Saturday, November 30, 2013

#1,202. Survive! (1976)

Directed By: René Cardona

Starring: Pablo Ferrel, Hugo Stiglitz, Norma Lazareno

Tag line: "The most shocking episode in the history of human survival"

Trivia: This movie is based on the book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, published two years after the ordeal

On October 13, 1972, a small plane carrying 45 people, most of whom were members of the Old Christians Club Rugby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, crashed in the Andes Mountains. Due to the harsh wintery conditions, and because the plane had flown some 50 miles off-course, rescuers were unable to locate the crash site, and after 11 days abandoned the search, confident that everyone aboard had perished. What they didn’t know was that 27 people survived the crash, and were doing everything they could to stay alive in the below-freezing temperatures. After hearing on the radio that the search had been called off, and with their food sources exhausted, the living were forced to eat the bodies of the dead. Their ordeal lasted over two months, and by the time rescuers finally arrived on December 23rd, only 16 of the original 45 remained.

Released less than 4 years later, director René Cardona’s Survive! is a detailed, often unflinching account of this disaster. Yet in spite of its close adherence to the facts, the movie falls short of the mark, and is only moderately successful in depicting the events of this horrible tragedy.

Part of the problem was budgetary; the crash itself, despite the obvious use of models and miniatures, is certainly tense, but the snow never once looks real (it has the consistency of Styrofoam ground up into small flakes), and as a result, we’re never convinced anyone is truly freezing (the actors themselves don’t help matters: at one point, a survivor is walking around outside the plane with his shirt off!). The search and rescue effort, which takes up a good portion of the first half of the movie, is also an issue. Featuring a handful of poor performances, these scenes carry no dramatic punch whatsoever, and weigh the entire production down.

Then, at around the halfway point, Survive! turns a corner, transforming itself into the tense motion picture we were expecting from the get-go. Realizing they weren’t going to make it without food, the remaining few decide to eat their deceased friends and colleagues. In a very graphic scene, one of the bodies lying in the snow is carved up, cut into small strips of meat that are then carried back to the plane. One by one, the survivors leave the plane to eat the raw flesh, which had been left outside to dry, a sequence that is easily the film’s most poignant.

From this point on, Survive! is an edgy, occasionally frightening motion picture, and the raw power of its second half more than making up for its early weaknesses.

Friday, November 29, 2013

#1,201. The Sci-Fi Boys (2006)

Directed By: Paul Davids

Starring: Peter Jackson, Ray Harryhausen, Leonard Maltin

Trivia: This movie won a 2007 Saturn Award for Best DVD Release

Director Paul Davids’ 2006 documentary The Sci-Fi Boys takes us on a guided tour of the cinematic history of science fiction, from the early days of The Lost World and King Kong straight through to today, while also introducing us to the men who, for the better part of a century, redefined the way we look at the universe.

The Sci-Fi Boys talks with several of the genre’s pioneers, including Forrest Ackerman, publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. Through interviews and archival footage, we learn what inspired these men and others like them to dedicate their lives to monsters and little green men. After paying a visit to George Pal’s grave, Ackerman lists off what he considers the five greatest science fiction films of all time (two of which, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, were directed by Pal); while Harryhausen, during the 2003 ceremony where he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, recollects how a 1933 viewing of King Kong at Grauman’s Chinese Theater changed the course of his entire life.

Along with delving into what inspired them, The Sci-Fi Boys sits down with the next generation of fans and filmmakers, men and women who were, in turn, inspired by Ackerman and Harryhausen. Peter Jackson discusses the first time he read Famous Monsters of Filmland, while the likes of Rick Baker and Dennis Muren share the home movies they made as children, some of which featured their own brand of stop-motion. Even director Paul Davids gets in on the act, showing clips from his short Siegfried Saves Metropolis, a movie that served as his entry in a 1960’s contest sponsored by Ackerman’s Famous Monsters magazine.

Functioning as both a history lesson and a loving tribute to the artists and entertainers who helped shape the genre, The Sci Fi Boys is a film lover’s delight.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

#1,200. Rocketship X-M (1950)

Directed By: Kurt Neumann

Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery

Tag line: "The Future is Here!"

Trivia: In the 1970s businessman Wade Williams acquired the rights to this film and proceeded to produce new special effects sequences to take the place of the film's original effects scenes

Released in 1950, Rocketship X-M was rushed into production so that it could capitalize on the publicity surrounding George Pal’s newest film, Destination Moon, which told a similar story of space travel. As it turns out, Rocketship X-M was released before Destination Moon, and while the special effects are certainly inferior when compared to Pal’s picture, there’s no denying this movie weaves an interesting story, which it then tells very well. 

A rocket, carrying four men (Lloyd Bridges, John Emory, Noah Beery Jr. and Hugh O’Brien) and a woman (Osa Massen), is on its way to the moon when something goes very wrong. Before any of the crew knows what’s hit them, their rocket, designated R X-M, has veered off-course and is headed straight for Mars. Led by Dr. Karl Eckstrom (Emory), they decide to take advantage of the situation by exploring that planet’s surface, where they find the ruins of an ancient civilization and make the startling discovery that there is, indeed, life on other worlds. 

With a reported budget of around $90,000, the special effects in Rocketship X-M are understandably on the cheap side, which the film makes up for by focusing instead on the human element of its story. Moments before liftoff, we’re given a close-up of each of the five passengers, revealing their apprehension as mission control counts down to zero. A few modern viewers may cringe at the movie’s overt sexism (in one scene, Dr. Eckstrom gets into an argument with Lisa, the character played by Osa Massen, over their differing calculations. Lisa angrily insists her numbers are correct, and then abruptly apologizes for her outburst. Eckstrom, assuming a tender, fatherly tone, asks why she’s apologizing: “For momentarily being a woman? It’s completely understandable”). Yet, in spite of its ‘50s mentality, the film perfectly captures the drama of hurtling uncontrollably through space, which, along with the fine performances of its leads, makes Rocketship X-M an effective early entry in the space exploration sub-genre.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

#1,199. Devil Girl from Mars (1954)

Directed By: David MacDonald

Starring: Patricia Laffan, Hugh McDermott, Hazel Court

Tag line: "Invasion from Outer Space!...Sights too weird to imagine! Destruction too monstrous to escape!"

