Wednesday, July 31, 2013

#1,080. The Innocents (1961) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Jack Clayton

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins

Tag line: "A strange new experience in shock"

Trivia: Kate Bush was inspired by the film to pen the song "The Infant Kiss" which appears on her 1980 album "Never For Ever"

Ghost movies - especially good ghost movies - know how to get under your skin, which is exactly what 1961’s The Innocents does in its opening moments. Before the screen even fades up from black, we hear the sound of children singing, and because this is a horror film, that alone is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention!

Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is the new Governess at the luxurious Bly estate, hired to look after two young siblings: Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), both of whom appear to be courteous and kind. 

But when she learns that the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), died under mysterious circumstances, Miss Giddens begins to suspect there may be more to the children’s friendly demeanor than they are letting on. Her fears are confirmed shortly after the appearance of two ghostly figures, who she believes to be the spirits of Miss Jessel and her abusive boyfriend, Quint (Peter Wyngarde), a former caretaker at Bly. 

But are Flora and Miles really being haunted by ghosts, or is it all a figment of their new caretaker’s imagination?

If it's scares you’re looking for, The Innocents has more than its share. During a game of Hide and Seek with the children, a strange figure passes in front of Miss Giddens, walks up the stairs, and seemingly disappears. But the film’s biggest shock happens soon after, when the frightened Governess spots someone peering in at her through the back door (a very creepy scene). 

Even more memorable than the supernatural thrills are the kids at the center of it all, portrayed by two of the best child actors I’ve ever seen. Pamela Franklin is good as Flora, going from happy little girl to out-of-control hellion at the drop of a hat, but the real standout is Martin Stephens as Miles, who comes across as a gentle, loving boy, yet occasionally gives Miss Giddens reason to believe his sweet exterior is masking a truly disturbed personality (at one point, Miles hugs Miss Giddens so strongly that she can barely breathe, then refuses to let go). Stephens, who was also excellent in Village of the Damned, was clearly a gifted performer, and the fact that he retired from acting at the age of 16 leaves me to wonder what else he might have accomplished had he stayed with it.

Favoring mood over jump scares, The Innocents ranks with The Haunting as not only one of the best ghost movies of the 1960s, but one of the finest ever made.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

#1,079. The Football Factory (2004)

Directed By: Nick Love

Starring: Danny Dyer, Frank Harper, Tamer Hassan

Tag line: "What else you gonna do on a Saturday?"

Trivia: A showing of the movie in Malmö, Sweden led to a brawl in the cinema between supporters of rival soccer teams Malmö FF and Helsingborg IF, after which the movie was banned from theaters

Everything I know about football firms, organized groups of fans who spend most of their time mixing it up with the firms of other teams, I learned by watching movies. And even here, my experience is limited, having seen only 2005’s Green Street Hooligans and Alan Clarke’s excellent The Firm, starring Gary Oldman, which was produced as part of the Screen Two television series. Now, after checking out director Nick Love’s The Football Factory, I can finally add another film to the list.

Tommy Johnson (Danny Dyer) is a member of the Chelsea firm, and he and his cohorts, which includes his best pal Bob (Neil Maskell), a young thief named Zeberdee (Roland Manookian) and the out-of-control Billy Bright (Frank Harper), spend their weekends drinking beer, rooting for their team, and beating the hell out of rival firms from West Ham, Cardiff, and a variety of other places. Tommy’s grandfather (Dudley Sutton) wants him to give it all up, but Tommy’s having too much fun to stop now. Things get a bit more complicated, however, when Tommy inadvertently pisses off a few members of the Millwall firm, turning what had been a “friendly” rivalry into something much more personal.

The strength of The Football Factory lies in its performances, most of which are superb. Danny Dyer (Doghouse) is strong as the confused Tommy, who senses that something very bad is about to happen, yet won’t let it stand in the way of his having a good time. In his dual role as narrator, Tommy lays it all out for us right from the start when he describes himself as “another bored male, approaching 30, in a dead-end job, who lives for the weekend”, which usually means “casual sex, watered-down lager, heavily cut drugs and occasionally kicking fuck out of someone”. Everyone in the Chelsea firm gets a charge out of fighting, none more so than Billy Bright, played to perfection by Frank Harper (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels). Along with being the most aggressive member of the Chelsea firm, Billy is also a known drug dealer, which makes him a very dangerous man. Led by both Billy and Harris (Anthony Denham), the recognized leader of the firm, the Chelsea boys are always ready for a fight, and usually come out on top.

In all honesty, I can’t say The Football Factory taught me anything new about football firms, but I did get to spend an hour and a half with some interesting characters, which, in my book, made it a worthwhile experience.

Monday, July 29, 2013

#1,078. A Mighty Wind (2003)

Directed By: Christopher Guest

Starring: Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest

Tag line: "Back together for the first time, again"

Trivia: All of the songs were written by Eugene Levy, Christopher Guest and other actors in the cast who also played all their own instruments

Taking a page out of This is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest’s 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind throws the spotlight on a group of musicians who, at one point, achieved a degree of stardom, yet are nowadays all but forgotten.

Irving Steinbloom, the man who put folk music on the map, has died, and his children: Jonathan (Bob Balaban) Naomi (Deborah Theaker) and Elliott (Don Lake), feel the best way to pay tribute to their late father is to stage a memorial concert, one that will reunite some of the acts the senior Mr. Steinbloom nurtured back in the 1960s. Among those invited to perform are Jerry Palter (Michael McKean), Alan Barrows (Christopher Guest) and Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer), also known as The Folksmen; The New Mainstreet Singers, fronted by husband and wife team Terry and Laurie Bohner (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch) and featuring Sissy Knox (Parker Posey); and, of course, the highlight of the show, Mitch (Eugene Levy) and Mickey (Catherine O’Hara), whose love song “A Kiss at the End of a Rainbow” became one of the biggest hits in folk music history. But the big questions is: Will Mitch, who suffered a nervous breakdown when his marriage to Mickey fell apart, be well enough to perform?

By way of interviews, we get to know the history of several key characters, like the fact that the last album The Folksmen put out, released when their popularity was at its lowest ebb, didn’t even have a hole in the center of it (According to Mark Chubb, it would “teeter wildly on the spindle”), and how Laurie Bohner, prior to hooking up with husband Terry, made a name for herself in the porn industry. Also showing up in supporting roles are Fred Willard as Mike LaFontaine, a former comedian and current manager of The New Mainstreet singers who’s more interested in promoting himself than the band, and Ed Begley, Jr. as Lars Olfin, a senior executive with the local public television station that’s agreed to air the concert. Stealing the show, however, is Eugene Levy's Mitch, a man teetering on the edge of insanity. We come to find out that, just after his relationship with Mickey ended, Mitch released a solo album titled “Cry for Help”, which featured songs like “May She Rot in Hell”. Now more sedate, Levy’s Mitch spends most of the movie walking around in a daze, never entirely sure of what’s going on.

