing his impressive imagination to create a work of art. And that's exactly what The Lodger is.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

#918. Narc (2002)

Directed By: Joe Carnahan

Starring: Ray Liotta, Jason Patric, Chi McBride

Trivia: Ray Liotta gained 25 lbs. for the role by eating foods heavy in carbohydrates

Right up front, let me be honest and tell you I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from Narc, a 2002 thriller that follows two narcotics officers as they traverse the mean streets of Detroit. The synopsis alone had me thinking it was a film I’d probably seen a hundred times before. But while Narc may not be the most original cop story ever told, director Joe Carnahan managed to bring a truckload of style to the telling.

As the movie opens, Det. Sgt. Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), a Detroit undercover narcotics officer, is chasing a drug dealer through the streets. A shootout ensues, and the suspect is killed. However, during the melee, a stray bullet hits a pregnant woman, and as a result, she loses her baby. In anguish, Det. Tellis resigns from the force. Eighteen months later, he’s asked to return to active duty to help track down the killer of another narcotics officer, Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang). Calvass' partner, Lt. Henry Oak (Ray Liotta) desperately wants to bring his friend's murderer to justice, and though the investigation leads he and Tellis to many of the city’s seedier neighborhoods, very few clues turn up. Tellis' wife, Audrey (Krista Bridges), begs her husband to once again step down, but it’s too late; he’s personally involved now, and can think of nothing else but finding Calvess’ killer.

Both Patric and Liotta are terrific as the hard-nosed cops who don’t really like each other, and while their tempestuous relationship is one of the film’s strong points, what makes Narc such an interesting motion picture is the energy director Carnahan injects into this tale of redemption and revenge. In many ways, Narc resembles 1971's The French Connection in that it relies heavily on quick edits and hand-held camerawork, which gives the film a documentary-like feel that perfectly complements its gritty, tough-as-nails story. This, together with some shocking violence and a surprising twist at the end, results in a movie more riveting than I ever thought it would be. Narc was a hell of a surprise.

Monday, February 18, 2013

#917. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Directed By: George Roy Hill

Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross

Tag line: "You never met a pair like Butch and The Kid"

Trivia: The filmmakers tried to get Bob Dylan to sing Burt Bacharach's famous song for the movie. He refused

In real life, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were hardened criminals who, along with their gang the “Wild Bunch”, robbed a number of banks in Wyoming, as well as the occasional train or two. That is, until fate, and the Bolivian Army, caught up with them in 1908. 

For the 1969 movie based on their exploits, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, director George Roy Hill takes a rather unique approach to the story, giving the film an effectively comedic tone and, in the process, transforming the outlaws into a pair of charming misfits.

Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) is the leader of the “Hole in the Wall” gang, a collection of outlaws that includes his closest friend, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford). After a brief power struggle with Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy), who tries to wrest control of the gang away from him, Butch and his cohorts make plans to rob the Union Pacific Railroad’s Overland Flyer not once, but twice, hitting it on its eastward run, then again on its trip back west. The first hold-up is a success, but during the second attempt, a group of lawmen turns up, causing the “Hole in the Wall” boys to scatter. 

This makeshift posse concentrates its efforts on apprehending Butch and Sundance, who, to evade capture, hop a boat bound for Bolivia, bringing Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta (Katherine Ross) along with them. Once south of the border, the pair decides to go straight, landing jobs as payroll guards. Yet this proves only a temporary detour from their life of crime. 

As the duo soon learns, however, the lawmen are just as persistent in Bolivia as in the United States, and perhaps a tad more ornery.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a lighthearted, funny look at two western outlaws fast approaching the end of their careers. Butch and Sundance, played so well by Newman and Redford, are more like lovable oafs than lifetime crooks; one of the film’s most memorable scenes features Butch playfully riding around on a bicycle as Burt Bacharach’s "Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head" fills the soundtrack. 