Trivia: Patricia Laffan thought her costume was hot and hard to wear

I admit that, while watching the 1954 British science fiction film Devil Girl from Mars, I chuckled a little when the opening credits mentioned it was based on a stage play. I thought to myself “What kind of sci-fi movie is based on a play?” Well, it wasn’t long before I had my answer: the dialogue-heavy kind!

On her way to London, a female Martian named Nyah (Patricia Laffan), accompanied by a humongous robot she calls “Chani”, makes a brief stop in Northern Scotland, dropping in on the folks at the Bonnie Charlie Inn to let them know she’s looking for a few good men. It seems that an honest-to-goodness battle of the sexes took place on Mars years earlier, and as a result, its male population is at an all-time low. So, to ensure her home world will continue to flourish, Nyah needs some strapping Earth men who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice: accompany her back to Mars to help repopulate her entire planet.

The film gets off to an unspectacular start, opening up with escaped convict Robert Justin (Peter Reynolds), imprisoned for murdering his wife, who’s come to the Bonnie Charlie to reconnect with Doris (Adrienne Corri), a former flame with whom he’s still madly in love. This isn’t the only romantic entanglement in the movie: Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court) is staying at the Inn to hide from her married lover, Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott), who happens to show up in the company of Professor Arnold Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty), an astrologer trying to track down a meteor he’s convinced landed somewhere in the area. A number of scenes are dedicated to these side stories, none of which are particularly interesting. The arrival of Nyah, the alien woman in skin-tight vinyl, and her robot accomplice manage to perk things up a bit, but for a gal bent on world domination, Nyah sure spends a lot of time yapping (after providing some background on the war that devastated her planet, she drones on about how she’s also testing the strength of her spaceship, which is constructed from a sort of organic metal that many on Mars considered too unstable to make the journey to earth and back again).

Devil Girl from Mars is not without its charms: Nyah’s bright black get-up, complete with a glossy helmet, is certainly an attention-grabber, and her robot sidekick is so phenomenally goofy that I couldn’t help but admire it (the thing looks as if it was thrown together from objects the crew found lying around on the set). But as far as entertainment value goes, Devil Girl from Mars relies a little too heavily on the spoken word to generate any real excitement.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

#1,198. Monkey Business (1931)

Directed By: Norman Z. McLeod

Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx

Tag Line: "You who have laughs to spread, prepare to spread them now!"

Trivia: The first Marx Brothers film not to feature Margaret Dumont. It was felt she wasn't "sexy" enough for the part

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Monkey Business; far too long, actually. In fact, of all the Marx Brothers’ early films, this is the one I’m the least familiar with, so to finally sit down and watch it again proved a real treat.

The four Marx Brothers, aka Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, stow away on a luxury ocean liner bound for New York. Hoping to avoid the ship’s First Mate (Tom Kennedy), the Brothers become entangled in a gangland power struggle, with Groucho and Harpo agreeing to act as bodyguards for mobster Alky Briggs (Harry Woods). Unfortunately, this pits them against Harpo and Chico, who, in turn, are protecting Briggs’ rival, Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes). Things get even more complicated when the ship finally reaches New York, at which point the Brothers, having crashed a party at Joe Helton’s house, learn that Briggs’ gang has kidnapped Helton’s daughter, Mary (Rith Hall), with whom Zeppo is deeply in love.

As it is with every Marx Brothers movie, the laughs come quick and often in Monkey Business, with several sequences that rank alongside the sibling’s best. Soon after volunteering to protect him, Chico and Harpo follow Helton as he takes a stroll on-deck, only to end up “protecting” the wrong guy (which they do more than once). Then, when the boat docks, the brothers try to get through customs by pretending to be French singer Maurice Chevalier (whose passport they’ve stolen). As usual, Groucho fires off dozens of hilarious one-liners; with no Margaret Dumont to harass, he instead turns his attention to Briggs’ wife, Lucy (Thelma Todd). When she rebukes his advances out of fear her husband would “wallop” her if he found out, a dejected Groucho replies “You’re always on about your husband. Couldn’t I wallop you just as well?”

A quick glance at the Marx Brothers’ early filmography, which includes Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and Horse Feathers, reveals how remarkable Groucho, Chico, Harpo (and yes, even Zeppo) were at turning out screen comedies. In my opinion, every one of these movies is a classic (yes, even the flawed Animal Crackers), and Monkey Business is yet another feather in the Brother’s cap. If you need a smile, look no further than this film.

Monday, November 25, 2013

#1,197. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

Directed By: Fred Niblo

Starring: Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy

Tag line: "The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!"

Trivia: The famous chariot scene was filmed at what is now the intersection of LaCienega and Venice Boulevards in Los Angeles

William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is, hands-down, my favorite biblical epic, made at a time when Hollywood was churning out religious pictures (The Robe, The Ten Commandments, King of Kings) at a regular clip. I always knew Ben-Hur was a remake, but before today, I had never seen the 1925 original, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Surprisingly, this earlier version is every bit as powerful as Wyler’s Award-winning film.

The story is very much the same: Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro), a Jewish prince, and Messala (Francis X. Bushman), a roman centurion, have been friends since childhood. But when Judah refuses to swear his allegiance to Rome, the two former pals become bitter foes. Before long, Judah is imprisoned as a traitor of Rome, as are his mother (Claire McDowell) and sister (Kathleen Key). Sentenced to serve as a galley slave, Judah soon proves his courage in battle, saving the life of Arrius (Frank Currier), the ship’s commander. He is granted Roman citizenship, and becomes one of the city’s foremost athletes, yet never forgets the family he left behind. In an effort to learn what happened to his mother and sister, Judah returns home and confronts Messala, who convinces him the two are already dead. Driven by his hatred, Judah seeks revenge against his former friend, and despite the pleas of Esther (May McAvoy), the woman he loves, Judah cannot let go of his anger.

All of the scenes that made Ben-Hur so memorable, including the chariot race and the battle at sea, are there for the taking in the 1925 movie, and are just as impressive. But at its heart, Wyler’s film also told a very personal tale, with some truly moving moments (i.e. – looking for Judah’s mother and sister in the Valley of the Lepers) that are as unforgettable as it’s most elaborate sequence. It’s this combination of grand spectacle and intimate drama that made Ben-Hur the Best Picture of 1959, and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ benefits just as strongly from the story’s duality.