A Mighty Wind is a very funny film, yet somewhere along the line, as we’re laughing at these lovable losers, we also start to care about them. Much like he did in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, director Guest builds a connection between the audience and his characters, and it’s to his credit that, for a while, anyway, we actually believe these bizarre individuals are the real deal.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

#1,077. Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)

Directed By: Terry Hughes, Ian MacNaughton

Starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle

Tag line: "Never before in the history of human civilization has there been a movie called Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl"

Trivia: Eric Idle sings the "Lumberjack Song" in this film, even though Michael Palin sang it on the TV series

Recorded over five nights in September of 1980, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl features all six members of the Python troupe presenting some of their most popular skits, as well as a few they hadn’t performed since their college days.

Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl is a lot like the gang’s first foray into cinematic territory, And Now For Something Completely Different, in that it highlights some of the funnier sketches from their ‘70s TV show, including the “Ministry of Silly Walks”, in which Michael Palin, trying to obtain government funding, wants to improve upon his “only slightly silly” walk; and “the Argument”, where a man (Palin again) pays to have an argument with a professional (John Cleese), only to be disappointed by the outcome. There are musical numbers as well, including “The Lumberjack Song” (performed, for some reason, by Eric Idle instead of Michael Palin, who had sung it in both the show and Something Completely Different) and a few tunes by the troupe’s longtime collaborator, Neil Innes. The highlight, though, is the always popular ode to the Australian education system, “The Bruce’s Philosopher’s Song”, which Palin, Innes and Idle transform into an audience sing-along.

Yet what I enjoyed most about Live at the Hollywood Bowl were the new skits I’d never seen before. Included in the mix are “Colin ‘Bomber’ Harris”, an entertaining bit of physical comedy by Graham Chapman who plays both a wrestler and his own opponent, a bit he first performed while a student at Cambridge. Also included is the incredibly racist song, “Never Be Rude to an Arab”, sung by Terry Jones; and “The Last Supper” (my favorite skit in the movie), with John Cleese as the Pope and Eric Idle as Michelangelo, forced to defend his rather colorful rendition of the famous painting, The Last Supper.

A nice blend of old and new, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl is a walk down memory lane for Python fans, while, at the same time, giving them a little something they've never seen before.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

#1,076. Bustin' Loose (1981)

Directed By: Oz Scott

Starring: Richard Pryor, Cicely Tyson, Ángel Ramírez

Tag line: "He's mad, he's bad, and he's Bustin' Loose!"

Trivia: Around six years after this film was released, the movie spurred a short-lived television series in 1987-88 with the same Bustin' Loose title

Though not his best film, 1981’s Bustin’ Loose gave comedian Richard Pryor (who also helped with the story) ample opportunity to strut his stuff, and that alone is reason enough to see it.

After violating his probation, ex-con Joe Braxton (Pryor) is remanded to the custody of his parole officer, Donald (Robert Christian), who asks him for a favor. It seems Donald’s fiancé, school teacher Vivian Perry (Cecily Tyson) is planning to take a group of special-needs children to live at her Aunt’s farm, and needs someone to drive them there. So, Braxton “volunteers” to shuttle Vivian and the kids from Philadelphia to Seattle, Washington aboard a rickety old school bus. Though uncomfortable at first, Braxton soon warms up to the kids, and even helps them with some of their problems. They eventually make it to Washington, only to learn that the bank is about to foreclose on Vivian’s aunt’s farm unless she can come up with $15,000 in a hurry. Can Braxton raise the money, or will the kids be left out in the cold, with no place to call home?

Bustin’ Loose gets a bit too sentimental at times, especially late in the film, when Braxton is “bonding” with the kids. Thankfully, though, the first half of the movie more than makes up for it. I love the scene towards the beginning where a fast-talking Braxton, posing as one of their employees, almost walks out of a warehouse with 75 television sets, only to be undermined by his nervous partner, Marvin (Paul Marvin). The give-and-take he has with some of the kids early on is also funny (at one point, he even threatens them with a switchblade). The most famous sequence in Bustin’ Loose is undoubtedly the one where Pryor tricks the Ku Klux Klan into helping him push the bus out of some mud (getting their white robes dirty in the process), but just before the KKK shows up, we get a moment that’s classic Pryor, in which a pissed-off Braxton, walking alone in the rain, unleashes a slew of hilarious expletives, earning the film its R rating.

Aside from being funny as hell, this scene (and a few others besides) serves as a reminder of why Richard Pryor was considered one of the finest comedic talents of his generation.

Friday, July 26, 2013

#1,075. The Dirty Mind of Young Sally (1973)

Directed By: Bethel Buckalew

Starring: Colleen Brennan, George 'Buck' Flower, Norman Fields

Tag line: "She's radio's answer to Fanny Hill - turn her on and she'll turn you on! Her throat will really get you up... in the morning!"

Trivia: Film debut of Colleen Brennan (billed as "Sharon Kelly"). She was discovered dancing at the Classic Cat topless club on the Sunset Strip

The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, a 1973 sexploitation comedy, marked the screen debut of Sharon Kelly (aka Colleen Brennan), a young actress who would eventually graduate from soft-core to hardcore porn. Truth is, prior to this movie, I had never heard of Ms. Kelly, but after watching The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, I’m hoping to see a lot more of her (pun definitely intended).

Sally (Kelly) leads a double life, working as a receptionist at a local radio station and, in her free time, hosting her own pirate radio show, a sex-themed program that, with the help of good pal Toby (‘Buck’ Flower), she broadcasts from the back of her van three times a day. Sally’s show, which features everything from sex advice to her masturbating on the air, is a huge hit, but not everyone’s happy she’s a radio sensation. Determined to shut her down, Sgt. Dimwitte (Norman Fields) is frantically searching for the elusive Sally, whose mobile studio keeps her on the move, and thus out of reach of the long arm of the law.

Be warned: The Dirty Mind of Young Sally is a film that lives up to its title. The scenes where Sally is broadcasting are downright erotic (she likes to touch herself as she’s talking into the microphone), and at one point, she even records a sexual encounter with Toby, so she can play it back on a later show. As for the sex scenes, they’re fairly graphic. After tuning in to Sally’s program, three couples lying on the beach start to get it on, and we see just about everything, from full frontal nudity (female and male) to simulated sex (oral and otherwise). Technically, because of what it doesn’t show, The Dirty Mind of Young Sally is still a soft-core flick, but at times, it gets damn close to hardcore territory.