This scene would be out of place in most standard westerns, let alone a movie centering on a pair of real-life outlaws, but as the movie shows us time and again, Butch and Sundance weren’t particularly good criminals. When Butch squares off against Logan for control of the "Hole in the Wall" gang, we root for Butch to win, but at the same time realize Logan is making a pretty valid point: that Butch hasn’t been spending enough time with the gang, and, as a result, it lacks leadership. The duo’s incompetence also shines through when, during their attempt to rob the Overland Flyer, they try to dynamite their way into a baggage car and end up blowing it to bits because they used a few sticks too many. 

Sure, we like Butch and Sundance. With Newman and Redford as the leads, how could we not? Yet for most of the film, they're little more than endearing bumblers.

Set around the turn of the 20th century, when the days of the untamed west were coming to a close, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has a lot in common with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in that its main characters are clinging to a way of life that’s fading into obscurity. Yet where Peckinpah’s film was a dramatic, occasionally tragic account of men out of place in a changing world, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid takes it all in stride, and that’s a big part of its appeal.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

#916. Young Frankenstein (1974)

Directed By: Mel Brooks

Starring: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman

Tag line: "The scariest comedy of all time!"

Trivia: Rock band Aerosmith took a break from a long night of recording to see "Young Frankenstein" in 1974. Steven Tyler wrote the band's hit "Walk This Way" the morning after seeing the movie, inspired by Marty Feldman's first scene, the "walk this way... this way" scene

1974’s Young Frankenstein features writer / director Mel Brooks doing what he did best: satirizing Hollywood’s illustrious past. This time around, he’s taking jabs at Universal’s classic Frankenstein movies, pillaging elements from the series’ first three films (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein) to spin a hilarious tale of science run amok. 

Co-written by Gene Wilder (who also stars), Young Frankenstein is one of the craziest, most side-splitting spoofs ever made. 

Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) is the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, the madman who tried to bring the dead back to life and, in the process, created a monster. As you can imagine, Frederick, who is also a scientist, isn’t exactly proud of his lineage, going so far as to change the pronunciation of his last name (insisting he be called Fronk-en-steen) to distance himself from his notorious grandfather. 

Destiny catches up with Frederick, however, when he inherits the family castle in Transylvania. Leaving his pampered fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) behind, he travels to the home of his ancestors, and, once there, inadvertently stumbles upon Victor’s research journals. Upon reading them, Frederick has a change of heart, and sets out to prove his grandfather’s theory was correct. 

With the help of assistants Igor (Marty Feldman) and Inga (Teri Garr), Frederick successfully duplicates the experiment that, years earlier, resulted in disaster. Unfortunately, Frederick’s “creation” (Peter Boyle) is every bit as monstrous as his grandfather’s, once again striking fear into the hearts of nearby villagers. 

So, which character in Young Frankenstein gets the most laughs? 

It’s impossible to say. 

Gene Wilder’s Frederick is a borderline psychotic through much of the film, and his frenzied personality is good for some hearty chuckles (starting with the opening sequence, in which Frederick is teaching a class on nerve impulses and motor reflexes). Neither Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth nor Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher, the caretaker of the Frankenstein estate, are given much screen time, yet make the most of what little they get, and Teri Garr’s Inga strikes the perfect balance between innocent and sexy. 

In addition, Kenneth Mars plays Inspector Kemp, the local constable with the wooden arm who is not above cheating at darts; and many of Peter Boyle’s facial expressions as the mute monster are downright priceless (at one point, he drops in on a blind hermit played by Gene Hackman, whose attempt to serve the monster hot soup leads to what may be the film’s funniest moment). 

In my opinion, though, Marty Feldman’s Igor steals the show; from his initial scene at the train station (“walk this way”) through to his “fight” with Elizabeth’s mink stole, the saucer-eyed Feldman remains in top form every second he’s on-screen. In a movie with so many great characters, he manages to stand above the rest. 