1959’s Ben-Hur will always be my favorite cinematic telling of Lew Wallace’s novel, but I’m glad I finally saw this version. Even without the glorious Technicolor (though the religious scenes do feature the two-color process) and dramatic dialogue, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is an extraordinary experience.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

#1,196. One, Two, Three (1961)

Directed By: Billy Wilder

Starring: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin

Tag line: "Billy Wilder's Explosive New Comedy"

Trivia: In James Cagney's autobiography, he says that Horst Buchholz was the only actor he really hated working with because he was uncooperative and tried all kinds of scene-stealing moves, which Cagney depended on Billy Wilder to correct

In 1981, James Cagney broke his 20-year retirement from the big screen to play Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo in Milos Forman’s underrated epic, Ragtime. Prior to that, his last appearance had been in Billy Wilder’s 1961 comedy, One, Two, Three, the frantic, often hilarious story of a Coca-Cola executive stationed in West Berlin who gets more than he bargained for when he agrees to watch over the boss’s daughter during her stay in Germany.

Cagney is J.P. MacNamera (aka “Mac”), a dedicated employee who’s knee-deep in negotiations with the Russians, trying to introduce Coca-Cola to that country, when he gets the call from his boss, W.P. Hazeltine (Howard St. John), asking him to keep an eye on his pretty but none-too-bright daughter, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin). Hoping to be promoted to head of operations for all of Western Europe, Mac reluctantly agrees to put the girl up in his house, causing even more friction between him and his wife, Phyllis (Arlene Francis), who desperately wants to move back to America. When Scarlett’s planned 2-week vacation turns into 2 months, Mac thinks she simply likes Berlin, but the truth of the matter is she’s fallen in love with Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz), an East German Communist. What’s more, the two were secretly married! With Scarlett’s parents set to arrive the next day to take her home, Mac does everything he can to break the happy couple up, only to learn that Scarlett is also pregnant with Otto’s child. His dreams of a promotion fading fast, Mac tries to salvage the situation by transforming the anti-capitalist Otto into the type of man a wealthy southern executive would be proud to call his son-in-law.

One, Two, Three is a wild movie, a fast-paced comedy that rarely stops to take a breath, with James Cagney delivering what might be the most frenzied performance of his career. Before Scarlett’s arrival, his Mac is a go-getter, launching the Russian negotiations before clearing them with the front office in Atlanta. He has a beautiful secretary (Lilo Pulver), with whom he’s having an affair, and sales of Coke in Berlin have skyrocketed since his arrival. In short, everything is going according to plan, and he works hard to ensure it stays that way. Even when faced with the “Scarlett dilemma”, Mac never loses his resolve, dedicating all his energy to turn this near-calamity into an opportunity. Despite the fact he was over 60 at the time, Cagney is a veritable human dynamo throughout One, Two, Three, shouting his lines and keeping up with the chaotic pace that Wilder establishes early on. The supporting cast is fine (especially Buchholz as the antagonistic Otto), but from start to finish, One, Two, Three is the James Cagney show.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

#1,195. Son of Dracula (1943)

Directed By: Robert Siodmak

Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Paige, Louise Allbritton

Tag line: "Chill and Thrill to Dracula's Curse!"

Trivia: This film features the first man-into-bat transformation ever seen on camera

The 3rd film in Universal’s Dracula series, 1943’s Son of Dracula features a good story and some groundbreaking special effects, both of which make up for it’s lackluster title character.

Kay Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), a wealthy Southern Belle, invites the Hungarian Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.) to visit her at Black Oak, the Louisiana plantation her family owns. Despite the fact she’s engaged to childhood sweetheart Frank Stanley (Robert Paige), Kay strikes up a romance with the mysterious Count, much to the chagrin of both her sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers) and the Caldwell’s family doctor, Harry Brewster (Frank Craven). What they don’t realize, however, is that Alucard is actually Count Dracula ("Alucard" spelled backwards), and Kay brought him to Black Oak for one very specific reason: she wants him to turn her into a vampire!

Though physically imposing in the role, Chaney never appears totally comfortable as Dracula, and lacks the charisma that Lugosi brought to the part in the 1931 original. Still, Son of Dracula proves a solid entry in the series, and a key reason why is Louise Allbritton. A woman with a plan, her Kay Caldwell is every bit as wily as the evil Count, and even manages to manipulate him to do her bidding. Her wanting to become a vampire, and her subsequent attempts to turn Frank into one as well, generate plenty of tension, and are why Son of Dracula is, at times, such an entertaining motion picture.

But it’s the special effects that set this film apart from its predecessors. Headed up by John P. Fulton, who would eventually win an Academy Award for his work on DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Son of Dracula was the first movie to feature a full-on transformation, where the vampire changes from a bat back into human form. While the bats themselves aren’t particularly good (as in the ’31 original, they look like puppets on a string), the transformation sequences are handled well, as is a later scene where a vampire changes into a mist right before our eyes. Son of Dracula may not do much to further the reputation of the Count himself, but thanks to these effects and the impressive performance by Louise Allbritton, the movie is a definite winner.

Friday, November 22, 2013

#1,194. What Am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988)

Directed By: Bruce Gowers

Starring: George Carlin, Robert N. Altman, Lloyd Lindsay Young

Trivia: This was the 6th of 14 comedy specials that Carlin produced for HBO

I know exactly where I was on the night of June 9, 1988: sitting in the family living room with my father and brother, watching George Carlin’s 6th HBO special, What Am I Doing in New Jersey?, a live performance staged at the Park Theater in Union City, New Jersey. A master comedian, Carlin often combined social commentary with hilarious observations about everyday life, from politics and religion to humorous license plate slogans. In a career that spanned 6 decades, Carlin established himself as one of the funniest (if not the funniest) stand-up comics ever to take the stage, and What Am I Doing in New Jersey? features some of his best routines.

After a filmed sequence in which he hops into a New York taxi and tells the driver (Robert N. Altman) to take him to Jersey, Carlin kicks What Am I Doing in New Jersey? off with his selection of “People I can do without”, a list that includes “a proctologist with poor depth perception” and “a cross-eyed nun with a bullwhip and a bottle of gin”. After launching into a tirade against the “criminals” in the Reagan administration (a sequence that, while still funny to those of us who remember the ‘80s, won’t mean a thing to younger viewers), Carlin next delves into one of his favorite topics: keeping people on their toes, where he offers advice on what to do to ensure those around you are paying attention (like asking to see the manager the next time you’re at a wishing well. “Tell him you've been coming there for 10 years”, Carlin says, “and none of your wishes have come true. Either you give me my money back or I'm shitting in the well”). And, of course, no Carlin special would be complete without a rant about driving and the people you encounter on the open road, like “the guy whose turn signal has been on since 1955”.

