Saturday, August 31, 2013

#1,111. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Directed By: Peter Jackson

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom

Tag line: "Its power corrupts all who desire it. Only one has the will to resist it"

Trivia: In August 2002 the DVD/ video release of this film set a UK record when it chalked up sales of 2.4 million

When it was first announced that Peter Jackson was bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to the big screen, I admit I had my doubts. I remember discussing it with a co-worker of mine, who was as amazed as I was that the director was going to turn Tolkien’s classic tale into a live-action film. We agreed the story was far too intricate, too epic in scope and imagination to be anything other than an animated movie (like Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 version). Simply put, we both assumed Peter Jackson had lost his mind.

Obviously, we didn’t know what we were talking about. By way of some of the most advanced CGI available at the time, Jackson created a series of movies that went beyond anything I had seen before. The Fellowship of the Ring was truly an eye-opening experience.

Based on the 1st book in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring kicks off with the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) preparing to attend a 111th birthday celebration for his beloved uncle, Bilbo (Ian Holm). Hobbits from all around the Shire will be there, as will Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan), a powerful Wizard and an old friend of Bilbo’s. At the party, Bilbo makes a surprise announcement: he’s leaving the Shire, and heading out into the world to bring a little adventure to his life. It’s then that Gandalf realizes Bilbo has in his possession a very dangerous ring, forged in the fires of Mount Doom by the evil Lord Sauron. This ring, which gives its bearer the power of invisibility, has a mind of its own, and as long as it exists, so does Sauron himself, which puts the whole of Middle Earth in peril. Bilbo, who’s under the ring’s spell, doesn’t want to give it up, but reluctantly agrees, leaving it behind before setting off. Soon after, young Frodo learns the truth about the ring from Gandalf, including the fact that the Shire itself is in great danger as long as it remains there.

Joined by his good friend, Samwise (Sean Astin) and two other Hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippen (Billy Boyd), Frodo leaves the shire and, under the protection of the mysterious Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), faces off against some of Sauron’s agents. Despite the danger lurking around every corner, the group eventually makes its way to Rivendell, the home of the elves, where a fellowship is assembled consisting of the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Aragorn (whose actually the descendant of a king), another human named Boromir (Sean Bean), and Gandalf, all of whom vow to ensure that the ring is dropped into the fires of Mount Doom and destroyed. To everyone’s surprise, Frodo also volunteers to accompany them, taking on the all-important task of carrying the ring. With the other Hobbits also in tow, this fellowship of nine sets off to complete their mission, knowing full well that failure will result in the end of civilization as they know it.

Let’s see… where to begin? Well, for starters, the entire cast of The Fellowship of the Ring does an amazing job. Elijah Wood is superb as Frodo, conveying all the fear and confusion his poor Hobbit feels when he’s swept up into something much bigger than he ever imagined. As his close friend and sidekick, Samwise, Sean Astin is flawless, as is everyone else in the cast (the effect of taking 6-ft tall actor John Rhys-Davies and, by way of CGI and cinematic trickery, transforming him into a dwarf standing about 4 feet tall was a gimmick that worked to perfection). The standout performance, however, is delivered by Sir Ian McKellan as the wise and battle-ready wizard, Gandalf. The perfect embodiment of one of the book’s most fascinating characters, McKellan is simply awesome in the part. The Fellowship of the Ring also looks great; the opening scene, where Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel narrates the history of the ring, is breathtaking (the first time I saw this, my jaw just about hit the floor). Along with its excellent characters and top-notch story (which, in all honesty, have as much to do with J.R.R. Tolkien as anyone else), the film also has its share of exceptional scenes, the best being the sequence set in Moria, the underground city of the dwarfs, where the Fellowship goes up against thousands of Orcs and one very pissed-off Balrog. Featuring plenty of action and a moment or two of high drama, it’s not only my favorite sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring, it's the best in the entire series.

Like many fans, my initial viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring had me chomping at the bit for the next installment, and I was none too happy that I had to wait 12 months to see it (All 3 films were initially released a year apart from each other). And even though both sequels, The Two Towers and Return of the King, are just as impressive, The Fellowship of the Ring will always be my favorite of the series. More than an extraordinary movie, it opened my eyes to what was possible, and this alone made it a film, and an experience, I will never forget.

Friday, August 30, 2013

#1,110. Frenzy (1972)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Alec McCowen

Tag line: "From the Master of Shock... A Shocking Masterpiece! "

Trivia: Hitchcock's daughter Patricia found this film so disturbing that, for many years, she wouldn't let her children see it

Shot in his native England, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 mystery / thriller Frenzy was the director’s last great film, a suspenseful tale of a London serial killer and the innocent man accused of committing his heinous crimes.

A modern-day Jack the Ripper is on the loose, raping pretty young women before strangling them to death with a necktie. The police, led by Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), are baffled, but when Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a professional matchmaker, turns up dead, the authorities begin to suspect her ex-husband Richard (Jon Finch) may be the elusive killer. 

Richard, who is completely innocent, is eventually arrested and charged with murder. Locked behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Richard soon figures out who the real killer is and makes plans for a daring prison break, hoping to track the maniac down so he can take his revenge.

Hitchcock keeps the tension running high throughout Frenzy, even after he reveals the murderer’s identity. In the film’s most visually impressive scene, we tag along with the killer as he accompanies his next unsuspecting victim up a flight of stairs. When the two reach the top, they disappear behind a closed door, at which point the camera slowly pulls back, making its way down the stairs and coming to a rest outside the building, far enough away so that we can’t hear the girl’s screams. 

But the suspense doesn’t end there; in the very next scene, the killer, shortly after stuffing his victim’s body into a sack of potatoes that's sitting in back of a vegetable truck, realizes she’s still holding his monogrammed tiepin in her clenched fist, which, if found, can easily be traced back to him. As the truck makes its way down the dark London streets, the killer feverishly works to pry the girl’s hand open and retrieve his pin. It's an intense sequence, to be sure, but is one of many that the Master of suspense scatters throughout this extraordinary movie.