The debate rages on as to which of Brooks’ films is his masterpiece, with many fans split between this movie, The Producers and Blazing Saddles. One thing most agree on, however, is that Young Frankenstein is one of the best comedies of the 1970's, and one of the funniest films ever made.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

#915. Voodoo Island (1957)

Directed By: Reginald Le Borg

Starring: Boris Karloff, Beverly Tyler, Murvyn Vye

Tag line: "The weird jungle of cobra plants that feed on women--and rip men apart!"

Trivia: Although set in the South Pacific, the film was actually filmed on the island of Kauai, Hawaii

Boris Karloff, the man who brought the monster to life in Frankenstein, was a tremendous actor, but even he would appear in a turkey from time to time. Which brings us to 1957’s Voodoo Island

Wealthy industrialist Howard Carlton (Owen Cunningham) wants to build a luxurious resort on a secluded island, but when he sends a survey team to scope out the land, only one of them returns, with the lone survivor, Mitchell (Glenn Dixon), in a permanent trance-like state. So, Carlton does what any sane millionaire in his position would do: hire an investigative journalist named Phillip Knight (Boris Karloff) to lead yet another team to the island. Joined by his assistant, Sarah (Beverly Tyler), and a number of others (including Mitchell, the zombie-like survivor of the first expedition), Knight heads to the island to carry out his investigation, unaware of the incredible dangers that await him.

Voodoo Island suffers from a number of problems. First off, the dialogue is only a step above what you’d find in an Ed Wood picture (and a small step at that). Not even the great Karloff could make these lines work, nor, for that matter, could Elijah Cook, Jr., another usually fine actor who plays Martin Schuyler, the nervous proprietor of an island hotel. When Schuyler realizes Knight and his party have brought Mitchell the zombie to his establishment, he grows indignant, saying “This man’s lost his mind. He’s among the dead. He cannot stay. I will not have it”, which he recites with as much emotion as you’d find in a script reading session. Interestingly enough, Adam West makes his big-screen debut in Voodoo Island, playing a radio operator. It’s a small role, but even he gets in on the fun when, after contacting a pilot whose plane is in trouble, he turns to his associate and says, “I hope this guy’s read his bible”. Another issue I had with Voodoo Island was its pace, which can be summed up in one word: yawn. Les Baxter’s musical score tries unsuccessfully to add a little spice to the movie, swelling to a fever pitch in such nerve wracking sequences as “Boarding the Plane”, where the characters board a plane, “The Taking of the Blood Pressure”, during which someone’s blood pressure is taken, and, of course, the very tense “N-5621 Victor Calling Wake Island” scene, where a radio operator repeats this phrase over… and over… and over, until Mitchell the zombie finally stands up, takes a few steps, and collapses (not that I blame him. By this point, I was ready for a nap myself). What’s more, there are parts of the movie that make no sense, like why drag Mitchell along in the first place, seeing as he’s in a perpetually vegetative state? This is one of many questions I asked throughout Voodoo Island, none of which were answered.

Karloff and a few of the other actors, notably Rhodes Reason as the hard-drinking ship’s captain, give it their all, but, alas, they were fighting a losing battle. Voodoo Island is boring, confusing, and, at times, just plain ridiculous.

Friday, February 15, 2013

#914. High School Caesar (1960)

Directed By: O'Dale Ireland

Starring: John Ashley, Gary Vinson, Steve Stevens

Tag line: "Mob rule in a high school!"

Teenage thug and all-around bad guy Matt Stevens (John Ashley) is one nasty character. As High School Caesar opens, he and his gang, all decked out in leather jackets, are beating the hell out of a fellow student, who, after taking one punch too many, falls to the ground. Without missing a beat, Matt reaches into the poor kid’s coat pocket, pulls out his wallet, and helps himself to all the cash inside. “Next time, he’ll pay”, Matt says to his gang, at which point they walk away. Not two minutes in, and High School Caesar is already shaping up to be a typical juvenile delinquent story, with kids from the wrong side of the tracks terrorizing innocent classmates for the fun of it. The only problem is Matt Stevens doesn’t come from the “wrong side of the tracks”. In fact, he’s so well off, he could probably buy the damn tracks!