From 1977 to 2008 (the year of his death), George Carlin produced 14 stand-up comedy specials for HBO, most of which are hysterical (1982’s Carlin at Carnegie features a reprisal of his most famous routine, “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television”). Of them all, What Am I Doing in New Jersey? is my favorite; I’ve seen it at least a dozen times, and it still makes me laugh so hard that I cry.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

#1,193. Simon (1980)

Directed By: Marshall Brickman

Starring: Alan Arkin, Madeline Kahn, Austin Pendleton

Tag line: "He loves you. Do what he says"

Trivia: Alan Arkin was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films

I was anxious to watch Simon again, which I first saw on cable a few years after its initial release. At that time, I had no idea what to make of this curious sci-fi / comedy. I remember not everyone in my family appreciated its quirky nature (my father walked out in the middle of it, calling the movie “stupid as hell”), yet there was something about Simon that I found oddly appealing. Would I have the same reaction to it now?

Directed by longtime Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman, Simon stars Alan Arkin as Simon Mendelssohn, a University psychology professor with a strange outlook on life. He soon becomes the subject of a very unusual experiment conducted by five of the world’s sharpest minds, all working together at a secret Government facility. In short, they want to convince Simon he’s an alien, a being from another world. With the help of Cynthia Mallory (Madeline Kahn), an actress posing as Simon’s new “assistant”, the experiment is a rousing success, but with one small hiccup: the “alien” Simon now believes he’s a modern-day prophet, sent to earth to set mankind on the straight and narrow path. His longtime girlfriend, Lisa (Judy Graubert), is brought in to talk some sense into Simon, but can she show him the error of his ways before the Government “liquidates” the experiment, and Simon right along with it?

Woody Allen’s influence can be felt throughout Simon, starting with the film’s characters, most of whom are intellectuals. In the opening scene, we meet the five scientists who will eventually carry out the experiment on Simon: Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton); Fichandler (William Finley); Barundi (Janyant); Eric Van Dongen (Walace Shawn) and Leon Hundertwasser (Max Wright). For years, they’ve been working at The Institute for Advanced Concepts, with their research funded by the U.S. Government. After introducing them, the narrator (James Dukas) asks Dr. Becker why they were brought together in the first place. “To think about food, the ecology, energy, that sort of thing”, Becker responds. The narrator then asks him what went wrong, to which an indignant Becker replies “Nothing went wrong. We just got into more interesting material, that’s all”. What sort of “material”? Well, for starters, they built a device to jam every Nielson box (the method by which television ratings are determined) in the country so that they can feed the company false numbers. To prove their success, Dr. Hundertwasser picks up a copy of Variety with a headline that the Donny and Marie Osmond Show sored a 60 share, which translates to 70 million viewers. With a smile on his face, Hundertwasser reveals that, in reality, no more than 1,200 people actually saw this program.

As for Simon, he was off his rocker well before the experiment began: during one of his classes, he posed a question to his students: What do we do when Earth, choked by pollution, runs out of air? Simple, he says: turn the entire planet into a spaceship and move it to another solar system! At times, Arkin is a bit over-the-top in his portrayal of Simon, but I think this works to the character’s advantage, giving the film an out-of-control, yet lovable lead with whom we can identify. His performance, coupled with a delightfully bizarre story, make Simon a unique comedy, and one with a whole lot of personality.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

#1,192. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Directed By: Robert Fuest

Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith

Tag line: "Revenge Is The Best Medicine"

Trivia: A young Joanna Lumley appeared as a laboratory assistant, but her scenes were cut

The most bizarre role of Vincent Price’s career is arguably the titular character in 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes. A professional musician driven to the brink of madness by the death of his beloved wife, Victoria (an uncredited Caroline Munro), who died on the operating table, Phibes sets out to destroy the doctors he holds responsible for her demise.

A team of nine surgeons and nurses took part in the operation that tried (and failed) to save Victoria’s life, so Phibes, who’s also a scholar of theology, settles on the nine plagues of Egypt as the instrument of his revenge. With the help of his beautiful assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes finishes off the doctors one-by-one, and usually in gruesome fashion. Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is assigned to investigate the murder of the second victim, Dr. Dunwoody (Edward Burnham), but as the bodies continue to pile up, he realizes there’s a connection linking each of the seemingly random killings. So Trout pays a visit to Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton), who was the lead surgeon during Victoria’s operation. For years it was assumed Phibes himself was also dead, killed in a car crash while rushing to his wife’s side. But when all the evidence points to him as the murderer, Trout and Vesakius do everything they can to find the elusive Phibes and stop him before he strikes again.

The kill scenes in The Abominable Dr. Phibes are extremely clever. The first on-screen murder is that of Phibes’ second victim, Dr. Dunwoody (the first to perish, a Prof. Thornton, is already dead when the movie begins). While lying in his bed one evening, Dunwoody is attacked by dozens of bats, which were released into the room by Phibes (bats creep me out in a big way, and to see them crawling around on Edward Burnham’s chest was almost more than I could stand). From there, the deaths become even more elaborate; at a costume party, Dr. Hargreaves (Alex Scott) puts on a frog mask that crushes his head, while Dr. Longstreet (the usually funny Terry-Thomas) has every last drop of blood drained from his body. With nine victims in all, The Abominable Dr. Phibes never slows down, giving us one effective kill after another, and saving some of the most creative for last (the locusts’ scene is especially good).

Rising above it all, however, is Vincent Price, who, despite his lack of dialogue, is plenty sinister as Dr. Phibes, gleefully carrying out his heinous crimes in near-total silence (the car accident left him unable to speak, so Phibes created a contraption that plugs into his throat and mimics his voice, allowing him to talk, but only when he’s home). From the moment he first appears on-screen, flailing away at a pipe organ, its obvious Phibes is a little unhinged, and Price clearly relishes the role. A master at merging sophistication with the macabre, Vincent Price played some great characters throughout his career, yet none quite as menacing as Phibes, perhaps the maddest mad doctor in motion picture history.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

#1,191. Pyramid (1988)

Directed By: Larry Klein

Starring: David Macaulay, Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed

Tag line: "Tours of the World's Most Magnificent Structures"

Trivia: This was based on a 1975 children's book written by David Macaulay

I first saw Pyramid, a 1988 documentary originally broadcast on public television, back when I was in college. History has always been a favorite subject of mine, especially ancient history, and I would scour the shelves of the college library looking for videos on the early days of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. My two best discoveries were the 1976 BBC mini-series, I Claudius (which I try to watch at least once a year) and this movie.