Hitchcock’s next to last film (followed only by Family Plot in 1976), Frenzy proved to be the final feather in the old master’s cap, and a reminder that, even at that advanced stage of his career, he could still bring audiences to the edge of their seats.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

#1,109. Seven Up! (1964)

Directed By: Paul Almond

Starring: Douglas Keay, Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett

Trivia: Critic Roger Ebert once said this film, as well as the entire series it inspired, was on his list of the 10 Greates Films of All-Time

The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old”. These words are spoken by narrator Douglas Keay at the beginning of Paul Almond’s Seven Up, a 1964 documentary produced for British television that brought together 14 different children, all seven years of age, with varying social backgrounds. Seven Up proved such a fascinating experiment that Michael Apted, who worked as a researcher on the picture, turned the project into an entire series of films, re-visiting the same 14 kids every seven years to check on their progress and see where life has taken them. The Up documentaries, as they’ve come to be known, are a unique cinematic experience, and Seven Up is where it all started.

By way of interviews, as well as watching the children interact with one another (including a trip to London Zoo), we learn a little bit about each one of them. Some of the kids have a lower-class background, including Nicholas, whose family lives on the Yorkshire Dales. He attends a one-room school located about 4 miles from his home, walking the entire distance each and every day. It’s a sharp contrast to Andrew, Charles, and John, a trio of boys from the upper-class London district of Kensington. When we first hear from these three, they’re berating The Beatles, with John admitting he “loathes” the band’s haircuts. Tony is the most outgoing of the bunch, a rambunctious lad from London’s East End who already has a girlfriend named Michelle (she sits next to him in class, and the teacher continually corrects Tony for turning around in his seat). Of course, not all the participants are boys; Suzy, Jackie and Lynn all attend the same school and talk about boys, whereas Tony’s girlfriend, Michelle, tells a story of how she once beat him up for throwing soap at her in the washroom.

In 2012, Apted released the 8th entry in the series, 56 Up, in which most of the youngsters from Seven Up, now middle-aged, return to fill us in on what’s been happening to them since the last film (in this case, 2005’s 49 Up). More than a collection of movies, the Up documentaries are a fascinating experiment, a recorded history of fourteen individuals, some of whose lives have taken a much different course than first anticipated. Always interesting and occasionally poignant, both Seven Up and the entire series are among the most important films ever made.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

#1,108. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Directed By: Louis Leterrier

Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth

Tag line: "You'll like him when he's angry"

Trivia: David Duchovny was an early consideration to play Bruce Banner

I wasn’t one of those people who hated Ang Lee’s 2003 movie The Hulk. At least I don’t think I was; truth is, as I’m sitting here, I can’t remember a single thing about that film (and say what you will about the recent string of Marvel releases: “forgettable” isn’t a word you’d use to describe most of them). Fortunately for the studio, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk got the big guy back on track, giving fans the kind of action-packed movie they were expecting the 1st time around, and featuring a lead actor who’s plenty strong in the part.

While hiding out in Brazil, Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton), the victim of a gamma ray experiment gone awry, is tracked down by the U.S. military, which has spent the better part of 5 years trying to find him. Gen Ross (William Hurt) is particularly anxious to take Banner into custody, hoping to conduct tests that will shed some light on the awesome power locked inside him (the gamma radiation in Banner’s blood causes him to mutate into a giant green monster whenever he becomes agitated). Luckily for Banner, he once again eludes capture, and returns to the States to meet with a mysterious scientist (Tim Blake Nelson) who believes he’s found a way to cure him of his unusual “condition”. Aided by his former fiancé, Betty (Liv Tyler), who also happens to be Gen. Ross’s daughter, Banner does his best to stay out of sight, but when Russian-born soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) agrees to undergo a similar gamma ray experiment, Banner and his alter ego, Tthe Incredible Hulk, find themselves facing off against an adversary strong enough to defeat them both.

The first action scene in The Incredible Hulk (which also marks the Hulk’s first appearance in the film) comes early on, while Banner is hiding inside a Brazilian bottling plant. It’s one of many exciting sequences (the Hulk loose in a bottling plant? What’s not to love?). Yet just as intriguing as the film's action is the mystery surrounding Tim Blake Nelson’s scientist, who promises to cure Banner and return him to normal. Norton perfectly captures his character’s enthusiasm at the prospect of finally dumping his goliath-sized alter ego, though his eagerness is somewhat tempered by the fact that all previous “cures” have failed. There’s also human drama in The Incredible Hulk, as Banner rekindles his relationship with Betty, who’s now romantically involved with psychiatrist Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell). Admittedly, the CGI is a little sketchy at times, but with plenty of thrills, a top-notch adversary (Tim Roth knocks it out of the park as super soldier Emil Blonsky, who gets a whole lot stronger as the movie progresses), and Norton’s excellent turn as Banner, The Incredible Hulk proves a worthy entry in Marvel’s cinematic Universe.

I’m certainly not taking anything away from Mark Ruffalo, who did a fine job stepping into the role of Banner/The Hulk in 2012’s The Avengers (and, from the looks of it, is set to play the character again in future installments of the series). That said, Norton was both effective and believable as the tortured genius who’s constantly on the run, and despite the fact he’s been replaced, he’ll be remembered as the man who finally gave fans the version of The Incredible Hulk they’ve been waiting to see.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

#1,107. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Directed By: Philip Kaufman

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum

Tag line: "You'll Never Close Your Eyes Again"

Trivia: While rehearsing Kevin McCarthy's cameo, a naked homeless person recognized him and said "The first one was better"

Don Siegel’s black & white classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the best sci-fi / horror films of the 1950s, and of all the remakes that have been produced over the years (the most recent take on the story, The Invasion, was released in 2007), the best is easily director Philip Kaufman’s 1978 masterpiece.

Spores from a distant planet have made their way to San Francisco, attaching themselves to plants and trees and blooming into beautiful flowers. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), who works for the city’s Health Department, picks one of these flowers on her way home and shows it to her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle). The next morning, Elizabeth senses there’s something different about Geoffrey, who is more subdued, more emotionally distant than he was the night before. 

Concerned, she goes to her boss Matthew (Donald Sutherland) for advice, and he suggests they talk to renowned psychiatrist Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). David tells them he’s been receiving similar complaints from many of his patients, husbands and wives who claim their spouses have abruptly changed, and are not the same people they married. He chalks the whole thing up to mass hysteria, but Elizabeth and Matthew slowly realize something more sinister is at play. 