Far from your usual hoodlum, Matt Stevens is filthy rich, which is not to say his home life is perfect; actually, it stinks. His parents off on a world tour, Matt pretty much lives by himself, with only a maid and butler to look after him. At school, though, Matt Stevens is king, and, with the help of his sidekick, Crickett (Steve Stevens), girlfriend, Lita (Daria Massey), and the rest of his gang, he rules the hallways with an iron fist. What’s more, Matt has just been elected class president (in a rigged election), meaning he’s now more powerful than ever before. That power is threatened, however, when a new girl named Wanda (Judy Nugent) stands up to Matt, leading to a showdown between him and his chief rival, Kelly Roberts (Lowell Brown), that’s sure to end in disaster.

The main thrust of High School Caesar, the neglected rich kid acting out because his parents ignore him, isn’t exactly original, nor, for that matter, are the various scenes featuring sock hops and drag races, which seem to come standard with teen movies from this period. Yet what makes it all work, and carries it a step above the norm, is the suave, almost effortless performance of John Ashley. His Matt practically runs the school, and manages to make a tidy little profit in the process. Matt’s Achilles heel, though, is his situation at home, and whenever he’s alone in his big house, his insecurities take over. The influence Matt wields at school masks the helplessness he feels at home, and it’s to Ashley’s credit that he turns what might have otherwise been a formulaic tale of teen angst into something worthwhile.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

#913. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Directed By: Atom Egoyan

Starring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Caerthan Banks

Tag line: "There is no such thing as the simple truth"

Trivia: Atom Egoyan was inspired to do this movie by a novel his wife Arsinée Khanjian gave him as a Christmas gift

Presenting its story in a non-linear fashion, director Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film, The Sweet Hereafter, tells the tale of a small Canadian community and the tragic event that threatens to tear it apart.

Ian Holm stars as Mitchell Stephens, an attorney who visits a snow-covered town in British Columbia where 20 children were killed in a school bus accident. Meeting with a number of grief-stricken parents, Stephens tries to convince them to bring a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturers of the school bus, claiming faulty construction was to blame for what happened. While many parents are on-board, some, like Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), accuse Stephens of trying to exploit their pain to line his own pockets. But Mitchell Stephens knows what it means to lose a child; his daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks), is a drug addict who’s run away from home, calling only when she’s in need of money. During his investigation into the crash, Stephens interviews several parents as well as Nicole (Sarah Polley), the lone survivor of the incident, and what he discovers is that, like him, most everyone in town has a secret to hide.

Though it’s the key event of the film, we don’t actually see the accident until halfway through the movie, at which point we’ve already spent time with a few distraught parents, and heard from Dolores (Gabrielle Rose), the school bus driver, who spoke in detail about what transpired that terrible morning. Yet, despite the fact we know what's coming, the accident scene is devastating, and the sadness we feel for parents like Hartley and Wanda Otto (Earl Pastko and Arsinée Khanjian ) as they walk their son, Bear (Simon Baker), to the bus stop for the last time isn’t diminished in the least by our advanced knowledge of events. That director Egoyan succeeds in moving us so deeply, evoking such a strong emotional response to an incident we’re already familiar with, is nothing short of a miracle.

Unfolding like a Shakespearean tragedy, and drawing a parallel to the 16th century fairy tale The Pied Piper of Hamelin, The Sweet Hereafter is a beautifully shot, expertly acted masterwork of emotion.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

#912. The Bad News Bears (1976)

Directed By: Michael Ritchie

Starring: Walter Matthau, Tatum O'Neal, Vic Morrow

Tag line: "The coach is waiting for his next beer. The pitcher is waiting for her first bra. The team is waiting for a miracle. Consider the possibilities"

Trivia: The film's poster art was by Jack Davis, one of the founding illustrators for MAD magazine

The year 1979 saw the emergence of two television sitcoms based on popular movies. One was Delta House, inspired by the 1978 John Landis film, Animal House. Needless to say, this show didn’t last long (I think it was gone after a few months). 