Plot-wise, the movie is fairly weak; its flimsy tale of a radio show on wheels is just an excuse to string a bunch of sex scenes together. As for the performances, they’re on par with what you’d expect from a ‘70s soft core film, meaning they’re nothing special. Even Sharon Kelly doesn’t come across as a great actress, yet while her thespian instincts may not have been up to snuff, her charisma sure was. A super-hot redhead, she can turn you on just by talking into a microphone, and she’s so sultry in the role that I’ll definitely be checking out a few more of her films.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

#1,074. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Dieter Dengler, Werner Herzog, Eugene Deatrick

Trivia: This film won the Special Jury Award at the 1997 International Documentary Filmfestival in Amsterdam

Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly tells the story of Dieter Dengler, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who was born in Germany in 1938, and spent the majority of his childhood dealing with the horrors of World War II. One day, as he was watching the bombing of his village by the allies, young Dieter figured out what he wanted to do for the rest of his life: fly! When he was 18, he left Germany for the United States, and soon after joined the Air Force. Before long, he was shipped off to Vietnam, and during one of his first missions, Dengler’s plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner. Forced to march through the jungles of Laos, he was eventually imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp, where he was tortured and nearly starved to death. After some time, he managed to escape his captors, and was rescued by a fellow U.S. pilot. 

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a gripping documentary about one man’s incredible experiences and how they shaped the rest of his life. Yet, despite the hardships he endured, Dieter Dengler isn’t an angry man; in fact, I’d say the opposite is true. Living in a nice house in San Francisco, he seems quite happy, though some memories still haunt him (after suffering near-starvation in Germany after the war, and again as a prisoner of the Viet-Cong, Dengler now hoards canned and dried food, which he keeps hidden in a secret compartment under the floor of his house). His carefree attitude does fade a bit when Herzog drags him off to Laos to visit the spot where he was first captured. With his hands bound, Dengler reenacts his long march through the jungle, all the while describing exactly what he was feeling at the time. Herzog himself acts as the film’s narrator, yet the majority of Little Dieter Needs to Fly is devoted to Dengler telling his own story, which, needless to say, is positively fascinating. 

Dieter’s experiences formed the basis of another Werner Herzog picture, 2006’s Rescue Dawn, a dramatic re-telling of the same events covered in this documentary. But as good a movie as Rescue Dawn is (and it is a good movie), it pales in comparison to hearing Dengler tell the tale himself, in his own words. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is yet another triumph for Herzog, and a film you simply won’t want to miss.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

#1,073. Hellraiser (1987) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Clive Barker

Starring: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence

Tag line: "It will tear your soul apart"

Trivia: It took six hours to apply the prosthetic Cenobite makeup on Doug Bradley

It's interesting to note that, in the 12 years I attended Catholic school, I was never once as frightened of hell as I was at the conclusion of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, a 1987 film that introduced yet another iconic character to the world of horror.

As Hellraiser opens, Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) is in the attic of the house he grew up in, attempting to solve an ancient puzzle box he bought from a Moroccan street vendor. Frank does eventually figure it out, but once opened, the box unleashes a collection of demons known as Cenobites, which proceed to tear Frank's body apart. 

A short time later, Frank’s brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), moves into this same house with his wife Julia (Clare Higgins). While working in the attic, Larry accidentally cuts his hand and drips blood onto the floor, "awakening" Frank’s mangled remains, which are buried under the floorboards. 

In need of even more blood to regenerate his body, Frank turns to Julia, with whom he once had an affair, and convinces her to lure men back to the house and murder them, so that he can absorb their blood and slowly return to normal. 

Their diabolical scheme is discovered, however, by Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry’s daughter from a previous marriage, who does everything in her power to stop them. 

But will Frank and Julia, with a little help from some hellish friends, get the last laugh after all?

I’ve always been a fan of Andrew Robinson's, who, aside from portraying the sadistic Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry played another slime ball in the underrated 1973 thriller Charley Varrick, and also had a recurring role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Garek, the station’s shifty Cardassian tailor. The character he plays in Hellraiser is a bit out of the ordinary in that Larry Cotton was actually a nice guy (though the actor does get a chance to visit some familiar territory later on in the movie). 

But as much as I like Andrew Robinson, neither he nor any of the film’s other mortal characters (including Ashley Laurence's Kirsty, who makes for a fine heroine) can outshine the Cenobites, a coillection of grotesque demons that collect the souls of the living. The most memorable of the bunch is the aptly-named “Pinhead” (Doug Bradley), who gets all the best lines (“No tears, please. It's a waste of good suffering”), yet each of the Cenobites manages to make a lasting impression (the chatterer, thus named because his teeth are always chattering, is every bit as eerie as Pinhead). They may not get a whole lot of screen time, but these creatures from hell definitely make the most of every second that they're front and center.

With ample gore (the opening sequence, which involves hooks, chains, and a variety of body parts, will have you squirming in your seat) and some truly unforgettable monsters, Hellraiser is one of the creepiest movies to emerge from the ‘80s, and is one of my favorite horror films of all-time.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

#1,072. The Blues Brothers (1980)

Directed By: John Landis

Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cab Calloway

Tag line: "They'll Never Get Caught. They're On a Mission From God"

Trivia:  While shooting the opening scene, security guards at the prison fired shots at the helicopter filming the overhead scenes, thinking it was trying to spy on the structure

What started as a skit on TV’s Saturday Night Live in 1976, with comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd playing a couple of musical siblings billed as the Blues Brothers, would balloon into something much bigger over the next few years. 

After several more appearances on SNL (including one in 1978, when they were billed as the “musical guests”), the Blues Brothers released an album titled Briefcase Full of Blues, which became a smash hit. I remember my classmates talking about that album, mostly because it featured Belushi, who had recently become a big star thanks to his role in Animal House

Once Briefcase Full of Blues went double platinum and reached #1 on the Billboard Charts, it was only a matter of time before the characters made their move to the big screen. 

And thus, 1980's The Blues Brothers was born.

Directed by John Landis, The Blues Brothers is the story of Jake (Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Aykroyd), two brothers who grew up in St. Helen’s of the Blessed Shroud, a Catholic orphanage in downtown Chicago, where they learned the finer points of Rhythm and Blues music from Curtis (Cab Calloway), an employee of the orphanage who was like a father to them. 