Aided by good friends Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), Elizabeth and Matthew search for answers, hoping to uncover the reason why so many people are changing. But is there anyone left they can trust?

First and foremost, ‘78s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a superb cast. Sutherland initially plays Matthew as a bit of a prick, a health inspector who is a real pain in the ass (when we first meet him, he’s accusing a fine French restaurant of allowing rat shit to get into the food), though he does lighten up as the story progresses. Brooke Adams is equally good as Elizabeth, a woman pushed to the brink of insanity by what's happening all around her. Jeff Goldblum is…well, Jeff Goldblum, which means he’s always interesting, and Leonard Nimoy is a caring new age psychiatrist, a far cry (at the outset, anyway) from Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. And you gotta love Kevin McCarthy’s brief appearance in the film (one of my all-time favorite cameos), replaying the classic finale from the 1956 version by running through the streets, banging on car windows and shouting “They’re coming”.

Yet what really makes this particular Invasion of the Body Snatchers so unique is Philip Kaufman’s stylistic approach, notably his decision to shoot the movie as if everything was slightly off-kilter. In an early scene, Elizabeth and Geoffrey are in their upstairs bedroom talking about the flower she just brought home. Oddly enough, we’re not in the room with them as they do so; Kaufman instead sets his camera up at the end of the hall, peering into the bedroom from a distance away. As you’d expect, we don’t see much of their conversation; Brooke Adams’ leg does pop into view at one point when she sits down, but other than that most of her give-and-take occurs off-screen. This is the first of many scenes that are a bit askew, all doing their part to build a tense, unsettling mood while also clueing us in on the fact that things are about to get very, very strange.

With its excellent cast and the stylish direction of Philip Kaufman, not to mention one of the creepiest scenes with a dog that I've ever experienced, 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a rarity: a successful update of a classic film that feels like a completely original motion picture.

Monday, August 26, 2013

#1,106. Night and Fog (1955)

Directed By: Alain Resnais

Starring: Michel Bouquet, Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler

Trivia: One of the first documentaries to openly deal with the Holocaust

The opening scenes of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, a documentary that runs a mere 30 minutes, are deceptively tranquil, showing what appears to be a beautiful landscape, stretching as far as the eye can see. But as the camera slowly descends, a barbed wire fence comes into view, signifying there’s more to this place than its pretty scenery. In fact, we are at Auschwitz, one of many concentration camps used by the Nazis to carry out their “final solution”, during which millions of Jews were rounded up and killed. Resnais shot this footage in 1955, ten years after World War II had ended. His camera explores the area, showing the railroad tracks that carried families to their doom, and the buildings, now abandoned, where many spent their final moments. Everything is so calm, so peaceful; yet the reality of what transpired here still hangs over the entire area. It’s a poignant opening to what will be a very poignant film, filled with images that will burn themselves into your memory.

Interspersed amid the archival footage of the German war machine, beginning with Adolf Hitler addressing his vast army and ending at Nuremberg, where former Nazis were put on trial for horrific crimes against humanity, Resnais gives us some of the most shocking images ever presented. Photographs of prisoners crowded into bunks (as many as three or four to a bed) are just the beginning; as Night and Fog progresses, we’re shown, among other things, a pile of bodies sprawled across the floor of a railroad car (those who didn’t survive the tortuous journey), then an even larger pile inside a gas chamber. There are close-ups of charred remains, some burned outside, others in the large ovens built expressly for that purpose. For me, the most disturbing picture showed a collection of severed heads lying in a basket, the bodies still lined up on the ground next to it. This is real-life horror the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

Francois Truffaut once called Night and Fog the greatest motion picture ever made. “Not only because of the importance of the subject does this movie deserve to come first”, Truffaut wrote, “But also because of Resnais’ style and the tone he managed to give to the film”, adding, in conclusion, that it “makes every other film look trivial”. After one viewing of Night and Fog, I’m sure you’ll agree with him.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

#1,105. Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

Directed By: Alexander Witt

Starring: Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory, Eric Mabius

Tag line: "You're all going to die"

Trivia: Rapper/actor Snoop Dogg was originally cast in the role of L.J., but ended up leaving the project

While I wasn’t all that impressed with 2002’s Resident Evil, I still wanted to check out its sequel, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, mostly because I thought the first film’s tale of infected zombies had a lot of potential (which, alas, wasn’t fully realized). And while it’s not the home run I was hoping for, Resident Evil: Apocalypse is nonetheless a definite improvement on its predecessor.

When the Umbrella Corporation reopens “The Hive”, they release the deadly T-Virus into the air, turning thousands of people in Raccoon City into bloodthirsty zombies. The entire town is quickly quarantined, leaving many innocent (and not yet infected) citizens trapped inside. Alice (Milla Jovovich), a former Umbrella employee who faced off against the Hive zombies a while back, teams up with police officer Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), commando Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr) and a handful of others to try and make it out of the city, something that becomes increasingly more difficult as the infection spreads. When scientist Dr. Charles Ashford (Jared Harris) offers to show them a way out in exchange for rescuing his daughter (Sophie Vavasseur), Alice and her rag-tag crew fight like hell to make it happen, only to come face-to-face with Nemesis, the Umbrella Corporation’s newest genetic “creation”, which has no intention of allowing them to escape.

Like Resident Evil, Apocalypse features some pretty nifty scenes. When we’re first introduced to Jill Valentine, she's strolling into her precinct and calmly taking out a few zombies, finishing them off with a bullet to the head while telling everyone else to get out of town. Our heroes even go up against zombified dogs, which prove rather difficult to kill. Apocalypse also uses its setting to great effect, with Raccoon City giving the infected more places to hide than the underground laboratory in Resident Evil did, resulting in a number of nerve-shattering “surprises”.

On the downside, Apocalypse occasionally suffers from a music video mentality (which its predecessor also had), with key action scenes ruined by quick edits and shaky cams (even the early TV news reports are cut together this way, and I’m pretty sure confusing its viewers isn’t one of the media’s primary goals). Character development is also weak in this film, much like it was in the original. Granted, this isn’t normally a concern in action-packed movies like this one, but then don’t expect us to get all teary-eyed when a key character is infected or killed, seeing as we’re not totally invested in them in the first place. Fortunately, these weaknesses, which acted like an anchor on the original film, are only a minor inconvenience this time around.

