Friday, May 31, 2013

#1,019. The Fast and the Furious (2001)

Directed By: Rob Cohen

Starring: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez

Tag line: "Live life 1/4 mile at a time "

Trivia: There are over 15,000 individual sound effects in the first street race

Who'd have guessed that when The Fast and the Furious hit theaters in the summer of 2001, it would spawn an entire series? And with its most recent entry, 2013's Fast & Furious 6, raking in nearly $100 million at the U.S. Box Office its opening weekend, it's a safe bet #7 isn't far behind.

Sgt. Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) is an undercover cop assigned to investigate a series of high-profile robberies, where thieves made off with entire truckloads of expensive cars. Believing the culprits are most likely part of the street racing scene, he befriends Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), an ex-con and the leader of a talented group of drivers, including Vince (Matt Schulze), Jesse (Chad Lindberg), and Dominic's girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who always cross the finish line first. Pressured by his superiors to crack the case as quickly as possible, O'Connor instead becomes romantically involved with Dominic's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), getting him in deeper than he ever intended.

So, what is it about The Fast and the Furious that struck a chord with movie audiences? Well, it’s not the dialogue, which, for the most part, is dreadful. When O'Connor enters his first race, he's a bit short on cash, so instead, he puts the pink slip for his modified Mitsubishi on the line. "But if I win", he says, "I take the cash and I take the respect", adding "To some people, that's more important". I'm sure these lines looked good on paper, but translated to the screen, they're beyond hokey.

No, what made The Fast and the Furious a multimillion dollar franchise was its high-energy race scenes, which are definitely exhilarating. In the first race, Cohen does more than follow the cars as they fly down the road; he takes us inside the "guts" of the vehicles as well (by way of some impressive CGI), showing what happens to each engine when the drivers hit speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour. Yet, oddly enough, the movie offers a bit more than action and thrills. The Fast and the Furious also gives us a handful of interesting characters. Vin Diesel is strong as Toretto, a commanding presence when he's on-screen, and both Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster deliver fine performances as the women in Toretto's life.

While The Fast and the Furious is certainly no classic (aside from its often laughable dialogue, the "cop with conflicting loyalties" storyline is underdeveloped), it was a good starting point for a series that, as of today, has no end in sight.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

#1,018. Superman (1978)

Directed By: Richard Donner

Starring: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve

Tag line: "You'll believe a man can fly"

Trivia: For his portrayal of Clark Kent, Christopher Reeve based the performance on Cary Grant's character in Bringing Up Baby

With all due respect to George Reeves, Brandon Routh, and Henry Cavill, there is only one Superman, and his name was Christopher Reeve.

Directed by Richard Donner, 1978’s Superman takes us back to the beginning, when Jor-el (Marlon Brando), certain that his home planet of Krypton was facing imminent destruction, loaded his infant son into a crystal spaceship and sent him hurtling towards Earth. There, the boy was found and adopted by John (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), who gave him the name “Clark” (played as a teen by Jeff East), and, despite his incredible strength and agility, raised him to be a model citizen. 

Once grown, Clark (Reeve) makes his way to Metropolis, where he he is hired by Perry White (Jackie Cooper) to work as a reporter for the Daily Planet, where he shares an office with tough-as-nails journalist Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). 

Convinced he’s on earth for a reason, Clark also spends a great deal of time as his alter-ego, Superman, watching over the city to keep its citizens safe. When arch-criminal Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) unleashes his plan to destroy the U.S. West Coast, Superman springs into action, working quickly to save the lives of millions of innocent people.

Physically, Reeve, with his square jaw and clean-cut features, was the perfect Superman, yet, aside from merely looking the part, he also infused the character with the perfect blend of strength and humility. He is convincing in the action scenes (late in the movie, there’s a tremendous sequence where he saves a train that’s about to derail), and when, during his dinner date with Lois Lane, Superman tells her “I never lie”, we believe him. We even catch a glimpse of what happens when Superman is pushed to his breaking point (without going into spoilers, there’s a moment towards the end of the film where Superman lets out an angry cry, which, in all honesty, scared the shit out of me when I was a kid). 

Reeve gave a number of solid performances throughout his career. He was excellent in Sidney Lumet’s underrated 1982 movie Deathtrap and was perhaps the best thing about Somewhere in Time. But as he proves time and again throughout this 1978 film, Superman was the role he was born to play.

From start to finish, Superman is a terrific motion picture. Its rousing score is one of composer John Williams' best (not to mention my all-time favorite), and John Barry's production design is extraordinary; Krypton is wonderfully realized, an advanced civilization existing in the ice and snow, a look that’s repeated just as well later in the movie when Superman “finds” his fortress of solitude. As for the supporting players, Hackman is both menacing and hilarious as Lex Luthor, and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is wonderfully persistent, yet also lets her romantic side shine through whenever Superman is around. Hell, I even love the design of the film’s opening credits! 

But when I think of Superman, the image that immediately pops into my head is that of Christopher Reeve flying through the air. He made this bigger-than-life character his own, and for an entire generation, he was, and always will be, Superman.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

#1,017. The Secret Policeman's Ball (1979)

Directed By: Roger Graef

Starring: John Cleese, Peter Cook, Rowan Atkinson

Trivia: Two vinyl soundtrack LPs for the film were released, one for the comedy sketches, and and one for the musical acts

I first came across The Secret Policeman's Ball back in 1984, when my brother and I were on a mission to watch anything and everything that starred one or more members of the Monty Python troupe. Filmed over four nights in June of 1979, The Secret Policeman's Ball features highlights from a series of live comedy/musical concerts put on to raise money for Amnesty International. Originally aired as an hour-long special on Britain's ITV, the film was eventually released to theaters as a 75 minute documentary, and starred such well-known comedians as John Cleese, Michael Palin (both of Python fame), Peter Cook, and, in one of his first screen appearances, Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean, Blackadder), all doing their part to support a worthy cause.