Pyramid is an unusual documentary in that it combines footage of its host, noted author and engineer David Macaulay, with an animated short that transports us thousands of years into the past. In the scenes featuring Macaulay, we’re taken to the sites of several ancient ruins, where our host provides an insightful lesson on Egypt’s colorful history, covering everything from the mummification process to the engineering of the Great Pyramid. At one point, he even delves into Egyptian mythology, giving us a brief overview on the God Osiris, ruler of the underworld. It’s clear Macaulay did plenty of research on Ancient Egypt, and his presentations are as fascinating as they are informative.

Equally as good are the film’s animated sequences, where we’re treated to a dramatic re-creation of the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Narrated by Hordedef (voiced by Derek Jacobi), a son of the Pharaoh Khufu (John Hurt), we hear the story of how the Pyramid, under the guidance of Vizier and master builder Ankhaf (Brian Blessed), was constructed, while also exploring other topics such as grave robbing and intrigue in the royal court (early on, Khufu’s three wives argue over which of them should have the bigger tomb). Many fine British actors lend their talents to this animated short (stars like Siân Phillips and Tim Pigott-Smith also provide voices), and, along with David Macaulay, do their part to bring Ancient Egypt alive in an entertaining way.

Monday, November 18, 2013

#1,190. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda de Banzieh

Tag line: "A little knowledge can be a deadly thing!"

Trivia: In 1965, Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart filed a $4,000,000 lawsuit against Paramount Pictures, arguing that their eight-year agreement with the studio had ended and that Paramount had breached their copyright by televising the film

When discussing the 1932 British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and its 1956 American remake, Alfred Hitchcock (who directed them both) called the first movie the work of a “gifted amateur”, while the second was made by “a professional”. And as much as I love the original, there’s no denying the latter film is the better of the two.

As the movie opens, Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and his wife Jo (Doris Day), along with their son Hank (Christopher Olsen), are enjoying a family vacation in Morocco. The fun and frivolity ends abruptly, however, when Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), who they had recently befriended, is stabbed to death in a marketplace in Marrakesh. 

Before dying, Bernard tells Ben about a plot to assassinate a foreign diplomat based in London. But Ben never gets a chance to pass this information on to the police. Hank is kidnapped by the very people that killed Louis Bernard, who tell Ben that, if he wants to see his son again, he’d better keep his mouth shut. In desperation, the McKennas head to London, where they'll do everything in their power to locate Hank and, if possible, stop the assassination.

Whereas the 1934 film is more compact, squeezing its tale of intrigue into a brisk 75 minutes, the remake (clocking in at 2 hours) benefits from the wonderful performances delivered by James Stewart and Doris Day, playing worried parents drawn into something they don’t fully understand. Day, whose character gave up a show-biz career to become a full-time wife and mother, even gets to belt out a tune, singing the now-classic "Que Sera Sera" (which took home that year’s Academy Award for Best Song). 

The remake also features a number of well-staged sequences, chief among them the showdown in the Royal Albert Hall. While the 1934 movie rushed through this scene (though, in truth, it was still effective), the ’56 version lingers there a bit longer, favoring imagery over dialogue as it builds the suspense to an almost fever pitch. In the original, the Albert Hall sequence was an exciting aside; here, it’s a tense, emotionally draining experience.

1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much will always be a special movie for me. Along with being one of the very first Hitchcock films I ever saw, it shows the director early in his career, delving into a genre he would dominate for decades to come. But if I was forced to choose between the two, the remake would win every time.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

#1,189. Grindhouse (2007)

Directed By: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez

Tag line: "The Sleaze-Filled Saga of an Exploitation Double Feature"

Trivia: "Fake" exploitation trailers that are featured in this film were directed by Robert Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth

Released in 2007, Grindhouse was a collaborative effort between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino designed to replicate a ‘70s-era double feature. With two films joined together by four “faux” trailers, Grindhouse is the ultimate movie experience.

The first feature, directed by Rodriguez, is Planet Terror, in which a toxic gas infects an entire Texas community, transforming the population into flesh-eating, zombie-like creatures. A small group of survivors, led by El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), is eventually captured by Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis), whose crack military unit was indirectly responsible for spreading the infection. 

Aided by his girlfriend Cherry (Rose McGowan) as well as Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn) and Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), El Wray does what he can to escape this dangerous situation. 

Next up is Tarantino’s Death Proof, which follows the exploits of a deranged serial killer named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a former Hollywood stunt double who uses his custom-built car - which can withstand even the most violent collision - to murder unsuspecting young women. 

After stalking a group of friends (Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Tamila Poitier, Jordan Ladd) in Austin, Texas, Mike travels to Tennessee, where he sets his sights on Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thomas), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Zoe (Zoe Bell, playing herself), only this time, he may have bitten off more than he could chew.

Both films are a tremendous amount of fun. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is a darkly comedic tale with plenty of over-the-top gore and some truly outlandish situations: At one point, Cherry is attacked by several infected, and as a result loses her right leg. El Wray “makes” a new one for her by breaking the leg off a table, but before the movie ends, her wooden leg will be replaced by an assault rifle, which she uses, to awesome effect, during an attempted escape.

Death Proof is more character-driven, with plenty of that great Tarantino dialogue to carry it along. Yet, of the two films, Death Proof also features what, for me, is the most brutal scene in Grindhouse (a head-on car crash, replayed several times to show, in graphic detail, what happens to each intended victim). Tarantino’s film also has a nerve-racking high-speed chase, where Mike harasses Kim, Zoe and Abernathy as they attempt a dangerous stunt (like Mike, Kim and Zoe are Hollywood stunt people). 

In spite of their very different tones, both Planet Terror and Death Proof are highly entertaining.