A better movie than the 1st Resident Evil, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, at the very least, had me excited to see what the filmmakers were going to come up with next.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

#1,104. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Directed By: Ted Post

Starring: James Franciscus, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans

Tag line: "Earth's final battle is about to begin - Beneath the atomic rubble of what was once the city of New York!"

Trivia: Due to the smaller budget of this film, many of the extras cast as apes wore masks instead of the famous ape make up

A direct sequel to 1968’s Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes introduces us to Brent (James Franciscus), an astronaut whose mission was to find out what happened to Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his crew. Shortly after his ship crash-lands, Brent makes the same startling discovery as his predecessor: that this very strange, futuristic world (the year is 3955) is controlled by apes! With the help of scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson, taking over for Roddy McDowall), Brent travels to the Forbidden Zone, the area where Taylor was last seen. What he finds, however, hidden deep beneath the ground, is a subterranean race of mutated humans who worship what turns out to be a powerful atomic bomb, a so-called doomsday machine that, once detonated, will destroy the world. When Ursus (James Gregory), the ambitious commander of the ape army, leads an expedition into the Forbidden Zone, he threatens the well-being not only of the ape and human populations, but the planet as well.

The opening moments of Beneath the Planet of the Apes are actually the final moments of the original film, a replay of when Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) rides off into the forbidden zone. In fact, the entire first half of Beneath treads in familiar territory, with a crashed spaceship, a lone survivor (James Franciscus, looking very Heston-like as Brent), and the astonished reaction of a 20th century man when he learns he’s landed on a planet run by apes. Yet, even with its similarities to Planet of the Apes, enough happens early on in Beneath to keep your attention, including the fine performances of Kim Hunter (reprising her role as Zira) and James Gregory, whose Ursus delivers a rousing speech calling for the extermination of all humans, and advocating the exploration of the forbidden zone.

But if the first half of Beneath the Planet of the Apes inspires feelings of déjà vu, the second half makes up for it by taking us in an entirely different direction. The underground society that Brent encounters in the forbidden zone is highly advanced (its inhabitants communicate telepathically), and exists in the remains of what was once New York City (bent street signs, burned-out subway cars, and the twisted marquee of Radio City Music Hall were a nice touch). The beings themselves, who wear masks to hide their deformities, are an interesting bunch (among the actors portraying them are Victor Buono and Don Pedro Calley), singing hymns to praise the bomb and using their telepathic powers to make their enemies fight each other to the death. The apes take a back seat in the movie’s later scenes, yet the film doesn’t suffer for it in the least.

A well-executed continuation of the 1968 classic, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a solid sequel that also manages to carve out some fresh territory of its own.

Friday, August 23, 2013

#1,103. The Jungle Book (1967)

Directed By: Wolfgang Reitherman

Starring: Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima

Tag line: "The Jungle is JUMPIN'!"

Trivia: As arranged by their manager, Brian Epstien, The Vultures in the film were originally going to be voiced by The Beatles. But John Lennon eventually vetoed the idea

 The Jungle Book is one of my favorite Disney films, partly due to its rich characterizations (something the studio was known for in its earlier days), but mostly because of the music; just about every tune in The Jungle Book is a toe-tapper.

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale, The Jungle Book opens with the panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot) finding a human baby in the middle of the jungle. To ensure the “man-cub” is well cared for, he takes it to live with a wolf pack, where the child stays until he’s grown into a young boy. Once he’s too old to remain with the pack, the man-cub, whose name is Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), is reunited with Bagheera, who intends to take the boy to the man-village so he can be with others of his kind. Along the way, they encounter some of the jungle’s more interesting creatures, like the deadly python Kaa (Sterling Holloway), King Louis (Louis Prima) of the apes, and Baloo (Phil Harris), a carefree bear who takes an immediate liking to Mowgli, promising to teach the boy (who doesn't want to leave the jungle) how to survive in the great outdoors. But with the evil tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders) on the prowl, the jungle is far from safe, and even with Baloo and Bagheera watching over him, Mowgli remains in terrible danger.

An impressive list of actors lend their voices to The Jungle Book, including Sebastian Cabot and Phil Harris, who, as Bagheera and Baloo, form the perfect parental unit for young Mowgli, with Bagheera’s level-headedness balancing Baloo’s fun-loving ways. Disney regular Sterling Holloway (who, for years, was the voice of Winnie the Pooh) is good as the treacherous Kaa, and the wonderful George Sanders mixes sophistication with treachery as Shere Khan. Even Bruce Reitherman (the son of the film’s director) does a fine job as Mowgli, bringing a sense of wonder to the part. The film’s musical numbers, most of which were the work of longtime Disney composers the Sherman Brothers, are equally as strong. “The Bare Necessities” (written by Terry Gilkyson and expertly performed by Phil Harris) is the movie’s most recognizable tune, and it’s definitely a good one, but my favorite is “I Wanna Be Like You”, sung by renowned musician / bandleader Louis Prima, who portrays King Louis of the Apes. An upbeat, jazzy number with a New Orleans vibe (something Prima specialized in throughout his 40+ year career), I guarantee you'll be humming this song for days.

In the end, I couldn’t blame Mowgli for wanting to stay in the jungle. Sure, growing up with other humans was the best thing for him, but I’m betting that, after his experiences with Baloo, Bagheera, King Louis and the others, the man-village would’ve seemed like a pretty dull place.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

#1,102. Beetlejuice (1988)

Directed By: Tim Burton

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton

Tag line: "Say it once... Say it twice... But we dare you to say it THREE TIMES"

Trivia: The movie's impressive box-office success created plans for a sequel: Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, which was never made

Beetlejuice, Tim Burton’s 1988 comedy / fantasy, provided audiences with an early glimpse into the director’s macabre sensibilities while at the same time giving us an absolutely bat-shit, crazy ghost guaranteed to tickle our funny bone.

Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) just died, the victims of a freak car accident, and their spirits take up residence in what used to be their beloved home. But just as the two are coming to terms with their new “lives”, the house is sold to Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), who immediately moves in with his wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). 

When all attempts to frighten off the new owners fail, Adam and Barbara turn to Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) for help. A self-proclaimed "Bio-exorcist", the maniacal Betelgeuse promises to send the Deetz family packing. But as the Maitlands quickly learn, once you've hired Betelgeuse, you can expect him to hang around forever!