Some of the jokes are dated (one skit references "the Shah of Persia", a hot topic in 1979, yet one many modern viewers won't understand), but plenty still hit the mark, and are as hilarious now as they were back then. A few of the funnier sequences include the opening skit, where Peter Cook discusses some "interesting facts" with John Cleese; an updated version of the Python's "Cheese Shop" routine, with John Cleese as a frustrated customer trying to buy cheese from store owner Michael Palin; a one-man sketch featuring Rowan Atkinson as a schoolmaster; and the grand finale, in which Peter Cook plays a cult leader who convinces his followers that the world is coming to an end in a few minutes time. Every now and again, The Secret Policeman’s Ball treats us to some music as well, like Pete Townsend’s acoustic rendition of The Who’s hit song Won't Get Fooled Again, during which he's accompanied by classical guitarist John Williams.

If you're a fan of Monty Python, Mr. Bean, or British comedy in general, then The Secret Policeman's Ball is a movie you won’t want to miss.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

#1,016. Werewolf of London (1935)

Directed By: Stuart Walker

Starring: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson

Tag line: "Beware! Terror strikes in the night!"

Trivia:  Although they play husband and wife in this film Henry Hull was actually 27 years older than Valerie Hobson

Released six years before Universal's classic The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London marked the first ever appearance of a werewolf in a Hollywood film. But as this movie clearly demonstrates, being "first" doesn't always translate to being the "best".

Botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is searching for a rare orchid known as the Mariphasa, which blooms only in the moonlight. It's in Tibet that he finally locates the flower, yet not before he's attacked by a wolf and bitten on the arm. Once back in England, Glendon receives a visit from the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), who tells Glendon the creature that attacked him was, in fact, a werewolf, meaning he is now destined to become one. Sure enough, during the next full moon, Glendon transforms into a werewolf and prowls the streets of London, searching for victims. According to Yogami, only the Mariphasa flower can cure him of this terrible curse. But the one Glendon brought back from Tibet has a limited supply of the antidote, and somebody else wants it as well.

Werewolf of London features a monster that's more "man" than "wolf", with Glendon maintaining many of his human characteristics after the transformation (save the fangs and some hair on his face and hands). Still, the film's make-up, which came courtesy of Jack Pierce (who also created the look of Chaney's Wolf Man) isn't the problem; the real issue with Werewolf of London is its lead character. As played by Henry Hull, Dr. Glendon is far too dull to evoke any sympathy from an audience. A man so wrapped up in his work that he ignores his wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), Glendon comes across as something of a twit, which makes it hard to care what happens to him.

Like most Universal horror films of the 1930's, the various set pieces in Werewolf of London are impressive (the opening sequence in Tibet looks great). But as a monster movie, it definitely falls short of the mark.

Monday, May 27, 2013

#1,015. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Directed By: Charles B. Pierce

Starring: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells

Tag line: "In 1946 this man killed five people... Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark"

Trivia: This movie is a semi-documentary based on the real-life string of mysterious killings that terrorized the people of Texarkana, Texas, in 1946

Four years after he made his directorial debut with The Legend of Boggy Creek, a documentary-style film about a monster that, for decades, was rumored to live in the swamps of Foulke, Arkansas, Charles B. Pierce returned to tell yet another tale of horror with The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the story of a real-life killer whose identity remains a mystery.

The year is 1946, and the citizens of Texarkana, Arkansas, are being terrorized by a serial killer targeting young couples. In each case, the murderer quickly disposes of the men, then assaults the women (by biting and chewing their bodies) before finishing them off as well. The local police, including Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine), are baffled. In need of some fast help, they call in Capt. J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) of the Texas Rangers, the top criminal investigator in the territory. Yet, even with Morales on the case, tracking down this elusive killer isn’t going to be easy.

As he did with The Legend of Boggy Creek, Pierce brings a documentary-like feel to The Town That Dreaded Sundown, using a narrator (Vern Stierman, who also narrated Boggy Creek) to give us the particulars of each separate incident (dates, locations, names, etc). But where The Town That Dreaded Sundown excels is in its depiction of the various attacks, which grow more gruesome as the film progresses. The first couple, Linda Mae Jenkins (Christine Ellsworth) and Sammy Fuller (Mike Hackworth), who were parked out in the woods, actually survived their ordeal, yet were unable to give an accurate description of their attacker because he was wearing a burlap sack over his head. Unfortunately, most victims wouldn't live long enough to tell their side of the story.

Prine and Johnson are believable as the lawmen determined to bring the murderer to justice, but the film's best performance is delivered by Bud Davis, who’s terrifying as the masked killer, a cold-blooded psychotic who seems to enjoy the carnage he creates (during one attack, he even gets a bit creative with a trombone). His portrayal, along with Pierce’s detailed recreation of the murders, is what makes The Town That Dreaded Sundown a truly chilling experience.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

#1,014. Under Capricorn (1949)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Michael Wilding

Tag line: "Out Of Her Curtained Past...Came A Man Past All Forgetting!"

Trivia:  This was Hitchcock's second film in Technicolor and uses several ten-minute takes similar to those in his film Rope

During one of his interview sessions with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock was quite critical of his 1949 movie, Under Capricorn, a costume drama set in 19th century Australia that starred Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton (both of whom had worked with the director before: Bergman in Spellbound and Notorious, Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt). Combining romance with intrigue, Under Capricorn was a definite change of pace for the Master of Suspense, which may be why the film was a financial failure. “If I’d been thinking clearly”, Hitch told Truffaut, “I’d never have tackled a costume picture”.

Fresh off the boat from Ireland, Charles Adair (Michael Whiting) is looking to start a new life in Sydney, and introduces himself to Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), a fellow Irishman and wealthy landowner who, years earlier, was sentenced for the murder of his wife’s brother and promptly shipped off to Australia. As it turns out, Adair had known Flusky’s wife, Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) when they were both children. Nowadays, the beautiful Henrietta is prone to bouts of madness, brought on by her alcoholism. Adair, who finds he has feelings for the troubled Mrs. Flusky, takes it upon himself to try and help her, only to learn that Henrietta’s inner demons are masking a secret from her past, one that, if revealed, could change her life forever.