But what makes Grindhouse so unique is the overall experience, reminding viewers of a time when double features were commonplace. As if part of a “stock company”, several actors appear in both films, including Rose McGowan (Cherry in Planet Terror and Pam, a girl Mike picks up at a bar, in Death Proof) and Michael Parks (playing Sheriff Earl McGraw in both movies, a character he also portrayed in Kill Bill, Vol. 1). Even Tarantino gets in on the fun, playing a horny soldier in Planet Terror and a bartender in his own film. 

In addition, the two movies are preceded by a handful of trailers, each advertising an exploitation-style picture. The first trailer we see is for Machete, directed by Robert Rodriguez, which has since been turned into its own feature film (released in 2010). The remaining three promos, however, are for fictitious movies: Werewolf Women of the SS (directed by Rob Zombie); Don’t (directed by Edgar Wright); and Eli Roth’s very enticing Thanksgiving, an homage to the holiday-themed slasher films of the ‘80s.

Designed to bring out the movie geek in all of us, Grindhouse is 191 minutes of pure bliss.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

#1,188. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

Directed By: Jay Roach

Starring: Mike Myers, Heather Graham, Michael York

Tag line: "You Were Expecting Someone Else?"

Trivia: In addition to his three credited roles, Mike Myers is also the voice of the astronaut at the beginning of the film

A sequel to 1997’s International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me reunites many of the characters from the first film while also throwing a few new ones into the mix.

Dr. Evil (Myers) tests out his new time machine by traveling back to the year 1969, where he intends to steal the “mojo” (aka the sexual energy) of his chief rival, super-spy Austin Powers (Myers again). With the help of his newest operative, Fat Bastard (yep... Myers again!), Dr. Evil’s plan goes off without a hitch, leaving Austin almost completely impotent. To recover his mojo, Austin follows Dr. Evil to 1969 and teams up with the gorgeous Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham), a CIA Operative as sexually outgoing as he is. But can Austin retrieve his precious mojo in time to stop Dr. Evil from taking over the world?

Myers flexes his comedic muscles throughout Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and is once again solid as the over-sexed title character (the opening credit sequence, where a naked Austin prances around a hotel lobby, is precision comedy at its finest). But like 1997’s International Man of Mystery, it’s Dr. Evil who steals the show; an early scene in which he and his son, Scott (Seth Green), appear on The Jerry Springer Show is positively hilarious. Also returning are Michael York as Austin’s superior, Basil Exposition; Mindy Sterling as the over-zealous henchwoman, Frau Farbissina; and Robert Wagner as Number Two, Dr. Evil’s second-in-command, whose business savvy is entirely unappreciated.

Along with the old, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me introduces some new characters to the series. Heather Graham is sexy as hell as Felicity Shagwell, and Rob Lowe does a good Robert Wagner impersonation, portraying a younger version of Number Two. As for Myers, he disappears behind layers of make-up as Fat Bastard, the incredibly obese Scottish double agent assigned to swipe Austin’s mojo, but the true stand-out is Mini Me (Vern Troyer), Dr. Evil’s mute clone who stands just over two feet tall. From the moment he’s introduced, Dr. Evil and Mini-Me are inseparable, much to Scott’s chagrin (one of the film’s best scenes has Dr. Evil serenading Mini-Me with an updated rendition of Bill Withers’ 1981 R&B hit, "Just the Two of Us").

Not everything in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me works; a sequence featuring Will Ferrell as Mustafa, one of Dr. Evil’s henchmen, goes absolutely nowhere, and some scenes are way too disgusting to be humorous (like when Austin mistakes a boiling stool sample for a pot of coffee). Still, I laughed a lot while watching this movie, and even though it’s not as original as International Man of Mystery, The Spy Who Shagged Me is every bit as funny.

Friday, November 15, 2013

#1,187. Behind the Green Door (1972)

Directed By: Artie Mitchell, Jim Mitchell

Starring: Marilyn Chambers, George S. McDonald, Johnnie Keyes

Tag line: "The All-American Girl"

Trivia: The source story was an underground work of fiction that had been circulating for decades

Since the start of my challenge, I have, on occasion, checked out a few soft-core sex films (The Image, The Lickerish Quartet), as well as some that crossed into hard-core territory (Caligula and, most recently, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead). Behind the Green Door is the first “official” porno I’ve covered. Starring the gorgeous Marilyn Chambers, who would go on to become one of the industry’s biggest stars (this was her first adult role), Behind the Green Door brings more to the table than graphic sex, and, in so doing, earns a place among the classics of the adult genre.

Moments after leaving her house, Gloria (Chambers) is abducted by three men and taken to an upscale adult club known as the Green Door, where she herself becomes the main attraction. But what starts as a nightmare turns into an evening of passion the likes of which she has never experienced before.

Directed by brothers Artie and Jim Mitchell and based on a story of unknown origin (one that had been circulating underground for years), Behind the Green Door is adult entertainment with a decidedly art-house feel. After being led inside the club, Gloria, who’s understandably frightened, is taken to a back room, where she’s greeted by a woman (Elizabeth Knowles) who attempts to calm her down. This woman proceeds to tell Gloria that, not long ago, she herself was in the same predicament, and her experience at the Green Door turned out to be “the most exquisite moment” of her life. Interspersed with images of a mime (Toni Attell) performing on-stage, we watch as the woman gives Gloria a full-body massage. Soon after, Gloria, dressed in a white gown, is escorted to the stage by a bevy of women, all in black. “Ladies and gentlemen”, an unseen announcer says, “you are about to witness the ravishment of a woman who has been abducted, a woman whose initial fear and anxiety has mellowed into curious expectation”. What follows is approximately 45 minutes of uninterrupted sex, yet even here, the Mitchells throw in a few cinematic bells and whistles (including slow-motion) to prevent the film from devolving into nothing more than a clinical depiction of the sex act.

Fancy presentation aside, Behind the Green Door is, first and foremost, a porno movie, and those who shy away from films featuring hard-core sex will want to steer clear of this one. But in the realm of adult entertainment, Behind the Green Door is definitely better than most.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

#1,186. Rescue from Gilligan's Island (1978)

Directed By: Leslie H. Martinson

Starring: Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr., Jim Backus

Trivia: Due to the incredible ratings it garnered, the network wanted the producer of this TV movie to turn it into a series

When I was a kid, I used to love watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island, a U.S. television sitcom that originally aired between 1964 and 1967. The continuing story of seven people stranded on a desert island, Gilligan’s Island featured comedy geared towards a younger audience, and, over the years, I’ve probably seen every episode at least five times. 1978’s Rescue from Gilligan’s Island was a made-for-TV movie that picked up where the show left off, with one slight change: as suggested in the title, the seven Castaways are finally rescued, and return to their lives on the mainland. When this movie was first announced, I was beside myself with excitement, and being only 9 years old when it aired, I really enjoyed Rescue from Gilligan’s Island. Today marks the second time I’ve seen this movie and the first since its initial broadcast all those years ago. Needless to say, time has not been kind to it. 