Following Jake’s release from prison (he served three years for armed robbery), the brothers pay a visit to Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), the Mother Superior of St. Helen’s, who tells them that, unless the orphanage can come up with $5,000 in a week and a half, it’s going to be shut down. 

Later that day, as he and Elwood are listening to Baptist preacher Cleophus James (James Brown) deliver a sermon, Jake has an epiphany: put their R&B band back together and go on tour to raise the $5,000! 

After convincing the former members of the band to join them, the Blues Brothers hit the road and immediately piss off a number of people, including the Country/Western group The Good ‘Ole Boys, the Illinois chapter of the Nazi Party, and just about every cop in the city of Chicago. 

Add to this a mysterious woman (played by Carrie Fisher) who wants the brothers dead, and you have an action-packed musical comedy the likes of which you’ve never seen before!

There’s a lot going on in The Blues Brothers, all of it good. First off, it’s an extremely funny film; the scene where Jake and Elwood visit Sr. Mary Stigmata and are beaten with a yardstick for swearing is comedy gold. 

Then there’s the music, featuring (along with the brothers themselves, who do a pretty good rendition of the Theme from Rawhide) artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and - in one of my favorite scenes - Ray Charles as the owner of Ray’s Music Emporium, where, to test out an electric organ, he belts out Shake a Tail Feather (before it’s over, the sequence evolves into an all-out musical number). 

And to top it off, there’s action galore in The Blues Brothers, with numerous car chases and a whole lot of destruction. Apparently, 103 vehicles were wrecked during the making of this movie, which, at the time, was a world record (the record was finally broken in 1998 by Blues Brothers 2000).

Still, no matter how crazy things get, the brothers themselves remain calm and collected through much of the movie, taking everything in stride. In fact, their laid-back attitude leads to some of the film’s funniest moments. At one point, while being pursued by the police, Elwood drives their car through the front window of a toy store, leading to a high-speed pursuit inside a shopping mall. Yet instead of worrying about the cops who are hot on their trail or the mall patrons diving for cover, Jake and Elwood pass the time by doing a little window shopping (after slamming into a car dealership, Elwood turns to Jake and says “The new Oldsmobiles are in early this year”). 

Nothing seems to bother these two. Even when Elwood’s apartment building is blown to smithereens by Carrie Fisher, Jake and Elwood simply climb out of the rubble, dust themselves off, and walk away, without a care in the world.

But then, why should they worry? They’re on a mission from God!

Monday, July 22, 2013

#1,071. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Directed By: Charles Barton

Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr.

Tag line: "Jeepers! The creepers are after Bud and Lou!"

Trivia: Originally the Mummy was to be included in the cast of monsters, but that idea was eventually dropped

If I was to compile a list of my favorite horror comedies, It would probably include a few older movies (like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs!), a handful of newer ones (Shaun of the Dead and the underrated Doghouse), and, of course, Evil Dead 2, Return of the Living Dead, and Re-Animator (I couldn’t possibly leave those off). 

As with all lists, the tricky part is trying to rank the movies. But one thing is certain: 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a damn funny film that simultaneously pays tribute to the Universal monster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, would be right up near the top!

Baggage clerks Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello) find themselves in over their heads when they deliver a couple of crates to a wax museum. Instead of wax dummies, these crates contain the bodies of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), who have come to America to find the Monster a new brain. 

To assist in this quest, Dracula teams up with beautiful scientist Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert), who is tasked with seducing Wilbur; apparently, his “simple” brain makes him the perfect donor. 

Things take an even darker turn when Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) - aka The Wolfman - suddenly turns up. Hoping to stop Dracula from carrying out his evil plan, Talbot instead transforms into a werewolf whenever there’s a full moon, leaving poor Chick and Wilbur with yet another monster to worry about!

With all due respect to Buck Privates and their “Who’s on First” routine, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the funniest thing that Bud Abbott and Lou Costello ever did. With Abbott playing the straight man, Lou is haunted by creaking coffins, moving candles, and a collection of monsters that are forever sneaking up on him. The comedy routines the duo concocted are hilarious, and when it comes to milking laughs out of a tense situation, few have done it as well as Lou Costello (the scene where he’s standing beside a coffin reading the Legend of Dracula, only to be interrupted by Dracula himself, is hysterical). 

What’s more, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is also a nifty continuation of the great Universal horror films, with Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi playing the roles that made them famous (Glenn Strange, who portrayed the monster in 1944’s House of Frankenstein, joins in as well). I loved how none of these actors were out to get laughs; from start to finish, Lugosi, Chaney and company approached the movie as if they were in a straight-up horror film.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein does, on occasion, satirize the classic Universal monster movies, but never once does it mock them. This, combined with some truly funny moments provided by its two stars, has earned it an eternal spot on my all-time favorite horror comedies list.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

#1,070. The Old Dark House (1932)

Directed By: James Whale

Starring: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton

Tag line: "Beware the night!"

Trivia: This film was considered to be lost until director Curtis Harrington discovered a printable negative

While out driving one evening, Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart), along with their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), are caught in a rainstorm, and forced to seek shelter when a landslide blocks the road. So, they stop at the first house they come to, a mansion belonging to one Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), who lives with his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), his mute butler Morgan (Boris Karloff), and other members of his family. Shortly after the Waverton party arrives, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his “companion”, Gladys (Lilian Bond), also turn up, looking to come in out of the rain. But when Femm’s homicidal brother, Saul (Brember Wills), a pyromaniac who had been locked away inside the house, is suddenly set free, it leads to a night of terror that none of the guests will soon forget.

The Old Dark House, a 1932 horror / comedy directed by James Whale, boasts a remarkable cast. Along with horror legend Boris Karloff, who’s damn near unrecognizable as Morgan, the alcoholic butler, the film also features future Hollywood stars Raymond Massey (Arsenic and Old Lace, East of Eden) and Melvyn Douglas (Hud, Being There). Ernest Thesiger, who, a few years later, would play the mad Dr. Praetorius in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, is quite good as the head of the Femm household, and Charles Laughton makes one of his 1st appearances in an American film (though, admittedly, it’s not his most dynamic performance). Yet what you’ll remember most about The Old Dark House isn’t its cast; it’s the house itself, which, under Whale’s watchful eye, seems every bit as creepy as the movie’s title would suggest. From the brilliant shot where we're shown the mansion for the first time (illuminated by the occasional flash of lightning) to the way he allows the camera to glide freely through the dark corridors of the Femm Estate, Whale makes the most of the film’s impressive set pieces while, at the same time, creating a sense of dread that becomes more tangible as the movie progresses.