At times, Under Capricorn is far too talky for its own good, and neither Bergman nor Cotton successfully mastered an Irish accent (to hear Bergman try it is almost comical). Still, Hitchcock may have been a bit rough on the film, which isn’t nearly as bad as he thought. His second picture in color (Rope, released a year earlier, was his first), Under Capricorn is a gorgeous-looking costume drama, with several well-executed long takes (In an uninterrupted sequence, Charles arrives at the Flusky estate to attend a dinner party, and, while standing on the porch, watches as Sam, moving from room to room inside the house, bellows orders to his servants). Add to this an excellent supporting performance by Margaret Leighton as Milly, the Flusky’s cruel, manipulative housekeeper, and you have a movie that, while not one of Hitchcock’s best, is nonetheless an interesting attempt to branch off into another genre.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

#1,013. The Ten Commandments (1956)

Directed By: Cecil B. DeMille

Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter

Tag line: "The Greatest Event in Motion Picture History"

Trivia:  This was Cecil B. DeMille's only movie made in widescreen

When I hear the word “epic”, I immediately think of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 production of The Ten Commandments. Clocking in at nearly 4 hours, it is a sweeping, grandiose film, filled with spectacular scenes and larger-than-life characters. Ben-Hur is, and will always be, my favorite biblical epic, but The Ten Commandments is a close second.

The son of Hebrew slaves, Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah (Nina Foch), and raised as an Egyptian. In fact, Moses (played as an adult by Charlton Heston) is so well-loved that he becomes the heir apparent to his uncle, the Pharaoh Seti (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), who favors Moses over his own son, Rameses (Yul Brynner). But when the truth about his lineage is revealed, Moses' name is stricken from all Egyptian records, and he is banished. Yet, despite his banishment, Moses returns to Egypt years later when a message from God instructs him to free the Jews from their bondage. Spurred on by his divine mission, Moses faces off against the new Pharaoh, Rameses, demanding the release of every Jewish slave in Egypt and promising severe punishment if Rameses refuses to comply.

As large in scope as The Ten Commandments is, much of the movie’s success comes down to the conflict between Charlton Heston’s Moses and Yul Brynner’s Rameses. Both actors do a fine job in their respective roles, with Heston convincingly portraying a man whose life has taken an unexpected turn and Brynner bringing to the surface all the jealousy and anger his character feels towards his adopted “brother”. The Ten Commandments is, indeed, one of the largest, most visually impressive motion pictures ever produced, but it’s the battle of wills between Moses and Rameses that forms the film’s dramatic core.

Of course, being a biblical epic directed by Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments is, at times, unbearably pompous. A while back, I criticized George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, a film based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, for being “pretentious”, adding that it “buckles under the weight of its own self-importance”. Well, compared to The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told was an exercise in humility. In a pre-title sequence, DeMille himself addresses the audience, saying the goal of the picture was not to “create a story, but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story created 3,000 years ago”. As if this weren’t enough to clue us in on the movie’s significance, the opening credits drive the point home a bit further, giving “The Holy Scriptures” its own title card, one that appears after “Produced and Directed by Cecil B. DeMille”. I can’t say for certain whether The Ten Commandments is the single most self-important film ever made or not, but I’m sure it’d at least finish in the Top 5!

Still, there’s no denying the movie’s grandeur. Partially shot on-location in Egypt, The Ten Commandments is a lavish, beautiful motion picture, filled with one magnificently staged sequence after another, from the opening scenes showing the building of Sethi’s city right through to the parting of the Red Sea. The Ten Commandments set the standard for every epic, biblical of otherwise, that followed it, and remains, to this day, a film so amazing that it can take your breath away.

Friday, May 24, 2013

#1,012. Caligula (1979)

Directed By: Tinto Brass

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Peter O'Toole

Tag line: "What would you have done if you had been given absolute power of life and death over everybody else in the whole world?"

Trivia: Under the supervision of Danilo Donati, 3,592 costumes were designed for this film

Produced by Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse magazine, Caligula is an elaborate, sometimes pornographic look at the life and times of Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula, the infamous tyrant noted for his cruelty and sexual extravagances. Designed to resemble the historical epics of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Caligula is, instead, a muddle of a film, with good actors, gorgeous sets, and remarkable costumes, all of which take a back seat to the movie’s shocking violence and scenes of hardcore sex.

The Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) has named his adopted grandson, Gaius Caligula (Malcolm McDowell), his heir. With the help of Macro (Guido Mannari), the prefect of the elite Praetorian Guard, Caligula conspires to murder the aging Tiberius, thus securing for himself the enviable title of Emperor of Rome. Once in power, Caligula turns his attention to producing an heir. He marries Caesonia (Helen Mirren), a woman of noble birth, yet continues his passionate affair with Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), his sister, who has been his lover for many years. But as Caligula’s thirst for power grows, so does his madness, plunging Rome into a period of turmoil and decadence the likes of which it has never seen before.

Based on a script written by Gore Vidal (who would eventually demand that his name be removed from the film) and directed by Tinto Brass, Caligula stars several well-respected actors, including O’Toole (overacting his part), McDowell, Mirren, and John Gielgud (making a brief appearance as Nerva, close friend and confidant of the Emperor Tiberius). Yet, despite this extraordinary collection of talent, producer Bob Guccione felt the movie needed more sex. So, when the film was in post-production, he fired Brass and shot several hardcore scenes himself, which were then spliced into the movie. Naturally, Caligula suffers as a result.

It’s unfortunate, too, because there are traces of an impressive movie in Caligula, which has a number of scenes inspired by actual events. According to the scholars and historians of that era, Caligula did, indeed, have a sexual relationship with his sister, Drusilla. He plotted with Macro to assassinate Tiberius, and eventually murdered his own cousin, Gemellus (here played by Bruno Brive), his only rival for the crown. Aided by the brilliant art direction of Danilo Donati, who, for years, collaborated with Federico Fellini, Caligula had all the makings of a genuine historical epic.

Instead, it’s a depraved, sadistic, unpleasant movie. Aside from its graphic sex acts (including masturbation and oral), Caligula is incredibly violent. True, Ancient Rome was a vicious place; I made that very point when I defended the violence in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. But with Caligula, the blood and gore is so unbelievably over-the-top that it feels more like a challenge issued by the filmmakers, daring us to keep watching, than it does an accurate portrayal of the time period. As an example, in what is perhaps the film’s most outrageously brutal sequence, Caligula has a soldier named Proculus (Donato Placido) killed, and after an Imperial whore urinates on his corpse, Proculus’ penis is sliced off and fed to a pack of dogs.