Burton’s unique take on the weird and unusual is on full display in Beetlejuice, starting with the look of the film and extending through to its characters; when Adam and Barbara try to scare the Deetzs away, they instead pique the family's curiosity. Before long, Charles, Delia, and their friend Otho, played by Glenn Shadix, are asking the two spirits to perform more “tricks” for them! 
While her parents look upon the ghostly couple as if they were a carnival sideshow, Ryder's Lydia forms a bond with the Maitlands, an often touching relationship that gives Beetlejuice plenty of heart. 

Stealing the show, however, is Michael Keaton as the often insane, occasionally grotesque Betelgeuse, a ghost for hire with a few hundred disgusting tricks up his sleeve. Spending his days trapped inside a scale model of the town Adam had built in the attic, Betelgeuse is called into action whenever someone repeats his name three times (which, as you might guess, happens more than once in the movie, often with hilarious consequences). Keaton, who proved how funny he could be a few years earlier in Night Shift, lets his comedic talents bubble over in this film, giving us a character that’s fairly unhinged, and very unpredictable. His manic performance is definitely the highlight of the movie (as are the two “musical” sequences, which feature a couple of classic tunes by Harry Belafonte).

Beetlejuice offers a unique perspective on the middle-class American family, a theme Burton would return to in films like Edward Scissorhands and Dark Shadows. This, along with Keaton’s extraordinary performance, makes Beetlejuice a movie you won’t want to miss.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

#1,101. 42nd Street Forever: Volume 1 (2005)

Directed By: Various

Starring: Various

Trivia: This is actually the second DVD in the series. The first volume, titled 42nd Street Forever: Horror on 42nd Street, was a short run and is long out of print

To mix things up a bit, I thought I’d venture off the beaten path today by focusing on Volume One of the 42nd Street Forever series, a collection of DVDs from Synapse Films that feature grindhouse trailers from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Like most fans, I love watching trailers, especially those from this era, and 42nd Street Forever: Volume One, which contains over 2 hours of them, has some doozies. As you might expect, many of these trailers stretch the boundaries of good taste, with plenty of nudity, graphic violence, and foul language scattered throughout. But let’s be honest: that’s what makes them so entertaining!

Among the films whose trailers are featured in Volume One are Teenage Mother and Behind Convent Walls (two movies I’ve already covered), as well as Werewolves on Wheels (about a gang of bikers who transform into werewolves), Super Fuzz (a cop comedy with Terence Hill, star of They Call Me Trinity) and The Green Slime (a sci-fi flick from 1968 that hits a ‘10’ on the cheese meter). Christine Lindberg, one of the most beautiful actresses ever to grace the screen, appears in three of the trailers: The Depraved, Maid in Sweden, and her most popular picture, Thriller: They call Her One Eye, a tale of revenge in which Ms. Lindberg gets to kick some ass. Sexploitation features prominently in Volume One, with 1974’s Panorama Blue (which has two people, stark naked, getting it on in a moving rollercoaster) and, most notably, The Italian Stallion, an adult movie starring Sylvester Stallone (he made this a few years before Rocky, at a time when he was desperate for work). There are even a few documentaries, Mondo-style films like Secret Africa and Shocking Asia (which contains footage of a sex change operation, and pays a visit to very unusual museum). With 47 trailers in all, 42nd Street Forever: Volume One covers all the bases.

To date, there have been five volumes in the 42nd Street Forever collection, and before my challenge is complete, I’ll be taking a look at each of them. If you haven’t yet seen any of these DVDs, definitely make the time to do so; 42nd Street Forever is a whole mess of fun!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

#1,100. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Directed By: John Huston

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt

Tag line: "Storming to a New High in High Adventure"

Trivia: Director John Huston has a small role in the film, and a young Robert Blake makes an uncredited appearance

Studio Chief Jack Warner was against the idea, but John Huston shot the bulk of his 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on-location in Mexico, a country the director once called home (Huston spent two years riding with the Mexican Cavalry). Moving the production south of the border proved a stroke of genius, the first of many that would help turn The Treasure of the Sierra Madre into a full-fledged Hollywood classic.

Times are tough for Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), a couple of Americans trying to make a go of things in Mexico. Howard (Walter Huston), a grizzled old prospector, tells them about his experiences searching for gold, at which point the two pals buy as much equipment as they can afford and set off into the mountains, hoping to strike it rich. With Howard as their guide, Dobbs and Curtin do, indeed, find gold, but will petty jealousies and greed get the better of them before they can cash out?

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has it all. First and foremost, it’s a rousing adventure, with the three main characters encountering a number of dangers during their quest for riches, not the least of which are Mexican bandits. Facing off against one particular group, the gang’s leader, played by Alfonso Bedoya, tries to fool Dobbs and the others by claiming he and his men are members of the Mexican Mounted Police. Dobbs asks to see their badges, resulting in the film’s most famous line: “Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!

Huston’s direction is also top-notch, with the noted filmmaker stirring up plenty of tension late in the film, when Dobbs, convinced that his partners are out to steal his share of the gold, slowly loses his mind. The picturesque, occasionally treacherous Mexican landscape adds a dose of gritty realism, while the cast is also in top form. Huston's father, Walter, is excellent as the aging prospector Howard, his boisterous performance earning him his one and only Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actor). As for Bogart, he is damn near flawless as Dobbs, taking what was a somewhat likable vagrant at the outset and transforming him into a potential killer.

Part adventure movie and part morality tale (warning about the corrosive effects of greed), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ranks as one of the best Hollywood films of the 1940s, and one of the greatest ever made.

Monday, August 19, 2013

#1,099. The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made (2004)

Directed By: Brandon Christopher

Starring: Carlos Larkin

Trivia: This films narrator attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he was a classmate of Jada Pinkett Smith's

I have to admit, I’m a big fan of movie lists, so I was really looking forward to checking out 2004’s The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made, a documentary directed by Brandon Christopher. Sure enough, many of the films mentioned here are real stinkers.

Everything you need to know about The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made is in its title. Counting down from 50 to number one, it starts things off with a bang, picking Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda, in which the director himself played a cross-dresser, as the 50th all-time worst (this won’t be the last Ed Wood film to make the list). By presenting clips from the selected films, as well as some witty commentary by narrator Carlos Larkin, we’re given a brief glimpse into the reasons why these pictures are considered the absolute bottom of the barrel.