In all, James Whale would direct only four horror films, each of which (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Old Dark House) is considered a classic of the genre. And even though I’m thrilled these movies are still available some 80 years later, I can’t help but wish he’d made a few more of ‘em!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

#1,069. UnConventional (2004)

Directed By: Daniel F. Doyle, Michael Furno

Starring: Gunnar Hansen, 42nd Street Pete, Tiffany Shepis

Tag line: "Laugh ... Until you scream"

Trivia: This entire movie takes place at the 13th Chiller Con Horror Convention in East Rutherford, New Jersey

UnConventional is a 2004 documentary that takes us inside the world of horror conventions, specifically the 13th Chiller Con that took place in East Rutherford, New Jersey in 2003. Along with the celebrities in attendance, such as Gunner Hanson (Leatherface in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and Troma regular Tiffany Shepis (Tromeo & Juliet), we meet many of the genre's die-hard fans, who've come to chat with some of their heroes, and spend a little time among people who share their obsession.

The 3-day convention opened on Halloween Night, and the first celebrity we meet is Tiffany Shepis, who’s greeted at the door by none other than legendary make-up artist Tom Savini (who brought with him a small dose of FX magic to start things off with a bang). Ms. Shepis features prominently throughout UnConventional, and her bubbly personality is addictive (the fact that she’s gorgeous doesn’t hurt, either). Another regular at Chiller Con is Zacherley, one of the country’s first TV horror hosts, who worked in Philadelphia and New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s. We get a few quick glimpses of other famous attendees, including David Carradine, Tanya Roberts, Kevin McCarthy and Sid Haig, and we meet the various vendors as well, like Gonzo, an energetic stand-up comedian and, as narrator and host 42nd Street Pete puts it, “the genius behind such prestigious films as The Last Call to Die and Slave Girls From Auction Block 1313” (according to Gonzo, the budget for his movies is usually about $800). Gonzo’s table is lined with DVDs, and he’s brought with him a few of the beauties who appear in his films, none of whom are shy about showing off their “assets”.

But what makes UnConventional such a blast are the legions of fans that turn up year in and year out, looking for a picture, an autograph, an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. From the guy who wants Tiffany Shepis to strangle him to the autograph-seekers asking Gunner Hanson what he thought of the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s the fans who bring the convention to life (even the incredibly strange ones, like Jay, the self-proclaimed “Ho-Getter, Show-Stopper, Virgin Popper, Acid Dropper” who bugs the shit out of poor Ms Shepis for a few minutes). Exploring all aspects of the convention experience, and wonderfully narrated by 42nd Street Pete, UnConventional is an often hilarious, yet always respectful look at the personalities and fans who regularly attend horror conventions, and have the time of their lives doing so.

Friday, July 19, 2013

#1,068. Gun Crazy (1950)

Directed By: Joseph H. Lewis

Starring: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Berry Kroeger

Tag line: "The Flaming Life of LAURIE STARR (The Lethal Blonde)"

Trivia: Bart Tare and Laurie Starr are modeled on the infamous Depression-era bandits Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker

Ever since he was a kid, Bart Tare (John Dall) has been obsessed with guns. But as his friends and older sister, Ruby (Anabel Shaw), will tell you, Bart may like to shoot, but he hates violence, and can’t bring himself to kill anything. When the carnival comes to town, Bart meets Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a trick shot artist who’s also pretty handy with a pistol. For Bart, it’s love at first sight, yet as far as Laurie is concerned, Bart is nothing more than her ticket to easy street. When the new couple has a hard time making ends meet, Laurie gives Bart an ultimatum: join her in a life of crime, holding up small stores and gas stations, or she’ll leave him forever. Against his better judgment, Bart does exactly what Laurie says, and before long, the two are the most wanted criminals in the state.

Gun Crazy, a 1950 film noir directed by Joseph H. Lewis, goes to great lengths to paint its lead character as a nice guy who just happens to love guns. In the film’s opening scene, a teenage Bart (played by a very young-looking Russ Tamblyn) breaks a store window and steals a revolver from the front display. Yet, despite the fact he’s committed a crime, a bunch of people come to Bart’s defense at his trial, telling the judge (Morris Carnovsky) he’s basically a good kid. John Dall does a fine job as the adult Bart, playing him as naïve in matters of the heart, yet, at the same time, fully aware of how the world works. Cummins is equally as strong as the scheming Laurie, who’s able to get Bart to do her bidding. But as the film progresses, so does her attitude, and by the movie’s halfway point, Laurie is as much in love with Bart as he is with her. It’s an interesting twist in what proves to be a fascinating motion picture.

I usually try to avoid spoilers, but because it was made in 1950, the Hollywood Production Code, the self-proclaimed protector of American morality, spoiled Gun Crazy already by insisting it end a certain way (thus driving home the point that there’s no future in a life of crime). Yet, having spent the better part of 90 minutes in their company, I was really pulling for Bart and Laurie, two likable characters who found themselves on the wrong side of the law, and even if they didn’t deserve a happy ending, I was hoping they’d get one anyway.

Gun Crazy is definitely one of those instances where I wish the Production Code would have taken the day off.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

#1,067. Zu Warriors (2001)

Directed By: Tsui Hark

Starring: Ekin Cheng, Cecilia Cheung, Louis Koo

Tag line: "Surrender Your Illusion, Fight For Your Destiny"

Trivia: The U.S. release of this film was heavily edited, going from 104 minutes down to 80 minutes

Its exciting action sequences aside, director Tsui Hark’s 2001 Zu Warriors is, first and foremost, a fantasy film, building an elaborate, computer-generated world populated by God-like creatures who look as if they stepped out of a fairy tale.

The legendary Zu mountains are home to several different clans, immortal beings who’ve spent centuries perfecting a powerful form of martial arts. But when they’re threatened by the demonic Amnesia (Kelly Lin) and his followers, the clans must band together to defeat their common foe. The Omei, led by White Brows (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), is the strongest of the clans, and succeeds in trapping Amnesia and his minions inside an enormous cave. Leaving his best disciple, Red (Louis Koo), to guard the cave entrance, White Brows finds he must withdraw into solitude to contemplate their next move, and, in his absence, leaves King Sky (Ekin Cheng) of the now-extinct Kunlun clan in command. But when Red falls under the spell of the demon, it kicks off a war that threatens to destroy both the Zu mountains and the entire world below.

Every scene in Zu Warriors is filled with spectacular visuals; the world that sits high atop the Zu mountains is a wonder to behold, a mystical place where barely a second goes by without something extraordinary happening. The movie’s characters, many of whom possess incredible powers, are fascinating (I particularly liked Louis Koo’s Red, who had huge, bird-like wings made entirely out of swords), and the fierce battles they have with Amnesia and his demons are, at times, breathtaking.