I’m certainly no stranger to on-screen gore, but, like its added sex scenes, the violence in Caligula works against the movie, turning what might have been a decent motion picture into an exploitative mess.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

#1,011. GhostWatcher (2002)

Directed By: David A. Cross

Starring: Jillian Byrnes, Marianne Hayden, Jennifer Servary

Tag line: "Some secrets can't stay buried forever"

Trivia:  For the scene where Jennifer Servary nearly falls off a ladder and is dangling over pitchforks, she did not use a stunt double

Ever since Paranormal Activity hit the scene in 2007, there’s been an influx of paranormal investigation films, many of questionable quality. Yet, despite the recent onslaught, I’m still a fan of the subgenre. I liked both The St. Francisville Experiment and Grave Encounters, a couple of “found-footage” style horror films dealing with ghost-hunting, and other entries, like 1408 (a 2007 movie based on a work by Stephen King) and Ti West’s The Innkeepers, effectively incorporated paranormal research into their stories. Sure, there have been plenty of stinkers along the way (Documenting the Grey Man was truly awful), but when they’re good, these movies can scare the hell out of me.

Which brings us to 2002’s GhostWatcher, a low-budget horror picture written and directed by David A. Cross. For the past year, Laura (Jillian Byrnes), who suffers from agoraphobia, has barricaded herself inside her apartment, refusing to go outside. But when an angry ghost moves in with her, she decides it’s time to seek some help. Spurred on by her best friend, Nikki (Marianne Hayden), Laura contacts Elizabeth Dean (Jennifer Servary), an online stripper who sells paranormal detection equipment on the side. Unsure what to make of her new client, Elizabeth starts digging into Laura’s past, uncovering clues that suggest Laura and Nikki may be hiding a terrible secret.

GhostWatcher features a handful of segments involving paranormal research, but mostly, it centers on the mystery surrounding Laura, and why she’s being tormented by a ghost. A good portion of the film is devoted to Elizabeth’s investigation, and a few of these scenes generate real tension (especially one that’s set inside a barn). The movie’s best sequence, however, happens early on, when Laura first realizes she’s not alone (during a heavy thunderstorm, she has an encounter with an aggressive spirit that follows her through the apartment).

GhostWatcher contains some genuinely creepy moments, and enough twists in its story to keep you guessing. Unfortunately, the last couple of twists are beyond ridiculous (the final one will have you rolling your eyes in disbelief). This, along with the fact the movie has an overall staginess to it, and performances that range from mediocre to serviceable, prevents GhostWatcher from being anything more than an average horror film.

Of course, in this particular subgenre, being "average" isn't necessarily a bad thing!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

#1,010. The Last Waltz (1978)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robbie Robertson, Neil Young, Van Morrison

Tag line: "It Started as a Concert. It Became a Celebration"

Trivia:  The Band's management had overbooked the show. Two days before the show, they tried to have Muddy Waters taken off the bill. Levon Helm, The Band's drummer, threatened not to play if Muddy Waters was asked to leave

For The Last Waltz, a concert film that chronicles the farewell performance of the rock group The Band, director Martin Scorsese used a few of the tricks he learned while working as an assistant on Woodstock, chief among them being that the more cameras you have pointed at the stage, the more likely you are of capturing every nuance of a live show. Aided by such award-winning cinematographers as Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, The Fugitive), László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces), and Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter), Scorsese took what was essentially a star-studded concert and transformed it into a legendary happening.

Tired of life on the road, musicians Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson, also known as The Band, decide to put on one last show, then call it quits. The setting was San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, and the date was Thanksgiving Day, 1976. With a little help from their friends (many of whom were musical legends in their own right) , The Band performed 41 tunes over a span of 5 ½ hours. The Last Waltz features some of the highlights of this historic event, as well as “bonus footage”, in which Scorsese interviews the members of The Band, who provide a brief history of the group and explain why they felt it was time to pack it in.

While I don’t claim to be The Band’s biggest fan, I do enjoy some of their songs (like Up on Cripple Creek and The Weight), most of which are in the film. But what made The Last Waltz so enjoyable were the celebrity guests who turned up to perform with the group, including Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan. With such a variety of talent on display, The Last Waltz is more than a mere ‘concert film’; it’s one of the best rock and roll movies ever made.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

#1,009. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Directed By: Gordon Hessler

Starring: John Phillip Law, Caroline Munro, Tom Baker

Tag line: "Dynarama Means Supreme Adventure!"

Trivia:  This film helped Tom Baker get the lead role in Doctor Who

Over the course of this challenge of mine, I’ve lauded the work of special effects master Ray Harryhausen, the wizard of stop-motion, who lent his talents to a number of excellent fantasy films (such as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans). His recent passing at the age of 92 caused me to go back and re-watch some of his movies, including the Sinbad films, which are personal favorites of mine. 1973’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was the 2nd in a series of three, and while not nearly as good as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, it features enough of that Harryhausen charm to make it worthwhile.

The story opens with Sinbad (John Philip Law) retrieving a golden amulet, which a mysterious winged creature dropped onto the deck of his ship. What he doesn’t realize is the creature was on its way to deliver the amulet to the evil sorcerer, Koura (Tom Baker), who’s anxious to get it back. When Sinbad travels to the city of Marabia, he’s told by the Grand Vizier (Douglas Wilmer) that there are three amulets in all, which, when joined together, will reveal the location of the fabled Fountain of Destiny. Accompanied by the Vizier, as well as a slave girl named Margiana (Caroline Munro), Sinbad sets sail to locate the remaining amulets (followed closely by Koura, who, with the help of his black magic, intends to find them first).

Sadly, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad isn’t a well-directed movie. Aside from a number of jarring close-ups Hessler utilizes throughout the film (which are often out of focus), there’s an early chase on horseback, with Sinbad fleeing from Koura, that’s poorly executed; the entire scene is shot with static cameras, set up at different points along the route, thus making the pursuit flat and uninteresting. Equally as “flat” and “uninteresting” is star John Philip Law, who seems bored through much of the film, and while Caroline Munro certainly looks great, she isn’t given a whole lot to do. Tom Baker delivers a colorful performance as Koura, and things pick up whenever he’s on-screen, but aside from him, the human characters in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad don’t amount to much.