Nor, for that matter, did the series The Bad News Bears, in which Jack Warden assumed the role of Morris Buttermaker, the gruff little league coach played by Walter Matthau in Michael’ Ritchie’s 1976 comedy. 

Of the two shows, I enjoyed The Bad News Bears more, probably because: 

1. I was about the same age as most of its stars, and 

2. at the time, I, too, played little league baseball. 

Sure, the series wasn’t nearly as funny as the movie, but that would have been asking too much of it. At that young age, The Bad News Bears was one of my favorite comedies, and what’s really cool is that, seeing it again now, it still manages to make me laugh.

By court order, a California little league is forced to expand, adding one more team to their already jam-packed organization. The new club, nicknamed the Bears, has a roster full of kids not talented enough to play on any of the other teams. Among them are the pissed-off pipsqueak, Tanner (Chris Barnes), the overweight Englebert (Gary Lee Cavagnaro), the ultra-smart Ogilvie (Alfred W. Lutter), and a pair of Hispanic brothers (Jaime Escobedo and George Gonzales) who don’t speak a word of English. 

The Bears' coach is Morris Buttermaker (Matthau), an alcoholic former minor-league pitcher who now cleans swimming pools for a living. As expected, this new team isn’t very good, leading Roy Turner (Vic Morrow), coach of the rival Yankees, to recommend they voluntarily drop out of the league. 

Not ready to give up, Buttermaker instead recruits some new talent for the Bears, including Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the daughter of an old flame who happens to be a top-notch pitcher, and Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a juvenile delinquent with a terrific arm and a swing as powerful as Babe Ruth’s. 

With these additions to the roster, the Bears start winning, but as Buttermaker becomes more obsessed with the idea of taking the championship, he loses sight of why most of these kids joined up the first place: to have a good time.

The role of Morris Buttermaker, the beer-swilling, cigar-chomping coach of the Bears, seemed tailor-made for Walter Matthau, and sure enough, the actor is perfect in the part, bringing a special charm to what is essentially a
hapless, lazcharacter. In one scene, Buttermaker even drags the team along on a pool cleaning job, and, after putting the kids to work, has another member of the Bears, young Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith), mix him a martini while he relaxes on a lounge chair. 

What’s truly impressive, though, is how well some of the child actors fare alongside the veteran. Chris Barnes doesn’t give what I would call a “strong” performance as Tanner (he rushes through his lines far too quickly), but brings plenty of personality to the part, rattling off obscenities and ethnic slurs in just about every scene. Cavagnaro’s Englebert is good for a few chuckles, especially when Buttermaker is trying to teach him the fundamentals of the game, and the scenes where Rudi Stein (David Pollack) is told to "lean into the pitches" are classic. 

As the team’s two best players, Jackie Earle Haley is a convincing hoodlum-in-training, but, oddly enough, Tatum O’Neal, who won an Oscar for Paper Moon several years earlier, doesn't do much with her part. Luckily, her teammates managed to pick up the slack, and are a key reason why this is a very funny movie.

Ultimately, though, The Bad News Bears is more than just laughs; it also gives us something to think about. 

Hidden beneath the comedy is the always-timely topic of adults living vicariously through their kids. Even Buttermaker, who never really wanted to be a coach in the first place, catches “the bug”, benching players who aren’t as talented to keep the Bears winning streak alive. After getting a taste of victory, Buttermaker becomes just like Roy Turner and all the other parent/coaches, to whom winning means everything. 

This reminds me of a story my father told me, from when he was an umpire for the local little league. He was behind the plate for a championship game. In the late innings, the East was leading the West by a run, and with the sun going down, there was a real chance the game would soon be called on account of darkness. 