And yet, despite its many impressive qualities, Zu Warriors is not a perfect movie. While most of the special effects are stunning, some fall short of the mark (in a few scenes, characters wield swords hundreds of feet long, which look downright goofy). Also, the story features a slew of different characters, including several mortals (Zhang Ziyi plays Joy, the daughter of a human king, who gets caught up in the otherworldly conflict), and, at times, is a bit muddled and hard to follow. Yet, even with its faults, Zu Warriors is a tremendously entertaining movie, and while those looking for an action-packed martial arts extravaganza a la Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may be disappointed, anyone who enjoys a good fantasy film will definitely want to check it out.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

#1,066. Mars Needs Women (1966)

Directed By: Larry Buchanan

Starring: Tommy Kirk, Yvonne Craig, Warren Hammack

Tag line: "They were looking for chicks... to go all the way!"

Trivia: Although originally intended for theatrical release, Mars Needs Women was distributed directly to television by American International

Prior to Mars Needs Women, the only other Larry Buchanan film I’d seen was Curse of the Swamp Creature, a sci-fi / horror flick from 1966 that I consider one of the worst ever made. So, going in, I can’t say I had high hopes for Mars Needs Women, which, as it turns out, was a good thing, seeing as this movie is bad on so many levels.

The U.S. military decodes a message from outer space that reads “Mars Needs Women”. Sure enough, five Martians, led by Dop (Tommy Kirk), arrive on earth soon after. Due to a genetic defect, the population of Mars is almost entirely male. So, to prevent their civilization from dying out, Dop and his associates have been sent to earth to kidnap five fertile females and return with them to Mars in 24 hours. Disguised as humans, they roam the streets of Dallas looking for suitable women, only to find that they themselves aren’t immune to falling in love.

Mars Needs Women gets off to a decent start. During a pre-title sequence, three different women (one of whom was playing tennis at the time) disappear into thin air. We’re then taken to a military installation, where Col. Bob Page (Byron Lord) receives the shocking news that an interstellar communication has been decoded, a three-word message: “Mars Needs Women”. From there on, Mars Needs Women falls apart pretty quickly. The movie’s biggest problem, aside from poor acting and terrible dialogue, is that it just doesn’t make any sense. Shortly after news of the aliens hits the airwaves, it’s announced the U.N. Secretary General has called for the immediate cessation of all global conflict, so that mankind can band together to battle it’s new “common enemy”, the Martians. Really? The abduction of five women in Texas requires a worldwide response? The Martians themselves, who soon become the focus of the entire film, don’t fare any better. After surviving an aerial assault against their spacecraft (which, in reality, was nothing more than stock footage of airline manufacturers testing new equipment), we join the aliens as they rob a gas station, steal some suits from off the rack, and, disguised as humans, spend the rest of the movie spying on women. Boring!

I still say Mars Needs Women is nowhere near as bad as Curse of the Swamp Creature, which, despite starring genre mainstay John Agar, is an uninspired mess. But a slightly more polished turd is still a turd, and that’s exactly what this movie is.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

#1,065. Slither (2006)

Directed By: James Gunn

Starring: Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks

Tag line: "Feed the Fear"

Trivia: Nathan Fillion was the last actor to be cast, about a week before shooting began

Part monster movie and part alien invasion flick, director James Gunn’s 2006 horror / comedy Slither pays homage to the films of yesteryear while, at the same time, relying on modern CGI to bring its creatures to life.

Grant (Michael Rooker) and his young wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) are having marital problems. One night, to escape his troubles, Grant goes for a walk in the nearby woods with Brenda (Brenda James), a girl he picked up in a bar. But instead of having a good time, the two come face-to-face with an alien slug, which proceeds to take over Grant's body. When Starla notices a change in her husband, she turns to the town’s sheriff, Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), for help. Unfortunately, they may be too late to save Grant, but what they don’t realize is the creature living inside him has a plan to conquer the entire town, and, eventually, the world.

Aside from the obvious similarities to 1986’s Night of the Creeps, a movie in which otherworldly slugs invade people’s bodies, director Gunn (who also wrote the screenplay) loads Slither with clever references to several other genre classics (a local bar is named Henenlotter’s, in honor of the director of 1982’s Basket Case). Yet while horror fans may get a kick out of these tributes, it’s the monsters that make Slither such an entertaining movie. In the film’s best scene, Sheriff Pardy and his deputies are on a stake-out in the middle of nowhere, trying to capture Grant. But none of them are prepared for what comes stumbling out of the woods, nor are they ready to face what's in a nearby barn, where poor Brenda is being used to carry out the alien’s diabolical plan. Many of the other effects in Slither, like the hundreds of slugs crawling across the ground, look great, but it’s the insanity of the above sequence that’ll stay with you the longest.

A fun movie from start to finish, Slither will make you laugh, make you squirm, and, ultimately, make you damn happy you saw it.

Monday, July 15, 2013

#1,064. The Lost Weekend (1945)

Directed By: Billy Wilder

Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry

Tag line: "The screen dares to open the strange and savage pages of a shocking bestseller!"

Trivia: This movie marked the first time a film crew was given permission to shoot inside Bellevue Hospital

After working as a screenwriter in both Germany and the U.S., Billy Wilder stepped behind the camera for the first time in 1942 with The Major and the Minor, and in so doing launched one of the most prolific directorial careers in cinematic history. His credits read like a Hollywood honor roll: Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Sabrina, The ApartmentWitness for the Prosecution. Between 1940 and 1967, he garnered a whopping 20 Academy Award nominations (12 as a writer, 8 as a director), four of which he won, including Best Director for 1945's The Lost Weekend, a searing drama that centers on the shattered life of an alcoholic.

Author Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is an alcoholic. His brother, Wick (Phillip Terry), thinks its best that Don get away from New York for a while, and plans a trip to the countryside. But just before they;re scheduled to leave, Don disappears into the city and goes on a bender that lasts for days, threatening to ruin his relationship with girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), who, despite being verbally abused whenever Don hits the bottle, has stood by his side for years, waiting for the day he'll finally sober up for good.

Ray Milland delivers a bravura performance as the out-of-control Don, a character we simultaneously pity and despise. Several times throughout the movie, Don resorts to stealing to pay for his "habit", and the scenes in which he berates Helen, the person who has provided emotional support when he needed it most, are positively brutal. Winner of the Academy Award as the year’s Best Actor for his work in this film, Milland is unflinching in his portrayal, playing a man teetering on the brink of disaster. His journey into the abyss is difficult to watch.