Fortunately, thanks to Ray Harryhausen, we have some non-human ones to keep things interesting. Along with the tiny homunculus (the winged creature from the beginning of the movie), Sinbad also does battle with the masthead from his own ship (a female figure carved of wood), which is brought to life by way of Koura’s magic. This proves to be the film’s first truly exciting scene, and is followed a short time later by its second, a showdown with a 6-armed statue (carrying six swords). Late in the movie, Harryhausen gives us a fight to the death between a centaur and a griffin, easily one of the finest sequences he ever created.

While we can certainly mourn the passing of Ray Harryhausen, it’s nice to know we still have films like Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island, and yes, even The Golden Voyage of Sinbad to fall back on, movies that will forever serve as a testament to his extraordinary skills.

Monday, May 20, 2013

#1,008. Oliver! (1968)

Directed By: Carol Reed

Starring: Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed

Tag line: "More of a Masterpiece Than a Musical!"

Trivia:  As of 2013, this is the last G-rated, family film to win the Best Picture Academy Award

Winner of the 1968 Academy Award for Best Picture, director Carol Reed’s Oliver! is based on Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel, Oliver Twist, which follows the exploits of a young orphan as he struggles to survive on the streets of London. A lighthearted musical full of wit and charm, Oliver! shies away from the novel’s darker elements, giving audiences a version of this classic tale the whole family can enjoy.

One morning, in the workhouse where he lives, a hungry Oliver (Mark Lester) breaks the rules by asking for a second helping of food, causing the facility’s caretaker, Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe), to sell the “rebellious” youth to local undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter). After a short time with his new benefactor, Oliver runs away, getting as far as London where he meets a boy named Jack Dawkins (Jack Wild), also known as the “Artful Dodger”. An experienced pickpocket, The Artful Dodger is one of many homeless kids working for Fagin (Ron Moody), a professional thief. In exchange for food and lodgings, the Dodger and his friends walk the streets of London, stealing as much as they can, and turning their ill-gotten gains over to Fagin. Fagin then splits the loot with his partner, Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), a violent drunk who shares a flat with kindly girlfriend, Nancy (Shani Wallis). Since he has no place else to go, The Artful Dodger brings Oliver home with him. Fagin trains the boy in the finer points of picking pockets, but when Oliver is arrested his first time out, it leads to a chance encounter that could change his life forever.

While the story itself may have been toned down to appeal to a wider audience, the film’s various set pieces remind us that Oliver! takes place in an impoverished corner of England, where people cheat and steal in order to survive. From the dank workhouse to the back streets and alleys of London, each set is brilliantly detailed, bringing the old city’s seedier districts to life. As for the cast, Oliver Reed is flawlessly sinister as Bill Sikes, while the talented Shani Wallis belts out such memorable tunes as “Oom-Pah-Pah” and “As Long as He Needs Me”. But it’s Ron Moody who steals the film as the conniving Fagin, a performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Playing a character that’s equal parts hero and villain, Moody even gets a chance to show off his singing voice (which is much better than I expected). Strangely enough, the movie’s weakest turn is delivered by Oliver himself, Mark Lester, who’s fine as the wide-eyed youngster experiencing London for the first time, yet comes up short whenever the role demands a bit more.

Dickens’ Oliver Twist has been brought to the big screen a number of times, most recently in 2005 by director Roman Polanski. The majority of these adaptations focused on the story’s dramatic elements, whereas Oliver! took a more upbeat approach to the material, showing us that, even in the midst of abject poverty, you can usually find something to sing about.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

#1,007. Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Directed By: Lambert Hillyer

Starring: Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden, Marguerite Churchill

Tag line: "Look out, she'll get you!"

Trivia:  This was the last horror film produced under the supervision of Studio Chief Carl Laemmle

Sadly, Bela Lugosi, the star of Universal’s Dracula, is nowhere to be found in Dracula’s Daughter, a direct sequel to the 1931 classic. What the movie does feature, though, is an appropriately ominous atmosphere, as well as a strong performance by Gloria Holden in the title role, playing a vampire who longs to be human again.

Dracula’s Daughter picks up exactly where Dracula left off. Moments after driving a stake into Count Dracula’s heart, Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is arrested by two of London’s finest and charged with murder. Unable to convince Scotland Yard he actually killed a monster, and not a man, Van Helsing asks to speak to an old asscoaite of his, psychologist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), believing Garth will vouch for his sanity. As this is happening, the mysterious Countess Marya Zaleski (Gloria Holden), who had been bitten by Dracula years earlier and is now a vampire herself, steals the Count’s body in order to destroy it, hoping that doing so will break the vampire’s spell and return her to normal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, and the Countess must continue to feed on the unsuspecting citizens of London. But a chance meeting with Dr. Garth changes her outlook, giving her hope that, one day, she can rid herself of this terrible curse and rejoin the world of the living.

With Dracula’s Daughter, director Lambert Hillyer went to great lengths to duplicate the look and feel of the original film. After stealing Dracula’s body, the countess takes it to a secluded field and burns it. The surrounding fog sets an eerie tone as she performs a ritual designed to sever her connection to the vampire. Once the deed is done, the Countess returns home, convinced the vampire’s curse has been broken. But her servant, Sandor (Irving Pichel), knows better, and tells the Countess he sees "only death" in her eyes. Her hopes dashed, the Countess sets off into the night, hunting for fresh blood. Holden is very strong in this scene, conveying to perfection her character’s tortured existence, and her performance, combined with the spooky atmosphere, makes Dracula's Daughter a worthy successor to the original classic.

Despite the similarities between the two, Dracula’s Daughter is a much different movie than Dracula in that it delves more deeply into the tormented soul of its lead character. As a result, the film is a bit talky at times, yet, thanks to its director and lead actress, Dracula’s Daughter is, in the end, an impressive enough sequel.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

#1,006. Pink Flamingos (1972)

Directed By: John Waters

Starring: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce

Tag line: "The filthiest people alive! Their loves, their hates and their unquenchable thirst for notoriety!"

Trivia: Filming only took place on weekends; John Waters raised money during the week

Director John Waters , who author William Burroughs once dubbed the “Pope of Trash”, has made a career out of exploring the vile, the revolting, and the despicable, all of which can be found in his 1972 underground classic, Pink Flamingos. Starring drag queen Divine, Pink Flamingos pushes the boundaries of bad taste like no film has before (or, some would argue, since).