For the last 15 years, the seven Castaways: Gilligan (Bob Denver), The Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.), Mr. and Mrs. Howell (Jim Backus and Natalie Schaeffer), Ginger (Judith Baldwin, filling in for an absent Tina Louise), The Professor (Russell Johnson) and Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), have been marooned on an uncharted island in the Pacific. When a spy satellite belonging to an undisclosed foreign country (that looks and acts a lot like the Soviet Union) explodes in space, it sends a metallic disc hurtling towards the island.  Gilligan, while out walking, finds the disc and immediately takes it to the Professor, who uses it to repair his homemade barometer. And just in the nick of time, too, because as soon as it’s repaired, the barometer starts spinning wildly, indicating that a huge storm, one capable of producing a tidal wave, is heading their way. Taking advantage of the situation, the castaways spend the next few days tying their huts together, forming one humongous life raft. That way, they’ll not only survive the tidal wave, but ride it into the shipping lanes, where a passing vessel might pick them up. Sure enough, the plan works, and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spots their unusual craft floating in the middle of the ocean. Back on the mainland, all seven are given a hero’s welcome, and then silently return to the lives they left behind. Unfortunately, the world is a much different place, and the Castaways have a hard time readjusting. To add to their troubles, two foreign spies (Art LaFleur and Vincent Schiavelli) are sent by their Government to retrieve the satellite disc, which Gilligan now wears around his neck as a good-luck charm! 

Nowadays, it’s easy for me to pick apart Gilligan’s Island, which, from a logical standpoint, has many flaws (despite the initial voyage being only a “three-hour tour”, as the opening song suggests, the Professor brought every one of his scientific journals along, while the Howells have a trunk load of cash and a teddy bear. Even Mary Ann and Ginger possess a seemingly unending wardrobe. The only two on the island who have nothing but the clothes on their back are Gilligan and the Skipper, and they practically lived on the damn boat!). Still, the show, ridiculous though it may be, has an endearing quality that I can’t resist. The same cannot be said for Rescue from Gilligan’s Island. In fact, this movie sucks on just about every level. Most scenes stretch on way too long (while floating in the ocean after the tidal wave, the gang has a run-in with a shark, a sequence that’s neither brief nor funny, and is so poorly shot that, despite being set in the middle of the Pacific, you can see buildings and trees reflected in the water). The entire satellite / spy angle should have been tossed out as well (the special effects showing the satellite blowing up look as if they were done in someone’s garage). I did enjoy some of the side stories involving the Castaways’ re-adjustment to society (Ginger gets a role in a new movie, but is shocked when they ask her to do most of it in the nude), yet it’s not enough to save the film. 

In short, Rescue from Gilligan’s Island is a total disaster. Instead, I recommend watching an episode of the TV show that inspired it. Sure, it’s just as stupid at times, but at least it’ll be over in 25 minutes!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

#1,185. The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)

Directed By: D.W. Griffith

Starring: Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Leslie Loveridge

Tag line: "Exclusive Biograph Masterpiece"

Trivia: The film was released in Germany four and a half months before its official premiere in the US

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of D.W. Griffith’s two-reel western, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, and while it wasn’t the first cinematic western ever made (The Great Train Robbery was already 10 years old when this movie was released), it stands as an early example of just how exciting the genre can be.

A stagecoach heads west carrying a number of passengers, including young Sally (Mae Marsh) and her sister (Leslie Loveridge), on their way to live with their uncle (Alfred Paget); and a mother (Lillian Gish) who, with her husband (Robert Harron) and infant child, is looking to start a new life in the untamed frontier. Upon their arrival, Sally is told by her uncle that the two puppies she’s brought along aren’t permitted to stay inside the house. But when a pair of hungry Native Americans decides to make a snack of the pooches, it leads to a bloody showdown that, before long, will escalate into an all-out battle between the Indians and the settlers.

Many of the usual tropes that would haunt Griffith throughout his career, notably his callous treatment of minorities (though in the case of Native Americans, it would take more than a few decades for Hollywood to finally shine a sympathetic light their way) and his penchant for heavy-handed melodrama (during the final shoot-out, Gish’s infant baby somehow ends up in the hands of the Natives) are on full display in The Battle at Elderbush Gulch. Where the film excels, however, is its convincing western locales (the movie was shot at the Biograph Ranch in San Fernando California) and some terrifically tense action scenes (in the climactic sequence, our heroes end up trapped inside a small cabin, fighting for their lives against an enemy that has them badly outnumbered).

More than anything, though, the sweeping, epic feel of The Battle at Elderbush Gulch set the stage for Griffith to attempt longer, more elaborate movies; within two years, his controversial Civil War film, The Birth of a Nation, would be released to an unsuspecting public. In essence, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch marked an ending point in the great director’s career (it was one of the last two-reel shorts he’d ever make for Biograph), while also pointing towards the future.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

#1,184. Child's Play (1988)

Directed By: Tom Holland

Starring: Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent

Tag line: "Something's moved in with the Barclay family, and so has terror"

Trivia: Don Mancini and John Lafia were barred from the set after threatening to sue Tom Holland over a writing credit dispute

The entire cast of 1988’s Child’s Play is upstaged by a talking doll. 

Now, that may sound like an insult directed at the movie’s human stars, but the fact of the matter is that this film’s “doll”, brought to life by the combined talents of Brad Dourif (who provided the voice) and effects designer Kevin Yagher (who gave it an almost life-like appearance), is truly an amazing piece of work.

To escape the police, wanted murderer Charles Lee Ray (Dourif) hides out in a toy store, where, before being shot dead, he performs an ancient ritual that transfers his spirit into one of the shop's many “Good Guy” dolls. 