A few titles were obvious choices, like Ishtar, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Robot Monster (even Howard the Duck is mentioned). But it’s the films I’ve never heard of that really sparked my interest, movies like Frankenstein Conquers the World, a 1965 Japanese import in which Frankenstein’s monster grows 50 feet tall and takes on an entire town, and Greetings!, a 1968 comedy with quite a pedigree (directed by Brian DePalma and starring a very young Robert DeNiro). And how is it I’ve never seen Hillbillys in a Haunted House, a film that stars Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Basil Rathbone and country music legend Merle Haggard?

That said, a few decent films also make the cut, movies that, while not cinematic masterpieces, were entertaining enough to have me scratching my head, wondering why they were included here (Black Belt Jones, starring Jim Kelly, shouldn’t be on anyone’s worst list). Fortunately, The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made is presented in such a breezy, fun manner that I was able to take errors like this in stride.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

#1,098. How Green Was My Valley (1941) - The Films of John Ford

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara, Anna Lee

Tag line: "Rich is their humor! Deep are their passions! Reckless are their lives! Mighty is their story!"

Trivia: Darryl F. Zanuck originally intended the film to be a four-hour epic to rival Gone with the Wind

John Ford, the prolific director of such classic westerns as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, won a whopping four Academy Awards for Best Director. 

Not a single one of which was for a western! 

Along with The Informer in 1935 and The Quiet Man in 1952, Ford was awarded back-to-back directing honors for The Grapes of Wrath (in 1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Based on Richard LLewellyn’s popular novel of the same name, How Green Was My Valley tells the story of the Morgan clan, and how changes in their community threatened to tear their family apart.

Huw Morgan (Irving Pichel) looks back on his childhood in the small Welsh mining town where he was born. Told mostly in flashback, we meet a young Huw (Roddy McDowall) at a time when his father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and his elder brothers all worked in the coal mines, earning just enough to support their large family. Huw’s mother, Beth (Sara Allgood), with the help of his sister Anghaard (Maureen O’Hara), always kept food on the table, and times were generally good. 

That is, until the mining company reduced wages. Unwilling to accept the pay cut, the workers go on strike. Gwilym doesn’t believe in unions, leaving his sons, who support the strike, to stand against their father. Meanwhile, Anghaard, who has developed feelings for the new preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), is being courted by Lestyn Evans (Marten Lamont), the mine owner’s son and a man she will never love.

There are wonderful scenes scattered throughout How Green Was My Valley, from simple moments, like Huw, recalling, in great detail, what happened each evening when his father and brothers came home from work (one of their rituals was to go into the back yard and scrub the coal dust off their bodies). And then there was the wedding, when his brother Ivor (Patric Knowles) married the beautiful Bronwyn (Anna Lee), an event that brought the entire town together. Each of these recollections (and more besides) reveals the intricacies of life in a small, working class Welsh town, giving depth to both the characters and the community. 

But How Green Was My Valley also explores the differences between parents and their children, and how one generation’s standards aren’t always passed on to the next. When his sons talk about joining a union to fight for fair wages, Gwilym, who considers unions “Socialist nonsense”, stubbornly refuses to even discuss it with them.

How Green Was My Valley is both a fond remembrance of days gone by and an exploration of how a changing world can bring about the end of traditional values. As John Ford shows us, it’s nice to occasionally reminisce about the past, but awfully dangerous to stand still and ignore the future.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

#1,097. Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Directed By: Lee Sholem

Starring: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey

Tag line: "ON THE SCREEN...America's Favorite Hero!"

Trivia: Over a year after this film's release, it was split up and used to make a "two-parter" to close the first season of Adventures of Superman

As I mentioned in my write-up of 1978’s Superman, Christopher Reeve will always be my favorite Man of Steel. That said, I used to love watching reruns of the '50s television show The Adventures of Superman. Sure, there were plenty of episodes when the so-called “adventure” were nothing to write home about, but star George Reeves, who would play Superman throughout the run of the series, had a confidence about him that I always found appealing.

Produced as a pilot for the TV series, 1951’s Superman and the Mole-Men marked the first time Reeves donned the red cape. In the movie, his alter ego, newspaperman Clark Kent, accompanies fellow reporter Lois Lane [Phyllis Coates] to the small town of Silsby, home of the world’s deepest oil well, where something very unusual is about to happen. It seems the well, which recently drilled to a depth of over 3,000 feet, broke through the earth’s crust and into the dwelling of a race of tiny, mole-like humanoids, which have now made their way to the surface. Far from welcoming these visitors with open arms, the citizens of Silsby decide it’s best to kill the Mole-Men on sight. Clark Kent tries to talk some sense into the angry mob pursuing the creatures, but when all else fails, it’s Superman to the rescue!

Story-wise, not much happens in Superman and the Mole-Men; the Mole-men climb to the surface, where they’re harassed by the locals and protected by Superman. What makes it such an interesting watch, however, is George Reeves. His combination of physical strength and simple decency make him believable as the Man of Steel, but what’s really interesting is how he portrayed Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent. As played by Christopher Reeve, Kent was a bumbling fool, good for a few laughs and not much else. Reeves, however, brings the same strength and intelligence he displays as Superman to the role of Kent, making the reporter a take-charge kind of guy who’s always on the side of right. In essence, Reeves' Kent is an extension of Superman, a “mild-mannered reporter” who’s plenty brave when needed.

Unfortunately, Reeves' career stalled as a result of The Adventures of Superman. Typecast in the role of the Man of Steel, he wasn't able to get much work outside the show, which more than likely contributed to his suicide in 1959 [for more on his story, check out the fascinating 2006 film, Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck). A natural hero, it’s a shame George Reeves didn’t get the chance to play a few more of them.

Friday, August 16, 2013

#1,096. House Hunting (2013)

Directed By: Eric Hurt

Starring: Marc Singer, Art LaFleur, Hayley DuMond

Tag line: "The American Nightmare"

Trivia: This movie was also released as The Wrong House in the UK

House Hunting, a 2013 horror / thriller about two families trapped inside a strange house, gets off to a great start, but quickly loses steam as the story progresses.