Divine, who the press has labeled the “filthiest person alive”, lives in a secluded trailer with her companion, Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), her son Crackers (Danny Mills), and her egg-loving mother (Edith Massey). 

But Divine’s reign as the queen of muck is about to be challenged by Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her husband, Raymond (David Lochary), who run a “business” in which they kidnap young girls, impregnate them, then sell the babies to lesbian couples for $5,000. Convinced they are the most disgusting people in the world, Connie and Raymond declare war on Divine and her clan of misfits. 

Who will ultimately win the battle and, with it, the title of filthiest person alive?

Obviously, the most notorious scene in Pink Flamingos is the final one, where Divine eats a pile of dog feces (no trick photography here, folks; Divine chows down on actual doggie doo). But as nasty and repulsive as this sequence is, it’s simply the icing on the cake that is Pink Flamingos

A little of what you can expect to see, crammed into the film’s hour and a half runtime, are a masturbating butler (played by Channing Wilroy) who injects his semen, by way of a needle, into a woman’s vagina; an exhibitionist with a sausage tied to his penis; some cannibalism; oral sex (performed by a mother on her son); and the murder of an actual chicken (which is crushed between two people having sex). 

Needless to say, Pink Flamingos is a movie where just about anything goes.

And its this spirit of anarchy that makes the film so appealing. Intended as a spoof of (among other things) mass media and the American family, Pink Flamingos presents its various obscenities with a gleeful energy, one that is hard to resist. 

Sure, the movie will gross you out; that’s what it’s supposed to do. But you’ll be surprised how often it’ll also have you smiling.

Friday, May 17, 2013

#1,005. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

Directed By: Sam Newfield

Starring: Billy Curtis, Yvonne Moray, 'Little Billy' Rhodes

Tag line: "Little Guys with Big Guns!"

Trivia: Many of the performers in this film also appeared in The Wizard of Oz

The Terror of Tiny Town is a lot like Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small in that it’s set in a world inhabited only by little people. But, unlike Herzog’s film, The Terror of Tiny Town is also considered one of the worst movies ever made.

Bat Haines (Little Billy Rhodes) is the film’s heavy, and he spends most of the movie trying to spark a feud between two neighboring ranchers, Pop Lawson (John T. Bambury) and Jim Preston (Billy Platt). It isn't long before the Lawsons and Prestons are at each other’s throat, but things get a bit more complicated when Buck Lawson (Billy Curtis) falls for Preston’s niece, Nancy (Yvonne Moray), and tries to bring an end to the dispute that’s tearing the two families apart. Needless to say, Bat is none too happy about this, and, in an effort to stop him, frames Buck for murder.

The Terror of Tiny Town certainly lives up to its reputation as the strangest western/musical ever produced. For one, despite the fact all the townsfolk are of diminutive stature, every building, sidewalk, and piece of furniture in town was built for someone of average height. Otto (Charles Becker), who works as the Preston’s cook, can barely reach the top of the stove, and whenever a rider ties his horse up, he walks under the hitching post as opposed to around it. I say “horse”, but in reality, the characters in The Terror of Tiny Town ride Shetland ponies, some of which clearly weren’t accustomed to life in the wild west (during a gunfight, several ponies rear back in fear whenever a shot rings out). Then, of course, there are the moments of unintentional hilarity, like when the entire saloon breaks into song, singing "Mr. Jack and Mrs. Jill", during which one patron tries to drink an enormous glass of beer and nearly drowns before he gets to the bottom of it!

The Terror of Tiny Town has a lot in common with movies like Plan Nine from Outer Space and Eegah in that, no matter how terrible the film is, it's always fun to watch. The Terror of Tiny Town is, indeed, very bad, and that’s what makes it so darn good!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

#1,004. The Arena (2001)

Directed By: Timur Bekmambetov

Starring: Karen McDougal, Lisa Dergan, Olga Sutulova

Tag line: "In an age of Gladiators... Destiny lies at the end of a sword"

Trivia: Though set in Ancient Rome, this film was shot entirely in St. Petersburg, Russia

OK, confession time: I bought the DVD for 2001’s The Arena because of its cover. While scanning the used shelf at my local FYE store, I came across this one for $2.99. Sure, I figured it would probably suck, but at that price, and with two gorgeous women on the front of it, locked in mortal combat, why not take a chance?

A remake of the 1974 film of the same name (which starred Margaret Markov and Pam Grier), The Arena is set in the latter days of the Roman Empire. Timarchus (Viktor Verzhbitsky) has been appointed Governor of a remote outpost, and soon finds himself missing his beloved Rome. To make his stay there more comfortable, he imports several gladiators from the capital (to fight in a makeshift arena he’s recently constructed), as well as a bevy of beautiful girls, including Jessemina (Karen McDougal) and Bodicia (Lisa Dergen), to work as slaves in his brothel. But when the gladiators fail to entertain him, the deranged Timarchus decides to allow the newly-arrived women to fight instead, battling each other to the death for his own amusement.

Something I didn’t realize when I purchased The Arena was that it was directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who in the coming years would turn out such big-budget action flicks as Night Watch (in 2004), Wanted (in 2008), and 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Sure enough, Bekmambetov’s penchant for flashy fight sequences makes its way into The Arena, yet unlike his later works, the rapid-cut editing style he employs in this film is confusing at best (the first battle scene, where local warriors face off against Romans on horseback, is a muddled mess). This is a problem that plagues the entire movie, which jumps back and forth between storylines so quickly that we’re never quite sure what’s going on.

The Arena is, without a doubt, a stylish film. Unfortunately, it’s also not a very good one. I can’t say I’m sorry I bought it, but I am glad I didn’t pay more than $2.99.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

#1,003. Bonnie's Kids (1973)

Directed By: Arthur Marks

Starring: Tiffany Bolling, Steve Sandor, Robin Mattson

Tag line: "They Were Born Innocent ... But They Didn't Stay That Way"

Trivia: This film marked the big-screen debut of actress Sharon Gless

Bonnie’s Kids kicks off with a lengthy pre-title sequence, in which 15-year-old Myra (Robin Mattson), who’s just returned home from a date, is attacked by her step-father, Charley (Leo Gordon). It seems Charley lost a bundle of cash playing poker with his buddies, and it's put him in a foul mood. So when he catches Myra on the phone, talking dirty to her boyfriend, he snaps, calling her a "whore" and slapping her across the face. Things get even worse for Myra when Charley drags her into the bedroom, lies on top of her, and starts kissing her neck. That’s when Ellie (Tiffany Bolling), Myra’s older sister, walks in on them. At first surprised to see her, Charley soon invites Ellie to join them, hoping to make it a threesome, but Ellie instead blows Charley away with a shotgun blast to the gut. It’s an intense, electrifying opening that gets this ‘70s exploitation flick off to a great start.