In later years, Wilder would direct a number of comedies, including 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, the first movie to team Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (who played brothers-in-law) and the underrated One, Two, Three, in which James Cagney is an executive for Coca Cola in war-torn Berlin. These pictures were a sharp contrast to the dramas and films noir he turned out in the ‘40s, many of which, The Lost Weekend included, spent more time lurking in darkness than in the light.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

#1,063. Cabaret (1972)

Directed By: Bob Fosse

Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem

Tag line: "A divinely decadent experience!"

Trivia: Many of the film's interior scenes were shot on sound stages in Munich that had recently been vacated by the cast and crew of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

A former dancer and Tony award-winning choreographer, Bob Fosse came to Hollywood in the late ‘60s to direct his first feature film, Sweet Charity, which was based on a Broadway musical (one he himself had worked on). With Shirley MacLaine playing the title character, Sweet Charity was an enjoyable movie (I love the Big Spender routine), and Fosse followed it up a few years later with a film that won eight Academy Awards, including Best Director: 1972’s Cabaret.

Berlin, 1931. Brian Roberts (Michael York), a British teacher who’s just arrived in town, rents a room next door to Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American singer who works at the Kit Kat club, a nightclub where people from all walks of life (Nazis included) come to have a good time. A free spirit, Sally soon captures Brian’s heart, and the two become romantically involved. Things begin to change, however, when wealthy playboy Max (Helmut Griem) enters the picture. It isn’t long before Sally finds herself falling for Max, but what she doesn’t realize is that Brian is hiding a few secrets of his own.

Liza Minnelli is charismatic in the lead role, a performance that won her a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actress. As expected, she handles the film’s musical numbers with the greatest of ease (her Cabaret is a definite highlight), as does Joel Grey, the Kit Kat’s emcee, who kicks the movie off with a wonderful rendition of Willkommen. But while Cabaret is an impressive musical, there are as many memorable scenes set outside the Kit Kat club as there are inside it. Even when she’s not singing, Minnelli shines, effortlessly conveying her character’s flighty, unpredictable nature, and the movie also addresses Germany’s political climate at the time, including the ever-growing threat of fascism (at one point, Brian is attacked by some Nazi soldiers). Throughout Cabaret, director Fosse strikes the perfect balance between music and story, giving us just the right amount of both.

In all, Fosse would direct five motion pictures; aside from Sweet Charity and Cabaret, he helmed the excellent biopic, Lenny, as well as All That Jazz in 1979 and Star 80 in 1983. All are fine films (especially All That Jazz, Fosse’s most autobiographical work), yet Cabaret will always be his masterpiece.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

#1,062. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Directed By: Cecil B. DeMille

Starring: Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston

Tag line: "The Heartbeat Story of Circus People, Filmed with the Cooperation of Ringling Bros. - Barnum and Bailey Circus!"

Trivia: A barker, kept anonymous until the very end, is heard in the closing moments of the film. The voice is finally revealed to be that of Edmond O'Brien

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth details the trials and tribulations of circus life, and while the movie has its moments, it’s Oscar win for Best Picture of 1952 marks an early example of the Academy getting it very wrong.

To ensure that the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus plays an entire season, general manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) hires The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), the world’s most renowned trapeze artist. Unfortunately, this means the circus’ current trapeze artist, Holly (Betty Hutton), who also happens to be Brad’s main squeeze, will have to give up the center ring, which she’s none too happy to do. This leads to a professional rivalry between Holly and Sebastian, with each continually trying to out-do the other. Along with his dueling stars, Brad also must deal with a variety of problems, including the crooked carnival games run by a low-life named Harry (John Kellogg), and the mysterious past of the circus’ most popular performer, Buttons the Clown (James Stewart).

DeMille was the master of herculean-sized stories, and there are moments in The Greatest Show on Earth that fit the bill. The scenes where we watch the circus pack up to move to a new town (actual footage of Ringling Bros. doing the same) are impressive, though their impact is somewhat diminished by the director’s own ridiculously over-the-top narration (“Into the sunshine of spring, the circus rises from its winter hibernation, spic and span and ready for eight months of excitement and adventure.”). The sequences showing the circus performers in action are also well handled (Holly’s and Sebastian’s trapeze act generates some real tension), and the grand finale, a remarkably staged train wreck, is the kind of sprawling scene DeMille was known for. The problem is that, for most of its running time, The Greatest Show on Earth doesn’t tell a story worthy of its director’s epic sensibilities. In many respects, it’s just a soap opera, with jealousies, love triangles, etc., certainly nothing to justify the grandiose treatment the material receives. The bottom line is: The Greatest Show on Earth is no Ten Commandments, and instead of making a larger-than-life film, DeMille produced a bloated two and a half hour movie that should’ve been cut down to about 90 minutes.

Of the films nominated that year, I would’ve chosen High Noon as Best Picture, though The Quiet Man and John Huston’s Moulin Rouge might have caused me to think twice. The real travesty, however, was that neither Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful nor the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain, both released in ‘52, were even up for the top award. Sure, The Greatest Show on Earth is, at times, a fun movie, but it’s no Best Picture, and with all the other fine films that year, it probably shouldn’t have even been nominated in the first place!

Friday, July 12, 2013

#1,061. Special (2006)

Directed By: Hal Haberman, Jeremy Passmore

Starring: Michael Rapaport, Paul Blackthorne, Josh Peck

Tag line: "He's not your ordinary superhero"

Trivia: Won the Jury's Choice Award at the 2006 Puchon Int'l Fantastic Film Festival

After being relegated to supporting roles in movies like True Romance, Cop Land, and Bamboozled, Michael Rapaport finally got his chance to play the lead in the 2006 fantasy / comedy, Special, a film about an ordinary guy who thinks he’s turning into a super hero.

Les (Rapaport) works as a parking attendant for the Los Angeles Police Department, and spends his free time reading comic books and hanging out with pals Everett (Robert Baker) and Joey (Josh Peck). All that changes, however, when Les signs up to be a test subject for an experimental drug, which seems to have an amazing effect on him. Shortly after taking the first pill, Les develops incredible powers, including the ability to walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and hover several feet above the ground. Donning a superhero costume, Les quits his job and hits the streets, prepared to take a bite out of crime. The problem is nobody else can see him performing these unbelievable feats. In fact, most people think Les is losing his mind.