Charlie Hays (Marc Singer), who’s looking to buy a new home, drives into the country with his second wife, Susan (Hayley DuMond), and his teenage daughter, Emmy (Janey Gioiosa), to check out a beautiful house situated in the middle of the woods. Once there, the Hays’ meet up with another family that’s also interested in this house: Don Thompson (Art LaFleur), his wife Leslie (Victoria Vance) and their son, Jason (Paul McGill). Things soon take a bizarre turn when a badly beaten girl (Rebekah Kennedy) comes stumbling out of the forest. What’s more, when Charlie and Don try to take her to the hospital, they find they’re unable to leave, ending up back at the house every time they drive away. Left with no alternative, the families seek shelter inside the house, but as the days drag into weeks, they begin to turn on one another, unaware that it’s the ghost of the house’s previous owner (Joe Cobb) who’s keeping them there. But what exactly does this spirit want from them?

At the outset, House Hunting had all the makings of an effective supernatural thriller, posing a number of intriguing questions to keep us on our toes (Why are they trapped? How long will it last?) There’s also plenty of tension as the Hays’ and Thompsons’ try to peacefully co-exist, only to find themselves at each other’s throats as the nightmare drags on. To top it off, there’s the occasional appearance of a ghostly figure, which only deepens the mystery. Unfortunately, director Eric Hunt does very little to sustain our interest throughout the film. Aside from a few surprises (one character is driven to suicide), the movie plods along at a painfully slow pace, never filling in the blanks or giving us so much as a hint as to what’s really going on. Well before the film was over, I found myself growing bored with it, and by the time it finally wrapped things up, I was beyond the point of caring.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

#1,095. Evil Dead (2013)

Directed By: Fede Alvarez

Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci

Tag line: "The most terrifying film you will ever experience"

Trivia: By some accounts, this movie used 70,000 gallons of fake blood

OK, its confession time.

Unlike some horror fans, I have no problem with the recent trend of remakes. Sure, John Carpenter’s Halloween is a masterpiece. It’s the movie that kicked off the ‘80s slasher craze, setting the standard for the entire sub-genre. But I also thought Rob Zombie’s take on the story was pretty darn good. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is on my all-time Top 10 list, yet I enjoyed the hell out of the 2004 Zack Snyder version as well. And that goes for the 2009 remake (or “re-imagining”, or “update”, or whatever you want to call it) of My Bloody Valentine

That said, 2013’s Evil Dead, inspired by Sam Raimi’s unforgettable 1981 classic, is easily my favorite of the bunch.

Trying to kick a drug habit, Mia (Jane Levy) travels to a run-down cabin in the middle of the woods, where she intends to go an entire weekend without getting high. Her friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) are there for moral support, yet the big surprise comes when Mia’s estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) also turns up with his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). 
Hoping to make things right with his sister, David promises Mia that he’ll stay by her side and help her through this difficult time. 

Things take a bizarre turn when the group stumbles upon a book, bound in human skin and written in blood. To satisfy his curiosity, Eric opens the book and reads from it, and in so doing unleashes some evil spirits, which quickly transform the friend’s intervention / weekend getaway into an all-out battle for survival!

Produced by both Raimi and Bruce Campbell (who played Ash in the original), 2013’s Evil Dead is a blood-drenched, gore-infused re-telling of the ‘81 indie classic. And when I say “blood-drenched”, I’m talking tons of blood, flowing by the gallon. For a fair portion of the movie, we the audience are bombarded with shootings, stabbings, dismemberments, and self-mutilations. One character even licks the edge of a knife, splitting their tongue in half!

Fortunately, Evil Dead is more than a simple gorefest; the movie features some supremely creepy moments as well. In the opening sequence, before we even meet the main characters, Raimi and company treat us to a ceremony designed to rid a young girl (Phoenix Connolly) of the demon inside her (Raimi's brother Ted plays the girl's distraught father). It's a crazy, violent showdown that gets things off to a bone-chilling start.

The film’s most "edge of your seat" scene, however, comes a bit later, when Mia, sensing the evil that's now loose in the cabin, is cowering in her room, attempting to warn David of the impending danger. Naturally, David thinks his sister is having an hallucination, a side effect of her self-imposed rehab, and refuses to listen. The moment he leaves the room, we see just how real Mia’s so-called “hallucination” really is!

1981’s The Evil Dead will always be one of my favorite films. Nothing will change that. But I was blown away by this new Evil Dead, and when I’m in the mood for a bloody good time, chances are this will be the version I'll reach for.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

#1,094. Goldfinger (1964)

Directed By: Guy Hamilton

Starring: Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Fröbe

Tag line: "Mixing business and girls! Mixing thrills and girls! Mixing danger and girls!"

Trivia: In the Ian Fleming novel, Pussy Galore is a lesbian, which is why she gives Bond the cold shoulder to start with

Goldfinger is, hands down, my favorite James Bond film, an exciting adventure that also features a pair of unforgettable villains, two of the toughest 007 ever had to face. 

James Bond (Sean Connery), Agent 007, is back. His assignment this time is to keep an eye on millionaire Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), a jewel expert who has been illegally smuggling gold into other countries. 

Following an unfortunate run-in with Goldfinger in Miami Beach, Bond follows him to Vienna, Switzerland, where he overhears the millionaire talking about something called “Operation Grand Slam”. As 007 soon discovers, Operation Grand Slam is the code name for a plan to “neutralize” the American gold supply at Fort Knox. 

With time running out, Bond, who has been captured by Goldfinger’s henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata) and is being held prisoner, attempts to warn the U.S. Government about the impending attack while, at the same time, doing everything he can to stay alive. 

The 3rd Bond film (after Dr. No and From Russia with Love), Goldfinger set the standard for the entire series, giving us an action-packed pre-title sequence (featuring an explosion, a rendezvous with a beautiful woman, and an electrocution), a great title song (performed by Shirley Bassey), and some cool gadgets (Bond’s patented Aston Martin makes its debut in this movie, and has, among other things, bulletproof windows, a built-in radar, machine guns in the front, an oil slick released from the back, and a passenger ejector seat). 

By the time he made Goldfinger, Connery had settled into the role of Bond, delivering his usual suave performance with just a hint of brutality (in the pre-title sequence, he shields himself with a woman - who he was making out with only moments earlier - to avoid getting clubbed on the head). 