After dumping Charley’s body in the basement, Ellie and Myra head to the city and drop in on their rich uncle Ben (Scott Brady), their late mother’s brother. Uncle Ben welcomes his nieces with open arms, inviting them to stay with him and his wife, Diana (Lenore Stevens), at their large estate. After some time together, Diana, who’s not happily married to Ben, develops deep feelings for the confused Myra, and tries to seduce her. As for Ellie, Uncle Ben asks her to drive to a remote hotel to pick up a mysterious package for him, which will be delivered by a guy named Larry (Steve Sandor), a private detective who was himself hired by Ben’s two associates, Eddy (Alex Rocco) and Digger (Tim Brown). But instead of simply grabbing the package and returning home, Ellie lures Larry into bed and convinces him that they should open the package to see what’s inside it, setting in motion a chain of events that will most likely end in disaster.

At the outset of Bonnie’s Kids, we can’t help but feel sorry for Ellie and Myra, who were clearly being terrorized by their step-father (we’re actually happy when Ellie takes matters into her own hands). Yet, as the movie progresses, we learn that neither Ellie nor Myra are the innocent young girls we assumed them to be. Myra is a petty thief who, at one point, steals Diana’s watch (she returns it only after Ellie forces her to). As for Ellie, she knows how to get what she wants from guys, flaunting her body to win over the gullible Larry. Hired to pick up the package at a bus depot and deliver it to Ellie’s hotel room, Larry instead falls victim to Ellie’s feminine wiles, thus putting both their lives in jeopardy. Bolling and Mattson give fine performances as the scheming siblings, and their evolving personalities are what makes Bonnie’s Kids such an interesting motion picture.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

#1,002. The Hollow (2004)

Directed By: Kyle Newman

Starring: Kevin Zegers, Kaley Cuoco, Nick Carter

Tag line: "Some Legends Never Die"

Trivia: Director Kyle Newman joined the production four days into shooting

Teenager Ian Cranston (Kevin Zegers) is the new kid in Sleepy Hollow, the small town made famous by Washington Irving’s 19th century story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in which a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane has a run-in with the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a former Hessian soldier who spends his nights cutting off other people’s heads. It’s one of the best-loved tales in American Literature, but according to Claus Van Ripper (Stacy Keach), the caretaker for the local cemetery, Ichabod Crane was more than just a character in a story. In fact, he believes that Ian himself is a direct descendant of the real Ichabod Crane, and his arrival in Sleepy Hollow has reawakened the Headless Horseman, who’s come back to take his revenge. With the help of his cheerleader girlfriend, Karen (Kaley Cuoco), and the local school bully, Brody (former Backstreet Boy Nick Carter), Ian faces off against the Horseman on Halloween night, realizing full well that one wrong move will more than likely cost him his head.

While I can’t say I’m all that familiar with Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I am a big fan of Tim Burton’s 1999 film, Sleepy Hollow, which starred Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. So I went into 2004’s The Hollow hoping it would be something more than your average, run-of-the-mill horror flick. But it isn’t. In fact, The Hollow is about as “average” and “run-of-the-mill” as you can get. Stacy Keach wanders through much of the movie looking like a hobo, yet talking like a pirate (the only thing he was missing was the parrot on his shoulder). Despite being the town drunk, his Claus Van Ripper shows up everywhere, appearing in almost every scene, usually telling Ian he “must talk” with him, then saying absolutely nothing of value once they’re alone. Judge Reinhold (Fast Times at Ridgmont High, Head Office) also appears as Ian’s dad, and watch for Eileen Brennan (The Last Picture Show, Private Benjamin) in perhaps the most pointless cameo of her career, playing the bat-shit crazy old woman, Joan Van Etten. What’s more, The Hollow is a horror film that doesn’t feature a single effective scare, not one moment to get your pulse racing. The first victims of the Headless Horseman, Scott (Joseph Mazzello) and Amber (Melissa Schuman), are murdered off-screen, and it isn’t until almost an hour into the movie that we're shown a decent kill.

With one-dimensional characters, a flimsy story, and zero thrills, The Hollow is a total failure.

Monday, May 13, 2013

#1,001. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey

Tag line: "A Blast of DRAMATIC Dynamite exploded right before your eyes!"

Trivia: As per its script, the title Shadow of a Doubt was supposed to be temporary, until a better one could be found

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film, Shadow of a Doubt, was one of the director’s personal favorites, and it’s easy to see why. A smartly conceived, well-acted tale about a niece who suspects her uncle of murder, Shadow of a Doubt is a masterpiece of suspense.

Charlie (Joseph Cotten) has come to Santa Rosa to visit his sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge) and her family, which includes her husband, Joseph [Henry Travers], and their teenage daughter, who also happens to go by the name of Charlie (Teresa Wright). The family welcomes Uncle Charlie with open arms, especially young Charlie, who positively adores him. But before long, Young Charlie begins to suspect that her uncle may, in fact, be the infamous “Merry Widow Killer”, a murderer who marries rich widows then quickly finishes them off. Detective Jack Graham [MacDonald Carey] also considers Uncle Charlie a key suspect, yet the closer he and young Charlie get to uncovering the truth, the more nervous Uncle Charlie becomes.

Shadow of a Doubt builds tension by slowly unveiling the evidence against Uncle Charlie, all of which seems to support the notion that he’s a killer; aside from the various clues Hitchcock lays out for us (like how nervous Uncle Charlie gets when he hears the "Merry Widow Waltz"), there’s the nasty little speech he delivers about how husbands work their lives away, only to die and leave their money to their “silly” and “useless” wives. Yet, despite this, Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie as such a likable guy that we kinda hope he's innocent. Even when Young Charlie is convinced her Uncle is trying to kill her [she falls down the stairs when one gives way below her feet, and in another scene, she’s locked in the garage as toxic fumes from a running automobile fill it up], we’re holding out hope he didn’t actually commit these heinous crimes.