A day or so later, single mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) is out looking for the perfect birthday gift for her young son, Andy (Alex Vincent). Desperate to find a “Good Guy” doll, which is the most popular toy in town, she ends up buying what seems like the last one from a vagrant, with no questions asked as to where he got it. 

Needless to say, Andy is elated when he opens his present, but his happiness soon fades once he realizes his new friend - which he nicknames “Chucky” - is very much alive, and doing horrible things like murdering his mom’s best friend, Maggie (Dinah Manoff). 

After taking his revenge on those who wronged him, Ray intends to transfer his spirit one final time, moving from the Chucky doll into Andy himself!

From the way it stalks young Andy to the temper tantrums it occasionally throws (kicking, screaming, biting, and even stabbing its human counterparts), Chucky is one eerie doll. Looking like a child’s toy at the outset, Chucky slowly evolves into a more sinister creature as the movie progresses, with a receding hair line and a gleam in its eye that is almost demonic; the scene where Karen first realizes Chucky is alive is a definite high-point (when she threatens to burn him in the fireplace if he doesn’t talk, Chucky launches into a tirade of expletives before inflicting a nasty bite on Karen’s arm). 

Using everything from animatronics to a little person in a suit, Yagher and his crew make the Chucky doll look as real as they possibly can. To provide Chucky with his one-of-a-kind personality, the filmmakers hired actor Brad Dourif, who impressed the hell out of me in movies like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ragtime. While the actor himself is only on-screen for a few minutes (in the opening scene), Dourif’s voicework throughout is every bit as vital to the film's success as the visual effects, transforming a lovable toy into an evil creature right before our very eyes.

For those who might think a walking, talking doll will evoke more laughter than screams, I ask that you to reserve judgment until after you’ve seen Child’s Play. My guess is you’ll be as surprised as I was at just how creepy a kid's toy can be.

Monday, November 11, 2013

#1,183. The Letter (1940)

Directed By: William Wyler

Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson

Tag line: "With all my heart I still love the man I killed"

Trivia: Previously filmed as an early talkie in 1929 starring Jeanne Eagels

When it came to playing a bitch on-screen, few could do it as well as Bette Davis. In classics like Jezebel, The Little Foxes, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, she displayed a penchant for strong-willed characters, and in 1940’s The Letter, Davis portrays a woman of questionable morals so determined to get her own way that she’s willing to kill for it.

 Based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham, The Letter tells the story of Leslie (Davis), the wife of wealthy plantation owner Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall). In the film’s opening scene, Leslie shoots and kills Geoff Hammond (David Newell), a man she claims attempted to rape her. But as her attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) delves deeper into the case, he discovers Leslie and Hammond were, in reality, having an affair, and that an incriminating letter Leslie wrote to Hammond, in which she laid out her true feelings for him, is currently in the possession of Hammond’s widow (Gale Sondergaard). At Leslie’s insistence, Joyce tries to buy back the letter in order to destroy it, but can they keep its contents a secret from Robert?

From the initial scene alone, it’s easy to see why Davis received her 5th Academy Award nomination for her work in this film (she had won the Best Actress Oscar twice before, for 1935’s Dangerous and 1938’s Jezebel). The peaceful serenity of a moonlit night is interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. From a distance, we see Hammond stagger out the front door of the Crosbie estate, with Leslie following behind, brandishing a revolver. As the plantation workers look on from their makeshift hut, Leslie fires another shot into Hammond… and another… and another. By the time she’s finished, all six bullets have been fired at point-blank range. With the deed done, she stares down at Hammond’s lifeless body, dropping the gun to her side. As the camera closes in on her, we sense the realization of what’s just happened is setting in, yet the blank expression on Leslie’s face never changes. It’s an intensely dramatic sequence, and Davis handles it perfectly.

Flawlessly directed by William Wyler and with a stirring Max Steiner score, The Letter is a true Hollywood classic in every sense of the word, and features an actress at the absolute top of her game.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

#1,182. This is the End (2013)

Directed By: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen

Starring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen

Tag line: "Nothing ruins a party like the end of the world"

Trivia: According to Seth Rogen about 50% of the movie was ad libbed

Written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who also co-directed the film), 2013’s This is the End is an often irreverent, occasionally gross, and downright hilarious look at what happens when a Hollywood party is interrupted by the end of the world.

Jay Baruchel has just arrived in Los Angeles to spend a few days with his best friend, Seth Rogen. Following an afternoon of getting high and watching 3-D television, Seth suggests they swing by James Franco’s house to check out his party, which, with celebrities like Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Rihanna, and Michael Cera in attendance, promises to be the hottest shindig in town. When Jay and Seth break away from the party to pick up some supplies at a convenience store, they find themselves smack dab in the middle of something truly amazing. At first, they think it’s an earthquake (it begins with the ground shaking), but when Jay sees dozens of people enveloped by a beam of light and then drawn up into the sky, he realizes something much more intense is taking place. The two rush back to James Franco’s house, arriving in time to see a huge sinkhole open up in the front yard, into which a bunch of celebrities plummet to their death. With chaos breaking out all around them, the stars that remain: Jay, Seth, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, barricade themselves inside the house, hoping someone will come to rescue them. But when Jay reads a few passages from the bible, particularly the Book of Revelations, he’s convinced that the Apocalypse is upon them, and if they don’t change their ways in a hurry, they’ll all be spending eternity in hell.

Practically every actor in This is the End plays him or herself, and many of the laughs come at their expense (when Seth Rogen is picking Jay up at the airport, he’s recognized by a guy carrying a video camera, who asks him why he’s the exact same character in every movie). For comic effect, the star’s personalities have been exaggerated; in his brief appearance, Michael Cera is portrayed as an out-of-control cocaine fiend, while Jonah Hill may be the nicest guy ever to walk the earth. Still, having these stars play themselves was a stroke of genius, and enhances the comedy in just about every situation (in my favorite scene, James Franco and Danny McBride get into an argument over a porno magazine).

Yet what really impressed me was how seriously This is the End takes its central story. When the lead characters aren’t cracking jokes or fighting amongst themselves, they’re dealing with a truly frightening situation: the end of days, and while most of the film is played for laughs, those moments when the evil lurking outside makes its presence known are very effective (there are even a few jump scares tossed in for good measure). With actors like Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, and Jonah Hill, it’s no surprise that This is the End is a funny movie. But the fact it occasionally delves into horrific territory, and does so very well, is something I wasn’t expecting.