Special is a very funny film, especially early on, when Les is demonstrating his new-found abilities. In one scene, he’s visiting Dr. Dobson (Jack Kehler), the physician who monitors the effects of the experimental drug. To prove the pills have given him extraordinary powers, Les dives off of Dobson’s desk and, just before hitting the ground, freezes in mid-air. At least that’s how Les sees it. When we switch to Dr. Dobson’s perspective, Les is lying flat on the floor, flailing his arms. Yet Special is more than a comedy; it’s a portrait of a lonely guy whose suddenly found a purpose in life. Rapaport is superb as the confused lead character, flawlessly merging humor with humanity, and no matter how out-of-control he gets, we can’t help but root for poor 'ole Les.

With a budget of about a million dollars, Special has the look and feel of a small film, but thanks to its clever story and a career-defining performance by Michael Rapaport, this “small film” delivers in a big, big way.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

#1,060. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

Directed By: Carl Reiner

Starring: Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Alan Ladd

Tag line: "Laugh... or I'll blow your lips off!"

Trivia: Star Steve Martin appears in drag in this movie

If it hadn’t been for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a 1982 black & white comedy directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin, I would have never seen some of the best movies of the 1940s and ‘50s. A spoof of detective flicks that re-uses scenes from about 20 classic film noirs, allowing Martin and his co-stars to interact with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and Veronica Lake, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid introduced me to The Lost Weekend, The Big Sleep, even Double Indemnity. And after watching this movie again today, I realize there are still a few I haven’t checked out yet!

Private eye Rigby Reardon (Martin) hasn’t had a case in weeks. That all changes when Juliet Forrest (the stunning Rachel Ward) walks into his office. Convinced the so-called “accident” that claimed her father’s life was really murder, she hires Reardon to investigate. Armed only with two lists of names (the “Friends” and “Enemies” of “Carlotta”), he crosses paths with a variety of lowlifes, all of whom clearly know more than they’re letting on. But Reardon’s investigation takes an unexpected turn when the clues lead him to a small island off the coast of Peru, where he comes face-to-face with some pretty dangerous characters.

While the film’s two stars have some funny moments together (Juliet has an interesting way of removing bullets from Reardon’s body), the best scenes in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid are the ones where Martin, by way of some clever editing, meets up with the stars of yesteryear. When Reardon gets into a jam, he calls his colleague, Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart, taken from The Big Sleep, among others), to ask for his help, and at one point, he nearly strangles poor Bette Davis to death (a scene lifted from 1946’s Deception). But, for me, the absolute best sequence is when Reardon pays a visit to Cody Jarrett, James Cagney’s character from the classic White Heat, who’s locked away in prison. Posing as Jarrett’s mother, Reardon, decked out in a black dress, tries to find out what Jarrett knows about the Friends of Carlotta, and the way Martin handles their “conversation” is priceless.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid isn’t the funniest Reiner / Martin film. In fact, taking into account the remaining three comedies they made together, namely The Jerk in 1979, The Man With Two Brains in 1983 and All of Me in 1984, I’d say this one finishes a distant 4th. But while it won’t tickle your funny bone quite as often as their other collaborations, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is definitely the director’s / star’s most creative venture, and if you’re a fan of old-time movies, I’m betting you’ll like what you see.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

#1,059. Roller Boogie (1979)

Directed By: Mark L. Lester

Starring: Linda Blair, Jim Bray, Beverly Garland

Tag line: "It's love on wheels!"

Trivia: Around three hundred roller skaters auditioned for this movie

After 10 minutes of 1979’s Roller Boogie, you’ll be asking yourself what evil force possessed Linda Blair to appear in this movie, and why didn’t Max von Sydow banish that demon to hell?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the Exorcist reference. But all kidding aside, Roller Boogie really does suck.

Teenager Terry Barkley (Linda Blair) is a musical prodigy, and her wealthy parents (Roger Perry and Beverly Garland) plan to ship her off to Julliard in the fall. But what they don’t know is that Terry would much rather lace up a pair of skates and hang around a Venice Beach roller rink. It’s there that she meets Bobby James (Jim Bray), a skater from the wrong side of the tracks who’s training for the Olympics. Hoping to improve her own skating, Terry hires Bobby to teach her the ropes, and after a few lessons, the two fall madly in love. But the good times soon come to an end when a shady mobster (Mark Goddard) buys the roller rink, which he intends to tear down to make way for a new shopping mall. Can Terry and Bobby work together to save the rink, and with it the Annual Roller Boogie contest, or will corruption and greed win out in the end?

From the opening scene of Roller Boogie, a musical number in which dozens of skaters “dance” around the streets of Venice, I knew I was in trouble. The problem was that the sequence, clearly designed to start the movie off with a bang, had absolutely no energy. To me, it felt like a bunch of people on skates waving their arms about, trying to make it look as if they were dancing. Even the grand finale, where Bobby James weaves his way through some soda cans placed strategically in the middle of the road, was weak.

Next, it’s off to the Barkley mansion, where Linda Blair’s Terry is dressing for the day. We watch as she chooses her outfit (a pair of shorts and a T-shirt) and adds a few matching accessories. Her bedroom screams the ‘70s, with a picture of Shawn Cassidy on the mirror and posters of the Bee Gees and Miss Piggy hanging on the wall. But what struck me was how bored Linda Blair looked. I realize that getting dressed isn’t the most exhilarating activity, yet judging from the indifference in her eyes and the manner in which she carried herself, I got the distinct feeling Ms. Blair wasn’t giving it her all.

Fortunately, these two scenes lasted only ten minutes, leaving Roller Boogie with about an hour and half to redeem itself. Well, it didn’t; the entire film was as flat as the opening. Most depressing of all were the various skate routines, which were lifeless and bland. Whether the problem was the uninspired direction of Mark Lester or the simple fact that roller dancing isn’t very much fun to watch, I can’t say. I only know these musical numbers were a real struggle to get through. Equally as bad were the performances of the two leads. Jim Bray had neither the physical build nor the acting chops to play a main character in a major motion picture, which is obvious in just about every scene he’s in. Actually, I felt a little sorry for him; originally hired as a skating stand-in, Bray, who had no acting experience, was bumped up to the lead role when the producers couldn’t find anyone to take the part. So, in a way, his complete incompetence came as no surprise. As for Linda Blair, who appeared in a number of films prior to Roller Boogie, she had no excuse whatsoever, and at times, was even worse than Bray.

Mentioned in John Wilson’s The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of the worst pictures ever made, Roller Boogie does have a “so bad it’s good” vibe to it, and might be a fun watch if you’re surrounded by good friends and plenty of beer. But take my advice: you’re gonna need a few extra six packs to make it through this one!