Joseph Cotten is magnificent as the usually-lovable Uncle who may or may not be hiding a deep, dark secret, and Teresa Wright is every bit his equal as the suspicious niece. Wright, who also appeared in such classics as The Best Years of Our Lives and The Men, was one of the few actresses to be nominated for three Oscars in two years, for The Little Foxes (in 1942), and nominations a year later for both Best Actress (in Pride of the Yankees) and Supporting Actress (Mrs. Miniver, for which she won the Award). What makes this so impressive is the fact these were the first three movies Teresa Wright ever appeared in (The Little Foxes marked her big-screen debut)! Shadow of a Doubt was movie #4, and her work here proved (this time beyond a shadow of a doubt) that she was an incredible talent. Her's and Cotten’s performances, combined with its director’s keen eye for suspense, transformed Shadow of a Doubt into one of the finest films of the 1940’s, as well as one of the best movies Alfred Hitchcock ever made.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

#1,000. Goodfellas (1990)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci

Tag line: "In a world that's powered by violence, on the streets where the violent have power, a new generation carries on an old tradition"

Trivia: Ray Liotta turned down the part of Harvey Dent in Batman in order to make this film

The debate rages on as to which is the better gangster film: Francis Ford Coppola’s award-winning masterpiece, The Godfather, or Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s epic depiction of the New York crime scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

Personally, I find it all a bit silly.  I mean, who'd want to live in a world where we couldn't have both?

Based on the novel Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he rises through the ranks of New York’s criminal underworld. Life was good for Henry in the early days.  He was friends with some of the era’s most notorious mobsters, including Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro), a smooth-talking thief who engineered the largest airport heist in U.S. history; Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a volatile wiseguy with a sharp sense of humor; and Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), the head of the family to which Henry belonged. 

Not even his marriage to the beautiful yet unpredictable Karen (Lorraine Bracco) could slow Henry down. But the law soon caught up with him, and following a brief stint in prison, Henry took up drug trafficking. By the late ‘70s, he was himself a full-fledged drug addict, and as a result, his friends turned their backs on him. 

Fearful that Jimmy was going to have him killed, Henry struck a deal with the U.S. Government, testifying against his old associates and putting them behind bars for a very long time.

Thanks to Scorsese’s always-engaging style, we become more than simple observers of this wild world of organized crime; we’re active participants, swept up by the excitement of it all. Right from the start, when a teenage Henry (Christopher Serrone) goes to work as an errand boy for Paulie and his brother, Tuddy (Frank DiLeo), we feel the exhilaration of living life in the fast lane, a sensation that continues through much of the picture. 

What’s more, the cast of Goodfellas is excellent. Liotta, DeNiro, Bracco, and Sorvino deliver superb performances, but the real stand-out is Joe Pesci, whose Tommy DeVito is as funny as he is violent, a rabid dog with a bite that’s as bad as his bark.

So, which is better: The Godfather or Goodfellas? Both are great movies in their own right, but stylistically speaking, they couldn’t be more different. True, both films deal with organized crime, creating a world where theft, extortion, and murder are simply business as usual. Yet when it comes to telling their stories, each takes an entirely different approach. 

Looking outside of the cinema, to other realms of entertainment, to describe the style of each film, I would say The Godfather is comparable to a 19th century opera, while Goodfellas, with its graphic depiction of violence and overall brutal approach, would be more along the lines of a heavyweight boxing match. Sure, there’s violence, both sudden and harsh, in The Godfather, but there are also honorable characters; the wise Don, the loyal and loving son, men who rise above the bloodshed to achieve a level of respectability. With Goodfellas, we enjoy spending time with its characters, and even laugh with them on occasion, yet never once do we see them as anything more than mafia thugs.

If I were banished to a desert island, and could take only one film with me, I’d pick The Godfather, simply because it's my all-time favorite movie. 

That said, I’m sure there would be nights when I’d be sitting on that island prison of mine, staring up at the stars and longing for a chance to see Goodfellas just one more time.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

#999. Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Directed By: Cheh Chamg

Starring: Sheng Chiang, Philip Kwok, Feng Lu

Tag line: "Pick Your Poison!"

Trivia:  The "snake" role was originally intended for a woman

The Shaw Brothers Studio, a Hong Kong-based production company, churned out hundreds of martial arts flicks in the 1970s, some of which, due to their high-energy fight scenes, garnered a cult following in the United States. Released in 1978, Five Deadly Venoms is one of these films, yet as exciting as the action is, it’s the training sequence at the beginning of the movie that really stands out.

A dying martial arts master (Dick Wei), the head of the Poison Clan, is worried that his five former pupils might be using their skills for their own personal gain. So, he sends his final disciple, Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng) on a mission to locate them. If Yang Tieh finds that any of the five have been abusing their powers, he’s instructed to kill them on the spot. This is easier said than done, however, because not even the master has seen their faces (during their time in the Poison Clan, all five wore masks, never once removing them). Instead, Yang Tieh will have to identify each one by way of their fighting style, seeing as they were all instructed in a different technique. Armed with this knowledge, Yang Tieh sets out to complete his task, hopeful that a few of the five are not corrupt, and will therefore help him track down and destroy those who are.

The opening sequence, where we get to see the five former students in training, is easily the film’s best. Presented as a flashback and narrated by the Poison Clan’s dying master, we watch as each of them, all wearing masks, go through their daily exercises. First up is the Centipede (Lu Feng), who moves extremely quickly (for practice, he breaks hundreds of falling plates, with both his hands and feet, before they hit the floor). Then it’s on to the Snake (Wei Pei), who’s as agile as he is fast, slithering along the ground on his back. Next is the Scorpion (Sun Chien), whose pincer move allows him to leap incredibly high. For me, though, the coolest of the bunch is the lizard (Kuo Chui), who possesses the ability to climb walls. Last but not least is the Toad (Lo Mang), a practically invincible warrior able to withstand incredible pain (to prove it, he lays down on a bed of nails).

Five Deadly Venoms has its share of exhilarating battles, and a bit of intrigue as well (not to mention a torture scene that’s difficult to watch). But as entertaining as the rest of the film is, the imagination on display in these training sequences is what makes Five Deadly Venoms truly unique.