As the East was batting, one of their coaches suffered an epileptic seizure along the third base line. My father, and coaches from both teams, ran over to see if he was OK, at which point the parents for the West players started angrily shouting from the stands that he was purposefully trying to delay the game, and that they should drag him off the field and get on with it.

The Bad News Bears is a hilarious motion picture, but it’s a little sad too, and that, I believe, is why it is still effective all these years later.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

#911. Dr. No (1962)

Directed By: Terence Young

Starring: Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Bernard Lee

Tag line: "The First James Bond Film Adventure!"

Trivia: After the film's release in Italy, the Vatican issued a special communiqué expressing its disapproval at the film's moral standpoint

The setting is Le Cercle, a high-class casino in the heart of London. A well-dressed gentleman, his face slightly obscured, is on a winning streak at the Baccarat table, much to the chagrin of Ms. Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), who, determined to win her money back, quickly writes out a check for another thousand in tokens. 

I admire your courage”, the mysterious gentleman says to her, to which she responds “I admire your luck, Mr…” 

It’s at this point we get our first glimpse of the big winner, who, after pausing to light a cigarette, replies, “Bond. James Bond”. 

With that, one of the cinema’s most charismatic characters is born. 

The first in a string of films to feature Her Majesty’s super-agent, James Bond 007, Dr. No is as much a slice of cinematic history as it is a top-notch spy adventure.

John Strangways (Timothy Moxon), an MI6 operative working undercover in Jamaica, has gone missing, and agency chief “M” (Bernard Lee) sends his top man, James Bond (Sean Connery), to investigate. 

After arriving in Kingston (and narrowly escaping capture), Bond joins forces with CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), who has been sent to Jamaica to look into the activities of Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), a scientist and full-time member of SPECTRE, or the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. 

The Americans believe Dr. No is responsible for disrupting several rocket launches at Cape Canaveral, and with another scheduled to take off in a few days, they want to ensure he doesn’t interfere again. For his part, Bond is convinced Dr. No had something to do with Strangway’s disappearance, and with the help of local fisherman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), Agent 007 makes his way to Crab Key, a remote island that houses the Dr.’s secret base. While there, Bond meets the beautiful Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), who occasionally sneaks onto Crab Key to gather up sea shells. 

Honey agrees to take Bond and Quarrel to a secluded spot on the island, yet, despite their best efforts to lay low, Dr. No is aware of Bond’s arrival, and sends his henchman out to collect the intrusive spy.

Dr. No is where it all started, from the opening moments, where we’re looking down the barrel of a gun as Bond strolls in from the right and outdraws us, to Monty Norman’s now-iconic theme. As for this film’s “Bond Girl”, Ursula Andress set a standard few of her successors have matched, and none have surpassed. It’s impossible to think of Dr. No without recalling the scene where her Honey Rider steps out of the ocean wearing only a white bikini and a knife strapped to her waist, quietly singing the calypso tune, “Under the Mango Tree”. 

Then, of course, there’s Bond himself. Even today, fans of the series consider Connery the “perfect” Bond, and as we see in Dr. No, it’s not simply because he was the first to assume the role. Whether getting under “M”’s skin, flirting with Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), or in a fight for his life with Dr. No’s SPECTRE agents, Connery exudes charm, sophistication, and strength, with just the right amount of cockiness to back them up.

One thing Dr. No doesn’t feature is exploding pens, ejector seats, mini cameras, or any of the countless gadgets that would become a fixture over the course of the series; in Dr. No, there’s nothing for Bond to fall back on but his skills (which, needless to say, are plentiful). Also, the pace of the movie is a tad slow, especially when compared to those that would follow it. 

That said, after 50 years, Dr. No is still much more than a curiosity or a dusty old museum piece; It remains an entertaining motion picture, and the perfect introduction to what has become an explosive, uber-successful film franchise.