We also get two awesome Bond girls in Goldfinger: Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), who meets an untimely, and unusual, end; and Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), perhaps the most memorable of Bond’s many women. Both start off working for Goldfinger, but are won over by 007’s charms. 

Along with the ladies, Goldfinger also gives us two outstanding adversaries, arguably the most interesting villains in the series. What I like about Auric Goldfinger is that he’s both a criminal mastermind and a petty thief (when we first meet him, he’s cheating at cards, bilking his unsuspecting opponent out of thousands of dollars). Whether stealing on a small scale or a large one (and it doesn’t get much bigger than Fort Knox), Goldfinger is a man who hates to lose, and isn’t above resorting to violence if anyone stands in his way. 

His sidekick, a mute Korean named Oddjob, is incredibly strong (at one point, he crushes a golf ball with his bare hand) and has a pretty nifty weapon as well: a blade hidden in the brim of his hat that is so sharp it can slice the head off a marble statue! Together, Goldfinger and Oddjob make for a pair of formidable foes, giving Bond a real run for his money. 

To date, there have been 23 James Bond films, some of which are excellent (including the recent Skyfall). But in a desert Island scenario, where I could take only one Bond movie with me to watch for the rest of my life, I would choose Goldfinger. In my opinion, it’s the cream of the crop.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

#1,093. They Call Me Trinity (1970)

Directed By: Enzo Barboni

Starring: Terence Hill, Bud Spencer, Steffen Zacharias

Tag line: "Look out! Here comes Trinity..."

Trivia: After the box-office success of this movie in the USA, earlier westerns made by Terence Hill and Bud Spencer were re-released stateside, one of them was even retitled with the word "Trinity" in it

Years ago, while I was on vacation, I picked up a bargain-basement DVD copy of 1970’s They Call Me Trinity at a discount book store, and was blown away by how entertaining the movie was. A Spaghetti western with a decidedly comedic tone, They Call Me Trinity owes much of its charm to leading man Terence Hill, who lights up the screen as the film’s title character. 

Known as the “Right Hand of the Devil” due to his skills with a gun, Trinity (Hill) pays a visit to his brother, Bambino (Bud Spencer), the “Left hand of the Devil”, an escaped criminal posing as the sheriff of a frontier town. Together, they try to stop the shifty Major Harriman (Farley Granger) from driving a group of Mormon farmers off their land. The Major has assembled a small army to get the job done, but with Trinity and Bambino standing against him, odds are he's gonna need more men! 

The opening moments of They Call Me Trinity set the mood for the entire film. A spoof of the title sequence from 1966’s Django, where star Franco Nero drags a coffin across the screen, Trinity begins with our hero lying on a makeshift stretcher, catching a nap while his horse drags him along a dirt path. From this alone, it’s obvious that Trinity isn’t going to be your typical western gunslinger, and even though he’s handy with a pistol (after eating an entire plateful of beans, Trinity faces off against a pair of loud-mouth bounty hunters, quickly putting them in their places), his laid-back attitude results in more laughs than it does tense showdowns (his give-and-take with Bud Spencer is, at times, very funny). 

They Call Me Trinity was an international box-office hit, making both Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, who had already teamed up in three prior westerns (Blood River, Ace High and Boot Hill), bankable stars. After seeing this movie, I went back and watched Ace High (which co-starred Eli Wallach) and Boot Hill, as well as My Name is Nobody, a 1973 western in which Hill appeared alongside Hollywood legend Henry Fonda. On the whole, I enjoyed these films (especially My Name is Nobody), yet none matched the level of fun present in They Call Me Trinity. From start to finish, this movie is an absolute blast!

Monday, August 12, 2013

#1,092. Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Directed By: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken

Tag line: "They Won't Take Any Shih Tzu"

Trivia: Had its world premiere in September 2012 at the Toronto International Film Festival

When I first saw the trailer for director Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, I couldn’t wait to see the movie. The thought of Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson appearing in a film about psychopaths was too interesting to ignore, and I’m happy to say the movie is every bit as entertaining as I hoped it would be. A humorous, sometimes poignant look at the lives of some very disturbed people, Seven Psychopaths is a whole mess of fun.

Marty (Colin Farrell), a part-time screenwriter and full-time alcoholic, is working on a new project he’s tentatively titled Seven Psychopaths, and his good pal, Billy (Sam Rockwell), wants to help him write it. Unfortunately, Billy, who runs a dog-napping operation with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken), has just kidnapped a Shih Tzu belonging to Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), an insane local mobster who will stop at nothing to get his beloved canine back. Before he knows what’s hit him, Marty is mixed up in the whole sordid affair, and tries his damnedest to make sense out of what is quickly becoming a dangerous situation.

McDonagh assembled a great cast for this film. While not one of the titular psychopaths, Colin Farrell gives a frantic performance as Marty, who, at times, is the movie's sole voice of reason. Woody Harrelson is superb as the mob boss out to recover his dog, and musician Tom Waits, clinging to a bunny rabbit, proves the most fascinating of the real-life psychopaths, a man who, years earlier, teamed up with a woman named Maggie (Amanda Mason Warren) to rid the world of serial killers (his back story “solves”, among other things, the Zodiac killings as well as the WWII-era Arkansas murders that inspired The Town that Dreaded Sundown). One of the seven psychos, a former soldier with the Viet Cong posing as a Catholic priest (Long Nguyen), exists only as a character in Marty’s screenplay, yet that doesn’t make his story any less engaging (as written by Marty, this character decides to exact revenge on the U.S. following the murder of his family, who died as a result of the massacre at My Lai). The standout performances, however, are delivered by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, the dog-nappers whose tactical error leads to all sorts of chaos. In spite of everything that happens to him, Walken’s Hans remains subdued, even reflective, throughout the entire film (he only loses his cool once, when Marty suggests they go to the police for help). As for Rockwell’s Billy, he’s easily the most unhinged character in the movie, yet his upbeat personality also makes him the most likable. In a picture filled with twists and turns, these two are responsible for some of the biggest surprises.

Martin McDonagh is a filmmaker you’ll want to keep an eye on. Prior to Seven Psychopaths, he helmed the massively entertaining In Bruges (his directorial debut), and now that he has two excellent movies under his belt, I’m chomping at the bit to see what he comes up with next.